Welcome to Google Island

Mat Honan envisions meeting Google’s Larry Page in this funny but what-if-it-comes-true-cyber-utopian post:

“Welcome to Google Island. I hope my nudity doesn’t bother you. We’re completely committed to openness here. Search history. Health data. Your genetic blueprint. One way to express this is by removing clothes to foster experimentation. It’s something I learned at Burning Man,” he said. “Here, drink this. You’re slightly dehydrated, and your blood sugar is low. This is a blend of water, electrolytes, and glucose.”

I was taken aback. “How did you…” I began, but he was already answering me before I could finish my question.

“As soon as you hit Google’s territorial waters, you came under our jurisdiction, our terms of service. Our laws–or lack thereof–apply here. By boarding our self-driving boat you granted us the right to all feedback you provide during your journey. This includes the chemical composition of your sweat. Remember when I said at I/O that maybe we should set aside some small part of the world where people could experiment freely and examine the effects? I wasn’t speaking theoretically. This place exists. We built it.”

I was thirsty, so I drank the electrolyte solution down. “This is delicious,” I replied.

“I know,” he replied. “It also has thousands of micro sensors which are now swarming through your blood stream.”

“What… ” I stammered.

This is like Minority Report meets Oblivion, but more Googley.

And I realized I believed him. I believed in him, even. Sure, he’s a weird guy living in his own world. But what vision! And I wanted Google to make my world look like its own. And I wanted to give it all my information, about everything in my life, even my most private shameful thoughts.

Definitely some food for thought.

Google: “Us” vs. “Them”

Great post from John Gruber reiterating how Google isn’t often the creator of original products; they make existing products better:

Google fans seem to eat this kumbaya stuff up, to really believe it. But Google is the company that built Android after the iPhone, Google Plus after Facebook, and now a subscription music service after Spotify. They entered the RSS reader market, wiped it out, and are now just walking away from it. Gmail? Webmail but better. Think about even web search: Google search wasn’t something new; it was something better. Way, way, way better, but still.

Consider maps. Google Maps entered a market where MapQuest and others had been around for years. That wasn’t something great that didn’t already exist. It was a better version of something that already existed. Google is a hyper-competitive company, and they repeatedly enter markets that already exist and crush competitors. Nothing wrong with that. That’s how capitalism is supposed to work, and Google’s successes are admirable. But there’s nothing stupid about seeing Google being pitted “versus” other companies. They want everything; their ambition is boundless. 

With yesterday’s announcements at the I/O conference, Google’s stock price reached an all-time high of above $900/share.

Paul Krugman on Google Reader

Paul Krugman has an interesting argument about Google’s decision to retire Google Reader:

I’ve been trying to think this through in terms of more or less standard microeconomics, and here’s what I’ve come up with:

First, it’s a well-understood though not often mentioned point that even in a plain-vanilla market, a monopolist with high fixed costs and limited ability to price-discriminate may not be able to make a profit supplying a good even when the potential consumer gains from that good exceed the costs of production. Basically, if the monopolist tries to charge a price corresponding to the value intense users place on the good, it won’t attract enough low-intensity users to cover its fixed costs; if it charges a low price to bring in the low-intensity user, it fails to capture enough of the surplus of high-intensity users, and again can’t cover its fixed costs.

The post is titled “The Economics of Evil Google.”

A commenter named “jev” makes a very good point:

There is even a simpler solution: Monopolists will eliminate a product or service, even a profitable one, if it can be replaced with a more profitable one.

A corollary: This is especially true with software, where it has been the habit of large software companies to purchase smaller companies, merely to “retire” the purchased companies products, but keep the software engineering talent.

How was the previously heaver user of Google Reader to trust the company won’t retire future products at the slightest whim? Good luck with that is right.

Google Search Queries as Pharmacovigilance

A new paper on the Internet “pharmacovigilance” explored how users taking multiple drugs cold be used to determine unreported side effects, by analyzing search queries. From the abstract:

Adverse drug events cause substantial morbidity and mortality and are often discovered after a drug comes to market. We hypothesized that Internet users may provide early clues about adverse drug events via their online information-seeking. We conducted a large-scale study of Web search log data gathered during 2010. We pay particular attention to the specific drug pairing of paroxetine and pravastatin, whose interaction was reported to cause hyperglycemiaafter the time period of the online logs used in the analysis. We also examine sets of drug pairs known to be associated with hyperglycemia and those not associated with hyperglycemia. We find that anonymized signals on drug interactions can be mined from search logs. Compared to analyses of other sources such as electronic health records (EHR), logs are inexpensive to collect and mine. The results demonstrate that logs of the search activities of populations of computer users can contribute to drug safety surveillance.

The New York Times summarizes:

They determined that people who searched for both drugs during the 12-month period were significantly more likely to search for terms related to hyperglycemia than were those who searched for just one of the drugs. (About 10 percent, compared with 5 percent and 4 percent for just one drug.)

They also found that people who did the searches for symptoms relating to both drugs were likely to do the searches in a short time period: 30 percent did the search on the same day, 40 percent during the same week and 50 percent during the same month.

Interesting.

FedEx versus the Internet

Question: When, if ever, will the bandwidth of the Internet surpass that of FedEx?

That’s the question that Randall Munroe tackles in his latest “what-if” blog post. His conclusion? 2040. That answer depends on this huge assumption: if Internet transfer rates grow much faster than storage rates on hard drives, SD cards, etc.:

Those thumbnail-sized flakes have a storage density of up to 160 terabytes per kilogram, which means a FedEx fleet loaded with MicroSD cards could transfer about 177 petabits per second, or two zettabytes per day—a thousand times the internet’s current traffic level. (The infrastructure would be interesting—Google would need to build huge warehouses to hold a massive card-processing operation.)

Cisco estimates internet traffic is growing at about 29% annually. At that rate, we’d hit the FedEx point in 2040. Of course, the amount of data we can fit on a drive will have gone up by then, too. The only way to actually reach the FedEx point is if transfer rates grow much faster than storage rates. In an intuitive sense, this seems unlikely, since storage and transfer are fundamentally linked—all that data is coming from somewhere and going somewhere—but there’s no way to  predict usage patterns for sure.

While FedEx is big enough to keep up with the next few decades of actual usage, there’s no technological reason we can’t build a connection that beats them on bandwidth. There are experimental fiber clusters that can handle over a petabit per second. A cluster of 200 of those would beat FedEx.

If you recruited the entire US freight industry to move SD cards for you, the throughput would be on the order of 500 exabits—half a zettabit—per second. To match that transfer rate digitally, you’d need take half a million of those petabit cables.

Fascinating.

The Unfair San Francisco Housing and Rental Market

Writing in the London Review of Books, Rebecca Solnit expresses her discontent at the unstable housing market in San Francisco, driven by new money from the tech boom (Google, Facebook, etc.):

At the actual open houses, dozens of people who looked like students would show up with chequebooks and sheaves of resumés and other documents and pack the house, literally: it was like a cross between being at a rock concert without a band and the Hotel Rwanda. There were rumours that these young people were starting bidding wars, offering a year’s rent in advance, offering far more than was being asked. These rumours were confirmed. Evictions went back up the way they did during the dot-com bubble. Most renters have considerable protection from both rent hikes and evictions in San Francisco, but there are ways around the latter, ways that often lead to pitched legal battles, and sometimes illegal ones. Owners have the right to evict a tenant to occupy the apartment itself (a right often abused; an evicted friend of mine found a new home next door to his former landlord and is watching with an eagle eye to see if the guy really dwells there for the requisite three years). Statewide, the Ellis Act allows landlords to evict all tenants and remove the property from the rental market, a manoeuvre often deployed to convert a property to flats for sale. As for rent control, it makes many landlords restless with stable tenants, since you can charge anything you like on a vacant apartment – and they do.

A Latino who has been an important cultural figure for forty years is being evicted while his wife undergoes chemotherapy. One of San Francisco’s most distinguished poets, a recent candidate for the city’s poet laureate, is being evicted after 35 years in his apartment and his whole adult life here: whether he will claw his way onto a much humbler perch or be exiled to another town remains to be seen, as does the fate of a city that poets can’t afford. His building, full of renters for most or all of the past century, including a notable documentary filmmaker, will be turned into flats for sale. A few miles away, friends of friends were evicted after twenty years in their home by two Google attorneys, a gay couple who moved into two separate units in order to maximise their owner-move-in rights. Rental prices rose between 10 and 135 per cent over the past year in San Francisco’s various neighbourhoods, though thanks to rent control a lot of San Franciscans were paying far below market rates even before the boom – which makes adjusting to the new market rate even harder. Two much-loved used bookstores are also being evicted by landlords looking for more money; 16 restaurants opened last year in their vicinity. On the waterfront, Larry Ellison, the owner of Oracle and the world’s sixth richest man, has been allowed to take control of three city piers for 75 years in return for fixing them up in time for the 2013 America’s Cup; he will evict dozens of small waterfront businesses as part of the deal.

Evictions, foreclosures, and legal loopholes. This doesn’t sound like a city I’d want to inhabit. A must-read for perspective.

Eric Schmidt’s Daughter on North Korea

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s daughter Sophie has posted a lengthy account with photos of their recent trip to North Korea. Some highlights from a post titled “It might not get weirder than this”:

  • The English-language customs form for North Korea requires declaration of “killing device” and “publishings of all kinds.”
  • None of the buildings visited by the delegation was heated, despite the cold. Sophie writes: “They’re proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath. A clue to how much is really in their control.”
  • The delegation had two official minders always present with them (“2, so one can mind the other”) and no interaction with North Koreans not vetted by officials.
  • Eric Schmidt’s “reaction to staying in a bugged luxury socialist guesthouse was to simply leave his door open.”
  • The group could make international calls on rented cell phones but had no data service.

This was my favorite highlight from her trip:

The Kim Il Sung University e-Library, or as I like to call it, the e-Potemkin Village…

Probably 90 desks in the room, all manned, with an identical scene one floor up.

One problem: No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared. More disturbing: when our group walked in–a noisy bunch, with media in tow–not one of them looked up from their desks. Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.

Of all the stops we made, the e-Potemkin Village was among the more unsettling. We knew nothing about what we were seeing, even as it was in front of us. Were they really students? Did our handlers honestly think we bought it? Did they even care? Photo op and tour completed, maybe they dismantled the whole set and went home.

Sophia’s takeaways:

  1. Go to North Korea if you can. It is very, very strange.
  2.  If it is January, disregard the above. It is very, very cold.
  3.  Nothing I’d read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw.

Worth reading in entirety, especially for the photos. The only thing that sucks is the formatting of the post (google sites, what the heck?).

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Also worth seeing: these photos from North Korea.

Google’s Acquisition of Nik Software

Yesterday, Google made a huge acquisition in the photography space by purchasing Nik Software. However, many news outlets got it wrong, focusing on the SnapSeed app rather than Nik’s more feature-worthy products (such as Color Efex Pro and Silver Efex Pro, which I use in my post-processing).

Here is Trey Ratcliff on Google’s acquisition, a power user of Nik Software:

This is an exciting move from Google, and another indication that Google takes photography very seriously. Most of the silicon-valley-bubble-press probably does not know much about Nik Software, and doesn’t realize that this is a company built by and for professional photographers. Even though their software is designed for “pros”, I’m confident in saying that 90% of their customers are amateurs who are using these same tools to make them look like pros! Nik makes amazing tools, and I am really looking forward to seeing them bleed into my daily life of using Google+.

Now, the significance of this acquisition should not be overlooked. This is not like, say, the United States acquiring Puerto Rico (think FB and Instagram – where Facebook is a social-network of people acquiring a smaller social-network of people) but instead, this is like the United States buying Lockheed Martin.

It will be interesting to see what Google does with this acquisition. Nik’s software isn’t cheap (i.e., comparable to prices offered for stand-alone products such as Adobe’s Lightroom), and I am looking to see whether the products will become more affordable in the future.

The Google Doodle Profile

The BBC has a nice profile of the team behind the Google Doodles, those fun animations/interactives that take over the Google logo on the search engine’s main page every so often.

Below, two recent favorites of mine. The Gustav Klimt doodle to celebrate the artist’s 150th would-be birthday is wonderful (Jennifer Hom, one of the Google Doodle artists, explained how she made this doodle in this post):

 

The javelin throw doodle appeared on August 6, during the Olympics. But notice something in the air? That’s right, Google also paid homage to the Mars Curiosity rover when it landed safely on Mars:

 

 

You can search through the entire Google Doodle archive (more than a 1,000 in all) here.

 

The Compounding Returns of Intelligence

Stephen Cohen, co-founder of Palantir, in a conversation with Peter Thiel and Max Levchin:

We tend to massively underestimate the compounding returns of intelligence. As humans, we need to solve big problems. If you graduate Stanford at 22 and Google recruits you, you’ll work a 9-to-5. It’s probably more like an 11-to-3 in terms of hard work. They’ll pay well. It’s relaxing. But what they are actually doing is paying you to accept a much lower intellectual growth rate. When you recognize that intelligence is compounding, the cost of that missing long-term compounding is enormous. They’re not giving you the best opportunity of your life. Then a scary thing can happen: You might realize one day that you’ve lost your competitive edge. You won’t be the best anymore. You won’t be able to fall in love with new stuff. Things are cushy where you are. You get complacent and stall. So, run your prospective engineering hires through that narrative. Then show them the alternative: working at your startup.

(via Dustin Curtis)