LilaTovCocktail: Ingredients: one part NE Ohio; two parts politics; two parts media, and one part each: culture, family & the Jewish community. Directions: Shake well.

The joy of surf: link--tripping and unplanned discovery


Link-tripping: the joys of serendipitous online discovery

Conventional wisdom is that the internet works best when people need "narrow, just-in-time learning" (Jakob Nielsen); several usability and eyetrack studies show that most of our time online is "purpose-driven" and spent impatiently scanning content in "ruthless pursuit of actionable content."

While that's true, it's not always true.

In my 17 years online, I've come to believe that you can really glimpse what the internet is and what it is capable of only when
  • you're finding knowledge you're not necessarily in search of
  • discovering something you never knew existed
  • learning something that you had no idea you might want to know.
If search engines, directories and the semantic web are attempts to tame, or at least quantify, the spontaneous spurts and spurs of web growth, the social web is an acknowledgement that some of the web's best and most pleasurable uses stem from accidental, tangential, atypical and ultimately uncontrollable connections among people.

About half of the coolest things I find online these days come to me not in emails or on websites but in 140 character tweets from people I follow on twitter. Here's an example:

A couple hours ago, a tweet from fivehusbands sent me to niobe's blog to read this restrained and lovely meditation on the metaphorical implications of the "lost" 23rd Hebrew letter. (Thanks, fivehusbands!)
[B]ecause of the missing letter, our words are misspelled, our sentences are crooked, our grammar twists round on itself, our plans go wrong and our hopes go astray. No-one knows the sound or shape or even the name of the lost letter, but it's sometimes called simply ha-ot -- the letter.
For obvious reasons, this story appeals to me -- the missing piece, the missing peace. Faith is not one of my gifts, but I believe, as much as I believe anything, that one day, whether through our own efforts or god's grace, ha-ot will return to us. There will be new worlds built of new words; what is broken will be made whole and what is lost will be found.
Niobe used a word I didn't know (abjad), so I followed her thoughtfully-provided link to the Typological Glossary and discovered several words that I, a confessed font addict and former English professor (but alas, no linguist) had never heard: abjad, abugida, syllabary and boustrophedon.

I admit that I love finding new words almost as much as the Sex in the City chicks love buying new shoes. Among words, these are the Manolo Blahniks and Jimmy Choos, not the run-of-the mill slang, jargon and neologisms you can find on trend-tracking sites like Wordspy or the Double-Tongued Dictionary. These are well-established, poetic and (if you need to talk about language, literally or metaphorically) extremely functional words.

The internet is an amazing tool for serendipitous discovery and unexpected learning, faster and more powerful than television, newspapers, coffee-shop chatter and adult education combined.

You can become virtually peripatetic in a number of ways:

But right now, twitter is my surf-mobile of choice. It's fast-moving and timely: people tweet links to new content as soon as its posted. A lot of bloggers use twitter to "microblog" information like links that are too small for a blogpost. Some of my favorite links have come from "top twitterers," experts who have thousands of followers.

And in the spirit of sharing and serendipitous learning, here are my new words:

Abjad is the technical term for the type of writing system used by Semitic languages (Hebrew, Arabic, etc.), where there are glyphs for all the consonants but the reader must be prepared to guess what vowel to add between two consonants.

Both Hebrew and Arabic have optional vowel marks and are called "impure" abjads. Ancient Phoenician had nothing but consonants and is a "pure" abjad.

See Also: alphabet, abugida, syllabary and the relevant Wikipedia article.

An abugida is somewhere in between an alphabet and a syllabary. The Indic writing systems are probably the best known abugidas.

In most abugidas there are independant glyphs for the consonants, and each consonant is implicitly followed by a default vowel sound. All vowels other than the default will be marked by either diacritics or some other modification to the base consonant.

An abugida differs from a syllabary in that there is a common theme to the the images representing a syllable beginning with a given consonant (that is, the glyph for the consonant), while in a syllabary each syllable is distinct even if two start with a common consonant.

An abugida differs from an abjad in that vowels (other than the default) must be marked in the abugida.

See Also: alphabet, abjad, syllabary and the relevant Wikipedia article.

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David December 3, 2008 at 8:51 PM  

Just briefly: I love "boustrophedon," even if I don't know what it means. I hate "actionable" because I don't know what it means.

David December 4, 2008 at 8:43 PM  

I just can't let it go. After I went to bed last night, I remembered what I think is the meaning of "boustrophedon." I think it was an ancient Greek way of writing -- from left to right on one line, and from right to left on the next, as if in imitation of plowing a field.

I still have no idea what "actionable" means. :)

LilaTovCocktail December 4, 2008 at 9:33 PM  

That's right -- you got boustrophedon exactly right.

And actionable is a terrible pieces of efficiency-expert corporate-speak that exemplifies everything I loathe about corporate culture and management trends...

At, if we came to meetings and the facilitator said, "The CEO wants us to leave this meeting with 5 actionable items on our agenda," what they really meant was "we're been meeting and meeting and nothing has happened, so now the CEO says that someone in this room has to make five decisions about something and implement them right now."

The problem was if you had a legitimate and complex issue you were sorting through, any "actionable" item you invented before the issue was resolved was either 1) a pointless extra step or 2) a way to foreclose the discussion before it was really concluded.

If a meeting I was in started that way, I'd immediately start playing Solitaire on my Palm Pilot and concentrating on keeping my mouth until the meeting ended ...

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