Posted tagged ‘Google’

Googling

September 4, 2010

Exactly 12 years ago today, the company Google was formed by two Stanford University students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. A dozen years on, and their little enterprise is everywhere, having entered the language and provided people the world over with indispensable search tools – a kind of map for modern life that we all need in order to get where we are going. In the late 1990s there were several respected search engines (remember Infoseek or Altavista, anyone?), but within a very short space of time they had all pretty much disappeared.

And of course, a company as large as Google, and with so little apparent competition, must also be looked at closely to see what it is doing. Since you and I use Google entirely free of charge, you might wonder what creates all that shareholder value. And once you start looking at it that way, the commercial essence of Google is not based on providing searches, but rather being an advertising agency. All over every Google page you look at it subtle advertising, some of it based on the electronic analysis of what you are searching and what you are writing. And Google is also engaged in a competition with Apple, as its Android operating system for mobile devices goes head-to-head with the iPhone.

Google has an academic background, and from an academic perspective it has become a vital tool: its search function, Google Scholar, the digitisation of books – all of this has placed Google at the heart of the academic experience.

Alongside the useful, even vital, functionality Google has, its size is on the other hand vaguely scary, and its near monopoly status in searches should perhaps be a little troubling. Though I like what it offers, I also make sure that, at least every so often, I use the competitors who offer something reasonably good also: Yahoo, or Bing, for example. Keeping Google to a reasonable scale is a way of ensuring that it also stays useful.

Apple, Google, Microsoft and all that – fighting the technology wars?

June 14, 2010

People sometimes like to see the development of technology not just in terms of what works best, or even what looks best, but also in terms of dramatic (and maybe romantic) struggles between various forces of good and evil. The received wisdom about computing, for example, has been that the more boring but commercially smart Microsoft defeated the more exciting and noble but commercially out-gunned Apple, establishing the dominance of Windows-driven PCs in the process. Steve Jobs was driven into exile in Elba (or maybe it was NeXT).

But hey, Jobs escaped and gathered his troops – or maybe I mean he created the iPod and then the iPhone – and before you could blink Apple had become a super-company defeating the purveyors of uniformity. And now with the iPad Apple may even be re-defining the concept of computing, and the whole idea of the PC (and with it its previously all-pervasive operating system) may be on its way out. Steve Jobs may be about to become the master of all he surveys.

Or hang on a minute, do I hear the distant sounds of battle, is Jobs heading towards his Waterloo? And who will be the winner there? Could it be Google with its Android operating system for mobile devices? Could it be that the Jobs restoration was only temporary, that history is about to repeat itself, and that the hardware-with-propietory-software model that Apple employes could lose out once again to the more flexible but also more boring model, this time offered by Google?

That, at any rate, is what some of the technology commentators are now beginning to suggest, as in this Newsweek article. Others agree that the battle is imminent, but may be less sure as to who is going to win it. For myself, I rather doubt the compelling force of the analysis. Apple’s position in the market now is very different from what it was in the late 1980s in personal computers. While Android-run devices may indeed be proliferating, their standing in public awareness does not match that of Apple. The iPod, the iPhone and now the iPad have re-defined not just technological preferences but a whole fashion sense. I doubt that this is going to go away. The power of design and fashion within consumer technology is much greater now than it was then, and Apple has mastered this more than any other company.

Apple may not have everything to itself – surely a good thing – but I don’t see it losing another technology war. At least not yet.

What are we all looking for?

May 20, 2010

This post will not be as philosophical as the title might suggest. Rather, I have been looking at the top searches as reported by two search engines, Google and Yahoo. The first thing to note is that they are quite different from each other. Here are the current top searches on Google:

1. weiner facts
2. sammy sosa
3. franz hanning
4. numerology
5. face reading
6. numerology calculator
7. east stroudsburg university
8. dennis earl bradford
9. numerology compatibility
10. lee dewyze halleluja video

Two things strike me here. In the case of five of the items, I have absolutely no idea what they are about. None. What on earth might ‘weiner facts’ be? A couple of the others are just strange: why should ‘face reading’ be so popular, and what’s the big deal with East Stroudsburg University? But what amazes me most is that numerology should make three appearances in this list; what does that tell us?

And now, here is the very different list from Yahoo:

1. Rima Fakih
2. Amazon Ebook Reader Central
3. Dancing With the Stars
4. Amy Adams
5. NBA
6. Hulu
7. Dow Jones Index
8. Claudia Schiffer
9. American Idol
10. LeBron James

Again four items in relation to which I am wholly ignorant, but in this list there is a more visible presence of celebrity culture.

What interests me also is that, in both lists, there appear to be absolutely no items relevant to either local or global news. There is also a hint here that on the internet people live in little worlds of their own – though clearly some of these get to be big enough to pick up some real communities. But these communities avoid the arts, politics and science, and they are much less technology focused than you might expect from people using the internet.

We do live in a strange world.

Grade inflation, educational standards, and everything…

March 2, 2010

Yesterday was one of those days – the Minister for Education and Science tells the world (via the Irish Times) that he is investigating grade inflation in the Leaving Certificate and in higher education, and immediately a confused (or at least confusing) debate gets under way about standards. The problem with this is, however, that all sorts of different (and not necessarily even related) issues get thrown together. Let me try to disentangle them a little.

First, it seems to me that the allegation of ‘grade inflation’ (where the sub-text is that students are now receiving marks they would not have received some years ago and which they do not objectively deserve) is a complete distraction. Yes, the Minister’s ‘investigations’ will show (as we already all know, as the figures are readily available) that the proportion of students getting higher grades has risen. But this is hardly surprising, as students’ working methods have changed dramatically, as have the pressures on them to perform to the highest possible standards: their success in the labour market depends on it. So students work harder and are driven to maximise their grades by making tactical choices about which subjects they study and how the do their work. In any case, if we benchmark our exam results against other countries, we will find that Irish grades are still relatively lower than elsewhere. It is perhaps strange that Google, a US company, is said to have complained, since the highest grade inflation of all has been in the United States. Also, while grades may have risen in third level institutions, student attrition has also, mostly caused by failed examinations. There is simply no evidence that Irish universities and colleges have been dumbing down.

It is odd that the Minister cited former Intel CEO Craig Barrett’s recent speech as the catalyst for his concerns about ‘grade inflation’, because Mr Barrett made no comment whatsoever about this issue; I can say this with confidence, as I was there. What he did say was that the Irish education system was now no better than average, and that in terms of international competition this was not adequate. His main worry was that we were not graduating sufficient numbers in mathematics and science, as these subjects were the basis of all the new industries. Other industry representatives have warned about the insufficient number of graduates with qualifications in software engineering and biotechnology. This is hugely important, but completely unrelated to grade inflation.

Then, during an interview on RTE radio, the Minister allowed himself to be walked into a statement that some unnamed Irish third level institution or institutions in particular were considered to be below the expected quality threshold. This is an incredibly damaging statement, and I suspect one without any foundation, and it should not have been made (or at least not without very solid evidence). It must be acknowledged that the Minister was pushed into responding to a point put to him, but it was still an unfortunate response.

Lest all of this sounds too defensive, let me emphasise that we do indeed have a problem, or indeed a series of problems, in Irish education. We have two main issues. The first is that we have a school system that is offering an education that, while staffed by dedicated teachers, is largely out of date, with questionable learning methods and with a syllabus that is not sufficiently adapted to society’s changing needs. The wholly inadequate proportion of students doing Higher Level Mathematics for the Leaving Certificate is an example of that issue. Higher education institutions need to acknowledge that we reinforce this by allowing the very questionable influence of the CAO points system to continue. The second problem is in higher education itself, where we have built up expectations of a world class system that we are however unable to deliver due to rapidly declining resources and huge financial instability, accompanied moreover by an exponentially rising tide of bureaucratic controls. We have generated targets of participation rates in higher education that would, if achieved, take us amongst the top countries in the world for third level qualifications, but with resources only just better than those of a developing country. This cannot succeed, and we must move swiftly to ensure that the resourcing framework is sufficient, stable, predictable and focused on the right results in terms of educational outputs.

Yesterday’s announcements by the Minister were quickly followed by me-too statements from Fine Gael and Labour; as far as I know, none of these thought it might be helpful to have private discussions with the universities before picking up the megaphone. In the end none of this was helpful. Setting up investigations into grade inflation means getting lots of dogs to bark up the wrong tree. We do have a problem, probably even several problems; but we won’t solve them by going after something else entirely.

Congestion on the information highway?

December 20, 2009

Exactly 30 years ago today, a great disaster nearly overwhelmed me. I was at the time a postgraduate student in Cambridge University, working on my PhD. I had agreed to deliver a paper at a conference scheduled to take place there in mid-January; when I accepted this invitation, I had calculated that I would have some time over the Christmas break (while allowing for a few days off for the actual Christmas celebrations) to do my background work, read relevant articles and books, and do a first draft. So on December 20th I was ready to make a start. Or actually no, I wasn’t: because the library which had all of the materials I wanted closed that day, not to re-open until January 4th – which was far too late for the purposes of working on my paper. I remember having a sudden panic attack, as I could not see how I was going to be able to do the work in these circumstances. And so for the next two weeks or so I was a bundle of nerves, wondering whether I would be able to prepare a good paper for this prestigious event, my first ever conference presentation.

In the end I was fine, and while I had to forego sleep for a few nights before the conference, the re-opened library provided me with my materials I needed and my paper, even if I say so myself, was not at all bad. But what I have just described would be hard to understand for anyone in the same position today. Yes, a closed library is an inconvenience, but not a crisis. Instead, they would now be able to settle down at their computer and access pretty much everything they would need online, day or night, Christmas Day or any other day of the year.

Or is it that simple? Might it be said that there is now simply too much online information available to today’s researchers? And more significantly, is it becoming impossible to distinguish easily between genuine scholarship and online rubbish? And even if you can securely identify the gems, are there not just too many of them ‘out there’ to enable a worthwhile assessment of which ones are most relevant or best suited to the immediate project?

In the most recent issue of Times Higher Education, Professor Tara Brabazon of Brighton University argues that the information mountain available on the internet does not need to be a serious problem. Referring to one of her students, who had confided that she experienced ‘intellectual paralysis when confronted by the information choices’, Professor Brabazon concluded:

‘If she closed Facebook after a designated 30 minutes a day, constructed daily learning goals and followed the recommendations of teachers and librarians while monitoring citations of important authors via Google Scholar, her information environment would become less threatening and chaotic. There would be no metaphoric Mars Bar calling her name. Instead, she would develop experience in planning and organising her intellectual environment through expertise, refereeing and differentiating between leisure and learning, time passing and time management.’

Is that really the right advice? I cannot help feeling that the learning experience needs to be more emancipated than that. What Professor Brabazon appears to me to be suggesting is that you can overcome the fear of information overload by being methodical and taking instructions from your teachers. But the whole point of independent learning is to be able to find your own way to reliable data and analysis that is available to you and to use that in an innovative way. Having a routine framework and instructions handed down by your elders and betters does not seem to me to be the way to do this.

But then again, the academy has been through the concept of information explosion before. Back in the Middle Ages Professor Brabazon’s student would not have been struggling with information overload, she would have been struggling to come up with anything reliable or even just anything at all. The nearest monastery library would probably have provided the best and maybe only source. Then came the printing press, and suddenly there were books and pamphlets on absolutely anything, and almost immediately voices emerged saying it was all just unreliable stuff, and if a monk didn’t have to write it by hand on pigskin and add some beautiful illustrations it really couldn’t be worth anything. But the scholarly community quickly discovered how to handle the new information volume and in fact use it to enormous effect; and we are beginning to do the same with the internet.

I remember that when I was at school, another pupil once expressed a concern to a teacher that there were too many items for reading included in a homework assignment and that he didn’t know where to start. ‘Sharpen your pencils and sit up straight, read my instructions and then have a go’ was the rather opaque and (I think) utterly useless reply.  So let us not suggest to students that the universality of information requires a methodical application of your instructor’s rules. Yes, they must acquire and be familiar with information sifting tools, including Google; but they must also be willing to pursue less obvious paths and to try that which no-one is recommending just then. Learning must be something of an adventure, as well as the application of a method.

In fact, the only thing to fear is that, on December 20th, your library may close and a new virus will shut down the internet, just 14 days before you have to deliver your paper. Everything else is a piece of cake.