possible kalopsic casualty

Last night I swam in a sea of almost-sleep, drifting in and out of almost-lucid dreams, all of which evaporated upon waking. It was the fan, I think. The fan instead of the A/C. What was I thinking. The Siren song of dropping humidity dripped its sugar-sweet serum into my ear holes. Damn you Weather Sirens. It is Wednesday now. My bird-of-the-day calendar displays a sleek Green Kingfisher. I replaced the bulb above my office plant. We are getting new green carpet; it smells bad and looks like it was torn out of some swinger’s 1960s basement rec room. I cringe at the thought of it creeping in all molester-like into my personal office space. My feet will never be the same. Violation! Violation. I am listening to the liferaft again. So help me, I cannot help myself. Do you know what I mean. Do you. Do you really know. I attended a meeting this morning. I was 9 minutes late on account of I was waiting for the coffee to stop brewing. Also my coworker and I were busy trash-talking the last 4 years of our professional lives. I am back to drinking too much coffee again. But I drink the special tea after lunch to try and repair the damage. It appears to work, but maybe not since there was the almost-sleep and that is a heavy consideration. I am eating my lunch now and not smoking a cigar. But I bet that guy is. I’ll bet he is. The liferaft has segued into the bedside table. That is where I keep the 5 books I am currently reading, most of them Kafka-related. But there is Jung, too. And Tessimond. All of my dear friends stacked in a pile within easy reach. With my Moleskine. Sigh. Last night while out walking Farley we saw a cat. It was not a metaphorical cat that might or might not be in a box, dead or alive. It was a real cat and Farley was interested. He stared under the car long after the cat had run back across the street. I want a cat so bad. Nearby to where I live a train went off the tracks in the dead of night. Two college girls were up on the bridge tweeting photos and they were buried under a mountain of coal. They died. I’d like to think this exposes the ills of social media, but I’m not sure. I feel bad about this. That’s why I listen to the liferaft so much. It makes the sounds that I feel inside most of the time. I am perhaps a blurred model of myself. I walk outside and brush my hand against the lavender blooms and surreptitiously sniff. Hey, it’s that guy who is always sniffing his hand. Yes, that is me. I enjoy touching things in nature that look soft. I find them irresistible. I find much of what is around me irresistible. The rest of it can fall off the planet for all I care. The Internet ruined my concentration. I enjoy chasing rabbits of information down their hidey holes. That is really what I do. Often. Sometimes I pass on what I find to others. Sandy Berman taught me that. He is a good man. We used to write letters back and forth. I was an over-excited new library school student. Now I just search for stuff on the Web. My idealism is easily trod upon into a gross paste that I plan to smear on the molester carpet when it arrives leering and panting outside my office door. What you don’t know is that I was just outside touching the lavender. Literally. Between that one sentence and the next. What do you think about that. My hand smells so fucking good right now. Outside there was a truck with bins on the side dispensing free energy bars. The orbs and their blobs were shoving their fleshy flaccid fingers in those bins so fast. But they are healthy nutrition bars. Ha! That is a fucking good trick! I feel so alive today. It made me walk fast. Surf the mania. I am 100% alive and 100% dead ALL THE TIME. I am petting the cat and its back is arched. I’m an out-of-the-box solution, suckers.

flying the flag over fort futility

I’m at a low point in my job. I have no motivation for it. But it’s not that I’ve lost my passion for librarianship. It’s not that. I still fervently subscribe to Sandy Berman’s adage that “I can’t have information I know would be of use to someone and not share it.” This philosophy, I believe, is the golden kernel rotating inside every librarian. However, my present job affords me little opportunity to exercise this reflex of mine. I spend more time outside of work fulfilling this mission: finding bits and pieces of information, cataloging and sorting them in my mind, and sending them off with a flourish to friends, relatives, and colleagues. But at work I am too far removed from this process. I primarily sit at my desk and wait for the day to end. I answer emails. I review and fulfill (or deny) photo requests. I catalog photos and documents. I select journal articles to include in a database. I attend meetings. I wander around outside at lunch and wonder what the hell I am doing with my life.

I have long known that I am a dreamer. At this point in my life I’m comfortable with this role, but it often interferes with practical matters. I could certainly leave my job and go find some other job. I could do that. However, I know that I would soon also tire of it, because this is a now tattered pattern that I’ve traced my finger along for my entire working life. What this present job has going for it is a four-day week, valuable benefits, decent pay, proximity to home, low stress, and not much in the way of responsibility. Collectively, these aspects would be difficult, if not impossible, to find in another job. So I bide my time, suffering my disconnection from how I spend it, eight hours each day, four days per week.

Leaving my own personal melodrama behind, though, and returning to librarianship, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about access to knowledge lately. This is chiefly because I volunteered to write up a blog post for APLIC about Brewster Kahle’s presentation at the conference I attended in San Francisco. While Brewster is a librarian, among other roles, some of his views are unusual within librarianship. For example, I’d venture to guess that the traditional model of librarian-as-intercessor still carries significant weight among many librarians. And yet Brewster is sending a wrecking ball through this ideal with his efforts to put all knowledge within grasp of anyone with access to an Internet connection. These days such access is becoming easier and more convenient to obtain than access to an actual physical library. The question is, then, does access constitute nine-tenths of the battle when it comes to knowledge attainment?

If so, does this mean librarians will become obsolete? My guess is no, but we are certainly becoming more specialized. And I think our role as intercessor has largely fallen by the wayside, despite our possible reluctance to admit it. At this point, the knowledge is out there (if anything, now in such high quantities as to warrant special skills in navigating it) and much of it is freely available. Now, rather than brokering information, I see librarians as more important in authenticating information, and taking it one step further, in showing others how to authenticate it. And by that, I mean showing them how to determine the trustworthiness of information. Because there is plenty of just plain shoddy information out there.

Warning: Rant to follow

For some time now, and for various reasons not all of which I will mention here, my wrath toward Google has been festering. We have allowed Google to extend its insidious tentacles into our lives to the extent that I’m sure some people think they simply can’t live without it. Meanwhile, Google continues to make inroads with its efforts to ultimately manage all of the information entering and exiting our lives. Witness this, for example. Now don’t get me wrong; I use Google all the time. I have a Gmail account and I’m a fan of iGoogle for aggregating news and other RSS feeds. I just don’t want Google to rule the world, and I think it’s getting a little too cocky for its own good.

But this rant isn’t directed at Google as an entity; it’s directed at Google, the bossy search engine that acts as an enabler to the most ignorant of its users. By doing so, it in turn alienates its more intelligent users (you know, the ones who can actually spell and type, and who know what they’re looking for), and cripples its own value as an online finding aid. I’d like to illustrate my point with a pertinent example. For a long time, typing a compound word (e.g. sandpaper) without quotes into Google’s search box would produce only results with that exact word in them. Then Google started including results that included the two separate parts of the compound word (e.g. sand and paper, if they appeared next to each other). At that point, if you only wanted relevant hits with the compound word alone (not as two separate words), you had to enclose the word in double quotes. However, at some point last year (I think), Google decided to go one step further and always include hits that had the two separate parts of the compound word even if you enclosed the compound word in quotes when you searched it.

Now, this may not seem like a major issue at first glance. And with many compound words, it’s not, simply because the word itself is so common that it will dominate the relevancy ranking system, and the hits with the compound word split into two smaller words will appear few and far between, mostly in the deeper pages of the results list. However, in today’s world, idiomatic language aberrations constantly appear in everyday speech, despite the fact that they may not be “real” words. In addition, many company names, publication and book titles, and product names are nonstandard compound words. Take Paperchase, for example. It’s a UK stationery company. But The Paper Chase is also a movie. If you want to find results for the company Paperchase and not the movie, you can no longer just put quotes around it and search. If you do, you will also end up with references to the movie, in addition to other hits that have the words “paper” and “chase” next to each other (of which there are many, seeing as it’s a common idiom). You can try to work around this by eliminating words from your search using the minus sign, but then you risk losing relevant results. With this seemingly subtle change in its advanced search capabilities, Google is heavily influencing a person’s ability to find the limited list of relevant results they seek. This change may be useful for people who are sloppy typists and accidentally leave out a space in their query, but it destroys the relevancy ranking for queries that are meant to be just one compound word. [Note: it doesn’t matter if you type the quotes yourself, or if you type the word into the “this exact wording or phrase” box on the advanced search page. Either way, it ignores the quotes when executing the query. Interestingly, if you type the quotes around the word on the basic search screen and then switch to the Advanced Search page, it actually strips the quotes out! And if quotes are around the word on the basic search screen, it should show up in the “this exact wording or phrase” box when you switch to Advanced Search, but it doesn’t.]

I’m sure that Google’s motivation for this change is to help the user (while at the same time increasing ad revenue, since more search results equal more potential ad-clicks). But I find this change really annoying, and just another example of how Google enables people who are sloppy typists and/or don’t know how to spell or search to blissfully continue down that road. Where’s the motivation to be a better typist or to learn to spell correctly if Google automatically corrects all your errors? When I do a search with quotes, it’s because I want my results to be narrowed down in relevancy. By automatically assuming that I might have inadvertently left out a space between two words that also make a compound word, Google disallows me from narrowing down my results. So what if I had accidentally left out a space? I would’ve figured it out when I saw my search results, and then could’ve re-run my search. I would’ve lost a few seconds of time, but at least I would’ve had the opportunity to correct my mistake. By autocorrecting my compound word “mistake”, though, Google effectively shuts out the possibility of producing a truly relevant list of results, instead forcing me to weed them out on my own from the irrelevant ones. Why do you treat me like such a lazy idiot, Google? Don’t you think that if I was careful enough to put quotes around my search, I would’ve typed a space in my query if I wanted it there? Using Google’s search engine increasingly insults my intelligence. In my opinion, this dilution of advanced search capabilities in the interest of “convenience” only serves to decrease Google’s usefulness. It is also just another example of how obsessed the world is with “saving time” and making everything instantaneous and therefore more “efficient”, at the regrettable expense of quality craftsmanship, usefulness, long-term value, and countless other characteristics that have largely fallen by the wayside in our modern society. And as Google increases the ways in which it automatically anticipates and corrects our searches, it becomes that much easier for it to push us towards certain sites, thus shaping what information we consume without us even realizing it. If that’s not scary to you, then maybe you need to re-read 1984.

P.S. I also despise Google’s auto-suggestion feature for some of the same reasons (and others), but I’ll leave that rant for another time.

losing my appetite for information

Today I heard, for the first time, the phrase “information snacks,” which refers to small easily digested chunks of information that readers gravitate toward because they’re too lazy to read an actual article. As with most terms related to the commodification of information, generally in reference to Web content, this one immediately turned my stomach. It sounds like the sort of phrase that someone in Knowledge Management (i.e. watered-down librarianship) would throw around during a meeting. “Let’s think of our website as the table, and our fat slovenly readers have just wedged their guts in between it and their office chairs. They are already beginning to salivate onto their keyboards, so what can we serve them as starters? Information wedges with ranch dressing, anyone?”

Since I have been doing way too much data entry lately for a person with a master’s degree, I have been thinking about automation and its role in information production, collection, retrieval, and dissemination. Inevitably, the more automation is introduced into information management, the greater the risk is of so-called “dirty data,” or information that has been soiled by the presence of odd characters, extra spaces, and other aberrations as a result of importing and exporting between different platforms and/or programs, the automatic populating of fields, etc. Cleaning up these aberrations is usually no small task, and therefore, to my knowledge, infrequently done. Many people consider the savings they gain from dispensing with personnel no longer needed to input data to be worth what they see as a minor loss in quality. These people think it’s more important to get more information out on the table than for that information to be in the best “digestible” condition possible. I think of these people as the fast food vendors of information, and frankly, they disgust me. They are usually people who have wormed their way into positions of influence regarding how information will be disseminated without having the proper credentials for doing so (e.g. training and education in librarianship). Often they are people with sales, marketing, and advertising backgrounds who think that the package the information comes wrapped in is more important than the information itself. Never mind that once you’ve opened the package, you can’t find what you’re looking for, and if you’re lucky enough to finally do so, it’s marred by weird characters and gaping holes in the text.

I realize I’ve begun to ramble here, but there is a point. Much like what happened to manufacturing with the Industrial Revolution is happening now with information. The Web has transformed how people think about and interact with information, and more than ever before it is being thought of as a product to be marketed and sold. In manufacturing, when transition occurred from handmade products to machine-made products, there was a tremendous increase in production numbers, but with an accompanying loss in quality and durability. This loss was considered to be of a collateral nature; it was offset by the huge increase in profit. Now, we see the same thing happening with information, but what are the implications of a loss in quality when it comes to information? It seems to me that there are potentially even more far-reaching effects than those that resulted from the Industrial Revolution. Often, the consumers of flawed information on the Web have no idea of the flaws, and so they take this information at face value. From working in a public library, I know that many people are indiscriminate in their consumption of online information. They do not know how to evaluate where the information is coming from; they think it is all legitimate. Getting them to the point where they can effectively evaluate the quality of the information is one step. But then it becomes even more important for the “respected” information purveyors (I’m thinking mainly of libraries and academic websites in general) to act responsible in terms of the information they are disseminating, and how easy they are making it for their users to discover.

Everyone is always looking for corners to cut, particularly where there is money to be made. Well, some things shouldn’t be done faster and more efficiently. Books should be cataloged by people, and catalog records shouldn’t be dumped into a library’s catalog from another source without first adapting them to local practice. Articles should be indexed by real live human beings using keywords from a thesaurus that was also created by humans. Search interfaces should be powerful, yet easy to use, and allow for searching with accuracy and precision. And the resulting information should be displayed in a clean and legible format. Is that so much to ask? Apparently it is.

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