Archive for the ‘internet’ category

Wisdom of the Wiki-Commons! by Ambuj Saxena

3 September 2009

Guest post

Most people use Wikipedia but never get around to knowing that they could actually edit or contribute something. It’s quite easy.

I have been wanting to write about it myself but found that User:Ambuj Saxena had already done it in his blog. Its a bit dated, about three years old, but except for a few statistics and new features, its absolutely as relevant today.

For those who don’t know about my Wiki-connection, please click my avatar (image on the opposite side of the web page).

Published here at my request and Ambuj’s graceful acceptance.

Wisdom of the Wiki-Commons


Ambuj Saxena

The bottomline first: It works.

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.” – Jimmy Wales

For those who still don’t get it what is being talked about, the subject of this post is Wikipedia and more specifically the English Wikipedia. The quote above is by the founder of Wikipedia, quoted in a Slashdot Interview.

What is Wikipedia?

In brief, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. It is the world’s largest encyclopedia and is growing at an extremely fast rate. With more than 1 million articles in English Wikipedia, it can be used as a single point reference to know from biography of Atilla the Hun to ingenuity of the Monty Hall Problem. What’s more a lot of articles also have audio versions also, so one can also sit back and listen to them without having to read anything.

<!– Read about Wikipedia on Wikipedia here!–>

How stuff works?

This is where a complication begins. One would expect an encyclopedia to be written by experts; people who are associated with the topic in concern in great detail. However, Wikipedia is edited and maintained mainly by people like us, who are at best “Jack of few trades”. And there is no deterrent to anyone’s editing. Though registration is optional (though required for starting new articles), anyone can edit any page he/she wants. A big button shouting “edit this page” sits at the top of every article and besides every section welcoming you to edit and improve the articles.

So how does it work when there is no reason it should work? What stops people from vandalizing their hearts out, and corporations from using it as an advertisment board? Or in short, why should one use it at all when all one can expect is nothing more than few sentences of garbled text?

The reason is the philosophy behind Wikipedia and the founding principles of it. Wikipedia is based on three basic philosophies that are complimentary and non-negotiable. They are Verifiability, Neutral Point of View and No Original Research.

Verifiability means that only those things can be written in Wikipedia to which a source can be attributed as reference or can be observed by anyone without susbtantial effort. This directs people who contribute in Wikipedia to quote reputed sources of their articles and hence achieves good amount of reliability.

Neutral Point of View means that articles are to be written without any bias. This means howsever you feel strongly about an article, you have to present it in neutral perspective without adding any personal opinions and flavours to the facts.

No Original Research means that you cannot write things in it that have not been previously reported by a reputed source. Hence Wikipedia is a source-based research and should not create primary sources.

It can be easily seen that with the strong content guiding policy like this, there is a platform created for things to prosper, given the right nurturing is given. It should be noted that Wikipedia strongly disallows copyrighted content (text, image or any form of creative work) to be written in it and licenses all works under GNU Free Ducumentation License Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike License.

Why the name Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is formed by joining the words “Wiki” and “Encyclopedia”. All of you must be knowing what encyclopedia means, so only “Wiki” needs to be explained. “Wiki” is Hawaiian adjective meaning “quick”. The philosophy behind adoption of this word is that a wiki-based system is easy to edit. One of the basic features of a Wiki is that it stores all revisions of the work, so that if anything bad happens (like vandalism or even a genuine mistake), things can be corrected. This can also be used to view how things were in the past, if relevant to the context, and mostly by editors to do things that will be discussed in details later. Wikipedia is based on a Wiki software called Media Wiki.

Adminsitrative Structure

Although most of the editing part can be done by anyone, there are special things like deletion of article or blocking of compulsive vandals that can only be done by Wikipedia Administrators (known as sysops). They are elected on the basis of consensus among the Wikipedia community about the worthiness of the user in concern. Sock-puppetry (creating multiple accounts to support one’s views) is strictly handled by Wikipedia and violators are usually banned.

The Wikipedia Mark-up

Wikipedia uses a markup similar to HTML though customized for a collaborative work with inter-related pages. In case one needs to link to a page in Wikipedia from a Wikipedia article, all that needs to be done is that to add double square brackets to the article name. For example, [[Indian Institutes of Technology]] will create a link to the article on Indian Institutes of Technology. There are similar easy ways of adding images and other useful features like bullets and tables. Although a lot of HTML codes work, their use is generally discouraged in favour of Wiki’s own markup to provide consistency is article formats. Guides for Layout are available to make sure that there is little confusion as to how things are to be presented.

<!–More than the 5,13,496 articles which was the figure for Jul 2009->

Fighting Vandalism

One of the serious problems that Wikipedia faces is vandalism of articles. However, the way Wikipedia is designed, vandalism is largely ineffective. Is is usually seen that most vandalisations last less than 5 minutes! What’s more, I can even quote this from my experience when I have seen vandalisation getting reverted within a couple of minutes. This article can give you a good perspective of the issue being discussed.

The way vandalisation is handled in Wikipedia is really commendable. First of all, since all previous revisions of the article in concern exist, once detected, its only a matter of couple of seconds that the article can be restored to its original state. Also, in order to check vandalism, there is a group of self-appointed people (I am one too), some 1000 in number, who check the recent changes taking place in Wikipedia from the Recent Changes Page. Coupled with a set of tools unknown to vandals and a lot of experience, they are able to weed out vandalism very effectively. In many instances, when I have reached a vandalised page within a couple of minutes, I see that someone has already come and corrected it. Amazingly, very little “garbage” goes through this filter. What does go through is still not spared. Most of the editors in Wikipedia (especially registered users) keep the pages edited by them in their watchlist. So, for example, if a person from Indore tries to advertise his business on Indore’s Wikipedia page (which most likely a Recent Changes Patroller from Utah might not be able to qualify as vanity information), I get alerts of the changes. There are over 1000 articles in my watchlist even in the short span of less than 2 months in Wikipedia. With such multi-layered filtering, the vandalism/nonsense that does gets through is less than one PPM; something that can be considered very good.


Wikipedia has a lot of sister projects like Wiktionary, Wikinews, and Wikiquote. These complement Wikipedia’s work as the resource for everything by being a repository of news, quotes, etc. Interlinking between sister projects is also easily done through the Wiki mark-up.

Behind the scenes

If you click on the “discussion” link at the top of any page, you will find what really lies beneath the calm and serene surface of Wikipedia. You will see a lot of discussions between the editors on what is possibly wrong with the article and how can it be improved. The way these discussions are carried out are also very structured and personal attacks are looked down upon. People are given feedback on their edits and suggestion from others (not directly related to the article) is also sought.

All users have their own profile pages and talk pages (for communication). This enables them to communicate with others more efficiently. Many user prefer to use “Userboxes” to tell things about themselves (like mine can be seen in my profile page‘s end and also directly here).

The good editors are rewarded by their peers for work, usually by giving a variety of Barnstars. Wikipedian are also known for their sense of humour and they lighten the mood when things start heating up in controversial topic debates. For example in an RfC (Request for Comments) over Kelly Martin’s high-handed attitude in deleting userboxes that she felt are crap [sic] and should be deleted, also popularly known as the great userbox purge, a lot of people posted humourous stuff like an annoying pastel box.

A lot of things related to wikipedia are prefixed by adding “wiki” before them. For example, any break from wikipedia is known as a wikibreak, the stress caused by it is wikistress and the mood while editing wikipedia is wikimood.

Brilliant Prose

Some 1000 2,596 articles of English Wikipedia’s are categorised as brilliant prose (Featured Articles). This is a extensive and rigorous process of review to establish that the article in concern conforms to high standards. In order to make an article into a Featured Article, it has to conform to a lot of strict guidelines on content and presentation. First there is a Peer Review where authors invite comments and suggestions from their fellow editors on how to improve the article. Once done, it can proceed for the Featured Article Review. Here experts suggest how the article can be fine-tuned to make it a brilliant prose. Once having achieved the FA status, the article also appears on the front page of Wikipedia.

<!–There is a similar feature for providing quality certification to articles, especially those which are never likely to become “Featured Articles” due to any reason. This is called “Good Articles” and GA or ‘Good Article’ is an intermediate quality stage on the path of improvement to “Featured Article”. –>

Comparison with other Encyclopedia

Wikipedia, over time, has been compared to a lot of encyclopedia and the main things stressed are the quality of content and reliability. The points where Wikipedia failed to ensure reliability have been quoted often in the media. But I still use it as a primary source of reference because of my experience with it. When I read something about what was reported wrong in Wikipedia, I feel similar to reading about people who win in gambling. Millions of people buy tickets, but only those who win are featured in newspapers, etc. With a lot of opportunities for having an error, wikipedia scores quite good as compared to other encyclopedias also. In a study, it was found that while Encyclopedia Britannica had on an average 3 errors per article, Wikipedia had 4; a feat considering it is just 5 years old then.<!–Wikipedia is 8 plus years old now and has effectively put the paid encyclopaedia trade out of business. –>

Other criticisms include unequal weight-age of subjects, which I have to accept is true. As Wikipedia is evolving, whenever someone comes to an article he knows something about, he edits it. But almost never does he know everything about it. So the article waits for the next “expert” to come over and edit relevant sections. I feel its premature to compare articles randomly. If a comparison is to be made, it should be made between equals. Like a featured article in Wikipedia and in another encyclopedia. Although Wikipedia has the restriction of using free content only (it doesn’t buy content like text, images, etc), I am quite sure wikipedia will be equal, if not better than the other encyclopedias. The reason behind my belief is that even the best of encyclopedias have a non-neutral point of view, or tend to find a diplomatic way out of the problem by either mis-representing facts or completely ignoring them. While in Wikipedia, care is taken that even minority view is expressed. Wikipedia does not work on voting, but on constructive discussions. If there is an evidence to include a content, it finds its way into the article.

The Real Bottomline

Even with so many potential dangers, Wikipedia scores quite well in both reliability and exhaustiveness because of the sheer large number of people editing it (more than 1 million 5 lakh registered users and innumerably more anonymous ones).

<!–See an animation on the growth of articles in Wikipedias here. The English wikipedia is coded ‘en’. –>

Jimmy Wales once said that –

Wikipedia is like a sausage: you might like the taste of it, but you don’t necessarily want to see how it’s made“.

It will apply to most of you but since I am a chef, I have to oversee it being made it to perfection.

(Note: The author is a Wiki-holic and averages around 35 edits a day.)

<!–Lots of statistics, tables, graphs about the Wikimedia projects here!–>

Suggested Reading

Quote – Jimbo Wales on ‘Wikipedia’

26 August 2009
Get the world's knowledge from your laptop!

Get the world's knowledge from your laptop!

“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.”

–    Jimmy Donal “Jimbo” Wales, Co-founder of   Wikipedia

Quoted in Robin “Roblimo” Miller, “Wikimedia Founder Jimmy Wales Responds,” Slashdot (2004-07-28)

Also by Wales..

We help the internet not suck.”


Thanks to Keith, Roger, Arif, Vijay and others we have an interesting picture developing of an
Indian Burnet moth called

Cyclosia midama,  Herrich-Schäffer, 1853    Family Zygaenidae or the BURNET MOTHS (Subfamily


Burnet moths are poisonous in all stages of life! That is because, unlike most other butterflies
and moths which assimiliate the poison from the food plants as larvae, burnet moths actually
prepare HYDROGEN CYANIDE in their body as part of the normal chemistry.

Hence they are well protected right throughout. They consequently evolved to have bright colouring
and prominent markings both as adults and caterpillars. See :-

These are dangerous, the larva of Chalcosinae can even excrete out and store Hydrogen Cyanide as

Good Lord! And I was so cavalier in handling the beautiful creature without gloves. Thank God I
didnt find and handle the caterpillar. This is a very important point that all of us forget. There
are dangerous things out there in the jungle – and many times we dont even recognise them.
Zygaenids or burnet moths are very common in the tropics. Its a good idea to avoid bright,
prominent insects if you are a predator – as this is nature’s way of indicating, stand off –
approach at your own peril!

The most interesting thing is that it appears inedible danaid butterflies such as the Blue Crow
(Euploea mulciber) have evolved to take advantage of this resemblance. This is called Mullerian
mimicry (to differentiatiate it from Batesian mimicry where a palatable butterfly resembles an
unpalatable butterfly to take advantage of its protection by fooling the predator). For an
explanation of how Mullerian mimicry works, please  see :-

It also appears that the larvae of certain Papilionidae such as the Chinese Windmill
”Atrophaneura alcinous”, a species found in Manipur/Mizoram has also evolved to resemble that of
this deadly moth, Cyclosia midama. The moth is mimicked in every stage by one creature or the

Th moth is relatively common having been reported by Vijay & Arif from Arunachal Pradesh and self
in Dooars and is really really beautiful!

It deserves a common name. What should we call it ?

I suggest the

Blue Beauty

The Blue Beauty is the name given to photos of Earth from space, a delicate-blue water lily and
many works of art/jewelry etc.

The moth is blue, beautiful, brings to mind images of a beautiful woman blue in colour by poison
(shades of Neelkanth).


Beautiful Blue Burnet

Comments please, otherwise I’m going ahead.

With regards from one in love with the Blue Beauty,

Ashwin Baindur

It had just stopped raining in the  forests southwest of Binnaguri. The sky was overcast. Slowly, the ground absorbed the water which had not flowed away. Under the protective branches of a bush trying to reach high in the shady alcove of the forest, a flash of dark blue caught my attention.

Ah, a lovely butterfly, I thought as it  flashed its way to another such bunch of leaves. When I reached near, the wings opened and a gorgeous pattern of blue wings spotted with blue emerged. I rejoiced for I had finally come across the most gaudy and colourful members of the Danaids or Crow family – the Blue Crows. Amazing buttterflies, they…

The Crows, like other Danaids are inedible, fly slowly and leisurely flaunting their prominent markigs which shout to all creatures of their poisonousness and inedibility. Once i had the butterfly cupped in my arms, I looked very carefully. i realised that something was wrong but i couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Suddenly realisation dawned. The antennas looked strange because they were straight and had no clubs. What I had in my hands was a female moth! Gingerly so as not to harm it, I held it one hand and photographed it with another.

It was really, really beautiful. It mimicked the Blue Crows to perfection; it looked like one. It flew like one. It behaved like one – slow clumsy flight, not difficult to catch, with body constriction just like that made by a crow, right down to the yellow tendrils waving from the tip of the abdomen. It was uit uncanny.

After a while, I released it and after a full day’s outing went back to my room.

Indian moths are hard to identify. There is a tremendous amount of work yet to be one. The only really comprehensive work Fauna of British India, (Moths) volumes appeared in the last decade of the nineteenth century and were authored by G. F. Hampson. But I did not have it at that time. Today it is freely downloadable at

So I did the next best thing! I  requested identification on Indian Moths. It turned out to be a most interesting query and the moth turned out to be deadly. Beautiiful, but deadly.

Arif Siddiqui in Southeast Arunachal responded first. He said that he had spotted the moth just about then and was thinking of  postng for its id when he saw my post.  From Binnaguri to Jairampur, thats 694 kilometers apart! A very goodly range indeed!

We soon got an id from Roger Kendrick, the guy in charge of all the Moths of Hong Kong (seriously ;-)). He was apoplectic. After he recovered, he told us that  –

“This looks like the nominate subspecies of a burnet moth (family Zygaenidae, subfamily Chalcosiinae) that goes by the name of Cyclosia midamia, if Endo & Kishida (1999; Day-flying Moths: Chalcosiinae, Epicopeia; Endless Science Information, Tokyo) is anything to go by.

I wonder why people consider burnets as mimics. They are a more primitive group than most larger moths and butterflies – so it would seem logical that they are the original distasteful models that more recently eveloved taxa (especially Danainae) have evolved to mimic (in Müllerian mimicry rings).”

Moth-ers consider butterfly guys to be ignorant, self-important snoots! And with good reason too! I thought that this moth mimicked a butterfly! As per Roger, it was the other way round. This whole family of moths, the Chalcosiinae, is far older than the Danainae subfamily commonly called Crows and Tigers.

Roger mentioned the Chalcosiinae as ‘primitive’. That’s a politically incorrect term now, as I was rudely told on Wikipedia by an irate editor; one should use the term ‘basal’.

An interesting emailversation followed between Roger and Krushnamegh Kunte about whether the butterflies or the moths were the ‘model’.  The argument was put that the moths had evolved first. The point was then made that it was not known as to which which group evolved aposematic  colouration first. It was submitted that Crows being the more populous ‘drove’ the mimicry, to be countered by the assertion that the moth could have been  more poulous in the past. This was met with a repartee that the butterflies being far more numerous today were driving ‘mimicry’ and that the past situation could not e acertained.

With a lot of goodwill, these two experts argued, watched by me with gaping mouth, marvelling at the erudition and knowledge on display.

For those who have been lost so far – a instructive interlude.

Suppose a butterfly eats inedible plants as a larva and ‘sequesters’ those toxins within itself – that’s called being inedible.

At this point, no bird or lizard or whatever knows about this, so it samples this butterfly. The butterfly tastes disgusting and distasteful, so the predator spits it out and vows never to eat this filthy stuff again.

In order to make it easier for the bird/lizard to ‘remember’, the butterfly develops distinctive patterns with bright colours so that once sample, the predator remembers the disctinct markings and avoids it. This develomnt of warning advertisement is called ‘aposematism’.



double mimicry


Such a beautiful

The cornucopia that is TED!

18 February 2009

One of the many wonders of the internet, my favourite one is TED.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment & Design. It showcases short 15 to 20 minute talks by some of the best minds in the world. These talks, or presentations, to be exact, are shown by streaming video free to anybody who accesses their web site –


In my life, I can never hope to attend a lecture by Stephen Hawking and hear him speak of the birth of the universe, but thanks to TED, now I can.

Or I can hear Louise Leakey tell the fascinating story of ancestral humans.

And sitting in my bedroom at the computer,  I can visit the deep ocean and see its mysteries with David Gallo,

or explore Titan and Enceladus, the moons of Saturn along with Carolyn Porco.

Its not just the mysteries and wonders of nature, but also the triumph of the human spirit.

Peter Diamandis talks passionately of how the X Prize is helping liberate the common man from the tyranny of earth’s gravity.

You can watch Robert Full carefully draw out nature’s secrets such as how geckos use nanotechnology to create the stickiest living tissue of all, the paws of their feet.

Or even watch Robert Lang use math in origami to fold the most intricate objects and also to help deploy space telescopes and artery stents.

This list, though I end here, is not even complete in scope as artists, thinkers, teachers, innovators – thinking, passionate, caring people from all walks of life, walk up and deliver 20 minutes of fascination at the TED rostrum. At last count they had 383 short videos, over 120 hours of terrific viewing.

For Indians who can only dream of streaming video, each talk has a link to a zipped up MP4 file for downloading. Typically, they are about 50 MB, so there is absolutely nothing to prevent you from owning your own collection of favourite TED talks.

These talks don’t just educate, they network people and lead to synergistic collaborations.

A wish had just been made on winning the TED Prize for 2009 by Jill Tarter,  the Director of SETI – the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, a matter of immense importance to mankind (she was the role model for Jodie Foster’s character in the 1993 film Contact), when within minutes of hearing her stirring tale of man’s endeavour to search for the unknown, she was flooded by offers to help.

As the Wall Streeet Journal wrote about this…

”A computer scientist donated his patented search algorithms for better data analysis. Marketing experts offered to create Spanish-language Web sites to spread her message throughout Central and South America. A senior developer from Google Inc. volunteered to persuade his company to incorporate searchable star maps into Google Earth.”

By enthusing the world thus, TED and TEDPrize lead the way for all of us…

Personally, whenever I feel down, an hour’s watching of TED videos restores my faith in the concept of humanity and that life is worth striving for and it does make sense to do what you want, even if its just a small thing as a blog…

Note: This post reflects the personal opinion of the author and there is no relation of any kind with except as a registered user. Their logo is displayed under ‘fair use’ argument of copyright.