Wikipedia has new article feedback tool

In an interesting move to open up Wikipedia even more and to draw in new contibuters and ways to contribute to the greatest encyclopedia project ever, Wikipedia is now experimenting with a new version of Article Feedback Tool. The goal according to Wikimedia’s blog is:

…to engage readers to help improve Wikipedia — and to become editors over time. We’re very excited about this new development, and look forward to getting more people to contribute to Wikipedia as a result.

How do they do this? Check it out:

We are approaching this development in several phases.  The first phase, which went live today, is a test deployment of three new versions of the tool on approximately 10,000 randomly selected articles on the English Wikipedia and on a small number of manually selected articles. For examples, see Android, Wikipedia, and Global Warming.

Here is one of the three versions that are being tested:

This new version of the tool asks the reader whether they found what they were looking for, and if not, prompts them to explain what is missing.  The intent of this version is to provide editors with some idea of feedback on what readers are actually hoping to see when they read a Wikipedia article.  This information may then be used by the editing community when deciding how to improve the page.  The other two versions also ask for reader comments, but with different questions: the second version lets you make a suggestion, give praise, report a problem or ask a question; the third version lets you review the article. These new forms were developed by OmniTI, a web development firm, and were based on designs created by the Wikimedia Foundation in collaboration with the Wikipedia community. To learn more, visit the AFTv5 project page.

Fools and their money are easily parted

Christmas is really the time for bullshit gifts. This is not really criticism, I am all for buying crap – even though I would prefer not to be such a consumer. But there are times when I feel like shouting “Enough!!!”

This is how I felt when I came across this little spout used to pour wine. This is a good example of your usual crap – not unusual. But what is really unusual are the bullshit claims that the manufacturer makes.

Its a bottle pourer with a uniquely integrated magnetic field which, according to the manufacturer, ages the wine as you pour and then “opens” and “enhances” the wine’s flavours.

What a crock! If you really want an overpriced spout for you bottles – fine. But there is no way in science that pouring your wine through a magnetic field does anything at all to the taste. Even using industrial strength super-magnets will not change, improve, age, enhance or do anything else with your wine.

Then again the concept of the healing powers of magnetism are age old. But remember that bullshit, even old bullshit, is still bullshit.

P. T. Barnum is supposed to have said “There’s a sucker born every minute” and around Christmas they seem to be about in greater numbers than normal.


Technology will be abused

Recently the developer of weapons-grade pepper spray, Kamran Loghman, gave an interview where he criticized the UC Davis police using “his” product on peaceful protesters. The interview describes him as shocked and bewildered at this obvious overuse of force.

So I can understand his shock at the overuse of force but I have a hard time seeing that he could not have seen his weapon being abused in this way. It is not hard to see that developers of technology prefer to see their implementation in well meaning situations and used by balanced and fair individuals. But the reality that every technology developer must have is that all technology can, and will, be abused.

By attempting to adopt social control on technologies the developer is being naive. Logham is a well intentioned inventor and has even developed policies for the use of pepper spray by police. But as everyone should know by now – the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

But do we learn? Hardly!

The BBC has an interesting article about how a laser gun is going to be tested by the police as a future weapon against rioters. The laser gun temporarily blinds it’s victims and has great advantages over tear gas and pepper spray as the user does not have to be close to the rioters, it has an effective range of 500m.

The enthusiastic managing director Paul Kerr is quoted as saying “If you can’t look at something you can’t attack it”. The technician inside us sees everything as a fascinating technical solution that needs to be solved, the businessman within looks for opportunities for profit. Both manage to compartmentalize away any social responsibility in order to develop and sell weapons intended to be used against unarmed citizens. How nice.

So how long will it take before this is used in innovative new ways against those who do not deserve it?

Is Spock a Professor of ethics at Oxford?

Podcasts are the best thing since sliced bread. So why is it that so few actually know what they are or how to use them? Strange. Or is it just difficult to break ingrained behavior? But this is not about trying to persuade those who don’t get it but I just want to push the amazing series of podcast being sent now on the BBC Arts & Ideas show.

With a focus on the theme of Change the show presents lectures and a following q&a session from people like Landscape architect Charles Jencks, Neuro-scientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (listening to her now), Psychotherapist Susie Orbach & Economist Aditya Chakrabortty.

All these were great but the lecture that really blew me away was by Professor Julian Savulescu who spoke about the duty of change and the case for human enhancement and genetic selection. What I liked was the way in which he, like some philosophers seem to do, took a logical thinking to its consequences. Most of the time we find it difficult to accept a logical chain of thought. Well ok, I do… I get to the beginning where I can lay out the foundations. A is true, B is true… (and so on) but when drawing out the consequences I often shy away from the obvious as I am steered by an irrational emotion. What a philosopher can do is to dare to think the unthinkable.

With his bold logic, I suspect that Julian Savulescu may actually be Spock.



What is good design for you?

In praise of analogue technologies

All of us are immersed in technologies but when we speak of technology we inevitably jump to the digital varieties. This is unsurprising as these are the new, new things of the day. It’s also unsurprising as we have been taught to be enthralled by shiny technology due to the ways in which Apple has designed and marketed their products.

In addition to this my own views of design and desire is warped by my workplace and research interests. This results in the creating of the idea that design must, almost exclusively, deal with digital technology.

But there is something very limiting in this worldview and I would like to get a better perception of the design of everyday things. One way to go is to read the design books – and I can highly recommend this approach – why not read, for example, Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things.

But I want to go another way and explore design through the things that surround us. We are in a period of design fetishism where good must be expensive and then gets priced that way. So price is involved but I would like to go beyond the dominance of price in looking for, and at, design.

So what I would like is to collect examples of good design with a motivation as to why it is good design. I am not looking for consensus but for stories. So to kick it off I would like to give some examples of good analogue design.

The Barcelona chair – this is a visual object that changes the room in which it is set. It pleases me to sit in it even if other chairs would do the job equally well. It’s affect on me is entwined with my ideas of the chair as well as the object itself.

Good kitchen knives. The balance of a “real” kitchen knife is extremely tactile. It fits and becomes an extension of the hand that uses it. Equally a bad knife makes cooking a chore.

The Merkur razor. At some point I got tired of being owned by Gillette and bought a real old razor with real old razor blades. It’s heavy and does not fit in the hand like the kitchen knife but because of its weight and the risk of cuts turns a boring everyday task into a meditative act. Sure, I may bleed a bit more but the morning ritual is totally different today.

So please let me know, what are your examples of good design?

From Words to Wordfeud: notes on a lecture

There is a strange idea that we are living in the information age and that this age is something bright, shiny and new. Now I don’t mean that we are not in the information age but my concern is the idea that information is something new and exciting.

When talking economics it may be true that we have been in the information age since the 1960s or 70s but this is not what people seem to mean when they use the term as an everyday concept.

“The idea is linked to the concept of a digital age or digital revolution, and carries the ramifications of a shift from traditional industry that the industrial revolution brought through industrialization, to an economy based on the manipulation of information, i.e., an information society.” Wikipedia

We have always been immersed in information. Information about which mushrooms are edible can be life or death knowledge but for most of us today its just trivia. However, we do not raise ourselves by trivializing their vital knowledge.

The lecture opened with a discussion of language and writing. Despite our interest and focus on writing it is relevant to remember that writing is “only” 6000 years old (Wikipedia). Which means we spent 190 000 years without writing. This means that we have evolved in speechless and oral environments. On that topic, check out the Gutenberg Parenthesis lecture by Thomas Pettitt where he explains:

… the way in which he uses the term the Gutenberg Parenthesis: the idea that oral culture was in a way interrupted by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and the roughly 500 years of print dominance; a dominance now being challenged in many ways by digital culture and the orality it embraces.

And in the same way as we have, through evolution, an interest in finding energy rich foods (high fat, high sugar) we have evolved to view stored information as scarce, important and valuable. Therefore, on an evolutionary scale, things like the Gutenberg press, telegraphs, telephones, fax machines, computers and the Internet are all recent history.

Therefore recent changes like the book and the Internet are still impacting the ways in which we act and react socially. Technology is both an agent and effect of change.

This was followed by an introduction to social media and a discussion to why it is seen as social. The argument here is that we now have an infrastructure to allow us to enact basic communication rights established 300 years ago. With the platforms available to us theoretical rights become inevitable practice. The technology is also challenging many of our legal, ethical, social, economic, political (etc) norms.

One aspect of social media is pretty obvious: Now that we have an endless supply of valuable and important information – we mainly focus on trivial stuff. Facts are a given. The comparison I make is that since we have evolved in information scarce environments we seem to be instinctively drawn to energy rich information. Entertainment and trivia is the fatty and sugary, calorie rich, version of information – the question is what do we do when we are moving towards information obesity?

I offered an example from my schooldays where the focus was on fact knowing. Questions like what is the capital of Burkina Faso (which when I went to school was called Upper Volta)? But is this useful knowledge when everyone has access to the source of information? Schools have been successful since they offered the promise of jobs once the students were done. Now the jobs are not guaranteed anymore and we have come to realize that the factory vision of schools were probably never successful.

On this theme I highly recommend the brilliant (and funny) Ted Talk by Ken Robinson called Do schools kill creativity?

He argues that we have no idea about what the future will bring and yet we are attempting to educate children to meet that future. One thing we should take home is that creating specialists is less than useful when we have no idea if that specialty is useful in the future. Another argument for the so-called “useless” humanities!

I closed with four problems. (1) are we all stupid? Actually this should be that we are unaware of what is happening around us and this is happening to our detriment. Problem (2): we don’t know what we don’t know. This is important because earlier we may have relied on teachers and librarians to tell us what we should know. But this is not going to happen with the gatekeepers online as they have no interest in social enlightenment. Problem (3): There is a difference between who I want to be and who I am… Since online gatekeepers are interested in keeping us happy through personalization they will feed us with what we want (information obesity) rather than with what we may need. Problem (4): the gatekeepers are aware of this! Their advantage lies in our ignorance and/or interest in their abilities. There have always been gatekeepers but we usually knew their motives (good or evil)

An important role for educators is to enlighten us of the gatekeeper’s desires and motives of gatekeepers. I ended up with a depressing note: You don’t have to be unconscious to be without consciousness.