InfoShok: The Internet Library Today

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“If enough people hear you, then a lot of people know you’re wrong.”-- NPR Car Talk

The Internet is a library of information provided by people with an ax to grind. For example, I’ve done a bit of research on the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, and others on the infobahn have done the same. We’ve pooled our information together on a number of ‘gopher’ sites and ‘web’ sites, so that anybody on the net can access this information and use it in discussions. We can also cheat, and use this information against people who don’t use the net, and haven’t yet realized that demagoguery is breaking down in the face of the information age.

The following letter was in response to an editorial in USD’s law school newspaper. All of the information except for the bit about Jefferson encouraging future revolution was taken from the net. Most of the letter wrote itself: I just had to get the words of the founding fathers off of the net; their words are still quite eloquent two hundred years later.

Sure, I went to the library to make sure all of the information was correct. But without the twenty million scholars on the Internet helping me do the research, I would never have known where to look in the first place. You tell the Internet to “go out and find every paragraph that mentions firearms, and tell me where you found it.” Try telling a librarian to do that to every book in the library.

The Great Object is that Every Man Be Armed

Everyone Who is Able May Have a Gun

In the November 2nd Motions, Mary Daggett said that America’s founders “did not intend to extend to each individual a right to buy and own guns indiscriminately”, but provided no evidence for her assertion. In fact, that is exactly what they meant. Patrick Henry put it most succinctly: “the great object is that every man be armed. Everyone who is able may have a gun.” (?) Alexander Hamilton echoed this when he wrote “The best we can hope for concerning the people at large is that they be properly armed.” (?) And Samuel Adams stated point blank that the Constitution “shall never be construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms“. (?)

The Spirit of Rebellion

The framers hoped that every citizen would be armed, not simply as a defense against foreign invaders as Ms. Daggett claims, but as a defense against domestic tyranny. After Shays’ Rebellion, Jefferson argued that the rebels should be dealt with leniently, so as not to discourage rebellion in the future! (?) He wrote that “the spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all.” (?)

Dependent and Independent Clauses

Ms. Daggett discusses the dependent clauses of the Second Amendment and ignores the only part that can stand alone: the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. Her “linguistic analysis” makes no sense. The right protected is a right of the people, and the people of the Second Amendment are the same as the people elsewhere in the Bill of Rights. “Clearly, having used that phrase for a personal right in the 1st Amendment, Congress did not use it to describe a states’ right just 16 words later in the 2nd Amendment--and then revert to the personal rights meaning 46 words later in the 4th Amendment”. (?) This “collective” argument scares me: if the right of the people to keep and bear arms is no more than the right to bear arms in the military, then freedom of the press is merely the right to print government press releases, and freedom of assembly the right to join state-sponsored organizations.

Who Are the Militia?

Why mention the militia? The framers wanted to contrast the militia from the standing army. The militia’s purpose, said Elbridge Gerry, “is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty”. (?) Who are the militia? “A militia,” said Lee, “are in fact the people themselves... and include all men capable of bearing arms.” (?) George Mason turned Ms. Daggett’s argument on its head, saying “what is the militia? It is the whole people, except for a few public officials.” (?)

What is a Free State?

An army can provide for the security of a state. A militia, however, is necessary for the security of a free state. Thomas Jefferson wrote “No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms”, (?) and James Madison, “A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the best and most natural defense of a free country”. (?) In the views of the framers, any state that barred its people from using arms was not a free state: its people were not free. A militia is needed for a free state to maintain its freedom as well as its security. Coxe wrote, “Congress have no power to disarm the militia... The unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state government, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.” (?)

The Bill of Rights Protects Individual Rights

The Senate debated adding “for the common defense” to the end of the Second Amendment, and decided against it. (?) One may argue that the framers were wrong, but one cannot reasonably argue that the Second Amendment does not refer to individual rights. Claiming that “rights of the people” are merely powers of government invalidates the entire Bill of Rights.

Jerry Stratton
Academic Computing

How Not to Mislead People on the Net

Arguments that work in real life don’t work on the infobahn. I can claim, for example, that the Supreme Court, in US v. Cruikshank, said that “the right to bear arms is not a right granted to individuals by the constitution”. In a newspaper, I can get away with this. It’ll be days before anyone refutes me, and even then it’ll be hidden away in the letters to the editor. On the infobahn, I’ll end up with tire tracks across my back so fast I won’t know what hit me. Because on the infobahn, any idiot can find the actual text of Cruikshank, find where it says what I quoted, and discover that the rest of the quote is, “and neither is it dependent on that document for its existence”. (!) I doubt that an hour would pass between posting my misleading statement and getting the real text of Cruikshank shoved publicly down my electronic throat.

It is still, however, a matter of catch-as-catch-can. Information on the net is scattered around dozens of major Internet sites, and thousands of minor ones. Some of them aren’t even indexed, and most of the ones that are indexed are only indexed by title, not subject or even author. The best indexes are in the minds of the people on the net, and the best way to get inundated with data is to ask the people on an appropriate newsgroup. (!) This is not a reasonable way of looking for data when you need it fast. It’s certainly not reliable, nor is it in any way predictable. You may get no replies; you may get hundreds; the really important one might come from some guy in Nova Scotia three months after you wrote the letter, two months after you needed the information to save your business from bankruptcy.

That’s why netizens have developed special searching tools: Archie, Jughead, Veronica, and the many wannabe Yahoo-style web searchers. They’re supposed to help researchers find information quickly on the net. Here’s what I got when I asked Jughead for a list of everything to do with Oscar Wilde:

Search High-level Gopher Menus Using Jughead at  W&L U.: Wilde

 -->  1.  Oscar.Wilde []/
      2.  Oscar.Wilde *DIR*  []/
      3.  Oscar.Wilde *DIR*  []/
      4.  Wilde []/
      5.  Wilde, Oscar. 1881. Poems. []/
      6.  Wilde_Oscar []/
      7.  Wilsons_Wilde []/

I have no idea who ‘Wilsons_Wilde” is. The rest of these look useful. I already know what item 1 is. All they have is a couple of cute quotes from Oscar Wilde. Items 2 and 3 don’t respond. Item 4 is a list of one item, and that item took forever and then just sort of died on me. But I didn’t really expect Oscar Wilde to be a hot item in Hong Kong anyway. I check the size of the file before leaving. It’s 666 kilobytes. Item 6, I notice, is also Hong Kong, but I decide to try this linearly for once. Item 5 is just poetry, and I’m looking for his stories. Which brings us back to item 6, possibly my last real hope to find the text of Oscar Wilde’s stories. This file, although it has a different name (’o_wilde.txt’ instead of ‘wild.txt’) is also 666 kilobytes, which is a big coincidence. Although I’m not surprised that he’d be attached to the number of the beast. This file also takes forever; I head on to the bathroom to shave, and when I return, I’m looking at The Picture of Dorian Grey. It takes forever again to download it to my hard drive. In fact, I give up and decide to use sneakernet; I’ll bring it home on the bike tomorrow after work.

Asking Veronica about Oscar Wilde produces an entirely different result. Asking for all the ‘folders’ that contain the name “Wilde”, I get, rather than a mere six items, two pages of items, all saying something like “Wilde”, “Oscar.Wilde’, and “Oscar_Wilde”. The Importance of Being Earnest, which is the one I want for FireBlade, is there, although for some reason gopher thinks it’s a picture. Oscar Wilde always was a bit graphic. Then the whole thing dumps core on me. (!)

Asking Veronica to search all of gopherspace instead of just the ‘folders’ on gopherspace produces a zillion hits, which I haven’t got time to weed through, nor the space to reproduce here. You’ll just have to believe me, since you’re too chicken-shit to go onto the net yourself. In the end, however, I don’t find what I want. The Importance of Being Earnest seems not to exist on the net. If I want it done, I’ll have to do it myself. (!)

Now, people coming to the net who are used to using more traditional media can run into trouble. I received a message commenting on this book, complaining that the chapter “Lime Disease on the Information Sidewalk” contains no information about Lime Disease. The grad assistant spent “a number of useless minutes” looking at that page, and concluded his complaint with “It’s no wonder it’s so hard to find the info your looking for on the web [sic]”. And he’s right. If you want to find information on the web, you have to be able to think. You have to be able to analyze what you’re reading. Is it relevant? Is it trustworthy? Is it up-to-date? Who wrote it?

Just because a computer off in Silicon Valley told you that this page might be relevant to your search doesn’t mean that it is relevant. The computer can’t yet read your mind.

This isn’t new to computers. You should never have trusted your television set or your newspaper either. The difference is that when your television and newspaper are wrong, they usually got their information from the same source, so they’re all wrong, and if you don’t notice it you don’t get confused. On the Internet, that isn’t going to happen. News sources will be wrong in different ways. The advantage over traditional media is that some of them might even be right. It is up to you to find out which ones.

The actual text of books is hard to find on the net. Libraries are on the net today, but only barely. Most university libraries (at least, most universities I’ve been affiliated with) have ‘on-line catalogues’. The major advantage is that you can tell before braving the cold and snow whether or not the library has the book you want, and whether it’s been checked out or not. All you get is the title, though, not the actual text of the book.

Library catalogues are indexed, usually quite well. You can ask for books by title, by subject, by author, and by “keywords” in the subject and title. You can even ask for all the books that are physically nearby another book on the shelves, allowing you to determine what other books are considered ‘in the same subject area’ by whatever arcane classification system the library uses.

The actual books themselves, however, are not on-line. You use the catalogue to compile a list of the books that you want, and then you trudge on over to the library to pick them up. This works great when you’re a student or staff member of the school that owns the library. Faculty can just ask a student to trudge over to the library, which is almost as good as the Internet. (?) It doesn’t work quite so well if you’re just a townie. And it doesn’t work at all if you’re in San Diego and the library happens to be in, say, St. Petersburg.

Library catalogues are an incredibly annoying blend of immediate access and total uselessness. I find it useful now, because I have access to the University of San Diego’s library: all I have to do is walk out of the office and there it is. If I had to drive down to the San Diego Public library to pick up my books, I’d find it less useful. And it doesn’t really matter, because I haven’t been able to find the San Diego Public library system anywhere on the Internet. I’ve heard rumors of a modem access number somewhere in the dungeons, but haven’t had time to follow it up. If it don’t show up on Yahoo, does it really exist? Public officials are the last people coming onto the net. I know that the library is supposed to be there. I’ve heard about them being there. But they don’t show up in any searches.

When you want actual text, you head on over to the Online Book Initiative, also known as, or at least closely related to, the Gutenberg Project. Gutenberg, if you’ll recall, is the man who gave his name belatedly to the type of person who is dying: one talks condescendingly of the “death of the Gutenberg man” in multi-media circles. It was the Gutenberg printing press that began to popularize books in Europe. The Gutenberg Project is named after him because of this, and it is an attempt to get books on-line.

Most of the books are ones that volunteers have typed in, or used ‘computer scanners’ to scan in. The books also have to be uncopyrighted, which means that most of them are really old things whose copyright has lapsed, such as Peter Pan, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the complete works of Shakespeare, and the bible. You won’t find much Tom Clancy on the OBI. Because these works are all put up by volunteers, you get a pretty strange smattering of old (non-copyrighted, remember) books: whatever someone felt like typing in.

That’s the way the “library of the future” stands today. What’s there is completely unorganized, and what’s organized isn’t there. But it beats the hell out of working for a living.

And some people find it useful. I can’t count the number of times high school students have thanked me for putting The Importance of Being Earnest or The Picture of Dorian Gray on-line. They waited until the last minute to write their paper or book report, discovered that the library was closed, panicked, and then found what they were looking for on the net. Here’s one of the most eloquent comments:

to whomever created this, I just wanted to tell you that you saved my life! It is sunday night, and all the book stores are closed. I have to have this play read by tomorrow. Thank God for the internet! I just wanted to say thanks for putting this up. Both me and my AP English grade greatly appreciates it!!!

  1. Patrick Henry, from the Virginia Convention ratifying the Constitution; quoted in the Report of the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Committee on the Judiciary, 97th congress, Gov. Doc 88-618 O, 1982.
  2. Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers at 184-8
  3. Debates and Proceedings in the Convention of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, at 86-87 (Peirce & Hale, eds., Boston, 1850)
  4. Letter to Edward Carrington, January 16, 1787; quoted in Paul L. Ford (ed.) The Works of Thomas Jefferson (NY, 1904-5), Vol. V, pp. 254-56
  5. Letter to Abigail Adams, February 22, 1787; ibid .
  6. Prof. Don B. Kates, quoted in The Resurrection of the Second Amendment, by Peter Alan Kasler. Cf. United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez (1990).
  7. Rep. Elbridge Gerry, Massachusetts, spoken during floor debate over the Second Amendment, I Annals of Congress at 750, August 17, 1789
  8. Richard Henry Lee, Senator, First Congress, Additional Letters from the Federal Farmer (1788) at 169.
  9. George Mason, 3 Elliott, Debates at 425-426
  10. Thomas Jefferson, proposed Virginia Constitution, June 1776, 1 T. Jefferson Papers, 334 (C.J. Boyd, Ed., 1950)
  11. James Madison, I Annals of Congress 434, June 8, 1789
  12. Tench Coxe, Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 20, 1788
  13. Charlene Bangs Bickford & Helen E. Veit, ed., Documentary History of the First Federal Congress 1789-91, (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press: 1986), 4:36-37
  14. Cruikshank, for those of you who care, was a way for the Supreme Court--which still included pre-Civil War Justices--to get around the fourteenth amendment. The fourteenth amendment was supposed to secure for Blacks all the rights practiced by Whites. The Supreme Court justices couldn’t allow this. They especially couldn’t allow free blacks to carry firearms. They weaseled out by saying that, since the constitution doesn’t grant any rights (it merely protects them), the fourteenth amendment couldn’t extend these rights to blacks. Which pretty much made the fourteenth amendment meaningless, until new Justices came on board. Since then, the amendment has been interpreted piecemeal, on each amendment in the bill of rights at separate times.

    Racism is commonly evident in gun control laws, all the way up to the 1968 Gun Control Act and beyond. When politicians wail about “Saturday Night Specials”, they’re really worried that poor people will be able to afford firearms just like the politicians’ bodyguards carry.

  15. I would suggest, however, that you look around for a Frequently Asked Questions list before posting to a newsgroup that you only recently started listening to. Nothing brands you as “newbie” more than asking the same question that a dozen people just asked--and had answered--last week.
  16. ’Dump core’ sounds disgusting, and it is. It means the computer software didn’t know what to do, so it killed itself. I’m on gopher. My gopher just killed itself. I’ve just become infobahn roadkill. Not only that, it killed the whole connection, so I have to hang up the phone and come back in again to try the whole thing over.
  17. Which I did. It can now be found on Negative Space. Happy reading:
  18. In fact, it’s such a common alternative that hoofing it has it’s own net-name: sneakernet. For example, one could transfer a file from one computer to another over the Internet. One can also copy the file to a floppy disk, hand it to a student worker, and have them walk it over: that’s the sneakernet. If you’re using a cheap modem, sneakernet can often be faster than the Internet.
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