Sunday Selection 2013-12-01

Around the Web

Happy post-Thanksgiving greetings, dear readers. If you celebrate, I hope you had a wonderful time with friends and family. If you engaged in the consumerist spectacle of Black Friday and lived to tell the tale, congratulations to you. Others were not quite so lucky. Anyways, on to this weeks’ picks.

The Democratic Necessity of Power Tools

By now we all know that paper publishing (especially for books and newspapers) is in trouble and so are libraries. This article makes an interesting point: in an age where knowledge and information is easy to get, maybe we need to provide education in terms of skills and craftsmanship and not just information. Personally, I love libraries and hope they survive into the far future, but I would love to see the growth of publicly available makerspaces and workshops too. Maybe the two could go hand in hand?

The Period, Our Simplest Punctuation Mark, Has Become a Sign of Anger

It seems like the older I get, the more fastidious I get about my use of the English language. I’ve always hated SMS-speak and I see absolutely no need for it today with the advent of QWERTY, predictive keyboards on phones. More recently, I’ve been trying to use full sentences even in my IMs and making my slideshow bullet-points and proper clauses and end in proper punctuation. This is an interesting article on the changing role of the period in informal electronic communication. It’s not something I’ve personally noticed, but it was a interesting read nonetheless.

C.S. Lewis Reviews The Hobbit

If you’ve ever wondered what one literary great reviewing the work of another looks like, this is your chance. Enough said.

From the Web

What I Wish I’d Known When I Was 18 (from Stephen Fry)

I’m personally not very familiar with Stephen Fry’s work. However, this video is chock-full of wisdom, both practical and deep. It’s worth watching no matter what age you are. And yes, some parts are rather heart-wrenching.

Sunday Selection 2013-10-20

Around the Web

Inside GitHub’s super-lean management strategy and how it drives innovation

It’s always interesting to see how groups of people organize to do useful work, especially in the age of startups and distributed workforces. This article takes a detailed look at GitHub’s structure and how their “open allocation” strategy affects their work-style and productivity. Interestingly, it also looks at how non-product activities (like internal videos and social meetups) can be planned and executed without a strict hierarchy.

Should we stop believing Malcolm Gladwell

As a graduate student I’ve become increasingly comfortable with reading scientific papers over the last two years. As a side effect of that, I’ve become increasingly skeptical of popular science books. They’re often lacking in proper references and I’m somewhat distrusting of the layer of indirection between me and the (hopefully) rigorous scientific work. This articles focuses on Malcolm Gladwell and his particular brand of scientific storytelling. It’s been a few years since I read any of books, so I can’t comment from personal experience, but if you’re interested in knowing how much science is actually in popular science, this article is worth your time.

Scott Adams on How to be successful

I recommend this piece with a bit of caution. It’s not your typical “how to be successful” piece. There isn’t much on the lines of “find your passion” or “all your dreams will come true”. In fact, this piece is very pragmatic, very down-to-earth and just a little bit mercenary. It’s for just those reasons that I think it’s worth reading — it’s a good antidote to the cult of “follow your dreams” that seems to have become popular. There are other gems in this piece such as “goals are for losers”. If you’re looking for unconventional and refreshingly honest career advice, read this now.

Books

I’ve been cutting down on video watching in favor of more reading. This week’s recommendation is:

Getting Things Done

GTD is a bit of an obsession in the tech community, spawning an endless number of variants, apps and how-to guides. I’ve been using one of those apps for a while (OmniFocus) and I’ve been familiar with the general GTD approach, but I just started reading the book last week. Surprisingly, the book has a pretty different feel from the GTD articles and guides you’ll find around the web. David Allen doesn’t just give you organizational strategies but also takes the time to explain why particular strategies are a good idea and how they may or may not work for you. I’ve often thought that the full-blown GTD system is a bit overkill, but reading this book makes me think that at a certain level of busy-ness, it’s actually worth it. After reading this book you’ll have no doubts that GTD is a carefully thought out, well-founded system and might be worth a try even if you’re not always super-busy.

 

Sunday Selection 2013-06-23

Hello gentle readers! It is sunny, hot and humid here in beautiful Ithaca, New York. Yesterday I was out chasing the sunlight and sitting near waterfalls. Today I’m chasing air conditioning, writing and coding. Such is life (and as an aside, anyone who tells you climate change isn’t real is wrong and probably trying to sell you something). Anyways, today’s selection centers around productivity, routines and getting shit done (and programming is definitely a creative pursuit).

Around the Web

Don’t look for talent, look for people who do things.

Recently an interview made the rounds of the Intertubes showing that Google’s turned it’s data crunching skills to completely rework its hiring process. It seems like that best way to determine future success is to look at what people have already done and how they talk about their past achievements.

9 rules for success by British novelist Amelia Barr

My favorite is probably #1: “Men and women succeed because they take pains to succeed. Industry and patience are almost genius; and successful people are often more distinguished for resolution and perseverance than for unusual gifts.”

Creative People Say No

In the age of social media it’s easy to confuse talking about your work with actually doing your work. This article is a quiet rebuttal to two ideas that seem to be popular (a) success is as much about publicity as it is about good work and (2) that creative work is supposed to be easy and spontaneous.

Books

Making ideas happen

Unfortunately I’ve been reading far fewer books than I would like to. However I picked this up after reading the excerpt and seeing the good reviews and it promises to be an interesting read. I hope to have a review once I’m done reading.

Sunday Selection 2012-12-09

Around the Web

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Academia

As my third semester as a PhD student draws to an end, I’m starting to think about what to do in the long term: what kind of a career I want to have, what kind of problems I want to focus on, etc. This piece is an interesting look at how research in computer science can coexist with making an impact in the real world today.

Trouble at Code School

I’ve been a Teaching Assistant for two semesters, but I haven’t really been on the front lines of teaching students. That being said, from what little experience I have introducing newcomers to programming that both teaching and learning beginning programming is no easy task. Luckily, with the growth of education-based startups and the resurgence in academic CS programs we’ll probably see interesting approaches in the near future.

GitHub vs Skyrim

Giles Bowkett manages to come up with interesting perspectives on a regular basis. This article talks about about GitHub and Skyrim and how the way they encourage team dynamics may lay the foundation for a new way of organizing companies and teams. Perhaps the most insightful idea is that the very definition of an office or workspace is not only changing, but gradually becoming irrelevant as work becomes increasingly distributed.

From the Bookshelf

Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman

I first read this book years ago in school and it was probably the first book to show me that you can fill a life with equal parts work and fun. This book probably played an important, though subconscious part in my decision to stay in academia for the time being. Even if you’re not a scientist or and academic, this book is worth reading and learning from. Life is supposed to be fun.

Goodbye Netflix, hello reading

I cancelled my Netflix subscription yesterday because I’d been using it both too much and too little. I had both the streaming service and one DVD out at a time. While the DVD option has a much larger selection than the streaming, I found myself hardly every using it. In fact I’ve only checked out out a handful of DVDs since getting a Macbook Air without an optical drive over a year ago. Even when I did check one out it took me days or weeks to actually watch and return it. At the same time, I watched too much over streaming. It’s far too easy to just sit and keep hitting the next episode button for hours on end. It was taking up far too much time that would be better spent elsewhere.

I’m not giving up TV completely. We have a large TV in the living room and my roommate has a Roku box and Netflix streaming. However I’ve been spending more time at my desk and trying not to sit on the couch for more than short periods of time. I also plan on keeping the watching down to a few hours on the weekends (if that). I have Amazon Prime (plugged into the Roku too) and while Amazon and Netflix have mostly overlapping free selections, there’s more available to rent on Amazon. That makes it possible to watch something when I really want to (like The Avengers over the weekend) but keeps me from contiuously browsing.

I do however, want to spend more time reading actual books (not blogs or websites and certainly not “social media”). I have a Kindle which I love (and would like to use more) and Amazon occasionally has really nice deals. Cornell also has really big libraries with great collections which I want to make more use of. Personally I find myself being much calmer and more collected if I spend half an hour or so just reading without thinking about anything else. It’s a pretty relaxing and it feels even better if I’m actively learning something from it.

Michael Fogus (who writes a great blog) has posts on “extreme reading” and “reading for the rushed” which offer some great advice for reading more and better. I’m already a pretty fast reader (reading a couple of technical papers a week will do that to you) but one thing I’m interested in trying out is taking notes while reading. I normally hate marking up books, so I’m getting a small notebook (Field notes or Moleskine Cahier) and using that. I don’t know how this will work for fiction but for non-fiction I tend to come across lots of interesting facts that I would like to remember. For example yesterday while reading Martyn Amos’ “Genesis Machines” I found out that Turing was prompted by a friend’s death to start thinking about the possibility about moving human thought to non-biological substrates. These are the types of things I’d like to remember and maybe come back to later.

I’m leaving for India in a few weeks time which means lots of time on planes and away from reliable Internet connections. That in turn means lots of time and opportunity for reading. My Kindle is already well-stocked and I hope this time at home turns into a good start for a year of reading. Ideally I want to read at least a book a week. That might be a bit ambitious, but I won’t find out without giving it a try. For the time being though, it’s back to finishing “Genesis Machines”.

A Whole Lot About Books

Today’s post is just a collection of things about books. These are things that I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while, but none of them individually deserved a full post on its own. So I’m going to put them all together here and put them into a coherent narrative.

First off, you may have heard about the Kindle fiasco where Amazon removed a customer’s account without warning (or explanation) and then deleted all her books. Said customer’s account has been restored but it raises question about Amazon and the Kindle. I personally love the Kindle hardware and service, but I also want to actually own my books. I still buy paper copies of books that I want to keep and will read more than once. All my textbooks are paper too.

Luckily, many non-Amazon ebook vendors will provide DRM-free ePubs. If you have ePubs then the best reading experience for them is using the Readmill app on the iPad. They also recently added support for Adobe DRM, PDFs as well as books from the Kobo and Google Play store. Readmill will also sync your books to an online library and provides highlighting and social features to share what you’re reading. Highly recommended, I just wish they connected to Goodreads and Findings.

Unfortunately the Humble Bundle for eBooks has already ended. This bundle offered a selection of DRM-free ebooks (including some graphic novels) at your own price. The amount you paid got split between the authors, a number of charities and the Humble Bundle team. I hear that if eBooks counted all of these authors would have made the New York Times bestseller list. We can count this one as a success for DRM-free, post-scarcity publishing. You can sign up to receive notifications of later Humble Bundles and I hope to see similar bundles in the future.

A few weeks ago I reviewed Cal Newport’s excellent book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”. It offers examples and advice on forging a career that’s based not on nebulous definitions of passion but rather on cultivating rare and valuable skills. If you’ve been wanting to read this book but haven’t gotten around to it yet, here’s your chance. Social Books is a new online book. Members read one book a month, sharing and discussing it as they go along. Their first book is So Good and they’re starting November 1. I’ve already read the book but I think it would be a learning experience to do it again.

Last but not least, one of my friends from college has been writing a blog called Courtney Reads a Lot. If you guessed that it’s all about books, you guessed right. If you’re looking for new books to read or a constant stream of book-related posts subscribe to her blog.

That’s all for today. Enjoy your weekend and see you all next week.

Sunday Selection 2012-10-14

The past week has not been one of the most productive I’ve had, for a number of different reasons and some of them my fault. Partially in response to that today’s Selection has a time management and productivity focus, but hopefully one that’s different from staple fare in the area.

Around the Web

How to Create Time

The notion of creating time can be misleading: you can’t really get more than 24 hours in a day and youare biologically required to devote some part of those hours to rest and repair (probably). However you can make more time available to do the things that matter and this article gives some guidance on that.

Confessions of a Recovering Lifehacker

Talking about things that matter, the question it’s often surprisingly difficult to identify the things that do matter and then stick to them. Especially if you’re someone who’s a natural tinkerer there’s a tendency to invest a lot of time and energy into things that are actually pseudowork. I think this article than it strictly needs to be, but the four point recovery checklist at the end is worth remembering

Overworked, Overwhelmed, Overscheduled? Work More

Another controversial piece and probably not the best wording either. That being said, the point being made is worth paying attention: sometimes the best opportunities and most satisfaction comes from things that aren’t technically your day job. Even if you love what you do for a living, investing some time and energy into other areas might have interesting payoffs.

From the Bookshelf

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

First a disclaimer: I received an electronic copy of this book for free to review. But I can safely say that I would have been glad to pay for it. It’s not strictly about productivity but it attacks the higher level question of: What should I do with my life. The basic thesis is that instead of following some ill-defined notion of “passion” we should develop rare and valuable skills that allow us a choice of jobs and lifestyle. You can read my full review and buy the book on Amazon.