Book Report: Amazonia

Memoirs by some guy who was employee #55 at He was an in-house editor. Amazon wanted to have some folks on staff who could write up book reviews. This was before they let any bozo with an account write a book review. Folks were supposed to trust these reviews--sort of like when you go to a physical bookstore and there's a piece of paper stuck to a shelf saying "STAFF PICK!". It seems like a silly idea, but these were the beginning days of Amazon, and nobody really knew how a retail site was supposed to work. Merchants and customers were still figuring that stuff out. Are still figuring that stuff out.

This guy used to pick some book that appears on the Amazon front page. I found myself thinking, how presumptious to think that he should do such a thing. But recommendation engines weren't so great back then. Having some human pick one book a day to show to everybody--that was probably the best option they had at the time... Nowadays, I ignore the Amazon front page and click through to the recommendations. It's not exactly clear to me why there's still a "front page".

What? Oh, right, the book.

The book. He talks about the scandal when customers found out about the payola. Book publishers wanted their books to appear on the front page and on category pages. Depending on which books the Amazon editors picked, the book publishers would fork over payola. You might think that the big publishers are sleazy when they lie to authors about copyright--but they're sleazy in plenty of other contexts, too. Anyhow.

So there was this big editorial staff at Amazon. But they weren't as good as crowdsourcing. There are too many folks on the internets who will write book reviews for free. (Maybe I should point out that I found Harriet Vane's customer review of this book particularly on-target.)

So there was this big editorial staff at Amazon. And then there wasn't.

So this is the story of someone working at a fast-growing start-up--who finds out that he's part of an experiment that's not working out... This would be a pathetic story, but the author, James Marcus, is an engaging writer.

And it's a reminder about the entrepeneurial throw-stuff-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach. I like this approach, it's a great thing to do with software. If you write some software that doesn't catch on, that's not a problem. But this approach, it doesn't work so well with people. If you say, "Hey, I know, let's hire a bunch of in-house editors" and that experiment doesn't work out, you're going to have to lay a bunch of people off. And that's hard. So I guess I'm saying don't throw people at the wall to see if they stick. Or something.

(Beware: Chapter 14 of this book is all about literary crap: What would Emerson have thought of the internet? You might not think you care about that idea now. You will care much less about it after you drag your eyeballs over Chapter 14. Things get going again after that, though.)

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Book Report: I Wish there was Something that I Could Quit

It's a novel by Aaron Cometbus! I hadn't heard it had been published until I entered a bunch of book ratings into's recommendation engine recommended the book. Three cheers for recommendation engines. If you like Cometbus, you'll probably like this novel. If you don't know about Cometbus, this would be a difficult beginning.

Maybe I was fooled by the title, but this seems to be a story of people who have given things up. There is a straight-edge bartender. There is Aaron the musician known for touring whose favorite moments are when the band van breaks down. Characters break up relationships carefully, trying to improve themselves (and then thoughtlessly fall into other relationships). This makes for some fun musing, but this isn't really a book in which stuff happens.

There's stuff you do which you'd be better off not doing. Quit doing that for a little while and read this book instead. It will be so very appropriate.

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Link: Bookarmy

Bookarmy is a book rating website.

Yes, I keep trying book rating websites. I keep hoping they'll turn into book recommendation sites. Bookarmy is a book recommendation website! Or, uhm, maybe. Hmm. Kinda. It hopes to be a book recommendation site?

You might remember a while back I mentioned I used a site called Wikilens. You'd tell it books you like and it would recommend others based on other people's recommendations. It was fun while it lasted; it was a school project and those people aren't in school anymore. The site shut down.

I'm on, where folks can rate things that they've consumed, e.g., books. I hit a milestone there this morning: I rated my 1000th book! But that site doesn't make recommendations. About a year ago, it gave me a list of five people who were "consuming the same things as Larry Hosken". OK, that's not the same as enjoying the same things that I enjoy. But maybe it's close enough. Let's see, is there some easy way for me to find things that these people rated highly, things that I haven't tried yet? Uhm, no. No recommendations here. Here's how I figure I'll celebrate rating my 1000th book: I'm stopping. No more rating books on AllConsuming. It's easy, they have a nice quick UI... but it's not getting me anything.

What? Bookarmy? I'm theoretically talking about Bookarmy? OK.

Someone at work pointed out a new site: It promises book recommendations! So I rated a bunch books on their site. And now I've got recommendations from them. But the recommendations so far... Uhm, they lack credibility.

Bookarmy has three ways of making recommendations:

  • "People like you are reading..."
  • "Your friends books"
  • "More from authors you like"

People like you are reading sounds like a good idea. Bookarmy looks over its list of users to find people who are similar to me, book-taste-wise. Then it looks for books rated highly by those people. I guess. I guess that's what's going on. Elsewhere in their UI, they have a list of people who are my "best matched". So what are the top-recommended books for me in this category?

  • Speak Young adult fiction. Bookarmy recommends this book because it was rated highly by user Twilightrose, who is my best-matched user in all of Bookarmy. How well are we matched? Twilightrose and I have read one book in common: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. We are similar in that we disliked it. That's it. That's the extent of our well-matched tastes. This doesn't seem like a credible recommendation.
  • Friction, children's fiction. Also rated highly by Twilightrose. She seems like a nice girl and all. I'm just not sure that our tastes are really that similar. Just sayin'.
  • Looking for Alaska children's fiction. Highly rated by Nathanonline, the Bookarmy user second-most similar to me. What do I have in common with Nathanonline? We both read Crime and Punishment. I disliked Crime and Punishment and Nathanonline liked it. Yet we are considered similar. Maybe that's because Nathanonline rated C&P as "OK" while its average rating is five stars (the maximum). Relative to the rest of the world, we disliked Crime and Punishment. Maybe that's what's going on? Somehow, that's not enough to make me want to pay much attention to his book recommendations. No offense, Nate.

(If I scan down Bookarmy's list of people who are similar to me, at #4 I finally find someone who liked a book that I liked. That's one book that we have in common. On the other hand, if I look at a list of people who have rated many books, I can find someone named "Loosy" who has read a bunch of the same books that I have and we seem to agree more than we disagree. And I just found Loosy by stumbling around haphazardly. Hey, bookarmy people: I'd rather know about people who agree with me on 2/3 books than 1/1 books. I'm surprised Loosy isn't higher on my list of similar people than Nathanonline is.)

Your friends books If you're reading this, you're probably sad to see that Bookarmy recommends "friends books" to me. You're probably a friend of mine and thinking "Waaahhh Larry told other friends about this bookarmy site and now all those people are cliquishly trading book recommendations but they didn't invite me and they're leaving me out and I'm just going to go sit in the corner and eat worms". But I don't have any friends on Bookarmy. No, wait, I have eight friends on Bookarmy. No, wait, bookarmy's friend system is broken. Eight people have "friended" me on Bookarmy. Bookarmy is a social network site. You know how some people try to "win" on social network sites by having the most friends? So they "friend" everybody? Eight of those people have friended me. I said no to each of them. But but but bookarmy nevertheless says that I have eight friends. And it recommends books from them.

  • Twilight
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

These books have been recommended by people who "friend" people they don't know. The only thing I know about these people is that they have a hobby that I don't have: random "friending". Thus, I'm not inclined to pay much attention to these recommendations. Or I might take these as anti-recommendations--maybe if I read these books, I'll turn into an annoying random-friending-person.

The good news is that I learned some new punctuation today:
Your friend's books: apostrophe before the s indicates that "friend" is singular
Your friends' books: apostrophe after the s indicates that "friends" is plural
Your friends books: mising apostrophe indicates that "friends" is zero

More from authors you like Hey, they can alert me to new books written by authors I've rated highly, yay!

  • Interworld by Neil Gaiman , Michael Reaves. Huh. I like some Neil Gaiman stuff, dislike other Neil Gaiman stuff. I'm kind of surprised this showed up so high on the list.
  • The Web Architect's Handbook by Charles Stross. OK, I like his science fiction, maybe I'd like his technical writing, too. Hmm, according to his website, this 13-year old book on web design is "an historical artifact". Maybe I'll skip it. Still, this seems like the kind of book I'd want to show up on this list--there's no way an algorithm could know the book's out of date. Well done, Bookarmy.
  • How to be Alone by Jonathan Franzen. Why is this showing up in a list of books by authors I like? I've rated one Franzen book on Bookarmy. I didn't like that book. My rating reflects that.

Anyhow, if you're on Bookarmy and you know me, feel free to friend me. It's kind of embarrassing being on a social site with no friends. If you'd like to play around on a book-rating site, Bookarmy is fun. And maybe if enough people go there and rate books, they'll have better data. And maybe maybe they'll come up with some better recommendation ranking algorithm... I'm tempted to recommend it, because I would so much like it if there was a book recommendation service that had plenty of data to work with... But, really, it's not working well now.

I talked to a couple of folks about my bad luck on Bookarmy. One of them told me that if I rate books on Amazon, Amazon will tell me about similarly-rated books. Maybe I should try that. I tend to shy away from using Amazon because they oppress their coders. Maybe it's time I got past that.

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Link: Musicbrainz

I haven't posted a new J-ska review in ages. Did they do any good? I don't know. I got angry emails from folks who wanted to make sure that I should really give the band Mongol 800 another chance; no, rather, Mongol 800 might deign to give me another chance, and I'd understand their awesomeness just as soon as I understand that the Misfits are really amusing, not dull at all... Sorry, what was the question? Oh, right, "What have I been doing instead of posting J-ska reviews?"

I have entered some releases on Musicbrainz a big music database on the internets. If the RIAA asks, it's totally a coincidence that I entered this information onto a database which happens to be what the standard CD ripping software for Ubuntu uses for sharing information about CDs.

So if there were any Pez Stomp fans who (a) use Musicbrainz and (b) didn't already know that the album "Right Hands for All Children" came out a few years ago, now they can find out. Maybe that data will do the world more good than my music reviews did.

Ideally, this database would look at the information I entered, figure out what kind of music I like, and recommend stuff based on what similar people like. Oh, wait--the only reason I entered information about those albums is that nobody else had done it first. So I guess there's no way that Musicbrainz would know who had similar tastes. Drat.

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Book Report: Cold Mountain

This is a great book, an odyssey set during the USA's Civil War. It's a bleak study of the horrors of war. It's a story about humans and beasts. You've probably already heard about it. After I read it, I searched the internet to learn more about it and found out that someone made a movie about it a few years back, and that movie won an Academy AwardTM. Maybe you've already made up your mind about whether or not you want to read this book. So instead of telling you about the book, I'll tell you how I heard about it.

I'm using the WikiLens recommendation service. You create an account, tell it what things you like, it compares your ratings to other peoples' and recommends new things for you. Yes, I'm trying another recommendation service. This one stands out from the others because: It's still running and I liked its first recommendation. I recommend this recommendation service. It has categories for Album, Artist, Book, Movie, San Francisco Bay Area Restaurant, TV Show, Video Game, and Web site. That's not all of the categories; you can suggest new ones.

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