The Interwebs

Why I prefer Google to DuckDuckGo

Google is an important part of the Internet and there are many people that are not happy about it. They are concerned about their privacy, about the fact that there is way too much power centralized in the hands of a corporation. Although Google was founded on the principle of “don’t be evil”, it became an easy target for sceptics.

One of the “evils” that Google is blamed with by many, is its algorithm used for the search results. Google will serve up different result to the same query for different people, based on data Google might have about them.

You can read more about this on a blog post by Gabriel Weinberg, founder of DuckDuckGo, a competitor of Google. If you just want to get to the essence of his message, here is a promotional video that attacks Google’s result filtering practice:

I gave DuckDuckGo a spin more than once, and often the results were not that helpful. I remember when hurricane Sandy was approaching Canada, after days of havoc in the US, the top DuckDuckGo results to the query “Sandy” had nothing to do with the hurricane. The same query on Google gave me a legion of useful information, including links to official websites of emergency preparedness.

Yesterday, when I learned about the bombings in Boston, like everyone else, I was curios to find out more what happened. My first destination was Twitter, than Google and for the sake of being better informed, I searched DuckDuckGo too.

Here were the results I got from Google, on April 15 at 4:50 PM, for searching for “boston marathon”:

Google search result for boston marathon

Here are the results from DuckDuckGo, at the same time, for the same query:

DuckDuckGo search result

As we can see on the screenshot of the Google results page, the first thing we see is the date of the Boston Marathon, which comes from the Knowledge Graph, a semantic result enhancement introduced last year. It is followed immediately by headlines from CNN, NBC and CBC about the explosions. As this was a developing story, after the news headlines, there were the regular search results, starting with the official website of the Boston Marathon.

On DuckDuckGo, it was business as usual, with the results, that I have to admit are neutral and unfiltered, but given the moment, with very little value. I also got a banner add on the top, inviting me to save up to 70% on hotels near the Boston Marathon.

I repeated the same experiment this morning, this time with the query “boston explosion”. Here is Google:

Google search result for boston explosion

Here is DuckDuckGo:

DuckDuckGo search results

As we can see the Google results are dominated by news about the explosions from the Huffington Post, RTE, NYT, CBC, BBC, etc.

DuckDuckGo, gave news results from more or less the same sources, the only difference is that here, the stories are a bit dated. The “Wanna Win MegaMillion” banner is there to prove that DuckDuckGo too, is just another company that wants to make profit.

In conclusion

Filter bubbles are a reality; it’s not just Google using them, but many other major online platforms that deal with a huge amount of data. The main reason filter bubbles were introduced was to keep people interested in the content of the platform, in a fierce battle for attention.

With a lot of data, you also get a lot of noise and the answer to a question might change, depending of who is asking it, when and where.

The danger with filter bubbles is that you fall into stereotypes. A few weeks ago, I wrote about this online art project that is exploring filter bubbles across the world. It’s important to be aware of their existence in order to take results with a grain of salt and to constantly look for new channels of information.

Personally, I found the unfiltered results of DuckDuckGo unhelpful and outdated. On another note, as a profit seeking entity, they should have had the decency, not to show ads next to results dealing with this tragedy, at least for a few days.

Image Atlas, the art of filter bubble

Search results for Canada in the Image Atlas

Search results for Canada in the Image Atlas.

Image Atlas is an art project created by New York artist Teryn Simon and the late Aaron Schwartz. Here is a paragraph from the About page:

Image Atlas investigates cultural differences and similarities by indexing top image results for given search terms across local engines throughout the world. Visitors can refine or expand their comparisons from the 57 countries currently available, and sort by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or alphabetical order.

I searched for Canada, and it’s quite interesting to see how it is perceived around the world. Of course, the Toronto skyline and the Rocky Mountains are everywhere, and God knows that Canada is way more than that. It’s fascinating to find a mosque in Egypt or an Indian couple, a 20 dollar bill and a cricket picture in India as a top result.

Please let me know if you try a term and what results did you got.

History teacher using Wikipedia to motivate his students

In my previous post, I wrote about the experience of a literature teacher in which he put a great effort into discouraging his students from using the Internet as a source of information. One of the targets of his experiment was Wikipedia.

Today I found an article about a teacher with a completely different atitude that shows a much better understanding of the new realities of education. “Wikipédia comme outil de motivation scolaire” (Wikipedia as a tool of academic motivation), written by Patrick Rodrigue for the Abitibi Express, presents the case of Martin Baron, teacher in the History department of Cégep de l’Abitibi-Témiscamingue.

As part of the Sociocultural history of the indigenous people and history of the Americas class, students were asked to publish on Wikipedia their research.

The idea for the project came in early 2011, when he asked his students to write about the Algonquins. Their first reflex was to go on Wikipedia, but they didn’t find much information. The idea of seeing their research published online gave the students and extra motivation and as the school semester was advancing, the excitement was increasing.

His requirements were high, the French had to be impeccable, the research had to bring a real contribution and not just a rehash of what was already done.

Each student has contributed with information from his area of interest and the final result is the Algonquin article.

To find out more about this project I suggest you read Une contribution à Wikipédia comme projet de session ! (A Wikipedia contribution as a school project), written by Martin Baron and Marie-Josée Tondreau. I find especially interesting this part:

Une répercussion non prévue
Lors de la publication des travaux, les étudiants ont réalisé spontanément la richesse et les écueils associés à Wikipédia. L’action de publier un article sur un site collaboratif d’information, devant un groupe, était un moment de grande fébrilité. Petite anecdote : des étudiants ont contacté les membres de leur famille au moment de la mise en ligne. Les étudiants ont également constaté à quel point les informations peuvent être critiquées si les références d’un article ne sont pas inscrites. Sans l’avoir anticipé, ce projet a permis de développer l’esprit critique des étudiants face aux informations sur Internet.

This I would try to translate as:

An unforeseen aftereffect
During the publishing of their work, students suddenly realized the richness and the pitfalls of Wikipedia. To publish an article on a collaborative information website, in front of a group, represented a time of great excitement. A small anecdote: the students have contacted their family members at the launch. The students have also realized to what degree information can be criticized if the references of an article are not listed. Without having anticipated it, this project developed the critical thinking of the students concerning information on the Internet.

I find the method used by Martin Baron really enriching for the students, they’ve learned how to do search for relevant and original information, how to reference, how to edit and publish their findings. They’ve got an inside look into the functioning of Wikipedia and now by contributing, they’ve learned how to evaluate information posted online.

Well done M. Baron! Keep up the good work!

Loys Bonod, the teacher that vandalized Wikipedia

Caricature of a teacher punishing kids

“The naughty children”, 1849. Source: Wikipedia

Friday morning, at the Introduction to Information Studies class, we were presented some of the main critiques of the information society and a few arguments used by technology skeptics. One of the cases presented by our professor, was about Loys Bonod, a French teacher that went to great lengths to prove his students are cheating. In the end he wrote a blog post on his website, Comment j’ai pourri le web  (How I rotted the web), where he describes in details his tactic. Here is a brief timeline of the events:

The cheat

Every year, he would ask his students to write an essay about certain subject related to French literature. They would have about a month to do their research and come up with a text. At one point he noticed a recurring pattern of a strange syntactic construction in several of the essays and after a quick search on Google, he realized that his students bought online for less than 2 € an essay on the subject. Later that year, another student chose the shortcut of a ready-made essay and he was caught cheating.

Setting up the trap

At the end of the Summer of that year he found a XVIIth century poem that had no traces on the Internet. The author is Charles de Vion d’Alibray, a very little known character of the French literature.

First he registered an account on Wikipedia and claims to have made some editing to prove himself as a legitimate and credible contributor.

He also registered on several forums used by students, as a fake student and asked questions about this author, than he created another account to answer his own questions with an in apparent scholarly fashion, but his answers were totally wrong.

Finally, he wrote an essay that he submitted to a couple of websites selling essays. These websites had accepted his text without verifying the correctness of the content.

He made sure to post links all over the place on the Internet, so that his online trap gets good page rank on Google.

Once everything was in place, he gave his students two weeks, to write an essay about this poem. He asked them to be original, as he was curios about their personal opinion.

The catch

Out of 65 students, 51 have fallen into his trap by copying to diverse degree from the Internet, the information they have found, without making any background check to see if what they are copying is correct or not. They had used Wikipedia blindly without verifying the authenticity of the sources. The worst errors were those of the interpretation, were complete phrases were recopied, denoting a complete lack of understanding of the poem and of the methodology of writing essays.

He did not gave grades on this assignment, but he managed to have the students blush when they realized they were caught cheating.

Loys Bonod’s conclusion

I will try to translate his conclusion to best of my knowledge:

It is recommended that teachers introduce students to the NTIC (New Technologies of Information and Communication).

I think I’ve done my job and it is self concluding: students in high school do not have the maturity to take any advantage of the digital when it comes to humanities. Their servitude to the Internet goes against the autonomy of thought and personal culture that the school is supposed to give them. Wanting to enter the digital into the school, we forget that he has already entered a long time ago, and in its wild form, he digs the grave of the republican education.

With this educational experience I wanted to show students that teachers can sometimes master new technologies as well as them or better than them.

I then wanted to demonstrate that any content posted on the web is not necessarily validated content, or it can be validated for reasons which fall within the intellectual imposture.

And finally, I wanted to prove that more than laziness, it is a serious lack of confidence that pushes them to copy what they find elsewhere, and that endorsing the thoughts of others, they deny themselves and disappear.

Did I succeeded? It would be to my students to say. One thing is certain: this experience, I think, marked my students and I have a fine reputation in my school.

For my part, I do not believe at all in a possible moralization of digital in schools.

And I defend this paradox: there is no real benefit to the digital unless the mind was built ​​without him.

Update: for an alternative translation, consider proximity1’s comment, as I might have missed some of the nuances of Loys Bonod’s article.

Wikipedia’s reaction

Mr. Bonod’s reputation reached beyond the walls of its school and he’s now given as an example of possible vandalism of Wikipedia, next to men with big penises and friends of gays.

My colleagues’ reaction

While information science at its origins was dealing with archives and libraries, in the pas few decades because of the digital revolution, things are changing fast and information professionals have to adapt fast to new realities.

As a mandatory, introductory course, we’re quite many in the amphitheater and often the reaction of some of my colleagues denote mistrust of new technologies and in few cases, I even felt hatred of anything that would involve a computer, or the Internet.

The story of Mr. Bonod is a juicy bone, for such people that fear technology. What better proof you need to demonstrate that Wikipedia is not a reliable source of scholarly information, than the editing of the Charles de Vion d’Alibray article?

My conclusion: the palaeontologist is not a veterinarian

I have all the respect for Mr. Bonod’s experiment, he put in a lot of time and effort to show kids that stuff on the Internet have to be taken with a grain of salt. What really bothers me is his conclusion that the mind should be formed in a bubble, isolated from the digital world and only exposed to the Internet when a teacher or someone else considers it to be ready.

This is a complete non-sense.

How does Mr. Bonod think it’s even possible to escape the Internet? It’s everywhere, it’s not just the laptops and cellphones that are connected, but those teenager’s TV’s and game consoles too; every day there are more and more devices that get hooked up and educators should stop ignoring it.

How can he foresee the job market his students will have to fit in? I can guarantee, it’ll be totally different from what he has witnessed before and instead of discouraging his students to use the Internet, he should teach team and encourage them to use it correctly and in a constructive way. Vandalizing Wikipedia was maybe to extreme as a pedagogical method.

People like Bonod, I see them as palaeontologists, enamored and passionate about a world long gone. There is nothing wrong to be a palaeontologist, but when your fluffy kitten needs a vaccine or your dog has an indigestion, would you take him to a palaeontology museum or to a veterinarian? I bet you would opt to take your pet to the vet clinic, but what if the doctor is not a veterinarian, but a guy specialized in dinosaurs. He will probably have some basic knowledge about cats and dogs, but he’s mind is filled with ancient bones of Triceratops Horridus and he’s handling your darling like it would been an petrified fossil.

While our cats and dogs are in safe hands with the veterinarians, when it comes to schools, often I wonder about some teachers, the Loys Bonods of the world and their curriculum.

Many journalists hate bloggers and blogs, they feel threatened by how easy it is to write, publish and distribute a story. Photographers hate stock photo website, because they dilute the price of average quality images. Graphic designers a weary of websites like 99designs.ca because people would design a logo for 200$.

The world is changing and educators should not just accept these changes, but embrace them, embed them and use them as tools to open up new perspectives in their work of forming minds and souls.

As the French philosopher Michel Serres pointed out, we shouldn’t be concerned with what we are loosing because of the digital revolution, we should rather focus on what we gain. He actually had a very interesting dialog with Alain Finkielkraut on Radio France Culture about the education in the world that is coming. Here is the link to the podcast, the interview is in French.

When I look around my class and see some of my classmates, future information professionals, people that in a couple of years will decide about library budgets, and archive development, their hatred, fear and complete misunderstanding of the direction our world is going scares me and I wonder, what on Earth are they doing here?

In the second half of our class, we had Martin Lessard, a Montreal based web strategy consultant, invited to talk about the role of social media in a world of information overload. It was quite funny to hear him talk about Loys Bonod’s case, but from a completely different perspective than our professor. I saw many shaking heads in disapproval around me.

In conclusion, those that are passionate about dinos, should not work with kittens.

I’m tired of Instagram pictures

Instagram screenshots

I got to a point when I get nauseous when I see these faded photos taken with the Instagram app, reproducing the effect of time on old Polaroid images.

Developed by, you know that company that was bought for a ridiculous price by Zuckerberg, the app is omnipresent on social media; I see it especially on Twitter, but there is no escape from it on other networks too.

Let’s get things straight, an old, faded Polaroid image is valuable and interesting, because it shows a moment from the past from a unique angle. There are no two Polaroid images the same, because of the specificity of that technology and this makes these images even more special. It’s not the case with the pictures snapped with a phone, they can be shared and reproduced endlessly and in most of the cases the Polaroid effect won’t make them better images.

Jennifer Pahlka challenging you to Code for America

You might have already seen her talking at TED about Code for America (CfA), a movement that brings together developers with the Government on a common ground of creating useful apps that can make people’s life better.

Here, Jennifer Pahlka is talking about local government, and she’s asking developers to come forward and not to be shy to call their city hall and see how they could contribute to their community.

Code for Canada, for when?

I would love to see such a movement here in Canada too. We do have Open Data movements, and there are quite a few really nice examples of projects that were created using data offered by the government. It was just a couple of weeks ago that Quebec’s Open Data portal was launched (the site is in French), and there are similar projects in other provinces too. What I’m hoping for, is a Canadian Open Data movement that would cover all levels of government, federal, provincial and municipal, where knowledge and resources are shared, instead of being fragmented as they are right now.

 

Mobile apps, do you really need them?

Apple loves to brag about how many mobile apps are in their App Store, a number that the Android Market is trying to beat. If anyone is taking a closer look at these apps, most of them are just fancy RSS feeds, or a handful of games that are redesigned over and over again with different skins and slightly modified rules.

It’s very rare to see an app that takes full advantage of the possibilities the platform offers, most of them will settle for a mobile website, that the user has to download and install. The most striking examples I can find, since I work in the municipal field, are municipal apps. Every week, I get press releases about this and that city releasing mobile apps. A common feature I noticed is that they release an iPhone, an Android and a BlackBerry version so that they get “everyone covered”. These apps are mostly about feeding the latest news and press releases of the city.

The companies that are developing these apps are happy to promote this way of distributing news, they get payed three times, every time they sign up a new client. It’s really lucrative, because if the client needs to make a change to the app in order to accommodate new devices, they can charge extra. I’m sure there are other fields too, apart from municipalities, where institutions and companies jump on the app bandwagon.

As BlackBerry starts to sink, I wonder how long are institutions and companies willing to invest in BlackBerry app development. With Android, I’m not worried, there are plenty of people out there, that can’t afford Apple products, and there are plenty that can. Still, having to develop separate apps for all these platforms, is just not sustainable.

I have nothing against apps, they have their role and strengths. Just as no online photo editor can replace the power, speed and versatility of Photoshop (at least not in the immediate future), so goes for certain mobile applications, no responsive design or HTML5 magic can beat them.

Before you go out and spend tax money, or your shareholders money to order a mobile app, make sure that the features you need can only be obtained with an app and you’re not betting on an artificially created tech bubble that will burst sooner, rather than later.

Mobile web is getting stronger and stronger and by investing in a mobile/responsive website, you put your money in a product that will be easy to scale, easy to change, in order to keep up with the exponentially increasing number of devices used to access the Internet.

France to crackdown on visitors of terror website

Now that the ordeal in Toulouse has ended in the death of the al-Qaeda-inspired gunmen, Nicolas Sarkozy came out as a decisive leader, who doesn’t hesitate to take action. I’m expecting that his popularity will go up and he might even win the upcoming elections.

But not all is smooth for him, there will still remain some difficult questions to answer, as in this Haretz article.

The attacker happens to be a Muslim, and this could raise the popularity of Marie LePen too, the candidate of the far right, so Sarkozy had to show that he would go even further to stop terrorists, by imposing the same sentence on repeated visitors of websites that promote terror as on the visitors of child pornography websites, meaning sentences of up to two years in prison and €30,000.

What makes me wonder about the wisdom of his intention, apart from consolidating his image among  his electoral base, is that monitoring visits to websites that promote terror won’t be an easy task.

In the case of child pornography, it’s easier to set up rules, images of models under the age of 18, will be flagged, hence visiting such a website is punishable, but what about terror websites? It’s quite unclear, when does a website will become flagged? What does it mean repeated visitor? How many time a person has to go on such a website to be considered a repeated offender?

Will the law enforcement keep just as a close eye on Neo-Nazi websites and forums as they will on Islamist sites? After all, Anders Behring Breivik was not an Islamist, still he’s the author of the worst terror attack in Scandinavia.

My other question is how will jailing visitors of Islamist websites will be prove to be effective on the long run?

The Toulouse killer was a small time crook that became radicalized while doing time. Sending people to jail, who already seem to be attracted by extremist ideologies, will mean that they get a bursary to the best universities of crime and terror. If they won’t come out from jail more radical than ever, for sure they will have plenty of opportunity to recruit others for their cause.

Barack Obama is responsive…

…well, at least the new version of his website it is.

As you can see on this picture below, as the browser window is shrunken, the layout will adapt, by reducing the size of the images, the way they are presented and if we go really small, you will see major changes in the navigation too.

 

You can try it out for yourself by resizing your browser window.

The website was developed with a “mobile first” approach, meaning that first of all, the website had to look good and to be easy to navigate on a mobile phone. Once that is sorted out, they move up to larger screen sizes. Here is a short interview with the head developer and the design director of the new BarackObama.com.

Let me finish this post by paraphrasing a famous speech:

I have a dream that one day the web development community will rise up and live out the true meaning of the Internet: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all websites are created equal. Free at last! Free from the slavery of App stores!

Democracy at its best

Disclaimer

I’m not a member of any political party and I don’t have the intention to join, or be affiliate with any of them

My MP’s answer

A few weeks ago, Canadian Internet users were terrorized by a CRTC decision to approve Usage Based Billing of the Internet. At that time I expressed my concern by all means I could: I tweeted about this, posted stories on Facebook, I signed the petition, blogged about it and I even wrote an email to my MP.

I did not used the template offered by Open Media, I preferred to send Stéphane Dion a personalized message.

Over the days, the number of petition have grown with speed and, our MPs’ inboxes were flooded with emails asking them to stop the CRTC. Our politicians have listened and unanimously asked the CRTC to reconsider their decision.

To my surprise, I got today an email from the Administrative Assistant of Mr. Dion, with two PDF documents, with the following content:

Canada Coat of Arms
The Honourable Stephane Dion, P.C., M.P.

Saint-Laurent, February 9, 2011

Mr. Adam Sofineti

adamsofineti[a]gmail[.]com

Dear Mr. Sofineti,

Thank you for your email concerning usage based billing for the Internet.

Today, the Liberal Party of Canada issued the following statement regarding the CRTC’s decision on usage based billing.

We do not agree with the CRTC’s decision on usage-based billing, and we will bring the fight for an open and innovative internet environment to Parliament,” said the Liberal Industry, Science and Technology Critic Marc Garneau.

Canadians who want to take action and join the Liberal opposition to the usage-based billing decision can get involved through the Liberal Party website at http://lpc.ca/ubb.

Citizens’ groups and small telecom providers are upset that the CRTC has allowed usage-based billing to go ahead, which allows large internet service providers to raise rates and reduce download limits for consumers.

The CRTC’s decision limits competition and choice for consumers, said Liberal Consumer Affairs Critic Dan McTeague. Places like Ontario will now face 25-gigabyte (GB) download caps, compared to the U.S. which enjoys caps of 250 GB.

The CRTC decision will limit Canadians’ ability to use services like Netflix or watch the news streamed over the internet. This shows yet again that under a Conservative government, CRTC has come to mean ‘Consumers Rarely Taken into Consideration.'”

The second document is signed by Jocelyn Decoste, Riding Executive Assistant:

Liberals believe in more internet competition, not less,” said Liberal Heritage Critic Pablo Rodriquez. “Canada needs more investment in high-speed internet and we believe more competition will increase that investment. We are calling on the government to review this decision.”

In 2009, Liberals joined with the Consumer’s Association of Canada to call for the federal government and all parties in the House of Commons to support measures that will increase cell phone and internet competition, such as net neutrality.

I hope that the above clarifies the matter for you.

It did clarified it, and even more. Yesterday, apart from celebrating St-Valentines as everyone else, we also celebrated our fourth anniversary of becoming Canadian citizens. I feel lucky and proud to live in a country, where as an ordinary citizen not only I can speak my mind, but I might even find a listening ear and a politician willing to take action.

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