Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Searching for a perfect search function

Financial Times Magazine article: There’s magic in mess: why you should embrace a disorderly desk

This article on how to organize information-slugs (like emails or documents) reads like a nightmare dreamwalk through the past 25 years of my working for one company. After describing Borges' classification system in the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, the writer, Tim Harford, says:

Borges’s joke has a point: categories are difficult. Distinctions that seem practically useful — who owns what, who did what, what might make a tasty supper — are utterly unusable when taken as a whole. The problem is harder still when we must file many incoming emails an hour, building folder structures that need to make sense months or years down the line. Borgesian email folders might include: a) coming from the boss, b) tedious, c) containing appointments, d) sent to the entire company, e) urgent, f) sexually explicit, g) complaints, h) personal, i) pertaining to the year-end review, and j) about to exceed the memory allocation on the server.

For what it's worth, although I'd never previously heard of Noguchi or those who improved on his method, for paper documents I used a similar method I called Mulching. I put the document I last used on the top of my pile. Every quarter or so, I'd throw away the bottom of the pile, as it had mulched. This works perfectly, and I recommend it. It also has the advantage that if you are hacked, subpoena'ed, or merely cornered and questioned, you can honestly say you don't still have the document because it wasn't important. (For documents other people also used, I would file them using their own version of the Borgesian systems described in the article.)

I never found a good way to organize emails, and Outlook's search function was useless. I used to chew my minions out for leaving everything in their inbox and not sorting everything into folders with jolly useful titles like "Mikes project" or "Human Resources guff" but for the reasons given in the quoted article, that barely works and eventually I began to simply bung emails I'd already acted upon into a folder labeled with the month and the word 'read'. I couldn't find anything easily but neither could they, so I felt justified. Now I've retired, Outlook's search is much better, so simply leaving everything in the inbox would work very well, corporate server mailbox size limitations permitting. (And, obvs, subpoena-danger permitting.) I gather Gmail is just as good. (I hear heads around me exploding as they work through "Just as good! It's a bajillion times better. Why I oughta...")

My current problem is organizing links. There used to be a Google function that remembered every word you'd ever read on the web as well as every word on your computer, in order that you could search both at once in the Google query box - Google Desktop Search. That was phenomenally useful, but it went away for totally spurious reasons a few years ago. For a while I saved all the text on every page I thought would come in useful so I could search it, but that took forever, took up disk space and I often found that a page I thought I'd never need again became vitally important in a "someone is wrong on the internet!" episode shortly afterwards. So I've given up grabbing and saving every web page I like (which has led to problems after the links break, which they often do). I've programmed a Chrome extension to search history or bookmarks with a single keystroke, which helps, but like many people (or is it only people who were brought up on physical books?) my memory doesn't retain many keywords or titles, but rather the layout of information on the page, its spatial location, which is impossible to search for. (Get on it, Google!) Chrome also refuses to put bookmarks in two or more folders, even though, as the article mentions, many documents do not sort neatly into a single named bin.

The article doesn't really have any answers, but it'll save you the 25 year info-sorting journey I had at work.

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