Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Answer: What are those things on the ground that hurt my feet?

 This tree is beautiful, but sheds like crazy...  

The canopy of the mighty oak

Reminder of last week's Challenge:   

This is what the yard looks like up close:  


You can see a few leaves, an acorn, the cap of an acorn, and lots of those small brown knurled balls, each about 6mm (about 1/4 inch).  I don't know what they are, so I'll call them nubbins until I figure out what they actually are. They’re everywhere.  But what are they?  

 Here you see a typical branch end:  

And a bit of a closeup so you can see the objects of interest... 

The nubbins attach to the stem just above the acorn.  Here you can see two of them, but often there will be 1, 2, 3 or 4 nubs.  (Never more than that.)  

And here’s a photo with everything taken apart: 

And the Challenge?  

1. What are those nubbin things?  Is there a name for them?  

2. What do they do for the tree?  Why would a single tree generate so many of them?  (I estimated, using Fermi estimation) that this tree produces around 100,000 of these per year.  So over the past 10 years, that's a cool 1 million nubbins (or whatever they are).  What's the point from the tree's perspective? 

To begin my Challenge SRS, I searched for [ black oak ] just to get some background information about the tree.  (I wanted to start broad and narrow down.) 

Much to my surprise, I quickly realized that this tree isn’t a black oak (Quercus velutina) at all!  A black oak tree has very different leaves, and the acorn is also very different--it's a big shaggy and the cap covers about half the nut.  Compare this to the images of my tree up above!  Nothing looked right.  I had to question the tree's identity!  


I’m surprised by this, but perhaps I just misunderstood—maybe this is a California black oak  (Quercus kelloggii).  But no, the Q. kelloggii leaf looks like this (below: Leaves alternate, simple, 8-15 cm long, sharply cut into 7-11 lobes, toothed, each tooth ending in a bristle):  

My oak tree doesn’t have sharp tips at the end (the lobes are squared-off and rounded), and the acorn of a kelloggi  also has a cap that covers half the acorn.  It’s not that either!  

At this point I have to question what I know and embark on a new tree identification task.

You're SearchResearchers, so I won’t tell you all the ins-and-outs of my search (lots of searches for [ oaks in California ] and looking at oak tree identification keys (see SRS about keys), but I finally figured out that the oak tree in my backyard is a Valley oak (Quercus lobata - or see the definitive reference at the Jepson Herbarium).  The leaves and acorns all look just the way they do in the first photo above.  

Now that I’ve corrected my misunderstanding of what species of oak is hurting my feet, I can go back to trying to figure out what the nubs are.  

I search for [ Quercus lobata acorn ] and start looking at pictures.  


Oddly, almost every diagram / drawing / painting of a Valley oak acorn does NOT include the nubs.  That seems strange, but it’s true.  The illustrations all look a bit like this illustration.  The leaves are right, the acorns are right, but there aren't any nubbins.   


P/C Rebecca Chamlee, Pie in the Sky Press

This is a lovely image: Very neat, very clean, beautiful… and without nubbins. This is true of nearly all of the lobata illustrations you'll find--they just don't have the nubbins.  What gives?  

What’s really odd is that every picture of a real Valley oak acorn has a nubbin in image attached just above the acorn.  (See my pic above with the red arrows.  EVERY branch that has an acorn also has those nubbins attached.)  

This is a great curiosity provoker:  these things are everywhere, but nobody seems to talk about it!  

After looking at many images of [ valley oak acorns ] I finally found an illustration with the nubbins:  

See it at the top of the acorn?  The sketch makes it look like the nubbin is very much like the cap of the acorn.  Alas, there's no note saying what that this is.  But given its appearance: Is it possible that these are just immature acorns?

I take a stab at another search.   My query is [ valley oak immature acorns ] guess what I found?  Lots of images of small acorns growing at the tips of branches, looking exactly like slightly greener versions of my "nubbins."  

This prompted me to go out and look for a few more samples.  Are the nubbins simply smaller acorns?  Here's a nice photo I took showing fully developed acorns, some very young acorns barely peeping out of the cup, and some "nubbins" that haven't developed yet.  

And, in a moment of inspiration, I took a few of the nubbins and did a cross-section of them.  Take a look: 

If you zoom in (just click on the pic above), you can see that in the center of each "nubbin" is a perfectly shaped tiny acorn nut.

I think we've solved our Challenge.  The "nubbins" are simply immature acorns that are knocked off in a breeze or when a larger acorn detaches.  The knurled appearance is simply the cap (technically, a cupule) of the acorn

Some SRS Regulars suggested that these might be galls.  A gall is a trees response to a wasp laying an egg.  Each species of oak has its own particular set of galls, many of which are very different from each other.  Galls are so specific to a species that they're one of the ways to determine oak species!  

This is a photo of some valley oak galls--in the middle of each golf ball sized gall is a wasp larvae (or egg, depending on when you look at it).  These c
onspicuous brown balls, do not much resemble an acorn. Also known as oak-apples, that result from a wasp depositing an egg, along with some plant hormone, to stimulate the growth of a protective home for the larva. Among the leaf litter at the base of the tree, one may find jumping galls about a millimeter in diameter that use the same strategy as the Mexican jumping bean, namely to reach shelter from the sun; when they land in a shady spot they cease jumping. These tiny galls also don't look anything like an acorn.. or a nubbin.  

SearchResearch Lessons 

There's a big an obvious one for this Challenge: 

1. Check your assumptions at the start!  I'd been told that this was a Black Oak (Quercus velutina), but when I started to do my searching, nothing looked right.  Whatever the arborist told me just wasn't right.  After figuring out that my tree is a Valley Oak (Quercus lobata), things started falling into place.  

2. Dig more deeply with the original source material.  I mean this figuratively, but in this case, actually going back to the tree to collect a few more samples found some superb instances where it's pretty obvious what's going on.  This is forever the statistics problem: A small sample size (or a sample of nubbins only from the ground) can be misleading.  Getting a few more examples often helps.  

And finding that the "nubbins" are actually just small acorns explains why they're not remarked upon in the botanical illustrations:  If you know they're just small acorns, why would you label it?  The whole illustration is about the acorn!  

Sometimes the answer is obvious, once we learn how to see.  

Search on!  (Botanically!)  

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

SearchResearch Challenge (8/18/21): What are those things on the ground that hurt my feet?

That tree... 

The canopy of the mighty oak the back yard is, I was told by the arborist, a black oak.  

It’s certainly an oak—it rains acorns in the fall, loses all of its oak-shaped leaves, and is tall and massive—it’s a lovely paradigmatic example of an oak.  The arborist who tended to it when it was still a sapling told me it was Quercus velutina, a black oak.  

This morning was cool and overcast, perfect for walking around in the backyard under that oak tree with the picture-perfect spreading limbs.  Ah.. the verdant life!  

Except that when walking around in bare feet, there are lots of acorns and zillions of small, very hard, nubby things that feel like Lego blocks underfoot.  It's a beautiful tree, but it also sheds a ton of things that are painful to step on without shoes.  

To say that I’m curious about many things is probably an understatement.  So of course through my pain I immediately wondered, “What are those things?”   

This is what the yard looks like up close:  


You can see a few leaves, an acorn, the cap of an acorn, and lots of those small brown knurled balls, each about 6mm (about 1/4 inch).  I don't know what they are, so I'll call them nubbins until I figure out what they actually are. They’re everywhere.  But what are they?  

I plucked a small stem with a few leaves, an acorn, and a couple of the mysterious nubbins.  Here you see a typical branch end:  

And a bit of a closeup so you can see the objects of interest... 

The nubbins attach to the stem just above the acorn.  Here you can see two of them, but often there will be 1, 2, 3 or 4 nubs.  (Never more than that.)  

And here’s a photo with everything taken apart: 

I spent a little time SearchResearching this one--and finally figured it out.  I won’t tell you all the ins-and-outs of my search, until next week.  

Afterwards, I also realized that the pain in the soles of my feet would make for a great SRS Challenge for the week.  While doing this I learned a good deal about how to search.  Can you answer these Challenges? And what can you learn in the process?  

1. What are those nubbin things?  Is there a name for them?  

2. What do they do for the tree?  Why would a single tree generate so many of them?  (I estimated, using Fermi estimation) that this tree produces around 100,000 of these per year.  So over the past 10 years, that's a cool 1 million nubbins (or whatever they are).  What's the point from the tree's perspective? 

Can you figure it out?  If so, let us know what you did to get to the answer.  

Search on!  (Botanically!)  


Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Answer: What do you do to find high quality news content? (part 2)


 Picking up from last time...

There's so much to say on this topic! 

Here's my thought about the answer to the second part of our Challenge... 

2.  What's the best advice you could give someone who is searching for great, high-quality news/late-breaking information?  What's your advice / guidance / counsel?  

If I pull together fragments of different Readers' answers, mix it with a bit of what I see other (skilled) researchers do, here's what I see as a few good practices for being skilled at finding, reading, and understanding the news.  

A. When you have a strong response to a story, check it!   Many stories are often written to elicit a response, especially political stories.  When you find yourself being outraged, or remarkably pleased, consider yourself manipulated.  

That might be okay, maybe even desirable when you're reading fiction, but when it happens in your news reading, you should pause for a moment and try to read it without the emotion-inducing material.  Here's a made-up example: 

I can't believe Senator Smith voted for this outrageously expensive and immoral funding bill.  He should be barred from the senate for life!  What an irresponsible low-life.  

Now, if you read this without the over-the-top language, you get a very different read: 

... Senator Smith voted for .. this.. funding bill.... 

The rest of that paragraph is opinion.  You should form those opinions for yourself rather than just accepting the writer's point-of-view.  The opinion can be useful information, but when you find yourself reacting strongly to a story, try this "affect-free reading" style and see if you come away with the same information. 

B. Triangulate your sources.  The same story told from different viewers can be very different.  Don't make the mistake of thinking multiple sources means different reporters.  All too common to copy/repeat a story.  (And even data sets.)  

C. Pull from different kinds of sources. Images, videos, long-form stories, news reports... they're all very different.  

D. Cultivate a set of sources that you trust. You really should get to know more than your one most-trusted source.  For instance, I tend to listen to and trust NPR radio for accurate reporting.  But I also know about the BBC (in the UK) and other news outlets in the US, each with their own point-of-view.    

E. Cultivate a set of sources that give you another perspective that you don't agree with.  Filter bubbles are real, but they're mostly bubbles that we create for ourselves.  Don't be a bubblehead!  Think about the set of resources you read all the time and make sure you vary your diet.  (I subscribe to a couple of very conservative news feeds that put articles in my email every day.  It's useful to see how other people think and what they find valuable / believable.)  

F. Understand the background and point-of-view of the source you're reading.  This is true no matter what your source.  Realize that (for instance) the Wall Street Journal tends to be more conservative in their reporting than the New York Times.  Realize also that any good source typically has a suite of different viewpoints within it.  (Beware of any source that doesn't have some built-in diversity--that suggests they're perilously close to having a party line in their reporting.)  

G. Look for reporting that originates close to the story.  Several people have pointed out that reporting on stories with local reporters can be incredibly valuable.  Beware of stories that are filed remotely, without any reportage from the story location.  It's too easy for people to write about what they're told, rather than what they've experience.  When in doubt, go for direct experience.  

H. Look for an author who has expertise in the subject matter.  Look at the writer's back catalog of stories--have they done this kind of thing before?  What have they done to give you a sense that they know what they're talking about?  (I'm very skeptical of writers who claim to understand issues in the Middle East if they haven't spent substantial time there.)  

I. Do your own background fact checking.  You'll develop a sixth sense about this over time--you start to understand what basic facts to check in order to credibility-check an article.  If they don't get the basic facts right, then the rest of the article is dubious.  (Example: Check the numbers on a story--did they get those right?  When a place name is mentioned, check it out--does the image of the place agree with what's written about it?)  

J. Do things fit together?  That is, does what you're reading in an article fit with things you've learned before.  If this is a new topic area for you, this might be hard to evaluate.  But the more you learn about a topic, the better you'll be able to make these evaluations.  (And when you're stuck, spend a little time learning about the topic... it will make you a better judge of what you're reading.)  

REALISTICALLY... what will you do?

I don't know about you, but I'm pretty busy.  I don't really have the time and energy to check every single story I read.  You probably don't either.  

Typically, I do these three things for every story: 

1. Pay attention to the emotional level of the story If it's hot, I'll re-scan it by doing the "affect removal reading" trick of above.  Still interesting?  

2. Do a quick Google search to check on some basic element of the story. If it doesn't check out, I'm done.  And don't just do the easy things, but check on the slightly harder things to look up.  You're a SearchRearcher!  Prove it! 

3. If I don't know the author and/or the network (channel, publication), I'll do a quick search on them (often using the -site: trick to exclude their own self-serving articles).  This will sometimes show up a low-quality site pretty quickly, and if it's a high quality channel, that usually shows up as well.  

This is usually a pretty quick set of things to do.  Pay attention; check a fact or two; check the publication source; make sure all parts of the story are coherent.  I can do this (and you can too!) in less than 1 minute.  

There are obviously a lot more things one can do.   But I hope you'll make these fairly straightforward steps a regular part of the way you search for (and read!) news.  

Search on!  

Monday, August 16, 2021

Answer: What do you do to find high quality news content? (part 1)

 What's news to you... 

.. is usually information that's timely.  Unlike this post, which is woefully late. I meant to have it out last Wednesday (on schedule), but this is a complex topic that's difficult to write about comprehensively, simply, and coherently!  (Or so I've found.)  

Regardless, let's talk about what skills we might develop (or share) to make us all better readers (and searchers!) of news.  

What does one do to find good stuff?  

A lot of this is going to be contingent on your beliefs and world-view.  I'm not sure I can give you a single prescription that will work for everyone, in all cases, in all countries.   

Let's revisit last week's Challenge and see what our SRS Regulars have to recommend: 

1.  When you're searching for news, what do YOU do?  Do you have strategies and tactics that you follow?  (NOTE:  We don't want to hear what you do in theory--we want to know what you do in reality!)  

This is tricky.  In many cases, we KNOW what we should do, but there's not enough time to do the right thing.  That's why I'm curious about what actually people do.  There's often a big difference between what we believe is the best action, and what we actually do in our day-to-day behavior.  

What did our SRS Regular Readers say?  

Jeff points out a deep insight about news: “facts” are transitory truths, constantly being updated as new information is discovered.  Keep this in mind as you wade through the news--our understanding of facts, what's going on, and how to interpret what we hear is constantly under revision.  Remember that.  

He uses a news aggregator (his favorite: Feedly).  What's an aggregator?  Sometimes also called a feed aggregator, feed reader, news reader, or RSS readerIt pulls together syndicated web content such as online newspapers, blogs, podcasts, and video blogs (vlogs) in one location for easy reading.  There are many--you could search for them!  

He also pays for subscriptions to quality news sources (in his case, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Review of Books, Intercept, Mother Jones, The Economist, The New Yorker).  He includes some out-of-country sources such as BBC, Al Jazeera

[Dan: Note that these sources are all rather different from one another, with very different points of view about what's news and what counts as important.  It's worth your while to check each of the sources listed in this post as possible resources for you. 

ALSO, note that many of these resources offer some number of free articles / month for you to peruse.  If you find yourself doing that often, consider paying for the subscription. It's the right thing to do. ] 

Jeff also uses some fact-checking sites (e.g. or

In particular, Jeff's first response when people send you “news” (especially news that causes a strong reaction positive or negative) is to do some minimal checking.  

[ Dan: This is what I do as well--if I get a strong emotional response to an article, either positive OR negative, then I'll do a quick Google search to see if there's variation in the way different news outlets are reporting it.  Heuristic:  If it surprises you, check out the surprise. Never forward (or Tweet) anything without checking first.  Never.  ] 

Jeff also pays attention to media critics (e.g., Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden, Michelangelo Signorile, Robert Hubbell).

He also points to some topic specific news sites: - Panda (web design), Techmeme (technology), Metacritic (reviews of movies), (e)Science News (for a feed of science news).  

[ Dan: I also have several topic-specific sites that I follow.  You can find your own by searching for [ news site <topic> ] For instance, [ news site classical music ] will lead you to a bunch of newsy sites on that topic. ] 

Mathlady likes to read news created from the place where an event is happening.  Example: during the April 2010 oil leak (Deepwater Horizon blowout) Mathlady would news from New Orleans and Pensacola papers.  They're both close to the event, so they have local reporters (and a vested interest).  

She prefers international news for international events.  BBC and Raidió Teilifís Éireann in Ireland – different POV.  

[ Dan: For the same reason, and for a completely different point of view, I will sometimes check the Australian news services News.AU and the ABC (AU).  ] 

Ramon uses Google Discover (swipe right on your Android phone home screen).  It's not exactly news, but is a tailored feed of newsy sites that is driven by your preferences and your searches.  (See this article for full details.)  It's really a version of "the Daily Me."   Then – both US and Mexico versions.  

He also checks Twitter for news updates, particularly for hyper-local  (e.g. local fire / police).  It's an important source of breaking news (but be cautious about the stream--for disasters, it's also a source of misinformation and rumors).  

H.E cautions us to be aware of biases of sources.  In particular, be aware of coverage or NON-coverage of an event based on local politics.  

ikijibiki likes to read Stuff (local to New Zealand), and notices that reports are different when seen on laptop vs. phone.  (That could be simply that they have different ways of assembling the feed for the two platforms.)  

Remmij points out that you can search for
     [ best news sources aggregators <LOCATION> ] 

to find aggregators.  (Note that if you leave <LOCATION> out of your search, you'll default to the current location.  But if you want to search for somewhere else, like the old mother country, add in the location you'd like to read about.) 

Remmij also points us to the Wikipedia current events portal (there's one line for each major news story, including many international stories).   There's even an archive feature (see red circle in image below) that can take you back to Jan 1994, although depth of coverage drops over time.  

[ Dan: I didn't know about this feature.  I'll be using it in the future to look up recent (past) news stories! ] 

Remmij ALSO uses a list of factchecking sites hosted by ISTE (a US-based instructional / educators organization).  

Diane uses a variety of sources including "old-fashioned" RSS feeds.  She's a fan of the Netvibes aggregator to creates her own Daily Me. 

Serendipity, as a school librarian, has multiple subscriptions to top-quality news sources.  They also for foreign language news sources to help triangulate a story from different points of view.  

Melanie uses a local newspaper (paid subscription), with Google News for global.  Social media of news outlets (esp. local).   Melanie also uses AP fact check along with the AP false rumors of the week.  (This is especially useful in conjunction with Snopes--together they just about cover most of the rumors / misinformation threads you'll see out there.) 

2.  What's the best advice you could give someone who is searching for great, high-quality news/late-breaking information?  What's your advice / guidance / counsel?  

I'll work on this one for tomorrow's post.  Sorry to break this up into so many fragments... but this is a complex topic... well worthy of our attention! 

Search on!  

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

SearchResearch Challenge (8/4/21): What do you do to find high quality news content?

 As you might have seen yesterday... 

... this week I'm thinking about how to do SearchResearch for News / Late-breaking information.  

Finding credible news information is an incredibly important skill to have--especially these days when misinformation (or just plain low-quality information) is rampant.  Politics!  COVID!  Wildfires!  Scandals!  

What does one do to find good stuff?  

As we've been writing the "How to Find..." series, I thought about asking you, our fearless SRS readers, about what your favorite strategies and methods are for finding news.  

So this is one of those open-ended SRS Challenges.  I'll be checking your replies each day, commenting and filling in thoughts as we go throughout the week.  Then next Wednesday, I'll summarize what we've talked about into a document for us all.  

Here's this week's Challenge: 

1.  When you're searching for news, what do YOU do?  Do you have strategies and tactics that you follow?  (NOTE:  We don't want to hear what you do in theory--we want to know what you do in reality!)  

2.  What's the best advice you could give someone who is searching for great, high-quality news/late-breaking information?  What's your advice / guidance / counsel?  

I've been open-ended about this on purpose.  Maybe going to a news site isn't the way you find the best information.  (If not, what do you do?)  

Or perhaps you integrate information from multiple sources--if you do, how do you decide what to search for, and when do you know it's time to stop searching?  

I'm looking forward to seeing what we all collectively come up with.  I'll be active in the comments stream this week!  

Search on!  

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

How to find anything #3 (part 1/3): News and Late Breaking Information

 How to find News and Late Breaking Information (part 1)


Foreword:  This is part one of our chapter on finding news (and late-breaking information).  As Mario Callegaro and I work to post these "How to Find..." chapters, we've divided this one up into pieces because posting one giant post is a bit too much.  It's better to post a few pieces (parts 1, 2, 3) instead of one mega-post.  So saying, here's part 1... 


When you search on Google, you're usually expecting to search the open web. Generally speaking, a search engine finds you the best page or short answers for your search query.  It will show you a bunch of different kinds of results (web pages, images, videos, maybe even news articles).

But what about news stories? 

Think about when it might show you a news article: if you're searching for breaking news, the best result for you might only be a few seconds old--something just published about that live news event on the other side of the world. Reputable sources haven't had time to evaluate and link to those stories. 

So what happens? Fortunately, Google indexes news sources a little differently--they’re on an accelerated crawl, which means that news sources are more likely to be available to you just moments after they’re pushed out. Search engines generally want to index all breaking stories on the web, using many signals to determine if it's the best quality news resource.


When searching for news, what do you need?  

First question: Searching for news?  What counts as "news"?

Most often, news is what content-providers say--if it looks like news, and quacks like news, then it’s news.  BUT, given that news providers are self-identifying as news, the question for news seekers is to find sources that they believe (that is, find credible) and can have access to read.  (We'll talk about this in detail in part 3.)

This “have access” phrase isn’t a trivial point: there are a huge number of news sources in the online world, but as you probably know, the news industry is still searching for a workable funding model.  Some sources are free, others are free for the first few articles, many are behind a paywall--you have to be a subscriber. Many news sources have a particular point-of-view.

For you, the searcher, what kinds of news you need is a balance between what’s available, what you trust, and what you’re willing to pay for.  


What is news & breaking events on Google?  

When you do a “newsy” search in your regular Google search, you’ll often see a list of “Top Stories” at the top of the page.  Those are current articles that are relevant to your search. Here's an easy example. Note that there's a diversity of sources in the "Top stories" list, and that you can scroll through the top 10 hits with the horizontal list widget (click on the > button to scroll to the right).  


In addition, there’s the News tab that will give you an aggregated list of the top news stories for that query (note that it’s highlighted in blue below): 

And, if you have paid subscriptions to news services,  if you've linked them to your Google account (how-to-do-it: help page), then relevant articles from your subscriptions might appear in the middle of your search, like this: 

You can see I've subscribed to the Washington Post--and for this query [wildfires]--I'm seeing links to articles from my subscription.  

As a 3rd option, you can look at the news by going to directly.  This site is all the news (that’s crawled by Google) that is of interest at the moment.  The news feed lists stories that are ranked by importance, determining which stories, images, and videos show, and in what order. 

Notice that the page has many sections, just like a good newspaper.  Each of the sections is shown in the outline in the left panel (for me, the sections are U.S., World, Your local news, Business, Technology, Entertainment, Sports, Science, Health).  Clicking on one of those tabs (say, "Technology") will show you news on that topic, just as the Technology section of your hardcopy newspaper might.

Google News shows some content in a personalized way (link to article about this), showing you stories that interest you. The personalization is based on your: Google News settings (which you can change, see below), and your Past activity on Google / YouTube.   That is, the system will tend to show you more articles like those you’ve clicked on (and read), and stories you’ve marked as a Favorite.  In practice, this is a fairly subtle personalization, mostly adding articles of interest to you. (Example: If you'd been doing a lot of searches on Caribbean vacations, your feed might have an additional article about hurricanes in the region or news about upcoming music festivals.)

To change your Google News settings:  To see more stories on a particular topic, first search for that topic in News. Here I searched for scuba

Then, if you click on one of the options (here I click on “Scuba diving”): 

Then I’d click on “Follow” to increase the number of stories about Scuba diving that will appear in my feed.  

To STOP following a particular topic, just do the same thing, except click on the Follow button to REMOVE the topic from your interest list.  (Click to activate, click again to de-activate.)

You can always see what topics you’re following by clicking on the “Following” button in the left column.  You’ll see a list of all the topics you’re following.  

How to turn off personalization:  The fastest way is to get to unfiltered news is to open an incognito browser window--that will give you the generic news stream without any of your personalization influencing the story selection.  

That's Google News 101.

In our next episode (part 2), we'll cover how to discover and keep track of your own news sources (including ones not covered in Google News).

In part 3 we'll discuss some other / non-standard approaches to finding news sources and assessing credibility of those news feeds.

Search on! (Newsily!)