Alarm Mode != Silent

Your classical bedside alarm clock has three modes, typically set using a hardware switch:

  1. On
  2. Off
  3. Alarm

When it’s “on” it makes noise. When it’s “off” it makes no noise. And, when it’s in “alarm” mode it will make some noise at some predetermined time in the future, which can be set, but will otherwise make no noise until then.

The Apple iPhone, on the other hand, has just two modes, set using a hardware switch:

  1. [blank]
  2. [orange]

When the phone is in “[blank]” mode it makes noises. When it’s in “[orange]” mode, it will vibrate rather than ring, and will make some noise at some predetermined time in the future, but will otherwise make no noises until then.

I mention all of this mostly because an old guy in NY has been in the news this week after he interrupted an orchestra performance with an alarm, when he thought his phone was in “silent” mode.

This has kicked off a big debate about the design of the mute switch.

John Gruber thinks it works just the way it should, or at least, says that if it didn’t work that way it would cause even more problems – which is correct, I think.

Andy Ihnatko thinks that mute should mean mute (i.e. [orange] = “off” rather than [orange] = “alarm”)

Marco Arment argues…

The user told the iPhone to make noise by either scheduling an alarm or initiating an obviously noise-playing feature in an app. The user also told the iPhone to be silent with the switch on the side. The user has issued conflicting commands, and the iPhone can’t obey both.

Actually, that’s not correct. By selecting [orange] mode the user has put their phone in alarm mode, not silent mode, which, doesn’t actually exist, unless you turn the phone off completely. So, the phone is doing exactly what it was told to do.

I think that Apple could do a better job of describing the two modes that are set using this hardware switch.

The first thing they need to do is replace the icon.

Currently, when you switch into [orange] mode (i.e. “alarm” mode) , the following icon is displayed temporarily on the screen:

That’s confusing!

This is all a new user has to help them discover what this switch does.

Having said that, it’s not obvious what the correct icon would be – it’s actually pretty complex mode to describe in one small picture: “vibrate rather than ring, but otherwise make noises I’ve asked you to make”.

How would you solve this problem? Can you think of a better icon? Or is there a hardware solution?

Too clever

Jason from 37signals last week posted one of my favourite quotes about complexity, and specifically complex systems:

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”

John Gall, from his book Systematics

Here is another along the same lines:

“There are two ways of constructing software; one way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies, and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. The first method is far more difficult.”

C. A. R. Hoare, the inventor of the Quicksort algorithm

And, why do we think complexity is desirable in the first place?

“People often misinterpret complexity as sophistication”

Niklaus Wirth, the father of Pascal

Are you trying to be too clever?

You’ve got (too much) mail

Here’s a simple idea:

Imagine if your email server got a little bit slower each time you checked for new messages during the day.

Just a few seconds longer each time would quickly add up, if you’re one of those people who live in their inbox all day.

By later in the day it would take a couple of minutes to actually see any new messages,  That would probably be enough to break the “Get New Mail” habit.

And knowing that you only have a few opportunities for a quick response time each day would force you to be a bit more conscious about when you want to do that.

What do you think?  Would you appreciate some tough love from your email server?  If that option were available, would you use it, or are you addicted to email on demand 24/7?

No news is good news

I’m spending next week offline.

No email. No RSS. No blogging.

It will be interesting to see how it goes.

I’ll let you know this time next Sunday.

In the meantime, here’s a good story from Sir Ken Robinson’s book “Out Of Our Minds“:

“A well known British journalist was reminiscing about his early days in radio news. He joined the BBC in the 1930s at a time when there was no regular news bulletin. In his first week, a bulletin was scheduled and he arrived at the studio to watch it being broadcast. The presenter sat at the microphone and waited until the time signal had finished. He then announced sombrely: ‘This is the BBC Home Service from London. There is no news’. The view of the times was that news would be broadcast if anything happened to warrant it.”

I didn’t realise it until now, but less is nostalgic.

Blog bankruptcy

I now have one million half written blog posts in my drafts folder (more or less).

I suspect this is a pretty common situation.

This morning I’m declaring blog bankruptcy and accepting that I’m never likely to have the time to finish many, if not most, of them.

There are a few which are pretty much done, but have just never been published for various reasons. I’m going to keep these, and push them out over the next couple of days.

In keeping with my theme of the moment, the others are toast.

Deleting them is a big relief. If I’d known that I would have done it much sooner.

My name is Rowan, I’m an addict

Some say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

For the last month or so I’ve been using a great tool called RescueTime to help me put some hard numbers around the size of my computer addiction.

RescueTime is a YCombinator company, and part of the latest in-take. They have just recently made their tool available to the public. As you would expect they are iterating quickly at this point, and it seems to be getting better and betters as they tweak it.

The system is very simple – you just run a small application in the background (available for both Windows and Mac) and this records which applications and websites you are working on throughout the day. You can login to see a summary of this information, with pretty graphs, on the website. You can also tag applications and pages to help identify specific items or groups.

For example, here is a summary of the number of hours I spent using my laptop during February:

RescueTime data for Feb

The red is Email and the yellow is Yojimbo (which I use to keep track of notes, including keeping myself organised and draft blog posts/ideas etc). The grey is everything else.

As you can see the trend is awful, although exacerbated by the fact the the last week of the month was my last week at work (if it were a one-day manhatten then after a quiet start the innings accelerated nicely with some big slogging in the final overs) …

But, with the excuses out of the way, over 165 hours is much more time that I would have guessed I spent doing this sort of thing. Which is exactly the point – there is no need to guess (incorrectly) anymore. This tool helps put some hard numbers around it and allows you to be much more aware of the time you spend staring at a screen.

I suppose some people might be pleasantly surprised by the results they get, but I suspect that most (like me) will be prompted to aim for less.

You have no new messages

If you’re New Years resolution includes “less inbox”, you should check out this great presentation from Merlin Mann:

Inbox Zero: (slides)

Getting your inbox under control is bloody hard and keeping on top of it is a constant battle.

Compared to the alternative, though, it’s worth the effort.

And it doesn’t necessarily mean spending your whole day on email.

In fact, the opposite…

One small tip which made a big difference for me was changing my email settings to only check for new messages every 15 minutes, and then later every hour.

Unlike some other changes which require you to turn your life upside down, this is completely easy to do right now (go on … I’ll wait here until you’re done).

Think of it as a way to slowly wean yourself off a dangerous addiction.

It’s interesting since I did this how often somebody will come to my desk or phone before I’ve actually cleared their message and say something like “I just sent you an email …”. Why? Just checking that I got it I suppose? Or, perhaps they are anxious that I haven’t responded yet.

When all you do all day is hang out with other crack addicts then it doesn’t seem so dangerous to take it yourself, I guess?

None of this is especially new. There are lots of good inbox management ideas out there. But, which ones are you actually using every day?


I see that Rod has picked his theme for 2008.

Here’s mine: less.

For starters …

There is plenty of scope here I reckon. And I’m interested in your suggestions.

If there are others you can contribute to this list feel free add your comment below.

Living in an Amish paradise

Here is a great Howard Rheingold article from the Wired Magazine archives about Amish in the US and their unique approach to using various technologies in their day-to-day lives:

Look who’s talking

I first read this back in the late ’90s (when, I admit, I was a bit of a Wired fanboy) and the criteria for what technology they adopt vs. shun has stuck in my head:

“Does it bring us together or draw us apart?”

You can agree or disagree with their view of the world, but I don’t think you can fault them for having a values-based way of making decisions about this sort of thing.

I like the idea of being in control of the technology you use rather than the other way around.

(Did I mention that I still haven’t upgraded to Leopard yet? ;-)

Think about this in terms of the technologies you use:

  • Are you in control of your TV?
  • Are you in control of your inbox?
  • Are you in control of your mobile phone?

If you answered ‘yes’ to that last question, do you take your phone with you to face-to-face meetings? And if so, do you answer it when it rings?

(By the way, before I get too self-righteous, I’ll be the first to admit that occasionally I do take my phone to meetings, as rude as that is, and my inbox consumes far too much of the time that could be better spent with family and friends.)

Is your use of all of these technologies mindful, or did you just fall into it?

What criteria do you use to decide when to start using a new technology?

Sometimes, I reckon, it’s good to step back and think about these things.

With this in mind, I wonder what the Amish make of blogs?

Like wearing a shirt with buttons, I suspect they would consider writing a blog much too “prideful”.


Information overload

If I could change one thing in Google Reader this would be it:

I want an easy way to delete all of the posts over 24 hours old (or whatever time-frame I choose).

Lately I haven’t been reading feeds everyday. It’s a healthy change. But, when I do find time to catch-up I find I waste a lot of time reading old news.

When you come home from holiday and find, say, three newspapers sitting on your doorstep, you don’t start with the oldest one. You probably actually throw all three away.

But, with RSS feeds the posts just build up. Same with email, actually.

Are there any feed readers which work like this?