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Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Books I read in 2010

2010 is over and, like last year, here’s what I read during the year:

January

nothing…

February

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

March

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How.

April

The Definitive Book of Body LanguageThe Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the DarkThe Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four MealsExtreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change (2nd Edition) (XP Series)The Best That Money Can't Buy: Beyond Politics, Poverty, & WarBeing Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking

May

The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free PlayThe Count of Monte Cristo (Penguin Classics)

June

Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice SuccessfullyHow We DecideThe Ten-Day MBA 3rd Ed.: A Step-By-Step Guide To Mastering The Skills Taught In America's Top Business SchoolsBrain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Book & DVD)The Elements of Computing Systems: Building a Modern Computer from First Principles

July

Millennium Volume 2 La fille qui rêvait d'un bidon d'essence et d'une allumette The girl who dreamed of a can of gasoline and a match (French Language)The Road (Oprah's Book Club)Basic Economics 3rd Ed: A Common Sense Guide to the EconomyIn Defense of Food: An Eater's ManifestoThe Four Steps to the EpiphanyEat to Live: The Revolutionary Formula for Fast and Sustained Weight LossThe Alchemist

August

Understanding Comics: The Invisible ArtDracula

September

High Performance Web Sites: Essential Knowledge for Front-End EngineersAtlas ShruggedEven Faster Web Sites: Performance Best Practices for Web DevelopersLooking Backward 2000-1887 (Oxford World's Classics)Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope (American Empire Project)Flow: The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceCouchDB: The Definitive Guide: Time to Relax (Animal Guide)

October

Catch-22Millenium: Vol 3Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized AdaptationRuby Best Practices

November

Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of DataUncle Tom's Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (The John Harvard Library)The New PeoplemakingLolita

December

Scalable Internet ArchitecturesEssential SNMP, Second EditionDomain-Driven Design: Tackling Complexity in the Heart of Software

Notes

I read 42 books in 2010. That’s 8 books more than last year, or a 23% increase. I’m not sure how representative that is, however. It seems that, on average, I read about 3 books a month.

Out of those 42 books, 16 were audio books. (38%)

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Book Reading Opportunity Cost

Reading a book takes time.

The time you spend reading a book is not spent doing something else.

Opportunity cost: (source)

Benefit, profit, or value of something that must be given up to acquire or achieve something else. Since every resource (land, money, time, etc.) can be put to alternative uses, every action, choice, or decision has an associated opportunity cost.

Does it sound obvious? Lately, however, I’ve made a few such mistakes with respect to some books I bought.

Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged has been recommended many times, by many different people. Consequently, it raised above my threshold of consciousness and I had decided to buy it, read it and reach my own conclusions about it.

I have been to Chapters and I had remembered about Atlas Shrugged. Of course, it was in the shelves and I looked through it. What sealed the deal was the price: $10! How could I go wrong?!

Where did I go wrong?

It could have been an audio book.

I’m writing this with the book on my lap. It stands at 1069 pages in something that feels like 6-pt font. More so than other books I’ve had, I will feel the impact of the time invested in reading it. Even in audio, Atlas Shrugged stands tall with 63 hours of narration.1

I bought the physical book with good intentions. However, it has been gathering dust for a while now. I wondered when, if ever, I would have enough time to decide to read it.

If only I had bought it in audio format. But it was too late now… I had already bought it in paper format. Buying the audio book meant paying “twice”. There was something very unpleasant about that thought.

Opportunity Cost

Then, a few days ago, I realized that the $15 it would cost me to buy the audio book was not completely lost.

It meant that I could spend the time I listened to the book doing other things: dishes, chores, exercising. It meant I could start the book right away, instead of some perfect moment in the future, because I could do other things at the same time.

Am I happy that I paid twice? No. But the total cost of the book, $25 ($10 paper + $15 audio), must be contrasted against the time I just saved by not having to sit down while reading.

I have a few other books with which I will have to repeat this process. Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes to mind. That was another “cheap” book I bought in the spur of the moment. I’m learning this lesson about the total cost of a book.

Notes

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I never intended to make money with booklife. There were 3 objectives for that project:

  1. Practice Rails.
  2. Track my books, obviously.
  3. Be able to track my friends’ books.

Consequently, booklife has already fulfilled its purpose.

I’ve received feedback, but there’s only finite time I can invest in developing new features. Making booklife open-source would allow people to contribute and scratch their if-only-there-was-that-feature-I-would-use-it itch :-D

The code can be found on github. Clone it, fork it, patch it — please — I’m looking forward to learning something from you.

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Booklife goes Live

I read a lot … enough to write a webapp to track what I want to read, what I’m reading and what I read. I give you booklife.

Booklife is an application to scratch one of my itch.

How I use it:

  • when I hear about a book, I put it somewhere in my lists
  • when I’m batching books to get the free delivery, I pick from my “to buy” list
  • when I’m planning to go to chapters/indigo, I print out a list of books to check out

Because it’s multi-user:

  • I can check who read what books, maybe to get a recommendation, maybe to borrow them
  • you can get a feeling from people based on the books they read

I’m going to let people use it for a while and see where this goes.

What now?

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I recently finished the book “The Goal” by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. “The Goal” is a business novel about manufacturing. In many ways, it is edutainment. Would I have picked up a schoolbook on how to improve the performance of a manufacturing plant? Most surely not… However, it was recommended to me by different sources for different reasons and proved to be a very enjoyable read.

The book follows Alex Rogo who is given 3 months to turn his plant around. Not only must the plant stop losing money, it must show a profit! He meets up with an ancient university professor, a physicist, who asks him a few questions about his plant. At first, Alex believes the professor knows nothing about manufacturing, but, over time, he realizes the pertinence of the questions he was asked. This is the beginning of a Socratic relationship between the professor and Alex in which, unsurprisingly, he turns the plant and the rest of his life around.

What made this book appealing to me was that:

  • I learned a little bit about how plants work
  • I discovered along with Alex, very progressively, where and why things had gone wrong.
  • the lessons from manufacturing can be applied to your life!

Let me draw parallels between manufacturing and one time-consuming aspect of my life: reading books.

Let’s start with the following statements:

  • I read books to learn things.
  • more books will ever be produced than I can read.

With these two statements, I can already determine that:

  • the throughput is how many things I learn (I would like to maximize this)
  • the number of books I read will influence the number of things I learn — a naive and not completely true assumption
  • I am a bottleneck

A very important part of “The Goal” deals with how to discover and exploit bottlenecks.

Any bottleneck in a chain will determine the maximum throughput. If the objective is the increase throughput, the following questions are relevant:

Did every part really have to go through the bottleneck?

  • Couldn’t other machines accomplish the same work?
  • Was it a necessary part of manufacturing process?
  • Were some parts defective? (what’s the point of processing parts which will be rejected later)

Is the bottleneck being used 100% of the time?

  • Is the bottleneck ever idle? (during lunch, or breaks)
  • Could idle time be reduced with preparation?

From these, I adjusted the analogy and came to the following conclusions:

Couldn’t other people read these books for me?

Not directly. When somebody else reads a book, I don’t get the knowledge. However, I can use their recommendations to determine whether the book is worth my time or not. As such, other people serve as my QA in front of the bottleneck (me).

Did I have to read all these books?

I have read many books from which I found no value. Consequently, my QA process to determine what I had to read is flawed.

Also, I could get more throughput if I’m more willing to abandon books after I start reading them … something I have trouble with.

Couldn’t there be other ways to absorb the content of books?

The physical act of reading a book is limited. Reading a book demands a set of conditions: quiet time, extended periods of time, a comfortable environment. I discovered audio books around two years ago, as an alternative. An unabridged audio book offers, theoretically, the same value as a paper book. However, I can listen to an audio book while walking or doing chores; something I’ve been doing. From the manufacturing perspective, I just increased the number of processing hours available through me.

I also opened an account with audible.com and I get 1 credit every month redeemable against any book of my choice. I went through my book list and cross-referenced against the audible library. Of course, audio books are a solution for non-technical books, I can’t easily imagine being read SICP :)

In essence, I just created a parallel pipeline for non-technical books to be read to me when I’m doing something else. — so, I “read” more and also get more done.

Isn’t there more time to read?

The way to read more is to: read more. I make a point of sitting down and read even if I don’t feel like it. Most of the time, I get into it if I force myself for ~10 minutes.

Why is there so much content available only in books?

That’s a good one.

I think there will be a shift in the future. More screencasts, more educational games (something the author of “The Goal” did to explain the concepts of the books through a simulation game), and more video lectures.

I understand the historical reasons why books exist. I also understand the economy of books. Once again, I think time will tell.

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