"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Friday, March 10, 2006

Information Overload

In Which The Internet’s Advanced Search Capabilities Help Me To Waste Inordinately Large Amounts Of Time

Psychologists would have a field day with the way my mind works. Here is but the most recent example, which started with the search for a simple fact.

Mrs. Toast and I had been discussing going to Houston next week, which led to the statement that neither one of us especially enjoyed living in large cities anymore, but that Houston wasn’t that big compared to, say L.A. or New York, and just how big was New York in terms of “the biggest cities in the world”, anyway? I was pretty sure that Tokyo was considered the world’s largest city, but what was #2: New York or Mexico City?

Easy enough to find out; the Internet excels at providing resources to ferret out just this sort of informational nugget. It didn’t used to always be this way, of course. Back in the “early” days of the Internet, when there was no World Wide Web to browse as we know it today, one used tools such as “Telnet”, “Archie”, and “Veronica” to find data on other computers connected to the network. Also back then, cameras used something called “film” (a recording medium consisting of a thin strip of acetate coated with a light-sensitive emulsion); these devices took “pictures” but had no buttons on them to call all your friends. (I know this sounds like some kind of crazy science fiction, but I swear I am not making this up.)1 I also had to write programs in Basic and Fortran on the back of a shovel with a sharpened stick by the light of an oil lamp, and trudge for miles through the snow to feed punch cards into a computer the size of a Greyhound bus.

Anyway, around this time I was having a philosophical discussion with a friend about the usefulness of this new medium; I was all hot about its potential, but he thought it was worthless. He challenged me to use The Internet to answer one simple question: how many million years ago did the last of the dinosaurs die off?2 Alas, I was unable to do so, was forced to forfeit an adult beverage of his choice, and had to hang my head in shame for weeks afterwards.

But I digress.

Today I set off on a similar quest, to find a simple piece of what surely must be readily-available information. Using a Popular Search Engine, I type in “world’s largest cities” and am immediately presented with a challenge: how do you define “largest”? Are we talking about the actual population of the city proper, or do we include the surrounding regions that make up the greater metropolitan area? This consideration affects the results drastically. Using city-only criteria, both New York and Tokyo are far down the list, topped by places like Bombay, Karachi, and Shanghai. I decide to use the more generally-accepted “metropolitan area” definition, which leads to a Wikipedia page listing the world’s 100 largest metros; on this list, Tokyo is #1 at 35.2 million, Mexico City is #2 at 19 million, and NYC a close third at 18.5 million.3 I also learn that ranking the world’s cities in this manner is a controversial subject, as there are a number of disputes over exact population numbers and what parts of each area should or should not be included in the total figure.

Elapsed time so far: less than five minutes. I should have stopped there.

But not content to leave well enough alone, I click on a link called “megacity” and learn this is a generic term for any city with a population exceeding 10 million. This is also referred to synonymously as a “metroplex” (such as Dallas-Fort Worth) or a “megalopolis”. Click. Hey, this is interesting: the word “megalopolis” comes from the ancient Greek city of Megalópoli, and is also used to describe an area where adjoining cities overlap and create a continuous urban zone, such as BosWash – the strip along the eastern seaboard composing Boston, New York, and Washington DC. Another click: here’s something called a “ecumenopolis” which is a planetary city – every square foot of an entire planet’s surface area is covered with cities and skyscrapers. This is strictly the realm of science fiction (for now, at least), with the most well-known ecumenopolis being the fictional world Coruscant, home of the Jedi Temple and Imperial Palace in the Star Wars universe. Click. Complete overview and 25,000-year history of Coruscant, including its place in the plots of the various Star Wars episodes and the role of major characters there.

I use The Force and realize that I’m getting a little off-track now, so I back up and click on a link entitled “world class cities”. This leads me to a page by the Globalization and World Cities Study Group, which seeks to define exactly what makes a city “world class” – with population being only one of many criteria. GaWC divides cities into three groups (Alpha, Beta, and Gamma), with four cities at the top of the alpha list: London, Paris, Tokyo, and New York. Click. Interesting, here’s the city data presented in the form of an interactive map. Clicking each city on the map takes you to a page containing official information for that area. (Hang on, we’re about to go downhill fast here, folks.) One of the Gamma cities with a link happens to be Berlin, which I visited a few years ago. I wonder what sort of information they have? Click. Oh, look: it’s the Offizielle Seite der Hauptstadt Deutschlands. Do they have an English version? Click. Ah, pictures of the Brandenburg Gate and the Tiergarden. I’ve been there! Cool! Here’s a link that says “Hotels and Apartments”. Click. Click. It’s a list of apartments, with pictures, dates of availability, prices, and map locations. I wonder if I were to spend a hypothetical month in Berlin, how much would it cost me?4 I pick some dates and start clicking. I discover that tourist season begins on the 9th of June, and prices rise accordingly. I adjust my dates to depart on June 8th. I actually start comparing pictures of kitchens and bathrooms, and plot the location of several apartments on the Berlin Stadtplan (city map) web site, relating them to other locations in the city of which I am familiar, such as the Zoologischer Garten train station, and noting each apartment’s proximity to the closest U-Bahn or S-Bahn stop. By the time I am done I look at the clock and realize that I have spent the better part of an hour assembling a thorough and comprehensive list of timely, accurate information that I will never, ever, actually have occasion to use.

But hey, at least I got a decent blog post out of it.

1I think this commercial is freakin' hilarious.
2Answer: 65 million years ago, found just now in under 10 seconds.
3Update 3/07: rankings have changed since the original date of this post. Currently, Tokyo is still #1 at 31.7 million, but Seoul South Korea has leaped into the #2 spot at 22.7 million. #3 is Mexico City at 19.4 million, with New York City falling to fourth-place with a paltry 18.7 million.
4About €1400 for a decent place, to about €600 for, you know, a Scheißebohrung


  • At 3/16/2007 09:19:00 AM, Blogger SupaCoo said…

    I think you're starting to see what I do in my 8 hours at a computer :)

    BTW, flats in Frankfurt are similar. Not that I know, or have spent countless hours researching, mapping, pricing and translating it all.


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