|Sunday, September 19,1999
Friday Life section: Page 4
To have a productive day off
The chores called for critical-path scheduling, better yet, multitasking and parallel processing. But...
TWO Sundays ago, before drifting off to sleep, I found myself working out critical-path scheduling algorithms for my chores the next day.
I had made three appointments for Monday, my day off: My car to be at the workshop for servicing at 10 am; medical appointment at 11; and meeting some prospective tenants for a friend's flat at 4 pm.
Between the later two appointments, I'd like to squeeze in a haircut, a trip to Borders to pick up a book I had reserved, and lunch at Olio Dome.
Of course, I would need to read both The Straits Times and Business Times, and there were also a couple of urgent calls I would have to make to the banks.
That Sunday night, I struggled manfully to map out a schedule of maximum efficiency. I tried out mentally as many permutations as I could think of: Read The Straits Times in the clinic while waiting to see the doctor; scan The Business Times while waiting to collect my medicine; make the two calls on my mobile phone while at the hairdresser's.
Or, read the papers when I am at Olio Dome for lunch, and make the two calls as I go down the two sets of escalator from the restaurant to the carpark in the basement of Wheelock Place.
Or... you get my drift.
I wish I were hardwired to multitask and parallel process, so that I could perform these tasks in tandem and swiftly. But I'm not.
According to Dr Earl Hunt, a professor of psychology and computer science at the University of Washington, "our brains function the same way the Cro-Magnon brains did, so technology isn't going to change that... It's hard to get around the forebrain bottleneck".
But the young aren't going to buy this. I know my younger colleagues can write their stories while plugged into their Walkmans. It used to annoy me in the early days when I found I had to wave my hand in front of them or tap on their shoulders to get their attention.
Sometimes, when talking to them on the phone, I can hear their fingers still tapping furiously on the computer keyboard.
But I am consoled that many other middle managers share the same low-grade frustration in this area when dealing with their younger colleagues.
In his new book, Faster: The Acceleration Of Just About Everything (Pantheon, 1999) author James Gleick cites the example of a Bankers Trust manager who had to overcome instinctive annoyance when a young subordinate began reading e-mail while he was trying to talk to him.
The subordinate explained: "I'm still listening; I'm parallel processing."
Theirs is a generation that has been conditioned to run on what the manager calls "twitch speed" -- "your thumbs going a million miles a minute".
When a computer multitasks, it is serving multiple users on a network, alternating tasks but on the finest of time scales. It slices time and interleaves its tasks. When it has more than one processor running, multitasking becomes parallel processing.
We have hijacked these computer terms and applied them in the way we work and play.
In fact, we are not just using computerese as metaphors; we are actually living our lives at a pace set by the new machines, and on their terms.
As computers double in speed every 18 months, we find ourselves speeding up our lives unwittingly. Everything has to be done in real time which, in essence, means now, and as quickly as possible.
Gleick calls the term real time a "now-ness intensifier". "Real-time scheduling, real-time cataloguing, real-time analysis, real-time auditing, real-time performance -- all these mean a tiny bit more than just fast or not too late."
In 1980, The New York Times used the phrase four times only. In 1990, 31 times, and still with quotation marks. But by the end of the decade, real time appeared daily, together with cutting edge and quantum leap.
Real time implies haste, but it also implies communication. We all want to be connected in real time, so that we can have up-to-the-millisecond information, in order to trade stocks or do business -- or just to stay in the loop.
Who wants to be out of the loop? I don't. It's to be like that lone Japanese trapped outside the lift when all the other members of his group had gone into it and the doors suddenly shut on him. Panic! Press Door Open button!
These days, people are more wont to press the Door Close button the minute they get inside a lift. They cannot afford to wait, they are in a hurry.
"If you travel in Asia at all, you will notice that the Door Close button in elevators is the one with the paint worn off," says Mr John Kendall, director of advanced technology at Otis.
Otis' original elevator travelled at eight inches per second. The fastest passenger elevators, mostly in Japan, now travel at more than 30 feet per second.
The record holder in the late '90s was a Mitsubishi elevator in a sightseeing tower in Yokohama: More than 40 feet per second, which is a good climb rate for an aeroplane!
Evolution, alas, has not made the human eardrum to cope with the sudden change in air pressure that comes with a fall of hundreds of feet at high speed. Natural selection rarely had the opportunity to work with survivors of this experience to fine tune the settings of the eardrum.
But trust the lift manufacturers to devise ways to circumvent this human failing to move you up and down skyscrapers at supersonic speeds.
Scientists have already designed smarter lifts -- lifts with algorithms. They add microprocessors and programme them with fuzzy logic, and install heat and weight sensors on cars and landings. There are lifts now that pack more computing power than the Apollo spacecraft.
But back to my Sunday night critical-path scheduling algorithms. By the time I worked out the sixth permutation, a stray question got connected in my dense network of neural pathways: Why am I doing this? Monday is my day off.
And so it was that I found myself terminating the scheduling program, and switching the system to sleep mode, and disabling the wake-up alert.
The phone was ringing when I rose at noon on Monday, but I let it ring. People call me at home on Mondays about work, neglecting that it's my day off, just because they themselves are in the office. I had a late languid lunch at Olio Dome, washed down with a couple of glasses of wine.
It was a non-productive day, but a most pleasant one. I was in such a good mood that in a lift at a mall that evening, as it was about to close, I actually pressed the Door Open button when I saw some poor bloke hurrying towards it.
The other people inside the lift scowled at me and looked at their watches. I whistled happily the Phil Collins song, You Can't Hurry Love.
Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, is reviewed on Page 41 of the Sunday Times. It is available at Borders for $39.99.
19/09/99 To have a productive day off