Research Resources, Comma, Scarily Effective

I am continually impressed at the ability of the Internet to supply reasonable answers even to horribly ill-posed questions. For questions I can at least frame properly with the right subject heading, Wikipedia now almost always supplies a good first start (and often links to more detailed sources). For questions on which I know a few distinctive keywords, the search engines can often do a pretty good job.

Still, I continue to believe that some concepts remain too vague and confused to permit effective search. While I still believe this, my confidence in the proposition that there will always be a significant corpus of unsearchable questions is dropping. Another one of my standard examples has fallen.

Years and years ago, I saw a couple of episodes of some awful sitcom in syndication. I didn’t remember the title, the names of the characters, the plot of any episode, or any dialogue. It starred two guys, one of whom looked pretty goofy, and they were somehow linked so that each one experienced the physical sensations that the other should have. Also, I think some inept government agents were chasing them.

I don’t care about seeing it again; it was awful. I’m not even sure why I remember it—my best guess is that I felt sorry for the inept feds. The empathic link and the government agents suggested some sci-fi theme, either escaped experimental subjects or aliens, but beyond that, I really thought I had nothing to go on. Even the occasional keywords I tried—“aliens,” “telepathic,” “sitcom,” “inept,”—would bring up lots of other stuff that covered up the show I was looking for. Lots of search results for ALF and for Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example.

Well, the Net has proven me wrong. We dug it up last night. It’s a sign of how tenuous the find was that I can’t today reconstruct the keywords we used to turn up the first critical link that gave me a title. Still, the wonder is not that such ill-defined searches are done well, but that they are done at all.