Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Communications with Fuzheado have resumed
Three days ago Andrew Lih posted:
Whether the repaired cables are coming back to life, or better routes have been found, let’s hope it stays zippy. I may even be able to get back to producing the WikipediaWeekly podcast that has been on hiatus because of the bad connections.
Until then, he can catch up with such blogger fads as posting about cats. (Since my own cats are shy, it'll be a while before I am up to speed with this one. Figuring out how to add tags to my posts is more of a priority for me.)
Debate tactics in the new millenium
Okay, so where were these people these past few years, when report after report insisted that no scientists disagreed with the statement that global warming is the result of human activities? Since the Bush administration (and their for-profit supporters) failed to win the debate by suppressing the evidence, now they trot out experts to defend their position?
And if these experts fail to prevail in this debate, I hear that Bush has been practicing a new tactic.
I may skip tomorrow's PLUG meeting. Last night was the first time in several days Yvette and I played Carcassone, and unless I stay home Thursday night it will be several more days until we can play again.
Monday, January 29, 2007
Another sunny day
However, what annoys me most is listening to the talking heads on the evening news chatter on about how wonderful it is that the next day or two, or next week or two, will be sunny and dry. Each and every one gushes in the same, unvarying way. It's hard not to conclude that they've been taught everyone agrees with them about this inoffensive and safe opinion; those who don't don't matter because surveys show those dissidents are not only degenerates who also dress badly, leer at small children, and spend our spare time stealing books and DVDs from the public library -- and worse are an unprofitable market for advertisers. This grumpy blogger to the mainstream media: those of us who like cloudy weather buy things too! So treat us with respect and knock off this happy talk about sunny weather.
Okay, now that's out of my system. I'll drop the matter until this summer. That will be about the time those talking heads are chattering about why water supplies are so low. Someone will need to point out to them how the two are connected.
Sunday, January 28, 2007
I never thought of myself as a "True Believer"
For long stretches of my time volunteering with Wikipedia (I believe this started about six months after I registered an account there) I have gone through periods of dissatisfaction with the project, and wondered -- often daily -- if I would be happier quitting. I have often questioned my ability to write, whether anything I write matters to anyone except for me, and even if my disagreements with other Wikipedians was due to my stupidity rather than mere differences of opinion.
This constant struggle with faith (excuse me while I talk like a "True Believer" for a moment) resulted with my participation differing from other veteran Wikipedians, who increasingly discuss -- and actually set -- policy and work to improve the project in other ways than writing articles. I have never quoted the words of Jimbo Wales on my User Page, feeling that deeds speak more accurately than expressions of faith. Finally, I have often felt that I was not a part of the community, that my connection with the project was limited only to the edit window of its articles -- but I suspect that this feeling is more likely due to my own manner of thought, and not to anything other Wikipedians have done or said.
About a year ago, I confronted my true motivation for being part of this project. My answer was simple: I have a need to write, and Wikipedia offers a way for me to get my writing out to other people, who can then read and comment on it. I hope this feedback help me to improve my writing skills. I admit to other motivations -- providing material to people who are interested in teaching themselves but cannot access a library, and making knowledge free of various restrictions to a wide audience -- but I'll discuss those motivations in another post.
So I've reduced my non-writing activies in Wikipedia, and left the work and rewards of setting and enforcing policy to others. (I don't mind helping other people improve Wikipedia, and I am happy to help other, but writing articles is my primary interest.) As long as the people I interact with there are reasonably civil, attempt to be objective and are improving the content, I'm happy and I'll continue to contribute. And as long as the barrier to making contributions are as low as they reasonably can be (which, I admit may be in some instances too low and in others too high), again I'm happy and I'll continue to contribute.
If any of this changes too much, then I'll consider my options. I try to keep informed about similar projects; I have no problem moving to another outlet to satisfy my need to write. If my departure leads to Wikipedia losing momentum and becoming yet another dead website, I can accept that. I have been told that its contents are the largest block of text under the Gnu Free Documentation License, which means if that happens anyone could then resurrect the project, hopefully without the problems that led to its demise; until then, nothing ever posted the the Internet truly ever is lost, so my writing is not in vain.
Despite all I wrote above, I still feel compelled to express opinions about Wikipedia, to offer advice about how members and outsiders can interact with the project in a way that benefits both. I can't stop thinking about it. So I started this blog, not to prove that I am a "True Believer" in Wikipedia, that if it fails I will lose my ability to believe. I just needed one more outlet for my writing. I mention my lengthy relationship with it only as evidence that I know something about how the project works, and what I write about it may be correct.
Friday, January 26, 2007
"Wikipedia: Conflict of Interest" -- how I understand it
From my experience, most veteran Wikipedians don't give this sentence much thought; the only people who complain that "anyone" really doesn't mean anyone tend to be the troublemakers, the people who are only interested in stirring up controversy (also called trolls), the kooks, and tendentious editors. The people who can't get their writing published -- who can't even get their websites or blogs read. The people who want to get the last word before the Wikipedia community boots them into the darkness of the ether despite repeated attempts by the community to reach out them to get them to play nice.
So I hope those folks who are worried that their edits might be a conflict of interest understand the mindset of many Wikipedians who encounter one of these situations. It is a problem, and unless you want to abide by Jimbo Wales' advice that one should just edits the Talk pages, it really isn't clear what one should do. So I'm going to offer a simple solution to this. Maybe it'll get me banned from Wikipedia (which would be a major loss to me than anyone might suspect), but considering all of the electrons that have been transmitted on the subject, I honestly don't see any other solution.
If you are an ethical person, and see a mistake or omission in a Wikipedia article that you can correct and you would make the edit whether or not you had a conflict of interest in the article -- go ahead and make the edit.
However, if the item is a controversial one, tread lightly. Do your homework, and provide objective, dissinterested sources to prove that your edit is valid. If there is any other opinion on the matter that a reader can reasonably expect ot find in the article, make sure that your changes are framed to provide one more opinion on the matter -- not the only one.
I write this after realizing that the worse thing that will happen if someone does this in any case is that another Wikipedian will revert the edits. However, this may happen in any situation, regardless of who makes the edit. A comment on a talk page may never be read: look at what happened to Kami Huyse when she followed Jimbo's advice. And someone without ethics is not going to bother
to follow the rules -- like spammers; they will make the edits anyway, then claim that they are being unfairly victimized when someone reverts their edits.
But if your edit is reverted, don't take this as a challenge to an edit war; you'll only get in trouble. Wikipedia has a detailed conflict resolution process, and the strategy through it is to keep asking, "If I didn't have a conflict in interest here, would this edit still have been reverted?" If the answer is "no", then patience, civility, and repeated demonstrations of good intent towards the project will win the day. However, if the answer is clearly a "yes", then cut your losses and move on; you know why the edits aren't being accepted.
If Wikipedia is truly open to anyone -- or at least eveyone who is reasonably civil and demonstrates a minimal amount of common sense -- then this ought to work. I'm willing to bet my Wikipedia reputation that it will, and I'm willing to help anyone who wants to try this; because if, despite my best efforts and our expressed good faith, this doesn't work, maybe I don't want to be part of this project anymore.
All of us serious particpants know that Wikipedia is not perfect; all of these confusing procedures are only meant to help the participants make it better. If the procedures don't actually help, then they need to be changed. You can help improve Wikipedia by showing us where they fail and by politely nudging us to improve them. I say "politely" only because it is a well-known fact that honey attracts more flies than vinegar. If you really want to fight over the matter, try Usenet; the goal of Wikipedia is to create a consensus, where everyone is a victor -- not to declare one person the victor and force everyone else to admit that they are losers.
Advice for Admins in 30 words or less
Get it if you need it. Keep it if people trust you. Quit it if you do not need it. Lose it if people feel they cannot trust you.
(She says she found it on meta, but I couldn't locate it. So I'm giving her credit for it.)
I just wish Britty (or Aphaia) spent more time sharing her thoughts. Or at least scrubbing away the spam that has begun to gather.
Thursday, January 25, 2007
The January BarCamp Meeting
Tonight was the last meeting for BarCamp before this year's Recent Changes Camp (RCC). I met some more interesting people tonight, not all of whom were at the last meeting: One I'll single out for mention was Souix Fleming whom I later realised gave a presentation at Corporate Software (which has since morphed into Stream) I attended, at the beginning of my IT career. I mentioned this to her later, and she confessed that she thought I looked familiar but could place me. Amazing how you can encounter the same people in Portland.
This time, we followed the schedule a little better, and started on the agenda after an hour of
Then Dawn Foster powered up her laptop, and like a proper committe meeting we had slides to read and follow. (Only proper committees don't have presentations entitled "BarCamp Strawman".) She and Raven Zachary had selected 5/6 May as the date for BarCamp, only to have John Secrest mention that there was a wireless technology conference that same meeting. "Anyone have a problem with May 11 and 12?" Hearing no objections, that became the new date.
The general agenda for BarCamp is still simple at this point. First there would be introductions by all of the attendees; Dawn said this worked at one BarCamp, despite the fact they had over 160 attendees ("The facilitator limited the number of words they could say in their introducitons"). The facilitator would provide an overview, then the agenda for BarCamp would be set in a manner similar to the Open Space style at RCC. She mentioned the possibility of an "After Party" at the end -- but the idea of a get-together to consume mass quantities for some strange reason didn't attract much comment from this group.
The theme of the BarCamp is not necessarily to embrace Open Source, but to attract attendees who would be counted on to share, if not present their cool ideas. Raven mentioned the example of a demonstration of robotic tehcnology at the Ausin BarCamp.
Next, Dawn and Raven asked for people to volunteer to be part of a core group who would take responsibility of specific areas. These were (with the volunteers in parentheses after):
- Agenda and materials (Carl Johnson and LaVonne Riemer)
- Find location, food (Rashid from the PDC volunteered to help with this -- not take ownership. Someone -- was it Raven? -- did step forward to take ownership.)
- Sponsors -- find them, have them pay the costs directly so to avoid creating an organizational structure (Rashid again volunteered to help -- not take ownership)
- Coordinating the marketing/publicity -- which should be viral (Souix Fleming and Kelly Mackin)
Ray noted that RCC handled the challenge of organization by putting a list of needs on their webpage. The top three things needed are emphasized with a request for help.
Raven also mentioned the example of Microsoft as a possible source for sponsoring this BarCamp. He mentioned the example of BarCamp New York which they funded, but did not try to influence the content. (I guess this example could show that they might not have meant to suborn Wikipedia; odder things have been known to happen.)
Bling/swag was mentioned; Raven made the point of saying that any t-shirts should also fit women -- which brought some comments from the women members of the audience. Because RCC will be using Audio Cinema as a location, some wondered if it would work for BarCamp, which led to Ray revealing that RCC will keep Audio Cinema open around the clock during the conference. Dawn suggestd that some of the BarCamp folks should met with the RCC folks a day or two after the end of RCC for a debriefing, find out what works what doesn't work.
Even more important was the issue of connectivity: people wondered about whether MetroFi or Portland Wireless could help with WiFi access. This prompted Dawn to reminesce about last year's OSCON, where the Convention Center's wireless cloud was overloaded during one of the hottest days of the year, forcing people to choose between Internet access outside or air conditioning inside.
One idea mentioned which did not relate to BarCamp was the number of telecommuters living in Portland who worked for companies with no other presence; Raven mentioned that he was constantly surprised to encounter these people and how he discovered more every day. Souix mentioned that this had been covered recently on the Oregon Live website. Audrey Eschright suggested that someone should make an effort to reach out to the telecommuters.
Labels: portland tech
Intermittent Wikipedia-related blogs
In no particular order:
- "SJ's Longest Now", maintained by Boston Wikipedia activist Samuel Klein
- WikiAngela, maintained by Angela Beesley, former member of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation and co-founder of Wikia
- Anthere's weblog, maintained by Florence Nibart-Devouard, current chair of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation (mostly in French).
- Kelly Martin, former Wikipedia ArbCom member.
- Malouette (In Danish; I don't read Danish, so I can't comment on the posts there)
- Mindspillage, maintained by Kat Walsh, current member of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation; about more than Wikipedia
- Diary of an Information Technology call girl, maintained by David Gerard, London Wikipedia activist. Although he updates it very frequently, he only occasionally posts about Wikipedia.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Microsoft pays for Wikipedia edits: the rest of the story
First, even though the Oregonian had a link to their profile about Ward Cunningham, inventor of Wiki technology, as far as I know he has not expressed an opinion about this dispute. I don't understand why they even bothered to add his name to the article.
Second, the article in question, Open Document, had not been compromised with clearly pro-Microsoft information in the last few days -- but there had been a storm of edits, much paranoia, and at least one editor who claimed that he was not a paid employee of Microsoft. (A minute's study of his user page proved his claim; actually, it took me only ten seconds, but he has some nice photgraphs of England on that page, so it took me a little longer.) A link on the talk page led me to where the action was, far far away from Wikipedia: one Rick Jeliffe posted on his blog over at O'Reilly.net that he was considering doing some consulting work editting Wikipedia for Microsoft, and asked for input from his fellow bloggers.
As can be expected when Microsoft's name is involved, there was a lot of emotion but more sense than in the similar discussion on Slashdot. One commentator at O'Reilly.net even made a bizarre claim that there were a large number of paid contributors on Wikipedia currently -- which another surpise to me. Up until a few months ago, when I let my attention drift from the interactions on Wikipedia, I had seen no signs or allegations of this -- unless you want to include professionals (e.g., professors, teachers and academic researchers) contributing to articles in their fields of expertise.
This entire controversy is based on the assumption that if a person is paid to edit Wikipedia, then that person will make edits to bias the articles to favor his employer. Unfortunately, this is exactly what has happened in the past: from marginal businesses to staffers of the US Congress, the British Parliament, and the German Bundestag. The result is that an average employee of a given company who spots a factual mistake in an article that she/he can fix, is discouraged from making that correction; Wikipedia, its readers and everyone else suffers because a selfish few have abused our trust, and poisoned the well for those who can play fairly.
This all could be saved if there was a Wikipedian Code of Ethics, but the only one I know of was copied from a college website, and concerned itself more about plagiarism than conflict of interest. And most Wikipedians would rather keep paid contributors far away from the edit button -- despite the fact "paid contributor" is not a clearly defined idea. So I doubt that this Code will appear in the near future.
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Nofollows=on: an esoteric Wikipedia topic
What happens as a consequence, in my opinion, is that Wikipedia gets valuable backlinks from all over the web, in huge quantity, and of huge importance - normal links, not "nofollow" links; this is what makes Wikipedia rank so well - but as of now, they're not giving any of this back. The problem of Wikipedia link spam is real, but the solution to this spam problem may introduce an even bigger problem: Wikipedia has become a website that takes from the communities but doesn't give back, skewing web etiquette as well as tools that work on this etiquette (like search engines, which analyze the web's link structure). That's why I find Wikipedia's move very disappointing.
Some of the neighborhoods in the Portland suburbs have sidewalks; some do not. Now I think it would be a good thing for all neighborhoods to have sidewalks because it encourages people to walk (over using their cars), and it also encourages people to get to know their neighbors -- it builds a community. But should we force every subdivision that does not have a sidewalk to put them in and force homeowners to pay for them? I think most readers would say no -- unless the price of gas makes driving unaffordable and sidewalks are generally seen as a positive improvement; the gains of the community in this case takes a back seat to the gains of the homeowner.
The "no follow" option on Wikipedia external links is the same thing.
The cost involved in external links is the cost of fighting spam: the selfish who believe that their right to sell you something is more important than your right to choose what you want to read -- or even to be left alone. They have managed to take perhaps the most egalitarian communication tool -- electronic email -- and threaten to make it unuseable: the Internet transmits more unsolicited commercial emails about products no one wants than all other kinds of email. In other words, in order for your email to a friend, family member, or an inquiry to a business to buy something, the network must be paid to be built (and maintained) to also carry at least one email about Viagra, magazine subscriptions, or shady business offers from Nigeria.
Our community shares with the rest of the online world our knowledge, and we expect nothing in return. Expecting us to also share in the cost of search engine optimization is unfair, and as a Wikipedian I find this expectation offensive.
(Note: I don't claim that this essay is the most eloquent response to this outrageous demand. Stan Shebs has a good one that begins with "Oh boo hoo." And then there is the always diplomatic David Gerard, whose response includes the observation "And it is entirely because of festering parasitical weasels like your own good selves." But this post says what I believe.)
See ya in the funny pages
Sally, the working mother of the household and title character, is about to turn 40. In the first panel, her husband Ted says he doesn't see why she should be concerned, and she responds with the pointed question, "Do you even remember how you handled it, Ted?" The second panel shows him hiding in bed, crying "If you don't say it, it won't age!" In the final panel, Ted defends his behavior by saying "That idea came from an unverified Wikipedia article."
On one hand, I'm always glad to see someone repeat the advice that anything written in Wikipedia ought to be viewed with a healthy skepticism -- for all of our best efforts, mistakes errors, and some truly bizarre stuff does creep in. On the other hand, there is the implication that nothing in Wikipedia ought to be trusted -- that it is nothing but a collection of truthiness.
But Ted did say "an unverified article"!
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Bumpercars on Salmon: Now for the rest of the story
video clip is here if you haven't.
Friday, the Oregonian identified the driver was Broughton Bishop, aged 79, two facts that managed to get further distribution. Perhaps once everyone saw how old he was, they decided this was another case of someone too old to drive, and lost interest. Or perhaps it was the aw-shucks attitude that came across in the story. Despite the incident, he declined an ambulance ride, and still made it "to the office at Pendleton Woolen Mills, his family's business".
"I think he's just that kind of person," his wife Mary was quoted.
In any case, I'm surprised that I seem to be the only person to have noticed those ten words I quoted from the article: he was heading "to the office at Pendleton Woolen Mills, his family's business". A bit of Google-fu confirmed what I read between the lines: This states that he is President and CEO of Pendleton, although the company website lists him as only another Vice President. ("Vice president" is one of those titles that means absolutely nothing: a VP can either be the second most powerful executive in a corporation, or a powerless drone that for one reason or another they can't fire.)
His old prep school, Andover, helps to clear up the confusion: their profile of Broughton "Brot" Bishop dated 1999 lists him as President and CEO: obviously he stepped down a few years ago (for reasons that I haven't found), and his duties are primarily to offer advice and tackle special projects. In other words, the only person who thought he needed to be at work that day was Broughton Bishop.
The Oregonian article seems to be the last bit of news about this incident. On one hand, I'm glad because while the video clip was amazing the first dozen times I saw it, it hasn't been more than a waste of air time for the last few hundred times KGW aired it. But on the other hand I'm left with some questions, and I wonder if they'll be answered.
1. Now that we have a person to go with this video, why did all of the media drop the story like it was yesterday's news from some distant part of the world? Could they be afraid of offending the owners of the Pendleton Woolen Mills?
2. Along these lines, what if the reason that Bishop's status as a retired CEO of a local company hasn't been made more of is that none of the people who run the television and newspapers thought it was newsworthy? I'm not sure which I find more disquieting: that the local media is too craven to risk offending a local business, or that they are so poorly informed about local issues?
4. In this day, with modern technology, why hasn't anyone asked why he didn't just stay home? Would his company fall apart if he wasn't at his desk that day? And if he needed to be available, many employees telecommute using a laptop and the Internet; he had no reason to drive to work. Doesn't his house have a phone? If his help was needed for any immediate decision, he was in contact.
5. When this story falls from the public awareness, what will happen about all of the damage his SUV did? For many people, a car is their biggest investment, and they depend on it to get to work, buy food, and so forth. If the damage is fixable, & if the insurance company doesn't write it off as a total loss at their usual cheap assessment rates, these folks are going to need a rental as long as the car is in the shop -- which could be a couple of days, or a couple of weeks. Will Bishop -- or his insurance company -- use this as an opportunity to duck responsibility for the owners' losses?
Tuesday morning update: Someone from KGW visited my blog this morning. Hello!
Saturday, January 20, 2007
I once wanted to be a great writer
A little more than 10 years ago, I put up a few things I had written on my web page. It's been so long since I've updated it that I hesitate to do so now: my web page is an electronic fossil, a snapshot of what the World Wide Web looked like in the first years of the Internet revolution. I looked at the page because I wanted to read, after over ten years, the two poems I had translated, and two of the three short stories I feel might be publishable. (I still need to upload a copy of the third one to my website.)
Such as "Scholfield", a short-short story I wrote a month or two after attending Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, when I felt most inspired to write fiction. And reading it for the first time in many years, I'm not only surprised that it expresses certain ideas or feelings that I've felt in the last six months, it expresses them at least as well as I could do now.
Someone once said that we all have one story in us. I guess this was my one story; it makes all of my contributions to Wikipedia just so many entries in the change log.
Friday, January 19, 2007
A new year, a new Wikipedia crisis
My first reaction was something flippant -- I can be, since I know I'm not a great conversationist and I don't need the fact proved to me with Yet Another Internet Medium. For several screenfuls, the conversation seemed to be one-sided: most of the people were complaining about incivility on the channel, and the rest were just trying to understand what the fuss was about. Then some folks entered the conversation to try to present another side of the matter, and it no longer seemed to be a case of this Wikipedia faction ranting about another Wikipedia faction. And since the latest timestamps on the thread were over 24 hours old, and I don't do IRC, I didn't bother to figure out who was right.
Yet the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that there was something here, a dynamic that should be worrisome. Some of the critics of the IRC channel complained about the opaqueness that using IRC throws over at least part of the Wiki process, and it was hard not to see this concern was part of the subtext in the messages of other critical posters. Those who had entered the conversation to defend the channel (which is outside of Wikipedia's purview), used this subtext to dismiss the concerns of the critics; yes, the word "cabal" was used.
All of which seemed to miss the point: a number of Wikipedians, all of whom have contributed to the project for at least a year, most well over two, felt that they were somehow left out of the decision-making process. I've seen a few Wikipedians who begin to feel this way become embittered, strike out against the project, then are shown the door. It's easy for someone like me who spends most of his time with Wikipedia working on content and not on people or policy issues, to feel left out; ever increasing numbers of things are changing on Wikipedia and for most of my four plus years with this project I have always felt as if I'm just not paying enough attention to developments. A flamewar like this proves to me that I'm not the only one who feels this way.
I can't help thinking that you're truly part of the Wikipedia community when you share in a common feeling of being excluded.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Collaboration and expertise
One thing I have noticed about Wikipedia, and the more I ponder it the more I am convinced that it is a valid observation: Wikipedia's coverage of topics reflects, in many ways, society's interest and knowledge in those same topics. Wikipedia (if one could talk about it as a force, and not as a collection of people) can't force its contributors to work in areas or on topics they aren't interested in. The reason why Wikipedia's coverage of topics like, say, Star Wars or Harry Potter is far more comprehensive than, say, 19th century American novelists, is that there are more people interested in those two areas than in the last one: and even if Wikipedia's selection of volunteers were somehow unrepresentative of the larger society, the presence of so many people familiar with Stars Wars and Harry Potter means that errors in those topics are caught and fixed much faster than errors about 19th century novelists.
So on one axis, Wikipedia's coverage and amount of detail is drawn into areas where the knowledge of its audience is rich. Yet the corollary is also true: Wikipedia's coverage and depth of certain areas will rarely be richer than what could be found in a adequately-stocked library. One of the overlooked weaknesses in man's accumulation of knowledge is that the number of professional experts -- academics, researchers in business, serious amateurs -- are thinner on the ground than many people suspect. I learned this many years ago from reading Howard Ensign Evans' Life on a Little-known Planet, a book which appears at first is about insects but further reading reveals is an extended meditation on just how little we actually know about topics we think we know a lot about -- in this case, the science of insects.
One telling point is when Evans mentions that he's "something of an specialist on the family Bethylidae" -- just one group of the many kinds of parasitic wasps. He then admits that "to be a specialist on these wasps really is not much of a distinction; only one other person in the world is actively working on the group." Further, Evans mentions another family -- Dryinidae -- which at the time he was writing (1968) lacked "a single authority in the world".
Larry Sanger is well-known for his criticism of Wikipedia, that it should be written, either partially or mostly, by experts. So if we were to embrace his attitude, and all of the experts in the world were to then discontinue their current projects and focus their efforts to review and improve Wikipedia's content, their combined efforts would fail to improve more than a small portion of the whole.
This hypothetical solution does not take into consideration the fact that experts disagree with one another, and sometimes let their emotions and biasses override their reasoned judgements. One serious example of this was the effect that one expert -- J. Eric Thompson -- had on preventing the successful translation of written Mayan inscriptions. Michael D. Coe, Breaking the Maya Code (published in 1992) tells the story. Because the field was so small, and because Thompson's influence was so pervasive, the first serious solutions only came outside of the mainstream of Mayan studies -- from Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov, a graduate student at Moscow University, inside the Stalin-era Soviet Union. Even then, only after Thompson died was Knorosov's pioneering work built upon, and only in the last few decades have these inscriptions once again been understood.
Please note: Wikipedia would not have been able to prevent this, even if it had existed 30 or 40 years ago. We merely try to report the facts, and offer starting points for further research. At best, maybe Knorosov's work could have been mentioned in the appropriate article with a cite -- but it would still take a brave soul to buck the established opinion on the matter.
And as a further note, if Wikipedia had the undivided attention of the world's experts, there are some articles they should pay attention to before others. For example, I do not need an expert on Ethiopia like Richard Pankhurst or Donald Levine to write the series of articles on woredas that I am working on -- or someone at the Ethiopian Central Statistical Agency -- although I welcome (if not beg for) their opinions and advice on any or all of them. An amateur like me is competent enough to write them; I would prefer that they write articles on topics I feel intimidated by, such as the history of slavery in Ethiopia, or the history of 19th century Ethiopia -- complex subjects where their expertise is badly needed.
Let me close by paraphrasing Krishna's pregnant comment once again: "The irony about Wikipedia is that its greatness can not exist without its flaws. If you try to remove one, the other goes too." What makes Wikipedia valuable is that it accepts no appeals to authority; ex cathedra statements are not accepted. In many ways, this refusal to acknowledge expertise is a good thing; however, in many ways it is a bad thing. Belief in Wikipedia means that one believes that the good outweighs the bad with this refusal. And the policy of ignore all rules means that we are not dogmatic about this refusal.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
A true Wikipedian loves books
One might think that in this day of electronic information available on demand (on your iPod, on your Internet tablet, on your cellphone, and if you're old-fashioned, on your workstation) that a Wikipedian disdains anything as old school as a bound book; maybe some of the younger ones do. However, I believe the most earnest Wikipedians are more comfortable with books than they are with online sources. I consider it to be fighting words when one Wikipedian accuses another that she/he relies only on online sources or Google searches for her/his research.
After all, part of the labor of Wikipedia is migrating as many of the printed sources to the electronic medium of structured data as possible. Recycling material from websites only benefits Wikipedia's goal -- of providing free access to information -- over the short-term. But more to the point, real Wikipedians are not only literate, they love to read, and the printed page is far easier on the eyes than a computer monitor.
In any case, this is a book that neither my local public library or my college library have. And there is something very satisfying for me in that statement -- although this book is not the only one in my personal library for which this is the case.
Monday, January 15, 2007
I was reminded of this over the weekend when I received my copy of Haggai Erlich's Ras Alula: and the Scramble for Africa. Erlich's discussion of Ethiopian history, while couched in the careful, measured language of an academic, is in many ways plain-spoken compared to the account of Paul B. Henze in Layers of Time. That is not to say that Henze has not written a useful history of Ethiopia; he includes a number of invaluable anecdotes about the last 40 years of that country's history. Yet when I compare what he has written to other historians -- say his account of the late Emperor Haile Selassie with that of the Ethiopian historian Bahru Zewde -- it's not hard to see a number of omissions and subtle biasses in what Henze has written. I can't avoid concluding that he never offers a strong condemnation of a person or event unless it benefits his agenda; in other words, he writes like a diplomat.
This was borught home by comparing how Erlich and Henze discuss the fate of a monument that the Derg had erected to commemorate the Battle of Dogali. To quote from my contribution to that article:
This battle was celebrated under the Derg regime, and Mengistu Haile Mariam commemorated the centennial with much attention, including the erection of a monument topped with a red star on the battlefield. Following Eritrean independence, the monument was removed. Paul B. Henze diplomatically notes in a footnote, "When I crossed the battlefield in 1996, I could detect no trace of the monument." Erlich provides more information: when Eritrean troops gained control of the area in 1989, "a prominent commander, now a prominent minister, was delighted to himself blast Mangistu's monument of Ras Alula."
I wonder just how long the adjective "diplomatically" will survive in this article. At least it will survive in the history log, where it can be found.
As for the question which started my musings, between that original question and today, I did think of a likely answer:
Our diplomat: "I'll have to call you back about that, sir. Please don't trouble yourself to call me. I'll be in touch."
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Some thoughts on Wikipedia from India
This is the crux of the Wikipedia phenomenon: it pays no attention to the matter of expertise. A teenager sitting in her home in a remote village in China with an internet connection has as much weight and scope to expound on the causes and effects of the Great Depression as the renowned expert at Harvard who has spent a life time thinking about the subject. This is in itself neither disturbing nor comforting. There are contexts where it may be either.
Abhijit Nadgouda emphasizes a different point in Krishna's essay, the problem of accuracy and "collectivism". (He offers his opinion on whether the Internet fuels collectivism in an earlier essay.) I find his terminology, with its obvious Marxist coloring, obscures the issue. Political language has been guilty of this obscuration for years, ever since Eric Raymond and Nikolai Bezroukov argued whether the Open Source model Raymond described in the Cathedral and the Bazaar was an example of unfettered free market activity or socialism.
What is actually happening has no relationship to a political or economic model: the Internet is simply allowing people with similar interests to find each other and interact. This phenomena can be traced back to King Charlemagne inviting to his court all of the brightest minds of his generation, giving them a living, and letting them talk with each other -- if not in the courts of earlier kings in otherparts of the world, who were progressive and enlightened. In these courts, learning benefitted as much from the formal debates these scholars held before the monarch as from the informal discussions that they, or their disciples, held in their spare hours over food and drink. And these courts also had the same problem with the qualified, the unqualified, the socially backward and those looking for a quick gain, that Wikipedia has.
The point many pundits on the social side of the Internet appear to overlook is that due to the accident of birth bright minds are scattered across the globe, and that an intelligent person can feel just as isolated in an American suburban housing development as Krishna's teenager in a remote Chinese village. Without the access the Internet provides, it takes a tremendous effort of will and desire to overcome this isolation for one person to locate even one or two other people with similar interests. Wikipedia is one result of these people finding each other, and developing their relationships.
Saturday, January 13, 2007
- The blogger interface asked me for my favorite books; that is a hard thing for me to say, but not because I don't like to read. Instead, it is difficult for me to say because my tastes, my preferences can change. Depending on my mood, I could pick anything from very technical, jargon-heavy scholarly works (for example, earlier today I was reading Texts and Transmission:A Survey of the Latin Classics, a collection of scholarly essays about the texts the ancient classics were written on -- which manuscripts were read and copied, how they came to be lost and found, who copied them, and so on) to poetry to fiction as juicy and pulpy as it comes (I own several Mike Hammer paperbacks). Even the question "Which 10 books would you want to have on a desert island?" limits me too much. Am I to understand that I will be cast away for a fixed period -- or forever? Depending on the scenario, I would make a much different selection. Picking which books are my favorite, I fear might limit me to only those works.
- Anyway, when it came to music, I picked the first six bands I could think of. Which led me to the discovery that these bands created links that would lead me to other people and their blogs. Many of these blogs had only a very few entries: some less than ten, some only three, in some cases none. It reminded me of the long tail, and all of the theorizing around that phenomenon: I had truly found an example of the lang tail in these blogs with so few posts. Which led to my question of which came first? Do these blogs have so few entries because no one reads them, or because they have so few entries, no one will bother to read them? Sometimes the tiny niches that create a long tail are tiny niches for a reason, and that will determine whether there is money -- or a community -- to be found there.
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Wikipedia is designed to suck for advertising
My response began by stating that I believe that the appropriateness of a subject rests on two criteria, the first being more important than the second:
1. Just how likely is it that someone will look for an article on that subject; and
2. Who benefits more from the presence of an article on Wikipedia: Wikipedia, or the subject?
All of the disputes over "notability", "vanity", "original research", etc. are attempts to provide an objective procedure to define these two criteria. Because of Wikipedia's Alexa ranking, there are a lot of people who believe that having an article about them, their company, or their work, is essential to their success -- these are the people the Wikipedia community is trying to keep out with these rules and procedures. Admittedly, sometimes due to too much enthusiasm, articles on subjects that Wikipedia should are deleted.
My own feeling about this issue -- should Wikipedia have an article on aboutus.com -- is one that the people working at Aboutus.org should not worry about. Aboutus.org needs to succeed on its own merits, and whether Wikipedia has an article about them will not help or harm them at this time. Wikipedia's just an encyclopedia, for goshsakes, our coverage and quality is still uneven, and if someone wants to learn about a given company or organization they ought to use aboutus.org first before Wikipedia when performing their research.
As far as I know, no one has ever made a claim (well, a credible claim) to anyone involved with Wikipedia that the lack of an article about them hurt their business. It's fair to say that this claim would generate a lot of talk both within Wikipedia and outside (e.g. in the blogosphere), so I'm fairly certain that a lack of an article hurts anyone. (Especially when one Wikipedian has stated as a rule, "If the success of your business depends on an article in Wikipedia, then your business is in serious trouble.")
As for this article, I admit that I haven't been involved, in this case out of ignorance but had I heard about this AfD discussion, I would have stayed out of it due to conflict of interest (I consider Mark, Ray King, and the others working there friends). However, I think GTBacchus did a fine job of handling the discussion, far better than I could have: he moved the article from a Speedy deletion category to where it could be discussed, and managed to keep it from being deleted.
(Note: I was responsible for introducing GTBacchus to the folks at AboutUs.org. It shouldn't be a surprise that a little bit of personal contact can go a long way when one interacts with the Wikipedia community.)
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
I guess they want me to upgrade
I wondered why no one was reading what I wrote.
Sunday, January 07, 2007
Writing articles, part III
One of the things that impressed me about Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel was not his thesis, but the bibliography in the back of his book: it was comprehensive, just like every article on Wikipedia ideally should be. And after reading Diamond's book, I was tempted to create a little disruption by comparing that bibliography with the references section at the end of several Wikipedia articles. My point was simple: when we have
However, after having a look at several articles on topics related to the ones in diamond's book (specificly, domesticated plants and animals), I felt that they weren't that bad. Many, I felt, were perfectly acceptible for inclusion in a proprietary print encyclopedia. I guess this shows just how fast one's impressions of Wikipedia can become outdated.
Diamond's bibliography alerted me to a very useful book: Daniel Zohary and Maria Hopf's Domestication of Plants in the Old World. At the county library I found a copy of the third edition, and after a quick review of it I decided to start adding information from their book to relevant Wikipedia articles. After all, one weakness in many articles is not the presence of incorrect information (which can always be removed), but the presence of correct (or mostly correct) information for which there is no source. Adding information from Zohary and Hopf's book would would mean that I only needed to insert a sentence or two with a footnote to about 50-60 articles. I estimated that this would take about 10 uninterrupted hours of work -- at most a week of start and stop efforts. Each of these articles were likely well written, and either had a consistent system of citations -- or none at all; the barrier to entry for this mini-project should be quite low, I reasoned.
What I found was an undetected, but very high barrier, to this plan: for some articles, I had to figure out just how to insert a comment about the domestication of a given species or genus of plant in the article so that it would not break the flow of the narrative. In others, the citatino system was so broken that I could not figure out how to use it. After about a dozen articles, I called it a day, and decided to help Yvette take down the Christmas tree instead.
I would be easy to blame this problem on other Wikipedians, because every article should be written to be as edit-friendly as possible. But there are only a few thousand active Wikipedians to shepherd over 1.5 million articles, and often it is all an editor can do to put some material into an article and hope that the next person along will fix it -- or to simply flag an article that feels wrong, but one lacks the knowledge to actually diagnose and fix it. The system of WikiProjects should prevent this, but the active ones are still too few, and the majority of them barely function.
I honestly wish I had a solution to fix this, to make Wikipedia better in this regard -- besides the obvious solution of lots of hard work. My current tactic -- write the article in a structured, edit-friendly form from the beginning -- in a way defeats itself, because every article in Wikipedia arguably should be flexible to change. (And some might not like the structure I pick for my articles.) The solution that one should simply accept the fact that Wikipedia will always be uneven in quality might be more realistic -- but again fails to solve the problem: we accept second-best when Wikipedians are being asked to strive for the first place.
At least by acknowledging that there is a problem, I hope that someone smarter than me knows the problem exists, examines it, and will offer a solution.
Friday, January 05, 2007
Thursday night with the Portland Linux/UNIX Group
Randal made it clear that the point of his presentation was not to bash Intel; he explained that he has a number of friends who work at Intel (and probably knew that a few current or past Intel employees were in the audience), and claimed that under the "right conditions" he would work there again. His purpose was to offer a warning to all sysadmins and other computer professionals about what to do -- and what not to do.
(I won't repeat all of what he said -- or in the order he said it. He had given this talk thirty times before last night, so the information is out there. At the end of his talk he also explained that he was available to repeat this talk to anyone who was interested, schedule permitting.)
He started with the observation that one's life is defined by certain dates, when nothing after that day or moment is like anything before. 1 December, 1993, the day that the police came to search his house for evidence of his alleged computer crimes, was one of those dates for him. He described in detail the routineness of this eventful day: his book Learning Perl had just been released, and he was checking his email for early feedback about it, his gym bag close at hand, and was about to leave for his daily workout when there was a knock at the door. Not expecting anyone, he answered the door, to find two plainsclothes officers with a search warrant.
Everyone who has heard about the case has likely that this all started with Randal running the UNIX utility "crack" on a passwd file to proving to his boss at Intel that his boss's password was insecure. The account of how it started that I heard last night was more detailed: Randal, on his own initiative, stated that he had just run crack on the passwd file at his ISP, TekBooks (which later became Teleport), and encouraged he decided to the same thing for his group at Intel. However, before he could share his information, a co-worker discovered Randal's program running on a computer at Intel computer. (Then again, Randal stated a few minutes later that "I don't know just what I was thinking." Regardless of what Randal's original intention, it was hard not to listen to his story and not believe that he had good intentions and was trying to help improve things at Intel.) This co-worker reported it to his boss, who took it to a Vice President, who called the law on Randal Schwartz.
That night in December, Randal lost his computer equipment -- which was the means he made his living. He lost work, and lost savings when he hired a legal team to deal with the growing legal problems. (He said his legal fees were $270,000 when all was finished.) And he struggled with the pressure -- and depression -- of the impending conflict with the law. He was broke when he finally found another contract (in Arizona), and had to talk the person at the company into paying for his plane ticket to the interview. Although very overqualified he got the job, and on the third day of his first week learned that a warrant had been issued for his arrest for three counts of felony.
Randal recounted the stress of the trial, especially being grilled by the prosecutor for six hours while on the stand -- "an experience I would not wish on my worst enemy." And the fact he cried when he heard the verdict. Telling his story up to this point took about 90 minutes, but no one in the audience complained that he was running over the usual hour presentations to PLUG are expected to take. (And since we adjourn to the Lucky Lab for beer immediately after, this rule is often enforced when the presentation proves to be boring, and ignored when it is not.)
After describing his sentence, and how he discharged his penalties, Randal then listed the lessons he learned. One thing he had emphasized through his talk was that although he did things that were officially against corporate policy, everything he did was what a direct employee did unofficially. One telling scene was when the Vice President, the one who had started the whole misadventure, was being cross-examined on the stand, and was shown to have violated Intel corporate policy by selecting a weak password -- "pre5ident" -- and admitted to giving his password to his secretary even though Intel policy prohibited employees from sharing passwords for any reason.
He started with two lessons. The first one was that if your job involves handling data, document everything; document your workday, document everyday, so that you can prove if the company uses the same law against you, you can prove that what the corporation claims is a crime is actually your normal activity, performed in clear view of everyone around you. The second was to get authorization for everything you did -- even if it seems minor.
This led him to discuss the law that used against him. That part of the Oregon Revised Statutes was passed in 1985, as part of a general campaign by the telcos in every state against "computer piracy", but has not been significantly changed since then. He described how it was vague, and could be abused. That law has no definition for "computer", so that misuse of a company cell phone could be prosecuted as a felony crime; Randal cited a case where a retail clerk, who had committed a misdemeanor by stealing $60-70, was prosecuted instead for the felony charge of unauthorized use of a computer. (That computer was her cash register, and the unauthorized act was resetting the tape to avoid detection -- despite the fact she was caught on tape stealing the money.) He also described how the word "authorized" is defined in every instance of its use in the state code -- except for this specific law. A disgruntled employer can use it to punish any employee -- except those who take the extraordinary steps Randal described above.
Whether you think Randal "got what he deserved", I find it hard not to agree with him that this is a badly written law. As a final note, he shared with us that the Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted him admitted off the record that he "still has no idea of what Randall did."
Labels: portland tech
Thursday, January 04, 2007
2. Just discovered this morning that my comments at last year's Recent Changes Camp were quoted at JasonMauer.com. Well at least he heard me when I was at my best, not later that day when lack of sleep caught up with me; those ramblings appeared on Slashdot, to be preserved for posterity.
3. A couple of links I've been meaning to share, relating to access to knowledge. (I would have shared them sooner if I had ever found a third one to keep them company.)
- The UK's Observer reports that Kenyan evangelical leaders insist human fossils be hidden from public view at their National Museum
- Talking Points Memo compiles a list of all of the information they have been removing from public access. ("Bush Admin: What You Don't Know Can't Hurt Us")
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Back this year: Recent Changes Camp
Another Wikipedian dissatisfied
His announcement can be found on his user page, and a more extensive explanation on his talk page, both times explaining himself far for eloquently than I could. (I would have simply written, "It's stopped being fun for me. Goodbye.") And I suspect that had he not written so eloquently, his Talk page would not be full of pleas for him to reconsider.
I won't discuss here the issue that caused him to make his announcement, although I did contribute to the discussion there. Jmabel is an intelligent person, and had only this specific issue been the problem, I suspect that he would have responded in a different way. Rather, one passage in his announcement explained it all for me:
This was not intended as a threat, it was a serious gauge of not becoming overly committed to a collaborative project that was not entirely headed the way I would want it to ... and that was taking itself too damn seriously (while, at the same time, showing far too much toleration for some utter trolls).
The key idea here is that, as a long-term and obviously important contributor, his ideas and hopes were no longer being valued as much as other Wikipedians, some of whom were clearly troublemakers. This is not a case where some Wikipedians deserve more rights or prestige than others, but the simple instance that no matter how much one helps improve Wikipedia, either in content or in community, the next person along can disregard it -- and too often get away with it. One can only ignore this constant friction so many times.
This friction leads to two results. One is a continually high turnover in some areas: comparing the usernames of the people monitoring the Wikipedia: Administrators' Noticeboard (and the related Wikipedia: Administrators' Noticeboard/Incidents) between two moments about a year apart, I'd say about 90% of the Admins at the earlier instant do not appear in the newer one. Dealing with some drawn-out, inconsequential disputes can only lead to burnout. The other is that in some parts of Wikipedia, users who trust one another tend to watch each other's backs: involve one in a dispute, and the other one will eventually enter the dispute in support. While this is not a healthy developemnt, it's hard to fault those who do it: there are an endless supply of obvious troublemakers eagerly pushing their idiosyncracies with their tendentious edits (or simply trolling), which means some days the goodwill account is empty.
Unless this problem is not solved, Wikipedia will fly apart into dozens of pieces. That act of fission will either save the ideal of a free encyclopedia written for and by its users -- or if none of these pieces has sufficient critical mass itself, destroy it.
So how did I get on this mailing list?
I'll admit that this sounds vaguely appealing (if you haven't tumbled to the fact yet, I am one of those odd types who actually enjoy history), yet the idea of buying a collection of college lectures which I will then need to watch isn't appealing. I find that I have little time as it is to do everything I need or want to do. I should have had those woreda articles for Wikipedia finished months ago, for example. Then there are those nagging unfinished chores around the house, like finishing the laundry -- or fixing the latch on the dryer. And lastly, between the choice of watching a DVD series named "Augustine: Philosopher and Saint" or re-read Peter Brown's biography of that famous North African writer, I'm more inclined to reading the book.
And I'd like to know how did my name get on this list? Somehow, I can't help but think this is somehow due to writing articles for Wikipedia. It's been about 10 years since the last time a book (as in literature) catalog found its way into my mailbox. I do have a profile on Amazon, but many of the recommendations the Amazon software makes I end up deleting -- and the rest have been on the list for so long I ignore them. Did someone take the time to screen-scrape my name from Wikipedia, then sift thru their databases to connect my name to a mailing address? It matters to me: the fact they correctly identified my interests in this case is more than a little creepy.
Tuesday, January 02, 2007
I'll take "Things that shouldn't have slipped below the radar" for $100
There's been a lot of talk, more idle than serious, about creating the US chapter. My sense why there has been no concrete action is that we Wikipedians are too thin on the ground to make it happen here: for the first couple of years as a Wikipedian, I didn't know of another Wikipedian here in Portland, and my attempts to convene a Wikipedia Birds-of-a-Feather session at the O'Reilly Open Source Conferences never came to anything.
Maybe this will stir up some more interest in this idea. After all, with a US chapter, at least three Wikipedians ought to get to play on a special episode of "Jeopardy!" (Even better if we can take on those guys at Encyclopedia Britannica.)