ODP, hierarchical organization, and other thoughts

I went to a google@work seminar in Dallas last week. It was mostly a sales pitch for Google’s enterprise services, but there were a few interesting bits such as getting a glimpse of Google’s intranet. Another thing stood out that prompted this post. Part of Google’s pitch is that hierarchical organization is dead. More than that, all hierarchical models of organization are bad. Whether it’s directories on your hard disk, folders on your desktop, folders in your email program, categorical tagging of rss feeds, or topical organization of website contents, it’s all bad, bad, bad. The one true way, they claim, is to dump all your data into a single chaotic mess and “embrace the chaos”. By which they mean, of course, purchase Google Enterprise products and services to search for what you need. After all, how else will you ever find what you’re looking for – your data is now lost in the chaotic mess. Asking a company the specializes in searching unorganized data how to organize your data strikes me as being very like asking the barber if you need a haircut. The answer will profit someone but probably not you.

Somewhere, during the powerpoint presentation, was a frame actually titled “Heirarchical organization is dead” and it was illustrated by a full frame image of the Open Directory Project’s index page. The sad thing is not so much that they used this example, but that it was such a powerful example. It generated a fair amount of laughter from the audience as the Google guy talked about how sites like ODP used to think they could manually categorize the Internet. He asked how many of the 100+ people present used (or were even aware of) ODP or similar directories for finding things on the web; no hands were raised. Then he asked how many people used search engines like Google to find things on the web: all hands raised. More laughter.

This is one of two events that recently brought home to me just how dead ODP is. The other was when I tried to log in to my ODP editor account and discovered ODP was down. A little research revealed it had been down for quite a while. Apparently there was a hardware failure back in October of 2006. AOL techs managed to bungle the restore process somehow, resulting in the unrecoverable destruction of large amounts of ODP. Then they discovered they’d forgotten to make backups for the last few years. Oops. Since then, they’ve been slowly reconstructing things. The content itself was salvaged from one of the weekly data dumps but all or most of the editor metadata was lost. Information is scarce as AOL has mostly forgotten about ODP and ODP staff continue to be very secretive about everything that goes on. While a lot of public portions of ODP are back online, a lot of the editor functionality is still down six months later. At least one of the important servers used by the editors is still offline. The really suprising thing is not just that I hadn’t noticed ODP being down but the web as a whole hadn’t noticed. There was a time when ODP being down for weeks would have been front page news on sites like Slashdot. Other than ODP editors and a few obscure SEO blogs, no one noticed it was gone.

While I don’t agree with Google’s conclusion that all heirarchical organization is bad, I think they are right in the case of web directories. It’s simply not a useful or reasonable method of organizing web sites compared to more modern social bookmarking systems like del.icio.us or reddit. It’s an adapt or die world and, sadly, ODP doesn’t seem to be the sort of organization that can adapt to the changes taking place.

I expect ODP will limp along if AOL continues to allow it but I don’t hold out any hope that ODP is ever going to fully return from the dead, I’m still an editor and I will continue to assist them with data integrity checking on the weekly XML data dumps (which have finally resumed again, by the way). However, I’m in the process of working with another editor to migrate the data dump checking process to an ODP server, so it won’t take up my time or energy anymore. I’m also spending far less time on my other ODP-related projects.

Speaking of social information processing, there was an interesting paper published by Kristina Lerman of USC this month on the subject, Social Information Processing in Social News Aggregation (PDF format). The paper looks at the way Digg exploits the power of social information processing to solve the problem of rating aggregated news stories.

Unexploded Laptop Battery

With the increasing number of stories about exploding Li-Ion batteries in laptops and other devices, I got a little spooked when I noticed my Dell Inspiron 8600 getting unusually hot last week. I shut down Fedora, unplugged the power adapter, and removed the battery. It was really, really hot. But it wasn’t hot enough to deform the plastic casing and there was no sign of smoke. Just to be on the safe side, I called Dell’s tech support line. And here’s where the story gets weird. I got a quick, helpful response. From Dell. Granted this used to be the norm years ago when Dell was a rapidly growing company but not since they outsourced all their tech support to random groups of non-English speaking people who’d never even seen Dell computers.

Anyway, after I got over the astonishment of reaching an actual English-speaking human on the phone, I presented the symptoms exhibited by my battery. They quickly confirmed that my battery was NOT one of the recalled defective batteries. They also determined that my laptop was just over one year old. It has a two year warranty on everything but, you guessed it, the battery, which has only a one year warranty. So the battery wasn’t covered anymore. However, they then asked me a curious question, “was the battery too hot to touch when you removed it?”

Obviously, there could be only one correct answer to this. “Yes”, I said, “it was too hot to touch”. (technically I did touch it but I’m sure they really meant was the battery very, very hot). “Okay”, the tech support person said, “if the battery was too hot to touch, then I’ll have to classify this as a safety issue and not a warranty issue, so your expired warranty doesn’t matter. We’ll have a replacement shipped immediately.” This was last Friday afternoon. On Tuesday a DHL box arrived with a new battery and a return postage sticker for sending back the old one. I popped in the new one and everything is as good as new. Since I’ve posted numerous complaints in my blog about how awful Dell’s tech support has become, I thought it was only fair that I should post some good news for a change. I hope this is indicative of overall improvements and not just a happy aberration.


I’ve fallen a little behind in my blogging so I better post this before too much time slips by! Since the Pycon conference was held in Dallas this year, I stopped by a couple of times in the hopes of meeting fellow Advogato users. I also wanted to hear Guido van Rossum speak. I did get to hear Guido’s keynote but was somewhat underwhelmed. That’s probably because I come from the Perl camp and was expecting something on the level of a Larry Wall talk. Rossum’s keynote was more of a boring, corporate powerpoint type thing where he listed off random features that might turn up in the next version of Python. At least he made a good entrance. He walked across the conference room to podium followed by a hunched over guy who was banging two halves of coconuts together in Monty Python and the Holy Grail style. In Guido’s defense, he did start his talk by saying his entrace would be the most entertaining moment.

Later, I got a chance to meet titus. Susan and I took him to nearby Kampai Sushi & Grill and we talked about Python, Perl, programming, the problems with the education system in the US, bioinformatics, Advogato, and a dozen other things. He mentioned several much more interesting sounding Pycon talks and panels that I wish I’d managed to hear.

In any case, I enjoyed the chance to hear some talks and meet some new people.