Google hits back at book critics

Google hits back at book critics
Computer screen in the New York Library
Google’s digital library plans have met with strong opposition.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin has hit out at critics of the company’s plans to create what could be the world’s largest virtual library.

Writing in the New York Times, Mr Brin said he wanted to “dispel some myths” surrounding the project.

He said the plan would make millions of “out-of-print” books available to the public online.

Those against the idea fear it would give Google a monopoly over access to the world’s information.

“In reality, nothing in this agreement precludes any other company or organisation from pursuing their own similar effort,” he wrote.

“The agreement limits consumer choice in out-of-print books about as much as it limits consumer choice in unicorns.

“Today, if you want to access a typical out-of-print book, you have only one choice — fly to one of a handful of leading libraries in the country and hope to find it in the stacks.”

‘No deal’

Google Books – formerly known as Google print – was first launched in 2004.


“Space Internet” to Link Worlds by 2011?

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
July 9, 2009

For all its might, the World Wide Web is still limited to, well, our world.

But that’s quickly changing with the advent of an “interplanetary internet” that planners say will revolutionize space communication.

The Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) system, which entered another phase of testing this week, will allow astronauts to Google from the moon or tweet their observations from space.

But DTN provides far more than a connection to check your email. It’s also essential for simplifying space command and control functions—such as power production or life-support systems—crucial for future space initiatives.

(Related: “‘Rocket NASCAR,’ Moon Base Part of 50-Year Space Vision.”)

“You need an automated communications technology … to sustain planetary exploration on the scale that NASA and others want to perform over the next decade,” said Kevin Gifford, a senior research associate at BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

“DTN enables the transition from a simple point-to-point network, like a walkie-talkie, to a true multimode network like the Internet.”

After a decade of development DTN has advanced quickly over the past year, and NASA missions are planning to adopt the network by 2011. In November 2008 NASA test-drove the network by sending space images to and from the EPOXI spacecraft, some 20 million miles (32 million kilometers) from Earth.

DTN protocols were also installed on the International Space Station in May, and summer testing began the first week of July.

Houston, We’re Fixing a Problem

Though tweeting astronauts have gotten a lot of press, “the reality is that they [don’t really] tweet or have browsing capability on the International Space Station,” explained Gifford, who is part of a large, cooperative DTN effort that has also included NASA and Internet veterans.

“Right now they actually voice down a simple blurb, and the tweet is operated manually from Houston,” he said. In fact most current space communication involves humans manually scheduling each and every link, sometimes weeks or even months in advance for distant spacecraft, and dictating exactly which data are sent and when.

“Typically spacecraft go off and do their thing, gather up data, and then on some schedule they connect to the ground and [we] pull down the results of what it has been doing and send up instructions for the next time period,” Hooke said.

Such manual operations are inefficient and expensive. But simply extending Earth’s Internet into space won’t work.

The Web uses Transmission-Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), a type of communication language in which hosts and computers must be constantly connected.

This rarely happens in space, where intermittent connections are the norm because of the vast distances involved and the tendency of orbiting moons, rotating planets, and drifting satellites to temporarily disrupt wireless lines of communication.

Communications Leap

Typical space delays, even those caused by solar storms, are handled in stride by DTN, Hooke said.

Each node in the network—whether it’s the International Space Station or a small orbiting robot—stores all the data it receives until a clear opportunity arises to pass its “bundle” along to the others in the network. DTN nodes do not discard data when a destination path can’t be identified.

Hooke likens this “store and forward” process to a basketball team systematically passing the ball downcourt to players closer to the hoop.

The result, he explained, will be a communications leap akin to that between the post office and the telephone.

“A letter is a pretty self-contained story, it says do this or order that, and you mail it off and wait for a response.”

But the new DTN system will open a more consistent line of back-and-forth communication.

(Read about how humans are exploring the cosmos.)

Edge of the Solar System

DTN is already used for earthbound projects.

Scientists, for instance, are using the system to tag and track wildlife with a data-delivery capacity far more reliable than past satellite-based networks.

DTN can also bring broadband Web to remote areas with few communication structures, connecting remote humans such as the Arctic’s Sami people via satellite with far shorter time lags.

The U.S. military has also embraced the technology to help keep lines of communication open in remote areas—or when other infrastructure is destroyed.

So far, DTN doesn’t seem to have a catch, experts say.

“There are no physical limits on where the protocols would stop working,” Hooke said.

“We could use it to [send messages to] the edges of the solar system—the question is, how long will you wait for a response?”


Mining the Web for Feelings, Not Facts

Published: August 23, 2009

Computers may be good at crunching numbers, but can they crunch feelings?

Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

Margaret Francis and Mars Hall of the San Francisco company Scout Labs.

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Minh Uong/The New York Times

The rise of blogs and social networks has fueled a bull market in personal opinion: reviews, ratings, recommendations and other forms of online expression. For computer scientists, this fast-growing mountain of data is opening a tantalizing window onto the collective consciousness of Internet users.

An emerging field known as sentiment analysis is taking shape around one of the computer world’s unexplored frontiers: translating the vagaries of human emotion into hard data.

This is more than just an interesting programming exercise. For many businesses, online opinion has turned into a kind of virtual currency that can make or break a product in the marketplace.

Yet many companies struggle to make sense of the caterwaul of complaints and compliments that now swirl around their products online. As sentiment analysis tools begin to take shape, they could not only help businesses improve their bottom lines, but also eventually transform the experience of searching for information online.

Several new sentiment analysis companies are trying to tap into the growing business interest in what is being said online.

“Social media used to be this cute project for 25-year-old consultants,” said Margaret Francis, vice president for product at Scout Labs in San Francisco. Now, she said, top executives “are recognizing it as an incredibly rich vein of market intelligence.”

Scout Labs, which is backed by the venture capital firm started by the CNet founder Halsey Minor, recently introduced a subscription service that allows customers to monitor blogs, news articles, online forums and social networking sites for trends in opinions about products, services or topics in the news.

In early May, the ticket marketplace StubHub used Scout Labs’ monitoring tool to identify a sudden surge of negative blog sentiment after rain delayed a Yankees-Red Sox game.

Stadium officials mistakenly told hundreds of fans that the game had been canceled, and StubHub denied fans’ requests for refunds, on the grounds that the game had actually been played. But after spotting trouble brewing online, the company offered discounts and credits to the affected fans. It is now re-evaluating its bad weather policy.

“This is a canary in a coal mine for us,” said John Whelan, StubHub’s director of customer service.

Jodange, based in Yonkers, offers a service geared toward online publishers that lets them incorporate opinion data drawn from over 450,000 sources, including mainstream news sources, blogs and Twitter.

Based on research by Claire Cardie, a former Cornell computer science professor, and Jan Wiebe of the University of Pittsburgh, the service uses a sophisticated algorithm that not only evaluates sentiments about particular topics, but also identifies the most influential opinion holders.

Jodange, whose early investors include the National Science Foundation, is currently working on a new algorithm that could use opinion data to predict future developments, like forecasting the impact of newspaper editorials on a company’s stock price.

In a similar vein, The Financial Times recently introduced Newssift, an experimental program that tracks sentiments about business topics in the news, coupled with a specialized search engine that allows users to organize their queries by topic, organization, place, person and theme.

Using Newssift, a search for Wal-Mart reveals that recent sentiment about the company is running positive by a ratio of slightly better than two to one. When that search is refined with the suggested term “Labor Force and Unions,” however, the ratio of positive to negative sentiments drops closer to one to one.

Such tools could help companies pinpoint the effect of specific issues on customer perceptions, helping them respond with appropriate marketing and public relations strategies.

For casual Web surfers, simpler incarnations of sentiment analysis are sprouting up in the form of lightweight tools like Tweetfeel, Twendz and Twitrratr. These sites allow users to take the pulse of Twitter users about particular topics.

A quick search on Tweetfeel, for example, reveals that 77 percent of recent tweeters liked the movie “Julie & Julia.” But the same search on Twitrratr reveals a few misfires. The site assigned a negative score to a tweet reading “julie and julia was truly delightful!!” That same message ended with “we all felt very hungry afterwards” — and the system took the word “hungry” to indicate a negative sentiment.

While the more advanced algorithms used by Scout Labs, Jodange and Newssift employ advanced analytics to avoid such pitfalls, none of these services works perfectly. “Our algorithm is about 70 to 80 percent accurate,” said Ms. Francis, who added that its users can reclassify inaccurate results so the system learns from its mistakes.

Published: August 23, 2009

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Translating the slippery stuff of human language into binary values will always be an imperfect science, however. “Sentiments are very different from conventional facts,” said Seth Grimes, the founder of the suburban Maryland consulting firm Alta Plana, who points to the many cultural factors and linguistic nuances that make it difficult to turn a string of written text into a simple pro or con sentiment. “ ‘Sinful’ is a good thing when applied to chocolate cake,” he said.

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Scout Labs tracks positive and negative sentiments about keywords like “cash for clunkers.”

The simplest algorithms work by scanning keywords to categorize a statement as positive or negative, based on a simple binary analysis (“love” is good, “hate” is bad). But that approach fails to capture the subtleties that bring human language to life: irony, sarcasm, slang and other idiomatic expressions. Reliable sentiment analysis requires parsing many linguistic shades of gray.

“We are dealing with sentiment that can be expressed in subtle ways,” said Bo Pang, a researcher at Yahoo who co-wrote “Opinion Mining and Sentiment Analysis,” one of the first academic books on sentiment analysis.

To get at the true intent of a statement, Ms. Pang developed software that looks at several different filters, including polarity (is the statement positive or negative?), intensity (what is the degree of emotion being expressed?) and subjectivity (how partial or impartial is the source?).

For example, a preponderance of adjectives often signals a high degree of subjectivity, while noun- and verb-heavy statements tend toward a more neutral point of view.

As sentiment analysis algorithms grow more sophisticated, they should begin to yield more accurate results that may eventually point the way to more sophisticated filtering mechanisms. They could become a part of everyday Web use.

“I see sentiment analysis becoming a standard feature of search engines,” said Mr. Grimes, who suggests that such algorithms could begin to influence both general-purpose Web searching and more specialized searches in areas like e-commerce, travel reservations and movie reviews.

Ms. Pang envisions a search engine that fine-tunes results for users based on sentiment. For example, it might influence the ordering of search results for certain kinds of queries like “best hotel in San Antonio.”

As search engines begin to incorporate more and more opinion data into their results, the distinction between fact and opinion may start blurring to the point where, as David Byrne once put it, “facts all come with points of view.”


Virtual worlds and web ‘merging’

Virtual worlds and web ‘merging’

CEO of Second Life, Mark Kingdon
Second Life boss, Mark Kingdon, said identity is key in virtual worlds

“You take one avatar and you cross multiple virtual worlds… that is going to be a really powerful and important part of the virtual world future,” predicted Mark Kingdon, the boss of Second Life.

This online fantasy space had 1.4m users over the past two months, out of its 17m registered users, who can access to products and places replicated from real life.

The residents can spend their time visiting exact replicas of actual tourist hotspots, shops, or even bizarre fantasy lands.

Videos on the site’s homepage aim to help users find content that interests them within the vast 3D environment.

Second Life may have been one of the first virtual worlds of its kind, but six years on, the competition is fierce.



Riding Tunisia’s information superhighway by bus

Children accessing the internet on a visiting bus

By Sylvia Smith
BBC News, Ain Ek Misha

A luxury coach heading in the direction of a remote, picturesque village in Tunisia is not an unusual sight.

But the bus on its way to Ain Ek Misha is not in the business of moving tourists about – its purpose is to educate rather than transport.

This bus, like many others, has been transformed into a mobile internet centre, and it travels around Tunisia teaching students of all ages how to log on, surf the net, and obtain information electronically that can help them in their studies and in finding jobs.

Internet bus and satellite dish

These buses bring the internet to remote villages not tourists

The coach is accompanied by an auxiliary pick-up van, carrying the satellite dish and stand.

Technician Yusuf Saeed is installing the dish just behind the bus.

He says that there are occasional natural barriers which can cause problems.

“When we encounter mountains, then it can take quite a bit of manoeuvring to get the connection.”



Learning what makes Facebook tick

Learning what makes Facebook tick
By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, in San Francisco

Students prepare to learn the secrets of Facebook
A group of students at Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley have turned their attention towards a unique course that blends popular culture with the more time-worn principles of psychology.

The Psychology of Facebook is the brainchild of Professor B J Fogg, a pioneering persuasion psychologist who founded the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford.

He says: “When Facebook came along I was one of the developers at the launch and what struck me was how there was this new form of persuasion. This mass interpersonal persuasion.”

Professor Fogg says the pivotal moment came when he watched an application on the site go from “literally zero to more than a million users in a week”.

He recalls that it was to do with music sharing and buying tickets and that that was when he had his “oh my gosh moment”. It was quickly followed by a light bulb moment.

“Where on earth could you get a million customers in a week? That was when I said ‘I want to learn more about this’ and I thought the best way was to teach a class and look at how persuasion happens.”

Usual coterie

It’s Thursday afternoon and the sun is splitting the sky above the adobe-coloured Cordura Hall, the venue for Professor Fogg’s Psychology of Facebook course. Outside there’s a rag tag collection of people dodging the searing heat.

Alongside the usual coterie of students is an older crowd known simply as “visitors”. These people are an assortment of entrepreneurs, angel investors, business heads and myself the only journalist.

Professor B Fogg
Facebook right now stands out from the crowd. Can they continue?
Professor BJ Fogg, Stanford University

As we wait for the technology to click into place that allows another 700 students to tune in online, Professor Fogg declares that his goal is to help everyone to become a world class expert on the psychology of Facebook.

But this is no one trick pony according to the Professor. “What we learn here isn’t just relevant to Facebook. The psychology that drives Facebook relates to other online success stories, including those blockbusters yet to be invented.”

“There is something enduring about what we are studying,” he declares, “whereas if you are learning how to programme a Facebook application, that then could change in 30 days from now. In fact it probably will; so that knowledge breaks.”

Dissects aspect

Each week the class dissects an aspect of Facebook and looks at the way it works, the psychology behind it and what impression users are trying to convey. The gamut runs from examining status updates to news feeds and from poking to writing comments.

Today the focus is on the use of profile pictures, the photograph on the front page of every Facebook entry.

The discussion is led by Psychology Senior Richard Barton, who maintains Facebook’s high strike rate in this area has to do with the default picture it puts up if you don’t post your own.

“Who wants a question mark in place of their face and what questions does that raise about you? Like, why are you on Facebook? And so basically Facebook sets up an environment where your friends do the persuading to get you to post a picture.”

Professor Fogg contends this is at the heart of Facebook’s achievements.

“What they’re tapping into are some fundamental drivers and it makes it easy to satisfy those drives. Things like the need to be socially accepted and the flip side is to not be rejected.”

Class experiment

The other strand to Professor Fogg’s persuasion theory has to do with motivation and outcomes, questioning why users post a certain type of picture and why they constantly change them or not.

Richard Barton, Psychology Senior
How does the Facebook ‘question mark’ persuade users?

To illustrate his point he conducts a class experiment asking people to write out how they want to be regarded based purely on their profile mugshot.

The findings are revealing:

“Fun, outgoing, nature loving.”

“I was too lazy to rotate my picture and then I had the idea that if I left it you would think I was cool and good looking.” “I’m hot.”

“I want to remind my children that I was young once.”

“Make people think about peace.”

“Web 2.0 revolutionary and world traveller.”

Professor Fogg says this random sample proves that behind even the innocent act of posting a profile picture, the psychology of persuasion in managing your image or the impression you give off is at play.

And he stresses that albeit unconsciously, Facebook’s unbridled success lies in getting users to to do the work for them with friends persuading friends to post pictures, comments, or upload applications.

“I would say they were lucky and have been responsive to users but I don’t think they are persuasion masterminds.”

Straightforward tools

While luck might have played its part in turning Facebook into a major force in social networking, the entrepreneurs attending this course are looking for straightforward tools to help their businesses hit the jackpot.

Rob Ross has developed the Footsies application for Facebook and is working on others. For him the course is a portal into how he can make his business more relevant.

He says: “This opens a door that has not been opened before. This is going to change the game.”

Student Roman David agrees: “It’s beyond dollars and cents. That is part of it but its also where the opportunities are for entrepreneurs and about how the world is changing.”

Professor Fogg says while his class is about trying to understand what makes Facebook tick, the people behind the site have a similar task to ensure it remains a dominant player.

“Facebook right now stands out from the crowd. Can they continue? So far with its fifty million plus users they’re doing a pretty good job.”



Silicon electronics are a staple of the computing industry, but researchers are now exploring other techniques to deliver powerful computers.

Quantum computing graphic

Quantum computers are able to tackle complex problems

A quantum computer is a theoretical device that would make use of the properties of quantum mechanics, the realm of physics that deals with energy and matter at atomic scales.

In a quantum computer data is not processed by electrons passing through transistors, as is the case in today’s computers, but by caged atoms known as quantum bits or Qubits.

“It is a new paradigm for computation,” said Professor Artur Ekert of the University of Oxford. “It’s doing computation differently.”

A bit is a simple unit of information that is represented by a “1” or a “0” in a conventional electronic computer.

A qubit can also represent a “1” or a “0” but crucially can be both at the same time – known as a superposition.

This allows a quantum computer to work through many problems and arrive at their solutions simultaneously.

“It is like massively parallel processing but in one piece of hardware,” said Professor Ekert.