Favorite books of 2015 … so far

I just loaded my iPhone up with more books and realized what a rich year it’s been so far in reading.1

If you’re on the lookout for good reads (I always am!), here are some of the best books I’ve read recently:

  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Carol Dweck) – Dweck’s TED Talks are great but the unabridged book well worth it. Read it if you care about living well.

  • Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Christopher McDougall) – this book changed my perspective on human physiology and convinced me that running in 100° Phnom Penh heat is actually pretty tame on the scale of human athletic achievements (and, believe it or not, can be quite enjoyable).

  • Wake, Sleeper (Bryan Parys) – a masterfully crafted memoir of growing up and grappling with faith. Equal parts tragic, hilarious, absurd, and profound, it was enjoyable and thought provoking to the end. This is one I read slowly, with my eyes, to savor the prose.

  • High Output Management (Andy Grove) – with such a yawn-inducing title I almost passed it over, but I’m glad I didn’t. It’s one of the highest-density books I’ve read in terms of value-per-page. I’m sure I will return to it year after year.

  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Robert B. Cialdini) – I’ll just copy from the book’s description: this is “the classic book on persuasion, [which] explains the psychology of why people say ‘yes’—and how to apply these understandings”. I had many ah-ha! moments learning to recognize why I behave in certain ways, often against my felt wishes.

  • Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (Robert F. Kennedy) – an inside account of the decision-making process that diffused likely nuclear war. Fascinating account of the human elements of negotiations. (I had previously read this in grad school; definitely worth the re-read.)

  • Finding George Orwell in Burma (Emma Larkin) – I’ve never paired travel writing with actual travel before but this provided an insightful introduction to Burma. Without it I could never have understood what a positive change has happened in the country in just ten years since it was published.


  1. This has been largely facilitated by the excellent Voice Dream Reader text-to-speech app, which lets me read equally well whether at a cafe or on a run. It might be worth a separate post, but for me the notion of “reading” has transformed in recent years from a discrete physical activity (moving your eyes across the author’s written words) into a cognitive activity (absorbing the author’s words with your mind). This has been completely liberating. Hat tip to Jared Goralnick, who got me started down this path with his evangelism of Audible.com.

Greasing-song of the escalator

The West Falls Church Metro station provides an unusual aural experience to D.C.-area commuters. As I entered the station last week, I thought I heard, in the following order:

  1. A pre-novice saxophonist assaulting commuters’ ears with noise
  2. A highly skilled saxophonist assaulting commuters’ ears with extended techniques
  3. Whale-song

None of these guesses was correct, as it turns out. As I pulled out my phone to record the scene, it occurred to me that what sounded like the pained vocalizations of a large animal or aspiring musician might be neither.

It was the greasing-song of the downward escalator. Put another way: the escalator was groaning in need of maintenance.

After my train arrived, I inspected the recording to see if it followed any pattern. As the following image shows, it was distinctly periodic—and I had been able to catch almost three full cycles before my train arrived:

WFC Escalator.png

What’s more, the cycles are almost exactly 88.5 seconds long. D.C. locals will recognize this as the broadcast frequency of WAMU, American University’s radio station. Which leaves open the question: does the greasing-song represent a breakdown in maintenance, or is it a planned student art installation?

Listen here:

Greasing-song by dbyler

Billion Day

While studying in Oxford seven years ago—most likely in a fit of procrastination—I determined that the word billion can be spelled on a telephone keypad with the number 245-5466. As it turns out, 2455466 was also the Julian date of a certain September day in [the then-distant future year] 2010. I put a reminder in my Palm V and forgot about it. Thanks to an electronic calendar that doesn’t forget, I was just reminded…

That day is today.

Happy Billion Day, everyone!

(One could discount this event by pointing out it’s only the coincidence of a) Julius Caesar’s arbitrary selection of the calendar’s start date, as well as b) the arbitrary—though now standardized—mapping of Latin letters to the 10-digit keypad. I suppose we could also cite the rise of the decimal numeral system in this celebration as well; who knows what billion would map to on a hexadecimal phone keypad, or if we’d even care since 1,000,000,000 is much less elegant as 3B9ACA00 in hex. Then again, many of our declared holidays aren’t much less arbitrary.)

Bringing the backchannel to the foreground at InfoCamp

It is becoming well known that social media hashtags form a de facto backchannel wherever a critical mass of tech-savvy people congregate. At InfoCamp Berkeley, we wanted to encourage the Twitter/Flickr backchannel and bring it to the fore as much as made sense. Our hope was that this would encourage attendees to tweet and post photos during the event.

There were no tagged Flickr photos at the beginning of the event, so we displayed tweets as they came in using an AIR-based app called TwitterCamp. (As it happens, Twittercamp was developed for a BarCamp, so it made an appropriate home with us at InfoCamp.) TwitterCamp is not being developed or supported, but it works fine and is open source. When customized with our logos, it looked like this:

Twittercamp

Twittercamp

By mid-afternoon, Flickr had a amassed a good selection of event-tagged photos. We switched to Twitterfountain, which can display tweets against a Flickr slideshow. Here’s a still shot with Twitterfountain in the background:

Twitterfountain

Twitterfountain

Twitterfountain looked great, and at a slow speed it wasn’t too distracting. Unfortunately, though, it tended to loop over a small selection of photos instead of iterating through the entire tagset.

To see our Twitterfountain instance in action, click* here:

And that’s about it. We kept the backchannel onscreen during announcements and between sessions—not during, to avoid undue distractions. Although there is, of course, no way to judge the “success” of these tools, we felt they added some good buzz to the room.


*Disabled by default because it’s a bit of a CPU hog.

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