“...Written history was fallible”

Unless a person was willing, as Chatterton and Kohler were, to ditch work, and sneak off to Washington, chisel away at mountains of opaque original documents, sleep in fleabag motels, eat street-vendor hot dogs, and run outside every two hours to shovel quarters into a parking meter, he would presume the history books to be correct
The Shadow Divers, by Robert Kurson, p. 229

The Shadow Divers is, unintentionally perhaps, a testimonial to the value of having passionate, dedicated, amateurs involved in the exploration of history.

It’s a beautiful story about how a group of deep sea salvage divers who, in 1991, discover the remains of an unidentified WWII U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. The wreck should not have been there, and figuring out what it is and where it came from becomes an obsession — even to the point where they were willing to become real scholars to solve the mystery. And they discovered a universal truth: experts can be wrong.

Over the last half century, various assessors had ascribed three fates to U-879: they first pronounced her lost without a trace; then sunk off Halifax in Canadian waters; then sunk off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. As the divers studied further, they recognized that the current assessment by German naval historian Axel Niestlé - - that U-879 had been sunk off Cape Hatteras - - was correct. But the lesson was stark and by now familiar: written history was fallible. Sloppy and erroneous assessments had been rushed into the official record, only to be presumed accurate by historians, who then published elegant reference works echoing the mistakes. Unless a person was willing, as Chatterton and Kohler were, to ditch work, and sneak off to Washington, chisel away at mountains of opaque original documents, sleep in fleabag motels, eat street-vendor hot dogs, and run outside every two hours to shovel quarters into a parking meter, he would presume the history books to be correct.

Amateurs like these aren’t bound to established orthodoxies, they don’t play by the rules, and they’re driven by curiosity, frustration, and a sense of moral justice for the truth. These guys are heroes to me.

"Professionals are often incapable of independent thought"

By the Spring of 1998, Jonathan was 13, and his ambitions were growing. He had glimpsed the essential truth of the market: that even people who called themselves professionals are often incapable of independent thought…
— From Jonathan Lebed’s Extracurricular Activities, by Michael Lewis, New York Times, 2001

This quote, this assertion in this context, hit me like a lightning bolt 11 years ago and has rung in my head ever since.

Michael Lewis’s article, written for the Sunday Times Magazine, brilliantly teases out the excruciating ironies — the abject conflict — between new and old ways of thinking about expertise and authority. 

It is a story about about a boy from New Jersey who figures out that he is just as capable, in fact more capable, than established professionals at analyzing stocks. He makes about $800,000 in 6 months of trading, and as a result he is prosecuted by officials from the Securities and Exchange Commission who are both mystified by his very existence — and threatened by his implicit challenge to The Way Things Are Done (which, we have learned throughout a decade of financial crisis, is often a nonsensical house of cards).

Eventually, the Bloomberg News Service commissioned a study to explore the phenomenon of what were now being called ‘whisper numbers’. The study showed the whisper numbers, the numbers put out by the amateur Web sites, were mistaken, on average, by 21 percent. The professional Wall Street forecasts were mistaken, on average, by 44 percent. The reason the amateurs now held the balance of power in the market was that they were, on average, more than twice as accurate as the pros – this in spite of the fact that the entire financial system was rigged in favor of the pros. The big companies spoon-fed their scoops directly to the pros; the amateurs were flying by radar


It occurred to no one that the public might one day be as sophisticated in these matters as financial professionals.


Even a 14-year-old boy could see how it all worked, why some guy working for free out of his basement in Jackson, Mo., was more reliable than the most highly paid analyst on Wall Street. The companies that financial pros were paid to analyze were also the financial pros ‘biggest customers’. A year later, when the Internet bubble burst, the hollowness of the pros only became clearer.


“At length, I phoned the Philadelphia office of the S.E.C., where I reached one of the investigators who had brought Jonathan Lebed to book. I was maybe the 50th journalist he’d spoken with that day, and apparently a lot of the others had had trouble grasping the finer points of securities law. At any rate, by the time I asked him to explain to me what, exactly, was wrong with broadcasting one’s private opinion of a stock on the Internet, he was in no mood.

‘Tell me about the kid.’

‘He’s a little jerk.’

‘How so?’

'He is exactly what you or I hope our kids never turn out to be.’

‘Have you met him?’

‘No. I don’t need to.’

"As soon as they encounter archival content, they become researchers"


I came across this in one of my notebooks while I was preparing for the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki last week. It’s from a presentation by Peder Andrén at the European Cultural Commons workshop in Warsaw last October (2011). 

Peder is with the Swedish National Archives, and was talking about his focus on end-user experience with the APENet project (Archives Portal Europe).

Who are the users of archival content? Well, our users are not just browsing through, looking for media consumption. As soon as they encounter archival content, they become researchers. Even if they only want to know the name of their great grandmother, or the previous owner of their house, they are entering the process of creating a story. A history.

[40:50 in this video: http://youtu.be/5ibxKP5JPYo?t=40m45s ]

I was blown away by the beauty and simplicity - - the truth - - of that statement. 

Before [Richard] Owen, museums were designed primarily for the use and edification of the elite, and even then it was difficult to gain access. In the early days of the British Museum, prospective visitors had to make a written application and undergo a brief interview to determine if they were fit to be admitted at all. They then had to return a second time to pick up a ticket–that is assuming they had passed the interview–and finally come back a third time to view the museum’s treasures. Even then they were wisked through in groups and not allowed to linger.
— Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, p 91. Link via Google Books

Richard Owen was the driving force behind the creation of London's Natural History Museum, which opened in 1880. In contrast to the British Museum, the Natural History Museum was dedicated to open access and civic engagement, according to Bryson.