Wednesday, November 14, 2018

SearchResearch Challenge (11/14/18): How many wildfires in California over the past 20 years?

As you probably have heard… 

… California is suffering from an especially dramatic, draining, and difficult wildfire season. 

There’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not this is more fire than usual, or if it’s part of a longer trend.  As you might expect, there has been a lot of debate about whether this fire season is due to global warming, or if it’s just “forest mismanagement.”  

Regular Reader Ramón asked this question of me, and I thought it would be a superb Challenge for the  week.  

Here’s this week’s Challenge, based on Ramón’s original question… 

1. How has the number of wildfires changed over the years in California?  Where there more (or fewer) in the past than is taking place now?  

I suspect that the only way to answer this is to find an authoritative data base of California wildfires.  (Note:  I haven’t solved this Challenge yet, so I’m open to being surprised.)  Once we find that database, we might be able to easily create a plot of the number over the years and discover if there's any particular trend.  

For the sake of consistency and simplicity, let’s assume that any fire that’s larger than 10 acres in size is a “wildfire.”  

Can you answer the Challenge for this week?  

Let us know how you go about solving this one.  

Search on! 

P.S. For people worried about how close I am to the wildfires, they’re nowhere close.  On the other hand, we ARE getting a lot of smoke from the Camp Fire near Chico (up in the northeast part of the state).  The breathing has been hazardous at times, so I can only imagine how bad it is up there, near the fires.  

This is a composite image from NASA showing the size of the Camp Fire (Paradise, CA).  The white rectangle on the right is about 20 miles high (32 km) and 10 miles wide (16 km).  

Just to show it up close: 

This NASA image is from the Operational Land Imager aboard the NASA-USGS Landsat 8 satellite. California's Camp Fire on Nov. 8, 2018, around 10:45 a.m. local time (1845 GMT).
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from USGS

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Answer: Is this a safe treatment for caries?

One of my goals in writing this blog... 

... is to develop some skills that are useful in general.  You know, real skills for real problems.  
In medicine, new treatments and therapies come to market every so often, and many people wonder--is this good for me?  Does this actually work?  What are the risks and benefits? 
In general, how do you evaluate these things?  
This week we consider the dental treatment SDF (Silver Diamine Fluoride).  It's a simple, low-cost way to treat teeth with a coating that not only prevents future cavities (caries), but also seems able to reverse the damage in some existing cavities. 

Suppose that you're considering getting this treatment for someone in your family.  How would you go about doing some checking to see if it's effective, and if it's safe.  (As you know, not all medical treatments turn out to be safe in the end; think radioactive water as a spa treatment... a really bad idea.) 

Ideally, we--the SearchResearchers of the world--would be able to do some kind of sanity check before taking on a new treatment regime. 

This leads to today's Challenge: 
1.  How would you go about determining if SDF is right for you, your family, or your child?  What would you do to research this?  Would you get SDF? 
We SRS folks have a fairly high bar for this kind of research.  We'd like to find multiple lines of support from sources we trust.  So I began with a simple query to learn more about SDF treatment: 
     [ how does SDF treatment work ] 
And found a quick answer at the California Dental Association
"Silver diamine fluoride (SDF) is a topical medication used to slow down or stop dental decay in both primary and permanent teeth. ... When applied to a tooth with a cavity, SDF hardens the softened tooth structure, turning the damaged portion of the tooth black in color."  
That's from the California Dental Association (the CDA, which I happen to know is a reputable information provider).  But true to my skeptical nature, I double checked:  the CDA has been around since 1870 and has a great record of being both a philanthropic organization and a provider of information about dentistry in general. 
Now I have an idea what it is and how it works.  It's interesting that they go on to say that: 
"SDF is a conservative approach to managing dental decay and can be used on teeth where there is no pain or discomfort. It is particularly useful for providing dental care to individuals who present challenges to receiving traditional treatment because of their age, behavioral issues, or medical conditions." 
At this point, I wanted  a broad range of perspectives on SDF treatment, so I did a simpler query: 
     [ SDF treatment ] 
and started opening up multiple tabs side-by-side.  Here are some of the pages I opened up (and a few things I learned from each):  
1. Silver Diamine Fluoride: A New, Old Approach to Dental Caries Management.  This is a presentation by Scott L. Tomar (DMD, DrPH) from the 2016 American Association of Community Dental Programs conference.  It's a pretty nice summary (with lots of photos) about how SDF is used, when it should be used, and when it shouldn't.  It gives a bunch of references to other articles about SDF, including what the toxicity is (extraordinarily low) and generally seems very practical.  This is someone who uses SDF in his practice and comments on how it's accepted.  (And gives some very practical advice about its use:  "SDF stains the crap out of everything.")  The author also points out that silver fluoride has been used in Japan for 80 years without any issues.  (Interestingly, they used it to turn teeth black as a cosmetic treatment for teeth!)  
2.  Found several fact sheets about SDF by various community dental programs.  (Little Pearls dentistry for kids; America Academy for Pediatric Dentistry and others.  They all agree--SDF is great for kids because there's no pain, just a gentle painting of the teeth with a microbrush.  Some parts of the teeth do turn black, but only the parts that already have cavities.  As they point out, "that's how you know it's working!"  They correctly point out that inner cavities and difficult to reach cavities are probably not a concern, and visible caries need some other kind of treatment.  

With the query: 
     [ SDF for adults ] 
I found another trove of papers from reputable sources.  For instance, 
3.  A paper from the American Dental Association on Guidelines for SDF treatment of pediatric and special needs patients.  They're more cautious, but point out that SDF works exceptionally well for pediatric and special needs patients (who might have difficulty brushing their own teeth), but that the results are so intriguing that they're going to do additional research. 
4. But in another paper, A systematic review of silver diamine fluoride: Effectiveness and application in older adults.  This is another study of another kind of cavity, this time in older adults.  The results are amazingly good--the effectiveness is incredibly high, and no adverse side-effects were noted. 
To be ultra-cautious, I did searches for: 
     [ SDF adverse reactions ] 
     [ SDF side-effects ] 
and found nothing of consequence.  Everyone noted the staining (and in particular, that if you get it on the patients tongue, they'll have a black mark that will last for a week or so... but it's painless and goes away quickly).  
Overall I read about 5 papers from very different sources (some very technical, from highly regarded journals) and another 10 or so summaries for patients by different dentists who use SDF.  
I admit I was slightly skeptical about this universal acclaim, but then I looked up the cost of the standard SDF medicine that the dentists use.  It's $100/bottle.  Each bottle has around 250 drops, or around 40¢/drop.  Each drop treats around 5 teeth.  You can do the math... that's 8 cents / tooth: Nobody is making any money on this. It just looks like a very effective, very cheap therapy for dental cavities.  
Oddly enough, I actually had to visit my dentist this week and when I asked her about SDF she too was concerned about potential blackening, but "otherwise it sounds great for kids!"  (She also asked if I was studying dentistry... Apparently few people ask about SDF.    
A funny aside:  Since it was Halloween, we considered vampire teeth.. like these...

If I were a vampire, I'd worry about the number of cavities caused by an all-blood diet.  I know that the Maasai of the African veldt have a large amount of cow blood and milk in their diet, and surprisingly, they have very low rates of dental cavities. But if very modern vampires (who might consume larger amounts of sugar in their diets) are concerned about caries on their fangs, then SDF might be just the ticket.  And if they happen to turn black, then so much the better, eh? 

Search Lessons 

In this case, the research is pretty overwhelmingly positive.  As one of the research papers I read (UCSF Protocol for Caries Arrest Using Silver Diamine Fluoride: Rationale, Indications, and Consent, J Calif Dent Assoc. 2016 Jan; 44(1): 16–28) pointed out: 
 "Silver diamine fluoride is an inexpensive topical medicament used extensively in other countries to treat dental caries across the age spectrum. No other intervention approaches the ease of application and efficacy. Multiple randomized clinical trials – with hundreds of patients each – support use for caries treatment, thus substantiating an intervention that addresses an unmet need in American dentistry. In August 2014 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared the first silver diamine fluoride product for market, and as of April 2015 that product is available."
Although I spent a fair bit of time looking for side-effects and adverse side effects (my searches also included the fancy medical term "contraindications," I just didn't find anything.  
So.. would I use this for me and my family?  Yes, although probably not on the front teeth!  
This was a surprisingly simple SRS Challenge.  It was probably a 30 minute task to become comfortable with the current state of research on SDF.  That's a remarkable thing to say.  (I remember when this same kind of background research would have taken days!)  
Search on!  

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

SearchResearch Challenge (10/31/18): Is this a safe treatment for caries?

Let's consider a real question... 

As you know, new therapies come onto the market every so often. Those therapies have risks and benefits.  How do you evaluate these things?  What do you do to actually do the research you need to evaluate these things? 

Consider this one:  SDF (Silver Diamine Fluoride) treatment is a way to treat teeth with a simple coating that not only prevents future cavities (caries), but also seems able to reverse the damage in some existing cavities.  

Suppose that you're considering getting this treatment for someone in your family.  How would you go about doing some checking to see if it's effective, and if it's safe.  (As you know, not all medical treatments turn out to be safe in the end; think radioactive water as a spa treatment... a really bad idea.)  

Ideally, we--the SearchResearchers of the world--would be able to do some kind of sanity check before taking on a new treatment regime.  

This leads to today's Challenge:  

1.  How would you go about determining if SDF is right for you, your family, or your child?  What would you do to research this?  Would you get SDF? 

Of course I'm interested in what YOU think about SDF, but just as importantly, HOW did you come to this determination?  What steps did you take?  What sources you think are credible, and why?  

Please leave notes about your process in the comments below. I'm looking for some great thoughts here.  Let us all learn how you would do this! 

Search on! 

(And of course, since it's Halloween today, be sure to consider the effects of SDF on vampire teeth!) 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Answer: How can I find lists of things?

A list of items is a useful thing to have. 

When you're learning something new, having a list of examples of that thing gives you something to learn from.  It's a natural way to try and get your mind around a given topic.  We do this all the time.  

This week's Challenge is intended to show you how to quickly get a list of a category.    

As I mentioned, I wanted a list of Pre-Raphaelite artists, and was able to get Google to give me this list.    

But the Challenge was to find a general way to get such lists of things.  Here's the Challenge:  

1.  Can you find a way to find a set of each of the following:  
      a.  Pre-Raphaelite artists 
      b.  fictional works written in the Regency era
      c.  clans in Scotland
      d.  trees that are evergreen throughout the year 
      e.  Canadian Prime Ministers   

In the comments people found out how to do this fairly quickly.  (Note to Regular Readers--not all of the SRS Challenges are hard!!)  

For the Pre-Raphaelite, all I did was: 

     [ list of Pre-Raphaelite artists ] 

and that gave me the set you see above (that I re-arranged slightly to fit into the blog format).  Here's what the SERP looks like: 

Notice the link I highlighted with the red arrow?  That's a link to the Category page on this topic for "Pre-Raphaelite painters."  That's the Wiki version of the "list of all X" for that category.  

This is a useful thing to know about.  You can ALSO search for Category pages like this: 

(Notice that I changed the query slightly to "Scottish clans" -- I tried "clans of Scotland," but found that this worked better.)  

I also modified the evergreens query from the original Challenge question  "trees that are evergreen throughout the year" to [ list of evergreens ] 

As with the other SERPs, notice that there are a few "People Also Ask" questions that can be useful for your research.  

Probably the biggest surprise for me was that the query: 

     [ list of Regency novels ] 

worked SO well:  

HOWEVER.. You might have been thinking of works published in the Regency era (that is, between 1811 and 1822, like Pride and Prejudice) and not a more recent novel like Arabella (published in 1949).  

What happened?  Well, "Regency," when used to describe fiction, now also means:  

1.  Classic Regency fiction written between 1811 and 1822. The works of Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, Susan Ferrier, and Maria Edgeworth were all written during this time period.  

2.  Modern Regency fiction, that is, fiction set within the Regency era. These are primarily romance novels (called "Regency romances"), historical fiction set in that period, detective fiction, and military fiction.

A slightly different query, 

     [ list of Regency era novels ] 

gives a more satisfying result.  

And of course, this works with Canadian Prime Ministers as well:  

In this case, I'd like to see a full list of the PMs along with their terms in office, just to check for completeness.  

My favorite list?  Probably this list of early musical instruments.  (That's what you get when you go for Baroque!)   

Although in second place would have to be the Wikipedia List of Lists of Lists!  

Search Lessons

There are really three things to point out this week: 

1.  Check your results!  I know I say this all the time, but the Regency Challenge points it out again.  If you didn't look at some of the results, you might well think that Lord of Scoundrels was written in the early 19th century.  Not so.  Be sure to at least spot check items in any list that you find.  (You might find a scoundrel or two lying in wait.)  

2.  Remember the Category: pages of Wikipedia.  They're often not fought over very much, so they're a bit less likely to have vandalism... and there are Category: pages of things you might never have thought about.  They're worth a look. 

3.  The query [ list of ... ] is a handy construct to use when you're just beginning to learn about something.  

Enjoy your listing. 

Search on!  

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Baader-Meinhof effect and flying over the southwest United States

The frequency illusion... 

... aka the Baader-Meinhof effect, happens when you learn something new, and then suddenly start to see it everywhere.  This happens when you finally decide to buy a new car and after weeks of agonizing, you finally pick that very special one, the very distinctive car that speaks to only you.  You're so happy.  

And then you start to see that car everywhere. It's not distinctive at all, but actually pretty common.  

That's the Baader-Meinhof effect.  It happens because you don't notice all of the cars that are just like it before you made the choice--it's an illusion of the frequency of the item.  

It also happens with words.  If I use the term whale shark and you learn that as a new concept, suddenly you'll see it everywhere.  Trust me, you'll start to see whale shark everywhere now.  

So when Regular Reader Ramón wrote it with a Washington Post article, it was a nice example of this effect.  He found a real, live example of our Challenge from last week:  How can I make a movie of my flight?  In that post, I show you how to make a video by using Google Earth to capture a flight path.  

Ramón noticed that the Post article "Flying over Trump's wall" used the exact same technique (although they did some great post-production video editing).   In an early part of the fly-over, it looks like this: 

Thanks for the find, Ramón!  Now we all know how this brilliant piece of visualization was created.  

Search (and visualize) on! 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

SearchResearch Challenge (10/18/18): How can you find lists of things?

I often find myself in the position of looking... 

... for a list of things.  It's a natural way to try and get your mind around a given topic--if I can give you a list of items in that category, you'll get a sense of how that category of thing is defined (or at least how it looks).  People often do this when it's hard to define something precisely.  The difference between a vegetable and a fruit is tricky, but if I tell you that apples, strawberries, bananas, and grapes are all fruits while potatoes, carrots, corn, and peas are all vegetables, you'll start to get the idea. This doesn't give you a technical definition (difficult question: is a cucumber a fruit or a vegetable?), but it gives you a working intuition.  

This came up for me a few weeks ago when I went to see an art exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelites.  I love their artwork, and while I knew a few of the artists (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and John William Waterhouse, I couldn't name any others, although I know I'd recognize their names).  Who are these folks??   Here's the kind of thing I wanted to get from a search:  

This week's Challenge is to figure out the best way to search on Google for a set of things that share a common property.  That is, to find a way to create this image above.  The Challenge: 

1.  Can you find a way to find a set of each of the following:  
      a.  Pre-Raphaelite artists 
      b.  fictional works written in the Regency era
      c.  clans in Scotland
      d.  trees that are evergreen throughout the year 
      e.  Canadian Prime Ministers   

Once you figure out how to do this, you'll be able to this, and much more!

As always, be sure to tell us how you do it. 

AND... if you find a particularly interesting set of things, be sure to leave a comment telling us about the great set you found (and what it is!).  

Search on!