Are you a search engine or a filing cabinet?

Spectacles on a small filing cabinet that reveals untidy files.
A folder for everything: nice idea, shame about the execution thereof

On first encountering the web in 1996, like most people I was fascinated by two key questions: how can I find information online and how can I enable my own web pages to get found? Like any poet trying to get her head around a problem I constructed real-life analogies—analogies that failed promptly, because a digital world is not a physical world.

By the time I got involved around 1995, Yahoo! and WebCrawler and Lycos were doing their thing, then came LookSmart, Excite, Altavista, Inktomi and Ask Jeeves. Their processes were mystifying, their Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) even more so.

Two filing cabinets for the World Wide Web

But Yahoo! stood out. Why? Because in its early years, it didn’t rely on spiders (robots that crawl the web and index and catalogue every page). You could submit your website to Yahoo! for inclusion. Yahoo! used real live human beings to evaluate each site—is it worth listing? is it correctly categorised?—before listing it in a ginormous directory.

(You realise that I’m over-simplifying, of course. This is a little blog post, not a PhD thesis.)

Such a pedestrian system of indexing is unimaginable now, with over 1,860,000,000 websites—oh, seconds later, that figure is way out of date. But it was doable, and kind of comprehensible. You could imagine Yahoo!’s sub-contractors as working librarians in a monstrous ethereal library. You could send them your “book” and they would decide whether it was worthy of inclusion, and which Dewey number would apply. In other words, they were filing websites. There was a “place” for every website, a folder, or a sub-folder, and if every website was filed correctly, they could be quickly discovered.

DMOZ, or the Open Directory Project, was even more noble in concept. Their conceptual filing was performed entirely by volunteer editors. I don’t think they ever developed other layers of search technology, such as web crawlers. And DMOZ closed down in 2015.

Who are you?

search engines vs. filing

  1. Extreme filing cabinet types have a place for everything, and everything in its place.
  2. Extreme search engine types wander around searching plaintively for their car keys every day.  On a good day, they say “Keys!”, and five sets of keys leap into their arms.
  3. Most of us fall in the middle, doing our best to file things correctly and failing quite often.

All search facilities are cross-breeds using multiple methods

In the digital sphere, today most search engines combine a raft of criteria into a jealously guarded algorithm that changes frequently. If you were there in the early days, I’m sure you’ve noticed that results have improved exponentially as searchers, publishers, bloggers, developers and search engines refine their techniques.

On WordPress, for example…

  • Bloggers can give each blog post a Category (that’s rather like putting the post in a kind of folder dedicated to one type or topic of information).
  • Bloggers can list an unlimited number of Tags (other words or phrases that tell people and search engines what the page is about).
  • We can also write an SEO Description (a summary of what a particular post is about or for), a “slug” that gives us control over the URL, and an Excerpt.
  • WordPress makes it easy to provide titles, captions, alt-text and descriptions for every image we use.
  • WordPress gives bloggers advice about how to use all these fields. Not that bloggers follow guidelines as a rule: most of us do our own thing.
  • WordPress performs other magic Search Engine Optimisation tricks in the background, buried in code that most of us never see.

All these titbits of information about the topic or function of one particular blog post provide more guidance for search engines, more information for readers as they search, and a higher probability that search results are relevant and listed in order of value to the reader.

In other words, the Filing Cabinet is incorporated into every search engine, and a Search Engine into every Filing Cabinet. This is inevitable, given that digital information does not suffer from the intrinsic limitations of a physical folder.

  • To cross-reference information, we had to pack at least two folders with identical information, for example one filed according to topic, one according to date. And we tagged items with coloured labels.
  • To file the entire contents of the world wide web, you’d need an outrageous number of categories, making the whole process almost pointless. Take DMOZ: On October 31, 2015, there were 3,996,412 sites listed in 1,026,706 categories. (Source: Wikipedia) One category for every four websites? Imagine a library organised like that, with four books per category.
  • To categorise sites perfectly, you would need to see the future.

Search engine technology permeates all our work

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Search engines are everywhere, and their success is always connected to a vigorous effort at imposing order on the materials.

Every application that purports to organise our virtual office provides choices between Folders (they might be called Notebooks or Categories or any one of 40 other names) and Tags (again, every developer thinks up a new name for the same thing).

Can you think of any application you use that does not incorporate search? I can’t.

Filing cabinet habits are invaluable for real stuff

Putting everything in its place doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Instead we learn from painful experience that it does save time.

I’ve just appointed myself life coach to my 18-year-old grandson, who is suddenly in sole charge of organising his own studies, apartment, meals, money and his time. All alone. He’s doing great, but it’s an overwhelming task. You can picture it, I think? So he’s begun three tiny habits, each with a trigger, and action, and a reward. One is to put away every garment that he takes off. Reward: clear floor space and satisfaction—Nice work! he says. Yes: ideally, every garment will be put in its place, whether a chest of drawers or the washing machine. With such tiny gestures will order emerge from chaos.

I’m a fraud as a life coach, because I badly need to cultivate my own tiny habits. Organising my computer files is a work in progress and always will be. Folders feature strongly and I too drop stray files on the floor (desktop) every day. They all have a place—mainly in the trash.

What of our minds as we shift to instantaneous information feeds?

It’s easy to get sloppy about controlling our own information, now that search engines are brilliant. Yes, yes, excuse me but they are brilliant at what they do. Maybe you hate them but just think back 20 years and count your blessings! Maybe you fear them for their invasion and stealth, but it’s a tradeoff we make while fully informed of the risks.

So has the extreme efficiency of Google changed the way you work and read and think? I believe I’m more scatty. I flick across websites. I taste and taste and taste, half-hoping there’s something more appealing only one click away.

I don’t like this. I yearn for limits, constraints to my information guzzling. I dream of the old days when you had to know where to look.

I’ve recently deleted news apps and Facebook from my iPhone, disturbed by the constant updating on news sites and the random news items on Facebook. For my news I now rely on the radio, the odd newspaper in a cafe, and a couple of long reads per week. It’s a start.

I can’t blame search engines alone for this. But they play a part. I’ll use them forever, but  … mindfully? Bring on the tiny habits.

 

Singing through migraines

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Me caught in a dazzle of sunlight: something like a migraine aura

A few weeks ago, 200-odd people sang Donizetti’s Requiem to an appreciative audience in the Wellington Salvation Army Citadel. And one of those 200 people was me.

I love this annual workshop, organised by the Wellington Region of the New Zealand Choral Federation. Anyone can join in, anyone at all! On Friday night we start learning an interesting choral work under an exciting director. 24 hours later we perform it, with stunning soloists. In a word, it’s a buzz — intensive learning in a supportive crowd, culminating in one all-or-nothing performance.

The migraine obstacle

Only one problem: I usually get a migraine and don’t make it through to the performance. Staring at little black marks page after page. Sunbeams striking at a particular angle. Bright lights. Heavy concentration. Yep, that’ll do it. But if I go home I’m still happy and satisfied, because I’ve still had most of the experience.

The challenge is always, how long can I last? Two hours, four hours, six hours?

A well-designed score and cunning tricks almost save the day

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Some years we sing from scores that look like ants on the march. They’re tiny, cramped, more black than white, barely readable for me. Usability: fail. Page design: fail.

But the Donizetti score has good margins and layout and plenty of white space. Yes, that helps! I placed myself where the sun didn’t shine, took aspirin, drank loads of water and in short played all my anti-migraine cards. Almost made it.

Perfect timing: singing blind

The audience is waiting. We’re ready to perform. The beautiful soloists walk in. The conductor raises his baton … uh oh, is his face a tiny bit blurry?

Here comes the aura, a shimmering zig-zag lightning that grows and moves along its own sweet path. The conductor is a blank. The score is a blur. But I can’t leave now.

I know the first bit. And I feel fine, just blind, no other symptoms. I won’t lip-synch, I’ll sing. And I do, for the entire performance.

I make concessions. I skip the risky bits, like all those fabulous ff opening high notes. My greatest dread is of singing during a solo — imagine that!

The aura wriggles away in time for the applause. I’m fine, really just fine.

Life lessons for me

  • Learn your music really really really really well. I mean really.
  • You’re not a soloist. A kindly crowd will carry you through.
  • Adapt to circumstances.
  • Do your best. Your best is good enough.
  • Listen to the music in the migraine.
  • Rejoice!

Reframing real estate: tell a new story

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View from my apartment deck

Reframing reality. I’ve known about reframing since hearing these immortal words on a Louise Hay tape 20 years ago:

A thought is only a thought. You can think a new thought.

Truly? Really? I considered that idea with amazement. I knew it was true, and what a relief!

I have used reframing often since then. It changes everything! Or rather, you can change your frame of mind and this (thinking a new thought) can seem to change your entire situation. Last year a cognitive behaviour therapist enabled me to reframe a stressful reality after two visits. And of course I can always see when others need it, oh yes! I might even presumptuously advise them to use it.

But still, at times, boom! It’s me who needs it—but I’m blind to the fact.

Responsibility for real estate: a story that needed to change

Over the last few weeks I slid into a situation that was causing me great stress. Here is the story I told myself.

  • I’m Chair of the body corporate responsible for the block of 6 flats in which I live.
  • Body corporates now have major issues with earthquake proofing and health and safety policies
  • Body corporate office bearers now have major liability. If you fail in your duties and a tradesperson gets injured, you may have to pay $60,000 or $600,000
  • We meet only (clue: note that word only) 42% of local earthquake-proofing requirements.
  • Insurance companies are likely to raise their own requirements to 70%, or to raise fees for buildings below that level.
  • Earthquake-proofing of an old building like ours, built in 1940 same as me, is hugely stressful for the occupants, costs millions and affects saleability.
  •  Arithmetic is the problem: we have only five owners to do a huge amount of work
  • As Chair I feel overburdened.
  • It might be better to sell my apartment and buy a small house in the same neighbourhood.

Now, all those statements are true. Nevertheless it was a bad story, one that locked me into negativity and anxiety.

A better story which is equally true

I got lucky talking to a brilliant real estate agent. He said to me, “You need to reframe.”

He didn’t need to say another word. I knew exactly what he meant and within seconds I switched to a different story. I mean it, within seconds!

  • I live in a wonderful apartment with 360 degree views, sun, space, and everything else I need.
  • It’s worth enough so that I could sell it and look for a small standalone place.
  • But this beloved city-neighbourhood has only 400 homes and many of them are unhealthy. I am very, very lucky!
  • Our body corporate members are willing and able. We can organise ourselves so that the work is equally shared.
  • Compared with most other body corporates our problems are tiny.

Almost instantly the chips fell into place and I became confident and serene. We will have problems, of course we will! So? Others should be half as lucky.

That was easy! Ever tried it?

 

My very own rest home inside the brain

 

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Four unidentified marching girls have their boots whitened by an unidentified man, 1956. National Library Archives.

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In which the jabbering residents of my interior rest home duke it out.

 

I’ve got my very own rest home inside my skull, with at least five residents. When I try to Think with a capital T about how to prepare for growing old, their voices drown me out. Jabber jabber jabber!

Depressa: It’s just luck. You can’t do anything about it.
Smugilla: You don’t need to do a thing—you’re perfect!
Depressa: You’re gonna die anyway so what’s the point?
Innocent Bystander: She doesn’t look that old.

Where is the wise part of me? Does she even exist? Oh there you are, Menerva—speak up, why don’t you?

Smugilla: You are so hot you could give advice to everyone else on how to stay young forever. Write a How To book! You’ll be famous! You’ll make millions! You’ll be on Oprah!
Innocent Bystander: You’re only as young as you feel.
Menerva: I don’t think she’s trying to solve a problem exactly.
Innocent Bystander: Just run along to the plastic surgeon. Or try homeopathy.

Hey, there’s a guy in there! Great, a fixer-upper.

Sergeant Major: Quit that squabbling. What’s the problem?
Menerva: She doesn’t know what to think.
Sergeant Major: Too much thinking does you no good. Time for action.
Smugilla: She doesn’t need any help from you, that’s for sure! She’s an expert grower-older.
Depressa: Yeah, right!
Menerva: She does need help. We all do.

And that’s when the Sergeant Major proposed a boot camp. One goal per month for the year, and then I’m done. Done like a dinner. No longer undone.

Forgot why you went downstairs? Try audible mindfulness: talking to yourself

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Talking to yourself has had a bad rap. I do it, you do it (don’t you?), pretty well everyone does it. We’re not crazy! Self-talk has many useful functions and many benefits. For example, your out-loud private talk can provide company, a pep talk, a safety valve, devil’s advocate, or coaching from your infallible cognitive behaviour therapist. Often we help ourselves to learn something by talking it through.

Keeping your purpose front of mind: a lost skill

Are you inclined to forget why you went into a room or through a door or up or down the stairs? Join the club. Our heads are so full of Very Important Thoughts (the Middle East crisis, global warming, hip operation, granddaughter’s birthday) that we lose track of a thought as mundane as why we walked from A to B.

Here’s a tip that I’ve just started using consciously with awesome results: I just say out loud why I’m moving from A to B.

  • “I am going downstairs to make a rum baba” (in your dreams)
  • “I am going into the study to book my ticket to Timbucktoo”
  • “I am going into the garden to pick parsley” (not to rip out weeds or bring in the washing).

Mindfulness the manageable way: self chatter

Mindfulness day by day, living in the moment, so desirable, so difficult to achieve! And what is this loop of personal jabber but mindfulness in action?

If I can make stair-talk a habit, that gives me 20 or 30 moments of mindfulness a day. Without such a habit, mindful moments are random, and sometimes a whole day goes by without a pocket of mental peace and refreshment.

I am listening to birds

This afternoon I had a very beautiful experience by using this simple expedient.

I was taking my vege scraps to the community garden — no detours allowed.

On the walk, there’s a patch of trees favoured by the Olympic champion bird choirs of Mount Victoria. Today I got massive delight from their performance just because, at the top of the hill I said to myself, “I am listening to the birds.”

Focus. Focus (mindfulness) brings pleasures beyond just accomplishing the task in hand.

Today has been a perfect day, and it’s not over yet.

 

 

Dancing with aphantasia

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Right, in half an hour I’m off to the Crows Feet Dance Collective dress rehearsal for our new show, Hakari. And because I finally grasp the fact that I have Aphantasia, I will be dancing with some new insights into how I learn the necessary choreography compared with how others learn.

At last I understand why I’m the one who needs the following aids to learning.

  • I take videos of each dance for learning purposes
  • I keep a notebook
  • I make little diagrams of our placement on the floor at the start of each movement
  • I create little stories to remember the order of things (don’t ask — they are crazy)
  • I give labels to movements or poses (tai chi, swish, tiptoes, Peter Pan, tootsies, windmill, Krishna and so forth)
  • I silently recite little mantras like 1, 2, skippity hop.

When I rehearse a dance in my head, I feel it in my body.

And all this is not because at 76 I’m the oldest dancer on the floor. It’s because I cannot picture the dance in my mind’s eye.  I can feel with my mind’s body. And I can hear the accompanying music in my mind’s ear. But I cannot see it with my non-existent mind’s eye.

Clever little brain, ay? Who else do you know with this fun condition?

Crows Feet Dance Collective on Facebook

 

 

A writer with aphantasia—weird or what?

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Lately a flurry of articles have drawn attention to the phenomenon of aphantasia. This is a recently named brain condition (not a disability) of those who cannot summon up mental pictures in their mind’s eye.  (Some have “total aphantasia”, which affects all the senses, but that’s not me.)

Realisation slow and fast: that’s me too

A long article by Blake Ross woke me up to what a big deal this is.

  • I knew I was face-blind.
  • I knew I had peculiar difficulty in remembering things, and always have had. Big blanks where others had instant recall.
  • I knew I was pretty smart at conceptual thinking, had a busy brain forever generating new deductions and ideas.
  • I often used words like visualize and picture this, never dreaming that others could do this literally. To me they were just metaphors.
  • I had no idea that others could summon up faces and other mental pictures at will.

Boom! Suddenly I get it, and the revelation is a whopper.

Further reading and experiments confirmed that the way that I (and at least 2% of the population) process information is not the norm. The killer question was: “Imagine a red triangle.” How hard is that? So what really happens when I ask myself to do this? I see black, black, black. I laboriously pick a point and sort of join the dots. But I still see nothing. I’m just shuffling data, drawing conclusions, and attempting to construct something from scratch. Same if I try to visualise a scene, or my childhood home: I kind of draw it, flat. The process is cognitive and deliberate. Nothing spontaneous about it!

In dreams and in that dream-like state before and after sleep, I do sometimes see things in my mind, vividly. So I know what it’s like, sort of. But I cannot, do not do it when awake.

But a writer — a poet! — with aphantasia? How can that be?

Easy. Information is flooding in, with further research and active forums for people with aphantasia. And it seems that many of us develop strong conceptual skills, mathematical skills or yes, verbal skills. This, I dare say, is how our brains automatically compensate for a lack that we never knew we had.

Instead of mental pictures, we use other information. Click click click, we work away slotting facts into place.

I have trouble describing people and if I do, I’ll just pick a detail or two and let the reader do the imagining. Sometimes I draw people from TV (Antiques Roadshow being a favourite) and use those drawings as models for characters.

It’s hilarious. Since childhood I have been admired and condemned for my too-vivid imagination. The word imagination deconstructed means constructing images, doesn’t it? I do that with words. Moreover, in the real world I have a powerful aesthetic sense, fascinated by photographs and design.

Often our life work emerges from our own inadequacies. So I failed the secret visualization test? Inevitably my dear little brain steers me into a bypass route, boosting my scores on real-world visuals, turning me into a cracker writer, gifting me the ability to explain things to others, teach them a different way …

Two minutes of self-pity over aphantasia

Last night a friend told me that if she thought about anyone, a picture of them would instantly appear in her mind. Sometimes pictures arrive without being summoned, without an apparent trigger. Wow! Really? Literally? All the time? Who knew? Answer: about 98% of people. Apparently using the mind’s eye features large in how other people think.

This morning early, last night’s revelation hit me with a bang. So … you mean … if I had a neurotypical mind’s eye, I could do this too? I would be able to see pictures of my sisters, my daughters, my sons, my granddaughters, my grandsons, my friends, like a slideshow or even a movie?

How bloody wonderful that would be! How comforting! How blissful! How healing that would be if I were sick, or when I become old in body and afraid.

I allowed myself to weep at this terrible loss of something that (as far as I know) I have never had. I let rip with delicious self-pity for two minutes. That’s more than enough.

Enough: aphantasia is neutral or positive

It just is. I can see how it has affected my life in a hundred ways, most of them not bad ways but harmless or interesting or useful or funny. Over the years I have mastered many a workaround — that’s neuroplasticity at work. Sometimes my solutions to problems seem ingenious to the receiver. Often my solutions seem ludicrous because, to other people, they are totally unnecessary. Now, finally, I begin to understand why that is, and why aphantasia is, on balance, neutral or positive.


Image from “Surgery, its principles and practice” 1906 Internet Archive Book Images 

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