The Mother of All Books

There is an article today in The Independent, “Authors’ word choices create unique 'fingerprints’”, about an article in the New Journal of Physics, “The meta book and size-dependent properties of written language”, which in the midst of its otherwise thoroughly technical text, comes out with the following lovely passage:

All this time you’ve just been pulling it from the mother book. So, enough of your mewling and, uh, whining.

Oh, there is also this humbling moment (likewise stolen out of context):

This should either infuriate or bring comfort, depending on where you are with your current writing project.

Geez, I also found out that I had been using words indiscriminately in utter ignorance of the fact that my word use was supposed to conform to a law, Zipf’s law. What a silly felon.


“Statistically speaking, there is no such thing as a beginning or an end.”

This is not so much different from the nuts-and-bolts textual analysis tools used by various intelligence services (for at least 90 years) in trying to determine who exactly was writing speeches, broadsides, editorials, and the whole panoply of propaganda materials.

As to the beginning and end question…


Just read: … 23015.html and it pretty much confirms my own suspicions.
Take care

A quite good entrance for the contest “useless knowledge”… :stuck_out_tongue:

Does have a lot to contend with , though.

Are you still under the weather Andreas ? Nothing serious I hope!.
Take care, plenty of rest and lots n lots of Glühwein :wink:

I am always at great pains to tell my students … at least the ones who will listen to what I consider to be words of wisdom from an old geezer like me … there is no such thing as “useless knowlege/information”.

I agree Mark. Let me cite as an example my own humble repository. Inconsequential? Of course. Irrelevant; inaccurate? Utterly. But…useless? Never!

Mark, you may want to remeber that “usefull” is entirely contextual. I can put 5 rounds in the diameter of a dime at 200 yds, but that knowledge is of no use since I will not hunt or participate in armed conflict.

Then again if you ever see me walking around with a rifle you might want to walk away quickly. :wink:

in general I agree. I am just finding the much of the info that seems of value has little to none.

Hmm … I would consider your ability with a rifle to be a matter of skill not knowledge, and even that I would say, is something that you can never know when you might suddenly find a need for. But I would agree that skills are potentially more in the realm of the useless.

Actually, I put “knowledge” in there to link it better to Andreas’ comment, and I normally limit my “home-grown wisdom” to “information” as the concept of “knowledge” is much more of an intellectual quicksand to me. I would like to say that the problem these days is determining what is genuine information from within the welter of pseudo-information that we are given these days, but the truth is that I have found often that items of pseudo-information, that is information which in itself has apparently little or no value, has in fact proved useful. I cannot tell you how many times, when in the middle of a family conversation about some topic of concern to my then teenage daughter, what for me were apparently random bits of information have elicited the comment, “Dad, how on earth did you know that?”

You are right, context or perhaps connections is important; memory is dependent on building links between items. But all information has a context in which it will be useful, it’s just that as individuals we may never encounter that context, therefore it seems useless. I won’t commit myself to believing I will never meet such a context for whatever information I encounter, so I try to store it.

This seems bizarrely on-topic, as that philosophy is not so far removed from the concept put forward by the original article on each of us writers having a universal book from which we extract those parts for which we find a suitable context.


The skill is “latent”. Knowing that I have the skill, and what that skill yields would be knowledge/information if I understand your position. Hence the value of the knowledge is having it available with the context requiring arises (in my case, the collapse of civilization will allow me to supply food or protect what is mine).

The question in my mind is if this value is fixed or variable. If we consider knowledge/information in the same value context as currency (reasonable when you consider the salary of skilled workers vs unskilled) we are confronted with Zimbabwe. Could we have knowledge/information that has an exchange rate that rivals the Zimbabwean rate of exchange? If so, would that information be “useless”?

Again, I agree with the principle.

There are two issues that arise with me for that. Firstly, as I tried to say, I’m not sure that I want to equate knowledge and information, but am too lazy to try and work out what the crutch is … just that, as I said, the concept of knowledge seems to me to be a bit of an intellectual quagmire. The other is that you are following my point entirely … that skill and the knowledge that you have it — to cede your point — does have a context, even if you never encounter that context, assuming that the civilisation quo endures for the rest of your life. The knowledge has its usefulness; you may never need to use it.

This I find more worrying, though hard to pin down. I don’t think of information as a kind of currency, though I know there are many in this world that do, and the pressures of modern society are on us to do so. That is to treat it merely as a means of exchange, whereas I think of it as something simply to be enjoyed, if I can put it that way. I do not acquire an object, let’s say an antique pot, because I will be able to sell it, I buy it because I find it beautiful and possessing it brings me pleasure.
A propos, I have here a large Jingdezhen porcelain sort of jar, which I don’t think I’ll be able to take with me when I leave as it is too big and bulky. I wouldn’t dream of selling it … if I can’t take it, I will give it to a friend for him/her to enjoy as much as I do and to act as a link between us. On the other hand, there was an awful Englishman here at the university, who, when he left, sold everything he had … on his last day he was still trying to sell pirated DVDs at the equivalent of about 10 pence each. He would think of information as currency; I think of information, and knowledge if you will, as something of beauty or of an intrinsic value, there to be passed on to others.
And as for your Zimbabwean currency, whatever they call it, it does have a potential use, in the context of finding oneself in that poor benighted country. It may be worthless in exchange with other currencies, and even in Zimbabwe you might need a suitcase-full to buy a loaf of bread, but it does have its use.
I fear I am too old for this modern world, and have worries of creeping post-modernism! :confused:

Considering that we pretty much agree on this point (intrinsic value to things) let me explain where the small difference is between our positions. I need to make a small clarifying statement first. Information is data, facts, while knowledge is the association of those facts to a specific context.†

That our of the way, i would suggest that just like art and antiques, information (data) has a value to that relative to the ones who want it. Just as you place a limitless value on your vase, others place a limited value on it (you bought it from someone for a price). You do not value pirated DVD the same way, but someone else may value the dvd simply for the data it contains (the movie). Here you have reversed the role of devaluing information.

So the difference between us is that I will say that information of type Q is priceless and the knowledge that you develop from that information brings you “power”. You leave out “of type Q”.

The real questions becomes “what is type Q and how do I find information of type Q?” I’ll let you know if I ever figure this out.

[size=70]† AmberV probably has a very specific definition that will make this statement look idiotic and undermine my entire view of information and knowledge.¥[/size]
[size=65]¥ Which is not really a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention.[/size]

Knowledge is a hardcore punk song by the ska-core band Operation Ivy.

Knowledge is a course of study which must be completed by prospective London taxi drivers.

I’m just saying.

I think you’ll find London taxi drivers and would-be taxi drivers are linguistically more definite … “The Knowledge”.

Just pointing out … :wink:


Which is why I am chary of using the word knowledge … most of our so called “knowledge” is in fact a set of assumptions.

Sure, on the vase/pot — though actually I was given it by a friend … I left that out because it merely complicates matters further — I will agree that the original seller placed a specific monetary value on it. As I said, I think, a lot of pressure is on us from society to think of everything in that way, but even if I had bought it personally, the transaction completed, it would no longer be a matter of currency value. And on the other hand, I don’t consider I buy information, therefore it comes to me without a pre-assigned value of any kind. And yes, I do know that in much of the modern (business) world, information is a commodity that is bought!

I don’t just leave out “of type Q”, I also leave out “power”, though no doubt there could be much said on that question which would be taking this thread into undreamed of realms of off-topicking.

That “information of type Q” sounds rather like the Holy Grail to me! :wink:


This is not a phenomena isolated to “business”. This mind set extends to all areas of society. Most egregious in my mind is academia (here I go poking folks in the eye). Consider the costs of text books, Lab fees, tuition, the “publish or perish” mentality. It seems to me, an admitted biased observer, that the bastions of knowledge are only open to the highest bidder. Or are we suggesting that education is about profit and not knowledge?

The appropriate response to my argument is we have to keep in mind the differentiation of the “system” from the “person”. It is a straw man response though, as I have to buy my way into the system to get access to the information. We can claim that the commoditization of knowledge is new, but if we go back in time we see this “pay for access” extends all the way back through the ancient Greeks. To me that says this is not a modern phenomena.

Again, I am admittedly biased and highly opinionated.

We have never been shy of off-topicing in the past. Why the sudden hesitance now?

I would suggest that the “power” statement is evidenced by my previous point. Folks with power don’t like to share as evidenced by … everyone in power. What better way to prevent sharing the power of knowledge than by making it virtually unobtainable on an economic scale?

Not so much a holy-grail for me as it is a windmill. Or a dead horse. You get the idea.

Then my “Mother Book” needs its own editor because I am always drawing words from it that are consistently misspelled.

er or maybe my mother book is just a “pop up” book full of naughty beer influenced images and very little words.

Oh wait.

Here is one from my “mother book”.


OK, I now have time again to respond:

No poke in the eye to me, as I’m with you all the way about education as it is now … a sad demise from when I was young, when going to university was about learning, broadening the mind, developing … not just learning — or so it is treated now — a bunch of “transferrable skills”, i.e. things you can use to demand higher pay!

But where I differ is that to me information ≠ educational knowledge. Information is something that is all round you all the time, it comes from mere experience. I want to try to get my students to take note of everything around them, note things that they hear, things that they observe … not to go around saying to themselves, “I have a bad memory, so I won’t waste what I have by remembering such useless — i.e. they have no use for it at that moment — information.”

Mind you, I wouldn’t quite go as far as Professor Arberry, who was my brother’s Farsi supervisor in his second year at Cambridge. When BroJo, complained to him “When are you going to teach me to speak Farsi?” — as opposed to translating mediaeval texts on warfare! — Arberry apparently replied, “You’re not here to learn to speak Farsi. You’re here to learn how to be a scholar.”

Because I think I would end up in realms and depths where I would totally lose my sense of direction and what I was trying to get at, and I don’t want to get into that situation.

Oh, yes. But I’m not one with power … though if you listen to people here, they might give you another picture. They think of me as, just as was said by colleagues at lunch today, “a walking encyclopaedia” … i.e. full of random knowledge on all sorts of unrelated subjects … to most people, useless information.

To me, the whole point of learning, education, information, is precisely to pass what you know on to others. Information and learning is not something to be hoarded like a miser, or something that you hold that gives you the ability to dominate others.

And the way you put it:

made it sound as if that is something you are searching for, not a dead horse for the usual purpose.



Whew. I was beginning to think I had really messed up!

Are you sure education was really as pristine as you believe it was “back then”? Throughout time “education” has been afforded to those who can pay. The focus, even for the artist, has always been marketable skill and/or validation of their right to be an authority on a subject. Consider the ancient “Jim of Sam taught by John who talked a lion to death”. Ok, I changed names and particulars to protect the innocent, but the point is there. Eduction has rarely, if ever been pursued for the sake of learning. A few folks may make a hobby of learning, but in the end the are all doing the Jerry McGuire dance.

Then would you say that “educational knowledge” is practical application of information? And if so, how is that different than a trade like carpentry? Lastly how would “learning to be a scholar” be any different than “learning to be an electrician”?

I guess what I am asking you to consider is that you are an idealist on this front. I agree with you in theory but I am unable to see how we, society, can really separate information and/or education from the power/money game that we seem trapped in.

You are one with power. Positionally, experientially, and cranially. You are paid for “what you know” and you control who gets to know it. You are altruistic in your sharing of information, but, just as you accuse me, you are being too modest in acknowledging the value of what you posses in that space between your ears. You and I both make money by exposing our gray matter to others and disseminating its contents. We are the ultimate demonstration of the value of information/knowledge. Actually I am not. Druid would be a member of the elite, as would all the other teachers and professors.

As to type Q, I am seeking. Problem is that once I sift though the data I wind up with … nothing. So I become more cynical and fight a system that seems topsy-turvy when I look at how information and value are assessed. Just as Don Quixote longed to live in the days of the knight errant, you and I long to live in a day when access to information is considered a right, not a privilege. Sure we can just sit and experience life which bring an enormous amount of information to us. But why should my desire for more information be limited to what I see in my immediate surroundings? Let me have access to the books, to the men with brains, the raw data.

And they will let me have access. For a price.

I beat my horse and tilt with windmills. I laugh as the curtain is raised and the wizard appears as nothing more than a little, old man. I know that someday, knowing your skills with a rifle will be the difference between life and starvation (hopefully not in the life time of anyone that I know). Until that day I will continue to collect what information I can just so I have it when I need it. I promise not to hoard it.

I am surprised at how much anger I felt toward “the system” when typing this. Not a good sign.

Mr J :wink:

I think I have to say, along with you, we are actually in fundamental agreement. Our terminology perhaps is different, and, in a real sense as well as in a more personal sense, as in our former private discussion — which again a flood of work got in the way of being able to continue — we live in different cultures.

Most people who come here find it difficult to assimilate into the culture; I find it difficult to understand and assimilate, in this case, to a culture where everything is reduced to its economic value. You fight and kick against the system in which you find yourself; I …

Well let me put it this way, back in early 2000 when I told a friend in England that I was coming here, she said I was just running away from my problems. I assured her and meant it, that I was not; I was coming here because it had been, not a plan, but a seed there in my mind from the age of around 14 when I’d decided to do my degree in Chinese … a seed that then fell on the desert sand of the “Great Cultural Revolution”. For over 20 years, I did what I could in life, thinking I’d never come here. It finally happened unexpectedly, in 1995 for 3 weeks, and by the end of those three weeks I had promised a young colleague on the project that one day I’d come back here to live and work … no idea how to make it happen, and too many impediments at the time, but a lovely, warming dream. That dream came true in 2000 and I came here for a year … and here I am nearly 10 years later, knowing I will have to return home to the UK soon, but not knowing how I’m going to manage that either, with all my ties here.

So what have I done? I’ve moved into a different system and culture which allows me to be a benign alien … if you like, to live my idealist dream as nearly as is possible. I am not part of the system — my friends are and they have to cope with it, but I’m outside it. Many years ago, a friend said to me when I was outraged at something she had said and pointed out that it didn’t apply to me, “Well, everyone knows you’re an alien!” It is as if I have finally managed to find somewhere where I can be the benign alien that she told me I am.

Yes, I’m paid for my work, currently roughly USD 600 per month … I do need food, drink and a roof over my head. And yes, out of that money I can save enough to buy myself an MBP and an MBA, external disk drives, a scanner, an inkjet printer and a laser printer, a small recording set-up, external DVD drives … and take friends out to meals, fly off to New Zealand — I hope for the next holiday. But to me, if I had only half of that money, I would still have a roof over my head and food and drink on my table, and my friends … and what is most important to me, the chance to give intellectual and personal support to my friends, students and colleagues. It is those latter things that matter, not the money.

And yes, my education did cost money … mostly to the state. My father working abroad for the British Council, I believe my school fees were largely met by the Council. At Cambridge, my parents’ required contributions, thanks to the state scholarship scheme that existed, amounted to GBP10 per month, about GBP30 per month, plus fees being paid by the state. In my last two years, I had a college scholarship which raised my living by about 80%, so I was pretty wealthy I felt. My daughter ended up going to a private girl’s school … it took half my salary as a university lecturer, and then at Cambridge we had to give her our, pretty modest, contribution to her living. But in none of this, not my costs to my parents, nor our daughter’s costs to us, nor my income as a teacher, has the money been an end. It’s been a necessary evil, if you like. We all have to live … sadly, much of the world, much of the system is geared, and yes, has been for centuries, geared to making the end money, the creation of wealth, and also power. And you are right to be angry, because from what I gather, you seem fundamentally to have been a victim of that, where I have not.

If money were an object for me, I’d be doing like Chinese teachers and charging students for writing references for them … in some cases, also saying to the student, “You write the reference, and I’ll edit it and sign it”! I’d have made over a month’s salary extra in the last 6 weeks! And if I were like the vast majority of foreign teachers, I’d be complaining about my pay, and doing the absolute minimum that I could get away with.

Earlier this year, in summer while I was in England, a colleague — actually, the same colleague to whom I’d originally promised that I’d come back here — went to a conference on interpreting in Shanghai. She was to give a paper on a topic we’d been working on together for some time, on cognition and translating/interpreting. She wrote me an email at the first opportunity after her presentation. Apart from congratulating her on the paper, apparently the most common comment from those who’d been present was, “I wish we had foreign experts like that at our university.” Their foreign experts, and most of those here, are selling what expertise they have, and as they’re not paid much, they don’t sell much.

And yes, too, all this gives me influence and authority, and perhaps power that I don’t recognise, in the eyes of my colleagues and friends and acquaintances … and I find that very hard to accept. I don’t want it, it frightens me, it burdens me with too much responsibility, responsibility that I don’t think I’m capable of carrying.

Idealist … yes; alien … yes; idiot … probably. But fundamentally happy and at peace with myself.