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The Good, the Bad, and the Wikipedia February 28, 2007

Posted by Johan in Off Topic.
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The Freakonomics blog has a post on a slight problem with a New Yorker article about Wikipedia. Essentially, the New Yorker has added a note at the end of the article, acknowledging that one of the interviewees in the article, a supposed tenured professor of theology, was in fact a 24-year-old with no degree whatsoever. Perhaps more glaringly, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales claims to have absolutely no problem with the fact that the high-profile contributor had lied about his qualifications.

This is of course entirely in keeping with Wikipedia’s credo, as Stacey Schiff points out in the article:

Wales’s most radical contribution may be not to have made information free but—in his own alma-matricidal way—to have invented a system that does not favor the Ph.D. over the well-read fifteen-year-old.

In Wikipedia, the identity of the contributor is essentially unimportant. The content that is contributed should be judged equally regardless of the expertise of the contributor. However, the whole snafu does reflect rather poorly on the New Yorker, which, after a long article pointing out Wikipedia’s many shortcomings in terms of bias and inaccuracies, was forced to admit to poor source control on their own behalf.

The New Yorker article is rather good, in any case. In tying Wikipedia to a wider history of encyclopedias (encyclopediae?), Schiff offers some much-needed context. Wikipedia sometimes comes off as a phenomenon of our times, unprecedented in history… This is perhaps not so much true when you look at Diderot’s l’Encyclopedie, for instance.

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, certainly took a cue from the past:

As an undergraduate, he had read Friedrich Hayek’s 1945 free-market manifesto, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” which argues that a person’s knowledge is by definition partial, and that truth is established only when people pool their wisdom. Wales thought of the essay again in the nineteen-nineties, when he began reading about the open-source movement, a group of programmers who believed that software should be free and distributed in such a way that anyone could modify the code. He was particularly impressed by “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” an essay, later expanded into a book, by Eric Raymond, one of the movement’s founders. “It opened my eyes to the possibility of mass collaboration,” Wales said.

Of course, any social psychologist would tell you that group decisions are by no means superior to individual decisions, but this idea is nevertheless alluring, that pooling knowledge, all our biases will even out to something resembling neutrality, like error variance if you will. I suppose the problem is that insofar as neutrality represents the consensus of the English-speaking world (in the case of the English Wikipedia), young males who spend too much time in front of a computer are somewhat overrepresented in this big melting pot of knowledge.

Schiff also dug out a H.G. Wells quote that I have to re-quote:

H. G. Wells lamented that, while the world was becoming smaller and moving at increasing speed, the way information was distributed remained old-fashioned and ineffective. He prescribed a “world brain,” a collaborative, decentralized repository of knowledge that would be subject to continual revision. More radically—with “alma-matricidal impiety,” as he put it—Wells indicted academia; the university was itself medieval. “We want a Henry Ford today to modernize the distribution of knowledge, make good knowledge cheap and easy in this still very ignorant, ill-educated, ill-served English-speaking world of ours,” he wrote.

Such foresight.

Personally, I’m struck by the huge variability of Wikipedia content. Some articles are truly excellent, while others read as thinly veiled, disorganized editorials.

A separate issue, which does not get so much attention, is that of plagiarism. Traditionally in Academia, this is the great faux-pas. In Wikipedia, however, you often find that going to the first cited source in an article, you discover the entire article text, verbatim. Obviously, many contributors take short-cuts, simply pasting in material they have found rather than putting it through that crucial re-writing and re-phrasing, mastered by undergraduates everywhere.

This is perhaps not so much of a problem. As long as the original source is cited, the only concern with this type of shortcut is one of copyright. One of wikipedia’s founding tenets is that no original research may be cited, and that content must be written from a neutral standpoint. Simply pasting in text from a source fulfills both these requirements quite well.


Encephalon 17 is out February 26, 2007

Posted by Johan in Neuroscience.
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Hosted by Pure Pedantry. With a pirate theme, no less! This may be the funniest Encephalon write-up I’ve seen so far. Well worth a look.

AI and Emotion February 23, 2007

Posted by Johan in Cognition, Connectionism, Neural Networks, Social Neuroscience.
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There is a story on BBC news about FEELIX Growing, a project which uses neural networks to design robots that will interact with humans in flexible, adaptive ways. Interestingly, the researchers seem to think that the way to achieve this is to design the software so that it is sensitive to human emotion:

“The human emotional world is very complex but we respond to simple cues, things we don’t notice or we don’t pay attention to, such as how someone moves,” said Dr Canamero, who is based at the University of Hertfordshire.

From the FEELIX Growing website:

Adaptation to incompletely known and changing environments and personalization to their human users and partners are necessary features to achieve successful long-term integration. This integration would require that, like children (but on a shorter time-scale), robots develop embedded in the social environment in which they will fulfil their roles.

It’s an interesting proposition, that robots should show some sensitivity to emotion in order to appear more human. The researchers will apparently rely on off-the-shelf robots with custom software, so don’t count on this leading to a robot that passes the Turing test. Nevertheless, acknowledging the role of affect in human-computer interactions is bound to be a good idea. In fact, this is already happening: supposedly, phone queueing software is designed to detect swearing, so that angry callers can be bumped to an operator immediately.

On the Intellectual Abilities of Chickens February 20, 2007

Posted by Johan in Off Topic, Sensation and Perception.

Retrospectacle has a post up on yet another in a long line of bizarre PETA ads. The general oddness of the ad aside, it makes the claim that

the cognitive abilities of a chicken rival that of cats, dogs, and even young humans

I’d be the first to admit that it’s difficult to argue over something which isn’t well defined – maybe by your definition, laying eggs and having feathers counts as showing high cognitive function, and frankly, in the absence of a commonly accepted definition of intelligence even in academia, I couldn’t really say much about it.

However, a good old paper by Hess suggests that perhaps, we should think twice before signing chickens up for public education. The picture you’re seeing above can’t really be from the original study, as it was carried out in 1956, so I imagine it’s from some replication. The chicken is wearing goggles which shift the its vision slightly to one side. The chicken’s ability to adjust to this change was measured rather cleverly by having the chicken peck for grain placed on clay, which ensured that each peck left a tidy mark to measure performance by.

This experiment, or a variant of it, is an old favorite in Psychology practicals. Basically, you make a human subject wear these goggles for some time, and test their performancy by having them point at a target with a ballistic movement. The interesting finding is that while performance is initially horrid, it improves quite rapidly as the subject practices. If you next remove the goggles and have the subject do yet another trial, performance is once again impaired, but in the opposite direction. So it would seem that we learn rather quickly to adjust our aim for the distortion that the goggles introduce.

Hess (1956) reported that this was not the case with chickens. Regardless of the number of trials, they never got any closer to the grain. As this was the 1950’s, long before Ethics committees, Hess was able to make this point very clearly, by reporting that two chickens had in fact died of starvation while wearing the goggles, despite having grains scattered around them.

So as long as we agree that the ability to learn is a crucial aspect of intelligence, the score appears to be humans 1 – chickens 0.


Hess, E.H. (1956). Space Perception in the Chick. Scientific American, 195, 71.

A post on positivistic transfigurative epigenesis February 17, 2007

Posted by Johan in Off Topic, Psycholinguistics.
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For those who haven’t read Pinker’s book. Impress your Sociologist friends: mix and match words from below, and work it into your next neuroscience essay: “The Limbic System: Dialectical Degenerative Diffusion, or Multilateral Simulated Synthesis?” If your essay is criticized, this is because your detractors fail to understand its topic. If your critics admit to failing to understand the topic, they are clearly not fit to offer an educated opinion on it. It’s a win-win situation!

More serious blogging will resume once this cold goes away, and my coursework deadlines have been met.