Wednesday, August 17, 2022

SearchResearch Challenge (8/17/22): Horses are native to... where?

 Everything comes from somewhere.... 

White Horse in Field by Helena Lopes (Pexels.com)

... right?  

The other day I read that horses in North America were brought here in the 1400s by Spanish conquistadors.  As you know, they rode them all across what was once known as Spanish America. 

But then another day I read that there were horses in North America 10,000 years ago. 

What happened?  I know this part of the story--the horses of North America went extinct along with most of the other New World megafauna during the Quaternary extinction event at the Pleistocene-Holocene transition. 

While the causes have been widely debated, their disappearance was rapid. Was it climate change? (Beginning around 12,500 years ago, the grasses characteristic of a open plains ecosystem radically changed.)  Or was it people? Was it just due to overexploitation of large animals by those newly arrived humans. 

In any case, this brought up a deep question:  Are horses native to North America?  Or exactly where ARE they from? 

This leads to our Search Challenge this week: 

1.  Where did horses (as a species) come from?  That is, where are they native? 

For our purposes, we'll define "horse" as some version of Equus that developed roughly 5 million years ago.  Where did THEY develop?  Where are they from? 

The challenge here isn't really to find the information (that part is simple); the Challenge is to figure out what it means to be native (which I take to mean as "historically grew and developed in a particular place") and how we know that history about horses. 

Bonus Challenge: 

2. What other animals are/were native with the early horses? Can you name a few of the megafauna that also lived in the same territory as the horse?  (I'm especially interested in other megafauna that might have interacted with horses.) 

What can you find out?  How do you know?  

Enjoy! 

Search on! 



Friday, August 12, 2022

Answer: What's this rusty thing I found in the woods?

  Remember this? 

All photos P/C Dan. July 8, 2022

As you might remember, I went for a run and spotted something large, rusty, and hovering just behind the trees on the side of the road.  This time, I was jogging down a quiet country road in the eastern Pennsylvanian Poconos.  Naturally, I had to stop for a few minutes, take a few pictures, and save my SRS for later.  

As you can see, this is a very large, very rusty, very old drilling rig that was abandoned years ago.  It's at least 60 feet (20 m) tall, and has several large wheels at the bottom. 



And, naturally, my curiosity was piqued:  What was this?  Why is it here?  How long ago?  



(You can go back to the original post to see even more images that I took that day.)  

I grew up in Southern California, so I know that the pictures shown here are all of some kind of drilling rig.  FYI: These images are all from 41°16'52.9"N, 75°19'16.1"W (41.2813694, -75.323322).  

Those pics form the basis of the SearchResearch Challenges for this week.   

1. What kind of rig is this?  (Is it drilling for water?  Oil? Gas?)  

2. When was this drilling rig first setup?  

3. Who owns this thing?  And what's its current status?  (Obviously, it's not in operating condition--but it might still be a viable well.)  


As mentioned, I had a really good idea that this was an oil drilling rig (I've seen literally thousands of them during my formative years in LA).  So I started with this query:  

    [ oil drilling in the Poconos ]

The first results was to a map of oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania (on a site run by American Geosciences Institute).  

When you then click on the interactive map in the center of the page, it takes you to a map view of oil, gas, methane wells on a site run by the Pennsylvania state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).  The map they produce let's you see this: 

Map adapted from PA state Department of Environmental Protection


We don't really (yet) know what kind of well this is, so we need to start our search broadly--so in the menu on the left, select all types of wells, then “all status,” then “well designation” (conventional and unconventional), then “Submit request."  You'll see a bunch of new dots appear. Finally, we can zoom into Mountain View Road in this corner of PA.  This is closeup view and the blue dot is the well we seek:  

THEN select the “I” (information) tool in the window (look at the menu that's in the upper left corner of the map), and now one can click on the blue dot and see: 





Combing through the data here (in particular, the "Display inspections" report), we find that this is: 

Site ID: 171768

Site Name: JENNIE HAAG TPC 19 OG WELL

“well record says that the well was temporarily abandoned” 

Permit:  37-103-2002 – issued 9-17-59

Owner: Transcontinental Prod Company 

744 Broad St NEWARK, NJ. 07102

Since there's really no other well nearby, and since the Site ID is very clearly the same as the location of my photo, I'm convinced this is the same site.  

I would have sworn that this rig was at least 100 years old, but the data is pretty clear--it's only from 1959!  

Farther down in the search results I also found WellWiki.org -- when you do a search for the duplicate information (using the permit number we found above) on their website, you'll get to:  https://www.wellwiki.org/wiki/37-103-20002 

WellWiki also gives easy access to the last well inspection (done on 2017-03-02), where the report was:  

Inspection of the Jennie Haag (103-20002) well in Greene Twp., Pike County conducted March 2, 2017 at 12:00 pm. The well is in the woods, East of Mountain View road (PA Gas Mapping coordinates and old location plat are accurate). You cannot miss the well because there is still a 60-70’ abandoned rig on location. I walked up to the rig, it was very rusted. Below the rig was a wooded cellar filled with dirt, leaves, wood, and some newer pieces of trash. There was a cut tree stump in the cellar where you would expect the well to be. I lifted it up; no well or monument. No discharge or flow. I dug around a bit and could not find a well. The well record says the well was temporarily abandoned; not plugged. However; A PA Geology report published in 1960 states this well was plugged and abandoned.

That pretty much accounts for the well.  Probably drilled in 1959, but it was a dry hole and abandoned in 1960.  I don't know why the Transcontinental Prod Company just left everything there in the woods--that's still a puzzle.   

I did the obvious few searches to find out more about TPC, but WellWiki.org was the the best source of accumulated information.  There I learned that they had 14 wells across Lackawanna, Luzerne, Pike, and Wyoming counties in Pennsylvania, and that they had their office at 744 Broad St, Newar, New Jersey 07102-3802 (which is a rather fancy building in downtown Newark!), but the obvious newspaper checks didn't reveal much.  

Interestingly, in pursuing this, I also found the website MineralAnswers that also aggregates information about oil/gas wells across the country.  It's a paid subscription, so I bought one year’s worth for around $40—anything for the SRS cause!  

Using MineralAnswers, I found that Transcontinental Prod Company all the same information--the only new data is that all of their permits were issued in 1957 – 1959, with no records after that.  What's more,  the status of their wells are all “Drilled uncompleted." They seem to be all gas wells that were dry.  It's not really a surprise when you look at the full map of PA wells--this particular well is well east of the productive regions of the state.  I spent a good deal of time searching for any trace of the company, but with luck like this (14 wells, NONE productive), I'm not surprised they vanished into the sands of time.   Ah, well.  

Map adapted from PA state Department of Environmental Protection


There are clearly a LOT of active wells in Pennsylvania, but Another nearby well (that’s currently flowing water, but no gas) in Pike county is the “Walter Hess TPC-5."  Water is always good, but I think they would have preferred oil or gas.  (Same company, different permit: 1958-5-2)


But now I was curious about what an old-fashioned oil drilling rig looked like.  Was this one typical?  Was this really used for drilling back then? 

My search was for:

   [ oil rig 1950s diagram ] 

 Leading to a bunch of nice images, including this one of a cable drilling rig that I've modified a bit to clarify the layout of the device. Note that the images above clearly show a cable drilling rig, not a rotary-drilling outfit, that's where the big wheels come from!   

Cable drilling rig diagram adapted from the Elsemere Canyon site about the history of oil drilling

You can see how this rig is the precursor to what I found in the woods... the derrick, the wheels and even the bands running between the wheels.  On the far left (in the little house, #33) is the engine (#20) that powers the whole thing.  Once you see this diagram, the wreck in the woods makes a lot more sense.   (You can see a modern cable drilling rig in this YouTube video.)  

SearchResearch Lessons 


1. Obvious searches can lead to useful sites that are not searchable!  At the beginning of this Challenge, we did a fairly simple search, but then had to spend considerable time searching on the gas/oil well database sites.  This is a reminder that not all information is accessible to Google... 

2. When using database sites, you have to know how to drive their tool.  In the PA EPA interactive web map, you need to figure out not just how to search for ALL well types, but also that you need to click the "I" (information) tool before clicking on the geo-located dot on the map.  The instructions aren't really clear, and that's fairly typical for lots of professional sites.  If you think there's a way to find the information, there probably is... you might need to spend some time exploring the site.  

3. Repeated data isn't additional credibility! (It's just a repeat.)  In this is episode we found three sites with well information.  But it's ALL THE SAME information! Most likely, the state EPA site is possibly the original source of the data.  (Why?  Because it's their job to collect and organize that information.)   


Hope you enjoyed this Challenge... even if it did take a couple of weeks to get back to this.  (Note that we'll be back on our regular schedule starting next week, August 17.) 
 

Search on! 




Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Answer: What's a large US city with very low population density?

Let's work backwards...   


... and answer the last SRS Challenge first... you remember, the one about finding the largest US city with a very low population density!

I'll answer the previous Challenge ("rusty thing I found in the woods") before next week and get us back on track.  

If you recall, our Challenge was:  "what large US city has the lowest population density as of 2020?"  

There are tables one can find that will tell you one answer, but I'd like you to solve this Challenge in a more direct way--a way that will teach you how to download data directly into a table and then manipulate it yourself.  

Can you do this hands-on data manipulation Challenge? 

Here's what I want you to do:  

1.  Search for a table of the largest US cities by population.  You'll want to find a table with at least 330 entires in it.  

2. Download that table into a spreadsheet. 

3. Compute the population density (if you need to... it might be a column in the data set).  

4. Sort the table by density, and then tell us what the city name is!  

Your table should look like the one above (hint: I got it from Wikipedia, but you can find your own source if you'd like--the diversity of data sources might be interesting).  

Here's what I did... 

First search for the Wikipedia table.  My query was: 

     [ wikipedia table largest US cities population ] 

which led me to the Wikipedia table List of US cities by population.  It's a classic Wikipedia entry with all the standard data disclaimers and information (e.g., This table lists the 331 incorporated places in the United States (excluding the U.S. territories) with a population of at least 100,000 on July 1, 2021, as estimated by the United States Census Bureau.  The table displays: (a) The city rank by population as of July 1, 2021, as estimated by the United States Census Bureau, (b) The city name, etc etc etc.)  

If you look carefully, you'll see that the columns can be sorted by clicking on the sorting widget at the top of each column in the table.  (You need to recognize that that's what these widgets do--it's part of your SRS visual literacy: recognize and understand what UI widgets are and what they do.)  


If you click on that widget, you can sort by population density: 


And voila, you've got the answer.  That's the fast and easy way to get to the answer.  

BUT... the point of the Challenge is to get you to figure out how to download this table and then manipulate it to get to the same answer.  (That is, the pedagogical point of this Challenge is to learn how to download data tables from the web and then how to work with them.)  

Do you know how to pull data tables off the internet and into your favorite spreadsheet?  

Well, the obvious SRS way to find out is with a search: 

     [ how to import data tables into Google sheets ] 

which will lead you to a number of sources, including this well-written and extensive post by Parul Pandey about Importing HTML tables into Google Sheets or this YouTube video from Teacher's Tech about How to Import Data from Webpages into Google SheetsThese are excellent resources, and for full details about how to do this, I recommend those page.  

For our purposes, I'll cut to the chase and point you to my Google Sheet with the population data in it.  This sheet looks like this: 

There are a couple of things to note here.  First, cell A1 has the magic function in it: 

     =ImportHTML (URL, "table", 5) 

which says to import the 5th table of that web page (the Wikipedia link) into the sheet as a table. I had to experiment a little to figure out that it was the 5th table, but I guessed it was #5 on the second try.  It's easy to just keep trying until you get the right table.  (Look at the Wiki page and count down from the top of the page.)  

This imports the 5th table into that location.  If you look back and forth, you'll see it's a complete copy of that data table.  

That's pretty straight forward.  



Next thing to notice: I put that table into Tab 1 of the sheet ("Datatable import"), and then did all my manipulations on a COPY of the sheet that I made in Tab 2.  If you look at Tab 2 ("Cleanedup data"), you'll see that it's where I did my cleaning up.  This is a good practice to follow--don't muck up your original data set as you're exploring.  

Note that when the data is imported, it's often imported as TEXT data, and perhaps not the numeric data you're seeking.  

In particular, column J is the 2020 population density in people/km2, and it's a text field, not a number.  So I initially wrote this formula to extract the number from column J.  


And that LOOKS right.  But as we know, appearances can be deceiving.  I thought it was right, but when I sorted the column, I noticed that the sequence was bizarre.  I saw patterns in the data that looked like this: 


... which is clearly very wrong.  The problem is that column O is all TEXT... and sorting text like this gives you a sort where 7,681 precedes 706. 

Once I realized that, I fixed up the extraction formula to give a real numeric value.  This is that formula (with the extra  =value(...)  in it):  


NOW I can sort by Column L ("Density Value") and see the right names of cities appear at the top: 



So... there's a quick and easy way (just use the built-in sort on the Wikipedia page), and also a more sophisticated way to download the data to your own sheet.  Of course, this then allows you to do more things with it--say, create a chart like this: 



SearchResearch Lessons


Two key points from today.  

1. Use the ImportHTML function to pull data tables from web pages into Sheets.  Incredibly handy when you need to get your hands on the actual data. 

2. ALWAYS check that your data is what you think it is.  In this story, I mistook what LOOKED like numeric data for numbers, but noticed that the sort order was all messed up.  When I converted those text numbers to actual numbers, sorting suddenly started working.  

I guess the summary is, as always, pay attention to what you're doing.  Keep asking yourself, does this make sense?  And when it doesn't, dive into full-on SRS mode and figure out what's happening.  

Search on!  





P.S.  Fairness requires that I point out that Microsoft Excel has a VERY nice import data function built into it.  It even lets you browse through the tables in the source web page rather than trying to figure out the number of the table to import.  See Importing Data into Excel from the Web.  It's actually very handy.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

SearchResearch Bonus Challenge (July 20, 2022): What's a large US city with very low population density?

 As I mentioned last week, I'm in a place with very slow WiFi... 


... so it's tricky to write up a detailed answer for you from last week. 

BUT a question came up in conversation about "what large US city has the lowest population density as of 2020?"  

There are tables one can find that will tell you one answer, but I'd like you to solve this Challenge in a more direct way--a way that will teach you how to download data directly into a table and then manipulate it yourself.  

Can you do this hands-on data manipulation Challenge? 

Here's what I want you to do:  

1.  Search for a table of the largest US cities by population.  You'll want to find a table with at least 330 entires in it.  

2. Download that table into a spreadsheet. 

3. Compute the population density (if you need to... it might be a column in the data set).  

4. Sort the table by density, and then tell us what the city name is!  

Your table should look like the one above (hint: I got it from Wikipedia, but you can find your own source if you'd like--the diversity of data sources might be interesting).  

This might feel like a bit of an odd Challenge, but it's a bit of a sensemaking exercise--can you get yourself through all the steps and get to the correct answer?  

Everything you need to know is pretty easily discoverable, and knowing how to do this will put you in good standing as a beginning data analyst--you'll know how to find data, import it, transform it (as needed), and then validate it.  

Can you do it?  

Let us know in the comments below!  

Search on!  


P.S.  My view at the moment.  Will wait to upload this post until I get close to good wifi.... 



Wednesday, July 13, 2022

SearchResearch Challenge (7/13/22): What is this rusty thing I found in the woods?

 As often happens... 

All photos P/C Dan. July 8, 2022

... I went for a run and spotted something remarkable hovering just behind the trees on the side of the road.  This time, I was jogging down a quiet country road in eastern Pennsylvania, in the middle of the Pocono mountain range, about 85 miles (136 km) due northwest of Manhattan.  It was a perfect day to run--cool, quiet, deep forest on both sides of the road.  Naturally, I had to stop for a few minutes, take a few pictures, and save my SRS for later.  

As you can see, this is a very large, very rusty, very old drilling rig that was abandoned years ago.  It's at least 60 feet (20 m) tall, and has several large wheels at the bottom. 



And, naturally, my curiosity was piqued:  What was this?  Why is it here?  How long ago?  




The pictures shown here are all of some kind of drilling rig.  These images are all from 41°16'52.9"N, 75°19'16.1"W (41.2813694, -75.323322).  

Those form the basis of the SearchResearch Challenge for this week.   

1. What kind of rig is this?  (Is it drilling for water?  Oil? Gas?)  

2. When was this drilling rig first setup?  

3. Who owns this thing?  And what's its current status?  (Obviously, it's not in operating condition--but it might still be a viable well.)  

Can you find out the answers to these mysteries?  The enquiring mind wants to know!  

It didn't take me too long to find out, but the process was--as we say here in SRS-land--really interesting!  

When you figure it out, please leave a comment in the thread below.  Let us know HOW you found out!  

Search on! 


P.S.  I'll be traveling over the next two weeks, so I might not be able to give the full and complete answer next Wednesday.  Hang on--I'll be back, and I'll return with even more interesting and exotic SRS Challenges for us!  



 

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Answer: Why is there an elephant statue in this Wisconsin park?

 

An elephant in Delavan?


Seeing THIS in a mid-sized Wisconsin town was a huge surprise, and prompted me to look for the reason.  

(As I've said before, the most common motivator for SRS Challenges is something that doesn't quite fit in... something I didn't expect.  And I surely didn't expect a life-sized elephant and brightly painted clown in a small town parklet.)  

In any case, this scene made me look twice and take the pic, and it leads to the following SearchResearch Challenge: 

1. What's the story here?  Why is there an elephant in the middle of small-town Wisconsin?  Really?   I did a little digging and my mind is boggled.  Can any of this be true?  


I started with the obvious search: 

     [ elephant statue delavan wisconsin ] 

which gave me decent results.  But I ALSO tried a longer, more question-based query: 

     [ why is there an elephant statue in delavan wisconsin ] 

and THAT gave me rather different results.  Here's a side-by-side comparison of the two SERPs.  


In these two versions of the query, Google is trying to give you the best answers with-respect-to your underlying intent.  In the short query, Google is guessing that you're looking for information about the statues in Delavan--how to get there, nearby attractions, etc.  In the longer query (the more question-based one), Google thinks you're trying to find an answer to that question, "why is there an elephant in Delavan, Wisconsin?" and so it provides a more answer-base set of results, including an expanded snippet of information extracted from the first result (which is the same on both SERPs).  

But as you can see, the second result ("Romeo & Juliet") is pushed farther down the page, and generally, the results are rather different.  

What this means for you:  These days, Google is getting increasingly good at answering full questions, or at least trying to give you links to results that will let you answer those questions.

Note:  This doesn't let you off the hook... you still need to read and evaluate the results.  

This Challenge is a great example of why this is so.  

I opened up the top ten results in parallel in a single browser and looked at them in detail.  Fascinating.  

In #1, Statue of Romeo, we read that Romeo was just a bad elephant that killed 5 people in 15 years. He was infamous, and so the town (which had a rich circus history) decided to put up a statue commemorating Romeo and a circus clown.  

But in #2, Romeo and Juliet, we read that Juliet died one winter on the shores of Lake Delavan and was then pulled out onto the ice of the lake by Romeo, possibly explaining why he turned mean. This page goes on to say that "fishermen still pull elephant bones out of Lake Delavan..."  

#3 is a link to Wikimapia, pointing out the location of the statue.  

#4 is a story about Romeo and Juliet, claiming that "following the 1853 season, Romeo and a smaller female, Juliet, were sold to the Mabie Brothers and delivered to the show’s winter quarters at the present site of Lake Lawn Lodge..." on Lake Delavan.  (Which, coincidentally, was where I was staying while in Delavan.)  This story adds a tidbit--that Juliet died of a bowel obstruction, but repeats the claim that she was pulled onto the ice for deposition in the lake.  This article goes on to say that several elephant bones have been pulled from the lake since Juliet's death in February of 1864, during the height of the US Civil War.  There's a specific claim that "in 1931, a newspaper article documented the finding of a bone in Delavan Lake, which some thought to be from a prehistoric mastodon." 

The rest of the results are either recaps of these, or not especially useful. 

But what we've got here should be enough to figure out what the backstory is about Romeo and Juliet.  

This is obviously a job for a news archive, and my favorite of the moment is Newspapers.com (it's fast, accurate, broad, and available in many public libraries). 

A search on Newspapers.com for: 

     [ Juliet elephant Delavan ] 

and quickly located several articles from 1864 such as this one from the Semi-Weekly of Milwaukee, WI. On March 16, 1864, they published this short blurb about Juliet:  

P/C Semi-Weekly of Milwaukee, WI (3/16/1864)

There's no mention of her burial in the lake, nor of Romeo being forced into pulling her there.  All of the reports say the same thing: she died in February of 1864 at the site of the Lake Lawn resort (which was the Mabie circus company's overwintering site).  The ground would have been frozen in February, and I bet that a lake burial would have been the simplest solution.  

Although I tried, I couldn't find anything from those days about Juliet being dropped into the lake, nor about Romeo being forced to push her body into the waters.  

Nor was I able to find anything about the mysterious "mastodon bones" from 1931.  

So I turned to Google Books, and found several books (including the generally reliable Arcadia Publications ) about Lake Lawn which repeats the same story (Juliet died in winter, was pushed into the lake), Romeo goes on to kill 5 men, bones later found in 1931 thought to be mastodon... etc.  But, unfortunately, none of these seem to point to contemporary accounts.  It seems that the story of Juliet's burial-at-lake grew up sometime after her death.  It's certainly possible that it happened, but there's no confirmation by news reports at the time.  (At least not that i could find!) 

On the other hand, I did find a poster of the Mabie circus (there are multiple copies of this poster floating around).  

    The playbill describes "the gymnastic elephants, Romeo and Juliet..." as part of the menagerie. And, as you see, there are illustrations of them at the bottom of the page. 

The Clown:  To be honest, I didn't think much about the clown (after all, seen one clown statue, and you've seen them all).  But the comments thread was fascinating.  I'm quoting Mike's comment here (with a little editing):  

"I used to collect "First-Day Covers" ... specially decorated envelopes that contained a new stamp and was postmarked at the post office where it was issued.  

The 5-cent clown commemorative was issued BY the U.S. Post Office, of course ... but it was issued AT the Delavan Post Office.

A simple search [clown commemorative Delavan] brings up lots of info, including the philatelic industry's standard Scott Catalog ID number for this stamp (#1309) and a wide variety of versions (including First-Day Covers) for sale on eBay and other sites. Most interesting to me was the 26-page program for the first-day festivities, whose description included "It also describes Delavan's circus history, including circuses that originated or quartered in Delavan."

Also found was this article in the Linn's Stamp newspaper that said the famous clown Lou Jacobs was the inspiration for the clown used on the stamp.  

[Dan: I checked: Lou Jacobs was very clearly the model clown used for the stamp and the statue. Fascinating.]  

That led me to search for info on Lou, finding biographies on Wikipedia, and also a new "-pedia" to me: Circopedia - The Free Encyclopedia of the International Circus. 

Jacobs was in the first class (1989) inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame, which was founded in Delavan in 1987, but moved to Milwaukee in 1997, and is now located in Baraboo, Wisconsin. 

[Dan: Interestingly, I found that one of Lou's daughter's, Lou Ann, became an elephant trainer.]  


Bottom line:  Romeo was a big and bad circus elephant that was famous in the 19th century.  He led a an unhappy life, and is commemorated as perhaps the biggest (literally) star from the circus town of Delavan, Wisconsin.  Hence the statues of Romeo, a clown (Lou Jacobs), and (nearby) a giraffe.  


SearchResearch Lessons 

1. No surprise, but not everything you read is true... even in books. To be precise, by doing everything I could to find some validation for the story of Romeo and Juliet, I was able to find that Romeo was in fact a killer, and a generally bad elephant (but also that he was terribly abused during his lifetime).  I was not able to verify the story of Juliet being dropped into Lake Delavan, although it seems plausible.  

2. Once again, archival newspapers are a fantastic resource.  Check out your local library to see if you have access to Newspapers.com  -- or, barring that, use one of the other archival news sites we've discussed (e.g., Chronicling America)  

3. Sometimes just asking the question is better than trying to guess the shortest possible query!  This is a big change from a few years ago.  When in doubt, try this first! 



Search on! 


Thanks again to Meredith Lowe, who first mentioned elephants and their bones in Wisconsin to me over coffee in Delavan. Thanks!  

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Where's Dan? A slight SRS delay this week...

 

I knew I'd be traveling this week, 


.. but I also foolishly thought I'd have more time that reality allows.  You know how it is: your trip seems like it will be all perfect timing and a relaxing time, but then reality pours in new tasks to do, people to see, and questions to answer. And that's what's happened to me.  

This is actually a work trip, and by looking at the above pic, with the blue and white flag atop the church, you'll know exactly where I'm at.  Can you deduce my location from the flag alone?  (If not, it's open internet--I'm sure you can figure out what church this is...)  

I'll be back next week with my solution to the previous SRS Challenge (the one about elephants in Wisconsin).  

Search on!  



Wednesday, June 22, 2022

SearchResearch Challenge (6/22/22): Why is there an elephant statue in this Wisconsin park?

 I was driving through Delavan...


... a smallish town in southwest Wisconsin, midway between Chicago and Madison.  I drove past something so unexpected that I went around the block and parked just to be able to take this picture.  

To set the context, I'd been driving through lots of farmland, and then on several lakeshores.  On the road are the usual things (corn fields, tractors, bales of hay, pontoon boats on lakes, people fishing on bridges), but then I spotted this life-size statue of an elephant rearing up, threatening a clown.  

This made me look twice and take the pic, and it leads to the following SearchResearch Challenge: 

1. What's the story here?  Why is there an elephant in the middle of small-town Wisconsin?  Really?   I did a little digging and my mind is boggled.  Can any of this be true?  


Go ahead, dig into the backstory here and let us know what you find.  

MOST IMPORTANTLY:  How did you validate the story you found?  Is is possible to get to a clear / credible / valid version of this story?  

Search on! 


Idea credit to Meredith Lowe, who first mentioned elephants in Wisconsin to me over coffee in Delavan. Thanks!  


Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Answer: Why do gnats DO that?

  With my head in the clouds... 

... of gnats... I learned a few fascinating things by asking a few simple questions.   

As I mentioned, one of the defining features of being great at doing SearchResearch is having a deep curiosity.  In my work, I'm paid to be professionally curious, so I've developed a kind of permanently curious outlook on life.  As I'm reading, or as I'm walking around in the world, I constantly ask myself questions:  Is what I'm seeing actually what's going on?  What caused that to happen?  Why is this phenomenon taking place?  

And so it was when I was walking on the beach.  I saw the cloud of gnats circling around in a fairly tight swarm and wondered Why do they do that?  

One great strategy for thinking about Why questions is to think of similar situations.  In this case, What else flies in tight swarms, circling around a fixed point, rather than wandering off to another location?  

That thought is what made me think of starlings and their murmuration flights.  

So my Challenge was: 

1. Why do gnats and starlings murmurate?  (Is that even the right language to use?)  What's a good search strategy to find the answer?  Do they murmurate for the same reason?  

I have to admit that I've only ever read of starlings in a murmuration, but I specifically chose that word to break you, my dear SRS readers, out of a habit.  The obvious word would have been a "cloud of gnats" or a "swarm of gnats."  But one of the traits of doing good research is to have a wide-ranging vocabulary--it's important to be able to ask a question in a different way, if only to get a different view onto a common topic.  

"Murmuration" usually refers to starlings, but other birds (and animals) fly (and swim) in large groups in tightly coordinated turns, with different groups sometimes moving in synchrony, but in multiple directions, often forming lobes of groups staying more-or-less in one location.  This is not giant groups of animals migrating--those are flocks or herds or schools.  

While the starling murmurations are impressive, I wanted to see if it was ONLY starlings that murmurated, so I did a search for: 

     [ "murmuration of *" -starling ] 

to look for other kinds of murmurations, finding that red-wing blackbirds, pelicans, sanderlings, robins, flamingos, and many other kinds of birds murmurate as well.   (Pro Search Tip:  Note that I'm using the star operator as a kind of fill-in-the-blank search, along with the minus sign to avoid results with the word starling in them.)  

And of course, fish often do something very similar when they form "bait balls" to escape predators.  (See this great video from Blue Planet--watch at 1:05 to see a remarkable bait ball murmuration.)  

A bait ball of sardines. Large bait balls also murmurate. P/C OpenStax College


What about gnats?  

(BTW, what IS a gnat anyway?  It's important to know your terms when you start a search!  A quick definition search told me that gnat is a collective word for many species of small flies that do not bite. In some areas, gnats are also called midges. Gnats only live long enough to mate and lay eggs.) 

If you fell into my suggestion and did a search for: 

    [ gnats murmuration ] 

you probably saw some wonderful videos of gnats flying in clusters, BUT by looking down the SERP, you'll quickly learn that "swarm" is the preferred term for gnats (just as "murmuration" is the preferred term for starlings and birds, while "bait ball" is preferred for fish).  

So I'm going to modify my query to be: 

     [ why do gnats swarm ] 

and find a bunch of results, the first four which look to be from credible sources (a nature conservancy website, two science journal sites, and the U. Kentucky department of entomology), each of these with articles about "why do gnats swarm?"   

All of the sites agree: it's all about mating.  

The science news site tells us that 

"The swarms make it easier for the male and female gnats to find each other and mate..." and that "Gnats will often congregate around objects or other visual markers that contrast the landscape, such as fence posts...This helps the females more easily see in the swarm. [Turns out that] ...0nly male gnats swarm. The females then identify the swarm and enter it to mate."

Since gnats don't live very long, it's important to have a fast and easy way to find a mate.  Swarming is one very visible and simple way to do that.  Think of it as speed dating for tiny insects.  

But gnats are long-lived compared to mayflies: they live in the mud of a riverbed for up to three years before hatching.  After reaching hatching and growing to adulthood before emerging on the water’s surface, adult mayflies only have about three hours to mate. As you can imagine, this makes for a pretty frantic mayfly swarm. In these swarms, frenzied insects create a dramatic (and to some, dramatically revolting) congregation. One was so large that it appeared as a rainstorm on weather radar.  (For a video of a mayfly swarm, see this NatGeo video.) 

Interestingly, starlings seem to murmurate as a kind of group defense mechanism; it's difficult for a predator to track an individual when they're swirling around in a giant mob.  

By contrast, when gnats swarm, it's easier for some predators to fly through the cloud and pick up multiple meals at once.  (That's the way dragonflies will sometimes feed in swarms of gnats. This is so common that it's got a specific term: swarm feeding.)  

So what works as defense for the birds, doesn't work out so well for the little insects.  Well, if you're a mayfly, you're time limited, so procreation beats out your survival instincts!  


SearchResearch Summary 

1. Curiosity matters. It's not hard to develop the practice of being curious--it's just a matter of asking questions and then doing your SRS to find the answers.  It's a great way to learn about the world (and develop that little twinkle in your eye that leads you to ask, "I wonder if...")  

2. Be sure to check definitions.  I hope murmuration is now in your vocabulary, and that you know it usually refers to starlings (but not exclusively).  

3. Check for near-misses: What else is like this thing?  Up above I used the * operator along with the minus operator ( - ) to search for alternatives ("other things that murmurate, but don't tell me about starlings").  Once you know what else is nearby, you'll understand the large concept space--the specific answer to your question along with other things that tell you what's nearby or closely associated with it.  


As always... Search On!  

(And in Dan's addendum:  Stay Curious!!)