The Questors

by Frederick Rustam

 

Part One, A SCHOOL OF INTERNET SORCERY

_____________________________________________________________________

Author's Note

Readers are invited to interact with this series by searching

the Web for the infotrieval examples offered in the episodes, and

by solving any of the student problems assigned, as a celebration

of the wonder and pleasure of the world's largest online information

resource. If you do, you may not retrieve exactly what my characters

and I did because of the evanescent nature of the People's Database.

I've not given the names of the general search engines which we used;

let me merely say that we used our two favorite ones. We hope that

you are enjoying the good luck, the bad luck, and the ultimately-

satisfying recreation that we have experienced while searching

for information on the World Wide Web and Usenet.

 

The parts of this serial are titled:

1 "A School of Internet Sorcery" [the philosophy of Questor Inst.]

2 "The Delight of Being Together" [the AND search operator]

3 "The Nearness of You" [proximity searching]

4 "Ordinary Citizens as Scholars" [the wonder of the citizen Web]

5 "What Does Information Want?" [info-reliability and "-freedom"]

6 "Hacking The Benefactor, Turning a Bus" [a man and a problem]

 

May the People's Medium expand to the limit of its usefulness;

may it never be controlled by any but those who contribute to it;

and may its resources continue to nourish that greatest of all

information systems, the human mind.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Cogitation

 

On the table between them, the tester dumped twenty-five wooden

blocks. They resembled the alphabet blocks given to small children,

but without the letters. Each was a different color. The colors were

variations of five primary colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue.

There were only five different sizes among the twenty-five---five

blocks of each size.

 

"Organize these blocks."

 

Kevin stared at the man for a moment as he mulled this problem.

He guessed that he'd receive a lower score if he asked the question,

"What do you mean by 'organize'?" He began arranging the blocks

without delay.

 

He set them into five rows. Each row contained blocks of the same

color type. He considered arraying the blocks within each color row

by size, but he decided to leave them in random order within their

color rows. However, the size question lingered in his mind after

he had finished. Had he proceeded far enough? Should he have also

organized them by size?

 

"Thank you," said the tester. "Proceed to the main test room for

your pencil-and-paper tests, and send in the next student, please."

 

"I'm the last one, sir."

 

"Okay. That's it, then." The man swept the blocks into a box.

 

Kevin wanted him to explain the wooden-block test, but he guessed

that this information would be kept confidential to prevent future

testees from having an unfair advantage. He knew how hot information

like that could spread at the speed of light. He left the small office

and followed the temporary signs in the hallway to a classroom filled

with computer workstations instead of the conventional desk-chairs.

Because he was the last to arrive, he was directed to the last

unoccupied one of these at the rear of the room. On its screen were

displayed the instructions for his "pencil-and-paper" aptitude tests.

 

At the workstation next to him was a plain-faced girl, her dark hair

cut in pageboy style. She wore jeans and a wine-dark pullover. He was

sizing her up when she suddenly turned, fixed her gray eyes on him,

and asked, "Did you arrange the blocks by size in each color row?"

 

Kevin smiled at her boldness. "Nope."

 

"Why not? I did." Her expression reflected her concern that she might

have over-organized the blocks, and in doing so, had lost points

because of the extra time her size-arranging had consumed.

 

He took a deep breath and replied, "I figure those blocks are symbols

for files, documents, or books. Each color group represents a subject

area---like a Dewey Decimal hundred---and each variation of a basic

color represents a different-but-related subject. I figured the sizes

were irrelevant. Books aren't usually shelved by their size, or

computer files grouped that way on disk drives."

 

"If you're right, then I may have seemed to the tester like an

old-maid librarian in development." She smiled wanly. "But on the

other hand, that could be one of the student types they want here."

 

"Maybe I looked to him like the typical schoolboy who rarely finishes

what he starts. He may think I'm a disorganized computer-hacker type."

 

"Would he be right about the hacking?"

 

"I've done some, but I'm too careful to get caught at it," he said,

unrealistically. He did appreciate, though, that this was the Age

of the hacker hunter, and that he was lucky to have evaded these.

 

"Cool. How about hacking the school's faculty server so we can get

the skinny on the block test? I want to know."

 

<i>We've only just met, and already she's talking about 'us,'</i>

he thought. But Kevin found himself attracted to her. She wasn't

good-looking in a pop-culture way, but she was apparently bright.

He liked smart girls. Especially if they had an air of concealed

sensuality like this one seemed to have.

 

"Sure. I can do that.... I'm Kevin, by the way."

 

"Hi. I'm Marie-Louise."

 

"I'll call you Marylou." With that provocative remark, he sought

to test her personality.

 

"Okay," she replied, cheerfully. She knew she was being tested.

 

 

Welcome

 

In their first Assembly, the students were addressed by the Rector,

the head of the school. He was a silver-haired gentleman who had

worked with the researchers who created the Internet, although his

name was almost unknown to history. He hoped to reproduce here the

enthusiasm of the Internet's early days.

 

"I welcome you to Questor Institute. You're our small pioneer

class, the first of more to come. You'll experience the world's

first computerized information retrieval training curriculum.

You're a select group: bright, but from North American families

which can't afford college. We've taken note of your information

retrieval progress while you were in high-school, and we believe

that if any student body has the talent and the motivation to

prove our assumptions and reach our educational goals, that'll

be you. My congratulations to you on having reached your current

plateau of Internet savvy. From this plateau, you'll begin your

climb to a pre-professional level.

 

"We've named this school 'Questor.' A quaestor was a treasurer in

the Roman empire; the dictionary says that 'questor' is a variant

spelling of 'quaestor.' You'll become treasurers of the People's

Treasure, the Internet.... We also choose to view a Questor as

someone on a continual quest for a holy grail---not the biblical

one but the holy grail of computerized textual information. Unlike

the invisible, elusive Holy Grail of the Bible, useful information

in the form of natural-language text is visible and omnipresent---

yet, by its nature, often elusive and difficult to navigate.

 

"While you're boarding at Questor, most of your expenses will be

borne by the Questor Foundation. The Foundation and its Institute

are the dream of a wealthy man who prefers to remain anonymous.

Questor is an educational experiment to see if specialized

'infotrieval' training will produce graduates who prove valuable

to employers. You've agreed to allow us to follow your vocational

progress by being queried after you leave Questor. This will serve

to validate our unique curriculum---or it may not---time will tell.

If our early graduates obtain good jobs and perform very well as

infotrievalists, then our students will begin to pay for their

education here, and the Institute will become self-supporting."

 

Marylou whispered to Kevin, "There's something else we should hack

from the faculty server." He was on the same wavelength. "You bet.

I want to know who our benefactor is, too."

 

"You're wondering why Questor isn't organized as a college; I'm sure

you'd rather receive an associate degree than a simple diploma upon

your graduation. But because Questor's infotrieval curriculum is

specialized and experimental, we can't qualify for certification

as a college. In any case, we prefer to be free of conventional

academic constraints so we can center our studies on one area, the

organization and retrieval of textual information. We believe that

we can convince potential employers that you've completed a rigorous

and relevant program of study.

 

"Our information-hungry world needs those who are trained, not just

in the technology of computing, but in what graduate schools refer

grandiosely to as 'information science'---the intellectual art of

organizing and retrieving information. To graduate from one of those

schools, however, you must spend an expensive six or seven years in

college. We believe that educated high school graduates with good

academic records and a maturity beyond their years can learn in a

two-year tech school like Questor what they need to perform better

in the specialty of information retrieval than either library school

graduates or 'software engineers,' who have other things to learn

during their four or six years.

 

"Of course, you may chose to go on from Questor Institute to college

if you feel that you need more education to begin or to advance your

careers. However, Questor isn't a prep school for college. It's

preparatory to a vocation, that of computer information retrieval

specialist. While you're here, you'll all study some information

technology as well as information retrieval, but we're not going to

pump your heads full of computer programming, commercial software,

networking, or complex website design like the technical colleges

do. Our educational objectives are different.

 

"I'm already a good programmer. I taught myself," proclaimed Kevin

to Marylou.

 

"Lucky you," she kidded. "I'll have to learn the hard way."

 

"We'll teach you to work, not competitively but cooperatively, with

information technologists whose skills you don't possess to achieve a

high level of retrieval success from textual info systems. We hope to

give you sufficient training to communicate and interact positively

with those whose information concerns lie mostly within the complex

realms of hardware and software.

 

"You'll study the organization of information and the history of

computerized information systems, especially the foremost of them,

the Internet. You'll learn about public reference sources on the Web

and about retrieval from non-HTML textual and nontextual databases,

including commercial online services and networked office systems.

You'll improve your communication skills so you can write literate,

readable memos and reports. We'll even teach you how to teach your

infotrieval skills to others, a valuable ability in any organization

with untrained employees and a need for information retrieval.

 

"In effect, we've compressed a four-year college information systems

curriculum into a two-year infotrieval curriculum by a process of

selective inclusion and elimination. Since all of you are experienced

in the operation of the misnamed 'personal computer,' we don't offer

an introductory course in this appliance. But you will study computer

operating systems and commonly-used types of application programs.

Instead of certifying you in several programs of a type, we'll teach

you a typical one of them in such a manner that you can more-easily

learn others later, on the job. Instead of requiring proficiency in

several programming languages, we train you to program in <i>Visual

Basic,</i> and we show you how other languages differ from it. You

can learn other languages as it becomes necessary for you to do so.

 

"How many college computer science graduates can remember all the

difficult things they've studied during their college years? Don't

they have to relearn much of it on the job, as required?... Sure,

relearning is easier than learning from scratch, but we believe

that you can meet that challenge when and if the time comes.

 

"We skip such ponderous academic offerings as computer mathematics,

business management practices, and organizational psychology. As

those aspects of management information systems operation arise

naturally in your training, we'll deal with them succinctly and

in context, not separately. Thus, we give you a quasi-collegiate

education, carefully selected to contribute to a central goal:

information organization and retrieval skills.

 

The Rector then waxed philosophical.

 

"We at Questor dare believe that we can teach you to think better.

We're certain we can do a better job of that than your high-school

teachers did. By using your minds with greater effectiveness, you'll

perform better at infotrieval, regardless of your subject strengths

and weaknesses.... Some of you have probably read Frank Herbert's

science fiction novel, <i>Dune.</i> We don't guarantee to transform

you into Herbertian 'mentats,' but we will send you out into the

world with your minds strongly attuned to the science, technology,

philosophy, and ethics of real-world information.

 

"I read <i>Dune</i>, said Kevin. "I wanted to be a mentat like

Paul Atreides, but I figured I was born centuries too early. Now,

maybe I can become something like one." Marylou replied slyly,

"Just don't turn into a Piter Devries."

 

"The advent of the Internet, especially the World Wide Web, has

made a vast amount of online information available to all who can

retrieve it. But the Usenet and the Web are not highly-structured

databases---although many such non-HTML databases are available

for searching via Web gateway pages, and these ancillary databases

have been estimated to contain 500 times more actual data than

indexed webpages do.

 

"The Web's HTMLed information is contained in an amazingly diverse

collection of documents, primarily textual. Most webpage 'data' is

in the form of paragraphed prose, but some is arranged in tables

or other HTML-allowed formats. From the textwords of all formats of

HTML text, though, index words are derived. Selected page textwords,

such as those in picture captions, are also copied by the search

engine crawlers to index the graphics which accompany text.

 

"Retrieving information from this universe of text and graphics can

be a daunting task. Storing information as text is a lot easier than

later extracting information from that text. At Questor, you'll meet

the retrieval challenges presented by information in textual form,

and you'll become text retrieval wizards. We know that if you can

become skilled at the retrieval of text from a humongous database

like the Web, you should become very good at searching for info

in smaller textual databases, such as those stored on CD-ROMs

or on intranet servers.

 

The Rector paused before invoking history. His enthusiasm had his

audience whispering among themselves.

 

"In the days before computers, textual information was cataloged

with subject headings printed on file cards or in bookform indexes.

This is still so, even in libraries with computerized catalogs.

But today, much public information is digitized then textword-

indexed by computer programs. There's far too much computerized

text for it to be manually concept-indexed by humans. Society's

textual indexing and retrieval methods have radically changed.

 

"In libraries, subject-retrieval of information succeeds when we

correctly guess the subject headings that librarians and indexers

employ to catalog text. These catalogers do some of our retrieval

work for us by their subject analysis. On the Internet, however,

we retrieve subjects only when we correctly guess the actual words

used by the authors of text. That's the newer, greater reality of

subject retrieval. Documents are now deeply indexed, not leisurely

and lovingly by humans, but rapidly and starkly by their own words,

which are collected and stored by computer programs. Our task as

infotrievalists is to anticipate those textwords and to use them

as searchwords in various logical ways to retrieve their texts.

 

"Most of you have watched TV science fiction shows where someone

on a spaceship retrieves information by querying an artificially-

intelligent computer. I'll bet most of you believe that our future

will indeed have such computers in service: mind-machines which will

listen to our requests, interpret them as well or better than humans,

and retrieve without serious error the requested information, where

such info is available.

 

"The science fiction television shows make artificial intelligence

sound natural and inevitable. And how can we doubt that it's in our

immediate future when commercial firms claim, in our own time, that

they've solved our textual retrieval problems with their great new

'AI' software?---to be released soon. And when computer pundits

assure us that, any day now, we'll be using 'intelligent agents'

to more-easily retrieve textual information?

 

"Well, don't hold your breath waiting for magical software that'll

make the retrieval of natural-language text easy and minimize human

infotrieval skills. Even where such software has proven dependable

in its autonomous operations, it requires good human input for it to

retrieve properly.... No, until we have true artificial intelligence,

you'll have to act as human agents for your end-users and use your

own 'brainware' and experience to formulate retrieval strategies,

type relevant words into search engines, and then comb anxiously

through the results for useful material. It ain't easy, but we

gotta do it that way. Those of you who can do it well will have

a valuable skill to offer employers. It's our dream that our name,

'Questor,' will also come to mean a top-notch infotrievalist.

We can make that happen if we work hard and think hard.

 

"At Questor Institute, you'll learn to appreciate the beauty of

textword indexing and the romance of textword retrieval. Those two

processes form a sorcery of information handling. You'll become

infotrieval wizards by developing the mental skills necessary to

practice the retrieval half of this sorcery. All of you here are

familiar with the fundamentals of textual retrieval because you've

taught yourselves how to exploit the Internet. At Questor Institute,

you'll relearn what you've informally taught yourselves, and then

learn more. In this new learning, your retrieval skills will be

shaped and sharpened to the appropriate level of sophistication

required by today's world---and tomorrow's, as well.

 

The Rector seemed to return to earth after these hopeful claims.

 

"In your dormitory rooms, you've each found a state-of-the-art

laptop computer. They're for your homework and recreational use.

They have wireless connections to the school's local network and

to its high-speed Internet service. You may also use your classroom

workstations after class hours; our classroom doors are always open.

You'll never be without a computer to use when you have homework

to do or just a idea you want to investigate.

 

"One thing we can't offer you is a vocational placement service.

We can't persuade employers to hire our graduates until our early

graduates fan out into the 'real world' and make their reputations

there, based on their Questor training and their personal initiative.

What employment your pioneer class finds, and your success in it,

will determine the employment opportunities of subsequent classes.

Eventually, we'll be able to offer some placement for our graduates.

I don't want to raise your hopes too high, but we've already had

some investment from industry and government outfits who've heard

about our innovative program. The word about us is slowly spreading,

and it's not all skeptical.

 

"Later this year, and every year thereafter, we'll stage a voluntary

Internet retrieval contest to see which ones of you have best learned

infotrieval techniques and want to show it. We want you to both study

and live information retrieval during your waking hours. And if you

dream about it too, that's okay. We also want you to have fun during

your time here. But be careful about recreation. Don't disappoint us

at Questor or your parents. Make the most of your two years here,

then go forth and make 'Questor' a name to be respected and feared."

 

 

As the audience applauded the Rector's speech, Kevin felt the need

to boast. He was the typical self-educated, overconfident 'computer

geek.' "I'm pretty sharp already. How much sharper can I get here?"

His boasting also aimed to test the tolerance of his new friend.

 

Marylou handled his braggadocio with the irony of easy familiarity.

"Who knows. Questor may even be able to get nerdy guys like you

up to the customary feminine infotrieval skill level."

 

"And you gals closer to our tech level," he retorted, goodnaturedly.

 

Thus, an info-partnership was formed before the school could even

consider assigning it. Kevin would be the master of computers and

software. Marylou would be the intellectual infotrievalist. Both

would assist each other to achieve what Questor Institute sought

from its wizards-to-be.

 

Unseen by the Assembly audience, the benefactor of Questor Institute

zoomed the lens of his concealed CCTV camera to the faces of the new

students to view their reactions to what they were hearing.

 

He alone knew something about the school's pioneer class: by special

arrangement with him, one of its students was reporting to a secretive

government agency which had contributed to the funding of Questor

Institute. The Institute had also received contributions from other

government agencies and from big corporations with their fingers

firmly on the nation's pulse. The Benefactor suspected that some

of these other outfits had also contacted students and had offered

them money and summer jobs to report on their progress at the new,

experimental school.

 

In that surmise, he was correct.

 

 

THE END OF PART ONE

Next: Part Two, "The Delight of Being Together"

 

______________________________________________________________________

2002 by Frederick Rustam. Frederick Rustam is a retired civil

servant. He formerly indexed technical reports for the Department of

Defense. He writes science fiction for Web ezines as a hobby. He

studies and enjoys the Internet as a hobby.