RSS for work and play

RSS is a technology for subscribing to blogs (or changes to any other website).  That may sound like something only a database administrator could love, but it helps keep my professional work relevant:  it provides context.  Without it, I run the risk of becoming out-of-touch or too highly focused.

I used to follow RSS feeds just for entertainment.  Recently, though, I've subscribed to several useful kinds of RSS feeds related to my work, and I want to share how I set them up. 

Google Alerts:
If you log in to your Google account, you can click "alerts" on the main page of all Google services, or simply go to http://www.google.com/alerts.  There's a screenshot above.  A Google Alert simply monitors the Google search of whatever keywords you specify, and notifies you when something new is available in the results.  For example, instead of doing a Google search for "U2 new concert dates" every day to find out where the band will play, you could subscribe to an alert and let it notify you.  I've used it to search for press releases about my field.

Google Blog Search:
Google Blog Search is essentially a Google search that only returns results from blog postings.  This is useful for excluding commercial pages from your results and getting an outsider's perspective.  You subscribe to it through Google Alerts, but you pull down the "Result Type" menu and select "Blogs".  Unfortunately I've found that there is still a lot of what amounts to advertising in the results - blogging is free, so many vendors set up multiple blogs with posts automatically generated to describe their products.

Scientific publishing houses:
For me, this has been a grand slam.  Once I left the national laboratory system and its free access to the technical literature, it became very difficult to follow new developments in my field.  I was thrilled that scientific publishing houses like Elsevier and Wiley provide RSS feeds of new articles with any terms you like appearing in the article's title or introduction.  For me, the feeds have been rich, with an excellent signal-to-noise ratio.  If you're not a scientist, the equivalent might be the publishers of the trade journals for your profession.

Professional societies:
Whether you're an accountant or a structural engineer or a massage therapist, you probably have a professional society.  And it probably has a blog.  Whether you're a member or not, subscribe to find out what the hot topics are.

In some of these cases, RSS is taking over the function of the good old-fashioned email newsletter.  The difference is that I've chosen what content I want to receive, rather than relying on a curator to compile what they think is relevant to a mailing list. 
There's a trap that professionals sometimes fall into where their work provokes the response "this solves a problem I don't have".  You may recognize the tendency in academics and artists, where they become so deeply specialized that nobody outside a handful of their fellow professionals can comprehend, let alone use, their work.  Remember the mathematician who proved Fermat's Last Theorem a few years ago, despite Fermat having died 350 years ago?  Yeah, me neither.  Only maybe five mathematicians in the world were qualified to judge whether or not he had succeeded, and his work was relevant to no one.

Tracking these RSS feeds has made me much more in touch with what's going on in my technical community.  It's also given me a broader understanding of how advances in my field are relevant to others.  I felt some of the news was worth sharing, so I'm sending my coworkers a monthly newsletter (yes, I created a mailing list).  It's a little like blogging, and so far, people like it.  Not only that, but I've come up with more potentially patentable ideas in the last six months than in the preceding three years.  Reading about what other people are doing has really gotten my creative juices flowing.  Give it a try!