Friday, June 29, 2012

"Wishin' for a definition" rap

My friend Matt Kane does these marvelous Search Education raps from time to time.  (He's the force behind the Santa Rap last holiday season.)  Here's his latest effort on the utility of the  [ define ]  search feature.  


"Power searching with Google" online class

A still from one of the class videos
Regular readers of this blog already know many of the methods I'll be teaching in our upcoming "Power Searching with Google" class.  I've seen your comments: You already know the shortcuts--e.g., using the search box as a calculator or finding local movie showtimes by typing [movies] and your zip code. 

BUT there's more. 

And I'm willing to bet that there's someone you know who doesn't know all this stuff.   

Enter: Power Searching with Google, a free, online, community-based course showcasing these techniques and how you can use them to solve everyday problems. 

Our course is aimed at teaching you to find what you need faster, no matter how you currently use search.  Do you know how to search for and read pages written in languages you’ve never even studied? Identify the location of a picture your friend took during his vacation a few months ago? How about finally identifying that green-covered book about gardening that you’ve been trying to track down for years? 

We'll cover all this and more in six 50-minute classes. 

Lessons will be released daily starting on July 10, 2012, and you can take them according to your own schedule during a two-week window, alongside a worldwide community. We'll have literally thousands of students taking the class at once.  So here's your chance to be part of a much larger learning community.  

The lessons include interactive activities to practice new skills, and many opportunities to connect with others using Google tools such as Google Groups, Moderator and Google+, including Hangouts on Air, where world-renowned search experts will answer your questions on how search works. Googlers will also be on hand during the course period to help and answer your questions in case you get stuck. 

Power Searching with Google blends the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) learning format pioneered by Stanford and MIT with our social and communication tools to create what we hope is a true community learning experience. 

Register here on the course homepage

By the end of this course, you'll know several new techniques that will make you a Google Power Searcher and help you find out information about whatever you can imagine—from how to prepare for a new family pet to where moss grows on Stonehenge or how to grow katniss in your garden. Sign up now!  (Or at least forward this post to a friend who really should take such a class!) 

Hope to see you online.  

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Answer: Do you have X-ray vision?

What kind of trees?  Answer: Orange trees

Extra credit answer:  They were first planted on 28 January 1534.  

How to solve:  I took the easy way out and did the most obvious thing.  I just zoomed in on the sign over the door.  (Yeah, I know a lot of you did Search-by-Image, which also works.  I’m just taking the simplest route here.) 

Some very clever folks recognized the flags as those of Spain and Catalonia, which would confirm the identity and location of this image.  It’s clearly the “Palau de Generalitat,” a simple search leads quickly to the Wikipedia page.  (It means: "Palace of the Generality," that is, the government of Catalonia.)  

After reading the page, I just searched the page for the word "trees," and voila!

This leads to a match in the photo gallery section of the page with one image labeled "Courtyard of the orange trees (Pati dels Tarongers)."

Another search for [ Pati dels Tarongers ]

Leads to the "Viquipèdia" (that is, the Catalan Wikipedia) page for "Pati dels Tarongers."

Unfortunately for us, the results are in Catalan.  Luckily, it’s a quick step to look for 
[ Google Translate ] and then drop in the URL to get the English translation of the "Viquipèdia" page for "Pati del Tarongers."  

The History section of the translated page tells the story: "The first planting in the garden of Palau was 24 orange(s), the 28 January of 1534, during the three years of Dionysius of Carcassonne."

A few readers noted that there are TWO courtyards in the Palau--and that's correct.  See the following aerial image: 

As you can guess, I took the picture from the lower right of this image (in the plaza) aiming towards the dome.  (Look carefully and you can see the shadows of the flags.)  

The first courtyard is an atrium, a simple, square opening at the entrance.  The larger, irregularly shaped courtyard are where the orange trees are kept.  If zoom in to 100%, you can actually see their shadows as well. 

Talk about X-ray vision! 

Search lesson:  Start simple, then keep following the trail.  Even if it takes you to another language, there's always Google Translate to help out!  

Next week... a much harder puzzle!  Stay tuned. 

Wednesday search challenge (6/27/12): Do you have X-ray vision?

Since so many people seemed to enjoy a difficult task, today I’m going to ask if you can develop X-ray vision with this image.

I took this picture while on a recent trip somewhere in the world.  The question for today is simple—look through the façade of this building and tell me….

Question:  What kind of trees are planted in the courtyard behind the entrance to this building?

Tomorrow I’ll reveal how I found the answer.  

For extra credit:  What date were trees of this kind first planted?   

As usual, please tell us HOW you found the answer and HOW LONG it took you to find it!  

Search on!

P.S.  Special announcement:  I'm really pleased to let everyone know that I'm teaching a special online "Power Searching with Google" class beginning on July 10th.  The class will be 6 classes long and featuring short videos, lots of examples and more search activities.  If you like this blog's Search Challenge feature, you'll probably enjoy the class.  

If you'd like, register at Power Searching With Google Registration.  Hope to see you online! 

Monday, June 25, 2012

My talk at IRE 2012

Normally, I'd just tell you what I spoke about.  But this time, the room was full of professional writers--that's what you get when you talk at the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference.  

As a consequence, there were people there who can write MUCH better than I can.  One of them, John Tedesco (an investigative reporter at the San Antonio Express-News), took wonderful notes and posted them to his blog.  

So, to find out what I spoke about at IRE 2012 in Boston, please check out his blog post:  

How to solve impossible problems: Daniel Russell’s awesome Google search techniques

It's better than what I said, so I highly recommend his post!  


Friday, June 22, 2012

Correction on FAA pilot data

As several readers pointed out in yesterday's comments, I was a bit uncritical in my willingness to accept the FAA data straight out of the spreadsheets.

If I'd looked carefully at the numbers I published, I would have seen that the number of FAA certificates for glider pilots took an unexpected jump between 2001 and 2002.  Here's the change between 2001 and 2002 for glider pilots.  (Note that the "air transport" glider pilots is an entirely new category.)  This data is from "Table 8" in the Civil Airmen Certificates data set, labelled "Estimated Active Glider Pilots by Class of Certificate."    

So what's strange about this is that for the previous 5 years, the growth in glider pilots had been very modest--maybe 200 pilots added / year.  To pick up more than 13K in one year is clearly a recalibration and not an actual event.  

One thing to know about all data sets is that this kind of change in the way you count is happening constantly.  (It's sometimes called "changing the basis," where "basis" refers to the "basis on which your making your measurements.)  

Usually there's a metadata note, and I missed footnote 2 in the original spreadsheet which says: 
 2/  Glider and lighter-than-air pilots are not required to have a medical examination.  Beginning with 2002, glider pilots with another rating  but no current medical  are counted as "Glider (only)".
As you can see, reclassifying "gilder pilots with another rating (but no current medical)" as Glider moved a bunch of people into the glider pool.  

I'm not sure what the "air transport" label refers to.  Do any of my pilot readers happen to know? 

In any case, the 'doubling' I'd been asking about seems a bit artificial. 

So to all of you who guessed that it was an increase in rotorcraft pilots, we'll have to hand you the award for the week.  

Search lesson:  Read the darn footnotes, especially when there are strange, unexplained jumps in the data! 

Thanks to all of the sharp-eyed (and critical) readers who commented.  Much appreciated!  

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Answer: What kind of pilot doubled in the past decade?

The short answer:  Glider pilots (with “rotorcraft” pilots almost, but not quite, doubling as well). 
[Edit: June 21, 2012]  Not so fast.  Please read the next blog post about a correction to find that this post has an important error in it!  The answer really IS "rotorcraft."  
Remember that the question was “What category of pilot (that is, with a specific kind of US pilot's license-such as commercial, airline transport, helicopter, etc.) has more than DOUBLED between 2001 and 2011?

I knew that the FAA would track these things.  So I first looked for what kinds of official US pilot’s licenses there are.  So I did the first, obvious search of:  [ us pilot certification ] and found the Wikipedia article listing the kinds of pilot certificates and the types of aircraft pilots can be certified to fly. 
Student Pilot: an individual who is learning to fly 
Sport Pilot: authorized to fly only Light-sport Aircraft
Recreational Pilot: may fly aircraft of up to 180 horsepower and 4 seats daytime
Private Pilot: fly for pleasure or personal business
Commercial Pilot: with some restrictions can fly for compensation or hire
Airline Transport Pilot (ATP): able to act as pilot in command for an airline
Then I found out that the categories of aircraft for which a pilot may be rated are: Airplane, Rotorcraft, Glider, Lighter than air, Powered lift, Powered parachute, Weight-shift-control (e.g. hang-gliders).  

BUT... while reading through the Wikipedia article I noticed an unusual term that I didn’t know:  “airmen certificates”

And that gave me an idea.  I wanted data directly from the FAA, so my next query was:

 [ airmen certificates ]

And that was what I needed.  "airmen certificates" is the FAA's "term of art" to refer to active pilot licenses.  Once I knew that term, I could easily zero in on the kind of data I needed. 

Clicking through the results I quickly found two spreadsheets (one from 1998 – 2008, and then another from 2008 – 2001).  I downloaded the two Excel files and merged the two sets of data together. 

Now I had the complete table for active certificates by type (see the list above for definitions): 

And once I had that, it's easy to graph the number of pilots by kind and compute the growth rates from 2001 to 2011.  

Note that the graph shows something interesting:  While the growth in glider pilots DOUBLED, it's still just a tiny slice of the overall aviation pie.  

And while several readers commented that there was a huge growth rate in UAV (drone) pilots, there's not any way to know that through the FAA.  They don't (so far as I know) require any kind of FAA certification to fly.  And the number of such pilots certainly isn't tracked!  (If you find hard data on this, I'd love to know how you found it!) 

Search on! 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Wednesday Search Challenge (6/20/12): What kind of pilot doubled in number over the past decade?

As you know, there are many different kinds of pilots: private pilots, helicopter pilots, captains of airline transports (for the record, my brother is an airline transport pilot).

Over the past decade we’ve seen a remarkable growth in airline travel.  50 billion miles flown in 2001 vs. 867 billion miles in 2011.  (Source: Advisory Council for Transportation Statistics: 2001 data, 2011 data.)  

Amazingly, the total number of US pilots has stayed roughly the same—except in one category. 
Today’s question:  What is the one category of pilot (that is, with a specific kind of US pilot’s license—such as commercial, airline transport, helicopter, etc.) that has more than DOUBLED between 2001 and 2011? 

See if you can figure it out!  (Your first task is to find out how many different kinds of pilot licenses there are...)  

As usual, please include HOW you figured it out and your best estimate about how long it took you to solve the challenge.  

Search on! 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Answer: What was the name of that ship?

Yesterday's question was quick and pointed:  
Q:  Edgar Terry was transported from Fort Independence, MA to Fort Moultrie, SC.  What was the name of the ship that carried him to the fort in South Carolina? 
The quick answer:  Using the name Edgar A. Perry (note: not Terry), Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army on May 26, 1827 and was stationed at Fort Independence, MA.  
He (Poe / Perry) rose from private to regimental sergeant major of the 1st Artillery Regiment. He was promoted on Jan. 1, 1829 and served nearly two years of a five-year enlistment before he was discharged April 15, 1829 so he could begin attending West Point.  He began his studies at the Military Academy on July 1, 1830 and was dismissed just 9 months later on March 6, 1831, after a court martial for neglecting duties and disobeying orders.

Poe and his regiment were transported from Fort Independence, MA to Fort Moultrie, SC on the brigantine Waltham.  (A typical 19th-century brigantine was a two-masted, square-rigged ship with a gaff sail aft of the main mast and stay sails on both the main and fore masts.)  

Solution:  When I first got this problem, I too was surprised to not find much when searching for "Edgar Terry."  Sure, there are Edgar Terrys in the record, but there wasn't much of note.  

But when I did a search for [ Edgar Terry Fort Independence Fort Moultrie ] the reference to "Edgar Perry" quickly showed up.  Google inserted this at the top of the SERP:  

Well, yes, Google, I DID mean Edgar Perry!  Thanks.  

I did my search this way (with the two fort names) because I was hoping to find a few documents that would tell the story of the travel between the forts.  I was thinking that not too many people would have written about such a connection.  And I was right.  

Reading the first article, I discovered that "Edgar Perry" was the alias of Edgar Allan Poe.  Once I knew that it was him, it becomes fairly straightforward to find a number of documents (e.g., the Wikipedia article about Poe, a biography of Poe, etc.) that tell the story of his transport on the good ship Waltham.  

For extra credit:  His experiences at Fort Moultrie appeared in his later writings.  Can you find at least two of his writings that make use of his time there? 
Now that we know it's Poe, finding the answer here is also pretty straightforward.  [ Edgar Allan Poe Fort Moultrie ] quickly shows that he used the Fort (and its location on Sullivan Island) as the setting for much of his short story The Gold-Bug. In his story, The Balloon Hoax, a gas balloon is reported to have made a trip from Great Britain to Sullivan's Island in three days. And The Oblong Box, a macabre tale of devotion to a mysterious coffin-shaped box, is set just off-short from Charleston, very near Fort Moultrie.  
Search Lesson:  The question was given to me in just this form... misspelled name included.  This kind of mistake in original task is actually fairly common.  (Ask any reference librarian.  They swap stories constantly about patrons who ask for all kinds of variations on names, places and titles. My favorite is the patron who asks for "War and Peaches" when really looking for "War and Peace," a mistake you wouldn't think could have been made.  
In such a case, making your query contain a bit more information (in this case, the start and ending points of the journey) was enough to get us to the information we're looking for.  And always ALWAYS look at the suggested query reformulation.  They're often pretty good and can get you out of the black hole (complete with sunken pit and swinging pendulum) of your question.  
Search on! 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Wednesday search challenge (6/13/12): The ship's name was...

While reading broadly the other day I ran across a most curious fact; an observation that I’ll pose to you as a question about a man most eldritch in character. 

Q:  Edgar Terry was transported from Fort Independence, MA to Fort Moultrie, SC.  What was the name of the ship that carried him to the fort in South Carolina? 

For extra credit:  His experiences at Fort Moultrie appeared in his later writings.  Can you find at least two of his writings that make use of his time there? 

Monday, June 11, 2012

What would YOU tell an investigative reporter about search?

One of the great parts of my job is the chance to go out and teach people how to search.  

This week I'll be in Boston attending the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference, and on Friday I'll have a full hour to teach them some of the more interesting bits about doing searchResearch on the web.  

While I have an idea about what I'll be talking about (lots of examples from this blog), I'm really curious what you, my loyal readers, think I should be teaching.  

Any ideas?  Any particular skills or approaches that would be most useful?

If you're a reporter or editor, what do you think would be most interesting and valuable to know about?  

You don't have to write an entire thesis (that's the beauty of crowdsourcing--every little contribution helps).  

Searching for good ideas.... 


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Answer: Who solves an impossible problem... by accident?

I wrote this challenge in response to a question that came up in hallway conversation at Google.  Some thought it was pure urban legend, but others swore it was true.  Being Googlers, we whipped out our phones and found that it was George Dantzig, a local Stanford mathematician from Stanford best known for his work on the Simplex Algorithm (an early linear programming system for making optimal choices).  Turns out he lived just a couple of miles away from the Googleplex and coincidentally next door to a friend of mine.  I had no idea.    
George Dantzig (link from Stanford University News)
To my surprise, this search challenge wasn't that difficult.  Most readers managed to solve it between 30 seconds and 5 minutes.  This is a great thing--even apparently crazy-hard problems can be fairly simple if you start your search properly.   

I started with the straightforward [
impossible problem solved accident ].  I was expecting to have to dig through many layers of information to find it, but as I scanned the SERP, I found the link to Snopes fairly quickly.  

I like the Snopes team--they do really excellent research, so I checked that article first.    In their article they give some very good references including his verbatim interview in "An interview with George B. Dantzig: The father of linear programming." College Math. Journal 17:292–314 (1986).

It happened because during my first year at Berkeley I arrived late one day at one of [Jerzy] Neyman's classes. On the blackboard there were two problems that I assumed had been assigned for homework. I copied them down. A few days later I apologized to Neyman for taking so long to do the homework; the problems seemed to be a little harder than usual. I asked him if he still wanted it. He told me to throw it on his desk. I did so reluctantly because his desk was covered with such a heap of papers that I feared my homework would be lost there forever. 
About six weeks later, one Sunday morning about eight o'clock, [my wife] Anne and I were awakened by someone banging on our front door. It was Neyman. He rushed in with papers in hand, all excited: "I've just written an introduction to one of your papers. Read it so I can send it out right away for publication." 
For a minute I had no idea what he was talking about. To make a long story short, the problems on the blackboard that I had solved thinking they were homework were in fact two famous unsolved problems in statistics. That was the first inkling I had that there was anything special about them. 
A year later, when I began to worry about a thesis topic, Neyman just shrugged and told me to wrap the two problems in a binder and he would accept them as my thesis.
The second of the two problems, however, was not published until after World War II. It happened this way. Around 1950 I received a letter from Abraham Wald enclosing the final galley proofs of a paper of his about to go to press in the Annals of Mathematical Statistics. Someone had just pointed out to him that the main result in his paper was the same as the second "homework" problem solved in my thesis. I wrote back suggesting we publish jointly. He simply inserted my name as coauthor into the galley proof.

Other good references:  his obituary is as good a reference as any as it's from Stanford, and a TechRepublic article providing another source. 

But I was curious if there were any other reports of similar solutions.  So I kept reading farther down the SERP and found recent news story about Shouryya Ray, a schoolboy who reported solved a puzzle "posed by Sir Isaac Newton that have baffled mathematicians for 350 years."  But on further searching it seems that the solution he came up with wasn't exactly new, and since it was a competition, it really wasn't an accidental solution.  


Who: George Dantzig
Where: as a student at University of California, Berkeley
When: 1939 
How: Arriving late to a lecture by statistics professor, Jerzy Neyman, he copied down two problems from the blackboard thinking that they were homework assignments.  They were in fact open, unsolved questions.  He then solved them, but noted that they seemed harder than usual.  
What: The questions were about "Student's" Hypothesis and power functions, and the Neyman Pearson lemma. (See reference #12.)  

Search Lessons:  The biggest one for me is that even questions that seem impossible to answer can sometimes be rather quick and simple to resolve.  Don't be afraid to tackle even seemingly crazy problems!  

Search on! 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wednesday Search Challenge (6/6/12): Who solves impossible problems... by accident?

Every so often you hear a story about some unwitting student solving a problem that they thought was part of their homework assignment, but was ACTUALLY an impossible-to-solve problem put on the whiteboard by their professor as an example. 

Usually, the student is running late and wasn’t paying attention—or some such similar background detail that makes the story seem realistic. And the story is usually told about some famous mathematician--Newton, Einstein and Ramanujan are often mentioned. 

But is this story (or some version of it) really true? 

Question: Has some student accidentally  solved an impossible-problem by not knowing it was impossible? 

If so, who, where, when, how... and what was the problem anyway?  

The perfect answer won’t just repeat another apocryphal story, but will give a credible reference or two.  As Carl Sagan famously said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” [1]

Also, be sure to tell us how long it took you to find the answer AND the queries you used to drill your way towards the solution. 

Search on!

[1] Carl Sagan  "Encyclopaedia Galactica,” episode 12 of “Cosmos”, original broadcast date, December 14, 1980; 01:24 minutes in. PBS.