An intellectual freedom blog with an emphasis on libraries and technology

Friday, December 21, 2012

Dear Wikipedia

This rant was inspired by the "Dear Wikipedia Readers" letter that has appeared the last time I tried to find something on wikipedia. I do fully realize the apparent contradiction in denouncing what I hate about wikipedia after I used it to look something up. Something like wikipedia but has adult supervision would greatly benefit everyone. As it stands now I will use wikipedia to remind myself of the name of a pagan goddess, the year Alaric and his Visigoths sacked Rome or some other such information that I once knew but the names, dates, or other details I have forgotten. I would never use it to learn something I had not already learned from the kinds of sources that wikipedia founders and editors think that wikipedia can or will someday replace. If that does not satisfactorily explain this contradiction - I don't care.

You can find one of the several odious versions of the appeal here. I can not find the text of the one that set me off as it was a pop-up/click away pushed in front of an article.

Dear Wikipedia:

So, you're a small non-profit that runs the #5 site in the world. Just goes to show that some suckers will believe anything. You say it's like a library or a public park? Really? You'd like to think so, wouldn't you? Trouble is, libraries and public parks cost money and require people with expertise to run them. You have attempted to replace traditional academic information sources based on an analogy to a guy who observed that the average guesses as to the weight of a cow at a county faire tended to be really close the the actual weight. Based on this you think that you can "crowd-source" an encyclopedia and have it provide verifiably accurate, reliable and authoritative information? Really?

People have typed in the plot to movies as if they were an accurate description of historical events. Block-headed ideologues have vandalized articles until the locked-down version does not tell the reader much of anything and often leaves out verifiably true information. Scholars who have worked long and hard to earn their Ph.D.s have tried correcting misconceptions but discovered that your "editors" do not understand primary source analysis; therefore, they will let an existing passage in an article "stand" because the author can quote a published secondary source. And while we're on the subject of published sources - if wikipedia is supposed to stand as a reliable, authoritative resource because of that whole average weight of the cow thing, then why do your editors give so much credence to those books and articles the traditional publishing industry generated that Wikipedia is supposed to replace?

Wikipedia editors, let me tell you something. "Traditional" publishing houses earned their reputations for turning out accurate, reliable and authoritative information because people called "copy editors" did something called "actual work." They fact-checked by consulting primary sources, sometimes even physically going to places like archives and public records offices. The writers and authors spent many years earning a degree which meant that they did many hours a day of "actual work" to learn the complexities of a given subject and its development over time as well as a huge boatload of factual information. Such are the innumerable years of difficult and intellectually honest work that other people have done to make the secondary sources Wikipedia relies on and why these sources stand as credible and accurate.

Despite all this scholars find new evidence all the time and add the implications of new evidence to the body of secondary work in their fields. That means that even the best work by the best experts published by the best publishers sometimes goes out of date - the top experts in the field no longer consider it the best explanation for whatever. And sometimes charlatans fool people, even experts, and sometimes sloppy work comes out of "iffy" publishers with lax standards. It takes years of training and hard work to know enough about a subject to be able to sort out the "good" information from the "bad."

Regarding your pompous quote:

 "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge."

— Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia
We have these hard-working people called "librarians" who earned masters degrees and do the actual work of evaluating information on a daily basis. They work in places called "libraries" where, at least in the U.S. and other free countries, a person already is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. But this comes at a cost; therefore, in most enlightened parts of the work libraries receive public funding. The idea that "access to the sum of human knowledge" can somehow happen "for free" in the sense that no one pays for any of the labor required to produce accurate, reliable sources of information shows a kind of naivete that would look endearing coming from a 10-year-old. Also, before you try to compare wikipedia to a library you might want to consider the work that goes into becoming a librarian and running a library. It's a lot more than checking out books and children's story hour. Librarians and scholars with verifiable credentials from a properly accredited school have the qualifications to evaluate information and its sources.

Someone pounding out misconceptions and/or lies on a keyboard who has never set foot in a grad school does not qualify. Even some well-meaning and sincere people who honestly think the they have accurate, credible information often do not. Reality is not a matter of opinion and if one side of an argument that has only hot air and shouting then you really do not have an "Alternative viewpoint" worth giving space in an information resource. And the term papers you wrote in college are really the training wheels of real, modern, scholarly research. Most importantly,  the analogies you use to make your points or justify the existence of wikipedia prove absolutely nothing. But then you would know that if you ever bothered to read either Bacon or Galileo. But I bet you didn't. That would be too much work.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Right-wing Radicals Have a Math Problem

Alternet's Joshua Holland reports on a brand new right wing lie. It goes something like this: [hair on fire] "Half of all our hard earned tax money goes to poor people who are not working!" Or, as stated by the liar in his own words: "Welfare spending per day per household in poverty is $168, which is higher than the $137 median income per day." [Daniel Halper at the Weekly Standard].

This is a simple lie that divides one number - the money - by a smaller number than the actual recipients. Holland breaks it down neatly:

 But in Colorado, which I chose because it tends to be ideologically middle-of-the-road, the average eligibility cut-off for the 10 means-tested federal benefits listed  here is $18,075, or 62 percent above the federal poverty line.
The myth can be expressed mathematically like this: Total Spending On “Welfare”/Families in poverty = $168 per day. But these services benefit many more people than those struggling under the poverty line – one may as well divide those costs by the total number of rabbits or blue cars in the U.S.
The reality, expressed mathematically, is: Total Spending On “Welfare”/Those who receive benefits = $24.77 per day. That's a  lot less than $168. [emphasis mine]

So, we take X amount of money then

P = people under the federal poverty line.
N = All the recipients of X amount of money (which includes P).

X ÷ (N-P) = LIE

They're either really bad at math or they know that they're lying.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Pity the Multi-millionaires

In their effort to attack the Affordable Care Act, plutocrats have found a hostage to shoot. Last October Investor's Business Daily ran a story about how "Obamacare" hurts minorities. Darden industries, the parent of Red Lobster, Olive Garden and other restaurants, decided that because of the additional cost of providing health coverage to their full-time employees they must split up full time jobs into more part-time jobs which avoids the evil government mandated health coverage. Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers explained that the "razor thin profit margins" in this industry make additional costs far too burdensome.

"Razor thin profit margins" you say? Let's take a look at whot I found in the Mergent Online database of corporate SEC filing data. Salaries of the top management!

Clarence Otis, Chairman of the Board

Andrew H. Madsen, President

C. Bradford Richmond, Senior VP

Robert McAdam, Senior VP

Eugene I. Lee, Division officer

Kim A. Lopdrup, Division officer

These six out of eleven officers have their salaries listed. The other five officers do not. So we have $20,982,788 to pay just over half of the top management. The same report shows a $26,000,000 jump in their benefits costs in 2012 (this includes benefits of all kinds for all employees, not just the additional cost mandated by the Affordable Care Act - we have no break down of that specific cost).

They're not kidding. These multi-millionaires are wringing their hands (through their spokesman) over the "razor thin profit margins" of their industry? Really? Then quit and go lie on a beach for the rest of your lives - you can afford to.

In a recent segment of The Rachel Maddow Show, Ezra Klein explains how this blew up in Darden Industries face. Looks like the rest of the world, including their customers, realize that without hard-working people to cook and serve the food - and also fishermen, farmers, truck drivers and many others responsible for bringing the food to the table - people like Oits, Madsen and the rest have no income. People who do the work actually matter. Also, as Klein says, "No one wants sickly bus boys sneezing on their bread-sticks."

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One more important point usually missed in these discussions: there's more than two answers. There's more then three answers. There may even be more than four. If we actually work the problem - defined as how do we make sure everyone has health care - we have a better solution than the Affordable Care Act. The overhead, as measured by dollars per hundred dollars of reimbursement, for an HMO is about $15. Some a little more, others a little less. Back in the 90s when Consumer Reports studied health care the lowest overhead was Kaiser with $12. But even now Kaiser's costs have crept up. What's the overhead for the evil, inefficient government that can't do anything right for medicare and medicaid? $3. Not kidding. So, if all businesses put the same amount of money into Medicare as they spend on private insurance then, voila!, we extend medicare to everyone. Anyone who wants private insurance will pay a little more than the cost for medicare to obtain better care. But we have a floor no one sinks below and at break-even. If Investor's Business Daily and Darden Industries really cared about ordinary people like the ones who work in restaurant chains, this should not be a problem.

SPERRY, P. (2012, Oct 12). ObamaCare blow to minorities: Restaurants cut full-time slots. Investor's Business Daily. Retrieved from