Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Hint: Can you find the characters from Moby Dick in other places?

  Let's think about this... 


I've been enjoying reading all of the comments on the post, watching as people try different search strategies to get at this question.  (A general comment--they're mostly pretty good!  Nice job, SRS-folk!)  

But rather than just give you my approach immediately, I'd like to give you a pointer to what I did, and then see if we can collectively figure out how to use this alternative method.  

I also realize that I was a bit ambiguous in the Challenge statement.  As we've discussed, in everyday life, Research Questions (or, as we say Challenges) are often a bit underbaked and unclear.  

This week I asked about characters with a distinctive names (to wit, Starbuck and Queequeg from Moby Dick by Herman Melville), and I asked "... how often these names from Moby Dick appear as characters in other works of fiction."  Specifically:  

1. Can you find a way to identify other major works of fiction (leaving out fan-fiction for the moment) in which the names of "Starbuck" and "Queequeg" appear (either independently or together)?  

This is very much like a standard Library Reference Question (see this list for some actual reference questions that have been asked by library patrons).  It's a bit, shall we say, "open ended."  

There are several ambiguities here: 

a. what languages are covered here?  I realize that, implicitly, I meant English--but that's doing a disservice to the rest of the world.  For all I know, Queequeg might be HUGE in German-speaking countries. Let's include all languages.  

b. what counts as a "major work of fiction"?  Again, I had meant to say "written works of fiction," but as SRS regulars point out, that leaves out a lot of content (esp. television, movies, etc.)  So let's modify our Challenge to include "fiction in whatever medium that is larger than a niche publication."  (I leave it to you to define niche.)    

My approach to this question came from a realization when I was reading the Wikipedia entry about Queequeg. Two things caught my attention.  First, was the section called "Cultural references" -- meaning, references to the topic (Queequeg) in other cultural uses.  


That's one source of insights about "other works."  Another is the purple box at the bottom of the Wiki page: 


You can see a list of other works here as well.  See, for instance, the book by Ray Bradbury, Green Shadows, White Whale, a book that gives a fictionalized version of his trip to Ireland.   This book includes a few references to Queequeg, and counts as a major work.  (Check out the Queequeg mentions on Google Books.)  

But.. I realize that this is an automatically generated figure.  THIS means that there's some database somewhere in Wiki-land that's creating the box table and its contents.  

That's right! I recall that Wikipedia has an entire Wikidata underneath it.  

I did a quick Command-F/Control-F for Wikidata on the page and was taken to a new land of discovery--the Wikidata!  If you click on the Wikidata link you'll be taken to the Wikidata item for Queequeg!  



There are new riches to be found here.  

So I'm going to make a suggestion:  Can you find additional references to the Moby Dick characters of Starbuck or Queequeg by using Wikidata?  

Is such a thing even possible?  

I'll make comments as the week passes by with additional hints and ideas.  

Search on! 







Wednesday, September 14, 2022

SearchResearch Challenge (9/14/22): Can you find the characters from Moby Dick in other places?

 Some names are distinctive... 


... if you hear names like Captain Ahab, Starbuck, or Queequeg, your mind immediately opens the Moby Dick chapter, and you're transported to the epic battle on the high seas between Ahab and the white whale.  

But at the same time, one wonders in what OTHER works those names have appeared.  This isn't totally crazy--some characters appear in more than one work of fiction.  Merlin, the wizard, appears in scores of books, as do other fictional characters from history.  

Having a character with a distinctive name (Starbuck, Queequeg) might be seen as a direct allusion to the earlier work.  For such uncommon names this is probably intentional, but if you're a writer, you want to be sure to not accidentally use a name that has overtones and allusory power of which you're blind.   

So... this makes me wonder how often these names from Moby Dick appear as characters in other works of fiction. Let's assume this cross-pollination is intentional.   

1. Can you find a way to identify other major works of fiction (leaving out fan-fiction for the moment) in which the names of "Starbuck" and "Queequeg" appear (either independently or together)?  

I've found a way to do this that I believe does a pretty good job of finding the answer to this Challenge.  Big hint: My method is pretty non-obvious, so I hope you'll stick around for the solution in next week's big reveal!  

Search on! 


Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Extra: Napa Soda Springs to return to life?

 In 2019 we explored some mysterious ruined buildings... 


.. that I'd accidentally discovered while flying my drone in the upper reaches of Napa Valley. 

The Challenge then was to identify the buildings and learn a bit about the backstory. 

In SRS 2/20/2019 Answer: What's the story... of these ruined buildings? we learned that this was the site of the former Napa Soda Springs Resort, a swanky resort in the late 1800s, a place where multiple natural springs flowed from the ground.  

The Napa springs were discovered in 1855 and developed into a fairly well-known resort with extensive grounds and buildings. There were music rooms, a dance floor, a pagoda, spring houses, and buildings including the fabulous Rotunda, 75 feet high with a glass cupola at the top. It was the quintessence of a high-class Victorian-era resort.  

And just this week I learned that the company RH (formerly known as "Restoration Hardware") has purchased the site for around $25M and has plans to restore it to some kind of a resort once more.  As they write:

A 2019 press release announcing the listing detailed the property features, including “a stunning 80-foot waterfall, vistas of Poppy Hill, the magma rock-strewn slope of Babylon Plane, and a multitude of free flowing mineral springs that have been historically prized and bottled for their taste and health-giving properties.”

The RH CEO said in a conference call that the site: 

"...still has the ruins. It's where we'll build a guest house, residences, and a winery.  We have some of the best soil in all of the Napa Valley."

We'll see what happens here... but you heard it first in SearchResearch!  

There might be a grand rotunda building at the Napa Soda Springs once more. 

From a 1905 postcard showing the rotunda building


Search on! 


Monday, September 12, 2022

Answer: How can you find answers to those mysterious and inarticulable questions you might have?

Curiosity prompts us to find answers... 

DALL-E, "thinking hard in the style of Picasso"

.. .especially with questions that sometimes start as vague feeling that something doesn't quite fit, or that this isn't what I expected.  

As you've probably noticed, not all of these feelings are clear, crisp, and simple to articulate.  

Sometimes you need to figure out how to move from an inarticulate sense of a question to something that you can say aloud.  

This step--the conversion from an internal wondering to an externalizable question-about-the-world is often tricky.  Sometimes we internally censor ourselves before letting the transformation happen, sometimes thinking that this question is too dumb or that I can't figure out how to ask this thing... 

This week's Challenge has a couple of these questions, and the goal has been for us to figure out how to overcome our lack of language (that is, an inchoate feeling), get past this and pursue a search strategy to get some answers.  

1. When I wake up in the middle of the night, my head sometimes feels "fuzzy" or somehow strange and different--a little as though my brain isn't working quite right. I assume that this happens to everyone. If I stay up for a while, it goes away.  And of course, when I awaken properly (at a reasonable time), I don't have this feeling at all.  Challenge:  What is this feeling called?  Is there even a term for it? Does it really happen to everyone?  (Really, does it happen to you too?)  

Here the question is vocabulary--what do you call this feeling?  That is, what queries should you do to figure out what I mean when I write "..my head feels fuzzy or somehow strange and different."  

That's a pretty vague description, but the problem is a common one: I'm feeling something very distinctive, and my power of language is inadequate to express what's going on. 

As you can imagine, this is a common, common, common problem.  It happens so often in libraries that librarians have a term for this kind of conversation, it's a reference interview--that is, when you chat with a librarian and together work towards a clear understanding of what you really want to understand.  Often, the patron might not ask the question that's really on their mind, or they'll just not have the language to describe what they're actually looking for.  (Here's a book about conducting a reference interview.  Pro tip: Search for a used version of this expensive book before you buy.)  

Several SRS readers translated my "head feels fuzzy" into queries about: 

     [ what is the feeling of groggyness called ]   (remmij)

     [ name feeling sleepy when awakening midnight ]  (Ramón)

     [ what is grogginess ] (krossbow)

     [ waking up in the middle of the night feeling a bit out of it ] (mateojose1)

While my first search was: 

     [ head feels fuzzy after awakening ] 

Oddly, the first few results after my query talked about feeling dizzy upon awakening. Not quite what I was looking for.  But then the results talked about "brain fog" and "sleep inertia," both of which are similar to what other readers found.  

In particular, the SRS Regulars and I found sleep inertia to be a useful search phrase.  (Or, as remmij pointed out, it's a useful concept handle, or what I have called a "nugget" in other posts; both are short phrases that capture an idea efficiently.)  

If you search for [ sleep inertia ] you'll find a wealth of articles--and if you search on Google Scholar for [ "sleep inertia" ] you'll get a bunch of high quality articles that are mostly from the medical sleep research world.  (Example, "Waking up is the hardest thing I do all day" from Sleep Medical Review journal.)  

But a fascinating paper is an overview of the entire topic, by Tassi, Patricia, and Alain Muzet. "Sleep inertia." Sleep medicine reviews 4.4 (2000): 341-353.  Here, sleep inertia is described as lethargy, brain fogginess, and reduced level of cognition.  That seems pretty close to what I'm experiencing.  

Included in this overview is a comment that ".. sleep inertia at the population level suggests that difficulty awakening is a common experience.”  So I'm not alone in this feeling of grogginess just after awakening, especially after a deep sleep.  


2. I remember reading a paper many years ago about the psychology behind why people often can't talk very accurately about why they did something.  This comes up most often in psychology studies when people are asked "why did you do that?" and ask for an explanation.  People will give explanations about why they did something, but they're often not very accurate.  Challenge:  What is this effect called?  Can you find a scholarly article about why people are so bad at giving such explanations?  

 The trouble with this Challenge is that the words are so commonplace.  Searching for: 

     [ why can't people explain why they did something ] 

gives you a lot of varied results.  They're SO varied that it's hard to find something that's useful.  As I mentioned, I seem to remember that this was a psychology paper, so I turned to Google Scholar to do a few searches, hoping to zoom in on the psych literature.  With my Scholar query of: 

     [ explanation of behavior in psychology ] 

which led to lots of wonderful papers about how people really are not great at explaining their own behavior. But none of them were quite what I was looking for... In a typical reference interview situation, only after looking around did I realize that I was looking for a particular paper--one that's well-known to social psychologists.  

Of course, the big problem here is that I don't really have a starting point--I don't have very specific language to use in my search.  Searching for something like "explanation of behavior in psychology" isn't very focused--after all, isn't that ALL of psychology?  I don't have anything like a "concept handle." 

So--and I realize this might feel like cheating, but it's not--I ended up sending email to several of my social psychologist friends and asking this (slightly tuned) question:  "What's that classic paper in social psychology about why people can't explain their behavior very accurately?"  (And yeah, that's a terrible query for Google... but it works really well with friends who know you.)  

And within a day, a couple of them wrote back to say "oh yeah... you mean Nisbett & Wilson, "Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes."  With that clue, I was able to find the object of my memory... 

Nisbett, Richard E., and Timothy D. Wilson. "Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes." Psychological review 84.3 (1977): 231.

I wish I could tell you that I was able to use a clever trick to find the paper, but perhaps that's the point: Some searches really are hard, and the best path to finding the answer is to ask a friend.  (Obviously, it helps to have good friends with a wide basis of knowledge.)  

Note:  Krossbow did a great job searching for this found that he discovered an episode from the Hidden Brain podcast “You 2.0: How To See Yourself Clearly” which comments on psychologist Timothy Rice (the second author of the above paper) observation that “Psychologist Tim Wilson says introspection only gets us so far, and that we often make important decisions in life and love for reasons we don’t even realize.” This episode included additional resources (always worth checking) including a reference to his 1991 paper, “Thinking too much: Introspection can reduce the quality of preferences and decisions.” Wilson, Timothy D., and Jonathan W. Schooler. "Thinking too much: introspection can reduce the quality of preferences and decisions." Journal of personality and social psychology 60.2 (1991): 181.

3.  I know the word "colleen" is often used to refer to an Irish woman: for instance,"she's a lovely colleen".  Likewise, "shelia" is used in Australian English as a synonym for a woman, while in American English "jane" or "john" (Jane Doe, John Doe) often refers to a generic person.  Challenge: Is there a term for this idea, that some names are used as generic signifiers of categories of people?  Are there other names that are used in this way in English?  (Say, Indian English or Nigerian English.)  

I think I got pretty lucky in this search.  I started with queries like: 

     [ generic names ] 

     [ sheila colleen jane ] 

My hope was to find an article that discussed what such names are in general.  This is a bit like searching for collective nouns for different kinds of animals (as we've discussed before in SearchResearch "What's that group of animals called?"  

The big difference here is that, again, the search terms are all very plain and commonplace.  (There's nothing quite like "charm" for hummingbirds!)  

But after trying the general searches, I tried a different strategy, which is to choose a specific generic name (in the US, that would be John Doe) and I read the Wikipedia entry for John Doe.  Voila!  My search was the obvious: 

     [ John Doe ] 

In that article I learned that such names are called placeholder names.  In that article you can also read about other placeholder names.  Most interesting to me was that the legal terminology of Ancient Rome used the names "Numerius Negidius" and "Aulus Agerius" for hypothetical defendants in trials (much as John Doe and Jane Doe are used in the US).  

In other countries, Ashok Kumar has been used in court cases in India, as has the abbreviation N.N., commonly used in European legal systems, as an abbreviation for the Latin, Nomen Nescio ("I do not know the name").  

This article easily led me to Placeholder Names by Language, where I learned about names like Max Mustermann (German), or Jean Dupont (French), or  Matti Meikäläinen (Finnish), or Navn Navnesen (Name Nameson) in Danish,  etc.  

And one more click away is the Quora post about "placeholder names in your language."  

Oddly, none of these sources mention Sheila or Colleen as examples of placeholder names although the Wikipedia entry for Colleen tells us that it's a generic term for a young woman or girl, and the entry for Sheila says that socialist Sheila Chisholm was the probable source for the use of sheila as a generic term in Australia.  

So it seems there's a slight distinction, here, but one that I still haven't managed to discriminate.  So we'll leave this Challenge a bit open.  We know about placeholder names, but have found that not all placeholder names are spelled out in any master list!  


SearchResearch Lessons 

1. Search sometimes takes a few iterations. When searching for my grogginess upon awakening, it took a while before our queries got us to sleep inertia, but that was fairly straightforward, if it took a couple of steps.  The lesson is to keep searching a bit more deeply.  The answers are out there  

2. When searching for a concept with really common terms, it sometimes helps to call an expert.  We've talked about this idea before--this is one of the reasons that having a social network (OR knowing good librarians!) is so important in your quiver of SRS knowledge. In my case, a few quick emails got me the answer after HOURS of fooling around.  When in doubt, call a friend for help.  

3. Changing your search from the generic to the specific is sometimes a great strategy.  Note that in other posts we've talked about shifting from specific to generic--this is the opposite--shifting from generic to specific.  Here, I used "John Doe" as the specific instance of what I was seeking, and was able to learn about placeholder names.  


Sorry this answer took a bit longer than normal.  I spent a LONG time figuring these out, and was heartened to see so many quick, high-quality replies in the comment stream!  SRS Readers are the best!  Thanks for the conversation.  

Search on! 




Wednesday, August 31, 2022

SearchResearch Challenge (8/31/22): How can you find answers to those mysterious and inarticulable questions you might have?

 Our world is full of mystery... 

DALL-E, "thinking hard in the style of Picasso"

.. and everyday I find myself thinking about some question or another that pokes at my curiosity.  Often, this makes me do some searching with the result that some number of these questions appear in SearchResearch!

As you've probably noticed, not all questions are clear, crisp, and simple to articulate.  Sometimes you need to figure out how to move from an inarticulate sense of a question to something that you can say aloud.  

This step--the conversion from an internal wondering to an externalizable question-about-the-world is often tricky.  Sometimes we internally censor ourselves before letting the transformation happen, sometimes thinking that this question is too dumb or that I can't figure out how to ask this thing... 

I've seen this happen with students: they get caught up in something, but don't quite have the language to pursue the thread of interestingness, and so they drop it.  

But SRS exists to help get you out of your internal stuckedness and express your inner, curious child!  

So today's Challenge has a few of these questions that occurred to me over the past week or so.  

The Challenge for us is to figure out how to overcome our lack of language (that is, our inarticulateness), get past this and pursue a search strategy to get some answers.  

1. When I wake up in the middle of the night, my head sometimes feels "fuzzy" or somehow strange and different--a little as though my brain isn't working quite right. I assume that this happens to everyone. If I stay up for a while, it goes away.  And of course, when I awaken properly (at a reasonable time), I don't have this feeling at all.  Challenge:  What is this feeling called?  Is there even a term for it? Does it really happen to everyone?  (Really, does it happen to you too?)  

2. I remember reading a paper many years ago about the psychology behind why people often can't talk very accurately about why they did something.  This comes up most often in psychology studies when people are asked "why did you do that?" and ask for an explanation.  People will give explanations about why they did something, but they're often not very accurate.  Challenge:  What is this effect called?  Can you find a scholarly article about why people are so bad at giving such explanations?  

3.  I know the word "colleen" is often used to refer to an Irish woman: for instance,"she's a lovely colleen".  Likewise, "shelia" is used in Australian English as a synonym for a woman, while in American English "jane" or "john" (Jane Doe, John Doe) often refers to a generic person.  Challenge: Is there a term for this idea, that some names are used as generic signifiers of categories of people?  Are there other names that are used in this way in English?  (Say, Indian English or Nigerian English.)  

For this suite of Challenges, I'm interested in your answers.. but I'm REALLY interested in how you got from "vague idea" (or at least the "vague scribblings of Dan") to something that you could use in an online search. Can you talk about the process you went through?  (And yes, I'm aware of the irony of asking this given Challenge #2 above... still, we have to try!)  

Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below. 


Search on! 


Friday, August 26, 2022

How to find anything #7: How to Find News and Late Breaking Information--Summary

If you recall... 


a while back (August, 2021) we started a series of posts on "How to find anything."  This somewhat outrageous claim promised a series of posts that, when collected together, might form a kind of How-To-Search book organized by topic.  That is, how to search for... something!  

As part of that series, we started working on "How to find News and late breaking information."  Here are links to the first 3 posts on this topic.  

#8.1  - How to find News and late breaking information

#8.2 –How to keep track of your news sources 

#8.3 - Assessing credibility of news sources 

And then, later that month, I buried the summary of these "how to find news" in a post we wrote a while back  that wasn't part of the series.  Oops.  

That was a tactical error: all that work, and then the summary got lost in the midst of the blog.   

So I'm going to fix this accidental hiding.  In this post I re-edit and re-surface that summary here, making it easier to find. Today's post is the seventh in the "How to find anything series" and number 4 in the How to Find News and Late Breaking Information--Summary miniseries.  

In any case, here are the basics of what you should know when searching for reliable and credible news (aka late-breaking information).  


A. When you have a strong response to a story, check it before believing it! 
  Many stories are often written to elicit a response, especially political stories.  When you find yourself being outraged, or remarkably pleased, consider yourself manipulated.  

That might be okay, maybe even desirable when you're reading fiction, but when it happens in your news reading, you should pause for a moment and try to read it without the emotion-inducing material.  Here's a made-up example: 

I can't believe Senator Smith voted for this outrageously expensive and immoral funding bill.  He should be barred from the senate for life!  What an irresponsible low-life.  

Now, if you read this without the over-the-top language, you get a very different read: 

... Senator Smith voted for .. this.. funding bill.... 

The rest of that paragraph is opinion.  You should form those opinions for yourself rather than just accepting the writer's point-of-view.  The opinion can be useful information, but when you find yourself reacting strongly to a story, try this "affect-free reading" style and see if you come away with the same information. 


B. Triangulate your sources.  The same story told from different viewers can be very different.  Don't make the mistake of thinking multiple sources means different reporters, different written accounts, or different points-of-view.  It is, unfortunately, all too common to copy/repeat a story.  (And even data sets.)   ESPECIALLY on news that comes to you via social media sources.  Check for duplicates.  


C. Pull from different kinds of sources. Images, videos, long-form stories, news reports... they're all very different.  They have different production cycles, different ways of being edited, and very different impacts on the reader.  A nice article as seen in hardcopy newsprint media is rather different than a 10-second video summary of the news.  Short videos are intentionally punchy, even if they have to distort a few things to get your clicks.  


D. Cultivate a set of sources that you trust. You really should get to know more than your one most-trusted source.  For instance, I tend to listen to and trust NPR radio for accurate reporting.  But I also know about the BBC (in the UK) and other news outlets in the US, each with their own point-of-view.   You really should be able to quickly get to the top 4 or 5 sources that you really trust... and be able to say why you trust them.  


E. Cultivate a set of sources that give you another perspective that you don't agree with.  Filter bubbles are real, but they're mostly bubbles that we create for ourselves.  Don't be a bubblehead!  Think about the set of resources you read all the time and make sure you vary your diet.  (I subscribe to a couple of very conservative news feeds that put articles in my email every day.  It's useful to see how other people think and what they find valuable / believable.)  


F. Understand the background and point-of-view of the source you're reading.  This is true no matter what your source.  Realize that (for instance) the Wall Street Journal tends to be more conservative in their reporting than the New York Times.  Realize also that any good source typically has a suite of different viewpoints within it.  (Beware of any source that doesn't have some built-in diversity--that suggests they're perilously close to having a party line in their reporting.)  


G. Look for reporting that originates close to the story.  Several people have pointed out that reporting on stories with local reporters can be incredibly valuable.  Beware of stories that are filed remotely, without any reportage from the story location.  It's too easy for people to write about what they're told, rather than what they've experience.  When in doubt, go for direct experience.  


H. Look for an author who has expertise in the subject matter.  Look at the writer's back catalog of stories--have they done this kind of thing before?  What have they done to give you a sense that they know what they're talking about?  (I'm very skeptical of writers who claim to understand the subtle and complex issues of the Middle East if they haven't spent substantial time there.)  


I. Do your own background fact checking.  You'll develop a sixth sense about this over time--you start to understand what basic facts to check in order to credibility-check an article.  If they don't get the basic facts right, then the rest of the article is dubious.  (Example: Check the numbers on a story--did they get those right?  When a place name is mentioned, check it out--does the image of the place agree with what's written about it?)  


J. Do things fit together?  That is, does what you're reading in an article fit with things you've learned before.  If this is a new topic area for you, this might be hard to evaluate.  But the more you learn about a topic, the better you'll be able to make these evaluations.  (And when you're stuck, spend a little time learning about the topic... it will make you a better judge of what you're reading.)  


REALISTICALLY... what will you do?

I don't know about you, but I'm pretty busy.  I don't really have the time and energy to check every single story I read.  You probably don't either.  In truth, almost nobody does.  So, what should you do at minimum?  

Typically, I do these four things for every story: 

1. Pay attention to the emotional level of the story If it's hot, I'll re-scan it by doing the "affect removal reading" trick of above.  Still interesting?  

2. Do a quick Google search to check on some basic element of the story. If it doesn't check out, I'm done.  And don't just do the easy things, but check on the slightly harder things to look up.  You're a SearchRearcher!  Prove it! 

3. If I don't know the author and/or the network (channel, publication), I'll do a quick search on them (often using the -site: trick to exclude their own self-serving articles).  This will sometimes show up a low-quality site pretty quickly, and if it's a high quality channel, that usually shows up as well.  

4. Browse and read laterally.  That is, don't JUST read the news story and the links they provide--the authors have heavy motivation to give you just corroborating connections.  Instead, don’t spend a lot of time on the page or site until you've first gotten your bearings by looking at what other sites and resources say about the source you're reading at the moment.  


This list looks long, but it's usually a pretty quick set of things to do.  Pay attention; check a fact or two; check the publication source; make sure all parts of the story are coherent; read laterally.  I can do this (and you can too!) in less than 1 minute.  


There are obviously a lot more things one can do.   But I hope you'll make these fairly straightforward steps a regular part of the way you search for (and read!) news.  


As always, Search On!  




Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Answer: Horses are native to... where?

  The term native is fraught.... 

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

... in many conversations these days, but everything comes from somewhere right?  

The Challenge for this week circles around the question "where did horses originate?"  

I'd read that horses in North America were brought here in the 15th century by Spanish conquistadors.  But then I read that there were horses in North America 10,000 years ago. They went extinct, and could only repopulate the continent with a little transportation help by the Europeans.  (I don't even want to think about traveling with horses on a 15th century sailing vessel!)  

In any case, this whole line of thinking brought up a deep question for me:  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? 

As I said, for our purposes, we'll define "horse" as some version of Equus that developed roughly 5 million years ago.  

I like Adam's approach in the comment thread.  He asked the relevant definitional question, "What does native really mean?"  

     [ definition of native ] 

(Note that I didn't do [ define native ] because I wanted more detail on what a "native species" actually means.  For this post, I'm not interested in the socio-political ramifications of "native.")  

This led to the inevitable Wikipedia article, which tells us that: 

In biogeography, a native species is indigenous to a given region or ecosystem if its presence in that region is the result of only local natural evolution during history.  Every wild organism is known as an introduced species within the regions where it was introduced by humans. 

The notion of nativity is often a blurred concept, as it is a function of both time and political boundaries. Over long periods of time, local conditions change--so a native species might have to move to survive. As a consequence, their distribution is rarely static or confined to a particular geographic location. 

So, a native animal or plant is native (or indigenous) to a place if it evolved there.  Of course, "there" might shift over time as continents, coastlines, mountains, and river deltas come and go.  But for horses, what region did they first occupy? 

The story of horse evolution is long and complex (see this Britannica.com article for details on horse evolution), but the consensus of opinion is that by the time Equus emerges as the main type of horse, it had developed very clearly in North America, having evolved from Pliohippus some 4 million to 4.5 million years ago during the Pliocene. With time, it spread southward into South America and to all parts of the Old World by crossing over on the Bering land bridge by the early Pleistocene (that is, the Pleistocene Epoch:  from about 2,600,000 to 11,700 years ago). The Equus horses (there were many different species) thrived in the Americas throughout the Pleistocene but then, about 10,000 to 8,000 years ago, disappeared from both North and South America.  (See also A brief history of the horse in America: Horse phylogeny and evolutionBen Singer, Canadian Geographic magazine. Also: Mihlbachler, Matthew C., et al. "Dietary change and evolution of horses in North America." Science 331.6021 (2011): 1178-1181.)  

When the Bering land bridge was submerged about 10,000 years ago, the watery non-passage prevented any return migration of horses from Asia, and Equus was not reintroduced into its native continent until the Spanish explorers brought horses back from Europe.

So the big surprise to me is that horses are native to North America, but spread into Eurasia, then died out in the Americas around 10,000 - 8,000 years ago.  The horses of North America were then re-stocked by their descendents that crossed the Bering land bridge before it was swamped by the sea around 11,000 years ago.  (Source: a paper from the European Geosciences publication, "Climate of the Past")

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.) 

This was relatively straightforward, but since I really didn't know the answer, I wanted to see a bit of the natural history of North America in the Pleistocene.  My query was: 

     [ North American megafauna Pleistocene horse

which gave me multiple lists of critters, including a complete list of the different kinds of horses that wandered the plains (stout-legged and stilt-legged horses such as Haringtonhippus or conversidens).  

There were also many other kinds animals roaming around--horses, camels (as known from a site where horses and camels were trapped and butchered on the spot), the Megalonyx (giant ground sloth 3m long, 1000kg), the American lion, the Glyptotherium (a large rounded tank-like armadillo-like creature), Aiolornis (a giant vulture-like bird), and Woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius).  

While I'm not sure you'd see all of these in the same place at the same time, they were all co-existing with the horses of North America, and would have made for a wild safari.  


SearchResearch Lessons

There's really just one lesson from this week, and you've heard me say this before... 

1. Answering questions needs multiple sources.  Yes, it's pretty easy to find a single source to answer the Equus native point of origin story, but for confidence, I really wanted several sources.  I used Wikipedia, but also Britannica, European Geosciences, the journal Science, and the Canadian Geographic--all very different sources, but all reputable.  I was careful to find very different sources that linked together, but did not duplicate data or text.  

I was also looking for sources that would tell a complete story--not just where they started from, but also why they disappeared... and how/why they were preserved in Eurasia. That was a huge surprise, and I'm glad we were able to find out what really happened.  

Enjoy! 

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!