In the November 2009 monthly report from the German Wikimedia Pavel Richter reports on the project "Generation 50+". As he has done in the past, he uses the term Senioren (senior citizens) synomously for this group.

Let me translate the lemma for you:

Senior citizens

  • are seldom constrained by time restrictions imposed by working life
  • make independent purchasing decision and have a sophisticated purchasing behavior that is different from the younger generation
  • learn differently
  • suffer more often from and are susceptible to sickness, especially old-age diseases (see Geriatrics)

Well, Pavel, the current age for retirement is on its way from 65 to 67, and not all of us over 50 are out of work. We may make wiser decisions when purchasing goods and learn differently (i.e. not through YouTube et al), but I don't think you want to be calling us all susceptible to sickness.

Is there any way I can convince you to rename this project? And focus on something other than age? Like life experience? Discrimination on account of age is not allowed by law in Germany any more, you know.


The Priesthood

Recently it seems that in discussions with computer science people about political issues I often hear the statement "They just don't understand X!". And of course, this is true - the majority of people on this planet just don't understand computers and computing. And they don't really get why and how some systems work.

Are they stupid? No, of course not! I can't fix my car motor and I don't even want to think about trying brain surgery. But I am a computer scientist, so it is my job to explain to people how things work. Repeatedly, if necessary.

But it appears that many in my field feel themselves to be members of some technologically elite priesthood. The know the magic incantations to bring printers to life, find lost files, discover the answers to important questions and to weave intricate applications for solving some problem (hopefully without introducing new problems). And they like it this way - they don't really want the rest of the world to be able to deal with computers, after all, that would put them out of a job, wouldn't it? And it is fun to make jokes about the "lusers".

I am reminded on a book by Ted Nelson, the father of hypermedia, called Computer Lib. It was published in 1974 (right, that is not a typo. And wow, these are selling used for serious money, I better take care of mine). The first paragraph:

Any nitwit can understand computers, and many do. Unfortunately, due to ridiculous historical circumstances, computers have been made a mystery to most of the world. And this situation does not seem to be improving. You hear more and more about computers, but to most people it's just one big blur. The people who know about computers often seem unwilling to explain things or answer your questions. Stereotyped notions develop about computers operating in fixed ways -- and so confusion increases. The chasm between laymen and computer people widens fast and dangerously. [...] This book is therefore devoted to the premise that EVERYBODY SHOULD UNDERSTAND COMPUTERS."
Well said Ted, but unfortunately, it doesn't look like people were paying attention. 35 years later, this is still very true.

Nelson introduced the word "Cybercrud", defined as "putting things over on people using computers."

If I look closely at the current relevancy debate surrounding the Wikipedia, I see the same mechanism. There is the priesthood of the active people behind the Wikipedia (admin or not). They understand the baroque system (more or less) that has been built that is rather scary for new users. Oh, they complain about too much to do and very few new people, but is it any wonder? They make it so difficult to join the priesthood. And in a way, they have created "PediaCrud". I'll define that as "putting things over on people using the Wikipedia".

This includes all the trolls, who deface the Wikipedia just because they can. It includes the people who write lengthy novels for a lemma, instead of breaking it into a dozen or so more manageable chunks. It includes the deleters who want to keep the Wikipedia "clean" and "relevant".

But what about the users of the Wikipedia? Why do they come, millions a second, to the Wikipedia? What are they looking for? No, they don't want to read a 25 page treatise on Prussia. An encyclopedia (even the EB) strives to give people a quick overview of the lemma, and points to places to get more information, if necessary.

The users want a fast system that is pretty good. They want a system that is easy to use. They don't care about the authors or how the article was written. They just want to know more about a term they picked up somewhere. And many are willing to contribute their mite for the general good. But they don't want to have to register YetAnotherUserName with YetAnotherPassword and fuss with a system and then when they push save maybe discover that there is a concurrent user editing the same page.

The Wikipedia must get better - in usability. The Wikipedia must get better - in broader coverage, lemmata in areas that are not broadly covered. The Wikipedia authors must learn to edit, work with the texts and get them tighter, cleaner, more neutral, better verified.

Above all, they have to get away from the notion that they are somehow the high priests of Wiki-hood. Or the apostate, pointing fingers at the priests and taunting them. Quit wasting your energy on fighting and get down to writing.

[Idea developed during an interview with a Spiegel writer about the Wikipedia Wars.]


Ethics and Computing

Well, welcome to all the Wikipedia surfers! My daily readership jumped from an average of 80 a day to 900+ in just the evening hours of Monday. And as anonymous said (I know which anonymous you are!!), that rather kills my semi-anonymity. Whatever. I'm still blogging here as WiseWoman, because it is my private blog, as opposed to all the other blogs I run in my real name. I've had to get ScribeFire installed on my Firefox to deal with them all.

So here's a plug for my book (in German) about Ethics and Computing, which just got published:

Gewissensbisse Ethische Probleme der Informatik. Biometrie – Datenschutz – geistiges Eigentum
Oktober 2009, 144 S., kart., 16,80 €
ISBN 978-3-8376-1221-9
In order to keep the price low, we are not earning anything on this book. If you do read it, we would appreciate a comment at Amazon. Seems a former member of the group retaliated at us there. As a friend has said: One is forced to consider the possibility that his criticisms are not entirely devoid of self-serving motivation.


Wikipedia and Relevance and Dreams

The German Wikipedia has been embroiled in a discussion of its relevance criteria for a couple of weeks. Even the stately FAZ had a long article over the weekend one it (Das Schweigen der Lemmata, the silence of the lemmas, a pun that actually works, something Germans rarely use). I had a longish discussion with one of the bloggers leading the charge, Felix von Leitner (known as Fefe), by email, and I agreed to meet with him. I was going to be in that part of town anyway, and I was curious to meet him.

He and another CCCler, Frank Rieger, met with me at the CCC headquarters in Berlin, and we had a nice chat over donuts. The CCC sees the problems, and they are basically solved problems. Technically. The problem is, that the Wikipedia does not really have a captain on the bridge, telling this oil tanker where to go next. There are a bunch of people in the galleys, paddling every which way.

Making changes in an extremely large, global system like the Wikipedia is a very, very delicate operation. You can't just change the interface or the way one edits or introduce icons that signal how trustworthy a lemma entry is just to see if it works. There are literally millions of users out there who don't really understand what all the extra tabs are for, don't even realize they can edit and see the history or even follow a discussion on a page.

Yes, the technology is just so last century. People don't come to the Wikipedia for the technology. They want to settle a bar bet - or look something up for school. Or worse, copy it for use at university. But that's a topic for my Other Blog.

If you want to fork the Wikipedia - please, do so! That's the point of free documents. If you succeed where Wikipedia fails - all the better!

As for making up new rules to keep the trolls and vandals at bay - I don't know. Since we now have only checked versions on display in the German Wikipedia, that is, changes are only possible for unregistered users when a checker has eyeballed them to make sure that it is nothing stupid or silly. I suppose we ought to apply the same rule to new articles (maybe we do - even experienced people get lost in all the pages).

But it's a wiki, everyone should be allowed to edit. That's part of collaborative writing, there is no one author, there is just the collaborative authorship. If you want to have someone responsible for the text, to have the text be some sort of authority, then it has to be linked to someone. I have suggested that users could sign versions of articles, saying: What is written here is true, as far as I know. But when I see how difficult it is to get people to use digital signatures or even use PGP for encrypting their communication, I despair of getting some sort of change put through the Wikipedia.

But it's okay. The Wikipedia does not need to be 100% correct. Good enough is just fine. It is meant to be a starting point for answering a question, not the end point. It is troubling, that lately I have been wanting to look things up in the Wikipedia and there has been no entry. Just this weekend, I wanted to know more about Borussia, the female allegory for Prussia. Nix. Nada. Lots of soccer teams with Borussia in their name, and of course the article on Prussia. But nothing about all these statues with the name Borussia. I secured some links on my user page, I guess I will have to start an article in my spare time.

The Verein, the Wikimedia, does lots of things. What it does not do is run the Wikipedia. It offers technical support. Sure, a lot of the stuff they do is boring. I rattled of the list of what the Verein has been doing the past few months. Oh, sure, the picture action was great. But things like teaching teachers how to use the Wikipedia was met with a puzzled look.

I know, it is hard to realize how little many teachers know about the Wikipedia. My son tried to tell a teacher that his mom "worked" for the Wikipedia. Okay, work was not the correct work. His teacher laughed at him, he was telling tales. I put a notice up on my user page for the teacher: Dear Mr. X, yes, I am the Mommy of WiseKid, and he told you the truth. WiseKid tried to get the teacher to look up my user page, but he didn't know what that was. Instead of shaking our heads at the ignorance, we have to let people know. Show them how to use it. Show people how to research, edit, write.

And if they want to make a new Wikipedia, make it, and show us. Maybe we like it so much, we all switch!

Yes, I've given up on the Wikiversity. I personally declared it broken for me in 2007. My attempts to create a new university, a web-based one, were foiled by people re-inventing the broken wheel of German universities. Okay, I turn my attentions elsewhere.

I've not given up on the Wikipedia, Felix. And actually, I'm not currently cutting back. I've started reading the requests for deletion again, and adding my 2 cents worth to the discussions. I am even trying to save a lemma from theoretical computer science. Some guy insists that all lemmata need to be generally understandable. I don't think so. I need to get a general idea of what the concept is. And then I either decide to dive into the literature given in order to understand the maths behind it, or I decide that I don't understand this. It's okay.

I'm an inclusionist.

Oh, and I have papers to grade.....


Introitus et Fuga (John Allison Campbell)

I went to the ecumenical service at St. Matthäus Friday night, because a composer friend, John Allison Campbell, was having a premiere of some new music. It seems there is this organization that pays artists to paint sacred pictures and composers to compose and musicians to perform sacred music, and it is all presented at St. Matthäus.

The church is lovely - very bare, just pictures on the walls and one over the altar (they refer to this as the temporary altar picture, as it appears to be changed every now and then).

The service was very Catholic with all sorts of Gregorian chant bits and a Magnificat and a Kyrie Elesion. The sermon was on Luke 13:6-8:

6 Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?'

8 " 'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.' "

Now this sounds like giving people a second chance, even if they have screwed up multiple times in the past. Perhaps this applies to teenagers....

The postlude was "Introitus et Fuga (Op. 10)", and as I listed, the music felt vaguely familiar. I figured it was just John, as I have heard a lot of his music over the years.

I went up to John after the service, and he asked me if I liked that last piece. "Yes, I did," I replied. "Good job, since you paid for it!" And then I realized it was a piece we had commissioned for WiseKid's baptism. My famous organist brother was to come play it, so I had requested that it be "a challenge". Then bro didn't come, and we had to find an organist willing to tackle it at the last minute.

One brave soul was found, and we invited a professor for modern music, a friend of John's, to come to the service to hear it. The organist bravely fought on, but got his fingers in knots at one point and stopped, restarting the phrase. Afterwards she went up to him and scolded him: "Young man, this is modern music! No one will know that you've made an error except the composer. Just carry on!"


Another Funeral

Today was the funeral of my mother-in-law. A wonderful, almost spring-like, sunny day in November. The church was full and there were lots of flowers - how great to have so many people thinking of her. I picked three apples from her garden an placed them next to the casket, when they carried everything out they put the apples on my father-in-law's grave.

We invited everyone for lunch to the restaurant in the village where they lived and have celebrated pretty much every family celebration there is to celebrate. We were unsure how many would come, so we had more places set than we needed. One table remained empty - the one where Oma and Opa always sat during the parties they gave. The candle was lit, and gently burned down during the afternoon.

I can still hear her voice "Segg bloss!", "Wat hest du aufm Herzen, Deern?", the house still seems eerily lived in, as things are still where she left them the day she had the stroke. Neighbors tell of seeing her in the garden that morning, of her being at the church coffee the week before she died.

The pastor read from Revelation 21: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.'"

Update: A friend sent this link of a wonderful choral piece (And I saw a New Heaven by Edgar Bainton) on this reading. And then two evenings later I attend a choir concert, and they sing this same song. It is really beautiful, listen to it!


Nice try.

Sorry, this is just for those who know German:

Sehr geehrter User Webmail-Konto,

Diese Nachricht wurde automatisch von einem Programm auf Webmail Admin-Center, die die Kontrollen in regelmäßigen Abständen die Größe der Posteingang gesendet, wird das Programm automatisch ausgeführt, um keine vom Anwender zu gewährleisten, Posteingang zu groß. Wenn Ihr Posteingang zu groß wird, werden Sie nicht in der Lage, neue E-Mails empfangen. Kurz vor dieser Nachricht gesendet wurde, werden Sie derzeit auf 20,9 GB, Sie haben die Grenze, die 20 GB Speicher überschritten wird.

Um uns zu helfen ändern Sie Ihr Konto SPACE auf unserer Datenbank vor Ihrem Posteingang zu erhalten, müssen Sie die Antwort auf diese E-Mail bieten Sie uns Ihre Unterhalb der Informationen:

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Ab diesem Zeitpunkt werden Sie keine neuen E-Mail erhalten, wie sie an den Absender zurückgegeben werden, Geben Sie die oben genannten Informationen zu ermöglichen, setzen Sie uns helfen Webmail sofort.

HINWEIS: Ihr Webmail-Konto läuft in drei (3) Tage. Nachdem Sie diese Meldung lesen, ist es am besten mit den erforderlichen Informationen ANTWORT zur Mailbox zu aktualisieren. Antwort auf diese Nachricht sofort an Re aktivieren Sie Ihr Konto.

Vielen Dank für Ihre Mitarbeit.
Webmail Help Desk. System Administrator
Next time don't use automatic translation.

Relevant Irrelevancy

There has been quite a discussion raging throughout the German blogosphere about the question of relevance in the Wikipedia. German admins, the people who can delete articles, use a complicated document that they have produced called the relevance criteria to determine what is relevant and what is not. Pavel Meyer wrote a good blog article called 99% of all Germans are irrelevant.

The fight all began with the deletion of an entry (called a lemma) about a group of people who are fighting the silly German government idea of putting stop signs in the Internet to stop child pornography. Right. I have actually offered to give a course Internet 101 to the members of parliament, but I am afraid they are too busy to attend.

Anyway, the German A-Team blogger picked it up, some Wikipedia authors and admins retaliated by deleting all sorts of other articles, and the fight raged on.

There was a meeting, packed into two rooms at the Wikimedia headquarters in Berlin, where everyone had their say, but nothing was actually decided. Many people do not understand that Wikimedia has nothing to do with the Wikipedia on the level of content or administration. That is for the community to do. Wikimedia can encourage community, but has other jobs in the area of wrenching knowledge and information and data that has already been paid for by the taxpayer from the claws of those who want to make money with it and get it put into the public domain.

And of course this falls at a perfect time, when Wikimedia itself is having communication problems between the leadership and the general membership and having a ton of vague notions about where they want to be in 10 years without realizing that the whole project may implode if they don't solve the current problems.

To me it just seems to be an exercise in Applied Anarchy. There is no government in the Wikipedia, just a bunch of rules and regulations that have developed over the years (including the rule to ignore all rules). But this means that people who delight in the attention they get by destroying work that others have done or who cannot tolerate any view of the world that is not their own, have very few checks and balances on their doings.

Oh, sure, we suggest that authors don't feed the trolls, and there is a vandalism patrol that keeps check on the most virulent of the vandals. But there are enough ways around this, and so many are calling for the installing of a Wikipedia Police Force (or at least a full-time editorial board with sweeping rights). But this opens up the whole thing to the lawyers, with people then having someone to sue to get an article about themselves or their companies either included or cast in a more flattering light.

Lighten up, people. If we could just channel this energy into writing articles and not deleting things that have promising beginnings (and not trying to stuff a doctoral thesis about topic X into the lemma) we can start to get the Wikipedia on better footing, so that we have a chance to indeed still be around in 2020.


More on the Palm Pre

Random thoughts on random use

  • It is worth the 10 Euros a month to have Internet access everywhere. Over the last 10 days I have used it for various things - looking up a telephone number, an address, hours of opening. It is slooooow, but it works (faster connections cost more).
  • Google maps is great on maps and very bad on time planning. The maps work well, even as a pedestrian. But take the time suggested with a big grain of salt. They seem to have to driving at 120 km/h through town and areas restricted to just 80. I have consistently needed more time: 8 1/2 hours instead of 6 1/2, 4 1/2 hours instead of 3, 45 minutes instead of 2. The maps app works well for going between text and map. The only problem is the zoom - you cannot easily zoom while driving. This needs two fingers and eye concentration, something I don't have when driving. I want a tap-to-enlarge button.
  • The battery sucks. It lasts a day and a half, max. So I end up giving it some juice every night.
  • The time got out of kilter, and all the online forums said: just change it at the date/time thingy. I couldn't find one! I looked for the apps button - not to be found. I saw a little || button, tried to tap it, but nothing happened. I gave it to WiseKid to play with this afternoon, and he had it working in about 5.4 seconds. For him it was obvious to use the || as a slider - and there were all the things I was looking for!
  • FINALLY all of my google appointments have been downloaded. I think the problem was that I have been using my iCal forever, and that appears to store all historic data (and to sync all historic data). So it just took it a while to download them all. It was weird, because at first it only had my just-entered appointments.
  • Haven't done much calling with it, as I wanted to see the first statement to check out the price. I want a button: current statement amount ;)


Vulgar Feminist

I was able to attend the German Wikipedia discussion about the deletion and relevance discussion last week in Berlin (more on that in another blog entry). I made my point that most of the admins who are doing all the deletions are youngish men of German descent who live in cities, to make the point that they are quite biased in their view of "reality". Other bloggers have extended this to include childless. My point was rather drowned in lots of other points, although the blogs Spreeblick and Netzpolitik at least recorded it.

We stood around afterwards making small talk and I went over to join two other professors who are active and tend to attend such events. We began speaking and then two journalists joined us, a male reporter from a print newspaper and a female blogger. I repeated my point about the bias of the Admins, and a colleague began berating me as a "vulgar feminist". I was rather taken aback, especially at the vehemence of his words and his agitation.

This is something that I have been noticing recently. The gentlest of mention of the word "gender", or a reminder that professors are German Beamte and have a constitutional duty to work for equality of the sexes, brings out the fighting in many men, especially in colleagues.

Now, when I was going to university in the 70s the women's movement in Germany was much more radical. We wore purple bib overalls, cut our hair, smoked pipes, debated politics, and set up women's health centers. We fought for abortion rights, started discussions about rape and about violence against women and noted that we were not paid the same for doing the same work. There were radical groups that demanded the castration of men - I never saw that violence was useful for fighting violence, but there were people demanding this.

But why was I a vulgar feminist for pointing out a gender difference? It was impossible to get rational argument out of the colleague, and he could not listen to me even speak a complete sentence - as so many men can't - before he interrupted me. He began ranting about the nonsense of "feminist mathematics" - so I challenged him to name 5 female mathematicians. Before I could say "besides Emmy Noether" he interrupted me with "Emmy Noether, the first woman professor in mathematics". Sigh.

I waited. I goaded him. He couldn't come up with any names, then sputtered that it was the fault of the women if they didn't go into mathematics. Great job, it's always our fault, right? I remarked that Sonja Kovalevsky was the first woman professor in mathematics. She submitted 3 doctoral theses in Berlin to Karl Weierstraß, so they pretty much had to give her a doctorate. She was made professor in Stockholm (the first in Northern Europe) before her early death of pneumonia, caught while traveling to Paris to receive the Prix Bourdin.

He lashed out again, this time at the female German politicians in Hamburg who had voted against something that was near and dear to him (I didn't catch what). The female blogger pointed out that there was at least one man who also voted against the measure. He got called a green "Weichei" (a German derisive term for an unmanly man). And again he complained about vulgar feminists.

I asked for a definition of "vulgar feminists", as I tend to see the anti-feminists as the vulgar ones. Seems that he has a problem with the PorNo campaign. I see. And these feminists are prudes. It seems to be flashback time. The woman's strike at the taz newspaper where I was a free-lancer end of the 70s, beginning of the 80s was started over exactly such a reproach. A journalist had published a full page under a pseudonym about pornography that we complained about. When we were called prudes - which we were expecting - the leader of the group gave the code words "Sisters, are we prudes? Let's make ourselves free." Which we did. The author of the pornography page was so freaked out by all those women sitting calmly with bare breasts at the table that he ran screaming from the room and never returned. And we got a daily woman's page in the paper.

But what does that have to do with my point, that the admins find lemmata in the Wikipedia about women's topics "irrelevant"? The female blogger and I tried to get back to the point at hand. He now turned the blogger a cold shoulder and brushed her off. "Fräulein, I'm trying to talk with this journalist." And he turned to the male journalist.

I was speechless. I have seldom seen such bad behavior in recent years, and then to have a colleague, one who is interested in many current topics, act like that and call me a vulgar feminist - I was nonplussed. I nodded - oh, by all means, do speak with him. And went to another corner of the place to speak with the blogger in peace and quiet.

What on earth is going on? Some men seem to be of the opinion, we have had quite enough of this equality now, it is time to shut up and get back to more important things. I remarked that an oldish SPD sticker I have in my room is so true: you can judge the necessity of specific actions by how loud the men shout about them.

I am reminded of the book by Susan Faludi, Backlash, that I read many years ago. I dug it out at home - it was from the early 90s. It was published in 1993 in Germany as "Die Männer schlagen zurück". I surfed around a bit and then found a wonderful book review of this in the Emma from 1993, written by the Minister for Family of the time, the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. The book review is excellent - she notes how Faludi makes clear that men use irrelevant statistics to try and make us feel guilty about having power. She states that women must continue the march through the institutions.

Spot on, Angela. You made it, now we have to see to it that our sisters are not drowned in guilt and accusations because it is still making many men uncomfortable. And that they, someday, earn the same money for doing the same work. We aren't there yet.

My colleague left in a huff, I went out for pizza with the usual suspects from the Wikipedia. One young man of German descent who lives in Berlin and is an admin brought up the women's topic again. He just didn't see why, when two people are equally qualified for a job, it had to be the woman who got the job. I sighed and explained that this was only necessary in cases where women are underrepresented. As soon as 40% of the jobs go to women, this is no longer necessary. And in fields where men are underrepresented this rule holds equally. He shook his head - he just didn't get it. I wrote, calmly, to my colleague the next day. I wonder if I will get an answer.

Sisters, we got a lot of work cut out for us. I wonder where my purple bib overalls are.

Update: My colleague has replied within a day and apologized. And promised to read a paper if I send it to him. I immediately looked for Frances Grundy, "Computer Software - A Clue to De-Gendering Technology?" And guess what? Frances is now retired, and her department had nothing better to do than to remove her works from their server. I'm so mad, I wrote to them and asked for her private email. I want to publish a collection of her papers. Now!


I should have stopped for coffee

I was on my way from Sweden to Hanover on Sunday, as I was giving a workshop there Monday morning. I had calculated the time needed as 6 1/2 hours using Google Maps (advice: don't. They seem to take a speed of 120 km/h, even in 80 km/h zones or through town) and was now with an estimated time of trip around 8 1/2 hours.

I drove past the exit where we get off to go visit my mother-in-law. I debated turning off and getting her to make me a cup of coffee. But I would like to call first, and she never hears the phone, and she'll be irritated that I didn't call so she could make a cake, and anyway, we're visiting next weekend. So I drove by.

Monday evening we got a call - the neighbor had found her passed out in her bedroom that morning. They took her to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered a massive stroke Sunday evening. She died without regaining consciousness this afternoon, three years and three months after her husband.

I wish now that I had stopped for coffee.

She celebrated her 80th birthday this spring - I'm so happy her friends and family came for that. We'll soon be meeting again in the village pub, this time to remember her, and to give thanks for her life.