Lessons from Blogging

Exercise for my flabby memory is the top reason why I put so much time writing on these blogs.  If I go too long without writing, I’ll notice that I’m forgetting more words in day to day conversations – I have to keep writing to fight the decline of my mind.  But am I writing anything worthy of reading?  I have no trouble thinking up zillions of things to write about, but are my random inspirations really interesting to anyone but me?

I wished I had the discipline to knock out one 1,000 word essay each night, and only in an hour.  What a fantastic workout in my word gym!  I’m lucky to finish two essays a week, each taking 4-8 hours.  And that doesn’t count the two to three abortive pieces each week I don’t finish.

Every evening when I sit down to write, I hope to have an idea that I’ve been contemplating all the day to polish.  It helps if I’m thinking clearly and not tired, which means I need to keep my body in shape.  Sometimes when I’m tired, focusing on an idea will generate energy, so it helps to try to write.  I wish I could say that I’m always inspired by my topic, and it allows me to chisel out one clear expression of a carefully considered thought. 

What really happens is I start with one vague concept that causes me to vomit out a torrent of words as fast as I can, which I shape by rewriting several drafts.  As I write, I research with Google, hoping to find concrete pieces of information to support my ideas.  Between struggling to retrieve lost words, phrases and memories out of my own noggin, I trawl the net looking for new words and verifications of poorly remembered details.  Often I use Google to find the words I can’t recall by searching on related ideas.

I’m sure if I didn’t write these essays, my mind would turn to mush.  Rereading my essays I realize I have a long ways to go towards developing coherent structured writing.  So a new theory has occurred to me about blogging.  What if writing is more beneficial than just strengthening my ability to recall words.  What other lessons am I learning from my WordPress exercising?

It’s quite easy to blather away about anything, but that’s not good neural exercise.  And, quite often I might mention, I’ll tackle a subject that’s either too big for a blog post, or beyond my ability to define clearly, and I’ll have to abandon the project.  Finishing a piece is part of the healthy process, and giving up on an idea leaves me feeling the same way as when I’m having a conversation and I can’t find that damn word I want. 

Up to now, I’ve mostly been working to express an idea that quickly flashed by in my brain.  Sometimes, if I write about a specific topic I’ll do a lot of research to gather facts, like when I write about subscription music services.  This gives me a taste for journalism.  Just a small taste, but enough to realize the work required to write non-fiction.  Opinion essays can be as creative as writing fiction, but both are way to easy to do badly.

The next question is:  Do I write anything useful for other people to read?  If all I’m doing is exercising my wimpy brain, why would a reader care?  My life is no more interesting than anyone else’s, so why would anyone want to read my thoughts?  I think the next stage in the evolution of my writing, I should think about each essay as a product that is useful in some way.  Since my product is free, I don’t actually have to worry about it’s monetary cost to readers, but I personally consider time, extremely valuable, so I don’t want to waste your time.

That means the next challenge I work on learning from blogging is to write 5-10 minute essays that are well worth their cost in time.  That’s quite a challenge, one I’m not sure I can achieve.

Looking at my statistics tell me which essays have been more successful than others.  I know from the WordPress stats that I have around 20-25 people subscribing to my blog as a RSS feed, and 200-300 people finding their way to my pages accidently, through Google and other search engines, or by links put up on various blogs that are kind enough to list Auxiliary Memory.  It is flattering that people actually read my blog at all, so I feel a responsibility to write something time-worthy.

When I think of all the great books and magazine articles I read, I can’t believe people would waste their time on any blog, much less mine.  And there are thousands of blogs better than mine.  I have to assume that there is a quality to blogs that people like that they don’t find in regular magazines.  Or I have to wonder if people only read blogs because they are like kudzu growing over the net, choking up search engine returns, just too visible to ignore.

Learning about what people want to read will be my second lesson from blogging.  My most popular essay is, “The Greatest Science Fiction Novels of the 20th Century,” with over 10,000 hits total, and getting 30-60 more each day.  In other words, I’ve accidently picked a topic that a small number of people want to know about daily.  If you search on that title in Google, I’m 3rd in the returns at the moment, after two links to books at Amazon.com.

This doesn’t say anything about the quality of my essay.  I’ve just hit the right combination of words and ideas to be rated high with Google, and the topic has a steady interest.  I call that “topic background radiation.”  Occasionally I’ll write about something that people have a time related interested in, like the Toshiba NB205 netbook, which just came out and I immediately reviewed.  I’ve gotten 74 hits on that one so far today.  When the Toshiba NB205 gets outdated, those numbers will drop off.  But until then, was my review useful?  I know I solved one lady’s problem, with her new netbook.

Generally, I talk about my reading.  For instance, I wrote a weird take on “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury.  I’ve gotten almost a 1,000 hits on that one, trickling in at 3-4 a day, which is a revealing topic background radiation.  I’m guessing it is a story used in schools for discussion, because I’ve written on far more famous SF novels, and their topic background radiation is very low, like 1-2 a week. 

Of course, this all depends on how Google ranks my page.  For some reason, I’m in the first page of returns for “The Veldt,” but on the second page for Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein and Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, two books I think are very worthy of reading but seldom get hits at all.  Or is that because people seldom go past the first page of Google returns when searching for a review?  And if someone is thinking about reading one of those books, did I say anything to help them make their decision?

Once in a blue moon I’ll accidentally mention something that’s in the news, like the Kindle Reader for the iPhone.  That post got scads of hits for a day or two, and hardly ever got called into reading action since.

If I wanted to just get hits, I would go to Google Zeitgeist everyday and pick a topic.  Why are “basking sharks” and “raging elephants” so interesting on July 14th, 2009?  And who the hell are Shane Carwin and Lisa Loring?  Shows my lack of pop culture knowledge.  It is quite doubtful that Google will rank my page within its first 100 returned just because I mention those hot search names and phrases.  It’s not that easy to get noticed.  And God knows, many people try.  For what value are hits, really?  There’s no guarantee that people read what they hit on.

Take this essay, for example.  What value is it?  Because I’m not reviewing a book, movie or computer product, I’m pretty sure it won’t get many hits at all.  Hopefully, I haven’t bored my handful of regular readers, but have I given them anything worth their time?  If anything, I’ve taught them not to read blogs but write them, it’s good memory exercise.  If I had some quantitative way of proving writing blogs helps with memory, I might have a good article.  Readers love self-help topics.

Here’s something to consider that might be worth your minutes spent here reading.  If everyone read a little each evening, but only read the absolute best essays and articles, the English speaking world would only need ten monthly magazines, but let’s stretch that to one hundred for reading variety and the coverage of the diversity of sub-cultures.  All writers would compete to write the very best essays and articles each month to sell to those one hundred editors.  Everything else could be considered crap and thus time unworthy.

So why read off the web?  Because it allows you to read exactly what you want to read, at the moment you choose.  It’s pitiful to think that any of my essays come up on the first page of Google returns.  If you search on the phrase “The Time Machine by H. G. Wells” my essay comes up 5th.  It really shouldn’t.  The real lesson from tonight, is why the very best essays ever written on any topic, aren’t the ones that Google links to in your search.

JWH – 7/14/9

Big Brother – Baby Boomer Edition

Theoretically, I like the concept of the reality show Big Brother, but watching horny kids in their twenties throw tempests in teacups becomes less appealing every year as I get older.  Youth really is wasted on the young.  With the first season, back in 2000, I thought it was a great anthropological experiment, with us TV viewers observing the private conversations of caged Americans.  The contestants were more aged varied back then, and more unique personality-wise.  Now the shows seems to focus on the young and the randy. 

Big Brother has local editions in 70 countries – see the above Wikipedia link for a rather fascinating account of the worldwide success of this show.  But pardon me if I bitch and moan a bit about the television’s obsessive focus on youth.  Give us reality shows for the over 50 demographic.   Why can’t they have a Big Brother with all Baby Boomer Houseguests?  I’d like to see a dozen people from my generation trapped in the Big Brother House together. We’d see an “Oh, my God, I’m getting old!” melodrama instead.  I could relate to that.  And this summer would have been perfect, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Woodstock.

I doubt TV voyeurs would find the same titillating action with boomer houseguests, especially after 10pm.  Would many young internet viewers rise with the dawn to watch the oldsters when they are fresh and frisky?   Would old flabby bodies draw in the same Nielson numbers?  How many Beatles generation women, would want to prance about in their big white granny panties and show off their droopy asses?  Or how many men from the same generation, who once might have had hippie hair and sinewy bodies preen their bald and flabby bods for TV viewers, and as for being studs, reveal their only wood comes in the morning when they are half asleep, or their major lust is to be left alone to drink a beer in peace and quiet, away from female chatter.   

On the other hand, Big Brother Baby Boomer edition might be rather educational for the young.  Listening to my generation talk about their regrets over lost youth could inspire the under 30 crowd to get off their asses and stop watching so much damn TV.  Would teens and twenty-somethings watching fifty-somethings find warm and fuzzy lessons about life?   Or would the inner lives of old house guests be as invisible to young viewers as the inner lives of their parents?

I find the reality shows do have value.  They are very revealing about the varied types of personalities in life.  Unfortunately, most reality shows focus on the brawn and bikinied, who all seem to have a very shallow inner lives.  Or do producers just cut out all the philosophical conversations, and leave just the whining?

And would Baby Boomers debase themselves so willingly in the Food Challenges?  Maybe the young and the clueless are all Big Brother can recruit.  But if we did get to eavesdrop on a bunch of fifty-something imprisoned in the Big Brother House, all sitting around the mini-pool, what would we hear?  Bragging about success?  Soliloquies of regret.  Tales of memory loss and fears over physical decline.  Or would we see examples of fighters, people who won’t go gently into that good night.  Stories of world travel and adventure.  Deep philosophical rants.  Meditations on mystical insights?  Normally, the houseguests are young, and they have their whole life ahead of them, so what would a show be like full of contestants that are heading into retirement?

I wish CBS would change the format of the game.  Most reality shows are based on the idea of eliminating one player each week.  With Big Brother, the appeal to me is the interaction between the players,  I wish they’d invent a system where they kept all players till near the end, then find a way to compete based on a more complicated scoring system.  In real sports, you don’t vote out players.  Eliminating people solely based on likability, or lack of, and chess-play like endgames is getting boring.

I think Head of Household should be an elected position, because the politics for winning it would be far more fun than just a twenty-minute game.  It would give more purpose their daily lives.  To make it more complicated, make the reason to win Head of Household different each week.  One week, they could elect the most ambitious member of their group, and the next, the smartest, or the sexiest, or most scientific, or the most conniving, or even the most spiritual.  Acting and lying would be allowed in these competitions at an extra dimension.  By keeping all the players, there would be more alliance intrigue.  Then have a rush of eliminations in the last two weeks of the show, like in sport playoffs.

Also, make the Food Challenge and other games less clownish, and more elaborate, and maybe longer lasting.  There is too much sitting around doing nothing by the contestants.  Give them more to do, make them work for that half-million.  I’m not sure mature people would put up with all those silly competitions.  And maybe that’s why the producers can only get silly people to want to be on the show.

For example, have a trivia contest that lasts a week.  Allow the players to talk with each other and share guesses.  If the producers gave out a 20 question quiz with really hard answers, imagine how much the contestants would struggle as a group-mind to find the answers, but still selfishly horde answers to be the winner.  Or have an art show contest, giving the players a week to produce a work of original art voted on by the TV public.  Another fun thing, would be to have them build elaborate mouse-trap like gadgets.  A weekly cooking competition would be great for people trapped in their situation.  The current games are getting stale after 10 seasons.

The Big Brother reality TV show is like a science experiment in psychology and sociology.  The producers should work with scholars in these subjects to develop real science worthy experiments, letting the TV viewers in on the setup.  Big Brother 11, the 2009 season, is working with high school cliques.  That might turn out interesting.  It would be fascinating to see the current season run concurrent against the Baby Boomer edition, to see if the same cliques 30 years older play out in the same way.

To be honest, I can barely watch reality shows.  Their novelty has worn off.  I will admit I did find a lot of guilty pleasure in the first seasons of Survivor, Big Brother, The Amazing Race, Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, Project Greenlight, and a few others.  I still watch them sometimes to be social and have something to talk about with my friends and workmates, but as a whole they are getting to be a tired concept. 

Yet, I have to wonder if the shows are getting tired, or if it’s me, by getting older.  I do long for shows and movies about people my own age.  And I hate it in reality shows when the token old person gets voted out immediately.  I also hate when the token old person is a nut job.  Or if the old contestants aren’t nutty, they come off bitchy or bossy by the young, and get immediately voted out.

Of course, are there young bloggers out there complaining that the young are totally misrepresented on reality shows, and they would like to see the youth of America get better TV representation?  And why do reality TV producers always make up teams from a collection of token diverse stereotypes?  Why not have an all computer geek Big Brother, or all African American Survivor or GLBT Biggest Loser that might get viewers for forget the personality clichés and see individuals.

I have to give these shows credit for one kind of success.  Watching reality TV reveals deeper personality aspects than what we’re normally exposed to in our day-to-day work lives.  This happens in two ways.  First, the contestants are willing to let more of their inner thinking hang out naked for the world to see, and second, television viewers get to hear thoughts from groups of people they normally never get to know.  How many people would ever get to meet a Richard Hatch in real life?  And I’m not referring to the gay issue per se, but maybe how many people get to meet such unique Machiavellian?

I think reality shows could capitalize on this virtue of theirs by getting past their own successful formula.  What would a reality show reveal if all the players were older than 75?  And why not show foreign reality shows here, with sub-titles and commentary about local customs and traits.  Right now reality shows like Big Brother and Survivor contain a mixture of people, mostly whites in their twenties, one or two black people, maybe a Hispanic or Asian, one gay person for sure, and a token old person, either in their forties or fifties.  Get away from that  PC formula.  For instance, what if Big Brother 11 was composed of all gay contestants, but still organized by the same cliques of Athletes, Populars, Brains and Off-Beat, with a varied age range.  Now that wouldn’t be tired.

JWH – 7/12/9

New to Me, Old to You?

I discovered popular music as a kiddo while riding around in my Daddy’s 1955 Pontiac, playing with the AM radio push-buttons.  This was around 1958, and I was seven.  For some reason my parents didn’t have a radio in the house, nor did they own a record player and records.  Music wasn’t important in their life, but they seemed to love the music on TV, on the variety shows, where my Dad dug Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and my mother would tell us kids to shut up so she could listen to Nat King Cole or Perry Como.  Those crooners were so damn old, even then.

My parents would get especially excited if music clips of Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller played in an old movie.  They’d tell my sister and I how that was their music.  Big bands, with trumpets and clarinets, it seemed as ancient as Egypt.  Music that felt new was the rock and roll music I found on the AM radio in the car.  That music made my Dad turn red and shout, “Turn off that goddamn noise.”

I’m listening to Quicksilver Messenger Service, a San Francisco rock band from the late 1960s.  Quicksilver still feels out of the womb new to me.  Even though it’s forty years later, a much greater span of time than from Benny Goodman of the late 1930s to the late 1950s, Quicksilver didn’t get old to me.  Why?  Would kids hearing my music today feel it had been dug up by archeologists?

Is my music new to me, but old to you?

Listening to current pop music makes me feel old.  It’s all made by teenagers, or over-the-hill burnouts in their twenties, but then the rock and roll of the 1950s was made by teenagers too.  Time is doing a number on my head.  Time is more than relative.  I can feel young and old, both at the same time, just by listening to music.

JWH – 6/16/9

The Distance Between Us

There are two ways I measure the distance between people.  The first way, physically, can be measured in inches, feet and miles.  The second way has no standard of measurement, but I like to use an analogy.  If two people are communing in perfect telepathy then they are zero distance apart mentally.  Obviously, we never get as close mentally as we can physically.

I bring up this topic because I’ve notice that the average distance between people as they get older appears to grow.  This isn’t always the case, because some spouses, lovers and friends get much closer as they age.  No, what I’m observing deals with the average relationship between people in general.

When we are little kids we’re very close to our parents and siblings, and then when we start daycare or school, we’re jammed together with gangs of kids own age, which continues through our early twenties when we get jobs and start hanging out with a more diverse age mix.  During the work years, we develop new social bonds at the job site that lasts until we retire, at which time we start over again bonding with other retirees.  Often as we get older, we stay at home more and that increases the distance between other people.

I’m only 57, so I can’t speak for the later decades of life, but I’ve notice a trend in my friends and acquaintances.  Everyone seems to have gotten selfish with their time, including me.  This is understandable, with work and the other demands on life, free time is precious, but it seems like people have gotten even more miserly with their extra time.

I think by my age, the fifties, people have learned exactly what they want to do and we just don’t want to waste time doing something we don’t like.  I see this more and more with friends around me, and by observing groups.

If you go to a rock concert, most of the people are young even though rock has been around since I was four.  People my age have pretty much given up on certain kinds of pursuits.  In fact, I don’t even like hanging out places that are filled with people in their 20s and 30s.  I often find myself at movies attended by folks mostly my own age, films young people would consider boring or depressing. 

You can see this trend in other social groups.  Just observe the mix of young and old.  Some events attract mostly young, some mostly old, and some a mix, but mostly you see a bulge of youth and a trailing off of older people.  Many social situations reflect the age mix found in the reality shows Survivor and The Amazing Race

In recent years I’m always the old guy of the group and it makes me feel like the old guys on Survivor.  And if you watch that show, there is a bias by the young players against the older players, which represents a kind of distance.  I’ve heard from other people my age that they feel getting old means moving away from the world of the young. 

But I also think as we get older we withdraw from each other.  Maybe it’s dwindling energy, so we start making conscious decisions we don’t want to waste any of our energy on minor friends.  But it’s more than that.  My wife and I spend an ever growing amount of time apart because we each focus on our favorite hobbies.  For example, my wife loves going out to trivia contents at restaurants, an activity that is dull to me because I can’t remember a damn thing anymore.  I like going to movies that bore her.  So we each have other friends for those preferred activities.

I used to have male friends that I’d go to the movies with.  When I was young this was because I wanted to see action films with lots of violence.  Now I don’t.  Some of my male friends have stopped going to the movies altogether, or others go to kinds of films I just don’t want to waste two hours of my life watching.

I know a number of women over fifty who are without husbands.  Many say they never want to remarry, but some are looking for boyfriends or new husbands.  I know one women who says she only has time for one romantic evening a week, and another who jokes she’s be willing to have one romantic night a quarter.  Other than that boyfriends would be too interfering with their lives.  Of course, I also know women looking for long term relationships with guys who they want to spend all their time with, but they have trouble finding such men.

It appears some of us aging people still want tight bonds and others want a new kind of freedom they didn’t have when they were younger.

All of this discussion so far has mostly dealt with the distance people have at the physical level.  Let’s go back and analyze the mental distance.  When we were little kids we played in gangs that were always touching, punching, pulling, tickling, grabbing, and so on.  And it felt like we were all alike in our play.  Getting older was like being separated from the Garden of Eden.  It became so easy to hurt one another mentally, so we sought out best friends for survival.  High school years for some people were the best times of their lives, but for others it was the worst, and in either case, those years seemed to affect us for the rest of our lives.

Then there are the years of searching for a mate.  Sex brings us as physically close as possible, and we all hope it bonds us mentally as well, but that’s open for question, because for the rest of our lives we wonder what our mates are really thinking.  The close mental distances we achieve are often illusionary and is the foundation of a lot of frustration that comes later in life.

What if we really could commune telepathically.  How many close friends would we find in our lifetime?  Any? Would our spouses grow to hate us for our thoughts they don’t like, or would telepathy create a deeper understanding?  Is there anyone that you’d open your mind to completely?  Is the emotional binding of zero mental distance possible?

I don’t think telepathy is possible, but brutal relentless honesty is, and we don’t have the stomach even for that kind of closeness.  Maybe we grow apart as we get older because we don’t like being that honest.  Could it be that young people are more emotional because of their closeness?

From casual observation on my part, it appears that a growing portion of the population spend much of their later years alone.  Even when we’re bunched together again in assisted living homes and nursing homes, like school and daycare, people often seem lonely.  Big families that stay together to the end are rare.  More people are entering their retirement years as singles rather than couples.  It looks like divorce and small family size will be hard on the baby boomer generation.

Even though I have a wife and many friends I feel like I’m spending ever more time alone.  And for the most part I like it that way.  I’m selfish with my time so I can pursue my hobbies, but I wouldn’t want to be completely alone.  I’m actually looking forward to living in a retirement community or assisted living, because more than ever I’m preferring the company of people my own age, and I wouldn’t mind being segregated from the young.  It’s funny, but in the 1960s we didn’t trust anyone over 30.  Now I have a hard time relating to people under 30, and I’d like them a whole lot better if they were older than 50.  If it much easier to identify with a 75-year-old than a 25-year-old.

And I think those tendencies relate to the mental distances we feel between other people.  It’s funny, but my biology whispers hints I should get zero distance physically with young females, but mentally I know that’s silly.  Even if I was a billionaire and a young women had a reason to overlook my homeliness and get physical, I’m not sure if it would be possible to get close mentally.  I don’t know if my problem with understanding the young is because my wife and I never had kids, or if that’s just part of the aging process.

I think as we get old we also still have some of the desires we had when we were kids.  I’ve seen stories about baby boomers forming leagues to play grade school games like dodge ball, kickball, tetherball and four-square.  I think we still want to play physically together to recapture that illusion we had as kids that we were also mentally together.  I think that’s also why many older couples and singles take up dancing, to recapture those feelings of the high school years.

Another way we’ve found to get close to other people mentally is the Internet.  I have stumbled across blog pages where people write about the same exact things I love to write about.  I’ve often wondered if I could put my 100 favorite movies, books, songs and TV shows into a computer and it could find people that have the same favorite 100 of each, would we be mentally as close as people could get outside of telepathy?

I’m writing this blog post because I’m wondering if I’m sensing a shift in social awareness due to aging and I need to prepare myself for more social changes as I get older.  I’ve always felt that as long as I had a wife, a few friends and the social aspects of work I’m good to go for personal contacts both mentally and physically.  But if I retire, and my friends keep withdrawing into themselves, or my wife and I move to a retirement community, will I have enough social contacts?  And if my wife died or we got divorced, I fear that I could end up being very alone, and that’s scary. 

I understand why men die sooner than women.  Women seem to have a knack for living a long time alone, or at least that’s what my observations show me.  I can think of damn few men I know my age or older that lives alone, but I can tick off quite a list of women.  Not only that, but those women often joke about how glad they are to be free of having to put up with men.  The thought of living alone scares me. 

I don’t feel I’m dependent on my wife.  I do all my own cooking, shopping, cleaning and cloth washing now.  My wife works out of town and is only here six days of the month.  But if I was completely single I don’t think I’d survive my retirement years.  I can’t understand how all those women face decades of living alone.  Does that mean that women can handle a greater average distance between people?

I think there’s a physical and mental distance between other people that’s too far for us to handle.  It’s why people go crazy stranded on desert islands or forced into solitary confinement.  It may relate to why some people go nuts, because even though they might be physically close they can’t achieve any kind of mental closeness.

I used to think that getting old just meant losing my hair and getting wrinkled.  I figured no big deal, I can handle that.  I now realize that aging is a lot more complicated.  For one thing, I realize that physical degeneration makes me want to recede socially.  I didn’t see that one coming.  Now I’m seeing the physical and mental distance factor come into play and wonder where the trend will go.  I didn’t see that one coming either.  In fact, I now wonder how many changes will happen to me that I never imagined? 

I need to study TIME GOES BY: what it’s really like to get older, a favorite blog site I like to read, more carefully.  Ronni Bennett is exploring territory that I will travel in a few years.  I wonder if I can achieve a mental closeness from reading her post so I can understand what she has to say, or is there a barrier of comprehension because I’m not old enough to understand?

There are a growing number of people that are living past 100, and even to 110 and beyond, and I wonder how close to they feel to the rest of us?  How isolating is it to be over 100?  It must take an amazing kind of mental toughness to live that long.  I’m feeling wimpy at 57, so I doubt I have the right stuff for great aging.  Or maybe I need to toughen myself up now if I want to go the distance.

JWH – 3/14/9

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