Too Big to Know by David Weinberger

Too Big To KnowToo Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room

2012. Basic Books. Hardcover. 231 pages.

Review:

David Weinberger was a keynote speaker at a conference I attended earlier this year. I had picked up this book beforehand, as a way of being uber-prepared for this last-minute-approved professional development opportunity. In Too Big to Know, Weinberger briefly examines how technology is shaping the way we create knowledge.

Some years ago, I read Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch, though I think he is better known for his book The Shallows. Weinberger’s book is in the same topical vicinity as those, but Weinberger is not a subscriber to technodeterminism. He doesn’t believe that technology leads to only one outcome.

Weinberger describes the “old” paradigm of knowledge creation as “knowing-by-reducing”: we winnow information until it’s more manageable, with the byproduct of excluding ideas along the way. Today, we are exchanging this “filter-out” process for a “filter forward” process. Some information is still selectively pushed forward, but unlike in the past, we are still able to access what didn’t make it through the filter. People can see the filter and interrogate it.

I think the most interesting chapter for readers is chapter 6, “Long Form, Web Form”. In it, Weinberger challenges the idealization of published books as the true form of knowledge. A few choice quotes:

If you’re writing a book, you have to have a conversation with yourself about possible objections because books are a disconnected, nonconversational, one-way medium. We have had to resort to this sort of play-acting not because that’s how thought should work but because books fix thoughts on paper. (p. 95)

Books do not express the nature of knowledge. They express the nature of knowledge committed to paper cut into pages without regard for the edges of ideas, bound together, printed in mass quantities, and distributed, all within boundaries set by an economic system. (p. 100)

Weinberger references Jay Rosen’s Pressthink blog as an example of long-form’s possible future direction. He points out the benefits of this approach: arguments get their natural length; because of comments / interaction with readers, the argument becomes more responsive; ideas get to the public faster, and the author’s authority becomes “right-sized.” The disadvantages of this approach are that the readers’ voices may function as noise; some arguments actually do work better when presented all at once; and a published book is still a “traditional token of expertise and achievement.”

Weinberger doesn’t forget that he is presenting these ideas in a published book:

Not only is the irony / hypocrisy of this book inescapable, it is so familiar in this time of transition that I wish someone would write a boilerplate paragraph that all authors of nonpessimistic books about the Internet could just insert and be done with. (p. 97)

My other favorite chapter in this book was Chapter 7 “Too Much Science”, where Weinberger describes how this new paradigm of conveying knowledge affects the scientific community. He quotes the (recently deceased) Jean-Claude Bradley, a chemist who supported Open Science initiatives, and who said “trust should have no part in science.” The book argues that we should be able to dig into the data and see commentaries from amateurs and experts. Weinberger points out that “scientific journals rarely published research with negative results” but that kind of research is still very important information for the community. Research scientists need to know what didn’t work, as well as what did work.

In the last chapter of Too Big to Know, Weinberger offers five strategies for navigating this time of transition:

1. Open up access – have a policy of “including everything and filtering afterward.”

2. Provide hooks for intelligence. (This would be metadata, and specifically Linked Data. Incidentally this is where my job intersects Weinberger’s ideas.)

3. Link Everything (show your work)

4. Leave no institutional knowledge behind.

5. Teach everyone – people should learn how to evaluate knowledge claims.

The chapters I glossed over were also interesting, though I found the first few chapters covered arguments and ideas I’d previously encountered. It was Weinberger’s discussion of books and scientific knowledge that I found most thought-provoking. I liked that Weinberger saw both the pros and cons of knowledge’s new direction, and wasn’t a doomsayer or an indiscriminate cheerleader. His keynote speech had a great sense of humor and that shows in the book as well, though in lesser degree.

I realize that this post is more a summary of the book than a proper review, but it’s the kind of book where I feel more like sharing its ideas than writing about my reaction to them.

I’ll close with another quote:

Welcome to the life of knowledge once it has been taken down from its shelf. It is misquoted, degraded, enhanced, incorporated, passed around through a thousand degrees of misunderstanding, and assimilated to the point of invisibility. It was ever so. Now we can see it happening. (p. 110)

Excerpt from another review:

Kira J. Baker-Doyle, PhD – “What I realized as I was reading was that this was not Weinberger’s best form, and in fact, he was writing it as if it was in the form he prefers – “web form.” In a blog format, these chapters would be full of links that I would have fun jumping around and exploring. Yet in “long form,” some examples seemed unnecessary.”

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Today’s Post is brought to you by the letter . . .

I picked up the following meme from Frances at Nonsuch Book, but it was actually started by Simon at Stuck in a Book. Basically Frances randomly assigned me a letter, and I have to pick my favorite book, author, song, film, and object beginning with that letter. I got the letter ‘A’. So this is my stab at it:

Favorite book:

and-the-band-played-on

And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts

I don’t have any ‘A’ books that fall into my close-to-my-heart inner circle of favorites, but And the Band Played On is probably the worthiest of the ‘A’ books I have read. It details the course of the AIDS epidemic in the US from 1980 to 1985. It’s a passionate book and had a strong emotional impact on me.

Favorite author:

Jane Austen – I don’t love all of her books, but her mastery at writing comedy of manners is what makes her a favorite author of mine. I have come to her defense a couple of times, actually, when people have dismissed her as being too romantic and too “girly” for them to even try to read one of her books.

Favorite Song:

“Amado Mio” – Pink Martini

This is the song that turned me into a Pink Martini fan. I heard it while living with my sister and her husband one summer – I was unemployed and there was a heat wave, but I actually look back at that time fondly, so I associate this song with the best memories of that summer.

Favorite Movie: Amelie

Amelie poster

I love the colors, the music, and the joy of this film. This is one of my favorite scenes:

Favorite Object: Apples.

I couldn’t think of a non-food object that was something I would call favorite. We had apple trees on our property while growing up, and I remember picking them, sorting them, helping to make applesauce and apple butter. They aren’t my favorite fruit, but I consider them a kind of family fruit. My dad enjoys growing them and at one time, my ancestors made their living off of them. My mom makes a wonderful apple pie. There’s a homey-ness about them that I like. (But don’t get a Red Delicious apple anywhere near me. Those things are terrible.)

 

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Bab: A Sub-Deb by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Bab a Sub Deb

1916. A. L. Burt Company. Hardcover. 350 pages (not the same edition as shown above)

Recommended by: Aarti at Booklust

Review:

This was the book chosen randomly by the Classics Spin. I was to finish the book before July 1st, which I did – I just have been slow to post a review!

Bab: A Sub-Deb is a light, humorous read that consists of five parts/chapters, each describing a new misadventure in the life of the naive, spoiled, funny Barbara Archibald, called Bab. Bab is 17 and not yet “out” in society which frustrates her to no end, as her barely older sister gets to enjoy parties and outings with the opposite sex. Thus, Bab is a sub-debutante, or sub-deb. There – that is the title explained!

Each of the five parts is framed as either a school essay or diary entry, complete with atrocious spelling. That is a stylistic feature some readers may not tolerate, but I found it mostly endearing. Another aspect that may deter some readers: Bab is often self-centered, is sometimes disparaging of her friends and almost always of her sister and mother. But within that characterization are the identifiable strains of common teenage concerns: desire to be treated as an adult; curiosity about romance and love; high ideals. We know and Rinehart knows that Bab is quite silly, and the joke is almost always on her, but she’s also evolving as a person, especially in the last story.

For me, I enjoyed the first, fourth and fifth chapters the best. The misadventures in the second and third stories felt repetitive, and Bab was not as charming there as she was in the other three stories. That is where my pace slowed down. In the fourth story, she buys a car and I liked that while she was bad driver, she became quite adept at changing a flat tire. The fifth story was my favorite. On a train ride from school to home, Bab’s newly awakened patriotism stirs her to ask a young male passenger if he is going to enlist (the book was written and set during World War I). He says that he already has, and then criticizes coddled society girls who “can’t even walk , but they talk about helping in the War.” Bab takes this to heart and rallies her female friends to form the Girls’ Aviation Corp – “but to be known generally as the G. A. C. as because of Spies and so on we must be as secret as possable.” The end of that story, and of the book, is genuinely sweet and so I finished the book feeling rather fond of it.

Here is an excerpt from the first story. In an effort to be taken seriously as an adult, Bab has just implied to her mother and sister that she has a beau:

“I’m perfectly mad about him,” I said. “And he’s crazy about me.”

“I’d like very much to know,” Sis said, as she stood up and stared at me, “how much you are making up and how much is true.”

None the less, I saw that she was terrafied. The family Kitten, to speak in allegory, had become a Lion and showed its clause.

When she had gone out I tried to think of some one to hang a love affair to. But there seemed to be nobody. They knew perfectly well that the dancing master had one eye and three children, and that the clergyman at school was elderly, with two wives. One dead.

I searched my Past, but it was blameless. It was empty and bare, and as I looked back and saw how little there had been in it but imbibing wisdom and playing basket-ball and tennis, and typhoid fever when I was fourteen and almost having to have my head shaved, a great wave of bitterness agatated me.

“Never again,” I observed to myself with firmness. “Never again, if I have to invent a member of the Other Sex.”

The book is available through Project Gutenberg.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Booklust – “The best thing about Bab is that she balances so well between being a very realistic, overly dramatic teenager and being one of the funniest and most endearing narrators you’ve ever encountered.  I generally hate ditzy girls in books because they are so overblown and ridiculous.  But I love Bab”

Howling Frog Reviews – “I laughed so much while reading this; I’m sure I’ll go back and read it again often.  I kept reading bits out loud to whoever was nearest.” [And I see that this review picked the same excerpt as I did.]

Redeeming Qualities – “No one really wants to read a book that’s misspelled all the way through. I mean, if you’re Daisy Ashford and you’re, like, eight, it’s excusable.”

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Review Catch-up Post

It’s been a little while since I last posted, and I’ve been reading. Here’s some mini-reviews!

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

1864. Penguin Classics. Paperback. 713 pages.

I expected to like this classic novel and I did, very much. I loved its gentle atmosphere, and the characters of Molly and especially Cynthia were well-drawn. I looked forward to every appearance by Lady Harriet Cumnor, and the full circle that Molly makes regarding the Towers (the Cumnor estate) was very satisfying. Though well-realized psychologically, the scenes that featured only the Squire and his sons were not as compelling to me as the rest of the book. I think it was that the Squire and his eldest son were so locked in a stubborn emotional stalemate that those passages seemed more sluggish to me, than those with, say, Cynthia or her self-absorbed mother. As Gaskell died before quite finishing the book, I was afraid the unfinished ending would spoil the reading experience, but it didn’t. The book’s unintentional ending arrives as the narrative is staring to wind up, and my copy had an afterword that explained what the ending would have been (Gaskell had left notes).

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

2012. Little, Brown & Co. Hardcover. 330 pages.

I found this bestselling book to be interesting enough for my recent plane trip, but I didn’t find it either funny or endearing and I think the book was trying for a mixture of both. I think I was supposed to like Bernadette in spite of her flaws, but instead I found her rather insufferable. I didn’t much like the daughter for some reason either. The author was one of the writers for the show Arrested Development and I could see some semblance in humor, but I think the Bluths were more lovable than any of the Bernadette cast of characters. But the book’s structure (mostly epistolary) moves along at a good clip, and I did wonder what was going to happen, so I finished it fairly quickly.

———-

After leisurely making my way through the length of Gaskell’s novel and Taylor Branch’s history tome, I went tearing through a passel of romance novels. I read Kristan Higgans’ The Best Man (pretty good, but marred by a tasteless joke at the expense of a transgender character); Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened (refreshingly broke some of the genre cliches, but wasn’t quite seamless with the historical elements); and Julie James’ About that Night (always like that her characters act like adults, and approach their jobs like professionals – however, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Something About You). I also read three Courtney Milan novels (well one was a novella), and have become a big fan of her approach to the romance genre. The characters have dynamic, interesting relationships with their friends, families and communities, not just with their love interest. The female protagonists are not “excepto-girls” – other female characters are ‘allowed’ to be awesome and break the mold. The male protagonists aren’t forced into the ridiculous “Alpha Male” fantasy. Again, the characters act like adults, and while sometimes there is misunderstandings, it’s not the level of almost willful miscommunication that I find in other books. In The Governess Affair, my favorite of the Milan reads, the male protagonist, Hugo, cuts through the unspoken sexual tension, and just says outright: “We’re attracted to one another, and it’s inconvenient.” Woohoo! Directness! It is sexy!

———–

I also read a book by Carl Hiassen, whose name I’ve seen around but who I’d never read. My impression of his books are that they are all set in Florida, involve both suspense and comedy, and feature really colorful characters. I would have read Skinny Dip if it had been on my library’s shelves, as it’s the one I have heard of most. Instead, I picked Star Island which is about an out-of-control starlet and the actress who plays her double, when the starlet is too wasted to do it herself. The actress gets kidnapped by a crazy paparazzo, and stuff gets wacky. Other colorful characters include the starlet’s terrible entourage, a weird scary bodyguard, and a Robin Hood-esque former governor. It was a fun, forgettable read – its satirical take on celebrity reminded me a bit of I’m Losing You by Bruce Wagner, which I read ages ago.

———–

I have one DNF book I want to mention: The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan. Published in 2011, it is a ‘literary’ take on the werewolf story. The main character, Jake, has just found out he is the last werewolf on earth. He is kind of looking forward to being killed by the hunters who seek him, but several events work to shake him of this fatalistic mindset. Duncan’s writing style for this novel is quite dense, packed with evocative, elaborate phrasing. Justin Cronin, author of vampire novel The Passage, wrote a blurb for Duncan’s book, and I can see the similarity in their approach to genre fiction. I hated The Passage. I liked The Last Werewolf better, I think, as it could be quite clever, but the barrage of heavyweight vocabulary also kept me fairly aloof from the story.

The Last Werewolf is a very earthy novel – all frank, unsexy sex and entrails – and this fits with the werewolf mythos (the vampires in the novel look down on werewolves as unsophisticated sex-driven louts). It fits, but I didn’t much care for it: it seemed that every new situation that Jake encountered, the scene made sure to not just document Jake’s reaction but also the reaction of Jake’s penis. All the time. It just . . . wasn’t for me. I got pretty far in the book, as I had it with me on the plane, and a plot twist late in the novel almost cinched my investment. I was two-thirds of the way through the 300-page novel, thanks to the plane trip, but once I was home, I realized that I just didn’t care to spend more time in its world. I skipped to the end to find out who lived, and I’m good with that.

 

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Classics Club Spin Pick: Bab:A Sub-Deb by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Classics Club

The Classics Club Spin was announced and the number was #1, which meant that I will be reading Bab: A Sub-Deb by Mary Roberts Rinehart. I had planned on reading this book in January, as part of another bookish event, but soon realized I wasn’t quite in the mood for its comedic style, so I put it off for a better time. And now I’m quite ready for it. Earlier this evening, I picked the book up “just for a look” and ended up reading the first of its five sections (it reads very quickly).

Bab: A Sub-Deb was published in 1916 by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Let me summarize what I learned about Rinehart on Wikipedia: during a finanically difficult time, Rinehart began writing as a way to support her family (she had four children with her husband). She eventually became a very popular writer, and even went to Europe to report on the first World War. But her mysteries were her bread and butter; she was apparently called the “American Agatha Christie”. She created a caped villain called “The Bat” for a Broadway play, which was later adapted to a film called “The Bat Whispers,” and it was that incarnation of the Bat which helped inspire Bob Kane’s character, Batman. There are many other cool facts about Rinehart in that wikipedia entry, but I’ll keep myself to just that interesting piece of trivia.

Bab: A Sub-Deb, the first book I’ve ever read by Rinehart, does not fall into the author’s usual genre. It is a light comic piece about a seventeen year old girl named Barbara (called Bab) who just wants to be an adult – a debutante – like her older sister, but is instead consigned to sub-debutante purgatory (hence the “sub-deb” of the title). The book – at least the first section – is written as if for a school paper. Bab’s spelling is atrocious but the narration of her various travails is hilarious. I’m sure she’ll mature over the course of the book, but right now she’s in a certain lovable brat stage. My reaction to her so far reminds me of my reaction to Colette’s delightful creation of Claudine in Claudine at School. It’s a reaction of: I’m not sure I would want to meet this person, but am thoroughly entertained by her as a character. That said, Bab is much more naive than Claudine, and more moral, so it’s really more of a surface similarity that struck me. We’ll see what I think after I finish.

Aarti of BookLust is responsible for bringing this book to my attention. If you’re reading this, Aarti, sorry I didn’t get to this in January liked I planned, but it’s really going to happen this time!

 

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Classics Club Spin #6

Classics Club

This will be the second time I have participated in a Classics Club Spin. When I last participated, Peter Fleming’s Brazilian Adventure was the chosen book, which I read by the deadline (Dec. 31, 2013) and reviewed here. Now I will again list twenty classics, and on Monday, a number will be picked and I will have to read that book by July 7th. Since I’ve read two very long books lately, this list is going to avoid the chunkster titles of my Classics List. So here goes, alphabetically:

1. Bab: A Sub-Deb by Mary Roberts Rinehart [1916]

2. The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery [1926]

3. Dispatches by Michael Herr [1977]

4. Dubliners by James Joyce [1914]

5. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym [1952]

6. Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway [1929]

7. The Good Earth by Pearl Buck [1931]

8. The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux [1975]

9. High Rising by Angela Thirkell [1933]

10. A House is Not a Home by Polly Adler [1953]

11. Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau [1964]

12. Mariana by Monica Dickens [1940]

13. Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman [1947]

14. Original Letters from India by Eliza Fay [1925]

15. Penny Plain by Anna Buchan [1920]

16. Saplings by Noel Streatfeild [1945]

17. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby [1958]

18. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome [1889]

19. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor [1977]

20. The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard [1922]

 

Of these twenty books, I am most hoping for The Blue Castle or Penny Plain. The book I am most dreading is Farewell to Arms. I haven’t read Hemingway since high school, but I did not like him then and don’t think I will like him now. If it is indeed chosen, I will try to keep an open mind, but I do not have high hopes for that book.

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Excerpts from my ancestor’s journal (April 1889)

It’s been a few months since I posted from my ancestor’s journal, mostly because I had fallen off in my transcription project. But! I worked on it last night, and have some fun excerpts to share.

March 1889 was a rough month for Emma as her eight-year-old daughter, Mattie, became very ill from pneumonia. A few entries were simply variations of: “Mattie very sick.” Finally, Mattie did pull through. In early April, calamity fell again to the household when Emma’s mother-in-law, who lived with them, fainted dead away and hit her head. Days later, her head still ached. From about this time, Emma wrote the following entry:

[Friday, April 12, 1889]

Shower during the night – sunshine, clouds and showers today. Men have been grafting and trimming the trees in the “clover lot” this week. Frank went from there to the depot soon after 4 o’c., and as he has not returned yet think he has gone out of town. Mother has made ginger-bread and doughnuts. I swept and cleaned the west chamber etc. Did mending this P.M. and evening. Henry was happy as possible this morning when he found that he was not to have to have on skirts any more – he looks nicely now his hair is cut. Heard thunder in the distance – we have had two thundershowers this spring – one in the night and one at noon.

The following is something that came to me in good time.

“Do thou thy work; it shall succeed

In thine, or in another’s day,

And if denied the victor’s meed

Thou shalt not miss the toiler’s pay.”

(Robert Moffat)

I like reading about the orchard work, especially as I’m reading about it in the springtime. Four-year-old Henry’s transition out of skirts is amusing, especially as the Victorian practice of dressing little boys in skirts is something I’ve wondered at before.

The quote, which initially struck me as so very New England Puritan, was actually written by a Scottish Congregationalist missionary. Robert Moffat (1795 – 1883) was a missionary to South Africa and was the father-in-law of the more famous missionary David Livingstone.

Another excerpt:

[Sunday, April 21, 1889]

Pleasant but very windy this P.M.

Grandpa, Prescott and Henry walked down to church. The meetings today had special reference to “The Constitutional Amendment.” Shall we vote Yes or No?

[Monday, April 22, 1889]

A beautiful morn – but wind clouds blew over and was so windy we could hardly get clothes on to the line.

Grass is up two inches high and is very green, and fresh.

The vote for the Amendment came in 11 or 13 ahead in this town. School did not keep – children all went after checker-berries.

Grandpa carried Mr. Wheeler down to vote.

Pease came home tonight.

The Constitutional Amendment was for state Prohibition. This did not pass in 1889. I know from later entries that Emma was at some point a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union but I’m not sure she was active in it in 1889.

I had never heard of checkerberries, but the plant also goes by the name American wintergreen or eastern teaberry.

Mr. Wheeler was a neighbor of the Richards family, and was mentioned quite often in Emma’s journal. As he was older and ailing, members of the family would frequently go down to his house and check on him. He died five days after the day Emma’s father-in-law carried him down to the vote.

J. Howard Pease was a hired hand who had started working for the family in December 1888. I loved this little bit from the end of January 1889:

Frank, Pease and I went down to the vestry to a sociable and chicken pie supper. We had a fine time. The young people went to the Town Hall afterward to a select dance. Frank went over and introduced Pease to the co. before we came home.

His presence around the household allows for a peek into Williamsburg’s more social scene, since Frank was often traveling for work and Emma was constrained by caring for her children and by housework. In April 1889, Pease went to see Comical Brown, an entertainer hailing from Maine, and he also attended a lecture given by a M. Kimball of Chicago.

I was able to find the table of contents for a songbook written by Comical Brown (whose real name was William B. Brown) through William & Mary’s library website:

Table of Contents:

  • The strong minded female. Words by Wm. B. Brown (first line: I’m a strong-minded female, from Boston)
  • The kiss at the door. Music by Wm. B. Brown (first line: We were sitting in the doorway)
  • William Henry White. Pathetic ballad, composed by Wm. B. Brown (first line: Come all ye people high and low)
  • Shun the broad road (first line: The happy home circle is breaking, my boy)
  • The Irish wedding (first line: Now won’t you hear what roaring cheer was had at Paddy’s wedding)
  • Pat Murphy’s employment. Words and music by Wm. B. Brown (first line: Pat Murphy’s my name, I’m a broth of a boy)
  • The wife-hunter. Written and composed by Wm. B. Brown (first line: I married a wife, a loving wife)
  • The ‘orrible tale. Composed and sung by W.B. Brown (first line: It’s an ‘orrible tale I’m a goin’ for to tell)
  • The little boy that died. Poetry by Dr. Chalmers. Music by Wm. B. Brown (first line: I am all alone in my chamber now)
  • Werry Mysterious. As sung by Wm. B. Brown (first line: O dear! what a world of misfortune and care).

I’m going to assume based on the titles that Mr. Brown wasn’t “comical” all the time. “The little boy that died” sounds like something out of Dickensian sentiment. Also, I am very curious to know the rest of the lyrics to “The strong minded female”!

My working theory for the identity of M. Kimball is that Emma had the first initial incorrect, and that the speaker was actually Edward A. Kimball, a Chicagoan who studied Christian Science under the movement’s founder Mary Baker Eddy in early 1889 at her Massachusetts Metaphysical College (located in Boston).

I love how transcribing this journal has turned into a portal for all sorts of great 19th century trivia. As I make more progress, I will be sure to post more excerpts.

 

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