Monday, July 28, 2008

Reflections on Search

Stephen's Lighthouse recommended The Google Dilemma several days ago. I finally got around to reading it, and heartily concur with the recommendation.

James Grimmelmann writes a very readable, interesting piece about some of the issues associated with how search engines organize the web for us, looking at some examples, including:

  • Google bombing (getting enough people to link to a page using a specific phrase that it becomes one of the top results for that term) and whether these results are legitimate

  • Controversial sites and whether they should be allowed to stay on results pages even if they get there through these types of link manipulation (the 'yes' argument is summed up as "the computer did it"---the algorithm that ranks results should not be interfered with, and if enough people are linking with certain terms, Google isn't going to mess with the rankings)

  • Link farming, the ways that it can mess up search results, and whether it therefore makes sense for Google to interfere with the rankings in these cases (after all, these are not real people linking to sites)

  • How OK we are with it if some sites are kept off results pages in certain countries due to local laws (is it understandable or repellent and cowardly that Google's Chinese site censors search results according to China's laws?)
It's a very interesting look at search engines and how they shape our view of what's out there on the web (and why something needs to shape that view since the web, unmediated, is basically unusable chaos). 

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Better Sex Selection Through Chemicals

OK, that's not what these study results (found linked on Broadsheet) are promising. At all.

Research on populations in Greenland and the Russian Arctic suggests that more girls than boys are being born, correlating with the levels of POPs (persistent organic pollutants, like PCBs) in the mother's blood.

You apparently get more boys than girls at a certain (high) level, but then more girls than boys once levels get even higher. I'm imagining this as some sort of weird selling point: "Sure your blood is packed with pollutants, but we've pinpointed the optimum level for son/daughter production!"

We don't really understand the details of how this works, possibly by chemicals mimicking the effects of natural hormones in the blood, but needless to say it has the potential to really throw off some established social and biological balances.

Not covered in the research, presumably because it's too early to tell, is long-term health effects on those children.

Definitely some further evidence of how incompletely we understand human systems, environmental systems, and all kinds of complex, groovy systems that we're not understanding here on the bench...

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Now That's Encouragement

The Red Cross in the Boston area is running a program where all presenting blood donors (i.e., you show up and go through the preliminary screening, even if you turn out not to be a successful donor because of low iron or something) receive a coupon for chocolate-covered strawberries.

This is what I consider incentive. I was almost disappointed that my iron level was fine and I was able to donate this week, since I had momentary thoughts of unsuccessfully presenting as a donor every couple of days and eating strawberries for months. 

The Red Cross should be advised that I also appreciated the ice cream cone coupons in the past. 

The Celtics tickets were fun, my in-laws appreciated the pound of coffee, and I like shirts, mugs, wristbands, squeeze-balls and teddy bears as well, but in the end you can really never go wrong with me by offering sweets.

Making it chocolate-covered strawberries is a nice touch since they also count as fruit. Score!

Speaking of fruits and vegetables, my total for today is much higher than at last report: summer squash roasted in kebab format, raisins in my rice pseudo-pudding, celery (bearing a rich cargo of peanut butter), lettuce, tomato and pickle on a half sandwich, steamed broccoli with a little green pepper and carrot, and a great luscious hunk of watermelon.

I'm definitely calling that 5 servings. And I didn't even have to count wine.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies, and Vegetables

The latest Healthbolt Carnival led me to this article informing me that we're all a bunch of filthy liars when it comes to reporting the quantities of fruits and vegetables we eat. 

OK, that's overstating it (you'll never take away my melodramatic exaggerations of facts!). The article is much more moderate, relating merely the results of a study showing that, when informed about the benefits of fruit and veggie consumption and then asked how many servings they ate, people were more likely to report consuming the recommended 5 or more servings daily than when not prompted beforehand with these reminders.

This suggests that if you tell people something is good and then ask them if they do it, they're inclined to say yes, even if it's not entirely true, which is a known problem with self-reporting.

So, like I said, people are filthy liars. For shame, everyone.

Present company included, of course. I'd probably exaggerate my own consumption of fruits and vegetables if asked, with the best intentions in the world, because I know I should eat them and I do think about it and make the attempt, so I just assume I'm succeeding. 

But if I go over my actual food intake for a given day---let's say today---well, I've had a banana. And some grape jelly. I meant to eat a carrot and an apple as a mid-afternoon snack, but then someone brought cookies to the office, so naturally I had to have those, and then I was too full.

Not exactly a impressive tally. But I meant well, so I'm secretly adding points to my health score right now...and that's how you cheat and throw off the results of a self-reported study. 

Monday, July 21, 2008

Attack of the Innocuous-Looking Plants

Although I have not, to my knowledge, seen the plant named in this post, the wild parsnip, but I was duly cowed by the description of its secret weapon.

Unlike the friendly parsnips you can buy in the store and roast up into deliciousness (especially good in a nice root veg mix with carrots, turnips and sweet potatoes!), this plant produces a chemical that makes causes phytophotodermatitis, making one particularly susceptible to ultraviolet light so that even mild sun exposure can result in serious burns. 

As a pale and sunburny person, I will have to add this plant to my list of things at which to look askance. If I see it, that is. I don't spend that much time roaming about among the weeds these days, so I'm not aware of having encountered it so far, although its range does include Massachusetts.

Clearly the vegetable kingdom is not all fun and games, my friends, oh no! 

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Facing the Web

Not to just be constantly obsessing over Facebook---I'm aware there are other fine technologies out there---but I found a couple of quite interesting articles that made me think about it again.

One, from the Boston Phoenix, addresses Facebook phobia, which the article defines not so much as the fear of Facebook as a site, but as the sense of social uneasiness one feels when one's every published mood swing and activity ("Jane is weeping and drinking wine") is broadcast to every person on one's social network. 

The piece talks about the pressure to select just the right titles for the favorite movies, music and TV shows sections, the nerve-wrackingly public nature of changing your relationship status, and the general anxiety of feeling that people you know from all kinds of places (work, high school, family) can see and perhaps judge your profile.

I can see what the article is saying, and have only my own experiences to go on by way of argument, but I have to wonder if most people really take Facebook profiles so seriously. I mean, yeah, I think about what I put on there, but I don't assume other people are studying it in any kind of depth, nor do I carefully pore over my friends' profiles for clues to anything in particular. 

Future research studies may reveal more!

The second piece, from Slate, is called How to take a Web head shot, and has relevance beyond the merely Facebookian, since as the article notes, it seems a lot of things (Gmail, Apple for iChat, blogs, social networking communities) want your picture these days.

The article discusses the challenges of finding the right picture, some popular picture types (with a link to a fun Guardian article detailing nine common styles for byline photos), and some common responses to the demand for photos (some pick a photo and use it everywhere, some carelessly post hundreds of photos, some refuse to include an image at all).

Remember for a moment how much attention people used to lavish on the perfect quote for their e-mail signature. Now that self-conscious energy is applied to a photo.

I do vaguely remember the era of carefully-chosen email signature quotes, and can sympathize with the pressure of trying to find just the right one, something that expresses something key about oneself, but will also append nicely to messages from "wanna go out later for beer?" to "I'm delighted to announce my engagement to the love of my life" to "I'm saddened to announce that my father was just brutally murdered by me." 

The whole problem was too much for me, and I personally have never used a signature quote. I've been known to express various things via photos, I suppose, from the careless, frequently-changed one, to set-it-and-forget-it, to the artistically blurry and unrecognizable, depending on the context.

There's a definite feeling of revealing something significant when you put a photo on a public space, and I was leery of it for quite some time (and still am in some contexts). One notes the large number of blogs that have a (presumably) real name attached, but no picture. Keeping the headshot off the page seems like a way to keep a modicum of distance between the writer and the vast, adoring public (howdy public!). 

On the other hand, putting the picture right up there might be seen as a way to more publicly claim and own your words: "that's right, here I am, and I said this; what of it?" 

Me, I'm constantly looking to disown everything I ever muttered. Politics, you know.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Murder Most Justified

I attended one of those Murder Mystery Dinner Party things yesterday at a friend's house.

It will come as a horrible shock to possibly someone that I--yes, apparently-mild-mannered I--was the murderer, having slain my own father in a harsh and premeditated fashion earlier that day.

In my defense, my father was skimming money from the trust fund left for me by my dead mother, and had tried to hire my lover to kill me first. Said lover refused, which is very touching, although I'm still a little put out at the fact that he was not so reluctant to dispose of my mother and brother (again at my father's request and in exhange for cash that really should have been mine).

Any slowdown in posting in the near future should be attributed to the fact that murder trials take up a lot of one's time.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

More Old Tech

Speaking of old tech, does anyone remember Epinions?

It's still around, actually, so even if you've forgotten it or never heard of it, you could check it out today and get in on the action. These days, naturally, it has an RSS feed, which it did not back in the day when I was participating. 

It's a website where members post reviews of things--products, movies, books, locations, companies--and make money based on how helpful other members (and, I think, random visitors) rate the advice.

I joined back in 2000, and when I think about it, it was really a sort of proto-blogging scene. 

You're only writing reviews of specific things, so it's a limited-focus blogging, but you'd get a group of people whose writing you enjoyed and whose posts you'd always be sure to read (with a 'trusted' list that showed up on your profile much like a blogroll), and people would insert bits of detail about their lives so you sort of got to feel you knew them, and you could leave comments on each others' posts, and so forth.

So come to think of it, I was essentially blogging years ago!

I gave up Epinions after a couple of years, when they were having some technical issues and one day my most recent hard-written posts disappeared, leaving only the sad empty shells of the titles on the screen. I always spent a lot of time crafting my reviews, trying to get just the right turn of phrase and so forth, so losing all that work was significant.

I didn't have the heart to rewrite those two posts, but the lonely little titles, which I couldn't bear to just delete, haunted me so that I couldn't work on anything else either, and I never wrote there again. 

As you can perhaps tell, it was a very traumatic experience.

I blame the lingering scars of this event for my failure to take up blogging, even when all the cool people were doing it, until I was obliged to by course requirements. 

Every now and then I think about returning to Epinions. I do like to tell people what I think about things, after all, and I always like to make a little money. (A lot of money would also be nice, but seems to rarely be associated with telling people what you think on the internet.)

But I have a lot of other things to do these days, so in all likelihood this will not happen. 

Monday, July 14, 2008

Cool Old Tech

I and my gracious spouse went out to look for Thai food yesterday, as one does.

We checked the internet--as one always does--and then went boldly off to a place we found in Reading, which turned out to be closed. One should have used the phone to confirm their hours of operation, but that was way too old-fashioned.

So it was off to the next town, where we vaguely recalled from the internet that there was a Thai restaurant, but didn't know exactly where.

Fortunately, as clever people are no doubt aware, one can send text messages to Google (46-6453) from a cell phone and get convenient answers. This is not a new development (I myself have known of it for over a year), but it's always a fun one. I find it works best with simple queries. Definitions of words, factual questions like dates, locations or sports scores. Advanced functions and complex terms tend to produce unsatisfactory results.

But you can certainly text "thai restaurant wakefield ma" and get a response with the address and phone number of said restaurant!

Sadly, the story does not have a happy ending despite the awesome convenience of texting Google, because the Wakefield one was closed too.

We thought of going to Lexington, where we knew there was an open restaurant because I got its number from Google text and then called, but there was a lot of traffic on the highway. Eventually we gave up.

Perhaps later this week we'll go into Boston, where we know there are fine and delicious Thai restaurants and where we should have just gone in the first place yesterday, only we were trying to avoid the hassle of going into town.

Oh, the irony. At least I got to send some text messages.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Good News About Fiction

I am extremely pleased to hear, via Stephen's Lighthouse (where the post title presciently states "you'll like this post"), that research suggests reading fiction is good for social skills

Call me an anti-social misfit because I was huddled in a corner with a book all the time, will you? (Being homeschooled didn't help, since everyone sort of assumes kids who aren't in school have no social skills, because clearly children will never encounter other human beings outside of a school setting and will therefore have no opportunity to interact with them.) 

Yeah, well, you're wrong, because I was learning about how people relate to each other and why they do things and so forth. To quote researcher Keith Oatley at the University of Toronto: 

"Fiction is really about how to get around in the social world, which is not as easy as one might think. ... People who read fiction give themselves quite a bit of practice in understanding that. And also, I think reading fiction sort of prompts one to think about these questions - you know, what are these people up to?"

I think this is pretty cool, and am interested to see what the researchers find next. As the article wonders, 

For example, most of their research has focused on fiction in general. But would they find similar effects if they looked at biographies? And do sci-fi tales about chasing aliens through the galaxy have the same benefits as Alice Munro's short stories about love and loss? And what parts of the brain are stimulated when literary simulation is in full effect?

I, for one, look forward to finding out more. 

So I'm pleased to hear that fiction (as well as nonfiction, which I also love and enjoy) is getting some respect, although I have to say, I was going to keep reading it anyway just because I like it, even if all the clever people scorned me for my low, intellectually crude tastes. 

I'm anti-social like that.

Speaking of Social Networking

I just heard the exciting news that MLA is now on LinkedIn (thanks to the no-doubt awesome Brandi Tuttle). 

And OMG, I'm on LinkedIn too! 

MLA and I should totally get together and chat about stuff we like. Although my profile is ugly because I don't check it that often and can't be bothered to brighten it up in whatever way one can brighten profiles on that site.

Possibly I will not be cool enough to hang with MLA.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Just Another Pretty Facebook

I've found Facebook moderately helpful as a sort of medium-level social interface: I don't use it for many heart-to-heart conversations, but it helps me keep in casual contact with people I would otherwise not be in contact with much at all.

This was particularly interesting to me as a distance student while I was working on my degree, since I was able to add as friends some of the people in my classes in different parts of the country. We could then do the internet equivalent of waving hello to each other in passing, occasionally stopping to chat. 

It's not that we're becoming bosom pals through social networking sites, but we're acquainted. 

I'm now finding that helpful in another situation as I prepare to leave one job for another. I know a lot of people in my current job, and one always says "we'll keep in touch," but everyone knows that most of the time you don't.

Now we can link up on Facebook before I go, and we'll automatically keep in touch, at least a little. And being a little bit in touch may make it easier to send a quick note and ask if someone wants to have lunch, or whatever.

It will be interesting to see if that will make for a different experience leaving this job, than the last one I left, when all we had was email. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Riding the Salmonella Wave

And other waves of disease, of course!

I've seen HealthMap before, but was reminded anew of its coolness by Learn to Live. It's a nifty site compiling reported incidences of various and sundry ailments around the world and locating them with a little ballon on a map. 

I had to try it on salmonella, and saw a dramatic visual representation of the rash of cases in the US, Mexico and the Caribbean recently. 

It's quite a cool site: you can zoom to specific countries or regions, see the information in several languages, read the news stories on which the little location balloons are based, and select any or all of a variety of sources for the news. 

For keeping up on what's new in illness, it's a good find. Sadly, it does not appear to have an RSS feed, but I suppose it updates so often that would just be terrifying, and one could probably build a feed for a specific location and/or disease if desired.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Water Bottle Smackdown

I am relieved to hear, once again (this lively and thorough discussion, including coverage of common beliefs like "if you feel thirsty, you're already dehydrated," from Junkfood Science), that there does not appear to be any solid scientific evidence for the notion that all humans should be drinking at least 8 8-ounce glasses of water per day to stave off dry, parched brains and eventual desertification. 

I had heard this previously, and pretty much determined to feel OK about drinking water whenever I'm thirsty and not worrying about it otherwise, but I'm always pleased to hear that I'm already doing whatever it is I should be doing. 

I do carry a bottle of water with me if I'm going to be wandering around for a while without ready access to liquid and think I might get thirsty, but aside from my five daily mugs of tea (which, come on, is already enough liquid to drown a small animal), I don't go out of my way to suck down the stuff, and I'm still functioning so far.

Besides, I've read that potable water is likely to be the next big shortage (I like to keep up on potential approaching disasters), so why encourage people to get in the habit of swigging gallons of it if they don't need to?