Too much of a good thing – the rebuttal

After writing Too much of a good thing I contacted the therein mentioned customer (Mr. T.) informing him of the blog post. To my surprise he wrote a lengthy rebuttal and with his permission here it is in full, along with another reply of mine and more from him. I hope you find this as interesting a read as I did.

Thank you for your email. Allow me to share my musings on technology.

I will reflect on what you have to say, as I do believe there is some sense in it. I will try to regularly saved pages as they arise; maybe it would not be as cumbersome as it seems to me. I guess maybe what I would want would be to turn it off and on. I will do google searches and click from page to page with a dozen windows open, most of them with multiple tabs and I really do want *every* one of those pages saved (automatically, I think as it is a good record of my train of thought). I guess I thought perhaps there was sophisticated enough searching such that it would not be a waste of time. I also thought it would be often me doing a more general term search, thinking “I know I read something about “dopamine reward pathway” and “the hedonistic calculus” and then I would basically hit on the motherload of all the pages I was looking for. There were more than a few times when I was glad that slogger automatically saved everything. For some reason, though, when I did a general Microsoft system search the results did not come up for terms listed on the html pages, so the search was effectively useless, except for some times when I kind of tracked stuff and was glad it was all there.

1) Slogger is not compatible with the latest version of firefox and I have other add-ons which I believe require it to run. I’m not sure about keeping an earlier version of firefox.

2) I had the issue of a term in an html file saved via slogger not seeming to come up, making search almost useless (again unless I could track it down manually).

3) I guess I just think it is really cool to pick a day from 2005 and just go from page to page that I was visiting and recapture everything I saw. This fits in with my whole vision of the ideal that we will archive experience. As storage space becomes effectively free and camera technology becomes miniature, it will not be uncommon for people to, for example, simply videotape their days. I believe there are people who already do this JustinTV(?). All of this is very crude now. But if the data is gone–one thing we know it will stay gone. Who knows what kind of smart searching technology we will have in 10, 15, 20, 1000, 10000 years. This doesn’t even get into backing up one’s memories from the day so nothing is lost at all. Again, I feel like this the way I originally felt about gmail. Why would I want to save every email I have ever sent? What’s the point? Well, when storage space is effectively free, the question becomes one of search. Clearly search is going to get A LOT !!!! more sophisticated. (Again, though, if the data is gone, it’s gone.) I look back now (being 34 years old) and my parents never had a videocamera, so there is basically no record of my childhood other than a few hundred photos maybe. Contrast that with a kid today who would have tons of videos of all kinds of things. Tons of pictures. And a record that is always there of everything that passed in front of his eyes if it ever occurred to him to want (given that it was effectively free to preserve it). Why *not* do it? You point to security. OK, I guess maybe I should be more concerned about that I am. Maybe someone could access my files from my external hard drive. And, yes, there is the danger of how secure is the data if it is sitting on an external hard drive sitting right next to the computer. Again, maybe not very. But if it costs nothing to do so, why not? OK, search is cumbersome. It seems to me that if there were some combination of smart searching where I could get little thumbnails of the 300 pages where the term came up (I’m taking what would seem to be the excessively cumbersome number of results which supposedly would happen enough to make the whole idea questionable–I don’t think, if the user interface was well done that it wouldn’t be worth it to go through–I think that would could be cagey in how one employed search. I must I admit I was hoping for some exciting things on that front. I guess I want to have all the files there so that, when the smart search technology is there, I can say to it (as it looks over the exabytyes of data I have) in natural language: “Molly” (I’ve just decided I’m going to call my first smart search interface avatar “Molly”–see Kurzweil’s current crude “Ramona”) search my files for the summer of 2009 and display my wall display the first 25 files which use the words “artificial intelligence” and “Moore’s Law” more than twice each in each file (ordering from top left to right and down being the default). And then I walk to the wall size display and scan the different documents, tap the one I want so it shows up on my tablet and sit down to read the document. (or whatever and however it all plays out). Of course this doesn’t even get into more sophisticated artificial intelligence-based smart searching. (I’m sure that in 10 years the above scenario will seem locked into a Windows 95-esque paradigm.) Or, based on a cross-referencing of the relative status of the authors of all articles downloaded in the last 5 years based on (some kind of) Google-like popularity rank, give me the articles on “genetic algorithms” by those writers linked to with the greatest frequency. (Obviously, I’m just making shit up now.)

4) But the key to all this is: We could have Turing-passing intelligent software agents but that won’t do you any good if you haven’t saved the files. And, if the searching is sophisticated enough, you will want all the files you could have.

5) also I saw surfulater as offering files which would go beyond simply firefox. Word. Powerpoint. Adobe Acrobat. etc. All those would show up in the proper order so that when I had 3 word files, 10 firefox windows (8 of which have multiple tabs), an Adobe Acrobat document, and a Powerpoint file; Hey, who knows, maybe a mp3 file too. All of that would be right there so that when I looked at the thumbnails on my wall display I could easily tap any one of them to have it come up in the form I want.

interview with Kurzweil, the man Bill Gates calls “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence,” where he mentions backing up our brains. If we can back up our memories (and presumably search them), presumably it would be feasible to search through the text of some html files we went through 25 years previously. Clearly, artificial intelligence programs could see relationships between the data that we can’t imagine. If we are relearning it, there could algorithms for reintroducing the material to us in a way that would allow us to optimally retain it, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a complete record of when we came across it. I realize that technology is hard to make and these are pretty unrealistic, fanciful notions–for now. My hat goes off to you for you will be creating the technology of the future. It’s pretty exciting though I would have to say.

some links:

I apologize if I came across as snippy. I did not mean to.

I guess it just comes back once again to my main point: We could the most insanely advanced technology (e.g. storage and search capability) but it is only as good as the set of data available for search. Pretty axiomatically, assuming your search technology is sophisticated enough the more info you have the better. ONCE IT’S GONE, IT’S GONE. And I want it all. It’s really that simply. If I can’t use it all now, then I want it for later. (I guess I thought I would still be able to search it now to get what I want, but maybe that would not be the case.)

Like I said, I’ll check out surfulater for a while and see if it, in combination with Google automated (link-only) history saving, is my best bet until something more complete comes along. In the meantime, obviously these technology speculations are quite fanciful, and, although I dispute much of what he says, once one reads someone like Kurzweil, one starts to think: OK, what would I want, assuming everything was *exactly* the way I wanted it to be. ANd, then, since it never is, one finds what one can to most closely approximate that desire. Part of maximizing that desire may involve a certain planning for the future. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

My reply: Thanks for your erudite and lengthy response, which I have to say was rather unexpected. I agree with your view that once its gone it gone, however a very large proportion of what is on the Web tends to hang around. The problem is often finding it again. But you aren’t just talking about the Web I know.

If I look at my personal use of saved knowledge the focus is largely on recently created and gathered information, with anything much beyond a year or two old unlikely to be relevant to me any more. In fact often times it boils down to information garnered in the last few months. Such is the rapidly changing world we live in. However if there is one stand-out thing I’ve learned from developing Surfulater it is that so many people use it in so many different ways for so many different things!

Your vision for search is very good, but we seem to be taking only baby steps in getting there. I have no doubt this is an area that a heck of a lot of resources are being ploughed into though.

Assuming search does improve dramatically and that all Web content is cached and lives forever then I get back to my earlier blog post and question why you need to save each and every page you visit. If you add value with notes and organization (tags/folders) and therefore make it easier to re-find, then that is a different story.

And further correspondence from Mr. T.

Here is a little more I why more unfocused writing on my rationale for getting surfulater in the first palce: I am in the 6th year of my PhD program in philosophy with a strong interest in cognitive science broadly construed (neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, artificial intelligence, etc.), so I spend many hours a day reading dozens of articles (some thoroughly, some only skimming them). As I said, many times during the day I will have a dozen firefox windows open (many of them with multiple tabs) in addition to a couple word documents, maybe an pdf file and a powerpoint for the class I am teaching. This has been my life for the past six years. I would say that just about anything I looked at relevant to my research or just general interest would be something that I would be very interested in being able to find very easily (and I like the idea of recapitulating all the things/files that were going on when I accessed a given, say, journal paper. Of course I would like to take the time to add notes and such, and maybe surfulater will be the key to organizing it, but I can’t tell you how many times I have had the experience of reading something about a topic and being vaguely familiar with it, but not knowing what I read on the topic. I guess I could just get in the habit of right clicking and selecting. (There has to be a key command though, right? I guess I’ll find that out.)

Here is the message I sent to a friend who asked why I would need such a thing when I basically asked if anybody knew of something like “slogger but much, much better” (and to which a friend replied by recommending surfulater):

I guess maybe I am just trying to justify being a packrat but I have something like the following experience quite often. I will be reading one article which will lead me to one web page which will lead me to another page which will lead me to do a google search for one term then I’ll look at one of the articles referenced in one of the articles.

I might also open up Microsoft word and type out some thoughts I have on it. Maybe I get an idea. Maybe there is something I want to check out more.

And then, when it comes to go out, I have to turn off my computer and there is all of this–stuff–that is lost. I feel like I can never reproduce the train of thought I had going at the time. If I had displayed right in front of me chronologically or searchable via keyword every single document that passed in front of me it would jog my memory much easier; it would make it all fresher in my mind when I go back to the same topic or something similar. When I get the feeling, “Haven’t I read something similar on this topic?” unless I have saved it in the right way in my current system by author I can’t quite get what specific article or web page I may have read–forget about having the whole 2 hours of surfing/annotating/reading/switching-between-files laid out in front of me. I guess I feel overwhelmed with information and if I have some logging of the stuff that I have gone through on some level I don’t feel like I am starting from scratch.

I guess I am just a (digital) packrat. I guess I just really like the idea of clicking on a day from years ago and seeing the random books I searched on amazon, the blogs I read that day, the hockey games I checked on ESPN. When storage is effectively free, it is like being able to have a little museum look into the past–your own past. Maybe I should just let things go…

Hopefully, I will find a way to use surfulater such that it will best search my needs. I haven’t begun to tap into all I’m sure it is capable of doing.

I suppose you could use the above, too if you like.

And, I just thought of the work of the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Now, I don’t go into this kind of existentialist philosophy so much any more because it is all just a bit too wooly for me, but one of the ways Heidegger saw us living our lives is by projecting our lives out into the future. We see ourselves as engaged in a project which will define our future. “There’s no future in this.” Or “We don’t have a future.” being ways of saying, “It/You will no longer be a part of my life (or even a part of who I am).” And because we are temporal beings, we are always living out our lives as projecting into the future by appropriating elements/experiences from our past. If you don’t think that’s true then listen to the absolutely horrifying yet fascinating story of Clive Wearing, the person with the worst case of amnesia ever documented, such that every single moment of his life consisted of him remembering absolutely nothing that had ever happened to him and feeling like he was waking up for the first time ever. Interestingly, there were two areas which allowed those moments to stretch more than a few seconds. If you’re interested, I’ll leave it for you to find out what those were. (Part 3)

Anyway, to return to the Heidegger, here’s what I hope is not too boring of a biographical interlude. I studied philosophy in college. I enjoyed it very much but I could never have seen myself become a philosophy professor because I associated philosophy with the kind of wooly thinking exemplified by Heidegger. So I forgot about philosophy and just kind of put it away as something that had conditioned who I was but was not relevant to my life.

A new chapter in my life started: I moved to Japan. So, let’s take the example of learning a language. I happen to speak Japanese. When I lived in Japan, I saw my ability to speak (and read, etc.) Japanese as integral to who I was. I imagined future careers as a translator. I was going out with a Japanese girl. It was very much a part of who I was because I saw it playing a key role in my future. So all of my kanji flash cards and textbooks on Japanese were very important in my life. It is easy to see how I would want to capture all of that material as it went by on my computer.

Fastfoward 7 years later, I basically have no real desire to keep up my Japanese, because I don’t see it playing much of a role in my future, but now, for reasons I won’t go into, I have rediscovered the joys of philosophy. All of a sudden all that old stuff I was studying as an undergraduate is immediately terribly relevant. I am going through my old notebooks. I am trying to get into my head as a student at the time. This is all the more prominent given that I am an adjunct professor, so I am teaching students the very same material I learned. I am remembering back what I did and did not like about philosophy.

What I have meant to indicate by this little exercise is 1) the nostalgia factor which I think is inherently interesting for a packrat like myself; I recently read that one million people have some form of unhealthy hoarding behavior, so I don’t think my wanting to save everything is terribly outlandish compared to some of these people. For me it just takes up space on a $100 TB hard drive, which will probably be $20 next time I buy one.

2) perhaps, more importantly, we may not *know* what it is that we will really wish that we have saved in the future. If you go so far as to see our very selves in the process of reappropriating features of our earlier experiences in ways that project our lives into the future, one can feel a little bit like one has lost a part of one’s self when all of what one did all day is lost (or maybe when only the “current stuff I need for work” is saved). This feeling seems particulately acute for someone like me who, lamentable as it may be in some respects, spends, let’s say 8+ hours a day on the computer.

[The careful reader may notice that, despite my saying how I have put behind me this whole Heideggerian way of thinking, it has obviously had more of an effect on me than I may realize, for I am reappropriating it here, even though I disavowed its importance just a few lines earlier! Surfulater-related, I would love now to be able to look at a complete history of everything that I did on a computer for an hour as a senior in college in 1996. I think such an experience would be a fascinating window into my thinking at the time, and this would be something interesting (to me, anyway–maybe not many others) even without any kind of advanced search capability. This gets part of what I mean when I am trying to get across how, although I would very much like surfulater to organize my experience of using a computer and retrieving files for my research, I would also like to have it as a window into my experience (which, given current technology, there is no hope of recapturing–here I’m thinking of something along the lines of the movie Brainstorm where there is a cap that you can put on your head and experience whatever someone was experiencing at the time a recording using the cap was made).

I guess that’s all. I imagine this voices everything I have to say on these matters. Thank you for stimulating me to reflect on these issues. I think I may even bring up one or two of these points in my “Introduction to Philosophy” class when I discuss Existentialism. One is always trying to make these old-timey philosophies *relevant* to teenagers technology-obsessed lives.

Digital Packrat with an Eye to the Future

Clearly retaining and refinding information is of interest to us all. The amount though is very much an individual thing. Mr. T’s musing’s are definitely food for thought as Surfulater continues to evolve.

3 Replies to “Too much of a good thing – the rebuttal”

  1. Many months ago I tried out a product, Webmynd ( that claims “Record and search a visual history of your web surfing. You’ll never lose track of what you find on the internet.”

    I tried it for 3 days and it generated about 1 GB of space that I couldn’t afford to give up.
    But what the hell, if that was cached to a 1 TB drive there would have been room for 8 years of browsing!

    Good luck,


  2. On one level I can understand the obession with ‘complete recording’ of one’s activity; on the other hand, I also have trouble understanding it, for all the reasons that have already been brought up — most of our daily experience is in fact discarded for good reasons; there are privacy and security issues; there are practical issues of storage space; and etc. At any rate, I’m not sure SUL is the product that should be addressing the ‘complete archive’ question, even though it is indeed an interesting question.

    However, the point I wanted to make in passing here, is that I think the exchange/discussion above once again demonstrates how useful SUL is to academics (A point that I specifically made way back when I started using SUL, and a point I intermittently keep making from time to time). I do continue to think SUL needs to explode out of its ‘bookmarker’ origins and evolve into a much more generic database/research aid program (and I continue to think it hasnt fully done that yet — and I continue to have my own ideas, as an academic myself, of how it can do that. 🙂

    For me, I’ve wrestled with various ways of using SUL and incorporating it into research/writing workflows. For me SUL is a difficult piece of software because as an archiver it is extremely handy in some respects and in other respects it needs improvements desperately (bookmark bar, smart folders, text importers, things I’ve brough up in the customer forums from time to time); I’ve also tried to use SUL as an outliner (which is kind of a different function from a database/archiver) and there I’ve had less success with SUL and the limits of SUL’s UI as an outliner. (In particular, custom templates need to become much easier to make and deploy easily and quickly and efficiently; and basic outliner features (like being able to drag/move/copy an entry from the content pane to the knowledge tree) need to be implemented for SUL to begin competing as a textual outliner with programs like omnioutliner, scrivener, or even treepad or ‘The Guide’ (both being dual pane outliners) on the PC side.

    Anyway, so as an academic myself, my wishes and dreams for SUL are different. I keep trying to push it into becoming a combined database/outliner product — something that would indeed be a ‘killer app’ for academics/researchers, and which doesnt exist at the moment as far as I know.

    (I should add, even as a bookmarker, not being able to capture all open tabs, seems like a major lacuna to me in the feature set). But aside from the database/outliner improvements on my wishlist, SUL remains indispensible to my work even as it currently is; there is simply no better, or more convenient, way to archive thousands of notes/webpages/snippets that I come across in my daily research, and retrieve those snippets easily and efficiently, than SUL.

    But its because we love it so much that we keep wishing it could do more.

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