Real world vs. Facebook’s world vs. Google’s world — Updated

Black Island Kempt Head

Facebook continually pesters me to entrer the “city” where I live, but rejects Kempt Head, Ross Ferry, Boularderie, and Cape Breton all of which are more-or-less accurate. It will allow me to enter Halifax, Sydney, or Baddeck, none of which is accurate.

Contrast this with Google, which embraces locations with admirable granularity. Google effortlessly adopts islands, villages, hamlets—even micro-locations like Frankie’s Pond and Parker’s Beach—as long as it sees real people using them.

This may seem a small thing, but it strikes me as a profound difference in the cultures of the two organizations. One constantly cajoles you into ill-fitting pigeonholes. The other looks at what you and those around you are actually doing, and continually updates and adjusts to this new information.

(Photos: Above: Black Island (in Gaelic, Island Dhu), Kempt Head, in the real world. Below: Black Island, Kempt Head, on Google Maps.)

Black Island


Marla Cranston points out the Purcell’s Cove dies not exist in Facebook World.

If Calvert, NL, native Jenn Power were so inclined, she could list Ferryland as her home town, but this would be like asking her to accept Big 8 in place of Diet Coke. Far worse, actually.

Newly minted Margaree Centre resident Stephen Mills cannot list that village as his current residence, but Facebook World does allow “Margaree,” a community that, as Mills points out, does not actually exist.

There is no plain “Margaree” —— just the directional or topographic variations: North East Margaree, Margaree Valley, etc.

Interestingly, Mills contends that

[A]ll the Margarees were a bureucratic decision at some point. Names like Frizzelton and Fordview described the locations at one point.

Today’s email glitch

Many of you receive daily updates from Contrarian by email. These are sent out shortly after 3 am every day from Google’s Feedburner service (to those who subscribed via the “once a day by email” link at right).

This morning, for some reason, Feedburner sent out a trio of week-old posts for the second time. It’s not clear why, but I wanted those who received it to know it was an error, not a deliberate reposting of these items.

We are trying to sort out what happened, and why, if only to prevent it from happening again. Meanwhile, our apologies for adding to your inbox.

Now you see it, now you don’t

asteroid_2012_da14s_near_miss-1409005.2-hpLast Friday, in one of its periodic displays of  nerdy humor, Google displaced its usual search page logo with an animated gif celebrating Earth’s non-collision with Asteroid 2012 DA14, a 50-meter-wide rock that passed within 28,000 meters of our planet—closer than a geostationary communications satellite.

Trouble is, another, much smaller meteor chose the same day to collide with Earth, exploding over the Siberian town of Chelyabinsk Oblast with the force of a half megaton nuclear weapon, and injuring 1,500 people below, mostly from flying glass. Google quickly yanked the animation.

“Out of respect for those injured in the extraordinary meteor shower in Russia earlier today, we have removed today’s doodle from the Google home page,” a spokesperson told ABC News.

Contrarian believes sympathy for the injured can co-exist peacefully with amusement at the doodle.

(To see the animation again, refresh your browser page.)

Above and beyond ‘do no evil’

Engineers from Google, Twitter, and SayNow, a voice messaging startup Google bought last week, put their technical chops to work over the weekend devising a way around the Egyptian government’s Internet shutdown. From Google’s Official Blog:

Like many people, we’ve been glued to the news unfolding in Egypt, and thinking of what we could do to help people on the ground. Over the weekend we came up with the idea of a speak-to-tweet service—the ability for anyone to tweet using just a voice connection…

It’s already live and anyone can tweet by simply leaving a voicemail on one of these international phone numbers (+16504194196 or +390662207294 or +97316199855) and the service will instantly tweet the message using the hashtag #egypt. No Internet connection is required. People can listen to the messages by dialing the same phone numbers or going to

We hope that this will go some way to helping people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time. Our thoughts are with everyone there.

A most excellent time-wasting tool

That’s what Atlantic tech blogger Alexis Madrigal calls Google’s Books Ngram Viewer. Google has scanned about 10 percent of all the books ever published. Enter any word or phrase into the search box, and the viewer returns a graph of its frequency of appearance in books published over the last two centuries. Note that the searches are case sensitive, and you can compare the relative frequencies of up to four five different words or phrases, separating them by commas in the search box. Say, “Nova Scotia” and “Ontario,” for example:


Try it yourself, and please send me any interesting pairings you come up with.

Madrigal’s blog is always interesting, but today’s entries are exceptionally good. In addition to the Ngram Viewer, there’s a post on the history or weird homemade windmills that sprung up in Nebraska’s Platte River Valley during the last two decades of the 19th century, another on names for the movie projector that were tried and discarded before 1900, and an entry on the cautionary implications of the Stuxet virus for our industrial infrastructure, most especially the electrical grid. (Stuxnet is the worm that targeted a particular type of Siemens control system used to operate centrifuges critical to Iran’s nuclear program. The virus kept itself hidden until they day it instructed the centrifuges to spin so fast they purportedly self-destructed.)

Sauce for the goose, not sauce for the Google

Until its cave-in to Verizon last month, Google was the most prominent corporate advocate of net neutrality—but only for others, not for itself. Recently, Google has applied self-serving filters to its search results in a manner reminiscent of, say, China.

Late in July, Google searches began filtering out any results for the website, an aggregator of videos from the Google-owned video site.

I can understand why Google might have a problem with bestofyoutube, which, it could be argued, infringes Google’s intellectual property by poaching YouTube content. Mind you, it would be a brazen case for Google to make, given that YouTube itself contains petabytes of pirated content. Be that as it may, the proper remedy is to seek relief from the perceived offense through negotiations or in court.

The least-Googley solution is to skew the world’s knowledge database by misleading google searchers into thinking the offending website no longer exists.

In the past, Google has filtered search results for websites that try to game its search algorithm. That’s a different matter,  possibly justifiable as necessary to protect the integrity of the search process. Pretending a company Google doesn’t like doesn’t exist undermines the integrity of the search algorithm.

Earlier complaints about Google gaming its own search results in a self-serving manner here and here.

Contrarian has asked Google’s media department for a comment but, you know, they’re quite big and we’re quite small. Don’t hold your breath.

Hat tip: SBD

Before Google went evil

Google wasn’t always a carrier-humping, net-neutrality, surrender money, and TechCrunch has video to prove it:

For those who don’t follow tech news, Google pulled a stunning about-face on net-neutrality this week, teaming up with Verizon, the very company it pilloried on the issue, in an agreement to abandon the concept of neutrality for fast-growing wireless portions of the Internet, and for whatever new transmission technologies happen along in future.

The do-no-evil company’s reversal stunned the tech world. Unabashed Google admirer Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do, called it a Munich Agreement, a description Josh Marshall of TPM Media said was “a bit inflammatory, but pretty much captures it.” Added Jarvis: “Pass the sauerkraut, Herr Chamberlain.”

Wired’s Ryan Singel, too, offered trenchant analysis, and dug out this ringing declaration from a 2007 Google blogpost:

The nation’s spectrum airwaves are not the birthright of any one company. They are a unique and valuable public resource that belong to all Americans. The FCC’s auction rules are designed to allow U.S. consumers — for the first time — to use their handsets with any network they desire, and and use the lawful software applications of their choice.

Google defended itself, weakly, in a blog post by Richard Whitt, Washington Telecom and Media Counsel.

To underscore the totality of Google’s reversal, TechCrunch produced this letter to Google users by none other than CEO Eric Schmidt.

A Note to Google Users on Net Neutrality:

The Internet as we know it is facing a serious threat. There’s a debate heating up in Washington, DC on something called “net neutrality” – and it’s a debate that’s so important Google is asking you to get involved. We’re asking you to take action to protect Internet freedom.

In the next few days, the House of Representatives is going to vote on a bill that would fundamentally alter the Internet. That bill, and one that may come up for a key vote in the Senate in the next few weeks, would give the big phone and cable companies the power to pick and choose what you will be able to see and do on the Internet.

Today the Internet is an information highway where anybody – no matter how large or small, how traditional or unconventional – has equal access. But the phone and cable monopolies, who control almost all Internet access, want the power to choose who gets access to high-speed lanes and whose content gets seen first and fastest. They want to build a two-tiered system and block the on-ramps for those who can’t pay.

Creativity, innovation and a free and open marketplace are all at stake in this fight. Please call your representative (202-224-3121) and let your voice be heard.

Thanks for your time, your concern and your support.

Eric Schmidt

Google has been a huge force for consumer rights in this incredibly important field. Its defection is a blow that will force defenders of an open Internet to organize.

How to apologize – corporate edition

We’ve read a lot lately about the value of swift, full, and forthright apologies when public figures screw up. What about companies that screw up?

Blippy is a website that lets users trade updates about their consumer purchases. Recently, an obscure programming error, compounded by mistakes at Google and one small midwestern bank, allowed Google to index the credit card numbers of four or five Blippy customers, potentially exposing these numbers to people browsing the web. Co-founder & CEO Ashvin Kumar’s apology to users could serve as a model for companies that find themselves in a similar pickle. Moneyquote:

It has been a rocky weekend for Blippy. The weekend began with a front page article in the New York Times announcing our Series A financing. The elation didn’t last long. A few hours later, reports surfaced about the discovery of credit card numbers within Google’s cached search results. Our mood quickly went from elation to disbelief to disappointment. We are very sorry.

However, this is a very serious issue and simply apologizing is not enough. We’ve spent the last 48 hours working around the clock to dissect the issues, reach out to affected users, and put together a plan to ensure this never happens again.

There followed a detailed, plainspoken, 1000-word explanation of exactly what went wrong, and the steps Blippy and Google took to fix the problem. The explanation is admirably devoid of weasel words or any attempt at evading responsibility. It neither grovels nor glosses over. By treating customers with respect, it inspires reciprocal respect for the company at an awkward time.

Customers do not expect perfect products and perfect service. Their loyalty (or hostility) to a brand arises in large measure from the way a company responds to problems that inevitably arise. A willingness to listen to customers, an ethic of candor in dealings with them, and an honest determination to put things right—companies that get those three things right will enjoy excellent customer relations.

Visual data: search completion

Start typing “Is Nova Scotia…” into a search box, and Google will offer suggestions for completing your query:

a country? an island? in Canada? a good place to live?

All four, natch. Now try “Is Stephen Harper…” and watch Google suggest:

jewish? a freemason? a christian? a good prime minister? getting the h1n1 vaccine? liberal? a conservative?

OK, none of the above.

Search engines generate these suggested query completions by keeping a digital eye on the billions of searches they process every day. Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg, artist-scientists at IMB’s Center for Social Software, have been keeping an eye on the phenomenon.

Suggestions for the word “why” result in questions about the sky, cats and marriage… along with “why do dogs eat grass,” and “why do men cheat,” and “why is pink the color for girls.” This labor-saving device — part fortuneteller, part shrink? — has opened a window into our collective soul. With millions of people pouring their hearts into this modern-day confessional, we get a direct, if mysterious, glimpse into the heads of our fellow Web surfers.

Viégas and Wattenberg, whose work is hard to summarize in a single subordinate clause, have developed software to create pictures of these collective queries, which they present in an op ed piece in today’s New York Times.

search completion - santa-s

The size of the arrows and words reflect the number of web pages that answer each of the questions.

What me worry about privacy? – Google

“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know,” said Google CEO Eric Smith, “maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Smith’s cavalier assessment of browser privacy issues in an MSNBC interview so incensed the main developer of the Mozilla Firefox browser that he urged Firefox users to abandon Google for a search engine with a better privacy policy, namely Bing, by Google arch-rival Microsoft:

Asa Dotzler‘s outburst raised eyebrows on the net, because the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, maker of Firefox and the Thunderbird email program, depends on Google for about 97 percent of its revenue.

Various bloggers weigh in on the dispute here. The flap has persuaded Atlantic Magazine writer (and Google fan) James Fallows to try a week-long experiment using only Bing for Internet searches.