Monday, September 13, 2004


I’ve stumbled across an interesting artifact, not just on the World Wide Web, but of the World Wide Web. Visit this site and you’ll see what Sergey Brin, the co-founder of the Google search engine, was up to during the end of his time at Stanford University.

Dig the photo with the geeky ripple special effect. Dig the geeky letterman-style letters at the top right. Dig the tempting e-mail address, and contemplate whether Brin was allowed to hang on to it, and thus whether simply anyone could just e-mail him ...

It’s fascinating to poke around Brin’s life, frozen in time, even though there’s no access anymore to his favorite personal photographs or the Web pages of his brother, Sam, his mother (at NASA!) or Meredith (who’s Meredith?). His father’s Web site can be visited, though, and some of Brin’s academic papers seem downloadable — though not, unfortunately, a little thing called “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine” that apparently led directly to the creation of Google.

Making up for that loss is an offhand mention that “Research on the Web seems to be fashionable these days and I guess I’m no exception. Recently I have been working on the Google search engine with Larry Page.” A genius of understatement.

Brin also lists his favorite books, an assortment so exhaustive as to be almost pointless, and somewhat mysterious as well, because there are numerous repetitions based on misspellings. (For instance, cruise to the very bottom of the list and you’ll see Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and another book by Zora Neale Hurston, a lesser-known work called “There Eyes Were Watching God.”) This is obviously not a mistake a human would make, and it’s far too clumsy to be deception, so the list must somehow have been compiled by computer.

Indeed, there’s a hint in one of Brin’s data-mining papers, which he calls “Extracting Patterns and Relations from the World Wide Web” and describes as “a technique for extracting relations from the WWW based on the duality of patterns and relations. We experiment with it by extracting a relations of books.”

A flawed experiment, certainly, and somehow an oddly reassuring one. While popping ghostlike into the past to peer over Brin’s predoctoral shoulder, we see simultaneously his brilliance and his bumbling, foreshadowing of Google’s rambunctious public offering, where billions were made and other billions lost — the result of two goofy Stanford grads who wanted to play a bit with a concept, and did it successfully but not perfectly. The reassurance is that these guys cannot take over the world. But if someone had to, we could do worse.

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