Google’s h mystery

A few days ago, my friend Melinda Shore, who knows I’m interested in internationalization, sent me a screenshot from the search bar of her Safari browser. It is a drop-down list of search suggestions provided by Google just after typing the letter h:

Safari search bar Google suggestions
Safari search bar Google suggestions

The top suggestion is a mess:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. Why is it a legitimate search suggestion for the letter h? (If it is.)

Regarding 1., the search suggestion in Firefox is nearly identical, but I cannot reproduce the effect in Google’s own browser Chrome or on the search page directly. In the Safari example, we’re dealing with an odd mix of regular character strings (6.626068, 10, sup, -34), numeric HTML (or XML) entities (×) and raw Unicode-escaped characters that you might find in Python, C or Java source code (\u003C, \u003E). Let’s decode the second and third type of components:

  • \u003C and \u003E simply represent the Unicode code points U+003C and U+003E: the less-than and the greater-than signs < and >.
  • &#215; is U+00D7 MULTIPLICATION SIGN: ×

Putting it together, we get the already much more user-friendly form

6.626068 × 10<sup>-34

or, completing and resolving the HTML: 6.626068 × 10-34.

Once I realized this, my physics training kicked in and the answer to 2. became clearer – Planck’s constant, abbreviated as h,  has the value of 6.62606889 × 10-34 J s (or m2 kg / s). This is not the result of injecting broken text into the search engine results, but a feature of Google’s calculator. Typing “G” into the browser’s search bar also yields similar semi-numeric character salad, while the results for “c“, “e” or “pi” are much more legible.

Still, the entire story raises questions about intent and execution. This is not really an internationalization issue because the form of those physical and mathematical constants is largely invariant by convention. Yet, the tools of internationalization — HTML entities, Unicode code point escapes — have leaked into scientific character display, too. Internationalization is a user interface (usability, user experience) issue [1].

On the execution side, Google got it wrong on several counts, and Apple and Mozilla share some of the blame. Browser search bar drop-down lists don’t allow for superscripts and aren’t sophisticated enough to strip markup, so they display ugly raw HTML. Choosing a numeric entity instead of the character × probably led to its display breaking. And < and > are even in ASCII, so they should display fine, but probably security concerns and their status as reserved HTML characters led to the odd choice of escaping method. All in all, at least one decoding step was not carried out.

More fundamentally, should Google suggest “6.626068 × 10-34 m2 kg / s” when you type a lowercase h? There was a time in my life when I used Planck’s constant daily, and I do use Google’s handy calculator via my browser’s search bar for quick arithmetic and unit conversions. But I think just spitting out the value with no label is going a little too far, and will for more than 99% of users be entirely unexpected: too different from the genuinely useful (for Americans) “hotmail”, “hulu” and “home depot”. Especially considering that for most letters of the alphabet, you could possibly find a scientific constant, function or theorem that starts with it.

Though maybe it is a ploy to spread more science among the people.

[1] It is also a design issue. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Google search result for "h"
Google search result for "h" - very different from the broken suggestion

EDIT (2010-08-02): Commenters inside Facebook’s walled garden have remarked that if you actually take up the suggestion and search for it, you get to Planck’s constant. Currently this is partially right, but these things are constantly shifting: In my tests this morning, whether you use the Safari/Firefox  search field or Google’s search page directly, you get a mix of results, the first of which are people wondering about the odd string on SEO forums. A little further down you do get collections of scientific constants, but you have to attentively read the result. Right now, this post is (after less than 12h) number 7 on the results page. None of the pages looks like what you get if you do a Google search for “h” (and hit return) — which is nice and helpful.

Another commenter remarks that for her, the suggestion is now prefaced with “Planck’s constant”, which is a vast improvement.

Facebook mail: commenting on your photos makes you female

Over the last few days, Facebook quite clearly seemed to be upgrading its email notification components. This is what I concluded from the email from I found in my own mailbox: Because of some personal circumstances, I happened to post more often to my Facebook account than I usually would have, and more importantly received more comments. Comments are sent to my Gmail account as per my chosen Facebook settings. What I found, however, was that not all comments were being forwarded, and some of those that were appeared in the mailbox up to about 15 min after they showed up in the Facebook user interface.

Some performance glitch, I thought. But today the email notifications became somewhat creative. Here is a screenshot of the notifications of today that contain the text “also commented on” (I have covered up last names to protect my friends’ privacy):

Screenshot: Facebook notifications with gender confusion
Screenshot: Facebook notifications with gender confusion

There are two types of notifications: For comments on status updates and for comments on photos. Each can be done by the original poster (of the status update or the photo) or, more often, by someone else. To see the problem better, here are the update notes for comments on one’s own photos and status updates:

  • Ned also commented on her photo
  • Ned also commented on his status
  • Michael also commented on his status
  • Mike also commented on her photo
  • Jason also commented on his status

When I first saw this, I wondered on whose photo Ned had also commented on.

I haven’t follow Facebook’s UI choices in-depth, but Facebook used to use the singular “they” in their notifications, even if  the user’s (self-described) sex or gender was known. So what we can suppose happening here is that they’re reducing the use of singular “they”, and producing some glitches in the process. I checked: both Mike and Ned indicate their sex as male in their Facebook profile. So Facebook is currently reassigning a female gender to posters who comment on their own photos. What I don’t know is if women get reassigned to male.

The issue only shows up in email, that I could see. On the Facebook, Ned is male:

Status update note in the Facebook user interface
Status update note in the Facebook user interface

Why I like my showers with two degrees of freedom

Imagine your basic shower — in a cabin or above a bath tub. The ones I’ve known for most of my life tend to have two knobs: one to adjust the flow of hot water, one to to do the same for cold water. Or else they have a lever you can pull and rotate: pulling increases the flow rate, rotating changes the temperature. The end result is the same: you can make your water flow more or less copiously, and you can make it hotter or colder.

This means our shower has two degrees of freedom: You can change two variables independently (within limits). Unfortunately, some hotels seem to consider this system too hard for their guests to comprehend and present the hapless traveller with a single, often strangely shaped knob. What it does if turned, twisted, pushed, pulled, shoved or glared at, the traveller hasn’t got the foggiest.[*] In most cases, what you get is the single-degree-of-freedom knob: the more you turn on the water, the warmer it gets. However, the problem is: you don’t know this yet.

Here is why I think this is a bad idea, from recent practical experience:

  1. You get ready for the shower, and identify the shower controls. One single knob, function unknown.
  2. You twist it experimentally, taking care to stay out of the reach of the shower head (or tap). Water comes out. Good.
  3. The water is cold. Well, that’s probably normal: let’s let it flow for a while.
  4. The water doesn’t get any warmer. So this is probably the cold water knob. You go in search of any hot water knobs, levers, buttons, pedals or other controls.
  5. After having finished your search of the shower area (naked), you decide the knob is all you have. Water is still cold. The only thing you can do is to turn it on a little more.
  6. The water is still cold. Or maybe a little bit more lukewarm? You twiddle the knob. Water splashes back and forth. Yeah, definitely getting a little more lukewarm.
  7. You carefully close off all shower curtains, take your heart in both hands, and give the knob a good strong twist. And wait a while.
  8. YAY, finally, warm water. You take your shower.

Dear hotel designers: Presenting tired travellers who’ve likely never been to your establishment with anything but a regular, clearly labled, two-degrees-of-freedom shower control knob system is not good user interface design.

[*] These things can get exceedingly complex — the worst I’ve ever had was in a swanky resort in Windsor I stayed at for a company function: the knob had red and blue dots in odd places, ridges and ratchets, could be turned a little, then pushed or pulled, and then turned in an entirely different way again… the frigging bath mat came with instructions for use, but I wasn’t the only one who’d stood naked, wondering at it for 10 min, before succeeding entirely by chance (or, as were, going unshowered).