I'm looking for a book. (For those not inclined to suffer through my tomes, you may skip to the end [smile])
In today's society, that's not really a remarkable thing. Just pop down to your local Borders, grab a double caramel latte with whipped cream and cinnamon, and bum around scanning shelves for a couple of hours. If you absolutely must get all hurried and technical and such, haul your coffee over to the little self-service info kiosk and search for the book by hand.
Heck, if you're going to be that lazy, just stay at home and use Amazon.
All of that works great... if you know what book you're looking for. Sure, for some categories of books, a good old-fashioned browse session in a brick-and-mortar store will probably get what you need. Maybe I'm just a sentimental, old-fashioned fart, but I really enjoy browsing like that. Grab a coffee, sit down in a nice spongy lounge chair, and blow an entire afternoon. Maybe take a short nap, walk around, talk to other people who are similarly browsing.
There comes a point, though, where brick and mortar stores have to make a trade-off. They have to stock stuff that they're likely to sell, or they'll never sell it. (I've had the grand good fortune to find a store specializing in obscure books precisely once in my life. Sadly, I was far too young and foolish to appreciate what I'd found at the time, and have long since forgotten where it even was.)
The practical upshot of this is that every now and then one comes across a need for a book that is very hard to satisfy by browsing - because the store doesn't stock such books. Sure, you can request specific books to be brought in, but that requires knowing the book you want beforehand - which again defeats the point of browsing.
The Internet was supposed to solve this. The dream was that oneday, mankind could feel this deep, ineffable need to find Some Book, about Some Thing. Man would then open up his Internet browser, do some searches, and find the Book. If the book sellers get to have their happy dream, too, then man finds several Books at the same time, many of which he wasn't actually looking for, and spends several hundred dollars stocking up shredded dead trees so he can curl up with lattes in the comfort of his own
spongy lounge chair, without having to drive across town.
This is a wonderful dream. I hope it comes true someday.
For now, though, the dream is broken. Search technology sucks. Searching is useless on the Internet unless you already know what you are looking for (and even then sometimes it isn't all that useful). In fact, I think an interesting thing has happened, something that most people haven't quite cottoned on to yet.
Automated computerized searching is bad for learning things you know nothing about. If you can't express what you want to find in a couple of keywords, you're screwed. Often, you can
come up with a couple of keywords, but unless they're precisely the same keywords that were thought of by everyone else, you probably won't find it, even though you know it's out there. Anyone who (like me) has been hanging around on the Internet for more than a few years knows the frustration of not being able to find something you know exists.
The fact is, people are far better at searching than computers, even the massive farms of computers at Google. (Because, face it, in the IT realm, Google is the de facto king of search.) People can talk to each other, discuss things, compare notes; even the mere act of describing to some other person what you are looking for often helps crystallize your own perceptions. People can say "I need Foo." Then some other person says "Well, I dunno about Foo
, but I've got Bar
, and it's pretty darn close." Then the first person says "Aha! Bar is indeed close, but not exactly it. Maybe what I'm really after is Baz. You got any Baz?" And then wham, Baz is found.
I think that's why, despite the near cliche of "Google first, post questions later," we still get a massive amount of people asking questions here (and on any Internet community, really). Because Google is only good for searching if you already know what you want to find. If you don't know what you're trying to find, you need people. People are far better at searching than Google - and it's likely to stay that way for at least a few more years. Maybe a lot of years. I don't know.
In the old days, this search problem was called "education." Since then we've totally perverted the concept of education and turned it into a brainwashing, here-beleive-these-facts sort of system. "Education" today means cramming the wealth of human knowledge down the uninterested throats of innocent kids who'd rather be running around outside. Education has lost its meaning, and this is a terrible misfortune.
Education, mentoring, discipleship, apprenticeship - even parenting - used to revolve around the notion of helping people search. The idea used to be that you would help people understand their own questions first, then help them answer them. It was a beautiful and powerful system. A thin scrap of it still survives in the American masters/doctorate degree research system, but even that spark is fading and dying, because people no longer understand that education
Education shouldn't be about pushing knowledge from the Knowledge Repository down into the Empty Young Minds. Education should be about the Older and Wiser coming alongside the Young, helping them to ask questions, and then helping to answer them.
I had a practical point here, but, as is my habit, I turned it into a rather long-winded rant - again. The practical point was that, in working on this Epoch project, I've realized just how unable I am to express my own questions.
What I really want is to be able to look at examples. I never really did care much for sterile, surgical history; but I'm absolutely fascinated by first-hand, personal, in-depth accounts of what people experience in the process of expressing questions, and then looking for answers. What I want is a book (maybe several books) that do this for programming languages. What struggles, annoyances, frustrations, and challenges were out there that drove people to create new languages? What motivated people to solve problems in certain ways rather than in others? To what extent are such solutions measurably "good" or "bad" and to what extent are they purely subjective?
I can't express that search in a way that Google or Amazon understands. I hope that maybe I can find someone sympathetic here, who knows better how to express the questions I want to ask - and maybe even knows how to answer them.