Australia blocks my page from their Internet

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

A couple years ago, when I was more active on Wikipedia than I am now, I was trying to prove a point by compiling a list of all of the risque images on Wikipedia (link obviously NSFW). I don’t quite remember what that point is anymore, but the list remains. It has even survived a deletion attempt or two. I stopped maintaining it a long time ago, but for whatever reason, others picked it up and continued adding more pictures in my stead. I haven’t thought of it in awhile.

So imagine my surprise when I learn that that silly page has made Australia’s secret national Internet censorship blacklist. I don’t understand the justification here — all of these images are hosted on Wikimedia servers, after all — but I have to laugh when I imagine some Australian apparatchik opening a report on this page, viewing it, making the determination that it’s not safe for Australian eyes, and adding it to the list without further thought, mate.

Australians, please take back control of your country.

Fixing ordering bias of U.S. presidential election candidates on Wikipedia

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Today, upon getting home from work, one of the first things I did was check the Main Page of the English Wikipedia. It always has interesting content on there, and today was no exception. For the first time ever, two articles were featured on the front page: those of John McCain and Barack Obama. Except there was one little niggling problem: John McCain was listed first. Granted, his last name does come first alphabetically … but still. This is the Internet. We don’t have the limitations of printed paper ballots; there’s no reason the candidates have to be displayed in a static order. And I happen to be an administrator on the English Wikipedia, so I can edit any page on the site, including the main page and the site-wide JavaScript. So I fixed the ordering, presumably much to the delight of all of the people who had been complaining about bias on the talk page.

I took some JavaScript that was previously used in the Wikimedia Foundation Board elections, where ordering of the several dozen candidates had proved to be a huge bias in previous elections, and added it to the English Wikipedia. Then I modified the main page slightly to use the JavaScript and, boom, the candidates now appear in a random order upon each page load. I figure if this solution was good enough for WMF Board elections then it ought to be good enough for the United States presidential election, right?

So if you go to the main page of Wikipedia now, you should see either Barack Obama or John McCain on top, with a 50% probability of each (if you’re not seeing this behavior, flush your browser’s cache). Considering how many people view Wikipedia each day, I like to think this will make some kind of difference.

Abandoned blog post ideas, pt. 1

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

I have fifty drafts sucking all the air out of my WordPress dashboard at the moment. Very few of them are ever likely to be developed into fully fledged blog posts, but I would feel kind of bad just deleting them outright. So I’m taking a bunch of the ideas and combining them into a hodge-podge post, hopefully for your reading pleasure. So, without further ado …

Workplaces are food sinks, in that if anyone has any extra food left over from a party or other event, they can bring it to work, set it down on a communal table in the kitchen, and it’ll be gone by the end of the day. Workplaces can thus absorb any of the extra food in a society that might otherwise be wasted. I’m not sure how I ever thought this tiny little insight would be expandable into a full blog post, but there it is.

In college, I was a part of an undergraduate research program that had a team of eight people writing a 100-page research paper over the course of three years. The paper was about an educational videogame that we wrote. We all thought that 100 page paper was a big deal at the time. Well, two months ago for work I wrote a 100 page paper over the course of a month with a single coworker. It required a comparable amount of research to the undergraduate research paper. It’s funny how relative ideas of what constitutes an involved assignment change so quickly following employment. I’m laughing at the thought that we ever considered a 100 page paper written by eight people over the course of three years to be a hard undertaking.

Many years ago, when I was still in high school, I took a photograph of the Great Falls section of the Potomac River on a camp field trip. Not too long after, I uploaded said photograph to Wikipedia for use in an article. All was well and good for awhile, until it was transferred to Wikimedia Commons (an image repository run by the Wikimedia Foundation) and the person effecting the move completely munged the image attribution. He attributed the photograph to a user who did nothing more than decrease the image quality by reducing the size of the image (an action which was later reverted). I understand that thousands of photographs are processed for transfer to Wikimedia Commons every month, but you really have to get the details correct! Put in the extra few minutes to carefully check the image’s history and verify that credit for it is actually going to the one who deserves it. I’ve since corrected the attribution on the image, but now I face the nuisance of regularly trawling through all of my uploads just to make sure none of them have been mistakenly attributed to someone else. Another complicating factor here is that only administrators can view deleted revisions, and the revision that established me as the content creator was deleted on Wikipedia. So I could see it and point out the error, but the average editor/reader cannot.

I have several computers participating in the Seventeen or Bust distributed computing project, the goal of which is to prove that 78,557 is the smallest Sierpinski number (it seems a much nobler goal if you understand the mathematics behind it, trust me). If you have any idle computing power, you should join it too. The attraction it offers versus most other distributed computing projects is that it has a finish line in sight. They only have five more primes to find (out of an original 17, hence the project name), and once they do, the project ends successfully. Compare that with, say, the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, which just keeps looking for larger and larger primes and thus never ends. The Seventeen or Bust project currently holds the record for having found the largest non-Mersenne prime.

I’m tired of pseudoscientific pablum on television, especially when it’s on otherwise respectable networks such as the History Channel. This kernel of an idea for a blog post was inspired by an especially heinous paranormal television show on the History Channel. Luckily, Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy and others are putting together a new television show called The Skeptologists that will provide a counterpoint to all of the pseudoscientific nonsense on television. Hopefully it makes it to air.

And last but not least, I was going to write an entire blog post about a freaking screwdriver. It was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek ode to a great tool that my dad bought for me many years ago and that has served me well all throughout high school and college (and I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many computers it has taken apart and put together). One of my remarks in the draft notes that “Its orange color makes it easy to find”. But as I wrote more and more about it, the ode became more and more serious, and eventually I scrapped the whole blog post idea as being patently ridiculous. Unfortunately, this was not before I took multiple pictures of said screwdriver, one of which I present for your mocking scorn and frivolous amusement:

And with that, my WordPress drafts queue is down from 50 to 44. I should do this more often. If you think any of the above ideas could have merited a full blog post, by all means, let me know in the comments below. I’m not promising anything though. Hopefully with most of these you can see why I decided against expanding them into full blog posts.

A journey into the bowels of Wikipedia

Friday, July 11th, 2008

Most people don’t know what’s going on in the bowels of Wikipedia. Be very thankful of that. For the most part, what goes on in the bowels of Wikipedia is thoroughly uninteresting except to those who are right in the thick of it, in which case it’s certainly the most interesting thing ever (or you would have to assume so, judging by how much time is whiled away on it). So to those looking on from the outside, and want to know what’s really behind this Wikipedia thing, here’s an example.

The English Wikipedia has an Arbitration Committee that is tasked with resolving the most serious disputes between users. Arbitration cases work pretty much like court cases in the real world, including lengthy opening statements and discussion by all parties involved, the presentation of evidence, discussion of said evidence, debating, proposal of rulings, voting on rulings, discussion of rulings, etc. The only difference between Wikipedia arbitration and a real court case is that in an arbitration case, all of the onlookers can get into the discussion too, and they frequently do. Imagine a court case where everyone in the gallery is screaming loudly along with every step of the proceedings and you have an inkling of how chaotic and lengthy this can all be.

The Arbitration Committee has about a dozen sitting arbitrators who are the only ones who can vote on the proposed rulings. Recently, one of the arbitrators broke ranks on a case and said that an agreement had been reached in a case following private discussion by the arbitrators. The only problem is, it hadn’t. Another arbitrator logged on soon after and posted a message saying that this ruling had not, in fact, been agreed to by everyone. Much drama and gnashing of teeth ensued, with the most vocal Wikipedians wailing that they had lost total faith in the Arbitration Committee (one wonders if they thought it had been infallible up until that point).

The controversy surrounding this incident grew so big that a separate process, a Request for Comment, was launched on the topic of the Arbitration Committee’s legitimacy. So we’ve gone from a simple user disagreement, to an argument over the user disagreement, to an argument over the argument over the user disagreement. And keep in mind that the user disagreement itself was pretty far removed from the actual purpose of Wikipedia — writing the encyclopedia — by a good deal. Is that enough levels of meta for you? At this moment, the meta-meta-discussion, the Request for Comment on the Arbitration Committee, is 92,500 words long, or about the length of the average fiction novel. And the talk page of the Request for Comment, which is effectively a meta-meta-meta-discussion, weighs in at a decent 32,500 words, or the size of an average novella.

I’m not going to go into any further detail on any of this, because frankly, my eyes are glazing over at this point. You’re invited to read the links I’ve presented, but honestly, there are so many better things you could do in the same amount of time — like read an actual novel. And I haven’t even searched out all of the meta levels — the administrators’ notice boards, the community notice boards, the village pump, etc. All told, on any major controversial issue, roughly five to ten novels worth of text will be spewed forth by all of the participants involved. It’s enough to make any future historian squirm with glee.

I hope you enjoyed (!!) this look into the bowels of Wikipedia. Just be very thankful that you aren’t involved in any of it (or if you are, I’m so sorry). The next time you’re reading an article on Wikipedia, just appreciate that somehow useful things manage to get done even amongst all of this unproductive chaos. Wikipedia in many respects resembles a supermarket in the Gilded Age. Walking along the clean, lovingly arrayed aisles and admiring the nicely presented canned pork products, it seems like a very pleasant place. But don’t dare inquire about how those products are actually made — there’s a whole jungle just beneath that shiny veneer.

Attention American conservatives: Wikipedias are grouped by language, not by nation

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

Another day, another conservative commentator ‘discovering’ that Wikipedia is a bastion of left-wing liberal thinking. In this case, Lawrence Solomon, a climate change denier with a tenuous grasp on reality, is getting all bent out of shape that his attempts to insert oil company propaganda into Wikipedia are being reverted. He reaches the very tired and predictable conclusion that Wikipedia is left-leaning and biased against conservatives.

In actuality, Solomon just isn’t using the right frame of reference. He’s making the rookie mistake of assuming that the English Wikipedia is the American Wikipedia. It’s not. The Wikipedias are grouped by language, not by nation. This is a huge distinction: for instance, the Portugese Wikipedia has more readers and editors in Brazil than in Portugal. The English Wikipedia thus primarily serves not only the residents of the United States, but also the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, etc., and is also widely read and edited by hundreds of millions of people in other nations where English is used and taught as a second language.

That’s right, the English Wikipedia is even heavily read and edited in countries where English is not the first language of the vast majority of the inhabitants. The reason? Simply put, the English Wikipedia is the best one. It has the most articles, the most editors, the most comprehensive coverage, by far the most readership, etc. The German Wikipedia ranks a distant second. So even if English is not your first language, so long as you have a decent level of literacy in English (which many people do), the English Wikipedia is more useful to you than the one in your native language.

The English Wikipedia thus reflects a global perspective rather than a purely American perspective. This is where all of the complaints of the American-centric conservatives who claim that the English Wikipedia is biased fall flat on their face. The United States is a very conservative nation relative to most other nations. What we consider liberal is considered moderate or even right-wing in other nations. What we consider conservative is considered unthinkable in many nations. For instance, just try to find another developed nation that lets thousands of its citizens die each year of treatable diseases because they treat health care as a privilege for the rich who can afford it rather than as a basic human right. The United States pretty much stands alone in that barbarism.

A lot of really stupid things that we have manufactured controversies over here in the United States, like climate change and evolution, aren’t controversial at all from a global perspective. The English Wikipedia simply reflects that. It’s not a case of censorship of conservative opinions, but a conscious rejection of extreme viewpoints that very few people on a global scale hold. If you can’t handle that, go back to your Fox News, where you’ll never hear anything you disagree with. Meanwhile, Wikipedia is going to be doing what it’s always done, offering up a neutral point of view, which emphatically does not mean an American point of view.

Wikipedia as a cult of knowledge

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

Wikipedia has been accused of being a cult by a wide variety of detractors. And frankly, it’s true. But it’s not quite the kind of cult that most of its detractors allege. For instance, it’s not a cult of Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia’s remaining co-founder), as most of the everyday editors barely even know who he is; they are so far isolated from his influence that they don’t even come close to sipping the Kool-Aid. It’s only at the top echelons of Wikipedia governance where Jimmy’s influence makes itself known, but that has been waning heavily in recent years after a long series of missteps from an aloof “leader” who, every time he steps in, seems to do so with only half knowledge, and is as likely to inflame a conflict and leave it unresolved as he is to resolve it.

No, the only way in which Wikipedia can be truly be described as a cult is in the manner in which nearly all of its members value knowledge. I have never seen such a uniformly inquisitive group of people before. Wikipedia is the largest collection of free knowledge on the planet, and a cult of knowledge has grown up simultaneously with it. Simple informal discussions amongst Wikipedia participants have a palpably different feel than anything else I’ve experienced. Everyone relishes learning new things. Wikipedia articles are linked frequently, not only because Wikipedia is the common thread linking the participants together, but simply because reading Wikipedia’s articles is an excellent way of learning new things. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the more anti-intellectual American society at large.

In the past few days I’ve read about everything from naval armaments in World Wars I and II to local towns in my area to science fiction novels. Scarcely a day goes by in which I don’t refer to Wikipedia on something. When I’m not in front of a computer and someone mentions a topic that I have insufficient knowledge of, I keep it in my mind until I next get in front of a computer and then look it up on Wikipedia. Most of the Wikipedians you will interact with do likewise. Thus, there’s never a dull, silent moment in a conversation amongst Wikipedians, because there is never any lack of subjects to discuss in a cult of knowledge.

The highest-editing zombie bot on Wikipedia

Monday, May 26th, 2008

I stopped actively editing Wikipedia more or less one year ago. Naturally, I haven’t stopped editing completely, as I still read Wikipedia nearly every day in the pursuit of my own edification. But I no longer seek out thankless administrative tasks to perform, nor do I browse articles solely to find a way to contribute some writing. In that way I’m much more like the casual reader who occasionally fixes a typo, though the casual reader also doesn’t have the ability to delete articles, block users, and protect pages (ah, the privileges of being an administrator). But I don’t much use those abilities anymore, so it matters little.

In addition to doing lots of editing and administrative tasks (page may take awhile to load), I also spent a good amount of time hacking on programs for Wikipedia. Some, such as the userbox generator (don’t even ask), were purposefully silly. Others, such as my work on the PyWikipediaBot free software project, were more useful. In addition to my work on that bot framework, I wrote quite a few bots, which are programs for making automated edits. By the time I (mostly) retired from Wikipedia, I had put many hours into those bots, and I couldn’t bear to just shut them down. So I left them running. They’ve been running now for over a year, unattended for the most part, and have been remarkably error-free all things considered. I have variously forgotten about them for months at a time, and only remembered them when my network connection chugs for an extended period of time (long “Categories for deletion” backlog) or when my server’s CPU utilization pegs (bot process gets stuck in an endless loop). So yes, there is a zombie bot editing Wikipedia, and it even has administrative rights that it uses quite frequently!

All of these bot programs that I wrote run under one Wikipedia user account, Cydebot. That account was the first account on any Wikipedia project to break one million edits. The total currently stands somewhere at a million and a quarter (proof), though it has been out-edited by one other bot account by now. But just think about the enormity of that number. At one point Cydebot had a single digit percentage of all edits to the English Wikipedia. You can’t say that’s not impressive, especially considering how ridiculously massive Wikipedia is. Yet being a bot operator was largely unsung work. The only time I really got noticed for all the effort I was putting into it (and never mind the network resources involved, especially when I was running AntiVandalBot, which downloaded and analyzed the text of every single edit to Wikipedia in real time) was when yet another person thought they were the first to realize that Cydebot was using administrative tools and deemed it necessary to yell at me about it. Wikipedia has this cargo cult rule that “admin bots aren’t allowed” — even though people have been running them for years. I’ll grant that it’s schizophrenic.

So after continuing to run Cydebot for this long, I’m not going to stop now. I haven’t put any effort into Cydebot for over a year besides occasionally updating the pyWikipediaBot framework from SVN, killing pegged bot processes, and rarely modifying the batch files for my bots when someone points out that the associated pages on Wikipedia have changed. I don’t have the time (nor the desire) to put any further serious development work into Cydebot, so at some point things will finally break and Cydebot will no longer be able to do any work. But it’s already gone for over a year performing all sorts of thankless tasks on Wikipedia that no human wants to be bothered with; why not let it continue going and see how much longer my favorite zombie bot can continue at it for?

If you want to track the continuing edits of a zombie bot on Wikipedia, you can do so here. So the next time you are idly reading Wikipedia, remember that, not only are there bots behind the scenes that are making millions of automated edits, but some of them are zombies that have been running largely unattended for months, if not years. Wikipedia is built, in no small part, upon zombie labor.

The Wikimedia Foundation’s Erik Moller problem

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

Erik MollerThe Wikimedia Foundation, which you will most likely know as being the folks responsible for Wikipedia (and a whole host of other projects), has a bit of a problem on their hands. Specifically, I’m talking about their recent hire in the Deputy Director position, Erik Moller. More specifically, it seems that has a rather … deep interest in child sexuality, and some “interesting” positions on it to boot.

I’m not the first to pick up on this, either. Valleywag quotes Erik as saying “What is my position on pedophilia, then? It’s really simple. If the child doesn’t want it, is neutral or ambiguous, it’s inappropriate.” Obviously, that’s leaving something important unsaid — namely, are children really mature enough to decide if they do want sex; and if they say they do, does that make it appropriate? And then there are his rather interesting essays on the subject.

But there are some other things that haven’t come to light yet. I’ll just list them off and let his words speak for themselves.

Erik created the Wikipedia article on Child sexuality in 2003, and it was definitely not a stub article (Wikipedia’s parlance for short, introductory articles intended to be expanded upon by others).

He inserted the following text into the article on Human sexual behavior:

It is generally acknowledged that children are capable of feeling sexual pleasure, even if they are not yet able to engage in sexual intercourse with each other, and/or are not yet biologically able to reproduce.

In the article on Homosexuality and morality, he writes:

“A small minority believes that children are capable of consenting to homosexual acts with older men, but all major pro-homosexual groups have rejected that view.”

And he has a rather curious definition of pedophilia:

Again, someone who sexually abuses a minor is not necessarily a pedophile (”exclusively” ”attracted” to ”preadolescents” — emphasis on every word), but may simply be acting out of opportunity. The title “pedophiles and pederasts” is redundant — pedophilia ”includes” pederasty. This does not in any way mitigate the definitional problems of this article.

So, why am I bringing this all up? I don’t think Erik is a pedophile, but he has some very wrong and dangerous views on the subject that cannot bear to be left unopposed. There is no room for sophomore philosophizing and moralizing on such a damaging subject, nor should we allow the subject to be normalized by turning a blind eye to such outrageous claims as those made by Erik. Erik embodies one of the main problems with Wikipedia: it allows people with no real training or knowledge in a subject area to nevertheless insert their own personal views into the encyclopedia by sheer force of being a prolific Wikipedian. It’s bad enough when such a person is writing the articles, but it’s terrible when they’re #2 in the line of people running the whole place!

Erik needs to speedily retract and denounce his earlier comments on the subject, not defend them. They are indefensible. If this keeps going the way it is, it puts the Wikimedia Foundation on a collision path with a huge PR nightmare that we really do not want to face; after all, can you really think of a subject that plays more badly in the media and in the general public than pedophilia? Erik needs to get apologetic or he needs to get out, and if he does not make that decision soon, it needs to be made for him.

The answer to “Where do people find the time?”

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

Clay Shirky, who I saw at Wikimania 2006, has recently given an excellent speech that answers the question “Where do people find the time?” that is oft-asked to people with techie inclinations. I’ll let his own words speak for themselves. Click through to read the rest of it; his main thrust is dead on.

So I tell her all this stuff [about Wikipedia], and I think, “Okay, we’re going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever.” That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

His point is dead on. Watching television is a completely passive, dead activity, yet the average American spends several hours a day attached to the tube. So don’t look down on the techie who’s enamored with the Internet; at least he’s doing something. Even playing World of Warcraft is better than watching television.

I’m happy to say that I’m down to just a few hours of television a week (I watch Battlestar Galactica, The Deadliest Catch, The Office, The Big Bang Theory, Doctor Who, South Park, and Mythbusters regularly). And I download everything I watch even though we pay for cable, just because I can’t stand wasting time on the ads. What have I done with all of that extra time that I don’t spend on watching television? I think my work speaks for itself.

Why I’ve (mostly) retired from Wikipedia

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

A week ago, Newyorkbrad of English Wikipedia Arbitration Committee fame (and if you don’t know what that means already, it’s not worth your time to delve into the intricate internal workings of Wikipedia to find out) asked me why I retired from Wikipedia. It’s a question I get asked fairly often and I’ve even heard it was being discussed on one of the ex-Wikipedian forums. So here’s my well put together answer that I can proceed to link to from now on whenever the question is raised again.

First of all, the basic presupposition of the question is false. I have not retired from Wikipedia. I still retain all access levels and keep in constant contact with many Wikipedians. I still run all the same bots. What is true to say is that I have “mostly” retired. If you look at my contributions, you’ll see that they’ve drastically decreased from their once high former levels.

The simple reason is that I’ve become bored with managing the inner workings of Wikipedia. Too much drudgery, not enough fun. Even the drama, which used to captivate me, has simply grown lame. I have some form of long-term ADD that leaves me progressively more and more bored with any single activity. Any sort of online community has a very limited shelf life for me. I can’t even remember all of the online communities I’ve been part of, including various newsgroups, web forums, chat rooms, online games, clans, etc., that I departed from just as quickly as I got involved in in the first place. Most of them I never look back at.

But Wikipedia is different. The reason I came to Wikipedia in the first place — that it is a great source of knowledge — hasn’t changed in the least, so I still find myself using Wikipedia every day on a purely educational basis. Wikipedia thus has some intrinsic value to it that everything else I’ve abandoned doesn’t, so I cannot foresee ever leaving permanently. So while I don’t go seeking out administrative tasks to perform anymore, I still reply to messages on my talk page within a reasonable amount of time. And if I come across an error while reading a Wikipedia article, I fix it. This level of activity probably puts me in the same boat as most Wikipedia users, but compared to my previous highs, it is a precipitous decline, leading people to ask the question why I quit Wikipedia.

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