Oct 2006

On Books and Libraries

I just finished reading an article in the Globe and Mail Talking about Alberto Manguel's new book The Library at Night. Really, though, this article isn't anything about that. It does discuss the importance of libraries, and that is what I want to talk about.

Libraries can be grand things like the Library of Alexandria, but they can also be a humble shelf of books. Libraries can also be other things, like a collection of papers that someone decided it was useful to keep. Perhaps ironically, libraries may also be papers that someone would prefer to dispose of, but can't. I'm thinking of a chapter in Matthew Battles' Library: An Unquiet History that discusses a geniza, which is a kind of Hebrew "book tomb" where writings of all sorts are retained when they are no longer needed, and kept safe until they can be properly disposed of. When they are not disposed of, it provides an invaluable insight on the society that created them. These all amount to various perspectives on the preciousness of words and ideas and how such things are (or perhaps should be) treated in society. I suppose book burning is the ultimate in verification of the preciousness of words; if they cannot be countered, then despicably extraordinary measures are taken by those who wish to suppress the ideas they express.

I have quite a few books. I like to think that I don't hoard them but I am going to have to cull my collection soon. It's either that or buy more bookshelves. I find this culling very hard to do. I have books that I haven't read in years, but know that they are out of print, so if I part with them I may never see them again. Don't get me started about the whole idea of digitizing books. Digitizing does have it's uses in situations where the material is more reference related, like an encyclopedia. However, I've always thought of digitizing books as a rather unsavoury practice, similar to the nasty colourization done by Ted Turner on movies that, in my opinion, should have stayed black and white. Call me a luddite if you like.

I also use books to think about other people. For instance, when I enter a person's house for the first time, lots of book related questions run through my mind, like "How many books do they have?", "Do they have any books at all?", "What kinds of books do they have?", "What books do they put out for show, as opposed to what they read when no one is looking?", "If they have books, do they actually read them?" You have no idea how many people have told me that they "have" Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, only to later reveal that they own it, but have not read it. (Personally I found that book intolerable, but that's a different story.) Basically, I think that, for better or worse, I try to learn a little bit about who people are by looking at their books. I suppose some people might do the same thing for music or movies.

Which to me means that this book I am looking at that I have read, and enjoyed, and am trying to figure out if I should get rid of is in some way a part of me. Even though I may have forgotten the general arguments in the book, the act of reading it has changed me in ways that I may or may not be cognizant. So it's not easy to dispose of such a part of yourself.

This article didn't quite go in the direction I had intended. I was intending to discuss the importance of libraries in general to society and reflect it back on my library and why it was important to me. Instead, I ended up discussing libraries as I thought they reflected on people and myself. Well, it has been argued that books in of themselves are nothing, and that it takes people to bring them to life through reading.

For now this book goes back on the shelf.

No Mindmanager for Concept Maps

Yesterday I wrote about Concept Maps, and how I wanted to try them with Mindmanager.

Well, I'm sorry to say that the two don't mix very well. With the new Mindmanager Pro, it is now possible to draw Concept Maps (using the floating topics and relationships to link them). However, it isn't really suited to Concept Maps.

I will have to find something else with which to draw them.

Mindmanager is a good program for mindmaps, but not concept maps.

Runebound the Boardgame

Well, this weekend Jeremiah and I played another game of Runebound.

This is one of those big box games from Fantasy Flight, who are known for epic scale games, especially if there are lots of expansions. I say this with humour, because usually their expansions are very good additions to the main game (whereas some expansions from other game companies would have been best left unprinted).

At any rate, I'd best describe Runebound as Dungeons & Dragons without someone playing dungeon master and without scenarios. Oh yeah, it's a lot shorter too. I did play some D&D when I was younger (which lead someone to give my mother an article about how I would be forever damned, which Mom found quite amusing, but I digress). However, playing D&D was always a hassle because it was impossible to get the right combination of people together. Now, today the big factor is time. I have no time to plan these things, nor would I want to spend the length of time required to play even if I did have the time and inclination to worry about scenarios. I do have other things to do, after all.

Enter Runebound. This game has all the wonderful feel of D&D, but in boardgame form. It still was really long (about 4 hours), but Jeremiah and I have found a few combinations of house rules and some of the optional rules to get it down to about 2 hours with two people. These two hours fly by, and so I consider this a successful formula.

The game itself consists of the board, which is a map of the territory, dice for terrain movement and a couple for combat, item cards, hero cards, and encounter cards. Encounters are divided up into a variety of forms and colour coded for difficulty. As you defeat beasties, you gain experience points which allows you to make your heroes stronger in a few different categories of skills. That's generally it. The story line deals with the High Lord Margath who is attempting to take over the world, and you have to defeat him and the Dragon Lords who have sworn allegiance to him. All very heady swords and sorcery stuff, but done quite well. Each of the encounter cards adds a little bit to the story, and it all works very well together. There are a variety of expansions that extend the game in various ways, all expanding the story but still working well together (for some reason every game we are unlucky in that the forests are on fire). There are also major variants, that change the map and the scenarios, for example introducing sailing and island travel, which are a lot of fun too.

If you're looking for deep strategy, you're going to have to play something like Gipf or Tigris & Euphrates. Runebound is an entirely different kind of game, but still one that is a lot of fun. Now, with our shorter game rules, the game is tighter and tenser, and you have to worry every move about what to do; no footling or lollygagging about! To paraphrase Reiner Knizia, a good game is like life; something where you have too many appealing decisions to make each turn and must choose carefully amongst them if you want to do well.

This is definitely a game that I will enjoy playing for quite a while.

You can also check out what Jeremiah thinks.

Concept Maps

I've been using Mindmaps for many years, after being introduced to it by Joyce Wycoff's book "Mindmapping". I've found many uses for them and found that they are a fantastic way of clarifying thinking and recording ideas. Personally I believe that I think better because of my use of Mindmaps. This is something I've talked about before, but from the perspective of Edward de Bono's teachings.

Anyway, a friend at work recently introduced me to the idea of concept maps through this website. I printed out the Java concept map, and was quite intrigued at the idea, so I tracked down the original book that describes concept maps. That book is Learning How to Learn, by Joseph Novak and Bob Gowin.

The authors describe concept maps as a "way to represent meaningful relationships between concepts in the form of propositions". Like mindmaps, concept maps have a central topic that the map begins from. In the case of concept maps, however, each topic is connected to each other topic using a proposition, some form of word or phrase that links the concepts together. Phrases like "leads to", "is because of", "becomes a part of", and so on are examples of these propositions.

In many ways this seems a logical extension of mindmaps, and is used similarly to depict a certain domain. The authors emphasize that this is a learning tool and the act of building these concept maps is used to solidify learning in a person and detect whether there are gaps in their knowledge of the area. This last part is intriguing, because mindmaps don't really have this "debugging" ability. The authors also provide a method for analysing the concept maps for these problems.

After reading that part of the book, I intend to try out these maps and see if they work the way they seem to. I'm encouraged by the Java concept map and my previous work on mindmaps, so we'll see what happens!

I should be able to try this with my Mindmanager program which, although expensive, is a great mindmapping tool.