Order in Google arguments

Does Google give a different answer if you reorder the words in the search? What? A trivial question? Have you ever tried to refine a search by reordering the words? Wouldn’t it be useful if you knew for sure that it would or would not make a difference?

Experiment:

ruby rails bureaucrat gem examples
rails bureaucrat gem examples ruby

These two searches indeed did produce different results! And not just a reordering of the results. There were at least two results in the top 7 which were present in one and not the other.

Q.E.D.

G+ Where Art Thou?

Here is a a really good commentary on Google Plus (G+). I have to say that analyzing such a large system and a phenomenon involving millions of users is kind of a fools errand. (Remember “Everything is Obvious”). Still if you are interested in the evolution of social networks it is a good read:

“Is this Google’s swan song? Of course not. But it is almost certainly their biggest failure by a good distance. And it’s not a Flubber-like experimental miss like Orkut and Wave and the many Labs projects snuffed before their time. It corrupted Google’s primary mission, angered users, and eroded trust. Maybe the worst of it is that Google+ could have been so good. It could have been so Google.

But a series of poor choices, misjudgments, and plain stubbornness resulted in the poor thing being sent alone and friendless into bloody battle with an entrenched and veteran opponent.(from Google+: The Charge of the Like Brigade)

A good read. Recommended.

Paul Graham: Fear and Startup Ideas

Paul Graham’s new essay is “Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas.” From my reading of it, it talks about great startup ideas, fear and cynicism. The meat of the article is a series of shall we say audacious startup ideas, most of which you’ve had yourself and in each case you may have thought: “You’d have to be crazy to try this!”.

I once read, “If you’re not a little bit nervous, you’re not pushing yourself enough”. I like that mantra. It works for me. This essay is related to that thought:

“One of the more surprising things I’ve noticed while working on Y Combinator is how frightening the most ambitious startup ideas are.” (from Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas.)

And if you are a certain kind of person that also may translate to always being able to find the 100 reasons why something will not work.

I’ve often said that if I think of my proud career accomplishments so far, in each case I tried something because I didn’t have any idea what I was getting myself info. Ignorance is bliss.

Paul Graham goes a step further:

“In this essay I’m going to demonstrate this phenomenon by describing some. Any one of them could make you a billionaire. That might sound like an attractive prospect, and yet when I describe these ideas you may notice you find yourself shrinking away from them.

Don’t worry, it’s not a sign of weakness. Arguably it’s a sign of sanity. The biggest startup ideas are terrifying. And not just because they’d be a lot of work. The biggest ideas seem to threaten your identity: you wonder if you’d have enough ambition to carry them through.” (from Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas.)

Read the article. It will inspire you!

Microsoft is to Google as Lotus was to Microsoft

This isn’t a huge new insight but it’s interesting to see history kind of repeating itself.

Sometimes a product is so locked in and so entrenched that it looks like it will never be beat. After all, no one ever got fired for buying IBM right? And you’d have to be crazy to try to build a new spreadsheet to compete with Excel, because companies large and small have an unbelievable investment in training, familiarity and documents so that any change is extremely hard and costly.

It is said, correctly, I think, that such entrenched software products often get unseated during a platform switch. When a dominant technology platform (e.g. PCs or Windows) is losing it’s dominance in favor of a new technology (e.g. Cloud-based apps) the dominant software company and products are vulnerable.

Did you know that Lotus Development had total dominance in spreadsheets on MS-DOS? And then Microsoft Windows ‘came along’ (that coming along took almost a decade but still Lotus got caught short.

Lotus kept investing in 1-2-3 – the couldn’t not – while Microsoft without the ‘baggage‘ of an installed base could bet on their ‘new platform’ and build a great new spreadsheet called Excel. It was a gamble, and they won.

Now we might be seeing history repeating itself. In a New York Times Article from a day or three ago:

“Microsoft’s long-awaited move, analysts say, is a studiously crafted bet, including various offerings at different prices. They are not sure whether it represents wishful thinking or a workable strategy. Microsoft’s plan is to embrace the demand for cloud-based tools for office workers, which promise to be less costly for companies than conventional software, and yet avoid cannibalizing a business that is its biggest single money-maker.” (from Microsoft Takes to Cloud to Ward Off Competition)

Wow, that sounds like what I heard around Lotus about 15 years ago.

Imagine this: “Lotus’ plan is to embrace the demand for Windows-based tools for office workers,[…] and yet avoid cannibalizing a business that is its biggest single money-maker”

Google’s servers

From an article about Google’s hardware:

“Google’s big surprise: each server has its own 12-volt battery to supply power if there’s a problem with the main source of electricity. The company also revealed for the first time that since 2005, its data centers have been composed of standard shipping containers–each with 1,160 servers and a power consumption that can reach 250 kilowatts.” (from CNET)

There are lots of other choice tidbits about the design of the millions (?) of tiny servers that Google uses to run its data centers. Quite interesting.

Android Inventor – not ready for prime time

The other day I wrote a post where I mentioned Google’s App Inventor, and I mentioned it with some skepticism.

Today, a column in the New York Times that covers Google’s App Inventor in more detail, and comes to more or less the same conclusion:

“I’m happy for App Inventor. I wish it a long and exciting life. Surely it will have one in schools and computer classes, among other niches.

But for nonprogrammers on their own? Forget it. Android Hype Inventor is more like it.” (from the New York Times)

Wave goodbye to Google Wave

Google leaves products in Beta forever, they say.

Not Google Wave. They actually announced Wave’s impending cancellation.

“But despite these wins, and numerous loyal fans, Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked. We don’t plan to continue developing Wave as a standalone product, but we will maintain the site at least through the end of the year and extend the technology for use in other Google projects.” (from Google Blog)

This really stinks, Google. I’ve begun to really on rely and evangelize Wave. It’s true that it took me a long time to understand it and had to do a good deal of convincing of other people to use it. For me it has been great.

Will I be able to live without it? Sure, nothing is irreplaceable. Google Buzz, on the other hand, lasted about 2 weeks with me. It was truly useless.

Security by obscurity and other slogans

If you’ve been in computing for any time you may have been hit over the head by the slogan “Security by Obscurity is No Security”. As I have understood the argument it has a few components:

  1. If your security relies on secret tricks, trap doors, and a hope that no one will be able to find out or guess the work around, then you’re fooling yourself. Sooner or later someone will be able to guess the trick, see the code, quit your company and take the secret with them.
  2. Allowing your code and methods to be inspected and analyzed by the public (bad guys included) is the only way to learn about weaknesses that you would be blind to and give you a chance to close them. The other slogan which I will tackle some other time is “All bugs are shallow to a thousand eyes” implying that no matter how subtle the weakness, if you allow lots and lots of people to look, they will find them all.

(Actually Wikipedia has a longer and probably more correct summary of the Security By Obscurity concept.)

In the past I was usually quickly persuaded or at least silenced when confronted with these arguments, although at a gut level it never really sat right with me. While the arguments are strong, I had an vague sense that obscurity in fact does help security and often is a useful part of the whole security story. But who was I to argue?

With that background I was interested to see an article in the New York Times the other day, “Cyberattack on Google Said to Hit Password System“:

“[snip…]But a person with direct knowledge of the investigation now says that the losses included one of Google’s crown jewels, a password system that controls access by millions of users worldwide to almost all of the company’s Web services, including e-mail and business applications. The program, code named Gaia for the Greek goddess of the earth, was attacked in a lightning raid taking less than two days last December, the person said. Described publicly only once at a technical conference four years ago, the software is intended to enable users and employees to sign in with their password just once to operate a range of services.[snip…]” (from New York Times, “Cyberattack
on Google Said to Hit Password System
“)

This got me thinking, where is the Security By Obscurity crowd now? If you read the whole article you see that there is considerable concern at Google about the fact that the operation of this single sign-on, security system has been revealed.

Not that passwords or digital certificates were compromised, but (apparently) just the operation or algorithm or code for it was compromised. Isn’t this just security by obscurity?

It makes perfect sense to me that these are state secrets for Google and that it’s considered a major breach.