Saturday, July 26, 2008

Truth or Fiction?

As you know, we are big fans of Jack Bauer and the show 24. This in spite of the fact that Bauer and his cohorts regularly use torture as a standard interrogation procedure. (Not only is it terrible, we also know torture doesn't work well as an interrogation technique.) But we take this in stride and ignore it---it is after all fiction. And escapist fiction at that. Right?

Apparently not...

A recent NY Times op-ed by Bob Herbert talks about a new book called The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker. It spends a lot of time on David Addington, a key member of Cheney's staff:

In the view of Mr. Addington and his acolytes, anything and everything that the president authorized in the fight against terror — regardless of what the Constitution or Congress or the Geneva Conventions might say — was all right. That included torture, rendition, warrantless wiretapping, the suspension of habeas corpus, you name it.

Okay, fine---this isn't particularly surprising. But here's what really got me:

To get a sense of the heights of madness scaled in this anything-goes atmosphere, consider a brainstorming meeting held by military officials at Guantánamo. Ms. Mayer said the meeting was called to come up with ways to crack through the resistance of detainees.

“One source of ideas,” she wrote, “was the popular television show ‘24.’ On that show as Ms. Mayer noted, “torture always worked. It saved America on a weekly basis.”

What??? They were really looking to 24 for ideas on what to do to the detainees?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Ranking Technology at Google

In a previous post I mentioned that Amit Singhal had promised to have a follow-up post focusing on the technology underlying Google's search algorithms. Earlier this week Amit delivered on his promise with a fine post entitled Technologies behind Google ranking. He says that the driving force underlying ranking is to give users what they want:

Search in the last decade has moved from give me what I said to give me what I want. User expectations from search have rightly increased. We work hard to fulfill the expectations of each and every user, and to do that we need to better understand the pages, the queries, and our users.

Check out the post for more detail.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Chocolate Chip Cookies

I'll admit it---I have a sweet tooth. I love desserts of all sorts, ranging from western desserts like Prolific Oven's divine Swedish Princess Cake to Ben and Jerry's ice-cream to Indian desserts like rasmalai and gulab jamun. But above them all is the humble chocolate chip cookie, served warm with soft melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chips! It's a dessert I have a very hard time resisting.

So you can imagine that I was quite thrilled to read this recent article in the NY Times entitled Perfection? Hint: It's Warm and Has a Secret. It's all about baking the perfect chocolate chip cookie, complete with a recipe. The author talks to a number of bakers to get the recipe. But why talk to bakers when:

... almost everybody say[s] they prefer homemade to bakery bought?

Mr. Rubin smiled, having already figured out the answer. “It’s the Warm Rule,” he said. “Even a bad cookie straight from the oven has its appeal.”

I certainly subscribe to this view. But there's more to it than serving it warm. Mr. Rubin provides two secrets to baking the perfect chocolate chip cookie:

First, he said, he lets the dough rest for 36 hours before baking.

It seems this allows

... the dough and other ingredients to fully soak up the liquid ... which bakes to a better consistency.

The second secret is apparently to bake large cookies. The reasons for this are more complex and worth reading, at least for a laugh; not unlike the description of a fine wine (that claims to have hints of things that I can never sense), it involves phrases such as "flavor similar to penuche fudge" (what the hell is penuche fudge any way?!).

Nonetheless, it all sounds very exciting. I'm going to try the recipe one of these days and I'll report back on whether it lived up to the billing. (And maybe I'll figure out what penuche fudge is like!)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Technology at Google

There's been a recent flurry of interesting blog posts describing different pieces of technology at Google. Udi Manber introduced the work of the Search Quality group at Google (I work in this group). His post is the first in a series of more in-depth posts. Here's my favorite bit in Udi's post:

...but the goal is always the same: improve the user experience. This is not the main goal, it is the only goal.

Amit Singhal followed up on Udi's post with a discussion of the philosophy underlying Google's ranking algorithm (Amit has promised a follow-up focused on technology). Here's how Amit describes our philosophy:
1) Best locally relevant results served globally.
2) Keep it simple.
3) No manual intervention.
In a separate series of posts on how data is used within Search Quality, Paul Haahr and Steve Baker write about using data to build language models. They observe that:

By analyzing how people use language, we build models that enable us to interpret searches better, offer spelling corrections, understand when alternative forms of words are needed, offer language translation, and even suggest when searching in another language is appropriate.

Matt Cutts follows up with a post on using data to fight web spam. He says:

Our logs data helps ensure that Google detects and has a chance to counteract new spam trends before it lowers the quality of your search experience.

Outside of Search Quality, I'm particularly pleased about the recent announcement to open source protocol buffers---our data interchange format. Protocol buffers are pervasive inside Google and are a very effective way of encoding "...almost any sort of structured information which needs to be passed across the network or stored on disk. "

Two other announcements are also worth highlighting: Google's C++ testing framework and Google's C++ style guide have both been open sourced.

Finally, here's a video of the Google Factory Tour of Search held back in May.

I have a short segment in there (at about the 65 minute mark) describing some of the work our group has done on query understanding. Earlier in the video (at about the 56 minute mark) Trystan Upstill talks about our group's work on International Search Quality (which is Amit's first point---best locally relevant results served globally). And earlier still (at about the 46 minute mark) Johanna Wright talks about Universal Search.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Vegetable Harvest

I wrote earlier about growing vegetables in EarthBoxes. After I had finished the planting, Mala made the comment that she hoped we'd have at least one meal to show for the effort and expense... I'm happy to report we've hard our first harvest! Our kids were very excited to harvest beans and basil for a dinner we were preparing for some guests. Here's what they got:

On the left is some basil to serve as a garnish on a pasta dish, and on the right some beans which we steamed as a side dish. Within a week we had a second harvest:

Lots more basil---this time to make some delicious pesto---and more beans. (The kids brought in some oranges from our orange tree, but the tree hasn't really been taken care of and the oranges aren't very good.)

And today, less than a week later, we got another round of beans. The tomatoes are also beginning to show up---there are already more than a half dozen small green tomatoes and lots of flowers. The bell peppers are only just starting out---they're really tiny at this point---and the serrano pepper is still holding out and only now seems to have started flowering. All in all things appear to be going quite well. While we're not exactly "self sufficient", I think we've crossed the rather low bar Mala set!
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