Thursday, July 23, 2020

Dan to speak at Sonoma Valley Author's Festival (Fri, July 24, 2020) - 9AM Pacific

I'd planned on spending a few days....

... at the Sonoma Valley Author's Festival in beautiful downtown Sonoma. But, as you'd expect, that's not happening this year. The organizers have moved everything online.

So... I'm giving my talk about "The Joy of Search" at the Festival TOMORROW (Friday, July 24) at 9AM Pacific / Noon Eastern. If you'd like to watch it, you need to register ahead of time (it's free!): After me is the incomparable Wade Davis (he's on at 11AM Pacific). I'll be tuning in to watch his talk as well.

Hope to see all of you regular SearchResearchers there!

Search on!

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

SearchResearch Challenge (7/22/20): What's the latest regulation about COVID-19?

I had a personal information challenge the other day... and I failed!  

Maybe this has happened to you as well.  

We were about to visit a friend's house for dinner--socially distanced, of course!  The plan was to go to their house and dine outdoors.  With the late afternoon breezes coming off the bay, it seemed like a safe-enough thing to do.  We'd be more than 2 meters (6 feet) apart at all times.  Why not?  

Monet's Garden Party - Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (right section), 1865–1866, with Gustave Courbet, Frédéric Bazille and Camille Doncieux, first wife of the artist, Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Monet's Lunch on the grass - Le déjeuner sur l'herbe. Musée d'Orsay

It would just be the four of us in the garden at a long table under the trees.  I made a lovely nectarine-raspberry crostata for dessert, they supplied a kind of lentil-veggie stew and a couple bottles of wine.  

But as I was walking out the back door, warm crostata in hand, I noticed a headline on the hardcopy of today's local newspaper:  "Call it anti-social distancing" with a sentence in the first paragraph that caught my eye: "..backyard barbecues...are prohibited under the state's COVID-19 health order."


Was the thing I was about to do prohibited by the latest state regulation?  

Technically, what we were about to do wasn't a barbecue 
in any way (which is, as you know, a meal or get-together at which grilled foods are served--we didn't have a grill).   

Nevertheless, I thought I'd spend a few minutes and see if I could find the relevant state regulation.  

I checked the paper--maybe they'd have some useful links on the article.  Nope.  Unfortunately, this paper doesn't make the current edition available online until a day or two after hardcopy publication.  

I did the obvious searches and spent about 15 minutes searching around, but failed!  

This was a  frustrating experience, so naturally, I thought I'd turn it into a SearchResearch Challenge.  Can we come up with a search strategy for finding the latest and most relevant regulations about behavior?  

Here's the Challenge for this week: 

1.  Can you find the local--and CURRENT--COVID regulations about what is permissible behavior in your town/city/county/state?  Once you've found them, what was your strategy?  

This is clearly news you can use in our time of COVID.  

How does one find the currently operative regulations about whether you need to wear a mask, or limits on get-togethers, or length of self-quarantines?  

Clearly, we need to find the latest regulations.  But how can you do that?  How do you figure out what government agency has authority to issue health behavior regulations (or suggestions, as the case may be)?  

While I'm curious about what the regulations are where you live, I'm MUCH more interested in how you found those regulations.  What thought process did you follow to locate the relevant documents?  

Be sure to let us know what you did.  I fully expect that the strategies will be different from place-to-place.  (What works in Portugal might not work in California and probably won't work in Canada or Mexico.) 

I'll summarize what we find next week.. after we've figured out what is allowed. 

(For the record, we went and had a lovely dinner, blessed by zephyrs of ocean air, under the spreading branches of an apple tree as the sun set behind a grove of massive eucalyptus trees.)  

Search on! 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Answer: Gomphotheres.. in Panama?

As I said, I was thinking about gomphotheres... 

... as one does, and realized that they were native to North America, but also show up in South America.  Likewise, other animals (such as opossums, armadillos, etc.) were native to one continent, but then show up much later on the other American continent.  

This then prompted my curious question:  How do you get big land animals starting out in one place but then later appearing in another place that's apparently not connected?  

Hey buddy, what are you doing in this continent?

And, just as importantly, how would I find information about this?  Is there a name for such a thing?  My wandering mind led to the following Search Research Challenges:  

1.  The emergence of the Panama Isthmus must have been a big deal biologically.  If I was to do a search for this, what would be the best term for this?  There MUST be a specialty term that I could use to search for more information.  What would that term (or phrase) be? 

When I was thinking about this Challenge, I did a bunch of searches like: 

      [animals emerging after
           Panama Isthmus] 

... and that didn't work immediately.  I cast around for awhile before finding this query: 

     [ animal migration North and South
          America after Panama emerged ] 

THAT worked, and taught me about the Great American Interchange (GABI), which is the late Cenozoic event in which land and freshwater animals migrated from North America across the Isthmus of Panama as it arose from the sea floor, bridging formerly separated continents.

So I was impressed to see Elizabeth's straighforward query: 

      [ panama animals moving between
          north south america ]

A key to the construction of this query is to focus on the terms animal, and include both North and South America.  As she points out, lots of words that you THINK might help (e.g., paleontology) don't actually do much to get to the point.  

My general heuristic is to: 
...use the simplest possible words to describe the topic of interest...
Even more interestingly, after learning about GABI, I went back to my earlier query (the first one above) and I discovered that GABI is mentioned in those results, it's just not surfaced in the snippet.  If I'd spent a bit more time digging into what I'd found, I'm sure I would have gotten to GABI. 

And with the closure of the gap (the Darién Gap, as Ramón pointed out) between North and South America, animals could easily flow from North to South America, and vice-versa.  

As we found, Ramón pointed us to a great 2016 article Timeline on the Formation of the Isthmus of Panamawhich points out that the gap between North and South America closed around 3M years ago, leading to a swarm of dramatic climate changes, oceanographic, and biological changed.  The currents through flowed through the gap suddenly caused the Caribbean to change in nature.  Fish that were the same on both sides of the isthmus suddenly became separated into different gene pools.  This natural experiment lets us study how quickly animals can evolve, and how well animals can disperse across a newly open land gap.  

This migration included the immigration into South America of North American ungulates (including camelids, tapirs, deer and horses), proboscids (gomphotheres!), cougars, saber-toothed cats), dogs of various types, weasels, raccoons, bears, and a number of rodents. 

The larger members of the reverse migration, besides ground sloths and terror birds, were glyptodonts (armadillos), pampatheres (even bigger armadillos), capybaras, and the notoungulate Mixotoxodon (think "small hippo").  I imagine that the isthmus was fairly busy over the next couple of million years as some animals went south while others moved north.  

In general, the initial net migration was symmetrical. Later on, however, the Neotropic (southern) species proved far less successful than the Nearctic (northern). Moving south turned out to be simpler for the immigrating animals that those moving north.  Not everything is symmetrical in the world.  

Then, in an accident of reading, I found out about the screw fly problem in raising livestock in North America... and the connection to the Darién Gap, and Panama in general.  


Screw fly (which leads to screw worms).  

2.  Once you've figured out the answer to the first Challenge, can you figure out the connection between the answer to Challenge #1 and the eradication of screw worms in the US?  

My search was for: 
     [ screwworm eradication Panama ] 

And quickly found an extract from a web page on this topic (see below). That inset block about screw worms (Cochliomyia hominivorax) is called a featured snippet, and shows a highlight from an article in the Atlantic on screw worms, and the surprising US program that keeps screw worms out of the US, Canada, and most of Mexico. (Farther down on that SERP are several other articles, including a recent one from National Geographic.)  


As these article tell us, in a hugely successful agricultural science program, screwflies (and the losses caused by their larvae) have been functionally extinct in the US since the late 1960s and in all of North America since 2006.  

As a skilled SearchResearcher, this kind of featured snippet is nice--it gives lots of context around the piece of information you're searching for.... BUT... always click through to the target page and read the whole thing--you always want to verify and validate the whole thing.  (Of course you'd do that, and read another page or two to triangulate, right?)  

The program involves creating millions of sterile screwflies, and then dropping them into a region to basically cause the live birth rate to drop to zero.  You never get them all, but after a while, the rate is low enough that they have a difficult time reproducing.  

Why are there still screw worms in South America?  As the Atlantic article points out: "...But for any country to go it alone makes little sense, given the porousness of national borders. And getting the entire South American continent on board is so colossal a financial and diplomatic undertaking that it hardly seems possible..." even though it clearly works. 

But the US and Mexico can fund the eradication work at the natural bottleneck found in Panama at the Darién Gap.  

In essence, the sterile screwfly program re-creates the gap between continents so that the screwflies can't travel northward.  What geology changed, a bit of animal husbandry can restore.  

Search Lessons 

There are several here: 

1.  When searching for a complex topic that might have a specialized term, search for THAT term (or phrase)--once you know it, subsequent searching success is much higher.  To a certain extent, knowing what might have a distinctive name is a bit of an art.  As you read more widely, you'll get better at guessing what would be a named (and therefore searchable) event.  The Great American Biotic Interchange (GABI) is a great example of a specialized name that I figured had to be out there.  Test your own understanding of this:  What other kinds of events would be named?  What about the separation of Africa from the Americas?  Is that a named event?  How about the formation of the Mediterranean?  Is there a named event associated with that?  

2. When searching for a name, use the simplest possible words to describe the topic of interest. We've talked about this before, but it's even more important when searching for a name (or phrase) of something you're not sure even exists!  Think of it like this:  you're trying to find the Wikipedia page for your complex topic.   

3.  Click through to the web page on a featured snippet to make sure you understand it.  Like other snippets, it's a shortcut for seeing what kinds of content is on the page you seek.  

Hope you enjoyed this Challenge! 

Search on! 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

SearchResearch Challenge (7/8/20): Gomphotheres... in Panama?

The other day I was thinking about gomphotheres, as one does on nice spring afternoons... 

... remember them?  They're a kind of elephant-like animal that lived in North America during the Pleistocene?  We mentioned them in an earlier SRS post about avocado seed dispersal.  

I remembered that they were native to North America (or Siberia, depending on how far you want to go back in time).  They were widespread in North America during the Miocene and Pliocene epochs.  That's all well and good, but then I read a fascinating article about this that pointed out how they were ALSO in South America. 

But I knew that day in the day (that is, during the Miocene) North and South America were separate continents separated by a lot of ocean.  

When you put all that together, you have to ask yourself:  How does a gomphothere get from North America to South America if they're separate continents?  

American continents just before the Miocene

I looked up the geohistory of Panama and found that it emerged from the sea about 3M years ago.  

If Panama didn't exist until around 3M years ago, how did gomphotheres get from one to the other?   Did they swim?  (THAT seems unlikely.)  

Remember that the Miocene ran from  23 to 5 million years ago, while the Pliocene ran from 5 to 2.5 million years ago.  

So if Panama emerged as a land bridge between North and South America about 3M years ago, that gives the gomphotheres 500,000 years to wander from North into South America.   

That makes sense.  That's a lot of time, they could have easily migrated from point A to point B in half-a-million years.  

And... IIRC, armadillos are native to South America, but now they're all over Mexico and parts of the US Southwest. 

Interesting.  So.. did they come north when the Panamanian land bridge formed?  Did they come north while the gomphotheres went south?  

Naturally, I'm thinking about these (apparently) disjointed observations, and thinking to myself that the emergence of the Panamanian land bridge must have had huge biological consequences.  SURELY someone has written about this, right?  I'd like to read more about this mega-event--but how?  

This line of thinking leads to two key questions that I think you'll find interesting (I certainly do!)... 

1.  The emergence of the Panama Isthmus must have been a big deal biologically.  If I was to do a search for this, what would be the best term for this?  There MUST be a specialty term that I could use to search for more information.  What would that term (or phrase) be? 

Another apparently disjoint observation that actually links into this in an interesting way... 

Screw fly (which leads to screw worms).  

I remember reading that screw worms (Cochliomyia hominivoraxwere a major problem for livestock in the United States.  They're terrible pests--the adult females lay eggs on hosts (typically cattle or sheep), the larvae hatch and start munching away on the living animals.  Sometimes this even happens to humans.  

However, in a hugely successful agricultural science program, screwflies have been functionally extinct in the US since the late 1960s.  

2.  Once you've figured out the answer to the first Challenge, can you figure out the connection between the answer to Challenge #1 and the eradication of screw worms in the US?  

I know it seems disconnected, but once you figure it out, you'll be as amazed as I was upon learning this little story.  Sometimes these things really do work out.  

Let us know how you find the answers to these Challenges!  Post your discoveries in the comments. 


Search on! 

Friday, July 3, 2020

Even more collections... and a thought about Pasteur's Quadrant

I couldn't resist... 

... an addendum to my previous post about Collections.

The thing about collections is that there are so many of them.  And yet, if you don't think about searching for a collection, you might miss a huge treasure trove of salient content that's exactly on target.  

This leads me to a general SearchResearch heuristic: 

     When searching for content
       on a particular topic, 
    Be sure to search for
       collections on that topic!  

In other words, if you're searching for (to give a purely random example) information about BEANS you might want to do a search for [ list of beans ] or [types of beans].  

Collections are often organized by metadata that might not be obvious to you when you start.   For instance, doing this, I learned that a "bean" and a "pulse" are different!  

Although often used interchangeably, the terms “legumes,” “pulses,” and “beans” all have distinct meanings. A legume refers to any plant from the Fabaceae family, including its leaves, stems, and pods.  By contrast, a pulse is the edible seed from a legume plant. Pulses include beans, lentils, and peas. For instance, a pea pod is a legume, but the pea inside the pod is the pulse. (Get it?)  The entire legume plant is often used in agricultural applications (as cover crops or in livestock feed or fertilizers), while the seeds or pulses are what typically end up on our dinner plates, or growing in our gardens.  

In any case, it's useful to know a few collections, just so you'll have an awareness of what kinds of riches there are in the world.  This kind of background knowledge is incredibly useful.  

So, naturally, I made a list of collections.  I started this as a way of keeping track of collections I keep going back to time and again, but you might find it interesting as a way to see what kinds of things people collection and then make available online.  (And if you have any great suggestions for me, let me know, and I'll add them.  I reserve the right to be the editor, however...)  

My Google Doc is here:  A Collection of Collections (it has pointers to collections of images, videos, 3D models, film, ephemera, news, sounds, maps, and books).  


...And while we're talking about collections... 

I happened to be chatting with my friend Gary M. Olson (who is a very smart guy), when I mentioned my interest in collections.  As we talked, he pointed out that Victorian-era collections are not only intrinsically interesting, but also an answer to "what's in the fourth square of Pasteur's Quadrant?"  

As you probably know, Pasteur's Quadrant is a famous 2x2 table introduced by Donald E. Stokes in his book, Pasteur's Quadrant.  (See below for his quadrant + my annotation.)  

The key idea of the table is that each cell of the table describes an approach to research.  The top right quadrant, is what he calls Pasteur’s Quadrant because it describes his approach to science. That is, Pasteur, as a model researcher, never undertook a study that was not applied.  Nevertheless, his work led to fundamental contributions to science and spawned the entire field of microbiology, forever changing the way we view the cause and prevention of disease. 

Likewise, in the lower right quadrant, Edison was primarily driven by research into useful things, while pure basic research, exemplified by the work of Niels Bohr (the atomic physicist) was primarily theory-driven, and appears in the upper left quadrant. 

But there was nothing in the lower left quadrant, which always struck me as odd.  Shouldn't something go in that spot?   

Gary Olson pointed out to me that the great 17th century collections, such as the Tradescant Collection (which became the core of the Ashmolean Museum), were originally "Cabinets of Curiosity" which ladies and gentlemen of the time would create as a way to show their sophistication, wealth, and intellectual vigor.  That is, they were not created with any particular use in mind, and certainly not created as a way to satisfy a quest for understanding.  Despite this, they became useful as collections of things that THEN became useful for scientists to study.  

In particular, the Tradescant Collection was well known among the literati as a remarkable collection.  It had many kinds of artifacts, books, weapons, coins, paintings, items of costume, shells, stuffed animals and birds (including a stuffed dodo and John Tradescant's pet auk--boy, those were the days of truly eccentric scientists), and countless further curiosities.

The Stokes 2X2 chart of styles of science / research. (Credit: Wikimedia)

In those days, when travel was difficult, an earnest scientist might travel to visit a Collection as a substitute for traveling to a distant (and potentially) dangerous land.  

(There's a tremendous article on Cabinets of Curiosity at the Google Art & Culture project:  Check it out.)  

But that Victorian passion for collecting and taxonomizing can be seen in their Cabinets, and the influence they had on the development of the sciences.  

And Gary's insight about the fourth, previously unoccupied quadrant, is a valuable contribution!  

Search on! 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Answer: How to find collections of online content?

While collections are fundamental... 

... the organization of them is just as important.  

AND, for our purposes, searching for a collection that contains the stuff you seek is just as important.  What's a SearchResearcher to do?    For our purposes, a great online collection with a decent search interface is just fantastic!  

Old Museum
Engraving of the Museum Wormianum, How do you know what's in here? Is there a catalog somewhere? How about a finding ai?  Anything?  1655 (Wikimedia)

In some sense, this is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem.  You have to know a bit about what you're looking and then realize that a collection might exist.  Once you know that, then how you find that collection is a bit of nuanced skills.  

Of course, as SearchResearchers, we want to have the knowledge about such collections, but realize that we can't know them all.  While knowing is good, knowing-how is even better.  

Here are the Challenges with my interstitial comments:  

1.  What's the best / amazing / most-interesting collection of stuff you've found online?  
For me, it's the Calflora collection of flowering plants in California, for you it might be something else.   

I was curious about what other people might mention:  Regular Reader Ramón mentioned the images from the European Space Agency.  I did a quick search for [images from ESA] and found truly remarkable things (the tracks of dust devils on the surface of Mars), but I also found their archive collection.  

Ramón also likes the list of hummingbirds that appears when you do a query for [list of hummingbirds in Mexico], which causes this horizontal-scrolling list to show up at the top of the SERP.  (Such a scrolling list is called a carousel, a kind of sliding row of images.)  

Meanwhile, ikijibiki, likes the Digital New Zealand collection (I found it with the search [New Zealand digital collection] -- you'd think that "digital" would be obvious, but people still label their online collections this way sometimes, so adding it digital as a context-term is still sometimes useful.  

Remmij found several excellent collections such as the Frick Museum site (with it's intriguingly entitled Datasets of the Dutch Golden Age), the Oxford Academic press Journal of the History of Collections (a journal dedicated to writings about how people form and use collections!), and the Smithsonian Collections (they have many online collections in addition to their physical holdings in Washington DC--they focus on Americana, historical artifacts from the history of the US).   I also really like the collections by Atlas Obscura (already a collector of interesting and odd things) they call "Unique Collections" (as pointed out by both Jon and Remmij).  

Arthur pointed out a great collection I've mentioned before: the Google Art Project, with a superb assortment of information about other museums and places.  (Think of your favorite cultural location--the Louvre, the Prado, the Met, Ankor Wat--and there's probably a subcollection within the Art Project. Well worth exploring.)   

2. What's your best search tip for finding these collections?  
We've talked before about adding the search term "list of" as in [ list of California lakes ] to find "list of" items.  What else works for you?  Are there special search terms one should use?  

Collections are a way of grouping things that share some specific metadata information.  Overtly, it can be as simple as “All things owned by a given museum,” or “all bones from Olduvai Gorge,” or “Edison wax cylinder recording.”  Good collections all have a clear common theme that makes some kind of coherent sense.  That’s why a museum collection has subcollections.  “Everything held by the Natural History museum” isn’t a great piece of metadata—it’s too broad to be useful.  Instead, you want something that has some meaning to it, “Oceania artifacts” “Kayaks of British Columbia” or “films of traditional dances of Malaysia.”  

So, when I’m looking for collections of things, the obvious searches are one of these: 

     [ list of things ]  

     [ collection of things ]  

But I would also include places that specialize in collections of things:  

     [ things  museum ] 

Example:  [ kayak museum ]  leads to the amazing Lincoln Street Kayak & Canoe Museum (Portland, OR).  

Searching for museums will often lead you to somethings pretty wide-ranging, especially for topics of broad interest.  

     [ Egyptian hieroglyphics museum ] 

leads to a large number of museums, including the British Museum.  When it’s very broad, you might want to become a bit more specific with a query of

     [ Egyptian hieroglyphics museum catalog ] 
Other tips: 

A.  Search for a specialty (aka a vertical) search engine.  For instance,  I found the California flower collection, Calflora, by searching for: 

     [ California flowers search ] 

… which works when there’s a collection that’s large enough to have its own search interface.  When it does, it’s fabulous.  

Of course, if you’re looking for older collections, you might include the context term “archive,” as in: 

     [ archive Gregorian chants ]  

which will find collections of Gregorian chants.  

Of course, there are other words for “collection.”  A collection of images is often called an album (“photo album”). This suggests that perhaps we should look up synonms for “collection.”  When I use  a synonym finder like WordHippo,   I find several other words that might be useful:  anthology, compilation, compendium, florilegium, reader, treasure, omnibus, analects, etc.,  

There are even more specialist terms for “album”: folder, index, book, scrapbook, anthology… 

And continuing in this vein:  art collection, cabinet, exhibition, museum, vernissage (that’s a preview of an art exhibition, which may be private), compilation, corpus, library, archive, compendium.  These can all be used to search for specific kinds of collections.  

Of course, each of these has a particular subtle spin on the kind of collection you’ll be discovering.  A vernissage will find art collections, while a florilegium will find a collection of other writings (it’s not a “collection of flowers,” that would be a garden, a bouquet, or a herbarium).  

Jon suggested something very clever:  When in doubt, search for other people with the smarts to figure out what it is you're trying to find or identify.  This gives you access to an implicit collection, as well as people who can give guidance in your search.  (See our previous discussion about Finding Communities of People.)  

You can do this same trick to use the Reddit community to identify:  insectsbirds, and antiques.  

Jon pointed us to the "Identify my tool" community on Instructables, and the inevitable Reddit group "What is this thing?"  

As my friend Leigh once said "Dan.. there's a specialist group for everything... it's the internet..."  (He then pointed me to a site that's all about restoring old library card catalogs, just to prove his point.)   

3.  How can we find  collections in other countries and languages?  
It's the WORLD Wide Web, so let's use the whole thing!  If I want to find collections in other countries (say, collections of Inca artifacts from Peru), how would I do that?  What search terms are best in DE, ES, IT, etc?  

I was hoping to get a few more specialist terms for collections in other languages, but I found that doing the obvious translation of the search terms seemed to work rather well.  For instance, translating "doll museum" into Portuguese gives "museu de bonecas" -- which seems to work rather well in this search that I site: limited to Portugal.  

Search Lessons

There are many lessons here... 

1. Remember to search for collections of things!  Often, we people are doing a very targeted search, they forget to check the broader field, which you can see in a collection.  It's a neat trick for opening up the scope of what you seek (which is useful when you're trying to learn something).  

2. Use context terms to find the collections.  I use list of, collection, museum, and archive the most.  Usually, those will give me pointers to items that I can use to expand my range of understanding.  

3.  Searching for a vertical search in your area can be useful.  Remember, that's how I found the Calflora collection (but it's useful for more than just flowers)!  

4.  Don't forget about other languages and cultures.  If you're searching for collections of Maori artifacts, you probably want to search in New Zealand--and if you're searching for collections of Inca artifacts, consider searching in Spanish.  You'll find worlds of content there!  

Search on!  (Collectively... and in multiple languages!)