Google is scary good

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Before I finish typing "red", Google is already suggesting "red herring", which is what I was looking for.

When I've barely begun to type "Philadelphia" or "Seattle" and only one "Walla", Google is already suggesting ""Philadelphia weather", "Seattle weather" and "Walla Walla weather", which is what I was looking for in each case.

If I want to check in on American Airlines, all I have to type is "ame", and — voilà! — there it is!

I was trying to think of a certain kind of Japanese tomb.  I typed in "Japanese tombs" and, remembering that these tombs resemble a keyhole, I added "k", and up popped "japanese keyhole tombs".

I do this kind of search hundreds of times every day, and I'm infinitely grateful to Google for enabling them and making them seem (on my end) so effortless.

So much for Google Search.  As for Google Translate, I've already written so many posts about how impressive it is (e.g., " Google Translate is even better now" [9/27/16]), I needn't go into details here.  And how could we live without Google Maps and Google Images?

For all of these reasons, I find it painful to be in China nowadays, since when I'm there I do not have access to these (and countless other) tools that are essential to my research.  As I've said over and over again, when I'm in China I feel as though I've undergone an internet lobotomy.  And don't mention VPNs, or you'll get an earful from me.

So grateful am I to Google that I would be happy to make donations to them, but they don't need any.  I am equally grateful to Wikipedia, and they do need money, so I do make regular, large donations to them.

I consider myself extremely fortunate, indeed blessed, to be living in an age and place where I have access to Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, and countless other tools that make my research thousands of times easier than it was when I was in high school, college, and graduate school, not to mention the first half of my teaching career.


  1. aka_darrell said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 3:30 pm

    I am an old , infirm, curmudgeon and it fascinates me almost hourly how much right-on material Google fill call up in a fraction of a second. And , now Firefox and Chrome will take me to Google thence to what I want so quickly I hardly think about it.

  2. Rube said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 3:34 pm

    Google often makes me think of Richard Brautigan's "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace".

  3. PickeringPast said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 3:40 pm

    As thought activated computing develops, will we see roles reversed?

  4. David Moser said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 4:21 pm

    Sadly, if Xi Jinping gets his way, I'll no longer be able to access Google or any of those other amazing digital resources. It looks like the Chinese cyberspace regulators are going to crack down on VPNs to access blocked foreign websites.

  5. Jonathan Smith said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 4:31 pm

    The new trio of canned variable responses to gmail messages is entirely unnerving ( / / , etc.) and could surely be much more so if they so desired. I admit I now reply to a higher percentage of emails though :P

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 4:32 pm

    oops, imagine your own example

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 4:45 pm

    "Scary good" reads very oddly to me; would not "scarily" be more customary in such a context ?

  8. Evan Harper said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 5:05 pm

    I would suggest that it is very unwise to donate to the Wikimedia Foundation. While they fundraise incessantly off the impression that they need donations to keep the lights on at Wikipedia, this actually accounts for <10% of their operating budget. The vast majority of it goes to a large and complex worldwide bureaucracy with little clear purpose or relevance, supposedly doing things like "outreach" and "partnerships" with museums etc. Meanwhile the site itself is if anything atrophying, with steadily declining editorship and technological stagnation.

    Discontent about this has been building for many years and both veteran Wikipedia community members (as distinct from professional Wikimedia Foundation bureaucrats) and even some disgruntled former WMF people have spilled a lot of ink documenting exactly how dysfunctional the organization is. But nothing changes.

    No-one should give to the Wikimedia Foundation until they have shown that they have clear, credible plan to rationalizing their operations & refocusing on their core mission.

  9. AntC said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 5:12 pm

    Thank you Victor. For Google search, maps and images; and wikipedia I agree with you.

    I think of how much they could have helped my learning when I was at school. Sadly "kids these days" seem to use all that connectivity chiefly for playing games with their pals only a few feet away.

    For Google translate not so much: I've been trying to coach someone in China (who appears to speak no English) how to use a help forum. I've had to resort to a human translator. (And when I back-translate their message, Google's English really isn't English.)

  10. More Cowbell said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 5:40 pm

    Heartily agree with Victor about the values of donating to Wikipedia. While there is always nitpicking, Charity Navigator gives Wikimedia Foundation the highest ratings.

  11. Christopher Coulouris said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 8:36 pm

    I recall a news story from a year or two ago that Shanghai was going to have some open access internet zones. Looks like that will not be happening now.

  12. Rubrick said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 9:28 pm

    @Evan Harper: While I agree there are some concerns about about the Wikimedia Foundation's structure and direction, I continue to donate to them because it seems a fitting way to thank them for bringing into being the largest, most comprehensive single repository of human knowledge to ever exist, probably by orders of magnitude. I don't think we spend enough time being astounded by this.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 10:11 pm

    "open access internet zones"

    I don't think that will ever happen so long as the current regime is in power. The Chinese Communist Party is terrified of an open internet.

  14. Keith said,

    August 1, 2017 @ 3:35 am

    @Philip Taylor

    "Scary good" is right, because Internet. lol

  15. C said,

    August 1, 2017 @ 4:58 am

    I find these types of posts disturbing, because they conflate technologies and companies selling these technologies. Did you try your searches on bing, duckduckgo, baidu, or other search engines? Did they work as well, or worse, or better? Did you donate to the free ones?

    When you search for weather forecasts, Google displays the weather directly to you. How can other weather services compete?

    Google provides useful services. They also raise significant social concerns. If you're happy with search engine technology, praise that — don't praise one of the company that happens to provide it. Unless you've found Google to be the only one that's good enough for your searches? I wouldn't expect so.

    (And the same holds for maps, for translation, for email, etc. Praise technology, not companies, when it's technology that you're thankful for)

  16. Bfwebster said,

    August 1, 2017 @ 6:52 am

    A bit over 30 years ago (1985 or so), the SF author/computing columnist Jerry Pournelle predicted that by the year 2000, you would be able to go online and find the answer to any question for which there was an answer. I've marveled at how well that has been fulfilled. As per Victor's post, I feel that Google has become half my brain, and I am often amused by my own learned skills at changing and refining a search request to zero in on what I'm looking for. I'm also amused at my own mental foot stamping when I fail to find it.

  17. ardj said,

    August 1, 2017 @ 7:05 am

    I do not have Professor Mair's need for weather reports from distant corners of the world, nor his academic requirements for red herrings. But I am a little surprised at the general enthusiasm here for Google search. I concede there may be use in Google Scholar, but I find that Duck Duck Go or Ixquick deal resonably with most of my literary or economic or even occasional travel queries: and I like to think that they are perhaps lesser evils than Google
    On the other hand, for all its errors and gaps, I entirely agree that Wikipedia is wonderful

  18. Keith said,

    August 1, 2017 @ 7:06 am


    I'm sure that this shows my age, but I remember constructing search terms for AltaVista in such a way that I got back very few hits, and usually the first three or four contained *exactly* what I was looking for.

    Google, that Internet equivalent of the Marvellous, Mechanical Mouse Engine, can often make a good stab at constructing the search term for me, but then showers me with sixt to a hundred propositions that I then need to filter through for myself.

  19. Christopher Coulouris said,

    August 1, 2017 @ 7:14 am

    You are right Professor Mair, the Communist leadership is terrified of an open internet. The situation reminds me of the 文字狱 (literary inquistion) during the Qing dynasty.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    August 1, 2017 @ 7:31 am

    VHM wrote "Before I finish typing "red", Google is already suggesting "red herring", which is what I was looking for". Many many years ago I disabled Google's auto-complete, and I have never regretted so doing (I use a cloned pre-auto-complete version of an early Google page as my home page). I just wish that I could prevent Windows 7's internal search engine from starting a search before I have completed the search string. Real-time interpretation of one's partial typed input, rather than waiting for the traditional <Return>/<Enter> confirmation that one has finished entering the data, I regard as one of worst design errors of many of today's user interfaces.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    August 1, 2017 @ 9:44 am

    If you don't like what your search engine is suggesting to you, just ignore the suggestions and keep typing. Maybe what you want will pop up as you continue to type. If it doesn't, then keep typing until you've entered exactly what you're looking for. It's up to you. You're in control.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    August 1, 2017 @ 9:47 am

    As I was waking up this morning (coming back to consciousness), I thought of another way in which Google is scary good. Namely, I can enter search terms into its products in simplified Chinese characters or in traditional characters, and they will instantly and automatically make the necessary conversions. That's another way Google saves me light years of time.

  23. wanda said,

    August 1, 2017 @ 6:11 pm

    On a practical level, if you travel to China with a smartphone that still has your US sim card, you can still access Google and other US sites. At least, this worked for me in 2015. I funnel all my mail through Gmail, and there would have been no other way for me to be able to answer my work emails on vacation.

  24. Ross Bender said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 8:27 am

    Google is getting just plain scary, as are other machine translation devices. The Telegraph just reported that Facebook's robots, Bob and Alice, invented their own language and had to be shut down.

    Bob: i can i i everything else
    Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me
    to me to me

    I for one do not welcome our robot overlords…..

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 9:09 am

    VHM wrote : "If you don't like what your search engine is suggesting to you, just ignore the suggestions and keep typing. Maybe what you want will pop up as you continue to type. If it doesn't, then keep typing until you've entered exactly what you're looking for. It's up to you. You're in control".

    If I allow Google to second-guess what I am typing, it is wasting not only Google's resources (CPU time, I/O, etc) but my resources (my upload bandwidth, since it insists on sending each character that I type in a separate packet rather than bundling the entire search string together as a single entity and then transmitting that entity in as few packets as possible). Furthermore, since (if I allow it to second-guess) it also insists on refreshing a part of my screen after each character, it is wasting more of my resources (download bandwidth, local CPU, I/O, etc).

    As far as I am concerned, neither of these is acceptable and thus I choose to be "in control" by providing a static front-end to all Google searches.

  26. a George said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 10:03 am

    I have to confess that I feel quite ambivalent about this. First of all, are the suggestions for auto-completion based on what the total community has already been looking for, or are they directed at me as a known user, with the footprints that I have unwillingly (it used to be unwittingly) left? The great danger of searching on the web as opposed to ordering an index volume (or preferably, a whole bound volume) of a journal at a library and doing your search in private, your most detailed interests are automatically collected and reported when you do it online. It does not matter whether everything is above board, all your intentions are good, someone out there might be able to use your proven interests against you.

    There is no doubt that the search engines and the fact that virtually everything published and converted to data is available has meant a democratisation of access to information. It was just the same with the pocket calculator: it enabled people who were not good at mental calculations to make calculations quickly, without pen and paper. It evens out the field — those who are gifted with a good recall of even minute details are no longer so special. I do not know if I really think that is a good idea.

    Unfortunately (or fortunately, as one may see it), all this information at your fingertips does not create knowledge — that still has to be fought for. Unless, of course, that you subscribe to ready-made knowledge, which is also available on the web.

  27. Mark P said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 10:08 am

    @VM "Google saves me light years of time"

    I was a little surprised to read that expression. I see light years used as units of big time reasonably often. Did you do it intentionally to bait people like me? To someone in the physical sciences, light years are, of course, units of distance rather than time. They're very big, which I understand is what you were aiming for. In fact, a even a light second is so big that (if Google Maps' estimate of travel time is correct) it would take a human something like 6 years and 8 months to walk one light second, not counting time for R&R.

  28. Rodger C said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 10:22 am

    Indeed, 120 km a day isn't a walk, it's a heavy jog, assuming you also eat and sleep.

  29. Jichang Lulu said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 1:54 pm

    In natural units with c=1, as often used in (for example) relativity theory, metre is a multiple of second, and each can be used to measure both lengths and times. 'Light years of time' then makes perfect sense (and means just 'years of time').

  30. Philip Taylor said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 2:19 pm

    OK, I'll bite ☺ Being neither a mathematician nor a relativitist, the idea of a metre being "a multiple of a second" intrigues me. If it is such a multiple, how many seconds are there in a metre when c=1 ?

  31. ardj said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 3:31 pm

    @Jichang Lulu: but the expression is used by astronomers to signify distance, and I sometimes see astronomers (or astrophysicists) objecting to its application to other meanings.

    @Phillip Taylor: according to the wonderful Wikipedia (to save me working it out myself) a light year is equal to 9460730472580800 metres. Dividing that by 365.25 * 24 * 60 * 60 would give: 299,792,458 metres. Are we much further forward ?

  32. Victor Mair said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 3:35 pm

    light years of time

  33. Victor Mair said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 3:36 pm

    "Apple Caved to China, Just Like Almost Every Other Tech Giant" (8/2/17)

    Except Google, bless their soul.

  34. Mark P said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 3:38 pm

    @Jichang Lulu: what ardj said. Yours is an argument too far for me.

    VM' expression is perfectly understandable. It means a lot of time. That is, not just a year, but a very big year or a whole lot of years. I don't agree that it makes perfect sense. However, it does make linguistic sense, in the sense that "sense" means "that's the way it is, so stop your peeving." In that spirit, I hereby redefine my first post from "peeve" to "observation."

  35. ardj said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 3:43 pm

    @Phillip Taylor: however when I use the astronomical unit, the distance from sun to earth, of 149,597,870,700 metres (or 93 milliion miles in ready money), and divide that by the just over 8 minutes (8.32) that the light takes to reach earth, I get 299,795,332.1 metres – but it is still around 300 million of these metre chaps

  36. ardj said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 3:52 pm

    @ Phillip Taylor: But of course the answer to your question is that there are approximately 1/300 million seconds in a metre, or 3.33recurring * 10**-9. Not a lot.

  37. ardj said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

    I mean, 3.33 recurring / 10**-9, silly me

  38. Philip Taylor said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 3:59 pm

    ardj: but in all four cases you are telling me how far light travels in one second or how many (fractions of) a second it would take light to traverse a metre. That is not what I asked (because that is just basic primary-school maths). I asked "(For c=1) how many seconds are there in a metre ?" because I simply cannot understand how, given two orthogonal units, one can be a multiple of the other. The one thing that was hammered in to us at school in maths lessons was "always check your units"; to make an arithmetical error was bad but forgiveable; to make an error in one's units was unthinkable and unforgiveable. Yet Jichang Lulu (who presumably knows what he is talking about) states that a [a] metre is a multiple of [a] second, and I am trying to understand how that can be.

  39. ardj said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 4:20 pm

    @Phillip Taylor: I quite agree about Jichang Lulu's observation. But I did (eventually) answer your question: there are about 0.000000003 seconds in a metre as far as the speed of light is concerned. This whole discussion though is a mare's nest, as opposed to a red herring: As Mark P suggested, Professor Mair was using a "metaphor", rhetorically using something very big to express something else very big. Some of us feel it doesn't work.

  40. Joe said,

    August 3, 2017 @ 6:38 pm

    @Phillip Taylor

    I should guess a speed such as c is (length)/(time) so multiplying it with (time) gives (length).

  41. Mark P said,

    August 4, 2017 @ 10:35 am

    @Joe: That's exactly my initial point. A light year is basically a velocity (speed of light) multiplied by a time (one year) yielding a distance, not a time, as was used in the original post.

  42. Victor Mair said,

    August 4, 2017 @ 11:38 am

    Chris De Burgh Lyrics

    "A Spaceman Came Travelling" (nearly six million views)

    A spaceman came travelling on his ship from afar,
    'Twas light years of time since his mission did start,
    And over a village he halted his craft,
    And it hung in the sky like a star, just like a star…

    He followed a light and came down to a shed,
    Where a mother and child were lying there on a bed,
    A bright light of silver shone round his head,
    And he had the face of an angel, and they were afraid…

    Then the stranger spoke, he said "Do not fear,
    I come from a planet a long way from here,
    And I bring a message for mankind to hear,"
    And suddenly the sweetest music filled the air…

    And it went La La…
    Peace and goodwill to all men, and love for the child…

    This lovely music went trembling through the ground,
    And many were wakened on hearing that sound,
    And travellers on the road, the village they found,
    By the light of that ship in the sky, which shone all round…

    And just before dawn at the paling of the sky,
    The stranger returned and said "Now I must fly,
    When two thousand years of your time has gone by,
    This song will begin once again, to a baby's cry…"

    And it went La La … This song will begin once again
    To a baby's cry…
    And it goes La La… Peace and goodwill to all men, and
    Love for the child…
    Oh the whole world is waiting, waiting to hear the song again,
    There are thousands standing on the edge of the world,
    And a star is moving somewhere, the time is nearly here,
    This song will begin once again, to a baby's cry…


    Chris de Burgh

    Most famous for "The Lady in Red".

    YouTube video (12,344,088 views)

    P.S. I've known since high school that a light year is a unit of distance. I think that ardj understands what I was doing.

  43. ardj said,

    August 4, 2017 @ 4:01 pm

    @Victor Mair
    I'm glad you think so. But I do not think that de Burgh's shoddy lyrics provide adequate justification for your use of the conceit.

  44. Victor Mair said,

    August 4, 2017 @ 7:58 pm

    "shoddy lyrics"

    Snobs are entitled to their opinion, but it is not necessary for everyone to agree with them.

  45. Philip Taylor said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 4:05 am

    I would respectfully suggest that everyone is entitled to his/her opinion, and that having a low opinion of the lyrics of one Chris de Burgh does not, of itself, make one a snob …

  46. Victor Mair said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 8:20 am

    "having a low opinion of the lyrics of one Chris de Burgh does not, of itself, make one a snob …"

    But, in my opinion, and in the opinion of millions of others, it is snobbish to do so. Furthermore, "one Chris de Burgh" is an estimable person in the culture of our day.

  47. Philip Taylor said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 9:23 am

    Well, at least you didn't write "in the opinion of light-millions of others" to make the statistics seem even more impressive …

  48. Victor Mair said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 12:08 pm

    Why in the world would I have wanted to say "light-millions of others"?

  49. C said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 12:30 pm

    Just like light-years instead of years: you seemed to be using "light" as an intensifier:

    > *That's another way Google saves me light years of time.
    for "That's another way Google saves me years of time."


    > *in the opinion of light-millions of others
    for "in the opinion of millions of others"

  50. Victor Mair said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 1:23 pm

    I know what a light-year is, but I have no idea what a light-million is.

  51. C said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 1:37 pm

    In you post, "light-year" seemed to mean "much more than a year", or simply "a long time" (instead of the usual meaning "a large distance").

    Similarly, "light-million" would mean "much more than a million", or simply "many".

    I think the comment was intended as a joke.

  52. Philip Taylor said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 1:51 pm

    Indeed it was (intended as a joke, that is). And there was a Unicode smiley at the end when posted. But the smiley mysteriously disappeared some time after the message was posted (I still have a copy on-screen that confirms to me that I was not the smiley being present).

  53. Victor Mair said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 4:17 pm

    All right already. Enough with the jokes and the sophomoric smileys!

  54. Jefferson DeMarco said,

    August 6, 2017 @ 1:59 pm

    Google Translate is nice in that it does keep improving and allows for user feedback. That being said, some languages work much better than others. I have friends in the Philippines that use Tagolog, but when I enter their posts into GT it does not have an entry for that. I then try Filipino, which gives a few translated words on occasion but mostly just returns the input. I tried translating some English into the Mynamar language, and my friend there couldn't make any sense of it. That one doesn't surprise me so much, but I would have thought the Tagolog process would be much better.

    All that being said, it is a wonderful resource, and has helped me make sense (albeit imperfectly) of many Asian languages.

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