Thursday, November 28, 2013

Answer: Can you find the bubble houses?

People often ask me "Where do you get all of the challenges for SearchResearch?"  And the answer is short and simple:  Everywhere.  

I prefer authentic questions that people ask me--questions they've actually been trying to solve, and especially questions they've tried to answer... but have failed at finding.  (I have a long story about the director of research at Google asking me for help in searching for something--something that had eluded him for a while turned out to be a fairly simple search... for SearchResearchians!)  

And in truth, I first heard about Wallace Neff's bubble houses on Roman Mars excellent podcast, 99% Invisible.  In particular, he has a segment all about bubble houses that I first heard while driving through the Valley.  When I got home, I did some searching around, and could find everything EXCEPT the old houses in Dakar.  That's when it struck me that this would be a good SRS topic.  And thus it came to be.  

Linked from 

Our questions were: 

1.   Can you find a current streetview image of one of Neff's bubble houses?? 
2.  Extra credit:  Can you give us the lat/long of the bubble house complex in Dakar (in Africa)?

As you can imagine, my first search was for: 

     [ bubble house Wallace Neff ] 

and that led me to the podcast, which has a huge amount of information on the topic.   I'm surprised that only Rosemary mentioned this in the comments from yesterday's challenge.  (Did anyone else see that hit in the SERP?  I found it a great treasure trove, with nicely annotated links and lots of background information.)  

When you go to the 99% site, you'll see they've collected lots of archival images (see above) that are wonderful.  

But our challenge was to look for a CURRENT Streetview image.  And that took a little more doing.  

I like Fred's solution of searching on with a site: search.  

     [ "wallace neff" ]

That's a great method to use when you're looking for things that are probably on a map somewhere.  As Fred points out, this leads you to great map of "round houses," and a quick Control-F search finds you the Neff bubble house at 1097 S. Los Robles, Pasadena, CA.  (BTW, that same list of round houses also points to a blog about Round Houses, with another article about Neff's obsession with cheap, quick, sturdy (and round) houses.  

But we're looking for a Streetview image.  So dropping the address into Maps gives us this somewhat obscured image (as you see, I had to go around the corner onto Wallis street to get even this picture): 

And if you look carefully, there's actually a link to a Panoramio image of that building at that location: 
Panoramio image of Pasadena bubble house on Los Robles, by fstorer.

In my reading about the bubble houses (or "Airform" houses, as Neff preferred to call them), I also read that there was one still standing in Florida.  Curious, I did the obvious search: 

      [ "bubble house" OR "airform" florida ] 

which quickly took me to another blog, "Unusual Places" which has great photos of the Florida bubble houses in Hobe Sound, and directs us to 9096 Southeast Venus Street, Hobe Sound, FL.  

Now, what about the Dakar cluster of bubble/Airform houses? 

Going back to that map of round houses (from above), and zooming in on Dakar (which I'm sure you know is the westernmost point of Senegal, on the westernmost part of Africa), we see that there are 3 locations on the map. 

And by doing a bit of zooming and pin-dropping (easiest to do in Google Earth), we find that you can still see the uniquely rounded domes of the Airforms, and if you look carefully, you can still see the very regular grid pattern.  

Giving us the lat/longs of for all three locations as: 

    14°43'50.45"N  17°29'10.94"W
    14°41'49.21"N  17°27'28.15"W

    14°41'53.41"N  17°27'23.32"W

Search Lessons:  First, that the simplest possible search can lead to some great articles, even about some of the world's most obscure topics.  (See the 99% Invisible and the Unusual Houses blog posts above.)  

Second, that a site: restriction search on MAPS (as a content collection itself) can lead to great resources.  

A few people noted the book:  "No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff” by Jeffrey Head.  It's a fascinating read (or at least worth a scan), and is the source of most of the images from the 99% Invisible blog.  While it doesn't quickly solve the challenge, it's a great story of Wallace Neff--architect to the stars, who tried to solve a real-world housing problem.  His solution was ingenious.  (And although it didn't catch on, as Rosemary pointed out, there are follow-on solutions available today that are very clever in their own right.) 
Wallace Neff and one of his Airform houses.
From "No Nails, No Lumber" by Jeffrey Head.
(See above for link.) 

I would be remiss if I didn't point out that there's a kind of bubble-house that I see every time I drive up into San Francisco from Silicon Valley.  The "Flintstone House" is a delightful sight that has made kids happy for the past 4 decades.  While it's not a Neff Airform house, it's in the same style.  (Although I liked it better when it was white and looked like an igloo, but what do I know.)    

The Flintstone House, image from WikiMedia.

Search on!  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Wednesday search challenge (11/27/13): Can you find the bubble houses?

Today is just before the American holiday of Thanksgiving, so today's challenge is fairly simple.  It's just for fun--shouldn't take you too long. 

Earlier this week I was thinking about how thankful I am to live in a nice house, with running water, electricity, and plumbing.  (I was especially thankful that I managed to find - and fix- a major water leak before it made the place a giant aquatic mess!)  This made me think about housing... 

Hollywood architect to the stars Wallace Neff is ALSO famous for his bubble houses.  They're domed houses that could be made cheaply and quickly, using few resources.  This, he thought, would bring him eternal fame as not just the architect to the rich and well-off, but also a provider of robust housing to the poor of the world.  
Illustration from Neff's original patent. (USPTO)

But that was then, and now, the bubble houses have mostly vanished into obscurity.  

A few still exist, though, and that leads to today's Challenge: 

1.   Can you find a current streetview image of one of Neff's bubble houses?? 
2.  Extra credit:  Can you give us the lat/long of the bubble house complex in Dakar (in Africa)?

Search on!  (Be sure to tell the tale of how you found the houses!) 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A note about searching Google Scanned Newspaper archives

As you might know, Google currently has a collection of newspaper archives that's worth knowing about.  

It turns out that the Newspaper Archive search still works, it just requires a bit of special technique to actually search it out.   

and it will show you a popup.  Fill in the fields the way you want, THEN do a date-restrict to the dates you want, and THEN in the "Source" field, enter the name of the newspaper you want.  
Here's an example of looking for "Phrygian Cap"  (as we discussed in an earlier SRS post about these hats).  

And the results... 

If you click on the first result, you'll see this excerpt from the NYTimes of 1893

As another example, you can put in the name of one of the newspaper scanned collection in the source: field.  To wit, 

Be sure you put in the name of a newspaper that we have in our scanned archive.  (Check out the full list of scanned newspapers at: ) 

Once you're on a roll and have started one of these, you can then substitute the name of another paper in the source: field slot at the top of the page without having to go back to the original URL shown above.  

It's not handy, but it works, and you can vary the date-range AND source to be what you want it to be. 

Let us know what interesting things you discover in the news archives.  

(My favorite from this morning was to look up something more about "hand grenades" used to put out fires, again, as discussed in an earlier SRS post.)  

From the Brandon Mail, Aug 25, 1887... Article:  "Burned at sea.  The SS City of Montreal burned to the water's edge in mid-ocean" 

In the section, "The Captain's Version," the scene was described: 

What can YOU find?  

Search on! 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Answer: When do you search for more information?

Yesterday I asked an intentionally provocative question motivated by this remarkable image of a fruit fly that seems to have two insects tattooed onto its wings.  

Our SearchResearch questions were: 
1.  Do you believe that these are images of insects on the wings of this fly?  (Yes or no.)   
2.  WHY do you believe whatever-it-is-you-believe about this?  Can you give evidence for your belief about this?  

Here's the story from my perspective... 
You know what it's like... you're reading along, and then something grabs your attention.  In this case, the fly with images of other insects on its wings.  My first reaction was that this is pretty amazing.  But then my "critical response" kicked in.  And this is probably the big lesson here: 

Whenever something strikes you as especially remarkable, you probably ought to check out the story. 

This is really the basis of all research.  As Isaac Asimov purportedly said, "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That's funny...”   
And that's the case here.  If something stands out from the background, it's because you've seen something that violates your expectations.  It's "funny." Perhaps it's a stroke of color in an oil painting that you didn't expect, perhaps it's the strange appearance of an insect on the wing.  
So when I saw this, my Spidey-sense started tingling, and I (being a curious sort of fellow), did a little digging. 
Like most of you, I read the article on the Why Evolution is True blog carefully.  I noted the scientific name of the fly (Goniurellia tridens), the photographer (Peter Roosenschoon), where (Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve), etc.  I followed the links back to the NYTimes Dot Earth column and read that.  
Interestingly, since I first read the NYTimes article, an update has been made.  At the very top, the article has a few new lines that link to another blog, Biodiversity in Focus, by an entomology graduate student, Morgan Jackson.  Jackson's article, Ants, Spiders, or Wishful Thinking? is excellent, and gives a learned background story that's well worth reading.  
My answers? 

1.  Are images of insects on the wings of this fly? 

Answer:  They certainly look insect-like, but as Jackson points out, its probably just an accident of wing coloration patterns that look like insects to humans.  It's really a Rorschach inkblot test that is projecting images of bugs onto the wings.  So, I'd say no.  (But keep reading.)  

2.  WHY do you believe whatever-it-is-you-believe about this?

Answer:  I'm certainly struck by the depth and careful analysis of Jackson's commentary on this.  But, being skeptical myself, I went and looked up some original source material.  I did a search on the family name: Tephritidae and found a few entomology books.  Here's one I found that was pretty interesting... 
Fruit fly genera south of the United States (Diptera: Tephritidae) Author: Richard Herbert  Foote, United States Science and Education Administration, (1980)
Yes, it's from the New World, but the genus is the same, and so I poked around a bit in this book (using the "search in this book" function) and found the wings from closely related fruit flies.  
Side-by-side Tephritidae fly wings of different species, including tridens. Pg. 72. 
And, just for grins, I extracted the wing image from the picture above and put it side-by-side with the wing of the fly in the top picture.  I converted it to gray scale, and erased a bunch of the peripheral clutter.  

Side-by-side comparison
As you see, these look pretty similar.  I'm not sure how variable these wing patterns are, but this definitely seems like it's within the normal range of variation.  
It IS remarkable, but perhaps more in the same way that a cloth can be said to have an image of Christ on it.  (I'm not making this up: this happens often enough that there's a word for it, a veronica.)  
In any case, in a dispute among experts--here, the entomologist is going to win.  His argument is well-reasoned, and he gives a good bit of background information about mimicry in other animals, and when there's functional mimicry, as opposed to accidental imitation that we humans perceive as being a mimic.  
But there's more...  The fact that the NYTimes posts updates to their science columns with information that amplifies and somewhat contradicts their original posting AND that they didn't modify the original article to make it seem like they knew what they were doing all along... That suggests to me that the NYTimes science writers are being truthful, honest, and open in their disclosures about what they knew, and when they learned it.
Part of understanding what it means to find a credible resource relies on knowing something about that source. 
In my mind, the NYTimes Science section just went up another couple of notches in credibility.  (And they were already pretty far up there.)  
Search lessons:   First, when something odd, peculiar or funny strikes you (and of course, especially when it's material to something you're trying to understand), it's worth doing just one-more-query to see if the odd/surprising thing holds up to a little scrutiny.  For SearchResearchers I advocate making this part of your daily inquiry practice--check out one "fact" a day. You'll be surprised at what holds up, and what doesn't.   
Second, as you research various topics, be sure to take note of how reliable, consistent and credible your sources are.  Sites that use inflammatory language usually have a position they're advocating--you don't need to ignore them, but you DO need to understand what their slant is going to be.  And when you find high quality credible sites, remember them.  You'll come back to them in the future. 

Search on! 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Wednesday search challenge (11/20/13): When do you search for more information?

I'd like to continue our conversation from last week (you remember--the debate about the origins of Earl Grey tea).  

Let's do a small investigation on another topic that will shed some light on finding credible stories.  

Recently, there’s been much todo in the blogosphere (and in the press) about a remarkable image on a set of fly wings on a fly with extraordinary eyes.  

See for example, this blog post on Why Evolution is True.   In that post, this image appears: 

Link from Why Evolution is True blog

The press buzz about this image is that it's remarkable:  How could a fly have evolved to have TWO images of other insects on its wings.  

Our SearchResearch questions for today: 

1.  Do you believe that these are images of insects on the wings of this fly?  (Yes or no.)   
2.  WHY do you believe whatever-it-is-you-believe about this?  Can you give evidence for your belief about this?  

Just to be clear, I'm NOT making a statement here about evolution, or even about flies.  I'm hoping that we'll have a discussion about what causes you--when you read something, or see an odd picture--pull up and say "Hey.. wait a second.  Let me look into that a bit more."  
In essence, I'm hoping this will prompt a discussion about (A) how you know when you should go digging around in background information to check on things, and (B) how do you go about trying to do that digging?  

So, when you write in, tell us WHAT YOU DID to find evidence for your belief about these fancy fly wings.  What did you search on?  How did you evaluate what you found?  

See you in the discussion forum below!  

Search on!  (Skeptically!)  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

SearchResearch Meetup on Dec 3, 2013 -- somewhere in the greater DC area

As I discussed before, I'd like to try having a MeetUp with SearchResearch folks in the greater DC area on Tuesday evening, Dec 3rd, 2013.

If you're amenable, we'll be getting together at 7PM at a place TBD (but I have a preference for someplace near the Silver Spring Metro stop, as that will simplify transportation for many people, including me).  

If there's a chance you can make it, would you please fill out the following form?  (And for people who can't see this form on their device, please visit this Survey for Dec 3 link.)  

No obligations, but it would be great to see you!  

Other cities in times to come.  Stay tuned.  

Friday, November 15, 2013

A variety of stories.... Which one is real?

In response to my post yesterday about the Newcastle church, and the association of Newcastle with Earl Grey, Jon wrote in:

Dan, Check this out for the real story on Earl Grey tea.

Pile o' Earl Grey.  From Wikimedia.
It's a fair point: There's at least another version of the Earl Grey tea creation story.  

My story was given without attribution.  To quote myself, 
Sometime during his diplomatic career he apparently received a gift of tea scented with oil from the bergamot orange, and the link was forged.  That kind of tea came to be "Earl Grey's tea."

To tell the truth, this was something I'd learned long ago.  And now, when I look at Wikipedia, I see that's more-or-less consistent with the story told there.  From the Wikipedia article on Earl Grey tea
"According to the Grey family, the tea was specially blended by a Chinese mandarin for Lord Grey, to suit the water at Howick Hall, the family seat in Northumberland, using bergamot in particular to offset the preponderance of lime in the local water. Lady Grey used it to entertain in London as a political hostess, and it proved so popular that she was asked if it could be sold to others, which is how Twinings came to market it as a brand."  
The Wikipedia article cites Howick Hall Gardens as the source.  (Link)

BUT.. the Wikipedia article does say that this is "assumed" and "according to legend.."  And the Howick Hall Gardens people (who I assume are lovely people) probably are not in the business of running down their stories carefully. 

So... how do we determine which is the real one?  The website has this creation myth, and another one saying that it comes from the Jacksons of Piccadilly.  "...Lord Grey apparently gave the recipe to the firm [ Jacksons ] in 1830 and they claim to be continuing to make the original blend today."  

How many other variations on the theme are there?  

The link that Jon gives tells a pretty convincing story.  

But I'm curious--are there any other origin stories for Earl Grey tea?  How will we tell them apart?  Which to believe?  

For the teachers out there... what advice do you give your students about discriminating the different stories? 

Searching on... for ways to find the gem in the pile.