Thursday, August 27, 2009

Google News highlights 3 Ted Kennedys

I know, I know, I'm obsessed with how Google News algorithms sometimes do goofy things. This time the robot finds 3 Teddy Kennedys:

So let's think about how the Google News algorithm might have done better. If it somehow knew that "Ted Kennedy" and "Edward Kennedy" and "Edward M. Kennedy" were the same person, it could collapse those entries into one. A conventional approach would be for Google News to have a thesaurus that included those equivalencies. The classic example of a thesaurus (in the U.S. anyhow) is a table that shows that "Mark Twain" and "Samuel Clemens" are the same author.

But traditional thesauri are built by hand, and Google abhors services that require manual labor. It would require a pretty fancy algorithm to understand that the 3 Teddys are the same guy. But the folks that craft Google algorithms are pretty clever, and I bet it's do-able.

Now, what about Hyannis Port? Obviously all of those articles are about Teddy's death. But they may have a different angle: the effect of his death on the town and its citizens. And in fact the top several articles on the hit list are mainly about the town, not the man. Yet intermixed in the results are many articles that are primarily about the man.

This is a toughie. From past cases I'm pretty sure that the Google News highlighter relies heavily on capitalization. It teases out people and place names when it sees they are capitalized. So how might it know that Hyannis Port is not a person?

Elementary, my dear Watson. Consult the Google Maps database. Google as a collective knows that Hyannis Port is a town. The tricky part would be to figure out which articles are about the town, and which are just about Teddy, tangentially mentioning his family's outpost.

Ideally, the news highlighter would list 1 Teddy Kennedy along with 1 Hyannis Port -- and the latter would be about the town, not the man.

I predicted Google News in an article in 2001: The Effects of September 11 on the Leading Search Engine.
I'm predicting now that the Google News robot is only going to get smarter.

Friday, August 21, 2009

AT&T "You Will" ads from 1993: prescient, mostly

One of my favorite themes is Yesterday's Tomorrows. What did we predict about the future way back when?

1993 was the year that the Web came to life, but most of the world didn't notice. It wasn't until fall that NCSA Mosaic came out for Mac and Windows. Envisioning a world of the Web was pretty damn forward looking. These ads, which sound like they are narrated by Tom Selleck, were remarkable in their prescience.

Remember, for a while, AT&T also sold PCs. Someone there was dreaming big. The personal device, the network, basically the Web as we know it.

Let's consider their predictions:

  • Borrow a book from thousands of miles away
  • Cross the country without stopping for directions
  • Send a fax from the beach
  • Pay a toll without slowing down
  • Bought concert tickets from an ATM
  • Touch your baby from a phone booth
  • Open doors with your voice
  • Carry your medical history in your wallet
  • Attend a meeting in your bare feet
  • Watch a movie on demand
  • Take a class at a distance
Well some of that didn't pan out, e.g. health records in your wallet (or even in one place on line -- still a dream). But the visions were very forward looking, and most did come to pass. I wonder who wrote the ads?

One of the great misses was predicting that phone booths would become video phones. I still wonder if the phone companies missed the boat on that one. Instead, they've removed phone booths, and cell phones can now shoot video. I think there is still a huge market for high quality video phone booths, with great lighting and audio pre-staged.

Monday, August 10, 2009

When Mother Nature strikes, it's impressive

This past weekend brought tremendous thunderclaps to town. The next day I was riding my bike and was surprised to see this crossing my path:

Click photo for full-size image

Note the charring of the first log. I think that log was struck with a direct lightning blow, and on the way down it took the other tree with it.

Several joggers came by the scene and all were impressed.

This tree is only 100 yards from my house. The funny thing is, a few years ago, while staying at a place called Lake Shore Resort in Saugatuck, a tremendous boom went off in the middle of the night. I nearly hit the motel room ceiling. The next day I saw that a huge old tree had been felled on the property -- less than 100 yards from my room.

If Mother Nature is triangulating, I figure I've got 2 strikes left.