Wednesday, April 29, 2009

No original research confessions

You've broken a core content policy.  You have to tell someone, anyone.  But who can you tell?  How can you get absolution?

You've committed (gasp) original research.  On Wikipedia.

No original research confessions?  One of the site's most prolific featured article writers confided, "We all have them." Wikipedia's No original research policy: where have you crossed the line?  What corners have you cut and gotten away with?  Seeking confessions; confidentiality assured.  Will publish the best and most salacious Wikipedian original research confessions with details altered to protect the not-so-innocent.

Contact me privately at nadezhda (dot) durova (at) gmail (dot) com to confess.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dispute resolution, part 2

When single combat with a stolen sword and various opposing weapons doesn't suffice (see last month's post), Miles Davis can help.  In particular, Sketches of Spain.

It's the sort of music that takes the point of frustration, delves into it, finds a home there.  And then finds a way out.  Magnificent.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The top ten reasons it's time for a wikibreak

10. You nominate articles for FA the day you create them.

9. You care about the difference between an em dash and an en dash.

8. You've made more edits to WP:AN than to your favorite article.

7. You've made more posts to Jimbo's user talk page than to your own.

6. Your block log no longer displays on a single screen.

5. Three or more entries at WP:LAME are edit wars you've been in.

4. You still don't believe they all were lame.

3. You dream in wikimarkup.

2. Wikipedia Review dedicates a subforum to you.

1. The Arbitration Committee mailing list takes you off moderation.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Arbitrators and risk avoidance

The Arbitration Committee exists to settle Wikipedia's toughest disputes.  But do arbitrators get elected on the basis of a successful dispute resolution record, or because they don't step on too many toes?  Last night YellowMonkey, a former arbitrator, argued the latter.  It was the sort of statement that looks like the end of a long period of holding one's tongue, by someone who knows a lot, and it's very intriguing.  

What's especially interesting is how YellowMonkey's contention correlates to a pair of data tables posted at about the same time by Paul August, another former arbitrator.  The tables give the percentage of proposed arbitration cases accepted for consideration, broken down by arbitrator, for 2008 and 2009.  Paul calls these 'Activity tables', but two facts jumped out at me that appeared to support YellowMonkey's contention.

The only arbitrator who has accepted more than half the proposed cases this year is Coren, who received a one year term after getting the lowest percentage support of any arbitration candidate that received an appointment.  If Jimbo hadn't decided to expand the Committee Coren wouldn't be on it.  And the only arbitrator who accepted less than twenty percent of cases is Newyorkbrad, who was elected on a landslide in 2007 with the highest percentage support of any candidate.  Coren has voted to accept 54% of proposed cases so far; Newyorkbrad has voted to accept 18%.  And Newyorkbrad has a three year term so he'll still be a sitting arbitrator next year after Coren's term has ended.  I pulled up the election data on the whole Committee and sorted it by percent cases accepted in 2009:

  1. Coren: 54% accepted, 64% election support in 2008
  2. Cool Hand Luke: 46% accepted, 74%election support in 2008
  3. FayssalF: 41% accepted, 76% election support in 2007
  4. FloNight: 41% accepted, 84% election support in 2006
  5. Rlevse: 38% accepted, 73% election support in 2008
  6. Wizardman: 36% accepted, 66% election support in 2008
  7. Roger Davies: 35% accepted, 80% election support in 2008
  8. Kirill Lokshin: 33% accepted, 98% election support in 2006
  9. Vassyana: 33% accepted, 68% election support in 2008
  10. Casliber: 31% accepted, 92% election support in 2008
  11. Jayvdb: 28% accepted, 68% election support in 2008
  12. Risker: 26% accepted, 87% election support in 2008
  13. Sam Blacketer: 26% accepted, 74% election support in 2007
  14. Stephen Bain: 26% accepted, 67% election support in 2007
  15. Carcharoth: 20% accepted, 67% election support in 2008
  16. Newyorkbrad: 18% accepted, 97% election support in 2007
  17. Average: 33% accepted, 77% election support 

Obviously this doesn't hold up in a completely linear fashion, and the relatively small number of cases proposed in the first quarter of 2009 might limit the value of this data.  It's worth noting that Newyorkbrad's acceptance ratio is nearly unchanged from last year when it was 20%.  

What would make an interesting followup would be to track voting behavior on proposed decisions.  Break down remedy types into two basic categores: hard remedies and soft remedies.  Hard remedies are bans, desysoppings, and other specific restrictions directed at individual editors.  Soft remedies would include warnings, cautions, encouragements and other nonspecific actions.  In particular, broad topic paroles and page paroles that empower arbitration enforcement to impose restrictions belong among the soft remedies because discretionary sanctions are a form of risk avoidance: if a specific action gets applied later on, then any retaliation would likely target the administrator who used discretionary powers, rather than the arbitrators.

One thing needs to be stated explicitly: none of this implies that arbitrators ought to be accepting every case proposal or implementing hard sanctions on everybody.  A hanging judge is as bad as an absent one.  Many disputes come to RFAR prematurely and most editors who get named as parties do not need hard remedies.  The task we elect arbitrators to do is the difficult work of deciding which cases and which editors do need it, and the worry I share with YellowMonkey is that our selection process preferentially promotes arbitrators who are least likely to do so when necessary.  

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Why Jim Henson was a genius

Hadn't seen this since childhood. It's still every bit as funny.

This was originally on Sesame Street, where every segment was supposed to be educational.

Any guesses what the educational value of that was supposed to be?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The first editor to write a featured article while sitebanned

It's absolutely wonderful to see the work ScienceApologist has been putting toward improvements in Wikipedia's optics article, and it would be really cool to help him succeed at his goal of raising it to featured article. You can help.

Now see the current live article: after the introduction it quickly peters out into lists. The thing is start-class, and it's good basic science an encyclopedia ought to cover. If you wear glasses or do photography you use optics.  Okay, ready for the fun?  I promise this won't be too hard.

Have a look at ScienceApologist's draft improvements!  Much bigger, much more informative, and well on its way.  What he needs are nontechnical eyes to read it: has he been clear enough?  Do the descriptions make sense?  Please review, copyedit, and improve!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Evelyn, please please be reasonable

The line everyone remembers from Chinatown, one of the best films of the 1970s and one of the best written films of the twentieth century, is the final sentence: "Forget it, Jake.  It's Chinatown."  But there's another line a minute earlier where the villain speaks in a soft voice on an open street to the heroine, "Evelyn, please please be reasonable".  Anyone who doesn't understand the context would have no reason to object, but to anyone who does understand it the words are unspeakably wrong.

Robert Towne, who wrote the script, explains some of the background in an interview:

The title had come from a Hungarian vice cop. He had said that he worked vice and he worked in Chinatown. And I asked him what he did, and he said “As little as possible.” And I said “Well what kind of law enforcement is that?” And he said “Hey man, when you’re down there with the tongs and the different dialects, you can’t tell who’s doing what to who and you can’t tell whether you’re being asked to help prevent a crime or you’re inadvertently lending the color of the law to help commit a crime. So we’ve decided that the best thing to do when you’re in Chinatown is as little as possible.”

Who's honest and who's sending up smoke?  Chinatown plays upon the conventions of film noir in which the leading lady is almost always the nemesis, so through most of this plot Evelyn (played by Faye Dunaway) is a murder suspect.  By the end the protagonist (played by Jack Nicholson) learns who the actual murderer is, and also learns that she has been acting from honorable motives, but before he understands that much he has led the villain to the victims and is powerless to intervene as the police seal the victims' doom.

Noah Cross (played by John Huston) is one of the great movie villains because his manners remain so courtly that one has to think about it to realize what he's doing and hate him properly.  The character Noah Cross is never willing to be reasonable.  The writer Robert Towne had the insight to distinguish politeness from reasonableness.  When Noah Cross exclaims "Evelyn, please please be reasonable", he is pushing past the daughter he had raped about sixteen years before to get at the daughter/granddaughter he wants to rape, and he is framing his older daughter for murder while very skillfully giving an appearance to onlookers that he is simply an affectionate old family man.  No one who knows the truth is in a position to contradict him.  His civility inspires hope that hell exists, to quietly wish him there.

You knew this was going to segue to Wikipedia, right?

Obviously Chinatown is fiction, with all the caveats that entails.  One of the reasons it's such an acclaimed film is because it nails the human dynamics so well.  Unreasonable people--the ones who get away with their unreasonableness--also manipulate situations so they appear reasonable to passersby.  What an unreasonable person chooses to be unreasonable about varies widely; most actual examples are far more mundane than Noah Cross.  Yet there are only so many ways to succeed at unreasonableness; one of the most effective is to have excellent social skills.  A reasonable and knowledgeable person who stands in the way can get cornered into a situation where the only responses they can think of are either to remain passive or to else take action and appear absurd.

Wikipedians are prone to the mistake of presuming everybody in an ugly situation is equally wrong, and Wikipedians are also prone to confusing civility with reasonableness.  Some individuals simply aren't reasonable.  We give them chances to be reasonable, we try different approaches to achieve reasonableness, and in most instances that works because most people really are reasonable.  But occasionally someone who is not reasonable comes along with smoothness and affability.  When that happens there's a very good chance that individual is busy undermining the people who stand in their way and also blowing as much smoke as possible.  

This evening I was composing an email about Wikipedia dispute resolution, and really could have applied the same ideas to two dozen situtions, when that line came to mind:  "Evelyn, please please be reasonable".  Wikipedians repeat a mantra to "avoid drama"--that's our site culture's preferred response to really messy situations--and it carries echoes of the Hungarian police officer's explanation to Robert Towne.  In Towne's story the way to get a promotion in the Los Angeles Police Department was to do as little as possible; intervention could lose a man his job.  That was fiction, of course.  How much better are we doing?

April Fool's

Some people claim that April Fool's Day is the only holiday Wikipedia deserves. Last year's April Fool's shenanigans got out of hand and several administrators lost their bits for being silly, so let's take a cue from people who organize the main page and have the fun sensibly.

The basic theme to WP main page on April Fool's Day is to present material that's actually legitimate but that seems like it ought to be an April Fool's prank. Ima Hogg was last year's article for the day: a completely serious biography of a philanthropist who had an unusual name. So in a very small imitation of that spirit I've started Mafia Island National Park. Fortunately no one speedy deleted it before it got two genuine external links to the government of Tanzania and the World Wildlife Fund. It's surprising how many redlinks like that there are, if an editor only takes a moment to look for them.

Up above at the top of this post is a caricature of Idi Amin, who was all too real, as drawn by Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist Edmund S. Valtman, who generously donated a portion of his work to the public domain.

Mostly today has been serious stuff correcting systemic bias on African topics (also restored a photochrom of Tunis, Tunisia), but this also seemed like a good time to restore an old circus poster. As a reminder to fellow Wikipedians: please keep the clowning constructive and good fun.