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On The Futility Of War, Part Two, Or, Twelve Times The Charm? December 15, 2009

We are halfway through a story that is about to turn winter in one of the most beautiful places in the world profoundly ugly.

Just like in a Cecil B. DeMille movie, we have a cast of millions, we have epic scenery, and we have made acquaintance with someone who will go on to perform a heroic act.

Unlike your typical Hollywood production, however, this movie is not going to have a happy ending—in fact, you could make the argument that it’s not over yet.

So wrap yourself up in something comfortable, grab something to drink…and when you’re ready, we’re packing up and heading to the Alps.

So for those of you just coming to the story, here’s where we’re at:

There has been, for as long as anyone can remember, some degree of “friendliness balanced with hostility” in the relationship between the Austrians, Italians, and Ladins who have been living in the Tyrol, a region of the Alps just to the east of Switzerland.

In the 1800s, a variety of national unification movements emerged, leaving Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Germany in possession of various parts of the Tyrol.

For those unfamiliar with the geography, the Alps would represent a bit of trim extending all the way across the top of Italy’s “boot”; if the boot had a buckle, it would be where the Italian, Austro-Hungarian, and German borders come together in the center of the Alps.

As WWI approached, there was some question as to whether Italy would join the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) or the Triple Entente (Russia, France, Britain, and eventually, the United States).

Italy broke its neutrality by signing the Treaty of London and attacking Austrian and other Central Powers forces along a 450-long offensive line stretching from Lake Garda to not quite Trieste.

In May of 1915 the Italians had 875,000 troops trying to mount an attack uphill, the goal being to emerge near Zagreb, Croatia (and cover their backsides at the same time, thus the attack on the Lake Garda region), so they could wheel north and attack into Austrian territory while simultaneously moving south along the Adriatic coast; the Austrians were defending from the peaks with roughly 300,000 troops.

Among those troops were units specially trained in mountain combat; those units recruiting from the mountain guides and hunters who lived in the mountain regions. The Austrians had in their command a legendary mountain guide-turned-hotelier named Sepp Innerkofler, who had more than 50 “first ascents” on some of the world’s toughest peaks under his belt.

For those with a memory of history, Hannibal did the same thing on a much narrower offensive front, 2200 years ago, starting from roughly Nice, France and ending up between Turin and Milan, in what is today Northern Italy–a feat he performed at great cost to his own forces.

And now, you’re caught up.

“Our vigil is ended. Our exultation begins … The cannon roars. The earth smokes … Companions, can it be true? We are fighting with arms, we are waging our war, the blood is spurting from the veins of Italy! We are the last to join this struggle and already the first are meeting with glory … The slaughter begins, the destruction begins … All these people, who yesterday thronged in the streets and squares, loudly demanding war, are full of veins, full of blood; and that blood begins to flow … We have no other value but that of our blood to be shed.”

Gabriele D’Annunzio, April 25th, 1915

The first four of the twelve Battles of the Isonzo were fought, along that long front, between May and December of 1915. The main tactic, on both sides, was to use artillery as a way of “softening up” the opposition, after which somebody would have to run up a hill, under fire, in an attempt to dislodge someone else from their well dug-in position (which explains why controlling the high ground is so vitally important).

“The men rest for a few hours, trying to dry out. At noon, they form a line, dropping to one knee while the officers stand with sabres drawn. The regimental colours flutter freely. Silence. Then a trumpet sounds, the men bellow ‘Savoy!’[the name of the royal house] as from one throat, the band strikes up the Royal March. Carrying knapsacks that weigh 35 kilograms, the men attack up the steep slope, in the teeth of accurate fire from positions that the Italians cannot see. An officer brandishing his sabre in his right hand has to use his left hand to stop the scabbard from tripping him up. The men are too heavily laden to move quickly. Renato remembered the scene as a vision of the end of an era: ‘In a whirl of death and glory, within a few moments, the epic Garibaldian style of warfare is crushed and consigned to the shadows of history!’ The regimental music turns discordant, then fades. The officers are bowled down by machine-gun fire while the men crawl for cover on hands and knees. The battle is lost before it begins. The Italians present such a magnificent target, they are bound to fail. A second attack, a few hours later, is aborted when the bombardment falls short, hitting their own line. The afternoon peters out in another rainstorm.”

Renato di Stolfo, describing his view of the First Battle of the Isonzo

As the Italians attacked the Austrians were basically engaged in a slow retreat into the highest mountain redoubts, destroying the rail and road infrastructure as they went.

Among the unbelievable tales of combat from those first engagements is this account of how bulls were used as a tool of assault:

“…Realizing that Korada must be captured, if at all, by dash and surprise, the Italian brigadier in charge of the attack gathered a herd of fierce bulls, which are numerous in that part of Venetia, and penned them in a hollow out of sight of the enemy, while his artillery began to bombard the hostile trenches. When the animals were wrought to a frenzy of rage and fear by the noise of the guns, they were let loose and driven up the mountain against the Austrian positions. Their charge broke through many strands of the wire entanglements, and before the last of them fell dead under the Austrian rifle fire, Italian troops with fixed bayonets had crowded through the gaps in the wires and captured the position…”

By the time the fourth battle was over the Austrian commanders’ extremely effective defense not only had the Italians stopped cold—literally—but even worse, the few miles gained in those seven months had already cost the Italians 250,000 dead or wounded soldiers.

The Austrians were losing soldiers as well—including Sepp Innerkofler.

July 3rd had found Innerkofler under attack on the Croda Rossa early in the day, and, amazingly, deer hunting later in the afternoon a couple miles away at the Alpe di Andert:

“…We start the descent at 12 and 13.50 are the Alpe di Andert. Lieutenant Gruber goes back to his position as we head towards the Kulewaldplatz, where our 6 men, they start hunting with deer starting from the so-called Bastrich. I look forward to the post until the end of the broad valley. 5 are found deer and fox-1, I will see two but failed to hit them. He fired a total of 8 shots, but unfortunately it is the prey of a single chapter. And so, as two hours and a half ago we were engaged in a manhunt, now we are dedicated to our unique pleasure to that of the deer!…”

–From Sepp Innerkofler’s diary entry, July 3rd, 1915

July 4th, however, was a bit of a different story.

Innerkofler and five members of his “flying squad”, all top climbers, were ordered to dislodge a group of Italian mountainsoldiers (Alpini) from a mountain peak. To make this happen Innerkofler’s team was required to perform a vertical ascent upon the Monte Paterno—an ascent that was actually among his resume of Alpine “first climbs”; a feat he had achieved 19 years earlier and many, many, times since.

The climb was completed by sunrise, and with the sun at their backs the Austrians began to attack with grenades and small arms and the thud of their own artillery sending shells just overhead into the Italian position. Austrian and Italian machine gun emplacements were trading fire across the ridges at each other.

There are several versions of what happens next, including an almost Wagnerian account—but the eventual outcome of each is the same: Innerkofler is killed by a rock-wielding Alpini.

The Italians, risking Austrian fire, recovered the Austrian’s body and give him a funeral with full respect, burying him on the Paternkofel.

With four of the Battles of the Isonzo down, there were still eight to go.

The next May, after an exceptionally bitter winter and spring and with more equipment, the Italians were preparing to attack, again, from north of Milan to up above Lake Garda—but the Austrians had two Armies in the mountains, who were able to drive the Italians back into their own northern plain, stopping the Fifth Battle before it ever got started.

It’s reported that the Austrians had to fall back from that newly acquired land partly because of problems running a logistics operation through the mountains…and also partly because the Russians mounted an offensive to the Austrians’ east. The cost to the Italians was substantial, however, as they were forced to commit 500,000 troops to the defense of the Lake Garda region.

In this environment, the Italians and Austrians were not limited to the use of traditional means of killing each other—in fact, rockslides and avalanches were becoming weapons of mass destruction, as this description of an action at the Col di Lana in April of 1916 indicates:

“…so the entire western margin of Col di Lana was carefully and patiently mined, an undertaking which probably took months of hard work, and several tons of high explosives were distributed in such a way as to destroy the whole side of the mountain above which the enemy was in- trenched.

The explosion that followed was terrific. The earth shook as if rocked by an earthquake, and the havoc wrought was so great that out of the 1,000 Austrians who held the position, only 164 survived.”

Just a few months later, on just one day (December 13th, a day which became known as “White Friday”) 10,000 soldiers are said to have died in avalanches; the problem being so serious that both sides had detachments of soldiers assigned specifically to the avalanche rescue mission.

This went on for months and months and months, with neither side really accomplishing anything in terms of territory gained. The Italians, however, were growing their Army, both in size and in the amount of materiel they could put in the field, until October of 1917, when either the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo or the Battle of Caporetto took place (pick your favorite name; various sources use both).

The Austrians, coming down from the buckle of our boot, mounted an attack that was so successful that the Italian 2nd Army collapsed in disorganized confusion to the south, suffering severe levels of casualties; the better organized 3rd and 4th Armies seem to have lost about 20% of their forces “coming to the rescue”.

While the Italian Army under General Cadorna had begun the battle with 1,250,000 troops, in two weeks he lost roughly 320,000 of them to death or capture, along with most of his Army’s artillery—and his own job. An additional 350,000 soldiers were reportedly wandering the countryside, for the moment unattached to any military organization.

400,000 people became refugees in those two weeks.

Eventually the Austrians had to retreat back into their own territory; some of the reason for that being related to the same problems the Italians were having maintaining supply lines through mountains, some of the reason for that being that the Austrians were losing on other fronts.

This was not the end of the fighting along the Italian-Austrian frontier, nor the end of the ethnic conflict that has peppered the region’s history, but you get the idea: no one ever really won any victories that mattered, but thousands upon thousands of people died in the effort, and hundreds of thousands more were wounded—again, all for nothing, really.

“…das Schlagwort vom lebenslangen Lernen für alle – auch für Politiker – gilt…”

(English translation: “…the slogan of lifelong learning for all – even for politicians – applies…”)

Luis Durnwalder, Governor of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano

Now at some point in this story we have to answer the question of…what is the point of all this?

Folks, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the moral of this story is that there is no point.

More or less 400,000 soldiers died on both sides, countless more were wounded, and hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, became refugees.

Sepp Innerkofler’s hotel was bombed as he and so many other of his friends, both Austrian and Italian, were killed up in those mountains.

And all of it for nothing.

Italy was not able to advance its national interests at all (in fact, things got much worse), and despite everything that happened back and forth over those years, Austria certainly saw no gains: in fact, thanks to this war, the Hapsburg Dynasty also went the way of “Cats” and the Ottoman Empire…closing, after a long run.

If it was my job to apply all of this to some war that my bosses were fighting…I think I’d be looking at Afghanistan, and I think I’d be looking at the place as a collection of tribal communities, rather than one big country; and I think I’d be telling my bosses that all those talking heads—and just plain folks—who think we should “defeat the Taliban” through some military campaign so that we can come home, having achieved some kind of ultimate victory, need to understand that you will never defeat anything up in the mountains simply be throwing a bunch of people and equipment at the problems.

Instead, you’re going to have to consider whether it’s possible to help the Afghans create something like what is happening in the Tyrol today, where protections for the various tribal and ethnic groups could be laid out in a framework that reassures Pashtuns, Persians, and Turcoman alike that they have a place in a community of interdependent communities.

This has been a long and, at times, rather depressing, look at who we are as people, and I wanted to end on a postscript that is a bit happier…and it all comes back to Sepp Innerkofler.

Despite the fact that his hotel was bombed, and he was killed, the family carried on, as did the strength of his reputation…which is why you can, even to this very day, hike the Sepp Innerkofler Höhenweg (Ridgeway, in English), and why, should you find yourself a bit tired from the hike, you can stay at Sepp’s original Hotel Dolomitenhof, rebuilt since the war, where the legacy also continues, as Innerkofler Katharina recently noted in an email exchange we had:

“…of course we are proud of our grand-grand pa. We´ve a little museum in our hotel, where we show his climbing successes and explain his destiny.”

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On The Futility Of War, Part One, Or, Snow Becomes A Lethal Weapon December 13, 2009

We have another one of those “amazing history” stories for you today—and this one’s a real doozy.

We’re going to spend the better part of four years in the Italian Alps (or, to be more accurate, what was intended to be the Italian Alps), and by the time we’re done, nearly 400,000 soldiers will have been killed—and 60,000 of those will have died as a result of avalanches that were set by one side or the other.

In the middle of the story: a mountaineer and soldier who was so highly regarded that even those who fought against him accorded him the highest honors they could muster, creating a legend that lives on to this very day.

And even though a young Captain Erwin Rommel fought in these battles…it’s not him.

Oh, by the way: did I mention that there are also some handy object lessons for anyone who might be thinking about fighting a war in Afghanistan?

Well, there are, Gentle Reader, so follow along, and let’s all learn something today.

“Coming back from a long weekend in the desert, traffic is lousy. Next to the highway, an electric billboard proclaims ONLY 24 SUNSETS UNTIL CHRISTMAS and I am stuck beside it long enough to watch it change to 23—get ‘em while they’re hot, apocalypse coming soon, reserve your sunsets now while supplies last.”

–Gabriel Wrye, Straight Time

Let’s begin the setup for this story by checking out some prime European real estate:

Italy, as you know, is that “boot” protruding into the Mediterranean—and if the top of the boot had really cool trim and a big buckle, the trim would run from Nice, France (formerly Nice, Italy), on the west, touching Innsbruck and Salzburg, Austria, and then past Bratislava, Slovakia and on into the Hungarian plain. The trim would also veer south, and that portion of our metaphorical “carnival decoration” would encompass Ljubljana, Slovenia (which is about 100 miles south of Salzburg), eventually rolling out into the suburbs of Zagreb, Croatia.

Other notable nearby cities include Marseilles, Grenoble, every city in Switzerland, Strasbourg, Munich, Venice, Bologna, Milan, Turin, and Genoa, all of which are 100 miles or less from the boot’s appliqué.

This is the Alps, and, in 1910, France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire all have borders that snake through the area. The last three were all relatively new countries, none having gone more than 50 years since their most recent versions of “unification”—and that buckle we spoke of earlier? That would be roughly where the Swiss, Austrian, and Italian borders meet today, near the Stelvio Pass…which is part of an area known as the Tyrol.

Switzerland’s Matterhorn (part of the Pennine Alps) is one of numerous mountains that are all above 10,000 feet over on the west side of the region; the highest peak of the equally spectacular Tre Cime di Lavaredo (known in German as the “Drei Zinnen”) is located about 10,000 feet up in the air, a couple of hundred miles or so to the east in the Dolomite Range.

Just like in my part of the world (Washington’s Cascade Mountains) you can get a lot of snow up there, and the combination of extreme snow and weather, high altitudes, and nearly vertical climbs created, by necessity, residents with unique mountaineering skills (the techniques that led to the use of pitons, carabiners, and rope ascents and descents were all developed here)…skills that became quite valuable to the military authorities in those five countries.

By the start of the 20th Century, troops like the Italian Alpini (who, to this day, still serve in the Italian Army), the French Chasseurs Alpines (who are also still serving and have a recruiting pitch that’s way past “Be All You Can Be”), the Austrian Landesschützen (who also have a modern presence in today’s Austrian Armed Forces as the 6th Jägerbrigade and the Österreichs Gebirgsbrigade, mountain infantry and “mountain combat engineers”, respectively), and the “Standschutzen“, who were essentially the Austrian military’s Alpine “farm team”, were all stood up to protect the various national interests that were present in the mountains.

All of the armies and militias involved had access to the best hunters and mountain guides that could be found—and since smuggling and poaching was part of mountain life, a lot of people knew a lot of paths, knew how to bag game with the fewest shots possible—and knew how to use those skills while keeping out of sight of the flatlanders and tourists—and “revenooers”—who might be venturing into the neighborhood.

Among all those mountain dwellers, perhaps the most skilled of the hunters and guides was Sepp Innerkofler. As the new century began, he had built his decade-old guide business into a hotel business—presumably learning better “customer service” that that practiced by his equally famous uncle Michael, who would apparently leave customers on ledges to wait for him to finish a climb if they couldn’t keep up. (Michael died in 1888, the victim of an ice bridge collapse.)

One measure of Sepp’s skill: he had to his credit the “first ascent” up more than 50 of the most difficult peaks in the Alps—which wasn’t that easy, considering that Michael had something like 10 times that number under his belt.

”…only a few of the hundreds of walkers who leave the Longéres pass for the Lavaredo pass every day in summer and autumn realise [sic] that they are moving in an environment which was made sacred by events in the Great War…”

–Tito and Camillo Berti, Guerra in Ampezzo e in Cadore

I could tell you an entire additional story about Italy and the relationship with Austria (and later Austro-Hungary, both ruled by the Hapsburg Dynasty), but what you need to know today is that over the centuries there had been a long-simmering conflict between the Italians and the Austrians (and the Ladins, a third ethnic group that inhabits the Tyrol).

At the time of the American Civil War Austria’s territory extended a bit south of the Alps; and part of the beginning of Italian unification history (the Risorgimento) was the effort to reduce Austrian influence in the north of today’s Italy and in the Italian Tyrol.

As Europe was stumbling its way into World War I, much of Italy’s population wanted to stay neutral (which, for the moment, was official Government policy), and some did not, seeking, instead, an alliance between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Opposing the Empire was the Rebel Alliance…no, wait, that was “Star Wars”.

The actual opponents, Russia, France, and Great Britain, were known as the “Triple Entente”, which was the side the United States later joined. Germany eventually declared war against everyone in Europe, except the “neutral” countries and the other “Central Powers” (Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire—which, like the show Cats, was just about to close after a very successful 600-year run), who they joined.

By the time it was all over, more than 50 declarations of war were issued by the various combatant nations.

It’s now 1915, and despite the fact that Italian policy tilts toward neutrality, Sepp Innerkofler has been seeing a lot of new activity in his neighborhood…and the alp-glow notwithstanding, he was pretty sure that it wasn’t the mythical King Laurin.

You cannot sustain an army in the mountains without a lot of infrastructure in place, especially a large one, and what Innerkofler was seeing was indeed the beginning of Italian military preparations—preparations that were being countered, as best as possible, by the Austrian military:

“The Italian Alpinis, as well as their Austrian counterparts…occupied every hill and mountain top and began to carve whole cities out of the rocks and even drilled tunnels and living quarters deep into the ice of glaciers like the Marmolada. Guns were dragged by hundreds of troops on Mountains up to 3 890 m (12,760 feet) high. Streets, cable cars, mountain railways and walkways through the steepest of walls were built.”

–From the article “Tyrol”, courtesy of the Embassy of Austria

And as it turns out, the Italians were going to need every bit of army they could get…because for a piece of the action, including some Alpen territories, the Italians had agreed, in the until now secret Treaty of London, to fight on the side of the Triple Entente powers—but in order to win the Tyrol…well, they were going to have to win the Tyrol; a task which will require the Italian Army to fight their way through either the Dolomites, on the one side, or the Julian Alps on the other…or both.

Hannibal had accomplished a similar task on the eastern side of the Alps—2200 years before—but to do it he left a huge portion of his Carthaginian forces dead in those mountains; victims of both the ancient angry mountain soldiers (the forebears of the same mountain folk Innerkofler lived among in 1915) and the brutal winter conditions.

The Italian commander, General Luigi Cadorna, had 875,000 troops at his disposal on May 23, 1915 (the day the Italians declared an end to their neutrality); against him the Austrians could only field about 300,000 troops—but many of those troops were natives defending their own real estate…and for the moment, they held the strategic real estate on the tops of the mountains.

Remember the description we gave in the beginning about the boot’s appliqué?

The smart thing to do, if you’re commanding 875,000 troops trying to go north, is to get around the right edge of the fringe on that boot (the mountains are somewhat lower on that side) and get your people onto the Hungarian plain…which is nice and flat and provides lots of room to maneuver.

The problem is, if you get too committed to that plan, you may end up with Austrian troops in Milan, attacking you from the rear. To prevent such an occurrence, Cadorna attacked on an offensive line that stretched from the “buckle” of our boot, way up in the Alps, to the city of Gorizia, which is all the way over to the top and right, if you were looking at a modern Italian map—and which just happens to be on the way to the nearby Adriatic port city of Trieste.

If you then follow the route of today’s A1 and A2 highways you get to Zagreb…and that’s the way to the Hungarian Plain.

If you can succeed in advancing uphill past Lake Garda (the Lago di Garda, in Italian, and the first part of the route up to the buckle), then you can cut off the railroad from Trentino north to Innsbruck; this would prevent the Austrians from moving any troops into northern Italy.

It’s time for us to stop for today: we have a lot of story to go, this is a natural point to take a break, and, to be completely honest, 4,000 words is too much even if you’re trapped in your car on the New York Thruway with nothing but a Snuggie, a laptop, and a mobile Internet service provider.

When we come back tomorrow we’ll get to the story of what happened when Italy deployed their newly enlarged Army, which is a story that, in some ways, is still being told; additionally, the idea that there is a lesson here for those who are being tasked with executing a war strategy in Afghanistan will be explored.

Harmony and balance matter in life, so go watch some Johnny Bravo or something, clear your head of all of this, and we’ll all meet back here tomorrow for Part Two.

 

On Getting Found, Or, Search Engines: Is There A Difference? December 6, 2009

Filed under: Blogging,Internet — fakeconsultant @ 9:19 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I have a story today that comes from my predilection to “self-syndicate”, meaning that I post my stories far and wide, in the same way a newspaper columnist is syndicated nationally—or beyond.

After I post, I know others will also post my stories to their sites, a topic that was itself the subject of a recent conversation.

To keep track of it all, I use the Google…but I recently wondered if that’s actually the most effective tool for the job—or not—so as an experiment I recently challenged several search engines to go out and seek the same search term.

We find out today…and the results are, indeed, interesting.

So here’s the rules of the game: on the afternoon and evening of November 29th, I posted my story On Stimulating The Future, Or, “It’s The Ytterbium, Stupid!” on 27 sites. The next morning I conducted the searches you’ll see referenced in this discussion using as a search term the exact words of the title, in quotes, just as it appears above. During the course of writing this story, we’ll revisit the same sites to see if the results have changed.

So the first search was conducted on Google, which found 849 results.

The reason that happens is because the tags associated with (or the proper nouns that appear in) a story often trigger websites to place that material on pages with other stories with matching tags or names, as you can see from this example at RootsWire. (The story appears twice because it was updated after it was posted.)

This creates lots of iterations of the same title on the same site under different categories, a situation other search providers seek to reduce; this being the one of the points behind all those recent ads for Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

A quick note about “search consistency”: seeking for the same search term at Google on multiple occasions will yield different results each time, even if the two searches are conducted immediately after one another. For example, my search this morning found 852 results—and then, just a few minutes later, 653. (By the way, if you click on these links now, some other number of results will appear, which is its own comment on consistency.)

We next visit Bing, where 16 results were initially found. Interestingly, some of the links were the ones I placed, but 6 of the 16 were multiple iterations of the same story on three sites.

As with Google, visiting Bing today might yield 57 links—or 2530, or 152, or 26—and despite Bing’s advertising claims that they make searching simpler by eliminating Internet “clutter”, a huge number of the links I’m seeing here are links to the weather in virtually every city in Maine; all of these linked back to “Weather Underground” weather reporting pages…and all of those pages were from the same basic address: insert name here.wunderground.com.

Next was Yahoo!, reporting 887 results (and then, after clicking through a few pages, 1580). There was an interesting variation to the pattern of what they found, however: more results from the first 50 were links to the original 27 postings than appeared to be the case with either Google or Bing.

The search today found 860 results…four times in a row…which is by far the most consistent results reporting so far—even if the results from the other day were completely different.

Lycos found 67 iterations of the posting…or 50……and then 49…with roughly a dozen of the first 30 listings being “duplicative” entries, which is fairly consistent reporting. Returning to the site today, the search engine found 69 listings—and it was also able to do that four times in a row….which makes it at least the “consistency equal” of Yahoo!

Dogpile (a product of the fine folks at Infospace) aggregates results from Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and Ask.com into one set of results…and for some reason the first result on the second page was for a futures trading opportunity (“I’m shocked to discover there’s gambling here…!”).

That said, Dogpile “sniffed out” 40 results, with many of those being “duplicate” instances of the same story from the same site. Conducting the same search today yields 6 additional results—all of which appear to be duplicates of the previous 40.

On four further attempts to search, the original 40 results were found.

WebCrawler, another Infospace property, located 38 results; again, the results are highly duplicative. It is not possible to enter the entire search term at this site, instead, the term…

“On Stimulating The Future, Or, “It’s The Ytterbium,

…was used.

Four additional searches were conducted today, with 38 results found each time.

(Because the page-naming conventions of both Dogpile and WebCrawler insert an ! into the page names upon which results are presented, they can’t be linked here, and you’ll just have to visit the pages on your own.)

Altavista found 904 iterations of the story, then 17,800 on today’s search. There is an option to either search “Worldwide” or “USA”, the Worldwide search, conducted immediately after today’s USA search, found, oddly enough, 2460 results—and for at least the first several pages, which was as far as I looked, the results were the same as for the USA search.

Four additional searches, conducted today, located the same 17,800 results.

One strange idiosyncrasy of the site is that it won’t actually display those 17,800 results: instead, it only displays the first several pages of results (in this case, 7 pages), and then just stops, with no additional pages made available beyond that point. There is an “advanced settings” page available, but it does not offer any solution for this problem.

Ask.com displays 240 results on the first search—and they were the only site to report the listing on the Times of India site right there on the front page (which, if you return to the site, is no longer the case)—but on the down side, 1/3 of the results on that first page were “sponsored results”.

After the first page, ½ of all results are “sponsored”, and the results are highly duplicative. By page 10 of the results, as few as 2 of the 13 results on the page are not sponsored.

Today’s searches located 452 links, then 449, then 452, and then (take a guess…) 449.

Ever heard of Duck Duck Go? Neither had I before this story. They feature an unusual format that displays some results, and then, when you click “more results”, displays those below the first results on the same page; a pattern that continues until all results are displayed.

The Duck located 35 results on the first attempt, with no duplicates. The “wunderground” domain was represented—but only once.

Apparently recognizing that their searches are not going to give every result, the site encourages you to also search at YouTube, flickr, twitter, amazon, and Google.

Turning off the “safe search” feature yields 43 results, including BhamLinks.com (a news aggregator from Birmingham, Alabama), Pshcye’s Links, (“Esoteric Subjects on the Web”), and the “Li-Ion” page from the Journalism that matters site (Li-Ion, by the way, is the abbreviation used to describe lithium ion batteries.)

Conducting additional searches on the site today yields the same 43 results.

Finally, Cuil. I had never heard of this site before…and apparently, they’ve never heard of me, either, with zero results reported for my query. Searching the “127 billion web pages” they purport to scan today provided no results again during four additional checks—which makes this site the most consistent of the search engines I examined.

I conducted a test search for pizza (with no quotes). 809,000,000 results were found…but only two were displayed on the “All Results” tab: one for Pizza Hut, one for the Wikipedia entry for pizza (which featured the story of how pizza was introduced into Pakistan, of all things). Even more odd: on the same page you can look up “Pizza franchises” and other pizza related results “categories”, and there’s a “Timeline for Pizza” with entries like: “2004 Melbourne, Australia” and “1993 Pizza was”.

All of this appears to be at odds with the intent of the site’s operators:

“Popularity is useful, but has dominated search results so heavily that it gets harder and harder to find the page you want, especially if your search is a complex one. Cuil respects popular pages and recognizes that for many simple searches, popularity is an easy answer to your question. But for a deeper search, establishing relevancy is more than a numbers game. Cuil prefers to find all the pages with your keyword or phrase and then analyze the rest of the content on those pages…”

Those are the results: so, what about conclusions?

The first conclusion we can reach about all of this is that the number of results that any search engine locates on any particular visit are highly variable—and so much so that the number of results presented appears to be virtually random (with the notable exception of Cuil, which seems to be consistently unable to find anything).

With that said, if I was quickly looking for this particular story, it appears that some of the odd search engines might be the best choices, including Lycos, Duck Duck Go, and Ask.com.

On the other hand, if the idea was to determine how far a story has been distributed, Google seems to be the winner.

There is another reason to use search engines, that being to find information about a topic that you currently don’t know enough about; this test is not well suited to answer the question of which search engine is best for that purpose…and it’s a test that we’ll save for another day.

So that’s today’s story: we visit quite a few search engines, we learn that the results you get are almost always entirely unpredictable, and, in what might be the most important lesson of the day, we’re learning that deifying Tiger Woods can backfire on you, big time.