Google’s Subconscious

Can a poem provide insight into the inner workings of a complex algorithm? If Google Search had a subconscious, what would it look like? If Google mumbled in its sleep, what would it say?

A few days ago, I ran across these two quotes within hours of each other:

So if algorithms like autocomplete can defame people or businesses, our next logical question might be to ask how to hold those algorithms accountable for their actions.

Algorithmic Defamation: The Case of the Shameless Autocomplete by Nick Diakopoulos

and

A beautiful poem should re-write itself one-half word at a time, in pre-determined intervals.

Seven Controlled Vocabluaries by Tan Lin.

Then I got to thinking about what a poem auto-generated from Google’s autosuggest might look like. Ok, the idea is of dubious value, but it turned out to be pretty easy to do in just HTML and JavaScript (low computational overhead), and I quickly pushed it up to GitHub.

Here’s the heuristic:

  1. Pick a title for your poem, which also serves as a seed.
  2. Look up the seed in Google’s lightly documented suggestion API.
  3. Get the longest suggestion (text length).
  4. Output the suggestion as a line in the poem.
  5. Stop if more than n lines have been written.
  6. Pick a random substring in the suggestion as the seed for the next line.
  7. GOTO 2

The initial results were kind of light on verbs, so I found a list of verbs and randomly added them to the suggested text, occasionally. The poem is generated in your browser using JavaScript so hack on it and send me a pull request.

Assuming that Google’s suggestions are personalized for you (if you are logged into Google) and your location (your IP address), the poem is dependent on you. So I suppose it’s more of a collective subconscious in a way.

If you find an amusing phrase, please hover over the stanza and tweet it — I’d love to see it!

Agile in Academia

I’m just finishing up my first week at MITH. What a smart, friendly group to be a part of, and with such exciting prospects for future work. Riding along the Sligo Creek and Northwest Branch trails to and from campus certainly helps. Let’s just say I couldn’t be happier with my decision to join MITH, and will be writing more about the work as I learn more, and get to work.

But I already have a question, that I’m hoping you can help me with.

I’ve been out of academia for over ten years. In my time away I’ve focused on my role as an agile software developer — increasingly with a lower case “a”. Working directly with the users of software (stakeholders, customers, etc), and getting the software into their hands as early as possible to inform the next iteration of work has been very rewarding. I’ve seen it work again, and again, and I suspect you have too on your own projects.

What I’m wondering is if you know of any tips, books, articles, etc on how to apply these agile practices in the context of grant funded projects. I’m still re-aquainting myself with how grants are tracked, and reported, but it seems to me that they seem to often encourage fairly detailed schedules of work, and cost estimates based on time spent on particular tasks, which (from 10,000 ft) reminds me a bit of the waterfall.

Who usually acts as the product owner in grant drive software development projects? How easy is it to adapt schedules and plans based on what you have learned in a past iteration? How do you get working software into the hands of its potential users as soon as possible? How often do you meet, and what is the focus of discussion? Are there particular funding bodies that appreciate agile software development? Are grants normally focused on publishing research and data instead of software products?

Any links, references, citations, tips or advice you could send my way here, @edsu, or email would be greatly appreciated. I’ve already got Bethany Nowviskie‘s Lazy Consensus bookmarked for re-reading :-)

linking spoken quotes of quotes

An ancient buddha said, “If you do not wish to incur the cause for Unceasing Hell, do not slander the true dharma wheel of the Tathagata. You should carve these words on your skin, flesh, bones and marrow; on your body, mind and environment; on emptiness and on form. They are already carved on trees and rocks, on fields and villages.”

From Gary Snyder’s reading of The Teachings of Zen Master Dogen (about 1:26:00 in).

His delivery is just a delight to listen to. The puzzling strangeness of the text are made whole in the precision, earthiness and humor of his words.