General Archive

Monday, February 21, 2011

In Defense of Wikipedia

Wikipedia LogoThe other day talking to my daughter, she asked me about something I didn't know the answer to. So, I told her I was going to look it up on Wikipedia. She instantly told me I shouldn't do that, because you can't trust Wikipedia. Her teachers had told her so. So, after a little back and forth, I told her I'd give her some information she could take to her teachers to show them that Wikipedia wasn't so bad. What I wrote was largely recycling of a comment I left in the entry, Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?, but cleaned up a bit. I figured that I'd repost that cleaned up version here in its own entry.

Wikipedia, for anyone unfamiliar with it, is an online encyclopedia. Its unique characteristic is that it’s open to be edited by anybody. This open policy certainly raises suspicions about its quality. However, in practice, it ends up being fairly reliable.

There was a study conducted by Nature in 2005, comparing Wikipedia to Encyclopædia Britannica Online. While Wikipedia was a little less accurate, it wasn't even by an order of magnitude. You have to have a subscription to Nature or pay $32 to read the original article, but cnet has a summary. Nature chose several topics at random, and asked experts to review the Britannica and Nature articles on those topics. Here's how cnet summarized the findings.

In the end, the journal found just eight serious errors, such as general misunderstandings of vital concepts, in the articles. Of those, four came from each site. They did, however, discover a series of factual errors, omissions or misleading statements. All told, Wikipedia had 162 such problems, while Britannica had 123.

That averages out to 2.92 mistakes per article for Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia.

Not surprisingly, considering that Britannica makes money by selling encyclopedias, they contested the study. Nature, for its part, has responded to Britannica's criticisms. You can read Britannica's criticisms and Nature's response by going to Nature's page for the article (unlike the original article, those portions are free).

One common complaint I’ve heard regarding Wikipedia is the problem of referencing it as a source when it's constantly changing. In fact, you can reference static versions of pages that will never change. You simply go to the ‘Toolbox’ section in the left hand column of an article, and choose ‘Permanent Link’. This allows one to see exactly what version of a page someone was using as a source. Here’s an example:

Wikipedia is also much better about referencing and citations than it was in its early days. You can scroll to the bottom of an article and go to the original sources yourself, if so inclined. If you're planning on doing in depth analysis of a topic, Wikipedia can be a good starting point for this reason.

Wikipedia does share one problem with information sources in general – they all contain mistakes. There's no simple way to get 100% accurate information. It's up to every individual to evaluate information from any given source, and compare it to other sources. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I like Wikipedia. Conventional print encyclopedias have a hidden editorial process. Wikipedia puts it out there in the open, making it easier to evaluate information on the more controversial topics.

In my own personal experience, I've found Wikipedia to be pretty reliable, especially on non-controversial or apolitical topics. The revision history and links to sources make it easier to evaluate the reliability of the content. Wikipedia is usually the first place I go to when researching a topic I’m not already familiar with.

Friday, February 4, 2011

What Are the Odds

BingoThis isn't the type of story I usually tell on this blog, but it was too good to pass up. It happened to a couple of friends of mine. I've changed the names of those involved, but everything else happened just like I've told it (or, as accurately as I comprehended and retold it).

Bob and Mary have been having a lot of problems recently - burglaries, harassing phone calls, identity theft, having utilities shut off, etc. They couldn't figure out who they might have pissed off to harass them so much. They've finally figured out who was doing it.

Mary's last name is Smith. There just happens to be a Marianne Smith living nearby who also goes by Mary. Bob and Mary owned a green Windstar minivan. Marianne had been dating some guy who had a green Windstar minivan. This guy left Marianne for Angela Jackson for a while, and then left Angela to go back to Marianne. Angela was none too happy about losing this guy, so she started harassing Marianne. It was bad enough that Marianne moved twice trying to get away from this lady. Well, I guess that after Marianne's latest move, Angela found a house with a green Windstar minivan in the driveway that belonged to Mary Smith, and figured she'd found Marianne, and that's when all the trouble started for Bob and Mary.

They finally got it all figured out when Mary learned that someone at the casino was winning jackpots in her name. After the casino looked into it, they realized that their system was confusing her with Marianne Smith, probably because Marianne hadn't given them her SSN. Anyway, once they realized the mixup and talked to Marianne, Bob and Mary got the full story. Apparently, Marianne even got a phone call asking her if she was going to miss her laptop, right after Bob and Mary's had been stolen. It also looks like Angela was the one responsible for their identity theft, thinking she was stealing from Marianne.

So, this Angela finally got caught going too far. It seems she went to a bar looking for Marianne, and was arrested and charged with aggravated assault. She's looking at 20 years. Even with parole, she won't be able to bother anyone for a while.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


iPhoneWell, I finally upgraded my phone. I was extremely happy with my old phone when I first got it, but technology has advanced quite a bit in that time. So, my wife and I decided to get each other early Christmas presents. We'd already pretty much decided to stick with AT&T (I won't get into the details of that decision). So, my debate was over the iPhone 4 (which I've blogged about previously) or one of the Android phones. I played around with all of them at the store, and they seemed really close in capabilities, so I decided to just go with the one that most of my friends already had so that I could ask them how to use it - the iPhone.

So far, I really like it. It does a lot of things really well. I browse the web a lot more than I ever did on my old phone, and the games are more fun, too. But it's definitely not perfect. And, since this is my blog, it's my duty to gripe about it here. Granted, I knew about some of these issues before getting the phone, and some I would have realized if I'd given it a bit of thought, but they're things Apple could change to make the phone even better.

Hardware Issues

  1. No Keyboard I really hate typing on the iPhone. Touch screen keyboards don't have any tactile feedback, so you have to go really slowly to make sure you position your fingers just right before pressing the screen (and the autocorrect is no help – it changes things I meant to type more often than it fixes mistakes). I don't know how easy it would be to make an iPhone available with a keyboard, but I'd definitely have bought that one if they'd offered it as an option.
  2. No Stylus It's nice that Apple made the iPhone to be able to do so much with just your fingers, but every once in a while, fingers are just too bulky. Even if you're not going to include an actual stylus with the phone, at least make the screen sensitive to where I can use my own stylus (which was usually the back of my mechanical pencil with the Tilt).
  3. No Phone Button This is a phone. Give me a button that I can press that takes me directly to the phone function without having to go through all the menus to get there, and that I can just tap again to call the last number dialed. Every phone I had before the iPhone did that. It's such a simple thing, and lets me dial my wife while I'm driving without having to take my eyes off the road. Another button to cycle through a quick-dial would be nice, too. For a cell phone that people will use while driving, you really should be able to dial common numbers by feel without having to look at the phone.
  4. #*&! Proprietary Plug The universal serial bus was designed more than a decade ago. Practically every device I buy for my computer now hooks up through one of the standard USB plugs. Except the iPhone. Apparently, Apple thinks they're too good to follow industry standards. So if I ever lose the damn cable to hook up the phone to my computer, I have to go buy a new one from Apple, instead of just grabbing one of the regular USB cables I have lying around.

Software Issues

  1. iTunes Practically every other device I own, I can just plug into my computer, and Windows treats it like a removeable drive, from camcorders to other phones to the Kindle. I use the standard Windows interface to just drag and drop files between the device and the computer. Apple forces me to use a bloated media player (that I don't use for anything else except occasionally buying music, then immediately burning it to a CD that I can rip with Media Player), that doesn't even run properly on my work computer because they don't support XP 64.
  2. No Real WMA Support I have a pretty sizeable music collection - around 10 GB worth. I'm sure other people have more, but that's still a decent chunk out of my hard drive. Most of that is in wma format, from when I ripped my CD collection onto my computer. But the iPhone doesn't play wma files. iTunes can convert wma files to a format the phone can use, but that basically doubles the size of my music library on my hard drive. Plus, it means a second round of compression, resulting in a loss of quality. It shouldn’t be hard to play wma files – the CD player I got for my RX-7 seven years ago could do it.
  3. No Auto-Complete when Dialing This is such a simple thing to do. My three year old Tilt did it. When I start dialing a number, the phone should give me a list of numbers that could be the one I'm dialing, sorted by how often I call them. It's so much quicker to just type in a couple numbers and then pick the autocomplete, than to go to the contacts folder and search for the person I want to call.
  4. No Arrow Keys It's bad enough typing without a real keyboard, but Apple doesn't even provide arrow keys on the soft keyboard. Just imagine that you're well into a text message, when you notice a mistake back towards the beginning. Remember my complaint about not having a stylus? It's a pain to try to 'click' onto the right spot with a fingertip to put the cursor where you want to make the change (the magnifying glass makes it a little better, but it's still cumbersome). Four little arrow keys would make revising text so much easier.

Social Issues

  1. Apple's just really not all that nice of a company. From their lack of charitable contributions, to their overreaction to leaks, to their censorship of apps, to their sneaky installation of software, Apple's a pretty sleazy company. Now, I know that a lot of companies are sleazy to some level - it just goes along with capitalism - but Apple seems particularly bad. Here are a few articles to give you an idea of just how bad.

So, after a few weeks with the phone, those are my biggest complaints. Maybe I'll find work-arounds for some of these issues as I use the phone more, and maybe I'll get more accustomed to things like the touch screen keyboard. On the other hand, I may find more things to complain about.

Remember, though, that this was a one sided review. I really do like the phone, and I use it a lot. However, when it comes time to upgrade again in another few years, I'm sure there will be a phone that fixes all these problems (well, at least the hardware and software issues), and that's the one I'll probably buy. If they're smart, Apple will make sure it's their's.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

5 Years of Blogging

5th Blog BirthdayToday marks the 5th anniversary of this blog. It's hard to believe I've been doing it this long, and writing something new most those many weeks. So, I think I'll take a moment and reflect on the last half decade.

The blog has definitely grown to more than what I'd thought it was going to be. I'd originally intended for it to be a place where I could post short entries without doing any real research on what I was writing about, a place to rant and rave without soiling my main site, which I'd intended to keep updating regularly. It hasn't really worked out that way. The blog has pretty much taken over the site. My entries range from the short rants I'd originally intended, to multi-page, well researched articles. Now I'm doing good if I update the old static portion of this site once per year. (It's official - my blog is more important than my static pages. The Google PageRank for the home page of the static site is 3, while the PageRank for the blog home page is 4.)

If there's one overarching theme that I think I've focused on the most, I'd have to say that it's skepticism. Whether discussing religion, politics, or debunking urban legends, my main focus has been trying to determine the truth about those issues. I haven't been entirely dispassionate, but I haven't really ranted and raved as much as I'd expected I was going to (maybe that's why my blog isn't as popular as certain other sites, or, at least, that's what I'll keep telling myself).

If I may say so, I think the weekly practice has improved my writing somewhat. I'm still a little rushed posting some entries, so there are still plenty of typos and places where my wording could have been better. But looking back over some of my older entries, I see a lot of places where I'd change them if I were to post them today.

Actually, looking over the past entries, I'm a little surprised at the quantity of output. I thought it might be kind of neat to throw together a compendium of all my entries and publish it through Lulu (even if noone else wanted to buy it, at least I'd have a nice printed and bound copy). So, I started copying and pasting all of my entries into a book, and it ended up being over 800 pages long (10 point Times New Roman on 5.5" x 8.5" pages with 0.5" margins). Granted, some of that is comments left by others, but I hadn't realized I'd written so much.

So, let's do some quick tallies. My total number of blog entries (excluding this one) is 332. As of today, I've received 351 legitimate comments and 1 legitimate trackback (assuming I haven't missed deleting any spam). Someone like PZ Myers may post more entries than that in a single month, and get more comments than that for a single entry, but I'm pretty happy with it. I still get excited every time I get an e-mail telling me that a new comment's been posted (though with the amount of spam comments, I don't get super excited until I can tell the comment's legitimate). I even have at least one semi-regular reader who's not my mom.

I suppose I ought to list a few highlights from the past five years worth of entries. So, in chronological order, here are a few posts that either I like quite a bit myself, or that have gotten quite a bit of traffic (or both).

As to where the blog's going in the future, I think I've pretty much found my rhythm, so I don't expect there to be much change. I'll keep on looking skeptically at religion, debunking urban legends, and spending more time than I should on the creation/evolution controversy. Hopefully I'll come up with some new posts that can educate some people, and maybe if I'm lucky, I'll even pick up a few more regulars.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I Hate Black Friday

TurkeyI hate Black Friday. It ruins a good holiday, and contributes to the crass commercialization of another.

Thanksgiving Day should be a day to pause and reflect on all that's good in your life, to take a day to appreciate what you have. It's a day to be with your family. You should be able to stay up to the wee hours of the morning talking and reminiscing.

Thanksgiving Day should not be the eve of a shopping spree. We shouldn't worry about cutting Thanksgiving short so that we can wake up early enough to go buy that new plasma TV, or spend Thanksgiving night waiting in line. Or even worse, as happened to us this year, we shouldn't skip visiting family because the stores in their town don't have as good of sales as the stores in another town.

I don't foresee there being any change to Black Friday anytime soon, but damn I wish it would just go away.

Oh well, enough complaining. I'll spend some time reflecting tomorrow, and I will enjoy the time I'll spend with my family and friends.


Selling Out