Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
March 16th, 2012



I have a startling admission to make: I never really used the Encyclopædia Britannica. My classmates and I instead feasted on the more accessible World Book, in all its photo-bound glory. At home, the only encyclopedias my family could budget for were the first two volumes of Grolier’s Encyclopedia of Knowledge, which randomly went on sale at Kroger one weekend: A–Ano and Ano–Bas. They were beautifully illustrated and typeset, but as you’d imagine, my school report on Alabama went on a bit longer than the one on Virginia. Later on, Encarta filled in the rest of the alphabet. The lack of a particular upscale brand of encyclopedia at a decidedly non-elementary reading level never registered as a problem.

So with Britannica’s print demise this week, I have a hard time understanding how an empty Britannica shelf would be the greatest of our concerns if the national power grid went kaput. It isn’t as if encyclopedias – even print encyclopedias – are done for. The ones that found their niche in the education market are doing fine. I also don’t buy the argument that our society’s reliance on Internet sources will deprive rural public libraries in the U.S. After all, a computer is half the price of a full Britannica set, yet the former’s value is certainly greater. Can Britannica walk you through algebra problems the way Wolfram Alpha does? Would you type on it?

The majority of nostalgic commentators seem to pin the blame for Britannica’s exit on Wikipedia and find fault with its directness. They remember sticking their fingers inside a huge book to keep their place across cross-references, and fascinating entries that happen to lie on the same page stealing their attention. And they lament that a search box can’t offer any of that.

To solve that problem, I’ve written Serendipity, a script that allows registered users of Wikipedia to bring the true encyclopedia experience to the site. Install it, and you’ll quickly notice that whatever you look up is preceded and followed by entries that just happen to fall next to it in alphabetical order. Because this model is so essential to cognitive development and intellectual curiosity, the script also disables hyperlinks and other aids to non-linear navigation.

Of course, the script is totally tongue-in-cheek. But I hope you’ll like it – for all of three minutes. In a few months’ time, we’ll mostly forget about the print Britannica just as we’ve mostly forgotten about card catalogs. Indeed, anyone younger than me won’t even know what they are. And we as a society will be alright. Digression is important for learning, but it doesn’t entail alphabetical order.