August 2005 Archives

audiovox dumbphone

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A couple of weeks ago I received a hand-me-down Audiovox SMT 5600 "smartphone" from Marc Smith (my manager at Microsoft), so that I could start to test out the various mobile apps that the research and product groups are developing. (I'm paying for my own service, though, in case you're wondering.) It took quite some time to get service set up on the phone, due to the overall stupidity of Cingular and its handling of the AT&T merger. The short version is I can't use a Cingular SIM in the card, because Cingular won't unlock it for me to use with their service; instead, I have to use an AT&T SIM, with an AT&T billing plan, even though Cingular took over AT&T. Silliness.

Marc gave me the phone and a USB cable for it--and when I also asked for an AC charger, he told me the USB cable could be used to charge the phone. Good enough, I thought. One less cable to use. Until this Friday, when I plugged my low-on-power phone into my laptop and went to bed. My laptop sensibly turned itself off not long after that, since I'd forgotten to override the power settings. And the phone ran completely out of power and went dead.

In the morning, I turned the computer on, figuring I could recharge the phone before we headed out for the day...but the amber charging light didn't come on. I tried it on another USB port, and then on another computer. Still no luck. I spent some time poking around online, and discovered that the SMT5600 will only charge over USB if the ActiveSync software has established a connection. And if the phone is dead, obviously the connection can't be established. That's not a smart phone--it's a really, really dumb phone.

We tried five different stores yesterday looking for an AC (or auto) charger--Cingular sells the phone, but the store didn't have a charger. Neither did Best Buy. Or Fry's. Or Car Toys. Or Radio Shack. Feh. Then I had a brainstorm--we now live 1.1 miles from Robert Scoble, who I know has the same phone. So I called Robert, only to find that his AC charger was at the office rather than at home. He pointed out that I could use my magical blue employee badge to get into his building and retrieve it from his office (non-managerial offices at Microsoft seem not to have locks for the most part). Then this morning I remembered that one of my colleagues has a whole pile of iMates (rebranded SMT5600s, basically), and that the chances were good there was a spare charger there. So this morning I headed over to campus with the kids, and found a whole pile of chargers in my colleague's office. I borrowed one, which I'll return tomorrow morning--I felt a little awkward "stealing" it like that, but it clearly wasn't being used today, and it was out in plain sight. :/

The phone's charging now, and I'll be careful not to let it get to the danger level again until I have my own AC charger.

making a difference

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I was reading my daily blog doses on Friday when I came across Lilia's post The Kindness of Strangers. I followed the links. And I cried, too.

When Lane was born, Gerald and I were both students. Lane ended up in the NICU for ten days. It turned out to be a false alarm--he was fine. But we had an enormous hospital bill on our hands--neonatal intensive care ain't cheap. Luckily, that was 1994, well before the Republicans had gutted our national safety net. We qualified for Medicaid, and escaped financial disaster.

In contrast, here's how Badger, an ABD with a 12-year-old son (Badger-boy) and terminally ill husband (Mr. Badger), described her "safety net" experience:

I brought him home from the hospital only five days later, so determined was he to make a speedy and full recovery. But between the weight loss from the cancer (he’d lost almost 40 pounds before he finally had surgery) and the trauma of the surgery itself, he was very weak. So I applied for Social Security Disability. Fortunately, like good honest Americans, we had paid self-employment taxes on his art and teaching income, and he qualified for benefits: $590 a month. Although our combined income—my salary as a GTF and his disability check—does not cover all our monthly bills, the Social Security Administration determined that we make too much money to quality for SSI. The maximum income to get SSI: $570 a month. You like that math? That $20 difference? And without SSI, there is no Medicaid coverage (until you’ve been on Social Security for two years), and without Medicaid coverage, there is no assistance with any medical expenses we accrue in his follow-up care.

Cost to date for surgery, CT-scans, hospital stays, doctors’ visits, and labwork: $79,000. Insurance benefit left for year: $21,000. Days left until new benefit year: 145. Response from Social Security Administration when I went down to their office with our 2004 tax returns to prove our lack of income: Priceless.

“There’s nothing I can do for you. Come back in two years.”

Prognosis of someone with stage four liver cancer: 3 months

Read the whole post, entitled "The political gets personal." Please.

I can't solve the problem of world hunger. I can't bring peace to Iraq. And I can't cure Mr. Badger's cancer. But I can help Badger and Badger-boy by donating to a fund to help them with medical and living expenses. So can you. I hope you will.

whirlwind weekends

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The downside of working at Microsoft during my sabbatical is that I lost my summer vacation. I've gotten spoiled by the long summer break that comes with an academic job, and the opportunity it gives me to travel and relax with my family.

This summer we're trying to take advantage of the beautiful Pacific Northwest, but we're mostlly limited to weekend trips. Last weekend we went to Mount Rainier National Park, where we spent Saturday exploring the Sunrise area of the park, Saturday night at a lovely resort on Crystal Mountain, and Sunday driving to and hiking in the Paradise area of the park. It was a great way to spent a couple of days, but it would have been nice to have stayed longer. (Photos available on Flickr.)

This past weekend we did a package trip to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, through the Victoria Clipper company. (Photos on Flickr.) The package included round trip for the four of us between Seattle's waterfront and Friday Harbor, a 2.5 hour whale and sea-life watching trip, and a 1-bedroom suite at the Best Western. We booked it on Thursday of last week (when there were no hotel rooms to be found), and they were able to fit us in. The cost was a good bit higher than it would have been for us to have taken the Washington State ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor, and done the whale watching and hotel separately--but in this case, it was worth it because we were able to book at short notice.

The down side was having to get to the ship by 6:45am for check-in and boarding. The kids were tired and crabby, the lines were long, and the check-in process was incredibly inefficient. The boat was packed, and we couldn't find seats near a window, so our views were limited. (I tried going up onto the top deck, but at 25 knots on a cool morning, that's a pretty cold place to be. And it was packed, too.) All in all, it was far from a luxury cruise. There was limited food service--sandwich baskets, hot dogs, etc. We brought coolers with food and drink.

The whale watching wasn't as great as I'd hoped, either. We saw several whales from the 3 pods of orcas that inhabit the area, but they stayed pretty far away from the boat, and didn't surface much. The boys were tired and crabby from too many hours on the boat (7:45-11:30 for the trip there; 11:30 to 2:00 for the whale watching). That's where the issue of having only a weekend really rears its ugly head--we tried to cram too much into one day, and ended up with understandably unhappy kids.

Inside Serendipity Books Sunday was lovely, however. We slept in, then headed into town at around 11am. We ate at charming local restaurants where the service and food were both great, and did some shopping. Friday Harbor reminds me a lot of little coastal towns in New England, like Wellfleet on Cape Cod, and I loved being there. The kids found a toy store (Osito's) that had a great selection of items, and ended up buying some adorable stuffed animals and tiny "lucky pigs" as their souvenirs. I foundthe best used bookstore I've been to in ages--Serendipity. It's run by a retired school librarian, and both the selection and the ambience were wonderful. She's living my dream!

We got in line early for the boat ride back, so we got better seats, a booth near the window with a plug nearby for the kids' gameboys. And it was warmer, so going up top was more enjoyable.

All in all, two lovely weekends, with totally different views of the area. We enjoyed them both a lot--and I'm just sorry not to be able to take more leisurely vacations so we can explore these places more thoroughly.

on forgiveness

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I'm always happy when my aggregtor tells me there's something new on Ftrain. Paul Ford doesn't write in his blog often, but when he does it's always worth reading.

His essay yesterday, on the occasion of his 31st birthday (happy birthday, Paul...), struck some responsive chords in me. I've been thinking a lot lately about sins and confessions, retribution and forgiveness. It's worth reading the whole piece, as always, but these last two paragraphs are the ones that affected me the most:

The other day an ex-girlfriend called me up after a couple of years of radio silence. She said, I wanted to apologize for how I treated you. I was so angry. I smashed a plate after we broke up. I never broke a dish before or since. And I said, well, you did treat me badly. And you were hard on plates. But I don't feel any anger. People don't mean to do that shit, but they do. I've done it too.

I felt a little righteous, because while it does stroke the smug part of the brain to hear that you were wonderful and she was wrong. But I didn't feel that way for long, because righteousness is not much in comparison to the feeling of resolution that came because I knew that I had given another person some peace. I've been forgiven for things as well, some pretty dreadful, violent things, and it's hard to be forgiven but there is nothing like it; once, after being forgiven, I walked out into the sunlight and the world was stripped of predators, and I no longer was waiting for retribution from mystical forces I do not believe in. So hell, I said, take all the forgiveness you need. We hung up and I thought for a while, and told my girlfriend about that phone call because telling everything is a way to keep the lines crossed, tangled, and braided. She understood, and the focusing ring on the inner camera turned a little more, the picture resolved, a little sharper. Which is what I want for year 31: more resolution.

mindshare, market share, and monopolies

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I talked on the phone today (why yes, I do still use analog communication media...) with danah boyd, who took me to task for my last post. Her concern wasn't with my negativity about Google, but about the extent to which the post made it seem that I'd become an unapologetic supporter of the Microsoft culture (or cult). Her argument was that in fact, Google doesn't dominate search, it only dominates among the technocrats--much like Powerboks are the toy of choice for social software geeks, but not for the world at large.

I was a little taken aback by this, because I'd been fully convinced that Google's dominant mindshare (when was the last time you heard someone use MSN or Yahoo as a verb meaning "search"?) reflected an equally dominant market share. My interest in seeing MSN succeed was never (and still isn't) about having a Microsoft monopoly replace a Google monopoly--it was, and still is, about there being legitimate competion in this space. I don't want anybody having a chokehold on online information access. So I set out to do some fact-checking. (I assume that the MSN Search folks have very detailed numbers, but I didn't want to ask for anything that I couldn't blog about.)

I started at the Pew Internet & American Life site, since they're generally my favorite source of solid stats on Internet use. In May & June of 2004, they conducted a survey on search engine usage. They reported on the results in both a memo from August 2004 and a more detailed report in January of 2005--the relevant piece of this survey found that when asked "Which search engine do you use MOST OFTEN," 47% of respondents replied Google , followed by Yahoo at 26%. MSN trailed well behind both at 7%.

In an attempt to find something more recent, I did some broader searches on search engine statistics and market share, and found a Business Week article from last month entitled "Google's Leap May Slow Rival's Growth." The article opens with this paragraph:

Nearly a year after Google's (GOOG ) IPO marked the start of a new phase in Web search competition, the upstart is making industry giants Microsoft's (MSFT ) MSN and Yahoo! (YHOO ) look like also-rans. Google's share of U.S. searches hit 52% in June, up from 45% a year ago, according to Web analytics firm WebSideStory Inc. By contrast, Yahoo's and MSN's share slipped to 25% and 10% respectively. Says Mark S. Mahaney, an analyst at Smith Barney Citigroup (C ): "People haven't been given a good reason to switch from Google."

I also found an article from February 2005 on SearchEngineWatch by Danny Sullivan, in which he cites data received from comScore. The results he cites show Google with a 35% share, Yahoo with a 32% share, and MSN with a 16% share. Here's how Danny describes that data:

The comScore Media Metrix qSearch service measures search-specific traffic on the internet. qSearch data is gathered by monitoring the web activities of 1.5 million English-speakers worldwide (1 million in the United States) via proxy metering.

Proxy metering allows comScore to see exactly how those within its panel have surfed the web. From this data, the company then extracts activity that's considered to be specifically search-related.

[...] The qSearch figures are search-specific but not necessarily web-search specific. For example, a search performed at Yahoo Sports would count toward Yahoo's overall total. That's important to understand.

So, what am I missing? I can't find any evidence that my perception of Google as the dominant player in this market is incorrect. If you know of research that contradicts this conclusion, I'd really love to know about it--please add a comment with a cite!

Right now, I don't think that Microsoft's search product is as good as Google's. And I think that what Yahoo is doing with MyWeb is in fact the killer app of search. My working with MSN for a year isn't going to suddenly catapult the company into a monopoly on web search (although it is giving me a fascinating view into how corporate culture influences the direction of products, not always in a good way). But I do think there's value in evening the playing field. Microsoft is going after search market share--that's a given. If I'm here, I can try to help them do it in a way that benefits the users of their service. If I'm not here, they only thing that changes is that my input into the product disappears. My presence has no impact on Microsoft's business practices or goals. But it might well result in some influence on the direction of their product development, and I'm okay with that.

At the end of the day, I still harbor a healthy distrust of most corporations and their cultures, regardless of how much I like the people that work there, or the products they produce.

--
Update, 2:51pm

SearchEngineWatch has a few other articles on market share. This one provides the May 2005 Nielsen NetRating figures, showing Google with 48%, Yahoo with 21.2%, and MSN with 12.4%.

why i want msn to succeed

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No, it's not because the evil empire is paying me enough to shift my priorities. It's the same reason that I agreed to be a part of MSN's Search Champs program when they invited me last year--having Google as the gatekeeper to all online information is something that scares the crap out of me.

I don't think Google is evil. But I know that they're capable of making mistakes. And when they're thought of by much of the world as the authoritative online source, their mistakes take on more magnitude than they might in a more balanced and competitive context.

I've had a great reminder of this over the past week, as I've struggled to find out from Google why the pagerank for my blog URL (mamamusings.net) has suddenly dropped to zero. For over a year it's been solidly at 6 every time I've checked (which wasn't often, since the Google toolbar didn't work on my mac, so I had to go to an external site to check it). But last week I installed the Google toolbar for Firefox, and loaded up my blog. I was shocked to see that it didn't register at all.

I checked a couple of things before I contacted Google. First, I checked an external pagerank monitoring site to confirm the result. Then I searched for my first name in Google...as before, mamamusings.net came up as the third result in the set, which seems to indicate that the site still retains some importance in the index--that didn't seem to match the zero pagerank number. Then I did a link: search on mamamusings.net on Google, and found that the number of results had dropped dramatically. Note the following:

link: mamamusings.net (Google) : 897
link:mamamusings.net (MSN): 25,811
link: mamamusings.net (Yahoo): 103,000

Huh?

So I emailed Google's customer support, explaining the details of the situation, particularly the precipitous drop combined with the continuing high results for a first name search. I received a response from the "Google Team" (no names, of course) with a very simplistic response:

Hi Liz,

Thank you for your note. Please be assured that your site is not currently penalized by Google.

A page may be assigned a rank of zero if Google crawls very few sites that link to it. Additionally, pages recently added to the Google index may also show a PageRank score of zero because they haven't been crawled by Googlebot yet and haven't been ranked. A page's PageRank score may increase naturally with subsequent crawls, so this shouldn't be a cause for concern. To learn more about PageRank, please see http://www.google.com/technology/

Regards,
The Google Team

Well, that was helpful. (Not.)

So I replied to "The Google Team," explaining that I was fully aware of how pagerank worked, and that I continued to feel that the precipitous drop indicated a "cause for concern."

I got another reply from "The Google Team," this time telling me that they'd discovered a mirror site (mamamusings.com) that had a higher pagerank (I automatically mirror the .net site on .com because so many people tend to assume the .com domain, but the number of actual links to that page is quite low), and that if I was to redirect from the .com to the .net with a 301 message that the problem would probably be resolved.

Well, maybe that would increase pagerank a bit. But it still doesn't explain why my site went from a rank of 6 to one of 0.

In response to my providing them with the same URLs referenced above, they said only that:

Also, we'd like to reiterate that our link search does not return a comprehensive set of results. We recommend selecting the "Find web pages that contain the term" link for a more comprehensive list of the links that point to your page.

Lastly, please note that we can't comment on other search engines' results.

So at the end of the day, they (a) won't explain why or how my pagerank could have dropped so quickly and completely, and (b) won't explain why so many links to my site have apparently disappeared from their index.

It's a damn good thing that I'm not running a commercial site where pagerank is more of an issue. As it is, for me this is just an annoyance. But for many others, it would be far more problematic.

What this underscores to me is how dangerous Google's current dominance in search engine mindshare is, particularly when combined with their lack of incentive to be accountable to siteowners. Monopolies of any kind make me nervous. Monopolies on information make me particuarly nervous. I'm very glad that Yahoo and MSN are making credible efforts to make search a more competitive space, and I'm also quite glad to be involved with Microsoft's efforts to do so.

google dissatisfaction

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Despite the title, I'm not dissatisfied with Google. Far from it. But I discovered a feature today that I've never seen before, and that I can't find referenced anywhere--I don't know if it's brand-new, or if I just hadn't discovered it yet.

I was looking for a student's blog, and foolishly typed in the blog's name (Jay is) without using quotes. Google unsurprisingly dropped the "is" from the search, and told me it had found 34 million results for "Jay."

But after the first five results, I saw this (click to see full screen results):

Below it were the results for the (much better) phrase search, with Jay's blog as the first link.

It's been a long time since a search engine did something to improve my experience in such a direct way. Bravo, Google.

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