Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for August 2007

Duff: Internet encyclopedias break all the rules

Duff: These days, encyclopedias face competition that breaks all the rules

Everybody knows what an encyclopedia is. It’s a 50-pound collection of paper and cowhide, slowly aging on your bookshelf, oblivious to changes in culture, politics and world geography. For decades, the encyclopedia has remained constant, quietly taking up space in the living room, dusted off to settle bets and contribute to school reports.

But now the encyclopedia is changing, and the grand old encyclopedia companies are facing a new kind of competition. It’s called Wikipedia, and it breaks all the rules. Historically, encyclopedias have been cloistered, academic exercises. Wikipedia accepts contributions from anyone and is edited by a core group of volunteers.

In 2005, the journal Nature submitted a variety of encyclopedia articles for peer review. They found an equal number of serious errors between Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica. In the realm of less serious errors, Wikipedia led with 162, while Britannica had 123.

But all errors are not equal, and Wikipedia is subject to bias in ways that conventional encyclopedias are not. Wikipedia runs into trouble when it tries to cover controversial topics – when multiple editors advocate conflicting points of view.

Conspiracy theorists have tried to hijack Wikipedia’s coverage of the Kennedy assassination, and podcast pioneer Adam Curry was accused of deleting segments to hide the contributions of others.

The Wikipedia entry for Lubbock looks pretty solid. If any sharp-eyed readers want to take a crack at it, use your favorite search engine to look for “Wikipedia Lubbock” and share your findings in my blog.

That brings us to the next major complaint against Wikipedia: the notion that most of its scholarship is plagiarized, copied without permission from legitimate encyclopedias. Wikipedia has its problems, but it does excel in one field. Wikipedia does a great job covering things that aren’t deemed respectable enough for mainstream encyclopedias.

Wikipedia may not be the best place to find facts about the Kennedy assassination, but if you’re looking for “Star Wars” trivia or biographies of anime characters, Wikipedia’s coverage is superb. Wikipedia is great for trivia and pop culture, but if you’re looking for something to help Junior with his school reports, buy Encarta on CD-ROM.

Written by Michael B. Duff

August 10, 2007 at 14:50

Posted in Columns

Shades of Dawkins

Double-posting today because I can't resist this image.

Richard Dawkins is perhaps the most famous atheist in the world — an outspoken educator and defender of evolution. In October 2006, Dawkins spoke at Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. Dawkins' lecture was attended by a large group from Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

Liberty students dominated the Q&A portion of Dawkins' presentation, questioning him with varying degrees of hostility and outrage.

A Quicktime video of Dawkins' speech is available here.

A casual observer might watch this and think Dr. Dawkins doesn't have a friend in the world. But now we have visual evidence to the contrary.

This picture cracks me up. I've never seen the good doctor smile quite that widely before, and I've never seen him photographed in that particular shade of red.

Written by Michael B. Duff

August 7, 2007 at 13:45

Posted in Religion, Video

Fake blogger revealed!

Fake celebrity blogs are a time-honored net.tradition, as old and irreverent as the Internet itself.

Now one of the most famous fake bloggers has been revealed, not as a new-media posterboy, but as an old-media veteran with a secret wild side.

The writer of the infamous “Fake Steve” blog is Dan Lyons, a technology editor at Forbes.

For years, Dan has been pretending to write in the voice of Steve Jobs, poking fun at the arrogance, the attitude, and the Boomer pretensions of Apple's famous founder.

Tech-savvy readers can easily kill an afternoon catching up with Fake Steve. My recent favorite is this entry about Rupert Murdoch's bid for the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile I just want you to know how excited all of us in Silicon Valley are to see you guys finally getting to experience first-hand the “creative destruction” that you're always celebrating in your own pages. Especially all of you guys who have delighted in tormenting Apple over our accounting practices. We'll be sending you each a special little gift — a black necktie. Marc Benioff is sending miniature coffins filled with breath mints.

Written by Michael B. Duff

August 7, 2007 at 13:04

Posted in Apple, Journalism

Duff: Networks make it easy to catch up with your favorite shows on the Web

Duff: Networks make it easy to catch up on your favorite shows on the Web

Last weekend I spent 23 hours watching the entire “Jericho” series. I watched the episodes on CBS.com, streamed live into my Web browser.

All three major networks are jumping on this bandwagon now, allowing viewers to watch episodes of their favorite shows on demand over the Internet.

NBC offers “Heroes” and “House.” CBS offers “Jericho,” “Big Brother” and three different flavors of CSI. They also stream their daytime soap opera lineup, if you’re willing to watch that sort of thing.

The browser plugins require a bit of installation, and streaming video requires a fairly quick Internet connection, but the quality is good, and you can’t beat the price.

The shows are supported by advertising – ads on the page and brief commercials before each segment of the program. Right now there’s only one sponsor per show, so in a typical hour you can expect to see the same commercial five times.

Most of America probably isn’t ready to watch television on a computer screen, but if you’re hooked on a series and need to fill in the gaps, the networks are on your side.

You can’t see every show in the lineup, and you can’t always go back as far as you’d like, but most of the big shows are there, and the networks are giving us more every day.

I’d like to give the big three credit for embracing new technology, but they’re actually a bit behind the curve. Internet users have been able to download TV shows for years now; it just hasn’t been easy (or legal) until now.

TV pirates use a protocol called BitTorrent to swap video files of their favorite shows. The files are large, the download speeds are erratic, and some shows can be hard to find. Swapping TV shows is also illegal, and your Internet provider may disconnect you if you get caught.

Throw all those drawbacks together, and watching commercials actually becomes the least painful option. It’s the kind of trend I like to see – networks making it easy to do the right thing.

Written by Michael B. Duff

August 3, 2007 at 14:51

Posted in Columns, TV

Mass Effect and the Objectivity of Cricket Bats

This lovely bit of dialog has been floating around my circle today, originally posted by resipisco.

It's not about the Internet, it's about writing and politics and our perceptions of both. If you're interested in writing or punditry, keep reading, and if you're not, go check out this Mass Effect trailer. It's bloody awesome.

HENRY: You're all bent.

ANNIE: You're jealous.

HENRY: Of Brodie?

ANNIE: You're jealous of the idea of the writer. You want to keep it sacred, special, not something anybody can do. Some of us have it, some of us don't. We write, you get written about. What gets you about Brodie is he doesn't know his place. You say he can't write like a head waiter saying you can't come in here without a tie. Because he can't put words together. What's so good about putting words together?

HENRY: It's traditionally considered advantageous for a writer.

ANNIE: He's not a writer. He's a convict. You're a writer. You write because you're a writer. Even you write about something, you have to think up something to write about just so you can keep writing. More well chosen words nicely put together. So what? Why should that be it? Who says?

HENRY: Nobody says. It just works best.

ANNIE: Of course it works. You teach a lot of people what to expect from good writing, and you end up with a lot of people saying you write well. Then somebody who isn't in on the game comes along, like Brodie, who really has something to write about, something real, and you can't get through it. Well, he couldn't get through yours, so where are you? To you, he can't write. To him, write is all you can do.

HENRY: Jesus, Annie, you're beginning to appall me. There's something scary about stupidity made coherent. I can deal with idiots, and I can deal with sensible argument, but I don't know how to deal with you. Where's my cricket bat?

ANNIE: Your cricket bat?

HENRY: Yes. It's a new approach. (He heads out into the hall.)

ANNIE: Are you trying to be funny?

HENRY: No, I'm serious. (He goes out while she watches in wary disbelief. He returns with an old cricket bat.)

ANNIE: You better not be.

HENRY: Right, you silly cow-

ANNIE: Don't you bloody dare-

HENRY: Shut up and listen. This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It's for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you've done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly… (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.) What we're trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might … travel … (He clucks his tongue again and picks up the script.) Now, what we've got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting 'Ouch!' with your hands stuck into your armpits. (Indicating the cricket bat.) This isn't better because someone says it's better, or because there's a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It's better because it's better. You don't believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on. [quoting from the play] `You're a strange boy, Billy, how old are you?'`Twenty, but I've lived more than you'll ever live.' Ooh, ouch! (He drops the script and hops about with his hands in his armpits, going `Ouch!' ANNIE watches him expressionlessly until he desists.)

ANNIE: I hate you.

HENRY: I love you. I'm your pal. I'm your best mate. I look after you. You're the only chap.

ANNIE: Oh, Hen… Can't you help?

HENRY: What did you expect me to do?

ANNIE: Well…cut it and shape it…

HENRY: Cut it and shape it. Henry of Mayfair. Look – he can't write. I would have to write it for him.

ANNIE: Well, write it for him.

HENRY: I can't.


HENRY: Because it's balls. Mary's part is the least of it – it's merely ham-fisted. But when he gets into his stride, or rather his lurch, announcing every stale revelation of the newly enlightened, like stout Cortez coming upon the Pacific – war is profits, politicians are puppets, Parliament is a farce, justice is a fraud, property is theft… It's all here: the Stock Exchange, the arms dealers, the press barons… You can't fool Brodie – patriotism is propaganda, religion is a con trick, royalty is an anachronism… Pages and pages of it. It's like being run over very slowly by a travelling freak show of favourite simpletons, the india rubber pedagogue, the midget intellectual, the human panacea…

ANNIE: It's his view of the world. Perhaps from where he's standing you'd see it the same way.

HENRY: Or perhaps I'd realize where I'm standing. Or at least that I'm standing somewhere. There is, I suppose, a world of objects which have a certain form, like this coffee mug. I turn it, and it has no handle. I tilt it, and it has no cavity. But there is something real here which is always a mug with a handle. I suppose. But politics, justice, patriotism – they aren't even like coffee mugs. There's nothing real there separate from our perception of them. So if you try to change them as though there were something there to change, you'll get frustrated, and frustration will finally make you violent. If you know this and proceed with humility, you may perhaps alter people's perceptions so that they behave a little differently at that axis of behaviour where we locate politics or justice; but if you don't know this, then you're acting on a mistake. Prejudice is the expression of this mistake.

ANNIE: Or such is your perception.

HENRY: All right.

ANNIE: And who wrote it, why he wrote it, where he wrote it – none of these things count with you?

HENRY: Leave me out of it. They don't count. Maybe Brodie got a raw deal, maybe he didn't. I don't know. It doesn't count. He's a lout with language. I can't help somebody who thinks, or thinks he thinks, that editing a newspaper is censorship, or that throwing bricks is a demonstration while building tower blocks is social violence, or that unpalatable statement is provocation while disrupting the speaker is the exercise of free speech… Words don't deserve that kind of malarkey. They're innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they're no good any more, and Brodie knocks corners off without knowing he's doing it. So everything he builds is jerry-built. It's rubbish. An intelligent child could push it over. I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead.

Written by Michael B. Duff

August 2, 2007 at 10:39

Posted in Books, Games