Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Answer: Mercury where?

Mercury is magical, but it leaves a legacy... 

Apparently I wasn't the only kid to play with liquid metal mercury.  Many folks about my age (including the ageless RegularReader JonTheUnknown) have spent time pouring mercury back and forth between our hands.  Although we didn't know it at the time, fooling around with mercury isn't a great idea.  

Liquid mercury. P/C Wikipedia Commons.

Mercury in any form is poisonous, with mercury toxicity most commonly affecting the nervous system, the gastrointestinal tract, and kidneys. Poisoning can result from mercury vapor inhalation, raw mercury ingestion, mercury injection, and absorption of mercury through the skin. 

I learned that mercury has 3 forms: (1) elemental mercury, (2) inorganic salts, and (3) various organic compounds. 

Luckily for kids playing with elemental mercury (as seen in the above image) isn't well absorbed through the skin.  It happens, but slowly.  

On the other hand, other forms of mercury--such as methylmercury is VERY easily absorbed through the skin or through the GI tract.  ("Methylmercury" is a shorthand for "monomethylmercury", and is known chemically as the "monomethylmercury(II) cation.") 

90% of any methylmercury ingested is absorbed into the bloodstream from the GI tract. Luckily, handling elemental mercury has relatively low absorption.  Whew! 

Our mercurial Challenges for this week... 

1.  Mercury is so magical that apparently at least one ancient Chinese emperor purportedly used enormous quantities of mercury in his preparations for the afterlife.  Can you find which ancient Chinese leader used vast amounts of mercury in his funeral compound?  Why did he do this? 
The simplest query works pretty well here... 

     [Chinese emperor mercury] 

We learn that the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇; literally: "First Emperor of Qin"; 18 February 259 BC – 10 September 210 BC) was the founder of the Qin dynasty and the first emperor of a unified China. Reportedly, he died due to ingesting mercury pills, made by his physicians.  Ironically, these pills were meant to make Qin Shi Huang immortal. But he was also a bit of a mercury-maniac, using it not just for medicinal purposes, but also extensively in his tomb.  

Doing a quick Control-F for mercury in the Wikipedia article about Qin Shi Huang leads us to this: 
"Sima Qian's description of the tomb includes replicas of palaces and scenic towers, "rare utensils and wonderful objects", 100 rivers made with mercury, representations of "the heavenly bodies", and crossbows rigged to shoot anyone who tried to break in. The tomb was built at the foot of Mount Li, 30 kilometers away from Xi'an. Modern archaeologists have located the tomb, and have inserted probes deep into it. The probes revealed abnormally high quantities of mercury, some 100 times the naturally occurring rate, suggesting that some parts of the legend are credible. In the tomb 100 rivers made with mercury, representations of "the heavenly bodies", and crossbows rigged to shoot anyone who tried to break in.."   
- Sima Qian, Shiji, Chapter 6.  (See quote at bottom of the page) 
This is the same emperor whose tomb also contains the amazing terracotta warrior statues.  Here's one, but this is only one of thousands standing guard at his tomb, not far from the fabulous rivers of mercury.  

One of Qin Shi Huang's terracotta warriors during a visit to an SF area museum.

And why would he do all this?  While the rivers, mountains, and seas were represented on the floor of the tomb, its ceiling was decorated with the heavenly constellations. More importantly, the two major rivers of China, the Yangtze and the Yellow River, were simulated in the tomb using mercury. The rivers were also set to flow into the great sea, also represented in mercury.  In this way, Qin Shi Huang could continue to rule over his empire even in the afterlife. 

2.  At one time mercury was also thought to have nearly magical medical properties.  Is it true that mercury was one of the most important drugs that was carried on the Lewis & Clark expedition of 1804 - 1806?  Is it also true that you can track the path of the L&C expedition by finding the mercury-laden latrines of the Corps of Discovery as they trekked across North America?  

I started with another simple query: 

     [Lewis & Clark mercury] 

This gives lots of hits, mostly to popular press stories of how the explorers in the Corps of Discovery took mercury-laced purgative pills.  (Such as this article in Smithsonian Magazine.)  That's nice, but I wanted a more first-hand account.  By clicking backwards on links from these articles, I finally found the Lewis-Clark.org site (a site dedicated to the Expedition, written largely by scholars and naturalists) which has a nice article on the medicines used during the expedition.  

Dr. Rush had taught Lewis that when one of his men showed the "sign of an approaching disease . . . take one or two of the opening pills." These tablets, also called "Rush's Thunderbolts" for their explosive properties, supposedly had 10 grains of calomel and 10 to 15 grains of jalap, both potent laxatives.  (Jalap is a laxative powder made from the roots of a Mexican vine.) By opening up the bowels, Rush believed that the body would then expel the excess bile or other matter causing illness. 

With active ingredients weighing at least 1295 mg, these would have been largish pills. 

Calomel (mercurous chloride) had entered medical practice in the 1600s as a milder and more version of a mercury compound. Liquid elemental mercury had been applied externally in different forms since ancient times to treat a variety of skin lesions, including the pox associated with syphilis. The apparent success of mercury compounds against this STD helped to spur the growing reputation of chemical medicines. 

The pills’ inventor, Dr. Benjamin Rush, was America’s most prominent colonial physician, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a personal friend of then-President Thomas Jefferson--which explains why they had so many of his pills (1500!) and medicines on their trip.  

Reading through the Lewis and Clark site, I found that while latrines with mercury signature are almost certainly mark the site as being on the expedition, it's not a way to track their path.  (There's no sniffing device to go from one latrine to the next.  Once you have a hypothetical latrine site, you can test it, but it's hard to track from one to the next.)  

3.  Why is Silicon Valley's local newspaper called the "San José Mercury News"?  What's mercury got to do with the news of the area?  
The best way to start is the obvious query: 
     [ San Jose Mercury news history ] 

which quickly takes you to the Wikipedia page about the Mercury News.  There you find that: 
"...The paper says that the name "Mercury" refers to the importance of the mercury industry during the California Gold Rush, when the city's New Almaden Mines (now Almaden Quicksilver County Park) were the largest producer of mercury in North America. The name has a dual meaning, as Mercury is the Roman messenger of the gods as well as the god of commerce and thieves, known for his swiftness, and the name Mercury is commonly used for newspapers without the quicksilver association."
That sounds about right. The Wikipedia article goes on to say that the paper was founded "June 20, 1851; 165 years ago (as San Jose Weekly Visitor)."  Okay... so when did it change its name to "Mercury"?  And how important was the mercury industry in 1851?  

But that opening line irritated me: "..the paper says..." Did it really say that?  If so, where? Can I get a confirmation of that? 

I thought I'd try to run down this somewhat information-lite citation by doing searches like: 

 [ site:mercurynews.com history ]

 [ site:mercurynews.com "mercury industry" ] 

and so on.  And I completely struck out. If it's documented, it's not at the newspaper's website (or perhaps it's in a non-indexed part of the paper.  

So I went looking for another source.  My next query was: 

     [ "history of the Mercury News" ] 

and I found something really useful. 

Unbeknownst to me, I discovered via this query that the Google Cultural Institute has a page on the museum History San José  as part of its "Museum Partners" collection!  In that article it there's a nice history of the Mercury News, which says: 

"...Led by John C. Emerson, three businessmen bought their equipment [from a defunct earlier paper] and opened the San Jose Weekly Visitor. Ten years later, it became the Mercury, named for the nearby New Almaden mercury mines, and the messenger of Roman mythology..."  (emphasis mine)  
Working backwards in the text, you'll see that the previous papers went broke in 1851, meaning that the San Jose Weekly Visitor started in 1851, but was renamed to the San Jose Mercury in 1861.  

I feel better about this now.  I didn't quite get a citation from the Mercury News itself, but I did find another source of this information from the local history museum (History San José) that corroborates both the date and the connection with the nearby mercury mines.  

To check the last claim (that the term "mercury" is widely associated with newspapers) by doing a simple search for 

     [ mercury newspaper ] 

and quickly found the Charleston Mercury, the Knoxville Mercury, the Oroville Mercury-Register, and several others similarly named.  

4.  Once upon a time I worked as a research scientist at the IBM Almaden Research Center in southern Silicon Valley. I recently learned that a nearby county park where I would go for long runs used to be a center for mercury production.  What is the name of that state park?  And should I be worried about my health after running (for several years) through an old mercury mine site?  
By this point, I was slightly worried about the possible negative effects of any mercury residue that I might have picked up in my runs.  

To find the "nearby state park where I would go for long runs that was a center for mercury production" all you need to do is to search for "IBM Almaden" on a map of San José.  Easy. You very quickly discover this county park--Almaden Quicksilver. 

Clearly, searching for [ mercury Almaden Quicksilver Park ] will get a lot of hits.  The challenge now is to browse through those hits looking for something that will be of use to understanding the situation.  

After just a few minutes of browsing, I was able to find a news article on the hazards of mercury pollution in the Almaden Park (and throughout much of the South Bay).  

In the 1980s, the state Department of Toxics Substances Control placed the mine site and park on the state list of Superfund cleanup sites, those most in need of attention. In the mid-1990s, the county spent $6 million on a cleanup. Crews capped the main furnace area in the heart of the park. They planted vegetation, put in rock to protect stream banks from erosion and excavated mine wastes. New Almaden was removed from the Superfund list and it is considered safe for park users.

The good news here is that the dirt and dust is (mostly) under control.  The bad news is that the mercury contamination will continue to affect the entire watershed. 

But as a runner, I probably won't be drinking too much of the water coming out of those hills.  (FWIW, the drinking water in the SF area comes from the Sierras, which has its own contamination sources, but not mercury!)  So I'm probably safe!  

Search lessons 

These questions were fairly straightforward, although getting to the bottom of some of these issues required a bit of reading--which is an important skill.  Learning what links to click on--which ones look plausible to have more information, and which are just clickbait--is vital.  

I find myself often clicking through to a link (usually opening it in a new tab by CMD+click: learn this skill if you don't know it), and then doing a quick evaluation before deciding if/when/how much time to devote to it.  

When you're doing shorter / simpler research tasks, be sure not to rat-hole into topics of marginal interest.  (Unless you really want to!) 

Stay curious, my friends. 

Search on! 

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- 
The quotation about the Chinese emperor's fixation on mercury: 

秦始皇本... :


and the Google Translation of this: 

Qin Shihuang:

Line from straight to Xianyang, the funeral. Prince Hu Hai Xi bit, for the II emperor. In September, burial began Huang Shan. The beginning of the emperor ascended the throne, wearing governance Li Shan, and the world, the world only send Yi more than 70 million people, wearing three springs, the next coffin made of copper, Palace Guanbai strange strange treasure Zang migration. Make craftsman machine crossbow arrow, have to wear close to those who shoot. To the rivers of rivers and seas for the mercury, machine indoctrination, on the astronomical, under a geographical. Mermaid cream for the candle, a long time immortal. Second, said: "The emperor was not the son of the emperor, out of Yan." All orders from the dead, the dead are very public. Buried already down, or made artisans for the machine, Zang know, Zang weight that vent. Events completed, Zang, closed in the envy, the next outside the envy of the door, make artisans Zang close, no return. Tree vegetation to Xiangshan.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

SearchResearch Challenge (11/30/16): Mercury where??

Mercury is pure metal magic. 

When I was a kid, we used to occasionally play with small beads of mercury when one of the kids would break a thermometer.  Nobody told us it was toxic, so we'd roll small beads of it back and forth in our hands, amazed at how heavy it was and how... liquid it is.  You shouldn't do this (but it was a lot of fun).  

Liquid mercury. P/C Wikipedia Commons.

We've talked about Mercury before in SRS (the non-water fountains of mercury, and blobs of mercury in the center of early footballs).  But since mercury is so magical, we return to the topic this week with a few new mercury-centered research Challenges.  (These are all things I've run across in the course of my reading, which led to me search these things out.  Can you figure them out as well?)  
Our mercurial Challenges for this week... 

1.  Mercury is so magical that apparently at least one ancient Chinese emperor purportedly used enormous quantities of mercury in his preparations for the afterlife.  Can you find which ancient Chinese leader used vast amounts of mercury in his funeral compound?  Why did he do this? 
2.  At one time mercury was also thought to have nearly magical medical properties.  Is it true that mercury was one of the most important drugs that was carried on the Lewis & Clark expedition of 1804 - 1806?  Is it also true that you can track the path of the L&C expedition by finding the mercury-laden latrines of the Corps of Discovery as they trekked across North America?  
3.  Why is Silicon Valley's local newspaper called the "San José Mercury News"?  What's mercury got to do with the news of the area?  
4.  Once upon a time I worked as a research scientist at the IBM Almaden Research Center in southern Silicon Valley. I recently learned that a nearby state park where I would go for long runs used to be a center for mercury production.  What is the name of that state park?  And should I be worried about my health after running (for several years) through an old mercury mine site?  

This is a fun Challenge.  I'll be interested to see what you discover.  (And if I need to be worried about my health!) 

Be sure to let us know how you discovered your results. 

Search on! 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Answer: The Greek Islands: Birth and Graffiti?

About those islands...  

Our Challenge this week was to find out about the Greek island of Delos and the reported appearance of a new-ish island near Santorini.  

Delos: Right in the middle of the Aegean.

I had a couple of Challenge questions about Greek isles.  The first asked about something I spotted while wandering around on Delos.     

1.  What's remarkable about this graffiti I found on Delos?  Do you see what I see?  Can you prove it? 

This is clearly graffiti from a while ago.  If you look at the stone carefully, you can make out a number of different names and dates.  A few that stand out are: 
     B. Cooper, Esq., 21 Sept, 1826 
     John A. Cook, USN
     Cap. M. C. Perry, USN, 1826 
That last name rung a bell for me.  If I remember correctly, wasn't he the Commodore that forced Japan to re-open itself to trade in the 1850s after more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation?  
Naturally, I did searches for these names (Cooper, Cook, Perry) each at a time, but only M. C. Perry got many hits. My memory served me well. M.C. Perry (Matthew Calbraith Perry,  was an officer in the US Navy from 1772 - 1855).  
Now, the question becomes:  Could this graffiti be from the same famous M. C. Perry who opened Japan in 1853?  
The Wikpedia article about Perry tells us that "..From 1826 to 1827 Perry acted as fleet captain for Commodore Rodgers. Perry returned to Charleston, South Carolina for shore duty in 1828."  But that's a bit vague. It's not clear where he was in 1826-27.  Where was the fleet in those years?  Where was Matthew Perry? 
My first search to answer this was for: 
     [ "Matthew C Perry" Greece 1826 ] 
(If that hadn't worked, I would have started varying his name, trying variants like "M. C. Perry" or "Matthew * Perry" -- but I didn't need to, as this query worked just fine.  
My first hit was to an article from the official US Navy history archives, which includes a biography of Perry, and a fairly extensive timeline.  One entry there is:   
Sep. 1824 - 5 Aug. 1827 - Served as Executive Officer, U.S.S. North Carolina, flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron under Commodore Rodgers, engaged in protesting American commerce from Greek pirates. In 1825-26 participated in a visit to the headquarters of the Greek Revolutionists and in an interview with the Captain Pasha of the Turkish Fleet. Promoted to Master Commandant, 21 Mar. 1826.
That's pretty compelling. We now have him in the Aegean Sea during 1826.  Looking a bit deeper in the SERP, I found the Robinson library article about Perry where it is said that:  
"He subsequently [after 1824] served as Executive Officer of the USS North Carolina, flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron under Commodore Rodgers, which was engaged in protecting American commerce from Greek pirates. He was promoted to Commander on March 21, 1826, and spent most of the next four years stateside."  
This is confirmation of the dates, ship, his officer and his promotion to Commander.  Now.. did they make it to Delos in 1826?  
To answer that question we need to find the log book of the USS North Carolina, or perhaps letters from men on board.  
I already had a big hint that this exists when read the USN history of Perry which has a link to this image: 
USS North Carolina Log Book 1836-37, from US Navy Military history site.
How to find the log book?  My query was: 
     [ "logbook" "USS north carolina"] 
which led me to the first result from Google Books which was the:  "Guide to Non-federal Archives and Manuscripts in the United States Relating to Africa: Alabama-New Mexico."  
This book is called a finding guide and is an index to archives and manuscripts in other places.  (In this case, just the states from A - N. There's another finding guide for states from New York to Wisconsin.)  
In this guide I found the intriguing entry by doing the obvious search in the book for "USS North Carolina" and "logbook": 

This is great!  The logbook still exists somewhere, and this finding guide can tell us where the logbook is kept.  
Now, where is the finding guide?  
I clicked on the "Find in a Library" button (on the left side of the Google Books page) and discovered that this finding guide is kept at a library just 2 miles from my house (at Stanford)!  Unfortunately, the logbook itself doesn't seem to be digitized, and I don't know exactly where the logbook is, but if I can get to the finding guide, I'll be able to look at the rest of the page to figure out where it is. (And then I'll call the friendly archivist there to find out if we can get the answer from them.)  
At this point, it looks completely plausible that the USS North Carolina visited Delos sometime before March 21, 1826 (remember: he was promoted to Commander on March 21.. he would have made his graffiti reflect his new status).  
I'll visit Stanford later this week and see if I can't track down the logbook itself.  Stay tuned.  
As I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that it might be possible to find a record of the movements of Perry's boss, Commodore John Rogers, of the Mediterranean fleet in 1826.  My query in Google Books was: 
     [ Navy John Rodgers Delos ] 
I was rewarded with a hit!  In the book The Navy's Godfather: John Rodgers, we find this quote at the beginning of Chapter 16.  
"By the middle of June, 1826, the squadron had reached Vourla near Smyrna, after a lesiurely thirty-four day sail, the length of the sea, from Gibraltar with stops at Algiers, Tunis, Carthage and the islands of Milos, Paros, and Delos. The commodore spent four days at each island, digging among the broken columns and tombs, exploring what were once magnificent Greek structures, and collecting enough relics to fill ten wagons, including two altars from the temples of Diana and Apollo on Delos."  
Not only do we know that the USS North Carolina (which had M. C. Perry onboard) visited Delos, but they specifically stopped at the temples of Diana and Apollo.  (Recall that the graffiti was found on the base of the statue of Apollo... at his temple.)  I'd say that M.C. Perry, the famous one, was not only there, but spent quite a bit of time etching his name into the pediment at the Temple of Apollo.  
SearchResearch Regular Reader Chris did a clever search for: 
     [ U S Navy 1826 ] 
and found the Naval Register for 1826, which includes entries for Cooper, Cook, and Perry.  They were all on the same Mediterranean cruise under John Rodgers, and apparently "visited" the Temple of Apollo together as well.  As Chris points out, they were: John A Cook,  Lieutenant on the Porpoise; Thomas J Manning, midshipman on the Porpoise; Benjamin Cooper, a lieutenant on leave; and of course, M.C. Perry was (at the time) a Lieutenant on the North Carolina. 
 (Nice find, Chris!)   
While on this Aegean Island cruise, I also visited Santorini, which is a lovely arc of islands left over from a series of volcanos, sometimes explosive and other times a bit milder. I knew that a new island had risen from the sea floor something in the early 18th century, but that's about all I know.  I really wanted to get a written report about what that must have been like, which leads to the following Challenge:  

2.  Can you find a written contemporaneous account of that early-18th century eruption on Santorini? 
To figure out what "early 18th century" eruptions might have happened that led to the creation of a new island near Santorini, I did this query: 
     [ Santorini new island 1700..1799 ] 
Remember that "early 18th century" means sometime in the years 1700 - 1799, which is why I added the number ranger operator:  I want web pages that talk about Santorini, "new island," sometime in those years.  
That query gives lots of good background, including the observation that a new island emerged around 1707.  But the results don't seem to contain any first-hand accounts. 
I checked newspapers, but there are few European (Italy or Greece) newspapers online from those years.  So I turned to Google Books with the query (and the new information that the eruptions started in 1707): 
     [ Santorini 1707 eruption ] 
and quickly found the book Santorini and Its Eruptions (Ferdinand A. Fouqué and Alexander R. McBirney).  In the early part of the book he draws on contemporary sources, primarily a book from 1842 by M. L'Abbe Pegues, Historie et Phenomenes du volcan et des iles volcanoiques de Santorin.  In this book he writes (drawing extensively from authors who were present): 
"On the 18th of May 1707, two light earthquake tremors were felt on Santorini... at sunrise on the 23rd, a mass seemed to be floating on the water ... seen about 200 meters west of Micra Kameni at a spot where the sea had been only eight fathoms deep and fishermen had formerly cast their nets. It was at first taken for a ship wrecked on the reefs of Micra Kameni, but soon was recognized as a new bank that had just been formed of blacks rocks with white ground in the center. No audible sound or violent shaking had accompanied the appearance of the island.  For several days it was possible to visit it without undue risk.... From the surface of the rocks they [the visitors] collected large numbers of oysters and urchins [from rocks that were uplifted from the sea floor]. But suddenly the visitors felt the ground shake and move beneath their feet as the reef began to tilt.  The sea became agitated and turned yellowish around the shore; it gave off suffocating sulfurous odors, and dead fish floated to the surface of the water.  The island grew before their eyes; in a few moments it rose in height about 7 meters and spread laterally to twice its former diameter..."
The book goes on to describe several months of hot water, floating rocks (pumice), discolored water, flames, the sound of a roaring furnace, and boiling water.  At times incandescent rocks covered the surface of the island, making it glow in night and day.  Explosions, fiery jets, the sounds of cannon and pipe organs. All in all, it sounds quite magnificent, if somewhat frightening.
Near the end of the long and dramatic account of the eruption, Fouqué mentions another book that he used for his account--that of the Journal de Voyage of Aubry de La Mottraye. 
Turn back to Google Books and search for: 
     [ Santorini Aubry de La Mottraye ] 
(I didn't search for the book title, Journal de Voyage since I was hoping for an English language edition, or any other books he might have written on the topic.)  
This search took me exactly to the place I was seeking--his book "A. de La Motraye's Travels Through Europe, Asia, and into parts of Africa," in English, scanned into Google Books. 
From Google Books: page 411 of the scan.
The good news is that this account (in the book by Aubry d.L. M, but a marginal note says was written by Antonio Delenda di Gasparo) is VERY consistent with the account we found earlier (in fact, it's very clear that Fouqué drew heavily on Aubry's account, right down to the oysters on the rocks cast up by the eruption).  
I highly recommend this book for the sheer adventure of it.  His accounts of traveling through Europe, Asia, and Africa are remarkable (and much of the Middle East--remember that he was walking or sailing for most of this tour).  And the illustrations, such as of this Turkish hamam (Turkish bath), are truly remarkable.  
A Turkish hamam from the early 18th century.

Search Lessons 

There are many here... 
1. If you keep digging, you can find remarkable things.  I didn't know that we'd be able to locate the logbook of the ship that took the graffiti artists to Delos.  This is a nice example where doing one more query gets your research to a whole new level.  
2.  Sometimes you have to go offline.  I should say that I know where there's a book that will point me to the logbook.  But it's not online.  Yes, more and more stuff IS being digitized, but many archives don't have the resources to move everything into the digital realm.  So sometimes... how have to visit the archives in real life. 
3. Remember to follow parallel paths to get to what you seek.  In the above example, the trick that got us to the logbook of the USS North Carolina was to do a search for Commodore John Rodgers, who we KNEW had to be onboard with M. C. Perry.  That kind of parallel searching is incredibly useful (when you can do it).  Sometimes the shortest path to your goal is to find someone (or something) that must also be closely related to what you're searching.  

I'll let you know what, if anything, I learn about the whereabouts of the logbook.  
Search on!  (And avoid the rocks falling out of the sky!)  

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

SearchResearch Challenge (11/23/16): The Greek islands: birth and graffiti?

It's Thanksgiving weekend in the US... 

... and one of the things I'm thankful for was the chance to travel to such interesting places this year.  It really was a great year of wandering-about.  

Although we've already had one Challenge about the Mediterranean, I can't resist giving you one more.  Here's why... 

The Greek island of Delos is a remarkable place.  It's a smallish island in the Cyclades chain, more-or-less dead center in the circle of the Aegean Sea.  As one of the most important mythological, historical and archaeological sites in Greece, it has archaeological excavations that are gigantic, as befits the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis.  It was also the center of the Delian League and the Delian Festivals (with their every-4-year athletic competition).

When I visited the island, it was on a perfect fall day--endless blue sky, deep blue Aegean sea.  

Approaching Delos on the ferry.  You can see LOTS of temples and ancient buildings as you come near.
It's really quite a place.  As you can see in the above picture, nearly the entire island is one giant archaeological site.  People have been coming this way for thousands of years, both for religious and commercial purposes.  

Central courtyard of a wealthy businessman.  Note the circular cistern access in the corner of the courtyard.
Beneath the courtyard mosaic is a large, rectangular cistern for collecting rainwater.  

Delos was a stopping off point for traders, priests, slavers, worshipers, and travelers of every kind.  

But the island was attacked in 88 BCE by the Persian troops of Mithridates VI, an enemy of Rome, who killed nearly all of the 20,000 Romans on the island. Another attack came from pirates in 69 BCE, which basically knocked Delos out of action as an active trading island. By the end of the 1st century BCE, trade routes had changed to bypass Delos.  Around this time it became uninhabited and left as a place that the curious (and the occasional pirate) would visit.  

So when I visited earlier this year, I toured the island with a guide, marvelling at the ancient buildings, theatres, and temples. 

This walk on Delos brings me to our first Challenge for this week.  

The tour guide took us all around, and then pointed to this graffitied statue base saying that it used to hold a very tall statue of Apollo, one was carried away by pirates sometime in the 16th century, leaving behind only the base.

But when I looked at the graffiti, I did a big double take.  There was something so obvious and remarkable on that statue base that I couldn't believe she didn't say anything about this. Does it capture your eye as much as it did mine?   

1.  What's remarkable about this graffiti?  Do you see what I see?  Can you prove it? 

A bit later on that same trip we went to Santorini--another beautiful island not far from Delos.  It's a razor-back ridge of a place, with lovely blue-roofed buildings and incredible views, with several smaller islands nearby in a rough circle.  

As you probably know, Santorini is a C-shaped island with a center that was blown apart by a large eruption as the center of the volcano blew upward, leaving a giant caldera.  

This pattern has repeated over time, with the most remarkable explosion creating what may have been one of the largest volcanic eruptions on Earth in the last few thousand years.  (This is the eruption that put the Minoan civilization on full-stop during the second millennium BCE, between 1627 and 1600 BCE.)  

That mega-explosion happened long enough ago that no written records survive (except, perhaps, for the story of the plagues in Exodus which many believe are side-effects of the Santorini eruption).  

But there was another large eruption at the beginning of the 18th century.  Our second Challenge for this week is this: 

2.  Can you find a written contemporaneous account of that early-18th century eruption on Santorini? 

As always, be SURE to tell us how you found your answer.  What resources did you check?  How did you know to do that particular kind of query?  

We're curious about the answers, but also in your methods.  

(And, if you've got the time over the weekend, can you figure out why the Delian Festival and Games were held every four years?  Does that sound familiar to you?)  

Search on!  (And avoid the rocks falling out of the sky!)  

Monday, November 21, 2016

Answer: What does *that* mean?

Language is important... 

... although sometimes you'll hear people say dismissively "it's just word" or "it's all just semantics," they're missing the point.  Words, and the specific meanings of words, really DO matter.  

One of the interesting phenomena during the last news cycle is that heard all kinds of terms and phrases that you might not have quite understood. That's partly because people whip up new terms as a way of creating catchphrases or generating memes that people can have in mind.      

But we're SearchResearchers--we tend to look things up.  You do, don't you?  


 This was our Challenge for last week:

What do each of these terms mean in the current political context?  

     1. "anchor baby" 
     2.  servergate 
     3.  braggadocious 
     4.  clickbait 
     5.  SEO 
     6.  "dog whistle"  

I know I heard and read all of these.  But as I read, I'd sometimes pause to look these things up.  (And yes, when I'm reading, I usually have my phone with me for just these kinds of checks and clarifications.)  

The simplest way to find out some of these terms is just to look them up as simple phrases.  for instance, 

     [ "anchor baby" ] 

I used quotes here to make sure I didn't find anything that wasn't exactly this phrase.  In the results, you see first a definition, and then enough current news items and discussion to be able to learn that an "anchor baby" is when a "noncitizen mother" travel to the US specifically to deliver that child an American land in order to give it "birthright citizenship."  

This one is fairly straightforward--just search for the phrase, and you'll quickly learn enough to understand both the idea AND the political context in which it's being used.  

In the same way, the term "servergate" is a newly coined term, and sufficiently unusual that you don't need to quote it for search purposes:  

This new term refers to the difficulties Hillary Clinton has had over her use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State.

If you're not from the US, you might wonder why you'll hear "something--gate" as a common phrase for a political scandal.  A great method for finding this out is to do a query like this: 

     [ servergate meaning ] 

which will then show a nice short summary of the meaning: 

Note that this query pattern works for many other terms and phrases you might not have thought about: 

     [ "hot mess" meaning

     [ "bigly" meaning

including terms that we're looking up in this SRS Challenge: 

     [ braggadocious meaning ]  

Notice that downward pointing gray arrow?  If you click on it, you'll see additional information about that word ("translations, word origin, and more definitions").  It looks like this, 

This tells us that the us of the word "braggadocious" predates this election, and was coined sometime in the late 1800s.  

"Clickbait" is a term that you should know.  A quick query like this: 

     [ define clickbait ] 

tells you that it means "internet content, especially that of a sensational or provocative nature, whose main purpose is to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular web page." 

In the political context, it's sensationalistic or outrageous texts or images that will attract you from whatever it is you're trying to do.  

The simplest way to get a sense of what clickbait might be is to ask for examples:  

     [ clickbait examples ] 

which will show you lots of examples of headlines and texts that serve to pull you in.  You'll quickly learn that phrases like "What we found was shocking" or "Big companies hate him" or "What happened next was awful" or "5 examples of great clickbait" are all written expressly to get you to click.  Notice that they are often incredibly vague, but kind of irresistible.  But once you learn what clickbait is (and it's often used in political advertising), you'll know enough to resist it.  

We can use these same methods to understand what SEO is.  

     [ define SEO ] 

Teaches us that SEO is "Search Engine Optimization is a method of strategies, techniques and tactics used to increase the number of visitors to a website by obtaining a high-ranking placement in the search results page of a search engine (SERP) -- including Google, Bing, Yahoo and other search engines..."  

That is, it's what SEO people do to web sites to improve their ranking.  Obviously, this is a good thing (if you a company... or a political candidate), and the trick for people who do SEO is to do it in a way that doesn't actually hurt the website's ranking.  

It's kind of an ongoing battle: the SEO people get paid to make their customer's website appear higher in the SERP ranking, while the search companies (Google and all the rest) work hard to minimize the influence of any manipulations the SEO people make.  Google publishes clear guidelines (Webmaster guidelines) on what makes for a good website (in short, create content for people, not search engines).  

So now we have some methods to tell us what a "dog whistle" is in the current political environment.  

     [ define dog whistle ] 

That query shows us a definition:  "Dog-whistle politics is political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup."  

And the first hit is to a Wikipedia article about dog whistle politics.  This is "coded language" that reaches one set of readers who understand it to mean something very different than the overt meaning.  

To get examples of dog whistle messages, you can do a query like: 

     [ examples of dog whistle messages ] 

but notice that you'll get many examples from earlier elections.  So you might want to add in the current election participants to get current examples: 

     [ examples of dog whistle messages Trump Clinton ] 

A great example from the previous Obama election was the repeated use of his middle name in lots of political messages by the opposition.  You probably know that it's Hussein. Now, did ever you know John McCain's? (Sidney) Did you ever know Mitt Romney's? (Ah, gotcha: Trick question. Mitt is his middle name. His real first name is Willard.)

There is a reason you know Obama's middle name but not McCain or Romney's. It's because reminding everyone that Barack Obama has a scary foreign-sounding name, that ALSO sounds Islamic, which happens to be the same as that nasty dictator.  This plays really well with a certain audience.  It's a kind of "dog whistle" to that part of the population, casting doubt on his ability to be president. 

Search Lessons

1. Look it up!  This is obvious, but I see people reading all the time, glossing over language that they don't understand.  Keep asking yourself, "what DOES that word mean?"  This is an important reading strategy.  If, by the end of the article, you can't summarize it, or explain what each of the words and phrases mean, you've missed an opportunity to learn something.  

2.  Use DEFINE or MEANING to get short definitions.  These are triggers for Google to give you a short summary or definition.  These work not just for individual words (like "braggadocious") but also for phrases such as "anchor baby" or "fourth estate."  

3. Look for Examples.  For many complicated ideas, sometimes the best way to understand is to get examples of the concept.  If you're still uncertain after looking up the definition, search for [ examples of ] -- that will often give you some nice examples of what you seek.  

For Teachers 

This whole topic (of how to lookup terms and phrases) is a crucial part of giving students a tool with which they can understand almost anything. If they have this, then a world of new texts opens up to them.  

When I wrote above that I read books with my phone in hand, I'm completely serious.  

I was at my favorite coffee shop this past rainy weekend reading about the history of the Silk Road (Shadow of the Silk Road, highly recommended).  In the space of one chapter, I had to look up 12 different things.  Sometimes they were really obscure (the Kunlun mountain range, one of the largest in Asia), but sometimes I'd look up words that I sort-of know, just to check.  For instance, I looked up "ochre" which I thought I knew, but when I looked it up I learned that it's an earthy pigment of ferric oxide and clay, varying from light yellow to brown or red, although typically a pale brownish yellow color. It changed my understanding of what I was reading.

If I do this, I bet your students should be doing this as well.   

An important skill to master is that of not getting sidetracked while reading.  This is whay understanding clickbait is important.  When you go to lookup a term, remember that your goal is to READ the book and understand it.  Do Not Get Sidetracked.  (While I'm all for tangents, when you're studying to learn, you absolutely need the executive skill of staying on task.  Look up that word, and get back to reading.)  

Search on.  (But don't get distracted!)