Talking With Gary Price

Had a nice chat with Gary Price yesterday. Here's a librarian who's written the book on the Invisible Web, and who has a mission to educate us about the resources – beyond the open web of Google et al – that are freely available to the public. Price took me…

Had a nice chat with Gary Price yesterday. Here’s a librarian who’s written the book on the Invisible Web, and who has a mission to educate us about the resources – beyond the open web of Google et al – that are freely available to the public. Price took me on a tour of the databases that are available to anyone with a public library card. Among them, the Arlington library, which has the same Thompson/Gale databases for free as Highbeam has for $20 a month. Others, like the SF library, have huge databases of magazines and other business resources available. All you need is a library card (and access to the web – many resources are available over the net). This it does kind of make you wonder how Keepmedia and Highbeam intend to make money in the long run. Wait a minute…they intend to make money by intermediating libraries, who are notoriously terrible at marketing themselves.
As I’ve pointed out in a few other posts, Price maintains Resourceshelf and writes and lectures prolifically about search and research.

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Being Jon Kleinberg

Had a good talk today with Jon Kleinberg, professor at Cornell who some credit with work that inspired PageRank, though he's far too modest to accept that mantle. He says he's proud that in academic citations, his work on hubs and authorities is cited alongside PageRank as seminal to the…

Had a good talk today with Jon Kleinberg, professor at Cornell who some credit with work that inspired PageRank, though he’s far too modest to accept that mantle. He says he’s proud that in academic citations, his work on hubs and authorities is cited alongside PageRank as seminal to the current state of web search. While talking to Kleinberg was great for the historical perspective of my book (he was at IBM Almaden in the 96/97 timeframe, near Stanford, working on very similar stuff) it was also very interesting to hear his views on where search might be going.

He agrees with the consensus view that search is in its early days. The really hard problems – natural language queries, for example, have yet to be solved. “It’s kind of interesting to see how far search has gotten without actually understanding what’s in the document,” he noted. In other words, search has gotten pretty sophisticated using keyword matching, and link/pattern analysis. But search technology still has no idea what a document actually *means* – in the human sense.

Kleinberg outlined one of his core frustrations with search engines, one I am sure all readers have experienced: the inverse search. In this scenario, you know there is a core term or phrase that, if typed into Google, would yield exactly the set of pages you’re looking for. But you don’t know the term, and your attempts to divine it continually bring up frustrating and non-relevant results. Say, for example, you want to know more about that regulation that you’ve heard about, the one that says you have the right to fly – with no additional charge – on a different airline if the one you are on cancels your flight. You want to find out the specifics of that regulation, but how?

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A Chat With Halsey

Yesterday I spent the morning with Halsey Minor, founder of CNet, then 12Entreprenuering, creator of Snap, icon of the boom and bust, and now CEO of Grand Central. Halsey was his old enthusiastic self (not to say he ever wasn't, but it's not been easy these past few years, after…

Yesterday I spent the morning with Halsey Minor, founder of CNet, then 12Entreprenuering, creator of Snap, icon of the boom and bust, and now CEO of Grand Central. Halsey was his old enthusiastic self (not to say he ever wasn’t, but it’s not been easy these past few years, after all, and he did move away for a spell).

Halsey is convinced he’s got a winner with Grand Central. After a couple hours of whiteboarding, it’s hard not to at least see his point. The company is in a really interesting space, essentially providing the glue that allows for innovative companies to create really cool tools through web services. While web services as an industry has been on a three-year slow smolder, I think it may finally catch fire this year.

Should it ignite, I am not as convinced as Halsey that Grand Central will be the winner. He points out that there’s really no one in the space doing what he is doing, but then again, Jonathan Abrams probably said that when no one had heard of Friendster. If Grand Central proves the space, IBM, MSFT, and others will move quickly to own it. Halsey has a defense on this point too, but in the end, it’s all about execution, so we’ll see.

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The Corporation

Kottke posts on the Sundance audience-award-winning film The Corporation, which asks why a corporation has the same rights as a human being in our culture. I believe this question is important, and will continue to gain relevance. I've long wondered how it is that many corporations act like such selfish,…

Kottke posts on the Sundance audience-award-winning film The Corporation, which asks why a corporation has the same rights as a human being in our culture. I believe this question is important, and will continue to gain relevance. I’ve long wondered how it is that many corporations act like such selfish, amoral assholes, while the people in them are often so wonderful. This film explores that question. From Kottke’s site, quoting material explaining the film:

Considering the odd legal fiction that deems a corporation a “person” in the eyes of the law, the feature documentary employees a checklist, based on actual diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and DSM IV, the standard tool of psychiatrists and psychologists. What emerges is a disturbing diagnosis.
Self-interested, amoral, callous and deceitful, a corporation’s operational principles make it anti-social. It breaches social and legal standards to get its way even while it mimics the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism. It suffers no guilt. Diagnosis: the institutional embodiment of laissez-faire capitalism fully meets the diagnostic criteria of a psychopath.

This may seem too pat for some readers, but I think these are core issues folks at Google are struggling with as they determine whether or not to go public. “Don’t be evil” and “amoral pyschopath” are not exactly compatible MOs.

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A Worthy Read

Not directly tied to search, but I was fortunate enough to get an early copy of Stephen Johnson's new book Mind Wide Open: Your Brain And The Neuroscience Of Everyday Life, which is now out. As Cory points out, it's from a guy who many of us revere for elegantly…

Not directly tied to search, but I was fortunate enough to get an early copy of Stephen Johnson’s new book Mind Wide Open: Your Brain And The Neuroscience Of Everyday Life, which is now out. As Cory points out, it’s from a guy who many of us revere for elegantly relating Big Ideas. The book does a superb job of relating new thinking about…thinking, and in particular emotions such as love, fear, and joy. A very worthy read, and an inspiration for folks like me struggling to write a book related to Big Ideas.

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Now Searchable: Your Rental Car

One of the purposes of my book is to expand the concept of what "search" means in everyday life. We've come to think that search = Google, and Google = search. But what of luggage? Of inventory? Of….Rental cars? In this disturbing NYT piece, Christopher Elliott tells the tale of…

One of the purposes of my book is to expand the concept of what “search” means in everyday life. We’ve come to think that search = Google, and Google = search. But what of luggage? Of inventory? Of….Rental cars? In this disturbing NYT piece, Christopher Elliott tells the tale of Byngsoo Son, who rented a car in San Francisco, took a 12-day road trip with his family (Grand Canyon, Vegas, etc), and got a bill for over $3,400. Why? He crossed state lines, which he didn’t realize triggered a $1-a-mile clause in his contract. How did the car company know? Payless (oh, the irony!) had a GPS unit and “telematics” installed in the car, and was tracking its movements. In other words, they could search for the car at any point in its journey, so they knew when it triggered the Make-A-Shitload-of-Money clause. Did they call the hapless Son, and let him know that he might consider buying a used BMW instead? Of course not! Ah, the power of search….

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Afternoon with Marc Andreessen; Friendster

Had a day of talking to folks about the book, including lunch with Marc (I've been meaning to talk to him about the book for months, as Netscape pretty much fired the search-driven starting gun, and Marc generally has a lot of really interesting things to say). I then went…

Had a day of talking to folks about the book, including lunch with Marc (I’ve been meaning to talk to him about the book for months, as Netscape pretty much fired the search-driven starting gun, and Marc generally has a lot of really interesting things to say). I then went over to Friendster’s new offices for a good chat with Jonathan Abrams and a few of his colleagues. Good crew, a lot of level-headed enthusiasm (interesting concept, eh?) evident there. Then I spent some time on the phone with the CEO of Dipsea (remember them? I pinged them back here). Then my site went down. All in all a busy afternoon.

Marc had great stories to tell about the early days of Netscape, and lessons to be drawn from managing extraordinary growth. Folks forget that they sold Netscape – a company with something on the order of $600-800 million in revenues – for $10 billion to AOL. Marc drew an interesting set of graphs showing how browser revenue imploded when MSFT came in, but how portal revenue – OEM’ing traffic, essentially – grew to nearly the same size, about $200 million. We also spent some time on the future of search as it relates to media models. Good stuff.

jonathan2.jpgJonathan was busy hiring folks when I stopped in, as were many others I met at Friendster. A good sign, overall, for the Valley, that smaller and younger companies are hiring, as well as folks like Google. F’ster had none of the bling bling associated with fresh VC money adorning the office, which was refreshing. All I can say about our conversation (remember, I have to keep some stuff for the book) is that they are quite serious about expanding the offerings there, and it ain’t just dating…

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Jakob Nielsen, Holiday Mixer

If you've ever driven down I-880 coming from points North toward San Jose, noticed the line of homes etched into the Eastern hills above Fremont, and wondered – "Who lives up there?" – the answer is Jakob Nielsen. Nielsen is a reknown user interface expert who's written numerous books and…

If you’ve ever driven down I-880 coming from points North toward San Jose, noticed the line of homes etched into the Eastern hills above Fremont, and wondered – “Who lives up there?” – the answer is Jakob Nielsen. Nielsen is a reknown user interface expert who’s written numerous books and articles on web design, and who was an early Google advisory board member. I drove up to see him yesterday on my way down to the Google holiday party (well, the Google holiday party for members of the press, anyway). Jakob’s house affords a sweeping view of the bay area from a more southern perspective, which is a bit disconcerting for someone who is used to seeing the bay from Mt. Tam or UC Berkeley.
Jakob has plenty to say about the state of search and design on the web. When I asked what was next in search, he said “Solving your problem, as opposed to finding you the best site.” An interesting insight. He believes search is a critical thinking skill that should be taught in the elementary school system, and I agree. It’s amazing how much smarter you can be online if you know a few basic search skills – use of quotes, and/or operators, a few basic syntax elements.
After Jakob I drove across the Valley to Google’s new building, this time for a holiday media mixer. Just about everyone who’s ever covered Google was there, from Dan Gillmor (SJMerc) to Fred Vogelstein (Fortune) to Kara Swisher (WSJ) to Stephanie Olsen (Cnet). And senior Google folks turned out in force, though some were obviously uncomfortable with being in a room teeming with journalists. I saw about ten folks I have interviewed for the book, it was good to reconnect. All in all a nice affair, and I had some interesting conversations with Craig Silverstein (employee #1), Krishna Bharat (created Google News and is now going to India to help start that project), Shona Brown (new at Google, running biz operations, wrote a good book back in the early bubble that may as well be a blueprint for Google right now), and many others. Larry, Sergey and Eric were there as well, they were predictably mobbed. I said hello and moved on. I hear Cory was in the house, though I didn’t see him, but Joi Ito was there, looking younger than when I first met him at Wired in 1993. How the hell did he do that?

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Google, India, Yahoo, Paul

I spent most of yesterday working on the book, talking to folks at Yahoo, Google, and with Paul Saffo. I met with Terry Winnograd, who was Larry Page's professor at Stanford, worked with Larry and Sergey early in the project, and is still on Google's technical advisory board (scroll down)….

I spent most of yesterday working on the book, talking to folks at Yahoo, Google, and with Paul Saffo. I met with Terry Winnograd, who was Larry Page’s professor at Stanford, worked with Larry and Sergey early in the project, and is still on Google’s technical advisory board (scroll down). While I was there I ran into Yossi Vardi, who is always a joy to see. The man is always beaming, and this was no exception, he was touring Google’s new building with Sergey and telling enthusiastic stories about Sergey’s recent trip to Israel (Yossi of course played host). In any case, internationalization is clearly a theme at Google. The company recently announced a new R&D center in India. I asked David Krane (Director of CC) why, and he said he company can’t expect everyone to come here, and there’s a lot of talent in Bangalore. Makes sense.

Terry is an energetic man, he was a founding member of CPSR and has done a lot of work on natural language and HCI (human computer interface). He recently took a sebbatical from Stanford to work at Google full time, and is now moving back into the academic life. I won’t go into all we discussed (gotta save something for the book!) but it was a good meeting, and I heard some funny tales of the early days, among other things.

At Yahoo I met with Srinija Srinivasan, Yahoo’s Editor in Chief. She’s been there almost since the beginning, and we had a robust and lengthy conversation about the role of editorial in search, the role of the directory at Yahoo (very interesting) and challenges ahead for the industry and the company. I really enjoyed Ninj, as she is known. She’s only 32, but has spent nearly 9 years thinking about this stuff as EIC at Yahoo. Prior to that, she worked on Doug Lenat’s CYC project, which for those of you unfamiliar with it was a very brave, arguably foolish, and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to solve AI’s “brittleness” problem. CYCorp still exists, applying some of its early work to corporate data issues.

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The Database of Intentions

So nothing really new in the news today, I wanted to take a graf or two and explain what I mean by The Database of Intentions, referred to in this post. That way I can use it again and again and just link the phrase to this post. Hey, we…

So nothing really new in the news today, I wanted to take a graf or two and explain what I mean by The Database of Intentions, referred to in this post. That way I can use it again and again and just link the phrase to this post. Hey, we love the web, Ted Nelson lives….

The Database of Intentions is an idea central to the book I’ve been working on for the past year or so, which is tentatively titled “The Search: Business and Culture in the Age of Google” (Penguin/Putnam/Portfolio 2004). As with many in this industry, it all started with the Macintosh. Back in the mid 80s I was an undergraduate in Cultural Antropology, and I had a class – taught by the late Jim Deetz,which focused on the idea of material culture – basically, interpreting the artifacts of everyday life. It took the tools of archaeology – usually taught only in the context of civilizations long dead – and merged them with the tools of Cultural Anthropology, which interpreted living cultures. He encouraged us to see all things modified by man as expressions of culture, and therefore as keys to understanding culture itself. I began to see language, writing, and most everyday things in a new light – as reflecting the culture which created them, and fraught with all kinds of intent, contreversies, politics, relationships. It was a way to pick up current culture and hold it in your hand, make sense of it, read it.
(more via link below)

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