Archive for March, 2008

Pato and Choosing Google

March 31, 2008

Life without Google sucks.  Here’s why: I am a big soccer fan, and my experience of the Web has been driven primarily by soccer.  For some people it’s music; for others it’s news, or porn, or whatever.  For me: soccer.  When I first encountered the Web in college, I remember using it for 2 things: looking up European soccer scores and finding Grateful Dead lyrics.  (I had long been using email via telnet/pine, and still find “webmail” to be slightly suspicious.)

Life for Americans who follow European soccer has gotten much much much much
better in the last 10-15 years.  There is now tons of soccer on TV and even more available through P2P on the Web.  Moreover people can post video clips of goals to various websites, which is completely awesome, since most games involve 85 minutes of relative inaction with 5 or so minutes of the best action imaginable.
Lately the central source for these videos has been YouTube (you may
see where this is going), despite legal threats from the English Premier League that the reposting of images is a violation of law.

Nevertheless, soccer fans can spend hours and hours on YouTube, finding all sorts
of compilations of great goals to crappy music from all of the masters, including
Del Piero, Zidane, Baggio, and even players who haven’t played for Juventus (Cantona, RonaldinhoMaradona, more Maradona, you get the point).

Careful readers may remember some of my hemming and hawing about whether
or not YouTube should be part of my self-imposed ban on all things Google. I have to say I have cheated once or twice, but for the most part I have also
Marched Away from YouTube too.

The brilliant exception that I found via Rocketboom is this: Chocolate Rabbit
Meltdown
.  It is rare to find such examples of pure comic genius.  Anyway.

Let me get to my point.  Last week Brazil played Sweden in an international
“friendly” (or exhibition), and won 1-0 on a goal by the latest greatest young Brazilian dude named Pato.  As with any overhyped young player, you sort of hope that he can produce the goods, and, according to a postmatch report that I read about Brazil-Sweden, he did.
The Swedish coach called the goal “flawless, a perfect volley” (Swedes I think
are not known for exaggeration) and the Brazilian coach tried not to get carried away with the goal’s brilliance.  So I went from the match report right to Yahoo and searched for “Pato Sweden Brasil” and clicked on the “video” tab.  Nothing.  Not only nothing good–NOTHING.  Just a computer wondering if I meant to write “Brazil.”

So I went over to Google, breaking my self imposed ban, typed in the same query,
and got at least a dozen YouTube links to the goal.

I didn’t watch the goal since my query was for research purposes only. But it made
me think about how quickly people can form impressions about how well one
search engine or another “works” – aka, helps them find what they want.
Perhaps loons like me try to go for a week or a month and use something new or
different (I have been toying around with hakia recently), but this whole Pato thing
was something of a tipping point for me.

I am sure there are plenty of comparisons of search engines conducted on a more
scientific basis (I assume this is what sites like Search Engine Watch do), but what will stick with me about Yahoo vs. Google is that Yahoo gave me NOTHING when I wanted Pato’s goal, and Yahoo usually features a link to target when I search for the title of a book.

Search engines don’t give you truth.  They give you their network.  They give you
what their partners have to offer.  If their partners have nothing, they either give you nothing or they give you the illusion of scraping far and wide to keep you happy.

Here, by the way, is Pato’s goal.  Good, but he’s no Zidane – yet.

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Google in the News

March 26, 2008

My silence indicates that it is getting easier and easier to avoid using Google in my own web-surfing life.  Yet there have been 2 news stories in the past few days that indicate others may not have it so easy.

1. The saga of Geert Wilders and his reportedly offensive film.  The story here can be briefly summarized: Dutch right-wing politician/filmmaker decides to make a movie called “Fitna” that argues the Koran is “fascist.” (What is the deal with these Northern European fanning the flames of hate?) Dutch TV stations (sensibly) refuse to show it; Wilders in turn decides to put it on the Web; at which point the company that hosts his website, Network Solutions, declares that his (still unseen) film violates their acceptable use policy, or something, and suspends his site.

There is, obviously, a lot to talk about here, including whether the norms of the
First Amendment apply to the rest of the world (or if they should);  if Network Solutions’s actions therefore are “censorship”; and how easy it would be for Wilders simply to get another website and/or move his domain to another hosting company. Most commentators seemed to get caught up in the first points, a sort of Danish cartoon rehash.  My own take was to recall the old saying (attributed to John Gilmore, founder of the EFF) that the “Net treats censorship as damage and routes around it.” Basic principles of distributed networks here–although the interesting part of the Wilders story is that it exposes the points of control in an allegedly uncontrolled (or uncontrollable for cyberlibertarians) network.  And Network Solutions turns out to be one point of control – a choke point, if you will.

All this is interesting enough; but a post by Jonathan Zittrain (Harvard and Oxford cyberlawyer extraordinare) to Dave Farber’s IP mailing list exposed another choke point: Google.

Zittrain’s main point was to show how NetSol (which had come under a lot of criticism from the American anti-censorship types) could be playing multiple roles here: name registrar, host of domain name registry, and/or website host for Wilders’ site.  NetSol thus has several opportunities to influence content on the Web.  But a throwaway line at the end of the post was, for me, most revealing:

“There are plenty of alternative places to host a site — but only one domain name that may have accrued Google karma, inbound links, etc.”

The point here is about “Google karma”–that all names are not the same, and that Google (or rather Google’s algorithms) decides who is worthy of attention and who is not. The same, of course, can be said for any search engine.  The key comes down to how they decide how to match search terms with what is “out there” on the Web.  The difficulty of this decision–from a purely qualitative standpoint–is something I can sympathize with.  Historians are supposedly “objective” interpreters of the past (this caricature is partially our own fault).  The reality is that we choose what to call “history” and we choose what to ignore.  Of course Google (and web search in general) is a different kettle of wax (or ball of fish, mix whatever metaphors you like)… and they are in the business of convincing surfers (and investors) that their quantitative search results are a good match for qualitative desires.  But the fact remains that they decide what people see–and for people like Wilders who just want some attention, these decisions take on heightened importance.

There is also the theory that this whole saga is an April Fools hoax. If only that
were true…

2. This morning I came across this totally weird heaadline: “Rich Parents Prefer Google, Are Better At Spotting Suspect Info.”
How can you not want to read a story with a headline like that?
An alternative headline might have read: “55% of the richest survey participants in a group of 120 people surveyed 4 years ago liked Google.”
I won’t get into some of my skepticism about research methodologies used to measure “skills divides”; and it’s unfortunate for everyone that data like these take 4 years (!?!) to analyze and publish. The study, of course, does not appear to ask (or answer) questions such as “why do they prefer Google?”  But–and I stress, this is according to the little news write-up I linked to above, and I have lazily and probably regrettably not read the full article in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology–they do come up with a sensational conclusion: governments should help educate their citizens.  Amen!

Branded versus owned

March 20, 2008

I just got an email from a friend via Google’s “sharing button.” (I don’t know what
the sharing button is – sounds like Web 2.0-speak for “email this page to…”).

Anyway, I reminded him that I can’t do google, and he said well then you can just
watch the video on YouTube; oh no you can’t, because they’re owned by Google.

I had forgotten about all that. I’m not an avid YouTube user, but I am sure I have
been there several times in the past twenty days of my little experiment (which, I am beginning to suspect, is some sort of high-tech self-destructive means for myself to annoy myself.  but anyway).

So apart from the fact that I have cheated again, the high-falutin issue here is whether I had intended my March to be away from Google or from “Google.”
The point is that Google exists in many forms and by many names.  I have seen some discussion lately on Google as imperialist; and while I see why someone might make that connection, the “imperialist” concept is far too militaristic to capture what is going on here–even though the realm of geopolitics does perhaps hold some important parallel concepts.  Perhaps Joe Nye’s notion of “soft power” is a better way for thinking about this.  Or other notions of cultural imperialism (although, again, the imperialist metaphor is too direct and aggressive for what is reallly going on here).

More to the point is the fact that Google has positively aced the (hypothetical) exam where students need to demonstrate that they have understood the concept of network externalities.  The bigger your network, the more valuable it is.  In some cases branding is key; in other cases (as in YouTube) branding is beside the point. Or one brand (Google) can emerge as the overseer of a hierarchy of brands–not unlike what Sex and the City is doing.

Verbs: “google” vs. “search for”

March 19, 2008

Just one run-in with Google today – it came up in conversation, and made me wonder how far to push this experiment without seeming crazy…

It happened over at Duke, where I am a postdoc in the John Hope Franklin
Humanities Institute.  We have a guest this week, a Yale English prof. named Michael Warner, so my postdoc partner-in-crime Jane Anderson and I decided to stop by his office and give him a hearty hello.  I decided to ask him why he used the word “modularity” to describe how social change occurs – he used this term in a talk he gave on Monday, and I happen to be doing some research on the history of the modularity concept, so I figured it would be an interesting ice-breaker.  It turned into one of those sort of wacky free-associating conversations (I am getting into a lot of these when I talk to people about modularity, but that is an entirely different story), and the three of us were somewhat amused at where the conversation was going.  It was especialy funny because although Jane and I are buddies, he doesn’t know us at all and I was worried that my inquisitiveness was crossing some sort of boundary of weirdness that one should respect when dealing with Yale English professors (even though this particular professor seemed very cool).

At one point in the conversation he was struggling to remember the name of an
author,  so he suggested that I just “google” the name of the book.  Jane interjected, half-audibly, “he can’t do that,” but I shot her a “not now” look and luckily she understood.  The last thing I wanted to do was to besiege our poor guest with more quirky half-baked ideas…  He didn’t seem to pick up on that brief exchange, and luckily I avoided having to tell him “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.”  Luckily (for all of us) he didn’t force the issue; as he continued to draw a blank on the author’s name, he suggested again that I go to the author’s university website and “search for” the fellow.  Phew.

In retrospect, however, I can imagine that an English professor might have some
interesting  things to say about how even he uses “google” unproblematically as a verb.  Maybe tomorrow, depending on how brave I’m feeling.  Stay tuned…

Embedded Google

March 17, 2008

Just a few “field notes”:

– Thanks to the advice of librarian Beth from McGill I now am clued-in enough to use the “site:” operator to get around using Google to search websites that build Google’s search engine into their sites. Still, I have on a couple of occasions been unable to use this work-around: when clicking through to a “directions” feature on a restaurant website and a real estate website. Both of these websites linked directly to google maps (or embedded a google map into their page). When I see that I recoil in horror! No!!! For the restaurant I guess I didn’t technically cheat because someone else was using the computer; but for the real estate site I was in a hurry and totally cheated.
Google 1, Andy 0.

– I was driving to work today and wanted to stop by the shoe store, but wasn’t sure what time they opened. Instinctively I opened my cell phone and was about to compose a new text to send to 46645 (Google local), when I realized the violation I was about to commit. I let out a couple of vulgar words and continued driving.
Luckily the store was open when I arrived. But it made me reflect on the “old days” before cell phones and before every store had their hours (or at least a phone #) posted online. It also made me wonder if there is an alternative to Google local. Obviously I could have dialed 411 or whatever the directory lookup # is, but they charge something obscene like $1.25 per call. The genius of Google local is that it’s free – or should I say “free,” since they are simply getting more data grist for the mill… But, more interesting from a sociological perspective, is how Google (and cell phones) feed our desire to access any information anytime, anywhere. When my own rather pointless self-imposed ban on Google kept me from doing so, I got more angry than I should have. (But you will be happy to know, gentle reader, that I did end up buying a new pair of shoes.)

– Final field note: I was hunting around for some info on a colleague – a fellow who will be on the same panel as me at an upcoming conference – and was dismayed to see that his homepage and all his professional info (pubs, cv, etc) is hosted at his googlepages.com website. I guess I’ll have to wait until April 1 to find out more about him.

Google university

March 8, 2008

I am on the job market.  And thus I need to spend a lot of time checking out various university websites to get a whole range of information, from where they are to who is teaching in what departments, where certain buildings are, etc.  You might see where this is going.

Unfortunately many university search engines are powered by Google.

So instead of searching I am simply trying to go up and down the various categories to find what I need.  How hierarchical.  Yet actually informative in a way, too.  Reminds me a bit of Cass Sunstein’s lament of the “daily me”–10 or so years ago.  That is, when we customize we tend to lose sight of the broader context in which information is presented.

Site maps are also useful, although apparently a dying breed – especially when universities (and their IT departments) are decentralized.

Close calls and unseen influences

March 7, 2008

Well my first week is coming to a close and I have a few notes:

  1. A few days ago I was searching (via Yahoo) to try to figure out if IBM’s “Big Blue” nickname came from the System/360 era. Wikipedia said there were a few theories for why Big Blue became Big Blue, but I wanted to know more.  One of the search results was on this topic directly; but it was only when I clicked on it that I saw it went to “Google Answers.” AAaaaggghhhh!!!  back! back!  After that I was spooked and stopped looking for an answer (it was mostly irrelevant anyway).
  2. Speaking of Yahoo search, it is amazing to me how different the search results are when I don’t use google.  If you are an academic, you will understand this analogy: Google is just like that guy who always cites all of his own previous pubs, but never cites those of his supposed rivals, even if those papers are directly on point.
  3. I only realized this morning that I have 2 google news searches that return a list of stories on any given topic – one is the name of my favorite Italian soccer team (FORZA JUVE!!!!) and the second is the full name of my friend who won a reality show a couple of years ago and continues to do amazing charity work with his group Grassroot Soccer. So I guess I will need to find other ways to aggregate news.
  4. Otherwise, that’s about it.  It occured to me that I might find some compadres if I looked around a bit, say in the anti-M$ and pro-Linux community.  Those guys tend to be a little on the rabid side, though.
  5. On the language front, I don’t think I’ve used “google” as a verb all week, although I have noticed very keenly when others have (which is less often that I would have suspected – only 3 times by my count).
  6. Again on the indirect front, I haven’t decided if reading blogs hosted by blogger is “against the rules” or not.  To comment one needs to sign in with google ID; but to read, I don’t believe one would.  This gets to a more academic question – how can we discern the limits of influence?  It also gets to an activist question about how we choose the points where we make a stand.  But, as I have said, I am more interested in the academic questions, at least for the time being.

Not impressed…

March 2, 2008

So far I am totally underwhelmed by the editing capabilities in this WordPress deal. Line wrapping and line breaks are especially bad, which has forced me to dive into the code or to simply leave it ugly.

Makes me wonder how different free-hosted blog engines work; but I can’t do blogger because it’s a Google thing.

So far, so good

March 2, 2008

I have managed to goone day without Google.  Just a few notes:

  • Opera is working out well (I had to switch from Safari, which could not be untangled from the Google search bar). My default is Yahoo search, which I hope is not powered by Google.
  • I have added prominent bookmarks on the bookmark bar to Ask.com and MapQuest, but I only used the latter yesterday.  MapQuest is a little different from Google Maps, but is just as useful for getting from A to B. I am also hopeful that it won’t send me to random places in the countryside, as Google Maps tends to do.
  • I use gmail for only one thing, and that is to keep up with list traffic on one group that uses google groups.  I just remembered I forgot to deal with that one ahead of time (I’ll need to read it via RSS, but I am not a big RSS-head so I’m not 100% sure how that all works).  Maybe I’ll have to go back to Google just one time to do this; but hopefully not.
  • On Yahoo search: I am putting together a slide show for Tuesday, and have been doing lots of searches on books and images. Yahoo was more than capable of handling that, and even brought me to some different places on the Web that I had never seen before.  For instance, Target’s online bookstore was ranked higher than Amazon or Google books. Odd.