Don’t Be a Snob About Searching the Web – A Cautionary Tale

Sometimes when I try to teach someone about search, I can’t quite get them to see the point. Why should they learn to use search engines well? Why not go straight to Wikipedia, or IMDB, or some other reference compilation? The large reference sites would surely have the answers they seek. And if they don’t – then the information’s probably not online, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong. SO wrong. In fact, I recently had an experience that wonderfully illustrates how wrong this idea is.

If you’re a longtime ResearchBuzz reader you know I’m a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000. There are, in fact, a lot of folks out there doing the “riffing” thing, for example Incognito Cinema Warriors, Josh Way, and my personal favorite, Toast and Rice.

I was watching one of Toast and Rice’s shorts, a 1951 number called The Outsider, when I realized I was seeing the actress who played Susan Jane in a lot of shorts. There she was in The Snob. There she was in The Gossip. And she’s actually a decent actress, unlike some of the kids in the shorts (there’s a kid in The Outsider named Junior, and every time he says his line “Is everybody ready for the big feed?” I just cringe.) So, I wondered, who is this actress, anyway?

I did start with IMDB – it lists shorts as well as TV shows and feature length movies. When I looked up The Outsider, I found a little information, including the name of the actress – Vera Stough.

Unfortunately Vera Stough’s page on IMDB didn’t have a lot. A list of credits spanning 1951 (The Outsider) to 1978 (an episode of Eight is Enough).

But it had enough that I called bullspit. 27 years doing movies and television, and no biographical information? If there were just the shorts credits I would assume she left acting after high school/college. But even according to the IMDB she was working steadily between 1951 and 1978. I was missing something, and so was IMDB.

At this point my random curiosity about an actress in 1950s shorts was now a search problem. And to paraphrase Vanilla Ice, when it’s a search problem, yo I must solve it. So I started digging.

For my first search I used the actress’ name, and the name of two of her shorts, hoping the Principle of Mass Similar would find me useful stuff.

“vera stough” “the snob” “the outsider”

Paydirt on the very first page! And what a source – the Franklin Hills Residents Association newsletter, The Overview. The Summer 2004 issue (that link is to a PDF) of this newsletter has a substantial article on the actress, who now goes by Brady Rubin.

Brady Rubin does have a more substantial IMDB page, including a picture, and one credit – The Snob – that’s shared with the Vera Stough page.

Once you have both her names, then getting an even fuller picture of the actress’ life (by searching for both names) is easy. A newspaper article from 1986 reflects on her theater work. Searching just for the name Brady Rubin finds a review of an Ibsen play she apparently directed this past March.

Now of course you want to cross-check, and of course you want to get as many sources for your information as possible, and if I was pursuing this diligently I’d follow up to make sure that there aren’t, for example, two Brady Rubins, one of whom used to be Vera Stough and one who directs Ibsen plays. But the information I got to crack this search open was not on IMDB (both Vera Stough and Brady Rubin are denoted as being in The Snob, but I can find no indication that they’re denoted as being the same person). It was on a general Web search that I was lucky enough to get right the first time.

Wikipedia does not have it all. IMDB does not have it all. Do not assume that these big sites are pulling information from every corner of the Web, especially as you can get substantial information from very unlikely sources (like a newsletter for the residents of Franklin Hills!) Take the time and do a general Web search. You will often find surprising information that the larger sites either haven’t found or haven’t integrated into their own sites.

If you’d like to see Ms. Rubin’s acting chops without the riffing, The Eclectic Screening Room has a thoughtful overview of both The Outsider and The Snob with both shorts embedded in the blog post. She really is quite a good actress!

Who’s Alive? Who’s Dead? Quick Reference

After the Jon Bon Jovi Twitter hoax of yesterday (he’s alive, though no word if his living is still on a prayer) I thought you might find this site useful: “Who’s Alive and Who’s Dead,” an index of famous people and whether they’re alive or dead. It’s accessible at http://www.whosaliveandwhosdead.com or http://www.wa-wd.com if you need a mobile-friendly URL.

Obviously this site can’t index everybody ever. It’s got about 3,000 people in it, including actors, musicians, athletes, etc. You can search by name, browse by last name or by category, or look at the recently-updated or special features. (Bon Jovi is here.) The index pages include the name of the person, birth date, death date (if applicable) and either their current age or the age they were when they died. Each person has their own page that gives this information and a little extra data about what they’re famous for if you’re wondering.

The site had everybody I could think of when I checked it (with one exception, more about that in a minute) though about 3,000 people doesn’t seem like a lot. I was surprised to see some of the people listed here. Are people really wondering whether Jimmy Fallon is alive or not? Kirk Cameron?

If I was going to check on one person I’d probably go to Wikipedia first. But if I were on a mobile phone (this site is very fast loading) or I needed a quick reference site (complete with an RSS feed about recent changes in status) I’d bookmark this one.

And the missing name? Elvis Presley (though I did see Priscilla Presley.) Sorry folks, you’ll have to keep wondering…

Fagan Finder Gets a Stack of Updates

Michael Fagan’s Fagan Finder (http://www.faganfinder.com), a search tool which has been around for ages and ages, has gotten several updates recently. You can read all about it at the Fagan Finder blog. Some highlights:

The video and movie search engine now has specialized categories. You can search large sites like YouTube, but also an array of sites with educational video, how-to, and news. Hey, how about the content from the Internet Archive?

The news search engine also includes some options for blog search, and unfortunately just brings home how limited the options for blog search are to start with. There are a couple of video and semantic search engines too.

The academic search is really nice. Categories of resources to search here include scholarly papers, online courses and video, flashcards and quizzes, and books. I was a little surprised to not see the Haithi Trust as one of the book search options — did I miss it?

Finally, the search engine page includes several choices for real-time as well as alternative search engines like Wolfram|Alpha and DuckDuckGo.

I was surprised to not see a social search category or a code search category, but what’s here is extensive. Fagan Finder has a basic design that’s not AJAXy and slick, but I’ll take useful and informative over AJAXy any time.

Facebook Launches New Questions Service

It’s kind of funny that I actually found out about Facebook’s new Q&A service via bemused comments on Twitter. Those actually popped up on my radar a bit before Facebook’s actual announcement

Facebook Questions (in beta) is a new part of Facebook that allows you to ask questions of everyone on Facebook. Yup. Everyone. And if you already have concerns about Facebook’s privacy issues, don’t use this new feature, because any questions you ask will, by default, be public and available to anyone on Facebook. (If you have a question like Should I be worried about this rash?, save it for a status update on your wall.)

The questions feature lives in a menu selection on the left part of your Facebook home page. I decided to test the service by asking a question I really needed answered — the best antivirus/Internet Security for Windows 7, 64-bit. I didn’t find an easy way to specify what category I wanted to use — Facebook seemed to pick the category itself based on keywords in my question.

I asked my question, and then a day or so later tried to go back to the question’s page to get a screenshot for this writeup. No good. I can’t get to the question’s permanent page, and I can’t even get to the answers. (So the questions will be open and public, for a given value of open, public, pageload, and if-I-see-that-spinny-cursor-thing-one-more-time-I’m-gonna-cuss.) Fortunately the answers are also e-mailed to you.

According to my e-mail the question got five answers. The first was from a friend on Facebook, the others were from people I don’t know. There was no snark, just honest, polite opinion. I guess I was expecting something like the anarchy of Yahoo Answers (which does have good content, but also has a lot of answerbombing) and instead got something closer to LinkedIn or Ask Metafilter (my gold standards for question-and-answer communities.)

The problem of course is that Facebook makes it hard to get to the content. I should not have had to dig into my e-mail’s trashcan to get to these great responses. I also can’t browse other questions. I go to the Questions part of my Facebook page. It says there are three questions about Ubuntu, so I try to browse them. Facebook pulls away the football — there are actually no questions about Ubuntu. But there are 34 questions about computers, Facebook notes. So I click on that category. NIX, saith Facebook. There are no questions about computers. But there are 38 questions about sports…

At that point I gave up. From what I could tell from the answers I got, Facebook has a community that’s ready to be helpful in answering questions. Sadly Facebook’s Q&A service has an infrastructure that’s ready to give me an ulcer.

Update: Wednesday — I got Facebook to show me an individual question page! Here’s what it looks like:

(It is my understanding that currently these questions are viewable only with in Facebook, so I had concerns about showing user names and avatars outside the confines of that community. So I blurred full names and avatars. I apologize if it seems excessive, but I figure with an issue of privacy it’s better to do too much to protect it than too little. All these answers were wonderful so if you’re one of the ones who left them leave me a comment and I will give you link love.)

As you can see, Facebook shows the answers and gives you the option to vote them up or down. You can follow a question to see new answers as they’re added, and if a question is offensive you can report it, of course. And if you’re bored with a question you can explore one of the other ones that Facebook helpfully provides you on the answer page.

This is pretty basic, but I like the voting. I just wish I had gotten to explore this page more when I was doing the writeup!

New Dictionaries from WebFinance

I got a note from the folks at WebFinance letting me know that they’ve launched a bunch of new dictionaries within the last few months. You can get a full list of the dictionaries available at http://www.businessdictionary.com/aboutus.php, but here’s a list of some
highlights.

InvestorWords.com — Over 7500 words relating to finance and investing with lots of crosslinking. Words have spoken pronunciations available, but I’m wondering how useful they are. I heard EBITDA pronounced as “EEE-bit-deh,” when I had always heard it on CNBC as “Eee-bit-DAH.” Not that CNBC is canon or anything.

InfoScienceDictionary.com — Over 6000 terms related to library science and knowledge management. Strangely I didn’t find “MLS” when I did a search. Pages are basic with just the definition and some tools for citation, translation, and ranking definitions.

EnglishDefined.com — English terms in common usage with fairly simple definitions. Definitions also include related words and “nearby” words (for example characterize had as nearby words character, characterization, and characteristic. Over 20,000 definitions here.

IdiomDictionary.com — Over 5000 idioms explained, which is not nearly enough. A day without a good idiom is like a day without sunshine. Er. Or something. Anyway, the listings include a definition, an example, and some notes on the usage of the word. The page for Mess of pottage notes that the idiom came from the Bible and is now in uncommon use. Some of these definitions and examples felt very British. (Not necessarily a bad thing.)

Word-Origins.com — The etymology of about 7,000 words. The word origins themselves were pretty thorough — at least the ones I looked at — but the related words were odd. Related to the word apple — apricot, cider, pomegranate. (Okay.) Thyroid. (Huh?) Some crosslinking but not so much that the definitions are unreadable.

There are many, many, many dictionaries online and you may find ones that have more data, especially for topics like etymology. But the dictionaries here were fast-loading and simple to use.