Tuesday Mar 20, 2007

Does Google Track Search Result Clicks?

A lot of bloggers are talking about Google's patent application for a method of ranking blog Search results. As Bill Slawski and Alex Chitu have noted, these break down into a set of factors which provide positive and negative scoring influences. I won't repeat them all here, but I did find one of the positive factors particularly interesting: the implied popularity of a blog, as determined from click stream analysis in search results.

In other words, if users consistently click on a result from Blog A more often than one from Blog B when both show up in the results for a given search (such as on blogsearch.google.com), it can be seen as an indication that Blog A is more popular and/or of higher quality than Blog B. Pretty obvious stuff. Right?

Sure. And it's also pretty obvious that the same idea can be applied to non-blog resources (such as general web results returned by www.google.com or image results from images.google.com).

The question is... How would Google actually obtain this data?

Normally, the page which presents a hyperlink isn't notified when it's clicked. There are ways around this (such as using special javascript or pointing the hyperlink to an intermediate "redirector" service), but I don't see any evidence in Google's pages that they're employing these mechanisms in their regular search results (though paid ads are a different matter).

So when you click on a Google search result, Google should never know it.

But wait... There is a good chance that they do know it. If you use Google's toolbar and enable the "PageRank Display" feature, they'll know about this click (and all of your others, for that matter). Of if the final destination happens to use certain of Google's server-side services (such as AdSense or Google Analytics), they'll likewise know about it (and all other access to that site).

So does this imperfect but growing view of users' behavior on non-Google sites provide enough data to plug into their search ranking algorithms? Probably. And it's one more example of how a web giant such as Google is gaining a "moat" of data which guards against smaller competitors.

Thursday Mar 08, 2007

The Scientific Strengths of Nations

Thumbnail Image of "The Strengths of Nations Data" Visualization

W. Bradford Paley has created some fascinating and beautiful "Map of Science" visualizations. They show how scientific fields (or "paradigms") relate to one another, based on how often academic papers in each area reference one another. There is even an offer to provide a nice poster of their work for just the cost of shipping and handling.

The latter provides the best version of the base image, in my opinion. It includes category labels (such as "Quantum Physics" and "Biochemistry"), which make it easier to see high-level trends. For example, it appears that their algorithm places Computer Science in closer relation to Brain Research than to Math--something which I find interesting (assuming I'm reading the chart correctly).

But I find a second picture even more interesting. "The Strengths of Nations" visualization uses the same technique, but creates a separate image representing the scientific work of different countries. By comparing different countries' images, we can see where countries over-weight or under-weight work in different scientific fields. One example, as Paley explains, is:

Even at this gross reduction, you can see image variations relating to how the US treats science (the large map: heavy in the Medical Sciences at the lower left) and, say, China (top of the rightmost column: heavy in Physics, the nodes at the upper right).

Interesting, isn't it?

By the way, when looking at the high-res versions of these images, be sure your browser isn't scaling them down (or you won't see much). To avoid scaling, you may need to click on the image a second time once it comes up in your browser. And to give credit where it's due... I found these via a post on infosthetics.com.

Monday Mar 05, 2007

World's Oldest Blogger

Olive Riley is 107 years old. She started a blog last month (with some help on the typing and technical details).

So far, readers have left 450 comments on her blog. Technorati shows that 300 other blogs now link to it. And it's been a very popular feature on the front page of Digg.

Not bad for just over two weeks of blogging.

And please do actually read the entries. They're quite interesting. I learned about Shandy (a drink made of half beer, half lemonade), why zoning restrictions are prohibiting lettuce farming in an agricultural area near Ms. Riley, why she voluntarily had her teeth removed in her early thirties, and why she already has fresh olives planned for her menu in 2010.

Wednesday Feb 21, 2007

First Woman Recipient of Prestigious Turing Award

Congratulations to Frances Allen of IBM, who has become the first woman to receive the Turing Award (often called the "Nobel Prize of computing").

The announcement provides a nice contrast to the ongoing struggle to attract more women to engineering fields. Mechanical Engineering Magazine recently had a feature article on the subject, which I noticed due to Sun blogger Pamela Kong's reference. Though these focus on mechanical engineering, other engineering fields (such as computer science) also face the issue.

Hopefully achievements such as Ms. Allen's can be used in outreach programs to attract more women to engineering degree programs (and subsequent careers).

Friday Feb 16, 2007

Word of the Day: Backronym

Once again, Wikipedia has taught me what I didn't even know there was to know. While looking into the history of Wikis, I learned that the term is sometimes treated as a backronym for: "what I know is". The only problem was, one thing I didn't know was the meaning of "backronym".

Fortunately, that was also just a click away:

A backronym or bacronym is a type of acronym that begins as an ordinary word, and is later interpreted as an acronym.

Ah. That makes sense.

The article is also filled with some interesting tidbits about specific backronyms. For example: do you think that DVD stands for "Digital Video Disc"? It officially stands for nothing. Some of the creators did want it to mean "Digital Video Disc", but apparently they never gained consensus. And later when it became commonly used for purposes other than video, some of the creators decided it should stand for "Digital Versatile Disc" (but again, apparently never gained consensus to make it official).

And if you're really looking to give yourself a headache, you can even feed "acronym" into an online acronym-finding service and get several results (which, if popularized, would presumably turn "acronym" itself into a backronym).

Wednesday Feb 14, 2007

Re: Is Solaris the New GNU?

Payton Byrd is wondering whether Solaris will become the new GNU. Specifically, his question seems to be whether OpenSolaris (if re-released under the GPLv3) could end up providing the preferred kernel for the GNU operating system.

It's a good opening question, but his argument then veers off with a lot of specific points which don't make a whole lot of sense. Let's look at a few examples.

Byrd: "Does the discontent this creates among Sun's engineers further push away the people who have made Solaris such an incredible product?"

What discontent? I think it's safe to say that most Solaris engineers at Sun are supportive of open source efforts and expanding the Solaris community. If adopting a more widely-accepted open source license advances those goals, I don't see why it would create discontent in our engineers.

Byrd: "If the FSF and Sun move forward with a replacement of Linux with Solaris in the GNU Operating System, I forsee a very ugly, protracted, and devastating fight that will last for years and seriously impede the progress that Linux is making into the market place. Whether this is a good or bad thing is a matter of perspective. I do know one thing, it highlights the fact that the GPL is anticompetitive because GPL v3 is looking to not only lock out IP protecting Novell, but Linux as well."

What you're calling a long and ugly fight, I would call ongoing and healthy competition. Has the existence of the BSD projects been devastating to Linux? Or vice versa? Has PostgreSQL been devastating to MySQL? Or vice versa? No. Competition is good. Where's the downside in having some competition and choice for kernels in GNU distributions. For some, Linux will continue to be the right choice. For others, a Solaris kernel may make more sense. And for both kernels' development communities, the competition and exchange of ideas will be a good thing.

As far as the "GPL is anticompetitive" statement... It makes so little sense to me that I wouldn't even know where to begin in responding.

Byrd: "I say let Sun, the FSF, and GNU fade away into oblivion!"

Huh? Earlier you say that Sun's Solaris is "probably the best kernel in the world." You correctly gave credit to GNU and the FSF for providing a huge portion of the software that people think of as "Linux". And now you're calling for all of the above to fade into oblivion, presumably because you've decided they're some kind of threat to Linux? Wow. Talk about being anticompetitive.

Monday Feb 12, 2007

George Lucas Strikes Back

Never mind that it's all but universally regarded as the series' best by both critics and fans... George Lucas has declared that The Empire Strikes Back is the worst of the Star Wars movies.

Also, never mind that it happens to be one of two Star Wars movies that he didn't direct. I'm sure that ego has nothing to do with George's opinion.

We'll just have to wait a few years for some kind of re-re-re-mastered version of the movie to set us all straight. I'm sure the flaws are nothing that he can't fix with a few good Jar Jar cameo insertions.

Thursday Feb 08, 2007

Open Source and Employee Passion: Avoiding "Employer Lock-in"

I agree with Kathy Sierra's argument that employers need to worry less about finding employees with a passion for their company and more about finding employees with a passion about their work. Having a primary passion for your work means you'll always look out for the interests of it and its users. In the long run, that will be in the best interest of your employer (since they commissioned your work in the first place). The opposite doesn't always hold true--having a passion for your employer above your field and profession can sometimes result in choices which are detrimental to your work (and thus, in the long run, detrimental to your employer).

Things get more interesting when an employer provides the freedom to take your work with you. That's what open source licensing does. If you're at Microsoft, I hope your primary passion is for general fields such as operating systems or GUIs. Because you certainly won't be able to take any of your specific project work with you some day when you walk out the door. But at a company like Sun, that's not the case. You don't have to be afraid to put your full passion into our application server project. If you leave some day, you'll still have full access to the work that you and others have put into your project, plus the option to continue contributing (or fork it and start your own competing effort, if you think the original has gone far off course). The same is true in areas such as operating systems, programming languages, and even hardware. Instead of "passion for your work" having to remain at an abstract level, it can be at the level of specific projects and efforts. That's a good thing.

I realize that Kathy had a bad experience working at Sun (and she even infers that Sun is an example of "what not to do" in one of the comments following her post). I don't know any further specifics of her situation, but I do think it's safe to say that Sun has evolved in this area (and continues to do so). As a recent European Commission study shows, Sun is the world's leading open source contributor. That's a big change. And in this context, I think it also means a big change in how the company thinks of its employees' work.

When talking of allegiances, some people say "love it or leave it." Perhaps a better saying would be "love it because you can leave it." That's a good measure of freedom and values in any setting. And in the setting of tech employers, I think it's a measure that Sun is leading.

Tuesday Feb 06, 2007

TiVo Lists Top Ten Commercials From Super Bowl XLI

TiVo's second-by-second information on what users are watching, repeating, and skipping gives it a unique ability to rate the popularity of Super Bowl commercials. Yesterday, they released a list of the ten highest-rated commercials from this year's Super Bowl. I was sad to see that my own favorite, Sierra Mist's "Beard Comb Over" ad, didn't make the cut.

And for those who may be worried about just how closely Tivo is watching them, more info is available in a recent San Francisco Chronicle article. In short: they gather (and sell) random anonymized samplings of user behavior.

Monday Feb 05, 2007

Lemonade 2.0: Could Blogging Be Your Kid's First Business?

Today, The Christian Science Monitor has a story about using contextual advertising systems (such as Google AdSense) to make money from blogging. It notes that moderately successful bloggers usually make at most a few hundred dollars a year from advertising, while only a very few uber-bloggers make enough to actually live off of blogging (and in their cases, indirect revenue from consulting and public speaking work is usually far more lucrative). Interesting, but not very surprising if you've read other writings on the subject.

More intriguing to me were a couple of side comments on the article's second page. One expert notes that his son now makes more from his blog's AdSense revenue than from his allowance. That's interesting. Blogging has practically zero barrier to entry and provides the realistic opportunity for revenues which most kids would find very meaningful. Hmm... Could starting a blog replace lemonade stands as the quintessential step in childhood entrepreneurialism?

Also catching my eye was a complaint that AdSense doesn't allow venue owners enough control over ad content. I've often thought this myself. Our policies at Sun prohibit AdSense ads on company blogs for this very reason. No business wants to open the door for competitors to advertise on its own site. Of course, many corporate blogging sites probably wouldn't allow advertising anyway. But some would. And the corporate blogging example is just one of many cases where advertising is being omitted due to a lack of control for the venue owner. Might this be a key vulnerability in Google's AdSense behemoth?

I think it could be. So if your entrepeneur child is ready to graduate past professional blogging, you might just encourage them to create an AdSense competitor with better content controls. Success in that endeavor would certainly mean more than a few hundred dollars.

Friday Feb 02, 2007

Sun: Your Stealth PR Firm

In Chapter 4 of Naked Conversations (which many would call the "Bible" of corporate blogging), Robert Scoble and Shel Israel call Sun "the bloggingest of companies." True, they wrote that a couple of years ago--but since the number of Sun bloggers has trippled since then, it's probably safe to assume that the label still fits.

Cool. But what can it do for you? There is, of course, the obvious benefit of reading the blogs. Whether you're wondering how our kernel geeks plan to top Solaris 10 or how one of our accountants' kids did in a dance recital, we've got a blog for you (if not ten of them).

But I think there is also a less obvious benefit. If you're smart, we'll even do your PR work for you--free. Just tell us how you're using one of our products, and one of us (if not ten of us) is bound to blog about it. Even if you could find a PR firm with 3,000 agents (and counting), they certainly wouldn't beat our price. And if you believe in the "new media" ideas being advocated in works such as Naked Conversations, you know that the right blogging really can trump traditional marketing.

So if you're comparing technologies, don't forget to include the "free marketing" benefit in your list of pros and cons. The technology comes first, of course. But in the case of a tie, why not go with the company that can handle your technology and PR needs?

For an example of this kind of blogging, see our new Stories blog, where we profile users of GlassFish and related technologies. We think it's a win/win situation, with positive exposure for everyone involved: Sun, the GlassFish community, and the profiled users. It's nice when interests align, isn't it?

Thursday Feb 01, 2007

Train Safety

You can get a lot out of reading the words of Sun's executive bloggers. But lately, one thing you can't get is a good feeling about rail travel. Both our CEO and CTO have survived train crashes? What are the odds?

(If you haven't already seen, Jonathan talks about his train wreck experience in item #3 of his "five things" meme post and Greg mentions his own experience in item #5 of his list.)

Friday Jan 19, 2007

Where to find affinity badges?

Is there some centralized source for affinity badges?

Jonathan has a few nice ones on his blog:

Download Java Download Netbeans Download Solaris

And Deepak has a nice tutorial on using affinity badges, providing these examples:

I like that each set has a consistent style (with complementary dimensions, colors, and fonts to the degree possible). So back to my original question... Is there some centralized source for finding such sets? A "badge directory" of sorts for Sun-related projects (or beyond)?

Thursday Jan 11, 2007

What Can We Learn From NetBSD's Problems?

"The NetBSD Project has stagnated to the point of irrelevance." These words came from project co-founder Charles M. Hannum in an August email. It's sad to see such talk directed at one of the pioneering open source projects. I hope that the issues Hannum raises can be fixed and NetBSD returned to a healthier state.

At the same time, I wonder if other projects can learn from these observations and avoid running into similar problems. Hannum ends his note with a list of eight steps which he believes must be taken for NetBSD to regain its way. Some are fairly specific to their project, but others are not. In particular, I think the first three are worth highlighting:

  1. There must be a strong leadership, and it is not the current one. The leadership must honestly want NetBSD to be a premier, world class system with leading edge features. The leadership must set aggressive goals, and actively recruit people to make them happen.
  2. There must be no more "locking" of projects. Just because one person is supposedly working on a problem, that doesn't mean you shouldn't. If there ideas are dumb, or even just suboptimal, do it better! If there is no progress, hop on it. Don't wait for someone else.
  3. The project must become an \*actual\* meritocracy, not what I call a "volumetocracy". Right now, the people who exert the most influence are often the people who produce the least useful product. Indeed, they are often people who produce little more than fluff (e.g. changing line-ending whitespace!), and often break things.

There is clearly some NetBSD-specific background behind these observations, but I think the core ideas are applicable to other projects. There must be strong leadership (preferably down to an individual level, as noted elsewhere in his note). There must not be any detrimental "locking" of projects (which he believes can arise from having too much of a "corporate mentality"). And there must be promotion of a true meritocracy.

Those sound to me like important lessons for any open source effort. And given that Sun is establishing itself as the largest open source contributor in the world, I'd say they're also important lessons for us as a company.

Green Reproduction

I just learned a new word: ecosexual. Linda's latest post on the Conversations Squared blog introduced me to the term, and a quick Google search (to see if she had coined it on the spot) led me to some interesting follow-up material. Most interesting of that bunch was a "Beware the Ecosexual" article, which talks about how any true ecosexual would "also belong to the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, a group of people dedicated to phasing out the human race in the interest of the health of the Earth."

Kind of funny. But on a more serious and personal note, I have had thoughts somewhat along these lines cross my mind. To me, the realistic threshold number for children isn't zero. It's two. If you and your mate together produce two offspring in your lifetime, you'll have a neutral long-term impact on the world's population. Have less and you'll have a reducing impact. Have more and you'll have an increasing impact.

Now please don't think that I'm judging anyone who has or plans to have three or more children. I certainly realize that human lives are measured in terms far beyond carbon footprints and landfill growth. It's just one factor that we might each want to consider in a very important decision. No matter how good you are about carpooling or turning off the lights, it's bound to pale in comparison to the lifetime environmental impact of having one more or less person on earth (especially with the footprint of our lifestyles in developed countries such as America).




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