Wednesday, February 28, 2018

SearchResearch Challenge (2/28/18): How did this group of houses get to be here?

You know San Francisco is full of hills... 

... consequently, it's also full of stairs.  Some are ordinary, but some are wonderful and beautiful.  Here's one of my favorite places in SF, not just for the view, but also for the cherry trees that bloom in the spring, the steepness of the steps, and the freshness of the breeze off the Bay, all of which makes for a great morning run.  

Running down the Lyon St steps, cherry trees in bloom, the Bay in the distance, and the dome of the
Palace of Fine Arts gleaming in the upper center.

Lyon Street marks the eastern edge of the Presidio, the old fort in the heart of the city.  It's the best repurposing of a former military base that I've ever seen.  

The Presidio, in the northern part of San Francisco, with the Golden Gate bridge at the top left, and a
 mysterious set of houses marked off in the lower right.  

As a former military base, the perimeter of the base either follows natural boundaries (e.g., the edge of Lobos Creek in the lower left), or is an arrow straight line.  

So it was a huge surprise to see this as I jogged up Lyon Street

A Streetview image looking south on Lyon Street, towards houses that are inset into the edge of the Presidio.
At 37.795282, -122.446829

See those houses on the right side of the street?  Why are they there?  

The thing that struck me was that the low wall is the edge of the Presidio.  If that's the edge of the base, why would there be six civilian houses here.  When you look at a closeup of the map, it becomes even stranger: 

Those red-roofed buildings on the left are (former) military houses.  The buildings on the right of Lyon Street are all civilian.  But so are those six houses that somehow managed to sneak inside the boundary of the base.  

Huh?  How? 

The Presidio has been here for a LOONG time.  There's been a military fort in this location since 1776, when the first Spanish set it up as a forward base in Alta California.  

This odd set of houses has troubled me for years.  Can you help me figure out what's going on?  (It took me a while to get to the answer.  How long will it take you?) 

Today's Challenge: 

1.  What's the story behind this odd row of six houses that are inset into the natural boundaries of the Presidio?  How did this state of affairs come to be?   

I'll tell you now, once I figured this out, several pieces of history all suddenly linked together in ways I hadn't ever expected.  (Even more mysteriously, two of my favorite runs suddenly had a deep connection that I'd never known about.)  

Can you figure it out?  

Let us know!  (And let us know how you figured this out.) 

Search on! 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Answer: How much did this menu item cost?

What's "normal" changes with time.   

Despite our sense that something as personal as what food you eat is permanent, in fact, our collective tastes have changed significantly over time.  I'm not even talking about national preferences (do you have mayonnaise, sriracha or ketchup on your deep-fried potatoes), but just about how what you buy in a local cafe has shifted over time.  

Moo.  "Eat more vegetables and not my head," says Bossie.  

As I said, I hadn't appreciated how much our commonplace and customary dishes have changed over the past 60 years.  My kids grew up eating edamame and nori snacks, but that's the influence of local Asian culture--I had no idea what those things were when I was growing up in a time of PB&J sandwiches, Tang orange drink, and Cheez Whiz.  

In my reading, I found that several popular dishes from the 1950s were seemed a bit over the top and a bit surprising.   

This week's Challenge was:  

1.  If you were in New York City in the mid-1950s, how much would you expect to pay for a good meal of broiled liver pudding or boiled calf's head with brain sauce 
2. (Open ended)  WRT the place you live, can you find something that was commonplace to eat in the 1950s or 1960s, that is very rare now?  Or vice-versa (something common now that was rare back then)?  

The research question here is really "how can I find prices for such odd meals?"  

Off hand, I can only think of one place to find the costs of prepared meals in the 1950s, and that's to find a menu.  So my first query was: 

     [ menu 1950..1960 "broiled liver pudding" ] 

In this query, I'm searching for a menu that was created sometime in the range between 1950 and 1960 with the quoted phrase "broiled liver pudding" on it.  

As it turns out, that's a lucky guess, because one of the highest results is a link to the New York Public Library's collection of archival restaurant menus!   (I can't tell you how happy this makes me.  Someone actually took the time and effort to collect, scan, and curate this collection. It's a little window back into the culture of the time.  Their collection has menus going back to the New York Hotel's 1859 menu (when boiled tongue and stewed kidneys were popular).  

But in our case, the search brings us to several menus with "broiled liver pudding."  The first one I saw was the Restaurant Haussner's 1955 menu, which lists this delicacy for $1.50 (along with your choice of 2 vegetables).  

Menu from Restaurant Haussner, 1950.
Courtesy New York Public Library. Link

If you then search in the NYPL menu archive, it's pretty simple to find our second delicacy of the week:  calf's head with brain sauce.  It was in the Hazeltine's menu of 1914 at $0.25 per portion.   

Interestingly, although I could find broiled liver pudding on a menu in the 1950s, I wasn't able to find calf's head with brain sauce on menus in that time span.  

I went to the web site to see if I could find anything in the '50s.  By searching over their entire corpus between the years 1842 to 1970, you can see that there was a real plethora of this dish in the years 1924 - 1926.  

A search for "calf's head with brain sauce" run on with the results restricted to 1842 - 1970

If you look at the blue bar chart, you'll see that my cursor is hovering over the two-year period 1924-1926.  That number (22) next to the year span shows the number of articles published with this search string ("calf's head with brain sauce").  Here's one from the Manchester Guardian (UK) where the price is listed at 1/4.  (Which I learned from my British friends is... "1/4 was one shilling and four pence, in other words, 16 pence, hence 16/240 pounds...  this then comes out as 0.0666 pounds or 6.666 new pennies - as they were called in 1971 when we converted our currency to a decimal basis."  In other words,  6.666 pence.  I'll let you figure out if that was a fair price or not...)

Calf's head and Brain Sauce for sale in Manchester, UK at the Waldorf Restaurant. (
I found this recipe mentioned in the 1903 Buffalo Sunday Morning News, but not mentioned with a price.  Apparently, it had fallen out of favor sometime between the 1920s and the 1950s... at least in the US.  

But with the query: 

     [ calfs head brain sauce   ]  

without the quotes gives many more results, but with this query, you CAN find sautéed calf brains at theThe Blue Spruce Inn for $2.75 (1955) and "Calf's Head and Bacon, Brain Sauce" onboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth (1957).  

WRT our second Challenge ("can you find something that was commonplace to eat in the 1950s or 1960s, that is very rare now?  Or vice-versa (something common now that was rare back then)?"), I liked Jon's example query: 

     [ popular foods after 1950 ] 

which leads quickly to a very detailed outline of foods popular in each decade since 1900! In each section (salads, mains, desserts, popular foods, snack fare), a fairly complete list is given.  

For the 1950s, tuna casserole, three bean salad, and Chex Mix were all popular.  While you can still find them, these dishes are much more rare than they used to be.  

Of course, with the collection (or any collection of online newspapers) you can do similar searches and see what recipes were popular at the time.  

Or, on Google Books you could do a search like this: 

 And learn all about the wonders of meals and recipes in each of the decades you want to know.  

I for one, am happy with my edamame, nori, and quinoa; and I'm pleased to have left pigs in blankets and Jello salads (Thanks, Debra) back in the dim dark days of the 1960s. 

Search on! 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

SearchResearch Challenge (2/14/18): How much did this menu item cost?

Far be it from me to critique... 

... the food choices of different people at different times and places.  After all, I've eaten roasted grasshoppers (chapulines) in Oaxaca, smoked eel (rauchen aal) and blood sausage (blutwurst) in Germany, along with haggis in Scotland.  

Moo.  "Eat more fish," says Bossie.  

But I hadn't appreciated how much our commonplace and customary dishes have changed over the past 60 years.  Haven't we always been a land of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?  I recognize that it's very common to eat boiled soybeans (edamame) these days, and it's easy to find sushi in your local grocery store.  That's a big shift over the past couple of decades.  

So I was surprised when I happened to discover that a few popular dishes from the 1950s were broiled liver pudding and boiled calf's head with brain sauce, which seem a bit over the top.  (Although I do admit that my father enjoyed scrambled eggs and brains, so go figure. I didn't inherit that dietary preference.) 

Fascinating.  And this leads to today's Search Challenge:  

1.  If you were in New York City in the mid-1950s, how much would you expect to pay for a good meal of broiled liver pudding or boiled calf's head with brain sauce 
2. (Open ended)  WRT the place you live, can you find something that was commonplace to eat in the 1950s or 1960s, that is very rare now?  Or vice-versa (something common now that was rare back then)?  

In all cases, you have to tell us (A) how you found the prices, and (B) some evidence that a food item was rare (or common) in the time-frames we're interested in.  (For instance, evidence might be an advertisement in a newspaper from 1959 in your locale.)  

Search on! 


Thursday, February 8, 2018

Answer: What's going on in these photos?

The key is asking good questions. 

But you knew that.  
This week, we tried to figure out what's going on with a couple of  decontextualized images.  In this case, these were pictures that I'd taken and recently re-found.  I also found myself puzzling about what they were... (Why, I asked myself, did I take this picture??)  

1.  What's up with these railroad tracks?  They see very odd, yet familiar.  Why are there three rails?  (I'll spare you the metadata extraction task.  This image was taken at:  38.908711, -77.068983)  

Link to original

As many Regular Readers quickly figured out, that lat/long is at the corner of P Street NW and 35th Street NW in Georgetown, Washington, DC.  
If you jump there using Streetview, you'll see more-or-less the same image I show above, confirming that the image is recent and in the correct location.  The map also tells us that this is in the Washington DC neighborhood.  

Since I know that trains that run through small side-streets are typically called streetcars, I started with the search: 
     [ streetcar Georgetown ] 
and quickly found the Wikipedia article about Streetcars in Washington, D.C.  I did a quick Control-F text-search in that article and found that there are several mentions of P Street in the article.  Apparently, there have been streetcars running to Georgetown down P Street since 1876. A few years later, in1895, Congress authorized the Rock Creek Company to purchase the Washington and Georgetown Railroad Company, producing the Capital Traction Company.  In the article there's a comment that "Tracks are still visible on 3200 to 3400 blocks of O St NW and P St NW..."   Checking the Google Map, that's correct.  (Just to be obsessive, I also checked Streetview on O St. and found that it's true: O Street also has old streetcar tracks with cobblestones.)  
Interestingly, a bit later in the the Wikipedia it goes on to say that "...The region's only remaining visible tracks and conduit are in the center of the cobblestone 3200 through 3400 blocks of P Street NW and O Street NW..."  
That's fine, and it's consistent with what we already learned... but I don't know what a conduit is in this sense.  By clicking on the link that's offered, I land on the DC Streetcar Tracks and Structures web page.  There, I learned that the "conduit" is the slot in the center which acts like a third rail, supplying power to the streetcar.  Reading the Streetcars in Washington, D.C.  Wiki article carefully, I see that the 3200 - 3400 blocks of P Street have the only remaining tracks and conduit that are visible in Georgetown and DC.  
Still a little uncertain about what a conduit was, I did another Image search for: 
     [ streetcar conduit diagram ] 
and found this page from the US patent application: 

And another diagram, showing how the conduit connects for power to the streetcar: 

And why would this look familiar to me?  What else does it look like?  
This is a tricky question.  How do I figure out something that's familiar to me??  
The only way I know to do this is to do a bit of visual scanning.  I wasn't sure where to start, so I did a few searches for images using queries like [ streetcar conduit ] or [ streetcar conduit rails ], looking for something that would trigger an ah ha moment.  Unfortunately, these weren't working for me.  
My next query hit paydirt.  I thought I'd try looking for images of the original Georgetown railway, so I did an Image search for: 
     [ Capital Traction Company ] 
and found this for my results page: 

That's when it hit me.  Those streetcars look a great deal like the cable cars I've seen in San Francisco.  What's more, cable cars also have a groove in the center of the street that looks like a conduit! 

Although, unlike the Georgetown streetcars conduit there's a cable down there, rather than an energized electrical cable.  The cable car gripman pulls back on a long lever, closing the jaws of the grip around the cable, which is constantly moving just under the street.  (Yes, it sounds unlikely--the cable is really, really long, and run in a continuous loop under the street.)  
But the cable car slot is NOT a conduit.  It just looks a lot like one, which is why it seemed so familiar!  

2.  Here's another picture I got from a friend, obviously taken late at night at the Googleplex back in December, 2013.  What's the backstory on the dinosaur?  Why pink flamingos? And what's with all the yarn??    (Extra credit:  What's the dinosaur's name?)  

Link to original 

I was there, but obviously don't remember much about this incident with the dinosaur in the night.  Can you fill me in on the yarn, flamingos, and dinosaur?  
This was a fun Challenge.  It's not hard... a simple search with the uncommon terms from the Challenge statement works well:  
     [ Googleplex dinosaur ] 
leads to all kinds of fun pictures. Here's one from the first day flamingos appeared with the T-rex.  I remember walking into the building that day and being impressed that someone went to all the trouble to buy dozens of flamingos for a practical joke.  (This was not long after the T-rex was first installed.)  

It's also fairly easy to find multiple sources (e.g. Business Insider) telling us that the T-rex's name is Stan. (And no, I don't know why "Stan.") 
The yarn thing is a bit harder--the key insight here is to search for the idea: 
     [ yarn statutes ]    or 
     [ yarn covering statues ] 
to discover that knitting yarn-based coverings for statues is called yarn-bombing, which is often a gentle act that is often about reclaiming and personalizing sterile or cold public places. It's also often quite funny, as the artists sometimes do quite elaborate yarn constructions to annotate or comment on public art.  (See:  R2D2, benches, or the Wall Street bull covered in yarn).   
So in some sense, the flamingos are, like yarnbombs, easily removable commentary on the underlying structure.  
You might enjoy knowing that perhaps the cleverest "easily removable commentary" on Stan-the-T-rex happened a few weeks after the flamingos first appeared.  They slowly disappeared over time.  Two went missing the first night, four vanished the next night, etc.  Until after about two weeks, they were all gone.  All that was left was this, below the tail end of Stan... 

Use your imagination! 

Search Lessons 

1. Searching for familiar things that you don't have words for often requires a bit of browsing.  In this case, hunting for "something that looks like a triple streetcar track" took a bit of doing.  We started by trying to figure out what those tracks were in Georgetown, then we had to pull out a little bit and start looking at images of the Capital Traction Company before we found an image that reminded me of the target--San Francisco cable cars!   The skill here is to get to a topic area that's close to what you seek... then browse a bit.  
2. Searching for a concept is often choosing a query that describes the concept, rather than just searching for the thing itself.  Here, it wasn't obvious how to search for information behind the yarn on the statue... until we searched for the concept expressed in the simplest possible form.  THEN we learned that there was a general concept of yarnbombing, which then gave us what we needed to know.  

Search on! 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Image searches with chip control!

You might have noticed... 

... that the Image search now has a set of colored rectangles just below the query area.  Here's an example with a simple query.  See those rectangles?  They're called "chips," and they modify the image query.  

If, for instance, you click on the blue "watercolor" chip, you get nothing but images of roses that are done in watercolors.  Notice that the selected chip is moved to the far left of the chip-row, and made grayish.  This indicates that the [rose] query is being modified by the "watercolor" chip selector.  

In a sense, the chips are suggestions for extending or modifying the original query.  

NOTE:  The color of the chips has nothing to do with the color of the image or how the query will be modified.  The chip color is just to separate the queries, putting them into handy categories.  (e.g., "watercolor"  "glitter" and "pastel" are all conceptually related, so they all share the same background color--but they're not searches for blue roses) 

Both Google and Bing offer the same user interface (see the Bing [rose] query below).  As you can see, the suggested chips are a little different between Bing and Google, but it's the same basic idea.   

And, if you click one of the Bing chips, you see that they CHANGE the query to the text in the chip.  

Google's chip also modifies the query.  As you can see, clicking on two chips gives you 99% the same results as adding those terms to the query itself.  See the two SERPs below shown side-by-side.  They're pretty similar: the one on the left is with the terms from the chips added into the query, while the SERP on the right has the two chips selected.  

The chips are there to accelerate your exploration of the space of images.  You can click them on/off rapidly to see what's available near this query.  (This is incredibly handy when you're exploring some ideas for design purposes, or if you're not sure exactly what you're looking for and need to poke around a bit.) 

Notice that the Bing image search also has an additional set of suggestions after the 4th row of images.  These are completely different queries (not just modifications of the original query), but sometimes also useful if you're not certain what you're looking for... 

Search Lesson 

When you're actively exploring / searching for images, notice the chips--they can sometimes help you with fast and furious searching!  

And... a more subtle point:  Notice that the chips user-interface idiom is becoming much more common.  You'll see chips in many places, a probably even more frequently in the future.  Here's an example from my Android, when I was searching for a cast iron skillet.  There are specific chips showing different brands of iron skillets--as with the image chips, these modify the query.  If I tap on the chip with the Le Creuset skillet, the query will become [Le Creuset cast iron skillet] 

Enjoy your new search method!  

Search on, visually!