Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 24, 2012

JLS student's obscure question published in 'Google A Day' quiz

Multi-step web search needed to find what comes at the end of a 'nub'

by Chris Kenrick

What, exactly is a "nub"? And, for that matter, who is Philario?

Katie Russell, an eighth-grader at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto who loves to read, write, skate and play volleyball, has learned these words and many more thanks to her more-than-passing acquaintance with Google.

Kevin Skelly, Palo Alto Unified School District superintendent, recently lauded Katie for having her question selected for the "A Google A Day" challenge series and published Feb. 6 in the New York Times.

The Google A Day challenge poses a daily question that is solvable through multi-step web searching.

"You have to search for the answer on Google, and they're pretty hard," Katie said. "It helps people learn how to format their questions better."

The goal of the puzzle is to help people improve their Internet-search skills, according to Katie's father, computer scientist Dan Russell, who was quick to disclose that he works at Google in the area of search quality and is involved with the daily puzzle.

"But if Katie's question hadn't been good enough, I wouldn't have put it in the hopper for possible selection," he said.

Google A Day questions come in from all over the world and, on occasion, celebrities — including the country singer Jewel and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys — have submitted.

Katie's winning question, on Feb. 6, was: "You are playing Philario in Cymbeline when suddenly you forget your lines and start to ad lib blank verse in a nubbing. What should you say at the end of the nub?"

A web search yields the answer that, historically, when Shakespearean actors would forget their lines, they would begin "nubbing" — spouting blank verse that sounds Shakespearean but is meaningless. Actors traditionally end a nubbing with the name "Milford Haven."

Katie said she came up with her question while reading a book about Shakespeare, which mentioned "nubbing" without explaining it. She found the definition through a web search and mentioned it to her dad as a possible Google A Day submission.

She beefed up the question by adding the reference to Philario in Cymbeline "because it's one of the more obscure Shakespeare plays that a lot of people haven't read" — thus requiring further search.

The Google A Day questions are published in "Wired" magazine, blogs and, through a paid ad space, in the New York Times near the daily crossword puzzle.

Dan Russell's research at Google focuses on how people search. He recently offered a class at Palo Alto's Downtown Library on how users can improve their web searching techniques.

"I study how people come up with their questions, how effective they are at going from their initial information need to the formation of the query," he said.

"People think they're pretty good at it, and they mostly get what they want — but they don't know what they don't know."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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