Archive for March 2008

A Wikipedia tale: or, how to succeed in a land of shills and vandals

28 March 2008
Categories: Wikiality

Wikipedia isn’t perfect, and inherently it can never be. While the arguments about “is it as good as Encyclopædia Britannica?” obscure the fact that it’s at least good enough to warrant the comparison, there’s a broad gulf between the misguided “let’s find out the answer on Wikipedia,” and the more realistic “let’s see what Wikipedia has to say about it.” In other words, I continue to believe that it’s rarely the right place to find a definitive answer—but it’s usually a good place to get a decent first impression, and often that’s enough.

Wikipedia also feeds the know-it-all in me. But that’s neither here nor there.

As a Spartan and self-appointed member of the Michigan WikiProject, I feel it incumbent within myself to keep a close eye on any article relating to my alma mater, Michigan State University. Among my contributions I’ve created articles on Walter Adams and John Clough Holmes (the latter requiring only minor Wikipedia-style rearrangement to achieve “Good Article” status), and added substantially to another, now-Good article on my man, Sparty.

I also added a complete overview of the Michigan State University Vietnam Advisory Group, my tale of which is here. I consider this my most significant contribution to Wikipedia to date.

Mostly, though, I’ve defended against vandalism, which in the case of MSU-related articles usually comes in the form of half-literate, homophobic attacks by supporters of rival schools. It’s frustratingly never-ending, and personally I think Wikipedia’s “everyone can edit” policy needs some adjustment, especially when it comes to the crouching masturbators who hide behind anonymous IP addresses.


What I really wanted to talk about here was how Wikipedia’s well-intentioned policies can be manipulated by editors to suit their own agendas, for better or worse. Working within the bounds of policy, I managed to exert my will and influence—if not my outright point of view—through a progression of edits on Beaumont Tower.

Beaumont Tower is one of the most important structures on MSU’s campus. It is one of the school’s primary symbols, along with College Hall, the “first building for the teaching of scientific agriculture in the United States” that appears on the Great Seal of MSU and upon which site the tower stands. (And, of course, Sparty.) Beaumont Tower is, in many ways, the heart of the campus.

So it struck me as odd when I looked at its Wikipedia article in June 2007 and found a significant portion was taken up by commentary on its “creepy nighttime appearance” along with mentions of two local, independent films that would use the tower as a filming location and plot point. This seemed both non-neutral and horribly tangential to me, and I felt it detracted from the main topic.

The section on one of the films, The Lurking, continued to expand, and by September 2007 I decided it needed to go away. Yet I was reluctant to simply delete information from Wikipedia—without just cause, this constitutes vandalism, something I prefer to defend against rather than initiate. So I created a new page, “The Lurking (film),” moved the section about that film to there, and left a “See Also” link on the Beaumont Tower page.

This seemed a reasonable compromise to me, and the fact that it wasn’t reverted signifies that it was a good edit. Since I had created it, the Lurking page was automatically added to my watchlist, and I left it there out of curiosity.

Over the next several months, I found that the Lurking page was receiving periodic updates telling of the current status of the project: “Shooting wrapped for the fall,” “Filming will continue up north in the spring,” etc. By November 2007 the film’s article had very little to do with Beaumont Tower, and I removed the “See Also” link from that page. No one minded.

Soon enough, the Beaumont Tower article was free from mention of either independent film. Rightly so. The producers of both were attempting to raise publicity by tying them to the well-known tower, and this is not an appropriate use of Wikipedia.

Still, the Lurking page remained on my watchlist, out of inertia if for no other reason. By early March 2008, it had gradually turned into little more than a publicity blog for the film. The majority of its edits were dated entries that read like a production schedule. The plot description was meager, and the film looked no closer to completion. Most of all, the article completely lacked any references to independent sources about its subject, meaning it was “non-notable” according to Wikipedia’s policy on notability. I decided that the entire article no longer belonged on Wikipedia (if indeed it ever did).

So I tagged the article for deletion. This is a simple process with a handful of steps, but mostly entails adding a template tag to the article itself, which opens a five-day window for commentary and/or edits to address the article’s failings—which I stated as its non-notability, and the fact that “it reads like a publicity blog.”

In the deletion process, the contributor who tags an article for deletion is expected to alert the creator of the article to that fact, both as a courtesy and as fair warning. In this case, the funny thing was that I was the creator of the article I was asking to have deleted. Thus there was no need to alert myself. (It occurs to me now that asking to delete my own creation might add weight in favour of deletion.)

Still, in the interest of fair play I looked through the edit history in search of other contributors who might have an interest in the article. As it turns out, I was the only registered user to have edited the page—every other edit had been done from a succession of anonymous IP addresses.

Five days came and went without a single edit to the page, and immediately after the deadline passed, the article titled “The Lurking (film)” vanished, almost without a trace. A link on the disambiguation page for “The Lurking” turned red since it pointed to a non-existent article, so I deleted that. About the only place it seems to remain is in my watchlist, where it is also a redlink. If the page is recreated with the same title, I’ll know about it—although I’ll likely leave it alone. That is, as long as it doesn’t read like it was cribbed from the producer’s clipboard.

The 2008 Jeopardy! Teen Tournament

11 March 2008

Jeopardy! held its annual Teen Tournament a couple of weeks ago. As usual, the contestants were frightfully brainy kids who know way too much for their ages, and as usual I was impressed by their knowledge.

As usual, however, their wagering strategy left much to be desired. I dearly wish that someone would provide the crème-de-la-crème of our high schoolers with some rudimentary tutoring in this subject so that they wouldn’t look like complete fools when placing their bets—even as they answer esoterica that would befuddle most adults.

Here’s an analysis of the 2008 tournament. Although I name names, this is not meant as criticism of the individuals; although they provide the specific examples, they are merely illustrations of the general norm.

To begin, Zia was a complete juggernaut during the quarterfinals. He had 15,600 after the first round, and a neat (and impressive) 50,000 going into the final round. With the second-place guy (Nick) holding 15,600, Zia was a runaway—he needed to wager nothing in order to move on. But I guess he figured “what the heck, might as well see how much I could pile on,” so he tried to bet as much as he safely could.

Except that he goofed on the math. He bet 19,399 instead of 18,399, and when he got it wrong he had 30,601 rather than 31,601. If Nick had bet it all and gotten it right, he would have had 31,600 and won. In that case, Zia would have pulled a Clavin, all for a basic error in subtraction. There’s no reason to make a simple mistake like this, given that contestants have essentially unlimited time to ponder their wagers.

Nick, too, wagered poorly. Qualification for the semifinals includes four wild card spots, and in past years 15,000 has been about the bare minimum needed to have any hope for a wild card (this year, the fourth-place wild card had 13,000, although the median for the four wild cards was 19,600). It turns out that Nick’s 15,800 would have given him the fourth wild card, although he would not have known that at the time. Regardless, betting 5,800 was probably ill-advised, since by getting it wrong he took himself completely out of the wild card race. Unless he was very confident of the final category, he would have been better off leaving it alone.

In the semis, Zia was not so much a juggernaut, but was still a… dreadnought at least. Toward the end of the second round, he had 28,600 when Katie hit the last Daily Double with 10,000 in the bank and 7,200 remaining on the board. She instantly made a fatal error—she never even looked at the scoreboard before declaring her wager. There was no consideration at all in her meager 2,000 bet. Here’s how I would analyze the math involved:

Zia had 28,600. Katie had 10,000. The board had 7,200 left after she hit the Double.

Assume that, all else being equal, the 3 contestants will evenly split the remaining money; therefore, each will take 2,400. This ultimately would give Zia 31,000 and Katie 12,400 (ignoring the 10,000 available to her for the Double). Going into the final, Katie could then muster 24,800 by doubling, leaving her 6,200 short. Half this amount, or 3,100, is the bare minimum she could wager to stay in the game, with the caveat that getting it wrong will take her completely out of the game.

Of course, the above math is a bit too involved to utilize mid-game. So the quick math comes from asking what it would take to get to half the leader’s amount right now, in order to stay in the game. In Katie’s case, this was 28,600 ÷ 2 − 10,000 = 4,300.

Basically, she was so far behind, she was really in the position of needing to bet big, and get it right. Fail to do either, and she’s out of the game. She failed to bet big, so even though she got it right, it was game over for her.

Then, in the finals, the soon-to-be champion Rachel nearly pulled a Clavin of her own. She had 26,801 from the first game, and 9,800 going into the second game’s final round, for a stand-pat total of 36,601. Her only competition was “Steve,” who at most would be able to muster 18,400 + 8,400 x 2 = 35,200. Rachel had already won! She could wager up to 1,400 for fun, without risking the victory.

Instead, she bet 5,000. Why, I’ll never know. But if “Steve” had bet the farm—which would have seemed pointless and might have risked losing the second-place prize to Zia (if he hadn’t been crashing and burning)—she might have snatched the championship away from Rachel. Lucky for Rachel, who managed to be the only one with the correct final answer, this would be moot.

Zia, with his balls-to-the-wall wagering style, had the most success when it came to capitalizing on Daily Doubles—even though it ultimately bit him in the behind in the last game, when a True Daily Double smacked of desperation. Still, overall I’d say he had the best attitude: what the heck, take a chance. What do you have to lose?