Tag Archives: Wikipedia

Common misconceptions

Do you use Wikipedia? I find that people either love it or hate it (or just don’t trust it). I rarely go there for the final word on anything, but I do love it as a starting point for topics I don’t know much about (Actually, I checked it just moments ago to find out who Lena Dunham’s mom is– Laurie Simmons, FYI). Most of the time the information on the site seems to be fairly accurate, but I especially love the footnotes! The footnotes are a great way to instantly find a short bibliography of sources.

Another thing I love about Wikipedia is the strange articles that you can find there– like this one about popular misconceptions. (Did you know that Napoleon was actually not that short?) Here are a few other articles that I especially love:

Ampelmännchen, aside from being a great German word that translates to little light man, is also an interesting article about these pedestrian walk signals from East Germany that survived reunification in 1990.

Have you heard of the Borough of S.N.P.J. in Lawrence County, PA? It stands for Slovenska Narodna Podporna Jednota  and is a recreation hall that applied to be a municipality in 1977 to get around liquor laws.

Calculator spelling has a name– beghilos!  Everyone spelled out 5318008 and 0.7734 in elementary school, right?

Need a better word for doodads or whatchamacallits? There’s a whole list of placeholder names here. (Gewgaw, gizmo, gubbins, hoofer doofer…)

The Waffle House Index is a real thing, guys. I actually had to check the footnotes on this one to make sure someone didn’t just make it up, but in this case truth really is stranger than fiction. FEMA actually does consider the strength of a hurricane by whether Waffle Houses nearby are open or closed.

Do you have a favorite Wikipedia article? Do you use it to find reliable information or just steer clear altogether?

-Irene

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If Google Vanished

Hypothetical speculation is a fun sport most people like to indulge in from time to time.  Some of us, for example, like to argue about who would win in a fight between a grizzly bear and a wolverine (or, Wolverine, or The Wolverine Brigade).  Others debate the comparative greatness of various sports heroes, dead presidents, or Mexican artists.  The only limits to the game are your creativity and imagination.

Library workers, being a special kind of nerdy, often consider scenarios like this one:

Google buys every major search tool and is then shut down as a monopoly, and in the same week Wikipedia goes bankrupt. Choose three freely available websites as the best starting points for the widest possible range of inquiries.

–Joseph Janes in I’m Sorry, You’re Out

Never ones to resist a challenge,  your crack team of information mavens here at Main Library pondered the question, then came up with the following list of web resources we would use to help answer your questions, in the event of Googlepedia apocalypse.

About.com
Short introductions to every topic under the sun.

Allmusic
An all-purpose music, movies and gaming portal.

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Research Databases
Free to you, because we paid for it!

Delicious
A searchable collection of popular links people like you found useful.

Encyclopedia Britannica
A notable name in encyclopedias opens up its treasury of goodness.

The Internet Movie Database
Titles, actors, roles and more, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Instructables
Visual and verbal guides for doing and making just about anything.

IPL2
The Internet Public Library married The Librarians’ Index to the Internet! This is their baby.

Medline Plus
The National Library of Medicine tackles all your health dilemmas.

The QuestionPoint Ready Reference Wiki
Jam-packed with useful links, assembled by librarians.

Refdesk.com
A useful, diverse, all-purpose search portal.

Reference.com
Dictionaries, thesauri, quotations, and a translator. Mighty!

TV Tropes
Specialized wiki for TV themes and concepts.

USA.gov
An excellent starting point for credible info on U.S. Government services.

WorldCat
Find books in libraries all over the world, or close to home.

Most of the sites mentioned here can already be found via the library’s Ready Reference Links Page, so feel free to bookmark it, or save it as a “favorite” in your browser — it contains a number of other neat and useful sources, too, like Weather Underground and GetHuman.

When do Google and Wikipedia work for you?  Where do they fall short?  What are your favorite free web resources?  Nerdy information herders want to know!

–Leigh Anne

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Oh, the technology!

If you’ve been reading along with the Eleventh Stack team for any length of time, you’re probably pretty comfortable — or at least a little less nervous — about getting some of your news and information from blogs. Lately, though, it seems like there’s a new social technology coming down the pike every few nanoseconds, and that can sometimes seem like a scary pace.  First Facebook was all the rage, but now Twitter is the new black. What kind of whizbang sorceries will these computer-folk dream up next?

Your guess is as good as mine, but as internet news breaks, the library will fix it! For a panoramic view of the techno-zeitgeist, check out some of these books on emerging technologies and the faster-than-light changes in society and culture they engender.

book jacketBorn Digital, John G. Palfrey. Itching to peek inside the thought processes of a generation that’s never known life without a computer? Palfrey’s book describes what it means to be a digital native, how this differs from being what he calls a “digital settler,” and how people at all technological levels can work together to sort out issues like privacy, safety, and identity.

The Wikipedia Revolution

The Wikipedia Revolution, Andrew Lih. Love it or hate it, the Wikipedia project has changed the way people search for and create information online. Lih’s history of the internet’s most famous DIY encyclopedia stands out as one of the most comprehensive texts written on the subject so far, though curious readers may also want to check out How Wikipedia Works and Wikinomics, too.

book jacketViral Spiral, David Bollier. Some argue that developments in internet technology represent democracy at its finest, with developments like open source software and Creative Commons licensing. Bollier’s book looks at these and other phenomena in that light, emphasizing the positive aspects of web culture. For a cautionary note, see Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet. For some serious dissension, check out Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur.

book jacketThe Rise of the Blogosphere, Aaron Barlow. How did blog culture come about? Barlow compares blogging to the early American popular press and describes how traditional journalism outlets themselves paved the way for blogging’s popularity.

If you’re still feeling a little apprehensive about the brave new world we live in, we’d love to show you how the Carnegie Library is using all kinds of technologies, from the familiar to the fantastic, to continue its mission of providing information for the people of Pittsburgh. Stop by the library on Saturday, April 25th and check out our Technology Playground.  We’ll have demonstrations and hands-on fun for you to sample, and you can enter a drawing to win one of three gift cards from Best Buy.

In case of a power outage or zombie apocalypse, there will always be print materials as a backup. But aren’t you just a little curious about what’s new, now and next? Pick the format you’re most comfortable with, then contact us in the way that works best for you, and we’ll hook you up with everything you need to know about emerging technologies. 

See you in the future!

–Leigh Anne

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Get it Right

I’m a product of serendipitous timing; this week’s Time Magazine gives me the introduction I was looking for. In reviewing two new true-crime books, Lev Grossman introduces his reviews with the observation that Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, based on a 1959 Kansas farmhouse murder, was the first real “nonfiction novel.” Most of us are familiar with the genre, and for me at least, it’s my preferred choice in fiction reading.

My first real experience with the genre as a young adult was probably from reading Leon Uris and James Michener. Uris’s Battle Cry is fiction, but it’s unmistakably autobiographical and the places and events mentioned are real. Besides, how can you not keep coming back to a book that begins: “They call me Mac…”? Uris’s other early works follow the same pattern, a good yarn based on extensive historical research, but labeled fiction. The better ones that come to mind, and that I’ll re-read every few years are Armageddon (my personal favorite,) Topaz and Exodus.

Battle Cry Mila 18 In Cold Blood Exodus

James Michener did the same thing, creating a fictional narrative based on extensive historic research. Whereas Uris’s works covered the here and now, Michener’s made up the expanse of human time. Where I later had problems with Michener is that his books became SSDP (same story, different place.) While The Source, Poland, Hawaii and The Covenant are obviously different places and people, the formula became too repetitive and apparent after reading the third book. All of them are excellent, but they need to be spaced out. Ten and twenty years later, I had the same complaint about Tom Clancy and anything with Jack Ryan.

Clancy is interesting to me for another reason and leads into my real reason for writing here. Red Storm Rising and The Hunt for Red October opened up the market for the techno-thriller. Following Clancy’s lead, writers like Larry Bond and Stephen Coonts could spend half a page describing in the most descriptively arcane terms some piece of machinery, weaponry or vehicle. Their characters (crosses between Indiana Jones and James Bond without the tux) don’t just don or put on their coats, instead they pick up their Jacket, Field M-1943, or they board a 3,800 ton, Westinghouse gas turbine powered Knox class frigate preparing to get under way. That the frigate may or may not be rocking gently at the pier is incidental.

book jacket book jacket book jacket hunt for red october

What happens though, when the story isn’t historical fiction? David Hagberg, a well received author of techno-thrillers, has written a non-fiction work titled Mutiny: The True Events That Inspired The Hunt for Red October. Hagberg’s co-author is a man named Boris Gindin. The book is an account of a not very well-planned and short-lived mutiny aboard a Soviet naval vessel in 1975 (a 3500 ton Krivak class anti-submarine warfare vessel – see, I can do that techno stuff too.) Gindin was the chief engineering officer aboard the ship at the time, and spent most of the actual mutiny time locked up in a storage space with the other officers who didn’t join the Zampolit (Political Officer) who led the mutiny. So what we have is an historical narrative, told from the memory of a single individual, who wasn’t in a position to actually see or hear what was happening during the real course of events. According to Hagberg’s own acknowledgements, Gindin was the only participant he had access to for the story, and there are no primary source materials available.

I’m OK with that if the author is responsible and doesn’t project too much. Where I really began having problems with this book, and maybe it’s less about this book and more about the non-fiction I’m reading today in general, is the paucity of research or evidence of research. I’m going to the backs of these works and not finding indexes; there are few if any footnotes or endnotes, and in this case a fairly diminutive bibliography.

What made me seriously question this book is a short comment Hagberg made in a chapter devoted to Stalin’s purges, deportations and mass murder of the Kulaks and Ukrainians. At the end of a succession of atrocities perpetrated against them, Hagberg writes:

“The kulaks ate their pets, then bark from the trees, even their boots and belts and harnesses. Finally they began eating one another. Sometimes parents ate their infant children” (266).

Obviously it’s disturbing and I was curious as to his source. That’s when I discovered and burned that there was no index. I then went to look for a bibliography and came across one of 35 citations; books and articles. Oh yeah, 11 of them are from Wikipedia. Truth be told, most of them are innocuous and don’t effect historical accuracy; the performance of a particular aircraft or class of naval vessel. However 3 or 4 of them were about the histories of the Soviet era security services – the Cheka, NKVD, NKGB and the KGB. To me it’s fact-checking lite; it’s taking “good enough” and diminishing the veracity of research. I like Wikipedia, but use it as a test-bed against things I know about, or as a starting point for additional information gathering. Its problem is that user-generated content harbors the danger of reducing historical fact to truth by “democracy”. If 100 people say this didn’t happen, and only 60 say it did, then it didn’t happen.

Why did my red lights go off here? Take a look at the The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes. I was given this book late last year and finally finished it in April or May. It’s over 700 pages of meticulously noted personal accounts of life in the Soviet Union from before the revolution until the end of the Khrushchev years. In and of itself The Whisperers merits its own write-up, but I’ll save that for another day. The book is an ode to ensuring the veracity of personal accounts and their places within historical context. In reading it I may have come across inaccurate detail of events, but those are errors and suppositions of the individual account, not the pronunciations of the author as authority. In reading accounts of 40-50 years of systemic oppression and terror in the old USSR, I never came across accounts of cannibalism in the manner Hagberg suggests. My problem with what Hagberg flippantly tosses out is, his account is so brief that it seems common or expected; it loses its ability to shock and make us question to what levels humans must sometimes reach whether as victim or perpetrator.

To me it reinforces our roles as custodians of the veracity of the information we provide. “Good enough” is usually a quantitative qualifier, it also needs to be a qualitative quantifier, meaning it’s good enough that I’d use it too.

–Richard

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