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Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Musty Old Books

I love the smell of books. I'll grant that it probably has to do with my mother being a librarian. That concession has nothing to do with some silly Lamarckian "it's in my blood" idea, but is simply because I practically grew up in her library. Smell is a very powerful trigger of memories, so whenever I catch a whiff of stacks of old books, I'm immediately 8 years-old again, sitting on the floor with some big book about robots or space or computers or castles or knights open on my lap. (This was a high school library, by the way, so those weren't typically picture books.)

More than sentimental reminiscing, though, is what books represent to me. They're not just knowledge, I can get that lots of places. They're the actual physical embodiment of knowledge. Information incarnate.

So it was with a pang of longing and a tear in my eye that I read this article in the Miami Herald. To save space (and effort), let me start by saying that I completely agree with what Ars Technica had to say.

I'd just like to add a few things to that:

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that Google is inevitably the first place I turn for research. The primary reason is accessibility. I'm seldom far from a computer with web access, but the nearest library with an encyclopedia is miles away. The secondary reason is that since I graduated, I seldom need to do rigorous research. The Web is good enough for most of my needs.

Second, CD-based encyclopedias are great resources. You get all the searchability of the Web, with great assurance that 90% of the returns won't be total crap. True, they're not constantly updated like the Web supposedly is, but you have some assurance of accuracy at the time they were published. (Maybe publishers should investigate a quarterly subscription model, perhaps?) Also, consider this: How many of the results in a typical Google search are really current anyway? Or what if you don't want current information? Online search results tend to be swamped by current events, which aren't always what you want.

Third, when I do serious research online, where do I typically wind up? Usually on websites that relate to well-respected printed references. Merriam-Webster, Consumer Reports, the C.I.A. Factbook, or major newspapers. Iraq4Ever may have a perfectly accurate history of Iraq, but I'd certainly want to verify it with another source. In fact, I'd do that regardless. I also often find myself searching on Amazon for books to use as references, whether I buy them or check them out from the library. Probably the most valuable online resources are professional journals, but as those are far from free, you'd better really want the information.

Fourth, even searches in CD-based references can't completely replace paper- and leather-based tomes. I've learned a lot from encyclopedias, but probably less than a quarter of it was stuff I set out to find. Searches and electronic indices return exactly what you're looking for. If you're in a hurry, that's good. I can't count the times while using a real encyclopedia, though, that I would finish with my target article and see something on the next page that looked interesting. Two hours and 200 pages later, I'd realize that I was reading the encyclopedia. When I research things online, I feel like a hummingbird, flitting from one resource to another, but when I'm reading a book, I feel more grazing animal of some kind. Boy, that analogy fell apart, but the first half was right on!

Online research enthusiasts should take note: Those who are most reluctant to rely solely on online sources are either technophobes or experienced computer/Internet users, and their reasons are often identical. That should be an enormous red flag, prompting people to wonder what these two disparate groups know that they don't.

Someday when we have the space and money (and some assurance that we won't have to move them for at least a few years), Heather Marie (my wife) and I are going to buy a really nice set of encyclopedias. A big, five-foot-long shelf set. Leather-bound. With gold leaf.

Provided they still make them by then.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

And now a word from our sponsors....

Blogspot isn't free, naturally. Well, it is to me. Less so to you, a reader, since you're subjected to the advertising. I can't really complain, though, because it is tastefully unobtrusive, and it is subsidizing my stream-of-consciousness ramblings.

I figured since the links are appearing in my blog, the least I could do is make sure they're something I won't be embarassed for my friends and family to visit.

Apparently they're all algorithmically selected based on keywords found in my posts and whatever else Google gives weight to. Currently they're mostly lizards things. The two I decided to check out were for Cages by Design and Kitty Critters, and I must say that I approve of them both.

For those of you who have large, cage-dwelling avians, the cages designed by Cages by Design look pretty nice. At least they're the kind of things I wouldn't mind living in if I had to be a bird living in a cage.

I absolutely love the lizard stuff at Kitty Critters, though! Talk about fun! Cute stuff. I may have to get some their stuff sometime.

Thanks for your support guys!

Wow, I feel just like a NASCAR driver thanking his sponsors...only way less cool.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

What code? I thought Da Vinci just wrote backwards....

So, I finally got a chance to read The Da Vinci Code this week. Tore through it in about three days at a comfortable pace. I figured I'd give you my very quick review. Feel free to share it with whomever.

I'll start by saying right off the bat that I was very offended by it. Not because of the theories or history, which were nothing new and didn't bother me in the least, but because I'm deeply and personally offended by bad storytelling. While the story itself had potential, the author's tendency to break down into bland, ill-disguised exposition 1 out of 4 pages pulled me out of the narrative too often.

It was bad when the main character started just telling the girl what happened. At those points, his voice in my mind actually devolved to a sort of bored BBC narrator tone, complete with British accent. Then, after a while, the author stopped documented his exact words and just told us second-hand what Langdon was telling her. The gimmick of presenting some of the exposition as flashbacks to classroom lectures was lame, but at least a change of pace. I literally laughed aloud, though, when he started introducing new characters, apparently just for the benefit of having someone new to explain things for us, even though he made it clear that this was information that the main character already knew.

The worst part to me, though, was that the Grail/art experts in the book knew what the whole thing was about, completely, and acted as if it were common knowledge, yet they were inexplicably reluctant to share the information with the girl unless they were currently in a vehicle fleeing the police. Knowing that this isn't the first book featuring Langdon, I can only assume that his omniscience is explained by previous events.

In fact, the whole book could be summarized thusly: puzzle, action set piece, exposition, repeat.

Now, all of that said, I actually enjoyed it for the most part, as a silly, fun book. I'll even admit to getting caught up in the story (at least in between Symbology/Art/History/Theology 101 lectures). It's not a particularly deep story in any way, despite its pseudo-historical pretensions, and I expect that the inevitable movie won't suffer much from the translation to the big screen for that reason. It may even be improved by it, since the screenplay will necessarily omit some of the longer, dryer expository sequences.

Overall, I don't regret spending a few hours reading it, but I am glad I borrowed a copy and didn't spend actual money for it.

UPDATE: According to
IMDB, Ron Howard is slated to direct the movie version. Interesting choice....