Archives for January 2011

Announcing the winners of the Kinect contest

When the Kinect launched, Adafruit Industries ran a contest for the first person who released open-source code to extract video and depth from the Kinect. Adafruit also ended up donating to the EFF after the contest was over.

When I was in grad school, I would have loved to have a device like the Kinect. So I decided to run my own contest:

The first $1000 prize goes to the person or team that writes the coolest open-source app, demo, or program using the Kinect. The second prize goes to the person or team that does the most to make it easy to write programs that use the Kinect on Linux.

It’s time to announce the prize winners. There’s been so many cool things going on with the Kinect that instead of two winners, I ended up declaring seven $1000 winners.

Open-source Application or Demo

I picked two winners in this category.

People that have made it easier to write programs for the Kinect

A ton of people have made the Kinect more accessible on Linux or helped the Kinect community. I ended up picking five winners.

All of these individuals pushed things forward so others can develop great programs on the Kinect more easily. Congratulations to all the winners, and to everyone doing neat things with their Kinect!

Algorithm change launched

I just wanted to give a quick update on one thing I mentioned in my search engine spam post.

My post mentioned that “we’re evaluating multiple changes that should help drive spam levels even lower, including one change that primarily affects sites that copy others’ content and sites with low levels of original content.” That change was approved at our weekly quality launch meeting last Thursday and launched earlier this week.

This was a pretty targeted launch: slightly over 2% of queries change in some way, but less than half a percent of search results change enough that someone might really notice. The net effect is that searchers are more likely to see the sites that wrote the original content rather than a site that scraped or copied the original site’s content.

Thanks to Jeff Atwood and the team at Stack Overflow for providing feedback to Google about this issue. I mentioned the update over on Hacker News too, because folks on that site had been discussing specific queries too.

An interesting essay on search neutrality

(Just as a reminder: while I am a Google employee, the following post is my personal opinion.)

Recently I read a fascinating essay that I wanted to comment on. I found it via Ars Technica and it discusses “search neutrality” (PDF link, but I promise it’s worth it). It’s written by James Grimmelmann, an associate professor at New York Law School. The New York Times called Grimmelmann “one of the most vocal critics” of the proposed Google Books agreement, so I was curious to read what he had to say about search neutrality.

What I discovered was a clear, cogent essay that calmly dissects the idea of “search neutrality” that was proposed in a New York Times editorial. If you’re at all interested in search policies, how search engines should work, or what “search neutrality” means when people ask search engines for information, advice, and answers–I highly recommend it. Grimmelmann considers eight potential meanings for search neutrality throughout the article. As Grimmelmann says midway through the essay, “Search engines compete to give users relevant results; they exist at all only because they do. Telling a search engine to be more relevant is like telling a boxer to punch harder.” (emphasis mine)

On the notion of building a completely transparent search engine, Grimmelmann says

A fully public algorithm is one that the search engine’s competitors can copy wholesale. Worse, it is one that websites can use to create highly optimized search-engine spam. Writing in 2000, long before the full extent of search-engine spam was as clear as it is today, Introna and Nissenbaum thought that the “impact of these unethical practices would be severely dampened if both seekers and those wishing to be found were aware of the particular biases inherent in any given
search engine.” That underestimates the scale of the problem. Imagine instead your inbox without a spam filter. You would doubtless be “aware of the particular biases” of the people trying to sell you fancy watches and penis pills–but that will do you little good if your inbox contains a thousand pieces of spam for every email you want to read. That is what will happen to search results if search algorithms are fully public; the spammers will win.

And Grimmelmann independently hits on the reason that Google is willing to take manual action on webspam:

Search-engine-optimization is an endless game of loopholing. …. Prohibiting local manipulation altogether would keep the search engine from closing loopholes quickly and punishing the loopholers–giving them a substantial leg up in the SEO wars. Search results pages would fill up with spam, and users would be the real losers.

I don’t believe all search engine optimization (SEO) is spam. Plenty of SEOs do a great job making their clients’ websites more accessible, relevant, useful, and fast. Of course, there are some bad apples in the SEO industry too.

Grimmelmann concludes

The web is a place where site owners compete fiercely, sometimes viciously, for viewers and users turn to intermediaries to defend them from the sometimes-abusive tactics of information providers. Taking the search engine out of the equation leaves users vulnerable to precisely the sorts of manipulation search neutrality aims to protect them from.

Really though, you owe it to yourself to read the entire essay. The title is “Some Skepticism About Search Neutrality.”

Are vaccines safe?

A lot of parents hear different things about the MMR vaccine (that’s measles, mumps, and rubella) or the flu or chicken pox or pertussis vaccine and wonder “How safe are vaccines?” It’s not a stupid question, given the conflicting information you might hear from different sources.

I’ve been doing research about vaccines and vaccine safety because I recently caught a mild case of pertussis (whooping cough). I also researched vaccines last year as part of my preparation for a trip to Africa. The research that I’ve done leads me to believe that your child is much better off getting vaccinated than not getting a vaccine.

Here’s some data points to help you make up your mind. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has a good overview of relevant medical studies (PDF link), including studies of autism and vaccinations:

The concerns regarding vaccine safety have received a great deal of attention by parents, doctors, vaccine manufacturers and the media. Dozens of studies have been performed in the United States and elsewhere. The purpose of this document is to list those studies and provide links to the publications to allow parents and all those who administer or recommend vaccines to read the evidence for themselves. The studies provided have been published in peer-reviewed medical journals. These studies do not show any link between MMR vaccine, thimerosal and autism.

A lot of people worry that children might get too many vaccinations. The AAP talks about that as well:

One study published in 2010 was conducted in response to concerns about the total number of vaccines children receive. In this study (the last one listed in this document), researchers found infants who followed the recommended vaccine schedule performed better on 42 different neuropsychological outcomes years later than children who delayed or skipped vaccinations. This should reassure parents that vaccinating their children on schedule is safe and is the best way to protect them from disease.

That’s what the current research says. A lot of people have read about Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who was an author of a controversial paper in 1998 about the MMR vaccine and autism. I suggest you read this story on CNN about recent news concerning Dr. Andrew Wakefield.

The summary is that the Lancet, the original British journal that published the study, retracted the study’s claims in February 2010. Britain stripped Wakefield of his medical license in May 2010. The recent news is that the British medical journal BMJ concluded that the now-retracted study was a fraud. The article about vaccination and autism continues:

Wakefield has been unable to reproduce his results in the face of criticism, and other researchers have been unable to match them.

Most of his co-authors withdrew their names from the study in 2004 after learning he [Wakefield] had had been paid by a law firm that intended to sue vaccine manufacturers — a serious conflict of interest he failed to disclose. ….

According to BMJ, Wakefield received more than 435,000 pounds ($674,000) from the lawyers.

Godlee, the journal’s editor-in-chief, said the study shows that of the 12 cases Wakefield examined in his paper, five showed developmental problems before receiving the MMR vaccine and three never had autism.

I understand that parents want to do the right thing for their child. My research on this issue leads me to believe that parents should make sure their children get vaccinations.

My predictions for 2009

Everybody is throwing out predictions for 2011, so I thought I’d do something different. Here are some of my predictions for 2009.

Wha wha wha?? That’s right: 2009. As 2008 drew to a close, I jotted down some predictions, but I never hit the “publish” button. Some of them weren’t fully-formed (or even complete sentences!), so I won’t print all of them. But some are interesting. Here are a few:

– “Market share for IE falls below 50% in some countries in Europe.” TRUE according to StatCounter. Here’s a graph:

IE Market share in Europe

– “Cuil will be acquired by Baidu.” Definitely a MISS. This was an educated guess on my part. I didn’t think Cuil would do well, and someone named Greg Penner was on the board of Cuil and also a board member of Baidu.

– “More people will realize the inevitable truth that Bill Gates saw years ago and that Apple has chased since the introduction of the ROKR: of all the devices in your pocket, the only one you’re not willing to give up is your phone. Therefore, all personal gadgets will eventually be subsumed by your phone. Camera? Already part of your phone. Pen and notebook? Quite close. Video camera? Almost there, give it a couple more years. Car keys, wallet? It will come. In five years, your phone will have fingerprint authentication and be able to start your car or pay for groceries with contactless/RFID chips. It’s all coming. In 10 years you’ll use your phone to authenticate yourself at the doctor, authenticate prescriptions, and store your personal health history, not to mention all your desktop preferences, bookmarks, browser add-ons, and keys to which music you have permission to stream or download from the cloud.” I call this TRUE. Most people now agree that your phone is a personal computer in your pocket. Back in 2008, not everyone realized this.

– “By the way, if anyone figures out how to lick the problem of satisfactory output/input, e.g. heads-up displays or retinal lasers and a virtual keyboard or something with as high a bandwidth as normal typing (and they will), your computer will migrate into your phone. Solving the input/output problem is one of the most important problems for the next decade. Witness the efforts that companies have put into pen-based computing and voice recognition, for example. Re-examine the success of some major products in the new light of better input/output mechanisms:
– Google Maps: direct manipulation
– iPhone: touch and multitouch
– Wii: accelerometer and optical sensors
Smart computer scientists and engineers should be paying as much attention to sonar, inertial, and optical sensing technology as they do to the change from hard-drive platters to solid-state storage.” Um. This one was more of a rant then a prediction.

– Here’s what I wrote back in 2008: “Canny self-promoters plus a few genuine believers will jump on the Facebook backlash early, either for privacy/personal information or for keeping Facebook’s data to itself. But unless the site makes a Beacon-level mistake, Facebook will experience massive growth in 2009, and the Facebook backlash won’t begin in earnest until 2010 or 2011.” Right now it feels true. Maybe we’ll check back after 2011 to see whether that’s accurate.

– “Semantic web technology won’t take off, at least not in the generally-accepted ways.” I’m going to call that TRUE. Remember how Web 3.0 was going to be the semantic web? You don’t hear that meme as much anymore.

– “The most interesting “savviness” test for me will be which of Yahoo, Facebook, or Microsoft let you freely retrieve your email with them into Gmail. Odds are that none will allow it, but if I had to pick one, it would be Yahoo.” A double MISS, because Hotmail did allow POP3 access in 2009. Meanwhile, I believe Yahoo still wants $20/year for POP access. I don’t think you can fetch Facebook mail using POP or IMAP.

– “Vanity iPhone apps.” This was a prediction that individuals would commission their own personal iPhone apps that collected their blog posts, tweets, photos, etc. The other part of the idea was that conferences would commission conference-specific apps. While a few savvy conferences have done this, I wouldn’t call either trend widespread. So it’s a MISS.

– “In the same way that millions of people dropped their land-line for a cell phone connection, thousands of people will attempt to go digital by scanning their photos, ripping their CDS, digitizing their old VHS tapes, and scanning their papers.” MISS, I did a lot of those things in 2009, but average people didn’t. The brunt of the analog to digital migration will happen as data is “born digital” from the beginning. Millions of people will have physical photos stuck in boxes that they don’t look at much, plus digital photos on Facebook, Flickr, or Picasa.

– “Google Chrome becomes one of Google’s most successful products.” I think this is TRUE. (Remember, this prediction was less than four months after Chrome was introduced in September, 2008. Back then I was going out more on a limb.)

– “Breakthroughs in green technology push renewable energy closer to the mainstream, but not into the mainstream. As many people focus their attention in this area, unexpected surprises abound, such as the do-it-yourself solar roof installation or practical solar shingles. Expect to see more green technology scams as well though.” Meh. MISS.

– “Apple will weather the 2009 recession much better than most people expect as people continue to buy with their heart, not always with their head. More people will realize that ‘Once you go Mac, you never go back.’ ” I’m calling it TRUE. Apple radically outperformed the Dow in 2009. Apple has done very well competing against MSFT in operating systems.

– “Obama’s administration mandates that all federal buildings much use Compact Fluorescent Lightbulb (CFL) technology before his presidential term ends.” I’ve still got at least two more years on this prediction. If the mandate is for LED lightbulbs, I’m still counting it.

– I thought some public officials would start lifestreaming as the ultimate endorsement of transparency. That’s a MISS. Chalk it up to believing that politics would be different after the 2008 election. Oh well.

– “Microsoft will demo a snazzy new phone operating system, but it won’t get much traction, either because a) it’s not as snazzy as the iPhone or b) people don’t trust it to be as open as other mobile operating systems.” Given that this was a prediction for 2009, I’ll call it TRUE. Microsoft didn’t get a lot of phone traction in 2009.

– “Someone not officially associated with Android will work on an “iPhone skin” for Android to make Android look like an iPhone.” TRUE. Looks like that did happen in 2009.

– “Twitter’s 2009 business model consists of premium features that either individuals can pay for (at a nominal rate such as $1/month or $10/year) or that businesses can set up for self-contained twittering. The premium features include richer API access as well as some new features, such as the ability to save tweets to be posted in the future or periodically.” That, my friends, is a MISS. Although Twitter is now charging for richer access to Twitter data, so maybe not a horrible miss.

– “Hacking of PC clients will decrease, but hackers will shift their sites to web server software. Massive databases of cross-site scripting attacks will be traded in the underground. Script kiddies will launch dictionary attacks. Anyone that writes their own web server software will probably be at a high risk of being hacked.” Overall I’m going to call this TRUE. As individual PCs become more secure, there’s a multi-year trend toward hacking webservers instead. I fear we’re just at the beginning of this.

– “When Android opens premium apps, one of the big controversies will be developers who take great premium-app ideas for the iPhone and rewrite the ideas behind the app for Android, but without the permission of the iPhone developer. Expect flashlights, lighters, beer, farting applications, goldfish, etc.” I’m not sure if this is TRUE or a MISS. I haven’t read a lot of complaints from iPhone app developers about Android app developers stealing their idea and writing their own apps.

– “Multiple people write a bit of JavaScript that site owners can add to their page to guilt IE6 users to upgrade to a new browser. Any browser, just something that was released after 2001 (IE6 was released in 2001?!?). The JavaScript code becomes a viral sensation and sweeps across the net. Whoever authors or hosts this JavaScript gains status around the web. Through the collective work of a bunch of savvy webmasters, SEOs, and site owners, IE6’s market share drops to 5% in some markets by the end of the year.” IE6 is slowly riding into the sunset, but call it a MISS. A few businesses will probably be running IE6 a decade from now for their internal apps.

– “eBay introduces spell correction for search queries which delivers a small boost for their profits.” I’m going to call this TRUE because the search [ipod touc] returns “Did you mean: ipod touch?” at the top of the eBay’s results now.

Okay, it’s your turn. Which of your predictions for 2009 or 2010 were spot on or off-base?