Christmas Morning, 1978. The usual mad dash from the bedroom to the Christmas tree promptly followed by the frenzied assessment of who got what and how much. Careful attention is paid to the respective weight of each present because, while quantity does matter, a heavy gift has a higher likelihood of extreme coolness and subsequent sibling taunting.
This morning there is a strange square box tucked away under the corner of the tree. While not huge, man, this sucker is heavy. I’m thinking, “If this is for me, the sister will cry for a week. Sweet!” A quick examination of the packaging reveals the disappointing “TO: The Family FROM: Santa”… it’s the kiss of Christmas present death. Oh well, MORE PRESENTS ELSEWHERE.
The Dad eventually opened the weighty box while the sister and I were catching our breath… a brand new Random House Encyclopedia.
I ignored the book for most of Christmas Day, but as soon as the candy cane coma kicked in, I grabbed the massive book, curled up on the couch, and started browsing. I’m probably eight at the time, so I’m more at the Beverly Cleary level, but the books reeks of readability… lots of text, well illustrated, and delicate, thin pages that give the content as sense of important fragility.
Over the next few months, the family would take turns diving into the encyclopedia… invariably popping out of a two hour reading session full of useless, entertaining facts. “No, Sister, I had no idea how many nerve endings where in my thumb. Fascinating.”
Eventually, we gave the encyclopedia a name… Charlie. He became a member of the family who was to be consulted whenever information controversy arose. “No, Sister, the civil war started in 1861… go ask Charlie.”
I’ve missed Charlie. Sure, he’s painfully out-of-touch… he doesn’t know Bill Clinton. He still calls the Russia the USSR. He’s quaintly ignorant. Still, over the past decade, sessions with Charlie are few and far between because his information is stale and stale information is an affront to anyone who believes a SHIFT-RELOAD makes all content current.
Fortunately, there’s an emerging NADD-savvy alternative.
Wikipedia has been on my radar for months. I’ve poked around some entries over the past few months, but there’s been enough buzz in the last month to start paying serious attention.
For those of you who haven’t checked it out, here’s the elevator pitch. Wikipedia is a wiki (meaning anyone can edit the content) that intends to be a general encyclopedia of all knowledge. You read that right. Someone is trying to create the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy except without the funny.
… and it’s working.
By Wired’s count, Wikipedia has 500k articles compared to Britanica’s 80k and Encarta’s 4.5k. Sure, the quality of the content wildly varies by topic, but go pick a topic right now and I’m guessing it’s going to quench your information lust. If it doesn’t, GO WRITE THE ARTICLE YOURSELF. Better yet, just click a random page and see where you end up.
For me, it goes like this, I like the name Churchill so last Friday night I type Churchill and starting reading about Winston Churchill’s role in World War II. Suddenly, it’s two hours later and I’m knee deep in Blitzkrieg tactics. Shit, I forgot to eat.
Sorry Charlie, you’ve been replaced.