Better PR than Jesus

August 12, 2007

I thought I’d ask Wikipedia and Google which individuals they think are really famous. There are about 400,000 biographies on Wikipedia; I used Thomas Lotze’s googlepagerank Python script to find which of these had the highest score on Google Toolbar ‘s PageRank – a number between 0 and 10, allegedly measuring the importance of the page as Google sees it. 99.9% of Wikipedia bios scored less than 7. Only a single individual, whom I haven’t listed, scored 8. Which leaves the following list of those who, like Jesus, scored 7:
50 Cent, Hank Aaron, Mahmoud Abbas, Douglas Adams, John Adams, Spiro Agnew, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Anwar Al Sadat, Alexander the Great, Muhammad Ali, Marc Andreessen, Kofi Annan, Anne of Great Britain, Beryl Anthony, Jr., Antoninus Pius, Thomas Aquinas, Yasser Arafat, Aristotle, John Ashcroft, Isaac Asimov, Augustine of Hippo, Augustus, Marcus Aurelius, Charles Babbage, Johann Sebastian Bach, Michelle Bachelet, Francis Bacon, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Steve Ballmer, John Bardeen, John Perry Barlow, Andy Bechtolsheim, Ludwig van Beethoven, Menachem Begin, Alexander Graham Bell, Pope Benedict XVI, Thomas Benolt, Jeremy Bentham, Silvio Berlusconi, George Bernard Shaw, Tim Berners-Lee, Osama bin Laden, Conrad Black, Tony Blair, Cherie Blair, Niels Bohr, Bono, Max Born, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, David Bowie, Johannes Brahms, Marlon Brando, Tim Bray, Sergey Brin, Gordon Brown, James Brown, Gautama Buddha, Warren Buffett, James Burke (science historian), George H. W. Bush, Vannevar Bush, Rogers Cadenhead, John Calvin, Andrew Carnegie, Lewis Carroll, Jimmy Carter, Fidel Castro, Vint Cerf, Charlie Chaplin, Charlemagne, Charles I of England, Charles II of England, Charles, Prince of Wales, Hugo Ch%C3%A1vez, Dick Cheney, Chiang Kai-shek, Jacques Chirac, Noam Chomsky, Jean Chrétien, Marigold Churchill, Winston Churchill, Cicero, Eric Clapton, Wesley Clark, Arthur C. Clarke, Grover Cleveland, Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Christopher Columbus, James Cook, Calvin Coolidge, Oliver Cromwell, Tom Cruise, Mark Cuban, Ward Cunningham, Marie Curie, Adam Curry, Leonardo da Vinci, Loïc Dachary, John Dalton, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins, Charles de Gaulle, Jean Charles de Menezes, Howard Dean, Tom DeLay, Deng Xiaoping, Jacques Derrida, René Descartes, John Dewey, Charles Dickens, Edsger Dijkstra, Walt Disney, Karl Dönitz, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Bob Dylan, Thomas Edison, Edward VII of the United Kingdom, John Edwards, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Elizabeth I of England, Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Duke Ellington, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Eminem, Douglas Engelbart, Paul Erdős, Leonhard Euler, Roger Federer, Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman, Brad Fitzpatrick, Gerald Ford, Henry Ford, Michel Foucault, Francisco Franco, Benjamin Franklin, Sigmund Freud, Milton Friedman, Alberto Fujimori, Galileo Galilei, Mahatma Gandhi, Bill Gates, Carl Friedrich Gauss, George II of Great Britain, George III of the United Kingdom, George V of the United Kingdom, Philip Glass, Kurt Gödel, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Barry Goldwater, Mikhail Gorbachev, Al Gore, Ulysses S. Grant, Che Guevara, Alexander Hamilton, Stephen Harper, Stephen Hawking, Martin Heidegger, Robert A. Heinlein, Werner Heisenberg, Ernest Hemingway, Jimi Hendrix, Henry VIII of England, Heraclitus, Herodotus, Adolf Hitler, Thomas Hobbes, Cyril Holland, Herbert Hoover, John Howard, Hu Jintao, Edwin Hubble, David Hume, Joi Ito, Andrew Jackson, Michael Jackson, William James, James I of England, James II of England, Thomas Jefferson, Jesus, Steve Jobs, Elton John, Pope John Paul II, Andrew Johnson, Donald McIntosh Johnson, Lyndon B. Johnson, Samuel Johnson, Bill Joy, James Joyce, Julius Caesar, Carl Jung, Tanya Kach, Immanuel Kant, Alan Kay, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Jack Kerouac, John Kerry, Ruhollah Khomeini, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rudyard Kipling, Henry Kissinger, Donald Knuth, Junichiro Koizumi, Nikita Khrushchev, Stanley Kubrick, Hersey Kyota, Antoine Lavoisier, Ang Lee, Robert E. Lee, Gottfried Leibniz, Vladimir Lenin, John Lennon, Lawrence Lessig, C. S. Lewis, Lewis Libby, Rush Limbaugh, Rush Limbaugh, Sr., Abraham Lincoln, Carolus Linnaeus, John Locke, Jack London, Trent Lott, Louis XIV of France, Thomas Lubanga, George Lucas, Martin Luther, Douglas MacArthur, John A. Macdonald, Harold Macmillan, James Madison, Madonna (entertainer), Mahathir bin Mohamad, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Mao Zedong, Guglielmo Marconi, Bob Marley, George Marshall, Paul Martin, Karl Marx, Abraham Maslow, Henri Matisse, James Clerk Maxwell, John McCain, John McCarthy (computer scientist), Paul McCartney, William McKinley, Marshall McLuhan, Astrid Menks, Angela Merkel, Michelangelo, John Stuart Mill, Slobodan Milošević, John Milton, James Monroe, Jim Morrison, John Mortimer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Muhammad, Rupert Murdoch, Pervez Musharraf, Benito Mussolini, Napoleon I of France, Ted Nelson, John von Neumann, Isaac Newton, Brian Nichols, Jakob Nielsen (usability consultant), Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Nixon, Kristen Nygaard, Barack Obama, Ehud Olmert, Tim O’Reilly, George Orwell, José Padilla (prisoner), Rosa Parks, Blaise Pascal, Paul the Apostle, Linus Pauling, Nancy Pelosi, Robert E. Petersen, Lionel Phillips, Pablo Picasso, Augusto Pinochet, Max Planck, Plato, Karl Popper, Colin Powell, Elvis Presley, Ptolemy, Vladimir Putin, Yitzhak Rabin, Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Robeson, John D. Rockefeller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Donald Rumsfeld, Bertrand Russell, Ernest Rutherford, Saddam Hussein, Carl Sagan, Larry Sanger, George Santayana, Jean-Paul Sartre, Eric E. Schmidt, Arthur Schopenhauer, Erwin Schrödinger, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Albert Schweitzer, Robert Scoble, William Ansah Sessarakoo, William Shakespeare, Adi Shamir, Ariel Sharon, Al Sharpton, Herbert Simon, Frank Sinatra, Adam Smith, Socrates, George Soros, Britney Spears, Steven Spielberg, Baruch Spinoza, Joseph Stalin, Richard Stallman, John Steinbeck, Neal Stephenson, Igor Stravinsky, James Surowiecki, William Howard Taft, Rabindranath Tagore, Charles Taylor (Liberia), Edward Teller, Mother Teresa, Nikola Tesla, Margaret Thatcher, Hunter S. Thompson, Thucydides, Strom Thurmond, Lor Tok, J. R. R. Tolkien, Leo Tolstoy, Linus Torvalds, Jack Tramiel, Mena Grabowski Trott, Harry S. Truman, Alan Turing, Mark Twain, Mordechai Vanunu, Victoria of the United Kingdom, Voltaire, Richard Wagner, Jimmy Wales, Andy Warhol, George Washington, George Washington (inventor), Max Weber, John Wesley, Oscar Wilde, William III of England, Serena Williams, Woodrow Wilson, Dave Winer, Oprah Winfrey, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Steve Wozniak, W. B. Yeats, Boris Yeltsin, Muhammad Yunus, Frank Zappa, Jeffrey Zeldman

Reaching for books which aren’t there

July 25, 2007

Wondering how to characterize my motivation for starting a blog, I went to some shelves behind me for a book I unreflectively expected to be there: Selected Non-Fictions, Eliot Weinberger’s wonderful edition of essays by Borges. Now I realise it’s not that the book’s in another room, or the attic, or the office, or my parents’ home, or even that I’ve lent or lost it. The sad fact is that I’ve never actually owned a copy. I live in Cambridge, a town which once boasted a central public library – it’s supposed to open again in a year or so, when they’ve surrounded it with a larger shopping mall – and after I borrowed the book there, I never carried through on my plan to buy a copy to scribble over and reread in the bath.

That was two years ago: I remember that, after returning the book, I was annoyed by the fact that there was then no entire transcription of ‘The Analytical Language of John Wilkins’ available on the web. The infamous taxonomy of animals, ‘which Dr. Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia’, was widely reproduced: it had come to take central place in the international reception of the essay. Yet it seemed to have spawned all manner of peculiar wish-fulfilment and displacement, even amongst readers one might hope to be far more intelligent: witness Foucault’s lazy and offensive nonsense about the Chinese having no history in the preface to Les mots et les choses, or Louis Sass’s extraordinary characterization of ‘Chinese’ thinking as schizophrenic hyperreflexivity.

Why can’t people do the decent thing, and pay just a little attention to context? It’s not as if Borges himself left taxonomic confusion as something so conveniently exotic. His selective readers only do so by entirely neglecting to mention the very next paragraph of the essay, in which Borges himself brought the point home:

The Bibliographic Institute of Brussels exerts chaos too: it has divided the universe into 1000 subdivisions, from which number 262 is the Pope; number 282, the Roman Catholic Church; 263, the Day of the Lord; 268 Sunday schools; 298, Mormonism; and number 294, Brahmanism, Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism. It doesn’t reject heterogeneous subdivisions as, for example, 179: “Cruelty towards animals. Protection of Animals. Moral implications of duelling and suicide. Vices and various defects. Virtues and various qualities.”

But there’s also the historical context of the essay itself. One of the most excellent features of Weinberger’s collection is that its chronological arrangement allows any reader to follow Borges’s personal literary trajectory. For instance, the collection makes plain Borges’s fascination with Philip Henry Gosse – responsible, amongst other things, for introducing aquaria to England – at the time of the Wilkins essay. Which nicely colours some of the fishiness swimming through the essay: if you must start from the paragraph on the Chinese encyclopaedia, you need only return upstream for a single sentence to be told where Wilkins placed beauty.

After these two years, too, I can still recall the frisson of going to the university library for Franz Kuhn’s 1935 Der Kleine Goldfischteich : kolorierte Stiche nach chinesischen Aquarellen – a republication and discussion of François Nicolas Martinet’s 1780 Histoire naturelle des dorades de la Chine – only to be told that the copy I’d ordered had been temporarily removed by a member of the library staff. Some frustrations to the reader’s reach have the force of sign. Less delightful, if as wonderful, had been my experience in turning those early pages of a college library’s copy of The Order of Things (Tavistock Publications, paperback edition), and finding each crudely glued leaf breaking away in my hand as I did so.

But beyond biographical trajectories – whether of writer, or reader – lie historical contexts which can be familiarly specified in far less personal terms. Borges wrote the essay in 1941: to spell out why one might have wanted to reflect upon the fate of the Brussels International Institute of Bibliography in that year is left, as they say, as an exercise for the reader.