Quotulatiousness

December 6, 2013

Mismeasuring inequality

Filed under: Economics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 15:20

Tim Worstall on a Wall Street Journal article which asks “how do we measure inequality”. Tim says “not that way, idiots” (although I might have imagined the “idiots” part):

The title of the piece is “How do you measure ‘inequality’?” to which a very good response is “Not that way”. For although all the numbers there are exact and accurate (well, as much as any economic statistic is such) the whole statement is entirely misleading. For the numbers that are being used for the USA are calculated on an entirely different basis to the way that the numbers for the other countries are. So much so that in this instance we have Wikipedia being more accurate than either the WSJ or the CIA itself. Which, while amusing, isn’t quite the world I think we’d all like to have.

Here’s what the problem is. Conceptually we can measure inequality in a number of different ways and this particular one, the Gini, looks at the spread of incomes across the society. OK, no need for the details of how we calculate it except for one. We again, conceptually, have two different incomes that can be measured.

So, the guy pulling down $1 million a year dealing bonds on Wall Street. Does he really have an income of $1 million a year? Or is it more true to say that he gets $600,000 a year after the Feds, NY State and NYC have all dipped their hands into his paycheck? And the guy at the other end, making $15,000 a year as a greeter at WalMart. Is he really making $15,000? Or should we add in the EITC, the State EITC (if there is one), Section 8 housing vouchers, Medicaid and all the rest to what he’s earning? He might be consuming as if he’s getting $25 k a year, even though his market income is only $15k.

What we actually do is we calculate both of these. The first is called the Gini at market incomes, the second the Gini after taxes and benefits. There’s nothing either right or wrong about either measure: they just are what they are. However, we do have to be clear about which we are using in any circumstance and similarly, very clear about not comparing inequality in one country by one measure with inequality in another by the other measure. Yet, sadly, that is exactly what is being done here.

May 3, 2013

Wikipedia forced to re-examine categorization

Filed under: Media, Politics, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

In the New York Review of Books, James Gleick recounts the tale of Wikipedia’s “American women novelists” category:

There is consternation at Wikipedia over the discovery that hundreds of novelists who happen to be female were being systematically removed from the category “American novelists” and assigned to the category “American women novelists.” Amanda Filipacchi, whom I will call an American novelist despite her having been born in Paris, set off a furor with an opinion piece on the New York Times website last week. Browsing on Wikipedia, she had suddenly noticed that women were vanishing from “American novelists” — starting, it seemed, in alphabetical order.

[. . .]

At Wikipedia, all hell broke loose. (Let’s pause here to flag the phrase, “at Wikipedia.” Wikipedia is a notional place only. It is not situated in a sleek California corporate campus, like Google in Mountain View or Apple in Cupertino, but instead distributed across cyberspace.)

These kinds of debates are usually bruited and argued on Wikipedia’s “Talk” pages, which are set aside for discussion by editors. After the Filipacchi article, Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s cofounder, created a new entry on his personal Talk page under the bold-face heading, “WTF?” Wales does not give orders or directly cause things to happen. He is more of a noninterventionist god. He is often referred to simply as Founder (capital F) or Jimbo. Anyway, he wrote:

    My first instinct is that surely these stories are wrong in some important way. Can someone update me on where I can read the community conversation about this? Did it happen? How did it happen?

Heated argument broke out on a page set aside for discussion of changes to Wikipedia categories. Categories are a big deal. They are an important way to group articles; some people use them to navigate or browse. Categories provide structure for a web of knowledge — not a tree, because a category can have multiple parents, as well as multiple children. Wikipedia lists 4,325 Container categories, from “Accordionists by nationality” to “Zoos in the United States.” There are Disambiguation categories, Eponymous categories — named, for example, after railway lines like Norway’s Flåm Line, or after robots (there are two: Optimus Prime and R2-D2) — and at least 11,000 Hidden categories, meant for administration and therefore invisible to readers. A typical hidden category is “Wikipedia:Categories for discussion,” containing thousands of pages of logged discussions about the suitabilities of various categories. Meta enough for you?

April 8, 2013

French intelligence agency discovers the power of the “Streisand Effect”

Filed under: Europe, Government, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:04

The French Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence (DCRI) didn’t appreciate that Wikipedia had an article on one of their installations (link is to the English version of the page in question), so they asked to have it removed. However, because they wouldn’t specify what information in the article was sensitive (even though it was largely based on a French TV broadcast), the Wikipedia editors turned down the request. The DCRI then channelled their inner thug:

Wikipedia refused to delete it, and then things took a nasty turn, as a press release from the Wikimedia Foundation explains:

    Unhappy with the Foundation’s answer, the DCRI summoned a Wikipedia volunteer in their offices on April 4th. This volunteer, which was one of those having access to the tools that allow the deletion of pages, was forced to delete the article while in the DCRI offices, on the understanding that he would have been held in custody and prosecuted if he did not comply. Under pressure, he had no other choice than to delete the article, despite explaining to the DCRI this is not how Wikipedia works.

As the Wikimedia Foundation goes on to note:

    This volunteer had no link with that article, having never edited it and not even knowing of its existence before entering the DCRI offices. He was chosen and summoned because he was easily identifiable, given his regular promotional actions of Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects in France.

This is very similar to the situation discussed last week, where Benjamin Mako Hill seems to have been targeted because he, too, was easily identifiable. As we noted then, putting pressure on Wikipedia volunteers in this way is extremely problematic, since it naturally discourages others from helping out.

How did the DCRI learn about the Streisand Effect?

… the deleted article is, of course, back on line, in French and a dozen other languages. Moreover, the DCRI’s ham-fisted attempt to censor an extremely obscure Wikipedia page that hardly anyone ever visited, has achieved exactly the opposite effect: in the last few days, the page has been viewed over 45,000 times.

April 7, 2013

1,900 first-year psychology students versus the arrayed might of Wikipedia editors

Filed under: Cancon, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:03

You know how great Wikipedia is? You know what’d make it even greater? Adding nearly 2,000 first-year university students as contributors and editors (because they do such a great job of writing research papers and citing their sources):

Steve Joordens urged the 1,900 students in his introductory psychology class to start adding content to relevant Wikipedia pages. The assignment was voluntary, and Joordens hoped the process would both enhance Wikipedia’s body of work on psychology while teaching students about the scientist’s responsibility to share knowledge.

But Joordens’s plan backfired when the relatively small contingent of volunteer editors that curate the website’s content began sounding alarm bells. They raised concerns about the sheer number of contributions pouring in from people who were not necessarily well-versed in the topic or adept at citing their research.

Discussions in the Wikipedia community became very heated with allegations that articles were being updated with erroneous or plagiarized information. Some community members called for widespread bans on university IP addresses and decried the professor’s assignment as a needless burden on the community.

April 3, 2013

Oh, you must mean the other Michael Moynihan!

Filed under: Media, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:07

Wikipedia is a great resource, that has justifiably relegated printed encyclopedias to the dustiest, most distant part of the bookshelves. It does, however, have a few minor drawbacks … as Michael Moynihan explains:

It came to me in Prague. Or possibly Copenhagen. But to minimize confusion, let’s agree upon Prague. I assume I was being unbearably pretentious, sitting beneath one of those baroque sculptures on Charles Bridge (or was it one of those other, less beautiful bridges spanning the Vltava River?), a tattered Tom Stoppard play stuffed in my back pocket (or possibly Kafka?), the Plastic People of the Universe on my headphones (could have been Dvořák). It was here, leafing through back issues of the Prague Post and Prognosis, that I was inspired to print 10,000 copies of a muckraking, nakedly ideological newspaper of my own. To be launched in Sweden. To be called the Spectator.

I must confess that these images of Prague — in all of its inspirational grandeur — are cribbed either from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being or INXS’s video for “Never Tear Us Apart.” Because despite what my Wikipedia entry tells me, I’ve never been to the Czech Republic.

[. . .]

It’s possible to quibble with or contest every second sentence in my encyclopedia entry, which quickly cratered my confidence in the website. But there are plenty of studies suggesting that Wikipedia is, despite its ability to be edited by anyone with excess free time and an Internet connection, about as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica. It also has the benefit of being up to the minute: when news breaks, when a public figure dies, details are added to Wikipedia almost immediately. A fact check of important subjects with multiple editors — Darwinism, Squeaky Fromme, the Boxer Rebellion — suggests that the website is broadly trustworthy, terrific at aggregating links, and a worthy springboard to better material.

But what of those entries covering the hopelessly insignificant, like me? I won’t bore you by cataloguing all the mistakes in my entry (I found about a dozen), but the results weren’t terribly impressive. I’m unsure how long it remained on the page, but according to Wikipedia’s edit log, my biography once claimed that I had a “vagina” and — pardon the language — “love the cock.” The only people who can refute the first point are, I hope, biased in my favor and wouldn’t be trusted by Wikipedia as “reliable sources.” The second point, also difficult to disprove, seems irrelevant to the job of polemicist.

February 18, 2013

Did you know … that Wikipedia has an obsession over Gibraltar?

Filed under: Britain, Europe, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:00

I’d noticed one or two of these “Did you know…” entries on the Wikipedia site, but I didn’t realize just how much of a fixation the online encyclopedia has for “The Rock”:

Last October Wikipedia‘s supreme leader Jimmy Wales called for a “strong moratorium” on the online project’s strange obsession with promoting Gibraltar — even suggesting a five-year ban on Gibraltar-loving Did You Know… posts on Wikipedia‘s front page.

“I think it is clear that there should be a strong moratorium on any Gibraltar-related DYKs on the front page of Wikipedia. I would recommend a total ban on them for five years, but that might be too extreme. I support that we get wider community attention on the issue,” he wrote in October last year.

The moratorium was opposed by Wiki editors but they did agree on certain guidelines. Every Gibraltar DYK has to be reviewed by two reviewers to check for conflict-of-interest issues or promotionalism, and no more than one Gibraltarpedia hook is allowed in one a day. Also, Bamkin (user name Victuallers) is not allowed to create or nominate Gibraltar-related articles to DYK.

Jimmy Wales speaks, and Wikipedia leaps into action. In December, they restricted themselves to a mere nine Gibraltar DYK entries. January saw 12 Gibraltarpedia links. As of today, there have been six Gibraltar-related posts in February.

December 20, 2012

Wikipedia’s funding model

Filed under: Business, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:57

At The Register, Andrew Orlowski looks at the way Wikipedia is funded and explains why they don’t actually need to pester you for donations (but do anyway):

It’s that time of year again. As the Christmas lights go up, Wikipedia’s donation drive kicks off. Wikipedia claims that the donations are needed to keep the site online. Guilt-tripped journalists including Heather Brooke and Toby Young have contributed to Wikipedia in the belief that donations help fund operating costs. Students, who are already heavily in debt, are urged to donate in case Wikipedia “disappears”.

But what Wikipedia doesn’t tell us is that it is awash with cash — and raises far more money each year than it needs to keep operating.

Donations are funding a huge expansion in professional administrative staff and “research projects”. Amazingly, this year for the first time Wikipedia — the web encyclopaedia anyone can edit — has even found the cash to fund a lobbyist.

All this has been met with dismay by the loyal enthusiasts who do all the hard work of keeping the project afloat by editing and contributing words — and who still aren’t paid. For the first time, Wikipedians are beginning to examine the cash awards — and are making some interesting discoveries.

First, let’s have a look at the finances.

September 16, 2012

The other side of the Philip Roth/Wikipedia spat

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:53

I admit that I didn’t follow this story when it got (for a literary spat) saturation coverage in various media outlets. Here (speaking in a private capacity and not as an official Wikimedia Foundation spokesperson) is Oliver, and he’s got a bit of refuting to do:

First, this is not a fundamental flaw in Wikipedia’s central precepts — this is one author and his agents being unable to navigate the internet and/or report the truth with any degree of accuracy. This is our attempt to make our information not only accurate, but verifiable — to ensure that readers have a hope in hell of actually checking the accuracy of our information. This is not achieved by enabling subjects to become the oracles of truth for any article that mentions them, or telling readers “we know it’s accurate because Philip Roth said so, and you’ll just have to trust us on that”. We don’t want readers to trust us. We want readers to think and be able to do their own research.

Second, maybe (although I doubt it) we need to have a frank debate over how we handle primary and secondary sourcing. But for all of the reasons explained above, Philip Roth and the Editorial of Azkaban is a terrible poster boy for such a debate.

Third: people should perhaps start having a debate about the way authors are treated in “proper” sources. The New Yorker, the Guardian, ABC News and the Los Angeles Times — all respected bodies. And all, without being able and/or willing to do their own research, happily published or republished Roth’s assertions. We rely on these organisations for reporting what our politicians do, what our armed forces do, how entities with the power of life and death over humanity are accountable to the people. And they happily gulp down the glorified press releases of anyone who offers to let them touch his Pulitzer.

There’s also a follow-up post providing more information and explanation.

August 8, 2012

How British libel laws work (and why Jimmy Wales is wrong about them)

Filed under: Britain, Law, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:54

Tim Worstall explains that Jimmy Wales misunderstands what British libel laws really mean for publishers (and bloggers) in other countries:

The libel law of England and Wales is rather different from many other countries, yes. It’s a lot harder to defend against a charge there, damages are higher than in most other jurisdictions and so on. However, that isn’t the important point. What drags you into that jurisdiction is not where your servers are. Nor where the people who prepared the material, where it was uploaded nor where the company is located. What matters is where was the person reading it located?

Please note, this applies to us all. In all jurisdictions the result is the same. It applies to corporate websites, to blogs, to Wikipedia, to everyone. It is a generally accepted legal rule that publication of digital information takes place where it is read, not where it is “published”. The general logic is that at one point there is a copy on the server somewhere. Then, someone downloads it into a browser window in order to read it. At this time there are two copies, on in the browser, one on the server. This creation of a second copy is therefore publication. And that publication takes place in the jurisdiction of the reader, not anywhere else.

[. . .]

Thus Wikipedia not having servers in the UK, not being a UK corporation or charity, does not protect it from English libel laws. None of us are so protected from them, we are liable under them if as and when someone in England and Wales reads our pages.

[. . .]

But as I say, it is still true that jurisdiction on the internet depends upon where the reader is, not the producer or the servers. It’s not a happy thought that we’re now subject to 200 off legal jurisdictions every time we post something but it is true.

January 24, 2012

SOPA Wars II: The Internet Strikes Back

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:14

Michael Geist on the remarkable results of the anti-SOPA protests:

Last week’s Wikipedia-led blackout in protest of U.S. copyright legislation called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is being hailed by some as the Internet Spring, the day that millions fought back against restrictive legislative proposals that posed a serious threat to an open Internet. Derided by critics as a gimmick, my weekly technology law column [. . .] notes it is hard to see how the SOPA protest can be fairly characterized as anything other than a stunning success. Wikipedia reports that 162 million people viewed its blackout page during the 24-hour protest period. By comparison, the most-watched television program of 2011, the Super Bowl, attracted 111 million viewers.

More impressive were the number of people who took action. Eight million Wikipedia visitors looked up contact information for their elected representatives, seven million people signed a Google petition, and Engine Advocacy reported that it was completing 2,000 phone calls per second to local members of Congress.

The protest launched a political earthquake as previously supportive politicians raced for the exits. According to ProPublica, the day before the protest, 80 members of Congress supported the legislation and 31 opposed. Two days later, there were only 63 supporters and 122 opposed.

[. . .]

It may be tempting for SOPA protesters to declare victory, but history teaches that political wins are rarely absolute. The current Canadian legislation, Bill C-11, is much more balanced than the 2007 proposal, but the digital lock provisions that sparked the initial protest remain largely unchanged. In New Zealand, the government later introduced a more balanced bill with greater safeguards, but the prospect of terminating Internet access was not completely eliminated.

SOPA appears to be headed for the dustbin, but successor U.S. legislation is sure to follow. A political consensus on anti-piracy legislation will eventually emerge, but the day the Internet fought back will remain the elephant in the room for years to come.

January 19, 2012

SOPA delenda est!

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:17

Matt Peckham on the results of yesterday’s blackout:

On Wikipedia’s SOPA Initiative/Lean More page, the site notes that over 12,000 people commented on the Wikimedia Foundation’s post announcing the blackout — ”A breathtaking majority supported the blackout.” On Twitter, Wikipedia says the hashtag topic #wikipediablackout “at one point…constituted 1% of all tweets,” and that SOPA-related Twitter posts were popping off at a rate of a quarter-million every hour. And finally: Wikipedia says over eight million visitors used the site’s zip code tool to look up their elected representatives.

All the traffic to Congressional websites definitely had an impact: At one point Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) tweeted “Anti- #PIPA, #SOPA traffic has temporarily shut down our website.” Other Congressional websites were reportedly slow to load throughout the day or returned error messages for visitors.

And then, the political dominoes began to fall: Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) renounced his support for SOPA (he co-sponsored the bill) yesterday on Facebook, Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) used Twitter to tell the world he now opposes the bill and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) told his Facebook followers “better to get this done right rather than fast and wrong.”

The New York Times reports “then trickle turned to flood,” noting that Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) as well as Representatives Lee Terry (R-NE) and Ben Quayle (R-AZ) announced their opposition to the bill. The Times adds that “at least 10 senators and nearly twice that many House members announced their opposition.”

My own tiny contribution wasn’t particularly conclusive: traffic to the blog (in spite of the anti-SOPA clickthrough page) was up by about 20% over the previous week’s average.

September 22, 2011

“A piece of half-baked speculation had simply been used without checking because, well, it seemed true enough”

Filed under: Americas, Environment, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:49

Tim Black on the recent Times Atlas gaffe over the Greenland ice sheet:

For those all too inclined to believe the worst in the warmest of all possible worlds, there was no need to question the Times Atlas’s revelation. It merely told them what they already knew — that our nasty industrialised ways are destroying Earth.

But among those who actually know a little about ice sheets, the atlas’s findings were a little too much of a revelation. First up were researchers from the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, who promptly wrote to the atlas’s editors: ‘There is to our knowledge no support for this [15 per cent] claim in the published scientific literature.’ Other scientists in the field were quick to back up the Cambridge researchers. ‘The claims here’, said Graham Cogley from Trent University, ‘are simply not backed up by science; this pig can’t fly’. Others agreed. Jeffrey Kargel of the University of Arizona, principal scientist on a project involving the mapping of ice and glaciers from space, was unequivocal: ‘These new maps are ridiculously off base, way exaggerated relative to the reality of rapid change in Greenland. I don’t know how exactly the Times Atlas produced their results, but they are not scientific results.’

So how exactly did the Times Atlas cartographers produce their results? More kindly commentators have suggested that the atlas bods foolishly relied on the National Snow and Ice Data Center-maintained online resource, the Atlas of the Cryosphere. This apparently shows the thickness of the central part of the ice sheet over Greenland, but it does not show the thickness of the ice sheet’s periphery. The cartographers presumably interpreted this to mean that the peripheral ice did not exist — that it had melted. Other critics have been less generous, with one suggesting they might have been just a little too reliant on that bastion of truth, Wikipedia.

While it’s fun to pile on when a respected publication gets caught out trying for sensation instead of presenting facts, Black also sounds a note of caution:

Yet such over-eager triumphalism on the part of climate-change sceptics is misplaced. This is not because advocates of climate change are not frequently making mistakes. And it is not because the climate-change narrative, demanding so many facts to fit its story of manmade doom, is not fundamentally flawed. No, the problem with celebrating every scientific, factual refutation of the climate-change thesis as the beginning of the end for what remains the dominant narrative of our times, despite growing public indifference, is that climate change is not primarily a scientific issue. It was not born in science labs or in meteorology centres. And likewise, it will not be defeated by scientists or meteorologists, either.

That is because climate change is principally a political issue, not a scientific one. Climate-change alarmism is about channelling a vision of the future in which man, producing too much and consuming far more, is conceived as a problem. And the only way to challenge this widespread political and moral outlook is by coming up with something a little less human-hating — a political vision in which humanity’s needs and desires, our productive capacities and our consuming wants, are championed rather than denigrated. To rely on the mistakes of climate-change advocates to undermine their own cause is no substitute for the long-awaited, never-seen political debate about climate change.

September 15, 2011

Johann Hari, sockpuppet master

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:39

An interesting post at Velvet Glove, Iron Fist details the many, many Wikipedia sockpuppets under the control of Independent journalist Johann Hari:

Johann Hari, the plagiarist and liar, has been allowed to keep working at the Independent despite being caught bang to rights as a fraudulent troll. I was barely aware of this fellow’s existence until his journalistic techniques were exposed a few months ago. They should have been enough to get him sacked. Instead, the Independent have let him off with a whining, self-serving apology.

More interesting than the shoddy journalism is the Wikipedia trolling. Rumours have abounded for some time that ‘David Rose’ — Hari’s number one fan on the internet — is Hari himself. This has now been confirmed by the bubonic plagiarist. He operated several sockpuppets on Wikipedia to make himself out to be, as Nick Cohen put it, “one of the essential writers of our time”. More seriously, he has also persistently edited the Wiki pages of people he dislikes, including Cohen, with libellous glee. This, too, is not a sackable offence at the Independent.

Nothing is deleted on Wikipedia and the entries of David Rose (or ‘David r from meth productions’) stand as a testimony to the extraordinary scale and range of Hari’s six year trolling campaign. Certain themes emerge. Much of his time was spent emphasising his own importance as a major cultural figure. He pushes to have his every award and nomination put centre stage. As a left-wing journalist, he is eager to downplay his privileged education. He consistently edits the pages of his heroes such as Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot to portray them in their best light. He repeatedly edits his enemies to make them look like racists, or thugs, or loonies.

H/T to James Delingpole for the link.

June 21, 2011

A neologism? A crippling political setback? It’s both!

Filed under: Media, Politics, Technology, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:49

When you read the word “santorum”, what do you think of? A small minority of people apparently believe it refers to an obscure American politician:

The world’s Wikifiddlers are obsessed with santorum. Though they can’t agree on what that is.

For some, it’s a word. For others, it’s not: it’s the result of a campaign to create a word. The distinction — however subtle — has sparked weeks of controversy among the core contributors to Wikipedia, the “free encyclopedia anyone can edit”. If you find this hard to believe, you’ve never been to Wikiland — and you’ve never Googled “Rick Santorum”.

Famously, Rick Santorum — the former Pennsylvania Senator and a Republican candidate for president of the United States — has a Google problem. But he also has a Wikipedia problem. And the two go hand-in-hand.

If nothing else, the whole controversy has added another variant meaning to the term “to be savaged”.

April 10, 2011

A world always at war

Filed under: Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe, History, Military, Pacific — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:38

This is an interesting site:

The screencap above shows the significant sites in the Mäntsälä rebellion in Finland in 1932 (no, I’d never heard of it either). Use the slider at the bottom of the screen to choose the time in history, and the map will show you the known conflicts for that period.

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