Archive for November, 2006

So long, and thanks for all the fiche

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

On this last day of Google Answers, I cannot help but be saddened by the demise of what will no doubt go down in Internet history as the greatest collective paid information service of all time.

During my stint as a Google Answers Researcher, I had the pleasure to assist many people in their quests for information as well as to learn volumes from my colleagues’ excellent research skills. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for a unique web experience that I will deeply treasure for the remainder of my days.

~journalist-ga, table 42, restaurant at the end of the Googleverse

A paid Q&A service from 1997

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

Long before Google existed, there was an answers service along the lines of Google Answers. From the April 1997 issue of Gigabyte GrapeVine Magazine:

You can ask them anything on any subject, and the odds are they will come up with the correct answer within 24 hours… but it will cost you., on the World Wide Web, is affectionately called the human-powered search engine by its CEO, Clem Izzi because unlike other search engines on the Web, employs a global network of human “answer advisors” that field questions 24 hours a day, and will typically come up with a correct answer within 24 hours. Along with the summary to your questions, their people will point out other sites that will have more info on your chosen topic or topics.

The amount you pay for your answer is directly related to the complexity of the question and the depth of research involved to provide the answer. A simple question such as … “What is the fastest airplane in the world?” … would cost about two dollars. If someone would ask for … “a list of all the components required to connect a local area network for 12 computers” … that would cost them close to $6. A question involving multiple computations or several avenues of research would cost somewhat more ie … “What is the amount of money spent each year in the automotive industry on the maintenance of their sales offices as compared to that of the home appliance industry”.

If you have the need for a fresh and original answer on any topic, and you think it’s worth a few bucks, you might want to point your browser to: []

Researcher laare-ga filled me in on what happened after that. was ahead of its time, and became unprofitable after the first dot-com bust. It sold for a small amount around the time that Google Answers began.

Clem Izzi then became a researcher at Google Answers, under the screen name of seedy-ga. He enjoyed his contributions to the service, where he is fondly remembered by many.

According to Rutgers Alumni Magazine’s Class of 62, Clem “retired as a business executive in 2000. Sadly, he developed a nasty medical condition that led to paraplegia. He’s worked hard to adjust, and uses a converted Dodge Grand Caravan and wheelchair for mobility. He has been back to NJ frequently and is an avid sports fan. He credits his dedicated wife and others for keeping him feisty and active”.

I understand that since then his condition has further deteriorated. We wish you well, seedy, and miss you. in its modern form launched in March of 2005 as a reference source with, according to Wikipedia, over four million entries collected from multiple sources.

Google Answers Reminiscences

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

Researchers, customers and commenters (“peanuts”) are invited to post reminiscences related to the soon-to-be-defunct Google Answers service.

Did the service change your life? Perhaps it introduced you to new friends, or to a new lifestyle? Or perhaps you had a particularly memorable exchange in one of the questions … over to you …

A new paid research service?

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

Now that the Google Answers service is closing, some people are interested in developing a paid research service: similar in some ways – and different in some ways – from what the world has seen before.

How should it work? What features should it have? What could be really special about it? What would make it compelling for you?

Comments are welcome from everyone…

RIP Google Answers

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

Today is a sad day for Google Answers Researchers, customers and commenters – because Google has killed the service. The last questions can be posted tomorrow, and answers/comments will be closed off at the end of December.

The 23rd Psalm of Google, from researcher cynthia-ga:

Google is my Home Page; I shall not want.
Algorithm me fresh, unique results;
He leadeth me to the deep Internet.
He restoreth my Index.
He leadeth me via Adwords to richness, for Pete’s sake.

Yay! … though I surf through the Internet so quickly,
I will fear no evil, For Froogle doth lead me;
Thy Alerts and thy News, they comfort me.
Thou places Answers before me; without evil intent;
Thou annointest my eyes with Images; My brain filleth up.

Surely information shall lie before me, all the days of my life,
and I will mouse in the House of Google, forever.



(photo by Sparky)

Content based image retrieval

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006

Would you like to search for images by visual similarity? I thought so. This is a hot research topic, and there are even a few content-based image applications that you can already play with.

CogniSign’s xcavator application seems quite advanced. You can choose a starting image, then click to define “important bits” that must be present in the matching images. As you click, the set of matching images is constantly refined to match your clicks. The demo seems to work well, but their database contains only a sample of images from Flickr. Be sure to watch their video intro before you try the demo.

LTU Technologies’ Image-Seeker examines both appearance and keywords to help you browse to similar images. This is perhaps less ambitious than the approach taken by xcavator, and I felt that keyword similarity was weighted too heavily compared to visual similarity. There’s a demo which enables you to browse the Corbis royalty-free images by choosing a starting image from a random set and progressively clicking on images that are closer and closer to your target image.

VIMA Technologies’ Visual Image Search lets you search a sample of 40000 Flickr images. Each image has attached to it a plus button and a minus button, which enable you to refine your query by clicking on images that either match well or that match poorly.

In contrast to the above applications, which are essentially technology showcases, imgSeek is an open-source application that you can download and run on your own system. It’s a photo collection manager which provides for the usual kinds of browsing and adds a similarity search. You can either provide an existing image as the seed for the similarity search, or you can use the mouse to sketch a few lines and blobs in relevant colours. It seems to do a pretty good job of finding matching images (check out the screenshots).


But imgSeek won’t scale to searching all the images on the internet, which is what many of us would like to do. That’s something which is “not quite there yet”, and you can be sure that the likes of Google are working furiously on it.

[Update: for the state-of-the-art in 2009, see Searching for Similar Images]

EarthTrends Environmental Information

Friday, November 17th, 2006

EarthTrends Environmental Information is a comprehensive database maintained by the World Resources Institute. There’s a massive amount of information available, including environmental data, economic data, population data, governance data, health data etc.


The information is grouped into ten categories:

  • Coastal and Marine Ecosystems
  • Water Resources and Freshwater Ecosystems
  • Climate and Atmosphere
  • Population, Health and Human Well-being
  • Economics, Business and the Environment
  • Energy and Resources
  • Biodiversity and Protected Areas
  • Agriculture and Food
  • Forests, Grasslands and Drylands
  • Environmental Governance and Institutions

For each of these categories, you can:

  • search the database to produce reports of the data that you need
  • see the data represented visually on maps
  • view pre-formatted summary data on a country-by-country basis
  • follow links to related feature articles
  • view or download tabular data

You can only perform three searches per day without registering, but registration allows unlimited free access.

Researching with Wikipedia

Thursday, November 16th, 2006

Previously on this blog we’ve considered whether Wikipedia can be a legitimate research source – and generally agreed that it can. Wikipedia itself has a page of tips on Researching with Wikipedia.

The page points out that “not everything in Wikipedia is accurate, comprehensive, or unbiased”, then discusses how to work around this. Most of the points they make will be obvious to seasoned researchers, but there are a few interesting twists.

Unlike a printed encyclopedia, you can examine the entire editing history of an article. This often gives an insight into opposing viewpoints on controversial issues.

You can also click on “what links here” (in the “Toolbox” section) to see which other Wikipedia articles consider the current one worth linking to. The range and nature of the linking articles can provide insight into how the subject matter fits into the bigger picture.

Another approach is to turn the research process into an active two-way exchange. Is there something in the article that is unclear, or which might be misleading or incomplete? Go to the corresponding “Talk” page and begin a dialogue with other Wikipedians. That way, you don’t just have to adopt a “take it or leave it” approach to Wikipedia – you can have a much more active involvement.

So, Wikipedia is very different from a conventional research source. Sometimes you can exploit those differences and make them work for you.

1910 in glorious colour

Tuesday, November 7th, 2006

Our perception of the early 1900s may be prejudiced by the fact that we may have seen it only in black-and-white photos. We have a mental picture of a dark, dismal world of greys and blacks.

From 1909 to 1915, Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii took photos through a triplet of tinted filters. The U.S. Library of Congress restored these photos and exhibited them in 2001, enabling us to see life from almost a hundred years ago as we had never seen it before.


Here were blue skies, where previously we’d only seen grey. Here were green hillsides dotted with bright flowers, where previously we’d only seen mottled grey. Here were shiny marble walls and golden sandstone buildings where previously we’d only seen light and dark grey.

The story behind these photos is summarised at, whilst the Prokudin-Gorskii photos are exhibited online at the Library of Congress.


Tipping behaviour of Google Answers customers

Monday, November 6th, 2006

A study by the University of Bristol entitled Why Voluntary Contributions? Google Answers! attempts to analyse and explain the tipping behaviour of customers of Google Answers.

Personally I think the Bristol guys have too much time on their hands, and that there are better ways to spend one's time than drawing up dozens of hypothetical formulae to describe a phenomenon that can be explained in one sentence as: Some customers tip; the researchers like it; there's not really any downside.

But it's an interesting insight into the minds of the people who work for the University of Bristol's Centre for Market and Public Organisation. Is Google Answers a market that needs to be organised? Isn't an “organised market” a contradiction in terms anyway?

Here's a taste, in case you've not yet been tempted to click:


(Thanks to hedgie-ga for bringing this to my attention.)