(Via The Guardian)
Google, the world’s most popular internet search engine, is about to offer shares to the public. It has built its reputation on being the fastest and most accurate way to find information. But is the internet really the quickest way to access facts – and get them right? We put Google to the test against more old-fashioned methods.
Question 1: List the titles of all the books written by Piers Morgan, editor of the Daily Mirror
Google Ros Taylor
2min 2sec (2nd)
To Dream a Dream: Amazing Life of Phillip Schofield; Take That: On the Road/Our Story/Under My Pillow/In Hardback (4); Va Va Voom: the Arsenal Year; Private Files of the Stars; Medway Towns from the Air. “Piers Morgan” + Amazon on the UK version of Google points me to an old Have I Got News for You video on which Piers makes an appearance. That link takes me straight to Amazon’s searchbox and nine results.
Verdict: The Arsenal book isn’t published yet – and is the author of Medway Towns from the Air really the same Piers Morgan?
Phone Oliver Burkeman
19min 14sec (3rd)
Morgan’s popstar works aren’t in print, so they’re not listed on the database at Borders in central London. Nor are they on the tip of the tongue of the press officer at Trinity Mirror. I solicit Morgan’s mobile from a colleague, but get his voicemail. Eventually, I’m called back by the Mirror press office, which gives me the full list: Private Lives of the Stars; Secret Lives of the Stars; Philip Schofield: To Dream a Dream; Take That: Our Story, and Take That: On The Road.
Verdict: Oddly, not the most comprehensive source
Library Stephen Moss
This is too easy. Who’s Who gives the great man’s entire oeuvre. Private Lives of the Stars, 1990; Secret Lives of the Stars, 1991; Phillip Schofield: To Dream a Dream, 1992; Take That: Our Story, 1993; Take That: On the Road, 1994; Dostoevsky: A Reappraisal, 1997. Sorry, feeble joke. Age 39, middle name Stefan, recreations cricket and Arsenal FC. What else do you want to know? Next.
Verdict: Likely to be the most accurate list, as long as he used the latest edition of Who’s Who (and Morgan told them the truth).
Question 2: Where and when did Margaret Thatcher say: “There’s no such thing as society”?
September 23 1987, to Woman’s Own. It was published on October 31 1987. If you want Google to find an exact phrase, enclose it in quotation marks. Putting it together with “Thatcher”, Google finds a long list of outraged rants. But what I need is a date, and I have a hunch that the Margaret Thatcher Foundation’s archive of the lady’s speeches will supply it. Bingo.
Verdict: Faster and more detailed than the other searches
7min 10sec (3rd)
“I know this!” says my friend James (whose number is on my mobile) but the details momentarily evade him. So I ring two all-knowing colleagues on the newspaper. One is in a Westminster committee; one is in Australia. (Thanks, guys.) At this point, James texts to say he’s found the answer: Thatcher made the comment in Woman’s Own magazine in 1987. I didn’t ask him where he found this information: maybe a leading internet search engine was involved; maybe it wasn’t.
1min 45sec (2nd)
A mildly disappointing result. I assume the papers will be the best way to find out, full as they have been this week of celebratory guff about Mrs T’s 25th anniversary. But there is no sign of collected Thatcherisms, so I do what I should have done in the first place and look in a dictionary of quotations. “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Woman’s Own, October 31 1987.
Question 3: Who is the vice chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on back care?
6min 27sec (3rd)
This should be easy – I usually know exactly where to find the answer – the UK parliament website. Unfortunately, “back” is rather a common word, and is turning up in all sorts of irrelevant documents, most of them in PDF. I am very nearly taken by Lib-Dem MP Vince Cable in the results. He has created a page listing all his chairmanships, and Google has found all my keywords on it – just not together. Thank heavens I check. Back to the PDFs, where I discover the answer is Janet Dean MP.
Verdict: Much slower than the relevant reference book
3min 21sec (2nd)
Answer: It’s Janet Dean, Labour MP for Burton. I spent a bit too much time on hold between the main Westminster switchboard (number via 118 500) and their information line, otherwise I might conceivably have beaten my book-consulting rival. Janet Dean. Remember her name: one day, it could save you three minutes and 21 seconds.
Verdict: Impressively speedy work by the parliamentary researchers
1min 16sec (1st)
Frankly, I think this is a result. Vice-chairman of the APPG on back care is not, let’s be honest, up there with lord privy seal or secretary of state for defence. But there it is, in between the Friends of the Baha’is (chairman Lembit Opik) and Bar (the all-party drinking group) on page 242 of the excellent Vacher’s Quarterly. I find the chairman (Paul Burstow, Lib Dem) in 56 seconds, but then realise I was supposed to find the vice-chairman (Janet Dean, Lab).
Question 4: What proportion of the Slovenian railway system is electrified?
1min 17sec (1st)
1,201 km (499 km of which is electrified). I type “percentage” as well as “Slovenian railway system” and “electrified”. Google isn’t playing with that combination at all, so I take out “percentage” and separate “Slovenia”. Scanning the results, I choose a site I’ve visited before: the CIA World Factbook, Washington’s greatest gift to the web. I am prepared to trust the CIA on Slovenia. For the time being, anyway.
Verdict: The higher figure attained over the phone may be more up to date
1hr 4min 5sec (2nd, after disqualification of Stephen Moss)
It’s 5pm in Slovenia by the time I begin and according to Bo, at the embassy in London, Slovenians go home at 5pm. Sure enough, when I call Bo’s number for Slovenian Rail, the phone rings unanswered. So I call him again. He puts in a few calls. I wait. Then he calls back: it’s 60-65%, equivalent to 1,200km of track. He stresses that this information is provisional, but I owe Bo a beer.
Verdict: Slow, but perhaps likely to be the latest and most accurate information
8min 18sec (disqualified)
I find a diverting tome called Regional Surveys of the World: Central and South-Eastern Europe. It details passenger journeys, freight carried, freight ton-kilometres: everything, in fact, except this wretched statistic. I look in Everyman’s Factfinder, the International Geographic Encyclopedia, The A-Z of Everything. “Try Whitaker’s Almanack,” suggests a colleague. And there, on page 975, it is: “There is 1,201 km of rail track, of which 499km is electrified.”
Verdict: Disqualified on account of outside assistance. Plus figures may have dated
Question 5: What did Sophie and Edward Wessex do on Tuesday?
Opened the John Henry Newman Church of England Primary School, the hydrotherapy pool at Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, and the John Radcliffe Hospital, all in Oxford. Clearly, typing in “Tuesday” wasn’t going to narrow the search, and I suspected that formal announcements would use titles rather than surnames. ‘“Countess of Wessex” + engagements’ immediately brought up royal.gov, and their most recent engagement was right at the top.
Verdict: Missed the detail that the John Radcliffe opening was its A&E department
5min 45sec (3rd)
Answer: “If you have been asked to call this number urgently, it is a hoax message,” says a voice on Buckingham Palace’s main switchboard, wasting my time. Eventually I reach the press officer for the Wessexes, who promises to email their schedule; it arrives a couple of minutes later. Opening the John Henry Newman primary school in Oxford at 11.15am, visiting the hydrotherapy pool at the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre at 12.30pm, then opening the A&E department of the John Radcliffe hospital at 2pm.
Verdict: Correct, and very authoritative
1min 25sec (2nd)
This one is easy. The Times may have changed catastrophically for the worse – ads inside rather than on the front page, etc – but of course it will have this in its Court Circular. “The Earl and Countess of Wessex this morning opened the John Henry Newman Church of England Primary School, Grange Road, Littlemore, Oxford.” In the afternoon, they opened a hydrotherapy pool and the John Radcliffe hospital’s new A&E department, about which it is quite hard to make a biting joke.
Question 6: What was unusual about the British gold medal victory in the 400m in the 1908 Olympics in London?
1min 45sec (2nd)
Answer: One of the three Americans also running cut in front of the Briton and were disqualified – but the Yanks refused to have a re-run, so the gold medal went to Wyndham Halswelle. Leaving out “400m” from the first search meant I was momentarily fooled into reading about another race in the same year, involving a British fireman. Who would have guessed that Google would find a fact like this on an Indian website dedicated to the 2000 Games in Sydney? Thanks, Chennai Online.
26min 30sec (3rd)
Call me a sore loser, but this is a badly phrased question for phone inquiries: it’s annoyingly vague, which means I need someone with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport. That person is Bob Adcocks, the information officer at UK Athletics. He’s away from his desk. Other inquiries reach dead ends. Eventually, Bob comes back and reveals that the race was run twice: the first time, the winner was disqualified; the second time, only Brit Wyndham Halswelle agreed to take part. Accordingly, he won.
1min 20sec (1st)
Pretty straightforward, this. A 20-year-old history of the Olympics is my salvation, with its tale of alleged American cheating and unbending Brit indignation at the London Games. Halswelle ran against three Americans, who supposedly colluded to block him; one was disqualified; the other two refused to take part in the re-run; and Halswelle ran alone. Not a bad time, too, considering he could have taken a day and a half and still got the gold.