Friday, December 23, 2005

My Britannica and other Fallen Heroes

Seigenthaler's recent vitriolic tirade against Wikipedia brought into focus a few contentious facts about facts. It turns out that in testing for accuracy against others, Wikipedia faired quite well, with 162 errors in 42 articles, while Britannica boasted 123 errors in 42 articles on the same topics. Dividing by the 42 article count, this means that the average Wikipedia article has 3.9 "factual errors, omissions, or misleading statements" against the average Britannica article's mere 2.9... And let's not even think of doing the sensible thing - checking the reivewers' assertions about errors for accuracy, becuase my guess is that without the editorial clout of the Britannica, their error rate in rating errors is probably at least double that.

Back in 1986, I spent $2700, which I definitely did not have then, to buy myself a very fine thing that is what I missed the most from my parents' house in Chile - my own Encyclopedia Britannica. I have had faith inculcated in the absolute reliability of the information in its pages.

It used to be that I thought being a Supreme Court Justice would be just about the greatest job a person could have - imagine a job where everything that is important about humaities could be relevant to your work every day... Then came the Bork nomination and it instantly became crystal clear that the widening gap between Justice and "The Law" becomes a veritable chasm at the top- that this is possibly one of the most political jobs, and hence really not suited for anyone who might choose to laugh when a joke is funny rather than when its deliverer is a potential stepping stone, if you see what I mean... Disappointment set in and this opinion has only been confirmed in spades in the past year - imagine an architect of torture becoming the liberal choice for a seat on the Supreme Court - a strange world indeed.

When I gave that idea up, I started looking again towards the Editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica as the zenith of successful career - now there is a person, I thought, with amazing power and integrity, and for whom the complete universe of humanistic thought was the stuff of daily life. I wanted to be Editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Now this... an average of 2.9 serious errors per article - the "gold standard" is pretty muddy....

To add insult to injury, this summer, scientists at Caltech announced the discovery of a tenth planet. This seemed like a big deal to me, until the dicussion got around to asking the obvious question - what is a planet anyway? And if 2003UB313 is indeed not a planet, but a Kuyper Object, as many authorities in the field contend, then Pluto, it appears, does not really qualify as a planet either. So it seems that by finding a new planet we've ended up with an 8 planet solar system...

I won't even begin to speculate what this does to the hanging mobile industry - the impact will certainly be felt in natural science museum stores around the world. But the distressing thing that comes into focus as suggested by this little event, is that a planet, as object, is really nothing but a grouping by convention - if you go with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysic's definition, there are only 8 major planets, and if Pluto must get included (and by extension 2003UB313) then there are 12,779 named minor planets that by rights should also be included, if we are to apply the criteria for inclusion even-handedly.

The internet has given us a new awareness of world politics because information flows freely enough, for those who care to drink from the stream, that the petticoats of the diplomatic process have been raised for all to see its seamier side - lies being spun and realities passed off as factual that are nothing but politically motivated distortions. Perhaps, the authorities of established science are starting to suffer from the same exposure. Now I have the sneaky feeling that there is an untold amount of what I take to be absolute truth that is about as real as the officialdom in The Atomic Cafe... Web 2.0 indeed.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

"I want my decaf latte now - ....or do you want me to Seigenthal you?!?!"

This morning, Bruce sent me a link to the USA Today article about John Seigenthaler, Sr. and his righteous indignation at discovering a fictional, and, let's face it, funny, entry about himself in Wikipedia.

I read it with interest, since my work-life is pretty much web 2.0 these days, and it looked as if leveling some very serious charges against Wikipedia, collective intelligence, anonymity, freedom, anarchy, and, as he so beautifully puts it, "volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects."

In general I was sympathetic to Mr. Seigenthaler's plight - what a drag to have and others pick up and disseminate the content. Imagine, someone thinking for 30 minutes, if they cared, that you were living in Russia, for GOD's sake...

Mr. Seigenthaler's editorial reads like a course in propaganda, manufacturing demons and separating them from citizens, and exaggerating the vandalism problem in Wikipedia. Which brings me to my point. The half-life of Wikipedia vandalism is short - in fact, in inverse proportion to the memetic relevance, perhaps, of the topic (this is a guess, but then, this is a blog) and the overall accuracy of Wikipedia articles is quite good.

It just seems wrong that Mr. Seigenthaler's influence should justify punishing Brian Chase. In fact, I think it's pretty outrageous, and Mr. Seigenthaler's response is disproportionate to the offence.

Could it be that this particular article in Wikipedia lay vandalised for a disproportionate amount of time? That Mr. Seigenthaler's carrer is not currently of any real interest to anyone but Mr. Seigenthaler, and that he waxes a little bitter about the outcome of his chosen path? Just the same, not a great reson to crush an average Joe...

So the only reasonable reaction is to offer this neologism, in honor of Senator Dick Santorum:

to seigenthal - to overreact, attacking pranksters or people with less clout using propagandist appeals and asymmetrical good-ole-boy influence, such as direct access to the founder of Wikipedia...

p.s. - will I get in trouble if I enter it onto Wiktionary - to seigenthal, v.t. ?

The Right, The Left, The Middle... Whatever...

Sometimes it's terribly difficult to know at which point in a spectacular lie one should jump in....

The democratic process in the US became one of those lies when Bush was installed in 2000 by Katherine Harris and his brother, or was it when the "under God" phrase was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, when McCarthy was at the height of his power in 1954? Hard to say. Now, I know, that's a somewhat contentious statement, because, although based in fact, it is based in facts that certain people don't like.

I think that one can pretty much divide the world into two kinds of people in this context - those who feel that anything worth fighting for is worth fighting dirty for, and those who feel that fighting dirty is, well, just dirty.

Sadly, we are clearly governed by the former.

It was a big surprise, yesterday, Judge Jones' ruling in the Pennsylvania ID case. Among the things he said: "We find that the secular purposes claimed by the board amount to a pretext for the board's real purpose, which was to promote religion" - It sort of restores faith in the inevitable turning of the tide.

I think Judge Jones is pretty brave. The Scopes monkey trial was a media circus and did not go that well, given associations with eugenics in the specific biology book in question. Obviously, we needed no refresher on the Establishemnt Clause, but needed to ascertain that ID was an attempt at subverting it.

This, yesterday, was a statement of principle by a representative of a government that, at the highest levels, has acted only on the motives of a good old fashioned empire - control and personal profit. That fundamentalist support is one of the pillars on which 43's junta stands should come as no surpprise, but it looks as if the framers left behind a pretty good roadmap for how to get back from the brink of rapture...