Thursday, March 29, 2007


Ignore all rules

Wow. I just read what the controversial Wikipedia policy Ignore all rules said at the time I joined Wikipedia. (It's been awhile since I looked at it.)
One of Wikipedia's rules to consider:

If rules make you nervous and depressed, and not desirous of participating in the Wiki, then ignore them and go about your business.

See debate.

Compare that with the current version. Not only has the language changed, but so has the intent.


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Jimmy Wales returns to Portland

I just learned that Jimbo Wales, one of the founders of Wikipedia and co-founder of Wikia will be speaking this Monday night (2 April 2007) in the Vollum lecture hall at Reed College. Time is 7:00 pm.

Reed College in Southeast Portland, and their admissions office provides these instructions to the college; here's a map of the Reed College campus, courtesy of the college.


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Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Another Wikipedia statistical analysis

(Courtesy of the Value Wiki Blog)

An interesting, although preliminary, analysis on the relationship between anonymous editors and vandalism can be found at Wikipedia:WikiProject Vandalism studies/Study1. According to the three Wikipedians who spent the better part of two months uncovering the details and putting their results to a statistical analysis, in a given month approximately 5% of edits are vandalism and 97% of that vandalism is done by anonymous editors.

An interesting counterpoint to Aaron Swartz's often referenced essay, which argues that the majority of all content comes from editors who contribute a total of less than 25 edits: if my impression is correct, these two groups -- anonymous editors and these low-total editors -- largely overlap.

A voice worth adding to this conversation is Betsy Devine's paper from last summer's Wikimania, Schrödinger's Wiki: The Quantum Challenge of Media Attention. Her title is a bit misleading: an important point she made in her presentation was how media attention to a given Wikipedia article will lead to a flurry of anonymous edits, many of which she characterized as "vandalism" using a definition similar to the one used by the team behind the WikiProject Vandalism study above.


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Monday, March 26, 2007


One step Newspapers could take to be Wikipedia-friendly

I stumbled across this passage in a post Doc Searls wrote last Saturday:
1) Stop giving away the news and charging for the olds. Okay, give away the news, if you have to, on your website. There's advertising money there. But please, open up the archives. Stop putting tomorrow's fishwrap behind paywalls. (Dean Landsman was the first to call this a "fishwrap fee".) Writers hate it. Readers hate it. Worst of all, Google and Yahoo and Technorati and Icerocket and all your other search engines ignore it. Today we see the networked world through search engines. Hiding your archives behind a paywall makes your part of the world completely invisilble [sic]. If you open the archives, and make them crawlable by search engine spiders, your authority in your commmunity will increase immeasurably. (This point is proven by Santa Barbara vs. Fort Myers, both with papers called News-Press, one with contents behind a paywall and the other wide open.) Plus, you'll open all that inventory to advertising possibilities. And I'll betcha you'll make more money with advertising than you ever made selling stale editorial to readers who hate paying for it. (And please, let's not talk about Times Select. Your paper's not the NY Times, and the jury is waaay out on that thing.)

(After some thought, I stripped out the links in this quote. You'll just have to follow the link and read his entire post, heh heh.)

One of the frustrating things about trying to provide decent sources for any Wikipedia article about contemporary (or near-contemporary) events is that many newspapers restrict access to their articles that are more than 90 days old. (The New York Times archives stories less than a week old.) To write any article, one needs facts, facts need a citation, citations need to be easily verified, but source material from these newspaper websites vanishes behind a pay wall after a very short time. I don't know of any newspaper website that also provides information on when and where these articles were first published, so it's just a waste of time to use them for research.

This practice prevents newspapers from exploiting the niche they currently have: a generalist that creates and maintains a collection of articles, in some cases potentially stretching back decades. One Internet-savvy specialist, with enough determination, can always provide a better understanding about one specific subject than any newspaper; but someone has to provide the information on the broader picture, create the data pile for Wikipedians, bloggers, and other online researchers to mine and link to. The good stuff will be brought to the top -- where it can attract the advertising these publications need to survive. The bad stuff will stay on the hard drives, where there is little or no cost to keep them.

Lastly, I don't understand the profit motive in charging to access old news. To repeat what Doc Searls wrote, the labor and expenses needed to create these old stories have been paid for, and anything a newspaper can make from recycling them through another audience -- especially when the labor needed to sort the wheat from the chaff is all volunteer -- is just more profit. Of course, as with many business concepts involving the Internet if a new idea makes too much sense, the last few Internet bubbles have shown there might be something wrong with it; maybe there is a good reason for charging readers to access old news.


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Sunday, March 25, 2007


BarCamp notes

Somehow, I didn't learn that last Thursday meeting had been moved up to 5:30, and so I arrived towards the end, during Raven Zachary's video on the Austin BarCamp. Oops. I heard later that about 15 people from the local Ruby-on-Rails community had made it -- more than some folks even thought were in the Portland area. I did hear from Audrey Eshbright that she is compiling a list of Portland area user groups. Add yours if it's not there. And someone had brought one of those 100-dollar-laptops to show off; she left before I could do more than notice it from across the room and wonder what it was.

To attempt to make up for this, I attended the Friday planning meeting at CubeSpace the next day, and not only learned what the status of the BarCamp was, but got to tour the CubeSpace location.

Already there are seven proposed sessions on the Portland BarCamp page, one of which will be speed presentations. This is similar to the once ubiquitous "speed dating", only instead of a brief amount of time to present himself, each presenter will be talking about her or his project. I was exposed to much the same thing earlier this year at RecentCangesCamp, it worked quite well. Raven also mentioned that several start-ups will come out of stealth mode at this BarCamp and make their first public presentations. Jason Mauer of Microsoft also arrived, and from the discussion between him and Raven I expect that Microsoft will become another sponsor. (So now how can we use this to leverage money out of the other big computer companies like Google?)

One observation of CubeSpace Dawn Foster made (although I believe one or two others repeated) was that it included more area than anyone expected. At each end of the floor there are collections of cubicles identified with their own whimsical names. There are two conference rooms that can hold 30 or more people, as well as a dozen smaller rooms, each the size of an old-fashioned office, and ample space in the break room for informal gatherings. The decor is not overwhelming, but the carpet is new and in good condition, which is better than some employers I could mention. (Did I ever mention the employer who never provided me with a desk -- I was forced to use a folding table -- the entire time I worked there?) The chief drawback I could see during my visit is that they need more tenants, but I BarCamp doubtlessly will help them get out the word about this overlooked resource.

Another one would be O Guild.


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Saturday, March 24, 2007


Frank Miller is a Wanker: why I won't ever watch The 300

The night before I went into surgery, I saw a commercial for this movie. It was the first time I had heard about it. I knew Miller's reputation, and had read some of his Batman comics, so my first reaction was that he might have created a good movie.

Before the end of that commercial, I knew I would hate that movie, and swore I would never watch it. Simply put, no one involved in this travesty understood the point of the Battle of Thermopylae. Only a wanker would feel the need to stick all sorts of useless add-ons in this movie to make it more exciting. People, if you can't tell the story of this battle simply, without adding a love story or turning the enemy into monsters, then you can't tell any story of war. Find a line of work more to your level of ability like greeting cards or pornography.

I have been thinking of writing this post for several weks now, but never could find a way to start. It took Gary Brecher's review of this bad movie to finally get me started. Like me, he is critical of the movie. But he says some things about ancient Sparta that I would argue against -- but I'd rather focus on the one, redeeming fact of this entire action that he overlooks, that not only made the Spartans heroic, but Miller and his fellow hacks could not wrap their impaired minds around.

They fought to the death.

Until that moment, all battles that people on either side had fought were not particularly disciplined affairs. Yes, the soldiers fought hard in those earlier battles, and soldiers in those battles died before ever thinking about retreating. But if you read between the lines of Herodotus' account, you can see that neither Greek nor Persian expected the Spartan-led rearguard to fight to the death. Warfare in those days was a matter of fighting until one side sensed that it was getting the worse of the battle -- then leave the battlefield. Sometimes opposing armies would camp across from each other, prey on each other's foraging parties, then decamp and go their own directions. Usually the losing side got away without a pursuit because the winning side wasn't that disciplined either: the soldiers might chase them for a few dozen yards, but then they returned to their camp to unwind after a hard-fought battle, proud that they had proved their opponents were cowards.

Further, since that battle, there have been very few occasions where one army fought to the death like the Spartans did. Some armies, when trap and having no way out, will fight like cornered animals -- but only until they can negotiate a truce or surrender. But most, when the battle reaches a certain point, will break and run, hoping to live to fight another day. (To be part of a defeated army is a situation none want to be in, and none are proud of surviving.) Even the Japanese samurai ethos -- that the way of the warrior is death -- can break down in a battle; some will commit suicide rather than surrender, or fight and die to buy time so their superior can commit suicide; others slip away in the chaos of a disintegrating army. Even the bitter hilltown sieges that the Romans faced in Hispania -- or the siege of Masada in Judea -- were not battles to the death, but instances where the losing side preferred suicide to surrender. They made a grim, but pragmatic, choice: rather than risk a moment's panic -- and capture -- they embraced death by their own hands.

The only other battle I know of where one side fought to the death -- I admit that my knowledge of Japanese history is not complete -- was the Battle of Camarón, where a company of French Foreign Legionaires were almost wiped out by a superior Mexican force. For understandable reasons, that unit celebrates this rare feat, and has made this event part of its spirit. (I hope Miller never attempts to make a film about that battle!)

The rearguard action at Thermopylae, where the 300 (actually, almost 300 -- Herodotus mentions by name three men who were not at the beginning of the battle for one reason or another) fell could be said to have been an unnecessary loss of men. The Persians had moved thousands of soldiers around the Greek position, and unless the Greeks left Thermopylae all of them would have been annihilated. The entire Greek force could have fallen back -- but king Leonidas decided to stand and fight with his Spartans.

And there were other Greeks in this rearguard action. The largest group was from the city of Thespiae, 700 Thespians, all citizen soldiers. I don't know why they are never mentioned in the text books, except that they are often confused with the other kind of Thespians -- actors -- and no elite soldier wants to contemplate that a group of effinate theatre people could accomplish something he may never be able to do. The other group -- about 400 Thebans -- aren't mentioned for a very understandable reason: at one point on this last day of the battle, they switched over to the Persian side.

Nevertheless, the Spartans and Thespians fought hard, first with a reckless charge, a banzai charge, into the Persian lines with the intention of killing as many of their opponents as they could. Herdotus mentions that many famous Persians fighting this mad assault; they include two brothers of the Emperor Xerxes. Leonidas fell in that assault, as did Captain Danjou at Camarón; the Greeks fought on, making four assaults to recover the king's body from the more numerous Persians. And when word came that the Persians had emerged from the mountains behind them, they withdrew to a small hill, where they made their last stand. George Rawlinson translates Herodotus' description of their end:
Here they defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth; till the barbarians, who in part had pulled down the wall and attacked them in front, in part had gone around and now encircled them upon every side, overwhelmed and buried the remnant which was left beneath showers of missile weapons.

Please read that very carefully. These men still fought on with what weapons they had left. The long spears and shields they started the morning left were shattered or lost by this point. Some still had the Greek sword of the period, a short thing about the size and effectiveness of a kitchen knife, but those who lacked even this fought with their hands and teeth. Against this weakened foe, surrounded, outnumbered, doubtlessly lacking any food or water, the Persian generals decided that it was too risky to send their soldiers in, and from a safe distance finished them with volley after volley of arrows.

This was the image I had that night before I underwent surgery. Although it was the first time I ever was put under anesthesia,I knew that I had nothing to worry about. I knew many people who had undergone day surgery, and found that it was uneventful; one of them was Yvette. However, I could not sleep that night due to nerves, so I read that part of Herodotus to pass the night, about men resolute before death, and I felt shame; thinking about this absurd gilding of the lily left me insulted on their behalf.


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Friday, March 23, 2007


Is Wikipedia approaching a barrier?

A couple of years ago, I speculated that the growth of Wikipedia's articles would plateau somewhere between five to ten million articles. My reason for that speculation was simple: after a certain point, it becomes increasingly easier to work on existing articles, than to create new ones.

As an example, consider all possible Wikipedia articles about Ethiopia. The first few possible subjects are easy to name: an article about the nation, its history, economy, geography, etc. -- all of the topics that the average encyclopedia article would have. The next step is a little harder, but still straightforward & easily done -- series of articles on related things, like its rulers or heads of states, the historic provinces or the current subdivisions, or major battles. (Warfare seems to be a perennial favorite topic, second only to pop culture topics.) Another avenue is mining online sources for further topics: translation from one electronic format to another is always faster than translation from print to electronic. Yet eventually all of the low-hanging fruit gets picked, and a would-be contributor finds it easier to improve existing articles than create new ones.

There is also the dynamic that some articles -- either stubs or articles of marginal importance -- are merged into a single article. Consider the Patriarchs of Alexandria: of the first 12 office holders, only Mark the Evangelist and Demetrius are little more than names for even the most informed specialist. One of my long-procrastinated projects is to combine the entries of ten of these ancient religious leaders into a single article, with the little information we possess about them; when this is done, 10 articles will effectively become one -- effectively decreasing this statistic.

That is why I found Sage Ross' analysis important: where I have been guessing, he did the necessary number-crunching to prove that this limit is already approaching. He writes:
Another side to the watershed, which nobody is quite recognizing yet, relates to the limits of Wikipedia. The exponential phase of (English) Wikipedia's growth (in terms of number of articles, and in terms of number of active users) is probably over. From 2003 to mid-2006, the number of articles had followed a very regular exponential pattern. Had exponential growth continued, it would have hit 2,000,000 a few weeks ago; it just passed 1,700,000 today. The average number of articles created per day since late December (around 1724) has actually been lower than the average number per day over the previous year (1823). This difference is only partly the result of the always slower holiday season.

Sage's conclusion is identical to mine: "It seems that available unwritten encyclopedic topics is becoming a significant constraint."

If we are correct, the principle of least work -- the easiest tasks will almost always be completed first -- would predict that the quality of Wikipedia's articles will start to gradually improve, because that is becoming the easiest task on Wikipedia to do now. Even if this first takes the form of automated edits -- running bots to make large numbers of repetative changes. Eventually, someone will have to acknowledge the countless requests for sources that dot so many Wikipedia articles, and begin the long, tedious task of researching the issue and meeting that demand. It will be interesting to observe Wikipedia's reputation in schools and the mass media once that effort has made notable progress.


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Thursday, March 22, 2007


Staff changes at the Foundation today

I guess I should have mentioned this earlier, but today first Danny Wool, Wikimedia Foundation fundraiser resigned, then Brad Patrick, who has some kind of executive position in the foundation, announced his resignation effective 31 March of this year.

All I know about Danny's departure is what he writes in his resignation letter. I'm not as happy about his exit as Elonka is -- but I am as surprised as she is.

And I'm not trying to be snide about Brad; it's just that when he was introduced at last summer's Wikimania, he would be not only the general counsel, but also acting Foundation CEO to replace Jimbo. There is a friendly-looking lady listed as COO, but I haven't heard much from her yet.


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Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Oh yeah -- some Wikipedia policy changes were reverted

It might seem odd to some, but the merging of the policies known as Verifiability, No Original Research and Reliable Sources into Attribution -- and Jimbo's reversion of that merge didn't actually register with me. Yes, partly because I had something else on my mind, but mostly because no matter which way this thing goes, it won't affect me, just another Wikipedian, as much as some might think.

The reason is simple: I don't pay that close of attention to how these things shake out. I follow my common sense, the intent of these policies (which isn't going to change in a meaningful way) and my experience for how things have been done on Wikipedia, and that works in most situations. I'd like to say that when it doesn't, assuming good faith towards my fellow Wikipedians fixes the problem -- but too often I lose my temper, so that really isn't my solution. This doesn't mean I'm a passionate advocate of Ignore all rules; the rules and processes are there to make things more predictable. I just try to follow the Latin dictum: Rem tene, uerbe sequentur -- "Hold to the idea, and the actions will follow."

And besides, the rules and policies can be changed with a simple series of keyboard and mouse clicks at any time. I'd rather say that I was not following a policy to the letter because of ignorance -- not because I intentionally decided to "Ignore all rules." People who insist on enforcing policies that closely quickly leave Wikipedia.

Nor do I mean to imply that I ignored that project. I looked in at the beginning, saw that it was in the hands of a capable Wikipedian, Slim Virgin, and decided to focus my attention on something more interesting. Also, I have an admitted interest in the "Original Research" policy, and figured that I'd just encounter something that I didn't like and lose my temper over its -- which would not benefit me or anyone else. And lastly, the exact wording of policies are important only to two classes of people: newbies, who are learning the rules; and troublemakers, who are looking for ways to twist the language around in order to create mischief.

I should hope by now that I know how things work on Wikipedia; if I haven't, then I have more problems than this piece of policy.


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Tuesday, March 20, 2007


About my silence

I've been wrapped up in a very emotional debate over blocking links to a certain website. I won't say more than that, because I'm not interested in rousing my readers (well, rousing that one person who has a Wikipedia account and is still reading) to charge into the debate. Which is why I try to stay out of all controversies: I just don't have the energy to both improve articles and debate policy at the same time.

That lack of energy is the likely reason I'll never be considered as one of the dominant voices of Wikipedia. I accepted that many months ago, despite my envy when I see other editors profiled as "typical Wikipedians". I want to be profiled too!

I just hope that all of you who have been checking my blog and wondering why I suddenly stopped posting will continue to check in. I still have some thoughts I'd like to share with everyone.


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Saturday, March 17, 2007


Upcoming events

BarCamp Portland now has not only a date (11-12 May), but a place: Cubespace, located at 622 SE Grand will host the event. According to an email from Dawn Foster, "They have a large break room where we can fit around a hundred people for kickoffs and the Saturday evening DemoCamp. They also have 2 larger
conference rooms (25 people) and a few medium to small rooms giving us plenty of space for multiple sessions."

An event I just learned about which will be held later this year in Portland, is "Ubuntu Live", 22-24 July. Sponsored not only by Canonical, O'Reilly and Associates will also be involved, in order to tie it in with their better-known OSCON. I guess they've noticed the growing success of various informal events growing up around OSCON like OSCamp and FOSCON.


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Friday, March 16, 2007


Writing articles, another strategy

Reading Sage Ross's post "A day in the Wiki life", I was reminded of the strategy I've used in the last few days to contribute content to Wikipedia. It's something that is not exactly intuitive, was difficult to do well in the early days (although this was used as the basis for a large number of Wikipedia articles), but I think this strategy needs to be done more often.

Quite simply described, I'm taking a standard reference work (most recently, I was using Zohary and Hopf's Domestication of plants in the Old World., third edition for this), taking what the book says about the origin of a given crop (say, Emmer or Watermelon), and adding it to the specific article. This is different from the usual manner I believe many editors follow, which is subject-centered, by being source-centered.

This is how so much material was imported from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica and other works in the public domain. Unfortunately, the way we did this is that now many of these articles have unsourced statements or facts that a reader might assume all came from that source. I learned from this mistake: all of my contributions are referenced -- although perhaps not in the best way.

I think in some ways this strategy is better for Wikipedia, because this helps to smooth out the uneven depth of coverage in articles -- a problem which plagues the project. Further, adding material in this way is less controversial than adding it in a subject-centric manner, because it avoids needing to deal with those people who insist on impressing their own idiosyncratic points of view upon the article -- at least so far. And in the end, the person consulting Wikipedia doesn't know how the information got there.

One drawback is the endemic problem of uneven style, which this strategy may aggravate. I do make an effort to fix this when I encounter it and when I have the time -- yet sometimes there are style problems that cannot be easily overcome. Another is that now that I've talked about it, I'll probably start adding content following yet another strategy.

Still another is that there are about 40 woredas in Ethiopia needing articles, drafts for them in various levels of completeness are sitting on my computer's hard drive, and I feel guilty for not finishing that project.


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Throwing the Baby out with the Bathwater

Something I just posted to The Village Pump on Wikipedia:

My attention was drawn to an edit on my Talk page, and as I researched the facts around it, I became more troubled at what happened. Maybe I'm behind the times, coming from left field, etc., but I don't like what I have found.

First, I am against spam -- in Wikipedia, in my email, anywhere. No reputable business knowingly uses spam to advertise, pure and simple.

However, it appears that it is far easier for a website to be listed as a spammer than it is to remove it. In the case I encountered, someone on an IRC channel claimed that the website "" was identified as a target of a spammer. Another Wikipedian (who, I want to point out, was acting in good faith) acted on this claim and began to "delink" every link to that website, without regard to who added it; the editor obviously was working as fast as she could. (By "delink" I mean that a nowiki tag was inserted so that one could not click-thru; one could still follow the link by copying the text of the URL into the browser.)

As a result, in several articles, talk pages, and many other places where it was clearly part of the context we lost references (I believe several of these edits have since been reverted).

Note: I have no problem with IRC being used to quickly respond to emergencies. In this case, if a spammer had been obviously adding links to this website in Wikipedia, alerting Admins to this fact would be very much appropriate, but then the site should be nominated on the spam list, and discussion follow before it is added.

This editor was contacted by several established & knowledgable Wikipedias, who demanded an explanation. She explained about the IRC channel, & referred them to this site on meta, where the website had been listed without any sign of a discussion that I have been able to find. This forum for discussion is not well-publicized (unlike, for example, WP:AfD), and a Wikipedian can contribute for a long period of time without even knowing even exists. However, there is currently a petition by a number of Wikipedians (some who have demonstrated extensive knowledge of Egyptology) to remove this website from the spam list.

In short, four things happened that I think are wrong:
  1. This website was blacklisted on the basis of something said in off-Wikipedia locale. Not every Wikipdian has access to IRC, or chooses too use it. Further, in a recent ArbCom ruling, it was found that Wikipedia IRC channels are not part of Wikipedia. If you want to set policy for Wikipedia, do it on Wikipedia where the rest of us can be expected to participate.
  2. Unless it is clearly the work of a spammer, don't "delink" the links. This is not a subjective judgement call: there are some very simple rules one can follow:
    In short, four things happened that I think are wrong:
  3. This website was blacklisted on the basis of something said in off-Wikipedia locale. Not every Wikipdian has access to IRC, or chooses too use it. Further, in a recent ArbCom ruling, it was found that Wikipedia IRC channels are not part of Wikipedia. If you want to set policy for Wikipedia, do it on Wikipedia where the rest of us can be expected to participate.
  4. Unless it is clearly the work of a spammer, don't "delink" the links. This is not a subjective judgement call: there are some very simple rules one can follow:
    A. All of the edits are made by the same person;
    B. if it's in the "External links" section; or
    C. the link is added without regard to context.
  5. Concerned editors were forced to find out why these edits were made, then forced to find the location (which was unexpected) where they could participate in the decision process.
  6. Lastly, despite obvious clues to the contrary, they bear the burden of proof that the links are ''not'' spam.

As I said above, I admit that I may be out of the loop here. However, I feel that this is a violation of the spirit of Wikipedia -- where we discuss and create concensus upon matters. Some Wikipedians claim that they are smart enough to know when they can safely ignore all rules; in this case, I think it is clear that rules were ignored and stupid edits were made.


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Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Paid editing

Well-intended William Pietri has proposed a ban on paid editing. I believe he not only fails to understand why people disagree with him, but that there a large number of Wikipedians in good standing who would accept a paycheck to contribute to Wikipedia -- as long as the agreement was on their terms.

First, I'd venture to say that the current, but unofficial, consensus towards paid editing is that it should not be done -- so Pietri's structure is unnecessary. I bet if you made an edit to an article and stated that you were paid to make the edit, it would be reverted rather quickly. Wikipedians are suspicious of any paid edits because this relationship implies that the employer dictates the content and intent of the edits -- which always is to make a given company or individual look good. So not only is Pietri's proposal unnecessary, it reaffirms the current bias against paid editing.

All of the discussion about allowing paid editing is simply proposing that the Wikipedia (and where appropriate, Wikimedia) communities to allow this practice.

Second, even if paid advertising were allowed, I and several others argue that the current rules and guidelines work well enough to combat the unwanted effect paid editing might have on Wikipedia. Bad edits do get reverted or removed -- even if this doesn't happen as fast as we'd like. Tendentious editors eventually run into strictures like the three-revert rule, civility, and general complaints of obnoxiousness. If it was discovered that this tendentious editor was receiving a paycheck while doing all of this, he'd be kicked off Wikipedia faster than an unpaid one. And an editor who is paid to present a bias, who gets himself barred from Wikipedia for doing this, has proven that he is not a valuable employee and will be fired; so it could be said that paid editors have more of a reason to follow the rules.

What would further help here is a Wikipedian code of ethics -- something that I've occasionally mentioned. The purpose of such a code would be to reassure other Wikipedians that the person is putting Wikipedia's best interests first.

A final point is that there is no way to enforce this rule: if someone is offered chunk of money to edit Wikipedia -- as in the recent example of Almeda College -- they will have further motivation to find a way to break the rules and cause trouble. It's a tribute to the ethics of the average Wikipedian that offers of paid editing haven't been made sooner.

There is a "teaching moment" (to use a neologism) when a corporation -- or a business group -- dangles a contract before a Wikipedian; instead of making an edit to an article, they can teach the corporation how to encourage Wikipedians to write about them -- or their products. The reason why many articles on Wikipedia aren't better is that it's difficult to find material that could be re-used on Wikipedia. Many articles on books, actors and celebrities, movies, and music will never reach Featured article status because there are no license-free images for that subject. I'm not suggesting that the entire work be made free of copyright (although if that did happen, I'd be happy): simply releasing an image or two under the GNU Free Documentation License or a very open Creative Commons license will be enough. And due to the fact that these images are free, these will be the ones redistributed -- not amateurish, copyright-infringing screen captures. Press packets are full of material studios and recording companies want to get out -- why not change the terms of re-use, and let their fans help with the promotion?

And as a last note to this theme, if I paid a Wikipedian to edit an article, I'd expect that, at the minimum, it became an A-class article. I can't imagine a project manager paying a contractor for anything less.

There are many other examples where a Wikipedian could help a corporation without ever writing one word on Wikipedia. Sometimes, it can just simply be explaining why a business should not have an article on Wikipedia -- and suggesting an alternative (like instead.

The principal argument for paid editing is that established editors (like yours truly) could make a living contributing to Wikipedia. Many professionals make a living from their craft, such as teachers, doctors and accountants. Several corporations hire programmers to contribute to community software projects like Linux and FreeBSD; so why not Wikipedia?

After all, established Wikipedians have a reputation and their edits (like it or not) have more plausibility than less established editors -- say an anonymous editor identified only by an IP address, or an editor who created an account less than six months ago. They also know how Wikipedia works, more or less -- and are more likely to make their contributions stick.

Another argument for is that many experts are employed in the private sector, and cannot edit in their field of expertise without being caught up in this rule. After all, does it matter that an article about a corporation became a Featured Article because of the efforts of a volunteer editor, that corporation's offer of a $100 gift certificate to their employees, or someone working in their corporate PR department? The Wikipedia community has experience dealing with publicity campaigns, and it would take a very sophisticated one to sneak bad material into Wikipedia without it being detected.

But I doubt things will change soon: for the foreseeable future, most paid editing will be in the form of unscrupulous businessmen like SEOs, who attempt to twist articles on Wikipedia to benefit them, are thwarted, then whine about their failure. The idea of ethical paid editing is just too radical for the average Wikipedian to be comfortable with. Yet I know its time will arrive.


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Monday, March 12, 2007


A late, but better than never, notice

Blogger seems to be ironing out more bugs in its software, which means I can stop using my private, little work-around and edit my blog directly from my workstation once again. I think it's a good thing, because it means I can post more often.

Something I meant to post about over the weekend (was the Blogger software why I haven't earlier? maybe): Erik Moeller has put together a Wikipedia/Wikimedia specific blog aggregator, Planet WikipediaWikimedia. The number of blogs subscribed is slowly growing, yet already includes a few I didn't know exist. Good work, Erik.


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Sunday, March 11, 2007


Responses to "Wikipedia burnout"

I saw, late as usual, some responses from Wikipedia:Village pump (news) to my earlier post Wikipedia burnout: an analysis. I hope that I don't too desperate for feedback by reprinting them here.

I thought it was interesting. As you say, regrettably a few people have been driven away permanently. However, I think Wikibreaks are a good thing. They can be quite useful when the stress level gets too high ("I can't leave now! Wikipedia NEEDS me! Gotta check my watchlist!"). You made a good point about the retention rate, we do lose a lot of people. However, this is an online project, and editors don't necessarily feel obliged to stay on. To put it in different words, "Old Wikipedians never die, they just fade away." GhostPirate 21:49, 1 March 2007 (UTC)

Nice paraphrasing of Douglas McArthur in above comment, GhostPirate, and nice essay on the blog, Llwrch. Very interesting. It kinda makes me not want to be an admin when I hear these tales of admins asking to be de-synopsed. Captain panda In vino veritas 04:20, 2 March 2007 (UTC)

It may be significant for some of your analysis to take note that Fred Bauder appears to have created Wikinfo in 2003. Wikinfo currently largely imports articles from Wikipedia. Hence in a way Fred Bauder has harnessed Wikipedia to Fred Bauder's own project. This may serve as a possible explanation why Fred Bauder does not burn out. Itayb 13:52, 2 March 2007 (UTC)

Old wikipedians never die, they just revert. -- RJH (talk) 19:36, 8 March 2007 (UTC)

The best way to keep stress levels down is ensuring civility. When new users join there're often told about the Five Pillars of Wikipedia, How to edit a page, Help pages, Tutorials, How to write a great article, Manual of Style -- that's a lot of information! Given how many members of this Web site are teenagers, how likely is it that it all gets read? And even if it does... etiquette is a long way down the list. Maybe when you sign up to jin you should be asked your age. Older users could be given all this info and younger ones might have something smaller with WP:TEA, WP:DBAD or WP:TIGERS near the top of the list. Pitch your message to your audience? Coricus 19:26, 10 March 2007 (UTC)


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Friday, March 09, 2007


Age and Wikipedia

An issue that Wikipedia needs to address: the enthusiastic, intelligent young person who is eager to prove how smart he or she is. I notice this type of person because they are the ones who do things such as promote an extremely rigorous reading of the policies and guidelines. To them, if you have a verifiable source of the population of a locale, then divide it by the area (for which you also have a verifiable source) of that local, unless you can provide a source for the density, they consider original research -- something that we do not want in Wikipedia for a variety of reasons.

Usually, a few gentle words is all that it takes to reassure them that it sort of thing is permitted -- or should be permitted. But the anxiety of youth (where one has to deal with the problem of being taken seriously by out-of-touch adults) combined with a good deal of energy (one of the things I miss about growing older) makes for a delicate problem: they question everything, look for every opportunity to show they know something, yet lack the patience to accept that sometimes improving Wikipedia requires a lot of tedium.

Note: I am not criticizing any of these young people in this post. I simply wish I knew how I could channel all of this eagerness into areas where they could benefit Wikipedia, which would give them the recognition they are looking for. Cultivating them means that I help grow Wikipedia's community. Despite the experience I have, and they don't, sometimes I don't realize what the motivations in an exchange on Wikipedia are -- until it is too late.

And then, it would also require them to trust that I am doing the best thing -- which is not always the case.


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Thursday, March 08, 2007


Wikipedia's latest threat

The latest serious threat to Wikipedia's mission to create a free encyclopedia -- since the userbox war a little more than a year ago -- has raised its head: autograph pages. Word of their existence has even penetrated to WikiEN-l.

So far, the considered response is ... ignore them unless they are disputive. An example would be if the autograph page owner starts spamming everyone to sign her/his page; in that case, the person will be appropriately handled. I guess something was learned from the last encounter with silly fads.

My opinion about autograph pages? If you want to be my friend on Wikipedia, send me an email. It means more to me than demonstrating any amount of ingenuity with a signature.


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Wednesday, March 07, 2007


The Essjay affair, postmortem part II

I haven't seen it asked on Wikipedia, so I'll state it here: How did Essjay manage to bluff his way into convincing other Wikipedians that his fictional persona was true?

First, let me get one thing out of the way: there is no penalty for misrepresenting yourself on your Wikipedia user page -- nor do I think that there should be. If you've participated online for any length of time, you've heard of stories where an online persona is revealed not to be anything like the person at the respective keyboard. Some people think it's hip to make up an online identity that's obviously false in order to point out that they know online identity is unreliable (e.g., "I am a tabby whose hobbies include eating, sleeping, demanding that my humans pay attention to me, and improving Wikipedia articles"). There's a bit of a thrill in pretending that you're someone you're actually not, and as long as it remains harmless fun, why should it be banned? Others are advocating for a way to offer assurance that they are who they say they are -- and creating a way that a reputation created in one part of the internet can be transferred to another. I tend towards that end of the spectrum: if you do a search on my username "llywrch", you'll find a large number of my contributions not only to Wikipedia, but to a lot of other fora where I have posted.

However, as Andrew Lih has pointed out, where Essjay went wrong was abusing this fictional persona: he lied to other Wikipedians that he was a tenured professor of theology, and repeated the same lie to a reporter while he was representing Wikipedia.

So, one might ask, since we never questioned the material on his user page, why should we then start worrying about these further lies? Because an identity and reputation in a community begins with one's actions. We Wikipedians insist that each of us (at least initially) assumes good faith when interacting with each other: if you tell me that a given town does not exist because you've been to that place and there is only a large field, I expect that you're telling the truth; if I tell you that my copy of book has a certain passage in it, I expect you to accept that I am telling the truth. Woe to all of us if that is not the case.

And despite Wikipedia's alleged reputation for being anti-expert, if a Wikipedian identifies her or himself as an expert on a Talk page, far more often than not other Wikipedians will defer to their expertise. If it's clear that someone speaks fluent Amharic, what will I gain if I demand that they provide a written source for words or translations from Amharic? After all, Wikipedia is a Wiki, and if or when a better source is found we can always correct the fact. Pragmatism forces us to assume good faith.

Although our good will can be manipulated by someone intent on bluffing his way, that is the case in real life. The difference between online communities and physical communities is that online communities often keep extensive records of what was said; physical communities rarely preserve more than a small fraction of their conversations -- which should have applied in this case. However, much of his questionable behavior was buried deep under 20,000 edits. Sometimes transparency can become opaque, and at least one Wikipedian has regretted that he could not sift through all of these edits before Essjay had been nominated.

What helped him in this bluff was to also contribute constructively to Wikipedia; had he persisted in pretending to be a professor, this deception would have been uncovered much sooner. By contributing to difficult tasks like handling disputes and dealing with vandals, he gained the trust of many influential members, who allowed him to move past these acts. Does this mean that he could have changed his behavior, and came to regret this fictitious persona? Although his edits have been found and collected, the collection has been obscured by people eager to bring the matter to an end, and so it's now difficult to recover precisely his state of mind when he wrote.

Consider this example. Essjay used his fictional persona to respond to an anonymous poster. It is the kind of response that any veteran Wikipedian could make in an off moment, tired from having dealt with sophomoric editors, troublemakers, and vandals. Or it might have been unfairly using a lie to win an argument; at this point, it's hard to say. And the fact he got himself into a corner that quitting Wikipedia could only get him out of makes further investigation moot.

In short, I wish Jimbo's nominations had been more openly discussed, so that the power of many eyes could have been used to mine the data. That might have enabled us to have averted this mistake. Physical, real-life communities fail when there isn't enough discussion and transparency; Wikipedia could also fail for the same cause.


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Tuesday, March 06, 2007


The Essjay affair, postmortem part I

(Note: this isn't the essay I was planning to write yesterday. I hope that this is a better one.)

I'm more than a little surprised that my Friday post, "I guess I should write about Ryan Jordan" continues to attract so many hits -- especially because Essjay has resigned from both Wikipedia and Wikia. At the moment, that post is one of my most-read.

Honestly, I thought Fuzheado discusses the entire affair than I have, beginning with his first post, then his first update, his second update, and even today's post. I just wrote my gut feelings as a simple Wikipedian, nothing special; and I discovered afterwards that everything useful I either wrote -- or meant to write had already been written. (I'll admit I left a link to this post on a related discussion page, but only to provide full disclosure of my opinion, but the interest started long before that.)

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised. People joke that modern people have very short attention spans (claiming a figure of anywhere from 15 seconds to 24 hours), but serious issues require humans time -- I'd guess a minimum of a week -- to process serious issues. They need to investigate, to reflect and understand, then do something to show that they've finished processing the event -- for example, post an opinion either on Wikipedia or a forum outside of Wikipedia -- before they can move on. Despite the fact that the clever phrase "Internet time" -- meaning a constant, accelerated pace -- has been in use for almost 15 years, people still function at a much slower pace for a number of reasons. So despite events, this is still not over for many people, and might not be for many days.


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Monday, March 05, 2007


Fighting the power

Today, I'm encountering one of the Internet's most powerful enemies: a warm, sunny day. It's almost spring here, and I contributed to global warming driving around with the windows down, instead of diligently typing away on a computer keyboard in a dark room.

Unless I am captured by this nice day, I'll be posting something more substantial later today.



Friday, March 02, 2007


I guess I should write about Ryan Jordan

I spent today adding material from Zohary and Hopf's Domestication of plants in the Old World, third edition (Oxford, 2000), a project I mentioned in an earlier post. I also spent some time listening to Ed Schultz talk about the RIAA's crusade against "copyright piracy", and thought he had been snowed by that corporate organization. And lastly, I spent part of the day on some personal business which, if it turns out well, I'll be sharing here in the not so distant future.

I didn't spend today monitoring the usual fora on Wikipedia, and it was only by happenstance I saw today's post at Wikipedia Blog, "Oy. There's a complicated, messy scandal unfolding." He has the links to follow there, if you're like me and know nothing about it until now. And by now, everything worth saying has been said by everyone else, so even though I'm keeping a blog (which needs a steady diet of new posts) I'm not sure it's worth to the time for me to write -- or you to read -- yet one more opinion about this.

But after some thought, I realized that there were a few things worth mentioning:

  1. When I saw the name "Essjay", I wasn't quite sure just who he was. You see there's this Wikipedian named Essjay, then another Wikipedian named Sj who helped to make last year's Wikimania in Boston work, and another Wikipedian sjc, who once praised my work on Arthur-related articles many years ago when I first started to contribute to Wikipedia. It is confusing enough that at one point one of these three (or a fourth I've now forgotten) had a note on his user page explaining that these were different people.

    I have to wonder if Jimbo, when he defended Essjay, momentarily confused these people. I know I had a hard time keeping them them straight, and had to look each one up before I wrote this to keep my facts straight.

  2. Wikiblog describes Essjay as "one of the most powerful admins on Wikipedia". And yet I have had practically no interaction that I can remember with this person in all of the years I've contirbuted to Wikipedia. Now that I've written that, I'm sure someone will look at all of the possible places our paths might have crossed and show that, yes, we did exchange opinions once or twice. But he's spent his time doing his thing and I've spent my time doing my thing, and this "most powerful admin" has never influenced me to act in a way that I might not have otherwise done. Being the most powerful Wikipedian and three bucks will get you a 16 ounce latte at Starbucks.

    Then again, I'm not part of any "inner circle" that exists at Wikipedia. Some days I doubt such a thing exists; other days, I see things happen that make me wonder.

  3. There are allegations that Essjay used his fictitious persona to exert undue influence over other Wikipedians. I don't know if these allegations are true, or if true they are serious; but if they are both, do we want to entrust someone who has done that with the responsibility Essjay currently enjoys?


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Another Thursday night at PLUG

Feeling guilty over missing so many get-togethers last month, I had to go to last night's Portland Linux/UNIX Group meeting in order to keep my techie credentials somewhat believable. The presentation was by Brian Martin, who talked about the challenge of implementing his recovery plan after his employer was struck by the Loma Linda earthquake.

What I'm going to provide here are the contents of the Powerpoint slides of his presentation -- well, what they might have read if he had Powerpoint slides for his presentation.

First was the three steps of disaster management, in the order of importance Brian assigned them:

  1. Take regular backups;
  2. Move these backups off-site; and
  3. Develop a disaster recovery plan.

His reasons for this order was simple: You can recover better from a disaster if you have backups and no disaster recovery plan than the other way around. And without regular backups, there is no reason (except an obsession with useless procedure) to move tapes off-site unless they contain backups.

Next would come filler material: photos of the earthquake damage, airport interiors, Brian after wearing the same set of clothes for three days. (poor guy never had a chance between the earthquake and arriving at the hot backup site in Philadelphia to go home and pack). While this eye candy flashed on the screen, Brian could tell the story of what happened, and since he's a better story teller than I am, I'll just let you know that he's planning on repeating this presentation to other groups.

And at the end, would come a set of slides emphasizing the message of his presentation. He didn't bother to talk much about the technical points; that part went without a hitch, especially because his team had been practicing for this this on a regular basis and worked out any bugs with that. His emphasis was on the non-technical problems that he and his fellow workers spent five to six days coping with. I'd summarize them as follows:

  1. When the manager of the data center declares a disaster, starting the recovery process, he will start spending lots and lots of money -- and much of it will be wasted because the goal is to get the business back online.
  2. There will be a number of unforeseen events. For example, vendors will fail to do what you need them to do, a disaster will effect a lot more than just the computer center, and so on.
  3. Create your own personal recovery plan. Each member of the team needs to take care of himself and his family first. (Remember, Brian spent three days wearing the same three-piece suit because he never had a chance to get home.)
  4. The disaster recovery plan should not start with the words "In the case of a disaster" because that supposes the plan implementer is comfortable making that determination. It should also include guidelines so that person does not lose time worrying whether he should declare an emergency.

After that we all went out for beer, which some consider is the most important part of the meeting.


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Thursday, March 01, 2007


A few more links

I've been busy contributing to Wikipedia, so I'm offering the following links I've recently found with a minimum of comment:


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