Jason Calacanis, serial entrepreneur, just launched Mahalo, a search engine where users get hand-crafted portal-like results for common search queries. It's based on the theory that many people are searching for the same things, that search engine spam is making Google less useful for common queries, and that humans are still wiser than algorithms at sifting through results and finding the really good stuff. Essentially, the site plans to have employees (along with a dash of user-submitted content) build a portal of links to the best information for each popular search term. If a portal doesn't yet exist for a search term, Mahalo returns Google results by default.

The idea caught my eye as innovative. It might even work. So here's my feedback to Jason: it seems to me that where Mahalo really has the potential to shine (yet is only doing a middling job at, currently) is in giving context. Half of the human-powered-search equation, and most of the work, is having real people do the research and come up with the best links on a topic. The second half is giving people enough context to know what they should click on. Mahalo has lists of great links, but it also needs to tell the story of each link. It'd only take 3-5 words each, max. A link without a story about what you'll find there and why you should take the page seriously isn't any better than a random Google result.

A lot of entries do pretty well at this- air conditioner, sake, cholesterol management; some don't- yoga, obesity (I'm mostly going off the Top 7 links). But since giving intelligent link context is something human-powered search could do really well and is really helpful for people, and also something that Google can't do, I think it'd be worthwhile for Mahalo to make it a top priority.

So, that's the angle I'd suggest for competing against Google. With a short (3-5 word) story about each link, search results for common queries could be better, more contextual, and more concise. Competing against Wikipedia-as-a-search-engine will actually be tougher, I think, since Mahalo's portal-style search results and Wikipedia's summary-style articles occupy overlapping niches.

Finally, some search engine diversity!


Quote of the Week: May 27

Via John Hawks, a paper entitled Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly. Here's the abstract:

Most texts on writing style encourage authors to avoid overly-complex words. However, a majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence. This paper explores the extent to which this strategy is effective. Experiments 1-3 manipulate complexity of texts and find a negative relationship between complexity and judged intelligence. This relationship held regardless of the quality of the original essay, and irrespective of the participants' prior expectations of essay quality. The negative impact of complexity was mediated by processing fluency. Experiment 4 directly manipulated fluency and found that texts in hard to read fonts are judged to come from less intelligent authors. Experiment 5 investigated discounting of fluency. When obvious causes for low fluency exist that are not relevant to the judgement at hand, people reduce their reliance on fluency as a cue; in fact, in an effort not to be influenced by the irrelevant source of fluency, they over-compensate and are biased in the opposite direction. Implications and applications are discussed (emphasis added).


Quote of the Week: May 20

Parents are being warned to think long and hard when choosing names for their babies as research has discovered that girls who are given very feminine names, such as Anna, Emma or Elizabeth, are less likely to study maths or physics after the age of 16, a remarkable study has found.

Both subjects, which are traditionally seen as predominantly male, are far more popular among girls with names such as Abigail, Lauren and Ashley, which have been judged as less feminine in a linguistic test. The effect is so strong that parents can set twin daughters off on completely different career paths simply by calling them Isabella and Alex, names at either end of the spectrum. A study of 1,000 pairs of sisters in the US found that Alex was twice as likely as her twin to take maths or science at a higher level.

The Observer, Names really do make a difference, 4-29-07.


Quote of the Week: May 13

At the University of Bristol in England, gene-chip analysis — the marriage of DNA chemistry and silicon electronics — shows that the same variety of wheat expresses its genes very differently depending on whether it’s grown in conventional or organic conditions.
When Science Sniffs Around the Kitchen, The New York Times

I've got to think that these sorts of findings- along with the established trend that today's fruits and vegetables are significantly less nutritious than those of 1950- may help take organics more fully mainstream in the next few years.


Quote of the Week: May 6

I'm debating whether my blog should be a politics-free zone. I'm leaning toward "yes" right now, but if you have a preference feel free to say so in the comments. In the meantime, a little lighter quote of the week by Scott Adams of "Dilbert" fame:
It’s important to agree with people if you want them to think you are a genius. For most people, the definition of smart is “Thinks exactly like me but even more so.”


A Modest Proposal (Political Ads)

The content of political ads in the U.S. is very, very loosely regulated. Unlike every other sort of advertisement, political candidates can (at least in most circumstances) make blatantly false or misleading statements with blanket immunity in the name of free speech. And, as anyone who's watched a television come election time, this quickly turns things into a mudslinging race to the bottom.

Some have clamored for government regulation to curb false or misleading statements-- but it's not at all clear that we could trust (say) the FCC to be a good gatekeeper for political discourse, nor whether trying to outlaw false statements wouldn't mire political campaigning in layers and layers of frivolous and non-frivolous lawsuits to be sorted out laboriously and expensively by the legal system. Simply put, the legal system doesn't move fast enough to mediate political debate, nor do we want the side with the best lawyers to win.

So, besides government regulation, what can be done to help our political discourse suck less?

I'd like to suggest something that could be put into play by any candidate, at any time, with little expense and no legal reforms necessary. Essentially, if one found oneself in a dirty race where ones opponent was making blatantly false or misleading statements, instead of just slugging back, they could ask a respected, neutral third party to fact-check their advertisements before airing, and inform their viewers about it. I envision a statement like this at the end of a political ad:

"There's a loophole where political candidates can legally say almost anything to get elected, true or false. We thought you deserved better, so we had the official Congressional Research Service review this ad and they found it non-misleading and factually correct. Can candidate X say the same?"

As with so many other things, the devil's in the details- what famously neutral research organization would resonate well enough with voters (and agree to participate) so the other side couldn't just bring in their own obscure partisan "factcheckers"? Could you use this against last-week-of-the-election smear campaigns? Where do you draw the boundary on 'misleading'? How do you fit this into a small part of a thirty-second ad- and so forth. But I think such things could be worked out and that this strategy would likely improve political discourse- and since taking the moral high ground first is so powerful, it might even help win some elections.


Modern Dragons, Now With 20% More Umlauts

CHiLLi.cc, an Austrian youth magazine, is running a short article on Citizendium written by yours truly! You can check it out in its original English form or the German translation. It's a good summary of the differences between Citizendium and Wikipedia and the rationale for those differences.

Some personal musings-
The realities of Citizendium's situation mean that the more we publicize Wikipedia's flaws the more likely we are to succeed. That's not something I relish, as I personally like Wikipedia a lot for what it is, and I'd also rather be making Wikipedia better than criticizing it-- but since a thriving Citizendium is good for the world (and, I strongly believe, good for Wikipedia itself) I've accepted it.

Tip o' the hat, Wikipedia.