Archive for October, 2007

Ask vs. Google

October 28, 2007

Google UKGoogle has always been the king of search; so much so that it’s become a household name — and, more than that, a bonafide verb. Sure, there’s always been Yahoo! and MSN/Live Search, with the latter in particular receiving a massive amount of traffic partly because it’s the default search engine for Internet Explorer. However, for years Google has been the tech-head’s search engine of choice.

But recently — formerly Ask Jeeves — has been aggressively marketing its search engine on primetime TV here in the UK as the all-singing, all-dancing alternative to boring old uncle G. Here’s a taster of Ask’s “can your search engine do this?” campaign:

Full credit to the marketing team: the ads are attention-grabbing, original and, above all, they really do make Google look like the kind of old-fashioned search engine only your mother would use. But is it really? And which is better when you actually want to find relevant information?

While I fully realise I’m by no means the first blogger to try this, I decided to run a small test to compare the two. The search term I used was “Lincoln”, my current place of residence. I also restricted results to sites from the UK. Here’s what Google came up with:

Google - Lincoln


And here’s the same search on

Ask - Lincoln

The main difference is that Ask has a three-column layout, whereas Google is limited to two. Moreover, when you’re used to the clean Google search, Ask’s results page can be a little discombobulating at first, but it’s fairly logical once you get used to it.

You have the search bar on the left, with suggestions to narrow your search, and the search field itself has autocomplete suggestions as you type, which is a pretty nifty feature. On the right are samples of images, music and video searches, which in this case were actually pretty useless, but I can imagine situations where you’d want them (for instance, when searching for a band, Ask will bring up weblinks, photos, videos and song clips all on the same page.

Ask also has a nifty ‘binoculars’ feature, which is a preview snapshot of the linked webpage when you hover the mouse over the relevant icon. This is similar to the feed preview feature on Bloglines, or indeed the Snap preview here on WordPress.

One thing I didn’t like about Ask was its ‘sponsored results’ which are directly above and below the main search results, so you have to scroll down a little before you find the links that aren’t paid for. What’s more, it doesn’t mark its sponsored results very clearly; there’s an incredibly pale blue box around them, but it’s tough to spot. In contrast, Google clearly separates most of its sponsored results by placing them in the right-hand column. Sure, you sometimes get sponsored links just above the results on Google too, but it just feels easier to differentiate than on Ask.

I’ve been talking a lot about Ask’s features, but Google has one or two tricks up its sleeve. For example, if you’re logged in it tells you how many times you’ve visited a particular website. It also allows you to ‘note’ or ‘clip’ a particular weblink for future reference, rather like social bookmarking sites, such as Finally, at the bottom of the results page are further search suggestions.

In terms of actual results, there really isn’t much to separate the two. Both ranked City of Lincoln Council and Lincoln University highly, while the Cathedral came slightly lower down the front page.

Bottom Line: I’ll probably stick with Google for now. Ask has some great features, but the results page feels a little overloaded for my taste.


Weekend Clippings 5

October 27, 2007

What’s clippings, precious? Why it’s merely a selection of stories from this week’s sci/tech/oddball news which I’ve found particularly noteworthy. To wit:

  • When work becomes a game (BBC News Technology) | The Beeb reports that some companies are turning to gaming to motivate employees, network in virtual worlds, and learn how to do business better.
  • Monkeys kill Delhi deputy mayor (Tailrank) | Surely the most bizarre news story of the week: this Tailrank story rounds up the best of the comments on the wild monkey attack.
  • Google vs. Systran: Mountain View Does Their Own Translation (Read/Write Web) | Google have switched to their own translation system rather than relying on Systran as in the past. The best thing about this story is the comparison of a French translation done by Google’s new engine and Altavista Babelfish: “It was smelled badly at ease, weighed down, dissatisfied like when one received some annoying news.” Quite.
  • Super Stars of the Internet (Neatorama) | A link to a great Youtube video which has pretty much all the fads from the last 7 or 8 years of internet. From Star Wars kid to All Your Base; it’s all there.

  • Eleven Days Awake (Neatorama) | Neatorama again with a super-interesting article about experiments in sleep deprivation. The current record is 449 hours awake.
  • Top 10 Google products you forgot all about (Lifehacker) | Something genuinely useful to finish off: Lifehacker counts down 10 cool Google apps which you either hadn’t heard about or forgot existed. Check out the flight sim hidden in Google Earth, or design your own dream home with Sketchup.

Sigur Rós: Heima

October 21, 2007

Icelandic post-rock phenomenon Sigur Rós are about to release a film, Heima (it means “at home” roughly). Here’s the trailer:

You can watch all that in much better quality on the band’s website. The film will be premiered in the UK at BBC2’s Electric Proms, and there’s a clip from it on the BBC website. It’s basically Sigur Rós creating epic post-rock soundscapes in the desolate and beautiful landscapes of their home country. A perfect match really.

And I’ll always be in awe of a band who can make a song sound devastatingly moving and uplifting, even when the frontman sounds like he’s singing about urinals…

Changed My Theme: Digg 3 Column

October 21, 2007

I decided to change my blog’s theme today to the recently released Digg 3 column theme by Small Potato. I’ve wanted a 3-column theme for a while mainly because, under the old 2-column theme, my sidebar went on for miles. I’m still undecided as to whether I’ll keep this new one or have a look around for others, but I thought a fresh look can’t be bad… Right? It looks a bit cluttered at the moment, but maybe I just need to reorganize my sidebars a little bit. I also need to find a new image for the header – I was getting a bit bored of the old head-melt graffiti.

In any case, watch this space…

UPDATE: Later that day: Er, yeah, well – I got bored of Digg 3. Basically, it didn’t really fit with the style I was looking for, so I ditched it in favour of this one: Cutline by Chris Pearson. Despite the fact that it’s back to two columns, I think it’s a lot neater and less cluttered. I’m keeping it… For now…

“I Am Now Switching Off BBC2 Analogue!”

October 17, 2007

Those were the not-so-historic words spoken at some point earlier today when a nondescript guy, in what appears to be a storage cupboard, flicked an unassuming light switch on the wall and apparently turned off the BBC2 analogue signal for the Cumbrian town of Whitehaven:

Click on “Watch Audio and Video News” in the top right to see the moment in all its glory. What I love about this is the fact that no one thought of making it into anything approaching a spectacle or show. In proper gritty British style, they’ve clearly had to shove a filing cabinet out of the way simply in order to reach the switch. Classic.

The rest of the report has the beeb desperately trying to conjure up some major historical event out of all this: Whitehaven is the first town in the UK to be (partly) switched to a digital TV signal, and apparently it’s causing some consternation for about 0.2% of the town’s over 60s. To be fair, financial assistance is available for those who can’t afford to get Sky in, but the trouble is that too many people aren’t aware of it, or don’t know how to get it.

In any case, by the time London’s signal is switched over (in 2011 – 2012), they’ll no doubt have learned a lesson or two. I predict an all singing and dancing extravaganza featuring the cast of Strictly Come Dancing and Britney performing a duet with Justin as part of a comeback tour… Or something.

Weekend Clippings 4

October 12, 2007

It’s been a while since the last instalment of this supposedly “regular” feature. I’m not going to bother with tedious excuses, so here are some more interesting and informative tidbits from the past few weeks’ internet/science/offbeat news. Enjoy!

  • Don’t Tase Me, Bro! (The New LOLcats) (BoingBoing) | The latest fad (or meme) sweeping the intarweb: BoingBoing shows you how to dress in style while wittily referencing the gradual erosion of civil liberties in the USA. For those who don’t know what I’m going on about, check this out:
  • Madonna Dumps Label in $134m Deal (Sydney Morning Herald) | I found this via reddit, but pretty much every news agency is reporting it. In fact, I should have included the subtitle in the reddit story, since it pretty much sums up why this is important: “record industry officially over”.
  • ‘Superbugs’ Could Benefit Humans (Washington Post) | Superbugs get a bad press these days. Scientists at Arizona State University want to change all that, reporting on experiments which show how superbugs could eventually help treat cancer and other diseases. This is cool because it’s about blasting bacteria with beams and shooting them into space and stuff.
  • Universal Avatars Bestride Worlds (BBC – Technology) | The slightly pompous title belies an innovative idea: instead of creating multiple accounts with different versions of “you” for online games, why not have a single digital representative (avatar) which works across games. IBM and Linden Lab (the people behind Second Life) think it’s possible.

Second Life Logo

  • Star Worst Wars Trumpet Girl (Neatorama) | Just a Youtube link, really. But yet another Miss Teen America whatever making a complete idiot of herself can’t be bad, can it?

Why My Reddit RSS Feed Is B0rked

October 11, 2007

For a while now my liked.rss feed from reddit has been well and truly knackered. You can see the results of this on the right-hand side of this page, in my sidebar — just keep scrolling, you’ll reach it eventually…

Yesterday I found out why: apparently all reddit rss feeds now require a login cookie. This is fine when you’re logged in to reddit and viewing my liked items, but not so good when you’re trying to display a feed in a feed reader or on a blog. This has been reported on both the bugs subreddit and vanilla reddit, so far without any response — not even an acknowledgement that there’s a problem.

And that’s not the only unfixed problem: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tried to submit a link, only to be told “you’re submitting too fast!”. Well, I’m not the only one. This has been reported again and again, and there still hasn’t been any response.

In general I do value the quality of reddit as compared to digg et al, but all these problems are beginning to take the shine off somewhat.

UPDATE: 17/10/2007: It’s fixed! Reddit changed their code at the weekend and revamped most of the site. With this came a change in the way RSS feeds are handled. The upshot is it now works fine, so I’m happy!

Almost There… Stay On Target!

October 10, 2007

Plaster Wars” was an event which took place earlier this month featuring scale models of several Star Wars craft, like the X-Wing (full-scale) and Y-Wing (1/4 scale):

“A long time ago, in a garage in Santee, California, a group of slightly insane rocketeers decided to make a flying scale model of the X-Wing fighter from what is arguably the best movie ever made, Star Wars.”

Here are the (less than spectacular, but still geekily entertaining) results:

Altogether now: “Watch out, Wedge! Three from above!” “I can’t shake him!” “Too late!”, etc.

Grammar Nazis: xkcd

October 8, 2007

Webcomic xkcd just published a strip about the intricacies of English grammar. In a previous life I would very much identify with this kind of thing, and in fact there are people I know from my postgraduate days in linguistics who probably still do this on a daily basis:

xkcd - effect affect

Of course, I know plenty of grammar nazis too…