April 20, 2022

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From Electronic Agents to
Stonehenge and Back: and Other
Journeys Through Knowledge.

by James Burke.
Simon & Schuster, 1999 (285 pages)

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    Quote = "With 'twenty different journeys across the great web of change' and '142 gateways,' Burke offers readers 'at least 142 different ways' to read his book. The book is full of useful information and an interesting experiment in 'webbed knowledge'." by Mary Carrol of Booklist Review.

    INTRODUCTION (11-17)

    HOW TO USE THIS BOOK (19-20)

    1) FEEDBACK (21-46)

    2) WHAT'S IN A NAME? (47-69)

    3) DROP THE APPLE (70-93)

    4) AN INVISIBLE OBJECT (94-116)

    5) LIFE IS NO PICNIC (117-143)

    6) ELEMENTARY STUFF (144-167)

    7) A SPECIAL PLACE (168-192)

    8) FIRE FROM THE SKY (193-215)

    9) HIT THE WATER (216-240)

    10) IN TOUCH (241-262)

    BIBLIOGRAPHY (263-269)

    INDEX (271-285)

    Selected Topics Highlighted:

      Alternating current
      American colonies
      American express
      American War of Independence
      Analytical engine
      Anatomy of the brain, book by Willis
      "Average person"
      Ballot Balloons Bananas
      Barbed wire
      Big Bang theory
      Blockades, trade
      Blood transfusions
      Boyle's Law
      Cable, transatlantic
      Capillary action
      Catholic Church
      Celtic society
      Cold War
      Cotton gin
      Courtly love
      Darwin, Charles
      Death penalty
      Descartes, Rene
      Diesel engine
      Drills, military

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR (unpaged)

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    SUMMARY = James Burke, the bestselling author and host of television's "Connections" series, takes us on a fascinating tour through the interlocking threads of knowledge running through Western history. He displays mesmerizing flights of fancy, when he shows how seemingly unrelated ideas and innovations bounce off one another, spinning a vast, interactive web on which everything is connected to everything else.

    BOOK DESCRIPTION = Illustrating his open, connective theme in the form of a journey across the web, Burke breaks down complex concepts, offering information in a manner accessible to anybody -- high school graduates and Ph.D. holders alike. The journey touches more than one hundred interlinked points in the history of knowledge, ultimately ending where it began. Gateways, set at various points in the narrative, allow readers to jump through literary hyperspace to other different but related concepts throughout the book. "Carmen" leads to the theory of relativity, champagne bottling links to wallpaper design, Joan of Arc connects through vaudeville to Buffalo Bill.

    At once amusing and instructing, the book heightens our awareness of our interdependence — with one another and with the past. Only by understanding the interrelated nature of the modern world can we hope to identify complex patterns of change and direct the process of innovation to the common good.

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    PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY REVIEW = Continuing in the vein of The Pinball Effect, his unconventional history of technological change, Burke offers 20 new historical "story lines" that attempt to demonstrate the interactive, often serendipitous connections among ideas, events, people and innovations.

    His style matches his subject as he skips from one topic to another, moving at the speed of hypertext. The chapter on feedback systems hops from neural networks "computers that simulate the human brain's workings" to studies of the physiology of animal emotion, Cyrus Field's pioneering transatlantic telephone cable in 1857 and thence to Napoleon, James Watt, Arts and Crafts movement leader William Morris and Theosophist Annie Besant.

    Burke always risks being charged with carrying on an intellectual parlor game that trivializes the history of science and invention, of stretching the maxim "everything is interconnected" to the point of meaninglessness. But because his material is intrinsically interesting and because Burke is a superb raconteur, his maverick guide to the byways of Western civilization is entertaining when consumed in small segments. This manic, associative tour of the cultural underpinnings of technological advancement fast, sexy and packed with information; but it's ultimately shapeless and provides little in the way of deeper understanding.

    BOOKLIST REVIEW = Burke, familiar to PBS watchers from series like Connections, is back, practicing what he preached in The Axemaker's Gift (1995). The Knowledge Web is Burke's effort to replicate, in linear form, the sort of "webbed" knowledge available to Internet surfers. Its 20 chapters trace often serendipitous developments of particular products or scientific discoveries: the sort of narratives Burke watchers have seen many times.

    In this book, however, the Burke makes intersections explicit: a person --- say, Cyrus Field or Annie Besant --- or idea that appears several times in the book is a "gateway," and each reference is marked with the other places in the book where the same person or idea comes up again. A curious reader who wants to explore the gateway can stop reading about the telegraph and switch to a chapter on warships or instant coffee. With "twenty different journeys across the great web of change" and 142 gateways, Burke offers readers "at least 142 different ways" to read his book. Full of useful information and an interesting experiment in "webbed" knowledge. -- Mary Carroll

    LIBRARY JOURNAL REVIEW = Flights of fancy from a sci-tech expert, e.g., what do Buffalo Bill Cody and the Spanish Inquisition have in common?

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    [1] One of the most intriguing minds in the Western world. – The Washington Post.

    [2] James Burke is a favorite author of mine. – Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and philanthropist.

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    [1] N. Helfinstine - This book is late-career James Burke at his best. But the Kindle version or ebook, it is a waste of money due to Formatting Problems, Avoid! It is marred by very frequent errors. It is clear the ebook was created by scanning a printed copy, and then not proofreading. What's even worse, is that the printed book had a kind of hyperlinking internally. There were footnotes with the page number of related topics, so if you read about, say, James Watt in chapter 2 and wanted to find out more, you could flip to the appropriate pages. If this ebook were properly formatted, it would be upgraded to real hyperlinks — click the link, and the book goes to the new page correctly. But instead, they were scanned as end notes. Therefore, at the end of every chapter in the ebook is a series of useless numbers, that were originally the footnotes. The scan turned them into garbage.

    [2] Astrotom - Fantastic! = A variation on some of Burke's other works. I own several of his books and never tire of the information and connections he sets afoot. It really depends on how much of a Burke nut you are as to whether you will find it repetitive or fascinating (again). Burke is one of my Heroes and I believe he can do no wrong.

    [3] Chris - Misleading Title, Blurb, Introduction = This book was a sorry disappointment. I will preface my further remarks by saying that I am a huge fan of Mr. Burke's television productions, and (ironically) I actually enjoyed the book a great deal, but for mostly all the wrong reasons. The fact is that the book does not deal with what is alluded to by the title, the jacket copy, or the author's introduction. Unfortunately, those were the only elements that I scanned when looking over the book in the store — and then buying it online. The marketing blurb on the cover says "From electronic agents to Stonehenge and back...". Well, there was a very small bit about electronic agents and believe it or not, Stonehenge was not mentioned once throughout the entire book. Mr. Burke was not well served here by his market driven editors.

    The only reason I still enjoyed the book is that I love both history and technology, and that is the terrain through which this addled account rambles. Regrettably, this book was more like an extended outpouring of jumbled, loosely 'connected' trivia from a hyper-loquacious Alzheimer's patient, than anything truly salient or purposeful. There was absolutely no discernible point to the narrative. The author's attempt to put the work into some kind of prosaic hyperlink format was a bit embarrassing as well. Lastly, the book ended abruptly and arbitrarily, almost as if Mr. Burke's nurse had come in and said "That's all for today. It is time for Mr. Burke's evening feeding. Maybe you can come back tomorrow." I hope not.

    [4] Geert Anthonis - Witty and challenging Burke at his best = It is refreshing to find a book that lives up to its reputation. Not that you should have any doubts when the name James Burke is on the cover. Witty, interesting, intriguing, engaging and the list goes on... A book can be good even if there is no real point to it at all, which is my opinion. However, I can recommend it for a few hours of interesting reading and relaxation. [5] brucee - What is not to like = It is James Burke! What is there not to like?

    [6] John - Good Quality Read = This book is a historical account of ideas and inventions. That why I bought it. It is a good value. Most products which James Burke puts his name on are well worth investigating. I recommend this book.

    [7] JohnCarr - Trivial Connections? = I grew up watching James Burke on TV and was, and am, an admirer of his TV shows/books "Connections" and "The Day the Universe Changed". ("Connections" showed how various scientific discoveries and inventions – often seemingly disparate – are built on one another in unexpected ways. "The Day…" covered somewhat similar territory, but in a more linear fashion.) Unfortunately, "The Knowledge Web" does not add to my admiration of his work. It seems to me to be making connections for the sake of making connections rather than for the sake of making a substantial point.

    For readers unfamiliar with Burke's work, I would not recommend this as a starting point but rather "The Day the Universe Changed" or "Connections." For readers familiar with his work, I would warn you not to expect too much. "The Knowledge Web" is to "Connections" and "The Day the Universe Changed" as The Godfather Part III is to The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.

    For me a minimum requirement for a professionally produced non-fiction work by an experienced author is that it be factually correct as regards non-disputed, established facts. On page 51 we're told that "On November 20, 1918, at the battle of Cambria, the first use of the tank changed the face of war." It is common knowledge that WW1 ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 so you would think that someone proofreading it would spot the obvious mistake (it should have read 1917). Furthermore Cambria wasn't the first use of the tank (it had been in use since September 15, 1916) rather it was its first significant use. On page 238 we're told that Charles Lindbergh "…completed the first ever transatlantic crossing…" Burke is a Brit born in Ireland and you would expect him to know that the first ever non-stop transatlantic flight (as opposed to one by flying boat with stops) was by two Britons, Alcock and Brown, who landed in Ireland in 1919. Lindbergh's was the first by plane from mainland to mainland. On page 239 we are told of a German warship that the "Graf Spee …packed the punch of a full-sized battleship and went faster and farther than any cruiser." This sentence contains three assertions of fact, each of which is incorrect. The Graf Spee carried six 11" guns. A typical battleship of WW2 carried eight to ten 14", 15" or 16" guns. The three cruisers that fought the Graf Spee in the battle of the River Plate were all faster than her and one had a longer range. These are not difficult facts to ascertain.

    [8] Dr. D. Watkins - A Fun Meander Through the History of Science = Immensely enjoyable, entertaining and enlightening meander through the history of science. It contains factual errors (as other reviewers document) and lacks a formal structure but it is a "Fun Book" and thus succeeds wildly in illustrating (proving might be too strong a word) that knowledge is interconnected. Moreover, he supplies the names of the people who made it happen, many of whom will surprise you. Plus, as always, Burke excels at explaining the origin and naming of the common things with which we are familiar but do not really know much about. Highly recommended.

    [9] Gwyn - Interesting, but does not go any where = Reviewer John Car has already pointed out the historical inaccuracies of this book. I found that, although well written, it does not sustain my interest. As someone else pointed out, it seems to be connections for the sake of connections, which, unlike the first book in the series, do not seem to lead anywhere. In Burke's first book he tells how a series of connected discoveries led to a modern product like the television. That book had an end result, this one does not. I also found myself wondering what happened to some people or discoveries after Burke had finished with them. Finally, I started making my own connections. Take Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show - that employed Annie Oakley — a sharp shooter who probably used Winchester rifles. From there you could go on to Samuel Colt whose guns were made using interchangeable parts, an idea adopted by Henry Ford, the only capitalist that Hitler admired... I hope you get the idea.

    [10] minoru - A Brilliant book by a brilliant man = It is my current bedside reading after having read it right through twice already. There is just too much to absorb on one read. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The book's condition is still as good as new, I am very pleased indeed. Thank you everyone concerned.

    [11] DM SHERWOOD - Fascinating = The book is an unconventional view of history!

    [12] Neil Hardie = James Burke is interesting and his book is brilliantly written.

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    RECOMMENDATION: You can re-read this summary according to a reinforcement schedule, such as a few hours later and a few days later and then several times in the next week or two. This strategy can help you take advantage of the power of the spaced-repetition method of memorization. Such deep introspection can strengthen your willpower and increase your self-esteem by changing your adaptable self-identity.

    You Are Your Adaptable Memory!

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