The cost of time

A few days back, an email was sent to our ‘allstaff’ mailing list inviting us to join in a bocce tournament. This took me a bit of time to digest, not least because I felt impelled to look up what ‘bocce’ means (it’s an Italian variant of pétanque, if you are interested). I guess this took a couple of minutes of my time in total. And then I realized I was probably not alone in this – that over a thousand people had also been reading it and, perhaps, wondering the same thing. So I started thinking about how we measure costs.

The cost of reading an email

A single allstaff email at Athabasca will likely be read by about 1200 people, give or take. If such an email takes one minute to read, that’s 1200 minutes – 20 hours – of the institution’s time being taken up with a single message. This is not, however, counting the disruption costs of interrupting someone’s train of thought, which may be quite substantial. For example, this study from 2002 reckons that, not counting the time taken to read email, it takes an average of 64 seconds to return to previous levels of productivity after reading one. Other estimates based on different studies are much higher – some studies suggest the real recovery time from interruptions to tasks could be as high as 15-20 minutes. Conservatively, though, it is probably safe to assume that, taking interruption costs into account, an average allstaff email that is read but not acted upon consumes an average of two minutes of a person’s time: in total, that’s about 40 hours of the institution’s time, for every message sent. Put another way, we could hire another member of staff for a week for the time taken to deal with a single allstaff message, not counting the work entailed by those that do act on the message, nor the effort of writing it. It would therefore take roughly 48 such messages to account for a whole year of staff time. We get hundreds of such messages each year.
But it’s not just about such tangible interruptions. Accessing emails can take a lot of time before we even get so far as reading them. Page rendering just to view a list of messages on our web front end for our email system is an admirably efficient 2 seconds (i.e. 40 minutes of the organization’s time for everyone to be able to see a page of emails, not even to read their titles). Let’s say we all did that an average of 12 times a day –  that’s 8 hours, or more than a day of the institution’s time, taken up with waiting for that page to render each day. Put another way, as we measure such things, if it took four seconds, we would have to fire someone to pay for it. As it happens, for another university for which I have an account, using MS Exchange, simply getting to the login screen of its web front end takes 4 seconds. Once logged in (a further few seconds thanks to Exchange’s insistence on forcing you to tell it that your computer is not shared even though you have told it that a thousand times before), loading the page containing the list of emails takes a further 17 seconds. If AU were using the same system, using the same metric of 12 visits each day, that could equate to around 68 hours of the institution’s time every single day, simply to view a list of emails, not including a myriad of other delays and inefficiencies when it comes to reading, responding to and organizing such messages. Of course, we could just teach people to use a proper email client and reduce the delay to one that is imperceptible, because it occurs in the background – webmail is a truly terrible idea for daily use – or simply remind them not to close their web browsers so often, or to read their emails less regularly. There are many solutions to this problem. Like all technologies, especially softer ones that can be used in millions of ways, it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it. 

But wait – there’s more

Email is just a small part of the problem, though: we use a lot of other websites each day. Let’s conservatively assume that, on average, everyone at AU visits, say, 24 pages in a working day (for me that figure is always vastly much higher) and that each page averages out at about 5 seconds to load. That’s two minutes per person. Multiplied by 1200, it’s another week of the institution’s time ‘gone’ every day simply waiting to read a page.
And then there are the madly inefficient bureaucratized processes that are dictated and mediated by poorly tailored software. When I need to log into our CRM system I reckon that simply reading my tasks takes a good five minutes. Our leave reporting system typically eats 15 minutes of my time each time I request leave (it replaces one that took 2-3 minutes).  Our finance system used to take me about half an hour to add in expenses for a conference but, since downgrading to a baseline version, now takes me several hours, and it takes even more time from others that have to give approvals along the way. Ironically, the main intent behind implementing this was to save us money spent on staffing. 
I could go on, but I think you see where this is heading. Bear in mind, though, that I am just scratching the surface. 

Time and work

My point in writing this is not to ask for more efficient computer and admin systems, though that would indeed likely be beneficial. Much more to the point, I hope that you are feeling uncomfortable or even highly sceptical about how I am measuring this. Not with the figures: it doesn’t much matter whether I am wrong with the detailed timings or even the math. It is indisputable that we spend a lot of time dealing with computer systems and the processes that surround them every day, and small inefficiencies add up. There’s nothing particularly peculiar to ICTs about this either – for instance, think of the time taken to walk from one office to another, to visit the mailroom, to read a noticeboard, to chat with a colleague, and so on. But is that actually time lost or does it even equate precisely to time spent?  I hope you are wondering about the complex issues with equating time and dollars, how we learn, why and how we account for project costs in time, the nature of technologies, the cost vs value of ICTs, the true value of bocce tournament messages to people that have no conceivable chance of participating in them (much greater than you might at first imagine), and a whole lot more. I know I am. If there is even a shred of truth in my analysis, it does not automatically lead to the conclusion that the solution is simply more efficient computer systems and organizational procedures. It certainly does bring into question how we account for such things, though, and, more interestingly, it highlights even bigger intangibles: the nature and value of work itself, the nature and value of communities of practice, the role of computers in distributed intelligence, and the meaning, identity and purpose of organizations. I will get to that in another post, because it demands more time than I have to spend right now (perhaps because I receive around 100 emails a day, on average).

Datawind Aakash Android Tablets

The cheapest tablet in this range is CAD$43, for which you get a 7″ screen device with WiFi, Bluetooth and limited but extendible storage, capable of web browsing, email, Skype, word-processing and e-reading. Not well, for sure, nor with any kind of battery life to speak of, and with a low resolution screen with a viewing position rather than range of angles.

But it’s $43 (Canadian)!

That’s less than plenty of internet-capable radios, MP3 players, electronic picture frames, or even sophisticated alarm clocks, all of which it can comfortably replace and actually do a better job.  In fact, it’s less than a meal for two (with drinks) at my local pub. The others in the range don’t add much apart from a front-facing camera and very slow mobile data ($55), up to 3G phone and a slightly better screen for the top-of-the range UbiSlate3G7 for $90. Not too bad a price for an unlocked if totally enormous smartphone, though not the cheapest around.

The UbiSlates are Canadian, though the primary market for them is India, where they can be purchased for even less, and can come with $2/month mobile Internet (some US versions come with unlimited mobile web browsing for about US$100 a year). I think I might get one of these for the hell of it. 


Address of the bookmark:

GRC's | SQRL Secure Quick Reliable Login  

Steve Gibson, a venerable computer guru who has innovated for decades and never produced anything but brilliantly elegant code, as well as being a compelling and thought-provoking writer, presents SQRL. It’s truly ingenious, I think. It provides secure, password-free logins, with unique but anonymous IDs, to any site that implements this standard, in a manner that seems to be far more secure than any conventional username/password design. True, some other form of authentication is needed to set up the app in the first place – you’d not want someone else to get hold of that! Also, it’s not quite as good as two-factor systems for security. But it is much better than username/login combinations, it is much easier for the end user even than using a social media site to provide authentication, and it offers the potential for uniquely identifying an individual without intruding on that individual’s privacy. That’s pretty cool. Two-factor systems may be secure but all are very complex, irritating and prone to error, but there’s nothing to stop someone intent on assuring secure access from using this as part of a two-factor system. Brilliant.

Address of the bookmark:

HP Stream 7 – $120 Windows tablet is remarkable value

I don’t normally link to Best Buy (the name of the company is not entirely accurate!) but, as I got my Stream 7 from there, I figure it’s as good a place as any. You can probably find it a little cheaper elsewhere but Best Buy/FutureShop (essentially the same company) are convenient for most people living in Canadian cities and let you play before you buy.

I’ve written elsewhere that e-book readers are an essential commodity if, as Athabasca University is increasingly demanding, students are required to use e-texts instead of paper books. This device is a serviceable Windows PC that can do pretty much anything any other Windows PC is capable of and that also makes a very decent e-reader. At $120 it is cheaper than many textbooks.

The Stream 7 is a basic 7″ tablet, with few bells and whistles: technically speaking, it has no 3G, no GPS, no 802.11AC wifi, only 5 touch point recognized at once (not normally a problem unless you have a piano keyboard app), slightly chunky construction, a battery life of 8 hours at best (5 or 6 would be more typical), no HDMI output, 1GB RAM, dreadful (but usable for simple needs) front and back cameras, measly speaker and poor headphone output. On the plus side, it does have bluetooth, a pretty generous 32GB of flash storage (expandable via MicroSD), it charges using a standard Micro USB cable, and (notably) the screen is absolutely excellent, bright and vibrant, even if it’s resolution (1280×800) is not quite up there with Retina displays. As an e-reader and for videos it’s pretty good, and it runs pretty much any e-reading software, including the DRM-afflicted and web-based stuff we sometimes use at AU.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about it is that it runs the full and uncrippled version Windows 8.1, not the ugly mess that was Windows RT. Admittedly it’s only 32 bit and is joined at the hip to Microsoft’s mediocre Bing service, but it smoothly runs almost any Windows program you can throw at it, even elderly Flash programs. It’s mostly fairly snappy too, given the constraints of its modest 1GB of RAM. I wouldn’t want to try running lots of programs at once, but for single task activities like web browsing, e-reading or email, it’s absolutely fine and very usable. Windows 8.1 (admittedly a somewhat fuller version than this and without the Bing branding) currently retails at $120, so one way of looking at it is that you get a free tablet with a copy of Windows. Moreover, it even comes with a year’s subscription to Microsoft Office (usual price $100), for those that need it. This is not a thing I’d recommend to anyone, given that there are equally good and often better free competitors available, but it’s astonishingly good value if you are actually thinking of forking out for it anyway. If you do have an existing subscription you can add the year to what you already own, thereby getting a usable tablet for $20 (plus tax and recycle fee).


Of course, if you just want a tablet or e-reader, there are better and cheaper Android devices available, and much better iOS devices if you can afford them. My only reason for getting this was to test web sites using Microsoft’s IE browser and to use some ancient IE-only webmeeting software, and this was the cheapest way I could find to do that. Windows is a terrible ugly mess that appears to have been designed by the makers of Spongebob Squarepants and that is so full of holes it is more like a torn insect screen than a window. I am unlikely to use this device for much e-reading myself because I have much better (and mostly costlier) devices that beat it hands down on almost every front. But, if you need to run Microsoft software and also need a means to read e-books and watch the odd video, this is a pretty cheap and effective way to do it.

Address of the bookmark:

Workflow Automates Any Task on iOS

This is a very cool app that greatly extends the capacity of an iOS device to do many different things. I used a workflow on my iPad to add this link to the Landing from an item saved in Pocket, for instance, simply by selecting the workflow I had created from Pocket’s Share menu. Now, if only I could bundle that up and share it as an app, we could make Landing bookmarking A lot easier. 

This app sorely lacks help so far, though it is early days and clearly this will be coming soon. Though the app is pretty intuitive and has helpful hints, and there are some nice examples to play with, having existing programming skills is definitely valuable. It took me about an hour of trial and error to figure this simple workflow out.

Address of the bookmark:

Automated Collaborative Filtering and Semantic Transports – draft 0.72

I had to look up this article by the late Sasha Chislenko for a paper I was reviewing today, and I am delighted that it is still available at its original URL, though Chislenko himself died in 2000. I’ve bookmarked the page on systems dating back to 1997 but I don’t think I’ve ever done so on this site, so here it is, still open to the world. Chislenko was writing in public way before it was fashionable and, I think, probably before the first blogs – this is still and, sadly, will always be a work in progress.

This particular page was one of a handful of articles that deeply influenced my early research and set me on a course I’m still pursuing to this day. Back in 1997, as I started my PhD, I had conceived of and started to build a web-based tagging and bookmark sharing system to gather learner-generated recommendations of resources and people so that the crowd could teach itself. It seemed like a common sense idea but I was not aware of anything else like it (this was long before and Slashdot was just a babe in arms), so I was looking for related work and then I found this. It depressed me a little that my idea was not quite as novel as I had hoped, but this article knocked me for six then and it continues to impress me now. It’s still great reading, though many of the suggestions and hopes/fears expressed in it are so commonplace that we seldom give them a second thought any more.

This, along with a special issue of ACM Communications released the same year, was my first introduction to collaborative filtering, the technology that would soon sit behind Amazon and, later, everything from Google Search to Netflix and eBay. It gave a name to what I was doing and to the system I was building, which was consequently christened ‘CoFIND’  (Collaborative Filter in N-Dimensions). 

Chislenko was a visionary who foresaw many of the developments over the past couple of decades and, as importantly, understood many of their potential consequences.  More of his work is available at – just a small sample of his astonishing range, most of it incomplete notes and random ideas, but packed with inspiration and surprisingly accurate prediction. He died far too young.

Address of the bookmark:

Microsoft Open Sources .NET, Saying It Will Run On Linux and Mac | WIRED

This is a sign of what appear to be some remarkable seismic shifts at Microsoft. To be fair, Microsoft has long been a contributor to open source initiatives but .NET was, until fairly recently, seen as one of the crown jewels only slightly less significant than Windows and Office, which makes me and the writer of this article wonder whether they might be heading towards open sourcing these at some point (Windows mobile version is already free, albeit with many provisos, terms and conditions, but that’s just common sense otherwise no one would use the substandard pile of pants at all).

Note that they are apparently only open-sourcing the core of .NET, which is not that wonderful without all the accompanying framework and goodies. The open source Mono project has provided this functionality for many years thanks to Microsoft’s wisely open approach to treating it and C# as a specification rather than a completely closed technology in the first place but, and it’s a big but, there are few Windows .NET apps that can run on Mono under Unix without some significant tweaking or acceptance of limitations and bugs, because so much relies on the premium libraries, controls and other proprietary closed tools that only paying Windows users can take advantage of. It’s much better than it used to be, but Mono is still a shim rather than a solution. I’m guessing there are few that would use it in preference to, say, Java unless their primary target were Windows machines or they were inveterate C# or VB fans.

This is probably not a sign of deeper openness, however. Microsoft, like most others in the industry, clearly see the future is in net-delivered cloud-based subscription services. Azure, Office365, Skype, Exchange Online etc etc are likely to be where most of the money comes from in the years ahead. .NET is nothing like as effective at locking people in than providing a service that handles all the data, communication and business processes of an individual or organization. Moreover, if more .NET developers can be sucked in to developing for other platforms, that means more that can be pulled in to Microsoft’s cloud systems though, to be fair, it does mean Microsoft has to actually compete on even ground to win, rather than solely relying on market dominance. But it does have a lot of cash to outspend many of its rivals, and raw computer power together with the money to support it plays a large role in achieving success in this area.

The cloud is a new (well, extremely old but now accepted and dominant) form of closed system in which the development technology really shouldn’t matter much any more. I worry a great deal about this though. In the past we were just locked in by data formats, closed licences and closed software (perniciously driven by upgrade cycles that rendered what we had purchased obsolete and unsupported), but at least the data were under our control. Now they are not. I know of no cloud-based services that have not at some point changed terms and conditions, often for the worse, few that I would trust with my data any further than I could throw them, and none at all that are impervious to bankrupcy, take-overs and mergers. When this happened in the past we always had a little lead time to look for an alternative solution and our systems kept running. Nowadays, a business can be destroyed in the seconds it takes to shut down or alter a system in the cloud.

Address of the bookmark:

Here’s Why Public Wifi is a Public Health Hazard

A nice clear and very graphic explanation of why wifi, especially public wifi, is a very dangerous thing to use. And no, it has nothing whatsoever to do with radiation – if that worries you, and it absolutely shouldn’t, you should be a lot more worried about your TV or radio and positively scared stiff by cellphones, heat lamps and electric stoves. Or light, for that matter. Dangerous stuff, light. 

But, back to the article, most of the more frightening issues it illustrates can be dealt with using a good VPN, use of secure sites (like this one) and very careful attention to what you are clicking and what you are sharing. Others, especially those involving man-in-the-middle attacks and password cracking, can be much trickier to deal with. 

If you are worried by this, and you absolutely should be if any of your devices uses wifi, including your home system, then there are numerous articles that will reassure you that you have some basic safeguards in place, such as: 

  • (good basic advice, but does not address some of the issues raised here)
  • (a little more complex but a little better informed and offering a little more protection)
  • (for the geeks or those with a serious interest – a more detailed pair of articles on how wifi evil twins work and what can be done to avoid them, as well as other risks)

If you’ve not thought much about such things, now is a good time.

Address of the bookmark: