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A few weeks ago I stumbled upon an app I’d wished for for years. It’s Blinkist, and you should try it too. Please. It’s for your own good.

Blinkist summarizes popular nonfiction books down to 15-minute summaries of their key points. Topics range from economics, current events, marketing and communications, motivation and self-improvement, and others. One day I jumped around from social engineering, the rise and fall of Yahoo, and the principles of essentialism.

Like many people, my reading list is far too long. Blinkist summarizes many books on that list so I can take their best lessons right away.

Naturally, as a person with a website who likes something, I’m writing about it. A basic breakdown of the good and bad qualities I’ve found so farm and if you should try it too. This is because I’ve mentioned Blinkist to many people and they always ask for more info. That’s a good sign I should just write a damn review.

The Short Version

If your time is valuable and you don’t want to read this whole post, here’s the short version: Everyone should at least try Blinkist. If you want more productive reading than mindless Internet fluff or the news cycle, this is your best bet.

The biggest sign this app is for you: If you’re dying to read lots of books but can never find the time. I would see great non-fiction titles on a shelf and not know where to start. If that’s you too, get Blinkist. If you’re excited by all these books but just settle on a few specific titles, it may not be for you. There’s a difference between wanting to read all the non-fiction, and liking some non-fiction. If you’re in the first group, Blinkist is a must. If you’re not, it’s worth a shot but many not fit.

Blinkist’s Features

Blinkist’s app is thankfully very simple. You can search through a library of hundreds of nonfiction books by category, new, trending, keywords, or custom collections. Finding new or related content is easy, so expect your “books to read” library to fill up fast. New books let you see a basic summary, people who’d find the book useful (such as philosophy nerds or marketing pros), and their different sections.

The books are split into 10-20 minute-long summaries. Each section has a main point or lesson to it. You can highlight specific passages and review them later, so taking notes is easy. The book’s last section is usually a quick review, action steps you can take, related titles, and a link to buy the whole book if you want more.

When you sign up you get three free days of full features. This includes premium features like:

  • Syncing your book notes to Evernote for fast reference
  • Sending books to a Kindle device
  • Biggest of all, access to the audiobook version of many books.

After your free trial’s up, you have to choose between $50 a year for a regular account, or $80 a month for a premium one.

You read that right: if you really want Blinkist, there’s no long-term free option. While it may cost less than a year of Netflix or Spotify, you need to pay the whole year in advance. So make sure you’re a real Blinkist fan.

With the basic stuff done, let’s get to the good and bad of my Blinkist experience so far.

The Good

  • Effective summaries do isolate main points. Some may be skeptical if Blinkist can really summarize 200-400 page books so well. Don’t worry, it delivers. Its reads are concise, to-the-point, and almost always the major takeaways you’d want the most. It doesn’t sacrifice quality for speed, it has an excellent balance of both.

  • Huge selection of varied and useful topics. Blinkist’s premise would fall apart if it didn’t have a massive, current library. Thankfully there are weekly releases, plus finding new content is easy. Just looking through a category will yield some eye-catching titles. Thankfully you can add them to a “Read Later” section to look at later.

  • Easy to review favorite highlights, especially with Premium. After a while your “finished reading” library can get huge. It’s hard to remember everything you’ve learned from all your books. The Highlights feature makes it easy to refresh your memory and fast. Premium puts them all in an Evernote notebook, which is even more organized and convenient but is just a bonus.

  • Very nice audiobook library for Premium. For me, premium’s best feature is the audiobook option for many books. Quality is great and are still fast listens. This lets you use Blinkist in even more circumstances, like driving or doing boring tasks. Folding laundry was more enjoyable while listening to a summary of Syria’s history. The bigger Blinkist fans like me will see this as a must-have.

  • Good for all devices. Blinkist works well on desktop, tablet and mobile. No matter where you’re reading Blinkist will have you covered.

The Bad

  • Lacks the depth whole books give. The biggest criticism I’ve heard from coworkers is that summaries aren’t as good as the whole book. I totally agree with this. I’ve read both the full and Blinkist version of several books - the full versions always win. They have more detail, give more action steps, and have more examples, studies, and memorable stories. That’s why Blinkist is limited to people who are more idea-hungry in general, not people focused on one or two specific areas. Otherwise the summaries will likely leave them unsatisfied.

  • Not expensive, but not free either. My biggest personal criticism is the lack of a long-term free option. I understand why there isn’t one, as summarizing so many long books isn’t cheap labor. I would still appreciate a free option with some limits, such as daily reading limits or ads between sections. This would mainly be so people have more time to try Blinkist before deciding to pay or not. The three day trial period feels way too short.

  • Some books start sounding similar. Books in a few categories can feel repetitive after some reading. Many motivation and self-help books I’ve read can be boiled down to taking personal responsibility, living by core values, not living by other’s standards, improving your physical health,to-do lists, and sleeping well. This applies to other topics like entrepreneurship and marketing, and likely others. This doesn’t mean Blinkist gets useless overtime. Just that you’ll need to look harder for newer reads.

In Conclusion

My main recommendation at the start is the same: if you’re a naturally curious reader with too much on your reading list, Blinkist is perfect. If your tastes are more selective and in-depth, be cautious before signing up.

Regardles, Blinkist is worth a look for any reading-lover and is a great app. Please check it out!

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November 29, 2015

Why I Switched to Jekyll

Even though I remade my personal website twice in the last six months, I did it again with Jekyll. Its benefits were too good to pass up.

It wasn’t an easy decision. My old WordPress sites each took weeks to develop. The styles, frameworks, loops, custom fields, and experience sucked up much of my free time. Why throw all this away for Jekyll?

Jekyll logo

Simply put, WordPress’s worst weaknesses were Jekyll’s best strengths. While I still love WordPress, it’s not the best fit for a personal website. The transition was worth it.

How are WordPress and Jekyll Different?

I can’t count the number of articles I’ve read comparing WordPress and Jekyll, so I recommend reading some first. If I had to chose one, it’d be this one by Hugo Giraudel. As with everything, he explains it better than me.

The short version is Jekyll is static while WordPress is dynamic. Jekyll takes code, creates some webpages, and gives that as a site. When you visit a Jekyll site, you’re reading pages made ahead of time. Whereas on a WordPress site, it stores important info like titles or post content in a database. The site pulls data from the database as you load the page, not ahead of time.

Each has their benefits and drawbacks, so choosing one should be done case-by-case. I even asked the author of the above article how he’d chose. His final point was Jekyll is better for smaller, simpler sites, while more complex ones with frequently changing data may be better for WordPress or another database-driven CMS.

Back to the point, why throw away a WordPress site I spent so long on in favor of a simplified Jekyll one? I have three main reasons. People who know both CMSs likely know what many are already.

Jekyll is Faster

This is the clearest perk: static sites run faster than database-driven ones. Requesting all that data from different parts of a database takes time. Getting info from a few static files is much simpler and faster.

It was clear right away this new site’s MUCH faster. From what I’ve read, websites should aim for load times lower than 3 seconds or risk visitors leaving. I’m ashamed to say the average load time for my old site was 8-10 seconds. This was not good, and happened for many reasons:

  • Requesting external dependencies
  • Lots of image requests
  • Getting web fonts
  • Custom loops, with some pages having more than one

For my Jekyll site, the average page load time is half a second. This is longer for pages with a few images, but is still around 2.5 seconds. At worst, my new site is 300% faster than my old one. At best it’s 2000% faster.

In terms of speed, it’s hard to argue with Jekyll.

Jekyll is Easier to Maintain

If I have one complaint about WordPress, it’s that managing the MySQL database is a huge pain. It’s another login to record, another code structure and language to remember, and making backups and/or restoring it’s either very confusing or time-consuming. Plus hacks can compromise the whole site, and the lengthy restoring process begins. Assuming someone remembers to back up their site. There are plugins to make all this easier, but the good ones often aren’t free and the free ones often aren’t good.

As Giraudel also mentioned, Jekyll doesn’t have these issues. There’s no database to back up or risk with hacks. No new complex languages to sift through. There’s HTML for the pages, Sass and CSS for the styles, and maybe some Javascript. There’s small touches of YAML and Liquid for adding WordPress logic, like loops and custom fields, but they’re easy to learn and manage. WordPress needs extra plugins or more complex PHP. Jekyll just needs another file or two.

For a personal site, this simplicity and ease of management is great. My own site is something I make in my free time, away from the stress of full-time work. The easier it is to control, backup and customize, the better. If it’s too much like work, I’ll be less likely to give it the work it needs.

My New Site is Less Serious

The big reason I put so much time in my old sites was I saw them as testaments to my work. A good-looking website means a good front-end developer, right?

Turns out I was wrong for two reasons:

  1. The sites looked good, but ran poorly. A site can have all the bells and whistles, but if they don’t load and function well then it doesn’t matter. So they did damage instead of good. It can even seem I’m over-compensating for weakness in other areas, like web performance.
  2. I should let the rest of my work speak for itself. A front-end web developer shouldn’t be judged mainly on their personal website. To some degree they should, since making sites is what we do. But it should mostly be by the rest of our professional work. By the work we make for clients and employers, not ourselves in our free time.

So hopefully with this new site, I’ll better balance taking myself less seriously while still putting a good face forward.

In Conclusion

I won’t pretend my new site’s perfect. I have to do the things WordPress used to automate, like SEO meta fields. Plus there’s the usual domain name issues I deal with in any new website.

But weighing the good against the bad, I stand by Jekyll. Like most sites it’s actively changing, but this way making them will be simpler, faster, and safer. For a small personal site, these are the most important traits that Jekyll has in spades.

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You likely didn’t know, but today’s the start of Asexual Awareness Week! If this confuses you, please read on to learn all the essential info.
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With so much info out there, I’ve recognized something important: The more we need to learn, the less we need to memorize.

Memorizing it all is too much

It’s no secret that information online get overwhelming fast. Everything on social media streams, news sites, career-related info sites, e-commerce stores, and whatever else Google throws at us, it all adds up. Yet we’re expected to keep up on it all, whether for our social lives or our jobs.

We’re well beyond the point where one person can know it all. More info is added to the Internet every second than we could ever imagine.

The bitter part is, even if we could learn it all, we likely wouldn’t use all that knowledge anyway. Most news articles I’ve read brought a moment of clarity, a second of catharsis, and then nothing again when I flipped to the next one. I rarely needed that info once I let it go.

So the question you’re likely asking, and have asked yourself many times before, how do I effectively keep up? Remembering it all clearly isn’t the answer.

Memorizing, thankfully, also isn’t needed

Think of remembering online info like remembering a map of your town. You don’t know each road off the top of your head – but if someone gives you enough details about any area, you’ll know right where to look on a map. So if someone wants to know where a church is and tells you some nearby roads, you’ll know just where to look and give them directions.

  • Take quick notes: skim through books and articles, only stopping to copy info to use later. For most of my web development books, I take quick snapshots of useful code snippets, remembering their basic uses and not the specifics. I personally recommend Evernote but there’s many other tools out there.
  • Sort out useful resources: If you’ve got tons of useful links, organize them to more easily find what you need. This can be through color-coded documents, Excel spreadsheets, or you can get ambitious with a searchable, filterable data table for anything you find.
  • Skim and highlight eBooks: Reading ebooks on computer or tablet devices saves lots of time, since all the info’s at your fingers. But this also means you can suffer information overload very easily. So find an e-reading tool to quickly highlight passages, add notes, and if you’re lucky, export your notes to new documents. The only tools I know now to do this are iBooks and using a Kindle Paperwhite, but often only for certain book types. Otherwise, you may need to resort to screenshots or copy-and-pasting.

The major takeaway for the next time you’re reading online is this: don’t worry about remembering it all. Instead know where to look when you see a chance to use it. Keep the source in the back of your mind, save it with something like Pocket, or simply write it down. Worry more about locating info than remembering it.

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There were many things in my semester abroad that intrigued or fascinated me, but only a few that flat-out confused me. Italy’s biggest mystery was the Mystery of the Exploding Bike.

The Explosion that Makes Almost No Sense

It started on a regular day in Florence, Italy, just taking a stroll, when I suddenly passed by a pile of ashes, metal parts, and dust next to the sidewalk. It was right where citizens usually park their bikes, so my first thought was somehow a bike caught fire and burned into the street.

Definitive diagnostic research from me staring for a couple moments concluded a bike probably exploded here.

First I was upset I didn’t see the fire, I also realized there were lots of confusing clues around the explosion site. The biggest was from looking at the bikes lined up next to the one that blew up.

These are the bikes lucky enough to see the cool explosion, at extremely close range too.

All these bikes, while still technically standing, got burned pretty badly. Their seats were charred, the ground around them also burnt, and huge chunks of their bodies were disintegrated. This means the first bike’s explosion must’ve been so big it scalded all these too.

I’m no expert in Italian engineering, but I still can’t wrap my head around how an explosion from one scooter could have enough power to reach the length of four other scooters. Unless some combustible wine bottles were in the trunk, it’s a stretch.

Now it Makes even LESS Sense!

It gets even weirder with the direction of the explosion. In the many times we’ve seen cars blow up in movies, the explosion goes out in a pretty even, circular shape right?

Look closely at the ground in the next picture. There’s only damage in one direction, and it goes directly towards the other bikes. It barely even goes over the bike lane into the main street.

One theory: the explosion had a vendetta against all the other bikes.

I first thought that all the bikes simply caught on fire, but that wouldn’t explain why the bikes get progressively less burned as the move away from the destroyed one. The explosion is still my best theory.

So this explosion, not only is it oddly powerful, it’s also oddly focused in one direction. And I mean only one direction. On the other side of the bike, the nearby car had no damage other than a melted bumper, despite being just a few away.

One would at least expect someone to be yelling over the damages, in Italy or in America.

For some added weirdness, notice that even though the ground isn’t scorched around this car, the trunk door and rear lights are badly damaged. This raises even more questions:

  • Was the fire’s sheer heat strong enough to do this?
  • How did the rear lights around the trunk door melt, but the glass right between them come out just fine?
  • How is that old man in the red car not been staring at all this while waiting at the light?
  • Do insurance companies in Italy cover these kinds of phantom explosions?

A Forever Mystery

To this day I can’t think of a rational explanation for how a bike could explode with such a powerful, yet limited, range. The best one I have is that the spirit of a baby fire bull was born in it, breathing a short-range fireball on the other bikes before fleeing.

Then I realized this makes no sense. I would’ve seen the fire bull’s tracks leaving the scene.

So the Mystery of the Exploding Bike in Florence will, at least now, remain unsolved. But may that’s a good thing. Digital living gets us used to having easy answers available, so having someone that defies all this is refreshing. It even gives us a sense of wonder, reminding us there’s still some things we’ll never really know. These are things like the meaning of life, the nature of reality, why Internet Explorer is still taken seriously by some people, or just little things like how a bike in Italy exploded.

Something forever unexplained is basically the same as magic, so if not knowing something brings is a little magical, I’m fine with that. Ignorance can be more than bliss, it can be a blessing.

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March 02, 2015

Short Posts Are Okay

This is a reminder to everyone, especially me, that just because something you write online is short doesn’t make it bad. If anything, in today’s Internet, shorter is better.

People are always flooded with info, so they want their info to be short, sweet and fast. Have one key idea and make it easy to read. Even with longer posts, the big idea must be right at the very top, short and clear.

Many think longer posts must be better, since long posts send many messages about the writer: being intelligent, well-spoken, hard-working and thorough. It doesn’t look like you’re oversimplifying or skipping big details.

However, short posts send good messages too. Messages more important in today’s internet.

You know your message well enough to say it simply. As Einstein would say, that’s a sign you really understand it. You know people are busy and don’t want to waste their time. You’re confident your post will be good without overcompensating by piling on more content. Simpler ideas and content are more shareable, which is always an asset today.

It often takes more skill to make a short post as good as a long one. So keep your short post writing muscles strong. It doesn’t take as much time as writing long posts, so you have fewer excuses not to.

Short post writing done right doesn’t mean a lack of intelligence – it means focused, efficient intelligence. Without that, intelligence today doesn’t have much use on the Internet.