Monday, August 31, 2009

Wikipedia's Trustworthiness Mesaures Will Fail

Wikipedia is implementing a measure of trust, by highlighting recently edited content in bright colors.

I worry about all moves of Wikipedia to bake in reliability of content, because they all seem to degrade the key virtues of Wikipedia. However, I think this change is an especially bad idea.

This change gives vandals a new method of attack. Suppose you cannot get your text into the article, because your viewpoint on 9/11, the holocaust, or the moon landing is too... exotic. Under this change, even if you can't get your views into the article, you can flag the mainstream view as unreliable. You can simply replace text periodically with anonymous duplicates, rendering an entire long standing article suddenly unreliable.

The highlighting might also provide a target for unreliable edits. It's hard to say how it will play out, but any push on editing is ill advised. Either the bright orange signal of untrustworthiness will cry out to readers for perpetual conflicting edits. Or maybe the ecosystem will push the other way, and users will see a far greater need to edit long standing "reliable" text which provokes minor quibbles.

The game theory analysis of Wikipedia as it stands is very good. Opposing editors stand roughly in equipoise, with little ability to set their position in stone without external review. When there is a skirmish over the facts, an appeals process is instituted, and a record of that process is kept with the article. These disputes on the vast majority of articles are settled over time with a rigorous appeal to uninterested third parties and external evidence. A few major articles become perennial targets for debate, but those articles get certain levels of protection and greater scrutiny by established editors.

This new method gives more power to minor editors. It allows either side, even if it cannot win the battle of text, to permanently mark any content unreliable. The rules of the game are counterintuitively being shifted in favor of the vandals.

Mostly, I distrust moves to bake in reliability because they cater to a vocal group who do not now and never will use Wikipedia. Anyone who actually uses the site on a day to day basis intuitively understands when content is reliable and not, through a quick glance at history or the size and scope of the article. Independent reviews of the quality of Wikipedia find it comparable to the quality of Britannica. The stylistic problems of Wikipedia, which I've noted before, are far more prominent to anyone remotely acquainted with the service. Changes like this, insofar as they are an attempt to appease Wikipedia's critics, will inevitably fail. Unlike an article on Wikipedia, the opinions of these critics are not open to revision.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Town Hall Anger Has Not Subsided

The Kansas City Star has an excellent piece on the possible roots of the anger directed at health care reform. The thrust of the story focuses on the fact that despite government's best intentions, many Americans lives have gotten worse - and because of this there is an ever growing distrust of government and belief that government does not solve people's problems effectively. This is highlighted by stories of flaws with the 'Cash for Clunkers' program, falling approval ratings for Obama, and perceptions that Wall Street benefited more than Main Street (see - Bailout; banking and auto industries).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Smartphone text input: Radial Menu?

I wonder if texting via some sort of radial menu would be faster than the teeny QWERTYs on smart phones.

I'm thinking of something like this:

You'd navigate the wheel with your thumb. The top menu is on top of the image, two submenus are displayed below, they would activate as soon as you made the first part of the gesture.*

It may be counterintuitive to dream of replacing one press with a few swipes, but I'm thinking Fitt's Law might make the radial menu faster than thumb typing on tiny keys.

* Maybe it'd be preferable to have you confirm the gesture by returning your thumb back to the center of the radial, I'm not sure. In the first method, a "k" would be typed by dragging your thumb down on the text area, then pushing it straight up again. In the second method (the "confirmation" version of the radial menu), a "k" would be "down-(center)-up-center". The "confirmation" method could highlight the part of the radial currently selected, to give better user feedback, and it would be better for smaller touchpad areas.

It might also be faster to organize the keys by frequency, so instead of "A-E" you'd have "ETAON"

Free trade ruling a win for free speech in China?

The free trade infrastructure is currently the best framework to ensure other states actually comply with international standards on certain issues. The offenses are complaint driven, and there are clear penalties for violations.

Now we see the free trade framework from the GATT and WTO extended to cover free speech in China, by forcing it to allow certain books and publications (and CDs/DVDs) into the country.

My fantasy: bureaucratic sprawl extends the jurisdiction of the WTO to cover human rights abuses as well, and maybe international aggression, or "having crazy dictators".

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Meghan McCain vs. The Far Right

Meghan McCain is feuding with Coulter and Malkin.

Malkin said that Meghan McCain should just get it over with and leave the Republican party.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't think anyone would care. But this raises an interesting question. What would a split in the Republican Party look like?

The first view that springs to mind is that a moderate Republican party would just split the base of the right, leaving it powerless, giving total control to the Democrats.

I don't think this is accurate.

A moderate Republican party (or moderate Democratic party) would pull some people from the original party, but would also pull a number of people across the aisle from the other party. It would become very attractive to those sick of political hyperboles, and it would be very attractive to the conflicted moderates who make up the bulk of the electorate.

The moderate party might gain immense power in its ability to exchange votes on key issues with either other party. They could temporarily trade factional alliance at any time to give either party the majority, becoming the all important swing vote in US politics.

There would be obstacles, sure. New parties are magnets for fail. But if a few high profile individuals made the move, it might gain credibility and momentum.

Another worry is that the right-left axis isn't really a linear spectrum. Meghan McCain's position on homosexuality is in some ways more liberal than Obama's. Once you stake out your moderate viewpoint by hammering out specifics issue by issue, you probably no longer look moderate, but look like a hodgepodge of positions that give everyone something to be upset about. But hey, that's how the two parties we have work now, I think that limitation could be overcome.

At the end of the day, I think Malkin's correct. Meghan McCain should leave the party to support a small government party that's socially liberal and fiscally restrained. Only then would Coulter and Malkin realize how isolated and extreme their views have become.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Banning Laptops from Coffee Shops?

Wall Street Journal has a story, picked up by Chris Matyszczyk at cnet, about coffee shops discouraging laptop use.

Could these trends ever become widespread?

The economics here are the same as air conditioning, free parking, or the IKEA ferry, or any other service extended for free to intice patrons. A business provides free parking to encourage patrons to buy their primary goods. There are some differences, wifi has a more regular cost of upkeep, for one, but even parking lots will require periodic service and repair given time. Each one provides a benefit that will be attractive to customers not really interested in buying your products, but just interested in the service.

So long as the business attracted exceeds the cost of upkeep, you'll want to keep paying for the service. It will run into adverse selection problems. You have three options:
1) keep the service open, knowing that the business you attract outstrips its cost, despite free riders
2) ditch the service
3) try to exclude the free riders ("these spaces reserved for customers only" signs, limited access to the internet or regulations about staying with laptops during peak hours)

None of these solutions is clearly the best for all situations. The value of each approach is dependent upon a number of variables (how much business is attracted, how much you might alienate potential customers by attacking free riders, how much the cost scales with greater use...). Even from cafe to cafe, these factors will vary.

So I don't see one approach, like banning laptops, becoming the universal response in all cafes, without some big shift in the fundamental economics.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Health Care: Paying More and Receiving Less

The rationale for health care reform is largely rooted in the claim that Americans pay more for health care while receiving less.

A few weeks ago, Marginal Revolution pointed out that the "amount we spend" comparisons never consider the cost of subsidizing medical education in places like France.

The Becker-Posner blog now argues that US health outcomes are not worse once you control for the variables not related to health care quality.

Disconcerting. I was all on board for health care reform, now I'm not sure if we don't pay less and get more.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Ideal Office UI

I just spent a big chunk of time trying to add a header to only some of my pages in a document in OpenOffice.

In the end, it wasn't too hard: Insert a page break using the menu, not ctrl+enter. That insert page menu allows you to select a new style for your new pages. If you do so, the headers on the new section won't infect the old section or vice versa.

The slowest part of this process was bouncing between the help article and the document. So I propose the following new Office UI. Instead of any menus, just throw an empty text box up top. Type in a command, like "rotate" or "landscape" or "print preview" or "preview" or "bold" and a list of suggestions will drop down, like in FF's AwesomeBar. Commands should have plenty of aliases. Pressing Enter before a command is selected will load more information on commands related to what you typed, maybe with an option to add what you typed as an alias for another command.

Commands will also take modifiers. Typing "bo" will bring up "bold", "borders" and I don't know, "boil" or something. You can tab to select "bold", then you get to type "selection" or "next/previous x characters/sentences/lines/paragraphs/pages" or "page x" or "instances of (wildcard)". "Selection" will probably be the default noun for most commands, but "Current page" or "Whole Document" might be the default for some layout options.

The better iteration might even have no menu bars above your work window, but a command box that pops up when you hit the menu key, or win/super key.

I can see the UI revolution approaching! Somebody call Aza Raskin.