Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Thursday, July 17, 2008

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.


Jani Patokallio said...

Psst: it's an Espresso machine, not a Cappuccino machine. ;) And last I heard they've sold about 10 of them.

So yes, the BA did a couple of Espresso test prints of Wikitravel Press stuff, but the copies we distributed on site were printed elsewhere -- Espresso is designed for single copies, not bulk runs.

In case you missed it, do check out the slides/video of the Wikitravel Press talk I gave earlier today -- I'd give you the link but it doesn't seem to be up yet...


Ben Yates said...

Lol. I was wondering why I couldn't find it on google.

fuzheado said...

Ben, thanks for summarizing our podcast. Yes, we had to do a correction on Espresso, which makes a lot more sense as the name. Will be rolling out a bunch of new episodes soon.

Ben Yates said...

No problem - you guys always do great work.