Want to do low-hassle search of your database? Just askSam

Computer file

November 25, 1991|By Richard O'Reilly | Richard O'Reilly,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Imagine always having to know the answer before you could ask the question. That is basically the problem you face in creating any normal database application with Paradox or dBase or Rbase or similar programs.

Before you can begin entering the data, you -- or whoever designs the application -- must foresee all the kinds of answers it will have to provide so that the appropriate fields of data and entry forms and reports are created.

If you don't know ahead of time what you'll want to know, or even what kind of data you'll want to query, askSam version 5.0 will solve the problem. It retails for $395 from Seaside Software Inc. in Perry, Fla., (800) 800-1997.

This free-form data retrieval program for computers running the DOS operating system is designed to organize disorganized data.

Unfortunately, askSam is a little disorganized itself, which makes it harder to learn and use than it should be and results in some quirky behavior.

Idiosyncrasies aside, however, askSam is a unique program that can accomplish some pretty amazing feats. It has achieved a loyal following since the first version was introduced in 1985. Uses have ranged from indexing the Iran-contra hearing testimony to tracking the facts for Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism.

You could think of askSam as an electronic shoe box. Throw any data you want into it from a few cryptic notes during a phone conversation to a 1,000-page report, and then find any word or phrase or combination of words or numbers, even graphic images, almost instantaneously.

Normal database programs require that everything be neatly arranged into fields and records of data. Information that doesn't fit the form can't be used. On the other hand, text retrieval software will index free-form text files and find words and phrases. But such programs cannot do such useful database functions as sorting names into an alphabetical list or summing up total sales for the Southwest regional office.

AskSam does it all. You can work with information that is organized into traditional fields of data, such as a customer list with name, address and telephone data fields. Then you can tag on unlimited notes about each person, or even a digitized photo. (AskSam runs whatever graphics program you have to display such images.)

Unlike normal database programs, askSam can produce a list of your customers sorted by last name even though the names were simply entered as they would be spoken, not last name first or last name in a field separate from first name.

But it can do more. For instance, if you made notes of customers' birthdays and kept track of how much money each had spent, you could retrieve a list of everyone with a birthday next month sorted by how much they had ordered. Then you could quickly determine who deserved a gift, a card or nothing.

As a free-form text retrieval program, askSam is excellent. But before it can search text, the documents must be copied into askSam's special data file format. Copying a year's worth of my computer columns into a single askSam file took just a few seconds. Then, for instance, I could find every column where I had written about Compaq and IBM in the same sentence.

The program has two important features for good text searching: Boolean logic and proximity searching. Boolean logic allows you to combine words or phrases with AND, OR and NOT to clarify the search. Proximity searching specifies how close one word or phrase must be to another to be a match. It can be measured in number of words or by sentence or paragraph.

AskSam has a mini word processor, so you can use it to take notes directly into a data file, for example, while conducting telephone conversations. In fact, if you want to call someone whose phone number is already in an askSam file, the program will dial the telephone for you.

Some of the difficulties with askSam are unavoidable. To get it to perform complex tasks, you have to learn how to write short programs instructing it what to do. The instruction manual offers a number of examples, and files that illustrate how they work are included with the program.

The version I tested had a bug that caused it to leave random pages half blank when printing documents. The company said that this is fixed in the latest shipments. But askSam is not a printer-friendly program. If you want to use special type attributes such as boldface or underline, it's up to you to be able to read the arcane programming instructions in your printer's manual and translate them into askSam's needs.

Some of the on-screen instruction prompts are confusing or even misleading. Following the prompt for naming files too literally creates an error on most computers or stores the file where you may have trouble finding it again.

The use of the Enter key in making some menu selections is contrary to common programming practice and can leave you running in circles without being able to do what you want to do. A thorough overhaul of the user interface is overdue.

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