3.26.2010

Information on Information


You may have noticed from my distribution of links that I have a bit of a man-crush on George Mason University's Tyler Cowen. So when Atlantic Magazine profiled him in its ongoing series, "What I Read," well, I just had to, um, read it. Given how well-read he comes across, I wasn't surprised to learn of the quantity and diversity of his information intake, although his casual comment, "If I don't have a social event, and am reading non-fiction, it is likely I will read a few books in an evening" - was startling; I believe Theodore Roosevelt was this prolific as well.

It got me thinking that it would be helpful for my own documenting's sake to answer the same question, and perhaps others may be curious to know what my approach to information consumption is. Because I am a consultant by day and a Christian at all times, accumulating and synthesizing information is one of two things - networking being the other, and yes I'm musing on a post about that subject soon - I feel I'm obliged to do as much as possible. Hence my drivenness in taking this task seriously - I find it enjoyable, but I also find it necessary to stay sharp, to stay informed, to stay on top of things.

To begin with, I watch zero TV and listen to zero radio. The only exceptions are fast-forwarding through a football or basketball game while I'm on the treadmill, and the few minutes a week that I'm in a car and will put on Q102 for the kids. Alas, this puts me woefully out of touch with the pulse of mainstream America, as evidenced by what show/movie/song everyone is talking about, or what commercials tell us about what we value. And, I realize TV and radio can be a really great source and a really efficient medium for high-brow stuff. But, it's just not my thing these days.

So for me, it's all Internet and print. On the Internet side, I check about 40-50 sites on a regular basis: econ blogs (ex: Cowen, Greg Mankiw, Paul Krugman, Tim Harford); columns (ex: Megan McArdle, David Brooks); political sites (Frum Forum, Keith Hennessey's blog); urban/governance sites (ex: Governing, Next American City); and other interesting aggregators (kottke.org, Chart Porn). I'd say I visit a handful of these daily and the rest maybe once or twice a week. (And, yes, "visit" is the right verb: I have them all saved as bookmarks on my desktop, and physically open them up, because I'm not savvy enough to figure out how to use RSS Feed or "follow" them on Twitter.)

On the print side, I read the Inquirer every morning while I and the kids have breakfast, and am usually able to get through the whole paper by the time dishes need to be washed. I use frequent flier miles to get subscriptions to Fast Company, Wired, and the Economist, each of which I try to read as soon as possible, either in the evening before bed or on subway rides. And I get about 30-40 free trade publications (our administrative associate knows to just roll her eyes when she brings the mail to my office and I reply with comments like "ah yes, Progressive Railroading . . . I've been waiting all week for you"), which I flip through during lunch at work, occasionally ripping out an article that looks interesting enough to actually read.

Speaking of articles that look interesting enough to actually read, about once a month, I have enough time at work to sift through emails and links I've sloughed off to a "Read Later" folder, and to make my way through about 100 sites I can count on for interesting publications: places such as the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, City Journal, and the Brookings Institution. Printing out executive summaries and short articles usually leaves me with a healthy stack of paper to power through on the occasional long train ride.

As for books, I keep a wish list at Half.com that is now about 600 titles long, and every few months, I'll order as many as I can find on the list whose price has dropped to less than a dollar (so long as I can get them all from the same seller, in order to save on shipping; yes, I am this cheap). So at any given time, there is a daunting stack of books on my desk that represents my to-do for the 30 to 90 minutes from the time the kids have gone to bed and when I myself am asleep. So, for example, next in the queue for my evening pleasure are a book on growing mid-sized companies, a biography of C.S. Lewis, an account of the general manager for the New York Giants football team, Halberstam's book on the Korean War, a devotional book by Presbyterian minister Sinclair Ferguson, and a book written in the mid-1990's by former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith about what cities will look like in the 21st century. By the way, I've become a serial book-reader: I have enough multi-tasking in my life, so when I start a book, I either finish it or quit it before I move on to the next title.

Of course, no account of information intake would be complete without a little frivolity. I have a pretty big stick up my you-know-what, so I don't have as much of the fun stuff as most, but I'd be dishonest if I didn't reveal my favorite time-wasting indulgences: the Onion (recent headline - "World's Leading Entomologist Calls For Someone To Get It Off"), Oddee.com (Funny Facebook Fails are always good for a laugh), the Baseball Reference blog (you know, because I actually do want to know how many players have reached base 4+ times in a deciding playoff game), and LeBron highlights on YouTube (I think I've watched his "25 straight points against the Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals" video about two dozen times by now). And I just splurged for Seasons 2 and 3 of Arrested Development and all three Bourne movies - all used, on Half.com, for less than $40 total, including shipping! - so I'll have additional indoor running entertainment content for quite some time.

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