Earth (Arts and Literature)

Recent criticisms of Wikimedia

I came across two recent criticisms of the Wikimedia projects. Both unfortunately show a lack of understanding about the projects. One picks up on an old, dated criticism, and the other gets caught up in the edit war phenomenon, resorting to insults when they don’t get their way.

The first, on New Median, entitled Wikipedia, thumbs up or thumbs down, picks up on Robert McHenry’s article called The Faith-Based Encyclopedia. This is an old debate (the original article was from Nov 2004), and it’s been commented on countless times, so I’m not going to repeat much here. Here is a list of some of the main resources, and better responses:

Just for good measure, here’s some raging rhetoric from the Register:

There’s lots of disappointing analysis, lots of evangelical side-taking, but for me the key aspect of Wikipedia is that it works. There are many fantastic articles, better than Brittanica, or more frequently where a Brittanica equivalent doesn’t even exist. There are also articles that are poorer in quality. Having some poorer articles doesn’t invalidate the process. They may become better articles at some point. All articles started off as poorer quality. Or they may never become better articles. Humans strive for perfection, and rarely get there – again, that doesn’t invalidate the process. The process may refine itself and improve, or be superceded with something better. Or happily fill a niche in parallel. But Wikipedia is undoubtedly a fantastic resource. Two key elements don’t get mentioned much:
multi-lingualism. Wikipedia’s exist in most languages. Some, such as the German version, are highly successful. Others, such as the Afrikaans version, are not yet particularly useful, but are developing slowly. Wikipedia offers the potential for smaller languages to develop useful resources that may be more difficult to achieve if they relied upon the profit motive.

article history. A key aspect of openness is that it places responsibility on individuals. A reader of Brittanicca has to entirely trust the publishers. A reader of Wikipedia does not, and should not, entirely trust the contributors. For that reason, the history pages are a key resource. A reader can see the process that’s taken place to get to the current article. This applies particularly in an edit war situation. For example, Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot contributors have tended to swing an article from one point of view to another. At any one time, the article could reflect either point of view. However, the counter point of view is always available in the history. And that’s part of the resource too. Controversial topics aren’t as easy to reach consensus as less controversial topics, and the articles are in a greater state of flux. But Wikipedia still helps one get a good sense of the issues

The second criticism was a rather hysterical piece entitled Wikinews has been inflitrated by a crazed little clique of militaristic neo-con Bush nuts. Please help us take it back!, not helped by an ignorant followup comment concluding Wiki editors are stupid. I don’t think Wikinews is working particularly well. Too few contributors, and too many article of low quality, or watered-down repeats of mainstream news, and perhaps it it too easy to push a certain POV. However, the hysteria in the criticism means they aren’t going to be taken very seriously, and comments like ‘crazed little clique of militaristic neo-con Bush nuts’ aren’t going to last long in the Wiki world, which does try to be NPOV. Again, the history is part of the process. Any contentious article will reflect a number of points of view, ideally in the main body, but if not, at least in the history. The jury’s still out on whether Wikinews will be as successful as Wikipedia.

Earth (Arts and Literature)

An unforgettable movie

It’s been a long time since I saw a movie that’s left such an indelible mark on me, or caused such a strong emotional response .

Living out in the sticks of Cape Town, where the nearest cinema is at the Long Beach mall, where the average film seems to be aimed at someone with the emotional intelligence of a ten-year old, I was looking forward to opportunity to experience the joys of Cavendish Cinema Nouveau. Being in a rush, we picked a film almost at random, not having read any reviews, and I sat back with my popcorn, without expectations, in my opinion always the best way to approach a film.

I couldn’t have expected anything like what I saw. The only other films to have caused a comparable response were David Cronenberg’s Crash, and Evolution, the glorified dandruff shampoo advert. This one was up there with both of them in the kill me rather than make me sit through it again stakes.

If the director had planned the strong response he got from me to the film he’d be an evil genius. Luckily I’m sure he hadn’t. The film was utter, utter drek, one of the worst, if not the worst, film I’ve ever seen. The strong emotional response was fury, at best disbelief that Ster Kinekor could actually buy this shit.

Ster Kinekor Cinema Nouveau brings in some dodgy films at the best of times, having made presumably a commercially-based decision to ignore most films that aren’t English, depriving us the chance of seeing in particular most of the vast number of excellent European films made every year. However, there have been some fantastic Australian films of late, with their industry experiencing a bit of a boom right now.

This wasn’t one of them.

In Crash I remember staring upwards, fascinated by the textures on the roof, while yet another car-crash was followed by some auto-erotica (haha). This time I spent the time apologising to my friend as the movie descended into further ignomony, and considered hauling out my cellphone to play Snake. The thought of suing Ster-Kinekor for emotional trauma provided further entertainment.

Called You Can’t Stop the Murders, it was set in a tiny Australian backwater, where the highlights of the year are the annual fun-fest and the line dancing competition. In this sleepy backwater begins a series of murders, based on the members of the Village People. Abysmal script, abymsal acting, abysmal plot.

It’s probably a good thing I didn’t have time to read any reviews, as I’d have had more lined up to sue. Locally, Magdel du Preez of the Star calls it refreshing and utterly enjoyable, and awards it 7 out of 10. Punjabi Goth of Africa Gateway calls it one of the funniest, most twisted and demented movies black comedies to be released in a long time, giving it 8 out of 10. Only Shaun de Waal of the Mail and Guardian gets it right, describing it as very much like those bad South African sitcoms in which everyone seems to be speaking too slowly … and waiting for a laugh that never comes.

Hopefully this post has at least been of some therapeutic value in exorcising my soul of the demonic influence of the 90 or so minutes of purgatory I sat through this afternoon.

Earth (Arts and Literature)

Dissociating myself from SSWUG

Just for the record, I have nothing to do with SSWUG (the SQL Server Worldwide Users Group). While googling I found they were offering an article written by myself, available to paid subscribers only. What they actually do, after taking your money, is then redirect you to the freely available original article.

Highly unethical if you’re me, but seemingly legal, and I suppose they’d claim to be offering a valuable information gathering service. Either way, I have nothing to do with them – all my published articles are freely available for viewing.

With a certain irony, I can’t link to them, as my b2evolution spam filters pick up their URL as banned.

Earth (Arts and Literature)

Templates on the Afrikaans Wikipedia, and a translating tool

I’ve been having fun today on the Afrikaans Wikipedia. Although my Afrikaans is bad enough so that everything is quite slow going, and I sit with a dictionary by my side, its quite fun working on something that’s still so incomplete. The English Wikipedia is huge now, over 600 000 articles, so the tiny Afrikaans version, where your edits remain visible on the recent changes page the entire day, and don’t disappear within seconds, is quite a different experience altogether.

There are still not entries for most countries in the world. I started today with a Madagaskar entry, and ended up getting distracted into investigating a translation tool, hoping to be able to quickly create stub articles from the English versions. I looked at as well as the Wikipedia translation pages, but after wading through reams of not very useful discussions and links, I decided it would be quicker to write a tool myself.

It’s really simple. I created a strings table, using the following structure:

CREATE TABLE `string` (
`id` int(11) NOT NULL auto_increment,

`english` varchar(100) NOT NULL default '',
`afrikaans` varchar(100) NOT NULL default '',
`strlen` tinyint(4) NOT NULL default '0',

I just manually entered a whole list of English strings, and their Afrikaans counterparts, and then ran it through a sorting script to populate the strlen field, so that longer strings such as Capital of are translated before shorter string such as Capital

Having done all this, I created a simple web form that takes a textarea, and outputs a hopefully translated textarea, the aim being to be able to quickly run entries from the English wikipedia through the tool, and paste them into the Afrikaans version with the minimum of fuss.

I started with Kenya, and ran it through the tool. However, I noticed that the article uses a country template. It’s a fairly obvious concept, which makes life so much easier. However, none of the Afrikaans articles that I’d looked at until then had made use of them, so each country had different links, different spellings, etc. A nightmare. So, I got distracted again, and with much headscratching and paging through the dictionary, I created an Afrikaans country template.

After getting it vaguely ready for production (and following the be bold principle), I had it working on the newly-created Kenia page. I decided to try it on the Suid-Afrika page, only to find that there was already a template in use. Unfortunately it’s been badly translated from the Dutch, but if I’d known (or bothered to look more carefully) I could have saved myself a lot of time and used that as a base.

Anyway, it’s been a fun day. The real work continues to pile up, but why did I stop working fulltime if not to be able to enjoy unproductive days like this 🙂

My real aim is to get the translation tool to a level where, after some initial translation, it can be used to quickly populate country pages for the Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho and other South African language Wikipedias. There’ve been attempts at starting them, but they haven’t yet got anywhere near the critical mass they need to achieve to become viable resources.

Earth (Arts and Literature)

The curse of knowledge

Knowing too much can be a curse. In this case it’s the knowledge of good and evil. Of course I’m told there is no good and evil really, and sometimes I even think I manage to grasp it, but buying into my judgemental partitioning of the world for now, I sometimes hark back for the days I would find a bottle of Tassies perfectly adequate, or a David Eddings book the best way to spend a weekend. (If evil is too strong to describe Tassies, the infamous red wine blend, let’s just call it bad. However evil is a good description of David Edding’s atrocious Mallorean). Nowadays I’m more likely to be satisfied with a bottle of Longridge Brut lovingly (and expensively) bought from the farm after a wine-taste at the farm, or a masterpiece by Ben Okri or David Zindell’s science fiction (his Neverness provides the name of this blog).

I recently visited a friend, and the wine was flowing in copious quantities, but it all tasted like drek to me. Since I can hardly insist on being supplied R90 bottles of wine on demand, I eventually made do with water, and probably had less fun than my 20 year-old counterpart would have (but then I also remembered the evening slightly more clearly).

Similarly, I recently read a book by James Patterson, called Roses are Red. It was truly awful. I groaned at every second sentence, the grim cliches, the torturous metaphors. Yet I finished the entire 400 odd pages in one evening. It’s the kind of book I may have enjoyed as a teenager, the gruesome murders and sexual titillation. And it must have still had some appeal for me to keep going.

I guess the more you know the less you know, and the more you judge the worse everything is.

By the way, no prizes for guessing the title of the sequel to Roses are Red. Aaarrrghhhh!

Related links:

Earth (Arts and Literature)

Wikimedia and the FLOSS conference in Pretoria

Unfortunately I missed the FLOSS conference in Pretoria, but there’ve already been two writeups about it that I’m aware of.
A Tectonic article, Wiki-ing into Africa, and a Wikimedia conference report. The conference sounded great, particularly the discussions around distributing Wikipedia, legal terminology and Wiktionary (to assist the courts in dealing with translating the 11 official languages) and E-learning in general, and Wikibooks and Wikiversity in particular, relating to the high cost of textbooks here. I’m really sorry to have missed it. It would have been a good chance to meet up with others interested in the same field.

There was a conclusion of particular interest to me. From the Wikimedia report:
It was felt there would not be enough literate people with access to computers and sufficient knowledge to make versions such as Zulu and Xhosa into useful resources. This as after mentioning that only the English version is actively being distributed to schools at present.

I agree that the Afrikaans Wikipedia is not yet much of a resource, and the other SA languages barely begun, but that’s not to say they will never be useful. With internet access rolling out rapidly, it’s not impossible that translation alone will be able to get them to a usuable level, particulary if creative means are employed to start with, such as using schools to translate existing nglish articles. The pace of change and growth may be much slower, and it’s doubtful that they will ever be more than a subset of the English version, but that’s not a problem. There’s no need to devote the same energy that English contributors have to the Star Trek and Simpsons articles, for example. But translating South-African topics, as well as key international topics, should be sufficient to get a usable resource.

Earth (Arts and Literature)

After the Eclipse, by Tom Rymour

Walton recommended a rare treat of a book, and I’ve managed to steal enough time, and let Dorje get up to just enough havoc in order to finish it.

The treat in question was After the Eclipse by Tom Rymour (published by Discobolus). The author’s name (real name Tom Learmont) is apparently derived from Thomas the Rhymer, a 13th century Scottish seer, who’s most common fictional incantation is in a popular Scottish ballad where he has an encounter with a faerie queen, gets carried away to to her Elfyn world, and returns seven years later as a prophet, unable to tell a lie.

Lyrics to the ballad Thomas Rhymer Child #37

True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank,

A ferlie he spied wi’ his ee,
And there he saw a lady bright,
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.

Her shirt was o’ the grass-green silk,
Her mantle o’ the velvet fine,
At ilka tett her horse’s mane
Hang fifty siller bells and nine.

True Thomas, he pulld aff his cap,

And louted low down to his knee:
‘All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven!
For thy peer on earth I never did see.’

‘Oh no, O no, Thomas,’ she said,
‘That name does not belong to me;
I am but the queen of fair elfland,
That am hither come to visit thee.’

‘Harp and carp, Thomas,’ she said,

‘Harp and carp along wi me,
And if ye dare to kiss my lips,
Sure of your bodie I will be.’

‘Betide me weal, betide me woe,
That weird shall never daunton me’;
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips,
All underneath the Eildon Tree.

‘Now, ye maun go wi me,’ she said,

‘True Thomas, ye maun go wi me,
And ye maun serve me seven years,
Thro weal or woe, as chance to be.’

She mounted on her milk-white steed,
She’s taen True Thomas up behind,
And aye wheneer her bride rung,
The steed flew swifter than the wind.

O they rade on, and farther on–

The steed gaed swifter than the wind–
Untill they reached a desart wide,
And living land was left behind.

‘Light down, light down, now, True Thomas,
And lean your head upon my knee;
Abide and rest a little space,
And I will shew you ferlies three.

‘O see ye not yon narrow road,

So think beset with thorns and briers?
That is that path of righteousness,
Tho after it but few enquires.

‘And see not ye that briad braid road
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the path of wickedness,
Tho some call it the road to heaven.

‘And see not ye that bonny road,

That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

‘But, Thomas, ye maun hold your tongue,
Whatever ye may hear or see,
For, if you speak word in Elflyn land,
Ye’ll neer get back to your ain countrie.’

O they rade on, and farther on,

And they waded thro rivers aboon the knee,
And they saw neither sun nor moon,
But they heard the roaring of the sea.

It was mirk mirk night, and there was nae stern light,
amd they waded thro red blude to the knee;
Fow a’ the blude that’s shed on earth
Rins thro the springs o that countrie.

Syne they came on to a garden green,

And she pu’d an apple frae a tree:
‘Take this for thy wages, True Thomas,
It will give the tongue that can never lie.’

‘My tongue is mine ain,’ True Thomas said;
‘ A gudely gift ye wad gie to me!
I neither dought to buy nor sell,
At fair or tryst where I may be.

‘I dought neither speak to prince or peer,

Nor ask of grace from fair ladye:’
‘Now hold thy peace,’ the lady said,
‘For as I say, so must it be.’

He has gotten a coat of the even cloth,
And a pair of shoes of velvet green,
And till seven years were gane and past
True Thomas on earth was never seen.

-from F. J. Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, version C

Without giving away too much, the book is set in a future Zimbabwe (Rhudisa) after an apocalypse around the time of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (the book was published in 2004, but I’ve heard that it may have been written around the time of the UDI, and there’s a reference to it being published in 1995). The book satirises many aspects of society, such as racial stereotyping, sexual behaviour and religious beliefs. A small wealthy black monarchy rules with an iron fist over a vast poor white underclass. Worship of ancestors and belief in spirits is the orthodoxy, while Christianity, as the religion of the underclass, simply focuses on one particular ancestor, the Baba Jesus, while accepting all the other spirits and ancestors. The most heinuous crimes are those of gastronomy and, yes, mastication, and citizens walk around with their mouths (oral orifices) politely kept out of site. Public sexual orgies are common.

The action follows a rural white, January Beeswax, who, after an encounter with a spirit leaves his rural birthplace, and becomes embroiled in the tumultuous affairs of the ruling black class.

The ending I found a little disappointing, and the book is riddled with typos (I stopped counting at 7), perhaps not surprising for a small publishing house (whose only other book seems to be another. upcoming, novel by Tom Rymour), but I enjoyed the book, and will read his new novel. Walton compared the novel to a work by Ursula Le Guin, and while I get the similarities (and perhaps more importantly it had the desired effect of getting me to read the book immediately, just like those “best since Tolkein” lines on the back of a book used to get me the first 10 or so times), I wouldn’t use that description. Both authors use the conventions of science-fiction in a similar, rather loose manner, but many of Le Guin’s works explore Taoist, anarchist, feminist and psychological themes as well as the sociological themes central to this book.

The book scores a highly credible 7 in my rating scheme.

Urgent reading done, I can return the book to Walton and go back to Dhalgren, by Samuel Delany, a rather slow moving science fiction book that’s been hyped as one of the greatest novels of 20th Century American literature (by the Amazon editorial team), and compared to Dune by that oh so deceitful jacket cover. It’s quite a monster of a book, so after 400 pages or so I’m not even half way, and still haven’t got a strong opinion, but I’m intrigued enough to keep going.

Earth (Arts and Literature)

500th Wikipedia edit

I’ve made my 500th edit to Wikipedia (at least to the English version. I’ve also contributed a few to the Afrikaans version, albeit armed with dictionary – one of the instructions is be bold after all).

Rather unexcitingly, it was a vote for deletion of an article I’d prepared for moving from Wikipedia to Wiktionary. However, being the first time I’d attempted this, I stuffed it up by not performing it according to the requirements of m:transwiki (doing so allows articles to be moved across wikis without losing historical data).

I thought I’d be way past 500 by now – certainly not in the league of the most active contributors (though I only need 1019 just to get onto the list at position 1000, but 131522 to be number one (although that is a bot – see the Wired article for insights into some of these people).

Of course, I may have some more time quite soon, so perhaps the next 500 will take less than 2 years and 2 months.

One of my goals this year is to see the launch of Wikipedia in all of the official South African languages, so if anyone is keen to help me achieve that, please let me know.

Earth (Arts and Literature)

Enemy at the Gates

Just finished reading Enemy at the Gates, by William Craig. It’s about the World War II battle for Stalingrad (also made into a recent film, loosely-related, film). I seem to be enjoying grim histories at the moment, having recently finished the equally grim The Earth Shall Weep, about Native American history.

The battle was one of the bloodiest of the entire WWII, with around 2 million lives lost, thousands upon thousands dying in vicious street fighting, going from one building to another. The flagship German army, the 6th Army, was cut off, and in a series of military blunders (many made by Hitler), left to die in the city instead of breaking out to rejoin the supply lines. It’s well-written, and if you’re the slightest bit interested in that part of history, it’s a must-read.

I know the history fairly well. I used to play wargames a few years ago, all-weekend affairs poring over a board moving little pieces around. I was usually pretty good at them, but one I mostly lost, and therefore is all-too embedded in my memory, was called Clash of Steel, about the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The 6th army was one of the most powerful pieces in the game, and its demise usually precipitated my demise as the German player.

The army consisted of 250 000 men. The army fought its way into Stalingrad in August 1942, and until then the Germans had not really tasted defeat – Soviet morale was at its lowest, the Germans assumed the war would be over by the end of the year. With Stalingrad conquered and the Volga crossed, the Germans could sweep down towards both Moscow, and the oil-rich lands to the South, cutting the heart out of Soviet industry.

Instead, the army got caught up in vicious street fighting, and was eventually cut off. Instead of prudently fighting back to rejoin their supply-lines, Hitler in his arrogance assumed that the Germans would soon break through, and ordered them to stay put. Surrounded, and with supplies, dwindling, the army suffered horrendous losses, and by the time they surrendered only about 100 000 remained. Of those, only 5000 returned from Soviet captivity.

The story is well told, with hundreds of individual accounts from both sides, horrific stories of war, a baby held by its legs and arms and being torn apart, men shooting themselves in the stomach in order to be hospitalised and sent back home, doctors cutting off frostbitten, gangrenous legs with scissors.

One part that struck me was the letters the trapped soldiers wrote back home, and how the tone changed as time wore on, and they became aware of their abandonment. I remember a comment Walton made when he said that he thinks things are getting better, citing as evidence the fact that before World War I, millions went onto the streets to demonstrate for war, while for the recent Iraq invasion millions demonstrated against war.

Perhaps the attitude of soldiers can be used as evidence too. In Stalingrad, so many of the soldiers showed blind faith to Hitler, assuming that he would make the right decisions and rescue them, that their victory was inevitable. So many on both sides did not question the morality of killing their enemies, did not even consider the question, so brainwashed were they into blind obedience.

While all armies today still practice the same techniques, breaking the individual down, turning them into an unthinking killing machine, I wonder if there hasn’t been some progress. War is a terrible beast, and exposure to the horrors can desensitise anyone. The Soviet Union top brass created set of guidelines for the humane treatment of prisoners, but these were almost completely ignored by the traumatised soldiers and officers on the ground, powerless to deal with the horrors they’d seen, and attempting to claim some power back by the cold-blooded killing, torture and mistreatment of their prisoners. I’m struck too by voices of wisdom from within the chaos. A German soldier with a gun pointed at his head, having just seen his colleague shot at point-blank range, is spared when a Russian tells his colleage ‘Comrade Stalin will not like that’, perhaps the only way to stop the action.

So how much have things changed? In Ethiopia, citizens recently marched against the peace treaty with Eritrea, seeing it as a slight against their national pride. And today’s wars are still terrible, prisoners being beheaded, abused, civilians caught in the crossfire, and targeted, mere ‘collateral damage’.

The technologies have changed, the influence of the press is greater, the political systems more robust. But I’m still unsure. I like to think things are better. I live in South Africa after all, where in my lifetime things are hugely better than they were. There’s been nothing like the destruction in Stalingrad since, but humanity seems to keep trying to repeat its mistakes, taking steps both back and forward. Europe is undoubtedly a better place now than 60 years ago, but will we say the same in another 60 years?

Earth (Arts and Literature)

Texas Chainsaw President

One of my favourite writers, Walton Pantland, who writes Red Star Coven, has published a superb article on that old favourite of topics, the USA. Do yourselves a favour and read Return of the Texas Chainsaw President.

Some choice quotes from his article:

  • The maniac redneck is back in power, and this time he didn’t steal the election
  • The economy is fucked. The dollar has to fall. $2.73 trillion foreign debt… It won’t last. Start growing your own veggies.
  • clearly, Americans need to get laid more.
  • But there is a kind of willed stupidity in the national psyche, which I call ‘Forrest Gumpism – the idea that there is something pure and good about being too stupid to understand the world.