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One of the “fathers” of modern anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss, once described the scientist as “not a person who gives the right answers, [but] one who asks the right questions.”

Impossible Questions Are Possible

Scientific progress, by extension, might be measured best not by the answers we get, but by the questions we ask to get those answers.

Questions are maybe our best tool in relating with ourselves and with the environment. Asking questions says not so much about the problematic nature of our environment, but about our openness towards it.
Kids ask so many questions. The surrounding world is one and the same for all of us, but they are so much more open towards it. Our willingness to reach towards the environment and understand it might be the main characteristic of humanity. And I can’t think of any other way towards personal growth.

The way we see the world is a result of the questions we ask throughout our lifetime. And our point of view is permanently changing according to that.

 Why Questioning?

Sometimes an answer is within our powers to find, but only if we know how to look for it. This holds true not only on an abstract level, but also on a day-to-day basis. Imagine you are doing some work around the house and at some point you are stumped by a never-before-seen type of bolt. What kind of tool should you use to work your way around it? You might greatly benefit from knowing this information, but how would you know what to ask for? Asking the right question means understanding what the problem is and what the answer should look like. Of course, you might understand the problem and still not find an answer. But if you do not even understand the problem, then you will surely not find an answer.

So when Daniel Russell, senior research scientist at Google, talked about a revolution in asking questions at TEDx earlier this year, he was channeling a long string of scientists before him. He was also drawing attention to the fact that a lot of us, even those who should know better, usually do not even understand the problems we are facing, let alone how to answer them. For instance, 90% or more of the general public does not know how to find a given word in a document. They simply have no idea that a “Find” function exists in most browsers. So when they are looking for a specific word or phrase, the way they probably formulate the problem is “How could I possibly find the word I am looking for in this wall of text” or “How can I read this text fast enough that it does not take forever, but slow enough that I catch the word I am looking for?” And that is likely the extent of the search capability they can use. The example Russell gives, finding out how many times the word “Behold” shows up in King James’ Bible, would probably not even cross their minds, because the very possibility of performing this kind of search manually is simply preposterous. As it should be. The whole point is to make more things possible, with less effort.

The lesson here is that knowing what tools you have at your disposal greatly influences the kinds of questions you feel like you can ask.

So what kind of “impossible” questions are you able to ask  this day and age and actually get a quick response? Below is a list of 10 “impossible questions” examples that illustrate how much the field of knowledge available at our fingertips has grown in both breadth and depth. Not all of the questions can be answered by Google or Google-related tools, but all of them can be answered through a combination of various tools that are freely available online.

Impossible Question #1 – What Is the Phone Number of the Place this Photo  Was Taken from?

Probably one of the most impressive examples of impossible question and challenge at the same time is this one:  finding the phone number from the office floor from which a photo was taken. Sounds complicated? Let me rephrase that: you have a photo of a building taken from another building across the street. Could you find out a contact phone number for the floor from which the photo was taken? It does not sound like a simple thing to do, if at all possible. And it requires knowing your way around Google and Google Earth. But it is a feasible quest and it can be done from the comfort of your phone. So how do we do this?

Find Phone Number of the Place this Photo was Taken

Elementary, my dear Watson. First, we need to find out what the building we’re seeing is. We can do this by noticing a name or trademark on the building and then looking for it to find out whose office building it is. We then look for the image with Google image search and look for the one that looks like ours. Now is the time to switch to Google Earth to discover where the photo was taken from. Find the building, switch to street view and start walking and jumping around until your view of the building is approximately the same as the one from the photograph. Voila! All you have to do now is turn around in Google Earth and see where you have been standing. Look for any distinctive names on the building and look it up with the classic Google search to discover what contact phone numbers are available for each floor. Let’s take a closer look at Daniel Russel’s example for a better understanding of this matter.

Solving How to Find Phone Number of the Place this Photo was Taken

 

Solving How to Find Phone Number of the Place this Photo was Taken 2

 

Solving How to Find Phone Number of the Place this Photo was Taken 3

 

Impressive? Definitely. Scary? A bit unnerving, at the very least. Not the scariest thing about data privacy the online environment has seen, but definitely adding to the general sense that no information about us is truly out of reach, regardless of how remote it may seem.

Impossible Question #2 – Did Anyone Post Photos with Myself Online that I Do not Know about?

Do you remember the first times you’ve searched something on a search engine? Even if you don’t remember (or you are too embarrassed to admit) let me tell you that it is very likely that you’ve searched for your own name. But don’t worry, most of the people do so, as studies show. Yet, have you ever tried to look after your own photo? You might be surprised with the results. Just upload a photo of yours on Google Images, press search and see what happens.

While for people with no intense public activity, monitoring their online presence might not be of high interest, for public persons this activity is a highly important one. Let’s take for illustration Hillary Clinton, an important politic figure whose every appearance is (and will surely be even more in the future) closely monitored as she will run for USA president seat in 2016. “Why don’t simply look after her name?”, you might ask. Well, the results generated by the keyword “Hillary Clinton” are different than the results you get when you are searching after an uploaded picture of Hillary Clinton, as we can see from the screenshots below.

Hilary Clinton Google Photo Search

 

Results Text Based vs Results Image Based

Even more, the chances of finding data that you didn’t know  existed are higher when you are searching by uploaded photos. For instance, here (not available anymore) is one of the results we got based on the uploaded photo.
First of all, I am not sure if Hillary Clinton knows that she is related with an article regarding “Bioshock infinite, Quantum suicide and Psychopaths”. Secondly , the keywords “hillary” or “clinton” are not to be found anywhere on the page. Meaning that this result has a much lower chance to be found based on a text search. Let’s take a look at the website I am talking about.

Hillary Clinton on Unrelated Blog

Also, this example reminds us of the level of search we are contemporary with, taken into consideration the fact that a set of results have been generated, all in connection with Hillary Clinton, solely based on a picture of her, with any text or metadata embedded in photo. Pretty impressive, right?It is true that we cannot control all the info that is connected to our names or photos that are out there but nowadays we can easily find as much info as we can, not only in relation with our names but with our faces too.

Impossible Question #3 – Are We Gonna Hit Another Recession Soon?

The range of questions we can ask has also expanded in scope. We are better equipped to inquire about the future. “What will the price of gold be in 2020?”, “Which companies will win the new space race?”, or, for the more down-to-earth, “Are we going to hit another recession soon?” Let’s talk that last example into more detail. There are two ways to go about that question. You can either ask it directly and go with what the experts say, or you can go a more roundabout way and find out more in the process. For instance, you can start out by asking “What is a good indicator of economic stability?” and go on from there. It turns out that this question is all about macroeconomics, which in turn is a lot about firms, as they are the economic players that matter. When they fall, they make the largest splashes.

Now, if you are interested about the situation in the U.S. you can go straight to the one of the main indicators of the business health, the stock market. Engines such as Yahoo have special Finance sections which give you the detailed look on stock market indicators on an almost hourly basis (but can also be scaled to a daily, monthly or yearly basis), as we can see below.

Google Finance Economical Predictions

If you switch the time period to 10 years, you can get a graph with the past ten years and find the exact spot in which things went wrong (February 2009) and how the market has been evolving since. Set the period to the last 30-something years and you also might notice that at least on two occasions in the past 20 years a moment of unprecedented peak was shortly followed (2 years later) by a crash of the market. If we were to guess, we’d blame it on fast economic growths based on bubbles (housing market bubble, loans bubble), but we’re no experts. What seems plausible though, even from a non-expert point of view, is that another crash seems likely, maybe not too long from now (about 2 years, if we’re superstitious, unless the third time’s a charm).

Predictions (especially economic ones) are, of course, to be taken with a grain of salt. We are not saying you should stockpile on food cans and fresh water in the next 2 years. Macroeconomic trends, however, are also not to be ignored. There are valuable insights to be gained from looking at long-term data. We are now at a point where a considerable amount of data has been gathered, which means that the predictions we can make from what we know should, at the very least, be entertained as not only possible, but also probable.

Impossible Question #4 – How to Solve Cross Word Puzzles or Find the Missing Letters from a Word?

Not all impossible questions have to be about complicated facts of life. Sometimes the things that bother you the most in the moment are the small ones. Maybe you’re simply trying to relax one lazy afternoon and you pick up a crossword puzzle to solve. It’s meant to unwind you while keeping your brain active. Only you stumble upon a clue that winds you up to no end, because it simply does not resonate with you. Maybe the clue is related to sea or swimming and you even know the last two letters of a 4 letter word: “sh”. But your mind draws a blank and soon all you want is to find out the word. You don’t even care about being the one who finds it, you simply want it found, lest you lose your sleep and even a bit of your sanity.

Why our brains sometimes remain fixated on such minuscule but pesky issues might remain a mystery, but how to untangle ourselves from such situations will not. One of the online tools that can give us peace in such situations is a Reverse Dictionary from OneLook, a dictionary tool that does more than offer definitions and synonyms. It actually gives you ideas for words in exactly the kind of situation described above. All you have to do is know how to enter the right query: a question mark for every letter of the word you do not know, the letter you do know and then the domains it should be related to, separated by the word by a colon. So the query for the above example might be: “??sh:sea swim”.  Now you have yourself a list of words that fit the profile and the hope that one of them will fit. If the list is too generous, add or change a clue. If the list does not seem rich enough, simply remove a clue. All’s fair in war and crossword puzzles, I suppose. However, to see exactly how the “magic” happens, let’s take a look at the screenshot below.

Reverse Dictionary for Crosswords

Impossible Question #5 – What is that Word for the Fuzzy Definition I Have in My Mind?

There are more offerings to tools like OneLook than the one mentioned above, just as there are more frustrating scenarios related to the knowledge of words than the one above. For instance, sometimes you may be talking to a friend and trying to express something with just one word. You know what it means and that it applies perfectly to the context, but for the live of you, it will not reveal itself. Sure, you could use a synonym, but you are a firm believer in Mark Twain’s postulate that “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Just like a mosquito, the more you look for that word, the less you are able to find it, but it remains equally annoying throughout.

It’s almost like someone is playing a joke on you: when you find a word that you do not know the definition of, you check a dictionary.

What do you do, though, when you know what the word means but cannot find it? That’s easy: Consult a reverse dictionary!

Yes, they exist, and they are a sight to the sore eyes of precise persons. You and your friend have been having this deep discussion about how sometimes you just need to get away from it all, not in an abstract way, but in a very concrete way, a need to travel, to constantly move, to always be on the road. All of these explanations are good, but surely someone before you thought of a word to express exactly that. It’s probably some German word – they seem to have one for everything – like “Schadenfreude”, or “Weltanschauung”.  So you go to a reverse dictionary site, you search for “urge to travel” and boom! “Wanderlust” is the first on the list and is exactly what you were looking for. For a better understanding, let’s take a look at the illustration below.

Reverse Dictionary to Find Words

Before it may have taken days, weeks or even years before running into someone who knew what you were thinking of and in the meantime you would have probably forgotten about it. Luckily there is now a way to avoid all that and help you develop a large and accurate vocabulary.

Impossible Question #6 – What is the Name of this Snake in My Garden? Is It Poisonous?

Plenty of the questions listed here are quite interesting and a few are also important, but none of them seem urgent (well, except for the crossword puzzle one). There are, however, certain situations in which the answers we are looking for are both important and time-sensitive. Questions such as “are those berries poisonous, or can I eat them and satiate my hunger?” Or, better yet, “is that cute, colorful frog just that or is it the most venomous assassin from the animal world (that’s also colorful and cute)?”

Asking these kinds of questions and getting an answer even a couple of years ago would have seemed impossible. But it is now entirely within our reach to ask them and receive answers. Basically, we can query reality. This is a result of no single new technology, but rather to the fact that the various search tools that are available to us are so much better at interacting with each other. We see something, we take a picture with our phone camera, we turn on the Internet connection, enter the picture we just took in the search engine, identify the plant or creature and finally we can ask “Is this safe to eat/touch?” As you can see in the example below, we did this experiment by uploading a photo of a snake, in our attempt to find out whether the reptile in the picture is poisonous or not. Everything took at most a couple of minutes and made our life better (mainly by making it longer).

Photo of a snake

Google Results for Snake Photo

This is, again, something that may drastically alter our perception of both reality and our understanding of it. Five or ten years ago, you would walk around with your child in a forest and hear “Mom/Dad, what is this?” You would closely look at the alien form of life you have just been shown, slightly bow your head down in shame and try to still sound cool while saying “I don’t know; best not to touch it and leave it alone.” Even if we got home to a book or the web, we would be having a hard time describing to either what it was that we saw. So most of the times, we would give up. But now our curiosity got a direct line to the relevant answers box. We can bypass most of the obstacles that made us less curious, and in turn made the people around us less likely to ask questions.

Impossible Question #7 – What Are Your Chances to Die Sooner or Later Compared to Your Ancestors?

Google’s Public Data section is the go-to place for exploring and toying around with economic, political and socio-demographic data from the EU, US or elsewhere around the world. Do you live better now than you did before? Are you going to live longer than your ancestors?

Nothing really lasts forever, so we might as well make the most of it. Looking for info in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways is not really the best spent time. Say I have a general idea that people live longer lately than they used to, but I want to find out exactly how much more. One way to do it is Google Life expectancy and work your way up from there. You’ll even find Life expectancy calculators you don’t want to go to if you are a chain smoker.

But there is a faster and more accurate way. Google Public Data Explorer provides public data and forecasts from a range of international organizations and academic institutions including the World Bank, OECD, Eurostat and the University of Denver. These can be displayed as line graphs, bar graphs, cross sectional plots or on maps. Life expectancy is only one of the hundreds indicators available, all displayed by country, in your language of choice.

There, you can find out, among many other things, if having more children prolongs your life or how much money your country’s government spends on public health or how divorces evolved in time.

Google Public Data Divorce Number in EU

Is the population of my country increasing or decreasing? How does it fare to other countries in the EU or around the world? What about unemployment and wage? And so on. You can include and exclude countries from your analysis, change the object of your comparison (from fertility to divorce rate, to immigration numbers) and even play around with the type of chart you use to visualize the information in the most comprehensive way possible. You might find that Italy and Ireland, probably known as the two “most Catholic” countries in the EU, also have the lowest divorce rates in the Union.

So let’s get back to the original question: are you going to live longer than your ancestors? You most likely are and we easily found this thanks to Google Public Data. Since 1960 life expectancy has increased everywhere on the globe. The average person in Europe (lucky person they are!) has a life expectancy of almost 77 years, 10 years longer than 50 years ago. They are only outdone by the average person in North America, who is looking up to 79 years. The real winners of present times are, however, not those who already had a fairly good average span, but inhabitants of areas with a significantly shorter one. For instance, people from Sub-Saharan Africa now live, on average, 16 years longer than half a century ago. It’s 18 years for Latin America and the Caribbean. South Asia, Middle East and North Africa and East Asia and Pacific have all increased the average life expectancy of their inhabitants by close to and over 25 years. This in itself is an amazing achievement. Being able to find this out with just a couple of clicks? Nothing short of incredible.

Google Public Data Life Expectancy in the World

 

Impossible Question #8 – Want to Find More Data about a Concept? Search Using the Language of the Concept!

That is a lot of available information out there. But there is still more. Other languages, for instance. If you speak at least two languages you may have noticed that now all Wikipedia pages are created equal, depending on the subject matter and the language they are written in. You may be a big fan of Leonardo da Vinci’s life and work. But however much you like him, you are bound to not know as much as an Italian-speaker admirer would. Da Vinci’s Wikipedia page contains significantly more information in the Italian version than in the English one. Same goes for German composer Richard Wagner, Russian writer Lev Tolstoy or French film director Luc Besson. This is especially frustrating for pages of people and words in which the English-speaking people of the world have not taken an interest yet and all you can find on Wikipedia is a stub, where the Persian version seems to contain a pretty in-depth article on the Iranian actress or actor you once saw in a movie.

Wikipedia Language Oriented Results

Is language the ultimate barrier to accessing information? Luckily, it does not need to be. There are plenty of translation tools online, the most famous of which is probably Google’s own Translate service. It is admittedly not perfect and obviously not yet on the level of professional human translators. You could not use something that has been Google-translated in a scientific work or even in a general journal or magazine article. But in terms of simply expanding your own knowledge? It opens so many doors. It also makes it easier for consumers to gain power and for companies to hide things. You’ve done something reprehensible in your country and now want to expand in other countries on the globe in the hopes that no one will know? Wrong. Everyone can find out now.

Impossible Question #9 – How to Find the Most Used Synonym for Any given Word?

Knowledge is not only about what is possible, but also about what is probable. The first time you go abroad to a country whose language you know from books and formal learning, you might seem out of place. Not because you do not know the language, but because you know it from books. Language is dynamic, ever-evolving and very much context driven. Hardly anyone in the English language says “it’s raining cats and dogs” anymore, but you might encounter that phrase in some older textbooks (where it is sometimes mentioned as an idiom, something meant to make look more like a native speaker – ironic, isn’t it?)

How to Find Synonyms for any Given Word

So how do you know what words to use to best describe something when you have a choice? It helps if you know what most other people use. OneLook, which we have given as an example in a couple of other questions on this list, does exactly that: you give it a word and it tells you what the synonyms for it are, in the order of “popularity”. This is probably one of the few examples of where you should follow what the majority says just on account of numbers. Of course, unless you are interested in the creative writing part aspect of things and want to use a rarer instance of a word to make a stronger impression.

There is also a very concrete, strategic use of this in terms of SEO. If you want to describe your products in high terms and say they are the best, do you simply say they are “good”, or do you also describe them as “optimal”, “better” than others, or “finest” because you know this is what people will be most likely looking for? Does it matter what kinds of speech parts you use? Maybe verbs are better than nouns or adjectives, because you feel they invite to action. So instead of saying that your products are “better” than those of the competition, you might say they “outdo” them, or that they “trump” the competition. A couple of years ago, you might have thought “I wonder what word most people use to look for top cleaning products”, but you had no reason to think that out loud because there was no way of knowing this. But now you can ask these kinds of questions and get answers; you can build better strategies because you can know more, because you can ask more questions.

Impossible Question #10 – How to Find the Cheapest New MacbookAir in the US?

The ultimate use for any data set on the web is to help you take an effective/profitable/wise decision when it comes to any choice. Should I eat an apple or an energy bar in the afternoon if I’m feeling sleepy at work? How much ahead should I buy a plane ticket to get the best price? Should I use wood from a particular tree in my garden to craft a coffee table? And more importantly, where can I find the cheapest pricing for a Macbook Air in the US? You can find this easier than you think. Just take a look at the screenshot below.

Google Tables Compare Prices

As you can see, you can not only query Google about it, but with the help of a new, still experimental feature, called Fusion Tables, you can gather, visualize, and share data tables. It allows you to filter and summarize across hundreds of thousands of rows, merge two or three tables to generate a single visualization that includes both sets of data along with all sorts of sharing and collaboration options. You can pull all the data you need from the search results or straight from already existing public data tables, or import your own data and then complete them with whatever else you can find on the web. It can get a lot more complex – and a lot more rewarding – if you know a little bit more about APIs, databases and how other Google tools work (yes, Google Earth included).

Naturally, few users have the interest and knowledge to go down the rabbit hole of big data, but those who are inclined towards it are likely to reap the benefits. It goes beyond finding the best price for a gadget and the interface is both intuitive and powerful with loads of possibilities (it even automatically interprets tables with location data into maps and allows you to further personalize the map). Some of the things you can do with tools like these you probably don’t even realize. Because you don’t know what you want to find out (it wasn’t possible before, so you didn’t dare ask). But the tool is there and will keep on developing. In fact, tools like these seem to develop nowadays not as a result of catering to “what is possible” but rather as a result of trying to rise up to “what do we want to know”.

What does this change?

“This was all quite captivating, but what does it have to do with SEO and online marketing?” you might ask. Well, it has everything to do with it. Whatever it is you are selling, people can now find out more about it, because they can ask more about it. It’s no longer just “what is a good product that can help me do X”, it’s also “what is the most used product to deal with X”, “German/Korean/Swedish reviews of product Y”, “what is the best room in this holiday resort to watch the sunset from” or “which product gives me best value for my money”? Being able to ask those questions and get quick, accurate answers will keep companies honest and make them work harder. The size of your advertising budget may matter less, while your customer care may matter a whole lot more.

You can still try to woo your customers with nice words and promises, but you will have to really do your best to make good on them. Users just got a boost in their ability to analyze, compare and verify and if you’re smart it can work in your best interest as well. This is, of course, just a small piece of the way the landscape will change. The answer to this question might be a lot more complex than we realize now. But hey, at least we asked the right question.

Conclusion

Answers are not driving change, they are not creating progress. They are good milestones, catchy titles, but not what progress and science are about. Questions bring the real advances. Where answers make us content, questions make us uncomfortable again, require us to work harder. It will take a while until these new tools and the new ways they can interact with each other are pushed to the limits. But by then researchers and scientists from Google and elsewhere will have already posed the next seemingly impossible to answer question. Whether they will have an answer as well will matter very little.

If everyday you take the time to try and answer yourself one question, using the tools available, an endless world of possibilities opens up in front of you. The Five Ws (Who?, What?, When?, Where?, Why?) they talk about in journalism schools pre-dated the use of wheel. Because all the Whos and Whats and Whys seem to serve the big How. How do I know what you want? How do I know what I want? How to get from point A to point B? How to replace an 4C Alfa Romeo dual-clutch transmission? And guess what! The time has come to ask questions. Partly because there are so many answers available, partly because, with every day that passes by, there are less and less impossible questions being asked.

Going along with the 5 Ws, I challenge you to start asking some questions, hopefully, not impossible:

  • Who are my clients?
  • What are the questions my clients ask?
  • When do they ask these questions?
  • Where are my clients?
  • Why do they come back?

People will always look for answers. Great people will look for impossible questions to ask. And they will get their head around on how to solve them. Thanks to them, we now have access to more answers than ever. But only Great Questions can actually change the world. Both curiosity and ignorance are intimately connected with our ability to ask questions. Asking questions can improve life. Accepting without questioning can keep the individuals in a state of fear and superstition. In other words, keep asking!

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