In the category of hard search problems caused by the way your mind works…
I wandered into my manager’s office yesterday and mentioned that I read on article about how mathematicians have a new wiki-like website to jointly solve big, hairy, complicated problems.
“It’s incredibly cool,” I said, “they post problems, math-geeks work on them collaboratively and collectively real work gets done quickly.”
He was skeptical. “I ran something like that back in the day…and it petered out after a while. Still, what’s the URL?” He turned to the keyboard waiting to hear.
And I couldn’t remember. So, being a good researcher, I started searching and found that it didn’t pop to the top.
Here’s what I knew at the moment:
- It was an article I’d read within the past couple of days.
- I thought I’d read it in Newsweek.
- I knew it was about math, and probably had the words Wiki or Blog in it since it was about working together.
- The article was about mathematicians working collaboratively.
I just wanted to find the article. Should be simple, no?
Well… it wasn’t. Let me recap my search for you.
Here’s where I started—searching for a news article within the past week (limited by the left-hand side nav restrictions)
[ math group proof ] -- I set the left-hand nav to search“Everything” and “Within last week”
Nothing. Many of the results were invaded by the recent announcement of an attempted proof that P ≠ NP. Still, I tried again, altering “proof” to “proves”…
[ math social group proves ]
Then adding in the idea of “social” proof…
[ math social group prove social ]
And taking a new tack, tried adding in “blog”
[ math group proof blog ]
I had a half-baked notion that the wiki/blog/thing I was looking for was called “polymath” (it would be a clever name), but the results looked unpromising. So..
[ polymath wiki Newsweek ]
I’d searched for about 15 minutes at this point and… I gave up for a bit. Just to let my brain stew on this for a bit. This is sometimes a good idea.
I came back to the search after an hour with a new search term in mind: “crowdsource”!
So I tried the obvious first search, using the new search term and adding in Newsweek to restrict the search. Again I limited my search to the last week.
[ crowd-sourced wiki Newsweek ]
(I didn’t use a SITE: restrict because I didn’t want to overly constrain the search to JUST Newsweek. I thought that perhaps a newspaper might mention “In the recent Newsweek article…” And I’d be good to go.
But this wasn’t good either. But I figured maybe if I just added back in the MATH term, that would be even more focused. So I tried:
[ crowdsourced wiki Newsweek math ]
Which showed me a link to the Interceder site (a news aggregator site) that collected information on (in this case) “crowdsource” article.
I scrolled through their collection of articles, and finding it long (and tiny font!), I used Control-F to look for “math” in the text.
FINALLY I got a break. About half-way down the page there was a link to an article on Dr. Dobb’s Journal (a pretty well-known computer / technology magazine) with the intriguing title: “Massively Collaborative Math ” (Aug 9, 2010)
Paydirt! The Dr. Dobbs article then pointed me to an article in the San Jose Mercury News. (Which is my local newspaper.)
San Jose Mercury – “Stanford and UC Berkeley create massively collaborative math”
Now... what’s odd here? Why was this search so hard for me?
1. I didn’t remember that it was a site at UC Berkeley… or that Stanford was also involved. (I live close to Stanford and have even taught there! How could I have NOT remembered that about the news item?)
2. I misremembered the source. I would have sworn it was Newsweek and NOT the Mercury News. But I should have known better. (When I got home that evening I found Newsweek on my desk—it was just the most recent thing I’d read, NOT the actual source of my initial read.)
3. I correctly remembered that I’d read it recently, but I did NOT remember that it was that same day! (In fact, just 5 hours earlier.)
Retrospect: Looking back, what could I have done differently?
It’s clear that using the word “crowdsource” was the key breakthrough. Since the article was very recent, a very simple query [ crowdsource math ] brings up 3 perfectly good hits on the MathOverflow site. (Although I recognize that this search probably won’t work correctly in a year or so…)
And, in the end, all of my floundering around with terms like “Newsweek” and “wiki” were not productive. The article I really was trying to find (the newspaper article) wasn’t on Newsweek at all. I should know better: Let the search engine search… that’s what it’s good at.
I should have focused my efforts on looking for better terms to describe the thing I was looking for. “Crowdsourcing” turned out to be the key term that got me to the target.
Sometimes, I have to take my own advice.