Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Wednesday Search Challenge: (Sept 28, 2011) What's with all the steeples?

It's been a busy couple of weeks.  I'm on a crazy / whacky travel schedule that has me visiting Boston, New York, Prague, Zurich, Hamburg, Warsaw, Dublin and London all in 2 weeks.  Why?  I'm teaching LOTS of classes and giving a fair number of press briefings. 

But I spent a day-and-a-half in Prague, which was intriguing.  It's a lovely city that seems drenched in its past, celebrating music, the arts and some remarkably inventive (and wonderful) cooking.  

On one of my runs through the city, I did an early morning jog past the Tyn Cathedral in the old town section of Prague.  It has a VERY distinctive pair of towers, each of which has a number of sub-towers, a kind of mini-steeple-ette off of the main body of the tower.  

The search question for this week:  Why so many steeples on each tower of the Tyn Church?  More specifically: Why did these 16th century builders want to make 9 steeples per tower?  Seems really difficult and expensive, so I'm willing to bet they had a reason.  Maybe it was symbolic (but symbolic of what?), maybe the architect was just really into steeples... 

Here's a close-up: 

Warning: this isn't easy.  I still don't know the answer (and I've spent at least 2 hours on this).  But maybe you'll have some insight that I haven't had yet.  If so, please write a comment in the comments below and let us all know! 

Search on! 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

No posts? What's happening?

To recap... 
Last week I wrote a pretty good Wednesday Search Challenge.  (See the previous post.)  Basically, it was: 

     Find some software / some tool that would let you create a simple animation 
     to visualize the kayak word use frequency data between the US and New Zealand. 

How hard could that be?  

Turns out that it's fairly tricky.  Yes, I can write the code to generate the animation (I did this in Javascript using the Google Charting API), but that wasn't quite what I wanted.  I was hoping for something like MS Excel, Google Spreadsheets, or maybe a special purpose animation package that would make it easy to create such a thing.  Something like this: 

But if there is, I wasn't able to find it. 

And that's really interesting... 

Why is it so hard?  (Or at least it's hard for me to find.   It's completely possible that such a package exists and I just can't figure out how to find it.  If you know an answer, please tell me!) 

Here's a speculation about why it's so hard:  We don't really have great ways to describe (and therefore search-for) applications.  When an app is well-known (or the category of app is well-known) like "text editor" or "drawing package" or "CAD modeling software," then it's reasonably straight-forward.  You can find endless text editors without much trouble.  

But how do you describe the thing I'm looking for?  It's an animation tool, with numeric inputs, to create an information visualization or an animated infographic or... well, something like that.  

Ideally, there would be some kind of canonical language one might use, some kind of common phrases and terms that we could use to search.  But if there is, I'm not sure what it might be.  

Remember my post from a couple of weeks ago about What's hard to search for?, well, let me nominate a new category of thing that's difficult to find--a tool whose name you do not know and can only vaguely describe

Normally for things like this I'd suggest using Google Suggest and Instant search to explore the space of possibilities, to grope around in the search arena in an intelligent way.  

And that's how I found Tableau, the info-viz software.  (Briefly, I was doing searches, but letting Instant complete my searches, then I'd type in an addition term and see where it went next.  I write about this process in detail soon.)  

But it didn't quite work out.  I could create  map that varied, but there was no simple way to create an animation.  I could make a slider and manually drag the slider to see the visualization update, but the frame rate didn't work out correctly and you couldn't really see the reciprocal relationship... which was sort of the point.  

So I took a bit more time and kept hunting.  No joy yet.  

That's when the review season started.  As a part of my work I get to write reviews.  LOTS of reviews--of conference papers, journal articles, book submissions, grant proposals, personnel reviews... everything!  At the moment I'm responsible for something like 102 proposals of varying kinds.  So writing in the blog is a bit slower than normal.  

I hope you'll understand.  It'll take me a bit longer than normal to get to the next installment, but so it goes.  

In the meantime, IF YOU SOLVE the mystery -- please let us know!  

Search on! 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Answer: ... not yet!

So... given the lack of response I'm hearing, I'm going to extend this particular Search Challenge over the long Labor Day weekend.

I've got a solution, but it's not especially easy, and I'd really like to find something that IS simple.  

And I have to say that I really like this challenge both because it's hard and because it's an example of a fairly common search request that is rarely expressed--how to search for a tool to get some particular thing accomplished.  

But I'll have more to say about that when we get to the solution.  

Have a great weekend--keep searching!