What was academia like before different IT revolutions?
May 24, 2013 9:28 AM   Subscribe

I've been working on putting together an annotated bibliography for my adviser over the past few days. I'm struck by how much work it is in terms of finding all of the articles, saving them, and then tracking backwards and forwards through citations to find related material. However as I've been doing this (and, in fact, each time I do any sort of review of the literature) I wonder what life was like before you had giant relational databases of material, not even counting things like writing up the report on a type writer. So, my question: if you've been in academia for a while, then what was life like before word processors / large relational databases of literature / instant collaboration and communication through email? And what sort of changes have you seen with the job as technology has advanced?
posted by codacorolla to Education (20 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
Making an index for a book used to involve lots and lots of index cards.
posted by zippy at 9:44 AM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


So, I'm only a hair older than you but do you know how citation indexes worked before they were all in Web of Science/Knowledge? As recently as 1998, I was using print citation indexes that looked like the figures in this article, which does a good job of explaining how they worked. In the late 90s, we were right on the verge, but the level of availability was not quite there yet - some indexes were available in print only, some were available on dedicated computers in the library (usually on CD-ROM), and a few (PubMed! My beloved PubMed) were available in a form fairly similar to the one we have now (though, seriously, PubMed today is amazing compared to PubMed 15 years ago).

Another thing that earlier researchers had to deal with was "mediated searching." Plenty of databases have been computerized for many years, but they were really difficult and expensive to search (there were often per-search or per-record fees). So you would tell a librarian what you wanted to look up and s/he would choose a database for you and do a search, then give you a printout of the articles (maybe with abstracts, maybe less). This still happens in some situations but the concept of users directly searching databases is newer than you'd think.
posted by mskyle at 9:44 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am not old enough to have not had access to the math databases.

The predecessor to MathSciNet (which requires subscription) was Mathematical Reviews (technically, they're the same thing, I think). Usually, the review gives you sufficient information to know if you want to go find the actual paper, rather than just guessing based on the title. Here's a booklet from the AMS mostly about MathSciNet, but that talks a little about how it worked pre-MathSciNet. (If I recall correctly, my advisor said they got access to MathSciNet around 1992, give or take a year or two.) The Zentralblatt MATH (which you can at least get to without subscription) went through the same evolution, though I'm not sure of the timeline.
posted by hoyland at 10:07 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Instead of getting bleary-eyed from staring at screens, you got bleary-eyed from sneezing in dusty libraries. Your hands would get dirty. And if the library enforced a "no food and drink" rule, there was caffeine deprivation. It was physically and mentally tedious, but there was more opportunity for moving around a bit.

Working in a paper library, it was possible to get a visual sense of the size of the universe of information you needed to search, because the shelves of books were right there in front of you. With computer information, the layers always seem to go on endlessly, so it's harder to keep a sense of how close to are to being finished.

Sometimes you had to interrupt your work to drive to a library 50 miles away, or wait weeks for inter-library loan, to get some obscure article that your library didn't have.

And when you went to the library, you had to make sure that you had several pounds of coins to feed the copy machine, because if you wanted to have the material available to use outside the library, you had to stand at the machine and photocopy it. Which seemed miraculous enough in its day.
posted by Corvid at 10:15 AM on May 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


(this is from a former professor) there was the joy of getting to the right journal volume, and finding that someone had razored out the paper that you needed.

There was also a much larger reliance on librarians as information gathering professionals. A professor would go to a librarian and ask them to find everything on X, and then the librarian would work on that for the next few weeks. There were also many, many more librarians (and libraries!) than there are now, especially at top research institutions. They would spend huge amounts of time cataloging and recataloging the materials in different ways to facilitate finding information (relatively) quickly.
posted by rockindata at 10:35 AM on May 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


I wrote a senior thesis for my Biology Degree in 1990-1991. Through summer jobs, I'd had a glimpse of the Internet and of computerized reference databases. They seemed far preferable to dealing with the enormous hard bound-scientific citation indexes and all the paper-bound updates. So, I talked my summer employer into letting me use her login to the system hosting MEDLINE. I then found the dial-up number for their computer center, and found out that my institution had a network modem I could access from the campus network. The last piece of the puzzle was getting the only student thesis office wired to the campus network (thanks to some unofficial twisted-pair pulled by the previous year's occupant).

With all the pieces in place, doing my preliminary literature research was much more productive than it might have been. ~9months later though, I was still down-to-the-wire in finishing my thesis.

After graduating I took a job in a lab at a small, independent, research institution that didn't have Internet access. We paid ~$900 for a subscription to a genetic sequence database that sent out updates on CD every month or so. I went to use the library at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to use their PC MEDLINE database when I needed to do a broader literature search. After about a year, we managed to finagle ourselves access to a SunOS machine at The Hutch, which allowed us to fire up Gopher to search for sequence information which was faster, cheaper, and more up-to-date than the monthly CDs we'd been using.

I tried to get the institution to pay the cost of getting its own Internet connection. As part of my case, I pointed to the expense of all the faxes our PI was exchanging with his collaborator in France while working on drafts of papers, but he was used to his way of doing it. Not long after, I left the job and eneded up at a software company, helping them get their first Internet connection and web-site up.

A few months ago I was asking a friend who'd recently taken a job in a bioinformatics lab at the University of Washington about his experience getting up to speed with the science. I was really depressed to learn that traversing citations on papers wasn't yet a trivial exercise, due to to the limited access journals and limited interoperability. It makes me angry.
posted by Good Brain at 10:36 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


The librarians would also do all sorts of things like make special bound volumes on different subjects that would, say, pull together all of the US Government publications on Douglas Fir from 1960-1980.
posted by rockindata at 10:40 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


It was much more important that you figure out the right subject headings to use with the paper indexes. There was no option to search keywords in a title or full text. And then there was very little to go on because they tried to print as little as they could (so the indexes wouldn't get any more enormous than they already were). So you might find several articles that sounded promising, but after finding them in the periodicals section (or worse yet having to wait for them to arrive from Interlibrary Loan), you'd find that they weren't as helpful as you hoped.
posted by sunchai at 10:57 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not an academic, but went to library school in the late 90s and worked for a information services vendor, specializing in scholarly databases, from 2000-2012 (ISI, later became part of Thomson Reuters). I saw a LOT of change in the delivery and formats of scholarly information during this time!

My first assignment of my first class in library school was on how to use the print Science Citation Index/Social Science Citation Index (predecessor to the Web of Science database). As I recall, looking up citations to a research paper involved looking in 3 different massive volumes of very, very tiny print. The indexes used to come with a magnifying glass, apparently.

Journal Citation Reports (JCR), a journal metrics database that's been available on the web since the late 90s, used to be part of the print SCI/SSCI in the mid 70s. After that it became available on microfiche, then on CD ROM.

I worked on the help desk at ISI, who were the vendors of Web of Science/Science Citation Index, JCR, Current Contents, and various bibliographic citation managers such as EndNote and Reference Manager, in the early 2000s. I remember walking people through how to use these horrible things called "Request A Print" (or "RAP") cards that were used with Current Contents, a current awareness service that researchers would get sent to them once a week, either on CD ROM, floppy diskette, or print. If you had one of the electronic products, you could print out a RAP card that would be mailed out to the author of the article you wanted, requesting that he or she send you a copy.
posted by medeine at 11:05 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


As a 4th-year undergraduate in 1990 -- when email was limited to university computing labs (for me anyway) -- I wrote an actual letter to a well-known researcher to ask if he had any copies of a particular article he had published in a journal that was not available at my university's library. He wrote a charming letter back to me and said that even his university library didn't carry the journal, and regrettably he didn't have a copy. But he did type out the citations to a couple of his newest publications, in case I was interested. It was delightful and I often think of that exchange. And, oh yeah, I became a professor...
posted by seabound_coast at 11:58 AM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


I entered undergraduate studies in the late 80s, and I learned to become adept at mastering card catalogs, consulting the MLA sourcebooks, scanning microfilm and microfiche, persevering through huge volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary, and relying on blind luck as I wandered through library stacks looking for sources. Most of all for me, there was a palpable thrill about being ensconced in a library for hours on end--outside the comfort of home, in a large, quiet building, and feeling at home amongst my fellow researchers.

When I arrived at my doctoral studies in the mid-90s, I was able to transfer my "analog" skillset to the digital world quiet easily, although I began to spend less and less time in libraries. And now, as a professor, I have students who rarely if ever step inside an actual library and who give up researching if they can't find what they need after a single Google search. It seems to me that irony of all this available research technology is that there's a proportional decline in the general capacity (and willingness) to utilize it effectively.
posted by Quaversalis at 12:49 PM on May 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


English Lit PhD 1996, so I can second just about everything above. I'll add to the part about making an index--a grad student could get a full-semester research assistantship just to make an index, or a concordance, things that can be (almost) automatically spit out now. We had a semester-long course, PhD level, mind you, for which the class project was to come up with an annotated bibliography.

Now, the plus side was that there was a lot of grunt work for grad students, and those of us who were early technology adopters scored big. I was the first person I knew with a laptop (Toshiba T-1000, baby), the first to use the electronic PMLA (disk, not online), first to teach a writing course in the computer lab. I wasn't some crazy computer genius, but compared to the other English grad students, I was King of Tech, and I came out looking golden when it was time to revise papers, since most students still used typewriters. Once the PMLA disk came out, I figured out how to download search results to floppy, then convert them to whatever form my professors wanted. A day's worth of work in a few minutes, leaving plenty of time for Tetris.

I ended up working for my dept.'s book-publishing group, and that led directly to my current job in tech.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:07 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Lots of great stuff here already, not too much to add to them. I started as a postgrad in the humanities in '98, finished up a PhD in '04. I'll share some snapshot memories.

- Space & Copying. When you found something you knew was going to be extremely useful to you, you had two choices: sit down and take detailed copious notes and resign yourself to using them for reference, or you made a copy. I spent a lot of time photocopying journal articles. It was boring, repetitive, expensive, time-consuming, and, when the 'technology' refused to comply, extremely frustrating. Just to own a copy of a journal article that would be useful to you: this was something that took time and effort to obtain, it wasn't just a pdf pulled instantaneously off JSTOR. And the space all these random photocopied chapters and articles took up! Fuck. Boxes and boxes, carrier bags, they all had to physically moved from one place to another, brought in a bag with you to the library in the morning, taken home, moved when you moved house, stored somewhere. I vividly remember a graduate student I knew had taken to photocopying articles and 'scanning' the resulting pages, and then storing the files on an absolutely massive external-HDD (probably half a gig) about the size and weight of a marble headstone that he carried around in battered plastic shopping bag; "this" he hissed at me as we sat at the back of a seminar beneath the Ashmolean "is the future".

- Catalogues. I did most of my research at a library that had a digital catalogue for post-1976 books, and a physical catalogue for anything pre-1976. Searching the old green books for the reference you were trying to track down was, in retrospect, fun and there was something reassuringly old-school about it. But if you didn't have the author's name precisely and exactly right, then you were pretty much fucked. I mean, you could search, yeah, but you could only search one way, their way, and if you didn't know exactly what you were looking for, then you were sunk.

- Bibliographic Searches. This was hard. You had to have patience and imagination: I mean, this was something that you really earned your corn at. It was a skill, a scholar's skill, that took time and effort but it all poured back into the work in the end. If you wanted to research a new area, yeah, you could ask your advisor, but if yours was as ignorant and feckless as mine, that was hopeless. So you began with the bibliography underneath the relevant small entry in a 'Companion to...' or 'Encyclopaedia of...", and you went backwards down the rabbit hole from there, calling up all the articles fro the stacks that might look useful, or tracking them down yourself. Then you ransacked their bibliographies, and did the same with those articles, and again, until four hours later you were back into the 1920s in some German periodical out on the sixth floor in a shelf that non-one had set hand on in ten years, but, gold! You found what you needed. Sometimes. Otherwise, you remembered to check out the new periodicals every moth or so (meatspace zetoc!), flipped through them, read all the bibliographies of all the articles, even if the articles were seemingly no use, just in case something useful came up.

- Reference. With the book's I'd collected from the stacks that morning, I sat in the Reading Room close to where I knew that the physical reference books I would need were shelved on the wall. When something came up I didn't understand or needed backstory to, I got up, and walked over to the OED/PL/Loebs/Cross & Livingstone etc, and I checked it out. And then I burned another ten minutes seeing what else was on the pages, staring into space, just taking a break. It was actually better than Google.

- Organisation. The simple truth for me is that if I hadn't discovered Endnote (2.0!) when I did, I would not have been able to write the PhD. That's it. It's that simple. Other friends of mine used index cards, and various coded notation systems of keeping track of what they were creating, but I didn't or couldn't. And halfway through I realised I was just creating huge amounts of material and I had no way of tracking or managing the things I was writing, and my girlfriend at the time showed my a wonderful programme all the kids were using back in Princeton, and it basically saved my thesis. I spent three or four weeks transferring all of the bibliographic nonsense I'd piled up on various scraps of paper, but then I could search by keyword, and pull up these lists of relevant articles. I'd never seen anything like it. It was a miracle.

- Images. I worked with slides when I was teaching as a grad-student, giving conference papers and stuff like that. There was a photo lab at the university where you went with books and images, and they had a camera stand and a little studio, and you just let yourself in and happily shot away with a camera they lent you containing slide film. You lined up the plates in the book or the map or whatever, took your pictures, gave them them the camera back, and you came back the next afternoon and picked up a box of slides. Again, like the photocopied articles, they were a headache to store, and a complete nightmare to index and organise. There even was (and I chuckle remembering this) a company I used in the States when I was a postdoc in '04, and you emailed them jpegs and they converted them and next-day sent you a physical slide in the mail.

- Plug sockets/power outlets. Fuck me. This was a thing, once. If you wanted to work on your laptop in the library, there were only so many seats in the reading room that happened be close enough to a plug-socket to be laptop useable. If you got there at ten and lap-top people were already sitting in all those spaces: fuck you, go home.

In retrospect, I was very much part of a hybrid generation. I was a humanities PhD student at a very traditional university, so my peers and I were by no means early adopters. But I was the generation that saw these things being used for the first time: online journals, out-of-copyright texts uploaded and indexed, bibliographic management, routine use of powerpoint: they were nowhere when I started, and bang, all of a sudden, the sky was filled with this stuff, and you just tried to kludge a way through as best you could. I still take note and make plans in long-hand, though, and I think I always will.
posted by hydatius at 2:39 PM on May 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


Late 90s, first year undergrad. Some Biol 100 prof had the bright idea that we should learn how to use the library catalogue system, and gave each of us an organism to do a report on. Picture 200 undergrads lining up at the photocopier to bring home copies of every journal article with the words Escherichia coli and Saccharomyces cerevisiae in them. The faces on the grad students and postdocs that day...they never did that assignment again.
posted by reformedjerk at 3:07 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


From the office side, my first job (1988) was secretary to a VP at a small college. The office had recently transitioned from typewriters and carbon paper to Word Perfect and dot-matrix printers. All correspondence was sent out by U.S mail or campus mail, or hand-delivered if it was really important. The arrival of the fax machine in the early '90s was a revolution indeed! All this correspondence also generated two file copies: one for the subject file and one for the chronological file, a three-ring binder that contained all letters and memos sent, sorted by date. Faculty searches required sending at least two letters to every candidate (back when employers used to acknowledge the applicants' existence). Really, really tedious.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 4:29 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


and another thing -- KEYWORDS. I remember when I first began to learn how to do research using keywords instead of looking up topics in indexes. It sounds like it's almost the same thing, but it was a different thought process and it took some getting used to.
posted by Corvid at 7:40 PM on May 24, 2013


Going to grad school in the early 90s I became so very good at photocopying. I mean, to where it was practically a superpower. Dang I could copy!

(Yeah I wasted my youth...)
posted by LarryC at 8:27 PM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


I had the novel experience of getting degrees in three separate decades--the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, and I continue to do academic research today, and wow what a difference throughout all of them. Warning: nostalgic sangria-fueled rambling ahead.

In the 80s there were handwritten note cards and paper drafts, followed by typewritten drafts (yay for IBM selectrics and daisy wheels!) and the occasional word processed paper at 3am when there was a clunky beige IBM 286 clone available in the lab (Anyone here remember WordStar? Anyone remember the 128k Macs and swapping floppies endlessly to save a 10 page paper?)There were still physical card catalogs in the libraries, hours spent in dusty stacks, hand copying out citations and quotes, etc. because photocopying all but the most important things were too expensive for a poor undergrad like me. But hey, maybe you could convince a reference librarian to use DIALOG (over some crackly 300 baud modem) to get you a tiny snippet from an online database!

The (late) 90s saw wider availability of online databases for recent literature, but there was still far too damned much photocopying of journal articles, especially of back issues. But photocopies had gotten cheaper, so yay for that. (I was a freaking photocopy ninja by then.) God help you, though, if you were doing any kind of historical research in a social science or humanity field, because you were going to be spending DAYS in the stacks and at the copier with dusty bound journals and abstracts and indexes--many of which were still hardcopy. And those dusty days were likely to be followed up with lots of interlibrary loan, especially if you needed an unusual journal or book, or someone's dissertation or masters thesis. But at least creating bibliographies was infinitely less of a hassle since citation management software like EndNote was becoming more available.

In comparison, doing research in the (late) 2000s and today is a freaking slice of paradise!

By 2005, depending upon your discipline, database vendors had digitized many of their back collections and so suddenly, finding PDFs for journal articles predating 1978 was common, rather than rare! So much research could be done from home or at worst at one of many freely available computers in the libraries or student centers, over high speed internet. Obscure journal articles downloaded to your laptop over WiFi on the train at 7am! Free PDFs available via federated search from Google Scholar! (Rather than having to remember to login to your university's library portal and remember the arcane subject descriptions for a zillion random databases!) Actual, honest-to-god DATASETS of CSV or other data, and animated visualizations, rather than tables in the back of a book and crappy line-plots! Zotero on your browser! Open access journals! Scholars with blogs and websites with actual scholarly content freely available. Access to your academic works-in-progress from any computer in the world (via Dropbox, or Google Docs, or Evernote, or your own cheap server space).

I could go on and on, but I'll spare you all further rhapsodizing and mosey off for more sangria now.
posted by skye.dancer at 8:43 PM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wow, how could I leave out the photocopying. It was indeed one of my superpowers too. Once I extracted a list of papers I wanted to read from the newfangled computer indexamabob, I would go through the stacks, pulling individual and bound journals until I couldn't carry any more. Then I'd haul them to a table, find the paper of interest skim the abstract and then the rest of the pages to decide whether I needed to read it more closely. The unneeded journals would be returned to a resolving area.

From there, I would stand at a xerox machine and work my way through the pages as quickly as possible. I doubt I could do it now, but had every motion perfected to the point that I pretty much had a new page ready to go as soon as the machine had recycled from the previous page. If I had a bunch of articles to copy, hauling the journals to another floor or wing was worth doing to use a machine with a built-in stapler (something a lot of people didn't bother learning how to use), because it meant it was easier to keep pages in the right order and grouping.

Another boon was a copy-card. You could load it up with credit and then not worry about having enough change or small bills to feed the machine. Not too many years earlier copy cards weren't an option, you had to get an auditron, which was basically a electromechanical counter that you could plug in to a copy machine. You'd leave your ID or something with someone in the copy center, they'd pull an auditron off the rack, write down the starting # and then hand it to you. You'd plug it in, make your copies, then return it to them and pay for the copies you'd made before getting your ID back.

I finally purged my stack of xeroxed papers I'd collected in writing my senior thesis a year or two ago, twenty years after I graduated.
posted by Good Brain at 12:36 AM on May 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


I worked in labs starting in the late 80s.

One of the joys of looking up things was dealing with typos in references in papers. You'd know the author or the journal, but there would be times when the volume and or page numbers would be off. After realizing this, you'd go to the bound copies of the journal, get the final issue of the year which would usually have an index of the entire year's articles and search it to find the correct citation. Some journals had separate volumes for the index.

Photocopy machines: there were never enough and if you were photocopying large numbers of journal articles, there would always be a line behind you looking cranky. You could win karma points by letting someone cut in front of you to photocopy something small. Someone above mentioned their photocopy skillz and this is entirely true - you'd get the motions optimized and could power through hundreds of pages quickly and accurately. A couple of years ago I scanned most of a book to pdf so people in my previous lab could use it (we couldn't afford a copy of the out of print book and the local libraries didn't have it; we had a friend borrow it from a non-local library and lend it to us for a couple of weeks (our local library was extremely dysfunctional and attempting ILL would have been ... interesting)). My old photocopy skills were useful. I did a few hundred pages quite quickly and without thinking about it much. Back in the day I inhaled way too much photocopier exhaust.

People stole staplers. And they were often empty of staples.

Because things were less accessible to people, faculty put things on reserve much more often. Copies of previous exams, journal articles, and so on.

If there were two feuding schools of thought on an area - and they hated one another enough to not cite one another - you could end up only knowing about one of these two schools of thought because there were no common references. Similarly, finding older papers that were apparent dead ends was quite difficult if you were following trails of references through papers.

Journal articles relied much less on color illustrations - when assembling a paper you knew that a large percentage of people reading it would be seeing a b&w photocopy, so you'd make sure that instead of just having a red and a blue line on a graph, the lines would be differently dashed or indicated in some grayscale way.

Preprints! When you published an article, you'd buy a certain number of preprints of it. These were high quality printed copies of your article (in color sometimes). They were on lightly glossy paper and were ... I don't know how to describe this well ... 11x17 folded into 8.4x11 and stapled at the middle. After publishing, you'd get these little postcards in the mail from all over the world asking for preprints. You'd package the preprint up and send it to the requestor. This was a regular weekly task - obviously depending on the importance of the paper - and gave you an idea of the impact factor of your article. The postcards were often preprinted and the requester would just fill in the journal, volume, page number. Some of them included preprinted address labels, but I think that was later on. I used to cut out the address from the requester and tape it to the envelope.

Organizing your journal articles was important. File cabinet space was important. The PI in the lab always had lots of file cabinets and lots of manilla folders with subject headings. You'd go into his or her office and borrow articles to photocopy them. Knowing your area and the relevant papers was huge - without this kind of knowledge you'd be stuck trying to figure out where you'd heard what and from whom.

People did razor out journal articles from bound copies. I still have uncharitable thoughts about those people even today.

I think that journal club, in which people present various journal articles on a weekly basis, was more popular and common. Finding stuff was more serendipitous so sharing something good was more important.

Slides. I can remember spending lots of time looking through actual slides. You'd be trying to get ready to give a presentation and be looking through boxes and boxes of slides trying to find one that said what you wanted it to say. When presenting new data, you'd have to get slides made. This involved using transfer letters to label images. The kind of thing where you'd rub one side of a piece of plastic so that the letters on the other side would be transferred to the image. It took time. Getting thing developed took time too. Actual cameras and actual film meant that you'd take a bunch of copies and hope that one of them came out. People would use the same slide for decades especially if it was a background information kind of slide.

Grant submissions were mad races to the post office as opposed to mad races to the midnight deadline online and hoping that the site wouldn't be overloaded.

When I was an undergrad in the early 90s I put together my department's first webpage. The entire university only had a few departments with web pages. Initially, my advisor was uninterested in this, but when they started a hiring search and one of the candidates said that he didn't have many questions because he'd read the website, he got really interested all of a sudden. All I had done was replicate the grad school brochure as a website, linking the publications lists to entrez. The brochures usually had a list of subject areas and faculty lists with research descriptions. Until then, information about departments was from the grad school brochures that were sent out to other schools. Pretty color posters were put up on bulletin boards in the hallways with index cards that you could send out to get more information from the school.

Back then, I'd get email requests to apply to the department. There were no online applications at that point. And they were still slowly being phased in when I applied to grad school in the very late 90s. I remember one school had a fill in the bubble application that made me want to spit.

Ok. I think that that is enough. If I go on any further I'll start talking about doing DNA sequencing the old way with 35S, giant cranky gels and xray film.
posted by sciencegeek at 2:47 AM on May 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


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