Magazine article Information Today

Don't Kiss Boolean Good-Bye

Magazine article Information Today

Don't Kiss Boolean Good-Bye

Article excerpt

Poor George. I mean George Boole. He was the 19th century mathematician who was honored by being the namesake for the quintessential feature of computerized information retrieval--the flexible selection of records from a database of any size through the combination of search terms through the AND, OR, NOT, and to a much lesser extent the XOR (exclusive or) operators, a.k.a. Boolean operators.

His name seems to be as much in vogue these days as that of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in the republics of the former Soviet Union. While the latter's dethronement is understandable, I am startled by the revolt against the application of the principles of the former.

What bothers me is the apparently unconditional embracing of natural language searching by information industry aces, the red carpet treatment for the software packages that promise the manna for searchers of online and CD-ROM databases, and most importantly the ditching of the good old Boolean search concept that has served us well for the past 25 years.

MIDLIFE CRISIS IN THE INFORMATION INDUSTRY?

Is this the midlife crisis syndrome of the information industry? Is this Alan Alda or Cybil Shepard when they leave their respected and beloved spouses on the spur of the moment for a bimbo or a hare-brained life guard, hail their new lifestyle, and make themselves believe that there is nothing better than the adhoc communal living with their partner's cohorts, without the chains of their formal, structured life before?

What stuns me is the title (Bye-bye Boolean) of a recent article published in Searcher: the Magazine for Database Professionals. (Yes, in our sister publication.) What really made me take notice was the name of one of the authors, whom I know personally, respect a lot for his contribution to the information industry, for his intimate knowledge of the high-tech issues, for his healthy dose of skepticism, and whom I envy for his sharp eye for genuinely novel and revolutionary developments. The article depicts a much more realistic picture, but the title may keep ringing in too many ears. Bye-bye Boolean? Naaah.

WHAT IS SO GOOD IN NATURAL LANGUAGE?

Of course, psycho-linguistically I understand the attraction. I hear the pristine waterfalls of Maui, I see the white tuxedo here, the Porsche with the all-American blonde there, and I feel the breeze from the ocean. But I'm afraid they are as much a mirage as the promise of natural language searching. "Natural language boils down to entering nouns and noun phrases via keyboard without having to include Boolean operators AND, OR, or NOT." Is THIS the big deal? Sounds to me like Alan Alda when he says the thing he enjoys the most in his new relationship is that he doesn't have to take out the garbage every night.

Anyone who knows what a noun phrase is should have no problem with using Boolean operators. And what is this discrimination against adjectives and other parts of speech? Probably the experience with one of the stars of the natural language software gang, Compton's SmarTrieve. The patented one. Do you know what happens when I type the term "GREEN CARD" with this software? It throws the garbage bag at me. I get a zillion irrelevant references about card games, Vermont, Christmas (enough green matters even for the most zealous environmentalists), but nothing about the definition of the green card (which is pink), or the explanation about its origin.

If the term you entered is not an entry term in the encyclopedia, the SmarTrieve software simply ignores what I asked for, creates a pretty loose OR relationship between my terms, does not even bother to advise me, and dumps a lot of junk on me. What would you say if you ordered an ice cream and a coffee, and the waiter brought out an iced coffee with cream? You would not tip him, I presume, though he just did the same loose interpretation as the natural language software wizard. Indeed, I do not have to use the Boolean AND, but neither does the software. …

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