14 October 2007


Human-computer hybrids, in indexing

I recently completed an (as-of-yet unreviewed) article for Information - Wissenschaft & Praxis (IWP), the premier German journal on information science. The topic was the intersection of computer-based indexing and human indexing, and how these two approaches to indexing are unequal but in many ways compatible.

The biggest challenge in writing the article comes from the simple fact that I'm a human indexer, and that I believe that automatic indexing fails every important quality test. On the other hand, since it's unlikely we're going to have people typing away to index the World Wide Web (see my entry "A needle in a haystack with 100,000,000 blades"), it seems we're going to need something faster than human fingers and brains to get the job done.

I'm not going to repeat the article's ideas here, except to say that I tried to give an even-handed view of automatic indexing -- even as I tend to rip it to shreds in this blog when I can. The distinction is that people constantly overestimate when it's necessary. Automatic indexing is overused and misused.

Still, I thought my loyal readers might knowing that even on this, there are two valid opinions.

Labels: , , ,

11 September 2007


External deadline forces

"I need this book in hand by Friday because..."

Outside of the natural production process there are, definitely, many different kinds of external circumstances that impact the timing and schedules of indexing. Many are sector- or medium-specific, but of course there are indexers who work among several of these and thus feel the impact all year. Here are some examples that I know:

If you have more to suggest, let me know.


24 July 2007


Books I really, really, really want to index

Perhaps because most of my indexing work is on books that are rather typical for nonfiction reference books -- technical titles like Measurement, Analysis, and Control Using JMP and resource guides like Dx/Rx: Colorectal Cancer -- I jump for joy when I get something so off the beaten path that I renew my love for this job. For example, I recently completed the index for First Position, a collection of biographies of ballet dancers; more recently, I indexed Sensual Knits and Sensual Crochet, both beautifully photographed books of designs and patterns.

But now, working in the wee hours of the night, I find myself fantasizing about the books that I really, really, really want to index, books that are just asking to be written so that I, Seth Maislin, can be assigned their indexes. So here's my wish list:

Chihuahuas for Dummies
Don't laugh. You probably have no idea just how far-reaching the Dummies series has become since its long-ago inception as a series for computer use. There's Fantasy Football for Dummies, a book about imaginary sports playing; Stretching for Dummies, a book about limbering up, perhaps in advance of reading Sex for Dummies; Guitar for Dummies, Bass Guitar for Dummies, and the upcoming Rock Guitar for Dummies, which I have to believe compete with each other somehow; and Jewish Cooking for Dummies, a book that, dare I say it, would make me feel guilty to own. Nevertheless, let me make myself clear here. Chihuahuas for Dummies is a real book. I want to index the next edition, you see, because I'm dying to see what changes.

10.9 Seconds: The Joey Chestnut Story
(see http://origin.mercurynews.com/valley/ci_6297731 to get the joke) Yes, this book is my own invention, but the fun part about indexing sports books is that they are so completely self-reverential. (Yes, reverential, not referential.) Written by sports geeks for sports geeks, the authors' language captures the awe-hubris-humor combination achieved by fans and record-breakers when it comes to the sport that is most of their life. It doesn't matter what the sport is, either, so I'm all for those esoteric things like Ultimate Frisbee (I was offered such a book once) and so on. I recently indexed the comprehensive Chasing the Hunter's Dream, a directory of hunting opportunities around the world. This book included both descriptions of "dream hunts" -- think lion hunts in Africa -- and an entire section in the back dedicated to recipes, including a few meals for squirrels -- I mean, of squirrels. And I mentioned First Position in my intro, where at times I felt like I was reading an artist's diary.

How to Work My Body: A Manual
There are a number of sex books out there -- including one for Dummies -- and most of them have indexes. I just finished indexing Him and Her, short and photograph-filled manuals of the sexes, along with instructions to make them work. And I do mean "work": the book about men attempts to explain why they tend not to do chores around the house. (Oh come on, you didn't think I'd use an erotic example of "work", did you? :-) These books, produced by the same group of people who made Sensual Crochet, were a joy of sex to index, especially once I realized that most of the anatomy-filled books that I index are about abnormal anatomy: prostate disorders (100 Questions and Answers About Prostate Diseases), gunshot wounds (Criminal Investigation, 2nd edition), and the like. And unlike the traditionally polite sex-instruction book, Him and Her are more about the art than the words -- something that, for eunuchs at least, would make the indexing go much faster.

The user manual to anything only cool people own
I had the honor of indexing the user manual to the Class E series Mercedes-Benz automobile. This full-color production was totally awesome; I spent a lot of time trying to convince myself that reading the manual long before the car's official release was as envy-worthy as owning the car itself. (For many months my friends and family joked that I should paid in cars instead of dollars.) I've indexed the manuals to software applications before, but I have more memories from editing the user guide to a long-since-extinct universal remote control ... and I'm talking back when these things were large control panels. So what other cutting-edge production is taking place? I missed indexing the iPhone manual, but maybe someday I'll get to index the field guide for a nasty-looking military weapon.

Instructions to the 1040 Form
Indexing gets so little press, but that doesn't stop me from wanting to index something that's so popular or high-profile that I can't feel proud. I'll never be a household name, but if I had landed that one magical indexing project with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, my work might have reached every household. They really were looking for someone, at least for a little while. Even the newest Harry Potter book isn't as popular. Which reminds me: is someone out there indexing Rowland's books? If not, there ought to be. The Unauthorized Index of Harry Potter would be a big seller ... despite use of the word index in the title. Move over, back-of-the-book indexing. We're on the cover now.

Okay, I'm starting to drool.

Labels: ,

09 July 2007


Printing Word documents with XE fields visible

(This is taken from my Word Indexing FAQ.)

Can I Print My Documents with the XE Fields Visible?

Yes, you can. Microsoft Word can make all hidden-text codes visible, whether they're for indexing or not. Go into Page Setup (available from the File menu) and look for something that says "print display codes" or "print hidden text" or something like that. Until you uncheck that box in the future, all of your codes will show up in your printouts.

Be aware that printing with your indexing fields visible will affect the pagination. Don't write an index using your hard copy this way.

On a related note, remember that you can track changes when you work. Every time you insert, edit, or delete an XE field, you'll get a note in the margins. These marginal callouts can speed up your ability to find your XEs, although it might also clutter up your work. Use Tools > Track Changes to turn that feature on. Additionally, these changes can be made visible when printing as well, using a similar process as described above. Keeping XEs invisible but marginal notes visible allows you to see the index pointers without messing up the pagination. Be warned, however, that if changes are already being tracked, don't turn that feature off! You could lose that information for good. Instead, use the View menu to make those changes visible.


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.

Labels: ,

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...

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?