Numerous work related tasks had me fearful that I might not find the time to prepare this column on time. That wouldn't have been the greatest loss, though as I've learned from this and from other projects, once you start falling behind it becomes more and more difficult to ever catch up again. But it wasn't only work that caused my fears. The too often neglected task of cleaning up just couldn't be avoided any longer, and the imminent approach of Pesach took precedence over writing. But it also gave me a topic for this column, and even though I'd already organized some notes for a discussion of a totally different topic, there was little question in my mind that this was the topic for this month.
But is this really a topic, or just a series of reflections generated by a desperate need to clean the house? Cleaning, by most normal people at least, doesn't only mean putting one's papers in order. In more standard households it carries connotations of dusting of and washing the floor. These were actually the most pressing tasks in our cleaning. They were, after a fashion, attended to, but going through those papers was still my central activity.
The hardest part of cleaning up is resisting the urge to read everything that you're trying to throw away. Thus it happened that a box of papers from work relegated to the almost distant past had to be gone through. Simply throwing everything away wouldn't have been the greatest loss to posterity, but for me it definitely would have been highly out of character. And it certainly wasn't a waste of time: Among numerous papers that could safely be thrown out (no, it wasn't a case of their no longer being of any value or interest; rather, I not only had other paper copies, or later versions, but digital copies as well) was at least one paper that for personal historical reasons I wanted to find.
But as I get to this point in my writing I find myself wondering: All this for a lead-in to coming across a September, 1996 issue of ComputerLife? It's hardly different from any other magazine from around that same time, of which I actually used to read quite a few. (It's a bit hard to imagine, but back then print magazines were still considered, by me at least, a rather trustworthy source of information.) So what if I found an old copy of a magazine! But of course this is an example of ComputerLife as Metaphor. Finding that magazine and leafing through it instead of washing the floor was essentially the catalyst that set off the thoughts that ultimately resulted in this column.
Between the advertisements for new computers and peripherals, the particular issue that I found included an article entitled "Find Anything on the Web". Today nobody claims that we're able to do THAT, but we were still in diapers back then, and perhaps more confident of our searching/finding ability. An article by that name, even from five years ago, holds professional interest for me since a rather substantial proportion of my income comes from teaching people to search (and hopefully find) on the web. Is there anything of particular interest in that article when viewed from five years after? When it comes to searching, not very much. The author, Reva Basch, had and still has very good credentials, and she also exhibits a healthy degree of common sense all too often lacking in discussions of search tools ("Before you reach for your mouse, ask yourself how likely it is that the information you're looking for is even on the Web.").
But it's when the article discusses specific examples that things really become interesting, and the futility of saving articles such as this truly comes into focus. This isn't the place for a complete statistical rundown, but my findings can be verified: out of 14 search sites listed and evaluated, about a third no longer exist, another third have been sold to other companies and work considerably differently today than they did when the article was written, and the rest are safely similar to what they were back then. Five "offline tools" are listed, and of these, none are still available at the given URL, and it looks as though all of them have been discontinued.
So? So what do I do with a file full of magazine articles with information that's totally inapplicable to today's internet, and URLs that invariably lead to "page not found" announcements? The logical thing to do would be to throw them out. But if I did that, what would be there for me to find and become nostalgic about the next time I have to clean the house?
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