Wednesday, January 19, 2022

SearchResearch Challenge (1/19/21): Time and tides in different places?

 I was at the sea the other day... 

The tide comes in near Gualala, California.  P/C Dan.

As usual, I had looked up the tides before going, so I'd know when both high and low tide were to happen.  That's an easy query on Google.  If you do: 

     [ tide chart ] 

Google will return a list of local tide chart sites, like this (my query here was done from Palo Alto, CA): 

And if you click on the first result, you'll see a beautiful chart of the tides near you: 

Chart from

As it happens, the other day when I went for my seaside walk, I was near Gualala, California, and I'd looked up the tide chart, which looked like this: 

All charts in this style are from 

On Jan 14, the first low tide was at 1:49AM while the first high tide was at 7:59AM; second low tide was 2:35PM and second high tide at 10:36PM.  

In one of those serendipitous moments that defines SearchResearch, I just HAPPENED to have looked up the tide chart for San Diego earlier that morning (I was looking up something else, don't you know...).  So when I saw this chart for Gualala, it struck me that the time of the tides were different

As I've often said, noticing small inconsistencies in the world often leads to curious outcomes.  This is one of those.  

Here's the tides chart for three locations on the coast of North America, San Diego (just above Mexico), Gualala (one quarter of the distance to Alaska), and Juneau, Alaska (way up north).   See the map down below.

That's when I noticed--for the first time--that the tides seem to arrive later and later the farther north you go.  To see this, look at the first high tide peaks: San Diego at 6:48AM, Gualala at 7:59AM, Juneau at 10:41AM.  Apparently, the tides seem to arrive about four hours later. The distance, as the jet plane flies, is about 1947 miles (3134 kilometers) between San Diego and Juneau, so it seems the "tide" apparently travels at around 486 mph from south to north (787 kph).)  

Realizing that the tides don't all go up/down at the same time along the west coast of North America was a surprise.  I'd implicitly assumed that they all went up and down at the same time.  (A moment's reflection makes me realize that can't possibly be true.) 

BUT... it leads to today's SRS Challenge:  

1. Is there some way to understand how the tides move around on the planet?  If the time of high tide varies so much on the west coast of North America, there must be a similar variability in low tides at different locations.  Is there some way to understand how tides vary over the course of a day?  What's the best way to get an understanding of this global behavior? 

When I did this Challenge, I was happily surprised to find that there are some beautiful ways to understand this.  Perhaps you can find them as well?  (I guarantee that this is an easier problem that the Skytree shadow!) 

Let us know what you found to answer this Challenge and HOW you found it!  

Search on! 

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

How to find downloadable books in Google Books

 All I wanted was a full-view version of Audubon's masterpiece, The Birds of America... 

A page from Audubon's "Birds of America"

... but I was having a hard time findingi it.  But with a little help from my friends on the Books team, I learned how to do this.  

1.  Do your search and limit the returns to "Full View" 

2. Then, open that book (Volume 1) to see this: 

3. Clear the search (you'll see why in the next step).  This will then show you the summary page of this book: 

4.  To find the other volumes of Birds of America, click on the "Other editions" button in the center of the UI:  

5. Click on "More" -- This will then show you all of the "Other editions" of this book, which will include the option to filter by "downloadable"! 

6. Once you click on "Download available," it will show you all of the PDF versions of the books, including nearly all of the other volumes: 

Interestingly, this list now shows you full scans of Birds of America that do not show up in "full view," but which are downloadable (and therefore in full view... go figure).  

But I'll tell you now--Volume 5 doesn't show up when you do this search.  (It doesn't seem to have ever been scanned.)  But the OTHER 7 volumes do show up!  And if you're an amateur field biologist, this is a treasure trove for you.  

Search on! 

Post Script:  

If you like this, try the following amazing books, which I leave as suggestions for the interested SRS reader to find: 

On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres.  (aka De revolutionibus orbium caelestium) Nicolaus Copernicus.  

Le operazioni del compasso geometrico, e militare, etc, by Galileo.  (1649)

Hamlet, Shakespeare: 


Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Answer: A new year, a new Challenge about parakeets!

 Is it a parrot, or a parakeet, or... 

C. c. ludovicianus by John James Audubon. This is the blue subspecies variant of the green/yellow Carolina Parakeet (C. c. carolensis)  P/C Wikimedia.

Last week's Challenge was pretty straightforward:  

1. ...the Carolina Parakeet, can you find a drawing (or etching or painting) that was done from life?  (And yes, I know about the painting in the Wikipedia article.  Can you find something OTHER than that?)  

I was fascinated by the comments we got about HOW people did their search.  Thanks to all who wrote in.  

Full disclosure: here's what I did...

The straightforward search was: 
     [ Carolina parakeet "from life" ] 

and then wander through the images looking for plausible leads.  In looking through this collection of results: 

I quickly learned a couple of things: 

1. the artist Mark Catseby  (1682-1749) drew "The Parrot of Carolina and the Cypress of America" c.1722-6.  While he was a great collector and he certainly saw live Carolina parakeets, it's unclear if his illustration (see below) was from life...  (This image is a fairly low-res version: you can see a beautiful high-res version here, at the Royal Collection.)  

Mark Catseby (c. 1772)

2. This bird is also called the Carolina Parrot, which, when you search for it in the manner above, leads to the OTHER Wikipedia image of the Carolina Parrot.  

John James Audubon (1833) "from life."  P/C Wikimedia.

I figured that John James Audubon (the famous American bird illustrator of the 19th century) probably had done a sketch (or two, or dozens) of this bird.  So the simplest search would be to search for Carolina parakeet in Google Books with the date filter set to BEFORE 1918. 

I did this... and redid this search multiple times--to no avail!  I know Audubon wrote and illustrated a multi-volume work called “Birds of America," and as we see in the above illustration, we KNOW that he painted them at least once, so it was peculiar to not find this in Google Books. 

However, once I noticed that the bird was also called the "Carolina Parrot," a search in Google Books for [ "Carolina Parrot ] quickly led me to Birds of North America, Volume 4 (page 306), wherein one finds this image: 

Audubon, "Birds of North America, Volume 4" p. 306 

Two things to note here:  

First, the Latinate name is, according to Audubon, Centurus carolinensis.  Today, of course, it's Conuropsis carolinensis.  (Which explains why searching for Conuropsis carolinensis in the works of Audubon didn't work either--he never knew it by that name, nor wrote about it.)  Nor did he call it the "Carolina Parakeet" -- he called it either the "Caroline Parrot" OR the "Carolina Parrakeet."  Synonyms are great, but they're not perfect substitutes!  

Second, in the lower left corner is the notation:  "Drawn from nature by J.J. Audubon FRSFLS."  Now, we know that "from nature" is about as close to "from life" as Audubon is going to get.  As we read in the article, Drawn from Nature, by Laura Harbold, 
He spent hours observing birds in their natural habitats, then shot them, using scatter pellets to lessen the damage to their bodies. For Audubon, Eldridge says, "a bird was like a rose. You admired the color, you admired the fragrance, and you picked it without much emotional reaction."

Audubon pinned his specimens to a wooden grid, arranging their wings, tails, and heads in lifelike positions. Using a duplicate grid, he sketched the birds exactly to scale, reproducing each feather to the smallest detail.

And that's what I did to find the Carolina Parakeet (aka Parrot, aka Parrakeet, depending on the source).  

Again, thanks to everyone who wrote in with their solution paths.  

SearchResearch Lessons 

1.  "From life" wasn't such a great search term.  I didn't know that Audubon (and others) said "from nature"!  And, more generally... 

2.  Sometimes you need an exact match of the search term!  Luckily, I noticed that some writers referred to "Carolina Parrot" and I was able to use that term to search in Google Books (and other sources).  

3. Looking around (and reading widely) is the best way to zero in on your search target.  Search skills are great, but reading broadly, often using lateral browsing, is a great way to find what you see by learning a bit about the topic area.  

Search on! 

Friday, January 7, 2022

Image identification is great, when it works.

 Searching by image... 

What plant is this? Can search-by-image help?

... is a fundamental skill for SearchResearchers.  You should know how to use regular Google Search-by-Image (see this for a refresher), and you should know how to use Google Lens (refresher), and you should know about Bing's Search-by-Image, Tineye, and Yandex's search-by-image tool as well.  That's five major search-by-image systems that you should just know how to use.  

But the problem with all of these systems is that they do what they can with what they see, but you shouldn't rely on them for proper identification, particularly of plants, dogs, cats, people, and the random marginalia of life.  

Here's what I mean.  

This is a photo I took of a plant growing in a nice Silicon Valley bit of landscaping.  I happen to know what this is. (It's an Arbutus unedo, which we've talked about before in SRS, post about these plants back in 2014.)  I'm curious to see if Google Lens will identify it correctly or not.  I know this is a difficult search because this plant looks superficially like several others.  Here, I'm interested in the plant with the red berries and not the low-growing plant below it.  

Original Photo

As you know, you can select the region of interest in the photo--basically telling the image reco system what to pay attention to, so I first selected a random bit of leaves, branches, and a corner of one of the fruits.  This turns out not to have worked well at all.  

Google Lens thinks it's a Toyon bush, which is reasonable guess, except that the berries are all the wrong size (Toyon berries are much smaller and don't have little hairs).  Luckily, I also know what a Toyon bush looks like, so I know it's wrong.  But unfortunately, if you didn't happen to know what a Toyon was, you might well accept this an an ID.  And you'd be wrong if you believed this identification. 

For a second attempt, I focused the area of interest onto just the berries.  This also turns out to not work well either.   

Now Lens thinks it's a Lychee, which isn't a terrible guess, but upclose, they look nothing alike.  This is a basic problem with identification only from an image: it's hard to get the upclose details that matter!  (For what it's worth, this is a problem for humans trying to identify something from just an image.  The key difference is that the human will tell you "I can't be sure, given just this photo" whereas the algorithm just gives you an ID without any indication that there's a possibility of error.  

I try again with a broader region to search, and the third time is a charm.  Here I've changed the region of interest to be the berry, a few leaves, and a couple of small branches.  And this time, it gets it right.  Well, kind of.  It calls it a "strawberry tree" which is correct and informal, you have to dig deeper to get anything truly useful for an ID. I would have preferred the answer to be more like this: 
 Arbutus unedo, an evergreen shrub or small tree in the family Ericaceae native to the Mediterranean region and western Europe. The plant is known for its fruit which look a great deal like a strawberry, hence the common name "strawberry tree." However, it is not really related to strawberries at all. 

SearchResearch Lesson about Search-by-image

1. Basically, you have to be careful and check your results It's tempting to do a quick search and be done with it, but if you're trying to figure out if it's a potentially deadly flower (or berry, or insect bite...), you'll want to do as you always do and DOUBLE CHECK.  

Note that all of the search-by-image systems (Tineye, Yandex, Bing, Google, etc.) are all sensitive to the are of interest--you will get different answers depending on which region of the image you ask about.  

None of them will tell you about the degree of certainty, but will give you a ranked list, rank ordered by a mysterious relevance operation that probably has nothing to do with accuracy, but more to do with image similarity.  

And it should go without saying, but NEVER TRUST a search-by-image function to identify a mushroom.  To get a complete ID of a mushroom often requires examining the gills and the spores, frequently with a microscope.  

Be aware of the limits of the tools you use--the skilled SRS Researcher knows the limits!  

2. The guidance you give to the algorithm is really important.  Try to select an area of the image that has all of the information you would need to do an identification.  In this case, that would be leaves + fruit + branches.  Or, if you're trying to identify something non-botantical, try to find the "most representative" piece of the image, and not just a random decontextualized fragment.  

Search on!  (Cautiously...)  

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

SearchResearch Challenge (1/5/21): A new year, a new Challenge about parakeets!

 I started this blog with the idea of writing a book... 

... in the very first post I wrote: 

In the back of my head, I want something tangible to emerge from this. Ideally, a book, or a series of books, about how people search... how they research... and how they get good at doing this.

While I thought I wanted to write about search (and Research!), I had no idea that this would begin a slow process of transforming me into someone who, in quiet moments of reverie, considers himself to be a writer.  

And yet, that seems to have happened.  The Joy of Search came out in late September of 2019 with a flurry of sales and activities.  At that time, I'd planned an international book tour with invitations to the Oxford Book Festival, the Royal Society in London, and bookstores everywhere.  I was hoping to do the full authorial road trip with speaking engagements and book signings hither and yon.  

Then March 2020 brought all of that kind of thing to a quick stop as COVID began closing things down.  Alas.  I'm certain that book sales suffered; I know that my book tour didn't happen in the way I'd planned.    

On the other hand, the COVID pause has given me time to think about writing on other projects.  

It won't surprise you to know that I'm working on a couple of book projects.  First is that series of chapters (with my friend, Mario Callegaro) about "How to Find Anything."  (You've seen several of those chapters appear here in SRS.  (#1: Finding DIY content. #2: Finding Recipes.  #3: Finding News.)  By the end of 2022, we'll virtually staple all these chapters together into an e-book for everyone to use.  That's one project.  

In addition, I started work on a NEW book all about Unanticipated Consequences.  

We know humans are terrible about seeing the implications of taking actions in the world, but can we get better at thinking through these things?  Could we actually anticipate the consequences of our actions instead of just blindly letting them happen?   (Spoiler warning: Yes we can, but you'll have to read the book to find out how!)  

This book is probably about 1 year away.  But just as I started the SRS blog with an eye towards writing The Joy of Search, I'm similarly starting up a new Substack newsletter to give me a way to write on this topic with a regular, weekly pulse.  If you'd like to follow along in that conversation, you can read the first post HERE (it's free to subscribe--hit the big orange button at the top of the page).  

But that's all prologue.  Let's get back to SearchResearch!  

As you might have noticed, sometimes the SRS Challenges are really fairly difficult.  (Boy do I know THAT to be true!)  And a few regular readers have commented to me that while those are interesting to read, they don't really participate because it seems too hard. That's not the effect I'm looking for, so I'm going to try something slightly different for January, 2022.  We'll try putting out a few SRS Challenges that are fun, fairly straight-forward, but as interesting as ever.  My hope is that we'll engage everyone to try the Challenge, and learn something interesting along the way--both about research skills, and about the world in general.  

So, in that spirit, here's the first Challenge.  Let me know if you find this interesting / more fun / perhaps a bit more engaging that the ones from 2021.  

1. As you know, I'm interested in natural history, and also in regular history--and also in the ways those two intertwine.  You probably already know about the now-extinct Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis).  It went defunct around 1918, right during the Spanish Flu epidemic.  And so while there are a (very) few stuffed specimens of the Carolina Parakeet, can you find a drawing (or etching or painting) that was done from life?  (And yes, I know about the painting in the Wikipedia article.  Can you find something OTHER than that?)  

C. c. ludovicianus by John James Audubon. This is the blue subspecies variant of the green/yellow Carolina Parakeet (C. c. carolensis)  P/C Wikimedia.

This shouldn't take too long to do, but will reward you with a few lovely images that are not often seen.  

Let us know what you find! 

Search on!