Is ‘Google MD’ a bad idea?

Apparently Google feels it’s difficult to find medical information online. A week ago (february 10, 2015) Google announced on their blog that they’ll start providing health information in their knowledge graph. In an excellent example of storytelling techniques, product manager Prem Ramaswami tells us why we need this and why this is a good idea. I’d love to believe this. But I don’t.

The idea behind the knowledge graph
It is one of Google’s ambitions to no longer be a search and retrieve platform, but a knowledge base. So basically a search engine and Wikipedia combined. The knowledge graph is the tool to do just that: not only providing you the information you were looking for, but also stuff you did not know you were looking for. “You’re looking for information on subject A, which could mean something technical or cultural and hey, you might also dig some info on this and this. You know what, here’s a video on other stuff that was made by the same guy.” I’m sure your get the picture and yeah, that’s real useful.

Translating the knowledge graph to medical information
The great Master of Science did not create all information equal. And not information is equally suited for a knowledge graph. When it comes to stuff like architecture, Genghis Khan or caterpillars (did you mean biology or heavy machinery?) a knowledge graph will be helpful or, at the very least, not harmful. But for medical information, things are quite different. For one thing there are continuous developments and discoveries being made and an ongoing discussion on what these mean and how they translate for medical professionals and patients. There are a lot of ethical, practical and fundamental choices to be made. If you are seeking out medical information, it would be wise to consult multiple online sources to get a good idea. Or if you must rely on one source, choose one that is as independent as possible.

Treatment and prevention
Who gets to decide what information is best, or even correct? Google says it consults their own doctors and ‘the Mayo clinic’ (where Eric Schmidt is a member of the board of trustees, just a fun fact, no conspiracy theory) which could mean anyone from an entire medical staff to their secretarial stuff to look for typos. And since it’s only one organisation, can we be sure that there is sufficient debate on what information is or is not given? Information provided may be correct, but is it complete. Or is there too much? Is the public referred to the best professional care in their own area when needed or encouraged to find more information from other websites? Will enough attention be given to preventing illness? Will information focus on ‘what to do’ or on ‘what it is’? Given the enormous power of Google, these matters are more important now than for other sources.

Google’s gain is… whose loss?
If Google is keeping the public away from online sources, not only are they keeping the public away from them, they are also keeping information from these organisations. If many people are looking for information about, for example, a sore throat, you’d know something was wrong, there might be a flu epidemic, MD’s in the area should be warned. But with the health knowledge graph, only Google might know.

The money question
First of all, providing medical information is a lot of difficult, specialised, hard work. The kind of work that costs a lot of money. Even commercial organizations that mean well still have to make money. And there is still a lot more money to be made by knowing about people’s health. Or by directing them to medication. Or an insurance. And inevitably, at some point in the future Google will also face difficult financial times like declining growth and falling profitability. How long would it then take Google to put two and tow together? We know all this stuff which we learned at high costs and we can sell this knowledge for a lot of profit to keep our shareholders happy save employees jobs. Google does not deny they view this as a potentional future moneymaker, as can be read in this article in the Guardian: “Google claims that its health information presented in the new feature is at least accurate and it will not be directly monetised.” I’d like to emphasize ‘directly’.

Privacy issues
Which brings us to the privacy issues. It’s been a long time since anyone sensible thought our privacy was safe with the tech-giants. If Google uses your search-queries, your location, the YouTube videos you watch and the contents of your e-mail to serve you the ads that you want to see (as a service to you, dear user!), then they will use the information you click on in their knowledge graph as well. At the very least, they will store it. And so a company that probably does not believe it is evil to sell other companies information on your athlete’s foot or gonorrhoea will actually be in possession of even more information on that.

So, is it a good idea?
Google’s knowledge graph will provide sound information. It will probably be up to date and will not give you any strange ideas about common diseases like a cold. My concern is for less common conditions, on referring the public to real life medical professionals and prevention. Google admits their knowledge graph is not a replacement, but come on, we all know a lot of people will use it for just that.
My other great concern is for privacy. Google does not have a good reputation when it comes to that. I for one, would not be comfortable with a company like Google knowing even more about what medical information I look for than I already know. That’s knowledge that would be too ease and profitable to take advantage off.

So no, I don’t think it’s a good idea. But if you disagree, I’d love to heard your arguments.

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Is Sheldon mine? Is Kermit real?

When Dr. Sheldon Cooper found his girlfriend Amy a lot of fans of the sitcom Big Bang Theory were pretty upset. Sheldon should not have a girlfriend. In an interview with one of the main writers of the show, Eric Kaplan, I read that his initial response was something like: “Are you crazy? It’s just a story. If you don’t like it, go and write your own sitcom about a Sheldon without a girlfriend.”

How I met your mother

This story is somewhat similar to the one about the last episode of another popular sitcom “How I met your mother”. A lot of fans were more than a little unhappy about the way in which the writers chose to end the series. They were angry, some even outraged. They were personally offended, some even in tears. The adaptations George Lucas made a couple of years ago, when he digitized the original Star Wars trilogy also caused a lot of controversy among fans. Star Wars fans were so displeased that some are even making their own digitally enhanced versions without Lucas’ help or permission.

Is Santa Claus real?

The reason for the interview with Eric Kaplan was his philosophical book, Does Santa exist? In this book he raises serious question about ‘what’s real and what isn’t?’. Can someone be real even if he/she has no (and never had) physical presence? He decides it’s possible. I haven’t read the book myself yet, but my guess would be that Kaplan argues that, philosophically, we make Santa Claus real ourselves. In a way that I’ve always thought that Kermit the Frog is a real character. Kermit is not just ‘one muppet’, but he exists of several puppets (I merely use the word ‘puppet’ to explain myself Muppet-fans) and several muppeteers have been responsible for his movements and voice. But he is always Kermit. Even when he portrayed Bob Crachit in ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ he was ‘Kermit acting to be someone else.” Kermit, as a person, is more dominant than the muppeteer. Therefor, Kermit is real.

But is Sheldon mine?

So, coming back to Dr. Cooper. The question I raised about him is not whether he is real, but whether he is mine (and, therefore, yours). Can Kaplan, as a writer of the show, decide what happens to doctor Cooper without giving any thoughts to the fans?  Obviously, legally he can. But the law only tells what is allowed, not what is –ethically- right. And ethically, I guess it’s a different story. Fans have invested in Sheldon. They have invested time and, more importantly, they have invested emotionally. Sheldon has become a figure of importance in their lives. So yes, Sheldon has outgrown his writers. Sheldon does not just belong to them, the actors, or the producers of the show. Sheldon is also ours. The fact that Sheldon, much like Santa and Kermit, can also be perceived as a real person makes this realization even more important.

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Why is Airbus obstructing technological advancement?

Who doesn’t love France, right? Mountains, beaches, wine, cheese, Le Mans, Le Tour. Then why is it that a country that seemingly has it all, doesn’t want others to have something as well. In this case, why would French airplane manufacturer Airbus put money into developping an idea, only to make sure others don’t use it.

Flying on a saddle
Flying on a saddleRecently Airbus patented the idea of not placing passengers in a chair for short flights, but on some sort of bicycle saddle. It’s  it like that BMX scene from E.T., but not really. That way, a lot more passengers could fit into the same plane. Sounds great huh!? No it doesn’t, but that’s not the point. Airbus is obviously very much aware that this particular idea would be a tough one to market. Even for notoriously cheap and unfomfortable price fighter airlines. But they patented it anyway

What are you, five?
But why? Are the French just that stubborn? Good question. And, lucky for us, British newspaper The Telegraph asked it. Airbus’ response? It somehting like “We have no intention of actually using this patent, but we file hundreds of patents a year. It’s about protecting our ideas.” So, they’re saying that they don’t patent ideas to work with them, but to prevent others of thinking of the same ideas and working with them.
My kids classmates do that. “You can’t draw a purple elephant, because I just thought of drawing a purple elephant.” Not only are they five, they are also told by parents and teachers that that’s just ridiculous behaviour. As it turns out, it’s only ridiculous if you don;t have enough money to patent your though of drawing a purple elephant. After that, it’s yours.

Ideas are like oxygen
I once attended a workshop by German artist and art professor Horst Rickels. He claimed that ideas are not yours. Like oxygen they’re just something that float by. You don’t develop an idea, it visits you. And than it’s up to you to decide to do something with it, or not. And if you don’t, the idea will go to someone else. The French may also be known for their poetry , but Airbus can go suck on that one for a long long time.

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Why Google feels it should never ‘forget’. And why they’re wrong.

The European court has decided that people have a right to be forgotten, or have certain things forgotten about. This ruling means that Google is no longer allowed to ‘remember’ certain things for us, forever and for everyone.

This morning I read an open letter by David Drummond, Chief Legal Officer at Google. Google, he writes, does not agree with the European court. He claims the difference in opinion is ideological (and practical). But actually (and not surprisingly) it’s economical.

WP_20140714_001Other than the ‘it’s a lot work’ claim, Google’s defense seems to rest on two pillars:

  1. Google feels they should receive an exempt from this ‘right to be forgotten about’, like the press.
  2. Google claims they are defending the universal right to access information versus the right to privacy.

However, both arguments are false. Here’s why:

  1. There is no conflict of universal rights. Google also feels that there is a conflict between ‘a right to privacy’ versus ‘a right to access to information’. That’s quite an arrogant position to take since, in fact, there is no such conflict. Nobody is denied the right to anything if Google does not link to it. If the New York Times writes that you are an idiot, they can keep that on their website forever. Even if Google is no longer allowed to link to that article when someone does a query on your name. In Drummond’s words “it’s like a library that is allowed to keep a book on it’s shelves, but no longer in it’s catalogue.” (It’s funny how Google compares itself to ‘the old media’ at a time when it suits their purposes.)
  2. The press has to put effort into evading someone’s privacy. Google has to put effort in not to invade your privacy. It’s pure economy. If the New York Times wishes to write that you are an idiot, it has to do research, write it down, print it, distribute it. Google has written an algorithm that simply does what it does. A blogger writes you’re an idiot might not get quoted in the New York Times, but it will show up in Google’s search results. Since economy is not holding it back to be nice and their own philosophy is not enough to make extra effort in these cases either, that leaves only legislation to protect society against everything being out in the open forever, regardless of context, relevance, evidence, rebuttal or any other principle that would guide a journalist.
  3. The press can be held accountable for what it writes. Google cannot (or hardly) be held accountable for what it links to. Google does not readily admit that it’s results are curated and that search results are not objective. To get ‘good’ results there Has to be some kind of curation. It’s algorithms need a way to give a score to certain content to be able to decide what type of information someone is searching for. And as far accountability goes: Do you know why newspapers don’t print photo’s of that cute girl next door while she in the shower? Because they will be, justly, prosecuted. Do you know why you can use Google to find a website that shows pictures of cute girls next door under the shower? Because they make money that way and they claim no responsibility for the content they link to unless they are made to take that responsibility by legislation.
  4. You cannot wrap fish in yesterday’s search results. Back to the fact the The New York Times called you an idiot. I bet you already forgot about that. Do you know why that is? Because people don’t read yesterday’s news. So, if you were called ‘an idiot’ just that one time, it’s probably safe to assume that people will forget about it, unless you truly are an idiot in which case such claims would probably be made regularly.
  5. The (professional) press is not nearly the biggest problem. Sure, it’s quite inconvenient if The New York Times has actually called you an idiot. But how many people has this actually happened to? A much bigger problem is social media. Stuff you did as an teenager can haunt you forever. Or the picture a colleague tagged you in. Or a vicious blog where a name was misspelled and now you are suddenly a pervert in the eyes of Google.

It’s a start, but not nearly enough

I can understand that this ruling by the European court is big nuisance to Google. It will certainly cost them a lot of money. But since they are making the bulk of this money out of selling our privacy anyway, I don’t feel too bad about it.

Actually, I don’t even think this ruling goes far enough. I feel Google should be made to really forget private information they have. We were all outraged at what the NSA knows about us. But this does not even compare to what Google (or, for example, Facebook) knows about us. And google actually uses this information to earn money. The European Court ruling only means that Google should not show certain links in their site results. It does not mean that Google itself no longer knows certain information is there, ready to be commercially exploited. I totally believe that Google does not mean to be evil. But sometimes this kinds of things just happen, don’t they? Just because no individual google employee is evil, doesn’t mean that Google itself can’t be. You can only promise to never shoot anyone, if you never have a gun.

Posted in companies, culture, Culture & philosophy, democracy, economy, erwin fisser, freedom, marketing, media, popular culture, social media, society, web 2.0 | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The agonizing crawling continuity of time

Not sure if I was ever actually there,
Nor if I ever left at all.

(HD version available at request)

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Nothing is beautiful,
Nothing makes it, so you don’t know,
   what you’re getting,
   what it’s going to be,

Nothing let’s you see what is,
and that what is, is good,
even though,


you’re not quite sure what to do with it yet,
maybe nothing.


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Sort of random thought on saying ‘yes’



Ideas and insights tend to pop into your head at unexpected moments. This one came to me during my commute on the train to Amsterdam. I’m not pretending it is unique discovery, I’m sure many of you were aware of this simple fact a long time ago. But for me, it was actually new. Here it comes:

Saying ‘yes’ is more difficult than saying ‘no’.

By which I mean, if someone tells you an idea or shows you something, it actually a lot more challenging to say: “hey, you did a good job, I like it.” than it is to give criticism, disguised as ‘constructive’ feedback. Approving takes more courage than disapproving.

To say ‘yes’ means that you’re committing to something. It makes you vulnerable. To say ‘no’ (or most variations of ‘yes, but…’) means you’re protected. No matter what happens, you cannot be held responsible for anything. At the same time, since you gave your input, you’re still eligible for the taking of possible credit should that time ever come.

I like living on the edge. I like saying ‘yes.’

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The problem for the hopelessly romantic melancholic

bosbaanEveryone has problems. So do the hopelessly romantic melancholic people. Especially in communicating with ordinary folk. Like in the example below where two friends sit in a diner having a coffee, waiting for their breakfast.

Said: “How I’m doing? I don’t know…. [pause] I guess today I sort of feel like I’m in this Norwegian art house film. Where a middle-aged divorced woman from Bergen receives a letter from a long-lost brother somewhere way up North. And then she and her two teenage kids take a train to go meet him. You get panned camera shots of all these railway stations and mountains glide past in the window. Everything is really slow, gray and desolate. And the nature is really rugged except for a shot of a reindeer mom and a youngling which sets of a really heartwarming scene between the mother and the kids. You know? The soundtrack is beautiful but a bit sad and you sort of just wish you were in that film, not as an actor, but for real you know. Cause everything about those people just seems to matter even though it doesn’t. It’s a bit like that.”

Heard: “So you wanna be woman huh?”

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Master Chief does safe sex

Halo’s Master Chief is a genuine hero. Brave, strong, sexy… But does he practice safe sex?
I made this video a couple of years ago with some of Holland’s most talented YouTube bloggers; DusDavid, DitIsMilan, Dionnetje1990, Dylan Haegens and Realiteittijd.

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Attempting to give a fuck

Attempting to give a fuck

Source unknown… to me. But, well.

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