Sunday, December 18, 2005

How to Read a Book

I just finished Adler & Van Doren's classic How to Read a Book, which I can't believe I never read until now. (Actually, I think I started it once, but abandoned it. Ironic.) The authors outline a system of analytical reading and "syntopical" reading to allow you to get the most out of any book, and stretch your reading capabilities. Not that all books are worthy of analytical reading. There is an appendix in the back of the book of their recommendations of great books that are worth the effort.

Syntopical reading (their term) is the process of analyzing several books on one topic in order to formulate a discussion on the issue. This is essentially wht is required to write anything at the graduate level, and it is immesely helpful to have the process explicity and systematically explained. I could have used this last semester!

Of course, in order to be an expert reader, one has to read books of quality. (Reading for information and reading for pleasure are not going to improve one's mind.) The guilt I feel upon examining my own reading habits has inspired me to do two things: First, I am going to buy the Great Books of the Western World collection, so I can syntopically examine the greatest ideas by the greatest minds of all time. Second, since I have a month before school starts, my next novel will be one I have been putting off for some time: Tolstoy's War and Peace. The length has always been daunting to me, but I just realized that if I add up the pages I expect to read in the next month, they would be equal to the length of W&P anyway. Why read three or four shallow books when I can read one great one?

On a lighter note (hey, not everythig I read has to be cannonical), I just finished Julie Powell's Julie & Julia, an account of one woman's self-appointed project to prepare every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking within a year. This was a lighthearted and fun book, especially as I love cooking, and what with my immense regard for Julia Child (another Julia who admires Julia). The tone was a little cynical for me, but I had a fun time living through her failures and trumphs (I have had my own experiences with recipes in my copy of MtAoFC.) I found myself propelled though the book in order to find out how the project ended. It was touching as well.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Heaven on Earth | PBS

Think you're a socialist? Think again. At least this documentary should give you some food for thought. It's a good historical summary of the rise and fall of communism.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Ujiko: "Evolving Search Internet Player"

I had to critique a search engine for my Information Retrieval Class. Ujiko is built as a layer upon the Yahoo! search egine. It calls itself an "evolving search internet player" adding more functionality as the user gains expertise. It has an interface like a video game. Here is part of my review:

I came up with five categories to review Ujiko’s interface, based on what we discussed in class, and what Ujiko claims to offer: analytic search capability, search navigation, interactive browsing, visualization of the information space, and “evolutionary” capability. I have rated these on a scale of one to ten (one being poor, ten being excellent), and provided a summary of the features that provide the basis for my critique.

Analytic Search Capability


Search Navigation


Interactive Browsing


Visualization of the Information Space


“Evolutionary” Capability


Analytic Search Capability: simply put, Ujiko provides none. There are no “advanced search” options except for the capability to support a Boolean query, and this is not even mentioned on the help page. To Ujiko’s credit, analytic capability is not its ultimate goal.

Search Navigation: Ujiko offers several features to keep the user from “getting lost” during their search, and to help organize search results. There are three buttons to keep track of search history: “last queries,” “last answered queries”, and “last pages visited.” I found these to be very helpful in avoiding duplicate searches while adjusting my queries. Ujiko also provides five folders to file results by your own categories, and look at later as a set.

Interactive Browsing: There are three key features that I consider to be the highlight of Ujiko’s interface, and provide the opportunity for fast relevance judgments. First, when one mouses over the URLs provided, Ujiko provides “thumbshots” (provided by of the web pages with a summary underneath. This is a quick way to determine whether a site warrants further investigation without clicking on it. Second, one can rank each site by clicking on a heart icon (giving it relevance points) or a trash icon, which will filter it out of the results. If you run a previous query, the results you picked as relevant will appear at the top of the list. Third, Ujiko provides additional query suggestions in the middle of the page (pulled from the pages’ metadata) and allows you to pose a new query with the additional key words by clicking on them. These three features make sorting and filtering a large number of results very efficient.

Visualization of the Information Space: Ujiko’s visual layout is fun and easy to maneuver. Providing results in two columns around a circle prevents scrolling, which is a plus. The use of color-coded bars to associate query terms with individual results is also effective, although it is a very limited way of showing the relationships between results. The major weakness of the layout is that it is framed in an oval, which eliminates substatial screen “real estate.” One of the limits of information retrieval is our lack of screen space, and Ujiko’s interface makes it even smaller.

“Evolutionary Capability:” Ujiko promotes itself as an engine which “grows” with the user’s expertise. The more you use it, the more “advanced” options it provides. This is complete nonsense, and my major problem with this search engine. It awards points for every site visited, and awards additional capabilities by moving you to a new "level" every ten points. While novel at first (and somewhat addictive, I admit) it becomes increasingly frustrating. The first five levels provide you with the features that I have mentioned in this review: buttons to view previous search history, folders to sort results, etc. But these features could hardly be considered to provide “advanced” search capability; a novice user could easily manage these features before they have visited fifty pages. As I advanced through the levels, I was increasingly disappointed by the features added. At level eleven (after one hundred ten sited were visited) the newest feature was a button linked to Wikipedia (which it simply opens in a new browser window). Needless to say, the concept of Ujiko being “evolutionary” is hype intended to keep the user interested in the tool.

Overall, Ujiko is an interesting interface, and a highly interactive search engine. Will I use it in the future? Probably not. But the "video game" metaphor is worth investigating. I would like to use this interface with a joystick rather than a mouse. Given the propensity for video-game playing today, maybe this will be the way we search for information in the future.

What are you missing if you only Google?

Search Engine Results Continuing to Diverge

This is an interesting article from back in August about how little overlap there is in search engines.