The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 03 Apr 2006

Once again I am going to write up the interesting Google queries that my blog has attracted this month. The blog is now about eleven weeks old and has had a meteoric rise. The theme of this month's Google query roundup will be the idea of authority on the web, and the attribution of authority by links.

Of the 32 million blogs that Technorati.com knows about, they consider The Universe of Discourse to be the 13th most-authoritative blog on the subject of mathematics. Okay, I can almost buy that, because I do know a fair amount about mathematics, a lot of people know that about me, and I can probably write more clearly and convincingly than most mathematics experts. But their same ranking process says that The Universe of Discourse is tied for 16th place as one of the most-authoritative blogs on the subject of physics. Considering that I know next to nothing about physics, this is rather sad. If I wrote an article explaining how spacetime was curved like an artichoke, and a thousand people linked to it because they enjoyed the spectacle of someone making a fool of himself in public, my blog would move up the list to fourth place.

Google rankings are similarly weird. My whole web site is considered authoritative in general, because of various articles I've written and projects I've hosted over the years. The way Google works is that each page has an absolute pagerank, and then you get the pages with greatest pagerank that contain your search terms. So if my relatively high-ranking pages happen to contain your search terms, that's what you get, even if that doesn't really make sense.

For example, a Google search for "baroque writing" turns up my blog post about it as hit #5, because my site has high pagerank, and the sites that are really about baroque writing have low pagerank. But the high pagerank of my pages is primarily because I also host a long-established and popular website about Perl, and lots of people have linked to it over the years. So Google recommends my thoughts about Baroque writing because I'm an authority on the Perl programming language. This is not obviously a good reason to recommend a page about Baroque writing.

Of course one can argue that it's unreasonable to expect Google to judge whether I know what I'm talking about or not. But there is a way that they could do it, at least in principle, that would make more sense. Instead of computing pageranks globally, and saying "well, Dominus's pages are generally well thought-of, so we'll recommend those pages whenever they might be relevant to the query", one could compute pageranks per subject. So suppose you first considered only those pages that mention Baroque writing, and discard all the others. Then you do the pagerank calculation to see which of these pages link to which others. You would find a much better pagerank for searches about Baroque writing. My page would have low rank, because it is linked to by few pages about Baroque writing, rather than the high rank it does have because it is linked to by many pages about Perl.

## Strange authority

All of which is intended to introduce the fact that my blog now comes up 12th in a search for the Indiana Pacers cheerleaders, and I got several queries this month about it:
           1 ashley indiana pacemate
4 "lindsay" indiana pacemate
1 pacemate lindsay


## Not-so-strange authority

Sometimes this attribution of authority is less bemusing. As I think I mentioned before, I am pleased to have my pages come up at the top of a list of those about the abridgement of the Doctor Dolittle books. Other topics on which Google rightly considers me an important reference are the abridgement of the "Doctor Dolittle" books (4), the puzzle that ends with "how long is the banana?" (19), the puzzle where you take the first digit off of some integer and append it to the end (5), enumeration of strings of balanced parentheses (7) and, my favorite, the difference between "farther" and "further" (2), and vitamin A poisoning (13).

Sometimes there are weird side effects. My authority on the puzzle about the banana and the rope and the monkey's mother also pulls in people looking for stuff that sounds similar, but probably isn't:

           1 "monkey rope" joke
1 monkey & banana game source code
1 monkeys holding up the moon
1 steps on how to draw a monkey holding a banana
1 how to draw a banana
1 picture of a monkey holding a banana


## Other matters

In the "you got the right answer even though you asked the wrong question" department, we have:
           2 smallest positive value with no leading zeros such that
rotating it is the same as multiplying it by p/q + puzzle

This is weird, because the answer is obviously 1.

Oh, you wanted the smallest value with at least two digits? That's obviously 10.

Oh, you wanted the resulting number to have no leading zeroes either? Then it's obviously 11.

Oh, you wanted the resulting number to be different from the original one? Then it's obviously 12, because when you rotate it, you get 21, which the same as multiplying it by 21/12.

In fact, for any number, rotating it has the same effect as multiplying it by p/q for some p and q. Maybe the author wanted p and q specified in advance.

## Islamic history and Arabic etymology

Several visitors arrived at my site because they were looking for "qamara":

	   1 qamara
11 qamara
1 qamara arabic
2 qamara camera
3 qamara camera obscura
2 camera obscura qamara
1 ibn haitham qamara

The word seems to have several meanings. The reason I mentioned it was because of Paul Vallely's stupid article which asserts that English "camera" is derived from Arabic "qamara". Which is nonsense. At least some of the searchers were investigating this.

There might have been some other queries of a similar nature. For example, this one probably is:

	   1 arabic saqq

As is this:

	   1 saqq

And these might have been related or not:

	   3 etymology cheque
1 cheque + etymology

And these searches turn up my pages refuting Paul Vallely's stupid claims about the influence of Muslim science and technology. There are plenty of non-stupid claims to make on this topic, of course, some of which I have written about in the past.

Vallely may have gotten his misinformation from the execrable 1001 Inventions web site, which is a mountain of misinformation on this topic. I expect to write at more length about this in the future. In the meantime, here is my summary of the web site:

Did you know that the belt was invented by Muslim tailor al-Qurashi in the year 1274, and was not widely adopted in Europe until the 14th century? Before that, Europeans had to walk around holding up their trousers with their hands, and had nothing from which to hang their wallets! The word 'belt' is from the Arabic 'balq', which means 'look down!'
There is plenty more to say about this web site. Its mendacious boasts offend many thoughtful Muslims and many thoughtful non-Muslims, as the comments in the "blog" section demonstrate.