Wednesday, September 20, 2006

it's academic

I was so excited on that April night in 2004, I could scarcely sleep. I put my cell phone under my pillow and an Ativan under my tongue, but I was still ready to leap into action.

Of course, if you sleep with your cell phone under your pillow, you will be disturbed. You'll be calling everyone in your address book as you toss and turn. Pillow dialing is the technical term, the counterpart to pocket dialing. Your friends shout groggily into their cell phones:

"What's wrong, Cathy? What's wrong? Why're you calling me at 3am? Again!"

But there would've been good reason to call them if I had received the call I was expecting. Good reason indeed. You see, I had a pretty good idea that I was on the short list for Pope. I don't know where I first got the idea I was on the short list, but in my mind's myopic eye, I could see myself all in white, waving to an ecstatic crowd, wearing that cool tall mitre and that cool big ol' ring, leaning out over a balcony so the masses could take me in. I'd be speaking Italian. It didn't really bother me that I'd never spoken Italian before: I can rise to an occasion.

Why did I think I was a contender? It just seemed so truthy. I could feel it in my gut. It's time -- high time -- the world had a small nearsighted female Jewish Pope who looks like Truman Capote when she wears a hat (that's the minor downside of the mitre, I'm afraid).

It was like the WMDs: Oh, there was no evidence, but sometimes you just know something. The visualization was simply too vivid to ignore.

So I was waiting for the call. My cell phone was under my pillow, set to both vibrate and the loudest ring (my ring tone? Ave Maria, of course).

Sara'll tell you. She shared my excitement with me on those tense few nights when the old Pope was poping out, when his fuse was growing shorter and shorter. When USA Today was agog with speculation. When the online bookies were running the numbers on it.

My name never hit the media. Of course not. These things are secret. Just like I keep my piety secret. Just like Mr. Bush and Mr. Chaney kept those weapons of mass destruction secret. Sometimes keeping a secret is very important.

When the big press conference convened and the new Pope was announced, I was -- in a word -- crestfallen. Crestfallen is a great word, but I never wanted it to apply to me. Dismayed. Disappointed. Defenestrated.

No, not defenestrated. That means "thrown out of a window." No. Around that time, I was fenestrated, which means "thrown into Windows." That was the alternative to my coronation as Pope, and I was pretty darned sure I was the next Pope, not the next Vista scapegoat.

Italian would come to me quickly. No problem. Bueno. Bueno. It'd spring wholly formed from that strong base of junior high school Spanish. A class I was kicked out of, no doubt because my Spanish sounded too much like Italian. I was ready, ready, ready. Good to go. Ready to wave to the adoring masses from my bulletproof Pope-mobile. Ready to bless. Ready to consider matters both weighty and small.

Important policies would get set in motion. Cardinals heads would be spinning. Birth control? Si, Si!

Now I bet those darned Cardinals are sorry. Not the baseball team -- I'd harbored that confusion myself for many years. No, I mean the College of Cardinals: that august body of men who name the next Pope. I think of them like the Miss America judges, except that they don't pick a runner-up (Miss Georgia in 2006, Monica Pang, whose talent is tap dancing). Tap dancing is an important skill which current and previous Pontiffs sadly lack. Nor do they select a Miss Congeniality (this year, it was Miss Hawaii, Malika Dudley). They just pick the Pope.

Yep. I bet those Cardinals are sorry now that they didn't pick a Miss Congeniality. Nor name me the next Pope.

I can tell you one thing: I wouldn't have become ensnared in an academic argument like Pope Benedict has. I avoid academic arguments. I do. I don't dwell on ancient sources or complicated reasoning. I go with my gut.

And -- unlike Miss America contestants -- one needn't be particularly photogenic. I would've been perfect (except for the hat thing).

The minute you go in for a scholarly argument, you're in for a world of pain.

Look too, at Abdur Chowdhury, who released a small segment of AOL's search logs. 20 million web queries from 650,000 AOL users. Fabulous data.

Now for academic information retrieval researchers, those search logs are just the thing. You can't get data like that unless you work for Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, or ... AOL. They are utterly tempting. The TREC queries are, by contrast, boring and not nearly so realistic. The AOL logs are the real deal.

If you've never worked on this problem, you might wonder why they didn't just take any identifying information off the individual queries. But if you're familiar with information retrieval, you know that reformulation is where the action is. That it's important to know whether the curious mind was satisfied or whether the searcher continued to go through the list, or whether that same searcher gave up and started again, with an additional term. That it's interesting to know whether peoples' queries for medical information are similar to their queries about cars and flat-screen televisions. Whether all these AOL searchers get better at finding things over time. Whether they look for the same thing again and again -- and find it again and again or not.

All interesting academic problems.

But, much like the Pope's recent remarks about the 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus, the audience for the AOL data is not academic. (I'm mystified that these reports are so dry, actually, given the potential of the data. I realize that most people don't want to compromise anyone's privacy, yet they're ignoring the vast anonymous entertainment potential of this data. And I'm not suggesting anyone delve into the gnarly netherworlds of porn, but rather just the amazing things people want to know.)

Oh, oh, oh! I just can't resist -- can't stop myself now, can't stop myself ever. Let's see what else AOL subscribers who looked for the Pope were interested in. After all, Pope John Paul died during that data collection period. As you'd suspect, there were 1116 queries about popes. I'm surprised. That's less than .006%. Are AOL subscribers so incurious about religious matters?

Let's see. How about Miss America: are more AOL subscribers interested in Miss America than they are the Pope? Nope. Only 72 of them even thought to seek Miss America.

I'm afraid for Miss America's relevance, given this datum. Of course, the person who looked for "Miss America 1955" also looked for "big brazilian ass", "space shuttles that have blown up", "Red Lobster", "alligator life expectancy", and "Hillary Clinton" while one person who looked for the Pope also looked for "cheerleading skort," "clam shell planter," and "rollerskating rink New Jersey." I wouldn't say our AOL population is incurious; rather I'd say, they are well grounded in popular culture, reptiles, crustaceans, and bivalve reuse. That they exercise regularly and take care of their skin.

This, then, is just the data we need to solve that question that's been kicking around since 1966: Are the Beatles really more popular than Jesus Christ? Well now, let's keep score for a change:

Beatles, 1292 queries
Jesus Christ, 726 queries

So there you have it: this data answers the question. John Lennon was right. Beatles win. (John Lennon himself only rated 193 queries; he had sufficient insight not to push the popularity matter too far. Then too, as you'd expect, porn well outweighs either the Beatles or Jesus in popularity.)

Furthermore, Beatles searchers are interested in high-minded matters like "major Italian fashion designers," while Jesus Christ searchers lean more toward "preteen nude pics", "1962 Fairlane project cars", and "home remedies for lice."

An irresistable gold mine. I'm telling you: I could spend hours using this AOL data to resolve all of the questions that've buzzed around my fevered brain all these years. All the questions that evoke the response:

"It's academic. You'll never be able to find the answer to that corker!"

So Pope Benedict got slammed by Muslims around the world for being academic in front of an academic audience. Abdur Chowdhury got fired by his corporate masters for being academic in front of an academic audience (he'd released the AOL data right before SIGIR, I believe with the laudable -- if somewhat naive -- motive of pushing academic information retrieval research forward).

Me? I'm just being defenestrated for my academic tendencies.

But then again, people who look for Microsoft Windows also look for gorilla masks and sexy grandmas.

The connection between all these things?

It's academic.


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4:54 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Does this foam cheesehead make me look fat and Middle Western? I've attracted blog spam for hoodia and bingo.

The spammer, Mr. Shrestha, defies investigation though, as he has hidden his profile. A quick search turns up a Nepalese lad who claims to be a student. Working his way through school by designing web sites for marginal business ventures, no doubt.

Mr. Shrestha: You're on notice!

1:44 PM  
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Blogger Cathy said...

This post amassed 4 new spam comments last night. Perhaps the spam I left intact attracted more.

This time the spammers were anonymous, so I'm not even sure who to put on notice.

Could this be the endeavor of the people who make $14,000 last month working at home in their spare time using their computers? I see commercials for this all the time on The Daily Show. They've got to be doing something; perhaps they're spamming blogs.

3:22 PM  

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