Thursday, July 18, 2024

Answer: How can we find the best way to track developments in AI?

 Tracking is an important skill to have... 

Not an actual server farm, but one imagined by Meta's gen-AI.

... and we need to get good at it.  

This week we asked ourselves, "How can we best teach ourselves about current developments in AI?"   In other words, how can I be an autodidact about AI, a field that's changing rapidly?  

So... this Challenge is really about what you do when you've got to drink from the raging torrent of your latest topic area.  Here's some practical advice that might help you out...   

1.  What should I do to stay on top of / learn-about / understand the development happening right now in AI?  Some of the tactics we talked about last week kind-of don't work well (the textbooks haven't been written yet), and even taking a course means re-taking that course a year later when everything changes.  So... what's a SearchResearcher to do?  What advice would you give?  What resources have you found that help answer this Challenge? 

This kind of rapid following / tracking is an important skill, perhaps now more than ever.  

Here's my summary of what I do to try and stay on top of the AI game.  (You can substitute your favorite fast-changing topic for "AI" in all that follows.)  

1. Track the news through blogs.  I sign up for new AI-tracking blogs when I see new posts, but I also fairly actively prune away the ones that aren't satisfying my interests.  I currently follow: 

Ben's Bites - mostly AI product launches

MLearning.ai - lots of how-to articles, a few good in-depth reporting articles 

Jakob Nielsen on UX - but these days, mostly about the UX of AI 

TLDR - 1 post/day, AI, ML, data science news 

OpenAI blog - somewhat irregular

Google's Gemini blog - 1/week; lots of Gemini promotional stuff

Perplexity's blog - also somewhat infrequent 

MIT AI News - academic, but really interesting

But note that this list will change as I add new blogs and delete ones that have drifted away from my interests.  Don't just keep adding stuff to your list! Keep looking for newer / better / more aligned with your interests.  (And be ruthless about getting rid of the deadwood.)  

SRS Regular Reader Arthur gave some good advice in his response: 

So I try to drink from that fire hose through blogs (AI Secret, There's an AI for That, The Rundown AI, and also posts from Perplexity's blogYou.com and others that say what's happening. I file these in a dedicated folder that at some point I can use AI to summarise and draw out the gold. (I haven't yet - but it's an option).

More importantly when something new grabs my attention I try it out. Whether it's Claude3.5, Llama3, DBRX on HuggingFace, ChatGPT4.5o and so on.

Arthur's advice is good:  pick a few blogs to follow and try out new capabilities as you read about them.  (Don't wait!)  Experience beats reading in this regard.  

2. Set up Google Alerts.  We've talked about this before, but it's worth a reminder.  You can set up alerts to run a daily query for you and then email you the latest results.  Set up one or two and try it out at Google Alerts. You can set up an alert to track a specific company (e.g., OpenAI) or a specific site that publishes a lot of breaking results (e.g., arXiv.org).  

3. Set up Google Scholar Alerts.  We've also talked about this before...  You can set up alerts to run a daily query for you just on Google Scholar contents and then email you the latest results. Very handy for tracking the academic work that's going on in your area of interest.  Check out this great article about setting up a Scholar Alert from the University of Tennessee.  Note that these results are completely disjoint from the regular Google Alerts.  

4. Set up Google YouTube Alerts.  Yes, YouTube has its own series of alerts.  (Here's how to set them up. Yes, they are also disjoint from regular Alerts.)  You can go set them up to be notified when a favorite Tuber drops an explainer or demo.  (These can really be quite good: take a look at some of these papers.)  Channels like "AI Explained" and "Two Minute Papers" provide accessible explanations of complex AI concepts and recent developments

5. LinkedIn. Remarkably, LinkedIn has become an incredibly valuable source of up-to-the-second information.  I have a lot of connections that help keep me on top of the news, but I have found that following some folks like Ethan Mollick, Gary Marcus, Andrej Karpathy, and Eric Horvitz.  You'll find more people that align with your interests.   

Most importantly: I spend around 1 hour / day just doing my AI/UX reading--it's baked into my daily routine.  It's really the only way to keep on top.  Pretend you're taking a course on AI technology and this is your study time.  

But don't fret if you miss a day or two--it's not worth your time to feel guilty about missing a few things.  It really is a fire hose out there, and your FOMO is just a burden.  Delete all the notifications you received (or give them a quick once-over before deleting) and get back to your normal practice.  

Keep Searching! 

Friday, July 12, 2024

PSA: How to grab text from an image

 Every so often... 

Pieces of paper falling from the sky. P/C by Gemini.

... I find myself with an image that contains a bunch of text.  If it's short, I'll just type it into my notes.  I'm a reasonably fast typist, so it's not a problem.  

But then I get images with a lot of text, or very specific text with a lot of special characters (e.g., URLs or fragments of code), and I really would rather just copy/paste the text out of the image.  

Here's a short list of ways to do this.  Should this happen to you, learn one of these methods and make it a quick/easy thing to do.  Hope you find this useful in your own SRS work: 

1. Use your image clipping tool's grab text feature.  I happen to use Snagit as my image grab tool of choice.  When I see an image with text, I grab the image and then use SnagIt's "Grab Text" tool (Edit>Grab Text) to copy the text out of the image.  Here's an example.  This is an image of a text page from one of Ethan Mollick's LinkedIn posts.  As you can see, this is just long enough that I'd rather grab it than type it.  


Then, grabbing the text is a click away: 


It's then copy/pasteable. Most (modern) image screencapture tools have something like this.  If yours doesn't, consider changing to one that does.  



2. (Mac) Use Preview.  If you open an image with text in the Preview app, use the Text Selection tool (Tools>Text Selection). After you select the text, you can CMD+C to copy it, then paste anywhere.  

3. (Windows) Use the Snipping tool to do the same thing. (Here's a handy video showing you how.)  


4. (iPhone) Use the text grab tool.  When you take an image with text on it, use the tool in the lower right of the image area (looks like lines of text surrounded by a rounded-edge fence).   


This is especially handy when traveling in another country when you can take a pic, then click on the "copy text" tool.  


Then swipe over the text you want to copy (or translate) with your finger: 


And then translate, copy, or lookup as you wish: 



5. (Android) Use the text grab tool.  When you take an image with text on it, Android gives a large button that says "Copy text from image" (see below).  You can also click on the "Lens" option to grab the text as well.    




I had to look this up the other day to get a particular job done--and this PSA might help you avoid the same search.  


Keep searching. 


Thursday, July 11, 2024

More on: Do not believe citations created by Gemini

 I wrote a post in February of this year... 


... saying that the citations generated by Google's Gemini were not to be believed.  

Since I believe in second chances and redemption, I revisited that post and re-did the queries.  

It pains me to say that Gemini has not improved--if anything, it's gotten worse. 

On the other hand, other LLMs have really stepped up their games.  Perplexity, Claude, and ChatGPT 4o have gotten significantly better. They're now to the point where I'm going use them in my daily research.  I'll still check their work, but in several cases, I've learned things that I wouldn't have found otherwise.  

The Details 

Yesterday, I redid my queries to Gemini, Perplexity, Claude, ChatGPT4o, and Meta's AI (which uses Llama 3).  The two queries were: 

Q1:     [ why have house sparrows expanded their range
              dramatically since being introduced into the US,
              while Eurasian tree sparrows have not?
              They're so similar, you'd think they would
              expand at a similar rate. ]

and... 

Q2:     [ can you suggest further reading in the scientific
             literature about the differences in range expansion? ] 

Here's the summary of what worked and what didn't.  


Gemini: The answer to Q1 is short and correct.  It did not go very deep into any reasons for the differences.  It was a merely okay answer.  Oddly, it listed 2 citations for its writing, but somehow neglected to actually give the citations!  (That is, the text has reference numbers like this: [1] -- but there's no actual citation for [1]!)  

But Gemini's answer to Q2 was terrible. It gave 3 suggestions for further reading, but instead of actually giving the citations or a link to the papers, it totally punted!  In two of the three suggestions, it says "[invalid URL removed]" -- what?  In the 3rd citation, it shows blue text, as though was a link to a paper, but there's no link there.  It's just blue text.  WTF?  

TLDR--Gemini's answers were short and misleading. No actual citations were produced.  A pretty bad shortfall.  


Perplexity: Answered Q1 with 7 reasons, all with citations (that worked!) to reasonable literature.  Best of all, Perplexity found an answer to the question that all of the other LLMs missed (House sparrows have a really robust immune system, letting them outcompete the Eurasians).  I'm impressed.  

 Perplexity's answer to Q2 listed 4 excellent papers in the scientific literature. Well done.  

Even better, Perplexity now has a "Pro Search" capability that allows it to dig more deeply into the literature.  That is, it does a kind of "slow search" (a term coined by my friend and fellow SearchResearch scientist Jamie Teevan) digging into extra resources to give a better answer to the query.  

Using Perplexity Pro Search found 5 additional papers that are all real papers that are spot on.  (What impressed me the most is that Pro Search found a great paper that had eluded me when using traditional search methods.  Kudos.)  


ChatGPT4o:  The overview answer to Q1 is fairly good--accurate in all details.  Not especially deep, but fine as an introduction.  

But ChatGPT's answer to Q2 wasn't as good as Perplexity's.  The citations were often to book chapters that are VERY hard to access.  One of them was written in 1951, which is fine, but really hard to access.  (And, truthfully, the field has moved on from there!)  

And, because hallucinations run deep, one of the citations is fictitious.  Alas.  It was going well, but then the LLM had to make up one of the papers.  Dang.  


Claude: Also had a good answer to Q1--deeper than Gemini, about the same as ChatGPT.  No citations, but not bad.  

The answer to Q2 was much like ChatGPT's answer--slightly dated, with one hallucinated citation.  And one of the citations is to an actual chapter in a book, The Birds of North America, but it's a massive book that comes in 18 volumes (and costs more than $2000)... but the citation doesn't say which volume it's in!  So close. 


Meta AI: A decent answer to Q1, but the answer to Q2 is a bit confused.  The answer lists 7 factors that contribute to the difference in success (well done!), but the citations are deeply messed up.  Three of the bullet points list citation #1 as their source, but each bullet point describes the citation in a different way!  (As a book chapter, as a summary article, or as a journal paper.)  It looks like there were supposed to be 3 different citations, but they somehow all got lumped together.  Maybe there's good stuff in there, but it's hard to tell--the citations are missing and mixed up with each other.


Bottom line:  If I was giving out grades: 


Why am I so tough on Gemini?  Mostly because, like many teachers, I want to say "you're not living up to expectations."  Google has Scholar, for heaven's sake.  It should be trivial to check their own results. There's no reason it should be producing "[invalid URL removed]" in the results.  This text suggests that they ARE checking, but then not following through when the check fails.  

By contrast, I am really impressed with Perplexity. I'll be using it more-and-more!  (But, as always, I'll be double-checking everything.  Great results on this short test, but I still have my doubts.)  

For people who want to delve more deeply into what I saw as the results, here's a link to a PDF with images of all the results. You can check them out if you'd like to see what I saw in my testing.  


Keep searching.  (And keep double checking those AI results!)  

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

SearchResearch Challenge (7/10/24): How can we find the best way to track developments in AI?

 A logical continuation from last week's Challenge... 

Not an actual server farm, but one imagined by Meta's gen-AI.

... is to ask ourselves "How can we best teach ourselves about current developments in AI?"   In other words, how can I be an autodidact about AI, a field that's changing rapidly?  

Assuming you read last week's Answer to the Challenge of How to Find the Best Learning Resources in a Field?  you'll appreciate the distinction here.  That was about how to teach yourself about a field that currently exists and has many resources to search out and use. It was all about how to teach yourself about a deep, quiet pool of knowledge in an area.   

But the current wave of AI developments and research results is pretty staggering.  It's a growing, flowering, burgeoning field... more of a raging torrent of claims, counter-claims, launches, take-downs, and lawsuits.  

How can a person deal with all this?  

You've heard the metaphor:tracking all of the changes in information technology is like "drinking from a fire hose."  That's not bad, but fully charged fire hoses are relatively rare, while it seems that every few months yet another torrent of information springs up, raging down the hillsides and into our lives.  It's not just AI, but also connectomics (how brains are wired), epigenetics (the study of how inheritance happens without DNA), synthetic biology (how to engineer organisms for various purposes), or health data sensors (gadgets to track health data).  Hey, even a field that you THINK would be quiet and placid like archaeology turns out to be pretty active as new imaging systems and sensing technologies hit the field.  We live in a time of rapid development--the science and tech rains deliver a new waterfall of knowledge each week!  

So... this Challenge is really about what you do when you've got to drink from the raging torrent of your latest topic area.  Let's frame this meta-Challenge with respect to AI.  After all, in our SearchResearch land, the developments in AI are rapidly changing things we knew about online research.  

1.  What should I do to stay on top of / learn-about / understand the development happening right now in AI?  Some of the tactics we talked about last week kind-of don't work well (the textbooks haven't been written yet), and even taking a course means re-taking that course a year later when everything changes.  So... what's a SearchResearcher to do?  What advice would you give?  What resources have you found that help answer this Challenge? 

As always... 

Keep Searching!  




Friday, July 5, 2024

Answer: How to find the best learning resources in a crowded field?

 If you're going to teach yourself something...  

Pyramid of Giza. P/C Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash

... you might as well start at the beginning.  Since Ancient Egyptian history begins around 3150 BCE, that pretty much qualifies as "the beginning."  (Yes, I know there are earlier civs, but it's a nice, big topic with great resources to demonstrate my points today.)    

As I said, suppose, just suppose, someone in your household gets an interest in learning about ancient Egypt.  It won't take you long to learn that there's an entire scholarly discipline on the subject. 

Knowing that brings up an entire world of questions--how can I approach teaching myself a big topic?  

And so... 

1. How would you organize a plan to learn about Ancient Egypt?  What kinds of searches would you do to get to the heart of a big, well-established topic like this?  What kinds of things should one think about when starting on such a project?  

The first thing to think about (and be able to answer)... 

1. What do I want to learn about this topic? 

It's important to know for yourself what you're trying to learn.  Note that it's totally fine to wander around without a goal, but understanding what you want to learn will help determine your steps.

There are several kinds of ways you can answer that question ("what do I want to learn?"). 

Topic area: The hardest thing when you start to teach yourself a topic is knowing what's in it. With a gigantic topic like Ancient Egypt, there are a zillion subtopics in that space.  Advice:  Start with what interested you and expand as you learn more.  But be metacognitively Marie Kondo about your topic choices--"will learning this topic spark joy in my life?"  Remember you can always change your topic areas as you learn more.  (It might turn out that studying Ancient Egyptian sculpture styles no longer excites you as much as you though!)  

Breadth vs. depth: You could be interested in just a quick, broad overview of a topic.  You've only got 2 days before your trip to Cairo--what are top 20 things I need to know?  

Or you could want a deep knowledge of the topic and plan on spending the next year studying Egypt every day.  

In either case, what you want to learn will tell you how to organize your time.  Quick and broad?  Or deep and intensive?  Both are fine approaches (I've taken many an online course for only the first few hours just so I'd have an idea of what the topic covers.)  

Skill vs. knowledge learning:  If you're teaching yourself something that's skill-based (I want to learn to speak Arabic) then your approach would be very different than if you want to understand a body of knowledge (the culture of Ancient Egypt), which is more of a knowledge-base.  

Naturally, some topics have both parts:  Learning physics or chemistry requires you to both learn the knowledge (e.g., what is inertia? what is a covalent bond?) AND learn the skill of doing the math that goes with the knowledge.  You can learn physics without the math, but recognize that it's a very different kind of knowing.  For our purposes here at SRS, teaching yourself a skill (like physics math or speaking German).  Learning something like "play piano" is amazingly difficult from a book--performance / behavior skills are really much better with a tutor.  


2. Organize your learning approach.  

Where do you start?  The topic of "Ancient Egypt" is just massive.  We normally talk about "Ancient Egypt" as running from 3150 BCE to 30 BCE.  There were about 170 Pharaohs (list of all of them) during this time span--that's a lot of history to take in.  

Timeline from Wikipedia article on "Ancient Egypt"

 Think about what you want to learn and organize your self-teaching to match your target.  If you are looking for a broad-brush approach, seek out overviews and tutorials that match your time budget.  If you're looking to learn more about a topic in detail, think about finding sources that go into depth on that.  But first... 

Get an overview to start:  Even if you're going to plumb the depths of a topic, you need to start with a decent overview, if only to learn what the boundaries of your topic really are.  

I usually go to the Wikipedia article as a starting point--they're usually quite good and people spend huge amounts of time arguing about what should (or should not) go into the article.  For instance, the Wiki article on Ancient Egypt is around 13,000 words long (about 29 printed pages), with 216 citations, many with helpful links to get you to the original articles.  

And even if you're going to pursue a topic in depth, there is often a Wikipedia entry about that topic as well.  Examples:  Music in Ancient Egypt; Ships in Ancient Egypt; Clothing in Ancient Egypt.  Of course, you don't need to limit yourself to Wikipedia--there are many other encyclopedic collections online. (For instance, Britannica.com has a great intro to Ancient Egypt that has about 3 times as much detail as Wikipedia.)  

Leverage other people's overviews:  If your topic is likely to be taught in schools, chances are really good that someone (some teacher!) has gone to the trouble of making an outline, course overview, or syllabus that will let you know the lay of the land.  

I know that Egyptology is a thing--many universities still teach it as a subject area.  If I want to search for their syllabi, I'd do one (or all) of these searches: 

     [ site:.edu Ancient Egypt syllabus ] 

     [ "course overview" Ancient Egypt history ] 

     [ "course summary" Ancient Egypt ] 

You'll find a LOT of syllabi that will each give their particular outline of the topic.  

Make a list of what you want to learn:  Once you know what you want to learn, I highly suggest making a quick list of the things you want to learn. It doesn't need to be anything complicated--it's just a way to help you map out what you want to know at the end of your studies.  (I have a couple of yellow sticky notes that I use to organize my thinking / reading / studying on a topic.  Easy, fast, simple.)  

3. Find high quality resources that match your interests.  

Take everything we've ever talked about in SearchResearch and apply it here.  Your goal in teaching yourself is to be efficient and accurate.  Be constantly aware that there are multiple voices and opinions on everything, even something like Ancient Egypt, where you think things would have been figured out by now.  Not true!  Be sure to look for reputable sources, be sure to triangulate what you learn, etc.  

Remember that there are a LOT of books online: Google Books, Hathi Trust, Internet Archive.  (And of course, your local library!)  

One other resource to consider are the plethora of online courses.  In the case of Ancient Egypt, they're plentiful.  A search like this will find what you seek: 

      [ online course "Ancient Egypt" ] 

There are the usual online course providers (edX, Coursea, Udemy, etc.), but many universities also have online classes (they can be high quality, but usually also charge for the classes).  

In addition, I've found the professional online teaching sites (e.g. The Great Courses, or something like ClassCentral that organizes other online courses) that offer Egypt classes to be quite good.

Finally, don't underestimate the value of in-person classes (there's much that you learn that's NOT in the video or books).  I've taught a lot of in-person classes (probably around 2000 or so) and as you know, I've done a lot of online classes as well (around 20, each with many lessons, with a total student engagement of ~5 million students).  So take it from me--as great as online classes are, the in-person classes are often better.  You can ask questions, and the extra information and contextualization of knowledge is an important part of real teaching.  

Overall, my recommendation is for you to be very metacognitive about what you're doing.  (This means constantly asking yourself "What am I trying to do here?  What's the next step?  How will I know when I'm done? Is this the best approach?")  Learn more about being successfully metacognitive about your own self-teaching here.



Keep Searching!   (And have a great time learning whatever it is you want to learn!)  




Wednesday, June 26, 2024

SearchResearch Challenge (6/26/24): How to find the best learning resources in a crowded field?

I'm not fixated on pyramids, really.  

Pyramid of Giza. P/C Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash

... despite having two weeks of SRS images featuring pyramids.  

But I am focused on the larger SearchResearch question of how to organize your own research.  As you know, the job market is changing rapidly.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that the average tenure in a job (in the US) is 4.1 years.  This means that an essential skill is that of being an autodidact, that is, someone who knows how to educate themselves on a given topic.  We know how fast the technology landscape is changing.  One of the most important skills of the 2000's is going to be how to come up to speed on a topic rapidly...  and accurately, with attention to understanding the breadth of a topic area.  

So for this week, I'm thinking about Ancient Egypt as a topic area.  

Suppose, just suppose, someone in your household gets an interest in learning about ancient Egypt.  It won't take you long to learn that there's an entire scholarly discipline on the subject. 

A quick look at the catalog of the Library of Congress shows more than 10,000 hits on the subject of Egypt.  Even just a simple search of the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) gives us 899 hits... on just the headings!

Learning how to understand ancient Egypt and learning the depth and breadth of Egyptology as a field is a big task.  Of course, it leads to a common Research Challenge about how to tackle such a big topic. 

1. How would you organize a plan to learn about Ancient Egypt?  What kinds of searches would you do to get to the heart of a big, well-established topic like this?  What kinds of things should one think about when starting on such a project?  

Please do NOT say, "just ask ChatGPT"--or if you do, then tell us how to validate what the LLMs tell you.  Can you use them for decent self-educational advice?  

Let us know what you think... and how YOU would proceed!  


Keep Searching!  



Monday, June 24, 2024

SearchResearch hit 5 million reads!

When I started writing... 

P/C Dalle-3. I tried to show 5M people, but that's a bit too much... 


... SearchResearch back in 2010, I wasn't sure how many people would be interested in reading about the fine details of online research.  It was unclear how many folks would want to spend part of each week learning how to Search-by-Image, or use some obscure Google Maps function, or even how to use online dictionaries to find just the right word. 

But here we are, 14 years, 1,402 posts and 14,050 comments later.  More impressively, we just clicked over on our 5-millionth online read!  I know some number of those reads are bots, but if each reader spent (on average) 1 minute / read, that's a total of 28.5 years of people reading SRS for 8 hours / day.  

FWIW, I know this is a pretty serious undercount of human read-time--SRS is syndicated in a couple of different places that I know about, and I see copies of the posts all over the place that are unofficial reposts.  I don't have data for all of those.  

But for just the SearchResearch posts you see here on Blogger, the data looks like this: 


There are a few fun spikes in the data (such as that spike in Feb, 2024, when we had 91K readers in a single week when I wrote a piece about AI and search).  But in general, SRS has around 1,000 readers each day, averaging around 32K / month.  

And, for those of you who remember the PowersearchWithGoogle MOOC (our online class, still available at edX).. the last time I checked the numbers there, we had around 5M students take that course, so there's clearly a demand for this kind of knowledge.   
 
FWIW, the accumulated watch time of those videos was greater than 400 years of total watching!  It's frightening to consider that my talking head has been on someone's YouTube screen for more than 400 years of 24 hours Dan-talking-about-search each day.  


My thanks go to all of you for dropping by and checking out the latest in online research methods.  Who knew that we'd be quite so large a community!  

Many more thanks to our regular contributors.  You know who you are, and I'm grateful for all of you.  

As we say... 

Keep searching! 

(Or as we used to say, "Search on!")  

-- Dan 


Thursday, June 20, 2024

Answer: Timeline of megalithic monuments?

 Ancient monumental architecture... 

Chichén Itzá  P/C by Wikimedia


... is always a fun topic--I always wonder how could people build monuments / temples / religious sites like the pyramids of Egypt, the moai of Easter Island, or the fabulous buildings in Peru?  In particular, how could they do it without advanced power technologies?  In the case of many of these older sites, they were built without any wheeled devices!  

I'm not convinced by any of the stories about ancient astronauts or other mythical creates that helped put everything together--I'm just very impressed by the degree of social and political organization required to build these places.    

One of the questions I always have is how do the different places relate to each other in time?  That is, was Stonehenge built around the same time as the great Mexican monuments like Chichén Itzá, or was it a very different time?  

For these kinds of questions, creating a timeline is the best solution--so I'm re-asking the question--what's the best way now (2024) to make a timeline showing megalithic monuments dates?   

1.  What is the current best solution for creating a visual timeline of various historic events?  Can you create  timeline that shows each of these monuments over time?  The list: Chichén Itzá, Monte Albán, Stonehenge, Göbekli Tepe, the moai of Easter Island, the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, and the Serpent Mound in Ohio.  

To begin, I just did the obvious searches on each of the sites Wikipedia pages and found this set of dates: (link to my Google sheet)


Note:  If you ask your favorite LLM to give you these dates, they will find somewhat different dates than these. (And in some cases, they will be wrong by a couple thousand years.  Pro tip:  When asking for verifiable data like this, don't trust the LLM to give you the correct data, but go source it from reputable places.)  


Regular Reader remmij did a great search to find timeline tools: 

     [tools for creating historic timelines] 

The term "historic" is important here as it will limit the results to timeline tools that are useful across a wide range of dates.  Note that everyday tools like Excel and Google Sheets use a 1900-based date system.  That makes it very painful to represent dates BC / BCE.  

The SERP shows a bunch of results, some of which are more useful than others.  Of the ones in the list that I was able to get to work, Northwestern University Knight Lab’s TimelineJS was nice, but not perfect. (Note: This was the first tool in the SRS post from 2015--it's still out there and working!)  It's a bit twiddly to get it to work and the documentation isn't the best, but I got it to work.  

TimelineJS overview of the megalith sites list. I never did figure out how to get each of the eras to appear on a different line, which leads to serious overlap.


However, clicking in on a site give you a preview of an image of the site, etc. 
(P/C K. Mitch Hodge, Unsplash)


In a comment, Ramón pointed us to Time.graphics.  It's a fairly basic system, but was very simple to use and created a beautiful timeline.  (Click on the image below to see it in full resolution.)  




Of all the timelines I tried, this was by far the simplest.  I had complete control and didn't have to worry about any BC/AD issues.  It just worked.  High compliments.  

For completeness I asked Gemini if it could create a timeline, and all I got back denials that "I'm still learning how to make data visualizations."  Really? 

I asked ChatGPT4o to do the same task, and I got this interesting, but useless diagram:  

A timeline of megalithic sites as rendered by Bing Copilot using ChatGPT4o. Not really useful. 
I do like the weird mix of the visuals of each site all blended together.

I tried other LLMs, but had similar results.  The best gave me an ASCII art representation, which isn't quite what I wanted... neither was the "chart" that Bing Copilot produced... 

As a last ditch effort, I asked Gemini to write some code to read the CSV file and create a plot.  THAT worked!  With a simple prompt of [I have a CSV file with start and end times of megalithic historic sites.  Can you write the Python code that will create a plot of the time intervals for each row? ]   It did it, and created a very readable block of code that I copy/pasted into a Google Collab notebook.  (Here's the link to the notebook if you'd like to see for yourself.)  

Interestingly, I spent FAR LESS time on the Python version of generating the timeline than I did in searching for, finding, and then learning / fiddling around / finding bugs, etc. of the timeline tools.  

Here's what the first version of the code created--5 minutes after I asked for the code: 


This isn't beautiful, but it's not bad either... except for the overlapping labels on the start and end points.  I looked at the code and figured how to tinker with it to offset the dates from the timeline.  Two minutes later it created this: 



The point of this entire SearchResearch Challenge was to see how these different megalithic sites compare to each other over time.  In these timelines you can see that Göbekli Tepe is insanely old, and that Monte Albán and Chichén Itzá overlapped by quite a bit. In the end, that was the point--to see the time relationships between all of the different locations.  

Side note:  I first tried using Google Sheets to create a timeline.  I've done this before in the past, but the timeline tool appears to have been moved into ONLY the Enterprise edition of Google Sheets.  I've figured out a weird workaround (by copying sheets with timelines that I've made before which keeps the timeline around), but it's such a hack that I'm going to simply observe that Enterprise Sheets has the timeline, but mere mortals such as you and I don't get to use it.  Besides, Sheets doesn't seem to handle dates BC very well, so this isn't a practical solution for anyone outside of a well-funded organization. 

SearchResearch Lessons


First and foremost: 

1. The simplest possible query to search for tools is often the best starting point.  Remmij's query:  [tools for creating historic timelines]  worked very well and led to some really useful tools.  Don't overthink this.  

2.  LLMs are not quite yet up to the task of creating a timeline.  I imagine that if you keep tweaking a prompt, at some point you'll be able to generate a decent timeline...  but I don't have that kind of time these days.  Better to just search for a dedicated tool and use that.  



Keep searching!