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September 13, 2015

My worst caption so far

Here’s this week’s New Yorker caption contest cartoon:

Cars piled up

My hilarious caption? And I’m only telling you this because obviously there’s no change it’s going to be one of the chosen three:

Hey, could someone tell Google Highways that the buffer is full?


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December 27, 2014

Oculus Thrift

I just received Google’s Oculus Rift emulator. Given that it’s made of cardboard, it’s all kinds of awesome.

Google Cardboard is a poke in Facebook’s eyes. FB bought Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset, for $2B. Oculus hasn’t yet shipped a product, but its prototypes are mind-melting. My wife and I tried one last year at an Israeli educational tech lab, and we literally had to have people’s hands on our shoulders so we wouldn’t get so disoriented that we’d swoon. The Lab had us on a virtual roller coaster, with the ability to turn our heads to look around. It didn’t matter that it was an early, low-resolution prototype. Swoon.

Oculus is rumored to be priced at around $350 when it ships, and they will sell tons at that price. Basically, anyone who tries one will be a customer or will wish s/he had the money to be a customer. Will it be confined to game players? Not a chance on earth.

So, in the midst of all this justifiable hype about the Oculus Rift, Google announced Cardboard: detailed plans for how to cut out and assemble a holder for your mobile phone that positions it in front of your eyes. The Cardboard software divides the screen in two and creates a parallaxed view so you think you’re seeing in 3D. It uses your mobile phone’s kinetic senses to track the movement of your head as you purview your synthetic domain.

I took a look at the plans for building the holder and gave up. For $15 I instead ordered one from Unofficial Cardboard.

When it arrived this morning, I took it out of its shipping container (made out of cardboard, of course), slipped in my HTC mobile phone, clicked on the Google Cardboard software, chose a demo, and was literally — in the virtual sense — flying over the earth in any direction I looked, watching a cartoon set in a forest that I was in, or choosing YouTube music videos by turning to look at them on a circular wall.

Obviously I’m sold on the concept. But I’m also sold on the pure cheekiness of Google’s replicating the core functionality of the Oculus Rift by using existing technology, including one made of cardboard.

(And, yeah, I’m a little proud of the headline.)


June 8, 2014

Will a Google car sacrifice you for the sake of the many? (And Networked Road Neutrality)

Google self-driving cars are presumably programmed to protect their passengers. So, when a traffic situation gets nasty, the car you’re in will take all the defensive actions it can to keep you safe.

But what will robot cars be programmed to do when there’s lots of them on the roads, and they’re networked with one another?

We know what we as individuals would like. My car should take as its Prime Directive: “Prevent my passengers from coming to harm.” But when the cars are networked, their Prime Directive well might be: “Minimize the amount of harm to humans overall.” And such a directive can lead a particular car to sacrifice its humans in order to keep the total carnage down. Asimov’s Three Rules of Robotics don’t provide enough guidance when the robots are in constant and instantaneous contact and have fragile human beings inside of them.

It’s easy to imagine cases. For example, a human unexpectedly darts into a busy street. The self-driving cars around it rapidly communicate and algorithmically devise a plan that saves the pedestrian at the price of causing two cars to engage in a Force 1 fender-bender and three cars to endure Force 2 minor collisions…but only if the car I happen to be in intentionally drives itself into a concrete piling, with a 95% chance of killing me. All other plans result in worse outcomes, where “worse” refers to some scale that weighs monetary damages, human injuries, and human deaths.

Or, a broken run-off pipe creates a dangerous pool of water on the highway during a flash storm. The self-driving cars agree that unless my car accelerates and rams into a concrete piling, all other joint action results in a tractor trailing jack-knifing, causing lots of death and destruction. Not to mention The Angelic Children’s Choir school bus that would be in harm’s way. So, the swarm of robotic cars makes the right decision and intentionally kills me.

In short, the networking of robotic cars will change the basic moral principles that guide their behavior. Non-networked cars are presumably programmed to be morally-blind individualists trying to save their passengers without thinking about others, but networked cars will probably be programmed to support some form of utilitarianism that tries to minimize the collective damage. And that’s probably what we’d want. Isn’t it?

But one of the problems with utilitarianism is that there turns out to be little agreement about what counts as a value and how much it counts. Is saving a pedestrian more important than saving a passenger? Is it always right try to preserve human life, no matter how unlikely it is that the action will succeed and no matter how many other injuries it is likely to result in? Should the car act as if its passenger has seat-belted him/herself in because passengers should do so? Should the cars be more willing to sacrifice the geriatric than the young, on the grounds that the young have more of a lifespan to lose? And won’t someone please think about the kids m— those cute choir kids?

We’re not good at making these decisions, or even at having rational conversations about them. Usually we don’t have to, or so we tell ourselves. For example, many of the rules that apply to us in public spaces, including roads, optimize for fairness: everyone waits at the same stop lights, and you don’t get to speed unless something is relevantly different about your trip: you are chasing a bad guy or are driving someone who urgently needs medical care.

But when we are better able control the circumstances, fairness isn’t always the best rule, especially in times of distress. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of consensus around the values that would enable us to make joint decisions. We fall back to fairness, or pretend that we can have it all. Or we leave it to experts, as with the rules that determine who gets organ transplants. It turns out we don’t even agree about whether it’s morally right to risk soldiers’ lives to rescue a captured comrade.

Fortunately, we don’t have to make these hard moral decisions. The people programming our robot cars will do it for us.


Imagine a time when the roadways are full of self-driving cars and trucks. There are some good reasons to think that that time is coming, and coming way sooner than we’d imagined.

Imagine that Google remains in the lead, and the bulk of the cars carry their brand. And assume that these cars are in networked communication with one another.

Can we assume that Google will support Networked Road Neutrality, so that all cars are subject to the same rules, and there is no discrimination based on contents, origin, destination, or purpose of the trip?

Or would Google let you pay a premium to take the “fast lane”? (For reasons of network optimization the fast lane probably wouldn’t actually be a designated lane but well might look much more like how frequencies are dynamically assigned in an age of “smart radios.”) We presumably would be ok with letting emergency vehicles go faster than the rest of the swarm, but how about letting the rich go faster by programming the robot cars to give way when a car with its “Move aside!” bit is on?

Let’s say Google supports a strict version of Networked Road Neutrality. But let’s assume that Google won’t be the only player in this field. Suppose Comcast starts to make cars, and programs them to get ahead of the cars that choose to play by the rules. Would Google cars take action to block the Comcast cars from switching lanes to gain a speed advantage — perhaps forming a cordon around them? Would that be legal? Would selling a virtual fast lane on a public roadway be legal in the first place? And who gets to decide? The FCC?

One thing is sure: It’ll be a golden age for lobbyists.


May 13, 2014

Full-text searching Harvard Library: a hacky mashup

Harvard Library has 13M items in its collection. Harvard is digitizing many of them, but as of now you cannot do a full text search of them.

Google Books had 30M books digitized as of a year ago. You can do full-text searches of them.

So, I wrote a little app [Note: I’ve corrected this url.] that lets you search Google Books for text, and then matches up the results with books in Harvard Library. It’s a proof of concept, and I’m counting the concept as proved, or at least as promising. On the other hand, my API key for Google Books only allows 2,000 queries a day, so it’s not practical on the licensing front.

This project runs on top of LibraryCloud, an open source library metadata server created by the Harvard Library Innovation Lab that I co-direct (until Sept.). LibraryCloud provides an API to Harvard’s open library metadata and more. (We’re building a new, more scalable version now. It is, well, super-cool.)

But please note that this HOLLIS full-text search thingy is NOT a project done by our highly innovative and highly skilled developers. I did it, which means if you look at the code (github) you will have a good laugh. Also, this service will fail in dull and interesting ways. I am a horrible programmer. (But I enjoy it.)

Some details below the clickable screenshot…

Click on the image to expand it.
googleHollis screen capture

Click here to go to the app.

The Google Books results are on the left (only ten for now), and HOLLIS on the right.

If a Google result is yellow, there’s a match with a book in HOLLIS. Gray means no match. HOLLIS book titles are prefaced by a number that refers to the Google results number. Clicking on the Google results number (in the circle) hides or shows those works in the stack on the right; this is because some Google books match lots of items in HOLLIS. (Harvard has a lot of copies of King Lear, for example.)

There are two types of matches. If an item matched on a firm identifier (ISBN,OCLC, LCCN), then there’s a checkmark before the title in the HOLLIS stack, and there’s a “Stacklife” button in the Google list. Clicking on the Stacklife button displays the book in Harvard StackLife, a very cool — and prize winning! — library browser created by our Lab. The StackLife stack colorizes items based on how much they’re used by the Harvard community. The thickness of the book indicates its page count and its length indicates its actual physical height.

If there’s no match on the identifiers, then the page looks for a keyword match on the title and an exact match on the author’s last name. This can result in multiple results, not all of which may be right. So, on the Google result there’s a “Feeling lucky” button that will take you to the first match’s entry in StackLife.

The “Google” button takes you to that item’s page at Google Books, filtered by your search terms for your full-texting convenience.

The “View” button pops up the Google Books viewer for that book, if it’s available.

The “Clear stack” button deselects all the items in the Google results, hiding all the items in the HOLLIS stack.

Let me know how this breaks or sucks, but don’t expect it ever to be a robust piece of software. Remember its source.

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November 7, 2013

What I want those Google barges to be

We now know that the Google barges are “interactive learning spaces.” That narrows the field. They’re not off-shore data centers or Google Glass stores. They’re also not where Google keeps the porn (as Seth Meyers reported) and they’re not filled with bubblewrap for people to step on, although that would be awesome.

So here’s my hope for what “interactive learning spaces” means: In your face, Apple Store!

Apple Stores manifest Apple’s leave-no-fingerprints consumerist ideal. Pure white, squeaky clean, and please do come try out the tools we’ve decided are appropriate for you inferior Earth creatures.

Google from the beginning has manifested itself as comfortable with the messy bustle of the Net, especially when the bustlers are hyper-geeky middle class Americans.

So, I’m hoping that the “interactive learning spaces” are places where you can not only get your email on a Chromebook keyboard, play a game on an Android tablet, and take a class in how to use Google Glass, but is a place where you can actually build stuff, learn from other “customers,” and hang out because the environment itself — not just the scheduled courses — is so stimulating and educational. Have hackathons there, let the community schedule classes and talks, make sure that Google engineers hang out there and maybe even some work there. Open bench everything!

That’s what I hope. I look forward to being disappointed.

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September 2, 2013

Merging my Google Plus accounts

I made the mistake many years ago of creating a Google Accounts email address in addition to my existing Gmail account. Thus I have been plagued (granted, it’s an excellent example of a First World Problem plague) with two out of sync accounts.

Gmail works fine because “” is my public-facing email address and has been since about 1994 when first I took the domain. (Yes, children, there was a time when you could register an existing word with all its vowels just by being the first to claim it.) When you send mail to that address, it shows up in my Google Account. It also shows up at my account, which now has 12,722 unread messages in it. Nevertheless, the “system” works for me.

But it does not work for me at, where I have two accounts that cannot be merged. I’ve tried.

And I thought it didn’t work at Google Plus. But recently I’ve been getting friend requests (or Circle requests, I guess) at G+ for evident@evident, whereas my social network (such as it is) is at dweinberger@gmail. Since I do very little with G+ anyway, it only bothers me because I hate rejecting friends’ requests, even though they’re trying to join a G+ that I don’t ever check and that currently has a total of 7 people in it. So, I googled for info, and found that Google Takeout promises to move my dweinberger Circles over to evident. Google seems quite serious about it: access is limited during the first 48 hours, the transfer takes up to 7 days, and you can only request one transfer every six months.

We’ll see how it works. In any case, I do appreciate the Google Data Liberation Front commitment.

And perhaps now my Circles will be unbroken.


September 4, 2012

Who forces Google to remove search results because of copyright claims?

According to a post at TechDirt by Riaz K. Tayob, Google has released data on which organizations request certain search results be suppressed because of copyright issues.

From TechDirt:

It may be a bit surprising, but at the top of the list? Microsoft, who has apparently taken down over 2.5 million URLs from Google’s search results. Most of the the others in the top 10 aren’t too surprising. There’s NBC Universal at number two. The RIAA at number three (representing all its member companies). BPI at number five. Universal Music at number seven. Sony Music at number eight. Warner Music doesn’t clock in until number 12.

The velocity is increasing:

As it stands now, Google is processing over 250,000 such requests per week — which is more than they got in the entire year of 2009. For all of 2011, Google receive 3.3 million copyright takedowns for search… and here we are in just May of 2012, and they’re already processing over 1.2 million per month.

The requests and Google’s responses must both be generated automatically. This raises once again the problem with having robots enforcing the law: They don’t know about leeway, which means they (a) lack common sense, (b) have no way of balancing against greater goods, and (c) can’t tell when Fair Use should provide an exception. (Here’s an op-ed I wrote in 2003 about this.)

We saw this this weekend as robots blocked the use of perfectly legitimate film clips at the Hugo Awards. Ridiculous. And scary.


August 27, 2012

Big Data on broadband

Google commissioned the compiling of

an international dataset of retail broadband Internet connectivity prices. The result was an international dataset of 3,655 fixed and mobile broadband retail price observations, with fixed broadband pricing data for 93 countries and mobile broadband pricing data for 106 countries. The dataset can be used to make international comparisons and evaluate the efficacy of particular public policies—e.g., direct regulation and oversight of Internet peering and termination charges—on consumer prices.

The links are here. WARNING: a knowledgeable friend of mine says that he has already found numerous errors in the data, so use them with caution.

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July 17, 2012

Yahoo’s patents

It has been bruited about that maybe Yahoo has hired Marissa Mayer, employee #20 at Google, in order to get acquired by Google. I cannot see the sense in that as an acquisition tactic, but it has led to further speculation that Google is interested in Yahoo for its patents.

Now that makes sense! In fact, here are just four of the many valuable patents Google would acquire from Yahoo:

  • US PATENT 893749039 Improving the rapidity of the embarrassment of a corporate board through non-vetting techniques

  • US PATENT 989209374 Significantly depressing corporate value by the refusal of no-brainer acquisition offers through the innovative application of self-importance

  • US PATENT 463874738 A new calculus of corporate value that rewards the acquisition, mishandling, and abrupt closure of genuinely innovative services with loyal user bases.

  • US PATENT 784789909 Techniques for the alienation of a company user base by re-imagining customers as consumers and services as Big C Content.

(The truth is that I have a soft spot for Yahoo as one of the original engineer-led sites, and I hope Marissa can lead it back from the brink.)


Hanan Cohen points to I’m more ambitious than that; I’d substitute “Yahoo” for “Flickr” on that site.

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July 13, 2012

How Google may turn its Kansas City broadband project into a business

As you likely know, Google is in the midst of providing ‘ultra high speed fiber’ access to the residents of Kansas City (MO and KS). (‘Ultra high speed‘ means at least 1gb, which is 50100x faster than your 10mgb connection.) This has been positioned as an experiment, and as a poke in the eye to the incumbents to “show ’em how it’s done.” And it has apparently made the incumbents nervous enough to offer residents a bounty for tips about the deployment.

Now Bill St. Arnaud speculates about how Google is going to turn this into a business. I have zero idea if he’s right, simply because I don’t know enough to have an opinion, but it sure is some interesting speculation.

Bill’s post is very readable, so I suggest you not rely on my summary, but here goes. First, Bill wonders how Google could hope to make back its investment in the physical infrastructure, since providers need about 40% of the market to subscribe to drop the per-user cost sufficiently. But (Bill figures), the incumbents will never let Google take 40% of their market. So, Bill figures:

Google will offer a basic free high speed Internet to each and every home, perhaps bundled with Google TV using their new set top box. A variety of premium services will also be offered for additional fees. I would not be surprised that Google decided to offer a basic 1 Gbps service to every home. This would clearly differentiate Google from the cableco or telco and make it almost impossible for them to compete without undertaking a massive investment themselves.

But, Bill guesses that the premium services will still not make the venture profitable. So, he speculates that Google…

…could offer to peak manage the customer’s power usage, by briefly turning off air conditioners and hot water tanks. They could also install smart thermostats and other devices to further reduce energy consumption. The money in the energy savings would be used to pay for the fiber or premium services, rather than being returned to the customer as piffling amount of energy savings.

So, the deal to users would be: We’ll give you incredibly high speed connectivity (or we’ll give you some great premium services) if you’ll let your energy company install a smart thermostat and manage your peak energy consumption in ways you won’t much notice. The user’s energy bills don’t go down (or don’t go down proportional to their energy consumption decrease), and the energy company shares the money with Google.

I’m not convinced that users would take the deal positioned that way. Maybe I’m positioning it wrong, but it seems like a pretty complex offer. I think I’d rather take a deal with my energy company to lower my usage and my costs, and then decide if I want to pay Google for fiber access or for premium fiber access. I already resent the cablecos for making their “triple play” (telephone, tv, Internet) pragmatically a requirement to get any one of the three. A double play of Internet and energy savings would be even weirder.

But, Bill knows approximately 50x what my own poor brain fiber does. The key is, I believe, in the energy company making the claim that the decrease in energy consumption will be minor, the noticeable impact on the user will be negligible, and the monetary savings would be “piffling.” If he’s right, it’ll be fascinating to watch.


This isn’t right, is it?

Seemingly wrong WolframAlpha result


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