Review: Encouraging the Heart: A Leader’s Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others

Encouraging the Heart: A Leader's Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing OthersEncouraging the Heart: A Leader’s Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others by James M. Kouzes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I received this book as part of a manager training seminar I attended. It’s not my first management improvement book and it’s not my first touchy feel-y self-improvement book. My dad had me read Dyer, Chopra, Tony Robbins, Maxwell Maltz, and Stephen Covey. But this is the first time I’ve read a touchy feel-y management improvement book since finish my first assignment as a manager.

So it is with a combination of skepticism and belief that I read this book. I’ve seen some of these principles put into place and they sometimes work. And I’ve read of many of the psychology behind the principles and, while I’m no psychologist, they seem to agree.

Upon completing the book, I feel the same way as I did when I made the latest status update. I get the trend to be positive and happy and all that. But what I need is a touch of realism. That’s just how I roll. I find that my ability to apply the principles in these kinds of books is limited by their focus on everything being perfect if you follow the plan. What I need is the last section of this book (and similar books) to be – “OK, that didn’t work exactly as planned. Here are some things we’ve noticed…..” or “This is how you keep the harmony, koombaya state we just had you erect at work while still disciplining and firing folks.” Because just making every feel appreciated doesn’t mean everyone’s going to work hard or there won’t be sexual harassment, etc. The book tries with its last chapter to address this by saying the reader needs to find xis own voice. That things may feel a bit false. I feel like they started off in the right directions and then said some nice things about artists and considered the job done.

This is why I prefer interactive classes and seminars to books. They aren’t always perfect, sometimes the facilitator is so focused on being chipper that they dismiss any negativity. But that’s not the way to teach, it’s the way to make people check out and stop listening to what you’re saying. Because some people are mean or inconsiderate at work and just talking works no better than it did with the bullies in grade school.

Anyway, the book has decent principles and it may work for the way your brain works. Flip through it at a book store or something.

View all my reviews

Review: The Anatomy of Super Mario Vol. 1

The Anatomy of Super Mario Vol. 1The Anatomy of Super Mario Vol. 1 by Jeremy Parish
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a matter class on Mario. I thought I knew all there was to know about Mario. Not only have I read a lot of the histories, but I was there. Mario was my first game; the ur experience. Every game, from real platformers to games with platforming life Uncharted, is judged in my mind against Mario. It is not a mere history lesson for me.

Yet, since I was young when it came out, I didn’t consciously appreciate a lot of what Mario was doing. I had no true conception of what has come before and why this was so ground breaking. To me this was the primitive upon which the future was built.

Parish goes through great lengths to examine what makes each of Mario’s games tick. It really show the intention behind each level of Super Mario Bros. It is like reading the best film criticism.

I made a comment on my status about the best format to read this book. I read the majority of it on my black and white Nook. It worked well enough as the colors were quite simple then. Also there isn’t much of large complexity in the screenshots. However, the PDF version, which I read on my 24″ monitor is a work of art. The page layout is great and inspired. If you can read it that way I recommend it.

View all my reviews

Review: Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play

Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People PlayGamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsay
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

On the negative side, I didn’t realize beforehand this was written by a venture capitalist guy from the point of view of running companies. That made it less fun than if it’d been about the amazing and revolutionary games these companies made. However, it still ended up being pretty interesting in two main ways for me. First, seeing how much money was needed to start up changed through the decades. Second, seeing that there is no one right way to run a company. Some were family-friendly and others were time-sucks. But all of them made innovative games and were successful. One other takeaway is that some companies lasted a long time and others were closer to one-hit wonders before they either closed or were bought.

I’d say if you’re interested in business and like video games, it’s a nice way to combine the two. I wouldn’t have minded reading this book for an MBA. If you’re looking for a history of the key games in history and the studios that made them, it’ll be less fulfilling.

View all my reviews

Interesting Creativity

As a parent you are constantly wondering if you’re doing the right thing – are you being too nice or too mean? Is this a time to give in or stand your ground? But recently I heard a great story of something Scarlett did while I was at work. When Danielle’s birthday came around, Scarlett took her toys and wrapped them up in her blanket. She gave it to Danielle and said, “It’s your present! Open it! Open it!” That just made me beam.

Review: Reinventing Project Management: The Diamond Approach To Successful Growth And Innovation

Reinventing Project Management: The Diamond Approach To Successful Growth And InnovationReinventing Project Management: The Diamond Approach To Successful Growth And Innovation by Aaron J. Shenhar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve been involved in projects from all levels: developer, Project Manager, Manager of PM, and customer of project (technically this is everyone everywhere, but I’m talking about at work). This book has really changed the way I view Project Management. On the next project I start (or inherit), I want to make sure I try out the diamond principles mentioned here. Even if they aren’t a panacea, they appear to change the way everyone involved thinks about the project. Often perspective changes like this can have huge knock-on effects in large companies. Results that previously seemed random now make sense when viewed in this framework.

More important than anything else in this book is the flexibility the authors advocate in projects. Even in the simplest of projects, they argue, there are often important truths that change and should affect the project. Of course, how good or bad this is depends on the complexity of the project. (And, like everything else, a bit of luck)

Two things made this a good read: First, the style is written from PMs to PMs. It’s not overly technical for the sake of seeming smart. Second, lots and lots of case studies. I hate when I’m reading business books and everything seems reasonable and easy to apply. Then I try to apply it in real life and find a bunch of gotchas. Their case studies show the pros and cons to everything they suggest.

View all my reviews

Review: Gamers

GamersGamers by Thomas K. Carpenter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For some reason, I’ve found myself reading a lot of YA fiction over the last couple years. On the negative side, it appears that Dystopias are the genre du jour. Nothing wrong with them, and I think something about them speaks to teens. When I was a teen, that was my favorite genre – 1984, A Brave New World, and many others. But I think there can definitely end up being a bit of fatigue from reading books where the conflict is with the evil government rather than internal or with other peers.

But there have also been quite positive trends like an increase in female protagonists. In this case, Gabby was even likable, unlike Katniss. As I commented in a status update, she seemed to be a pretty authentically written girl. Sure, just like pretty much every bit of YA fiction for the past couple decades (or more) there’s the mean girl clique trope and the I used to be one of them trope. But Carpenter appears to rely on less stereotypes and the friendships and fights seem to be realistically portrayed. Another good trend, while no one appears to be explicitly gay or lesbian, in a scene I’d rather not spoil, the main character mentions she wouldn’t be grossed out by another female character kissing her. It’s not what she’d want, but it wouldn’t be any different from a guy she didn’t like kissing her.

As you can currently read on the Goodreads description of this book, the entire world has been gamified; this is what led me to decide to read this book (I’d gotten it as part of a Storybundle collection). I’ve seen a huge increase and intrusion of gamification into our world. Once people realized how much we loved Xbox, PS3, and Steam trophies/achievements, they started incorporating them into everything. Fitocracy, which I used to use to log my exercises, has trophies for doing random amounts of exercise. The Fedora Project (governing body of the Fedora distribution of Linux) has badges for various achievements. Even my Marriott frequent stay program has badges for various things – stays of certain lengths, writing reviews, etc. So the idea of an entire world in which this was true sounded pretty neat. Carpenter even has fun with the idea by having the culture revolve around video games. Just as the citizens of Brave New World used Ford as an invocation, in this world “that’s so cool/rad/awesome” becomes “That’s so Mario!” and the opposite is, naturally, “that’s so Bowser!” I went back and forth with finding it cute and groan-worthy.

I am not going to accuse Carpenter of stealing any ideas because the ideas really seem to be in the zeitgeist right now – the general idea follows that of The Hunger Games, Mars Rising, and Battle Royale – there’s a competition in which the stakes are more or less life or death at the climax of this book. The main difference is that, unlike those other books – the kids are in the dark about the stakes at hand. They just think it’s the difference between a good university and a crappy job. It shares more with Mars Rising and Devil on my Back in that sense. And Carpenter does a good job of presenting the challenge in the form of a Raid, in keeping with the culture of this world.

Really there’s just one thing I don’t like about this book when compared to its brethren. If you look at The Hunger Games, Mars Rising, or (in the movie world) The Matrix – each of those has a first book that works on its own. If you never read books 2 and 3 you’ll still come away having had a full story arc. I don’t know how the Mars Rising Sequels will work, but for both Hunger Games and The Matrix – part 2 does not end nice and neat like the first entry. If you experience 2, you need 3. But Gamers does not work well on its own. And, frankly, if it’s going to end that way, I’d rather just have a bigger book instead of a trilogy. For another analogy, if you look at the world of comics – many of them have long-running stories going on. But each arc (usually published as a trade) tends to be self-sufficient. You can read the trade and feel that you got a beginning, middle, and end – even if it’s dropping hints of various levels of subtlety about what’s coming next.

Overall, it’s a good setup in a neat world with a female protagonist. Things could have been a lot worse. But I wish we could have had a bit more closure in this first entry into the trilogy.

View all my reviews

Review: Irregular Creatures

Irregular CreaturesIrregular Creatures by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was my first Chuck Wendig book. If I’m thinking of the right author, all I knew about him before going into this is that he apparently likes to use a lot of profanity in his books. This one had more than most, but not an obscene amount.

If I had to describe this book in just one sentence it’d be: Irregular Creatures is like a bunch of Twilight Zone episodes if Twilight Zone was rated R. That said, most of the stories were probably closer to PG-13. I’d watch a one-season HBO TV adaptation of this book.

The opening story, and the source of the cover image, Dog Man and Cat Bird, was my favorite one. I really enjoyed everything about the way the story was crafted and the way the main characters were…well…characterized.

Radioactive Monkey was creepy. I liked how short it was.

Product Placement was probably my third favorite. It’s the first one that had a really strong feeling of being a lost Twilight Zone episode. I have no idea if things would fall apart in a longer story, but the universe in which it takes place is pretty neat.

This Guy had promise, but the ending made no sense to me.

Mr Mhu’s – As I was reading it, I was expecting things to go wrong – something like from Dusk Til Dawn. Things DID go wrong, but not quite in the way I was expecting. Good job, Wendig!

Lethe – I really liked that it was very short. Just enough to leave the brain thinking.

The Auction House was my second favorite. I loved pretty much everything about it. Again, probably couldn’t be a longer story, but I would love to see more in that world.

Beware Owner – Oh man! The twist at the end – I almost dropped my book and just yelled out, “NO WAY”

The last story was very interesting – the way it went back and forth was awesome. I don’t know how much sense it makes the more I try and think about it. But I did like the almost evil genie aspect of it.

Took me about a couple hours of reading time – well worth it.

View all my reviews

Podcasts I’m Listening to in 2015

I’ve both added and dropped some podcasts since last time around. Ever since I started using Doggcatcher on my cellphone I’ve been able to listen to more podcasts because, even without the pitch distortion my sandisk had, it plays the content a lot faster. Where I’m listing the same podcast as last year I may use the same description as in the past with slight (or no) variation.

Video Games

Giant Bombcast – This is a HILARIOUS podcast that is mostly about video games.  I say it’s mostly about video games because these guys often will go off on random tangents about what energy drinks they have, what they ate, what they did between video gaming, and other topics.  However, they always get back to video games and provide a really fun podcast.  Segments include What You’ve Been Playing, News of the World, and EMAILS!  My favorite parts are “What You’ve Been Playing” and “Emails”.  It can be a bit geeky in the same way that some of the tech podcasts I listen to are geeky. First Ryan passed away and then Vinnie went to New York. With the podcast being so personality driven, the changes almost drove me away, but I’ve stayed and the new talent is pretty good. (Approx 2.5 hours long)

Public Radio

This American Life –  Ira Glass introduces a series of stories that all revolve around a particular theme.  The production rocks and the stories are nearly always very interesting.  It’s hard to properly describe it – you just need to listen to a few episodes and you’ll probably be hooked.  (Approx 1 hour long)

Raidolab – Heard about them because sometimes their stories are used on This American Life. Radiolab is a lot like TAL except with a much bigger focus on sound effects. It is, in a way, the descendent of the old radio shows of the 30s and 40s. (Approx 30-45 min)

The Moth – Also heard about them because sometimes their stories are used on This American Life. Participants go before an audience and tell a personal story. It can, therefore, cover essentially every human emotion. They all frequently have at least some element of humor, but are usually either really funny or really sad. (Approx 1 hr)

Marketplace – This is a really good economics show.  They talk about news that happened that day as well as stories that have been pre-prepared.  This podcast has really helped me to understand the recession and why it happened as well as whether it is getting any better.  (Approx 30 min long)

On the Media –  Although not always perfect and although it leans a little more left than moderate, On the Media is a good podcast about media issues.  Examples include: truth in advertising, misleading news stories on the cable networks, debunking PR-speak from the White House, and other media literacy items.  I tend to enjoy it nearly all the time and it’s a good balance to news on both sides of the spectrum, calling out CNN as often as Fox News. (Approx 1 hour long)

Fresh Air – Fresh Air is one of NPR’s most famous shows.  It is similar in topic scope as Talk of the Nation, but without any listener call-in.  Also, it tends to have a heavier focus on cultural topics (books, movies, etc).  Terry Gross has been hosting Fresh Air for decades and is a master at interviewing her guests.  Every once in a while there is a guest host or the interview is conducted by a specialist in that industry.  (Approx 1 hour)

Freakonomics – Essentially an audio, episodic version of the eponymous book. If you enjoyed the insights of the book, you’ll really enjoy this podcast. (Approx 30 min)

The Infinite Monkey Cage – a BBC radio show about science. A panel of scientists (and one media star who is interested in science) talk about a topic. The only bummer is that the shows are quite infrequent. Something like 4 weekly episodes per quarter (Approx 30 min)

History

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History – if you’re a history buff you really need to be listening to this podcast. Dan’s well-researched podcast presents bits of history you never heard of in ways you never thought of it. He does a great job of making ancient societies relate-able. The only bad thing is that there is a long gap between episodes due to the research involved. (Varies. Approx 1.5 – 4 hrs)

Computers and Technology

The Commandline Podcast –  This is a pretty technical podcast.  If you aren’t a computer geek, you probably won’t enjoy it.  But if you ARE a computer geek, this show, by Thomas “Cmdline” Gideon, is a really well produced show.  Cmdline goes back and forth between a news-related podcast and a meditative-based podcast.  The meditative ones contain wisdom from Cmdline’s many years in the tech world. (Approx 30 min long)

Comedy

WTF with Marc Maron – This is a pretty solid podcast which mostly consists of Marc Maron interviewing comedians.  As with any interview-based show, the episodes are hit or miss, although more often than not they are really good.  Occasionally he does a live show in which he’s still interviewing people, but with 4-6 per episode it’s much less in-depth.  And, since it has an audience, the guest is performing more than being open.  The only irritating thing is that Marc starts off each episode with a rant/listener email reading.  Most of the time this is neither interesting nor funny.  Clearly the reason people are tuning is is to hear the interviews or they’d take up a minority of the show instead of the bulk of the show.  So I wish he’d do his rant at the end of the episode so that those of us who just want to hear a great interview with a comedian we like can easily skip the monologue.  (Approx 1.5 hours long)

Science Fiction Short Stories

Clarkesworld Magazine

Escape Pod

There isn’t much to differentiate these two podcasts.  They both feature great selections of short stories.  I added them to my podcatcher to get a dose of fiction among the more non-fiction podcasts I usually listen to.  Also, there’s something great about short-form fiction where you have to build the world AND tell the story in a very concise way.  The main difference between the two podcasts is that Clarkesworld has pretty much just one narrator who’s quite incredible.  Escape Pod tends to have a group of narrators.  Most of them are great – every once in a while there’s a less than stellar one.  Clarkesworld tends to end the story with the narrator’s interpretation and Escape Pod tends to end with reader comments from a few episodes ago. (varies. 15 min to 45 min)

Movies

How Did This Get Made – Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael and Jason Mantzoukas (plus the occasional guest) watch movies from the last few decades that will probably be in the future’s version of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The movies are often incredibly baffling and full of strange plot points. One of the best parts of the show is “Second Opinions” where Paul goes to Amazon.com to get 5 Star ratings for the movie they just spent about an hour lambasting. Every other episode is a mini episode that previews the next show, has a section called “Corrections and Omissions”, and Qs and As. The first two sections are great. The last one varies depending on the quality of the questions and answers. It can be pretty funny, but sometimes I just skip it. (Approx 1 hr)

News

The Bugle – Jon Oliver (from The Daily Show) and some other guy talk about the news. In a way, it’s like a How Did This Get Made for news. Also similar to The Daily Show in the incredulity of what people in the news are doing. (Approx 30 min)

Uh, Yeah Dude – tagline: “America through the eyes of two American Americans” If you like My Brother, My Brother, and Me, you’ll probably like this podcast’s style. They talk about both important news and cultural news and generally make fun of it. I call the commentary smart dumb commentary, it’s like Seth Rogan movies – the characters are providing smart insight through dumb commentary. (Approx 1 hour)

Political Gabfest (from Slate) – This has taken the role that Talk of the Nation’s Wednesday slot left vacant when the show went off the air. They talk about politics (usually swinging heavily left or sometimes libertarian while ToTN was more neutral) and I get a dose of what everyone’s talking about in politics. (Approximatly 1 hour)

Common Sense with Dan Carlin – If you like the attention Dan puts towards Hardcore History, then you’ll probably love this take on the news. Usually Dan takes one (max 2) topics from the news and by the time he’s done with it, I’ve seen 2-3 different points of view. Sometimes there’s a clearly right point of view (the sky is blue), but other times each side has valid points and neither one has the complete high ground. Dan is a complex creature, like many of us. On some topics he’s more likely to agree with Dems, other time Republicans, and sometimes neither. Other times he agrees with their Platonic Ideal Version, but not their RealPolitik version. Either way, I’m always overjoyed when it shows up – which is somewhere between biweekly and monthly. (Approximately 45 minutes)

Culture

Fatman on Batman – Kevin Smith chats with someone involved with Batman creatively. Examples include Paul Dini, Neal Adams, and Scott Snyder. Can be pretty insightful and pretty entertaining. Also love the intro song. (Approx 1 hr)

Sword and Laser – A fantasy and sci-fi book club. They interview up-and-coming authors and discuss the book club’s monthly book. Also cover news and upcoming new releases. (Varies. Approx 30 min)

Rocket Talk (Tor.com) – The host speaks with one or two Science Fiction and Fantasy authors about various things: their latest book, trends in the genres, publishing trends, etc. Sometimes a great show and sometimes I skip it halfway through. (Approximately 45 min)

Give Me Fiction – A pretty hilarious (to my sense of humor) super short story podcast. It’s recorded live (which often spices up comedy) and seems to skew Gen X/Millenial in its humor.  (Varies, but usually under 15 minutes)

Talkin’ Toons with Rob Paulsen – The great voice actor behind two Ninja Turtles, Pinky, Yakko, and many, many other cartoon characters interviews other voice actors. It’s like WTF,  but without the annoying self-reflection 10-15 minutes that I always skip on Maron’s podcast. If you enjoy voice acting nerdom or want a place to start, check this out. It’s recorded in front of an audience which is often great, but once in a while leads them on tangents that take away from their great anecdotes. (Approximately 1 hour)

Sex Nerd Sandra – Sandra is a sex educator (at least she teaches classes in sexual techniques), but what draws me to this show are the guests she has one. I especially love it when she has doctors and scientists talking about the mechanisms of what happens during sex and sexual activity. The opinionated guests are good for learning how others see sexuality, but obviously caveat emptor with their advice.  (Varies, but usually under 1 hour)

Science

You Are Not So Smart – the host, who wrote an eponymous book, tackles topics of self-delusion. Examples include placebos, alternative medicine, and conspiracy theories. (Approximately 45 min)

Misc

99% Invisible – Similar in scope to the NPR podcast Invisibilia, this one was there first. It explores the things that are in the background of life. Examples include architectural details we often miss or stories that tell how regions came to be. Production is similar in sonic greatness to RadioLab.  (Approx 15 min)

 

 

First Nine Days in Extra Life

I’ve been hearing about the members of the Giant Bombcast talk about participating in the Extra Life video game marathon for a few years now. For some reason, when the 2014 event happened, I decided to look into it to see if I could participate this year. When I started looking into it around a month ago, I realized I wouldn’t be able to participate in the big 24 hour day because that’s when someone’s getting married. But, then I found out that the organizers are OK with creativity in the marathon was run. There are others, like me, who raise money and play games throughout the year.

So I set up my Extra Life donation page (where you can read about why I’m doing this) and also created a team with Dan and Dave. I started playing games, asking for donations, and streaming the games on Twitch. In order to increase my changes of attracting viewers and donations, I also started posting my videos to my Youtube page and created a playlist of those games. I’ve already been through 2 revisions of my Overlay (the background of my video).

So, how are things going? Well, I’m 10% of the way towards my goal thanks to my uncle Pedro and my friend Ryan Christopher. And with Dan’s donations, we’re 4% of the way towards reaching that goal. I have to say that in just these 9 days I’ve been on a roller coaster of emotions. I imagine that’s old hat to those who work on donation campaigns, but I’m pretty new to it.

If you haven’t already donated, any amount is fine – even a dollar. They even let you pay at a monthly rate so if you want to give $50, but can’t afford it all at once, you can give a little less than $5 a month. And whether you want to donate or not, I hope you enjoy the gameplay.

I hope they’re wrong again – supposedly 6 inches of snow tonight, but I’m so sick of snow

For (hopefully) obvious reasons, we didn’t listen to Prince when I was a kid. (Which was when almost all his albums came out). After hearing about him a few times on Giant Bomb and today’s AV Club article, I hit Spotify to see what the fuss is all about.

February Video Games

Civilization V (30 minutes) – We got a few turns in our multiplayer games, but other important things (like planning weddings, perhaps) have kept my brothers from sending me new turns.

Pac-Man Championship Edition DX+ (38 minutes) – I got it as part of a Humble Bundle because eventually my PS3 will die or be remotely disabled. As I have just transferred my Steam library to a new hard drive (more about that in a future post), I’m more confident in my ability to be able to play these games for a long time. Played a bit on the last day of Februrary to test my new Xbox 360 for Windows controller. It’s still as much fun as I remembered.

Video of one of the time trials courtesy of my youngest brothers wanting to be able to record themselves playing Minecraft. This led me to find Xsplit which I find MUCH MUCH MUCH easier to use than OBS.

Ebooks – Five Years Later

Just a little under five years ago, I started looking at the possibility of Ebooks again. Two months later I bought a Barnes and Noble Nook. For a long time I was very casual with my Ebook reading. I had the Cory Doctorow books and several months worth of free Nook books which more than made up for the cost of the hardware. Really, the best part of fully digital distribution of books (and games) is revolutionary in the way it can allow the purchase of giveaway of media which would be cost-prohibitive if the company had to pay for the physical object or shipping fees. I installed Calibre for the free EPUBs, but it didn’t touch my Barnes and Noble purchases.

In the past 1-2 years, things have really changed, so I wanted to document that both as a documentation of what’s changed and perhaps as a helpful signpost for others looking to make the plunge. If you look at my original post, my biggest fear was Digital Restrictions Management (DRM). It’s not an irrational fear as I’ve lost money on books that I cannot read any longer because the DRM servers have been shut off. (THANKS, MICROSOFT!) Although none of the suppliers has made the MP3 move of declaring the entire store DRM-free (come on Google or someone – I’ll promise to buy ALL my books from you if I know they’re DRM-free!), many publishers have started removing it. As Cory Doctorow wrote in the Guardian:

In a sane world, Hachette would have a whole range of tactics available to it. Amazon’s ebook major competitors – especially Apple and Google – have lots of market clout, and their customers are already carrying around ebook readers (tablets and phones). Hachette could easily play hardball with Amazon by taking out an ad campaign whose message was, “Amazon won’t sell you our books – so we’re holding a 50% sale for anyone who wants to switch to buying ebooks from Apple, Google, Kobo or Nook.”

….

But it is precisely because Hachette has been such a staunch advocate of DRM that it cannot avail itself of this tactic. Hachette, more than any other publisher in the industry, has had a single minded insistence on DRM since the earliest days. It’s likely that every Hachette ebook ever sold has been locked with some company’s proprietary DRM, and therein lies the rub.

So smart publishers like Tor and Baen have been publishing their books DRM-free. So I know I don’t have to worry about losing my books when I hear that Barnes and Noble may be spinning off the Nook or killing it. Also, I can buy books whereever they’re cheapest. Kindle books without DRM can be read outside of the Kindle either in digital readers or by converting to EPUB. Also, for many (although not all) books sold through any of the retailers, it’s trivial to remove the DRM. I will say right now that if they remove that loophole, they’ll be losing my business for sure. I am NOT making the mistake I made before.

Second in importance and related in every way to the above is the rise of the Bundle. Both Humble Bundle and StoryBundle offer DRM-free EPUBs, MOBIs, and PDFs of tons of books with a pay what you want pricing model. This guarantees that if the big boys take their ball and go home, they won’t be getting my money, loyalty, and word of mouth. That’ll go to the indies who are publishing on the bundles. Plus there are the classics on Project Gutenberg. There is more DRM-free out there for me to read than I have hours left in my life.

This explosion of books available to me outside of Barnes and Noble’s ecosystem, plus a desire to have local copies of my B&N books to prevent them from pulling an Amazon and taking it away from me, meant that I had an organizational problem on my hands. So I turned to Calibre, which I hadn’t been using for anything more than converting formats to EPUB and putting them on the Nook. Just as going from a handful of MP3s in the late 90s to over a month’s worth of continuous music in a bunch of file formats necessitated going in an fixing the ID3 tags (A task I’ve been working on for >14 years and have not yet 100% finished), it was time to get serious about the organization of my Ebooks. Otherwise it was going to be hard to manage what was effectively becoming a library. Plus, I like to take advantage of what digital gives me over physical in every medium. (Dynamic playlists in music, for example; stats in every medium) Additionally, while there are some who have complex digital “shelves” on their Nooks, the Nook is generally piss-poor when it comes to managing books and burgeoning libraries. I hear the Kindle is pretty bad at it too which makes sense – the designers didn’t expect people to have digital libraries with thousands of books – something that’s harder to do with physical books since you need a place to put them.

So most of the rest of this blog post is going to discuss how I’ve set up Calibre and how I’m organizing things. First of all, as I mentioned back in 2010, it was the idea of Ebooks that got me to sign up for a Dropbox account. The best thing about it is having my Ebooks triple backed up to the cloud. It’s on Dropbox as well as being backed up to Backblaze on my Windows computer and Crashplan on my Linux computer. So if I lose my Ebooks it’s because God hates me or something. Second, there are at least half a dozen ways to organize the books on the hard drive so Calibre’s is a good as any other and at least it makes sense. When books are imported into Calibre it puts them into folders as so: Author->Book->files of the book in all the formats you have. The power of Calibre comes from being able to search against all the other metadata you can think of, making the choice of folder structure more or less unimportant.

Calibre Setup
Calibre Setup

First, my big complaint: it doesn’t matter if the book comes from Barnes and Noble, one of the bundles, a Kickstarter, a free book, or an illegitimate source, most of the metadata sucks. What irks me most is when the author and summary aren’t filled out. The Ebook should at least contain as much data as the physical book, including the back cover. The tags are also almost always crappy, but those can be a little more personal, so it doesn’t bug me AS MUCH. Although sometimes it can be a bit ludicrous how they include everything under the sun rather than allowing the user to construct a search within their program. Calibre treats tags as both just tags (ie a way of filtering data – give me all books tagged dragon) and as genres. For the most part the latter distinction doesn’t matter, although it’ll come into play when I mention the Catalog Ebook.

Calibre also allows for the addition of columns. From what I understand (although I could be wrong or wrong in a subtle way), when it comes to the open EPUB format, all the metadata changes are written to the EPUB file. Columns are not – those are for Calibre. So it made sense for me to stop using a “read” tag and start using a “read” column to keep track of which books I’d read. That way if I share the book with my wife and she hasn’t read it, that doesn’t throw her system off. Also, with the ballooning of tags that came along with my ballooning library (from 20ish to 300ish in about a year or so), it was more cumbersome to search for unread books using tags than having a column. I also added a date read column which might be useful in the future, particularly if Goodreads goes away or becomes onerous in a way that makes me abandon it. Finally, I added  a metadata fixed column to keep track of which books have been fixed up.

So here’s how I’ve started to manage my metadata. As I finish up books, I fix up the metadata while it’s all fresh in my head what exactly this book is about. Sometimes this involves deleting or changing tags. In the rarer cases where key stuff is missing like publication dates, I download that from within Calibre’s metadata download. I prefer the version that’s made for doing it in bulk because it allows me to pick and choose what it changes. Way too often the data is wildly inconsistent depending on the source. Then I flip the Metadata fixed tag. That way, when I’m done with the books I’m doing in real time, I can go back and fix the ones I read a long time ago.

Calibre has a pretty decent reader built in. I’d probably only ever use it on my laptop as it would be pretty rare for me to read at my desktop. However, I think there’s an interesting and subtle difference between a maximized Calibre reader and a full screen Calibre reader. First here’s how it looks on the default size it opens to on my computer:

Calibre Ebook Reader Default size on my computer
Calibre Ebook Reader Default size on my computer

Now here it is maximized (I hit the up arrow on the right):

Calibre Ebook Reader Maximized
Calibre Ebook Reader Maximized

And here it is full screen:

Calibre Ebook Reader full screen mode
Calibre Ebook Reader full screen mode

This has to do with the fact that a “screen page” has nothing to do with an Ebook page. Each of these will scroll to a different spot, but the top left page number will be a consistent way of referring to the page I’m on. This is why you hear that one of the advantages of Ebooks is that you can arbitrarily resize the text size and the book will reformat itself. I am not sure of the psychology around it, but even though there’s a smaller information density, I find the full screen formatting easier on my eyes than the maximized version.

The power of the searches is pretty self-explanatory, I think. If I come up with some creative search, I’ll make a blog post about it. What’s nice about the way Calibre does things is that you can save a search as a virtual library. So if you DO have a complex search, you don’t have to remember it every time.

Of course, Calibre also has some awesome plugins. Epubsplit allowed me to take a Scalzi bundle I bought from Subterrean press in which they’d put all the books into one EPUB file and separate them out into different books – to make it easier for me to jump around and skip the Lock Out and Old Man’s War stuff so I don’t get spoiled. There’s also a plugin that’ll take content that updates daily and make an EPUB – like a custom newspaper to read on the train every day. Since I don’t ride a train to work, I haven’t used it. But if they have a template for the short fiction published for free on Tor.com, I may have to make use of that in the future.

One of the plugins I find a lot of fun is the one that generates a catalog of all my books. Here’s what it looks like:

Calibre Ebook Reader - My Catalog
Calibre Ebook Reader – My Catalog

Although the advent of smart phones and apps makes it possible to have books from Barnes and Noble, Google Books, and Kindle all on the same device, I’m not as much of a fan of reading on the smart phone. The biggest reason (and the one least likely to be solved in the short term) is the low battery life vs how long it takes to read books. Reading on a phone on a long flight is a great way not to have a working phone when you land. Although newer fonts help, I’m also not really into reading backlit text for a long time. That said, it is nice that I always have my phone with me and I’ve used it when I’ve wanted to start reading a new book and didn’t have my Nook with me. Benefit goes to the Kindle app over my Nook in that it’s very easy to highlight words for looking up when you’re using a touch-screen. It’s painfully slow on my Nook.

So things have picked up quite a bit since 2010 and I see myself enjoying Ebooks for a long time.