Thursday, October 30, 2014

How to Catalog Your Personal Library Using the Goodreads App

If you love to read you probably know about Goodreads. Maybe you already use it to share ratings and reviews of books you've read, or to look for book recommendations from friends or other like-minded bibliophiles. What you may not know is that Goodreads includes all the tools you need to make a digital catalog of your entire personal book collection.

Why would you want to make a digital catalog of your personal library? If you're like me, you have hundreds of books and forget what titles are in your collection. Having a catalog handy on your smartphone while browsing at the bookstore can save you from accidentally re-buying a book you already own. A catalog can also help you weed out duplicates, select titles to give away if you need to thin the herd, or just be better organized.

Start by opening a free account with Goodreads, and then download the apps available for all your favorite iOS and/or Android devices. Your cloud account will sync across all your devices.

Kindle Fire Goodreads App

Here is what you need to know to get started on cataloging your books with Goodreads.

Entering book details:

  • Goodreads is owned by Amazon, so you can access details on your Amazon book purchases and add and rate them directly. Only those books you choose to include are added to your Goodreads shelves; nothing is included automatically. If you have a lot of Kindle books, in particular, this capacity provides a huge time saver in cataloging them.
  • For paper books not purchased from Amazon, the phone and tablet versions of the Goodreads app can use your device's camera as a barcode scanner to automatically enter any book's ISBN. 

  • The scanned ISBN will bring up all the book's details, including title, author, and a photo of the cover. Next you'll need to tap the "shelve" button, and place your book's information on a virtual shelf. You can create whatever shelves you like to organize your books, and edit those shelves at any time. Unlike a physical library, your Goodreads "shelves" function like tags -- so a single book can be assigned to multiple shelves.

  • If your book doesn't have a barcode, you can type in the ISBN and Goodreads will find the details. Just below the photo of the book cover, you'll find an icon of several books on a shelf. Tap that to see the drop-down menu that will let you tick a box to shelve your book. 

  • If your book predates the ISBN system -- and personally I have a lot of those -- just enter the title or author's name and proceed as above. 

  • As a last resort, you can enter all of the book's details by hand. Goodreads recommends searching first. 

  • Once you've entered and shelved your books, your data will be stored in the cloud and you can access it from your Goodreads account on any device. 

Exporting your catalog data:
Goodreads makes it easy to export and back-up your book data. On your desktop, go to the "My Books" page of your account. On the left hand side, under the "tools" heading, you'll find the "import/export" option. That will open the "My Books > Import" page. On the right hand side of the import page, you'll see the option to "Export Your Books." Click "export to a csv file." Your exported csv (comma-separated values) file will open in MS Excel.

You can also import data from other library databases or websites -- as long as they use supported file types. Full instructions are on the "My Books > Import" page.

I'm just getting started on cataloging my own personal library with Goodreads. In the process, I'm becoming reacquainted with old favorites I haven't read for years. Not to mention that all my books are finally getting a much-needed good dusting as I handle them for scanning and shelving purposes!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam," by Pope Brock

Pope Brock's book, "Charlatan," documents the life and career of of "Dr." John R. Brinkley, one of America's most successful quacks.

I read this book some time ago, but was reminded of it recently by a segment on the Travel Channel's "Mysteries at the Museum" -- a favorite show of mine that I would recommend to anyone with a tendency towards ADD and an interest in odd stories from history. You can watch the segment on "Goat Testicle Transplant," online. Yes, you read that correctly, Brinkley's panacea for everything from "loss of male vigor" to cancer was transplanting the testicles from young male goats into humans. Women received transplanted goat ovaries. Actually, "transplant" is too dignified a term for what he was in reality doing: maiming people and stuffing goat organs into the wounds without much regard for sterile technique.

As synchronicity would have it, I ran across a blog post on "The Quack Doctor" in which director Penny Lane discusses her new film project, "Nuts! The Brinkley Story." Lane says:
NUTS! tells Brinkley’s story with animated reenactments, never-before-seen archival footage, hundreds of photographs, clippings, ads, etc., and interviews with some pretty funny historians. I think it’s a suitably colorful and eclectic way to bring this wacky story to life. I have completed a complete edit of the film and I’m raising funds now to finish it (primarily to complete the animations, which are gorgeous, time consuming and a bit expensive).
I checked out the film maker's Kickstarter page, and am very happy to report that her goals have been met and then some! Looks like a fun and thought-provoking film, and I look forward to seeing it. Here's the trailer:

But back to the book, which is a fascinating story of a successful huckster who became fabulously wealthy and was nearly elected Governor of Kansas. Perhaps even more interesting is what the story illustrates about human nature and the American psyche.

At the start of his surgical practice in 1917, John Brinkley was already an accomplished seller of useless patent medicines and fraudulent therapies. At the time, the science of endocrinology was in its infancy and just beginning to isolate and understand the activities of hormones such as testosterone.

Little bits of genuine information were quickly spun into pseudo-scientific theories promising restored youth. Some versions used injections of gonadal extracts, others implants of partial or intact organs from monkeys or even humans (recently-executed felons). Brinkley sold his version with a skillful charm offensive that made him a sure success.

Medical licensing was sketchy at best: never having graduated medical school didn't stop Brinkley from from obtaining licenses to practice in several states. Only the American Medical Association (AMA) showed much consistent interest in putting charlatans out of business, and dogged investigator Morris Fishbein pursued Brinkley for years. Despite the evidence (infection, tetanus, gangrene...), Brinkley's fans stuck by him -- it's hard to know if some patients were "helped" thanks to the placebo effect, or were just unwilling to admit they'd been taken.

Among Brinkley's true gifts a mastery of public relations was king. He hired a team of promoters to extoll his (fabricated and extravagant) successes in planted newspaper articles. For example, the Gettysburg Star and Sentinel printed that the Japanese government was requiring goat gland implants for all aged charity patients -- to restore them to working vigor, and get them off assistance. Further claims included that the children of goat gland recipients were showing signs of becoming "a superior type of human being..."

Brinkley moved on to run his own radio station, which popularized country music and blues as well as advertising his services. He made a promotional film shown in theaters around the country, and when he ran for governor of Kansas he was the first candidate to travel by airplane to campaign events.

Not until 1940 did the goat gland empire fully disintegrate into bankruptcy and prosecution. His death in 1942 kept him out of jail. Tributes to his intelligence and charm, if not his honesty or medical skill, came in even from some of his victims and bitterest enemies.

Friday, October 17, 2014

"The Demon in the Freezer" by Richard Preston

Watching our public health system flail about attempting not just to contain ebola, but to appear convincingly to be acting confidently in a well-coordinated manner, has sadly not been much of a surprise. I've been thinking back again to Laurie Garrett's prophetic, "Betrayal of Trust; the Collapse of Global Public Health," published 14 years ago. I've also been remembering Richard Preston's book, "The Demon in the Freezer," and finding myself grateful that -- horrific and deadly as ebola is -- it isn't smallpox or anything equally deadly and highly contagious as well. Hence, a repost (updated with some pretty and hope-inducing pictures):

Initially, I picked up the audio version of "The Demon in the Freezer," but I wanted to go back and review details (which is easier with a print version) so I checked the dead-tree version out of the library.

I'd known about this book for some time, and thought several times about reading it. But I always decided it would be too scary and depressing, and I needed less stress in my life--not more. I probably should have kept to my resolve. The demon, of course, is smallpox: Variola major. There is also a weaker or "minor" strain of variola: Variola minor.

I always imagined smallpox as a sort of uber-chicken pox: more blisters, worse scarring, significantly more risk of complications and death. But no, smallpox is almost inconceivably worse than that. I never knew there was a hemorrhagic form of the disease--sort of like ebola--where you don't form discrete blisters, but instead bleed out under the skin until your whole skin sloughs off... And the virulence makes SARS look pathetically hard to catch. I also had clung to the foolish hope that having been vaccinated twice as a child, I'd still retain at least some partial immunity. Wrong! The vaccine only lasts about five years.

Current wisdom is that smallpox made the jump from some rodent host to humans back in one of the early agricultural river valleys--along the Nile, perhaps, or the Tigris and Euphrates, or the Indus, or the Yangtze. The mummy of Pharaoh Ramses V (d. 1157 BC) apparently bears blisters that look as if they might be smallpox, but the Cairo museum won't permit invasive procedures that could tell for sure. The Chinese had a goddess of smallpox, T'ou-Shen Niang-Niang, who could cure the disease; they prayed to another goddess, Pan-chen, if a victim's skin began to darken with black pox. The Hindus have a goddess of smallpox named Shitala Ma; not clear if she is good or bad, but one does not want to make her mad. Europeans, Africans, and the Japanese also eventually had personifications of small pox.

The Aztecs, Incas, and North American natives probably never had a chance to personify and attempt to placate the demon goddess; she hit them too hard and too fast. The English first deliberately used smallpox as a weapon in 1763, when blankets from a smallpox hospital were given as "gifts" to natives in an effective attempt to decimate their population.

Having made the jump from animal to human hosts, variola no longer has any natural animal hosts. This meant eradication was possible: limit its spread by vaccinating humans, and soon it would run out of hosts to infect. And this is what the WHO set out to do. By the end of 1977 they had succeeded. Smallpox no longer exists outside of the laboratory. There was even discussion about totally eliminating laboratory stocks of smallpox, including the propriety of deliberately destroying a species--even an arguably "evil" species such as smallpox. Paradoxically, eliminating smallpox as an endemic disease created its potential as a weapon of mass destruction.

Many may know the story of how Dr. Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine against smallpox in 1796, using matter from milkmaids infected with cowpox, a mild relation of the smallpox virus.

Edward Jenner House, Berkeley, Gloucestershire, UK
Edward Jenner's house and laboratory, where he developed the first vaccine against smallpox

Temple of Vaccinia, Edward Jenner House, Gloustershire, UK
This building, in Edward Jenner's garden, is where he would hold free smallpox vaccination clinics

Officially, variola now exists in only two places: the CDC in Atlanta, and an equivalent facility in Russia. In 1989 a Russian scientist defected to Britain, and revealed something of the extent of the Soviet strategic bioweapons program prior to the fall of the Soviet government in 1991. Yet more was revealed (such as the existence of a 20 ton stockpile of weapons-grade smallpox) when Ken Alibek, formerly the first deputy chief of research an production for Biopreparat, defected to the U.S. in 1992.

The plot thickened even more in 2000, when a group of Australian scientists presented a poster on mouse pox at an international meeting. By engineering the mouse IL-4 gene (interleukin-4) into the mouse pox genome, the researchers had created a super-lethal, vaccine-resistant mouse pox virus. Not a big jump from ultra-mouse pox to imagining something similar being done for human smallpox.

Sleep well...

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Handwriting on Your Kindle Fire

I like to travel light -- at least when it comes to electronic gear, books, and notebooks. So, my Kindle Fire HD multitasks as a portable library, tablet computer, and note-taking device. I don't have a separate keyboard, and don't much care for trying to type using the onscreen keyboard. I was looking for a way to do a bit of journaling while on the road, or just keep up with my morning pages.

Having heard a bit about handwriting apps, I went on a quest to see what was available for Kindle Fire, and experiment with how a writing app could work for me. I downloaded and installed the free versions of four different apps: Papyrus, LectureNotes, 7 Notes, and Handrite.

To start with, you do need a stylus to work effectively with a handwriting application. I went with the Amazon "Executive Stylus for Touchscreen Devices," which is inexpensive and has a pen-style clip to hold it in place in your purse or pocket. I have to say I'm a total stylus convert and now use it all the time for "pushing buttons" on my Kindle.

Each of the different hand note-writing apps has pluses and minuses, and which one you prefer will depend on what you plan to use it for. For me, I settled on Papyrus for the following reasons:
  • My user experience was the closest to writing on a piece of paper: I could write normally with my stylus and the resulting script looked like my own messy scrawl
  • Ease of use -- it's like paper, nothing to figure out (some apps use an insertion window, which I did not take to)
  • Plenty of options in the free version (e.g. "paper" can be ruled, grid, or blank; "pen" color and line width can be changed)
  • You can draw as well as write (not possible with all of the alternative apps)
  • You can export notes as a pdf, png, or jpeg file to any other appropriate app on your Kindle (I save to Evernote, so I can access my notes from any of my devices)
All of these features are available in the free version. Paid upgrades to Papyrus are available for additional tools, the ability to import pdfs for annotating, and/or cloud back-up. I haven't felt the need for any of these services, but your mileage might vary if you want to use it heavily for tasks such as taking class notes.

I wrote and drew on the page below using the Kindle Fire version of Papyrus:

Papyrus app for Kindle Fire HD
My messy handwriting captured by Papyrus


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Rick Steves is Always Right

I've written several posts about reading fiction for travel destinations, whether your poison is best sellers, mysteries, or even romance novels. Of course actual guidebooks for travelers are great sources of information too. I've found many series travel guides, as well as location-specific guide books, of help in trip planning. Different books have different strengths, but nobody bests Rick Steves for good advice on what to see and where to stay. I've learned from experience that I should never imagine I know better about what's worth spending time on as following his recommendations has never steered me wrong.

For example, Rick Steves' guide to Paris includes a walking tour of the complex of Les Invalides -- a former veterens' hospital that now houses Napoleon's Tomb as well as the extensive French Army Museum. His sight-seeing tips are clear:

With limited time, visit only Napoleon's Tomb and the excellent World War I and World War II wings. Most other displays consist of dummies in uniforms and endless glass cases full of muskets without historical context.
Silly me, I thought that since I've seen many World War exhibits in the UK, I'd focus on the medieval and Napoleonic periods. He was, of course, exactly correct in describing these exhibits as collections without historical context. And he was correct again in praising the extensive and informative exhibits on World Wars I and II -- including background on the conflicts leading up to the First World War, and the years between the wars.

Enigma machine
Enigma machine, Army Museum, Paris France

Seeing events from the French, rather than British or American perspective, was particularly interesting. One stand-out exhibit is a projection map showing the movements of French and German armies as they scrambled across a 200-mile front during WWI's Battle of the Marne. Parisian taxis shuttled 6,000 reinforcements to the front in a desperate (and successful) attempt to keep the city from falling.

I wish we had been able to spend more time absorbing that exhibit, but because I hadn't followed Rick's advice, we ended up rushing to see what we could before closing time.

After last year's experience in Paris, I learned to regard Rick's recommendations with careful attention. So this year in planning for Scotland, I obeyed his advice for finding accommodations in Edinburgh -- a lovely, but expensive city. Don't bother with large hotels next to the Royal Mile, Rick advises in his guide to Great Britain. Instead, book a B&B with access to the convenient bus routes along the Dalkeith Road.

B&B, Edinburgh, Scotland
Ard-Na-Said B&B, Edinburgh, Scotland

Following this advice is how I found the elegant and comfortable Ard-Na-Said B&B, which served as our home base for several delightful days in Edinburgh.

Guidebooks on Scotland
Guidebooks for Kindle Fire

Another thing I like about Rick Steves' guidebooks: they're all available in the Kindle format, making them easy to carry around with you for reading on your device or using the Kindle app on your phone.


Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Ten Tips for Surviving Long-Haul Air Travel

Travel is a wonderful, mind-expanding opportunity, but getting to far-flung destinations typically involves many hours confined to an airplane. Long-haul flights of seven or more hours are particularly challenging in terms of fatigue and jet lag -- not to mention boredom. Through years of trial-and-error, and making many mistakes, I've collected at a few tips which have helped me get through those long flights.

1. Premium Economy: It's unfair that we have to pay extra just to get airplane seats the same size as they used to be in economy class before the airlines decided they could get away with squeezing three people into space for two. Still, it's worth paying for the upgrade -- especially for a night flight where you really need to get some sleep.

Flying over Greenland
Flying over Greenland
2. Check the luggage: Many will disagree, but food and travel celeb Tony Bordain is on my side. The fad for carry-on everything started when airlines started charging fees for checked luggage, but the excess cabin baggage slows boarding and deplaning, and is generally a heavy, space-hogging nuisance. Read the fine print on your ticket booking regarding checked baggage weight rules and fees, and refer to those restrictions when you chose a suitcase and pack. That premium economy ticket should come with a reasonable checked-suitcase allowance.

These days, lost luggage is rare and bags are typically appearing on the carousel by the time you leave the aircraft and walk to the baggage claim area. Pack your carry-on with only what you need for the flight and immediately on landing (such as a jacket or umbrella), as well as valuable items such as a camera or tablet.

3. Clogs: They may not be fashionable, but clogs are ideal for flying. They're easy to slip on and off for TSA, as well as on board the airplane. Perhaps most important of all, clogs are roomy enough to fit feet that have become swollen after long hours in the air.

4. Elastic waist pants: Like the clogs, pull-on pants are not about fashion but rather about getting through TSA without worrying about removing a belt and having your pants fall down. Remember that you will be sleeping in whatever you wear for your flight, so rivets and any other fittings that might poke into you are best avoided. One also hopes to look at least marginally presentable on arrival, so synthetic blend fabrics have a lot to offer in the form of reduced rumpling.

5. Compression socks: Many types of compression socks are available on the market, including products specifically designed for travelers. These socks incorporate graduated elastic compression over the ankles and lower legs to help with circulation and so reduce swelling in the feet. They are the greatest things for air travel comfort since pressurized cabins.

In fact, compression socks probably would be a good idea for long car or bus trips as well -- any context in which you're likely to be sitting, largely immobilized for long periods of time.

6. Other compression wear: If you have arthritis or generally achy joints, a variety of compression garments are worth looking into. The principle is the same as with compression socks: an assist to circulation, which helps to reduce swelling and inflammation (and hence pain). Tommie Copper is my new best friend!

I do suggest though, that if you're planning to wear "copper-infused" clothing on your flight, take it through airport security in your carry-on bag and slip it on once you're in the departure area.

7. Layers: Aircraft cabins never seem to be a pleasant ambient temperature. Even worse, temperatures fluctuate from over-warm to downright cold during the course of a flight. Just like on the ground, layered clothing is the secret to staying comfortable in the air. Top a short-sleeved tee-shirt with a light sweater or fleece layer, and add a medium weight jacket for cooler moments. When not being worn, those outer layers can double as lumbar pillows.

8. Neck pillow: These are the little doughnut-shaped pillows you see for sale in the airport, but which are probably better priced at I finally tried one of these on our last trip and wished I'd done so years earlier. When trying to sleep in a semi-sitting position, the neck pillow will support your head and keep it from flopping over just as you doze off, only to wake up with an unpleasant start when your chin hits your chest. It will also prevent you from sleeping with your head at a totally awkward angle and so waking up with a stiff neck.

9. Snacks: Airline food ranges from not-that-bad to inedible. Even if the food is edible, you might miss a meal while sleeping -- and airline food is never worth waking up for. Having a couple of a granola bars and an apple in your carry-on is a wise back up.

Staying hydrated is even more important. One option is to take an empty water bottle through security and fill it from a fountain in the departure lounge. My experience is that cabin crews regularly circulate offering water or juice, and you can ask for a soft drink at any time, so I don't bother carrying my own water any more.

10. Kindles: Since this is a reading blog, I've saved the most important item for last -- a kindle loaded with an entire library of books. Most long flights on large aircraft now allow electronic readers to be kept on even during take-off and landing, but listen carefully for the pilot's instructions.

I have two kindles, and usually take both along when I travel. I have an older model traditional kindle with a keyboard and built in WiFi and 3G (for acquiring more books if I run out!). It's lightweight and easy to hold in one hand, and the battery lasts for days. I also have a larger Kindle Fire HD, which has the advantage of color for guidebooks and other illustrated works. I've never used it to take my own TV and movies along for in-flight viewing, but it does have that capability.