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    It’s not tech, or at least not… what we mean by tech around here, but I’m going to make an exception about this because I have a pretty fun story to tell about it:

    Today, my kids just assume that the sum of all human knowledge is available with a single search or a “hey Alexa” so the world’s mysteries are less mysterious and they become bored by the Paradox of Choice.

    So back when I was a kid I’d read Jules Verne’s “The Mysterious Island” and “In Search of the Castaways”. And that raised a very interesting problem for me: I wanted to know if Tabor island really existed. This was a bit of a tricky thing with Jules Verne’s books, because they were pretty well researched. Some of the places were obviously fictitious (Lincoln Island in The Mysterious Island, for example, and a bunch of stuff around the North Pole and so on) but most of them were absolutely real places.

    So I embarked on a two-year quest that was completely inconclusive. I had a map at home, of course, and it didn’t show it. But it also didn’t show a lot of other small islands that I knew were real, and I figured that was because it was a large-scale map. I borrowed an atlas from the school library, which had some more detailed map of the Pacific region and it didn’t show up there, either, but then again, the maps were small and not that detailed, either, since the Pacific is a long way from us.

    So I pestered my father to get me a book about the Pacific Ocean and its islands. Thankfully, nerdiness runs in the family. A few weeks later he got me three books, two of which had pretty good maps. That was a dead end though: most Pacific islands worth writing a book about are in one of the major archipelagos, whereas Tabor would have been a lone island. I read all three but didn’t find anything.

    So I asked one of my mother’s colleagues (she teaches elementary school and after enough pestering she introduced me to one of her colleagues who taught geography). She told me she doesn’t know of any island with that name. I came prepared, of course – I knew the latitude and longitude from the book! – and she said it doesn’t ring a bell but that doesn’t mean much, there are thousands of island all over the world and she doesn’t know them all, either. But she took me to her office where she had a huge map that covered an entire wall, and we looked for it and we didn’t find anything.

    That sort of laid it to rest – I was pretty sure Tabor island didn’t exist – but, still being at an age where you’re dreaming of chasing pirates and all that, I sort of kept a tiny glimmer of hope that maybe it’s a real place. After all, I didn’t read anything that said it’s not there – all I had as confirmation was a bunch of maps drawn beyond the Iron Curtain in the early 60s (at best), which got a bunch of things in remote areas of the world wrong anyway.

    Fast forward a few of years later and now my computer has a Winmodem in its guts (I was in… 7th grade, I think). I stumble upon some discussion about Jules Verne’s books on a forum and I remember my quest for Tabor Island. So I go to altavista (yep)…

    …and bam, two minutes later I’m staring at three pages that explain what phantom reefs are, how Maria Theresa is one of them, and how there are a bunch of other phantom islands like that, and how they tried to look for it several times, most recent one in the 1970s, and it wasn’t found.

    Two minutes to settle a question that I’d previously spent two years seeking an answer to. This is the power of the Internet.

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      Two minutes to settle a question that I’d previously spent two years seeking an answer to. This is the power of the Internet.

      The question isn’t settled. Not found != not exist.

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        Well, I guess one could say it was only conclusively settled in the age of Google Earth. But there’s a big difference in certainty between “I couldn’t find it on a map” and “two expeditions in the 1950s and 1970s looked for it at a time when everyone already suspected it doesn’t exist and they didn’t find it, either”.

        I’m not going to deny that I still do hope it exists, though :).

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        The scale was amazing. The web would probably have fitted on a fairly small stack of CD-ROMs when Encarta first came out. My computer had a 60 MB hard disk, Encarta was over ten times the size of all of the programs and data I had installed. The computer I got in 1996ish (the first one I owned with a CD-ROM drive) had a 1GiB disk, so only slightly larger than Encarta.

        Wikipedia, ignoring talk pages and history, is around 14GiB compressed. That’s around 20 times the size of Encarta and most pages don’t have any video. The amount of data that is available in a quick search these days is just staggering.

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          I don’t want to take anything away from Wikipedia, it’s great, but I also think people have forgotten what a traditional reference is like.

          For example if the subject is a British person (or is related to the former British Empire at all) the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography articles are still streets ahead of the majority of Wikipedia’s. All written by academic historians, all fact checked by the editors. It’s really good. And free to almost everyone in the UK - just enter your council library card number.

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            I can’t wait for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography to get into the public domain so we can incorporate sections of it wholesale into Wikipedia. :) This is already done with old versions of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

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            It was! Even in 1998, when the web had already grown a lot, Encarta came on two (or four?) CDs and it seemed huge.

            And it especially seemed huge when compared to what was available on paper. I didn’t have an encyclopedia at home but I did have something called an encyclopedic dictionary – a thick, 2000-page book printed in minuscule letters, that included some full-color illustrations and a lot of charts. At some point I’d read something about Denmark in some school magazine and I wanted to know more about it – and everything I could find, and knew, about Denmark at the time was condensed in the 200-word or so entry in that dictionary, a 3-by-5” black-and-white picture of Copenhagen also in the dictionary, plus whatever I could gather from the maps in an atlas (the names of about a dozen cities, I think?). I’d read those 200 words enough times that I probably knew them by heart at some point. I looked for a book about it but didn’t find anything for a few weeks.

            Then I got a hold of Encarta 98 which had several pages about Denmark, including one about history. And a recording of a traditional song. And images from all over that country. And it took me all of thirty seconds to find it.

            By 1998 the web was definitely large enough that it wouldn’t fit on a CD anymore, but there were few places on the WWW that had as much information in one place as Encarta did, and covering such a diversity of formats.

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          Available on archive.org: https://archive.org/details/microsoftencartapremiumedition2009

          Works fine on Windows 10.

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            It was absolutely my favorite program when I was in high school, which would have been in the late 90s. I spent so much time reading random articles!

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              I used to love Cinemania, then the IMDB happened…

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                We got Encarta 94 or however it was called with the first PC, back then. It was pretty good, although printing the b/w images on a dot matrix printer wasn’t exactly quick or high fidelity. I think I never used any updated version, and then Wikipedia came.