How the People’s Will, the world’s first modern terrorist organization, killed the czar

Saturday, November 17th, 2018

The story of how the People’s Will, the world’s first modern terrorist organization, killed the czar makes gripping reading, Gary Saul Morson explains:

Surviving attack after attack, Alexander seemed to enjoy divine protection. He certainly had a run of good luck. The terrorists tunneled under a street on which he was to pass and planted explosives, but his route changed. Then they blew up what was supposed to be his railway carriage but, because of a last-minute rearrangement, turned out to be a baggage car. The most amazing attempt took place when they blew up the dining room in the Winter Palace, intending to kill the czar and everyone else present. Police incompetence staggers the imagination. They had already arrested a terrorist in possession of a map of the Winter Palace with an X marked on the dining room! Guards checked visitors to the Winter Palace but paid no attention to workers going in and out of the basement. A terrorist had no trouble getting a job, smuggling in a little dynamite every day, and eventually causing the explosion. The bomb killed 11 people and injured 56 others, but Alexander was late. The People’s Will blamed their failure on the ruler’s unpunctuality. “What is most depressing,” opined one conservative journalist, “is that so-called political crime has become a veritable national tradition.”

The police were closing in and on February 27, 1881, arrested terrorist leader Andrey Zhelyabov, but his lover Sofya Perovskaya took over. The terrorists got their man on March 1, when an assassin threw a bomb at Alexander’s carriage, wounding two people but leaving the czar unharmed. Instead of just driving on, he stopped to see to the wounded. The bomb-thrower had just said ironically, “Still thanking God?” when a second terrorist hurled his bomb. The mangled czar died hours later. Under the leadership of Vera Figner, the People’s Will survived for a few more years.


Friday, November 16th, 2018

William Goldman has died at age 87:

He was born in Chicago, went to Oberlin College in Ohio, served briefly in the military and got a master’s in English from Columbia University in New York.

He launched a successful literary career immediately after graduating from Columbia with his first novel, The Temple of Gold. A series of well-received and sometimes bestselling novels followed.

Then, in 1965, Goldman started to shift into movie territory. He helped on the script for Masquerade (1965) and adapted Harper (1966). Then he wrote his first-ever original screenplay.

That beginner’s stab at screenwriting was none other than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It sold for the then-record sum of $400,000 (some $3 million in 2018 dollars) and won Goldman an Oscar in 1970 for best original screenplay.

That was just the start. Goldman went on to adapt The Stepford Wives, adapt All the President’s Men — another Oscar-winning screenplay — and turn his own novels Marathon Man and Magic into films.

Ten screenplays later, Goldman still didn’t see himself as a Hollywood man. “I’m not a screenwriter,” he told The New York Times in 1979. “I’m a novelist who writes screenplays.”

But he knew enough to write the definitive guide to screenwriting. Adventures in the Screen Trade was published in 1983 and became a bestseller. Screenwriting professor George Huang tells NPR’s Neda Ulaby the book “was like the Bible in the industry” — and that the advice in it still holds up today.

And then there was The Princess Bride.

The 1987 film, which Goldman adapted from his own novel, performed modestly at the box office upon its initial release. But as the years passed, it found a passionate following. Lines from the movie have woven their way into the fabric of pop culture — “Inconceivable!” “Aaaaas youuuuu wiiiiiish.” “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

Terror seemed easier than beating one’s head against the wall of peasant indifference

Friday, November 16th, 2018

Russian terrorism’s “heroic period” began in January 1878, Gary Saul Morson explains, when Vera Zasulich shot General Trepov, who had ordered corporal punishment for a member of the intelligentsia — as if the man were some peasant:

These radicals took their class privileges seriously! At her trial in the new law courts, the defense attorney, the Clarence Darrow of his day, in effect put Trepov on trial while portraying Zasulich as a saint. In his account, she was living in a “rural wilderness” — it was actually a revolutionary commune where she rode about carrying a gun — when she heard about Trepov’s outrage and resolved to sacrifice herself for justice. The cream of society vied for tickets to the trial, applauded the defense, and were utterly delighted when the jury preposterously acquitted her.

Soon after, Stepniak stalked General Nikolai Mezentsev, head of Russia’s security police, and, finding him unprotected, stabbed him in the back with a stiletto, turned it in the wound, and made his escape. He became the toast of British society, the friend of William Morris and George Bernard Shaw, among others. Abroad, the radicals would claim that all they wanted were basic civil liberties, but in fact they either rejected Western “freedoms” or favored them only to make revolution easier. They opposed democracy because they knew very well the peasants would never support them. As one historian observes, “Terror seemed easier than beating one’s head against the wall of peasant indifference.” It gave a small group the chance to demoralize the government while creating a mystique of violence to ensure endless recruits. They achieved both these goals.

Where’s the Part One?

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

Lord of the Rings by Ralph BakshiRalph Bakshi’s animated The Lord of the Rings hit theaters on Nov. 15, 1978, after taking a hard road, a road unforeseen:

“I’m sitting in my office and I read that United Artists was going to make Lord of the Rings as a live-action picture written and directed by John Boorman,” says the now-80-year-old animation director, whose success with adult-oriented cult favorites Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic paved the way for him to make Wizards at the time. “But they were going to condense three books into one picture and add extra characters to make it work. For a Tolkien fan, I thought that was the stupidest thing I’d heard in my fuckin’ life. … You can’t squeeze those three books into one picture unless you’re making a Roger Corman film.”


The $1.3 million budgeted, politically acute Wizards incorporated a number of Tolkienesque characters in its post-apocalyptic setting, from fairies and elves and dwarves to the title characters themselves. As Bakshi’s animation studio was finishing the film, he learned that Mike Medavoy, who was running United Artists at the time, had put Boorman’s adaptation into turnaround.

“I thought, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t I go make the film?’ recalls Bakshi. “So I call up Mike Medavoy and I go to United Artists, which in those days were on the same lot as MGM. In the main building on one side of the building was MGM — which Dan Melnick ran in those days — and on the other side was Mike Medavoy at UA. I went to see Mike in his office and he says, ‘Look, I’ve got this script and I don’t understand it. I never read the book. We don’t want to make the picture. What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to animate it. Three pictures.’ He said, ‘We don’t want the picture. What we want is our three million dollars back for the screenplay that we paid Boorman. So I’ll give you the rights, and if you can get our money back you can make the picture any way you want.’ True story.”

So Bakshi went straight across the hall to MGM to try to persuade Melnick. Peter Bogdanavich happened to be pitching a project with the studio head behind closed doors, but Bakshi talked his way into the office and dangled the rights to Rings in front of them. Melnick immediately bit. “Bogdanavich had to leave the room, never to speak to me again for the rest of my life,” says Bakshi with a chuckle. “We crossed the hallway to Medavoy’s office and Danny says to Mike, ‘Okay, I want to make the film with Ralph. What do you want?’ And Mike says, ‘Three million dollars for my screenplay back. And Melnick says, ‘You got it.’ They shake hands. Medavoy, whose job was just saved, gets on his feet and shakes my hand, almost crying. I got back his money. He was off the hook.” Bakshi then immediately got on the phone with his lawyer, Bruce Ramer (also Steven Spielberg’s lawyer, who infamously named the shark from Jaws after him), who sealed the deal with MGM that afternoon.

“So I’ve got the rights, I’ve got the film financing from MGM, Medavoy’s off the hook, I’m going to make three pictures, and I’ve also got $200,000 to start the storyboards. It wasn’t a bad day’s work, right?”

As Bakshi’s animation company was winding up Wizards, a whole division was established to develop The Lord of the Rings. Then he read in the trades that Dan Melnick just got fired. “I thought, ‘Shhhhit,’” groans Bakshi. Richard Shepherd was now heading up production at MGM, so the director and his lawyer set up a meeting to confirm that the project was still on track. “He says, ‘I don’t understand the picture. I don’t want to make it,’” recalls Bakshi. “You had two people in Hollywood in those days; people who read books who got the picture, and people who didn’t read books and didn’t get the picture. ‘Is Lord of the Rings about a wedding?’ I said, ‘No, it’s not about a wedding.’ Now I’m angry.”

Bakshi wanted the rights back and Shepherd wanted his money back. But the animation director was headway into pre-production and did not have the funds to simply hand back the $200,000. So he called producer/record exec Saul Zaentz, who “made a fortune” on the Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic soundtracks: “Saul Zaentz had made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on the Fritz the Cat money he made. Fritz the Cat was done for under a million dollars and made at some point $60 or $70 million, so he was rolling in money. He gets on a plane that afternoon, he makes a deal with my lawyer to finance all three films and pay MGM back their money and have UA distribute the film — that’s Medavoy, who’s more than happy because now he gets his film back without him putting a penny in it. So I’m set.”


Armed with a script delivered after multiple revisions by Peter S. Beagle and Chris Conkling, Bakshi had his blessing and was ready to go with the first film in the series, budgeted at $8 million. “A fortune for me; I’m rolling in dough,” he says. Given carte blanche and the choice of making a live-action or an animated adaptation of the sprawling story, Bakshi sided with animation: “I owed it to my guys. All the animators were my friends and I didn’t want to let them go. It was a question of getting behind my guys who stood behind me on all my films.”


“We didn’t have motion control in those days; there were no computers,” he says. “[Rotoscoping] was a tremendous way to get realism in a picture. … When it came to Rings I was really trapped on the deadline. I came up with the technique of instead of tracing the photograph, I would put the actual photograph [in high-contrast] right on the animated cel and paint it. … The short time allowed me to take a chance on some stuff that worked out unbelievably.… If a director has no money, he’s got to find a way to find the style or shooting technique to make the lack of money disappear and at least be emotionally right, which is everything. Without emotion, you don’t have a scene.”

I could have sworn I’d mentioned this anecdote before:

While upwards of 3,000 animators worked diligently on the established footage, Bakshi hammered away at the Orc action scenes and the battle of Helm’s Deep in Spain, battling the elements — and some politics — in the process. The crew shot at The Castle of Belmonte, the same 15th-century stronghold in Castilla-La Mancha that hosted Charlton Heston’s production of El Cid.

“I’m on the wall of the castle, it’s windy, it’s cold, I’m freezing,” says Bakshi of one particular battle sequence that employed nine cameras to run at once. “Coming in from the various towns are hundreds and hundreds of townsfolk, they all line up, they get fed, they’re going to be Orcs with shields, spears, costumes. All morning and in the afternoon we’re dressing, and now we’re running around doing composition. … We’re finally ready to roll, so I said, ‘Roll camera one, roll camera two, roll camera three, roll camera four, roll camera five’ — we only have one take on this so I have all the cameras rolling. By the time I get to camera six, some guy stands up in the middle of the composition, takes off his head and helmet — he’s the communist leader — he said, ’It’s time for lunch!’ Everyone drops their spears and their costumes and they walk off to lunch. But not to miss a shot, I keep the cameras rolling. I knew at the end of Helm’s Deep I’d have to get some shot of Orcs walking away in disgust. So we used a couple shots of people walking away later in the film. And we had to reset and reshoot and we finally got the shot. I’ll never forget it.”

I can’t believe Bakshi made the film without taking advantage of any of this:

As the picture was taking shape, both Led Zeppelin and Mick Jagger circled the project with interest. Zeppelin is well known for their multiple Rings references (to Mordor, Gollum, Ringwraiths and more) in such songs as “Ramble On,” “Misty Mountain Hop” and “The Battle of Evermore.” Bakshi approached the band to use their music as the soundtrack to the film and he says they responded with an enthusiastic “absolutely!” But according to Bakshi, producer Zaentz, which owned Fantasy Records, couldn’t get the music rights, as the top-selling band’s contract prevented them from working for another label. “He passed and he got me Leonard Rosenman [to compose the orchestral soundtrack],” says Bakshi. “He was good. I didn’t mind him. He had a good reputation. But Led Zeppelin would have blown off the roof of the picture. So I lost that one.”

As for Jagger, the Rolling Stones frontman learned of the production and was keen on getting involved. “So I get a call from Mick Jagger — he wanted to come up and see what we were doing on Rings,” recalls Bakshi.“[My studio on Hollywood and Vine] is full of college kids all graduated from art school, a very young group. So I’m walking through the studio with Mick Jagger and the girls start to scream and faint. I had 2,200-3,000 people working on four floors, and the word spread to each floor that Jagger is walking around, and people got from one floor to the other through the staircase, and there was thunder like horsemen coming down, shaking the staircase. My son was there for the summer and he was terrified — he hid in the bathroom. So that was just hysterical. … [Jagger] wanted to do the voice of Frodo. I told him I would have used him easily but I was already recorded and everything. He’d be a pretty good Frodo, I guess. I don’t know.”

The film is flawed, but its fatal flaw isn’t really Bakshi’s fault:

“I wanted three or four more months for editing. I was exhausted. I was tired. I was burnt out from Spain and shooting, and I didn’t want to make the deadline, which was [right before] Christmas,” he remembers. “What you’re looking at is the first rough try on my part. So I had a big fight with [the studio to buy more time]. ‘We can’t. We’ve got the theaters booked, we’ve got the popcorn in the theaters — you know, that bullshit. So that was the first blow. The second blow was when I handed it in a week before release, what we used to call wet prints, to the theater. They showed me the advertising campaign and I said, ‘Where’s the Part One?’ And that’s when I found out.”

A key criticism of Bakshi’s Rings final cut was the fact that the story simply ends after the battle of Helm’s Deep, with a narrative voiceover explaining, “as their gallant battle ended, so too ends the first great tale of The Lord of the Rings.” Fans of the source material felt duped, and even the uninitiated were scratching their collective heads over the ending because they never got to see Frodo throw the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom.

“I had a huge fight with [Zaentz] and I didn’t want to do Part Two,” says Bakshi.“It may sound odd to you today. We came from a different breed in those days. … Life was too short to spend your time with a bunch of people that you didn’t want to be with. In other words, people that would screw you over that way after you made so much money for them. You don’t want to spend another eight years with those guys. … That wasn’t an easy decision to leave, because I loved Tolkien.”

Bakshi can get pretty defensive about The Lord of the Rings. His earlier Wizards isn’t good, but it is oddly compelling. His later Fire and Ice isn’t a good film, either, but it does feature some amazing rotoscoped action sequences atop beautifully lush background paintings.

There was nothing to hope for in legal and pacific means

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

Why should Russian nihilists have targeted Alexander II, the most liberal czar Russia ever had?

Alexander had freed the serfs — thus liberating the third of the population owned outright by private landowners, not to mention an equal number owned by the crown. Before the liberation of 1861, serfs were routinely bought, sold, and lost at cards. His “great reforms” included creating organs of self-government, first in the countryside (1864) and then in towns (1870). The entire justice system was reformed along Western models. The modernization of the military in 1874 reduced mandatory active service from 25 to 6 years. Nevertheless, the radicals insisted that terrorism was their only choice. “There was nothing to hope for in legal and pacific means,” Stepniak explained with a straight face. “After 1866 a man must have been either blind or a hypocrite to believe in the possibility of any improvement except by violent means.” The very day the czar was killed he had approved a reform moving in the direction of a constitution.

Russian history has been a godsend for literature

Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

Russian history has been a godsend for literature, Gary Saul Morson explains:

How many firsts we owe to Russians! Lenin invented the political system we call totalitarianism. The Soviet Union was the first state based on terror and the first “one-party state.” (Previously, a party, as its name implies, represented only a part of society.) The first dystopian novel was not Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984, but Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, well known by Huxley and Orwell. Czarist Russia inspired both the modern prison-camp novel, beginning with Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead, and the “terrorist novel,” starting with Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. Prison camps, dystopia, terrorism: Whatever else it has been, Russian history has been a godsend for literature. And for political language as well: We get the word “intelligentsia” from Russia, where it was coined about 1860; and before the American “populists” of the 1890s there were the Russian narodniks (populists) of the 1870s. Political extremism and great fiction — these are Russia’s obsessions.

Russia was also the first country where young men and women, asked to name their intended careers, might well say “terrorist.” Beginning in the 1870s, terrorism became an honored, if dangerous, profession. It was often a family business employing brothers and sisters generation after generation. Historians sometimes trace modern terrorism to the Carbonari of early-19th-century Italy, but it was Russia that gave it unprecedented importance. You cannot relate the history of czarist Russia in its last half-century without the history of terrorism. As we now associate terrorism with radical Islam, Europeans then associated it with “Russian nihilism.” By the early 20th century, no profession, except literature, enjoyed more prestige among well-educated Russians.

Russian history, one of novelist Vasily Grossman’s characters observes, stands as an object lesson to the rest of the world, a lesson it has failed to learn. People still romanticize revolutionary violence, as we see in all those posters of an angelic-looking Che Guevara. In czarist Russia, the mentality Tom Wolfe was to dub “radical chic” gripped educated society. The privileged cheered on those who would destroy them.

Terrorism has arisen in many cultures, but Russian terrorism, so far as I know, is unique in one respect: its intimate connection with literature. Not only did great writers like Dostoyevsky and the symbolist Andrei Bely (author of Petersburg) write major novels about terrorism, the terrorists themselves composed riveting memoirs and fiction. Prince Peter Kropotkin, once the world’s most influential anarchist, authored a masterpiece of Russian autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, and many other terrorists, most notably women, have left classic accounts of terrorist movements. When the assassin Sergei Kravchinsky escaped to Europe and assumed the name Stepniak, he became internationally famous for both his history Underground Russia: Revolutionary Profiles and Sketches from Life and his novel Career of a Nihilist. Still more amazing, Boris Savinkov, the longtime leader of Russia’s most important terrorist organization, responsible for spectacular killings of high officials, also published his Memoirs of a Terrorist as well as three novels about terrorists. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether terrorist experience demanded literary treatment or was chosen to provide compelling literary material.

The scale of 19th- and 20th-century Russian terrorism boggles the mind. According to the movement’s best historian, Anna Geifman, terrorism affected just about everyone. Conventionally, accounts describe a brief prehistory in the 1860s and early 1870s, then a “heroic phase” from 1878 to 1881, and, after a pause, a period when terrorism assumed staggering proportions. In 1866, Dmitri Karakozov, a member of a radical organization called “Hell,” tried to kill the czar and was hanged. Sergei Nechaev, who inspired The Possessed, not only committed murder but, more important, wrote the infamous Catechism of a Revolutionary, which provided a model for revolutionaries to come. The true revolutionary, according to Nechaev, “has no interests, no affairs, no feelings, no habits, no property, not even a name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed by a single, exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion — the revolution.” He must suppress all feelings of compassion, love, gratitude, “even honor.” For him only one criterion of good and evil exists: “Everything that promotes the revolution is moral; everything that hinders it is immoral.” Without hesitation the revolutionary uses other people, including other revolutionaries, as Nechaev did. By comparison, Machiavelli was a softie.

In the mid-1870s, idealistic men and women became “populists” and “went to the people.” They flocked to the countryside to imbibe the peasants’ natural goodness while instructing them in socialism. (I described this movement recently in these pages.) The peasants were unimpressed and often turned them in to the police, in much the way Turgenev describes in his novel Virgin Soil. Far from abandoning their ideals, the populists decided to realize them without the people, even against the will of the people, through terror and a coup d’état. Ironically enough, they called their organization “The People’s Will.” Eventually, in 1881, they succeeded in killing the czar.

(Hat tip to T. Greer, who puts the piece on his short list for best essay of 2018.)

Do the rich capture all the gains from economic growth?

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

Do the rich capture all the gains from economic growth? Russ Roberts explains why it matters how you measure these things:

But the biggest problem with the pessimistic studies is that they rarely follow the same people to see how they do over time. Instead, they rely on a snapshot at two points in time. So for example, researchers look at the median income of the middle quintile in 1975 and compare that to the median income of the median quintile in 2014, say. When they find little or no change, they conclude that the average American is making no progress.

But the people in the snapshots are not the same people. These snapshots fail to correct for changes in the composition of workers and changes in household structure that distort the measurement of economic progress. There is immigration. There are large changes in the marriage rate over the period being examined. And there is economic mobility as people move up and down the economic ladder as their luck and opportunities fluctuate.

How important are these effects? One way to find out is to follow the same people over time. When you follow the same people over time, you get very different results about the impact of the economy on the poor, the middle, and the rich.

Studies that use panel data — data that is generated from following the same people over time — consistently find that the largest gains over time accrue to the poorest workers and that the richest workers get very little of the gains. This is true in survey data. It is true in data gathered from tax returns.

The Class of 1914 died for France

Monday, November 12th, 2018

Guns of August by Barbara TuchmanBarbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August includes an apocryphal footnote about “the terrible drain of French manhood” from the Great War:

In the chapel of St. Cyr (before it was destroyed during World War II) the memorial tablet to the dead of the Great War bore only a single entry for “the Class of 1914.”

I cited this passage, and Philippe Lemoine dug up St. Cyr’s own numbers, suggesting that “just” 51 percent of the military academy’s Class of 1914 died for France.

A fuel cell that runs on methane at practical temperatures

Monday, November 12th, 2018

Methane fuel cells usually require temperatures of 750 to 1,000 degrees Celsius to run, but a new fuel cell with a new catalyst can run at 500 degrees, cooler than an automobile engine:

That lower temperature could trigger cascading cost savings in the ancillary technology needed to operate a fuel cell, potentially pushing the new cell to commercial viability. The researchers feel confident that engineers can design electric power units around this fuel cell with reasonable effort, something that has eluded previous methane fuel cells.

“Our cell could make for a straightforward, robust overall system that uses cheap stainless steel to make interconnectors,” said Meilin Liu, who led the study and is a Regents’ Professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Material Science and Engineering. Interconnectors are parts that help bring together many fuel cells into a stack, or functional unit.

“Above 750 degrees Celsius, no metal would withstand the temperature without oxidation, so you’d have a lot of trouble getting materials, and they would be extremely expensive and fragile, and contaminate the cell,” Liu said.

“Lowering the temperature to 500 degrees Celsius is a sensation in our world. Very few people have even tried it,” said Ben deGlee, a graduate research assistant in Liu’s lab and one of the first authors of the study. “When you get that low, it makes the job of the engineer designing the stack and connected technologies much easier.”

The new cell also eliminates the need for a major ancillary device called a steam reformer, which is normally needed to convert methane and water into hydrogen fuel.


Hydrogen is the best fuel for powering fuel cells, but its cost is exorbitant. The researchers figured out how to convert methane to hydrogen in the fuel cell itself via the new catalyst, which is made with cerium, nickel and ruthenium and has the chemical formula Ce0.9Ni0.05Ru0.05O2, abbreviated CNR.

When methane and water molecules come into contact with the catalyst and heat, nickel chemically cleaves the methane molecule. Ruthenium does the same with water. The resulting parts come back together as that very desirable hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO), which the researchers surprisingly put to good use.

“CO causes performance problems in most fuel cells, but here, we’re using it as a fuel,” Chen said.

Peace on Earth

Sunday, November 11th, 2018

The 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Great War seems like a good time to revisit 1939′s animated short Peace on Earth:

The Great War ended 100 years ago

Sunday, November 11th, 2018

The Great War ended 100 years ago, on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918. The Great War comes up here from time to time:

Bruce Sterling on architecture, design, science fiction, futurism and involuntary parks

Saturday, November 10th, 2018

Benjamin Bratton interviews Bruce Sterling on architecture, design, science fiction, futurism and involuntary parks:

Some of the most important books Nick Szabo has read

Friday, November 9th, 2018

Nick Szabo shared a list of some of the most important books he’s read on Twitter:

  1. The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins
  2. Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
  3. The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith
  4. The Fatal Conceit, by F. A. Hayek

A proposal for an archive revisiter

Thursday, November 8th, 2018

In his long list of statistical notes, Gwern includes a proposal for an archive revisiter:

One reason to take notes/clippings and leave comments in stimulating discussions is to later benefit by having references & citations at hand, and gradually build up an idea from disparate threads and make new connections between them. For this purpose, I make extensive excerpts from web pages & documents I read into my Evernote clippings (functioning as a commonplace book), and I comment constantly on Reddit, LessWrong, HN, etc. While expensive in time & effort, I often go back, months or years later, and search for a particular thing and expand & integrate it into another writing or expand it out to an entire essay of its own. (I also value highly not being in the situation where I believe something but I do not know why I believe it other than the conviction I read it somewhere, once.)

This sort of personal information management using simple personal information managers like Evernote works well enough when I have a clear memory of what the citation/factoid was, perhaps because it was so memorable, or when the citations or comments are in a nice cluster (perhaps because there was a key phrase in them or I kept going back & expanding a comment), but it loses out on key benefits to this procedure: serendipity and perspective.

As time passes, one may realize the importance of an odd tidbit or have utterly forgotten something or events considerably changed its meaning; in this case, you would benefit from revisiting & rereading that old bit & experiencing an aha! moment, but you don’t realize it. So one thing you could do is reread all your old clippings & comments, appraising them for reuse.

But how often? And it’s a pain to do so. And how do you keep track of which you’ve already read? One thing I do for my emails is semi-annually I (try to) read through my previous 6 months of email to see what might need to be followed up on10 or mined for inclusion in an article. (For example, an ignored request for data, or a discussion of darknet markets with a journalist I could excerpt into one of my DNM articles so I can point future journalists at that instead.) This is already difficult, and it would be even harder to expand. I have read through my LessWrong comment history… once. Years ago. It would be more difficult now. (And it would be impossible to read through my Reddit comments as the interface only goes back ~1000 comments.)

Simply re-reading periodically in big blocks may work but is suboptimal: there is no interface easily set up to reread them in small chunks over time, no constraints which avoid far too many reads, nor is there any way to remove individual items which you are certain need never be reviewed again. Reviewing is useful but can be an indefinite timesink. (My sent emails are not too hard to review in 6-month chunks, but my IRC logs are bad – 7,182,361 words in one channel alone – and my >38k Evernote clippings are worse; any lifestreaming will exacerbate the problem by orders of magnitude.) This is probably one reason that people who keep journals or diaries don’t reread Nor can it be crowdsourced or done by simply ranking comments by public upvotes (in the case of Reddit/LW/HN comments), because the most popular comments are ones you likely remember well & have already used up, and the oddities & serendipities you are hoping for are likely unrecognizable to outsiders.

This suggests some sort of reviewing framework where one systematically reviews old items (sent emails, comments, IRC logs by oneself), putting in a constant amount of time regularly and using some sort of ever expanding interval between re-reads as an item becomes exhausted & ever more likely to not be helpful. Similar to the logarithmically-bounded number of backups required for indefinite survival of data (Sandberg & Armstrong 2012), Deconstructing Deathism – Answering Objections to Immortality, Mike Perry 2013 (note: this is an entirely different kind of problem than those considered in Freeman Dyson’s immortal intelligences in Infinite in All Directions, which are more fundamental), discusses something like what I have in mind in terms of an immortal agent trying to review its memories & maintain a sense of continuity, pointing out that if time is allocated correctly, it will not consume 100% of the agent’s time but can be set to consume some bounded fraction.


So you could imagine some sort of software along the lines of spaced repetition systems like Anki, Mnemosyne, or Supermemo which you spend, say, 10 minutes a day at, simply rereading a selection of old emails you sent, lines from IRC with n lines of surrounding context, Reddit & LW comments etc; with an appropriate backoff & time-curve, you would reread each item maybe 3 times in your lifetime (eg first after a delay of a month, then a year or two, then decades). Each item could come with a rating function where the user rates it as an important or odd-seeming or incomplete item and to be exposed again in a few years, or as totally irrelevant and not to be shown again – as for many bits of idle chit-chat, mundane emails, or intemperate comments is not an instant too soon! (More positively, anything already incorporated into an essay or otherwise reused likely doesn’t need to be resurfaced.)

This wouldn’t be the same as a spaced repetition system which is designed to recall an item as many times as necessary, at the brink of forgetting, to ensure you memorize it; in this case, the forgetting curve & memorization are irrelevant and indeed, the priority here is to try to eliminate as many irrelevant or useless items as possible from showing up again so that the review doesn’t waste time.

More specifically, you could imagine an interface somewhat like Mutt which reads in a list of email files (my local POP email archives downloaded from Gmail with getmail4, filename IDs), chunks of IRC dialogue (a grep of my IRC logs producing lines written by me +- 10 lines for context, hashes for ID), LW/Reddit comments downloaded by either scraping or API via the BigQuery copy up to 2015, and stores IDs, review dates, and scores in a database. One would use it much like a SRS system, reading individual items for 10 or 20 minutes, and rating them, say, upvote (this could be useful someday, show me this ahead of schedule in the future) / downvote (push this far off into the future) / delete (never show again). Items would appear on an expanding schedule.


As far as I know, some to-do/self-help systems have something like a periodic review of past stuff, and as I mentioned, spaced repetition systems do something somewhat similar to this idea of exponential revisits, but there’s nothing like this at the moment.

Students don’t know how they study and learn best

Wednesday, November 7th, 2018

Some progressive teachers take pride in allowing students to choose how they study and learn best, but there’s a serious flaw they overlook: students don’t know how they study and learn best:

Karpicke, Butler, and Roediger III (2009) (1) explored study habits used by college students. They surveyed 177 students and asked them two questions. For the sake of this post, I will only focus on question one:

What kind of strategies do you use when you are studying? List as many strategies as you use and rank-order them from strategies you use most often to strategies you use least often.

The results? Repeated rereading was by far the most frequently listed strategy (84% reported using) and 55% reported that it was their number one strategy used. Only 11% reported practicing recall (self-testing) of information and 1% identified practicing recall as their number one strategy. This is not good for student-choice of study. 55% of those surveyed intuitively believed that rereading their notes best utilized their study time…assuming students intended on using their time most effectively. This is just not so.

A phenomenon known as the testing effect indicates that retrieving information from memory has a great effect on learning and strengthens long-term retention of information (2). The testing effect can take many forms, with the most important aspect being students retrieve information. A common saying in my room is to make sure my students are only using their brain…if you’re using notes, the textbook, or someone else’s brain, you’re not doing it right. While many correctly see this attempt as a great way to regulate and assess one’s knowledge, the act of recalling and retrieving strengthens long-term retention of information.

This is not so with repetitive rereading. Memory research has shown rereading by itself is not an effective or efficient strategy for promoting learning and long-term retention (3). Perhaps students believe the more time I spend studying, the more effective the learning. Is it correct to believe that the longer I study something and keep it in my working memory, the better I will remember it? No.