Thursday, September 21, 2006

Whither Wikipedia?

I guess it's official. I'm a computer nerd. Now, don't let my new title fool you - just because I'm a computer nerd does not mean that I have the faintest idea how computers work (or, perhaps more importantly, why they don't work). I don't know the difference between Delphi, Perl or Java (isn't the latter slang for coffee?), and I certainly don't know why the letter "W" follows the letter "Q" on a keyboard. But I took the first step toward being a computer nerd by creating a blog. I took the plunge tonight by creating a Wikipedia entry. But even that didn't make me cross the threshold from being an everyday nerd to a computer nerd. What cinched it, was that I enjoyed it.

I followed the advice of my professor, Bill Turkel, and created an entry that related to my field of research: technology. Personally, I am more interested in the history of technology, and if I can be even more abstract, to the history of thought of technology, or what I am calling, the intellectual history of technology. But how can I ever propose to study that, if I can't even describe what technology is?

Enter Wikipedia.

My first exercise in defining a term. Online. For anyone to read. It's an exciting, but altogether discomforting venture, because I know that my hard work can be (more likely, will be) deleted and re-written by some anonymous drifter out there in cyberspace. If I knew how to virtually shake my fist, I would. For now, I'll settle on physically shaking my fist at the screen.

If I don't like the changes to my entry, then maybe I can focus on the soon-to-arrive, democratically sounding, Citizendium, which promises to be Wikipedia's newest challenger. Its goal is to "create a responsible community and a good global citizen" by creating a trustworthy online resource and reference site. Its basics are similar to Wikipedia in that anyone can create or edit an existing entry, but it departs from the Wikipedian philosophy by having each entry monitored by specialists who will have to publicly state their credentials.

It will be interesting to see if a Wikipedia-style website that boasts increased editorial control will have an impact on the way Internet sites are evaluated in historical research. I also can't help but wonder if people who want to submit an entry to Citizendium will chafe under editorial restrictions and revert back to Wikipedia's free-flowing narratives. Or perhaps this new website will be to Wikipedia what Google was to Yahoo!. Who knows? As Niels Bohr once commented, "prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future."

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Seafood, steak, and algorithms

I experienced some life-altering episodes this weekend that have left me humiliated, stunned, and bloated. My brother Francesco got married to a wonderful woman yesterday in a (dare I say) typical Italian wedding - too much food, lots of wine, and hundreds of guests. In the context of that event, I have learned the following:

1. You can never really know everything about a person. For example, I had no idea that my brother leads a double life as a street dancer in the breaking community - until I watched him perform the Worm in his designer suit during a dance-off with my other brother Gaspare. Represent.

2. It is okay to eat bread, cheese, pasta, rice, filet mignon, potatoes, lamb, lobster, shrimp, calamari, and cake. On different days. Never in one sitting. My stomach hates me right now. But I couldn't help myself. I love food. Once it's hits the lips... it's so good.

3. In relation to the above, seafood, steak, and algorithms do not mix. I tried the computer science exercise today, but my desire to finish the assignment was in constant competition with my bloated stomach that demanded answers for my reckless eating (and drinking) from last night.

4. I can't add. It's embarrassing. I have been trying to determine the time efficiency of the Simple, Insertion, and Selection Sorts but haven't been able to calculate the correct sums. I started having flashbacks of elementary school math class when my teacher showed us flash cards to help us practice addition and multiplication. In my mental image, the cards were blank.

5. As a PhD student undergoing comps, I appreciate the unambiguity of algorithms in Computer Science. If only we could convince some historians to discard their verbal refuse.

6. Knowing the way I am, I need to see algorithms in practical use before I'll truly understand how and why to use them in relation to digital history.

That's it (for now).

Sunday, September 10, 2006


"You think too much," a friend once complained to me a few years ago. "I find it incredibly irritating." Ouch. I haven't been able to forget my friend's observation (clearly giving credence to her claim) and it may be the reason why I've decided to pursue a PhD in History. As such, I am currently a student at the University of Western, and I am auditing a course on Digital History - an intriguing subject because it acknowledges a more relevant medium of pursuing the past...and relevancy is key in a world where books, the time-honoured vehicles for disseminating ideas, are increasingly challenged by the rapidity and convenience of the Internet. I'll be using this blog to note my progress during the course, and who knows, maybe I will expand its uses once the semester ends. Hmmm...I'll have to think about that.