Friday, July 01, 2005

Blind Search

One thing I've been thinking about recently is that it's still very hard to find information about something on the Internet if you don't know anything at all about it in the first place. Google is awesome. But I think we're a far cry away from the Mr. Wizard kiosk that David (Haley Joel Osment) seeks answers from in the movie Artificial Intelligence: AI.

This problem dawned on me when we bought a house and inherited a large garden with all types of plants and flowers that you typically see in Colorado. The garden lines the entire front of the house so we like to put some work into keeping it looking nice. But with some of the plants, we don't know if they're a weed or not. I found out that it's very hard to search for a plant that you only really have a physical example of. I'm sure brilliant minds are thinking about this problem and even starting down the path of accepting a photo as search criteria (an awesome notion when applying it to plants or glassware, but downright frightening when applied to people and faces).

Anyway, our garden provided another challenge of this sort when I met a current resident.

You could say that I'm pretty uneasy around snakes, especially snakes that I meet when I'm gardening (the introduction typically involves squealing like a little girl and running). So in the short amount of time that I give myself, I needed to gather as much information about the slitherer so that I could identify it on the web.

Fortunately there's a great resource for doing just this: The Colorado Herpetological Society, Key to the Snakes of Colorado. With this key, I was able to easily identify our friend as a Coluber constrictor or Racer.

I also took note of the key because it's a great example of a wizard user interface. It's an extremely effective UI and it couldn't have been done more simply: an HTML table and some anchors.

So if you're ever in Colorado and you meet one of our native slithering residents, take a moment to notice its tail and scale pattern and appreciate how one web site solved a pretty hard problem in an elegant way.

1 comment:

Thomas Cook said...

Joe - I finally got around to reading your blog and I love it! Good work. Nice features (such as the Netflix integration).

I've thought about Blind Search a lot, and I hope brilliant minds are trying to make it happen. The best part of the movie AI (only part I really, really enjoyed) was the search scene. When I can ask an Einstein character any question in the world and get a good answer, well I don't know what I'll do. I will probably no longer watch the Discovery Channel though, I can say that.

Anyway, it's also funny that you mention The Colorado Herpetological Society. My brother in law and I stumbled across this when we ran into a snake in Mineral County while riding Jeep trails. Everybody had always told me that around there, there were no snakes, because it was too cold for them. Ha! Not only did we see one first hand, but after finding this web site we were able to determine that there are MANY snakes in that county, and every county in Colorado. That is truly a remarkable website.

Keep up the good work. Even though it's been WAY too long since we've seen you guys, I feel strangely caught up.