Friday, May 29, 2015

Answer delayed... "Why so... young?"

I've been really busy this week 

(and I'm afraid next week will be similar--but more on that next week).  

So I'm going to answer this week's Challenge over the weekend when I'll have a bit more time.  Hurrah!  You have a couple of extra days to work on this!  

A couple of comments first... 

As several Regular Readers have pointed out, there is good evidence that once upon a time there was a heavy forest of rather large trees in the area of Dartmouth College.  Ramón (and others) pointed out that there were many pines, some of which were gigantic--a 240 foot pine tree is one BIG tree.  (Think of it as being 24 stories tall!)  

I suspect that before Dartmouth was formed, that area was a primeval forest.  Barring devastating forest fires, it would have been a "mature" forest.  

So I've been looking at historical accounts of the early days of Dartmouth, looking for written records of how the lands around Dartmouth appeared in the 18th century, and then checking for updates since then.  (I've had some luck here.)  

I'm also looking for old maps and photo archives.   
For instance, compare these two images side-by-side.  One is from 1887, while the other is from 2013 (and is as close to the location of that earlier sketch as I could guess:  East Wheelock Street in Hanover, NH, not far from Darthmouth College).   

Remember that we're not looking JUST at elms (although the elm story is quite interesting), but at the entire range of forest trees.  

Looks like the place was pretty much deforested not that long ago.  

Does this suggestion help your search?  

Searching on! 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Search Challenge (5/27/15): Why so... young?

I recently had the chance... 

to visit Dartmouth College, that lovely old school in Hanover, New Hampshire.  Nestled in the forests over the White River, just on the border with Vermont, it's a verdant, green campus with beautiful old buildings, a large grassy quadrangle, and a young, energetic student population.  

Baker Memorial Library on Dartmouth Campus

The region is very rural, with hills, large tracts of forest, and the occasional farm.

As we drove around, one thing struck me:  in the forests near Dartmouth, all of the trees are fairly small in diameter.  In fact, the majority of them seem to be roughly the same size...and therefore (I surmise) roughly the same age.  

1.  Why?  

Some context:  I live near the Santa Cruz mountains, and when I walk through these forests, the trees vary enormously in size from one to the next.  There are young trees, but every so often you see truly gigantic trees of enormous girth and age.  (And I'm not even talking about the redwoods that live here, but just the local oak trees.)  
Near Dartmouth: Note tree sizes

So after a while in New Hampshire, it dawned on me that there's not a lot of size variation among the trees there.  And that's what led me to ask "why?"  

Near Dartmouth: Note tree sizes
There are a few older trees on the Dartmouth campus--most famously, it has an impressive collection of American elms (that are large, old, beautiful, and carefully protected by the school).  But what about just off-campus?  What happened there? 

Any ideas? 

An old American Elm on Dartmouth campus (2011)
Answering this question might be a little tricky as it involves a somewhat undefined region (let's limit it to the region near Dartmouth).  Even so, what will your resources be to answer this question?  

Search on!  (And be sure to let us know what you find out, and HOW you discovered it!)  

Friday, May 22, 2015

Answer: A conversation about learning rapidly...

Learning rapidly... 

Our question this week was how to learn about a new (to you) topic rapidly.  I asked

   1.  What do you do when you need to learn about a topic area very quickly?  

I'm not asking as a way to avoid work, but it happens fairly often that I'm working on a deadline and need to learn something as efficiently as possible.  In other words, how do you become an expert on the subject quickly, or least be able to find relevant information without getting lost in all of the possible documents?

The conversation was actually pretty good, although it was scattered across Facebook comments, G+ comments, the thread of posts here in the blog, and a couple of hallway conversations!  Let me try to pull some of those threads together and close with a thought of my own.

First, let me introduce a couple of technical terms:

a field of interest (get it?)
a domain is the "topic of interest."  That is, field, or the topic area that you want to learn about.  A particular domain might be "how immunosuppressants work" or "what is a perceptron and what are they good for" or "aphasia."  (In the examples below, when you see the word domain, I mean that you should substitute the key terms that describe your domain.  Example:  domain might be "aphasia treatments" -- assuming that's your domain.)

framing is establishing the question(s) that you really want to answer, and setting up the context in which the answer makes sense.  That is, a domain question like "teach me about the Civil War" needs a bit of framing in order to be sensible:  Whose civil war?  When and where was it fought? What do you want to know about that war?  How much detail do you need?  All of that kind of information sets the frame.

a library reference interview happens when you talk to your local reference librarian about what you want to learn.  (Consider doing that as well--the librarians know a bunch of stuff that's really useful, including resources that might take you a while to discover.)  In the interview, you will frame your question and set expectations.  You need to figure out in this discussion when you can stop.  (You're on a deadline, remember?  Assume you'll never learn enough to be a real expert--how do you get to a place where you can write a competent article in that area.)  But if you can't get to a reference librarian easily, you can walk yourself through your own interview.  In short, Know Thyself.

I've taken the conversations I've had this week and organized them into Strategies and Tactics.


* Learn the language / argot of the domain. Learning some search terms that enabled me to structure my search more effectively. Judith writes that....
"Once I had a student who was going to be interviewed for a job at a local transportation museum and had to find information on the trams in the 19th century and early part of the 20th century that were pulled by teams of horses. After searching several different ways, I found in Wikipedia that they are usually called horsecars and searching that one word led me to multiple sources of information, including the variations of "horse cars" and horse-cars." 
Earlier, Henry wrote that:
"Today, I decided to see if I could put a chin-up bar in my attic. What this came down to was determining if there was a thing that would attach a piece of piping to a piece of wood, perpendicularly. Of course, there is -- it's called a pipe flange, which you probably knew, and I applaud your greatness. My point is, as soon as I knew the word, I knew my answer -- yes, and it's going to take a flange or two...."  
Learn those terms!

* Find out who are the relevant / best writers in the domain.  And once you know that, find out what else they've written.  Often, it will be on topic and relevant to your quest.

* Find out the best institutions that work in the domain.  Same idea, except you want to limit your searches to that particular place.  For example, you might find that the team doing the best research is all in the Geophysics department at the University of Pocatello (fictitious example)..... then a site-limited search like [ ] might reveal a lot of things you never thought about.

* Check Google Books for books on the domain.  You might be surprised at how often books are still incredibly useful to learn something quickly.  Pay attention to the table of contents to get a quick lay-of-the-land.  The authors have gone to a lot of trouble to organize a book in terms of all the pieces you need to know about.  Check it out in this example: the table-of-contents for a textbook on aphasia)

* Check YouTube for videos on the domain.  Remember that you can use many of the tricks from regular web-search on YouTube.  (e.g., using context terms to describe what you seek)

* Look for groups of people (blogs, forums, listservs, mailing lists) interested in your domain.  In my previous post I mentioned a couple of tricks around finding blogs, forums, and people selling artifacts in your topic.

* Describe your problem to someone else.  Often, when you have to explain what it is you're trying to learn, you'll realize what the shapes and contours of the domain are... and what you really need to know, and what you really do not know!  

* Look for multiple different sources.  For instance, Google Maps is great, but consider also looking at WikiMiniAtlas, or OpenStreetView.  Likewise, different stories / different authors often give you varying perspectives on the ideas of the domain.  Use that same strategy when doing a comparison across web sites, books, or journals.

* Use your social networks. As I'm mentioned before, sometimes the best way into a field is to reach out to your friends, especially those that have broad-ranging interests or are really well-connected themselves.  Often a post to Facebook or G+ (or your favorite community) can get you the right information very quickly.  (In truth, this is why I lurk on a number of lists...  just so I can learn from them and ask the occasional question.)  Teachers sometimes talk about their PLN (Personal Learning Networks)--it's the same idea--developing and cultivating a group of people that you can ask questions of (and implicitly, also answer their questions too).

* For scholarly/academic articles, check Google Scholar.  A search on a domain in Scholar will often give you the latest and greatest academic work in an area.  Often, it will be a bit TOO technical to be useful to you.  (It happens to me all the time.)  A recent example I did:  [ coral reef bleaching] But you can use Scholar to identify the people and institutions that are doing the best work.  Then you can search for those people and more broad-brush articles they might have written. 


* Check Wikipedia first. Judith again:  "I never rely on Wikipedia alone... but it often has useful links to other sites."  She's right--it's not the ending point for your research, but it has incredible coverage (millions of topics), and sometimes the articles are very well done.  (And sometimes not.  Use your good taste to decide.)  A related topic...

* Check Wikipedia in other languages as well.  Some topics have very different treatments across the various Wikipedias.  Compare and contrast the entries for Leonardo da Vinci in English vs. Italian. That's variation, often useful.

* Use databases that contain content not available through Google.  As I'm talked about before, libraries often have access to proprietary databases, which are useful if they're on the domain of interest.  (For example, the various genealogy databases are very good for that domain of research.)

* Control-F your way through a document using the specialized language you've learned, looking for places where the terms you care about occur.  (Take note that in Chrome, you can see the yellow-bars showing you where everything is in the doc.)

* Take notes.  Several people mentioned that they start taking notes (usually in a Google Doc) whenever the search task starts to become non-trivial.  This is obvious, but it's always surprising how often people don't think about this.  A note doc is handy for stashing names of experts, domain specific terms that you don't know, and the names of institutions that are relevant.

* Find trade associations in the domain.  Hans pointed out that "...I usually try to find an organization or trade association that is working on that specific area. I use keywords like industry trade group, business association, International association or sector association and combine them with the terms of the domain I’m looking for. Also limiting the search to the .org domain is very effective.  Examples:  [uv-led curing trade associations]  or  [uv-led curing]  Another option is to use a directory: e.g., Associations on the Net (From the Internet Public Library) -

* Search for tutorials and lessons on the domain.  When you need to learn something quickly, do some searches where you explicitly search for things like [domain tutorial] or [domain seminar] or [domain training] or [domain lesson] or [domain lecture]  Pro tip:  Sometimes it's really useful to also limit your search to presentations.  Example:  [aphasia filetype:PPT OR filetype:PPTX tutorial]

* Set your information level for what you really need and can really use.  As Debbie and Anne point out, knowing what level of information you're looking for can be really useful.   "...Our subscription [to Encyclopedia Brittanica] offers 3 different levels so students can choose a reading level that is more comfortable for them and is much more visually appealing. We don't have anything against Wikipedia but for some students the layout of Britannica is better."

* Look for a QA site in the domain.  Some domains (like math, programming, English, finance, bicycling, music, cognitive science, etc) have QA sites (question-answering) that are amazingly good.  In particular, check out the StackExchange QA sites for a broadly based set of experts that can answer questions (or look for your question before you ask it out loud).  Some of these sites are pretty junky, but the StackExchange sites are generally very good.

This is a summary of all the conversations I've had this week (plus a few of my own thoughts).

Keep writing, and I'll keep updating this list.  Hope you found this useful!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Search Challenge (5/20/15): This week, a conversation about learning rapidly

This week, a conversation... 

Now that I'm not traveling, I have the chance to do something I've wanted to do for a while, and that is the chance to have a conversation with you about some parts of YOUR SearchResearch talents. 

I'm guessing that if you're reading this, you're probably one of those people who likes to look things up--that is, you're a researcher by habit or training... at least you're a researcher by inclination!   

Photo courtesy of U. Huddersley (UK) and JISC.

You might spend time in the library, or you might spend time reading old maps in the archives, perhaps you spend lots of time with Google. 

But what I'm curious about is this:  

   1.  What do you do when you need to learn about a topic area very quickly?  

I have to admit, I'm asking you now partly because I have the time this week, but also because (full disclosure) I'm giving a talk on this in a couple of weeks at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Philadelphia.  

But I'm always curious about how people organize their self-teaching / self-learning behaviors.  

Here's an example of what I mean:  


Method #1: Look for groups of people interested in your topic

As I've pointed out before (SRS post on "finding the date of a globe"), the internet is remarkable for any number of reasons, but one that I rely on to learn about a topic quickly is that for any topic, there is a special interest group.  

For instance, if I'm interested in those wonderful old oak library card catalogs, I can pretty easily find a group that's interested in them (by which I mean that they know a great deal about them, they probably collect them, they know the history of the catalogs, etc.) 

One easy way to find such a group is by looking for people who have these things for sale.  Thus: 

     [ library card catalog sale ] 

takes me to the Etsy shopping space for card catalogs, a Pintrest board for them, a nice blog post, and so on. 

Or, by searching for blogs with: 

     [ library card catalog blog ] 

you can easily find more Pintrest boards (including some remarkable tattoos of card catalogs!), and--naturally--a blog post from the Library of Congress.  

And if you want to dig into a particular set of blogs, you might try: 

     [ library card catalog ] 

and find even more blogs on the topic.  


Okay.  That's one of my tips. 

Tell us one of yours!!  

Search on... 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Answer: Bike to work? How many?

Did you get it right? 

Remember that on Wednesday I asked you to guess (without looking!) what fraction of people who commute to work actually ride their bike to work more than half of the time?  

How close were you? 

Not your usual bicycle commuters. The Kaufmann Troupe of "trick cyclists" in the 19th century.  

In particular, we wanted to discover:  

1.  In the whole of the US, what fraction of people ride their bikes to work at least half of the time? 
2.  In your state or province, how do the commute modes (car vs. public transit vs. bike vs. walk) break down?   Can you tell us your local transportation modes use?  

When I started thinking about this, I started trying to imagine what organization would be interested and collect this kind of data.  

First thought: Department of Transportation.  Second thought: Bicyclist lobbying groups.  (I know that bicycling has its own set of lobbyists, so perhaps they'd have some data.) 

My first query was pretty successful: 

     [ ride bike OR bicycle "to work" transportation data  ] 

which took me to the BikeLeague's website and their bike transportation data (from 2013).   

But I also found the data from 2008-20014, which was the source for the Bike League's analysis as well.  That seems like pretty reliable data, what's their number? 

In the report Modes Less Traveled--Bicycling and Walking to Work in the United States: 2008-2012 they show data that suggests that US-wide, the number of bicycle commuters is: 

            0.6% of all commuters.  

(As compared to 2.8% who walk; 4.3% who work from home; and 5.0% who use public transportation.)  

Interestingly, they show this small nationwide increase in bicyclists, but decrease in walkers-to-work:  

Figure 3 from "Modes Less Traveled..." report (2014)

Farther down in that report you can also spot maps that break out the data by state: 

Figure 7 from "Modes Less Traveled..." report (2014)
Unsurprisingly, the southeast doesn't have many bike commuters, while the west coast, Idaho, Montana, New York, and Colorado all have lots of bicyclists.  

As you can see from this chart, the 2008-2012 data comes from the "American Community Survey," so I thought I should spot check the data, and maybe get more up-to-date values.  

The obvious search [ American Community Survey ] brings me to their site, which has a nice Advanced Search feature which allows me to check the 2013 data for California.  From this chart, I'd expect something between 1% and 2%.  Sure enough:  when you check the data table at ACS for California, you find that 1.4% of men and 0.6% of women bicycle to work (for a 1.1% overall rate).  That's lower than I'd like, but it's in the range shown in the above chart.  

So now we know what the Census people have measured, and that the latest ACS data agrees with their numbers as well.  

But we should check these findings.  Question is, could I find some OTHER source of information?  Who else would do this kind of data collection?  

This is an important point because many of the news articles you read all repeat the same data from the same few sources.  We need to get a fact check here, hopefully from a different source with a different survey method.  

By going farther down the results page for the previous query, I found a few reports that use different methods and sources.  

I enjoyed reading the website and looking at their stats from 1997.  (A little old, but useful to compare with the above chart.)  That website points to a study published in the Transportation Research Record (a prestigious journal affiliated with the US National Academy of Sciences).  William E. Moritz "Survey of North American bicycle commuters: design and aggregate results"   Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board 1578.1 (1997): 91-101.  (PDF)

That paper says, "Estimates of the number of bicycle commuters in the United States range from 0.5 to 2.8 million or approximately 0.4 to 2.3 percent of the total number of commuters. (2,3) These numbers are derived from census data and information contained in the Nationwide Personal Transportation Study (NPTS)."  Those citations (2,3) are from surveys conducted by the Bureau of Transportation in 1990, so they're consistent with the charts above.  

The paper goes on to point out that "... based on the data in this sample, major streets without bicycle facilities have an RDI [Relative Danger Index, where a larger number mean "more dangerous"] of 1.26; minor streets, an RDI of 1.04; streets with bike lanes or bike routes, an RDI of 0.50; bike paths, an RDI of 0.67 and sidewalks, an RDI of 5.30. With the 7.3 million km of bicycle commuting reported, an annual accident rate of 37.1 per million km was calculated..."  [ or 0.0086 crashes / km ]

That's interesting because in yesterday's Bike To Work day, roughly 300 people biked to the Googleplex over a total distance of (this is an estimate) 3000 miles (or 4828 km) and there were 3 reported crashes.  That makes the Google "Bike to Work" crash rate around 0.0006 crashes / km, or roughly 14 times fewer crashes than the national average.  (Of course it helps to have most Googlers be in good shape on high quality roads on nice bikes without rain or snow...)  

Google bikes lined up waiting for riders.

But I digress... 

The point is that we have two different data sources (with different data collection methods) that agree on the bike-commuting rate for 1990.  

These sources also (handily) have breakout data by state.  California has 1.1% bike commuter rate and a 2.7% walkers rate.  (Note that I used to find the walker rate data.  We'll return to FactFinder in another episode.)  

Search Lessons:  Here, the search itself wasn't difficult, other than to use the keywords "bicycle" OR "bike, and "transportation" and "data" to pickup the documents that actually have the data you seek.  

But as you see, it's always a good strategy to second-source your findings.  In this case, I looked for a DIFFERENT source (the Census vs. the Bureau of Transportation) using a somewhat different sampling method.  And as you saw, the results were pretty much exactly the same... which give me confidence that these two methods are measuring the same thing.  

This was fun!  Now I have to ride home.... 

Search on! 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Search Challenge (5/13/15): Bike to work? How many?

With Bike-To-Work day
coming up tomorrow... 

it occurs to me that it might be useful to know how many people actually DO bike to work.  Any ideas?  

Before you go any farther in this Challenge--make a guess and write it down:  What fraction of people who commute to work actually ride their bike to work more than half of the time?  

my commuting bike

Getting to work is a big part of many people's day.  For me, I usually start work at home in the early morning (which is when I write my blog posts), and then commute to the Googleplex.  I often ride my bike, although not as often as I'd like, usually because I have to carry a bunch of stuff or be someplace distant late in the day.  

Still, I always think of riding my bike to work as a small but noble thing to do.  Since my work is only 5 km from my house, it's usually a really nice ride.  

But this entire discussion makes me think: 

1.  In the whole of the US, what fraction of people ride their bikes to work at least half of the time? 
2.  In your state or province, how do the commute modes (car vs. public transit vs. bike vs. walk) break down?   Can you tell us your local transportation modes use?  

Can you find definitive data on this?  

(Before you start your research, think about this:  Where would such data be kept?  Any ideas?)  

I'll tell you what I find on Friday.  

Be sure to let us know HOW you found your data, and what percent of your local population (in your city, state, or province) ride their bikes to get to work!  

Search (in a bicycling way) on!  

Monday, May 11, 2015

Answer: Victorians and palms trees? A thing?

When walking by some Victorian homes with extravagantly tall palm trees, I began to wonder why they'd plant such trees.  I think they're beautiful (but then, I grew up in LA where every street has a palm or two), but they're also very odd.  

This wonderment leads to today's question: 

1.  What was it with the Victorians and palm trees?  Why were so many planted near their houses?  What was their thing about palms? 
Obviously, this is an open-ended question that might not have a crisp answer.  But this is a nice example of a question that isn't easily amenable to a simple search.  You actually have to root around a little bit to understand what's going on here.  Why such an interest?  Was it symbolic?  Was it practical?  Was it an ostentatious display of wealth?  

And did the Victorians do this everywhere?  Or just in California?  

As we discussed yesterday, this also might be a problem that requires some thinking about the vocabulary.  How would you describe this Challenge to someone else?  

To answer this question, I searched first in Google Books (thinking that this would be some of the best places to find historical context).  My searches started with: 

     [ Victorian palm trees California house ] 

I discovered that there are palm trees in Vancouver, BC, (there's even a Pacific Northwest Palm and Exotic Plant Society). 

But I also found the book Trees in Paradise: A California History, which includes a fascinating section on the Victorian history of palm trees, and how they came to be symbolic in Victorian landscape architecture.  

Transplanted to the so-called temperate zone, tropical palms could be domesticated, their negative associations [with sweaty, humid tropics, and tropical diseases] pruned. In royal botanical gardens and private greenhouses, cultivated fronds provided aesthetic escapism.  In the 1840s Kew Gardens built the world’s largest steel-and-glass greenhouse and amassed an unrivaled palm collection.  Many wealthy collectors subsequently built smaller versions of the Palm House at Kew.  The financier Jay Gould set the standard in the 1880s when he added a gigantic palm house to his Hudson River estate, with other three hundred varieties inside.  Thanks to collectors like Gould, palms began to signify wealth and luxury as well as tropicality.  The tourism industry of the Victorian era added more associations—leisure and fun…. On the Riviera, landscapers favored Canary Island date palms, which became the master floral form for a new archetype, the Mediterranean palm…. The premier cruise ships of the era, the trio of Olympic-class vessels from the White Star Line—RMS Olympic, RMS Britannic, and the RMS Titanic—contained lavish, oversized palm courts that combined verdure with opulence…”  (p. 345
This is starting to be pretty convincing. (Especially since the author is a historian, and has written several books about historical trends and developments.)  

In the Victorian era, palms were exotic and symbolic--certainly symbolic of far-away lands, but also of wealth and means.  If you lived in a temperate climate (as is much of California), you didn't need a greenhouse, but could plant a palm or two outside your front doorway.  

I kept looking at these results, but I wasn't getting too many more decent hits.

THEN I realized that a more specific landscape and architecture search would bring me even more focused results.  So I shifted my search to: 

     [ "Victorian landscape" "palm tree" OR "palms" or "palm trees" ] 

Why "Victorian landscape"?  Because I realized that "landscape architecture" and "landscape design" is a viable topic descriptor.  

Keep in mind that when constructing your query, you want to tap into the language that others will use.  

Kew Gardens Palm House (Victorian postcards)
With this search I found an interesting blog about "The Nature of Cities" with the following argument about Victorian gardens and palm trees:   

Interestingly enough, in tropical and subtropical countries the available plant material is also the result of English Victorian garden activity. The Industrial revolution, with its opportunities to build glasshouses together with the enthusiasm of colonial botanists, explorers and commercial plant hunters, resulted in the creation of the core of favorite tropical and subtropical plants, which were first collected and displayed in Kew Botanic Gardens (the Palm House). British glasshouses were responsible for creating the Western image of a modern “tropical paradise”. The process of choosing the most “appropriate” beautiful and unusual tropical and subtropical plants in greenhouses started in Victorian England and ended in the crystallisation of the Western image of “tropical Eden” based on exotic plants from all over the world. 

This search proved pretty productive... From another source I learned that t
he Victorian Palm Court is the central focus of the Phipps Conservatory (Pittsburgh, PA). The Palm Court covers over 7,000 square feet and rises over 65 feet high, with palm trees that were planted in the heady Victorian days of 1893.  The list of associations between Victorian buildings and palm trees goes on and on.  

However, from this search query, I also discovered a fascinating book review of Piety and Perversity: The Palms of Los Angeles by Victoria Dailey, with the following observation:  

Victorians were mad about palms, and it is to their invention, the greenhouse, that we owe much of our palm legacy. These large structures built of cast iron and glass allowed the exotic flora of the world to grow and be seen throughout Europe and America — entire greenhouses were devoted to them. Evoking exotic climes, far-off colonies, and intrepid explorers, palms were emblematic of Victorian aspirations, and their biblical associations stirred the pious Victorian soul. A palm house was built at Kew Gardens in the 1840s; a large palm conservatory was on view at the Vienna World Exhibition in 1873; a decade later Emperor Franz Joseph commissioned a huge palm house at the Schönbrunn Palace, still the largest in Europe. At the United States Botanic Garden, a palm house was built in 1870. These are but a few examples of the Victorian palm mania. 

By this point, I'm starting to get the message:  The Victorians were palm-crazy, and the association between palm trees as a aspirational and inspirational status symbol seems pretty clear.  

Was it only in California?  Probably not (see above--Kew Gardens, Vienna, etc).  But it was certainly easy to grow palms in California, partly because the climate was so amenable, but partly because it's easy to get seeds and/or small palms.  There are varieties that are endemic to California, for heavens sake!  

Native California palms, Washingtonia filifera.

Search Lessons:  Once you get how to do this search, the results pour in.  If you read the comments from our trusty Regular Readers, there are lots of associations between Victorian houses and palms.  Mostly, the working queries include "Victorian" and "architecture" or "homes."  This wasn't a difficult search, but the answers aren't just easily available.  You actually have to read a bit.  

You just have to read a bit.  And that's the secret for this week.  Read. 

I think you'll agree--reading this stuff was great fun.  Victorians!  Palms!  Dreams of the tropics!  

Search on!  

P.S.  Sorry about the delay in writing up the answer for last week.  I've been traveling.  (Surprise!)  I'll tell you about it tomorrow. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Search Challenge (5/6/15): Victorians and palms trees? A thing?

As I travel through California... 

I'm struck by how many palm trees were planted in the Victorian age.  Many Victorian houses seem to have very mature palm trees planted at the entryway or directly in front of the house.  

When I go on my runs through the hills above LA or at home in the hills near San Francisco, it's not uncommon for me to find one (or commonly, a pair) of palm trees growing in what seems to be the middle of the forest.  It's always a bit of a shock to find a palm so obviously out of place.  But if you poke around a bit, you can almost always find a nearby foundation--the trace of a family that once lived in this place, house and home swallowed up by time, but the palms remain.  

As you can see from this selection of images, palms were often planted, and then grew into very tall trees, sometimes towering WAAY over the buildings were they planted beside.  Here's what some of the plantings looked like originally:  

And then later, these small trees grew a bit more... 

And then a bit more, becoming a giant fence of slender poles.  

When walking by some Victorian homes with extravagantly tall palm trees, I began to wonder why they'd plant such trees.  I think they're beautiful (but then, I grew up in LA where every street has a palm or two), but they're also very odd.  

This wonderment leads to today's question: 
1.  What was it with the Victorians and palm trees?  Why were so many planted near their houses?  What was their thing about palms? 
Obviously, this is an open-ended question that might not have a crisp answer.  But this is a nice example of a question that isn't easily amenable to a simple search.  You actually have to root around a little bit to understand what's going on here.  Why such an interest?  Was it symbolic?  Was it practical?  Was it an ostentatious display of wealth?  

And did the Victorians do this everywhere?  Or just in California?  

As we discussed yesterday, this also might be a problem that requires some thinking about the vocabulary.  How would you describe this Challenge to someone else?  

Let us know how you solved the problem:  What worked?  What didn't work?  How did you discover that valuable resource that cracked the problem for you? 

Search on!