A sense of wonder. It must have been almost 20 years ago, I read a short story in a magazine involving a wondrous new tool. I don’t exactly remember the plot line, but it was something similar to this: a preteen boy comes into a sum of money under questionable circumstances. He’s uncomfortable going to his parents about it, or even his peers. Not knowing where else to go, he turns on his dad’s computer and types his story into it–whether this was a built-in Basic language interpreter like a Commodore or Atari, or a command line like CP/M or MS-DOS, it didn’t say. At the end of the story he hits Return, or Enter, or whatever that key’s supposed to be called, and the computer responds with one sentence:
Sorry, can’t compute.
That line gave the story its title.
I don’t know why I remember that story, except maybe for the technical inaccuracy. At any rate, I seem to recall he left without turning the computer off, so his dad came home, noticed the computer was on, read what was on screen, and confronted him. And that was pretty much the end, at least how I remember it.
Last night I was making up a batch of barley and mushroom soup from a recipe I found over the weekend. I know when I’m out of my element, and trying new recipes without any help at all is among them. The recipe called for 4 tablespoons of dry sherry. Now, I’m not a wine drinker, unless drinking wine twice a year counts. I was pretty sure that sherry is a type of wine. But white wine? Red wine? I didn’t know. As I was picking up the other ingredients I needed, I went to the wine and liquor section of the local grocery store and wandered around a while. I couldn’t find any sherry.
So I went home. I figured I was probably in the minority as far as not knowing anything about dry sherry, but I also figured I probably wasn’t the first one to have questions about it. I fired up a Web browser, went to Google, and typed a question: What is dry sherry? I was able to infer very quickly from the site hits that, indeed, dry sherry is a wine. But I couldn’t find any. So I typed in another search phrase: “dry sherry substitute.” That put me in business. A lot of people have asked that question. One of the first documents hit offered several suggestions, marsala among them. I have a little bottle of marsala in one of my kitchen cabinets. So I made the soup, and it wasn’t bad.
The moral of that short story remains unchanged: A computer still can’t answer questions on its own, particularly questions of ethics–the experiments of www.mindpixel.com notwithstanding. What Mindpixel is doing is storing and cross-referencing the answers to millions of simple questions in hopes of one day being able to answer complex ones. (The results of that are fairly impressive–last night I asked it several simple questions like, “Was Ronald Reagan president of the United States in 1981?” and “Is Joe Jackson the name of both a famous musician and a famous baseball player?” and it answered all of them correctly.) But what Mindpixel, or for that matter, any good search engine can do effectively is gather and retain information. And that in itself is extremely useful, and the idea of search engines indexing a global database and answering simple–and not-so-simple–questions was unthinkable to most people just 20 years ago.
And I found a sale. I’m suddenly in need of a large number of network cards, as regular readers know. Just out of curiosity, I checked CompUSA’s pricing on Bay Netgear FA311 NICs, and–drum roll–they’re $14.99 with a $5 mail-in rebate. That’s a steal. It’s not quite as striking as the deal I found on D-Link cards at Circuit City back in January, but I like the Netgear–or at least its predecessor, the FA310TX–better anyway.