Last week, I read an article about Latent Semantic Indexing (javelina.cet.middlebury.edu/lsa/out/lsa_intro.htm)
which has been stewing in my mind ever since. I thought I’d sit down
and make a link to it here, and as I started the search for the article I
realized that I should have bookmarked it. So I thought, “Maybe I
did bookmark it, but just forgot.” I looked in my bookmarks
list, and there were five or six unrecognizable links there. So, I headed
back to Google and restarted the longer-than-it-needed-to-be process of
relocating the article.

I don’t know why I’ve never taught myself to use bookmarks effectively. If I remember correctly, they’ve been around since the first version of Mosaic that I used several years ago. It’s probably largely a result of laziness, though I don’t think that’s the whole story. I think it’s mostly driven by the way I use the web. It’s very rare that I load up my browser with the specific intent of visiting one page on the internet. My typical information-addicted browsing scenario (I optimistically and euphemistcally refer to it as "checking my email") starts with scanning the messages from the various mailing lists I’m subscribed to. Usually one or more messages will catch my eye. Some will contain URLs that I will follow. Some contain a subject I want to follow up on, which leads me to a search engine. Some just get me thinking about something that may or may not even be related.

More often than not, the initial scan of my inbox leads to the spawning of multiple unrelated threads. For example, I might have several browser windows dedicated to a linguistics topic, a couple loading up BusinessWeek and Forbes, and a third set pointing to something related to Ruby programming. And, from here, the same behaviour that got me started comes into play. Each new page has the potential of forking off several new threads on potentially unrelated topics. It’s a potentially infinite recursive loop.

If I tried to bookmark all this stuff, I would spend as much time bookmarking and organizing as I do reading the content. Interestingly, the topic of this post, which has led me into this explanation of why I don’t use bookmarks is itself a potential solution to the problem.

Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) is a technique used for indexing and relating information based on its semantic "closeness". I’m certainly not an expert, having only read a few articles on it now, but here’s a probably-bad explanation of how it works: For each document in a set, it generates a vector showing the document’s inclusion or non-inclusion of the words in a master word list. It then uses a technique called Singular Value Decomposition (kwon3d.com/theory/jkinem/svd.html) to compress the many relationships in this "term/document grid" into fewer relationships—basically converging some of the things that were different into sameness. At this point, you can calculate any vector’s closeness (as in physical closeness—using Math I never learned in school) to another, giving you an indication of how semantically close the two are.

For example, imagine you have a collection of documents, about computer programming topics. As a human, you could read an article about object oriented programming, another about UML, and another about Martin Fowler’s book "UML Distilled". Even if the last article didn’t specifically contain the text "Object Oriented Programming", you would be able to make the mental connection between Martin Fowler and object oriented programming, because you know that UML is related to OOP and that Martin Fowler is a UML guru. With a typical, keyword-based search engine, the last article I mentioned wouldn’t appear in a set of search results for "object oriented programming", because it didn’t contain the text you were searching for. A search engine using Latent Semantic Indexing, would be able to determine that Martin Fowler is **semantically close** to object oriented programming and would still return the UML article as a match for the search.

So what does this have to do with bookmarks? I was lucky in that one of my multiple browsing threads on the day I came across LSI led me to Agent Frank (www.decafbad.com/twiki/bin/view/Main/AgentFrank). Agent Frank is a personal web proxy. You run it on your PC, and it tracks, archives, and indexes the sites you visit. It can also do things that I’m not as exicted about like blocking banner ads. The really exciting thing here is that it is a step toward **smart bookmarks**. If Agent Frank can track everything I look at, I don’t have to worry about remembering which sites I’ve seen. Now, imagine coupling this capability with LSI. A personal web proxy that archives the content you visit and then indexes it with LSI, could remind you of related pages you’ve seen as you browse. It could, of course, as Agent Frank already does, include a search engine so that you could find pages you had seen before—but without the hassle of having to remember keywords that appeared in the pages. It could also use the semantic closeness of the documents you view to build an index of what you are interested in. After a browsing session, it could present you with an intelligently constructed list of the categories of the information you have been browsing.

I really like the idea of reading a new page, thinking "This page reminds me of something…", and clicking a browser button labeled "Recall Similar".

I’ve been playing around with my own implementation of almost-LSI, inspired by a nice tutorial (www.perl.com/pub/a/2003/02/19/engine.html) by Maciej Ceglowski (www.idlewords.com). My version is, as you might guess, in Ruby. And, it integrates with my weblog software (www.sourceforge.net/projects/rublog). As is the case with many of the Ruby projects I’ve worked on, I was surprised to discover that shortly after I started working on it, I had a functional piece of software that could calculate semantic sameness given a search query or an existing document. If I can find the time to clean it up over the next week, you might find a "What’s Related" link for each story on my website.

Hopefully, though I’m still learning this stuff, it will be a little less braindead than Google’s "What’s Related" (www.google.com/search?hl=en&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=related%3Awww.chadfowler.com&btnG=Google+Search), which returns a mix of pages that I have linked to, have linked to me, or seem to have no logical relationship whatsoever. There are at least a couple that I’d really not like to think of as "Similar", as Google labels them.

I also started today on my own Agent Frank replacement, with builtin LSI. I’ve got a stupid simple HTTP Proxy working and archiving everything I view. If all goes well and I don’t lose focus (AttentionSpanChallenged) I might have something basic working in the next week or so. Exciting stuff. I’m glad I don’t do this for a living…it might not be as fun.