Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tending our garden

To an astonishing extent, Google really has changed the way the world's information is organized.

A pair of trivial examples:

[1] Liddell-Scott-Jones is the best lexicon of ancient Greek in any language, but I don't always find the search interface to the digital version from the Perseus project to be the easiest navigation system. I recently discovered a simple way to look up an entry in Perseus: type the lemma of the Greek word in Google. Duh.

The point is that Perseus does not — and should not — have to worry about how people search for articles in LSJ as long as the Perseus edition is cleanly organized by article with a recognizably tagged lemma. Since I'm frequently browsing the web from OS X, typing UTF-8 Greek is trivial, thanks to SophoKeys. Perseus does not — and should not — have to worry about keyboard input systems. The digital LSJ was available from Perseus long before Google or SophoKeys came along, but it's more readily usable and that much more valuable to me now because the Perseus project did take responsibility for its area of domain-specific knowledge, and properly organized the contents of the lexicon by article.

[2] urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0012.tlg001 is a URN referring to the Iliad. URNs are not direct addresses like URLs: they are technologically independent (although they follow a machine-parseable syntax). Enter that URN in Google, and you'll probably get some amusingly off-target advertisements for cremation urns, but I scrolled through several pages of Google's hit list without encountering a single irrelevant match.

One implication of these examples is not trivial. If we can publish meaningful units of content in association with canonical identifiers like URNs, we can count on the ever-increasing momentum of the internet to create new ways of discovering and working with that content. Like Pangloss, we need to tend our own garden; Google or others will find it rapidly (whether or not we think that makes for the best of all possible worlds).

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs on building things

Amid today's many recollections of Steve Jobs citing his quotable aphorisms, two particularly caught my attention:

People don't know what they want until you build it.

and related to that theme:

The builders are the real thinkers.

Jobs was immediately referring to engineers and consumers, but the statements are as true in scholarship as they are in any other endeavor.