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Face to Face With Insanity The dark 1970s film Taxi Driver depicts an aimless young man distintigrating rapidly as he fixates on a plan to assassinate a political candidate. In an improbable twist of fate, he ends up doing something of a good deed. There will be no such neat wrapup of the real life violence on Saturday, January 8, in Tucson, Arizona, when a distintigrating young man took aim at a Congresswoman and shot six people to death, and wounded 19, including his target.

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Sex, Drugs, and Whose Business Is It Anyway? A big German drug company is betting that women will buy a pill that will make them want to have more sex. The logic is twisted: trying to get people to want to want. The company says it has collected evidence that many women are unhappy with their libido. Whether or not this is true, the safety trials are under way.

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Writing on the Bathroom Wall in the 21st Century Anonymity on the World Wide Web is both a boon to free expression and a bonanza for boors, who abuse their freedom. Personal blogs are easy to set up, and almost all issues-oriented web sites allow readers to post comments freely under phony names. Is all the shouting and name-calling helping to destroy what rational debate we have left?

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Yesterday's Tea Bags Is it possible that the teabaggers are something more than a mixed bag of established far-right groups, offered up under a catchy name? Is it possible that they are a spontaneous outcry against big government? Although the national news media is taking them very seriously, I don't think so.

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God — Not Dead Just Nowhere To Be Seen At first, it amusing that Pat Robertson said that the earthquake in Haiti last month was god's wrath for a pact with the devil. But considering that Robertson has a huge following, and that disasters always prompt an outpouring of prophets warning about the price of sin, one has to wonder why naïve beliefs persist despite all evidence to the contrary.

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The High Court Stokes Up the Oligarchy Express The justices of the nation's top court expanded an election-law case over the financing of a movie pillorying Hillary Clinton during the 2008 campaign into a sweeping rewrite of the laws that restricted the political activity of corporations large and small.

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GOP Discovers Political Correctness as a Weapon Something was bothering me when I read the stories about Harry Reid's faux pas in race relations. Weren't the Republicans just blowing smoke to confuse the public on an issue they are losing: health care?

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Google, Oprah and the Decline of Western Civilization Was it necessary for Oprah to batter down the walls of individual privacy for Google to charge in and classify and categorize all of us for the sake of more efficient advertising?

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Google, Oprah and the Decline of Western Civilization

What do Google and Oprah Winfry have in common?

It's not a joke. While each has a huge audience and legions of followers, I doubt that the fans of these enterprises overlap much. They have very different cultural reputations — top-of-the-line geek, and low-brow television. But beneath the surface, they are more closely related than is apparent. Consider:

Neither Google nor Oprah invented the turf each plays on, but each of them perfected theirs. Oprah came first and her glamorized brand of confessional television might well have been necessary to lay the groundwork for the massive invasion of privacy conducted by Google (and other less-successful search engines) with hardly a whimper from the public..

Oprah, who is in her 50s, has spent her adult life in television and elevated and transformed the old sob-story shows like Queen for Day into a media juggernaut. A lot of people were honing varieties of television talk shows, some more trashy than others, but the Oprah Winfrey Show, which began in 1986, collected viewers and advertisers like mad, and made her a fabulously wealthy woman. Her book club endorsements are worth more than a pile of gold. Some estimate that selection by Oprah's Book Club amounts to the sale of a million copies. And her influence isn't limited to book sales; she gave Barack Obama an important boost early in the 2008 campaign.

Her appeal is emotional and personal. She is a genius at getting people to say on the air, to an audience of millions around the world, things that are intensely private. If she's willing to go on about herself as a victim of sexual abuse, dieting, and what not , what's to hold back a guest? And the guests certainly do not clam up about the embarrassing details. Her recommendations are interesting. They, too, are quirky and personal. By handing them out, she disseminates her word, and informs her followers, and solidifies the Oprah brand. Part of what Oprah offers her audience is her sensibilities, her view of the world. Like any guru, she has followers, but all she asks is that they watch — her and her ads. It's a straight-up bargain. If you choose to tune in, you get Oprah's brand of entertainment, advice and encouragement.

The founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, are in their 30s, a generation younger than Oprah, and met in graduate school at the computer science department at Stanford University. They were exploring ways of analyzing the links among web pages to improve the way the pages are ranked by search engines. The math they use might seem to be genius level to people who balked at high school algebra, but it is the same stuff that legions of engineering and science students have to master. They weren't the only ones to work along that line, but they actually went ahead and built a usable prototype, which was beyond a shadow of a doubt a better search engine. In 1996, they made the service available on the University network, founded Google in 1998, and all but wiped the other search engines off the map.

The advertising is a connection between Google and Oprah. They both exist to sell ads. Google was, and still is, a better search engine, and it was, and still is, a far better advertising company than any of the others, and it is adverstising that made the boys billionaires. For two geeks, they also showed a brilliant design sense in presenting a clean, spare page for users to enter their searches. The ads, as well, were unobtrusive, segregated from search results, but ostensibly linked to the search terms. No hula-gyrating girls, no airplanes flying across the page.

But this is not ordinary advertising. This is the stuff of Madison Avenue dreams. No one in television or newspapers or billboards or direct mail can guess at what's on the minds of their users, but Google gets a personalized statement from each user who enters query terms. Because of the possibility that ads can be targeted at particular users, those on the web have potential to function at a higher level. If you are looking to buy a hard drive, why would you mind a few sedate ads about computer equipment? Plus, Google's search results on your query are, in effect, Google's unbiased recommendations for places to buy them. It's a nice balance.

Sometimes when Brin, Page and other Googlites talk about their company they seem to be saying that their mission in life is to allow people make better use of all this information that is lying around on the web, as if all the profit and galloping stock prices were incidental. This sort of posturing annoys me, but it's a key part of the way the company makes its bargain with its audience. Google projects a serious image, one of earnest, idealistic and smart engineers working for the public good, while avoiding _evil_. To better serve the public, Google offers a growing array of web services — well beyond document search, like mail, maps, news, shopping, blogs and many others. Up to this point, Google's way of doing business is analogous to Oprah. She provides entertainment, and Google, a service selecting relevant web pages, which in turn provides a mix of information and entertainment, a kind of Yellow Pages of all the things people make available online. In return, their respective audiences have to see the ads. But herein lies the important difference.

The television industry, and indeed all media businesses, have long lusted after useful demographics. Before the web, demographics was a coarse club, and it had a bad reputation among intellectuals. There is something déclassé about a system that aims toy commercials at toddlers watching brain-dead cartoons, or acne cream to the viewers of Saturday night zombie movies. When the protocols were first written for the internet — years and years before Google opened for business — the world wide web architects included the mechanisms that make user tracking possible. Back then, no one envisioned the commercial web that we have, but the the tracking ability is there. And that's a demographer's paradise. With old school demographics, a business might be able to make some rough estimate of how you will spend your money; with Internet statistics a business can obtain a fairly precise picture of what you're doing from moment to moment, and perhaps can infer how you will spend your money. Of course, there's a missing piece here. If you visit my web page, I can record that visit, but unless I can find a way to combine this bit of intelligence with that of other web page operators, that's where the information stops. The search engine is the middle of all this. Not only does it know what you asked for, but which pages you decide to visit. And the genius of Google starts with understanding that web search is merely the beginning. Hardly a month goes by without some new Google service offered to you, and to me, for free. The more services Google has, the more reason for you to open a Google account, which gives them access to all your web searches, emails and movements around the web, and the better the picture the company can glean about you.

It's always been amazing to me that people don't mind this data collection. There's a common argument, particularly among younger, hipper people, that privacy in the age of the web is an illusion. And so people submit their thoughts, their doings, their most private problems to Gmail, which runs the mail through their statistical machinery to sharpen their profile of what you might want to buy, to blogs and social networking sites of all sorts to be data mined, collected and collated. Google does this tracking above board. It's all in the fine print, and widely discussed. And people don't seem to care. I keep getting more mail from friends, neighbors and business associates via Gmail. This is so mind-boggling that I'm going to say it again. Google reads your private mail and draws conclusions about you and keeps them in its file on you. I don't think this would have been possible in a previous generation. I do think that trash TV, especially Oprah's higher temperature TV, has persuaded many people that their dirty laundry is but another commodity, and airing it will make them celebrities. In other words, Oprah trumped Orwell long ago, and so enter Google.

In the past, Google people and analysts said that the biggest risk to its business was that someone would come up with a better algorithm for finding relevant documents. After all, Brin and Page were just two kids in grad school working on some well-known problems in computer science; some other group of grad students could quite possibly one-up them at any moment. But there seems to be a shift inside the Google monolith. The chief executive the boys hired to grow the company in a businesslike way, Eric Schmidt, recently said to CNBC that his greatest fear now was that someone else would think up a new service that could be used on the Web — one that Google hadn't thought up yet — as another advertising vehicle. (This was the same time he said that if you are doing something that you don't want the world to know about, then perhaps you shouldn't be doing it: Something Big Brother couldn't have said better.)

Of course the differences between Oprah and Google lie in the relationship that they have with their respective audiences. Oprah has created her persona and you tune in or not, depending on your taste. She guesses at what a large number of you want, and provides that in her own way. Google has its cool, intellectual persona and corporate reputation, but it's a harder service to ignore than Oprah's show and her ancillary products. To get along in the mainstream of American culture today, you have to make use of the web, and in order to make sensible use of the web, you need a search engine. Without search engines, the web is cacophony — a vast, chaotic and incomplete store of material to see, hear and read. In a sense, Google is the extension of Oprah's recommender engine for the new century, the Internet century.

The web is active, seething with possibilities, aggravating because there is no way to know what it contains, no way to evaluate any of the contents. It's a little more difficult than a television to operate. Working a computer and browsing the web requires constant choosing. Since every click can be recorded, it is interactive in a deeper way. The web page author gives you something, you respond, even if it's only to click "next page", thereby saying, "Yes, I'm still looking." The web often allows users to talk back, to make requests, to talk to one another, enter ratings of what they've bought.

The bigger the web, the better for Google. Anyone can write anything on the web, but the trick is to find readers. Without a good ranking in the search engines, there's little chance of an audience. A niche business has grown up around this fact: search engine optimizers who continually try to guess the precise method for the rankings. Google is, in effect, the gatekeeper of the web. The Google calculation decides what people will see and what they won't see. To its credit Google has been remarkable in limiting bias. Its results seem to be as fair as mechanically (or algorithmically) possible. But the rush to find new web services is disconcerting on a whole new level.

The closer Google, and other search engines, stick to advertising as their main revenue, the more they remain on familiar ground. You may or may not be annoyed by the ads you're shown. Maybe I'm cranky. I resent all advertising that constantly tries to nudge me toward new purchases on the basis of the recent things I bought. This goes for Amazon and Netflix and the like, businesses that don't seem to have any sense of subtlety or to allow for my curiosity or any new interests. Their inferences about me are crude.

What bothers me is that Google is moving toward personalized search, which will take its mechanical portrait of my interests and apply it to my future searches, not just to the ads it shows me. It's bizarre to think that I am the sum of the things I have in the past been interested in, or the things I have looked up for numerous reasons. This view robs me of the right to be curious about and learn new things, because the algorithm will continually twist the results to match the history the company has on me. Furthermore, it's ridiculous to think that the mechanical interpretation is even accurate. The capabilities of artificial intelligence today, in the early part of the 21st century are another story, but I think it's safe to say it does not include mind reading, much less human language understanding.

Beyond that, is an even more pernicious danger. Google has become interested in product reviews by users. There are many web sites that feature such reviews and many more than incorporate them in their commercial sites. Recently, Google said that it is in talks to buy one of the biggest, Yelp, a web service that collects anonymous user reviews of many kinds of businesses, and which sells ads to the same businesses. It's easy to see the potential for conflict. It seems to be more than theoretical, since you can easily find copious criticism that Yelp favors its advertisers. Aside from possible problems with Yelp, anonymous user reviews are going to be difficult to handle automatically. They are almost impossible for a human being to interpret. But Google seems to be bent on interpreting them mechanically and making them a part of its offerings. If you want to find out where to get the best hamburger in New York, do you really think you can pose the question to a search engine and get an intelligent answer? No computer program can understand human discourse. Not yet. No computer program can discern when a person is lying or exaggerating or joking. No computer program can guess if a glowing review was written by the business owner or if a harsh review was written by his competitor. I want Google to stay unbiased and as fair as it can be. This venture into Yelp territory is evidence that the company is heading into a new and dangerous place — the A.I. version of Oprah.

Posted 3 January 2010

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© 2010 Barry Schiffman