Google’s Knowledge Graph

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Last week Google announced that it had created a new kind of search called a “knowledge graph.”   Lifehacker‘s article said it would “bring[s] smarter semantic results” because it “connects your search query to Google’s knowledgebase of over 500 million people, things, and places to show you relevant info in a sidebar along your search results.”

So, what does that mean to you?  It means Google just got more useful (and it was already pretty useful!)  Google searches should bring you more information of different types.  Let me give you an example and then explain the jargon that is being thrown around to explain this idea.

Suppose you were interested in “roses.”  You would most likely go to Google and search on “roses.”  In the past, Google would bring back webpages where the letters “roses” appeared (in that order) or which had descriptions that it had something to do with “roses.”  That might mean poems with roses,  the War of the Roses, the musical group Guns and Roses,  the flower roses, or people who have first names of Roses (probably in error), or other places where the letters “roses” appeared.  The term “roses” did not mean anything to Google;  the search engine just found places where the letters were used.

Now when you type in “roses,” the new and improved Google “understands” that those letters in that order refer to something, a flower.  So, in addition to the searches that you might have gotten elsewhere, you will now get a side panel that defines what roses are and how they are classified.  You might also get a list of places at which to purchase roses (because that’s what one does to obtain them).  It also takes advantage of what other databases Google has that mention roses and what other users have found useful when searching for roses.

Why didn’t they just say that Google got better?  This is one of those examples where computer people did just say that Google got better, but they did it with a lot of jargon.  “Semantic” refers to understood meaning; in this case that the search engine behaves as if it understands the meaning of the string of letters “roses” and its relationship with other things (like stores and gardens and bouquets).   It is no longer just finding that word, but is now looking for information about the flower, roses.  It is as if you had a librarian there helping you with your search.

So, what is all this about the graph?  There is no graph on the search page.  Again, it is jargon.  To computer people, the “graph” refers to relationships among things.  So it refers to the way that Google is now connecting its databases and its relationships among pages.  It is making those connections to make the searchers more meaningful.

In Google’s announcement, they provided the search example “da Vinci.”  This provides a nice example of the new search results.  The screen you see is shown below.

As you can see from the screen shot above, the left side of the screen provides the typical Google search results.  It provides not only information about the artist, but also information about syrups, wedding dresses and surgical procedures that share the name.  The part that is different is the information on the right.  Since most people who search for da Vinci are looking for the artist, they provide information about him, taken from a variety of databases, for easy access.

How well this better informed search will work for you depends on a few things.  First, of course, it depends on how similar your searches are to those of other users.  The closer you are to “typical” searchers, the more likely you will get this enhanced information.  Second, it depends on how well you scope your search.  If you are very good and tend to give Google a precise set of search terms, you most likely get to the information very quickly and this will not help much.  If, instead, you are terribly general in your search terms, you may or may not get this information.  However, if your terms generally provide some boundary, and you are searching for items for which Google has a good network, you will probably find this enhanced search is useful for you.

As an example, earlier this evening, I conducted a search on “Paul Gray,” who is a long standing colleague and friend who recently passed away.  This search generated the enhanced results, but apparently there is a musician named Paul Gray and there was much information about him.  Most people who search on Google probably want information about him.  However, Google was smart enough to know there was another Paul Gray that might be of interest to a subset of searchers.  So, at the bottom there was another box with information:

Google can understand that “Paul Gray” is a person’s name and there are two of them.  That’s pretty cool!

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Privacy Legislation

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There is good news for those of us who use email, smart phones and social networking sites!  Legislation was introduced in both houses of the (U.S.) Congress today that would prohibit employers or prospective employers from forcing employees or prospective employees to divulge passwords.  The good news is that both houses think this is a problem and are acting to do something about it.  The bad news is that the bills differ.  The Senate’s version is called the Password Protection Act and is sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn also includes smart phones, private email accounts, photo sharing sites, and any personal information that resides on computers owned by the workers.  Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colorado introduced similar legislation in the House.  However, last month, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N. Y. introduced the Social Networking Online Protection Act (SNOPA) that extended the protections to elementary, high school and college students.  The ACLU supports this inclusion of students because they are a target of much of the social media monitoring.

Rep Engel was quoted by ABC News  as saying:

There have been a number of reports about employers requiring new applicants to give their username and password as part of the hiring process. The same has occurred at some schools and universities,” Engel said in a statement. “Passwords are the gateway to many avenues containing personal and sensitive content — including email accounts, bank accounts and other information, he added.

Of course, the legislation also protects employers in that it prevents them from accidentally learning information about a candidate that is not allowed to be considered in a hiring decision.

These are positive steps to protect our civil liberties.

Meanwhile the New York Courts have asked Twitter to release data pertaining to a user involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement.  According to CNN,

Twitter, however, countered that the court would need a search warrant to get that information. It pointed to a recent Supreme Court decision which found that attaching a GPS device is considered a search under the Fourth Amendment, which prevents unreasonable searches and seizures.

“If the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement applies merely to surveillance of one’s location in public areas for 28 days, it also applies to the District Attorney’s effort to force Twitter to produce over three months worth of a citizen’s substantive communications, regardless of whether the government alleges those communications are public or private,” wrote Twitter in its motion.

Twitter also suggested that Harris owns his own tweets and could therefore file a motion to quash on his own, despite the prosecution’s assertion of the opposite.

The ACLU is calling Twitter’s move a ‘big deal.’

The fourth amendment should protect us from arbitrary search and seizure of our own information.  Just because it is easy to access (because it is electronic) does not make it right to do so.

Flashback Trojan

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I’m sorry I have been gone for a while, but,  I got caught up in conferences and final projects/exams, and I lost control of my schedule.

Something important happened while I was gone, though, the Flashback Trojan!  We have discussed trojans before.   They are similar to viruses in that they disrupt the operation of a computer or make your computer vulnerable to data theft or keystroke logging,  or other things.    They are different from viruses in that they cannot infect another computer.   What makes this particular trojan interesting is not its structure or action, but rather that it was directed to a Macintosh.  My friends and colleagues who use Macintosh computers have smugly reminded me for years that they do not run virus protection software on their computers because they do not need it;  Macs don’t get malware.   Yet on April 5, it was reported that over 600,000 Macs were infected with this trojan.  This malware was initially found in September 2011 masquerading as a fake Adobe Flash Player plug-in installer, but it has also exploited Java vulnerabilities to infect Macs.

Do you wonder if you have it?  Check the security company F-Secure, which has published instructions on how to determine whether a Mac is infected with Flashback.  If your computer is infected with the trojan, you can learn how to remove it from CNet.

This is not the first malware product lately to infect the Mac, but it was the most widespread. The question you may be asking right now is WHY????  As I said, most Mac users do not bother with malware protection because to this date they have not needed it.  Yes, it is true that the Mac operating system has fewer holes in it to exploit when compared with Windows.  Yet, I believe there is more to the story.  Historically there have been many more Windows-machines than Macs, and they tended to be more pervasive in industry.  If your goal was to cause significant disruption or to steal data and identities, you would get a bigger bang associated with Windows machines than Macs.   I believe that is exactly what malware writers have been doing.  However, the Mac isn’t just for schools and artists anymore, it is being used in more businesses and by more people.   It stands to reason that more malware will be written for these machines, especially since there are less people protecting the Macs and few companies that are actively involved in research into the attacks.

So, what does it mean for you?   I would recommend that you purchase anti-virus software and use it.  That is, you not only need to install the software, but you must update the virus patterns weekly (if not more often).  Second, you need to be careful what attachments you open.  If you are suspicious, do not open it.  That holds for updates too.  Research what is being updated and whether that popup is legitimate.  Be careful — even with solid doors with locks, you must be vigilant to insure the burglar does not steal your possessions.  The same is true with the protection of your computer.