Human Search Engine
Go ahead, give it a try: At Google.com, if you ask the question right, you can find and download the entire script to the oddball British comedy classic, “Monty Python & the Holy Grail” in just a few clicks on your mouse pad.
But remember this, fair knights and damsels of the information age, as they have always said about computers, if you put garbage in, you will get garbage out. When using an Internet search engines, you have to know something first. Because with these magical machines called meta-search engines, if the question is too broad or any part of the information is misspelled, there is a very good chance you will end up in the information abyss, swimming in a sea of sales pitches, pop-up boxes and who knows what else.
So do a “Boolean” search on “Monty Python & the Holy Grail” and “What is your favorite color?” which is just the name of the film and a line from one of its best scenes. Forget about who or what Boolean is (or was). He was some kind of 19th-century mathematician and why they call this kind of search that is “much too silly” to think about right now (to borrow another line from the movie). Just remember to put the question in quotes (or forget about it because you might find a better result without them).
Now click. A series of links will appear. And so will the “Holy Grail.” The entire script of the film, in fact, uploaded to the Web at some point, no doubt, by some film devotee with way too much time on their hands. The 2,000-year trail of one of the bloodiest, most legendary, most mythic quests in human history is reduced to two clicks on your computer’s mouse.
For the moment, let’s set aside the arguable fact this is not the actual “Holy Grail.” But, keep in mind, it is most likely the wrong one (or just a series a clues to the fabled relic), for later.
Now, during the film, “Monty Python & the Holy Grail,” the misfit knights and Arthur, King of the Britons, come to a crossroads when they meet an odd, grimace-faced old man who guards a bridge that crosses a gorge. This is the “Bridge of Death.” It is also, for the purposes of our story here, the passage across the information abyss. Standing in our way is the “Old Man from Scene 24!” He is the keeper of the Bridge of Death. If you are a researcher of any kind, you must face this curmudgeonly troll. He may appear as a schoolteacher. Or, as a woman at the window at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Or, what stands between you and that delicious recipe to Raspberry Torte. But surely, at some time in your life, you must face him, her or it many times.
He will ask you three questions, perhaps, the film debates, five. If you get the three questions right, you may pass safely. If you get any wrong, you are cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril.
Let the quest begin!
Alice Duncan is neither a king or a troll or a knight, but she is a traffic cop for a lot of questions asked at the crossroads to the information abyss. She is a reader’s advisory specialist. What is that? Well, somewhere between the burning down of the great library of fabled in days of yore B.C. Alexandria and the birthday the very first Dewey decimal, but well after Dewey had formulated a system for library categorization, Duncan became what they used to call a reference desk librarian.
“A lot of libraries have changed from calling it a reference desk librarian,” said the reader’s advisory specialist at the Driftwood Public Library in Lincoln City.
The Internet, for example. That faceless digital troll at the edge of the Gorge of Eternal Peril, in the fabled age of Google.com, has a counterpart with a human face at the library.
A face that’s happy, eager even, to help you.
“People have interesting questions,” Duncan said. “One local writer might be looking for the origins of an Indian word, or want to double-check on some information.”
Indeed, on the Internet, a great deal of information is splooged together into an amorphous mess. A universe, if you will, of unconscious data. You might be able to find a fact, but it will be in the form of numerous secondary sources. The real McCoy is often going to be buried in there, if it’s available at all, at a specific single location.
It takes a human mind to navigate and decide which bit of info is authentic, and which is from the source.
The trick is knowing what to ask. That’s the role of the human search engine.
“Sometimes people don’t know how to phrase the question,” Duncan said.
The “Holy Grail” film opens with the king traveling with a man clicking together two coconuts behind him in order to simulate the sound of horse hooves. He comes to the gate of a castle and already, in Scene 1, he is frustrated by two guards asking impertinent questions by two sentries to the gate of the castle about his so-called horse, and where he got the coconuts.
Now, a king has gone to school and knows knowledge is power. If he went to proper king school, he’s learned in the classics of Greek literature, and knows of Plato’s allegory of the cave, and its metaphor that he who rules sees the flame of the fire in the cave, while his subjects only see the flickering of the firelight from the shadows on the wall.
One of the guards suggests to the annoyed king that the coconuts could have been carried from Africa by a swallow. The king, irritated by the debate, is warded away, but a key to information needed in the movie is given away. First, there are two kinds of swallows that are relevant: African and European. Second: Only one migrates. And three: Lectures the guard: “Listen, in order to maintain air-speed velocity, a swallow needs to beat its wings 43 times every second.”
A reader’s advisor, like a king of the information age, needs to know things. Indeed, Duncan is a master researcher.
“I’ve had lots of interesting new questions. Here's one of them: ‘What is ambergris, and can we find a picture of it?” ” she said. “I've had a vague idea of what it is, ever since I was a kid ... Weird chunks of a waxy substance chundered up by whales, bobbing around in the ocean and washing up on beaches, and had heard that people once collected it for concocting exotic perfume. ...”
When the library visitors asked about it, she looked it up in several whale books and encyclopedias and articles, and learned that it's a “biliary concretion” formed in sperm-whales' intestines, thus helping protect their digestive tracts from sharp objects – such as indigestible squid beaks (... This may sound funny, but it isn't to the whales.)
“Ambergris has been used for ages as a stabilizer in perfume-making, to slow down evaporation, although many modern makers of perfumes use synthetic substances instead,” she said.
“Apparently freshly-ejected ambra-grisea smells whalishly fecal – but sun-exposure and sloshing about in the salty sea makes it oxidize, and the scent mellows out to a sort of mix of musk and rubbing-alcohol.”
They even found a picture. It looked like “a cross between oil-blobs and horse-poop clumps, although it also can look like slabs of beat-up wax or chunks of concrete; sometimes pieces are found that weigh 100 pounds.
“One source estimated the current price at $20 a gram. So dogged beach combers may want to keep an eye out for it ... though it's said to be more common in the Atlantic ocean, and the shores of Asia and Africa and New Zealand and the Bahamas and South Seas ... (almost everywhere but here!)”
With such good service, the library visitor is satisfied, getting more than a chunk of both experience and information by asking to the right question from the right person.
Now, that’s service.
At the Bridge of Death, each knight is asked a series of questions. The results vary. Sir Launcelot of Camelot is only asked “What is your favorite color?” He answers it and is allowed to pass. Sir Robin is next, and gets a tough question and, failing to respond correctly, is thrown into the abyss. Sir Galahad is asked about his favorite color, waffles on his answer, and is thrown into the pit, too.
Indeed, it’s a lot like Google.com. And you can wind up wasting a lot of time, and energy, in the process.
At the library, Duncan is a multi-tasking reader’s advisor.
Students ask a lot about the Periodic table. Kids want to find books proving or disproving whether “dragons are real,” she said, since for whatever reasons the legends of yore are still very much on their minds. People who rent their homes often ask about locating information about landlord / tennant laws. Builders are often pointed to the “Construction Estimator,” a popular set of books and CDs for building projects. A lot of the information and assistance she gives out has as much to do with how to use the computer as where to locate information.
“The Internet is great, but my job is leading people to the books,” she said. “There’s a feeling you get in the brain ... there’s just something that happens with a book. At a computer, it’s just hard for many people to read for too long online.
“People are overwhelmed by the amount of information that’s on the Internet, and they prefer to speak to a real person.
“Sometimes you need to ask me a question before you need to know what to look for online.
“You need an answer back before you can ask the real question.
“If you help people find a piece of information, they will thank you for helping them find it. It feels good to help them to find it faster.”
Indeed, a reader’s advisor is a way to put a human face on the information age.
Completely annoyed, King Arthur faces the old man at the Bridge of Death.
He is asked, “What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?”
“What do you mean?” he responds. “An African or European swallow.”
The keeper, not knowing, is thrown into the information abyss himself.
He’s asked, “How do you know so much about swallows?”
“Well,” Arthur answers, “you have to know these things when you are a king, you know.”