Nicholson Baker Appreciates Wikipedia

Nicholson Baker has a wonderful article about Wikipedia in the current New York Review of Books.  It’s ostensibly a review of Wikipedia: The Missing Manual, but the best parts are Baker’s personal observations as a Wikipedia reader, contributor, and "inclusionist" fighting against the unnecessary deletion of articles.  An excerpt (which is not really representative — you should read the whole thing):

The Pop-Tarts page is often aflutter. Pop-Tarts, it says as of today
(February 8, 2008), were discontinued in Australia in 2005. Maybe
that’s true. Before that it said that Pop-Tarts were discontinued in
Korea. Before that Australia. Several days ago it said: "Pop-Tarts is
german for Little Iced Pastry O’ Germany." Other things I learned from
earlier versions: More than two trillion Pop-Tarts are sold each year.
George Washington invented them. They were developed in the early 1960s
in China. Popular flavors are "frosted strawberry, frosted brown sugar
cinnamon, and semen." Pop-Tarts are a "flat Cookie." No: "Pop-Tarts are
a flat Pastry, KEVIN MCCORMICK is a FRIGGIN LOSER notto mention a queer
inch." No: "A Pop-Tart is a flat condom." Once last fall the whole page
was replaced with "NIPPLES AND BROCCOLI!!!!!"

This sounds chaotic, but even the Pop-Tarts page is under control
most of the time. The "unhelpful" or "inappropriate"—sometimes stoned,
racist, violent, metalheaded—changes are quickly fixed by human
stompers and algorithmicized helper bots. It’s a game. Wikipedians see
vandalism as a problem, and it certainly can be, but a Diogenes-minded
observer would submit that Wikipedia would never have been the
prodigious success it has been without its demons.

This is a reference book that can suddenly go nasty on you. Who
knows whether, when you look up Harvard’s one-time warrior-president,
James Bryant Conant, you’re going to get a bland, evenhanded article
about him, or whether the whole page will read (as it did for seventeen
minutes on April 26, 2006): "HES A BIG STUPID HEAD." James Conant was,
after all, in some important ways, a big stupid head. He was studiously
anti-Semitic, a strong believer in wonder-weapons—a man who was quite
as happy figuring out new ways to kill people as he was administering a
great university. Without the kooks and the insulters and the spray-can
taggers, Wikipedia would just be the most useful encyclopedia ever
made. Instead it’s a fast-paced game of paintball.

Link: The Charms of Wikipedia (New York Review of Books)

Baker has a new nonfiction book out next month called Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.

James Howard Kunstler’s New Novel: World Made by Hand

Orion magazine has a review by John Galvin of James Howard Kunstler’s new novel, World Made by Hand.  An excerpt:

Islamic Fundamentalists have blown up Los Angeles and DC. That puts
the global economy into a smoking tailspin. A flu pandemic has wiped
out a good third of the population, maybe more. Oil, or access to
what’s left of it anyway, is as good as gone. The Chinese have
reportedly landed a man on the moon, but that’s probably more legend
than fact in these paranoid times. The federal government has retreated
to Minnesota, of all places (because who would attack them up there?),
and with resources limited, race wars have erupted across the South.
The globe is no longer flat (sorry, Tom Friedman!). It’s as round and
as large as it’s ever been.

Such is the fictionalized world envisioned by James Howard Kunstler in his new book, World Made by Hand. This isn’t a sci-fi view into a future one hundred or fifty years away. It’s anti–sci-fi, set maybe ten to twenty years out.

Link: World Made by Hand.

Kunstler is best known for his non-fiction.  His most recent is The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.

Liveblogging Your Vasectomy

On a related note… Medical science blogger "Abel Pharmboy" liveblogged his vasectomy last week.  You can relive the adventure here if you have the stomach: Liveblogging the Vasectomy Chronicles.  It’s yet another proud milestone for the web.  I don’t know who is creepier — the blogger who did this or the readers who tuned in live.

(Via io9.)

Podcast: Brave New Family

The CBC Radio show Ideas posts some of its shows as (limited-time) free podcasts.  I’ve been listening to a new two-part series called Brave New Family that’s an excellent exploration of the consequences of sperm donation.  The summary:

Sperm donation has proven to be a Pandora’s Box. The vast majority of
donor dads do not want to be found. In rare cases some children are
seeking and finding dad and half-siblings in the process. Science
journalist Alison Motluk explores the complex portrait of the brave new family.

Links: Brave New Family (a short article and list of references), Podcasts.

Note that these podcasts are only available for a few weeks.

Ideas is the show that broadcasts the Massey Lectures.  I just noticed they’ve got a new series called How to Think About Science that looks very interesting too.

Googling God

Googlinggod I find this title amusing, though I know nothing else about the book: Googling God: Searching for a Faith You Can Believe in.

Further investigation, via Google of course, leads me to The Church of Google, a group of people who believe Google is God (or at least make this argument for the purpose of appearing clever on the internet).

It’s apparently not just the kooks who think this, though.  New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has made the same argument — see his 2003 column Is Google God?.  Okay, maybe Friedman is a kook.  Novelist Douglas Coupland has also compared Google with God (see this Time magazine article).  Coupland may be a kook but he’s a better writer than Friedman.

And one can’t forget Ray Kurzweil, who has said that Google’s database may evolve into a god (see this 2006 CNN Money feature that imagines four possible futures for Google, one of which is Google is God).

See also: Google image search on Google and God.

Daniel Solove’s The Future of Reputation

Daniel Solove’s recent book The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet is now available for free online.  I learned this via Danah Boyd’s blog — she is apparently the one to thank for this, and she offers kudos to Yale University Press.

As someone who has been aware of this book since it appeared, I’m happy that I can now read a chapter or two for free, but I’ll probably still wait to get it from the library.  I’m not likely to buy it in hardcover or to read the whole thing online.  If the publisher had put it out as a $20-or-cheaper paperback in the first place I’d have snapped it up quick.

Does Kids’ Reading Need to be More Interactive?

That’s what the new LeapFrog Tag promises.  From the New York Times:

This week, LeapFrog pulls the wraps off the LeapPad’s successor, the
Tag, a thick, white and green plastic stylus that turns paper books
into interactive playthings. LeapFrog is betting that the $50 Tag,
which will be available this summer along with an 18-volume library
that includes children’s classics like “The Little Engine That Could”
and “Olivia,” will be the hit it badly needs. It calls the Tag its
“biggest launch ever.”

The Tag, officially called the Tag Reading
System, works a lot like the LeapPad. Children can tap a word with it
and the stylus reads the word, or its definition, aloud. They can tap
on an image to hear a character’s voice come alive. Interactive games
test their reading comprehension. At its simplest, the Tag can also act
as an audio book and simply read a story from beginning to end.

Link: LeapFrog Hopes for next hit with Interactive Reading Toy, via Crooked House, Popgadget.

The Tag also tracks reading progress, which parents can monitor on a website.

I know LeapFrog puts a lot of research into its products so I’m sure the design of this toy is well thought out, but this seems like technology in search of a problem.  Is gadgetry like this going to promote more love of reading or more love of gadgetry?

Engadget did a post on this device recently, and one of the comments includes this:

I have 2 small children, and while we do a lot of "conventional" work
on their reading, the Leapster has been useful and effective.

well, the Leapster has gotten my kids using technology, and getting
comfortable with it, from an early age. Both of my kids (4 and 7 years
old) read well above their age level, and their tech-literacy is far
above their peers.

What kind of tech-literacy do 4-7 year-olds need?  Nobody needs that early a start, do they?  I don’t have kids, so maybe I’m just out of touch.  Getting kids familiar with the tools they’ll use in school makes some sense, but there’s got to be a limit to how young the pressure for techno-literacy needs to go (check out the i-grow PC concept for an idea of where we may be headed).

More on Lessig

Shelley Powers has posted an excellent analysis at her blog.  Excerpt:

There are probably a half dozen organizations focusing on political campaign reform, some more successful than others. There’s Clean Money Clean Elections, efforts by Public Citizen, and Open Secrets Tracking the Payback. All of these organizations are populated by people who have been committed to this action for years, even decades. People knowledgeable about the issues and problems, as well as informed about the loop holes (and how to plug).

Which then leads us back to the whole Change Congress platform. Here we’re talking about an organization populated by neophytes who got a hankering to "change Congress", without once considering that some of most important changes must occur at the local and state level, and in the executive branch, as well as Congress. Populated by people who seem to think that all one needs is a weblog, the right social network (and associated tools), and a leader who is wired.

In a way, this new Change Congress movement is precisely why I would not vote for Lessig. Rather than join with others who have been working these issues for the last several years, start up a new effort with lots of cool slogans and neat videos, and catchy phrases–no real plans, no organization, no experience. After all, all we need to make change is a catchy video and a great speech, right?

Link: Shiny, Happy People Going to Congress (via Seth Finkelstein).