On Writing: Appropriate

I love this time of year. This holiday season. It makes me feel warm and comfy to know that I’m part of something larger than myself. I am a Consumer.

And it is a holiday season, not just a succession of holidays dominated by one big noisy day appropriated by Christians from the Romans and Celts and then appropriated again by the Merchants. Here in the US, at least, we’ve developed a whole set of rituals that tie the season together into one thematic whole.

It all begins with Turkey Day, which starts our Consumer juices flowing by celebrating Gluttony. The spirit of the day is appropriated from the Roman Saturnalia, but they didn’t have football or Underdog. Turkey Day is followed almost too quickly by Black Friday, when the Consumer rises from the couch to do ritual Battle for Bargains. Then there’s the exciting Countdown of Shopping Days, the frenzied Orgy of Paper Ripping and another Celebration of Gluttony, the somber and reflective Post-Xmas Week of Returns and Regrets, and finally the absolving New Year’s Eve ritual of Bingeing and Boasting when you forget the past and make outrageous promises that will haunt you all the next year.

It’s good to have traditions.

There’s a lesson in this holiday season for writers. Appropriate others’ good ideas. But appropriating is not the same as stealing. Appropriating will not trigger alarms when the product goes out the door. Appropriating means making it your own. You change it, repurpose it.

I recommend misreading. Sometimes the path to appropriation starts with not exactly understanding something that you read. I often see where I think an author is heading and set the book aside to follow what I take to be the author’s thread, only to discover when I take up the book again that where I went isn’t where the author was going at all. When that happens, I find myself with an unplanned child idea, misconceived, malformed, and yet my own. I love those motherless babies.

By now it should be clear that the title of this post is a verb. Feel free to appropriate anything you find useful here.

Microsoft Buys a Verb

Remember this one from PragPub? It’s by John Shade, a writer I discovered in a dark place.

Columnist John Shade casts a jaundiced eye on Microsoft’s latest attempt to out-google Google.

Can Microsoft really challenge Google on its own turf? And why would they even try? John Shade casts a jaundiced eye at Bing, Wolfram Alpha, and other attempts to transcend Google.

Microsoft is an agile company.

You doubt me? I can understand that. I’m pretty sketchy at the best of times. You probably figure that being agile is one of those lean and hungry things, while Microsoft is more of a fat and bloated thing. You get no argument from me. After the first billion dollars or so, any company can pretty much forget about being described as lean, even by its most loyal sycophants. But I’m standing my ground on hunger: no matter how huge and bloated Microsoft gets, it always stays hungry. Hunger got inside Microsoft when it was just a greedy leer in Bill Gates’s eye. Microsoft has hungry DNA. Hungry, paranoid, and quintessentially nerdy DNA.

Yes, nerdy. I hate to tell you this, but as long as there is a Microsoft you will never get rid of the popular stereotype of a computer nerd. Microsoft makes the stereotype true. Microsoft as a company is killer smart, socially inept, and wears orange socks.

This is mere common knowledge.

But agile, you ask? Yes, agile. The Microsoft agility mantra is Agility through Paranoia. Bill Gates—or the spirit of Bill Gates that is the twisted soul of Microsoft—has always been motivated by the certainty that someday some bright young hacker will come along and redefine the market, rearchitect the platform, rewrite the rulebook, move the cheese, or somehow change some fundamental something and rip the rightful riches from Microsoft’s jewel-encrusted belly.

Technically it’s always two bright young hackers. Andreessen and Bina, Filo and Yang, Page and Brin. Why two? Think Gates and Allen: Microsoft itself was founded by two bright young hackers who changed the game, so they know how the game-changing game is played. That’s the Microsoft corporate view of pair programming, as a matter of fact: some pair of programmers somewhere is at this very moment plotting our destruction. You probably didn’t know that.

What Microsoft Wants

So I ask myself, what does Microsoft, in all its bloated nerdy paranoid agility, want? Easy, it wants what Google has. It wants a verb.

The verb “to google” is in the OED. The OED! People who’ve never used The Google talk glibly about googling their acquaintances. Google has attained to the holy pantheon of Verbed Brands. It’s up there with xerox and slashdot and twitter and tivo on Brand Olympus. Even Apple and Sony aren’t verbs. Once you’re verbed, you’re forever. You can’t buy cred like that.

Unless you’re Microsoft.

Microsoft would like to buy a verb. Microsoft has never had a verb. Nobody words a letter or excels a budget. Some people use powerpoint as an epithet, but it’s not the same. Microsoft wants to buy a verb, and the verb it wants to buy is bing. If Microsoft has its way you will soon be binging left and right. You’ll tell your friends to just bing it, you’ll assure your boss or client, hey no problem, I can bing that. You’ll confess to spending all afternoon binging. You’ll become a hardcore binger.

Bing, as you know unless you’ve been living under a hype-blocking rock, is the name Microsoft has given to the latest version of its Live Search technology. I liked Live Search. The name, I mean, not the search tool. Live Search was a straightforward name; it had no personality, but it had character. But Live Search suffered from two problems. First, Google owns search. Second, Google owns the word for search. Live Search? Is that something you use to google things? See? It doesn’t work. It’s quixotic to try to compete with the company that owns the category, but it’s flat-out stupid to try to compete with the company that owns the word for the category.

But Microsoft can’t walk away from search any more than it could walk away from the eyeball battlefield of the 1990s that was hilariously miscalled the browser “market,” and for the exact same reason. The hive mind that is the Microsoft brain trust lives in mortal fear of those bright young hackers who change the rules of the game. And Page/Brin is the new Andreessen/Bina. In the 1990s the emerging center of the galaxy was the browser window; in the 2000s it’s the search engine results page. The SERP.

So Microsoft has to compete with Google but it can’t compete with Google. What’s the solution? Easy: redefine the category. Declare search dead and christen its replacement. Break a bottle over its bow and call it Bing.

Here’s how it’s intended to work: Google owns search and the name for search, but search is just a service. The SERP, though, is concrete. It’s the internet’s prime real estate. That’s what you need to own, and if you can peel that away from Google, you win. So you just need to bribe people to come to your SERP and somehow get them to stay. Then you monetize the heck out of it. Flog those eyeballs for all they’re worth.

OK, you see the flaw in this plan, I suppose. To get people to hang around on your binging SERP, you’ve got to make it sticky. Well, even I know how to accomplish that: the page just needs to be extremely well designed, focused with laserlike intensity on function, rich, simple, and elegant. That’s all. And you just know that Microsoft’s natural inclination is to chintz it up with five flavors of gingerbread and dress it in orange socks. If anyone can create a non-sticky SERP, it’s Microsoft.

The BitTorrent of Search

To see how you might go about end-running around Google with a better SERP, take a look at Cuil. I’m sure Microsoft did. Cuil indexes massive amounts of data, analyzes the context of discovered search terms, and presents the results as a sort of newspaper front page because, hey, nothing says 2009 like a newspaper. Cuil usually figures out that your search term has several meanings and offers the opportunity to dig deeper in any of these meanings in a sidebar, sort of like a Wikipedia disambiguation page.

The key is to claim that you’re doing more than just search. Semantic Knowledge Discovery through Relevance-Intuiting Neural Network Algorithms. I just made that up, but it’s more or less the template. Feel free to steal it. Chances are, I did. Yebol, in fact, promises smarter search through neural networks. Wowd wants to be the BitTorrent of search. Hakia and Clusty do clustering: grouping semantically-related results into categories for further search. So does Cuil, it seems to me. So does Bing. So, in fact, does Google, but we’re not talking about Google here.

The one thing you absolutely must do is to refer to Google’s SERP as “ten blue links.” Because, you know, blue is so 2008.

Or if you’re a super-genius you can skip search entirely and just compute the answers people are looking for. That’s what Wolfram Alpha claims to do. After reinventing science, super-genius and Mathematica language developer Stephen Wolfram retreated to his secret lab in an undisclosed location at 100 Trade Center Drive in Champaign, Illinois. Wolfram is so brilliant that he powers light bulbs, so you just knew he was working on some radical project destined to stun the world.

Now after seven years he has emerged, and the world is well and truly gobsmacked. Turns out the polymathematician inventor of A New Kind of Science has been working on a search engine. Or rather, A New Kind of Google. Or maybe A New Kind of Interface to Wikipedia.

Wolfram Alpha is the eponymous answer engine, capable, according to its inventor, of parsing English-language queries and not merely looking up but actually computing the answers using the awesome computational power of Stephen Wolfram’s brain channeled through Mathematica functions and crunched on multiple supercomputers, ultimately to be displayed as glorious Gif images.

As soon as Wolfram Alpha, or WA, as I like to call it, went online, I was there to poke it with some pointed questions.

What do they call a quarter pounder with cheese in France?

Wait, wait, I know this.

I’m wai-ting.

Assuming any type of McDonald’s Quarter Pounder | Use McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, plain or McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, with cheese instead.

With cheese, please.

McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, with cheese: serving size 1 sandwich (185 g), total calories 460, total fat 24 g, saturated fat 9 g, trans fat 1 g.

Argh. And in France they call it—?

France: country, calling code +33.

Maybe we should try something simpler. Try this: how many ounces per pound?

Result: 0.0625.

Not in my kitchen it isn’t.

Bing: Google, Embraced and Extended

So how terrible is Bing? Now, now that’s not a healthy attitude. Just look where that kind of cynicism has gotten me. The fact is, Bing is “much better than expected,” to quote one reviewer. That’s the kind of treatment you come to expect if you’re Microsoft: “We assumed it would be crap, but it’s not half bad.” Bing is not half bad. Here are some of the areas where Bing is clearly superior to Google:

Shopping. For example, when you’re looking for things to
buy, Bing has a cashback program. (Microsoft will bribe you
to use Bing.)

Travel advice. Bing gives good advice on airline travel
using the Farecast service Microsoft bought. (Bing excels at
promoting Microsoft properties.)

Video. When Bing finds a video, it doesn’t just give you one
of those blue links, it plays the video for you right there
in the SERP. (Testing the video copyright waters for the
rest of us.)

Protecting you from your nasty self. If you live in India,
you won’t be troubled with inappropriate sexual offers
because Bing won’t let you search for “sex.” (That’s what
Craigslist is for.)

Danny Sullivan, the Seymour Hersh of search engines, complains that Bing clutters up its fine collation of travel, shopping, and local results with paid listings. I think Danny misses the point. Microsoft spent eighty million dollars promoting Bing. (And that was without Jerry Seinfeld.) It’s got to get that eighty million back some way. That’s why Microsoft has redesigned MSN to funnel visitors into Bing. Because they’re not going to www.bing.com. And it’s probably why they’re hawking all that Bing bling. Although Microsoft being Microsoft, I’m not sure whether Bing coffee mugs are intended as a way for Microsoft to make money off Bing or to spend money on Bing.

Because Microsoft isn’t stopping at a mere eighty million dollars. The company’s sitting on umpty billion in cash and doesn’t know what to do with it. Trying to take on Google in search is really a brilliant idea if your problem is how to burn through a few billion fast. So maybe they plan to broadcast those Bing tchotchkes on the breeze like AOL CDs.

Then again, Microsoft doesn’t have to outrun the bear. You know the old joke:

Two lawyers are hiking through the woods and spot an unfriendly-looking bear. The first lawyer pulls a pair of sneakers out of his briefcase (in this joke, lawyers carry briefcases while hiking through the woods, OK?) and puts them on. The second lawyer stares at him and says, “You’re crazy! Bears can run like 35 miles an hour! You’ll never be able to outrun that bear!”

“I don’t have to outrun the bear,” the first lawyer says. “I only have to outrun you.”

It wouldn’t have to be two lawyers, of course, but almost any joke is improved by putting a lawyer in it. OK, just to be repulsively obvious, lawyer number two is Yahoo. And Bing did indeed outrun the second lawyer during Bing’s honeymoon period.

Google’s response to all this sincerest form of flattery? Why, Google Squared, of course. If they’re going to raise the pot we’ll double down, Google says, mixing its card-playing metaphors. Google Squared is a Google Labs project that present search results in tabular form because the dazzling success of Wolfram Alpha and Cuil and Bing and the rest has convinced the Google gang that what you really want on your SERP is structured search result data, and, well, putting it in a spreadsheet makes it structured, right? Right.

As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.

Looking at early tests of this project, I have to conclude that this turkey is not the exception to the no-fly rule. In fact the only explanation I can see is that Google Squared is snarkware. It’s Google’s way of making fun of the competition. They’re such a fun-loving crowd.

But the one shining and enduring truth of all search engines is this: most of what they give you is irrelevant, useless, or wrong. For all its computational power, Wolfram Alpha doesn’t know how many ounces there are in a pound. Clusty and Hakia and Bing and Cuil know, but they get other things wrong. Google gets it right with its first blue link: “1 pound = 16 ounces.” Yay, Google. But for its second blue link it quotes Yahoo Answers: “I thought it was 12, but it may be 16, I don’t know.” Woohoo, Yahoo.

You rarely get such refreshing honesty from a search engine.

About the Author

John Shade was born in Montreux, Switzerland in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions failed to enlighten him so much as a foot-candle. Today he frets away the idle hours wondering if you got the light bulb joke.

Reprinted from PragPub

The Age of Mobility

Remember this one?

Embracing the future, Mike goes mobile, as long as his wrists hold out.

More mobility. Must have maximum mobility.

The yoga’s helping, and of course the finger-stretching exercises, but despite all my efforts, the smaller joints are still a tad tight.

The more one embraces mobility—in the form of mobile phones, portable computers, sub-notebook computers, in-car computers, personal digital assistants, MP3 players, pagers, beepers, and other forms of pocket, lap, wrist, head-mounted, strap-on, wrap-around, and surgically implanted technology, the more need one has for mobility—in the form of flexible fingers, willing wrists, and forgiving forearms.

We are tearing headlong into a mobile computing future while leaving our wrists behind, a tortuous image for a torturous technological trend, and that doesn’t even touch on the psychic trauma.

Jacqueline Landman Gay first tagged deja vu as a repetitive motion injury, but I’ll take credit for first identifying the syndrome of psychotechnological whiplash, caused by being rear-ended by rapidly advancing technology.

Mobile computing in its many forms is careening out of control around the cloverleafs (cloverleaves?) of the information superhighway, shaking up the PC and Web development industries like tourists in the Space Needle during Seattle’s recent quake, and provoking even more far-flung figures of speech than these.

Mobile computing calls into question the venerable concept of the desktop personal computer, a concept on which rests an uneasy multi-billion-dollar industry. It raises daunting questions for Web developers, mostly along the lines of: how can I possibly design a reasonable Web page for display on a cell phone? (It would be prudent for us not to dwell here overlong on the fact that the original concept of HTML was that all pages should be display-size independent; it’ll only make us feel bad.) Plus, it gets you in the joints.

Even the language of mobility tests the tendons, although that’s a tendency it shares with pre-post-PC technology. One just gets the PC acronyms memorized and now there’s a whole new set of mobile acronyms. HTML, make way for WML; and wrist get ready to wrap around WAP because acronyms, especially unfamiliar ones, twist the typing hands into painful poses.

Which I’m willing to put up with as part of the cost of the mobile experience. And boy do I want that mobile experience. I want to integrate my voice browsing and audio content aggregation with big honking alerts. I want roaming wireless access, instant connection with everything around me, I want BlueTooth on a BlackBerry. I want streaming video, streaming audio, streaming smells. Give me streaming pixels, unleash the streaming text.

I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade into your enfilade, cast your multidimensional browser spell my way, I promise to go multi-D. But do I go thence on Mike Rosen’s CubicEye browser, which displays five Web pages at a time on the inside walls of a virtual cube? Or do I ride the BroadPage browser, with its tabbed and tiled multi-pane views that let me juggle 100 Web pages at a time? Neither sounds like it would be much fun on a cell phone screen, though. I had a really twisted witticism to insert here about jugglers and flexible wrists, but my editor said it was too much of a stretch.

My desktop computer is a laptop, my LAN is wireless, my office roaming. I’m ripping my britches on the cusp of the curve, beyond the present reach of ergonomic design. And there’s the rub (on the heel of my left hand). The reams of recommendations on the proper position of the ergonomic desk, the shape of the ergonomic chair, the ergonomic posture, the ergonomic forearm angle, are all grist for the shredder when the computer sits on your lap. Time to revive the child-care books? Probably not; not everything that sits on your lap deserves to be treated like a child, just as not everything that sits on that rickety table on the plane deserves to be treated like a barf bag.

Airlines aren’t going to be much help regarding the proper ergonomic placement of that laptop in flight, either: these are the same people who think that it’s perfectly all right to attach the table you eat from to another passenger’s tilt-back seat.

Yet we do more and more of our work in moving vehicles. Trains, planes, and automobiles are the offices of the Twenty-first Century. The offices of Century 21, especially: no realtor really needs to go into an office any more, and other professions are becoming similarly mobilized.

As are we all. I can hardly wait until I get one of inventor Dean Kamen’s revolutionary gyroscopically-stabilized scooters that are going to end pollution and postal worker disgruntlement in our time. We’ll all soon be able to get mobile without Mobil—or Chevron or BP—but Dean, where am I going to put my laptop?

(Enfilade? Obscure, I agree. It’s defined here.)

Reprinted from Dr. Dobb’s Journal.