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It has been a grueling week for my team. After being glued to computers all week and even a couple of sleepless nights, my dedicated team at IVR Technology Group launched the website for Our Time for the White House event on July 13 that was dedicated to talking about solving the unemployment crisis among the 18-34 generation in the US.

The idea? Young entrepreneurs help solve the first major economic challenge of their generation.
A day-long summit with some of the youngest entrepreneurs in America, and Chirag Desai was there representing us! Glad to be a part of such a brave movement!

Check out the CNN coverage (and the website done by my team at IVR Tech) and if you are Under 30, join and make a difference!

It’s striking how value-defining pearls of wisdom come to you from the darndest places. I have the TV comedy show “My Name is Earl” to thank for the impetus to think about my environmental and financial stewardship. The show is about Earl - a ne’er-do-well, petty crook who wins a $100,000 lottery and gets immediately hit by a passing car and ends up in the hospital with no winning ticket. While incapacitated, he finds karma through the Carson Daly show. With a new sense of purpose, he creates a list of bad things he’s done and proceeds to fix each one.

On one such quest (”Robbed a Stoner Blind”), he finds himself forced to live in a dung hut with hippies and learns about global warming. Appalled, he goes back and zealously works to “fix global warming”. While picking up trash off the street, he notices that his actions are cancelled by his ex-wife. Ever-observant, he quickly finds out it’s not just his ex cancelling out his efforts, it’s the whole town! Earl resorts to flattening tires and breaking electrical boxes to stop people from destroying the planet. Alas, a panic-stricken Earl, then hears on the news that China is scheduled to be the biggest polluter in the world. He was being cancelled by the whole world!

It is this same incomprehensible vastness of a problem that overwhelms us to inaction, lulls us to inattention. After all, where do we even begin to fix a colossal problem like global environmental degradation? How do we stop China and India from exponentally expanding their pollution footprint? For that matter, how do we convince the developed world to take aggressive steps to curb their own emissions? How do we solve absolute poverty in the world? How could we possibly show first-world consumers that their $17 billion / year spend on pet food contrasts with the almost-equivalent $19 billion / year to eliminate hunger and malnutrition across the world (WorldWatch)? We can’t though we whip ourselves into a frenzy.

The answer, as Earl finally realized, was to do what little you could. He decided to be Earth-friendly for five minutes a day. Perhaps that’s the best way to affect change - to have the peace and discipline to control what is in your power to change and to not get all knotted up by the rest. That’s what Gandhi concentrated on. That’s what Mother Theresa concentrated on.

So what am I going to do personally? Take my ten minutes a day:

  1. One minute to put plastics, cans, and glass in separate recyclable bins. (Added benefit: wife loves you)
  2. One minute to turn off lights in rooms I don’t use
  3. Three minutes to stifle the agony of not going to Starbucks for a $4 latte, but instead make coffee at home (five minutes) which I can carry in a washable mug. (Added benefit: take the $4/day I save and put it towards a monthly contribution to clean water or food supply for people in a third-world country. My $4/day would pull two people from hunger and malnutrition in a world where 1.1 billion people in the world live on less than $1/day and where mothers bake clay chips for their children to eat so it keeps their hunger at bay.)

So there it is. I am a little ashamed to say I have a lot more Earl in me than Gandhi. But at least I won’t be a total sloth!

When it comes to environmental stewardship, I have always felt a vague satisfied smugness when I compare the software industry that I work in to a host of other industries. After all, unlike a car dealership selling gas guzzlers, my industry comes up with tools to keep people from travelling like video conferencing and cheap phone calls. And I have to admit - my company’s footprint is pretty darn small. We e-fax, we web conference, we generate electronic contracts, we email invoices. And no one could possibly begrudge me a little self-congratulation for whipping up notepad or excel on my computer when brainstorming instead of a pen and paper.

But some of that smugness evaporated when I read a recent Gartner study stating that the information and communications technology (ICT) industry accounts for 2% of global CO2 emissions - on par with the aviation industry! Within the ICT industry, 40% of emissions are from PCs and monitors and a solid 23% from data centers. So what does this mean for web software developers like us at Lance Technologies? I jotted down (in notepad, of course) the obvious countermeasures:

1. Strategic server provisioning. We have paid little attention to server sprawl. Only a couple months ago, we fired up five servers - one per application! The solution: more strategic thinking - for instance, is virtual private server technology better suited to host multiple applications on one server?

2. Evalutate new technology such as virtualization. We need to be better at evaluating processing loads and using virtualization technology to consolidate servers.

3. Do we really have to keep workstations on all night? No, so we won’t.

After the obvious items, I began wondering about the value of frugal application design. I recall developing web apps a few years ago when 56k modems were still a big part of the landscape. I remember serious attention being paid to web optimization. Then broadband came - speed at work, speed at home, speed with an aircard in the middle of a field - and we became lax in design. It’s not uncommon to see web applications using PNGs instead of optimized JPGs or GIFs. Similarly, often only cursory evaluation of the efficiency of presentation layer code is done. (”Might CSS have been better than using excessive nested tables?”). The same analysis holds true of backend code. If you can do something in five lines, don’t be a slob (mentally and environmentally) and use fifteen! Lastly, “frugal design” also means desiging applications that are not gold-plated with excessive, rarely-used features. The more “stuff”, the more processing, the greater the CO2 footprint, and all for naught!

4. Frugal Design as a Mantra. At Lance Technologies, we have still kept up with the “frugal design” ideology - vaguely. But it needs to be articulated and made tangible.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only person to have this thought. Steve Souders performed an intriguing thought experiment that suggests that if Wikipedia web optimized its home page (expires header for better caching), it could save 500-1,000 pounds of CO2 annually. As Steve so aptly put it, “Make your pages faster. It’s good for your users, good for you, and good for Mother Earth. (High Performance Web Sites Blog)”

And that brings me to Part II of this Environmental Stewardship miniseries: Technology, Poverty, Stewardship: Life Lesson from “My Name is Earl”

 

Mechanical Turk
The history of Wolfgang von Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk . (Amazon Mechanical Turk)

 

The technology world we live in today simply extends beyond comprehension. It is a fantastic world where you routinely feel like Charlie in the chocolate factory - amazed at what can be done. I had started feeling slightly jaded to the fact that I can earn a decent living selling a non-physical product created by a group of virtual team members to clients I rarely see.

The sense of profound awe was back when I decided to bite the bullet and sign up on Facebook - the second most popular social networking site after MySpace. Within a couple of days of signing up and mildly poking around, I had connected with a few dozen long-lost (and, in cases, completely forgotten) friends and acquaintences. The joy and satisfaction of connecting again with childhood friends and talking about Ethiopian food that we grew up on was probably the highlight of the past month. A week in, I am utilizing widgets written by users that hook into the Facebook application constantly, in the process positioning myself as one mean “vampire-biter” and a generous virtual gift-giver. To boot, the IQ Test widget tells me that compared to my friends, I am on the challenged side. And the movie widget tells me that I have absolutely nothing in common with Phil my business partner.

In this week of discovery, I also stumbled upon Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. In a world where the human workforce is constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed like Lego pieces, to the constant buzz of words like outsourcing, offshore sourcing, onshore sourcing, and rural sourcing, we can now add another term: “micro-sourcing” (or if you like it better “crowdsourcing”). The idea behind micro-sourcing is simple. In the constant pursuit of cutting labor costs, a lot has been automated. However, there still remain a large swath of simple tasks - like pattern recognition or interpreting the emotion behind a statement - that people do much better than computers. So how to bring cost-efficiency to these processes? Here’s where Mechanical Turk comes in. Mechanical Turk is quite simple and quite brilliant - use a huge pool of internet-connected people with a bit of free time to perform very tiny, simple, routine tasks.

Say a company wants to go through 100,000 images and sort them based on which ones have a human face in it. Hiring people to do this is costly and time-consuming. Micro-sourcing solves this dilemma by farming out the project in tiny chunks to a multitude of people connected to the internet. So now, you have 50,000 people that take five seconds to tag two pictures as “has human face” or “no face here”. For their time, they maybe make a penny. They do it simply because they have nothing better to do at that moment and the task is mildly interesting. Cost to the firm for this picture categorization task? $500. Time to completion? Theoretically, if all people do their two pictures that day - one day!

The applications are too many to count. Some examples include transcription of texts, optical character recognition, data manipulation, content monitoring, gauging consumer sentiment, market and product research, and so forth.

Real life examples? Write a small Facebook widget that allows people to upload a picture of themselves and that picture is sent via Mechanical Turk to be rated on an attractiveness scale of 1-10. Instant feedback on the picture is provided that shows a person their “attractiveness” as ranked by a multitude of people. The user may even be able to drill down and see how different geographic regions ranked their attractiveness. Their score can then be displayed and shared with friends who virally installing the widget themselves. Monetizing such an endeavor? Maybe use the most often used scheme in social network applications - advertising. A less trifle example would be using the network reach of Facebook and/or Mechanical Turk to code free-text survey responses that are a common part of research surveys at universities or think tanks.

You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Silly star

I really feel like that bit about a dancing star is rather silly. At least, when I was faced with the chaos of leaving home without my all-important laptop and cell phone last Tuesday and cut off from the option of driving back by a solid ribbon of traffic across the nine miles of the I-90 east thruway, I didn’t feel much like a dancing star. It was more like being rubbed down with a wet towel of panic. As you subconsciously try to control the dismay and irritation at sweat ruining your white shirt collar, you try to frantically recall your appointments that were in Outlook, wonder how you’ll communicate throughout the day, how you’ll find the phone numbers for people to call, and, more importantly, how you’ll pass the time between appointments without any work to do.

By the time I got to my office, I had calmed down sufficiently to take stock of the situation. Maybe not everything was sunk. Let’s see, first things first:

1. I utilize MDCall - a product of my company (shameless plug, but true) that specializes in emergency physician contact management. Through MDCall, I can manage where my calls are routed. By logging online, I switched all emergency calls that come into our toll-free number for me to my office phone instead of my cell. So that was done. Services similar to MDCall include Gotvmail.com, a terrific resource to give to business associates so that by calling one number, they can reach you where you want to be reached - cell, home, office, or the hotel where you are staying at.

2. So that was done. Next, e-mail. With a spare laptop laying around in the office, I quickly logged into my hosted web-based email account through Gmail for Business. Now, before you think I’m a cheap business owner with no regard for professional image, let me state that Gmail for Business is not like personal Gmail or other free email services like Hotmail. It’s a full-powered email service that beats having your email through most hosted services anytime. Here’s why:

  • Gmail can be associated with your domain name. So, your emails do not go out as akash@gmail.com but rather akash@lance-tech.com. This is because you are pointing your domain MX records to gmail just like you would point them to your web host.
  • Gmail plays really well with Outlook. You can use Outlook to manage your emails. What’s more, any email that is sent or received now is not only in Outlook but also archived on Gmail.
  • Any email you send by logging into Gmail via the web gets copied over to your Outlook next time you Send/Receive. This means that your emails in Outlook and Gmail are always in sync.
  • Gmail search is fantastic! Searching for “jeff cell san diego” in Outlook took a full 6 minutes. In Gmail - 2 seconds. So now, whenever I want to search for something in my email, I log into Gmail via the web.
  • Gmail servers guarantee 99.9% uptime. So do most web hosts. But I tend to trust Google more on this one.
  • Gmail provides you with 10GB of space for EACH corporate email account.
  • You can access Gmail via a mobile device like you cell phone. I love it when I’m twiddling my thumbs in a restaurant while waiting for someone.

3. So, I have calls forwarded and I have email up. Next is making phone calls. That, of course, is easy - I do have an office phone, believe it or not. But I also use Skype to make calls to any phone in the world using my PC. Since my laptop was not around, I simply installed the Skype client on the temporary laptop, logged into Skype, and was ready to make calls. This would be especially handy when I would stop over later at a Starbucks between meetings.

4. Finally, what of my schedule? Nicely enough, my Gmail for Business account also comes with Google Calendar. Any events I create in Outlook, I automatically send over to Google Calendar. No big worries. I was going to make every meeting and appear on top of my game! 

5. With phone, email, calendaring, and call forwarding, my communication platform was almost back to normal. The only item missing - instant messaging. My team, which includes my partner in Colorado and other consultants, lives and dies by communicating via instant messaging - for those small things that picking up the phone just isn’t worth. I communicate via AOL IM and Yahoo Messenger. What a chore to have to install both software pieces on a temp laptop. Rather, in my browser, I fired up Meebo.com. All I needed to do was type in my respective AOL and Yahoo login credentials and click on Sign In. I was ready to chat.

Of no significant relevance this particular chaotic day but still bearing mention: My office uses Send2Fax to receive and send faxes. Faxes for me come directly into my email as a PDF. And I can send faxes directly from my computer without having to print them out and walking over to a silly machine. And I save important documents to our internally-written web-based document management system. Alternatives include Zoho Writer or Google Docs.

So there I was. Completely functional. Happy as could be. But still not too sure about the chaos and dancing star bit… 

If there’s anyone out there that has productivity tools that bear mentioning, comment to this post!