Thursday, March 30, 2006

Maybe it's just something in my stars

Talked to a young reporter yesterday about New Orleans.

It feels like telling this story is never going to get easier.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

It's all right, we know where you've been

I was pretty surprised to hear yesterday on Marketplace Morning Report that Amazon is over-riding its search engine's automated spell-check. Until recently, when you searched for the word "abortion", at the top of a listing of matching materials from Amazon's inventory, you also got a link asking "Did you mean adoption?" Somebody got miffed, and Amazon pulled the link.

Amazon's defense was that the two words are spelled similarly, and that their logs show that "adoption" is frequently a user's next search after "abortion", so the suggestion was automated, not ideological. Then, they retreated.

(The best news articles I've found on this were at BusinessWeek and The Independent. The best blog post, by which I mean the one which didn't either parrot the New York Times or engage in predictable ranting, is by Troy Brumley.)

There's a level on which this is reassuring to your Friendly Neighborhood Library-Man. One way of looking at this is as a reminder that computers simply cannot exercise human judgement. They need to be watched and maintained, interpreted and tweaked. (Further, it's a reminder that any algorithmic system can be gamed by human behavior, and sooner or later, a human will have to deal with it.) Someone with a mercenary mind might think of this as a modern John Henry story. Perhaps it's a little job security for us catalogers and reference librarians.

Then there's the more concerning level. Amazon had a perfectly valid, reasonable explanation for what was happening. Yet they backed down in the face of apparently one complaint. Why didn't they have faith in their tool? Why wouldn't they stand by their developers? Seeing how to improve the online shopping experience got Amazon where it is; I just can't see why they'd sell that out.

It's not like no one else has ever dealt with this before. Google, for example has a great page to explain potentially offensive search results. Wikipedia built a system to encourage editing toward neutral point of view. And of course, smart libraries have clear policies about renting meeting rooms or display space to community members. Even Amazon has some statements about proper behavior in its reviews and lists, and guides on its recommender system.

I'm afraid all I can think of is that this is one more reason not to trust big publicly-owned media companies. It's too easy to push them around. Amazon doesn't sell books anymore; their primary product is stock certificates, and we forget that at our peril. I can't quite connect the dots, but I'm positive that this was ultimately not about what was best for pro-life or pro-choice, but the price of AMZN.

Watching Amazon fold like this is just one more reason your local independent book or music seller deserves your commerce. (And if there's not one where you are, there are some great ones in DC and Portland I'll suggest for your online shopping convenience.) They may not have Amazon's pockets, but at least they're responsible to you, the customer.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

See you in the next one, and don't be late

(Look, this is a bummer, and Alison's already said it just as well but shorter. Don't let this bring your day down. Read it later.

Well, you've been warned, bull-head. -Ed.)

We had a cat. What did we need with two?

Our friends Michael and Ann had found a dehydrated mother cat trying to nurse her litter of four kittens, under Ann's mother's steps, during the height of DC's 1995 heat wave. They took them in, and nursed all 5 back to health, but couldn't keep them all. They were selling us hard on the kitten they named Gus. Who I didn't particularly wish to adopt.

When Michael and Ann brought over this spindly little spider of a thing, all legs and tail and black fur with a kitten's white guard hairs and a humiliating green bow around his neck, well, I knew he was home.

And that night, when he curled up on my chest and started nibbling at my beard, I supposed that home was pretty fine.

Time passed, and we discovered that Gus was at least part Maine Coon. The signs were that he became (a) incredibly shaggy and (b) approximately the size of a small panther. His size and classic Halloween cat looks couldn't change the fact that he was also a fraidy-cat to the bone. He loved napping in the back corners of closets or the eaves of the attic, squeezing under the bed or the dresser. When company came, he'd hide out for hours; if the doorbell rang, he'd spring across the room to seek shelter.

It was about 18 months ago that his left iris started to look asymmetrical. The vets said that it was probably cancer, and that he probably had about 6 months to a year. Since then, he's had better medical care than I've had since moving to Ohio.

The little foundling fighter took pills and got shots and kept getting taken to the vet. A parade of veterinarians got to learn that he doesn't like strangers. Experienced staff used him to haze the interns. One vet tech did a great impression of Gus, stoned out of his gourd on anesthetics, trying to land a slow-motion punch.

He seemed to be doing allright, until his back legs started to weaken. The cancer was in his spine, and it was a matter of time. He'd respond to chemo or radiation, but lose appetite, and have to miss the next dose. He kept fighting, kept giving us flashes of hope. Last week, Gus flashed me enough hope that I decided, at the last minute, to go ahead to DC last weekend.

He never liked it when one of us was out of town. Our guy put up one hell of a last fight.

I came home, and he was pretty weak, and pretty cold. At night, I scooped him up and put him in bed with us. I felt him trying to crawl out of bed around 2 AM, and heard him hit the ground very wrong. I got up and tried to take him to the litter box, but now his front legs weren't working right either.

Gus yowled a little, tired and unhappy. He coughed hard, three times. He could only lay on his side and we wrapped him in towels, sat with him and stroked him and whispered to him. And in a little while he was gone.

He was stiff this morning, of course. I made a pining for the fjords joke. It helped.

I'll see you on the other side of the rainbow bridge, pal.

Gus the Cat, with humiliating red Christmas bandanna from MedVet, and living room clutter for scale

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Give me a ticket for an airplane

So I'm going back to DC today to watch the ACC Men's Basketball tournament. (Eat 'em up! Eat 'em up! Let's go Terps!) And I figured I'd print out my boarding pass before going to bed.

Except for my friends at Southwest won't let me check in online. Oh well. No surprise there. Nuts.

Better just check my itinerary one more time. One of my coworkers already gave me crap last week about checking my flight time, so I better make sure I've got it down right.

Yup. Leaving Cleveland at 1... wait.

I don't live near Cleveland.

I live near Columbus. (OK, I live less-far from Columbus.)

Oh, no, not again.

Here's the good news - Southwest doesn't have a fee for changing your flight, and it's real easy to get an operator at 1 in the morning. So, only slightly less frugally than originally planned, I'm back on schedule. Let's hear it for SWA. A little nicer, and a lot cheaper, than America West. Not that this is knowledge I wanted to have.

I have got to start using a travel agent.