Will It Live?

Mr. Tanguay, my beloved seventh-grade science teacher, did an unforgettable demonstration one day. “Class,” he announced, “we’re going to see if we can create life.” Into a graduated cylinder he poured a lot of water. Because the human body is 95% water. He added a few more chemicals — salt, a few others. Finally he added a mystery ingredient. The mixture began to swirl. (Maybe the mystery ingredient was vanilla extract.) “It’s coming alive!” said Mr. Tanguay. Then the swirling stopped, as I knew it would. It was a brilliant demonstration not because it taught us biology (it didn’t) but because it showed that Mr. Tanguay had a nice sense of humor. I actually looked forward to his class.

Watching The Shangri-La Diet progress, I thought of that demonstration. I saw swirling — would there be life? Books, or the ideas within them, live and die. Word of mouth is primitive book life. It resembles replication if listeners buy the book or repeat what they’ve heard. Life is more than replication, of course; books can produce descendants (sequels), mutations that fill a new ecological niche (e.g., a teaching guide for Freakonomics), and new goods and services (such as movies).

At a micro level, the SLD forum activity — more than 4000 posts — seemed to me a kind of pre-life. Not because of the success — many diets work for short time, and how representative are those posting? — but because of the emotion (“after the very first day, I finally for once in my life had real hope”) and the inventiveness and fruitful observation. New and better ways to drink oil, tests of whey protein and random (“crazy”) spicing, the observation that quitting smoking has become easier are examples. No other diet has had this much user improvement, as far as I know. However, the forums involve a miniscule number of people (about 500 members) compared to the size of the world in which a diet book would live (hundreds of millions of overweight people).

I wondered if there were larger signs of impending life. Right now SLD is #29 at amazon.com but does this tell the whole story? Or is it different from other books with similar sales? I started to look at this about two weeks ago. From the top 100 best-selling books at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, I sampled 20 (10 from amazon, 10 from barnesandnoble) whose titles were unique enough to use as search terms. On May 20 I found the number of Google results for each title. On May 28 I redid this calculation. Because a book, to live, must “grow,” at least in the beginning, I looked at the change from May 20 to May 28. Below is the change in Google results as a function of days since publication (log scale).
google change vs days

SLD stands out, although not as much as The World Is Flat. After I did this analysis it occurred to me that blog mentions might be a good measure to examine because they resemble word of mouth. Was SLD blogged about more than books with similar sales? Although it would have been better to measure the change from May 20 to May 28, all I had were the values for May 28 so I computed blog mentions per day since publication.
blog mentions vs days

Again, SLD appears at least somewhat special. The World Is Flat stands out in this analysis as well and so does Beautiful Lies, which I know nothing about.

We already know that The World Is Flat is an unusual book by virtue of being a best seller for more than a year. It is encouraging that SLD has World-Is-Flat tendencies. And watch out for Beautiful Lies.

Berkeley Public Library Watch:The Shangri-La Diet, 2 holds on 5 copies. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, 131 holds on 7 copies. Website Watch: Distinct hosts served at sethroberts.net, latest 24-hour period: 1190. One week ago: 1611. Distinct hosts served is close to the number of different visitors.

2 Replies to “Will It Live?”

  1. Seth,

    My congregation has at least thirty people on the diet. There have been about five books purchased (not counting misc. books I’ve bought for people outside of the group). Three I gave to people in the congregation and two people bought on their own.

    Of that group, at least twenty friends are also in the diet.

    So, the diet is currently propogating, at least in that group, in numbers vastly beyond the book sales or internet connections (two people have read the on-line material I put up, none have posted, both contacted me personally).

    In people I knew who were doing Atkins or South Beach, the ratio was 3 books for every 4 people on the diet.

  2. “Class,” he announced, “we’re going to see if we can create life.” – Mr. Tanguay, 7th Grade Science

    Even Life itself (and therefore, God, perhaps) seems Self-experimental. When you think about it, and most of us may not have yet come to this kind of realization, are we are not our own experiements, by virtue of being human, at least to some degree?

    What you are when born may be a given. We don’t have (scientifically speaking) recollection or knowledge if we had any choice in that matter, although a few claim to have pre-birth knowledge & recall. What you are becoming is largely a matter of experimental and/or experiential life choices.

    Once it is realized that you are creating yourself, or at least that you are a co-creator in the process, it’s possible to mentally somewhat detach from your named-self, and to view it as an experimental subject for those things which you wish to build into yourself – experience, wisdom, knowledge, understanding, character qualities, memory, languages, skills, enhanced creativity & talents, physical qualities, etc. In the process, of course, there are obstacles, questions and challenges to overcome, naturally.

    Glad you are self-experimental and have developed a balance of unconventional thinking skills with conventional. Or maybe you’re thinking is finely unbalanced – tilted toward the unconvential when it comes down to it…a good, healthy mix for creativity, I think.

    OK, For tonight, I’m done reading your thought provoking blogs and leaving haiku for you to ponder.



    gazing into
    Dad’s old microscope, I wonder
    how small God is

    cocooned moth—
    underneath, the sky unravels
    from a raindrop

    DW Bender
    From a Haiku Editor’s Desk,
    World Haiku Review (Dec. 2005)

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