Lecture series by Ted Nelson (updated)

Are you a Dummy, naive and gullible?
If so, there are thousands of books for
the likes of you.  Go elsewhere, and
drink in the lies called “computer basics”.

But if you are a clever and sophisticated
person who wants to know the real story
of how the computer world works, you
may enjoy some of the insights I present
in this brief series.

• Computers for Cynics 0  - The Myth of Technology

• Computers for Cynics 1 – The Nightmare of Files and Directories

• Computers for Cynics 2 – It All Went Wrong at Xerox PARC

• Computers for Cynics 3 – The Database Mess

• Computers for Cynics 4 – The Dance of Apple and Microsoft

• Computers for Cynics 5 – Hyperhistory

• Computers for Cynics 6 – The Real Story of the World Wide Web

• Computers for Cynics N – CLOSURE: Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain


Wolfram Alpha

I’ve been waiting for the new computational search engine Wolfram Alpha for months now, and I must say I’m a bit underwhelmed. Unlike Google, it’s been designed from the ground up to answer very specific questions (for example, unemployment rate in Sydney); it uses Wolfram’s computational engine Mathematica to compute data on the fly. But for every search I’ve performed so far, Google still does far better. Maybe we just have to be patient – it’s still in nappies. The thing I am most concerned about though is Wolfram’s terms of use: unlike Google, you have to cite Wolfram as the source of your result. Although I sympathise with their reasoning (Wolfram actually computes some answers, ie the answer didn’t exist before you asked it) I think this is crazy from a business perspective – it will drive users away. Google doesn’t make such demands.

Privacy is “unrealistic” in this day and age – Google

I know I’m a little over-obsessed with Google, but this is really because they are light years ahead when it comes to personalisation, search and location-based services – or combinations of these, like Google Maps and Google Earth. There’s an article in The Age today about a recent US court case concerning Google Maps. A federal judge has ruled against a US couple who accused Google of invading their privacy by publishing a Street View picture of their house in the Internet giant’s free online map service. The pictures are certainly very detailed, and taken from a private road by the house.

The reason Google won? They argued that an expectation of privacy concerning pictures of houses or yards is unrealistic in this age of aerial and satellite imagery. Is privacy becoming unrealistic?

Social Search

If you could hone your Google search results based on what your friends have been reading, would you choose to do that? In a recent article on Tech Crunch, Erick Schonfield looked at the possibility of social search for Facebook, and a recent app called Sidestripe, which is an add-on widget for Google search and also a Facebook app. He thinks social search would be very valuable for both Facebook and Google.

I think he is very definitely right, but it would more likely work using a Google account holder’s Gmail contacts rather than their Facebook contacts. The reason is that Google has access to the search records for every contact in your account with a Gmail address, which could be combined with your own search history and personal preferences to personalise your results further.  I think we will be seeing “social” search results in the very near future which are personalised based on what your friends have been reading and visiting frequently, which of course opens up all kinds of problems with respect to privacy. Do you own your search history, or your own reading history?

Attention spirals

From an article on TechCrunch, a US researcher claims he knows why certain videos on YouTube become mass phenomena overnight while the vast majority of videos just get a handful of views: attention spirals. Every time a video turns into a hit, the development takes the form of a geometric pattern that partly follows physical laws utilized in measuring the aftershocks of earthquakes… hahaha.

Personalisation and Google’s new browser (‘Chrome’)

The Age published an article today on Google’s new browser Chrome. Consumer Watchdog expressed some concerns over this new browser back in October, and sent a letter to Google’s founders.

Chrome is all about personalisation of course; from the homepage itself (which includes information such as your most frequently visited sites) to the way the browser can predict possible URLs you may wish to visit. I don’t see why this comes as such a surprise; Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt has expressed Google’s long-term plan before: personalisation. He told the Financial Times in 2007, ‘We are very early in the total information we have within Google. The algorithms will get better and we will get better at personalisation”.

One of the complaints in the Consumer Watchdog letter about Chrome

…surrounds Chrome’s navigation bar, which can be used to enter a website address or a search query. The group points out that as users type in the navigation bar, Chrome relays their keystrokes to Google even before they click “Enter” to finalise the command. “The company is literally having this unnoticed conversation with itself about you and your information,” Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court said (Google’s Browser Labelled a Digital Trojan Horse, 04/08)

Google Chrome seems to have anticipated the hysteria that would ensue over privacy, because it offers a “privacy mode” where you can apparently search the web without data being siphoned off and sent back to Google all the time.

Did you hear the one about internet censorship?

The Australian government wants to introduce mandatory Internet filtering – that’s right, internet censorship. To do this they will require Australian ISPs to install and use dynamic filters of questionable accuracy that have actually been shown to slow data speeds considerably. Of course this won’t work – as if ISPs can examine all their traffic, as if ISPs can be made responsible for the data they deliver, and even if they could, anyone with half a brain can bypass filters of this kind. That’s just a joke really, but it’s not funny. The distressing thing is that there will be a blacklist of “prohibited” sites (who will maintain this? who has the power to decide what we can and can’t read?) There’s already speculation that material like gambling sites will be added to this. I’m worried that this seems to be passing quietly – without high profile debate, without the extensive media coverage it would get in a country like America (or any country that values free speech). I’m also worried that the Australian government is attempting to silence critics of the plan.

Google, privacy and ‘anonymizing’ data

According to Google’s blog, they have reluctantly agreed to ‘anonymize’ their search data after 9 months. This doesn’t mean they will lose the data of course – just that your IP address will not be attached to it after 9 months. Previously they held this information for up to 18 months, and used it to personalise everything from search results to advertising (your Google Reader history is also incorporated in this, but I haven’t worked out what that relationship is exactly).