Synthetic economy to tackle email overload

Today is First Monday (somehow), and so I got a pointer in the mail about the last issue of the online magazine by the same name. There’s an interesting story in there about email overload. The abstract is:

The productivity of information workers is jeopardized by too much e–mail. A proposed solution to e–mail overload is the creation of an economy that uses a scarce synthetic currency that senders can use to signal the importance of information and receivers can use to prioritize messages. A test of the virtual economy with corporate information workers showed that people in a large company used different amounts of the currency when sending e–mail messages, and that the amount of currency attached to messages produced statistically significant differences in how quickly receivers opened the messages. An analysis of the network of virtual currency trades between workers showed the different roles that participants played in the communication network, and showed that relationships defined by currency exchanges uncovered social networks that are not apparent in analyses that only examine the frequency, as opposed to the value of interactions.

In other words: what if people could “pay” to mark their email as important, using a scarce resource? This experiment is just an experiment, but it’s certainly a problem worth attacking.

Mice everywhere

Clay Shirky has another great essay out, which I recommend you go read now.

Just like Robert Sayre, I find it resonating with me, in a few ways. First, I certainly see the societal possibilities of amplifying what feels like an already existing trend. Second, the writers’ strike was for me a great personal kick in the pants that I needed to watch less TV. It’s as if the drug dealer is out of dope, and so you find that you can just do other things with your time, and you find you don’t miss the thing! Third, while my thinking on Thunderbird 3 has long been about how to make it fit within a web-enabled world, Clay’s piece explains both the higher level why: “enabling an architecture of participation”, and a metaphorical how: “mice” everywhere (if you didn’t read the essay, that won’t make sense), so that Thunderbird developers, add-on developers, communication channel providers, and most broadly Thunderbird users can find mice that fit their hands.

Notes from Germany

I spent much of last week traveling to Germany — Berlin and Hamburg. Time for an update.

I started off with a day-trip to Berlin, which could have been exciting given my complete lack of German, but I spent it instead with Axel Hecht, localization coordinator for Mozilla, which meant that the chances of my getting lost were pretty slim. What I learned:

  • Berlin is a city under massive change. It’s history is mostly erased, with lots of new buildings blurring the once stark divisions between east and west. You have to know that the line of bricks on the ground marks the old wall. Unfortunately, it was drizzly and cold for most of the day, which didn’t let the architecture shine. Still, I got a feel for the city, and I’ll definitely go back and spend more time there.
  • Axel and I talked a lot about localization, a topic that I have deliberately not dived into yet because it seems in relatively good shape. Figuring out how to coordinate the work of 50 teams of volunteers across the world is something that I know we’ll have to taken on soon, but not this week. It’s nice to be able to learn from Axel and get his perspective on what works/doesn’t work.
  • I found a lot of echoes of my childhood, and brought some of them back: marzipan, Struwwelpeter. I also brought back weird chocolates (pomegranate and chili chocolate anyone?). Who knew germans were so culinarily experimental?
  • Hamburg is a very pleasant city, especially if the weather cooperates. Unfortunately I had camera troubles so didn’t take as many shots as I should have. But I liked the blend of canals, modern architecture and older buildings, and a general feeling of highly functional buildings. Recommended.
  • Strangely enough, while we certainly had our share of good beer, we had only one schnitzel and no sausages. Don’t know why, that’s something to be corrected in the future.
  • Work meetings went well. It was I think very helpful to have Dan, Bryan, Mark and I in the same room as many of the Calendar contributors, including Daniel Boelzle, Simon Paquet, Philipp Kewisch, Christian Jansen, and more. See Bryan’s photo to match names and faces. I also have some untagged pictures for less formal shots. I’ll write more about the calendar project in another post.
  • I’ve discovered a special area of Schipol airport with really nice relaxing chairs, a good place to spend 4h layovers

For the record, a few great places to eat:
In Berlin:

In Hamburg:

Hamburg: Thunderbird, Calendar, Accessibility, CouchDB?

In day 3 of a Calendar meeting face-to-face, we had a few deviations from the core of the main topics (Lightning, Sunbird, Thunderbird integration), with two cool side-trips.

First, Marco Zehe came to talk about the state of accessibility in Thunderbird and Calendar. The take-away message to me was that accessibility for “trunk” (Thunderbird 3, etc.) is pretty good, thanks to all the work done at the platform level. There are some outstanding issues, which we agreed to consider as blocking Thunderbird 3, but it’s one of those areas where the next version of Thunderbird will be significantly better than the current one for a subset of users.

Second, at my instigation, Jan Lenhardt gave a talk about CouchDB, which was nicely off topic but thought-provoking. The coolest bit is that about an hour after the end of Jan’s talk, Philipp Kewisch, Calendar hacker extraordinaire, and author of the GData add-on for Calendar, had whipped up a proof-of-concept CouchDB provider for Lightning, meaning that calendar data (events, etc.) can be stored in a couchdb repository.

Kudos to the CouchDB and Calendar teams for building systems that clearly are easy to extend, and to HTTP/REST and JSON for providing great building blocks.

Would Planet Thunderbird be useful?

Would readers of this blog be interested in a Planet Thunderbird aggregator that included all posts explicitly about Thunderbird, not just mine or those of Thunderbird engineers, but whatever other regular bloggers on the topic made sense? Or are all those readers already reading Planet Mozilla and happy to deal with that firehose?

Leak control!

Thunderbird work is all about leaks these days, of various kinds:

  • A study at CMU to test an extension that suggests people you might have forgotten to include in an email, and whether you might be leaking something to people you didn’t intend to include (via Shawn Wilsher),
  • A related post I’ve been meaning to refer to for a while from David Teller about adding MLS (multi-level security) to Thunderbird.
  • Only linguistically related work from Mark Banner on adding metrics to detect memory leaks in the Mail/News code that Thunderbird relies on.