Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Brief Book Review: Life, Inc.

The subtitle of the book is How Life Became a Corporation, and How to Take it Back, a fairly loaded title but a pretty accurate one. The books presents the history of the corporation, tracing all the way back to the Renaissance. Along the way, author Douglas Rushkoff develops ideas about the system and proposes alternatives.

One of the main thrusts of the book is that corporations are not a natural part of the world, but a human creation, with certain biases that, after a while, we have all started to take for granted. Even our centralized system of money is not the only way to do things.

A most interesting idea is made in discussing using two concurrent currency systems, one centralized and one local. He explains that such a system was in place during the Middle Ages, and he points out some reasons why it might not be such a bad idea now.

The other main thrust is that in the age of corporations, we've all started to behave more like them, expending effort to adjust our "bottom line", whether that's measured in net worth or in material consumption. This is even at the expense of relationships or other societal goods that really make us human.

It's an interesting read if you're inclined to read about economics, or about societal issues, but especially if you like to learn about both.

Friday, June 4, 2010

How Do You Choose What To Read?

As I've started looking for more to read, I've become more conscious of the decision process I use to choose among the options. There are too many books out there for me (or anyone) to read, so I rely on some heuristics in an attempt to filter out the good ones without having read them. Here are some of the things I've realized about how I choose reading material:

I consider more seriously anything referenced positively by a work I enjoy. This might be as simple as a book's mention on a blog I frequent, or a recommendation in a book by an author whose work I respect.

I also will likely read anything recommended to me by someone with similar book tastes to mine. even in the course of a dinner party, I might get to know that a new friend is a reader, and we might swap books. I take care to jot down any suggestions, and usually follow up on those later.

I have a few lists that I consult every once in a while. The list at the end of "How to Read a Book" is one such list---it's full of works that were deemed (by the author) to have intrinsic merit, and to be books that are readable multiple times. It is an interesting way to get suggestions from an informed source.

I will shy away from books that have titles similar to books I have really disliked. A title like "How to Get Rich" really turns me off from reading it, despite recommendations to the contrary.

I tend to switch topics after a while of reading in one vein. After going through a good number of books on personal finance, I have largely decided that I will read other things instead. At the moment, I am leaning toward social commentary and fun reading.

All of these simple rules obviously don't filter out every crummy book written, and I also probably pass on reading books that are in actuality excellent. Nevertheless, they help filter out the sheer volume of books there are to read.

What kinds of tests do you all use to determine which books are worth your while?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Thinking of...

I believe one of the marks of a good book is that one thinks about it often in the weeks, even months, after reading it. This evidences the sticking power of a good idea—or a good writing style.

For me, a recurrent books is Strunk and White's Elements of Style. This combines both of the above-mentioned attributes, being a good idea about good writing style.javascript:void(0)

For the past few weeks, I haven't been able to get through so much as a chapter of anything without thinking of Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach. Maybe it's that the ideas presented are so fundamental to the world in which we live, or maybe his astounding use of language just tickles my fancy, but either way, it keeps coming back to me.

But not all "sticky" books hail from so lofty a class. A Void has stuck in my mind, too, but only owing to its putting my brain into such a condition that on thinking a thought, I find my subconscious dutifully figuring out if this thought contains any of a particular symbol (the fifth in our ABC's, if you must know).

Give me a sticky book any day!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Goal of the month: NetWorker

At work, I use the Internet. All the time. Above the local network stuff (HR, internal memos, and the like), I am constantly doing research about various items in my work life.

However, the Internet is also quite the distraction. Yes, I can get sucked into Slashdot and lose an hour. But also in more insidious ways. For example, checking my e-mail. It's great to stay on top of things, but nervously checking it every five minutes is not helpful to my work flow. (Yes, I have been known to do this, mostly when expecting confirmation or a reply.)

Anyway, this month my goal is to get more productivity out of my Internet time (or around my Internet time). Specifically, my resolutions come in two forms: a prohibition and several limits.

Prohibition: No idle browsing

That means no clicking onto Slashdot because I'm bored. If I'm bored, there's probably a reason, and the reason is probably that I am avoiding doing something.

This also includes Slickdeals and other deal sites, which can be real time-sinks for me as I peruse the deals and think about them. To help with this tendency, I've created a custom RSS feed (using Yahoo's Pipes) to go through all the deal sites I could find and filter out the mess, to return just the things I'm looking for. It's worked well so far (I've found one or two pertinent things and ignored countless "deals" that wouldn't be deals to me.)

Daily limits

My feed reader: 1x. I use RSS to catch up with my favorite websites, and to put reading material on my Palm for later perusal. However, checking my feed reader more than once a day is wasteful. Indeed, an RSS reader functions as an aggregator, so I don't have to check multiple places for information. What I'm planning now is a similar aggregation, only across time: checking just once a day will still get me all the information.

E-mail: 5x. I will check both my personal and business mail only five times daily, maximum. Tentatively, these five times will be allotted as follows:
* once in the morning, after I arrive to my office
* once just after lunch
* once before leaving work
* two discretionary times
This should free me up to do more work with fewer interruptions.

What to do instead

With all the time freed up by not browsing idly and aggregating tasks across time, what should I do? My focus is going to be on my to-do list. That is, not things that pop into my head on their own, but things that have "made the cut" and are already on my list. This should help me filter out spurious "urgencies" and make room for important things that I might otherwise neglect.

That should leave me room to get my workday (and life) in better shape.