The Inspiration of Pain

By James Wallace Harris – September 28, 2014

I haven’t been writing this week because I have a pinched nerve in my neck that makes my arm ache if I sit at the computer. This has been very depressing.  What’s that old saying about not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone? Man is it true!  One reason I haven’t hated having the spinal stenosis and not being able to walk much or stand for long periods of time, is because I could sit and work at the computer to my heart’s content.  I hope some physical therapy will solve my neck and arm problem, because my dream years of retirement are planned around sitting at a computer.

Another old saying comes to mind – “Necessity is the Mother of Invention.”  It’s funny how so many of these cliched old sayings mean so much more when you’re in pain.  Since I can’t sit in a regular chair I wondered if I could type with a computer in my La-Z-Boy. Since I don’t travel I don’t keep a laptop handy, but luckily I had my wife’s old one in the closet. I spent all day yesterday and the day before trying to get a version of Linux on that old laptop. Every version I tried had trouble with the video or wi-fi card, or the system would flat out crash. I eventually discovered that an older version of Ubuntu, 12.04, would work, and I could make it work with the video and wi-fi. I also learned that even though I think Elementary OS is more beautiful than Ubuntu, Ubuntu is more suited to my needs because of the apps it runs.

I’m now writing in my La-Z-Boy with the laptop on a cutting board and me reclined. I needed the cutting board because this old HP laptop runs so hot it burns my legs. But the experiment works, my left arm doesn’t hurt nearly as much as sitting up. It’s one temporary solution inspired by pain.

This morning I watched “Building a monument to wounded warriors” on CBS Sunday Morning about a new monument on the Washington Mall devoted to permanently disabled soldiers from all wars. They interviewed a number of solders and they each explained how their disability inspired them to overcome obstacles and to become even better people. That really made me feel wimpy. I don’t want to not write, so I have to be like them and think of ways around the obstacles. Even this solution is wearing on my arm, but I can’t stop.

I’m also reminded of the book, The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks, about people who suffered visual problems because of a stroke. Sack’s book is far scarier than anything Stephen King has ever written. It’s one thing to overcome pain and disability, it’s another thing altogether to overcome altered states of being. The thing is, unless your dead you have to keep moving forward, and it’s surprising how much a human can adapt.

Besides fixing up an old computer with Linux, writing this essay has forced me to learn to write with the WordPress editor under Chrome. That’s good because I’m thinking about getting a Chromebook. It would be much lighter and cooler to use when writing from my lap, but it means giving up all the Microsoft Windows tools I’m so used to using now. And that’s part of the lesson of adapting – doing things in a new way.

When I first configured this Ubuntu Linux machine I also found software to replace all my Windows applications. Then it occurred to me that Chromebooks mean doing everything in Chrome and I could try that now. This has been an excellent lesson. It’s so damn annoying not to be doing things my old way, but I’m learning that there are many ways to do something and I shouldn’t be so attached to any particular way, especially if my body is going to keep changing on me.


Read Like You’re Stranded On A Deserted Island

The Guardian ran an article that I have written several times on my blog. Multiple the average number of books you read in a year, times the number of years you think you’ve got left to live, and that gives you how many books you have left to read in your lifetime. I figure I have 500-1,000. I already own over a 1,000 unread books, and I buy new ones at the rate maybe 5 a week. So, I’m buying another 2,500-5,000 books before I die, even though I’ll only read 500-1,000 more books.


This brings up all kinds of problems, beyond the obvious stupidity of buying books that I’ll never read. The math is simple! I read one book a week, and I buy five? Could I be any more stupid?

Each week I read a book—and that week might actually be my last week on Earth. Or it might be one of a 1,000 weeks I might have left. Either way, should I ever read a so-so book? Or even a merely very good book? I’m pretty sure there are way more than 1,000 excellent books out there that I haven’t read. So, each week, should I think to myself, “Hey, let’s pick a mediocre book and read it this week!”

Everyone loves to play that game – “What one book would you take to a deserted island?”  Isn’t that how we should be think every time we pick up a book to read?  Read every book as if it was our last?

I read one book a week.  I should always think to myself that this week could be my last.  Shouldn’t the book I pick to read be one that’s at least deserted island worthy?

It’s not like we’re short on great books.

I should do two things.  First, don’t buy books until I’m ready to read them.  Second, don’t read anything less than a great book.

JWH – 6/1/14

How Many Days Can We Remember? How Man Days Should We Remember?

If we all lived to be a century old, we’d have 36,524.2 days to remember.  If you sat down with a pack of 3×5 index cards and wrote about one memorable day on each card, how many days do you think you could remember?  How many of those memories can you attached to a specific date?  Most of our life is quickly forgotten, but technology arising in the 20th and 21st century is letting us document our days.  So it might be possible to record our entire life.  What will that mean?

For the past week I’ve been scanning in old pictures Susan and I have inherited after the deaths of our parents.  Each photo documents a moment in time in our family and friends lives.  It’s a lot of work just to organize a couple thousand pictures, imagine if you had lifetimes of 24×7 video of all your ancestors to archive?  This Google Glass video will give you an idea of what that would be like

Google Glass will be more of a game changer than the smartphone, we just don’t know it yet.  I have almost a century of family photos, and each picture is just one frame, without sound, a visual instant in person’s life.  I look at my photographs and wonder about each, trying to imagine what my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, great aunts and great uncles, and countless cousins lives were like.  For most scenes I can only fantasize what they were.  How would it be different if I had 60 frames a second, times 60 seconds, times 60 minutes, times 24 hours, times 365 days, times 100 years?  3,156,000,000 images.  And that’s with sound and words and voiced emotion to explain everything.  I’d really know all about my mysterious ancestors rather than just guessing at what their lives were like.  I actually know what they thought about how they lived.

My parents, grandparents, and great grandparents all had photography and writing, but they left me very little evidence to explain their lives.  I wished they had left more.  I doubt they spent much time thinking about what they’d say to the future and spent all their conscious moments living in the present.  But we have another choice.  We can talk to the future, in high definition video no less.  What will we say?  What should we say?

Google Glass is the ultimate selfie.  Will it make terrible narcissists out of us all?  The philosophers tell us the unexamined life is not worth living, but can we take that too far?  Or will this technology make us humble and objectively self-aware?

Even the video above is telling – will we all try to experience as many film worthy events as possible, to validate our existence?

People put photos and write about their experiences now on Facebook, but how often do we do something worth remembering?  Facebook has become a public diary and most people chronicle their days documenting the most mundane of events.  Do all my family and friends need to know I went to a movie or ate out at a popular chain restaurant?  Do I need to remember that a year from now? Will anyone after I’m dead want to know about it either?  If I went on a hot air balloon ride or sky diving, then yes.  But what normal activities should we record for ourselves, our friends, and for our descendants who wonder about the lives of their ancestors?  I’m sure we don’t want to just remember birthdays, Christmases, graduations and weddings.

What moments in your life express and define who you are more than other moments?

How often have you experienced something that you said at the time, “I want to remember this moment forever!”

What days are really are worth remembering?

What if we imposed a limit?  Let’s say good manners and practical time limits will determine how narcissistic we can be, but I also think who our intended audience will determine the amount of information we should save.  Now that I’m getting older, I wish I had vast amounts of documentation about my life simply because I can’t remember most of it.  My father died when I was 18, and my grandfathers died before I could remember them at all.  My grandmothers died when I was about 20.  So I never really knew any of them.  I wish I had a book length autobiography from each, with plenty of photos and a DVD of videos.  And even though my mother lived to be 91, and I got to hear her side of things, I would like to know what she would have chosen to say about herself in such a summary.

Facebook and Google Glass will gather a lot of raw material for own autobiographies, if we decide to write them, and we probably should.  Such a memorial would be much more informative than merely having a gravestone.  Facebook, Google Glass, and smartphones with cameras and video cameras, are letting us to collect vast amounts of data about ourselves.  What we need now is software to help us organize it all.  And we need models to emerge on how best to summarize our lives, and rules of etiquette for how narcissistic we should be.

JWH – 1/20/14

Survival of the Fittest Evolution of Web Sites

How many millions of web sites are there on the Internet?  How many do you visit regularly?  How many websites do we need for each specific function?

When local newspapers were the only source of news they mattered a great deal to their communities. Television news and the Internet are competing them out of existence.  But how many newspapers can survive in the world wide market of the web?

I love a mobile app called Zite.  It’s like Pandora, but instead of rating music, it rates and shows me articles to read.  Over time I’ve noticed that the number of different web sites it presents me is declining because I favor some sites over others.  Even with seven billion viewers there should be a limit to the number of web sites that the Internet can support.  Eventually we should see a shakeout.

Yesterday Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post.  I use to read The Washington Post online, but I seldom do anymore.  I’d rather read The New York Times, The LA Times or The Guardian.  Did Bezos buy a white elephant?  I used to watch CNN, and after I gave up cable I read its website, but I don’t anymore.

If I could remember them, I could list dozens, if not hundreds of websites that I once loved, but I’ve stopped reading.  The world only needs so many famous restaurants franchises before there is too much choice.  Famous news sources should shake out too.  Who wants to check any encyclopedia except Wikipedia now?  Or shop for books other than at Amazon?

If Americans were allowed to buy cable TV channels a la cart, how many channels would survive?  If every newspaper and magazine goes behind a paywall, how many will survive?  Why doesn’t IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes merge and then buy Flixster?  Look what Amazon did by buying and ABEBooks?  Isn’t it logical that they bought Goodreads?

If you think about websites like one cell organisms living in an organic soup, we should be seeing them combined with each other to form new multicellular organisms, and eventually evolve into some very complex animals.

Competition is good, but it tends to be violent and kill off the weak.  I’m not sure if the Internet will always be a boom town.

JWH – 8/6/13


The Best Books of 2012- The List of Lists

If you wait long enough on the Internet, someone else will write the blog you dream of writing.  Every year I think about gathering all the Best Books of the Year lists and putting them into a database.  That’s a lot of work.  So this year I configured a Google Alert to notify me whenever someone published anything on the Internet entitled Best Books of 2012.  I figured sooner or later someone else will have compiled my mega list.

I was right!  The folks over at the Williamsburg Regional Library compiled a spreadsheet with 12 categories of recommended books.  Each category ranks the books that were on the most Best Books of 2012 lists.  They asked that bloggers not link to the results, but to their blog that explains everything.  So click on All the Best Books Compilation (ABBC) 2012, First Edition.  Ah, and it even appears it will be updated, because this spreadsheet is called the first edition.   Williamsburg Regional Library used 175 different Best Books of 2012 lists.  See the 13th tab at the bottom of their spreadsheet called Sources.  Their spreadsheet even include hyperlinks to the original best of lists.  This will provide an orgy of reading about the best books of 2012.

Their General Fiction – Novels list, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain got on 27 different Best Books of 2012 lists, and that’s a book I don’t even remember hearing about, reading about or seeing at the bookstore.  However, the second book on the list, and on 19 best of lists, is Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.  I saw reviews of it everywhere, and I’ve already read it and can highly recommend it.  If I created a Best Books of 2012 list, it would be right at the top.  Book number 3, also on 19 lists, is The Round House by Louise Erdrich, who my friend Linda has been recommending.  Luckily, my wife bought it this weekend.

At the top of their Speculative Fiction list is The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker that I read when it came out and loved.  Third on the list is The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, which I also read and loved.  It’s always fun to discover great books when they come out.

At top of the YA List is The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.  I bought it, and my wife has read it, and I hope to get to it soon.

And I’ve read or bought several top non-fiction titles, however, I’ve been avoiding the most acclaimed non-fiction title, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which is on 28 best of lists, ten more than Passage of Power by Robert Caro, which I’ve bought but haven’t read.  Being on 28 recommended lists makes me feel like I should overcome my prejudice and give Wild a try.

The fact that the new books I loved the most last year were the ones on the top of these lists say quite a lot about the value of this tabulation list.  Books on five or more best of the year lists are almost guaranteed to be great reads.  And I wonder if I’m cheating myself if I don’t read books that were on ten lists or more.  There were many books on just one list, or two.  And those books might be great too, but their success are probably determined a lot more by personal tastes than overall excellence.

I’ve always asked my friends, why read any book when you can read a great book?  The trick is finding the great books.

If you love books, visit the Williamsburg Regional Library link and download their spreadsheet.  You will need Excel or a clone to read it.  Also visit their site for lists from previous years, 2008-2011.

JWH – 3/2/13

How Many Books Would You Have to Buy to Manipulate Amazon’s Author Rank Page?

How many friends would a writer need to buy their books to get on Amazon Author Rank page?

Amazon says it’s Amazon Author Rank pages are based on hourly sales.  The New Times Best  Seller list seems based on weekly sales.  We don’t know if Amazon is basing their rankings on hourly total sales, or the weekly sales looked at hourly.  So I’m speculating here.  I sorely wished Amazon gave the actual number of books sold.  That would be fascinating.

Let’s say there are 730 hours in a month on average.  If a book sells a million copies in one month, it’s selling at 1370 books an hour.

There is 168 hours in a week, so if a book sells a million copies in one week, then it’s selling 5,952 copies an hour.

It would be very expensive to manipulate the Author Rank page if books are selling that fast.  However, few books sell in the millions.

Let’s drop down into the Science Fiction Author section for books, not Kindle sales, where we see many less famous authors, and book sales are less furious.  Would it be possible to affect the Author Rank at this level?

My favorite science fiction author is Robert. A. Heinlein.  He’s currently #34 on this list (#36 when I started writing).  How many books would we have to buy in one hour to bump him to the #25 spot?  Heinlein has been dead for a long time, so it’s surprising his continual sales are so high.


How successful is #34 on this list?  Amazon represents book sales for all of America.  So in any given hour how many people think, “Wow, I’m in the mood for a Heinlein book?”  What if that number is 25 books?  That’s a rate of 219,000 books a year.  If he sold 100 an hour that would be 876,000 books.  Remember, these rankings are based on sales of all books sold by the author.  My guess is Heinlein sells between 25-100 books an hour.  That’s just a hunch. 

And what if the #25 position author sold just 50 books to get to that position?  If I could talk 25 people into buying Heinlein books Saturday morning at 10am Eastern time, would his sales rank jump in the 11 o’clock hour to #25? 

Maybe the #25 position is selling 100-400 books an hour – too many to manipulate easily, but almost any news about Heinlein on TV, or in  magazines, or even on the Internet, could sell that many books.

Let’s imagine Heinlein is profiled on CBS Sunday Morning.  This won’t happen, but it might for a newer science fiction writer.  Such a lucky bit of press could send her to the top of the Science Fiction list for Authors, or even put her on the main Author Rank list.

The current author at the bottom of the Science Fiction Author Rank page is Mark Kalina with a single 99 cent ebook, Hegemony.  It shouldn’t even be on this list because I picked the Books list rather than the Kindle list, however, there he is with a single self published novel.

I’m thinking it doesn’t take too many book sales to get on this list, but it takes a lot of sales to get near the top.

I’m curious why Lois McMaster Bujold is at #63.  Bujold is a very popular writer with many award winning books in print.  Sales of all those books add to her Author Rank sales totals.  So why are many unknown writers selling Kindle books beating Bujold in the rankings?  My only guess is science fiction sells very few books per hour.  So an ebook author selling several $1.99 titles out sells a major author selling many physical books from $7.99 to $25.

I really can’t believe Heinlein is outselling Bujold.  I hear far more people talk about reading Bujold than Heinlein.

Either that, or Amazon Author Rank Beta isn’t working very well.

Selling ebooks cheap must be big business.  It might also imply that the science fiction book marketplace is very tiny.

Does this mean selling $1.99 ebooks leads to more fame and profit than selling physically printed books that sell for much more money per copy?

I really wished Amazon would put the total sales with the rank numbers.  Like:

Robert A. Heinlein #34 (127 books sold from 27 titles, for $13,750)

JWH – 10/15/12

The Implications of Amazon’s Author Rank Page

Amazon has a beta program for ranking book sales by author that is somewhat controversial, at least with some writers, according to the LA Times.

Amazon says the rankings are based on all books sold by an author updated hourly .  I assume it’s total sales for the previous hour, and not total cumulative sales.  This is a new, never before seen, way to look at book sales I think.

Before the Internet,  the premier best seller list for books was the New York Times Best Sellers list.  If a you got on it, you were made as a writer.  Now there are zillions of best seller lists, but probably the most important one is sales ranking for all books.  Amazon is such a powerhouse at selling books that their sales rankings are a national poll showing the reading interests of the American public.

Amazon is now taking the book buying pulse of Americans based on an author’s sales hourly.  That’s kind of cool.


However, Amazon isn’t the be-all-end-all of bookselling, as John Scalzi so carefully points out.

Among my online book club friends, they commonly complain that Amazon’s new Author Rank list doesn’t reflect 1) quality of writing, 2) their favorite writers or 3) the best authors according to whoever.   But was that ever the point of best seller lists?

I think we need to take the Amazon Author Rank pages with several grains of salt.  Let’s assume they don’t reflect true U.S. sales, writing quality or best of anything.  Let’s just assume it’s a Gallup Poll for what readers are buying every hour of the day, what do the various Author Rankings tell us?  In polling, the quality of the poll depends on the sample size, and Amazon’s sale figures are a huge sample size.

The fact the E. L. James is the #1 best selling author at Amazon (her books 4, 5, 6 on the current NY Times combined list), and Sylvia Day is #2 (#1 on NY Times) is very revealing.  It bugs me that people criticizes Amazon’s Author Ranking system as a huge failure because they hate E. L. James for whatever reason, but usually because they think she’s a bad writer.  Big fucking not the deal.  Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees.  Americans are gobbling up James’ erotic novels like there’s no tomorrow, so what does that mean?

We’ve long heard the truism – sex sells – and boy is this proof.  I just finished a book Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace, about sexual repressed Victorian English society of 1858, but the success of E. J. James makes me wonder if we’re not just as repressed 154 years later?  I know I’m going to be shot down for being sexist, but are the huge sales of erotic and romance novels bought by women telling us something about women in general that’s not being reported in the news and literature.  In another 154 years will future writers explain all the clues were there in our times about some huge gender issue we’re not recognizing now?

Romance, mystery, fantasy writers dominate the main Amazon Author Ranking.  Men read these genres, but I think the general impression is these kinds of books mostly appeal to women.  I’m not saying writers on the list don’t appeal to men (how many women read Andrew Peterson) but one impression from studying the list over the past couple days is books women readers love dominate book sales.  I know this is unscientific, but study the list and tell me what you think.  And I think I’ve read more than once that women really do buy more books than men.

My favorite genres writers are pretty much a no-show on the overall author rank list.  I love science and science fiction.  And please don’t point to all the fantasy books and say science fiction is well represented.  The Amazon Author Rankings change hourly, so it’s hard to generalize about what it reveals.  Philip K. Dick started out at #18 when the LA Times wrote it’s piece.  He was #50 yesterday and #84 this morning, and #93 right now as I write this.  Two days ago Amazon had a ebook sale on several PKD’s ebooks for $1.99 each.  I’m pretty sure that got him on the list.

See, the rankings aren’t about writing quality but so many other factors.  It’s very revealing about how to sell books.  Here are some other factors I see contributing from watching the Author Rankings.

  • Movies sell books (Argo, Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Cloud Atlas authors are on this list because of them)
  • Writing a popular book series that stay in print (many example)
  • Being a very popular writer with many books in print (Stephen King and Nora Roberts)
  • Writing a current bestseller (Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Kennedy)
  • Writing something sexy (E. L. James, Sylvia Day, Gillian Flynn)
  • Being a mega best selling writer with a new book (J. K. Rowling)
  • Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature (Mo Yan)
  • Having a TV series on HBO (George R. R. Martin, Charlaine Harris)
  • Being a fictional writer on TV (Richard Castle)
  • Writing about heaven (M. D. Eben Alexander III, Todd & Colton Burpo, Mary C. Neal)
  • Amazon puts your books on sale (Philip K. Dick)
  • You’re an innovative self-publisher (Hugh Howey)

But that doesn’t explain all.  How come Octavia Butler, who died several years ago, come in at #20 on the Author Rankings at this moment?  And she is #1 on the Science Fiction author rankings.  Butler was a ground breaking African-American science fiction writer whose reputation is still growing.  Are enough kids being assigned to read her books in school a possible consideration for her being on the list at the moment?  I don’t know, but I would like to know.

That’s the thing about studying the Author Rankings.  I want to know why these authors are popular at given given moment.  Some writers are just perennial best sellers with a huge backlist of books that are constantly selling.  I have never heard of Debbie Macomber (#28) in my life, but I’ve discovered from the Author Ranking list she’s sold more than a 100 million books and been on the New York Times Best Seller list 55 times.  I have to ask myself if I’m missing out by never having read one of her books.

I love the idea of sub-cultures, and I think every genre and sub-genre, appeal to different sub-cultures of American readers.  Reading the Amazon Author Rankings makes me want to try new authors and genres out just to see what I’m missing.

The main page for Amazon Author Rank Beta is for all books.  But you can drill down into Kindle and Books, and then pick a one of these sub-headings:

  • Biographies & Memoirs
  • Business & Investing
  • Health, Fitness & Dieting
  • History
  • Literature & Fiction
  • Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
  • Religion & Spirituality
  • Romance
  • Science Fiction & Fantasy
  • Self-Help
  • Teens

Where’s Science, Math & Technology?  Or Non-fiction?  Some categories have sub-categories, like Science Fiction & Fantasy are broken into two separate categories.  But they aren’t accurate.  I don’t consider The Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin to be science fiction.  But the advantages of having sub-groups, and even sub-sub-groups is to reveal the popularity of more authors.  The Science Fiction category under Science Fiction & Fantasy shows the continual success of such classic SF writers as Asimov #23, Heinlein #29, Niven #41, Herbert #45, Clarke #83.  It’s great these old writers still appeal to new readers – but it also shows a long list of emerging new writers.  Because of playing with the author rankings, I bought The Complete Atopia Chronicles by Matthew Mather, a writer I’ve never heard of before.  And I shall return to try out more new writers when I finish reading it.

If I was a budding young author I’d be sorely tempted to start writing a genre series based on a continuing character, even though I strongly dislike reading such books.  If your goal is to make money, this technique seems to boost your chances for success.  It must also mean that bookworms love series and continuing characters.

I wish Amazon would expand the lists beyond 100 slots.  I’d love to see the Top 1,000 authors or titles in Amazon’s listings, but for most people that would be too many.  However, if they just expanded it to the Top 200 so many more writers would get noticed.  Adding 100 more slots would make a tremendous difference.

To see what I mean, look at Sci-Fi Lists Top Sci-Fi Books.  Then look at the Next 100 List.    If you are familiar with the classic books of science fiction, you’ll see why expanding the list to 200 entries is so important.

The more I play with Amazon’s Author Rank page, the more fun I have with it.  But then I’ve always been fond of lists.

JWH – 10/14/12