Wednesday, May 25, 2016

SearchResearch Challenge (5/25/16): What's in common?

Finding what's in common... 

... is often an important step in making sense of complex or confusing information.  

Finding what's common across a collection of data is often the key insight to figuring out what's going on.  Scientists look for common data across experiments, detectives search for common evidence in a string of crimes.  Everyone else looks for common elements between different models of things we're buying (from cars to tennis rackets to refrigerators) in order to identify what's the same AND what's different between different brands or models.  

So for this weeks' Challenge, I present two cases of Things that Have Something in Common.  

Your job?  Figure out what the common feature is between them  

The first case is pretty straight-forward.  (You should be able to figure that out in a couple of minutes.)  

The second case might require a bit more search.  Both are interesting cases of things worth noticing in the world...  See if you can figure this out! 

1.  Over the past 150 years there have been a huge number of floods in North America.  But what do THESE floods have in common? 

     a. May 16, 1874, Mill River flood of Williamsburg, Massachusetts
     b. March 12, 1928, Castaic Junction flood, California
     c. August 4, 2014, Polley Lake flood, British Columbia 

2.  What do these flowers all have in common? 

As always, please let us know not just the answer, but also HOW you figured it out.  (Even if you just knew the answer off the top of your head, say so!)  

Search on! 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Answer: Questions that come up during travel...

Traveling is an endless source of questions...  

This week brought the "who's on the teapot?" question (as seen on a teapot from my host's home) and a more commonplace question--"what kind of trees are those?" 

As it turned out, the man on the teapot took a little sleuthing to figure out.  Identifying the trees (and where to go see them) was a piece of cake.  So let's do the tree question first, then we'll do the man on the teapot.  

2.  Many of the streets here are lined with these beautiful flowering trees.  What kind of tree is this? They bloom so beautifully, are they native here?   

My very first query was: 

     [ blue flowering tree San Diego ] 

which led to many pages about jacaranda trees, but the most authoritative was the San Diego botanical garden which describes jacaranda trees as "medium to large spreading tree, up to 40-50’ tall and 40-50’ wide.."  and "Jacarandas are among the world’s most spectacular flowering trees with lavender blue, tubular blooms in late spring and early summer. The ferny, compound leaves provide fine-textured shade during the warmer months."  

(Love that phrase:  "fine-textured shade"!)  Yes, it is shady under a jacaranda tree, but it is made of "ferny compound leaves" that let some fraction of the sunshine through.  

And they are spectacular.  Many places have planted these as showy trees along avenues and boulevards (even though they're quite messy as the blossoms drop to the ground).  I learned that Pretoria, South Africa has quite a collection of jacarandas, planted along the streets, earning it the nickname of the "Jacaranda City."

Jacaranda-lined street in Pretoria, South Africa
3.  As I was landing at the San Diego airport, I could see a couple of neighborhoods that seemed completely blanketed in these trees.  Where should I go (nearby!) to see a bunch of these trees all lined up? 
The San Diego Botanical Garden site helpfully says that "you can see jacarandas at the San Diego Botanical Garden and in South America"  (where they're native).  Not really helpful to direct me to "South America."  

So I did a long question-form search (that is, I just typed out the question like this):  

     [ where can I see jacarandas in San Diego ] 

Notice that I asked a question.  As we've discussed before, Google is becoming increasingly competent at handling plain old questions like this.  This doesn't work for ALL queries (yet), but for this kind of question--one that I suspect has many pages out there on this topic--this is a pretty safe approach.  

Sure enough, the top several hits are all good results.  Interestingly, several of them link to the article "Uptown's Lavender Delight" which includes a map of good San Diego area jacaranda viewing locations.  The map points out that "Banker's Hill" (the area just west of Balboa Park) is a hot spot.  So on my last morning of my trip, I drove out there and found some.  Here's the corner of Laurel and Sixth, Banker's Hill, San Diego (Balboa Park is behind me):  

Mission accomplished!  

1.  I found this teapot at the place I'm staying.  Naturally, I have NO idea who this guy is--can you help me figure it out?  FWIW, his image is also on every teacup in the place.  Who is the man, and why would someone have a tea service with his fancy hat on it?

 I did the obvious first step:  Search by Image.  I didn't find much of anything in the search results.  Lots of teapots, but nothing that looked like this.  (So I'm really curious how some of you had successful reverse image search.  If you have a moment, comment below and tell us the details of HOW you did the reverse image search.)  

Since that didn't work for me, I cropped the image to just the mustachioed man.  I cropped it to this: 

And got several hits that looked like this: 

The interesting thing here is that all of the hits are for identical images (the same hat, the same mustache, the same badges... everything is identical... which makes me think this is a fairly iconic image).  

The first hit ("Cooking in small spaces") is a blog post (and picture of a tea service) from a Persian restaurant. Okay.  What about the other ones? 

Interesting that one image would be used by two very different bloggers.  THAT makes me suspect not only is the image iconic, but that searching for THAT particular image (that is, the one the bloggers use as their avatars) would probably be a useful step.  

So I did another reverse image search on THAT avatar image.  While I found more people using that as an avatar, I didn't find the answer.  

Now what? 

I know it's probably Persian, and probably someone who's "iconic" in that culture.  Who might that be?  A king? 

I modified the query to include Persian king  (and if you know that Persian kings are also known as a shah, that term would have worked as well).  

That still didn't quite answer the question, so I clicked on "Visually similar images" and got this... 

Now, looking at this collection of images, I see two that look like it might be the guy on the teapot (#1 on the left in row 2, and #5 in row 2).  If I click on the first fellow, I learn from the landing page that this is "...Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar (16 July 1831 – 1 May 1896) (Persian: ناصرالدین شاه قاجار‎),  King of Persia from 17 September 1848 to 1 May 1896 when he was assassinated. The son of Mohammad Shah Qajar and Malek Jahān Khānom and the third longest reigning monarch in Persian history after Shapur II of the Sassanid dynasty and Tahmasp I of the Safavid Dynasty. Nasser al-Din Shah had sovereign power for close to 50 years and was also the first Persian monarch to ever write and publish his diaries."  

Interesting, but is he that guy on the teapot?  (There's a resemblance here, but I want to verify it.)  

So my verification query is (in Google Images):  

     [ teapot Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar ] 

(note that it was spell corrected to Naser al-Din Shah Qajar).  

That seems pretty right on.  (But who are the two women in image 5?  Answer: They're women in Qajar's harem.)  

And of course, I did an image search just for 

     [ Naser al-Din Shah Qajar ] 

and it's pretty clear that this is the same guy on the teapot.  (In fact, that second photo looks like the one that was the original inspiration for the teapot painting.)  

He was a fascinating fellow, no question. The shah of Persia, with a harem of at least 100 women (including his favorite wife, Anis al-Doleh).  It was a different time, a different culture, and a different standard of beauty.  

I could go on, but it's fun if you look up more about this really interesting period in Persia's history for yourself.  (Go ahead!)  

For the record, I did ask my host what the story was with the teapot.  She told me it was a "behesht" teapot.  When I look that up: 

     [ behesht teapot ] 

you'll find lots of Iranian / Persian restaurants by that name AND lots of pictures like this: 

So I think we've figured it out:  The guy on the behesht teapot is Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, shah of Persia, 1848 - 1896.  

Search Lessons 

The big lesson here is that: 

1.  Sometimes you need to track down multiple paths to find an answer.  In this case, I tried reverse image search (which didn't really work well), then used a cropped image and found several bloggers using the image as their avatar.  By augmenting the image search with a guess about the role of the person ("Persian king") I was able to find a link to the man himself... and all of his wives.  

2.  Remember to crop your image when the full image search doesn't work.  If you focus the image, it usually works to be more like what other people have used as their image. 

3.  When you have an obvious question, try asking it in plain language.  It sometimes works remarkably well.  

This was fairly tricky, but several people were able to figure it out.  (And to KUDOS to those who figured out that the Arabic writing around the perimeter means. Impressive work.)  

Search on! 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Search Challenge (5/18/16): Questions that come up during travel...

As you know, I travel a fair bit... 

.. and one of the pleasures of travel is discovering new things.  And, of course, from a SearchResearch perspective, traveling is just an unending stream of curious moments... many of which bring fascinating Challenges for us to solve. 

Here's this week's Challenge, derived from my travels to San Diego (I'm here to teach a 1-week class at UCSD).  

1.  I found this teapot at the place I'm staying.  Naturally, I have NO idea who this guy is--can you help me figure it out?  FWIW, his image is also on every teacup in the place.  Who is the man, and why would someone have a tea service with his fancy hat on it?


2.  Many of the streets here are lined with these beautiful flowering trees.  What kind of tree is this? They bloom so beautifully, are they native here?   

3.  As I was landing at the San Diego airport, I could see a couple of neighborhoods that seemed completely blanketed in these trees.  Where should I go (nearby!) to see a bunch of these trees all lined up? 

I don't know about you, but these are typical questions that come up for me as I travel.  Maybe this happens to you too (if you read this blog, I bet it does!) -- so let's exercise those SearchResearch skills before you head off on summer holidays! 

As always, tell us HOW you figured out the answers.  We all want to learn what great SearchResearch skills you've got.

Search on! 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Answer: In the middle of nowhere?

That was simpler than most... 

It's sometimes hard to predict how hard a Search Challenge will be, but you loyal and skilled SearchResearchers made short work of this!  The Challenge began with me scanning around on Google Maps over Greenland one day and spotting a most remarkable thing.  

1.  What is the story of this place?  (It's 72.5787606,-38.4543542 ) 

2.  What kind of organization would pay to put this thing here?  Why?  

3.  What was the weather like on May 10, 2016?  (And how cold would it have felt?)  

4.  (Extra credit)  What's the most interesting story to come out of this place in the place year or so? 

Obviously, the first thing to do is to put the lat/long into Google Maps.  And yes, you see the above aerial image.  (Interestingly, Bing Maps shows only white background here.  Strange.) 

 But how would you figure out what it is?  

I thought of two ways to do this... my first thought was that it looked like some kind of arctic research station, so I did the obvious query: 

     [ list of research stations in Greenland ] 

and found a "Category" entry for Research Stations... and it's a short list.  A couple of clicks quickly determines that our lat/long is the Summit Station, so-called because it's at the top of the Greenland ice sheet.  

The OTHER way I thought of to find this was to check out Google Earth.  It's worth knowing that there are a LOT of places listed on Earth.  

I launched Earth, dropped in the lat/long and... nothing.  Really?  Just because there's something there doesn't mean it's got a label. 

So, just to check (because I couldn't believe something so interesting wouldn't be covered), I clicked on the Photos option.  And THAT was the ticket!  When you show the Photos, 4 little photo icons appear, and they (handily enough) have the name of the research station on the image.  

Once you've got that name, it's a quick search to find the Wikipedia entry on Summit Station, and from there you can find the official Summit Station website, and find out that it's run by the NSF (National Science Foundation).  

Why are they interested?  Because "...year-round monitoring of key climate variables are conducted to study air-snow interactions, knowledge of which is crucial for interpreting data from ice cores drilled in the area and elsewhere."  And this research stations is "... located atop 3200 m of ice and is nearly 400 km from the nearest point of land. Summit supports a diversity of scientific research, including year-round measurements of air-snow interactions that provide crucial knowledge for interpreting data from deep ice cores drilled both at Summit and elsewhere." 

In other words, it's a place like no other, and they need it to get baseline data for studies of ice cores, which show us temperature variations over the past thousand years or so.  If you don't know this, you can't make sense of what data you're seeing.  

In looking at their website, after a few clicks, you'll find that they have two blogs for news about the site, only one of which has recent entries (the other seems to have been abandoned a few years ago).   

On that blog you'll find that "...In February, scientists predicted that atmospheric conditions in the Arctic may enable... atmospheric ozone to reach record low levels in 2016–potentially opening a so-called ozone hole."  If you remember your history, the previous ozone hole was in the Antarctic, to date, there's never been one in the Northern Hemisphere.  This may be changing.  If so, here's what it means for you.  As one of the research scientists writes:  "Stock up on sunscreen..."  

To find the weather means reading the Wikipedia page carefully and clicking through to the Summit weather station data (the obvious search [ Summit station weather data ] finds it too), which takes you to this chart: 

Which I read as -12C with a 30 knot wind.  Looking for a [ wind chill calculator ] brings me to one that tells me (yes, I had to do a search to convert it like this: [ 30 knots to mph ] to use the calculator): 

Which is REALLY cold.  Don't hang around outside.  (But look at the chart: May 10th was a relatively mild day--the 12th was much colder.)  

Search Lessons

There are a couple here.  

1.  Check resources that may not be the first one on your list.  The Google Earth idea was great, but I had to use the Photos option to find a name. Once I had that, then I could answer everything else.  

2.  Read the text carefully.  I know I say this all the time, but the primary cause of errors (among the students I teach) is inaccurate reading of the web pages.  They can FIND the content alright (usually), but then make a mistake in simply reading the content.  This is how I noticed that one of the blogs is way out of date.  Just read!  

I hope you enjoyed this.  I certainly had fun reading about the station.  As Remmij pointed out, the photo of the station with the aurora is well worth a look:  Summit Station and Northern Lights.  Finding things like this, and reading the comments you've made and the discoveries we all share, is what makes me keep coming back to the blog.  

Thanks for all you do, gentle readers!  

Search on!  

P.S.  Sorry about being delayed in getting the answers out over the past couple of weeks.  I've been working really hard at various conferences and teaching gigs.  (I'm in San Diego this week, teaching ethnographic methods at UCSD.)  While these things are great fun, they also mess up my schedule quite a bit.  I try, but sometimes I get behind.  Hang in there--I won't leave you hanging high and dry! 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Search Challenge (5/11/16): In the middle of nowhere?

Finding the background about remote places can be tricky... 

... yet, it's something we often want to know.  There are often places that are intriguing, but that have no handy signposts to tell you what's going on.  What do you do when you want to find out about a place that's in the middle of nowhere?  

What nowhere looks like.

While looking around on Google Maps over Greenland one day I spotted a most remarkable thing.  This is clearly next to nowhere, but it's big and complicated.  Naturally, I was curious... so... 

1.  What is the story of this place?  (It's 72.5787606,-38.4543542 ) 

2.  What kind of organization would pay to put this thing here?  Why?  

3.  What was the weather like on May 10, 2016?  (And how cold would it have felt?)  

4.  (Extra credit)  What's the most interesting story to come out of this place in the place year or so? 

This isn't that hard to figure out, but it's a great chance to go exploring in a place that very, very few of us will ever visit.  (Send me!  Send me!)  

Can you find the answers to this Challenge?  

Be sure to tell us HOW you found out!  

Search on! 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Answer: Which animals are associated with what professions?

Sometimes searches are tricky... 

This week we're looking for animals that are closely linked to certain professions.  Dalmatian dogs are often thought of as "firefighter dogs."  

Seeing this kind of thing made me writeup last week's Challenge: 

Can you find an animal that's closely linked to a particular profession?  What's the animal?  What's the profession?  And what's the connection? 

This is both a fun question (which animals can you think of?), and a hard question:  HOW would you do this search. 

From looking at the comments this week, it's clear that lots of people knew things off  the top of their head.  

Jon remembered that:  lab rats / scientists or guinea pigs / scientists go together, and that canaries / coal-miners are often mentioned in the same breath.  A bit later he also came up with: corgis / Queen Elizabeth (which is clever, but not really a profession, per se). 

Ramón thought about shepherd dogs / shepherds and snakes / medicine, as well as pigeons / mail carriers.  

Remmij came up a great list:  donkey, elephant, lame ducks / politicians as well as bears, bulls / stockbrokers.  And, the remarkable:  dolphins / submariners.  

Gauche Murleau came up with sharks / lawyers.  (Not all associations need be positive!) 

Marydee recalled that librarians cats (and more generally, booksellers / cats).  

While Chris also thought of doctors / tropical fish, although this is stretching the relationship thing just a bit.  


... all of these are basically remembered by each of the readers.  Almost nobody did a search to find these things.

How would you approach this kind of a problem?  

In my case, I thought about it this way:  "What terms would people use to write about such relationships?"  and  "What patterns of language would they use?"  

Once I've figured that out, I can try to create a query that expresses that pattern. 

I started by looking at job/animal pairs that I already knew about.  Since I already knew that snakes are often used in iconography about doctors, I did this search: 

I was looking for common language expressions that I might use as queries.  If you look in the Wikipedia article about the Caduceus, you'll find phrases like "...symbol of medicine" and "...symbol of healthcare."  

That suggests to me that looking for patterns like [ "symbol of *" ] might be useful.  

So I experimented with that for a while, learning that this pattern is WAY too general.  To make it work, I had tog restrict it with additional terms like this:  

     [ "symbol of *" profession ] or [ "symbol of *" job ] 

and I found a few things (such as the pineapple as the symbol of hospitality).  But it's not quite right.  

What I really want to ask my search engine is: 

     [ Find me an animal that is symbolic of an entire profession ] 

But (currently) there's no good way to say this.  

Finding a profession / animal pair is tricky--both are difficult to describe.  So when you've got a search Challenge like this, you have to think about other ways to express it.  

So I experimented with searches like: 

     [ animal emblem profession ] 
     [ animal mascot job ] 
     [ animal symbol of vocation ] 

and then switching those terms around in various combinations.  Notice that I tried synonyms of the emblem/mascot/symbol and of the profession/job/vocation.  

They all kind-of worked, and by searching with repeated combinations, I was able to find a few more things (mostly repeats from above).  

Then I thought to try Images as a way to search for these things.  And that was surprisingly a bit more productive.  

This repeats our discovery of snakes with medicine.  

While this one: 

Shows us the rat or mouse is association with scientists.  

But here was a great one that surprised me:  teamster / horses... although it's obvious in retrospect.   

I wasn't able to find many more than the ones the incredible SRS folks already commented on.. but this was a great search task!  

Search Lessons 

1.  Use your social network.  In this case, all of the readers of SearchResearch is an impressive "hive mind" you can tap into.  You might not be a blogger, but this is one reason to create and curate your own social network.  Be at least occasionally a Twitter, G+, Facebook user:  It gives you access to people who can think very differently than you do.  That difference in perspective can be a valuable thing.  

2. Use more specific terms.  As we saw, sometimes you have to do these kinds of searches one-at-a-time, instead of looking for ambiguous terms like "profession," uses particular jobs (like "doctor") or categories (like "teamster" or "scientist") instead of a less determined term 

3. Try other modes.  In this Challenge, looking in Images was helpful.  (I also tried Videos and Books, but they didn't work out.)  But often, switching resource types can give you a great set of suggestions. 

4. Look for common language to use in a pattern. Try searching for common language expressions that show up in articles that are along the lines of what you're seking. Above, we looked at the Wikipedia article about the Caduceus and found phrases like "...symbol of medicine" and "...symbol of healthcare." From this we learned that a common term--symbol--in a common phrase like "symbol of X" can be a useful search pattern.  

I hope you enjoyed this Challenge. Your answers were excellent!  

Search on! 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Search Challenge (5/4/16): Which animals are associated with what professions?

It's time for a bit of fun... 

... and, in truth, a Challenge that's both easy... and pretty hard.  

Here's the key idea for this week.  

As you know, some animals seems to be closely linked to certain professions.  For example, the dalmatian dog is often thought of in connection with firefighters (at least in the US).  If you see a dalmatian dog (the white dog with black spots below), you think of a firefighter. 

There's an interesting reason why that's so, but I'll leave that to you to find out.  

But thinking about this larger question--HOW would you find something that's difficult to express as a search?  

The key of this week's Challenge is to see if we can find a general strategy to discover which animals are linked to particular jobs.  

Here's how I'm going to put this week's Challenge: 

Can you find an animal that's closely linked to a particular profession?  What's the animal?  What's the profession?  And what's the connection? 

I can think of a couple of professions and animal connections (and maybe you can too).  I suspect the more difficult problem here is to come up with a search query that will work to identify such things.  Bear in mind we're looking for a common relationship between an animal and the profession.  

And no, we don't want things like cow / farmer, or snake / snake milker--those are animals that are basically farm animals.  What we're looking for is something like the dog / firefighter relationship--an animal that is a symbol of the profession.

This is easy, in the sense that you probably know a couple of these already... you just have to say what they are. 

But it's hard in that I don't know how to express a query that will find such relationships.  

Can you?  

Be sure to say HOW you found your animal / profession pair.  And if you can, let us know why that animal is linked to that profession.

Search on! 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Answer: What are those smoke plumes?

When you're searching... 

... for something that has no obvious connection, and is imprecise as well, you need to leverage every bit of information given.   

Let's think about what information we have:   

Time/Date:  February 18th, 2016, in the early afternoon 

Location:  just north of Mobile, Alabama

Direction of photo: Looking south 

And then later (with the additional hint) we found out that we could pin down the time and location even more precisely: 

Time:  1:20PM Central 

Location:  where AA 2820 was at 1:20PM Central time.  

The Challenge was: 

1.  Can you identify WHY it looks like half of Alabama is on fire?  What's going on in this photo?  

What can we do to pin down the exact location?  (And why do we want to do this?  Answer:  Trust nobody, especially in their estimates of time and location...even me...)  

This isn't hard, but you need to know that there are flight tracking websites that let you enter a flight number (e.g., AA 2820) and then you can see the flight track.  The simplest query is: 

     [ flight tracker ] 

which will give you a long list of them.  I used, which also provides historical flight track data.  (I didn't want to pay to go all the way back in time, so I chose a representative flight so I could estimate the position.)  

The FlightAware system tells you what the scheduled time of departure was, and the actual time.  It tells us that it's a 90 minute flight with a scheduled departure of 12:10PM, but a common delay of around 20 minutes.  So, if the flight left at 12:20PM, the flight would be where at 1:20PM?  Answer:  It would be about 60 minutes into a 90 minute flight, or about 2/3rds of the way to Tallahassee.  In the figure below, I've taken the flight path from FlightAware and added red arrows, each exactly 1/3th of the total distance.  As you can see, the 2/3rds point is just as the flight crosses from Mississippi into Alabama.

A little map to remind you of the layout of the US southeastern states: 

So we've verified that this is the right place at 1:20PM Central on Feb 18, 2016.  

Is there any way we can verify that there were large numbers of smoky fires burning on that date?  

You could check lots of local newspapers for air quality reports, or stories about smoke in the air--but a simpler way would be find a satellite image for southern Alabama on that day.  How would you do that?

My first query was for: 

     [ satellite images smoke fire ] 

 NOAA's hazard mapping system. There's a TON of content in there, but in particular, it was reading around there that I learned about NASA’s WorldView.  It's like Google Earth with worldwide archival satellite coverage.  (When you try it, be sure to turn on the "Corrected Reflectance" layers by clicking on the eye icon on the left side of the layer.)  Once you do that, you can cruise through time and space to see remarkable images of almost any place on earth, going back in time quite a while...  Here's the way the west coast of North America looked on May 1st, a glorious day in California... and Washington... and Oregon... and Baja California...  

More to the point, we can use this same WorldView to look back in time to Feb 18th.  If there are smoke plumes, we should be able to see them, yes? 

Here's the link to the way Alabama looked at midday, Feb 18th, 2016.  (Image below. Note that I’ve turned on TrueColor; set the date, etc.)  

Notice ALL of the plumes of smoke.  There's a lot of burning going on.  

I also discovered by reading around on that NOAA site that I can also download a SMOKE or FIRE KML file from NOAA for that same date.  If you import this Feb 18th KML file into Google Earth, you'll see this display (notice that this is a Google Earth view--the file includes the NOAA logo in the upper left):  

This confirms that these really are plumes of smoke from fires.  

Now think about this:  If there really were this many wildfires in Alabama and Mississippi, you would have probably heard about them.  But I don't recall anything like this at the time, so a more plausible explanation is that they're agricultural burns.  

How can we test this?  I like Ramon's solution for this, where he used the intext: operator to require that Alabama be in the text of the web page.  

     [ smoke plumes intext:alabama february 18 2016  ] 

this finds a number of news articles covering controlled burns, tire fires, and a few wildfires. 

But an important skill is picking up the language that's used.  In this case, I read an article that talked about smoke coming from a controlled burn.  So I modified the query to be (and this is almost exactly what AlmadenMike did):  

     [ controlled burn intext:alabama february 18 2016 ] 

which leads to a number of stories about controlled burns (such as this one, at Grand Bay, AL, that got away and turned into a bigger fire).  If you lookup Grand Bay, AL, you'll see it's one of the plumes in the satellite image above.  

I also really liked AlmadenMike's extension to the search process.  He suggested that you "...add "permits" to the search terms... [this] finds a US Department of Agriculture/Forest Service website about controlled burns within local national forests, including the Conecuh NF (NE of Mobile)..."  

Nice idea.  

So I think we've shown pretty conclusively that these are mostly controlled burns,  although a few have run away from their tenders.  

Search Lessons

1.  Sometimes you have to actually know something about data resources.  To solve this Challenge efficiently, you have to know about systems like FlightTracker or FlightAware, or at least be willing to search for their coverage... and know that they keep archival data for flights around for quite a while.  

2.  Carefully reading data descriptions can often lead to other resources.  It was only by reading the text of the descriptions for the NOAA that I learned about NASA's WorldView (which I should have already known about--I won't forget it now).  

3.  Triangulation from multiple information sources is a great idea.  Here I wasn't really sure about the location of the image (over Alabama?  over Mississippi?  over Florida?)--I thought I had it right, but getting the time of the flight, and doing a quick calculation confirmed that I was right over the AL/MI border.  That was doubly confirmed when the NOAA images and KML file showed fires almost exactly where I could see them from the plane.  Each data piece fit into the whole picture... and it was all consistent.  (Notice that this worked out here--think about what you'd do if it did NOT work out?)  

For Teachers

These kinds of Challenges ("here's a picture.. what's going on?") are wonderful for developing curiosity and thinking about what information resources you can tap into to solve the Challenge.  The biggest problem that students have is that they just don't know so many resources.  Consider creating teams of students to work on "find this" Challenges--and give them a couple of days.  I predict they'll solve most of the Challenges by learning HOW to find additional information resources.  And that's the best lesson of all.  

Search on!