[Wikipedia-l] encyclopedia

Ray Saintonge saintonge at telus.net
Sat Aug 16 19:39:41 UTC 2003

I disagree with Tarquin's determination that this is off-topic.  It is 
healthy for a project such as this to periodically discuss the nature of 
an encyclopedia.  Even if no concrete action arises from one particular 
discussion, it still helps in maintaining focus.

Merritt L. Perkins wrote:

>What is an encyclopedia? I expect an encyclopedia to be a reference work
>where I can quickly find information on many subjects. The information
>may be more or less extensive and more or less accurate.
>How would I use an encyclopedia? I would expect to use it to look up
>information that I would use in my activities or for recreational
An accurate observation that applies to ANY encyclopedia.  Encyclopedias 
are good initial sources of information and broad perspective on a 
subject.  They are certainly not primary sources.  A researcher with a 
serious interest in an article will want to go further.  Some of our 
articles have links to outside sources, but where those links have not 
been written it is to be hoped that the reader will have acquired enough 
basic vocabulary to bootstrap his research.

>The longer our mind is occupied with a given subject the less productive
>we become. We get bored. If we change to another activity for a while our
>minds productivity will gradually recover.
This is more true than many would have us believe.  The dilemma is faced 
by every genius that writes for Wikipedia.  In extreme cases of boredom 
thay become our most prominent vandals.  It may also be the key to why 
Wikipedia works so well.  

Over the years I have observed that professionals in many fields adopt a 
view of that profession that has been narrowed by their educational and 
formative experience.  The professions demand conformity.  Alternatives 
that require unapproved solutions are seriously discouraged,... more 
seriously when those alternatives work.  The requirement that someone be 
certified (or some word of similar effect) in his profession may 
ostensibly be to protect the public from fraud and incompetence, but the 
effect is really to enforce narrow thinking and to protect the 
privileges of the profession.  Fraudulent or otherwise criminal 
professionals continue to exist; incompetence is encouraged through 
rule-bound practice.

I have on numerous occasions embarked on a Wikipedia project that I 
eventually left incomplete.  Most of these remain on my personal 
unpublished to-do list, and I hope to get back to them at some point in 
the future.  The subject areas involved are very broad indeed.  This 
kind of behaviour would be totally unacceptable in an ordinary work 
environment.  It would get me fired.

The remarkable thing is that this kind of behaviour is the norm on 
Wikipedia, even as it accepts that there are others with a compulsion to 
bring an article to some relatively complete state.  What's more amazing 
is that the two co-exist quite well with a complementarity that is 
missing in other environments.  

This paradigm has implications beyond Wikimedia.  We have harnessed the 
power of boredom.

>The encyclopedia may tell how lady GodGifu rode naked through the streets
>of Coventry more than 1000 years ago, but there may only be records that
>such a person existed and the ride may only be legend. We would be
>interested in this legend only for recreational reasons. We have no need
>or use for the information.
This sounds like an argument against including such material, despite 
earlier contradictory views.

>We may be interested in medical information because it may help us care
>for health.
Caveat emptor!

>Is there danger that information in encyclopedia articles would be used
>by terrorists?
>We can have articles about explosives and tell how to make nitroglycerin
>or other explosives. Of course the articles would not tell where or how
>to buy the ingredients.
"Danger" is there in '''everything''' we say, not just in the obvious 
subjects.  What varies most is the responsibility that people accept for 
what happens in their own lives, and the extraordinary lengths to which 
they will go to ensure that their security is protected by restricting 
the freedom of others.  The smart terrorist will always be able to think 
outside the box.  If his plans involve the use of explosives, he'll 
either find a way to get them or change his plans to suit the 
circumstances.  If his plans involve the use of sharp objects where 
knives are forbidden, he can sharpen the edge of a plastic credit card. 
 (It's not as though he needs something made of fine steel that will 
keep its edge for many years. ;-) )

>Writing is tricky business. The impression in the mind of the reader may
>be quite different from what you intend to convey.
>Different readers may interpret what you write in different ways
>depending on their past experiences.
A feature of good fiction is that it is very adaptable to the reader's 
ability to visualize or fantasize

>Readers may not know the meaning of many unfamiliar terms.
A reasonable proportion can elevate the reader's perspectives.  If there 
are too many the work will remain unread.

>After you write something put away for a while. When you come back to it
>later youll notice things that you overlooked before.
>Now that you are satisfied with it, set it aside and start over new from
>the beginning.
>When you get tired of working on it either trash it or send it.
This laborious process may be essential in a "normal" writing 
environment.  Here, where the individual does not "own" the writing 
(copyright issues aside) we can be confident that there will always be 
someon else to find something wrong.

>Do you agree with my ideas?


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