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By now, many of you are likely aware of the existence of History of Science and Mathematics Stack Exchange, which started up a year and a half ago and is still going strong in the beta stage. Mathematics is the most popular topic there; 383 questions have the tag as of today, more that double the next most popular category. They constitute about 36.48% of the site's 1,050 questions.

However, the history of mathematics is also still on-topic on Mathematics; currently, 1,452 questions have the tag. However, some math history questions end up being migrated to HSM, which I, as a moderator there, receive, edit, and check for on-topic-ness. Migrations do happen; since its inception, HSM has received 18 questions from Mathematics and sent 2 others.

This is, as you can imagine, a little inconsistent, which is the first part of why I bring this up. Which questions stay on Mathematics, and which ones go? There's always some subjectivity when it comes to migrations, it could be argued, and 18 questions is insignificant, compared to the roughly 300 questions asked over the past year on Mathematics.

What worries me is that people seem to have very strong opinions about whether the history of mathematics is on-topic on Mathematics Stack Exchange. That would be okay, were it not for the fact that these opinions seem to be polar opposites a lot of the time. This seems to confuse some newer posters - it certainly does on other sites. This is the second part of why I brought up this discussion.

The gist of this is that I'd like some sort of consensus as to whether or not the history of mathematics should be on-topic on Mathematics Stack Exchange. That way, either questions can stop being migrated to HSM unless the poster requests so, or they can be decisively marked as off-topic, closed as such on Mathematics, and sent over to HSM; the latter would also include editing the tour and help center, which say that the history of mathematics is on-topic.

Should questions about be on-topic on Mathematics Stack Exchange?


For related reading, see http://meta.math.stackexchange.com/q/19699/170257, http://meta.math.stackexchange.com/q/20356/170257, and http://meta.math.stackexchange.com/q/17321/170257, as well as Should Math SE seed HSM with some history of mathematics questions? on HSM meta.

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    $\begingroup$ What precisely is your problem with the status quo? $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Jun 25 '16 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque Currently, there's no policy. I'm suggesting that a policy be created, rather than have people arguing over migrations. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jun 25 '16 at 20:32
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    $\begingroup$ But you haven't given any compelling reason why some policy needs to be forced upon questioners. For example, I can think of some historical questions that would probably receive a better answer here than on HSM, so I would not want to be forced to post on HSM. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Jun 25 '16 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ I think your question would be better if you gave some compelling reason(s) why any change needs to be made. Currently I see none. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Jun 25 '16 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque I listed the 1) inconsistencies on migration, and 2) claims that questions are/are not on-topic without anything to back them up. Those seem strong reasons to create a policy, where there is none. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jun 25 '16 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque First, the majority of those questions were asked before HSM was around; in the past year, about 4-5% were involved. The 1.4% figure is misleading. But many posts which were not migrated also had these discussions. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jun 25 '16 at 20:47
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque The most recent one was here, though it was deleted before I wrote this post. I'll try to find others. Many have gotten deleted by mods, especially prior to migrating a post. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jun 25 '16 at 20:53
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    $\begingroup$ Not having formed an opinion on the matter (but having thought about it before), let me point out that when I asked whether or not we are going to migrate questions to MO, the general response was "no". $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Jun 25 '16 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 Thanks for the example. I think it would be helpful to have a handful of good examples, so folks can better comprehend what is typically involved. It might make sense to discuss migrations the same way we discuss reopenings and undeletions in the meta thread devoted to such. At the least, that would leave a historical record, and it might take some burden off mods. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Jun 25 '16 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Dilaton I don't think that defining the scope of the site is minor or small, and I don't think that this is a case of bureaucracy extending too far. If you had seen the deleted comments on the post I pointed Bill to, you would see that people do have strong opinions on the matter. I don't see how having a policy harms the site; it would avoid disputes like that in the future. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jun 25 '16 at 22:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Dilaton, in a comment, HDE 226868 said "I'm suggesting that a policy be created [...]." So I think there's a typo in your comment above (change "Demanding" to "Suggesting"). $\endgroup$ – Joel Reyes Noche Jun 26 '16 at 0:22
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    $\begingroup$ I support having this discussion. The related migration requests (by flagging) are a source of headache to at least this moderator. The general principle the question is also on-topic here, and thus should not be migrated unless the OP asks for it is the only thing I can use, but it is not optimal. $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Jun 26 '16 at 7:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Dilaton Why do you persist trying to weigh in on math.SE issues? You hardly participate in this community. $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Jun 26 '16 at 12:12
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    $\begingroup$ I do not find what you did in this edit reasonable. Clearly it is not the consensus. It has has about a 3/5th majority, which is a solid majority but not overwhelming. In combination with the fact that the position taken in this answer is a rather extreme one, I do not think this should suffice for such a decision. (I do not mean to give a negative meaning to the 'extreme' I merely mean it in the way that the answer says all history of math question are off-topic.) $\endgroup$ – quid Jul 12 '16 at 21:29
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    $\begingroup$ A criterion I could get behind is that the questions should be such that mathematical expertise is important to address it. Asking about who did what in the early development of class field theory would be on-topic. Asking why Abel died so young would be off-topic. $\endgroup$ – quid Jul 12 '16 at 23:49
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History of Mathematics was and is on-topic on this site, and I think it should continue to be on-topic. For an elaboration on why I think so see my other answer in this thread.

The help center has it right, in my opinion, when it says:

There are certain subjects that, while still on-topic here, might be better addressed by one of our sister sites: ... History and development of mathematics: History of Science and Mathematics

More precisely, I would take the "might" here in the sense that this "be[ing] better addressed by one of our sister sites" might or might not be true for some particular question and in any case it is up to the asker to decide. The information on the other site is provided as a service.

(That being said, just that some subject is in principle on topic does not make each question on that subject suitable for this site. For example a question could be "too broad" or "primarily opinion based." It is possible that different sites have different criteria on what is, e.g., "primarily opinion based" so that some specific question may be considered unsuitable here yet could still be suitable on HSM or the other way round.)

What does this mean practically speaking:

  • I consider is as not appropriate to vote to close a question only because one thinks it might be better asked on HSM or it belongs on HSM or some such reasoning. (It can be a good idea to inform the asker about the existence of the other site, though.)

  • If one encounters a questions that in one's opinion is not suitable for this site then one can vote to close it. If one is in addition of the opinion that it could be suitable for HSM (or any other site) one can recommend a migration. For the case of HSM, as for all other sites without open migration path, via an "other" flag mentioning the idea to moderators who are the only ones that can do it. (Of course one can still write a comment mentioning the idea publicly to inform and to get further feedback.)

The question whether the question-post then actually is migrated is I think best left to moderators that are anyway the only ones that can do it (until a migration path is set up, which I strongly suspect will not happen any time soon with HSM), and they can also efficiently communicate with the HSM moderators. For example, if HSM says "no, thanks" to some question there is no point in still migrating it.

The community decides if the question is suitable for this site. If it decides it is not suitable for this site, then what happens to the question unsuitable for this site afterwards is not that relevant a question for this community.

Let me end by recalling the general principles for migration. To consider a question for migration,

  1. the question must be off-topic (or otherwise not suitable) for this site, and
  2. one has to know (with considerable confidence) the question is on-topic for the target site, and
  3. the question is a good question.

(The first point can be weakened when the askers requests migration.)


The above is not really specific to HSM. I am of the same opinion for several other topics that are on-topic on multiple sites.

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    $\begingroup$ The only argument in favor of keeping such questions on topic I could find in your post was "we've always done things this way". Did I get that right? $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Jun 26 '16 at 7:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Najib: A fair point! From the point of view of a moderator 1-3 is the established algorithm. The way I look at it we are having this discussion precisely to discuss, and eventually hopefully also refine, the site policy re: item 1. I see the point of declaring some future questions about history of math off-topic here, but I need to get a good feeling of how the community feels about this to make decisions about migrations. $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Jun 26 '16 at 7:45
  • $\begingroup$ @NajibIdrissi I will develop the post in this regard. I tried to stress that the existence of a "better place" for a question is in itself no reason to migrate. I did this, since I see this happening quite a bit, and I felt this is a main part of the problem. I do agree that there is a line to be drawn what is a "History of Mathematics" question suitable for this site, and what is not. (However, I do not agree that the situation is analogous to the one for Academia.) $\endgroup$ – quid Jun 26 '16 at 9:01
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, this jives well with last official opinion from the Stack Exchange community team: Respect the community - your own, and others’. In particular, Josh says: "As members of a community...When evaluating a question, you shouldn't be looking to push it off on some other site; instead, ask if it could be appropriate and on-topic for you, the experts who the author decided to ask. Be a bit jealous of your site - don't blithely turn askers away simply because their question could be asked somewhere else." $\endgroup$ – Cody Gray Jul 14 '16 at 1:15
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In my opinion, the policy for math history question should be the same as the one for the other "tangential" subjects such as computer science, physics, economics, etc. If you have a precise mathematical question whose context is math history, then it is on-topic here. Otherwise, it is off-topic.

A math history question and a math question are completely different beasts. Consider the questions "How did A compute this complicated integral in his 18XX paper?" and "Who really proved Theorem X, was it Y or Z?" It takes completely different skills and background to answer one or the other. Some mathematicians are knowledgeable about questions of the second type, and some are even willing to answer them: great, then I suggest they start browsing hsm.SE! Gathering experts on a subject is the whole philosophy of SE. Some mathematicians are interested by questions of the second type and want to read them: awesome, start browsing hsm.SE. Math.SE doesn't have to be your one and only hub for math on the internet.

The main argument, as far as I can tell, for keeping all math history on-topic is just inertia. We've always been doing things this way, so why change what isn't broken? Well, I'm sure everyone here can think of a few things that they've always been doing, and even though they manage to scrape by they sure would like to change the situation.

Up until recently, there didn't even exist a HSM site. Now it's in beta. The situation is rather similar to the situation with academia.SE: up until some point there wasn't even an academia.SE so some academic (math-related) questions were tolerated here, then the site was in beta and people started to drift, and today all academic questions are generally regarded by everyone as off-topic on math.SE (unless they get on the HNQ list and then they soar to the top, but that's a different problem). I think it was a rather successful transition, and that we should strive for something similar.

(And please do not tell me that we have a tag for math history thus such questions are on-topic. I read this argument frequently about a handful of topics, and the answer is always the same: off-topic questions need to be categorized too. We have tags for physics, programming and so on, and surely these questions aren't on-topic.)

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    $\begingroup$ I am Asaf Karagila, and I endorse everything said here. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Jun 26 '16 at 8:34
  • $\begingroup$ I do not quite see what you want to illustrate with the question "How did A compute this complicated integral in his 18XX paper?" It asks specifically how it was done by A, that is to merely explain one way how the integral can be computed in principle would not constitute a valid answer to the question as asked. That is, to answer this question specific expertise on the historical development is needed. Maybe you meant 'to ask' a different question. $\endgroup$ – quid Jun 26 '16 at 11:39
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    $\begingroup$ @quid What I had in mind was something along the lines of "Here is a 18XX paper, I don't understand what the author did". The context is historical, but the question is mathematical. $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Jun 26 '16 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ (+1), especially for the spirit of the last paragraph. I think that physics, econ, chemistry, statistics, history, etc. questions are on-topic here only inasmuch as they are focused primarily on the mathematics involved. Duplicating questions and efforts across SE sites is generally less productive and useful than simply migrating. $\endgroup$ – T. Bongers Jun 26 '16 at 16:36
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the clarification. Let me ask you another question. What is your opinion on a reference request of the form. "'I know that Result R is true and suspect this is well known. But I fail to locate it in the literature. What book or article (if any) would contain a proof?" $\endgroup$ – quid Jun 27 '16 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ @quid Questions of the type "How do I prove this result?" are generally on-topic here. the added context "I believe it can be found in the literature" does not change that; presumably OP would be okay if someone posted a full proof without saying where it is in the literature... (Maybe I misunderstood what you meant.) $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Jun 28 '16 at 8:54
  • $\begingroup$ @NajibIdrissi this is not what I meant. The questions starts with the assertion OP knows the result is true, that is they have a proof/argument for it already. They specifically ask if the result is in the literature and want a reference for it. $\endgroup$ – quid Jun 28 '16 at 9:17
  • $\begingroup$ @quid Ah ok I see. Well that's certainly an edge case... I guess the age of the result is relevant here. Honestly I don't know. $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Jun 28 '16 at 9:19
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This answers argues why History of Mathematics should be on-topic, a point I took or asserted as a given, in my first answer. I decided to write this up as a new answer to separate procedural questions from questions on content.

I believe that question on the History of Mathematics should be on-topic (provided they fulfill the usual criteria for a question on this site, in particular not too broad and not vague and opinion based, according to the common standards of the site).

The reason I think so is quite simple: the history of mathematics is part of mathematics. The site is for mathematics. There is no reason to exclude the sub-topic "History of Mathematics."

This is quite different to the situation for computer science, physics, economics, etc. These are different subjects that have some overlap and interactions with mathematics. It is also a situation different to the one for questions on how to apply for a PostDoc position or how to submit a paper or also how to make LaTeX do one thing or another properly. These are questions related to the craft of being a mathematician, not about mathematics.

However, and this makes the difference to a another answer perhaps less drastic than it might seem, I do not consider every historical question somehow touching on mathematics or involving a mathematician as a question on the history of mathematics.

To give some examples:

  • What was the role of Mebkhout in the early development of the notion perverse sheaf?

    Is a question that I think could be on-topic here.

  • What influence (if any) had the Sputnik Shock on the development of the School of Mathematics at the IAS, Princeton?

    Is a question where I am at least very doubtful it should be asked on this site, yet I would consider it as potentially on-topic (with some added details) for HSM.

In brief, as long as the core of the question is about (the development of) mathematical ideas I think it is on-topic.

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Posting this answer to poll the opinions of Math.SE activists. Upvote if you agree, downvote if you disagree. Comment as you see fit. I am looking for general principles that would guide moderators in reacting to a request to migrate a question posted at Math.SE to HSM.SE.

This general principle is copied from one of quid's comments under the question.

If answering a question requires specific (advanced?) expertise in an area of mathematics, then it should stay at Math.SE.

Example: Who did what in the early development of class field theory?

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    $\begingroup$ I agree about the 'advanced' in spirit. As far as I am concerned it does not have to be that advanced, but it should go beyond what most generally educated person would know or could get familiar within a a short while. That is the expertise needed is such that a non-mathematician would very rarely have it. $\endgroup$ – quid Jul 13 '16 at 14:10
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I don't know much about the official policies. I wonder whether there exists an official meta-policy, regarding why policies should be this way instead of that way. A modest proposal:

Policies should be determined in such a way as to attempt to maximize the utility of the site(s).

That seems to be in the user's best interests. Surely it's also in StackExchange's best interests; maximizing utility is going to maximize traffic.

The number of people who think of themselves as mathematicians is orders of magnitude greater than the number of people who think of themselves as math historians. Hence I suspect that MSE will always be much more active than HSM.

And hence it seems to me that, at least for some sorts of math history questions, asking a huge number of mathematicians on MSE will be much more likely to result in a good answer than asking a merely large number of math historians on HSM.

That's speculation, but it's consistent with my experience. I had a math history question that I posted on MSE. I very quickly got exactly the answer I was looking for. On request I reposted the question on HSM, and that generated no feedback whatever.

And this makes perfect sense. It was the sort of fussy question that one would not expect a random mathematician or math historian to be able to answer. It took someone with a copy of Kolmogorov's book. Even ignoring for a second the fact that there are so many more mathematicians than math historians, the (small) probability that a given mathematician has a copy of that book is surely much larger than the probability that a given math historian has a copy; that would be a very specialized math historian versus a probabilist with an interest in the classics in his or her field.

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    $\begingroup$ Just a quick remark on the "more eyeballs" argument. The question you link to has at the time of writing this less than 100 views, 86 to be precise. This should be less than that of an average question on HSM. While it may seem paradoxical, giving the question more visibility can be a motivation to post to HSM instead of math.se. I'd speculate the typical HSM question has more views than the typical math.se question. $\endgroup$ – quid Jun 26 '16 at 17:53
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    $\begingroup$ @quid Eyeballs are not the same as views. Thousands of people saw the title on MSE and didn't bother viewing the question. The people who did view the question on MSE were people who had some interest in the history of probability. Supposing for the sake of argument that it got more views on HSM, the question is how many of them had a specific interest in probability. "Argument" aside, it did get an answer on MSE and not on HSM. $\endgroup$ – David C. Ullrich Jun 26 '16 at 18:19
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    $\begingroup$ Granted this is a relevant point. But I still think you rather overestimate the exposure a question gets on this site. On the not getting an answer on HSM: from what I can infer from the comments it appears you hardly had the question up there for a day. HSM, and small sites in general, are slower paced. Anyway, I pointed out what I wanted to point out. As is documented, I have nothing against users asking their history questions here. Personally though, being a user of both sites, I'd likely ask there not here. $\endgroup$ – quid Jun 26 '16 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ @quid Smaller sites are slower, fine, that's a valid point as well. Iirc I deleted it on HSM because crossposting was Bad and it already had an excellent answer on MSE; we'll never know what would have happened if it had stayed up on HSM. Still seems to me that that particular question is more likely to be of interest to a random probabilist than a random mathematician. Would be interesting to do some actual experiments to actually see whether MSE or HSM generated more replies for moderately specialized questions. (I'm not gonna do it...) $\endgroup$ – David C. Ullrich Jun 26 '16 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ @quid Sorry to bother you again - this is not about the question. Can you tell me what it means that my answer and these comments are greyed out, and why? $\endgroup$ – David C. Ullrich Jun 26 '16 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ No problem. It is just because the score of the answer is low. At -3 or lower the post is grayed out. This makes some limited sense on main, but is not really a good idea on meta. (BTW, I did not dv it myself.) $\endgroup$ – quid Jun 26 '16 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for a reasonable proposal of policy on policies ;-p (even though I don't believe human is rational and utility theory) $\endgroup$ – achille hui Jun 26 '16 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ @quid Thx. Makes perfect sense, after all we wouldn't want to confuse readers who can't figure out what the score means. (heh, better joke than I realized at first, because in a different sense I can't see what it means either.) I wouldn't have dreamed of asking whether you'd voted $\endgroup$ – David C. Ullrich Jun 26 '16 at 20:14
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    $\begingroup$ I think what you've written is an argument for advertising hsm.se more. Also, you might get more eyes on your question by posting at math.se; but you don't know if those eyes belong to people interesting in historical questions, and who can answer them. If you post on hsm.se you know that the first condition is met, at least. $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Jun 27 '16 at 7:37
  • $\begingroup$ @NajibIdrissi Yes, it may well be that HSM would be much more useful if it were better known. It seems to me that the rest of what you say has been said before. So I'll repeat myself: If mathematicians with no interest in any aspect of the history of mathematics exist they are very rare. I still believe that a probabilist would be more likely to know the answer to my question than a historian. (Only because of the specialized/technical nature of the question! It seems likely, for example, that the question about Fourier's errors that started this thread would have worked just fine on HSM.) $\endgroup$ – David C. Ullrich Jun 27 '16 at 23:04
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Posting this answer to poll the opinions of Math.SE activists. Upvote if you agree, downvote if you disagree. Comment as you see fit. I am looking for general principles that would guide moderators in reacting to a request to migrate a question posted at Math.SE to HSM.SE.

If a question is interdisciplinary and answering it well also requires familiarity with another science (physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science...), or ... history, then, while in the past we would/might have accepted the question as on-topic here, we should in the future migrate such questions to HSM.SE.

Example: Have the needs of military applications ever guided researchers in [this area of] mathematics?

Here the area probably should be specified for the question not to be too broad. Insert: numerical methods, geometry, whatever.

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    $\begingroup$ Not sure that it is useful to poll this specific point for the purposes of this discussion. I am looking for principles like this, where we can agree that migration would be justified. I really hope that fans of HSM could formulate answers of this type. IMHO we can help a sister site here - to the extent allowed by the guidelines of the well upvoted answers here. $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Jul 13 '16 at 9:49
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    $\begingroup$ I think we should start by having a few samples of old questions which would be migrated today. Have a few poll answers here "do you think this should be migrated to hsm if asked tomorrow?" and this might help to calibrate the consensus. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Jul 14 '16 at 7:04

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