Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Case Study No. 1922: Lib, the Virtual Librarian

Book Review | The Virtual Librarian: A Tale Of Alternative Realities
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ISBN: 9780595473908
Book Review of The Virtual Librarian: A Tale of Alternative Realities by Ted Rockwell

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ID: BD9780595473908-1403479
Tags: synopsis book review The Virtual Librarian: A Tale of Alternative Realities Ted Rockwell iUniverse 9780595473908
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From amazon.com:

The Virtual Librarian: A Tale of Alternative Realities

by Ted & Bob Rockwell
Magnificently Illustrated by Thomas Chalkley
Computer Drawings Artfully Crafted by Nevin Hoke

Hardcover: 174 pages
Publisher: iUniverse, Inc. (December 14, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0595710719

At forty-five, Keith Robertson finds himself in an exciting new job. As senior engineer on special assignment to InfoPower, he's sent to work at a virtual library. After just one day, he's bought into the buzz: here, you don't see the library ... you experience it.

Keith's success is closely tied to the new woman in his life. Lib, the virtual librarian, is a product of revolutionary software that makes her seem like a real person. As Lib interacts with people, her software evolves.

But as more individuals seek out Lib's help, she begins acting erratically. Keith researches the problem, and he learns that some people claim to be able to influence computers from afar by mental effort alone. He begins to wonder whether psychic saboteurs might be responsible for Lib's behavior.

Keith assembles five widely different professional psychics to test his theory. But the problem eludes them. The distinction between virtual and real blurs as Lib's complex and evolving software becomes inherently unpredictable. Keith struggles to gain control of Lib, fighting also to save his job and marriage. The story's sudden resolution is both surprising and satisfying.


From scene4.com:

Although The Virtual Librarian: A Tale of Alternate Realities by Ted and Bob Rockwell is not a literary masterpiece, it is a hip pedagogical novel with an exciting array of current day lessons.

Ever since the Dresser read John Barth's novel Giles Goat-Boy, a book that helped her make a transition from a college life studying French and American literature to a business world where she wrote energy-related computer programs punched into rectangular cards arranged in long trays for a Honeywell computer, she has loved the idea that librarians can have secret lives. Yo! Giles, tell everyone how your mama was a virginal librarian of a certain age and your papa was the mainframe of the West Campus.


Rockwell's librarian, known as Lib, is a computer providing a virtual reality library and under development by a group of computer engineers at a firm named InfoPower or IP for short. The project is the brainchild of a young Korean-born engineer named Kim Lee but who has assimilated to American culture. The story is told by an IP engineer named Keith Robertson who the Dresser suspects loosely represents Ted Rockwell. Ted Rockwell, a touted engineer and nuclear power expert, wrote this book based on passionate discussions he had with his late son Bob, a cultural anthropologist, about the rise of the Information Age, virtual realities, and 3-D.

Once a reader gets past book jacket superlatives like "magnificently illustrated by Thomas Chalkley" (are the illustrations really necessary? Maybe this is the only way to get people who don't read much to open this book), introductory scenes where dialogue does not flow naturally, and old slang like "This drove some of the theoretickers wiggy," he or she will most likely join the Dresser in appreciating how Rockwell weaves together a story that incorporates science, technology, and paranormal phenomena. For example, the Dresser loved the scene where a mysteriously dark psychic, "the seventh son of the son of a universally feared gypsy sorcerer," tries to exorcise what ails Lib (what ails Lib is the main thread of this novel) and manages to fell Keith Robertson in a hypnotic trance and to strew the room where Lib "lives" with a stinking mass of herbs and melted candle wax.


As Rockwell juggles the human stories of the engineers working on how to fix Lib (is it industrial sabotage by IP competitors?), he slips in a variety of interesting information. For example he gets the IP uber boss nicknamed Murph to expound on Denis Diderot who in 1775 wrote, "the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from direct study of the whole universe."

Did you want to know something about random number generators, the philosophy of Christian Scientists, or geomagnetic interference with ESP performance? Have a look at Scene 14: "Sprindrift and the New World Order" starting on page 75. Just reading the titles of the scenes listed in the table of contents is enough to give the reader a thumbnail sketch of where Rockwell is going with the story. Ending scenes 27, 28, and 29 deal with lobotomy, zombie, and awakenings.


Another aspect of Rockwell's tutorial approach is his offerings of Washingtoniana. For example, Rockwell sets one of his scenes at the venerable Cosmos Club where he accurately describes every detail about what surrounds the old French Renaissance mansion that houses the club and also talks about the hidden entrance to its off street parking. Then he talks about the hot popovers served daily in the club's dining room. The Dresser who occasionally is a luncheon guest at the Cosmos Club thinks that Rockwell creates a holographic experience--the reader could walk into this scene through Rockwell's description and accurately experience the Cosmos Club.

Other sign posts of the Washington, DC area include mentions of George Washington University professor and author Deborah Tanen, Beltway Bandits (the technical contractors located on interstate route 270), and (the Dresser makes a conjecture here) the Spiritualist Church mentioned by Rockwell that is headed by his fictitious psychic Anne Winfield might, in fact, be modeled after the Falls Church, Virginia, Center for Spiritual Enlightenment which was founded by the world renown psychic Anne Gehman. Oh, yes, there are a lot of surprising goodies packed into The Virtual Librarian.


Like any thorough scientist, Rockwell has looked under every rock, including the increasingly popular virtual world Second Life, as his protagonist tries to solve the mystery of Lib's erratic behavior. Has Ted Rockwell abandoned the scientific credo? The Dresser was relieved to find out what ailed Rockwell's computer librarian was not a freakish phenomenon but more like an Isaac Asimov progression that, in this case, involves a librarian (albeit she is a computer) with a secret life.


From smartsheep.org:

Keith was in a huge library filled with aisles and hallways that seemed to go on infinitely in every direction. But there were no tables or chairs, no reading lamps, no drinking fountains, no magazine racks - nothing of that sort. And there were no people, except for one librarian. There were many more technical journals, papers, and various sorts of files than there were books. And there was a bulletin board with various notices on it. As Keith leaned forward just a little to look at the bulletin board, he glided right up to it without making any effort. He just drifted closer until he was in easy reading distance.

There were no dog-eared magazines or books shelved upside down, as you might see in an ordinary library. There was no graffiti and no litter on the floor. It seemed like some sort of utopian dream. Keith looked down one of the aisles and started drifting down it. Of course, he didn't know where anything was, so he turned to the librarian, who always seemed to be at his side when he needed her.

"Not your stereotypical, old-maid librarian, eh?" Kim's voice broke in.

"No, no," replied Keith with enthusiasm. "Lovely ... lovely."

"Keith," asked Kim, "do you see that big push-button on the bulletin board that looks like a globe with the continents all colored in? See it? It should be right in front of you, unless you've taken off down a corridor."

"Yeah, wait a minute. I'll get back there," said Keith. "Okay, it's right here. Should I push it?"

"Go ahead. A great big globe will appear, suspended a comfortable distance from your face. You can turn it around with your hands and point to any spot on it, and you'll zoom in on that spot."

Keith found himself diving like a hawk toward the state of New York. The mountains and rivers and cities, all rendered in bright, cloudless detail, were as realistic as if he were looking down from a helicopter. But the state boundaries were drawn in with thin, bright yellow lines, and the cities and highways were marked and labeled. He continued to zoom down toward a particular intersection he knew in Brooklyn. "Uh-oh," he said aloud. "I'm beginning to understand what happened to Ginger. I'm going to start zooming a little more sedately."

"That mapping capability," said Kim, "was actually commercially available. Of course, it's not completely filled in throughout Asia or Africa, but every block of every street in America is there. You can come right down to our block here. You can also find any business or residential telephone number in the U.S. That capability was also commercially available. We're just puttin' a lot of stuff together."

"So it's not just a plaything."

"No way. Its main function, of course, is to find information that most companies keep in file cabinets and desk drawers. How do you find a critical document that one of your buddies has stuffed into the back of his desk? If it's in the electronic system, you can find it by title, by author, by company, by subject matter, by keyword, by date ... "

"We had all that before," said Keith, "when we set up our stuff in digital format a couple of years ago. Does this virtual reality library really help us do our work better? Or is it just an excuse to play games with sexy librarians?"

"Look," said Kim a little defensively. He had apparently been kidded about the librarian before. "If you're going to create a librarian from scratch, why make an ugly one? It's like the library itself. We could've made it look beaten up and dirty, but why? Anyway, yes; it does make it easier to find information, and that's our bread and butter. Will it really pay its way? Who knows? But I'm sure gonna give it my best shot. I admire the guts of the management, pouring serious money into something this iffy."

Keith finessed that one. IP's board had not committed to finish this project, nor to keep him on indefinitely. He felt it was his neck on the line. His and Kim's.

"Let's test this thing. What do I do first?"

"Just act like you're talking to a real librarian. Ask for something."

Keith was always concerned about asking questions in the right way so that machines could handle them properly. Kim was just the opposite. Keith marveled at how he treated the Librarian like an intelligent child; no baby talk, no questions barred. He wanted her to learn to deal with the real world effectively and without help. Keith typed in, I NEED SOME INFORMATION.

"How may I help you?" a pleasant, female voice asked over the loudspeaker. Her voice sounded natural and colloquial, which wasn't surprising - it was playing from a prerecorded disc that the software had selected for this situation. The pretty face of the Librarian was smiling at him from the tiny screen. So far, so good, thought Keith. He hesitated, trying to think of a good test. Unlike a human librarian, the Librarian gave no sign of impatience.


"Do you want a report on cobalt?" asked the loudspeaker. "Do you want a report on specific heat?"


"I have 43,786 reports with the word cobalt in the title. I have 213,418 reports with the word cobalt in the body of the text. Can you be more specific?"

"This is just a slow way to use Google," muttered Keith. I NEED "COBALT" IN THE TITLE AND "PROPERTIES" TOO.

"I have 138 reports with the word cobalt in the title and also with the word properties in the title."


"Do you want reports with the word cobalt and also the word properties in the title and with the phrase specific heat in the body of the text? If that is correct, please enter 'correct' or 'yes.' I have 84 reports meeting those criteria. Would you like to see the first five, ranked by recency of publication?"

"Recency?" asked Keith, to no one in particular. "These programs are sure not being created by English teachers."

YES. He didn't want to get into any further discussion. But the librarian wasn't through. "I have assumed you want only reports in English. Is that correct?"


"For future requests, unless you specify otherwise, do you want me to limit your information to that in English only? Please enter yes or no, and I will not have to ask this question again."

Keith shut off the machine in disgust. "Kim, we've got to do a lot better than this. The pretty graphics won't compensate for this kind of performance. I thought we were a lot further along."

Kim responded, somewhat defensively, "Yeah, I know. I could have opted for quicker and dirtier graphics and other support structure, but then we'd be forever going back to redo it better. We've now got the basic structure, and it's pretty damn good. Now we'll have to start working on performance."

Keith was only half listening. His brain was trying to figure whether the time and money he was allotted could possibly do the job. The knot in his stomach was getting bigger and tighter.

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