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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mechanical Loss.

“The law of energy conservation dictates that one can never get more energy in the output motion than provided by the energy source. Indeed, one always has some energy loss in a power transmission. Energy loss rates can vary from 5% for a flat belt drive to up to 80% for a multi-stage gear transmission.”
            by Nathan Delson, 2004

So, I was dead in the water for a month (you may have noticed.) Our internet, in a last puff, wheeze and plume of smoke, died. After battling with the provider for a month- and strenuously and repeatedly objecting to  their insistence that we  had “cancelled” two appointments during which we sat for the requisite six hours waiting for our overall-clad savior to arrive (he never did), someone, finally, came out. This guy really knew what he was talking about. The problem apparently started at the “hub” outside near our street- a junction established to serve two houses was serving four. Inside the house, a cable set up to service two internet connections served seven. Each time the internet signal was split, from two to four at the street, from two to four to seven inside the house, the signal strength decreased exponentially.  If a normal signal strength was +10, and everything “shuts down” at -11, ours was at a -14. Occasionally, based on usage, the signal strength would increase to a -10 or -9, but at no point was the signal strength where it should be.
Our internet was multitasking-  and therefore failing. It made me wonder at what “signal strength” do we “shut down”? How many times can our mental signal-strength split before we simply stop functioning?  An increasing amount of research is being done in the area of multitasking and perceived efficiency vice actual effect.  Eduardo Miranda, studying corporate organizations and project management for Ericsson Canada, calls the phenomenon within companies the “problem of resource overcommitment” and states that “the multi-project environment introduces challenges of their own: implicit dependencies created by shared resources, loss of productivity due to resource multi-tasking and subtle reinforcing loops that propagate delays from one project to another.”

David E. Meyer, the director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, recently told the New York Times, “Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes. Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.” In a 2005 research study conducted by Hewlett-Packard and the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, it was found that workers who answered emails and phone calls were more impaired to a surprising degree. The BBC reported on the findings in 2005: “[Researchers] found excessive use of technology reduced workers’ intelligence. Those distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ – more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana.” Whaaaaat?

As The New Atlantis recent reported, “One study by researchers at the University of California at Irvine monitored interruptions among office workers; they found that workers took an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or answering e-mail and return to their original task.”  Basex analyst Jonathan B. Spira indicated to the the New York Times, “estimates the cost of interruptions to the American economy at nearly $650 billion a year.”
If the cost and detriment to work productivity by work related interruptions is as severe as indicated in the above studies, in which the interruptions are at least within the same genre (work) as the primary task at hand, how much more severe must be the cost when the “interruption” is from a role entirely unrelated to the workplace. How many mothers have received the ‘Moooooooom, Brian won’t share the remote control” phone call while at work? How long does it take to re-center one’s thought process after a phone call that your child is sick? Or that your mother has had a bad day? Or your sister is getting a divorce? For me, the switch between roles is often like trying to throw the car into reverse while cruising on the freeway at 55 mph. It’s not pretty.
More interestingly, however, is the fall in IQ found by the BBC. If distracted individuals were found to have a drop in their IQ twice that of smoking marijuana- how much more severe is the impact on the IQ of the multi-hatted-working-mom-mentor-gymnast-triathlete-maid-therapist-friend? At what deficit do we begin our day, and what limitations are we placing on our performance?
Something to think about- while you’re ironing, watching the news and editing the next week’s brief.


  1. wow, yeah I was wondering what happened to you. Was missing reading your stuffs;) Glad you're back up!

  2. Gets me thinking: What are we really measuring when we say that multitasking is detrimental to work productivity? Of course multitasking will reduce efficiency if we're looking at linear goals-- units of gizmo X produced. How elegant is our measurement of "productivity," however, in an environment where we're trading in information and ideas, not running an assembly line? I don't pretend to know that answer, and I imagine the people in charge of studying this are much more informed than I am. At the same time, they are more invested in having an answer to the question, and so their results are colored by their selection of which data to collect and observe.
    Furthermore, how appropriate is the IQ test as an indicator of competence? Those ten points on my score aren't going to help me when I lose my job because I didn't keep up on electronic correspondence.
    Could we just as easily devise a situation or measurement whereby multitasking is beneficial? Going along with the theme of many of your other posts, is there a gender component here-- stereotypical linear "male" logic vs a more fluid connections-based "female" synthesis? Aren't women "supposed" to be more adept at multitasking, and if so, are we presupposing a negative outcome for this feminine skill by using masculine measures of success? Do people who multitask score higher on EQ tests and thereby make better managers? Do they foster more creativity or innovation in the workplace?
    Love your work, Chani!