September 25, 2004

Once more unto the Breach, search engine hackers!

Sometimes, John Henry still beats that steam drill. Well-informed humans can still be better at finding relevant information than search engines are. Here's an example.

In a recent post, I discussed some dismissive comments by Lewis Lapham about bloggers. The context was an interview with Marcie Sillman on a radio show called Weekday, which airs on KUOW in Seattle. As far I know it's not syndicated, but it's available on the web. I found out on about Lapham's remarks from a note scratched on the men's room wall in a local bar. Well, really it was from an post on Andrew Sullivan's weblog, which quoted Lapham comparing weblog postings to toilet-stall graffiti.

I tracked down the Lapham interview, and listened for myself, since I was planning to make fun of Lapham and didn't want to treat him unfairly. The relevant exchange, in my transcription, goes like this:

Sillman: We've had several listeners email in uh- uh- going back to the idea of- of media, asking you what you think about blogs, whether the information that- that has come out on various blogs is- is valuable, is reliable, is something that people should turn to.

Lapham: I don't know enough about blogs. I- I don't scan the Internet and the- so- but I I- guess as a source for clues, or for leads, uh for let's say a newspaper, or a m- Harper's Magazine's a monthly, so we're not into the timely news, might prove useful, but I'm sure it would be very difficult to learn which ones are worthwhile, and which one- I'm sure there- there are a lot of them that are uh simply uh the equivalent of scratching your name on the men's room wall of the, you know, Blue Moon Bar. I've-

Sillman: Have you been there? It's just down the street!

[both laugh]

It seemed clear from the context that there is a real Blue Moon Bar in Seattle, maybe with some relevant properties. But searching for {"blue moon bar" seattle} didn't turn up anything useful, at least not on the first couple of pages, so I settled for a generic reference to the myriad Blue Moon Bars around the word.

A little while later, I got an email from reader Mike Pope.

First, allow me to note how much I enjoy your posts and the Language Log generally. I was startled to read your post because I'd been listening to the same report and had the same reaction ("No, dope, it's Little Green Footballs") and a more general reaction that the guy's attitude toward bloggers was a bit supercilious.

Mike is talking about the first radio bit referenced in my post, which dealt with John Powers' commentary on Fresh Air. My impression is that Powers' attitude towards everything is a bit supercilious, but I guess you need that to be a "critic at large".

But I was also startled to read that you were listening to Marcie, which means either that you were in Seattle or that "Weekday" is syndicated. If the latter, that's great for them and news to me.

No, I couldn't find any evidence that the show is syndicated. I had to (or really I should say "got to") listen to it on the web.

Incidentally, you probably know that the Blue Moon Tavern is famously the one-time hangout of Theodore Roethke. While this lends the place a certain infamy, the place is still a dive. :-)

 No, I didn't know that.

So Lapham got the name wrong -- it's the Blue Moon Tavern, not the Blue Moon Bar! If I search for {"Blue Moon Tavern" Seattle}, right at the top I find this. And down the rest of the first page of Google hits are nine other relevant and often interesting things, such as the second link, from which I learn that the comments scratched on the restroom walls at the Blue Moon Tavern might have been authored by Theodore Roethke, Carolyn Kizer, Dylan Thomas or Allen Ginsberg. Somehow, though, I don't think that's what Lapham meant.

The point is, Mike -- a well-informed human -- immediately knew that Lapham and Sillman must be talking about the (in)famous Blue Moon Tavern. In fact, it was so obvious to him that he figured I must know about it too, though perhaps he was just being polite.

But I didn't know about it, and neither did Google. Chalk one up for Mike Pope and John Henry -- though of course here the benefit comes from the combination of having access to a good search engine and knowing what search terms to use.

And we have to end with a quote from Theodore Roethke. Say, this one (from PRAISE TO THE END! 1951):

84        My friend, the rat in the wall, brings me the clearest messages;
85        I bask in the bower of change;

Here's to the writing on the wall!



Posted by Mark Liberman at September 25, 2004 03:28 PM