Wednesday, October 9, 2019

SearchResearch Challenge (10/9/19): Why are there contour lines here?

As I was flying to Seattle... 

... I had the window seat that faced east as we flew north.  

Not long after we left SFO, I was staring out the window (because looking out an airplane window when you fly over wilderness is just the best thing you can do), and I saw the most remarkable thing.  

It looked like some giant hand had drawn all of the contour lines on the hills below. 


As you know, contour lines on a topographic map mark a constant elevation.  For instance, here's a sample of a topo map with contour lines at 5400 feet, 5600 feet, etc.  As you can see, there's a steep cliff on the right side of the map, with a more relaxed flat spot on the left.  

Sample topographic map with contour lines.

But the idea of "contour lines" is an artificial way of looking at the land.  They're imaginary lines that are drawn to give the reader an idea about what's going on with landform.  

So you can imagine my surprise when I looked out my window and saw this, with what looks like contour lines in reality...  

Alas, I didn't have my camera handy.  This is an image from Google Maps of the place I
saw out the window.  It really does look like this!

When I got home to my laptop, I searched along the flight path and found the location.  (See above.)  

Interestingly, if you look at the Terrain view of this location, you'll see something remarkable: 

If you put these side-by-side, they're amazingly similar. 

The "contour lines" in the satellite photo are clearly lines of trees or bushes or something growing.  This amazes me.  I thought contour lines were an artificial construct, a visualization device mapmakers would draw on a map to give a sense of shape on an otherwise 2D image.  

But how is this possible?  Did some maniac cartographer go out there and plant bushes along the contour lines?  

This leads to our SearchResearch Challenge for the week: 

1.  What is going on with those naturally green "contour lines" that seem to show up naturally?  Why are they growing along the lines of constant elevation?  What is going on?

Any ideas?  

In truth, I have no idea what's going on here, and what's more, I don't have a great idea about how to find out!  We'll figure this one out together.  

One useful piece of information:  The center of this map is at 40.081801, -121.903088 (link to Google Maps at this location)  

When you figure it out, let us know the answer... AND tell us how you did it.  We learn from each other, so also be sure to tell us the paths you pursued that didn't work out.  

Search on!  

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Answer: Why are palm trees so tall?

Palm trees are wonderful, but very strange... 

As you might suspect, they're not ordinary trees, but something very, very different.  

They're generally super-tall, able to remain standing in hurricane force winds.  If you cut one down, you'll see a very strange and wonderful composite structure that looks nothing like an ordinary tree.  There are no tree rings, but a bundle of fibers that are key to its extraordinary resilience. 

P/C Wikimedia / Kadeve.
Our Challenge was:   

1.  Why are palm trees SO tall? 

As you know, asking Why Questions can be really difficult and tricky.  What's a good answer to a why question?  

To get a bit of background, I looked at the Wikipedia entry about palm trees, and quickly ended up on the entry for Arecacae, the latin family name.  There I learned that: 
The Arecaceae .. can be climbers, shrubs, tree-like or stemless plants.. There are 181 genera with around 2600 species are known, most of them restricted to tropical and subtropical climates. Palms are distinguished by their large, compound, evergreen leaves, known as fronds, arranged at the top of an unbranched stem. However, palms exhibit an enormous diversity in physical characteristics and inhabit nearly every type of habitat within their range, from rainforests to deserts...

I started this Challenge by doing an obvious search in the form of a question.  Note that asking questions like this triggers a special kind of Google search processing--it's not just searching for those terms, but the query is handled much more as a knowledge-based request... 

     [ why are palm trees so tall ] 

The search results are pretty good.  

(Click to see at full size.) 
The first 4 results are right on topic and give us a diversity of content.  Here's what I see and think when I look at these hits.  

#1 is a link to a Quora (a well-known question-answering site) discussion with a question about the evolutionary benefit for palms to grow so tall.  That's a great approach to answering the why question--understanding the costs and benefits from an evolutionary perspective would be good. 

#2 (skipping over the "People also ask" section) links to a reddit "Explain like I'm five" question/answer about "why are palm trees so tall?"  The explanation might be simple, but there's almost certainly an interesting discussion there. 

#3 is from Mother Nature News, a kind of gee-whiz site with breathless articles like "4 ways tardigrades are nearly indestructible," but might give us some interesting tidbits about tall palms.  

#4 links to a StackExchange forum, pointing to the more generic question "Why is it beneficial for trees to grow that tall?"  I expect this to be a more general discussion of tree height--perhaps we'll learn something about why trees grow so tall in the first place.  

I read the targets of these links and found out that: 

* Not all palm trees are tall!  (In retrospect, this is obvious--different species of palms have different heights. For instance, the Allagoptera arenaria  (Beach palm) is less than 2 meters high.  But clearly, we're curious about tall palm in this Challenge.)  

* Palm trees in their wild and natural setting often compete for resources.  In the wild, palm forests are often densely packed, requiring the palm trees to do something to grab their own light, water, and nutrients.  Growing extremely tall is one solution.  

Here are a few images of wild palm tree forests. You can see there's a lot of competition for sun and water.  

Eastern San Diego county, packed into the bottom of a dry ravine. 

A palm forest in Indonesia.

Even beach locations can be competitive! (Image by Pexels from Pixabay.) 
(I note that it's a little tricky to find images of palm trees in their wild and unstructured settings.  Many palm trees, even dense forests, are often former coconut plantains, which isn't the same.)  

Result #2 tells us that palms are often the fastest growing trees (although as with palm tree height, growth rates vary from species to species).  So they compete in height, and rate of growth in order to get the resources they need.  

Meanwhile, #3 tells us that the tallest palms are the Quindio wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense), growing up to 60 meters (180 feet), which Wikipedia tells us grows in dense forests in the wild--so height is important there as well.  

And #4 asks the more general question, "Why is it beneficial for trees to grow that tall?" Keep in mind that this is a discussion on a StackExchange site that encourages experts to answer and discuss questions.  It's heavily moderated, and the quality of the discussions you find there is pretty high.  

This particular thread discusses why palms in forests grow so tall, and work through various alternative explanations... but it all comes back a fitness advantage for taller trees to have more sunlight.  

An interesting twist...  Just for grins (and because I know that shifting media types sometimes gives an insight), I did a search for: 

     [ palm tree height ] 

and looked at Images.  It was pretty much what you'd expect.  Looked like this in the center of the SERP: 

That scatter plot chart in the middle made me think--perhaps there's something interesting here! 

Turns out that this chart comes from a scientific paper about the age and height of oil palm trees, Tree height and crown shape as results of competitive games (J. of Theoretical Biology, January 1985) and that made me think about doing a search in Google Scholar.  

In Google Scholar: 

     [ palm tree height ] 

led to a bunch of fascinating papers (which time and space prevent me from summarizing, but there's a fun intellectual rathole to explore one day).  

But the paper Competition from below for light and nutrients shifts productivity among tropical species
seemed to potentially hold the answer to our question.  Turns out that it didn't... exactly... but it DOES make the fascinating observation that 

"...In 2 cases the novel competitive mechanism responsible for the shift was reduction in crown volume, and therefore light-capturing capability, of overtopping deciduous trees by intrusive growth from below a palm." 

Which kind of captures what we found elsewhere.  

Why are palm trees so tall?  Answer: Palms compete for light by growing tall and fast.  In this case, they overreach the (ordinary) deciduous trees by growing up and through the canopy to reach the pure sunlight above the shade cover of the deciduous trees.  But in palm forests they're competing with their peers...  where they compete just as hard.  


Search Lessons 

This Challenge points out a couple of lessons to learn and take to heart. 

1. Looking across a number of different sources is valuable.  I know I keep saying this, but as a skilled SRS-er, do NOT lock in on any single result, especially if it confirms your beliefs.  A better strategy is to look broadly across a number of results and look for insights that are reported consistently across a number of different authors, different sources, and different perspectives.  That's one way to find your way to truth.  

2. Try different sources to get a different perspective.  Here I did another (but related) search on Google Scholar (after having been prompted by seeing a scientific chart in an image), and found lots of high-quality (but sometimes dense) articles on palm trees and their growth behaviors.  

Hope you enjoyed this romp through palm tree botany.  As always, there's a LOT more to say about this topic.  (If you're interested, a great query is [ varieties of palm trees ] -- they're an amazing group of plants with wildly varying shapes, sizes, and niches.  As they say, worth a trip...)  

Search on!  

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Slight delay... I'm giving a talk at a librarian's conference today!


... palm trees line the Embarcadero, the grand boulevard that wraps around the top of San Francisco.  

I'm not sure how they manage it here--it's cool and often foggy, nothing like the deserts or tropical isles where palms are native.  

But they do survive.  Barely.  

I'm here in San Francisco today to give a talk entitled The Nature of Literacy and Learning in the Future.  You can see the program for the Pacific Library Partnership conference here.  

You won't be surprised when I say that learning how to do effective research is a critical skill.  

So I'll be at the San Francisco Public Library today, enjoying chatting with librarians and researchers.  

And as a side-effect, I'll write up my ruminations on palm trees tomorrow.  

Search on! 

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

SearchResearch Challenge (9/25/19): Why are palm trees so tall?

As I bicycled around town... 

... I saw a palm tree that stood out from my local urban landscape.  It was easily 100 feet tall, and REALLY rose well above the line of buildings and other urban trees.  

I thought to myself, "now that is one weird tree." 

And I grew up in Los Angeles, where row upon row of palm-lined streets really are commonplace.  This is Windsor Blvd--just another LA street.  

Then it occurred to me:  WHY is it like that?  Why are they so ridiculously tall and skinny?  

We've discussed palm trees before in SRS (back in May, 2015 when we asked "Victorians and palms.  A thing?").  Back then we decided that yes, it was a thing for Victorian era landscapers to plunk palm trees down everywhere.  As we found "Victorians were mad about palms."  

But as interesting as that is, it doesn't answer our Challenge today:   

1.  Why are palm trees SO tall? 

It doesn't seem to make sense. 

Or does it?  

Can you figure out why this tree has managed to do so well over the years?  And why does it have such a strange aspect ratio?? 

Once you find out, let us know, and tell us HOW you figured it out!  

Search on!  

P.S.  You'll note that I did this post in a LARGE font.  Do you like it?  Hate it?  (I did it because I noticed that the posts are hard to read on mobile devices.  So this is a small experiment to see what might work better.  Your opinion?) 

Thursday, September 19, 2019

"The Joy of Search" is in bookstores now!


The Joy of Search is now available in your local bookstore!  

I stopped by my local bookstore (Kepler's in Menlo Park, CA) and was just browsing new releases on the "Big Ideas" table.  Lo and behold... there is was!  

Funny thing... it's next to "How to Raise Successful People" by Esther Wojcicki, who just happened to have written a blurb for the book jacket, and beneath "Trillion Dollar Coach" written by Eric Schmidt (who also wrote a blurb!), Jonathan Rosenburg, and Alan Eagle (who helped me out with the book's production).  It's nice to be near friends! 

Then, the book to the right is Christof Koch's book about the nature of consciousness.  

So the book is in great company. This sounds silly, but having your book get good placement in the bookstore leads to more sales, which in our case leads to better searching!    

Happy Happy, Joy Joy!  It's finally really out there for everyone.  

Search on!! 

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Answer: What's the relationship between these two fish?

I don't mean to have so many ichthyological Challenges,
it's just that I can't help myself... 

When I go diving, the world is just SO different than the dry world on land.  That vast difference always makes me wonder what's going on.  

In this case, I noticed this very clear connection between these two fish and wondered to myself: What's going on here??  

This is the kind of moment that makes for an interesting SRS Challenge--that moment of wondering--that sudden sense of slight bewilderment and amazement.  That, my friends, is the basis of all research.  Why is this like that??  

Let's get to it.  

1.  Here's Fish #1.  They hang out in rocky crevices, alway near a kind of purple glaze on part of the rocks.  What kind of fish is this??   (For reference, it's about 4 inches long.)  

Today we're onto fish identification.  We need to identify the fish above and the fish below.  
Using the information we have at hand, we KNOW it's a tropical fish (I said as much in the Challenge) and that it's somehow associated with purple.... something.  (I called it a "haze."  That's about as useless a term as you might want.  Clearly, I don't know what the purple stuff is.)  
I thought I'd try doing it with just a simple query, then searching through some images to get a good match.  
My query was a simple description of what I see in the photo: 
     [ tropical fish vertical bars yellow purple ] 
This is what I got... and it worries me.  Looks like there are LOTS of fish with vertical bars... 

I switched immediately to Images and found that the results are much more promising.  Yes, there are lots of fish with vertical bars, but the images page put my mind at ease.  The first fish in the results looks very close to what I seek: 

That first result (upper left corner) tells me that this is an Abudefduf saxatilis, which is a kind of Damselfish or Clownfish in the family Pomacentridae.  This is important information because LOTS of related fish can look very similar.  (In fact, fish appearance can vary hugely over the course of their lives.  But that's another story.)  
So naturally I looked up Pomacentridae to see if there was any useful information there.  I found the Wikipedia article helpful, but not definitive.  I learned that these fish are found  on or near coral reefs in the Indo-West Pacific (from East Africa to Polynesia). The area from the Philippines to Australia hosts the greatest concentration of species, but that there are also significant populations in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.  
I thought that Images for Pomacentridae might be interesting, so I looked at that page.  What do you know?  Right there, second image--an exact match.  But notice--that's NOT an Abudefduf saxatilis, it's an Abudefduf vaigiensis!  (Also known as the "Indo-Pacific Sargent Major.")  

Notice that there's another fish that looks pretty similar (the striped fish in the bottom row).  What's the difference?  Note the difference in the color of the stripes and the yellow across the top.  As you know, photos can be hard to trust, especially with underwater photos.  So, what can we do to be more precise about this fish identification?  
Here I put the two major striped varieties of Sargent Majors side-by-side (Abudefduf vaigiensis and A. saxatilis).   

Both have 5 vertical bars, both have a yellow patch on the back--they're surprisingly similar.  I did a search for:
      [ Abudefduf identification ] 
and found fairly detailed descriptions in (A. saxatilis and A. vaigiensis), but the written descriptions are nearly identical. The biggest difference is their respective ranges.  
So perhaps we have to identify the other fish in the next image, figure out its range, and see where they overlap.  

2.  What kind of fish is Fish 2?  (It's about 7 - 8 inches in length.)  

This time I went with trusty Yandex search on a cropped image.  I took the above image and cropped it down to a single individual fish, like this: 

Dropped that into Yandex reverse-image search and got these great results: 

From this page, it's easy to figure out that this is a Raccoon butterflyfish (Chaetodon lunula), whose distribution is--surprise surprise!-- in the Indo-Pacific!  

This strongly suggests that the Sargent Major seen above is actually an Abudefduf vaigiensis (aka Indo-Pacific Sargent Major).  

Now we've cleared THAT up.  

3.  What's going on when Fish 2 quickly swim into the crevices with purple glaze?  

As you can see in the first picture, there really IS a purple haze (or glaze) on the rock surfaces near the Indo-Pacific Sargent Major.  But since I'm not sure what the glaze (or haze) is, I did a query like this: 

     [ indo-pacific sargent major purple ] 

This way I'll get everything with purple something and the Indo-Pacific sargent major.  Note that I could also have done the more specific: 

     [ Abudefduf vaigiensis purple ] 
and gotten equally good results.  

With either query, one quickly finds that it's the MALE Sargent Majors that are protecting purple eggs.  They also fan their tails near the eggs to aerate them.  

To find the connection between the Sargent Majors and the Raccoon butterflyfish, just search for them both: 

      [ Sargent Major Raccoon butterflyfish ] 

(Or use their scientific names--in this case it gives more-or-less the same results.)  

You'll quickly find articles where both of these fish are named--and learn that Raccoon butterflyfish (along with several other kinds of fish) are opportunistic poachers of Sargent Major eggs... those purple glaze patches you see in image 1 above.  That's why the Sargent Majors defend their nests with such diligence.  

Interestingly, if a diver manages to scare the Sargent Major away from its nest, other fish will swoop in to get what eggs they can.  As a consequence, Raccoon butterflyfish will sometimes follow divers around, hoping to pick up some eggs when the giant human scares the little Sargent Major away for a few seconds.  

4.  Where is Dan now?? 

Based on what we see in these two fish, all we know definitively is that I'm somewhere in the Indo-Pacific.  But look carefully in the background of the second image and you'll see this guy: 

A quick search on Images will tell you that this is the Saddle Wrasse (Thalassoma duperrey).  Since we've already used as a reputable source of fishy data, you can quick get lots of info about this wrasse.  In particular, if you look at the range maps for each of these fish, you'll see that while all three are Indo-Pacific in range, the Saddle Wrasse is only in Hawai'i.  

And that, in fact, is where I was.  (Diving off the Kona coast of the Big Island, to be precise.)  

And, while there, I also did a fantastic night dive with the Manta rays.  (Here's a link to the YouTube video I made from that dive.)

SearchResearch Lessons 

There are several here... 

1. Animal / plant / fish identification can be very tricky--especially with fish that are variable in appearance.  It such cases you have to pull together multiple sources of information (e.g. range and distribution information) in order to pin things down. 

2. Sometimes you need to look in the background for additional clues.  Here we had to not only identify the two fish I asked about, but also a 3rd fish in the background in order to zero in on the location.  (The saddle wrasse let us pinpoint where I was diving.)  

3.  Simple text searches can be useful in describing your visual target.  As you saw, my first approach in description worked out pretty well.  ("vertical bars" etc.)  From there I was able to gather enough information to pull together a decent set of results.  

This took me much longer to write up than to do... but I hope you enjoyed the results... and the journey.  

I certainly did!  

Search on!  

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

SearchResearch Challenge (09/10/19): What's the relationship between these two fish?

I'm scuba diving again ... 

... I know--not a big surprise.  But this time I'm diving with friends on a tropical island, taking a few underwater photos and finding remarkable things that require a bit of research when I get topside.  

In today's Challenge, I'm diving somewhere in the tropics, and today I saw these two fish.  

What's odd, though, is that these fish seem to have some kind of strange relationship that I can't quite figure out.  

Can you? 

(This is a fun fishy SearchResearch Challenge.  It will test your query formation skills and your ability to combine two ideas and find their relationship.)  

1.  Here's Fish #1.  They hang out in rocky crevices, alway near a kind of purple glaze on part of the rocks.  What kind of fish is this??   (For reference, it's about 4 inches long.)  

This is a bit of an unusual shot.  Normally there would be hundreds of these fish swimming all around.  

However, whenever I'd see a fish like this, there would ALWAYS be fish like this nearby: 

(You see several examples of Fish1 in the backwater.  Fish 2 are the larger ones in the top of the photo.) 


2.  What kind of fish is Fish 2?  (It's about 7 - 8 inches in length.)  

... and the REAL question... what is the relationship between Fish 1 and Fish 2?  

Usually Fish 1 chases Fish 2 out of the crevices, but every so often Fish 2 would zoom into the crevices for a few seconds before darting out again.  

3.  What's going on when Fish 2 quickly swim into the crevices with purple glaze?  

4.  Where is Dan now?? 

Can you answer these questions?  

Be sure to let us know HOW you find the answer to the Challenge.  

Search on! 

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Answer: What are these three things?

This was supposed to be simple... 

... but as we know, even simple Research Questions can sometimes be more complicated than you'd think.  

Here's what I did in each case... 

1.  I've got a BIG (4 meters tall!) trellis of green beans growing in my garden.  On Monday, I found this growing on stalks.  Do I need to worry about them?  Will they eat up all my beans?  What should I do?  

So... what IS this creature? 

Here it is on my thumb for scale: 

And a fairly in-focus closeup.  The colors are even more striking in real life! 

I first did what many of you did... Search-by-Image.  Here's what I found.  Looks plausible, yes? 

But as I worked my way through the images, there are lots of SIMILAR bugs, but nothing quite right.  The dots aren't in the right place, and none of them had the orange-colored epaulettes at the shoulder.  

So I modified the query and tried again--but no dice.  

I thought that there MUST be other images of this fairly dramatic bug on the web, so I changed my search tactic and went to Yandex's search-by-image tool. Lo and behold, this is what I found: 

That's impressively good.  My uploaded image matches pictures 1, 2, and 4 really well. The first two organic results (from iNaturalist) look like the perfect match.  

Even better is the next result (just below the screencap) from Wikipedia identifying this bug as a Nezara viridula.  Specifically, this is the third instar nymph of this bug, known colloquially as a southern green stink bug (in the USA), southern green shield bug (UK) or green vegetable bug (Australia and New Zealand).  It's a plant-feeding stink bug that goes through a number of developmental stages (known as instars).  This developmental sequence from the Nezara viridula article shows the various stages really well.  Take note of the 3rd instar--that's our bug.  Same shape, same yellow dots, same orange dots on the shoulders.  (Click on the image to see it full-size.)  And that explains why I don't see them any more--they've all moved on to the 4th instar and are full adults (by now).  

For those of you who thought it was a kind of ladybug (aka a "ladybird beetle"), you assumed too much.  If you search for a [ ladybug with yellow dots ] you find something that looks a lot like this, but you've led the witness (i.e., the search engine).  Careful! 

2.  This is a diagram of an important part of a 3-hole punch that's currently broken.  It's an aluminum metal pin with a collar-like-thing around the middle.  That's the part that is missing, so the pin keeps slipping out onto the floor when I use it.  I want to buy a new one… but... What do I call this?  How can I find this online?

I tried to get a good picture of this part, but could never get a good enough photo to use.  Here's my sketch.  

 The pin is about 1 inch long (2.5 cm) and the "collar" clearly snaps into a groove around the center.  (It's also a bit more circular than my sketch, but you get the idea.)  

What IS this gizmo?  How do you search for something like this? 

My first inclination was to search for: 

     [ pin and clip ] 

but that ended up showing my lots of  pins that had  a hole in them and a cotter pin.  That's close, but not quite right.  This is what I saw: 

And that's not bad!  In the first row, 4th from the left, it's described as a "pin and E-clip."  Which is a good answer.  But when I looked at the site, it's clear that this is because the clip is shaped like an E.  You can't see it in my drawing, but it's actually shaped more like a "C."  


I modified my query to be:  
     [ pin c clip ] 

and got these results... 

Look at the first result in the second row:  That's called a clevis Pin/C clip.  Useful!  This is close, but I'm looking for exactly what I drew.  

Finally, I decided to be specific, adding in terms that described the exactly what was special about my goals... and did a search for  [ clevis pin groove clip ]  and found this! 

See that sketch in the upper left?  THAT's what I was trying to draw!  

And now I know what it is.  

3.  I just got  a new piano.  Hurrah! I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.  But the place where it will sit in the house is fairly sunny.  What should I use to cover it to protect from sun damage? What material should it be made of?  (Keep in mind that this instrument has a new finish.) 

After futzing around for a while reading various help forums and Q/A sites, I FINALLY realized that people must sell piano covers... I can't be the only person with this goal! 

     [ piano covers for sale ] 

and found a number of sites that sell piano covers (including ones that are designed and cut for exactly THIS piano, a Kimball baby grand).  Reading through the descriptions I found they're made of either Mackintosh fabric (a kind of rubberized fabric that's made of multiple layers--read the fascinating backstory of how this fabric was invented) OR a kind of multi-layer fabric with a vinyl layer.   All of the covers come in either flat (i.e., one layer) or quilted (multiple layers of fabric, stitched in a protective quilted style).  

Search Lessons 

1.  Sometimes, just sometimes, using another search engine actually improves your search!  In this case, Yandex' search-by-image gave us exactly the right result.  Big lesson here--if one doesn't work, try another one (Bing, Baidu, and Yandex all have good search-by-image functions).  

2. Often a near-miss can give you clues about how to improve your search.  In this case, I learned the word "clevis" from a SERP that wasn't great.  But when I search for that term, all my results were excellent.  Learn from your near-misses!  

3. Consider the value of searching for a product that covers what you're seeking.  If you're searching for something that someone might sell (like a piano cover), you can search for it and learn a lot by reading the descriptions.  

Search on!