Category Archives: thoughts

Thoughts, musings, etc.

SummerStage 2013 App: SummerStageLove, formerly SummerStageHand.com

Edit: Just kidding, I decided to go for a less lamey sounding name: say hello to SummerStageLove.com. The HackSummerStage entries are here. There were only five but I’m proud to be the only web app (though it’s responsive, thanks to Twitter Bootstrap)

Just a staging post for an app I’ll try to submit for NYC HackSummerStage 2013‘s contest

I thought I might try to build it on EC2 but now it’s looking more like good ol static files on S3, an approach that has gone well for NPR and Alastair Coote, among others. SOPA Opera and the Bastards Books were also S3 apps.

Republia Times: possibly the best game about newspapering ever made

Update: I guess I’m not being completely hyperbolic; Mr. Pope’s “Republia Times” is nominated for “Most Significant Impact” and “Best Gameplay” awards at this year’s Games for Change Festival…not bad for a game he made in 48 hours as practice.

Ever wondered what it’s like to edit a newspaper and influence what the public thinks and cares about? The small, but financially stable Republia Times has an opening for editor-in-chief. The job duties are simply “increase [the public's] loyalty by editing the Republia Times carefully. Pick only stories that highlight the good things about Republia and its government.”

“The Republia Times” was created by developer Lucas Pope and is as sharp as satire of newspapering as I’ve ever seen in the gaming world. Its crude mechanics and appearance may be off-putting, but as a whole, “The Republia Times” is astonishing considering that Pope wrote it to practice for a 48-hour game development competition. Not only that, but it was his first Flash game, which, if you’ve never tried learning the Flash development environment, is astonishing in itself.

I don’t think Pope has been a newspaper editor before, either, but he manages to capture the cynicism behind modern and classic yellow journalism: political articles bore the readership, weather and sports attract it. The twist here is that the Republia Times is the mouthpiece of the state, and so you have to balance the interesting tabloid material (“C&J Tie the Knot!”) with boilerplate to make the government look good (“Latest poll shows broad satisfaction with government leaders”). There’s a little mini-Tetris challenge in fitting the stories in (you choose how much real-estate each article gets) before the clock runs out, and an additional plot twist halfway through the game.

The game is probably too cynical for most journalists, at least the ones who don’t fancy themselves government spokespeople, but even the most idealistic of editors will get a kick out how Pope manages to distill the profession into something so simplistic. That Pope manages to make it entertaining and thought-provoking despite the limits he was working with a notable achievement. I can’t think of any news-related game that has been better executed, though, admittedly, the field is small. The Knight Foundation News Challenge has given hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to journalism-themed games. If I were them, I’d give Pope six-figures to make something, even though it may be more subversive than the journalism industry would prefer.

I’ve actually buried the lede here. I only came across the Republia Times, which Pope created last year, because I read about his upcoming game, “Papers, Please!“, which puts you in the shoes of a border inspector in a Cold War-era nation. It’s only in playable beta (free for Mac and PC), but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s my favorite game of the year. The trailer speaks for itself:

Pope says the game will hopefully be out this summer. If you’re on Steam, give Pope an upvote on Greenlight.

A message of empathy

This week has been rough for the American Muslim community. Besides the Boston Marathon bombing attacks, there was an incident on the Brooklyn subway that, while didn’t result in any lives lost, was very disturbing (and could not have had worst timing): A Brooklyn teenager, Stephen Stowe, but it’s actually pleasantly level-headed and surprisingly and inspirationally empathic:

From user PerrierAndSaltines:

To me, it sounds like this interaction became combative because of a mutual dislike. We cannot combat hate with hate. I have (as I think we all should) a very strong feeling of singularity with Muslim people, and if a Muslim greeted me in the fashion described, I would have at least said “Thank you” or even offered a “Shalom”.

And user lhagler

You know, while this teen was completely out of line and deserved to be taken into custody…would it have been so hard for the Jewish gentleman to just return his originally (according to the article) very polite greeting? Sounds like he might have been reaching out.

Maybe it’s just a sign of how cynical I’ve become that I expect people from communities that have been attacked to reflexively react with anger and fear, but reading the graciousness in this discussion really brightened my day after this terrible week.

A tiny website wins 2013′s Pulitzer for National Reporting

I used to work with Susan White at ProPublica but even I was completely surprised yesterday when InsideClimate News, the non-profit news website she now leads, won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for an in-depth investigation of a 2010 pipeline spill in Michigan.

Don’t remember that spill? Maybe that’s why InsideClimate titled its story, “the biggest oil spill you’ve never heard of.”

You might also describe InsideClimate News as “the online news startup you’ve never heard of” – I wouldn’t know anything about it if it hadn’t been where Susan moved to. The surprise isn’t that she led yet another Pulitzer Prize project (she edited two such projects already at the San Diego Union Tribune and ProPublica) – it’s that InsideClimate News just seemed too small, too novel of a news organization to earn the Pulitzer committee’s notice.

At just 5 years old and with only 7 full-time reporters, InsideClimate News is likely the smallest news organization ever to win in the National Reporting category (see table below), and perhaps the smallest news organization ever to win any Pulitzer since the Point Reyes Light in 1979.

Here’s another size measurement: According to the AP, InsideClimate had about 200,000 page views last month. The winner of last year’s National Reporting Pulitzer, the Huffington Post, is also an online-only news site. But it reportedly racks up a a billion page views a month: i.e., 5,000 times the page views at InsideClimate.

Numbers may seem like a superficial metric, but there’s a reason why big papers dominate every Pulitzer category (except for maybe Public Service) – big investigations require big resources. InsideClimate’s investigation occupied 3 of their reporters for 7 months, a major commitment for a news organization still struggling to draw a daily readership. Even more impressive: InsideClimate is based in Brooklyn, but they invested time and money (i.e. a travel budget) for a story several states away.

As InsideClimate reporter Elizabeth McGowan told the AP:

“That’s quite a sacrifice to make when you’re trying to get eyeballs on your website,” said McGowan, who started her reporting with a trip out to Marshall, Mich., in November 2011. “We made the commitment to this story because we thought this story mattered.”

“Pulling me off, their most seasoned reporter, was an act of faith to some degree because I could’ve been pounding out five, six, seven stories a week”

I didn’t read InsideClimate’s project when it came out and the comment/social-media sections on the early stories didn’t show huge pickup initially. The presentation is what’d you’d expect from a small no-frills operation: nearly all the photos come from government sources and the graphics are relatively straightforward and non-interactive. But thankfully, the stories were judged by the quality and impact of their investigation, rather than fanciness of presentation.

A screenshot of the first story in InsideClimate's series

A screenshot of the first story in InsideClimate’s series

The future of journalism as a profession, never mind investigative news, is still uncertain. But InsideClimate’s Pulitzer is a great validation of how passionate startups can still make a huge impact in the proud tradition of watchdog journalism. Congrats to InsideClimate and its lead reporters, Lisa Song, Elizabeth McGowan and David Hasemyer.

You can read the entire series on the Pulitzer’s official website. Or you can download the story in ebook format here.

An aggregated list of National Reporting Pulitzers

The list below is scraped from the Pulitzer’s official list, and I used OpenRefine to cluster the names together. Interestingly, the last three National Reporting Pulitzers have been won by online-only organizations: InsideClimate News, Huffington Post, and ProPublica. In 2009, the St. Petersburg Times won a National Reporting Pulitzer for its PolitiFact project. PolitiFact had a print component but it can be reasonably seen as the first Pulitzer-winning website.

Fifteen years ago, there was debate over whether the Pulitzer committee should have a separate prize for online-only submissions. The committee has wisely decided to judge journalism by its quality and not what format it comes in, and the success of news websites in this prestigious category is a good sign of how forward-thinking the Pulitzers have become.

NameNational Reporting Pulitzers
New York Times17
Wall Street Journal14
Philadelphia Inquirer13
Washington Post13
Des Moines Register and Tribune7
Los Angeles Times7
Associated Press5
Chicago Tribune5
Boston Globe5
United Press International3
St. Petersburg Times3
Dallas Times Herald2
Dayton Daily News2
Christian Science Monitor2
Oregonian2
Seattle Times2
Washington Star2
Minneapolis Tribune2
Albuquerque Tribune1
Bloomberg News1
Chattanooga Times1
Chicago Daily News1
Gannett News Service1
InsideClimate News1
Kansas City Star1
Knight Newspapers1
Knight-Ridder, Inc.1
Miami Herald1
Nashville Tennessean1
New York Daily News1
New York Herald Tribune1
Newhouse News Service1
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette1
ProPublica1
Providence Journal and Evening Bulletin1
Scripps-Howard Newspaper Alliance1
Arizona Republic1
Atlanta Journal and Constitution1
Baltimore Sun1
Boston Phoenix1
Dallas Morning News1
Huffington Post1
Kansas City Times1
Miami (FL) News1
Times-Picayune1
Washington Daily News1

Gawker’s misguided 70-characters-for-SEO memo

Today, Gawker’s Nick Denton issued a mandate that headlines be 70-characters or fewer because of the “tyranny of the search and social algorithms.” The only actual example he refers to is Deadspin’s expose of Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend hoax:

Why this drastic measure? Google and others truncate headlines at 70 characters. On the Manti Teo story, Deadspin’s scoop fell down the Google search results, overtaken by copycat stories with simpler headlines.

Deadspin’s headline was 118 characters. Vital information — “hoax” — was one of the words that was cut off. Our headline was less intelligible — and less clickworthy — than others. And Google demotes search results that don’t get clicked on.

Denton is right about how the headlines were seen and (likely) wrong about why the headlines rank so low.

He’s right that Deadspin’s headline is terrible for search engine users. The original headline was:

Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax

Here’s what happens when you search for Manti Te’o’ and some variation of “hoax” and “girlfriend” in Google today:

Screen Shot 2013-04-11 at 2.18.29 PM

So, if you’ve been told that there is a crazy hoax by Manti Te’o and you go to Google to find out, which of these headlines seem more interesting to you?

  1. Story of Manti Te’o’s Girlfriend Is Revealed to Be a Hoax – NYTimes …
  2. Story of Manti Te’o girlfriend and her death apparently a hoax – ESPN
  3. Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking … – Deadspin

So Denton’s advice to keep headlines to the point is pretty good advice, although I’d argue that headlines can be longer than 70 characters, if the meat of it (the proper nouns, active verb) are in the first 70 characters.

However, he is wrong in thinking that the less-attractive, less-clickedness of the headline was what makes it rank lower than the NYT and ESPN stories.

Though, again, we don’t know for sure all the factors in PageRank, one of the most-well observed signals is the order of the keywords. When you enter a search query, Google cares about the order of the words, so that “mexican restaurant in new york with good tacos” will bring back a different order of results (or even different results completely) than “mexican restaurant with good tacos in new york”.

In the same way, if these were page titles, Google might consider “mexican restaurant in new york with good tacos” a better “authority” on “Mexican restaurants in New York” than a page titled “mexican restaurant with good tacos in new york.”

So back to Manti Te’o. If you were searching for a story related to Manti Te’o and a hoax, you would query “manti teo hoax”. Notice where those keywords appear in each of these headlines:

  1. Story of Manti Te’o’s Girlfriend Is Revealed to Be a Hoax – NYTimes …
  2. Story of Manti Te’o girlfriend and her death apparently a hoax – ESPN
  3. Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking … – Deadspin

What’s especially wrongheaded about Denton’s memo is that he can have good SEO and good headlines, because SEO (and search results display) is primarily affected by the meta title of the article. It’s strange that Gawker, one of the more modern and most prominent publishing platforms, apparently has no way (or policy) to set the headline differently from the title of an article.

For example, the headline of this Gawker article is: “Feral, Thieving Mountain Men Keep Emerging from America’s Woods, Unwillingly.” This is the same as the title of the article, which is set in the meta tags of article’s HTML. It is this meta-title field that shows up in search engine results.

Presumably, this ranks highly for anyone searching for “feral thieving mountain men.”

But if you were looking for news on the actual “Troy Knapp, the notorious ‘Mountain Man’ outlaw”, you would probably Google for “mountain man outlaw” or “troy knapp outlaw”.

Apparently, even the staid old New Yorker magazine has more Internet savvy than Gawker when it comes to SEO. In this article about a Florida man’s curious trade in dinosaur bones, the headline gets to be all punny – Bones of Contention – while the meta title just lays down the facts for SEO-goodness: “Paige Williams: Eric Prokopi’s Curious Trade in Mongolian Dinosaurs”

The New York Times’ history of covering (up?) breast cancer

After Roger Ebert’s death last week, I picked up The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, which was recommended during a discussion on how the war on cancer seemed hopeless. I’m not finished with the book yet, but I can already recommend it for being one of the best medical non-fiction books I’ve ever read.

The facts in Mukherjee’s “biography of cancer” seem to indicate that “no simple, universal, or definitive cure is in sight – and is never likely to be”, but Mukherjee also believes that medical science continues to make profound progress in understanding and treating cancer. And if anything, we might be farther along had we funded cancer research with the resources and commitment it requires.

After World War 2 drained interest and funding from cancer research, Mukherjee writes, “cancer again became the great unmentionable, the whispered-about disease that no one spoke about publicly.” As an example, he retells a story from the 2001 book, The Human Side of Cancer, in which a breast cancer activist describes being shunned by the New York Times:

In the early 1950s, Fanny Rosenow, a breast cancer survivor and cancer advocate, called the New York Times to post an advertisement for a support group for women with breast cancer. Rosenow was put through, puzzlingly, to the society editor of the newspaper. When she asked about placing her announcement, a long pause followed. “I’m sorry, Ms. Rosenow, but the Times cannot publish the word breast or the word cancer in its pages. “Perhaps,” the editor continued, “you could say there will be a meeting about diseases of the chest wall.” Rosenow hung up, disgusted.

The original source for Rosenow’s story – The Human Side of Cancer, by Dr. Jimmie C. Holland – has an upbeat coda:

However, [Rosenow and her friend] persisted, and their devoted efforts resulted in what is widely known as Reach to Recovery, a worldwide support program for women with breast cancer, administered today through the American Cancer Society.

Sixty-five years after the era of the Cleaver family, we’re still having serious debates over whether mothers should be allowed to breast-feed children in public. And Lady Justice herself was shamed about her wardrobe malfunction not too long ago. That the Times, still a stodgy paper today, would be too squeamish 65 years ago to print the word “breast” seems, well, self-evident. And so Rosenow’s story has been repeated in much of the major media coverage of Mukherjee’s book, including NPR, the Boston Globe, and even the New York Times itself.

What Ms. Rosenow described may have actually happened (it’s not like she or the Times society editor had Google or Lexis-Nexis back then), but a quick search of the New York Times digital archive shows that the Times had published articles about breasts and cancer throughout the 1950s.

For example, on September 24, 1950, the Times ran a story headlined “Movie Aids Cancer Detection:”

A color film designed to aid women in recognizing early signs of breast cancer is available for showings before Brooklyn women’s groups. Titled “Breast Self-Examination,” it was produced by the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute of the United States Pubic Health Service.

Besides running notices of which local theaters were screening “Breast Self-Examination,” the Times also wrote several articles about the movie’s educational impact: “Cancer Film Saves Lives”, the Times reported on April 22, 1951. And, a year after the film’s introduction, the Times reported its success: 911,000 SAW CANCER FILM; Year’s Record Cited in Showing Self-Test for Women. And of course, the Times found fit to print the obligatory self-back-patting hug-your-newspaper-today feature: NEWSPAPER AID PRAISED; Cancer Experts Say Sufferers Gain by Care Publicity:

Newspapers and the radio were credited today with helping doctors fight cancer by causing sufferers to seek early treatment.

“There is no question but that the information made public by newspapers, radio, and other news services is making it possible for us to see patients with breast cancer earlier than ever before,” Dr. J. Elliott Scarborough, Jr., declared.

In fact, the breast cancer advice that the Times printed in 1952 doesn’t seem far removed from what you’d find in any contemporary medical column:

SELF-EXAMINATION URGED: Women Must Detect Early Stage of Breast Cancer, Doctor Says

If breast cancer is to be detected in its early stages, it is the women themselves who must do it…Dr. Haagensen said the breasts should be examined at least every two months to be reasonably sure they are free of cancer signs…Physicians, Dr. Haagensen said, should teach women self-examination.

Of course, cancer is a far more common topic of public concern and media coverage today. As Mukherjee himself points out, that’s because until relatively recently, humans generally didn’t live long enough to die from cancer. One of the earliest mentions of breast cancer in the Times archive occurs in 1852, in its column titled, Weekly Report of Deaths in the City and County of New York. Between January 10-17, the Times noted 324 deaths, the majority of them children. The top killers are diseases we rarely hear today: 54 deaths from consumption, 28 to convulsions, 20 to scarlet fever, 18 to “Dropsy in the head.” In contrast, “Cancer” and “Cancer of Breast” accounted for 1 death apiece. That cancer has become medicine’s public enemy number one is almost a sign of wealth and progress. In impoverished countries, cancer doesn’t even rank among the top 10 in causes of death.

If you’re interested in taking a depressing trip through medical history, type “cure for cancer” into the Times’ digital archive. You’ll find headlines from every decade – if not every one or two years – since 1852 touting a promising development in the fight against cancer:

If the war against cancer seems like an unending series of misguided schemes and false hope – much like our ongoing wars against terror, drugs, and poverty ‐ it’s because, like those wars, the enemy was never just one monolithic opponent that one kind of “weapon” (and lots of it) could ever defeat. So it’s fitting that the facts may be more complicated than they seem in Ms. Rosenow’s anecdote – because that’s the case with everything related to cancer. One of the most interesting things about Mukherjee’s attempt to write a “biography” of cancer is how, when the literary framing is inadequate for describing cancer, it serves only to more fully illuminate the scope of this war.

Louis C.K. on success: “It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life”

The NYT had a great Q&A with Louis C.K. on Saturday about how successful he’s been in taking control of his own distribution: “The Joke’s on Louis C.K.” (the editor who thought up this headline deserves a bonus).

A key exchange about how “easy” it was for him to achieve success:

NYT: Does it matter that what you’ve achieved, with your online special and your tour can’t be replicated by other performers who don’t have the visibility or fan base that you do?

Why do you think those people don’t have the same resources that I have, the same visibility or relationship? What’s different between me and them?

NYT: You have the platform. You have the level of recognition.

So why do I have the platform and the recognition?

NYT: At this point you’ve put in the time.

There you go. There’s no way around that. There’s people that say: “It’s not fair. You have all that stuff.” I wasn’t born with it. It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life. If you’re new at this — and by “new at it,” I mean 15 years in, or even 20 — you’re just starting to get traction. Young musicians believe they should be able to throw a band together and be famous, and anything that’s in their way is unfair and evil. What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute.

In 2010, Louis talked about how he was learning to shoot and edit Louie his own laptop. It probably wasn’t a smooth process to coordinate with actually directing, writing, and acting the show early on, but the ability to exert control over the entire creative process seems to have paid off.

Roger Ebert, the mind-opener

My first exposure to Robert Ebert was two decades ago from his reviews which were packaged in Microsoft’s CD-ROM product, Cinemania. There were a few other reviewers included in that computerized film compendium, but none were as memorable or captivating to me when I was a junior high kid with no real appreciation for art or writing. It seems silly now, but back then it really made an impression on me how an eloquent reviewer such as Ebert could give four stars to seemingly-shallow blockbuster films, the kind that other reviewers would pretentiously dismiss as beneath them. For example, here’s his four star review for Dawn of the Dead:

But, even so, you may be asking, how can I defend this depraved trash? I do not defend it. I praise it. And it is not depraved, although some reviews have seen it that way. It is about depravity.

If you can see beyond the immediate impact of Romero’s imagery, if you can experience the film as being more than just its violent extremes, a most unsettling thought may occur to you: The zombies in “Dawn of the Dead” are not the ones who are depraved. They are only acting according to their natures, and, gore dripping from their jaws, are blameless.

The depravity is in the healthy survivors, and the true immorality comes as two bands of human survivors fight each other for the shopping center: Now look who’s fighting over the bones! But “Dawn” is even more complicated than that, because the survivors have courage, too, and a certain nobility at times, and a sense of humor, and loneliness and dread, and are not altogether unlike ourselves. A-ha.

Ebert judged movies not by his own personal preferences or ideas of what a proper movie should be, he judged them by what they purported to do within their means, and whether they did so with passion and wit. If only more critics, movie or otherwise, had such open minds.

R.I.P. Roger.

Google might remove search box from atop its results page

I noticed an interesting thing in Chrome Canary this morning (Chrome Canary is the bleeding edge version of the Google Chrome browser for early adopters to try out) – when you perform a search using the browser omni-addressbar, you’re taken to the standard Google search results page. However, the search bar that has been at the top of the Google results page since seemingly forever, is gone.

In the above image, the Google Canary is using the dark blue theme. Apparently, the Google designers think that if you’re savvy enough to do a search via address bar (instead of going to Google.com to do your searches), then you’ll always do it from the address bar.

The light-gray subnav bar (“Web Images Maps Shopping, etc”) is bumped up to the top of the results page. Removing the search bar (and button) adds a good 30 pixels for more search result real estate. Here’s what 30 pixels looks like on a 500 pixel-high browser window:

What 30 pixels looks like on a Google Search results page

What 30 pixels looks like on a Google Search results page

(note: The black-bar top-nav is also removed in Chrome Canary, though I’m not sure if that’s the result of a different UX decision. That also frees up more screen space)

It’s a sensible design choice; for all I know, this change could’ve been enacted a year ago and I probably wouldn’t have noticed. The search bar as-part-of-the-browser-app is a design pattern that’s only become more entrenched with how search is done on native apps (on Google and on any other service that has full text search), where the search is accessed through a fixed widget or special button. Perhaps this will increase the rate of click throughs for Google search results that aren’t among the top two returned, now that there’s a little more real estate? It may seem like a sliver, but slivers can matter: Google’s and Amazon’s tests famously showed that imperceptible delays would have a significant negative effect on user engagement: in Amazon’s case, every 100ms cut sales on a given page as much as 1%.

Note: at the time of this post, Google Chrome was at version 26.0.1410.43. Canary is at 27.0.1454.0.

Update: Just noticed that Google Operating System (an unofficial blog) covered this issue last week. In his March 16 post, Alex Chitu has these complaints:

Closely integrating Chrome with Google Search breaks a lot of things. For example, you can’t edit the URL to tweak some parameters, the “I’m feeling lucky” feature is no longer available and the omnibox doesn’t include visual spell checking, enhanced suggestions and probably other features.

I think all of these complaints are likely seen as minor:

1. I bet Google’s A/B testing shows that a very negligible part of their user base tries to manually tweak the URL parameters. Hell, I don’t even do that and I’m a developer. When teaching data journalists how to navigate government websites by futzing with the params (which are much more straightforward than Google’s), I’ve found that many of them are amazed that you can even do that. I’m guessing that is very much the same for most Google users in general.

2. Spellcheck is not needed for Google searches. Google spends a significant amount of resources and academic talent to get past user input errors. In fact, Google probably wants to train users *not* to spellcheck their queries, as it slows down the search time (from the user’s perspective). Better to have Google bend over backwards for the user, I suppose.

3. “I’m feeling lucky” is more or less unneeded with how Google has refined its search experience. And it doesn’t seem like a much used feature anyway, though it is a cool quirk.

The bigger picture, though, is that greater visibility for the third or fourth search result is likely to be something that benefits all Google search users than the features listed above.

The Google death and resurrection of Amy Wilentz

Author Amy Wilentz has a fun piece about how Google listed her as “dead” in the rich snippet search result for her name. Her untimely death apparently came from her Wikipedia entry, which was, to say the least, unconventionally created:

(is there a conventional way for Wikipedia entries to come about?)

Google picked up my facts from my Wikipedia entry. My Wikipedia entry, oddly, was put up by Cousin Joel, who has a genealogy obsession, and has assembled an astounding dossier on our family, finding members of it in places as far flung as Dvinsk, Latvia, Hollywood, California, and Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

So it’s not too surprising that my original Wikipedia entry, as conceived by Joel, was — let’s be honest — more about my father (a famous New Jersey judge) than about me. Joel began the entry with my connection to my father, and immediately mentioned my father’s birthdate and the date of his death.

Google is not a subtle thief. If your name on Wikipedia is followed by a birth and death date, apparently those belong to you from that day forward, no matter whose dates they may be. Seen that way, I suppose I should just be glad that I’m not related (as far as Joel knows) to King Solomon, another judge.

The problem was probably not Google’s fault: natural language processing across the entire corpus of the web is a tricky thing. But Wilentz tackles the technical topic of search indexing from a layperson’s standpoint, which, in my opinion, makes it a particularly valuable read as she details the impregneable process of how to correct Google. I understand the technical theory (I think) of Google’s searchbots but I’m not sure that even I know how to get something fixed in the search results. More importantly, I don’t even know that if Google wanted to improve things, how they might do so that wouldn’t crimp the technical workflow. Anyway, Wilentz’s anecdote is well-worth reading, and as you’d expect from an author deserving of a Wikipedia entry, nicely written and entertaining.

At some point after Wilentz wrote her post, her search result correctly lists her as alive (for now). It’s likely a result of her Wikipedia entry’s first line listing her birth date – “Amy Wilentz (born September 1, 1954) is an American journalist and writer. – as opposed to: “Amy Wilentz is an American journalist and writer.”. Note/Update: this theory is wrong, as the corrected birthdate format didn’t happen until today. Matt Cutts responded to the post on Hacker News.

But who really knows the machinations behind Google’s search results? Wilentz’s fixed lifespan reminds me of this entertaining anecdote from (Steven Levy’s “In the Plex”) (non-affiliate link) on how Google engineers fixed a vexing problem of a garden gnome that wouldn’t go away:

But one problem was so glaring that the team wasn’t comfortable releasing Froogle: when the query “running shoes” was typed in, the top result was a garden gnome sculpture that happened to be wearing sneakers. Every day engineers would try to tweak the algorithm so that it would be able to distinguish between lawn art and footwear, but the gnome kept its top position.

One day, seemingly miraculously, the gnome disappeared from the results. At a meeting, no one on the team claimed credit. Then an engineer arrived late, holding an elf with running shoes. He had bought the one-of-a kind product from the vendor, and since it was no longer for sale, it was no longer in the index. “The algorithm was now returning the right results,” says a Google engineer. “We didn’t cheat, we didn’t change anything, and we launched.”

Someday, a Google engineer may find it easier to just ressurect someone than algorithmically fix a search snippet…

Update: Google search engineer Matt Cutts responded on Hacker News. He doesn’t say how it was eventually fixed, but says that the “Feedback / More info” link really does lead to a reporting tool that gets reviewed “and that’s the fastest way to report an issue”