Please Show You’re Not a Robot

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An interesting message pops up from time to time when I am filling interlibrary loan article requests, trying to find such arcane titles (at least to me) as:

  • Facile synthesis of ceramic SiC-based nanocomposites and the superior electrochemical lithiation/delithiation performances
  • A polar stationary phase obtains by surface-initiated polymerization of hyperbranched polyglycerol onto silica
  • Shock train and pseudo-shock phenomena in internal gas flows
  • Predation of Eastern Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) by Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
  • A Nucleation Progenitor Function approach to polycrystalline equiaxed solidification modelling with application to a microgravity transparent alloy experiment observed in-situ

These are actual journal titles I have attempted to fill over the years in my part-time role as a reference librarian for the LeTourneau University library. Anyone in the world searching for an article can electronically fill out an ILL request at the closest library. The patron’s home library then searches for other libraries that might have the article.

It’s inexact work finding electronic articles. For example, we might have subscribed to a journal at some point in the past but no longer do. So, the librarian filling the request searches through the list of libraries that might have the article and fills out a string of libraries — about a dozen or so. The request goes from one library on the list to another.

Part of my job is to determine if we have the requested article. If so, a PDF is downloaded and sent to the borrowing library. (It’s not really borrowing, since we’re not getting it back, but that’s what it’s called.) If we don’t have it, we indicate why — item not owned, too new to fill, etc. —and the request goes to the next library on the list.

Often, the article is available through Google Scholar, which anyone can use, if you know about it. That’s when this existential command often arrives:

Please show you’re not a robot.

I find this nearly as profound, in its 21st-century way, as Cogito, ergo sum, which translates into English as “I think, therefore I am.” That was famously posited by the philosopher René Descartes in Discourse on the Method in 1637. He argued that the very act of doubting one’s existence proves the reality of the mind.

Decartes was one of the first philosophers I studied at Stephen F. Austin State University, where I majored in philosophy, English and history, thereby ensuring my only employable skill was working for a newspaper. I’m not complaining. The philosophy courses were fascinating, and the professors — Dr. Jim Magruder and Dick Lower — were passionate, highly engaging teachers. And the newspaper gig worked out pretty well.

Please show you’re not a robot.

More than 40 years ago, I went on a camping trip in Big Bend with a college buddy. I remember lying on the ground in The Basin, looking up at the impossibly bright sea of stars above. We began discussing whether this was all real, or if we were just the figments of a cosmic creature’s imagination, a gigantic stage set on which we were extremely minor characters. That’s the kind of discussion one has when you are a young philosophy major. I think tequila was involved.

Please show you’re not a robot.

When I get this message in Google Scholar, a rectangle pops up containing nine postage-stamp sized images with a command, such as “Please click on all images containing fire hydrants.” Or traffic lights, crosswalks, chimneys, etc. The challenge is that the images are tiny and of mediocre quality, and my large monitor is more than 2 feet away from my eyeballs. I lean forward and squint, anxious to pass this robot test by clicking on the images containing the requested object. Far too often, I miss one or click an image that does not contain a piece of a chimney. A fresh set of images pops up, another test of my visual and mental acuity occurs.

Please show you’re not a robot.

When Google asks this question, it is trying to stop spammers. One will often see the acronym reCAPTCHA accompanying the request. That stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. At least the images are easier to discern than those squiggly nonsensical words one is presented with and asked to type the text into a box. I am terrible at correctly figuring those out and have been temporarily booted off some platforms for flunking both that test and the chimney, traffic lights or crosswalks quiz.

That doesn’t mean I’m a robot, but it does throw some doubt on my abilities to tell the difference between a fire hydrant and a chimney.

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