Thursday, August 27, 2020

SearchResearch Challenge (8/27/20): Find a time-lapse MAP of wildfire growth in California?


As you probably know, 

... California is having what is probably the worst fire season in the past few centuries.  It's bad enough that I check the local Air Quality Index before I go outside to do anything active.  When the AQI get above 125, it definitely smells smoky, and above 150, you'll see small white ashes drifting down out of the heavy, scary, deep gray sky.  

While it's easy to get the news about the fires, and easy to find information about the CURRENT extent of the fires, it's a little harder to find a kind of time-lapse of fire growth over the past several days. 

Here's an image of the current fire map from ARCGIS

The current state of the wildfires in the Bay Area.  I'm in Palo Alto, at the X
marked near the bottom of the Bay on the west side. 

But there's no easy way to see what the fire was like 7 days ago.  Of course, I can take a screenshot every day and construct a time-lapse image of the fires. (I should have started on Day 1!)   That way I can see their rate of growth, their direction of growth, and spread.  

But it's not trivial to find such an animated map.  Can you help me with this week's SRS Challenge and locate one for us?  

1.  Can you find a time-lapse map of the growth of the current fires in the San Francisco Bay Area?  (Roughly, the area shown in the map above.)  Ideally, the animated map should go back to around August 16, 2020, the date the CZU Lightning Fire Complex was started by a sudden flurry of lightning strikes.

As always, let us know HOW you found the animated map?  What strategies did you use to find it?  

For the record, I have not yet found such a map.  We might have to make it on our own.  


Search on!  (And stay healthy. I now have two reasons to wear a good mask.)  

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Answer: Why are some state boundaries so ... odd?

 Why is the US/Canada border so complicated and strange?  

If you look at a map of the United States, most of it kind of makes sense.  There are lots of straight lines that are clearly the result of surveyors and politicians drawing lines: 

Or curved lines that follow rivers next to the straight lines: 

Then, there's the northernmost point of the lower 48 states: Angle Inlet, Minnesota.  

The border is mostly a straight line from Vancouver to the middle of Minnesota, but it gets weird in the middle.  It turns due north in the middle of Minnesota, and heads up in to Canada, lopping off a chunk of Ontario for the Minnesotans.  

The odd border between Canada and US at Minnesota

The question is WHY?  

1.  Why does the US/Canada border take a sudden left turn after passing eastward of Buffalo Point?  What's the story there? 

I started my search with: 

     [ US Canada border Minnesota Ontario ] 

and learned that this part of Minnesota is called the "Northwest Angle."  

Reading the Wikipedia article for the Northwest Angle I learned that "...It is one of only six non-island locations in the 48 contiguous states that are practical exclaves of the U.S."  That is, the region of the Northwest Angle is an exclave, like Alaska, where all roads leading to it must pass through another country - in this case, Canada.  

The Northwest Angle was designated as territory of the United States because negotiators of the initial Canada–U.S. border misunderstood the geography of the area. 

The 1783 Treaty of Paris said that the boundary between U.S. territory and the British possessions to the north would run "...through the Lake of the Woods to the northwestern-most point thereof, and from thence on a due west course to the river Mississippi..."

But the maps weren't great at the time, the lake is complicated, and the source of the Mississippi River (Lake Itasca), lies almost due south of Lake of the Woods, rather than north and west of it. The irregular actual shape of the lake made locating the northwest corner difficult. 

After a number of errors, the Anglo-American Convention of 1818, corrected the error by having the boundary continue due south from the northwest point of the lake, but only to the 49th parallel and then westward along it. 

Ooops.  Sorry Ontario.  

The Webster–Ashburton Treaty of 1842 then confirmed this border. However, the placement of the northwestern corner and shape of the lake meant that this north–south line cut off a section of Ontario territory to its east, now known as the Northwest Angle, and part of the US.

Bottom line: The Northwest Angle is in the US because of a surveyor's error that then got fossilized in place.  

2.  Similarly, the place where the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri meet is also complicated.  There's an enclave of Kentucky that's completely surrounded by Missouri and/or Tennessee.  How did this little island of Kentucky come to be?  (Extra credit: Earthquakes here??)  

A small island (enclave) of Kentucky is surrounded by Tennessee and Missouri.  Why?

From the previous Challenge I learned the term exclave, so I used it to search for this blob of territory: 

     [ exclave of Kentucky ] 

I quickly learned that this little area is called the Kentucky Bend.  

The Kentucky Bend, or New Madrid Bend, is encircled on the north, east, and west by a snaking portion of the Mississippi River, while the southern portion is joined to the state of Tennessee. It’s 30 square miles of land completely cut off from the rest of the state, formed by a combination of surveyor mishaps and raging earthquakes. 

In 1811-1812, a series of massive earthquakes on the New Madrid fault running right through Kentucky Bend dammed the Mississippi River in two places, causing river waterfalls and rapids with a 30-foot drop. Eyewitness accounts reported the river to flow backwards, saying they had to "hold onto their hats" while their riverboats shot upstream, capsizing while trees and shoreline cliffs buckled into the river all around them. Islands were formed and demolished, log jams shot downstream, and a giant hole opened, soon to be filled with water and now called Reelfoot Lake. 

Geologists expect the river eventually to cut across the neck of the peninsula making a more direct channel, leaving the Kentucky Bend as an island.

At the time of surveying, the survey team hadn't yet pushed out far enough west to see where their parallel would intersect the Mississippi... they only estimated where their line would meet the Mississippi, and drew the maps accordingly.  

Bottom line: The Kentucky Bend is a part of a peninsula outlined by an oxbow loop meander of the Mississippi River. It's part of Kentucky because of uncertainties about the course of the Mississippi River when the boundary between Tennessee and Kentucky was established. 

Those riverine boundaries aren't especially reliable over time... (especially for large, active rivers like the Mississippi).  

3.  The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is another oddity.  Any rational drawing of the map would have this part  of Michigan be part of Wisconsin.  How is it that this peninsula came to be part of Michigan?  (Big hint: Toledo turns out to play a part in this story!)  

The Upper Peninsula (aka UP) of Michigan isn't exactly connected to the main body of Michigan--so what happened?

     [ Michigan upper peninsula history ] 

leads to a wealth of resources.  The Wikipedia article (of course), but also several sites that have versions of the UP's history.  One (the UP Supply Company's site) begins with this intriguing line: 

1836The Toledo War ends on December 14 at the Frostbite Convention in Ann Arbor

 When I read that, my only response was really??  

I had to dig deeper.  

By looking at several sites this history began to emerge.  

When Michigan became a territory in 1805, it was just the lower peninsula and a small piece of the UP.  

BUT, Michigan was then locked in the Toledo War over whether Ohio or Michigan would control the "Toledo Strip" (a rectangle of land on the border between Michigan and Ohio that ran from Lake Erie on the east to Indiana on the west).  That strip of land happened to include the city of Toledo and access to the Maumee River.

The Toledo Strip.  (P/C Wikimedia)  

But when Michigan petitioned for statehood in 1835, it wanted to include the Toledo Strip. Both Michigan and Ohio passed legislation to force the other side's capitulation. Both states deployed militias on opposite sides of the Maumee River near Toledo, but besides mutual taunting, there was little actual fighting between the two forces. The single military confrontation of the "war" ended with a report of shots being fired into the air, with no casualties.

During the summer of 1836, the US Congress proposed a compromise whereby Michigan gave up its claim to the strip in exchange for its statehood and about three-quarters of the Upper Peninsula. There was a convention to approve the vote held in December in Ann Arbor, MI.  Because of the notable cold spell during the conference (December 14-15) the event later became known as the Frostbitten Convention.

At the time the compromise was considered a poor outcome for Michigan, and voters in a statehood convention in September soundly rejected the proposal. 

Years later, the UP would turn out to have some of the best iron mines in North America, leading it to become an economic powerhouse.  Sorry about Toledo.  

Bottom Line:  Michigan made a political deal with Ohio (pushed along by the Congress) to take all of the UP in exchange for the Toledo Strip.  


SearchResearch Lessons 

This was a pretty easy (and hopefully fun!) Challenge.  But there are still a couple of useful lessons to take away. 

1. Learn from your research as you go--especially technical terms.  In this case, I learned the word exclave in searching for the Northern Angle, and was able to use it in my search for the Kentucky Bend.  

2. Check your sources, even for obvious things.  In the case of the "Frostbite Convention," there are several places that use that term--but the original documents refer to it as the "Frostbitten Convention."  I was slightly surprised, but found that someone along the way converted the term just slightly... Be careful out there! 

Search on!  

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

SearchResearch Challenge (9/12/20): Why are some state boundaries so ... odd?


Why is the US/Canada border so complicated and strange?  

There's a lot of discussion about the border between the US and Canada. At the moment, the border is technically closed to US citizens because of COVID, and because of that, there's a certain amount of tension as people from the US try to (and sometimes succeed) at sneaking into Canada. 

Naturally, that made me curious about the US/Canada border, so I started looking at it, trying to understand how it came to be.  And, naturally, one obvious question is "what's the northernmost point of the contiguous United States?"  A quick search tells me that it's here, at Angle Inlet, Minnesota.  

The border is mostly a long straight line from Vancouver to the middle of Minnesota, and it follows a jagged line when it snakes around islands in the Great Lakes. But then it gets weird in the middle.  The borderline takes a sharp left turn due north in the middle of Minnesota, turns left at Angle Inlet, and then meanders back down to to Wheeler's Point and follows the Rainy River, etc etc. 

The odd border between Canada and US at Minnesota

That seems pretty weird to me.  In general, there are some oddities in states boundaries that demand their backstories.  And that's the theme for this week's Challenges:  Why are some state boundaries so odd? 

1.  Why does the US/Canada border take a sudden left turn after passing eastward of Buffalo Point?  What's the story there? 

2.  Similarly, the place where the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri meet is also complicated.  There's an enclave of Kentucky that's completely surrounded by Missouri and/or Tennessee.  How did this little island of Kentucky come to be?  (Extra credit: Earthquakes here??)  

A small island (enclave) of Kentucky is surrounded by Tennessee and Missouri.  Why?

3.  The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is another oddity.  Any rational drawing of the map would have this part  of Michigan be part of Wisconsin.  How is it that this peninsula came to be part of Michigan?  (Big hint: Toledo turns out to play a part in this story!)  

As usual, let us know HOW you find out the answers!  I'll be curious to see what you discover.  

The Comments are open! 

Search on! 

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Answer: What's the latest regulation about COVID-19?

Finding the latest information about COVID-19 is sometimes tricky. Here's why...     

As you might recall, last week I was planning on visiting a friend's house for a very small outdoor garden dinner party.  But there was a concern about following the latest COVID-19 social distancing directions.  

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. My aspirational picnic. 

Is it true that, as of today, one should NOT meet in a friend's backyard for a barbecue?  Seems odd. 

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

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

This led to 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. 

Let me tell you what didn't work!  I did searches that were variations on: 

     [ latest regulations COVID-19 ] 

 But this was unsatisfactory for many reasons. Oh, I found lots of results, but "latest regulation" (or rules, or guidelines) appears on ALL of the regulation documents.  Bottom line here: a search term like "latest" is almost totally useless.  All of those press reports will say "latest" or "current," but they're not the "most recent" with respect to my search... I need a different way to search for that content.  

What I eventually realized is that I needed to find the authority that is issuing guidance for where I lived.  What would that be?  

After reading a lot of announcements and news reports, I finally figured out that ALL of the official guidance were all issued by someone in authority.  That is SOMEONE issued (and signed) the notice.  

This changes my Challenge to ... who is the authority for my city/county/state/country?  

 Once I know who that person is, then we can do a more targeted search.  My next search was:  

     [ health officer City of Palo Alto ] 

And quickly found out that the position is called "health director" at the city level, and "health officer" at the county level.  (I suspect that's not standard, but rather just local traditions.)  But it means that we need to broaden our search.  Next I tried: 

     [ health director City of Palo Alto ]  

Which got me to the

     [ health director  County of Santa Clara ] 

tells us that this is Sara Cody.  We can triangulate the Santa Clara directive by looking for: 

     [ Sara Cody Santa Clara COVID-19
          directive OR regulations] 

This is pretty good--lots of results that are relevant.  

HOWEVER... the results are from the past 3 months.  If you read them all, they're contradictory in the aggregate; the regulations keep changing over time.  

But we can filter the results by time.  Like this:  

Filter your results by clicking on Tools then click on Any Time and select
your appropriate time segment.  (I'm going to use "Past week")  

Once you're restricted your results to the past week, the search problem becomes much easier.   (You might have to use "Past month" or a custom range, depending on how often the results change.)  

In my case, using the name of the Health Director for the County worked well.  

That finds us the relevant county-wide regulations.  If we apply to same strategy to the state (California, in my case), we learn that the Health Officer (note the change in terminology) for California is  Sonia Y Angell, MD.  Following our pattern from before:  

     [ Sonia Y. Angell California COVID-19
         coronavirus directive OR regulations ] 

and then limiting the results to the past few days or weeks finds us all of the relevant documents.  

Another, similar approach is to look for the agency that's issuing the guidance.  In California's case, the agency that Sonia Y. Angell runs is the California Department of Public Health within the  State of California's Health and Human Services Agency.  Searching for the agency name also gives great results:  

     [ California Department of Public Health
          COVID-19 coronavirus directive
          OR regulations ] 

For this query, the first result is the Public Health Orders for COVID-19, which covers exactly what we're looking for.  In there it says:  
Example 1: A family hosts a birthday party in the backyard of their house. The backyard is only big enough to allow 15 people to easily maintain 6-foot social distancing between households at all times. No more than 15 people may be present at the party.

This guidance is dated July 20, which was the day-of our backyard barbecue, so it seems to cover my question pretty precisely.   We had 4 people in a yard that could easily contain 15 people at a 6-foot radius, so I think we're pretty good.  

Alas, a similar strategy does NOT work for the entire country.  It's easy to find the Surgeon General of the US (Jerome Adams), but it's difficult to find any definitive directions (let alone regulations or directives) from the chief medical officer of the United States.  That's not a failure of searching, but a failure of communication.  

As far as I can tell, unlike many other countries, the US does not have any federal mandates about social gatherings of the kind that motivated this Challenge.  

But it brings up an interesting point:  Determining that something is NOT there is really difficult. 

I wish I had a definitive strategy for you, but this is the eternal problem of research, it's often impossible to know that something does NOT exist.  (You can show that something doesn't exist in a closed collection, but in this case, showing that the relevant authority has not yet posted a regulation is really difficult.  All you can do is to show "show your work," telling us what you searched for, and you didn't.)  

Search Lessons 

1. Time filtering lets you find current content.  In the case of regulations and late-breaking information about pandemics, you certainly want to see the most current material. Be sure you know how to filter by "past 24 hours"  "last month" or even better, "custom range."  

2.  Sometimes a person-centered (or organization-centered) approach is best.  That is, when searching for official documents from government agencies, they're nearly always signed by the relevant person (the official in charge) or the relevant agency is listed on the document.  


I tracked down the author of the original article in our local newspaper, the one that warned about not being able to have a backyard barbecue.  The journalist was kind enough to tell me that her source was the Assistant Santa Clara County Counsel who spoke during a county supervisor's public town hall meeting.  It seems that the Counsel was talking about the Santa Clara County Directive (which was, oddly enough, issued by Santa Clara County Emergency Operations Center, but echoes the state-wide directive issued a week earlier).  In any case, neither the County nor State directives explicitly forbid backyard dining, but they do give guidance about number of guests and size, as you see above.  

After all that, I determined that I was, according to the directives, completely within bounds.  

It was a wonderful dinner outside, under the trees... 

Search on!