jrtom: (Default)
2011-05-30 12:34 am

the "filter bubble": a response

This has been making the rounds recently:


The basic premise is that the information that you see on the web is becoming more personalized all the time:

these engines create a unique universe of information for each of us -- what I've come to call a filter bubble -- which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information

and this is problematic for the following reasons:

(1) "You're the only person in your bubble. In an age when shared information is the bedrock of shared experience, the filter bubble is a centrifugal force, pulling us apart."

(2) "The filter bubble is invisible...Google's agenda is opaque. Google doesn't tell you who it thinks you are, or why it's showing you the results you're seeing. You don't know if its assumptions about you are right or wrong -- and you might not even know it's making assumptions about you in the first place."

(3) "You don't choose to enter the bubble...personalized filters...come to you".

Google is not the only organization that comes under fire in this article--Facebook and Amazon also are mentioned--but Google is mentioned most prominently and consistently, presumably because it is the entity through which many people derive most of their information.

I'll start off by saying that much as I think that Google is cool, I hope that it never gets a monopoly on providing search results. It's important that there be viable choices--four or five good ones is a good start--for this service. We can make mistakes, and we won't always do the best job with every kind of information retrieval task. And if there's just one option, it makes it much more feasible for organizations to get access to information that they shouldn't (IMO). Defense in depth, memetic diversity, and all that--these things are critical to the healthy functioning of society.

I've also made specific proposals at work to suggest that we do some random perturbations of our search results in situations where our ranking algorithm doesn't really differentiate much, score-wise, between results, precisely to give our results a bit more diversity when it doesn't cost us anything (as far as we can tell).

All that said, I don't think that Mr. Pariser has really either (a) thought this through all the way nor (b) done his homework, at least so far as Google is concerned.

Before I respond to his specific points above, I'll point out that personalization is an incredibly useful approach to making any tool more useful, and search engines are no exception. If Google can determine that when I search for "latex" I am looking for information on typesetting rather than rubber fetishwear, so much the better. There's a universe of information out there and I don't have time to drink the whole thing. By all means, please do your best to give me the most relevant stuff.

Responding to his points in order:

(1) This is ridiculous. It's like saying that I am the only one who occupies this particular location in space-time and therefore I am isolated. Even if we suppose that I am the only person that has my particular combination of traits that Google measures, there are millions of people out there whose characteristics overlap strongly with mine. It's even stronger than that: customizing my information flow to my interests can help me discover people and communities and information to which I have existing implicit affinities that I might never have been able to run across otherwise.

(2) Dude. Do a search on "how to turn off personalized search". This will give you information on both how to do this and how to find out what kinds of factors are involved in personalization. This is not a new topic.
Could we be surfacing this better? Probably. But we do have to make some decisions about what information to give prominence to, or the search page gets incredibly cluttered. But the process (essentially, click on "view customizations" at the bottom of your search) is not difficult.

(3) There is some justice to this claim: I believe that search personalization is the default and while one can opt out, I don't know that we tell you up front when you create a Google Account that your results will be personalized.

That said: Google is not, and does not aspire to be, the _source_ of all information. We don't, for the most part, create content. We curate it, organize it, and try to make it accessible and useful. You, as a sentient being, are responsible for managing your inputs. We may decide that if you search for "rainforests" that you're more interested in organizations that want to preserve them unchanged than in organizations that want to extract the maximal resources from them at minimal cost, but nothing prevents you, or should, from searching for "rainforest preservation" or "rainforest resource extraction" instead. I don't really think that it's Google's job to help you break out of your rut.
jrtom: (Default)
2011-05-30 12:21 am
Entry tags:

what would be "counting my blessings" were I a theist

(and if I were actually enumerating them.)

While my grumbling hasn't made it to this journal, I've been doing a lot of it recently about (a) how much money we lost when we sold our old house (see the journal entry just prior to this) and (b) how much of a pain it is being to find a house that's big enough, close enough to work, affordable, and possessed of various other qualities we want (like being able to fit our dining room table).

As I said in an email to my dad recently, 'there's a phrase going around the Internet right now which is used to describe problems which, in the grand scheme of things, really aren't that bad: "first world problems". Those are the kind I have.'

To start off with, I have an incredible array of advantages--that are mostly not my doing--that make my life easier every day: I'm tall, male, white, not overweight, and have regular features and a voice that is both fairly low and penetrating when I want it to be. I'm sure I don't even notice all the ways that these things and others smooth my way almost everywhere I go.

I got a good education without having to pay for any of it: my BA was covered by my parents and the graduate school was paid for--with stipends, even!--by various other people and organizations.

I have a job that probably quite a lot of people would give someone else's left arm to get. And I enjoy it, and I think that it's contributing to important and useful work.

I have a smart, funny, attractive, fun, practical, and incredibly supportive wife. I have four kids who are healthy, intelligent, and (I expect) no more trouble than most groupings of kids their age would be. We can afford to let Megan take time off working if we want to. We can eliminate houses from consideration because they're not convenient, or we just don't like them very much.

The likelihood of us getting assaulted or robbed anywhere around here is quite small. We can drink the water and assume that it won't make us sick. We don't have any serious medical problems.

The list goes on.

Heck, if angst over trying to decide between various houses generally costing upwards of half a million dollars isn't a "first world problem", I don't know what is.

So yeah. If I can't make this work, it's my own damned fault.
jrtom: (Default)
2011-05-29 11:50 pm
Entry tags:

PSA: I've moved

Megan and I have been a tad busy lately. Part of this is the usual round of work-related stuff, part is the kind of busy that one expects of people with four small children.

A large part, however, has been the fact that we sold our house in Renton a bit under a month ago and are now living in an apartment in Bellevue. Basically a confluence of factors came to a head: we wanted a larger place that was much closer to work. So, of course, we moved into an apartment that's 2/3 the size of our old house (that is, undeniably, closer to work) while we look for a new house.

And yes, we bought in a seller's market (June 2006) and sold in a buyer's market. It kind of sucks, but on the other hand, (a) prices are still dropping around here so it would have gotten worse, and (b) at least the ridiculously expensive places around here are now only moderately expensive. Overall I think it will be a win, just a really painful one. (And the pain was essentially dictated by buying a house 5 years ago rather than waiting until, say, now. I am attempting to maintain the emotional stance that (a) we were actually renting our house--which (were it true) would make our losses only moderately ridiculous given rents around here, and (b) we are giving the most awesome wedding present to the almost-married-now couple (that we've never met) that just bought our house for $100K less than we paid for it. It helps a bit.)

So, yay for cutting way down on the soul-killing commute. It is now actually practical for me to ride my bike to work (and in fact that's a constraint that we're imposing on the places we're looking for) or to ride the bus (ditto).

More on this later, but I'd already put this notification off for much longer than I should.

Feel free to contact me via email to ask for the new address.
jrtom: (Default)
2011-01-04 02:24 pm
Entry tags:

what I did for my winter vacation, 2010 edition

If someone had told me ten years ago that celebrating Christmas at home with four kids (aged ~6, 3.5, 3.5, and 0.25) and four houseguests from my family, plus occasional visits from six or seven other family members--all in a three bedroom house--would be one of the most relaxing and enjoyable experiences of my recent past, I think that 2000 Me probably would have concluded that either 2010 Me was going to be nuts or that some really bad stuff would happen to 2010 Me not long beforehand.

Fortunately, 2000 Me's conclusion would have been entirely incorrect (well, the 'nuts' part is debatable, but it always has been).

Some highlights:

* Sleep. My parents were happy to look after, and feed, the three older kids when they decided to get up at 7 AM and wander downstairs to where my parents were sleeping. I got to sleep in until after 10 most days, which was especially helpful considering that Megan and I took turns being quite sick (me mostly at the beginning, her mostly at the end) and Liam was varying degrees of sick most of the time, which meant he woke (us) up more during the night, so not having to get up early (and being able to go to bed late) was really nice.

More generally, this is the first time that I've had an opportunity to watch the multiple-adults-raising-children thing from the inside, as it were. My parents don't always do things the way that we would, but that's not always a bad thing, either; at worst it's given us an alternate perspective, and they respected our overrides when we made them. And it's nice to be able to distribute the parenting load a bit.

* I got a chance to have some real conversations with my younger sister. (She was adopted by my parents after I'd moved out, so we've never lived in the same house, and some of our previous interactions have been kind of rocky, so it was good to get a chance to reset things a bit.)

* My brother and I got in a few games of Starcraft 2. This gave us an opportunity to demonstrate that neither of us is capable of taking on a medium-difficulty AI player without assistance (we always play cooperatively rather than against each other), but we had fun.

* My family in general has a highly developed sense (if that is the word) of silliness. This will be made apparent in the photos once I post them. :)

* We took the opportunity to go see Tangled. As Megan put it, it actually made the story of Rapunzel make more sense than the usual variants. It wasn't much more than 'OK' in terms of characters or character development, but it did paint an interesting portrait of a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship*, and some of the cinematography was really beautiful. (We saw it in 3D, which was mostly neutral but was used to great effect in a couple of cases.)

*which the twins found disturbing enough to want to leave; fortunately I was able to talk them out of it.

* I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk with Dad. He's had a lot of interesting experiences as a doctor and a senior Army officer that make for good stories and discussions, and I respect his opinion. We don't talk much (or often) on the phone, so this was a rare treat.

Other than that...work continues to be a great place to work in several respects, and while the commute is still a pain in the butt, the continued decline of the local housing market gives us hope that we might be able to move closer to work sometime in the next year or two.
jrtom: (safe cat)
2010-12-20 01:45 pm
Entry tags:

the US Navy goes green


There's just a little bit of irony here, as Friedman points out, and I'm not starting to celebrate just yet...but it looks encouraging, at least.
jrtom: (Default)
2010-12-06 06:18 am
Entry tags:

culturally specific language

some of which is very funny, some of which is quite raunchy, and some which is both:


(I don't often get to use the tags 'linguistics' and 'humor' together. This may actually be the first time.)
jrtom: (social scientist)
2010-12-06 06:12 am

law and comics


Basically, what happens when you get a couple of comic book fans who happen to be lawyers geeking out about legal issues in alternate (comic) universes.
jrtom: (social scientist)
2010-11-30 01:49 pm

the motives and philosophy of Julian Assange (Wikileaks)


I haven't entirely decided what I think about what Wikileaks has been doing, but this is an interesting look into, and analysis of, what Assange has been trying to accomplish via these leaks.

Of minor professional interest to me: apparently either Assange is not familiar with the terminology of social networks, or he thinks that his audience isn't (possibly fair). Apparently his strategy is an interesting complement to (or inversion of) the US counterterrorism social-network-based strategy, i.e., attempting to disrupt networks by identifying and removing key actors. Instead, Assange is apparently trying to disrupt the network by making the network itself--that is, the connections that make it something other than a collection of individuals--suspect, or at least less efficient.

EDIT: I do look forward to seeing what David Brin (_The Transparent Society_) has to say about this; I'll be watching http://davidbrin.blogspot.com to see when he posts something.
jrtom: (Default)
2010-11-17 09:46 pm
Entry tags:

cheating as an industry


It makes me feel a little bit better to know that he won't touch math. (Or, presumably, the other hard sciences.) But, you know, not a whole lot.

I've gone on in this space about my own experiences, as a TA, dealing with cheating. (If you missed out, it's not that hard to get me to recap. *wry smile*)

If this really is as widespread a phenomenon as the author suggests--and I suspect that while he exaggerates somewhat, perhaps not much--this really does point to something broken in our educational system.
jrtom: (Default)
2010-11-17 06:29 pm

war continues to invade the realm of SF



Fortunately, there are people at Google who are (demonstrably) far more versed in dealing with this kind of problem than I am. And they're welcome to it.

That said, there's unfortunately more than enough related work to go around.

But seriously, I find this kind of threat actually considerably more alarming than the threat of terrorists blowing themselves up on airplanes. Not only because I don't find the latter to be something that is apparently that hard to prevent, but because there's a lot more to be _gained_ by a lot more people that don't have to die in order to carry out the former sort of attack.

And, you know, honestly we've got a lot more interesting problems to solve than figuring out how to keep people from hacking into our electrical grid. Or nuclear launch authorization systems. And so forth. I hate working on problems that I feel wouldn't exist as tasks if some people weren't jerks.

Interesting times, indeed.
jrtom: (Default)
2010-11-05 11:10 am
Entry tags:

do you call it telepathy if they literally _are_ sharing a brain?


This is fascinating. I wish them well; they're going to have an interesting life, and often not in a good way.
jrtom: (Default)
2010-10-22 10:15 am
Entry tags:

zombies have taken over Sears' marketing department

or at least their web server:


I have no particular fondness for the zombie trope, but I have to give Sears credit for this.

(Or a disgruntled and possibly undead web server admin. One of those.)
jrtom: (Default)
2010-09-28 07:43 pm
Entry tags:

transit FAIL

First day of working in the Seattle office. (Normally I work in Kirkland.) This won't be something I do often, but the new team I'm on has its tech lead in Seattle, and Megan's still on maternity leave, so this is a good time to do it.

Morning: miss the bus I'd intended to take from the Renton transit center to downtown Seattle. Get misdirected by Google Maps Transit as to the number of the bus I'm supposed to be looking for once I finally arrive in downtown Seattle, and unwittingly let it escape. Arrive something like 45 minutes later than I'd intended.

Evening: miss the first bus I try to take (either it showed up early or late enough to be useless) after running up some steep hills for several blocks. Go back where I started to catch a later bus, which is itself late enough that I miss the connection to the bus going to Renton TC. Fail to realize that there's another bus I can take from the stop I'm waiting at that will go to Renton TC, and wait yet another 20 extra minutes in consequence. I'll be getting there about 45 minutes later than I'd intended, and because so much of the wait was in the bus tunnel, I couldn't get any work done (no signal). Plus I missed an event at Corwin's school.


I generally prefer taking the bus to driving when I can, but this sucked.
jrtom: (Default)
2010-09-20 10:41 am

(Sir) Terry Pratchett forges meteorite-iron sword


This could arguably be slightly better if he'd figured out how to give it an octarine-like glow, but it's still very cool as a project.