Everything is Miscellaneous

Everything Is Miscellaneous
Everything Is Miscellaneous
I mentioned the book Everything is Miscellaneous a few posts back on my list of recent reads, but I wanted to pull it out and write more about it, because it was very thought provoking, and a book I intend to buy (I borrowed it from the library) because I want to read it again.

In the book, author David Weinberger is discussing how we think about and organize knowledge, and about how the internet is changing the way we do that. He starts by discussing the hierarchical nature of traditional organizing schemes (what he calls first and second order schemes) like the Dewey Decimal System, and Linnaeus’ taxonomic scheme of organizing the natural world, and then examines some of the flaws with those systems. Among them: Dewey isn’t flexible enough to account for new knowledge or allow changes in categorization (libraries would have to move and relabel all of their books) and doesn’t allow books to be located in more than one spot in the system (the history of military cooking is an example of a problematic book). Linnaeus’s taxonomy forces us to make rigid decisions about what fits where, when there are grey areas in between. Both systems are authoritarian in nature; neither allow for additions or contributions by lay people who might possess knowledge the system authors do not. My paraphrasing of his ideas is pretty simplistic here, and I’m leaving lots out, unfortunately.

Weinberger then examines what he calls the “third order” organizational scheme that the internet has given rise to – hyperlinking and tagging are examples. Hyperlinking, of course, allows anyone creating a page to associate any idea to any other by linking pages together. Tagging allows people to create their own robust systems of metadata about a piece of knowledge by “tagging” it with words they associate with it – excellent examples are sites I use every day to do that very thing – Flickr, where I describe my photos using tags, Del.icio.us, where I bookmark links and tag them with descriptions. Systems like these are democratic in nature (anyone can provide tags that mean something to them), flexible enough to accomodate grey areas and restructuring, and allow a one-to-many association of ideas.

It’s a thought-provoking book for me because I’ve pondered some of the same flaws in hierarchical systems while organizing my graphics, photos, personal design work, blog entries, fonts, library catalog and my library itself, and I want to buy a copy and re-read it thinking about my own systems specifically. I’m hopeful that I can solve many of my long-standing doubts about my approaches to those systems – the biggest being that list of topics over there in the right column of this site.

Incidentally, the problem with first and second order organization schemes is exactly what I’ve been frustrated with and trying describe the flaws of in my rants about how Movable Type treats templates for category pages.

David Weinberger was also one of the authors of another book I found very thought-provoking years ago: The Cluetrain Manifesto (a book I wish we’d paid more attention to at work, frankly) and his website/blog is also a great regular read.

Weinberger spoke recently to the employees of Nature.com about his book and about the web; here are the notes from a fellow who attended that lecture.

Weinberger has been thrust into the debate with Andrew Keen, a former technophile who recently wrote a book about his change of beliefs, for a variety of complex reasons. Weinberger comments on Keens book and numerous public appearances at Huffington Post, and that was a really interesting read as well.

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Heir to the Glimmering World

Heir to the Glimmering World
Heir to the Glimmering World
I also can’t find enough time to write a synopsis of Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick – a book I picked up in Chicago last July and just finished reading, so again I’m going to cheat and give you the synopsis/review From Publishers Weekly instead:

Ozick’s previous novel, The Puttermesser Papers, revolved around one quirky hero; this time around, Ozick incubates several. Characters, not plot, drive this Depression-era tale, and Ozick eviscerates each one through her narrator, Rose Meadows, a resolute 18-year-old orphan. Virtually abandoned, Rose wanders into a job with the Mitwisser family, German refugees in New York City. Filling gaping holes in their household, she becomes a research assistant to the father, a professor stubbornly engaged in German and Hebrew arcana; a nurse to his oft-deranged, sequestered wife; and nanny to their five children. As she penetrates the fog surrounding their history, Rose limns their roiling inner lives with exasperated perception. Mrs. Mitwisser especially chafes against the family’s precarious, degrading status as “parasites,” erratically supported by the unbalanced millionaire son and heir of an author of popular children’s books who is fascinated by Mr. Mitwisser’s research. With her trademark lyrical prose, gentle humor and vivid imagery, Ozick paints a textured portrait of outsiders rendered powerless, retreating into tightly coiled existences of scholarly rapture, guarded brazenness and even calculated lunacy—all as a means of refuting the bleakness of a harsh, chaotic world. Erudite exposition is packed into the book, so that character study and discourse occasionally grind the plot to a halt. Edifying and evocative, if often daunting, this is a concentrated slice of eccentric life.

The assessment of “grinding the plot to a halt” is dead on – I found this book to be a tough slog. I also had trouble sympathizing with any of the characters; each of them was either mean or sad, and I couldn’t get over my frustration with them.

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The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth Tale
The Thirteenth Tale
Unfortunately, I don’t have time to write a synopsis of The Thirteenth Tale – (I’ve been meaning to since I finished this fun, enjoyable book three weeks ago!) so I’ll have to cheat and give you Amazon’s instead:

Settle down to enjoy a rousing good ghost story with Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale. Setterfield has rejuvenated the genre with this closely plotted, clever foray into a world of secrets, confused identities, lies, and half-truths. She never cheats by pulling a rabbit out of a hat; this atmospheric story hangs together perfectly.

There are two heroines here: Vida Winter, a famous author, whose life story is coming to an end, and Margaret Lea, a young, unworldly, bookish girl who is a bookseller in her father’s shop. Vida has been confounding her biographers and fans for years by giving everybody a different version of her life, each time swearing it’s the truth. Because of a biography that Margaret has written about brothers, Vida chooses Margaret to tell her story, all of it, for the first time. At their initial meeting, the conversation begins:

“You have given nineteen different versions of your life story to journalists in the last two years alone.”

She [Vida] shrugged. “It’s my profession. I’m a storyteller.”

“I am a biographer, I work with facts.”

The game is afoot and Margaret must spend some time sorting out whether or not Vida is actually ready to tell the whole truth. There is more here of Margaret discovering than of Vida cooperating wholeheartedly, but that is part of Vida’s plan.

I give the book a thumbs up; it was a quite good homage to victorian gothic tales or those of the Brontë sisters. The book has a promotional website that’s also quite fun to peruse as well.

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Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants
Water for Elephants
21-year-old Jacob Jankowski is studying veterinary medicine in 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression, when his parents are killed in an auto accident. Jacob discovers they had mortgaged their lives to fund his schooling, and he is now penniless. Reeling from grief, he walks away from his final exams and drops out of school. While casting about for a job, he stumbles into a position as a vet for a third-rate traveling circus, and the wild adventure of his life begins. He soon falls in love with Marlena, the beautiful animal stunt rider, and at the same time must protect the animals in his care from the sadistic cruelty of Marlena’s circus boss husband.

My mom gave Water For Elephants to me for Christmas, so it was one of the first things I wanted to read this year. I loved it – Gruen’s writing is smooth and fluid, and her detailed research on circus life during the Depression immerses you in the scene, and Jacob’s fascinating life carries you along.

It’s on the New York Times bestseller list, and it’s not surprising why; it’s a great read.

Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen

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The House on the Point: A Tribute to Franklin W. Dixon and The Hardy Boys

The House on the Point: A Tribute to Franklin W. Dixon and The Hardy Boys
Benjamin Hoffs (Tao of Pooh, Te of Piglet) rewrites the classic Hardy Boys book “The House on the Cliff” from the ground up — starting with the framework of the original 1927 version of the story and restoring its charm (rewrites to the book in the 1970s updated the settings, while stripping much of the appeal) and filling in those niggling plot holes that one overlooks as a child but which stand out for adults returning to the nostalgic stories of their youth.
Hoff’s version is very much a tribute, not a parody or pastiche, of the enjoyable, escapist novels we adored as kids. And his additions to the novel (especially to make characters more three dimensional, and settings more vibrant) work very well. The effect is quite seamless — without the explanation of what’s new in the appendix one might never suspect that this isn’t the same book we read years ago.

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Mini Reviews

I’ve been meaning to write reviews for all these things for a while, but I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time. So here are my mini reviews, because I can’t seem to keep up with everything.

All the President’s Men
I watched this movie for the first time this past weekend, and it was excellent. I knew the basics of the Watergate Scandal, but there was a lot I didn’t know, like how far beyond the simple break-in the scandal went. I was most fascinated by (and surprised by) the movie’s accounts of what Donald Segretti called “ratfucking”; the war of illegal dirty tricks waged against the Democratic Party by CREEP, using the secret six million dollar slush fund. Segretti was employed by CREEP to torpedo Democratic candidates in numerous ways, including forging letters and planting fake news stories with the press. Interestingly, Karl Rove was involved in doing some of this illegal work, and it appears he never quit.

Newsfire RSS/XML Feed Reader
I’ve been reading most of my regular news sources and favorite blogs in a piece of software that pulls in RSS or XML syndication feeds and aggregates and organizes them. Because I’m on a Mac, I chose Newsfire, which is one of the more popular readers, but there are numerous Feed readers for the PC as well, many of them are shareware or free. It’s a much easier way to keep track of my favorite websites and to make sure I don’t miss posts by my friends.

The Mermaid Chair
by Sue Monk Kidd
I didn’t enjoy this book as much as her previous book, The Secret Life of Bees. The heroine Jessie Sullivan returns to her childhood home on a tiny island to care for her disturbed mother, who in a fit of religious mania had cut off one of her fingers. While there, Jessie has an affair with one of the monks at the island monastery. I didn’t really buy into the “existential” angst that Jessie is supposedly feeling; the motivation for her affair. I kept wanting to tell her to get over it.

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
by Ruth Reichl
This was a fun, quick read by Ruth Reichl, who was the food critic for the New York Times for several years in the 80s, before moving on to become a critic and editor of Gourmet magazine. Reichl recounts how she attempted to write restaurant reviews that were useful to regular people by visiting many New York restaurants in disguise to fool restaurant owners, who would otherwise recognize her and give her special treatment that other guests wouldn’t receive. The book is an enlightening insider’s view of both the New York restaurant scene and of The New York Times, as well as an education in fine dining and in gourmet appreciation. There are some great recipes in it, as well. The only thing that bothered me was that Reichl gets a bit too into the disguises she wears at times; she revels in creating characters that seemed to me a bit over the top.

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