Mining the past and cognitive psych

I was thinking about the two examples I posted earlier in the week of folks interrogating historical pictures/text for scientific info. And one of the things I was thinking about was the difference in credibility between the more recent traveler’s reports and pictures and those provided by the classical artists and commentators. There are a bunch of factors – art (with its varied intentions) vs. photography (at least until the advent of the shoop, subject to a lighter level of manipulation), the specific credibility problems around the taking of wild animals (a polite way of saying that all fishermen are liars), but I kept dwelling on one other difference. The African travelers of the 1850′s are like us. The Romans, Greeks and Etruscans aren’t. I don’t want to overdo it – I think that people, are at the core, similar – but the facts available to a Greek philosopher (even Democritus) and the available ways of organizing the facts? Not the same as those available to an explorer in the 1800s. This facts and framework thing affects how one sees the world and thus feeds back on how the world is portrayed. Tangent – another argument in favor of mining the most prosaic of historical docs? Three sheep on a tax roll are always three sheep, after all.

So I listened to an NPR piece on the search for the HMAS Sydney rapt. I knew about her history; Robert Farley over at Lawyers, Guns and Money has put up an excellent series of posts on the Sydney – Kormoran engagement and aftermath In a nutshell, on 19 Nov. 1941 HMAS Sydney encountered and engaged the Kriegsmarine merchant raider HSK-8 Kormoran. Both ships were sunk; 318 Germans survived but all of the crew of Sydney was lost. A variety of theories have been proposed to explain the lack of Australian survivors  from involvement of a Japanese sub through German treachery and subsequent murder of survivors to the more prosaic poor ammunition storage leading to magazine explosion. LG&M posts fleshing this out: Sydney, Kormoran, the battle and afterward (with bonus musings on the legality of a couple of James T. Kirk’s ploys). In 2008  the wrecks of both Kormoran and Sydney were located.

Where the engagement took place has been an open question since the get-go and it’s one that folks searching for the wreck wanted to have answered, the ocean being a big place and all. Let’s ask the survivors:

“Particularly in a wartime situation, the position of the ship is really kept in the bridge area,” Trotter says. “It would not be normal that the rest of the ship’s company would be told.”

Still, in the course of their interrogations, about 70 Germans did come up with a location. But those locations, taken together, didn’t make much sense — the positions were spread out, smeared over hundreds of miles. One survivor even placed the sinking almost halfway to Antarctica.

So most Australians concluded that the Germans must be lying, their conflicting accounts part of a ploy to throw the Australians off the scent. When Sydney hunters went out looking for the boat — and many did — they either completely disregarded the accounts from the Germans, or, in a couple of cases, focused exclusively on the captain’s version of the story. *

The assumption that the Germans were lying fueled the sub/treachery theories. Without any semi-specific area to search, efforts to locate the wrecks came up empty. Enter cognitive psychologists Kim Kirsner and John Dunn.

As cognitive psychologists, Kirsner and Dunn took a very different view of the German accounts. To them, the spread of the reports looked like the kind of data they saw in memory experiments. So they set out to prove scientifically that the Germans were probably telling the truth.

“We wanted to make the case — show that the characteristics of these reports were the right kind of characteristics,” says Dunn. That is, that the inconsistencies in the reports were precisely the kind of inconsistencies that occur naturally from failures of memory and the vagaries of transmitting information from person to person. *

They expanded the work of Frederic Bartlett:

One of his most famous studies was on the cognitive and social processes of remembering. He composed a series of short fables (the best known was called The War of the Ghosts[1]), each of which comprised a sequence of events which were ostensibly logical but subtly illogical, and there were several discreet non-sequiturs. He would recite this story to subjects, then later (sometimes much later) ask them to recall as much of it as possible. He discovered that most people found it extremely difficult to recall the story exactly, even after repeated readings, and hypothesised that, where the elements of the story failed to fit into the schemata of the listener, these elements were omitted from the recollection, or transformed into more familiar forms. *

Kirsner and Dunn did a statistical analysis on Bartlett’s data and on the German’s accounts. They saw similar results – in other words, it seems like the Germans were doing standard misremembering, not lying. The effort to find the wrecks went on from there, but my brain came to a screeching halt. One: our schemata cause us to misremember consistently. Two: a group of inconsistent accounts can be analyzed and we can see if they fit into a normal misremembering scenario. Question one – given a schemata pattern and a benchmark – in this case, Kirsner and Dunn’s analysis of sailor stories and the now known location of the ships – can we use the stats to model and correct for inaccuracies in other tales? Question two – given 2 or 3 pattern/benchmark pairs separated by time/culture/etc, can we contrast  different misremembering tendencies and say something about the schemata in place for each pair? Question 3 – would a constellation of these schemata metrics give us a way to filter out some of the framing (theirs and ours) that stands between us, with a bunch of traveler’s tales, and a more accurate data set?

Reaction one: cool.

The past is not evenly distributed, either.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed. – William Gibson *

Thanks to library digitization, access to the past is becoming much more widely distributed. The title of Paul Sholte’s paper says it all: “Using the past to manage for the future: contributions of early travel literature, free online, to African historical ecology”.  From the Wired Science post that pointed me to the paper,

The writings of early travelers in Africa hold more than just descriptions of adventure and unspoiled wilderness. For conservationists they offer a view that can’t be seen any other way.

“Historical accounts are beginning to unravel our understanding of our environmental past,” said Paul Scholte, director of Kitabi College of Conservation & Environmental Management in Rwanda. “It would be an enormous waste not to use these writings, because we don’t have other sources of information from these periods. They open our mind on a number of issues where we lack the historical perspective.”

These old writings have been overlooked for too long, writes Scholte in an Aug. 26 African Journal of Ecology article. They were once limited to patrons of well-stocked libraries. But now, as digitization projects expand their holdings, anyone who can access the web can read the records of intrepid explorers such as the scholarly Heinrich Barth or the noble Adolf F. A. Heinrich, Duke of Mecklenburg. Sites like,, and, are giving conservationists new opportunities to put the records to use.

It isn’t easy to know what an area looked like and which animals and plants were present 100 to 200 years ago. While pollen sample analysis gives some indication of plant communities, and an area’s oral tradition can be valuable, they are both incomplete pictures.

Compared to oral accounts passed down through generations, historical travel records are generally more detailed, more reliable and easier to date. *

One wonders what surprises might fall out of the intersection of digitization (especially of boring stuff – ledgers and the like), smart reader/translation software and data mining systems. I’m thinking mainly of social history here (Braudel/Annales), but that’s probably just a failure of imagination on my part.

Musical interlude: Not Great Men


Dusky Grouper

Another example of mining the past for clues about ecological change: “Ancient art serving marine conservation” in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment - hidden behind a paywall, but Stanford’s press release give a glimpse:

Fishing scenes were not uncommon sources of inspiration for coastal Mediterranean artists. Micheli and Guidetti found hundreds of Etruscan, Greek and Roman artworks involving sea creatures. Fish depicted in mosaics were often detailed enough to be recognizable as dusky groupers.

But unlike today’s animals, the groupers in Roman mosaics are depicted as being enormous – in one case, large enough to eat a fisherman whole.

Though the researchers pointed out that this example could be a case of artistic license, the depictions imply that groupers were large enough to be considered “sea monsters.” By comparison, groupers in unprotected waters today range from 50-60 centimeters (20-24 inches) in length.

Even more surprising, mosaics show men fishing for groupers with harpoons at the water’s surface. Today, this would be unheard of – modern sport fishermen spearfish groupers in deep water. But writings from the time corroborate this Roman view of the grouper as a shallow-water fish – the Roman writers Pliny and Ovid both describe angling for groupers from shore. *

Interesting – even if you discount some of the size difference as a classic and classical fish story, the behavior/biome change seems to shine through. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for additional examples of this sort of mining…

A new toy/to keep my head expanding

First, a request: someone (YouTube, listen up)  needs to develop a framework for displaying synchronous graphic data streams. I’m envisioning a thumbnail(s) embedded in main screen – clicking on a thumbnail embiggens it while returning whatever was on the main screen to thumbnail status. It would be nice for videos like those below and for something I’d like to mess with this summer – synchronous heads-up videos, GPS/map data and maybe even heart rate info from a bike ride.

I recently won a Parrot AR drone at a benefit auction. I’ve been wishing for one since discovering them on a gagdet blog last summer? fall? and the auction was too good a chance to miss. The drone is a quadcopter with 2 video cameras (forward-facing and down-facing) that feeds video to and is controlled by an iPod/iPhone/etc. There are good videos on the Parrot site showing how the control system works; I just wanted to mess around a bit with the 3rd party control app that allows one to record the video stream from the drone. Aside – why this is not part of the standard Parrot software is beyond me.

Here’s what an innocent bystander would see (the 1st minute is crap – I’m trying to set off a flash on the cell phone to act as a visual clap-board):


And here’s the view from the drone:


Finally, the theme song:


It’s an amazing little device – I may not have a jetpack, but…


William Gibson as a Nature Writer


(h) those that are included in this classification*

I twote recently that I’d had a bit of semi-dreamtime inspiration: William Gibson is a nature writer. I think a case can be made for it and friends are curious about what the heck I’m yammering about, so here goes.

I’ve said it before – I’m not wild about the natural/human distinction. Yes, it’s obvious and oftentimes useful but it also facilitates a lot of delusional and destructive behavior. Allow me to repost a population/time graph:


If we convince ourselves that we’re different, not ‘natural’, that the rules that apply to every other critter on the planet don’t apply to us (because we’re the crown of creation) we can ignore the obvious population dynamic conclusions suggested by the graph (crash). Our ‘us and them’ outlook gets in the way less dramatically as well – Pollan’s The Botany of Desire does a great job looking at domesticated plants from a plant’s eye, co-evolutionary standpoint. It’s not solely about us.

That being said, there do seem to be some things that make us different from our nearest relatives (posting on blogs could be one). E. O. Wilson suggests in The Superorganism that there are 3 entities one must keep an eye on when examining the evolution of social insects – the gene, the individual and the hive/nest/mound/superorganism. If you buy in to the notion of culture as an area where selection can occur (as in meme, etc.), one could build a similar triplet for H. sapien. Regardless – the fact that we can externalize and transmit information so well is one big adaptation that’s made us so (so far) successful. [aside] Looked at from this perspective, the made world – from Toyota to Tolstoy – is a natural phenomenon. Yes, we and our stuff are changing planetary systems, but that’s happened before – that exempts us neither from other natural processes nor from being a natural process ourselves.

All of the above is a perhaps overlong argument for being pretty relaxed about the  natural world/made world distinction. Given that, Gibson as nature writer becomes a lot easier to accept. I’m using ‘nature writer’ here as a pretty inclusive category – one who write stories, as Norman Maclean said, with trees in them – tales where the exterior world is noticed and plays a part; where the environment is included in an important rather than peripheral way.

I’d recommended Spook Country to a friend and she responded that it felt like there was a lot of ‘stuff’ in it – I think she may have used the phrase product placement. “Hmm”, said I; though I’d noticed the presence of the world of things in both (at that point) of the Bigend books, it had never jumped out at me. I’d accepted the world as described by Gibson – because of my made/natural suspicion? Because the things he described tended to be interesting and in some consumerkulturny way, charismatic? Dunno. I read his latest – Zero History – last week (rippin’ tale, BTW) and had T’s comment floating in the back of my mind when I opened the book. The second paragraph:

Pearlescent silver, this one [taxi]. Glyphed in Prussian Blue, advertising something German, banking services or business software; a smoother simulacrum of its black ancestors, its faux-leather upholstery a shade of orthopedic fawn.

I’d be quite satisfied with a similar description applied to a startled woodchuck bolting for its hole as our natural-world-only protagonist walks across a farmer’s corn field. And that’s the thing – Gibson’s Bigend books are set in cities, in the world of made things, ideas and human generated external info flows. He describes the environment his characters are embedded in with the care any good author who writes books with trees and multilevel parking garages in them would.

© LTI Limited reproduced with permission. Fairway and TX shape is a registered design. Fairway™, TX™, the LTI device, the LTI logo and the London Taxis International logo are all trademarks of LTI Limited.


I’m not sure it’s coincidental that the title of the first book – Pattern Recognition – evokes one of my favorite ‘in the woods’ phenomena – something that I’ve heard called native vision. Native vision is the trained pattern recognition that allows a local to pick a whitetailed deer out of the jumbled shapes of the fall woods, where someone who didn’t know that kind of woods wouldn’t see a dang thing.

I may write more on the topic – or I may hear back that this is all BS and I should stop before I embarrass myself further – but I wanted to toss this out sooner rather than later. Comments more than welcome…


[aside] One of the concerns Ray Kurzweil brings up in The Age of Spiritual Machines is that there seems to be room for one species in a given niche. He speculates that self-awareness may define a niche – so what happens to us when we create intelligent AIs? [Skynet, that's what.] It’s of interest to me that there are MANY species of social insect – clearly superorganism is not a niche – why would we jump to the conclusion that self-awareness and externalizing info was one as well?

The Atlantic Tech Canon

Tons of quibbling possible  – no The Elements of Programming Style (feel free to substitute your own title)? Regardless, any list that includes Fred Brooks, Vannevar Bush, Murray Bookchin and Donna Harraway is OK by me.


N.B. – a tech canon is very different from the meatball cannon drawn for me yesterday by a slightly off-task, but creative, second grader.

The Atlantic Tech Canon – Alexis Madrigal – Technology – The Atlantic.

New Hampshire Media Makers Spoke Card 1

Rewards drive behavior.




As regular readers know, I’m trying to re-integrate bicycling into my life as an enjoyable, practical transportation option. Given the ongoing nightmare in the Gulf, I’m feeling pretty evangelical about biking, so I thought I’d see if I could encourage locals (or folks from a distance, if they’re up for a big ride) to come to this Sunday’s NHMM meetup via bicycle. I was inspired when I fell across spoke cards while looking at commuter bikes on Flickr – you can see the results of said inspiration above.

The first 8 people to ride to NHMM get a spoke card on the spot – if there are more riders than that, I’ll have more made up and make good on my offer within a week. If there are less than that, anyone from further away than, say, 20 miles can have one if they tell me that they’ve ridden a bike to and from the grocery store this week (6/6) – knowing my own problems with good intentions, it’s gotta be a completed ride.

A shoutout to the good folks at Infinite Imaging who did a bang-up job on printing and lamination.