Archive for March, 2012

[2b2k] The commoditizing and networking of facts

Ars Technica has a post about Wikidata, a proposed new project from the folks that brought you Wikipedia. From the project’s introductory page:

Many Wikipedia articles contain facts and connections to other articles that are not easily understood by a computer, like the population of a country or the place of birth of an actor. In Wikidata you will be able to enter that information in a way that makes it processable by the computer. This means that the machine can provide it in different languages, use it to create overviews of such data, like lists or charts, or answer questions that can hardly be answered automatically today.

Because I had some questions not addressed in the Wikidata pages that I saw, I went onto the Wikidata IRC chat (http://webchat.freenode.net/?channels=#wikimedia-wikidata) where Denny_WMDE answered some questions for me.

[11:29] hi. I’m very interested in wikidata and am trying to write a brief blog post, and have a n00b question.

[11:29] go ahead!

[11:30] When there’s disagreement about a fact, will there be a discussion page where the differences can be worked through in public?

[11:30] two-fold answer

[11:30]
1. there will be a discussion page, yes

[11:31]
2. every fact can always have references accompanying it. so it is not about “does berlin really have 3.5 mio people” but about “does source X say that berlin has 3.5 mio people”

[11:31]
wikidata is not about truth

[11:31]
but about referenceable facts

When I asked which fact would make it into an article’s info box when the facts are contested, Denny_WMDE replied that they’re working on this, and will post a proposal for discussion.

So, on the one hand, Wikidata is further commoditizing facts: making them easier and thus less expensive to find and “consume.” Historically, this is a good thing. Literacy did this. Tables of logarithms did it. Almanacs did it. Wikipedia has commoditized a level of knowledge one up from facts. Now Wikidata is doing it for facts in a way that not only will make them easy to look up, but will enable them to serve as data in computational quests, such as finding every city with a population of at least 100,000 that has an average temperature below 60F.

On the other hand, because Wikidata is doing this commoditizing in a networked space, its facts are themselves links — “referenceable facts” are both facts that can be referenced, and simultaneously facts that come with links to their own references. This is what Too Big to Know calls “networked facts.” Those references serve at least three purposes: 1. They let us judge the reliability of the fact. 2. They give us a pointer out into the endless web of facts and references. 3. They remind us that facts are not where the human responsibility for truth ends.

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[2b2k] 14 reasons why the Britannica failed on paper

In the straight-up match between paper and Web, the Encyclopedia Britannica lost. This was as close to a sure thing as we get outside of the realm of macro physics and Meryl Streep movies.

  1. The EB couldn’t cover enough: 65,000 topics compared to the almost 4M in the English version of Wikipedia.

  2. Topics had to be consistently shrunk or discarded to make room for new information. E.g., the 1911 entry on Oliver Goldsmith was written by no less than Thomas Macaulay, but with each edition, it got shorter and shorter. EB was thus in the business of throwing out knowledge as much as it was in the business of adding knowledge.

  3. Topics were confined to rectangles of text. This is of course often a helpful way of dividing up the world, but it is also essentially false. The “see also’s” and the attempts at synthetic indexes and outlines (Propædi) helped, but they were still highly limited, and cumbersome to use.

  4. All the links were broken.

  5. It was expensive to purchase.

  6. If you or your family did not purchase it, using it required a trip to another part of town where it was available only during library hours.

  7. It was very slow to update — 15 editions since 1768 — even with its “continuous revision” policy.

  8. Purchasers were stuck with an artifact that continuously became wronger.

  9. Purchasers were stuck with an artifact that continuously became less current.

  10. It chose topics based on agendas and discussions that were not made public.

  11. You could not see the process by which articles were written and revised, much less the reasoning behind those edits.

  12. It was opaque about changes and errors.

  13. There were no ways for readers to contribute or participate. For example, underlining in it or even correcting errors via marginalia would get you thrown out of the library. It thus crippled the growth of knowledge through social and networked means.

  14. It was copyrighted, making it difficult for its content to be used maximally.

Every one of the above is directly or indirectly a consequence of the fact that the EB was a paper product.

Paper doesn’t scale.

Paper-based knowledge can’t scale.

The Net scales.

The Net scales knowledge.

 


I should probably say something nice about the Britannica:

  1. Extremely smart, very dedicated people worked on it.

  2. It provided a socially safe base for certain sorts of knowledge claims.

  3. Owning it signaled that one cared about knowledge, and it’s good for our culture for us to be signaling that sort of thing.

 


The inestimably smart and wise Matthew Battles has an excellent post on the topic (which I hesitate to recommend only because he refers to “Too Big to Know” overly generously).

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Love thy neighbor by disrespecting his faith

My monthly column at Kmworld is about how the digital network has changed the basics of curation….

Here’s a sentence from the first paragraph of a long email solicitation I received today:

Truth Unlocked: Keys to Reaching Your Muslim Neighbor (www.truthunlocked.org) is a project that we feel God inspired us to create to help Christians to reach out to, form relationships with and simply love, Muslims here in North America.

Cool, I thought! Christians reaching out to Muslims in acceptance and love.

It took me until the end to come to the full realization what this is about:

Reaching out to the lost needs to be at the very top of our priority list as Evangelical Christians and we know that we need good tools in place to be able to Evangelize well.

Oh.

 


I believe I got onto this group’s mailing list because I am on the Christian Alerts mailing list to stop Barack Hussein Obama from replacing the Christian American justice system with Sharia Law. It’s true!

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[2b2k] Information overload? Not so much. (Part 2)

Yesterday I tried to explain my sense that we’re not really suffering from information overload, while of course acknowledging that there is vastly more information out there than anyone could ever hope to master. Then a comment from Alex Richter helped me clarify my thinking.

We certainly do at times feel overwhelmed. But consider why you don’t feel like you’re suffering from information overload about, say, the history of stage costumes, Chinese public health policy, the physics of polymers, or whatever topic you would never have majored in, even though each of these topics contains an information overload. I think there are two reasons those topics don’t stress you.

First, and most obviously, because (ex hypothesis) you don’t care about that topic, you’re not confronted with having to hunt down some piece of information, and that topic’s information is not in your face.

But I think there’s a second reason. We have been taught by our previous media that information is manageable. Give us 23 minutes and we’ll give you the world, as the old radio slogan used to say. Read the daily newspaper — or Time or Newsweek once a week — and now you have read the news. That’s the promise implicit in the old media. But the new medium promises us instead edgeless topics and endless links. We know there is no possibility of consuming “the news,” as if there were such a thing. We know that whatever topic we start with, we won’t be able to stay within its bounds without doing violence to that topic. There is thus no possibility of mastering a field. So, sure, there’s more information than anyone could ever take in, but that relieves us of the expectation that we will master it. You can’t be overwhelmed if whelming is itself impossible.

So, I think our sense of being overwhelmed by information is an artifact of our being in a transitional age, with old expectations for mastery that the new environment gives the lie to.

No, this doesn’t mean that we lose all responsibility for knowing anything. Rather, it means we lose responsibility for knowing everything.

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[2b2k] No, now that you mention it, we’re not overloaded with information

On a podcast today, Mitch Joel asked me something I don’t think anyone else has: Are we experiencing information overload? Everyone else assumes that we are. Including me. I found myself answering no, we are not. There is of course a reasonable and valid reason to say that we are. But I think there’s also an important way in which we are not. So, here goes:

There are more things to see in the world than any one human could ever see. Some of those sights are awe-inspiring. Some are life-changing. Some would bring you peace. Some would spark new ideas. But you are never going to see them all. You can’t. There are too many sights to see. So, are you suffering from Sight Overload?

There are more meals than you could ever eat. Some are sooo delicious, but you can’t live long enough to taste them all. Are you suffering from Taste Overload?

Or, you’re taking a dip in the ocean. The water extends to the horizon. Are you suffering from Water Overload? Or are you just having a nice swim?

That’s where I think we are with information overload. Of course there’s more than we could ever encounter or make sense of. Of course. But it’s not Information Overload any more than the atmosphere is Air Overload.

It only seems that way if you think you can master information, or if you think there is some defined set of information you can and must have, or if you find yourself repeating the mantra of delivering the right information to the right people at the right time, as if there were any such thing.

Information overload is so 1990s.

 


[The next day: See my follow-on post]

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Contentious hermeneutics

My friend AKMA has posted part I of his research and reflections into the “Old Testament” writings about death. AKMA is a friend, and a truly learned, open-minded, and open-hearted theologian. It’s fascinating watching him doing his preliminary research, sorting through the death references from within his Christian frame, although AKMA being AKMA, he’s mainly pointing out ways the Jewish testament does not support the Christian testament’s ideas about death; AKMA is carefully avoiding (I believe) the assumption that Christianity completes the Jewish beginning.

Even so, as I read his thoughtful interpretation, I was struck by how differently he proceeds than would my orthodox Jewish friends (one of whom is my wife :). They’re learned scholars as well, and they of course at times traverse the testament to find all the references to a topic under discussion. But the next step is different. My orthodox friends understand the text only in conversation with the tradition of great scholars — rabbis — who are interpreting the text. It wouldn’t occur to them to try to understand the text apart from that great conversation. Of course AKMA also understands the text through the interpretations that surround it; he is, after all, an extremely well-versed scholar. But it’s different. For the Jews, the rabbinic conversation is, essentially, a part of the text.

And, it’s worth pointing out that that interpretative tradition is fully embraced as unresolved. The rabbis disagree, and this is a good thing. A scholarly discussion that does not point out and defend the disputations has failed. Thus, the tradition is self-contradictory. But, my orthodox friends bridle at that phrase because when you call something self-contradictory, you usually mean to say that it’s flawed; at least one of the sides needs to be rejected, or you need to mystically embrace the paradox. For orthodox scholars, to reject one of the great sources would be to lessen the tradition. And mystically accepting all sides would end the perpetual argument that in a real sense is Judaism. Rather, it’s accepted that we humans are not up to the task of finally understanding the world or the G-d that created it. But we are commanded to keep trying. So, we need as many learned points of view as possible, and we especially need to understand them in their very disagreement. The Jewish understanding of its eternal text is the continuing contentious discussion.

This divergence of argument occurs on the basis of agreement about an unchanging text. We’ve been given an original text that stays literally the same; its letters are copied from one text to another with error-checking procedures that keep the sequences of letters quite reliable. But the text does not speak for itself. It needs to be read and interpreted. That interpretation cannot be accomplished by an individual or even by a community. It requires a history: a set of conversations within the community, arguing about the text across time and circumstance. Thus, an unchanging text can remain relevant because its meaning is not apart from or behind the interpretation, but is in the history of interpretation by an argumentative community.

The perpetual argument is driven by a need to resolve questions of behavior: how the Law is to be applied to a particular dilemma. What constitutes sufficiently koshering an oven when you move into a new apartment? Your rabbi rules, citing text, tradition and its interpreters. The rabbi one synagogue over might well rule differently. That’s ok. That’s how it works: local rabbis refer to a contentious set of interpreters operating from a single text, following rules of argument and evidence. This ties the community to a continuous tradition and an eternal text, while allowing for progressively relevant interpretation and for a multiplicity that enables Jews to not only to live with disagreement, but to flourish within it.

AKMA has written brilliantly about the diversity of interpretation as reflected through his own commitment: differential hermeneutics , and also here and here, among other places. This is a difference in traditions that is reflected in differences in interpretative practices. It is a difference we should embrace.

[Disclosure: I am a non-observant, agnostic Jew. There is no chance that I have gotten the above right.]

 


My friend Jacob Meskin read a draft of this and has been very helpful, as have several other people, none of whom entirely agree with what I’ve written. Jacob passed along the following from Levinas:

“The Revelation as calling to the unique within me is the significance particular to the signifying of the Revelation. It is as if the multiplicity of persons — is not this the very meaning of the personal? — were the condition for the plenitude of ‘absolute truth’; as if every person, through his uniqueness, were the guarantee of the revelation of a unique aspect of truth, and some of its points would never have been revealed if some people had been absent from mankind. This is not to say that truth is acquired anonymously in History, and that it finds ‘supporters’ in it! On the contrary, it is to suggest that the totality of the true is constituted from the contribution of multiple people: the uniqueness of each act of listening carrying the secret of the text; the voice of the Revelation, as inflected, precisely, by each person’s ear, would be necessary to the ‘Whole’ of the truth. That the Word of the living God may be heard in diverse ways does not mean only that the Revelation measures up to those listening to it, but that this measuring up measures up the Revelation: the multiplicity of irreducible people is necessary to the dimensions of meaning; the multiple meanings are multiple people. We can thus see the whole impact of the reference made by the Revelation to exegesis, to the freedom of this exegesis, the participation of the person listening to the Word making itself heard, but also the possibility for the Word to travel down the ages to announce the same truth in different times.” [ From “Revelation in the Jewish Tradition” (1977), in Beyond The Verse, trans. Gary D. Mole, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp.133-134]

Jacob points out that Levinas is saying this within a context that assumes a tradition of revered rabbinic commentators who are touchstones for the conversation. Without that understanding, this particular passage could lead one to think that Jews feel free to interpret any which way they want. No, our argument has bounds.

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[errata]

AJ Cann tweets: “Typo p176 “Jonas Salk with his vaccine”. Thanks.

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[2b2k] TIL: Edward Jenner’s smallpox paper was rejected by the Royal Society

Edward Jenner is credited as the discoverer — or perhaps inventor would be the more apt word — of vaccination as a technique to prevent smallpox. That’s pretty much all that I knew, except for the story about milkmaids who got cowpox not getting smallpox. But I just read a really interesting article about the history of small pox at the National Institute of Health, by Stefan Riedel.

“TIL” is Reddit-speak for “Today I learned.” And today I also learned that “As early as 430 BC, survivors of smallpox were called upon to nurse the afflicted” in order to protect them. Today I also learned that “Inoculation…was likely practiced in Africa, India, and China long before the 18th century, when it was introduced to Europe.” And today I also learned that “It was the continued advocacy of the English aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montague that was responsible for the introduction of variolation [inoculation] in England.”

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[2b2k] TIL: Edward Jenner’s smallpox paper was rejected by the Royal Society

Edward Jenner is credited as the discoverer — or perhaps inventor would be the more apt word — of vaccination as a technique to prevent smallpox. That’s pretty much all that I knew, except for the story about milkmaids who got cowpox not getting smallpox. But I just read a really interesting article about the history of small pox at the National Institute of Health, by Stefan Riedel.

“TIL” is Reddit-speak for “Today I learned.” And today I also learned that “As early as 430 BC, survivors of smallpox were called upon to nurse the afflicted” in order to protect them. Today I also learned that “Inoculation…was likely practiced in Africa, India, and China long before the 18th century, when it was introduced to Europe.” And today I also learned that “It was the continued advocacy of the English aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montague that was responsible for the introduction of variolation [inoculation] in England.”

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[2b2k] Moi

Leadereview has posted an interview (mp3) with me from a few nights ago. I thought they asked great questions.

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