Jimmy Wales and His Wikipedia Revolution

Some time back, the online tech blog Slashdot hosted a Q&A session letting readers post single questions to Jimmy Wales, founder of the vast online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Wales would personally respond.

Below is one such exchange, on the unimpeachable infallibility of encyclopedic references:

Editing of Information
by sylivin

Q: Wikipedia has become so large that students and youth in particular deem it the official truth. As such governments, companies, and individuals will constantly try to spin that to their own advantage.

Do you believe you will ever be able to reconcile with governments in regards to information they deem classified showing up on Wikipedia and private citizens that consider articles about them to be libel? Or, perhaps, is that just a fight you will need to struggle against for all eternity?

A: Wales: Human beings will never stop quarreling. It’s part of the glorious nature of our species. Government will never cease being stupid and overstepping their boundaries. That, too, is part of the human condition.

The real question is: can open systems adapt and respond in mostly effective ways to deal with the worst of it? And the answer to that is clearly YES.


The Old Way


In the previous century, the standard reference works for home, school or library were “encyclopedias,” literally a circle of learning or course of instruction. Most readers remember the reference standard Encyclopedia Britannica. Perhaps appropriately, we’ve linked the topic to the Wikipedia article here.

There used to be many other encyclopedias, such as Encyclopedia Americana and World Book, which focused on knowledge and learning from a slightly more national, occupational or educational-level perspective, not to mention specialty encyclopedias and dictionaries like Bartlett’s and Webster’s, or indispensable compendiums on professional subjects like medicine, science, and engineering. Encyclopedia Britannica published its last print edition in 2012. A subscription-model online edition still carries on.

Traditional encyclopedias were written by accredited subject matter experts, and edited by boards of other professional editors and academics, often drawn from the ranks of the university and college communities. Every effort was made to ensure article content was as objective and factual as possible, and to present “controversial” topics (such as the American Civil War) as historical recitations of documentable and footnoted fact, along with terse descriptions of the motivations and viewpoints of various opposing sides and viewpoints.

That’s how we came to regard encyclopedias as “gospel,” unimpeachable sources of fact as it were, at least insofar as it’s possible for humans to agree on facts and interpretations. Many a family argument used to be settled by referring to the family encyclopedia.

The problem with the static encyclopedia: the “accuracy” of the encyclopedic “answer” was sometimes dependent on the views and objectivity of the contributors and editors. And you might never know when this was the case, unless you were already an expert on that topic. An article on “Laissez-Faire Capitalism” would definitely read quite differently if prepared under the vigilant eye of the conservative University of Chicago, as opposed to the more liberal eye of the University of California Berkeley.

In defense of the bound volume, it is a static record of the period or era in which it was printed. I have an old Encyclopedia Britannica given to me in the 1970’s, missing two volumes, that’s about twenty years older than that. In preparing my 2002 Astronomy article “Stardust: Where do rocks come from?” I was startled to realize how little mid-century encyclopedias could tell us about supernova explosions, and how these seed the universe with the “heavy” elements that make life possible on Earth.

It’s not often we get a chance to save the Carrier Pigeon. Old bound and printed encyclopedias are a “state of knowledge” frozen in time. We rarely can find that online. Projects like Google Books can preserve those “legacy” volumes. In my opinion, at least, such projects should be supported.

The New Way

The guiding principle of Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia is that, following the Wiki process, anyone can contribute to or update an article. There are controls, and there is oversight, most of it peer oversight. You can find a Wikipedia article on Harold “The End of World is Coming” Camping, but you won’t find an article asserting that there’ll be no need to pick up the kids after school, because the world will end at exactly 2PM.

Wikipedia says it currently hosts almost 4.3 million articles. If printed and bound, that would amount to 1,902 hardcopy volumes. I can’t get my arms around the number of Wikipedia contributors in a reasonable span of time, but it seems to be around a million a month, both first-time and repeat. Wikipedians seem to measure productivity in number of edits, not number of new posts. There’s a list of the top 1,000 individual “heavy hitters,” the highest of those amassing over 1,000,000 edits each.

When peer review hits the law of large numbers, some interesting statistical things begin happen for data reliability. It’s no coincidence Wikipedia, in its many international languages, is widely regarded as such a reliable and authoritative reference source.

Wikipedia “works” because constant many-hands peer review tends in the long run to correct inaccuracies and misleading or poorly written entries. If I happen to remember that the early Apple ‘HyperCard’ was a “scripting language” and not a full-fledged “computer program,” to give a hypothetical example, Wikipedia provides a way for me to update the inaccuracy.

If someone were to write an egregiously wrong, incompetent, agenda-biased, prejudiced or sloppy article, chances are it may start a Wikipedia flame war. As in the real world, eventually these anomalies sort themselves out whenever clearer heads finally prevail.

That’s why I think Jimmy Wales dropped the ball, or sold himself short, on explaining why open systems like Wikipedia are so effective.

Yes, again, where the topic can support different points of view and controversial differences of opinion, Wikipedia can be messy, just like the real world.

The difference between Wikipedia and the old printed and bound encyclopedias should by now be pretty obvious. Wikipedia has transparency and accountability.

The old system by its nature allowed for little or no difference of opinion. Once it went to print there was no way of recalling or updating the content. Anyone who ever tried to use the “annual update” volumes, as I once did, is likely to praise them as an effective and helpful research tool. No wonder we took those compendiums as unimpeachable. Any disagreement was swept under the carpet.

There’s a very good reason why printed volumes were called “bound.” Once you bought a set, your knowledge base stopped growing and evolving. Wikipedia is a NON-filterable knowledge base with an almost unlimited supply of subject matter experts. When there are disagreements, these are easily discoverable at a glance.

The person originally questioning Jimmy Wales about information editing obviously had government or corporate censorship and redacting in mind. While I don’t personally believe governments in free western nations have yet made significant inroads toward controlling freedom of online content on Wikipedia or of the press in general,  we can expect occasional interaction on classified information, such as pertains to military or national security. To the extent that might be true, it’s not necessarily likely we’d hear much about it. Corporate redacting must go through the courts and the libel laws.

Having said that, if it hits the national media fan, such as on the recent Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden affairs, or the 2001 Enron scandal, it’s fair game for Wikipedia, blogs such as mine, and other online and offline publications, and I’m not particularly worried about it yet.

The highly visible sporadic messiness of Wikipedia open source authoring is superior to the old system of institutionalized consensus and dogma. The “new” system is a stochastic process; a new entry starts out with bumps and warts, perhaps lacking the Britannica finished eloquence of Oxford verbiage, but with a clearly defined aim of providing useful information about the topic. With the aid of many hands, perhaps thousands over time, the Wikipedia topic quickly becomes a polished authoritative reference, and a superior one, for it is never frozen in a stasis of printed paper. It can always evolve and adapt to new information and discovery.

In effect, it became the first impeachable reference work that’s corrected real-time by the same processes that challenge it.

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Occupy Wall Street: Gone Rogue?

I picked up a free San Mateo Daily Journal yesterday when I joined a friend for lunch. There was a nice story on page 1 about some civic-minded Redwood City high school girls who decided to join a regional Occupy demonstration. They thought, by participating, they could make a difference.

“Students deserve the opportunity to discuss what they care about,” an organizer said. “Once you leave high school, life hits you like a ton of bricks and these students need to know about the troubles with the banking system and why cuts are made to education.”

There was some isolated violence. The real violence was in Oakland, Seattle and elsewhere in the nation. Banks were vandalized, windows were smashed, police cars were burned, police were assaulted, and police and the crowd were at one point bombarded by a roof-top crazy hurling down long sections of heavy steel piping. There was no follow-up story on the high school girls, but I bet most were disappointed.

Occupy Wall Street, what the hell do you think you’re doing? Continue reading

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The Fallacy of False Equivalence

I was reading a convoluted article in The Nation entitled ‘The Proud Liar Mitt Romney Claimed Today‘ when I came across the phrase ‘the time-honored MSM tactic of false equivalence.’

I never did figure out author Eric Alterman’s reference to ‘MSM.’ Clearly not Methylsulfonylmethane, probably not Manhattan School of Music, even more clearly not Men Who Have Sex With Men. Ironically, Alterman is profiled as ‘a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.”

But I did think I knew what the Fallacy of False Equivalence means. Or should mean … I looked it up too, of course. I fancy myself a student of rhetoric. I once even wrote a series of articles on rhetoric and persuasive writing. I found no really solid definition.

I think the fallacy of false equivalence is a modern composite re-invention of several older classical fallacies. It also seems to be endemic to political journalism. In my day we were trained to just call these non sequiturs (Latin, “doesn’t follow”).

The general structure of the false equivalence fallacy (and its variants) would have a structure similar to the following:

Deadly nightshade is a member of the potato family. Paprika and chili peppers are members of the same family. We must regard paprika and chili peppers as poisonous.

Or, one of the more family-friendly examples found in a blog by a gentleman named Wally who wrote a 2005 post called Generalized definition of ‘false equivalence’

I didn’t pay you back once when you lent me a dollar, you stole a dollar from my wallet, therefore we’re even.”

What statement actually got The Nation contributor Eric Alterman’s goat?

The most recent punditocracy kerfuffle involves Mitt Romney’s first paid presidential television advertisement. Ironically titled keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” Deliberately left out of the ad were the preceding words: “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote…”

I bring this topic up because we’re going to see a lot more real-life examples. For more information (and some examples that use cuss words) see the article The fallacy of false equivalence by Furry Brown Dog. He does an interesting analysis of the Bush v. Kerry campaign misuse of the Swift Boat furor, about which I happen to agree with the author: Bush’s stance boiled down to the claim Kerry’s Department of Defense documentation lied, whereas Bush’s anecdotal version was the contextually more accurate if you happened to be serious about voting Republican.

No, it’s not just Republicans. We need to watch election statements more critically, rather than blindly applauding anything which makes our side look better, no matter how egregious the misrepresentation. Non sequitur arguments are so embedded in the political culture that the discerning reader should have no trouble spotting them in either camp. But, as Guardian writer Michael Tomasky posts in his blog Can you play False Equivalency!?:

And no, people, I’m not saying liberals never do anything bad. I am saying (read slowly now): this. is. a. constant. habit. of. conservatives. in. a. way. it. is. not. quite. with. liberals.

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Three Off-Focus News Items

It’s not that we’d like to see these news headlines go away entirely. We’d just like to see them addressed appropriately.

PERRY: Rick Perry’s brain-freeze debate debacle even went viral on YouTube. In truth everybody has “senior moments” like forgetting a word we know we should know, or walking into a room and forgetting why we went there. Fortunately most of us don’t have an opportunity to forget one of our three pet political platforms in front of millions of TV viewers. Even Perry’s admission that “he stepped in it” is symptomatic of the problem here. I’m not a Perry fan and never will be, but Perry inarticulateness isn’t the reason.  If the GOP didn’t like the self-mortification of promoting embarrassing public speakers, it wouldn’t have backed Bush Jr. for two full terms. But if you want confirmation of how common this sort of brain freeze is, check out the interesting New York Times article on Rick Perry’s Brain Freeze.

CAIN: Charges of sexual harassment look bad for Herman Cain, but it’s far from clear whether Cain, his accusers or both sides have the credibility gap. I’ll wait until the facts are aired and sorted out. On a recent road trip I heard most of an LA talk show on this topic. All callers had already arm-chaired the scandal without benefit of the facts, which are still not known, and their “opinions” seemed to depend on whether or not they liked Cain. I don’t like Cain either, but whatever happened to due process and an impartial hearing?

PATERNO: Sacked Penn State coach Joe Paterno, 84, was accused of failing to act on molestation testimony against a formerly respected and long-serving coaching assistant, Jerry Sandusky. University President Graham Spanier was also just fired. Penn State students rioted against the loss of their coach, and presumably out of loyalty to their team. This misplaced at-any-cost “loyalty” is exactly what compounded the scandal in 2002 when college officials suppressed it. I think most of us would prefer to see a serious national inquiry into prevention of institutional child abuse and subsequent cover-up. As for Paterno and Spanier, it happened on their watch and they sandbagged it. The sackings were appropriate. Treating trusted college officials as the victims instead of the kids they betrayed is what’s offensively inappropriate.

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Wikileaks seems to have become the paparazzi of the diplomatic corps, doing for Hillary Clinton’s world what National Enquirer magazine did for Paris Hilton. I tried at first to ignore the Wikileaks media sensation. Wouldn’t you know, it won’t go away. Some gossipy tidbits are fascinating. Many are potentially embarrassing. Some threaten delicate negotiations, or diplomatic relationships that took years to build. Almost all undermine international confidence in “the system.” Most confirm what we already knew, heard or suspected. How secure were they? The money was not actually kept in bank vaults, but the front door to the bank was thought to be really, really strong. What do these Wikileaks mean, who is responsible for them, and who, ultimately, is accountable for their embarrassing disclosure?

Continue reading

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Pieces of Eight

I e-mailed the letter below to Stereophile magazine this afternoon. Normally, I do post audio and digital audio content to Computers. This thread has little to do with digital audio, and a lot to do with commentary and the rules of the road.

I would violate my own terms of service (TOS) if I posted this in Computers because it hijacks a thread that, by rights, should have been about digital audio. Also, my letter cites the same cuss word I’m writing Stereophile about (another TOS violation). So, the questionable word is expertly edited out so that you could hardly recognize it.
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Newspapers Tanking

The venerable San Francisco Chronicle may close within weeks.

According to the web article by columnist John Letzing of MarketWatch, The Hearst Corporation, which merged newsroom, publishing and distribution resources of the Chronicle with the SF Examiner in 2001, lost more than $50 million on just this one newspaper last year:
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News: Air Bags and Voluntarism

U.S. taking another shot at Mars with 2 spacecraft

Giant air bags will cushion landings

Republican, or Democrat?

Signs of SARS quarantine Bay Area man

He violated voluntary isolation order

Thta’s what we thought, too. Let that be a lesson to us: never violate a voluntary order.

Headline Source: San Francisco Chronicle, June 6, 2003
commentary: Alex Forbes
© June 6, 2003

Starting in October, tenants must volunteer 8 hours a month

Headline Source: “Public Housing Surprise”, San Francisco Chronicle, August 2, 2003. “Starting in October, a new federal law requires them to volunteer in the community eight hours each month or risk eviction.”

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The Night The Martians Came

media self-discipline

“Oh my God, the whole tower just collapsed!”

Over the past two years we have spent an unusual amount of time listening to one of the local “all news, all the time” radio stations. We will catch news updates on current event, but, principally, we strain for traffic information affecting our own one-hour commute across the San Mateo Bridge.

Mainly, we try to be watchful for road debris, or a forest of red tail-lights representing a panic-stop situation ahead of us, or the errant signs of road-rage in any one of many stressed-out drivers obviously around us at all times.
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Enough Already: John Walker

telling it like it is: Jacoby Armchairs John Walker

Following is commentary on a Boston Globe column by Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe. It was published December 13, 2001. Normally, we will only provide a link or quote excerpts from syndicated material. For archives, the Boston Globe wants $2.50 per article and you must open up an account to get the article. This effectively seals Globe commentary from public commentary after an arbitrary grace period, so the full text of the forwarded article is reproduced below my “Letter to a friend”.

Letter to a friend:

Interesting article. I will admit that none of the evidence I’ve seen so far leaves me any sympathy at all for either Walker or his parents. Between you and me, yes, you could probably see it coming (if you were there, which Jacoby was not), and thanks for sending it.

Jay Leno said it first: Continue reading

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