Friday, October 26, 2007


Ignite Portland: the Event

As the blogsphere has documented, last night's Ignite Portland was a surprising success. The organizers expected between 50-100, hoped for more, and were excited to have 300 people sign up. I was one of them.

Weiden+Kennedy was picked as the host, in part because they generously offered to share their facility, but maybe more because their offices provided that cutting-edge, urban hip feel that the attendees expected at IgnitePortland. It was my first inside the building since it was converted from warehouse space, and the interior layout left me admittedly disoriented. Climb one flight of stairs, then climb another, and then one came to the Nike court -- named for Weiden+Kennedy's best-known client -- yet at least three more floor loomed above the visitor, beyond planes of concrete and laminated wood stretching in all three dimensions. I was left with the feeling that the environment was designed to make people to think about the poetics of space within a building, but instead I felt vaguely uncomfortable because I knew this environment would not make me think productively.

The people there were an eclectic bunch, most of whom were not the folks whom I had met or seen at Portland Bar Camp, OSCON, or Recent Changes Camp. Which is I consider a good thing, because it proves that the Portland technology scene is still vibrant and growing; the bleak jobmarket of five years ago is still wel-remembered by those of us who struggled through it. I did see a few people I knew -- but met a few I hadn't, like Mike Lucich (of Return and Kumquat), and Rick Turoczy of the always enjoyable blog, Silicon Florist. It was a thrill for this C-list blogger to talk with a couple of bloggers further up the food chain, and we wondered if Mike Rogoway, the technology reporter at the local newspaper, was there.

As for the presentations, I saw that they were being recorded, and eventually video files should be available; so I won't go into detail about their subject matter. One that I enjoyed were Kevin Tate talking about "Emergence in Business" -- maybe because I'm fascinated with the way, evocative of the language of the Tao Te Ching, that groups, networks and communities form their own environments, or maybe because he alluded to a number of books he recommended to us to read. Another was Scott Huber bemusedly recounting a real-life discovery that, in this time of posting and uploading so much information on the internet, some people inadvertently share too much information. On the other hand, a few presentations were very much contrarian, on such topics as re-wilding our environment, knitting, making cornbread, and a proposal to create an Oregon-style chain of gas stations.

Maybe those contrarian presentations were clearly post-Web 2.0, by forcing us to think about the tension between the context and their subjects in a post-modern way, and therefore examples of Web 3.0 technology. We should think of them ironically, not as open and sincere attempts to share something that the presenters had a genuine interest in; true sophistication has come to Puddletown. Then again, we all know that bloggers will say the most outrageous things just to attract hits, a tactic entertainers have used to drum up an audience for millennia. Is there any point in worrying that a large number of people got together, were exposed to some new things, and had a good time? Learning things and sharing them is one of the joys of being a nerd. And Web 2.0 has brought a new interest to the Internet because it is one more way to bring people together who then share, not because it makes its users more sophisticated.


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Wednesday, October 24, 2007


It was bound to happen

Many years ago, I had a conversation with my high school debate teacher (yes, it was that long ago) about falsifying the research the debate team used. He pointed out that fabricated information has a tendency to be shared by all team members, and mentioned an instance not long before where it harmed someone -- not the person who fabricated it -- in a debate.

I was reminded of this discussion when I stumbled onto a discussion at Wikipedia: Administrators' Noticeboard/Incidents. Someone, to everyone's shock, had managed to insert over the space of two years, a surprising amount of fabricated or misrepresented information, into a number of articles. He evaded notice by being civil, quick to back down in a conflict, and by focussing his attention on a number of subjects that non-experts were not likely to challenge his edits -- especially when he provided what appeared to be, at a casual examination, reliable sources.

As other editors worked their way down his rabbit-holes of his sources and evidence (another phrase that comes to mind is "mares nest"), it became obvious that he had constructed an elaborate collection of unacceptable sources. He would cite works that did not support his assertions; they either contradicted his assertion or were entirely irrelevant. Some were relevant, but clearly outdated. Still others appeared to be peer-reviewed literature, but on closer examination were not; they were published by groups with deceptively similar names, or self-published. And many of these papers and monographs leaned on each other: publication A would cite publication B, which would cite publication C, which would cite publication A.

I'm not mentioning the user name because my I'm not writing about this specific user, but about the problem he revealed. Despite the fact Wikipedians are always reviewing each others' work and challenging each other's conclusions, there is an irreducable level of trust between all of us. If someone makes statements about a given source, we fidn ourselves assuming that they are telling us the truth about that source.

Wikipedia functions on a certain level of mutual trust, and in the most part, people do not violate this trust. Even the troublemakers, the self-promoters, and the tendentious editors almost always honestly report the contents of their sources. Those who don't -- until now -- are also unable to show enough self-control to be effective in the give-and-take that makes up much of the Wiki environment, stop being civil or clearly violate one of the customs of the Wikipedia culture, and are quickly banned from the site and their edits reverted.

However, this affair has pointed out that this level of trust may not work any more; if an editor claims that an uncommon resource -- say a rare book or an article published in an obscure technical journal -- says something, how do we know that this editor is not lying? While this is less of a concern for established editors than new ones, the fact remains that this specific user contributed 8000 edits over two years, before someone noticed.

This is not a theoretical problem; in my own case, I have been using more and more uncommon works on the history of Ethiopia. Not every article in Wikipedia is a reworking of what is posted on the Internet; some of us do use sources printed on paper! This leads to the problem that not all of these printed works are easily accessible. In my case, like many serious Wikipedians, I have gradually accumulated a collection of books on my topic of interest to overcome this problem. Since not everyone using Wikipedia can do this, should I continue to use them because they cannot verify what I report these sources contain?

Maybe this is a just problem that was bound to happen eventually. As a group attracts more people, the chances that at least one person will abuse that trust increases until it happens. We should be glad that Wikipedia went almost 6 years before this became a serious problem.


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Friday, October 19, 2007


An upcoming Wikipedia event

Gnome week: an effort to improve articles. Not that Wikipedians should limit themselves to doing this to one week a year, though.

Related to this is Article Collaboration and Improvement Drive.


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Thursday, October 18, 2007


Obsolete Technology never truly dies

... it just waits out there, having set out a trap for those who have never heard of it.

In 1998, I started a job that involved dumping fiels from 9-track tapes. I didn't think that they still existed.

In 2004, I started another job that involved testing network drivers for SCO UNIX. I needed a job at the time, and while the same could be said of working a sideshow biting the heads off of chickens, I did learn in abundant detail why there are no new customers for this operating system. (Hint: Darl McBride, president of the SCO Group, is not a major reason why.)

Today, one of the projects I worked on involved debugging a collection of batch files. The last time I wrote a batch file -- or to be more correct, tried to write one -- Windows 95 still was in beta. And the bug I found proved that, despite any protests to the contrary, batch file programming still was handicapped with the 8.3 character naming convention.

That is why I still hold onto my O'Reilly books on UUCP and TERMCAP; once every few years, a project takes me to the dark corners where old technology monsters have set out their traps.


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Tuesday, October 16, 2007


As the message mutates

Reading the latest Wikipedia Signpost this morning, I found that David Sarno's article on the squabble over the deletion of Mzoli's Meats continues to send out ripples: the Australian newspaper The Age published an article, "Delete generation rips encyclopedia apart". And as a ripple echoes over a pool of water, gradually losing both its original force and indications of its origin, so has this story.

First, I admit I'm peeved that of the three people cited in Sarno's story, I'm the one who is no longer mentioned. Yes, I get jealous over petty things like this. This probably happened because Andrew Lih has the experience to profitably interact with reporters, Kelly Martin can always be counted on to say something worth reapeating -- or both of them write clearer prose with fewer misspellings than me. But what I find ironic is that yours truly is the one who came up with the "generation gap" idea, which is given prominence in The Age article -- yet I'm the one who doesn't get mentioned. Oh well.

But had the reporter from The Age asked me about that idea -- which I created after about 5 minutes of thought -- I would have backtracked from it some, and tried to provide a more nuanced expanation. There are a lot of human dynamics going on here, which I intended to cover with that label. Not all of these dynamics fit under that label.

Rather than a conflict between "generations", Wikipedia is faced with a conflict between a large number less experienced members, who find themselves needing to follow the rules more literally and with less confidence, and a smaller number of more experienced ones who understand the rules and know when to break them. Resolving this conflict is a stressful and exhausting activity, which frequently leads to members quitting Wikipedia and leaving angry messages about treating the troublemakers better than the productive members. I have a suspicion that this is a common problem in volunteer organizations, but I don't know where I would start researching how other groups cope with it.


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Sunday, October 14, 2007


As goes Pennsylvania

So, it appears, goes New York. While looking for something else on meta, I found a link to the announcement of the organizational meeting for the New York Wikimedia Chapter. I know that Newyorkbrad has been working on building ground-roots support for a chapter in that city, and they had an encouraging turnout at their meetup last August -- or should I just call it a picnic?

I guess things are slowly building towards a United States Wikimedia organization, even though the Pennsylvania chapter has been inactive during the last couple of months; I hope that was due merely to the effects of summer and the start of the school year.


PS -- They're scheduled another meetup, and part of the business will be devoted to organizing this chapter.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Wikimania 2008

The announcement went out Tuesday: Wikimania 2008 will held at Alexandria, Egypt. But, instead of the possibility of meeting at the site of perhaps the most famous library in the world -- or at least the possibility of taking a tour amongst the ruins of the ancient civilization best known in the West -- the most excitement appears to be over the fact that the state of Egypt is oppressive towards Gays, Lesbians and Transgendered people.

I could make an acerbic comment about how this relates to the reality outside of the hothouse of Europe, and North America, but outside of generating a lot of hate email I'm not sure what it would accomplish.

Jimbo said the right thing: he planned to make this into an opportunity into confronting the problem, to point out not everyone has the same rights as in the West. This is along the lines of the most positive possibilities of Wikipedia. And there is more than simply a lot of pleasant words and good intentions here: there are some opportunites that could make a positive difference in the world.

For one thing, a convention in Egypt does offer a meeting place between the West and the less developed parts of the world, those parts wherein the future lies. I've written a little here about, who have been developing Wiki technology; they happen to have a branch in Lahore, Pakistan. Let's say that management decides to fly a some of their Pakistani employees to Wikimania next year; this is not an unreasonable idea, seeing how they are hired from one of Pakistan's finest technical universities. A quick query on Expedia shows that (with one exception) it costs half as much for them to travel to Alexandria than to Frankfurt-am-Main Germany; it is twice as likely for them to attend a conference in Alexandria as it would be for them to attend one in Frankfurt (where the first Wikimania was held). We have a chance to engage not only Egyptians, but these intelligent and motivated people as well. Then there is India, with its growing numbers of technology-savvy people, is only a little further away; Israel, with another large technology-savvy population, is much closer.

We have a choice of being politically correct, and refusing to have anything with a country that is repressive -- although far from being as repressive as many -- or being pragmatic and reaching out to not only to the people in this country, but to other non-Western countries, and encouraging them to work towards a less repressive society.


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Another insightful study

Although it could be argued this is dangerously self-referential: Dragon's flight performed this statistical analysis on Wikipedia's log files which includes looking at the edit histories for 118793 English Wikipedia articles (~6% of all articles).

(I found this through Dragon's flight's announcement on the Wikimedia Foundation mailing list. The resulting thread is also worth a read.)

Although some might disagree with this observation, I find this is evidence against my theory that the slowing rate of new article creation is due to a lack of "low-hanging fruit", instead the slowing rate is due to limits on the number of people joining the English-language Wikipedia: the community is reaching its limit of members. There are just so many people in the world who would consider writing encyclopedia articles as "fun." Another thing to consider, is that as non-English Wikipedias gain viability people for whom English is a second language are more likely either to leave the English Wikipedia for the one in their native language, or never to contribute in the first place.

October is producing a bumper crop of studies and facts to chew on, and it's not even half over.


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Monday, October 08, 2007


Another interesting Wikipedia study

Reid Priedhorsky, Jilin Chen, Shyong (Tony) K. Lam, Kathering Panciera, Loren Terveen, John Riedl. "Creating, Destroying, and Restoring Value in Wikipedia" They attempt to figure out who makes the most useful edits ("useful" defined as a function of persistence -- people are less likely to revert correct or useful information) and the effects, and who makes damaging edits and the effects.

(Thanks to Gregory Maxwell for the link.)

Maybe a little more technical than the curious would like, but I expect this will become another of those widely-quoted or cited studies.

Update: For those of you unable to view PDF files (or even if you can), Ben Yates at Wikipedia Blog has one of the more informative graphs touched up with color.


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Thursday, October 04, 2007


WikiWednesday in Portland

Last night I met up with the usual suspects for the Portland version of Wikiwednesday at the AboutUs world headquarters, where being part of a contemporary start-up means doing without heat. (I hope they fix that problem soon.)

I witnessed two things there worth mentioning:

First was the future of Wiki technology. A few weeks ago, I saw an email from Ted Kubaska asked about "how wikis interact with IM, live podcasts, video, webinars, etc." My sense of his question was that he was wondering if we will ever subject non-text media like, for example, videos to the collaborative power of Wikis. In any case, just the sort of question anyone might ask when he -- or she -- is introduced to a new idea. Then last night, Mr Wiki himself, Ward Cunningham asked the exact same question himself. I felt this was the kind of lesson that everyone who is interested in exploring the limits of technology should keep in mind: even the experts ask the same questions the rest of us ask.

Oh, so you want to know what kind of answers Ted and Ward received? Well, I did throw out the idea that one could resurrect the mid-1990s VRML (Virtual Reality Markup Language) technology, and use that as a basis to create collaborative videos. Ward himself mentioned how he was fascinated with the phenomena of machinima, where people create their own movies using video capture from such 3-D software like first-person shooter games. Then again, I've heard a lot of technorati remark about how they are fascinated by the machinima genre.

Second was Divid McCabe's impromteau presentation about Liquid Threads, an extention to the MediaWiki engine. He's been funded in this effort by a group called "Commonwealth of Learning" ("So what do they do?" David was asked -- "I really don't know. They pay me to code.")
This new feature offers the following:


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