Friday, December 31, 2004

Cool product speeds up your Wi-Fi experience

So you're sitting in the Peanut Barrel, mooching off the Wi-Fi signal from Espresso Royale, a couple of doors down. The signal indicator says "Poor" and those Web pages just aren't painting fast enough.

Now there's a solution:

The accidental telethon -- or the Amazon telethon

Amazon is devoting a huge portion of its home page real estate to an appeal to donate to the American Red Cross for relief for tsunami victims. So far they've raised $7,326,939.19 from 107,683 donors.

Charities worldwide are reporting surprising levels of donation, much of it online. Google's helped by adding a link labeled:

Ways to help with tsunami relief

In effect, this is a worldwide accidental telethon. People see the horrifying images on CNN or in the newspaper, and they want to donate. If they've got handy Internet access, they pop over to a familiar site, such as Google or Amazon, to give.

In some ways, the call to action is as explicit as in the Jerry Lewis telethon for muscular dystrophy: CNN shows scenes of devastation, then flashes on screen the address for the Red Cross, Oxfam, etc. At some times, the Web address of the charity - say, - remains on screen as the camera pans over distressed victims.

Some charities' Web sites have melted down under the load. Amazon is donating more than precious home page real estate; they're providing the back-end of a world-class e-commerce site, easily able to handle the strain as millions consider donating, and thousands follow through.

Amazon is promising 100% of its collections on behalf of the Red Cross will go to the charity. (Let us hope that the ARC spends 100% of it wisely.)

The number of donors via Amazon alone now almost equals the estimated death toll. Let's hope the former increases much faster than the latter. Imagine if the number of donors matched the estimated 5 million displaced survivors....

As inspiring as it is to see the world respond, it's not all good news. We're responding to compelling images. Still, as horrible as things are in coastal Asia right now, where there are no television images, we're not moved to respond. See the movie "Hotel Rwanda" for the images we didn't have in 1994, when 800,000 people were slaughtered. In that case, CNN wasn't bringing us 24 X 7 coverage.

Monday, December 27, 2004

If US tsunami center had warned Asia, could thousands of lives have been saved?

Scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere knew the earthquake had hit, and could've predicted a tsunami in the Indian Ocean. But they had no network to warn nations likely to be affected. Could perfect information have saved lives?

From today's LA Times:

The quake was the largest since a magnitude 9.2 temblor struck Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1964 and was one of the biggest ever recorded by scientists. It triggered the first tsunami in the Indian Ocean since 1883, civil engineer Costas Synolakis of USC said.

Nations along the Pacific Rim participate in a tsunami detection and warning system, set up since the 1964 earthquake sent a tsunami crashing into the Alaskan coast. But nations on the Indian Ocean have not done so.

In fast, the NOAA / National Weather Service detection service in Hawaii issued this warning:

0315 PM HST 25 DEC 2004




ORIGIN TIME - 0259 PM HST 25 DEC 2004




Take special note of the first line: TSUNAMI BULLETIN NUMBER 001 If this is bulletin 001 for 2004, they made it almost to the very end of the year having issued no warnings for the Pacific. Think about that: this little office on a beach in Hawaii has staff monitoring seismographs all the time. (Today, they issued TSUNAMI BULLETIN NUMBER 003 dated 0536 AM HST 27 DEC 2004 reiterating that despite some small activity in the Pacific, Hawaii is not at risk.)

In the wake of such loss of lives and such devastation, people surely will ask why the Indian Ocean region didn't protect itself better. When people start to point fingers at the governments of affected nations, some folks will say "I told you so." From today's New York Times:
Other scientists have voiced similar concerns. At a meeting in June of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, a United Nations body, experts concluded that the "Indian Ocean has a significant threat from both local and distant tsunamis" and should have a warning network.

But even given perfect detection, did the region have adequate procedures in place to warn and evacuate people on the coasts? Was there a robust civil defense network in every coastal region. You'd have to educate everyone from locals in poor area shacks, to homeowners in luxury neighborhoods, to folks in bars and restaurants, to tourists in high rise hotels. (Can you imagine a placard on the door of your hotel room that begins "In event of a tsunami warning, please run downstairs and head for the hills...)" And all this for a threat that hasn't hit hard since 1883.

So did any warnings get through? In past disasters, ham radio operators have been instrumental in getting vital messages through. Did anyone hear in advance and evacuate?

Some "what if's" come to mind:

-- Some U.S. seismologists report that they tried to call authorities in countries likely to see the tsunami, but they didn't know who to call. What if they had been able to get through? How many lives might've been saved?

-- What if, instead of trying to call the authorities in those nations, the U.S. tsunami officials had called CNN? Could broadcast media have done a better job of reaching those at risk? (I think the answer is without question yes.)

-- Is there any way the Internet could've helped? The Internet is famous for spreading hoaxes rapidly. What if officials had sent the tsunami warning out to every major blogger in the affected countries and elsewhere, with links back to authoritative sites?

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Photos of Pere Marquette 1225: Inspiration for Polar Express

In November we went up to Owosso, Michigan, where one of the last steam locomotives made in the US resides. It's Pere Marquette 1225, and it inspired a Grand Rapids native to write a book you may have heard of, The Polar Express.

A bunch of photos of 1225, inside and out, and of the museum where it resides, are at:

You have to register one time to visit Imagestation, but it's free.

Here's a little tidbit: many working railroad museums have done "Polar Express" tours for years. With the movie about to come out, Time-Warner did something really stupid: they demanded royalties from the museums. These folks operate as a labor of love, and helped promote the book, and will help sell DVDs of the movie when it comes out.

Warner-Brothers backed off on this stupid, onerous, shoot-yourself-in-the-foot demand, but too late for many museums to call their holiday runs "Polar Express."

So the home of the actual engine that started it all had to call it "the North Pole Express" ....

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

German spam funnier than meafloaf

I received spam from some German source proposing some sillystuffen, and I replied:

"No sprechenzie Deutsch and no wanten zie spam" -- then I got this response, as translated by Altavista:

well you: -) now are you astonished which? times a Mail of me, well that has also an important reason! I chatten very gladly with you is only unfortunately my PC in the bucket and I so gladly still many more from you to know would learn have you desire which we a little at the mobile phone chatten? 0163/3299152 do not come is no frog I bite also,I genuinly much would be pleased! To then Anja

The bit about biting the frog has me especially concerned. Should the ASPCA be alerted? Or the French Anti-Defamation League?

Someone please call Anja and tell her to please pursue other continents....

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

My 2001 proposal for a digital Library of Congress comes closer to fruition

In 2001 I proposed that the nation should expend resources to digitize the holdings of the Library of Congress. Not a sample of materials on a single subject -- e.g. the American Memory project -- but every page image of every book in the collection -- tens of millions of books, full-text, full image -- terabytes of data.

Roy Tenant, a leading digital libraries expert, and I debated the concept remotely, with him at the Internet Librarian conference in California, and me teledebating from halfway across the world, from the First Monday conference in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

My main argument in 2001 -- and today -- is simple: disk is so cheap, and digital imaging technology is so mature, that you can

conceive of capturing every page of every book or journal in your collection at low cost.

Roy and I reprised this debate the next spring at the Computers in Libraries conference in Washington, D.C. Several hundred people listened to our debate. One of Roy's best lines was "but the Library of Congress contains a lot of junk!" My response: it's cheaper to digitize everything in the collection than to spend staff time deciding what is useful, and what's junk.

You have to understand that Roy is someone who actually creates digital libraries, and I am but a dreamer. So what the hell do I know? Still, I claim: You were right in a way, Roy. Large research libraries contain a lot of junk. But we retain the junk, and the real estate, because we don't know what is junk and what is useful.

A number of people came up to me afterward, including librarians at the Library of Congress, and said I'd put forth a grand vision. Sadly, LC did not pick up the mantle. Happily, three years later, Google has.

Here's a link to my presentation from 2001/2002:

The Digital Library of Congress

And here's Roy's side of the story from our debate in 2002. I must confess, he may still win the argument: this requires a huge amount of human effort, and a huge leap of technological faith. In researching my side of the debate, I found the earlier calculations of Michael Lesk invaluable. He understood the incredibly shrinking cost of disk before most people did.

Until today, every library digitization project was small-scale. No one took on an all-library project; they objected:

  • We can't afford to digitize the entire collection
  • It will take too long
  • We can't overcome copyright concerns

Google to the rescue. It takes a company with the vision, the technological prowess, and the capital that Google possesses, to make this happen.

One of the points I tried to make in my debate with Roy is that it would take a large-scale project, something on the scale of Kennedy proposing that the United States send a mission to the moon, in order to move digital libraries forward. When JFK proposed we send a man to the moon "before this decade is out" no one knew how the hell to accomplish that goal.

I believe this project is every bit as important as the Apollo moon program -- and this time, it's privately financed.

I believe today's news is cataclysmic, certainly in the halls of academe, if not a red letter day in world history.

Monday, December 13, 2004

University of Michigan announces 7 million volume digitization deal with Google

You heard it here first, received un-embargoed from secret source:

>The University today is announcing a groundbreaking
>partnership with Google that will digitize the entire seven
>million volumes in the U-M library and make them accessible
>via a simple Google search.
>This project puts the University at the leading edge of a
>movement that will transform access to knowledge. Anyone who
>has Internet access, anywhere in the world, will be able to
>search our entire library, without limitations of geography,
>time or expense. It is an endeavor that carries remarkable
>implications for our institution; as a great public research
>university there is nothing we care about more deeply than the
>creation and sharing of knowledge.
>The project will make it possible for a user to locate and
>read the full text of works that are out of copyright, and to
>find snippets of text for copyrighted material, along with
>information about where a work can be found.
>Google will begin placing digitized volumes online in
>mid-2005, beginning with materials in Buhr. The technology is
>non-destructive, and rare books are excluded.
>As a product of this partnership, the University Library will
>receive and own a high quality digital copy of the materials
>digitized by Google, and it will be able to provide enhanced
>access for University patrons. The digitization at this scale
>is a massive undertaking that we simply could not have
>achieved on our own. The University will receive no financial
>Harvard University and the New York Public Library are
>announcing their own agreements with Google today, and more
>may participate in the future.
>In undertaking this project, we understand and respect the
>copyright issues involved. As an institution we create, use,
>and distribute all sorts of copyrighted works, and we care
>deeply about copyright issues from all aspects.
>This project is consistent with the very purpose of copyright
>law as reflected in the U.S. Constitution, to promote the
>advancement and dissemination of knowledge.
>For more information about the project, go to

Sunday, December 12, 2004

A visit to the saddest town on Earth

Visited a nice little village today. I betcha the folks that live here haven't been happy since November 2:

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Google Suggests: Google learns its ABCs

New on the Google horizon this week: Google Suggests.

As you type, Google auto-completes your search with words or phrases that people search for the most. It offers a drop down that you can choose from; or choose to ignore the suggestions, and just keep typing.

A simple and powerful idea. What amazes me is how fast it is, and how little additional memory it seems to require for your browser. Clearly they've done some thoughtful engineering -- gee, what a surprise, the Google team writing good code!

Folks on Slashdot have examined the JavaScript code and report that it's doing quick little transactions back to the mother ship as you type. I'm betting they repurposed concept and code from Gmail, which does very clever auto-completes as you enter a person's e-mail address, and which carries on a conversation with frequently during your session.

Some folks were a tad confused when I showed this to them. Note that:

-- The suggestions Google gives you represent the most popular user searches Google has for the combination of letters that you type, not the most-linked-to sites.

-- The number of hits just represents the number of matching items in Google's index; it is not PageRank or a measure of importance. For instance, (sic, with the .com) has one hit, even though it's a highly important site.

My colleague Trevor Barnes came up with this formulation, a 26-part snapshot of what the world seeks in 2004.9:

The ABC's of Google

A is for Amazon
B is for Best Buy
C is for CNN
D is for Dictionary
E is for Ebay
F is for Firefox
G is for Games
H is for Hotmail
I is for Ikea
J is for Jokes
K is for Kazaa
L is for Lyrics
M is for Mapquest
N is for News
O is for Online dictionary
P is for Paris Hilton
Q is for Quotes
R is for Recipes
S is for Spybot
T is for Tara Reid
U is for Ups
V is for Verizon
W is for Weather
X is for Xbox
Y is for Yahoo
Z is for Zip Codes

Neil Young once wrote a song called "Rust Never Sleeps," named after an advertising slogan. Clearly, Google engineers never sleep.

Try it yourself:

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Yahoo Search and MSN Search clobber Google Search

Rumor on the street is that Google has improved its crawling coverage and frequency -- no longer on the 30 day rotation. Recent personal experience says Yahoo and MSN crawl Google's own spaces better than Google does.

I checked to see if Google Search had indexed an article I wrote on Wigblog days ago, a suggestion that Apple should sell Ipods pre-loaded with songs purchased from their Itunes service. Sadly, days after the posting, they had not:

So I checked to see if MSN Search had indexed the content. They had:

So I checked to see if Yahoo Search had indexed the content. They had:

So here's the deal: Google bought Pyra Labs over a year ago, and pundits predicted they'd integrate searching of Blogger content and thus build a huge competitive advantage. The truth is, Google does a poor job of indexing the Blogger sites they host, and their two main competitors index that same content far more effectively.

Score: Yahoo and MSN Search 1, Google zero.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Search logs as prediction

Search log analysis rocks. It tells a Webmaster what the customers want. Folks who know me well understand that I live in the search logs. I want to understand what people want to find, and the search logs are how I discern.

Lou Rosenfeld is in London, and in talking with a Financial Post person, Lou learns that the FP is much more pro-active than most log analyzers ever will be. Folks at the FP figure (UK pronunciation probably "figger") that if someone is searching for a company name (or the like) a lot suddenly, then maybe there's a story there.

Cool use of log analysis as crystal ball.

Using Search Log Analysis to Predict the Future

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Memo to Steve Jobs: Sell Ipods preloaded with music

Last week while in San Francisco we stumbled across the Apple store, and I told my wife I'd like to give it a visit. She agreed. Next thing I knew, she was plugged into an Ipod, listening away to sample music.

The Ipod clearly caught her attention. She loved the sound -- and Apple cleverly had a nice sample of music, including songs she liked.

A couple of years ago I bought her an original Ipod for Christmas, and it didn't work out:

  • The Ipod was too big. The new Mini, she feels she could carry.
  • The software for Windows, at the time licensed by Apple from Musicmatch, didn't suit her.
  • There was a hardware problem with the unit; the disk skipped periodically.

But now I'm thinking maybe it's time to try again. As I wandered the Apple store, I stumbled on the U2 Ipod, co-branded with the band, featuring autographs of U2 band members on the back. Hmm, I thought -- why are there no U2 songs on this unit? Wouldn't you ship the U2 Ipod with U2 music?

As we left the store, Judy joked that she'd have to hire a teenager to load all the songs she loves.

Lightbulb! Many people who buy Ipods want to load new music. But many folks want to load their favorite songs and albums from the past. And for many folks, those albums are on scratchy LPs in the basement, for which they have no turntables to play.

And even if you have your 100 favorite albums on CD, it's going to take time to load them all to your Ipod.

So here's the idea, Mr. Jobs: combine the Ipod and Itunes ideas. Let me order an Ipod over the Web, and let me buy the songs or albums I want up-front. Offer a sliding scale: if I buy 1000 songs, sell 'em to me for a fraction of your 99 cent fee. Offer special deals for older material, so I don't have to spend big bucks to get my favorite Allman Brothers material.

I can easily imagine someone spending $300 for an Ipod and $300 to get the 100 albums of all time they love pre-installed. As they discover new music, they buy it from Itunes.


Sunday, November 21, 2004

Interesting critters we found in Monterey

We strolled to see the sea lions our last day in Monterey, and found a place on the Coast Guard station where you could get quite close. A volunteer docent explained some of the behaviors of these highly-social creatures. One of the critters struck a pose for me...

We encountered another highly-social creature on our walk, and we found him again later, back at the hotel:

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Great quote from a Google guy re the new MSN Search

Today at Internet Librarian, Greg Notess hosted a panel disucssion with representatives from Yahoo, Google, and AskJeeves so they could brag about improvements and answer a few questions. At the end Greg put up a slide with the new MSN Search, bringing laughter, and asked each rep to comment. The Google person, whose name I did not catch, was introduced as a member of the Crawl team at Google. His answer was short and sweet:

“Microsoft has a history of getting a lot better when they enter competitive markets. I expect to see lots of improvements in MSN Search.”

There were a few titters in the audience among those of us who recognized a deliciously backhanded compliment.

I buttonholed the Google person to ask him why Google over-emphasizes the importance of an entry when it's on the main page of my Blogger blog, then loses track of it altogether when it falls into the archives. I think I know the answer to this: when an item is on the main page, PageRank sees the various links to my blog, some from popular sites. But when the article falls into the archive, it's no longer deep linked from anyone prominent, so PageRank disses the deep page.

Here's an example: Google for:

radioactive cat

... you won't find my article on this from the archives in the top 500 hits:

... but if you had done the same search when my radioactive cat posting was on my blog's home page, Google served my article as the number 1 hit. It went from the most important article on the planet related to radioactive cats, to nearly non-existent. Why?

Yes, you could argue that older items in a blog deserve a lower ranking -- after all they are older. Still, I claim this is a PageRank failure: it over-emphasized the article's importance just because it was on my blog's home page, and now it under-emphasizes it. Since Google owns Blogger, they could think of ways to fix this.

This is an example of a more fundamental flaw in PageRank: it measures the popularity of each Web page -- each URL -- and doesn't take into account that the page is part of a site whose popularity should be measured as a whole.

I gave him a business card and he said he'd get back to me. We'll see.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Why cell phone providers will render mobile Wi-Fi meaningless

This week I'm in Monterey, California, attending the Internet Librarian conference. The conference is -- surprise -- at the Monterey Conference Center, which is served by two connected hotels, the Portola Plaza Hotel, and the Marriott.

So we check into the Portola, and they offer in-room high-speed Internet access via Ethernet. So I sign up -- ten bucks a day. To prove my geekness, I then go to a nearby Staples and buy a Netgear access point and set up my own Wi-Fi access. Takes a little finagling to clone my laptop's MAC address, but soon I've got Wiggins Wireless Monterey operational.

Next day, I find that the conference center -- connected to the hotel, a 50 foot walk from the lobby -- offers Wi-Fi, which they want me to sign up for. Another $10 per day.

Then, I go to the adjacent (connected by hamster trail) Marriott, where some sessions are held -- and they have their own Wi-Fi network, available for -- you guessed it -- $10 a day. So they collectively want me to spend $30 a day for high-speed Internet access, when one event spans a few hundred feet of conjoined conference space. Four days at the conference, times $30 = $120. Give me a break!

What would it be like if you had to sign up with a local cell provider every time you moved 100 yards? The cell phone industry figured out the roaming problem 20 years ago. My Verizon phone works just fine in any of these buildings -- or anywhere in California. Wi-Fi access on the road, by contrast, is a Balkanized market, with each local hack provider making deals with each building or space. It's a friggin' mess. Wi-Fi is much talked-about, and very useful -- in environments where an organization controls the airspace on a corporate or university campus. Road warrior Wi-Fi is a hit-or-miss hodge-podge, more suited to ham radio operators than serious business travellers.

And the cell providers are going to eat those local Wi-Fi posers for lunch. My old 1xRTT service from Verizon offers ubiquitous Internet access -- anywhere the Verizon network works -- for $80 a month. T-Mobile offers a similar service, albeit with much poorer coverage, for $30 a month. I don't have to whip out a credit card and sign up with the Cannery Row Tin Can Wi-Fi Company every time I move from building to building.

Suddenly it dawns on me: the cell providers will be the winners when it comes to mobile Internet access. Wi-Fi is for someone you have an ongoing relationship with: your employer, your public library, or the sysadmin of your home network.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Wonderful graphic in Washington Post explains Red vs. Blue -- county by county

The TV networks and major news rags concentrated on which states went for Bush and which went for Kerry. If you read serious newspapers, e.g. The New York Times, you saw coverage and maps that teased out demographic details. But the Washington Post came out with a graphic that really depicts that the electorate is split fundamentally urban vs. rural, merely by showing which counties across the country went which way. The graphic shows the margin of victory county-by-county nationwide (click for full size):

Observe how few counties nationwide Kerry won! A very small number of counties with large populations totaled up to Kerry's popular vote, nearly equalling Bush's. Virtually every rural county in the nation went for Bush.

As they say, you do the math. I'd like to see charts like this for other recent Presidential races, including Clinton's two wins. This is much more informative than the by-state Red vs. Blue maps.

Locked out of Gmail

Twice today for about 20 minutes I've been unable to log into my Gmail account. Most of the time I saw this error:

...but a few times I saw this more worrisome error:

No service can be perfect, but Gmail is so good that many people I know rely on it for all their e-mail, personal and professional. Since it doesn't store any of your mail on your own computer, when it's down, you are dead in the water. "Please try again in a few hours" does not inspire confidence.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Feeling bummed? Try some comfort food. How about some meafloaf?

Bummed by the election results? Gray weather got you down? It's time for a little comfort food.

Meijer, the local grocery giant, is trying to branch into upscale frozen foods. (Um, OK, oxymoron.) I bought their meat loaf offering a couple weeks ago:

But when I went to open the, um, er, delicacy, the side panel revealed that this was something really special, a culinary delight I'd never heard of before:

I have to confess, it was the best meafloaf I ever ate.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The New York Times hands election day commentary to bloggers

The old media continues its fascination with the new media, specifically the world of bloggers. Today's New York Times literally gave one column each to its regular columnists, David Brooks and Paul Krugman, and polled a bunch of bloggers for their thoughts on the election.

It's neat that the Grey Lady pays so much attention to the unfolding blogosphere, but on the other hand isn't it odd to pick your commentators based on their medium? "The Times polled the anchors of the major TV networks." Or "The Times asked talk radio jocks for their comments." Or "The Times asked tabloid editorialists to comment."

Note how much real estate the broadsheet print edition gave the bloggers, compared to what's allocated on

Paradoxically, the bloggers jump out in the print edition, and are obscured in the online one.

In any event, you can expect The Times and the rest of the old media to continue to watch, quote -- and perhaps envy? -- bloggers.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

What should I do with Or

Will Rogers famously remarked "I do not belong to an organized political party; I'm a Democrat." OK, in case it's not obvious; I lean towards Democratic candidates and causes. Our governor is Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat whom I respect almost as much as I admire Michigan's long-standing Republican governor, Bill Milliken.

When Granholm won the governorship, it became obvious that she would play on a national stage -- even though she is Canadian by birth, which means she can never run for President. Still, I registered some Internet domains:

Of all people, George Will became enamored of our governor. And why not? She's smart, she's politically savvy, and -- forgive me -- she's the best-looking governor in the nation. So George Will -- of all people!!! -- proposed the "Granholm Amendment" to the U.S. Constitution, whereby someone who is not a natural-born citizen could become President. The Constitution provides that you have to be born in the USA -- cue Bruce Springsteen -- if you want to be President -- understandable lingering distrust of the Brits and other foreign meddlers. (Understandable in the late 1700s, Messrs. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz.)

Thus we have George Will arguing that Jennifer Granholm -- and by implication Arnold Schwarzennegger -- should be eligible to be President.

What do you think?

And should I renew one of these domains?

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

A glorious Fall day

Monday brought one of the most glorious Fall days ever. Clear, beautiful blue skies. Unusually warm -- definitely an Indian Summer day.

Summer was odd this year -- strangely cool and rainy. Fall has been a gift.

Here's a gallery of Fall colors.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Google searches your own computer: powerful, and perhaps scary

I've been playing with the new Google desktop search since it was announced last week. Already it's annoying me a bit. For instance, Michigan State clobbered Minnesota in football so thoroughly yesterday that I wanted to see how the Minnesota press was reacting. So I Googled to find the main Minneapolis newspaper, the Star-Tribune. The hit list surprised me:

Whoa! Wait a minute! Why do I see anything on my own computer about the Star-Tribune? I haven't said anything about the Star Tribune, or even read anything they published, for months.

The idea of Google Desktop is simple and powerful -- and not new, AltaVista released a desktop search years ago. One of the great ironies of the Google era is it's easier to find a document on the Web than on your own hard drive, given the poor tools Windows has built in. But when I search the Web for "star-tribune" (a newspaper I rarely read) coughing up hit list results cached from previous Google News searches (links I never followed) is just plain noise.

I'm not sure I want to search my own Web history on my own hard drive every time I search the Web. When you use Google to search the Web, what appears on the top of the hit list is largely determined by how popular the page is. What's in your browser cache is too random to give Google Desktop many hints as to what to put first -- or whether to show it to you at all.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Gmail gains a timeout?

Tilting at windmills for months, I've tried to get the media to pick up on the inexcusable failure of Gmail to have a simple timeout: don't use the Webmail client for an hour or so, and you have to log back in. This is a basic and vital protection for security and privacy; they should've designed the feature into Gmail from day one. Privacy zealots and the media missed this one big time.

Twice today I've been suddenly signed out of Gmail, zapped back to a login screen. Hmmmmm, have they implemented a timeout -- finally?

Friday, October 08, 2004

Once again, CBS News doesn't know when a document was first produced

The major media is now reporting that Britney Spears finally filed her marriage certificate, so she's legally and officially married. (I know, I know, who cares about that story?) But Google News reports conflicting renditions:

Huh? The CBS story asks the question, and the story answers it. What's going on here? Here's the CBS lead:

Huh? CBS offers a date of October 8 above this leading news item, but the piece itself is dated September 23. (Adding confusion, CBS cites an October 4 issue of People; no doubt the issue came out September 23.) The Google News clustering tool doesn't know it's an old article, and, whatever algorithm it uses to pick the lead version of the story puts CBS' out-of-date coverage ahead of the breaking news coverage by other outlets who have the current scoop.

Now here's the fun part: CBS itself has the updated story, later on the very same Web page!

Memo to CBS and Google: you can't always trust the timestamps that content management systems assign to documents.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich visits Michigan State

Today Robert Reich, the first Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, spoke at Michigan State University. First he lectured at the College of Law, then spoke at a "rally" at Beaumont Tower. Unfortunately, the organizers of the second talk, MSU Democrats, did a poor job of rallying attendance; only a couple of dozen folks were at Beaumont Tower to meet this distinguished visitor.

I was the first to shake hands with Reich when he arrived. Reich puts people at their ease instantly. We chatted for a bit and then Lou Anna Simon, MSU's next president, dropped by to say hello to him. Her handler introduced her as "president designate" and Reich joked "Why would you want to be the president of a university?" I overheard their conversation as she invited him to return to East Lansing as part of MSU's esquicentennial. Reich said it'd be impossible not to return to such a beautiful campus. It was a beautiful fall day, but Dr. Simon replied she couldn't guarantee good weather in Michigan.

Dr. Reich spoke passionately to the small gathering: he said this year's election is the most important in living memory, and the George W. Bush is the worst president since Millard Fillmore -- and that that was unfair to Fillmore. I caught some of his words on video; the camera was my Sony DSC-F717, which is a great still camera, but a pretty weak video cam. His words come through, nonetheless; listen to some of Reich's remarks on the 2004 Presidential election.

One observation stood out:

The only thing constraining this Administration in the first four years -- the only thing limiting them at all -- has been the knowledge that they had to seek re-election. And if they get a second term, they are going to be unconstrained. And if you think things are bad now, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Before Reich arrived, I called my friend Mark Grebner from the scene, describing how small the crowd was. Mark said that maybe I should enter a Wiki entry under "Bad Advance." The funniest part was when a carilloneur arrived to play her scheduled evening concert on the bells of Beaumont Tower. She was kind enough not to play the carillon while Reich spoke.

More of my photos of Reich's visit are available at:

Registration is required, but it's free. Hmmm, sort of like registering to vote.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Librarian detects computer nerd, banishes to nearby cybercafe

Strolling around the picturesque and bucolic town of Harbor Springs, Michigan, I spy an interesting looking building.

It appears to be a familiar Northern Michigan tourist trap, a fudge shop. But I notice a side entrance with a different sign:

I like to check out small libraries (er, no pun intended). I'm curious: What kind of books and magazines do they carry? Do they they provide computers with Internet access? Do they offer Wi-Fi? So I climb the stairs and discover that the second floor of the building is a cute library. There's a desk across the room, with a thin older woman facing customers. She's chatting with someone who appears to be a friend of the library.

The older woman asks "Can I help you?" I reply, "No thanks, just looking." Her friend explains that this is not a public library; it's a private library that's open to the public. The staffer -- director? proprietor? -- explains that the library owns the building and therefore is supported by rent from the fudge shop.

I wander around a bit. Probably a few thousand volumes. Collection looks old. I don't see any magazines. Hmmm, looks like no computers at all, not even for a catalog. I head for the 20 drawer card catalog, and the woman fairly accuses me:

"You're looking for a computer, aren't you!?!"

"Well, yes, among other things."

Now she scolds me: "We don't have any computers. There's a cybercafe across the street." She turns to her friend and derisively proclaims "The ones that want computers never ask."

Back outside, I don't go to the cybercafe, but I do check out the building more carefully. A close look at the keystone reveals:

Hmmm, keystone indicates HSCA Library... 1908. Harbor Springs Community Association, perhaps? Now I'm curious how this private library that's open to the public came to be. Harbor Springs is a sleepy town in 2004; it must've been really sleepy in 1908.

Apropos of my treatment while inside, the only thing I can find on the Web about this library is its phone number and address. I can just hear the lady declare "We haven't needed a Web site since 1908. People know where we are. Go back to your cybercafe."

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Skype: WKAR radio interview demonstrates quality of a VOIP call from Northern Michigan to East Lansing

Scott Pohl of WKAR-FM (NPR in East Lansing) and I discussed Skype, the VOIP (Voice over IP) startup from the folks who brought you Kazaa. Skype users can talk to each other for free over the Internet, or a Skype user can use Skypeout to dial out on the global switched telephone network to reach virtually any telephone on Earth. Skype-to-Skype is free; Skypeout is cheap -- for instance, 1.7 Euro cents a minute to call the U.S.

This was a fun interview, becuase our topic was VOIP long distance, and our means of communication was VOIP long distance.

The recorded interview gives you a pretty good idea of the quality of voice over IP a la Skypeout.

Now that AT&T is pronouncing the acronym as "voyp" in national ads, I guess that means it's now in the lexicon.

Saturday, September 25, 2004's anti Whois robot recognition device is now anti-human has adopted a mechanism to prevent robots from harvesting Whois (domain name system) information. It requires you to type in a random string of text that's obscured so that software robots can't interpret it.

I defy anyone to read this obscured text.

Washington Post: great editorial on Cat Stevens episode

The Washington Post offers very sensible words on the lack of common sense in how Homeland Security handled the Cat Stevens incident:

Some of the intelligence reform legislation pending in Congress does call on the DHS to make the procedures surrounding the lists more transparent. But it is doubtful that any system that runs by automatic procedures, as this country's does, will ever be able to deal sensibly with individual cases. Whatever money the former Cat Stevens may or may not have given to terrorist organizations, was it really necessary to stop his plane in Maine? It's unlikely that he is so dangerous that his plane could not land at Dulles, and very likely that the grounding was ordered solely because security bureaucrats were following inflexible rules, without thinking through the consequences. What was missing was common sense.

When I flew to Amsterdam and back in November 2001 -- just after 9/11, I saw how Europeans do passenger screening: with intelligence. The screener looks you in the eye and asks you questions as an experienced police interregator (or defense attorney) would do -- out of order in time sequence, trying to catch you in an inconsistency. Every time I've flown in the US since then, I sense rote following of rules, not an intelligent agent.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Sometimes Gmail offers the strangest ads

Today I glanced at the Sponsored Links served up for a very short message I'd sent, and I was surprised to see that they all related to physics. Odd; my message had nothing to do with physics, and didn't have any terms related to physics.

I tried Googling the recipients' names, and discovered that apparently one of my correspondents shares a surname, Thorsen, with a number of prominent physicists. (Is there some Thorsen physics dynasty out there?)

It's hard to imagine how the name of a recipient is ever a good clue as to what products I might buy.

Related curiosity: I clicked on that New York Times ad, promoting the paper as a great resource for physics students and faculty at universities. But if you follow the link, you're just dumped on a page touting The Times generally. Clue: a pitch promising things to a specific audience needs to follow through with a targeted ad.

Time to tweak the algorithm, Googleguys...

Cat Stevens confuses Google News, too

Cat Stevens was denied entry into the United States because the government's "watch list" indicates he's given money to terrorist-connected organizations. While neither confirming nor denying that I listened to his music in the 70s, and while certainly not admitting that I attended a concert by Cat (at Cobo Hall, a most intimate venue for a folk/rock singer) ... I doubt he's the kind of person who'd knowingly fund terrorists.

The global news media leapt on the story, and Google News didn't know what to make of it. Its algorithm chose Cat's rebuff as the lead story this morning -- more important than bombings and beheadings.

Google News was also confused by the fact that most reports listed the former pop star as both Cat Stevens and the Muslim name he adopted, Yusuf Islam. Google's "In the News" segment, which tries to call out the names of people in the news, lists both names -- and offers a different hit list depending on which one you pick.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Lou Rosenfeld weighs in on site search

Lou Rosenfeld has done some thinking about site search and what it should deliver. Useful thoughts. Capsule summary:

Locating search: Where is it?
Scoping search: What will be searched?
Query entry: How can I search it?
Retrieval results: What did I find?
Query refinement: How can I search some more?
Interaction with other IA components: Can I switch to browsing when search isn't doing the trick?
Finishing search: What can I do now that I've done searching?

Great quote about English and other languages

From Bookcrossing site:

"English doesn't borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over and goes through their pockets for loose grammar."

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Weather Channel loses track of Hurricane Frances

Worried about whether Hurricane Frances is stalking some favorite haunts in Florida, I went to Alas, the site offers up a graphic that claims there are no storms to track. It's in the wee hours at the headquarters, and someone has pushed the wrong button.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Windows XP SP2 Critical Update defers to fixing "unacceptable" font

It's the first anniversary of the devastating Blaster worm, which wrought havoc around the world, especially at universities. In its wisdom, Microsoft has timed the release of Windows XP Service Pack 2 for the anniversary, which means that this year millions of students will return to school, plug into the campus network, and discover that Windows Update wants to install SP 2. It's a "critical update" delivered at the worst possible time for college campuses. (Microsoft also won't let universities build patch CDs with SP2 for students in residence halls, citing its copyright policy.)

Word on the street is that Microsoft is dribbling out the SP2 release. Only a few folks will be offered this "critical update" at first. It's not clear what the random sampling process is. Curious if my new Thinkpad running XP Pro would catch SP2, I ran Windows Update.

To my utter astonishment, I do need a "critical update" -- for a font!

Critical Update for Windows (KB833407) Download size: 309 KB, less than 1 minute

This item updates the Bookshelf Symbol 7 font included in some Microsoft products. The font has been found to contain unacceptable symbols. After you install this item, you may have to restart your computer.

A little bit of Googling reveals that one of the characters in Bookshelf 7 resembles a swastika. I don't know if it is a swastika or not, as other cultures have produced symbols that resemble that offensive sign used by the Nazis centuries later.

It seems the Anti-Defamation League raised this issue with Microsoft in 2003, and Microsoft agreed to replace the font table with a new one sans pseudo-swastika. While that's probably the best move for Microsoft to make, there is no excuse for putting out as CRITICAL a new font table just because a symbol in it is objectionable. A critical update should be something critical to the operation of my computer. I have never even gone near the Bookshelf 7 fonts myself, and I've never encountered a Web page that exploited the offending character. Meanwhile, the really critical update, SP2, isn't available, and will start to appear, randomly, starting today. So you can't get XP SP2 as an end user if you want it, other than if randomly chosen, and you will get the Bookshelf Critical Update whether you want it or not.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Create your own postage stamps featuring your own photos has come up with a very clever new idea. They'll make postage stamps for you featuring whatever image you want. Imagine:

-- The photo on the stamp you put on your wedding invitation isn't wedding cake models -- it's you, the happy couple.

-- Your holiday letter depicts your perfect family, whose perfect year is described in infinite detail in the annual letter within.

-- You send out various mailings whose envelopes feature stamps showing off your lovely dog, cat, baby, vacation photos, the cottage up north your friends covet, etc.

The Photo stamp is really just the electronically coded postage stamp that provides under license from the USPS, with an ancillary photo, um, glued alongside it. The cost is steep: 85 cents per stamp for a sheet of twenty 37 cent stamps, not including $2.99 shipping. I bet it'll be a huge hit nonetheless. Wedding photographers will sell you postage stamps for your thank-you notes that feature you and your smiling spouse. Not a bad way for a dot com to reinvent itself.

If the folks at were really clever, they'd create a marketplace and let you choose popular photos and graphics from an image bank. Sure, you could upload your own photos, but you could also choose from the photos offered by professional photographers and freelancers. could let people and organizations sell images for stamps and collect royalties: a marketplace for personalized stamps. Institutions -- recording artists, politicians, cities, universities, car companies, resorts -- anyone could sell image-branded stamps.

The original business model for was simple: print your own postage stamps on your own laser printer -- Pitney-Bowes for the masses, postage stamps you print as you need them -- a very clever concept for the late 90s. But was a clever idea that never caught on. I'm betting that personalized postage stamps will take off in a big way. You'll order the stamps over the Web, you'll pay twice what they're worth, and you won't print them in your basement; you'll receive them ... in the mail. Ahh, irony,

Oh, to be perfectly accurate, I shouldn't say you can have ANY image on your stamp; there's a long list of terms and conditions.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Flood takes Auburn University off the Web

Today I was scanning the Net trying to find out how universities name their Wi-Fi hotspots (or their wireless networks in general). I was surprised to discover that a flood had taken Auburn University off the Internet:

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Blogging Across the United States: Cyber Quest 2004

The quest begins. My friend Dean Shooltz, brilliant scientist and inveterate collector of equipment and vehicles, is in pursuit of a scientific instrument that once was worth many thousands of dollars, and now is for sale for a few hundred dollars.

Someone in San Diego is selling this thingamabob, which means Dean has to get from East Lansing to the southernmost city in California and back. Yes, he could have the whatchamahoozit shipped, but Dean figures that'd be expensive, and if he goes in person, he can disassemble the gizmo and fit it in a car.

So Dean enlisted the help of friends Mike and Colleen. They're going to drive non-stop across the country, pick up and pack the gadget, maybe do some extra sight-seeing, and then drive back non-stop.

Since they've got three drivers, I challenged them to blog the whole trip in real time. I offered my Sony VAIO Picturebook laptop with my Verizon Wireless / Sierra Wireless 1xRTT card, and an AC inverter that plugs into a cigarette lighter outlet. This will give Mike, Dean, and Colleen mobile Internet access just about everywhere they go. The Verizon service map shows lots more gaps out West, but the major roads and cities are covered. So they should be able to blog at will pretty much wherever they are.

The Picturebook has a built-in camera so they can shoot low-res shots as they travel. Dean has a Sony digital still camera, so they can take a MemoryStick and insert it in the VAIO to upload photos.

We met tonight at the Peanut Barrel, an East Lansing institution, where I showed them the ins and outs of the Picturebook. Colleen took the little laptop and had a new Blogger blog up in minutes.

Parting with the little Picturebook was not easy.  I'm now using an IBM Thinkpad X40, which is much more powerful than the little laptop, and I'm now using Wi-Fi (in lieu of the Verizon service) at my day job, at home, and elsewhere for most of my Internet access.  I made it very clear to Dean et al that I do want the Picturebook back at the end of the trip.

Read all about it, and watch the photos, at