Why Doesn’t Google Fix Its Obvious Flaw?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, February 5, 2016

Yesterday I searched Google for a book review of All the Birds in the Sky  by Charlie Jane Anders. I carefully created a search request that would give me exactly what I wanted.

           “all the birds in the sky” review anders

Yesterday it returned 37,500 links. Today it returns 38,900. If I take out the quotes around the book’s title it returns 461,000. If I add “book” to the search request and keep the quotes it returns 41,100. This is absolutely ridiculous.

Google_-G-_Logo.svg

If Google was as smart as it should be, the returns should be something like 78 or 123, or if there’s really a lot of book reviewers in this world, maybe 478. I can’t imagine that a book released two weeks ago should have garnered that many significant reviews, even counting bloggers, and I was wanting good blog reviews.

I’m reading All the Birds in the Sky and wanted to know what other people thought of it. I wanted significant reviews where readers pondered the implications of the story. Some of the returns on the first pages gave me what I wanted, but even those pages were cluttered with links to sites that weren’t book reviews. And I discovered that some review sites only give a minimum description of the book, as if the book hadn’t been read, but merely summarized by an overworked journalist, or composed by one of those new AI content creators that can crank out narrative that looks like it was written by a human.

Many of the returns were like this one “Babe of the Day – Penelope Cruz…” that had no information about the book. But there is a mention of the book in this guy’s blog links column.

Google’s AI should have been smart enough to know this site wasn’t a book review. Google’s AI should be smart enough to know that most of those 38,900 links aren’t book reviews either. Hell, I gave it a helpful hint by putting in the world “review” in the search query. Any half-ass AI should know that the words in the quotes is a book title, and the last word is the author’s last name.

I have to assume that offering me 38,850 links I don’t need helps Google make money. Google, the reason I gave up cable TV is because it made me pay for hundreds of channels I never watched. I don’t think I can cut the cord with Google. Bing gave me 5,600,000 results on the same query. Duck Duck Go doesn’t tell me how many returns it finds, but it does check mark some of its returns, as if “hint hint” these are the ones you really want. Their results come in a continuous scroll, so there’s no telling how many results there are.

Here is the search query I’d like to use with Google:

       “all the birds in the sky” review anders words>600 –notbuying

Google would know I wanted book reviews containing more than 600 words. Also, it would know I didn’t want to see any sites selling the book, so don’t bother sending me sites trying to sell the book. Of course if their AI was really sharp, I should be able to ask for:

       Give me significant reviews of All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.

And it would.

JWH

Autistic Characters in Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 3, 2016

I started reading The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion yesterday, and realized I was enjoying yet another book with an autistic first person character. This got me to thinking, just how many books have I read with an autistic character, and then wondered, just how often autistic characters show up in fiction. So far my list includes:

GoodReads lists 65 books on their Autism in Fiction list, some of which I find quite surprising, like To Kill a Mockingbird. And it turns out I have another book on my to-be-read pile, The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon that features an autistic character. It appears listing autistics in fiction is quite popular, and Wikipedia even has a list of fictional characters in books, movies, television and comics that are on the autistic spectrum. If you search Google for “autism in fiction” you’ll find a lot to read.

the-rosie-project-graeme-simsion

Most of the books have been from the last twenty-five years. Didn’t autistic people exist in the time of The Bible, Shakespeare or Charles Dickens? I do know that Confessions of a Crap Artist, written by Philip K. Dick in 1959 has a very autistic-ish narrator. And strangely, isn’t Mr. Spock from Star Trek very autistic like? There is a danger to retroactively diagnosing characters from the past with autism, just read “Sherlock does not have Asperger’s or Autism, Thanks – From 4 Psychiatrists” or “We Shouldn’t View Sherlock as an Autistic Savant.”

Many people do not consider Oskar Schell in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to be autistic, but I do, because he has some autistic like traits. And I think that’s what’s interesting about these books, they don’t all define their characters as autistic or having Asperger’s syndrome, a diagnosis that’s been replaced with the term autism spectrum disorder. That’s because it’s very difficult to pigeonhole people into precise mental categories. I’ve written about this before, “Don’t We All Have Personality Traits in the Autism Spectrum?” and “Reading Novels To View Reality From a Diversity of Mental Spectrums.”

I think is extremely fascinating we all want to clearly define people into categories, but our own unique traits are usually invisible to ourselves. Just like Don Tillman in The Rosie Project, who is unaware of his Asperger’s symptoms, we can’t see our own quirkiness. Think how often you have heard your voice on a recorder and found it shocking. Or how disturbing it can be to see photographs or videos of ourselves. Our inner self-image seldom matches outer evidence. So it’s easy to understand that other people see you far different from how you see yourself.

In the The Rosie Project, Don decides it’s time to get married and goes about finding a wife in a very systematic way. The whole time I was reading this story I couldn’t stop picturing Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. But doesn’t everyone fumble around trying to find their soul mate? And if we’re honest, aren’t we all clueless about finding compatibility?

People wonder why there’s been an explosion of autism in the general population. Some wonder if we always had autistic people and are just getting around the labeling them. Can you remember an old relative with autism spectrum traits? Others think the increase is from an environmental cause, and a few people have suggested the increase in autism comes from more super-intelligent people mating with each other. I have no idea, but I do find that characters in fiction with moderate amounts of traits from the autism spectrum appealing. (Although severe amounts are horrifying and tragic.) And I think that’s so because we can identify with their problems and admire their eccentric skills. Don’t we all have some kind of communication problem, or compulsive behavior? My friends consider me very good at communication, yet I’ve always felt a slight sense of agoraphobia when it comes to socializing. And I certainly wish I had the organizational skills of Sheldon and Don. I do know I pass all the tests for introversion with flying colors.

And how often do you feel that your friends are clueless to seeing the real you? Aren’t we all on a social awareness spectrum? If we fall into a certain range, does that put us on the autism spectrum? I have long ago given up on the idea of “normal” people. I assume we all exist on a hundred different spectrums – picture a mixing board in a sound recording studio. I doubt anyone has sliders position in the center all across the board. And I expect what we now call autism spectrum disorder will be broken up into several spectrums in the future.

Finally, I wonder if we were all characters in a book like Don Tillman, and readers got to see just how we think, wouldn’t our logic for doing things and making decisions seem peculiar to others? Aren’t we all strange little birds?

JWH

Why Do We Fall In Love With The Past?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 28, 2016

We explore the past through infinite paths. The past no longer exists, yet we recreate “what was” with artifacts that continue to exist in the now. We use our neurons as virtual reality machines to remember. Most of us have a rough map of our own life, and hazier maps of our own culture. Beyond those maps lie the unknown territory of the collective past, which we are all deeply rooted. We have all shook hands with someone who shook hands with a 19th century person, who had shaken hands with someone from the 18th century. I am old enough to have shaken hands with many people born in the 19th century. Every history book we read weaves thousands of threads that link us to a past.

Have you ever contemplated how we build the past in our minds? As individuals we use memories. We talk to other people and use their memories. Novels, movies, songs, television shows, paintings – are fundamental ways of recalling the past. Art is recorded memories. Think of cave paintings, probably among our oldest memories. Slowly, education and scholarship evolved to organize the details of the past. Whether you’re studying math or The New Testament, you’re recreating the past. The discipline of history isn’t that old in the big scheme of things. In recent times we have journalism and the internet to extend our sense of the past.

Whenever we play an old piece of music or see a work if art in a museum, it connects us to people, places and things who lived and died long ago. For example, I’m currently reading I Am Alive and You Are Dead by Emmanuel Carrère (19281982, San Francisco, Berkeley, Point Reyes, Santa Ana) a biography of Philip K. Dick. Or I recently saw The Revenant (1823, Montana, South Dakota) about Hugh Glass. I could link to dozen more movies and books I’ve recently seen that connect me to the past. Just follow those few links to understand how we network with the past, and how far and quickly that web of memory will carry you away. Trying to grasp the fullness of past is like falling into a black hole.

1920s - Dad's father on right - with parents and brothers - cropped

Here’s a photo of my father’s father, his brothers and their parents (my great grand parents). I know next to nothing about these people, and can only remember a couple of anecdotes. What would it take to learn about them?

The answer comes in a book I just finished, The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, who took a couple years out of his life to learn about his ancestors on his father’s side. This wondrous book will delight lovers of history, art and culture. There’s enough material here for six fascinating historical movies, and seeds for many more. The challenge here is for me to describe it in a way that will make you want to read it. It’s not a book for everyone, but it is a book for everyone that loves the past.

The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

When I was young, I’d often hear or read that America had no old culture, not like the Europeans. It’s taken me a lifetime to understand what they meant. Except for a few mementos, like your granny’s quilt, or collecting antiques, we seldom dwell on our own heritage. We’re always thinking about the next new gadget to buy (as we throw away the old ones), or the next new show to binge-watch. Some Americans are into genealogy, but not that many. We generally embrace the pop culture of our teenage years, which we cherish our whole life, but few people branch from from there.

Edmund de Waal has written a book that succeeds in capturing a panoramic snapshot of his cultural heritage that spans three centuries. The Hare with the Amber Eyes starts off as a quiet unassuming memoir that slowly builds into an atomic explosion of multicultural history of art collecting. The story is anchored by a collection of 264 Japanese netsukes that came into his family in 19th century, and de Waal inherited in 21st. The book is set in Paris, Vienna, Odessa, Tokyo and London.

I have read this book for three book clubs now. It’s a challenge to explain its appeal. If you love art history, especially French Impressionism, or how Japanese art came to 19th century Europe and 20th century America, this book will appeal to you. If you like to read about Jewish history, especially about Jews living in Odessa, Vienna and Paris in the 19th and 20th century before WWII, this book will grab your attention. If you are fascinated by the American occupation of Japan after the war, the book has insights for you too. If you’re fascinated by Nazi art theft like The Monuments Men (the book, not the movie) and The Woman in Gold (the movie), then this book has stories for you. If you’ve ever tried to write your own families history and wondered what kind of effort it takes, then this book is for you. If you love the PBS shows Antiques Roadshow and Finding Your Roots, then this book is for you.

Most of all, if you’ve ever seen old photographs of your great grandparents and your great great grandparents and wonder what their daily lives were like, this book is for you.

I would be hard press to make a list of all the subjects de Waal touches upon in his small book. The frame of his story is to take his 21st readers back to the 19th century Paris to explain how his family first acquired the netsuke. His story begins in France as Impressionism is coming into vogue, which is concurrent with Europeans becoming obsessed with Japanese culture and art. The story then travels to turn of the century Vienna, past WWI, through the years between the wars, WWII in Europe, to the Japanese occupation by Americans, and then into the home stretch of this century. Along the way, The Hare With Amber Eyes encounters many famous people and events in 20th century history. If de Waal played six-degrees of separation, he’s only a few degrees from some very historical folk. Yet, de Waal current life is very unassuming. He’s an artist, a maker of porcelain. When heading into the past, you never know what you’ll find. Besides, we have four grandparents, eight great grandparents and sixteen great great grandparents. It gets pretty easy to make some marvelous connections.

My goal is to try and explain why I liked the particular details in The Hare With Amber Eyes, and that’s rather difficult. I’m not that into Japanese netsuke, although they are impressive little sculptures. There’s no reason for me to identify with de Waal’s genealogy, my family was nothing like his. What enchanted my reading is their love of art and culture. The book’s connections to 19th century Paris and early 20th century Vienna provides vivid details of what it’s like to be great patrons of art. The book gives me another side of the history of Impressionism – the buyers side. Charles Ephrussi, who originally bought the netsuke, was even painted into Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” Charles is the guy in the top hat. What a way to be remembered!

But why should I care about Charles? Reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes makes me wonder why I care about anyone in the past. But I do. We all do. Most of us are obsessed with the past. I keep looking at that painting above and wonder what it was like to have been at that party. In the book, the netsuke are touchstones to the past. De Waal owns them now, and the netsuke put him one degree from Charles and many of his relatives between the 1870s and now. They tie a family history together. De Waal focuses on three of his ancestors, and the cities that shaped their souls, Paris, Vienna and Tokyo.

I can’t think of anything I own that ties me to the past like that, other than photographs. I wonder how many hands have held that photograph of my great grand parents? My mother’s mother, Lou Dare Little, was born in 1881. She held my mother’s side of the family together for decades. She bore five daughters, which held the family together for several more decades. But now that only my Aunt Louise is still alive, the family seems to be coming undone. What de Waal shows with The Hare with Amber Eyes, is how history and art can sew a family back together. However, it took two years out of his regular life to accomplish that effort. My cousin Jane wrote a book many years ago that tied the descendants of Lou Dare Little together – at least for a while. How many of my cousins and their descendants will keep reading Jane’s book in the future? Will anyone from newer generations write another book? We don’t have anything like the netsuke to travel into the future, to get later generations to remember us. Or do we?

I’m not sure I’m accomplishing my goal here. All I can really say is read The Hare with the Amber Eyes, and let it convey what I want to say. It is a cornucopia of memory triggers. But also, every time you turn on your TV, or go to a movie, think about what you’re seeing is saying about the past. Whenever you read a book, have a family reunion, or go to an antiques dealer, think about how the past won’t let us go, or we won’t let it go.

JWH

My Brain Is Not Firing On All Neurons

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 26, 2016

For years now I’ve be plagued by forgetting words, especially nouns and names. From what I’ve read, that’s just a normal part of getting older. It doesn’t make me worry because my peers are experiencing the same problem.

Recently I started studying math using the Khan Academy. At first, I figured I could begin with algebra, but quickly discovered I needed to relearn basic arithmetic. One of the disconcerting things I’ve experience is thinking I’m doing a problem right, then double-checking, still feeling I’ve got the right answer, submitting the answer to Khan Academy, and seeing, nope, I was wrong. Damn! Each time I discovered I had made a very simply addition or multiplication mistake. If I had been calculating something in the real world, I would have used my answer with confidence. What a delusion.

neuron

More and more, I’ll start a movie on television thinking I haven’t seen that movie, only to discover I have. Sometimes, even fairly recently. And sometimes, I even have to watch 10-20 minutes before I realize my mistake. This is unnerving when I realize I saw the movie just three months ago. That would worry me big time, but I’ve heard other friends my age describe the same experience. Just another kind of senior moment we’re all collecting. And we all feel we can remember movies better from 50 years ago than the ones we saw last week.

I’ve been noticing in the past year or two I don’t have the same sense of balance that I did when I was younger. For example, I’ll be toweling off after a shower, and catch myself starting to fall because I was leaning over too much. Although, I still amaze myself with how often I can catch something I’ve accidently dropped. Some reflexes seem sharp, while others are wimping out.

Evidently neurons in every part of our brains are failing, but we don’t notice until we need them.

I don’t think anything is particularly wrong with me considering I’m 64. But I’m developing a theory. Maybe not a very scientific one, but still it’s my theory. I’m wondering as I lose neurons I’ll lose very tiny abilities. I’m sure I’ve got billions of neurons, but I’m thinking as we get older, and our neurons wink out, we’ll only notice their loss in subtle ways. Like one of those signs made of an array of thousands of lights, but with a few dead bulbs. The sign still conveys it’s message, but you see some dark holes where a light should be. It starts to be a problem when the dead lights change the wording.

I always pay attention to folks older than me, those in their 70s, 80s and 90s. They generally have more problems than I do, yet they still function. Just slower, with more little glitches.

I’ve read that we can grow new neurons even late in life, and make new synaptic pathways. I’d like to believe that. I’d like to believe if I keep studying math that other neurons will learn what the lost neurons knew. This hope fits in nicely with that old saying, “Use it or lose it.” But it also reminds me of those old acts on Ed Sullivan where a guy keeps a bunch of plates spinning on top of sticks. He would have to run from stick to stick to reenergize each plate to keep them all spinning. That would imply that anything we stop doing regularly is going to fall off its stick and break.

I also have to assume since none of us get out of here alive, that we’re all fighting losing battles. So over time, the number of dying neurons will grow faster than their replacements. That might explain why I see old people pursuing a dwindling list of interests as they age. I already feel like I’m chasing after too many hobbies and that I need to cut some loose. It’s like that old movie Lifeboat, where one by one the weak passengers give up. That means more for the survivors, but it’s cruel. I guess that also explains why downsizing is so popular with older people. We throw our weak interests overboard to die to help our major interests to keep living.

That line of thinking makes me wonder if I should sacrifice some hobbies sooner, if it would let me keep other hobbies longer. Here’s some of hobbies I was hoping to pursue in my retirement years:

  • Essay writing
  • Short story writing
  • Novel writing
  • Learn to program Python
  • Learn to program R
  • Study data mining
  • Study deep learning programming
  • Learn how to draw
  • Study art history
  • Relearning Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry and Calculus
  • Learning Linear Algebra, Discrete Mathematics and Statistics
  • Learn basic electronics to build fun toys.
  • Learn to build and program robots
  • Build and play an analog synthesizer
  • Learn to recreate famous science experiments
  • Build a cheap supercomputer
  • Buy a microscope and study simple microorganisms

The Khan Academy practice is teaching me just how ambitious my math goals are for an old guy. If I live another 20-30 years I might achieve some of them, but it’s going to take considerable work. Would those neurons be put to better use studying writing? Or does studying math boost my overall brain power that will help with writing too?

Should I give up my plans for math and electronics and gamble all my neurons on writing?

Of course, relearning math might be a complete pipe dream anyway. I’m currently studying 5th grade math. I might not have enough new neurons to get through algebra or geometry again. I’m working on an essay this week where I’ve hit the wall. I’m pretty sure I could get further if I gave up most other things I love to do each day.

It could be that neurons are like time, we only have so much, and as we get older,  we need to ration our neurons.

JWH

77 Things I Learned From Writing 1,000 Blog Essays

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 20, 2016

This is my 1,000th blog post and I’ve learned a lot from blogging.

My first post was “Access time in a fifty-five year old brain” published 12/26/2006. Here’s the first paragraph:

The main reason I’ve created this blog is to help me remember.   After that I want to study how information is organized with the ultimate plan of taming the horde of competing topics that have tangled up my synapses.  I’m hoping if I can find a way to organize my thoughts I will be able to remember facts and details more efficiently and faster.  If I can’t, then the search box will do the job my neurons can’t.  My access time for my gray matter runs from instant, to many hours, to total failure.  This started as a noticeable problem in my late forties and has been getting worse ever since.

Well, I’m still struggling to organize my thoughts, but I’m quite confident Auxiliary Memory has been an huge help as an external memory device. Blogging is also a form of mental exercise that keeps my declining mind in shape. After nine years, or 3,314 days, and over a million words, I have forgotten most of what I’ve written, but it’s still there for me to retrieve. I’m often surprised to reread what I write. Blogging has turned out to be an incredibly useful tool, and I wonder why more people don’t blog.

To celebrate these nine hundred and ninety-nine essays, I thought I’d note some of what I’ve learned.

  1. Blogging is like piano practice for writing.
  2. Essay writing is a concrete way to organize thoughts.
  3. Original thoughts are thin and vague, and it takes a lot of work to make them coherent.
  4. Often coherency doesn’t show up until days of writing and rewriting. 
  5. We don’t realize how unclear our thoughts are until we try to put thoughts into sentences.
  6. Thinking improves with editing.
  7. The quality of my writing is directly related to the number of times I reread and edited an essay before I hit the publish button.
  8. There is no relation between getting hits and what I’m interested in writing about.
  9. I can’t predict what people will want to read. The old essay that gets the most current hits is “Do You Dream About Dinosaur Attacks?” If you search Google for “Dreaming about dinosaurs” my piece is 2nd in their listing. Evidently 30-50 people a day research this topic. I never would have predicted that.
  10. If my goal is to get hits, then I should review products. Product reviews are my consistent hit getters, but I quit writing them. 
  11. Science fiction is the subject that has garnered my most readers, and my favorite topic to write about.
  12. Don’t expect your friends and family to read your blogs.
  13. Only a few of my friends have subscribed to my blog and will occasionally mention reading an essay, or post a reply.
  14. I’ve learn to write what I feel like writing and not to worry if it will be read. I’m currently getting 250-350 hits a day, mostly due to Google searches, but also because of a handful of regular readers. I have 1,500 subscribers. But I can’t assume that a hit means a read. Just because a person clicks on a Google search return doesn’t mean I’m providing them with information they want to know. And many of my subscribers are other bloggers hoping I’ll read their blog. (Which I do try to do.)
  15. It’s extremely hard to write a 1,000 words that someone else will want to read.
  16. Few people want to think about a specific topic the same time that I do.
  17. There are very few people that have the same mixture of interests as I do.
  18. Blogging is a way to embed your personality into words.
  19. Blogging is a way to find out how many of your friends, family, and strangers think your interests are interesting.
  20. Blogging is a way to express yourself without boring your friends.
  21. If you want to find out how interesting you are to your friends, blog your thoughts. You might be surprised.
  22. There is a direct relationship between how much time my friends are willing to listen to me talk and whether or not they will read what I’ve written. My most chatty friends, the ones that never let me get a word in, never read my blog. I don’t say this as a hurt ego, but to show that blogging will reveal which of your friends are actually interested in what’s going inside of your head. Don’t blog if you don’t want to know.
  23. Blogging will reveal what your true interests are to yourself, and how fanatical you are about them.
  24. Blogging is a good way to meet people like yourself online.
  25. Blogging is a good way to learn if you have common interests or obscure fascinations.
  26. Blogging is a way to learn when your thinking is faulty.
  27. Blogging is a way to learn when your thinking is political incorrect.
  28. Blogging is a way to learn things about yourself that you don’t see – because readers do.
  29. Blogging is a way to test the limits of your memory.
  30. If you blog about a past event and try to document it with photos, outside reference material, interviews with people at the event, you’ll learn that memories are piss-poor at best.
  31. A well written blog about an event written within 24 hours will provide a better memory than your brain.
  32. If you get an idea for a blog post start writing it as soon as possible because the idea will disappear quickly.
  33. Blogging is mostly memory, opinions and reporting.
  34. Reporting is when you document events outside of yourself.
  35. Being a good reporter is hard.
  36. Opinions are a dime a million, essentially worthless unless you can back them up with evidence.
  37. The more evidence the better. 
  38. My personal memories are only interesting to people if I can frame them in a universal theme. And even then, few people will read them. One of my favorite memory-lane pieces, “Super Men and Mighty Mice” has gotten the least amount of hits. It was about being kids and pretending to fly, and begins like this:

    During the Ozzie and Harriet years, when I was seven and people called me Jimmy, my sister Becky and our best friends Mikey and Patty, would beg old tattered terry cloth towels from our moms and pretend to be George Reeves. We’d tie those old faded pastel rags around our necks, stretch out our arms, hands flat, fingers pointing forward, tilt our heads down and run like Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, occasionally jumping with all our might, with the hopes of getting airborne like Superman, or at least Mighty Mouse. And when we were burnt out and our little bodies too tired to try any more, we’d go to sleep at night and have flying dreams.

  39. It’s hard to write Jean Shepherd type nostalgia and get hits. Shepherd is famous for A Christmas Story. Nostalgia just doesn’t index well on Google.
  40. Nostalgia does appeal to readers who have similar past experiences. It’s lucky when you find those people, or they find you. 
  41. Blogging teaches elements of journalism. If you want hits, you have to write what other people want to read. That means focusing on current popular topics, and writing short pieces that don’t exceed the common attention span. I decided long ago to write what I’m interested in and at lengths longer than most people want to read. So it goes. 
  42. I’ve learned that I naturally think in 500-1500 word essays.
  43. 500-1500 words is far longer than what most people want to read.
  44. Titles are very important.
  45. Delete all the words that people will skim over.
  46. I’m a verbose writer and don’t delete enough.
  47. Over the years I’ve often written about topics I’ve already written about but have forgotten that did.
  48. I have common themes I repeat but I hope are refined with each new approach. 
  49. Regular blogging helps with my writing and thinking skills.
  50. Regular blogging helps with my verbal skills. This was a real revelation.
  51. Regular blogging keeps my vocabulary active. If I don’t blog for a week or two I start forgetting words, and forget how to pronounce them. That old saying, “Use it or lose it” is true.
  52. Blogging has been a great social outlet since I retired.
  53. I can express myself better in a blog than I can talking.
  54. Blogging helps me listen to other people.
  55. Blogging makes me wish my friends blogged so I could read their thoughts.
  56. Blogging makes me wish my friends blogged so they would make their thoughts more coherent.
  57. Blogging is somewhat like being in a hive mind.
  58. I wished I had started blogging when I learned to read and write.
  59. I wished I had learned to read and write at age 4, when I started being self-aware.
  60. I wished my parents, grandparents, and ancestors had blogged so I could read about their inner lives.
  61. I wish the Library of Congress would archive blogs.
  62. I wish politicians, famous people and people doing interesting jobs would blog. Sound bites on television makes people seem shallow, tweets make them seem snarky, and Facebook makes them seem silly.
  63. Everyone approaches blogging differently. Some people use it like a diary, making short notes about their day. Others post photographs of all the places they visit. Some people repost other people’s blogs that they like. Some people write excessively about tiny topics, or say essentially nothing about big topics. There’s no one way to blog.
  64. Folks want to read about your dreams about as much as they want to see your vacation photos.
  65. Sometimes you have to guess what you remember. In recent years many writers have gotten into trouble for writing nonfiction that turned out to be fiction. Memory is closer to fiction than nonfiction. That’s just how it is.
  66. Wikipedia is my absolute best memory bank.
  67. Google makes a great spelling tool and dictionary.
  68. Sometimes I have to play Six Degrees of Separation to remember a person. IMDb is great tool for that.
  69. I’ve learn to fact-check my memory.
  70. I always try to send friends my blog when I mention them, but most people don’t care.
  71. I generally get photos from Google and use them without credit. I shouldn’t do that. I do try to get generic photos, or things in public domain.
  72. Sometimes people use my posts and photos without credit. Sometimes I think it’s flattery, other times I think fraud.
  73. Blogging is good for my mental health.
  74. Blogging gives me a sense of purpose after I retired.
  75. Blogging is a way to examine my life – remember an unexamined life is not worth living.
  76. Blogging is a way to be philosophical.
  77. Blogging is a way to push myself to do more.

Pug10

JWH

How Popular is Reading Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 19, 2016

What I’d really like to know is how popular is reading science fiction? It’s almost impossible to separate books, movies and television shows when discussing science fiction. Science fiction movies are certainly less popular than sex or sports, but they might give apple pie a run for its money. Trying to figure out the popular appeal of SF books is a complete riddle.

I have a life-long interest in science fiction, both as a consumer, and as a topic of philosophical study. Why did fascination with science fiction blossom in the mid-20th century, and spread like kudzu in popular culture ever since? I’ve been thinking about writing a book about science fiction literature, but I’m not sure how many people read about the history and nature of the genre. One of the best books I’ve read on this subject is The World Beyond The Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence by Alexei and Cory Panshin. Have you even heard of it? Probably not. It won the Hugo in 1990, for Best Non-Fiction Book.

The World Beyond The Hill - Panshin

Over the decades I’ve read a number of books about science fiction, but other than the people who write about science fiction, I don’t know anyone personally who buys such books. My guess is hundreds of millions of people love to watch science fiction at the theater or on television, and several hundred thousand love to read science fiction, but I’d guess only few thousand humans in this whole world like to read about science fiction.

To get some idea of science fiction’s popularity I used the Alexa site, an Amazon company that tracks web stats. If you study the numbers and sites, you’ll probably notice that interest in media SF drives most of the higher rankings. It’s very hard to gauge interest in just printed science fiction. I do know that decades ago some SF digest magazines had over 100,000 subscribers, and now they are all around the 10,000 mark. But far fewer people read science fiction short stories compared to novels. Science fiction novels don’t dominate the best seller lists like Sci-Fi does at the box office. Most fans prefer to see SF than read it.

Site U.S. Rank Global Rank
io9.com 36,961 1,675
starwars.com 1,343 3,928
tor.com 6,459 21,874
startrek.com 9,893 28,465
sciencefiction.com 36,977 105,387
scifinow.co.uk 113,513 122,368
sfsignal.com 49,097 210,023
locusmag.com 73,260 263,078
strangehorizons.com 72,413 278,212
sffworld.com 137,467 309,193
bestsciencefictionbooks.com 89,148 312,016
dailysciencefiction.com 99,167 383,305
lightspeedmagazine.com 130,384 417,852
sf-encyclopedia.com 170,106 454,412
clarkesworldmagazine.com 126,308 485,754
worldswithoutend.com 145,960 540,963
asimovs.com 256,251 856,963
escapepod.org 265,635 1,048,438
analogsf.com 643,265 1,147,547

You can look at Alexa’s Top 500 sites to get an idea of how well-known web sites rank. All the SF sites with short stories rank 99,000 and below in the U.S. So reading science fiction short stories is not very popular at all. In comparison, The New Yorker comes in at 491 for the U.S., and 1,582 for the world. The Atlantic rank 324/866. The super-intellectual New York Review of Books comes in at 8,100/20,016. For a more common read, People Magazine is ranked 151/549.

I guess I’m fascinated by a topic that has little interest to most people.

Essay #999 – Table of Contents

Who are the Most Reinvented, Reinterpreted, Reincarnated Characters in Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Off the top of your head, how many different versions of Sherlock Holmes can you name? This year I bought The Complete Sherlock Holmes: The Heirloom Collection on Audible – over 58 hours of the originals stories. There’s also the PBS show Sherlock, and the CBS show, Elementary. I also saw Mr. Holmes at the theater, about Sherlock being 93 and losing his memory.  And on my local over-the-air broadcast TV channel I can often catch the old Basil Rathbone movies. But this barely scratches the surface of Holmes adaptations. If mania for Sherlock Holmes keeps progressing, soon all TV shows and films will feature a version of the famous sleuth somewhere in their casts.

Sherlock Holmes

Has Sherlock Holmes become the primary archetype for the deductive detective? Does every mystery writer hope to create a series about a brilliant mystery solving individual that will one day be reinvented, reinterpreted and reincarnated like Sherlock Holmes?

Who is the next most famous character that has gotten this kind of attention? Off the top of my head comes Ebenezer Scrooge. How many movies, television shows, books and cartoons have retold his story? But the number of movie actors who have played Ebenezer would make a large dinner party, compared to the small convention center it would take to host all the movie and television actors and actresses that have played some variation of Sherlock Holmes.

owen-scrooge

And poor Ebenezer Scrooge appeared in just one novella by Charles Dickens, whereas Holmes was featured in four novels and 56 short stories by A. Conan Doyle. And how many other writers have used Holmes for a character? The second most famous character I can think of is Tarzan, whose adventures were chronicled in twenty-five novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and countless other novels and stories written by admirers. Tarzan has had almost as many film adaptations as Sherlock. This summer, we’ll get a new film, The Legend of Tarzan. Tarzan has also appeared in a number of television series—maybe not as many as Sherlock and Watson, but quite a few. Tarzan also inspires pastiches and imitations, and when I was growing up, far more kids pretended to be Tarzan than Sherlock.

tarzan of the apes 1st edition

Haven’t Holmes, Scrooge and Tarzan become their own archetypes?

What makes my head hurt is to ask: Who is the most famous female character that readers and watchers love the most? I would pick Elizabeth Bennet, but she doesn’t even make AMC’s “50 Greatest Female Movie Characters.” Nor does she make IMDb’s “100 most iconic females characters in TV and cinema.” She’s only #53 in Buzzfeed’s “Women in Film: 70 Memorable Female Characters.” But at Ranker, Elizabeth Bennet is currently at #1, but this list is limited to literary characters. I guess my taste in fictional women is much different than other folks. However, Pride and Prejudice is often listed as one of the most popular novels ever read, and has been made into movies and television series many times. Not only that, but the novel has spawned an ever-expanding list of published sequels and an endless list of fan fiction variations. Plus, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are the archetypes that has inspired an army of romance novel writers over the last two hundred years.

Who else? I’m sure my readers can think of obvious choices I’m totally forgetting. Superman and Batman, Kirk and Spock, The Doctor—but what about more realistic people? And what about characters based on real people. How many movies, television shows and books have been based on Wyatt Earp?

And are you noticing a trend? Most of these characters aren’t very real. I’ve read articles wondering if Holmes is a psychopath or sociopath. Does it help to be inhumanly abnormal to attract so much fascination?

How many characters have appeared in all formats of fiction, including books, movies, television series, graphic novels, comics, radio shows and games? It can’t be that many, can it?

One way to quantify this thought experiment is to name a character, and then make a list of all the writers that have used that character in a book, story, screenplay, play, radio play, comic, newspaper strip, graphic novel, computer game, etc. I think Sherlock and Dracula would have very long lists. Tarzan might come in third. I still think Elizabeth Bennet might be the top female character. (But two people have left comments suggesting Jane Eyre and Jo March, which are good choices.)

 

Essay #997