Wednesday, June 22, 2016

SearchResearch Challenge (6/22/16): The intriguing way a lake can be dangerous

Not long ago I was reading about a strange lake... 

I know what you're thinking--how strange can a lake be?  A lake's a lake, right?  

In this case, the lake I'm thinking of seems not just strange, but deadly.  

The lake I've been reading about directly caused the death of a lot of people.  They didn't drown, and it wasn't due to something obvious (like a dam bursting, or an earthquake), but was something intrinsic to the lake itself.  

A generic lake, quiet, serene, and probably not very dangerous lake.

It's not a poisonous lake (that is, you can go swimming in it without any harm coming to you), and it's not a boiling lake, like this one in Yellowstone National Park.  Falling into this is a bad idea.  

On the other hand, a boiling lake WILL kill you either with temperature or poisons.
But this isn't what we're searching for this week. 

That's not what we're searching for this week.  Instead, we want to find...  

1.  Can you find a lake somewhere in the world that caused the death of nearly 2000 people?  How could such a thing happen?  (Hint: This happened within the past 100 years, so it's relatively recently.)  

2. Was a large wave of water associated with this bizarre lake event?  If so, how high did the wave go, and what kind of damage did it cause?  (If any.)  

3. Given this kind of watery disaster, how high would the water go up into the sky from the event? 

As always, be sure to tell us HOW you found the answer.   (Extra points for finding high-quality, reliable sources.  Presentations from 6th graders, as wonderful as they might be, are not a substitute for highly credible sources.)  

Search on! 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Answer: What was that word again? Effective searching with old terms.

As you know... 

... the language of the past is somewhat different than the one we speak (and write) now.   

As a consequence, when you're trying to search for historical content, you sometimes (often?) have to shift your language to accommodate the way authors in the past would have written.  

The motivating example was the long-known, well-loved  brontosaurus.  When I was a kid, that was the dinosaur of choice (unless you were a T-Rex fan).  But, a finer distinction was made between the brontosaurus and the apatosaurus.

The named, un-named, and restored (with a different skull) brontosaurus.

And, more generally, can you come up with a general way to help answer questions like this?  

The interest level in these questions were pretty high--we had lots of comments. 
1.  While reading about the US Civil War, I had read in one source that many of the soldiers died from some kind of disease that had extensive diarrhea.  Yet, when I search in writings from that time, I find lots of diarrhea, but I seem to be missing many of the references.  What other term(s) SHOULD I be using to search in archival accounts from that period for this disease?  
There are several ways to find terms for medical conditions used during the US Civil War (1861 - 1865).  Here are a couple of methods.  

Search for synonyms explicitly: 

      [ diarrhea during the us civil war ] 

This leads us a few documents that give us several synonyms:  dysentery, diarrhea, quickstep, flux, and "alvine flux" by the doctors. Unfortunately, doctors knew neither how soldiers contracted the condition nor how the diseases should be treated.  Likewise, a search for: 

      [ diarrhea synonyms ] 

will give us a bunch more synonyms (Delhi belly, flux, Montezuma's revenge, runs, trots, turista), but for each of these you have to check to be sure they're Civil War period relevant.  Looking at the Ngram chart for "Delhi Belly" shows that it didn't come into use until the late 1940s. 

Unfortunately, checking NGrams for "flux" doesn't work because it's a very common industrial term as well.  However, a search for: 

      [ flux Civil War ] 

leads us straight to a dictionary of Civil War slang (a different source than the one above), and confirmation that "flux" and "quick step" were synonyms. 

For these kinds of historical topics, it's worth checking Google Books with a search like: 

     [ Civil War language disease ] 

which leads us quickly to The Language of the Civil War (John Wright, 2001), confirming "flux" and "bloody flux."  

The disease problem was massive.  Soldiers had to content not just with the fighting, but also with typhoid, pneumonia, measles, tuberculosis, and malaria.  An indication of just how bad this was is shown in this chart from the Civil War Trust

As you can see, MOST of the deaths during the American Civil War were due to disease--there were many terms, but any diarrheal problem was often called flux, quickstep, or trots.  Those (along with regular old diarrhea, in all of its misspellings) are the search terms to use.    

2.  These days, it's popular to go to a spa that features natural hot springs, such as those at Wiesbaden (Germany) or Bath (UK).  But if I'm searching for such a spa to visit in 1890's America, what search terms should I use? 
Again, the problem here is to find terms that were used during this time to describe a spa with hot springs.

While SRS readers made many great suggestions:  (Ramon) "Hot/cold springs," "Balnea," “Thermal waters," "taking the waters" --  (R) "mineral springs,"  "wash-houses" --  (Sarah) "Mineral springs."  

As we did above, you can get started by doing standard synonym queries and poking around at Wikipedia articles, looking for alternative phrases.  

But I decided to go to one of the contemporary sources:  archival newspapers.  I found the Library of Congress collection by doing a search for: 

     [ online archival newspapers ] 

Then, once there, I limited the dates of my search to 1890 - 1899, and searched for "Saratoga Springs"  (a place that I already knew as a famous natural spring resort).  My idea was to search for newspaper accounts of the place, and see how the articles referred to it.  

My query gave me a page that looked like this: 

All of the red boxes are hits for the string "Saratoga Springs."   

Within a couple of minutes, I found those springs referred to as: 

sanitarium, tonic spring, sulphur springs, soda springs, and very commonly hot springs. 

I'm sure if I kept reading, I'd find other ways to refer to these kinds of therapeutic resorts-with-springs.  But this is a great list, and it comes directly from the writing of the times.  

(Interestingly, the best way to pick up on these alternative descriptions was to read through the advertisements.  Often the language is colorful and the claims extravagant, but completely fun to read!) 

Ad for Gilroy Hot Springs, California.
(from the Record-Union, July 13, 1895, page 6)

3.  While reading about optics and the life of John Dollond (the inventor of the achromatic lens, for which you should be grateful), I learned that he died of a stroke.  But I can't find period accounts with that search term.  What search term should I use instead to find an 18th century death by stroke? 

Now we know that searching directly for synonyms can often give us lots of options, but then we need to verify that the term was used during that time period. 

My first query was: 

     [ stroke synonym ] 

which led me to the only term I hadn't heard of before:  apoplexy.  (Well, to be honest, I'd heard of this word before, but I wasn't really sure what it meant!)  

A quick define search: 

     [ define apoplexy ] 

confirmed that it means a "stroke."  

How do we confirm that this was using in the 1700's?  The NGRAMs database only goes back to 1800, and many of the newspaper archives are limited to post 1800 as well.  

But goes WAAY back!  By searching in Google Books for apoplexy and limiting the time range to 1700 - 1799, we see: 

I scanned down a bit to find a book that has a readable (to my modern eyes) explanation of apoplexy, and found it in the book:   Advice to people in general, with respect to their health. Translated from the French ... To which are added, by the author, two new chapters; one upon inoculation, the other upon lingering distempers ... The sixth edition, corrected and improved (by Samuel Auguste David Tissot, 1793).  

Wherein we find the following definition: 

Page 55 of the above-mentioned book. Recall that the letter that looks like
an "f" is in fact a "long-S."  Thus, "fudden" is "sudden."  

I like the image here (of "inflammable blood, and that in a large quantity..").  But you get the idea.  Apoplexy is the word we seek.  

Search Lessons 

1.  Search for synonyms.. but check that the synonyms you find are time-period appropriate.  As we saw, the obvious search for synonyms will often offer up old-fashioned and even archaic terms for a idea you seek. But you have to check that this term is the right one for the time.  

2.  You might find multiple terms!  It shouldn't be a surprise, but people often have different ways to refer to a common concept.  (If you think about it for a second, you can probably think of a few different ways to refer to diarrhea in your own language.  It shouldn't surprise you that this was true in the past as well.)  

3.  A great way to find old terminology is to check-out old newspapers and books.  The simplest way to do this is via online archival newspapers (e.g., those at the Library of Congress) or in a books database ( that has a collection from the deep past.  

Great job, everyone!  

Tomorrow... a new Challenge.... 

Search on! 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Why SearchResearch skills matter in education

There’s always been a gap between 

...those who know how to use information resources and those who don’t.  Students who knew the ways to leverage a library for research could consistently do better research than those who couldn’t.  That's not a surprise.  

But this gap is turning into a vast chasm of difference.  

Students who know how to use online resources efficiently and effectively will be able to massively outperform students who don’t.  

This is a qualitative change from the days of paper-based libraries and information resources.  Then, doing research was largely limited to what you could reach out and touch by hand.  Now, it’s possible for students to do research on information that scattered across the entire planet; and they’re not limited just to finding text in documents, but can find original archival images, movies, code fragments, transcripts of trials, books, magazines, and sounds. 

Here’s my favorite example of this change.  

In the 1990s  I used to teach AI algorithms to my graduate students in Computer Science as a way to help them understand the inner workings of Artificial Intelligence.  If you can write a program to do some task better than a human can do it, then you’re well on the way to understanding how this algorithm operates and in the process, you’d learn something about the nature of intelligence.  

I taught this class this for over 10 years—handing out the assignment one week, and then expect the homework to be done three or four weeks later after we’d covered the material, discussed how things worked, and let them write, debug, and explore the code.  

And then, in the early 2000’s, I noticed that my students were suddenly turning in their assignments weeks ahead of schedule.  

What?  Weeks ahead of the syllabus? That didn’t seem possible, until I asked around and found that they were just Googling for the code, finding that someone else had written it already, modifying it slightly, and then turning it in as their solution.  

This was the leading edge of a huge shift in the way people program, and more importantly, in the way students did their work.  

That was a few years ago, but it set the stage for what’s happening now.  

It was never great educational philosophy to just shovel facts to a student and then ask them to pick the right one from the set of options, but now, with search engines and a galaxy of online content available in milliseconds, it’s a truly terrible idea.  Students who are good researchers can find information on a topic faster than you can push it to them. 

This is as true in the elementary grades as it is in graduate school.  We all know sixth graders who can (with the aid of their phone and a quick search) name all of the signers of the Constitution in less than 10 seconds.  

Suddenly, what it means to know something has profoundly changed.  There’s a difference between knowing, and knowing how-to-search.  

There’s a difference between knowing that something exists, being able to find it rapidly with a moment’s worth of research, and then being able to pull together multiple sources of information into a coherent analysis. 

In particular, the research skills gap is growing.  Students (and teachers, and for that matter, employees) who are able to do rapid and accurate research on a topic have a substantial advantage in getting things done and deepening their understanding.  

What’s more, there’s an unexpected second-order effect: those that have developed and sharpened their research skills can grow those research skills over time, increasingly widening the gap from their peers who haven’t mastered that self-teaching nuance. Having research skills isn’t just an optional part of your education—they’re essential.  Especially once you know how to do the research to upgrade your research skills. 

It’s important to realize that there is a fundamental change going on in what it means to learn.  We know that memorizing the US presidents in election order isn’t really a useful skill for most students.  It’s rare that anytime after high school that you’ll be asked if Chester Arthur was before, or after, James Garfield.  

It’s even less likely that you’ll be asked how many US presidents were in the Whig party.  But it takes a student about 5 seconds to find the number. (I timed my students doing this.  It does take around 5 seconds, limited mostly by typing speed.  Their answer?  There were four, the first was William Harrison, and the last was Millard Fillmore. There's a handy list of US Whig presidents available online.)   

But if you don’t know the names of the presidents, if you have never studied them as a group, in a sequence, possibly with their party affiliations, then you probably won’t recognize the name of Millard Fillmore as a Whig president, but perhaps only as the name of a trivia hunt game. 

The very nature of what it means to know is shifting our understanding of teaching, and what’s important for our students to command.  

Students still need to know about presidents, their policies, and the role they play in the history of the nation.  
Do you know who Millard Fillmore and Zachary Taylor are?
Or, why it matters that you do?  Be curious, my friends.  

For example, Fillmore wasn’t elected president, but assumed the presidency when Zachary Taylor died in office.  His attitudes about slavery influenced the course of the Civil War.  

Students still need to know these kinds of things, and is possible that learning the sequence of presidential elections is a good way to introduce those ideas.  

But even more, they need to know how to find out more about a topic in a way that is efficient and accurate.  They need to command the key topic ideas, recognize the presidents, their policies, and their parties.  They need to cultivate the trait of curiosity that will let them keep reading beyond Millard Fillmore, and learn about Zachary Taylor, and why Taylor setup Fillmore, and why that affected the US Civil War.  

Most importantly, they need to be able to answer the entire range of questions that will come up... and for the most part, that will require the skills of SearchResearch skills, and a drive to be curious about the world.  

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

SearchResearch Challenge (6/15/16): What was that word again? Effective searching with old terms

One of the greatest problems with the past... 

... is that the language they spoke then is different than what we speak (or write, or blog).  

As a consequence, when you're trying to search for historical content, you sometimes (often?) have to shift your language to accommodate the way authors in the past would have written.  

For instance, when I was young, I grew up learning about a dinosaur called the brontosaurus.  The way these things go, the name was more-or-less rescinded, and then brought back a few years later when a newer, finer distinction was made between the brontosaurus and the apatosaurus. If you're curious, you can go read that article to hear the whole story about the name changes (and why they keep changing the name back and forth-it's an interesting story). 

The named, un-named, and restored (with a different skull) brontosaurus.

But the reason I bring it up here is that terms can change significantly over time.  I've written about this before (Search for terms from long ago), and we're revisiting this idea with a couple of new Challenges.  In the earlier post I gave a bunch of examples of terms that have shifted with time:  Boers -> Afrikaners; insane -> mentally ill; outdoor relief -> public welfare; etc.  

This terminological shift (a great phrase to use at your next party!) showed up a bit in my own research recently.  Can you figure out how to answer these Challenges?  

And, more generally, can you come up with a general way to help answer questions like this?  

1.  While reading about the US Civil War, I had read in one source that many of the soldiers died from some kind of disease that had extensive diarrhea.  Yet, when I search in writings from that time, I find lots of diarrhea, but I seem to be missing many of the references.  What other term(s) SHOULD I be using to search in archival accounts from that period for this disease?  

2.  These days, it's popular to go to a spa that features natural hot springs, such as those at Wiesbaden (Germany) or Bath (UK).  But if I'm searching for such a spa to visit in 1890's America, what search terms should I use? 

3.  While reading about optics and the life of John Dollond (the inventor of the achromatic lens, for which you should be grateful), I learned that he died of a stroke.  But I can't find period accounts with that search term.  What search term should I use instead to find an 18th century death by stroke? 

This can be a little tricky... so when you give us your answer, be sure to tell us HOW you determined what the time-period appropriate term(s) should be!  Did you just know off the top of your head, or what resources did you use to get this insider information?  

Search on! 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Answer: Looking up TILTs?

TILT: Things I Learned Today

One of the true pleasures of life in the Age of the Internet is our historically unparalled ability to notice something interesting out there, and then using your SearchResearch skills to figure what's the backstory to this interesting thing you noticed.

While I've always noticed the unusual, the strange, the bizzare, and the unexpected, NOW you can do the background research fairly quickly. 

I keep notes, and at the end of the day I spend a few minutes to look these things up and write them down in my notes with a little label of #TILTThings I Learned Today.  (The #TILT label is really handy because I can then search for these things fairly simply--I just for for #TILT and a keyword or two from the thing I looked-up.  Incredibly handy.)  

This week had more than the average number of TILTs.

● First, there were several news articles about electric eels jumping out of the water to shock their prey. Really?  That sounds unusual / strange / bizarre & unexpected all at once.  What's the backstory here?   Do eels really do that?  (And of course, what other kinds of fish do that as well?)   

An electric eel at rest, not leaping. But it could.

1.  What other kinds of fish leap from the water to attack their prey?  
A straightforward search for: 

     [ electric eel leap ] 

brings a bunch of articles about electric eels that, when attacking a large animal, actively leap out of the water to touch their chins to the body of the prey animal while the rest of their body remains in the water.  (The better to focus the effect of the electrical discharge into their prey.) The original report  on this shocking eel behavior is from the National Academy of Sciences, and mentions Alexander von Humboldt's story of electric eels attacking horses that had been herded into a shallow, muddy pool.  You can read the original account of the story in the book The Travels and Researchs of Alexander Von Humboldt (by Von Humboldt himself, 1833; see also The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World, Andrea Wulf, 2015)

Von Humbolt's depiction of eels leaping from the water to attack horses
that have been herded into their shallow water pools. 

The naturally curious mind wonders if this is something that's peculiar just to electric eels, or to fish (and other aquatic creatures) more generally. A great search to do here is: 

      [ fish leaping to attack ] 

Notice that if you try a couple of variations on this search, you'll get somewhat different results each time.  (The better with which to scan the universe of possibilities.)  Try alternates such as [ fish jumping out of water ] [ fish jumping to attack prey ] and so on.  

I quickly learned about the needlefish (which apparently dive bombs prey from the air, leaping out of the water to avoid detection) according to a report in New Scientist, and of course, the completely remarkable African tigerfish, which can leap from the water to catch low-flying swallows mid-flight.  (Article in Nature.)  They published this video, which is pretty amazing of this swallowed swallow: 

As I read, I also learned about the arowana which can leap up to 2 meters out of the water to capture small prey (video of an arowana catching a spider, see: 3:11). 

There are reports of sharks leaping out of the water, but as far as I can tell, they're not doing that to attack prey that's not in the water, but are attacking prey on the surface (such as a seal), and then driving up into the air as part of their follow-through.  

But, much to my surprise, there are a number of fish that leave the water to attack their prey.  Who knew? 

● I also saw a YouTube video that mentioned the use of X-rays to destroy hair follicles to permanently remove hair from your body.  (Note: This turned out to be a really bad idea.)  

2.  What other interesting / odd uses did people (unwisely) use X-rays for during the past 100 years?  (You don't have to list them all, just one unusual use that you didn't know about before.)  
There are many approaches to this Challenge.  My first search was for: 

     [ historic xray OR "x-ray" uses ] 

(although others work as well).  I decided to search for "historic" rather than "unusual" or "weird" because I didn't want to find lots of strange x-rays, but I wanted to focus on the uses of X-rays, and since most of the recent uses are primarily vetted (and mostly not odd), I figured that the historic perspective would be useful.  

I used ... xray OR "x-ray"... since I wasn't sure how people would have written about this in the past.  (Just being careful.)  

Looking through the list of results, I found a few really interesting things.  Here's a quick list of things I found interesting: 

a.  Xrays for shoe fitting:  Yes, X-rays were once use to see if your shoes fit.  Sounds great (and if you don't know that X-rays are potentially harmful, it would seem to make sense)!  

b.  X-rays as a medical therapy: Back when Xrays were novel and not well-understood, many things that had radioactivity (in any form) were thought of purely as medicine.  Kohler's Antidote offers X-rays as a treatment for headaches. Oddly, the real treatment was a pill labeled with the word X-Ray, and didn't actually include anything radiological.  Why?  Because "X-ray" was a magical, hi-tech term at the time, a bit the way "laser" was back in the 1980s. (Or "cyber" in the 1970s, etc.)  

Kohler's Antidote... "X-ray exposure" pills. Ad from Cosmopolitan magazine, 1897. 
 There was also a great use of radiation therapy in general.  The Wikipedia has a fascinating history of radiation therapy that covers everything from "radium waters" through Röntgenotherapy (another name for X-ray therapy), including the discovery that radiation can cause hair loss.  Which brings me to... 

c.  Hair removal: Since one of the side-effects of x-ray treatment is that your hair falls out.  This led to a real growth industry in using x-rays to cause focal hair removal.  By 1924 the "Tricho System Sales Corporation" came into being (see their ad below).  

Of course, this was a bad idea as well.  By 1970, US researchers were attributing over one-third of radiation-induced cancers in women to X-ray hair removal.  ("Nothing but a ray of light" by Paul Collins; New Scientist; September 8, 2007; pages 68-69.)

3.  I saw a concert at a church with this on the ceiling.  What's the name of the church where the concert was held?  
Since I recognized that this was a depiction of the Virgin Mary, and if you look closely, there seems to be 7 knives (or swords, or something) that's piercing the heart.  So my query was: 

     [ Virgin Mary heart seven swords ] 

A quick scan of the SERP tells me that this is a depiction of "Our Lady of Sorrows,"  a carving of the Seven Sorrows of Mary, each of the swords (or daggers) stands for one of the sorrows she experienced.  

But WRT the name of the church, there are many Catholic churches named for "Our Lady of Sorrows," but if you look at the Wikipedia page, you'll see (near the end) "Mission San Francisco de Asís in San Francisco, California, known also as Mission Dolores."  

If you then search for: 

     [ Mission San Francisco de Asís concert "June 1..7 2016" ] 

you can find there are a number of concerts, so it seems plausible that I would have gone to the Mission San Francisco de Asís... 

But (and I didn't realize this would work until after I'd written the blog post), an Image search shows a link to the wood carving sculptures of Samuel Berger, which shows definitively that this particular carving of Mary was done by Berger, and placed in the Mission Dolores.  


Search Lessons 

1. Don't forget about reverse image search.  Since I took that photo of Mary late at night and under not-exactly-optimum conditions, I didn't think image search would work... but I was totally wrong.  (I only tried it later, and discovered the wonderful carving of Samuel Berger.)  But don't forget to try it! 

2.  Don't forget about image search for complex concepts.  Although I solved the X-Ray problem by using ordinary search, I later discovered that doing those searches and then checking out the Images results often would lead me to some other kinds of fascinating results.  

3. When trying to get a broad overview of a topic, consider doing multiple DIFFERENT versions of your query.  As I found, three or four different versions of a query will often give very different search results.  If you're trying to get a broadbrush overview, this is often a great method to get good coverage.  

Search on!  

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Search Challenge (6/8/16): Looking up TILTs?

TILT: Things I Learned Today

Since I'm a curious guy, I often write down things that I notice during the day.  Usually, at the end of the day I spend a few minutes to look these things up and write them down in my notes as TILT, Things I Learned Today.

This week was an especially curious week. I ran across a couple of interesting things... and of course, each thing I looked up led to another question.  Here are three TILT questions from my week.  

● There were several news articles about electric eels leaping out of the water to shock their prey. (This captured my fancy partly because it's quite a striking image, but ALSO because of the connection with Alexander von Humboldt

An electric eel at rest, not leaping. But it could. 
That made me wonder... 

1.  What other kinds of fish leap from the water to attack their prey?  

● I also saw a YouTube video that mentioned the use of X-rays to destroy hair follicles to permanently remove hair from your body.  (Note: This turned out to be a really bad idea.)  

2.  What other interesting / odd uses did people (unwisely) use X-rays for during the past 100 years?  (You don't have to list them all, just one unusual use that you didn't know about before.)  

● During a concert this week in a local church, I noticed something on the ceiling of the apse that was a surprise (see below). I didn't recognize it, so I looked it up, and realized that there was a strong connection with the name of the church. 

3.  What's the name of the church where the concert was held?  

Can you figure these out? 

They're great examples of what it means to follow-up and satisfy on your curiosity.  

When you figure them out, be sure to comment about WHAT motivated you and HOW you found your insights?  

Stay curious, my friends.  Search on!  

Monday, June 6, 2016

Answer: How much background knowledge should you have?

Why do you need to know stuff? 

This is a question I often get from students and from people who don't do much research.  If you spend any time actually doing research, you realize that it's crucial for you to have the ability to recognize things and their properties... and the ability to know how things link together.  

In other words, there are things you should just be able to recognize and know.  Likewise, if you know these things, you should have enough cognitive mechanisms to figure out other properties and relationships off the top of your head.  The way I framed this last week was like this: What should those basic pieces of background knowledge be?  

But this is fairly abstract.  Let's get down to brass tacks with some examples. 

In the Pre-Challenge I asked a few questions that asked about world facts.  I chose them on purpose so that you'd understand the question and have some intuition about the questions, but about 50% of people would get them right.  Let's go over the questions and how to answer from SearchResearch, then talk about what people answered in the survey.   

Here's what I asked: 

1.  Based on what you know about the Earth and its movement around the Sun, approximately how far does the Earth travel around the Sun in one day?  (In miles or kilometers.) 

For extra credit: About what angle does it traverse?  (In degrees.)  You should be able to figure the angle without looking up anything!

In other words, looking at the diagram above, how far does the Earth travel along that arc in 24 hours?  

If you think about it, we're trying to estimate the length of the red arc in that diagram.  We know that one revolution around the sun takes 365.25 days (something you just gotta know), and that the average distance from the Earth to the Sun is close to 93,000,000 miles (or 150M km; again, something you have to know).

So if we compute the circumference of the circle ( Circumference = 2*pi*radius ) that's 93M*3.13*2.  When I did this in my head, I just multiplied 93*6 and then upped it to millions, or 558M miles.  Then, I want to take one day's worth of that, which would be 1/365 of 558M miles.  

I can't quite do that math in my head, so a quick estimate (using my numerical estimation skills to guessitmate the value of 558/365) which I estimated to be 1.5M miles.  

Of course... I could put in real numbers:  [ distance from Earth to Sun  ] = 92.95 million miles; pi = 3.141... letting me go to Google with [ (2 * 3.141 * 92,950,000) / 365.24 ] which = 1,598,707 miles traveled in one day.  

The extra credit?  (How many degrees in one day?)  Think about it.  The full circle orbit is 360 degrees.  One day would be 360/365 (degrees / day), which is really close to 1 degree.  

The point is... That you can estimate these numbers pretty quickly IF you know a few basic things.  Let's list these out:  

   a. how long it takes the Earth to circle the Sun
   b. radius from Earth to Sun
   c. math formula for circumference (which you should have learned in the 6th grade) 
   d. math estimation skills 

Knowing these basic facts lets you figure out all kinds of basic properties of the world. 

Let's try the second question, and call out exactly what you need to know to solve this one.  

2.  At home I have a Wifi system that's running at 10 Mbps in the upload direction. Ignoring all other sources of delays, how long should it take for me to upload a 2 Gigabyte file?  

Let's assume a 2 Gigabyte file is 2 billion bytes long.  (It's not really, but see the footnote below).  

When doing calculations like this, be sure you know your terms.  In this case, what does "Mbps" stand for?  Turns out that it means "mega-bits per second."  Why is this important?  Because MBps (note the capital "B") means "mega-bytes per second."  

A byte is 8 bits long, so a 1 Mbps connection is 8 times slower than a 1 MBps connection.  

So, how many bits are in a 2 Gigabyte file?  It's 2 billion bytes * 8.  That is, it's 16 billion bits long.  

If you're sending a file of that length over a 10 Mbps connection, it should take 16,000,000,000 / 10,000,000 seconds.  (Does that make sense to you? Think about it carefully.)  If you just remove all the zeros (that is, divide both sides by 10,000,000) you get 1600/1 seconds, or 26 minutes.  (Or, if you're handy with scientific notation, which is really handy for estimates like this, it's 16E9 / 1E7 - which is just 16E2, or 1600 seconds, about 26 minutes.)     

Footnote:  It turns out that a 2 Gigbyte file is actually 2,147,483,648 bytes (and not just 2,000,000,000 bytes).   Why? Because file sizes are always given in powers of two.  Thus, 1KB is 1,024 bytes (or 2^10), and 1MB is really 2^10 = 1,048,576 bytes, etc. on up to 1 GB file which is 2^30, or 1,073,741,824 bytes.  Double that and you've got 2 Gigabyte file that has 2,147,483,648 bytes
 What this means is that a 10MBps connection is 8 times faster than a 10Mbps connection.  If you don't know that, you might underestimate the total speed!  

3.  Consider these former colonial countries:  Brazil, Canada, Mexico.  Which country got its independence first?  Which was second?  Which was third? 

How good IS your knowledge of international events?  In the US, it's common to know very little about how other country's histories have gone.  (Well... aside from knowing a bit about the history of the UK, and perhaps Germany, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam...)  

I admit that my guess was based on what I know about Canada and Mexico (having visited both places, I know a bit more than average about their histories).  And I had a good guess about Brazil... but I also wasn't quite sure about the year for Brazil. 

The obvious queries quickly clear this up: 

[ Canada independence day ] --> July 1, 1867

Canada Day (French: Fête du Canada) is the national day of Canada, a federal holiday celebrating the anniversary of the July 1, 1867, enactment of the Constitution Act in 1867 (then called the British North America Act, 1867), which united three colonies into a single country called Canada within the British Empire. Originally called Dominion Day (French: Le Jour de la Confédération), the holiday was renamed in 1982, the year the Canada Act was passed

[ Brazil independence day ]  -->  Sept 7, 1822

The Independence Day of Brazil (Portuguese: Dia da Independência), commonly called Sete de Setembro (September 7th), is a national holiday observed in Brazil on September 7. The date celebrates Brazil's Declaration of Independence from the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves on September 7, 1822.

[ Mexico independence day ]  -->  Sept 16, 1810  (or Sep 27, 1821)

The Mexican War of Independence (Spanish: Guerra de Independencia de México) ended the rule of Spain in 1821 in the territory of New Spain. The war extended from the Grito de Dolores by Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla on September 16, 1810, to the entrance of the Army of the Three Guarantees led by Augustín de Iturbide to Mexico City on September 27, 1821. (Eleven years later!) While independence took some time to achieve, September 16 is celebrated as Mexican Independence Day.
The interesting thing here is that Mexico and Brazil gained their independence very close together in time.  Obviously, the middle 1800's were a time of great trials among the colonies.   

4.  Could George Washington (the first President of the United States, and a great music lover) have heard the music of Joseph Haydn?  

Off the top of my head, I knew that Washington and Haydn (a famous early classical composer) were pretty close in age (but then, I've studied a fair bit of music and remembered the dates of some of Haydn's compositions).  I also knew that there was a fair bit of contemporary music in the world of Washington, so I thought it was a pretty good chance that Washington had heard Haydn at least once.  

Just looking up both: 

     [ George Washington ] 


     [ Joseph Haydn ] 

showed me that they were both born in 1732 and had the main part of their careers at about the same time. 

As Ramón pointed out, you can ask Wolfram Alpha to do a side-by-side comparison of the two men, and it will give you this very nice side-by-side images, jobs, and timeline:  

But did Washington ever hear Haydn?  

I did a query for: 

    [ Washington hear Haydn ] 

and that took me to an announcement of a concert in Philadelphia of "Music Washington Would Have Heard," which told me about the American composer, Alexander Reinagle, who was a huge admirer of Haydn.  Washington in turn, was an admirer of Reinagle. 

The Wikipedia entry on Reinagle points out that:  

"In 1786, Reinagle decided to try his fortune as a professional musician in the new United States of America. He moved ... to Philadelphia, which was the national capital at the time. He helped revitalize the musical life of Philadelphia in the 1790s, introducing that city to the music of Haydn and Mozart, as well as his own original compositions.  
One of Reinagle's admirers was American President George Washington. In 1789, Reinagle composed a “Chorus”, which was performed for Washington at Trenton, New Jersey, during Washington's journey to his inauguration. Later, in Philadelphia, Nellie Custis, Washington’s step-granddaughter, was one of Reinagle’s music students. Washington was a frequent concertgoer, and could often be seen in the audience at Reinagle’s concerts." 

So while we don't have certain proof, the likelyhood is VERY high that Washington heard Haydn at one of Reinagle's performances.  

So how did we do on the Pre-Challenge?  

Out of 97 replies, here's how we did: 

Sun distance?  The answer varied from 6 billion miles to 1000 miles. But we did better on this than on any other question, with about 50% of people getting it correct (in miles or km). 

2GB over a 10Mbps line?  Only about 10% got this one right, with a lot of people making the "off-by-8X" error (bit vs. byte).  Be careful with those definitions!  

Which colony gained independence first?  The answers were all over the map.  (Basically, everyone was guessing.)  Not a real surprise. I had to guess as well.  

Washington ever heard Haydn?  About 25% of us said "no," which we now know is incorrect.  It's clear they overlapped, AND there was an active channel of communication in the person of Washington's step-granddaughter!  

Extra credit:  How many degrees / day?  This was, unfortunately, a poorly worded question in the Pre-Challenge (my mistake!).  On the other hand, the blog post has the nice diagram that makes the meaning clear, but it was obvious that lots of readers had a different interpretation than I had. That's fine, but it makes evaluating the question difficult!  

Search Lessons

The big point of this week's Challenge is that research is often based on finding relationships between things. And that often depends on being able to look at some data and understand what's going on.  If you have to stop and look up every last thing, you become inefficient, and will probably miss deeper connections that people with background knowledge will be able to see.  

Knowing that Haydn and Washington are contemporaries lets you start to understand more of what life was like back then.  Had Haydn heard of Washington?  (Probably.)  Had Washington heard of Haydn? (Almost definitely.)  This is what deep understanding of a field is built from.  

We've learned that sometimes you need to learn the specific language of a field in order to ask reasonable questions. 

And sometimes, the ability to make quick estimates is important.  Sometimes that's based on quick estimates (as we saw above), and sometimes it's just knowing.  

This is true particularly as part of being a literate citizen.  

Quick question here:  What should you know to be a literate and informed citizen?  The size of your country's GDP?  (And what a GDP actually is?)  What fraction of that is spent on education vs. military defense? 

Yes, I know you can look all of these things up... but people don't when they're in mid-discussion--be that a debate about economic policy for the country, or about what people were contemporaries in history.  Being able to know what the basic facts are--and being able to reason with those basic facts, gives you a huge amount of leverage.  You can reason (and fact-check) accurately.  

The more you know, the more you recognize.. the more you recognize, the deeper your understanding can be.  

In summary:  Keep learning, it's the only way to be better at understanding your world! 

(And keep searching as well...)