Tag Archives: books

Using the Internet to Recall Sayings and Quotations You’ve Forgotten

Ever remember fragments of a saying? Or just part of a quote? You’re not alone. The trick is figuring out how to search for it. Here are two searching tricks to rescue you from that annoying feeling of remembering just part of something.

1: The Asterisk
There’s a really handy Google trick that almost nobody seems to know about: an asterisk (*) matches any single word. This lets you easily search for quotes that you can only remember part of. For example, “one death is a * a million deaths is a *” will easily bring up Joseph Stalin’s fairly well-known statement, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” (I have this posted on my wall right in front of me, so I’m not liable to forget it, but I couldn’t think of a better example.)


This trick works wonders; there are only so many possible sentences with that precise structure, and if it’s something reasonably well-known, the first page of hits is liable to give you a unanimous verdict on what you were trying to think of. If you get irrelevant results (which has actually never happened to me), you can try putting the whole thing in quotes. It’s also possible that you remembered the part that you knew wrong; try adding more asterisks in places you weren’t sure of.


2: Searching Books on the Internet
This is what happened to me the other day. I remembered the following phrase: “You may be the world champion tetris player, but eventually….” That was it. For the life of me, I could not figure out where it came from, or indeed any information about it. So I went to Google and just typed that in. Guess what? There was exactly one hit, a Google Books result taking me to exactly the passage I was looking for.


To test whether this was a transferable trick, I grabbed five books from my bookshelf, flipped them open to a random page, and typed in a quote from each. A search for the quoted passage (only ten words long or so, and devoid of any specific names) brought up the correct title of the book in five out of five cases.


The uniqueness of fairly mundane English sentences is truly surprising. Some things that worked:
  • “It lay out in the open, several feet away and unreachable” (Once Upon a Time In the North by Philip Pullman, 1 result)
  • “nudging people to use the standard cursor keys” (Windows XP Annoyances for Geeks by David Karp, 3 results)
  • “For the last six months we have exhausted every means of locating you” (East of Eden by John Steinbeck, 3 results).
So next time you can’t remember the source of a quote you’re thinking of, forget about thinking hard and scanning through books–just type it into Google. In most cases the websites also let you see a couple of pages of context, so you probably don’t even have to go get the book. Remember to use quotation marks around the quote, assuming that you’re fairly sure your words are exactly right–you’ll get much more relevant results.


Many sites and devices that you might use have their own search features (for instance, I can search all the books and documents on my Kindle from the main screen), but with the success rate of this technique, I’d only recommend using that if you don’t have immediate access to Google.

Six Years of Computer Tips

I’ve been working on this little book that combines a lot of the tips I’ve written in this blog and recently. (I didn’t post it earlier because I was still working on Friday, and also because I gave copies to several people who get this newsletter as Christmas presents).

Anyway, you can check it out online as a PDF here. I’m fine if you want to send copies of this book on to your friends as long as you don’t try to sell it (there is a copyright notice in appendix D, which also tells you that copying it is fine).
If you happen to have a bit of spare time and want to try binding it into an actual book, here’s a version with the pages arranged properly. Instructions are at the end of appendix D. (I did neglect to mention that you need to print double-sided–I thought that would be obvious, but just in case…)