Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Test-driving Knol

"Crowd-sourcing" is really, really difficult, and Google has a spotted history with social software.

I took Knol for a test drive to see if it stands a chance of competing with Wikipedia.

Here's the video, if you can't see the embed.

Knol is different from Wikipedia in a lot of ways:

  • The creator of a page can "own" it, approving and rejecting other people's edits

  • There can be more than one page about a topic

  • There are no hard-and-fast rules, just a rating-driven filtering system

  • You can verify your identity (and not just by credit card!)

  • Google has money to burn, so the interface doesn't look like it was designed by an engineering student circa 1974. (It looks like it was designed by an engineering professor who drives a Volvo.)

I was skeptical when Google announced the project last year, but this is pretty impressive (even though it's not all that useful yet).

The biggest flaw is the front page, which is disorganized, lacks a human touch (despite being composed of manually-tagged items) and doesn't convey any sort of comprehensive sweep. Almost all of the spotlighted articles are about depressing medical conditions, which is a big mistake -- it makes it look like knol is a less-organized version of webMD or something.

If Google manages to cultivate a sense of community, Knol actually stands a chance of becoming a small but significant competitor -- which is good, because Wikipedia needs an external kick in the pants to cut through the introspection.

Google jumps into social search

They're testing a service where users can promote and demote search results, and leave comments -- all right inside the google interface.

Here's the techcrunch video:

You don't have to be William Gibson to get a looking-at-the-future quiver. But this is very bad news for Wikia, the startup run by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. They've spent the last year or so trying to build exactly what google just rolled out.

Wikia search had a noble goal -- to open-source bloody websearch, which is central to just about everything -- but they never had a chance against Google; they would have had to hire every PhD, ever. (I've said before that Wikia should concentrate on building communities, which they're great at, not building search engines.)

It's also bad news for Yahoo. It looks like Google is buying Digg -- which is social search in a very general way -- and unlike yahoo, they're willing to integrate their websites with each other.

Is Wikipedia Nuking the Fridge?

The short answer


The medium answer

Not if you want an encyclopedia, but maybe if you want a kaleidoscopic window into the world.

The long answer

About Nuking the Fridge, Newsweek says:
Early in the new "Indiana Jones" sequel, our creaky, 65-year-old hero stumbles onto a nuclear test site, and the warning siren is blaring. Panicked, surrounded by Potemkin houses, he folds himself inside the lead-lined cavity of a refrigerator. Kaboom: the blast sends Indy hurtling across the New Mexico desert, a mushroom cloud rising behind him. He lands and, logic be damned, tumbles out unscathed. The franchise, though, will never recover.


The phrase was born on May 24—two days after the film opened—and it went viral on movie message boards. In barely a month, it has blown through several Web. 2.0 benchmarks: YouTube tributes, "fridge" haikus, merch-hawking Web sites, "Word of the Day" status on "You're expecting [the movie] to be as great as you remembered it," says Beth Russell, creator of, "and after the fridge scene, it was like, 'Oooo-K'." A new legend is born, for all the wrong reasons.

What say Wikipedia?

Well ... nothing.

The Nuking the Fridge article was actually deleted twice -- the meme was so powerful that someone who didn't know about the first deletion created the page again almost immediately. But this type of re-creation is actually against the rules -- instead, you have to propose re-creation at "deletion review" (even though, for the uninitiated, there are no hints that the blank page being edited was ever home to an article in the past). So it was deleted again immediately, without discussion.

How many people weighed in on that first deletion? One. It was "speedy deleted" after a single vote. ("Presumption is this was made up by the author and/or their friends (see author's username).")

One of many ironies here is that "Nuking the Fridge" is still a requested article -- which is to say that sometime after it was deleted, someone saw that the article didn't exist and added it to the collaborative to-do list.

This type of thing happens all the time. On one of my periodic safaris into deletion land, I saw that List of planets in Futurama had just gone under the axe, and I had an admin put a copy of it in my user space.

A couple days later, someone found my copy through the global search engine and wrote me a note:
I noticed you have a very nice article writen about the planets in futurama; would you consider adding it to the futurama articles, either split up as separate articles for each planet or as one big article? I made the "list of planets", which was missing from the link in the Futurama Portal (it was red).
I showed him the deletion vote. He said,
I dont understand -- if so many people voted keep, why did it get deleted? Now a list of planets is in the list of tasks for the Futurama Project. Seems like this is one of those situations where the right hand dosn't know what the left is doing.
Stability is good. Instability is bad.

Feeling like the words you type into wikipedia could be read in 100 years -- that's great. Knowing that an article you write might be deleted even if another wikipedian has specifically requested that article: bad. Rewriting an article without knowing that it's already been written and expunged? Terrible.

Feeling like you have to constantly push back against the deletion tide ... well, that kills kittens (where by kittens, I mean "the stuff that powers wikipedia").

Is there a solution?

I'm working on one, but it's a secret. In the meantime, Wikipedia's newest board member, Ting Chen, seems to be concerned about correcting this problem -- his wikimania talk was called "Keep the Community Open while Wikipedia matures".

Wikipedia Weekly had this to say about the talk:

These things that make wikipedia great, not just in english but in the other languages that he's fluent in, german and chinese -- it was interesting talking about how the "quality drives" that we have are driving us against this kind of open model, and driving us towards saying "well, really, if we're going to have stable versions, we want a highly vetted version we need someone with a phd to do that."

The foundation is also talking about making page-view statistics available for every article. WWeekly, again:

What Eric's talking about, using stats long-term, is not just to think of them as some numbers that you go to the website and pull out, but actually thinking about, longer-term, integrating them into the editing process.

That sounds awesome, and it means, among other things, that people will be confronted with the fact that they're deleting articles that get viewed hundreds of times a week.

For the record, I kind of liked the new movie. Indiana Jones was never realistic, and always had indy escaping in ridiculous ways. You just don't realize 'cause you saw the first movies when you were a kid.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Picture: the "Criticism of Windows Vista" article is slightly longer than the "God" article. See also.

Gut-wrenching Scream And Fall Into Distance (titled "Screams 3; Man, Gut-wrenching Scream And Fall Into Distance" on the compilation Hollywood Edge Premiere Edition, volume 13) is an often-used sound effect.

Like the Wilhelm Scream, it is an inside joke among sound engineers.

The Wilhelm Scream's revival came from Star Wars series sound designer Ben Burtt, who tracked down the original recording (which he found as a studio reel labeled "Man being eaten by alligator").

A Super-Earth is an extrasolar terrestrial planet that is more massive than the Earth, but less than 10 times as massive.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

2 more NYTimes dispatches from Wikimania.

First, A Book With 90,000 Authors, about the German Wikipedia's printed edition.

The Wikipedian, Mathias Schindler, said the credits page runs 27 pages “in a dense layout -– it’s a page full of names, separated by commas.” “I was able to spot my name within half a minute,” Mr. Schindler said. “And I was able to read it without any auxiliary devices.”

Second, A Wikipedian Challenge: Convincing Arabic Speakers to Write in Arabic. There are some interesting comments on this one; scroll to the bottom.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

NYTimes on stable versions, and change in the air

NYT: Wikipedia Tries Approval System to Reduce Vandalism on Pages

Wikipedia is considering a basic change to its editing philosophy to cut down on vandalism. In the process, the online encyclopedia anyone can edit would add a layer of hierarchy and eliminate some of the spontaneity that has made the site, at times, an informal source of news.

It well could bring some law and order to the creative anarchy that has made the site a runaway success but also made it a target for familiar criticism.

The idea, which is called “flagged revisions,” has only been possible in the last few months because of a new extension to the software that runs Wikipedia. It is sure to be a hot topic here at Wikimania 2008, in Alexandria, Egypt, because it promises to enact a goal for “stable versions” of articles that has long been championed by Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales.

An administrator at the German Wikipedia, where the first large-scale experiment is happening, will give a talk Friday on how it’s going.

Was anyone there? How did it go?

Here's an interesting comment from the Times post:

Wikipedia seems to want to pretend that it is some sort of old school Encyclopedia. However Wikipedia is not an old school Encyclopedia, its better than that. It’s a forum where ideas compete in the full light of public scrutiny in the best traditions of free speech.

This culture shift has been underway for a couple years. Wikipedia is trying to change from a set of town squares (hey heavy metal fans, let's all gather at Heavy Metal!), each with its own idiosyncrasies, to a more formal and static reference work.

This isn't surprising -- if you call yourself an encyclopedia, you're going to attract people who want to weed out the "unencyclopedic". But it could have unintended side effects -- at worst, it could undermine the enthusiasm that makes wikipedia tick.

(Here's another Times dispatch from the conference.)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Streaming Video from Wikimania sessions doesn't work!


I think this is the first wikimania to have the video up and running, though it's been promised every time before.

Nevermind. For some reason, the library of alexandria has eschewed any of the hundreds of cross-compatible methods of posting video, and has chosen a method that requires Windows Media Player.

And not just any windows media player. The site requires windows media player version 11, the only one that's impossible to run on mac. Thanks.

New Blog Address, same RSS feed

Okay, kids; the changeover is happening sometime soon.

If you're subscribed to, cool. It'll switch over automatically and you won't have to do anything.

If you're subscribed to some feed beginning with blogspot, you should switch to the feedburner version.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

List of fictional films portrayed on the sitcom Seinfeld.

Wikipedians hold a conference in the Great Library of Alexandria

How's that for a headline? Papyrus meets wiki, old meets new, east meets west.

I'm in Michigan, where the weather is hot. But the Wikipedia Weekly just recorded a show direct from the Mediterranean coast.

Here are the best parts, transcribed and remixed. If you like it, go thank the podcasters.

On the Library itself

The location this year for Wikimania is more important than for probably any other Wikimania because of the historic nature of the Library of Alexandria, and the creation of a modern, new library.

Even though the surrounding neighborhood's a little bit run down, the library itself is quite stunning.

Literally, the Alexandria library is right on the water. It's a spectacular view. There's beaches tens of meters away.

In a country of dust-colored buildings, this one round, clearly modern building stands out quite hugely. It looks like a big coin tipped 45 degrees and sunk in the ground. And it has a little lake around it as well, a little fountain lake.

Then when you actually go into the library, it's just amazing, because most of the library is actually underneath the ground. There's seven levels above ground and another seven below ground in a tiered, stepped fashion. The tiering is north-south, so everyone is looking towards the ceiling (as it were) which faces towards the mediterranean.

So the sun comes in through the roof all day, and it's filtered, but it makes a wonderful reading light. It's this huge open space for about four thousand readers. Apparently it's the world's largest individual reading room.

One of the spectacular things about the reading room is that it's actually pretty ecofriendly. All the light in that space is natural, through these gigantic skylights that just pour down several levels. (They actually have a kind of visitor's viewing area with glass in front; you can take pictures and you can see what people are doing there.)

The only electric lights are little standard lights on the individual desks, and little lights within the bookshelves themselves, which light up the spines of the books.

On the library's contents

Unfortunately it hasn't got many books yet because it's quite a new library and it's got a huge capacity. But it's got internet terminals, it's got a little display of the history of printing and a couple of permanent exhibitions.

And it has in there the only mirror of the internet archive in the world. (The original's in california.) There's a 1.5-petabyte rack of computers siting there humming away, storing the internet (and also thousands of hours of american and egyptian television, apparently).

They've also got another thing in there, which I haven't heard of before, which I think is really cool. It's called the cappuccino printer espresso book machine -- I assume because it's single-use; you make one cappuccino at a time. This is a printer that prints books on demand, and it's not just a normal printer, like a photocopier. This binds them; it puts color binding on the top and black and white pieces of paper in the middle. If you have a digital file -- I think you can't bring your own, you have to choose from their selection -- you can choose "that book" and "that size" and it prints it in twenty minutes.

There's only three ten of those in the world, apparently. I can see how, when the technology gets better, in ten, twenty years time, a bookstore will just be this machine, and you say "I want the Great Gatsby" and it prints. It's a really interesting possibility.

One of the Cappuccino examples they've got there lying in the display case is the Wikitravel Cairo and Alexandria booklet, which I'm sure Evan Prodromou would be interested in. (He couldn't make it to this conference, but they were advertising that Wikitravel was going to be featured there.)

On Cultural Melting Pots, 1

It's pretty hot inland but by the water here it's entirely Mediterranean in terms of feel. It's a real difference from Cairo, not just in terms of heat, but the culture as well.

Whilst Egypt is obviously very ancient and has its own very strong culture, ancient and modern, it looks very much towards the Middle East and towards Arabia in its contemporary society, not towards the south, not towards Africa. And Alexandria, here on the coast, looks toward europe to a certain degree as well. So whilst instanbul, for example, is your asia-meets-europe city, cairo seems to be sort of the last bastion of the middle east towards africa. And the country has definitely turned its back upon africa and looks toward the middle east. Alexandria has a bag with a little bit of greek thrown in.

What's fascinating to me about egypt is just the real mix of some greek antiquity with some egyptian antiquity. It's really kind of a blend of all of those things; you see that especially around us here in alexandria.

On Driving in Egypt

The driving is one of the most interesting about here.

I am not from china and therefore am not used to the weaving system they have here, but it's quite civilized weaving. It's not like you're aggressive masochistic weaving that comes from france or italy, and it's not your to hell with it, I'm going to come back again in the next life that you get in india.

It's quite orderly; you can get a flow to it and you can cross the road by just walking steadily and surely. And there's the usual honking of horns, but not aggressively in the I'm coming up behind you, look out where I am way.

On cultural melting pots, 2

I ran into a mongolian IT developer on the plane from China over to Cairo. And after I told him about Wikimania he goes, "Oh, I use wikipedia! what are you guys doing there?"

And I said "There's a conference going on in Alexandria", and he said "Oh, really? Then maybe I'll stop by!" So I might have recruited a mongolian wikipedia on the plane.

Holding a conference that's dedicated to free knowledge under a government that's not

Today there was a release of the leak of the most recently written draft legislation to change the telecommunication laws in Egypt.

One of the problems when this conference was decided to be in Alexandria was that people were saying "Well, shouldn't we be going to countries that are (A) easy to access for the majority of Wikipedians and (B) represent the values that Wikimedia stands for -- openness, freedom of information, digital society, with no criminalization of fredom of information."

Unfortunately, this is the opposite direction that Egypt might be taking. These new laws have been drafted and leaked, saying that apparently Facebook chats, SMS's, and blog posts -- all kinds of new media -- not just old media on tv broadcast and satellite channels, though they're definitely affected as well -- that all of those things can be censored and you could be arrested for producing any kind of information that "undermines the harmony of the state".

That is a very flexible definition. "Harmony of the state" could be defined by the government. The government has been in power here for a long time. They've had the same prime minister president, Ehud Olmert Hosni Mubarak, for a couple of decades at least, and whilst Egypt is one of the more western-facing and open arabic countries, it's definitely not sweden in terms of that.

It's a scary possibility. Of course, this is why it was leaked in the first place.

On Mistaken Identity

Around 8 or 9 in the morning, a few of us came over to the library and were poking around, and just happened to ask some of the guards "We're looking for the Wikimania folks".

And the guards pointed a bunch of us, about eight of us, to this back staff entrance, saying "Oh, please, go in in there." We kind of looked at each other and said, "Okay, we'll go in there."

We walked through the bowels of the staff area, which was nice, and we went through a security check that they just waved us through, and we took an elevator up and we said, wow, this is a pretty posh reception we're getting here.

And we walk down the hall and they show us to a room, and what do we see? We see Jimmy Wales sitting there in a room by himself with this gigantic conference table.

And Jimmy looks at us (and he knows almost all of us from past Wikimanias) and he goes "Hi, guys -- what are you doing here?"

And we said, "We're not sure."

And we saw all these name plaques on the table, which were of board members of the Wikimedia Foundation, and Jimmy says, "Yeah, I'm waiting here for the board to show up for a nine thirty meeting." And we realized that these guards thought we were board members and showed us to where Jimmy was.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Wikipedia's yearly conference starts tomorrow in Alexandria (yes, that Alexandria).

Wikimania is when editors actually get to meet each other face to face. (It's also a more general tech conference, and therefore a magnet for the digital overclass -- I think I saw Cory Doctorow walking around at Boston Wikimania.) But Egypt is far away, so there are fewer English-speakers attending.

I'm not going because I hate conferences. But if you're hungry for coverage:

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Paris Meridian is a meridian line running through the Paris Observatory in Paris, France -- now longitude 2°20′14.025″ east. It was a long-standing rival to Greenwich as the prime meridian of the world, as was the Antwerp meridian in Flanders.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Wikipedia Blog goes pro!

I'm getting paid to blog! (No, seriously.)

Wikipedia blog itself won't change at all, except that now it's about SEO! Just kidding.

The one thing that will change is the address, which will be (You can go there now, but it's full of scaffolding and drywall and I'm not sure the toilet works.)

I'm really excited, and not quite sure what to say, so I recorded a video.

The details

Okay. A Seattle company called enotes is hiring a bunch of bloggers to fill out their content. I got an email a couple weeks ago from their development director, Alex Bloomingdale, we hashed out the details, and lo (insert here however many exclamation points you want) : paid blogging.

I get to keep creative control. Enotes' take is that they don't want to kill the goose (and Alex was talking about spreading knowledge as a public service).

But first: thank you to anyone who has ever read this. And especially to phoebe for bringing me onto her book, and Noam Cohen for listening to me rant.

(And to Geoff, who writes great comments, and blogs at Original Research.)

And also, everything on the blog -- all past posts, too -- is now licensed cc attribution 3, which means you can do whatever you want with it.

We're still setting up the new interface, so I'll cross-post to both places for the next few days, but early next week I'll throw the switch, wikip.blogspot will go dark (inactive), and will go live.

Man, this is a disorganized little post. As I said, I'm excited.

There are soooo many possibilities. I'm not getting full-time pay, but I am getting now-I-have-an-excuse-to-follow-through-on-all-these-projects pay. Potential directions:

  • Finding ways to spread information beyond the concentric circles of super-informed insiders that define wikipedia.
  • Posting on a schedule -- video tutorials each friday, or interviews on monday.
  • Splitting out the wikisnips into a sideblog.
  • Doing cool visualizations, writing software ineptly, and carrying the inclusionist banner.
But! I really want to keep the spirit of the blog intact. At the risk of taking myself too seriously, I think of blogging as a little like running a cafe -- an exciting, comfortable cocoon with its own character. This is where we move down the street.

Hy-Brazil is a phantom island which features in many Irish myths. It was said to be cloaked in mist, except for one day each seven years, when it became visible but could still not be reached.

Expeditions left Bristol in 1480 and 1481 to search for it, and a letter written shortly after the return of John Cabot from his expedition in 1497 reports that land found by Cabot had been "discovered in the past by the men from Bristol who found Brasil".

Others claimed to have seen the island, or even landed on it, the last supposed sighting being in 1872. Roderick O’Flaherty in A Chorographical Description of West or H-Iar Connaught (1684) tells us "There is now living, Morogh O'Ley, who immagins he was himself personally on O'Brasil for two days, and saw out of it the iles of Aran, Golamhead, Irrosbeghill, and other places of the west continent he was acquainted with."

On maps, the island was shown as being circular, soon with a central strait or river running east-west across its diameter. Despite the failure of attempts to find it, it appeared regularly on maps lying south west of Galway Bay from 1325 until 1865, by which time it was called Brazil Rock.

Category:Phantom islands

Monday, July 07, 2008

Lists of northernmost and southernmost things on earth.

By the way, what's with the brightly colored houses in greenland? It's like that in svalbard, too. Is it the same reason people like colorful scarves and winterhats (that is, because bright colors make you feel warmer)?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

XKCD on the discovery channel commercial

(This commercial, which I love, and could just as easily be an ad for wikipedia.)

Not only is the comic hilarious, it actually matches the syllables.

James Holman (October 15, 1786 – July 29, 1857), known as the "Blind Traveler," was a British adventurer, author and social observer, best known for his writings on his extensive travels. Not only completely blind but suffering from debilitating pain and limited mobility, he undertook a series of solo journeys that were unprecedented both in their extent of geography and method of "human echolocation".