LibraryThing: Undisguised Admiration

19 November, 2006

Lately, I’ve been finding that I’ve been reading less and less, and instead, tapping away on the laptop more and more. Rather than going to bed and lifting Peter Hamilton’s latest four million page epic space opera, I’ve been taking the iBook with me, and idly browsing Mac forums, Wikipedia, or trying to find out what it is about the Ice Castle movie that made the lovely YoungMissy remember it so fondly (the answer, I think, was the theme tune, and the cheesy yet uplifting story you love as a kid. Or maybe it was the weeping and the skating. I really don’t know 🙂 ). As a result, I’ve been getting insane heat build-up and blowing fans because I’ve accidentally blocked the vents of the poor laptop with the duvet.

What would be really good would be to find some web site that mixes internet geekiness with a love of reading. Something that encourages me to both use the internet and encourages me to finish one of the twenty-nine books I’ve currently got sitting beside the bed with bookmarks sticking out the top.

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LibraryThing is that web site.

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While I was cruising Digg the other day, there was an item that pushed Shelfari.com – a site for cataloguing your books. I checked it out, and it looked very Web 2.0 – which means it had lots of blue to green gradients, lots of reflections, big text, and it did some sort of social networking thingy which all the kids seem to like these days. Young whipper-snappers. It had a nice Delicious Library-esque bookshelf method of showing your catalogued books, and it picks up all the info you enter from Amazon.com.

However, I could see that it’s still very early in the piece – there’s not very many users or books entered yet; it only searches Amazon U.S.; you can’t change covers other than the one that the site picks for you; you can’t import data from a file; you can’t change data on your books, and, well, you can’t do very much at all. Still, it looked pretty, so I thought, “Never mind, I’ll check it out in a few month’s time, see how it’s progressing.”
But then, while I was perusing the comments on the original Digg article, some kind souls mentioned other book-cataloguing sites. So I checked those out. Some were more like advertising places. Some did books and more. Some were free, most charged. None really appealed until I saw LibraryThing.

It, too, is a little bit Web 2.0 – it has the Beta sign, it does that social thing, it has a mixture of upper and lower case letters on the name, and the site sports pretty gradients – but at least these are a light to dark brown, in a comforting gentleman’s club library sort of way. Importantly to me, there are no ads and no huge unnecessary stock image graphics showing clichéd bespectacled blonde business-women gazing interestedly at a piece paper or a laptop computer. And the site is startlingly fast to load.

So, since LibraryThing is free to join up and add up to 200 books to your library, I tried it, joining under the name Merrippy. And immediately found the first of many wonderful things about LibraryThing: you don’t have to give your email address to sign up, and you can change your name (which is the single most impossible thing to change anywhere else – even changing your user-name in OS X only changes part of it – your “short name” still remains the same). So after finding this out, I changed Merrippy (which was just the first thing I typed into the “Name” box when I joined), into Meromo.

The next great aspect of LibraryThing – it has an import function if you already have a collection of books somewhere. Brilliant. It sucks in the ISBN number (and only that, so don’t be disappointed when every single bit of information from your carefully detailed library doesn’t show up), and feeds the numbers through to Amazon or, and this is the good bit, sixty (yes, sixty) other libraries around the world, spacing the timing out so that the libraries (well, just Amazon really) don’t spit the dummy with people joining up and hammering their servers with forty squillion book lookups.

I exported a list from Books (which although I like it, and have been following it’s progress for ages, has become Tiger-only, meaning I can’t use it on all my computers, and its development goes in fits and starts, and in odd directions), imported the resulting file to LibraryThing (managing to break the 200-book limit by 3 – I’m a outlaw hacker, I am), and started playing around. Verdict? I paid my 10 US dollars mere hours later (it worked out to $15.62 if you’re interested).

Tim Spalding, the bloke behind the idea, obviously cares about the user (hey, he’s a Mac user, I’d expect no different 🙂 ). Everything works properly, everything is linked to everything else, everything has been thought about what book owners would want. Little touches are everywhere: mention a book in the forums (or “Talk” as it’s called there), and the text becomes linked to the details of that book. As do authors. And every book or author mentioned in a particular forum thread are automatically listed down the side. And it gets better: books that you own in that list are highlighted with a tick, as again are authors.

In your own library, you can view just the covers, or a list view which can also include covers; you can change the columns and their order, and you have five fully modifiable views. There are stats galore (which appeals to the analyst in me) including listing all other users who share books with you, books that only you and one other person have, the most reviewed books, the most highly rated books, and the books that almost everyone has (currently that seems to be either The Lord of the Rings; Harry Potter, or, sigh… The Da Vinci Code (yes I’m a snob, sorry. I have to concur with Stephen Fry who described it in one particularly brilliant episode of QI as “rusty arse-water”).

LibrayThing has a Zeitgeist – a sort of continually updating state of the nation. At the time of this writing, it shows:

Vital Statistics

Members 103,962
Books cataloged 7,207,905
Tags added 9,736,317
Unique works 1,398,878
Total reviews 87,100
Works reviewed 57,962
Ratings 1,078,041
User-contributed covers 207,218
User groups 1,042
Forum messages 35,665 (started 7/16/06)
Forum touchstones 34,985

And then there are all those Web 2.0 things which are actually kind of useful: tags, for instance, or, as they used to be called in the old days, “key words”. You can tag your books with many and varied tags, and these will also link to other members who have used the same key words. You can see a “tag cloud” which lists all your tags, with the most frequent appearing in the largest font size. Tags are extremely flexible – you can use them to note your unread books; or books you want to sell; where you’ve currently stored them, who you’ve lent them to; anything, in fact. (Though I did notice there seems to be a few self-appointed tag police around the site, lamenting the ignorance of those who have tagged books “wrongly”. I’ve tagged my copy of the Bible “fantasy” and “comedy” because that’s what I think it is – and surely that’s the point of tags?)

LibraryThing has space for you to review your books, or you can see other members’ reviews of your books. You can also export your book details, so if you find another site or program you want to use, want to back things up, or simply decide you don’t want to pay any more, you can. There are groups within the forums, so you can see what other simlarly minded people have in their libraries and what they are talking about. There are hundreds of groups: from Radical Feminism to GirlyBooks, Skeptics to the Mystical & Spiritual, Weavers to Weird Fiction. I don’t really “get” the groups – it seems like they’re a way to categorise postings in the forums, but I’m more used to traditional forums, phpbb style, and these ones lack the features of that. Not that I’m much for being social on the Net, but it’s good to know that those features are there.

I’ve now gone and added most of my books – the only ones I have left to do are those strange volumes that no library appears to have heard of. Or New Zealand books, which amounts to pretty much the same thing. If you have any sort of interest at all in books, or have a collection that fills a bookcase or two, LibraryThing is your cup of tea. It’s certainly mine.

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Reading Should be a Joy

5 November, 2006

Nice article by Nick Hornby.

I find his books a bit “man-lit” i.e chick-lit for men, but they’re still entertaining, and he’s entirely right in this article: if you don’t enjoy the book you’re trying to trudge your way through, then give it up.

I’m a shocker for dutifully and slowly reading books that make my brain want to escape out my ear and go for a holiday in Amsterdam.


The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science

5 November, 2006

Old article, but still worthwhile.

The one that the “health” food nutters use is number 5:

5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries. There is a persistent myth that hundreds or even thousands of years ago, long before anyone knew that blood circulates throughout the body, or that germs cause disease, our ancestors possessed miraculous remedies that modern science cannot understand. Much of what is termed “alternative medicine” is part of that myth.

Ancient folk wisdom, rediscovered or repackaged, is unlikely to match the output of modern scientific laboratories.

Flogging off a random plant that was allegedly eaten for “health benefits” by a stone-age culture to ignorant dupes is exactly the sort of fraudulent crap that places like Blackmores do.

When I become leader of New Zealand and rename it Meromotopia, the first thing that I’ll do will be to require all these crappy products that don’t work to have a large warning that takes up the same proportion of the packet as the anti-smoking propaganda cigarettes are forced to have on them, that says:

NOT SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN.

Health claims made

by this product are for

entertainment puposes only.