Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Wikimania 2008 (Alexandria, Egypt)

In other news, I'm currently on a train to New York, from which I fly to Athens, with a day-long layover, and then Alexandria, Egypt, where I am due to talk at Wikimania 2008, the annual Wikipedia/Wikimedia conference. I'm talking on "LibraryThing and Social Cataloging."

I plan to center my talk on how LibraryThing's social production, or "Social Cataloging," stacks up against the Wikipedia model and similar projects. I think there are some interesting similarities, and more interesting departures. I shall post a screencast, at a minimum.

Anyone know these people? I am particularly eager to mingle with the other attendees and speakers. Apart from Brewster Kahl (Internet Archive), I hardly see a name I recognize. But I'm sure there will be some interesting conversations.

When it comes to Wikipedia, I'm no expert. My account lists some 746 edits since 2004, which probably puts me in the top percent, but my output is spotty, and I have never been obsessed with the site as some have.

Things not to say around Jimmy Wales. Worse, I am not a true believer. Of course, I think Wikipedia is extraordinary. I use it every day. When it's works, like most pop culture, it's an unmatched resource. But from working mostly on topics of Greek history, I have acquired a sour perspective on Wikipedia's ability to resolve conflicts, tamp down ignorance, and cover topics which, quite simply, require more than curiosity and popular secondary sources.

Alexander the Great, for example, has seen periodic, bitter warfare on national or sexual grounds and, although randomly wonderful, with extensive hyperlinking and some exceptional tidbits, has never grown into a decent summary. It's lumpy, unbalanced, poorly written and poorly sourced—a bright fourteen year-old child sitting next to you on a bus, telling you everything he knows.* Parts are good. Parts are bad. Parts are just off somehow—their correction requiring un-Wikipedia-esque virtues like restraint, proportionality and style. At one point I watched it closely and made substantial edits. I've moved on. In my opinion, if the Wiki culture and process were going to produce a good article on Alexander, they would have done so already.

If that's too pessimistic, it's surely true of bit players like Ada of Caria, Aristander of Telmessus or a work like the Geoponica? I think all three are passable now, but almost all the work is mine. Not only am I not scalable, but it shouldn't work that way. Tim Spalding, a PhD drop-out whose knowledge of the Geoponica is mostly second hand, even if he does read Greek, should not be the almost sole author of the article on this rather important work.**

Anyone know Alexandria? I should have no trouble filling my layover in Athens. I've been a few times before, so I'll be filling holes. But I've never been to Egypt.

I'll have early mornings, nights and one day free in Alexandria. (I'm not going to try to get to Cairo and the pyramids.) I want to make the most of the time I have, and feel extremely ignorant. Although Hellenistic Alexandria was a research interest of mine, the ancient city is largely gone, and I know little about what came after. I love Cavafy, so I shall probably check out his house museum, but I am completely ignorant about Durrell, the usual touchstone. Nor is Alexandria what it was in their day--the Greeks, Jews, Albanians and other minorities have mostly left. What the modern city is like, I have no idea. I can't count to ten in Arabic. I don't even have a guidebook. This is the new, non-obsessive tourist me. ..

If you know the city, leave comments. Tell me where to go and I'll tell you what I thought of it! Think of it as social production of tourist memories...

*My favorite Wikipedia criticism is surely Karen Schneider's, best expressed with reference to Orson Scott Card's page: 
"But if you read this blog you know I have written that Wikipedia often seems more like a Secret Treehouse Club than everyone’s encyclopedia. Card’s Wikipedia page isn’t a biography, it’s an encomium by true believers who maintain fierce control over Card’s myth."

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Anonymous David G said...

Good luck in Alexandria. When I visited Egypt in '88 I found the Egyptians to be friendliest, happiest, most helpful people in all my travels. You don't have to count but learn the symbols for 0-9 (easy). If this is your once in a lifetime shot at Egypt, you really should try to see the Cairo Museum and Pyramids. Drink bottled water, eat peel-it-yourself fruit and meat that you can see being cooked, except hotels like the Hilton should be safe.
Best wishes, David

7/15/2008 10:50 AM  
Blogger MelindaG said...

wow! that sounds awesome!! have fun!

7/15/2008 10:57 AM  
Blogger richard b said...

If I had one day in Alex (disclaimer: I was last there about 15 years ago)I would spend the morning shopping in the Souk Attarine - an amazing labyrinth of antique shops where you can find just about anything. I would go to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (not there when I was last there) and I would spend some time strolling down and taking in the Corniche.

Have a great time!

Useful article:

7/15/2008 11:34 AM  
Anonymous staffordcastle said...

Looks like they have some interesting museums:

7/15/2008 12:23 PM  
Anonymous raydulany said...

Tim, what footnote were you going to add at **?

7/15/2008 1:59 PM  
Anonymous circeus said...

If I might note, your complain essentially boils down to the major self-acknowledged issue in Wikipedia: Systemic bias (annoyingly, we lack a good essay discussing the topic, for some reason). It boils down to the simple fact that people in some branches of knowledge (here Antique Studies, but more broadly a large section of the Humanities) just don't seem to be nearly as interested in social software/knowledge sharing as people with interest in current events, politics or pop culture.

In practice, a great many articles indeed are written almost entirely by a single contributors (Awadewit has contributor a great chunk of Wikipedia's Mary Shelley-related content, and I myself wrote a Featured Article on a common weed).

Saying "I should not be single main author" is a bit inappropriate: if that was pushed to its logical conclusion, nobody would ever start new articles!

7/15/2008 7:11 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I would go further and say that, for some topics, extra participation is not enough. If every single classics professor in the United States united to edit in sane, balanced and scholarly understandings of the "ethnicity" question and about Alexander's sexuality, it would still be dwarfed by the number of interested Greeks, Macedonians, anti-homosexuals and pro-homosexuals.

Anyway, that a problem has a name doesn't help much. It's still a big problem.

7/16/2008 3:09 PM  
Anonymous bearcatlibrarian said...

Wikipedia used to be the place for obscure information. It gave a forum for publishing what you knew about something. Then some wiki gatekeepers decided to judge some articles as being of 'unclear importance'. Funny, I thought the whole idea of wikipedia was to allow anyone to contribute information. To me, this draconian deletion by self-nominated 'gatekeepers' makes the entire project so much less than it should/could be. The 'wiki-sphere' is splintered, because if someone can no longer contribute to Wikipedia, the mothership, they'll start their own wiki.

7/16/2008 5:58 PM  
Blogger Yervant said...

If you would like a taste of Old Alexandria (think pre-1952 revolution) try Flückiger's:

Flückiger Pastries
12 Abu El-Kasem El-Shabi St., off Safia Zaghloul; Attarin , Down town , ALEXANDRIA
tel: 034862323

This is an old pastry shop run by a Swiss family (presumably still so) frequented by the European citizens of Alex. My father has many fond memories of the magnificent pastries that appeared at every family celebration from this esteemed establishment.

You can visit the Nouza Gardens, one of the older and more beautiful parks, and Al-Montazah Palace and Gardens to view some of the older architecture and beauty of Old Alexandria.

To complete your Egyptian experience you ought to try some of the local fare: Ful Mudammas is the staple of the Egyptian diet- a type of broadbean cooked with olive oil, cumin, garlic, and lemon juice. Mouloukhiya is another national favourite - a stew of sorts made from a type of mallow served over rice with chicken. Must-try desserts include Basboussa, a syrup soaked cake, and Um Ali (literally Ali's mother), a warm concoction of puff pastry, cream, nuts and raisins.

If you happen to see tin cans sitting on people's balconies with white-flowered plants growing in them be sure to take a whiff. This flower is called "ful" and I don't know if it is found anywhere outside Egypt. The scent is intoxicating and is quintessential Egypt.

7/18/2008 11:45 AM  
Anonymous circeus said...

Actually, Tim, more scholars would have more weight not necessarily out of their mere degrees, but because Wikipedia works by referring to reliable sources, and scholars are certainly far more competent than laymen at locating and analysing journal articles and scholarly books that everybody can agree on. It is this approach that has allowed articles on topics that are currently far more prominent kook-y targets (Evolution, Intelligent design and Introduction to evolution) to become featured.

7/18/2008 2:10 PM  
Anonymous Sybil said...

Alexandria is a wonderful place to visit. Take time to sit in the wonderful coffee shops on the waterfront. The catacombs and roman theatre are a must vist. And of course the library!

7/18/2008 11:23 PM  
Anonymous lorax said...

circeus said....

Wikipedia works by referring to reliable sources, and scholars are certainly far more competent than laymen at locating and analysing journal articles and scholarly books that everybody can agree on.

Except that in small fields, the scholars are likely to have written at least some of those articles or books -- and citing your own work on Wikipedia is, as I understand it (and my understanding may be out of date), Very Much Not Okay.

7/25/2008 7:28 PM  

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