Friday, August 14, 2009

The Spider and the Trap

What lessons can we learn from this picture?

The Flytrap must have seemed enticing to the Spider. It offered an attractive structure, bound to attract flies. The Spider must have thought it ready-made for his web, as you can see in the picture.

All that promise, though, was little more than a clever trap. There he is, swallowed whole.

Poetic justice from a fly's perspective, perhaps. Or maybe a warning of the dangers of hubris?

More likely, a simple reminder that there's no free lunch.

(Thanks to California Carnivores for selling such well-bred plants; it's worth the drive to Sebastopol, and they ship too.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Google Book Search and my wasted youth

In college I worked as a library researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary. I had two main roles. First, I would verify quotations. They would send me a slip of paper with a citation from a book, journal, etc. I would locate that item in the library and verify the citation's accuracy.

More interesting, and more time consuming, was antedating work. As a historical dictionary of English, the OED strives to give the earliest quotation it can for each word. When the editors were working on a new entry, they would send me their earliest citations and ask me to find earlier ones.

Antedating led to some interesting adventures. I emailed Richard Stallman to ask about the origin of the term POSIX; he refused to offer any help until the OED was released into the public domain. Researching "ribbit," I combed the script archives at UCLA to find an annotation in an old Smothers Brothers script.

Most of my work, though, turns out to have been largely wasted. 15 years later, early uses I spent hours to find can be beaten within minutes using Google's Book Search. A sad (for me) example is "bow hunting". I looked through dozens of books about hunting with a bow to find an early use of that term, not to mention dozens of volumes of old magazines. The oldest citation the OED has is from 1947; that's the earliest one I could find after hours of work in 1993. Using Google Book Search today, it took me less than a minute to locate a citation from 1923. (Interestingly, Popular Mechanics won't allow the full citation to be displayed.) A little more digging could probably locate even earlier examples. As Google Book Search expands its corpus, the date could go even further back.

With all the controversy surrounding Google Book Search, it's easy to overlook its incredible importance for all kinds of scholarship. I was hired by the OED partly because I was in Berkeley and had access to its vast library holdings. Now anyone, anywhere in the world can do a vastly more thorough search. It's only a matter of time before each quotation in the OED is linked directly to the source material; someone could easily write a Firefox add-on to do just that, right now.

I'm not bitter, though. I think of myself as monk-like, creating a beautiful sand mandala, only to have it swept away upon completion. This is how it ought to be.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

In search of durian-jack-fruit gelato

This is a jack fruit tree.Before going to Seattle, I visited Vancouver. There, Kong Luke took me to the most wonderful place I've ever been. I want to shout it from the rooftops and tell all my friends and family about this paradise on earth. Unfortunately, I don't know its name, and Kong Luke is too busy practicing the erhu to answer an email query.

So, I thought I'd try some search engines. I went with a very straightforward query:
vancouver ice cream parlor 200 flavors's first result tells me the name of the place, in the snippet. That's good, but it's a link to a discussion forum. It would take some more digging to get any solid info, like the parlor's address or phone number. Not until the #7 result do I get a link with that kind of info obviously displayed.'s first result tells me the name, but it's a link to a flickr photo taken there. Not too informative, unfortunately; it mainly informs me how much Google likes to serve up results from sites with "authority". Results #4 and #5 give me the more detailed info I'd need.'s results are just bizarre. It gives me a review of an ice cream parlor in San Francisco. I'm glad Yahoo knows I live in the Bay Area, but you'd think putting "vancouver" as the first word in the query would be hint enough I have other interests... The #4 result does give me what I'm after, though Yahoo needs to spend more time listening and less predicting.

None of the search engines gave me a link to La Casa Gelato's home page in the first 10 results. Changing "ice cream parlor" to "gelato" still didn't bring it up in the top 10 in or, though figured managed to deliver the result in the #1 position.

Anyway, La Casa Gelato still strikes me with dreamy awe. The jack fruit gelato was light and punchy with just the right jack fruit flavor. Candied apple with caramel was also outstanding. After a sample, I can't really recommend nutmeg or their black sesame, but fig with shaved chocolate almost got my order.

Friday, May 29, 2009

How to Bing Yourself

So Microsoft has a new search engine. They call it "Bing".

Please, engage with me in this thought experiment.

What if it's a huge hit. What if people start using it as a generic term. In these, Google's glory days, people say, "I googled myself". What if they start saying "I binged myself'"?

That doesn't sound right, though. You don't say "I singed a song" or "I bringed my hat". So it doesn't sound natural to say "I binged myself."

Let's break this down based on analogy:

sing ---> sang
bing ---> bang
This is getting sticky: "I bang myself". Of course, with a name like "Microsoft" they are used to double entendre, but this still doesn't sound quite right.

fling ---> flung
bing ---> bung
"I bung myself". This sounds so morose, like you're putting yourself down.

bring ---> brought
bing ---> bought
That would be confusing, but fun. "I bought myself" would mean you did a search on yourself. Paradoxical and wonderful self-reference, if you ask me. I think we have a winner!