Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Wikipedia is homophobic!

Or so says Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff. Well, Kevin, you'll have to excuse me if I don't believe you.

First of all, this is the Washington Blade. Like so many other gay publications of late, virtually anyone who annoys them in even the slightest way is called homophobic, whether or not there's any basis for it. Let's face it, folks: major media is far more gay-friendly, at least in terms of hiring, than it used to be; this means that a lot of the people still holding onto jobs with gay-specific publications are there because their only real qualification is that, well, they're gay, and they're willing to make a livelihood out of being gay. If they were better journalists, they'd be working for a real publication.

Second, based on what I'm reading, it appears that Mr. Naff is upset at Wikipedia not because they actually acted in any sort of a homophobic way, but rather simply because they removed a link to an article he wrote from the Wikipedia article. (I wonder if he put it there himself.) The article that was linked to appears to have been him fecklessly postulating as to whether some particular celebrity is gay or not. The Wikipedia community determined that his speculation (which appears to be based on little if any evidence) was not suitable for inclusion in the Wikipedia article in question. In short, Mr. Naff's personal pride was wounded, and so he lashed out the only way he knew.

Third, Wikipedia is long known to be gay-friendly, even gay-positive. While certainly there are homophobes in Wikipedia, they are not the norm and they are not well-tolerated. There are any number of openly gay administrators on enwiki (really, more than I can count). My favorite incident demonstrating the community attitude toward gays was probably the RFA of Apollomelos. Apollomelos was a gay Wikipedian who torpedoed his own RFA by predicting that he would fail because of the homophobia of the Wikipedia community. His RFA did fail, but because he had an attitude, not because he was gay.

So, to Mr. Naff: Just because Wikipedia removes a link to your column doesn't mean Wikipedia hates gays; it just means that they don't like you all that much. And let's be real, dear, can you really blame them all that much?


A year or so ago, I set up WikiNomic, an attempt at playing Nomic in a Wiki. It didn't do all that well, probably because we didn't get critical mass. However, the fine folks at Wikipedia have totally shamed my attempts, and in fact have created the world's largest and most successful Nomic of all time. The proof of this? The fine folks who inhabit Wikipedia's "deletion review" forum have decided, in their infinite wisdom, that it is more important to follow a set of bureaucratic rules than it is to make actual decisions about how to write an encyclopedia. Only in a Nomic would the rules of the game be more important than the game itself.

The particular venue for this inanity? The discussion over whether or not Daniel Brandt should have an article on Wikipedia. There was an extensive discussion, or at least an attempt at one, regarding this article after it was deleted "out of process" by Yanksox (who has since been desysoped and is now being accused of actually being Daniel Brandt by at least two Arbitrators, although I don't personally believe that they have any evidence of this). However, all attempts to discuss the merits of the article were systematically squashed by a small horde of people who apparently feel that having a discussion over whether the article should be deleted must wait until after they have a full discussion over whether the method under which it was deleted was appropriate. And since this crowd of loudmouthed idiots, full of sound and fury but clearly incapable of signifying anything, outscreeched all the sensible people (both the ones who wanted to leave it deleted and the ones who have reasons why it shouldn't be deleted for reasons other than "our holy process has not been respected"), the article has been undeleted -- and to add insult to stupidity, the individual who closed the deletion review mandated a one-week wait before the discussion on whether it can be deleted may be allowed to begin. Therefore, as a result of this braindamaged addiction to all-holy process, the Brandt article remains intact and in place, and no meaningful discussion can be had about it, simply because the Wikipedia community has to put drama ahead of result. It will probably be weeks, even months, before a fair discussion can be had on this topic, if ever at all. I strongly suspect that the allegation that Yanksox is a Brandt sockpuppet, whether or not supported by evidence, will be sufficient to prevent the formation of a consensus to delete for quite some time.

Wikipedia, you need to get rid of these pointless gameplayers. Wikipedia is not a nomic. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. Preventing a discussion on the merits of a proposed or extant encyclopedia article because the discussion was not "started in the proper way" is both assinine and stupid, and this glorious addiction to process and drama ahead of the goal of writing an encyclopedia is wrongheaded and destructive, both of the encyclopedia and, ironically, the community. Small wonder that quality editors leave Wikipedia: working with and around such intellectual dodos, and a culture that rewards it, has to be very trying indeed.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The strange world in which bloggers live

Supposedly, according to some blogger who has drank way too much of the "your blog can make you rich" koolaid, my blog is worth about $6209.

Now, exactly, how does this work? Does this mean that there's some lamer out there willing to pay me $6209 for what's in my blog now? Or does that value estimate include the supposed value of my future postings as well? Or is that what my lifetime ad revenue would be assuming I did everything possible to "monetize" my blog?

The Internet is overrun by crappy blogs being published by people who barely seem to be able to think, let alone say anything coherent; all they do is burp back out content they read somewhere else in the vague hopes that their blog will match on some set of keywords that are supposedly "hot". They also make sure to link to all the "hot" blogs so that maybe they'll get some trackback hits or whatever. All so people will come to their useless, meaningless, say-nothing blog, not to read the content (for there is none) but to click on the flashy little ads, and thereby make the sap who glurged out this socially meritless crap a few cents.

It almost makes me ashamed to have a blog.

Thanks to fellow blogosheep Cyde for bringing this entire silly concept to my attention.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Webcomics and Wikipedia

You know, I've long been sympathetic to the plight of webcomics on Wikipedia; I think they get short shrift and are ill-treated by the deletionistas. So when I saw the most recent installment of PartiallyClips, I was most amused. Now, normally, I don't read the comments on the webcomics I read; I really don't get involved in the fanboying around webcomic authors. This time, I did. And, boy, did I regret it.

If all webcomic authors are as rudely opinionated as Rob Balder, it's small wonder that they have bad blood with the Wikipedians. The way in which he treated Kat (especially toward the end of the "discussion") was just outrageous. I have to admit, Christopher Wright took the attack on his personal notability a lot better than did Balder.

So, while it is definitely important for Wikipedians to remember that the people they're writing about are people and have feelings and deserve respect, I'd like to remind people who find themselves written about on Wikipedia -- or, for that matter, find that Wikipedia would prefer not to write about them -- that Wikipedians are also people and have feelings and deserve respect.

Conservatism, Wikipedia, and Daniel Brandt

As I write this, a very vigorous "debate" (if it can in fact be called that) is underway on Wikipedia over whether or not Daniel Brandt's article should remain deleted. Or, depending on who you ask, whether the article was deleted "in accordance with process" or not.

I'm not really interested in arguing here whether or not Daniel Brandt's article should be deleted. I've already had my say on that issue in the debate already linked. (The fact that I was willing to break self-imposed exile to comment on that on-wiki should say something all by itself. Or maybe not. Whatever.) Rather, what I'm writing about here is the strenuousness with which quite a few editors in that debate are not arguing about the merits of letting Daniel Brandt have an article or not. Rather, they are trying to make the entire discussion about whether "process was followed".

The other day, I tracked down and read a good part of John Jost's infamous metastudy, "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition". This study, which was widely derided by conservatives but appears to be methodologically sound to my not entirely untrained eye, documents a large number of correlations between political conservative and a variety of personality traits. What struck me as I read this is that these same traits appear to be those exhibited by many of Wikipedia's worst process fetishists.

Jost, et al identified a number of traits that they found to be associated with political conservatism to some significant degree of confidence:
  1. mental rigidity and closed-mindedness, including
    • increased dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
    • decreased cognitive complexity
    • decreased openness to experience
    • uncertainty avoidance
    • personal needs for order and structure
    • need for cognitive closure
  2. lowered self-esteem
  3. fear, anger, and aggression
  4. pessimism, disgust, and contempt
  5. loss prevention
  6. fear of death
  7. threat arising from social and economic deprivation
  8. threat to the stability of the social system
Not all of these are applicable to Wikipedians (especially "fear of death"), but I see many of these same traits in play in this component the Wikipedia community. Wikipedians commonly recognized as being "process bound" exhibit, in my eyes, at the very least, a strong desire for dogmatic rule systems lacking ambiguity -- hence their strong objections to broadcloth "rules" like "don't be a dick" and "ignore all rules". They strongly dislike uncertainty and want straightforward systematic rules that can be applied to any situation to yield a predictable, programmable result. They have a strong need for order and structure, and seek to impose hierarchy on Wikipedia in order to obtain that. (The desire for hierarchy is another trait identified by the authors of the study, as is the willingness to accept inequity in order to obtain stability.) They are very strongly concerned about maintaining stability of the system, and will even sacrifice the goals of the project to maintain that stability (as evidenced by the people who are urging that Brandt's article be undeleted not because that is in the interest of the project, but because "the process was not followed").

What I find really interesting is that people who I know to be political liberals are demonstrating many of these traits on Wikipedia (although the authors do note that similar authoritarian tendencies are noted in radical liberals to almost the same degree as in political conservatives), and also that some people I know to be political conservatives are not exhibiting these tendencies. However, in general I don't know the political bents of most Wikipedians, and in most of the cases where I do know them they match the trend in the study.

Wikipedia historically has drawn a more-liberal-than-average crowd. There are no doubt a lot of different reasons for this, and I may choose to speculate on them in a later article. However, I have to wonder to what degree the recent changes in the community have been due to the influx of an increasingly large number of people who are not liberals, or at least not psychologically disposed to be liberals, and the resulting conflict between the almost antiauthoritarian history of Wikipedia's culture with the strong authoritarian culture that these newer imports are attempting to impose.

Considering how badly our society does at reconciling these psychological divergences, I can certainly understand why Wikipedia is having a hard time of it.

I want virtual floppies

I just had to find an actual floppy in order to install Windows 2003 on a new server, because that server uses a RAID controller that Windows doesn't recognize on its own. Windows allows you to get around this by hitting F6 during the boot process to signal that you want to load additional drivers before continuing with setup. The problem, however, is that you can only load drivers from a floppy. This would be great, if my server had a floppy drive. It doesn't. Neither does my workstation. And we don't keep very many floppies around here.

Fortunately, I do have a USB floppy drive, and fortunately Server 2003 Setup will recognize the drive if it's present during the boot sequence. So I found a floppy in a disused desk drawer, used the drive with my workstation to write the driver disk, and then restarted Setup with the drive attached and loaded the driver.

However, eventually it won't be possible to get floppies. The thing is, though, there's really nothing preventing a USB key from being a "virtual floppy drive". So, why doesn't someone already do this?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

No more Chief Illiniwek

The University of Illinois has finally retired its mascot, Chief Illiniwek. This contentious figure is one of the most prominent examples of a college using Native American symbolism to "honor" Native American heritage, but does so in such a typically sloppy and hamhanded way as to be remarkably insulting to Native Americans. The University resisted the retirement for years after clear objections to it were raised, culminating eventually in 2005 with an NCAA determination that the mark violated new NCAA rules forbidding the use of Native American imagery. The University resisted that determination, but finally gave in: last night was the "Chief"'s last appearance at a University function.

I'm pleased to see the University finally discontinue the use of this offensive symbol. Apparently I'm in the minority on this: apparently at his last appearance hundreds of students attended the final performance in black t-shirts, and the local media coverage has been almost in the nature of an obituary. During the "Badger Sports Minute" on the radio during my evening commute, I got to hear about why it is inappropriate to expect sports figures to provide moral guidance, using as evidence for this contention the massive cheating that took place during the leadup to the Daytona 500. Remind me never to do business with Badger Insurance.

Fuzzy Zoeller strikes back!

It seems that golf legend Fuzzy Zoeller is suing an unnamed Wikipedia editor -- and the law firm that gave him internet access -- for making defamatory edits to his article on Wikipedia. Don't bother looking: the defamatory content, along with all sorts of other stuff, has been aggressively purged from the article -- but are graciously repeated for anyone who cares to look in the lawsuit itself, and are also conveniently provided for your examination by the Naples News.

I'm hoping that this lawsuit helps to remind people that Wikipedia is not a game: these are articles about real people with real lives and people really do need to be more careful about them. Perhaps there will also be more of an incentive to get the long-awaited stable versions now, although ironically Wikimedia's immunity from suit under the CDA definitely dramatically reduces the Foundation's incentive to actually make this feature exist.

I still have to wonder if someone will eventually successfully argue that the Foundation is willfully negligent in failing to provide this feature. It's not clear to me that a prosecution for willful negligence would survive CDA immunity, but the risk of one would certainly provide what appears to be a much-needed incentive for the Foundation to actually do something about the current sordid state of affairs....

Monday, February 19, 2007

Where are the stable versions?

It's becoming increasingly evident that one of the major problems that Wikipedia is facing is the way that articles slowly "rot" over time. There are several different things that appear to me to cause article rot. Fortunately, it seems that the cure for all of them is the same thing.

One of them is the vandalism/reversion cycle. Rot gets in when an article is vandalized twice and the reverting patroller only reverts one of the vandalisms. This is relatively common, and is increasingly more of a problem as vandalism patrol has become even more of a "point and shoot" game for the people who play it: these people have such a sense of urgency combined with a lack of interest in actually reading the articles, that they often don't look to see if they've reverted to a vandalized version (or even look at what they've reverted at all).

Another is so-called sneaky vandalism. Not that "sneaky vandalism" needs to be sneaky: "medulla oblongata" currently claims that the medulla was "Made famous in the comedy 'Waterboy' starring Adam Sandler"; it has said this now for over a week without anybody noticing. But, since this edit didn't set off the vandalism sensors that the vandalism patrollers rely too much on, it goes ignored, and will until somebody with the interest to fix it reads this blog entry. (Hopefully that'll be soon; I've noticed that none of the articles I mentioned in my "ten random articles" has been edited yet, not even the one that is clearly being used for linkspam.) This example appears to be merely silly; there certainly is lots of malicious "sneaky" vandalism too, ranging from changing dates or other numeric data in small ways, to inserting seemingly plausible but false information into articles. An example of the latter is this snippet about the so-called "Miller valve" modification for the Boeing 737, which was entirely fabricated. (VATSIM is a game; Miller valves are used on trombones, not aircraft.)

Yet another is the need that so many people have to "make their mark". So many articles, especially those on highly pertinent topics, started out decent, but over time accumulate so much randomly added crap that they no longer read well. This typically takes the form of randomly added bits of trivia, added without any concern for organization, tone, or any of the other factors that a good encyclopedia author would keep in mind. This process slowly turns articles into a mishmash of disconnected facts. A good example of an article currently displaying such a lack of organization is Tony Blair's. This is a very common problem for biographies of living people, especially controversial ones; it is difficult for to maintain coherency with so many cooks peeing in collaborating on the soup.

Anyone who has ever attempted collaborative authoring knows that it is can be very difficult to collaborate with even one or two co-authors. Textbooks sometimes have as many as four or five authors, but on examination it often becomes apparent that all of the authors clearly did not collaborate on every word; rather, the authors divvied up the work in some manner, each working mostly independently, reviewing one another's work and making suggestions instead of directly editing one another's work. The wiki model, in which hundreds or thousands of editors supposedly collaborate on an article, appears to me to be really quite unworkable toward a goal of producing, and more importantly maintaining, a quality article. (Not to mention that we already know that most quality articles are the result of the work of at most a handful of authors.) The best we can hope for is an article which recites relatively few factual falsehoods and is not too terribly unreadable. In order to obtain and retain quality, it is clear to me that mature articles need to have the number of editors actually editing the article limited to a relatively small number, preferably people who are actually familiar with the article.

I realize that the above seems to contradict "wikiphilosophy" and especially Wikipedia's doctrine regarding "ownership of articles". And it's intended to. My reason for recommending that Wikipedia change its attitude toward article ownership is not so that authors of articles can claim ownership and thereby protect their precious egos (the egomania of so-called "highly productive article authors" is well-established, and certainly has no need to be fed further). Rather, I recommend this because I believe that it would help to slow the rate at which quality articles rot; in short, I believe this change would benefit the overall quality of the encyclopedia.

Now, back to my original thesis: that all of the above problems can be solved by the same thing. That thing is the long-promised "stable versions" feature. I propose using (at least) two levels of stability on the English Wikipedia. The lowest level would be the "unvandalized" level; articles tagged with this stability tag are certified as not containing vandalism. This would markedly reduce the exposure level that vandalism receives (which has the further benefit of reducing the incentive for vandals to vandalize) and make vandalism easier to remove completely. Higher levels would represent increasingly higher "quality" levels; articles tagged with these stability tags have been certified by their principal maintainers as containing verified, accurate content presented in an organized and well-edited manner.

Here's the rub: this feature has been promised to the community now since August 2006; it was announced at Wikimania 2006 by Jimbo Wales himself. However, it has yet to appear anywhere. And I can't find out why not. It's clear to me that this feature is quite possibly the single most important currently under consideration for the long-term success of the Wikipedia project, and yet not only has it not been developed, but I can't even find any statement as to when it might become available or why it's not yet available. At the same time, an attempt to implement this in wetware using existing features of Mediawiki (protected versions and subpages) was rebuffed in August, with the reason being that "stable versions will be here soon, so let's just wait for it". How long is soon? How much longer will Wikipedia continue to put up with this situation?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Calling all grups! Wikipedia needs you!

Who here remembers Brian Peppers? Well, apparently the more juvenile element of the Wikipedia community does... Not quite a year ago, Jimbo imposed a one-year moratorium on recreating the article. That moratorium expires February 21st. In anticipation of this event, some of Wikipedia's more juvenile members have been vandalizing February 21 in anticipation of the date when they are hoping to be able to recreate an attack page about their favorite disabled sexual offender.

It wasn't appropriate a year ago, and it's not appropriate now. It's really quite depressing that there are people who are juvenile enough to think that this is appropriate content anywhere, and yet have enough of an attention span to actually remember it and make plans to come back for it a year later. It's either a sad statement on Wikipedia, or a sad statement on humanity generally. I'm not sure which.

Anyway, the real issue here is how many rule-bound processheads will insist on a "full and complete" discussion of this issue, followed by a vote, when there's absolutely no need for any of it. Already I'm seeing people demanding a "due consideration in the proper forum".

Friday, February 16, 2007

Ten Random Articles

This post is inspired by the suggestion Worldtraveller made in his recent essay ("Is Wikipedia Failing") to examine ten random articles. Here's my examination of ten random articles, thoughtfully provided for me by MediaWiki's "Special:Random" function.
  1. Spittal - Disambiguation article; but constructed in a nonparallel way. Also, the second half of the disambiguation is mispunctuated. Grade: check-minus.

  2. 34th United States Congress - Political Parties - The title of this article is inconsistent with the MOS (it should be something like "Members of the 34th United States Congress by political party"). I was hoping for an analysis of the political parties in the 34th Congress; however, all I got was a list of members of the 34th Congress by political party. This is content for an almanac, not for an encyclopedia. (If there were a WikiData, I'd recommend moving it there.) At least it lists one reference (well, two, but they're really the same thing, just published under two different names). Grade: F.

  3. Winfield, Missouri - This is a RamBot article with basically only one addition, two sentences about the police department that seem very much out of place given that the mayor (which one would think is a more significant fact than police chief) is not listed. On the other hand, it's not all that badly abused. No sources other than the census data, but then there's not much to sourced besides the census data....Grade: D+.

  4. Saša, Tin i Kedžo - This article is about a defunct Croatian boy band. I suppose it passes notability because they're the first boy band in Croatia. The article has multiple grammatical errors, probably because it was written by someone with a limited grasp of English, and never copyedited. Two stub tags, although frankly I can't see what one would want to add to this article. No sources. Grade: D-.

  5. Redbird Arena - This stub is about a sports arena in Normal, Illinois. Nothing obviously wrong with it, although it is choppily written. Probably a candidate for merging into the article about Normal, although I suspect many people would object to that. No sources. Grade: D+.

  6. Synopsis - This article is basically a dictionary definition, and it should likely be replaced by a disambiguation which includes a reference to Wiktionary. The article also seems to be limited in scope without acknowledging that it is limited in scope. Judging by the number of spammy links at the bottom, this article was likely either created to support linkspam, or has been taken over for that purpose. If there are sources, they're not cited as such. Grade: D

  7. Fine Time - This is a nearly zero-content article apparently about a song. This is another example of an article that belongs in a hypothetical WikiData, although there is a tiny bit of trivia. No sources. Grade: D-

  8. Le Roy Township, Minnesota - As minor place articles go, this one is slightly better that most, although that's not saying much. The article has been somewhat expanded from the Rambot-created original. The only major organizational complaint is that the "Cemetaries" section is strangely organized underneath "History". Has one reference source. Grade: C

  9. Bathylutichthys - A fish stub. Says almost nothing, but at least doesn't do so badly. Has one reference source. Grade: C

  10. Jean Baptiste Perrin - This biographical article of a physicist is at least half-decent. There are minor grammatical issues and some portions that are sloppily written, but the main defect of this article is that it's too short to avoid having the infobox override the navigational box at the bottom of the article. I'm not sure that anything can be added to this article, though, which suggests that the infobox is too large, or something like that. Anyway, definitely the best article out of this lot. Not that that's saying much. Sadly, no sources, which hurts its grade considerably. Grade: C-
Pretty sad, when you look at it: nothing gets better than a C and over half the articles (five of nine) are unsourced. (I am not going to demand sources on a disambiguation page.)

Now, I realize that this is only ten articles out of well over a million, but still.....

Permalinks and the imminent failure of Wikipedia

I really should use permalinks when I link to Wikicruft from my blog; several of the more serious warts I've complained about have been fixed, which kinda makes me look silly to people who come after, go to check, and don't find whatever I was complaining about. At least I know that people actually read my blog.

I read through some of the discussion surrounding the "Wikipedia is failing" essay. Curiously enough, the "Wikipedia is failing" essay itself has been moved out of the Wikipedia project space into to someone's userspace, but the rebuttal ("Wikipedia is not failing") continues to remain in the Wikipedia project space. The former Wikipedia-space page now has something resembling a disambiguation. Apparently the "Wikipedia is not failing" people felt that their point of view didn't get enough attention, and so they rammed through a "consensus" to marginalize Worldtraveller's opinion.

Remember, thou shalt not criticize Wikipedia, for Wikipedia is thy god.

Oh, and in case you haven't figured it out, permalinks are not (as far as I can tell) related to why Wikipedia is doomed to failure.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Wikipedia gets it wrong, again

Today's misbegotten article is [[Will (law)]]. This article repeats the frequently repeated, but false, claim that a "testament" only devises personal property. This is part of a common, but mistaken, belief that in the phrase "will and testament", the two parts must necessarily mean different things, and so a "will" devises realty and a "testament" personalty. This interpretation, while vaguely reasonable, is false. The reason why a "will and testament" is called that has to do with the history of England, and specifically of French as the language of law in England. "Will" is the Anglo-Saxon term for a document specifying the intent of the testator, while "Testament" is the French/Latin term for the same thing. The use of both words is to ensure that the document is recognized as a testamentary document whether interpreted by a common-law court (using English) or a crown court (using French). The same pattern is found in "cease and desist".

I could probably find a citation for the claims above (it was in my Wills and Trusts text from when I was in law school), but not until after we've moved. Things are too disorderly around here right now for me to find an old textbook.

Oh, and while we're at it, [[Codicil (will)]] has an ad for some website at the bottom. Does anybody ever check this stuff?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Your right to not be caught at risk

The latest neat idea in GPS devices has apparently struck a sour tone in Switzerland: the Swiss highway department has issued an order banning any GPS unit with the ability to warn a driver of the presence of nearby automated traffic enforcement systems (speed or traffic light cameras). Police may now stop drivers and examine their GPS units, and if they find one with such capabilities, confiscate and/or destroy it. The same law also makes a long list of devices illegal to sell in Switzerland.

In Chicago, the city is required to put up signs warning people that the intersection they're approaching is protected by a traffic camera. The GPS device would be redundant. I don't understand why the Swiss are so knotted up over this.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Turned away by security at Obama's Chicago event

I was planning to go to Obama's Chicago appearance this evening. We had tickets and everything. We got there in reasonable time and waited in line for admittance, but upon reaching the door I was informed by security that I would not be permitted to enter with my dSLR. (This despite the fact that I had already seen several people with dSLRs enter.) Apparently the UIC Pavilion considers "cameras with detachable lenses" a security risk because (get this) someone might be tempted to throw the lens. Yeah, right. If there's a risk that I might throw my detachable lens, then there's just as much a risk that I might throw a cheap disposable camera, most of which cost less than the EF and EF-S lenses that my Canon 400D uses.

I was not interested in handing my camera over to some check counter (yeah, right, I'm going to hand over $1200 in midrange photography equipment just because the professional photographer lobby has managed to convince your security people that amateurs with dSLRs are a "security risk"), and so we left the venue. So much for the idea of getting decent photographs of Obama.

I did manage to get a few half-decent shots in on Saturday. Here's one of the best:

If Obama continues to appear in such restricted forums, though, I won't likely be able to do much better, unless, that is, I manage to score press credentials somehow. Maybe I can get them from WikiNews.

Death of Citizendium predicted

Well, what faint hope I had for Citizendium has been clearly dashed, and in the totally expected way. A brief read over this blog entry by Citizendium author DaveyDweeb (read Larry's comments especially; they are quite illuminating) demonstrates pretty clearly the fatal egotism of Larry Sanger. I now see why Jimbo disinvited Larry: Larry's tendency to authoritarian leadership is not only completely at odds with Jimbo's leadership style (not that I don't have issues with Jimbo's leadership style, but Larry is too far the other way), but Larry's need to sate his own ego clearly prevents him from "letting go" enough to let Citizendium (or, I suspect, any other project of any size) succeed.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Creative Commons logo on Barack Obama's website?

I just noticed that, in the pale small print at the bottom of Obama's website, is a little Creative Commons logo. I can't really figure out why it's there, though. It doesn't link to anything, and there isn't anything I saw in the terms of service or elsewhere as to why this site has a CC logo on it. In fact, their ToS extracts a perpetual exploitation license from content contributors (like most commercial websites), which is actually rather contrary to Creative Commons principles, and leaves me wondering if their webmasters and legal people have any clue what they're doing....

Obama announces

I'm writing this from a hotel room in Springfield, Illinois. We've just returned from Obama's announcement of his decision to run for President. We weren't able to get that close to Obama (I could barely see him, although I did get a few pictures that might be decent, if small, once cropped) because you needed tickets (which apparently were not available to the general public or even to donators, which we are) to get closer than behind the crowd control barriers. Loren, at least, got to see him by virtue of sitting on my shoulders for much of the speech. Also, it was really quite cold, about 8 degrees when we left (it's 15 degrees now) and we were mostly in the shade. The speech was excellent; I won't try to detail relevant parts as I'm sure there will be a copy of it on Obama's campaign website before long anyway. There was such a sea of people; enough that the entire Old Capitol Building grounds were completely covered as well as the sidewalks and much of the adjoining streets.

The worst part was on the way back to the hotel. The antiwomen antichoice assholes were out with their disgusting signs, and passing them made Lee (who is six months pregnant) ill to the point of vomiting, and with the stress of the temperature and the walk this induced painful pre-term contractions. Fortunately, there was a group of people willing to form a human shield so we could get past these the disgusting signs, and we were able to get her back to the hotel where we are now resting. We'll gladly pay the $10 for a late checkout.

It's clear that Obama is not running for the Democratic nomination. He is running for the Presidency.

I'm positive that I saw some of the same people today that I saw at Navy Pier in 2003. The difference? There were at least 50 times as many people here today, and Dean's appearance at Navy Pier was on a nice warm summer afternoon, not a frigidly cold winter morning.

I took about 300 pictures, most of which are probably crap, but there might be one or two worth keeping. I'll post them here if there is anything worthwhile. We will be going to see Obama again on Sunday at UIC. We do have tickets to that; hopefully we won't be as badly screwed there as we were here in terms of access, and I hope to get better pictures then. Also, my camera seems to systematically underexpose most images by about one stop. At least it has the ability to bias that. I also got some pictures of the city from the hotel room (we are on the 15th floor of a building in the center of Springfield), which will hopefully be worth uploading.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

More on nonfree content in Wikimedia

It seems that Erik has chimed in on this point with a remarkably good set of comments on the Foundation-l mailing list (I believe, in reply to Kat's announcement, which I previously blogged about here).

I especially liked "CreativeCommons is about giving choices to authors within a legal framework. Wikimedia is about building free culture." This is something close to what I was getting at in this post, but, uncharacteristically, Erik (who is quite well known for being prolix) managed to put it far more succinctly than I did. Good show, Erik.

This really helps to focus the problem that Wikimedia (and a lot of other free content creators) faces: Either use the GFDL, which is good at protecting free content but is a cranky and difficult to use license, or use CC-BY-SA, which is much easier to use but does a far poorer job of protecting the freedom of the content under it. On top of that, people so readily confuse CC-BY-SA with the other CC licenses -- most of which are not "free content" licenses, but merely "free redistributions" licenses. I'd really love to see either the FSF come up with a less prickly version of the GFDL, or Creative Commons produce an entirely new license (or set of licenses) that really are free content licenses. Or both.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The eyes! The eyes!

And here we have an example, perhaps, of why Germans should not be allowed to make colored maps. Dear lord, the colors.

I'm told that someone is going to recolor it. Thank the gods.

Followup on Wikipedia and copyright

Well, it looks like the Foundation isn't about to accept my proposal. Kat Walsh, speaking as a member of the Board, has posted a longish message to the Foundation-l mailing list which basically reiterates the standing policy regarding nonfree content. Apparently, this has been inspired in no small part by the Hebrew Wikipedia's decision to allow content licensed under "noncommercial use only" licenses (and their threat to ban Danny if he deleted any of it).

There's an astounding amount of very thinly justified nonfree content on Wikipedia. It's been my impression that, in general, the situation has been improving over the past year or so, but I haven't been watching as closely lately as I used to. It worries me when the Board has to make a formal proclamation like this simply to reiterate standing policy. And the proposal falls well short of what I would have liked, but I suppose I can't really expect all of my radical ideas to set root right way, eh?

Indian place articles in Wikipedia

It's almost not fair to blog about these; they are so notoriously bad that it's ceased to be funny. Today's example (found randomly) is Mampuzhakkary. The opening sentence has contorted grammar, and the rest of the article tells you very little about the place. And I still have no idea who "Thekkumpuram Padasekhram" or "Kuttanadu Vikasana Samithi" are, although the former is apparently famous (news to me) and the latter has an office (good for him?). Typically, the only other bit of information given is what road it is on, which seems to be a fixture in Indian place articles. Do Indians define their towns by what roads pass through them?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Vanity, thy name is Wikipedia

Please, someone, tell me that this article is anything other than PR fluff put up by Mr. Silverman's publicist. And why isn't this bio tagged as a "living person"?

Mystery columns

[[List of places in Serbia (N-Z)]] is just about as nastily formatted as possible. Not only do the tables have huge, ugly cell divisions, but none of the instances includes anything in the "district"or "municipalities" columns, and there are the mystery "1" and "2" columns which appear to have no purpose. And, because table markup has been used badly, the columns do not line up. I'm not sure there's all that much value in providing postcodes, either.

This is an article that really should be constructed from metadata. MediaWiki doesn't support that yet, but it wouldn't be hard to write a bot that does metadata extraction and maintains list articles derived from them.

Bush and Dell, revisited

Back in November I noticed that Bush had plugged Dell during a press statement. It seems that I am not alone in noticing this: there's now two videos on YouTube commenting on it. So I'm not the only one to think that that was notable.

Deletion of vandalism revisions, and authorship in general on Wikipedia

I've long argued that Wikipedia should entirely delete vandalism revisions rather than leaving them in the history. Leaving them there leaves at least some form of recognition for the vandal, and they certain serve no legitimate purpose except to provide statistics as to how much Wikipedia is vandalized, which can be gathered some other way.

The presence of vandalism revisions in an article's history also makes identifying the authors of the article far more difficult. Neither the vandal nor the vandal patroller who reverts them vandalism is an "author" of the article, and neither should be listed as an author in the same sense that someone who actually contributes real content should be. This ties into a separate and more complex issue: identifying the authors of a Wikipedia author.

Not everyone who edits an article is an author of it. Obviously, of course, editors who vandalized the article or who reverted that vandalism are not authors; the first because their contributions, such as they were, have been removed, and the second because their actions did not add any creative content (or in fact any content at all). In general, maintenance actions of any sort do not create an authorship interest. An author is someone who either creates substantial new content, or substantially transforms existing content. Only those editors who edits contribute substantial new content or substantially transform existing content are properly authors of the article. Clearly, not all of the editors will qualify, and it's possible that an article might have authors who are not editors, if the article derives from content not on the wiki, or which was part of some other article merged across.

The problem, then, becomes one of differentiating authors from editors. There's no way the MediaWiki software can make this determination; it can't tell someone who makes a dozen spelling corrections or who replaces a bunch of HTML markup with MediaWiki markup from someone who completely rewrites the article. So this has to be a human-mediated process. What I recommend is a separate "authors" tab associated with each article. Any editor who feels that they are an author of the article may list themselves as one. A bot would go through edits to author pages and check to make sure that any person listed as an author is actually an editor of the article; instances where a person not listed as an editor is listed as an author would be flagged for review. False claim of authorship would be a serious community offense.

This approach reflects a general approach to maintenance operations on Wikipedia, many of which are currently performed by admins. Most of these activities can be substantially automated, but there is a great reluctance to do so because of the long tail problem. The bot would be programmed to automatically deal with the clear-cut cases, and refer the nonclear cases to its human minders for a decision. Examples where this can be implemented include most speedy deletion situations, requested moves, protection and unprotection, and even blocking and unblocking.

The thing is, Wikipedia's culture won't allow most of this to happen. Deleting vandalism revisions won't happen because (a) what if someone makes a mistake and labels a nonvandalism revision as vandalism and (b) it would reduce edit counts of vandalism patrollers so much that they could never "level up". The former problem can be dealt with on a "good-enough" basis (say, if the revision is tagged as vandalism and not untagged within a certain time, it and its reverting edit will both be deleted by a bot; this gives time to untag). The latter problem, though, is harder to deal with because it deals with the mindnumbingly bizarre expectations of the Wikipedia community. There is also a very strong prejudice against having bots that can perform administrative actions ("fear of SkyNet syndrome"), although I have yet to figure that one out, either. I think it's probably related to the way Wikipedia really satisfies many people's desire to Be In Charge, or at least to Wield Power. If being an admin merely meant that the bots gave your recommendations more weight, then what's the fun of it? That problem won't fix itself until Wikipedia's community wakes up and remembers that it's trying to write an encyclopedia.

Where have all the copyeditors gone?

This article, about a zoo in India, may very well have been written by the monkeys in the zoo. Setting aside several glaring grammatical errors ("It the first public zoo in India."), it has no organization at all. Under "Suggested days to visit" (not exactly an encyclopedic heading) we find "The maps provided are inaccurate and misguiding." Well, that might be true, but what does that do with choosing a day to visit. The real gem here, though is this: "The nocturnal house is extremely smelly, almost necrogenic." Necrogenic! I've never encountered that word before, but what a lovely word to describe a zoo! And the "see also" list is filled with all sorts of random topics, most of which are only tangentially connected. I'm especially perplexed by the reference to Heini Hediger, who appears to be about as related to this zoo as would Steve Irwin. What does this German zoologist have to do with this particular zoo?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Fair use and Wikipedia

Thinking about the FSF and the GFDL made me think quite a bit about my attitude on the "fair use" of unlicensed media on Wikipedia projects. And the more I think about it, the more I think there is no justification for using unlicensed media on Wikimedia projects.

The Free Software Foundation is about free, reusable code. They care more than the code is reusable than that it be good, in no small part because being reusable means that it will eventually become good (the reusability is a large part of what makes goodness happen when it actually does happen). So they don't compromise: there is no "fair use" in GPL software. Now, this is in part because it doesn't make sense; I've never heard of anyone making a "fair use" argument for code.

I am becoming more and more convinced that the compromise that Wikipedia makes to allow fair use content ultimately reduces the goodness of the encyclopedia, and even more importantly it clearly reduces the reusability of its content. Allowing the use of unlicensed content as fair use when reusable, freely licensed content could instead be developed discourages the development of the freely licensed content: why make the effort to develop something when there's an acceptable alternative already existing? There's far less incentive to go out and take a picture of something when there's already a good-quality image there.

Of course, there are the counterarguments: what if the article is about something that is copyrighted? In a lot of cases, the article in question will not really suffer if the nonfree content is eliminated. [[IBM]] isn't going to suddenly be a useless article if the corporate logo were suddenly removed, nor would all the multitudinous articles about record albums suddenly suck if the thumbnailed album covers were chopped out of the infoboxes. In my opinion, the marginal loss in the quality of these articles is more than offset by the increased freedom of the result.

The more difficult case is where the article is about a singular work of art which really does need an exact representation; for example, Picasso's [[Guernica]]. And here, this is where the Wikimedia Foundation needs to start negotiating. Would Picasso's estate really be that adverse to agreeing to license a 300x135 grayscale version of this image under a free license? They might. They might not. I bet nobody has ever asked them. The thing is, Wikipedia is now big enough that some content creators may be willing to give a bit, either out of altruism/charity or out of a desire to Be Included In Wikipedia. We've already seen that happen once, with that one pair of twin male models that Jimbo negotiated a GFDL-released image from. Content creators that refuse to negotiate won't have articles about them that are quite as nice; this might motivate them to be more forthcoming. And if this does work, it is a real win for everyone committed to free content.

Of course, one counterpoint that can be made is that RMS originally wrote almost all of the first GPL'd code on proprietary operating systems using proprietary tools; the open source software environment has never been "pure", so why should Wikipedia be pure either? There is a fundamental difference here. In almost every case, the Wikipedia article, stripped of its nonfree content, is still very useful as an encyclopedia article. The nonfree inclusions may add value but in most cases they are incidential to the main force of the article. This is totally unlike the first GPL'd software, which would have been simply unusable without a platform on which to run it. The lack of such a platform did eventually inspire people to write a free platform, but I fear free software wouldn't have caught on if Stallman had tried to mandate that it could not be used on computers with proprietary operating systems. Wikipedia has already caught on; there's no need to compromise principle for the success of the project.

There is, of course, the additional advantage that not allowing nonfree content ought to reduce legal hassles when people don't approve of the use of some content. No need to do a fair use analysis; just check to see if it's really released under the GFDL and if it's not, delete it. That, by itself, will probably improve public relations.

So it's my conclusion that the Wikimedia Foundation ought to, in recognition of its commitment to free content (and especially if it wishes to be known as a true champion of free content), set into motion a ban of all nonfree content from all Wikimedia projects whatsoever. I'm sure that doing this overnight is probably not practical, so here's my suggestion: I hereby challenge the Wikimedia Foundation to ban all "fair use" from all projects on or before Wikipedia Day (January 15th), 2008. Make it so!

Keith Henson finally comes to ground

Rumor has it that Keith Henson, one of the craziest loons in the crazy world of Scientology critics, has finally been arrested on his six-year-old conviction for "interfering with a church".

I wonder if this time he'll actually have a lawyer.

Copyleft, copyright, Richard Stallman, Larry Lessig, and the Wikimedia Foundation

The Free Software Foundation is apparently close to announcing a rewrite of the GFDL. There have been some interesting political battles over this. It is the conflict of the goals of two of the major players that leads me to write this.

The GFDL is the "documentation" version of the venerable GPL, the license under which a great deal of -- probably a majority of -- open source software is released. It was originally created because people trying to write documentation for various open source products realized that the GPL is a poor fit for documentation: the GPL is fundamentally a software license and its terms are crafted to that purpose. Documentation is not software, and so many of the terms made little or no sense in the context of material intended to be printed instead of run. The GFDL really got a big boost, though, when Wikipedia adopted it as its default license; at this time it is almost certainly the case that the contents of the various Wikipedia editions represents the largest corpus of GFDL-licensed text in existence, and the Wikimedia Foundation the largest publisher of GFDL'd content currently in existence.

Fundamentally, this is a problem with copyright itself: computer programs are not works of literature (the Copyright Office's insistence to the contrary notwithstanding). But the copyright law is what the copyright law is; you take it as you find it, and write your license to control the worst aspects of it and take advantage of them to accomplish what you really want. At least, that's the way the Free Software Foundation, and Richard Stallman at its head, has taken; their goal is and always has been to encourage people to write more and more code under licenses that allow free reuse without allowing people who do reuse to "take claim" for someone else's work and directly exploit it. The GPL has been very successful at this; the GFDL less so, probably because writing books for free is less fun than writing software for free. The Free Software Foundation, in any case, is about software (hence the word "software" in its organizational name). Its interest in documentation is derivative, to the extent that good documentation makes software better, and so the GFDL served the FSF's interests by making it possible for people to write documentation and release it under a license that carries the same spirit as the GPL, but made a bit more sense.

Wikipedia's choice to require licensing of contributions under the GFDL was a bad one. The GFDL is a license for software documentation. It's not really intended to be used as a license for just any random hunk'o'text that you might have sitting about, and even less appropriate for a standalone photograph. The GFDL is written with the assumption that any printed copy would be in the form of a bound book, and also includes a bunch of hairy language intended to protect "author's rights". Using the GFDL for Wikipedia content requires some twisting of the language -- twisting that doesn't harm the intent of the license too much, but which tends to make people dislike the license. So, there's quite a bit of pressure on the Wikimedia Foundation, as the publisher of Wikipedia, to find a way to get Wikipedia under a license that is less difficult to work with than the GFDL. (Part of the problem is that at the time Wikipedia was looking for a license, the GFDL was the only open source license that encompassed text at all. While it is not a good fit, it was the least bad fit available at the time.)

Now, enter Larry Lessig and the Creative Commons. Larry's not about using copyright to encourage people to write stuff and make it freely reusable. Best I can tell, Larry's main drive is to change the nature of copyright law. Specifically, Larry wants to, inter alia, shorten the term of copyright substantially and also wants to have the "right to remix" recognized as either within fair use or as a separate enumerated exception to exclusive rights. (The "right to remix" is the right to take elements of one person's copyrighted material and to assemble it together with other elements of another person's copyrighted material, so as to convey a message not necessarily intended by any of the original authors, and without requiring any of the original authors' consent. The "mashup" is brought to us courtesy of the right to remix, or so we are told.) Larry's interests are not about software. He is not particularily interested in code reuse. In fact, it seems to me that his attitude that content reuse is something that, in many cases, should be beyond the ability of the original author to control. Larry's interests are not in insuring that code remains available for reuse into the future, and that people won't expropriate and exploit other people's work. His interests appear to lie more with allowing artists creative freedom, ensuring that artists are free to publish their original (by his definition) works, and that artists have the right to demand attribution, integrity, and (if they want) compensation. That's why out of the dozen or so "Creative Commons" licenses, only one (CC-BY-SA) is even close to compatibility with the GFDL, and several (especially the "noncommercial" and "no derivative" variants) are flatly in conflict with the core purposes of the FSF: Larry's goals are simply different. Larry's goal seems to me to be to provide authors with the tools to enable them to broadly distribute their works ("obtain exposure") without having to rely on Big Media (and their restrictive copyright policies). With the FSF, it's not about the programmer, it's about the code. With Larry, it is about the author.

Now, here we find the conflict. The Creative Commons has several licenses which are "more suited" for Wikipedia content than the GFDL. One of these would be the CC-BY-SA license, which fundamentally provides the same base level permissions and restrictions as the GFDL. The differences are minor; most people who would be willing to license under the GFDL would probably be willing to license under CC-BY-SA, and vice versa. However, there are enough small differences in the two licenses that they are not intercompatible. The GFDL, particularily, forbids relicensing: anybody who takes a license under the GFDL may redistribute (or derive from) the work in question only under the GFDL, and any such redistribution or derivation must also be licensed under the GFDL. This is a problem for Wikipedia: it would very much like to have a "better fitting" license than the GFDL.

There are basically two ways out of this situation. The first is to get everyone who has ever contributed to Wikipedia to agree to allow their original contributions to be relicensed under some other license. This is easy to say but quite difficult to do. The second is for the FSF to issue a revised GFDL which remedies the defects of the first version with respect to Wikipedia. The GFDL, like the GPL, contains language allowing a subsequent licensee to elect to use a subsequent version of the license if there is a later one than the one under which the original licensor used. This was originally intended to allow the FSF to rectify defects in the license should they become apparent. However, it can also be used, by sufficently pressuring the FSF, to give people an "escape clause" from the GFDL into other licensing regimes not controlled by the FSF which might eventually erode the GFDL into meaninglessness.

There are at least three ways I see that the FSF could modify the GFDL to serve Wikipedia's apparent interests.

One, they could write a "simplified GFDL" and allow for relicensing under that license. The simplified GFDL would have the same core concepts as the GFDL but without all the language and conditions that were designed specifically for the GFDL's role as a license for printed software documentation. The "viral" nature of the GFDL would be preserved, and the licenses would remain under the jurisdiction of the FSF. (To the best of my knowledge, a draft of such a license exists.)

Two, they could add language that declares that a licensee may choose to relicense the work under CC-BY-SA instead of keeping it under the GFDL. This would allow Wikimedia, as a licensee of GFDL content, to relicense its entire corpus under CC-BY-SA, and thereby escape the onerous and poorly applicable clauses of the GFDL. The problem with this is that the CC licenses, since 2.5, have had clauses in them that are potentially exploitable to undermine the "sharealike" aspect of the licenses -- the very reason for the existence of the GFDL in the first place -- which means that such a clause could easily break the so-called "viral" nature of the GFDL, which quite frankly is the main feature of the FSF licenses. FSF licenses are designed to make it very very hard to "unring the bell". The Creative Commons licenses, far less so. Some of us consider this a major plus of the FSF licenses.

Three, they could add language allowing relicensing (again at the licensee's discretion) under some other license under the control of some other organization (such as, for example, the Wikimedia Foundation). This has the same problems as the CC licenses, really; there is no guarantee that that organization would keep its licenses compatible in spirit with the GFDL.

As I see it, for the FSF to do anything other than the first option is to act outside its interests. However, and here's the rub: The Free Software Foundation is being pressured to do either the second or third option, by powerful parties in the open content arena. And they must resist this. The Free Software Foundation must keep its commitment to open content first, and the convenience of other parties second. Most importantly, they must remember that other parties do not necessarily share their commitment to open content as open content, but instead have other agendas, and to make sure that they do not hand off to others their responsibility to ensure that content licensed under the GFDL stays free in perpetuity -- especially when those others cannot be trusted to have the same commitment that they themselves have.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Daffy Duck

1 part bourbon
1 part Black Duck cranberry liqueur
1/2 part sweet vermouth
dash Peychaud's bitters

Shake with ice; strain into cocktail glass.

It's called the Daffy Duck because Daffy Duck is a black duck. I would have called it a Cape Cod but there's already a drink called that.