Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Google Earth's New Photos Layer Sucks

As a professional researcher/writer I'm dismayed that Google Earth has banished Panoramio photos and replaced them with their new Photos Layer. Why? Oh let me count the ways.

Here's an image of downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

See all the little squares? Those indicate Panoramio photos. See the big circles? Well, those are the new Photos Layer images. Why did Google choose to use big circles? They clutter the map. And that fact that they act as a sort of thumbnail is, frankly, meaningless, because they suck at being thumbnails.

Here's another deficiency with new the Photos Layer:

Note that when you click on the Panoramio icon you get a title that tells you, in this case, that it's a piece of public art. Click on a Photos Layer circle and you get zero, zilch, nada, in the way of a descriptor. You have to open the image to see what it is. Why the extra step?

Here's another example - Ulithi Atoll in Yap State, Federated States of Micronesia.

There are 14 Panoramio photos, but only two Photos Layer. Sure, it's early in the Photos Layer roll-out, so more may come. But in the meantime my ability to go down and see what the islands look like - the houses, the beaches, the lagoon - is now gone.

That ability to see what a location looks like is really important to me. It's one thing to get a bird's eye view, but to see that place as a resident or visitor might - at eye level - helps me to develop a "sense of place," and to me, as a writer, that's priceless.

In their infinite wisdom the young coders at Google have seen fit to remove a valuable resource from Google Earth. Okay, maybe there was a technical reason. But that does not excuse the truly lousy replacement for Panoramio they put in place.

I welcome your comments on Photos Layer - maybe we can even get Google to listen.

If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog.
Disclaimer: The descriptions of web pages are accurate as of the date of the post. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Trolling the Weeklies

Henry, Illinois is a small town on the banks of the Illinois River, about 3o miles north of Peoria. I've never set foot in the town, but I feel like I know everybody there. That's thanks to the Henry News-Republican, a weekly that's been published since 1857 right up to today.

I was working on a story about a U.S. submarine hero of World War II, who was born and raised in Henry. It was frustrating research because there didn't seem to be much about the fellow, other than the standard Navy press releases and a page in the Naval Academy yearbook. At some point I Googled "henry il newspaper" and up came a listing for the "Digital Archives of the Henry Public Library." I clicked on that and up came a page listing the News-Republican. It was searchable by names and dates, so off I went.

After a couple of weeks of trolling I had printed out  some 70 pages from issues beginning in 1901 and carrying up through 2012 (old fashioned, but easier to keep organized for old-school folks like me). There was lots of useful stuff about my subject, his family, his academic and naval career, and his relationship with Henry and its people.
In discovered that in 1974 the town held a memorial service for my submariner in conjunction with the annual Fourth of July Parade. Here's a list of hits I got with the keyword "Parade":

And here is the front page of the July 3, 1974 Henry News-Republican, featuring info about the holiday events:

You can see right away that the camera was set to get good reproduction on the type, not the photos.

I'd never heard of Advantage Preservation, so Googled them. Turns out they're a company specializing in microfilm and digital archiving of all sorts of records for industry, education, governments, and local entities, like the Henry Public Library. They have preserved and uploaded 238 newspapers across the country, all available for free. Here's a map of the locations they've recorded:

Click on any of the flags and it will tell you the name of the specific place. Not surprisingly, most of the sites are for public libraries and historical societies. BTW - the flags are not clickable links.

So here's yet another online digital source for researchers of all subjects. Get to it and have fun.

If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog.
Disclaimer: The descriptions of web pages are accurate as of the date of the post. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

USPTO or Google Patents

I recently saw a photograph of an “Oyster Car,” a specially designed railroad car designed to carry fresh oysters from the Gulf to Chicago. It was invented by Arthur E. Stilwell, the founder of the Kansas City Southern Railroad. The concept interested me, so I went foraging about on the internet to see what more I could find.
There were a pair of interesting articles in the Fall 2014  “The Cannon Ball,” a quarterly publication put out by the Sunrise Trail Division of the National Model Railroad Association. It turns out only one (or possibly two—no one seems to know for sure) of these cars were built back in 1897. There is, in general, a surfeit of information about this car, but author Walter Wohleking managed to dig up some fascinating facts. In the process of his researching he found a copy of the 1898 U.S. patent issued to Mr. Stilwell.

So I went to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s website to see what could be found. What a pain! Then I remembered that Google has a comprehensive listing of patents from around the world at Google Patents. I typed in the patent number (which was listed in the article) and up came this page:

You’ll note that the USPTO class is “B61/D5/00 Tank wagons for carrying fluent materials.” “Fluent Materials?” Eh?

Anyway, besides the descriptive text there are three images from Stilwell’s filing showing the design and construction of his invention. Here’s one:  

The 10th anniversary of the iPhone’s introduction got me to thinking about the development of mobile phones. What better place to look than Google Patents? So I typed in “cellular telephone.” That was a mistake. There were over 175,000 hits. Yikers. This time I gave the search a date range: 1850 to 1986. That cut down the hits to less than 60. Yay.  

First up was a patent filed in 1973, and issued in 1975, to Martin Cooper and seven others from Motorola:  

Among the images were two of interest. 

The first shows Motorola’s approach to setting up a cellular system. The second is a graphic showing how the components all worked together to lets us talk from the field (which is all the 1st Gen cell phones were capable of). Note the image of the cell phone itself – the familiar shape of Motorola’s first commercial unit, the DynatTAC 8000X, which didn’t become available until 1984 (at a price of $4,000—equivalent today to $9,300). Imagine!

Also of note o the search findings is a patent issued to A.E. Joel, Jr of Bell Labs in 1972 – a year before Motorola got theirs. As you can see from this schematic, Bell was looking at a in-vehicle based system. In the end, Motorola won out big time.

What about the Apple iPhone? I wasn’t able to find much. There was a patent issued to Apple in 2004 for an “Electronic Device.” The company made a single claim for their invention: “We claim the ornamental design for an electronic device, substantially as shown and described.” And what is shown is this:

The iPad, as envisioned in 2004—six years before the introduction of the thing. In the description of the image Apple said this:  FIG. 9 is an exemplary diagram of the use of the electronic device thereof the broken lines being shown for illustrative purposes only and form no part of the claimed design.” Yeah, right. BTW—2004 was the same year Apple began development of the iPhone.

Okay. This addition to Finding Stuff has focused on the public accessibility of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s files. Knowing about the USPTO, and Google Patents, may one day be of great use to you researchers out there. Thanks for tuning in.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

City Directories - Troves of Neat Stuff

Let’s say you’re writing a historical novel about the Great Diamond Hoax of 1872. One of your protagonists is a mining engineer called Philip Arnold. A Kentuckian by birth and death, Mr. Arnold spend most of the intervening years prospecting for gold and silver in the Far West. His discovery of diamonds in Wyoming caused a worldwide sensation, and made him a rich man—after selling his stake in his diamond mine to some of the nation’s savviest investors. Alas for them, it was all a ruse. Mr. Arnold, and his cousin, John Slack, had salted a remote plateau with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds they had purchased in London. When the hoax was unmasked, the pair hightailed it out of the city. It’s quite an amazing tale.

You’re a stickler for detail, so when you write about Arnold’s life in 1870s San Francisco it would be great, really great, if you knew where he lived. Specifically, the house in which he lived. You’d think the chances of finding his address after 147 years would be slim to nada. Well, would it surprise you that it’s actually quite simple?
I can tell you for a fact that in 1869 Philip Arnold dwelled in a house at 733 Folsom Street—an upscale neighborhood then. Within two years he had moved to 431 Turk Street—altogether more modest digs. And in 1872 he resided at 224 O’Farrell Street, near Union Square. By the next year he had disappeared back to Kentucky, never to return to California. 

How do I know this? By reviewing the relevant volumes of Langley’s San Francisco City Directory.
City Directories are a rich source of details about life and lives in municipalities across the United States. The earliest edition published in San Francisco was in 1850. But in New York there were at least three separate city directories published in the year 1786.

What is a City Directory?

In its most basic form, it is an alphabetical listing of a city’s residents’ names, with addresses and occupations. Before telephones (and telephone books), these thick volumes served as a way to find people. The directories were really designed for use by commercial enterprises—more so than by the citizenry—and were especially suited for compiling mailing lists.

Over the years more data were added. Some directories began to show the names of wives and children. One popular feature became Reverse Lookup—a block-by-block listing of streets and street numbers, with residents’ names attached. That let you look up an address to get the name of the resident. Or if you knew the name and address you could identify someone’s next-door neighbors. You never know when that might come in handy.

The 1982 Polk's City Directory shows that 733 Folsom is now the Moscone Center

Later, there was a another kind of reverse lookup, using phone numbers. These were listed sequentially by prefix.
Even the earliest directories had advertising sections. The 1850 San Francisco Directory has an ad for “Dr May’s Dysentery and Diarrhea Syrup.” Yum. And “P. Naylor” offered “Sheet iron, tin plate, copper tinman’s tools, &c. &c.” In the 20th century the directory publishers sold space on virtually every page in their books. It was not unusual for two or three ads to appear on a single residential listing page, or for the covers and spines to be festooned with a dozen ads, almost covering the title.

There were also Classified Advertising sections that listed—for a fee—companies by specialty.

Most of the City Directories were recompiled every year. Teams of enumerators would fan out across the towns, going door-to-door canvassing residents—much like census-takers. There were a number of companies that published directories. The first one in San Francisco was put out by Charles P. Kimball, in 1850. In 1858 the book became Langley’s City Directory, and the Langley name stayed in the title until 1951, when it was changed to Polk’s. By that time R.L. Polk & Co. was publishing nearly 1000 different directories. They also published Social Registers and Society Bluebooks for the larger cities. In 1921 the company branched out into providing information for the automotive industry, and in 1999 bought CARFAX, which supplies vehicle history reports. Today Polk is a part of IHS, a British-based information services company. Polk has been out of the city directory business now for a couple of decades.

It’s not too difficult to find digitized City Directories on the internet. There are scads of them (yes, “scads” is a technical term) on the Internet Archive (free). But boy are they hard to find since the non-profit digital library revamped their user interface a couple of years ago. Type “san francisco city directory” into the search box and click Enter, and up comes a page full of listings by year. But there’s a better way to find books for this city. In your browser type the same search. Up comes a page of stuff. But at the top is a listing for the San Francisco Public Library’s City Directories Collection. This opens a page of all the books in the SFPL, listed by year, with annotations of missing volumes. It’s a clean, easy way to see what’s what. Click on a year and— guess what?— the relevant page from the Internet Archive opens. Yea!

If you have the time and patience, the Internet Archive is probably the best source for U.S. city directories.
There are other paths to these really useful resources. Google digitized a lot of them, and you can go to the Online HistoricalDirectories Website  (free) to find a bunch of them, listed by state, then county or municipality. (paid) also has a bunch of directories, but I’ve found it really difficult to access the images of the original pages, rather than a database. Here is one way to navigate city directories in  In a browser type “ city directories” and click enter. The first hit that comes up should be “U.S. City Directories, 1922-1995.” Click on that. On the right side of the next page is a “Browse this collection” box. Type in the state, city or county, and year. Then hit enter. This should bring up the book you’re looking for—if they have it.

Hathi Trust  has a few. Many local and state historical societies have digitized directories. The Library of Congress probably has the best collection in the country. That’s the good news. The bad news is that few are online and the rest are microfilms that do not circulate through Interlibrary Loan. You have to go to D.C. to view them. 

Well, so much for City Directories. I gotta get back to finding out more about my friend Philip Arnold. See ya next time.

If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog.
Disclaimer: The descriptions of web pages are accurate as of the date of the post. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The New Yorker Archive Stinks

That's a bold statement. "The New Yorker Archive Stinks." Sadly, to this researcher, it's true. For ninety years The New Yorker has brought us some of America's best magazine writing, from folks like: Roald Dahl, Roger Angell, James Thurber, Ken Auletta, Rachel Caron, E.B. White, A.J. Liebling, Pauline Kael, J.D. Salinger, Calvin Trillin, and a string of illustrious "Johns" (Updike, Cheever, Hersey, Lahr, McPhee, O'Hara).

So why am I saying the archive stinks? Because its search function is a rudimentary folly of little use to serious researchers. To wit: you can enter only a single search line, like a single name. You cannot use dates. You cannot use additional terms on that line. I'll show you what I mean.

Let's do a search for one of my favorite authors, Roger Angell, whose take on the machinations of baseball are legendary. My mission: to find the first story he ever published in the magazine.

So I type his name into the search bar. The function defaults to This Issue, and you can see that Angell had no pieces in the December 28, 1963 edition.

I have to now click the red Complete Archive box to see all entries for Mr. Angell.

Ah! Even though Results show 0 of 0, if you look in the red Complete Archive box you'll see that there are actually 828 hits. That's a lot. What next? I'll click the red box again and see what happens.

 Yikers! Eighty-three pages of hits. Hi-Yikers. Are they listed by date published? No such luck. Sorted by "Relevance", whatever that is supposed to mean.

Let's try narrowing the search. I enter "Roger Angell, baseball." Not a single hit. "Roger Angell, Yankees." Still nothing. That stinks.

So if I really want to read Roger's first piece I'm going to have to start ploughing through those 69 dozen listings until I reach it. Not fun. All right, here goes.

Gee, on page 9 there is a 1961 article. But I know he started writing in the Forties, so on I plough. Ah. One from 1949 on page 11. Ooh. Page 12, 1946. Ha! On web page 71 there is one from October 1944. Eureka? I'd better keep going, just in case. All done. Scanned all 83 pages of Roger Angell hits and it appears that October 7, 1944 is the winner - the first piece of his published in The New Yorker. This effort took over 20 minutes. And, alas, it turns out to be wrong.

A quick check on Wikipedia tells me that his first New Yorker story actually appeared in March 1944. Huh? It's true. I checked March 1944 in the archive. There, on page 53 of the March 18, 1944 issue is a story called "Three Ladies in the Morning," by Cpl. Roger Angell.

 Once upon a time, before The New Yorker "improved" its Archive a couple of years ago, a researcher could search by title, author, and within a date range. That's the kind of digital archive that we most often encounter. For reasons known but to Harold Ross, the new iteration of access to the past is clunky to the point of being nearly useless (unless you're willing to devote gobs of precious time to conduct searches of The New Yorker).

So what do we want from The New Yorker Archive? Mainly an Advanced Search function that includes title, author, subject, and date range. It cannot be done now, but the ability to search the cartoons (by artist, date, and subject) for which the magazine is famous would be a nice bonus feature.

I've complained to the magazine about the current iteration of search several times. Last week I sent an email to their customer service folks (turns out they're based in Australia) and all they basically did was thank me for contacting them. Maybe if enough people write in asking The New Yorker to rejig its search function to make Finding Stuff a whole lot more useful, they'll actually do it. Give it a shot. Try going here to lodge your appeal:

 Wish us luck.

If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog.
Disclaimer: The description of web pages are accurate as of the date of the post. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

On The Road To Persia

Curiosity is a curious thing. When I write historical articles I like have a really good sense of the place where the action happens. Thank goodness there are numerous tools to help me satisfy this curiosity. One of the best is good 'ol Google Earth.

While working on a piece about U.S. efforts to supply Russia with arms and materiel during World War II, through the so-called "Persian Corridor"  I came across a photograph of Army convoys traversing a switchback in the Zagros Mountains on the way from ports on the Persian Gulf to Tehran, Iran's capital.


My curiosity piqued, I wondered where this place is - or was. The caption says the switchback was twenty-five miles north of Andimeshk, an army division point for both the road and rail routes.

Opening Google Earth, I flew off to Iran to look for the town in question. It turns out to be nearly due north of the Persian Gulf ports, about a third of the way to Tehran. Using the Path Tool, I followed the highway for 25 miles.

If the caption was right, the switchback should be somewhere near the end of the red line. Time to zoom in and follow the road with the cursor.

I drove and drove and drove, kilometer after kilometer. And found nothing. So I started further south, about 15 miles from town. Realizing that 70 years have passed since the switchback was used, and that the road's right-of-way could have changed dramatically, I slowed down to about an inch a minute.

Hold on. What's that? But it's only 20 miles from Andimeshk. Still, could this be my quarry?

It's a little hard to see, but at the Highway 37 marker a road diverges to the left, goes a couple hundred meters, makes a sharp turn to the right, goes several hundred meters more, makes another sharp turn to the left . . . and so on until it reaches the top. I compared the Google Earth image to the photo of the switchback, and everything lined up. Hooray!

As you can see, the new highway just makes a beeline over the same topography. As you can also see, this place was where the U.S. Army drove its heavily laden trucks back and forth across that same hill to get to their destination.

Happy Trails!

If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog. 

Disclaimer: The description of web pages are accurate as of the date of the post. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Word Frequency In The New York Times

The New York Times has introduced a new feature that lets you check how many times a specific word or phrase has been used in the paper since a way back in 1851. Go here to check it out:

It brings up a graph showing the frequency of your query. I was curious about The Times's use of the word "fraught", which seemed to be in a great many articles of late. So I typed "fraught" into the search and the output looked thus:

The results surprised me a bit. The year 2011 has the most uses by far, and will likely continue to outpace 2014.

Now, if I wanted to know which articles "fraught" appeared in I can click on the red dot there on the upper right. That brings up a list (with links) of 609 stories in which the word was used.

Useful and fun. Try it yourself. 'Til next time . . .

If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog. 

Disclaimer: The description of web pages are accurate as of the date of the post. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.