Tag Archives: Google

The problem with reading online


Four years ago, I started an MA in music education at the Institute of Education in London. The first module was on the philosophy and aesthetics of music, and included the kind of books that I had been avoiding for 25 years, like Hanslick’s Vom musikalisch Schönen. With philosophy, there are no short cuts, you just have to read in depth and slowly.  Mid-term, I went to Malta for a short break to meet an old friend, and took my books with me, including an anthology of texts on the aesthetics of music in the original German. It’s one of my happiest memories of that time, sitting on my balcony, with nothing but a book, reading slowly, going over the same paragraph again and again until some of it made sense. Four years later, I’m still struggling to understand a lot of the same material now, but the pleasure is deep and immense when you realise that something once unfathomable has sunk in and become understood. It’s like watching a tree grow.

If I hadn’t started that MA, I would never have made the effort to achieve that understanding. Writing essays forces you to do grapple with other people’s thinking and writing, and searching, googling, information gathering is irrelevant to the task. The work is in your head. It’s deep, satisfying, and laborious.

So I knew exactly what Randy Connolly was talking about in his short presentation What’s wrong with online reading? You keep hearing about how wonderful the online world is now, how ‘everything’s on Google’ and children today are amazing, multi-tasking geniuses whose brains (as ‘digital natives’) will develop in ways that we oldies simply can’t understand because we didn’t grow up with the internet. The trouble is, despite the hype, there’s not a lot of evidence that this is really the case. What’s more, online reading is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s causing us to skim and forage without thinking a great deal, and we lose concentration as a result. Connolly’s interest in this subject started, in part, with an article called ‘Is Google making us stupid?‘Given that this is a long article, and given our tendency to skim when things are on a screen, it’s probably best to download and print the article first.

Google can’t make us stupid of  course, that’s up to us. If we don’t take time to think, read carefully and stop scanning and foraging as our only mode of intellection, then we’ll end up – as even some academics admit – unable to read and concentrate in a sustained way. Connolly’s presentation is 141 slides long, but  doesn’t take more than about 5 minutes to go through because each slide has very small amounts of information on – which will ensure that you take it in. It’s well worth taking the time.

And if all this is your kind of thing, you’ll probably like all my rants about the myth of multitasking.


Desperately seeking (A Pattern Language)


It’s common to hear people say “These days, you can find it all on the internet” or “You can find everything on Google”.  It’s true in principle, but that’s like saying you can play anything on the piano: yes you can, if you have the technique and the repertoire.

If anything is proof of this for me, it’s my desperate search for a book that I’d come across before on…and that’s my first problem. What was it a book on, exactly? I remembered that the book in question was fascinating, and had been referred to by thousands of authors and webpages. It was a classic. In its own way, it was one of those books like Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions that had influenced an entire generation.  I was beguiled by it, and could remember the illustrations. What was remarkable was the apparent universality of the principles, the enormous scope of the subject.  Some months ago, I nearly bought it, but not quite. Unfortunately, I didn’t put it on my Amazon wishlist, or save it on Delicious, or blog about it.

I know that it had something to do with architecture, something to do with design, something to do with landscape gardening. I seem to remember finding it through a post on Understanding By Design that I read on Profhacker,  but retracing my steps led nowhere. I used every search term that I’ve used above, but got nowhere.

So this morning, I started again in a more systematic way, searching for classic books on design, and went through the lists I found until finally, the title shouted out from the page: A Pattern Language.  My memory is acute: I could remember the shape and sound of the title, and that it  was a collocation of two words not usually seen together that had something to do with design and structure. But the title is so unmemorable that I even had to scroll up again just now to remember what  it was.

I’m posting this to remind myself of the book (this is often what I use my blog for), even though I’ve just bought it from Amazon, but also as a very short essay on the myth of Google, the myth that ‘you can find everything on Google’. The truth is that you can look for anything on Google, but what your looking turns up is predicated on your ability to search, and the terms and knowledge that you bring to it.  And if that’s true of Google, how much truer must it be of any kind of research?



IT tips #3: Use Google as a calculator and more


Here’s three things you can do with Google that save a lot of time:

1. Use Google as a calculator

No need to get out a calculator – just use Google to do it. Type in a calculation using +, – , * (multiply, / (divide), and =. Pressing ‘return’ or ‘search’ gives you the answer.

2. Use Google as a unit/currency converter 

You can use type things like the following into Google, and it will come out with the answer:

  • 27 miles in kilometres
  • 6 stone in kilograms
  • 159 dollars in pounds

3. Use Google to find things on a particular site, or type of site 

If you type your search term followed by  site:example.com (strip off the www or http://www first)  Google will search only that site for the term. Handy when you know that you found something on a site, but can’t remember where, or you want to know what particular people have said about a topic. For example, let’s see what the ladies at mumsnet think of Jeremy Clarkson (not a lot, and they don’t hold back)

jeremy clarkson site:mumsnet.com

You can also use this to search particular domains. For example, to find out what’s on UK university sites about Jeremy Clarkson, you can type

jeremy clarkson site:ac.uk

This reveals for example that Clarkson, has an honorary doctorate in Engineering from Oxford Brookes University.

It’s very handy for checking spelling of foreign words. English-speaking sites often miss the accents off words, so if you want to know how Kylian should be spelled, type

jiri kylian site:cz

This will bring up sites about Jiří Kylián from the Czech republic only, where they are more likely to spell his name correctly. If you’re not sure what the letters are for a country, check a list of country domains.


جوناثان ستيل


Given that I come from a generation where if you wanted italics, you had to change the daisy wheel on the printer, I’m still amazed at how easily computers and the web deal with international fonts. Looking through my site stats, I discovered that someone had got to my site by searching for جوناثان ستيل. I pasted this into Google, and indeed, for some reason my site comes top of the list.

What’s جوناثان ستيل?  I asked Google Translate. Turns out it’s Jonathan Steele, apparently.

Google, Gutenberg & Research


Just how exciting is all the hype about Google’s venture into online books? Is it really the dawn of a new era?

What seems to be missing from all the journalistic screaming is the fact that huge numbers of books and other materials have been available online for some time now. Some of my favourites:

Spell to kvell

But how useful is it to have all these texts, if you can’t spell, type, research, filter, or evaluate? A classic example of this is the difference that accents & diacritical marks make on searching. In a recent search for information on the lovely Daria Klimentova, I decided to see what came up if I spelt her name with the proper Czech accents, i.e. Daria Klimentová. As I suspected, a totally different set of pages, including an encyclopedia entry on Daria from the beautifully designed and webbified ?eský hudební slovník osob a institucí (Czech Musical Dictionary of People & Institutions) from the – as their logo has it – Universitas Masarykiana Brunensis, the Masaryk University in Brno, another beautifully designed site. How would I know that Brunensis was Latin for ‘of Brno’, unless I had a smattering of Latin grammar, geography and the metathesis of medial liquid diphthongs in Slavic languages?

A free lunch?
And in the end, apart from the limitations of Google’s offerings imposed by the humanoids that read the stuff, what will or what can Google actually deliver? Are all those academic publishers who have invested thousands on online journal subscription services suddenly going to stop charging between $10 – $25 dollars an article, or forget about charging universities an institutional rate based on the number of enrolled students?

What’s on the menu, then?
And what of a field like mine, which involves a notation/recording system other than text? As I wrote in another weblog entry, it’s darned difficult to find some of Czerny’s lesser-known works, unless you can be bothered to go to a library, request them from the stack service and search through almost a thousand pages by hand. Similarly, when I tried to get hold of a copy of Tchaikovsky’s 50 Russian Folksongs for piano duet by conventional means, I found that Peters Edition still publish them, but – inexplicably – only 36 of the original 50, and with the titles only in German translation – which is no use at all if you want to cross-reference collections.

I found the full set with the original titles by looking through 60+ volumes of the complete works of Tchaikovsky at the University of London library. I only knew they were there because I saw them on the shelves as I was leaving, having failed to find them in the catalogue ; I only knew when I had found them because I read Russian and music notation.

My point? It takes minutes to flick through hundreds of pages of a physical book, but – even with broadband – hours to do the same online. Catalogues, even in University libraries, are unreliable and inaccurate, prone as they are to the errors and limitations of the person who inputs the records. Materials for study are in multiple languages, formats and notation systems, which you have to know and understand if you want to do anything more than read text in English.

Scholarship? Не пудри мне мозги!”
My rant is about the suffocating domination of English texts in what laughably passes as ‘scholarship’, particularly in my own field, and an insidious acceptance in some areas of Anglo-American academia that this is OK. By contrast, in Central & Eastern Europe, a knowledge of five European languages is not uncommon, and some of the people I studied with in Croatia had a reading knowledge of 12 languages at undergraduate level. A friend in Prague who speaks fluent English, German, Czech, Italian and French had her PhD dissertation proposal thrown out by the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague because she wanted to look at the Tchaikovsky ballets, but didn’t speak Russian, and would therefore not have access to the relevant texts. You can guess where she went instead, of course.

Information vs. Intelligence
I’ve been using the net for nearly 10 years, and I still find that having billions of documents available online is no more useful than having a billion pounds in Albanian lek when you need to feed a parking meter, unless you have some knowledge and understanding about the subject in your head, critical skills, advanced literacy skills, advanced IT skills and a few languages: information does not equal intelligence.

The congress of libraries
But none of this is any use unless you have intellectual curiosity, determination and patience. Ironically, it seems to me that high information at high speed kills off the very passion for knowledge that is needed to process and use it. Furthermore, the thing that used to be at the heart of academic life – dialogue, debate, congress, conference – is also at risk. Webchat and video-conferencing are no substitute for real dialogue. It’s great that you can access libraries online without moving from your seat, but not great if this becomes a substitute for travel and knowledge of an experiential kind.

Study? No thanks
‘Study’ is becoming as boring as it sounds – you, a computer terminal and a lot of words on a screen. I hope I am not still marking papers when essays become little more than a newsfeed from a bunch of anglophone websites, written by students who’ve never had the opportunity to get drunk, travel or sleep with each other, and thus are unable to put the subject, themselves and the whole notion of ‘study’ in perspective.