Google Street View: What purpose?

So Google Street View launched here in the UK a few days ago. It’s been controversial: all kinds of odd things have been found (see gallery at The Telegraph, and this rather hilarious sequence of a Street View driver being chased by the police for a traffic offense).

Privacy campaigners have been campaigning to get Street View shut down. That raises the interesting question: what useful purpose does Street View actually serve? How has Street View actually helped you? How has Street View benefitted you in your own every day life?

We all know about the privacy implications of Street View but I think I’ve yet to hear the benefits and the utilities. I hope that’s a discussion we’ll be able to have: without that discussion we can never really weigh up whether Street View is good for society.

I’ll start the list:

  • I wanted to send a letter the other day. The envelope was larger than A4 so I went to three local postboxes: none of them had a large enough slot to allow me to actually put the letter inside. I returned home and then using Street View was able to locate nearby postboxes and actually see whether they would be big enough to accept my letter. I was successful in completing this task with Street View so it probably saved me a lot of time visiting lots of postboxes and trying to find one large enough.

"Carbon cost" of Google search same as boiling a kettle

Google Lego 50th Anniversary Inspiration
Creative Commons License photo: manfrys

The BBC reports today on a study by Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross. Wissner-Gross claims that performing a standard Google search on a desktop computer produces 7g of CO2. A quick session with two searches will produce 14g of CO2 – the same as that from boiling a kettle.

From the BBC article:

Although the American search engine is renowned for returning fast results, Dr Wissner-Gross says it can only do so because it uses several data banks at the same time.

Speaking to the BBC, he said a combination of clients, networks, servers and people’s home computers all added up to a lot of energy usage.

“Google isn’t any worse than any other data centre operator. If you want to supply really great and fast result, then that’s going to take extra energy to do so,” he said.

According to Google Web History, I’ve performed 9,308 Google searches and it’s only counted the searches I’ve performed whilst I was logged on.

I’m guesstimating I perform about 40 searches a day; that’s 15,000 Google searches per year (sounds scary when you put it like that). My annual Google carbon footprint would be 105kg of CO2 (0.15 tons).

Google have disputed this figure; saying that a search only produces 0.2g of CO2.

I’m not able to comment on what I think of the methodoly as I don’t know how either figure was reached. But I think it is important to point out the difference between average cost and fixed cost.

As an example, imagine a server farm which was responsible for 100g of CO2 emissions every day. If ten people perform searches, the average carbon cost of a search is 100g divided by 10 searches = 10g of CO2 per search. This is the average cost of the search.

Beijing smog
Creative Commons License photo: kevindooley

Whereas, the marginal cost would be the CO2 cost of performing one more search. If we then performed an 11th search, the CO2 emissions of the server farm stay the same (we assume it’s running with spare capacity). The marginal cost of performing a search of zero grams of CO2.

With eleven searches, you could claim each search had a carbon cost of 9g. But that’s a bit unfair – considering the CO2 output of the server farm if you had made the search and if you had not, you find the CO2 output it exactly the same. Your search had a marginal cost of zero grams of carbon.

Whether Wissner-Gross and Google stated the average cost or the marginal cost I don’t know (although I suspect the first may have been the average cost and the second the marginal cost).

With Google’s server farms, we know that they will be running regardless of whether we perform searches or not. The important thing then is the marginal cost of a search – this being so close to zero, I don’t think any of us should feel a guilty conscience from using Google.

Google's New Favicon – Looks familiar…

Google announced a new favicon today:

Essentially the new icon consists of four corners of blue, red, green and yellow (Google’s four colours) with a white “g” overlayed on the top. It’s certainly much nicer than the old one and makes my bookmarks bar look a lot more colourful.

But some guys in the Google Blogoscoped forum pointed out that it looks very similar to the logos of Windows and AVG logos.

Microsoft Windows

This is the “Vista” variation of the Windows logo. We’ve got red-green-yellow-blue. Rotate this clockwise by 90 degrees, add a g on the top and you’ve got the Google favicon.

AVG Antivirus

This time, we rotate the AVG logo by 90 degrees anticlockwise and add a g to get the Google favicon.

I guess four coloured squares isn’t actually a particularly imaginative logo so it’s not hard to accidently “copy” it. I doubt the guys at Google even realised!

Google Gaffe Causes $1bn run on United Airlines

The duckies invade Google
Creative Commons License photo: Yodel Anecdotal

Times Online reported today on a major Google gaffe in which a 2002 United Airlines bankruptcy article was featured on the Google News website.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission has opened a “preliminary inquiry” into how an outdated bankruptcy story sparked a $1 billion run on an airline’s stock value.

The article about how United Airlines filed for bankruptcy in 2002 was revived when it showed up on a newspaper site’s “most viewed” section on Monday.

From there it was picked up by Google News and later seen by alarmed stockholders. The stock plunged from around $12 to just $3 a share before trading was halted.

However, Google blames this whole incident on a series of gaffes. It says that a single visit in the early morning to the 2002 news article pushed it onto the “Popular Stories” section of the South Florida Sun Sentinel website (a Tribune owned newsflow). From there, Google News found the link to the old article but failing to find a date on the article, marked it for inclusion on its website. It took just three minutes and two seconds for it to appear on Google News.

United Airlines Boeing 777-222(ER) N785UA
Creative Commons License photo: Cubbie_n_Vegas

Once it hit Google News, it appeared on Bloomberg. And automated trading programmes which analyse online news articles suddenly sold United stock causing it to be sold in droves, driving down it’s value.

In some ways, I think this just demonstrates “Garbage In, Garbage Out” which is well known to computer parameters. Being “old news”, the original article was obviously garbage. Google News regurgitated this garbage back out without any checking (as there are no human editors). Similarly, trading programmes consumed garbage in the form of old news and acted badly on it (selling the stock and causing the $1bn run on United).

With an investigation pending, it’ll be interesting to see how this all turns out.

Google Chrome Security, Privacy, Technical Issues

The newly released Google Chrome has several issues which I believe makes it unusable.

Chrome claims better security than other browsers as each tab acts as a “jail”. Unfortunately, it’s very easy for a malicious website to download files onto your desktop or your download directory.

The “carpet-bombing” security issue

It takes nothing more than the following line of code:

<iframe src=”RandomFile.exe”></iframe>

Google Chrome then downloads RandomFile.exe into your downloads directory without any user prompt. For many people, the download directory is the Desktop. Being an executable file, it can have its own icon. So potentially, visiting a website through Google Chrome could lead to malicious executable files appearing on your desktop, which may disguise themselves as utilities such as browsers. Not only that, it takes just one click on an icon to launch it from Chrome without any warnings.

Privacy Issue with the Omni-Bar

The address bar (Omni-bar) has built in Google Suggest. This means anything you type into the address bar, including partial URLS, are sent to Google’s servers. Not only that, requests from the Omnibar send your Google cookies. That is, Google can link every single thing (URLs and searches) you type in the address bar back to your Google account and hence your personal identity.

The Coderrr Blog has some examples of requests sent to Google’s servers. It’s pretty scary.

It’s worth mentioning Firefox 3 and Google Toolbar’s auto-suggest features will do the same thing. However, they will only send search queries whereas Chrome sends URLs too. The Electronic Frontier Foundation are worried.

Stability Issue

You can crash Google Chrome by typing :% in the address bar. Don’t ask me why, I have no idea. Interestingly enough, Google Chrome has already crashed several times in the short amount of time I’ve had it. Firefox hasn’t crashed in a long while.

Technical Issues

Google Chrome can’t physically work on a Mac. There is no way to have multiple process rendering to one window on the Mac platform. And it looks like Firefox’s new Javascript engine is beating Google Chrome in benchmark tests.

Conclusions

Google Chrome is a new product and so I don’t think we should be too harsh on it. But what’s true is that there are siginificant security, privacy and technical issues with Google Chrome as it stands at the moment. I feel it’s partially irresponsible of Google to be promoting Chrome to end users on their Google homepages when the latest release of Chrome has so many issues.

What’s more, the browser was initially released with a clause in the EULA which granted it “a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through” the browser. It’s been removed now.

Recommendation: Stick with Firefox for the time being.

Google Chrome Easter Egg: about:internets

I haven’t seen much about this on the internet, so here goes. There is an easter egg in the Google Chrome browser – type in about:internets to see it.

Robert Accettura worked out how this was implemented by exploring the Chrome source code. All Chrome does is to call the Windows Screensaver inside a tab.

If you don’t understand this easter egg, this is what Wikipedia has to say:

Series of tubes” is an analogy used by United States Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to describe the Internet in the context of network neutrality.[1] On June 28, 2006, he used this metaphor to criticize a proposed amendment to a committee bill. The amendment would have prohibited Internet service providers from charging fees to give some companies higher priority access to their networks or their customers. This metaphor (along with several other odd choices of words) was widely ridiculed as demonstrating Stevens’ poor understanding of the Internet.

Oh, and Mozilla’s new Javascript engine beats Google’s V8 Javascript engine in tests.

Google launches web browser: Google Chrome

The duckies invade Google
Creative Commons License photo: Yodel Anecdotal

Wow, what can I say. This surprised me. Google is launching it’s own browser called Google Chrome. They created a comic book to announce it to the world, which is summed up at Google Blogoscoped.

It’s based on the WebKit engine also used in Safari, and includes Google Gears by default. They’ve taken bits from Safari and Mozilla and included it in this project, which they’ve also open sourced.

It’ll be interesting with another browser in the space. It launches tommorow when us web developers can finally have a play with it and see what it’s like.

Blogging, Health and Work-Life Balance

Writing words..
Creative Commons License photo: _StaR_DusT_

Theres some really interesting research In May’s Scientific American about the possible health benefits of blogging.

Self-medication may be the reason the blogosphere has taken off. Scientists (and writers) have long known about the therapeutic benefits of writing about personal experiences, thoughts and feelings. But besides serving as a stress-coping mechanism, expressive writing produces many physiological benefits. Research shows that it improves memory and sleep, boosts immune cell activity and reduces viral load in AIDS patients, and even speeds healing after surgery.

This comes just a month after the New York Times published an article talking about the poor working conditions often enjoyed by bloggers and the stress that bloggers could be put under.

Other bloggers complain of weight loss or gain, sleep disorders, exhaustion and other maladies born of the nonstop strain of producing for a news and information cycle that is as always-on as the Internet.

“I haven’t died yet,” said Michael Arrington, the founder and co-editor of TechCrunch, a popular technology blog. The site has brought in millions in advertising revenue, but there has been a hefty cost. Mr. Arrington says he has gained 30 pounds in the last three years, developed a severe sleeping disorder and turned his home into an office for him and four employees. “At some point, I’ll have a nervous breakdown and be admitted to the hospital, or something else will happen.”

Snooze
Creative Commons License photo: flattop341

Two seemingly contradicting articles perhaps? To me, the two articles seem to describe different types of blogging. I believe the first article argues that blogging for yourself and for fun is beneficial. It’s therapeutic and you’re not worrying about the number of posts you need to make in a day or how many readers each post gets.

The second article argues that blogging for profit is very stressful and damaging to your lifestyle. I think it makes sense: as a technology blogger you’re essentially competiting with all the big tech websites such as Cnet and Gizmodo and worrying whether you’ll get your article to Digg before everyone else. And of course everything moves really quickly on the internet.

In the end, I think it all comes down to a work-life balance. If you want to blog for profit, there is a certain point where you must let go and employ somebody else to contribute to your blog: perhaps from a different part of the world or a different time zone. One blogger is never going to be able to match the large technology companies for size or speed. It’s not easy to earn money from blogging: otherwise everyone would be doing it.

| apple-command |
Creative Commons License photo: arquera

I’d personally hate to be a professional blogger. The whole idea of having to spend a lot of time submitting to Digg and having to spend excessive amounts of time on the internet just doesn’t appeal to me. The very nature of blogging means it tends to happen at home making it very hard to get that correct work-life balance.

Saying that, I’ve recently introduced Google AdSense onto my blog archives. As a cash strapped student, any additional money I earn and which can go towards tuition fees is very welcome and very needed. It’s certainly not a huge amount of money and I’d be lying if I said it took no work to achieve even that. The way I see it: I’ve been blogging for 3 years and my blog income is very unremarkable. I couldn’t even begin to wonder how much work it would take to earn a living from it.

Google Calculator

If you told me a few years ago that I’d be sending simple math calculations to a bunch of supercomputers in Mountain View, California rather than reaching for the calculator next to me on my desk, I’d probably have laughed. I’ve noticed that increasingly I’ve been using Google’s Calculator. Why? There are three reasons:

  1. I’ve got broadband now and it doesn’t take 20 seconds to dial up to the internet. Nor does it cost a thing to be using the internet.
  2. Google will typically answer your query in a fraction of a second.
  3. Firefox is always open and there is an omnipresent Google “search” box.

You might have found yourself doing this too. Type a number into your Firefox Google Search Box and have a look at the autocomplete entries. When I enter the number 1 into this box, I get whole pages full of maths queries.

I wonder: if we’re sending such basic things such as basic maths equations to computers across the world, isn’t it just a matter of time before grid computing takes off and we send all kinds of tasks over the internet?