Thursday, November 3, 2011

My Buddy Neil Totally Agrees With Me

[No computer stuff today; just some fun for a Friday.]

British fantasy author Neil Gaiman was in Seattle recently. I was so disappointed that I did not find out about it until it was too late to attend his event. It's a pity I missed it because I've been wanting for years to ask Neil Gaiman if he likes soup.

To explain why, we'll have to go back to 1993.

Remember 1993? The first wave of HTTP-based document servers were going up on the internet; it was the beginning of the internet as we know it today. I was studying mathematics at Waterloo at the time. I fondly remember when we first got the Mosaic browser up and running on the colour x-terminals; it was so much more convenient than using a combination of FTP, TELNET and GOPHER clients. While browsing around I found a "Star Trek" fan web page; in fact, I suspect that I found the only "Star Trek" fan page, and I thought, hey, that's a fun idea. I could do that!

I looked around the internet - which did not take long in 1993 - and could not find a similar "Lord of the Rings" fan page. I found a fair amount of material on Tolkien: articles, and scanned-in artwork, and elvish fonts and so on, but no central "one stop shopping" location to categorize them. So I built one out of rudimentary HTML and stuck it up on the math computing department's student GOPHER server. A few months later the UW Computer Science Club put up a real HTTP web server so I rented some space from them for a couple of bucks a term and put the page "on the web".

I continued to maintain that page for several years after that, expanding it and adding lots of links. "Dave and Jerry's Guide To The Internet" (*) was a big help when it came online in 1994; thanks guys. But the explosive growth of the amount of content available, the number of dead links that constantly needed trimming, and Open Text's remarkable ability to index the entire internet (**) were all points against me continuing to work on this hobby, so I let it die. Though I stopped paying for it, the CSC account stayed active for a number of years after that. But the links just got more and more dead and eventually it went away entirely.

The "first mover advantage" of being the first person to put a Tolkien fan page up on the internet was considerable. Search engines use factors like the number of inbound links and the amount of time the page has been linked to as metrics for its relevance. Thus for many years my page was the first hit in every major search engine when you looked for "Tolkien". Which a lot of people did. That led to much interesting correspondence from writers, students, teachers, trivia game show fact-checkers and even some of Tolkien's relatives, which I enjoyed immensely.

Of course, journalists were using search engines by the time word of the movie trilogy broke, and therefore a number of them found me. Figuring I must be an expert, some of them then interviewed me about my opinions on the books and upcoming movies.

I hasten to note that this is already slightly ludicrous. I mean, sure, I collect books about Tolkien's work and life, so I am in some sense an expert, but I am certainly no scholar. I'm an informed and opinionated amateur at best.

I thought the acme of my success as an accidental literary pundit was when an interview with me made the front page of my hometown newspaper, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record. (***) But greater things were to come. I give you now an excerpt from an interview that was syndicated by the Knight-Ridder news service:

Eric Lippert, who created one of the first Tolkien Web sites in 1993, sees the anti-Tolkien contingent as little more than literary snobs. [...blah blah blah...] Neil Gaiman, author of the fantasy series "The Sandman," said Tolkien "exists outside the orthodox canon of literature. You can't put him in a box." Like Lippert, Gaiman believes that Tolkien's commercial success is what drove his critics to jealous fury.

Now that's ludicrous. Neil Gaiman is one of the most justifiably famous and award-winning fantasy authors in the world, whereas I'm a guy with a web page full of broken links and ten dozen books about Tolkien on a shelf. Making that comparison is sorta like saying "Like Lippert, Stephen Hawking believes that the Big Bang Theory is a reasonable model of the early history of the universe."

Ever since then I have pondered this question: what other beliefs does Neil Gaiman share with me?

 Neil Gaiman, if somehow you are reading this: I like soup. Do you like soup too? If you also like soup then like Lippert, Gaiman enjoys soup.  (****)

(*) Better known today as "Yahoo!" -- I still like the original name better and recommend that they consider changing it back.

(**) Open Text was created as a Waterloo spin-off company in the early 1990s; they built one of the first all-internet search engines. Their engine was the one originally used for full-text search by the aforementioned Yahoo! back in the day. They are now Canada's largest software company. They gave me a job offer in 1996; I often wonder how my life would have been different had I stayed in Waterloo and worked at Open Text for the last fifteen years instead of Microsoft.

(***) "I knew a Lippert would make the front page of the Record one day, " one of my aunts told me at the time, "I just figured it would be for a crime."

(****) What about snow peas? The outdoors? Talking? Not talking? You certainly agree with me about a lot of things, Neil Gaiman!



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