Non-Amazon Book Tracking and Buying

Two small steps away from relying on Amazon for bookish needs:

I’m moving my book tracking away from Goodreads in favor of The StoryGraph. Not quite as full featured (yet), but gaining features, and doesn’t pump your data into Amazon’s systems. And if you don’t want to lose your Goodreads data, no worries! The StoryGraph can import it. Here’s my profile.

For a while now, I’ve been ordering new books from, which allows you to to choose an independent bookstore (ideally, one near you) to get a cut of every purchase you make. Sure, you’ll probably spend a little more, and your books won’t always arrive on the very day they’re released, but if you can afford a couple more dollars per book and a few days before you dive in, it’s well worth sending your money to small independent bookstores instead of Amazon.

For used books, if local used bookstores aren’t an option (which currently is very pandemic-dependent), I’ll order from Powell’s whenever possible.

Little things, perhaps, but they make me feel better about how I choose to spend my money.

Bookshop over Amazon

Most of the books we buy are second-hand, but we do occasionally buy/pre-order new books. We had two on order from Amazon, but I just canceled those orders in favor of ordering them from Bookshop instead. We’ll pay a little more and wait a couple more days for the books, but we can afford both the money and the wait, and this way some of the money goes to support independent bookstores instead of Amazon.

If you’re looking at buying books this holiday season (and beyond) and don’t have to have next-day shipping, I encourage shopping through Bookshop — and use their “find a bookstore” option to see if you can target a particular local bookstore; I set my default to one we just stumbled across last weekend. Until we’re comfortable going in to browse the shelves, we can support them this way instead!


Our “Movies we think you’ll like” lineup on Amazon Prime tonight included:

Sherlock Holmes
Murder on the Orient Express
The VelociPastor


Movies for Cats – Forest Songbirds

Apparently, the combination of Law and Order SVU, The Fabulous Mrs. Maisel, The Expanse, and Dr. Who (before it was taken off) is enough to convince Amazon that we’re…murder kittens.

Well, okay then.

Amazon Alternatives: “Welcome to the most lovingly curated selection of Amazon and Prime alternatives anywhere. We aim to make giving up Amazon easy and to encourage more people to spend their money with businesses that have higher ethical standards.”

Amazon’s Ring Considering Facial Recognition

Ring just gets creepier and creepier. While the basic home security idea isn’t bad, the implementation, especially when combined with the (existing or just discussed) partnerships with law enforcement, giving them unfettered access to the video captured by the cameras, is really, really disturbing.

(I have friends who have Ring cameras, some of whom have been very glad to have them when weird things have happened at their place. I don’t want to discount the benefits that these systems can provide. But for people who have been considering a Ring system, it’s worth thinking seriously about the potential wider concerns with the system and considering other options; for those who do have a Ring system, it might be worth reviewing the settings to see how much, if any, of the data sharing can be opted out of.)

In its public-relations efforts, Ring has maintained that only thieves and would-be criminals need to worry about the company’s surveillance network and the Neighbors app. From the way Ring’s products are designed to the way they’re marketed, the notion of “suspicion” remains front and center; Ring promises a future in which “suspicious” people up to “suspicious” things can be safely monitored and deterred from afar.

But “suspicious” is an entirely squishy concept with some very potentially dangerous interpretations, a byword of dog-whistling neighborhood racists who hope to drape garden-variety prejudice beneath the mantle of public safety. The fact remains that anyone moving past a home equipped with Ring cameras is unavoidably sucked into a tech company dragnet, potential fodder for overeager chatter among the suburban xenophobe set. To civil libertarians, privacy scholars, and anyone generally nervous about the prospect of their neighbors forming a collective, artificially intelligent video panopticon maintained by Amazon for unregulated use by police, Ring’s potential consequences for a community are clear.

A “proactive” approach to information sharing could mean flagging someone who happens to cross into a Ring video camera’s frame based on some cross-referenced list of “suspects,” however defined. Paired with the reference to a facial recognition watch list and Ring’s generally cozy relationship with local police departments across the country, it’s easy to imagine a system in which individuals are arbitrarily profiled, tracked, and silently reported upon based on a system owned and operated solely by Amazon, without legal recourse or any semblance of due process.

Unpopular Questions

Okay, folks. Some of you aren’t going to like this at all. However, I think these are questions worth asking.

Every year, I see a strong majority of my friends and acquaintances promoting Banned Book Week, “an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment…[that] highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship [and founded on] the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular.”

Last April, the internet and many people I know were thrown into a tizzy because of apparent censorship of LGBT-themed books, prompting the creation of the #amazonfail hashtag.

So, now we have the latest uproar over a book with unpopular ideas that is under attack — only this time, the popular call is for boycotting Amazon until the book is removed. And, apparently all the uproar was successful, because it seems the book is no longer available.

So, folks, which is it? Do we decry the censorship of ideas that are unpopular, or do we celebrate the censorship of ideas that are unpopular?

Yes, the content of the book in question is disturbing and advocates unethical, immoral, and illegal behavior. Depending on who you talk to and what area of the country or world you live in, most if not all of the LGBT section of any modern bookstore, including Amazon, can be described in exactly the same way.

Either censorship is horrible and should be battled in whatever form it appears, or it is acceptable and necessary and you just better not be writing anything that people in power disapprove of. But it doesn’t work both ways. At least, not justifiably.

From » Banned? Wait, what?! Stop Motion Verbosity:

Good thing Nabokov wasn’t “investigated” because of Lolita. Of course, Lolita was also banned for a while. But hey! Who cares, right? Wait, maybe it isn’t books that are clearly fiction, it’s manuals and guidebooks.

Good thing the Anarchist Cookbook is banned. Oh, wait, hold on. Right! It isn’t. Because free speech isn’t just protected when you agree with it. Because the alternative is madness.


You don’t get to call for a boycott to delist a book when you feel like it, without being willing to sit while someone boycotts for a book you like, the next day.

This is why we don’t ban books, remember? Because it’s dangerous and fucked up and wrong. Even when the book is horrible and morally objectionable. Even then.

That’s the price we pay for free speech. And if you aren’t willing to pay it, then you better duck, because that has consequences you may not enjoy for very long at all. About the time someone disagrees with you and you can’t do anything about it, I’d think.

(Via MissAmberClark)

And this next bit is from a 2008 post in Neil Gaiman’s Journal, which addresses a different specific controversy, but the same questions: Why defend freedom of icky speech?:

Freedom to write, freedom to read, freedom to own material that you believe is worth defending means you’re going to have to stand up for stuff you don’t believe is worth defending, even stuff you find actively distasteful, because laws are big blunt instruments that do not differentiate between what you like and what you don’t, because prosecutors are humans and bear grudges and fight for re-election, because one person’s obscenity is another person’s art.

Because if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.

[T]hat’s what makes the kind of work you don’t like, or don’t read, or work that you do not feel has artistic worth or redeeming features worth defending. It’s because the same laws cover the stuff you like and the stuff you find icky, wherever your icky line happens to be: the law is a big blunt instrument that makes no fine distinctions, and because you only realise how wonderful absolute freedom of speech is the day you lose it.

(Via bicyclefish)

I love my Roku

Readers Digest condensed Cliff’s Notes executive summary version: Do you have a Netflix account and a reasonable (1.5 MB/s or better) broadband connection? Then you should have a Roku player. That’s it.

So a couple months ago, I had a birthday, and with that birthday came some a little bit of spending money (courtesy of Prairie’s mom) that I wasn’t sure what to do with. As I’m in school, not making money, and existing solely on financial aid and Prairie’s good graces, I’ve gotten very used to spending money only on what’s necessary, and not on toys or frivolities. Because of this, I didn’t have much of a “wish list,” and the things I’m generally likely to spend money on — used books and vinyl — I currently have stacks of, waiting for me to find time to either read or import into the computer, so adding to the stacks (as enjoyable as that is) didn’t seem like the best way to go.

I let the money sit for a while as I played with various ideas, and eventually decided to go for something I’d been eyeballing for a while, but which had always fallen into the realm of “neat toy that could be fun, but isn’t really necessary right now”: a Roku digital video player.

Roughly two months in, I can easily say that this was one of the best impulse buys I’ve made in a long, long time.

First off, the basics, in case you haven’t heard of the Roku before. Originally developed at and for Netflix, and later spun off into its own company and opened to more content providers, the Roku is a tiny little set-top box that plugs into your TV, giving you access to the Netflix library of streaming “Watch Instantly” titles. Prairie and I had just recently started discovering the joys of Netflix’s streaming library (with the addition of my new iMac, as before that, none of our computers were new enough to support Netflix’s streaming service), but camping out in my office to watch shows on my computer wasn’t nearly as comfortable as our living room, so the Roku sounded like a nice addition to the house.

Setup is dead simple. The box is small, and if you have a WiFi network at home, requires the bare minimum of cables: power, and the connection to the television (if you don’t have WiFi, you’ll need to run an ethernet cable to the box). It has the three primary video connection methods (composite video, for old-school TVs like ours; component video, for higher-quality video on TVs that support progressive scan input; and HDMI for High Definition TVs) and both standard stereo and optical audio output.

Getting started took just a couple minutes: I plugged it in, told it which WiFi network to use and put in the password, and after a brief moment to let the box download and install new firmware and reboot, it was up and running. I popped into the Netflix channel, chose something in my Instant Watch queue, and was watching a show no more (and probably much less than) ten minutes after opening the box. Impressive!

The Netflix interface is slick and simple, and — thanks to a recent software update that actually came out just before I got the Roku — allows for searching and browsing the Netflix streaming library, and shows off all the recommendations of things that Netflix thinks we’ll enjoy watching.

There’s a lot more than just Netflix available, though. Roku’s channel store has an ever-growing library of options, with lots of internet-based shows and podcasts, sports channels, Pandora radio, and — our personal favorite after Netflix — Amazon Video on Demand. Last weekend after seeing Inception, Prairie and I were still in the movie mood, decided to see what new releases Amazon had available, and ended up renting, watching, and thoroughly enjoying Whip It!.

Our feelings at this point: Blockbuster is doomed. Outside of needing something rare enough that it’s not available to stream from Amazon or Netflix and soon enough that we can’t put in our physical Netflix queue, we have absolutely no reason to physically rent a video anymore. Movie theaters aren’t in much better shape, either — the entire experience of watching something at home is so much nicer, more comfortable, more convenient, and cheaper than going to the movies that we’ll be doing that far less than we already do (and we haven’t been going terribly often as it is).

The video quality of the Roku is great, as well. Admittedly, ours is helped somewhat by my television (geekery: though it’s an older, standard-ratio TV, this model Sony Wega offers an “anamorphic compression” mode that squeezes the picture down to a 16:9 ratio from the standard 4:3 ratio, increasing the resolution as it does so; this allows me to tell the Roku that it’s connected to a widescreen TV, at which point it outputs an anamorphic signal that results in a higher resolution and better quality image than if it were outputting the standard 4:3 640×480 TV signal), but the image quality easily matches (or at least comes very, very close to) what we see out of our DVD player. One of the very few disappointments I’ve had with the Roku (and a very minor one at that) is that while my TV can accept component video, the Roku apparently will only output component video as progressive scan output, which my TV doesn’t support, so I’ve had to resort to the lowest-quality composite video connection. Still, the quality we get is good enough that I can’t really complain — and when we finally get around to upgrading to an HDMI-capable HDTV, the quality will only get better!

There are a few relatively minor caveats to the Roku. Most importantly, you do need a reasonable (1.5 MB/s) broadband connection, and for HD video (not an issue for me at the moment), it requires at least a 5 MB/s connection (which, even if I had the hardware to display HD video, isn’t available from Qwest at my address yet). A WiFi network, while not necessary, as the box does have ethernet input, is highly recommended, as it keeps you from having to string more cabling around your house. And, of course, with any online-based service, there is the potential for network or server issues to occasionally get in the way, though we’ve had very few times where this was an issue (and when it was, Roku and Netflix were both good about communicating with their customers, and we even got a bit of a refund from Netflix to make up for the service interruption).

In short, we love this box. We’ve been using it nightly, bouncing among a number of shows that catch our eye (recently: Bones, Futurama, Law and Order, Red Dwarf, and 30 Rock), and saving movies for when we have the time and interest to invest in a movie. This has increased our usage of the streaming service to the point where we’re considering dropping our Netflix subscription from our current 3-at-a-time down to the basic 1-at-a-time service, as Netflix (so far, and I hope this continues) is kind enough to offer their streaming service without limitation at all subscription levels. Good deal!

Once again: if you have Netflix and broadband, you really should have a Roku.

Amazon Kills Pocketpedia

For a while now, I’ve been using Bookpedia to catalog Prairie’s and my book collections, and DVDPedia for our movie collection. One of the handiest things about the system was the ability to sync our libraries to my iPod through Pocketpedia and have them available at my fingertips whenever we were out and about. No more trying to remember whether or not we’d picked up a particular book from a particular author or series, just check the iPod. It was one of my most-used iPhone apps.

Unfortunately, that’s not an option anymore: Amazon recently changed their API Terms of Service, and included the following clause in section 4(e):

You will not, without our express prior written approval requested via this link , use any Product Advertising Content on or in connection with any site or application designed or intended for use with a mobile phone or other handheld device.

Since the update to the TOS, Amazon has been aggressively enforcing that clause. I saw the writing on the wall a couple weeks ago when Delicious had their iPhone app pulled, and now Pocketpedia has been killed as well.

This morning we received an email from Amazon requesting the immediate removal of Pocketpedia from the App Store since the program is in violation of their license agreement. (A clause we’re pretty sure didn’t exist when Pocketpedia launched with the App Store in June last year but TOSBack only tracks Kindle and MP3 music service terms of use.)

We’ve logged a request with Amazon that Pocketpedia be exempt from the mobile clause (this is stated as a possibility in the license agreement) but it seems others have tried this before and were shot down so we’re not holding our breath for a favourable response. Hopefully the future will bring a positive change in their policy and we can all go on competing in the App Store.

Pocketpedia Not Available

Unsurprisingly, I — and a number of other previously-happy customers — are none too thrilled with Amazon about this. I’m hoping that some workaround can be found, and that Pocketpedia can continue on (even if that means gutting it to remove all data ever retrieved from Amazon). All I can do now (aside from dropping Amazon a quick complaint e-mail, which I’ve already done) is wait and see what happens next.

Update: Hooray! As of today, Nov. 10th, 2009, Pocketpedia is back! You can download the new, Amazon-free version right here.