Archive for May, 2013

Risks of User-Generated Content: Nitrates? What Nitrates?

May 28, 2013 1 comment

More studies demonstrating serious health risks of preserved meats have been published recently.  My kids love salami, so I decided to go on the Boar’s Head website to see what chemicals were in their products.  I couldn’t find any ingredient lists on the site (and it’s awkward to ask the deli counter worker to read you the list!)  But I was amused to find this:


Notice that the number one search on the website is something they have no answer for! The “top searches” list must be generated automatically. (A search for “nitrites” sends you to their FAQ, with an article from The American Meat Institute saying the preservatives are safe.) One risk of user-generated content is that your users may highlight exactly the thing you don’t want to talk about!

The Speed and Accuracy of Wikipedia: A Family Story

May 28, 2013 8 comments

Mom, did Uncle Oscar die?

In February 2008, I called my mother to inquire about the health of my great uncle Oscar Brodney, because Wikipedia told me he had passed away. Uncle Oscar was a Hollywood screenwriter. He wrote the screenplay for The Glenn Miller Story (for which he was nominated for an academy award), Abbott and Costello’s Mexican Hayride, Harvey, and many more.  In June 2007, I updated his Wikipedia page to say “Brodney still lives in Hollywood, California and celebrated his 100th birthday in February 2007.”  Actually, he was in Beverly Hills, California–as someone else quickly corrected. 

Editing Oscar’s page put it on my watchlist.  Wikipedia editors have a list of pages they’re interested in, so they can check changes.  Anything you edit is automatically added to your watchlist.  That’s one way quality is maintained.  On February 16th, 2008, I checked my watchlist and saw that someone had updated Oscar’s page.  It now said:

Brodney passed quietly in his sleep on February 12, 2008 in Playa del Rey, CA.

He did?  That was news to me.  So I called my mother. 

Me: Mom, did Uncle Oscar die?

Mom: I don’t think so, but let me call Betty.

My great aunt Betty is Oscar’s youngest sister.  Mom called Betty and asked if Oscar had died.  Betty said, “I don’t think so… But let me check my email.”  Betty checked her email, and sure enough there was a message waiting for her from a few days earlier saying her brother had passed away.  Oscar’s closest living relative learned of his death via my Wikipedia watchlist.

The edit to Oscar’s page was made the day after his death by an anonymous user –someone who didn’t even log in. It wasn’t made by a family member, as far as I’ve been able to determine.  The IP address of the anonymous user was apparently from Las Vegas, Nevada. Oscar lived in a nursing home for the last few months of his life, and the specific detail about the manner and place of death makes me wonder if the anonymous editor was someone who worked at the home or a friend of someone who worked there.  We’ll probably never know. (If you made that edit, please email me!  I’d love to know who you are and how you knew.)

However, the story doesn’t stop there.  No one placed an obituary for Oscar in Variety or other newspapers.  He was almost 101 years old, and most people who would have cared were long gone.  So a careful Wikipedia user undid the edit.  In accordance with Wikipedia’s policy on Biographies of Living Persons, declaring someone dead is serious business.  You can’t do it without proof.  I replied back on the article’s talk page (each Wikipedia article has a place for editors to discuss it) saying

I have confirmed that the information about Brodney’s death is correct from a primary source (his sister). Can we redo this?

Another editor replied back,

Per WP:OR and WP:BLP, we need an independent, third party reliable source to report a death. Is there a news article anywhere?

I couldn’t find a newspaper ad or public notice anywhere, so for months Oscar stayed undead–not dead on Wikipedia I mean.  Until in July a kind Wikipedia editor noticed that his name had appeared in the social security administration death records, and Oscar was finally allowed to officially rest in peace.

Two things strike me as remarkable about this story.  The first is the speed and power of Wikipedia’s social network.  My network of strong ties failed to get this news to me in a timely fashion. Wikipedia’s global network routed around that blockage through an anonymous person.

Second, Wikipedia’s commitment to verification is remarkable for its tenacity, in certain areas.  As I’ve written before, a high profile page (like that of a current world leader) is scrutinized in every detail. In less popular pages (like the page for Oscar Brodney), errors can creep in.  But even on a low profile page, editors are incredibly careful about certain things. And deaths are one of those things.  You don’t go around declaring people dead without proof.  And the editor who undid the change to Oscar’s page was right–how do we really know he has passed away?  We need proof.  And luckily another Wikipedia editor knew how to find acceptable proof when I did not. 

A “socio-technical system” is a combination of people, artifacts (in this case the MediaWiki software that Wikipedia runs on), and social practices.  And in this example, all those parts worked together in a remarkable way.  Oscar would have approved.

On Google Glass and Gargoyles: a Call to Action

May 20, 2013 4 comments

Wearable computing first entered my social circle in 1993, when fellow grad students at the MIT Media Lab (led by Thad Starner) started inventing and wearing devices of their own design.   The amazing thing to me is that a key social implication of wearables was predicted a year earlier (1992) by novelist Neal Stephenson in his book Snow Crash.   Stephenson used the term “gargoyle” to refer to someone with a wearable who is not really listening to you:

Gargoyles are no fun to talk to. They never finish a sentence. They are adrift in a laser-drawn world, scanning retinas in all directions, doing background checks on everyone within a thousand yards, seeing everything in visual light, infrared, millimeter. wave radar, and ultrasound all at once. You think they’re talking to you, but they’re actually poring over the credit record of some stranger on the other side of the room, or identifying the make and model of airplanes flying overhead.

Since the announcement of Google Glass (for which Thad was lead technical advisor), a productive public conversation about its privacy implications has begun.  I’m glad we’re all talking about the privacy factor, but I don’t think enough attention has yet been paid to the distraction factor.  Sherry Turkle wrote in her book Alone Together that our devices are increasingly preventing us from being fully present. I recently quit playing the game Words with Friends because it was always drawing my attention.  I would start playing at an entirely appropriate moment, but then that moment would pass and part of my attention would still be on the game. I have a tendency to be absorbed by games, and having a really good one in my pocket wasn’t working for me.  So I made a conscious decision to quit, and have been in a more comfortable daily rhythm since.

Since some time around the invention of stone tools, humans have lived immersed in socio-technical systems: richly connected combinations of people, tools, and social practices.  Each of these affects the others.  Who we are as individuals and who we are as a culture are intertwined with what tools we possess and how we choose to use them.  There are things about future wearable computers that I am looking forward to.  I said hi to a Georgia Tech student on my way into a restaurant with my family last night.  If my glasses could have reminded me of her name, I would have been grateful.  And I hope this support would help me truly learn her name, though I fear some people would use such a support to not bother to try. And the privacy implications of course are headache inducing.  When we have face recognition working, next could I please have bird recognition?  (Was that really a piping plover or just a sandpiper?)  How about rock recognition?  (Is that schist or gneiss?)  It’s a naturalist’s dream.  There will be a myriad new applications of wearable computing and augmented reality, some trivial and some profound, that we can’t yet begin to imagine.

But you know what I’m not looking forward to?  Hey–are you listening to me or are you reading your email?  I’ve spent 20 years with friends with wearables, and some of them, sometimes, do indeed live up to Stephenson’s “gargoyle” moniker.  Are we about to be even more alone together?

Some wearables advocates argue the opposite–that a wearable stops you from having to look down at your phone, and helps keep (at least part of) your attention where you are.  Only time will tell if they are right.  If wearables ever play Words With Friends… look out.

It’s not just the device, but how people use it.  And a key challenge is that we are all increasingly connected.  Teenagers say they text so many times a day because their friends are texting them.  It’d be rude not to reply, wouldn’t it?  It can become a challenge for any one individual to opt out and make a different choice.  In the 1990s, the director of the MIT Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, told faculty that he expected them to read email every day–even while on vacation.  One faculty member responded to this by planning a vacation to a remote island where there was literally no possibility of Internet access.  One wonders if such islands even exist any more.  It can be a challenge for any one of us to change the pattern, because we are all interwoven in it.

What is mindful use of technology? To address that question, we have to ask, what is the good life–for us as individuals?  As families?  As communities? The issues expand uncontrollably.  We can in the end merely say: Mindfulness is important.  We must make self-reflective choices and not get sucked into dysfunctional patterns by our technologies.  And it’s a learning process.  We all learn together to put a new technology in its proper place in our lives.  My children don’t watch as much television as I did as a child—they don’t want to.  Sometimes it takes a generation to adjust. And then a newer technology comes along and we all go back to square one.

For the present, I have a call to action: Can we all agree not to silently tolerate gargoyles?  If you’re talking to someone with a Google Glass and they seem to be not paying attention to the conversation, do something goofy and see if they notice.  Make a silly face or stick a finger in your nose.  When they ask, “What are you doing?” You can grin and reply, “I was wondering what you were doing…..”


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