The Samovar


Stats for 2008
January 2, 2009, 3:29 am
Filed under: Internet, Search Terms, WordPress | Tags: ,

In case anyone is interested, this year the most popular entries were:

  1. Make Google search in English
  2. Aubergine pasta sauce
  3. 28 points (about scrabble)
  4. Terrorism: Hysteria, Profit, Control
  5. Keeping your knife sharp

Top search terms that led people to my blog:

  1. cooking
  2. scrabble
  3. lol
  4. slave
  5. google search in english

So there you have it.



Public knowledge
December 8, 2007, 2:56 am
Filed under: Academia, Anarchism, Internet, Manifesto | Tags: , , , , , ,

Wikipedia has a very bad reputation for accuracy, and recently it’s been getting a bit of a trashing for its internal politics. Despite this, millions of people continue to use it, and I think it’s easy to see why.

Despite its problems, Wikipedia is a better resource for the public dissemination of knowledge than almost anything else out there. It can be misused by blindly relying on what is included there, but this isn’t a reason to attack Wikipedia. You just have to approach it with the right attitude: a Wikipedia article is a starting point for further research, not an end point. It’s a means for discovering new information as much as a repository of information. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of this. Discovering that certain knowledge exists is itself a very difficult and important thing to do.

Wikipedia articles are like a quick and dirty map of a knowledge space. They give you a rough idea of what something is about, even if the details may be wrong, and they suggest where you could go to find out more. As a sample, I picked the Wikipedia entry on dynamical systems more or less at random. As well as a decent length article, it has a bibliography of 17 books, including 13 serious academic books at varying levels and 4 popular mathematics books, and 22 internet links, including complete books available online, tutorials and the web pages of relevant research groups.

The nature of knowledge is that it is constantly expanding, and at the moment it is doing so at an incredible rate. Traditional repositories of knowledge like textbooks and encyclopaedias find it difficult to keep up, and are often years if not decades out of date. Wikipedia may be less authoritative than these, but it is often only days after a new discovery is made that a detailed write up is available on wikipedia with links to the original research paper for those who need more accurate information. Textbooks and printed encyclopaedias cannot compete with this.

It is interesting that much of the criticism of Wikipedia comes from those with a vested interest in doing so. The Encyclopaedia Britannica has criticised Wikipedia, and it’s obvious enough why they would do so because they’re in direct competition. But Wikipedia also gets a very bad treatment from the press, by people who are not directly in competition with it. The coverage from The Register (article linked to above) is a case in point. Their stories about Wikipedia are hostile almost to the point of absurdity.

So why is this? My feeling is that it’s because the model of public knowledge espoused by Wikipedia is a direct challenge to the elitist model of knowledge of journalists, and the reason they attack it so strongly is the same as the reason they attack blogs so strongly. Their whole reason for existence is based on the idea that they are providing something through their expertise and knowledge that cannot be obtained elsewhere (for free). If people could just directly access knowledge without going through them, why would be bother doing so? They feel their existence is threatened.

And they are right to feel that way. Wikipedia articles on new scientific discoveries are often much better researched than the write ups in newspapers, and Wikipedia authors often seem to have a better understanding of the discovery in question than the science writers in the newspaper. This shouldn’t be surprising: a newspaper typically only has one or two science writers (and they’re often failed scientists or those with only an undergraduate degree in science), whereas a Wikipedia article could be directly written by someone in that field or even by the original authors themselves. A newspaper article will never cite it’s sources because there isn’t enough space, but most Wikipedia articles do so (and those that don’t are conspicuously flagged).

Similarly, blogs often provide a much broader and more interesting range of political analysis than you find in a newspaper. One of the criticisms that traditional media such as newspapers level at blogs is that they don’t do investigative journalism, but in fact the heavy competition and diminishing revenues of traditional media mean that they are doing less investigative journalism than ever. When the US invaded Iraq, the traditional media were telling us how great everything was because their information was all coming through the filter of the military forces. On the other hand, Iraqi blogs gave a much broader picture.

Getting back to Wikipedia, the journalists and others would be right to criticise Wikipedia if the point of it was to provide an authoritative reference point for factual information. But this really shouldn’t be the point, and the criticism is fundamentally based on an inaccurate picture of the nature of knowledge. Truly authoritative knowledge is very rare. Anyone relying on a single source, however authoritative that source is, is making a serious error. Wikipedia shouldn’t be relied on in this way, but neither should an Encyclopaedia Brittanica entry or even a scientific textbook (and certainly not a newspaper article!). The critics cannot understand this point, or cannot concede it, because their view of themselves is that they are this sort of authority, and so they cannot comprehend the suggestion that this sort of authority is not needed.

So in defending Wikipedia from its critics, I am not – as they might imagine – denying the need for expertise, but attacking the false and elitist nature of expertise that they represent, and defending a view of knowledge that is inherently diverse.

As a postscript, a very interesting project is Scholarpedia. It is inspired by Wikipedia, but has a different balance of openness and expertise by essentially restricting editing rights to academics, with the level of control increasing with scientific status. As the front page of Scholarpedia states, “The approach of Scholarpedia does not compete with, but rather complements that of Wikipedia” (my emphasis). Scholarpedia is a recognition that both expertise and the dynamic, open approach of Wikipedia are important. At the moment, Scholarpedia is restricted to articles about theoretical and computational neuroscience, some mathematical fields, and astrophysics, but it will grow.



Make Google search in English (or any other language you like)
September 24, 2007, 10:13 pm
Filed under: Internet | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Just a little tech tip that might be useful. If you have found yourself in a country where you don’t speak the language particularly well, you may find that searching in Firefox is less helpful than it could be because google.com automatically redirects you to the local version of Google for the country you’re in. Well, there’s an easy way to fix it, and a hard way. This entry is about the hard way. Go to the folder where Firefox is saved (on Windows, that’s C:\Program Files\Mozilla Firefox) then open the searchplugins folder. Edit the file google.xml using Wordpad. Just under the line where it says:

<Param name=”q” value=”{searchTerms}”/>

Insert the line:

<Param name=”hl” value=”en”/>

Restart Firefox and from now on searches will come up with results in English. You could change “en” to the language code for any language you like.

The less paranoid among you will have just allowed Google to save cookies on your computer and set your language preference yourself. I pity the fools!



loldeathcat
July 26, 2007, 4:07 pm
Filed under: Frivolity, Internet

The news from the BBC (via azahar) that…

A US cat that is reportedly able to sense when a nursing home’s residents are about to die is baffling doctors.

Oscar has a habit of curling up next to patients at the home in Providence, Rhode Island, in their final hours.

According to the author of a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, the two-year-old cat has been observed to be correct in 25 cases so far.

… immediately made me want to fire up my copy of Photoshop and get to work, but I did a quick search and sadly someone else got there first:

deathcat.jpg

Still – I think we can come up with a better caption than that. Any suggestions?



Google worms its way into universities
June 12, 2007, 4:05 am
Filed under: Business, Civil Liberties, Internet, Politics, Surveillance Society

The BBC reports that Trinity College Dublin has switched its internal email system over to Google, and other universities are thinking of doing the same thing. Addresses and domain names will look the same but Google is running it behind the scenes. In the light of Google’s privacy policy recently being ranked among the worst, this raises some serious questions:

  • Will students be able to opt out of this service?
  • Will students data held by the university be given to Google as part of the deal?
  • If so, how much of it?
  • Will students get targeted advertising while at university?
  • What is the value to Google in advertising revenue of this captive audience?
  • What is the cost for the university of running its own email system?
  • What are the implications of having the university part funded by advertising?
  • Will staff email also run on Google’s systems?
  • How would we feel about schools and other public sector organisations making arrangements like this with Google?

For background on my concerns about companies holding enormous amounts of data on everyone, see my previous entry on social sorting and the surveillance society.

See also this article in Trinity’s student newspaper.



More searches
May 25, 2007, 1:41 pm
Filed under: Search Terms

These just get madder and madder…

  • green asparagus extreme cooking  -oh my god! Extreme cooking! That is do damn cool.
  • bananas and nervous system – apparently if you eat too many bananas the build-up of potassium can be lethal (note: may be an urban myth), and potassium is an important chemical in the nervous system. No idea if these have anything to do with each other.
  • “eating alone” in “the fat duck” – don’t do it! Take a friend.
  • samovar brainwave decrappification – erm?
  • what are some shortcomings of capitalism – I could say a lot about this. Instead, I’ll just direct you to Znet.
  • human meat substitute – OK I wrote that entry as a joke people!


A week in searching
May 16, 2007, 2:30 am
Filed under: Frivolity, Search Terms

It’s been a good week, people have got to my blog by searching for:

  • “drinking gravy” – lots of advice here about that, highly recommended
  • What does our cake is dough mean? – something about a plan going wrong?
  • how does one spell 12th in Mathematics – twelfth, same as everywhere else. Odd though, I agree
  • pigeon war – it’s more of a cold war at the moment, but we’ve got the pelicans on our side
  • photo knife stomach – disturbing, I hope they didn’t find what they were looking for
  • bonobo nervous system – Ed? This one seems to be about you
  • how to improve the nervous system – optimistic, but I’m working on it
  • poems on discrimination based on religion – I have no idea

But best of all was:

  • is it ok to eat rat meat – I think probably yes if you feel like it, but please see the comments on the meat sack entry
Comments Off on A week in searching