Wednesday, May 26, 2021

SearchResearch Challenge (5/25/21): What's your story of SearchResearch?


It's a complicated time...

Looking out to sea

.. and the next week or so will be especially complicated, so rather than have me post a Challenge, I'd like to hear from you, my Regular SRS Readers (R-SRS-Rs).  

1.  What's YOUR SRS story?  Have you had to do a search for something recently where there was a bit of a Challenge along the way?  Was it something not-completely obvious that you needed to work out, or look up, or correlate?  What's your tale of SRS?  

It doesn't have to be earth-shatteringly brilliant or complex, but maybe something that sheds a little light onto a research issue that you had to confront.  

For instance, this past week I searched for air purifiers.  (Fire season is coming to California soon, and I want to have SOME ability to clean the air in my home.) 

So I spent about an hour looking up how air purifiers work, which models seems to work best, etc.  

Much to my surprise, people report that homemade air purifiers (which are significantly cheaper than commercial ones) do just about as good of a job.  Here's a great article from the NYTimes on how to DIY an air purifier on a budget

I just used the methods we talked about in an earlier SRS episode on Searching for DIY information.  Most of my time was spent in comparison--looking at the different models, makers, capacities, etc.  I ended up buying a couple for my home, but I'll probably build a third one, just so I can compare the DIY vs. commercial models.  (Of course, then I'll also have to purchase a decent air quality measuring device, but I'll do that next week.)  

So this wasn't a hard task, but it was a good SRS time.  I did my searches, took my notes, and had a surprising outcome (homebuilt is about as good as commercial).  

But I'd love to hear your stories.  

What SRS thing did you do this week?  

Let us know in the comments! 

Search on.  

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Answer: How to do slow research?

 Searching slowly isn't the norm... 

1.5 million balloons over Cleveland

In fact, people search engine companies go to a lot of trouble to make sure that searches return results as quickly as possible.  We know (see this paper, for instance) that even a little delay (0.1 seconds) will cause a fall-off in user response!    

But we know that not all SRS Challenges require instant responses. Sometimes slow and deliberate is the way you want to go--especially with complex topics that require some depth.  Let's call this kind of search slow researchWhat are some ways to do this?  

I put this to you with this specific idea--Suppose I want to write a book on this topic: 

Sometimes when you take an action, something very unforeseen happens as a consequence after that action is taken.

For example: in 1986, the Cleveland United Way charity planned on releasing 2 million balloons as kind of spectacle, with donors pitching in to sponsor a balloon.  But with a storm coming into the city, they decided to release the  balloons early, causing all kinds of problems with the flood of balloons in the area, ultimately causing a net loss for the charity along with a host of problems.  

What a fascinating topic!  But how can I make this long-lasting research problem work well?  

With this as context, the Challenge for last week was... 

1. How would you set up a continuing stream of information to you about this topic?  This is partly a question about the way to do this, but also a question about what the search terms should be.  What would you do?  How would you search for this phenomenon?  

Let's break this Challenge up into two parts:  

A. What would be good search terms for this potential book topic?   (That is, what would you search for?)

B.  How can we set up a continuous stream of information that will bring information about this topic to me?  

A:  The question for part A is the eternal quest for great search terms and phrases.  Our Challenge task is a fairly complex / subtle topic.  The first sentence in the Challenge is "..Sometimes when you take an action, something very unforeseen happens as a consequence after that action is taken..."  Let's work forward from what we have towards some terms and phrases that might be useful.  

Here, the key ideas are: 

a. taking an action that has an outcome, 

b. that outcome isn't what is expected,

c. that outcome isn't desirable.

What's a succinct way to describe this?  

Here I'm looking for a stereotypical phrase, something that people would write about--something that captures the sense of this idea.  

I started with a query: 

     [ action with unexpected outcome ] 

Note that I'm NOT looking for a result, I want to scan the texts of these results looking for a common phrase that would capture the essence of this idea.  

Here's what I see in my SERP.  Note the two phrases I've circled... 

"Unintended consequences" is a good phrase that is pretty much what I want to find.  

How else could I find other phrases for searching? 

One quick way is to look at the suggestions Google gives as you type your search. Here's what I saw: 

This more-or-less confirms that the phrase unintended consequences is pretty good, but it also suggests "intended action"... which makes me think that perhaps searching for the opposite idea ("unintended benefits"!) might be a good idea.  

Let's keep pushing on the unintended consequences idea for a moment.  I could do a search for: 

     [ "unintended consequences" synonym ] 

Which gives more good ideas: 

Of course, exploring the other results (by opening in other tabs--for lateral browsing) leads to some interesting findings.  Additional useful phrases I found like this are collateral consequence, blowback, boomerang, side effects, adverse reactions.  

One more idea: I also want to check out what a reverse dictionary might tell me.  (Remember we've talked about this idea before.)   You just do a search for [ reverse dictionary ] and enter "unintended consequences" and... 

From the OneLook dictionary/thesaurus 

There are some great suggestions here:  blowback, accident, serendipity, law of effect, etc.  

You get the idea. Working from the fairly pedestrian, ordinary description of the Challenge, we can get to some useful search terms.  In this case, we went from a fairly open-ended and ambiguous statement to search terms that are reasonably precise.  

Now... what about Part B?  

B:  As we know, many search tasks are NOT quick short-fact lookups.  If you're buying anything fairly expensive (think: car, refrigerator, vacation), you probably do more than one or two searches, and probably over a long period of time.  You probably look things up, extract some information, and then consolidate that info to make a decision later. 

Likewise, if you're researching any complex topic (such as a medical issue that you or someone in your family has), then you've started a legit longitudinal research process.  Such research tasks often need some way to keep the task front-and-center.  People often start a longitudinal research process with the best of intentions, but then drop it somewhere along the way.  Obviously, that doesn't happen with high priority research tasks (like learning about and managing a critical health care problem), but for the other tasks--in my case, writing a book on this topic--we need to set up periodic reminders to pay attention to the task. 

The two tricks I use to help me stay focused are: 

1. Set up a repeating calendar appointment with yourself.  I check my Calendar multiple times each day ("what am I supposed to be doing now??"), so it's part of my work practice.  To keep moving forward on book writing, I just set up a 2-hour meeting with myself on the Calendar for 2 days out of the week.  (When the writing gets more focused, I'll change it to be 1 hour/day.)  

That's a simple hack.  

2. Use Google Alerts to keep a  constant stream of new results coming to you in email.  This not only keeps reminding you that you're working on this topic, but it also keeps you abreast of the latest developments.  

It's easy to set up an Alert.  I just do a search for the link:  [ Google Alerts ] -- that will bring the link to the Alerts setup page for you.  Once there, it's straightforward to set up a repeating search (using all of the Google search tricks you know about).  I set mine up to run daily, showing me the "best results" for all of the different media streams.  

Then, my email inbox gets a stream (once/day) of relevant articles.  Looks like this: 

You can see that my Alert query is:  ["unintended consequences" OR "unintended side effect" OR "unintended effect"] 

Bonus Alert Hack:  It turns out that Google Scholar has its own Alert system.  (That is, you can't set up the regular Google Alert to also search through Scholarly results--you have to set up your Alerts over there.)  Use the same trick of searching for the link: [ Google Scholar Alerts ] to take you to the Scholar Alert setup page.  

I could have put in a longer query here ("unexpected consequences" OR "unintended consequences" OR "blowback") but I wanted to keep the example simple.  

Search Research Lessons 

1.  Sometimes slow search is the way to go.  Complex topics often require real research work on your part. Learn to recognize tasks like this and learn to NOT blow through the questions as quickly as possible.  I'm sorry to tell you, but research sometimes requires work!  Embrace this.  

2. Setting up calendar reminders to work on a research task work quite well.  This is especially true if you run your life off your online calendar.  

3. Use the Google Alerts to get automatic updates of new information.  You can use all of the power of Google search and have them emailed to you daily. 

4. For more academic or scholarly research questions, remember to use Google Scholar Alerts!  They're NOT automatically included in your default Alerts. 

5. You can search for synonymous phrases by regular search.  It's worth spending a few extra moments to search for a better way to phrase your query--one that captures your intent more precisely.   

Hope this was useful to you.  Search on! 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

SearchResearch Challenge (5/12/21): How to do slow research?



1.5 million balloons over Cleveland

... that you want to write a book about something that you only partly understand but find fascinating.  Obviously, you want to spend some time coming up to speed, perhaps learning about the area over the next year or so.  

How would you do that?  

What would you actually do to become an autodidact (that is, a self-taught person) in that topic?  While there are many things one could do (take an online class, read a lot of books, subscribe to blogs and vlogs)... is there some way to get information on this topic in a regular way?  Some way to skim off the latest writings on your topic and get a constant feed of information?  

Let's call this slow research.  In many ways, this is the opposite of the quick Google search; it's not the same as just finding the factoid you want as rapidly as possible. 

Instead, this is research over time, letting deeper understanding of a topic emerge, develop, and grow into something rich and marvelous. 

The question for us is how do you do this?  

There are many ways to answer this, but let's frame this as an SRS Challenge: 

Suppose I want to write a book on this topic: 

Sometimes when you take an action, something very unforeseen happens as a consequence after that action is taken.

For example: in 1986, the Cleveland United Way charity planned on releasing 2 million balloons as kind of spectacle, with donors pitching in to sponsor a balloon.  But with a storm coming into the city, they decided to release the  balloons early, causing all kinds of problems with the flood of balloons in the area, ultimately causing a net loss for the charity along with a host of problems.  

Note that the topic is NOT "balloons" or "charity" or "disasters," but it's about the effect of making one decision (the early release of balloons) and the after-effects that followed from that bad choice.  

And so the Challenge for this week is... 

1. How would you set up a continuing stream of information to you about this topic?  This is partly a question about the way to do this, but also a question about what the search terms should be.  What would you do?  How would you search for this phenomenon?  

Suggestions welcome (I really AM writing a book on this topic, and I'm curious what good advice you'd give to said author).  

Search on! 

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Answer: Internal incorporation?

Know how some animals use tools? 

P/C Cyberminnie at Flickr

In our last episode we saw this pom pom crab as it carries a sea anemone in each of its claws, using them as a defensive tool in the crab-eat-crab world on the coral reef.  The anemones are essential external tools that are other living organisms.  

But looking at the pom pom crab (and other animals that use other animals) makes me wonder about the nature of animals that incorporate (that is, literally in-corporate, take another organism into their body).  There are certainly many parasitic organisms, including obligate parasites that can only live on a specific kind of host.  But... 

1. Can you find another invertebrate that incorporates PART of another animal into its body?  That is, one animal doesn't take the whole, but just select parts, and incorporates those parts into its own body?  

I started with a simple search: 

    [ what animals incorporate other animals ]

That led me to reading about how some animals incorporate genes from other animals.  Humans, for example, have incorporated over 100 genes from other animals during the course of their evolution.  (Science journal "Humans may harbor more than 100 genes from other animals.")  

And THAT article reminded me about how human cells incorporated mitochondria (the organelles that are responsible for energy production in cells).  They seem to have been independent bacteria that became incorporated into eukaryotic cells about 7 billion years ago.  

When this happened, the previously independent pre-mitochondria bacteria became an
endosymbiont -- that is, 
any organism that lives within the body or cells of another organism.  

Next query:  

     [ how did mitochondria evolve ] 

led me to learn about the organism Elysia chlorotica which has green chloroplasts in its body as endosymbionts.  

Elysia chlorata--the photosythesizing sea slug. (Head end on the right side.)

Okay then, to learn about Elysia... 

    [ Elysia chlorotica ] 

led me to the Wikipedia article, which told me that E. choloratica incorporates chloroplasts into its body from its food.  That is, the chloroplasts (the green organelles that are responsible for photosynthesis) found inside of the sea slug aren't made by the slug, but are incorporated into its body after eating its food source, the algae Vaucheria litorea, which actually makes chloroplasts.  

2. Is there a specific term for this?  (As you know, if you know the special term, that makes searching much, much simpler and more accurate.)

In reading during the search process, I came across two terms that are useful in this search.  Endosymbiont (which we saw above), and another term, kleptoplasty, which is when one organism steals part of another animal!  

Searching for: 

     [ kleptoplasty ] 

Which leads to the Wikipedia article about kleptoplasty. Not a surprise.  But when I poked around a bit in the article, I found another sea slug, Pteraeolidia ianthina, incorporates chloroplasts, but additionally incorporates nematocysts from other food sources.  Oddly, it's barely a footnote in the article, but if you search for: 

     [ nematocysts sea slugs ] 

it leads to a number of articles (e.g., Smithsonian) that teach us that some sea slugs (such as aeolid sea slugs) not only consume the nematocysts, but then incorporate them into their bodies.  Surprisingly, when aeolids feed food sources with nematocysts (such as hydroids), the first thing they do is prevent the stinging cells from firing by using the mucus lining of their gut. These nematocysts originate in the cnidarians (such as sea anemones, hydroids, jellyfish, corals, siphonophores, etc.) that are the food source for aeolid nudibranchs.  Once eaten, the unfired nematocysts pass through the slug's digestive tract, but some are excreted with the rest of the nudibranch's waste, but immature stinging nematocysts are stored in pouches called cnidosacs until they have matured and are needed.

These slugs (also called nudibranchs) will then fire the stolen stinging cells when threatened, with the nematocysts stinging anything that tries to eat the nudibranch.  The nematocysts are stored in protruding cerata (those spine-looking things) on their backs.  And at the tip of each branch of the cerata, the nematocysts are stored in a small sac, the cnidosac

Here are a couple of spectacular photos of aeolid nudibranchs taken by friend Randall Spangler.  

The cerata on the back of this Aeolidia papillosa end with cnidosacs.  Like Elysia, they incorporate dinoflagellates that provides some photosynthesis capability.  P/C Randall Spangler. 

The Flabellina iodinea (Spanish Shawl) nudibranch is spectacular, but the nematocysts are an effective defense mechanism that has been co-opted from its food sources, primarily hydroids and anemones. P/C Randall Spangler.

Searching for kleptoplasty in Google Books teaches us to distinguish between kleptocnidae (cnidae taken from cnidarian prey and used for the consumer’s defense) and kleptoplasty (chloroplasts or whole photosynthetic cells that continue photosynthesizing after ingestion by herbivores, mostly sacoglassans, the photosynthetic nudibranchs). 

Search Lessons

1. Learn as you go.  The striking thing about this Challenge was that it took a bit of reading to get to the technical terms (e.g., endosymbiont, and kleptoplasty) and the concepts behind them.  

I started with a generic search: [ what animals incorporate other animals ] which led to learning about gene acquisition, and that led to searches for how mitochondria came to be incorporated, leading to the query [ how did mitochondria evolve ] which led to our discovery of how chloroplasts and nematocysts came to be part of nudibranch bodies.  

This is a great example of learning as you search, picking up terms and concepts that you don't about ahead of time, but acquire as you work through the searches.  

In a sense, as you search, you're performing your own kleptoplasty of ideas, incorporating what you've learned into your personal knowledge base.  

I have to admit, these are the kinds of SearchResearch Challenges I like the best--they require some real learning and discovery along the way.  Hope you enjoy them as well!  

Search on!