Warsaw’s Forgotten Ghosts

Exactly 180 years ago, on September 7th, 1831, the conflict between the Russian Empire and the Congress Kingdom of Poland had reached its climax. After nine long months of hostilities, triggered by the Polish November Rising of 1830, the Russian army had gained the upper hand and was ready to deal the final, decapitating blow against the rebellious borderland. During the first week of September, the Russian forces of field-marshal Ivan Paskevich surrounded Warsaw completely and unleashed their final onslaught against the Polish capital.

The military units which had been assembled for the Russian punitive expedition included also the Finnish Sharp-Shooter Battalion of the Imperial Guard. I have previously written extensively of the Finnish Guard’s campaign in Poland at Noel Maurer’s blog (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) as well as in academic publications (1, 2), so in this particular blog post, I shall settle merely for a small commemoration on this forgotten anniversary.

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How every detail counts in large amounts

I owe my co-blogger Jussi Jalonen thanks for the superb job placing last month’s massacres in Norway in the context of an increasingly unhinged and conspiracy-minded ideology, Internet-based but spreading, whose protagonists claim that Muslim are taking over Europe (at least) through their superfecundity as enabled by traitorous multiculturalists. I couldn’t write the essay; I’m even now trying to avoid despair over the issue.

Everything I’ve written here about information it’s predicated on the beliefs that preserving information matter and that preserving as much detail as possible matters. Yes, that’s in part an emotional reaction of mine to my own personal circumstances, but it’s something that works very well for me from the perspective of scholarship. Detail does matter; everything counts.

My 2004 post on the non-existence of Eurabia was a product of my idle curiosity and my desire to seek some distraction from graduate school. Later, as I became more aware of what Eurabia was starting to do, I became more concerned, more strident. Breivik’s massacre was the sort of thing that I’d expected to eventually happen; I felt guilty, frustrated, despairing that this had happened. If the mass of details describing reality don’t register, what’s the point of any of it?

Jussi’s approach is best. Friend of the blog Jim Belshaw helped with this comment he posted at A Bit More Detail in response to my Eurabia-themed question wondering how you reach people who believe in unfounded things. Selected elements are below.

2. You can’t change people’s minds by direct attack on their views. You have to come at it indirectly.
3. Don’t deal in universals. Eurabia and Muslims have become universals, labels to which other things are attached. Each time you use them as universals, you carry other people’s labels with them. At a purely personal level I try to avoid the use of the world Muslim unless I am speaking about a faith with all its varieties.
4. Recognise diversity. Within Europe each country, and sometimes parts of countries, are different. Australia is different again.
5. Attack intolerance, but do not attack the validity of views on which that intolerance may draw. Precisely, recognise them and address them independently as different issues. Avoid culture wars. Don’t confuse issues.

Thanks, Jim, for the reminder. The details will reappear, here and elsewhere. It’d be an honour if you’d join us all here at History and Futility for the ride.

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The Massacre and its Context

Perhaps the most disturbing phenomenon in the 21st century European politics has been the emergence of various far-right populist movements. These extremist movements are driven by fears that open borders, globalization and immigration will result in a change towards worse; to the destruction of old, traditional communities and the loss of national identity, perhaps even to the demise of the European civilization. While these fears may be exaggerated and even irrational, for many people who hold them, they’re real fears. In this weekend, this was manifested concretely when Anders Behring Breivik decided to blow up a bomb in downtown Oslo and attack the Norwegian Labour Party Youth camp in Utøya , massacring over 90 members of the Labour Youth Organization.

Breivik was involved in this same political dynamic which has swept across the European Continent in recent years. He had a background in the Norwegian Progress Party (FrP), the second-largest political party in Norway, which has adjusted its anti-tax populist ideology more and more towards the direction of an openly anti-immigration platform. Eventually, Breivik resigned from the party, convinced that democratic methods could not yield the results he hoped for, and began hatching a plot for outright political violence.

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What hockey has shown us about Canada

Right now I’m watching the live feed of Game 7 of the National Hockey League’s finals, the Boston Bruins ahead of the Vancouver Canucks (playing in Vancouver) by one goal.

The whole thing has been fascinating, not only from a sports perspective but from a cultural perpective. Hockey, its problems with credibility and takeup and growing competition from other sports notwithstanding, can be plausibly called the Canadian national sport. Certainly hockey has proven its centrality in Canada now.

* The growing strength of the Canadian economy–and dollar–relative to the American has created an economically plausible case for the expansion of the NHL back to Winnipeg and Québec City. Winnipeg actually has taken over the Atlanta Thrashers, bolstering civic pride.
* The long-standing and expensively-funded desire of Québec City to get back its NHL team has not succeeded yet, but it has been the trigger for the implosion of the Parti Québécois just a month after the annihilation of the Bloc Québécois in the federal election.
* Finally, the Vancouver Canucks’ success has revealed interesting things about intra-Canadian solidarity. Writers for the Edmonton Journal and Torontoist have both refused to support the Canucks as a Canadian team versus the Bruins, arguing that in terms of the nationality of its players the Bruins are more Canadian than the Canucks. Atlantic Canadians, meanwhile, have come out in support of the Bruins based on century-old ties between New England and–what I would call–its hinterland in Atlantic Canada.

The NHL finals have been fantastic. And, now, here I go back to watching the game.

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Two links on trouble with databases

An encyclopedia and the institution of the academic library, actually.

  • Martin Wisse writes (“Wikipedia finally notices it’s in trouble”) that Wikipedia’s famously open system of volunteer editors is collapsing, only a hard-core rump of the initial editor population remaining.
  • As the graph shows, while the number of active editors shot up from 2005, the retention rate of editors, those who are still active a year later, shot down. So there are more editors, but they quit editing earlier. Which in turn means that you have a hard core of longterm, dyed in the wool editors who know how to game the system and a much larger mass of people who discover Wikipedia, start editing and usually drop out in a couple of months, either because they lose interest or because they’re driven out by the hardcore. Editing Wikipedia is not fun anymore.

    Three reasons for this is: notability, verification and rules lawyering in general. It used to be that Wikipedia culture was fairly tolerant of people following their own interests, putting up entries on lesser known webcomics say and appreciated their efforts. But just when Wikipedia really took off, in 2005-2006, the rules started to change and anything that couldn’t be found in the Encyclopedia Brittannica was suddenly not noticable enough to be in Wikipedia either. The balance in Wikipedia culture switched over from erring on the side of inclusiveness to “when in doubt, delete” — with quite a few editors seeing it as a holy mission to get rid of “fancruft”, insulting and alienating just those people who would’ve made good recruits.

    At the same time, responding to a couple of scandals (some more so than others), editing existing articles became harder as well, as verification became the magic word. Every fact had to be verified, linked to some source that proclaimed its truth. It’s not an unreasonable rule, it’s the way it has been used that’s the problem. Too often new editors have had their their heads bitten off for innocently adding facts without verification, or using “suspect” sources, or for using sources not easily verificable or for just happening to disagree with a particular editor’s hobby horse. And verification, like notability is also increasingly used in editor fights, as disagreeing editors nitpick each other’s editors.

    I would like this to be corrected. I still resent the disappearance of Wikipedia’s page on soc.history.what-if.

  • Meanwhile, Michael Steeleworthy isn’t happy (“Ranting about patting ourselves on the back”) with some librarians’ reaction to a Chronicle of Higher Education article on their profession. Why?
  • Not only have a lot of people who re-tweeted the post, but we are also collectively re-tweeting it as if it is focused on the the good things in our field – that we value information literacy. Of course we value information literacy. But The Chronicle’s article is actually troubling because it explains plainly that many of our peers in academia don’t understand the value our work in teaching and learning. And it’s even more troubling that we are re-tweeting the article as if it shines a glowing light on our work in the academy when many people don’t know what we do, how we do it, and why.

    Like I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not sure how to write up my thoughts right now. On the one hand, I want to comment on the fact that we value our work but that not everyone else does. But on the other hand, I’m compelled to talk about way we’re re-tweeting this article as if it says good things about our work. I admit it – I could be quibbling since The Chronicle did report on some good things, after all. But I still think we should spend more of our energy thinking about ways to shrink that 37% difference of opinion on the librarian’s role in teaching and learning as opposed to giving ourselves a pat on the back and calling it a day. This isn’t about talking about ways to just get in to the classroom. It’s about convincing the other 40% of teaching faculty (and that 3% of library directors) that we actually do make a difference.

    Go, read them both.

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    On “How We Know”

    I owe blogger Dan Hirschman thanks for linking to Freeman Dyson’s “How We Know”, a review essay of James Gleick’s new book The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood in the 10 March 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books.

    The central dogma [of information theory] says, “Meaning is irrelevant.” Information is independent of the meaning that it expresses, and of the language used to express it. Information is an abstract concept, which can be embodied equally well in human speech or in writing or in drumbeats. All that is needed to transfer information from one language to another is a coding system. A coding system may be simple or complicated. If the code is simple, as it is for the drum language with its two tones, a given amount of information requires a longer message. If the code is complicated, as it is for spoken language, the same amount of information can be conveyed in a shorter message.

    The renowned American engineer Claude Shannon, in Dyson’s telling of Gleick’s book, is responsible for devising a theory of information and for our current early 21st century information abundance (surfeit?).

    Claude Shannon was the founding father of information theory. For a hundred years after the electric telegraph, other communication systems such as the telephone, radio, and television were invented and developed by engineers without any need for higher mathematics. Then Shannon supplied the theory to understand all of these systems together, defining information as an abstract quantity inherent in a telephone message or a television picture. Shannon brought higher mathematics into the game.

    When Shannon was a boy growing up on a farm in Michigan, he built a homemade telegraph system using Morse Code. Messages were transmitted to friends on neighboring farms, using the barbed wire of their fences to conduct electric signals. When World War II began, Shannon became one of the pioneers of scientific cryptography, working on the high-level cryptographic telephone system that allowed Roosevelt and Churchill to talk to each other over a secure channel. Shannon’s friend Alan Turing was also working as a cryptographer at the same time, in the famous British Enigma project that successfully deciphered German military codes. The two pioneers met frequently when Turing visited New York in 1943, but they belonged to separate secret worlds and could not exchange ideas about cryptography.

    In 1945 Shannon wrote a paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Cryptography,” which was stamped SECRET and never saw the light of day. He published in 1948 an expurgated version of the 1945 paper with the title “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” The 1948 version appeared in the Bell System Technical Journal, the house journal of the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and became an instant classic. It is the founding document for the modern science of information. After Shannon, the technology of information raced ahead, with electronic computers, digital cameras, the Internet, and the World Wide Web.

    According to Gleick, the impact of information on human affairs came in three installments: first the history, the thousands of years during which people created and exchanged information without the concept of measuring it; second the theory, first formulated by Shannon; third the flood, in which we now live. The flood began quietly. The event that made the flood plainly visible occurred in 1965, when Gordon Moore stated Moore’s Law. Moore was an electrical engineer, founder of the Intel Corporation, a company that manufactured components for computers and other electronic gadgets. His law said that the price of electronic components would decrease and their numbers would increase by a factor of two every eighteen months. This implied that the price would decrease and the numbers would increase by a factor of a hundred every decade. Moore’s prediction of continued growth has turned out to be astonishingly accurate during the forty-five years since he announced it. In these four and a half decades, the price has decreased and the numbers have increased by a factor of a billion, nine powers of ten. Nine powers of ten are enough to turn a trickle into a flood.

    In 1949, one year after Shannon published the rules of information theory, he drew up a table of the various stores of memory that then existed. The biggest memory in his table was the US Library of Congress, which he estimated to contain one hundred trillion bits of information. That was at the time a fair guess at the sum total of recorded human knowledge. Today a memory disc drive storing that amount of information weighs a few pounds and can be bought for about a thousand dollars. Information, otherwise known as data, pours into memories of that size or larger, in government and business offices and scientific laboratories all over the world. Gleick quotes the computer scientist Jaron Lanier describing the effect of the flood: “It’s as if you kneel to plant the seed of a tree and it grows so fast that it swallows your whole town before you can even rise to your feet.”

    What is there to be done? Not one thing. Dyson ends by quoting Gleick quoting from Jorge Luis Borges’ famous short story “The Library of Babel”. I agree with Hirschman in that the two men misread the short story subtly, in that the library really isn’t a library–an organized, systematized information space–in that it isn’t indexed.

    The Library of Babel shows that information is not simply in the possession of statements, texts (facts), but rather in the structure that maps between them (and is missing in that ill-fated library). The Library of Babel is a misnomer – a collection of every possible book is not a library, but rather an unordered chaos in the guise of shelves and books. It is the opposite of a library. This is a universe with too little information, not too much!

    The way forward, as Dyson would have it, is through the mass of individuals’ efforts in trying to systematize all this information, through systems like Wikipedia which through masses of data together with masses of individual critics who compete to produce some order. (I confess, here, that I do have a Wikipedia account of my own, although I’m not very active on it at al.)

    Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. Distrust and productive use are not incompatible. Wikipedia is the ultimate open source repository of information. Everyone is free to read it and everyone is free to write it. It contains articles in 262 languages written by several million authors. The information that it contains is totally unreliable and surprisingly accurate. It is often unreliable because many of the authors are ignorant or careless. It is often accurate because the articles are edited and corrected by readers who are better informed than the authors.

    Jimmy Wales hoped when he started Wikipedia that the combination of enthusiastic volunteer writers with open source information technology would cause a revolution in human access to knowledge. The rate of growth of Wikipedia exceeded his wildest dreams. Within ten years it has become the biggest storehouse of information on the planet and the noisiest battleground of conflicting opinions. It illustrates Shannon’s law of reliable communication. Shannon’s law says that accurate transmission of information is possible in a communication system with a high level of noise. Even in the noisiest system, errors can be reliably corrected and accurate information transmitted, provided that the transmission is sufficiently redundant. That is, in a nutshell, how Wikipedia works.

    [. . .]

    The rapid growth of the flood of information in the last ten years made Wikipedia possible, and the same flood made twenty-first-century science possible. Twenty-first-century science is dominated by huge stores of information that we call databases. The information flood has made it easy and cheap to build databases.

    [. . .]

    The explosive growth of information in our human society is a part of the slower growth of ordered structures in the evolution of life as a whole. Life has for billions of years been evolving with organisms and ecosystems embodying increasing amounts of information. The evolution of life is a part of the evolution of the universe, which also evolves with increasing amounts of information embodied in ordered structures, galaxies and stars and planetary systems. In the living and in the nonliving world, we see a growth of order, starting from the featureless and uniform gas of the early universe and producing the magnificent diversity of weird objects that we see in the sky and in the rain forest. Everywhere around us, wherever we look, we see evidence of increasing order and increasing information. The technology arising from Shannon’s discoveries is only a local acceleration of the natural growth of information.

    “As finite creatures who think and feel, we can create islands of meaning in the sea of information”, Dyson ends his text. Indeed. It may not be everything, but it’s something–a list of somethings, even.

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    On information and speed and mind’s problems

    Canadian Tim Maly’s blog Quiet Babylon–“A website about cyborgs & architects”–is a blog examining the intersections between humanity and high technology, about trhe ways in which human thinking and identity will be altered by increasingly potent information technologies. A string of three posts–Friday’s “Averting Disaster”, Saturday’s “Information Half-Life” and Sunday’s “Information Half-Life II”–took a look at the problems relating to the speed of human information processing and the structural problems of the human mind that lead us to judge matters badly. Friday:

    Humans are really bad at this. We judge decisions based on the results. This would make sense if results were strictly dependent on our decision, but they’re not. There’s a whole world of other forces that come into play. The important insight is that if you take a bet and lose, that does not retroactively make it a bad bet. It was a good or a bad bet at the moment that you made it, and the outcome does not change this fact. (Correspondingly, if you make a bad bet and win, that doesn’t retroactively make it a good bet.)

    It is possible for the outcome to shed additional light on your bet, perhaps by highlighting a force or factor that you had failed to account for, but otherwise, outcomes don’t reach backwards in time to change the status of decisions. When you make a risk management decision, you are dealing with many worlds. When you are living with the consequences, you are dealing with only the one you ended up with. The fact that in 60% of the other worlds you are drinking champagne from a trophy is cold comfort.


    In the early days of Twitter, when people were still making jokes about sandwiches and that media was conducting positively embarrassing interviews with the founders, there was a lot of discussion about what Twitter was for. The vision that Twitter settled on was to be the pulse of the planet. And so they set themselves to the task of getting real good at providing us with realtime information exchange.

    The unexamined assumption is the same as in live TV reporting, that real time information MATTERS. I submit that it doesn’t, it really, really doesn’t in most contexts. Japan’s nuclear problem is like the story of Gabrielle Giffords’ changing health status and the soul searching that the media did afterwards. It does not matter that we had bad information for 30 minutes. It does not matter that Giffors was briefly thought to be dead and then turned out to be only mostly dead. Because for most of the world, that information does not matter within the granularity of the time that it was bad information.

    At this moment, the current status of the nuclear plants in Japan matters for about 200,000 people in the world. This is the number of people who can do anything about it. Most of those 200,000 people can only decide whether or not to flee further away. They need information at the 15-minute scale probably. A very tiny minority of the people need information at the moment to moment scale. This is the team of people tasked with bringing the reactors under control. For the rest of us, we need information at the daily scale or less. Because the ramifications of Japan reactor situation IF THEY MATTER AT ALL matter in regard to decisions made at the scale of decades and centuries.


    Neal Stephenson’s Anathem imagines a setting where monks who seal themselves off for a year, decade, century, or millennium are listened to with great intensity. Their practice is called the Discipline. When they emerge every year, decade, century, or millennium it is for 10 days and it is called Apert.

    It would be an interesting practice to conduct a series of mini-Disciplines, with mini-Aperts. Perhaps disconnecting for 6 out of 7 days. It would be even more interesting to layer the Discipline with informational relevance. Imagine setting up sets of feeds such that each one had a schedule of windows when you could check in on it and topics were linked to the appropriate schedule. Imagine having little homunculi that were smart enough to sort news for you, passing off what your loved ones were up to moment to moment but holding information about the stock market at bay for 5 years, then giving you the best information for the brief period that you needed it. Maybe you need to know about what’s going on with the reactors in Japan on a weekly or monthly basis. Maybe your neighbour who is involved in CANDU reactor safety inspections needs daily updates.

    To some degree, the need for different time scales of information is known. It’s why most democracies have two houses with representatives that hold office for different lengths of time. It’s why there are specialist presses and then more generalist news organs. But there are obvious points of failure. 24 hour news networks, and the corresponding political tactical unit, “the news cycle” are one. The misinformation echo chamber and the routine failure of corrections to catch up with shocking headlines is another.

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