Saturday, September 19, 2009

Is Dex Online Turning Into Crap?

(First of all, my apologies to those who are offended by my use of the word "crap." I figured it was better than some of the alternatives, and I used it deliberately because it comes closest to what I'm trying to say.)

Most of my American and Canadian readers will remember the Yellow Pages, the part of the phone book that came after the alphabetical listings in the (non-capitalized) white pages. The Yellow Pages were a listing, arranged alphabetically by category, of businesses and services. The Yellow Pages were a great source of income for the telephone company and, in later years, for the independent publishers of telephone directories.

(The term "Yellow Pages" should be capitalized and marked with an (R) symbol, because it is a registered trademark of somebody. Let's pretend it is, in this posting. There, that ought to keep the corporate lawyers off my back.)

In recent years, the Yellow Pages went online. Both the paper and electronic versions changed their names to "Dex." The electronic version was known as "Dex Online," and then as "Dex Knows."

For a long time, Dex Online / Dex Knows was really useful. But this morning I became concerned that "Dex Knows" is being replaced by "Dex Blows." Let me illustrate by example:

I needed to find an address for Frontline Medical Laboratory in our town. I went to Dex Knows and typed in "Frontline Medical." Dex couldn't find it, told me so, and suggested some alternative search terms. That's good programming. I would expect a human being to do the same thing for me.

So I tried "Frontline Lab" instead. This one got results, all right: five advertisements from companies with the word "frontline" or the word "lab" in either the name of the company, their one-line advertising text, or their website URL.

In fact, that's all the information that was given on each company: the name, the spiel, and the URL. That's not what I wanted. I go to Dex Online to look up the address and phone number of a business, not this other crap. In fact, if what I need is an address or phone number, all this other information is useless crap.

I must be fair, and not overreact here. This behavior may be a simple aberration.

I decided to test it further. I entered the name of my favorite local auto body shop, and Dex gave me a name, address, phone number and map. Then I entered "Auto Body and Paint," and Dex gave me a listing of body shops, with phone number and address.

I entered "Old Cars," and Dex gave me a listing of auto shops that work on "antique vehicles." (Yeah, I guess a '67 Mustang is an antique. I still miss that car.)

So far, so good.

There used to be a wholesale beef outlet around here, so I searched for it using the term "meatmasters." Whoops - Dex served up the lousy, useless advertising again. Then I broke the term into two words, "meat masters." That worked: Dex didn't find "Meat Masters," but it did offer me a selection of delis and wholesale outlets.

I decided to try "Frontline Medical" again. This time, it didn't give me the friendly "We can't find ..." screen. Instead, it gave me the useless crap. I got suspicious. It had worked before; why not now? I clicked the "Search" button several times, to see what would happen. Sometimes Dex would come back with the "We can't find ..." screen, but often it would come back with the advertising junk. Moreover, the advertising junk changed every time I clicked "Search."

So it's not an aberration. Dex is programmed to be helpful to the consumer some of the time, and to be helpful to the advertiser all of the time.

Now, I'm not naïve. Dex makes their money by selling advertising; that's how they can afford to offer this service for free to customers like me. I understand that. I have a high opinion of the programming that makes Dex work so well -- except for this crappy "default to advertising and URL" branch. I think it's a mistake, and it makes Dex much less useful to me.

In fact, I ended up finding the address and phone number for Frontline Medical Lab by leaving Dex and going to Google instead.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

On Keeping a Journal

I think that writing in a journal or a diary is becoming a lost art. It seems like the secrets we used to record on the pages of our diaries, the most intimate details of our lives, are now broadcast for all the world to see -- on blogs, on social networking pages, on tweets, and on chats. I'm not willing to bare my soul to that extent.

My own journal contains two entries for 2006, nothing for 2007, and three entries for 2008. This is because, in 2005, I made a conscious decision to stop writing in my journal and devote that energy to writing letters to my children instead, as my four grown-up offspring found themselves literally in the four corners of the world. I rationalized that my mails and emails contained enough information for a biographer to reconstruct my life, if anybody really wanted to.

I stubbornly ignored the fact that, while my family letters contained news and the occasional patriarchal expostulation, they concealed my feelings and some of the more private events in my life. In fact, the past six years have been a brain-rattling, roller-coaster sequence of ups and downs: financially, spiritually, and emotionally. I don't want to commit the ascending parts or the high points to paper, fearing that although the words will remain, the hopes and the joys will be replaced again by disappointment and discouragement. I don't want to record the descents or the low points because, honestly, there are some details about this journey that I do not want to remember.

My online persona is carefully edited and managed, so that the rest of the world does not see the roller-coaster trajectory of my life or the framework that it is built upon.

But it's time for me to write in my journal again. Call it a declaration of hope, if you will.


I have a friend who keeps his journal on his computer. He stores a backup copy of his journal online, somewhere in "the cloud." Good for him. I can't do that.

Corporations and government agencies have thousands, billions, of records, stored on old computer tapes in climate-controlled storage. As long as the climate control keeps working, those magnetic tapes will last for a long time. However, the machines to read those tapes wore out a decade ago, and nobody is making any new ones. For all the good it did to store those records so carefully, nobody will ever be able to read them.

Today, with our "modern" computers, we face other risks with anything we commit to the computer: power failure, battery failure, OS failure, hard disk failure, CD/DVD damage, and Internet shutdown.

On the other hand, another piece of the Codex Sinaiticus was recently discovered in the binding of an old book at the Monastery of St. Catherine, at the bottom of the Sinai peninsula. The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the oldest copies of the Bible, having been written between 325 and 360 A.D. It was written in ink on sheets of parchment. The largest portion of the Codex Siniaticus is in the British Library; however, the monks liked to reuse old parchment, and so pieces of it keep showing up in other old books. It's practically indestructible.

I have been observing this "ancient vs. modern" trend for several years now. Technologists keep trying to come up with new archival document formats, to replace ink on parchment, but so far they have not been very successful. Nothing has proven to last even one tenth as long as ink on parchment, except maybe ink on paper. Since parchment is rather scarce and expensive these days, I'm going to write my journal by hand, in ink, on paper.