Tuesday, April 29, 2008

We got mittens too!

One of my heirloom trinkets is my great-grandfather's World War I German Army cigarette lighter. It's a big round hunk of brass with the words Gott mit uns inscribed on the side. Depending on how you translate it, that comes out as God is with us or may God be with us. It's an open question how much good that did; the Germans lost the war.

Another relative of mine fought on the American side. When he was well into his nineties he showed me how he used to mock that slogan. He and his buddies would stand with their hands held high and shout, Yeah, we got mittens too!

Both of those relatives were infantry, and for a few months their units actually faced each other, and they both got wounded during that war. I wonder how that mockery looked to my great-grandfather. The Americans joined the war late and were well supplied. By the war's final months, my great-grandfather's children back home were so hungry that they were stealing turnips from the trucks that carried food to the front. When my great-grandfather got discharged from the hospital he was still too weak to hold a job and his children had to go to work to support him until he recovered. When he tried to demand a pension the government threatened to throw him in jail. He took his family out of the country in the 1920s because he didn't want his sons to end up in the next war.

Gott mit uns.
We got mittens too!

It may be surprising that both of those men come frome the same side of my family. 13 years after the war ended they became father-in-law and son-in-law. To the end of their days they both personally blamed each other for their wounds, but they found a way to be jocular about it.

Yesterday I was talking to a Serbian editor about ethnic/national disputes and learned, to my amazement, that the Serbian and Croatian Wikipedias actually get along pretty well. Basically some editors piled into a car and drove over to Zagreb, where they shook some hands. Then some other editors piled into a car and drove to Belgrade, where they shook more hands. Once they got to know each other a little and could see that they were all basically normal people, relations improved.

This is the kind of local solution that I'm really interested in replicating. I'd like to try it globally. Smaller steps first. And in this instance, a small step is still a pretty big step.

Over at the English Wikipedia Israeli-Palestinian disputes I mentor one of the participants. It isn't easy, as you might imagine. The case has been through arbitration and is up on the arbitration enforcement board right now. This isn't the first time it's been there. The thread is long and bitter and frustrated on both sides.

So last night I posted to the talk pages of ten editors who had participated in that thread, sharing the experience of the Serb editors and the Croat editors and inviting these people to a voice chat on Skype. If some of them aren't comfortable with the suggestion, that's understandable. Voice does help communicate nuance and I hope some of them are willing to give this a try. Maybe they'll negotiate; maybe instead they'll talk about their favorite movies and falafel recipes. If it humanizes things enough to bridge a few gaps then it's worth it.

It isn't easy, but it can happen.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Community Petition, Part II

Getting a few questions back about the petition, and a comment from a five-year Wikimedia veteran that nobody's done a petition before to WMF. Such a simple instrument, I wonder why not...

Okay, here's a quick background. The board made major changes that nobody expected. Customarily, big things get discussed in advance. There would be back and forth on the Foundation mailing list. This wasn't discussed, wasn't mentioned at all in advance. Then was just presented as a fait accompli without an explanation. And when board of trustees for a volunteer driven organization reduces volunteer participation at the board level, that's just not a wise way to go about it.

As a student I was a bit of an activist; then afterward I also sat on an alumni board of directors. I know what it takes to get a board's attention, either from a seat at the table or from out in the hall knocking at the door. And I'm actually fairly sympathetic to the board members. Certain kinds of decisions can appear quite reasonable from a seat at the table, and big problems can happen if nobody in the room pipes up to say Hey, this wouldn't look good.

A volunteer driven organization needs to bear in mind the morale of its volunteers. The Wikimedia Foundation has about 15 employees. There is no way - absolutely none - that they could maintain their Alexa rank without volunteer labor. And they have made themselves uniquely vulnerable to exodus: their underlying software and all of their online content is entirely copyleft. All that it would really take is a sufficiently well-funded breakaway movement to render WMF obsolete. I don't particularly think anyone else could do this better, but the Foundation would be well advised to remember the actual fragility of their position.

It's not what you do, it's the way you do it. - Mae West

As an example of the kind of mentality I object to, here are excerpts from Brad Patrick's post to the Foundation mailing list today. Oddly, when I wrote the petition yesterday Patrick's resignation letter from a year ago was ringing in my mind - the part where he had said that the community shouldn't be silent. He played a very different tune today. Full text is here.

It would be best for those critical of the Board (and feeling that the community is the most important ideal) to remember that whether you like it or not, agree with it or not, or would have selected an alternative reality or not, it is still the case that the Board is that which governs the Wikimedia Foundation...the fact that the Board allows elections to put people up for Board positions in no way whatsoever gives "the community" an *entitlement* to that process or results. As is oft-repeated, WMF is not a membership organization... Stop whining and ask yourself if you have the objective qualifications to lead an international organization.

Now which quote do you prefer, Brad Patrick or Thomas Jefferson?

God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. ... What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

Another comparison:

You do not have any means of grabbing the reins of power from the Board, and you don't have any entitlement to anything except your ability to participate in a project, if you choose, a chapter, if you choose, or to speak up in some forum. You don't have a "right" to vote on anything, and the Board could just as easily have a contest than an election to fill Board seats. - Brad Patrick

Let them eat cake. - Marie Antoinette

The ancien regime didn't have any mechanism for community participation either, Brad.

Actually the community has an enormously effective means of grabbing power from the board: we can vote with our feet. I'd rather not, so let's not go there.

The petition is a friendly poke in the ribs to an organization that is presently in need of a good poke in the ribs. It's more effective in these situations when a lot of people pick up one large stick and poke gently, than to try fencing with twigs.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Community Petition

During the ten years I lived in New York City I learned a way of dealing with the stress of seeing tons of stuff that needed to be fixed:

Is the thing irritating enough to do something about?

  1. If yes, figure out something that could help fix the problem and do it.
  2. If no, stop stressing about it.

Doing something doesn't necessarily mean spearheading a monumental effort to fix the universe. More often it meant figuring out which city office was responsible for fixing a street light, and giving them a phone call or writing a letter. Sometimes the problem got fixed, sometimes it didn't, but at least I had the relief of knowing I'd done my part. I hadn't been helpless and passive; I'd spoken.

So I guess this needs to be said: the petition I started today wasn't sour grapes about the Foundation turning down the proposal for a provisional volunteer council. A couple of people had pinged me earlier this week about that, and it had slid right off my back. Normally I don't pay all that much attention to Foundation level issues, and had been surprised when I'd learned that my name had been proposed for it. So it seemed like a good idea that my heart wasn't riding on. Okay: didn't happen, no big deal.

A few more people tugged on my sleeve. Same answer.

Then somebody (maybe I shouldn't say who) shook a little harder: had I seen what else the Board had done?

Actually I hadn't, and he seemed upset, so I looked into it and realized what the fuss was about, and when I did I wasn't happy either. So I wrote up a petition. Blame me if you don't like it; or head over and add your name if you agree:

Petition to the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees:

We, the volunteers, ask the Board to give the volunteer community a fair voice in Foundation governance. During the most recent meeting the board of trustees not only rejected a proposal to improve community input in Foundation matters, but implemented an unexpected restructuring to reduce the community seats on the board. The community was not consulted about this reduction in representation and the board provided no explanation for this change.

That is not a good way to treat people who donate their time and labor. The volunteer base made this the seventh most popular website in the world. We expect courtesy and respect, but received neither. That hurts morale.

Please provide a full explanation for recent board decisions and reconsider your top-down approach.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Not the Wikipedia Weekly

Over at Not the Wikipedia Weekly we had an interesting time today. Brian Bergstein of the Associated Press was our guest and we were lucky to have him. He was an excellent guest, yet a few things came up surrounding this episode that I'd have to call lessons learned.

First is communications. I thought I had communicated well enough with other people about when this Skypecast would be, and who our guest would be, and about seeking additional people for the panel. Some wires got crossed and a few balls got dropped. Part of that was due to my own time spent on other commitments: I had been in a conference for two days. So although I'd been e-mailing some people, I really hadn't spent the normal amount of time on follow-through.

So I actually discovered, much to my surprise, that on the morning of our best guest to date he knew about the Skypecast and I knew about it but practically nobody else did. I messaged some people, hoping to draw in enough guests to fill the room adequately, and some pretty good people joined. We wound up with so many that there were some concerns about the room's stability. During the time when I was seeking participants I also put up messages on administrative noticeboard and on the Foundation mailing list.

Two of the people who asked to join us have been banned from Wikipedia. This came up at the last moment and the NTWW organizers hadn't really anticipated how to handle this. Two of our previous episodes had included banned users at the invitation of the chat host, but in terms of running a recorded chat that's a very different environment from when banned users aren't expected and they just want to hop in at the last moment.

And one of those two individuals who wanted to join us today has taken a very public dislike to me. To put the matter politely, he and I are like oil and water and just haven't been able to hold a productive conversation. I might be willing to try again on neutral ground in some way, but to foist that upon a prominent guest on the spur of the moment just wouldn't have been quite right. Mr. Bergstein could have had a few things to say, but he hadn't come prepared for the discussion this person wanted to hold and, frankly, neither had I.

The informal "Not the Wikipedia Weekly" chats had a proviso that they were for trusted members of the community. Skype is not a totally secure online environment, so that's a legitimate concern. And unfortunately, both of these people were active at a forum where some of the membership had used - I hope the accurate term is malware - and that method of collecting information had not been condemned. In fairness to these two people, I do not know of either of them ever having used that themselves. Yet those of us who don't participate there are skittish about the company they keep, and I hope that concern is understandable.

A decision had to be made quickly, and the decision I made was to shut one of the two out of the conversation entirely. I welcomed the other into the text chat, and because the voice connection was large enough that it was unstable he texted his questions for the voice recording and I read them off. They were very good questions. For technical reasons I didn't get the first one into the recording. The others went off quite well. Post-recording, once the room was a little smaller, he joined us in voice for a while.

So the Not the Wikipedia Weekly regulars are having a discussion today about how to improve the way we handle these things. People deserve to know what the rules are (and sometimes things that haven't been anticipated just have to be resolved on the fly). We're a new project that's been running for less than two months, and a few kinks are inevitable. We'll be straightening them out.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Interview with Filll

The Not the Wikipedia Weekly Skypecasts have been a wonderful way to get to know Wikipedians better. Filll has been one of the regulars on the project and he's an experienced Wikipedian who's been active at Wikipedia's difficult evolution/creation debates.

The site sees consistent problems at areas where real world conflicts migrate onto Wikipedia, and volunteer work in these areas can be a real test of an editor's patience and interpersonal skills. Fill has come through well, but it's something like editing in a different (and much harsher) world from what most Wikipedians experience. So he's created a page called "The AGF Challenge" where he presents real dilemmas and asks other users how they would handle them.

I found this interesting enough to do an interview. First, here's a summary of Filll's Wikipedia experience.

Joined Oct 2006
27,000 edits
Not an administrator

Featured article credits:
Good article credits:

Block log:

The interview:

Durova says: Welcome!

Filll says: Thank you Durova.

Durova says: You've created a page called the AGF Challenge. That's "assume good faith". Could you talk a little more about it?

Filll says: Sure I would be glad to. I am thinking about creating a series of exercises to help people understand more about issues that come up when editing Wikipedia, and decisions that editors have to make. I hope this will also start a dialogue about some of these issues as well.

Durova says: What prompted you to create these exercises?

Filll says: I have noticed that many of the same questions and difficulties arise over and over, in slightly different form. Many people who are unhappy with Wikipedia's approach to a topic they are interested in, are readily able to understand why Wikipedia operates the way it does when they see the same principles applied to some other area. Also, when people are directly involved in a dispute, things sometimes get so heated they are not able to be objective. I thought if I created a set of "typical" difficulties that were not ongoing disputes, people could think about these a little more objectively. Also, many of those inside Wikipedia that complain about Wikipedia have little experience in dealing with contentious topics, so this gives them a chance to ponder these questions in a safe environment and avoid getting their hands dirty in a contentious dispute. Hopefully when these situations are studied in an abstract way, people can learn about why Wikipedia does what it does, and think about better ways to handle these sorts of difficult topics.

Durova says: So you have firsthand experience in contentious topics?

Filll says: Yes I have a little bit of experience in several controversial areas. I first encountered contentious discussions at the "Black people" article. I also have seen a lot of controversy at the articles associated with the creationism and evolution dispute, and with intelligent design. I also have edited some of the alternative medicine articles, which also can be quite contentious.

Durova says: How would you say the editing environment of a contentious article differs from a regular Wikipedia environment?

Filll says: It is much much more stressful, for one thing. It is much more time-consuming. A lot of effort goes into "defending" the articles from vandalism. In some cases, there are efforts to destroy the NPOV flavor of these articles 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even getting these articles to NPOV can be more difficult, if not impossible. There are organized groups of sock puppets and meat puppets and sometimes even paid editors from public relations firms attacking the WP articles. The editors can be targeted off-wiki and threatened and harassed in real life.

Durova says: That's something! Have you seen a lot of those extreme cases?

Filll says: Yes I have seen a lot of these extreme situations myself, or heard about them.

Durova says: But you also edit uncontroversial topics, is that true?

Filll says: Yes I do. For relaxation and fun, I edit a lot of uncontroversial articles. For example, I am working on creating articles for all the towns, villages and hamlets on the Isle of Wight. I am collecting versions of Frere Jacques in as many languages as possible, and other information about Frere Jacques. I am slowly working on improving the articles about the Way of St. James and towns along the route, and the Botafumeiro which is a large censor used in the Santiago de Compostella Cathedral. I am involved in improving the articles associated with Miquelon and St. Pierre, two islands off the east coast of Canada. I have edited some articles about linguistics and history and the history of publishing. I have an article about Bees and toxic chemicals that I hope to expand and improve; it is a GA article now. I have edited several articles about various fruits and vegetables. I have a lot of interests and I use Wikipedia as one way to explore them. I eventually will probably edit more in my main areas of interest, which lie in physics and applied mathematics.

Durova says: So with all of that hassle at the controversial topics, why do you go there?

Filll says: Well that is a good question. Sometimes I stay away from them for a while. I do help my friends who are working on these articles, and I think we make progress. I think we have an impact. Our intelligent design article gets over 70,000 visits a month, and our evolution article gets over 200,000 visits a month. My article on the Botafumeiro gets only about 1000 visits a month, and my article on Bees and toxic chemicals gets only about 1500 visits a month. Some of my more obscure articles get fewer visits per month than that. Our intelligent design articles are a valuable resource for people on all sides of the controversy, and for the legal and journalistic communities. Our evolution article was very highly rated in an outside review. We are providing the best possible information, in the most balanced form, and we are doing it free of charge. More information is better, I think, particularly in areas that are fraught with misinformation and confusion on all sides. It is my way to contribute a tiny bit to clearing up the disinformation and cutting throug the propaganda that both sides throw at each other. Also, many of the best sources of information on these topics are not so easily found. We give the public a way to find the information easily and put it in an organized format and provide some context.

Durova says: Now let me play devil's advocate for a moment: do you suppose the people who disagree with you ideologically think they're at those controversial articles in order to get good information in front of the public?

Filll says: That is not the impression I get from my conversations and interactions with them. For example, in the case of assorted Young Earth Creationists, they believe they know the Truth and that they have to write all articles to correct the mistakes that are in the scientific community, or the textbooks, or the museums. They want all the articles to reflect their personal views, instead of reflecting all the views that exist, which is what NPOV is. The impression I have is that they want to create religious tracts, not an encyclopedia article. The same is true at some alternative medicine articles. The proponents of assorted alternative medicine approaches want to censor any information that is contrary to their particular form of alternative medicine, and all studies that might reflect negatively on it, and only present information that promotes their approach. They do not want to present a balance between the various views, but to filter the articles to only present their personal views.

Durova says: And do you disclose your own views and background? I often find that people who are themselves at an article to push a point of view assume everyone else is there for the same purpose and with the same strategy, just pushing different points of vie.

Filll says: Sometimes I am goaded into it, but usually not. Many assume that I am an atheist, when I am not. Many have called me all kinds of things which I am not. They assume that since I want to present a mix of views, I must be one of their standard ideological opponents.

Durova says: And for the uninitiated, NPOV means "Neutral point of view", one of Wikipedia's core policies.

Filll says: I might even agree with them, but I try to present all views roughly in proportion to their prominence; this is part of NPOV.

Durova says: How would you describe that, as it applies to one of those controversial topics where you participate?

Filll says: Well many people think that Neutral Point Of View means that the article should not contain any negative information in it, or any information critical of a given view. It does not. It means that all views are presented in the same article. However, the dominant mainstream views are typically given more prominence than minor views. For example, in the case of creation science, which purports to be science, fewer than 1% of the scientists in the relevant fields subscribe to creation science views. And so, the articles about creation science on Wikipedia are mainly written from a mainstream science point of view. In another controversial area, if there are two or three views which are competing, and roughly all equally prominent, then the Wikipedia article will include all those, in roughly equal measure. That is what NPOV means.

Durova says: Now to someone who spends more time in church than at scientific conferences, neutrality might seem to balance differently from yours.

Filll says: Yes very true. And so before one starts on editing one of these controversial articles, one has to understand what the relevant community is, and what the views of that community are. So in the case of an article about Christianity, it would be the mainstream theologians and scholars in the area that are the relevant community, not the Buddhist or the Moslem view of Christianity, or the Atheist view of Christianity. In topics which overlap with science and physical reality, it is the mainstream scientific view that is given more weight. In the case of medical topics, it is the mainstream medical views that are more prominent. That is part of the difficulty about educating people about NPOV; we do not do a great job of it always on Wikipedia I am afraid.

Durova says: So the point of your challenge, if I understand, is to give the people who don't dive into these controversies a sample of the actual field conditions you and people like yourself face.

Filll says: Yes that is it exactly. It is a "safe" way to give people a little taste of these controversial editing areas, and the kinds of questions that arise. They do not have to edit these articles themselves, or dig through many kilobytes of talk page discussions to understand what is going on; the core of the difficulty is summarized and presented in the AGF Challenge Exercises. They could be used for training purposes, or to open a dialogue on what Wikipedia should be doing in the case of controversial articles, or to develop a range of "approved" approaches to handle these sorts of problems. When Wikipedia is criticized externally or internally over its handling of assorted situations, they are often extremely highly charged and emotional affairs, and often ongoing. This is a way to see a sanitized collection of problems in abbreviated and sanitized form, where critics inside and outside Wikipedia can offer their advice and suggestions.

Durova says: And what often happens when something comes under scrutiny - either at a noticeboard or at arbitration - is that individuals who have only come to Wikipedia to push a certain ideology will try to portray themselves as reasonable, or at least try to muddy the waters enough that a regular editor who disagrees with them at their particular dispute looks as bad as they do.

Filll says: Yes I agree. I have heard critics of Wikipedia, both internally and externally, make all kinds of similar claims. And they often seem reasonable. So what I wanted to do, with the AGF Challenge, is to present a few of these, boiled down to their bare essence, for everyone to ponder and then give their input on. And particularly when it is not a situation in which a person has a vested interest, sometimes viewing these editing situations from the outside can give one a different impression than when there are a lot of emotions involved, and a lot of hard feelings, and people are trying to smear each other personally.

Durova says: Now I happen to know for a fact that one of these examples is real, because you borrowed example 7 from me. So I'll mention something here that I didn't bring up before. One of the things that finally got that situation under control was an article content request for comments.

Filll says: Yes they are extreme, but they are all based on real situations.

Durova says: (If there are new readers here, that's a type of formal dispute resolution).

Filll says: I had a lot more written.

Durova says: May I give the background and you comment? It leads to a question.

Filll says: go ahead.

Durova says: The fellow would keep coming up with new reasons why his aunt's family tree proved he was descended from Joan of Arc's brother. Late in the game he argued that we had to cite it in the article because it was a primary source.

Filll says: Ah...ok.

Durova says: I opened a request for comment to get opinions on whether a family tree from the 1950s could be a primary source for fifteenth century history. The answer to that question was pretty obvious. We got several answers, all of them agreed with me completely, and he couldn't argue that they were biased.

Filll says: Yes. Well he had a lot invested emotionally in that answer, but others from outside could see it objectively. Which is the whole point of my AGF Challenge Exercises.

Durova says: That was one of the last times he tried to disrupt the article. Right. Do you find that certain types of dispute resolution are more effective than others?

Filll says: I have found the article content RfCs do not work very well.

Durova says: Really?

Filll says: Very few people respond and so it is less helpful.

Durova says: I set a lot of store by them. What's your experience, and what's better?

Filll says: If they were more clearly written and more people came, they would be better I think.

Durova says: That's right.

Filll says: I have not tried mediation yet. I know many people like it, but I have not tried it.

Durova says: The fellow I was disputing with tried to edit war over the wording of the request for comment. I tried mediation once. Had a bad experience with it. The mediator quit and we couldn't get a replacement.

Filll says: RfCs for conduct are pretty time consuming, but effective.

Durova says: You find conduct RfCs effective?

Filll says: Arbcomm is very taxing and should be one of the last options to try, if ever.

Durova says: Totally agreed there. I'm curious about your experience with conduct RfC. How does it help, in your experience?

Filll says: Yes I have found conduct RfCs, when done correctly, can really nip a problem in the bud. And they can bring a lot of outside input. More people show up to conduct RfCs. And as long as one can show that every effort was made and the person still acted in an unreasonable fashion, it can carry a lot of weight.

Durova says: And what's the effective way to do one?

Filll says: I try to build as much evidence as possible, offline and privately. And I provide useful DIFFS. I get advice from experienced people in the area first.

Durova says: And people show up who weren't already in the dispute, to offer impartial feedback?

Filll says: AN/I and other noticeboards can be helpful at times. Yes in the case of conduct RfCs and noticeboards, one gets fresh blood which helps. Another measure which User: Silence taught me is the effective use of the AfD.

Durova says: Would you say that dispute resolution always accomplishes its aim?

Filll says: It can bring a lot more eyes to the article if you are stuck and can help. It is a bit risky of course

Durova says: If you try enough, something will work?

Filll says: Well eventually yes in most cases. But it can be very very trying in the meantime. And you have to be willing to put in a huge amount of effort. I would like to see if there are easier and faster methods that we could develop.

Durova says: I agree, earlier and milder solutions are better - before editors dig trenches and start lobbing shells at each other.

Filll says: That is one of the things I wonder about the proferred solutions of the critics, which is to be more accommodating; sometimes that can make things worse.

Durova says: Another question, have you been harassed yourself?

Filll says: I have not been badly harassed but I have been harassed mildly.

Durova says: Would you feel comfortable describing it, at least in general terms?

Filll says: I have had people try to hack my computer or run phishing attacks against me, to reveal my identity

Durova says: Nod. So I get the impression you created this challenge in part to communicate a slice of the experience to editors who don't wade into the site's editorial swamps.

Filll says: Yes a safe easy sanitized way to expose them a bit to what the difficult topics are about and what that editing experience is. It hopefully will be a way that they can understand the situation a bit more.

Durova says: That even though most of Wikipedia is a pretty easy place to be, and most Wikiipedians are reasonable people, we also get these pockets where it's basically a street brawl. And not everyone there is a thug. Well you live in a rough neighborhood, as do I, in Wikipedian terms. Any final comments?

Filll says: I am glad to have this chance to present this new idea. And I hope people will be interested in taking the AGF Challenge and trying to test their skills on the exercises.

Durova says: Thanks very much for the interview.

Filll says: Thank you.


Image credits:



Sunday, April 13, 2008

The FBI: Where Every Agent Is a Special Agent

I suppose it's a gesture of grudging respect to get accused of being a spy because of Wikipedia volunteer work. That happened to another editor last July - SlimVirgin - and the kooky idea actually got hundreds of comments on Slashdot. Just shows that some people will believe anything. So last night I start getting questions. Looks like it's my turn.

  • No, I don't work for the FBI.

  • No, I never have worked for the FBI.

  • No, I never have worked for any agency that vaguely resembles the FBI.

  • Yes, I did serve in the Navy, and I did a couple of things there that I can't tell you about, and I assure you those things have nothing to do with Wikipedia (hint: I served in wartime).

To the conspiracy theorists, I have one polite question: couldn't you have pegged me for a better spy agency? SlimVirgin got MI5. Stick me in NSA or something. Y'know, not the lowly FBI.

Call me Agent 0042 - the first geek Bond girl. I'll be squinting without my glasses for the glamor shot in the bikini, so try very hard not to photograph the backside of my hips. If you've gotta construct a conspiracy theory, make it good.

There actually are a few things about my family that might conceivably lead someone to suppose I worked for the intelligence community. During World War II my grandmother used her knowledge of German to help the allies. It wasn't particularly glamorous; she sat in an office in New York reading letters between POWs who were being held in Texas and their families back in Germany.

The idea was to look for information that might be useful for the war effort. Of course the Germans had their own office that had already looked through those letters snipping out anything that might be useful for the war effort. Mostly the job meant a lot of boring reading, interspersed with office politics. A whole lot of German soldiers complained about the heat during their first Texas summer.

One day my grandmother actually did find something that was useful. It was a mother's letter to her son describing her walk on the way to work. This letter had been practically cut to confetti by the German censors, because the lady worked for some kind of sensitive factory. The return address had been snipped out too.

That little ol' return address had fallen inside the envelope: Regensburg.

So my grandmother wrote up her report, went back to reading boring letters, and continued fending off the office politicians. That was probably one of the pieces of intelligence that led to the Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission, which did substantial damage to the Regensburg Messerschmitt factory.

Toward the end of the war they tried to get her to do field work. They even sent people to her home and tried to tell her that was her duty. There were worries at the time that the Nazis would try to regain power as soon as the occupation was over. Well, my father was just a toddler then, and she figured motherhood was a more important duty. But I've always kind of wished she'd taken that offer: the image of a quiet little Hausfrau helping to defeat Hitler seems amusing and it would have been fun if I could have called her grandma the spy.

So to the website where that crazy idea got posted about me, thanks for dropping it into the tar pit, and please do your best to filter out the really loony stuff like that. You try to be a critical site - which means exerting critical judgement - and when absurdities gain traction it really skids your credibility on the important stuff. You do sometimes get the criticism right, but life is short. Most of us Wikipedians are busy creating an encyclopedia.


Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons