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Archive for the ‘Blogging’ Category

Can we please stop comparing Wolfram Alpha to Google?

Posted by Jason Baker on May 20, 2009

What if I told you about a website that can:

  • Build a knowledge base and pull data from it based on search text.
  • House the expertise of many of the worlds’ foremost authorities on a subject.
  • Give you a link or two to more information about that subject.

Does that website sound like a Google killer to you?  If you said yes, you’d be completely wrong.  I was actually talking about Wikipedia.  Now, it sounds really stupid to compare Wikipedia and Google.  And there’s a good reason for that:  it is stupid.

However, when you focus on the little bit of overlap in functionality that exists between the two services, it becomes a lot easier target for IT journalists and bloggers to spin into the next “Google killer.”  The comparison between Wikipedia and Google draws an obvious likeness to comparing Wolfram Alpha to Google.

After all, Wolfram Alpha is a website that can:

  • Calculate answers based on arbitrary queries.
  • Pull in data from the web to build a knowledge base.
  • Answer many questions that we use Google for currently.

However, there’s one thing that Wolfram Alpha can’t do:  search.  In fact, the first of their FAQs is “Is Wolfram|Alpha a search engine?”  The answer is obviously no.  Can Wolfram Alpha help me find that one really good article or blog post I’ve forgotten how to locate?  No.  Can it help me find more information about vague programming concepts?  No.

So why do people keep asking the question Is Wolfram Alpha a Google-killer?  There’s one common thread that ties bloggers and journalists together:  the need for attention.  Calling Wolfram Alpha a Google-killer is grandstanding, plain and simple.  Maybe this kind of grandstanding was acceptable when the details on Wolfram Alpha were sketchy, but it’s not now.  Thus, I would be suspicious of anyone who actually takes the question seriously.  And yes, that does apply even if their answer is no.


Posted in Blogging | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The history of python

Posted by Jason Baker on January 13, 2009

I really detest making “link and run” type posts, but I feel that this is a fairly important one to make.  Guido just announced that he’s starting another blog about the history of python.  You can find that blog here.  It’s all very interesting so far.

So why are you still reading my blog when you could be learning about Python from the horse’s mouth?

Posted in Blogging, Programming | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Bold in blog posts NOT considered harmful

Posted by Jason Baker on January 1, 2009

Jimmy Bogard makes a post about the 10 things to retire in 2009.  Of course, within that list is the obligatory “scold bloggers for using bold” item:

One of my bigger pet peeves is anything in bold.  It’s a cheap trick to grab attention, yet it always works.  Yes, Atwood does it all the time and although it grabs attention, it’s the blogger equivalent of that dork that “quotes” “all” “his” “words”.  The last thing we need is another cookie-cutter Atwood knockoff.

Before I make any arguments, I’d like to let Jeff’s blog speak for itself (this post):

But not all user interface conventions are created equal. Some are timeless. Some are there by default, because nobody bothered to sufficiently question them. Some grow old and outlive their usefulness. How do we discriminate between conventions that actually help us and those that are merely.. expected?

The answer, of course, is to try multiple approaches and collect usage data to determine what works and what doesn’t. This is (relatively) easy for web apps, which is why Amazon, Yahoo and Google are all notorious for doing it. They’ll serve up experimental features to a tiny fraction of the user base, collect data on how those features are used, then feed that back into their decision making process.

If we built UI with an iron-clad guarantee that we would “do it like everyone else”, would we have ever experienced the ultra simple Mom-friendly Tivo UI? Or Windows Media Center’s amazing, utterly un-Windows-like ten foot UI? Would Office 12 be using theinnovative new ribbon instead of traditional toolbars and menus? Heck, would we have ever made the transition from character mode to GUIs?

Did you read the quote?  Be honest.  Of course you didn’t.  It was a block of text totally unrelated to the subject of this article.  But do you know what it was about?  You probably have an idea.  It’s about figuring out what conventions we use for the sake of having conventions and the ones that are actually useful.  The rest of it is just supporting info.

To be fair, I don’t think that this is an issue that only Jimmy faces as I’ve seen this gripe before.  But I feel that a lot of people misunderstand what Jeff is trying to do (and maybe Jeff is doing something wrong that I’m missing to encourage that misunderstanding).  The thing is, if you’re just adding bold as a cheap trick to get attention, you’re doing it wrong.

In my first public speech class, I was taught to outline my speech something like this:

Today I plan to talk to you at x, y, and z.  Let’s talk about x first

Now that I’ve talked about x, let’s move on to y.

Now that I’ve talked about y, let’s talk about z.

Ok, we’ve talked about z, so let’s wrap it up.

When you’re talking, all those transitions can get repetitive.  In fact, that’s the point.  No matter how effective a speaker you are, your listeners are going to space out or daydream or otherwise not pay attention to you at various places during your speech.  And if someone zones out, you want to make sure they won’t be lost when they start paying attention again.

The same is true about blogging.  No matter how good a writer you are, people aren’t going to read your whole damn post.  Thus, you should assume that at any given point your user may go into “skim mode.”  And when a user does go into skim mode, you want to make sure that they don’t miss something important.  So what, praytell, is a blogger to do?  Well, there are multiple approaches.  But it seems that some of the most successful bloggers will choose to go the bold route fairly often.

And for the record, yes I did add bold phrases to the article for the sheer irony of it.  That’s how I roll.

Posted in Blogging | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »