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The Longest Now

Scoping human knowledge
Sunday March 14th 2010, 3:06 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

As Wikimedia moves through its movement-wide strategy process, I’ve been thinking a lot about the scope of human knowledge, how far we’ve come since we started passing on oral, then written, then digital knowledge.

A progression of awareness

Wiki project logos

Some changes have come naturally with the development of our understanding of the universe.  As we understood more about the Earth and Space, we had a framework within which to fill out detailed maps and charts and cross-sections. As we learned about the component parts of the body, we could come up with a layered anatomy.  As we improved our understanding of mathematics, music, and language, we could identify different types of each, with classes of similarity and building blocks, making more advanced knowledge possible and possible to describe succinctly.

Some knowledge (say, 3D models of the center of the Earth) consists of so many small individual pieces of information that it was hard to dream of holding it in one place, before we had computers for automation and digital databases for collation.  Other valuable knowledge has yet to be developed (say, models for the efficiency of groups of millions of people; models for a full society of physical production and industry for 15 billion people where inputs match outputs and there are no ‘externalities’ as fudge factors).

Some things which we do not currently know are hard to describe, because language about them has not yet been developed.  Some things that we know imperfectly (say, a comprehensive species survey of the planet) require millions of individual observations, but are only pursued by thousands of expert individuals.  And some things we ‘know‘ in some sense (say, the full text of every book in a nationally funded library in some country on the planet), but are unable to access that knowledge readily.  If your life depended on finding a sentence in any one of those books in a week, you probably could; but you could not [yet] discover how many of those books contain a specific string.

Divide, specialize, automate, and conquer

Now we have the power to draw on input from billions of people with little more than publicity about how to contribute.  Connection and creation are easy and enjoyable, and some aspects of organizing knowledge (search, tracking) are easy and cheap.  So: what aspects of knowledge should we improve first?

Wikipedia has done a reasonable job of capturing and providing ready access to editable summaries of notable topicsWiktionary, OmegaWiki, and now Wordnik in a different fashion, have done something similar for access to editable information about words (though of these, only Wiktionary is readily editable by anyone).  OpenStreetMap has organized a few % of the world’s road segments and features and inspired similar communities of practice.  Wikimedia Commons has organized some of the world’s best freely-licensed images, while smaller projects such as Fotopedia focus more keenly on beauty.

Freebase makes an effort to organize metadata about and links to over 10 million topics, on Wikipedia and in other publicly-readable databases, regardless of their underlying copyright.  And AboutUs has done a fair job of capturing information about internet domains. The Encyclopedia of Life and Wikispecies each aim to gather images and information about the almost 2 million known species, though neither comes close to comprehensive coverage yet.

Moving away from projects with comprehensive targets: Wikiquote offers an editable compendium of quotes, though it is less intent on being complete than some of the aforementioned projects.  Yelp efficiently covers services and businesses in a limited number of cities, and has inspired a new wave of amateur reviewers and critics.

Then there are public services that are not particularly editable or distributed; but use bots and scripts to draw from the work of millions of others; they could be the seeds of truly great collaborative efforts.   The Internet Archive specializes in these, from the Wayback Machine, which has a comprehensively amazing repository of webpages, to OpenLibrary, with metadata and basic information about a few % of the world’s published books.  And one could say that Google itself is based on the power of distributed organization of knowledge.

What comes next?

These projects cover only a small selection of the world’s knowledge, but a significant portion of the collaborative knowledge-gathering sites in the world. Shouldn’t there be hundreds or thousands of these projects?

Waray-Waray Wikipedia
Saturday March 06th 2010, 2:48 am
Filed under: international,metrics,Uncategorized

Waray-Waray Wikipedia, started in 2005, welcomed its 15,000th article recently. It had to do with Possibly The End of Life As We Know It.

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Help support Wikimedia!
Friday January 01st 2010, 7:19 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

It’s a glorious New Year!  Happy 2*3*5*67, everyone.  I’m spending the new decade in Tokyo, and love it here.  Now to find a few puzzle box craftsmen…

Meanwhile, Wikimedia is running its annual fundraising drive — please donate to support Wikipedia, Wikibooks, or your favorite wiki Project.

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My Wikimedia platform
Thursday July 30th 2009, 6:34 am
Filed under: chain-gang,international,popular demand,wikipedia

I’ve organized my thoughts about being a good Board member in my platform for the Wikimedia Board.

The most common questions I have heard since this year’s elections began are, what does the Foundation do? and what is the Board of Trustees for? I posted answers to these questions and a few more.

People also ask, how do I qualify to vote? To be eligible to vote,

  • You must have 600 edits as of June 1, and 50 within the past 6 months.
  • You may need to create a Unified Login to count edits on more than one project; or to vote from your main wiki.
  • If you are not eligible, you can still encourage fellow Wikimedians to vote, or leave suggestions for future elections

I am more intent on this year’s election than I have been in any year past – in part because the Board’s role has been shifting away from one that actively engages and challenges the community, something valuable Agnela and Anthere brought to the Board that I miss.  I am deeply concerned by the lack of community growth for the past two years, and the complete stagnation of new project development (despite the growth of new independent educational free knowledge projects that requested Wikimedia hosting). And I was just talking to my friend Bibhusan Bista, who said that there is definite interest in the Foundation in Nepal, and in contributing to Wikipedia’s spirit of openness; but of course few editors there feel they can engage in related discussions (and none, for instance, would be eligible to vote).

So I have two goals for my campaign beyond getting elected: to inspire people to vote and remind them why a good foundation matters, and to encourage them to raise community priorities and requests of the foundation, while attention is on governance over the next two weeks (and while you can get an immediate response from at least three future Board members, something often hard to come by).

My request to you, if you appreciate Wikipedia and want to see it thrive, whether or not you have the edit count needed to vote: please leave suggestions about how Wikimedia should grow, blog about the election and your reasons for caring about it, and help support the election in smaller languages and projects.

Saturday July 25th 2009, 7:38 am
Filed under: Glory, glory, glory,indescribable

For the record : I’ve found online a full set of photos of my favorite angelic work from the ^//. century – a masterfully illustrated treeware ‘pedia from a parallel dimension.  Now that I own a copy I should take proper photos, however…

Book 1Book 2

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on the future of Wikipedia
Wednesday July 22nd 2009, 12:45 pm
Filed under: international,wikipedia

A number of recent initiatives have been started to plan for the future of Wikimedia projects and of Wikipedia in particular. The Foundation has made a 12-month Strategic Planning initiative one of their top priorities for the coming year, and hired three staff and an outside consultancy for the purpose of organizing input from the communities.

On the English Wikipedia, the Arbitration Committee tried to organize a community think tank to provide research and advice on community development and long-range plans, something which is generally wanted and needed by the community, but which people didn’t like having associated with the AC. (personally I think the idea will work fine once people get rid of application processes and acceptance metrics, and simply encourage everyone to take part in a focused sort of brainstorming, in a well-ordered way.)

At the New York Wikiconference this coming weekend, a number of the talks are about planning for outreach and future chapter and project growth — something it would be good to see more of at local events and on-wiki.  And I am running for the Wikimedia Board in part to help vitalize and expand Wikipedia’s sister projects, which have never emerged from its shadow (while still promising the same sort of universal single-source for free knowledge that we would all love to see and use).

So… what would you like to see in Wikipedia’s future?  What have you been waiting to happen for years that hasn’t yet come to pass?  What would you like to see from Wikibooks, Wikiversity, Wiktionary, Wikinews, or Wikisource?  Are you still secretly hoping that Wikispecies will merge with the Encyclopedia of Life?  Do you want Wikiquote to be as popular as LyricWiki, only legal? Are you happier with Enciclopedia Libre and WikiZnanie?  Let me know.  The best ideas will be thrown up on the whiteboard at the wikiconference.

Monday July 20th 2009, 1:52 pm
Filed under: SJ,Uncategorized,wikipedia

I am running for the Board again this year, with the hope of bringing a stronger community voice to the Board, and organizing good and frequent open discussions between the Board and community about priorities, core services, new initiatives, and the like.  Angela organized a few open meetings long ago when she first joined the Board which I really appreciated, and which encouraged some previously invisible community members to come forward with good ideas.

Meanwhile, my friend Kat Walsh has not yet stood for re-election to the Wikimedia Board of Trustees, though I hope she will!

Update: she did, and she was reelected for another term!  Congratulations 🙂

She is among the last of a certain breed of board members who have been strong advocates for community involvement in key decisions, and we could use more.  The current Wikimedia Foundation is strongly in support of openness even without nagging from the Board – for instance in framing the upcoming year-long strategic planning as a process to facilitate and crystalize plans from the many communities – but without active community trustees we might no longer be so lucky a few years from now.

My official statement, and throwback to an earlier era, after the jump.


On disambiguation and The Atomization of Meaning
Thursday June 25th 2009, 7:46 pm
Filed under: Glory, glory, glory,metrics,Uncategorized,wikipedia

Disambiguate has been a somewhat obscure term for ‘specify’ for ages.  And the noun form, disambiguation, has been used even more sparingly.  At some point in the last century, perhaps in the 1950s, it became a popular term in computational linguistics.   And before that it was basically only used by one person, writing about logic and semantics in the early 19th century.  All of this sprang to my mind because of the tremendous popularity of the word in and through Wikipedia.  In the encyclopedia, it is the canonical way to describe the clarification of an ambiguous term, the indication of type used to specify the context of an article title.

Google n-grams and other public domain searches suggest disambiguation was not popular at all before the 50s.  It is used in quotes in a 1954 federal court case, expressly referencing the earlier work of the one philosopher and author who consciously used it for a specific purpose: Jeremy Bentham.  But who introduced it into the jargon of linguistics?  And to the original point, who introduced it to Wikipedia?


The word’s recent history touches on Rush, Nirvana, Invictus, Larry, and Magnus… and started with a policy page on Naming conventions/Disambiguating.


Wikipedia now incompatible with third-party GFDL text
Wednesday May 27th 2009, 8:27 am
Filed under: chain-gang,international,Uncategorized,wikipedia

The GFDL 1.3 allows collaborative sites to switch from the GFDL to CC-BY-SA 3.0 as their license, under limited circumstances.

Wikimedia has been advocating for this change for some time, and with much effort from the FSF and Creative Commons a solution was worked out last November: such a transition would be available only for massively collaborative projects, and only for a limited time.  If a project opted for this transition, it could not incorporate any new GFDL material after the release date of the new license (November 3, 2008); and it had to decide by August 1, 2009.

Given the first date, one would assume a site would want to move as quickly as possible to decide, to avoid a prolonged period when no outside material under most any free license could be incorporated.  Nevertheless, it took us over 6 months to decide to make the transition.  Now we are faced with two hurdles: ensuring that no GFDL material has been migrated into a Wikimedia project since November, and far more complex, communicating with the hundreds of smaller GFDL wikis who chose their license for compatibility with Wikipedia, to ensure they know about this change and what it means for them.  They only have until the first of August to figure it out.

So I’ve started compiling a list of GFDL wikis and other collaborative sites that have not yet indicated any awareness about the license switch or considered switching themselves.  This includes at least half of the 20 largest GFDL wikis other than Wikipedia, both major medical wikis (Medpedia and WikiDoc), PlanetMath, and the old Spanish Wikipedia fork.  Please help contact these sites and update their status on this project page: [[m:Licensing update/Outreach]]

Lead discussions about sustainable education
Thursday October 16th 2008, 10:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

A bunch of OLPCers and Sugar designers and enthusiasts have been talking about the need for broader discussions on sustainable education, social progress, and the value of one laptop per child in different walks of life. 

If these issues matter to you, please speak about them.  Lead discussions in your communities about the influence and meaning of [lower-case] olpc, and how it could be a useful tool for (or barrier to) the work of others, and to related organizations and projects.  OLPCers want to hear more from those travelling similar roads — both literally, in bringing sustainable education and poverty alleviation to rural parts of the world, and figuratively, in bringing like-minded people together to address the major inequities of our time.

What communities are you a part of where these issues matter?  Is this already being discussed?  If so, help inform people about what OLPC is doing in the field : things are changing rapidly these days, with 300,000 children 7-14 using their XOs to learn every week, and twice as many laptops at some stage of delivery.  What will this mean to  communities not yet affected?  To power, agriculture, economics, local business?
This is change the whole world will feel, and it should be addressed from all sides.  (I already feel it in the traffic distribution to my websites, to youtube videos about the project, in the language and age distribution of applications to XO software repositories).  We are tripling the installed base of Scratch.  We are doubling the number of physical offline subsets of Wikipedia in English, and increasing it by a magnitude in Spanish.  Please consider how this will affect your own work to improve equity and sustainable progress around the world, for better or for worse — and make your voice heard.

How I became a Wikipedian
Wednesday October 08th 2008, 5:37 am
Filed under: %a la mod,Glory, glory, glory,international,Uncategorized

I had forgotten the long essay I wrote about this transition here on my blog… or rather, on my first law school blog, when was new and cuddly.  My transition to the current wordpress skin made it more visible, new-found visibility online made it a repeated spam target, and I rediscovered it today.  So spam has done something good for me.  Thanks, spam king!  

For those of you who missed it the first time around in early 2004, before I knew how wikipedia works or even that it was community owned and run.  Here it is again: On Multilingual Encyclopedia and Dictionary (public domain).

How Wikipedia Works : the book
Friday September 19th 2008, 2:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

If you just want an immediate glimpse into how Wikipedia works (and you know you do), visit New Pages, Recent Changes, Articles for Deletion, and the News, and browse the Stats.

If you want a more detailed look, a handy book, and want to start contributing yourself, pick up a copy of How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part Of It.  This is a charming and helpful book by my dear friend and longtime collaborator Phoebe Ayers, in collaboration with Charles Matthews (Chris Ball’s old Go mentor) and the ever-popular Ben Yates (of Wikimania logo fame :).  Phoebe and I stayed up many nights going over the outline and deciding what should go into a book like this, and I’m thrilled to see it on the shelves.

How Wikipedia Works is the first edition of what will hopefully become a lasting tradition.  A popular, non-technical book available under a free license – that alone is unusual.   And what I look forward to more than giving it to my newbie friends (I’m looking at you, Ed) is seeing collaboration around it over time.  How Wikipedia Works will hopefully find its commentable and editable online home soon.

Production notes: Bill Pollock (who first took a chance on the idea) and Tyler Ortman at No Starch Press did a beautiful job with the final book; our office now has a copy if you want to see it.  Every year I am more impressed with their press : now that HWW is hitting the shelves, I can’t wait to see The Manga Guide to Statistics (being a long-time fan of Who is Fourier? and What is Quantum Mechanics?).

UPDATE: Amazon has copies of How Wikipedia Works for under $20.  Amazingly, someone from Livrenor already has a used copy on sale for $40 — an instant classic?! they specialize in rare and out-of-print titles; presumably this is the former: a how-to book that makes you smile!

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