30 May 2015

I'm a Researchin' Fool; or, Admissions of a Luddite

I have a lot of Luddite tendencies. That being said, my work requires that I use technology to get things done.

This week, I was in Court in Philippi, Barbour County, WV. To get to Philippi, I go through Harrison County to Quiet Dell, and then cut East on Route 20 and 57.   That takes me up the 15 miles of Elk Creek.   

As I was driving, I idly wondered how big the drainage area is of Elk Creek.  Considering what I knew about the area, I made a rough guesstimate of about 100 mi.² .   I stuck it in the back of my mind to look it up.

This morning, I found the answer. It is 86.9 mi.² at Quiet Dell.  Well, a 15 percent error in a guesstimate ain’t bad.

It took me two minutes and 40 seconds to find that information. 

“Elk Creek WV drainage area" on Google was all it took. I found a book page from the United States Geological Survey. I considered that highly reliable.  It's not subject to much in the the way of typos, because it was a copy of an original page from the USGS.

I researched it.

I’m so proud.

Well, not really. 

In fact, I asked a specific question of a web browser, Google. It took me right to the information I wanted.  

There is some place in Our Towne where that information is available.  It may even be somewhere on my bookshelves.  I know how to look for it there, but I guarantee you, it would take me longer than two minutes and 40 seconds to find it.

Where am I going with this?

If you have a GPS unit, you have power for it, and can “see” three satellites, you will know right where you are anywhere on Earth.   If you “tell” the GPS unit where you want to go, it will direct you there. There is even a sport called “Geocaching” which involves going into remote places with GPS coordinates and finding hiding places of miscellaneous stuff.  

On the other hand, if you have a magnetic compass, have been paying a little attention to the  area you are in, you can find your way of a jam with a map. Or even without one. You don’t have to have a GPS, batteries, or satellites.  It takes longer.

As we become ever more dependent on technology, we make ourselves subject to an increased risk when technology fails. Sailors find their position all the time with GPS.  But they also know how to use a sextant and printed tables.  The only way those can fail is if you drop them over the side.

Asking a specific question of a web browser is easy.  All that you need is a computer, power, and some way to link to the Internet.   Then, you can get quick and reasonably accurate answers.   But if you lack any of those things, and don’t know a lower-technology way to find information, you are out of luck.

Americans are the ultimate end-user.   Most of us have no clue how information technology really works.   If all we have is Google, Google had better work.

Kids don’t know that 9 x 9 = 81 without a calculator.  The knowledge base is our society is pitiful.  We are sliding into two new classes: The few who know how technology works and the many who merely use it. 

It’s a lot easier merely to use it – as long as it works.

The actual search process requires that you think about questions. Here are just some of them:

  • What resources are available which may lead you to the information?
  • Of the available resources, what is likely to have information accurate enough to be useful? For that matter, how accurate does it NEED to be?
  • Where are the resources? How hard is it to access them?
  • Might your ultimate question lead to an entirely different however relevant line of inquiry?
  • What might you do with all the resulting information?

We still only dimly understand the human mind. We do know that we are not just static containers of data.  

Cogito ergo sum.  “I think, therefore I am.”

There was a 1950's science fiction story (beats me who wrote it, and I refuse to look it up on Google) about the supposed-science of mnemonics. People with fantastic memories were turned loose to gather all the information they could and then think about correlations. In the story, one mnemonics student saved a space ship by making some odd association.

If we know how to apply our minds, we become more independent. If we don’t, we are truly at the mercy of mere things.

Hey, let’s have a contest!  I will send a book of my choice from The Eternal Bookshelf®  to the person who reports that that they found an answer the fastest to the following question:

“What is the drainage area of the Tygart Valley River, which is located in north-central West Virginia?”

The Contest closes on 5 June 2015.

PS - Dragon NaturallySpeaking knew how to spell “mnemonics.”  Yeah, I know how to type.  Dragon is faster.

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