Friday, August 30, 2013

When you want to understand an obscure part.... search for a diagram

Regular reader Remmij made an interesting comment in yesterday's discussion of the Tarweed flower, Hemizonia congesta.  She wrote: 

     Ray flowers 5–13; ligules 5–11 mm,

Now, I'm reasonably up on my botanical terminology, but I admit that I didn't know what a "ligule" was.  BUT... I do know how to find out.  

Here's what I did.... 

My first move was to do a define... like this:  

Note the little tag in the gray box?  It says it's "Botany"--meaning this is a technical term used in that field.  You'll see these from time to time whenever you're looking up a term that's strongly identified in a given area.  (They're part of the new release of the upgraded dictionary service, which I'm happy to say was one of the projects I worked on this year.)  Try looking up the definitions of amniocentesis, drupe, or fiduciary.  You'll see the tags there. 

But, while this is a perfectly fine definition, it's kind of lacking something.  After I read this, I STILL didn't really know what it was. 

So I did an Image search with: 

     [ ligule diagram ] 

And got these results.... 

I was looking for a diagram that shows the ligule in context.  What I especially like about this Images results page is that I can see a ligule in both a diagram form (with all the extraneous bits removed) and in an actual picture, so I can see the difference between the diagram and reality.  

I ALSO picked up that ligules are relatively common in grasses.  They appear on flowering plants as well, just not as often.  

To tell the truth, I learned more than that... I also learned that ligules exist in the first place.  I'd always assumed that they were just an extra little bit of the leaf sheath--I never dreamed that they'd be an independent part of the plant and used to pin down the identity!  

You never know what you'll pick up along the way.  

Search lesson:  Using the [ diagram ] trick is a great way to see how parts of a larger whole fit into place in context.  This is useful for bicycle parts-- [ bicycle derailleur diagram ], ships [ clipper ship sails diagram ], as well as plants [ plant ovary diagram ] 

Thanks, Remmij! 

Search on! 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Answer: Quickly! Poisonous or not?

As you can probably tell, I enjoy flowers--especially the local wildflowers that appear everywhere in the Valley and in the woodlands near where I live.  

So when I saw this particular flower, I recognized it instantly as a member of the Compositae family (this is also known as the Asteraceae family).  That's the family name for flowers that looks like this.  This family includes sunflowers, dandelions, asters, and similar flowers.  Like this one, they all have multiple flowers in a single disk (botanically "composite").

AND (key point) most Compositae flowers and plants are edible; both the leaves, stems, and flowers.   Some common edible composite flowering plants are Lactuca sativa (lettuce), Cichorium (chicory), Cynara scolymus (globe artichoke), Helianthus annuus (sunflower),  Carthamus tinctorius (safflower) and Helianthus tuberosus (Jerusalem artichoke). 

(There are a few Compositae that are poisonous.  The most common is probably burdock, Arctium genus, leaves, which can cause a rash. But even then, burdock roots are good to eat, so it's not really toxic, per se.) 

For background:  The name "Asteraceae" comes from Aster, the most prominent genus in the family, that derives from the Greek word meaning star.  The flower has a clear star-shape. "Compositae"refers to the fact that the family is one of the few flowering plants that have composite flowers growing tightly side-by-side in a center.  

But our challenge isn't to feel good about what the kid is doing, but to figure out exactly what it is.  

In my case, I'd just turn to one of my plant identification guides such as A field guide to Pacific states wildflowers.  These books all have a "key," that is, a linked set of questions about the flower that lead to an identification.  

The questions are like this: 

87a.  Flowers in racemes, spikes, or solitary.  See 88. 
87b. Numerous flowers in heads, sunflower-like.  Each flower tubular (some with outer ray flowers). Compositae.  
In essence, if you answer each question correctly and then follow the numbers, you'll end up at the right flower identification.  

In practice, I end up looking up every other word (what's a "raceme"?), and going up and down the tree of questions until I finally get to one that matches all of the test questions.  

We don't have time for that here.  So... what can we online-searchers do to help?  

There are a couple of ways to do this.  

A. Find an online wildflower identification book.  Typically these cost some money.  As you can imagine, there aren't a lot of free ones available online.  There are versions of various field guides that you can buy (say, on iBooks or Google Play).  You could then just use them to ID the flower in the normal way.  

B.  Search for online wildflower guides specific to the area.  This is the approach I took.  Knowing that there are a LOT of people (besides me) who want to identify flowers, I did a simple search: 

     [ summer wildflowers bay area ] 

This query brings up a number of resources that seem like they might work.  I click on the #1 hit  "Summer Wildflowers on Bay Area Trails" that's on a local runner's club website.  I figure it's likely that they'll have this flower since (as you can see in the above photo) it grows well at trailside.  (Note that this works well for me since I'm local to the SF Bay area.  If you don't live here, or live near another Bay, you'll have to add in something like "SF" or "San Francisco" to get results similar to mine.)

Sure enough, the 4th flower on their list shows up as Hayfield Tarweed (Hemizonia congesta), and it looks a LOT like the flower above.  

Here's what they show:  

I'll also tell you that these flowers (and leaves) DO smell awfully strong.  "Incense" is a nice way to phrase it.  It's definitely strong.  

But this little picture isn't quite enough to be sure.  So I'll do another search for the Latin name given here, Hemizonia congesta.  

As you see, the top 3 results are from the website.  I know that Calflora .org is a massive, high-quality database of flowers and plants of California that was originally started by people in the US Forest Service, and also work with the botanists at UC Berkeley.  (You can learn this by checking the "history" tab on the Calflora site.)  Bottom line:  I tend to believe them. 

I start to get worried, though, when I check the Calflora site.  When I look at the page for Hemizonia congesta, all of the flowers are yellow.  Uh oh.  Is this NOT the right flower?  

From Calflora site.  Thanks to them.

See that link to "more photos on CalFlora" on the lower right?  Clicking on that takes me to another entire page of photos of Hemizonia congesta including the white variation.  It turns out there are lots of subspecies, with color variation as part of the defining characteristic.  

Now we have the answer to the first question:  

1.  What is this plant?   
Answer:  Hemizonia congesta, the "Hayfield tarweed" in a white subspecies variation.  


2.  Is it poisonous or not?  

Answer:  No, it's not.  Rest 

To find out, I did a quick search for: 

     [ tarweed edibility ] 


     [ tarweed poisonous ] 

to check.  The answers come back quickly.  Not only is it NOT poisonous, but the local Indians would eat the seeds, aggressively harvesting them in the fall to make pinole.  Reading a bit more, I discovered that they also would burn over the fields to ensure good growing conditions for next year.  You wouldn't do this if the plant were really poisonous!  

And.. for extra credit... How was tarweed used in early California?  As seen, it's clear that they were sought out and harvested for food.  So I did two searches to follow up on this. 

     [ tarweed Indians ] 

     [ tarweed harvesting ] 

Why [ tarweed Indians ]?  (As opposed to the more politically correct term "Native Americans"?)  Short answer:  Because that's where the content is.  It's useful to sometimes use older terms when searching.  (More on this in another post soon.)  

But in both cases, I was able to find many references to harvesting and preparation of the seeds for food.  

One of the loveliest references I could find is a link to this image of a Pomo woman kitted out to collect tarweed.  (Although apparently she's ready to collect seeds of the Maida flowers, also called "tarweed," which look, taste and smell very much like Hemizonia.)  
This image is: The Tarweed Gatherer by Grace Carpenter Hudson (1865–1937), used with permission of the Grace Hudson Museum, Ukiah, California ( 
The woman pictured is well-known basketmaker Joseppa Pinto Dick (circa 1860-1905), who was Yokayo Pomo, a Native community southeast of Ukiah.

Total search time for me:  About 4 minutes (and then an hour to write this up). 

Search on! 


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Wednesday Search Challenge (8/28/13): Quickly! Poisonous or not?

Mystery flower.  About 0.5" (1.3 cm) across.
Many parents have had this awful moment.  Your kid comes in from playing outside and their mouth has little green leaves or petals or white sap from something she's been eating.  The thing you need to figure out--Quickly!--is whether or not it's poisonous.  

This time of year a particular flower blooms all over the Valley.  You can see it everywhere--open fields, roadsides, anyplace where there's not a lot of water and relatively untended land. 

Imagine yourself the parent of a child who comes in carrying this flower, with one half-eaten hanging from her mouth.   

What should you do?  

Today's search challenge is fairly simple: 
1.  What is this plant?   
2.  Is it poisonous or not?  

Since it's a simple enough question, be SURE to time yourself this week.  How long would it take you to find the answer?  

Let us know in the comments below.  Be sure to say HOW you found the answer, and how LONG you took to figure out if your daughter needs to go to the emergency center or not.  

Search on.  Quickly!!

Mystery flower growing along the edge of the trail.

P.S. Extra credit, for those of you who found this too easy...   Can you find evidence of ways it was used in early California? 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

In-Depth Articles on the Results Page

Google is now providing (sometimes!) a set of 3 “In-Depth” articles linked in at the bottom of the SERP.  These articles are judged to be “in-depth” by a ranking algorithm that looks at what the article is “about” and judges whether or not it’s of sufficient length (and depth) to be potentially interesting to a searcher.  Here's an example of 3 in-depth articles at the bottom of the search for [ global warming ]  

And another example of 3 in-depth articles for the search [ cloud computing ]  

Some of the judgment about the “in-depth-ness” comes from the way the article is marked up the publisher.  (See webmaster notes below.)  

Of course, as always, the content has to be fairly high quality.  (Rants and screeds don’t make the grade.)  Quality of writing, depth of coverage (and a good, nicely crawable image) all help make these articles accessible. 

At this point, most of the in-depth articles from reasonably trusted sources such as NPR, NYTimes, Forbes, Atlantic, Nature, and so on.   

This feature has just recently rolled out, so the triggering (that is, when you get the articles at the bottom of the SERP) is a little inconsistent. 

For instance, some queries trigger, while others don't: 
Not triggering:  UC Berkeley, John Brown (abolitionist) , MOOC, information visualization, symphony, computer science, Stanford, UC Berkeley, diabetes, LDL, HDL Triggers:  San Diego, censorship, Los Angeles, cholesterol, ALS, genetic testing, Yale, Harvard, Woody Harrelson, Hunger Games, economics, biology

Of course, this will change over time as more articles are scanned and indexed as “in-depth” on a given search topic. 

Note that sometimes you have to be a little specific to find these in-depth recommendations.  For instance, the query [ SAT ] doesn’t trigger, but [ SAT test ] does. 

And, as always, just because the articles are “in-depth” doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to read skeptically and fact-check.  These recommendations are just that—recommendations of longer-form articles that you, the searcher on that topic, might find interesting. 

For webmasters:  Be sure to include tags for:  Headline, AlternativeHeadline, Image, Description, DatePublished, ArticleBody 

Consider implementing an indexable pagination schema (by adding in link tags for rel=next/rel=prev). 

 See: for guidance about how to mark up YOUR articles so they’d be considered for inclusion.

Friday, August 23, 2013

New dictionary service

We've talked about using the Google Dictionary in this blog before.  It's incredibly useful. Do a query like: 

     [ define water ] 

and you'll get a great definition.  (For old-timers, you haven't needed the : after the word "define" for a while now.  Time to stop using it!) 

But we've recently updated this feature on desktop AND mobile to give better, richer information about your word.  

Try this: 

     [ define mellifluous ]  

BUT... notice the big downward-pointing chevron?  Click on THAT and you'll see a bunch of newer information including an etymology and a word-usage graph.  

The word usage data comes from the NGram corpus (English words in books going back to the 1800s), and the etymological information comes from Oxford.  

Now... If you tap the microphone when doing this search, you’ll hear answers spoken back when you ask questions like “What’s the definition of fortuitous?” and “What are synonyms for fortuitous?” Or  "What is the etymology of water?"  

You can also translate to one of many different languages, including translations of ALL the word senses.  

DEFINITELY worth knowing about. 

Search on. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Answer: Masons, Presidents, and Star Wars?

So... this was fun, yes?  
As many readers pointed out, a fairly simple search for:  
     [ us presidents African Inland Mission at Kijabe ] 

leads to the Billy Graham Archives at suggesting it was Theodore Roosevelt who visited the African Inland Mission.  A quick check to see if Roosevelt was a Mason: 
     [ Roosevelt Mason ] 
quickly confirmed that fact.  (Lots of sites, non-redundant versions of the information, including several authoritative sites.)  
Now, did he lay the cornerstone at the Kijabe African Inland Mission?  
     [ Roosevelt Kijabe cornerstone ]
takes me to a NYTimes article (Aug 5, 1909) saying that he laid the stone the day before (with son Kermit... imagine.. a time when the name Kermit was a serious male name!).  
By poking around a bit, I found a pretty informative photo of the stone itself: 

I found this by just looking up Kijabe, Kenya in Google Maps, then turning on the Photos option (bottom right of the Maps UI).  This option shows photos contributed (and geolocated) by Panaramio.  
From Google Maps with photos turned on.  Link.

Now, can we find a picture of Roosevelt laying this stone?  Sure. 
Just redoing the first search in Google Images yields this image from the Wheaton Archives. 


What large building has a Star Wars character sculpted on it? 
Regular Reader Ramón has a great suggestion for a query: 

     [ teddy roosevelt cornerstone starwars carved ] 

This worked really well, but for an interesting reason. 
Here's the best result on the page in response to Ramón's query: 

Note that the search word "teddy" was synonymized to "Theodore" and that "carving" was changed to "carvings."  If you run this query, you'll also note that "starwars" gets converted to "Star Wars."  This is a nice example of Google's synonymization system helping out.  (And remember that if you REALLY want "teddy" you'll have to put it in quotes.  
If you used Control-F on the Wikipedia article and looked-for "Star" you'd find that the National Cathedral has a grotesque carving of the Star Wars character Darth Vader on the northwest tower.  
This beautiful side-by-side is from iO9.  
And yes, Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for the National Cathedral.  To find an image of that, you could do a search like: 
     [ theodore roosevelt national cathedral cornerstone ] 
and then search through the photos to find one at the American Institute of Architects. (AIA)  

Or.. you could use the approach that Regular Reader Jon (the Unknown) followed.  He did a search for the date of the cornerstone laying: 
     [ [September 29, 1907 roosevelt ] 
and found this image on the Cathedral's website: 

It's pretty clearly the same event--the laying of the cornerstone by Roosevelt before a crowd of 10,000 people.  (Remember, this was in the days before amplification.  A politician had to have a strong voice to be heard.)  

1.  Which US president was this?
Answer:  Theodore Roosevelt, on August 4, 1909. 

2.  Can you find a picture of him laying the cornerstone of the Mission and can you find a picture of him laying the cornerstone of the building with the Star Wars character? 
Answer:  See above. 

3.  (Extra credit)  Which direction is the Star Wars character looking?  
Now that we know that Darth Vader is on the NW tower, which direction is he looking from the NW tower?  
I was hoping that the cathedral would have something about the Darth Vader sculpture (called a "grotesque"), so I did this search: 
     [ Darth Vader ] 
(possibly the oddest combination of search terms EVER!)... but was rewarded with a lovely PDF file that gives the following directions to seeing Darth Vader:  " find Darth Vader, you have to leave the building through the ramp entrance... go down the ramp, step onto the grass to your right.  Turn around and look up at the tower."  
There's even a spotting guide that locates the grotesque on the tower near the top. 
The Cathedral also has an interactive "Gargoyle Spotting Map"
By looking at the diagrams and external photography of the Cathedral, it's not hard to determine that Darth is heading at a 45 degree angle to the northern eastern face of the building on the NW tower.  
When I draw out that line from the map, it looks pretty much as though he's staring directly northwest  northeast and maybe a touch W-by-NW.  

The Darth Vader grotesque is on the eastern face of the northwest tower
of the National Cathedral.  This is his sight-line from his perch. 

Search lesson:  Any one step of this challenge wasn't that hard, but linking them all together is a bit of work.  I also appreciated Jon's use of a date in a search (when you really know the date) to look for images of that event.  Ramón's clever search for ALL of the terms let him zero in on the target quickly.  (Although you have to be ready to accept that this didn't work, and incrementally remove terms if your search is overconstrained.)  
And lastly, integrating across all of the information sources let us determine where Darth Vader is on the cathedral, and in which direction he's facing.  

Search on! 


UPDATE:  Aug 22, 6:55AM PDT.  Jon (the Unknown) found that I'd made a rotation error. Darth is looking northeast, not northwest as I'd said earlier.  My error.  I've updated the text above.  

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Wednesday search challenge (8/21/13): Masons, presidents, and Star Wars?

While reading about US presidents the other day I was struck by how many of them were Masons.  One president in particular caught my eye.  As ex-president, he visited Nairobi and participated in laying the cornerstone of the African Inland Mission at Kijabe. Meanwhile, only two years earlier, he laid the cornerstone of a rather large building back in the US.  Curiously, that building now has a Star Wars character carved in stone on one of its towers!

Can you figure out:

1.  Which US president was this?

2.  Can you find a picture of him laying the cornerstone of the Mission and can you find a picture of him laying the cornerstone of  the building with the Star Wars character? 

3.  (Extra credit)  Which direction is the Star Wars character looking?  

Search on! 

(This is a just-for-fun search challenge illustrating the method of chaining from one search discovery to the next.)