Book Clubs have gone high tech

Test setup of a poll for our book club on GoodReads.com, a book review website.

My recent exploration of social sites and apps that might help me manage a book club has surfaced some interesting new choices, but I find myself a bit disappointed in the options.

Let’s start from the beginning. We have a book club that occasionally swells to 15 members but most often is about 6-8 people. It’s mostly a sci fi book club, although members can (and have in the past) nominate and select a book in any category. We meet in person at a local Hillsboro brewery, Three Mugs. That way, we can have beer while we visit.

Most of the members are in Facebook, so we had a group set up there for messages and polls. However, there was a need to communicate via SMS with those who didn’t have Facebook pages. That resulted in double entry.

Requirements. I compiled a list of requirements in Google Sheets. My husband Jim set up a Slack channel for testing, and fellow book club member Matt set up a GoodReads group, and I set up a Bookclubz.com group. We began to test, using the spreadsheet as a guide.

Google Sheets let us track requirements and test.

If you want to see all of our requirements, here’s the list:

  • Admins can send invites to new members via email or text.
  • Ability for any group member to add new members.
  • Ability for people to access club details and vote without needing a login.
  • Display a calendar of past and upcoming meetings in calendar view.
  • Event list view option, search calendar for specific meeting topics.
  • Send and receive messages to entire group easily.
  • Live chat.
  • Run online meetings with screen share.
  • Lists of recommendations from members
  • List of previously read books
  • List of music to read by
  • Reach book club details and interact using desktop, iOS or Android.
  • Require a login setup for security.
  • App and website access.
  • Ability for Admins to create polls with up to 50 books being considered.
  • Ability to add a line or two of text along with the book title.
  • Ability to have any group member nominate a book, and have it available for others to vote on.
  • Ability to add a link to a specific book to be voted on.
  • Ability to add a pic of the book to be voted on.
BookClubz.com user interface showing voting options.
Test setup of the book club in Slack. Notice the text-based commands.
The easy user interface of SurveyMonkey makes it a joy to use, but it’s only a survey tool.
Test setup on GoodReads. Not perfect, but pretty darn good.

I found other sites and apps, but they only addressed some of the needs. Meetup was cool but they have a monthly charge. Slack can make use of plugins for calendar and polling, but would be challenging for nontechnical people because most of the commands are text based. Bookclubz.com has the ability to vote on books and search for and link the books, but members have to rate each book from 1-10 and it doesn’t really look or act like a poll should.

SurveyMonkey is easy and visually attractive for polling – although linking to books and adding their cover images is a manual process. Many other polling sites were reviewed, but they only have polls and cannot manage a club.

It became clear fairly quickly that there was no single solution that captured all of our “need to have” requirements. But it also became clear that GoodReads had most of them.

GoodReads’ strengths. Some requirements were much more important than others – the ability to click and vote from any device or platform, to send poll invites in multiple ways, to link to a book from the poll, to add a book nomination even after the poll starts, to communicate with all members in a platform-agnostic way, and to see past and upcoming events.

GoodReads’ weaknesses. The only possible downsides were the poor user interface (polls do not run well on the mobile apps) and the need to have people create GoodReads accounts so they could join. The site has the option to place a poll into any webpage (like this blog) by clicking the Widget button and copying the code. However, the links go to 404 pages, so that feature is not ready for prime time.

Above and beyond. I feel that there are a couple of other reasons to choose the right site for managing a book club: portability and collaboration.

Portability. We’ve only been doing this club for about 6 months and already we needed to change the leader (our leader is currently about to have a baby!) We want the book club’s leadership to be easily passed along to any selected member, or to add more leaders, without a lot of technical hurdles. Because of this, the site has to be easy to use and free of charge. It can’t require either an iPhone or an Android. GoodReads works here too – it’s on desktop, and there are Android and iOS apps.

Collaboration. We want to have multiple people contributing book ideas, creating polls, and scheduling events so these duties can be shared. GoodReads lets us name several Moderators who have the ability to do that. Group members can still contribute to the discussion and add book recommendations as well as vote and add book choices to the poll.

Privacy. GoodReads may not be much better than Facebook, because it is owned by Amazon. But the fast linking of almost any book in existence to what I feel are the best reviews you can find – the GoodReads site – outweighs that doubt in my mind. I think we’ve found our new home.

In my research, I found many blog articles and even some Quora answers to the question of how to run a book club, and more specifically which social sites or apps to use. Most of them gave a few best practices and touched on a few key recommendations, but none of them gave it the thorough treatment that the topic deserves. Quora answers were overtly commercial, recommending specific polling sites that come with fees and are more complex than book clubs need.

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New avatar bodies in Second Life

I sometimes visit a world called Second Life, which is kind of a big 3-D space where you can hang out, build stuff, and fiddle with your avatar’s look. I’ve been a member since 2007, and in that time, I’ve seen the look of avatars change a lot. Also, the people I met there – Willy and Nostrum – influenced my avatar’s look.

When I first started, this was my avatar. I controlled its look through the use of slider bars for every part of the avatar, from body height to amount of fat to face shape. I think there were 15 sliders just for the face alone. There was plenty of room for error, and you would see these freakishly tall avatars walking around with little tiny feet and huge breasts.

Second Life Sylectra 2008
The 2008 version of my avatar, achieved only with slider bars.

second life sylectra willy 2008
Willy and I met up from time to time to use the dance halls. It was fun getting dressed up, though time-consuming.

As I made friends and they showed me some cool new things, it was possible to buy skins, and later, shapes. My friend Nostrum Forder gave me her shape which was a more realistic height. Skins were expensive – about 500 – 1000 Lindens each. (1000 Lindens is currently about US $4) My complaint at the time was that most of the skins you could buy had overly made up faces, garishly bright and unnatural looking. I chose one that was pretty basic, compared to those other users selected.

Sylectra (without hair that day, apparently) with friend Nostrum Forder, one of the legendary personalities of Second Life and a resident of Organica. Nostrum, aka Jim, is now my husband.

In the pic above, I had a fairly good purchased skin and a mix of free and purchased clothing. Note the skirt – it’s a Second Life avatar skirt with prim ruffles for bounce and movement. A nice compromise. Nostrum preferred to go as female and had an amazing feel for shapes, skins, hair and clothing. In real life, he’s a regular guy with regular fashion sense.

My friends Steven (Stevenaia) and Cinco, two people that made Second Life a great place to be.

Skins made huge strides in 2010, 2011, and 2012. I had a DrLife skin that was worth every penny in the pic below. Outfits were still made mostly of flexi prims which ate up bandwidth and slowed down Second Life regions.

This skin was slightly green tinted but it was absolutely beautiful, like a painting.

 

Lately, it’s possible to buy mesh feet, hands, bodies, and heads – separately if you prefer. Then after you have a mesh body, you can buy mesh clothing, which is a snap to fit. Where before I had to use resizing scripts (that ate more bandwidth) or manually adjust prims for a better fit of hair or clothing, now I just add the item and it knows how to fit. Once in a while, some skin shows through the clothing. I can make that area invisible and – voila! Perfection. The only drawback is that it’s harder to look unique. Everyone now looks like a Barbie doll.

Here’s a pic of my avatar Psyche with her new Belleza Freya body.

Psyche’s new mesh body from Belleza.

The trouble with mesh bodies, is that if you don’t also buy a mesh head, you have to use the body sliders for skin tone to try to match the head.

Sylectra with a Maitreya Lara body and Lamb hair (awesome free gift for joining the group). She’s wearing Belleza Belle skin and the face shape is my own slider bar creation.

It took me about 5 hours and 5,000 Lindens to learn how to use mesh bodies and clothing, but it’s a fun new thing to play with. I have a huge inventory of items, most of which is clothing and hair (17,247 items after the latest purge). Most of my clothing won’t work with mesh bodies.

 

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Spring’s coming! Time for beer and wine events in Portland

This Spring is starting early with some events to herald warmer weather and blossoms. In Portland, that means celebrating with food, beer and wine!

I attended the Golden Valley Brewmaster’s Dinner on Saturday, March 3 with Jim. They had set aside their party room in Beaverton for the occasion and we were among about 53 guests. We felt like the price was a great value for this 5-course dinner at just $55 each. We have attended beer dinners that were $75 each. My favorite food was the scallops. A beer was poured with every course and, before the dinner, the wait staff was generous with beers. Our table companions were friendly beer enthusiasts (it’s a thing in the Portland area).

My favorite beer was the Tickle My Dickel (LOL).

Brewmaster Jesse Shue spoke to the gathering about the featured beers.

The next weekend, I joined a group of friends to visit the Sip! McMinnville Wine & Food Classic at the Evergreen Space Museum in McMinnville. Parking was $7, which is kind of a lot for the area, and tickets were about $21, if I recall correctly. Admission includes one free souvenir glass and a coupon for a free tasting at one of the booths. Tastings were $1-$2 per pour, or $5 for several varieties in the tasting.  It was interesting to taste the winners of the wine competition, but I have my own groove at these things so I didn’t buy any award winners this time.

I bought a Gewurtztraminer, a Malbec, and a Tempranillo.

I also bought a light switch cover and a clock from Paperwings.

Golden Valley Brewing had a booth where I got a delicious beer to go with my lunch of fish tacos. The company was stellar. This is a great way to taste a lot of wine without having to drive a lot.

Last Sunday, after a lovely dinner with my brother and his family at Pacific Growlers Taphouse in Beaverton, Jim and I went to McMenamins Cornelius Pass Roadhouse to walk the fairy-lit grounds and sit at the fire pit with other friendly folks. I found and petted two Corgis.

 

What’s Next?

Some of my friends are going to the PDX Tequila & Tacos festival on March 24 at Portland Expo Center. Sounds delicious!

 

I noticed Yoga + Beer Beaverton is happening on April 2 at Golden Valley Brewery. If you can get there by 6, the event begins with yoga for all levels, with a pint included at the end. $20 includes the pint of beer. Yes!

 

Whatever you do this spring, I hope it’s fun and helps lighten your heart.

 

 

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Not so dark and deep

Today Jim took me to Forest Park, a large urban forest in the hills overlooking downtown portland and Vancouver, WA.
 
 We were at the highest point in the park today – 1,100 ft. Nice clear day at about 65 degrees. We hiked about 3.5 miles.
 
 Forest Park, a municipal park in Tualatin Mountains measuring 5172.14 acres in size, is a gem right in the middle of the Portland metro area.
 
 We saw a chipmunk, mole, and slugs in addition to the common fauna.
 
 Best part was when the view opened up to Vancouver. It was a beautiful clear day.
 
 Without further ado, the pics:

 The forest awaits! Beginning of Fire Lane 7 trail.
 


My love makin tracks.


Weird dwelling cleverly constructed.
 


So many beautiful flowers. Is this a trillium?


You can see Vancouver through the trees.


Obligatory selfie. (left) Syl. (right) Jim.


Mosses, flowers and ferns on the forest floor.


A slug. Jim says the moles eat them but I don’t know. Who could eat a slug?

Location:Forest Park,Portland, OR

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NJ to Oregon travelogue, day 4

Tues, Oct. 4:

Started the day with 1700 miles to go and ended with 1200 to go. Had a call with Phil,  our mover, to update him on progress. Basically if we cannot be there by Friday morning he initially said he wouldn’t be able to deliver our stuff until Tues or Weds. Sigh. But then he called back and said he might be able to do Sat.

We had a big line of storms we would have to go through. They had the potential of producing strong winds and hail, but we crossed it to the other side without incident.

We had a great but short visit with Erin, Art, Ryan, Sam and Gracie. It was interesting learning how they were doing and what they were up to for the Fall. Erin and I talked about the challenge of finding Stuff to write about.

We then proceeded to Irv and Janet’s place in Omaha. Because we were running late, Janet was already at work and we didn’t get to see her, but had a really nice visit with Irv.  

It rained a few times but got through the line of storms pretty fast.

Then we assessed the miles between us and Ft. Collins, where we were going to stop for the night. No go. So then we chose Cheyenne, WY. By 4 pm it was clear that we would be driving until 10 or 11 pm if we kept that course. So we ended up reserving a room in Sidney, NE, about 3/4 of the way between Omaha and Cheyenne.  Folks, this is a long drive when you have a dog and cat in tow.

Got into Sidney, the home of Cabela’s, around 9 pm, but it was actually 8 because we had crossed a time zone. 

Days Inn is fine, but the surrounding parking lot is a bit sketchy and there was nowhere to walk Sophy. 

Went to Wal-Mart and ended up at Applebee’s around 9:30.

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NJ to Oregon travelogue, day 3

Monday, Oct. 3: We have 1,966 miles to go. Will reach halfway point tomorrow. The journey has included seven states – New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. 

Tomorrow we will go into Nebraska, weather permitting, and see Irvin and Janet and Erin and Art.

We drove a long time on this day and stopped, exhausted, at 7:30 pm. By the time we checked in and had thw pets cared for, it was 8:30 and we were able to go for dinner. 

We stayed at a Microtel, which was clean and comfortable.  We ate at the Beer house Restaurant. I had a decent grilled chicken with avocado and Jim had the Beerhouse sliders. 

To my great relief, Silver used his litter box right after we got him settled on the hotel room. Overnight, he continued to use it :-).

So I feel less guilty about having him in the carrier for ten hours. And I have been walking him too. 

Sophy is actually doing better than she did at home, with regular walks and food. No accidents so far.

Jim had a rough evening because we pushed too hard to get there. Basically, moving is hard because we don’t have any of the usual comforts or enough down time. You’d think that sitting in a car while your partner drives gives you lots of down time, but it’s not focused time because of all the things we have to look after.

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NJ to Oregon travelogue, day 2

Sunday morning, Oct. 2: Left at 10 am. Silver was good all night (slept on the bed) and Sophy slept well. So did we, despite having a smoke smell in the room. Silver didn’t have a BM so I walked him on his kitty harness when we stop. Although he walked well and was super cute, he didn’t do anything. I guess he can hold it for a while longer. I offered him water in his kennel and gave Sophy some, too.

Went through lots of tunnels:

Blue Mountain

Kittatiny Mountain

Tuscarora Mountain

Allegheny Mountain

The views are beautiful but there is a low fog on everything. Bucolic. Pastoral. Like a Charles Wysocki puzzle.

Thinking in a couple of directions today – gratitude for the wonderful send-off by friends and family members, and concern about remaining logistics.

Before we left, we were able to visit some of our favorite places and see some of our favorite people again. One of our favorite places is the Raptor Trust, a sanctuary for injured and sick birds like falcons, hawks, owls, eagles, and ravens. The Raptor Trust is next to The Great Swamp, between Berkeley Heights and Morristown. I spend a lot of time there or driving through it, just enjoying how serene and beautiful it was.

I got to go out with several of my favorite work friends and they treated me so kindly. Their good wishes have buoyed me as we go through this tough journey.

I also spent time with dear friends that I knew from outside of work. I am so glad to have been able to visit with Don and Claire Kissil, just to name a couple.

As we get through more of these marathon days, my concerns are, for the most part, settling down. The dog is doing fine and the cat is not complaining at all.

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NJ to Oregon travelogue, day 1

Jim holding the bag
Jim holds a bag of our stuff so I can put on my seatbelt in our overloaded Corolla before heading to his mom Marilyn’s house. We would need to further downsize to begin our journey to Oregon.

Saturday, Oct. 1:

Got a late start around noon because we needed to cash the security deposit check and trim down what we are bringing with us. Heartfelt hugs with Marilyn and Jessica, who is staying a couple weeks and flying to Portland from DC.

iftttfacebook-october-01-2016-at-0803pm
Our feast at Troegs. I loved the beet-marinated deviled eggs and the margarita flatbread. He had the charcouterie and cheese plates, and spiced roasted almonds.

Silver was quiet and well behaved and used his litter box like a good boy. The cat pan liners are a win! So easy to clean up. He did not try to escape even once, and did not disturb Sophy. He seems to really enjoy staying at Marilyn’s home.

Sophy was also great. Happy to report no accidents.

We stopped in Bethlehem and visited Marge, Nick, Chris, Paul and Cherie. Nick said a prayer to wish us well, a gesture i found very touching.

It will be his birthday tomorrow and Marge’s on Oct. 3. I hope they have very happy birthdays.

We stopped at Cabela’s to get Jim a rain coat. It rained on us as we left the store.

Didn’t make much progress today but we stopped for the night at the Econolodge in Harrisburg then drove down to Troegs Brewery for dinner. We had Sophy in the car and Silver remained at the motel. All was well when we returned.

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Male-female duets remind me of ephemeral beauty

On waking this morning, I found that a song was living in my head. The song is “Dust to Dust” by The Civil Wars, a duo that is no longer together. Listen on Spotify – https://open.spotify.com/track/5P6ZBMWS66FVo6deJaDdHy.

The Civil Wars
Joy Williams and John Paul White, The Civil Wars, were an amazing duo.

I discovered this amazing group too late, it seems. The haunting acoustic melody has a stripped-down feel and perfectly showcases the incredible voices of Joy Williams and John Paul White. The lyrics are also amazing:

It’s not your eyes
It’s not what you say
It’s not your laughter that gives you away
You’re just lonely
You’ve been lonely, too long

All your actin’
Your thin disguise
All your perfectly delivered lies
They don’t fool me
You’ve been lonely, too long

Let me in the wall, you’ve built around
And we can light a match and burn it down
Let me hold your hand and dance ’round and ’round the flame
In front of us
Dust to dust

You’ve held your head up
You’ve fought the fight
You bear the scars
You’ve done your time
Listen to me
You’ve been lonely, too long

Let me in the wall, you’ve built around
And we can light a match and burn them down
And let me hold your hand and dance ’round and ’round the flames
In front of us
Dust to dust

You’re like a mirror, reflecting me
Takes one to know one, so take it from me
You’ve been lonely
You’ve been lonely, too long
We’ve been lonely
We’ve been lonely, too long

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? It seems to me sometimes that the older I get, the more kinds of loneliness and sadness I know. Is it because experience teaches us the many variations that life can bring? Or that we simply endure more as time goes on?

This isn’t a negative post – these emotions are simply part of the mix that goes with being a human. It’s how we see beauty for what it is.

Hopefully you listened to the song and agree with me about its beauty. Knowing that they broke up makes the song even more precious to me.

I have a playlist on Spotify titled “Male Female Duets,” because what I have experienced with The Civil Wars was also the case with so many others.

Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole’s duet, “Unforgettable,” is one of the best examples. The father/daughter blend of voices is silvery and perfect, making me wish they’d had years of recording together. Nat King Cole originally recorded the song in 1951. Natalie sang for the remastered duet in 1991 – twenty-six years after his death. Natalie died in 2015. Sigh.

If you want to hear my playlist on Spotify, it’s at https://play.spotify.com/user/sylectra/playlist/538pZ9JkUM6XjKyIiIhZt9. Maybe you can suggest some other wonderful duets to add?

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Big and tall clothing store needs an in-store makeover

I visited a men’s clothing store with my husband today. He was there to buy a suit for a job interview (he had lost weight and the old one was too big). My husband is a big AND tall guy – a real teddy bear type. He’s hard to buy clothes for.

Teddy_Roosevelt_portrait
Teddy Roosevelt. (Image source: Wikipedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Teddy_Roosevelt_portrait.jpg)

I had never been in one of these stores, and it was an awakening for me. The staff was friendly and helpful and the selection was fine. However, they were missing some key opportunities to sell more clothing. Here is my list:

  1. Store employees – all men – should wear something other than polo shirts and jeans. They should be demonstrating that big and tall men can look sharp with a little effort. How about showcasing some of the merchandise?
  2. When a husband and wife come in and explain they need a job interview suit that sets him apart from the usual fashion-challenged tech worker, it’s an invitation to take charge of the situation. Don’t simply go along with the husband’s suggestion of a black suit. Or do so, but also suggest another color that is not quite as….funereal.
  3. Design your store so that customers don’t have to brush against the racks of clothing or each other as they move around. Big people feel awkward about that stuff already.
  4. Be ready with options for tailoring. Don’t just admit that your store doesn’t have it. Offer to hem pants for free with a purchase over a certain amount. These men don’t want to spend any more time fussing over their clothes than absolutely necessary, and they probably waited until the last minute to make a purchase decision because they hate trying on clothes in stores.

Contrast this with my positive experience in a Lane Bryant. Employees there did these things right:

  1. The employees gave women a little emotional space in the dressing room area – they know we would like others to pretend we don’t exist while trying on clothes.
  2. They avoided commenting on clothing that customers were browsing with comments like “that’s very slimming, it would look great on you.”
  3. Store designers spaced the racks far apart to allow customers personal space.
  4. Employees (all women) dressed nicely in the fashions on display in the store and were not all a size 2.

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