27 June 2007


Technology that ignores indexing

It's true, I'm including a link to this video because, frankly, it made me laugh. Witness a satire of Microsoft Surface. Yes, it's funny, but I found myself thinking about how technologies are so often designed to create needs, not to meet existing needs. I mean, it's fascinating to imagine a table that has a computer screen as a surface, but what about building height adjusters into the legs so they don't wobble? And as I continued to think about this, I discovered I have two reasons to put this video in my blog.

First, there's the opening sequence in which someone is looking at digital photos and videos scattered across the tabletop. With his fingers, the Surface user can move them around, open then, and even video the videos. In other words, the engineers of this expensive table have managed to reproduce the worst part of photographs: the pile of undifferentiated images. If someone came to you and dumped a box of photographs on your table, would you be happy? Now, what if all those photographs were digital? This is technology that completely ignores indexing. Compared to tools like Picasa, which puts metadata to work, this product does its best to create an interface option where metadata is ignored. And if you're one of those "old-timers" who longs for the physical-contact nostalgia of long-ago days of printed photographs, such that you might think shuffling through a pile of photographs would be fun, think again. Remember, these are digital photographs. They have no width and no weight.

Second, there's the reality that in real life, we use table tops as horizontal storage surfaces. Whether you're a neat freak who has only a magazine or a coaster rack on top, or you're more like me and live with your tables essentially camouflaged by life's detritus, either way you've essentially buried your workspace. In other words, this tool seems to forget the environment in which we look things up. The voiceover in the ad jokes about the convenience of a handheld machine in comparison to this table, but I'd like to suggest that this table would make more sense as a vertical hang-on-the-wall flat-screen TV. Take a lesson from the many-years-old television industry: there is no market for a horizontal television.

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20 June 2007


Indexing has at least one fan

It seems my blog got noticed just the other day, which is pretty neat. It seems I have at least one fan ... other than myself, of course.

Why does the field of indexing have so few fans outside of the profession itself? I heard many stories from and about thankful authors who swear by the quality of the indexes written by professionals. My favorite is something like this: "Until I looked at that index, I didn't even know I wrote all that!" I'm talking about something more general.

No, we're not firefighters, bursting through burning walls to save people we've never met, but I like to think that we make the world a better place anyway. We're the traffic cops of information, tour guides for books, instructors and librarians, a taut rope in the rough seas of data storms....

If you know anything about indexing -- not indexes, but indexing -- then you know it's not a boring profession. Think about the public perception of lawyers, and how we don't consider that profession boring, and yet the reality of law is lots of books, lots of reading, lots of research. Those "exciting moments" brought to you on the television, along with the anxiety and intrigue of any moral or ethical battles regarding the implementation of law, represent only a small piece of the whole system. There is a lot of boredom in lawyering. No, the part of the law that brings so many students into the law schools (other than the potential for income, perhaps) is the idea that law governs our every-day lives, the sociological analogy to science.

Indexing is the process of analyzing and re-representing information, the lifeblood of everything we do. It's the Matrix; we hold the Da Vinci Code. We are responsible for getting data from one place to another in an efficient format, so that we can actually talk. Whenever you get frustrated by a failure to communicate, remember that an indexer can change that.

Maybe the reason indexing seems so boring is that the word is so inexorably tied to that alphabetized, indented thing you see in the back of books. Despite the applications indexing has for the Web, in search, and with taxonomy, people associate what we do with good old-fashioned paper. And gosh, they've been around, like, forever, so of course they're as boring as dirt -- note that dirt is not boring to some people -- and a whole lot less inspiring of nostalgia. Such a shame.

Maybe we need a movie, the way Top Gun got people signing up for the U.S. Air Force. Here's one. It's called Cross. Jack Hannah, Agency "prep consultant" who can find out anything about anyone, is double-crossed when a routine inside investigation of an agent turns out to have the exact same life Jack has. Part No Way Out and part Blow Up, Cross follows Jack on a dangerous journey into government archives to answer what should have been a simple question: Who is the real Jack Hannah?


09 June 2007


Exemplary indexes

Historically, the H. W. Wilson Award has been given to indexers of scholarly books, often because of the very complications and challenges you're talking about. What makes Do Mi Stauber, who won this year's award, so great at her work is that she has a knack at doing this without slowing down very much. I like to think I have the same knack when it comes to technical and reference books.

Scholarly indexing is WAY hard. I recently accepted a book I didn't realize was scholarly, tried to index it myself, and realized almost immediately that I was in way over my head. (Note that I'm talking about that irrational fear an indexer experiences at the start of every project, but rather something quite objective: an inability to understand the sentences and paragraphs well enough to parse them into indexable ideas.) I subcontracted the index to another indexer, someone who specializes (or at least doesn't mind) scholarly works, and the result was great.

By the way, you need to see the award-winning book's index to really understand what I'm talking about.

Scholarly works are exceptionally difficult, even if you know the basic subject matter, because of how they are written. Many scholarly publishers underpay their indexers, too, because scholarly books rarely have large audiences: they're library-books-to-be, really, put there for students and faculty. Given that a book won't sell well, publishers are often reluctant to put more money into the production process. However, for the kind of book that Do Mi indexed -- and even the one I gave to someone else -- the indexer had better be making closer to $6/page (U.S.). In comparison, I think $4/p is reasonable for the average technical book, like a book on mathematics or computer programming. See, a technical book requires expertise in or a strongly sympathetic understanding about the subject, whereas scholarly books require a tremendous amount of time spent synthesizing what's in there. Think poetry and "Shakespeare," not of prose and "John Grisham." :-)

But the H. W. Wilson Award can be given to indexers of other kinds of books, including technical. What makes the award possible is an exemplary show of knowledge and cunning, something that many technical books don't allow for. You also need the kind of working environment in which a publisher won't chop your index down to size, use a lousy design, or force you to complete the job too quickly to produce an exemplary product -- the kinds of things that are more likely to happen in technical fields than scholarly, in fact. But even a coffee table book can win the award, if the index shows that extra something special. :-)

Given the kinds of things I index -- and the circumstances in which I index them -- I often think the only way I would win the Wilson Award is if I wrote the book myself, specifically for the purpose of making an awesome index. For example, maybe I would write a book that would require me to use symbols as entries. :-) Then again, I'm still trying to write a mystery index, too. I wonder if that would win a Wilson...

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