Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Decade Migrant

"So ferry, cross the Mersey,
'Cause this land's the place I love,
And here I'll stay."

Gerry and the Pacemakers
Today, I've been living abroad for exactly 10 years. It's a time as good as any to share my first-hand experiences on immigration.

Immigrants are individuals like me, sustaining themselves in a foreign country. But, I am not an immigrant. I am an emigrant. On a good day, I'll agree to be called a migrant, so let's use that term going forward as it's neutral. The distinction between the terms is important, as it contains the crux of uprooting yourself and replanting your existence in foreign soil. An immigrant is identified with her new country, while an emigrant is identified with her old country. I am not an immigrant because I belong to my old country. Despite having chosen my new country out of free will, I am not integrated, and I don't strive to be. I fail the primary directive of any successful government immigration policy: assimilation; or to be less Borg-like: integration. My personal choice against integration is in essence a choice of isolation.

Everyone who migrates as an adult is to some degree disintegrated from the new country's society. Hofstede, in his landmark study "Cultures and Organizations", showed that we can change our behavior, but the core values of our upbringing always remain with us. The stripes of our motherland's culture never wash away. As a result, the migrant is constantly in conflict with her new environment. This doesn't have to lead to isolation, but it is the most natural consequence.

How do you achieve happiness in isolation? This is a big question that I believe all migrants are struggling with in one form or another. I consider it from two perspectives: (1) the migrant as a part of society, and (2) the migrant as an individual.

As a part of society, what does it mean that my choice is the opposite of how a country state envisions immigration? Does it mean that I am less valuable? Does my value derive from how well I perform in my new environment? And should this value decide which rights are given to me? Logic tells me that the value of any human is a given, something she owns by just being. But, the real world for a migrant looks very different. My environment makes me measure myself by my (lack of) language skills. This, together with my lack of shared historical, political, and cultural context makes everyday interactions challenging. As a result, my utilization in society is low. This lack of utilization, deriving from what you could call a migrant's inherent social handicap, must not be translated into lack of value. If we go against the grain of modern secular dogma and separate utilization from value, we will reach a healthier society. I like to believe that human value is always there. This is key for me to accept my separation from society. I like to think of this separation as a Thoreauvian Walden-experience of self-sustainability. As Thoreau wrote 150 years ago: "I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude." He shared the feeling, even though he was no migrant in the word's true definition. But you could consider Thoreau a migrant in his own country.

As an individual, once you accept isolation, happiness is achievable by creating your own space in where you can live life without the conflicts between your values and the society around you. In a way, you build your own virtual society in that space, similar to Viktor Frankl's theories about the space between stimulus and response, where your freedom always flowers. Even though his environment, as a concentration camp prisoner, is incomparable to a migrant's - there are lessons to be learned in his theories. If the environment doesn't allow for your happiness, you can still cater for it yourself. With modern technology, Frankl's space can be tangible. It's called the Internet. This space, which Frankl once defined as inside an individual's mind, can today stretch out into the online world. Even though we usually separate "online life" from "real life", the border between the two gets fuzzier everyday.

In the end, I take solace in the thought that isolation from society could drive an individual to connect back to society in some ways.

So don't blame migrants for living in their own walled gardens; real or virtual. This may be the only sustainable option for many of us.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Paradigm Shift of Daily Planning for Productivity

I have previously written about my obsessions with task management, and various productivity techniques to fight off procrastination. In the past, I expected to holy grail of personal productivity to be found in an organized list with appropriate metadata for each task. Much like MS Project but on a personal level.

This is why I was so pleasantly surprised to find out how much I love Any.do's daily planning feature. In an otherwise bare-bones implementations with hardly any metadata for each task, and other features not completely ironed out - the daily task planning is divine. This is what made me switch from my trusted Toodledo to Any.do.

Any.do's daily planning feature does everything right. It pops up a friendly and appropriately obtrusive reminder each morning to plan your day. With interspersed motivational messages it is a reminder that you should be in control of your to dos and not vice versa. In combination with a super-attractive and to-the-point GUI, the daily chore becomes an interruption with a cadence I look forward to taking on. It's a bit like gaming your to do list, another long-time idea I have been nurturing.

Ultimately, this daily planning feature, has become the heart of my to do list - and rightly so. In the end there are too many unknowns in all of our lives to plan ahead for the far flung future.

One day at a time.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

RIP Phrase Finder

Phrase Finder, a quick solution I put together for finding popular expressions that include a specific phrase, is no more.

Yahoo made true of their promise to shut down their free Search API, and with it Phrase Finder. I am sad to see it go, because I regularly used it myself.

There are no plans to bring it back to life at the moment.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The World and You

Today, more and more people find themselves living in a foreign country. Be it a temporary state or a more permanent situation (as for myself); regardless, the world is becoming more global and multi-cultural. Or is it? And what exactly is culture? These are some of the questions that is being answered in Geert Hofstede’s cultural research, which now spans five decades. The book is a goldmine for people who are puzzled by culture clashes, and want to increase their understanding of cultural behavior. And who isn’t puzzled by cultural enigmas these days? No matter where you live, you just have to turn on the TV or head down to your local market or restaurant, and you will be exposed to foreign culture.

Cultures and Organizations: Software for the Mind, Third Edition
It turns out that the environment where we grew up ingrains eternal values in us. These values can be analyzed and measured, with averages calculated per country to quantify regional differences. This is exactly what Geert Hofstede has been doing since the sixties.

This book has personally helped me to straighten out two types of question marks; questions relating to why I sometimes feel out-of-place in my new country, and questions relating to how international conflicts play out.

The research identifies six dimensions, where countries are ranked:

  • Power distance
  • Individualism
  • Masculinity
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Long-term versus short-term orientation
  • Subjective well-being (happiness)

For me personally, moving from Sweden to Israel, I can empirically verify Hofstede’s data that the greatest differences between the countries are in “uncertainty avoidance” and “masculinity”. Israelis are fighting the inherent uncertainty of life, while Swedes generally accept uncertainty. A trivial example of this, is that during my wife’s pregnancy we have had numerous medical examination and ultrasounds, more than I can count; while the Swedish pregnancy exams are counted on the fingers of one hand. The fact that Sweden is labeled as a more “feminine” country than Israel has implications, on many levels including personal, family, gender, sex, education, consumption, workplace, politics and religion.

I highly recommend anyone to read this book. And especially if you find yourself living abroad, you owe it to yourself to understand why your new life is so strange. There is logic behind it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Cognitive Overload of RockMelt

Maybe I am just getting old.

But I simply don’t get the concept of RockMelt, the newest flockesque browser/social-thingy on the horizon. It crams IM, social networks, and a web browser into one glorified application.

I quietly ask myself how I would ever be able to get work done in an environment with that amount of cognitive overload? When accessing a web page I would be bombarded with information from the social sphere. Reading a longer article in that browser would be a feat worthy of the deepest reverence.

On the surface, it seems nice and innocent enough to save a couple of Alt-Tabs to access my social networks. But the Alt-Tabs are there for a reason: to separate different contexts. 95% of the time when I am on a web page, I am there for a reason, and I don’t want to be distracted by other stuff.

I believe the way forward is to simplify the user experience and use separate applications for web browsing and IM/social, so that the IM/social interactions can be turned off when you need to get things done. The web browser is probably the most used application on your Desktop. That’s exactly why it needs to be a workspace that allows you to work without interruptions.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Walden and I

My yearly Sweden vacations are ever so offline. Checking e-mail is 15 kilometers away, and an unexpected liberator in that. So how does this affect me? Well, last year's experience made me discover Honore's "Slow", a short book about simplifying your life, and taking time to smell the roses. During this year’s vacation, I hit the Swedish book shops with the intent to find similar titles. But I was disappointed with seemingly shallow follow-ups trying to ride the success wave of Slow. Hours of book browsing later I came back empty-handed, disappointed not because I couldn’t find what I wanted but rather because I didn't know what I was looking for.

Some days later I received a gift from my mother, a book with exquisite drawings and fine writings from a Swedish lake in the Mälaren area ("Sjö" by Gunnar Brusewitz). I was extremely pleased with the gift and started to ponder how removed I had become from nature. Living a city life, commuting to a cubicle, racing between commitments both at work and at home, and never taking the time to reflect, my life is not in harmony. With the vacation spent in lush landscapes, it is a disturbing contrast. My wife says I get depressed when I return home from summer vacations.

Resting in the grass of my mother's garden, it hit me: Walden by Thoreau! Of course! This book is commonly referenced in the books I like the most. Why not turn to the original thoughts? Returning to the book store I was lucky to find a modern acclaim-winning translation to Swedish. Ka-ching!

I am proud to say that I digested Walden for two months, reading and rereading it and penetrating the text. Still, I am incapable of reviewing it. It is simply too unwieldy for such an effort. What fascinated me the most is how relevant Walden is today. Perhaps even more so than when originally published in 1854. A central question in the book is if we are slaves or masters of technology. I believe we have become more enslaved in the century-and-a-half since Walden was written; today it is all but possible to escape the ubiquity of technology. While technology has enabled tremendous progress and human potential, it has also tethered us to an ever-faster pace of technological invention. Are we in control of this pace today, and will we be in control tomorrow? This is an important question from a global perspective - but Walden deals with the personal perspective. Can we live a rich life with technology? Thoreau's answer is a resounding "No".

How did Walden change me? I try to achieve fewer things. I try to keep my to-do list short. I try to spend more time off-the-grid. I try to reflect before I act. I try to connect to nature. I try to smell the roses. But one thing is certain: simplicity is not easy, but comes with significant rewards.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Doing Less

I’m now back from a relaxing vacation, doing close to nothing. The return to a hectic business life is a stark contrast. This has led me to set out a plan of doing less this year.

But don’t get me wrong. Last year, I had great strategies, plans and goals for FeedJournal as well as for other personal projects. But looking back, nothing much moved forward. I can find no other reason for this than that I was feeling bogged down by the weight of my commitments.

That’s why I this year plan to do less. By this logic, I hope to accomplish more.

As an example, the long promised rewrite of the FeedJournal Publisher interface will take the back seat to a revamp of the existing interface, which by all means is working well. Improving what is there requires some magnitudes less effort.

I hope it’s as simple as that.