November 2010

Work without interruption

Via Tobias Buckell, here’s an interesting talk by Jason Fried — co-author of Rework, a counterintuitive look at work culture — on why work doesn’t happen at work. “Why,” he asks, “do we expect people to work well if they’re interrupted all day in the office?” Anyone who works in an office will find his argument all too familiar: interruptions by “managers and meetings” disrupt the flow of work to the point where people actually have to go outside the office to get anything done.

For creative work, he says, uninterrupted time is essential:

What you find is that especially with creative people — designers, programmers, writers, engineers, thinkers — that people really need long stretches of uninterrupted time to get something done. You cannot ask somebody to be creative in 15 minutes and really think about a problem. You might have a quick idea but to be in deep thought about a problem and really consider a problem carefully, you need long stretches of uninterrupted time.

Fried also makes an interesting comparison between sleep and work: both, he argues, work in stages: if you’re interrupted, you can’t go back and pick up where you left off, you have to go back and start over.

Here’s why this is relevant to my interests.

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Fall from Earth

Book cover: Fall from Earth In Matthew Johnson’s debut novel, Fall from Earth, convicts from the all-human Borderless Empire are deposited on an alien world. Very quickly things go wrong: the colony leader shows no willingness to lead; a problem with the supplies forces them to break the rules to survive; and the planet very quickly is shown to have alien life — something that the Empire, with its total control over its citizens (the colonists include theological and political prisoners), suppresses any knowledge of. And the colonists soon discover that they were sent there as more than just prisoners.

This is a fast-paced, ambitious novel with a rich background and some serious and effective world-building, along with a cast of vibrant characters. But it’s hampered by its length: it’s just not long enough to deal with its eight or nine viewpoint characters. The relationship between the main character, Shi Jin, and the two administrators, with their past history, could have been a novel in and of itself. Fall from Earth needed to be much longer, on the scale of Dan Simmons’s Hyperion, to deal with all the characters’ implications and permutations, or much simpler, with fewer characters. Johnson told me via Twitter that he’d had to cut 15,000 words for commercial reasons; I suspect he could have added at least as many. (But first-time science fiction writers rarely get to write big books on their first outing because of printing costs: big books need to sell lots of copies because they cost more to print, and first novels don’t sell well enough for that.)

Having said that, I’ve enjoyed Johnson’s short fiction — in particular “The Coldest War,” “Heroic Measures” and the nasty little “Long Pig” — and from what I’ve seen here, I’ll have no hesitation picking up his next book. Watch this guy.

Update: Matt wants it known that while it’s possible Fall From Earth should have been longer, “I think Fall From Earth is a better book as a result of the cuts” — he doesn’t want anyone to think that his editor’s edits, and 15,000 words of cuts, harmed the book (1, 2, 3). In other words, if, as I argue above, more words needed to be added, they’re not necessarily the same words that were taken out in editing.

How the federal government fell down during the earthquake

Remember the earthquake in the Ottawa area last June? Remember how the earthquakes website run by Natural Resources Canada promptly imploded when everyone tried to get information on the quake at once? I mentioned that I sent a stiff letter to the Minister of Natural Resources to complain about it. I did get a reply dated July 28 from the assistant deputy minister responsible, who assured me that steps were being taken to address the issue, which is precisely the sort of answer I expected (being, as you know, familiar with the ways of ministerial correspondence).

I was far from the only one to notice the website issue: a Canadian Press story in August, using documents obtained under an ATIP request, outlined what the hell happened to the server. But according to Tom Spears’s article in yesterday’s Ottawa Citizen, the problems went beyond insufficient website bandwidth. Not only were the website and phone lines down, but the chain of command effectively prevented anyone with any expertise from talking for hours. The comedy of errors surrounding a conference call should be all too familiar to anyone who works with words for the federal government.

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