Thursday, October 14, 2004

Randomness post

Item 1: Google Desktop Search, via John Battelle's Searchblog and SearchEngineWatch. A step towards solving the somewhat bizarre predicament we currently find ourselves in, in which it's easier to find things on the web than on one's much smaller and better-organised disk drives!

I've just downloaded and tried it. Unfortunately, right now it's all geared towards Microsoft-based non-open-source stuff. It searches Word, Excel, Powerpoint - not OpenOffice files. And that's what I use, OpenOffice. I still save some of my files in Word and Excel formats, but only the ones that I know I'll be distributing to other people. The ones I create for myself, I just save in .sxw and .sxc formats (and so on), because I don't need to go through an extra couple of mouse-clicks (so I'm lazy). It also doesn't search PDFs - how weird is that? It only retrieves them if you have the keyword in the title. It searches AOL IM chats - and I think that's pretty cool - but most of the rest of the world (including me) uses ICQ. Oh well, I'm sure they're going to add the capabilities for all these things at some point, and if you desperately want something, you can send in a request. Or perhaps someone will hack it to include other file formats and make it a Mozilla add-on.

One thing that's kind of cool about it is that you can basically search your own browsing history with it (provided you don't delete your history, I suppose). Naturally, right now it only supports Internet Explorer (blast!) but this is a function that I've wanted to have for a long time. It's really frustrating when you've browsed through things for hours and then said, wait a minute, there's that thing that was neat but I've forgotten which page it was on - even though you knew you saw it just hours ago - and then had to look through incomprehensible URL titles to find it. Having to Google the whole web for it, instead of searching within the much smaller subset that you know your computer would be able to find if only it were enabled for it, is the ultimate in frustration. As John Battelle observes, this is challenging A9's new personalised search history feature - anyone who downloads the Desktop Search tool automatically has it, and therefore about a third of A9's advantage is gone. The Desktop Search also does some cool things with caching that I didn't realise because I don't use IE - look at the rather comprehensive SearchEngineWatch article for details.

Another interesting thing is that searches are ranked not based on relevance or anything like that, but chronological order according to when it was last accessed. I think this is a good thing. But there are improvements that could be made - for example, I think a paned search (like the interface A9 uses) would be really good. One thing I would like to have would be a pane for documents that you've created yourself or have had sent to you and a pane for documents in your browsing history and another for all others e.g. help documentation. I find it rather irritating that I get results from Microsoft documentation when looking for documents that I've authored myself. And 99% of the time you probably would want stuff from the former two categories rather than from the third.

John Battelle also has some pretty cool predictions for how Google can expand on this service - such as "a lightweight word processor so you can take notes on your searching". Oh my gosh, now that would really be something. Can't wait till they enable all the other media formats, either.

(2) Lucky Luke, my favourite bande dessinee, has been made into a film! Or even several. Now, I don't think I would find this at my local video store. I wonder if Netflix would have it. Hmm, apparently not. The good thing about America is that you can get almost anything there - any used book you want, any DVD you want - unless of course it's in a foreign language. Now that's a different story.

(3) I never thought I would get interested in Chinese serials. My mother used to try switching on the TV to Channel 8 (then the only Chinese channel on TV) when we were learning Chinese in school to interest us in the programmes there, but we never watched them for longer than 5 minutes. Now I find myself captivated by the series "Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre", or 倚天屠龙记 (yi3 tian1 tu2 long2 ji4), which just finished its run on Channel 8. It's an adaptation of a martial arts novel by the famous Jin Yong, also known as Louis Cha. OK, I call him "famous", but I actually had never heard of him before watching "Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre".

Now, why were his books (and TV serial adaptations) never mentioned in my eleven years of formal schooling in Chinese? Surely I wasn't just not paying attention the whole time? Recently there's been a lot of debate over the teaching of Chinese in schools here in Singapore, because they're realising that the system just doesn't work for a large majority of the students. Students are getting turned off from having anything to do with Chinese, as I did, because it's forced down their throats, requiring lots of memorization and reading stuffy old stories. When they could have sat us down in front of these TV serials and got us interested that way. I never thought I would, but now I find myself actually reading Chinese novels!

Part of the attraction for me is the fact that these martial arts, or wuxia, novels, although fantastic, have their basis in reality. The sects in China mentioned in the serial - Shaolin (everyone knows about them), Wudang, E-mei, Ming, etc., all exist. It's also funny to think that for so long I thought that Europe had a monopoly on knight errants and chivalry, but that halfway around the world there were similar "knights" (xia - "knight" is not the best translation, since it's really too culture-specific, but it's hard to come closer) and codes of chivalry. And apparently European chivalry was adapted from an earlier Islamic code. I think I first heard about this at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, but it was only a snippet stored at the back of my mind.

Well, you live and learn. To learn more about the stuff I'm nattering on about, check out some online (non-official) translations of Jin Yong's works.

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