Monday, October 12, 2015

Answer: What does this sign indicate?

Mysterious signs... 

... are everplace in our lives; this just happens to be one that I got curious about.  And as it goes with human cognition, once I saw this sign while running, now I'm seeing it just about everywhere I go.  More generally, once you've solved a Search Challenge like this, you'll start to see LOTS of signs in the world that you do not recognize.  One of the skills to learn in this Challenge is how to identify those previously unknown signs and symbols.  

Let's start with the sign...  

As I said, it's just out in the middle of a field near a nice trail.  

Then, looking south east from this marker, I saw the following hillside:  

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?  

What's the sign indicate?  To solve this, I right clicked on the image (or Control+click) to get the URL for the image.  I want to get the EXIF metadata from this image, and my first search after copying the image URL is for:  [ exif metadata viewer ] (Remember this from an earlier SRS post?)  The first one on my results list is Jeffrey's EXIF viewer.  

When I drop the URL into the box, I see this: 

and if you scroll down far enough, the app shows the map location.  But here is also the "Location guess from the coordinates"  (Clarkia Trail, Redwood City) and the lat/long:  37.461619, -122.282336.  

I just drop those into Google Maps and see: 

Now click on the "Earth" view button (lower left) to see what this place really looks like: 

The red bubble is the location of the camera when I took the picture.  If you zoom in, you can see the shadows of the sign... (number 1), and of another sign right beside it (number 2).  

Now... what's going on there?  What could those signs indicate?  

My first query was: 

     [ Clarkia Sunset trail signs ] 

which gives a nice set of results, the 5th of which is: 

This looks interesting--maybe it's what we're looking for in Challenge question #3!  

This article tells us that: 

"Pacific Gas and Electric has begun hydrostatic pressure testing on the pipeline located in Edgewood County Park and Natural Preserve and will continue until mid-November, according to San Mateo County Parks Department officials.
Work will take place in three locations along the Sunset, Edgewood and Serpentine trails and at the Clarkia trail junction. The park’s Sunset Trailhead will serve as the access point for project crew and equipment. Pipeline testing is expected to be completed in mid-November. Trails will be open during the project. However, periodic trail closures will occur when equipment, including PG&E and contractor trucks, must be moved. Signs will be posted on trails when this occurs, according to the Parks Department." 

From this we get two big clues about the Challenge:  First, that the sign in question might well indicate the presence of a gas pipeline, and second, that they will be posting signs when this happens.  Note that the date of the posting is August 27, 2015--not that long before I took the photo.  

Can we find a map of the gas pipelines? 

     [ PG&E gas pipeline map ] 

takes us quickly to their interactive gas pipeline map.  Here, I've zoomed into the Edgewood Park area.  Take a look:  

FWIW, this is as close as the PG&E map will let me zoom. But you can see that there are 2 pipelines going right through the intersection of the Clarkia and Sunset trails.

So now we know that there are gas pipelines there, and that work is currently going on to test them.  Let's double check to see if that diagonal orange/white sign actually means what we think: 

     image search:  [ orange white stripe sign gas pipeline ] 

leads us to a page that comments on these markers.  "The markers, 10-foot poles with an orange and white striped “paddle,” are placed in agricultural areas in particular, and indicate the approximate location of the underground pipeline, serving as a reminder for people to be careful when working nearby. The paddle markers are aimed at providing a more visible line of sight indicator for both landowners and PG&E. The paddle part points downward to the location of the pipeline."  (These markers are important.  More than one disaster has happened because a construction crew dug up a high-pressure gas transmission line.)  

By doing a simple follow-up search, we can learn a lot about the pipeline through Edgewood Park.  

     [ PG&E gas pipeline Edgewood Park ] 

We can learn the numbers, and again, from a Friends Of Edgewood Newsletter:  

"PG&E is required by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to perform occasional safety testing on their pipelines. In the case of Line 109, the older of the two lines that run through Edgewood, this testing consists of removing gas from a segment of the line, then filling it with clean hydrant water, pressurizing it to 150% of the normal gas pressure, and assessing its integrity. This procedure is called hydrostatic pressure testing, or simply hydrotesting.
In order to do this test, PG&E needs to access the pipeline by digging at 3 different locations inside the park (and at a 4th location just outside the park in Woodside).
2 of the digs are 6’x6’ “sniff” holes that we expect will create minimal disturbance, but the third dig is a much larger “bell” hole that will cause a greater impact. Referring to, the locations are: 
First sniff hole. PG&E refers to this location as Location C. It is at the intersection of the Clarkia and Sunset Trails in map quadrant L-11...." 

(Emphasis mine.)  Their annotated map is at the bottom of this page: 

From the Friends Of Edgewood Newsletter.

Now, what about the 2 trails?  By looking at the Earth view up close, you can see that these are the tracks of pipelines 109 and 132.  

Just out of curiosity, I looked up [ PG&E gas pipeline 132 ] and discovered a PG&E map showing where it runs, along with some color coding to indicate if it's been tested recently, or if it's under review.  Somewhat disconcertingly, both of these pipelines run within a couple of blocks of my house!  (And worse, they're a couple of places marked in orange, meaning "Pipeline segments in high consequence area under review. Good to know they're testing these pipes!)  

Section excerpted from PG&E map

But I digress.  We've found the answers.  The sign is a marker for a high-pressure gas pipeline owned by PG&E.  The two trails are the access roads for pipelines 109 and 132.  And the caution signs on the trails are to mark the presence of sniff holes so the testing can proceed. 

Search Lessons:  

1. EXIF metadata is your friend.  Especially for photos that are in the middle-of-nowhere, grabbing the metadata (such as through Jeffrey's metadata viewer) will get you started.  Once you have the lat-long you can... 

2. Make use of places and names found on the maps.  In this case, we used the name of the park (Edgewood) and the trails (Clarkia and Sunset) to find other articles about work going on in that location.  Note that we also checked the date of publication and when the work was going on.  (It would have been less helpful if the newsletter had been from 2 years ago, but we were lucky in that it was current.)  

3. Image search for a marker is easy, especially if you know what kind of thing it's marking, OR the company name.  Interestingly, search-by-image was difficult to do with this image.  I tried various clipping / cropping and nothing really worked well.  But searching with a very descriptive query, [ orange white stripe sign gas pipeline ], actually worked very well.  

This was a great Challenge.  Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did! 

Search on! 

P.S.  And just as a bit of ground truth, here's a picture of the OTHER sign (sign #2 in the above Google Earth image).  We were right!  

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!