Older Entries: Sept. 2005 - Feb. 2006

(See mwhite28/wikiwoo.htm for current entries.)

20 Feb. 2006: William Archibald Spooner [make link]

According to Wikipedia...

Spooner was an albino, small, with a pink face, poor eyesight, and a head too large for his body. His reputation was that of a genial, kindly, hospitable man. Spooner seems to have been something of an absent-minded professor. He once invited a faculty member to tea "to welcome our new archaeology Fellow." "But, sir," the man replied, "I am our new archaeology Fellow." "Never mind," Spooner said, "Come all the same."

But according to this site (which, as you can see from the Internet Archive, predates Wikipedia's existence) the Feb. 1995 Reader's Digest says that ...

Spooner was an albino, small, with a pink face, poor eyesight, and a head too large for his body. His reputation was that of a genial, kindly, hospitable man. He seems also to have been something of an absent-minded professor. He once invited a faculty member to tea "to welcome our new archaeology Fellow." "But, sir," the man replied, "I am our new archaeology Fellow." "Never mind," Spooner said, "Come all the same."

Let me explain the difference between plagiarism and research.

Plagiarism: Spooner was an albino, small, with a pink face, poor eyesight, and a head too large for his body.

Research: "Spooner was an albino, small, with a pink face, poor eyesight, and a head too large for his body." (Feb. 1995 Reader's Digest)

19 Feb. 2006: Biography [make link]

December 19, 2005 Workbench: "Wikipedia Founder Looks Out for Number 1". More insider stuff.

16 Feb. 2006: Roman Republic [make link]

A thread appeared this week on the Wikipedia Review criticising Wikipedia's article on the Roman Republic. Because discussion boards tend to ramble, I'm going to distill it for you. (My apologies in advance to any of these folks who feel I've taken them out of context.)

LIR: I found this quote, from the article on the Roman Republic, to be kinda silly: "The Roman Legion was one of the first modernized armies. It was not a collection of tribal warriors attempting to defeat their enemies and demonstrate personal courage to their fellow citizens." At the end of the paragraph, it reminds the reader: "It was not a collection of warriors; it was a collection of professional soldiers." I suppose part of the reason I was banned because I would step on the toes of administrators, and straight up delete something like that -- honestly tho, what a stupid wasteful inaccurate statment they have written here. First off, the ancient ancient armies (predating Rome by a thousand years) were just as professional, modern, and organized... secondly, the second sentence is just, so... so like Wikipedia.

ETHOS: I would also delete that — so what?

LIR: So, its not deleted, and its sitting on the Wikipedia looking stupid; go ahead and delete, do that enough and you'll get banned by a fan of the Roman Army.

BLISSYU2: The Roman armies were different to those that came before though. But perhaps their wording was a bit dodgy. Weren't they different because of their use of mathematical structure in military coordination, with the use of legions and all of the rest, not to mention their various attack structures? I mean they were the first to use that level of military strategy, right?

LIR: The Roman armies were different to those that came before though. Every army has innovation and differences; but the article is essentially implying that before Rome, all armies were just dodgy collections of tribal warriors.

LIR: Quote: "Through a period of 243 years, Rome was supposedly ruled by a series of seven kings. The exact number and succession of these kings is likewise suspect. According to the records, each king would have to rule for an exceptionally long time." This is equally poorly written; afterall, if you take 243 years divided by 7 kings, you get 34.7 years -- its certainly not an "exceptionally long time".

LIR: Wow, this article sucks; here is another quote: "Roman military actions were characterized by a dogged determination, and a refusal to give up." Ruh-roh: POV ALERT! And just for the record, the Romans did surrender from time to time.

ETHOS: This is all rather elementary. The problem with the Greek phalanxes, for example, was that they lacked effective mobility, whereas the Roman legions was subdivided into several smaller cohorts and these could be deployed in battle much more flexibly. Also, unlike the Greeks, they did not conscript civilians to such an extent. Yes, of course "professional" is relative to militaries of the times.

LIR: "This is all rather elementary." Then why does Wikipedia have such troubles with it?

ETHOS: That, too, is rather elementary: there are a lot of morons editing Wikipedia.

LIR: Yep. Lol, the talk page says that the article has been listed as a "Good" article. Here is another error: "However, the Barcid family had not forgotten the defeats of the first Punic war, and it's most famous member Hannibal Barca, swore a sacred oath never to be a friend to Rome." There is plenty of evidence that Hannibal never swore such an oath, and it was used as propaganda against him.

ETHOS: [It] is nonetheless commonly attributed to him.

LIR: Yes hun, I know that. ;) But if Wikipedia wants to be an encyclopedia, it should try to do a little better than repeating common attributions without any real thought or inclusion of other schools of thought.

16 Feb. 2006: My Brilliant Greek Agenda [make link]

1. From the article "World Wide Web": "Berners-Lee's brilliant breakthrough was to marry hypertext to the Internet." "Brilliant"? That's hardly NPOV. WP also uses "brilliant" to describe Keynes's ideas ("His brilliant observations appeared in the highly influential book...")

Brilliant is a quality of a mind, not a characteristic of an idea. Applying brilliant to an idea reflects back onto the genius that came up with it, rather than objectively describing the idea itself. If you don't think that brilliant is POV, fill in the blank: "Osama bin Laden devised a ____ plan to crash highjacked airplanes into American landmarks." Besides, the point they're trying to get across is already covered adequately and impartially by "breakthrough" and "influential".

2. Down at the bottom of their Timeline of the Roman Republic, there's this:

Two errors in one phrase is quite an accomplishment. I realize that capitalization requires pressing two keys simultaneously and is therefore rather difficult, but if you're going to write in English, please follow the rules. (also note Number 10 on the Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility.) Also, calling the end to Greek independence "factual" is superfluous. Unless you're just making it up, it's factual. If it's not factual, then it didn't end. Maybe you meant "de facto".

3. I got blogged: "For some, highlighting the inaccuracies and flaws of Wikipedia has become an obsession, Wikiwatch, is a website written by a sceptic: You might wonder what the author's agenda is, and although there is very little information about who he might be, he claims to be a librarian, possibly one who feels a bit threatened?"

It's a bit strange to be criticized for giving out "very little information about who [I] might be", when she's defending Wikipedia, which is written by... who?

So what is my agenda? Well, since you ask... OK, technically she didn't ask -- it's more a sneer than an actual question, but I've been called worse. In fact two Turks and a Finn have independently threatened to beat me up for things I've said on my History site -- but if she had asked, I would have said that, First, I enjoy making fun of fools, especially fools in positions of power. It's a lot of fun. Since politics, show business and the media are well-covered by others, I figured I'd tackle the 37th most influential site on the Web. Oddly, I'm the only person doing this on a regular basis.

Second, I'm not doing anything I wasn't doing when I was an active contributor to Wikipedia, except now, instead of fixing the mistakes I find, or discussing them behind the Talk tab, I'm announcing them. What's wrong with that? Wikipedia claims to like transparency, and I'm not vandalizing, and I'm not preventing anyone else from fixing the mistakes. I figure that publicly explaining Wikipedia's mistakes might teach them how to improve, or else teach the rest of us to avoid Wikipedia.

But mostly, I like making fun of them.

11 Feb. 2006: Timeline of September 11, 2001 [make link]

I was struck by the awkwardness of Wikipedia's opening paragraph in "September 11, 2001 attacks timeline for the day of the attacks".

The September 11, 2001 attacks, often referred to simply as "9/11" (spoken as "Nine Eleven"), in addition to being traumatic for those directly involved, caused extreme tension for the United States as a nation and many others around the world. In addition to being a tragedy, a unique act of aggression, and perhaps a foreshadowing of the way the disaffected will lash out in the 21st century, it was a media event on a scale not seen since the advent of civilian global satellite links, round-the-clock television news organizations and the instant worldwide reaction and debate made possible by the Internet. Due to these modern global communications links, most of the events listed below were known by a large portion of the planet's population almost in realtime.

They've had 5 years to work on it, and it still sounds like people who know they have to write something, but can't figure out anything interesting to say.

"The September 11, 2001 attacks, often referred to simply as "9/11" (spoken as "Nine Eleven")..." so far, so good, even if they've nested one subordinate clause inside another, like Russian dolls.

" addition to being traumatic for those directly involved..." By stating the obvious, it comes across as flippant. All terrorist attacks are traumatic for those involved. That's a given. Tell me what makes 9/11 different. Why am I reading an article about 9/11 and not TWA Flight 841?

"...caused extreme tension for the United States..." Watching local news causes extreme tension. So do exams, breakups, layoffs, arrests, travel, lawsuits, work and weddings. September 11 caused "reassessment", "war", "mass confusion", "initial interpretive panic", "a resurgence of family commitment", "disruption in airline travel", "enormous insured losses", "the transformation of criminal law", "our leaders to lose sight of the overall picture", "an immediate deployment of US special operations forces", "a maelstrom in the world of politics", "the markets to close for a week", "grief among Americans", "a nationwide nervous breakdown"... Come on guys, do I have to do your research for you?

"... for the United States as a nation..." as opposed to "The United States: the Musical."

"...and many others around the world..." Obviously, when the world's last superpower gets upset, the rest of the world flinches, but "many others around the world" doesn't tell me anything useful.

"In addition to being a tragedy..." Too general. ("In addition to being an air-breathing primate, Isaac Newton was an English mathematician.")

"...a unique act of aggression..." I'll give them this, reluctantly, but the uniqueness was a matter of scale, rather than the act itself. It wasn't even the only time the World Trade Center had been attacked by terrorists.

"...and perhaps a foreshadowing of the way..." Why start speculating about the future? Have you already run out of actual effects to discuss?

"...and perhaps a foreshadowing of the way the disaffected will lash out in the 21st century..." The disaffected have been lashing out like this for generations. It wasn't the first terrorist attack in history, you know.

" was a media event on a scale not seen since the advent of civilian global satellite links..." (April 6, 1965)

"...round-the-clock television news organizations..." (June 1, 1980)

"...and the instant worldwide reaction and debate made possible by the Internet." (May 17, 1991) So basically what you're saying is, it was the biggest thing to happen in the last 15 years.

"Due to these modern global communications links, most of the events listed below were known by a large portion of the planet's population almost in realtime." Unlike news of Pearl Harbor, which took weeks to be carried by Pony Express riders to all the outlying homesteads along the frontier.

Actually, Wikipedia's last point isn't even true. Many of the events listed on their page weren't widely know until months later. For example:

7 Feb. 2006: Discrete rather than Cumulative [make link]

I've realized that I should add a 4th item to my list of criteria for a potentially decent Wikipedia article: Knowledge of the subject should be discrete rather than cumulative. By that I mean each piece of information is unrelated to each other piece of information, instead of all the pieces of information building on each other.

For example, knowing that Springfield is a fictional city is not necessary to knowing that so is Ankh-Morpork. Knowing that cinnebar is a mineral is not necessary to also knowing that fluorite is. You can simply add what you know to those articles without reading up on the literature.

On the other hand, knowledge of the Kennedy Assasination is cumulative. If you read only one article on the subject, you might be completely convinced that the Freemasons did it, but as you read more articles, you'll see that this explanation is not without its flaws, and that other, more plausible suspects exist. For this reason, a person who has read only one article about who killed Kennedy (the Freemasons!) would not be a useful contributor to the articles about Freemasonry or Kennedy. Subjects that require cumulative knowledge don't benefit by having every passing reader jumping in.

So now my three criteria for what might make a decent Wikipedia article are:

  1. The truth is absolute, not subtle.
  2. Everybody knows a little something about it, but few people know everything about it.
  3. The subject is interesting enough to attract a steady stream of potential proofreaders.
  4. Knowledge of the subject is discrete rather than cumulative.

3 Feb. 2006: Jamie Kane [make link]

Old news, but I just now heard about it: "...he worked at a marketing company that uses Wikipedia for its online marketing strategies."

2 Feb. 2006: Congressional Staffers [make link]

23 Jan. 2006: The Register [make link]

Older, related articles:

23 Jan. 2006: A Friend of John Seigenthaler [make link]

"If it's wrong, you can fix it."

Older, related articles:

22 Jan. 2006: Saracens [make link]

The article on Saracens has had 57 edits for only 172 words. That's an edit-to-word ratio of one to three. It's that attention to detail that has made made Wikipedia what is is today -- rapidly facing the law of diminishing returns.

Aside from that, and aside from the way it explains that the very first, most important thing to know about the Saracens is that they aren't a football team, it's a decent article.

21 Jan. 2006: Wicca Pedia [make link]

I thought Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a documentary series from Ken Burns until I read Wikipedia's article on Wicca. "While The Craft, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Charmed contain references to Wicca, these are dramatic fiction and should not be taken as factual. The fictional character Harry Potter has nothing to do with historical or modern witchcraft."

That's got to annoy Wiccans. Do you think the article on Judaism has to explain that not every Jew is like Fiddler on the Roof or Woody Allen?

The weird thing about the Wicca article is that it's been changed 500 times in the past four months. If each of those edits took a minute, we're looking at 8 hours and 20 minutes of simple maintenance. I'm not talking about the effort it took to write the article because that was already done a long time ago. No, I'm talking about a solid workday of fiddling, noodling, vandalizing, reverting and spellchecking. Because of the magic of wiki, that comes to three workdays a year for the rest of eternity just fiddling with this one article. If they really want to spend that kind of effort running in place, I say fine/whatever, but it seems like a lot more work than, say, having the three major contributors just writing an article and calling it done.

Was the article really so bad four months ago? What kind of changes were made? Here are a few that jump out:

17 Jan. 2006: Wikipedia Responds! [make link]

Got this is my email the other day.

the biggest load of shit i have ever read.

any time you put anything on the internet someone can steal it. any time you publish a book, someone can take it and copy it.

wake up and realise that copyright and the internet do not exist.

since wikipedia is a freely editable online encyclopedia, what makes you think its going to be 100% accurate. its not. the goal is to just get is as accurate as possible, a worth cause.

its pedantic people like you who help stop decent projects. i dont see any references for your corrections either.

you disgust me, and it would be a far far better world without you.

When you cite Wikipedia, you're taking this guy as an authority.

This message is pretty typical of the writing quality in Wikipedia, so please indulge me while I deconstruct:

the biggest load of shit i have ever read.

I've commented before on the tendency of Wikipedians to overuse superlatives. This writer has put me in the same league as, for example, the Congressional Record. Either it's quite an honor, or else he doesn't read much.

any time you put anything on the internet someone can steal it. any time you publish a book, someone can take it and copy it.

He's forgotten the difference between "can" and "may". Just because something is technologically possible, doesn't make it right, or even legal. For example, anytime a pedestrian steps into a crosswalk, someone can run him down.

wake up and realise that copyright and the internet do not exist.

Taken as written, all I can say is, huh? However, if he means that copyright doesn't apply to Internet, most authorities would disagree. See, for example, 10 Big Myths about copyright explained. A person writing nonfiction, such as a Wikipedian, should know the difference between something he would like to be true and something that is true.

since wikipedia is a freely editable online encyclopedia, what makes you think its going to be 100% accurate. its not.

He's right. It's not, so I don't. I think that's the point I've been making all along.

More important: You should capitalize the beginnings of sentences, and end questions with question marks. Also, the abbreviation for "it is" is spelled "it's" Yes, the rules of spelling and grammar are arbitrary and silly, but the more you deviate from them, the harder it will be for your reader to understand. If you don't care whether your reader understands you, then why are you writing? I'm guessing that the reason you're writing in English instead of Dutch or Portuguese is that you want me to understand, so you probably should write in Standard English as well.

the goal is to just get is as accurate as possible, a worth cause.

A "worth" cause? You left off the -less. Or are you lisping? "A worth cauthe than I can pothibly imagine".

I'm sorry, but "as accurate as possible" doesn't cut it. By flooding the Internet with public domain misinformation, Wikipedia has crowded out more reliable sources of information. For example, when I search "Republic of Ireland" on Google, the first hit I get is Wikipedia. The actual nation of Ireland is only second. A responsibility to be right comes with that kind of visibility.

its pedantic people like you who help stop decent projects.

Thanks. I wish I could, but I don't have that much power.

i dont see any references for your corrections either.

A person writing nonfiction, such as a Wikipedian, should know the difference between fact and opinion. Wikipedia presents itself as factual, and therefore requires a higher standard of proof than my opinions.

you disgust me, and it would be a far far better world without you.

Yes, the Earth would be a better place with fewer people, but I'm here now, so what can you do?

2 Jan. 2006: More Porn Stars Than Britannica! [make link]

I thought the whole point of pornography was to avoid having to bother with unnecessary biographical information. If you want to hear where someone is from or what interesting jobs they used to have, that's what dating is for.

"This pornography-related article is a stub. You can help Wikipedia by expanding it." That's got to be the worst pick-up line ever. I don't want to expand anyone's stub.

30 Dec. 2005: List of HIV-positive people [make link]

List of HIV-positive people: Man, John Seigenthaler Sr. just can't catch a break from these people, can he? (Third on the list.)

The best part of this list is that is doesn't require proof, or even an explanation. For example, scroll down among the porn stars, and -- oh, my God! Steve Kennedy!? I went to High School with him! Poor Steve... His life really went downhill after high school. He was talking about going to law school, but instead he became a porn star with HIV. OK, maybe it's not the same Steve Kennedy, but you wouldn't know it from Wikipedia since they don't make any effort to distinguish this Steve Kennedy from all the other Steve Kennedies in the phone book. You can't even click through to a bio because it's a red link.

So how are we supposed to know that the Chris Williams, Nick Rogers, Jim Moore or Steve Taylor that Wikipedia diagnoses with HIV aren't just somebody's boss who ended up on the list as a joke? Here an idea - if you know somebody named Dave Connors or Bill Harrison, send this list to their parents. Or better yet, create an account with Wikipedia, wait a week, click one of the red links and just make up a plausible biography for this porn star. Use these film titles.

(I learned about this article from the Wikipedia Review. Thanks.)

30 Dec. 2005: List of highly positive people

By the way... John Seigenthaler Sr.? That's a screen shot of a page I was editing. I hit "cancel" instead of "save".

29 Dec. 2005: Rod Carew [make link]

Priorities: "Rodney Cline Carew ... In addition to being the only major leaguer to ever be born in a train, he was one of the most prolific hitters of his generation."

(Personally, I hope they don't change it. It's the only time I've ever seen Wikipedia display a sense of humor.)

(Thanks, correspondent)

I do wonder about something else, though. Isn't that picture copyrighted by Time? I suppose that taking one small picture to illustrate one article would qualify as fair use, but systematically looting a website of over 200 images probably goes a bit beyond that.

Notice the wikiweasel way they defend their use of it, too: "It is believed that the use of low-resolution images of TIME magazine covers to illustrate the publication of the issue in question, on the English-language Wikipedia, hosted on servers in the United States by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law."

It's interesting that Wikipedians boast that their encyclopedia is so very much better that, say, Britannica, Encarta or World Book, but the only way they can come close is by stealing content that their competitors are too ethical, honest, thrifty or scared to use without explicit permission.

(On a totally unrelated subject, this morning I had to protect some of my maps yet again from being used by Wikipedia. I finally had to break down and spell it out, rather than assume that Wikipedians know what GNU Free Documentation License means.)

27 Dec. 2005: Muskets [make link]

Wikipedia and World Book fight to the death.

I expect Wikipedia to excel at geeky subjects. Whenever I see someone defend WP by saying that their article on [some computer thing] is excellent, I shrug. Articles about computers written and rewritten over five years by hundreds of computer geeks should be getting rather accurate by now. It's no surprise that Internet's collaborative encyclopedia will do an above-average job explaining anything computery and Internetty.

Since a disproportionate number of Internetters are moody loners with an unhealthy fascination for firearms (it's not just me, is it?), I also expected WP to have pretty good articles on those subjects. Oddly, I was disappointed by their article on muskets. To show what I mean, I've decided to directly compare Wikipedia with the World Book. My scoring is simple:

The first seven facts in Wikipedia are:

  1. word also means a male sparrowhawk [~]
  2. That's the original meaning of the word. (redundant [0])
  3. muzzle-loaded (important point [+1])
  4. smoothbore [~]
  5. long [+1]
  6. fires from the shoulder [0] ("long" and "fires from the shoulder" are redundant)
  7. except the rare wall gun (The what? Then why bring it up? [-1])
  8. SCORE: 3 (+2,-1,*3)

The first seven facts in World Book:

  1. infantry used (Important point. It's not for hunting. [+1])
  2. before perfection of rifle [+1]
  3. name first used in Italy in 1500s [+1]
  4. originally described heavy handgun (Not the 4th most important thing to know about muskets [-1])
  5. maybe from sparrowhawk [~]
  6. or name of inventor (How widely believed is this? [0])
  7. smooth bore [~]
  8. SCORE: 6 (+3,-1,*3)

Wikipedia, 2nd Round

  1. date of origin unknown (Meaningless. This is true of almost every invention before patent offices. It's like calling Abraham Lincoln a biped. [-1])
  2. mentioned as early as the late 14th century [-2] (That means between 1350-1399, which is just plain wrong.)
  3. obsolete by the middle of the 19th century (The time frame is important [+1])
  4. rifles superseded them [+1]
  5. calibers ranged from .50 to .75 inches (Numbers. [-1])
  6. a user is called a "musketman"/"musketeer". (Obvious. [-1])
  7. shoots spherical lead balls [~]
  8. SCORE: -6 (+2, -5, *2)

World Book, 2nd Round

  1. contrast with rifle (It's important to mention this because many readers won't know this [+1])
  2. early ones 6-7 feet long (Numbers, MEGO [-1])
  3. and weighed 40 lbs (Numbers, MEGO [-1])
  4. Fired round balls [~]
  5. or buckshot (how common was that? [0])
  6. muzzle-loaded [+1]
  7. matchlocks at first [+1]
  8. SCORE: 2 (+3, -2, *2)

Wikipedia, 3rd Round

  1. packed in a paper cartridge (only later ones were [0])
  2. also held the Gunpowder propellant (you've been warned [-2])
  3. balls were slightly smaller than the bore (Duh. [-1] They can't be larger.)
  4. came wrapped in a loosely-fitting paper patch (We don't need this kind of detail. It's not a how-to manual [-1])
  5. lower part of the cartridge contained the gunpowder (yeah, yeah. TMI [-1])
  6. musketmen used their teeth (OK, I'll give them this [+1])
  7. paper from the lower section of cartridge used as wadding (just stop it. TMI [-1])
  8. SCORE: -5 (+1, -6, *1)

World Book, 3rd Round

  1. then wheel locks [+1]
  2. then flintlocks [+1]
  3. then caplocks (Notice that instead of step-by-step instructions for loading a very specific kind of musket, the World Book walks us through the historical development of the musket.[+1])
  4. muskets were innacurate [+1]
  5. range of less than 100 yards [+1]
  6. continued in use after rifles were invented 1655 [+1]
  7. because musket balls slid easily down the barrel [+1]
  8. SCORE: 7 (+7, -0, *1)


26 Dec. 2005: Cathars [make link]

Here's another example of the Drunk Buddy Disclaimer, where Wikipedia tries to put as much distance as possible between itself and something it just said.

In the article on Cathars:

Christian Rosencreuz, according to some, may have been associated with an underground Cathar movement that hid from the Inquisition. However, this is highly unlikely because there is absolutely no evidence that the Cathar movement still existed by Rosencreuz' time, nor is there any concrete evidence that Rosencreuz existed at all.

Here's how it happened. On April 7, 2003, registered user Nixdorf added this final paragraph to the article: Christian Rosencreuz may have been associated with an underground Cathar movement that hid from the Inquisition.

Then, after that sat around unchallenged for over a year, an anonymous user pointed out on July 15, 2004: Actually, this is highly unlikely because there is absolutely no evidence that the Cathar movement still existed by Rosencreuz' time.

Then, on Sept. 11, 2004, another anonymous user added: Nor is there any concrete evidence that Rosencruez existed at all.

Three days later, registered user, "smooth[ed] over rosencreuz part" without actually paying attention to what it was saying or trying to determine the truth of the matter. He merely tried to make it sound like one voice by adding "according to some" and replacing "actually" with "however".

I've gone to a bit more trouble to identify the individuals involved in these edits because lately Wikipedia has taken to blaming all of its quality control issues on "anonymous vandals". WP is almost like a religion in this. Everything bad is the fault of outside evil, so Wikipedia must be protected from impurities. As a result, WP's procedures are becoming more exclusive, restricting the ability of anonymous users to contribute. Notice in this case, however, that the two anonymous edits brought the article more into line with mainstream scholarship, while the two edits by full-fledged Wikipedians did not.

Oddly, Wikipedia has no split personality when it come to Christian Rosencreuz himself. He definitely existed according to the last paragraph: C.R.C. body was found intact in this microcosmos chamber in 1604, the same year the last "naked eye" supernova (SN 1604) till today was observed in our galaxy Milky Way.

PS: Who else but Wikipedia would find it necessary to post a note right up front in an article on Cathars that "for the information on a Star Wars race under the same name, see the list of Star Wars races. To see information on the band with the same name see Cathar (Band)"? Think what will happen if this article is merged (as suggested) into the article on Albegensians. An inquiry on "cathars" will probably dump the reader onto the band's article, where you'll see a note that "For the medieval heresy, see Albegensians".

(Thanks, correspondent)

18 Dec. 2005: more on Nature [make link]

The Register, 16 Dec. 2005: "Wikipedia science 31% more cronky than Britannica's. Excellent for Klingon science, though"

BBC, 15 December 2005: "Wikipedia survives research test"

My quick take on the Nature results:

15 Dec. 2005: Nature [make link]

Nature, 15 December 2005: "Internet encyclopaedias go head to head"

Wikipedia wins a round. On factual errors in science articles, WP is as good as Britannica.

(Thanks, correspondent)

15 Dec. 2005: Nigerian Demographics. [make link]

After reading a BBC article on Nigerian population statistics (yes, I have no life) which explained that no one really knows how many Nigerians there are, I made a quick sweep of the web to get more details. Eventually I decided to check whether my favorite encyclopedia had ever picked up the political controversies that the article described. The short answer: not really. Wikipedia pointed out that there's a dispute over whether Muslims or Christians are in the majority, but they missed the whole problem of how the previous censi had been manipulated.

Now, I certainly don't hold it against Wikipedia that they didn't comment on something that even I didn't know about until the BBC told me this morning... What am I saying? Of course I hold it against them. Twenty-three writers have been fiddling with that article for four years, since May 2001. If I had a team of two dozen writers for four years, I could easily produce a better article than that.

A bigger problem: there's no bibliography. Considering that accurate population figures for Nigeria don't exist, shouldn't Wikipedia say where it got its numbers? The article points to 2 sources for religious statistics, but nothing for all the other numbers. Also, the article takes sides as to which of those two sources it likes better. Operation World has a 30-word disclaimer ("Their inclusion is because of their detail, and does not necessarily constitute an endorsement of their attempt to show that Nigeria has a Christian majority.... their overall accuracy is unprovable."), while the State Department has none. There's nothing wrong with taking sides, but Wikipedia should have the guts to just go ahead and say it, instead of treating Operation World like their drunk buddy ("Sorry about the way Larry's acting. I didn't mean to bring him. I barely know the guy. I don't even know why I'm sitting with him.")

Some bits of the article don't make any sense, such as the note about AIDS ("note: estimates for this country explicitly take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS; this can result in lower life, higher infant mortality and death rates, ... "). Why did the author think it was necessary to explain that death rates, infant mortality and life expectancy are based on the number of deaths? Shouldn't that be obvious?

Wait, let me answer that. Even thought there's no source listed, I recognized that note from my earlier research. It was cut-n-pasted directly (without attribution) from the CIA Factbook. There are three problems with cut-n-paste:

  1. Passing off some else's words as your own is wrong.
  2. Why bother if you're not adding anything to what has already been said?
  3. You're not even making the effort to understand your subject before you pretend to be an expert. I'll bet that the Wikipedian who put that note there can't even explain why it should be noteworthy.

14 Dec. 2005: John Seigenthaler, again [make link]

Well, I'm glad to see that Wikipedia finally fixed their biography of former Kennedy aide John Seigenthaler.

14 Dec. 2005: The weekly Register [make link]

The Register, 12 Dec. 2005: "There's no Wikipedia entry for 'moral responsibility'. Seigenthaler libeller unmasked - thought it was a joke site"

11 Dec. 2005: Further Reading 3 [make link]

And this: The Register, 6 Dec. 2005: Who owns your Wikipedia bio? Web's favourite RPG hits the headlines

Also, I've been making incremental changes to my FAQ, so you might want to check it again if you haven't looked in awhile.

Previously... on Wikiwatch!

10 Dec. 2005: Greco-Turkish Relations [make link]

Some Wikipedia articles need to be put out of their misery - like the Pontian Greek Genocide.

For those of you unfamiliar with this event, here's a quick summary. After World War One, the winners were dismantling the Ottoman Empire along ethnic lines, but Greeks and Turks were all intermingled throughout Anatolia, so it wasn't easy to draw a clean border between them. Greece and Turkey fought a war to decide where the new border should fall, and once military events fixed the border, the two countries shoved people around to fit it. Because the Turks won the war, there were more Greeks in Turkey than Turks in Greece. Thus, the Greeks got the worst of this ethnic cleansing, and several hundred thousand of them disappeared into oblivion.

This has left a lot of bad feelings.

I have no idea what the article will look like when you see it because it's had over 50 edits in the past month and a half, and will probably have a few more by the time I finish this paragraph, but here are a few items I scrounged from the version I found:

What can I say? Accuracy aside, this is totally unprofessional writing. Here's some free advice: Let the facts speak for themselves. Using too many loaded words like fanatic, terrorizing, glorious, supposedly and inhumane makes you sound crazy.

Obviously, the article will never, ever be allowed to rest in peace. Whatever you write, no matter how accurate or fluent, will be changed by the end of the week. The best solution would be to get a couple of knowledgeable historians (or at least history majors) to write it from scratch, and then lock it against further edits. Unfortunately that's what a real encyclopedia would do, and it would admit the failure of the whole Wikipedia concept.

More likely, Wikipedia will try to delete the article, as they did with the similar Hellenic Genocide article. Then they'll redirect queries to an innocuous article like Greco-Turkish Relations. The two problems with that are 1) it whitewashes a bad era of history, and 2) you're just moving the fight to another article. Banning individual users won't work because you have two whole countries full of people with strong opinions on the matter.

9 Dec. 2005: Names of Korea and China [make link]

Names of Korea is another article that fits the threefold profile of a topic that Wikipedia seems to handle well:

  1. The truth is simple. Either Korea is called this, or it isn't.
  2. It's so obscure no one is going to know all of it. Even the CIA Factbook only briefly mentions the local names for Korea.
  3. A few dozen people have pitched in.

Knowing what they do well helps us understand what they do badly, which we see in a related article: Names of China.

Zhongguo: "The Chinese traditionally positioned the emperor of China at the center of the world, conceiving of concentric rings that extend from the cultural center to barbaric borderlands. This notion was accepted in Korea, Vietnam, and other countries to some degree, but not in the "northwestern crescent" that includes Mongolia, Turkestan and Tibet. They did not have terms to refer to this concept in the first place. The ROC and PRC impose it on them either by literal translation or transliteration.

Because Wikipedia is an international encyclopedia, huge sections of it are written by people who don't speak English but still assume that we know what they're talking about. Like, when did Tibet move to the northwest? Which concept didn't they have terms to refer to in the first place? Concentric circles? When they say "They did not have terms to refer to this concept in the first place," I take it to mean that there are no words in the language capable of even describing the concept. Maybe they meant to say "The terms they used did not refer to this concept."

Also, because so many foreigners have had a hand in writing it, we see hints of weird nationalistic grudges that make no sense: how can the ROC "impose" anything on countries and regions that are not under their control -- especially Mongolia, a sovereign country? Since it's considered polite to call a country what it wants to be called (Côte d'Ivoire? Mumbai?), why is calling China some reasonable variation of its native name labelled imposing?

Also, when people are free to insert anything they want, they tend to go off on tangents. For example, what has the paragraph following Cathay (... during the campaigns of Hulagu (the grandson of Genghis Khan) in Persia (1256-65), and the reigns of his successors, Chinese engineers were employed on the banks of the Tigris, and Chinese astrologers and physicians could be consulted at Tabriz. Many diplomatic communications passed between the Hulaguid Ilkhans and the Christian princes. The former, as the great khan's liegemen...) got to do with the Name of China? Even if it belonged, the proper names are laid out rather thickly. Of the paragraph's 137 words, I count some 20 people, eras and places -- a ratio of 7 real words to every name. Even if you keep the paragraph, you might want to weed out a few redundant names, like "Hulaguid Ilkhans" or "Cathayans, i.e. Chinese" or "... either in the 13th or 14th century ... at least in the 13th century."

3 Dec. 2005: Ahem [make link]

There's been a flood of articles in the mainstream press about Wikipedia's boning of John Seigenthaler Sr.. Well, maybe not a flood, more like a few, but more than usual in any case. I just want to remind my loyal reader that I addressed the dangers of Wikipedic biographies a month ago. And did a damn fine job, I must say.

2 Dec. 2005: More articles [make link]

Earlier, related entries:

1 Dec. 2005: Mail & Guardian [make link]

Can you trust Wikipedia? On South African subjects, the average score is 6.5/10.

(It occurred to me that criticizing Wikipedia is not like being a film or book critic; it's more like being a restaurant or theater critic. Since the content is constantly changing, all you can really say is that the food or acting was bad on the night you visited. Maybe it will be better next time, maybe it will get worse, but it's not the critic's job to go back every night and see if things have improved since the first review. It's restaurant's or theater's job to get it right each and every night.)

29 Nov. 2005: John Seigenthaler Sr. [make link]

USA Today: A false Wikipedia 'biography'. Character assassination, literally.

(Thanks again, correspondent)

28 Nov. 2005: More miscellaneous web sites and articles [make link]

Mind you, I don't link to every anti-Wikipedia article I find. For example, there's one interesting article posted at [rudepoliticalpropagandaslogan].com, but I can't link to it because that would require me to actually type out and post [rude political propaganda slogan] on my web site. No way.

27 Nov. 2005: Be-Nice-To-Wikipedia Day [make link]

I was bored recently, so I inserted three experimental errors into Wikipedia just to see how long they'd survive. I don't do this often because I'd prefer to criticize WP on its own terms rather than cheat. Unfortunately, Wikipedia is like a really gullible kid on April Fool's Day, and sometimes it's a real struggle to not take them out for a snipe hunt. Anyway, one of those errors was fixed the next morning. Kudos.

The type of articles that are most likely to fulfill Wikipedia's promise have three characteristics:

  1. The truth is absolute, not subtle.
  2. Everybody knows a little something about it, but few people know everything about it.
  3. The subject is interesting enough to attract a steady stream of potential proofreaders.

For example, the question of which countries drive on which side of the road is binary -- either left or right -- and it's fixed by law, so you can't argue about it. With almost 200 countries in the world, no single contributor will have direct experience of every country's highways, but with the whole Internet tossing in, you're sure to find someone, somewhere, who knows the answer for each country. If you check the History and Discussion, you'll see that some myths have tried to sneak in, but there are enough editors to catch these.

Wikipedia's List of films that have been considered the worst ever also fits this profile. They have a strict definition of "worst ever" (either cited by reputable sources as the worst movie of the year, or been on a list of worst movies.), and the article has enough traffic to keep the list complete, current and clean.

PS: I really, honestly set out to write a totally positive entry, but unfortunately, I like Roger Ebert, so I wanted to read his list of worst movies. I clicked a link from WP's Worst Films article. This put me at Wikipedia's summary of Ebert's list. Still curious, I clicked over to Ebert's original article, and saw that it wasn't much different. In fact, Wikipedia had merely copied and trimmed Ebert's 4145 words down to 1805 words. Where I come from, reprinting 44% of an article verbatim is still copyright violation. Behind the Discussion tab, zenohockey assures us that "it's encyclopedic and has Ebert's blessing." but he doesn't really specify what's the "it's" that has Ebert's blessing, or what form that blessing takes. Were I Wikipedia's lawyers, I'd be more comfortable seeing an explicit statement of permission from someone with a real name.

PPS: Technically MST3K (see ¶2 of "So bad it's good") isn't a "spoof". Austin Powers, The Naked Gun, and The Colbert Report are spoofs.

26 Nov. 2005: Articles that could easily be hoax articles because who would even know? [make link]

Wikipedia has over 800,000 articles in English, and at some point, they're going to run out of things that anyone is ever going to be curious about.

25 Nov. 2005: Recap [make link]

"The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge." Stephen Hawking

It's been eight months or so since I was lying in bed listening to NPR praise Wikipedia and thinking wouldn't it be funny if someone inserted an experimental error into the article they just mentioned, just to see how long it takes to fix it. Most outside reviews of Wikipedia at that time seemed to be high on theory, low on content, and generally favorable. While Wikipedia sounds great in theory, so does Communism. Maybe I should keep a running log of the mistakes I was routinely finding in Wikipedia.

Are there any patterns to these mistakes? Any general insight we can glean from them?

  1. Well first: Britannica is better than Wikipedia -- period. I mean, someone has to say it. Whenever Wikipedians start defending their product, they inevitably declare that even Britannica has mistakes. Now they have to prove it. I've written 30 pages (if printed) of detailed criticisms of Wikipedia, so if they want to convince me that Britannica is just as bad, they're 30 pages behind. As a librarian, I put all major reference works to heavy use, and I don't find noteworthy mistakes in Britannica. Maybe they exist, but the burden of proof is on those who make the assertion.
  2. Topics easily become hijacked by special interests. As a Southerner, I quickly noticed a pro-Confederate bias in some articles. Right-wing bias showed up in the treatment of the Roosevelts and Social Security. Wikipedia's List of Massacres was dominated by anti-Americans, Poles and Neo-Nazis when I reviewed it, while their article on Genghis Khan was mostly fawning praise by Mongolian nationalists. The Russian Orthodox Church's party line is the only point of view allowed on Paul I of Russia's madness. As I mentioned earlier, the Darwinian nature of Wikipedia means that articles are written by competing viewpoints, but the winner is the most energetic writer, not the most informed or accurate. Generally, fanatic fools have more time and energy than real scholars.
  3. I'm not sure if the word I want is pedantic or sophomoric, but Wikipedia is one of those. They are often more interested in showing off how much they know, rather than explaining to the unlearned.
  4. They also like showing off how much they think they know.
  5. Wikipedia often can't tell the difference between the significant and the trivial.
  6. Is what you're reading real or a hoax article?
  7. Wikipedia brags about building an enormous encyclopedia from scratch when, in fact, they've taken a lot of material verbatim from outside sources.
  8. Articles rarely provide sources, and the authors frequently use pseudonyms or post anonymously. I haven't discussed this aspect in depth, but if they want their articles to be taken seriously, it would help if someone would take personal responsibility for them. A valid observation posted behind the Discussion tab should not go unanswered.
  9. Some articles improve (temporarily) after I pan them -- The Monkeysphere and Genghis Khan, for example [*FN1]. Others get worse after I praise them (List of countries by system of government). These are examples of regression to the mean, the mathematical expression for "When you hit rock bottom, there's no place to go but up." An interesting study would be to examine Wikipedia's featured articles (presumably, their best) and see how they fared a year later. My suspicion is that their quality will have regressed toward the mediocre.
  10. Every error in Wikipedia multiplies a hundredfold across the web and pushes aside other sources of information.

[*FN1] I usually check articles again a month or so after my review to see if there have been any notable changes. Both Genghis Khan and the Monkeysphere had improved greatly at that point; however, both have started to slip again. Genghis Khan has seen 500 edits in the past three months, making it larger, unreadable, and once again, pure praise for such a wonderful man. The Monkeysphere, unfortunately, has become more and more academic with each new edit.

23 Nov. 2005: Further Reading 2 [make link]

I found some interesting articles out there.

Related entries:

13 Nov. 2005: Wonderful Wizard of Oz [make link]

In Wikipedia's article on the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 2797 of its 5231 words -- 53% -- are devoted to a discussion of whether the Cowardly Lion represents William Jennings Bryan. If the theory is wrong, that's a lot of wasted words, and if the theory is right, well, isn't the WWOO about much more than that?

For those of you unfamiliar with this theory and unwilling to wade through 2,797 words emitted by multiple Wikipedians, here is a summary in 761 words -- a quarter the length and twice as lucid.

All books are a product of their times. They generally reflect the author's perception of his world, but a few political jokes don't make an allegory. When the latest Harry Potter refers to "the President of a far distant country" as a "wretched man", we all know who the author is talking about, but that doesn't make it a political satire.

Did Baum intend the WWOO to be a parable of populist politics? I don't know. I've only seen the movie (which, as we all know, was really inspired by Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.) But it just seems to be one of those theories that makes a lot of sense until the bartender won't serve you any more.

Here's the thing about allegories: They're not as common as lit majors would have you believe, and they're not very effective if no one gets them until 50 years later. Like jokes, allegories are most easily spotted and understood by people rooted in the same culture as the writer. Time makes both jokes and allegories more obscure, not less. If anybody was going to first spot the WWOO as an allegory, it should have been Baum's contemporaries, not some guy in the 1960s. If I see a contemporary review of WWOO that accepts the allegory, then maybe I'll take the theory seriously.

As for Wikipedia's assertion that "among historians and economists the most widely accepted theory is that the Baum-Denslow book can be seen as an allegorical commentary on U.S. politics at the end of the 19th century" -- did they actually poll historians? What did Doris Kearns Goodwin and John Keegan say?

I'll admit the Wikipedia article has some good links:

David B. Parker: "Thomas A. Bailey once suggested that we set up a computer network to keep track of misinformation that has been corrected--sort of a national clearinghouse for discredited myths. Is it time to move Littlefield to the computer trashpile of misinformation? Given the mounting evidence against it--given that Littlefield himself has admitted that it has "no basis in fact"--should we forget the whole notion of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a parable on Populism?"

Bradley A. Hansen: "Indeed, the true lesson of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz may be that economists have been too willing to accept as a truth an elegant story with little empirical support, much the way the characters in Oz accepted the Wizard's impressive tricks as real magic."

2 Nov. 2005: Helicopter Gunship [make link]

Helicopter gunship: Contradiction?

Paragraph 3 begins: "The first systematic use of the helicopter gunship was during Vietnam...."

Paragraph 6 begins: "The 1990's could be considered the proving ground for the Gunship Helicopter for the US...."

This highlights the problem with having different people writing different paragraphs. It also highlights the way some amateur writers always want to make everything the most important something. Both Vietnam and the Gulf War were the most important war in the development of the helicopter gunship.

29 Oct. 2005: John Byrne 2 [make link]

After I trashed an online discussion of John Byrne's fight with Wikipedia, I received an e-mail from Stephen Gerding, the author and host of the discussion. He felt that I had unfairly taken his remarks out of context, and he may be right. Read his blog and decide for yourself. In any case, he seems like a nice enough guy.

Anyway, since I went to all the trouble composing a response to his message, I'd hate to waste it by keeping it tucked away in my outbox, so FWIW here it is. I'm not posting Stephen's original message, or his response to my response because then I'd get all tangled up in copyright, privacy, permission, bandwidth and editing issues:


Maybe I should explain my worry better. About a month earlier, I had discovered that Wikipedia had been slandering a person for 3 years, and this bothered me. Even though WP has removed the slander, their clone sites are still spreading it.

In general, Wikipedia is a game. Nobody making policy decisions is getting their knowledge of the Iraq War, stem cells or Social Security from Wikipedia, so in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter what Wikipedia says. But when they start writing biographies of living individuals, that can have real-world consequences on a person's life. It's not a game to those people.

I probably should investigate John Byrne more before making opinions, but my sympathy is going to be with the subject of the biography. My instinct is that a person should be allowed a veto over his own Wikipedia biography. After all, he's the one who has to live with the consequences of what's being said. Remember, Wikipedia doesn't even have the same safeguards as the lowest tabloid. One angry or ignorant person with an IP can create the wildest rumors. Even if the rumors aren't exactly defamation, they can still hurt a person. By stating that an author's book, for example, "was widely panned by critics", when it was actually praised by critics can hurt sales. Stating he's on his third wife when he's only had one can create awkward questions among friends and family.

I'm sorry about trimming your points down, but even in context, you seemed to be saying that Byrne should have cooperated in improving his article. You realize that that's a never-ending process? It's not like sitting down for an interview with a newspaper, where they write it and it's done. Whatever he puts in Wikipedia will be changed in a few weeks, so then he has to go back and do it all over again.

I guess if he's a celebrity, he should have a thick skin about what people say, but the fact that he took a personal interest in what Wikipedia was saying about him tells me he's pretty low in the celebrity hierarchy. Tom Cruise wouldn't have done that. But if he's so unimportant that he edits his own Wikipedia biography, then he's probably not important enough to have an article about anyway.

Afterthought on the subject of biographies: Wikipedia is not reliably self-correcting. I've seen errors sit uncorrected in biographical articles for several months.

24 Oct. 2005: The Guardian [make link]

The Guardian's review.

(Thanks, correspondent)

22 Oct. 2005: Hey don't drag me into this. I don't know where those numbers came from. [make link]

Vietnam War casualties: Here's an interesting sequence of events.

  1. Somebody posts data and gives their source.
  2. Somebody else come along and rewrites the information, pulling numbers out of thin air which make the American involvement in the Vietnam War seem even worse than it actually was.
  3. Because the source note remains untouched, the casual reader will now assume that these new, random numbers are backed up by an actual source.

They say that Wikipedia is self-correcting, but those random numbers have been sitting there, unfixed, for a month now.

Also, glance over at the main article on the war and you'll see that Wikipedia declares that leftover ordinance has killed over 40,000 Vietnamese since the war, but apparently, the authors didn't even read their stated source. PBS says "over 40,000 Vietnamese have been killed or injured". What's the difference between being killed and being injured? Here's a hint. One of these happened to me in a bike wreck. I'll bet you can guess which one.

Earlier, related: Vietnam War - They fixed it!

22 Oct. 2005: Britannica (1911) [make link]

Britannica is to Wikipedians as France is to Americans. If you complain about America, eventually you'll be told that, hey, at least we're not France. If you complain about Wikipedia, eventually you'll be told that Britannica (usually misspelled) is just as bad. Such comparisons are odd because huge sections of Wikipedia are actually taken directly from the public domain 11th edition of the Britannica. (Can it really be 79,000 articles?!)

On one of my earliest encounters with Wikipedia, I was blown away by the incredible quality of one of its articles on Roman history. Anonymous amateurs had really written this? It was only much later that I discovered they had taken it from the 1911 Britannica.

21 Oct. 2005: War Crimes [make link]

Here's another one of those pages where you're free to slander anyone you want without any proof: List of War Crimes. They even admit it themselves: "The fact that no individuals (or organizations) have been accused, convicted, or otherwise held responsible does not preclude an event from being listed." So just list any old thing that pops into you head.

Notice, for example, in the Civil War: "Allegation of a Federal-run death camp in eastern Maryland, where between 5,000 and 17,000 southerners were put to death." Strictly speaking, it's true. This really has been alleged -- but, as far as I know, only by Wikipedia. I could just as easily say "Allegation that George Bush [either one] feasted upon the raw livers of Iraqi prisoners", and this too would become a self-validating assertion. It's an old political trick. Have one of your people make the accusation, and then, a few days later, say truthfully that your opponent "has been accused of ..."

Has any reputable source alleged this? Well, it's hard to say since they don't give, for example, the name, site, participants or dates of the alleged war crime.

Also, re My Lai massacre: "Calley served only 3½ years under house arrest."

"Only"? That's a matter of opinion. Three and a half years of house arrest is far more punishment than most murderers get: OJ Simpson, Stalin, Idi Amin, Jack the Ripper...

I'll admit that Wikipedia has tagged this article as being substandard and in need of improvement, but it's been in existence for 16 months, through some 75 edits by over 40 writers.

16 Oct. 2005: John Byrne [make link]

I have no idea who John Byrne is, but the stupidest comment in this article is "Here's the problem. Byrne didn't just want to go through to clarify points or streamline the entry [his biography] - he wanted to dismantle the entire page."

What's wrong with that? Since anyone can edit Wikipedia, anyone may insert or delete anything they damn well please. If Mr. Byrne believes that the Wikipedia article is seriously flawed, he has every right to change it to his liking. Presumably, he knows the subject fairly well.

Sure, Wikipedia claims to have rules about cooperation, respect, neutrality, etc., but those are like state laws against sodomy, cohabitation and adultery. They are only enforced sporadically and arbitrarily, if at all.

16 Oct. 2005: Bastard sites [make link]

How many kudzu sites are there? I searched a random phrase from a random Wikipedia article and got 647 hits. Most of these sites simply download Wikipedia, strip out the wikiness, dump the History and Discussion, and wrap it all up in ads. Some of them might tweak the article a little to increase its search engine visibility. Others use a bait and switch that redirects you to a front page, but none explain why we need 647 copies of the exact same article.

I don't think the webmasters even read their own web sites. For example, the clone site Kids.Net.Au copies from Wikipedia without even cleaning up the language.

In any case, when you contribute to Wikipedia, you contribute to these sites too:


There are many more -- I've only copied 5% -- but you get the point.

Now, let's add a phrase that was removed a month ago, September 14, and we see that 480 bastard sites still haven't caught up. In fact, twenty still have a phrase that was removed from the original in February 2005. Because these sites don't keep up with the latest changes, Google doesn't recognize them as the same article and instead presents them as multiple answers to your question.

15 Oct. 2005: Pacifica House 2 [make link]

The burden of proof in Wikipedia depends on the context. You can usually insert a brand new assertion without having to prove it, but if you try to change something that's already in place, expect a fight.

There's a lot of resistance to deleting the article on Pacifica House. It's interesting that the defenders are asking the accuser to prove the article wrong, rather than presenting evidence of their own that the article is anchored in reality.

Is Pacifica House a hoax? When I searched a huge newspaper database for "Pacifica House" & Brown, I found nothing in the real world -- only one mention in Brown Daily Herald: "UCS, Simmons, the mysterious force that is Pacifica House -- someone needs to do something about this. Midterm amnesty or maybe, just this once, we can just move academic evaluation to mid-November and have finals after winter break like they do at Princeton?" (October 21, 2004. "Baseball, you are killing me" by Ben Clark)

Even if it's real, it doesn't seem to be important enough to justify an article. There's nothing in the Encyclopedia Brunoniana between Owl and Ring and Packard, Alpheus S.

The holding company "Brunensis, Ltd.", which allegedly is the public face of Pacifica House, should be incorporated somewhere, but it doesn't show up in Google, except in 40 bastard sites. According to, Pacifica House's web site is registered to one "Joe Pacifica", and it's only two years old, which seems a bit recent for a society that dates back to the 1840s.

On the other hand, while poking around today, I found one, single, lone piece of evidence that strengthens the argument that Pacifica House really exists, but I'm not telling you what it is. That's not my job. The burden of proof falls on the original authors of the article. They should be the ones required to pull out a folder of clippings to show that Pacifica House is real. [*FN]

[*FN] Here's a hint. Remember how I've complained over and over again about how Wikipedia's bastard sites are crowding out other sources of information? In this case, the visible web has been contaminated beyond recovery. Check the invisible web instead.

And don't get your hopes up. Even if you find it, it still doesn't prove that PH predates the 21st Century.

10 Oct. 2005: Pacifica House [make link]

The hoax article that I was discussing the other day is.... [drumroll] Pacifica House! My correspondent did the honorable thing and passed the word along to Wikipedia. You had better look at the article now because once Wikipedia deletes an article, all versions of it disappear.

"Hoax article?" they say, "What hoax article? I don't see any hoax article."

I learned that with Brian Torby. There's not even an archival record behind the History tab.

I understand why Wikipedia would want to remove a seriously false article. On the other hand, they keep obsolete, misleading versions of all their other articles hanging around. Why obliterate only the hoax articles? If a lie, insult or slander shows up in an article on Pacifica House, it disappears along with the article, but if it shows up in an article on, say, Hurricane Katrina, it lives forever behind the History tab. I don't know what the solution should be, but it seems inconsistent.

Not only do the articles on Brown University and Skull and Bones link to Pacifica House, someone also conferred membership on Ted Turner. By the way, the most common legitimate hit you get when searching "Pacifica House" through a newspaper database is a rehab center in California. Maybe that's the joke.

8 Oct. 2005: Hoax Article 3 [make link]

Well, another correspondent has informed me of another hoax article. This always frustrates me because if I actually point to it, they'll take it down, but if I don't point to it, that takes all the fun out of it. Maybe I should auction off the information, and give the proceeds to one of my favorite charities. (Don't give me money yet. I'm only thinking out loud.)

Is Wikipedia's article really a hoax? It's been edited almost a hundred times over the past year by over a dozen different authors. About a half dozen legitimate Wikipedia articles link to it. It points to a flashy web site for more information. That sounds like a pretty complicated conspiracy to me. Or else it's one guy with access to a lot of IP addresses.

When I ran the three key words through a gigantic news database, I found 11 hits, all but one of them entirely coincidental. The one possible hit is a brief, tangential mention in a year-old column from a college paper that leads me to suspect that this is an inside joke. The domain name of the web site was only registered two years ago to an obvious pseudonym. If it were real, you'd expect it to have been registered back in the dawn of WWW.

It seems to have spread to about 40 bastard sites. I can't find any Google hits that don't tie into Wikipedia or that one official web site.

As before, I'll just watch and see how long it takes for someone to catch on.

Previous hoax articles:

7 Oct. 2005: Pendleton Act [make link]

I went looking for a quick description of the Pendleton Act, and the search engine dumped me into Wikipedia's article. It was pretty good. In fact, I was about to hold it up as another example of a Wikipedia article that fulfills its promise, until I came across this:

A civil service movement started in New York in 1877, and although it developed considerable public support, the politicians refused to go along. Then came the assassination of President Garfield by Charles Guiteau, a disappointed office-seeker (a claim used by Guiteau himself in Sondheim and Weidman's Assassins), and the public clamor could no longer be ignored.

Do you ever get the feeling that WP is just a game of word association? One person mentions Guiteau so, of course, the next guy thinks of the character in the musical. Well, if you're going off on a tangent, you should at least make it a memorable tangent. Let's see how far we can drift and still bring it back home:

Then came the assassination of President Garfield by Charles Guiteau, a disappointed office-seeker (a claim used by Guiteau himself in Sondheim and Weidman's Assassins, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, who also did the music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was set in ancient Rome, home of Julius Caesar, who was assassinated -- just like President Garfield), and the public clamor could no longer be ignored.

Even worse, when I glanced behind the Discussion tab, I discovered that the article was originally stolen. In June of last year (16 months ago), someone pointed out the uncanny similarities between Wikipedia and the State Department's article, but no one ever followed up on this discovery. You'd think a simple acknowledgment and link on the main page would be the least they could do.

While it's usually true that government documents are in the public domain, this article might be an exception. Just because it's posted on a government web site, doesn't necessarily make it a government document. There's no telling who the legal copyright holder may be and what kind of agreement he has with the State Department. If you backtrack to the Table of Contents, and then click into the Preface, you'll find nothing clearly stating who owns this work, only a cryptic line at the end that might name the original author.

So in summary: when I finally discovered a pretty good Wikipedia article, it turns out to have been stolen (2 years 4 months ago), and the only original content is a parenthetical remark added two years later and citing a musical as a source.

1 Oct. 2005: F-Word [make link]

Because the article on Zombies is full of fucking, I began to wonder... er, let me rephrase that.... Because the article on Zombies is full of "fucking", I began to wonder how common gratuitous vulgarity in Wikipedia might be. I ran a quick Google search and found that the participial f-word appears in 11,000 Wikipedia articles.

Many of those seem like legitimate academic discourse on idioms, sexuality, quotes, etc. Wikipedia's rules allow anyone to edit the article itself, so if someone considers rough language unnecessary to the topic at hand, they'll clean it up. Most occurrences of the offending word in an article are probably considered necessary, but you still have to wonder if they go out of their way to sneak an f-word into every language topic they can possibly find, rather than, God forbid, just skipping directly from fuchsia to fuddle now and then. [*FN])

Each Wikipedia topic has three types of pages: the article itself, the editing history, and the talk page. I couldn't figure out how to search the Editing History pages (which is where all the cussing showed up in the Zombie article), but I did construct a search limited to Wikipedia's Talk Pages, which is rather interesting. For one thing, there's no good reason to use profanity in an article's Talk Page, unless you've just fucking lost it. The adjectival form of the word is particularly unnecessary since it doesn't actually mean anything. However, once you drop the f-bomb, it will remain untouched and uncleansed throughout eternity because editing another person's comments in the Talk Page is a bigger taboo than calling him a fucking moron.

Although some of these look legit, most of the 262 hits (particularly past the first page) seem to be the result of frayed tempers instead.

The commonness of profanity in Wikipedia highlights their unprofessionalism in three different ways. First, it shows that some authors can't control their tempers. Second, they claim to be writers but somehow can't come up with a better way of expressing themselves. Third, and most significant, they ignore their target audience. Whether you agree with the taboo against the f-word or not, breaking it drives away readers unnecessarily. Maybe your reader is a Christian lady who just wants to learn about Montserrat without her sensibilities being assaulted needlessly. Maybe your reader is a high school student who can only access Internet through a filter that blocks sites with adult language. Maybe your reader is a web reviewer who's worried that by quoting you, dammit! now I'm going to be blocked by adult content filters. Maybe your reader isn't particularly squeamish about bad words, but when he checks the discussion of, say, Computer Security (F), Religious Freedom in Malaysia (BS), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (BS), Patriarch of Constantinople (Fing), Treaty of Trianon (BS, F), Hurricane Camille (S), Papua (Fing), Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (Fing S), Cossack (BS), BPP (F) or Tram (BS) -- none of which are particularly adult topics requiring frank language -- he gets the feeling that he's reading an article written by children, and he won't believe anything you say.

[*FN] Not only do I doubt the etymology that Wikipedia gives for Flip, I also wonder why Wikipedia considers calling Filipinos "Flips" ("Flip is usually used inoffensively") preferable to calling Americans "Yankees" ("some U.S. citizens have been known to take some offense at this term" [really? name four.]).

I thought it was the other way around.

26 Sept. 2005: Y2K Baby Boom [make link]

After spotting the apocryphal baby boom mentioned in the Blizzard of 1977, I got curious about the whole subject of supposed baby booms, and found that Wikipedia had an article about an alleged Y2K Baby Boom.

Notice the big difference between Wikipedia and, say, Fox News. Fox News at least pretends that their information comes from somewhere. "According to some guy at the Bureau of Vital Statistics..." they might say, or "We spoke with the first village crone and midwife we came across". Wikipedia, on the other hand, just asserts. The article has been sitting there for 11 months, through five edits, and no one has bothered to explain how they got the idea there was a baby boom. There's no source listed.

So, is it true? Did people plan Millennium Babies just so it would be easier to calculate how old they were? ("Let's see. It's 2005, and you were born in 2000. That makes you, uh, five, right?") I hate doing Wikipedia's homework for them, so I didn't look too deeply into it, but a quick Google gave me a page of realistic looking birth statistics.

According to this guy, yes, 2000 had more births than any year since 1992, but it's only a whopping 0.8% more births than in 2001. It's 2.5% more births than 1999, but is that a boom? I mean, look at it this way: some year has to be higher than the others, so there's already a 1 in the 3 chance that births in 2000 will "noticeably outnumber those born in the preceding and following years." Even 0.8% is "noticeable". (I noticed it.) And what about the rest of the world? Births over those three years did indeed peak in 2000 in Australia, India and the Netherlands, but not in Ireland, Britain, Spain, Russia and Canada.

24 Sept. 2005: Laura Sydell [make link]

I remember lying half awake one morning (Feb. 20, 2005), listening to the radio as Laura Sydell narrated an interesting article about Wikipedia on NPR. In commending the vast range of the encyclopedia, she pointed out that it even had an article about the rather obscure journalist, Laura Sydell.

Ironically, an error appeared in that very same article a couple of weeks later, on March 12, explaining that Ms. Sydell was "born and raised outside Dallas". Well, I suppose technically it wasn't an error. She was from outside Dallas -- a thousand or so miles outside Dallas. Five and a half months later, on August 31, the article was corrected to read that she was, in fact, from Northern New Jersey.

23 Sept. 2005: Thich Quang Duc and the Blizzard of 1977 [make link]

Pop culture dominates Wikipedia. It even spills into other topics.

For example, Wikipedia's biography of suicidal Buddhist dissident Thich Quang Duc points out that

this same picture was used in 1992 as the cover for an album by the politically charged American band Rage Against the Machine.

So, in other words, thirty years after a desperate man gave his life for a cause, some suburban California kids slap a picture of his death throes on their album in order to boost sales and get laid, and somehow this becomes part of the man's biography? Isn't that like naming your cats Anne and Frank after the famous Holocaust diarist, and then bragging about it in a Holocaust history?

Or take a look at the Blizzard of 1977, a natural disaster that actually killed an elderly relative of mine. OK, I admit I never met him, and by all accounts he was an unpleasant old man who wasn't even missed until he turned up in the spring thaw, but still... a man died.

One quarter of Wikipedia's article about the blizzard (134 of its 542 words) is given to discussing a board game.

Look, I realize that subsequent popular interpretations of historical events are important. You can't ignore Shakespeare's play when studying the real Richard III. Saving Private Ryan is how most people nowadays view D-Day. Napoleon's height, his hat and the 1812 Overture are probably the only things most people know about him. Godwin's Law and The Producers play off of our image of Hitler as pure evil.

But you have to draw the line somewhere. You risk trivializing a historic event by bringing up later cultural interpretations unless those interpretations are roughly as important as the event itself.

PS: The baby boom following the Blizzard of 1977? Stories like those are often urban myths. You might want to ask for sources on that.

PPS: One third of Thich Quang Duc's article -- 103 of its 307 words -- is lifted straight from David Halberstam. I don't know if that counts as plagiarism, but it seems rather lazy.

11 Sept. 2005: The Monkeysphere [make link]

A year or so ago, David Wong wrote an excellent article about the Monkeysphere, that tiny group of people that we can actually identify as distinct individuals. My summary can't do it justice. Go ahead and read it. I'll wait here...

... Was I right? Isn't it great? Don't you want to email it to all your friends?

Now go read Wikipedia's article about the Monkeysphere. Do you even see David Wong's name mentioned? No. Instead you see an incomprehensible term paper about Rim Dunbar and neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Where in all that is the Monkeysphere?

For painful cluelessness, see Wikipedia's Talk: Monkeysphere page. They have a question (Where does the word "Monkeysphere" comes from?), and they have an observation (Every time the word "Monkeysphere" appears on Internet, it links to A Pointless Waste of Time.), but somehow, they just can't make the connection: Maybe the Monkeysphere was invented by A Pointless Waste of Time?

My suggestion: If you write an article called "The Monkeysphere", then write about the Monkeysphere. Start the Wikipedia article by discussing the Monkeysphere. Mention the writer who invented the word "Monkeysphere", and summarize his article; give him full credit, otherwise, you're just plagiarizing. Then back up and discuss Dr. Dunbar's original research. (Or not. Although the Monkeysphere begins with the anatomical research performed by known monkey-killers, it doesn't really need it. If Dunbar's thesis that there's a fixed mathematical relationship between brain size and group size doesn't survive future scrutiny, the Monkeysphere Hypothesis -- that there's a limit to the number of people we can care about -- could stand just fine, all by itself, as a purely philosophical concept.)

On the other hand, if you're too stuffy, too proud or too squeamish to review an article that proudly calls itself A Pointless Waste of Time and has icky pictures of monkey genitalia, then don't call your article "The Monkeysphere". Call it something like "Correlations Between Neocortical and Group Size" and focus on Dr. Dunbar's research.

For bonus points, let's all go read Rim Dunbar's article about Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in humans.

Back so soon? Didn't you even try?

(My thanks to the correspondent who brought this to my attention.)

10 Sept. 2005: Aieee! Zombies [make link]

A correspondent writes concerning Wikipedia's article on Zombies:

It's a mostly unremarkable article until it comes to Wade Davis, the ethnobotanist who wrote THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW and claimed to have determined that vodoun zombification was achieved by a combination of pharmacology and cultural affect. The article claims, surprisingly to me, that: "There was considerable scepticism to Davis's claims; he was widely accused of fraud and opinions remain divided as to the veracity of his work."

"What?" I thought. "I don't remember any such controversy."

And I can't find any evidence of one either, at least not online. Most of the contemporary reviews I can locate are generally positive about the book. One reviewer expresses skepticism about the personal details related in the book, but not about its thesis or ultimate conclusion. The remainder of references to Wade Davis being accused of fraud were all Wiki-kudzu.

Yep. He's right. Wikipedia has been calling Wade Davis a fraud for 3 years, 2 months and 28 days, since June 13, 2002.

Is Davis a fraud? If you follow Wikipedia's links to Davis's biography, he comes across as a stand-up guy without any hint of criminality. Unfortunately, Wikipedia's defamatory accusation of fraud has spread to 372 sites on Internet.

Sure, there's been controversy about Davis's research, and apparently he pissed off a lot of Haitians, but does this rise to the level of "fraud"? I ran "Wade Davis" & "Serpent and the Rainbow" & fraud/fraudulent through a gigantic newspaper database, and got exactly one hit, which referred to the overall tone of the movie, not to the book's validity. It looks like every news organization that actually factchecks uses more muted terminology. If Wikipedia is going to accuse him of fraud, they should at least have the common courtesy to back it up with details.

Although the article is unremarkable now, it's had a entertaining and unhappy history, as these quotes I found behind the History and Discussion tabs will show:

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