Wednesday, February 28, 2007


An addendum to Sunday's post

I had forgotten this comment by elian, part of her discussion on the differences between the German and English Wikipedias:
The German Wikipedia has a geographical advantage here because it covers a smaller area than the English. I may be a bit exceptional, but I estimate that I've met at least 150 Wikipedians in person. Those 150 Wikipedians know others who know others... there is a rather close network of personal relationships among German Wikipedians (including, of course, the Wikipedians from Austria and Switzerland). This becomes especially important in case of conflicts: a good editor becoming wikistressed, deleting his userpage and quitting? He'll be flooded with emails and maybe a calm discussion with one of his friends on the phone will sort the problem out.

While it appears to me that the German Wikipedia has an important support system that the English language one lacks, it may be worth remembring another of elian's comments, "It's difficult to get hard data on this, but the thing I hear most often is: atmosphere on the English Wikipedia is much more relaxed and people are friendlier and politer. There are even a few users who left the German Wikipedia because of this reason and work only on en."

One person's heaven just may be another's hell.


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Monday, February 26, 2007


Hey, Stupid!

Working my way thru the discussions around Worldtraveller's "Wikipedia is failing", I was struck by this "modest proposal" by SMcCandlish (quoting his latest version):

I think I have a pretty clear solution for this problem:

1. Flag all articles with their rated Class and Priority (averaged if more than one project has rated them)
2. Flag any unrated article with "Unrated, but presumed a Low-priority Stub-class"
3. Outright warn readers that any article not rated F.A. should be treated with caution.
4. Readers that articles rated below G.A. should be treated with blatant suspicion
5. Have Wikipedia not return searchs results for articles rated below G.A. directly, but with an intermediate page saying basically "we have no good article on this topic, but do have one that is inferior; do you still want to see it?"
6. 1-year limit on every article, to achieve G.A. status, or be auto-deleted (can be recovered to userspace for further work)
7. 1-month warning before this happens.
8. 3-month limit on Stubs to achieve Start class.
9. 1-week warning.
10. Direct advocacy of removing unsourced information from articles; reverting such a deletion will trigger a new 1RR rule with regard to unsourced information. The uw-unsourced tags for warning users against the addition of such material would be used with the same vigor and consequences as the uw-vandalism warnings.

What else tough but quality-reinforcing can be thrown in...?

11. De-sysop every admin, without exception (but maybe a 2-month warning) that does not pass the enhanced Diablo test, and make it part of Policy at RfA.
12. Add fame and importance criteria back into the notability concept, until such time as consensus agrees we have G.A. or better articles on every important topic that should be in an encyclopedia.

How's that? I think every article but maybe 10, maybe even less, that I've spent any significant work on would get nuked under this policy, but I'd sure be working hard to improve those few gems up to better-than-Britannica F.A. standards instead of futzing with 300 stubs of dubious merit here and there! And we'd be rid of the "fancruft" that may complain consumes 90% of WP's human and electronic bandwidth.

I thought this was an extreme response, fixing the problem in the manner burning down a house to rid of cockroaches fixes that problem, but I withheld comment because sometimes the best thing is to just let people vent.

Then after I posted yesterday's post, I happened to find this email from Philip Sandifer to WikiEN-l:

This is a new problem - these are major figures who are sympathetic to Wikipedia but fed up with its operation. And I can tell you, the tone among people I talk to in that real life thing I maintain is pretty similar - great respect for Wikipedia as a concept, reasonable respect for Wikipedia as a resource, no respect for Wikipedia as something anyone would ever want to edit. The actual editorial process of Wikipedia is rightly viewed as a nightmare. Hell, I view it as a nightmare at this point - I've given up editing it because the rules seem to have been written, at this point, with the intention of writing a very bad encyclopedia.

Our efforts to ensure reliability have come at the cost of a great deal of respect - and respect from people we should have respect from. We are losing smart, well-educated people who are sympathetic to Wikipedia's basic principles. That is a disaster.

And it's a disaster that can be laid squarely at the feet of the grotesque axis of [[WP:RS]] and [[WP:N]] - two pages that are eating Wikipedia alive from the inside out. (And I don't mean this in terms of community. I mean that they are systematically being used to turn good articles into crap, and have yet to demonstrate their actual use in turning bad articles into good ones.)

While I admit that I may be using Sandifer's words out of context, I can't help but feel that I have encountered two participants in a shouting match -- even if they don't know that they are shouting at each other. On one side is SMcCandlish, who is shouting (paraphrased for emphasis), "Hey stupid! If you don't follow the rules and add references to your lousy articles, we're going to delete them!" On the other is Sandifer, who is shouting (again paraphrased), "Hey stupid! If you continue to enforce the rules mechanicaly and without thinking, you're going to end up with lots of lousy articles!"

I have added the "Hey stupid!" part because what I hear from both sides is a rant over why Wikipedia is broken and must be fixed -- or else. They are preaching to their own choirs -- McCandlish to one set of Talk pages, Sandifer to the WikiEN-l mailing list -- and not attempting to seek out the other side and engage them with the goal of finding a consensus. I wish that didn't sound like a condemnation, because in part I'm guilty of not seeking out the other side to do just that, also because sometimes I'm certain that if I did go out into the many discussion points of Wikipedia, I'd find more examples of groups separating themselves into their individual defensible strong points within the project.

But I find I repeat myself.


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Sunday, February 25, 2007


Wikipedia burnout: an analysis

It's a frequent assertion that there's an amount of stress in volunteering to help Wikipedia: for no other reason than adding content can often be taking part in an endless argument with a constantly-changing parade of people with unclear qualifications. It has become a truism that after enough time this leads to burnout, and Wikipedia loses another valuable member.

As this impression is based on anecdotal evidence (some of which was presented in this recent thread on WikiEN-l), I thought I'd take a stab at evaluating some evidence. I began with a simple assumption: I have always thought the WikiEN-l list was the forum where the serious Wikipedians gathered and talked policy. (I have since unsubscribed because I found it too much of a distraction from my primary interest in Wikipedia -- writing articles.) I looked at my collection of emails from January, 2003 when I first subscribed to this list, and found that 42 unique individuals had contributed at least one email in that month. So what has happened to them since?

In performing my analysis, I discarded two persons immediately: the first was Jimbo Wales, for obvious reasons; the second was an alias of a notorious troublemaker, who has since been banned from Wikipedia and would provide no help to answering my question concerning burnout. Then I worked on pairing each person with an account on the English-language Wikipedia, and was able to succeed with 33 of the remaining 40 names.

Next, I did a search to see which ones were granted Admin powers (a complete listing can be found here), and found that 27 of these 33 people did receive Admin rights, most within a year. I believe that this confirms my impression of the WikiEN-l list -- at least during that time frame. I also believe that this shows that anyone at the time with the minimum qualifications who wanted to be an Admin received the rights; there was nothing special about having those powers. The six exceptions only prove the rule. A search with Interiot's Tool shows that three who never became Admins stopped contributing to Wikipedia soon after. One (Eclecticology) has publically stated that he does not want to be an Admin on Wikipedia; a second is well-known for being contentious, and was notorious for making claims to WikiEN-l that he was the victim of anti-Semitic attacks -- only to have a quick investigation reveal that his opinion or edit was simply being challenged by another Wikipedian. This leaves one person (Ericd) who has continued to make edits and yet has never been grated Admin powers; I guess it is because he has never wanted them.

I then turned to these 27 Admins, and looked at their editting history (from Interiot's Tool), studied their user page (both current and older versions), and drew upon what I knew of these individuals (admittedly, some I know better than others, but I would not claim that I know any of them very well). I found that they could be placed into four groups.

1. Those who explicitly stated that they were quitting Wikipedia, or had quietly stopped contributing. I counted eight in this group, although one (JeLuF) could have moved over to the German Wikipedia. Three of them (jtdirl, Tannin, and Tarquin) had explicit comments on their user pages saying that they had quit Wikipedia. Jtdirl's was very specific about one of his reasons for leaving:
One of the saddest experiences I had was to see a very very senior figure, a world-renowned expert who could command fees in the tens of thousands for a ten minute speech, hounded off here by a group of ignorant fools who knew nothing about the topic but made that gentleman's life a misery. Encyclopaedias like Brittanica would have offered that person a blank cheque to write for them. A small bunch of idiots drove him away.

I put Koyaanis Qatsi to this group because he had asked to be de-Adminnned. A few months after the time his request was granted, his edit totals had fallen off, so it is likely he knew he might be leaving, and so felt guilty about keeping the Admin powers.

As for those who just quietly stopped contributing, it's difficult to be certain why they left, but Camembert, who had been appointed in the first round to the Arbitration Committee (or ArbCom) states he has left Wikipedia on his user page. In contrast, DanKeshet's user page alludes to several lengthy moves across the United States, and these disruptions may have been the cause for his departure. Clearly, not all departures are due to stress.

2. Those who had taken one or more breaks from Wikipedia, but as of January, 2007 were still contributing. Taking breaks (also known as "Wikibreaks") is not uncommon; a quick glance at the number of links to the Wikibreak template shows that about 548 people are currently on declared Wikibreaks, and not all who are on Wikibreaks use that template -- or even announce the fact.

I found six fell into this group, one of whom (The Cunctator) still participates in WikiEN-l. I don't know whether one should join this group with the first, because it is clear that they felt stress (Ortolan88 explicitly mentions it as one reason for his breaks from Wikipedia), or with the fourth group below because the break allowed them to cope with the stress and return to Wikipedia.

3. Those who had moved on to other projects related to Wikipedia. This is the largest group, with nine members. One could consider this group will not offer any useful insight about burnout, since their direct participation in Wikipedia suffered due to other activities, but one could also consider this group very useful, since many of them (at least six: Anthere, Danny, Eloquence, Maveric149, Sannse and Brion Vibber) went on to assume more responsibility for running Wikipedia-related activities : two are members of the Wikimedia Foundation board, one is an employee of the Foundation, two more have volunteered their time to help it, while one is a community support person for Wikia.

4. All others. This is a catch-all group for four individuals (including myself) who do not fall into one of the other three groups, or could be considered prime candidates for burnout -- yet continue to edit as frequently now as we ever have.

I have to say that I find this the most fascinating of the four groups because, despite all else, the members of this group continue to contributes at least as many edits despite all other reasons not to. In alphabetical order:

To return to the subject of my investigation, if there is qualifiable evidence that stress leads to burnout, I'd have to say that the evidence could be seen that way: for those who did not move away from the English Wikipedia (18 of 27), one could lump the "Quitters" with the "Wikibreakers", and show that 14 out of 18 left Wikipedia within four years, in contrast to half (3 of 6) of the non-Admin group drifting away. However, one could also argue that taking a break from Wikipedia is an effective tool, and lump the "Wikibreakers" with the "Others" (who appear to have found a way to deal with the stress, however successfully) to show that 10 out of 18 (or about half) continue to contribute to Wikipedia, the same share as with non-Admins.

Then again, losing as few as half of a group over four years seems to me a turnover rate that is worrisome. Most students in a four-year institution (whether high school or college) actually manage to finish the program, and most high school students have less motivation than the sample group I looked at. I can only hope that I've enticed someone, with a better grasp of statistics and analysis, to gather a larger sample, subject it to a better analysis and provide a better answer.


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Sorry for the delay in updating

But Blogger's software upgrade has been causing me problems, and I haven't been able to update as much as before.

I'll be posting something more substantial later today.



Thursday, February 22, 2007


A tip of the hat

And thanks to Ben Yates at Wikipedia Blog for linking to two of my posts:"When to cite from an encyclopedia -- even though you're not supposed to" and "From WikiEN-l: 'Admin burnout'". Links back like this help remind me that I did promise to write mostly about Wikipedia.

You can browse his entire list of Wikipedia-related material in his personal reader.


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Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Is Wikipedia failing?

I'm sorry that I came across Worldtraveller's essay, Wikipedia is failing, for several reasons. A minor one is that it looks as if this is a discussion I could have contributed much to; the more important one is that, as usual, there is a plethora of voices and opinions expressed here, and at this point I find it difficult to sort out the insightful from the irrelevant.

Worldtraveller's essay raises three points -- which is not to say that he necessarily agrees with the following:

The third point, I think, is the one that bothers many people: after six years of mostly selfless work by a lot of smart people, I think it is reasonable to wonder why Wikipedia isn't better than it is. Not to say that it is a unmitigated disaster:
Worldtraveller himself is quite clear he doesn't share this opinion. Further, after a little more than two years, Nupedia produced only a handful of articles of all grades of quality. Despite these caveats, I think it is fair to say that with a few exceptions, Wikipedians aren't satisfied with what they have created, and are looking for answers.

So far, I've extracted only a few of the many opinions on this article from the Talk page (which already has 2 archives):

This time, my excuse for not offering a solution is even simpler: I can take time to read what people write about this topic, or I can take time to create a solution. I'd rather take that time and work on articles; I regret that these meta-debates are so addicting.


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Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Writing articles, part V

Last weekend, I was doing a lot of edits, obeying the definition of a "Wiki-Gnome". There are a number of pages of the form "List of state leaders in year X", which serve the goal of Wikipedia by providing reference information and for which there is no reason they can't be reasonably complete. Yet many of these are embarrassingly incomplete. For example, look at the version of the page List of state leaders in 1490, which had information on only four European states: Burgundy, Crimea, England, and Hungary. (I have since fixed some of these problems.) The problem is not that this article should be Europe-centric, but that even as European-centric the article fails; one could be charitable and claim that it was Japan-centric because the most complete coverage in that version concerned the states of Japan and its neighbors -- with an emphasis on charitable.

This uneven coverage is due to a number of causes. First is the tendency of writing a stub: a brief, obviously incomplete article on a subject, which is written in the hope of attracting attention from other Wikipedians who will then grow the article. In the case of this article, it started with OldakQuill taking the standard template and adding only one entry: the Emperor of China for that year. The article grew for a couple of months, but then stalled for over a year before someone added the first entry for a European country.

This illustrates another tendency: in order to edit as many articles as possible, some editors will limit their contributions to an article to one specific change which they have an emotional investment in. That is how the version of this article I encountered lists the Khan of Crimea and king of Ryukyu yet omits mentioning the king of France or the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire -- let alone the major states in what is modern India, Thailand and elsewhere. I fear that the emergent behavior created by enlightened selfishness only benefits Wikipedia so far; the most obvious solution for quality to improve further, is to have someone familiar with the subject refactor the material and fix the problems.

That is the state of many articles in Wikipedia: glaring omissions contrasted with an amazing attention to details. And many of these omissions will not be filled soon because that requires editors to take the time to do research, to figure out how to explain the material -- and then hope that some myopic fellow Wikipedian does not stubbornly revert this contribution because of some trivial objection.

One has to either accept this drawback of emergent behavior -- or decide that in order to improve the quality of the article Wikipedia must recognize some form of authority and thereby change the environment Wikipedia has created. I'm not entirely comfortable with either option, so I'm not endorsing either; I only hope that whatever solution Wikipedia adopts will still allow contributions in some form from everyone, because experience has shown me -- and continues to show me -- that there are still too many voices that need to be included in the paradigm of NPOV.


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Saturday, February 17, 2007


Television news, rant the second

A follow-up to my earlier post about the incompetence of the news media.

Looking thru the blogs ove at OrBlogs, I stumbled across this rant over the lousy quality of local news programs. As Jenni concludes, "No wonder there's a fight underway to revoke the broadcast licenses of our local news stations. When there's tons of important news they could be covering, all they can do is point to Britney." I would have added a comment to her post, but I can't think of anything to add that wouldn't sound repetative.

Then a few minutes later, I found another attack on the misallocated priorities of the news media, and with another biting closing sentence: "And the mainstream news wonders why they're losing market share."

Then again, there are dissenting views. For example, this one, where this blogger worries about whether Britney Spears deciding to copy Sinead O'Connor's hair style might impair her ability to produce another hit record. (I'll admit that I may be missing the irony in this post -- but the last few years has only encouraged the cynical opinion that given enough people with access to the Internet, you can find someone who embraces a view point that you can't take seriously -- yet surprisingly is able to hold down a job.) I mention this post only because it proves that sometimes you just can't parody the truth.

I hear that down in Salem there are a bunch of people who are passing laws that will affect our lives. Why can't we hear more about what they're doing than about skanky blondes who are famous for being well-known?


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Friday, February 16, 2007



Although I initially felt good after the operation, over the last few days I've lacked the necessary drive to complete any of my projects. I speculated why this was -- aftereffects of the medication, possibly another cold (I had a bad one two days before I went into surgery) -- until I realized that the staples holding my incision closed have been keeping me from sleeping comfortably. I lack that 100% feeling simply because I'm tired.

Who would have ever thought 18 pieces of stainless steel in my shoulder might keep me from resting in perfect comfort?

As an exercise in turning a liability into an asset, I asked Yvette to take some pictures of the staples, then uploaded them to Commons. (Warning: those links take you directly to the pictures.) I hope to take some pictures of a few after they're removed for further reference. I'm not doing this in pursuit of the morbid; it was a challenge for to find a picture of this exact thing, so I want to make it easier for the next person who needs to find pictures of what these things look like. Finding images of banal or everyday things like this can sometimes pose a big challenge. In this case, though, someone else beat me to this accomplishment: Booyabazooka posted his own picture of the staples that were used to close an incision in his thigh a year ago.

We humans sometimes compete for some very odd achievements.


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Thursday, February 15, 2007


When to cite from an encyclopedia -- even though you're not supposed to

I can understand the motivation behind Middlebury College's history department's ban on using Wikipedia as a source. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and encyclopedias have always been a college professor's nemesis for a number of reasons. One goal of writing papers is to force a student to teach herself or himself how to do research -- which an encyclopedia helps to prevent because it lays all of the information on a subject out in a logical fashion. And the better ones also provide a bibliography that can serve as a starting point for a student's research.

Perhaps a more pernicious threat is that encyclopedias are touted as an authoritative source, and that is why encyclopedias and dictionaries have long been used to settle arguments over facts and judgments. There is something about a statement presented on a printed page in a suitable serif font that gives it credibility. One of the goals of a college education is make the student learn to think, and a passive acceptance of what is printed in a book or magazine makes this goal more difficult.

However, there are some exceptions to this rule which I'd like to enumerate here. If there are any college students reading, my advice to them, if you want to use one of these exceptions, is to ask your professor first. A good professor will at least consider hearing your plea for an exception; one who does not -- and can't explain his reasons for refusing to hear your petition -- is probably a mediocrity, and your best tactic is to finish his coursework as fast as possible then avoid any other classes this person teaches.

1. Signed articles are often just as legitimate as normal publications. Besides the specialist periodicals, monographs, and textbooks, one place experts get their writing published is the very encyclopedias that they warn you against. Hard to believe, but true. These articles can be distinguished from other articles by looking at the bottom, where you will find either the name of the author (who you can then research and verify might actually know something about the subject), or a set of initials (which are paired with the author by means of a special appendix to that volume of the encyclopedia).

Here, old-fashioned encyclopedias like Encyclopedia Britannica have a clear advantage over Wikipedia because it does not allow signed articles: Wikipedia is based on the ideal that anyone can edit any article. The advantage of a signed article is that you are dealing with one, identifiable point of view about the subject, who has one consistent opinion on the subject. The disadvantage of a signed article is that even experts make mistakes, and no matter how skilled the writer is one must subject anything that is written to some degree of criticism.

Just remember: you are not citing the work of an encyclopedia, but the authority who wrote the article.

2. A statement in an encyclopedia is an opinion that can serve as a starting point for a critical analysis. Writers have begun essays with quotations from a surprising variety of sources -- which they then subject to their powers of analysis and dissection. A statement in an encyclopedia can serve as a useful starting point for this, especially because it helps you avoid the logically fallacy of a straw man argument.

In this sense, Wikipedia is a uniquely rich source for these kinds of starting points -- possibly better than Encyclopedia Britannica. If one reads Wikipedia for any length of time, one will notice heated arguments (also known as "flame wars") over certain topics, like President George W. Bush, Israel vs. Palestine, and naming conventions like Danzig vs. Gdansk. I suspect that a careful study of the heated words in the edit comments and Talk pages concerning just which name the article about that Baltic port should be can provide interesting insights on German-Polish political relations that I'd expect would please any history professor at Middlebury College. If the student does this, then it is a demonstration of an actively analytical approach to primary materials -- which is what I believe any college professor wants to see.

I know the problem with this argument is that for every student who tries to do this, there are at least 20 who simply want to plagiarize from Wikipedia, and are looking for any excuse to do so. If you do this kind of analysis from the social evidence of Wikipedia for a paper, please talk to your professor as early as possible: once you convince them that this is what you are doing, I honestly believe the good ones will eagerly make an exception for you.

3. Wikipedia as a source for quotations from sources that may be difficult for a student to access. One of the first things I learned in college is that due to the vagarities of funds, publishing houses, and luck, no one library will contain all of the materials that a researcher will need for a paper. Sometimes the information a student wants to use is in a Wikipedia article, otherwise properly presented, and Interlibrary Loan cannot obtain the book or article before the paper is due.

Let me provide an example of this from my own contributions to Wikipedia. There was an Ethiopian warlord by the name of Sebagadis, whose funeral dirge is quoted at length in the relevant Wikipedia article from the original English translation. I know this because I verified it from a copy of the book which I happen to own, and proves that this translation of the dirge is in the Public Domain. Now a student who wants to quote this dirge could use Mordechai Abir's very competent The Era of the Princes, which prints the exact same words, but with minor variants. However, I suspect that using Abir's book as a source is one remove further from the original than Wikipedia as a source -- assuming that the student doesn't have access to the original work. (The only copy I know that exists in Portland, a sizable American city with several universities and a good public library, is my own.)

So sometimes Wikipedia is, due to the diligence of its volunteers, the best source for one fact or another. Should a student then be forced to avoid using Wikipedia entirely?

My advice to any student who needs one of these three exceptions to the rule is to explain the problem to the professor or teacher. If they can't provide a waiver, perhaps they might be able to obtain more quickly the material needed. (If I was approached with a serious request for a rare book I owned, I'd try to find a way to help another amateur, or lover of learning, which could include photocopying the relevant pages from that book and mailing them.) Sometimes Wikipedia quotes a rare primary source when a better, more common source is available to the student. (It happens; remember that we're learning how to make Wikipedia as we do it.)

It is a cliche that every rule has its exceptions. In this case, it is the truth.


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Local media sinks to another low

The observation that local television news has denegrated has been repeated so often that it's become trite -- but until now, this is said in reference to the content, not the delivery. It shouldn't be that hard to match the correct video to stories, launch the cheesy computer graphics at the right moments, and fade to the commercials, right?

I guess it is one of those things that looks easy as long as you have someone doing it right -- and when the engineers keep getting it wrong, you realize that maybe paying top dollar for these technicians is a smart thing to do.

I don't know what the standards are in any other city except Portland, but tonight's 11:00 news on KGW hit a new low in technical incompetence. First, the wrong video was matched to one of the lead stories: the story was about potential flooding in Stevenson, Washington, and a clip about a notorious credit fraud case was shown instead, and ran for almost a minute before someone was able to cut back to the anchor desk. The intended clip was at last shown, but without an apology of -- or an acknowledgment of -- the goof. The next story went normally, until an computer graphic started to take over the screen. The engineers managed to get control of the feed back to finish the story, only to have that same graphic return, and force the station to go to back for a minute or two. (Yvette, who was out of the room and couldn't see the television, asked if I had turned it off.)

There have always been goofs in producing news shows, usually in late summer when the newer staff is given a chance to get hands-on experience because no one is watching; otherwise, one goof every three months seems to have been the norm. However, since early last fall I can't help but think that these goofs happen at least once every week. I don't know why this is, but I have some guesses:


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Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Putting my money where my mouth is

I began implementing the plan I described a couple of days ago late yesterday, and have already received some interesting answers. Only a couple of people haven't responded, which in a way I also find interesting: they might think my question is silly, and have decided that as badly as they want the Admin bit, these folks draw the line at which questions they'll answer.

I plan on continuing this for a period of time -- a week to a month -- but I'll stop sooner if it's clear that the candidates either get my point or have stopped answering my question.

My sense is that the mix of current Admin candidates is not that much different from the mix when I was last involved: clearly more people who specialize in vandal-fighting (which wasn't a topic way back when), but the majority are interested more in sharing the burden than answering a call. I'll have to study the discussions more to see whether there is evidence that having the Admin rights is a necessary step in becoming a "real Wikipedian."

One last note: SwatJester left a response that I didn't expect. It wasn't a bad answer, and clearly far better than one written after studying my blog and saying what I might want to hear; anyone who tries that will provoke me into casting an "oppose" vote. I value authenticity over ideological correctness any day.


PS -- I'm working on another Wikipedia essay. It will be slower to arrive than usual, but I hope that means it will be better written.



Tuesday, February 13, 2007


OGuild meeting tomorrow

Brandon Sanders sends word that he'll be leading a group of the OGuild folks in a meeting with Ahmed Rashid of the Portland Development Commision tomorrow to discuss Flexible Space Concepts

The reason I won't be there is that I don't need any Flexible Space to do what I do. (I could use a job, though.) I do like his ideas about it, specifically as a Guild Hall to serve as a place for Open Source people to meet and trade ideas. The current options -- coffee shops or brewpubs -- don't succeed in attracting the right kinds of people, so spontaneous interactions don't happen in the flesh here in Portland as much as we'd like.


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Monday, February 12, 2007


From WikiEN-l: "Admin burnout"

This is the title of a thread in this month's mailing list. Since I was feeling better today I read most of it (I'm trying to get back into the rhythm of Wikipedia), but I must have over-exerted myself because I've been feeling a little nauseous for the last few hours and haven't finished it. So my following comments are based on my incomplete reading.

First, the conversation keeps drifting away from the problem -- that there are a number of Admins who try to do too much, get frustrated and burn out -- or related problems -- such as the whole Admin process has grown into a bizarre gauntlet that few current Admins could pass -- into a series of recitation of personal affirmations. I'm not simply being snarky: this thread, in a way, approaches a tragedy. I feel that here and there in the discussion pieces of the answer have appeared; but few participating in the thread are looking for an answer, so these insights are in danger of being lost. (And I'm frustrated by my health because I want to sift through these posts and find the useful ones, so they wouldn't be lost.)

Second, although I've often thought about simplifying the entire process of appointing Admins (where I keep giving up is formulating a simple check on the process to keep the troublemakers out), I feel the simplest solution we could apply right now is to get Wikipedians with the Admin bit to relax: burn out comes from unrelieved pressure to keep up a certain amount or quality of work, to stop a certain number of vandals or block so many troublemakers. Just because someone has the keys to the janitor's closet, that person doesn't need to carry the mop everywhere with her or him. An Admin ought to feel good about spending an occasional day just writing articles and leaving the Admin chores to someone else. Instead of all of this insistence on experience in every Wikipedia forum, people ought to ask questions about whether the person can pace themselves.

Maybe I ought to start participating in the Admin selection process once again. I stopped a couple of years ago because the Wikipedia community had grown to the point where I didn't know many of the candidates well enough opine about their fitness to be Admins, and I left that chore to other Wikipedians, comfortable that no bad choices would slip through. (In the first year or two I was with Wikipedia, there were a few people who were not only bad choices, they were worse than any Admins some might consider bad choices.) If I did start participating again, it would be in a simple manner: I'd ask candidates if they would ever take a day off from Admin duties, forget about the vandals, spammers and troublemakers, and just improve the content of Wikipedia? Those who answered no, I'd vote against and explain why (this person takes the duties too seriously and will burn out); those who answered yes to this question -- and otherwise showed a reasonable amount of common sense -- I'd vote for.




Sunday, February 11, 2007


Wikipedia's money

I spent yesterday offline entirely. I had felt okay Friday, did some surfing, posted an opinion on a Wikipedia Talk page -- and my shoulder, the one that was cut pen Thursday, hurt like a sunuvabich after all of that typing. Since the world wouldn't end if I didn't get online, I took Saturday off. Which means, I just learned of the latest piece of Wikipedia-related news: allegedly the project is running out of money, or so writes Network World:
According to this post by media producer Philippe Mottaz, [Florence] Devouard told the audience: "At this point, Wikipedia has the financial resources to run its servers for about 3 to 4 months. If we do not find additional funding, it is not impossible that Wikipedia might disappear."

I'm learning that a lot of stories about Wikipedia needs one to dig a little in order to find out what the real story is. (This digging will also uncover such opinions like this gem by "Jason": "[I] hope Wikipedia dies a painful death".) Thanks to Laurent Haug (via this blog post by Scoble), what Florence actually said was a little different:
Haug: "When we prepared this speech, Florence told me that Wikipedia has enough cash to pay for its server for the next..."
Devouard: "Three months. Roughly."
Haug: "and if we don't do something, Wikipedia won't be here in three or four months. That's a radical idea, it's not going to happen but..."
Devouard: "...three months is a bit negative. [...] We have somebody making plans for two years in the future, I think we will survive in the next three months".

In other words, all she said was that Wikipedia currently has three month's operating funds on hand; nothing about whether this was all of the money the Foundation could possibly ever obtain to keep itself running. If anything, this is a good sign: most people (and some businesses) have barely enough cash on hand to survive from paycheck to paycheck.

Not that this didn't keep some folks from insisting that Wikipedia needs to start selling advertising space -- as if that were the cure-all. Advertising revenue has its own problems, some of which might harm the usability of Wikipedia (e.g., the point where advertisers can influence content, issues over access due to advertiser's budgets, etc.). And the non-profit field has a large number of tried and proven tactics to support a project like Wikipedia, few of which the Foundation has even begun to explore.

So what did all of this mean for a humble Wikipedian like me, who was surprised by all of the news? Very little if anything: Wikipedia is just as likely to stay in operation now as it ever was to -- although I'm sure some Wikipedians entertained themselves discussing this bit of gossip. So I plan on finishing my current series of articles, and starting on a few new ones (I have finally accumulated enough information on Wube Haile Mariam, an important Ethiopian warlord of the mid 19th century civil wars) to write an article on him. And no matter what I write, I'm reasonably confident that it will be the most complete account of him anyone will find on the Internet. Which shows just how much we need Wikipedia -- or something like it -- so I doubt it will be vanishing soon.




Wednesday, February 07, 2007


A link and a note

Offered for your consideration, another Wikipedia-related link: What will Wikipedia be like five years from now? As usual, I learned about Sage's post almost a week after he wrote it.


P.S. I'll be undergoing surgery tomorrow, so I won't be posting tomorrow. I'll try not to be silent for too long.



Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Wars and rumors of civil war?

The current Wikipedia Signpost has an article, "Group of arbitrators makes public statement about IRC", which I recommend everyone not only study but also the articles it links to. Not because of the subject matter itself: I have never participated in IRC because I felt it would be yet another timesink for me, and I have enough of those in my life. The importance of this article is that it is a sign that two factions of Wikipedia insiders are emerging, and unless something is done I suspect that their dispute will tear the project apart.

I can't find the interest to determine just why these two groups have taken a disagreement to each other. Much of this began over a year ago during the "Userbox wars": someone figured out how to create templates containing bumper-sticker slogans that could be placed on a person's user page. Just why these were considered irredeemably evil was never quite explained, but this feeling was used to justify a number of acts (like out-of-process deletions) that served only to alienate volunteers -- when some diplomacy might have prevented hard feelings.

This smoldering hostility has drifted to the next step, where we have two groups of Wikipedians sniping at each other offline. While I've been known to make snide comments about certain Wikipedians offline, for me this is simple venting to people otherwise uninvolved in the matter, not the us vs. them dynamic that clearly is beginning to develop. I don't think this hostility has gotten to where their disagreements cannot be somehow be resolved -- right now, only a limited fraction of active Wikipedians are involved; most Wikipedians are probably barely aware -- if at all -- that this feud even exists.

Only it is from silly, unnoticed things like these that vicious wars emerge from -- both online, and in life. And as in real life, no actually wins a war -- some just survive it better than others.


P.S. If this post is more confused than usual, it's because I am struggling with a bad cold. Blame it all on Michael Snow for writing such a good article for the Wikimedia Signpost.



Monday, February 05, 2007


Recent Changes Camp: an afterword

The old saying is that when all you have are lemons, make lemonade. So I'm processing a couple of unpleasant experiences at this year's Recent Changes Camp.

One was the thought I had, Saturday morning, while I cleaned the sinks before I made some coffee for the conference. Take a number of people, tell them about a conference, and despite the fact no one seems to be in control assure them it'll all work out. I was reminded of the stereotype Hippie commune that eventually failed because every person assumed someone was busy doing the work that was done -- yet no one was doing anything except sitting around and talking. (No, I didn't feel as if I was supporting the whole conference, but as I pulled gunk out of the drain in one of these sinks I wondered whether the folks who once again came through to make the conference work might be feeling some frustration -- if they didn't do the work, nothing would be done.)

The other was one of the sessions, run by a woman who had talked her way into running it because it was what she did for a living. I'm not going to name her, because my point is not to shame her; my point is that she ran the session with such a heavy hand, constantly yanking the conversation to what she wanted the group to talk about, that I finally exercised my right of two feet: I got up and left. Sometimes a group of people need to be allowed to vent for a while so they can clear their emotions and think logically; and sometimes the solution to a problem is not what everyone thinks it should be at the beginning of a conversation, but something that the conversation stumbles across. Lastly, sometimes a session at Recent Changes Camp can't solve a problem, no matter how it is moderated: all it can do is offer a beginning to a longer discussion that will reach its solution at a much later time.

So how does the Open Space process succeed? How can Open Projects survive?

I'll offer the following points, based on examination of how Linus Torvalds made the Linux operating system into a successful project, and from watching Wikipedia grow and thrive:

  1. The leadership needs to be hands-off, but not too hands-off.

    Both Linus and Jimbo, leaders of these projects, claim to be lazy managers: they would rather do anything except make decisions. This is quite wise. Unless internal conflicts threaten to shatter the project and send it into a death spiral, they are hands-off. The volunteers are allowed to find what they want to do -- and invest their enthusiasm into their choices.

    This works nicely with a volunteer project; for-profit projects might not succeed with such a light touch.

    The next two items gain strength from this one:

  2. Trust in the process: if members of the project worry about its proper functioning too much, then they will expect and create impositions that end up starving the project; and
  3. Ownership: if something needs to be done, do it. Most Hippy communes suffered an ugly death because no one took ownership of important matters (or too few did, burned out, and left), and the enterprise collapsed from lack of attention to critical matters.

    When people want to belong to a community (which is what many Open Space projects are) often all that is needed is for someone to point out a need. The people who want to join the project often can't contribute to what appears at first looks to be the critical activities, and find these needs to be what they are best suited for.

These points all lead back to the question of leadership: like any project, Open Space or Open Source proejct succeed or fail due to the leadership. Some people can manage an Open Space session well, and some need another style. (And some people, like me, make crappy leaders regardless of the style.) Linus discovered that, despite his success managing the Linux software project, he was a lousy manager at Transmedia; some people, despite their success in the corporate world, make crappy Open Space facilitators.


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Sunday, February 04, 2007


Seen on the Wiki-EN mailing list

More proof that I learn about many things far, far too late.

I had some free time when I didn't have the interest to do anything productive, so I started reading emails from the Wiki-EN list. In the middle of a thread over the perennial problem of "experts" on Wikipedia, I found this gem in an email from fellow veteran Stan Shebs:
WP is an unusual challenge for experts, because you can't just say "X is true" and have a crowd of adoring students copy it down uncritically. It's much more like being the ringer at the pool hall, where you go in unknown and have to impress people with your present skill rather than your past reputation. I think it's a good challenge for experts actually - can you command respect for your knowledge using your words alone, without falling back on the CV? We have some pseudonymous experts in WP who are really world-class and receive considerable deference, so it can work that way.





Recent Changes Camp, last day

Today the sophomore edition of Recent Changes Camp (RCC) came to a close. I use the word "sophomore" because this year, its second, the RCC suffered a notable dip in quality; not that it wasn't a waste of the last three days -- I enjoyed meeting new people and enriching old friendships -- but in many ways it could have been better this year, for example the publicity could have been much, much better. But everyone knows it, and plans are underway to avoid those mistakes.

Audrey Eschright posted some further thoughts about the session she and Dawn Foster hosted Friday, "Art of Community".

Yesterday, in Brandon Sander's session, a new idea was introduced: the idea of a group to promote Open Source activity in the Portland area, known as OGuild for "Open Guild", that is Open Source. (No report if Richard Stallman has heard about the choice of the name yet, nor when he'll demand that it should be renamed to "Gnu Free Guild".)

The concept is simple: to form a coalition from the individuals and small groups who depend on Open Source to make a living, then use that federation to provide each other support both financially (for example, this group of people can then negotiate a lower rate for health insurance than any one person could), and non-financially (for example, mentoring, networking, and so forth). In other words, it's not another themed real estate project with some additional benefits (also known as a business incubator for Open Source projects). The word "Guild" was picked as a nod to the medieval guilds, which provided its members mutual assistence and protection. With a number of local high tech leaders behind it who include Brandon Sanders, Bart Massey, Ray King, Ward Cunningham and John Sechrest, I'll be surprised if this project doesn't go somewhere and help solidify Portland's status in that area.


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Saturday, February 03, 2007


Recent Changes Camp: day two

Some thoughts from today's sessions:
  1. At "Using Wiki in Education", John Sechrest talked about using a wiki as a tool in teaching one of his classes. This allowed him to track student activity, and reach out to students that he felt neede help. When Tak mentioned teaching "how to write for a Wiki", this led John to the observation that Wiki writers need to be aware of the context of their articles, which is a function of linking.
  2. That context and Wikis are related was implied in something Evan Prodomou said in the session Wiki Ohana. He brought up the book Wikinomics, which defined a Wiki culture as any website which is predominately made up of user-generated material, like Youtube. Are the clips that people contribute to Youtube in the least aware of any other clip on that website? Do they interact?
  3. I was able to see a demonstration of WagN today by Ted Ernst (and his associate, whose name I forgot). Ted described it "Wiki is to word processing as WagN is to databases."

About that point all of the information from the conference caught up with me, and I began feeling more than a little punchy. That means tomorrow I'll probably post another collection of things I forgot to add to this post.


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Recent changes camp: items I forgot to mention yesterday

(Somehow I clicked on the wrong button last night, and this was saved as a draft, not published. Here is my delayed post:)

I got home from recent Changes Camp about half an hour ago, although many of the attendees are continuing the fun: they have a pizza dinner planned, and at Evan Prodromou's suggestion they'll probably head over to the Lucky Lab afterwards and have a few beers.

I can't write about today's session until I discuss a few things I forgot to mention about yesterday's session:

  1. During the "Art of Community" session, Julie Caldwell told a very insightful story related to the creation of her park in her home town in Nevada. She spent a long, steady effort reaching out to the local Native American community, first starting with one member, who after a year or so introduced her to the group's chief. Then after a number of different activities (which included cooking up a meal for one of their traditional ceremonies) which proved her sincerity towards them, she won their trust and brought them into the process of creating and maintaining that park.

    The point is that community outreach is not a single act, but a long, steady process.

  2. At another session, one of the group noticed that three of us all had Nokia 770s. Although Wikis and communities aren't always thought of as cutting-edge technology, this embrace of mobile computing shows that some of us early adopters are interested in this area.

  3. I met another Wikipedian, Simon Koldyk, who hails from Vancouver BC. I'm always surprised whenever I meet another of us -- even though I know I shouldn't be.


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Friday, February 02, 2007


Recent Changes Camp, day one

I started the day by discovering that the 40-year-old oil furnace that came with my house stopped working; the inside temperature was 58 degrees. The burner refused to burn oil, and they no longer make new burners to fit the furnace, so the hit to our pocketbook was about one thousand dollars today for a rebuilt burner. (My thanks -- and love -- to Yvette for spending the afternoon at home so I could attend Recent Changes Camp.)

From a cold house to the cold former factory where this year's Recent Changes Camp was held. The building did start to warm up by the time everyone found the location and had settled in, but then a couple of guys unrelated to the conference, looking around the building, opened the door to the loading dock and left it open to the cold winter morning for too many minutes; my toes never did recover from that.

Recent Changes Camp started with the same gentle ringing of the bells that started last year's. The major change was Ward Cunningham, creator of the original Wiki, giving the opening remarks. He recalled the advice he offered to all newcomers to that community site: read around first before you edit. The other change was that Ted Ernst and Kaliya Hamlin were this year's facilitators.

I picked my sessions based on the discussion leaders more than on the topics. The cold weather affected the start of this conference, and the offerings for the first slot on the first day were markedly fewer than any other slot. I went with Brandon Sander's session, "Where do I fit in to the movement/network?", but despite my respect for Brandon, this discussion never warmed up; he had us split up in small groups to discuss the topic for 15 minutes, but we never got around to reforming in our larger group.

After a hot lunch of catered Thai food, the second round of discussions started. I picked Lion Kimbro's "Wiki and Process" due to the chronic disputes on Wikipedia over what some have called "process fetishism" -- and that I had met Lion at the first Seattle Wikimeetup. Here I learned about a new kind of Wiki software, WagN, which gives its users the ability to tag different articles. Something I admit I should a more careful look at.

For me, the best session -- and the one I most enjoyed -- was hosted by Dawn Foster and Audrey Eschright, "Art of Community". Maybe I enjoy talking about the social aspect of Wikipedia too much, but I found this was a valuable discussion of how to promote the community that nourishes the success of a Wiki. Mark Dilley, as well as our session leaders, offered a number of useful thoughts on the challenges of getting people attracted to a Wiki.

Recent Changes Camp will meet all day tomorrow, and Sunday morning. If you act now, and brave the cold, you might bag some swag that will put the usual freebie tee shirt to shame.


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Thursday, February 01, 2007


Writing articles, part IV

So how does one write a Wikipedia article?

The short version is that the process consists of two parts:

This short version is very similar to the old saw about how to make money -- by low, and sell high. The steps that are left out are the exact steps people are most interested in.

Researching any subject which is not in the immediate media spotlight is always difficult: one must identify sources, chase down information, and learn about new resources. Sometimes I wonder if I have an advantage over younger contributors to Wikipedia who too often demonstrate a tendency to limit their research to the first 50 hits from a Google search; I learned a little bit in school about how to use a library to research a subject, so I'm willing to cite books and periodicals in my articles. I also believe citing these physical sources is a good thing for two reasons: not only am I moving information from a format that is encumbered with legal limitations (such as restrictive copyrights), but I am also translating print into electronic format, which should be more durable than books made of paper and cloth. (That assumes, of course, future generations have access to our current technology, and have the knowledge to read ASCII computer files.)

However, any writer soon learns that both points above -- the research and the writing -- are hampered by other considerations. (I'm ignoring here the policies and guidelines unique to Wikipedia.) One is that the information available on any topic is incomplete: an author will always find something about a topic that she or he will never know. Sometimes this can be very crippling: I have often found my research into Ethiopian historical subjects results in barely more than a sentence or two about obviously important people. For example, until I obtained a copy of Haggai Erlich's Ras Alula, and the Scramble for Africa, I didn't even know the date this important Ethiopian died -- although I could safely assume that unless evidence points to the contrary, someone born before 1880 can be considered dead at this time. This is important to me because I believe it is not fair to write even a stub article on a person unless I know that person's approximate birth and death dates. Sometimes, no matter how hard one tries, the research is not enough to permit the article to be written.

Which leads to the limitation on the writing: every subject has a story to it, a thread that not only connects all of the facts together but answers the question "Why should this article be included in Wikipedia?" Quite frankly, there are some subjects that do not deserve inclusion in Wikipedia; what those subjects are is an ongoing debate on Wikipedia. Sometimes I feel that the subject is self-evidently important enough that it's still worthwhile to make an article out of the scraps I have found, but I try not to do this too often. I find that writing too many of these is demoralizing because I am settling to less than I know I can do.

One problem unique to Wikipedia -- and as I write this, I haven't noticed it discussed on Wikipedia -- is that all articles are constantly in change. Not only does the story of the subject change (not always due to a difference of opinion), but the facts grow and shrink. When an editor ignores this quality, the article suffers: it becomes harder to update or add material to these articles. An article should be written with consideration that other authors -- or the same author at a later date -- will want to add more information.

All of this assumes, of course, that despite the fact I have not written one article currently considered a Featured Article, my thoughts about how to write Wikipedia articles are useful.



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