“I Wish the Internet Still Worked…”

If Only They'd Asked a Librarian

I have a confession to make. Two, actually.

First, I really like the movie Warm Bodies. It’s sweet, and any movie that puts Feist, the National, and the Mynabirds on its soundtrack has me in the palm of its hand.

Second, when I’m watching movies, or reading books, I get all librarian on the characters. An untold number of stories rely on the revelation of new information to the characters to advance the plot. Sometimes, the protagonist receives this new information unexpectedly: think of the classic accidental eavesdropper scenes. I prefer the intentional searches, though: will the character accurately identify the information they need? Where will they choose to look? These intentional searches say a lot about how people in the specific places and times interact with information. Most of the time, the characters get derailed in their search for information, coming back with the wrong information or no information at all. This serves the plot well, but, as a librarian, I try to figure out how they could have made their search a success.

I know, kind of geeky. But fun.

In Warm Bodies (end of the clip above), Nora’s line–“I wish the Internet still worked so I could look up what’s wrong with you!”–is not the start of an epic quest for information. It’s more of a joke, actually: a joke for us, the audience. In a post apocalyptic world, the teens would be well aware that medical information must be gleaned from medical texts that have been scavenged from ruined hospitals outside the city.

But in our world, we look things up on the Internet.

This is all well and good for casual searches–“Hey, what movie was that guy in before?”–but we have come to expect that we can plug some random words into Google (or your search engine of choice) and get accurate, complete information in the first five results. What’s more, we assume that the source that provides us with our information will be an authority.

Um, not the case.

Don’t get me wrong: there is some great information available on the open web. Take, for instance, MedlinePlus. Its content is curated by the National Institute of Health, and would be an awesome place to look for information on zombie Stockholm Syndrome, if the Internet were to survive a zombie apocalypse. Heck, you don’t even have to go to a library or get a librarian’s help for that one. I like to think the resourceful, practical Nora would start her search at Medline Plus.

But MedLine plus is a small island in a big, messy ocean. We all laugh when Nora wishes for “the Internet,” because at one time or another, every single one of us has done a sloppy Google search and called it real research. But this librarian laughs with a little sigh, because most people know that the Internet is full to brimming with incomplete, inaccurate information, and yet they continue to gobble this information up like zombies.

Thinking Programmatically

Professional Development

Good morning all! Another week of four jobs has passed, and I am pleased to say I showed up at all the right places at the right times every day. As you have undoubtedly noticed, all that working cuts into blogging time, and giving up sleep nowadays has more negative consequences than it did when I was an undergrad. Ah well.

For many people around me, the novelty of the four jobs thing has not worn off. After asking how all these jobs are going, almost everyone asks if I’m learning. I am learning lots of things, but unfortunately for everyone who asks, the biggest thing I’ve learned is the least interesting to explain. I am learning to think programmatically.


I am learning to break down problems into pieces machines can solve. In my case, this involves taking messy text, or strings of letters and numbers, sticking them into Excel, and then pulling the tidied data into another program (usually a database). Moving text around by hand would be a complete hassle. But because Excel has miniature bits of programming built in, it is a very powerful tool for manipulating strings as well as numbers.

The most difficult part of this kind of work, for me, is not the functions. You write them once and recycle them for the same task until it’s complete. The hardest part is breaking apart what it is I need to do in a way that makes sense to the computer program. I began my life as a lover of human language, and instructions for human beings are a million times easier to write than instructions for computers. When picking apart a task that would be simple for a human to assess and complete, I have found that I have to work backwards from what I want, or solve half the problem and then come back for the other half.

Sometimes this is maddening, because I know I could type out what I want in a fraction of the time it would take me to build a function to cobble the desired end product together from existing strings. But with that reasoning, I should pull out a pen and paper and handwrite my information. The purpose of working with a computer is to be lazy, and get the computer to do as much of the work for me as possible. Telling myself all this while fiddling with parentheses is not very encouraging, but when I finally get the problem worked out, it is very satisfying to stick that gobbledygook series of cell references together with commands, commas, and parentheses and watch it turn messy text into a perfect string of concatenated, uppercase characters.