Wikipedia’s authoritative articles

Wikipedia used to have a warning label that said something to the effect that you had to take everything there with a grain of salt; which is sage advice for any encyclopedia.

The idea being that a tertiary source like an encyclopedia can never be as authoritative as a primary or secondary source. (Let’s gloss over the fact that the strength of Wikipedia derives partly from being an excellent primary or secondary source for a lot of subjects.)

Now Wikipedia wants to instill some kind of authority by vetting articles, then locking them. According to an article in the Times: The software to allow such “stable” articles, which will be closed off from further revision, is now in the final stages.

Why write new software when it already exists? An encyclopedia built by volunteers, absorbing Wikipedia articles (or the other way around), which are then vetted by specialists in the field and deemed “finished” already exists. Or perhaps I should say “existed”; Nupedia was an abject failure. The vetting process would take ages, and by the time a rare article had graduated from Wikipedia’s elementary school to Nupedia’s university, the original Wikipedia article would have progressed so far that the Nupedia bit was nothing but a pale shadow of it.

But let’s try and be constructive. How about this?

Wikipedia already has locked pages, namely the older revisions. When you edit a wikipedia article, the former version gets saved somewhere. This helps other contributors to check up on your work, by comparing your version of an article with older versions. It also helps me to link to a version of a Wikipedia article about Nupedia that I just checked for all too clear inaccuracies and signs of vandalism.

How about giving some editors an approval stamp? When they use it on an article, the article gets marked authoritative. Then, when somebody else edits the article, the authoritative versions moves down in the history again, and the current version will no longer be marked authoritative.

If there is an authoritative version of the article, you can display a tab at the top, next to the “Article” tab, that links to the “Authoritative version”.

You could even make it so that if a reader looks up an article, the authoritative version is displayed first, although I think that is a very bad idea, because it sends a message to the good contributors that their work is of less value than that of an authority. To which the good contributors could rightfully disagree–an excellent reason to leave Wikipedia.

Authories will only lend their names to articles if they are sure the articles are correct. An authority who thinks it is OK to rubberstamp any old article, regardless of its actual quality, should not be considered an authority — such folks are probably better off working for the Digital Universe encyclopedia anyway. But every article always contains at least a few flaws, which may take anywhere from a few minutes to a few weeks to correct. Only very few articles would be vetted if the entire article should be OKed. So, the authorities should be able to mark only the parts of an article they trust, then move on.

This has the added advantage that the weak parts of an article stand out, so that the great masses can apply their energy to making the entire article good. Also, it helps make the authority’s voice clearer; he or she need not OK parts that he or she is not entirely certain about; that which the authority OKed, should really be OK. And of course, once you know that, you can better judge the quality of the authoritative voice, and vote it out when necessary.

Finally, an authoritative article should have a box explaining who deemed it authoritative, and what makes him or her so special. After all, an argument of authority is merely a heuristic; what makes somebody authoritative is first and foremost the things a person knows about a subject, and the fact that we know they know these things.

To be honest, Jimmy Wales probably has something like this in mind. Rarely have I seen a man who is misquoted so often and so badly by the traditional press as Wales; he knows what underlies the success of Wikipedia as well as I do, and it’s definitely not locking articles.

Maciej and the Secret Space Center

Had I mentioned that Maciej Ceglowski is in Beijing? The other day he accidentally wandered into one of the city’s most secret space travel facilities. He gets busted, and his feeble possessions investigated.

At some point the fat cop walked in again to make another attempt at the cell phone, guards springing back to attention around him. Having suffered the slings and arrows of the phone’s outrageous user interface for three months, it gave me a secret thrill to watch this battle. But as confident as I was of the outcome, I worried that the cop might accidentally squeeze the button on the side of the phone and thereby discover the phone’s built-in camera.

By my estimate the phone had about fifty photographs stored on it – two of my bewildered face squinting at the phone, one of my hand, and forty seven of the inside of my pocket. I had no way of verifying this, though, because the built-in photograph viewer was not navigable by mortal man. Only the pure of heart, to whom the user interface would open like a blushing rose, could activate the picture viewer.

Who knew that bad usability and international espionage go hand in hand?

Riot at the supermarket

There was a bit of a riot at the supermarket yesterday. Well, perhaps riot is too strong a word. Heated argument would be better. And anyway, it was more of an uprising.

One person said it was a shame. The second said it was an outrage. The third said someone should talk to the manager about this, and then did exactly that.

“For three whole days, now!” I could hear him say. “For three whole days this travesty has been allowed to continue, and you guys did nothing to remedy it. Nothing!”

For three days in a row, the supermarket had been running low on alcoholical beverages. So far, the supermarket had been alone in that, judging by the smell that surrounded the protesters.


About a year ago, my brother was extolling the virtues of Skype to me. This was strange: I had barely heard about the service myself, and am definitely more in the loop when it comes to geek toys than my brother.

Then a friend started telling me how she uses Skype to talk to all her clients. (Well, perhaps not “all” clients, but in business “some” is always better than “none”.)

In other words, for once I was getting tech buzz instead of spreading it. A curious sensation indeed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Library of Forbidden Books

Photo: Het Parool, 2005.

A while ago the Parool newspaper published a series of books that used to be censored at some point in time. Their list (Dutch): Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”, “Les liaisons dangereuses”, Brecht’s “Dreigroschenroman”, Alberto Moravia’s “Gli Indifferenti”, Marquis de Sade’s “Les Cent-Vingt journées de Sodome”, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five”, Anaïs Nin’s “Henry and June”, Edith Templeton’s “Gordon”, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”, and Pauline Réage’s “L’histoire d’O”.

I was going to blog about this earlier, but wanted to find some info about newspapers publishing books, which has become quite fashionable recently. Unfortunately, my Google skills wax and wane with the moon, and I couldn’t find anything. From what I remember, the trend of newspapers publishing books started in Italy (?) and became a quite profitable side-line (?) for newspapers who were otherwise experiencing declining sales (?) in an era in which shopping for printed news has become so much easier (?). If you know more, please help me out here.

The pause gave me some time to think. The ultimate act of censorship, as you know, is called copyright. Copyright allows its owners, typically publishers, but sometimes authors (and in the case of Mein Kampf: governments) to stop distribution of a book. Is that bad for the book? In some cases it is. But more explicit censorship, as in the case of the ten books listed before, also makes publication an attractive proposal; who wouldn’t want to own forbidden fruit?

Where copyright may succeed in burying unpopular ideas is with ideas that would have been unpopular anyway; boring ideas, for example. But I don’t think anyone would want to ban boring ideas, because they tend to ban themselves.

Still, now and again explicit censorship escapes the radar even in somewhat interesting cases. For Project Gutenberg I helped salvage an early edition of “De Zoon van Dik Trom” (Dick Drum’s Son), which was censored by the Nazis during their occupation of the Netherlands, and which according to a website called Verboden Boeken (forbidden books) has not been restored since. I’ll have to check and see one of these days if that is still true.

Dik Trom is (the hero of) a series of children’s books that has remained popular for well over a century. The stories are about the adventures of a village boy with a stubborn slant. Slightly picaresque, but not as much as Tom Sawyer or Pippi LÃ¥ngstrump, it is nowadays considered harmless fun. The second book of the series was censored by the Nazis because Dik’s son Jan and his friends had a snowball fight in which they divided up into two camps: the “Dutch” and the “Germans”. The reasons for that choice were simple: the Germans were considered an acceptable alternative (remember: this was before the two Great Wars in which the Dutch perception of their friendly neighbours changed considerably), and because a German black-white-red flag could easily be mimicked by the turning the Dutch red-white-blue upside down.

And of course, in the heat of the battle kids yell things like: “Away with the Germans! Long live the queen!

A more infamous example of a censored work that is no longer being reprinted is of course Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which is actively being censored in Europe using copyright law. Apparently our glorious leaders believe that undesirable ideas easily infect the mind of a simple minded person. I guess it takes one to know one.

Demolition Man

Film with Sly Stalone, Sandra Bullock, Wes Snypes, and Dennis Leary. If I got their names wrong it’s because I don’t really care. With a cast this bad, this movie can be nothing but … well, surprisingly average, actually. Sly plays a 20th century cop who is cryogenically frozen for some reason or other, only to be released as a trouble shooter in the literallest meaning of the word in the 21st when mega-criminal Snypes somehow escapes his freezer.

Gentle nods to SF classics (such as Brave New World) and some decent twists. For instance, Stalone is continuously fined by the ruling computer because of swearing, whereas Bullock gets away with her tries at emulating 20th century “cool” language: “Let’s lick his ass!”

Leary is his usual fatiguing self. Again, he is due for a nappy change, and again his mother apparently is not around to provide him with one.

Demolition Man (1993), 5/10

Review of Demolition Man published on Aug 6, 2006 by Branko Collin.

Enter Uncle Oswald

I invoke the power of my memory and proclaim this to be one of Dahl’s lesser books. Still, with Roald Dahl that still means that this is a ripping read.

Switch Bitch contains four longish short stories that all involve some kind of switching sex partners. And knowing Dahl, either the switcher or the switchee will be left off the worse at the kind.

So why does my intuitive memory proclaim this to be a lesser Dahl? I can make a few guesses. For instance, the first story leans heavily on the element of surprise, whereas the last story is painfully predictable. The third story has one of the protagonists be a sex victim, which is pretty much nails on a blackboard for me. (Although the fact that there is no redemption also makes this story for me.) The book clearly addresses 1960s’ Americans (it would not be published today for fear of offending the christian fundies). With the exception of the first the stories are pretty much forgettable–now I am writing this review I keep going back to find out what the other three were about again, even when I finished reading last week. The sex itself is described in such a roundabout way that you have to wonder whether the author has ever had any.

So, should you read Switch Bitch? Of course you should; it’s Dahl, baby! The stories are still wicked, not in any sense of “cool”, but literally wicked, evil, naughty. Dahl will rot your brain, and this book will do its part.

Switch Bitch by Roald Dahl, 1975, reviewed by Branko Collin. (The copyright notice suggests that one or more of these stories have been published before.)

Stargate SG-1: Disclosure

A short review about this SG-1 episode I saw, because there were a couple of things that I liked and that stood out for me.

In Stargate SG-1: Disclosure, several ambassadors of large nations are informed of the Stargate program by general Hammond and that irritating senator you love to hate. The ambassadors are invited to the SG complex, and Hammond talks them through all the components and the history of the program, step by step. At every step, the viewer is shown bits of previous episodes. I tend to hate episodes that are made up almost entirely of shows I have already seen, because it feels like I am being made to pay for things I already paid for. Here, however, it worked for me, and I think that is because these flash-backs actually served a purpose.

SG-1 has a very loose, but very definite overarching story line. A strong overarching story line makes its influence clear every time you watch a show. Even if you’ve missed three years of a series, you’ll be up to speed soon enough. But not so with SG-1: miss a couple of episodes, and you miss a little; miss three seasons, and you won’t know anymore what’s going on. This episode did a good job getting me up to speed.

The second thing I liked was a joke; I thought it was funny when the annoying senator complained about the haphazzard way most missions seemed to resolve; all of them ended well, but only after SG-1 put Earth or even the universe in terrible danger. SG-1 fumbles through each mission, but averts a bad ending at the very last possible minute.

This meta-humour seems to be a trademark of the Stargate franchise writers. In this case the senator almost seems to know about our world, in which we watch exciting SG-1 episodes, in Stargate Atlantis the characters actually do; the geeks in that series continually gush about Star Trek, as any geek in our time frame would.

Of course, I am stuck in an old world. Why doesn’t sci-fi channel just publish a video story line on their website, so that if I’ve missed bits, I could get a summary there?

Stargate SG-1, season 6, episode Disclosure: 7/10. Review by Branko Collin.

How Al Quaeda are helping the US

Something strange happened last month. The Supreme Court of the United States of America (SCOTUS) ruled that the US are not allowed to haul the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay into military tribunals. If they are going to be tried, SCOTUS seems to say, it must be in a decent court of law, using a decent set of rules.

Typically SCOTUS does not pass rulings from thin air; first, a case must be brought before them. And in this instance the case was brought by one of the prisoners. To be precise, Osama Bin Laden’s driver. I think it is pretty safe to assume that he was a member of Al Quaeda.

So why does Al Quaeda seem to be helping Americans regain their freedoms? I don’t think they are trying to. If anything, Al Quaeda would believe this to be a great publicity stunt; see how we even rule their highest court!

The problem is not so much the verdict of the SCOTUS, but the fact that American people of good will did nothing while the enemy did their jobs. It is about time that the lunacy of the Bushites is ended by decent Americans. And the way to do that is to assert themselves. It should not be Al Quaeda who make sure US law is enforced on US soil.

There are a few footnotes to my opinion. One is that it really is not my business what Americans do with their country–except of course that they tend to send those doings first to foreign markets in order to try them out. I happen to live in those foreign markets.

The other is that in this particular case only the Al Quaeda guy had standing; there was little Americans could do, as they were not the aggrieved party. (I am sure the arch-conservative SCOTUS would have loved to agree with Bush and his cronies; if they could have thrown the case out on a technicality, they would have, and it would have been dead for years.) However, Americans have let it come to this; had they pulled the emergency brake earlier, things would never have gotten so out of hand.

Branko’s First Law of Web Dynamics

Branko’s First Law of Web Dynamics is: “The less relevant a part of a web page is to the page’s subject, the less prominence it should have on that web page.”

Or, to put it differently: relevancy first!

Odd, that no-one should have formulated this law before. (Well, not that I know of anyway.)

I was thinking about this in the context of advertising on the web. Did you ever notice how the most annoying ads on the web often are the least relevant to what you were looking for? Is this because the ads are so annoying, that any relevance they might have had immediately dissipates? Or is it because the advertisers realize that this particular ad is so irrelevant that it is not going to bag them eyeballs, unless they display them over anything else? Or (my favourite) is it because the sort of advertiser that would place irrelevant ads on a website, is also the sort of advertiser that would use annoying (read: prominence-boosting) techniques? Or (equally likely) is it because annoying ads appear on high-traffic websites, where a tiny percentage of conversion is still better than a large percentage of conversion on a small website?

The oddest thing is of course that there are irrelevant ads in the first place. If I were head of a marketing department, I would be making sure that all my minions spent the bulk of their time ensuring that ads are targeted at readers who are interested in them.