Tech Life He's quaintly ignorant


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.

8 Responses

  1. John Whitlock 19 years ago

    There is a page on wikipedia, under “List of Slang Names for Poker Hands”. You’ll have to search for it, because when I try to post the link, I get the message “Your comment was denied for questionable content”. You actually found a few new ones, if you want to contribute to the ‘pedia

    A content filter on Wow.

  2. Sorry about that… I’ve got intense comment filtering going on and it looks like wikipedia got added back in January. The URL you’re talking about is:

    Problem fixed.

  3. Frankly, I’m surprised you didn’t reference DITL as a lead up to Wikipedia.

    As usual, great article, man.

  4. Wikipedia’s interlinks are its most extraordinary feature.

    Most of what I visit on the web is either bookmarks, RSS feeds, or within one link of either of those. But like you say, I can sit and SURF the wikipedia for hours, just jumping article to article and reading.

    It’s really quite phenomenal.

  5. Matt McIntosh 19 years ago

    Wikipedia is excellent when it comes to “hard” topics like math, science, and most history. But I wouldn’t trust it very far when it comes to articles based on recent events, or on contraversial topics where there are multiple competing interperetations of the facts. The great thing about Wikipedia is that anyone can contriute. The bad thing about Wikipedia is that anyone can contribute.

  6. Mike, if you think Wikipedia’s “interlinks” are impressive, you should check out It was created, and is now run, by some of the same people who started slashdot. It’s a Wikipedia-like collection of articles spanning all manner of technical, academic, pop-culture, and personal topics, connected by a powerful database system meant to simulate the workings of the human mind. By aggregating traffic statistics of ordinary users, the e2 engine determines relationships between articles and displays links at the end of each article to topics it thinks are related. This allows for a wonderful stream-of-consciousness-style browsing that can last for hours on end.

    As for Wikipedia, though I check e2 first when I want technical information, I’m surprised it only came on your radar recently, Rands. It was a useful and intriguing project even in its infancy, and has developed into a truly incredible resource in the last year or so.

  7. I use E2 more, but I recently installed Trillian 3.0 Basic on my PC and was surprised to find little dotted green lines under select words in my various chat windows. Links? Oh yes. I clicked. It took me to the Wikipedia definition of said word!

    “Vebelfetzr: I try to apply Hanlon’s Razor to every suspicion of this type that I have.”

    “Hanlon’s Razor” was linked! It was outstanding.

  8. Hrish 19 years ago

    IMHO, Wikipedia content should be read with a pinch of salt. I’ve come across articles in it that are pure biased ones (I can tell because I know to the contrary), either because of ignorance or because of prejudice. That said, yes, I did correct an article. I’d say there are two kinds of people who contribute – those who really know their stuff and have no agenda, and those who have an axe to grind OR just write something, right or wrong, for the heck of it. So how do you know whether an article is ‘correct’ or not?