How to use Wikipedia – like a boss

In writing my historical fantasy series, I put a lot of attention to detail and accuracy. In my research, I use Wikipedia a lot.

These two statements may seem contradictory. Using wikipedia is something that’s often shunned by many who don’t know how useful and effective this tool really is, both for quasi-academic and everyday purposes.

Like every tool, Wikipedia can be used in a wrong way. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be using it at all! Here is how I use it whenever I want to make sure what I’m writing about is accurate.

1. Sources. This is what the whole idea of wikipedia is about – you can’t write anything without backing it up with a citation. If there is no citation, chances are, it’s inaccurate or made-up.

2. Google is your friend. Sometimes something is written in wikipedia in good faith, but the editor simply forgot or couldn’t find an accurate enough source. This doesn’t mean the information is necessarily false; a little googling (news archives, academic papers, etc.) is always an obligatory step for verifying the veracity of information.

3. Not all sources are equal. This is a common problem on wikipedia: citation leads to an unreliable source. Just because something is reported outside wikipedia, doesn’t yet make it real. The source could be a biased blogger, a fraud research, or a misinformed news reporter. Again, googling is always helpful. Just make sure you’re not going round and round between one copy of the same reference and another!

4. Pro tools: Talk, Controversy and Other Languages. These are secret tools in every wikipedia-user’s arsenal. The Controversy section in an article does not always mean the information is invalid – but often points to where the conflicting data can be found. Always check what other editors have to say on the matter on Talk, especially if something looks particularly dodgy; if, however, the Talk section looks like a window into an insane asylum, feel free to ignore it completely. Subjects on wikipedia are almost never as controversial as the editors think. For example, the debate about the use of “the” in “The Beatles” has been raging for years, with multiple casualties. It’s safe to say you can write “the Beatles” or “The Beatles” any which way you like.
And lastly, if possible, check wikipedia entries in other relevant languages. Even using Google Translate, you can often spot discrepancies between one version or another – or simply additional data that helps verify what you already know.

5. Common sense and other sanity checks. Sometimes the information in a wikipedia article is so outlandish and far-fetched, it shows immediately on your bullshit radar. Even if everything else points to it being true, if your common sense tells you it’s not, better leave it out. Your readers will not bother with checking the facts, and might call you a fraud simply because it seems you made something up.

Also, always check popular “myth-busting” websites, like Snopes.com, before committing something to e-paper.

Remember – these are just tips for writers and hobbyists, not for scientists! Real scientists should use proper academic tools instead 🙂

The terrible idea that is Google #Trending

Nicki Minaj. Britney Spears. Whitney Houston. Jennifer Lopez.

These were four of the topics that were trending Google+ the day after launching the new UI which put the trending box on everyone’s home page.

The ‘trending’ box in its current incarnation is a terrible idea for a service like Google+. Here’s why.

1) G+ is not Twitter. It’s not news happening real-time, it’s not news at a glance. When I click a ‘trending’ topic on twitter, I can immediately see what’s going on and why it’s trending. That’s because everyone is tweeting the same thing, a stream of global consciousness. When I do the same thing on G+, I am completely at a loss. I had to go to the google search to find out (for research purposes, of course) why these four were trending that day (one of them was rumoured to be an X-Factor judge, one of them released a best-selling record, one of them filed divorce papers, one of them was dead. in random order.). I could not get that information from G+. What I got instead when I clicked a singer’s name was some video clips, some gushing teenagers and random snippets of news – nothing that could point me in the right direction. It had taken me a painful while to even learn who Nicki Minaj was.
It continues to be that way. Today’s trending topics are ‘Microsoft’ and ‘Instagram’. Generic much? I clicked through and found no reason whatsoever for those trends to appear today, or any other day apart from the day when Facebook bought Instagram – and that was ages ago in terms of internet news. Twitter got over that in a day. And as of writing this, I have no clue why Microsoft would be trending.

2) The information provided is irrelevant for a vast majority of G+ populace. We’re talking Google here, the company which makes its business to know what’s relevant to its users. Why doesn’t Google use its powerful analytics tools to give me the information I need? They know what I’m like, they know where I live, what I want to read about, what I do. I’ve given away all this information in exchange for a useful, relevant product. If I wanted to know what’s trending at all (I never did before) I want to know what’s trending in the areas that I’m interested in. Instead I get Nicki Minaj.
The G+ population is one of the most diverse and easily multi-cultural online populations I have ever seen. In my circles I have people from Japan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Australia, Germany… Their interests span from e-publishing through human rights to brewing coffee. Why are we all uniformly being given entertainment news from the USA? This is verging on insulting. This is Google saying none of what we do or care about matters in the sea of pop culture. I get ads that are more interesting to me than the Trending topics.

In summary, #Trending is useless for an interest- and discussion-based service like G+. G+ is not working as a news source. Google is not using its vast knowledge of its users to provide a good service. The Trending box must go.

Five annoying things of the modern world.

It’s 2012. The future. We’re supposed to be better than this. Sort this out, people.

1. Tourist visas.

I want to visit your beautiful country. I have already gone through considerable effort and expense of getting there. I bring my money with me. And yet you don’t want to let me in without going through countless bureaucratic loops. Oh well, maybe I’ll go visit that other country that wants my money instead.

2. Roaming within Europe.

This is why we can’t have nice things. What’s the point of all that modern connected technology if the moment I cross the Channel I’m forced to pay through the nose for basic access to Google Maps? How can Europe compete with USA if we can’t even contact each other properly? What’s EC doing?.

3. All other cross-border charges within Europe.

Surely the free trade directives should have already sorted all this out a long time ago. If I can transport physical goods (and myself) between countries without additional expense and hassle, why isn’t it the same for money or data? Madness? This is  Europe!

4. This content is inaccessible in your country because we don’t care.

Everyone knows what this is about. Again, the case of your wallet stinks and your money is no good to us. I fart in your general direction.

5. Your search did not match anything in our catalogue.

Ie. this record company refuses to acknowledge the existence of the internet and would much rather spend its money on copyright lawyers than earn them by selling me their music.