Wednesday, November 30, 2016

SearchResearch Challenge (11/30/16): Mercury where??

Mercury is pure metal magic. 

When I was a kid, we used to occasionally play with small beads of mercury when one of the kids would break a thermometer.  Nobody told us it was toxic, so we'd roll small beads of it back and forth in our hands, amazed at how heavy it was and how... liquid it is.  You shouldn't do this (but it was a lot of fun).  

Liquid mercury. P/C Wikipedia Commons.

We've talked about Mercury before in SRS (the non-water fountains of mercury, and blobs of mercury in the center of early footballs).  But since mercury is so magical, we return to the topic this week with a few new mercury-centered research Challenges.  (These are all things I've run across in the course of my reading, which led to me search these things out.  Can you figure them out as well?)  
Our mercurial Challenges for this week... 

1.  Mercury is so magical that apparently at least one ancient Chinese emperor purportedly used enormous quantities of mercury in his preparations for the afterlife.  Can you find which ancient Chinese leader used vast amounts of mercury in his funeral compound?  Why did he do this? 
2.  At one time mercury was also thought to have nearly magical medical properties.  Is it true that mercury was one of the most important drugs that was carried on the Lewis & Clark expedition of 1804 - 1806?  Is it also true that you can track the path of the L&C expedition by finding the mercury-laden latrines of the Corps of Discovery as they trekked across North America?  
3.  Why is Silicon Valley's local newspaper called the "San José Mercury News"?  What's mercury got to do with the news of the area?  
4.  Once upon a time I worked as a research scientist at the IBM Almaden Research Center in southern Silicon Valley. I recently learned that a nearby state park where I would go for long runs used to be a center for mercury production.  What is the name of that state park?  And should I be worried about my health after running (for several years) through an old mercury mine site?  

This is a fun Challenge.  I'll be interested to see what you discover.  (And if I need to be worried about my health!) 

Be sure to let us know how you discovered your results. 

Search on! 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Answer: The Greek Islands: Birth and Graffiti?

About those islands...  

Our Challenge this week was to find out about the Greek island of Delos and the reported appearance of a new-ish island near Santorini.  

Delos: Right in the middle of the Aegean.

I had a couple of Challenge questions about Greek isles.  The first asked about something I spotted while wandering around on Delos.     

1.  What's remarkable about this graffiti I found on Delos?  Do you see what I see?  Can you prove it? 

This is clearly graffiti from a while ago.  If you look at the stone carefully, you can make out a number of different names and dates.  A few that stand out are: 
     B. Cooper, Esq., 21 Sept, 1826 
     John A. Cook, USN
     Cap. M. C. Perry, USN, 1826 
That last name rung a bell for me.  If I remember correctly, wasn't he the Commodore that forced Japan to re-open itself to trade in the 1850s after more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation?  
Naturally, I did searches for these names (Cooper, Cook, Perry) each at a time, but only M. C. Perry got many hits. My memory served me well. M.C. Perry (Matthew Calbraith Perry,  was an officer in the US Navy from 1772 - 1855).  
Now, the question becomes:  Could this graffiti be from the same famous M. C. Perry who opened Japan in 1853?  
The Wikpedia article about Perry tells us that "..From 1826 to 1827 Perry acted as fleet captain for Commodore Rodgers. Perry returned to Charleston, South Carolina for shore duty in 1828."  But that's a bit vague. It's not clear where he was in 1826-27.  Where was the fleet in those years?  Where was Matthew Perry? 
My first search to answer this was for: 
     [ "Matthew C Perry" Greece 1826 ] 
(If that hadn't worked, I would have started varying his name, trying variants like "M. C. Perry" or "Matthew * Perry" -- but I didn't need to, as this query worked just fine.  
My first hit was to an article from the official US Navy history archives, which includes a biography of Perry, and a fairly extensive timeline.  One entry there is:   
Sep. 1824 - 5 Aug. 1827 - Served as Executive Officer, U.S.S. North Carolina, flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron under Commodore Rodgers, engaged in protesting American commerce from Greek pirates. In 1825-26 participated in a visit to the headquarters of the Greek Revolutionists and in an interview with the Captain Pasha of the Turkish Fleet. Promoted to Master Commandant, 21 Mar. 1826.
That's pretty compelling. We now have him in the Aegean Sea during 1826.  Looking a bit deeper in the SERP, I found the Robinson library article about Perry where it is said that:  
"He subsequently [after 1824] served as Executive Officer of the USS North Carolina, flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron under Commodore Rodgers, which was engaged in protecting American commerce from Greek pirates. He was promoted to Commander on March 21, 1826, and spent most of the next four years stateside."  
This is confirmation of the dates, ship, his officer and his promotion to Commander.  Now.. did they make it to Delos in 1826?  
To answer that question we need to find the log book of the USS North Carolina, or perhaps letters from men on board.  
I already had a big hint that this exists when read the USN history of Perry which has a link to this image: 
USS North Carolina Log Book 1836-37, from US Navy Military history site.
How to find the log book?  My query was: 
     [ "logbook" "USS north carolina"] 
which led me to the first result from Google Books which was the:  "Guide to Non-federal Archives and Manuscripts in the United States Relating to Africa: Alabama-New Mexico."  
This book is called a finding guide and is an index to archives and manuscripts in other places.  (In this case, just the states from A - N. There's another finding guide for states from New York to Wisconsin.)  
In this guide I found the intriguing entry by doing the obvious search in the book for "USS North Carolina" and "logbook": 

This is great!  The logbook still exists somewhere, and this finding guide can tell us where the logbook is kept.  
Now, where is the finding guide?  
I clicked on the "Find in a Library" button (on the left side of the Google Books page) and discovered that this finding guide is kept at a library just 2 miles from my house (at Stanford)!  Unfortunately, the logbook itself doesn't seem to be digitized, and I don't know exactly where the logbook is, but if I can get to the finding guide, I'll be able to look at the rest of the page to figure out where it is. (And then I'll call the friendly archivist there to find out if we can get the answer from them.)  
At this point, it looks completely plausible that the USS North Carolina visited Delos sometime before March 21, 1826 (remember: he was promoted to Commander on March 21.. he would have made his graffiti reflect his new status).  
I'll visit Stanford later this week and see if I can't track down the logbook itself.  Stay tuned.  
As I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that it might be possible to find a record of the movements of Perry's boss, Commodore John Rogers, of the Mediterranean fleet in 1826.  My query in Google Books was: 
     [ Navy John Rodgers Delos ] 
I was rewarded with a hit!  In the book The Navy's Godfather: John Rodgers, we find this quote at the beginning of Chapter 16.  
"By the middle of June, 1826, the squadron had reached Vourla near Smyrna, after a lesiurely thirty-four day sail, the length of the sea, from Gibraltar with stops at Algiers, Tunis, Carthage and the islands of Milos, Paros, and Delos. The commodore spent four days at each island, digging among the broken columns and tombs, exploring what were once magnificent Greek structures, and collecting enough relics to fill ten wagons, including two altars from the temples of Diana and Apollo on Delos."  
Not only do we know that the USS North Carolina (which had M. C. Perry onboard) visited Delos, but they specifically stopped at the temples of Diana and Apollo.  (Recall that the graffiti was found on the base of the statue of Apollo... at his temple.)  I'd say that M.C. Perry, the famous one, was not only there, but spent quite a bit of time etching his name into the pediment at the Temple of Apollo.  
SearchResearch Regular Reader Chris did a clever search for: 
     [ U S Navy 1826 ] 
and found the Naval Register for 1826, which includes entries for Cooper, Cook, and Perry.  They were all on the same Mediterranean cruise under John Rodgers, and apparently "visited" the Temple of Apollo together as well.  As Chris points out, they were: John A Cook,  Lieutenant on the Porpoise; Thomas J Manning, midshipman on the Porpoise; Benjamin Cooper, a lieutenant on leave; and of course, M.C. Perry was (at the time) a Lieutenant on the North Carolina. 
 (Nice find, Chris!)   
While on this Aegean Island cruise, I also visited Santorini, which is a lovely arc of islands left over from a series of volcanos, sometimes explosive and other times a bit milder. I knew that a new island had risen from the sea floor something in the early 18th century, but that's about all I know.  I really wanted to get a written report about what that must have been like, which leads to the following Challenge:  

2.  Can you find a written contemporaneous account of that early-18th century eruption on Santorini? 
To figure out what "early 18th century" eruptions might have happened that led to the creation of a new island near Santorini, I did this query: 
     [ Santorini new island 1700..1799 ] 
Remember that "early 18th century" means sometime in the years 1700 - 1799, which is why I added the number ranger operator:  I want web pages that talk about Santorini, "new island," sometime in those years.  
That query gives lots of good background, including the observation that a new island emerged around 1707.  But the results don't seem to contain any first-hand accounts. 
I checked newspapers, but there are few European (Italy or Greece) newspapers online from those years.  So I turned to Google Books with the query (and the new information that the eruptions started in 1707): 
     [ Santorini 1707 eruption ] 
and quickly found the book Santorini and Its Eruptions (Ferdinand A. Fouqué and Alexander R. McBirney).  In the early part of the book he draws on contemporary sources, primarily a book from 1842 by M. L'Abbe Pegues, Historie et Phenomenes du volcan et des iles volcanoiques de Santorin.  In this book he writes (drawing extensively from authors who were present): 
"On the 18th of May 1707, two light earthquake tremors were felt on Santorini... at sunrise on the 23rd, a mass seemed to be floating on the water ... seen about 200 meters west of Micra Kameni at a spot where the sea had been only eight fathoms deep and fishermen had formerly cast their nets. It was at first taken for a ship wrecked on the reefs of Micra Kameni, but soon was recognized as a new bank that had just been formed of blacks rocks with white ground in the center. No audible sound or violent shaking had accompanied the appearance of the island.  For several days it was possible to visit it without undue risk.... From the surface of the rocks they [the visitors] collected large numbers of oysters and urchins [from rocks that were uplifted from the sea floor]. But suddenly the visitors felt the ground shake and move beneath their feet as the reef began to tilt.  The sea became agitated and turned yellowish around the shore; it gave off suffocating sulfurous odors, and dead fish floated to the surface of the water.  The island grew before their eyes; in a few moments it rose in height about 7 meters and spread laterally to twice its former diameter..."
The book goes on to describe several months of hot water, floating rocks (pumice), discolored water, flames, the sound of a roaring furnace, and boiling water.  At times incandescent rocks covered the surface of the island, making it glow in night and day.  Explosions, fiery jets, the sounds of cannon and pipe organs. All in all, it sounds quite magnificent, if somewhat frightening.
Near the end of the long and dramatic account of the eruption, Fouqué mentions another book that he used for his account--that of the Journal de Voyage of Aubry de La Mottraye. 
Turn back to Google Books and search for: 
     [ Santorini Aubry de La Mottraye ] 
(I didn't search for the book title, Journal de Voyage since I was hoping for an English language edition, or any other books he might have written on the topic.)  
This search took me exactly to the place I was seeking--his book "A. de La Motraye's Travels Through Europe, Asia, and into parts of Africa," in English, scanned into Google Books. 
From Google Books: page 411 of the scan.
The good news is that this account (in the book by Aubry d.L. M, but a marginal note says was written by Antonio Delenda di Gasparo) is VERY consistent with the account we found earlier (in fact, it's very clear that Fouqué drew heavily on Aubry's account, right down to the oysters on the rocks cast up by the eruption).  
I highly recommend this book for the sheer adventure of it.  His accounts of traveling through Europe, Asia, and Africa are remarkable (and much of the Middle East--remember that he was walking or sailing for most of this tour).  And the illustrations, such as of this Turkish hamam (Turkish bath), are truly remarkable.  
A Turkish hamam from the early 18th century.

Search Lessons 

There are many here... 
1. If you keep digging, you can find remarkable things.  I didn't know that we'd be able to locate the logbook of the ship that took the graffiti artists to Delos.  This is a nice example where doing one more query gets your research to a whole new level.  
2.  Sometimes you have to go offline.  I should say that I know where there's a book that will point me to the logbook.  But it's not online.  Yes, more and more stuff IS being digitized, but many archives don't have the resources to move everything into the digital realm.  So sometimes... how have to visit the archives in real life. 
3. Remember to follow parallel paths to get to what you seek.  In the above example, the trick that got us to the logbook of the USS North Carolina was to do a search for Commodore John Rodgers, who we KNEW had to be onboard with M. C. Perry.  That kind of parallel searching is incredibly useful (when you can do it).  Sometimes the shortest path to your goal is to find someone (or something) that must also be closely related to what you're searching.  

I'll let you know what, if anything, I learn about the whereabouts of the logbook.  
Search on!  (And avoid the rocks falling out of the sky!)  

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

SearchResearch Challenge (11/23/16): The Greek islands: birth and graffiti?

It's Thanksgiving weekend in the US... 

... and one of the things I'm thankful for was the chance to travel to such interesting places this year.  It really was a great year of wandering-about.  

Although we've already had one Challenge about the Mediterranean, I can't resist giving you one more.  Here's why... 

The Greek island of Delos is a remarkable place.  It's a smallish island in the Cyclades chain, more-or-less dead center in the circle of the Aegean Sea.  As one of the most important mythological, historical and archaeological sites in Greece, it has archaeological excavations that are gigantic, as befits the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis.  It was also the center of the Delian League and the Delian Festivals (with their every-4-year athletic competition).

When I visited the island, it was on a perfect fall day--endless blue sky, deep blue Aegean sea.  

Approaching Delos on the ferry.  You can see LOTS of temples and ancient buildings as you come near.
It's really quite a place.  As you can see in the above picture, nearly the entire island is one giant archaeological site.  People have been coming this way for thousands of years, both for religious and commercial purposes.  

Central courtyard of a wealthy businessman.  Note the circular cistern access in the corner of the courtyard.
Beneath the courtyard mosaic is a large, rectangular cistern for collecting rainwater.  

Delos was a stopping off point for traders, priests, slavers, worshipers, and travelers of every kind.  

But the island was attacked in 88 BCE by the Persian troops of Mithridates VI, an enemy of Rome, who killed nearly all of the 20,000 Romans on the island. Another attack came from pirates in 69 BCE, which basically knocked Delos out of action as an active trading island. By the end of the 1st century BCE, trade routes had changed to bypass Delos.  Around this time it became uninhabited and left as a place that the curious (and the occasional pirate) would visit.  

So when I visited earlier this year, I toured the island with a guide, marvelling at the ancient buildings, theatres, and temples. 

This walk on Delos brings me to our first Challenge for this week.  

The tour guide took us all around, and then pointed to this graffitied statue base saying that it used to hold a very tall statue of Apollo, one was carried away by pirates sometime in the 16th century, leaving behind only the base.

But when I looked at the graffiti, I did a big double take.  There was something so obvious and remarkable on that statue base that I couldn't believe she didn't say anything about this. Does it capture your eye as much as it did mine?   

1.  What's remarkable about this graffiti?  Do you see what I see?  Can you prove it? 

A bit later on that same trip we went to Santorini--another beautiful island not far from Delos.  It's a razor-back ridge of a place, with lovely blue-roofed buildings and incredible views, with several smaller islands nearby in a rough circle.  

As you probably know, Santorini is a C-shaped island with a center that was blown apart by a large eruption as the center of the volcano blew upward, leaving a giant caldera.  

This pattern has repeated over time, with the most remarkable explosion creating what may have been one of the largest volcanic eruptions on Earth in the last few thousand years.  (This is the eruption that put the Minoan civilization on full-stop during the second millennium BCE, between 1627 and 1600 BCE.)  

That mega-explosion happened long enough ago that no written records survive (except, perhaps, for the story of the plagues in Exodus which many believe are side-effects of the Santorini eruption).  

But there was another large eruption at the beginning of the 18th century.  Our second Challenge for this week is this: 

2.  Can you find a written contemporaneous account of that early-18th century eruption on Santorini? 

As always, be SURE to tell us how you found your answer.  What resources did you check?  How did you know to do that particular kind of query?  

We're curious about the answers, but also in your methods.  

(And, if you've got the time over the weekend, can you figure out why the Delian Festival and Games were held every four years?  Does that sound familiar to you?)  

Search on!  (And avoid the rocks falling out of the sky!)  

Monday, November 21, 2016

Answer: What does *that* mean?

Language is important... 

... although sometimes you'll hear people say dismissively "it's just words" or "it's all just semantics," they're missing the point.  Words, and the specific meanings of words, really DO matter.

One of the interesting phenomena during the last news cycle is that heard all kinds of terms and phrases that you might not have quite understood. That's partly because people whip up new terms as a way of creating catchphrases or generating memes that people can have in mind.      

But we're SearchResearchers--we tend to look things up.  You do, don't you?  

 This was our Challenge for last week:

What do each of these terms mean in the current political context?  

     1. "anchor baby" 
     2.  servergate 
     3.  braggadocious 
     4.  clickbait 
     5.  SEO 
     6.  "dog whistle"  

I know I heard and read all of these.  But as I read, I'd sometimes pause to look these things up.  (And yes, when I'm reading, I usually have my phone with me for just these kinds of checks and clarifications.)  

The simplest way to find out some of these terms is just to look them up as simple phrases.  for instance, 

     [ "anchor baby" ] 

I used quotes here to make sure I didn't find anything that wasn't exactly this phrase.  In the results, you see first a definition, and then enough current news items and discussion to be able to learn that an "anchor baby" is when a "noncitizen mother" travel to the US specifically to deliver that child an American land in order to give it "birthright citizenship."  

This one is fairly straightforward--just search for the phrase, and you'll quickly learn enough to understand both the idea AND the political context in which it's being used.  

In the same way, the term "servergate" is a newly coined term, and sufficiently unusual that you don't need to quote it for search purposes:  

This new term refers to the difficulties Hillary Clinton has had over her use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State.

If you're not from the US, you might wonder why you'll hear "something--gate" as a common phrase for a political scandal.  A great method for finding this out is to do a query like this: 

     [ servergate meaning ] 

which will then show a nice short summary of the meaning: 

Note that this query pattern works for many other terms and phrases you might not have thought about: 

     [ "hot mess" meaning

     [ "bigly" meaning

including terms that we're looking up in this SRS Challenge: 

     [ braggadocious meaning ]  

Notice that downward pointing gray arrow?  If you click on it, you'll see additional information about that word ("translations, word origin, and more definitions").  It looks like this, 

This tells us that the us of the word "braggadocious" predates this election, and was coined sometime in the late 1800s.  

"Clickbait" is a term that you should know.  A quick query like this: 

     [ define clickbait ] 

tells you that it means "internet content, especially that of a sensational or provocative nature, whose main purpose is to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular web page." 

In the political context, it's sensationalistic or outrageous texts or images that will attract you from whatever it is you're trying to do.  

The simplest way to get a sense of what clickbait might be is to ask for examples:  

     [ clickbait examples ] 

which will show you lots of examples of headlines and texts that serve to pull you in.  You'll quickly learn that phrases like "What we found was shocking" or "Big companies hate him" or "What happened next was awful" or "5 examples of great clickbait" are all written expressly to get you to click.  Notice that they are often incredibly vague, but kind of irresistible.  But once you learn what clickbait is (and it's often used in political advertising), you'll know enough to resist it.  

We can use these same methods to understand what SEO is.  

     [ define SEO ] 

Teaches us that SEO is "Search Engine Optimization is a method of strategies, techniques and tactics used to increase the number of visitors to a website by obtaining a high-ranking placement in the search results page of a search engine (SERP) -- including Google, Bing, Yahoo and other search engines..."  

That is, it's what SEO people do to web sites to improve their ranking.  Obviously, this is a good thing (if you a company... or a political candidate), and the trick for people who do SEO is to do it in a way that doesn't actually hurt the website's ranking.  

It's kind of an ongoing battle: the SEO people get paid to make their customer's website appear higher in the SERP ranking, while the search companies (Google and all the rest) work hard to minimize the influence of any manipulations the SEO people make.  Google publishes clear guidelines (Webmaster guidelines) on what makes for a good website (in short, create content for people, not search engines).  

So now we have some methods to tell us what a "dog whistle" is in the current political environment.  

     [ define dog whistle ] 

That query shows us a definition:  "Dog-whistle politics is political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup."  

And the first hit is to a Wikipedia article about dog whistle politics.  This is "coded language" that reaches one set of readers who understand it to mean something very different than the overt meaning.  

To get examples of dog whistle messages, you can do a query like: 

     [ examples of dog whistle messages ] 

but notice that you'll get many examples from earlier elections.  So you might want to add in the current election participants to get current examples: 

     [ examples of dog whistle messages Trump Clinton ] 

A great example from the previous Obama election was the repeated use of his middle name in lots of political messages by the opposition.  You probably know that it's Hussein. Now, did ever you know John McCain's? (Sidney) Did you ever know Mitt Romney's? (Ah, gotcha: Trick question. Mitt is his middle name. His real first name is Willard.)

There is a reason you know Obama's middle name but not McCain or Romney's. It's because reminding everyone that Barack Obama has a scary foreign-sounding name, that ALSO sounds Islamic, which happens to be the same as that nasty dictator.  This plays really well with a certain audience.  It's a kind of "dog whistle" to that part of the population, casting doubt on his ability to be president. 

Search Lessons

1. Look it up!  This is obvious, but I see people reading all the time, glossing over language that they don't understand.  Keep asking yourself, "what DOES that word mean?"  This is an important reading strategy.  If, by the end of the article, you can't summarize it, or explain what each of the words and phrases mean, you've missed an opportunity to learn something.  

2.  Use DEFINE or MEANING to get short definitions.  These are triggers for Google to give you a short summary or definition.  These work not just for individual words (like "braggadocious") but also for phrases such as "anchor baby" or "fourth estate."  

3. Look for Examples.  For many complicated ideas, sometimes the best way to understand is to get examples of the concept.  If you're still uncertain after looking up the definition, search for [ examples of ] -- that will often give you some nice examples of what you seek.  

For Teachers 

This whole topic (of how to lookup terms and phrases) is a crucial part of giving students a tool with which they can understand almost anything. If they have this, then a world of new texts opens up to them.  

When I wrote above that I read books with my phone in hand, I'm completely serious.  

I was at my favorite coffee shop this past rainy weekend reading about the history of the Silk Road (Shadow of the Silk Road, highly recommended).  In the space of one chapter, I had to look up 12 different things.  Sometimes they were really obscure (the Kunlun mountain range, one of the largest in Asia), but sometimes I'd look up words that I sort-of know, just to check.  For instance, I looked up "ochre" which I thought I knew, but when I looked it up I learned that it's an earthy pigment of ferric oxide and clay, varying from light yellow to brown or red, although typically a pale brownish yellow color. It changed my understanding of what I was reading.

If I do this, I bet your students should be doing this as well.   

An important skill to master is that of not getting sidetracked while reading.  This is whay understanding clickbait is important.  When you go to lookup a term, remember that your goal is to READ the book and understand it.  Do Not Get Sidetracked.  (While I'm all for tangents, when you're studying to learn, you absolutely need the executive skill of staying on task.  Look up that word, and get back to reading.)  

Search on.  (But don't get distracted!)  

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

SearchResearch Challenge (11/16/16): What does *that* mean?

We've just emerged... 

... from a long and difficult election season that was full of seemingly endless stream of articles about the candidates, their positions, where the culture is heading, and whether or not we should consider moving to Canada.  

One of the things that happens during a busy news cycle is that you'll hear (or read) terms and phrases that you might not quite understand. That's partly because people whip up new terms as a way of creating catchphrases, but also because the language of politics isn't something most of us deal with everyday, so some of these ideas are a bit rare.    

But you're a SearchResearcher!  So I'm willing to bet you looked these up as part of your normal behavior.   


Still, here are a few terms that came up over the past few months that I thought it would be useful to spot-check for understanding.  This is our Challenge for the week: 

What do each of these terms mean in the current political context?  

     1. "anchor baby" 
     2.  servergate 
     3.  braggadocious 
     4.  clickbait 
     5.  SEO 
     6.  "dog whistle"   

How many of these did you hear over the past few months?  

How many of them do you know off the top of your head?  And which did you have to look up?  (Yes, I know what a "dog whistle" is per se, but what does it mean when someone says during the election that"This ad represents the worst example of a dog whistle..")  

Did any other terms or phrases appear over the past couple of political months that you had to specifically look up?  

Be sure to tell us what you did to understand these terms and phrases.

Search on! 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Answer: Self-sustaining disasters?

Sometimes SearchResearch Challenges are tough.. 

... then there are the ones that are delightfully straightforward, yet surprising.  This week's in in that category.  Let's take on each of the Challenges one at a time:    

1.  I found out, much to my surprise, that there are several places where fires have been going on for years and years.  How is this possible?  Can you find THREE such places on Earth?  How long has the oldest fire been a-flame?   (No, none of these are volcanoes...)  
I started with typing what I thought was the most obvious search: 

     [ long lasting fires ] 

and found a couple of hits on the topic of "Places that are still on fire."  

(Worth nothing that this is unlike Ramón's search, who found that Google autocompleted [ fires that have been burning for years ], my autocompletions were "fires near me" and "fires in California,"  this is the effect of local searches on autocomplete.  I live in a state that has a large wildfire problem, which is why it autocompletes with those suggestions, and not the ones that Ramón, or probably you, see in your search.)  

My results found a Gizmodo article on "Five places that are still on fire" listing: 

(1) Brennender Berg ("burning mountain," in German), is an area in Germany where a seam of coal has been burning for more than 300 years (since at least 1688).   Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (the famous German poet) visited the Brennender Berg in 1770 and commented on it in his journals.

(2) Smoking Hills, Canada (near Franklin Bay), another coal fire that was first noted in 1826.  (See Ultima Thule for an impressive set of images.)

(3) Mount Wingen, Burning Mountain is 139 miles north of Sydney, Australia, and is part of the Burning Mountain Nature Reserve. Estimates are that this coal seam has been actively burning between 5,000 and 15,000 years.

(4) Centralia, PA has another coal seam fire that was started by accident in 1962 when locals tried to burning some trash in a pit that was connected to the nearby coal fields.  It's still burning (and the town is abandoned).

(5)  eMalahleni, South Africa is yet another coal seam fire since at least 1953.  Coal mining has been a major industry in the Mpumalanga province (formerly East Transvaal) of South Africa (previously known under its Afrikaans name as "Witbank"), and as you'd expect, an accident in such a place leads to long-lasting fires.  

If there are 5 coal seam fires scattered around the world, this made me think there are probably more.  But how could I find them?  

As I read about each of these 5 "burning places," I realized that many of them used a sentence like this: 

    " has been burning for more than years"  

Realizing that this would be a common sentence, I used the Fill-in-the-blank pattern with this query: 

     [ "burning for more than * years" ] 

I was hoping to find sentences like "this place has been burning for more than 100 years..."  And it worked. Here's the SERP I found: 

This tactic worked really well!  In short order I learned about several other sites, perhaps most notably... 

The Door of Hell”  While drilling in 1971 at Derweze, Turkmenistan, geologists discovered a large pocket of methane in a cave that collapsed as they drilled.  Although nobody was killed, they decided to set it on fire to handle the outgassing problem, but obviously THAT didn't work out. The Door of Hell is around 69 meters across (roughly 1 football field in size), still on fire, and shows no signs of abating.   

There are lots of long-lasting fires like this:  Jharia Coal Fields, Jharkand, India (since 1916); Baba Gurgur, Kirkuk, Iraq (approximately 2,000 years); Yanar Dag, Baku, Azerbaijan (since at least the 1950s) and many others.  

I honestly had no idea that such fires were so common around the world.  

2.  A related kind of surprising on-going process is the recent discovery of a natural atomic fission reactor!  Apparently, there is at least one place in the world where fission has been taking place without the use of any technology.  Where is this place, and how is such a thing even possible?  (Don't you need complex reactor buildings, control rooms, and trained operators?)  What's the story here?  
This wasn't that hard.  The query:  

     [ natural atomic fission reactor ] 

leads to several articles to a location in Oklo, Gabon, where a quirk in geology allowed uranium to accumulate in just the right configuration to support a fission reaction.  The natural nuclear reactor formed when a uranium-rich mineral deposit became filled with groundwater that acted as a neutron moderator, slowing the neutrons enough to cause other atoms to undergo fission as well.  When that happened, a nuclear chain reaction took place. Eventually, heat generated from the nuclear fission caused the groundwater to boil away, which then slowed or stopped the reaction. After cooling of the mineral deposit, the water eventually returned and the reaction restarted, completing a full cycle every 3-hours. The fission reaction cycles continued for hundreds of thousands of years (potentially up to 1 million years) and finally ended when the ever-decreasing fissile materials were eventually used up, and could no longer could sustain a chain reaction.  (There's a really nice Scientific American article on this natural reactor.  Worth looking at the figures to see how such a thing could take place.)  

3.  Can you find any other related on-going natural disasters like this?  To qualify, they should be processes that run for many years at a time (not just single eruptions or earthquakes).  
 I found a couple of interesting places by accident during the "fill in the blank" search.  

The first was the “Gate to Hell” in Turkey, while it's not a site of active burning, it IS a place where poisonous gases come up from the earth with the ability to kill animals (and people) who linger too long.  

Although it's not a disaster, there's also the danger of Erta Ale, Ethiopia (a lake of lava at 13°36′N 40°40′E).  Don't go walking there... 

P/C Rolf Cosar, from Wikipedia entry on Erta Ale.

And, if you remember, we talked about the "erupting lakes" of Africa in an earlier blog post.  Those lakes would definitely qualify as ongoing (or at least, recurring from year-to-year) natural disasters. 

This question was pretty open-ended, and it was interesting to see what other people looked for.  

As I searched, I realized that some common phrases here would be  "annual disaster" or "recurring disaster" and similar.  Doing those searches leads to all kinds of repeating disasters (flooding, hurricanes, monsoons, etc)--and then you can start to find annual disaster reports by think tanks (e.g., the Brookings Institute "Year of Recurring Disasters").

The thing about these kinds of disasters is that they're all localized:  monsoons flood southeast Asia, hurricanes devastate the southeast United States, fires in Indonesia, volcanoes around the Pacific Rim, river floods along large flood plains.  So once you find a recurring disaster (say, flooding along the Mississippi), you can start to check news reports from local sources to get a deeper insight into what's going on.  

Search Lessons 

This week, the "fill in the blank" method turned out to be incredibly useful.  The pattern we used: 

     [ "burning for more than * years" ] 

can be used in many settings--but the principle is always the same.  Find common phrases that are central to the concept you seek, and then find ways to turn them into patterns that can be filled in.

Here I let the number of years be the * - but I could have done it another way.  For example: 

     [ repeating natural disaster "every * years" ] 

also gives lots of useful results (including several about repeating floods and earthquakes).  

This is especially useful when you're investigating a topic area for the first time and trying to get a lay of the land.  By letting the * match things that you don't know, you're effectively searching a broader area than you might have imagined. 

Another kind of repeating disaster you might not have thought about would be revealed by this query: 

     [ repeating "disease outbreak" "every * years" ] 

It's a slightly scary proposition--that there are diseases and plagues that recur, but this is definitely within the disaster scenario.  And using the * fill-in-the-blank search pattern is one way to discover these kinds of events that you don't know about.  

Search on!  (With *s!)