April 30, 2004

Getting Things Done by David Allen

book coverI got this from the library after reading about it in Seedlings & Sprouts. The book describes a methodology for keeping all your commitments outside your head where you can keep an eye on them and don't have to think about them all the time.

Eight or nine years ago, my then-boss got bitten by the Franklin Planner system (back before they became Franklin Covey) and sent everyone in his group to their seminar on how to use that system. The Franklin system consists of a binder with daily pages and reference pages in which you keep all your appointments and lists and notes and contact info. The seminar was pretty inspiring and I used the binder for a number of years. It was helpful to me to have all my stuff in one place even though I hardly ever used the calendar part or the daily record of events. The todo list eventually deteriorated into a constant dance of forwarding incomplete tasks off the days when I thought I might be able to do them onto future days (repeatedly... This may have had more to do with the state of my brain chemistry than any failings in the system per se ;-). But even when I was using the system semi-religiously it felt like kind of a coarse approximation of my perfect personal productivity system.

The system Allen describes in Getting Things Done feels like it might be a closer approximation.

I have a few comments about the book itself, then I'll put a bunch of detail about how the system actually works. I haven't done much in response to the book yet except reorganize my todo lists into new categories associated with contexts (where they weren't already... I was on my way to discovering this one independently)

For a book about organization, I didn't find it very organized. I had to read through the sections describing the system multiple times to get a clear picture in my head of what the system looks like and how it works.

The physical layout of the book bugged the heck out of me. It's got all these pull-quotes that overlap the margin such that the text has to wrap around them. Only they're not pull-quotes. There's two kinds of them. Some are paraphrases of the nearby text set in a sans serif font, while the rest are attributed quotations set in italics. Neither of the flavors fits into the flow of the main text so you either have to break the flow to read them or ignore them. I chose the latter.

Finally, the book could have used a good copyedit. I kept finding places where it was obvious that a sentence had been rephrased, but part of it was missed. It's not a major biggie, but that kind of thing does pull me out of the flow of the text while I read the sentence three times to figure out whether I just don't understand or if it really is wrong.

Okay, on to the system. First you need some buckets and lists:

  • An inbox
  • A trash can
  • A someday/maybe list (and/or tickler file)
  • A reference file system (ordered folders in drawers)
  • A project list
  • Files for project support information
  • A list of next actions (organized by context (calls, computer tasks, in office, at home, out and about, etc.))
  • A calendar
  • A list of things you're waiting for
  • A stack of things you need to read and review

To get started in the system you take all of your stuff out of all the places you're keeping it (stacks, closets, drawers, your head, etc.) and drop it in the inbox.

Then you go through your inbox item by item. For each item you decide which of the buckets it goes into: trash, someday/maybe file, reference file, or things I could be working on.

If it's a thing you could be working on then you have to decide whether it's a project or not (where a project is defined as something that takes more than one action to accomplish). If it is a project then you define what it is (what completion looks like) and put it on your project list, then figure out what the next possible action is towards that end and stick that in your next actions list.

If it's not a project then it's an action. If an action will take less than two minutes, you just do it. If it takes more than two minutes then either delegate it to someone else or defer it by putting it either on your calendar if it's a time-specific action, or in your next actions list if not.

When that process is complete you've got everything in the system. Then it's just a matter of working on next actions when you have time and processing new incoming stuff in the same way periodically to get it into the system, and reviewing the various lists periodically to determine if there are any new actions hiding there.

Allen gives a bunch of tricks for how to decide what to work on next and how to structure projects and such, but that's really just implementation details. The core of the system is just what I put here.

The thing that I expect is really going to help me is the concept of managing projects by "next action". I tend to get all obsessive about mapping out the entire process ahead of time, and I think working on the next action that leads toward the vision of the completed project will be a powerful focusing tool for me.

There's all kinds of other info on Allen's website, including his very own blog and an active discussion forum.

There's also a couple of mailing lists dedicated to discussion of how best to follow the methods in the book.

I'm in the process of working my way into the system for all my stuff at work. I'll post an update here with how it's going once I've gotten on a roll.

Posted by jeffy at 12:06 AM in Book Reviews | Comments (1)

April 29, 2004

Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson

blindlake.jpgThe title Blind Lake refers to a national laboratory type of installation in northern Minnesota. The lab is the second of its kind where imperfectly-understood quantum computers are being used to observe life forms on far-distant planets.

We initially see the community at Blind Lake through the eyes of a team of journalists, but shortly after they arrive, the lab is locked down with no one and no information allowed in or out. The lockdown continues for weeks and then months (the folks on the outside do send in food and medical supplies) with no explanation.

This is the least believable part of the whole book. Evidently in Wilson's version of the future, all radio technology has completely disappeared from the face of the earth. There's not a single transistor radio in this research lab, let alone an amateur radio rig or shortwave. Serious strain to my suspension of disbelief here. He could have fixed it, too. He had this big magic computer sitting there and could easily have claimed that it completely interfered with all radio signals, but if he took advantage of that possibility, I missed it.

Okay, setting aside that annoying hole, there were things I liked about the book. It unrolls at a slow, quiet, brooding pace that paradoxically made it more intense and suspenseful. Shoot, now that I'm thinking about it I'm having a hard time coming up with much positive to say about it.

All the SF-nal elements of the book seemed derivative to me. The computer/telescope/spy-camera felt like the wormhole cameras in The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter. Parts of the ending felt like I'd been reading Dan Simmons's Hyperion books. Or Sagan's Contact. The lab stuff felt like Robert J. Sawyer's Flashforward or Frameshift. The claustrophobic midwest siege setting was like Wilson's own Mysterium. There were other things that struck me as I was reading it that I can't remember now. I have a certain tolerance for borrowing stuff from other books as long as you're pasting them into something that sheds new light, but I didn't feel like Wilson pulled that off here.

I read the book at the insistence of a friend and his wife, each of whom had greatly enjoyed it. Halfway through reading the book I learned that it's been nominated for a Hugo. Clearly mileage varies.

Posted by jeffy at 11:17 PM in Book Reviews | Comments (0)

l'auberge espagnole

international posterThis movie opens with Xavier, a French college student, visiting a large corporation's maze-like offices to seek the advice of a family friend on how to complete his schooling to best position himself to attain a similar job after graduation. The advice he receives leads him to apply to an international exchange program called Erasmus. He is eventually accepted into the program and leaves France to spend a term (or a year, it's not clear) at a Spanish university. The movie from here is predominantly about Xavier's adventures in housing, culminating in his moving in with a wildly international group all sharing an apartment.

The movie is a wonderful portrayal of how a college experience can be almost utopian with shared adversity and purpose forging intense bonds of friendship. The residents of the apartment represent different countries of the European Union in microcosm, with all of them dashing the stereotypes about their nations of origin. They struggle to communicate through the imperfect overlap of their various languages. The plot is comfortably mundane. People fall in love and out of it. People argue about who is supposed to clean the bathroom.

US posterThe actors are all lovely to look at, as are the shots of Barcelona, but even setting the eye-candy aspects aside, the movie is still a kick to watch for its snappy dialogue, endearing characters, and interesting (if uneven) shooting style.

The movie poster up at the beginning of this review gives an accurate impression of the film as an ensemble cast piece. That's not the picture that was on the cover of the DVD we got from the library, though. The one we (and I have to assume most US audiences) got has Audrey Tautou front and center capitalizing on her recognizability following Amélie. Never mind the fact that Tautou's role as Xavier's girlfriend is a fairly minor one. That's the cover we saw at right.

Posted by jeffy at 08:01 PM in Movie Reviews | Comments (0)

April 23, 2004

PF: Junk

parking lot

Photo Friday

Posted by jeffy at 11:30 PM in Photo Log | Comments (0)

April 21, 2004

Lost Glove #16


Posted by jeffy at 11:13 PM in Lost Gloves , Photo Log | Comments (0)

April 20, 2004

Crow vs. Eagle

crow harrassing immature bald eagleRiding to work today along the Pickering Trail I noticed an immature bald eagle being harrassed by a crow. I watched and followed them around along the trail and through the underbrush and into the Costco employee parking lot and took a bunch of pictures. The eagle kept landing in trees and resting. The crow would fly around and wait him out. When the eagle took off again the crow would go back on the attack. The other people on the trail didn't seem to even notice the drama going on above their heads. Both the shots here are cropped from the originals. Click the thumbnails for all the resolution I've got (not much).immature bald eagle
Posted by jeffy at 09:35 PM in Photo Log | Comments (0)

April 19, 2004

Lost Glove #15

glove in a gutter

Posted by jeffy at 09:24 PM in Lost Gloves , Photo Log | Comments (0)

April 16, 2004

PF: Self Portrait

guy on a bike

Photo Friday

Posted by jeffy at 10:52 PM in Photo Log | Comments (3)

April 14, 2004

Casting Fortune by John M. Ford

castingfortune.jpgI've had this book for a long time and have been saving it to savor some rainy weekend since John M. Ford is one of those writers who doesn't write nearly enough books. I didn't know anything about it and thought it was a stand-alone novel. Then I saw a reference to it on a blog somewhere that gave away the fact that it's actually a collection of three stories set in the Liavek shared world. That was enough to bounce it onto the top of the stack.

For anyone reading this who doesn't know the Liavek books, they were a shared world fantasy series edited by Emma Bull and Will Shetterly. There were five volumes: Liavek (1985), The Players of Luck (1986), Wizard's Row (1987), Spells of Binding (1988), and Festival Week (1990). I only discovered the series long after it was no longer a series. It took ages to hunt down all the books. The authors of the stories are all people I had either read before or went on to read more of after reading their Liavek stuff. I think the story "A Cup of Worrynot Tea" (from Players of Luck) is what first got me started reading John M. Ford, so it's funny that I should later find I had bought a sixth Liavek book I didn't even know existed just because it had his name on the cover. (I usually don't read the cover copy on books, which explains how I missed the setting of this one.)

Well, and lo and behold, the first story in Casting Fortune is "A Cup of Worrynot Tea". I still like this story a lot. It's about a bunch of interlocking plots which all sort of simultaneously foil each other. The title phrase's meaning within the story still strikes me as a particularly fine bit of culture-building.

The other stories I didn't remember from my previous readings.

"Green Is the Color" is a murder mystery that first appeared in Wizard's Row. It was fun to read, but I think I bashed through it too quickly to get it.

The third story "The Illusionist" seems to be original to this volume. It's a multi-tiered murder mystery tied around and through the story of the rehearsal and presentation of a new play. Very complexly plotted and yet completely character-driven. Great suspense.

Good complex stories, all, just as I'd expect from the excellent Mr. Ford.

Pamela Dean recently announced that she has a contract to write a new Liavek novel so I have an excuse to go back and re-read the series. Not that I needed one. Update: My brain slipped a gear. Ms. Dean has a contract for a joint sequel to her (recently reprinted, yay!) Whim of the Dragon and The Dubious Hills. According to her live journal she is still working on a Liavek novel, but no contract exists yet.

Posted by jeffy at 12:48 AM in Book Reviews | Comments (0)

April 13, 2004

Midnight Bayou by Nora Roberts

Midnight Bayou coverThis is the second book in my foray into the world of the romance novel following Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me. I was reading it on the flight down to CA a couple of weeks ago and Becky expressed some embarassment at being seen with me ;-) The big pink "ROMANCE" sticker from the library might have had something to do with this.

The book starts off in 1899. Abigail is a house maid who fell in love with and married one of the twin sons of the household, much to the chagrin of the matriarch of the family. In the first chapter she is raped and murdered by the other (evil) twin and the crime is covered up by said twin and his mother. For some reason they can't bring themselves to similarly dispose of the woman's infant daughter.

The second chapter is set in 2002 and introduces Declan, a wealthy Boston lawyer who has ditched a woman he didn't love within days of going to the altar. He also dropped out of his law practice, and moved to Louisiana to work full time at restoring an old house he fell in love with on a spring break trip to New Orleans years before. Of course it is the same house as in chapter 1. Of course it is haunted.

To Roberts's credit, the plot takes some twists as it moves along that make it more interesting than this cliched setup would suggest. Her writing is clean and encourages plowing through the chapter breaks.

It's a very different book from Crusie's modern romantic comedy, but it's fascinating how many similarities there are between the two books.

  • Both have a wedding of minor characters in planning throughout that occurs coincident with the climax of the other action in the book.
  • Both have a main character, on seeing their love interest for the first time, hearing an inner voice saying words to the effect of "this one!".
  • Both have interactions with the dysfunctional parents of the principals.
  • Both have what I see as an inordinate amount of description of clothing and decor.
  • Both have some degree of supernatural implication that the characters should be together. (Bet Me has some strong coincidences, Bayou has more explicit appearance of fate. Descendants of the ghosts and reincarnations of them all get mixed up together.)
  • Both have a close family member of one of the couple being charmed by the other member.
  • Both have extraordinarily beautiful and charming leading men.
  • Both have leading women who are described as being less than stunning (Min in Bet Me is always described as overweight, Lena in Bayou is first described by the sentence "She wasn't beautiful, not in any classic sense.") and yet through the eyes of their leading men they are goddesses.

I'm not trying to draw any conclusions about the genre based on a sample of two, but the similarities are interesting.

Some of the most creative stuff in this book happens in its last third, but since I like to keep these reviews as spoiler-free as possible I'll have to just say that some novel twists rescue the story from banality.

Posted by jeffy at 08:28 PM in Book Reviews | Comments (2)

April 09, 2004

PF: Discovery


Photo Friday

Posted by jeffy at 06:35 PM in Photo Log | Comments (2)

April 07, 2004

Edie Brickell at the Moore

Edie Brickell on stage at the Moore in SeattleTuseday night we went to the Moore Theatre in Seattle to see Edie Brickell.

Like most people we first encountered her music when she had a few big hits as singer for the band New Bohemians back in the late 1980s. We've followed her through her various albums with New Bohemians, her great improv work with Jerry Garcia and Rob Wasserman in a couple of tracks on Wasserman's album Trios, and on to her solo albums. Her first solo album (Picture Perfect Morning) was okay, but not very exciting. It was over-produced and lacked the energy imparted by the excellent musicianship of New Bohemians. Here ten years later she has a new album out called Volcano. It's pretty good. And a good thing too because she and her band played all the songs from it but one at the concert!

In addition to the stuff from Volcano (two songs of which were first released on the New Bohemians album The Live Montauk Sessions), they did two numbers from Shooting Rubberbands At The Stars, "Oak Cliff Bra", and the obligatory "What I Am" (in a funky new arrangement). They also covered a great old Freddie Fender song.

This was the first show of the tour and it showed a bit. The mix needed a little work. The bass was way too loud and Edie's vocals were way too low. Overall the show felt a little over-rehearsed, a little tight, trying too hard to hit all their marks. But those relatively minor quibbles aside, we enjoyed ourselves. The band is really great. I couldn't catch all their names (Becky might remember), but all four, lead guitar (Charlie Sexton (the only one not in my blurry picture)), drums, bass, and keyboards were fun to watch and listen to.

I think Edie is at her best musically when she goes off-script so my favorite bit was the Fender cover where she seemed like she got to just relax and have fun instead of trying to reproduce the album experience. I suspect the later shows in the tour will be better throughout in this regard.

Here's a pretty accurate review from the P-I.

Posted by jeffy at 12:20 AM in Personal Interest | Comments (4)

April 04, 2004

Freaky Friday

Freaky Friday (2003)Cute, energetic Disney remake of their own movie (ala their 1998 remake of The Parent Trap). Stars Jamie Lee Curtis as the tightly-wound mother and Lindsay Lohan (who also starred in the new Parent Trap) as the rock-and-roll daughter who wake up one fateful Friday in each other's bodies. The plot is thickened by the fact that the Friday in question is the day before the mother's wedding. It's a pretty slight piece made entertaining by the gutsy performances of Curtis and Lohan.
Posted by jeffy at 06:46 PM in Movie Reviews | Comments (0)