Monday, June 24, 2019

A free chapter of my new book, "The Joy of Search"


My new book "The Joy of Search" now has a free chapter available!  

(Thanks, MIT Press.) 

If you'd like to try before you buy, you can read a sample chapter and get a great sense for what the rest of the book is like.  

Click here for the free sample chapter of "The Joy of Search."  

Enjoy!  

(And if you've got comments, please leave them below.)  




Wednesday, June 19, 2019

SearchResearch Challenge (6/19/19): How much DO we know about history / math / geography?


It's common to point out that people don't know much about much... 

And it always makes me wonder:  How much DO people know about history, about math, or about geography?  

More importantly, how would you assess "our" level of knowledge?  What does the "public" really know? 

This came up for me the other day when I was chatting with someone who (we discovered) didn't really know where Syria was. Is it near Iraq?  How close is it Turkey? 

That struck me as odd because Syria has been in the news for the past several years as it struggles with an ongoing civil war. Surely they must have seen a map of the country and its position in the Middle East!  And yet, the location somehow didn't stick in their brain.  

How many Americans can describe the Declaration of Independence and what role it played in the US Revolutionary war?
Does it matter if you know what year this document was signed?  (Painting by John Trumbull, 1817-1819) 


Last year, in 2018, I heard a brilliant talk by Roddy Roediger about what our collective memory is for historical events.  Who won World War II?  If you have an interest in education (especially history), it's worth an hour of your time. 

This brings me to this week's SearchResearch Challenge.  What DO we know, and how to we know what we know? 

1.  Can you find a high-quality (that is, very credible) study of how well the citizens of the United States (or your country, if you're from somewhere else) understand (A) history, (B) geography, (C) mathematics?  

In this Challenge I'm hoping to learn some methods for finding reputable resources for assessing broad public knowledge.  Next week we'll discuss some of the SRS methods I use when I try to answer questions like this.   

And more importantly, for our SRS purposes, how does one frame a question like this to a search engine in order to find those resources?  AND... how do you assess the quality of the resources that you find?  

Obviously, asking a few friends a couple of calculus questions isn't a great way to measure the public's knowledge of math.  Doing a man-in-the-street interview of geography questions also probably doesn't work well either--so what would work well?  

In other words, what can one do to make a measurement like this?  How can you tell how much the citizens of your country know?  

Obviously, this kind of Challenge can take an arbitrary amount of time.  But if I can motivate you to spent a few minutes searching for this kind of information, I think you'll get a good sense of the issues involved.  

As always, please let us know how you discovered the sources that you find credible.  

Search on! 




Tuesday, June 18, 2019

A talk in DC at the American Library Association conference (Saturday, June 22, 2019)


For folks in the DC area... 


My "Joy of Search" book tour continues with a stop at the American Library Association (ALA) this coming Saturday, June 22, 2019. 

If you happen to be attending the conference in DC, I'm talking at 10:30AM in room 145A at the DC convention center. (You need to register for the conference...)  

Come find me there! 

(The books are still in production, so I won't have any to sign.  That will be coming soon!) 






(Note that if you can't make this event, don't panic, there will be more. I'll post events as they happen, and even try to organize a Meet-Up or two in the process.  I'll even come back to DC in September.)  


Thursday, June 13, 2019

Answer: Unusual sports?


The odd and unusual are fun to search for!  


As we noticed last week, there are lots of fascinating sporting 
(if you use that term loosely) events in the world, many of which deserve a bit of background research.  

I love these kinds of SearchResearch Challenges because I always learn a few fascinating things along the way.  These slightly whacky events are perfect for a quick SRS lesson.

Let's dive into this Challenge... 



1. As Europe grows increasingly warmer with the passing years, will the long distance ice-skating race that passes through 11 Dutch towns still be able to be held?  What's that event called?  When was it last held (and who won)?  

Like many of you, I did the obvious search: 

     [ ice skating race 11 Dutch towns ] 

and found a number of sources that told me this is the Elfstedentocht a nearly 200 km ice skating tour of 11 towns in the Netherlands.  The race goes on canals, rivers, and lakes that are frozen over.  The problem, of course, is that the canals don't freeze sufficiently every year.   (I found the official site in Holland by doing [ elfstedentocht site:.nl ] limiting the search to just websites in the Netherlands.)

It was last held on January 4, 1997, [1]  and the prospects for future events is fairly grim. An article in the Washington Post comments that "... the Netherlands is no longer a romantic wintry wonderland, and there hasn’t been an Elfstedentocht since 1997, marking the longest drought ever between races. Climate change has endangered the race and is slowly dousing hopes across the province.  ...A lot of people really think that there will never be another one.” [2]    "In the past century, the average annual temperature in the Netherlands has increased by about 3 1/2 degrees, according to Peter Kuipers Munneke, a researcher and polar meteorologist at Utrecht University. He says in recent decades winters have warmed more than the other seasons, thanks in part to westerly winds coming over the North Sea."  [2]  

Yeah.  Here's a chart from that article that makes the point clearly. 



Sigh.  Don't hold your breath waiting for the next elfstedentocht



2.  Several of us in the discussion were former collegiate volleyball players, but since it was a very international evening, other folks started to tell us about different versions of volleyball that are played with feet alone.  Is this for real?  How could you bump/set/spike a ball with just your feet?  If so, what is this sport, and where is it played?  (Participants insist there are at least 2 different versions of this sport.) 

To answer this, I did:

     [ volleyball with feet ] 

And saw this as the results...


Clicking on a few of these results show me that Sepak takraw is a version of volleyball that's played with the feet and a rattan ball.  It's certainly impressive if you watch a video or two.  (Example video of Sepak takraw.)  Those guys are wild!  They serve, bump, set, and SPIKE the ball with incredibly athletic leaps (and incredibly graceful recoveries).  

I was thinking, though, that I had heard of a South American version of this sport.  Why didn't it show up here?  All I can see are the results about the Malaysian version of the sport.  

So my next query was intended to find results that are NOT about Malaysian sports: 

     [ volleyball with feet -Malaysia ] 

That is, I want to see this query without all of the Malaysian results, so I used the MINUS operator to exclude all results with the term "Malaysia." I wasn't terribly surprised when I found many results from Brazil for their sport of footvolley.  




It is also a beautiful sport that is often played on the sand at famous Brazilian beaches (like Ipanema), which looks to be crazy hard.  Imagine trying to jump high enough to kick the ball over the net... while starting on the sand!  (Another video worth a watch of footvolley played on sand.

3.  Although the next summer Olympics are still a year away, we started talking about former Olympic events that aren't held any more.  Tug of war at the summer Olympics (1900-1920) is a famous example of a now discontinued sport.  While there seems to be an endless number of swimming events, was there ever a swimming event that was held underwater?  If so, what was it?  When was it last held?  Is there an Olympic champion?  
A query like: 

     [ Olympic underwater swimming ] 

quickly leads you to several sites that tell us that underwater swimming WAS a thing at the 1900 Olympics.  [Olympic official site, SportsReference]  This somewhat odd event was in the Olympic Games only in 1900. Two Frenchman, Charles Devendeville and Andrés Six], won first and second place. However, the French publication, Journal des Sports, noted that the third-place finisher, Peder Lykkeberg, was the best overall. However,  Lykkeberg swam in a circle, swimming much more than 60 meters, but the official distance was measured only in a straight line from the starting point with two points for each meter swum and one point was awarded for each second swum underwater.  (He swam for 90 seconds!  Who knows what happened there?!?)  

Oddly, this doesn't sound like much of a spectator event.  All you'd see is a blurry image of someone swimming underwater for 1.5 minutes or less.  I can see why they didn't repeat the event.  (It's about as exciting as plunge for distance held in the 1904 summer Olympics, which is the same event, except you can only glide to the end, you can't kick or paddle so there's even less to watch.  Talk about dull!)  

Search Lessons



This week's Challenge wasn't that hard, although as always, there are sometimes nuances that require a bit more search skill than usual.  In this case, just choosing good search terms is (mostly) enough.  But in the case of foot-volleyball... 

1.  Expanding your search results by removing consistent terms can sometimes lead to surprising results.  In this case, the first query [ volleyball with feet ] gave us good results, but because Malaysia was SUCH a big part of those results, I thought about trying the query WITHOUT Malaysia.  That's how I found the  Brazilian version of the game.  (And yes, I did another query that was [ volleyball with feet -Malaysia -Brazil ], but it was clear that I'd fallen off the "good results" list at that point.  



Search on! 



Book update 


Sorry about being a day late with this week's SRS answer, but I have a good excuse... 

I spent yesterday in the lovely town of Victoria, British Columbia, giving my first book talk about The Joy of Search.  I was the keynote speaker at a small conference in the Computer Science department where I was able to hand out some of my postcards with the book information.  It's odd to have a book talk sans book, but the marketing collateral helps!  More talks to come, including one at the American Library Association conference next week.  If you're at the ALA meeting, come by and say hi!  (My talk is at 10:30AM on Saturday, June 22, 2019.)  




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Wednesday, June 5, 2019

SearchResearch Challenge (6/5/19): Unusual sports?


There are plenty of amazing sports... 


... many of which strike me as pretty unusual.  There's the annual wife-carrying competition (multiple locations), an international "worm charming" championship in Chesire (UK), and the locally well-known "kinetic sculpture race" in which contestants race their home-made (and wonderfully whacky) all-terrain human-powered vehicles over a 50 mile course of land, sand, water, and mud.  And then there was the "plunge for distance" where the competitor would do a racing dive into a pool, then glide as far as possible in 60 seconds.  



And as with all sporting events, questions inevitably arise.  Questions come up about the biggest, fastest, heaviest, most difficult, or tallest events, all of which drive many a discussion in the pub or over the dinner table.  It was questions like these that led to the creation of the Guinness World Book of Records.  

In recent ale- and stout-powered discussions, three sporting questions arose.  Can you use your SearchResearch skills to answer them? 

1. As Europe grows increasingly warmer with the passing years, will the long distance ice-skating race that passes through 11 Dutch towns still be able to be held?  What's that event called?  When was it last held (and who won)?  
2.  Several of us in the discussion were former collegiate volleyball players, but since it was a very international evening, other folks started to tell us about different versions of volleyball that are played with feet alone.  Is this for real?  How could you bump/set/spike a ball with just your feet?  If so, what is this sport, and where is it played?  (Participants insist there are at least 2 different versions of this sport.) 
3.  Although the next summer Olympics are still a year away, we started talking about former Olympic events that aren't held any more.  Tug of war at the summer Olympics (1900-1920) is a famous example of a now discontinued sport.  While there seems to be an endless number of swimming events, was there ever a swimming event that was held underwater?  If so, what was it?  When was it last held?  Is there an Olympic champion?  

This week's Challenge isn't that hard, although as always, there are sometimes nuances that require a bit more search skill than usual.  

What can you find out?  When you suss out the answer, let us know in the comment thread. 

Search on! 

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Answer: Why do I hear a trumpet?


The trumpet shall sound! 


This week's Challenge was a fun one, and tests your ability to sleuth out the backstory. 

I was walking down the street when I heard an odd trumpet tune being played.  It was a surprising tune--not quite a melody, but something puzzling and a little odd.  

Here's the picture I snapped as I listened to the trumpet call.  (And the link to the full-resolution image.) 




This mystery melody only took me a few moments to figure out...  Can you determine what it is, and WHY it is? The Challenge was this...   

1.  Challenge:  Why did I hear a trumpet at this place?  Why is the melody so strangely plaintive?  What's the story behind the this tune?  

To be honest, when I took this photo I did not expect that Search-by-Image would work.  It's at a bit of an odd angle, the lighting isn't perfect, and I'm standing on a side-street near the church that's not the usual location for a tourist photo.  

Still, Search-by-Image worked quite well.  This is what I found when I did the Search-by-Image method: 


To tell the truth, I have no idea why "Florian Street" is showing up here.  But part of being a great searcher is learning when to skip over off-topic results and zero in on what's relevant to you. In this case, the "Visually Similar Images" are pretty good, and the next part of the SERP is super relevant: 


When you click through that first result ("Home-Kraków112"), you quickly learn that this is St. Mary's Basilica in Kraków, Poland.  Then, a quick search for: 

     [ St. Mary's Krakow trumpet ] 

leads you to all kinds of results that tell the story of the Trumpeter of Kraków, and the melody that's played every hour (and then broadcast throughout Poland at noon).  

The story from the Krakow Signal website is that: 
The Krakow signal bugle call, or Hejnal Mariacki, dates back to the Middle Ages when it was announcing the opening and the closing of the city gates. The bugler also played it to alarm his fellow citizens whenever he saw a fire or the enemy forces. And the melody abrupt ending is said to commemorate a trumpeter from Krakow who was shot through his throat by a Tatar archer in 1241 when the Mongols besieged the city.

You can find multiple versions of this (probably apocryphal) story by clicking around a bit.  But the "plaintive" quality of the song is pointedly due to the trumpeter's arrow-filled demise on not-quite-the-last-note of the tune.  

The Wikipedia version of the trumpet of St. Mary's correctly points out that this trumpet call is actually spelled hejnał (the last "L" character has a slash through it and is pronounced like a "w," which means that hejnał is pronounced as "hey now").   

That Wiki article goes on with a more plausible story: 
Trumpet calls were used in many European cities to signal the opening and closing of city gates at dawn and dusk. The four directions in which the St. Mary's Trumpet Call is currently sounded correspond roughly to the four main Kraków gates before 3 out of 4 of the gates were demolished in the 19th century. 16th-century sources mention other trumpeters on other towers, and it is possible that the “interrupted” anthem was originally meant to allow a second trumpeter at a gate to signal the completion of the opening or closing of the gate. In historic times, trumpet calls on the St. Mary's Church tower were also used to warn of fires and other dangers.

With this search I also found a great video showing the interior of the trumpeter's tower, along with his performance:  



Oddly, for those people who actually looked up the EXIF metadata, you'll notice that it's pretty off on this image.  The lat/long in the EXIF is given as 50.063975,19.9446389 -- which is definitely in Kraków, but NOT anywhere near.  See the map below.  Here, the purple dot in the upper right corner is that lat/long, but the dot in the lower left is where I was actually standing. 


As you can see, it's an 8 minute walk (630 m) from where the phone thinks it was.  

I'm not 100% sure why it's so wrong, but I was standing on a fairly narrow street with only a limited view of the sky.  I might have just not had a very good set of satellites in the GPS signal range, and I just got unlucky.  Here's my view from Streetview from the place I was standing, at 5 Floriańska Street:

A view of St. Mary's Basilica (Bazylika Mariacka) from 5 Floriańska, Kraków, Poland.

(Yes, that's a street performer on the right side of the street, apparently suspended above the earth.)  

And now we know why we got that strange "Florian Street" result in the Search-By-Image result--"Florian" is "Floriańska" in Polish!   In this case, the Search-By-Image approach worked much better than using the EXIF GPS metadata.  


Search Lessons 


1. Double check your GPS data to make sure it's plausible.  As you can see, it's not always within a few meters of the target.  (In another case I found the image GPS data to be off by several kilometers!)  Using Google Maps it's pretty easy to ground-check the location to be sure it matches what you're seeing in the image.  Be sure to do this EVERY time you use EXIF metadata.  (The other EXIF metadata--time, focus, software version--is probably correct; it's just the GPS you have to really check carefully.)  

2. Search-by-Image can work well, even when you don't think it will.  SBI isn't a panacea, but depending on how many images there are on the web, you just might get lucky and find it!  

3.  Be sure to check other media.  In some ways, the video is the best summary of what we were searching for--it's certainly more contextualized.  You can hear the trumpeter playing, and hear a version of what I heard that day I was strolling down the street (at 11:02AM).  


That's it for this week.  

Search on! 


Wednesday, May 22, 2019

SearchResearch Challenge (5/22/19): Why do I hear a trumpet?


They say that travel broadens the mind... 

... and sets you up for some pretty remarkable surprises.  

This week's Challenge is a fun one, and will test your ability to sleuth out the backstory.  Can you do it? 

I was walking down the street when I heard an odd trumpet tune being played.  It was a surprising tune--not quite a melody, but something puzzling and a little odd.  

Here's the picture I snapped as I listened to the trumpet call.  (And the link to the full-resolution image.) 



This mystery melody only took me a few moments to figure out...  Can you determine what it is, and WHY it is?  

1.  Challenge:  Why did I hear a trumpet at this place?  Why is the melody so strangely plaintive?  What's the story behind the this tune?  

That's all for this week--this is a good one--not terribly difficult, but a bit of a surprise!  

Once you figure it out, be sure to let us know HOW you did it!  

Search on!  


-- -- -- -- -- 
My new book is now available on Amazon for pre-order: 

The Joy of Search:  A Google Insider's Guide to Going Beyond the Basics 



Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Answer: What's the story with these things?

Where was I?    

This week's Challenge is another in our series of "What's the story?"  

This week's Challenge wasn't difficult in the ordinary sense. (I figure that you'll be able to search out the place and name of the things.)  But these questions give us a chance to dig into the remarkable stories that are associated with these places.  


Here's what I found, and how I found it.  

1.  I saw this remarkable beast of a device that's labelled as "Clydeport" just across the river from where I'm staying.  I can figure out what it is, but I know nothing of its genesis or why it's there?  Can you search out the story?   (Here I've pasted a small image so the SRS page will load quickly.  But here's a LINK if you'd like to download the whole image.) 

What / Where / Why is this beast?  

I recognize that shape as a crane, used for loading and unloading ships.  So I just did: 
     [ clydeport crane ] 
and quickly found the Wikipedia article on the Finnieston Crane.  That article tells us that:
"...The Finnieston Crane or Stobcross Crane is a disused giant cantilever crane in the centre of Glasgow, Scotland. It is no longer operational, but is retained as a symbol of the city's engineering heritage. The crane was used for loading cargo, in particular steam locomotives, onto ships to be exported around the world. It is one of four such cranes on the River Clyde, a fifth one having been demolished in 2007, and one of only eleven giant cantilever cranes remaining worldwide. The crane can be seen in the background of news broadcasts from BBC Pacific Quay.
Finnieston Crane in use.  1957
Naturally, I checked a few other sources by doing the query: 
     [ Finnieston crane ] 
finding the port's own website in the process.  Their page about the crane also tells us that: 
"...A noticeable peculiarity of each lateral movement [of the crane] was that it was not continuous, but took place in gentle jerks of a few inches at a time. The object of this is to prevent the load at the end of the cables acquiring a swinging motion, which would soon render the accurate placing of any load a matter of great difficulty and danger...I saw the heavy machinery ... placed in a few minutes into a space where there was hardly an inch to spare on one side or the other, all the directions during this delicate operation being conveyed to the craneman by signs, and blasts on a whistle..."
Having been a swamper to a crane operator (job description) in my youth, I can attest that this is a great property for a big crane to have.  When you're the swamper directing a crane, the operator often can't see where the load is supposed to land (e.g., inside the belly of a ship).  Stability and accuracy are key to getting this job done safely.  A mistake of a couple of inches can make for a very expensive (or deadly) disaster.  To be able to drop a locomotive inside of a ship with an accuracy of a few inches is quite an achievement.  
To check up on this claim, I followed the link in the Wikipedia article references to the book Imperial Cities: Landscape, Display and Identity.  In this book we learn that the locomotives were dragged from their assembly plant to the dock by using Clydesdale horses is particularly remarkable.  (Just to remind you, Clydesdale horses are named for the county of Clydesdale, which is the old name for the current county of Lanarkshire, noted for the River Clyde running through it, which is where Glasgow is.  These aren't just horses, they're very strong local horses.) 
Here's the only photo I could find of a horse pulling a train car (although I can't tell where it is).  Apparently there aren't any of Clydesdales pulling locomotives through the streets of Glasgow, although I wish I could find one.  (Any SRS Readers in Glasgow know of one?) . 


And here's the crane in a shot from BBC Scotland (see arrow).  


2.  About 1/2 mile away from this thing is a slightly mysterious building.  It has a nice Italian restaurant on the bottom floor, but this building was clearly NOT designed to be an Italian restaurant.  This kind of mismatch makes me curious.  What is this building?  And what was it originally designed to do?   LINK to the full image.  

What / Where / Why is this building?  
As many SRS Readers did, I used what I had and searched for: 
     [ la Fiorentina building Glasgow ] 
And much to my surprise, this leads to the restaurant's website that claims: 
"La Fiorentina occupies the ground floor of the landmark Angel building at Paisley Rd Toll. Famous throughout the city as Ogg Brothers Drapery Warehouse... Look up and you’ll see a gilded angel known as “Commerce and Industry” reaching into the sky. The sculpture was commissioned as part of the original building in 1889 and was probably the work of James Alexander Ewing...."  
This is great, but again, I want to triangulate this claim and find a very different source for it.  My next query was for: 
     [ James Alexander Ewing angel ] 
which led to multiple hits.  My favorite was Glasgow Sculptors, which repeats another variation of this story, and tells us that James Alexander Ewing also made a rooftop angel at 520 Sauchiehall Street.  A quick trip to that location using Google Streetview and I have these two angels side-by-side: 


You can see a decided similarity in style (especially in the angle of the angel's wings, the odd notch in the trailing edge of the wings, and the style of the cloth around the legs). 
But there were others, including the Evening Times of Glasgow's article about the Angel.  On the other hand, a book about the sculptures of Glasgow, Look up Glasgow, confirms that this building is at 2-20 Paisley Road but lists the sculptor as unknown.  (It also asks "why is there a star on this angel's head?"--great question.. don't know... another SearchResearch Challenge in the future?)
On the other hand, Regular Reader Jon (the Unknown) found a great drone flyover video of the building.  One frame from that building shows the angel in from an angel's perspective (as it were): 
Frame from drone flyover video. The angel is atop the tower on the left. 

Search Lessons

1.  As usual: Work with what you have.  The big sign saying "Clydeport" and knowing it's in Glasgow is a big tipoff.  From that we can work the story forward, finding its history, current disposition, and some surrounding stories for context. 
2. Working forward.  In the case of the Angel building, once again, working forward from the restaurant name to the history books leads to a more-or-less consensus about the sculpture (1899, by Ewing), and what the building's original purpose (as a draper's shop and storage).  But we need to have some occasional flashes of insight, as when SRS RR Jon suggested looking in the British Newspaper Archive.  (Free, but requires a login.) You can read a lot about the Oggs' shop in Glasgow.  

Published: Saturday 04 September 1909 in the Hamilton Herald and Lanarkshire Weekly News.  

Search on! 

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

SearchResearch Challenge (5/8/19): What's the story with these things?


I'm in a port city somewhere in the English-speaking world.  

This place is full of remarkable places, and in my walkabout today I saw two things that I didn't know anything about, and for which there was basically no signage.  I suppose if you're a local, these things are obvious--but they're not obvious to me!  

This Challenge is another in our series of "What's the story?"  

As you remember, each "What's the Story?" Challenge will be an open-ended question (or two) that asks you, the SearchResearcher, to figure out what's going on in the image.  I figure that you'll be able to search out the place and name of the things--but can you also dig into the remarkable stories that are associated with these places?  



1.  I saw this remarkable beast of a device that's labelled as "Clydeport" just across the river from where I'm staying.  I can figure out what it is, but I know nothing of its genesis or why it's there?  Can you search out the story?   (Here I've pasted a small image so the SRS page will load quickly.  But here's a LINK if you'd like to download the whole image.) 

What / Where / Why is this beast?  


2.  About 1/2 mile away from this thing is a slightly mysterious building.  It has a nice Italian restaurant on the bottom floor, but this building was clearly NOT designed to be an Italian restaurant.  This kind of mismatch makes me curious.  What is this building?  And what was it originally designed to do?   LINK to the full image.  

What / Where / Why is this building?  


As always, use your best SRS skills--and when you figure out the answers (including the backstories), let us know what you found and HOW you found it.  Leave your pearls of wisdom in the comment!  

Good luck!  (I've figured out the first one but haven't yet tackled the second.  This might be tough to find.) . 

Search on!