My insidious lies 
A short paper of mine was just published in First Monday. The abstract is this:
A number of studies have assessed the reliability of entries in the Wikipedia at specific times. One important difference between the Wikipedia and traditional media, however, is the dynamic nature of its entries. An entry assessed today might be substantially extended or reworked tomorrow. This paper assesses the frequency with which small, inaccurate changes are quickly corrected.
My methodology was to introduce fibs into the Wikipedia entries on the lives of philosophers and watch the entries for 48 hours. If they had not been corrected, I removed them after that time.

The gist of it is that 10 out of 28 changes (36%) were either flagged or reverted within 48 hours. This is an adjusted number, but I think the more informative one; see the paper for all the whingeing and analysis.

It would have done no good to insert the very same fib into a great many entries, because that might have alerted someone to the systematic nature of the endeavor. So I had to make up a lot of different fibs. That part of the study was kind of fun, and I thought I'd provide a bit of colour commentary that would have been inappropriate in the list of data. None of the following were flagged or corrected.

Of Gottfried Leibniz: "Many of his manuscripts are written in a shorthand of his own invention which uses binary numbers to encode sequences of characters." As Cristyn was quick to mention, there is no way that a binary encoding could be a shorthand. It provably maximizes the number of characters required to encode information!

Of Jeremy Bentham: "As a child, he wrote a series of imaginative dialogues between an unnamed boy and wisdom incarnate in the form of a tiger. These were never published, but reflected the author's early interest in writing and philosophy." I originally wrote this with Thomas Hobbes in mind.

Of Friedrich Nietzsche, in the context of his book not selling well: "In a letter to Victoria Regina, Nietzsche even entertained the possibility of burning the remaining copies to collect on insurance." I was tickled by the thought of despondent Nietzsche writing the Queen of England about his troubles. It is like the premise for a romantic comedy. The fib about Thomas Hill Green's writing to the Queen was caught and corrected, for what it's worth.

In the entry on Rudolf Carnap: "The Vienna Circle was also a tightly-knit social group. They regularly met to play cards, including a bridge-like game of their own devising called Whistenschaft." Ha! I crack myself up.

Of Gilbert Ryle: "After retiring, Ryle bought a small farm. He tinkered with automated processes to care for livestock, although they never proved to be commercially viable." That would explain why Ryle was so down on the goats in the machine.

Of Karl Popper: "[H]e lived on a cooperative farm. He later claimed that nothing prepares the mind for philosophy like milking a cow." There is nothing especially Popperian about this bon mot, but I was tickled by it.

Of GE Moore: "His influence outside philosophy includes a reference to him in the signature line of the musical Oliver." Please, sir... I'd like some Moore. (groan)

I had enough fun conducting this study that I worried a bit that it was silly and petulant. As I mention in the conclusion of the article, there are systematic issues that should discourage anyone from doing a larger-scale version of this study. And probing the Wikipedia should not be used as an excuse for haphazard vandalism. Yet I do think that the study was worth doing, and using less entertaining fibs would not have improved it any.

UPDATE 7Sep: Fixed the link to the complete list of fibs and added mention of the GE Moore pun.

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Courses as dry goods 
I was recently advising undergraduates as they registered for classes. This Fall, the PeopleSoft database has a new web interface. Now, when students initially select courses, the courses appear in their "shopping cart." The students are not actually enrolled until they "check out." These are the actually terms used by the website.

My initial reaction was to object to the commercial metaphor. We might colloquially say that students shop for classes, but a section of Intro Logic is not like a can of beans. Education is not just another commodity, and the university is poorly served by suggesting to students that it is.

My second reaction was that the new interface is probably a generic e-commerce interface, with as few changes as possible to make it work for a university. For example, it doesn't calculate shipping and handling.

My third reaction, however, is a kind of grudging approval. What else would you call the part of the interface where students have selected a list of courses but have not yet actually taken up one of the seats? "Shopping cart" does that in two words, telling students at once that the listed items have been selected and that the choice has not been finalized. I am not sure what else I would have called it.

My fourth reaction was that I had put too much thought into this. I should write a blog post about it and move on.

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The birth of trivia 
At dinner several weeks ago, I mentioned that the word 'broad' to describe a woman originally referred to pregnant cows. I forget why I offered this item of trivia, but several of the people I was dining with were curious about it. One looked at the Online Etymology Dictionary and found an entirely different account. Later, I looked at the Oxford English Dictionary. Alas, it has no etymology for this "chiefly American" usage.

Scouting around online finds a couple of sites that mention the etymology I recounted, but only in the context of praising Robert Baker's 'Pricks and Chicks: A Plea for Persons.' That is where I read it, years ago, but I can find no independent confirmation of Baker's proposed etymology. As far as I can tell, the etymology for 'broad' is simply unknown.

And just today I read an article about the Perfect Vagina. Lisa Rogers laments that a man can talk about his willy, but that women cannot so easily talk about their nethers:
There isn't a similarly recognisable term for the vulva, because actually the vagina is the passage inside, and the word means "somewhere to sheathe your sword"! Yes, even the word means our sexual organs only exist in relation to a man. How depressing is that?
This etymology is easily corroborated. 'Vagina' comes from the Latin for sheath or scabbard. It is a nice illustration of the feminist point that the language describing women and their parts reflects (as the man says) the violence inherent in the system.

One last quibble: Rogers looks in vain for a word to describe the bits that are resculpted in female genital plastic surgery, like the familiar words that men have their johnson. It seems to me that 'pussy' fits the role, even if it has animal etymology and the OED calls it "coarse slang."

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Their insidious reference 
Not long ago, I picked up an issue of the Artist's Magazine in an airport. (May 2008, as it happens.) It includes a profile of the painter Costa Vavagiakis. Among other things, it recounts how the artist was impressed by the Charioteer of Delphi as a young boy. Understandably, it does not include a picture of the statue. Instead, it offers a parenthetical aside with a link to the Wikipedia entry.

By offering the link, the author of the magazine article gives a nod of recognition to the Wikipedia entry. I presume they actually looked at the Wikipedia article, and so they can attest to its accuracy as much as they would something they actually printed in the magazine. The problem is that the entry may well change. One hopes that changes will only make the entry more detailed, but they might make it less accurate. The magazine article provides no discrimination, and taps the Wikipedia entry with its blessing even if the entry has changed.

With this magazine, there is not really anything at stake. Nevertheless, this is an instance of a broader phenomenon. When David Morgan Mar links to an entry about some topic in physics or mathematics (in discussing the Riemann hypothesis, for example) he encourages his readers to go to the Wikipedia for more information. He says, implicitly, that the article gets the relevant facts right. Since he is a legitimate expert, his say so counts for something. Although he has just looked at the article at a specific time, the link remains. If the article drifts, his nod to it remains.

One solution would be to link to a dated version of the article, but that is not common practice.

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The pixels or print dilemma for free textbooks 
Free textbooks have gotten media attention recently. Mostly, they are offered as a solution to the rising cost of higher education. See, for example, this USA Today story. Academic fashion plate that I am, I was ahead of this trend. I wrote an open access logic textbook back before free textbooks were cool.*

Kevin Smith has a nice discussion of how universities might encourage this sort of thing (which I found via via Peter Suber's blog). He points out that an advantage of digital resources is that they can be adapted and incorporated by people who have similar but not quite the same needs. With my book, for example, people can change the logical notation to match their preferences and other texts used in their curriculum. They can use parts of the text, possibly in combination with other open access material or their their own additions. People using the text in these ways (Smith suggests) "provide an effective 'peer-review' to measure the quality of the faculty author's contribution." (I will probably mention this in the context of my upcoming tenure case.)

Unfortunately, these discussions typically conflate online and open access. The USA Today headline reads: Online 'open textbooks' save students cash

I distribute forall x via my website, as well as via the SUNY digital repository, but I don't see the PDF as a product for student consumption. If it were, students would be stuck in a dilemma: Either they print it off or they don't.

A. If they don't print it off, then they just end up reading it at their computer. PDFs aren't optimized for reading on-screen, because the shape of page is different than the shape of a screen. Moreover, most students aren't very good at reading PDFs. Most of them would comprehend the text better if they marked it up as they read: underlining bits, making marginal notes, and so on. Yet most of them are not using PDF readers that allow for commenting.

For books that serve as workbooks and have exercises at the end of chapters, the problem is even worse. Students working through problems need paper in front of them and they need to be flipping between the material, the problem set, and the references in the back of the book. All of this is slightly less convenient on the computer, so learning the material is harder than it needs to be.

Perhaps in the next generation students will be better at digesting documents on screen. Perhaps physical textbooks will actually be harder for them. But my students today are not the students of the future.**

B. If they do print it off, then they probably aren't doing so efficiently. I am not sure of the environmental impact of individual laser printing, as compared to copies by way of a printing service. But most students don't have their own laser printer, and so will probably pay more per page than if the whole book were printed by a copy service. And they will probably print single-sided, using more paper.

Students who have ink jet printers pay more and are indubitably worse for the Earth if they print the book.

The horns of the dilemma strike different students in different ways. The hassle involved in printing discourages some students from having a hard copy. So they end up accessing the book on screen, which is less conducive to learning, which leaves them struggling in the course.

The natural resolution of this dilemma is to separate 'online' and 'open access'. I make forall x available as a printed course packet for my students. I make it available electronically, but primarily for people in distant places who would like to use it for their own courses or for their own purposes. Of course, some of my students refrain from buying a copy and just look at the text online. This is no different from traditional textbooks, though, which some students refrain from buying in favor of using the library's copy on reserve or using a friend's copy.

* Given the template for this kind of rant, the next sentence should be: All the people writing free textbooks now are just sellouts.

** Note also that many students keep textbooks and refer to them years after having taken a course. Most students don't, but many do. You, as a reader of this blog, were probably one of them. How many old textbooks do you have on your shelves? Hardcopies are fine for this, because they live on a shelf and age gracefully. Digital copies, not so much. Just because a file is archived doesn't actually mean it will be readily available a decade later or that the former student could remember enough about it to turn it up in a search.

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