Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Deception by Connotation

William Shakespeare may have known how to capture the romantic moment, but he did not always get it right:

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

This may be true in a world of denotations; but Juliet was apparently too love-struck to recognize that words have connotations, too! The best joke about the power of connotation is the one about the designer of a new perfume who realizes that, if he wants to sell his product, "Evening in Paris" will be a much better name than "Morning in Brooklyn!" Taken on its own, a name may be nothing more than an impartial sign; but, as soon as a reader makes a symbol out of that sign, all impartiality goes out the window.

What, then, is "in" the name "Factery?" According to the latest Web Crawler blog post by Josh Lowensohn on CNET News, this is what is in the name:

New start-up Factery Labs is launching its first service on Tuesday, a technology called FactRank that can tear through Web pages and collect what it calls "facts." These are bits of information from each source page that Factery Labs' algorithm then organizes into an order of importance.

What this means for you is that developers will soon make use of the technology in third-party search engines or on Web pages to very quickly deliver reading summaries. This cuts out most (or all) of the parts you don't care about, while organizing the bits you might. It also manages to do all this in real time.

The FactRank technology was created by Paul Pedersen, who has a good background in search, including gigs at Inktomi, Google, and Powerset. CNET News met with him and co-founder Sean Gaddis (former Skype and eBay'er) on Monday to get a demo of how the technology works.

Note the scare quotes in the first paragraph. Note them well. After providing a readable summary of the technology and offering a demonstration screen shot, Lowensohn launches into the obvious question:

Of course, one of the problems with Factery Labs' approach across multiple sources--be it Twitter, or multiple URLs is accuracy; like how can it realize something like The Onion is not the same as the Associated Press?

The short answer is that it can't. Factery Labs can't determine the truth value of what it finds, nor will it ever. "It goes beyond any existing technology. And nobody knows how to do that. I mean, I don't even know how to do that--people don't even know how to do that," Pedersen said. "We are absolutely neutral. We have nothing in the system that has any bias in terms of anything. The only mechanism we maintain is egregious spam, the bad guys."

In other words what Pedersen is really saying in all of that verbiage is that his technology has nothing to do with facts, at least in the way that most of us use the word (which, at least according to Ludwig Wittgenstein, is the foundation for any meaning that word assumes). The appearance of "Fact" in the company name is, to appropriate shamelessly from William Schwenck Gilbert, "intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing" technology! Personally, I prefer the smell of morning in Brooklyn!

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