Friday, June 12, 2009

Baker's dozen: Cuil

I don't know much about Cuil. I remember hearing about it a while ago. I remember hearing that it's pronounced like kewl, but my brain keeps wanting to parse it as French (maybe kweel?) or with the difficult-for-English-speakers-to-pronounce Dutch ui (putting it somewhere between cowl and Kyle) [Actually, it's cool, according to Wikipedia, which also goes to some length discussing the name.]

But can it answer questions?
  • How much energy does the US consume?
Right off the bat there are some noticeable differences. Google, Ask, Powerset and Bing all find a gazillion results and present the top few in a list. Cuil finds 195 results for this query and presents the top few in a page laid out more like a newspaper. It looks nice. There are images interspersed with the text, which livens things up nicely. The small result set is something one could reasonably expect at least to skim entirely if need be.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look likely that any of those results actually answers the question. The top two hits cover how much power a small transformer and a PC consume, and by the bottom of the page we're off into the weeds on an O'Reilly publishing's O'Reilly Radar blog regarding, um, RNA research or something. Not promising.
  • How many cell phones are there in Africa?
OK ... I see stuff about Africa. I see logos for various cellular service providers all over the place. The first hit looks like it might be relevant, but it's really a blog. The second post on the blog page mentions Africa. The fifth mentions cell phones.

I'm not going to wade through the other 108 results. There's absolutely nothing to suggest, for example, that whoever wrote "How many? Who knows, but enough so that you can find the one that's right for you. To get your search started, here are six types of meditation you can try." is going to take a sudden side trip and answer my question.
  • When is the next Cal-Stanford game?
This time 156 results, and the front page, at least, seems much more focused. On the Big Game in general. Nothing in particular on when the next one might be. To be fair, no one else could answer this one either.
  • When is the next Cal game?
Just when you think you know what's going on ... This time there are 443,932 results. The right-hand side, previously empty, now contains a neatly categorized assortment of links. Hover over one and you see a summary of the results there, again elegantly formatted.

The categories are about baseball, with an emphasis on Cal Ripken. The results themselves mention Cal (that is, UC Berkeley) a fair bit, but nothing to tell me when the next game might be. Again, though, no one else got this one either.
  • Who starred in 2001?
This gets 5,937 results. Again there are categories on the right-hand side. My guess now is that the count of results includes those in the categories. No categories, low count.

The hits themselves are the now-familiar mishmash of stuff about movies and the year 2001.
  • Who starred in 2001: a Space Odyssey?
Everybody else got this. Cuil gives 10 results. One tells me that the late Roy Scheider starred in the sequel, 2010. One is a link to WikiAnswers. The word 2001 does not appear on the linked page. There's a nice-looking image of the space-suited astronaut right next to the snippet. Who was the actor in that scene, anyway? Hmm ... wish I had a search engine to answer that.

I was going to stop after the cell phones question, but I am now caught up in the horribly compelling spectacle. Onward ...
  • Who has covered "Ruby Tuesday"?
Everybody but Alpha got this on the first hit (allowing for True Knowledge's fallback to conventional search), and Alpha at least had the courtesy to tell me it didn't know. Cuil apparently lives in a parallel universe where "Albany Hotel Near Crossgates Mall" is an acceptable answer.
  • What kinds of trees give red fruit?
Top of the list is Wikipedia's article on the sweetgum (or redgum -- aha!), Liquidambar styraciflua. The fruit are shown. They do not appear to be red. The other five entries: Wikipedia's list of Emily Dickinson poems; Wikipedia on Robert Michael Ballentyne; a random article on a stinky plant in Curacao with red sap; an article on fast-growing apple trees ... Yes, that's it! We have a winner! Cuil helpfully illustrates it with a photo of some green apples. The list finishes with what appear to be class notes explaining why common names of organisms can be misleading.

I swear I am not making this up.

I have no idea why Cuil chooses this of all times to go all Wikipedia on me, but totally ignores it when it clearly gives the right answer.
  • Who invented the hammock?
There are 1,654 results and no sidebar. Another promising theory shot down. The top one links to a trivia site and asserts that "This, and several other sites, credits Alcibiades, a student of Socrates, as being the inventor of the hammock.". The trivia site itself wants me to register an ID before it will show me the answer. No, thanks.

ID or no, I have more confidence in Wikipedia's answer (legend says Alcibedes, but it's more likely some unknown person in the Amazon basin long ago). The second hit on the list at least agrees on the general land mass, but says it was on the Yucatan peninsula. That seems about as plausible as the Wikipedia version.

The rest of the page adds little.
  • Who played with Miles Davis on Kind of Blue?
Whaddya know. The very first hit gives details for the album, including the lineup.

Frankly, I'm curious to see what it does with the distance questions.
  • How far is it from Bangor to Leeds?
And I wasn't expecting: "No results were found for: How far is it from Bangor to Leeds? If you’ve checked your spelling, you could try using fewer or different keywords to broaden your search."

OK, I can respect that. It would have been a suitable answer several other places as well.

Bangor to New York gets the same response.
  • How far is it from Paris to Dallas?
This gets one (1) hit, from WikiAnswers. The snippet doesn't look promising ("How far is it driving from Sacramento CA to Salt Lake City UT? Popularity: 9. How long does it take to get from Denver Colorado to Paris? Popularity: 9.") but let's drill through. Yep, there are three questions relating to Paris, but nothing about Paris-Dallas.

What to say? Probably best just to let the results speak for themselves.

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