Google releases Earth

In a move seemingly designed to make me ruin the inside of my panties, Google has released the first cut of its Earth product, based on technology it acquired when it purchased Keyhole.

The product is, in a nutshell, a copy of the earth on your computer. In fact what it does it stream detailed data from Google’s massive database so that you only see the parts of the earth that you’re interested in at any particular time. It can also overlay data such as roads, populations, crime rates etc.

But don’t take my word for it, check out some reviews.

Katie Holmes has brain replaced by boiled cabbage

I’m not normally one to regurgitate celebrity gossip, but one story has me very concerned. The 16 missing days between the Old Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise’s infatuated new Bride-Bot.

… Sometime that week, her friends say, she flew to Los Angeles for a meeting with Cruise about a role in “Mission: Impossible 3.” The meeting took place after April 11.

The next time anyone heard from Holmes was on April 27, when she appeared in public as Cruise’s girlfriend and love of his life.

Where was she during those 16 days?

Somewhere during that time, she decided to fire both her manager and agent, each of whom she had been with for years and who were devoted to her.

Read the article. This is just awful. And the new Tom Cruise has been coming across in interviews as, well, completely bananas.

In the days before blogs, they might very well have got away with this.

Google wish-list item of the day

Put an RSS subscribe button next to search results where applicable. Then let me browse my Google news feeds in a gmail-like interface, or as an additional search page like the “Desktop” page.

You could even use a local engine, like the great Google Desktop engine.

Update: Scott posted a comment with the following great advice:

You can actually hack Google to give yourself this feature. You need:
1. Firefox
2. The Greasemonkey extension (http://greasemonkey.mozdev.org/)
3. The Annotate Google script (http://ponderer.org/annotate_google_redux)

Which is great for the 1% of Firefox users (who comprise around 5-20% of web users, depending on who you ask) who have Greasemonkey.

Still, that’s a cool hack.

Creativity and Destruction and Hume’s Bundle notion of self

I was sick yesterday, so instead of having an impro gig I spent the night writing some songs and a few gags for this Tuesday’s stand-up gig. It’s been a while since I’ve written so effectively, so I was quite pleased with the results. Then this morning I was dabbling in Wikipedia and came to the entry on philosopher David Hume.

Hume was a Scottish philosopher in the 1700’s, most known for Utilitarianism, Naturalism, and receiving accusations of Atheism. The section on the Bundle Theory of Self particularly interested me as I’ve recently experienced odd feelings of being inhabited by separate entities whose dominance varies depending on the task at hand.

Audience: [cough]Too many drugs[/cough]

In particular, I can relate to the following:

… when you start introspecting, you notice a bunch of thoughts and feelings and perceptions and such, but you never perceive any substance you could call “the self”. So as far as we can tell, Hume concludes, there is nothing to the self over and above a big, fleeting bundle of perceptions.

Speaking as someone who is required to be highly rational and scientific in my day job (Computer Programming for a large bank) and random, emotional and creative in my hobbies (improv, stand-up, music), I have begun see these bunches of thoughts and feelings ebb and flow quite dramatically over the course of a single day or week. I also have a fairly diverse set of friends with dramatically different approaches to life, and this also affects which aspects of my personality surface at a particular time.

This thinking led me along two seemingly-unrelated strands of thought.

The first is the nature and reasons for creativity. Given that we are such fluid entities, and assuming a desire in the individual for some concrete identification of the self, it is not unreasonable to say that creating a concrete item such as a painting, a song, or a story would help to create an anchor-point for one’s identity. “This is me, now”. They are flags planted in the earth at points along one’s path through life. They help to mark the journey.

The second is to do with tribalism and fear of The Other. People naturally gravitate into groups of like-minded individuals who mutually reinforce each others’ sense of self. This, too, provides an anchor point for certain aspects of the personality, by validating their existence and approving their expression. Over time, and with sufficient exposure to one group over all others, this would result in a hardening of the individual’s personality into a single form; less of a bundle of ever-changing thoughts and feelings, and more of a singular – dare I say, robotic – entity.

[pointedly looks at football fanatics]

This helps to explain, to me at least, the nature of such phenomena as xenophobia, sexism and racism. All come about when large-ish, mutually-reinforcing collectives communicate mostly among themselves and exclude opinions (either deliberately or accidentally) which would disrupt the hardening of their identities into a form which resonates with the collective.

So it seems that, at some level, the acts of painting a bowl of petunias and beating up homosexuals both satisfy the same need: To capture and identify the self.

But there’s no such thing as the self. Which sucks for gays but is good for Camberwell Market.

Australian Child has house raided by Feds for linking to file sharing site

A fascinating story of over-the-top copyright enforcement at The Register by Australian copyright lawyer (formerly in-house for ARIA, our RIAA) and music industry commentator Alex Malik.

Malik describes the case of a Sydney teenager being charged with “Aiding and abetting a criminal activity” for linking to files on a music sharing site. There is no evidence that the child profited from the linking, he was 13 at the time of the alleged offense, and any fool would have to presume that sending 8 AFP officers to raid his home is, well, staggering overkill.

Anyhoo, read the article. One has to wonder where all this is leading.

And once you’re done, go read more about the big picture of file sharing and the decline of record industry profits.

Shirky on Social Networks and Filesharing

Continuing my recent theme of social networks, trust, searching and filesharing I present an article by Clay Shirky.

He describes the technological and social effects of the RIAA’s strategies against file-sharing: by attacking some of the few nodes that make a large number of files accessible for most of the time, they have sufficiently weakened the system that users are angry, both at Kazaa (for example) and the RIAA.

Shirky goes on to describe a new kind of system, one that is slowly evolving today, based on “trust networks”. Users invite each other to join networks of trust, smaller and even less centralised than the current generation of P2P networks (Gnutella, Kazaa, eDonkey etc). Shirky claims that the efficiency of these networks in finding desired content is higher than one might expect for a random distribution of files, because users who trust each other are likely to have similar tastes.

This brings me to a criticism that has been levelled at Outfoxed, and which I think is appropriate here: Trust is not absolute or all-encompassing. If my friend George is a Professor of Theoretical Mathematics at Princeton, then of course I’ll trust his opinion on anything mathematical – however, he may also be a recalcitrant sexist pig, so I wouldn’t trust his opinion on women.

Likewise, I may trust my friends not to rat on me to the RIAA when we share files, but I may also think their taste in music is crap (this is, in fact, true).

So when we talk about the trust vectors that we hook into the cloud, they need to have more dimensions than just “who?” and “how much?”. They also need “with regards to what?”. In order to operate efficiently our file-sharing trust networks need to be built on an heuristic which combines both “secrecy” (traditional trust) and “semantics” – to let us walk the traditional trust graph to content we actually want.

Outfoxed? You bet I was

Okay, so after all my huffing and puffing about begging Google to implement browser extensions for trust networks, suddenly (and seemlingly out of nowhere) comes Outfoxed, a Firefox browser extension that uses trust networks to prevent phishing, warn about malicious files, and generally spread trusted information throughout the web. It was created by Stan James as part of his masters thesis. I’m downloading it now, and will report back soon about its effectiveness. To friends of mine who are reading this and use Firefox, let me know if you download this extension and we’ll form our own trust network 🙂

Update: So far, it has complained about being unable to connect to localhost:63047, and crashed my browser. But I’m using Deer Park Alpha 1, so don’t take my case as typical. Also, it is (probably by necessity) dependant upon a central server to share information with other browsers (Correction: It is not based on a central server, but rather on XML “feeds” which can reside on any server, just like RSS). However, if this server software is also open source (and I suspect that it is) then it will be possible to set up private trust “Islands”, which is actually a Good Thing ™ as far as the software design is concerned.

Also, the user interface supports ratings and tags – rock! I really hope that an active user and development community builds around this initiative. Great work, Stan 🙂

Update 2: Outfoxed re-orders your Google results based on trust ratings. Sweet mother of shit!

Outfoxed Google Re-ordering

Update 3: Went back to the latest stable Firefox (1.0.4) and it works very well. Still get very occasional messages about being unable to contact the local database, but the experience is mostly surprisingly smooth.

Search vs. Subscribe

Kevin Hale has written an article at ParticleTree which talks about the increasing importance of RSS, which in effect means the importance of subscription-based information consumption (as opposed to search). This has profound implications for the business model of, say, Google because it reduces the relevance of plain old searching – people are already having a certain amount of their customised information needs met automatically.

I’ve noticed that on my blog, about 50% of the referrals come from Google and 50% from technorati. I would imagine that for most blogs with semantic tagging functionality, this would be roughly the same.

Around two years ago, the picture was completely different – almost every referrer was google (with a few from yahoo search, msn search etc.). This shows that the “push” model of publishing, and the “aggregation” model of reading, is really taking off.

Within a short time, will we be typing in “christina_aguilera” as a social tag rather than a Google search term? Google, it seems, is trying to make that question irrelevant. Those at the forefront of web technology believe that Google is working on a system to unify basic search and the semantic keywords usually associated with sites like del.icio.us and technorati. This is, not coincidentally, why I chose to register (syn).onymo.us – tag unification. Semantic browsing. Imagine typing in a word and being able to navigate, not just via the usual links, but also through the dimensions of meaning created by tagging: Start at “Royalty”, navigate to “Empire”, “Rome”, “Italy”, “Pasta”, “Atkins Diet” and so on.

You could develop a seriously awesome browsing experience if that was the case. But wait a second – how do you create that seamless semantic browsing experience without some ghastly frames-based abomination that breaks half the web? You would need some sort of rich client-based front end.

Google has hired some Mozilla.org developers, so one can only assume that they’re serious about releasing browser-integrated functionality. The also have an IE toolbar team in there somewhere, because they released the Googlebar for IE. What we’ll probably see, in my completely irrelevant opinion, is Googlebars (or even whole new main toolbar buttons, right next to “back”, “forward” and “stop”) which provide intuitive ways to browse the web by topic.

So Google, while you’re at it, can I request something? Trust relationships. An easy way to say “this person knows their shit” or “this person is full of shit” (or a spammer) and have that information aggregate through my existing trust network to others who think I’m not full of shit. That way, spammers will be relegated to trust “islands” (unless they can somehow hijack the system) while the rest of us build strong social links that increase the quality of the browsing and aggregation experience.

By storing and propagating trust information (and I realise what a hurdle it will be to convince the tinfoil hat brigade that this isn’t the beginning of World War III on privacy), Google can maintain and extend its relevance beyond simple search.

If they don’t do it, someone else will do it via P2P and within 5 years they’ll disappear.

Ok, that last bit was just me being provocative 😉

p.s. Also, please please include some kind of rich support for geographic browsing – and I don’t just mean “where’s the nearest pizza joint”, I mean “what events are happening in a particular region between these dates”, or “who carpools between these locations at 8am from monday to
friday?. I know, I’m a whiner.

Update: I just noticed that Yahoo’s Y!Q service does something similar to what I’m talking about with the toolbar. They also provide an example web page with Y!Q integrated. It’s quite cute, but Yahoo’s branding is less appealing and subtle than Google’s. I know that _shouldn’t_ be important, but it is. If using Y!Q means having a whacking great floating div appear over your website rendered in vomitous purple and yellow, then how many serious websites are going to do it?