I rarely laugh aloud at a book. One time I do remember laughing aloud was at Fraser’s re-telling of the Charge of the Light Brigade, Flashman At The Charge. (If you have missed these books you have missed some of the best historic spoofing extant).
The passage had Flashman, a completely disreputable Victorian hero, letting us in on the secret of just how the Allies happened to attack Sevastopol during the Crimean War, as it was a tactically difficult spot of vital strategic importance to hardly anybody.
According to Flashman, having declared war, some worthy War Office official was given the job of determining exactly what to do about it. He ruminated, “Well, here we are, the French and ourselves, at war with Russia in order to protect Turkey. Ve-ry good. What shall we do then? Better attack Russia, eh? H’m, yes. (Pause.) Big place, ain’t it?”
I have come to regard that official with more sympathy. I have, for some time now, regarded the Internet with exactly the same helpless feeling: “Big place, ain’t it?” Or, to switch the metaphor, the problem of the mosquito in the nudist resort covers it nicely: Lovely…but where do you start?
Now this sort of feeling might be understandable or even acceptable for most. I, alas, make my living in software. I can even claim a certain level of expertise in the arcane world of computers and programming. For someone in my world to be intimidated nearly to paralysis by some computer entity is a shameful thing — virtually a dirty little secret.
I decided to use this column as a goad and a deadline. I vowed I would bravely set out down the Information SuperHighway, armed cap-a-pie by my years of experience, and conquer the twin dragons of the Internet itself and my intimidation at its sheer size and scope.
I would love to tell you that my fears were groundless. To tell you that the new, powerful tools to access the Net everybody has been writing about are so user-friendly and have such vast powers that conquering the Net was easy.
I would love to tell you that, but at the moment the score is dragons 12, Bill…well, let’s give me a 1.
Like the man who chose the Crimea as a spot to invade, I decided to start with something small and isolated. Not the most vital perhaps, but simple and straightforward enough to build up the confidence with an easy victory.
An Internet shark friend and I had lunch last week and we got to talking about names. She mentioned that a midget actor who had appeared on LA Law had Schuyler in his name (or Skyler …or maybe Skylar). I thought I recognized the actor (wasn’t he also in Time Bandits? His name was….David…..something or other. Since I could not remember his last name (something with a lot of A’s in it?), I could hardly claim there was no Schuyler hiding anywhere in his names.
As might be expected, she claimed that it would only take a “couple of minutes” for her to get the information from one of the Celebrity databases on the Net. She waxed enthusiastic about how she would simply search for it on the World Wide Web, a portion of the Net designed for graphics interfaces.
Actually, I had been sort of sneaking up on the Net for some time. I had already gotten copies of three different highly touted WWW exploring tools, two versions of Mosaic and one of Netscape. (In case you can’t guess, I had been procrastinating by spending an inordinate amount of time “getting ready.”) Although my friend waxed rhapsodic about yet another tool (a third version of Mosaic running through Compuserve), I was pretty confident I could manage with what I had.
So I bravely ventured forth, starting with Netscape.
Now the key to this kind of task is the search tools available to you. Netscape offers a number, including one called WebCrawler, that asks for a text entry it will try to match. I typed in “David actor” and got lots of hits. Many, many on “David” (including the statue) and many more on “actor.” Foop.
Clearly, I needed to tell it that I didn’t want either “David” or “actor” but both. What I needed is what is called a Boolean operation. But what code or symbols or whatever did I use for that in WebCrawler? Punching Help brought what seemed to be an advertisement about how wonderful WebCrawler was and how easy and powerful it was.
Putting that problem off ’til later, I entered “Time Bandits.” “Time” got lots of hits, and “Bandits” got a few. However, one of the list pointed something having to do with Films. Yippee! Half an hour and already I had success. Clearly, for an old hand like myself, this was going to be nearly as easy as they said it would.
I punched the Films selection and got a whole list of sources about movies. The first one had some name like Movie Information, which sounded perfect. I punched that in…and got a list of all of the movies currently playing in Chicago. Hmmm…maybe not so easy.
Half an hour and a number of wrong selections later (I have a fast system, but transferring graphics stuff still eats time), I found a cast list from Time Bandits. I skimmed down it and, lo and behold, found “David Rappaport.” (I knew it had a lot of A’s!) Half the project done and only one hour into it. Not bad.
Unfortunately, it just gave his first and last names. Nothing else. Clearly, I would need to go further in and find biographies of actors.
Scene shifts. It is now the next day. In fact, as it is two o’clock in the morning, it is actually the day after. I have tried all of the various search engines on Netscape. I have tried both of my Mosaics. I have downloaded a third and finally called my friend to find out how to get the one from Compuserve. (In case you are counting, that now makes five). I have wandered all over the world. I have found at least a dozen methods of getting to the same nice, useless list of 45 actors, wherein you can get information and pictures of the favorites of the moment. If you fancy Jean-Claude von Damme or Wynona Ryder, I can lead you right to it.
I have found quotation databases (neat!), movie reviews, Academy Awards, Net Directories and lots more (including some very…appealing shots of Sharon Stone. A dozen times through that same 45 actor screen and I just had to try it). All very fine, lovely stuff.
However, I still do not know what other names David Rappaport might have. I know that I have blown almost an entire weekend on this, time I could have been making money. Speaking of money, I am beginning to dread the arrival of both my phone and credit card bills.
Getting back to the Information SuperHighway, I have now done my research and come to a solidly empirical conclusion: For the neophyte, the tools are still not within miles of matching the scale of the information available.
I suppose this should not really be surprising. We live, we are told, in the Age Of Information. In fact, it often seems to me that we are drowning in the Sea Of Information. Even without a computer, it can be maddening to know that the precise information you need is out there…somewhere. It is hallmark of our time that it is vital to sharpen and hone your skills and contacts to get to the information you need in the shortest possible time. Do this, and you are a success.
The Information SuperHighway, we are also told, brings sources of information from all over the world right to our desks. However, if one is wallowing in the Sea Of Information already, adding more info is about as welcome as pouring water over someone already drowning.
I am the last person who should be denigrating technology or programming. It is how I make my living. And I am sure that, given time, I can learn how to maneuver around with at least tolerable efficiency.
However, it seems clear to me that there will have to be a major technological breakthrough in the information handling tools we use before the Information SuperHighway will be something most anyone can use. Personally, I suspect we will have to have a verbal computer that we can talk to that will infer what we really are after, go after the most probable sources, find what we want and disregard all the fascinating, enticing and totally irrelevant rest.