Contextual Communications Management – Do Away with I/O Overload!

February 18, 2013

I have been “cooking” this idea since about 2006. There was a day “in the day” when my ability to manage intrusive communications was obviously nil – a day of epiphany. On one miserable day, I was overwhelmed:

  • four meetings occupying more than 6 1/2 hours of the day;
  • more than 40 telephone calls to four phone numbers that I answered;
  • more than 40 voicemail messages on five messaging systems;
  • more than 250 e-mails sent to six addresses;
  • no complete record of calls I missed…

My clients were frustrated. I was frustrated.

I really faced three dilemmas:

  1. No Prioritization – the priority of one call was almost indistinguishable from the next unless I knew something related to the ID of the caller (if I even glanced at the Caller ID – if the ID was even displayed);
  2. No Integration – 15 separate communications portals…
  3. No Local Context – my telephone services interrupted my meetings as though every incoming call was more important than the meeting I was in (and some were).

I need only the sufficiently important communications right away – in only one stream – from any service – directed to any device – anywhere in the world I happen to be – with zero effort – without unnecessary distraction – all prioritized, summarized and logged. I call this concept Contextual Communications Management.

Since about 2008, I have been embarked on a campaign to influence AT&T, Apple and Google with features that will help me wrestle with the overwhelming communications environment I work in. I write letters, make phone calls, write white papers, draw pictures – anything that has a bit of promise to find implementations in AT&T, Apple and Google products and services.

Here is a simple process flow for incoming calls and voicemail messages to begin solving my problem (click for a higher res image):

Incoming Calls and Messages Managed

At first glance, I get two remarks from people – either “Huh?” or “Duh…” Either puzzlement or a brush-off as obvious. For any incoming call, I want to reject it (block it) if it will waste my time. If I don’t reject the call, I want to redirect it (forward it) if another person is a better resource to answer the call. If I don’t redirect the call, I want to ignore it for the time being (let the caller leave a message) if my present activity is more important. I want to answer the call if it is the best use of my time at the moment.

But it’s not obvious how to make the decision that the incoming call is the best use of my time. Let’s “peel the onion” just a bit. If you know the person calling or e-mailing or messaging, there is a basis to prioritize the call. Here is an example of that basis (again, click for higher res):

Who-Basis for PrioritizationIt’s not that complicated – my address book on my Mac has a category for “Priority” that I added long ago of Privileged (AT&T calls White-Listed; Apple calls VIP – their responses to my proposals), High, Medium, Low, Unknown or Denied (black-listed). Recognize the White List and Black List concepts from my Robocaller Blocker? Yup! My “RoboBlaster” focusses on identifying and blocking the lowest priority callers.

This just scratches the surface of Contextual Computing – utilizing the context of Who, What, When and Where to make automated decisions about communications, tasks, activities, collaboration and the presentation of information in the user environment.  A clever app will stop my phone from ringing in a meeting unless the caller has a higher priority than the meeting does. Get it? It’s not complicated, but that clever app will be! How to integrate all devices and services? That’s another problem I am writing about right now.

Look for my book on Contextual Computing at soon.  I’ll be sure to let you know how to order it when it is available.

APB – Missing, Dire Straits “Communique”

February 9, 2013

Calling All Cars – Calling All Cars.

We are issuing an ALL POINTS BULLETIN for the immediate recovery of a missing CD.

Please keep a lookout for Dire Straits “Communique”.

Last seen in the classic rock section of the CD stand about four months ago in the company of “Love Over Gold” and the rest of the gang’s discography.

Whereabouts are currently unknown. Any information leading to the apprehension of “Communique” will be greeted with a hearty embrace!


This happens to me now and then, folks.  I loan stuff to friends freely – to be frank, I don’t recall lending this CD to anyone, lately… But worse (and far more likely), I am prone to ‘misfiling” items I return to my media library. With more than 4000 CDs “on the shelf”, misfiling has the same ramification as misshelving a book at a large library – it will only be found in the stacks by accident…

My spellchecker is griping about the word “misshelving”. Huh… Misspoken – 2 ‘s’s… Misshapen – 2 ‘s’s… Misspelling, misspending, misstate, misstep… Where’s my multivolume dictionary?

“Communique” is a terrific album – can’t wait to find it! And listen to it, again!

President Obama Poses the Wrong Case for Immigration Reform

January 30, 2013

I was listening to the Rachael Maddow show on MSNBC the other evening. She was playing the President’s speeches on immigration reform from May, 2011 and from earlier this month – they were almost the same – almost word for word. The President is pitching the wrong case for immigration reform, though.

The President ponders – (paraphrasing) “what if the next Google or Intel is not founded here by an immigrant – what if the next Google or Intel is founded in another country because of our immigration policy?” Throughout his speech – before and following this “wonderment”, the President is primarily discussing the undocumented worker. The founders of these tech companies were not undocumented – this is wrong parallelism to cite…

The issue is this, and it was correctly captured by Bill Gates in an interview from the Davos World Economic Forum on CNN today: US immigration policy today tends to drive immigrants educated in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) out of the country. Many of these valuable people must leave the US and contribute to other countries’ economies instead of being welcome to remain in the US to contribute to our economy here – that’s the impact of the current immigration policy, and it must change.

My own company can testify to this problem. Last year, I was unable to afford to assist an Indian employee to stay here in the US to continue to work at my company. I could not work with my attorneys to convert an F1 visa that had been extended with an OPT extension into an H1B or E1 visa in the timeframe allowed. I had to let this Ph. D. employee go at the expiration of her OPT. She was fortunate (we all are fortunate) and remains here in the US working legally at a nearby university.

The priority case for immigration reform is to let skilled people stay here with a minimum of administrative burden on the person or the employer so that our economy benefits. The political debate mires this rational priority with the dilemma of how to address the issue of the undocumented worker.

None of the immigrant of funders of Google, Intel and many other tech firms here in the US that the President refers to in context were undocumented. All of these immigrant corporate founders are valuable to our economy, and we need more of the likes of them!

How to handle the undocumented worker? Well, I really don’t know the best answer to that, but it is not the most important consideration – it is just the most highlighted political consideration that is getting in the way of addressing the more significant elements of reform.

My humble opinion.

Privacy, ID Theft and Junk Mail

January 28, 2013

I have a bone to pick – Citi, AmEx, AAA, AARP, DirecTV – all you other guys doing mass mailings – ARE YOU ALL LISTENING?

We get a ton of mass mailings, here. We shred a ton of mail, here.  Every credit card application we receive is pre-completed. Envelops are addressed on the paper envelop, and our address appears again inside the letter. We try to shred anything with a name and address – or even more information. We try to preserve privacy and fight ID theft. We try!

You mass mailers make that mission terribly difficult.

Here is what you can do to make my life easier:

1) Address my mass mailing to “Neighbor” at my address.

2) Use a glassine window and place my name and address on only one sheet of paper in the letter.

3) STOP sending me pre-completer credit card applications – I get several a week – sometimes several a day! CITI, doesn’t my silence over the many years send you a message? I try and try to stop your wasteful mailings to no avail – I phone, and I write. I know that you are obliged to stop this harassing marketing practice if I ask you, but I have to go through precisely the right channel, and I guess I have not found it, yet. Just STOP. You have wasted more than a hundred dollars in postage and who knows how much in printing and assembly to send me trash through the mail over the years trying to entice me with your credit card offers. Please, just STOP. I am not going to do business with you!

4) On the credit card applications – if you are just compelled to send me something to appease a manager somewhere looking over your shoulder to be sure that you left no stone unturned, have a box to check to STOP the wasteful flow of paper from your place to mine!

Every time my name, address, phone number and birthdate (or some significant date) and other information such as current insurer appears on the same sheet of paper, well, you are aiding and abetting the ID thieves that somewhere in your company you are surely spending money to defeat.

If I get the RoboCaller award, I swear I am going to invest some of it in a mighty hefty shredder just for your nuisance trash you send to me.

So, all kidding aside, the mass mailers assist identity thieves who do dumpster diving by putting a lot of information in one place. A big offender is AARP that sends me something once or twice a week, and older people have a lot to lose, and many haven’t a good idea of the risks of ID theft – that does them a great disservice in my opinion.

AARP – are you listening?

If I get this robocaller prize, I swear I’ll take up a battle against junk mail, next! Watch Out – HERE I COME!

“Like” my Robocaller Blocker on Facebook

January 26, 2013

Hi folks – please “like” my proposal for a method to block 95% of those illegal robocallers that call sometimes several times a day – what a NUISANCE they are.  I know how to stop them. “Like” my proposal and get us all one step closer to stomping out these scammers!


Odds and Ends Monday

January 21, 2013

I have been busy lately:

The WiMAX Forum – you think Wi-Fi for your laptop and cellphone is great, just wait for WiMax. My oldest client has asked me to be a leader in the WiMax Forum, so I am getting up to speed on the politics of this tech forum. Lot’s of fun and a few great challenges for me, here!

My Nikon 1 J1 camera – it is lots of fun – a minimalist camera with a disappointing megapixel count but a great user interface for me. I took this camera with me to Taiwan, and it took great pictures – a good compromise between a point-and-shoot camera and a semi-pro camera. I like the interchangeable lens, and that was the differentiator for me that pushed me into the line at the CostCo register!

My good friend Mark Hepworth – our City Councilman – is running for Mayor. I think Mark will make a superb Mayor. He is principled, ethical, and credible in the City politics scene. Mark asked me to work for his campaign a few months ago, and I am glad to work for him.  I can’t wait to call Mark “Mr. Mayor”!

We have a crime wave in our neighborhood. My neighbors are up-in-arms -they are worried and anxious – three homes burgled in two weeks. I have arranged a meeting with the Chief of Police, here, this week. As the HOA “guy” (the President), I have a Crime Watch team organized with street captains, an efficient e-mail pyramid, and cameras and signs and lots of stuff to fight crime. Regardless of all of this, we have a crime wave, here. We have the crooks on camera in the commission of more than one burglary, so we’ll catch these rats!

January reporting deadlines for my companies are due in a week (groan) – working on this – well, I should be working on this right now, but I am procrastinating…  Blogging, instead!

My alma mater Rice University has drafted me to work on their local College of Engineering Alumni Committee – we need to raise some money for this department, and I think I can help!

My good friend JC and I had dinner recently with past Senator Kay Hutchison

IMG_0456and Nobel Prize winner Dr. Robert Curl (the carbon “buckyball”). I had dinner at the Curl house a number of times while I was at Rice – their son Mike and I were dorm roommates… It was good to spend some time with Bob and his wife that evening and catch up. We somehow meet about once a year and enjoy dinner in a “highfalutin” venue somewhere – every year, somehow…

IMG_0457The other night was the Texas Academy of Mathematics, Engineering, Science and Technology – the annual TAMEST awards banquet. This is a terrific venue to rub shoulders with brilliant and impacting people in Texas!

“Home Maintenance Week” – well, two weeks was last week and will be this week – some sheetrock repairs, fence repairs, irrigation system repairs, window repairs – all either done last week or to be done this week. I do some of this, and hire out some of this – the annual January maintenance homeowner activity for our household… I have everything “under control”!

A Christmas present was the 1988 and 1989 “Mission Impossible” series on DVD – watching the 1988 series now. This is a classic serial that I have not ever seen on contemporary TV – sad – a great TV serial!

So, time to get back to filing my W2’s and W3!

Brian – Out for now!

Stop those Dang Robocallers!

January 18, 2013

I am fed up with robocallers – FED UP! There are entire days when the only telephone calls I get are from robocallers, and the only cellphone SMS messages I get are from mass e-mailers.

The Federal Trade Commission has a “challenge” to the public to stop the illegal robocaller:

It is a public competition for the best overall solution to this nuisance, and I entered with a proposal.  On the final day of editimg my proposal, I received five robocalls, so you can bet that I was “all fired up”!

Here is my 15-page proposal – Robocaller Blocker  I call it the “RoboBlaster”.

The FTC makes their decision on the most promising response to their challenge on April 1st – on APRIL FOOL’S DAY, of all days…

Stay tuned…

Most Fans “blow”

January 3, 2013

Today, I have been in the bathroom running the exhaust fan, at the stove running the exhaust fan, listening to the furnace blowing air, sitting at my desk with the APS fan rumbling on its worn bearings, with the external drive enclosure fans whirring and the computer fan whirring, too, and in the car with the blower on high to defog my windshield. I am surrounded by fans, and they are noisy buggers for the most part with disappointing airflow.

Most fans “blow”. They are lousy compromises on size, airflow, power consumption, vibration – and noise. There is one standout in fan design that I am aware of, and that is the fan that Apple uses with asymmetrically spaced impeller blades in their MacBook Pro Retina Display laptops. See about half way down the webpage:

I listened closely to a MacBook Pro Retina Display laptop fan running full blast in a Best Buy the other day – it was a quiet whir with a terrific rush of air out the exhaust ports off the laptop. With my ear pressed up against the case bottom where the fan was directly behind, I could just hear a soft whir. Marvelous. I had taken great pains to turn off the sound from blaring TVs throughout the store during a customer lull, and it was quiet – almost silent on the store floor. A largish number of sales staff crowded around me as I booted from a thumb drive with a fan speed control utility installed and set the fan to max speed. The fan was really, genuinely quiet. Impressive. I passed the laptop around, and the Geek Squad fellow listened and smiled. “Quiet. Really quiet. You should hear the HP laptop fans – they screech at high speed. These Apple fans are amazingly quiet.” Yes, they really are quiet.

If these fans with asymmetrically spaced impeller blades were made for bathrooms and kitchens, our homes would be much quieter environments. For desktop computers, APS cabinets and drive enclosures, and our offices would be much quieter. Even car AC systems would benefit.

Heck, why not for nuclear submarine propellers…

I want quiet flow, not “blow”.

Priority 1.A.i.a…

December 30, 2012

Listening to the “Meet the Press” interview of President Obama this morning brought back a few memories from working at Alcatel/Rockwell International/Collins Radio Company.

The interviewer was asking a multitude of questions about priorities – questions were coined in the sense that something was important, and another thing was important, and another, and another, too… The President discussed his highest four priorities in his administration, and the interviewer asked, “What about gun control?” The President hadn’t included gun control in his top priorities, and begged off by explaining that he needed input, and that there needed to be a “conversation” about this topic in light of the Connecticut tragedy before his priorities could change. Yes, a political answer… There are priorities, and there are PRIORITIES.

I recall my boss almost thirty years ago coming to my office to tell me that a particular something was my highest priority. An hour later, he returned to tell me to drop everything and get on something new – that something new was now my top priority. I explained with some frustration in my voice at the time that “…without staff resources, I could only do a few things at once.” He explained that there were no resources he could bring to me – that I was the only qualified person to work on these problems. “When are the tasks due?” His answer was, “As soon as possible.”

This behavior repeated itself over the course of the week until on Friday, the boss returned to ask what progress had been made on the first task. I explained that I was working on the new task given to me the just the day before when I was asked to “drop everything”. I asked, “Which task is really my top-most priority?” My boss answered, “Well, they all are.” I followed up with another question that I hoped would clarify his direction, “Which one is genuinely the number one top priority – Priority 1.A.i.a?”

His answer was dumbfounding, “They are all Top Priority 1. There is no second priority, and they are all due today.” So, I realized at that moment that my boss had been put in an impossible position by his boss. By the end of the day on Friday, I had completed the last task given to me the day before to the degree that I could in 24 hours, and the first task given to me on Monday. In my judgement, it was better to finish something than half finish everything (and finish nothing at all).

Before getting back to the President’s conundrum, I want to remark about how my boss came to me with direction – there were few boundaries to frame the deliverable – worse, there were few details to express the pertinent elements in the problem – just a conversation with someone who did not comprehend the problem at hand very well, nor the shape of the possible solutions. I had an epiphany that Friday – my boss was genuinely clueless about my work, and so was his boss (and his boss and so on). And none of these tasks were critical to the success of the company, or they would have come with resources beside my own time. Worse, I realized that the leadership directly above me was strictly focussed on the politics of the problems I was working on, and not on the business impact of the solutions I was asked to provide.

I realized then – in that week, that it was not only critically important to define complex problems properly, but also the deliverable, and also the business impact of the forthcoming solution. Without this detail, it is impossible to prioritize a problem in a field of problems demanding time and resources, and it is impossible to justify the resources necessary to solve a problem, and it is impossible to judge the adequacy or completeness – the quality of a solution. My boss gave me none of this critical information, and I failed to fully accomplish what his boss was demanding of him (and me). Over that weekend, I recall completing the second task given me during the week, and I estimated the business impact of the remaining five tasks given me that week along with other standing tasks in process awaiting completion, and the business impact estimates set the priority of all the remaining tasks I was working on.

That week was a significant lesson in leadership for me:

  • Describe a problem with some detail – eek out nuances of the problem. People must know that YOU understand the problem even if they do not.
  • Estimate the impact of the problem – if left unsolved, and if solved – the opportunity cost and also the return on the investment. You need numbers, and not just subjective language. Combined, this is the total impact. Make it clear that problems are attacked in order of their total impact.
  • Issue a deadline and define the deliverable. Set out critical elements of the solution necessary to gauge its quality.
  • Monitor the progress in a visible way. Your boss needs to see clearly that something is a priority, and also that there is progress being made.

Today, this is all just a matter of common sense for me, but at the time, it was an epiphany.

So, on to the President. What is his Priority 1? I don’t think it is simply the “Fiscal Cliff” – that is far too short-sighted a priority for a president – far too limited in scope and total impact. I think President Obama’s Priority 1 is improving the employment rate and the overall prosperity of the middle class – so that we can all spend our money in our economy – more money than we are spending today. The positive impact of improving the real prosperity of the middle class by more than 2% is about the same as the negative impact to the middle class of “going over the cliff” (also about 2%). No one has put that nuance in public view – only the impact of going over the cliff has been explained to the American people. It is so disappointing that the fiscal cliff seems to be the Priority 1 of Media and Congress, and not the prosperity of the people.

I give barely passing marks to our politicians for explaining the problem, failing marks for presenting the total impact, passing marks for setting a deadline (but for the wrong problem), and failing marks for visibly monitoring progress. Our leaders in Congress don’t  seem to be very good leaders on the whole…

And this past week, Federal employees got a pay raise of sorts when all Federal salaries were “unfrozen”. As unpalatable as this action might be to the average American, it will increase the prosperity of the middle class employees of the largest employer in the country by more than 2%… That might be pretty smart in the grand scheme of things, but it does’t look that way when middle class families are struggling to make ends meet and put dinner on the table, and no one has explained the total impact very well, much less the real problem and its real priority.

Done rambling!

The Future – It is ALL about Education

December 24, 2012

My recent trip to Taiwan was an eye-opener. Ever been to Taiwan? No? Well, you should go! There are two passions obvious in Taiwan that I don’t see here in the US to nearly the same degree:

  1. Children – children are everything in this society. Children are the future. Children are every parent’s future – after all, when the parents are retired and in their old age, they will be living with one of their children, and the more successful those children are, the more comfortable the parents will be in their old age!
  2. Money – after the child, money is everything in this society. If you aren’t earning money, you are wasting your time. If you aren’t making as much money as your neighbor, well, you must be doing something wrong. In two generations, Taiwan has progressed from 3rd-world to 1st-world, and money is the most tangible element of comparative success. Money – Money – Money…

Getting there… It is a long flight… Take EVA Air across the ocean. EVA Air is an excellent airline with high standards.

Getting around… Taiwan’s mass transit is efficient – the bus, subway, MRT train, HSR high speed rail. Where ever you go, it is inexpensive and efficient. Signs and ticketing systems are in Chinese and English. Most signs throughout the country are in Chinese and English. You’ll have no problem getting around. GO – have a good time there!


In Taiwan, every school ranks students in every subject. Go to a school, and you will find the student rankings on a bulletin board somewhere near the main entrance. Parents cluster around these lists looking for their children to be near the top of the list.

During the top grade of every public school, a National standardized test ranks students nationwide. Coming out of Middle school, this ranking determines which high school you can attend, and every parent hopes for the best high school for their child. Coming out of high school, and the next National test ranking determines which college you can get into. And again, every parent hopes – and hopes – for the best college for their child. The better the school, the better the job, and the more money. It is ALL about education!

We had dinner with a number of friends while in Taiwan. The children came to dinner with school books in hand, and they studied seriously while we ate and talked among ourselves. When a child asked for help, conversation stopped until the child’s question was answered and they were back studying.

As this post title says, it is all about education in Taiwan. It was clear as a bell. Walk out on the street in any large city, and you will see test prep centers on many street corners: “CRAM” Center, Math Skills Institute, Tutor Center, English Coach, etc. Taipei had an entire street dedicated to test prep centers near the central train station. Schooling is a national industry in Taiwan. EVA Airlines even owns a franchise of test prep schools.

Where were we taken by our friends when they showed us around? Their best local schools and universities were among the destinations. The schools and universities were busy on every Saturday with extra classes and competitions.

What favor was I asked at dinner? “Could you help my child with his English?” “Sure,” I said. I was glad to.

There are 165 universities in Taiwan at last count.

It is ALL about education in Taiwan, because education is the key to a good future with security and prosperity and some prestige. Education is The common thread for children and money – those two passions I mentioned above.

Compared to the commitment to education in the US where budgets are being slashed, hours are being cut back, school years shortened, activities are being cancelled, children are tuned out by parents who decline to help with homework, entertainment (TV and video games) takes precedence over homework, and critical thinking is all but missing not only at school but also at home, Taiwan is leagues ahead. I would place my bets for the future on Taiwan and not the US.

The Future – It is ALL about Education! We can look to Taiwan for a success story with a few take-aways for us to learn from here in the US. Parents – you can do much, much more to participate in your child’s education.