Wednesday, December 28, 2016

SearchResearch Challenge (12/28/16): A few Natural History Challenges (ears, embryonic nutrition, and virgin births)

As I read, I take notes. 

I take so many notes that by the end of the year, I have a few hundred pages of them.  

Some of those notes are questions that I've read about, or small curiosities that have occurred to me as I read.  I try to frame those curiosities as questions, most of which I spent at least few minutes trying to answer.  (This is a great meta-reading strategy: As you read, ask questions of yourself to test your understanding.)  

To celebrate the last SearchResearch Challenge of 2016, I've pulled together a few of the questions I had written down in my notes during the year.  I was able to answer these fairly quickly, so this is more of a fun Challenge than a difficult one, but I hope you'll enjoy these Challenges (and the sometimes strikingly strange answers to these questions)... 

1. We see birds all of the time, and I know they can hear, but I can't help but wonder: Where are their ears?  What does the ear of an owl or crow look like?   
2.  As you know, mammal embryos depend on a placenta for nutrition via their mother until birth. Egg-laying animals provide a yolk for their embryos for feeding until hatching.  But I've heard about a few other ways in which some animal embryos get nutrition while still in utero that's from a surprising source.  What are three other strategies for embryos to get nutrients while still in their mother's uterus?   
3. Speaking of giving birth, I read that virgin births are fairly common in certain kinds of animals.  Can you find which vertebrates are able to give birth without having to bother with all of the process of finding and joining with a mate?  

Let us know what you find and how you found it.  (I'll caution you ahead of time that these are pretty interesting Challenges.  I spent waaaay too much time reading into the finer aspects of biology.  This is fascinating stuff!) 

As always, if you don't have time to do all three, just let us know what you found on just one.  Collectively, we'll all learn from everyone else's search process and results.  

Search on! 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Answer: Searching for the place where things should be

Where should things go?

Ann Folsom wrote in asking how to find a good (best?) place for your collection of possibly historically useful artifacts.  I condensed her questions in these two:  

1.  How do you find the "best" place for your collection of artifacts from another time?  Is there a strategy to match your collection with an interested buyer / acquirer?   That is, how would you find a good home for your collection?  

2.  If you're searching for archival materials to acquire, what's a good strategy for finding them?  (As an example, what's the best way to find archival piano rolls to acquire? How about old oak library card catalogs?)

Several Regular Readers wrote in with great advice which I condense below (with a couple of my own observations).   

Judith pointed out that nearly every place has a local historical society. A quick search for your town or county's name will often reveal organizations that you didn't know about.  Check in with them.  Here's an example for my town: 

     [ Palo Alto historical society ] 

This quick search shows me that there are 4 organizations that might well be interested in your collection.  

Remember to also check in with your local library. Many libraries have local archive collections.  If you've got old photos or newspapers, be sure to check with them.  

As Deb and Anne pointed out, you might want to check places that have a national scope if your collection might be of broader interest.  Their story of a friend taking audio tapes of NPR broadcasts to the Library of Congress (for their Archive of American Broadcasting) is a great story.  

They also point out that you might want to search for different destinations depending on the media format.  Almost every place will take photos, but not every place wants (or can handle) audio tapes, 16 mm film, 78 RPM records, laser disks, or (zounds!) piano rolls.  Be sure to do a query like this one: 

     [ archive recorded sound ]    or...    [ archive piano rolls ] 

Consider libraries, archives, museums, historical societies...and in particular, ones that have the ability to handle the kind of media object you have.  For instance, near to where I live the USGS has a wonderful map library in Menlo Park with a dedicated page for donations of old maps and land-use images.  

Jon reminds us that searching for a generalization of the topic is a great search strategy.  He didn't just search for "piano roll" but for a more general term, "player piano."  Don't get locked into a particular term when doing your searches.  

But he also correctly cautions that sometimes it really is tough to find anyone interested in your collection. Don't take it personally if you can't find a library to accept your fantastic collection of Victorian-era antimacassars.  (But consider searching for alternate generalizations of the key idea, such as [ Victorian era furniture collection ] 

Steve also tells us that while talking to a local historical society is a great idea, spend some time looking for a professional archivist:  many universities and larger colleges have at least one (usually hiding in the library).  

Many libraries have excellent collections of things you might not expect.  For instance, the UCSB library has a famous collection of cylinder recordings, and an deep collection of digitized records -- the detailed metadata can make for fun searching of songs.  (My favorite: American Cakewalk, played on the accordion in 1906.)  

Lastly, don't forget that great frictionless supply/demand service, eBay.  If you can find the items in your collection there, you've got a good sense for (a) whether anyone else finds it interesting, and (b) other terms to describe your object. 

Here's a look at eBay's suggestions list: 

They have an entire category of "Vintage Musical Instruments" (which might be a handy search term as you look for museums and libraries), as well as other terms you might not know.  

I learned that  "QRS," "Ampico," and "Duo-Art" are companies that used to make piano rolls.  I also see the term "player piano," which is the generalization that Jon found!  

Search Lessons

Let me summarize these in a quick list: 

1. Search for local libraries, historical societies, and museums. Search for these at both city and county levels (and if your collection is great, at state or national levels). 

2. Search for places that specialize in your particular object.  Not every place can handle every kind of thing.  If you've got an audio recording or old computer, search for institutions that specialize in that kind of thing. 

3. Seek out your local librarian and/or archivist.  They often have lots of connections that are difficult to find through regular web search.  

4. Look for archivist mailing lists that might connect you with the larger set of interested people.  For instance, has a number of private and public mailing lists.  Check them out as well.  

5.  Remember the amazingness of eBay.  That's a quick reality check for the value of your collection.  It can also be a source of ideas about other search terms and places where you could potentially sell your collection.  (Or buy even more!)  

Search on! 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

SearchResearch Challenge (Dec 21, 2016): Searching for the place where things should be

Where should things go? 

Regular Reader Ann Folsom wrote in with a great question that I wanted to share as a SearchResearch Challenge, especially at this holiday time of the year.  

Her excellent question:  
Some of us are in the position of downsizing or finding out what's in those trunks in the attic, learning what a family member treasured enough to put away. For instance, I recently heard of a woman unable to find a buyer for her player piano and its 150 piano rolls.  In another case, a family member passed away, leaving an enormous collection of lovely, varied, interesting teacups.
What happens to family photo albums from 80-90 years ago? The clothing and backgrounds are interesting, and who knows what might be of historic interest to future researchers?  
Likewise, families often have magazine and comic book collections, stamp and coin collections, not to mention electronic collections (outdated computers, with instruction manuals and floppy disks of various types)
I've even seen collections of mounted trophy heads,  artwork from painters, journals and magazines in various fields, and personal libraries of books.  Where should they go?   I'm guessing that somewhere out there, somebody would have loved to have the player piano or the piano rolls.  
I have no idea how you'd make the connection. Some tech historian might really welcome the electronic collection of Victor computers, attachments, and disks.

This leads to today's Challenge, which comes in two parts:  

1.  How do you find the "best" place for your collection of artifacts from another time?  Is there a strategy to match your collection with an interested buyer / acquirer?   That is, how would you find a good home for your collection?  

-- and then there's the opposite of that question... 

2.  If you're searching for archival materials to acquire, what's a good strategy for finding them?  (As an example, what's the best way to find archival piano rolls to acquire? How about old oak library card catalogs?)

What would your advice be to Ann?  Is there an effective strategy that would match archival artifacts with interested buyers or acquirers?  

Let us know what your advice would be.  How can you give stuff back to the universe after you're done with it (and do it in a way that is beneficial to the world at large)?  And how can you figure out how to acquire the stuff that you're interested in as well.  (While I'm not a big collector, I have been known to acquire the occasional historically interesting postcard.  How does one do that??)  

Who knew there was an amusement park at Fulton at Tenth Avenue in
San Francisco, next to Golden Gate Park known as "Beer Town"?
You can't make this stuff up. Postcards make the past visible.

Search on!  

Answer: Finding a story? Could it happen like that?

Is this story for real? 

We've even talked before about how hard this task is.  Perhaps this is why people keep coming to librarians and asking these questions.  They really want to find that story again, and they can't figure out how to do it.  

But we've also talked about some research methods for finding lost stories.  

This week, the story is personal:  Now *I* want to find a story, but I'm having trouble finding it. (Details below).   Can you help out?  

Naturally, I also want to know if this story could be true as well.  Here are the details for the story SearchResearch Challenge for this week: 

I remember reading a short story (that I believe was written sometime in the past few years) about a couple who are hiking across a frozen landscape in winter.  One of them (I think it's the man), falls through the ice as he's crossing a frozen lake and disappears.
The woman thinks he's fallen into the icy water and drowned, but when she goes to check, it turns out that he's actually fallen into the space beneath the ice that has no water in it. He's alive and well, walking around on the floor of the lake.  That is, the lake is somehow empty, but the shell of the ice has remained, and he broke through that. 
They stay for a while in this magical place beneath the lake ice that is somewhat warm and in some way has mysterious flashes of light. 

That's the story as I recall it. As they traverse the snowy landscape, they visit this remarkable place beneath the surface of the lake.  

Really? Is such a thing even possible?  


1.  Can you find this short story for me?  What's the title?  Who's the author? 
2.  Can this empty space beneath the lake ice REALLY happen like this?  (That is, is it true that the water of the lake can freeze over, then somehow the water can drain away, leaving this empty space?)  
3. This empty-space-beneath-the-lake-ice must have a name--this is such a strange phenomena (if real) that is would be called something.  What's that term?  (It's probably not the sub-aquatic-post-freezing-space!)  

I'm going to repeat what I wrote the last time discussed a problem like this.  

My biggest suggestion is to be skeptical of what is remembered about the story.  Human memory is often wrong (and how certain you feel about knowing something has almost no bearing on the accuracy of that memory--you may be completely confident that the main character was a 70 year-old man, but discover later that it was a 40 year old woman--be skeptical...   As several Regular Readers pointed out, 

Here some story-finding research strategies  to try out.  

1.  Try regular web searches for a quote (using double-quotes) IF you have a quotation fragment or element.  (But keep in mind that often the surest memory of what was in the story might be incorrect.)   You can also look for characters
 (e.g., [ "Robin Hood" "Maid Marian" ]  ) 
2.  Library databases may also be helpful in locating short stories. Some databases let you limit searches by categories such as genre, subject, first and last line, and setting, or search for keywords in plot summaries: Lit FinderMagillOnLiterature PlusShort Story Index   Note that you can often connect to these databases through your local public library.  (Usually requires a login with your library card.) 
3. Short story index: You should know that there are many short story indexes, including the print editions of Short Story Index, can be identified by searching the Library of Congress online catalog under subject headings such as:,  Short Stories, American - Bibliography   Short Stories, American - Indexes  Short Stories - Bibliography   Short Stories - Indexes.  Unfortunately, almost none of these index books are available for searching online (they're certainly not in, even though they would be incredibly useful to have. 
4.  Other online collections of stories you might want to search (say, by using site: to restrict your search to just one of these sites):    Bartleby.comProject GutenbergThe Online Books Page
5.  Social solutions:  Some listservs and message boards might prove useful.  These are collections of people who have broad knowledge about plots, characters, setting and stories in general.  Try posting your question to one or more of these:  

The find the short story in this week's Challenge, I started with the straight-forward query first, hoping I might find something that matched quickly: 

     [ short story frozen lake space beneath ice ] 

which took me to several pages, all of which told me that this was a short story by Rick Bass entitled "The Hermit's Story," in a book by the same name (The Hermit's Story, Haughton Mifflin, 2002, which has 10 stories in all).  Once I had this, I was able to read the story which includes this description of the space beneath the ice: 
“..she took one glove off and eased her bare hand down into the hole. She could find no water, and, tentatively, she reached deeper.

Gray Owl’s hand found hers and he pulled her down in… there was no water at all, and it was warm beneath the ice.  “This happens a lot more than people realize,” he said.  “It’s not really a phenomenon; it’s just what happens.  The cold snap comes in October, freezes a skin of ice over the lake—it’s got to be a shallow one, almost a marsh.  Then a snowfall comes, insulating the ice.  The lake drains in fall and winter—percolates down through the soil… but the ice up top remains.”
 “…The dry lake was only about eight feet deep…”

Once under the ice, Gray Owl and Ann explore a kind of magical place that's sheltered from the deep Canadian winter cold by a sheet of ice, with marsh grasses and pockets of methane that would occasionally catch fire making “…explosions of brilliance, like flashbulbs, marsh pockets igniting like falling dominoes, or like children playing hopscotch…” 

And while that's a brilliant description, we don't yet know if this is a real phenomenon, or if it's a great story metaphor, a kind of special place that's removed from our ordinary, sublunary world.  

I started my search for this mysterious ice-covered dry lake (and what it might be called) by searching for: 

     [ air gap frozen lake ] 

which led to many pages that have some information.  Unfortunately, at this point, it's just click and read through the content.  I'm looking for a web page that describes the ice and an air gap to the bottom of the lake.  

Like others, I read about subglacial lakes that can drain out, leaving an ice roof that can then collapse, although that doesn't sound like what we have here, although it does seem really interesting.  (As reader Verda Stelo points out, this kind of drainage can leave pretty large gaps or tunnels in the glacier, though the bottom of the air gap would be more glacier, and not marshy lake-bottom.)  

I don't have the scale for this image, but it looks to be fairly large.  

A subglacial lake surface can collapse, leaving a depression in the snow.
Aerial photo taken in Greenland. P/C Gizmodo.  

With this query, I also found the source that Debra Gottsleben found:  Reading the Short Story which tell us that Rick Bass was inspired to write his story when he heard about a lake with ice on top where the water below had drained out, leaving a gap.  (But the blog post doesn't clarify whether or not this actually happens at the scale we're looking for.)  

Then there's the frost heave idea, pointed out by Chris who found a technical paper on frost heaves, which could heave up the bottom of a lake enough to leave a gap. But the paper says the max amount is around 30 cm, which isn't anywhere close to the 8 feet mentioned in the book.  

The book describes Gray Owl as falling through the ice after walking on it for a bit.  That implies a certain kind of structural strength to the ice.  It was strong enough to support him for a while, but then thin enough to break under his weight.  

This led me to search for: 

     [ ice safe thickness for walking ] 

and I learned that 3 inches is usually considered the safe thickness for walking.  So the ice Grey Owl broke through was less than 3 inches.  BUT, remember that this ice didn't have any water beneath it!  That is, this is the situation: 

The ice that Gray Owl is walking on is supported all around the edge of the lake, right?  So the structural strength of the ice is going to be limited by how far it is between the lake edges.  Ice is pretty heavy and isn't that strong when trying to support a wide gap.  In other words, if the lake is 100 yards across, and the middle is 8 feet deep, that's a LOT of ice weight to support in the center.

We could probably do a bit of fancy math with structural equations (after looking up the shear strength of ice--if you're curious, I recommend the highly technical, but fascinating, Ice Handbook which tells you how to calculate all the stresses and loads).  The bottom line here is that to support a shell of ice over a drained lake without any internal additional support structures, you'd need the ice thickness to be.... well, let's just say it's MUCH thicker than it would take for a man's weight to break it!  This is starting to sound a bit unlikely.   

I kept looking for more web documents that describe air gaps beneath frozen lakes and ended up finding an interesting resource after going to page 2 : Lake Ice Glossary, which defines MANY terms for ice, including a few ones that sound plausible.  

I learned that Dry shell ice is a shell of ice that covers a "puddle" that has drained away.  

Then there's Soufflé Shell Ice, which is a kind of dry shell ice that forms when deep puddles drain in cold conditions.  This can create a relatively unusual form of shell ice that typically has a crust on top and a supporting matrix of ice flakes underneath.

Soufflé shell ice forms an air gap with a "soufflé" of supporting thin ice crystals...
It can be over 1 foot thick from top to lake bed.  P/C Lakeice Glossary.  

It seems pretty clear that soufflé shell ice could be the inspiration for the dry lake bed of the short story, although it probably wouldn't be quite as clear and empty as described in the story, but filled with a light matrix of ice flakes that give support to the ice above.  It would be quite an extraordinary event to have an ice shell that covers a lake large enough to be 8 feet deep AND wide enough to have a thin shell that can support a man's weight, yet one that's still breakable by Grey Owl. 

Two things strike me about this Challenge.  

First, the term "soufflé shell ice" is ONLY used at the Lakeice site, and doesn't seem to be used anywhere else.  The site seems fairly authoritative (its depth of coverage and documentation of different kinds of lake ice is impressive), but the authors of this site might have coined an idiosyncratic term that's not widely used elsewhere.  

Second, given ALL of the research that goes into ice (there are millions of results when you search on Scholar), and all of the specialized vocabulary on the topic of ice, properties of ice, and the structures it forms (see glossary of ice terms), it seems strange that there does NOT seem to be a specialized term (other than at Lakeice) for this phenomenon.  

A few examples:  

Sastrugi  Sharp, irregular, parallel ridges formed on a snow surface by wind erosion and deposition.
Polynya Any non-linear shaped opening enclosed by ice. May contain brash ice and/or be covered with new ice, nilas or young ice; submariners refer to these as skylights.
Grease ice   A stage of freezing, later than that of frazil ice, in which the crystals have coagulated to form a soupy layer on the surface. Grease ice reflects little light, giving the sea a matte appearance. 
Sermik  A body of ice (usually with some firn) formed by the metamorphosis of snow, lying wholly or largely on land, and showing evidence of present or former flow.

Search Lessons 

Of course, that doesn't prove this under-the-lake-ice-gap doesn't exist, merely that it's not well documented in the literature available on the web.  But I gave this a pretty good shot, checking Google Scholar, newspaper accounts, and I even tried my favorite reverse dictionary to seek out any specialized terms for this... but failed.  

But after investing several hours on this, the next step would be to activate my social network, and reach out to either the author (no success so far), or other writers in this area.  I haven't started that process, but if I were really interested, that would be the next step to pursue. 

It could be the soufflé shell ice that we read about above. I'm not sure that this would be structurally sound enough to support a shell over an 8-foot air gap, but it's a working hypothesis.  

For right now, we found the short story (fairly easily too), but have to leave the mysterious space under the lake as part of Bass' lovely story.  Maybe soufflé, but as yet still unknown.  

If you meet Rick Bass on the road, ask him for me, will you?

Search on!