The Calculus of Collecting Science Fiction Short Stories

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, October 2, 2016

My calculations all began when I wrote about the science fiction of 1966. Starting with, and hyperlinking over to the World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967, (the 1967 volume covers stories from 1966), I researched each story on the internet. Reading about those stories made me want to read (or reread) the actual stories. So I checked for a copy World’s Best Science Fiction 1967. The cheapest edition was a paperback for $6.50, or $10 for a hardback without dust jacket (prices include shipping). Too much for me, considering their condition.

World's Best Science Fiction 1967

Here is the table of contents for World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967:

  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick
  • “Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw
  • “The Keys to December” by Roger Zelazny
  • “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” by R. A. Lafferty
  • “Bircher” by A. A. Walde
  • “Behold the Man” by Michael Moorcock
  • “Bumberboom” by Avram Davidson
  • “Day Million” by Frederik Pohl
  • “The Wings of a Bat” by Pauline Ashwell
  • “The Man from When” by Dannie Plachta
  • “Amen and Out” by Brian W. Aldiss
  • “For a Breath I Tarry” by Roger Zelazny

I remember owning this paperback back in the sixties as a teen, and I probably read it then. Only four of the stories have stuck in my memory though. Writing about 1966 made me want to seek a deeper understanding of that year. Yesterday, I read “The Keys of December” by Roger Zelazny. I was both impressed and moved. It’s a story about the ethics of geo-engineering a planet with emerging life. I don’t remember thinking about such topics when I was young, but I do now. I guess I wasn’t ready. I also loved how Zelazny told his story. It resonated with the genes that make me love science fiction.

Reading “The Keys of December” made me want to read more from World’s Best Science Fiction 1967. What’s driving my current interest in science fiction is akin to being a science fiction archaeologist. Every story is a clue to how we thought in 1966. Instead of reading science fiction to imagine the future, I’m reading science fiction to understand my past, and why we all grew up wanting and fearing the futures we do. Finding each story is like digging up another artifact. On some days I think having copies of all the science fiction magazines is the way to do my research. That’s possible with digitized pulps on the net. On other days, I think just collecting the annual best-of-the-year anthologies is all I need. Then I wonder if buying a couple dozen retrospective anthologies would provide all the historical evidence I should read.

Then it occurred to me to ask how many of these stories I already own. I found “The Keys of December,” “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” “Day Million,” and “Nine Hundred Grandmothers.” Four out of twelve is not bad.

That made me wonder about the mathematics of collecting short stories. How many anthologies would I need to buy to get all the stories I wanted to read from World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967? Would collecting retrospective anthologies be a better purchase than collecting annual anthologies – if my goal is to acquire all the very best science fiction short stories ever written? I’ve generally read novels. Now I’m thinking about the classics of short science fiction.

How many major annual anthologies have there been? If you start counting with The Great Science Fiction Stories Volume 1 (1939), edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, and assumed just one anthology a year, the minimum collection would be 77 volumes.  (There are many years with several annual anthologies, especially 2016.) Let’s guestimate the average annual anthology has 15 stories, that would mean 1,155 stories. If I could find large retrospective anthologies with more than 25 stories per volume, I could cut down 77 to 46. The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and And VanderMeer had over a hundred stories, two of which were from World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967. (“Nine Hundred Grandmothers” and “Day Million.”) I need just a dozen books that size.

So I went shopping on I got “Light of Other Days,” and additional copies of “The Keys to December” and “Day Million” by ordering The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg ($4.20). The best way to get “Behold the Man” was by buying The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume III, edited by Arthur C. Clarke and George W. Proctor ($8.99). That got me three stories I mentioned in my essay from 1966 that wasn’t in the Wollheim/Carr annual. The cheapest way I found “For a Breath I Tarry” was by buying Science Fiction: A Historical Anthology, edited by Eric S. Rabkin ($3.48).

For $16.67 I got all the stories I wanted, plus several other great 1966 stories, and a huge number of SF stories from over the last two hundred years. Compared to spending $10 for the World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967 in hardback, $16.67 was a great bargain. I decided I didn’t need “Bircher,” “Bumberboom,” “The Wings of a Bat,” “Amen and Out,” and “The Man from When.” They aren’t often reprinted, and I’ve never heard of any of them since. Which suggests that not all stories in the annual collections are worth remembering. How many great shorter works are produced each year in science fiction? If we say 10, then that’s 900 stories since 1926. That’s not an impossibly large number to consume. Reading three a day, would let me finish in a year. Such a pursuit would be a fascinating education in science fiction evolution and history.

Fantastic - Sept - 1966

I’ve always believed the heart of science fiction is the short stories that appear in the science fiction magazines. That’s ninety years of stories. Theoretically, it would be possible to collect (especially with pulp scans on the internet) all those issues of Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories, Astounding Stories, Planet Stories, Unknown, F&SF, Galaxy, If, Analog, Fantastic, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and even read a good fraction. But that would also be more reading than I have time left in my life.

Then I wondered, would it be possible to collect all the annual anthologies and read them. Would reading the yearly best of the best be worth my time? The 77 volumes since 1939 is not a huge number of books. I wouldn’t want to read a steady diet of old science fiction, but I could finish that pile of 77 books in a decade.

The Big Book of Science Fiction

Then I wondered about the mathematics of retrospective anthologies. I already own The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. It has over one hundred stories. I could read it in a year. What if I read one large anthology a year that collects the best science fiction short stories ever written, how many years would it take before I felt I had read the greatest short works of the genre?

I’ve already read countless SF stories in my life, yet I don’t remember most of them. That’s because I consumed science fiction, like eating M&Ms. What if I studied science fiction like I used to study American and English literature in college? Could I create a taxonomy of science fictional themes? I’ve been reading science fiction long enough to see it evolve. For most readers, science fiction is merely entertainment. Exciting stories well told. But I’m starting to see that the science fiction writer has a unique job in society.

Their task is to speculate about possibilities that science has yet to thoroughly explore. Most of the time science squashes these speculations, but not always. Over the centuries many writers speculated about building flying machines. We don’t think airplanes are science fiction anymore because aircraft are mundane now. At one time, speculation about flying machines was science fiction. I wonder how many science fiction stories written fifty years ago have either been shot down by science, engineered into reality, or still a realistic speculation? I also wonder how many science fictional ideas we still want to come true? We’ve been wanting colonies on Mars for a very long time now. Ditto for intelligent robots. Will that change once we’ve been to Mars or lived with AI? What will science fiction writers write about once we’ve settled the galaxy?

That’s why I wonder about numbers. How many science fiction stories have been written? How many unique themes have been developed. How many variations on each theme have emerged? How long does an idea take to die once science has covered it’s territory?

F&SF November 1963

Think about the story “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny, first published in F&SF (Nov. 1963). It was one of the last great stories about life on Mars. On July 15, 1965, Mariner IV flew by Mars, and 21 grainy pictures of the red planet forever killed any hope of finding Barsoom. I remembered when that happened. I was so disappointed. Mars looked like the Moon. Yet, we still want to read stories about Mars like we imagined it before Mariner IV. People haven’t stopped reading The Martian Chronicles. Writers and publishers still put out books like Old Mars, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. Science fiction isn’t only about speculation, it’s also about the dreams we want to dream. When does science fiction become fantasy?


I wonder if I studied 19th century science fiction thoroughly, and understood the hopes and fears of 19th century people had for the 20th century, would I better understand our hopes and fears for the 22nd century?

How many people will go to Mars if Elon Musk builds the rockets to take them to the red planet? Where did Elon Musk get his desire to go to Mars. Will there actually be a hundred people willing to go, even if they think they might die, or never return to Earth? It’s one thing to read science fiction, its another thing to actually live it. Is reading hundreds of old science fiction stories a way to understand why?


How Much History Can I Handle?

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 4, 2016

Every subject we study requires studying history.

My problems:

  • Compulsive news reading online
  • Compulsive book buying
  • Compulsive magazine buying
  • Curiosity about too many subjects
  • Can’t keep up with my reading


My goals:

  • Simplify my reading habits
  • Decide on the subjects I care about most
  • Learn more about those subjects
  • Focus on fewer topics for writing

I’ll never be an expert on any subject. Primarily because I’m starting too late in life, but also because I’m interested in too many topics. The best way to explain my problem is with an analogy. Have you ever noticed the difference between the magazines Popular Science, Discover, Scientific American, American Scientist and Science? This will work for any array of subject periodicals. The magazines that have wide appeal with the public will have mostly snippets of news stories, and a few short articles. Reading Popular Science or Discover often feels like reading the sponsors off a race car. When you finish an issue you remember little, even though you’ve just been told a 100 fascinating facts.

Now Scientific American and American Scientist do have pages of newsy snippets, but their compelling content is a handful of longer articles. If takes effort to read those essays, but most people can understand them if they try. When you’re finished, you feel you’ve learned something, and you’ll probably remember a good deal more from reading the first two magazines. You’ve covered fewer topics but gained more knowledge.

Finally, there’s Science. It is magazine scientists read. Its articles are terse, and very hard to comprehend. Science is readable by any well-educated person, but its so technical, and jargon filled, that few people do. Magazines like Science or Nature are general science magazines for people trained to be science specialists. Their specialized training allows them to read across disciplines at a much higher level than the average popular science reader.

The point I’m making here is my daily reading for all the subjects I’m interested in is too close to the Popular Science level.

Mentally, my curiosity flitters around like reading magazines at the dentist. If I make myself, with the aid of Google, I can read an issue of Science, but it’s no fun. It’s just too specialized. I want to discipline my mind to function around the intensity of a Scientific American article, or at least a longer article in Discover. I want to be able to write about my favorite subjects at that level. That means knowing those subjects in greater detail, which means knowing much more history.

Think of it this way. Let’s imagine we have 100 brain cells to use. Popular Science requires one cell for a 100 different news items. Science requires all 100 to understand one article. Scientific American assigns 20 cells to five topics. What I’m realizing is I need to ration my brain cells more carefully.

Each day, how is your mind applied? Is your consciousness like a reader of People magazine, or The Atlantic?  And for every pet topic you pursue, how much history do you know? We all know people who pontificate about their beloved subjects – their minds appear bloated with information. But that’s what it takes to be knowledgeable about a particular subject.

This bit of navel gazing came about because of an offer from Biblical Archeology Review (BAR) to subscribed for $7. I have a hard time resisting cheap magazine subscriptions. People who know I’m an atheist, might be puzzled why I would even be tempted by this magazine. Although I’m not a believer, I find history of The Bible fascinating. The Bible was written during a time when humanity was transitioning from pre-history to history. Like The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Bible began as oral storytelling, and then over the centuries, its stories were written down, eventually becoming canonized into the book we know today. I’ve even been wanting to write an article called, “Bible Study for Atheists,” and figured a subscription to BAR would be helpful (even though it is controversial).

No, my problem is not lack of interest, but lack of time. If I had all the time in the world I’d roam up and down history studying everything. But I don’t have that much time. Even though I’m retired, and have all my time free, it’s still not enough time. What I’m realizing is I need to ration my time spent exploring the history of my pet interests. I can only handle so much.

Rock and roll music is what got me interested in history. I started listening to AM Top 40 rock in 1962. As I grew older, I realized there were many wonderful tunes before 1962 to be discovered, so I began exploring jazz, blues and folk music of the 1950s, which led to Swing and Big Band music of the 1940s and 1930s, which took me to a different kind of jazz in the 1920s. When I get the time, I’d like to go even earlier, to the Tin Pan Alley era.

Once I learned how to move backwards in time, I began to incorporate those skills into chasing the origins of everything else I loved. In college I majored in English and studied books from the 19th and 20th century. My sense of history through novels goes back to the historical times of Jane Austen. A love of movies takes me back to the 1910s and 1920s. A love of science fiction takes me back to the 19th century again. I keep trying to get into classical music, but for some reason I have a hard time pushing into the 17th and 18th century. But the more I get into the history of science, which takes me back to the late 1500s and early 1600s, the more classical music becomes relevant. Studying The Bible jumps me back to the first millennium BCE, and connects me with Egypt, Babylon, the Levant, Greece, and then Rome, which brings me back to The New Testament, and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries, which then leads me towards Byzantium, and the Middle Ages. Which connects me with Europe rediscovering the classical Greeks, and jumping back to 400 BCE. Because Plato and Aristotle impacted so many people in the 19th century, that  jumps me forward to the Transcendentalists, and then back to the Enlightenment.

I also spend a good deal of time reading science fiction, which also means tramping around the future.

This morning, while taking my shower, and thinking about how I failed to clean out my growing pile of unread magazines yesterday, I felt crazed to think I should subscribe to more magazines. Yet, I wanted to – badly. It just became obvious, that no matter how addictive my curiosity is, I can’t consume all of history. I need to specialize. But in what? And why?

Sometimes I think I should just stay closer to home in time, like anytime after 1951 when I was born. I love westerns from the 1950s, so they would be in the territory of history I could cover. But then I think about writing a piece called, “Should Westerns Be Historically Accurate?” which means prowling around the 1800s. And I really would hate to give up Austen, Dickens and Trollope. That makes me think I should extend my range of history to the year 1800. I’d get to keep Darwin, but not Newton. I might  handle that. I’d have to give up the Founding Fathers, but I’d still have The Transcendentalists and Abraham Lincoln. Not too bad of a trade. Plus I’d get to keep the The Impressionists in Europe. I’d have to give up the Roman Empire, but at least I’d have the best part of the British Empire. I’d have to give up most of the history of mathematics, but I’d get all of the history of computers.

Could I really go on a history diet and only read about events that happened after 1799? I just swiveled around in my chair and scanned my bookcases. Not much of a sacrifice – most of my books cover topics that happened since 1800. I could thin a third of my unread books if I moved the cutoff date to 1900. I easily have a quarter century of unread books that fit into that time period, which probably translate into “the rest of my life.” But there goes Tolstoy and Louisa May Alcott. But that might finally give me time to read Proust and and finish reading Virginia Woolf.

I’m probably bullshitting myself here. I have so many contemporary topics I’m interested in, that if I made the cutoff date 2010, I couldn’t keep up with all the things I’d want to read. Every time I go to the library I scan the new book shelf. I could literally spend the rest of my life only reading books published in the current year about current affairs, and still not read everything I wanted.

Maybe it’s not what I read, or the history covered, but how I read. I could simplify my life by only reading books that appear on the library’s new books shelves, and give up reading magazines and web pages. That has a lot of practical benefits. I wouldn’t have to limited myself to particular times in history, and it would give me lots of variety. And yet, it would narrow the amount of reading I feel compelled to pursue. If I actually read all the magazines I currently get, in physical and digital form, I would never have time to read books. Hell, if I just read the free articles I get from News360 and Flipboard each day, I’d be reading 24×7.

Sometimes I think reading off the internet has ruined my mind. The internet is the heroin of information.

I can’t read everything I want. I can’t study every fascinating subject. There’s too much history for every topic. Trying to tidy up my reading habits is like using Marie Kondo to tidy up my house – it’s extremely difficult. But if I want to get away from a Popular Science level of concentration it will require tidying up what I read and how. I can clean out topics I’m hoarding, or somehow limit the fire hose of information I’m drinking from. Or both.


Tidying Up Beyond Marie Kondo

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The KonMari Method of tidying up one’s life focuses on household possessions, but I’ve been thinking of ways of decluttering my mind, my routine activities, my computer, my physical and digital subscriptions, and what I own in the cloud. In the 21st century, ownership can be quite different from the 20th century, because many of the things we once physically held can be digitized. Then, there’s the whole issue of own versus rent – house v. apartment, car v. Uber, DVDs v. Netflix, magazines v. Texture, CDs v. Spotify.

I have many rooms in the cloud that need tidying up.


For example, I have this blog at Auxiliary Memory, but I also have a traditional web site at a hosting service for The Classics of Science Fiction. That site has been static for years because I’ve forgotten how to program in PHP and MySQL. I’ve been meaning to update my data, but that would mean a tremendous amount of work. I recently moved the content from my web site to this site, and that has simplified things. I will soon be able to cancel my hosting service. One less bill, and one less room in the cloud to keep tidy.

My friend Mike and I are working to update the Classics of Science Fiction list. My first plan to simplify was to move from a hosted MySQL server to using Access on my local computer. Then Mike suggested we jettison the database and use a spreadsheet for our data. Even simpler. Then we decided to even jettison the spreadsheet, and keep the data in .csv text files that we process on the fly. Mike is writing a program that will generate HTML code for using on my blog. Once you take the tidying up process beyond mere possessions, it become obvious that clutter is everywhere.

Another way I could reduce the psychological clutter in my life is by focusing my writing. Right now I write about whatever idea grabs my fancy – often because I’m fascinated by everything. The trouble is I can put in hours of work on some ideas and get no readers, and for other topics get hundreds of hits. Auxiliary Memory could be greatly improved if I narrowed the topics I covered. This would spill over to my reading, documentary watching and thinking. I could declutter my mind by deciding which subjects I want to truly learn, and which I should ignore.

Marie Kondo has a lot to say about getting rid of books. For a bookworm, that’s very hard to do. One way I’ve cheated is to stop buying physical books when I can, and bought ebooks instead. Out-of-sight is out-of-mind. But now my Kindle library is becoming cluttered. The same thing has happened with my music. I ripped my CDs and put them in the cloud, but I mostly play music from Spotify, so I have three large libraries of music to deal with – physical, cloud and rented. If I committed completely to Spotify I could simplify things greatly. I got rid of about 600 CDs, kept 600 that were my absolute favorites, and have another 600 I’m trying to decide if I should keep or jettison. I only play CDs on rare occasions. I wonder if it’s time go completely digital?

I moved my photographs to the cloud, so I have two large collections – one physical, one in the cloud. Is it time to commit to just one?

I gave up cable TV years ago, but ended up subscribing to several digital services. I just canceled Hulu, Pandora and The Great Courses Plus. They are all great services, but ones I seldom use. I was also subscribing to several digital magazines through the Kindle. I canceled them. I’m torn about Texture. It’s $15 a month and lets me read 150 magazines, but I hardly use it. On the other hand, it lets me have access to magazines that would otherwise clutter up the house. Then again, maybe it’s time to give up magazine reading. I actually spend most of my journalistic reading via free web content on my iPhone. I subscribe to The New York Times on the web. It’s great content. But I often forget to read it.

I do worry that all this decluttering is impacting the economy. If everyone followed a Zen-like path of simplicity, the economy would go down the drain. Can we create a decluttered economy that provides jobs for all?

The biggest way I can simplify my life would be to sell the house and downsize. I’m tired of repairs and worrying about the yard. I’m tired of furnishing rooms we don’t use. I’d love to move to a retirement community where I lived in an apartment or condo without a yard, but I worry about noise pollution. I love playing my music loud, and my movies in surround sound, and I hate hearing neighbors. I’m sure they’d hate hearing me. I suppose to could live with headphones.

I’m not quite ready to pull the trigger on moving, which means I need to keep tidying up this house. After Susan and I went through one phase of Marie Kondoizing, getting rid of several hundreds pounds of junk, we felt much better. But I think we could still jettisons hundreds of pounds more.

Once you start thinking about clutter, you see it everywhere.


Does Anyone Actually Read the Paper Version of Wired Magazine?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 6, 2015

I find it almost impossible to read the print edition of Wired magazine. Ditto for Vanity Fair. The emerging trends in magazine graphic design keeps me from reading my favorite magazines printed on paper. Why? Is it because I’m too old to appreciate modern layouts? Are my eyes too ancient to see their tiny typefaces? Is my brain too slow to comprehend their fire hose content? Have I been corrupted by reading on the web or tablet computers? I’m sure all of those things are true, but, could their graphic design be flawed? Have we pushed beyond the limits of Gutenberg?

Wired layouts

The Atlantic and Harper’s offer the most comfortable reading for me. The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker are in the middle of my comfort zone. If you study the design of the six magazines I’ve mentioned so far, there’s an obvious pattern. The harder to read magazines have more areas on the page vying for my attention. If a two-page layout has ten things shouting at my eyeballs I just turn the page. The two NY titles are pretty good at displaying reading content, but their ads are very distracting. The New York Review of Books is printed in large format making it hard to hold. And I hate to say it, but The New Yorker cartoons distract me.

In many ways, all these magazines are easier to read from the web or tablets. It seems print magazines are trying to compete with digital layouts and they’re ruining  print aesthetics. The web and tablets offer flexible font sizing that help readers, but print magazines keep making their text smaller. New layout techniques on tablets offer even better reading experiences by providing modes to separate words from images. I now prefer to read Wired or Vanity Fair on my iPad.

Reading on the web has several advantages over print and tablet. I can clip articles to Evernote, or save them to Instapaper. I can email articles to friends. I can highlight and copy content to my blog. I can follow their hyperlinks. Plus, I don’t end up with piles of paper to recycle. And of course, web editions are free.

The print edition of Wired is beautiful—but busy. I’m sure the editors find their large layout boards easy to study, and feel their content outstanding and obvious. However, when it’s all squeezed down to the size of the printed page, the content looks like information overload puked onto paper.

I’m quite honest when I ask, “Does anyone read the print edition of Wired magazine?” Yes, it has a stunning layout. And it has an amazing array of trendy new ideas presented in innovative visual ways. I enjoy flipping through the pages, and gazing at bits of things, but I can’t read it.

Are the days of printed periodicals over?


The End of Zite–The Beginning of News360

Here’s the problem.  Every day on the internet millions of articles are published and some of them are ones I really want to read.  Finding those articles that are perfect for my peculiar interests is like finding Malaysia Flight 370’s black boxes in the middle of the Indian ocean.  Over the years various genius programmers have come up with systems for customized news reading.  The big breakthrough was RSS feeds, and then Google Reader.  But even then, you’d get hundreds or thousands of articles to sift through each day.  What’s really needed is some kind of AI smarts to find less than 50 daily news stories that can be quickly perused.  You want your news feed to only have stories that matter most to you.  After the iPad came out I discovered Zite, and thought I had found news nirvana.  Well, Zite is going, and I’m trying News360.


What the Internet gives, the internet also taketh away.  Time and again I fall in love with technology only to have it taken away.  Remember Lala?  Now I’ll be losing Zite.  To me, Zite is the one app that made tablets great.  Zite was the best Internet newsreader I ever used.  I liked it far better than Google Reader, another technology that was prematurely wrenched from my hands. 

Zite has been bought out by Flipboard.  Now I have nothing against Flipboard, except that I don’t enjoy using it.  Flipboard uses a different metaphor for presenting the news, built around do-it-yourself magazines.  Zite was more like a customized newswire feed.  Zite learned what I was interested in reading, and queued up a bunch of great stories for me to check out.  The more I used it, the smarter Zite got, finding just the right stuff to read.  This is very efficient for reading from the fire hose of news stories available every day on the net.


Curated News

Like the curated music site Pandora, what voracious news readers want is a reader robot to pre-read the news and decide what we’d like to read.  Zite was my reading robot, but now it’s being killed off.  One of the most popular reading robots is Flipboard, and it has bought Zite in hopes of using its technology to be a better reading robot.

I’ve used Flipboard from time to time but have never been comfortable with it.  If they integrate Zite’s intelligence into Flipboard I might start to like it, but even then I don’t like the visual layout of Flipboard.  For now I’m experimenting with News360 – which Paul N. Shapiro turned me on to – so I don’t need to worry about the Flipboard Zite merger.  Check your app store and try it out – News360.

News360 does one thing that Zite didn’t and I always wanted, it has a website front end so I can use from my desktop.  The controls are nicer on the iOS and Android versions, but the website version is quicker to use, and links me directly to the news story as it appears on the web.  The tablet versions of News360 take a bit more clicking to get to the actual reading.  Zite was the tops for reformatting web pages for easy reading.  News360 is fancier in some ways, with more options, but it takes more clicks to get to the full reading copy.  I haven’t decided if I like News360’s rolling cubes or not.  On the iOS version, it appears the full text can be scrolled on a cube site.

Thumbs Up or Down

There are millions of blogs, magazines, newspaper, journals, websites that publish something new every day.  Even if you find all your favorite publishers and check their site daily, you’d spend way too much time going through stuff you don’t want to read.  And even with a good news reader that zeroes in on your interests, it will find stories you’ll want to look at but still waste your time.  For example, News360 sent me “Einstein’s ‘spooky’ theory may lead to ultra-secure internet.”  The topic interests me, but the piece was short, fluffy and lacking in any real content.  So far, no news collector system I’ve found is perfect, or even close to perfect. 

Reading Robots take training.  And for that, you need ones you can thumbs up and thumbs down on what they give you to read.  However, I can’t thumbs down the article above because it was skimpy, otherwise News360 might stop sending me other articles on quantum mechanics.  You have to apply your intelligence to training your robot.

I’ve just started using News360 and I’m trying to train it not to send me stories I see on the nightly news.  I already waste 30 minutes a day watching the TV news so I don’t want to see those stories again.  I also subscribe to The New York Times – so I don’t want that kind of general news in my news feed.  However, I still want special interest news from The New York Times because I don’t catch everything.  By unchecking Top Stories I got rid of most of the general news.

News360 also found me this morning “The future is coming. 6 ways it will change everything.”  This is still speculation, but it’s the kind I like.  I’d like more substance, but News360 has quickly zeroed in on my interests.

Training a system to be perfect is hard.  I told News360 I’m interested in steampunk, so it found “This $80K Steampunk Inspired Baron Safe-Box…” – that’s interesting, and has visually appealing photos, but ultimately fluff I don’t want to waste my time on.  I’m going to thumbs down the article and hope News360 finds me something more substantial about steampunk – but ultimately I might have to kill that topic.  I’ve already killed the topic Leonardo Da Vinci because News360 kept giving me stuff about a TV show.  Like I said, no system is perfect.

Sometimes New360 makes a mistake that turns out to be wonderful.  I told News360 I wasn’t interested in science fiction movies, but was interested in science fiction books.  This morning it found me  “The Glorious Incoherence of Divergent” at The Atlantic.  Now most everything at The Atlantic is über-readable, but what made this piece a treasure trove is it tied in Philip K. Dick’s books to current movies and YA books.  I’m very into Philip K. Dick, so I forgive News360 giving me a movie review.  It was smart enough to know the article wasn’t just about the movie.

News360 does allow me to block sources when I use the tablet app after I’ve thumbs down something.  This can be dangerous.  Often a news story will come from many sites – it’s been syndicated – so be sure and don’t nix something you like.  But if it’s a single site that you’re sure you don’t want to read from, this is a great feature.  Last night I blocked  I’m just not that young anymore.

I wished News360 had some way of asking about the quality of the content.  A way to mark something that’s too fluffy, or even too verbose.  I also wish it allowed me to diss certain kinds of formatting.  I hate slideshow news – like seeing a headline for the twelve types of dogs that don’t like cats, and then having to click through twelve pages just to see the names of twelve breeds of cat hating dogs.  I think these slideshow stories are a ways to generate ad clicks, which I find fucking annoying as hell.  Just use a goddamn list, please.

Discovering Cool Publishers

One of the most brilliant side-effects of using a reader robot is discovering new publishers.  If you go to a big bookstore and browse the magazine section you might see a couple thousand magazines.  But on the web there are millions.  Discovering new publishers is pretty much serendipity.  If you pay attention to the sources of the articles you like, you’ll discover new sites to read in general.

Theoretically if your reading habits were very specific, you could just bookmark several sites that pertain to your topic and view them daily.  But I’ve yet to find any site that every article they publish is always of interest to me.  So even having my Reader Robot read my favorite magazines is a big help.  I wished sites like News360 had a configuration page that allowed me to list my favorite publications.   Some Reader Robots allow for adding RSS feeds, but News360 doesn’t seem to do that.

The best thing about News360 is it’s web site.  Most other magazine styled news aggregators are designed as apps for tablets and smart phones only.  I’m an old fashion sit in the desk chair kind of guy, so I appreciate being able to look at the news on a 27” monitor.  Even though my Nexus 7 has more pixels than my 1080p monitor, I can scan content faster on the big screen.

I’m not used to News360 on my tablets yet, not like I am to Zite, but I’m adapting quickly.  And now that I have a magazine style newsreader for my Chrome browser, I’ll probably be even more addicted to reading the news.

JWH – 3/25/14

Aren’t Television Shows Just Short Stories for People Who Don’t Want to Read?

Many of my bookworm friends tell me they dislike reading short stories.  They claim short stories are too slight, not enough plot and character, to waste their reading time on.  Okay, I can buy that.  But isn’t a 22 minute episode of The Big Bang Theory just a short story?  Isn’t a 47 minute episode of Nashville, merely a novelette?  I’m currently listening to The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James that runs 24 hours.  Most current TV shows have a season of 24 episodes.  So if they were collected as an audiobook, the entire season of 30 and 60 minute shows would still be shorter than one literary novel.  Doesn’t that sound like an anthology of stories?

In other words, don’t people still really love the short story?  Some people like to read, others to listen, but most love to watch!  Don’t most of us crave two or three stories a day?


At one time the short story was very popular in America.  There were hundreds of short story only magazines for sale at newsstands, and some writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald were paid big bucks for a single story.  Even when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, most women’s and men’s magazines would contain at least couple short stories. 

Why did people stop reading short stories?  Why did they fall out of favor?  The obvious answer is they haven’t.  Pulp magazines just mutated into television shows.

How long have humans needed a daily diet of fiction?  Aren’t short stories just oral story telling in mass production?

It seems pretty logical to think folks just switched from reading a thirty minute story to watching one.  It’s also easy to assume that the half hour show is the short story, the hour show the novelette, and the movie is the novella.  But if we look deeper, I think there are some other concepts to consider, most notably the continuing character, the series, and the genre subject focus.


At the beginning of the 20th century most magazines, even pulp magazines, were general purpose magazines for readers of all ages of both sexes.  But as the century progressed publishers created specialty subject magazines, some devoted to single characters, that catered to particularly reading tastes, and demographics.

If you read the latest volume of Best American Short Stories 2013, the annual anthology that collects the best of literary short fiction, you don’t see stories involving a continuing character, a series, or can easily be pigeon-holed into a micro-genre.  Now there are plenty of genre magazines devoted to the short story that do regularly publish this type of story, but their content seldom gets picked for the annual Best American Short Story collection.  For the last 50-75 years, publishers seem to be zeroing in on the continuing character novel, so that most mystery novels, and many science fiction and fantasy books, are now about popular characters involved in a series of adventures.  Doesn’t that sound like television?

doc savage

Television supplanted the pulp magazine, and is now inspiring how many writers write their books.  What happened to the slice of life short story, and the great American novel?  Writers prefer to develop a character and setting they stick to, like those in television shows.  It’s easier to sell, and sells better.

The best literary short stories are tiny slices of life, unique views of humanity.  Most novels from the early history of book publishing were always stand-alone tales, just longer slices of life, with highly detailed unique views.  In the early days of television there were many drama shows that featured a different story and cast of characters each week, the most famous at the time was Playhouse 90, but probably the most famous still somewhat seen via streaming, is The Twilight Zone.

The unique slice of life story was quickly supplanted by the continuing character show.  But that had already started in pulp magazines before the age of television.  I’m curious who the first continuing character was?  Sir John Falstaff appeared in three plays by Shakespeare.  And how many stories did Sherlock Holmes appear in?  Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer appeared in several books, and readers wouldn’t let Louisa May Alcott stop writing about Jo March.  If Louisa was alive and writing today, the March sisters would be a television series.

It seems most people love short stories, about favorite characters, in a setting and subject of particular interest to them.  Other people like stories stretched into novels.  While I love continuing character stories on TV, I avoid them in novels.  But I still love short, unique, slice-of-life stories, either written or dramatized.  I wonder why most people don’t.  I’ve been re-watching old episodes of The Twilight Zone, and some of them are very powerful.


However, my brain quickly forgets them, or most of them.  In over fifty years I’ve never forgotten Henry Bemis, or the pig nose people.  If I had only seen one episode of The Big Bang Theory in my life, would I still remember it?  Maybe it’s memorable because I’ve stuck with it for seven years.  Apparently we crave long term relationships with our fictional friends.

Memorable novels are like short intense love affairs we never forget.  By that standard, it seems most people would rather have long term friendships.

JWH – 1/17/14

Next Issue: Can Magazines on Tablet Computers Replace Printed Magazines?

Years ago I gave up subscribing and buying paper magazines in hopes of going paperless.  Oh, I’d break the rules and buy a magazine now and then.  Then recently a guy a work started giving me his magazines after he read them with recommendations of articles to read.  I started discovering that some articles found in magazines are vastly superior to most of the free articles I was finding on the web.  I guess it’s a case of getting what you pay for.  I also discovered for some subjects its much more fun to browse a magazine than the web.

So I started back on a couple of paper magazine and quickly discovered I really don’t like them piling up.  Once you go paperless, it’s hard to go back to paper.  Then I discovered Next Issue.  For $15 a month I got digital access to a library of magazines.  (There’s also a $9.99 version with fewer magazine.)  I quickly rediscovered just how much I love magazines.  The only trouble is they don’t look very good on my iPad 2.


That’s not completely true.  Some look much better than others.  For the most part the magazines look like their paper versions – I see all the editorial content and the ads.  Some even have extras, like animations, film clips, and multiple view of photos, so in a sense they are super-magazines.  And some magazines actually reformat their content slightly to take advantage of tablets.  So when you get to an article you page down to read it, rather than page right, for a few pages, and then skipping to page 79 to finish the thing.  The magazines that use this feature tend to format their content in a larger font that’s easy to read without magnification – and that looks best on older tablets like the iPad 2.  Other magazines just give you two views of a static page, one that fits the screen on the tablet, and another brought up by double tapping that is greatly magnified that you slide around with your finger to read.

I’ve been reading for weeks with my old iPad 2, and getting into this new method of magazine reading, all the while thinking about how it could be better.  Mostly I thought about having to buy an iPad Air.

I then borrowed my wife’s Kindle Fire HD with a 7” screen and spent an evening reading my favorite magazines.  The Kindle HD has much better resolution than the iPad 2, a pre-retina display model.  Switching between the two  devices, taught me something about reading magazines on  a tablet, and made me realize that Apple no longer has a lock on tablet computers.  Here’s what I learned:

  1. Resolution matters – the more the better.  Sometimes it’s nicer to read small fonts than to tap and magnify
  2. 7” tablets are much easier to hold and read for longer periods of time
  3. 10” tablets make the photos pop out more, so it’s more fun to look at pictures with a larger screen
  4. If the magazine formats for the tablet, it’s much easier to read on a 7” screen
  5. If the magazine doesn’t format for the tablet, it’s much easier to read on a 10” screen
  6. An aspect ratio of 4:3 is probably better for magazines than 16:10, but not always
  7. I have to use a reading stand with the larger tablet for long periods of reading
  8. A 7” screen is more conducive of carrying around
  9. I’d love to be able to print a whole article, or clip it to Evernote.  The iOS version of Next Issue will let me AirPrint a page at a time.
  10. If I could clip an article to Evernote (or .pdf) I could print it from Evernote
  11. Tablets offer a way for magazines to offer more creative layouts, and even multimedia

Next Issue is far from perfect, but I still feel like I’m getting my money’s worth.  I would be happier if I could find just the right tablet, if I could save articles, and if I could get a few more magazines.  Of course this is dealing with two different issues.  One, can I enjoy reading a magazine exclusively on a tablet and give up print copies?  And two, does Next Issue offer everything I want to read?

Next Issue is a disruptive technology in the same way Netflix was a game changer.  I essentially stopped buying videos after I adapted to Netflix.  Will I give up buying magazines too?  Next Issue has a nice selection of over 125 magazines, but it doesn’t have The Atlantic, Scientific American, Discover, Sky and Telescope, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The New York Review of Books, Linux Journal, and others that I like.


But like I said, that’s two issues when regarding whether can I give up paper magazines for reading magazines on a tablet.  If I had a Kindle Fire HDX, either 7” or 8.9” screen, or an Apple iPad Air or Mini with Retina Display, or a Nexus 7 or 10, or Samsung Note 10.1 2014, I might be able to conclusively answer the first part of the question.  They have the dots per inch resolution that will make tablets sharp enough to read small print.  And they might even make photography stand out more.  However, paper still wins on some factors.

If I can’t clip to Evernote or .pdf, printed magazines win on the “tearing an article out to save” factor.  Also, for “making a photocopy” factor.  They also win on “lending/giving to a friend” factor.  But tablets win on “these magazines are driving me crazy piling up around the house” factor.  Tablets also win on the “where the hell did I put that magazine” factor.  They also win on the “I wish I had that magazine with me” factor because Next issue works from the smartphone and iPod touch.

It’s not hard to see the writing on the wall.  Paper and printing will eventually go away.  Whether magazine library subscriptions like Next Issue will become standard is still to be decided.  Netflix hasn’t killed the DVD buying business, but it’s changed it.  Netflix did kill off the local video store, and I wonder if tablets will do that to newsstands?

JWH – 1/5/14