Thursday, February 28, 2013

Why I Love Random Wikipedia

Status update:  a bit behind schedule, but not too serious. Coffee supplies holding up well. Outlook optimistic even though the current pot of coffee has somehow replicated the taste of skunky motor oil.

Wikipedia has a feature not too many people know about. It does one thing. It chooses one random article out of its massive database of knowledge.

This is amazing. Try it out!

I've just hit it three times and gotten "Cosmopolitian Television", "University of Virginia", and "Shiro Saito".

It's had this feature for years, maybe even since the beginning. When you stop to think about it, it's pretty remarkable. Wikipedia is a vast collection of human knowledge. It's surpassed the Encyclopedia Britannica as the first place you go when you need to get a handle on a topic. Science fiction fans might recognize it as the modern real-world analog of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's great.

And this link just picks one tidbit at random out of the millions of tidbits floating around in that vast library, with no regard to relevance or completeness or sense.

Whenever I'm stuck for ideas, or I'm in a rut, or just want to do some reading about something, I hit that link a few times. In fact, I have it bookmarked as one of my morning reading links that automatically comes up first thing in a day, along with the usual stuff like xkcd or the news. Is it always awesome? Hell, no. Sometimes you find yourself reading census statistics for some tiny burg in the middle of Missouri. Sometimes you're reading about George Michaels' preferences in loafers. That's part of the charm, though, because the next time you click on it, you might find out about something you didn't know. I wish Google had a similar feature, but it would probably eat my brain.

For example, yesterday it popped up this article on the volvelle. I'd known about them, and who hasn't? But I didn't know they had a name or that their history went quite so far back. Usually when I read an article like this, if there's anything linked I open that up in other tabs so I can follow them up after I get done with the main article. By the time I finish up all those tabs and their tabs and the tabs spawning from those tabs, I'll sometimes have gone pretty far afield.

Writing thrives on random trivia. I think, as a writer, you need to know about a great deal of things. You don't have to be particularly good at it, or knowledgeable, or have those facts at the tip of your tongue at all times, you just need to know it's out there.

Back in the old days, writers would often keep cabinets and folders full of these random tidbits, just little scraps of useful or fun information at hand that they could use if they needed it. I remember reading once that Gardner Fox had devoted an entire room in his house to this sort of stuff. And now, thanks to the Internet, you don't really need to.

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