Monday, July 28, 2008

The search-engine wars: Cuil takes aim at Google

Former Googlers have come up with a new search engine designed to rival the reigning King of the Jungle, Google itself, the New York Times reported today.
They’ve created Cuil, pronounced “cool,” to best their master at his own game.

It's the latest in the search-engine wars, which include Ask's campaign to be seen as a viable alternative and Microsoft simply throwing money at people to use Live.
Cuil’s creators say it searches more pages than Google and provides Web surfers with more data about each link by providing images, according to the Times piece.
Cool, I thought. Let’s have a crack at it.
Full disclosure: on days when I’m annoyed with Google – which are infrequent but do occur – I use Ask in a personal measure of rebellion. No, it doesn’t work as well. Nothing does. That’s why I eventually go back to Google, as does the rest of the world.
So it was with strong curiosity and a lack of optimism that I went to Cuil.
Up popped an uncluttered black background, yin to the yang of the Google white-screen. A copycat, sure, but a neat-looking one.
There was only one question: What to test it with?
The obvious answer, of course, was my own name. Who better than me to judge the relevance of the results?

I typed in "Arden Pennell" expectantly.
And the winner is : … Google, hands down. Cuil presented only and exclusively articles I wrote for the German media company Deutsche Welle when I lived in Berlin 2006-07. Nothing from my past year in Palo Alto appeared on the main page. That means Cuil rather, ahem, coolly overlooked hundreds of article, some of which were widely linked to by news-aggregating sites (and the adoring public, natch.)
Sure, there were some pictures. But I like being able to scroll Google results quickly; the words more than the images tell me whether a site has what I’m looking for. Otherwise, I could use image search.

One of Cuil’s founders, Tom Costello, explained on the radio tonight – forgive me, it was on NPR but it may have been a BBC show, I forget – that the idea is to provide results different than Google's. Someone decamping from Google to Cuil shouldn’t find a merely second-hand version of the first set of results they didn’t want, he said.
But that begs the question – if Google already works well, why would someone want different results?
Admittedly, I was relieved to see slightly embarrassing articles that quote a flippant, too-cool-for-school teenager visiting Stanford during Admit Weekend were absent from Cuil’s first results. Google’s affection for the word “Stanford” – the alma mater of founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page – pushes those old, stale articles to the top of its heap. (Don’t everyone rush to go read them at once, now.)
But my chagrin at being haunted by using the word “retarded” as an adjective at age 17 immortalized forever on the Web – and now on this blog, clearly – notwithstanding, Cuil just didn’t provide very good results. One could only extrapolate I was journalist living in Germany who was mysteriously kidnapped last summer, the latest date of those first couple pages of links.
In contrast, Google tells the whole story upfront – from my childhood church to Stanford snafus to Berlin and Palo Alto. What’s not to love?
Google image licensed to Creative Commons.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

A cheap date in Silicon Valley

"A cheap date in Silicon Valley." It’s not quite like saying “a good bagel in the Midwest” or “skiing in Florida,” but it’s close, right? Cheap? Here? Never.
Well, yes, sometimes. And without leaving the swank environs of high culture, either.

Now that filling my gas tank costs $58 – and I drive a sedan – pinching pennies is on my mind. And I want to share my plan for an ideal date, which just happens to cost $10. Let me repeat: TEN DOLLARS.

(Nevermind that for months, headlines have been exploring our economic gloom while that media-favored phrase “pain at the pump” floats about. It took until my latest fill-up yesterday for the sticker shock to hit, and hit hard. Later in the day, I almost cried at the farmer’s market when trying to buy peppers. But, of course, the alternative was driving to a grocery store.)

So, fellas and fellettes, here’s the run-down for an inexpensive, classy date:

Start with an afternoon at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Admission to treasures collected during the Stanfords’ world-wide traipsing and by successive generations of generous alumnae is free. Gloriously free.
The jewel in the crown may be the world-class collection of Auguste Rodin bronzes. All that sinuous metal, glimmering in the California sun, fronts the interior rotunda where “The Thinker” reigns canonically supreme.

Note: The museum is closed Monday and Tuesday. If you’re already unemployed in these harsh times and tend to forget what day we’re on, keep this in mind.

Note Number Two: The café attached to the museum is very, very tasty. It offers fresh, delicious fare by local, celebrity-like chef Jesse Ziff Cool. And you pay for it. So why not demonstrate how artsy, resourceful and sensitive you are by packing a delicious meal to take along on your date?
If you’re doing sandwiches rather than crackers, however, eschew that soft, mushy bread that comes in rectangles for a loaf of the real stuff.

When you’re finished soaking in visual splendor, head to the Stanford Theatre on University Avenue. (It’s within biking distance from the museum, if you’re feeling eco-conscious. Or bite the bullet and drive five minutes.)

David Packard – yes, that David Packard – spent about $6 million restoring this Roaring Twenties-era movie house to its former cinematic glory in 1989. Elaborate murals, baroque chandeliers, a tiled fountain and richly-detailed ceilings make moviegoers feel special. But because the theater – excuse me, theatre – is run by the nonprofit Packard Foundation, the prices are reasonable. Tickets are $7. A small drink and popcorn comes out to $3. That’s still less than a full-price adult ticket at a megaplex.

There’s a catch, of course. The theatre only shows historic films, a personal Packard passion. There are no screenings of “Batman Will Never Die is Not Enough.” But if you can stomach a little Bette Davis or maybe root for Humphrey Bogart – and your date isn’t a die-hard Tarantino loyalist – you should stand a chance here.

If the film ends and you need a bit more time with your sweet thang, take a stroll down University Avenue to Border’s. This is a clever ploy for more free entertainment disguised as cultural savvy. Because when you get to the building housing Border’s, with its airy, Mission-style courtyard and high, vaulted ceilings, you will explain it, too, was once a movie theater. In fact, the competition to the Stanford Theatre.
Yet six decades later, there was no computer-magnate-turned-film-angel to swoop in and save the former Varsity Theatre from eventual conversion to a chain department store.
Which is all the more lucky for you, since it allows you to linger over the bestsellers or browse magazines with your date without spending another cent. Don’t worry; this won’t feel lame. On weekend nights, Border’s is packed to the gills with other couples doing the same thing. It's open until midnight.
And who knows? Maybe you’ll discover a shared passion for David Sedaris or gardening magazines. That’ll be a perfect segue into winding down the date, right?

The total cost of this Epicurean excursion, from art to movies to literature, is $10. In comparison, a “small plate” salad of walnuts, blue cheese and herb vinaigrette at nearby Zibibbo Restaurant runs $12.95. Not that there’s anything wrong with a night of fine dining.

But when the cost of gas, food and perhaps other commodities is climbing with the summer mercury, it’s comforting to know culture comes cheap.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Here kitty, kitty, kitty

Unsubstantiated. That’s how the state Department of Fish and Game concluded their investigation of a reported mountain lion attack in Palo Alto’s Foothills Park last weekend.

Of course, that was only announced after I spent hours Monday out in the woods, looking for a big, scary kitty.
But the incident made me wonder – how likely is a mountain lion attack, really? With so many recreational hikers in the Bay Area, is it just luck that more folks aren’t targeted by wild cougars as a walking snack?

To backtrack briefly: the man who reported the attack said he was hiking the Los Trancos trail Saturday when he felt a shove from behind and tumbled down a hillside, according to police Agent Dan Ryan.
He slammed into a tree trunk and stopped falling, but saw a lion continue to scramble down the slope, across the creek, and into the woods, Ryan recounted.
Into those very same woods Ryan and I ventured Monday.

We weren’t hunting for the cat, exactly. Rather, Ryan was gracious enough to show me and our trusty photographer, Darlene Bouchard, the section of trail where the man crossed a residential neighborhood to enter the park.
We were also attempting to cross paths with the Fish and Game wardens and professional animal tracker brought in to locate the feline.
Perhaps foolishly, I secretly hoped to catch a glimpse of the animal itself. The policeman, Darlene and I formed a nice trio of human catnip, I figured. Maybe the king of the jungle would venture out from between the madrone and bay laurel. After all, a lion was spotted prowling Palo Alto streets a few years back. And when I was a student at Stanford, a lion was seen prowling around outside dorms.

No such luck. After a hot but pleasant time in the semi-wilderness – does it count as true nature when it’s surrounded by the gorgeous homes just outside Portola Valley town limits? – Darlene and I headed back to the office.
I was just wrapping up the story with a description of Fish and Game’s plan to shoot the lion with a rifle, courtesy warden Patrick Foy’s explanation, when the phone rang.
It’s over, Ryan said. Fish and Game are calling the report unsubstantiated.
No traces of the cat in the woods nor in a forensic analysis of the hiker’s shirt were found, Foy added.

So how likely is a kitty attack?
It happens, Foy said. Even though this report couldn’t be confirmed, Foothills Park is full of deer, prime target for mountain cats with the munchies, he pointed out.
And endangered they ain't -- there are 4,000 to 6,000 cougars prowling the the Golden State, the Fish and Game site says.
Yet Ryan said this attack would have been the first in recorded Palo Alto history.
And there have only been 16 substantiated attacks since 1890 in California, according to Foy -- and only six were fatal, according to a Fish and Game chart from 2007.
So perhaps we can conclude the cats are a bit like Web 2.0 startups. They're everywhere, but we just don't see them all -- until they successfully prey on us.
Or maybe I should just scrap the forced metaphors and stick to what I know best, which at this moment is watching YouTube videos about mountain lions. Here, kitty, kitty, kitty...

Update on Wednesday: the man could face fines of $10,000 or more if it turns out he made the whole thing up. Me-owch.
Lion image licensed to Creative Commons.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

iScream, uScream, we-all-Scream for iPhone

What really struck me about the line outside Palo Alto’s Apple store on University Avenue today wasn’t how long it was. It wasn’t, in fact, long – only a handful of people waited to become proud owners of the new iPhone 3G.

Rather, the surprise came from how everyone expected the line to be long – and saw potential in the predicted media attention.

Anticipating that fans stretching around the block as in times past would cause reporters and cameras to circle like flies, businesses used the Apple iPhone release as free advertising.

The few people waiting – including a die-hard Mac user since 1984 and two teens who’d earlier been “banned for life” from Apple for downloading third-party apps onto an in-store phone – reaped the benefits.

According to the teens, Danny Fukuba and Eric Vicenti, a truck pulled up and plied them with Smartwater, the designer H2O. Product-design firm MindTribe handed out free t-shirts.
Design firm Speck – like MindTribe, based nearby in downtown Palo Alto – gave out a bright blue iPhone case, a color they said was limited to only 300 worldwide, according to a third teen in line.

Well, those companies were right. The Weekly did send me out and I did interview line-sitters, few though they were. And here their products are, getting air time on my blog – and on our video.

Check out the video for a look at what happens when someone tries to come between an Apple-enthusiast and his iPhone.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Other Silicon Valley

There’s two of them. In addition to the Silicon Valley in, well, Silicon Valley, a mammoth entrepreneurial machine is also grinding away in Israel.

Or so I witnessed recently at a summit on early-stage investing in Tel Aviv. Organized by Los Altos-based Silicom Ventures, the conference’s speakers included Israelis such as Meir Brand, who runs Google Israel, and a hefty contingent of Valley denizens.

Palo Alto locals were present, of course. Eric Benhamou, CEO of Cowper Street’s Benhamou Global Ventures, and Amos Barzilay, a venture consultant at Lytton Avenue’s Walden International, gave talks on management and finding funding, respectively.
For Barzilay’s talk, so many Israeli entrepreneurs crammed into the beige conference room that it became standing-room only.

Admittedly, everyone from social scientists to civic boosters has been anointing new “Silicon” spaces since the 1980s.

But Israel – a country so small that driving the coastal plain takes as long as a trip between San Francisco and Gilroy – really does have a thriving culture of entrepreneurship.

Israeli high-tech firms netted about $1.75 billion in capital investments in 2007 – down from a 2000 high of just over $3 billion, according to the Israel Venture Capital Research Center. This year, the first quarter’s $617 million in raised capital is a seven-year high, according to the research company.

As in the Valley, money and talent cluster together. Herzliya Pituach, a city 15 minutes north of Tel Aviv, is packed with tech firms such as Microsoft and funders like Israel’s homegrown Carmel Ventures.

Menlo Park-based Daniel Cohen of Gemini Israel Funds was even moved to write an entertaining blog post comparing Sand Hill Road with Herzliya Pitauch’s Hamenofim Street.
His verdict: Sand Hill lacks bars, atmosphere and enough food options. (I guess The Sundeck doesn’t cut it.) But the silence is nice, sometimes, he conceded.

At the conference in Tel Aviv earlier this week, politicos were optimistic about the growth of Israel’s entrepreneurial culture – and collaboration with the U.S.

Outgoing U.S. ambassador to Israel Richard Jones partially credited the spirit of the Israeli people for the sector’s growth. Before 1993, there’d been one venture capital firm in Israel, he explained. Now, the average size of Israeli VCs is $250 million.

"If the creativity of the Israeli people can continue to be unleashed … the sky is literally not the limit," he asserted.

Peace is also important for growth, he said – a perhaps ironic statement given the roots of Israeli’s high-tech world: the military.

As former defense minister Moshe Arens explained at the conference, it was in defending itself that Israel’s cultivation of intellectual capital took root.

It makes sense. For young, brilliant minds, even a sizable check from a firm like Draper Fisher Jurvetson to scale and monetize a Web 2.0 firm is a pale motivator in comparison to a blank check from the Israeli military to … do whatever nationalistic, futuristic projects they do in those secret bunkers.

Adrienne Sanders wrote a great exploration of those military roots – and the Israeli influence on the Valley -- last October for the San Francisco Business Times. (PDF here).

Now if only all the Israelis coming to the Valley could bring some good hummus with them. And shakshuka. And falafel. Ok, I better stop here. Stay tuned for an upcoming post about Israeli ties to Palo Alto.

(Note: despite high spirits in the Holy Land, I can only imagine the mood is a bit glummer outside the espresso-fueled optimism of self-promoting conferences. The venture capital scene stateside is in the doldrums just now, The New York Times reported Saturday. No venture-backed firms went public in the second quarter this year, a bleak stat not seen since 1978.

Oh, and luxury-caffeine peddlers Starbuck’s are closing 600 stores. Maybe everybody started taking the Latte Factor money-saving method pretty seriously.)

Chart graphic from the New York Times Web site. Flag photo courtesy Creative Commons user Johnk85. Silicom Ventures conference graphic from Silicom Ventures’ Web site.

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