Friday, January 27, 2012

The fourth R--Research, and the skills we all need

We all know about the three R’s of education—reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.  The three basic skills that school have to teach… and which obviously doesn’t include spelling. 

I want to propose that there’s a 4th R we should be considering: RESEARCH. 

If you think about it, learning has changed from a school-only activity to a life-long activity.  And just as advantage accrues to the person who can learn the best and know the most, so also does the ability to research to the best of your ability. 

As Samuel Johnson said:  "Knowledge is of two kinds, we know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it."

While that’s true, but this common version of his quote usually leaves off the rest of that paragraph:  “...When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries.”   (Boswell's Life of Johnson, 1791)

In other words, even if you know how to research something, you still need to know a little bit about the skill of how to search.  In Johnson’s day that meant knowing that catalogues existed, that libraries were collections of books on topic of interest, and that the back of a book contains an index.  It also meant that you knew how to get into a library, many of which were still private and by subscription (read, “invitation”) only. 

People fluent in search and retrieval not only save time,  but are far more likely to find higher quality, more credible, more useful content.  More importantly, they can ask questions that were impossible just a few years ago.  People with these skills are effectively smarter.  

Using Google to do search is easy.  It's been designed that way.  You type something like [New York Times] into a search box and a moment later you're reading the paper.  If you search for [pizza Mountain View],  you get a list of local pizza places with phone numbers and user reviews.  

Most of the searches that Google sees in a typical day fall into this simple category where user goal is clear and the results are pretty obvious and unambiguous.  

But a significant number of searches are not.  Searchers might have a goal in mind but they can’t figure out how to express it in a way that will give them what they want.  Sometimes their search is precise, but they don’t know how to read and interpret the results.  Sometimes I’ll see searchers spending 30 minutes searching for something that should take less than 2 minutes. It drives me crazy as a researcher because I know that the searcher is missing just one small, but critical piece of information.  We try to build as much as we can into the search algorithm, but people still need to know a bit about how the web is organized (there’s no index in the back of the book) and how search engines crawl, index and respond to their queries.

In a sense, that’s my mission—to help people become better researchers, beyond just the basic skill of knowing how to make Google dance.  My goal is to help people understand the larger issues at play here—how to be a literate person now, and now to be continually learning how to be literate as changes happen in the future.  This is the idea of meta-literacy—knowing how to be literate about your own literacy.  More about this in future posts.  

BOTTOM LINE:  Research is a skill that we all take for granted, yet it’s a critical skill for our future.  As the nature of work and education changes (and that, really, is the only constant we have), we… as a teaching culture… need to bring our students up to speed on what it takes to be good searchers. 

We need to give them the skills of the 4th R—research—and all of the skills and knowledge they need to function effectively as learned searchers. 

What’s more, we’re trying to equip them with skills they can use not just now, but for every information search problem they confront now and in the future. 

Search on! 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Answer: What was Arthur Thorpe's job?

Here’s the quick answer:  Arthur A. Thorpe was an osysterman living at 1603 California St in San Francisco, 1899.  He was reknown not just for his mustache, but also for his skill at bowling (10 pins).  He’s mentioned several times in magazines and newspapers of the time for having bowled a perfect game (that is, with a score of 300—a much tougher and rarer thing in 1899 than today). 

Now, the backstory…

I was thinking about how hard (or easy) it would be to learn about the life of a person living in San Francisco at the turn of the 19th century.  I stumbled across a telephone book of SF for 1899 and started reading.  Weird, right?  But let me tell you, the directories of 1899 are VERY different than what you might think.
As you can see, people were pretty open about sharing all kinds of information about themselves.  (And you thought this was purely a Facebook phenomenon!)  As you can see, not only are some really interesting occupations listed, but if you were unemployed, your social position was listed.  Some of the more interesting jobs I noticed:  “cigar box maker”  “fancy card writer” “engrosser of resolutions”  “Dow steam pump operator”… but then again, you get the occasional “widow” or “unemployed” along with the usual bakers, machinists, pressmen and telephone operators. 

In my search path, the key was to realize that (A) I needed to find some master listing of people and their jobs, and  (B) directories in the late 1800’s would list the person’s job title along with their street address. 

So my first query was for [San Francisco directory 1899]  My hope was to find a master directory of everyone living in SF in 1899, and that's why I included the term "directory" in the query--that was a description of the kind of thing I needed.  

This led me pretty quickly to the Crocker-Langley directoryfor the year 1899.    and one click there to the full-text of the document.  A quick Control-F in that text document (once it finished loading… it’s pretty long) showed me that Arthur A Thorpe was an oysterman working for the Darbee and Immel Oyster Company.   (Note that Arthur Thorpe was the 41st in the list.)  

As good as this is, I really wanted to see the original scanned version.  A bit more searching for the Crocker-Langley directory [Crocker-Langley directory 1899 filetype:pdf] lead me to the PDF of the scanned version. (I took a bit of a chance by using the filetype:pdf restriction.  I was just guessing that someone would have scanned it.  I was right.)   It’s much more satisfying to read than the somewhat errorful OCRed text-only version.

The page with Thorpe’s entry  is shown along with an ad for “Kellogg’s Whisky: Cure la grippe”… somethings never  change.
How many oystermen were there at the time?  If you just do a Control-F in Chrome on the text file, you’ll see there are 48 hits for the word “oysterman” – so there were at least 48 such people listed in the directory.  (However, I also noticed that while there are people listed as “Chinatown Tour Guides” for their employment, there are very few Chinese names in the directory… so I suspect that more than a few people didn’t make it into the book.) 

I wanted to estimate the total number of oystermen on the bay living in San Francisco at the time, so I then did a quick search for [ “oysterman” OR “oystermen” OR “oyster man” “San Francisco” 1900 ] hoping to find a resource that would discuss their lives.  Sure enough, I found Bulletin 123 from the California Department of Fish and Game(1963) 
A compelling text about the history of the oyster industry.  (I’m not kidding—it’s really interesting to read how the Dept of Fish and Game hoped to exterminate bat stingrays in the San Francisco bay ecosystem!  It’s a look back to a far simpler view of fisheries management.) 

But within that text you’ll find that San Francisco bay produced around 2.7 million pounds of oyster meat.  Now you have to take into account that there were oyster beds all around the bay (including some very close to the Dumbarton landing, not far from where the Googleplex is located today!), so just 48 oystermen seems a bit small. 

It’s difficult to get an exact count, but a bit of search into the 1900 census (available at shows that in 1900, California as a whole had 1,969 people listed as “fishermen and oystermen.”  Other document suggest that San Francisco was about half of all California fisheries output.  So  a good ballpark estimate of oystermen at work in San Francisco is somewhere between 48 and 123 (my back-of-the-envelope calculation: 1969/2 = 985, the  number of SF workers.   Guessing that oysters are 25% of workers in the fishery in 1899, is 985/4 = 246.  If oystermen in SF were around 50% of all the oystermen in the greater Bay area, then 246/2 = 123).

This is very much in line with the Dept. of Fish and Game report mentioned above (from 1963).   In their section on oystering in San Francisco bay between 1875 and 1910, they write: “Reports on the San Francisco Bay oyster industry state that about 100 men worked on the beds (Hittell, 1882, p. 364; Townsend, 1893, p. 358; Wilcox, 1895, p. 207). Townsend says that this number was increased considerably during peak activity, probably during harvesting for the winter holiday season and during seed planting in the early spring and fall. About 90 percent of the men were single, itinerant  workers  of Scandinavian origin, mainly recruited from the San Francisco waterfront.” 

That suggests that not all of the oystermen would have been in the directory.  So our estimate of 48 – 123 oystermen in San Francisco in 1899 is pretty reasonable. 

Now, to find out more about Art Thorpe’s life, his hobbies and such, I turned to Google Books with the search [ “Arthur Thorpe” SanFrancisco 1899..1905 ] (I used the date range operator to give me hits around the 1899 time and to exclude hits from other Art Thorpes later.) 

That took me to the magazine “Western Field: The sportsmans’ magazine of the West” (vol 3) and there I found that he was a crack bowler. There I found both his picture and the following text:
He’s mentioned throughout several more publications as a master bowler, even gaining a mention in Hawaiian newspapers for his feat of bowling a perfect game and a bit of notoriety for his high stakes bowling games in 1904.  (Link to SanFrancisco Call newspaper archive for 1904) 
Search lessons:  There are many to take away from this particular challenge.  But let me highlight just one for today: When you're looking for a particular kind of thing, you need to include the term that best describes it.  In this case, we used the word "directory" to get to the San Francisco directory from 1899.  Without using that word, it's really tough to find your way to another collection that will work nearly as well.  
So, when you get stuck on locating a particular kind of document, consider adding in a descriptive term (e.g., "directory" or "yearbook" or "album") as a way to provide additional context to the search.  With it, you'll likely be much more successful! 

Search on! 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Wednesday Search Challenge (Jan 25, 2012): What was Art Thorpe's job?

Forgive me if I ask you another question about historic San Francisco.  But I ran across this intriguing man in the mists of San Francisco history, and I can't pass up the chance to teach you another great search trick in the process.  

Meet Arthur A. Thorpe.  He lived in San Francisco at the turn of the century... the one before the last one.  To make things easier for you, I'll even tell you he lived in SF in 1899.  

We know he enjoyed several hobbies (I'll let you figure out one of them), had a pretty nice handlebar mustache, centrally parted hair, and had an occupation that was once common on the Bay, but is VERY rare these days.

Can you figure out what Art's job was during 1899?  

And, for extra credit, can you estimate how many other people in San Francisco had that job as well? 

When you post your answer, please include the URL where you found the answer, the search path you used to figure it out, and how long it took you to get to the secret! 

I'm guessing that this is difficulty level 3.  (This is on my informal Russellian scale where the max difficulty is 5.  Level 1 is a simple 1-query search that takes less than 30 seconds, while a 5 is a full day's worth of work with many queries along the way.)  

Search on! 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Search strategies and tactics

First, let’s get some definitions in place:  An information goal is your objective—what you want to find out.  It can be very specific or very broad; simple (“what time is sunrise today?”) or complex (“what’s the best internet service provider for my startup in Bangalore?”). 

And now, let’s talk about what a strategy really is…

                - a search strategy is the high-level plan you create and 
                                                        follow to achieve your objective
                - a search tactic is what you actually do to follow the strategic plan

Obviously, there’s a lot of back and forth between these; the dividing line isn’t bright and clear, but more of a slippery slope.   Your goal might shift based on what you learn.  Your tactics might vary as you find roadblocks or problems in your way.  Those little problems that come up might cause you to re-think your strategy—making you pull up for a minute and think of another way to approach the problem.  (One way to approach the problem is to re-define your goal…) 

For instance… Assume your goal is to find out what the role of mercury was in gold mining during the California 1849 Gold Rush.  Your goal is to find out what is was used for, how much was used, and what happened to it after it was used? 

Sample Search Strategy: 
Your search strategy might be to find some secondary sources (Wikipedia, histories of California) and get a quick overview.  
Then, you might drill down into primary sources to see what they said at the time.  (You might check newspapers sites for archival information about the Gold Rush, locating a bunch of resources.)  
You’re probably going to download them, then process carefully, looking for leads to other companies and people that were involved in importing, selling or using mercury. 
From that set of leads, you can expand your search to include specific archival searches for information about quicksilver companies in northern California, etc etc etc. 

That’s one thing about a strategy—you start with a more-or-less vague strategic plan that gets turned into tactical action over time.  In other words, your search tactics then implement your strategy. 

So… getting back to the point of this post, I originally asked “What search strategies do you use?”  And I got back a bunch of answers; many of which I would consider tactics.  Let’s look at what was posted…  (I’ve re-written much of what people actually posted for clarity.) 


1.  Scoping – limiting search to a particular kind/place/genre (example: using site: to limit)

2. Use left-side of Google search page to do specific filters (e.g., translated pages, image search using color)

3.  Use Google Video to search ALL of video (rather than just YouTube)

4. Use another search engine when stuck.  Be aware of other search engine capabilities (e.g., Alpha) and limits (IMDB, Twitter)

5. Know how to use synonyms in search.

6. Use Image search to find definition of unfamiliar terms  (e.g., [ polynya ] or [ planetary gear ] ) 

7. Imagine the way in which the answer to your question might be presented (chart? Infographic? Visualization? List? Album?).  Use those terms as “context terms” in your search. 

Strategies/Strategic knowledge:

1. When being literal isn’t working, try a more descriptive search (that is, use “context terms” to shift your search)  (example: searching for [ free books on kindle fire ] while on Amazon)

2. Know when to ask someone else for help.  (And have a developed social network of experts and people smarter than you.)

3. Recognize when you’re getting stuck in your search (e.g., when you’re getting the same results over and over). 

4. Speak aloud to articulate what you’re really looking for (aka, the Teddy Bear strategy)

5. Walk away and come back later. 

6.  Recognize that language changes over time and that searches for information in history might use very different terms for the same idea.   (Example: use Abyssinia instead of Ethiopia when searching pre-1920)

7. Vocabulary is important – if you’re having a tough time, then you’re probably going to have to expand your vocabulary!   (e.g., while looking to mount a chin-up bar, needed to find a widget to attach the pipe…. Figure out that’s call a “pipe flange” – go from there)

8.  Learn something new: For new search/research topics, plan on learning something along the way… new terms, new concepts. 

9.  Don’t give up after first 3 tries

10. Try different combinations of search terms

11. Be willing to recognize that you might be in the wrong place

12. Backtrack through references – If someone’s name keeps popping up, search for their original work

13. Identify the most unique searchable terms. Look for "individualistic" terms (that is, low frequency terms that are clearly on-topic). 

14. ALWAYS plan to double-check to find a second (or third) source for important facts

15. Start broad, learn a bit, then refine your search once you know the direction you want to go. 

16. Start with an overview article on the topic.  (Wikipedia is great for this.).  Follow links outward from there to other places you’ll want to go.

In posts ahead, we’ll dive into the details of these strategies (and maybe come up with few more)!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Answer: Which steeple is oldest?

I knew this was a bit harder, but a good number of readers managed to solve it without too much difficulty (although the average time-to-solution went up significantly).  

For me, the key to this was trying to figure out each of the steeples by using Image search. (I just saved each image to my computer, then uploaded them into Google’s Search By Image. Link for a description of how to do Search by Image.)   

Of the four steeples, only one worked with Search by Image—that was for steeple #3.  From that match, I knew it was St. Michaelis Church in Hamburg, Germany, dating from 1786.  But what about the other steeples?  I knew nothing about them whatsoever and Image search wasn’t working. 

So I tried testing a reasonable assumption about the image collection.  While they could be steeples from all over the world, I was hoping that they all might be near each other, maybe even in the same sity.  Since they all looked to be Germanic in construction, I tried doing regular Google Image Search with [Hamburg steeple] and started scanning the pictures. 

Sure enough, there they all were—slightly different views, different times of day, but all recognizably the same. 

Search lesson:  When you’re stuck, making a key assumption to reduce the size of the search space is often a good idea.  Be careful though—you don’t want to get stuck in the rathole of an assumption you made that isn’t panning out. 

Luckily, in this case, it worked out perfectly.  I was able to easily match the photos to the images in the search results:
       #1 as St. Catherine’s Church,  #2 as The Rathaus, 
       #3 as St. Michaelis, and #4 as St. Nikolai.

And now for the next question—which is the oldest?

While they’re all fairly old, they’ve also all undergone significant reconstruction over the years.  So the problem turns into a bit of an “Abraham Lincoln’s Axe” problem.  (You know, if you have Lincoln’s axe, then replace the handle, and later replace the head, do you still really have Lincoln’s Axe?) 

For churches like this, especially ones in Hamburg (which was largely leveled during Operation Gomorrah),   the “date of construction” turns into a question of “when was it started” and “when was it reconstructed” and, just as importantly, “when was the steeple built onto the body of the church?”  Sometimes the steeples were added much later. 

Doing the obvious searches for each church, you can find the following:

#1: St. Catherine.  The church body has parts dating back to 1256, but the steeple seems to date to 1657.  The church was restored between 1950 and 1957. 

#2: Rathaus.  This version of the building was started in 1886 and opened in 1897.  It too was destroyed in the air raids and rebuilt afterwards (I assume during the 1950s, but wasn’t able to confirm this date). 

#3: St. Michaelis.  This is the 4th or 5th church on this site (depending on how you count), but the current architectural version was built in 1786, then rebuilt after a fire in 1906 (be careful with that soldering!), and rebuilt again after the war in 1952. 

#4: St. Nikolai. (Or St. Nicholas, in English) Started as a chapel that opened in 1195, that church burned down in the great fire of 1842, then rebuilt in a neo-Gothic style with a steeple that reached 486 feet.  Also destroyed in the war by Operation Gomorrah, it was never rebuilt, but left as a semi-ruined hulk as a reminder of the devastation of war. 

So.. which steeple is oldest? 

If you go by “original building date,” it would have to be St. Nikolai.  If you go by “date of last steeple reconstruction,” that would also have to be St. Nikolai, as the steeple was completed in 1874 and then never reconstructed after the war (although structural work has been done to make sure it doesn’t collapse). 

The truth of this particular story is that I took these photos while I was in Hamburg late in 2011.  I was steeple-hunting (a hobby a bit like train-spotting) when I saw St. Nikolai from about 1 mile away.  I couldn’t figure out what it was, and when I finally made it to the site, I was struck by the place—beautiful, horrible, sacred and profaned.  It’s a moving testament to peace in a lovely city. 

Search on! 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Wednesday search challenge: Which steeple is the oldest?

Today, a slightly harder puzzle for you to solve.

Below are four pictures of steeples that I've encountered over the years.  I'm quite taken with steeples, finding them fascinating, and love to take photos of them as I travel around.  They're tough to build, full of symbolic meaning, and seem to always have a good story associated with them.

But today I have a simple question--Which of these is the oldest steeple?  Can you identify each steeple and give its construction date?  

How hard can that be?

When you leave your answer, be sure to tell us how long it took you to find the answer!  (And if you could NOT find the answer, that would be useful to know as well.)

Search on!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Google Alerts--standing queries to monitor the world

I don't know about you, but I really don't have as much time as I'd like to scan all of the new journals, web publication sites and News feeds.  Instead, I rely on Google Alerts to keep me up-to-date and in-the-know.

Google Alerts are basically "standing queries."  You write a Google query, then decide how often you want it to run and over what body of content (news, web sites, etc.).

Since it's a regular Google query, you can use any of the normal advanced query operators.  For instance, I have an Alert that is the query [ "Daniel M Russell" Google ] -- that way I can follow anytime my name is mentioned in the NYtimes.  With just a few site: limited queries, I can pretty much track just the sources I'm interested in following (and thereby avoiding all of the other Dan Russell's in the world).  Note that I use the long form of my name since I know that's the writing convention style of the NYTimes (they always use the long form of your name).  At other sites I might use a slightly different query.  

I might do an Alert query such as [ Daniel M Russell ] to track any mentions of my name on an EDU site.  This is awfully handy.  Since I give a lot of talks at universities, I can track anything published on an academic website that mentions my work (e.g., student posts after I give a talk there).  

Note you can vary the kind of content that's searched (web, news, video, blogs, discussions, books) and vary how often it's fed to you (as-it-happens, once-a-day, once-a-week).

Now, what I'm really interested in... is how YOU use Alerts.  Do you have them set to monitor some particular aspect of your work?  Personal interests?  Also, how important are the Alerts to what you do?  

I know that in some cases, military families set up Alerts to monitor any possible news items about their loved ones.  (See NPR's recent story about the Darkhorse Battalion, and their use of Alerts to watch for possible news stories about their sons and daughters in Afghanistan.)  

If you're a teacher, a library or journalist--well, ANYONE who uses Alerts--I'd love to hear your story.  

Search on!  

Friday, January 13, 2012

Answer to "Who is she, and what about that hotel and that chef?"

The short answer:  Well... there IS no short answer, but she's Margaretha Zelle, aka Mata Hari; arrested at the Hotel Plaza Athénée, where the executive chef is Phillipe Marc, who is of French citizenship. The Hotel was used in an episode of Sex and the City, with a scene of Carrie Bradshaw stepping out onto the balcony wearing a black and white dress.

That sounds simple, but read the following story... 

When I started this Search Challenge, I thought it was going to be pretty straight-forward. I knew that Margaretha Geertruida Zelle-McLeod had a complex life, but a straightforward death.  Arrested by French police, tried under suspicious (and not especially legal or honest circumstances), then executed by firing squad.

But I didn’t know that Margarethe’s story of her life as Mata Hari would be so interwoven with myth after her death. Though I should have known better...

To pursue this challenge... It’s pretty easy to look up Margarethe Zeller and find that her stage name was Mata Hari.  (Don't get lost at this step: She has another interesting interesting life to read about!)  

But when you start looking for the story of her arrest, it quickly becomes tricky.  

I read the Wikipedia entry on Mata Hari, found the name of the hotel, and then second-sourced that version of her arrest story elsewhere.  This is when things started to get tricky.  

Version 1 (English Wikipedia):  Mata Hari is arrested for suspicion of spying on February 13, 1917 at her room in the Hotel Plaza Athénée.  That’s the EN Wikipedia version.  Many texts agree (e.g., the book “Mata Hari” by Sam Waagenaar (1965), and several others)

Version 2 (French Wikipedia): BUT... the French Wikipedia entry says: "Six semaines après son retour de Madrid le 13 février 1917, le contre-espionnage français fit une perquisition dans sa chambre de l'hôtel Elysées Palace sur les Champs-Élysées (actuellement siège de la banque HSBC France).”   ("Six weeks after her return from Madrid February 13, 1917, the French-espionage made ​​against a search of her room at the Hotel Elysées Palace on the Champs-Elysees (currently the headquarters of HSBC France).")

That would indicate that she was arrested at the Hotel Elysées!  Ooops!  The English and French Wikipedia entries disagree.    

There’s support for this elsewhere.  According to Shipman’s book (Femme fatale: love, lies, and the unknown life of Mata Hari,  2007), Mata Hari had, by the time of her arrest “moved out of the Plaza for the cheaper Castiglione hotel and then to the even cheaper Hotel Elysée.” The Mata Hari museum in the Netherlands (a place with, presumably no axe to grind) says that  “On 13 February 1917 she was arrested in her room at the Elysées Palace Hotel.”

There is lots of support for both versions--both hotels seem to have credibility as the arrest location. The question is, which one is right?  To further confuse things, there are other variations.

Version 3:  The BBC has it that she was captured on a train near Paris.  

I can go on like this for a while. (I don't want to tell you how long I spent reading about Mata Hari.)
It all gets a bit funny when you compare the different accounts since it’s clear that her story has had lots of.. um... enhancement over time.  

“In February 1917, a French judge and a dozen police officers barged into Suite 113 in a luxurious hotel on the Champs Elysees [the Elysee Palace]. The beautiful female occupant appeared - naked, according to one account - and handed around chocolates in a captured German helmet.”

Surely, Mata Hari didn't really need 12 police officers AND a judge to arrest her. There's something more to this story than just a simple espionage arrest.  

In other versions of the story, she was either naked at her arrest AND execution, blew a kiss to the firing squad beforehand, or was wearing an elegant gray outfit that she had made for the occasion.

You know things are getting whacked when some stories have her in Room 131, while others have her in Suite 113.  She was nude either at her arrest, or her execution, or both.  

As they say, we must go deeper.  The only way to resolve this is by looking for the original arrest report.  How are we going to get THAT?  

It turns out that the original report is quoted in the book, Mata Hari: songes et mensonges, by Fred Kupferman (2005).  He wrote this from France while looking at original documents.  

From the official police report : 

"La fille Zelle Marguerite, dite Mata Hari, habitant au Plaza Palace Hôtelp, de religion protestante, née en Hollande le 7 août 1876, taille 1,75 m, sachant lire et écrire, est prévenue d’espionnage et de complicité d’intelligence avec l’ennemi, dans le but de favoriser ses...”  

Okay.  It’s the “Plaza Palace Hotel,” which I take is the same as the current  Hotel Plaza Athénée.  

NOW... we can figure out the rest.  

Or.. can we?

When I wrote this question, I'd done a search and found that Alain Ducasse was the Executive Chef. After all, there's a restaurant at the Hotel Plaza Athénée with his name on it. His own website mentions that he "entered the Hotel Plaza in 2000."

A quick check on Wikipedia for Ducasse's biography, and--voila!--we find the newspaper article saying that he switched his citizenship to Monaco for tax reasons.

I'd been stung by the difficulty of Mata Hari, though, so I triple-checked my source with a simple query: [ executive chef Hotel Plaza Athénée ] That led me to the hotel's own website, which says that he's the executive chef.

Except I did a little more clicking around on the hotel web site...

I ALSO found this page on the Hotel web site that says Phillipe Marc is the executive chef... and that this position was given to him by Alain Ducasse!

More contradictory stories.

The question now is, who's the current executive chef? Ducasse (Monaco) or Marc (France)?

When checking on current employment, a handy trick to know is to check other "professional" sites. When I found Phillipe Marc on LinkedIn, I figured I was done. His listing is "executive chef at the Hotel Plaza Athénée."  

And now, going back to Ducasse's website, it's pretty clear he's the "executive-executive" chef. He's covering not only the Athénée, but about a dozen other places as well.

Final analysis: Ducasse (French) is guy doing the work at Athénée.

I'll save the Extra Credit for my next post. (Luckily, THAT wasn't too hard!)

Search lessons:  There are many morals one can take from this tale... but the big one for me is that myths tend to amplify over time.  And in the age of the web, it's too easy to copy/paste stories from one place to another.  Take note when you see the same text over-and-over again... that suggests poor scholarship on someone's part, and you should be suspicious.  

And when you're trying to run down the details of someone's life (details that, if salacious, nearly always tend to be exaggerated!), you have to have multiple very different sources.  The best sources are the primary sources, as in this case, the police report.  I'd be happier if I could see the original report, but what I found is pretty good.  

Seach on!  Ever more deeply... 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wednesday Search Challenge (1/11/12): Who is she, and what about that hotel and that chef??

In our continuing series of remarkable women in remarkable places at remarkable times, meet Margaretha Zelle.  
She was a bit of a free-spirit, widely known for her exoticism, her willingness to be au naturel at a time when that was a tad scandalous, and she was equally well-known for her terpsichorean talents.  

She had a bit of a complicated passport, born in the Netherlands, but living for some time in Asia, and visiting much of Europe. 

Unfortunately, she was arrested for treason at a hotel while in Paris, tried and then executed by firing squad. 

Today, at this same hotel, the current executive chef also has a complex passport.  He’s a bit of a celebrity chef who is also well travelled and has an exotic country as his home.  But he has not, so far as I know, posed au naturel, but I have no doubt that he has served Asperges au Naturel in his fine dining establishment.  

Our question for today:  What is the citizenship of the current executive chef at the hotel where Margaretha was arrested? 

It's a bit of detective work to follow the chain.  But it's of medium difficulty.  Be sure to say how long it took you to figure it out! 

For extra credit, what TV series used this famous hotel for a set?  

And for BONUS extra credit, what color dress was the lead actress wearing when she stepped out onto the balcony and first saw the Eiffel Tower? 

Search on! 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What is AND about, really?

One question I hear quite a bit is this: Don't we have to teach the basics of Boolean search to our students? 

The answer, from a Google perspective is this:  We teach Boolean searching only for using traditional database systems.  

Here's why.  

Google queries let you use OR freely between terms.  It's basically a way for you to control your own synonyms.  A search like [ "mountain lion" OR cougar habitat ]  will look for [ "mountain lion" habitat ] OR [ cougar habitat ]  and then rank order the results.  Synonyms like "puma" or "painter" will be pushed farther down in your results list.  In effect, your query is pulling up those synonyms to a higher place in the results.  You'll still get terms like "puma" in the results, but they're farther down on the list.  

So, OR basically tells Google that these terms are synonyms.  Note also that parentheses are dropped from the query.  What this means is that you group your OR terms together (e.g, [lungs OR pleural OR respiration systems] without using complicated sets of parens.  Terms that are in an OR list (e.g, [a OR  b OR c   w OR x OR y OR z] ) are all synonyms for terms within that list.  Thus, a b c are all synonyms, while w x y z are all considered as synonyms for each other.  

Realistically, I use ORs when I have particular synonyms in mind that I want Google to use.  For example: [ "high pile" OR fleece OR polarfleece jacket ] asks for 3 different synonyms for the same concept... the ones I want Google to use.  

What if I don't use OR?  

Then you're implicitly ANDing the search terms together.  Except it's not really an AND.   

So then, what is AND?  

For Google, AND is basically a no-op.  That is, it's just another word that you can search for--it doesn't affect the way the query is handled at all.  You can see this for yourself.  Compare the differences in the results of these queries in the image below: 

                    #1 [ screening injury ]   #2 [ screening and injury ]    #3 [ screening AND injury ] 

You can see that #1 (with no AND or and) is searching for documents that have both the terms in it. That's an implicit AND.  If it were a Boolean AND, then both terms would HAVE to be in the document.  Thing is, for other searches (say, [ xeric redemption plangent VXII ] ), then you'll get pages that may not have all of the search terms on that page, but might have synonyms or other variants of the terms.  If you want "Verbatim Search," you can get that (see my post on Verbatim)

And if you compare results #2 and #3 above, you'll see that the term 'and' is just another search term in the query.  That's why it's bolded in the 3rd result of panels #2 and #3.  

Make sense?   

To summarize:  OR gives you specific control over the synonyms that are being searched for; everything else is implicitly ANDed together.  Google will try its best to find documents that have all of the search terms in your query, but it will try synonyms and spell-corrections in an effort to do what you really meant (but only after everything else has failed).  

I don't know about you, but this "trying other queries after everything else has failed" approach has saved me on multiple occasions.  Google's synonymization is pretty extensive; it's part of what makes the search results so robust.  

Search on!