Archive for the ‘field notes’ Category


July 1, 2009

No, this is not a post about Bing (which I have not and probably will never use). Instead it’s just a link to a Wired article “Cool Search Engines That Are Not Google.”

From the artice:

“None of the sites we sampled are likely to replace Google as your go-to search engine for general queries, or dent Google’s growing sway as the world’s information broker any time soon. But even a cursory tour will make you start to think differently about what’s possible in search, and show up some of Google’s shortcomings.”

Again, it’s not that I’m interested in Google’s shortcomings; I’m more interested in starting to think differently about what’s possible.

Thoughtful slacking

March 28, 2009

Well if my blog was for a grade – or worse for a job – I would be failed and fired.  Instead of dwelling on why I have not kept up with my blogging–which would require me to sit down and write about why I spend too much time thinking and not enough time writing–I might as well get down to it.

– My Mac died earlier this month (temporarily, thank gods), so I was forced/lucky enough to use a friend’s machine for a few days.  Windows, complete with a desktop Google search bar (not sure if it searched the computer or the Internet or both) and Google set as the homepage.  I avoided both, but it was an interesting reminder about my choices and everyone else’s defaults and habits.

– Google is more useful than I reckoned for academic purposes.  Last week I used Yahoo to search for a particular sentence in a student paper that was obviously plagiarized.  Yahoo didn’t find the original paper, so I violated protocol and switched to Google, which came up with it as the top hit.  I know this is anecdotal, but it reaffirms my trust in Google and suspicion of other search engines for finding what I am hoping to find.  I think any more substantial discussion of these sorts of issues would require a more scientific study, which I neither have the time nor the energy to construct and perform.  In fact I can’t even be bothered to search for people who have done such things.  This sort of reinforces the notion that users, when given a wide range of choices, tend to go with instinct rather than empirical facts. Especially when such facts are hard to come by, but my advertisement-addled brain thinks it knows what I should trust.  On a related note, I haven’t encountered anything that comes close to being a competitor to Google Scholar (although I haven’t spent a great deal of time looking).

– In a similar vein, I was recently recalling a particularly brilliant lecture from an undergraduate professor of mine, James Merrell, who was talking about an attitude of “boundlessness” among Americans at the turn of the 18th century.  I wanted to see if he or anyone had published on the topic, so I turned to the WWW.  A quick search using Yahoo and another search engine (maybe hakia) turned up nothing.  This time I didn’t cheat – I didn’t regress to Google.  Instead I was left with the nagging feeling that I was missing out on something that could be at my fingertips, if only I had the right tools.  I also used JStor to see if he had published anything on the topic – but without success.  Perhaps I should send him an email – I’m sure he’d be somewhere between delighted to hear from me and puzzled about why that particular lecture has stuck in my head for 15 years.

– Google books.  Cheers to my friend Nystrom (a Linux-head and constructive contrarian by instinct, it should be noted), whose comment to use the Internet Archive for texts is a smart one.  For the record, has the 1909 edition of the Origin of Species (another text I am using for class – yes I am moving along at a fast clip); Google books has an 1875 edition.  IA does not, it seems, have the sort of page-by-page scrolling feature that Google Books has – you need to download the whole book and then let Acrobat or Preview (or whatever reader Linux uses 😉 deal with it.

– Changing subjects a bit and moving into the realm of public policy, one of the Google-related news stories I came across was this one about Google Voice and the potential legal problems that may follow from Google’s not-that-sly move into telecom.  Apart from privacy issues, this move also raises consolidation of power issues that IMHO Google would be smart to avoid.  This is a case where, on the surface, it seems like the marginal gain isn’t worth the increased legal risks.  But I’m just a history professor, not a lawyer or anybody who actually makes marketing decisions.

– We talked in one of my classes about the challenges of putting health records into electronic databases.  A great idea on the surface, and President Obama sure is pushing it, but even my sleepy and trusting students thought it would be a little bit weird for Google (or, worse, Microsoft) to be a centralized manager of health information. Gotta love the rhetoric though – “Google Health puts you in charge of your health information.”  To which I can see any number of users responding “Hey, what could possibly go wrong??”

– Finally, the point when I wondered why I bother: an article that reported that “craigslist” has replaced “myspace” as the top search term as recorded by a market research company that measures click-throughs.  This is interesting for only one reason: it tells me that people don’t understand how to use a browser address bar.  What kind of a world is this?  If you had told me that there are even 10 people in the country who, if they wanted to go to craigslist, would go to google (or any search engine) and type “craigslist,” I would have laughed in your face.  Yet the other top ranked sites include ebay, facebook, and netflix.  (Does anybody realize that if you type those same neologisms into an address bar, you get to where you want to go?)  The only actual search term–and by this I mean a natural language term, not a url that is not a real English word–was “yellow pages.”  I am absolutely astonished and dismayed by this.  I wonder if this sort of thing leads to mass depression among the designers and usability folks at Mozilla, Safari, Opera, etc?  I guess this underscores the point that the political economy of search is WAY more important than the convoluted politcal economy of DNS.  If I were a Google executive I would be thrilled with this news.  I wonder when people will realize that ICANN has just been a smokescreen (or magnet for academics who fantasize about “multistakeholder governance”), and the real action has been going on at, facebook, twitter, and other masters of the “first hit is free” school of network effects?  They collect our money and our trust, and we choose to give it to them.

PS – maybe folks will begin to see things more clearly and critically when Siva’s book comes out?


March 4, 2009

I am teaching a survey course on Science and Technology in World History, sort of a 30,000 foot view of world history with an eye on “science” and “technology” as unifying themes. Today we watched a video on Isaac Newton, Alchemist and Theologian. Tomorrow we talk about Baconian science and the Royal Society. Thomas Sprat wrote a history of the Royal Society in 1667, a mere 7 years after it came into existence (and my colleagues make fun of people who do recent history….); one of the reasons it is valuable is because it contains accounts of experiments. These accounts tell us many things, including (a) what questions they were asking, (b) how they recorded their forays into experimentation, and (c) that experimental natural philosophy was a collaborative effort.  I thought it would be nice to talk about a couple of the zanier examples in class, and I recalled seeing a full text copy of Sprat’s history online, so I asked my new friend hakia to find it for me. Several minutes later, no dice.

I thought to myself, I KNOW I’ve seen it recently, probably last semester, when I was doing the same exact thing. So I cracked and went to google books. Sure enough, boom – full text of the 1722 3rd edition.

Is this a story searching for a moral? The book is in the public domain; hence it was a target of Google’s scanning project.  And for that I am grateful (although I need to come up with a better in-class example than the history of salt-peter).  But I also feel weird that I can’t get to it unless I go through Google.

And that is part of the big underlying concern that I have. For now, for things like this, Google is a virtue. They have brought this valuable text into the digital age, hence allowing me to bring it into the classroom–because I am guessing that the Stevens library doesn’t have a copy.  But in bypassing the older generations of gatekeepers, hasn’t Google simply become the new gatekeeper? Sure, it’s fine for now – but what happens when a virtue becomes a vice?

If the organizational ethos of our age is decentralization and modularity, and we all (at least the older ones) understand we got to this point because of our overwhelming suspicion of the big bad old monopolies… not for the first time in American history, mind you…. then why are we worshipping at the feet of the new big centralized information broker?

My answer, for tonight, is because it gives us what we want, and I WANT IT NOW.

In the end I downloaded the pdf from Google and, after looking at some of the (interesting) “related links” down the page, once again closed my tab on google. Something tells me I’ll be opening another tab quite soon.

In like a lion

March 4, 2009

A few notes from my first few days:

– Safari is out; Firefox is in. The switching costs were not terribly debilitating, most of my work was to retool my bookmarks and to play with the various add-ons and search options that Firefox offers.

– Along these lines: Google has infiltrated several of the add-ons. For example, the Firefox WebSearch Pro has an option (that I turned off) for “Use Google Suggest to offer suggestions as you type.” This was the first I had heard of “Google Suggest.” other search engines seem to offer a similar service; are they using Google Suggest, or their own version of this feature?

– I also was excited to finally explore hyperwords after seeing the enthusiastic support of people like Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson. It could be enormously useful, once I get used to it. But, unfortunately for my experiment, it is keyed in to Google so closely that I wonder if turning off the Google options in the preferences (which looks possible upon brief inspection) will be totally debilitating to its search features of hyperwords. Stay tuned.

– I have a few other concerns about my experiment. First, YouTube.  I can’t quit you.  I get my political news from Wonkette, which relies extensively on YouTube clips.  And one of the greatest sources of laughter in my life at the moment is Special1TV, a puppet show that parodies the personalities of English and European soccer. Since the Setanta Sports website insists that I use Silverlight 2.0, and that doesn’t run on my Mac, I instead go to YouTube to watch the latest episodes. Perhaps the episodes are available elsewhere.

– I have grown to trust Google Scholar, and I don’t like the alternatives. JStor is, of course, far superior if one wants actually to read articles orbook reviews or what have you; but one needs a user account at a large university library in order to enjoy the full benefits of JStor. More on this in a seperate note. I do miss using Google Books, although, again, my March has pushed me to investigate other options.

– Finally, along these (academic) lines –, recommended to me last March, has a nice section of its search results that it refers to as “Credible Sites.” Definitely food for a classroom discussion on the reliability of information on the web.  It also breaks search results into categories that may or may not be useful  for students. See for example the search results for “pyramids.”


April 3, 2008

I made it. I’m working up a longer post (or series of posts) to reflect on what I learned, but in the meantime I have some thoughts on why I am returning to Google:

1. Google books.  I am sick of searching for a book title and getting Yahoo’s prominent links to Target’s bookstore.  Amazon’s listings and Google books are way more useful for me (as a scholar), and these are right at the top of Google’s results.

2. Gmail.  I never figured out how to move my reading of one list I am on hosted by googlegroups, so I have simply not read those messages for a month and now I am catching up. I only lurk on this list, so one month off was not a big loss.

3. YouTube/ Google video.  I was cheating anyway (see below on Pato, Zidane, etc).

4. I haven’t yet switched back to Safari, and I am still using Opera (primarily) and Firefox.  I have been using Safari for banking, taxes, and other websites that have code that seems to overwhelm Opera.

5. I haven’t yet used any maps but when I do it will be Google maps, which seems to be the least quirky/buggy and most useful. Or maybe just most familiar.

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
.  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.

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 website. I guess I’ll have to wait until April 1 to find out more about him.