Monday, August 28, 2006

Florida universities know how to execute an emergency plan

Every institution, including every university, should have a business continuity plan. Universities in South Florida are executing those plans right now, as Ernesto, either storm or hurricane, approaches.

Others can watch these universities execute these plans, as seen on the Web:

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Columbia, please redirect without spanking me

Normally I try not to complain about rank stupidity at a univerisity. When you work at a university, you know what crazy ideas committees come up with.

But when you find a truly goofy idea, it is hard to stay silent. Columbia University spanks you if you don't put www in front of their domain name. Go to and they tell you that you are a bad boy for not putting www at the beginning of their URL.

Honestly, I should be kinder to Columbia, because their searchmeister implemented a Best Bets service inspired by MSU Keywords.

Best Bets

I attended “The Accidental Thesaurus: Enhancing Search Precision through Manual-Selected Best Bets” presented by Richard Wiggins at the IA Summit. Inspired as I was, I didn’t get around to implementing the same thing for Columbia until recently. Crunching a year’s worth of query logs from our Ultraseek server revealed much the same distribution curve that he found at Michigan State University.

(See Beyond the Spider: The Accidental Thesaurus(PDF))
My results:

From the IAwiki:
Best Bets
Pareto Principle
Zipf Distribution as one of various Statistical Laws

But please: C'mon, people, just redirect. In 2006, the world equates and

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Lately I've been thinking a lot about what it must have been circa 1956 when professors and others yearned for a computer where they could perform scientific calculations.

You know, moving from pencil and paper, and slide rule, to a computer. These were not minor changes.

So I laughed when I stumbled on this photo from Internet Librarian last year:

The early days of computing were all about scientific calculations. This photo accidentally shows how much we take for granted.

Monday, August 21, 2006

AOL forces its CTO out, and fires two unnamed employees

The chief technology officer for America Online, Maureen Govern, resigned in light of AOL's release of search logs showing activity for 650,000 plus customers over a recent 90 day period.

AOL's press release says that two other AOL employees were fired. My guess is that the two fired employees were Abdur Chowdhury ( and Greg Pass ( of the AOL "Search and Navigation Group." They merely sought to publish an academic paper and contribute to the search log analysis community. I've e-mailed them; one mail bounced from the (former?) AOL account. My guess us they have better things to do than to answer press inquiries.

But they gave away too much data. Pass and Chowdhury should have understood that posting detailed logs of search sessions would reveal private information. Here's my coverage of this story for Information Today:

But now The New York Times and others have weighed in. AOL is hurting, and this news came at a very bad time.

It would be very bad indeed if this case leads to legislation that outlaws search log analysis, which, used properly, simply helps people find things.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Searching the AOL search logs - the implications

Greg Pass and Abdur Chowdhury of AOL and Cayley Torgeson of Raybeam must have been proud. In June they presented a paper, "A Picture of Search" at an international conference in Hong Kong. Then they posted at the data used in their research: detailed log files covering 36,389,567 searches performed by AOL members between March 1 and May 31, 2006.

The researchers goofed. Although the log files didn't have AOL screen names, they did have a unique identifying number for each user. It only takes a few iterations to learn a lot about an
individual -- in some cases, including their identity. AOL yanked the dataset but it was already mirrored worldwide.

An enterpsising Daniel Zhao of Mount Pleasant,
Michigan, who tells me he is an 18 year old about to enter his sophomore year at Penn, quickly registered on August 7, and soon thereafter he produced on the Web searchable database of the AOL search logs.

o here's what you do: search for something unsavory. For instance:

Click for full-size screen shot

We find, for instance, 43,206 people searched for "child porn." Now, do a new search, filtering only by a user number. You'll see all the searches that person did over a three month period. If you see enough disturbing searches, you'll conclude the searcher is more than just unsavory.

Here's what's going to happen: law enforcement officers at every level are mining this data right now for unsavory searches. When they find a pattern of worrisome searches -- user
2150654 seems very interested in how to make meth -- they'll search for clues to the identities of these searchers. (User 2150654 wants to buy a truck in Oklahoma.) If they can't find a person's identities in the search logs, they'll pursue a subpoena to make AOL cough up the screen name, using the disturbing search terms as probable cause.

In many cases, this will lead to arrests, maybe even successful prosecutions.

And then, watch law enforcement at all levels, from the Justice Department to your local sheriff, demand the ability to fish through search logs indiscriminately.


A hard hat and heartfelt compassion - in 100 degree heat

Will have to explain this one later...

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Official election results from Connecticut: the Secretary of State office is incompetent

Many of us have more than a passing interest in the U.S. Senate primary race in Connecticut. Many of us feel that Senator Lieberman, an honorable public servant, tossed his credentials as a Democrat when he filed to run as an independent if he lost in the primary.

So many of us are watching the Connecticut race carefully.

And the official elections Web site is melting down, a sad gelatinous goo of Crystal Reports gone bad. Most embarrassing of all, it appears that the Connecticut Secretary of State failed to acquire a license for the reporting software:

Click to see full-size screen shot

Please, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.