Tag Archives: thirst for knowledge

In Praise of Tour Guides: World Tourism Day 2011

(As today is the UN’s World Tourism Day, I thought I’d repost this old entry…)

As I may have mentioned here in the past, I’m an information junkie. However, I’m an information junkie cursed with a terrible Swiss Cheese of a memory, possibly caused by an old gypsy woman, and therefore I’m a fan of tour guides.

(The Glass Floor in the CN Tower can hold the weight of 14 hippos.)

We spent a lot of time on tour buses this week, mainly because a ticket lasts for something like five days and thus it’s easy transport around an unfamiliar city. The great thing about this is that it also comes with a commentary and, as I’m the sort of guy who sits and listens to DVD commentary tracks, that’s a selling point.

(The horses in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are classed as officers, and get badge numbers and official funerals.)

I enjoyed the Toronto tour guides a lot (ShopDineTour Toronto, for a free plug), not least because they pull off the sort of trick that I just can’t – they know what they’re talking about, they can remember it, and they can communicate it in an entertaining way. This is the sort of thing I struggle with – my brain has a communication and information retention firewall installed, and so when the guide on the way to Niagara Falls is reciting the history of Toronto AND making it interesting, I’m in awe. He just seemed to know vast amounts about John Graves Simcoe, the guy who founded Toronto, and yeah, sure, he’s making a living from reciting this stuff but it’s something I could never do. I’d get the script all tangled up in my brain, and then knock myself out on a low-hanging branch.

(Casa Loma, a mansion/castle just outside of downtown Toronto, was used as the filming location for Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in the first two X-Men movies… but not the third.)

That said, I also want to give a shout-out to guides from other cities – some the people who first got my respect as guides were the US National Park rangers on Alcatraz Island, who not only knew all about the old prison there but also the oysters and fish that live around the island. It’s a cool, outdoorsy job, but it’s also got a sense of the geek spirit, in the most postive way – the idea that this stuff is cool, it’s good to be enthusiastic about it, and there’s nothing wrong with communicating that enthusiasm to the people who pay to do the tour. It’s fun.

(Yonge Street is the longest street in the world, stretching 1896 miles out of Toronto. Many dispute its claim to this, however, but I don’t care.)

And don’t forget the drivers – heck, my main regret from Niagara Falls was that they didn’t give the driver a mic as well, because he was as clued up as the guide and had a fun double-act thing going on. We were near enough the front to hear this, but it was gold. The personalities made a pretty long journey that much more entertaining.

(The city was originally named York, but when New York got too big, the Canadians renamed it Toronto so there wouldn’t be comparisons.)

But for courtesy, friendliness and entertainment value, we probably have to give the award to the guide we saw a few times throughout the week, who recognised us and said hi, bothered to tell us when the bus times were so we didn’t end up inadvertantly stranded, and, while we guessed he was a bit geeky from his first MacGyver reference, the fact that he admitted to being a comic collector in front of a bus full of people gave him geek kudos. AND he had his Toronto knowledge. You can’t ask for more than that.

(Toronto is North America’s third largest film and TV filming location, after LA and New York.)

So if you’re ever in Toronto, check out the yellow buses. They’ll even give you a free map!


Library Repost (but check out the #savelibraries Twitter campaign first…)

I wrote this back in April, but thought I’d repost it in the light of the ongoing threat to Britain’s libraries…

"Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book."

So said Dwight D. Eisenhower, professional kicker-of-Nazi-butt and 34th POTUS. I’m quoting him because yesterday saw the lauch of America’s National Library Week, something I mainly know about because its patron this year is Neil Gaiman, fantasy novelist and modern comic book legend. This is A Good Thing.

I’m biased, of course, because I’m a reader. One of my very few regrets about learning to drive a few years ago is that I miss out on all the spare reading time presented to me by long bus journies stuck in traffic (that and I’m getting old and so my eroded attention span means that achieving the Fifty Book Challenge this year is looking less likely than it should). Nevertheless, I’m a reader and shall be until I die, probably of blunt force trauma caused by a collapsing To Read Pile taller than me. A lot of that is down to my local library.

See, we used to go there on Fridays after school when I was a kid, working my way through the Thomas the Tank Engine collection, then Asterix and Tintin. The library is also responsible for me getting into Doctor Who; I didn’t watch the TV series so much as read the hardback Target novelisations, I pieced together the history of the show by reading the books out of order and without having any clear idea of how all the different characters fitted together. It helped that I take after my mom, as her side of the family contains most of the readers, and so I guess it’s ironic that my nan always had issues with the monsters and aliens in the sort of geeky shows I watched; it was her genes and Doctor Who books that made me a reader. The library just empowered that.

Libraries have a central place in human civilisation. The Library of Alexandria is almost legendary, although a significant part of that legend is due to the fact that people kept burning it down. Same goes for the House of Wisdom in Baghdad (destroyed by the Mongols in 1258) and the ‘Burning of Books and Burying of Scholars‘ policy carried out by China’s Qin dynasty; throughout history, libraries have been considered dangerous by dangerous men. And while its probably unfair to compare that sort of thing to today’s allegedly civic-minded busybodies, it’ll be interesting to see what’s on the American Library Association‘s Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2009 list when it’s published on Wednesday.

Nowadays people don’t tend to be burning down libraries, at least not in Dudley. There are questions to be asked about their role in the Information Age, but given that the whole point of public libraries is the repository and dissemination of information, they should be coming into their own. It’s easy to take them for granted, but in a world where we can access a mountain of information with next to no quality filter, librarians should rule, and that’s before we get onto how public libraries help bridge the Digital Divide (think about how much public servies tend to assume we all have internet access. Now think about how many people you know who don’t own computers). Somewhere along the line that building full of books has seen the skillsets of the people who work there gain in currency.

An anonymous source once said that "Books are the carriers of civilisation. Without books, history is silent, literature is dumb, science is crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books the development of civilisation would have been impossible. They are the engines of change." You can argue that it’s the information and artistry contained in those books that matters, moreso than the actual medium, but regardless, libraries, books, information are important – especially when we know what to do with it. When the Dark Ages engulfed Europe, Irish monks saved the literature and learning of Rome and carried it forward, and now public libraries modestly attempt to try something similar, albeit in a world where there’s almost too much information and not enough discernment. In that world, we neglect libraries at our peril.

And besides, all those books together in one place? Bound to cause issues. As Terry Pratchett points out, "The three rules of the Librarians of Time and Space are: 1) Silence; 2) Books must be returned no later than the date last shown; and 3) Do not interfere with the nature of causality."

Because librarians rule, ook?

Many Wiki Returns!

Happy 10th birthday, Wikipedia!

Yes, I know, you shouldn’t use it as a formal citation, and don’t go quoting it in your dissertation, but as a go-to reference when you just want an overview of a subject, or if you want to settle an argument in a pub, Wikipedia is fantastic. Go Wiki!

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPhone.

Bookstart programme to lose funding

We all know the Coalition (doesn’t that look sinister when you capitalise it?) are cutting everything that moves (we’re all in it together, you know), but this latest one seems to be the sort of thing that sneaks under the radar. Funding for the Bookstart initiative and its sister programmes is to be scrapped. Run by Booktrust, this initiative provides a pack of books to infants and children at key points in their education, and some of the comments in the article point to the outrage this latest news has caused (they’re asking for stories from people who have benefitted from the schemes).

Neil Gaiman has tweeted to encourage people to write to their MP on the matter, and he’s right. I know savings have to be made, and maybe it’s just bad timing on the announcements, but it does seem that there’s an assault on access to education that really sticks in the throat. Scrapping Bookstart funding is just the latest example.

But hey, maybe it’s not so bad. We’ve still got libraries, right?

Oh damn.

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPhone.

Writer’s Block: Knowledge is power

Everything! I’m an information junkie. I don’t like it when I find out I don’t know about stuff. For instance, I found out today there used to be an empire in southern Russia, the Kazhar empire. I’d never heard of it. That bothered me. See, I’m interested in stuff like history or theology, or entertainment or Transformers, and while I’m aware there’s lots I don’t know, that’s just part of the thrill of discovery. In general it’s the stuff about which I know next to nothing that gets me twitchy.

For instance, I’d like to know more about art. Some people can look at a piece of art and draw all sorts of conclusions from the colours, imagery, the brushstrokes, the composition. I look at a piece of art and say "Ooo, that’s nice." And then someone will tell me I’m looking at the sign for the emergency exit.

I don’t know a lot about classical music either, although that’s down to my limited attention span. Symphonies go on too long, and yes, I’m aware that makes me sound like a total dumbass. I listened to the Doctor Who Proms, but I don’t think that counts.

I could probably do with knowing more about science, although I’m more interested in how it’s applied than the process itself. Basically, I’d like to be sure that, if I were ever in a life or death situation, and had only everyday household items around me, I could blow up some bad guys, like MacGyver. I’d also like to own a Swiss Army Knife, or maybe a working Sonic Screwdriver.

I wish my mental arithmatic was better.

I’m rubbish at languages. I know more Klingon than I do, say, Spanish. That’s really crass.

I know very little about how my car works.

Or my computer, for that matter.

And while I think I’ve got reasonable biblical knowledge, t kinda bugs me that I can never remember chapter and verse references. That probably makes me a lame Sunday School teacher.

So yeah, I’m the kind of person who reads random Wikipedia articles for fun, and I once got annoyed that I couldn’t write in binary, so I devised a spreadsheet to help me do that. But knowledge is power! And maybe a little obsessively crazy. But power too!