257. Who Knows?

Who knows? Probably the internet.

The internet is science fiction at its best. Back in 1986, when I bought my first Mac, it came with a program called HyperCard. It was a crude, early version of what has now grown to be the internet. It allowed you to create mini-documents called cards and connect them via buttons so you could jump freely from one to another. I dreamed of creating a database of everything I wanted to keep at my fingertips. Then Newton came out – Newton was a proto-tablet that didn’t work very well – and I saw the pair of them as my own personal Tricorder.

Just dreams. Both hardware and software were too crude to be more than a tease, and even a tiny database takes a vast amount of time to create.

Today, the internet does what I dreamed of doing in the days of HyperCard and Newton. I use it to do research for this website. Sometimes I’m looking for things I don’t know, and it works fine for that. Primarily, however, I use it to check details on things I already know.

Here is an example. Years ago I wanted to look again at the Sherlock Holmes quote about furnishing your brain. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here it is:

“You see,” (Holmes) explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has difficulty laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

I thought this was in one of his middle stories. It wasn’t; it was in the first, A Study in Scarlet. To find it, I pulled down my complete Holmes in two volumes and spent an hour looking, but I couldn’t find it. I stumbled across it by accident months later.

So today I did an experiment. I went to my search engine and typed in “brain attic”. It returned a page with ten responses. Six of them referred to the Holmes quote. I opened one, copied and pasted into this post, and you just read it.

Here is another example of finding things I already knew. In my post on The Monkey’s Paw, I wanted to use a quatrain from the Rubaiyat. I knew it well, but not well enough to quote for publication. I didn’t want to spend time getting out my copy and reading through its pages, so I typed a fragment – “dId the hand of the potter shake” – into the search engine and up popped:

After a momentary silence spake
Some Vessel of a more ungainly Make;
“They sneer at me for leaning all awry:
What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake?

Notice that I scored a hit even though I had left out “then”.

Earlier today, I was writing about the Lord Darcy stories. I didn’t want to misspell Randall Garrett’s name (How many Ls, how many Rs, how many Ts?) so I typed it into the search engine and got my correct spelling along with a great deal of additional material that I didn’t need.

That I didn’t need at the moment, that is, but information that will be there when I do need it. Like I said at the top, the internet is science fiction at its best.

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