Infrequently Asked Questions

Ten Years Writing Book Reviews

From danny Fri Feb 28 11:46:18 1992
Subject: Book Review - The Scars of Evolution


P.S. I have decided to do this for any 
interesting books I read.  If you don't 
want to get the reviews please let me know!

My mailing list is now public - and there is a monthly digest as well.

In February 1992 I was an unmotivated computer science postgrad, spending way too much time playing computer games (netrek and xbattle). I can't remember what prompted me, but I started writing short descriptions of the books I was reading and mailing them to twenty or so friends. My goals were to keep in touch with my friends, to make myself think more carefully about what I read, and to start discussions about books.

At some point I put the reviews on the departmental ftp site. They were also accessible through the specially modified finger daemon we were running, written by my fellow student Matty Farrow, but access was sporadic.

 REVIEWS via finger "books=title%danny" [observe the ""]
 ----- ----  or this list: "index%danny" ________________
 Date  Size Title/Filename (subjects)
 ----- ---- -----------------------------------------------------------------
 Jun92  613 Adventures_in_Card_Play (bridge)
 Aug92  938 Africa_in_the_Iron_Age (history, archaeology)
 Apr92  954 After_Duwagan (anthropology, ecology, Philippines)


I started posting my reviews to Usenet in May 1993. This brought me my first review copies in early 1994: The Online User's Encyclopedia (from the author) and Firewalls and Internet Security (from the publisher).

Reaching a much larger audience, I began to put more work into my reviews: I was more careful with style, grammar, and spelling, and my reviews become longer. The average length of the first hundred is only 200 words, even though some have been rewritten and expanded, while reviews five hundred through six hundred average over 500 words.

My motivations for writing reviews also changed. The primary goal of most is now to help people decide what to read, though in some cases I assume that few will read the work under review and write to inform people directly. Being read by lots of people helps to motivate me, and I look at the web site statistics regularly.

The Web

When I set up a web server in 1994 (one of the first 500 in Australia), I naturally put my reviews online (then at The HTML indices were generated from the ascii originals by Python scripts - and much-hacked versions of those still do the job.

There was just a trickle of visitors until Lycos, the first of the full-text search engines, indexed the site in December 1994. That brought hundreds of accesses a day - there just wasn't that much content around in those days, so I had the only material available online on many subjects. One of the most popular reviews has always been that of Animal Farm - it's only a squib, but the first review available online of a book regularly set in schools was always going to attract attention.

The oldest month for which I have web server logs is September 1995, when 2500 unique hosts pulled 8000 pages off the site. This jumped to 19000 hosts and 39000 pages in December, and January 1996 saw 24000 hosts pull 49000 pages - a record that wasn't to be passed for almost three years. This was a result of the appearance of Altavista.

The earliest review of mine I can find on Slashdot is from 1998, a review of Sendmail, which of course started a sendmail/qmail/exim MTA debate (I now run postfix myself). Since then many of my computing, science, and science fiction reviews have appeared on Slashdot.

In early 2000 I had a run-in with the university administration over my "controversial material" mirror, and as a result I registered my own domains and moved the reviews to (Note: if you're relocating web sites, make sure you use 301 server redirects, not Javascript or HTML meta refresh tags!)

January 2002 saw my 600th review appear, the number of subscribers to my mailing lists pass 1000, and 60000 hosts pull 195000 pages from the site. (All these figures exclude known spiders or other automated fetches.)

The basic structure of the site has changed only incrementally over the last eight years, as the Wayback Machine archive illustrates.


In June 2003 I signed up with Google's AdSense program, and in December 2003 I became an Amazon Associate.

The Future

People often ask why I don't publish my reviews in print publications. I have approached a few without success: I suspect my reviews are too technical for the popular press, not literary enough for literary reviews, and not scholarly enough for academic journals.

Even online, this site relies on a large number of links from small sites - apart from Slashdot, only the Robot Wisdom weblog has ever generated really large amounts of traffic. The vast bulk of visitors still come from search engines, more than half of them from Google.

Writing reviews is now a major part of my life. It has brought me into contact with people all over the world - readers, editors, and authors. I plan to continue reviewing so long as I enjoy doing it and people keep reading what I write. I'm just hoping there'll always be an Internet where ordinary individuals can easily publish and attract large numbers of readers.