Monday, May 28, 2007


An essay about Wikipedia worth reading

Dan Tobias' "Why BADSITES is bad policy". While I agree with his point -- that there are too many websites one cannot link to from within Wikipedia, I don't know if I agree entirely with this essay. I just found it, and I need to think about what he wrote and read his words again.

On the other hand, I am troubled by volunteers to this project who in certain areas argue that Wikipedia is not censored, yet in other areas passionately argue for the removal or suppression of information. (Maybe I'm one of these inconsistent people; that's one reason I need to think some more about his essay.) For example, one cannot create an external link to Encyclopedia Dramatica from Wikipedia due to its track record of making hurtful comments on various prominent Wikipedians -- although I know of at least one well-respected Wikipedian who has an account there.

If Wikipedia is to truthfully reflect the interests of its users, then its criteria for inclusion -- those things that should be considered notable -- will constantly be changing, in directions that neither Jimbo Wales nor I can forsee. Consider which topics the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica felt were important enough to need inclusion -- and those that were unimportant enough to ignore -- and compare them to a list of which topics any educated person today might compile; if we can look back at this serious reference work and consider it prejudiced and incomplete, would the people even ten years from now think the current version of Wikipedia imperfect for similar reasons? I often think about that question, and find myself wondering if I am helping to keep it free of those flaws.


Technocrati tags: , ,

Labels: ,

Sunday, May 27, 2007


Elitism and Wikipedia -- a delayed post

Yesterday I spent most of the day in yardwork with Yvette: we pruned back bushes in the yeard which had not been touched for years -- if ever -- then clipped the branches into smaller pieces to be taken away. Yesterday I also received the copy of David Buxton's Travels in Ethiopia, a very readable book full of details I look forward to adding to articles in Wikipedia.

In other words, even on my days off, I have little time to write.

That is why I'm publishing here an essay I wrote several weeks back, but hadn't shared yet. I had almost forgotten about it, otherwise I would have shared it sooner.


I think Larry Sanger misses the point in his essay, "Who Says We Know: on the New Politics of Knowledge" (which I found thanks to Joseph Reagle). And if my analysis is correct, then the arguments that Encyclopedia Britannica relies on -- and, as afar as the average Wikipedian responds to them in their thinking, they too -- are similarly flawed.

Sanger's assumption is that experts -- those at the top of the skill level in their fields -- will always produce a better encyclopedia -- or organized collection of knowledge than any larger group of people, but who are as skilled. At least this is what I conclude from statements like: "Professionals are no longer needed for the bare purpose of the mass distribution of information and the shaping of opinion. The hegemony of the professional in determining our background knowledge is disappearing--a deeply profound truth that not everyone has fully absorbed."

Sanger pictures the advocates of Wikipedia (and their Web 2.0 supporters) as endorsing this view of information handling, and composes his argument in response to this egalitarian assumption: that while professionals may not be experts, there are people who are far more informed than others in various fields of knowledge -- who are experts. Sanger might have left himself open to a straw man argument were it not that some advocates do seem to express that very egalitarianism in their statements. So let's move past that and look at the assumption that the success of Wikipedia is due to the wisdom of the crowd being superior to that of the lone expert.

There are three fallacies here: the first is that the crowd is a collection of a great many levels of knowledge. From experience, I would say that this ignores the self-organizing tendencies of any group of volunteers, a process that brings out the skills of its members, increasing and decresing their influence as time proceeds, most commonly through unrelenting competition. Look at the evolution of the Linux community: in the beginning, literally anyone -- expert programmers to raw newbies -- could contribute patches and code to the project, and chances were very good that the contributions would be accepted. As time progressed, acceptance of contributions grew more selective; part of the reason was that "Linus doesn't scale", and he came to rely more and more on trusted lieutenants to filter out the bad submissions from the good, but this was the result that some members of the community were more skilled than others.

Undoubtedly the recognition of experts was influenced to some degree by politics -- but there is no guaranteed way to keep any group of people completely free of politics. We learn to be political animals when we are children in families, and use what we have learned through our adult lives.

As a result, the model Wikipedia is aiming for is not a "crowd is wiser than the lone expert" but "a larger group of lesser experts is always wiser than a smaller group of greater experts". So the problem for Wikipedia then becomes whether its innate social engineering is good enough to attract, recognize and keep the necessary large group of lesser experts who will continue to improve its content. That is a question that I believe the members of the Wikipedia community continues to debate and discuss.

The second fallacy is that in the relationship of the expert to the greater society that society is always a passive group, who accept without question or response the expert's opinions. The truth is that the larger society has always given feedback to the expert, although this feedback has been less direct in some eras than in other. As an example, let's consider the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, when it was considered the ultimate arbitor on truth. Consider the individual priest whose responsibility was to educate the hapless village on dogma, whose members were often either in conflict with it -- or entirely indifferent towards it. This priest, inevitably recognized this problem, and expressed how he would discharge this responsibility in one of three ways: preach on a given subject with the intent to convince; preach, but accept that his message would not be received; or simply ignore this responsibility, and hope that his flock would not be too obvious in displaying their hetrodoxy to the rest of the world.

While there is evidence that a sizeable number of priests accepted the third option towards all points of communicating their credentialized expertise, I think it's safe to say that the majority varied amongst all three options, depending on how their flock responded to the individual topics. A priest might deliver a sermon about how Jesus Christ loved the poor, knowing that it would be well-received; deliver a sermon about the importance of a Crusade, or the nature of Christ, even though none of his flock would respond positively -- or even understand; and remain silent about the various harvest celebrations, despite their apparent pagan elements because his words would be received with hostility, or perhaps even violence.

What Wikipedia does -- as well as what I would consider proper Web 2.0 communities -- is simply allow more of this greater society to directly participate; instead of being only an audience whose options are very limited (e.g., give or withhold applause, heckle, or walk out) they provide immediate commentary and criticisms to what the expert says, and the group's ability to respond gains a broader and more nuanced palette. One response that Wikipedia has allowed the larger society to make -- and I can't help has been overlooked -- is to express exactly what the larger society thinks is true and important. By this, I do not mean the satyrical concept of "Wikiality", but what large sections of educated people who are active on the Internet actually believes is true: the correct, the misperceptions, the urban myths, and even what they are willing to admit they do not know. (This last, I suspect, is expressed by the lack of edit wars around certain technical articles that nonetheless are written in extremely difficult or convoluted prose.)

This fallacy about the nature of group is tied to the third one, also about the group: the ancient fear of the tyranny of the mob. All elites have worried about the restless, unsophisticated and fickle society beneath them, a fear that persists today not only in racist language, but in the connotation of words like "lumpenproletariat", "drug addicts", "white trash", and "lusers". Unless carefully watched (this fallacy holds) this mob will be excited to violence, and unwisely destroy all that is good and refined. This fallacy persists because, there is some evidence to support this: there is an identifiable group of irresponsible people, seen as outsiders, who can harm the greater society. Often these people become outsiders because they have been identified as such, and their destructive actions reinforce this perception. Since this leads to sociological concerns that are irrelevant here, I won't discuss this further.

In other words, this fallacy asserts that the uneducated mob has created Wikipedia, and as a result we cannot trust its contents. The fact that at any given moment some vandal, crank or zealot embracing one point of view can change the contents of any article, continues this fallacy, will keep it from ever becoming even minimally reliable.

This is a problem, and one that the Wikipedia community perennially struggles with. However, I'll admit here that there is only so much that Wikipedia can do: there is no algorythm to reliability determine the difference between good content and bad content. The difference can only be determined by continual debate -- which is the best use of Wiki software. And where experts are needed, not only to educate, but to continue to refine their expertise.

I believe that there is no problem with content that a Liberal education -- and enough time -- cannot solve. The object of a Liberal education, by its name -- "liberal" coming from the Latin word for "free" -- liberates the student, by teaching her or him how to understand things and how to express her or himself articulately. Bad content enters Wikipedia because their authors do not know how to properly do research; and it remains because those who know better do not know how to explain why it is incorrect. I have never encountered any Wikipedian who has shown disdain for either of these skills -- in research or in language -- so I suspect that I am right in this. However, if experts flee Wikipedia for their ivory towers to live unsullied by contest, then instead of teaching the greater society how to be free their inaction will only allow that society to become enslaved.


Technocrati tags: , ,


Wednesday, May 23, 2007


BarCamp sessions notes -- part the last

Yesterday I felt guilty about not finishing typing up and sharing my notes of the first Portland barcamp. So I looked to the book I had written my notes in, only to be disappointed. I had made some notes during Steve Habib-Rose's presentation "Network Weavers network", but they didn't make sense even to me. So I'm leaving those unpublished in my notebook. (John Sechrest wrote some up during the session, which are at Lokkju.) And I found that was the end of my notes; obviously, I had decided it was a better use of my time to talk than to write.

I had attended only two more sessions at BarCamp. One was about Wikipedia, hosted by Pete Forsyth -- although Ward Cunningham sat in. I was too busy talking and listening, so didn't take any notes during that session; I can only tell you what I remember. One was that Pete is very interested in convincing the State of Oregon to release all of the material it produces either into the public domain -- or under a free license, like the GFDL or one of the Creative Commons licenses. The other is that I asked if anyone wanted to participate in a second Portland Wikimeetup, and somehow became the person in charge of that. I know both Ward and Ray King want to be involved, so I guess I'm committed to making it happen.

The other session was a discussion about the television show Lost, whose season finale is tonight. Raven Zachary and Todd Kenefsky were responsible for that one: both were very involved in the organizing of this unconvention -- so involved that although they wanted to talk about the show, they were constantly postponing their conversation in order to attend to what needed to be done; this session was their way to have a moment to talk about it. Although I had participated in a couple of online fora about the show, this was the first time that I had discussed it with anyone in person. (FWIW, we didn't figure out any of the remaining mysteries.)

One thing I got out of this get-together which doesn't come over in my posts is that here I had a chance to share warstories with other folks in the local computer business -- some of whom I hadn't had a chance to talk with in many years. This might not be networking, or sharing vital scraps of information that a career could be built on -- but sometimes, you just need to prove to yourself that you are a part of this industry.


Technocrati tags:


Sunday, May 20, 2007


Thoughts on reading my mail

By that, I mean my postal mail, not my email.

I received a flyer about the O'Reilly Open Source Conference here in Portland this summer. This year they have a track on people and the community of Open Source. I propsoed a talk about three years ago based on my experience with Wikipedia, but they turned down my proposal. Either I was ahead of my time, or I wasn't friends with the right person.

Also in my mail was a catalog of non-credit classes at the local commumity college. One of the offerings was an online class on Search Engine Marketing, only $1795 (I you're interested, you'll have to do your own search for it; I'm not sharing any more information about where or when it is happening.) I could deliver a well-deserved barb about paying that much money just to learn how to annoy Google and countless other people, but I have a more important observation: this is the real way that spammers make money -- just like Multi-level marketing scams. The money doesn't come from the ads themselves, or from getting businesses to pay you to spam ("Send email to a million people? No problem. I just won't tell you that 999,000 of these addresses are invalid and most of the rest will delete my email unread"), but now it comes from charging people lots of money to learn a dubious skill. This report states that the real money in MLM doesn't come from selling the products or a franchise where people sell them for you; it comes from all of the training and inspirational materials that are sold to the people in the MLM itself.

One thing I've learned in the last seven months of blogging is that it's actually very easy to attract people to a website or a blog; most of the tricks I learned in ten minutes during a BarCamp get-together last November. The hard part is creating something worth reading that keeps people coming back, and I'm not always convinced that I've learned that part yet.


Technorati tags: , , , ,, .

Labels: ,

Friday, May 18, 2007


An Annoyance

Someone changed something this week in the Wikipedia configuration, that breaks viewing changes in my browser. Whenever I compare two different versions of an article, all I see is the first line of the change. Happy happy joy joy.

Will I report it? No, because I doubt anyone will fix it. When someone rewrote the code to the lefthand navigational frame, and after I found my way to the place this change was being discussed, and pointed out that this change broke in the Classic skin, no one bothered to say more than, "Oh, it does break in the Classic skin. Who cares?" And I suspect that the only answer I'll see to this complaint is a taunting {{sofixit}}.

Sometimes I have good reasons to believe that the interests of Wikipedians "not in the loop" are ignored.


Technocrati tags:


Monday, May 14, 2007


BarCamp sessions notes, part I

Sorry about not posting this yesterday, like I promised, but I've forgotten just how much time and energy a fulltime job takes. I needed to take Sunday off and be unproductive for a while -- even though I made a lot of changes to Wikipedia. So here's the first part of my notes of the Portland BarCamp sessions I attended.

1. User Experience -- facilitated by Kara

One of the larger meeting rooms, packed & people continued to enter.

Session started by asking everyone for name & one word per person associated with "user experience". People began by throwing out a word, then adding their names -- eventually came to embrace the structure Kara asked people to follow.

Example of pyramid form Web Visions conference. Base represented the simple functionality of the application, middle level was the addition of widgets & other improvements, top was the user experience.

2. Building online communities -- Dawn Foster

3. Decline and Fall of Gentoo (not the real title, but I think Donnie liked my wit)

Donnie started by sketching the current situation with Gentoo: a laisse-faire "benevolent dictator", & a community that has mushroomed. (Before the session he talked about problem users on the Gentoo Dev list; one of these has been repeatedly banned, but keeps returning to block any & every change.)

How do online communities arrive at a decision?

That's what I've typed up so far. But if you look carefully above, you'll see why there were so many knitters at this BarCamp.


Technocrati tags:


Saturday, May 12, 2007


BarCamp Portland -- First report

Since Yvette is out of town in Mississippi, helping to clean up the damage that Hurricane Katrina caused two years ago, I decided to relive my irresponsible bachelor years and called my best friend Phil earlier this week about hanging out this Sunday and drinking some of that fine bourbon I bought for him a few months ago. However I forgot Sunday was Mother's Day, and Phil had other obligations that day -- so tonight was the only night we could indulge together. Thus while I left BarCamp around 7:00pm tonight, I won't be posting a full report until tomorrow.

Despite this, I'm a little surprised that the reports about this gathering are still incomplete. Especially because we had a lot of people stuffed into the rooms at CubeSpace; I'd expect more people would be sharing their experiences and discoveries. So far only Donnie Berkholz has provided notes on the sessions he attended on his LiveJournal page. I guess that means I'll have to post my notes on the sessions I attended tomorrow.

Despite my evening activities, I will record a few immediate impressions. First was that a common theme of the sessions I attended -- maybe this reflects my own interest -- that thiswas a gathering of techies who had become aware of the importance of communities and relationships (both online and in real life), and were applying their analytical skills to them with the intent of understanding them and making them more useful. Another is that at least one participant was surprised at the number and variety of different techical user groups there are in Portland -- we techies need to build more bridges between ourselves. The last is that this had to be the first technical conference where a session was devoted to the craft of knitting; Audrey Eschright gets the credit for that innovation.


Technocrati tags:


Friday, May 11, 2007


BarCamp Portland -- The evening before

Just got home from the reception and organization meeting for tomorrow's gathering. I had intended to get into the planning, but Ward Cunningham pulled me aside as I was getting another beer, and instead I listened to him and Rich (didn't get his last name -- and is unresponsive at the moment) talk about the days when Tektronix was the major high tech company in Oregon. Well, I found it fascinating.

There was a point early on this evening when all of the sponsors had a chance to introduce themselves and give a short spiel, an elevator pitch, about themselves. Many added to the end of their spiel "and we're hiring" -- so it got to be a bit of a joke. But it's a good thing, because it's a sign that the industry is definitely making a comeback.

Some interesting notes on the schedule for tomorrow: Bart Massey will be convening a section called "Songwriting for Geeks". I hope someone attends and publishes a transcript. Also, organizer Dawn Foster asked everyone who is convening a section to add their cell phone so to facilitate contact. This led one wag to add to his announcement: "It's been a long time since I wrote my number on a wall ..."

Fun and humor obviously will be the rule tomorrow.


Technocrati tags:


Wednesday, May 09, 2007



Larry Sanger has often criticized Wikipedia's article for gradually falling in quality. I had dismissed this as the disgruntlement of a person who does not get the respect he feels his certification entitles him to. Until tonight.

Many moons ago, I wrote the beginnings of an article for each one of the Dynasties of Ancient Egypt. I'll admit that they weren't great articles; I threw most of them together in hope that someone who actually knew something about the subject would improve on them. Because I knew I did not own them. So I sent them on their way in the world, and never looked back.

So tonight, surprised that two of them were on my watch list, I had a look. And now I knew how Sanger felt: both had degraded visibly in quality. I don't mean that some odd opinions or interpretations were inserted, but that they had become almost unreadable. I cleaned them up, left unavoidably critical remarks in the comment fields -- then stopped because I was about to start flaming the previous editor, who, I had to admit, was doing the best that she/he could do.

Worse was, the previous editor was improving on what she/he had found.

Knowing that I have to watch even more articles to keep them minimally useful does not encourage me to write any more. And I can think of several hundred articles, all of which are notable or worth an entry, Wikipedia needs.


Technocrati tags: ,


Monday, May 07, 2007


A true Wikipedian loves books, Part II

Today's mini-crisis almost made me forget about this paragraph (courtesy of Sage Ross). From the The Chronicle of Higher Education website:
I also find that my book purchasing has probably increased threefold because of Wikipedia. I am often engaged by an entry, then I go to the discussion pages, and then I find myself caught up in debate among contributors. Pretty soon I am locating articles via Project Muse and 1-Click shopping for books on Amazon. Why not teach that way of using the resource to our students? Why rush to ban the single most impressive collaborative intellectual tool produced at least since the Oxford English Dictionary, which started when a nonacademic organization, the Philological Society, decided to enlist hundreds of volunteer readers to copy down unusual usages of so-called unregistered words.

So, in response to those people who criticize me and my fellow Wikipedians for contributing content -- you want us to be ashamed of encouraging people to read and buy more books?


P.S. -- I'm also surprised that I still get a lot of hits on this post, "When to cite from an encyclopedia -- even though you're not supposed to." I'm glad I remembered to include the words "ask your professor first."

Technocrati tags: ,



A scary surprise

(I know, I know, the subject line is probably feeding the trolls, but it is how I feel.)

Four Admins has their accounts hacked. David Gerard sounded the first alarm. More information on Sage Ross' blog (with useful links).

This problem grew out of the common perception that none of us thought Wikipedia would present itself as such an inviting target, so many Wikipedians selected less-than-optimal passwords, ones where ease of remembering outweighs their obscurity. (I've since changed my password to something far more secure.) It's not as if Admin rights gave one significant powers in Wikipedia. Sure, an Admin can delete pages, block users, or protect pages -- but that's the same as being able to beat up your kid brother. Fortunately, none of the crackers thought very hard about what damage they really could do; then again, it doesn't take much brains to damage something useful.


Technocrati tags: , ,


Sunday, May 06, 2007


Ward Cunningham at the last PLUG meeting

I delayed over writing up this report for the simple reason that I still don't completely understand Ward's presentation last Thursday night at the last Portland Linux/UNIX Group meeting. It's not hard to conclude that the problem lies with me: after all, he's a well-known software developer ("Mr. Wiki" as someone called him that night), and I'm just a guy who pays the bills by doing things with computers. However, knowing full well what follows is incomplete and likely fails to explain some of what Ward said, I'll try to write about it from my notes.

He was very excited to talk about the portal he helped to build for the Eclipse foundation. Not so much for something an end user might see as a new, attractive feature -- he emphasized through his talk that he aimed to keep the software simple and under tight control. Not because it pushed the boundaries of what one could do with Java -- the portal is written in PHP, and his approach to writing the code was for it to read a line, eval it, and if that resulted in HTML output, print that output. Nothing very exciting there.

His excitement was that the working code at every turn was anchored to the tests that assured the quality and accuracy of each tool in the portal. He did this in a simple manner: every time a user opened a field to add or update information, next to the button that would save the changes there was a link marked "explore". If the user followed this link, it would take the user to those test cases which were used to validate the code. By providing the visuals and the text cases used to verify that the software did what it was expected to do, Ward believed that he and Bjorn had provided the users with everything that they knew about the software. "Well, except for how the code itself worked," he added, "but after dealing with so much code, after a while I stop thinking about the code itself." At another point in his presentation, he made the memorable quotation that doing this exposes "your business model to the people you're inflicting it on."

Because these tests focussed on the business logic of the software -- not the webserver, the browsers or anything else about the CGI mechanism -- it helped keep the development simple. Ward reported that they made 76 breleases to production in the last three months due to this simplicity.

He did spend some time talking about the code itself, but I won't attempt to paraphrase him here; I'm stopping while I'm still behind. Ward has written about this in his blog about this portal. I direct the curious to look at his readable account there.

An addendum: after every PLUG meeting, we adjourn to the Lucky Lab brewpub on the other side of the Willamette to talk shop; the gathering after the meeting is a tradition that started in the first year or so of the user group. Sometimes the conversation is dull, and sometimes it can be more interesting than the meeting itself. This time, I was very lucky: that night two of the most recognizable names in Portland's Open Source community decided to sit down next to me and talk shop: Ward and Randal Schwartz. Well, Randal did most of the talking, specifically about his recent presentaion at the Eighth International Free Software Forum about git -- proud that his talk had been approved by Linus Torvalds himself. Randal complained about how hard it was to pierce the patina of Americanization in foreign countries order to experience their native culture (e.g., Brazilian kids prefer American pop music over their own samba, television channels full of dubbed bad American tv shows). Of more interest to Ward, Randal talked about git, and how much more powerful it was than other kinds of version control systems.


Technocrati tags: , ,


Saturday, May 05, 2007


Some short comments

I've forgotten just how much of the day a full-time job occupies. Then weekends come along, Yvette reminds me of all of the chores around the house that need doing, and I discover I have even less time to do what I love.

Audrey Eschright dropped me a note about her Wiki to create a list of local tech groups in Portland. Please help her by contributing information about your group.

Every time I pass by Cannon's Ribs on NE 33rd (next to the New Season Grocery), I see their sign, "Try our vegetarian fare". I'm still trying to get my head around the idea of a vegetarian rack of ribs.


Technorati tags:

Labels: ,

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Libraries and the Internet

Earlier this week, the "Wikipedia Signpost" had an article about the encounter of one college class with Wikipedia. Reading the course blog, I found two items of special interest:
  1. A number of students mentioned that they had trouble finding topics that did not already have articles. This appears to support my observation that there is a limit to the articles in Wikipedia.
  2. Many students appeared to think that their research began and ended with what they could find on the Internet.

The last point troubles me. I have used content from the Internet -- as well as contributed to it -- for almost fifteen years, so I know its strengths and weaknesses. However, I also know libraries -- those collections of books and other print materials, those rich deposits of information -- yet still contain more information than the entire Internet. One of the goals of a college education is learning how to profitably mine those deposits. It is a skill that does not come easy and needs to be learned, especially in this post-modern and electronic age.

One of Wikipedia's undeniable contributions is translating at least some of this printed wealth into an electronic form, making it potentially accessible to further generations. This is nothing new or all that revolutionary: the printing press did much the same thing beginning in the fifteenth century. However, to turn our backs upon libraries when one does research means that the result is impoverished; and risks the loss of the contents of these collections to future generations.


Technocrati tags: , ,

Labels: ,

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


I'm back to work

I haven't mentioned this before today because I didn't want to jinx things -- but I rejoined the workforce today.

I won't mention where I'm working (I'm just a humble contractor) in part because its employees like to comb the internet for discussions about said corporation -- but mostly because by mentioning its name, I feel that I may appear to claim some kind of cachet or expertise that I don't feel I have. I'll just mention that it is well-known in the computer industry, and the largest employer in Oregon.

Almost eight years ago I worked for this company in the exact same building, and it took a month for me to get an account on the corporate intranet. I've returned since to work as a contractor for the same corporation several times, and never had that problem since. Nor did I today.

However when the team lead brought me to my cubicle (my first real desk in six years! I can put a picture of Yvette there, and display my antiquated cubicle toys!), it lacked a computer. That made it hard for me to do my work.

The group administrative assistant researched this omission, found that the request was marked "pending", and gave me a phone number to call to "escalate" the matter. So I called the phone number. The phone at that number rang at least ten times, never rolling over to voice mail. It did the exact same thing the other five times I called it today.

Words fail me at this point. The first day of any new job is never productive, but I've never felt as unproductive the first day as I did today. My lead was able to loan me a laptop that allowed me to access the internet, but not the corporate intranet, so I was able to start studying the public information about the product I'm supposed to support. This work-around will suffice for tomorrow, but I worry about the day after: will the mills of the corporate process eventually grind out the tools I need for my job?


Technocrati tags:

Labels: ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours? Site Meter