"A country bumpkin approach to slinging generalizations around"

Anderson plagiarism

WiReD magazine Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson has copped to lifting chunks of material for his second book Free from Wikipedia and other sources without credit. But it could be about to get a lot worse.

In addition to the Wikipedia cut’n’pastes, Anderson appears to have lifted passages from several other texts too. And in a quite surreal twist, we discover that the Long Tail author had left a hard drive backup wide open and unsecured for Google to index, then accused one of his accusers of “hacking”.

Does the WiReD editor and New Economy guru need basic lessons in how to use a computer?

Waldo Jaquith of Virginia Quarterly Review unearthed a dozen suspect passages after what he called “a cursory investigation”, and posted his findings here on Tuesday. Wikipedia entries for ‘There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch’, ‘Learning Curve’ and ‘Usury’ had been pasted into Anderson’s book.

In addition to Wikipedia citations, which Anderson reproduced with the errors intact (oops), Jacquith suggests he also lifted from an essay and a recent book. Presented with the evidence, Anderson blamed haste and (curiously) not being able to decide on a presentation format for citations, for his decision to omit the citations altogether. Other examples were “writethroughs”, he said.

Then lit blogger Edward Champion documented several more examples which he says show

“a troubling habit of mentioning a book or an author and using this as an excuse to reproduce the content with very few changes — in some cases, nearly verbatim.”

Champion’s examples of churnalism include blog posts, a corporate websites and (again) Wikipedia.
Continue reading “"A country bumpkin approach to slinging generalizations around"”

Trivia crisis: Wikipedia's bogus Professor resigns

The essential reference?

After pressure over the weekend from Wikipedia’s Il Duce Jimmy Wales, the encyclopedia’s most illustrious fake professor Ryan Jordan has resigned his post at Wikia Inc.

An assiduous editor with the nickname “Essjay”, the 24-year old Jordan passed himself off as an older and more mature character: a Professor of Theology with two PhDs – these impressive credentials even winning him fame in a New Yorker feature. The deception did little to stop Jordan’s meteoric ascent. Wales appointed Jordan to “ArbCom”, Wikpedia’s Supreme Court, and even found him a position at his own commercial venture, Wikia Inc.

The deception was initially unearthed by Daniel Brandt in January, and has been simmering since early February, when Wikipedians themselves put two and two together: the Essjay that Wales had blessed couldn’t be the character that Essjay claimed to be. It breezed into public view last week, with a short disclaimer on the New Yorker‘s website.

Wales initially said he was happy with Jordan’s deception, but changed his mind over the weekend, inviting Jordan to resign his positions of responsibility on Wikipedia. The 24-year quit Wikia Inc. yesterday.

(We don’t know if Jordan detached himself from the project completely, however – one blogger advised him to rejoin using a different pseudonym, and, presumably, a new fictional identity. What will it be this time?)

The incident raises more questions than it answers, as neither Wales, Jordan, nor the editors at the New Yorker appears to show a shred of regret for their behavior. And this is what turns a dull story about the procedures of a tediously procedural website into a kind of modern morality play.

Continue reading “Trivia crisis: Wikipedia's bogus Professor resigns”

Kevin Kelly: the first human/Martian hybrid?

Kevin Kelly enslaved
Interbreeding between humans and aliens is a recurrent theme of science fiction – and late night talk radio. But could an example we’ve unearthed from near San Francisco, California, prove to be the first living example?

Scientists have been able to identify human DNA for over 40 years. And here at The Register, we have access to our own stock of Martian DNA – courtesy, of course, of cult commentator and philosopher amanfromMars.

The startling discovery that DNA may have leaped across planetary boundaries comes courtesy of literary agent John Brockman.

Brockman runs an online groupthink “salon”, called Edge.org, where his indentured science authors and a select band of ideologically-correct journalists are invited to congratulate each other on their insight. (Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of Edge before – it’s only ever mentioned by Blokes who are already in it, or Blokes who would sell their mothers to get in.)

But it’s here, at Edge, that Brockman may have unearthed the greatest scoop of his lifetime; for here at least, one Martian-human hybrid walks amongst us.

New Year’s Day found a curious declaration credited to one “Kevin Kelly” – editor in chief of WiReD magazine.

“The success of the Wikipedia (sic) keeps surpassing my expectations. Despite the flaws of human nature, it keeps getting better,” he writes.

Of course, that’s an easy mistake to make… if you’ve just arrived from another planet. Here’s a more accurate measure of success, from earth-bound observers SomethingAwful.

Wiki groaning

Yet the alien visitor must be impressed by the high ethical standards exhibited by the project, its fair-mindedness, tolerance and generosity, and of course, its uniquely bottom-up democratic nature, for he is mightily impressed. So much so, that he sees in it a new way of organising society:

“The reality of a working Wikipedia has made a type of communitarian socialism not only thinkable, but desirable… I hate to say it but there is a new type of communism or socialism loose in the world.”

Alarm bells really ought to be clanging by this point. The Martian-Martian hybrid is using terms he has apparently heard, but doesn’t really understand – and can’t relate to the world around him.

The next statement can be construed as a promise that the hybrid DNA is here to stay:

“It may take several decades for this shifting world perspective to show its full colours …

Finally, here’s the clincher:

“I am convinced that the full impact of the Wikipedia is still subterranean, and that its mind-changing power is working subconsciously on the global millennial generation, providing them with an existence proof of a beneficial hive mind, and an appreciation for believing in the impossible.”

Pure Martian.

Teachers: Feel my Truthiness – Jimbo

Yes, it’s that time of year when children eagerly gather round a kindly old man with a beard. He makes great promises to them, if only they just work hard enough. But they just get a load of obscenities back.

Only it’s not Santa.

Wikipedia’s Maximum Leader and peripatetic salesman Jimmy Wales breezed into London yesterday. This time he’s pitching Jimbo’s Big Bag of Trivia at teachers and lecturers.
Continue reading “Teachers: Feel my Truthiness – Jimbo”

Braindead obituarists hoaxed by Wikipedia

The veteran BBC TV composer and arranger Ronnie Hazlehurst died on Monday night. His long career at the corporation produced some of the most (irritatingly) memorable theme tunes: including The Two Ronnies, Reggie Perrin, Last Of The Summer Wine, Blankety Blank and the Morse Code theme for Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.

But when his obituaries appeared yesterday, there was an odd addition to Hazlehurst’s canon. Apparently he had emerged from retirement a few years ago to co-write the song ‘Reach’, a hit for Simon “Spice Girls” Fuller’s creation S Club 7.

“There could only be one source for this,” suggests Shaun Rolph, who tipped us off.

And yes – you can probably guess what it is:

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Truths, half-truths and Wikipedia: Tom Melly

Tom Melly, on the Wikification of the obituaries of his father, George Melly

Wikipedia comes in for a fair amount of criticism these days from El Reg and other publications, but I can’t help wondering if we’re missing the real point regarding its status as an encyclopedia. Most of the arguments hinge on its accuracy, or lack of it. But if our criteria for an encyclopedia is a guarantee of 100 per cent accuracy, then there are no encyclopaedias now, and there never have been. So is Wikipedia an encylopedia, and, if not, can it ever be one? Reluctantly, I think the answer is a resounding ‘no’, and here’s why.

This is a tale of personal experience, so a bit of background is needed. In the first place, I am a casual editor on Wikipedia under the username Tomandlu. I’ve contributed to articles on various novels, historical events, and so on (including, for reasons I fail to recall, the tuberculate pelagic octopus – don’t you hate it when that happens?). So, I like Wikipedia, I really do. Besides, any resource that has anything as bizarre as the Death Star talkpage gets my vote.

My father is George Melly, the British jazz-singer and writer. Needless to say, I keep an eye on Wikipedia’s article on him. I try to avoid any bias, although I did once suggest that a particular anecdote wasn’t really noteworthy or accurate. (It was a trout not a salmon, and he didn’t wank on it, just near it; besides, if a wank-adote is really required, then there’s a far better one involving cat impressions and a plate.)

…Read more at The Register.

Wikipedia defends reality against Stephen Colbert

TV wit Stephen Colbert has had more fun at the expense of Wikipedia with another deeply ironic prank.

Last year Colbert satirized the project’s dependence on the consensus theory of truth – which for Wikipedians is a feature, not a bug. The project’s guideline “WP:V” states, “The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth” [their emphasis] – and in practice this means that if you can can find a source on the notoriously reliable truth machine called the internet, then cobble up enough votes to support a notion, you win!

On his show The Colbert Report, the comedian seized on news that Microsoft had paid a contractor to fiddle with an entry about open source file formats.

There’s a transcript below to save you wrestling with the Comedy Channel’s user-unfriendly video player, but in short, Colbert urged viewers to amend the entry for “Reality” to read “Reality Has Become A Commodity”.

Viewers obliged, forcing Wikipedia’s version of Reality to be locked down, with administrators – quite wisely – warning of the damage that Californians could do to reality.

Here’s Colbert’s report.
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The DIY encyclopedia

Albert Camus, DIY style

Who can fail to love the can-do spirit and have-a-go enthusiasm of Wikipedia? When the site found itself in need of copyright-free illustrations, one user simply generated his own.

We were alerted to this cockle-warming tale via a Something Awful forum, where member Stick_Fig, sets the scene like this:

A group of users has decided that because these promotional photos, which were previously allowed, are copyrighted, they need to be replaced with copyright-free images. Like, images taken by nerds for nerds. The argument is that, since the person is alive, by God, a photo can be taken, so we MUST remove the old, perfectly-fine-minus-a-little-copyright photo now.

Readers poured forth with heroic hand-crafted illustrations, such as the one above.

It was only when it was discovered that the site’s entry for “semen” was in need of copyright-free illustration that one member heroically rose to the challenge. Or rather the member’s member did. And what a splendid contribution it is.

So no more gags about Wiki-Fiddling, please. This is truly an example of “User Generated Content” at its most spontaneous.

As Tim Bray observed recently:

“There’s been a surge of recent editorial activity with super-energetic (and apparently well-informed) new contributors trimming and tweaking and growing the articles, often several times per day. In general, while I haven’t been convinced that 100 per cent of the changes are improvements, the quality of the articles as a whole is definitely trending up.”

Um, quite. How can Britannica possibly compete with that?

Nature journal cooked Wikipedia study

They want to believe, too

Nature magazine has some tough questions to answer after it let its Wikipedia fetish get the better of its responsibilities to reporting science. The Encyclopedia Britannica has published a devastating response to Nature‘s December comparison of Wikipedia and Britannica, and accuses the journal of misrepresenting its own evidence.

Where the evidence didn’t fit, says Britannica, Nature‘s news team just made it up. Britannica has called on the journal to repudiate the report, which was put together by its news team.

Independent experts were sent 50 unattributed articles from both Wikipedia and Britannica, and the journal claimed that Britannica turned up 123 “errors” to Wikipedia’s 162.

But Nature sent only misleading fragments of some Britannica articles to the reviewers, sent extracts of the children’s version and Britannica’s “book of the year” to others, and in one case, simply stitched together bits from different articles and inserted its own material, passing it off as a single Britannica entry.

Nice “Mash-Up” – but bad science.

Continue reading “Nature journal cooked Wikipedia study”

'Take out a subscription to The Register. Then cancel it, and sign it Disgusted Wikipedian'

An early taxonomy of excuses. Mostly variations of “It’s the user’s fault.”

“He who feels punctured must have been a bubble – Lao Tsu

A funny thing happened last week. Author and broadcaster – and veteran OpenOffice user – Andrew Brown wrote a piece in The Guardian a fortnight ago demolishing some of the more absurd myths around open source software projects. Frustrating bugs went unfixed for years, he noted, giving lie to the myth that simply because anyone could, in theory, make improvements, then improvements that users care most about would actually be made. Brown has written two books using OpenOffice, and performed his duty as a diligent user. If this was commercial software, he’d be a MVC, or “Most Valuable Customer”, and if OpenOffice was an airline, he’d be bumped up to First Class every time he showed up at the airport.

But what was particularly interesting was the range of responses to this critique, because they mirrored the responses received by The Register from Wikipedians. I have a theory about why these are similar, but first let’s see what people said about Brown’s piece. He published them on his blog here and here.

Here’s the typical response:


As we observed with Wikipedia, passing off the responsibility onto the user for dealing with the inadequacies of the software, or information, is a trait open projects seem to share.

Then there’s the age-old response that a deficiency is a FeatureNotABug.

‘spaces typed at the end of a line won’t show’ How is this a bug? It’s just a different way of displaying text. Is a printer in error because it doesn’t visually show you there is a space at the end of each line? No. There’s no reason why it should have to show a space at the end of the line. That’s you being very pernickety, not a bug.

Noel Slevin

Silly Mr. Brown, for not spotting that. More accurately, this response is classified as “Blaming The User For Being Stupid”. Again, that’s a Wikipedian trait too, and there were plenty more in the same vein.

“May your carear rest in peace Mr Orlowski.”

Note the subtle variations. There’s the “Hypothetical Utopia” defense, which ignores the present for an imaginary future in which the FOSS processes work as they ideally should:

So, yes, there is a problem with the open-source model. But I wonder whether things will change if OO is adopted by cities that have skilled IT departments that can be directed to fix THOSE PARTICULAR bugs, or to make THOSE PARTICULAR enhancements, that are of importance to THAT PARTICULAR city? I can imagine city council directing the IT representative to get the bug fixed and to report back at the next meeting. Within a couple of meetings, either the bug will be fixed or the city will drop OO. This is a tight feedback loop that involves skilled workers.

Then there’s the “Never Mind the Quality, Feel The Price”.

[paraphrased] Any bugs in OpenOffice are counter balanced by the fact that it is free!

And that’s one of the commonest defenses of Wikipedia, which imagines a world in which the population is so starved of information (books and libraries don’t exist here, for example, nor do wise teachers), that every globbet of information that drips from a computer network must be applauded as an “information revolution”. In this world, the speed or price of information trumps all considerations of its quality. But as is so often pointed out, we’re hardly living in a world starved of information. We’re drowning under vast quantities of ropey information, and none the wiser for the experience.

Back to the onslaught on The Open Office User Who Dared Complain.

There’s the parry called “Flood The Area with Improbably Large Numbers”, in which downloads (or in Wikipedia’s case, the number of articles) are quoted. We shall spare you this.

But a significant proportion of responses take the counterattack, and question the critic’s motives, knowledge and quite possibly, moral inadequacies too.

Darryl LeCount’s lofty ticking off is typical:

I found Andrew Brown’s vitriolic attack on OpenOffice.org to be ill-informed, heavily biased against open source software and extremely inconsistent. He claims to “like” OpenOffice, initially using it out of “a mixture of perversity, stinginess, and vague anti-Microsoft sentiment”, before launching into a tirade about how buggy it is and how flawed the open source model is. The author has clearly neither had extensive experience of using Mozilla Firefox, Blender, or Linux, and it is also clear that he has had little involvement with the development of these products despite his vague claims.

So Mr. Brown’s critique of one product is invalidated because he hasn’t used enough of them. A snobbish variation on “user is stupid”.

Finally, there’s the kind of response which supposes that the only reason a critique was made was to drive up page traffic.

I think the author of the article has achieved exactly what he intended to do and that is generate traffic to his blog and article. If you were a good objective writer you would not need to resort to this tactic. It’s a bit pathetic that you feel the need to be so negative at the expense of something you get for free. Let’s face it, this article could just as easily have been positive but that just would not have generated the traffic right 🙁

We hate to see a sad face, at this time of year. But we also get the feeling that advocates of this, the Page View Whore counterattack, rarely meet advocates of the Flood The Area With Improbably Large Numbers counterattack, because if the project was as popular as the latter insist, then publishers would write only write nice things about open projects, to drive up their traffic. We’ll spare you the rest, but the entire defense is summed up at the end of a tedious “Fisking” delivered by one Dave Lister, who sums up Brown’s arguments bafflingly, so:

“I like OpenOffice.” translation: I really want Open Source to get better 🙂

Silly Andrew, for harboring such hopes. So what are we dealing with, here?

Well, in his Guardian piece, Andrew Brown pointed out that successful open source projects keep their users happy, and if the users share the same background, common goals, and level of technical knowledge as the authors, then the users can indeed contribute to a virtuous circle. bind and Apache spring to mind.

But when the skills and experience are, to steal a Rumsfeld-ism, “asymmetric”, there’s friction. Many of Andrew Brown’s OpenOffice critics have no idea of what a user really wants to do with the software, and can only cognize he’s rejecting their gift of free software. Many Wikipedia defenders have no sympathy for readers who complain about unreliable, or badly written information, and can only cognize a world mocking their careful handiwork, what one critic calls a “defective data device” with “-pedia” in the name.

(One Australian doctor wrote to describe how he’d made just one Wikipedia edit in his life, to correct an entry about a medical procedure, which if carried out, would result in death. Heck, this is an information revolution, and every revolution is going to have casualties!)

My suspicion of the Wikipediac, Web 2.0, herd mind, etc crowd is composed of nitwits who have forgotten that it is all about the machines. They conveniently forget about the machines because they don’t have any mechanical ability to speak of. When was the last time any of them actually fixed something and didn’t “have their guy” fix it? – “It’s the Hive Mind wot dunnit. Not me”

So perhaps it isn’t such a mystery. Open projects are by nature idealistic, a little gift to the world. When this gift is spurned, the rejection must feel terrible.

Why would an ungrateful world reject this gift?

Let’s find out.

Read more at El Reg.