Monday, May 14, 2007

The Problem With Wikipedia

The problem with Wikipedia is not biased information or lack of accuracy. Wikipedia is not perfect of course, but it is remarkably accurate, much more so than one might expect from such a project. The real problem is much more subtle. It is really part of a greater problem with the Internet as a whole, but Wikipedia magnifies this problem greatly.

Wikipedia is not anywhere close to accumulating all the world's knowledge. But remember how in Oregon Trail when you would kill a buffalo that weighed 900 pounds, you would only be able to carry back 200 pounds of meat? It's like that, but imagine that the buffalo weighed a million tons. 200 pounds is only a small fraction of 1 million tons, but it's still a lot of meat, and it's more meat than you are going to find anywhere else (except perhaps at university libraries and other libraries like the library of congress; there might be a little more meat at libraries, but it tends to be separated by lots of bones so it is difficult to find the meat that you want). And with Wikipedia, if you bring back 200 pounds of meat, you might wake up the next morning to find that you now have 202 pounds of meat.

But the knowledge in Wikipedia is too large and too easily accessible for our own good. If one has a source of knowledge like Wikipedia that is no more than a few minutes away, incentive for knowing stuff ourselves decreases. If Wikipedia can know just as effectively as you, why know at all? Knowledge has become vulgar and devalued. Since so much of it is now so easily accessible, people forget how valuable and important all knowledge is. Consider this passage from Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, where Casaubon, the protagonist, invents a profession for himself:
A sudden illumination: I had a trade after all. I would set up a cultural investigation agency, be a kind of private eye of learning.

Instead of sticking my nose into all-night dives and cathouses, I would skulk around bookshops, libraries, corridors of university departments. Then I'd sit in my office, my feet propped on the desk, drinking, from a Dixie cup, the whiskey I’'d brought up from the corner store in a paper bag. The phone rings and a man says: "Listen, I’'m translating this book and came across something or someone called Motakallimun. What the hell is it?"

Give me two days, I tell him. Then I go to the library, flip through some card catalogs, give the man in the reference office a cigarette, and pick up a clue. That evening I invite an instructor in Islamic studies out for a drink. I buy him a couple of beers and he drops his guard, gives me the lowdown for nothing. I call the client back. "All right, the Motakallimun were radical Moslem theologians at the time of Avicenna. They said the world was a sort of just cloud of accidents that formed particular shapes only by an instantaneous and temporary act of the divine will. If God was distracted for even a moment, the universe would fall to pieces, into a meaningless anarchy of atoms. That enough for you? The job took me three days. Pay what you think is fair."

That is what the quest for knowledge should be like. Today that translator would just open up Firefox and type "wp Motakallimun". The quest for knowledge is shortened so greatly, that you don't appreciate how valuable the knowledge you receive is. If you have a lime tree in your back yard and grow your own limes and make your own lime juice, you probably appreciate lime juice more than those who go to the store and buy lime juice in a bottle. Except that the appreciation of knowledge is more important than appreciation of lime juice. Honestly, who even buys lime juice?

If this all seems a bit elitist, that's because it is. I recognize that, at the same time, greater accessibility to knowledge is a good thing. No one should be priced out of knowledge. The cost of knowledge should not be a trans-Atlantic crossing to read an ancient book located only in some European library. No monetary expenditure should be required, the poor should have access to knowledge also. Casaubon shouldn't be able to make a living charging for information. But knowledge cannot be too easy to get either. How to resolve this dilemma? Scramble Wikipedia. Keep all the information, but make everything difficult to find. Imagine. You pull up Wikipedia, but you find that you have been redirected to the front page of Ukranian Wikipedia. After a few more tries, you manage to get Wikipedia speaking English again. You search for Bartolomeo Vanzetti, but instead you end up with the article on the 1948 Philadelphia Athletics. You realize immediately that the Search function has been tampered with and that you will get nowhere using that. You formulate an alternate plan of attack. Starting on the current page, what chain of links will take you to your destination fastest? How about American League->New York Yankees->Joe DiMaggio->Famous Italian-Americans->Vanzetti? Thwarted again when the link to American League actually takes you to List of Defunct Korean Automakers. A thought occurs to you. Though it is highly improbable that you will ever need to know the name of a single defunct Korean automaker, much less 15 of them, the chance is non-zero, and at the time when you need the knowledge the most, you know it will be impossible to get back to this page. You print out the page just in case and file it under 'L', for 'List of Defunct Korean Automakers.' Twenty years later you get into an argument with a Korean diplomat about the relative reliability of Korean and American cars. You know that there is a Korean automaker that went bankrupt after its vehicles were shown to be prone to massive explosions. You rush down to the filing cabinet in the basement, hoping to return upstairs triumphant, shouting out the name of Taisoon or Wajbai or whatever the name of the company was, knowing that that one word will win the debate for you. You look around madly in your filing cabinet, first under 'K' for Korean, then under 'A' for Automobile and 'C' for cars, but you can't remember where you filed it twenty years earlier. You dash over to your computer, hoping desperately that Wikipedia will cooperate, but your search for Korean Cars only turns up an article on Nikola Tesla. You return upstairs, dejected, having no answers to the Korean's argument and forced to accept defeat. But back to the present. You are still searching for Vanzetti. You give up on finding a link to the page within Wikipedia and resort to Google. Your search results include a link to Wikipedia, which you click. Wikipedia notes your perseverance and offers a compromise. If you agree to rewrite two articles on the Spanish Civil War, it will let you read the article you desire. Too worn out to fight Wikipedia anymore, you agree to its terms. You will now truly appreciate whatever information you eventually get about Vanzetti and Italian anarchism.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

I Found This Awesome Journal In A Ditch

12/15/29000 BC - 39° N 76° W
I am a hunter. I am one of the leaders of the tribe. I live in North America. Most of the tribe depends on my hunting. We need animals for food and clothing. We use caves as shelters. My family does not see me very much because I am hunting. My Father is the leader of the tribe. Soon he will die and my older brother will become leader. Most people in our tribe short lives but our family has always lived longer. It is winter and colder than usual. The food is very scare this winter. The enmies of the tribe are another tribe who are dying out. To survive they steal food and sometimes even babies from us. My name is Matha. My fathers name is Mat. My father is the wisest man. My wive's name is Noka. I have an twelve year-old son who does not have a name yet. He will probably be Matha II. All my family lives in one cave. My family includes me, my wife, my son, my father, my older brother, my brother's wife and children and some important elders. The cave is built in to a cliff face and is very high. Other smaller caves are connected.
I have a lucky hunting stone which I always carry when I hunt. Everyone works for themselves in the tribe. My lucky stone can kill a rabbit and a squirrel in one slash and kan kill a deer or other big animals with the help of a boulder. I also hunt with animals claws and Teeth. We use fire to cook our meals. There is a bay nearby to get water. We speak Jalpese. This winter food is very scarce. Many people are dying. When I am out hunting I find a stranger. Even though he speaks Jalpenese his language is strangely the same. He gives me a bird he calls the oriole. We call it the Baltimore Oriole since we live in Baltimore.
He brings good luck. People stop dying. Winter ends. As a celebration of the good luck and the new year we dropped a stone from a tree. This is how the tradition of dropping a ball when the new year came from.
Today I am out hunting. I find a field with tall brown grass. A rabbit runs through the field. Some parts of the grass fall off. The rabbit eats these things. I try eating them. Mmm... wholesome and delicous. I name it wheat. I collect some wheat. Later that day I grind the wheat with my hunting stone. I mix the wheat with water. And put it over rocks over the fire. It become solid. I eat it. Mmm... wholesome and delicious. I call this bread. Then I go home and share with the tribe wheat and fire. Today I find a man named MoJo. He gives me strange and mysterious food to which I say Mmm... wholesome and delicous. I also give him wheat.

It is a cold winter. Not even Clepo (what we named the baltimore oriole) can bring good weather. Meat and Wheat are scare. Right now I am teaching my son to hunt with Clepo. My son says he is cold. I tell him no true hunter is cold and he should. son does very bad hunting. Clepo does most of the work. We see a deer. Clepo pecks on the deers head. The deer raises his front legs giving me a perfect chance at his heart. I attack with my bear claw. I tell my son to bring it back and prepare it. I cannot find anything else on my hunt. When I get back the snow is three knees high or 1+1/2 legs high. The temperature is 2 layers of deerskin. Even Clepo sleeps in side the cave tonite. When we wake up the entrance is blocked with a snow drift. Clepo trys to peck through it but it is frozen solid. Clepo finds an opening. It is one knee high and one knee across. We bring all our food and all our people. We meet an other tribe. in the tunnel. We fight them. They kill Clepo. We run back to our cave Clepo is about to be burned when he becomes alive again. He is very sick. I go to Old Flexico to find my friend MoJo I find he has moved to Sumer. I see the plans for a Sky Jig. I make a Sky Jig. I like flying it. Clepo can not fly right now. He likes to sit on top of it. I make some sky jigs for my wife and son. We decided to move to Sumer to visit my friend. We cannot decide whether to go the long safe way or the short dangerous way. my father has given me permission to live a way from my tribe if we want to. We decide to go the short dangerous way across the big waters. We attach food to the Sky Jigs. We are prepared to go at the dark of 22 bright lights after the white cold fluffy stuff. We leave on 23 bright lights since the white cold fluffy stuff. We soon reach the big waters. We take turns sleeping on top of each other. 7 bright lights since we left. We are all tired. The skins on the Sky Jig are ripping. 10 bright lights after we left there is almost no wind and skins left. We land on some land. I can tell people lived there. I remake the Sky Jigs and replenish our food supply. I name this place Sap Green because my friend lived in a place called Sap Green. We leave again two bright lights after we arrive. Before we leave I gets some yellow crescent food and sweet plant. We also take yellow dotted food. We are about to leave when the ground starts to shake we see red stuff coming out we get on our Sky jigs and fly away. We look back Sap Green is exploding. I call this Sap Green exploding. We make it to big land in 3 bright lights. We land on big land. I spear one of the animals. When I skin it. but the skin curls up. This gives me an idea. I rip of a piece of skin. It rolls up. I throw it around. I sew it togher with tree stems. Then I put a flint point on the end. I call this a spear ball. I will use this as a weapon. Then I have another idea. I rip another piece out. It rolls up into a sphere. I sew it toghter. Just then, "I think Where is Clepo." I run back to the camp made of Sky Jigs. he is not there. I ask my wife and son if they had seen him. They say no. I think about where I had last seen him. He was on top of my Sky Jig because his wing was not completly better yet. When we set up the Sky Jig tent he was inside. Then I saw him come flying in. His wing was good again! He comes with me to work on the sphere. This is what it looks like.

Since I cannot add a spear point to it I make a game out of it. I climb up a tree and make a circle out of a stem. I climb down the tree and try to throw the sphere into the circle it is very hard. When I make it in a yell a word that makes no sense. It sounds like this Jali. I call this game Jaliball. Now it is time for us to go on Sky Jig I pack the Jaliball, the spear ball and some food. We go on Sky Jigs for 7 bright lights. Then we see medium size waters. We land and get more food before we cross these waters. It only takes 1 bright light to cross it. Then we stop and head northword to Sumer. We get to Sumer. I cannot find any caves that my friend might live. I relax with some Jaliball. It is getting too easy. I make two circles to shoot the Jaliball and 2 people play. Each person gets one basket and they compete to see who can get the most Jalis. I look hard for my friend MoJo. One day I look in a tree for MoJo. The I fall down and black out.

Much more to come soon... I'll try to get the pictures up also.