Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Exquise de Corps

"Mr Amin was then banished to Gaafaru island and later brought back to vihamanaafushi island (Now Kurumbaa Island Resort and at that time it was an uninhabited island). Mohamed Amin ,Once a loved and respected leader passed away in that island on 19 January 1954 at 1:05 am. He was 44 years old. Before his death he Forgave every Maldivian except Mudhimu salih and Mudhimu Dhon thuthu,the two brothers who harmed his genitals."

Thus, with a coda worthy of Joyce's Ulysses, ends an early version of a Wikipedia article on the first president of the Maldives, Mohamed Amin Didi. When people I know, blog visitors and even strange men in the park ask me whether I find Wikipedia useful, I always refer them to these words; they seem to set like the Sun over Kaafu Atoll.

Reactions to Wikipedia fall into three broad categories:

  • Those like the Mighty Oliver Kamm (and where's his knighthood, Mr Cameron?), who regard it as a populist "affront to the notion of disinterested intellectual inquiry";
  • Others like the Mightier Prof Norman Geras, (and where's his peerage, Mr Brown?), who see in it a handy reference tool if used with care; and
  • Viewers of daytime TV, who think it's got something to do with pagan child-molesters and promptly shove excrement into the disk-drives before setting their computers alight.

Kammo is right. A scholar or journalist who relies on Wikipedia might as well start scanning the BBC job ads now, as its clumsy carpentry buries errors and omissions deep beneath planks of plausibility. I recently checked two references in two separate Wiki articles. Both were sound sources, and both were quoted inaccurately - in one case disastrously so.

Nonetheless I'm also with Norm, as there's still nothing like Wikipedia for humbling you on a matter that you thought you'd mastered.

For example, I am a student of Russian history and considered myself au fait with the career of Alexander Kerensky, the doomed leader of the 1917 Provisional Government. My professors said he went on to teach at Stanford, but only Wikipedia told me he was also the "Star League general who liberated Terra from the rule of the usurper Amaris" in the BattleTech wargaming universe.

This must have come as a comfort to the ageing tribune, and a source of pride to his family - in particular to the hitherto obscure Natasha Kerensky, a "bioengineered Warrior from Clan Wolf".

Moreover, simply by appearing in Wikipedia a genuine fact can acquire a curious taint. An interest in paranoiacs of the Carribean took me to the biography of Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo and the surprise news that he had a small part in the film Casablanca. This is also reported on the International Movie Database and so ought to be true, but it still has the Wiki ring of brass bollocks about it.

Wikipedia's appeal lies in this unattributable triviality. Pacifist précieux Nicholson Baker likened it to "some vast aerial city with people walking briskly to and fro on catwalks, carrying picnic baskets full of nutritious snacks". His is a generous spirit. I would rather peer down at the Wikitties through a magnifying glass and cackle "You scurry through your tiny world like ants! Ants!" before letting the Great Luminary do its work, but then no one invites me to dinner parties.

Baker treasures the gentler corners of the Wikiverse, and calls for an accessible archive of deleted items. He is right, for this is the vein of fool's gold that runs through the whole enterprise and provides its true value. I would add that the deepest joy comes from perusing earlier versions of apparently sane articles. The current redaction of President Amin Didi's ill-starred life is unremarkable, but a Fantastic Voyage into its fundament reveals the surreal delight with which I began.

An article about last Irish Governor-General Donal Buckley (Domhnall Ua Buachalla - "politician, shopkeeper and member of the First Dáil") shows how spurious anecdote can be incorporated without debasing the currency of knowledge:

One myth according to The Cynics guide to Irish History regarding the abolition of his office, was that de Valera had called Ua Buachalla over the telephone. De Valera simply said to Ua Buachalla; "You're abolished". Because of Ua Buachalla’s failing hearing, he had misinterpreted what de Valera had said and replied, "You’re an even bigger one."

This nonsense is clearly sourced to a disreputable publication, as it should be. That steers the careless reader away from error, while giving him an entertaining and dubious insight into the tensions between Sinn Féin and the institutions of the Free State in the mid-1930s - as well as a quick lesson in Hiberno-English insults.

An august Erse correspondent has noted that an equally useless source (The Round Table journal, vol 90, March 1933, p 291) also recounts the story but gives Buckley's reply rather lamely as "And you're one too". I'll go with the Wikipedia, and believe neither.

Voyagers conversant with foreign languages have new satellites of folly to tread in the shape of the vernacular Wikipedias. Gyppo Byard, who has acquired a whorehouse smattering of various eastern tongues, assures me that the Acehnese Wiki is a bijou box of balls written by a pious Pooter. The concise article on Animals, for example, tells us that they are "among Allah's creations" and seems pretty much satisfied with that.

This, as you might expect, does not apply to the German Wikipedia, which is rigorously patrolled by Dozents and Doktors and therefore crying out for some methodical sabotage. Perhaps someone ought to intersperse Yiddish exclamations here and there:

Die Etat-Kürzungen an den Hochschulen haben dazu geführt, dass Lehrbeauftragte auch eingesetzt werden, um Kosten zu sparen. Die Vergütung liegt meist erheblich unter der Bezahlung hauptamtlich Lehrender. Dies ist insbesondere bedenklich, da nach einer Studie über die Arbeits- und Lebenssituation von Lehrbeauftragten[1] 46% der Lehrbeauftragten in Berlin angaben, dass Lehraufträge für sie die Haupteinnahmequelle darstellen. Nu, bistu nun ingantsn farblonjet?

A worthwhile Wikipedia article ought to have a whiff of Breton's exquisite corpse. A solemn, sourced opening will pass from hand to hand, as if unseen, picking up fact and fancy along the way. Like the farmer who turns over a clod of earth to reveal the aspect of an emperor on a lost coin, the reader can profit greatly from this exercise. Not least of all by investing in some books.


Brit said...

Were it not for Wikipedia, and in particular its List of U.S. state crustaceans, I would never have learnt that the official state crustacean of Louisiana is the Louisiana crawfish.

Last October I suggested that the existence of this page might be the proof that there is now too much internet, not least because only two states had even bothered to nominate official crustaceans. However, I now discover that the page has been updated, for in 2009 Oregon officially pronounced the Dungeness crab to be its official crustacean representative. All of which has restored my faith in Wikipedia, in America, and in the human race generally.

Gyppo Byard said...

I was brought up short by a recent visit to the wikipedia biography of John Cunliffe (creator of Postman Pat, to settle a query about where exactly Greendale is putatively set) to find it opened with the arresting statement that the mild-mannered former librarian is "a Chinese food critic and exhibitionist". I know of someone else who tweaked a wikipedia article to give verisimilitude to a fictitious character. Being a wimp, I haven't knowingly posted falsehoods on wikipedia myself, only stultifyingly dull scholarly contributions on the narrow area my PhD covered.

No Good Boyo said...

You have both rightly affirmed that Wikipedia is there to keep random miscreants off the street, where they might harm pigeons and disrupt traffic, while simultaneously and at the same time bringing joy to all.

Witless vandalising of articles is nobody's business, but the creative distortion of insignificant truth is what it's all about. A chap was asked to list the greatest alumni of Lady Margaret Hall, and added the name of notorious waster Andy Hands. It's still there. This fellow is probably knackering Wikipedia as we speak.

As for Postman Pat, he died for freedom:

Gadjo Dilo said...

I once had a job making corpora of the worlds tiniest language - or at least those with the tiniest Internet presence, which is not quite the same thing. Sometimes the only people who bothered to upload anything in a language were The United Nations, The Jehovah's Witnesses and some random Wikipedia madman: as usual, it's the enthusiasts who set the agenda.

No Good Boyo said...

I ought to add that the Name of Hands was added to a proper book about LMH, not a mere cyber-article.

No Good Boyo said...

It's time to invent a language, a la Gadjo, and set up a Wikipedia in it. I'm thinking of doing one in Wenglish, which will consist almost entirely of the phrases "tidy!" and "Duw, fuck, aye!"

Gyppo Byard said...

Inspired by your words, I have started work on a Black Country version to be entitled "mushipedia", comprehensible only to people from the West Midlands and focussing on chain-making, car maintenance, mild ale and heavy metal.

Ian Plenderleith said...

I have my own wikipedia page, but it erroneously names me as a former member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee from June 1997 to May 2002. In fact I was merely their catamite.

Gyppo Byard said...

Here's an idea - shall we write wikipedia articles for each other, seamlessly blending truth, half-truth and outright Fox News?

No Good Boyo said...

As the Devil said when Azazoth suggested setting up The Samaritans, "I like it, I like it."

The page on S.A.H. Indie-Pop, deputy governor of the Bank of England, seems to have been taken down. Shame.

Gareth Williams said...

Nogood Boyo - Dreams peevishly of 'nothing', though he later fantasises about Mrs. Dai Bread Two in a wet corset.

Wot no disaggregation?

Gorilla Bananas said...

I read wikipedia for stuff like this. Anything that hosts such tantrums can't be all bad.

Unknown said...

Has anyone looked up "wikipedia" on wikipedia?

Gadjo Dilo said...


Ellis, if you do that you'll break the Internet.

xerxes said...

What wikipedia proves is that nothing is so trivial or boring that is is not somebody, somewhere, who is obsessed by it. For reasons I don't understand this strengthens my faith in humankind. Sorry GB, gorillakind too. Oh sod it, the universe generally.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

I don't know what to say. After all, most of our life beliefs are based on a set of myths, so why not Wiki? It ads a certain charm to our existence. Specifically re Mr Trujillo: the phrase appears in several googled sources: "Trujillo himself had a brush with Hollywood fame in 1942 when the film Casablanca was released, in which he had a rare cameo. He can be seen in the background of the famous airport tarmac scene starting a silver-colored airplane's propellor on the right-hand side of the screen." For some reason the mere thought of a small tyrant starting an airplane engine in the background of Bogie's arguably most famous scene warms the cockles of my heart.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Oh, almost forgot: the expression "warms the cockles of my heart" is itself a good example. See here:

Sublime, that. And I am sure that my heart, black and shriveled as it is, doesn't have any cockles to speak of.

No Good Boyo said...

That is an excellent sit, Snoop, thanks for the link.

As for Mushipedia, will it be t'official 'pedia o't'North?

Bananas is right about the level of hair-pulling on Wiki. It gives an insight into what academia is like. They have bigger toys there.

No Good Boyo said...

Stop press from the "Did you know" section of the front page of Wikipedia:

"... that in Đại Việt sử lược, it was recorded that Khúc Hạo, not his father Khúc Thừa Dụ, was the first of the Khúc family to be the Jiedushi of Tĩnh Hải quân?"

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

The national crustacean of Peckham by the way is the terrapin, known locally as the "crunchy pie".

No Good Boyo said...

I used to live in Peckham Rye, Daphne, and I'm afraid that the only crustaceans associated with crunchy pie are the sort itinerants find in their undergarments.

And as for you, Anonymous - if that is your real name - Emperor Akihito is a living god, whatever his myopic father got up to. He impregnated himself in a sacred tent, I believe, rather like a scoutmaster.

Kevin Musgrove said...

"If we didn't have reference librarians we might as well just tell people to look everything up on Wikipedia."

There is no correct response, as far as I can determine.

No Good Boyo said...

Which will be the first country to ban Wikipedia on grounds of corrupting the youth? Shall I start another No 10 Downing St petition?

M C Ward said...

I delight in Wiki trickery, as I am largely ignorant and only keep the company of those even more so.

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