Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Search Challenge (10/6/15): What does this sign indicate?

While running... 

... in a nearby open space preserve on the San Francisco peninsula the other day, I came across a somewhat mysterious sign.  

I figured this must mark something pretty impressive, because it's just out in the middle of a field near a nice trail.  

Even more strangely, when I turned around and looked south east from this marker, I saw the following hillside:  

You can see the trail, and then on the hillside across the little valley, I can see two parallel tracks.  They look like trails, but when I went over there, I found a fence blocking my path with a "no trespassing" sign.  Huh. 

Naturally, I'm curious.  Can you help me figure out what's going on here?  

This week's Challenge is about starting with one piece of information and then working from that to another, and another, and another.  

1.  What does this sign indicate?  Why would someone post this in the middle of an empty field? 
2.  What's up with the two trails to the south?  Why are they there?  
3.  Can you figure out why that small caution sign is there in the middle right of the first picture above?  

Any ideas?  I found this to be pretty interesting, in part because I had no idea what these kinds of signs are all about, and it opened up a whole new whole of things I'd never thought about before.  

Hope you find this Challenge equally engaging.  

When you figure it out, be sure to tell us HOW you found out! 

Search on! 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Answer: Thinking outside the box

When I say... 

"Thinking outside the box," I could be referring to any of many boxes that we get ourselves stuck in.  As you know, there are lots of bias effects that can influence our problem-solving (or research) skills.  We've talked about some of them before:  confirmation bias (finding information that confirms one's beliefs while giving less attention to information that contradicts it), the availability heuristic (counting on immediate examples that come to mind when considering a specific topic), and functional fixedness (using something only in the way in which is typically described or thought-about).  

There is an important variation on these biases.  Let's call it the common reference effect.  It is the tendency for people to look first (and often, only) at the reference material that they commonly use.  It's a little like the availability heuristic in that it's an effect of "using what you already know about," but it's a bit more than that.  

The common reference effect is when people tend to use the same reference materials repeatedly, even when it's more difficult to use or less-complete than another source.  

Our Challenge questions for this week are: 

1.  Can you create a chart showing the difference in the populations between North and South Korea since 1970?  (Just a simple line graph would be fine, thanks.) 
2.  Can you compute the market cap, total revenue, and number of outstanding shares for each of the companies IBM, Apple, Google, and Xerox?  
3.  Having recently dived in the Caribbean, I'm really interested in whale sharks.  Can you quickly compare blue whales, gray whales, sperm whales, and whale sharks in terms of (a) lifespan, (b) maximum length, (c) weight?  (Just the facts, ma'am.)  

As several readers pointed out, yes, you can search on Google for these questions.  For instance, for the Koreas population question the simple query of  [ population South Korea ] will give you a lovely chart that also includes North Korea.  

The second chart is especially useful because it gives the date of last update to the data (July 27, 2015) and the source (World Bank), and you can do various analyses with the data (e.g., compare to other countries or data sets).  

But it doesn't quite give you the difference between the two populations.  

Likewise, it's straightforward to use Google to get to the financial data for each of those companies.  Just do a query for the NASDAQ stock ticker name, and you'll get something like this: 

A few more searches will get you the rest of the data (market cap, etc.). 

And naturally, if you do a search on Google for [ blue whale ] you'll get a bunch of great results, and a nice Knowledge Panel in the upper left telling you more about this particular whale (e.g., the largest animal to have ever lived--bigger than the biggest dinosaurs). 

And while you can do SOME side-by-side comparisons on Google, you can't do arbitrary comparisons.  Here's one you can do: 

NOTE that the light gray downward arrow is a clickable target!!!!  If you click on that, you'll get a bunch of additional information about your two comparison items.  (See next image.)  

HOWEVER...  it's not possible (currently) to compare any two arbitrary items side-by-side on Google, even when they're similar kinds of things.  (For instance, you can compare [ avocado vs. salsa ] but, oddly, not [ guacamole vs. salsa ] which you might think you could.)  

But as several regular SRS readers noted, the Wolfram Alpha search engine can do this fairly easily.  

In general, as SRS-ers, we want to be aware of what tools exist, and what their special and unique capabilities are.  And one of the things that Alpha does quite well is side-by-side comparisons.  

So if we do that same [ guacamole vs. salsa ] query on Alpha, we see a useful comparison: 

But notice something here:  See the arrows?  You have to be a little careful here--the amounts being compared are "one serving" (which can be very different).  When you look at the rest of the chart below, be sure to remember that these charts compare 2 Tbsp of guacamole (28 grams) with 1/4 cup of salsa (65 grams... nearly twice the amount of guacamole!).  

I don't know about you, but I eat these in about the same amounts.  So if I ate 1/4 cup of guacamole, I'd really be getting twice the number of calories shown here.  (In general, be very wary of "serving sizes"--they sometimes don't match real experience.)  

In any case, from a SearchResearch perspective, this is the kind of tool we need to find these tables of comparisons.  Alpha does a pretty good job here.  

Korea population:   

Notice how I framed the query here--as a math expression.  Alpha does a great job converting arbitrary inputs into mathematically meaningful expressions.  

Notice in particular the chart is the DIFFERENCE between the two countries, and shows the change over time.  

An issue here is figuring out where the data actually comes from.  If you scroll to the bottom, you can click on the Sources link, which brings up a particularly unhelpful list, including that the "Primary Source" is Wolfram|Alpha Knowledgebase, 2015.  That's a bit like saying "Because I said so..."  

There is a pretty generic list below that of sources that the Knowledgebase draws upon, but it's pretty vague.  

(Apparently you can send them a message and ask for details, but I haven't tried that yet.)  

Financials:  How would you do something like this analysis in Alpha? 

Just copying the string of company names into Alpha gives you this... 

Again, read the fine print carefully.  See that "Assuming GOOGL"?  (Pointed to by the red arrow.)  Be aware that when things like that show up (or in the Google results way above), they can be important.  Google stock is now listed under TWO stickers:  GOOG and GOOGL.  To get an accurate picture, you need to consider both... notice where the values are the same, and where they differ.  

Sea Creature Comparison:  Now we know that Alpha is good on demographics and financials--what about biology?   Do a similar kind of search... 

As you see, the side-by-side comparison tables are fairly interesting, and certain cover the lifespan, length, and weight we were interested in. 

The aspects of the tables can be somewhat random (e.g., "length of whole intestine"), but the capability of automatically generating side-by-side comparisons of different kinds of things can prove incredibly useful.  

For instance, suppose you've been reading about VW cars recently (just, hypothetically) and you'd like to get a quick sense of how two different VW cars differ.  Here's an example: 

Search Lessons:  

Tools:  As always, know your tools.  Among its many capabilities, Alpha is GREAT about generating tables of side-by-sides comparing and contrasting different kinds of items.  

Verify:  On the other hand, verify-verify-verify.  If your task is critical, then you'll want to double-check the actual values presented in the tables.  (But that's true for all search engines...)  

Check the details:  And always read the fine print.  I've seen lots of searchers get tripped up by doing a search and landing on a chart or graph that seems at first blush to confirm what they're looking for.  CAUTION!  It's easy to find things that confirm your bias and your expectations.  Whenever you find a chart / data, look for the source, and check all of the tiny print around the outside.  Be sure you know what assumptions are baked into the analysis.  (For instance, how much of guacamole is being considered in the analysis?  A factor of 2 can be deeply important for your next Mexican-themed party!)  

Common Reference Effect:  Don't get trapped by the common reference effect.  Great researchers know multiple ways to find information, and know what the strengths (and weaknesses) are of all of their data sources and tools.  

This was a fun Challenge!  Thanks to everyone for their contributions!  

NOTE:  This week's Challenge will come out tomorrow, on Tuesday rather than Wednesday.  (I'm traveling for much of this week, so I need to push it out tomorrow.  Happy searching.)  

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Search Challenge (9/30/15): Thinking outside the box

Some problems are hard.  

But often, if you know where and how to search, the answers can be found without an excess of work.  This week's Challenge is an example of exactly this idea.  

If you spend more than 5 minutes on this Challenge, you should stop and think to yourself:  How else can I solve this Challenge?  Once you figure out the method, you'll see why I've posted this particular Challenge, and you'll have yet another arrow in your quiver of SearchResearch skills.  

Here you go.  When you figure these out, please post your answers in the Comments.  Be sure to say HOW you found the answers.  
A whale shark with swimmer for comparison. (Photo credit to Heather Traher.) 

1.  Can you create a chart showing the difference in the populations between North and South Korea since 1970?  (Just a simple line graph would be fine, thanks.) 
2.  Can you compute the market cap, total revenue, and number of outstanding shares for each of the companies IBM, Apple, Google, and Xerox?  
3.  Having recently dived in the Caribbean, I'm really interested in whale sharks.  Can you quickly compare blue whales, gray whales, sperm whales, and whale sharks in terms of (a) lifespan, (b) maximum length, (c) weight?  (Just the facts, ma'am.)  

As I said, this really is a 5 minute Challenge.  Do you know a method to make your searches that quick and effective for this kinds of data collection / comparison?  

Search on! 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Answer: Fish ID

That was fun! 

This past week I was in the western Caribbean, on the island of Bonaire (part of the Netherland Antilles), and I'm seeing a bunch of extremely interesting animals.  

Our Challenge this week was pretty simple and fun:  Can you figure out what these are?  I'm looking for (a) common name, (b) Latin binomial name.  (And, if you find one, an interesting factoid or story about each.)  

What can you dig up on these? 

Answer:  As several of you noted, silly me, I posted the pictures with their file names still attached to the image.  Simply rolling over the image with your mouse will show you the URL-encoded name of the file, which (in this case) had the animal name.... Like this:  

This is the "Honeycomb Cowfish"--which you can just read.  (The extra characters are inserted for "URL-encoding"--%2B stands for a space character in the URL.)  

This trick was one I pointed out in one of the very earliest SRS episodes. (From 2010--which means we should be celebrating our 5th year anniversary soon!)

So... what did you find out? 

Ramón pointed out that some of these can be found by doing a query like this: 

      [Bonaire fish identification]

Some fishes identified there are Parrotfish, Honeycomb, Spotted Moray, Porcupine fish.


Luis writes:  Blue parrotfish. Scarus coeruleus. From FishBase: "reports of ciguatera poisoning" (meaning: don't eat it; "ciguatera is a foodborne illness caused by eating certain reef fish whose flesh is contaminated with a toxin made by dinoflagellates such as Gambierdiscus toxicus which live in tropical and subtropical waters.")  All results that are relevant point to Florent's Guide To The Florida, Bahamas & Caribbean Reefs, part of Florent's Guide To The Tropical Reefs.


For this image, Luis did a nice Image search:  ("Blue shrimp and anemone") (found initially through an Image Search of an image crop).  This is a Pederson's shrimp (a species of Cleaner shrimp). Ancylomenes pedersoni. From the Marine Species Identification Portal: "lives in association with a variety of sea anemones, Lebrunia danaeBartholomea lucidaBartholomea annulata and Condylactis gigantea" (the last one seems to be the anemone on the photo); "When approached carefully with an extended hand, it may come out of its protection to clean it." Nice and funny info on how they clean fish on the Wikipedia article.

Just for grins, here's a picture of one cleaning my finger. I don't know that I have many parasites, but if I did, this shrimp would take of it for me.  This is great for a sense of scale... 

Here, Luis writes:  There are over 10,000 species of bristle worms (aka polychaetes), divided into >80 families. Because "each of the over 80 families living today have characteristic body shapes and chaetal types" (WoRMS), I guess it's safe to say that the species on the photo is a fireworm — ie, belongs to the Amphinomidae family (found similar creatures though Search by Image). I just downsized the sample of electable species to less than 300 (check here and click on "List Species"). One of the most common, and to a layman very similar to the one on the photo, is Hermodice carunculata. Another common one is Eurythoe complanata. Very interesting facts on this Advanced Aquarist article.

And Ramón found a fantastic link to "14 Fun Facts about Bristle Worms" (aka Polyachetes).  Read it if you dare.  (There's an amazing video of the "Bobbit Worm" chopping a Lion Fish in half.  Now THAT's frightening.)  


Luis writes here:  Honeycomb cowfishAcanthostracion polygonius. From FishBase: "Uncommon and wary" (wow, I guess it must have been quite a sight then). From Smithsonian Bocas Database: "Can darken, pale and change colours."

Interestingly, the cowfish is considered an excellent food fish and is often marketed fresh, although I've never seen it on a restaurant menu anywhere in the Caribbean.  There have also been reports of ciguatera poisoning from eating the cowfish. It is taken primarily in traps and occasionally with seines. This species is also a popular fish for display in public aquaria. I found it to be a relatively uncommon fish, not easily approached by divers.

Ramón discovered that "The bodies of Boxfish [of which the cowfish is a type] are covered in a toxic mucus which can be released when stressed."  


Finally, my friend, the spotted moray.  

Luis: Gymnothorax moringa. From FishBase: "Usually seen with its head protruding from a hole and the rest of its body concealed" (just like the picture). "Observed to be unusually aggressive towards man ". "Its bite is very dangerous" (morays' teeth are really impressive).

While Luis is correct (that's the entry in FishBase), I'll tell you from personal experience, that these eels are pretty shy and retiring.  I got pretty close to take this photo.  About 1 second after I shot this, the eel slithered back into the coral head and vanished.  They're NOT particularly aggressive in my experience.  

Just for fun, here's another SRS historical moment:  I'd written about moray larvae back in 2011.  Then, it was an Image search problem.  But what's so interesting about them is that morays, in their juvenile, larval form, are VERY different in shape.  Here's a juvenile moray eel.  (I don't know if it's a Spotted Moray or not, but quite possibly.)  

Thanks to everyone who wrote in with answer and comments.  I appreciate all of them! 

Search on! 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Search Challenge (9/22/15): Fish ID

As you know... 

... I'm actually on vacation this week.  More on that later, but I'm trying to NOT spend much time online.  For what it's worth, I'm completely failing at this.  

However, I thought I'd post a purely fun Search Challenge this week.  It's not hard to figure out, but perhaps some energetic SearchResearchers will discover some fun facts about these IDs.  

I'm in the western Caribbean, and I'm seeing a bunch of extremely interesting animals.  Can you figure out what these are?  I'm looking for (a) common name, (b) Latin binomial name.  (And, if you find one, an interesting factoid or story about each.)  

What can you dig up on these? 






This Challenge is purely for fun.  Let us know what you find out! 

Search on! 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Answer: How to describe the hills?

It's interesting to answer.. 

.. an SRS question about hills when I'm back in Bonaire, spending most of my free time underwater.  As you probably remember from the parrotfish Challenge of 2 years ago, this is a fascinating place.  

But we were talking about hills, like this one: 

Or this one... The key feature is that the hills repeat periodically.  

(These are both from the Pt. Reyes area.)  

Recall that the Challenge was this: 

1.  Does the term "frequency" make sense when applied to repeating hills?  Frequency is usually defined as cycles / unit-time.  Can you figure out how to apply the concept of "frequency" to hills?  
2.  What's the frequency (however you define it for hills) of this stretch of hills above?  You'll have to find it, measure it, and then figure out the "frequency," if you can!  
3.  Can you find a stretch of the Earth that has a nicely repeating pattern to it similar to the one above?  If so, where is it?  (Give us the lat/long in your answer.)  

Here's how I thought about the Challenges.  

1.  Frequency for repeating hills?  This Challenge came about when I thought about my travel uphill and downhill as though I were on a sine wave.  When I wanted to write about the experience of running on the trails in the hills, I really wanted to say  "the hills are high frequency hills."  The idea being that they go up and down in rapid succession, just as a high frequency sound wave would.  

As several people noted, the idea of frequency generally involves a time basis.  That is, frequency is usually expressed in "cycles per second."  At the beginning of an orchestral concert, the concertmaster would often play the note of A, which has a frequency of 440 hertz (or cycles-per-second).  

But what about hills?  More generally, what about space?  

I figured that I must not have been the first guy to think about this, so I did a search for: 

     [ spatial frequency ] 

and found, much to my surprise, that I'd accidentally found that this is exactly the right term for what we seek.  The Wikipedia article defines spatial frequency as "a characteristic of any structure that is periodic across position in space. The spatial frequency is a measure of how often sinusoidal components ... of the structure repeat per unit of distance. The SI unit of spatial frequency is cycles per meter."   (cpm)  

Ah ha!  So if we measure the peak-to-peak distance of the waves of the hills, we can figure out the "cycles / meter" to get the spatial frequency of those particular Pt. Reyes hills.  

So.. how do we do measure the peak-to-peak distance?  

You COULD get the "Terrain map" view (aka "topographic map" and just measure the elevation of the peaks and the valleys.  But that's pretty slow.  Could we find a better way? 

A query like this: 

     [ Google Earth elevation data

tells you that you can use Google Earth to draw a path anywhere on Earth, and ask for the "elevation profile."  

That's exactly what we want.  In Google Earth I fly to that part of the Bolinas Ridge, and draw a path, then ask for the elevation profile.  

(Let me know if you want more details on how to do this.  I can always add an appendix with details about how to open Earth, draw a path, and get the Elevation Profile.)  

2.  What's the frequency Kenneth?  From this diagram, I just read off the first set of distances of the peaks from the origin.  

I dropped the numbers into a spreadsheet, then averaged the distances together (not a perfect solution, but good enough for this use case). 

Since the definition of a cycle is the distance between peaks, we can see that the average distance between these regular hills is 576 meters.  

Now imagine that you've got hills that are regularly spaced, like this:  

Suppose that the red line is 1 m long.  These hills (well, speed bumps, more like) would be at 1 cycle/meter--or 1 cpm.  If they're 2 meters apart, they'd be 0.5 cpm, and so on.  

Our Point Reyes hills are 576 meters apart, so that's 1/576th of a cycle per meter, or (using Google Calculator)  0.001736 cpm.  

At this point, it probably would make sense to convert the measure to kilometers.  (So I multiply our number by 1000.)  1.736 c/km.  That's a much more understandable measure:  it means you go up and down once in just under 2 km.  (Or, in English units, one cycle / mile.)  

Now we have it!  

3. Other parts of the world with repeating hills? Sure.  This is a great way to spend time in Google Earth.  My favorites are the Sand Hills of Nebraska: 

and some nicely regular places in the Rockies: 

Search Lessons 

1. Looking for concepts you sometimes find you what you need...  In the "spatial frequency" case, we found the idea we were looking for.  In the process, we learned how to define cycles-per-meter, which is what we needed. 

2.  Look for tools.  As we've mentioned before, searching for a tool (in this case to find elevation profiles) was straightforward.  In this case, I just created a spreadsheet to compute the average of the inter-peak distances, but if you want to get fancy, you could create a path with waypoints on each of the peaks, then export the KML file and get the elevations automatically--if enough people write in, I'll show how to do that particular piece of data munging as well)  

In the week ahead... Search on! 

My crack SearchResearch Dive Team hunting for the next SRS Challenge

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Search Challenge (9/16/15): How to describe the hills?

I climbed the hill... 

... and just a bit more down the path, I climbed another one just like it.  A bit more down the path, ANOTHER one just like it.  Interesting--how long would this repeated series of seemingly identical hills go on? 

As I flew across center part of the US yesterday, I had a window seat and able to peer out the window for much of the flight. What I saw amazed me, and it reminded me of that repeating hilly path.  I kept seeing waves upon waves of stone and sand, patterns written in the geography.  

One of the problems we have as writers is knowing how to describe places in ways that are evocative AND descriptive enough that you get a great sense for what it's like to actually be there.  

I can tell you the path I was on was a jungle path, or a desert path.. but it's hard to be precise about the path per se.  

Tony Hillerman might write "...the eroded flanks of the hills covered with an infinity of dark green creosote bush and the grey-white desert grasses...", or Hemingway could say "... Hills terraced and yellow fruit shining through the green leaves and darker green of olive trees on the hills, and streams on the hills, and streams with wide dry pebbly beds cutting down to the sea and old stone houses, and everything all color."  These are beautiful, but vague.  

Face it, I've got an engineering heart (wrapped in the pulsing body of a poet), so I'm looking for something a bit more.. precise.  How far apart are those hills?  How high and low do they go?  

Here's one of the sights I spied from my window seat (this is part of Point Reyes, CA, near Bolinas Lagoon).  Note the repeated foldings of the hills. That's a lovely pattern--now, how can I describe it?

Here's a map of that same area: 

As you can see, the streams are all parallel, telling us that the hills and valleys are all parallel as well--repeated ridges marching next to the San Andreas fault.  

Now suppose you drew a line like this across the tops of the hills, streams, and valleys:  

If you drew the cross section of this piece of the land, you'd see something like a sine wave, 

As you know, a wave like this can be neatly described by its frequency (how many up/down cycles happen per unit time, e.g., 440 cycles/second), and its amplitude (how for up and down the wave goes--in this case, the amplitude for the sine wave above is 1--it goes 1 unit up from the centerline).  

Now, if I want to describe these hills in Point Reyes, I thought about describing them in terms of their frequency.  Some hills have a high frequency, while others have low frequency, but a high amplitude.

With just a couple of searches, I was able to figure out the answer to today's Challenge.  Can you?  This Challenge comes in a couple of parts.  Even if you can't figure out how to do parts 1 and 2, EVERYONE can do something on part 3.  

1.  Does the term "frequency" make sense when applied to repeating hills?  Frequency is usually defined as cycles / unit-time.  Can you figure out how to apply the concept of "frequency" to hills?  
2.  What's the frequency (however you define it for hills) of this stretch of hills above?  You'll have to find it, measure it, and then figure out the "frequency," if you can!  
3.  Can you find a stretch of the Earth that has a nicely repeating pattern to it similar to the one above?  If so, where is it?  (Give us the lat/long in your answer.)  

As always, be sure to tell us HOW you found the answer.  

I can't wait to see what glorious hillsides you'll find!  (Be sure to tell us how you found them.  Did you just know about them?  Or did you actually do some kind of search?)  

Search on!  

P.S.  I will be traveling again next week when the answer is supposed to come out.  I might not be able to get to an internet connection to post my result.  But stay tuned... you never know... I'll definitely post how I solved it.