Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Making up search problems -- more complex than you might think

The AGoogleAday.com puzzles aren't easy to write.  I'd wager they take longer to write than to solve.  The problem is getting the right balance of interesting topic, having a clear solution and actually teaching something interesting to the puzzler.  You see, the goal of AGAD really is to illustrate the way search works, largely by example.  

For instance, today's puzzle: 
is actually fairly simple.  It's on an interesting subject area and illustrates an important search concept, to wit:  choose your search terms carefully.  

Search beginners make beginner mistakes, often including too much in their query.  A query like [ hottest cousins ] or [ hottest cousins rank 10000 ] are doomed to be unsuccessful--they're too generic (or, in this case, probably NSFW unless you have safe search turned all the way up!).  

But a wise searcher will recognize that the term "SHUs" is an odd thing.  You might not recognize it (in which case a quick [ define:shu ] will yield an appropriate definition), so it's probably material to the investigation!  

I solved this with a simple [ 10000 SHUs ], and scanned the snippets.  It's only Tuesday, how hard do you want it to be?? 

But if you're a teacher making up search problems like this, figuring out how to write the problem can be tricky. 

I generally start on a topic and then explore around for interesting side-bits of information.  I actually keep a notebook in my pocket and write down good ideas as I run across them in the real-world.  I see a blimp passing overhead and start to wonder... what do I not know about blimps... a few queries usually reveal a world of information that can be converted into a puzzle question for teaching search skills.  

A common mistake that puzzle-writers make is to pick on some piece of information that's SO obscure that nobody will know it.  (Example:  "what's the 1,000th decimal digit of pi?")  Nobody knows it because it's effectively random.  Boring.  

But if you start to wonder about blimps--what gas IS used in blimps?--you'll find out something interesting.  If you then start to find out something interesting about helium... then you've got two parts to an interesting puzzle.  I'd link those together into a puzzle something like this:  "There have been two gases used to float blimps.  We're not about to run out of one kind of gas that was used to lift blimps into the sky, but we ARE going to run out of the other gas.  What is that naturally occurring gas that we're in danger of exhausting?"  

It's a naturally interesting question, and teaches you something along the way... the way all great teachers do.  

Search on!   And teach along the way! 

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