Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Wikisnip of the day, that day being Saturday. The weekend.

As you may know, the weekend is a common time for a Party. If you've been invited to a Tea Party, keep in mind that it "is the only afternoon tea at which servants may remain present". If, on the other hand, you're going to a Rave (the origins of which can be traced beyond Manchester to Texas and Detroit), you may want to bring Parachute Pants. Makeout Parties seldom occur, and Foam Parties can damage the floor of the discotheque.

Friday, June 17, 2005

L.A. Times's beta Wikitorial has been up for a few hours now and, so far, really really sucks. The discussion page is pretty interesting, though.

More later; I have to sleep.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Wikipedia History Animations

Yesterday I wrote about a contest to design an interface to animate wikipedia article histories. Two entries are already in, and they're coooool.

Dan Phiffer's Wikipedia Animate is the one I like best. It's a greasemonkey script, but I've taken the liberty of compiling it, so you can install it as a regular Firefox extention. Here's the file. Update: I can't seem to compile version 1.5 correctly, so you'll have to use Greasemonkey. If anyone else wants to attempt a compile, let me know and I'll link.

Directions (Updated):

  • Make sure you've uninstalled or disabled any wikipedia-related scripts or extentions you already have.
  • Install the Greasemonkey extention (Wikipedia Animate or WikiDiff will "plug into" Greasemonkey).
  • Go to Wikipedia Animate or WikiDiff and follow the link to the User Script. You should see a full screen of text.
  • In the Tools menu, there should be a new item (called "MF2" or "Install Script" or something else). Click it and give permission to install.
  • Go to a wikipedia page like Digital Pet. (If you're using WikiDiff, disregard the rest of these instructions and use the green control at the bottom of the page.)
  • Click on the History tab at the top of the page (a link for your convienience).
  • There should be a new button next to "Compare selected versions" that says "Animate changes". For it to be useful, you should select the start and finish points -- select the lowest radio button you can find and click "animate".

Cool.

Wikipedia helps show the economic value of social interaction

Yale law prof. Yochai Benkler has written a shitload of interesting econ papers about commons systems like wikipedia. There's a good interview with him in Businessweek, where he talks about "commons-based peer production".

...the economic role of social behavior is increasing. It used to be that if you said, "Here, this is interesting, why don't you read this?" it was primarily social. When you take the exact same behavior and plug it into Google's Page Rank algorithm, you actually get a discrete economic output that increases welfare in the economy overall -- even though you continue to have a certain social interaction there as well.

The net changes everything, and all that. But I think economists have historically underestimated the power of social behavior -- to put it another way, I'm not sure how useful it is to abstract "social" and "economic" into two separate boxes.

The difference between today and 10 years ago, of course, is measurability -- something quite clear (if known only to Google employees) happens when links are tallied into pagerank and used to sell ads; the economic benefit to mankind from a teacher helping underprivileged kids is linked to no such running tally (even though that teacher's thinking style is as amiable to distribution as any clever web system, persisting in those kids and going on to influence other people through them). We just never saw anything like this unfold on a screen before, so it was easier to economists to ignore it.

But come on. Most of our brains are devoted to social interaction, which is one of the reasons we're so much worse at readily-deconstructed reasoning (math, logic) than computers are. It's silly to have ever thought the straightforward rules of Adam Smith could be a complete description, as silly as thinking, in the '50s, that if a computer was ever capable of chess it would be capable of thought.

And of course, most of people's lives are spent interacting socially. I suppose the catch is that the most academically productive people spend the least time doing anything but writing papers -- perhaps that's why social interaction has been neglected in economics.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Big pundits fume, but small newspapers are citing wikipedia.

Techdirt has a roundup of anti-wikipedia articles in mainstream papers. (This editiorial, in the New York Times (counterpoint), is particularly cringe-inducing, and not just because it's penned by a Pulitzer winner: the author attempts to tie wikipedia to apathy about whether anything is true -- the old Moral Relativism card, played by an ostensible liberal writing in a conservative medium. It reads like a mixture of Andy Rooney and Ayn Rand.)

But I think journalists are starting to come around; wikipedia might be an encyclopedia, but it has the immediacy and level-headedness print journalists like. And it's possible that, culture aside, journalists might just be impressed with wikipedia's increasing quality.

Local newspapers are even beginning to quote and cite wikipedia in their articles -- here are several from the very top of the Google stack, published in the last 2 days:

  • The Asheville Citizen-Times (NC): "Soldiers who fought for the North were referred to as "Billy Yanks." Those who fought for the South were called "Johnny Rebs," according to the online encyclopedia wikipedia.org."

  • Jamesville Gazette (WI): "According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, E-Democracy is defined as using electronic media such as the Internet to enhance the democratic process."

  • Newport News-Times (OR): "'In Polynesian mythology, specifically Maori, Tiki is the first man, created by either Tu Matauenga or Tane. He found the first woman, Marikoriko, in a pond. She seduced him and he became the father of Hine-Kau-Ataata.' - Wikipedia online encyclopedia"

Wikisnip of the day.

  • The Exploding Whale article is pretty widely known. But wikipedia also has an entire Exploding Animals category, containing articles on exploding bats, birds, chickens, cows, dogs, hamsters, humans, rats, sheep, and toads (a surprising number of which were attempts at weaponry).

  • This ask.metafilter post links to an wide array of fun wikipedia entries.

$150 of Flash

Waxy and others are offering a cash reward for anyone who can come up with a useful graphical/animation tool for viewing wikipedia article histories.

This is really, really good. Wikipedia should transcend the web, to put it pretentiously, the way Greasemonkey does. It could use a good client-side browser (or, hey, a server-side one); researching histories is currently a bottleneck in the revision process.

And Java/C/Ruby wizards aren't necessary. This is an ideal place for Flash -- it's best at visualizing data, not building interfaces or running silly loading screens. Maybe it's the 5 a.m. talking, but I want a future where I'm swimming through easy visualizations of the wikipedia flow, watching as groups push and pull the knowledge, nudge phrases into place, propogate thinking styles across an encyclopedia-habitat.

Wikipedia and COMMUNISM!

The Los Angeles Times is introducing "Wikitorials -- an online feature that will empower you to rewrite Los Angeles Times editorials."

It's an interesting idea, but it probably won't work. (Update: yep.) I agree, pretty much, with Corante, and Ernest Miller makes more good points. One thing he didn't think of is size: the Wikitorials probably won't have enough users for armies of the well-intentioned to effortlessly mute 1 or 2 trolls.

Starting a good wiki is difficult, like starting a good democracy.* It's not enough to have the dictionary-definition prerequisites in place (elections, for example, and open editing). Users (or citizens) have to have the right mental habits (that's all institutions really are). In the U.S., people revere the constitution to a fault; in South America, constitutions are changed dozens of times in as many years. In Europe, countries near-obliterated 50 years ago have successfully shied from radicalism and religion; in Pakistan, they're both rampant (and were even when the country was "democratic").

Democracy and wikis are both excercises in shared decision-making, but on wikis the groups are usually smaller (which makes things easier -- even communism really worked when it was just used in communes) and votes (in the form of edits) are unlimited: you can keep casting them until you get sick of it.

Wikis almost seem like the ultimate expression of anarcho-syndicalism -- a group of people coming in, sans rulers, and hewing out a society with their bare wit. Neither of of those models are as chaotic as they sound; the structures they rest on are just minimalist: our basic human cooperative instincts keep people clearing the grafitti off wikipedia pages and growing communal weed for the other cult members.

Which brings us back to needing good institutions and habits.

But wikipedia isn't really like anarcho-syndicalism, for two reasons:

1. Compared to water and food, computer storage is unlimited. Short of worldwide civilization collapse, Wikipedia will never fade away like a hippy commune in 1981; its memories will not die with its members. As an open source project, it can always be forked, tweaked, sifted through various filters, read and written anew.

2. There's less at stake. You can't reach through the LCD and beat someone up: the soft-l Libertarians' prohibition of violence is enforced through structural fiat.

*Update, June 2006: At this point, it's beginning to seem like Wikipedia's example has made starting a good wiki easier.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Hi. This is a blog about Wikipedia, which, as you probably know, is an open-source encyclopedia that anyone can edit.

Wikipedia is becoming increasingly relevant. Its model seems batshit insane, but works well -- I think this can tell us some things about systems, people, software, conflict resolution, etc. And there are always fun Wikipedia entries to link to.

Wikisnip of the day. The Megastructures category focuses on huge awesome science-fictiony (but occasionally believable) structures.

  • Check out the granddaddy of megastructures, the Dyson Shere, a giant shell around a star (in one variant).
  • Or, if your tastes run to the remotely concievable, try the Ringworld, which is exactly what it sounds like: a world shaped like a planetary orbit, a cosmic hoola hoop. (MIT majors were holding up signs saying "The Ringworld is Unstable!" in the 1970s.)
  • An O'Neill cylinder is like a much smaller, enclosed ringworld that orbits a star rather than being centered around it -- it's stable, and we could probably build one if we wanted to piss away enough money.
  • Oh. And if you ever wondered if there was a name for a planetary computer like the one in the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there is: Jupiter Brain.