Thursday, November 3, 2011

Google everything: technology in our times

Two things happened in my little life this week that strike me as TMT. Too much technology. I'm going to blog about that because everybody else in the world is blogging about the Occupy movement, and I've filled my quota for the week.

Well, okay, OWS does come up at a certain point in this post. And, what the heck, I'll put up photos from last night's shutdown of the Port of Oakland, which was a rousing success, included about a zillion people out to participate in the blockade, and turned out to be a great way to run into old friends.

Now. About too much technology....

First, I found myself using Google's search engine to find out how to spell a word.

Not because I don't have a dictionary. Heck I have multiple dictionaries, I'm a reference-book fetishist. And I've got Merriam-Webster on my desktop computer. And I've got Merriam-Webster's free and fabulous app on my iPod Touch.

(The desktop dictionary came free with the purchase of the Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition. That was quite a few years back. The software came on a CD -- an ancient, donut shaped digital medium once used to transmit information. Do people even have desktop computers any more? The iPod app is downloaded ethermedia, thank you very much.)

But back to dictionaries vs. Google. If Google does everything, why not use it? Am I right?

What led me to the search box was a flailing effort to spell a word correctly (I'll not say which word, to paraphrase Woody Guthrie). Point is, I was far enough off that my desktop app wasn't helping. It isn't good at inferring what I meant to spell, whereas Google does this trick pretty nicely.

Those who follow agent blogs might have seen John Rudolph of Dystel and Goderich, on Googling vs. looking things up in reference manuals just a couple of days ago. So I'm not the only person noticing The Change. Is something in the jet stream turning us all into Google Zombies?

(Go on, click the link a couple paragraphs back, to the Woody Guthrie song. It's Billy Bragg & Wilco performing "Walt Whitman's Niece" from Mermaid Avenue, the most perfectly brilliant album you've probably never heard of.)

Second, I got a robocall the other night.

That's not news, I get robocalls all the ding-dang time, just like you do. This robocall? It was some speed-talking robowoman urging me to support ... wait for it ... Occupy Wall Street.


She identified herself as a caller from Justice for All, which is either an organization that tries to undermine women's reproductive rights (sorry, not linking to them); or a "Criminal Justice Reform Organization" that thinks the U.S. government's efforts are "inadequate in protecting the lives and property of law-abiding citizens" (not linking to them either; and, by the way, they explicitly deny sponsoring these calls); or ... somebody else.

I hung up and ... um ... Googled for robocalls about Occupy Wall Street -- and was directed by the friendly server farms at the world's favorite search engine to a fellow on Posterous who posted an audio file of the exact same call that I got.

Check it out on Shaun's posterus.

Does it ever seem to you that Being Connected is just too much?

Maybe sometimes?

Thanks to me for snaps of Occupy Oakland's shutdown of the port yesterday evening, and especially the one of the fellow who turned out to be a friend of a friend and was carrying the best sign of the evening, a takedown of the extremists at the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas.


  1. "my desktop app wasn't helping. It isn't good at inferring what I meant to spell, whereas Google does this trick pretty nicely ..."

    Google's spelling suggestions do seem, at times, indistinguishable from magic:

    A fascinating description about how to write a simple but highly effective spelling corrector, a la Google's, that relies primarily on training from a large corpus. Written by Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google. (His bio:

  2. @Aron: thanks for that! Fascinating, yes ... only twenty-something lines of Python. Of course -- like words, just a few letters, but which letters turn out to matter quite a lot; or poems, just a few lines, each composed of a few words, but, again, the choices are critical -- those are some well-considered and distilled lines of Python!! I have to admit Norvig's discussion makes my head hurt a little, being the sort of NLP person to whom "natural language processing" usually means, well, reading a novel ;-).

    I wonder if the dictionary app folk at Merriam-Webster have seen Norvig's code....