Monday, December 26, 2005

Rule Britannica

Nature magazine recently staged an impromptu track meet between Wikipedia and the reigning monarch of high-school research papers, Encyclopedia Britannica. As it happens, I once took on Her Majesty in the 50-yard hurdles, and I wound up with gravel in my palms and a dislocated knee.

It claims its contributors are "the very best minds in the world," but most of Britannica's writing is done by underemployed youngsters in its home city of Chicago. A few years back, learning that I fit the bill, one of the editors gave me two entries to update. For the next week I crammed on Kiev and George Washington Carver. I cross-checked and nitpicked to the point where something amazing happened: I found an error in Britannica's Carver entry!

It was a small error: Carver wasn't born near Diamond Grove, Mo., but was taken there while still a baby. But still -- an error! A dung stain on the royal robes! I was sure I'd be fêted for my diligence. Smugly, I filed the entries, complete with detailed notes on my discovery. And waited.

Eventually I called the editor -- who hadn't even looked at my work. "We've decided we can't take on any new writers now," she said vaguely. Stunned but docile (underemployed youngster, remember) I tentatively asked about my payment.

I'm sure you see it coming. I didn't get paid. I didn't even have a contract because, frankly, it never occurred to me that the reigning monarch of high-school research papers would try to stiff me a few hundred bucks.

Well. Never underestimate the desperation of an organization on the verge of obsolescence. And double-knot your sneakers.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Guns, Sweat and Skis

They put eggs in their coffee, wage war on skis and spook Bill Gates so bad he pees a little -- that's right, it's the Finns! And they're cuh-raaaazy!

I'm thinking about Finns because my friend and I were trying to figure out if the sauna at the health club is really good for anything. Wikipedia's answer, more or less: "Eh, who can say?" But it does inform us that the Finns are internationally notorious saunal fanatics (or fanatic saunists?):

"Finnish soldiers on peacekeeping missions are famous for their saunas; even on the UNMEE mission in Eritrea [avg annual temp 86°] a sauna was one of the first buildings [the Finnish contingent] erected. (A second world war-era Finnish military field manual states that a rest of eight hours is all that is required for a battalion to build saunas, warm them and bathe in them.)"

Then there's the egg coffee. I learned about this from Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, in which Bobby Shaftoe makes some for his bipolar (no, really?) Finnish girlfriend Julieta. Instead of pouring through a filter, you add a raw egg to settle the grounds.

I can't even begin to get into everything that's incredibly cool about the Winter War, but it has inspired a new Wackapedia feature: Six Degrees of Procrastination.

Six Degrees of Procrastination: Dragon's teeth
(Finns : Winter War : Mannerheim Line : dragon's teeth : and sort of Phoenicia)
Dragon's teeth were lines of cement cones that blocked tanks in WWII fortifications. But here's the cool part: They're not called "dragon's teeth" just because they're pointy, but because some nameless European military engineer knew his Greek mythology. In the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece (and a similar myth from, yes, Phoenicia) the hero sowed a field with dragon's teeth and a legion of soldiers sprang up. Which is a pretty evocative metaphor for a harried WWII fortification designer to come up with. He must have been French.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Jimmy Wales and Stanton LaVey -- separated at birth?

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and Satanic grandson Stanton LaVey: I've never seen them in the same room together, have you?


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Wiki freaky

It's kind of a "wacky" coincidence (haw!) that Wikipedia's info-gathering practices became news just after I decided to do this blog. I never planned to focus on anything particularly controversial, but now that Wikipedia is turning up in the news every day I guess I'd better do something to be of, uh, news service. So I'll post some Wikipedia-controversy links in between the (far more central) figging and Coco Whore type stuff.

Today in Wikipedia World:

-Blogger Rogers Cadenhead learns founder Jimmy Wales engaged in informational skullduggery. Wired News, the UK's Inquirer and the Times agree, but neglect to mention they're re-reporting Cadenhead's scoop until several paragraphs into their stories. (Wired mentions it 4 graphs down; the Times, 5 graphs down. The Inquirer wins at 2 graphs, but it doesn't give Cadenhead a link.)

-PC Magazine gets excited: "How dangerous is Wikipedia"? Poor little reporter guy.

-eWeek gets even more excited: Wikipedia "Erects Accuracy Firewall." I guess it needs "protection." Haw!

-That Kennedy assassination doofus continues to yak about his persecution. Puh-leeze, Seigenthaler, like this isn't the most attention you've gotten since the Freedom Rides. Let's enjoy the Dealey Plaza Cam instead.

**Thanks, San, for the headline and story.

Coco Chanel vs. Google -- who's the bigger whore?

I heard somewhere that Coco Chanel was a prostitute before she started the Chanel label. Wikipedia pussy-foots around the subject (literally!), saying only that she had “a couple affairs with generous wealthy men - a military officer and later an English Industrialist."

I’m disappointed. What’s the point of having a freewheeling informational collective full of lawsuit-provoking inaccuracies if you can’t come out and say Coco Chanel was a prostitute? Sheesh.

I decided to see how long it would take to verify Coco’s former occupation using non-Wiki sources. At Google, oddly enough, a search for the terms “Chanel” and “prostitute” produces the official Chanel site as the top result. But of course the official Chanel site makes no mention of the word “prostitute.”

I’ve never seen a Google search return a top result that didn’t even include one of the search terms, have you? It almost seems as though Chanel might, just possibly, have paid Google to ensure that its site appears at the top of Google’s results, no matter what Google’s algorithm would normally spit out.

Or maybe Google just thinks Chanel is a nice girl who deserves some help.

After all, it's a thin line.

**Image courtesy of angry cat and Photoshop whiz Catlebrity.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Ashlee Simpson = Heuristic anxiety

Is Ashlee Simpson a singing star or an embryonic has-been?

Most of us already know the answer to this question, but it's provoked knuckle-knawing deliberations behind the scenes at Wikipedia.

On the case: A squad of honest-to-God peer reviewers. Dunno where these folks come from, or why they’re able to take so much time away from sorting socks and cutting “Family Circus” out of the paper. But they're thrashing out questions of authorial bias and aesthetic benchmarking with a verve reminiscent of Freshman Philo 101.

Artistic influence, or an Ashlee for the ages
"I get no impression of how she fits into the history of American popular music ... Which artists have influenced her? Who does she acknowledge as her musical mentors? Whom are the artists she has influenced? ... A hundred years from now, people reading this article would have ... very little idea of what kind of singer she was."

Reserving judgment
"I'm still very much dissatisfied about the criticism section being weaselly ... The [discussion of the] Orange Bowl incident has some speculation that is not referenced (i.e. backlash against MTV-isation of the halftime show). ...the article is starting to look a lot better than it used to, but I'm not ready to support just yet."

Why can't we be positive?
"The lead has two sentences clearly stating the negative criticism ... it could now use one mentioning how succesful [she is]. Instead of 'chart topping,' which sounds promotional, just mention [that] her albums have sold very well."
I wanted to head up this post with a picture of Pappus of Alexandria, who may have coined the term "heuristic." I couldn't find one. But I did run across a lovely quote from Archimedes (pictured above):

"Give me where to stand, and I will move the earth."
(quoted in Pappus of Alexandria's Mathematical Collection, book VIII, proposition 10, section 11, translated into Latin in 1588)

It's oddly reminiscent of Ashlee's career. Tell her where to stand, and she'll move the earth. Or at least do a panic jig.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Your daily dose of the fact of the day -- or, "Sorry, Isaac"

You gotta love the "featured article" of the day on Wikipedia's intro page. It sits there like bait, wooing you off topic before you even get on-topic in the first place.

Plus, in case the day's feature isn't distracting enough, Wikipedia also lists a few earlier ones. So even if your wayward brain can resist the allure of, say, shoe polish (Dec. 13's feature), you'll almost certainly find something else to muscle work-related thoughts off to the sidelines for a while.

Today's list of previous features -- "KayDee Strickland, Isaac Newton, Yuan" -- typifies the whole postmodern kitchen-sink thing. There's a theory (I can't remember the author) that technology makes postmodernism permanent. We tend to assume that aesthetic trends last for a little while, then give way to others -- like modernism giving way to postmodernism, say. But now that our lives are characterized by a constant flood of randomly organized information, we can't help but make connections between disparate facts.

Unfortunately, this means that KayDee Strickland, whoever the hell she is, can be juxtaposed with Isaac Newton.

Do you ever get the urge to apologize to a historical figure?

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