So I declared a Bankruptcy…or was it Voluntary Simplification applied to the ‘Net?

I wrote a four part arc on Email Bankruptcy based on something Sweetness sent me a while back. The basis of the arc stemmed from the growing number of people who are shutting off or deleting all unanswered emails and starting over. Some aren’t even starting over.

In a way, this is another form of a movement called “Voluntary Simplification”. Susan and I have been doing voluntary simplification in preparation for our move to Nova Scotia for years. It didn’t start as something for our move, it started as “You know, we’ve never used that. Why are we keeping it?” so we either gave things away or yardsaled them.

We also didn’t know what we were doing had a name. We simply thought we were getting rid of books we knew we’d never read again, music we’d never listen to again, videos we’d never play again, tools we’d never use again, computers which were fine for nephews and nieces but not useful in the office, … We were watching TV less and less so we gave our bigscreen TV to my nephew. Just in time for the SuperBowl a few years back. He was thrilled.

We found Voluntary Simplification addictive. Over a year we cleaned out two rooms. That’s when it extended into our move to Nova Scotia. Now the battlecry was “Do we really want to move that?” Gas prices played a part in the discussion. “It will cost us more to move it than to buy a new one once we’re there.”

People who know me know I’m notoriously slow responding to emails. I tend to bury myself in my research and ignore emails except when I surface. People may not hear from me for weeks then get ten emails in a day, followed by another period of silence. I tell people, “Call me if you need me. I can get to a phone more often than I can get to my emails.”

But I also have this philosophy; if people take the time to write me then they deserve a response. My challenge wasn’t wanting to declare email bankruptcy so much as it was applying Voluntary Simplification to everything else going on.

So I looked at my blog reader. I do read lots of blogs. I had over 115,000 unread entries.

<Select All><Delete>

My goodness! The freedom. The weight gone! And much like the things we got rid of because we knew we were never going to use them again, I could honestly look at the empty blog lists and say, “I never read those and things I need to know will probably find their way to me when I need them” (kismet’s my friend).

I became giddy. This power. Where did it come from?

I turned my attention to my message board lists.

<Select All><Delete>

This one, I’ll admit, was easier. People on those lists who want to ask me a question do either email me directly or call me. Still…I felt my knees go weak, my vision blurred…okay, that was because my glasses slipped off my nose.

But still!

I could actually do more reading (journals). I could finalize more research. Do more writing up of findings and results. Plan more research.

I could go on the backporch and think. Focus. The best part was that I could actually answer some emails. Quickly (for me). People called to ask if I was okay (I am, although I sounded a bit like Renfield when he was discovered in the hold of the ship in the classic movie versions of Dracula).

In a way, this plays into that arc on attention.

So go for it, friends. Volunteer yourself for a simple internet bankruptcy. I doubt you’ll miss a thing.


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The Complete “Who’s In Control?” Arc

Note: Another arc, this one eight posts long. Amazing, isn’t it?

Who’s In Control?

A friend told me he is in therapy because his life is out of control. Too many demands on his time. A cell phone and a pager and a PDA and children and a wife and a job and a …

I listened. I congratulated him on deciding this was a problem for him and seeking help. I didn’t want to tell him that his immediate solution to the problem — too many demands on his time — was to add another demand to his schedule — a regular therapy session.

People who work with me call me a workaholic. Another friend tole me last week that I’m always busy because I’m always doing something, always active. People have repeatedly either told me they’re amazed at what I’ve done in my life or asked how I could achieve what I have. Some of it is nature (my musical ability or lack thereof, for example) and some is nurture (a family and culture where solving problems and core elements of solutions was prized, a family of readers, homes full of music and song, a family and culture that taught by storytelling and process modeling).

There’s also the fact that I realized at a very early age I was different from my peers in ways I couldn’t explain. I’ve wondered, in retrospect, if this awareness I had has similarities to the young boy or girl realizing they’re gay.

Aside from the anatomical confusions that are part of adolescence, what are the external physical manifestations of what amount to completely functional yet decidedly differently neurologic structural adaptations to… what? Are the neurologic adaptations required to alter physiologic manifestations Nature’s way of testing a theory? Easy theory to test: are there more gay people per capita in the world now than elsewhen in recorded history?

If yes –> homosexuality is an adaptive model that is working for the here and now. If not –> then not.

The concept of adaptive modeling is a challenging one for many people. Especially those who don’t study how things evolve over time (my thinking? Everything evolves over time). Nature (like me, I guess) is always testing theories and providing solutions to problems. I’ve heard it said that the age of the dinosaurs was Nature testing whether big teeth and big muscles were the way to go and eventually decided no, they weren’t.

Who’s In Control? (part 2)

We left off wondering if big teeth and big muscles was an experiment that failed. Here we pick up with how Nature really tests theories…

Well, close and no cigar. Nature found a solution that worked in the environment of the time. As things changed, old solutions didn’t solve the new problems (something I’m hoping to communicate in my comments on Starting the discussion: Attention, Engagement, Authority, Influence, …, but that’s another blog entirely and literally) so come up with some new solutions. Right now it seems Nature is testing to learn if big brains (comparatively speaking) are an adequate solution to the current problems.

My guess (in this anyway) is that the cure is worse than the disease. Big brains seem to causing more problems than they solve (see The World Without Us for a good read on this subject). And big brains’ current run is something less than a million years. Dinosaurs had several million, at least two orders of magnitude the run of big brains.

So maybe, just as big teeth and big muscles evolved to insure a good, long run, so shall big brains.

Who’s In Control? (part 3)

Here we question if homosexuality is another one of Nature’s experiments.

So if homosexuality is a test on Nature’s part, so be it. I’ve mentioned a childhood acquaintance, Andy, before. One of my strongest memories of Andy involved a third child whom I’ll call “Robert”. Andy never played with Robert because, when Robert played house with little girls, Robert often offered to be the “wife”.

I still remember, when Andy told me of Robert’s role-reversal play, how Andy wrinkled his nose, how his lips and face tightened, how his body tensed. I realize now he was merely demonstrating something he learned from his family, didn’t realize it then (it was only third grade). The message was quite clear — Robert was diseased, somehow wrong and wrong in an incredibly terrifying way because, while Peter, another friend, had an obviously club foot, Robert had no outward signs of his deformity. You couldn’t be sure by looking if someone else was wrong the way Robert was wrong.

Oh my! Scary Scary!

Who’s In Control? (part 4)

Here we deal with some of childhood’s mysteries. Just as Robert’s tendencies weren’t obvious in the way Peter’s club foot was obvious, so my tendencies, my “wrongness”, wasn’t obvious to those I played with.

My grandmother Sadie, when I was two or three or so, use to call me her Little Professor (another very involved post dealing with obvious evidence that remains unseen) because I seemed to study every thing around me. Grandma Sadie rejoiced in my wrongness but Andy, when he shared Robert’s wrongness with me and I replied, “So?” because men did a lot of the cooking in my family and performed other “traditional female” chores (I still do my share of the cooking, do the laundry, vacuum, …) turned that same look of fear, disgust and repulsion on me. The unspoken “Oh, God! Not you, too!” was as wounding then as the pod person’s signaling of “Other! Alien! Stranger! Intruder!” in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Andy’s mother spent a lot of time on the phone with my parents attempting to understand me or have my parents get me the help I needed to be a normal child. She was a very sweet albeit extremely prejudiced woman. I wonder if Andy ever grew beyond her lessons. For that matter, I wonder if I have.

I’ve written before that I now make a living out of thinking differently. My different neurologic wiring, whether an evolutionary adaptation, a simple sport, a stray gamma ray or not, is something I’ve managed to turn to profit. I can only hope Robert has done the same. In life.

Who’s In Control? (part 5)

Here we discuss finding teachers who honor differences rather than attempt to beat them out of you (with apologies to Indian Schools, Catholic schools and all the other educational institutions that are stereotyped correctly or incorrectly as not dealing well with differences in the student body).

Part of recognizing you’re different is deciding if you will foster those differences or not. In my case it meant either finding or being offered teachers who could help me decide if I wanted to foster my differences or not.

That is an important point. Not “teachers who could foster my differences” but “teachers who could help me decide if that’s what I wanted”.

Disciplining the mind is (technically) no different than disciplining the body. There’s the Nature v Nurture limitations again and that’s about all. True teachers know the student’s limits as well as their own. If there’s any difference between mind and body it’s that muscles grow and tighten as discipline’s applied. The mind? Does the skull reform as more training’s applied? Do we grow a sixth finger as knowledge grows?

I sometimes wish it were so. Instead disciplines of the mind — often closely tied to disciplines of the body — manifest themselves in the looks given when the obvious is to others not so, when order leaps from where others can only see chaos.

Who’s In Control? (part 6)

Here we explore one of the things I was taught early in my studies; Every weakness is a strength, every strength is a weakness (one of the early people who worked with NextStage couldn’t understand this. Their tenure was unfortunately short).

The most I could ever benchpress was 350# ten times and that was years ago. I have talked and laughed and trained with people who could benchpress me, the bench, that weight and a hundred pounds more all day without breaking a sweat. I’ve also met, studied and worked with people whose intellectual capabilities make me seem a driveling fool. I don’t know who I pity or envy more.

But weaknesses are strengths just as strengths are weaknesses (remind me to tell you about moving safes sometime).

A problem, once solved, bores me — great for research, lousy for productization (and Susan, the truly intelligent one in the family, suggested a reframe of this such that it’s also great for productization. I always tell people she’s the really smart one. Wish they’d believe me). A question, unanswered, requires research — It was suggested I check [[(a now defunct)]] blog twice a day and post to it. Post what? It takes me two weeks of study before I begin to understand the questions being asked. Coauthoring a blog has given me the opportunity to analyze the thought processes of others personally, sans the objective distance the NextStage Toolkits provide me. I’ve learned why people are sometimes impressed at my ability to focus and other times accuse me of not appreciating a situation’s complexity.

Who’s In Control? (part 7)

This section begins the round up and offers some solutions for my friend who’s confession got me started on this arc.

So how do I, with all my physical and mental training, help my demand enshrouded friend?

  1. Put yourself first in your life. Until you know how much space you take up there’s no room for anyone else.
  2. Work towards Joy. (ask a semanticist or a linguist to explain the humor in that one)
  3. Understand that you can’t recognize joy unless you’ve experienced sorrow.
  4. Recognize that you can’t choose everything that happens to you and that you can choose how you respond to it.

Less euphemistically?

Who’s In Control? (finale)

We conclude with some expansions of what was offered yesterday in part 7.

  1. Make yourself the most important demand in your life. Are emails a time suck? Don’t get them for a day. People will call if they need you. The phone ringing too much? Shut it off. People will knock on your door if it’s important. Too many people knocking? Take a day and tell no one where you go. Are you too important? Then you’re not. Not to yourself. Until you’re important to yourself you’re not important to anybody else, you’re a crutch.
  2. It really is that simple. No, really, it is. Is it not that simple? Do I not understand? Back at you. It is that simple and it’s you that doesn’t understand the true, real nature of the problem. Solutions are obvious. They always are. You just need to look in the right place to find them. Finding solutions isn’t the challenge, it’s knowing where to find them that is. Learn how to do that and you’ve learned it all. Take a lesson from the US Naval Academy. Take time to learn what’s important and focus on it.
  3. Make a list and keep to it. Realize there are only so many hours in a day and fill your list accordingly. Get a lot of items? Then you’ve made a two-day or week long list. Add to or reorganize your list only for items 1 and 2 above and in that order.

There you have it: Carrabis’ 3 Laws of Humans. Consider them Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics for those of us who don’t want to be robots.

And now my hand tires from all this writing. I compose on paper, review, rewrite and edit on paper before I type it into the computer and post it online. Not always. Only the important ones.

And the solution? Quite simple. Time to stop.


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The Complete Sweetness’ Findings: Email Bankruptcy Arc

Note: This was originally a four post arc. It’s posted in in full as a single entry

Sweetness’ Findings: Email Bankruptcy, Part 1

Sweetness, who often sends me fascinating readings, recently sent me a post entitled “E-Mail Reply to All: ‘Leave Me Alone’“. I enjoyed the read on many levels; NextStage research into attention, Brad Berens’ posts on attention, … lots of stuff.

The thrust of the post is that people are so overwhelmed with email they’re shutting it off. In some cases they’re shutting it off for a while (like I do periodically) and in other cases, well, forever.

Hear! Hear!

The concept is “email bankruptcy”. Sweetness’ email to me is included in the next few blog entries for those who want to read about research into turning your email off.


E-Mail Reply to All: ‘Leave Me Alone’
By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2007

Last month, venture capitalist Fred Wilson drew a lot of attention on the Internet when he declared a 21st century kind of bankruptcy. In a posting on his blog about technology, Wilson announced he was giving up on responding to all the e-mail piled up in his inbox.

“I am so far behind on e-mail that I am declaring bankruptcy,” he wrote. “If you’ve sent me an e-mail (and you aren’t my wife, partner, or colleague), you might want to send it again. I am starting over.”


College professors have done the same thing, and a Silicon Valley chief executive followed Wilson’s example the next day. Last September, the recording artist Moby sent an e-mail to all the contacts in his inbox announcing that he was taking a break from e-mail for the rest of the year.

The supposed convenience of electronic mail, like so many other innovations of technology, has become too much for some people. Swamped by an unmanageable number of messages — the volume of e-mail traffic has nearly doubled in the past two years, according to research firm DYS Analytics — and plagued by annoying spam and viruses, some users are saying “Enough!”

Those declaring bankruptcy are swearing off e-mail entirely or, more commonly, deleting all old messages and starting fresh.


Boy, can I appreciate that last paragraph. People who email me routinely get a response (sometimes a month or two later) that starts with “Surfacing from research, catching up on emails”. I also make it a point to tell people “If you need me, call me. I’m much easier to reach via phone than via email.”

I am curious what other people think…Right now, I’m thinking I’ll go for it.

Sweetness’ Findings: Email Bankruptcy, Part 2

E-mail overload gives many workers the sense that their work is never done, said senior analyst David Ferris, whose firm, Ferris Research, said there were 6 trillion business e-mails sent in 2006. “A lot of people like the feeling that they have everything done at the end of the day,” he said. “They can’t have it anymore.”

So some say they’re moving back to the telephone as their preferred means of communication.

“From here on out I am going back to voice communication as my primary mechanism for interacting with people,” wrote Jeff Nolan, chief executive of the business software company Teqlo, in his blog announcing his e-mail boycott.

The term “e-mail bankruptcy” may have been coined as early as 1999 by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who studies the relationship between people and technology.

Professor Sherry Turkle said she came up with the concept after researching e-mail and discovering that some people harbor fantasies about escaping their e-mail burden.

Turkle, who estimated that she has 2,500 pieces of unread e-mail in her inbox, is one of those people. A book she has been working on for a decade is coming out soon. Turkle joked that it would have taken her half the time to write it “if I didn’t have e-mail.”


Again, I’m there. I wrote in part 1 that I tell people I’m easier to reach by phone than by email. My next book, Reading Virtual Minds [[(Volume I is done and out, Volume II is still in process…although we’re hoping…)]], might be done by now if it weren’t for emails. I’m happy to use that as an excuse.

And I know my Inbox is backed up. I can feel those unanswered emails, just waiting for me to open them and respond…

Sweetness’ Findings: Email Bankruptcy, Part 3

Some people who don’t want to go through the drastic-seeming measure of declaring total bankruptcy say they are trying to gently discourage the use of e-mail in their communications in favor of more personal calls or instant messages.

“I am reachable, just e-mail is not a good way to do it,” said Sean Bonner, chief executive of a news blog network who has automatic responses set up on his work and personal accounts warning he doesn’t check e-mail as often as he used to.

Even those who’ve chosen partial e-mail engagement say they continue to struggle with the question of whether or not to reply.

Stanford University technology professor Lawrence Lessig publicly declared e-mail bankruptcy a few years ago after being deluged by thousands of e-mails. “I eventually got to be so far behind that I was either going to spend all my time answering e-mails or I was going to do my job,” he said.

Thereafter, Lessig’s correspondents received e-mail equivalents of Dear John letters: “Dear person who sent me a yet-unanswered e-mail, he wrote, “I apologize, but I am declaring e-mail bankruptcy,” he said, adding an apology for his lack of “cyber decency.”

He eliminated about 90 percent of his e-mail traffic, but said he can’t quite abandon it entirely. “The easiest strategy is just to ignore e-mail, but I just can’t psychologically do that,” Lessig said in an interview.


Does this mean the killer-ap of the internet is going away? What is the implication for social networking? So far the people referenced in this article are, um, mature in a demographic sense.

Other elements come into play, as well. Email allows people to distance themselves from direct contact with the individual their corresponding with. It creates a wall and walls are both good and not so good, depending on their purpose and use.

I do like that professor’s “I may or may not get to your email” auto responder. You know, I think we have that capability on our system. Hmm…

Sweetness’ Findings: Email Bankruptcy, Part 4

If there is a downside to completely turning a back on e-mail, it’s not one many former users notice.

Stanford computer science professor Donald E. Knuth started using e-mail in 1975 and stopped using it 15 years later. Knuth said he prefers to concentrate on writing books rather than be distracted by the steady stream of communication.

“I’d get to work and start answering e-mail — three hours later, I’d say, “Oh, what was I supposed to do today?” Knuth said that he has no regrets. “I have been a happy man since Jan. 1 , 1990.”

The critics of e-mail themselves have critics, who say copping out is a reactionary and isolationist way of dealing with modern communications.

Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor David J. Farber receives piles of e-mail as the administrator of the “Interesting People” technology news mailing list. He has no patience for e-mail bankruptcy.

“For a venture capitalist to say something like this — he should get out of the technology field,” Farber said.

Wilson, the venture capitalist, did not respond to a phone call placed to his firm — or to an e-mailed request for comment.

Staff writer Sabrina Valle and staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.


Hmm. I respect Dr. Knuth. He started using email when I was playing with the TX2 at Lincoln Labs.

I checked and yes, NextStage’s email server would allow me to autorespond and I could write a “I may or may not get to your email”. I had one partially typed in then deleted it. Sigh. My not acting has more to do with my being slow and a luddite more than a desire to continue receiving emails.

Sigh. Readers? Your thoughts?


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