Category Archives: Teh Google

One step closer to cyborgification

ifihadglassWoohoo indeed!

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I wanna be a cyborg

Last year I wrote an article for The Atlantic Tech called “I Am a Cyborg and I Want My Google Implant Already.” The article includes an excerpt where I precociously-but-charmingly (I hope) butt into an interview between my awesome then-boss Nate Silver and Google’s Chief Economist Hal Varian, who is an incredibly good-humored man, to prod Hal about the possibility of a Google brain implant.

Little did I know that the very next day following its publication, Atlantic editor James Bennet would ask Erik Schmidt, then-CEO of Google, about my article and Hal’s enthusiasm towards the implant at the Washington Ideas Forum.

From a recap of the session by Derek Thompson:

The end of the interview turned to the future of technology. When Bennet asked about the possibility of a Google “implant,” Schmidt invoked what the company calls the “creepy line.”

“Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it,” he said. Google implants, he added, probably crosses that line.

Ha. Well there goes that idea. Vetoed. I was a bit discouraged until some Italian journalists decided that my advocacy for the creation of a Google Brain implant qualified me for their Top 100 Global Thinkers list. You can find me at number 99, right above Cesare Geronzi, who Time Magazine has dubbed “Italy’s most powerful banker.”

I think it’s all hilarious, and have made the signature on my Nexus One “Sent via my Google Implant” to commemorate this snowball of an article. Anyways, I thought this post should probably live on in my blog:

 

Sep 30 2010, The Atlantic Tech:

About nine months ago, I sat in a conference room at Google Headquarters in Mountain View with my boss, Nate Silver, and the company’s Chief Economist, Hal Varian, talking about the Google of 2020.

The previous night, Nate and I had been hanging out with one of my childhood friends in downtown San Francisco, brainstorming questions to ask Hal in our interview the following day.

I’d been working with Nate as his research assistant on a book project that examines forecasting and prediction in a variety of different fields. Going off on a tangent, we conceived of the concept of a Google Singularity — an event where the amount of information known by Google surpasses the amount of information it’s possible to know. I laughed as Nate drew a graph on a piece of my friend’s Hello Kitty stationary illustrating the theoretical point where this event would occur.

In the interview the following day, after a good 45 minutes of serious discussion about Google’s search algorithms and new projects going on in the company, Nate brought up the Google Singularity. Hal got a kick out of this concept, and we mused about the things the future of Google might produce, one such thing being a “Google implant” that would allow one to browse the Web simply by thinking.

Nate: What will Google look like in 2020?
Hal: Now you Google things on your computer — of course. And you Google things on your phone. That’s the next stage. And I believe — people may laugh — but I think there will be an implant. So you’ll have it there, and I won’t say it’s necessarily Google, I’ll say the Web, it will access the Web of information.
Arikia: Sign me up when that happens.
Hal: You want your implant?
Arikia: I want it now.
[laughter]
Hal: Yeah! Right, see? There are a lot of people that say that. I think you will be continuously connected to the Web in 2020. You’ll be able to pull information in, information out, you’ll be able to record information. And you can do all these things now; you’re recording this conversation and you can play it back later.
Nate: Sure. But you think that soon, by 2020?
Hal: 2020! That’s away 10 years! Look at where we are and look at where we were 10 years ago. Google’s only 10 years old. So uh, yeah, I think so. We’ll certainly have some kind of implant interface by then, in my opinion.
Nate: Will it require surgery? Or will it require some kind of earpiece that you can… I don’t know…
Hal: I don’t know either.
Nate: Are there people at the firm working on that?
Hal: Not that I know of. Although there are people always working on user interfaces, so I wouldn’t be surprised if someone was thinking about it. There are people working on things that display text on your glasses.

After that, the conversation veered to topics like The Cloud, Steve Mann and real-time search. As Nate always does when an interview is wrapping up, he invited me to ask any questions I may have been sitting on. So I asked Hal: “Are you going to get the implant?”

“The implant!” He exclaimed good-naturedly. “Yes, I want an implant! And we’ll see if it will be the Google implant.”

Just to be clear: This in no way indicates that a Google implant is in, or anywhere near production. But the demand for enhanced cyborgification is being driven by technophiles everywhere. Kevin Kelly recently wrote that “our minds are being rewired by our culture” (Domesticated Cyborgs, 9/6/2010), and for some people like me who grew up in the post-Internet boom era, they already have been.

I got my first computer and Internet connection in 1994 when I was eight years old, so my growing mind learned to navigate the physical world and the online world simultaneously. Some mental processes that were critical to previous generations are obsolete to mine. Bulk memorization is the new manual labor; navigating user interfaces is what counts. Acknowledging the way the Internet has shaped my brain during development in these respects, I would consider myself a cyborg already.

By the time I finished elementary school, writing letters to communicate across great distances was an archaic practice. When I graduated middle school, pirating music on Napster was the norm; to purchase was a fool’s errand. At the beginning of high school, it still may have been standard practice to manually look up the answer to a burning question (or simply be content without knowing the answer). Internet connection speeds and search algorithms improved steadily over the next four years such that when I graduated in the class of 2004, having to wait longer than a minute to retrieve an answer was an unbearable annoyance and only happened on road trips or nature walks. The summer before my freshman year of college was the year the Facebook was released to a select 15 universities, and almost every single relationship formed in the subsequent four years was prefaced by a flood of intimate personal information.

Now, I am always connected to the Web. The rare exceptions to the rule cause excruciating anxiety. I work online. I play online. I have sex online. I sleep with my smartphone at the foot of my bed and wake up every few hours to check my email in my sleep (something I like to call dreamailing).

But it’s not enough connectivity. I crave an existence where batteries never die, wireless connections never fail, and the time between asking a question and having the answer is approximately zero. If I could be jacked in at every waking hour of the day, I would, and I think a lot of my peers would do the same. So Hal, please hurry up with that Google implant. We’re getting antsy.

 

Please do not ever fall for this

I just got an email in my inbox from “Gmail support” with the subject “Important Update.”

That was the first red flag, as Gmail almost never sends important updates through email, they embed them directly into the site, usually in an alert banner across the top that you can dismiss, or links in the upper right hand side.

Another red flag is that it didn’t have the “verified” padlock symbol net to it, an option you can enable in Google Labs to ensure you that emails from sites that malicious hackers often try this stuff with, like PayPal and eBay, are actually sent from those domains.

Opening the email, I noticed, as did Wired Science Blogger Rhett Allain, that the email didn’t automatically open with images. An email from the Google staff would have. Clicking “view images” presented this email:

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A(nother) tale of two phones

When I first entered the realm of smartphone existence in June of 2009, I went with the Palm Pre. I made a really bad decision for a few good reasons:

1) One of my very close friends works as a mobile technology analyst for a very large bank. He anticipated that, based on the initial reviews the Pre was getting, it could be the phone to finally break the iPhone’s choke hold on the smartphone market. I am a fan of dark horses.

2) Being one of the first-wave adopters was a risk, and I am a risk-taking sort of person.

3) My contract with Verizon was up and the Pre was just about to be released.

When I first got it, I was ecstatic. I still appreciate many of its features: Its Linux-based Web OS operating system is sleek and intuitive, its universal address book flawlessly syncs information between your online and mobile contacts, and its battery life is pretty good once you learn that searching for signal and the GPS are what drains it (putting it in airplane mode when you’re out of range and disabling the GPS fixes this).

But it didn’t take long before I started to encounter some deal-breaking problems. On multiple occasions (including right now), it would seemingly arbitrarily decide to stop syncing my email. The first time this happened, hours on the phone with tech support and two trips to the Sprint store could not remedy the problem, and I ended up getting a replacement phone. Sprint’s tech support is so abysmal that the next five times this happened, instead of stressing myself out by dealing with those people, I simply went without email on my phone until the problem seemingly arbitrarily fixed itself after a few days/weeks. It’s gotten extremely sluggish over time, with the touch-screen commands executing a good 5 seconds after they were initiated, sometimes more. The camera phone app now takes minutes to open, if it does at all. And finally, the PHONE APP broke, so I haven’t been able to make or receive calls for about two months.

It soon became clear the Pre was not the dark horse some had hoped it would be. Aside from the hardware problems, or maybe because of them, mobile application builders stopped investing time and resources on WebOS aps. And the app catalog was a mess to begin with, and nobody ever cleaned it up. I could get by for a while, but then even the facebook app stopped working and I couldn’t post photos to the web anywhere with my phone. After Twitter changed its authentication method to OAuth, none of the Twitter apps for the Pre worked anymore, and still nobody has bothered to fix them or make new ones.

Me = Fed up.

Thankfully, my friend Dave Winer, after seeing me suffer in a state of smartphone limbo for quite some time, gave me a spare phone he had as an early birthday present. Thank you X a million, Dave!!!

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Top Ten Myths About Google Analytics

I recently came across The Google Analytics Blog via the Twitter feed of my favorite Googler and found it pretty useful for understanding some of the program’s more ambiguous features. I’ve worked in analytics quite a bit in my days, and it can be a powerful tool if you know how to use it to it’s potential. Moreover, if you’re obsessed with online network dynamics like me, it’s a form of entertainment. I used to explore the ScienceBlogs analytics data for hours in the evenings after work marveling at quirky things, like how the traffic from one person’s personal blog that hasn’t been updated in months could contribute more incoming traffic to the site than a highly funded campaign. I do like me some irony.

Particularly interesting on the Analytics blog was this post titled 10 Myths About Google Analytics. While some of the “myths” are clearly an excuse to trumpet their selling points, there are some tidbits of useful advice in there.

One good and crucial thing about this blog is that it links to the Google Analytics support forum, in which reside employees who know the intricacies of that system and get paid to respond to your queries.

Regarding MYTH 2: Google Analytics is basic and doesn’t have any “advanced” features or metrics, if this is a real complaint, whoever said that clearly did not actually log in, let alone attempt to drilldown to specific areas of content and explore different metrics (Hey, did you know you can click things on the Internet??).

As there have been several occasions where Google Analytics has displayed numbers that differed from other analytics sites by orders of magnitude, I will take contention with MYTH 4: Google Analytics is not really accurate. This isn’t because Analytics is dysfunctional in some way that the developers are neglecting to note; they openly admit that using JavaScript tags to college data results in problems such as “JavaScript errors, redirects, untagged pages and slow client-side load times.” However, they don’t mention anything about human error contributing to the inaccuracy, which I would venture is the primary cause of discrepancies. Someone accidentally deletes some code when copying HTML or, if you’re working with a major network, forgetting to add code back in while restructuring or just labeling it something different can cause numbers to change. If it’s because of human error, I recognize that that doesn’t make Google Analytics inaccurate, but I do see it as a problem if the user interface and methods of implementation are such that it is easy for these errors to occur. I’m no fan of “dumbing-it-down,” but it seems as though Google could be thinking more about how to package this product so it can be used more effectively by users of varying technological capabilities.

Another good thing I have to report about this post is the reminder via MYTH 8: Google Analytics does not support A/B or multivariate testing and isn’t well-integrated with other tools, that you can use Google Website Optimizer to test different features that you’re thinking about implementing on your site. A lot of web development decisions are made according to flimsy reasons, like that something “looks good” and are based on the personal preference of a few people. But I like to approach development like a science by starting out with a hypothesis (about a design aspect or wording on a heading) then running tests with both scenarios to let the numbers show which is better received by the masses. Of course, if they were MY personal preferences, they would almost certainly always agree with the science. But not everyone has the instincts of the Queen of the Internets when it comes to navigating sites, so quantifiable data is always nice.

Though top ten lists are all the rage, it sounds like most of the “myths” about Google Analytics come from people who are intimidated by the system and don’t do the proper research to find what they’re looking for before they call tech support to complain. But this isn’t a bad thing —  it just means there’s more jobs for nerds like me!