Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Wikipedia Upgrade

Something I learnt in school was that what we were taught in primary school was merely an approximation of the “truth”.  What we were taught in secondary was a closer approximation and university was a closer approximation yet!I  And so I've had an idea for a updating of Wikipedia.  It would be fairly major thing to do, but I think it would be not only cool but useful too.  This isn't in the category of “fixing” Wikipedia, which seems to be a theme these days, but of improving it's capability.  This is of course assuming that someone hasn't already thought of it or is currently salivating of the prospect of getting venture capital for a rival startup.  I'd do it myself, but y'know, I'm too busy working out how to save the world and all that!

Anyway, I've noticed – it wasn't difficult – that the various entries for Wikipedia are pitched at vastly different degrees of understanding.  If you need convincing of this, just check out some of the finer details of statistics.  Some of those articles go into considerable depth about very technical concepts, others are stubs.  Even when an article is complete, it can contain nothing that would tax you.  On the other hand it can contain complex equations.

But this isn't to say that an outline or overview of a topic can't be written which combines those approaches.  A book might start with beginner's material and slowly build towards advanced learning.  In other words, the same topic can be written about for a different audience at different times and places.  It can be a definitive reference work, or a light sketch merely the gist of it.  So why not build this capability into Wikipedia in a Web 2.0 fashion?  OK, so I'm completely ignoring how it would be implemented in practice, but how might it look?

Each section of the page, in addition to the “edit” control has a “info depth” control, say 1 to 5 or some other scale such as “easy” to “hard”.  Clicking on the appropriate control changes the section, or the entire page, to the new informational depth.  So on depth 1 you might get an explanation of geopolitics or quantum chromodynamics in language suitable for the layman, whereas on depth 5 you might get the same but with equations and technicalities suitable for degree students studying the subject.

That's it.  That's all it would take.

It would even be possible to write Wikipedia pages to take this into account right now.  A page at the moment is titled Quantum (  How much harder would it be to have a few extra pages titled Quantum_Easy and Quantum_Hard.  It could apply everywhere and doesn't even require any changes behind the scenes.

And that's my Big Wikipedia Thought!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

So what happens if I say yes?

I had this interesting situation develop on my "beloved" Omnia recently.  Unavailable is available!  Black is white and up is down!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Too Tasty for Geeks

For the last few years I've totalled up a conclusion that there must be some kind of undeclared cultural war going on. Whilst we've progressed as a civilisation to the point where denigration of all the obvious minorities is rightly condemned, you can always rely on marketers to find new and exciting demographics to be horrible to. I think myself and others like me have been identified as enemy combatants, or at least collateral damage in waiting, because we're now demonised as disgusting statistical outliers who can't be sold a lifestyle.

A handful of years ago, I decided that I wanted to get myself a new mobile phone. After a short while being wowed by failing my saving throw, as Charles Stross puts it, against “The Shiny” and I went for a Sony Ericsson. It looked good and came with all sorts of features I was partial to, including a camera which was still quite rare. Money spent, I was quite pleased with it, up until the advertising campaign began.

Inadvertently, I'd become an early adopter, and now it had hit the mainstream. For several weeks, whenever I watched anything on a commercial channel for longer than seven minutes, there was my phone; the same model being the centrepiece of an upmarket party. It was passed from trendy person to trendy person, free from constraints of gravity and any other physics you'd care to name as it floated, spun, bounced and was caressed by a light stoke of the hand. One might have assumed that its case was fashioned from a fragment of the True Cross(tm) with an operating system coded up by Jesus.

What a cool object this was!

All of which was the advert's opinion of course, which had on me the opposite effect of now being embarrassed to own phone because I looked like a pretentious tosser. In my daily attire of tattered jeans (wear and tear, not designer) and plain t-shirt, I worried that others would see me as though I had designs on being part of some nebulous happening scene.
I'm not sure who those 'others' were, exactly, because the sort of people I hang about with are more likely to say cool at the 'cool' at the number of colours, or size of memory or miscellaneous feature (such as having a built-in camera – yes it was that long ago) that the phone possessed, and not the brute fact of it existing at all. Geek cool, in others words and not some slick marketing bollocks. I caught myself yelling at the TV “But what does it do???” They had explained nothing. The entirety of the concrete information the advert had actually passed on to the viewer was: this is a phone. Wow.

Which was when it sunk in that had I seen the advert first I wouldn't have bought it. In fact I would have avoided it with festering prejudice. Because at no point in the ad campaign was any kind of feature mentioned. See this? It's cool. And that was it. I would have bought one based on what it could do, how it did it, and whether or not it would keep me occupied playing with it and figuring out what neat things I could do with it. (One of which turned out to be getting a photo of Saturn when I pressed the lens against the eyepiece of the large telescope at Mills Observatory).

Shorter version: I'm a Geek.

Or to state it another way, I am not concerned about style but about function. At least that's what I tell myself. A lecturer at my old college once told us that he'd analysed all the various features of cars and had plumped for a Skoda, at a time when Skoda was the single most derided brand in the country. We all laughed him down and I wasn't apart from it either. Brands are potent things.

It's not exactly a deep insight to observe that most products are selling a lifestyle not the product itself, but I worry when we've got to the point where the sort of critical thought needed to analyse the claims of the advertisers is actively derided. A current Tesco advert tells me that its typical shoppers' baskets are cheaper than Asda. The fine print at the bottom of the screen says 'based on 10% of clubcard transactions'. What happened to the other 90%? How is a typical basket defined? Is the 10% taken from all times of the day and all times of the week? Did they do this many times and cherry picked the favourable results? Does the typical basket for midweek vary from the typical basket On Saturday when we're restocking bread and milk? And is the typical basket different again on Friday when we're after cheep beer? Cheaper than Asda? They way they stated it is meaningless. But we take it all in.

Clearly this is not aimed at me, in the same way that the Sony advert appealed to a different group. Few of us take notice of these things, but us geeky folk care about the technicalities, about the numbers, about what's real. And aside from specialist websites, the geek demographic hasn't been targeted. Perhaps it's too small to market to, or more likely the ad bods just don't understand us. Most likely of all, they just can't conceive of a group of people for whom selling a lifestyle doesn't work. All they know is that we're different and different is bad.

Which is where the atomic artillery in the cultural war was unleashed. Can't market to them? Demonise them instead. I wish I could remember the brand – I think it was Shreddies - so that I could shame it, but in any case this was a cereal advert, aimed at children, simply, gaudily proclaiming that it was “too tasty for geeks”. Hey you! You at the back getting bullied? You getting picked last for the sports teams? You who actually enjoys learning? We'll we think you're worthless. Eat something else. We don't want you.

It's not cool to think.