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Gilgamesh, Search, and Immortality

By - July 30, 2004

gilgameshtabWhy Search?

On a fine sunny morning, not long after the birth of my third child, I typed “immortality” into Google and hit the “I’m feeling lucky” button.

In an instant, Google takes me to the “Immortality Institute,” dedicated to “conquering the blight of involuntary death.”

Not quite what I was looking for. So I hit the search again, but this time I took a look at the first ten results, etched in blue, green, and black against Google’s eternal white. Nothing really caught my eye. Cyronics stuff, a business called Immortality Inc. – pretty much what you might expect. I couldn’t put what I was looking for into words, but I knew this wasn’t it.

Then I noticed the advertising relegated to the right side of the screen.

There were four ads. The first was someone who claimed to have met “immortal ETs.” Pass. The third and fourth were from eBay and Yahoo! Shopping. These mega sites had purchased the “immortality” keyword in some odd and obliquely interesting hope that people searching for immortality might somehow find relief through…buying shit online. (In fact what Yahoo and eBay were doing was a sort of secondary search arbitrage – buying top positions for a search term on Google and then creating a link to the exact same search term on their own site). Interesting, but I wasn’t searching immortality so I could go buy stuff. I took a pass on those as well.

But the second paid link pointed to the Epic of Gilgamesh, “mankind’s first epic,” which I hazily recalled as the first story ever written down – in Sumerian cuneiform, if memory served (and it did, thanks to my mother, a middle school English teacher for 25 years). I clicked on the link – by that action earning Google a few ephemeral pennies – and landed on an obscure bookseller’s page. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the site instructed me, recounts mankind’s “longing stretch toward the infinite” and its “reluctant embrace of the temporal. This is the eternal lot of mankind.”

Bingo. I didn’t quite know why, but this was the stuff I was looking for. My vague desire to understand the concept of immortality had brought me to the Epic of Gilgamesh, and now I was hooked. But I didn’t want to buy a book, I wanted to read the epic, right there, right now. So I typed the title itself into Google, and once again found myself larded with options. But this time the organic results nailed it: The first two offered direct translations of the stone tablets upon which the Epic is written. Clicking on the first link, I found a Washington State professor’s summary of the Gilgamesh story, a summary which echoed much of my own inarticulate thoughts about the importance of search:

Gilgamesh was an historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in modern Iraq; he lived about 2700 B.C. Although historians (and your textbook) tend to emphasize Hammurabi and his code of law, the civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, among the first civilizations, focus rather on Gilgamesh and the legends accruing around him to explain, as it were, themselves. Many stories and myths were written about Gilgamesh, some of which were written down about 2000 B.C. in the Sumerian language on clay tablets which still survive….written in the script known as cuneiform, which means “wedge-shaped.” The fullest surviving version, from which the summary here is taken, is derived from twelve stone tablets… found in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria 669-633 B.C., at Nineveh. The library was destroyed by the Persians in 612 B.C., and all the tablets are damaged. The tablets actually name an author, which is extremely rare in the ancient world, for this particular version of the story: Shin-eqi-unninni. You are being introduced here to the oldest known human author we can name by name!

In my search for immortality, I had found the oldest known named author, within thirty seconds I came to know his name and his work. This man, Shin-eqi-unninni, now lived in my own mind, and in a sense, has through his writings, with an assist from Google and a university professor, become immortal. Even stonier, if you will, Gilgamesh’s story is one of man’s struggle with the concept of immortality, and the story itself was nearly lost in an act of literary vandalism.

The opening lines of the first tablet certainly resonate:

The one who saw all [Sha nagba imuru ]I will declare to the world,
The one who knew all I will tell about
[line missing]
He saw the great Mystery, he knew the Hidden:
He recovered the knowledge of all the times before the Flood.
He journeyed beyond the distant, he journeyed beyond exhaustion,
And then carved his story on stone. [naru : stone tablets ]

What does it mean, I wondered, to become immortal through words pressed in clay – or, as was the case here, through words formed in bits and transferred over the web? Is that not what every person longs for – what Odysseus chose over Kalypso’s nameless immortality – to die, but to be known forever? And does not search offer the same immortal imprint – is not existing forever in the indexes of Google and others the modern day equivalent of carving our stories into stone? For bloggers, in particular, I believe the answer is yes.

Loyal readers know they must suffer through my tendencies to wander off into the desert of joint-after-midnight meanderings (even if the joints have not been formally broken out), but there you have it. I searched for immortality, and dadgummit, I think I found it.

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The Google IPO Site Is Live…

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larry.ipopreso.jpgGentlemen, start your engines….once you input your zip code and state (for US residents only though no verification so far is made), there is a bunch of fun stuff here.

A management presentation in text and video….featuring Eric, Larry, and Sergey….

The video is grainy but fine. After some legal stuff and a short intro from Eric, the video is set up as a Q&A with Larry and Sergey to start. It’s really quite striking how similar Larry and Sergey’s voices and cadences are. They are clearly playing it very straight, but address the same major questions as the S-1. Then Eric gives an overview of the Google business, insisting Google is first and foremost driven by technology. Then George Reyes, the CFO comes in and goes over the numbers and the auction process.

Hat Tip: Gary.

Make Announced

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Make_coverweb1One of the cool projects I’m pleased to be associated with is Make, a new O’Reilly publication that was announced today at O’Reilly’s OSCON conference. I helped O’Reilly flesh out the model and editorial concepts for this great new title, and I’m pleased Mark Frauenfelder, of Boing Boing and other fame, will be its Editor in Chief. For more info on Make, check Mark’s post here, or contact me if you’re a sponsor interested in knowing more (I’m also helping them on that side of things.)

Self-INDUCE

By - July 29, 2004

vomit.jpgJoi and Larry and others point to BitTorrent file of the hearings on the INDUCE Act, the latest salvo from the morons who brought us DMCA and DRM. I like this observation from Joi:

BitTorrent is one of the most efficient p2p systems and is great for distributing movies and other large files. The Induce act is trying to make illegal basic technologies such as p2p which “could induce” people to break copyright.

With more powerful cameras and PCs, video and Flash have become important mediums for free speech. They are increasingly being used for political action. The integration of blogs and p2p technology for sharing these videos like the BitTorrent link above from Lessig are a good example. I believe this is substantial non-infringing use.

In other words, the INDUCE act could kill a lot more than p2p (or the iPod or even search), it could kill free expression and political discourse. Like, for example, the use of BitTorrent to discuss with and inform the public about an important political development…

And if you want to get smart on INDUCE, here’s Boing Boing’s Xeni on NPR…and the EFF’s fake complaint showing how ludicrous this proposal is…and Corante’s (Ernest Miller’s) INDUCE related stuff ….There’s much much more… I think we may have to go to the ramparts on this one….

Wiki WriteUp

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A reader (thanks!) sent me this link to a Journal article (sub required) – written by Kara Swisher – good to see Kara covering this space again – about Wikis. I’ve been using Wikis for the past 9 months or so on a couple different projects and I certainly see the potential, but far as I can tell, they are not quite there yet. However, there are some developments in the works, one of which will be demonstrated at Web 2.0, that are very exciting (Joe Kraus will be there with his new company Jot). From the piece:

Now, venture capitalists are funding several startups that are attempting to take the idea to a bigger and more lucrative general-business audience. Their goal is to try to solve one of the workplace’s most vexing problems: how to have employees collaborate and communicate better electronically….
….Getting average people to think about controlling the Web as comfortably as they might an e-mail or a Word document has not been easy. But the rise in popularity of Web logs known as blogs and other “social software” is changing that. Blogging, say wiki proponents, has revived the idea that a Web site can be an ever-changing organism that can be linked with other Web sites to create a larger and more informative picture….
….Jot’s Joe Kraus says that to make wikis more widespread, companies like his and Mr. Mayfield’s must make wiki software simple to integrate into existing applications that workers commonly use, add more features beyond document editing and make it even more enticing for people to deploy them. “People have to perceive that they only need to add a little information in order to get a lot out of it,” says Mr. Kraus.

Interesting Analysis of the Google/Overture Suit

By - July 28, 2004

As you will recall, Overture sued Google back in 2002 for allegedly infringing its patented ad matching technology. This suit has been pretty quiet for a while, but internetnews.com’s Susan Kuchinskas has a good piece on where the suit stands and the key issues apparently informing it. Particularly interesting is this passage:

As Google’s IPO approaches, the rivals are waiting for a critical ruling by Judge Jeffrey White of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. His so-called Markman order will define key words in the patent, drawing lines of battle.

“[A] Markman ruling defines the terms in the claim, which in turn define the scope of the invention, how broad or how narrow it is,” said Lee Bromberg, an intellectual property attorney with Bromberg & Sunstein. “It’s customary for each side to try to pick out certain important terms and to argue for their view of how they ought to be defined,” he continued. “It’s the judge’s job to decide what those terms mean. Sometimes the judge can define a term in a way that either establishes infringement or makes it impossible for infringement.”

In this case, the Markman hearing focused on two key terms: “database” and “search result list.”

According to its legal briefs, Overture wants to define “database” as “a collection of related data, organized in such a way that its contents can be accessed, managed, and updated by a computer.” Google has a counter-argument for that, but it asked the court to hide its argument from the public, citing trade secrets.

As far as what a “search result list” consists of, Overture claims that search result lists can include banner ads. This interpretation would draw AdWords into infringement territory.

Google argued that a search result list is an ordered series of entries and “inherently excludes banner ads and other items that are not responsive to the searcher’s search.”

The judge must decide whether AdWords are more like banner ads or more like search results, since they are delivered in response to the searcher’s search.

It’s interesting that Google wants to define “search result list” to “inherently exclude banner ads and other items that are not responsive to the searcher’s search.” It’s philosophically consistent with the company’s long standing claim that search results must be independent of editorial or organic results. Yahoo, on the other hand, has long taken the stance that the two can and should be intermingled.

While it’s true that a searcher is not looking for specific ads when typing in a request, it’s also true that the ads are directly responsive to a searcher’s request. It’s all in how the judge defines it. And upon the definitive head of these pins, billions of market value may well dance.

Google Preso at Waldorf: Mixed Reviews

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Bloomberg reports on this week’s NY road show:

Google Inc. founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page came to New York in dark suits to sell their company’s $3.3 billion initial public offering to investors at the Waldorf Astoria’s Grand Ballroom. The presentation drew mixed reviews….The Google founders, escorted by bodyguards to the meeting, didn’t talk about future products, earnings or strategy, people who attended the meeting said. Brin and Page made no comments as to what the price of the IPO may be or when the share sale may happen. Reporters were barred from the meeting.

“Given the hype and hoopla surrounding the IPO I thought the presentation failed to live up to expectations,” said Eric Grollman, an analyst who attended the meeting and asked that his firm not be named.

I don’t blame the Google team for being terse and sticking to a set of Powerpoint slides. I imagine if they launched into a verbose riff, Wall St. would have torn them a new one. Play it down the middle till the deal is done….

Google IPO Headline Roundup: The Press Lashes Back

By - July 27, 2004

I get a daily news roundup on the term “Google IPO” from, yup, Google News. In any case, the headlines that just crossed my desk are pretty uniformly…cranky. A sampling:

WHY not to bid on Google IPO
San Jose Mercury News (subscription) – San Jose,CA,USA

GOOGLE IPO May Hasten Staff Turnover
San Jose Mercury News (subscription) – San Jose,CA,USA

JUST Say No to Google IPO
eWeek – USA

GOOGLE’S IPO: Asking Too Much?
BusinessWeek – USA

BEHAVIOUR experts see pitfalls in Google IPO frenzy
Stuff.co.nz – New Zealand

VIRUS Puts Damper on Google IPO Pricing News
NPR (audio) – USA

Next up: the”Bloom Is Off The Google Rose” article. If history is any guide, it is already being prepped at any number of publications.