10 Digital Cleanup Projects To Do Before January 1

We're in the stretch between Christmas and New Year's Day, an ideal time to get organized, or re-organized. Most workers get days off, but people don't necessarily travel, meaning they have a little bit of time at home, time to regroup, reprioritize, think about the new year.

In some cultures, New Year's Day is a time to clean. I'm a believer that cleaning is essential to being organized. You have to declutter, get rid of junk, otherwise you're left trying to organize it, which is fruitless.

The more stuff you have, the more it weighs on your mind. While many people get this concept in the physical world, they don't always see how it works in the digital world. Think of it the same way you might think of emotional baggage. It can weigh on you even if you it has no mass.

If you have a day or two, or even a few hours, off this week, I highly recommend taking a little time to re-organize something in your digital life that could use a little decluttering, or tackle a clean-up or organization project that you've procrastinated doing.

In my weekly Get Organized column on PCMag.com, I recommended these 10 digital clean-up projects to do before January 1. I'll list them here, but see the full article for more detail and instruction.

  1. Get a backup service and back up your computers and other devices.
  2. Run a tuneup utility to make your computer fast again.
  3. Get a password manager and let it fix your reused passwords, essential for fraud prevention.
  4. Sweep your inbox by moving old messages to a new folder. You don't have to delete anything. Just move it to a new folder. I bet by March you'll be convinced you don't need any of those old messages and can throw them out.
  5. Take control of your personal finances; I recommend using the free app and website Mint.com.
  6. Clean up your phone, and make sure you add emergency contact information to your lock screen.
  7. Consolidate your digital photos to one service; Flickr has some really good tools for this job.
  8. Update your LinkedIn profile and resume.
  9. Run a quick security checkup on your Facebook and Google accounts.
  10. Clean up your music and podcast playlists.

Frog Songs

Frog songs.

A whir of high pitched purring, an earful of life despite two days of debilitating rain. The frog start to sing at night, after the light dissipates, the sky temporarily holds its breath, and the water in the street settles into a glassy surface. No more auto-rickshaws, motor scooters, cars, or bicycles making waves. The lapping on the sidewalks fades. The frog song reverberates.

A young, skinny man in a freight truck across the street has been sleeping in the cabin the last two nights. The first night he climbed onto truck’s roof, which was covered by a tarp, and began bailing it out with a empty yogurt container. Last night he brushed his teeth using that same cup. This morning, he leans out the window for air. Indian pop music rings tinny and without bass, possibly from the radio, maybe from the last drips of battery power in his mobile phone.

An older but equally skinny man who delivers 50 cents’ worth of flowers a few times a week to my neighbor rolls up on his bicycle, his feet dipping into the murky brown water with each down-pedal. “What on earth is he doing out there?” I say to myself, and watch as he hops off his clunky bike into calf-deep water, bumps his kickstand into place, pulls two small bags from his handlebars, and carries them up the stoop. Delivery as promised.

Flooding December 2, 2015 in Teynampet, Chennai, India.
One glance out the window makes it seem like we’re trapped by streets that have turned into canals. Water fills every inch of low-lying ground as far as the eye can see. From my second-floor balcony, I can survey the scene in three directions. A few police officers slosh down the dead-end, doing their usual rounds, but in flip-flops with their pants rolled up to their knees. A woman hikes up her magenta sari and talks to neighbors in Tamil, presumably spreading word of the conditions, though I don’t speak the language and can’t know for sure. The usual sounds of construction died out two weeks ago when the monsoon rains first let us know that they were coming with an unstoppable force this year.

We measure the height of the water relative to the sidewalks, which are at least a foot off the ground. Yesterday most of the sidewalks were covered. Today, they are slick with slime, but proudly exposing their cement mass to the air and cloudy skies, like a puffed-up chest. Around the corner just south of here, the entire neighborhood is submerged two feet deep at least, the water having crept into people’s yards and slipped beneath their doors until suddenly it's up to their ankles, and they're deciding whether to stay or go.

Nominal flooding in Teynampet, Chennai, India, December 2, 2015.
Further south, the Adyar River has overflown. This is India. The river is not clean. It smells putrid year-round. Everyone who lives or lived along the banks should have evacuated a week ago. The more expensive properties nearby have, by now, all been claimed by the water, too. Where the water finds concrete walls and wooden gates trying to contain it, it pushes against them and wears them down. It breaks free, rushing out violently, sweeping up everything in its path, tree branches, motorcycles, dumpsters, people. “This is not your home,” the water says. “This is nothing more than low-lying earth.” Try to control it, and it will come from the sky instead. The water simply keeps coming. It sprawls and invades and cannot be diverted or contained or sandbagged. The water simply goes. 

The Adyar dumps its filthy water, the excrement of Chennai, into the Bay of Bengal where it eventually mixes in with the Indian Ocean. But now, there is no where left for the water to go. It’s as if the sea itself is already full.

Just north, less than a quarter mile from here, the road is dry and a few businesses are open. It seems implausible, as absurd as the flower seller who made good on his promise to deliver. Though I’ve only lived in India five months, I’ve been here long enough to know better than to try and make sense of every incongruity. This is India. Who knows why anything happens the way it does?

Our generator miraculously isn’t out of diesel yet, though we’ve shut down everything non-essential. No air conditioners. No dehumidifiers. Every electronic device is charged to 100 percent. Our bags are packed, just in case. The dog can tell something is up. She follows me around the house, closer than usual, into the bathroom, into the kitchen, onto the balcony even though she hates being outside. I sit on an arm chair with my feet dangling into her bed. It brings a little relief. She lays down and falls asleep with the tip of tongue sticking out.

Every ray of sunlight is a glimmer of hope that more rain will not come. The wind blows the clouds together, though, and sprinkles make new pock marks on the water below.

The worst part is two-fold: Knowing that the rain is not done with us yet, and waiting to see just how bad it will get before deciding whether to flee.

At night, the sun doesn’t so much set as simply recede, almost unnoticed, the way I hope the waters will. As the light turns everything blue and gray, the invisible frogs begin their trill in unison, somehow on cue, a miracle of nature. Their song reminds me that all is not lost, that life will go on, steadily, and without explanation as to how. 

You Can't Change India

In July, I moved to India. For the last few months, I've been adjusting in a million different ways.

How I Got Here

Earlier this year, my partner got a great job offer and accepted it. It took close to six years to seal the deal, which is to say that our move abroad was no big surprise. We had long hoped for it and dreamed about it.

The deal with the job is that we will live in a new country every two to three years, but we don't have a whole lot of say over which country.

And that's how we ended up in India.

A Little About India

We're in Chennai, which is not nearly as bustling as Mumbai or filled with glamorous palaces, the way New Delhi is. Plenty of non-Indian people have never heard of Chennai. It was formerly called Madras, if that helps.

Chennai sits on the south east coast of the country, and by population, it is the fourth largest city in India. Despite its size, tourists don't flock to Chennai. There isn't much here in the way of sightseeing.

Elliot's Beach, Chennai, India

Westerners and far east Asian people stand out here. I stand out. Sometimes people ask to take photos with me, usually teenagers, but sometimes families. Maybe it's the result of having lived in big cities before, but I don't feel uncomfortable with any of it. Stares of curiosity don't bother me. People are either extremely friendly, or they mind their own business. Either way, I feel very safe on the street. Of course, I do exercise basic common sense and caution. I don't walk alone in unfamiliar areas, and I keep aware of my surroundings.

Adjusting to India

The people of Chennai couldn't be more generous or hardworking, but life here is tough.

A fisherman's village and market, Chennai, India

Like in any developing country, running water, indoor plumbing, and electricity aren't a given for many people. There isn't any mass transit other than buses that don't necessarily come to a full stop when people want to get on or off. (A subway system is in the works, but it's years from completion.) Air pollution is visibly bad. Rubble and trash lines most streets. During monsoon season this year, which has another three or four weeks left, flooding brought water waist high into many people's homes. 

The hardest adjustment for me isn't the lack of infrastructure because we live in a very nice apartment with most of the comforts of the American life and then some. We have ample resources, such as a backup generator for when the power goes out, a distiller that makes drinkable water all day long, air filters in every room, and more air conditioning units than seems necessary. We have a service team that comes to our home and fixes anything that breaks. The cost of living is so low, we can afford to hire a part-time housekeeper. Our building is built a few feet above street level, so even when the monsoon rains pummel the area with water, it never comes close to breaching the front door.

Nominal flooding in a well-to-do neighborhood in Chennai, India

The real adjustment has nothing to do with living comfortably. It has everything to do with privilege.

The Guilt of Privilege

I've felt the guilt of privilege before, but never to this extreme. In Chennai, I see people everyday who have so much less than I do. Every day. I see them washing their clothes under a hand-pump water well. I see them carrying bowls of dirt on their heads at a construction site. I see them pushing their five-year-olds down the sidewalk to try and sell me cheap coloring books, knowing that their little faces have an inherent advantage at pressuring me into buy something.

Kids playing soccer in what's left of a flooded field in Chennai, India

I see all these people, and I know that there's nothing I can do to change their situation or the happenstance that left them born into their life and me born into mine. There's nothing I can do to make the world more fair or equitable, much less a country of 1.25 billion people where I am an outsider.

When we arrived, we heard a lot of advice from other Americans. I took to heart the words of one woman who said, "The best way to experience India is to dive right in. You're going to feel uncomfortable. Some days, you're going to want a shower after it. But you have to let go and jump in."

From my own experience and research, I decided that the best attitude would be to not try too hard to make sense of anything. India is what it is, I told myself. There are going to be a ton of things I don't understand, and if I try too hard to find explanations or reasoning, I'm going to drive myself crazy. I went to an Indian wedding recently and asked a bunch of questions of Indian people about the ceremony and customs. One of the guests said, "Oh, I don't understand what's happening at all." We got to talking, and it seems that a lot of the confusion and inability to make sense of how things work in India is just as perplexing to Indians as it is to foreigners.

In any event, I decided that in general, it's better to observe and accept what's around me rather than struggle to find an answer.

But the most memorable piece of advice, the one that has stuck, is this: "You can't change India."

How to Correct Google Maps

In July 2015, I moved to Chennai, India.

For everywhere I've lived and traveled in North America, I've used Google Maps to get around. I use it for directions. I use it to gauge distances. I use it for mapping bicycling routes. And I use it avidly to find locations of businesses.

In Chennai, a beautiful city in South India, that last one doesn't always work.

Very few businesses are mapped onto Google Maps and those that are often aren't correct.

Three times, I've tried to find bicycle shops that just weren't there. Restaurants with the exact same name will appear on the map twice within a two block radius, clearly duplicate entries but not duplicate outlets in real life. I even went to a shop this week and confirmed the street address first with someone who worked there, but it wasn't where Google Maps said it was.

I decided to do something about it. I started sending corrections to Google Maps.

To me, it's similar to contributing to Wikipedia. I feel like I'm helping to make the Internet more valuable and accurate through a series of tiny actions that aren't time consuming.

In the U.S., Canada, and certainly much of Europe, Google Maps probably doesn't need much updating. But if you live in a place where business information is often wrong  (you can't correct the locations of parks, lakes, roads, or a few other things, as far as I know), there is something you can do about it.

How to Correct a Business Location in Google Maps
1. Log into a Google account. You can't suggest edits otherwise.

2. Search for the business (it must already exist) in Google Maps. Click on it.

3. In the info tab that appears, look for the very last option in light gray: Suggest an edit. Click it.

4. Now you can drag the pin around the map and place it in the right spot. You can also change the listed hours, street address, and category of the business. You can also submit that the business is permanently closed.

5. Hit save and.... wait. You'll get an email if the suggestion is accepted. For me, it's taken anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

The Productivity Report

Channeling my love of productivity, I've been working slowly on a book that aims to bridge the gap between the research we know about increasing productivity and our practices.

To make the insights I find available sooner, I started ProductivityReport.org, a blog updated every Monday with findings from real research about what we can and should be doing (or not doing) to help ourselves achieve productivity goals.


I hope you'll check it out!

Foods of South India: Nannari Sharbath

Nannari sharbath is a very sweet and fruity tasting drink made with sarsaparilla root syrup. Nannari is just another name for sarsaparilla. Whenever I look up individual ingredients used in Indian cooking, I almost always find theoretical associated health benefits. Nannari supposedly helps one cool down, which is what you want to do when the temperature hits 106 Fahrenheit and the humidity is 100 percent. In Chennai, that's called May and June. We only felt the tail end of the extreme heat because we arrived in early July. Most days are topping out at 100 or 98 now.

The drink pictured at right has basil seeds floating on top, which I adore. Basil seeds that have been soaked long enough to create a jelly layer on the outside are common in southeast Asian drinks. The texture feels similar to soaked chia seeds. Basil seeds also apparently have some health benefits: cooling, digestion aid, and so forth.

Sarsaparilla was popular in the United States back in the 19th Century, when people were into health tonics and elixirs. You might also recognize it from The Big Lebowski as the drink The Stranger (played by Sam Eliot) orders at the bowling alley bar.

Foods of South India: Coconut Chutney

Coconut chutney, I believe it's unique to south India, though I have no doubt you can get it elsewhere. Coconut chutney is a dip or condiment, like any other chutney, but it's more savory than sweet, which might confuse anyone who's used to sweetened shredded dried coconut.

In southern India and similar regions, coconut chutney is commonly seen at breakfast, served alongside idlis and vada.

Coconut chutney has heaps of fresh shredded coconut, which is more toothsome than the sweetened kind that you'd find in a macaroon. When the chutney is mounded in a dish or onto a plate (which might be nothing more than a banana leaf) coconut water and cream drain to the bottom, leaving a lot of meat in the scoopable top part. Mixed into it might be a few black peppercorns or chilies, or curry leaves (not to be confused with curry powder). 

I’ve mostly had white coconut chutney, but it can have a greenish tint or be fully orange-red, depending on the other ingredients.

Foods of South India: Medu Vada

Vadas, or medu vadas, I like a lot. They look and taste like deep fried doughnuts, but they're savory. Like idlis, vadas make for a fairly nutritional breakfast, if you can see past the fact that they're deep-fried. The dough is made with ground up lentils flavored with curry leaves and chilies, and you dip bites of vada into a lentil soup called sambar. All those lentils add up to some decent protein. 

If you’re me, however, you dip hunks of vada in chutney, because I just can't get enough chutney. 

I've read that a "vada" can be any kind of savory fried snack or fritter, so I'm not sure if the doughnut variety is specific to Chennai or if I simply haven’t encountered other vadas yet.

Foods of South India: Idli

Idli or idly is a breakfast food, but you can eat this mild-mannered rice cake any time of day. In the photo here, there are two idlis stacked on the right, and it looks like a scoop of rice. Look closely and you may be able to see they're more like pancakes.

They remind me of the rather bland "dumplings" you find in Czech cuisine that's more like steamed bread than the filled Taiwanese dumplings that many Americans are accustomed to eating. Idlis may be bland but the upside is they go with everything, so you can use them to sop up any kind of chutney, soup, oil, or spice on your plate. 

Idlis are made by soaking dried rice and dried lentils, separately, in water overnight, grinding them down into a runny paste with water, letting that mixture ferment slightly one more night, and finally steaming them into palm-sized pancakes. Idlis should be very soft and served hot out of their special steamer basket. In Chennai, idlis almost always come with one particular accompaniment: coconut chutney.

Foods of South India: Malabar Porotta

Malabar porotta might be my new favorite food. I ordered it with dinner at a restaurant that specializes in food from the Kerala region of India. Sometimes also called parotta or barotta, it's a circular bread the size of a salad plate that’s as flaky as a croissant, but also has spiral layers like a cinnamon roll. I don’t know how someone from Kerala eats malabar parrota, but I pulled away long strips of it and folded them over as much fruit chutney as I could manage. After it's baked, golden flecks of crust become crisp on the top and bottom, while the center stays chewy. 

Foods of South India: Fruit and Cashew Halwa

I recently moved to India and have decided to go back to my blogging roots and write about food, at least until the novelty of South Indian cuisine wears off. Enjoy!

Halwa might get me into big caloric trouble. The halwa I've found here in South India is a gelatinous (but room-temperature stable) dessert dotted with nuts or fig seeds and sliced into bars. 

I have what I would like to describe as a "wonderful appreciation" for chewy, gooey treats made with dates, pistachios, apricot leather, rose sugar water, and other calorie-dense foods. This sweet tooth of mine has gotten me into trouble in Indian markets in both London and the Murray "Curry" Hill neighborhood of New York. So when I found a sweet shop within walking distance of my apartment that sells dried fig halwa, cashew halwa, and samosas (so I can pretend like I’m eating lunch), I realized the next thing I’d have to find is a gym.

Foods of South India: Madras Filter Coffee, or Kaapi

I recently moved to India and have decided to go back to my blogging roots and write about food, at least until the novelty of South Indian cuisine wears off. Enjoy!

Madras filter coffee, also called kaapi, is a small cup of coffee with hot milk, and usually some chicory, served in two nested stainless steel cups. One cup looks like it's meant to catch the drips, but as with pulled tea, you actually pour the coffee between the two cups to aerate, mix, and cool it.

Any time of day, you can see people drinking kaapi from sidewalk vendors in little white paper cups that only hold maybe four ounces at a time.

Madras filter coffee is strong in coffee flavor but not a dark roast (roasting dark dissipates the caffeine level) and mad sweet. You can ask for "sugar separate" to sweeten it to taste, or add some water to adjust the strength. Most importantly, you always wait until the end of a meal to order coffee, even at breakfast. 

The Secret Benefits of Being Organized

Think about the most organized person you know.

Picture this person's organization in action. Maybe it's a friend who plans vacations with spreadsheets, arranging all the activities for a group, getting the best prices, all while making sure everyone has enough time to get where they need to be. Or maybe it's a colleague who takes fastidious notes during meetings and always knows the answers to questions that everyone else says, "I don't know. It's somewhere in email."

The Secret Benefit of Being Organized
Describe the most organized person you know with a few adjectives, but not "organized." We already know that. The first ones that come to mind might be:
  • meticulous
  • detailed
  • aware
But were any of these words on your list?
  • clean, tidy
  • dependable, reliable
  • punctual
  • efficient
  • smart
  • trustworthy
  • scrupulous
  • honest
  • hard-working
  • disciplined
We often associate these very positive traits with organized people. If you're a highly organized person yourself, do you think people see you as reliable, trustworthy, and honest?

Once you have the reputation for being an organized person, people really do start to think you have these good characteristics. 

The Reality of Being Organized
In reality, being organized has very little to do with most of these traits. But organized people benefit from the positive stereotype anyway.

Think about it. It's entirely possible to be organized without being clean or tidy. You can know where everything is, but never scrub your toilet or change the sheets on your bed. Likewise, an organized person can know when all the deadlines are, but not have any drive to get her work done on time. Motivation and organization are not the same thing. An organized person can be freakishly obsessed with putting all her cans in the cupboard facing the same direction, but that's pretty much the opposite of efficiency. It wastes time and serves no functional purpose. 

Structure vs. Fixation
Don't mistake fixating on making sure all the soup cans face the same way with creating other structural processes we organized people use to stay efficient. There are tricks organized people use that really do improve efficiency in the long run.

Here's an example: I'm meticulous in how I structure my computer folders and how I name my files. In the moment, it can seem like a waste of time. Why not just use the default file name so I can get to work? In the long-term, though, when I organize my folders and name my files a certain way, it helps the most pertinent work surface to the top every day so I always know what to work on and where the files are. It's June 2015 right now, so when I start my day, I open the 1506_JUN folder. The files at the top of that folder are from the beginning of the month (sorted by filename), meaning the files at the bottom are the most recent. When it's time to get to work, I don't have to think about what my priorities are. I look in the right folder, and the work announces itself. 

The point is that sometimes actions that seem wasteful and inefficient from an outsider's point of view are in fact very useful to staying organized. But sometimes, an organized person (with a whole lot of soup cans) can fixate on a task or situation that is very organized, but is not at all efficient.

The Downside of the Organized Stereotype
There is a downside to being stereotyped as a highly organized person, too.

People believe I'm very organized. I wrote a book about it. I have a weekly column about it. 

By association, people believe I'm dependable and reliable. There is some truth to it, of course. Time and time again, I do what I say I'm going to do when I say I'm going to do it. I'm organized in a way that lets me meet those expectations pretty consistently.

But sometimes, I fuck up. And when I do, it's extremely difficult to manage the shame that comes with it because of the heightened expectations people have of me to always be "perfect," I word I hate. Let's say I show up 25 minutes late. I feel bad about whatever happened that caused me to be late, but I also feel bad because whoever was waiting for me had the expectation that I would be on time. If I break from character, as it were, and do something that goes against the positive stereotype of an organized person, I worry people will see me as unreliable, not dependable, not moral, not trustworthy, the opposite of all the adjectives I listed above. The expectation that I will be on time is higher than the expectation that a non-organized person will be on time. 

There is definitely a presumed expectation, and as a result, a feeling that we organized people are constantly being judged.

Do you subconsciously hold organized people to a higher standard? Or if you're an organized person yourself, do you feel judged whenever you don't exhibit the stereotypical traits of a highly organized person?

Is 'Doing What You Love' Overrated?

My 60-something mother jokes about what she's going to do when she "grows up."

She doesn't feel called to her work. She works to get paid and meanwhile dreams about all the other possibilities.

Of course, there are too many possibilities, an overwhelming number, and there isn't time to pursue all of them, much less one of them.

I've been lucky to know what I love. There's never been a question. Any temptation I've ever felt about a different career in geography or behavioral economics or dentistry have always snapped into place with an immediate follow-up thought: "I should write about that."

Writing was my first love. I would do it if I had to pay to do it, rather than get paid to do it. I would work a different paying job in order to support doing it. I write even when I don't need to do it.

I used to go to church with my mom every so often, where they'd hand out programs so the congregation would know what to sing and when to stand. I'd always bring a pen, and I'd copy edit the hell out of it, nixing an extra space, pointing out inconsistent spellings, circling straight apostrophes that should be curly. I couldn't help myself. I am drawn to look closely at words.

Not every day at work is pure joy. Not every writing assignment fills my heart with elation and gratitude. And not every career step in the last 15 years was perfectly befitting of the massive amount of potential I assumed I had as a writer (one must be both confident and cocky to follow this pursuit). I took plenty of jobs that weren't ideal, but were close enough. I learned a lot by doing work that didn't seem to suit me to a tee. Through proximity and hard work, I figured I'd eventually get closer to my target as time passed. And I did. The trajectory was always right, even if each and every assignment wasn't.

When I talk with people who aren't so fortunate as to know what they love, I feel detached from the conversation, like I can never really know them or their mental struggles. I don't know what that's like to not be compelled to do a particular thing every day of your life. It must be agony.

Societally, we certainly make it seem like it should be agony. How much guilt and pressure we put on one another to find a "passion" and have a lucrative career! The message is: If you are not doing what you love, you must be unhappy, and you are failing at life!

It's a load of horse shit. 

Last night I read How to Do What You Love by Paul Graham (2006). It's a blog post that's upheld as having some kind of magical and yet realistic insight into life and the philosophy and economics of doing what you love and refusing to do things you don't love. It's also a load of horse shit, by and large. If, on the one hand, you are a well-to-do man born into a country that gives you some status off the bat for your particular race and gender, Graham's essay might strike a chord and inspire you to change a few fundamental aspects of your life and your way of thinking and living. On the other hand, if you are struggling to raise a family and live in a world where you have to work harder than other people do to earn the same things that privileged people come by much easier, then Graham's underlying premises fall to pieces.

Furthermore, maybe work doesn't matter that much to some people. Maybe how they spend their 35, 40, or even 70 hours a week earning money isn't what matters most to them. What about family? What about travel? It's not so crazy to think that people might choose to have two weeks of pure blissful happiness a year while, say, traveling, in exchange for 50 weeks a year working very hard at a job doesn't necessarily fulfill their soul. Who are we to judge?

I hate that we deny others' happiness simply because they work jobs that don't fill their hearts with meaning and purpose. Why do we inflict anxiety on people for earning an honest living?


What's It Like to Be a Woman in the Tech Industry?

"What is it like to be a woman in the tech industry?"

Once or twice a year, I'm asked some variation of that question.

There are two inherent problems with the question.

1. I have only ever been a woman.
I have no point of comparison. What some people are really trying to ask is, "Have you ever been treated improperly because you are female?" and there's an inherent problem with that question, too. While some discrimination is on the surface and obvious, a whole lot of it is invisible. For example, if I don't know my colleagues' salaries, male and female alike, how do I know if I'm being underpaid because of my sex? If I'm not promoted, how do I know I was passed up on a promotion because I'm female? It's very hard to tell. When it's not hard to tell, people need to speak up, of course, and that doesn't just mean women. Men need to speak up, too.

2. I am not in the tech industry.
This point is extremely important because people get it wrong all the time. I am a writer. I write about technology. When I have to list my job industry, I choose "media" or "press." I cover the tech industry, yes, but I am not a part of it. If I were a  part of it, I would have a much harder time doing my job because a huge part of my job is to observe the tech industry impartially.

Why Aren't You Asking Men?
Women need to speak out when they know they are discriminated against. yes. But we also need to be asking men questions related to the gender imbalance in the tech industry as well as other industries and sectors that are male-dominated.

If men are in the position of power, what are they doing to change the gender imbalance?

I've rarely heard men asked about the issue. More people should be asking executives and hiring managers: How many women are on your board of directors? What are you doing to increase the number of job applications from women? Are you training women for managerial and executive-level positions, and if not, why not? If you don't ask men, they won't know it's their responsibility to do something different.

85 Percent of People Respond to Treatment; What If You're in the 15 Percent?

"85 percent of people respond to the treatment."

"The teaching technique improves learning for 79 percent of the students."

I remember hearing stats like these when I was in high school. I remember thinking, "What if I'm in the 15 or 11 percent? Am I just ignored?"

The answer then was yes. 

Plenty of research is deemed successful when an outcome is positive for, say, 60 or 70 percent of the participants or subjects. Certainly, we should be happy for achievements that do so much good for so many.

But, if 30 or 40 percent of people can't be helped by something that's "proven" to work, what good is that for them?

Technology is working to change that.

Personalized medicine would totally change the way we approach solutions. The same thing is happening in education with personalized learning.

It's a wonder we don't have more areas where we're working toward personalized approaches. Medicine and health make perfect sense, of course. Every body is different. Every diet is different. People have different DNA, blood types, allergies, and biomes in their gut. The medicine we put into different bodies can't possibly have the same effect on all of them. There are too many factors. 

If time and money allowed, it would make more sense to look at the person, their body, their cells, and work backward to create health solutions that were right for them. Instead, what we do now is come up with a product and tested on dozens or hopefully more like thousands of people and tinker with it until it has a positive effect on most of them.

"Most" isn't good enough for me.

We can and should be doing the same thing with learning. We should be doing something similar with work routines. We shouldn't assume that 40 hours of work per week, on a Monday through Friday, 9:00 to 5:00 schedule yields the best results for organizations or employees. It might work for some people, or even "most," but not all.


Q: How are you liking Washington, D.C.?

A: Since moving to Washington, D.C. from New York in March, I have learned this: The doughnut selection is sub-par.

I've had Astro Doughnuts (shown), Golden Brown Delicious (GBD), and Zombie Donuts. Some place called Heller's promising, but it closed down in December 2014.

None of these doughnut shops are terrible, but there's no taste of experience or love in the product. Astro Doughnuts float away with lightness and punch your teeth with sugar, but you can taste that they are not made by someone who has perfected a recipe over 20 years. Zombie Donuts are novel in that you create them by choosing which icings and toppings you want. Not my cup of tea, and the dough is left with too much taste of oil. GBD is the best of the bunch, but mediocre at best.

Q: Are you ready for India?

Nope! And I don't have to be. I'm not moving to Chennai for another two months. I have time to get ready. I have time to appreciate where I am now. Ask me again in July.

What Incentivizes Us to Be More Productive?

I've been researching and writing about productivity. I keep coming across very different "findings" and recommendations about what motivates or incentivizes people to be more productive. Two interesting findings:

  • If you pay people more, it doesn't always make them more productive.
  • If you pay people for the work they do rather than the hours they work, it sometimes may increase productivity.

Dan Ariely, whose books I love, explains in one study with his co-authors that increased compensation doesn't always lead to more productive results. In fact, it can make them worse. He points to research that shows, essentially, that when people were incentivized with a little bit of money, they perform well. When they are incentivized with too much money, however, they're more likely to balk and perform worse.

Today I found an interesting paper that studied what happened in an automobile glass manufacturing company when some workers were switched from per-hour pay to per-piece pay. They're productivity increased by up to 36 percent! The author, Lazear, notes that per-piece pay rates are necessarily the right method of compensation in all workplaces, but rather than the method of compensation matters. In the glass factory, ambitious workers had no reason to try and set themselves apart from others when they were paid hourly--but they did when paid per piece.

What I'm hoping to do with the research I find is identify techniques people can use on themselves to increase their own motivation and productivity. I'm sure the techniques will have to vary depending on the goal, but perhaps there are proven ways to keep ourselves on task for small actions that lead to big results, no matter what they are.

Favorite Travel Apps

An Australian radio show had me as a guest the other day to talk about travel apps.

I mentioned Gogobot, a neat mobile app that uses your location to find things to do, see, and eat nearby, as reviewed by other travelers. You can filter the results based on special interests you have (you opt into "tribes"), such as family-friendly or foodie. It's really well used around the world. I'm on vacation right now in Hawaii, in fact, and there are plenty of great notes for places nearby.

On the show, I also mentioned TripIt! and TripCase. Both of those apps take travel confirmation emails and collate them into one itinerary, with all the fine print garbage removed. Say you get a travel confirmation from Orbitz, Kayak, and even OpenTable for a restaurant booking, all for a week-long vacation. TripIt! will see those confirmation emails (because you give the app access to your email accounts) and pulls the details into one timeline. TripCase is similar, except it doesn't go into your email. You have to forward messages to a special email address for the app. Both of those apps really shine when your flights or gates change at the airport. In testing the apps, they alerted me to changes at the airport before the airport board even showed them.

One app I forgot to mention in the radio show that I realize I always use is GateGuru. It's a specialized app that tells you detailed information about airports, including which restaurants are good and where to find ATMs. When you have a tight layover and need to grab some lunch or dinner before your next flight, it's really helpful to see what all the restaurant option are near the gate where you arrive or depart.

For more recommendations and details on how best to plan, budget, and book a trip, check out my Kindle single The 'Get Organized' Guide to Travel.

'Twitter DMs Can Be the Hand on the Knee,' a Destructive and Ridiculous Remark

Direct messages from a man to a woman on Twitter are the social media equivalent of a hand on the knee. That's the statement that had me worked up in anger for a week.

Let me back up.

Vivek Wadhwa is a researcher and professor, and some of his research and writing relates to women in technology. He was the subject of a huge controversy with a podcast called TLDR put out by On The Media, a fantastic radio program produced at WNYC in New York. The podcast, I've decided, is not so fantastic. I listened to several episodes, not just the controversial one, and I can clearly state that it is not for me. The show doesn't put out content that makes me smarter or more introspective. 

Without regurgitating the whole hullabaloo, allow me to summarize.

What Happened
TLDR released a podcast in which a reporter and a critic of Wadhwa's named Amelia Greenhall trash talked him. They clearly did not fact check most of the material, nor did they even reach out to Wadhwa for comment or to get his side of the story. The show even had moments of snickering. Some of the points raised could have been valid, but I for one dismissed almost all of it because it reeked of back-biting and one-sided opinions. Wadhwa came under attack on social media thereafter, mostly Twitter, where he has long been an active participant in all kinds of discussions. Wadhwa then published an op-ed on Venture Beat in response, and TLDR (or On the Media; I'm not sure who made the call) pulled the original episode, even though you can still find it easily online. It was correct to pull the episode because it was filled with slander that wasn't even fact-checked. TLDR then aired a follow-up episode in which the host, Meredith Haggerty interviewed Wadhwa to get his side of the story. Wadhwa comes off as overly defensive, as well as someone who is not media-trained.

The Twitter DM Can Be the Hand on the Knee
I have an opinion about nearly all the twists and turns of this whole debacle, but I'd rather focus on just one destructive comment made by Haggerty and Greenhall in the first episode that kicked off the issue:
GREENHALL: It's really creepy when a man you don't know goes into your DMs. It's really kind of this consensual, "Let's go over here where people can't see you criticizing me and then maybe I can talk to you there." Wadhwa has done this to several women.
HAGGERTY: It really feels like the Twitter DM can be, like, the hand on the knee of, like, social communication. 
What? What? What are you crazy people talking about? It's one of the most ridiculous things I've heard on an NPR-affiliated podcast, and it's destructive because it's spreading a fear-based message that simply isn't true.

Here are a few facts you need to know about Twitter. DM stands for direct message. It's when someone sends you a private message, which is still limited to 140 characters, on the social network. Only the specified recipients can see it. To receive or send a DM, however, each party must be following one another. Therefore, by following someone on Twitter, you are consenting to DMs. 

In fact, as my work as a writer, it happens all the time. A PR representative or source for a story will find me on Twitter and message me publicly to ask: "Who you mind following me so I can DM you some information?" If Greenhall or any of these other women didn't want to converse privately with Wadhwa, all they would have to do is click the unfollow button by his name. DMs are consensual! 

Additionally, this business of "when a man you don't know goes into your DMs." What? No one "goes into" anyone else's DMs. Getting a DM is the equivalent of getting an email. If you receive an email, the sender did not "go into" your inbox. 

The beauty of DMs and email for that matter is you can simply ignore them. Block the sender if you like. You are totally in control.

Wadhwa has in fact sent me a direct message or two. I asked him a question, and he answered me directly rather than publicly. I'm glad for it. I'm thankful he had the sense to think about where his reply would be most appropriate. And it made me feel like he was answering me and actually paying attention to my question, rather than using Twitter as a megaphone.

When a man emails me, I do not feel creeped out or violated in any way. I usually assume that this person has something to protect or is afraid, and that's why they want to move the conversation to a private area. Often 140 characters get misconstrued. If you tweet one thing and realize too late that it came out the wrong way, it's often safer to explain yourself in private to the people who got the wrong message than it is to try and fight fires publicly. I think it's everyone's responsibility to have an ounce of humanity and decency when another person sends you a private message to say, "I think I messed up. I feel like things are getting out of hand. Can we talk about this one-on-one so I can explain myself to you?"

Limited Room
Another comment sent up a huge red flag for me in regards to whether I would take Greenhall's criticism seriously:
"[H]e's taking up space and, like, sucking all the air out of the room from this conversation about sexism in tech and gender issues in tech that is a really big deal. And somebody who actually has experience and has something useful to say isn't getting quoted."
I don't think this woman understand how the Internet works. There is unlimited space and air for voices. No one is taking anyone else's place. We need more voices, not a limited number!

Second, she's just wrong. In Wadhwa's retort, he specifically mentions that when he's speaking to journalists who plan to quote him, he encourages them to cite women on the subject matter instead, or at least in addition. But he's an expert source, and just because he's male doesn't make him any less so.

Women in technology need allies right now. We need all the voices and backing by researchers, scholars, pundits, activists, and so forth, that we can get. I'm really sad that Wadhwa was attacked so viciously that he's now announced bowing out of the debate about women in technology. While I don't know if he means he'll no longer conduct research or write books on the topic, either way, it seems like self-defeating outcome for women in technology.

U.S. Foreign Service Life: First Steps

Flag of Washington, D.C.
I'm getting ready to go live anywhere in the world. 

My partner recently was accepted into the U.S. Foreign Service. It's a job with the State Department. He's in the political "cone" or track. A lot of people have been asking me questions about it, so I'm going to give an overview here.

Note: While I will blog about life abroad, I will not use this site to write in detail about life in the Foreign Service or the very lengthy process of getting into the Foreign Service. There are many great blogs already covering that topic, and it's not something I wish to repeat. For friends and family and curious onlookers who want to know more about our Foreign Service lives, such as our next steps and key dates, sign up for my TinyLetter newsletter. You'll receive an email every so often with more detail that you ever wanted.

The gist of it is that he's going to be a diplomat, although "foreign service officer" seems to be the preferred term. First, we'll move to Washington D.C. for his initial training, which lasts about six weeks. During that time, we'll live in temporary (furnished, sponsored) housing. But the overall lifestyle is that we will be posted to a different country every two years where we'll live and work. I'll continue to write while he works in one of the embassies.

Early in his training, we'll find out where in the world there are open positions that are appropriate for his entry-level status. We can review those possibilities and even rank them to a degree according to our preferences for region, language, and other factors, but the assignment doesn't necessary take our preferences into consideration. If it does, we'll count ourselves very lucky.

Toward the end of those six weeks, we'll find out his assignment during a ceremony called Flag Day.

It's unlikely we would move to that first post right away. Likely, we'll be in Washington, D.C. for a few more weeks at least, and possibly a whole year, so he can receive additional training specific to his post as well as language training. Bonus for me: I'm eligible to go to the language classes, too.

From time to time, we will return to New York and California to visit friends and family, and we will have occasional posts that are in the U.S., likely in D.C.

Right now, that's about all we know. It's exciting and terrifying, but we're well equipped for the challenge. The hard things in life are usually the ones worth doing, right?

How Walking Promotes Clarity and Creativity

Image by Jenn Vargas, CC.
Any time I am stuck, mentally, I walk.

I walk every day. On days when the weather makes it impossible to walk, I still get outside and walk even a little bit, just a few blocks and back in the rain or the freezing cold. Walking is a necessity.

The New Yorker published an article in September 2014 called Why Walking Helps Us Think, by Ferris Jabr. It explores how walking actually affects our physical and mental being. Jabr wrote:
"When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down. 
"Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight."
Walking can help us make sense of the world and process information, too. It happened this week to me. I started when I felt overwhelmed because I had just learned that my life and work were about to take a few turns that seemed very much out of my control. The need to walk was unstoppable.

What happened is my partner and I learned recently that we'll be moving to Washington D.C. very soon, and after that, we will move somewhere else in the world, though we don't know where yet. At first, I had hoped to keep my writing job full-time from Washington, but the management team didn't quite agree that an arrangement of that sort would work. The organization needs someone in-house to replace me for the on-camera work I do. Plus, the lifestyle I'm about to lead isn't reliable enough to promise 40-hours a week of work during New York business hours. The result is that I'll still be writing for the same publication as a contributing editor, but in a freelance or contract position

Having someone else make this decision and tell me it is what is happening felt like a ton of bricks hitting me face-on. Face-to-face, I am very well composed, and I know none of that emotion showed. But inside, my stomach sank, and I felt a sense of rejection, like I was being pushed underwater. 

After I talked with my editor, I walked. And I walked. And the situation very quickly made more sense and felt less bleak. I processed what had happened and swallowed the fact that going freelance is what I wanted to happen. The initial reaction and emotion I had been feeling was tied to the fact that I wasn't in control. Feeling not in control has been a central problem and theme all my life. And walking unquestionably helps.

A Nudge

I'm getting a nudge in life that I have always wanted, yet secretly fear.
“What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do." -Tim Ferris, The 4-Hour Workweek
I fear instability.

I fear poverty, or at more precisely living with the habits and psychology of someone who is insecure about money.

I fear not having enough routine and discipline.

Those fears are real, but they are tied to a bigger fear, the thing I need to do. I need to write for myself.

Writing independently, without the safety net of a full-time job and healthcare and an 8:30-to-5:00 routine, is something I have longed to do. I've literally daydreamed about it. My creativity is there. My work ethic is there. My heart is there. But it's scary.

And now, I'm getting a nudge.

My partner just got a job with the U.S. State Department, working in the Foreign Service. He's about to become a diplomat. We move to Washington, D.C. in a few days. In a few weeks, we'll find out whether we are destined to stay in the capital for a while, or where else in the world we will be sent to live for the following two years. The nature of the job is that we will move every two years to a new country, with occasional posts to Washington D.C., maybe.

For the last four years, I've been so lucky to have a full-time job as a writer. Previously, I've been an editor and part time writer, dividing my time 80/20 if I planned my weeks well enough to even get that much time to write. Writing is what I do and what I love, whether it's product reviews (a large chunk of what I write now), feature articles, or scripts that I'll end up speaking in front of a camera.

Writing full-time has been an absolute pleasure because I get to do the thing I love and still have all the securities that keep fear at bay: a regular work week, insurance, paid time off, co-workers, and an office. It's been good. But it needs to end. And it's time to do the freelance thing.

What's Wrong With Wearable Fitness Trackers

I test a lot of fitness trackers, everything from runner's watches to Fitbit smart pedometers. And I spend a lot of time picking apart what makes them great and what makes them duds. Here are a few ideas for how they can be better:

1. Touchscreens
Touchscreens are ubiquitous among smartphones. Several activity trackers use them, too, such as Samsung Gear Fit (shown), Microsoft Band, Basis Peak, and Fitbit Surge. The problem with touchscreens is they require a steady hand. When you're outdoors, running or riding a bicycle, and when your heart rate is elevated, it can be very difficult to navigate a device by touch with any grace. Touchscreens don't work well when the user is active, and so they don't work well for activity trackers.

I favor fitness trackers with buttons that you can press and feel. They are much better when you're moving around and wearing gloves.

2. They're Missing the Right Heart Rate Indicators
I love all the new wearable tech that use built-in optical heart rate monitors: Basis Peak, Wellograph, Mio Fuse, Fitbit Surge, and the forthcoming Apple Watch. These devices take your pulse through the skin of the wrist, so you can wear something that looks like a watch or a bracelet and have it work like a chest strap heart rate monitor. The problem is very few give heart rate feedback in a way that's smart and easily accessible during a workout.

My favorite device for heart rate monitoring during activity (as opposed to heart rate at rest) is Mio Fuse for one simple reason: It tells you your heart rate in more than one way. Mio Fuse flashes an LED light in different colors to indicator your heart rate zone. For example, you might want to workout in your green zone. If you're doing interval training, you want to push to your red zone, and then try to quickly bring your heart rate back down to purple. The Mio Fuse also vibrates and occasionally flashes the actual number of your heart's beats per minute. In short, it tells you your heart rate in a number of different ways, and all those ways are extremely convenient if you are huffing and puffing.

3. Wrist Space
The most common reason I look at my activity trackers is to tell the time. Those that don't double as a watch and have a time readout on them are just taking up valuable real estate on the wrist.

4. Static Form Factor
Clip-on fitness-tracking devices just didn't catch on they way Fitbit seemed to think they would when it created the Fitbit Ultra (the company's first commercial device), Fitbit One, and Fitbit Zip. But clip-ons tend to be more accurate than wrist bands for counting steps and estimating distance traveled. Additionally, women can wear them tucked onto the front of their bras, which is great if you're going out and want to continue tracking your activity (an evening of dancing, anyone?) but don't want to wear a sporty silicone bangle.

The only big-name clip-ons still on the market are made by Misfit Wearables (the Shine, shown, Flash, and some newer models in the Swarovski-co-branded lined) and Jawbone with its Jawbone UP Move. What makes these devices extra smart is they aren't just clip-on devices but also come with a wristband, letting you choose how and where to wear it. Being able to change form factor from a clip-on to a wristband is so much better than having a static form factor.

A Game of Whatchyamacallit With Apps

I spoke at a conference today at Rutgers and fielded a couple of great audience questions about different apps that can make you more productive.

When people outside the tech industry ask for recommendations, I often find that they can describe what they need but don't have the words for it.

In a search-engine-centric world, that's a problem. If you don't have the language to search, you can end up shit out of luck.

It's a problem not only in technology but in any, ahem, "discourse community."

Technology, however, is spreading to all facets of life rampantly. In other words, everyone needs to partake in the discourse.

Here are a few examples of questions people asked me today:
Can you recommend an app that will brings together information from different accounts I use? 
Yes. If by "accounts" you mean both email and social media, you're in the market for an aggregator app. If you just want to consolidate email, you are better off with an email client app. (The person was looking specifically for email, and I recommended Inky, which is free.)
Are there any apps that let you build your own circles of productivity with friends and assign points and win conditions so that you are playing a game as you do your work?
I don't know of any, but the idea you're describing is gamification.
This kind of thing happens all the time. When I covered the video game industry, a lot of people would ask about the larger category of games made for military, education, and training, and I'd explain, "The search term you're missing is 'serious games.'"

If you don't know the language that's used, it's really hard to find information.

One trick, however, with technology is to use a site called AlternativeTo.net. Say you don't know the name of the category of app, but you know of one app that does loosely what you need. You can go to AlternativeTo and type in the app or software product you know, and the site will suggest similar apps, or ones that are an "alternative to" the one you have in mind. Read through the descriptions and look at the tags on the resulting entries, and you're likely to find the category name.