Monday, February 27, 2012

What's the question?

I've been meaning to comment on this for a while... If you receive the New York Times in hard copy, and if, like some of us, you turn perhaps too quickly to the page with the famed "Crossword, edited by Will Shortz," for quite a while now you have seen Google's addition to the "puzzle page."

First, let me describe the page, in case you are not an aficionado. Along side the remainder of one or more articles begun on an earlier page, the page contains the aforesaid famed crossword puzzle, two "KenKen" math puzzles, and two "adverpuzzles": the Jeopardy "Clue of the day" and the "Google a day."

The interesting thing is the difference between the two "adverpuzzles." The Jeopardy one gives you one of the answers that will be used on that evening's Jeopardy show. (In Jeopardy, for those who are living in a different culture to mine, you are given an answer, and you must come up with the question.) The Jeopardy adverpuzzle is one column wide (about 2 inches) and about 5 inches high.

The Google one is more than one quarter of the page. It's about 5 inches wide by 11 inches high. Much of that is blank space. And nothing says "We've got more money than we know what to do with" than a daily purchase of blank space in the New York Times.

The other interesting difference is that the Jeopardy puzzle tests your knowledge. It gives you a difficult topic and you are supposed to come up with the answer. For example, today's Jeopardy answer is:
"No day shall erase you from the memory of time," from Virgil's Aeneid, is inscribed on a wall at this memorial."
The Google puzzle invites you to look up the answer on Google. It even provides a specific site for you to use, one that won't be tainted by the other users looking up the same answer.  There are no points for knowing the answer.

The third difference is that to find out if you got the right answer on the Jeopardy question you have to watch that evening's show. To get the answer from Google a Day you check the next day. But, presumably, you've already spent some time at looking for the answer. Here's today's answer to the previous question:

Yesterday's A Google a Day: If you compare the half-lives of cesium-137 and uranium-238, which one outlives the other?
How to find the answer: Search [half-life cesium-137] to find that it's 30 years. Search [half-life uranium-238] to learn that it's 4.5 billion years, which is just a bit longer.
 Maybe I'm making too much of this, but I see two conflicting cultures here: the one of knowing things, and the one of looking things up. It makes me wonder if in a few years there will be a hit TV show where contestants vie to see who can look it up the fastest. Heck, I don't know why we don't have such a show already. Knowing is definitely "old school," and as a librarian I am firmly ensconced in the "look it up" culture. But I have a strong gut reaction, a negative one, to becoming totally dependent on a network connection for knowledge. It could just happen that I could find myself out in some wilderness area with no satellite signal and a life-or-death need to know the half-lives of certain elements on the periodic table. And then what would I do?