Twenty-XXth Century Problems

The problem with the computerization of knowledge is that your access to it is only as good as your search engine. And search engines are notoriously difficult to program, meaning they’re often of doubtful quality. The wrong words, wrong word order, or wrong abbreviation can throw your results wildly off – if, in fact, if brings up any results at all.

(Written while silently swearing at a search engine that brings up 0 when I looked for juniper, when there are four varieties sitting on a counter. Oy….)

Janet Kagan put this to good use in her Mirabile stories, hinting first that they’d lost some of the colony ships’ database info, then some of the index (“No, searching for insectivores did not bring up bats”), then a reveal that an answer to a long-standing problem had been hiding in plain sight until someone went through all the science article archives by hand…. And even then, the searchers had to know what timeframe they were looking for.

And that was a case where hand-searching the archive was even possible. If everything was completely up to computers, down to which texts to pull up to “better fit” some algorithm of what users were “supposed” to be interested in-

We’d have a lot of information loss, even if it was technically still in the archive. If you can’t find it, it might as well not be there.

This is why I am and always will be in favor of hardcopy books and backups of, well, everything. It gives you the option of a brute force search, as good as your eyes and attention can manage. And it allows for the serendipity of having the right book land on your head (or your toes, ow), while you’re looking for something else entirely.

Writing fiction, in particular, is an exercise in putting together facts and speculations that normally never come within nodding distance of each other. A nonfiction writer may be able to narrow their focus to the recent history of herb-gathering in the Appalachians, and those are worthy and interesting books. But fiction is about people, and so has to include at least a stripped-down approximation of the messiness of human lives. The facts you need can jump from local herbs to local folk medicine to folk medicine in other countries that use ginseng to the fact that folk medicine also includes incantations against haints and oni… and that’s just for starters.

(Forget the sirens singing of sex to lure sailors overboard. If they changed their tune to “unlimited inter-library loans” – they’d likely get me, is all I’m saying.)

Scientific advancement also often relies on juxtaposing things a regular search engine might never put together. As one researcher put it, the real advances don’t come from “Eureka!” but from “Say, that’s funny….”

And don’t forget one of the most useful plot twists in Attack of the Clones – planets made to disappear from the Jedi Archives. Your characters might theoretically have the galaxy’s best scientific research at their fingertips, but can they access it?

So the next time someone laughs at a quiet crewman for lugging his microfiche library from starport to starship and back – one of the first things a successful enemy attack does is cut communication lines. Like, say, access to the space Internet.

There may come a time when the laugh’s on them!

26 thoughts on “Twenty-XXth Century Problems

  1. I’ve noticed that search engines have gotten distinctly worse, in that it is literally impossible to convince them that you really mean all your search times. You click to say that they must include a term and they give you results that don’t include it.

    Heaven help you if one term was used as a movie title.

    Liked by 7 people

  2. Yeah, my local library system changing to “max limit of 1 inter-library loan per week, and it costs $5” while not getting more actually interesting books (just the then-current fad drek) was what eventually drove me to reading online as my primary source of reading material. I _prefer_ hardcopy, but…

    And if you want an interesting bit regarding microfiche, and data searches… look up combining that with holography. It was a bit niche, because of the complicated setup necessary, but you can directly search stuff like that by adding a second layer to the projector and recording the “search terms” on a second set of microfilm using holography. It works kinda like how two polarized lenses interact, so everything except the “search terms” you’ve got in the holographic film will be dark, while any spot with the “search terms” present will shine through. It doesn’t even have to be the exact same font, tho that does affect how reliably and how well it shows up (the closer the shape, the more clear the results). It’s not much use for random on-the-fly searches by normal users, but for researchers needing to go through huge archives it can save a lot of time. And obviously, if you had a way to more quickly and easily produce the holographic film with the search terms you want, that’d make it quicker and easier to set up.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. If you have a university/college library anywhere near you, check and see if:

      1. There’s a state interlibrary loan.
      2. If you can get a university library card.

      Seriously, talk to the librarians, because sometimes there are “hidden features” that they just don’t publicize very well. And buying an expensive library card (as “alumni” or “friends of the library”) would beat having no interlibrary loan.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. You know, I was just chatting with a few others about this very topic. You’d be surprised by what you can find in journals and other research papers that are relevant to what you may be writing when you have hard copies. On the ‘net, you only get what you are searching for.

    I’m with you on the hard copies where possible, because in the hard copies you get everything, not just what you are looking for…

    That is, if you manage to work your search/question the right way…

    Liked by 6 people

  4. Written while silently swearing at a search engine that brings up 0 when I looked for juniper, when there are four varieties sitting on a counter.

    Oh, oof.

    So, it was either under “cedar”, or “seasonal” or “six inch potted plant” or “perennial, varies” or….

    And then they try to HELP, so you search for “logo XXX” and get results including thirty…..

    Liked by 3 people

      1. At Lowes, I’ve found that the website/app has a _generally_ better search engine than the store phones’ built in inventory app. If I’m wanting to compare stuff, or to search for something from a vague description, or to find one out of a bunch of similar items, I’ll use my personal phone and the website, setting search filters (which the store phone _doesn’t have available_) until I find what I’m looking for… then I take the item number and plug that into the store phone, because the store phone will show me all the locations in the store the item might be, but only if I know the item number. On the other hand, if I’ve got an example of the item or a similar item, I’ll start with the store phone, because while its search engine is generally worse, it _does_ have a couple built in searches that the website doesn’t have (search for “similar” or for “related” items, _if_ you already have the item for it to base those on).

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Didn’t the mythological sirens nearly get Odysseus by promising knowledge, and/or tailor to the listener? You might need to take the good earplugs.

    (Also, my brain just helpfully(?) went “Sirens are a kind of Sith.”)

    Liked by 3 people

  6. The original Star Trek series had an episode with this: “Court Martial.” Kirk is accused of murdering a crewman during a storm, and there is supposedly computer evidence proving it. His lawyer is a “crotchety” old man with books *everywhere* in his office. Hardbacks, all of them, piled on every spare piece of furniture and some showing their age. When Kirk asks him why he doesn’t just use a computer, the old lawyer replies that computers can be edited. “But books,” he pats the old, worn copy nearest him, “books are permanent.” (I’m forgetting the exact line, but that’s a close approximation.)

    One reason why, although ebooks are convenient, I do my best to grab hard copies whenever possible is because the ebooks can be deleted or edited far too easily. The paper and hard backs? You can lose them, burn them, or otherwise destroy them, but for that to work, *first you have to HOLD them.* The best that can be said of a digital archive is that it saves physical room in your living space – and sometimes, you *still* wish your place was cramped with physical copies of everything you wanted to save! At least then you could *touch* it and/or flip through it more easily…

    Liked by 2 people

  7. One of my favorite things is going through second-hand bookstores or college libraries holding sales to clean out their shelves and finding hard copies of books that match the subject I’m reading or finding a book that interests me. Found a good book on medieval life several years back that has information not included in recently published works on the same time period.

    My grandmother even had an old copy of an American Studies textbook (you know, the kind of classes that, to graduate, you had to not only read the book, but you had to understand and even defend the Constitution in a faux debate.) I haven’t had a chance to read it since my dad snatched it up to read, but I’ll get it one of these days.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Antique stores, I’ve found, are excellent sources for old books, and they’re usually quite reasonably priced. Yardsales too, depending on where you live.

      I once got a lovely hard bound set of “The Complete Stock Doctor” at a yard sale. Has all the old recipes for plaster and poultices and how to doctor your own animals.

      Apparently didn’t fall in the “valuable books” category, because hey, veterinary science has changed since then…

      Of course, the problem with using old medical and household chemistry books for anything but information is that they used different names for the chemicals.

      Liked by 5 people

  8. And then there’s the moment of “I know I read about it in this book by this author” only to realize there are multiple editions. Several of which might as well completely different books.

    I don’t know if you’d find it useful, but has been really for some of my research binges.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. In addition to potential search engine flaws, there’s also potential data entry flaws.

    The bats aren’t tagged with Insectivore, they’re tagged with Bug-Eating.

    And don’t even try to search for bug eating…

    In a lot of cases when I’m working with a database of dubious origin, I’ll open it up and look at the attribute tables.
    Just to see what they have.

    “Oh look, they have both Name, Full Name, and Label… and all of the information is crammed into the Comment field with everything else left blank.”

    I save so much time just knowing the general shape of the information entered before I try to work with it.

    Liked by 5 people

  10. I’ve had to change my approach for finding academic sources. I used to use the ebsco host thing provided by my school, but if you wander away for 20 minutes to an hour it forces you to log back in and you can’t find whatever you were looking at again even if you use the exact same search terms. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m using Google and putting the terms academic journal on the end of whatever I’m looking for. It’s a pain in the ass but I can leave something open for weeks as I collate information for a term paper.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. There are good and bad log in search engines at university libraries. Some of them are much better for certain subjects than others, /and/ you have to dig around to even find them.

      For results to a log on search engine, you really want the concentrated time available to page through results copying stuff to a text file, or download saving results to something like a CSV.

      Which then means concentrated time later to actually down load the important papers, and then more time for reading and thinking.

      So, as you say, it sucks for class papers, unless you are already skilled enough to do a proper job of working ahead.

      Nice thing about class papers, you don’t always need really comprehensive literature searches. Current status quo is pretty bad for trying to do a comprehensive search.

      Because you have access to digital collections through the university library, and because the university library is only subscribing to a subset of services, there are gonna be journals that you would need the budget to pay for access to the articles that you would need for comprehensive research.

      In theory, doctoral dissertations are supposed to be proving that the student has developed new knowledge, but this is not a conclusive proof in absence of a comprehensive literature search.

      Open access journals are awesome, but they have /not/ fixed every issue.

      Anyway, I have serious reservations about quality of scholarship, before we even consider questions involving fraud or those fields whose grasp of their fundamental basics is weak.

      Anyway, important tasks include 1 finding stuff 2 downloading stuff or getting paper copies 3 reading 4 thinking 5 writing. All of these can be extremely difficult. In particular, different fields can be working on similar concepts using different theory, and different names/search terms. If you don’t have someone well read in your field for the search terms, without search terms even a good search engine, and good library access does little good. And, trying to study across multiple fields can be a pain and a half.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Mailanka is a blogger whose ‘Psi Wars’ is an exercise in building an alternate Star Wars in GURPS. The way he has done it is TL11 or so with some weird modifications.

    He has a post talking about the assumptions for costs and availability of computers and storage.

    There are some interesting extrapolations that can be done from that.

    One is that every skilled tradesmen traveling between the stars would want to have curated, and carry with them, a fairly complete collection of references. Because different cultures, different languages, and different mathematical notations. Far from home, you would not be able to count on being able to find anything that you can begin to understand, so there would be incentive to go very broad in your contingency prep. Which could go badly when it comes to inherited collections, and using material you haven’t been able to do in depth study of.

    Architectures and data formats could, or should, also vary some. So, a space travelling engineer might bring a good computer with him, and a full set of engineering programs, even ones he does not know how to use.

    Which also implies some pretty awful issues when it comes to software maintence for quite a lot of things.

    Intergalactic internet is one way of handling this, but implicitly depends on the white hats mostly having the black hats under control. If enough governments are totalitarian and have state sponsored black hats, then the information war on the internet will be a little too hot to tolerate for any sort of life or death business. Which forces you to fall back on sneaker net, and trying to stick to only caring about claims that are in very narrow areas, where you can actually prove to yourself that you actually know what you are thinking about. Of course, if your transit routes are through totalitarian states, they are going to try to find the stuff you are physically carrying.

    Fantasy worlds more often have assumptions of very slow travel rates back into about everything. Low physical travel speed, and low information travel speed, means that per unit population you have more and narrower culture groups and language groups. Also, in absence of individual longevity, weak information storage means a faster mutation rate of language, there are fewer generations back where the records you do find are readable.

    Which means a lot of other ways to inflict mysteries on your characters.

    I’ve probably been studying information issues too intensely. I now start to perceive them as being powerful and widespread in every possible human situation.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I remember a story set in Battletech where the characters found a Star League-era archive (ie about 2~3 hundred years ago). The techs told the MC that they would have no trouble coping the archive, but it use a priority data format that would take them ages to search through. Turns out that the archive could convert itself to a more usable format, but the MC had them make a copy of the original archive first, just in case.


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