Monday, 15 July 2013


A Paean to Wikipedia

I love Wikipedia. I may have mentioned that already in my blog. A few times. But it bears repeating! And I’m sure there are some likeminded folk out there reading this right now…

Just the other day my husband and I were watching an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit when they mentioned ‘the Dark Net’ – you know, where all the really nasty stuff is kept. “They’re just making that up!” I scoff. Bruce promptly hauls his laptop over, and a few taps later he says, “Actually, there’s a page on Wikipedia…” I totally LOL’d.

I was fascinated to find related Wikipedia articles on:

  • the Deep Web, which is all the (mostly innocent) stuff that simply isn’t or can’t be picked up by search engines, which trawl the Surface Web;
  • a Darknet, which is a network where only trusted peers can interact, and can do so anonymously. Wikipedia suggests that ‘Darknets are often associated with dissident political communications and illegal activities’, so I’m guessing that’s what the SVU were investigating; and
  • the Dark Internet, which refers to computers or networks that are deliberately not connected to the Internet, or are so obsolete as to not be able to connect.

Fascinating stuff! Okay, if I were writing a dissertation rather than novels, I wouldn’t rely on Wikipedia, but still. It’s quick, convenient, and full of things you never knew you needed to know.

Perhaps my favourite page ever is Toilet paper orientation – a page so long and detailed that it includes nine sections titled Context and relevance, Preliminaries, Arguments, Survey results, Themes (three subheadings), Consequences, Similar controversies, Solutions (two subheadings) and Noted preferences. Not to mention a raft of endnotes and references… You won’t find a pesky little ‘This article needs additional citations’ warning here! Someone took this topic very very seriously indeed.

As well they might. This is serious stuff. I stumbled across the article while writing my novel The Apothecary’s Garden in which Hilary, a lifelong loner, is coming to terms with sharing his home with Tom. ‘Now,’ I wondered, ‘what are the issues they’d face…?’ I replied immediately, of course. I didn’t have to look far at all for an answer. ‘They hang the toilet paper rolls in opposite directions!!!’ There was more total LOL’ing. ‘Perfect,’ I respond, high–fiving myself.

You may well be nodding to indicate your deep understanding of this issue right now. If you’re not, well… all I can say is that Bruce and I moved into our current home over eight years ago. Neither bathroom nor en suite had a toilet roll holder when we moved in. And (despite some desultory shopping efforts way back when) they still don’t. The toilet roll sits on a nearby shelf instead, and it doesn’t matter which way up it’s standing. It’s arrangements like this that save marriages, I tell you!

In any case, I needed to know what terms to actually use to describe the different orientations, so I Googled something that must have been appropriate, for the relevant Wikipedia article was listed first in the search results. What more could I possibly need to know about the matter?

Like any encyclopaedia (or dictionary or thesaurus), it’s hard to stop at just one titbit of information… and of course those hyperlinks make it all too easy to browse your winding way through some of the four million articles… until you overload your short–term memory and entirely forget what you were looking for in the first place.

Beware the home page! It tempts you hither and thither with a featured article, current news–related articles, ‘Did you know…’ questions from the newest content, and ‘On this day…’ snippets as well.

Which is how I found out that Liu Rushi (1618–1664) was a famous courtesan and poet in the late Ming dynasty, who ‘embarked on a campaign to marry the respected scholar Qian Qianyi’ by dressing in men’s clothing and asking him his opinion on one of her poems. Within a year she’d moved in, they were together until he died, and their poetry was published together as well as separately. Wikipedia notes that ‘her affinity for cross–dressing persisted after they were married … on occasion [she] made calls on her husband’s behalf whilst dressed in his Confucian robes’. What an awesome pair they must have been!

From any Wikipedia page you can click on the Random article link, which might lead you anywhere else. Which is a useful way to introduce my last example, because I cannot for the life of me remember how I stumbled across it. I was very pleased I did, though!

The article is titled Competent man, and it describes ‘a stock character [male or female] who can do anything perfectly, or at least exhibits a very wide range of abilities and knowledge, making him a form of polymath’. This isn’t a concept I knew about when I wrote The Definitive Albert J Sterne, but it was such a joy to find the article, as that is exactly what I had in mind for Albert himself.

Albert isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article, mind you! Cited examples include the well–loved Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, and the awesome Buckaroo Banzai, along with the somewhat more expected Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and The Doctor from Doctor Who.

What really cracked me up here, however, was serendipitously discovering The Most Interesting Man in the World, a character in an advertising campaign for beer, who is ‘a bearded, debonair gentleman in his 70s’ (bless his silk socks). Outrageous tales of his youthful derring–do  are recounted in a dryly humorous style. I’m laughing just re–reading the article! (And while we’re here, I also love how these off–beat topics are somehow made to fit into the encyclopaedic template. The Most Interesting Man’s occupation is listed as ‘Advisor’.)

On that droll note, it’s time for one last random article… which in this case is the disambiguation for Salivary nuclei… And I didn’t know I needed to know that! Thank you once more, Wikipedia. I doff my hat.

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