Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Where's Dan? A slight SRS delay this week...


I knew I'd be traveling this week, 

.. but I also foolishly thought I'd have more time that reality allows.  You know how it is: your trip seems like it will be all perfect timing and a relaxing time, but then reality pours in new tasks to do, people to see, and questions to answer. And that's what's happened to me.  

This is actually a work trip, and by looking at the above pic, with the blue and white flag atop the church, you'll know exactly where I'm at.  Can you deduce my location from the flag alone?  (If not, it's open internet--I'm sure you can figure out what church this is...)  

I'll be back next week with my solution to the previous SRS Challenge (the one about elephants in Wisconsin).  

Search on!  

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

SearchResearch Challenge (6/22/22): Why is there an elephant statue in this Wisconsin park?

 I was driving through Delavan...

... a smallish town in southwest Wisconsin, midway between Chicago and Madison.  I drove past something so unexpected that I went around the block and parked just to be able to take this picture.  

To set the context, I'd been driving through lots of farmland, and then on several lakeshores.  On the road are the usual things (corn fields, tractors, bales of hay, pontoon boats on lakes, people fishing on bridges), but then I spotted this life-size statue of an elephant rearing up, threatening a clown.  

This made me look twice and take the pic, and it leads to the following SearchResearch Challenge: 

1. What's the story here?  Why is there an elephant in the middle of small-town Wisconsin?  Really?   I did a little digging and my mind is boggled.  Can any of this be true?  

Go ahead, dig into the backstory here and let us know what you find.  

MOST IMPORTANTLY:  How did you validate the story you found?  Is is possible to get to a clear / credible / valid version of this story?  

Search on! 

Idea credit to Meredith Lowe, who first mentioned elephants in Wisconsin to me over coffee in Delavan. Thanks!  

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Answer: Why do gnats DO that?

  With my head in the clouds... 

... of gnats... I learned a few fascinating things by asking a few simple questions.   

As I mentioned, one of the defining features of being great at doing SearchResearch is having a deep curiosity.  In my work, I'm paid to be professionally curious, so I've developed a kind of permanently curious outlook on life.  As I'm reading, or as I'm walking around in the world, I constantly ask myself questions:  Is what I'm seeing actually what's going on?  What caused that to happen?  Why is this phenomenon taking place?  

And so it was when I was walking on the beach.  I saw the cloud of gnats circling around in a fairly tight swarm and wondered Why do they do that?  

One great strategy for thinking about Why questions is to think of similar situations.  In this case, What else flies in tight swarms, circling around a fixed point, rather than wandering off to another location?  

That thought is what made me think of starlings and their murmuration flights.  

So my Challenge was: 

1. Why do gnats and starlings murmurate?  (Is that even the right language to use?)  What's a good search strategy to find the answer?  Do they murmurate for the same reason?  

I have to admit that I've only ever read of starlings in a murmuration, but I specifically chose that word to break you, my dear SRS readers, out of a habit.  The obvious word would have been a "cloud of gnats" or a "swarm of gnats."  But one of the traits of doing good research is to have a wide-ranging vocabulary--it's important to be able to ask a question in a different way, if only to get a different view onto a common topic.  

"Murmuration" usually refers to starlings, but other birds (and animals) fly (and swim) in large groups in tightly coordinated turns, with different groups sometimes moving in synchrony, but in multiple directions, often forming lobes of groups staying more-or-less in one location.  This is not giant groups of animals migrating--those are flocks or herds or schools.  

While the starling murmurations are impressive, I wanted to see if it was ONLY starlings that murmurated, so I did a search for: 

     [ "murmuration of *" -starling ] 

to look for other kinds of murmurations, finding that red-wing blackbirds, pelicans, sanderlings, robins, flamingos, and many other kinds of birds murmurate as well.   (Pro Search Tip:  Note that I'm using the star operator as a kind of fill-in-the-blank search, along with the minus sign to avoid results with the word starling in them.)  

And of course, fish often do something very similar when they form "bait balls" to escape predators.  (See this great video from Blue Planet--watch at 1:05 to see a remarkable bait ball murmuration.)  

A bait ball of sardines. Large bait balls also murmurate. P/C OpenStax College

What about gnats?  

(BTW, what IS a gnat anyway?  It's important to know your terms when you start a search!  A quick definition search told me that gnat is a collective word for many species of small flies that do not bite. In some areas, gnats are also called midges. Gnats only live long enough to mate and lay eggs.) 

If you fell into my suggestion and did a search for: 

    [ gnats murmuration ] 

you probably saw some wonderful videos of gnats flying in clusters, BUT by looking down the SERP, you'll quickly learn that "swarm" is the preferred term for gnats (just as "murmuration" is the preferred term for starlings and birds, while "bait ball" is preferred for fish).  

So I'm going to modify my query to be: 

     [ why do gnats swarm ] 

and find a bunch of results, the first four which look to be from credible sources (a nature conservancy website, two science journal sites, and the U. Kentucky department of entomology), each of these with articles about "why do gnats swarm?"   

All of the sites agree: it's all about mating.  

The science news site tells us that 

"The swarms make it easier for the male and female gnats to find each other and mate..." and that "Gnats will often congregate around objects or other visual markers that contrast the landscape, such as fence posts...This helps the females more easily see in the swarm. [Turns out that] ...0nly male gnats swarm. The females then identify the swarm and enter it to mate."

Since gnats don't live very long, it's important to have a fast and easy way to find a mate.  Swarming is one very visible and simple way to do that.  Think of it as speed dating for tiny insects.  

But gnats are long-lived compared to mayflies: they live in the mud of a riverbed for up to three years before hatching.  After reaching hatching and growing to adulthood before emerging on the water’s surface, adult mayflies only have about three hours to mate. As you can imagine, this makes for a pretty frantic mayfly swarm. In these swarms, frenzied insects create a dramatic (and to some, dramatically revolting) congregation. One was so large that it appeared as a rainstorm on weather radar.  (For a video of a mayfly swarm, see this NatGeo video.) 

Interestingly, starlings seem to murmurate as a kind of group defense mechanism; it's difficult for a predator to track an individual when they're swirling around in a giant mob.  

By contrast, when gnats swarm, it's easier for some predators to fly through the cloud and pick up multiple meals at once.  (That's the way dragonflies will sometimes feed in swarms of gnats. This is so common that it's got a specific term: swarm feeding.)  

So what works as defense for the birds, doesn't work out so well for the little insects.  Well, if you're a mayfly, you're time limited, so procreation beats out your survival instincts!  

SearchResearch Summary 

1. Curiosity matters. It's not hard to develop the practice of being curious--it's just a matter of asking questions and then doing your SRS to find the answers.  It's a great way to learn about the world (and develop that little twinkle in your eye that leads you to ask, "I wonder if...")  

2. Be sure to check definitions.  I hope murmuration is now in your vocabulary, and that you know it usually refers to starlings (but not exclusively).  

3. Check for near-misses: What else is like this thing?  Up above I used the * operator along with the minus operator ( - ) to search for alternatives ("other things that murmurate, but don't tell me about starlings").  Once you know what else is nearby, you'll understand the large concept space--the specific answer to your question along with other things that tell you what's nearby or closely associated with it.  

As always... Search On!  

(And in Dan's addendum:  Stay Curious!!)  

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

SearchResearch Challenge (6/8/22): Why do gnats DO that?

 At the beach I ran into a cloud of gnats... 

... and maybe you have as well. Annoying, amirite? 

One of the defining features of SRS is a deep curiosity about things that you find, or in this case, you stumble into while on walkabout.  I grabbed this short video because I could actually see the gnats against the darker rock in the shadow.  They seemed to form an almost stationary cloud over this brighter patch of rock. 

I stood there for several minutes watching the cloud swirl around almost like a tiny murmuration of starlings.  I'm sure other people walking on the beach thought I was daft, staring at something they couldn't see, moving my hand slowly to see if they'd move out of the way.  (Answer: they'd dodge my hand, but the mass of gnats stayed hovering over the same place.)  

When I find something like this, I get curious and starting asking myself some basic questions: Why?  How?  What-for?  

And then I usually head home and search for deeper answers to the questions that rise to the surface.  (And if it's a really interesting thing I see, I write down the questions for later research.  As someone once said, "the most profound misunderstanding of human memory is that you'll remember that later...")  

So my Challenge for you, after my beach walk is this: 

1. Why do gnats and starlings murmurate?  (Is that even the right language to use?)  What's a good search strategy to find the answer?  Do they murmurate for the same reason?  

It's a great, curious thing to see beautiful behaviors in the world and try to understand them.  Tell us what you did to understand these behaviors.  Let us know in the comments below, won't you? 

Search on! 

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Answer: Finding original patents?


Patents don't define a market... 

... but they're a decent proxy for when a market comes into being. This week's Challenge asks about finding the patent dates for two devices that are fairly clever, definitely deserving of patent protection.    

Can you find the patent dates for these two devices?  

1. What's the patent date for the apple parer seen above?  (See another view below for a similar device with an apple in place.) 

I remember that Google has a Patents corpus (, so I went there and searched for  

[ "apple parer" sargent foster ] 

-- surprise!  There were  NO results! 

When I did the search without Sargent, I found this patent for an "improved apple parer" (US116943, July 11, 1871), by Calvin Foster.  It's much more complicated than the device shown above, but it also slices the apples as they're pared.  

But I was expecting to find a patent with both Sargent and Foster's names.  And this isn't it--is there another patent?  

To explore a bit, I did a slightly different search without using the exact ("parer") term found in the advertisement--this was my second try at searching for the title (or claims) of the patent.  I used: 

[ apple paring Sargent Foster ] 

but as you might expect, there were a lot of results.  Luckily, the result I was searching for was in the 5th position: 

You have to read through the OCR failures ("Machine fob pabiwg" should be "Machine for paring apples").  Luckily, the full-text is recognized correctly, which is why my search for "paring apples" worked.  

I was curious if I could be more precise, so I put in a date restriction by using the Patents search UI.  Here you can see I put in Jan 1 1871 as the latest date I was interested in. (I just guessed this--looking at the style of the drawing, it looked like 1871 or earlier.)  Lo and behold, the search is very precise: 

This search returns exactly the one result for patent US10078A (1853), the "Machine for Paring Apples."  

With this as the original artwork: 
Note that the text "Apple Parer" is handwritten in the diagram. 
Apparently the OCR doesn't recognize that text in the illustration.  

Interestingly, it was invented by Ephraim L. Pratt of Worcester, MA, and then assigned to J. Sargent and Dan P. Foster, as shown in the "Sargent and Foster's Patent" on the top image.  

Assigning a patent transfers the ownership of the patent from the inventor (Ephraim) to the persons (or business) that will then own the patent. 

And now you can see the mistake I made in the first search--I found "An improved apple parer" by Calvin Foster, that was not the original invention by Pratt in 1864 and assigned to Sargent and Dan Foster I can speak from personal experience--"Dan" is not the same as "Calvin."    

As I poked around, I found even more patents by Ephraim Pratt--turns out he invented multiple apple paring inventions!  (Here's another one assigned to George Carter from 1864. 

Bottom line: patent US10078A  for the device shown above, was 1853, the "Machine for Paring Apples."  

2. And the device that captured my heart, a stapler that works WITHOUT staples!  When was this (or something very much like it) first patented? 

I was curious if I could find this using "regular" Google search, so I tried this search: 

     [ stapleless stapler ] 

and then looked at the images--was really surprised to see that there's an entire universe of shockingly colored stapleless staplers out there. 

But by adding the term "antique" to the query, I got much better results: 

 By looking at these results, it would seem that this is a "Bump Fastener" from the Bump Fastener Company of LaCrosse, Wisconsin.  (Notice that there's even chip in the upper left corner about "bump paper fastener.")  

Searching for [ Bump Fastener Company ] quickly got me to the official LaCrosse County Bump Fastener page, which tells me that "...this handy office tool fastens two or more pieces of paper together. The fastener cuts a small triangular-shaped hole in the paper, folds back the cut triangle, and then slides it into a slot cut in the paper to fasten it in place." And that it was invented in 1910.  

That's our gadget!  

(And yes, search-by-image works quite well, as does a Lens search.)  

But there's more to this history.  From the same web page: 

"Bump invented and patented other inventions while living in La Crosse, including an air compressor pump, a terminal clamp, a carburetor-adjusting mechanism, a rotary engine and many others. In 1930, Bump changed his company name to the Bump Pump Co., based on his new invention. However, the company was still producing his first patented invention, the paper fastener." 

I have to admit that I was interested in the backstory, so I did the obvious search in newspapers of the day and found this lovely story:  

LaCrosse Tribune, 3 Aug 1930, before the company name change,

I'm not sure I would have called this a "Combination of Romance, Struggle," but things were different back then.  To LaCrosse, this was hot, front-page news!  

SearchResearch Lessons 

Before I get to the lessons I learned, I want to point out that several RegularReaders wrote exemplary SRS discussions and I want to point you to them. 

Art Weiss wrote about his great voyage of discovery (which I thought about using for today's text).  He also taught me about Espacenet, which is a great patent search engine--well worth knowing about. I especially like their advanced patent search UI which is especially easy to use.  

Remmij, as usual, found some intriguing pages, including a site I didn't know about, the Early Office Museum Website, which pointed out that "..[stapleless fasteners] were introduced in 1909 by the Clipless Paper Fastener Co. and in 1910 by Bump’s Perfected Paper Fastener Co. A Clipless Paper Fastener and the Bump Paper Fastener cut and fold small flaps in the papers in a way that locks the papers together.  Bump machines were still marketed in 1950.  Curiously, the model of the Bump Stand Machine that was introduced in 1916 was sold until 1950 with the words "Patent Pending." " 

Mateojose1 did a marvelous job of walking us through their search process with a nice description of side-journeys.  

Ramón points us to this amazing video of an 1870's peeler being restored and used.  Which reminded me to search on YouTube for a Sargent and Foster apple peeler video in use.  

My observations: 

1.  Read carefully.  I know I say this all the time, but when I was initially searching, I misunderstand Calvin Foster's name, thinking that only one person named Foster would be involved in apple peeler patents.  How wrong was I! 

2. OCR is inexact.. especially in older documents (like 19th century patents).  Sometimes you have to "read through" the OCR errors to get to the good stuff. 

3. Don't be afraid to try alternative versions of your query.  Note that when I tried searching on patents for "Apple Parer," it didn't work too well.  But "Apple peeler" did!  

4. Because this is the internet...there's a specialty group for everything.  On a lark, I did a search for just [apple parer] and found the Apple Parer Museum, which has a page just on the Sargent & Foster paring device.  Go figure. 

Search on!