Dogs, ducks, and sales tax

January 20, 2013

Herewith some meanderings about transparency, evil, and search engines. Only connect, as Goethe said. Or was it E.M.Forster? Better Google it.

My latest Mastercard statement (patience, dear reader) got me fuming. It had a whole bunch of “foreign transaction” fees – 2.75% each. Never seen that before. My first reaction was to start thinking about getting my card from a different bank. However, it seems that actually this charge was always there but bundled up inside the exchange rate quoted. A change of legislation now requires card suppliers to explicitly specify the fee, separately from the rate applied. So that’s good isn’t it? A better informed consumer has more power.

Part 2. On my latest US trip the sales tax thing bugged me, as it usually does. An item is labelled as $7 in the store. You are just getting the exact notes out when the store chappie says “seven dollars forty four please” and suddenly you have another three ounces of coinage. When you tell them that in the UK the tax is already in the price, they are generally mystified. When they do understand, they will say that the UK method sounds like a bad idea. You see, they want you to know that they are charging you only seven dollars;  its the government that is charging you that forty four cents, buddy. Just remember that next time you vote. So that’s bad isn’t it? I just want to know the real price please. Whoop, whoop, personal inconsistency alarm

Part 3. Read article in Observer today about Google and the future of search. Bit of a puff piece really, but never mind. Towards the end the article there were links to a couple of alternative search engines which I hadn’t seen before. One is Dogpile. Lovely name, nice look, but seems to be just an aggregation of other engines. The other is DuckDuckGo . This is a v.interesting beast. They make a big thing of (a) not tracking you, or passing on your search terms to the websites you click on, and (b) not filtering and ordering the results you get based on your location and search history. You can read about the filtering issue here. With Google, you live inside in a search bubble fitted around yourself; different people will get different results. So… this is good, isn’t it, because Google are efficiently giving you what you want ? Or…. maybe this is bad, because prejudices are re-inforced, and we don’t know how we are being manipulated?

Part 3a. The comment stream after that Observer article has a bi-polar argument about whether Google is a visionary force transforming our world, or just a bunch of good old fashioned cynical capitalist bastards, manipulating what we do to make money. Hmm. Both and neither I think. There are much easier ways to make vast amounts of money, so cynicism doesn’t look like the right explanation. I think folks at Google really do want to do groovy and visionary and positive things, and they also really do want to make money out of us. Both at once.

The Internet joined up all the pipes. The Web set up taps that could run water from anywhere. Yahoo and Google ran water through all the pipes. The world seemed transparent. We could live in the whole world at once. Google said “don’t be evil !” and lo, there was a brave new world.

Too good to last of course.


Google, Sex, and Me

October 26, 2009

Over the weekend I stumbled across a bijou factette. This morning I was about to make this the subject of a Monday Morning Quiz : who was King for twenty minutes ? But then I thought, whats the point of that ? Its just a test of who can fire up Google the fastest. Some days it feels like we have outsourced all our personal knowledge to the internet. I don’t even use bookmarks any more. I just re-Google. A while back I was hunting for a figure that I was sure I had seen somewhere… when I spotted it on Google Images I realised it was from a paper I had written myself several years ago. Jeez. Google knows more about me than I do.

Somewhere back in my youth I dimly remember reading a story by Roger Zelazny in which he said “Man is the sexual organ of the machine”. Curiously, Google has failed me here. I can’t find this quote. If Roger Zelazny didn’t say it, and I just dreamed it, then I hereby take credit. Anyhoo. The idea is that man is one machine’s way of making another machine. Sometimes I feel this is my relation to Google. Within the space of a few hours, I am reading web pages A and B, and writing new web page C. Ideas and knowledge I have picked up from A and B get processed through me and change what I deposit in C. I am just one of many millions of bees flitting around the vast meadow of the Web, picking up pollen as I go.


Android Sky Voodoo

May 15, 2009

An ex-boss of mine used to describe any really good piece of science as “a New York Times result”. Now an ex-employee of mine has made it to the New York Times. Ex-AstroGridder John Taylor now works for Google, but in his 20% time knocked up a cool astronomical app – Google Sky Map for Android phones. If you point the phone in any direction, it shows you the correct piece of sky. If you type in an astronomical object to search for, it shows which way to turn. As the BA might say, JT is  just made of awesome !!!!! Oh Jeez. Did I really say that ? Shoot me.

The official promo video has some slightly chubby geezer explaining it.On the other hand, you could watch JT himself hamming it up and flirting in public.

Or you could do the same as me while I’ve been writing this : jump into the YouTube Time Machine to catch nine minutes of Hendrix on the Lulu show. Oh thats good. Once you get past the Whispering Bob Harris intro.


Send three and fourpence

April 8, 2009

Reality slowly catches up with fantasy. OK, so we don’t have the Transmat machine yet, but we do have flip-open personal communicators. And now we have Google Translator . A – maze – ing. As soon as my kids showed me this, I thought of a joke I first heard Way Back in the 1960s*

The army top brass are visiting a secret military installation, and are shown the world’s most powerful computer, capable of translating between any language and any other. A sceptical general asks the operator to translate “out of sight, out of mind” into Chinese. Of course the result shown on the teletype is gibberish to everybody present. The general tells the operator to input the Chinese version and ask for English. Back comes the answer, “Invisible Idiot”. General returns to Whitehall and cancels project.

It was obvious what I had to do next. Pop “Out of sight, out of mind” into Google Translator, cut and paste the resulting characters, and swing her into reverse. Back came “Disappeared in the sight of bear in mind”.  I put this English phrase back in, and … three loops later I had “Bearing in mind the missing eye”. This phrase was then stable in both English and Chinese.

So now I am hooked on a new silly game. Type in a phrase or sentence, and make a translation chain more or less at random from Croatian to Arabic to Hindi to Hebrew to Spanish etc, every so often dropping out of hyperspace back into English to see where we have gotten to. Its a bit like playing Conway’s Game of Life. Some patterns are immediately stable, some meander and then find a stable equilibrium. I haven’t found any oscillating patterns yet.

Here are some of my favourites :

“And God said, let there be light” became “God said : this is obvious” and then “He said that this is a very specific”.

“Some like it hot” ended up as “However, there are some important issues” after nine steps.

“Mad dogs and englishmen go out in the midday sun” ended up as “Also, the United Kingdom” after many steps, including “Today, the United Kingdom and the mad dog of the examination”.

“Too many cooks spoil the broth” became “Overdone stock loss”

“Ten thin tin men” became  “Thin steel”

and perhaps the strangest

“Cleanliness is next to godliness” quickly became “Dust coming besimtaris”.

Give it a go.


* Special No-Prizes for spotting the song quote, and decoding the post title.


The Stomach of the Beast

November 14, 2008

You probably think that Google’s motto is “don’t be evil”. However, an inside source has explained to me that their true underlying philosophy is “No employee shall be more than 150 feet from food”. Seriously. Last night I saw the astonishing evidence for myself, and verified that this policy has been rigorously implemented.

Ex-AstroGridder John Taylor was stolen from us by Google some while back. He works at Google Pittsburgh under Andrew Moore, but is currently on a two week stint at Mountain View. He invited my family for dinner at the Google Campus. So last night me, girlfriend, and two out of four progeny trooped up to Charleston Road and spent several hours eating, playing volleyball, scribbling on whiteboards, touring round various wacky work areas, and admiring Stan the T-Rex. There are many different cafes with various catering styles, and snack stations at strategic intervals. At one of these there was actually a vending machine that required money, but this was only because it contained the unhealthiest snacks. The price is calculated per gram of unsaturated fat. Before you conclude that nobody at Google does any work, I should point out that at 7p.m. there were plenty of folk carrying their dinner trays back to their offices … Guess the system works.

They do also seem keen on democracy or at the very least its appearance. As we walked through building 42 on the way to John’s temporary station, there was a ring of small shared offices around the open plan area. John pointed at one of these. It had four names on the door. One of these was Vint Cerf. Yes. Vint Cerf, Father of the Internet. Desk in pokey shared office. Vint Cerf. Vint Cerf. A little further along the same row another office had just one name : Eric Schmidt. Yes folks, Google CEO. Office the size of two broom cupboards side by side. Random location. Wow. Is this just for show ? Really, he has an underground suite with a tank of pirnahas, a direct tunnel to the Lear jet, and a red phone labelled “White House” ??? John didn’t know.

John also gave me a demo of the pilot of the product from his 20% project. It worked. And it was dead cool. But I can’t tell you or I would have to kill you.


Geek Tour

September 13, 2008

My daughter’s friend Lewis is here to visit. He’s a computer whizz-kid – eighteen and already has his own business building web sites – so he was pretty excited coming to Silicon Valley. I bought some McIntosh apples specially for his arrival. Apparently they were the favourite apple of Macintosh inventor Jef Raskin . (I was disappointed. In the McIntosh. Not the Macintosh.)

Yesterday we did the geek tour. Lewis had already found the garage at 367 Addison Ave where BillDave HewlettPackard started in the fifties, and the Facebook Offices in University Ave. (The HP garage is officially California historic landmark number 976). I had told him that Steve Jobs lives a few blocks away in a modest house, but we don’t know where. Today we drove past the Googleplex on Amphitheatre Parkway, and most important of all, went to the Apple Campus at 1 Infinite Loop Cupertino. It is HUGE. I was ready for a giant corporate building of some kind, maybe some surrounding greenery, but there is street after street after street of Apple buildings. Seems to be half of Cupertino. I was going to call this post “a visit to the Mothership” but when we dropped in to the company store I found there were T-shirts for sale that said “I visited the Mothership” so suddenly that all seemed obvious. Lewis loaded his bag with goodies.

Americans tend to tell you they don’t have any history, and that they are jealous of Europeans and their ancient buildings. The truth is that Americans are obssessed with history, and the place is crammed full of the stuff. Its not a quaint museum thing. Its real and resonating. Years back when I lived in Massachusetts you could walk round the Freedom Trail or drive out to Concord and practically feel the Minutemen breathing down your neck; people were debating whether their precious freedom was being eroded. History happens fast. The modern world started here in the nineteen fifties, accelerated in the 1970s, and again in the 1990s dotcom boom. As soon as I got here, people told me about the Homebrew Computer Club that used to meet in the Panofsky Auditorium.

Of course, if the HP Garage is the birthplace of Silicon Valley, and the Apple Campus is the Mothership, the Stanford Campus, where all that useless academic research goes on, is the Queen Bee. Sorry about the gharssly mixed metaphors, but there’s got to be a lesson there somewhere.


The Pale Face of Stanford

July 6, 2008

Your correspondent is now in Silicon Valley. My tour of duty as Head of Physics is now over, and I am starting a year long sabbatical at SLAC. My main aim is to kick-start some collaborations with LSST folk, especially on the database side, but its also exciting to be here just after the launch of the gamma-ray space telescope, GLAST . Meanwhile I will also keep working on the VO. AstroGrid has a tradition of being more or less location independent, and it has been noted that I will be working in the same time zone as our official night-owl, Dave Morris.

The story at SLAC these days is in some ways similar to STFC-land, and in others very different. They have had to lay off 200 staff, the B-factory has closed down, work on the ILC has been halted, and the famous tunnel, the straightest object in the world, has been turned into a light source, the LCLS . Less particle physics, more chemistry, biology and materials physics. However they are also diversifying into astrophysics, which is why I am here. This builds on their experience – the GLAST Large Area Telescope (LAT) is really like a particle physics detector in space, with silicon strip trackers and a calorimeter, and the LSST data rate is a drip compared to Babar, let alone the LHC.

Here is another interesting distinction. A Senior Person told me he gets worn down by endless reviews of SLAC, which go on and on and nobody really takes any decisions. Much of our problem with STFC has I think been that the decision making has been too brash and bold….

Meanwhile, we are under pressure to prove our economic worth, as discussed in various comments on this blog over the last few days. Well, SLAC didn’t invent the Web, but it was the first meeting place of the Homebrew Computer Club which is where Jobs and Wozniak got started, and to whom Bill Gates addressed his Open Letter to Hobbyists. The street that SLAC is on, Sand Hill Road, contains an amazing density of venture capitalists. And of course Stanford as a whole is a hot house of ideas moving out from science to industry. Brin and Page built the Googleplex as close as they could to the Alma Mater.

Stanford itself originates from sentimental philanthropy. Leland Stanford was a self made California millionaire. The Stanfords were the Posh and Becks of their day, with newspapers full of stories of their opulent lifestyle in San Francisco. They also had a huge farm down south of the city in nowhere land. Tragedy struck the family in 1884 when their son died of Typhoid on a trip to Florence. So in the spirit of the times, they created the Leland Stanford Junior University in his memory.

So of course I knew none of this three days ago, but the mythology and historical resonances of a place like this are a kind of vapour that you can’t avoid breathing. Gets a bit mawkish sometimes though … Exploring the campus, I found the Cantor Art Centre. It has some good stuff, and a room full of Stanford memorabilia, including Leland Junior’s plaster death mask. It just sits there on the wall reminding you of the Victorian image of death. Milky white, hair neat, eyes closed.


Google Sky : gateway drug

September 30, 2007

I just came back from the twice yearly Virtual Observatory Geeks meeting, otherwise known as the IVOA interoperability workshop. I am on the Exec, which means of course other people do the work and we pontificate a lot. We approved eight standards. Progress ! In an “Applications Showcase” session there were several talks on Google Sky and its possibilities, including one from Ryan Scranton, who created the beast together with Andy Connolly, while on special leave from Pittsburgh U. where they worked on a NASA predecessor called “NASA Worldwind“.

Obviously Google Sky is wonderful fun for Joe Public, and kinda cool for many amateur astronomers, but is it of any interest to professional astronomers ? Ryan thought yes – he said he thought of it as a cannabis-like “gateway drug” which many pros would play with, and then find themselves sucked into the crack-cocaine world of cone-searches, ADQL queries, workflows and so on. So where is the link ? Well several other VO stalwarts have already found ways to do VO-Google-Sky mashups of various kinds.

Example One is VOEvent. This is an IVOA protocol which gives a standard way to pass round messages from alerts made by gamma ray burst satellites, NEOs spotted by small telescopes, etc. There is a service run out of Caltech called “VO event net” which feeds these messages in various formats. Roy Williams showed they can be spat out as KML and so appear as push pins on your Google Sky.

Example Two is the PLASTIC Hub. This is a method which allows VO tools to interoperate, so that for example when you have found an image using Astroscope (from AstroGrid) you can pass it straight to Aladin (from CDS). Alasdair Allan showed how you can PLASTICise Google Sky, so that if you select a flagged object it will automatically move the cursor to the right place in the image you have open in Aladin, or whatever.

This is all very cute but I am still sure how useful it is. And as Bob Hanisch stressed a couple of times, Google Sky starts to get very confusing, and ambiguous, once you have a lot of stuff overlaid. Does this matter, if it is primarily fun for families, or Ryan’s gateway drug ? Well maybe suggested Bob, as high school teachers and kids are likely to start relying heavily on Google Sky.

By the way, there are alternatives, present or imminent. Wiki Sky performs a similar function, and is very good. ESO have a plan to use the excellent Stellarium planetarium software as a front end for VO tools. And Microsoft have been working for ages on a Google Sky equivalent, called the World Wide Telescope. Its one of the things Jim Gray was working on before he disappeared. I would never have guessed this a few years back, but I am starting to feel almost sorry for Microsoft. They have had a Google Earth equivalent for ages but it just hasn’t had the PR success of Google Earth. It was launched as “Virtual Earth” but then last year re-branded as part of “Live Search“. Its fast as well as well designed, and has an optional 3D interface.


Google starts charging

February 25, 2007

Recently I wrote a post about how economic logic must be pushing us towards renting applications rather than buying them. Google don’t charge the user for Gmail, calendar etc.. but it seems they have just released enhanced versions for businesses for which they do charge – see this BBC news item.

Interesting move. Of course there is a long tradition for companies like SAP and Oracle to suck money out of corporations for “services” in an unending stream. Google’s charges are pretty modest by comparison. They are aiming at small businesses, as the Beeb says. So probably this won’t change the logic of the consumer market – applications free at the point of use, once you have paid your monthly fee to the ISP. Maybe rather than ads being the main income stream, Google aims to extract tribute from the ISPs.

Another treat for geeks – Cringely’s latest post is about replacing the internet. Some are gripped and others reckon Cringely has finally jumped the shark.


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