Open Thread: how do you look for information?

post by Emile · 2013-05-07T17:22:52.299Z · score: 7 (8 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 16 comments

There have been a couple discussion posts on this, but let's make it general and collect our tips in one place. It's also a good way to encourage each other at getting better at this - looking for info more often and more efficiently.

So, if you want to find something out, where do you look, and how? Who do you ask?

16 comments

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comment by Emile · 2013-05-07T17:23:00.374Z · score: 20 (20 votes) · LW · GW

Keyword searches are extremely useful.

I make excessive use of these, I can just type "i birch" in the address bar and get a google image search for "birch"

My keywoard searches include:

  • 'i' for Google Images
  • 'yt' for YouTube
  • 'wp' for Wikipedia
  • 'fr' for French Wikipedia
  • 'lw' for LessWrong
  • 'sc' for Google Scholar
  • 'so' for Stack Overflow
  • ... and occasionally others when I find that I'm searching a website very often

How do you create keyword searches?

In Firefox, it's explained here : http://robertnyman.com/2006/09/13/smart-keywords-in-firefox-are-outstanding/

In Chrome, it's explained here: http://lifehacker.com/5476033/how-to-set-keyword-bookmarks-in-google-chrome

In both cases, it boils down do associating a keyword with a search url of the form "http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?search=%s&title=Special%3ASearch", such that when you type "keyword whatever" in your search bar, %s in your search url is replaced by 'whatever'.

Combine this with the fact that adding "site:somewhere.com" in a google query restricts the search to that domain, you can make custom searches for any website (though in some cases, like wikipedia and stack overflow, the site's search function is more useful - for example, that wikipedia query up there will bring you directly to the page if it exists).

comment by lukeprog · 2013-05-07T17:45:43.101Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Seconded. I've been using dozens of these since Firefox introduced them circa 2006.

comment by riceissa · 2014-09-11T03:05:37.911Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's worth noting that there is also DuckDuckGo (a search engine), which has bang expressions for outsourcing results. Just to give some of the equivalents for those listed above: "!gi" for Google Images, "!yt" for YouTube, "!w" for Wikipedia, etc. To be sure, one has to rely on DuckDuckGo for adding the expressions (although I've had success suggesting a new expression before).

comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2013-05-08T00:35:29.825Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That Chrome link looks outdated. Chrome explicitly supports this feature now: Settings -> Search -> Manage search engines.

I used to do this but stopped for some mysterious reason I no longer remember.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2013-05-08T01:32:18.459Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's also outdated in that Chrome no longer labels one of the items "keyword." The keyword is the middle column, which defaults to the domain of the search engine. At the bottom of the list, where you can add new searches, the items are labeled, but it listed every search form on every page I'd ever visited, so I didn't need to add them myself.

comment by Tenoke · 2013-05-07T17:46:57.738Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Keyword searches are amazing! However, I want to give heads up to some people - the default case of typing 'i' to search for images can be pretty annoying if you some times start searches with 'I' for whatever reason - so if you think that this might annoy you then change it to something else. The same is true for other cases where words are chosen as the keyword (e.g. you for youtube).

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2013-05-11T19:53:17.844Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Some more details for Firefox users, to overcome trivial inconvenience:

(Optional step.) Make a "Quick Search" bookmark folder to separate quick searches from other bookmarks.

Go to LessWrong website and bookmark it. This way the bookmark will have a LW icon. Change the name to "Search: Less Wrong", the keyword to "lw", and the address to:
http://www.google.com/search?q=%s+site:lesswrong.com

And so on for your other favorite websites.

Now search for something by typing in the URL:
lw Open Thread

comment by 9eB1 · 2013-05-07T19:27:14.841Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Although it's perhaps not directly in the spirit of this post, this is a super-powered google tip. It relates to only one particular tiny piece of information, but a valuable one. E-mail addresses. You can google "*@example.com" (with the quotes) to find references to the format used by different companies for the email addresses of their employees. Plug the person's name into the format, and you can easily email them directly, often getting around various sorts of gatekeepers. How useful this is will depend critically on what sort of job you have. Maybe it even has applications for the small army of academics on Less Wrong.

If you are searching for jobs, you can use LinkedIn to locate the person who would be your boss (often LinkedIn doesn't show the person's full name, in which case if you google their exact title and company, the LinkedIn search result for that person will show up WITH the full name; it's only hidden within LinkedIn itself) and email that boss directly (you do know to never submit your resume to HR, don't you?). If you want to talk to a venture capital investor, google to find their direct e-mail address. If you want to e-mail all of the heads of all the businesses in your industry sector, likewise. If you want to harass the regional manager of Dairy Queen because of the lousy service you received, go wild.

Bonus pro-tip, there are free e-mail verifier services that you can use to further verify the address, depending on how the company's e-mail server is configured.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-07T17:31:36.460Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

For philosophy stuff, I always go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Writing a SEP entry is considered quite prestigious, so they generally get some of the very best people in a given field. The SEP tends to be much more reliable than Wikipedia, though it's also often more technical. SEP articles generally concentrate on giving you a survey of the positions on a topic, along with arguments for each. The best ones are written dialectically, giving you some sense of the questions guiding the development of people's views.

comment by Anatoly_Vorobey · 2013-05-07T18:42:31.783Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

It's such a broad question. I think I do very different things based on what it is that I want to find out. Some of those things are (as a grab-bag of items with no claim to generality):

  • an initial Google search biased towards quickly landing on the relevant Wikipedia page. Whatever I want to find out, there's probably a Wikipedia page to give me rough initial context, and I have a vague idea what it should be called. If it's not on the first page of Google results, that by itself is a signal. Do I misunderstand the domain? Is it possible I'm misspelling or misremembering the key search terms, or they're ambiguous in ways I didn't consider? Maybe the domain is more obscure than I imagine and genuinely doesn't have a wiki page? Is my query too narrow? - try removing a word or two. Still nothing useful from wikipedia? - try adding site:wikipedia.org.

  • Assuming I found a useful WP page: scan it quickly, taking in familiar signals that hint at its quality. Does it look controversial, edit-warred? Is it a placeholder or a well-developed page? If something hints at controversy, scan the ToC of the Talk page (don't read through it all). Are there obviously useful outgoing links? - follow them now (I always open all links in new tabs with middle-click). Does it cite academic papers that look like they might answer my question? - open those links now.

  • if I had a wiki page to orient myself but still don't have an answer, I probably have a much better idea what to search for, and an understanding of how contentious the subject is (if at all). Things that are especially helpful to know at this point: 1) is there a rare word (usually a technical term) that very likely co-occurs with the answer I'm looking for? 2) is there a phrase that very likely occurs in the answer I'm looking for? 3) is it something likely to be in a printed book? 4) is it something likely to be in an academic paper?

  • go back to Google. Make a better query, using narrower, rarer words or phrases. Phrase search (with quotation marks) is especially helpful as it cuts the junk results like nothing else. Often when I'm unsure how my ideal result would phrase my answer I'll quickly try several phrase searches in a row. Possibly do a Google Scholar search. Possibly do a Google Books search. In those two cases, again, phrase searches are very helpful.

  • if I don't have enough context: add "FAQ", "tutorial" etc. to search terms. Search for FAQs/tutorials in the field, if there're many, open a few, quickly scan to assess quality, find the best one, read it. Always keep an eye out for too-biased-PV signals.

  • suppose I found an academic article or a book search results that look like they might answer my question. See if I can find the actual texts of articles/links. Books may be free/largely previewable on Google Books. If they're really old, could also be in Gutenberg or on archive.org. Adding site:archive.org often helps (Google indexes ASCII versions of books stored there, but often doesn't rank them high). Academic articles: based on field, perhaps look in one of large repositories (arxiv pubmed etc.). If author likely to be alive, Google them, find their homepage, look for downloadable articles.

  • suppose I have an academic article(s)/book(s). Quickly scan the article or relevant chapters in the book. It doesn't have my answer and/or talks about something related but not quite what I need. Look into references for review articles. Make snap judgements based on titles of other articles in references whether they'll bring me closer. For every title I'm interested in, copy the title and open a tab with Google search on it to remember I want to find/scan it. Found a review article? Read it slowly and closely, find the right references, follow those; at the very least update my idea of the right search query.

  • am I looking for something I might've seen on some site or was probably discussed on some site? Use site: operator. E.g. if it's at all related to memes or discussions of everyday culture, search on site:reddit.com, make up likely phrase searches.

  • remember special repos of knowledge in particular fields that are better than WP. Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. PlanetMath or Wolfram Alpha for math. Arxiv. Stackoverflow and its satellite network of other like sites. Probably lots more I'll remember in the time of need but can't think of right now.

  • is my question likely to be answered in a textbook and I know what kind of textbook or even the exact title? Use Google Books or [omitted] pirate sources to find textbooks and quickly scan them. Not sure if textbook is at all good? Scan its Amazon reviews, though remember it's alright for a good academic textbook to have just a handful of them. Possibly "search inside this book" on Amazon (rarely helped me). If looking for the right book in a field, use "also bought/also viewed" to quickly amass a list of candidates on Amazon, scan through reviews looking for the really helpful ones, they're easy to spot.

  • is my question likely to be answered/answerable on a forum? Use Google Groups search to mine Usenet (again, phrase search helps). Use really good forums you know and site:-search them (e.g. physicsforums.com for physics questions, pianoworld.com for anything piano-related. Consider actually posting a query to a forum if you know it's frequented by knowledegable friendly people.

  • What else? Google Images if you need to see how something might look. m-w.com as the first stop for English vocabulary, urbandictionary.com for modern slang, OED for serious dictionary-digging, analogues of all these in other languages. Google News search for anything might have been covered by mass media recently. NYTimes archive search for anything historical NYTimes might have written about.

comment by shminux · 2013-05-08T00:07:10.453Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

where do you look, and how? Who do you ask?

You mean, other than Father Google? Well, on IRC I ask gwern :) But only after a thorough search, or he will kill you with sarcasm. Well, he might, regardless.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-05-08T20:50:00.129Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I've actually been accumulating thoughts on this in my notebook with the intention of writing an LW post at some point, so I guess I might as well dump my better ideas here.

For bigger research projects, I often take notes on what I find, copying and pasting snippets from web pages along with their URL. (You can leave out the URL if you really want and just google the snippet to rediscover the webpage.) It really doesn't take very much time and it helps me research systematically instead of doing scatterbrained web browsing. I have a standard note format: quote first, then the URL on its own line, then my comments on the URL/quote (each part is optional).

Novelty search engines:

  • To find information in other languages, you can go to the appropriate language-specific Google homepage (or Google Scholar homepage), translate your query in to the language in question using Google Translate, and then translate the results back in to English. I found lots of good Russian-language info on nootropics this way.

  • http://millionshort.com/

  • http://ca.milliontall.com/

  • blekko.com, wolframalpha.com, twitter.com

  • Using Google's site:yourdomain.com operator can be interesting, e.g. I'd guess if you googled "site:reddit.com how to shave" you'd get better results than just googling "how to shave". Obviously if you can find a forum, subreddit, or other online community and learn what they think on that topic that can be pretty valuable, or you can just search a ton of intelligent-seeming websites at once (e.g. site:news.ycombinator.com OR site:lesswrong.com OR site:reddit.com OR site:quora.com OR site:xkcd.com OR site:nytimes.com OR site:metafilter.com OR site:stackexchange.com how to learn math). These are ideas I haven't experimented with super much yet, I'm just throwing them out there.

  • Quora.com and stackexchange.com are good for asking questions, as are domain-specific forums. You can sometimes find people with specific interests/expertise to talk to by putting the right tags in on omegle.com.

I find myself using Google Trends and the Google Keyword Tool pretty frequently to learn about the popularity of different things. ('xkcd' makes a good Google Trends reference point.)

You can also look through Google's autocomplete (which can generally give you suggested insertions at any point in your query, e.g. to get a bunch of treatment ideas for alcohol addiction, put " for alcohol addiction" in to the search box, put your cursor before the " for" at the beginning of your query, then try putting in every letter of the alphabet) and check out quantcast.com's popularity ranking of websites. If you want to find a better version of something you're using, try adding "vs" at the end of your query to get a list of alternatives, e.g. "selenium vs " will give you alternatives to selenium for testing your web application.

To save yourself some time and get an approximate view of what the best posts on a blog are, you can look it up on reddit or hacker news and sort your results by score.

Sites related to finding experts/researchers (not sure how good these are; I'm copying them from somewhere else):

The email addresses of prominent academics are often surprisingly easy to find online.

comment by Error · 2013-05-13T12:06:31.987Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

For technical subjects, Usenet is still a good place to look if Google fails to deliver specific enough results. Most good technical documentation online seems to be divided into tutorials and references. Sometimes you want a deeper understanding than a tutorial, but more context than a reference. A human being works well for that, and those that remain on Usenet tend to be extremely knowledgeable.

comment by Morendil · 2013-05-12T10:42:08.478Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The "how" is more important than people usually guess. You can get higher quality results by using tools such as exact matches and searching by date, over a naive Google for basic search terms.

One technique I use often is inspired from "stemmatics", I've got a short write-up with worked example on G+. Another example is my results for this question on LW.

Another useful technique is knowing how to exclude some search results; NOT operators can be incredibly useful, eg when one of your search terms is very common in a domain not related to your query's domain.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-08T04:32:37.994Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW
  1. What do I remember? Build on that.
  2. Who do I know? Build on that.
  3. Internet.