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Product Review

Blinkist – Review

Blinkist is a service that provides 15 minute non-fiction book summaries, both in text and audio form. They have over 1000 books, and I have gone through their catalog and they have a lot of books I felt were interesting (including several that I bought years ago and never got around to reading).

I got the Premium version from AppSumo, which was in a sale for US$20 for the first year. It includes audio books, syncing with Evernote (which I didn't try was it wasn't clear to me what access they get), and sending books to Kindle. Usually it US$79, which I'm not sure is worth it.

At US$20, however, I have rather liked it. I tried a book I read before (an Elon Musk biography) and while the summary naturally didn't have the depth or enjoyment of the book, it did cover most major points – and took me well under the 15 minutes to read.

Personally, I read several dozen books a year, but there is always a huge list of books on my to-read list.

I have tried their apps on the web, iPad and Android. The apps worked well on all platforms, and include highlighting and sync. The only problem I noticed is that on the iPad, the books I added to my library on their site didn't show up. On Android this worked fine. I read several books(4), which all had some useful insights, and heard a couple of audio books on the treadmill. I felt that the audio was very clear and the voice was pleasant.

I noticed that my reading time, even using highlighting, is well below the quoted minutes time (I used to read at 600WPM, although I haven't tested lately).

Overall, the service seems pretty useful, and is worth looking into – specially if you don't have to time read as many books as you want. They also a free trial.

PS: I don't get paid if you use the link on the review box (the More Details button) , but I do get 7 extra days of service.

 

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Product Review

Become a SpeedDemon: Productivity Tricks to Have More Time – Course Review

Become a SpeedDemon: Productivity Tricks to Have More Time is a course on productivity by Jonathan Levi – author of Become a Superlearner (a much longer and better course, BTW).

It is nicely short and to the point, and there are some useful tips there – such as:

– prepare before starting a task, so that you don't have to stop in the middle to look for what you need

– batch similar tasks together

– keep SMART priorities (also featured on the very nice and free Learning to Learn course)

– create artificial deadlines (such as doing a task before your next meeting) so you don't spend time on pointless details.

– use the pomodoro technique (also featured on the very nice and free Learning to Learn course)

– keep a list of short tasks for when you have a few free minutes – so that you don't have to think about it or just kill time (review flash cards, view a lecture on an online course, etc)

– some sleep tips (I had seen most of these, but the one about using smart led bulbs was new to me)

– general outsourcing advice

– try to avoid excessive decisions – can cause ego depletion.

The format is the usual – video with a extra PDF and many links. Udemy is pretty good overall, and you can speed up the videos and there are apps for most platforms. No closed captions on this course, however.

Conclusion

Somewhat interesting, but nowhere near the asking price – US$199. You should be able to find a discount if you look around or on some Udemy sale – at US$15 it is useful enough and I can recommend it.

Categories
Product Review

Enterprise WPF with XAML and C# from Scratch – Course Review

Just finished Enterprise WPF with XAML and C# from Scratch, by Jesse Liberty, in PluralSight.

It covers the basic of XAML with C# – panels and controls, data binding, animation, styles and templates.

The course is very short (less than 3 hours for me, while taking notes)  and to the point. You won't get in depth knowledge on the subject, but you will learn all the basics you need to get started quickly.

On a personal note, this is the second course I take with Jesse Liberty – the first course was Object-Oriented Analysis, with ZD University, back in 1998 – which was also the first course I took online.

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Product Review

Safari Books Online – Review

Recently I got a notification from O'Reilly on a 50% off sale on SafariBooksOnline.com (Safari Books Online). I haven't really paid any attention to them in years, but now that they supported iPad/Android apps it seemed interesting. And given how much I spend on tech book and courses every year, US$199 seemed about right, so I signed up.

Selection

The book selection seems great to me. There are technical books and courses on pretty much every subject relevant to me, plus whole conferences – which can each cost about a year of the site would.

One of the biggest advantages of the service is quickly making a search for a topic you need now and getting good, detailed references you can see now, inside any book or video. No more buying a book that supposedly covers what you need just to find out it is just a vague chapter in the middle of it!

Web

Accessing via the Web is the best for books. Highlights are easy, can private or public and include notes. Now, for videos I really miss having speed selection – which is very, very common these days. I still haven't seem a single video of them with closed captions yet.

One thing I really miss is reviews for books and courses. Even if they are included in the price, the time I spend on them is not free. So if I want to I need to go elsewhere to learn if my time is well spent with this book/video.

iPad App

I have used the iPad app quite a bit, as it is much more comfortable than sitting at the computer. The app works well overall, looks good, is very responsive and allows downloading of books and videos. I read complaints of problems with some books, but I haven't noticed anything yet. Going back from a link on a book can be a little jarring as it speeds up from the start of the chapter to where you were when clicking the link, but that is not too bad.

You can highlight passages (which I do a lot in preparation for later doing notes – which is strongly recommended on learning research). You can't add notes, though.

I had a problem with highlights disappearing – which might be related to using the Android app on the same book or not, I don't know. Either way, very annoying.

They have a nice chat built-in in the app. I have reported the highlights problem yesterday, but no response yet – should be expected as it is the weekend. I'll update this later if I get an answer.

Video is OK but has the same problem as the web version – you can't speed up/slow down video and no closed captions.

Update (30/Dec/2015): I have contacted support many times. Most times, I don't even get an answer. The iPad app is still pretty buggy. About 5 times it deleted all the books I've downloaded, including in the latest iOS update. This time one of the largest books just lost all my highlights, and won't re-sync them again. Luckily the highlights can still be accessed from the web version.

One of their most annoying bugs – highlights sometimes highlighted the WHOLE CHAPTER – seems to have been fixed.

Android App

I have only tested the Android app briefly for a simple reason – it doesn't even have highlights! This makes it mostly unusable to me.

Update (May/2016): They have added highlights to Android! I'm a little impressed that I updated my review on Google Play to mention the highlights and complain about the lack of feedback when loading the highlights (5 minutes for a large book I'm halfway through), and they answered a few minutes later.

Tutorials

There is a new section on the site with tutorials. So far what I have seen is just links to videos and sections of books that you already have access to. I think it is a nice idea on getting better use of the collection by curated topics. Apparently, this will cost US$15 per month or US$35 per course – in addition to the normal price.

This price might be reasonable or not, depending on where they go with it. They have a survey which include options such as exercises and assessments, which might make it reasonable, specially if they do something like Pluralsight with PDF certificates you can get after each tutorial.

Update (May/2016): I think they gave up on charging for the tutorials – which is a big win for all their users.

Windows App

For those in the go, some way to deal with being off-line and having access to the content would certainly be nice. But this still has only “Coming Soon” on their site.

Conclusion

Overall I like Safari Books Online, but mostly at the discounted price I got. At full price it is reasonable only if you really view conferences or video classes, otherwise it is much cheaper to just get the books. The apps could certainly be better, but I understand this new version of the service is relatively new, so I hope they improve with time.

Update (May/2016) – The apps have improved with time and are much better now.

Update (November/2017) – It is interesting to note that for the first time, a book I read was removed. I wouldn't mind so much, but I was still going through the highlights I made to make my notes. Thankfully, although it disappeared online I still had a downloaded copy on my tablet.

Something to keep in mind for those that add notes and highlights to books. You might want to keep your notes somewhere else.

The apps are better. In particular, selecting on Android is much better. There are still times when it doesn't download all the highlights, though.

 

Categories
Product Review

Learning How To Learn Course Review

Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects is an excellent free course on Coursera.org that shows very useful techniques on how to learn more, faster.

The course is full of ideas based on actual research (instead of guesswork, which unfortunately is way too common in education) on the best ways to study and learn.

It covers many areas, including the most effective ways to study and retain material in many areas, avoinding procrastination, improving your memory and more.

I spent about 8 hours with the course, including some of the supplementary readings.

Overall, strongly recommended, and full of valuable tips you can use your whole life.

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Product Review

Software Security Course – Course Review

I have recently finished the Software Security course by Michael Hicks, from the Maryland Cybersecurity center.

I felt the course was interesting and useful. It covered:

– Old school buffer overflows/format string attacks and defenses

– Web attacks such as SQL injection, Cross-site Scripting, Cross-site request forgery and Session hijacking.

– Automated Tools – code review, static analysis, symbolic execution

– Penetration Testing

Classes are in a video format. There are projects (nicely presented in a Linux VM – I didn't do these), several suggested readings and quizzes.

Most of the classes have closed captions, and Coursera allows to speed up videos, too – even in their iOS/Android apps.

The course took me about 14 hours, including the interviews (which are considered optional, and are somewhat interesting).

Overall, very useful, specially for newer programmers. I'm sure if courses like this were required for most programmers, the landscape on cybersecurity today would be very different.

A lot of the general safety practices (defensive programming, etc) can be found in the still very good Code Complete 2 – which I recommend reading anyway if you are a programmer.

Categories
Product Review

LinkedIn Strategy: Optimize Your Profile – Course Review

LinkedIn Strategy: Optimize Your Profile is a great course in Pluralsight by Jason Alba that covers a lot of ways in which you can make your LinkedIn profile more effective – and also some suggestions on how to improve your networking in the site.

There is plenty covered, starting with your picture, professional headline, summary and going into how to use rich media, how to get (and give) recommendations and more.

A particularly interesting tidbit is how to re-use recommendation lines on your summary, experiences, sites and more.

Conclusion

Overall, I found the course to be very useful and full of interesting techniques and suggestions. I think that if you use his ideas on your profile, it will be much better and more useful. I definitely need to spend some more time on mine.

Recommended, specially if you already have a Pluralsight subscription.

Categories
Product Review

Pattern Discovery in Data Mining – Course Review

Recently I completed the course Pattern Discovery in Data Mining – by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in Coursera.

It was interesting but had a fair theoretical slant. Still, I learned about a lot of algorithms I was not aware about before in the area.

The course is free (you only pay US$50 if you want a certificate, but it doesn't likely to be useful to me), and part of a larger specialization sequence in Data Mining, which seems to have more practical courses.

Coursera was pretty good as usual. I particularly like their iPad app, which allows you to download, speed up videos (quite useful in this case) and has full closed caption support.

Recommended to people interested in the area.

 

Categories
Product Review

The Essential Guide to Entrepreneurship – Course Review

I just finished The Essential Guide to Entrepreneurship – by Guy Kawasaki. Guy Kawasaki is fairly well known, specially as the Chief Evangelist of Apple (and now Canva, which you will hear about if you get the course). He is also the author of several books, including The Art of The Start (on the same topic as the course), The Art of Social Media, and several more.

It is a new, interesting course about Entrepreneurship divided in these segments:

Launching – Ideas on how to come up with a product, position it, and how to avoid common mistakes. It is the only pre-launch segment.

Pitching – how to pitch to investors, angels or venture capitalists. Clearly one of the big topics for the course.

Fundraising – types of funding, how to find investors, types of investors and rounds of financing.

Building a Team – advice on how to build your team – what to look for, how to get a good fit, checking for references and getting people to join.

Social Media – mostly generic (use pictures/videos, repeat tweets, etc), but does have some good advice on how to use specific platforms best.

Evangelizing – how to make people want to spread the “good news” about your company/product.

There is a bunch of supplementary files (PDF), some of which are quite useful. Check the image on the side for the list.

The course took me about 6 hours to complete, including taking quite a bit of notes.

Supplementary files
Supplementary files

My notes from the Course

I had a ton of notes, this is just what I felt is most interesting/useful. I'm adding my own comments in italics.

Launch

Getting your idea – use simple questions, such as “Is there a better way to do this?”, “How can I make it better”.

Look for the intersection of opportunity, your experience and passion.

Ideas are easy, implementation is hard.

Get a prototype ready – just asking people if you'd buy a concept is limited (a common theme on the topic – Nathan Barry and others suggest pre-selling to actually check for interest – that is when you really know if someone is interested and when they will ask the hard questions about your product)

Use a mantra (2-4 words) instead of a mission statement. Do with a co-founder, through trial and error, keep it logical and short. Think about why are you doing, and what you are trying to do.
On launch, tell a story using simple questions used before to stand out.

Worry about getting critical mass instead of scaling – it is much more likely to be a problem (can't help but be a little wary of this as a programmer – architectures tend to go very bad when you need to overhaul them after design because you ignore scaling. Obviously makes some sense on corporate infrastructure)

Watch out for the chasm between the early adopters and going mainstream – Early adopters will accept a lot that mainstream won't.

Ease of use can be more important on social media – old press reviewers tolerated a lot more complexity.

Common mistakes
– scale too much, too early
– hiring mirror images instead of having a diverse team with complementary strenghts.
– obsession with control

No one vests stock early – anyone can decide to leave at any time.

Doing a vc demo

  •  only do it when ready
  •  have backups for everything
  •  use a local server instead of trusting the net
  •  be ready – do the whole demo before and be sure of where everything you need are
  •  fast start
  •  do it alone, coordination is hard
  •  no jokes or jargon
  •  questions only at the end
  •  start on a high,  show how it works, end on a high

Pitches

Think Tinder, not eHarmony – fast, not deep.

Preparation, 20-25 times before you go it, practice is key.
Start with a personal story on how/why you made the product/got the idea
10/20/30 rule, 10 slides, 20 minutes, 30 size font
Small size fonts might make you add too much text and read from the slide. Don't.
Every time you state a fact, pretend someone said “so what”
Next level, after “so what” explanation, “give me an example”
Avoid adding answers to every question you are asked to the pitch, but keep the most important ones in mind and consider rewriting the whole thing periodically.

Dream pitch: explain what you do, talk about the magic, demo, show that you already
have users.

Bring backups for everything. Even printed slides just in case.

What to avoid

  • talking about patents as a big deal, require cash and time to defend
  • don't say you are the only one who can do something
  • don't say you have no competition, either you are clueless or there is no market
  • don't claim your projections are conservative
  • don't try to invent scarcity,i.e. Say they have to decide soon because you have other offers.

The Pitch Checklist/Dream Pitch and Pitch makeover supplementary files are all quite useful.

Fundraising

  • 3F, friends, fools and family – good for 25-100K
  • Angels 5-500. More interested in giving back to society, faster decisions.
  • Venture capitalists – look for bigger scores. 3-4 thou a year deals worldwide
  • Crowdfunding. No equity share, proves there is a market for the product

Easier with proxies, such as corporate finance attorneys, professors, executives already in the VC portfolio.

Team Building

– shared qualities – vision, size, timeline, commitment
– different attributes – expertise, orientation (detail vs strategic), perspectives

What to look for:
– work experience, education, do they get it (shared vision)

Checking for fit
– interview by phone first, to remove variables
– should have a strong positive reaction when you see a candidate (uh, isn't that the inverse of the previous one?)

– use linkedin and find people that worked with them for references.

Do it so that they feel they can do the best work of their lives and make a difference

Recruting is never done, even after someone is hired
Map – mastery,autonomy, purpose

Supplementary:
Top 10 lies of job candidates
Big vs small company skills
Questions for reference checking

Social Media

Don't get an intern to do this – it is too important.

  • Pinterest , for photo worthy stuff, such as fashion, restaurants,etc. Posts have a longer shell life
  • Instagram – good topics are the same as Pinterest
  • Linkedin – more for the serious bizdev, b2b, contacts stuff
  • Buffer, Hootsuite, Sproutsocial – don't focus on twitter, Google plus and FB, just blast at them using an app

Pay attention to the cover photo, it is an important marketing image
Tagline, should be your mantra or near it
Repost tweets and posts several times.

Every post should have a graphic or video
Recommends letting FB grab the image from the link, not add it manually. Several times more engagement this way.
Twitter, can add up to 4 images and tell a little story. Can also tag people in the images and these do not count as chars on the tweet
Get more engagement/view by posting video directly to FB.

Best practices for sharing:

  • be brief – 2 or 3 sentences for G+ and FB, 100 chars on Twitter. 500 to 1000 words on blog posts.
  • have pictures, graphic or video on everything.
  • post early in the morning (test!)
  • link to the source
  • use bullets for posts longer than 4 paragraphs
  • use popular title schemes. (there is a list with a few)

Try promoting posts where available. or pin to the top of the page on fb and twitter for free.
Automate your posts  – Buffer, DoShare , Friends+me, Hootsuite, Post Planner, Sprout Social, Tailwind, TweetDeck (article actually has descriptions of each)

Conclusion

I feel that the course was not a great fit for me, because pitching, fundraising and evangelism are the biggest topics and don't really apply to most of my ideas. If these are of interest for you, it is bound to be much more useful. A little too expensive (US$200, I got it at US$40 otherwise I'd be getting a refund) for the amount of content in the other areas.

Categories
Product Review

XAML Jumpstart: Getting Started With XAML – Course Review

Just finished XAML Jumpstart: Getting Started With XAML, by Kevin Dockx.

As someone coming from Delphi and with no XAML experience, XAML looks very, very powerful compared to Delphi forms (of course some might say it is unfair to compare a tech that is essentially from 94 to one from 2006, and that the proper comparison is with Firemonkey now).

I love how easy it is to do complex composed elements with DataTemplate (which would require very annoying custom drawing in Delphi), and the data binding system to classes seems great. Clearly auto-resizing/adaptive design was a big deal from the start. And the animation support looks pretty cool, too.

I'd love to see the full WPF stack get implemented on Mac and Linux, too, like the CLR. But I haven't heard about any efforts in this area and from what I understand it would be far from trivial. (I know about Xamarin.Forms, but it is not exactly the same).

I also found this blog post by the teacher about the future of XAML to be interesting.

The course and examples were quite clear and informative. The only thing I'd mention is that sometimes I'd have trouble understanding the teacher's accent, but while on the PC closed captions solved this.

Official duration is 3h 14 min. I spent almost 5 hours, due to taking notes and trying out the examples (and watching the videos at 1.1x speed).

Pluralsight – short review

This is the first course I completed in Pluralsight. I really like it, they have a huge selection of courses for .Net (and many in other areas, too), fast loading videos, closed captions (on most courses I've seen, but unavailable on the iPad unfortunately) and video speed controls. Their Recently Added course list is quite large, too.

Not very cheap, though – US$29 or US$49 a month. Given that the exercise files are very useful for most courses – and can easily make you spend extra hours re-typing things to try them out – or worse, just end up watching and not trying – only the most expensive option (which includes them) makes sense. For most people, the certificates and offline viewing are useful, too.

Thankfully, I got a 30% discount and got the yearly option for US$349, which is much better.

I also had some problems with getting my account to work with the 30% discount, and support was very fast and quite effective.