You’re Going to Need a Bigger Wall

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The UNHCR recently reported that 65.3 million people were displaced around the world in 2015, or 24 people per minute. All indications suggest a higher figure for 2016. Civilization is a thin veneer, and when it rubs too thin, people move to a thicker location.

Donald Trump wants to build a wall between the United States and Mexico because he’s worried about immigration from the south. The British voted to leave the European Union partly because of fears over immigration and refuges. Yet many of these same fearful people refuse to believe climate change. Now that might seem like an abrupt change of subject, but it’s not. The major consequence of climate change is mass-migrations. Just look at the University of Notre Dame Global Adaption Index (ND-GAIN). It ranks countries based on projected impact of climate change.

You can see the full ranking of 180+ countries here. Sooner or later, all the top ranked countries will want to build walls to keep refuges from the bottom rankings moving in. The United Kingdom is ranked #4, which makes it a prime destination for most folks fleeing collapsing civilization. The USA is #11. (Maybe England needs to worry about their American cousins moving back home.) Living in a top ranked country might seem lucky because you’ll avoid the worst of climate disasters, but it also means your country will be seen as a lifeboat to those who are drowning.

I have to wonder if climate change deniers are only pretending not know the truth. Just look at ND-GAIN’s map.

Climate Change Vulnerability Map

Most people in trouble will be moving north. I think wall building is either a conscious acceptance of climate change, or an unconscious awareness. It’s reality is starting to sink in.

Notice that most of the refuges the wall builders fear are coming from countries ND-GAIN are listing as vulnerable to climate change. Have climate change migrations already begun? Many countries in the southern hemisphere are suffering from economic collapse, and countries in the middle east are experiencing political, economic and social collapse. All of those locations also suffer from poor weather and limited natural resources. To solve climate change and mass migrations means solving wealth inequality. That’s a very liberal solution, which probably explains why so many conservatives refuse to accept climate change.

Will walls protect the haves from the have-nots? And why haven’t wall builders proposed programs to create stability in countries that are coming undone? Wouldn’t that be more realistic than building Maginot lines on our borders? Instead they want to tear up international trade agreements, which will only make things worse, and thus accelerate mass migrations. If they’d put the money they’d spend on a US-Mexico wall into the Mexican economy, wouldn’t that be more helpful? Wouldn’t a thriving Mexican economy become more effective than a wall?

Venezuela is #107 on the ND-GAIN list. Just read some of the news stories about Venezuela’s economic collapse. Will they become the new Syrian refuges? Brazil isn’t doing well either. How many wealthy South Americans are currently flying over where Trump wants to build his wall? Isn’t it in America’s best interests to make sure South America doesn’t collapse? If the goal of wall building is to stop refuges, isn’t it more practical to stop the creation of refuges than build walls to keep them out?

Rich people have always built walls to protect themselves from poor people. Whether it was walled cities in ancient times, castle walls in medieval times, or gated community walls in modern times, the solution is always the same – protect what I’ve got and to hell with everybody else. And if past walls are indicators, walls only work when the poor aren’t desperate. When wealth inequality gets too extreme, walls fail. And besides, do rich Americans really want to live like Israelis on the West Bank, or Rhodesians in Zimbabwe? (By the way, aren’t the sales of AR-15s a kind of economic indicator? Who are buying more assault rifles, the rich or the poor? And how many of the 99% think they will be walled in with the 1%?)

Donald Trump and all his wall building followers might do well to get into the wealth redistribution business like Bernie Sanders. I highly recommend they read the following books:

These books show us the future. We can solve our problems, or hide behind walls (for a little while).

Building walls are a last-stand tactic. Think how well walls work with zombies. Which makes me wonder if zombies aren’t modern metaphors for poor people, revealing everyone’s underlying fear of being overrun by world poverty. If you don’t want millions of people moving to America, fight climate change and wealth inequality.

What we want is a sustainable economy that is environmentally friendly. Capitalism, as it currently exists, is a Ponzi scheme that’s transferring wealth from the many to the few, with the huge side-effect of creating climate change. It will collapse if we don’t fix it. And we can’t fix climate change without fixing capitalism. If we don’t change things, the 1% will try to wall off us 99%. Trump’s wall is just the first of many that will fail. Denying climate change is merely sticking your head in the sand. Building Trump’s wall is acceptance of climate change, but no actual protection. Trump’s wall is no more practical than The Tower of Babel.

Update:

After writing this I began to wonder how often people and society change. Are we condemned to always follow the same behaviors? That made me think of When Everything Changed by Gail Collins. After I had read that book I realized our society had changed more because of women’s rights than the introduction of computers and smartphones. We’re constantly adapting. And that’s hopeful to realize.

JWH

Anne, The Human, Raises Robbie, the Starling

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 27, 2016

My friend Anne was given a nestling that was found by a daughter of one of her friends. Anne has pet birds, so they assumed she’d know what to do. She didn’t, but she called around and found out. At first, Anne thought Robbie was a robin, thus the name. As he (she?) got bigger it was obvious the name should have been Stevie. Robbie was fed cat food to begin with, and then mealworms and crickets, which Anne bought from Petco. Anne had Robbie for over two weeks and he grew like crazy, plus he decided she was his Mom. If Anne was around when Robbie was out of the cage, he wanted to sit on her head.

Robbie really liked and trusted Anne. When I visited them he wasn’t too keen on me, but he did let me feed him mealworms, but he didn’t want to get on my hand or head.

Anne assume she had to keep Robbie until he knew how to take care of himself, but wasn’t sure how to know when he could. She wondered if Robbie needed parents to show him where to find food and water. I told her I assumed birds worked more from instinct than education. I said that since Robbie was flying around the porch, that he was probably old enough to be on his own. So we let Robbie go free.

You can’t see it in this video, but after Robbie flies into the tree he immediately starts eating. We couldn’t see what, but we think he was picking bugs off the tree. Later that afternoon Anne called to Robbie and he came back down. She tried to put him in the cage so he could drink water, but he would have none of that. She let him fly back up into the trees. He would fly between the trees, or top of the house, as she worked in the yard.

We’re curious how long Robbie will hang around. I assume he will do the same things he would have if he had just left the nest naturally. Would he have hung out with his parents? I don’t know. I hope he finds some other starlings to join their flock.

This was a wonderful experience for Anne, although it was emotionally rough at times, especially when she had to let Robbie fly away. Anne and Robbie’s time together reminded me of a miniature version of “My Life as a Turkey,” the classic Nature episode on PBS.

Update: Anne reported this morning: “I called to him and sure enough he flew down, getting closer and closer til he was close enough to land on my head. I put him on top of the cage and fed him, but not as much as he wanted to be fed so he’ll have to figure it out himself. I cld recognize his call, like any good mother!!!! So he made it thru the night, and whatever rain we got, fine. He looked very good and strong.”

JWH

The Impact of Marie Kondo and Ebooks on Used Book Sales

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, June 15, 2016

There are some books I know I want new in hardback, even when I can’t afford them. Other new books require a bit of worry before buying — reading reviews and customer comments. Then there’s a class of new books I tell myself to snag when they show up used.

“My name is Jim , and I’m a used book addict.”

I’ve had this addiction since 1965 when I discovered a dusty old bookstore in Perrine, Florida. I was in the 8th grade, and could buy old books for a dime. Many times in my life I’ve tried to overcome this compulsive behavior, but never succeeded. Now, after a half-century later of struggle, I’ve gotten my habit down to just two shopping trips a week. Although, it’s not due to self-discipline. Marie Kondo and ebooks have changed me.

used-books

I can’t prove this assertion, but I believe fewer recent hardbacks are showing up for sale used. I think ebooks are at fault. I also assume bookworms who still buy hardbacks keep them. I do have other theories why I’m seeing fewer recent hardbacks used. Hordes of home-business entrepreneurs now scour bookshops, garage sales, Goodwills, estate sales, library sales to buy up used books to resale to Amazon. Finally, I think more people like me have become used book addicts.

Demand is up, supply is down. My gut feeling though, tells me ebooks are making the biggest impact.

Not only are people buying ebooks instead of hardbacks when books first come out, but there’s also a booming business is discount ebooks. I subscribe to five daily newsletter that keep me posted about ebook bargains. Publishers wait for when new book sales drop to a certain point, and then slash the ebook price to $1.99 or $2.99 for a day or week to spike sales and interest.

I buy used books from three sources. The library bookstore run by The Friends of the Library. Average price $3 for a hardback. My local independent bookstore has a used book section. Average price for hardbacks $7. And finally, I order used books from Amazon and ABEbooks. I generally spend $4-$15 for hardbacks. You can probably see where this is going. Why buy a used hardback when I can get the ebook for $1.99? I’ve also become very addicted to Audible.com’s $4.95 audiobook sales. I bought 15 books in the last one.

My digital library is now larger than my physical library. However, this is partly due to Marie Kondo. Currently, my impulse is to buy the first format of the book that I see, whether used hardback, ebook, or $4.95 sale at Audible.com. But Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is transforming that impulse. I now measure the burden of my possessions by their weight. I feel the weightless purchases of ebooks and digital audiobooks exempt me from the laws of the KonMarie Method.

My Kindle and Audible libraries keep growing, but I’m thinning my physical bookshelves in an effort to tidy-up my life. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Besides seeing fewer recent books used, I’m seeing a massive influx of older books. Especially books that came out 5-25 years ago. Two of my friends even told me they gave all their books to Goodwill when they got a Kindle. So, that’s another way ebooks are influencing the used book market.

I’ve been waiting two years for a cheap copy of Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. The cheapest one I see on ABEBooks is $15.11 plus $3.99 shipping, which puts it damn close to the new price of $24.72 at Amazon. The dang Kindle price is $23.48. The same thing has happened with Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. Luckily, Sapiens showed up as a Kindle deal for $1.99 and I snagged it. I’ve already own both of these books on audio, but I wanted a “reading” copy for study.

In the last couple of years, I find lots of books offered for 1 cent at ABEbooks and Amazon used books. (Of course they make their money charging $3.99 for shipping and handling and then spend less.) I don’t think we’d be seeing so many books for a penny if it wasn’t for the living simple movement.

Bloggers spend a lot of time reviewing and discussing books. It’s much easier to copy a quote from an ebook than to type it from a physical book. When I buy a book I know I’m going to write about, I prefer getting an ebook.

My favorite way to enjoy a book is by listening. But if I truly love an audiobook I end up wanting to “keep” a visual edition for future study. This used to mean a nice hardback, but that’s changing. Now I wait for ebook sales and buy a copy to file away. By the way, a side-effect of buying ebooks over used hardbacks is authors and publishers make money on the deal.

I still buy lots of used hardback books, but they tend to be ones that are not available in ebook, or the hardback is much cheaper than the ebook edition. But something else has changed this year. After I did my first Kondo cleanse, I’ve been hesitant to buy hardbacks. I still do, but when I do, I feel guilty seeing them sitting around if I’m not reading them. I’ve started checking out books from the library again. Returning a library book produces a tiny Kondo-high.

I have to wonder if hardback books will go the way of the typewriter or rotary phones. Dateline NBC recently gave common objects I grew up with fifty years ago but now are rare to to modern kids, and asked them what they were. How many years before they give kids a hardback book and it produces as much puzzlement?

 

If you live long enough, things change. I’m getting used to it.

JWH

Best Links About Medicare

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 13, 2016

I have many friends like me who were born in 1951, and we’re all needing to sign up for Medicare this year. I’ve promised several of them I’d search the web for the best advice. Medicare is amazingly complicated, and can still be quite costly. Make the wrong decision, and you’ll pay. I provide these links with no warranty of accuracy. This page was created to help my friends and I find out more about Medicare, but if they’re helpful to you too, then great.

General Information

Of course, the first place to visit is Medicare.gov, but you actually sign up through Social Security. I’ve got to say, this site is information overload. They also publish Medicare & You 2016 as a pdf booklet. Plus Medicare.gov offers a whole series of publications, some in ebook format. And Medicare even offers a blog. Here is Medicare’s intro video:

 

My Medicare Matters from the National Council on Aging is a friendlier introduction to Medicare, but still intimidating.

Of course, everyone wants to know what Consumer Reports says.

This video gives a simple intro that’s the first step on a long journey.

 

This information came from UnitedHealthcare, so I don’t know what their vested interests are, but they have a site Medicare Made Clear, and a series of additional videos that explain more about Medicare on YouTube.

FAQs

Medicare B & D vs. Medicare C (Medicare Advantage)

One thing that came up in the intro videos was the concept of Medicare Advantage. It seems very tempting because it combines several options into one plan. However, after watching this video I assumed it wasn’t for me. I don’t like insurance programs that limit choice of doctors and hospitals, but then I watched the second video.

 

Now I’m even more confused. “Medigap Vs. Medicare Advantage: Which is Better?” helps some. Probably if you live in a retirement community near good in-network support, and you don’t travel, Medicare Advantage might be a good deal. My fear is something catastrophic would happen to me, and I’d end up with monster medical bills I couldn’t pay without emptying my retirement savings.

It appears that Medicare Advantage often promotes preventative healthcare practices, and they will make sure you stay on top of your medical problems. That might outweigh the problems of working within a network.

Steve Vernon from CBS Money Watch writes, “Should you buy Medigap or Medicare Advantage plan?” Vernon offers additional links and essays on this topic, but I’m still just as confused and undecided. It seems your choice is between choosing parts B & D and spending around $150 a month, and choosing part C and paying lower monthly fees but with co-pays. Some plans have no monthly fees at all. Medicare Advantage sometimes includes dental and prescription drugs all rolled into one plan, but you’re restricted to which doctors and hospitals you can use.

Consumer Reports also has a page about “Medigap vs. Medicare Advantage.” It offers a nice comparison chart.

I then checked the entry on Wikipedia for Medicare Advantage. Evidently it’s a political issue to allow folks to find alternatives to Medicare. Medicare Advantage are private plans that are required to offer the same benefits as Medicare. By law, you can’t buy both. Medicare Advantage plans are more like HMOs or PPOs. If you enroll in a Medicare Advantage program, it collects money from the government’s Medicare program. Which explains why going to an out-of-network healthcare provider might cost you 100%. I highly recommend reading the Wikipedia entry several times. This statement is telling:

There is some evidence that sicker people and people with higher medical expenditures are more likely to disenroll from Medicare Advantage plans and go into Original Medicare instead,[6] which could be due to the more restricted networks of health providers or to the benefit design of the plans. The federal government makes risk adjusted payments to private plans to avoid this, but it is unclear how effective that policy is.

In other words, if you’re healthy, don’t go to doctors often, and have good in-network support, Medicare Advantage might save you a good deal on monthly costs. Which explains why the advisor in the first video picked it for her father.

 

Medicare Part D

Part D is drug coverage. You can buy Part D from a private insurance program in regular Medicare, or you can get drug coverage in a Medicare Advantage plan. Consumer Reports offers “How to find the best Medicare drug plan.” There are penalties for not signing up right away, but they are low enough to consider delaying participation – see the skepticism section below.

 

 

 

 

Supplemental Skepticism

What makes things really confusing are supplemental plans. These are insurance plans to cover costs Medicare doesn’t, including the infamous “donut hole.” More on the donut hole can be found at Wikipedia.

David Belk claims paying for supplemental insurance is basically giving your money away. He says supplement insurance doesn’t cover what a lot of people think it does. However, I’m skeptical of his skepticism.

 

This just adds to my decision agony. I want to avoid any chance of being stuck with a gigantic medical bill. I hear about that in the news more and more. Belk claims insurance companies are playing into that fear. Belk says insurance companies are mostly insuring against minor costs, not major ones. And they don’t cover what Medicare won’t cover. David Belk is a MD that maintains the website True Cost of Health-Care. He even claims that opting out of Part D might be a good option if you buy low-cost generic drugs out-of-pocket. Check GoodRx.com for drug pricing.

I was all ready to load up on supplemental insurance plans until I saw this video. Now I’m not so sure. However, there are penalties for delaying joining Part B & D. So for those folks who are willing to bet they will always be healthy, they can delay buying Part B & D, but they need to know about the penalties.

Mistakes to Avoid

The penalty for not signing up for Part B on time is stiff – one that lasts the rest of your life.

The penalties for not signing up for Part B & D can be add up to a lot. But there are exceptions. It appears if you are still working and have good insurance coverage you’ll be excepted. Watch out though, how long you go between ending private insurance and starting Medicare is important.

My guess is people trying to keep their monthly costs down will pick a low-cost Medicare Advantage plan, which is a Medicare approved alternative to signing up for Part B & D. These folks will have to go to network doctors, but they may get better preventative medical care. And if Wikipedia is right, these people will eventually switch to traditional Medicare when they get older and sicker, because traditional Medicare covers more.

I thought my monthly bill for health insurance would go down when I joined Medicare, but that won’t be true. The insurance I now get through work is an extremely good retirement perk. If I spring for Medigap insurance, I could end up doubling my existing monthly healthcare bill. However, I have friends that buy their own health insurance and they will save a lot of money.

It’s critical for people to sign up for Medicare promptly. Delay will cause penalties that could continue for the rest of their life. Life would be far simpler if we had a single-payer system. The freedom of options requires both extensive study and risk. There are many private companies offering a variety of options to avoid potential medical expenses. If you have a very small fixed income, you’ll have to navigate these waters very carefully. However, it also appears you can easily overpay searching for peace of mind. None of us know how long we will live, or what kind of healthcare burdens we will face. If we make a mistake in these decisions we could end up spending more each month from our fixed budget, or incur risks to our shrinking nest eggs.

JWH

A Rotten Tomatoes for Books?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Every month thousands of books are published but few find readers, even on a planet of seven billion people. The sad fact is most hardbacks are 1st editions, and never get another. Millions of writers have struggled to create their masterpiece, only to have them disappear to indifference. Books go begging to be reviewed, so I find any effort to promote books a good thing.

Book Marks

Literary Hub, a site previously unknown to me, began a feature called Book Marks, which rates books by collecting book reviews and statistically processing the total. This immediately brings to mind Rotten Tomatoes for movies. Book Marks gives books a letter grade, and the few books they now list, have mostly high grades. I don’t know if this grade inflation is due to starting their business with buzz-worthy books, or if most books today actually get good reviews. Personally, I hate to review books by giving them a rating because I feel bad telling writers they have ugly babies, so I can imagine the later being the case.

I wish Book Marks followed Rotten Tomatoes and gave a percentage rating based on total positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes claim they judge the overall slant of a review to decide. However, most of these books have very few reviews, so one with two positive and one negative would receive a 66% rating in a percentage system, and that would be deceptive. At Rotten Tomatoes they generally have over a hundred reviews for most popular movies. One way to solve this problem would be to require only books that have at least ten reviews to get listed. But that causes other problems.

Publishing tends to be a winner take all enterprise. In other words, a few books succeed while most don’t. Book Marks is starting off by promoting books that are already getting major promotion. Their system is inherently biased against those books that are getting the least attention. But I can’t criticize Book Marks for their efforts. Like I said, any book promotion is a good thing.

This however makes me wonder how to create a better system? I feel sorry for authors who can’t find readers for their books, especially after a great self-promotion effort, or even writing an unrecognized masterpiece. Let’s be honest. All us bookworms have too much to read. We have more A+ novels on our TBR piles than we can finish in a decade. So why consider an A- book, or for some insane reason, a C+? See where the school grade system breaks down?

Readers don’t have a problem finding great books – our problem is finding more time to read. The problem at hand is writers finding readers. One solution: create more bookworms! But with PlayStations and VR that’s not likely. Efforts like Book Marks will actually further promote winners over losers. Statistical efforts to improve book reviewing will help the limited pool of readers find the most popular books, causing a larger percentage of books to be ostracized. Book Marks is only making the process more efficient. That sounds harsh, even cruel, but then does every book written deserve to be read?

I assume there’s a large percentage of books published that are well worth reading if only they could find the right reader. And since falling in love with a book is so subjective, I’m not sure any rating system is valid. What we need are systems where readers can fill out a profile, like a dating service, of what they are in the mood to read, and that system locate all the books that fit that mood. That could alleviate the problem of everyone wanting to read the most popular books, and spread readers out, giving more books a chance to succeed.

Such a system would have a side-effect that some authors might not want. More books would become moderately successful at the cost of other books being huge bestsellers. For example, a million readers who would have all bought a blockbuster would instead buy one hundred different books selling ten thousand copies each.

Currently, bloggers spend huge amounts of time reviewing, listing and writing about books. This is the new digital word-of-mouth. Many of us consciously choose to write about books that haven’t gotten attention, and that helps more books get noticed. But we also end up writing about the same popular books. It’s just natural to want to read and discuss books that everyone is reading. One way to promote books that aren’t getting attention is to mention them when reviewing bestsellers. Let the unknown titles draft on the success of hits.

And I think that’s what Book Marks needs to do to improve their service. Mix in more books and find ways to group them into themes. Personally, I don’t like the grading system, but I bet their readers do. I would recommend not grading a book until it’s gotten ten reviews to be statistically valid. Since Book Marks are copying Rotten Tomatoes they should work quickly to up the number of sites they monitor for reviews, and aim to get close to twenty reviews. Books will never be reviewed like movies and get hundreds of reviews, but if Book Marks wants to use such a comparison system, the more reviews the better. Plus, if they used more review sites, it will promote those sites, and thus promote book reviewing in general.

7 Uses for Goodreads Other than Reviews and Ratings

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, June 1, 2016

I struggle to manage my always growing, ever changing, collection of books, and my constant craving to read more. And I don’t have a vast library, like some of my bookworm friends. Counting physical books, ebooks and audio books, I have around two thousand titles. Enough to be unsure of what I own. Enough to make them a problem to find. And I own more unread books than I have time to read during the rest of my life. That should condition me to stop buying books, but it won’t.

I’ve been testing various book databases for years, but never committing to any. I tried Goodreads’ book database system a couple of times, but always disliked it. However, I’ve now decided it’s the best compromise for my needs.

goodreads 

Most people zip over to Goodreads to read reviews and ratings. Do they know it’s a free database for managing book collections? Goodreads represents the wisdom of crowds, with some books actually having millions of ratings. Because of this group knowledge, Goodreads is essential to bookworms. The fact that it’s own by Amazon, where I buy most of my books, including paper, ebook and audio, makes it’s hard to ignore.

I’m going to skip reviewing all those social aspects of Goodreads, and focus on tools for organizing books into useful collections. This can range from cataloging your personal library, keeping track of books you want to buy, or even tracking all the books on your favorite subject. Goodreads is a general purpose tool that has to be customized for specific uses, yet it’s not always obvious how. My recommendation is to just stick with Goodreads until it starts working for you. Everyone customizes it differently. Take each task you normally do on paper or program, and do it on Goodreads. Eventually, you’ll see the magic in its madness.

By thinking about all the ways I make lists of books, I’ve been able to adapt Goodreads for my needs. It’s not always a perfect fit, but I assume Amazon will keep refining Goodreads, and the bumps I stumble over will be fixed, and the features I desire will show up. I have to trust Amazon because it houses my digital library. This means hoping it will stay in business until I die.

Lifetime Reading Lists

I wish I had kept a list of every book I’ve ever read since I read Up Periscope during the summer before 4th grade. Beginning in 1983 I did start logging everything I’ve read, and it’s been great – well worth the effort. Goodreads is a good tool for this. However, if you reread books, and like to track each reading by date, Goodreads won’t do that smoothly. The clunky solution is to add a different edition of a book for each reading, but that messes with your total read numbers. I currently list books I read in both Google Sheets and Goodreads, to get all the functionality I want. It would be more efficient if Goodreads was my only tool, but I can’t replicate all the functions I now get from the spreadsheet.

The core functionality of Goodreads database is to track books you’ve read, are reading, or want to read. Goodreads even offers a nice stats feature to track your reading productivity. If you don’t want to use Goodreads to track the books you own, its basic features are very nice and straight forward. If you do use it as a personal card catalog, you have to understand it also tracks books you don’t own (unless you’ve keep every book you’ve ever read and bought every book you plan to read).

This can be confusing. Think of Goodreads as a system for tracking books you want to remember, whether that’s to remember what you’ve read, what you own, what you hope to own, what you’ve studied, and so on. You enter in all the titles you want, and then tag them accordingly. One tag is ownership. Another tag is read. You can make up your own tags – such as beautiful-covers.

You never want to delete a book you’ve read, even if you’ve given it away. You need the entry to remember you’ve read the book. And you’ve got to add a book if you plan to read it, even if you don’t own a copy.

Books Database

Over the decades I’ve tried many programs for listing the books I’ve own, but none of them worked the way I wanted. I’ve even tried writing my own program. Because of smartphones, it’s obvious that on-the-go viewing is a must feature, and that’s beyond my programming skills. Goodreads practically invalidates all other efforts because of this. It’s possible to keep my books in Excel, Access or commercial book database programs, and then export listings to Dropbox, to check on my phone while book shopping, but the Goodreads app is always up-to-date. That feature alone makes it a winner.

That’s not to say Goodreads is the perfect books database. How it looks, how it’s organized and how it creates reports is not how I would have designed them. But it does most things I want, and getting the job done without dedicating my life to Python programming sealed the deal. Plus, I can export .csv files to programs that can create fancy reports if I want.

Goodreads has two kinds of “bookshelves” – their term for categorizing your books. The first is exclusive, which means all books have to be tagged in one, and only one, of those shelves. Goodreads start you off with read, currently-reading, to-read. I added discard (so I can track books I once owned but didn’t read) and reference (for books I don’t plan to ever read). Any book I add to the system has to be read, currently-reading, to-read, reference or discard. Then Goodreads allows as many non-exclusive shelves readers want to create. Books can be shelved in multiple non-exclusive shelves. For example you could create shelves called fiction, science-fiction, anthologies – and put The Science Fiction Hall of Fame on all three.

The best thing about Goodreads is the barcode scanner built into its iOS/Android apps. It’s an extremely fast way to enter books, as long as the books have a visible bar code. For some damn reason, used book dealers have an annoying habit of pasting their tracking label over the ISBN barcode. You can also enter books manually with the ISBN number, or by title. Those are quick too, but nowhere near as fast as the barcode reader. I can do 40 books in two minutes – that’s their batch limit. You hit upload, clear the batch, and do 40 more.

Most books are already in the system, so you’re actually just linking to existing records. You only have to create a new record for rare out-of-print titles not in the Goodreads system. That’s more work, especially if you want to upload a scan of the cover. Which I do. I’m fanatical about cover images. One of the annoying restrictions of Goodreads is I can’t upload better images for books added to the system by other members.

Goodreads has a feature to let you tag books you’ve purchased from Amazon. I wish they also offer that feature for books I bought at Audible and ABEBooks, companies Amazon also owns. I’ve been hoping Amazon would mass add records for Audible editions, because now I link to CD editions of the same book. Who owns CDs anymore? I dread linking over 800 titles by title searches.

Collector’s Database

Book collectors want to track exact editions, and Goodreads does this. This is both good and bad. Probably most bookworms don’t care about such exacting details. They just want to know they have a copy of Pride and Prejudice, and whether or not they’ve read it. I wish Goodreads allowed for a generic title entry. I’d probably use one for most books. I don’t usually care if I “own” a 1st edition hardback or the 7th paperback edition, but I am picky about what cover I see. I want the cover I remember, or the cover I love best, and that means picking the edition with the right cover. What’s annoying, is the right edition will have no cover, a bad scan, or the wrong cover. Even when I own the right cover, I’m not allowed to alter other people’s cataloging. And Goodreads fights you if you try to create another edition with similar publishing details.

The cataloging features for Goodreads is probably good enough for most book collectors, but not good enough for serious book collectors. That should improve over time as more exacting users join the system. I wish Goodreads could tie into the Internet Science Fiction Database, which has great edition information. I also wished Goodreads would link to Wikipedia, because as I study my collection, or catalog books, I often want to know more about the book. Such synergy of two great tools would be fantastic.

Want Lists

Most bookworms make lists of books they want to read, and have various methods of keeping track of those books. Because Goodreads doesn’t assume the books you add are ones you own, it’s perfectly adaptable as a Books Wanted list manager. Because it’s tied to the social and database features at Goodreads, it’s the most elaborate Want List ever. You can add library books, or even books you see at bookstores, with the scanner feature. Although my local independent bookstore will chase patrons out if they think they’re checking Amazon for prices.

It’s quite easy to fill up your Goodreads database with books you want to read because one of the exclusive fields is “to read.” If you want to use Goodreads to track the books you own, you have to check the “owned books” check-box.

Card Catalog

Some bookworms own enough books that they wish they had a Dewey Decimal system to help them find books. You can create non-exclusive shelves to track book location, even if they are stored in boxes. Just label each of the shelves on your real-world bookshelf, say shelf-01 through shelf-24, and then create a virtual shelf for each in Goodreads. Then tag each book by the shelf they are on. Or shelve books by subject on your actual bookcases, and then create subject shelves in Goodreads. You can also create box-001, box-002, …, if you have zillions of books in the attic.

This takes work and discipline. The more you use Goodreads, the more anal attentiveness becomes part of your personality. And you can use Goodreads as little, or as much as you want. At first Goodreads seems like a very disorganized mess, but eventually you realize it’s looseness offers great flexibility.

Scholarship

Because Goodreads is not just a database for books you own, it’s very useful for organizing books in a variety of ways. Let’s say you’re getting your master’s degree, you can use Goodreads to organize all the books you need to know to pass your comps. It doesn’t matter if you if you don’t own them, or even borrowed them from a library. You can create an exclusive shelf called “research” and tag all the books there. You can even use non-exclusive shelves to organize them into categories, like 19th-century-America, 20th-century-America, 18th-century-Britain, 19th-century-France.

Reading Challenge

I want to read all the books on the Modern Library Association 100 Best Novel list. I created a non-exclusive shelf and added all one-hundred books. Then I marked those books read, to-read, currently-reading. By using the “select multiple” button,  clicking on the plus next to “read” and “modern-library-100” – I can see how many of the 100 I’ve read – 39.

This last trick reveals a flaw in Goodreads. Often I want to reread books. If I mark a book “to-read” it’s removed from the “read” shelf. But that ruins things for tracking books read. And I can tag a book “currently-reading” that I’ve read many times before. I wish Goodreads had a tracking system for remembering each time I’ve read a book, when, and what format. In my spreadsheet I track author, title, date published, date finished, format. Format includes hardback, paperback, ebook, library hardback, audio book, etc.

I don’t know of any alternative to Goodreads that does as much, so I’m going to stick with it for now. I assume the momentum behind it will make it even more useful in the future. It’s a shame that Amazon monopolizes my book world, but the practicality of why is too overwhelming.

JWH

What Can You See That I Can’t?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 25, 2016

I just read “This man had no idea his mind is ‘blind’ until last week” by Helen Thomson at the BBC Future. The story is about a 42-year-old man who can’t see mental images, a condition called aphantasia. WTF? I don’t see clear mental images when I close my eyes. Do you? I sometimes see dark, fleeting shadows, that are sometimes shaped like something.

Close your eyes and visualise the face of the person you love the most. The colour of their eyes, the texture of their hair, the detail of their skin. Can you imagine it? Philip can’t.

Although Philip, a 42-year old photographer from Toronto, is happily married, he can’t conjure up his wife’s face because he has no images of any kind in his mind’s eye. When he thinks about a face, it comes to him as an idea, as an intellectual concept, rather than a mental picture.

swiss-mountain

Like Philip, I do see imagery in dreams. When I was a kid and smoked pot, I used to have visuals. And sometimes, out of the blue, I’m startled by very vivid mental pictures. But that has lessened since I’ve gotten older. I think I must have aphantasia. I found, “Can’t Visualize? You May Have Aphantasia” which offers a series of test questions. They go on to say,

Intriguingly, while they can’t summon mental imagery on demand, Zeman insists that aphantasia is a condition and not a disorder. “Most of them knew what it was like to visualise as they experienced imagery in dreams, or as they dropped off to sleep,” he said.

This was confirmed by two World of Lucid Dreaming readers with aphantasia.

One said: “Dreaming and seeing imagery on psychedelics aren’t a problem at all, sometimes I think I’d be overwhelmed if I could visualise imagery.”

Another explained: “I definitely CANNOT visualize in my mind’s eye whatsoever. Never ever. I’ve even taken courses on meditation in order to get better at this visualization – with zero success! I always thought people who can visualize volentarily were actually in the minority and I was in the majority.” He added: “However I have caught myself visualizing when I’m close to the dreamstate… I can say that I am a natural lucid dreamer”.

This suggests that hypnagogic imagery and visualization close to the dreamstate draws on a different mechanism to daydreaming and visualizing during full wakefulness.

Also on the positive side, Zeman notes, “their capacity for abstract thought was well developed” and that “an inability to visualise does not imply an inability to imagine: imagination is a much richer, more complex capacity than the specifically visual ability lost in aphantasia.”

These people sound like me. How much do you see what you close your eyes?

I wonder what I missing? It might explain why I love photos.

I’ve always known I’m missing various mental abilities. I can’t remember tunes – neither the melodies or lyrics. My wife practically can’t forget them. I’m terrible at languages. But I have mechanical, spatial, directional, mathematical skills that some of my friends lack.

Articles about aphantasia are popping up on the net. Here’s a long one, “Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind.”

If it was April 1st, I’d think this was some kind of joke.

JWH