Out of Scope May 2009

The Writing?s on the Wall

Perhaps one of the reasons you read a print publication such as Baseline is that it provides a few minutes? break from your computer screen, e-mail and the Web. (The fact that we serve up top-flight content, such as this page, is obviously the main reason.) In his blog on Wired.com (http://blog.wired.com/business/2009/03/distracted-self.html), Eliot Van Buskirk reports that one Steve Lambert, while at the Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology, devised another way to avoid distractions while concentrating: SelfControl 1.1 (http://visitsteve.com/work/selfcontrol/). Writes Buskirk: ?Anyone who works on a computer understands how easily personal communication (e-mail, instant messaging, social networks) can distract from the task at hand.? (For a contrary view, see ?WILB Is A-OK,? below.)

SelfControl is an open-source application for OS X that, says Lambert, ?blocks access to incoming and/or outgoing mail servers and Web sites for a predetermined period of time.? He explains that, with this application, it?s possible to block access to e-mail, Facebook, Twitter or all of the above for 90 minutes, yet still retain access to the rest of the Web. ?Once started, it cannot be undone by the application or by restarting the computer?you must wait for the timer to run out,? Lambert says.

Since it?s a Mac app and I?m working on a PC, I can?t try it out. But that?s fine with me because I haven?t checked my Facebook Wall in, oh, 8 minutes.

WILB Is A-OK With Ph.D. at U. of M.

The University of Melbourne, in Australia, uncorked a research study April 2 that would render moot the need for Lambert?s SelfControl app. (See ?The Writing?s on the Wall,? above.) Says Dr. Brent Coker, of the university?s Department of Management and Marketing, ?Workers who engage in ?Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing? [WILB] are more productive than those who don?t.? The study found that people who practice WILB within reasonable limits??less than 20 percent of their total time in the office?are more productive by about 9 percent than those who don?t.?

Some companies spend large sums of money on software to block their employees from accessing YouTube, Facebook and other Websites deemed inappropriate for browsing during work, Coker says, but based on his research, this may not be money well-spent. The attraction of WILB, he adds, is due to people?s imperfect concentration.

?People need to zone out for a bit to get back their concentration,? Coker says. ?Think back to when you were in class listening to a lecture: After about 20 minutes, your concentration probably went right down, yet after a break, your concentration was restored. It?s the same in the workplace.?

Coker does make it clear, however, that WILB must be practiced in moderation, lest Internet addiction rear its head. ?WILB is not as helpful for this group of people?those who behave with Internet addiction tendencies will have a lower productivity than those without.? I think this deserves a Tweet.

A Peek at What Powers Google

Ever wonder how Google conjures up the computing power to do that thing it does? Even for those of you familiar with running large data centers, the details about the search giant?s server operations that came to light in April are jaw-dropping. According to a couple of articles?one on Cnet, the other on Ars Technica?Google, surprisingly, gave the world a peek into one of its data centers, and the operative word is: BIG. Cnet observed that Google, ?which has hundreds of thousands of servers ? designs and builds its own.?

The report on Ars Technica explains, ?Each Google server is hooked to an independent 12V battery to keep the units running in the event of a power outage. Data centers themselves are built and housed in shipping containers ? Each container holds a total of 1,160 servers and can theoretically draw up to 250kW.? Both sites offer more details and some neat pictures. Check them out if you want to get a closer look at how all that data is served.