February 06, 2005

Set theory at Green Gables

Looking around for a cheap primer on sets, relations, and functions that might be useful for some of my students in Mathematical Foundations of Linguistics next quarter, I was struck by how the notion of small textbooks has just vanished in modern America (800 pages is commonplace, 400 is positively wimpy, and under 200 is close to unknown). So I tried using the Amazon.com search engine to try and find a text I remembered from decades ago: a little tiny book, very cheap, called Sets and Groups. It was by someone called Green, I recollected. I thought "set theory" and Green might track it down. And as the long list of relevance-sorted results came up, I stared in slack-jawed horror at the screen. Number 9 on the list was the Illustrated Junior Library edition of a 1909 novel for "young adults": Anne of Avonlea, by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Why? What the hell had gone wrong? That was simple to answer. It was a result of the disastrous shift Amazon.com has made to a default behavior of searching full text content of books instead of standard data like title, author, and subject. On page 146 of Anne of Avonlea, Mrs. Allan has just told Anne to hold on to her ideals, and the story continues:

"I shall try. But I have to let go most of my theories," said Anne, laughing a little. "I had the most beautiful set of theories you ever knew when I started out as a schoolma'am, but every one of them has failed me at some pinch or another."
"Even the theory on corporal punishment," teased Mrs. Allan. But Anne flushed.
"I shall never forgive myself for whipping Anthony."

I can't deny that the word set does occur in that passage, and so does the word theory. (Amazon.com's search engine seems to completely disregard quotation marks.) And green? Simple enough if you know anything about the book. Anne of Avonlea is, of course, one of the Anne of Green Gables novels.

I actually happen to have a plain-text copy of Anne of Avonlea in a little collection of classic novels that I keep online for corpus searching. The book contains 41 occurrences of the lexeme set with or without the suffix -s, 7 of theory, and 74 of green. No denying the presence of the terms I searched for. But of course the value of searching on Amazon.com has been reduced for me, not enhanced. These hilarious unintended results padding out my search result list are just wasting my time.

Even though, I concede, the search did rapidly track down the book I wanted (of course, in the latest edition it has bloated up to 270 pages), and most of the books listed were about math, the full list of 3,595 books results is nonetheless grossly contaminated. I got at least two feminist theory readers ("the failure of the Green Revolution in the Third World, ... ecofeminists eager to add Shiva's theory of the relationship of Western colonialism to their parallel analyses"), a political science text, a book on manufacturing, a book on digital aerial surveying, a reference book on myth and magic, a reader on film... I gave up looking when I found that my list included Judith Butler's Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex". I'm a broad-minded fellow, but really. Judith Butler not only puts the word "sex" in scare quotes (if ever a word did not need scare quotes IMHO, it is the word sex), she also uses imaginary as a noun ("The Lesbian phallus and the morphological imaginary") and queer as a verb ("Passing, queering: Nella Larsen's psychoanalytic challenge"). Include me out. Sure, she has plenty of references to theory; and green shows up in a reference to the green carnations Oscar Wilde used to wear (a Victorian code via which homoesexuals used to identify each other, it is said). I don't really care where she uses set (I'm sure she does). I started out looking for an inexpensive math textbook, remember? How did we get to queer studies from there? (Butler's book now shows up as top on my list of recently viewed items at Amazon, of course. Next time I log in there will be a cheery "Hello, Geoffrey K. Pullum!" and a list of books on embodiment and phallocentrism for me to choose among.)

I'll tell you how we got to the lesbian phallus from the theory of sets: by upgrading our technology willy-nilly, that's how. Without me ever suggesting that I wanted this, in fact without even a by-your-leave or providing a way to switch this awful feature off, Amazon started a few months ago to make searching the entire text of books, as well as data about them, the default behavior for the search engine. And on searches with common words, this is a catastrophe. Amazon.com forgot that every upgrade is a downgrade; they were unaware of my view that one of the very last things I want is to have to endure is experiencing tomorrow's technology today.

[Added later: I was wrong only to a very minor extent about Amazon's "These-May-Interest-You" selections. The next time I connected to Amazon's site, I was recommended to take a look not only at numerous books on math but also at Heidi, the story of a young girl who has to go and live with a grumpy uncle in the Swiss Alps, plus (just as I predicted) one of Judith Butler's other books about sex and gender. I told you so. The prosecution rests.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 6, 2005 07:24 PM