Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Wikipedia is not a cesspool of poison-penned libelists. It is not a tabloid. Should they chance upon vandalism, most people will be smart enough to figure out that "alex smith = gay!" isn't the fourth step of the Krebs cycle.

But Wikipedia does have a problem (well, a few) : while bushels of isolated facts stick to an article like bugs to flypaper, the regular wear and tear of wiki life (revert wars, adding detail, etc.) tends to atrophy an article's readability until, like beach footprints, it's reduced to a barely-differentiated indent. (Well, not an indent. I should stop being so metaphorical.)

Articles that have the most frequent edits are the ones most likely to suffer. (In a cruel twist of fate, these tend to be articles that are (or were) the best -- once an article passes a certain quality threshold, it draws visitors from all over.)

If you've been editing wikipedia long enough (and I have) it's a familiar feeling: you go through an article, nipping and tucking until it's brilliant and clear and readable, then you check back 3 months later and it's descended back into the fog.

So what to do?

Stable Pages

There's been a lot of talk about stable versions lately. They'll probably be implemented soon, which is a good thing. Here's how they work:

The very best wikipedia articles are doubled up: one version remains in the Standard Wikipedia, subject to immediate edits by whomever, and the other is preserved, temporarily, under glass, viewable but not editable. This preserved version is updated all at once, periodically.

As someone in the mailing list put it: as long as we're forever pushing the boulder up the hill, why not put a wedge behind it once in awhile?

One of the more important functions of a stable page will be serve as a label for the temporary high water mark -- instead of having to dive back into the history to see whether an article's gotten worse since being featured on the front page, you just have to compare the live and stable versions side-by-side. And there's a definite, well-defined goal for each page, a version number (as it were): Good changes can be periodically reincorporated en mass when the stable page is updated.

With enemies like this, who needs friends?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Wikipedia-watch has kicked up a bit of a firestorm by tracking down and posting the names and addresses behind Wikipedia administrators' screennames. The mailing list reaction is predictably tinged with outrage and incomprehension (I share the former), but it's touched off a good discussion about wikipedian anonymity in general.

Steven Ericsson Zenith:

Hidden identity provides no basis for authority since the landscape of individuals is unknown and the changes to that landscape impossible to track. Such that, even if a group of anonymous admins is able to command respect for a period, there is no guarantee, no way to judge, that a group of admins have the same capacity in the future. Indeed, if the current group of admins do manage to establish public confidence then the public is immediately at risk since that group can be opaquely usurped.


Zenith is arguing on some rarified abstract plane, but more concretely: will accounts ever be covertly bought and sold? This seems unlikely -- wikipedia is too large and decentralized for something like that to stay secret (and who would do it? Paging Stalin's airbrushers and the Mossad.).

Fastfission argues that this whole line of thinking is moot from the get-go, that transparency is compatible with anonymity (and that seeing for yourself every edit an author's made on a project makes up for not knowing whether he's living in a bunker in Berlin):

Wikipedia is one of the most transparent enterprises on the entire internet -- it is easy to see in an instant everything a contributor has done, everything they have ever squabbled about, every time they change their mind and any place they might have been discussing a change before it was actually made. It is an easy task to show ever omission, every purposefully false addition, every bit of slander, as it went down, who did it, at what time, at what place.


A couple people add that anonymity is necessary, at least online:

What makes admins so special? A lot of them are mostly janitors. Non-admins do the majority of content edits, which is what Wikipedia's credibility is based on...There are a lot of wack jobs on the Internet that could use that information for nefarious purposes...as someone who is not yet secure in an academic career I would loathe if people could Google my real name and come up with results of me bickering with cranks online about any of the various subjects I end up bickering with cranks over.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The Doomsday argument is a probabilistic argument that claims to predict the future lifetime of the human race given only an estimate of the total number of humans born so far. The argument predicts, with 95% confidence, that humanity will disappear within 9120 years.

An incredibly detailed history of aviation.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously is an English phrase. (As is Can't sleep, clown will eat me.)

More swear words than you can shake a stick at.

In Africa and indigenous Mexican communities, whistled language is used only by men.

Perverse Incentives:

  • "Three-strikes laws", under which a third felony conviction yields life imprisonment, are intended to deter repeat offenders. However, they may encourage repeat criminals to kill witnesses — since the sentence for murder is no worse than the sentence for a lesser third offense.

  • In India, a program paying people a bounty for each rat pelt handed in was intended to exterminate rats. Instead it led to the farming of rats.

  • Paying the executives of corporations proportionately to the size of their corporation is intended to encourage them to grow their companies by growing the bottom line (and not their earnings per share). However, it may cause them to pursue mergers to grow their companies, to the detriment of their shareholders' interest.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Good data visualizations would be fucking helpful (for evaluating an article's trustworthiness, finding related content, etc.). But right now the best visualizations are run on static wpedia dumps, and even those models are probably too complex for my mid-speed computer -- and if my computer can't handle a dynamic model of a static database, wikimedia servers can't possibly accommodate rich realtime visuals).

Ah, well. At least there's an application for Moore's Law.

Analyzing Wikipedia's Categories -- "the first semantic map of the English Wikipedia data" (pdf)

Three academics have created an awesome visual model of the wikipedia category structure (their model can be tweaked and tilted and filtered in various ways, but they've only provided static snapshots -- bah. My kingdom for a good, free model in Java. Well, in Cocoa and Core Image as long as I'm fantasizing.)

There are three diagrams. I've taken a GIF snapshot of one of them, for those who don't want to page through the pdf:



Click for fullsize image.

Each dot represents a category (not an article). The categories/dots are arranged by how much they have in common -- if an article is in two categories at once, those categories are considered to have something in common. Categories with lots of shared articles (like "Cities in Michigan" and "County seats in Michigan") are therefore close together; so are categories within categories.

The diagram can be color-coded in all sorts of ways, but this particular snapshot color-codes by words included in category names. You can see a cluster of "birth" and "death" categories in the lower right because almost every biographical article is in two of these types of categories (for example, John Adams is in "1735 births" and "1826 deaths" (he shares the latter with Jefferson)).

The text is less exciting than the graphics, but it's good reading, and it reinforces the graphics' coolness and conceptual importance:

By espousing an inclusive point of view policy and involving non-experts in the discussion, Wikipedia arguably has the potential to provide an open and dynamic platform complementary to the scientific peer-review process for reasoned debate on issues for which there is no accepted expert view.

Wikipedia is by no means the first website that relies on massive user participation: anyone can post news on Slashdot, offer goods at eBay or review books at Amazon. These sites, though, facilitate participation through hard- coded reputation mechanisms. Users grade others' contributions, and the website compiles an overall score to help direct further interaction. Reputation is computed based on individual assessments using a predefined algorithm.

Wikipedia, on the other hand, relies on facilitating human interaction rather than superseding it. Encyclopedic content is so complex that 'a process of reasoned discourse' is the only practical way to reach agreement; contributors can get to know each other and a community forms. The decisions on new structures and procedures, such as how to go about deleting articles or when to temporarily block editing, are then delegated to the community as well rather than instituted centrally. Individual reputation forms as 'a natural outgrowth of human interaction'

...

The resulting constitution of decision making in Wikipedia is hybrid. Members actively avoid majority voting, instead striving to reach consensus on any issue, but can use polls (democracy) as a non-binding tool in this process. Individual users who gain reputation through their contributions form a merit-based aristocracy, with several layers of privilege: anonymous users, regular users, administrators who can, e.g., delete or block pages in a single Wikipedia, and two higher levels that can, e.g., confer administrator status. Mediation and arbitration committees resolve disputes, while a rare issue may require the judgment of the 'benevolent dictator', Mr. Wales (monarchy)

[Note from Wikipedia Blog: I've written about wikipedia's resemblance to real-life political structures.]

...

This paper presented, to our knowledge, the first semantic map of the English Wikipedia data.

The Long Tail weblog has some interesting things to say about wikipedia and other stuff (and scroll down to the comments for a good discussion).

...these systems operate on the alien logic of probabilistic statistics, which sacrifices perfection at the microscale for optimization at the macroscale.
...
When professionals--editors, academics, journalists--are running the show, we at least know that it's someone's job to look out for such things as accuracy. But now we're depending more and more on systems where nobody's in charge; the intelligence is simply emergent. These probabilistic systems aren't perfect, but they are statistically optimized to excel over time and large numbers. They're designed to scale, and to improve with size. And a little slop at the microscale is the price of such efficiency at the macroscale.
...
Probability-based systems are, to use Kevin Kelly's term, "out of control". His seminal book by that name looks at example after example, from democracy to bird-flocking, where order arises from what appears to be chaos, seemingly reversing entropy's arrow.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Yet another chapter in the embarrassing war for "I Invented Wikipedia!" credit between Wales and Sanger. I tend to side with Sanger, mostly because managers often take credit where it's not due, but it's impossible to know what really happened (nor does it particularly matter).

Gunslinger is a name given to men in the American Old West who had gained a reputation as being dangerous with a gun.

Jesters typically wore brightly colored clothing in a motley pattern. Their hats were especially distinctive; made of cloth, they were floppy with three points (liliripes), each of which had a jingle bell at the end. The three points of the hat represent the asses' ears and tail worn by jesters in earlier times.

A rake is a stock character, a man who wastes his (usually inherited) fortune on "wine, women, and song," incurring lavish debts in the process.

A redshirt is a stock character whose sole purpose is to die violently soon after being introduced.

Nasreddin was a populist philosopher and wise man, remembered for his funny stories and anecdotes. He often appears as a whimsical character of a large Persian, Arab, and Turkish folk tradition of vignettes, not entirely different from zen koans.

Looking for a new desktop background?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Toilet-related injury

A solid Globe editorial with a nice closing line:

The Seigenthaler affair is a reminder that the age of the casual reader, if it ever in fact took place, is rapidly passing away. Most readers may not fancy themselves encyclopedists, authors, or journalists-manqués, but they can no longer assume that what passes for fact is unimpeachable. The ecology of information turns them into editors and reviewers perforce. The effect of this revelation may in time prove healthy-if we wake up to our responsibilities as readers.

Unintended consequences and unusual deaths.

"Thus, a straightforward phenomenon such as the probability of finding a raisin in a slice of cake growing with the portion-size does not generally require a theory of emergence to explain. It may, however, be profitable to consider the "emergence" of the texture of the cake as a relatively complex result of the baking process and the mixture of ingredients."

Bubble Wrap was created by two engineers, Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes, in 1957. Like many innovations, it was accidental: The two were trying to create a textured plastic wallpaper with paper backing that could be easily cleaned.

Cardboard was first invented in China some time in the 15th century.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

English words with uncommon properties

Nature to scientsts: edit Wikipedia!

So can Wikipedia move up a gear and match the quality of rival reference works? Imagine the result if it did: a comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date reference work that can be accessed free from Manhattan to rural Mongolia. To achieve this, Wikipedia's administrators will have to tackle everything from future funding problems — the site is maintained by public donations [note from Wikipedia blog: Wikimedia's running a fund drive until January 8th] — to doubts about whether enough new contributors can be found to increase the quality of the mushrooming number of entries. That latter point is critical, and here scientists can make a difference.

Judging by a survey of Nature authors, conducted in parallel with the accuracy investigation, only a small percentage of scientists currently contribute to Wikipedia. Yet when they do, they can make a significant difference. Wikipedia's non-expert contributors are, by and large, dedicated to getting things right on the site. But scientists can bring a critical eye to entries on subjects they study, often highlighting errors and misunderstandings that others have unintentionally introduced. They can also start entries on topics that other users may not want to tackle. It is no surprise, for example, that the entry on 'spin density wave' was originated by a physicist."


The article also tackles wikipedia protocol -- how to get your edits to stick.

Editing pages is not always straightforward, as some users may disagree with changes. In politically sensitive areas such as climate change, researchers have had to do battle with sceptics pushing an editorial line that is out of kilter with mainstream scientific thinking. But this usually requires no more than a little patience. Wikipedia's users are generally interested in the reasoning behind proposed changes to articles. Backing up a claim with a peer-reviewed reference, for example, makes a world of difference.

Nature would like to encourage its readers to help. The idea is not to seek a replacement for established sources such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but to push forward the grand experiment that is Wikipedia, and to see how much it can improve. Select a topic close to your work and look it up on Wikipedia. If the entry contains errors or important omissions, dive in and help fix them. It need not take too long. And imagine the pay-off: you could be one of the people who helped turn an apparently stupid idea into a free, high-quality global resource.


(Thanks to the readers who told me about this article.)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Nature magazine: Wikipedia's scientific accuracy comes close to Britannica's, 1 in 10 Nature authors are wikipedians.

Wales: More expert wikipedians still needed; some articles will eventually have both static and dynamic versions.

The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.

Considering how Wikipedia articles are written, that result might seem surprising. A solar physicist could, for example, work on the entry on the Sun, but would have the same status as a contributor without an academic background. Disputes about content are usually resolved by discussion among users.

...

Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.

...

Several Nature reviewers agreed with Panelas' point on readability, commenting that the Wikipedia article they reviewed was poorly structured and confusing. This criticism is common among information scientists, who also point to other problems with article quality, such as undue prominence given to controversial scientific theories. But Michael Twidale, an information scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that Wikipedia's strongest suit is the speed at which it can updated, a factor not considered by Nature's reviewers.

"People will find it shocking to see how many errors there are in Britannica," Twidale adds. "Print encyclopaedias are often set up as the gold standards of information quality against which the failings of faster or cheaper resources can be compared. These findings remind us that we have an 18-carat standard, not a 24-carat one."

The most error-strewn article, that on Dmitry Mendeleev, co-creator of the periodic table, illustrates this. Michael Gordin, a science historian at Princeton University who wrote a 2004 book on Mendeleev, identified 19 errors in Wikipedia and 8 in Britannica. These range from minor mistakes, such as describing Mendeleev as the 14th child in his family when he was the 13th, to more significant inaccuracies. Wikipedia, for example, incorrectly describes how Mendeleev's work relates to that of British chemist John Dalton. "Who wrote this stuff?" asked another reviewer. "Do they bother to check with experts?"

But to improve Wikipedia, Wales is not so much interested in checking articles with experts as getting them to write the articles in the first place.

As well as comparing the two encyclopaedias, Nature surveyed more than 1,000 Nature authors and found that although more than 70% had heard of Wikipedia and 17% of those consulted it on a weekly basis, less than 10% help to update it. The steady trickle of scientists who have contributed to articles describe the experience as rewarding, if occasionally frustrating (see 'Challenges of being a Wikipedian').

Greater involvement by scientists would lead to a "multiplier effect", says Wales. Most entries are edited by enthusiasts, and the addition of a researcher can boost article quality hugely. "Experts can help write specifics in a nuanced way," he says.

Wales also plans to introduce a 'stable' version of each entry. Once an article reaches a specific quality threshold it will be tagged as stable. Further edits will be made to a separate 'live' version that would replace the stable version when deemed to be a significant improvement. One method for determining that threshold, where users rate article quality, will be trialled early next year.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

I just talked on the phone to WikipediaClassAction.org

Previous: Class action lawsuit against wikipedia?

I asked the man who answered (Smith himself?) whether his organization had any connection with QuakeAID (a qustionable organization that claims to be a charity -- again, see previous post). He said they didn't. I pointed out that WikipediaClassAction.org had the same listed P.O. Box as QuakeAID. He said that that was because they had the same ISP, and the ISP provided the P.O. Box (do ISPs provide P.O. boxes? I suspect not.)

I asked him what wikipedia did to him to prompt this lawsuit. He refused to answer.

I talked to him for awhile (I don't know if he's normally this sarcastic and confrontational or was just in a bad mood). He suggested wikipedia requrie credit cards for use -- I said that wikimedia is an international organization and the overwhelming majority of people worldwide don't have credit cards. He said "the ones who don't have computers don't have credit cards" -- not even remotely true.

At this point "I don't have a credit card!" would have been the best thing to say; instead, I pointed out that even the majority of people in Europe don't have credit cards; they're mostly a North American phenomenon. "You don't know what you're talking about." he said. "I've lived in Europe for 20 years. Have you even been to Europe?"

"Of course I've been to Europe."

"I'm in Europe right now! I'm talking to you from London!"

"But this is an american area code."

"It's called a telephone!"

"Uh, but this is an american area code."

"Yeah! It's called a telephone! You can talk to people with it! Amazing, huh?"

At that point the conversation wound down.

For the record, I called the number posted on the organization's website: (866) 871-7368. 866 is, of course, a north american area code. It's also worth pointing out that he didn't have a british accent, though I think he started making some effort to put one on.

Previous: Class action lawsuit against wikipedia?

Class action lawsuit against wikipedia?

Update: not at the moment, no.

A group calling itself "WikipediaClassAction.org" is trying to start a class action suit against wikipedia.

The site has the same listed address as QuakeAID, which appears to be a fake charitable organization that seems to have run a scam following the south asian tsunami (and had a subsequnet run-in with wikipedia, when an article questioned the organization's credibility). (I'm not linking to WikipediaClassAction.org because it's running google ads -- in lieu of that, a metafilter thread on the topic with a huge range of well-considered opinions.)

As you've probably guessed, I think the proposed lawsuit (if it's not just a bid for google ad revenue, or an attempt to muddy the waters surrounding QuakeAID's qustionable practices and bad wikipedia PR) is so misguided as to verge on the insane. Individual editors should be held responsible if they libel someone, not wikimedia as a whole.

It would be tragic (perhaps even in the literal Greek fashion) if wikipedia's open model couldn't coexist with the U.S.'s legal system. Wikipedia's case is strong at the moment -- but we'll see what happens in the 2006 and 2008 election seasons. If wikipedia ceases to be publically editable, that would end the grand experiment and make it an ordinary (and frustratingly static) encyclopedia.

As an open-source project, of course, it couldn't be wiped out completely -- there are too many copies and backups floating around (public and private). But if the organization is fragmented or driven underground, editing it will impose a greater cost (in effort and perhaps risk) and the balance of power will shift towards the anonymous bots and vandals.

It's more likely that wikimedia will take steps to protect itself. Here are a couple things it could do:

  • Prevent anonymous edits -- not just edits by unregistered users, but edits by all users with a persona not tied to a real-life person.
    Downsides:
    • Honest people sometimes rely on anonymity for protection (especially in third world countries).
    • Online ID systems are immature right now. Among other problems, they usually impose burdens so great that they'd destroy wikipedia's biggest advantage (its huge potential userbase). For example, requiring a credit card to sign up -- only as identity verification, not to institute a charge -- would exclude not only the overwhelming majority of non-americans but also a sizable minority of americans (including this broke blogger).

  • Stop calling Wikipedia an encyclopedia. Stop calling users "editors". Make sure no member of the wikimedia board ever edits an article.
    This sounds a bit strange, but there's a quirk in the U.S. legal system regarding online forums: if a forum is moderated, even slightly, the administrators can be held liable for what's posted; if not, they can't.
    Downsides:
    • Thinking of the project as encyclopedic encourages good edits.
    • How much of wikipedia's administrative structure would have to be dismantled? Admins have useful powers, like quick edit reversion -- would those powers have to be removed or made universally available?


Legal persecution seems unlikely right now, but if it ever comes down to it, I'll be marching down the national mall with a mesh LAN, handing out wikipedia DVD freezes.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The guy who wrote the false wikipedia entry on John Seigenthaler has confessed. He wasn't a conspiracy nut, just someone who (he says) thought of wikipedia as a joke site.

This whole affair will have been good for wikipedia, I think. Readers will take articles with a grain of salt, and potential vandals will think twice before posting false information (the linked story of the noose slowly closing around the vandal's neck was satasfying to read and will probably provide good disincentives).

Friday, December 09, 2005

More than a century after his death, some people claim that Norton was, in actuality, the Emperor of the United States.

World War III (detailed)
World War IV (not so much)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

At the outset of the first Gulf War in 1991, a Washington, DC pizzeria was one of the first to know something was happening, as the event was marked by a flurry of pizza deliveries to The Pentagon.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Wales and Seigenthaler were on NPR, too.

Will the government regulate Wikipedia? (Or will it have to stop calling itself an encyclopedia?)

(Update: probably not. But IPs might have to make some changes.)

Seigenthaler brought up a new point in his CNN debatge with Wales.

Where I’m worried about this leading next year: we’re going into an election year. Every politician is going to find himself or herself subjected to the same sort of outrageous commentary that hit me and hits others. I’m afraid we’re going to get regulated media as a result of that, and I tell you, I think if you can’t find it -- both fix the history as well as the biography pages -- I think it’s going to be real trouble and we’re going to have to fight to keep the government from regulating it.


Siegenthaler's right that election years can wreak havok on online communities (I saw it happen to Metafilter), and while wikipedia weathered the 2004 elections fine, it's roughly an order of magnitude more popular now.

The question, of course, is not whether wikipedia will become useless (it won't) or whether its credibility will be compromised (it will -- though it's about time people understood the site for the collective playground it is). The question is whether vandals will kick up enough of a storm that politicians will take action (or vice versa? :p ). This is in some ways a convergence between the old world and the new: most politicians are over fifty and can't be expected to have an intuitive feel for room-with-500-people-in-it online interaction. Will they get pissed off enough about vandalism to impose controls on, at the very least, the way wikipedia describes itself?

Even if it's nothing more than that, it would suck. As I've said before, Wikipedia has a structural contradiction (or perhaps a fine line to walk). In order for people to care enough to put in high quality edits, they have to feel like they're contributing to a grand project, not an I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-An-Encyclopedia; but it's helpful if readers don't think of the site as an exact equivalent of paper encyclopedias -- they have to critically examine articles, figure out possible reasons they read the way they do.

CNN debate between Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia founder) and John Seigenthaler Sr. (Wikipedia libelled)
(transcript)

No anonymous article creation

I haven't commented on this before because, to be honest, I don't think it'll make much difference to most Wikipedia users. Whether it will help prevent libel and vandalism remains to be seen.

Monday, December 05, 2005

A great idea combining wikipedia's anthole/beesnest/collectiveIntelligence philosophy with an expert-based topdown approach:

If I were a reference publisher, a library association, a university, a media company, or a foundation, I’d take Wikipedia as raw material and vet entries, perhaps even charging for the service: On demand or on the basis of traffic and links, I’d go in and vet already-written pieces and bless that version of it. Then maybe I’d publish a book from it. Subsequent changes would be unvetted until and unless I chose to or the audience asked me to review them.


It would be nice to see information flow the other way, too -- blessed Wikipedia pages could be tagged to that effect.

Also worth pointing out: this is where the "commercial use is OK" clause of the Wpedia content licence is essential. The first ones on the boat were link farmers, but monetizing wikipedia like this is going to be very big and very useful (and, thanks to Wpedia's nonprofit status, it won't skew or bias wikipedia itself).

(A Venture Capitalist calls this Red Hat Wikipedia, but that's a little misleading (if incredibly pithy) -- a single organization could only review the tiniest fraction of wikipedia's entries.)

Category:Monday

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A message board devoted solely to airing negative critiques of wikipedia

This NYTimes article reveals that the wikipedia article rating system will probably roll out in January:

Still, [Wales] said, he was trying to make Wikipedia less vulnerable to tampering. He said he was starting a review mechanism by which readers and experts could rate the value of various articles. The reviews, which he said he expected to start in January, would show the site's strengths and weaknesses and perhaps reveal patterns to help them address the problems.

I was born 23 years ago today (December 4, 1982), which makes me exactly the same age as China's constitution. I share a birthday with Samuel Butler, Francisco Franco, and Tyra Banks.

Ten Wikipedia hacks (A broad definition of "hack" -- these are more like tips. Still, useful stuff.)

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Koro is ... uh ... probably not safe for work.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Another instance of wikipedia-as-character-assasin (talk) Followup. Great NYTimes article.

Monopoly. With linked gameboards (pointing, for example, to Pennsylvania Avenue or Community Chest).

Wikipedia is getting a new interface

Wales (according to some guy with a hiptop) says that wikipedia (and the rest of wikimedia) will be moving to a what-you-see-is-what-you-get interface -- specifically, they'll be using Wikiwyg.

Minor scandal involving former MTV VJ Adam Curry and wikipdedia's podcasting article.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

This metafilter thread views the articles with the most revisions as topics with the greatest cultural tension surrounding them.

Monday, November 21, 2005

A documentary about wikipedia will air in a few months on PBS.
A rough cut is available (the download link is in the left column) -- it's pretty good, but aimed at a mainstream audience, so mostly familiar. The stuff that isn't (cultural differences between wikipedias of different languages, for example) is the most interesting.

The raw footage is here. I'll see if I can go through it over the next week or so and ferret out the coolness. (Meta:Wikimentary)

Friday, November 18, 2005

List of Fictional Diseases

"Parkour is said to be L'art du Deplacement, or the Art of Displacement, consisting of uninterrupted forward motion over, under, around and through obstacles (both man-made and natural) in one's environment."

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Wikizine aims to help tame communications problems in the sprawling wikimedia adhocracy. It's mostly intended for higher-ups, but is calling for info: "I will try to discover all the news that there is about Wikimedia and report the most relevant news in Wikizine. But I will fail to discover all the news. Wikizine needs to receive reports of things that are going on somewhere in a strange, far away wiki. Especially from the projects and languages from who you never hear."

Wikizine joins the quarterly Quarto in delivering meta-wikipedia news; it joins the Signpost delivering weekly wikipedia news.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Signpost has a roundup of internal and external article evaluations.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

In Singapore, being gay is punishable with up to life in prison (update: this law appears not to be widely enforced). Some gay singaporians seem to have taken refuge on wikipedia.

List of sexually active popes.

MP3s of lectures about wikipedia:

Mitch Kapor, "Thirteen Ways to Look at the Wikipedia".

There's really a Zen koan aspect to it; when you're given a paradox to wrestle with you can either go down with it -- because it's insoluble on its own terms -- or you can transcend the paradox because you find out you've had some limiting assumptions that you didn't know you had and it's only an apparent paradox. So, this talk is my effort to recount how I've wrestled with some of the paradoxes of Wikipedia and share that with you.


Jimmy Wales (Untitled, as far as I can tell).
I think, partly because of the personality types who become programmers... I don't know what it is exactly... a lot of programmers, seem to me to think that the whole point of social software is to replace the social with the software. Which is not really what you want to do, right? Social Software should exist to empower us to be human... to interact... in all the normal ways that humans do.

The Free Music article could do with some expansion.

Wikipedia foe Daniel Brandt makes some interesting points (counterarguments here) -- though his tendancy toward condescension ("Keep in mind that the teenagers who think Wikipedia is cool tend to be the same teenagers who think Google is cool.") might explain why his encounters with wikipedia have been negative.

Gollum is an alternate interface to wikipedia. As of this writing, it's only documented in german, though it works with the english-language wiki.

I'm still looking forward to a good client-side wikipedia browser. I want to edit the articles directly on the page (Word-esque, that is -- though I'm not sure I want everyone else to have that ability), watch snappy dataviews, etc.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

New rating system

There's a lot of talk in the mailing list about rating/voting on articles (as an interface selection, not a purely wiki-social process). I'd expect to see it rolled out within the next month (update, Dec. 4: Wales told the NYTimes it'll be rolled out, most likely, in January), once a good implementation gets worked out.

A good article can become a bit of a mess with just a couple of misguided edits (which, hopefully, get reverted); it'll be interesting to see how the voting system deals with rapidly changing articles.

Pros:

  • Most users don't take time to edit, but many of them would click a vote box.

  • Seeing simple numeric ratings at a glance could make deciding how much to trust an article easier, and browsing more fun as you direct your attention away from the chaff.

  • A software-compiled list of low rated articles could provide a focus for editors' attention.


Con:
Rating articles this way could undermine the social nature of wikipedia. Artifically-created rating systems aren't subject to the caveats and nuance of thought and discussion, nor the incredibly complex and somewhat effortless interplay of human social interaction.

Another "expert review" of wikipedia articles -- of south african articles, this time.

NPR's Talk of the Nation: "Wikipedia, Open Soure, and the Future of the Web"

Defunct amusement parks

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Another deeply critical Register article: Why Wikipedia isn't like Linux. It isn't like linux, in the way programming isn't like writing: humans are better at reading text than computers are at reading code, so writing can be wrong in ways that code can't (code and writing can both be misguided, of course). But orders of magnitude more people know how to write than know how to code -- wikipedia has the advantage of scale.

This is also an excuse to link to my Wikipedia/Linux comparison.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

In the mailing list, Daniel P. B. Smith has an interesting take on the Guardian's panel-of-experts wikipedia analysis.

Crappy prose isn't the main "quality" problem.

The quality problem in our articles isn't "crappy prose." Sure, a sentence like

"Implicit order means a system has hidden information which is not apparent based solely on direct observation."

makes me wince.

But improving the quality of an article is more than just rewriting crappy prose. Or checking facts. Or adding references. Or fixing typos. Or removing inaccuracies.

As the -paedia root implies, a good encyclopedia article should teach. That means it should go beyond Gradgrind, facts, facts, facts. It should convey not data, not information, but knowledge. It should integrate and synthesize; it should be comprehensible to a wide range of readers, for example by having a progressive structure that gives the basics quickly without sacrificing detail later. It should be well balanced, giving suitably proportioned weight to all aspects of its subject. It should be analytical.

It takes a _lot_ of work to do that.

If you look at the Guardian criticisms, Mike Barnes complains that some of the writing in an article is "unhelpful." He thinks encyclopedia articles should be helpful.

Alexandra Shulman complains that an article "inaccurate and unclear" and that "every value judgment it makes is wrong." She thinks encyclopedia articles should be not only accurate but clear, and that they _should present value judgements--sound ones._

Mark Kurlansky complains of some factual details. No comment on the prose.

Anthony Julius complains that an article is "purely factual and not in any way analytical." He thinks encyclopedia articles should be analytical.

Claire Tomalin complains of minor accuracies, complains more about major _omissions_, and by the failure of the article to comment on the literary merit of Pepy's diary. She thinks an encyclopedia should provide balanced coverage of a topic. Like Shulman, she thinks it should present sound value judgements.

Derek Barker indeed complains of prose style.

Robert McHenry complains that an article shows "no understanding of the cultural and historical contexts involved. In other words, it is a school essay, sketchy and poorly balanced."

Most complain of inaccuracies, but characterize them as minor.

Only one complains of bad prose.

The others complain of articles that fail to be helpful; clear; present sound value judgements; be analytical; and provide balanced coverage of their subject.

Monday, October 24, 2005

My Doppelgänger

Matthew White publishes WikiWatch, a weblog that, like this one, is about Wikipedia. But his focuses on faulty articles (it's a good resource if you're a wikipedian looking for things to fix) and sharp criticism.

I mostly disagree with him, of course (see yesterday's post. Well, pretty much any post). Here's his FAQ.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The backlash has begun.

There's a rising tide (or at least a tide) of "Wikipdia Sucks!" around (and insofaras I was perhaps too much of a cheerleader a couple months ago, I played some small part).

First: A nice (and widely-circulated) blog post taking Web2.0 evangelists to task for their rapturous language. Some good points, but an inadvertant straw man: I don't think many people see wikipedia as the proto hive mind. (Maybe the proto proto hive mind, but that can be said about regular books, too.)

Second: The register picks up the idea and runs with it: a scathing editorial ostensibly about wikipedia's founder's response to the blog's criticisms of some W'pedia articles. At risk of sounding like I'm Worshipping The Quotes of the Leader, here's Wales's message in its entirety:

I don't agree with much of this critique, and I certainly do not share the attitude that Wikipedia is better than Britannica merely because it is free. It is my intention that we aim at Britannica-or-better quality, period, free or non-free. We should strive to be the best.

But the two examples he puts forward are, quite frankly, a horrific embarassment. [[Bill Gates]] and [[Jane Fonda]] are nearly unreadable crap.

Why? What can we do about it?

--Jimbo


Wikipedia has a structural contradiction (or perhaps a fine line to walk). In order for people to care enough to put in high quality edits, they have to feel like they're contributing to a grand encyclopedic project; but it's helpful if readers don't think of the site as an exact equivalent of paper encyclopedias -- they have to critically examine articles, figure out possible reasons they read the way they do.

This is one reason it's so important for there to be more (and better) software interfaces to wikipedia: there's a sea of information to sift through that helps you figure out what's really going on, how much you can trust an article. At a glance, I want to know how long individual phrases have lasted on the page, the frequency and intensity of edits, what else that page's editors have said elsewhere, etc.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Rocket mail is the delivery of mail by rocket or missile.

Upon witnessing the missile's landing, Summerfield stated, "This peacetime employment of a guided missile for the important and practical purpose of carrying mail, is the first known official use of missiles by any Post Office Department of any nation." Summerfield proclaimed the event to be "of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world", and predicted that "before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail."

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Friday, September 09, 2005

Might as well be polite: I have, for the moment, lost interest in updating this blog. Sorry, to whomever reads or checks regularly. I might post more in the future. Update: Hi. Nevermind.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Wikisnips of the day: List of Titles and Honours of Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. Elizabeth II is Queen of Australia, Queen of New Zealand, Queen of Canada, an Honorary Brigadier, and a Freeman in the Worshipful Company of Drapers.

Wikisnip of the day: If you ever run into holocaust deniers, the Holocaust Denial Examined page has plenty of well-thought counterarguments.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Wikisnips of the Day

  • 'Hachikō, sometimes known in Japanese as 忠犬ハチ公 (chūken hachikō, lit. 'faithful dog Hachiko'), was an Akita dog born in November, 1923, in the city of Odate, Akita Prefecture. In 1924, he was brought to Tokyo by his owner, Eisaburo Ueno, a professor in the agriculture department at the University of Tokyo. During his owner's life, Hachiko saw him off from the front door and greeted him at the end of the day at the nearby Shibuya Station. Even after Ueno's death in May, 1925, Hachiko returned every day to the station to wait for him, and did so for the next eleven years.'

  • Like Hachikō, Greyfriars Bobby is a dog with a statue.

  • Other famous dogs.

  • Fictional dogs.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Wikipedia as a teaching tool (ii)

Awhile ago, there was some discussion about Wikipedia as a teaching tool (specifically, assigning students to edit wikipedia). Now wikipedia has a page of current school and uni projects, and advice for students and teachers.

BBC, viral marketing, etc.

Mea culpa for not covering the whole BBC flap -- not much to cover, it turns out, since it was probably not an organized campaign. Wikipedia founder JImmy Wales, from the mailing list:

And I worked at the BBC with Angela for 2 weeks last fall and met and spoke to a total number of people in the hundreds. I think it is safe to say of the BBC as an organization that they know about Wikipedia, they love Wikipedia, and they aren't the sort of idiots who would try a viral marketing campaign relying on Wikipedia. ...They are fans of Wikipedia. They *get it* at the BBC about the Internet in a way that I have found very rare in my now numerous talks to people at media companies.


Still, viral marketing is concerning. From boingboing:

Reader Comment: Anonymous says,

"I can't say who I am, but I do work at a company that uses Wikipedia as a key part of online marketing strategies. That includes planting of viral information in entries, modification of entries to point to new promotional sites or "leaks" embedded in entries to test diffusion of information. Wikipedia is just a more transparent version of Myspace as far as some companies are concerned. We love it (evil laugh)."


Daniel Smith, in the mail group, counters:

Let's not get our knickers in a twist over this.

As a wise person once told me, "Don't ever think that an ad agency's business is to sell the product to the consumer. An ad agency's business is to sell the AD to the CLIENT."

That company probably lists viral marketing via Wikipedia as one of their unique services. And charges for it. Sure, they can plant viral information in Wikipedia. But how long does it stay there? And does it have any effect in marketing products? Or is it just more "subliminal advertising?"

They say their company "uses Wikipedia." They do not say whether the results are effective.

"I can call spirits from the vasty deep."

"Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?"

"I can plan viral marketing in the vasty Wikipedia..."
"Why, so can I, or so can anyone..."

Good BBC article

Friday, August 12, 2005

Good Guardian article on wikimania, wikipedia, and the future.

"Books like the Encyclopedia Britannica are nothing else than simple knowledge compendiums without any political soul," says Jean-Baptiste Soufron, a legal adviser to the Wikimedia Foundation. "I am convinced that Wikipedia is the only real encyclopedia of our days because it's the only one that relies on a real political goal: to pursue freedom over content and information."

...

What we're doing," says Wales, is building "a world in which every person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge."

Just as astonishingly, he thinks it will take just a decade to achieve this ambition. According to Wales, there are more than 22m Wikimedia entries extending across 200 languages. The aim is to provide for "every language in the world spoken by at least one million people" by 2015. If this sounds like chaos, think again: it's more akin to the ideas that fired the imaginations of 19th century political radicals such as Matthew Arnold and Mikael Bakunin. It is anarchy representing a self-regulating cooperative of free thinkers acting voluntarily for a greater common good - and it works in practice, too.

That last part is a little like what I said a couple months ago.

Public Domain and Wikipedia is a mini-documentary shot at wikimania.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Wikisnips of the day:

Bigfoot gets 57 Kb and its own 7-article category. But it's only one of innumerable Cryptids. ("Cryptids are animals for whose existence there is no confirmation.")

Other legendary creatures -- Zombies, sea monsters (and lake monsters, like the Loch Ness), etc.

Fictional national animals include the Qilin, Wild Haggis, the Fur-brearing Trout.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Some pictures from Wikimania (and a slideshow) but not much information posted yet.

Usually live-blogging is something you do when the conference has a low signal/noise ratio or has plenty of "dead" time. Wikimania had neither, because everyone knew each other online in some way, and the communal space made it easy to engage in long discussions and for folks to demo things to each other on laptops. It was an amazing experience, and multimedia content will follow.
Andrew Lih, on the wikipedia mailing list.

Fast Company has a decent roundup of Wikimania events.

The Wikipedia Signpost is shutting down. A damn shame (though I don't blame the editor; it was too much work for one person, and no coincidence that he stopped around wikimania -- how are you supposed to cover something like that properly without an editorial team (and a plane ticket)?). As you may have noticed, this blog hasn't exactly been a paper of record the past few days (what with actually finding a job and all), and there's no other semi-central source for wikipedia news, unless you count the Quarto (and I don't).

No New Rules
There was a widely-covered story that wikipedia was about to tighten rules, freeze a bunch of entries, etc. False. (I'm relieved. Articles are, of course, never "finished' -- the world keeps going.)

Monday, August 08, 2005

Wikisnip of the day: 'Astrochicken, Dyson explained, is a one-kilogram spacecraft that is unlike any other. Astrochicken would be a creation of the intersection of biology, artificial intelligence and modern microelectronics—a symbiosis of plant and animal and electronic components.' (There's also an Astro Chicken from Space Quest.)

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Future of Open Source

5 years ago Linux was cool (coolness propogated down from the highest levels of geekery to the merely internet-addicted, who absorb it eventually through long exposure, like they do web design); now some developers are deserting -- proprietary OS X gives them a command line, and that's all they really want.

At least in the first world, the thrill is gone.* Most people are more concerned with operating systems as tools than as ends in themselves; tinkering has lost its allure; programming should focus on rewarding, important problems, not getting your sound card to play two sounds at the same time.

(Tangent. In the 3rd world, unnoticed on Slashdot, Linux could be really, really fucking important. Commodity hardware, newly inexpensive; free software. People using computers to look up crop prices. Small towns using local builds customized in the local language. (No sound, no video-in, but who cares?) A homegrown software industry. Unglamorous stuff, but far more important than how cool your G4 Tower looks.)

Sever-side linux is still a powerful force, but what happened to the desktop utopia that was supposed to unseat Windows? And will the same developed-world disenchantment hit Wikipedia as it grows?

While in principle anyone can contribute to an open source project, Linux's barriers to entry are higher than Wikipedia's. Even correcting minor Linux bugs is well beyond (for example) my expertise, but my grandmother could edit Wikipedia. All you need is an internet connection and literacy (mid-level literacy, at that; other people will fix your grammar and spelling).

Wikipedia can draw on half a billion potential contributors; only about 100,000 people can code Linux.

It's hard to overstate this difference.



This is about where people start throwing around terms like "emergent behavior" and "paradigm shift". Over the next few years, Wikipedia (and some of its Wikimedia sister sites) will become comparable to Linux in economic and social significance. (Maybe Linux will catch up again a few decades later, if schools start teaching as many kids to program as they teach to write.)

(Note: I'm not saying wikis in general are going to be terribly revolutionary -- making a good, scalable wiki is about as hard as setting up a democracy in the middle east. And momentum is vital: like Ebay and Craigslist, wikis are only visited if they're contributed to and only contributed to if they're visited. Wikitravel might yet find its legs, but right now it's the Betamax to Wikipedia's VHS -- Wikipedia has much more info on most locations.)

Of course, the picture is very different if you look at the number of actual contributors:



56 thousand people have edited wikipedia and about a hundred thousand (though this number is difficult to estimate) have worked on the Linux kernel and its best-known desktop environments. (Other Linux applications aren't counted, and neither are wikipedia's sister projects.)

But wikipiedia is very young: less than a third the age of Linux. Compare the most influential contributors (so that linux data is available) over time and the picture changes again:



Those are only the most die-hard fans -- Wikipedians with more than 100 edits a month and Linux developers in the Credits file. But the huge upward sweep is exactly what graph #1 would lead one would expect.

Counterarguments:

Software mavens are tinkerers by nature. How many people who use Wikipedia will actually edit it?

There's a large gap between the skill necessary to run linux and (for example) to compile it, and a similar gap between compilation and real, gritty coding. Wikipedia's learning curve is shallower: you can reorganize and reformat pages, yes; you can contribute esoteric trivia to articles on history and philosophy and find diplomatic dispute resolutions. But you can also correct a typo in an article about your city.

Some fun articles to write are not particularly useful, and vice versa. Linux has been saddled with this problem: volenteers ignore boring but necessary work.

Scale solves this one -- yes, there will be mountains of fun-to-write content on wikiepdia (it's possibly the world's best Harry Potter resource). But there are so many contributors that some of them will want to write detailed histories of the Democratic Republic of Congo and help compile comprehensive lists of the etymologies of the names of Ohio counties.

Won't wikipedia deteriorate as it gets bigger?

It's gotten a lot bigger in the past few years, and much better as well -- if wikipedia can scale from 50 to 50 thousand contributors (and scale superbly), it can probably scale from 50 thousand to 50 million. Wikipedia is not anarchy; it's a complex system with many subtle but well-honed rules and balances.

Wikipedia contributors don't work together -- pages are hacked out through interminable debate; huge amounts of effort are wasted on minutia.

I think this is the exception rather than the rule. But more importantly: huge amounts of effort may be expended, but only in sum; the effort is distributed with incredible efficiency -- anyone can put in five minutes, or less. 50,000 people, times five minutes a day of labor, times 30 days, is 125 thousand man-hours: 14 years of continuous labor, or about 60 years of 40-hour weeks. Even if 90 percent of that is reverted (an absurdly pessimistic estimate), it's still more than 6 years' work completed in a month. Wikipedia is one of the few places where such small individual contributions can be easily combined. (This brings up another point: people work much more efficiently in shorter increments.)

The important thing is that people aren't made to feel their work has been wasted -- nothing kills the contributory spirit like having your painstaking paragraphs reverted. This is a problem that needs a social solution, and hopefully one will evolve/spring up.

Wikipedia and Linux are completely different! They certainly aren't competitors; wikipedia runs on linux.

They're not competitors, but they're both open-source projects. Open source is an important organizational framework that until wikipedia had been used mostly for programming, not writing human-language text. The most general point is taht the visibility and importance of open source writing will eclipse the visibility and importance of open source programming.

Linux isn't just the kernal and desktop environments. What about all the software?

Of course, there are hundreds of other programs for linux, but there are hundreds of potential structures, programmatic, community-based, and otherwise, that can run off the mediawiki base; most just haven't appeared yet because wikipedia is only three years old.

Linux bugfixes aren't that hard to code.

You've obviously never tried to teach basic HTML to nursing students. It's easy to overestimate the technical savvy of most people, especially when you hang out with programmers.

Your 3rd graph sucks.

You're right, it does. But I think the reasons it sucks counterbalance each other.

  • More people have contributed the linux kernal than are listed in the Credits file

  • Linux actually began in 1991; 1994 is just the first year the Credits file was published -- effectively, the graph gives linux a 3-year head start.

  • The credits file is cumulative: if you're in it once, you'll be there forever. The number of very active wikipedians is monthly: edit like mad in August, and you're counted for August -- drop below the threshold when you go back to school, and you're off this list.


*Desktop Linux isn't fading away! (section added June 2006)

I agree, and Ubuntu seems to be gaining steam. But I remember when people were seriously talking about windows getting unseated. Hell, Firefox hasn't even unseated IE for 80% of the market -- but Wikipedia's unseated Britannica and World Book as the most widely read encyclopedia.


Because I'm addicted to pageviews, you should share this article: del.icio.us, Digg, Furl, ma.gnolia, reddit, Spurl, Yahoo.

Wales: 10 things will be free.

Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales is guest blogging for Lawrence Lessig. Theme: Ten things that will be free. ("...the point of naming the list "will be free" rather than "should be free" or "must be free" is that I am making concrete predictions rather than listing a pie in the sky list of things I wish to see.")

1. The encyclopedia. (Of course.) Wales charts a plan to get wikipedia into the developing world, where the vast majority of people are.

Third, while it is important to provide our work in important global or "colonial" languages, we also think it is extremely important to provide our work in languages that people speak natively, at home. (Swahili, Hindi, etc.)

I will define a reasonable degree of success as follows, while recognizing that it does leave out a handful of people around the world who only speak rare languages: this problem will be solved when Wikipedia versions with at least 250,000 articles exists in every language which has at least 1,000,000 speakers and significant efforts exist for even very small languages. There are many local languages which are spoken by people who also speak a more common international language -- both facts are relevant.

I predict this will be completed in 15 years. With a 250,000-article cutoff, English and German are both past the threshold. Japanese and French will be there in a year. Several other languages will be there in two years.


2. School curricula, from kindergarten to college. "...this is a much bigger job than the encyclopedia, and it will take much longer ... An open project with dozens of professors adapting and refining a textbook on a particular subject will be a very difficult thing for a proprietary publisher to compete with.

(Update: Here's the full list.)

Wikisnip of the day

Quantum suicide is a thought experiment that attempts to distinguish between the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and the many-worlds interpretation (though there are other interpretations, too). The experiment essentially involves participating in the Schrödinger's cat experiment as the cat. (See also: Quantum Immortality.)

Friday, July 29, 2005

Wikisnips of the Day:

Fortune Magazine: '"Wikipedia clearly makes the world better off," says Cook, an enthusiast of this new tendency towards volunteerism. "But economists measure dollars. People generally assume that GDP and quality of life go up together. Maybe a chunk of the economy is going underground."'

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Wikisnip of the day: "The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. ... The collection of hands became an end in itself. ''Force Publique'' soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber... They became a sort of currency."

(Those years were the subject of Heart of Darkness (full text at wikisource), which inspired Apocalypse Now.)

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

WikiSign lets you send MySQL queries to Wikipedia. Simon Willison has (unrelatedly) fallen in WikiLove.

Wikisnips of the day:

  • "A common breaching experiment is to stand, in an elevator, facing the wall rather than door."
  • "In humans, it is usual to have five digits (four fingers and one thumb) on each hand, and five digits (toes) on each foot. Polydactyls have six or maybe even more digits on either their hands or feet, or both."


(Ego dept.: I got a mention in the Signpost's roundup of theoretical wikipedia discussion.)

Friday, July 22, 2005

Salon's critique: Wikipedia is like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. "Like the Guide's lengthy entries on drinking, Wikipedia mirrors the interests of its writers rather than its readers." (The author notes that criticising wikipedia is almost as dangerous as criticising scientology, but he's found the perfect method. You can say anything about someone if you make them feel like Ford Prefect while doing it.)

Wikisnips of the day: Manhole covers and their frequent theft. (Street signs get stolen, too.)

The avatar versus the journalist: Making meaning, finding truth.: the best article about wikipedia I've read in ... well, ever. Rohit Gupta totally gets it.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

"Dig down into why there's a debate, and you see the care with which Wikipedia and its community have set up policies to ensure entries are useful and accurate." Damn straight.

Lawrence Lessig also has an interesting post (and subsequent discussion) about Wikipedia and economic systems.

Wikisnips of the day:

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Wikisnip of the day: Amazingly detailed article on the swastica -- it predates Nazi germany by several thousand years and is still a religious symbol in Asia. (There's also a Swastica, Ontario, whose name has less benign origins. God, it would suck to live there.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Wikipedia vs. Google

Here's an interesting article concieving wikipedia as an open-source attack on Google.

Wikipedia is an open source search engine that lets anyone implicitly modify the search algorithm because it lets anyone modify the results of the search.


On that note. Yes, Google's pagerank algorithm amounts to a sort of democracy in which each incoming link gets a vote -- but wikipedia democracy may be better, long-term, partly because it sets the bar higher and lower in useful ways.

Higher:

You can't just make a link and expect to become part of something like Google's huge semihierarchical ecosystem of ranked pages: you have to write something useful and clear if you want it to survive in the wiki for long. Parasites (spammers, PR people) can't come into wikipedia and programmatically put in lots of braindead but link-rich text; wikipedia's antibodies are too strong. (Profits aside, Google's search hasn't improved much in the last few years -- deadlock with link farmers.)

Lower:

(1) You need more tech expertise to set up a website (or even a centrally-hosted blog) than to change a few words in an article. (Tap to the digerati's shoulder: most people don't know how to make links. That doesn't mean they don't have anything to say.)

(2) Google's methods are secret and proprietary, open only to employees. Wikipedia is totally open source: you can fork the project, make a complete mirror if you want (though the only people who've done this so far are advertising scum), change any part of the way things are done.


On the other hand, this way of thinking gives short shrift to Google's sophistication -- by employing geniuses, it's developed awesomely effective ways of getting good information to float to the top. Wikipedia's done the same thing, but without the army of salaried Nobel lauriates -- just the right framework, and enough volenteeers who, when it was built, came. Much more impressive.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Wikipedia as a teaching tool

Andy Carvin has a good idea about using Wikipedia as a teaching tool. There are really only two snips I'd say differently:

Take a group of fifth grade students and break them into groups, with each group picking a topic that interests them. Any topic. Dolphins, horses, hockey, you name it.

Not any topic -- dolphins and horses are giant articles: 15 and 40 kilobytes, respectively. Hockey is smaller, at 3.3 KB, but it might be better to concentrate on a fringe issue that everyone knows about: a local issue, in other words. Only 20 or so Michigan high schools have articles so far -- what about all the others? (Ah, Community High. I still wish my name had been pulled from the hat.)

Update: I've changed my mind. Pages about schools are often never looked at by non-students, and so there may be no moderating influence on ... er, juvenile behavior, even if only a minority of students use the page as a platform for jokes, etc. Instead, have the students edit pages about books, movies, tv shows, or celebrities.

Once the Wikipedia entry has been fact-checked, the teacher creates a Wikipedia login for the class.

Bad idea -- it undercuts the dual collaborate-but-be-responsible-for-your-work Wikipedia ethos: all the articles are jointly written, but by specific, individual authors. Give each student their own login, instead.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The London Underground has been bombed; about 30 people are dead so far. Wikipedia has current info.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Wapipedia is a slimmed-down version of wikipedia designed for WAP2 mobile phones. Explanation here.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Wikisnips of the day.

The Situationist movement culminated in the French protests of May, 1968. "Some philosophers and historians have argued that the rebellion was the single most important revolutionary event of the Twentieth Century because of the fact that it wasn't participated in by a lone demographic, such as workers or racial minorities, but was rather a purely popular uprising, superseding ethnic, cultural, age and class boundaries."

It also produced some incredibly kick-ass graffiti.

  • Boredom is counterrevolutionary.
  • Please leave the Communist Party as clean on leaving it as you would like to find it on entering.
  • I am a Groucho Marxist.
  • Meanwhile everyone wants to breathe and nobody can and many say, "We will breathe later." And most of them don't die because they are already dead.
  • Run, comrade, the old world is behind you!
  • Art is dead, don‘t consume its corpse.
  • Arise, ye wretched of the university.
  • If God existed it would be necessary to abolish him.
  • SEX: It‘s okay, says Mao, as long as you don‘t do it too often.
  • Comrades, people are making love in the Poli Sci classrooms, not only in the fields.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The wikipedia animation contest has a winner: Dan Phiffer's Wikipedia Animate. (He gets $200 and a bunch of other stuff. Go download the latest version.) Directions for use. Second place goes to AniWiki.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Cool wikipedia search engine.

Wikisnips of the Day

Programming languages.

There are several languages whose code looks like english phrases. Beatnik uses scrabble scores to convert words to numbers to operators. Each program in Chef is a recipe. Each program in Shakespeare is a full-formatted several-act play. Sample:

Juliet:
Speak YOUR mind! You are as bad as Hamlet! You are as small as the difference between the square of the difference between my little pony and your big hairy hound and the cube of your sorry little codpiece. Speak your mind!


That was Juliet printing another character (variable) and assigning him values.

Whitespace ignores everything but spaces, tabs, and carriage returns. Ook is designed for Chimpanzees. (Sample line: "Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook.") Programs in Piet are bitmap images that look a little like abstract art. Choon produces musical notes as its only output. var'aq is modeled on Klingon. TMMLPTEALPAITAFNFAL stands for "The Multi-Million Language Project To End All Language Projects And Isn't That A Fine Name For A Language". It changes every day.

Haykinson on his involvement with the L.A. Times' wikitorials project. Great post, detailing lots of non-obvious mistakes the LAT made, and some good advice.

A new API; Chinese gov. draws on Wikipedia

2 interesting news items.

1. There's going to be a generalized webservice API for wikipedia (awesome! and about bloody time) -- this is buried in a less important news story about new integration between Wikipedia and KDE, a desktop environment for Linux.

2. China's state-run Xinhua news agency (wikipedia article) is reporting on a new project that will "allow the public to input and edit all the historical documents dating from ancient times through 1911 when the Republic of China was founded."

"'The operation will be similar to the Wikipedia,' a popular Web-based free content encyclopedia written by volunteers, said organizer Lu Jun, president of the China Culture Research Society."

Hard to tell exactly what's going on here -- the documents already exist, and are presumably of historical significance; why should they be publicly edited? Are people just going to be cleaning up after the scanning process? Or will the documents (perhaps they're old histories themselves) be starting points for a more thoughrough, modern analysis, like public domain documents form the foundation of some wikipdedia entries? Or will there be a lack of public editing, or forced "volenteers", and the Chinese gov. is just using "wikipedia" as a buzzword? (It's worth mentioning that there's already a Chinese-language wikipedia with over 10,000 articles.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

An anonymous user edits the beginning of the Music article:

Music was invented in 1961 by mick jagger, who came up with the idea of putting sounds together to make what he called "tunes", "chords" and eventually, he invented "songs" music was great to start with, bob dylan joined in a year later, he was pretty cool, the beatles kind of fucked it up a little bit, but that didn't matter, because in 1965, the velvet underground formed, soon followed by jethro tull and led zeppelin, music peaked in 1969-1971, and basically, everyone's been tying to outdo led zeppelin III and Stand up by Tull, but that's obviously impossible. The sex pistols and the clash fucked it right up in 1977-78, but it was inevitable, the last nail in music's coffin was "MTV", a cruel implement of propaganda made by capitalists, satan and the man, music crawled to a halt, and then some twisted psychopath invented techno music and pop-punk hybrids like greenday. Music officially ended in 1984 when "frankie goes to hollywood" released "relax", music hasn't been made for 21 years now, and we can only listen to old zeppelin albums, wear flowers in our hair, make blue jeans into flares with big triangular patches of red fabric, walk around barefoot, pretend it's 1969 and hope that some day music will return, but there is no sign of this happening just yet.

It lasted 2 minutes.

Alright, another entry in the wikihistory animation contest -- not a greasemonkey script, but a javascript extention that works in IE, Firefox, Opera, Safari, etc: BetterHistory

The others have seen major revisions and bugfixes, so I'll list them all together. (All can animate page changes; I'll touch on some other features.)

  • Wikipedia Animate
    Greasemonkey. Fits nicely into the Wikipedia interface.

  • WikiDiff
    Greasemonkey. Slick interface.

  • Aniwiki
    Greasemonkey. Lots of features: a graphical timeline; data showing number of reverts, changes, contributing editors; highlighted changes in each animation frame; heavy customizability; etc. Runs a little slow on my (slow) mac mini.

  • BetterHistory
    Javascript. Works in any modern browser, including IE.


I've got the flu, so updates might be a bit infrequent this week.