Friday, October 26, 2007
Ignite Portland: the Event
Weiden+Kennedy was picked as the host, in part because they generously offered to share their facility, but maybe more because their offices provided that cutting-edge, urban hip feel that the attendees expected at IgnitePortland. It was my first inside the building since it was converted from warehouse space, and the interior layout left me admittedly disoriented. Climb one flight of stairs, then climb another, and then one came to the Nike court -- named for Weiden+Kennedy's best-known client -- yet at least three more floor loomed above the visitor, beyond planes of concrete and laminated wood stretching in all three dimensions. I was left with the feeling that the environment was designed to make people to think about the poetics of space within a building, but instead I felt vaguely uncomfortable because I knew this environment would not make me think productively.
The people there were an eclectic bunch, most of whom were not the folks whom I had met or seen at Portland Bar Camp, OSCON, or Recent Changes Camp. Which is I consider a good thing, because it proves that the Portland technology scene is still vibrant and growing; the bleak jobmarket of five years ago is still wel-remembered by those of us who struggled through it. I did see a few people I knew -- but met a few I hadn't, like Mike Lucich (of Return and Kumquat), and Rick Turoczy of the always enjoyable blog, Silicon Florist. It was a thrill for this C-list blogger to talk with a couple of bloggers further up the food chain, and we wondered if Mike Rogoway, the technology reporter at the local newspaper, was there.
As for the presentations, I saw that they were being recorded, and eventually video files should be available; so I won't go into detail about their subject matter. One that I enjoyed were Kevin Tate talking about "Emergence in Business" -- maybe because I'm fascinated with the way, evocative of the language of the Tao Te Ching, that groups, networks and communities form their own environments, or maybe because he alluded to a number of books he recommended to us to read. Another was Scott Huber bemusedly recounting a real-life discovery that, in this time of posting and uploading so much information on the internet, some people inadvertently share too much information. On the other hand, a few presentations were very much contrarian, on such topics as re-wilding our environment, knitting, making cornbread, and a proposal to create an Oregon-style chain of gas stations.
Maybe those contrarian presentations were clearly post-Web 2.0, by forcing us to think about the tension between the context and their subjects in a post-modern way, and therefore examples of Web 3.0 technology. We should think of them ironically, not as open and sincere attempts to share something that the presenters had a genuine interest in; true sophistication has come to Puddletown. Then again, we all know that bloggers will say the most outrageous things just to attract hits, a tactic entertainers have used to drum up an audience for millennia. Is there any point in worrying that a large number of people got together, were exposed to some new things, and had a good time? Learning things and sharing them is one of the joys of being a nerd. And Web 2.0 has brought a new interest to the Internet because it is one more way to bring people together who then share, not because it makes its users more sophisticated.
Technocrati tags: Ignite Portland, Portland Tech, Web 2.0, Web 3.0
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
It was bound to happen
I was reminded of this discussion when I stumbled onto a discussion at Wikipedia: Administrators' Noticeboard/Incidents. Someone, to everyone's shock, had managed to insert over the space of two years, a surprising amount of fabricated or misrepresented information, into a number of articles. He evaded notice by being civil, quick to back down in a conflict, and by focussing his attention on a number of subjects that non-experts were not likely to challenge his edits -- especially when he provided what appeared to be, at a casual examination, reliable sources.
As other editors worked their way down his rabbit-holes of his sources and evidence (another phrase that comes to mind is "mares nest"), it became obvious that he had constructed an elaborate collection of unacceptable sources. He would cite works that did not support his assertions; they either contradicted his assertion or were entirely irrelevant. Some were relevant, but clearly outdated. Still others appeared to be peer-reviewed literature, but on closer examination were not; they were published by groups with deceptively similar names, or self-published. And many of these papers and monographs leaned on each other: publication A would cite publication B, which would cite publication C, which would cite publication A.
I'm not mentioning the user name because my I'm not writing about this specific user, but about the problem he revealed. Despite the fact Wikipedians are always reviewing each others' work and challenging each other's conclusions, there is an irreducable level of trust between all of us. If someone makes statements about a given source, we fidn ourselves assuming that they are telling us the truth about that source.
Wikipedia functions on a certain level of mutual trust, and in the most part, people do not violate this trust. Even the troublemakers, the self-promoters, and the tendentious editors almost always honestly report the contents of their sources. Those who don't -- until now -- are also unable to show enough self-control to be effective in the give-and-take that makes up much of the Wiki environment, stop being civil or clearly violate one of the customs of the Wikipedia culture, and are quickly banned from the site and their edits reverted.
However, this affair has pointed out that this level of trust may not work any more; if an editor claims that an uncommon resource -- say a rare book or an article published in an obscure technical journal -- says something, how do we know that this editor is not lying? While this is less of a concern for established editors than new ones, the fact remains that this specific user contributed 8000 edits over two years, before someone noticed.
This is not a theoretical problem; in my own case, I have been using more and more uncommon works on the history of Ethiopia. Not every article in Wikipedia is a reworking of what is posted on the Internet; some of us do use sources printed on paper! This leads to the problem that not all of these printed works are easily accessible. In my case, like many serious Wikipedians, I have gradually accumulated a collection of books on my topic of interest to overcome this problem. Since not everyone using Wikipedia can do this, should I continue to use them because they cannot verify what I report these sources contain?
Maybe this is a just problem that was bound to happen eventually. As a group attracts more people, the chances that at least one person will abuse that trust increases until it happens. We should be glad that Wikipedia went almost 6 years before this became a serious problem.
Technocrati tags: online communities, reliability, research, trust, Wikipedia
Friday, October 19, 2007
An upcoming Wikipedia event
Related to this is Article Collaboration and Improvement Drive.
Technocrati tags: online communities, Wikipedia, writing
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Obsolete Technology never truly dies
In 1998, I started a job that involved dumping fiels from 9-track tapes. I didn't think that they still existed.
In 2004, I started another job that involved testing network drivers for SCO UNIX. I needed a job at the time, and while the same could be said of working a sideshow biting the heads off of chickens, I did learn in abundant detail why there are no new customers for this operating system. (Hint: Darl McBride, president of the SCO Group, is not a major reason why.)
Today, one of the projects I worked on involved debugging a collection of batch files. The last time I wrote a batch file -- or to be more correct, tried to write one -- Windows 95 still was in beta. And the bug I found proved that, despite any protests to the contrary, batch file programming still was handicapped with the 8.3 character naming convention.
That is why I still hold onto my O'Reilly books on UUCP and TERMCAP; once every few years, a project takes me to the dark corners where old technology monsters have set out their traps.
Technorati tags: DOS, old technology, SCO, UNIX, 9-track tapes
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
As the message mutates
First, I admit I'm peeved that of the three people cited in Sarno's story, I'm the one who is no longer mentioned. Yes, I get jealous over petty things like this. This probably happened because Andrew Lih has the experience to profitably interact with reporters, Kelly Martin can always be counted on to say something worth reapeating -- or both of them write clearer prose with fewer misspellings than me. But what I find ironic is that yours truly is the one who came up with the "generation gap" idea, which is given prominence in The Age article -- yet I'm the one who doesn't get mentioned. Oh well.
But had the reporter from The Age asked me about that idea -- which I created after about 5 minutes of thought -- I would have backtracked from it some, and tried to provide a more nuanced expanation. There are a lot of human dynamics going on here, which I intended to cover with that label. Not all of these dynamics fit under that label.
- New Wikipedians, like new members to any established group, exhibit a tendency to conform to the standards of that group, either consciously or unconsciously. For example, people joining the military are likely to start acting more machismo. It's the same with Wikipedia: people who join Wikipedia study the behavior of the most visible members, and act accordingly, and not all of these most visible members are model members.
- Smart people who want to excel in their chosen field, tend to look for and follow the easiest path of advancement. It's something of a truism that the more recent volunteers or editors have a greater tendency to spend their time in the Articles for Deletion or Vandalism fora than writing articles; management is always a more preferable gig than working on the assembly line. Yet following this line of reasoning further, wouldn't Peer Review -- the section of Wikipedia where article writers post requests for their fellow editors to critique their work -- attract abou tas much attention as these other two areas? Writing a useful critique is hard work -- far harder than deciding whether to keep or delete an article or identifying troublemakers. That is why new members soon end up making most of their edits at the first two fora, and rarely leave any traces at Peer Review -- despite the fact that part of Wikipedia is arguably more important than the other two.
- A last point is that there is a clearly high turnover of volunteers at the English Wikipedia, and perhaps other Wikimedia projects. This means that both expertise and cultural memory is being lost prehaps faster than it is being created. Ten days from now will be the fifth anniversary of having created my user account at Wikipedia, and for at least the last 12 months whenever I post in many of the Wikipedia fora, I am the most senior Wikipedian there. I feel this distinction is unmerited: I haven't been nearly as active in creating or enforcing policy as many volunteers, and I suspect that if I had been, I would have burned out and left Wikipedia long ago. Because I have done so little, I feel that I have now become a community elder with very little -- if any -- wisdom to dispense.
Rather than a conflict between "generations", Wikipedia is faced with a conflict between a large number less experienced members, who find themselves needing to follow the rules more literally and with less confidence, and a smaller number of more experienced ones who understand the rules and know when to break them. Resolving this conflict is a stressful and exhausting activity, which frequently leads to members quitting Wikipedia and leaving angry messages about treating the troublemakers better than the productive members. I have a suspicion that this is a common problem in volunteer organizations, but I don't know where I would start researching how other groups cope with it.
Technocrati tags: Generation gap, Mzoli's Meats, Wikis, wikipedia
Sunday, October 14, 2007
As goes Pennsylvania
I guess things are slowly building towards a United States Wikimedia organization, even though the Pennsylvania chapter has been inactive during the last couple of months; I hope that was due merely to the effects of summer and the start of the school year.
PS -- They're scheduled another meetup, and part of the business will be devoted to organizing this chapter.
Technocrati tags: New York, online communities, Wikimedia, wikipedia
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
I could make an acerbic comment about how this relates to the reality outside of the hothouse of Europe, and North America, but outside of generating a lot of hate email I'm not sure what it would accomplish.
Jimbo said the right thing: he planned to make this into an opportunity into confronting the problem, to point out not everyone has the same rights as in the West. This is along the lines of the most positive possibilities of Wikipedia. And there is more than simply a lot of pleasant words and good intentions here: there are some opportunites that could make a positive difference in the world.
For one thing, a convention in Egypt does offer a meeting place between the West and the less developed parts of the world, those parts wherein the future lies. I've written a little here about AboutUs.org, who have been developing Wiki technology; they happen to have a branch in Lahore, Pakistan. Let's say that management decides to fly a some of their Pakistani employees to Wikimania next year; this is not an unreasonable idea, seeing how they are hired from one of Pakistan's finest technical universities. A quick query on Expedia shows that (with one exception) it costs half as much for them to travel to Alexandria than to Frankfurt-am-Main Germany; it is twice as likely for them to attend a conference in Alexandria as it would be for them to attend one in Frankfurt (where the first Wikimania was held). We have a chance to engage not only Egyptians, but these intelligent and motivated people as well. Then there is India, with its growing numbers of technology-savvy people, is only a little further away; Israel, with another large technology-savvy population, is much closer.
We have a choice of being politically correct, and refusing to have anything with a country that is repressive -- although far from being as repressive as many -- or being pragmatic and reaching out to not only to the people in this country, but to other non-Western countries, and encouraging them to work towards a less repressive society.
Technocrati tags: Alexandria, Egypt, Gay and Lesbian, Wikimania, Wikipedia,
Another insightful study
(I found this through Dragon's flight's announcement on the Wikimedia Foundation mailing list. The resulting thread is also worth a read.)
Although some might disagree with this observation, I find this is evidence against my theory that the slowing rate of new article creation is due to a lack of "low-hanging fruit", instead the slowing rate is due to limits on the number of people joining the English-language Wikipedia: the community is reaching its limit of members. There are just so many people in the world who would consider writing encyclopedia articles as "fun." Another thing to consider, is that as non-English Wikipedias gain viability people for whom English is a second language are more likely either to leave the English Wikipedia for the one in their native language, or never to contribute in the first place.
October is producing a bumper crop of studies and facts to chew on, and it's not even half over.
Technocrati tags: Online communities, Outreach, Statistics, Wikis, wikipedia
Monday, October 08, 2007
Another interesting Wikipedia study
(Thanks to Gregory Maxwell for the link.)
Maybe a little more technical than the curious would like, but I expect this will become another of those widely-quoted or cited studies.
Update: For those of you unable to view PDF files (or even if you can), Ben Yates at Wikipedia Blog has one of the more informative graphs touched up with color.
Technocrati tags: information value, vandalism, Web 2.0, wikipedia
Thursday, October 04, 2007
WikiWednesday in Portland
I witnessed two things there worth mentioning:
First was the future of Wiki technology. A few weeks ago, I saw an email from Ted Kubaska asked about "how wikis interact with IM, live podcasts, video, webinars, etc." My sense of his question was that he was wondering if we will ever subject non-text media like, for example, videos to the collaborative power of Wikis. In any case, just the sort of question anyone might ask when he -- or she -- is introduced to a new idea. Then last night, Mr Wiki himself, Ward Cunningham asked the exact same question himself. I felt this was the kind of lesson that everyone who is interested in exploring the limits of technology should keep in mind: even the experts ask the same questions the rest of us ask.
Oh, so you want to know what kind of answers Ted and Ward received? Well, I did throw out the idea that one could resurrect the mid-1990s VRML (Virtual Reality Markup Language) technology, and use that as a basis to create collaborative videos. Ward himself mentioned how he was fascinated with the phenomena of machinima, where people create their own movies using video capture from such 3-D software like first-person shooter games. Then again, I've heard a lot of technorati remark about how they are fascinated by the machinima genre.
Second was Divid McCabe's impromteau presentation about Liquid Threads, an extention to the MediaWiki engine. He's been funded in this effort by a group called "Commonwealth of Learning" ("So what do they do?" David was asked -- "I really don't know. They pay me to code.")
This new feature offers the following:
- Instead of needing to edit a whole section (which contains the string), one only needs to click on "Reply" to write a replay -- just like many forum software packages.
- Built-in automatic archiving of threads that have done cold after 14 days. Threads in the Talk space on Wikipedia currently requires either an editor or a bot to archive them.
- A usable history record on every thread.
- Lastly -- in my eyes, an important feature -- while one can edit any comment in a thread, if any person's comments are altered by another user, that user's name appears on that comment. This makes falsifying other people's comments a little harder to do. (Of course, this has never happened on Wikipedia -- unless you know something I don't.)
Technocrati tags: MediaWiki, PortlandTech, Wikipedia, Wiki Technology, Wikiwednesday