All entries for Tuesday 13 September 2005

September 13, 2005

Tagging versus searching

Now that tagging is in place and working more-or-less as we intended, there's an interesting question about when to use tags and when to use search. Specifically, I find myself wondering, is it worth tagging an entry with a keyword that you probably won't use again? Example: I reviewed Charlie & the Chocolate Factory a while ago, and I tagged it with "Charlie" and "Chocolate" and "Factory" (as well as "movie" and "review"). But do those tags accomplish anything?

I can think of three things that I (or even a reader) might want to do:-

  1. Find all my reviews of everything – movies, books, CDs, whatever.
  2. Find all my movie reviews
  3. Find my C&tCF review

Finding all the reviews can be done using the "review" tag. Finding movie reviews can't be done with the tags I've used – everything tagged "movie" includes bits of news, trailers and so on, as well as reviews. Everything tagged "review" includes CDs and books and games too. Luckily there's also a "movie review" entry type, so a link to that could be used instead (although I don't include those links on my blog sidebar).

Finding the C&tCF review could in theory be done with tags (eg. "Charlie"), but since those tags are used only once, they don't make it into my top twenty tags list, so they don't appear in my sidebar. The best way to find the review would be to do a search for Charlie or Chocolate or Factory, any of which return the review as the first result. (And when Chris unleashes his arctically cool Live Search on Blogs, searching will be even better, because just entering a few characters into the searchbox in the sidebar will immediately put a list of your matching entries right there in your sidebar, not on a separate page.)

So I suspect that it's not worth tagging an entry unless you're going to reuse the tag, ideally many times. And there's a trade-off between general tags like "movie" and "review" and more specific tags like "movie_review". I had imagined, without taking the time to think it through properly, that my tags would allow me to easily retrieve all my movie reviews, but I was wrong. Unless I tag things with "movie", "review" and "movie_review" then tags won't allow me to find everything I've written about movies, just my movie reviews, or all my reviews. Now that I've taken a moment to think about it, this is blatantly obvious, but the general point about choosing your granularity carefully (or using lots of tags for maximum coverage) is, I now think, not as simple as it seemed to me when I was just tagging away with whatever came into my head.

Useless advice

I was shocked and disturbed to be asked the other day if I had any advice for someone about to start university. I presume that this sadly misguided request must have been based on the facts that (1) I went to university, many years ago, and (2) I work at a university. But neither of these qualifications are in fact any use: my advice based on my own time as a student would be twenty years out of date ("You'll need lots of hair gel, and some shirts with ruffles, and perhaps some pointy boots." "If you're going to keep your lecture notes on a C64, for god's sake back up your cassettes." ) And my current job gives me no more insight into student life than what I read in the Boar. It would be slightly tragic if it did.

But nobody can resist the chance to offer advice, even when supremely unqualified to do so, so after briefly considering the idea of proferring completely made-up and unhelpful suggestions ("Smoking a pipe makes you look cool and wise"), I made a feeble attempt to come up with something. Knowing nothing of modern teenage life except that the music's too loud and there are no decent tunes any more, my only USP is a vantage point of twenty years after it's all over, so while I have no idea about minutia such as whether it's a good idea to take your own jar of marmite or not, I suggest that long after your student days are over, there are a couple of things you'll want to have done:-

  1. Have tried lots of stuff out. University life is fantastically unencumbered compared with what comes before it and what's likely to come after it, and it profers many, many opportunities to try stuff and to do stuff. There's probably a fair amount of going to work, coming home and slumping in front of the TV somewhere in your future, so not doing that at uiniversity is (a) desirable, and (b) eminently possible. Odds are that as your life goes on you'll acquire such desirables as a family, a job, a mortgage and so on. And as these things accrete around you, it makes it somewhat harder to do whatever you think might be fun or interesting or exciting or scary. Now is a good time for that.

  2. Keep records! As difficult as it seems to believe now, there'll be a time in the future when you can't actually remember that much about your university life except the particularly good or bad bits. I'm pretty sure that I enjoyed myself at university, but that's really based on a few specific memories of particular occasions. What I did and how I felt for the vast majority of my student time is now largely a closed book for me except in general, hazy outline. Luckily, it's now easier than it ever has been to accumulate aide memoires; digital cameras mean you can take thousands of pictures for no more than the cost of taking one; you could keep a blog or a diary or something else that your future self can look at in twenty years' time and say "Man. Did I really do/feel/believe that?". Obviously you don't need this stuff now, when it's completely self-evident to you what you're doing and how you're feeling, but your future self might thank you for it. It's like taking photos of babies, I guess; you don't need them now, because the baby is right there in front of you, so startlingly real and vivid that photos seem redundant. But you're accruing for the future. My son is fascinated by the old cine film that my dad took of me when I was a child; he can only barely believe that it's me, and it tickles us both that we can look back and see in that way.

(As an aside, I know someone who actually writes letters specifically to their future self. Stuff like "Dear future self: You might be wondering why I decided to dump X; as far as you can remember we had lots of fun together. But you've forgotten the time when we…" and so on. It seems sort of contrived, maybe, but it's surprising how much your future self will be (a) interested in but (b) unable to remember much about your current self.

So that's my rather feeble two ideas: (1) Do stuff, (2) Help your future self to remember stuff. Any more random pearls of wisdom from blog readers whose student days are now well behind them?

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