FM Reviews
First Monday

FM Reviews

Mark Ellwood.
Cut the Glut of E-Mail: Solving the In-box Problem from Outside the Box.
Toronto, Canada: Pace Productivity, Inc., 2002.
paper, 98 p., ISBN 0-968-23952-8, US$7.95.
Pace: http://www.getmoredone.com

Mark Ellwood. Cut the Glut of E-Mail.

Sometimes you will come across a book that can be defined as a 'collection of common sense'. It could be a guide to maximising your income, or an introduction to healthy eating. But it can also be a book that will help manage the increasing number of electronic mails you send and receive. Let's face it: e-mail has become, in only a few years, the de facto medium for remote communication. Look around in any company and you will probably discover that most employees will be sitting still, their faces fixed upon a computer screen. Sometimes they might be typing frantically, sometimes they will be making jerky movements with their mouse. In most cases, however, they will be dealing with e-mail. Reading, composing, replying, forwarding, deleting, filing, editing, saving onto disk, printing ... you name it.

Everybody has e-mail, everybody can use it, it's so easy. But is it really so? The exponential growth of computer-mediated communication (CMC) has had many advantages, as well as disadvantages. We can be more efficient in our office, we can keep in touch, in near real time, with friends and relatives anywhere in the world, and we can join groups of people with our same interests. However, as e-mail is public, it can also be used as a channel to find new customers; and as it is instantaneous, we are always expected to react to it immediately. E-mail can turn from a useful tool into a torment. Enter Cut the Glut of E-Mail by productivity consultant Mark Ellwood.

This is a very slim book of only 98 pages, which nevertheless packs a great deal of good advice on how to deal effectively with both incoming and outgoing electronic mail. Its six main sections are titled "Reduce the e-mail you receive", "Handle your e-mail smartly", "Stop sending so much e-mail", "Write professionally", "Use alternatives to e-mail", and "Put your ideas into action". While some of the material is not radically innovative but instead resorts to tried-and-tested techniques (use filters, reduce the number of accounts, turn off the notification function of your e-mail application), certain sections were bold in their approach to reduce the amount of unnecessary messages that go back and forth. Consider, for instance the "Institute a 'No E-Mail Day'" entry:

"Get agreement from your team in advance and proclaim an edict that on a certain day, no e-mail will be sent. Of course, you're going to have to announce this. [...] A "No E-Mail Day" isn't just about asking people to substitute other ways of being in touch. More than that, this approach gives people permission to take a break from e-mail so they can work on other high-priority projects."

Of course, the timing must be right, but it is not the bad idea it might at first appear.

The book, however, is not only about giving tips and suggestions. What Ellwood does is also to draw attention to some of the most pronounced idiosyncrasies of the typical 'communicator' of the digital age. We tend to measure status by the amount of emails we receive and by the degree of our 'busyness':

"Show-offs get all the e-mail they don't want. If you're always showing off by demonstrating how available you are to respond, then people will take you up on your offer. If they know you're always checking your mail on your way to work, at lunch, going home, on a weekend, late at night, or on vacation, then they'll send you more."

And further on:

"Return messages slowly. What's the hurry? Slow down. Wait to respond. If you receive an e-mail message that's not urgent, avoid the temptation to reply to it right away. Wait. Then wait some more. This advice flies in the face of everything you've learned about instant communication. After all, what's the point of using an almost instantaneous medium if you're going to wait? The reality is that many people are driven by an irrational need for speed. They feel important because they are so much in demand that others want instant answers from them. They believe their status and their work performance are determined by an ability to respond quickly."

Dealing with existing e-mail is one thing. However, it is also important to take a professional approach when composing them. Apart from the more obvious points, such as checking for spelling mistakes and avoid attaching huge files (but are they really that obvious?!), the author directs us to techniques that improve effectiveness. How many times have you seen e-mail whose subject lines were left blank to save time? It has been shown that writing attention-grabbing subject lines renders e-mail messages far more effective, as busy people are attracted to captivating subject lines. Moreover, reducing the number of acronyms, avoiding long signatures, or following other conventions ('netiquette', we call it), will ensure that your messages will make a better impact on its recipients.

But my favourite entry relates to multi-tasking which, again, highlights a common attitude of the modern professional communicating individual:

""Hey everybody, look at me! I can talk on the phone, respond to my e-mail, eat lunch, and lift weights at the same time. All while I'm stuck in traffic!" People who feel busy feel productive. But being productive is not just about doing a lot of things; it's about doing the right things."

The last sentence is, for me, the quote of the year.

Throughout the book, Ellwood makes uses a conversational and convincing language that never comes across as patronising or prescriptive. He takes a firm stance, but does so with the conviction that you will understand it is only common sense, and that what advice he gives is indeed based on sound principles. There is definitely plenty of food for thought here. A book that, placed visibly on the desk, should be read by every computerised worker, even before turning on the computer for the very first time. — Paolo G. Cordone End of Review

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Tim Kasser.
The High Price of Materialism.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.
cloth, 149 p., ISBN 0-262-11268-X, US$24.95, £16.50.
MIT Press: http://mitpress.mit.edu

Tim Kasser. The High Price of Materialism.

I happened to read this book at a very appropriate time, namely, during a phase in Ireland's history, where prosperity and wealth have never been more tangible. In a country whose not so distant past was marked by poverty and economic austerity, the sudden increase in personal disposable income has had all sorts of dramatic effects on the lifestyle of its citizens. Some of such effects have been positive; many, however, have had negative repercussions, especially on the fibre of society. So, it was with particular interest that I started to delve into Kasser's book, which seeks to "offer a scientific explanation of how our contemporary culture of consumerism and materialism affects our everyday happiness and psychological health."

I must admit that it is not easy to summarise the content of the book, its many strands assessing personal well-being, self-worth, psychological needs, insecurity, as well as the relationships between individual and family, community and our planet. However, a common thread is the notion that there exists a definite correlation between materialistic focus and well-being/psychological health. In all cases examined by the author, people who are strongly oriented towards materialistic values turn out to experience low well-being, including dissatisfaction, unhappiness, depression, anxiety, and antisocial behaviour.

Three main needs are acknowledged as being essential for well-being: security, safety, and sustenance, and the problem with materialistic values is that they lead people to design their lives around quite different types of needs. Such values have shown to decrease the level of security, to interfere with relationships, and to work against authenticity and autonomy. So, should we all aspire to remain poor? It is hardly the message of the book. What Kasser is arguing, is that an excessive motivation towards material success will impact negatively on other, more genuinely (and deeply) fulfilling needs. Moreover, we seem to have built ourselves a society that openly fosters materialism (at least in the Western world).

I personally am a great critic of television, as I find that it, too often, ceases to be a medium of information dissemination, and becomes one of deception; one only needs to think about advertisements, which purport to 'sell' us happiness via products which, they claim, are uniquely attuned to our individual personality; however, most intelligent individuals will recognise that every ad is targeting millions of 'unique individuals' at the same time; its promises are, therefore, disingenuous from the start. Not only that: television itself rarely promotes what Kasser calls "intrinsic motivation"; the act of sitting passively in front of a TV set does not provide incentive to create something, to immerse oneself in some enjoyable activity; enjoyable in the sense that it arouses one's curiosity, or that it gives sheer pleasure (and it is important to stress the fact that the motivation has to be free from materialistic rewards.)

In this respect, consider Kasser's words, taken from his excellent last chapter, dedicated to presenting alternative attitudes which are not centered on materialistic values:

"... we can decide we no longer want to watch six hours of television a day. We can remove activities from our lives that are low flow or that reinforce materialistic values and decrease self-esteem. Put the television on the closet. Cancel your subscription to glamour and gossip magazines. Stop wandering in the mall or shopping on the Internet. Try to take those activities out of your life for a month and observe what happens. Chances are that at first you may not know what to do with yourself, and you might feel increasingly anxious and empty. [...] Rather than giving in, realize that now is the perfect time to form new habits. Go for a walk, Read a book. Do volunteer work.Meditate. Play with your children. Talk with your spouse. Go dancing. Shoot baskets. Work in a garden. Cook. Paint a picture. Play a musical instrument. Go fishing. Activities that are most satisfying will be those that are congruent with intrinsic values, those to which you feel drawn by your individuality. What will be most exciting and growth-producing for you cannot be mass produced and sold; you must find it yourself."

So, the very fact that such commonsensible suggestions have to be made in a book reflects a pervasively distorted society, where we go to great length to show off to others (mostly strangers) our materialistic status (drive a flashy car, wear designer clothes, join a posh fitness club, etc.) rather than spend time with our children and family, or exercise our brain by dedicating some of our energy to hobbies.

Having said that, Kasser's language is never condescending or critical of success per se. Indeed, the strength of The High Price of Materialism lies in its rigour and scientific straightforwardness. This is not a collection of trite anecdotes about how the rich can never get enough money or how they are, after all, more miserable than the poor. It does not try to make one feel guilty for the wealth one might have generated. Instead, it's a strict and rigorous assessment of our attitude to material empowerment by means of studies on depression, social anxiety, narcissism, media influence, and more. It combines psychological research with insightful and constructive evaluation of the issues, including many pages of crucial strategy suggestions, that can help in making one's life richer.

If you suddenly feel compelled to buy something, do yourself a favour: go out and get this book. — Paolo G. Cordone End of Review

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Bill McGuire.
A Guide to The End of the World: Everything You Never Wanted to Know.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
cloth, 191 p., ISBN 0-192-80297-6, US$25.00, £11.99..
Oxford University Press: http://www.oup.com

Bill McGuire. A Guide to The End of the World.

No matter how brave one tries to be, reading a book of this kind is neither easy nor enjoyable, at least in the more immediate sense of those words. Then again, what else could be expected from something called A Guide to the End of the World — a short volume of 191 pages which examines some of the natural forces that, although perfectly comprehensible in the wider context of planetary science, make us uneasy as soon as we are confronted with them, even if only through the abstract form of a printed page.

Even worse, the disquietude grows when we learn of the unavoidability of certain occurrences, such as our Earth becoming engulfed by a dying sun, or a massive comet colliding head-on with catastrophic consequences. There is no escaping the rigidity of statistical laws: it is inevitable that something which has occurred in average every 100,000 years must recur again, if enough time elapses. What saves us psychologically is our brain's incapacity to conceptualise the notion of such long time spans. We thus feel 'protected' from what we can push forward enough in time, where reality becomes so distant that it turns into implausible fantasy.

The main message that transpires from McGuire's assessment, however, is one of vulnerability: despite our technological prowess, we are at the mercy of rather simple natural phenomena, such as wind, ground movements, rain, waves, and debris falling from the sky. Some of these are less likely to happen; as a modern society, for example, we have never had to deal with the consequences of large meteorite or comet impacts. Other events, however, have become more a part of our life: floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcano eruptions. Here there is nothing we have not witnessed, whether first-hand or through the media. What the author shows is that all it takes to endanger humanity is a slightly more violent occurrence of any of these phenomena. Apart from cosmic cataclysm, which can be of unimaginably destructive intensity, the others would not destroy us in one blow, but would cause chain effect, affecting services, economies and infrastructures on a global scale.

Divided into five chapters, The Guide to the End of the World first introduces us to the way the Earth works. This is a rather brief synopsis of the physical mechanisms that govern our planet's existence (for a more thorough discussion of them, consider reading the excellent work by Stephen Drury entitled Stepping Stones, reviewed in First Monday's September, 2002 issue). Subsequently, the author discusses global warming, the ice ages, super eruptions, earthquakes, and the threat from space. In a very clear, conversational language, McGuire presents several 'case studies' of natural disasters, in order to assess how they have impacted on humanity, and what effect they would have, should they occur again now and in more populated parts of the world. For example, the famous mid-air explosion of a small asteroid over Tunguska in Siberia in 1908 flattened over 2,000 square kilometers of forest. Loss of human life was minimal; however, the same event over a full-blown modern city would have unimaginably worse consequences. So, even only midway through the book, it becomes obvious that we should consider ourselves lucky to have escaped, more or less, major catastrophes. The consolation is short-lived, though, for the longer our civilisation keeps on existing, the more it is likely that it will be affected by some calamity.

What to do then? Apart from being able to colonize other planets, any other measure must be taken in recognition of the fact that we are tied to Earth. Technology can undoubtedly help us defend ourselves from cosmic dangers, but we need to start becoming more sensible in our interaction with the home planet. A great deal of unnecessary human pain is caused either by our relentless carelessness with the environment, or by our arrogant conviction that we can domesticate natural forces (where, in fact, we are at their mercy).

Finding out about frightening events that can obliterate human civilization is not a pleasant activity, and one we tend to avoid doing unless necessary. But becoming conscious of our relative insignificance in the overall scheme of things can also be liberating, particularly when we find ourselves bombarded with news that, unambiguously, demonstrate our incapacity to live harmoniously together on this planet. It can also be somehow comforting to know about grander 'plans' and cosmic cycles when our thoughts drift stubbornly towards the inevitable demise of our own individual beings — death.

We lack discernment or long-range perspective in thinking or planning, which is probably at the core of all environmental problems and of those that pertain to human movements on a global scale. We have not been equipped with the necessary evaluative skills to manage a planet of this size in a time-scale of eons. No wonder, then that global warming, resource depletion and inequality have become symbols of our modern times. We are often guilty of being anthropocentric, forgetting that we are part of a whole. The hope is that this sense of belonging can turn out to be only dormant and not really fully erased from our consciousness. Books such as McGuire's have the potential to wake us up and make us think. — Paolo G. Cordone End of Review

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Erik Spiekermann and E.M. Ginger.
Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works.
Second Edition.
Berkeley, Calif.: Adobe Press (distributed by Peachpit Press), 2002.
paper, 188 p., ISBN 0-201-70339-4, US$30.00.
Peachpit Press: http://www.peachpit.com/

Erik Spiekermann and E.M. Ginger. Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works.

Many years ago, before the desktop publishing revolution of the mid-eighties, the area of typography was confined to the circle of those who were professionally involved with graphic design or who actually created typefaces. The very concepts of 'leading', 'drop cap', and 'kerning' were as obscure to the general public, as the terms 'charm' and 'spin', used to describe characteristics of nuclear particles.

With the advent of the Macintosh, the first LaserWriter and Aldus PageMaker, things changed considerably: producing professionally-looking booklets, magazines, books, and other publications became accessible to anyone with a personal computer.

On second thought, the word 'professionally' in my previous sentence should be taken with a grain of salt, for, although the actual process of layout had become easier, the underlying rules of typography had not really changed. Thus, what happened was that many self-proclaimed 'desktop publishers' began experimenting with available software, including typefaces, but remained largely unaware of how to make the most out of them. Tried and tested conventions such as avoiding the use of sans-serifs for longer passages of text were not followed, with the result that, those "professionally-looking" publications were not so professional-looking after all. Even to these days, despite the sophistication of desktop publishing packages, employing good type remains a kind of an art.

The good news is that mastering this art does not have to be an insurmountable task, particularly when books like Stop Stealing Sheep can lend a hand. This is a classic 'manual' on typefaces, their characteristics, and their recommended usage. Indeed, as the book indicates, the authors have "distilled their decades of typographic experience into a lively, rewarding guide to type. If you use type — and these days, almost everyone does — their engaging, commonsense style helps you understand how type can enhance your design and reinforce your message."

As you might expect from a book on typefaces, this one is lavishly illustrated with plenty of examples from the huge collection of fonts available to the modern typographer (go straight to page 55 for an insightful description of the difference between 'font' and 'typeface'); it goes without saying that the book itself is first-rate in terms of typographical quality. After all, the authors have worked for a considerable time in the industry and have, themselves, contributed to it.

To make the book more useful, the information has been divided into two distinct areas on each spread: the left-hand page depicts photographs or some other visual examples; the right-hand page describes the rationale behind the choices made, and discusses, by means of various notes, alternative faces, or the history of their development, including their designers and other anecdotes. Thus, for instance, a section of chapter three discusses how typefaces can convey diverse emotions: doubt, surprise, joy, and anger. Later on, Spiekermann and Ginger focus on the association between type and purpose: what types are used for books? Which ones for advertisements and for annual reports? Naturally, in an age dominated by computer screens, the authors also look at some interesting developments in bitmap letter rendering of letters and shapes and at Web-related considerations. Finally, general issues of layout, proportion and composition are also examined.

To the uninitiated, the work behind the design of a professional publication remains a mystery; however, it is a fascinating aspect of creativity, and one in which the character of typefaces play a pivotal role. True, either you love them, or just don't care about them and feel happy to use Times and Helvetica for the rest of your life. If you belong to the first category, though, this book is a must; it's a rewarding voyage through those strange and pervasive squiggly symbols which we take so much for granted, but without which we would not be able to communicate, preserve our knowledge, and progress. Give them the credit they deserve — Paolo G. Cordone End of Review

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Amy Stover and Jakob Nielsen.
Email Newsletter Usability: 79 Guidelines for Subscription, Newsletter Content and Account Maintenance Based on Usability Studies.
A 186-page report in PDF format available to download at http://www.nngroup.com/reports/newsletters for $195.

The executive summary leads with an interesting insight: readers have a highly emotional reaction to newsletters, far more than their reaction to Web sites. The reasons for this include the personal nature of a newsletter, because it arrives in our mailbox, and because of this many people receive newsletters that they no longer read but can't bear to be parted with.

This titbit gives a feel for the whole report — it is packed with interesting data and some is included almost as a 'throw away' line. This report is based on research into user acceptance of ten specific newsletters. The participants were drawn from a wide range of career backgrounds and were aged from 20-55. Participants were interviewed about their experiences with each newsletter from subscription through their views on the content, quality and style of the newsletter to the unsubscribe process.

For those of us who receive newsletters it draws out some interesting information about what services we might think newsletters are performing. For those who produce newsletters there are some salutary lessons to be learnt.

Another throw away line: "There are very strong correlations between the time needed to subscribe and unsubscribe and the users' satisfaction with the (newsletter provider's Web site) designs." (Page 15). Consider then that the average time required to subscribe to the newsletters in this survey was in excess of five minutes and to unsubscribe was just over three minutes; on one site it took 8 minutes 41 seconds to subscribe to a newsletter.

Newsletters were then evaluated on the following criteria:

  • Easy to read
  • Interesting information
  • Well-written
  • Well-designed
  • Understand content on Web site
  • Overall satisfaction

And again there are some fascinating findings, for instance: users find HTML newsletters easier to read than plain text.

The research serves as a basis for 79 design guidelines aimed at making newsletters more effective and to improve user acceptance. Many of the design guidelines (the first 33) relate to Web page design in terms of the subscription pages and processes. The next 27 cover newsletter content and presentation and other subjects covered are "Subscription maintenance and unsubscribing" and "How to avoid being mistaken for junk mail". Each of the points is numbered and clearly highlighted before further explanation. For example, point 52 is "Make sure your newsletter contains no spelling or grammatical errors". This is then supported by examples of errors, highlighted by survey participants, in three of the newsletters.

Overall this is a fascinating report and of value to those of us who use e-mail newsletters to promote our Web sites or business. It is clearly written and well illustrated with screenshots of the sites and newsletters being discussed and liberal use of graphs to make the data easier to digest. Its ease of use extends to offering good design example sites in each of six headline areas.

This is a specialist subject and may not be of interest to a wide readership but I would certainly recommend it to anyone relying on electronic newsletters as a source of business or revenue from their Web endeavours. — Nigel Gibson End of Review


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