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Wikipedia vs Encyclopedia: The Search for Truth – Weekly #7

March 30, 2010

Is Wikipedia Reliable?

If You’re The Republic of India, in a word, no.

The Supreme Court of India held in a recent  judgment that:

“We have referred to Wikipedia, as the learned Counsel for the parties relied thereupon. It is an online encyclopedia and information can be entered therein by any person and as such it may not be authentic.”

From this we learn not to get legal advice from Wikipedia, or hire anyone who would.

But on matters outside the court, the question of Wikipedia’s reliability is more complex.

Before delving into a real answer to whether or not Wikipedia is a trustworthy source, it is important to lay out The Research Commandment.

When your research is important, and you are going to cite it, use it in a business decision, or even repeat it at a dinner party without looking foolish, it is always best to follow the Research Commandment:

It is never a good idea to trust information from a sole source. It is better to confirm the research from multiple points.

So, can Wikipedia be trusted?

The short answer on Wikipedia is this: for some subjects, the published encyclopedia will have more accurate information – especially academic subjects. However, for business and technological subjects, Wikipedia is your best bet.

Why would Wikipedia do better in these instances?

For two reasons:

  1. Technology moves fast; often, it moves faster than a printed publication can keep up with. A published encyclopedia will not have tech data as current as Wikipedia. For example, Wikipedia currently not only has a wiki for Twitter, but has a sub-section on how Twitter is used for charitable giving. This new use is a very recent development in the microblogging world, spurred primarily by the earthquake in Haiti. A published encyclopedia may not even have a Twitter entry, and if they do, it will certainly not include information on how the service has been used for charitable giving. So, if Facebook implodes look to Wikipedia for the latest and greatest information.
  2. Technological people like writing about technology: and they know a lot about it! Many people who are actively contributing to Wikipedia are technologically savvy individuals who are interested in tech and business news and developments and who are knowledgeable about these subjects. How do we know? By the fact that they are online creating and editing Wikipedia pages. This is not to say that everyone who contributes to Wikipedia falls into this demographic, but the statistic is skewed by the fact that you need to know basic HTML to do these tasks.

For scholarly work that needs to be cited, for a paper or an assignment at work, a published encyclopedia is a better source of information. Why?  Encyclopedias work with thousands of contributors and advisers around the world who are all paid scholars and experts. This does not mean that encyclopedias are without error, which points us back to our Research Commandment (multiple search points for information!). But, it does mean that the information is more likely to be accurate because Wikipedia is open to anonymous and collaborative editing.

What about those studies about how Wikipedia and Encyclopedias are basically the same?

Scientific journal Nature reported in 2005 that for scientific articles Wikipedia came close to the level of accuracy in Encyclopedia Britannica. However, this “study” was very shoddily done. According to Nature’s description of the study, 42 pairs of articles on scientific subjects, from the Britannica and Wikipedia respectively, were reviewed by outside experts, mainly academic scientists. Reviewers “were asked to look for three types of inaccuracy: factual errors, critical omissions and misleading statements.

Yet, one Nature reviewer was sent only the 350-word introduction to Encyclopedia Britannica’s 6,000-word article on lipids to compare to Wikipedia’s entry, and another received an article titled “ethanol” not from the Encyclopedia Britannica but from Britannica Student Encyclopedia, a basic book for kids.

Wikipedia is the fist one to tell readers to fact-check information found on its site, in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has no sympathy for college students who failed on papers because they cited Wikipedia.

Which leads us back to the Research Commandment: whether you are looking something up on Wikipedia or on an Encyclopedia, find multiple access points for the information. Wikipedia does a good job of sourcing facts at the bottom of the articles – most in hyperlink form. Before citing or repeating a fact, click on that link and read about it for yourself from the source.

Double-checking is never a bad way to go!


Gaming – Weekly #6

March 24, 2010

Persuasive Games

There are two general rules of thumb to engage and motivate people:

  1. Make it personal
  2. Make it fun

Gaming accomplishes both of these: it creates a user-defined space that is personal for each interaction, and (if it is a well made game) it is fun to play. Gaming can reach people on a level that a PowerPoint or lecture may not because as a medium, it is disarming: it harkens back to childhood and returns the user to a more trusting and honest state. In a game setting, a user will most likely feel more relaxed, and therefore, more receptive. This is an excellent atmosphere for persuasion. The aptly named Persuasive Games has a list of hot-button issue based games that are intended to make the user think differently about a particular issue. The games that are platform based, that is, they do not have to be downloaded onto a computer but can be played streaming from the web, are most effective.

Gaming should be fun, and not carry the stresses of installation, possible malware threats, and hard drive overages. It is best when it is commitment free.

I tried a few of these platform games and found them entertaining and provocative. “Windfall” is a strategy game about building wind farms to create clean energy profitably. Gamers conduct research and build wind turbines while avoiding upsetting the local citizens by building turbines in undesirable places as nobody wants to have a big, ugly wind turbine in their back yard. The game is simple enough and demonstrates the problem of finding high-wind areas that can be connected by power lines to turbines while not interfering with the natural environment and landscape.

A second game, Debt Ski is intended to spotlight the dangers of excessive debt, challenge young people to avoid destructive financial behavior, and spur fiscally responsible action. In this game, a pig on a jet ski attempts to gather gold coins while confronting materialistic purchases. I think the best aspect of this game is the fact that the “Happiness” of the player is tied to his/her fiscal solvency and not the amount of “stuff” he/she has amassed. This concept is almost counter-cultural today, and considering the financial crisis of our times, it is a refreshing departure from the More is Better mantra.

While I appreciate and applaud the gaming industry for using games as a teaching tool to persuade and educate, I cannot help but feel unsettled about gaming institutions such as The Sims and Second Life where players spend vast amounts of time in virtual reality. I find myself asking many of the same questions as Josh Levy: Would time and energy spent in Second Life be better used to make something happen in the real world? More subtly, can the cathartic experience of “visiting” a Second Life exhibition on an issue (Josh goes to a Darfur education display as an example) actually make people FEEL as though they’ve already done something substantive and end up making them less likely to take real-world political action?

Entertainment is great because it is…entertaining! But – at the same time, if we are using entertainment as an escape from our lives, shouldn’t that be an indicator that instead of more entertainment, we need to focus more on our real lives (so we don’t feel like we need to escape them)? I have never been one for video games – I have a hand injury that makes holding a controller or even manipulating a mouse for long periods of time very difficult – but my “escapism” tendency has always been books and film. Some books and film are didactic and mind expanding – totally worthy stuff! Some books and film are not. When I feel myself craving chick-flicks and chick-lit (yes, Confessions of a Shopaholic I’m talking to you), I know that it’s pure entertainment escapism I’m after.

In these times, if I really think about it, usually there is something going on in my REAL life that I would rather not deal with – some emotional issue I don’t want to face, a tangible pile of dishes or unwashed laundry, a difficult decision or project I don’t want to tackle. And when I really think about it, the times when my cravings for entertainment-escapism are highest are when my real life needs me the most. Even though I may not like it, anything that takes me away from what is really going on is wasted time – because let’s face it, we live in a broken world, there is enough REALLY going on to occupy us for the rest of our life times and many to come.

Just here in DC, there are huge problems with homelessness, hunger, crime and poverty, domestic abuse, child welfare – I could go on … And in my life, I’ve got taxes to file, bills to pay, meals to prepare, dishes to clean, clothes to launder, pictures to hang, furniture to re-arrange, plants to water, papers to write, Church to attend, pets to feed, doctors appointments to manage, and I’m sure you have list that is similar (if not much longer!). I’ve decided when my FIRST Life is perfect, then I think I’ll embark on Second Life, until then, I’ve got a lot of work to do!

Should We Be Afraid of Google? – Weekly #5

March 24, 2010

Google Domination: Should We Be Afraid of Google?

“The perfect search engine,” says co-founder Larry Page, “would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want.” When Google began, you would have been pleasantly surprised to enter a search query and immediately find the right answer. Google became successful precisely because we were better and faster at finding the right answer than other search engines at the time.

However, with being the best, and the biggest, comes a lot of strings.

Google collects a ton of information. However, it also does a lot to protect user privacy. For me, the question is not so much should I be afraid of Google, more aptly, does it make sense to be afraid of Google.

And that is more easily answered: No.

Even if Google is The Evil Empire, there is not a whole lot I can do about it.

Therefore, it does not make much sense to fear them because it is out of my control. Besides, I don’t make it a point to go around being afraid of everything.

Right now, what does make sense is to benefit from Google’s innovations and be sensible about what information I put online. I use Google for a variety of things, mainly gmail and as a search engine.

It is unreasonable to think that something sent in an email is private: It is not.

When emailing, it is good to think “What if this were forwarded to everyone I know?”

If that idea scares me, I generally do not send the email.

As far as Search goes, Google randomizes search results to protect the user, so I feel fairly protected there. Should they change their policy, I don’t know that I would much care – I am not searching things that are so insidious I would be afraid of a corporation knowing about them.

The one thing about Google that does give me pause is its size and its dominance. I am a fan of checks and balances. There does not seem to be too much out there that can “check” Google’s activities.

One would hope that as their corporate motto revolves around doing “No Evil” the employees themselves would be safeguard.

Here’s to hope.

Good Move Sarah Palin, Now You’ve Offended the Conservatives! -Personal #3

March 9, 2010



Sarah Palin recently alleged that her now infamous hand-writing episode was all in good fun because God writes things on His hands too! This creative blame-shifting is a new low for Alaska’s former governor and one time vice-presidential hopeful. Palin deftly equated herself with Christ and blamed her bad behavior on God – all in one interview! These decidedly un-Christian characteristics will no doubt offend many Conservatives. Palin’s poor judgment and total inability to take responsibility for her actions do not bode well for a future in leadership.

I don’t usually get into the political fracas, but Isaiah 49:16 happens to be one of my favorite verses. To give it some context, it reads:

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?

Though she may forget,

I [God] will not forget you [Israel, My Chosen People]!

See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;”

In this verse, God is talking about the Nation of Israel. They have not been “perfect children” – in fact, they have worshiped false gods, sinned in all kinds of ways, all but forgotten the Covenant their ancestors made with the true God to protect and provide for them.

In this verse, God is saying, “I know you have walked away from me – but I will NEVER walk away from you. No matter what”

These verses, Isaiah 49:15-16 are two things:

  1. A declaration of the furious longing God has for His people – the Israelites, and now his “adopted” sons and daughters anyone who professes Christian faith today – and the Covenant He has made with them which cannot be broken. It’s a reminder of how much God loves His children – more than a parent, more than a mother – more than a human can comprehend.
  2. This is one of those prophetic verses from the Old Testament that foretells the coming of Christ. When it says, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands,” for me, that means the engraving of the cross.

God is not “writing” down people’s names so He remembers them.

This verse does not refer to an Eternal Cheat Sheet, but rather a permanent marking that Christ took on His hands in order to take our sins away from us and back to Hell were they belong.

Isaiah 49:16  is not only a reminder that Jesus loved me enough to put holes through His hands, but that this plan of sacrifice was put in motion from the beginning of time.

So, unless Sarah Palin has 9 inch iron nails coming out of her hands and has recently given her sinless life as a sacrifice for the salvation of others, I don’t think she should be claiming justification from this verse.

Palin’s use of this particular verse – one so imbued with real meaning for many people, to cover up a blunder, I find really offensive.

I didn’t like Sarah Palin too much before this debacle, mostly on intellectual grounds, but this feels different.

To me, this shows that she doesn’t understand the very things she purportedly stands for: a Christian ethic and personal responsibility.

Sarah Palin seems to have failed on these counts, and they are the very tenants of the “Tea Party” movement she is helping to bolster.

Equating yourself with Christ, or using God as an excuse for your behaviors is never a good idea.

Not taking personal responsibility to acknowledge your limitations and live up to your own mistakes is out of step with what Sarah Palin is pushing at  her tea party rallies.

So, shame on you, Sarah Palin – I don’t care if Russian politics confuse you, or are unable to identify Nicholas Sarkozy on the phone, or if Katie Couric’s queries stop you dead in your tracks, but I do care if you can’t even live up to the very ethics you are promoting to others.

I think that strikes a chord in everyone, regardless of religion.

Elizabeth Cooks, Eats, Reviews – Weekly #4

March 3, 2010

My Favorite Pot For Cooking

One topic I always search for online is food, food products, recipes, restaurants, restaurant reviews – are you seeing a pattern here?

If it has to do with eating, I’m probably reading it. There are two segments of this vast genre that interest me most:

  1. What is the best of the best and where can I get it (or how can I make it at home)?
  2. How are we raising our social consciousness about what we eat? Is this food local, sustainable, humanely raised etc?

These two topics are, not surprisingly, often intertwined. The best of the best is often what is organic and local to you – because food that is grown for endurance rather than taste, well, tastes like it has been grown for endurance rather than taste. If a tomato or cucumber has been sitting in a truck for two weeks, and has been bred to take the haul, it’s not going to be great eats. That local heirloom produce at the farmer’s market will not only be packed with many more vitamins and nutrients than SuperStore USA‘s version, but it will actually taste good.

The ridiculously named Blog Carnival really has no part in this community – as seen here, all of the  Blog Carnivals listed on their site under the genre “Food” are discontinued, except one hold out: “Everything About Kosher food” which is admittedly a little too niche for me as I do love the Jews, but cannot count myself in their number.

Instead, readers flock to sites such as Epicurious for peer-reviewed recipes and Chowhound for advice and discussion on the popular message boards.

Zagat is invaluable for restaurant reviews, but you’ll need a paid account, or the log in and password of someone who has a paid account (worth it!). Menupages is great in New York, but DCers tend to rely on UrbanSpoon and Yelp to guide them through their adventures in gastronomy.

I have to say, I find the DC restaurant scene lacking in some ways. I know I came from the culinary epicenter of America (sorry San Francisco!), but I guess I expected a bit more from the Nation’s Capital.

However, all is not lost – there are a few places here I visit often and I would recommend, some with caveats, some whole-heartedly.

Here are some tips for one of my current favorite restaurants here in the DC area: Central by Michel Richard

This restaurant gets it right all around. The ambiance is a terrific mix of upscale but not too stuffy, the lighting is excellent, it is fun and lively without being so noisy that you cannot hear your dinner partner. That being said, I always request a booth – don’t sit at a table in the middle of the room if you can avoid it: there is a lot of action going on, and you’ll have a better vantage point to observe it without being overwhelmed by it from the booth perspective.

Central starts things off right with warm freshly baked bread with an excellent crust. Don’t bother ordering the gougères (cheesy choux pastry puffs), because the bread is better. For appetizers, don’t miss the French onion soup which is quite frankly the best I think I’ve had (and I don’t even LIKE French onion soup that much). Other stand-outs are the steak tartar – probably the best in DC for quality and cut, and the frisee salad. One thing to note is when they serve the steak tartar, it comes with a parmesan tulle on top. After ordering this dish many times, in mixed company, the consensus is that although this fried parmesan is pretty, it is really not edible. Crisping the cheese brings out an acrid almost bitter taste that is awful alone and certainly does not compliment the raw beef in any way. So, discard the artfully placed parmesan and dig into your unadorned raw beef – I like to order it with fries and then use them to “scoop” the tartar.

The mains at Central are hugely portioned and full of flavor. It took me three months to figure out how to re-create the gravy that came with my roast chicken, and when I finally did make it, my husband had to stop me from literally ladling it straight into my mouth – it is that good. The steaks are very good as well, as are the fish dishes. I would actually advise against ordering the steak tartar as a main course and only order it as an appetizer, because really, I don’t think anyone can eat that much raw meat in one sitting (I tried, and failed, and you can’t take that kind of thing home with you in a to-go bag).

If you are up for it, please order a burger. When I first went to Central, I had probably not had a hamburger in about a decade. I ascribe to the ‘If I’m going to eat red meat, it’s going to be a steak, thank-you-very-much’ philosophy. However, my husband likes burgers and ordered one – then was raving about it so much I had to try it. The Central burger had me at first bite. Central makes the buns in house, from brioche bread- buttery and fresh.  The meat is delicious, and they put these crunchy onions on that are texturally phenomenal. I am officially a burger convert thanks to Central.

For dessert – if you have saved room for dessert – the chocolate desserts are nice, but typical. To be honest, my last latte was a bit lacking, not up to specialty coffee-house standards. You might want to have the coffee instead, it’s excellent.


1001 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

(at 10th St)

Washington, DC 20004

CNN Attempts to Mislead Readers – Personal #2

February 27, 2010

CNN Broken News

CNN flagrantly displays its liberal bias again this week with an article that is so misleadingly titled it just might be the worst case of false advertising since The Neverending Story.

The article, by Elizabeth Landau, relays that liberalism and atheism are linked to a higher IQ.

In the article, scientists performed a study in which they labeled the individuals as “liberals” or “conservatives.” Unfortunately, these labels were completely made up: they might as well have called their groups “Bunnyrabbits” and “Trashmongers”

The study claims that for their purposes, “Liberals are more likely to be concerned about total strangers; conservatives are likely to be concerned with people they associate with.”

This is not only a dangerous alternate use of terms that are associated with political parties in the US, it smacks of deliberate bias against Conservatives (in the mainstream usage).

By repurposing a common word for your own usage and then imbuing it with negative meanings, you are transferring connotations of those meanings to the traditional usage.

Repurposing words with positive connotations as the article has done with “liberal” attempts to skew favor towards the traditional meaning of the word. Likewise, repurposing “conservative” in a negative light casts aspersions on the generally accepted and commonly used Conservative party/movement.

Additionally, in the article evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa says, “It’s unnatural for humans to be concerned about total strangers.” This is one of the key reasons why religion is so important: human nature is not that great all by itself! We are “naturally” at best selfish and petty, and at our worst cruel and disinterested. However, by the grace of God, we all have the ability to transcend human nature and be the people we want to be: unselfish, loving, peaceful, kind. This is not by our strength or our IQ, but God’s intervention. I would like to note that I am speaking of religion in the Judeo-Christian ethic – and also that a close and careful reading of the Bible shows us a God who eschews fundamentalism and hate in all forms. Religion helps us look outside of ourselves and care about other people, even if it is “unnatural.”

Regardless of IQ, atheism ultimately leaves us at the mercy of our imperfect human nature, and I think that just might be trend that’s detrimental to our planet, our culture, and finally, ourselves.

Social (Media) Contract – Weekly #3

February 24, 2010

The Social (Media) Contract

We can learn a lot from our Frenchy friends about getting along and working together. This amitié can be attributed in part to the strong foundation of social agreement set in French history, notably Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Du contrat social (1762).

Rousseau’s The Social Contract is based on the idea of popular sovereignty – which is just a fancy way of saying that the populous – you and me – have the power and the authority.

In a Rousseauian Social Contract citizens must, in at least some circumstances, be able to choose the fundamental rules by which they would live, and be able to revise those rules on later occasions if they choose to do so.

Basically, everyone in a society comes together and decides the rules they want live under by a “general will.” Popular sovereignty decides what is good for society as a whole, and the individual must follow those laws.

Because laws are decided by everyone, they are not really a limitation of individual freedoms, but an expression of those freedoms as defined by the members of a particular society. Laws represent the restraints of civil freedom, they represent the leap made from humans in the state of nature into civil society. In this sense, the law is a civilizing and ameliorating force.

Rousseau in the Digital Age

The problem with applying this wonderful theory to the internet in that there is no round-table, no town hall, no forum for discussion in which all the members of the society will come together and decide on the rules that they’d like to abide under.

The internet is too vast and wily a beast where competing interests abound.

Corporations, special interest groups, governments, and individuals would all be coming to the table with an immensely different set of priorities, goals, and ideas about the environment in which they’d like to “live” online. The fashion student in Milan and the CEO in New Jersey might have a very hard time agreeing on a Social Contract because although they are in many ways inhabiting the same online space, they are coming from drastically different motivations and intentions.

The concept of a Social Media Contract across the internet is laudable, but ultimately, untenable.

What Is the Contractual Answer?

The answer lies in each organization that gathers screen time and data about users providing a unique Social Contract to that set of users. These communities are smaller and have a common purpose. A consensus can be reached. Facebook users should be able to collectively decided how much of their information sharing makes the application better, and how much is a breach of privacy. The New York Times online subscribers should be able to control who has access to their addresses and reading patterns, and who does not.

Each organization is responsible to its users – and ultimately the users are responsible to themselves and each other – to make sure these checks are in place. Demand them. In 2010 much more so than in 1762, you are the populous, and your voices are sovereign.