Monday, November 30, 2020

SRS Special: How to find that mysterious Utah monolith using SRS methods


I hadn't expected a mysterious monolith in the Utah desert, let alone one that reminded me of the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey... 

P/C Utah Dept. Public Safety video frame

... but then again, the Utah Department of Public Safety helicopter crew didn't expect to see it in a small canyon deep in the Utah redrock desert.  (
Watch the video at the start of the KSL TV report.  The helicopter crew's cell phone video gives a good sense of how big it is and the canyon setting.)  

P/C Wikimedia. Photographer: Patrick A. Mackie

Of course, like all good modern mysteries, the collective intelligence of the internet jumped onboard and quickly figured out exactly where the monolith was located.  

In this case, the sleuthing was done by a Redditor who wrote in his post exactly how he found it.  Quoting from his post:  

I looked at rock type (Sandstone), color (red and white - no black streaks like found on higher cliffs in Utah), shape (more rounded indicating a more exposed area and erosion), the texture of the canyon floor (flat rock vs sloped indicating higher up in a watershed with infrequent water), and the larger cliff/mesa in the upper background of one of the photos. I took all that and lined it up with the flight time and flight path of the helicopter - earlier in the morning taking off from Monticello, UT and flying almost directly north before going off radar (usually indicating it dropped below radar scan altitude. From there, I know I am looking for a south/east facing canyon with rounded red/white rock, most likely close to the base of a larger cliff/mesa, most likely closer to the top of a watershed, and with a suitable flat area for an AS350 helicopter to land. Took about 30 minutes of random checks around the Green River/Colorado River junction before finding similar terrain. From there it took another 15 minutes to find the exact canyon. Yes... I'm a freak.

Let's dissect this a bit and think about what the Redditor did in SRS terms. 

1. They pulled information from the original news story and then found details that would help zero in on the location.  

Example:  The helicopter crew was from the Utah Department of Public Safety. But what kind of helicopter were they flying?  It's clear from the video there were at least 3 passengers aboard, but how big was the copter?  As the Redditor says, they needed a "suitable flat area to land an AS350."  

How do you get to that information?  A query like: 

     [ Utah State Department of Public Safety helicopters] 

gets you to their Mission Statement, which includes a list of all the aircraft flown by  Aero Bureau.  Turns out they only have AS350 Eurocopters, which are  10.93 m (35 ft 10 in) long.  That's not a tiny helicopter, so they'd need a flat circular area at least 20 m (60 feet) in diameter to land.  

2. They used publicly available information to determine the flight path.  As SRSers know, it's pretty easy to find flight path information from any of a number of GPS flight information services (e.g., FlightAware and Flightradar24).  

3. They inferred clues from the flight information.  Noticing that the helio went off radar by dropping below radar altitude is a big hint.  That dramatically reduces the amount of area you have to visually search.  

4.  They just looked around!  As we saw in the "Find this coastline" SRS Challenge, sometimes it's useful just to get into Google Maps or Google Earth and start looking.  From looking at the video, the searcher knew they were looking for "... a south/east facing canyon with rounded red/white rock, most likely close to the base of a larger cliff/mesa.."  We learned from our earlier Challenge that if you've limited the search to a reasonable area, a quick visual scan can be effective.

P/C Google Earth.

As you can see at the tip of the yellow arrow, the Redditor got lucky in that the sun angle just happened to be perfect for casting a long, easily visible shadow.  If this were shot at high noon, not much shadow would be seen.  

Big SRS Lesson: The subReddit GeoGuesser is a valuable resource to know.  A bit of background: People continuously post links to their GeoGuesser Challenges "where is THIS?" questions.  Then other GeoGuesser Redditors jump in with ideas and comments as they play.  You can learn a good deal about photo interpretation this way, as well as what kinds of clues one can use when searching for an unknown location somewhere on our planet.  
There are other subReddits worth knowing (WhatBugIsThis, WhatsThisPlant, or WhatsThisThing). YMMV, but these are often great places to learn search skills in these specific domains.    

Then, just as mysteriously as it appeared, the monolith was removed over Thanksgiving weekend.  The various Utah and Federal government agencies deny having anything to do with it, so we're left with more mysteries.  

P/C Bureau of Land Management

Next Challenges for interested folks... Who made and installed the monolith?  Then, who removed it?  Where did it go?  Will it reappear somewhere else on Earth? 

I'm not going to spend any time on these mysteries, but if you happen to find out anything, let us know!  

Search on! 

P.S.  If you need a reminder, here's the link to the YouTube clip from 2001 where the proto-humans encounter the mysterious black monolith.  

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

SearchResearch Challenge (11/25/20): Who made it to the first Thanksgiving?

 Even during COVID-19, 

Image by Sabrina Ripke from Pixabay

... Americans are celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday (a festival that we've discussed before in SRS, to wit, we asked Original Cranberry Recipe? and What and Why are Thanksgiving Traditions?)  

And, as I was thinking about the strange and socially-distanced Thanksgiving holiday for 2020, I was struck that this year, 2020, is the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower sailing to North America, and the 399th anniversary of the First Thanksgiving associated with the Mayflower Pilgrims.   (There is much debate about whether this was truly the FIRST Thanksgiving, or if the festival was celebrated earlier, in 1619, at  Berkeley Hundred, Virginia, by settlers who arrived a board the ship Margaret).  

The thing that struck me as I read was how different the actual story is from the one I learned growing up.  As a lad I learned a happy story, one of a search for freedom and congenial relationships with the local Native Americans.  But the reality is much more complicated than that.  

First, there were originally 2 ships that set sail from England, the Mayflower and the Speedwell.  Alas, the Speedwell was unlucky and sprang two different leaks, causing the ships to return to port twice.  Then they moved 20 passengers from the Speedwell onto the Mayflower and finally left England with 130 souls on board, leaving the coast on September 16, 1620--which is a little late to be sailing to North American.  The Atlantic at that time of year is cold, with high seas, and deadly dangerous.  The winds blow the wrong way in late fall so it took them 66 days to reach the coast at Cape Cod, most of that time was wet, cold, and miserable in the high seas and wind. You can imagine the seasickness and overall sense of awfulness.  To make things worse, they were  aiming for Virginia, not Massachusetts.  Whatever.    

Of course, landing in Massachusetts in mid-November is a terrible idea, and no time to start a colony, and they barely survived the cold, deadly winter.  

But having made it through the terrible first winter, and then the summer, it was time for a celebration, which led to the Thanksgiving feast of 1621. 

Given how hard it was to survive the ocean trip, I wondered who was left to celebrate.  And that leads to our Challenge today.  

1. The Mayflower left England with 109 souls, of which only 2 perished on the way.  By the time of the Thanksgiving feast in November of 1621, how many of the original settlers were still alive?   How do you know? 

2.  If you know THAT number, what were their  names?!?  

3.  Purely for fun extra credit, I found that THIS famous image is somehow connected with the Mayflower.  Can you discover how? 

As always, while I'm interested in your answers, I MORE interested in how you found the answers.  Be sure to let us know what you did to find the answers to the Challenges, and what sources you used.

Search on! 


Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Answer: What happened here over the past 40 years?


Date shakes.... yum.....   

Shields Date Farm--with excellent date milkshakes and fascinating educational videos.

I haven't been to Indio in probably 20 years, so I was fairly surprised when I happened to look at the Coachella Valley on Google Maps last week.  It's a MUCH different place than I remember from the days when we drove through in search of date-based frozen confections. 

It's useful to know this: the center of US date production is near Indio, in the Coachella Valley.  That, plus ice cream, means date shakes.  


All of these changes leads us to this week's Challenge:  

What are the largest changes to landuse in the Coachella Valley over the past 40 years?  (That is, the valley centered around: 33.711896, -116.210818) What kinds of changes can you spot?  

There are many ways to do this piece of SearchResearch, but a GREAT way start such investigations is by getting a visual overview.  Google Maps works well to get a look at the place from the maps overview.  

Even at this range, you can get a big clue from all of the green blocks... 

That's a lot of golf courses!  It's even more interesting in satellite view: 

Aside from all of the green here, there's also a LOT of water in this view.  

Of course, Google Earth has archival images (we've discussed this before).  Here's a pic from 2002 of the Indio area.  Contrast this with the image above from 2020.  

But wait--isn't this a desert?   Look at the color of all the ground all around the valley!  Note how far away Death Valley is (not far).  

So, sure, the valley is pretty clearly well-watered, but surrounded by desert.  (And yes, I know that looks like a giant lake in the bottom right corner--but that's the Salton Sea.  It's pretty salty--about 60 parts per thousand. By comparison the ocean is about 35 PPT. What's worse--the salinity of the Sea increases every year since it doesn't have an outflow, but just slowly evaporates.  

From a land-use perspective, how is it possible to support all of those golf courses and lakes in the desert?  

While that's an interesting land-use question, how can we quickly get an overview of 40 years of land uses?  That's a lot of time to cover.  What about a timelapse satellite view? 

My query: 

     [ time lapse Earth ] 

leads quickly to Google Earth Timelapse.  It doesn't take long to search for Indio and the Coachella Valley.  Here's the YouTube video I made that neatly shows the enormous changes in the valley between 1984 and 2018.  

When you watch the video, look at one spot and watch how it changes over time.  Mostly, you'll see the transformation of the valley floor from agricultural to golf courses, hotels, and urban areas. 

While this gives a great visual summary of the changes and how profound they are, a fairly straightforward query leads to fairly extensive documentation of the changes.  My query: 

     [ land use change Indio California ] 

led to lots of news reports about various land use proposals, maps, studies, and plans. (Example: Indio land use maps, plans, and studies and articles like Land Subsidence in the Coachella Valley that covers land changes in the area over the past 100 years).  In reading through these documents, it's clear that water use is one of the leading factors in growth and land use.  A second query: 

     [ water use history Coachella Valley ] 

gives somewhat broader results.  (Example: the Coachella Valley Water District's history since 1918.) 

Why are the results broader?  Because land use is typically not a city-by-city concern, but more a regional (or county) concern.  In the Coachella Valley's case, changes in water supply in the 1960s allowed the rapid growth of building, leading to Indio and the surrounding area to become a tourism destination.  Golfing lead the way when, "in the 1980s, 34 courses opened. That’s about one every 100 days for an entire decade, and we had homes being built around these courses.”  Palm Springs Golf: A History of Coachella Valley Legends & Fairways (2015).  

So, what about land use? 

The bottom line for Indio (and the Coachella Valley) is that it was an old agricultural spot that lasted for many years until a sudden influx of water supply (from the Colorado River) suddenly made growing golf courses, water hazards, and homes a much more lucrative business than dates and table grapes.  

Luckily, the general land use plan has reserved significant land for agricultural purposes.  But water management issues dominate the place.  Land subsidence, resulting from aquifer-system compaction and groundwater-level declines, has been a concern of the Coachella Valley Water District since the mid-1990s, with close monitoring of ground water required to keep things on an even keel.  

Over the past 40 years Indio has seen a profound change in the way land is used--what was nearly all agriculture is now about half urban and recreational (especially golf!) uses.

As the nearby Salton Sea reminds as (as it dehydrates into a toxic, dusty ecological disaster), water means everything in this corner of the southwest.  If a long drought strikes, or water allocation patterns change (for whatever reason), a place like Indio, and its golf courses, could dry up and revert back to a place of date palms growing in a desert landscape.  

SearchResearch Lessons 

1. Look for tools.  You knew that Google satellite view maps would be useful, and you might even know that Google Earth has a fantastic image archive, but finding the Time Lapse version of Google Earth is a huge asset.  Remember to search for a tool to help you with your task.  

2. Vary the regional terms you use.  There are a few documents about "land use" topics that are connected with Indio, but there area LOT more if you search for land-use in conjunction with a larger regional description ("Coachella Valley").   

Search on!  

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

SearchResearch Challenge (11/11/20): What happened here over the past 40 years?


When I was young my family would go on long car trips...  

Shields Date Farm--with excellent date milkshakes.

I know, it's a quintessentially American thing to do, but that's what we did in the summers of my youth--travel from Los Angeles to my grandparents places in either Wisconsin or Oklahoma, visiting various and sundry aunts, uncles, and cousins along the way.  

One of the most exotic and fun parts of the trip was driving through the area near Indio, CA.  It's about 100 miles due east of LA, smack in the middle of the desert, famous as a place that's between the Salton Sea and Palm Springs, pretty close to the city of Coachella.  It's flat, very warm and reminiscent of the deserts of the Middle East. 

No surprise, then, that the area around Indio became famous for their groves of date palms in the Coachella Valley. 

But for a young kid driving across California in those pre-Coachella Festival days, the big appeal of Indio was the date shakes.  They seemed SO exotic and tasted SO wonderful that it was a great attractor.  The kids would lobby hard to make sure we drove through Indio during business hours, even though it would probably be pretty hot.  That only made the date shakes even better.  Shields Date Gardens has great shakes, but also a documentary about the "romance and sex life of the date."  How could Mom & Dad NOT stop there? It's educational!  (Here's the YouTube version of that film, should you want to see it.)  

I haven't been there in probably 20 years (I found a closer source of date shakes), so I was fairly surprised when I happened to look at the Coachella Valley on Google Maps.  It's a MUCH different place than I remember from the days when we drove through in search of date-based frozen confections. 

That leads us to this week's Challenge:  

What are the largest changes to landuse in the Coachella Valley over the past 40 years?  (That is, the valley centered around: 33.711896, -116.210818) What kinds of changes can you spot?  

For this Challenge, we don't need a complex dataset search, but something more direct.  That is, how would you look at the landuses of the acreage in the valley?  What's a good tool to get that kind of information--and then how can you start to look at it and understand what's happened?  

Once you figure this out, let us all know what you did to understand the changes.  What sources do you go to?  

Search on! 

(Inspirational image below... 26 years of change near Dublin, CA.)  

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

SearchResearch (11/4/20): Looking for data? Here are 3 Google data set sources


These days I find myself searching for data more often... 

... if only to reassure myself that there really is a quantifiable perspective on the world. Data isn't objective, but it's harder to fake your argument if there's data to look at and test.  Having data gives your argument/discussion a clearer path to clarity.  

As you know, Google enjoys data.  It enjoys it so much that we've made three different ways to find data sets that might be interesting to you.  Here they are... 

1.  Dataset Search.  We've talked about this new search product before (SRS Jan 24, 2020).  It's a search tool that lets you search for different kinds of data sets.  As you can see, a simple search gives pointers to many different datasets, each of which is hosted on the dataset provider's site.  

This is a great way to get the data directly from the source.  You can read the original source metadata, release notes, etc.  

2.  Public Data Explorer.  We've talked about this before as well.  (SRS July 3, 2010).  It's a curated collection of data sets from a host of high quality sources. In this case, the data is hosted on Google servers, so even when the host is down (or updated), you can still get to the data.  

PDE has a number of data sources you can explore with visualizations, etc.  Such as this fairly sobering chart of spending on education over time. 

3.  Data Commons.  The newest data source is the Data Commons project which aggregates a lot of different kind of data sets and provides access to them via APIs and Google Sheets.  That is, not only can you look up data, but you can write code that accesses it directly!  That is, the Data Commons is an aggregated dataset structured around different kinds of entities: places, people, organizations, etc.  All that data is organized into a graph that lets you write fairly straightforward pieces of code (or do specialty searches) to do different kinds of work. 

All data is scanned (with permission!) from databases and pulled into the Data Commons graph.  You can think of it as facts about those entities, making the resulting dataset a valuable source of combined entity-oriented data.

The data vocabulary used to structure the Data Commons graph builds upon, the most widely used vocabulary for structured data on the web, and is documented at

Here's a quick example.  

Using Google Sheets, I created a sheet and enabled the DataCommons Add-on.  Once you do that, you can make a list of different geographical entities.  Then you can write a simple Spreadsheet function that pulls data from the DataCommons directly.  An example:  

In this spreadsheet, I put the city names in the far left column, then wrote a couple short retrieval expressions and got the population of each city, the number of middle-schoolers in that city, and then computed the percentage of the city's population that's in middle-school.  This is what those cell expressions look like:  

Finally, I made a quick bar chart to show the size of each city's population and the size of each city's middle-schoolers. Sweet.  (Total time: around 2 minutes.)  

So, what's the difference between these dataset tools?  DataCommons is very selective about its sources and about integrating them into the master graph. It goes deep into the data, aggregating many sources and reconciling the different data types (e.g., it integrates BLS data + Census + a few others).  By contrast, Dataset Search goes wide, finding datasets about anything anywhere.  For breadth, use Dataset Search; for details and single-point-of-access, you want DataCommons.  

As you might imagine, this would be really handy for some of our SRS Challenges.  

If you're curious, you can go do this same example by looking at the DataCommons documentation, or you can wait a week (or so) until I get around to posting a Challenge that will need this skillset.  

Search on!