Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Thing About Libraries...

Once again I'm behind in my 23 Things, but this time I think I have a decent excuse...

Thing 11 is to investigate Library Thing (I know, that's an awful lot of things for one sentence).  Well, according to my profile I apparently first investigated Library Thing on July 24th, 2006.  I have a sneaking suspicion I found out about it in one of my graduate school classes.  Apparently I went in and cataloged seven books that I had read recently, and then abandoned it.  It's not that I didn't see how this could be useful, it just didn't grab me for some reason.

As I'm looking at my account now, I think I know why that happened.  First of all, the interface is really complicated.  There's too much to do on the main page of your account, and no obvious way to isolate just your books, or just your friends.  It puts everything that you can do on the site out there at once.  The thing is, I'm not using this site for all those other things.  I'm using it to track my books.  The rest just becomes annoying.  I'm also very disappointed to see that Library Thing has gone the way of so many free sites and is now charging for a "premium" account that will allow you to catalog more than 200 books.  Guys, tracking my books online is not worth any money to me each month, especially when there are other options available.

At some point since the summer of 2006, someone invited me to join a different site called GoodReads.  This one caught me, probably for two reasons.  First, I already had friends using it so I could share titles more easily.  But second, it gave me a dirt simple way to add both books I had read as well as books I wanted to read.  They seem to recognize that this is important to their users, because since I've been using it the interface to add books has gotten even easier.  Now after looking up a title it takes two mouse clicks to add it to my to-read list.  Of course, the down side of this is that my to-read list is over 50 books and I'm backlogged to books I added last summer.  But I guess that's a good situation to be in.

Another advantage of GoodReads is that it's not trying to be about more than just sharing books.  This means that people who don't care for social networking or blogging or the other features that Library Thing seems to be promoting can use GoodReads more easily.  My father has absolutely no interest in Facebook or MySpace, but since he's always curious what I'm reading he joined GoodReads to make it easier.  Since then, he's added more friends on GoodReads just so he can get ideas about other things to read.

I think that the main Web 2.0 message to take away from this is that you need to focus on what you do well.  People already have outlets for chatting and sharing what they're up to.  But if you give them a simple way to share just what they're interested in, they'll add that on top of their social networks.

So to finish off, here's my GoodReads "read" shelf.  Enjoy!

my 'read' shelf:
 my read shelf

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


A quick post today on image generators for Thing 10. First, my lovely new logo courtesy of CoolText.

Next, just like everyone else in the world I created my own manga avatar. But I'm so attached to my current Triplets of Belleville avatar that I couldn't bear to replace it. So here's an excuse to share the manga one (since it came out so well, IMHO).

Moral of this post? There's so many ways to manipulate images and text online, why bother with the software?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Feed Me!

On we plunge into the wild and wonderful world of RSS feeds!

I first discovered RSS feeds about 4 years ago when I was recommending an online comic I had discovered to one of our tech folks at the library. I was looking for library-related cartoons for a PowerPoint presentation and stumbled across a fun and quirky daily cartoon about a library called Unshelved. It spread like wildfire through my branch, with several of the staff going back and making our way through three years of archives to get caught up on the misadventures of the Mallville Public Library staff. After shooting the ones that we found especially funny back and forth by e-mail for a while, I thought it would be cool to share it on our staff intranet, so I sent the information off to the person in charge of the intranet. She responded saying that it looked like we'd be able to embed the RSS feed into the intranet. I had no idea what that meant, so I poked around. Turns out RSS is a Really Simple way to Syndicate new information from a website. That is, whenever you add something new, anyone who's watching the feed will see it.

I didn't think much more about RSS until I upgraded to Firefox a couple years later. I had been following several of my friends' blogs just by bookmarking them, but with Firefox I was able to use live bookmarks to put the RSS feeds in my browser toolbar. Now I could see when they updated their blogs just by clicking on the live bookmark.

This made things a lot easier, but now that I had a way to view RSS feeds, I started adding more and more.  I poked around a bit on Technorati and some of the other feed search engines, but most of my feeds just came to me as I stumbled across sites that I liked.  Before long my live bookmarks overflowed the toolbar and went clear down the screen when I expanded the toolbar. Suffice it to say, I was back where I started. It was too difficult to keep track of everything I wanted to read.

I had tried Bloglines once before I discovered the live bookmarks. For some reason it never clicked with me. I've been thinking about why since then, and I think that it's just got more bells and whistles than I really need. I want my feed reader to be dirt simple. Tell me what's new and what I have and haven't read, and give me a simple way to flag the articles I especially like. Google Reader finally gave me what I was looking for. Now I've got an absolutely absurd number of feeds in my Google Reader, but at least with the organization it provides I can skip ones that are less important, and skim over my unread articles very easily.

At some point in this process, I realized what the feed reader was doing for me. Essentially, it was allowing me to create my own newspaper. I could include the news, commentary, sports, and humor that I wanted to see. This was especially important for me since I'm not a huge fan of the local paper or most major media outlets, and I am a huge fan of a certain northeastern baseball team and a sport that's barely covered in the United States. All this means that it's very hard for me to get the news I want from traditional outlets. With a feed reader I can build my own "newspaper" and keep on top of the things that interest me. That sort of customization is the huge advantage that the Internet has given us, and technologies like RSS make it easier than ever to get to that level of detail in what we want to read.

So even though I abandoned my Bloglines account, for the sake of this exercise I went in and updated it with a selection of the feeds from my Google Reader. So if any of you are interested in what a progressive New Hampshire ex-pat cyclist living in Ohio wants to read, here's my public feed. Enjoy!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

What's a Cell Phone?

I've now fallen a week behind in the 23 things, so in a desperate attempt to catch up I'm going to try to write the three posts I need to catch up over this weekend.

First off, I'm supposed to write something, anything about technology. I've actually been thinking about writing this post for a while. A few months ago it dawned on me that cell phones are no longer just phones. The first inkling I had about this was the first time we took my stepdaughter to a rock concert about 6 years ago. When the obligatory slow song came along, instead of lighters all over the arena, everyone held up their cell phones. My initial reaction was to laugh, but then I began to think that it made a lot of sense. Smoking isn't allowed indoors in most places anymore, and only 1 in 5 people is likely to have a lighter on them, so why not cell phones? I started wondering who the first person was to do this, especially since only 6 years before that I distinctly remembered being at a concert where it was still lighters that were being held up during the slow song. All it took was the increasing prevalence of cell phones and a new trend arose seemingly out of nowhere.

But 6 years ago, those phones that were being held up were still just phones. In fact, most of them glowed with the green or blue of an old school LCD display. At more recent concerts I've seen the white and multi-colors of color SVGA LCD screens. And even beyond that, a lot of those phones were being held up with the LCD screen pointing away from the stage so that the lens on the front of the phone could take a picture.

More things have jumped out at me recently. My stepdaughter can type faster on a 3x4 keypad than I would have thought was humanly possible, and I've seen her simultaneously holding three conversations by text, five on IM, and commenting on Facebook pages. Not too long ago she was upstairs and forgot to turn on the light in the hallway, so out comes the cell phone to light her way. While she doesn't have a iPhone, she recently got an iPod Touch. With that she has a portable wifi-ready computer, GPS, and music player.

So what's a cell phone?

A flashlight
A lighter
A music player
A pathfinder
A web browser
A note writer
A calendar
An alert system
A camera
A game

and, of course, a phone.