9 books that changed the way I see the world

9 books that changed the way I see the world

I love reading. Actually, that isn’t really true. I hate reading. Takes forever, can’t watch TV or code at the same time, etc. What I really love are stories. More than that, I love the ability that some authors and books have of getting me to see the world in a different way. I’d like to share with you a few of the books that I’ve found especially thought provoking. I tried to keep it a mix of classic and modern, familiar and obscure.

In no particular order:

Wool by Hugh Howey – I started this series of five short books without really knowing what it was about. It was recommended to me by a friend that said I’d like it, but I’d like it even more if I read it without knowing the premise. He was right. This book is awesome, but if I told you what it was about then I’d be depriving you of the enjoyment of finding it out on your own.

The Plagiarist by Hugh Howey – Yup, another book by Hugh Howey. This one is a look into the future, when people have the ability to simulate entire worlds so accurately that the world’s inhabits don’t now that they are virtual. The main character has a rather interesting job: he copies the literary masterpieces from these virtual worlds so they can be sold in the real world.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – The story of a young child that is chosen by the world’s military to attend a special school designed to train soldiers to repel a future alien invasion. Being released as a major motion picture on November 1, 2013, but I guarantee you’ll be a happier person if you read this book before you see the movie.

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card – Another book by Orson Scott Card. The future didn’t turn out quite as great as everyone had hoped. Using newly developed technology, a group of scientists plans to go back in time to put things into balance. It sounds like a scifi, but even my wife (a scifi hater) liked it.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – An old classic that most people haven’t taken the time to read. If all you know of Alice in Wonderland is the Disney movie then you are missing out. Take the time to read it.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand – Whether you like this book or hate it depends largely on your political and philosophical views. I think the author’s views are a bit extreme, but nevertheless I think they accurately depict many of the problems faced by our society today.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow – Carnegie Mellon used to have a lecture series where professors would have the chance to impart their most important wisdom in a sort of “last lecture” format, as if it was the last chance they had to speak to the world. Randy Pausch, diagnosed with cancer, was invited to participate in this lecture series. This book is an extended version of his lecture and contains many gems of wisdom.

Added Upon by Nephi Anderson – An fairly old book that few people are familiar with. I’ve never seen a good e-book or reprint version, so I’d recommend spending the few dollars to get an old out-of-print copy. It is geared towards LDS members but I think it is a great read for any Christian. The story outlines the lives and interactions of several individuals, from before birth all the way to the afterlife.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott – This book may be a difficult read for some, but it is under a hundred pages so stick it out and finish it. Seriously. It isn’t that long, and all the good stuff is in the last half of the book. The book describes a two-dimensional world filled with two-dimensional beings. These sentient creatures are unaware of anything but their own existence, until one day a sphere introduces itself to a square. The square’s entire worldview is changed. This is one of the books that I feel can only be disliked if you aren’t willing to apply its message to your own life and understanding of things.

Well that is my list. Any suggestions on what I missed?

Photo courtesy of brewbooks under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

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My first iPod Touch

Last week I got my very first iPod Touch. I had a surge of traffic to my sites from iOS devices, and wanted to test to make sure my websites worked well on them (i.e., I wanted to make sure there were plenty of ads and that they showed up correctly).

My current phone is an Android. It works okay. Most, if not all, of its problems come from me being cheap and buying the least expensive Android phone I could. I don’t fault Android for this. I got what I paid for. However, I frequently hear that iOS is sooo much better and more intuitive and it just works and things like that, and that iPhone/iPod Touch is sooo much faster, etc. Well now that I have one I can finally compare the two side by side.

Note: For a more coherent review of iOS that states many of the points I list below, try this article. I especially liked this statement: “But I disagree that the Apple App Store is substantially better organized than the Android Market. Both are disasters.”

The first thing I noticed is that the physical buttons suck. The power button is meant to be pushed at an angle, so pushing down from the top or forward from the back doesn’t work well. If you aren’t used to this, it requires sort of an awkward whole-hand-gripping-the-iPod sort of thing. Even worse are the volume up/down buttons. I can’t find any angle of pushing on them that makes them easy to push. Surely I’m not the only one that finds the buttons hard to press.

The syncing process is, for the most part, pretty nice. I wasn’t thrilled about installing iTunes (last time I did, iTunes decided that installing Safari was an “update” that didn’t require my permission), but I really like that it will sync over WiFi without me having to plug in the device. What I don’t like is that if I install an app on my iPod, then delete it from my iPod, it somehow magically gets reinstalled the next time I sync. This is probably some configuration issue, but it is super annoying and doesn’t seem like a good default setting.

My real phone, a Samsung Intercept, has a physical qwerty keyboard. Sometimes I use the on-screen keyboard, and it isn’t too awful. The keyboard on the iPod Touch is pretty much the worst thing I’ve ever had to deal with. Aside from there being apparently 3 or 4 different keyboard layouts depending on what app you are in and what type of field you are typing into, it doesn’t have any modern input options that don’t require you to peck each and every letter. Maybe there are replacements out there that make it better, but my Android just works… I didn’t have to find/install a new keyboard app.

The ability to integrate pretty much any email/calendar service with the iPod is pretty awesome. I got my Gmail and Google Calendar set up in about 2 minutes without any issues.

The App Store, like Google’s Android Market, sucks. It is virtually unusable on the iPod unless you know exactly what you want. For example, lets say you are browsing the top 25 free apps. You get to the end of 25 so you click the “show 25 more” button. You then click one of those to read the description, then click the back “Search” button. Bam. You are back at #1. You have to scroll all the way down, click “show 25 more” again, then find where you were at. But only sometimes. Sometimes it works like I feel it should where it remembers where you are at. I’m pretty sure inconsistent button behavior is against the rules of good UX.

The LDS apps on the iPod Touch are awesome. Overall I like them much better than the Android equivalents. I especially like how the Gospel Library app, like Safari, can have multiple windows open so you can flip back and forth. Very very cool.

However, I often find myself missing the context button that Android has. In most Android apps, you can press the context button to bring up an expanded menu that shows icons with text. Apple, and many app developers, seems to think that everyone can decipher what their little text-free icons mean. For example, the Kindle app has a button that looks like “Refresh” but is actually “Sync”. Never would have known if I didn’t click it. It also means that sometimes you have to do weird round-about things to do simple tasks. For example, to delete bookmarks in Safari you have to either swipe the bookmark then click delete, or you have to click edit then select the items you want to delete. Why can’t I just long-hold on them to get a list of options? Maybe if I started on iOS I’d see the long-hold as being the awkward way of doing it, but I don’t think so.

The iPod Touch is super fast. Except when it isn’t. Like my Android, it is sometimes blazing fast and sometimes molasses slow. I haven’t found any way of closing apps on the iPod Touch, and I’ve already had to do a reboot to fix an issue with a core app (the Music app wouldn’t acknowledge me touching the screen, but every other app would). I’ve also had several brand name apps crash on me already. I can’t remember the last time an app on my cheapo Android crashed. I think app crashes and slow downs are just a fact of life. Apple doesn’t have it any more figured out than any of the other device manufacturers.

The iPod Touch is super skinny. It looks really nice and fits well in my pocket. I’d prefer a plastic back though. The metal looks gross most of the time because of finger prints.

Hey Apple, 2007 is calling, they want their proprietary ports back. Put a micro USB port on this thing!

And oh my gosh, if it makes me type in my password one more time I swear I’m going to shoot somebody. Why in the world should I need to type my password to “buy” a free app? No money is changing hands. I have plenty of storage space. Just install the dang thing and let me use it already. I ended up having to change my password to something shorter and easier just so I could actually use my iPod.

Overall, I’m not super impressed with iOS or the iPod Touch. It has pros and cons just like any other device. Its core apps and OS has bugs and slow downs just like Android (or any other mobile platform). The UI has weird inconsistencies here and there, and generally requires me to click more buttons to get things done. I can’t get rid of or hide core apps that I don’t want. The only thing it really has going for it is that it is pretty and probably works well with its expensive cousins (like the iPad and MacBook).

I probably ought to throw this in the “rant” category, too…

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Cheap, easy to customize PBX

I recently stumbled across an amazingly awesome set of tools: Twilio and OpenVBX. I’ll tackle each one separately.

First, Twilio. This service lets you purchase local telephone numbers from almost anywhere in the country for just $1 per month, 1¢/minute inbound, and  2¢/minute outbound. This may sound like a lot, but it is actually quite cheap. For $10/month you can talk for 15 hours inbound. And you get a $30 credit when you sign up, so really you can have months of service without paying anything.

If you want a toll-free number, it is only $2 per month (standard pricing for most providers), 3¢/minute inbound, and  2¢/minute outbound. Again, this is very very cheap for low-volume usage. I’m currently using Kall8.net and paying 6.9¢/minute inbound.

To make it even cooler, all the local numbers have SMS capability. This means you can configure your local number to accept and reply to SMS messages, or you can configure your system to send SMS reminders to you, or forward inbound SMS to your cell phone, or whatever else you want to do with your SMS capability. SMS is only 1¢ per message (inbound or outbound).

So now you have this local or toll free number, and you want to make it do fancy menu stuff. This is where OpenVBX comes in. This super easy to install software lets you set up all sorts of menus, text-to-speech, voicemail, call forwarding, whatever. So I could have a number that when you call, it checks if it is 8am-5pm, and if not sends it to voicemail. If it goes to voicemail, the system will do voice-to-text and email me the text of the voicemail. Otherwise the call will go to a menu that lets you pick whether you want to talk to me or my wife, and then forwards the call to the correct cell phone.

I’m pretty excited about all this. I’m porting my toll free number over which should save me a few bucks a month, and am working on a whole new website that relies on Twilio. The ability to programmatically make outbound calls (without dealing with the tediousness that is Asterisk) is pretty exciting.

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Pinterest needs some work

Pinterest needs some work

My wife convinced me to try out Pinterest. It is basically a normal bookmarking site that shows a thumbnail from the bookmarked site (not to be confused with a thumbnail of the bookmarked site). The thing that makes it so popular is that it is geared towards the kind of stuff you’d find in Martha Stewart Living, and the terminology/interface is geared towards non-techies.

And that is the problem. In addition to being geared towards non-techies, it also feels like it was made by non-techies. I’ve been using it for a few days and like it, but would love it if they’d fix a few things:

  1. Don’t force me to follow people I don’t know when I sign up. The signup process needs some work. I can understand suggesting that you follow some people, but forcing you to follow strangers wasn’t something I wanted to do.
  2. Give an option to hide duplicate items when browsing Pinterest. I hate it when something popular is posted and reposted and reposted, so all you see is the same stuff over and over and over.
  3. Create native extensions for Chrome and Firefox. The bookmarklet doesn’t work consistently. It doesn’t work at all on some of my browsers. Right now I’m using a third-party extension that lets me right click the image I want to pin. This works maybe 90% of the time, but I’d love to use an official extension.
  4. When I’m done editing or deleting a board, redirect me to my original page. This one drives me crazy. I go to my list of boards, I delete one, and somehow I end up at the homepage. Why in the world would they think I want to go to the homepage? I’m obviously interested in modifying my boards, so why not put me back where I was before I edited/deleted a board?
  5. Add an optional profanity filter. I suspect a huge number of their users are family-oriented or very religious. It would be awesome if I didn’t have to see the profanity put up by what I suspect is a very small minority. This is especially important when repinning from a board that has profanity in its name.

There are other minor annoyances, but those are the big ones (particularly #2).

Overall though I’ve enjoyed it. I’m currently using two boards. One is for DIY stuff I want to try, and the other is for recipes I want to try. It is much easier to find a recipe on a wall of pictures than a list of page titles.

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Why you should have an account at allthis

At the beginning of this month I stumbled upon allthis, a website that lets you buy and sell 10 minutes of people’s time. I was a little skeptical at first, but now that I’ve been using it I am hooked and absolutely convinced that it is going to be huge.

Here is how it works:

  • You signup and get some free time credits.
  • You use those credits to buy someone’s token.
    • Each person only has one token available at a time.
    • The token can be redeemed for 10 minutes of that person’s time.
    • Or you can hope someone else buys it from you at a higher price so you earn a profit, which you can then spend on someone else’s token.
  • Keep in mind that someone can buy your token, too, and possibly redeem it for 10 minutes of your time.

So why would you want 10 minutes of someone’s time? Well, maybe you are an aspiring novelist, so perhaps you’ll buy 10 minutes of another writer’s time to get their input on your idea for a new book. Or maybe you make websites and aren’t very good at social media and want some tips from someone that is. Or maybe someone just plain sounds interesting and you’d like to spend 10 minutes chatting. Or maybe you won’t redeem any tokens yet, and are just trying to build up a huge chunk of cash so you can buy someone famous when they join allthis.

Like I said, I’m convinced this is going to be huge. It is easy to use and engages the visitor. There is always a reason to come back (to spend more credits or to fulfill someone’s request for 10 minutes of your time). But most of all it is fun. Its like a people stock market.

Unlike Facebook or Twitter where it doesn’t really matter when you sign up, there will definitely be an advantage for people that signup early for allthis. They’ll have more time to build their virtual credit balance and so they’ll have easier access to more interesting people in the future.

So go signup! Not sure who’s token to buy first? You could always buy mine.

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Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day

Still in the oven

Last week I splurged and bought Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. This is quite possibly the best book I have ever purchased.

My wife and I are both familiar with making bread. She has a recipe for bread she loves, and I’ve made bread following several different recipes online. It always turns out good, but takes a lot of work and a ton of time to make. A book that claimed to let us make even better bread with just a few minutes of work made us both a little skeptical.

The book includes several different base recipes, and for each recipe there are many additional recipes that take a little more work. For example, you might take a base recipe and cook the dough a little differently and get pita bread or naan. To start, I did the easiest and simplest recipe in the book.

I was surprised at the ingredient list: water, yeast, salt, and flour. I had always been told that you had to add sugar to give the yeast something to eat, but it turns out this isn’t needed.

I was also surprised at the process: put the water, yeast, and salt in a bowl. Dump in all the flour. Mix it up. That is it. No waiting for the yeast to “wake up” and start doing its thing. No kneading the dough. I didn’t even have to pay attention to how wet the dough was. My first batch was very wet and my second batch was much drier, but both turned out awesome with literally no more than 5 minutes of effort.

Ready to eat!

Once everything is mixed up, you let it sit on the counter for a few hours, and then it is ready to either turn into a loaf of bread or stick in the fridge to use later (or both).

Creating the loaf was easy, too. Grab a ball of dough, let it sit for 40 minutes, slice the top however you want, then put it in the oven for 30. I’ve made 5 loaves so far and each turned out perfect without having to pay careful attention to timing.

You also don’t need much equipment. The bare minimum is a cooking stone (easily obtained at Walmart or Target) and a cutting board. If you want to go all out, you can make your life a little easier by using a pizza peel, a cooling rack, and a kitchen scale.

For our most recent loaf, Becca and I looked up a honey butter recipe (3/4 cup butter, 1/4 cup honey, drop of vanilla) and had the most amazing fresh homemade bread ever!

Anyways, buy the book. It is only $14.81 on Amazon, and definitely worth it.

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