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Email Just Doesn’t Cut It November 27, 2006

Posted by gordonwatts in physics life.

At least, not my emails. I’m working on this analysis with people from all over North America. We all are operating on different schedules, and we are often not online at the same time (heck, I’m doing owl shifts right now). We have a weekly meeting, but at the moment that isn’t often enough.

So, how to collaborate? Mostly we use email. And sometimes we use IM. But for detailed discussions, email is the usual way we go. Last night I was seeing something funny in my analysis, so I sent an email around. It was long. It had many details. It was very dense. No one responded. 🙂 Basically, it was too hard to read. As one fellow here says “If there is something in the email more than 3 lines down I don’t know what it is” — he never reads more than the first part of the email. Especially in the current rush of getting this analysis out I think most of us are in this mode.

So, what to do? I’ve seen several people put together a talk — a deck of transparencies. They never plan to give the talk: it is just a less dense way to put the information together and a way to make it easier to read.

Unfortunately, for me to do this right I need to pull together lots of data and make nice plots. But perhaps that is the point: they is why it is easier to understand.

Time to try something new and give it a try!



1. nt moore - November 27, 2006

How about a wiki? I’ve been using one for a computational physics course I’m teaching. I got the idea from a fellow over at the University of Virginia, http://hepcat.phys.virginia.edu/phys254/wiki/doku.php

dokuwiki is easy to install, easy to configure, and has a pretty shallow learning cuve.

2. Chip - November 27, 2006

Hit a nerve. I’ve had the distinction now of being on 3 failed Collaboratory proposals to NSF with the University of Michigan folks, who have a great School of Information Sciences. Everyone thinks of “collaboratories” as video conferencing. I think it’s more. In fact, as a time-waster and never ending collaboration need, I think the preparing documentation and reviewing graphical data is a black sink of time.

What I nearly got started here with a computer science student and someone from the collaboratories group at LBL was a project to build a UI designed to attach threaded commentary to post script files securely and with linked versioning.

How many emails have you written that are just a string of

page 2, second paragraph, third line: should be “is” not “are…
page 3, third paragraph, fourth line…andsoonandsoon

I know Acrobat editing can do some of this – we don’t tend to use it, right? But, you would think that the most technologically savy field on the planet could figure out a multi-window UI that would intelligently handle LaTeX/text and markup, with versioning. But, there’s more…

How many times have you had a file with a dozen plots in it, which are an update of a previous set of plots…and you have questions, comments, or a “conversation” that needs to be had about them? You do it in email, right? More. Serial. Email. In one DØ proposal I counted the number of serial emails that I received over a 3 month period: 1800.

Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, if there was a package to link together display of postscript and an attached threaded IM tool. The thread would belong to the postscript file, maybe even the “page” of that file, and since it’s threaded you could have an IM conversation with others while you all look at the same plot in the same window – either in real time or asynchronously. Same thing for documents…chat + linked postscript. It’s a database problem and a GUI problem. And it would be a convincing-colleagues-to-use-it problem.

If you’re interested, I’ll send you a 2005 mockup of what I was trying to get someone to help with. In addition, an interface to allow for both writing/editing of a LaTeX document…would be perfect.

3. Roland - November 27, 2006

If the end product you are producing – e.g., a proposal or an article – is text, then the collaboration process should be text-based as well. Using any other format will just set up a requirement for format translation at some point in the future.

It is unreasonable for collaborators to demand that you take extraordinary steps to accommodate their time and attention deficits. When they do this they are essentially saying that their time is a lot more valuable than yours. Unless their time really *is* a lot more valuable than yours, you should not put up with it.

4. Gordon Watts - December 18, 2006

Roland — one of the people that does this to me… I pay! Not sure what that says about the usefulness of my emails! 😉

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