Sunday, November 29, 2009

Jules Verne Read-Aloud Stories

The categories-and-keywords antics over at Amazon continue. Today, the No.1 bestselling children's book for Baby through age 3 is Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. No. 2 is Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson.

More examples of what you get from literal-minded computers turned loose on large numbers of objects with only keyword guidance. Either that, or droves of new parents determined to make sure their children get that head-start in life by reading advanced books aloud to them. Forget The Little Engine that Could--Verne and Stevenson will make sure the kids turn into the prodigies that the parents are certain they are. Or might it backfire and result in children speaking stilted English?

Maybe the Dewey Decimal System is a good idea!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Island of Doctor Moreau, America's No.1 Home Computing Book?

I think Amazon's computers have problem: they act like literal-minded machines. Which they are--sometimes to a fault.

Examples: According to Amazon, The Island of Doctor Moreau, by Herbert George Wells is the No.1 bestselling book. My Man Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse is No. 17. I got these as a result of browsing Books> Computers & Internet >Home Computing at Amazon.

While H.G. Wells was amazingly predictive at times, I don't see that computer mavens are going to find an antiquated novel of such interest as to propel it to lofty heights on Amazon's computer list.

And I'm sure that Pelham Granville Wodehouse never gave home computing even a passing thought, back there in the 1920s. Nor did Jeeves. Radio was the leading-edge technology in their era.

No doubt a couple of Amazon keywords associated with computing accidentally occur in Verne's book. though I can't imagine which words they might be, offhand. "Jeeves" of course is connected with "computer" Amazon's in database, for its association with "Ask Jeeves."

Why is this sort of thing a problem? Because it gets in the way of finding the books one is really after. I enjoyed reading Verne years ago, and while I do enjoy Wodehouse and Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, I am not seeking any of these when I'm browsing computer books. The result of books such as the aforementioned and The Life of Abraham Lincoln appearing among the top 20 home computing books is that my search is interrupted by irrelevant results, and books that I might be interested in are knocked off the top 20 (or 50 or 100) list.

Yes, it's simply a literal-minded program pulling out anything that matches a category's list of keywords. But it's inefficient. One would think the program would be smart enough to do some exclusions. (And to think that one of the three largest corporations in America uses this system for its internal-- never mind.) Ah, well--at least it's entertaining a few people who get a laugh out of seeing Thus Spake Zarathustra presented as a computer book. (Hm ... that was the title of 2001: A Space Odyssey's theme music--and a computer was one of the film's stars ....)

A proper search will eliminate such problems. But how many people rely on browsing rather on searching? I am told by eBay that more of their buyers browse than search. Is the same true at Amazon?

Then again, maybe I'm being unreasonable in expecting the computers behind such an icon as Amazon to be more disciminating.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Blogging Heroes Video Review in Korean

If you speak Korean, you may enjoy this video review of my book, Blogging Heroes, in Korean. The lady, Yunahana, is reviewing the translated version, which includes chapters not in the English edition.

The Korean ISBN is 9788960770478. AcornLoft is the publisher.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kindle for PC

I downloaded Amazon's Kindle for PC today. It's a fast transfer and setup. The screen offers sharp text, easy on the eye. The medium-dark gray side boundaries add to eye ease. The accompanying image doesn't do it justice.

Graphics within books are very good.

Text size and number of words per line are easily adjustable. The text is navigable, but the books I've downloaded are not searchable.

It's worth a try. A good number of free titles are offered, including classics such as Pride and Prejudice and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. You can find contemporary novels, too. Among those at the moment are Elizabeth Moon's Trading in Danger and The Black Sea Affair, by Don Brown. (Note that that last is Don Brown, and not Dan Brown. Given similar genres, I wonder if the byline is intentional.)

Kindle titles of course include some of my books. At the top of the list are On the Way to the Web and Blogging Heroes.

You can download a sample (the first few pages of a book) of any book free. Prices vary, and there are some real bargains in the Kindle Store--which is only a click away from the Kindle PC reader. I foresee lots of impulse buys

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

One of Life's Minor Annoyances

If you spend much time listening to classical music on your car radio, you've probably had this experience. You're driving along, thinking your thoughts. The announcer murmurs softly, as hosts on classical radio do, and a symphony begins.

After a time you notice that the music has faded. In fact, the sound has stopped.

So you turn up the sound. Still nothing. You turn it up some more and--


"What the--!" You grab for the knob or stab at the button--anything to muffle that crashing crescendo of sound. Where in hell did that come from?

It was one of those lulling symphonic moments, some point where the composer decided that the bassoon should just exhale slightly, or the violins mutter a low note. But with the road noise, there's no way you'll hear it at normal volume. And probably not when you turn it up to the max. I've always wondered whether anyone else has encountered this ... and whether it's been used in a movie. I can imagine it as a gag that startles someone into driving off the road--say, Chevy Chase. But the setup would probably be so boring the scene would be cut.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Personalized Newspapers

Although hit hard by online news, printed newspapers don't seem to be exhibiting much creativity in restoring their advertiser and reader numbers. (I still believe that original material in the printed versions could help. If only there was a way to make it time-intensive.)

Next week, some German newspaper subscribers will start receiving custom newspapers every morning. Readers will go to a Web site operated by Niiu and select the kinds of news they want to received. Someone might select the politics or entertainment from the NY Times, the front page of a regional paper, and so forth, and combine it with material only available on the Web. Expanded features are also available.

The custom paper--printed in color--will be collated and delivered per subscriber specifications. Each copy is a one-shot newspaper, generated by a program designed to arrange all the subscribers' newspapers to be printed in one printing press run.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cultural Cycles and a Bestseller

Cory Panshin, who has some interesting things to say on a variety of subjects, offers a theory on recurrent patterns in cultural evolution. It is more than interesting, but rather than try to interpret what she says here, I refer you to Trogholm, Cory Panshin's Web site.

I will note that one concept I picked up from Cory's writing is the idea that the frequency of the cycles of recurring cultural patterns increases as we move forward in time. In fact, we may be at the edge of a culture-wide mood-shift right now, as Cory posits. Perhaps a shift as big as we saw take hold in the Sixties, even though it's been just three decades since that one damped out.

A sequence of events and reading today directed my attention to Robert H. Rimmer's The Harrad Experiment. You may recall that the novel (and the film) concerned itself with overturning conventional concepts of monogamy, partnership, and family ... and expanding them into common households, with poolings of financial, emotional, and intellectual resources. The experiment of the title focused on sexual freedom, sex "... without fear, jealousy, repression, or inhibition ...."

The idea of recurrent cultural patterns and The Harrad Experiment collided in my thoughts and generated this question: would The Harrad Experiment be a hit today, as a contemporary novel? In a society in which many people look beyond their own biological families in favor of choosing "family" from among friends? A society in which blended families and single parents are nearly as common as traditional families? Would people even want to explore that aspect of "revolution" again? Is the sexual revolution a bit of unfinished business from which most young people back then withdrew when put to the test? Is failing that test the reason why large-group families aren't common today? Will it all come up again in the midst of a new cultural shift?

I have a feeling that such a novel would sell. A novel that focuses on odd, titillating, intellectually stimulating concepts hinging on sex, and told through tightly focused viewpoints, would have a good shot at bestsellerdom. If we are on the edge of a cultural shift, sex is going to be involved (right along with the arts and every other element of society)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Ratings and Reviews

The one-to-four-star rating system has been around for a long, long time. The stars may be replaced by other symbols, or there may be three or five, but the idea is the same: to provide an at-a-glance, comparative valuation.

All other things being equal, most of us are drawn to the top-rated items--as long as the ratings are not manipulated in some way.

Ratings assigned books are probably less reliable as an objective indication of quality than they might be with hotels, restaurants, films, and other products. This is because the appeal of books is so very subjective, even more than music.

I noticed that Amazon provides a tally of ratings for all books that meet a given search critereon. There's no indication whether the tally is individualized--that is, whether the total number of books for each ranking includes books ranked higher, and the total number of reviews of books that met my search criteron is 95,500. Or if these numbers are breakouts from a total of 354,706 reviews.

So, I wonder about the significance of the numbers. Here's the tally for a search I did today:

* 4 Stars & Up (76,319)
* 3 Stars & Up (89,630)
* 2 Stars & Up (93,337)
* 1 Star & Up (95,500)

The tally for all books:
* 4 Stars & Up (1,017,183)
* 3 Stars & Up (1,166,103)
* 2 Stars & Up (1,206,310)
* 1 Star & Up (1,237,167)

If the tally is individualized, does this mean that more dislikable books are being published than likable? Are there more reviewers with agendas to torpedo specific books than there are straightforward reviewers? Perhaps dislike for a book strongly motivates reviews, so those who didn't enjoy a book are more likely to write a review. (As in, "I spent my money for this?")

Or, perhaps readers in general are simply very discerning and hold books to high standards.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Real Writer's Block

How do your family and friends regard your writing?

I come from a family background where frequent reading was thought of as odd. Oh, the father and uncles seemed to delight in reading men's magazines (for the pictures) and the occasional issue of Time or Life. And most everyone read the newspaper. But there was nobody even in the extended family with whom I could discuss a good novel or non-fiction book.

Reading was, in fact, discouraged by many--my father in particular. His accusations of being somehow "lazy" because I was "sitting around and reading" (he more often said, "sitting on your ass and reading") just encouraged me to go outside and read, or read at the library. None of this reconciled with the usual parental demand for high-performance grades in high school, but never mind that.

It wasn't as if I wasn't getting any exercise, or that I let my chores lapse. So I was left to wonder how this was different than sitting and fishing, or sitting and watching television--my father's favorite activities. I eventually concluded that it wasn't the sitting that bothered him, but the reading. I suppose it had something to do with his drinking. Most of all--and I figured this out as a child--he resented the idea of reading for enjoyment or education ... something to do, probably, with the fact that he had dropped out of school in the eighth grade. I have some ideas that I won't go into here, but you get the idea.

The anti-literacy movement in my home was so strong that my books were thrown out, and my father would throw books in rages. He once attacked me with a book in some moment of insanity. It was nothing new; when I was fifteen, attacked me with the Beatles' Revolver album, the reason for the attack being that I had sideburns that he didn't like, and that the Beatles must have made me grow sideburns. (I should emphasize that this was a big vinyl album and jacket--a little more painful than an attack with a CD or tape.)

Now, imagine what it was like when I started writing. If I'd taken up writing as a teenager still living at home, he probably would have gotten around to busting up my typewriter. As it was, he did everything possible to discourage my writing. Although I was writing on the side while holding down a full-time job (and on occasion a part-time job), he railed at me for being "lazy" because I was writing. He refused to look at any of the magazine articles, short stories, or books I published. And so forth.

At the same time, he bragged about my books to the extended family, as if he was responsible for it all, and not raging over it. He bragged so much so that several family members got angry at him--and me--over it. He did his best to make me an outcast--for succeeding at writing. (And believe me, that is not an overstatement. But there's too much behind it to go into.)

Yeah, he was nuts. And drunk. But knowing that didn't make it any more fun. So, count yourself fortunate if people close to you are positive about your writing, or at least don't run it down or try to get you to stop. If they appreciate your writing, be glad. Writing is difficult enough without someone trying to stop you, and I hope you never have to experience that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

If you speak Korean, you may enjoy this video review of my book, Blogging Heroes, in Korean. The lady, Yunahana, is reviewing the translated version.

The Korean ISBN is 9788960770478. AcornLoft is the publisher.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Secret of the Spiral Chimneys

One of the reasons I began writing is that I really enjoy sharing information. I don’t get much gossip (or not much that I can tell), so I research and write magazine articles and books. Research on a given subject doesn’t stop with publication. Long after the publication of books such as Before Oprah: Ruth Lyons: The Woman Who Created Talk TV and my non-technical history of the Internet and online world, On the Way to the Web, I continue to research their subjects. The benefits are several. My curiosity is satisfied (once sparked, it doesn't just stop). I can use the info in future editions. And the research leads to new articles and, sometimes, new subjects.

A good deal of post-publication research is unintentional: people who enjoyed a book often come to me with new information and corrections. I appreciate both. Sometimes I go in search of information, as happened recently with Crosley, the biography I originated and wrote to completion. Some material was cut or changed after I finished the manuscript, so I began the Crosley blog. This also serves as a repository for new information I discover, as well as details I researched but didn't include in the book. (Not to mention the fact that it demonstrates the depth and quantity of research and the writing effort I put into the book--just about everything in the volume.)

New research resulted in “The Secret of the Spiral Chimneys,” a post I recently made at the Crosley blog. Among the the unusual features of Powel Crosley’s Cincinnati mansion, Pinecroft, are the spiral chimneys that serve its working fireplaces. For the longest time I assumed the feature was strictly decorative. As it turns out, however, the spiraling has a purpose: creating decorative smoke trails and rings.

It's obvious once you know it, but the fact just wasn't obvious (as it would have been if a photo of Pinecroft with the chimneys operating full blast existed). Glad that one's solved! I wonder how many other performing chimneys wait to be found on famous buildings? There's probably an article in it ....

Google Books Fun

I noted a while back that the authorized biography of SF writer Robert A. Heinlein will be out early next year. This reminded me that I had once seen an article in an old issue of Popular Mechanics about the unique house Heinlein built in Colorado Springs in the 1950s. I went in search of the article at Google Books, and found it. I also turned up this filler about a Heinlein ancestor he once mentioned:

THE INVENTOR OF THE WATCH Peter Heinlein, the inventor of the pocket watch, was persecuted for witchcraft in the days when he withdrew from his companions—in particular his wife—to work on his invention. He was finally cast into prison, where the watch was perfected. Later he was tried for murder, but escaped by paying the family of his victim a large indemnity. He then retired to the convent of the Carmelites, where he continued manufacturing watches, giving the proceeds to the order. He died in 1540. At Nuremburg, the scene of his persecutions, a monument has been erected to him.

(From Popular Mechanics, December, 1905)

Sometimes Google Books is just a big toy.

Friday, November 06, 2009

When Hearing a Word Is Not the Same as Spelling It

When I was in my twenties I went to an informal writers’ workshop every couple of weeks. Some of us read excerpts from our latest projects—or entire works, if they were short enough.

One week, a guy named George agitated to read something he’d just had accepted by Fate magazine (a journal of the weird, occult, and related matters). Everyone frowned when he read the title, “Captain Smith’s Fear-ee Ride.”

Wouldn’t “scary” work better? I thought to myself. So did everyone else, as it turned out--but we had a rule about not interrupting a reader.

George droned on through the piece, which was about a 19th-Century ship’s captain sighting strange lights in the sky and on the sea. We let him continue, until he reached the description of what the captain saw: “Without warning, a fear-ee display lit up the sky, and—“

“Wait, wait!” several people burst out. “Did you say ‘fear-ee’?”

“Yes, why?” George asked in all innocence.

“Spell that word!” a woman named Ruth shouted.

“F-I-E-R-Y,” George came back. “Fear-ee. Is there something wrong with that?”

“It’s pronounced ‘fiery’ and not fear-ee.” Ruth told him.

“Well, I never heard anyone pronounce the word,” George returned.

That seemed unlikely, but we took his word for it. People mispronounce words all the time.

Today I noted a variation of that in a news story about an old man buying a Chevrolet Camaro. It involved a man carrying a cane, and mentioned that the subject was “touting a cane.” I had an image of the guy waving the cane, calling out, “Gotta have it, gotta have it—only twenty bucks! It’s the best cane in the world! Buy one now!” Which did not fit the story.

I read it a second time, then got it: he was toting a cane. I imagine the reporter had never heard the word “tout” or “touting” pronounced, but had heard “toting” used in relation to someone carrying something. Add to it the possibility that she had never seen the word “toting,” but had read the word “touting” and mispronounced it in her mind as "toting," and it’s easy to see where the error came in.

That’s one of the more difficult “not caught by spell-check” situations. The lesson: it pays to expand your vocabulary. Had this reporter known how “touting” is pronounced, or had read "toting" somwhere, she wouldn’t have made the mistake.