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Is Wikipedia getting too hard? A random sampling

A couple of weeks ago, I happened to come across a few Wikipedia articles that struck me as too hard. I started getting worried that Wikipedia’s constant review process was resulting in articles inching up the Technical Accuracy pole while slipping down the Intelligibility for Non-Experts pole.

So, I checked in on a handful of articles, looking particularly at the introductory paragraphs Here are the examples, minus the many hyperlinks. (My premise is that you shouldn’t have to click on a hyperlink to figure out what the intro is talking about.)

Please note that this is an entirely unscientific, non-significant sampling. Still, the results were that I’m pretty much reassured. I think these generally are quite understandable intros. I wonder what your experience has been.

Fibonacci number

In mathematics, the Fibonacci numbers are a sequence of numbers named after Leonardo of Pisa, known as Fibonacci (a contraction of filius Bonaccio, "son of Bonaccio"). Fibonacci’s 1202 book Liber Abaci introduced the sequence to Western European mathematics, although the sequence had been previously described in Indian mathematics.[2][3]

The first number of the sequence is 0, the second number is 1, and each subsequent number is equal to the sum of the previous two numbers of the sequence itself, yielding the sequence 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, etc. In mathematical terms, it is defined by the following recurrence relation:

Iambic pentameter

Iambic pentameter is a type of meter that is used in poetry and drama. It describes a particular rhythm that the words establish in each line. That rhythm is measured in small groups of syllables; these small groups of syllables are called "feet". The word "iambic" describes the type of foot that is used. The word "pentameter" indicates that a line has five of these "feet".

Entropy

In many branches of science, entropy is a measure of the disorder of a system. The concept of entropy is particularly notable as it is applied across physics, information theory and mathematics.

In thermodynamics (a branch of physics), entropy, symbolized by S,[3] is a measure of the unavailability of a system’s energy to do work.[4][5] It is a measure of the disorder of molecules in a system, and is central to the second law of thermodynamics and to the fundamental thermodynamic relation, both of which deal with physical processes and whether they occur unexpectedly. Spontaneous changes in isolated systems occur with an increase in entropy. Unexpected changes tend to average out differences in temperature, pressure, density, and chemical potential that may exist in a system, and entropy is thus a measure of how great the unexpected changes are.

Uncertainty principle

In quantum physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that the values of certain pairs of conjugate variables (position and momentum, for instance) cannot both be known with arbitrary precision. That is, the more precisely one property is known, the less precisely the other can be known. This is not a statement about the limitations of a researcher’s ability to measure particular quantities of a system, but rather about the nature of the system itself.

In quantum mechanics, the particle is described by a wave. The position is where the wave is concentrated and the momentum, a measure of the velocity, is the wavelength. The position is uncertain to the degree that the wave is spread out, and the momentum is uncertain to the degree that the wavelength is ill-defined.

Black hole

According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, a black hole is a region of space in which the gravitational field is so powerful that nothing, including electromagnetic radiation (e.g. visible light), can escape its pull after having fallen past its event horizon. The term derives from the fact that absorption of visible light renders the hole’s interior invisible, and indistinguishable from the black space around it.

Despite its invisible interior, a black hole may reveal its presence through interaction with matter orbiting the event horizon. For example, a black hole may be perceived by tracking the movement of a group of stars that orbit its center. Alternatively, one may observe gas (from a nearby star, for instance) that has been drawn into the black hole. The gas spirals inward, heating up to very high temperatures and emitting large amounts of radiation that can be detected from earthbound and earth-orbiting telescopes.[2][3] Such observations have resulted in the general scientific consensus that—barring a breakdown in our understanding of nature—black holes do exist in our universe.[4]

Hawking radiation

Hawking radiation (also known as Bekenstein-Hawking radiation) is a thermal radiation with a black body spectrum predicted to be emitted by black holes due to quantum effects. It is named after the physicist Stephen Hawking who provided the theoretical argument for its existence in 1974, and sometimes also after the physicist Jacob Bekenstein who predicted that black holes should have a finite, non-zero temperature and entropy. Hawking’s work followed his visit to Moscow in 1973 where Soviet scientists Yakov Zeldovich and Alexander Starobinsky showed him that according to the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle, rotating black holes should create and emit particles.[1] The Hawking radiation process reduces the mass of the black hole and is therefore also known as black hole evaporation.

Because Hawking radiation allows black holes to lose mass, black holes that lose more matter than they gain through other means are expected to dissipate, shrink, and ultimately vanish. Smaller micro black holes (MBHs) are predicted to be larger net emitters of radiation than larger black holes, and to shrink and dissipate faster.

Higgs boson

In particle physics, the Higgs boson is a massive scalar elementary particle predicted to exist by the Standard Model.

The Higgs boson is the only Standard Model particle that has not yet been observed. Experimental detection of the Higgs boson would help explain how massless elementary particles can have mass. More specifically, the Higgs boson would explain the difference between the massless photon, which mediates electromagnetism, and the massive W and Z bosons, which mediate the weak force. If the Higgs boson exists, it is an integral and pervasive component of the material world.

Deontological ethics

Deontological ethics or deontology (from Greek δέον, deon, "obligation, duty"; and -λογία, -logia) is an approach to ethics that focuses on the rightness or wrongness of intentions or motives behind action such as respect for rights, duties, or principles, as opposed to the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of those actions.[1]

It is sometimes described as "duty" or "obligation" based ethics, because deontologists believe that ethical rules "bind you to your duty".[2] The term ‘deontological’ was first used in this way in 1930, in C. D. Broad’s book, Five Types of Ethical Theory.[3]

Phenomenology (philosophy)

Phenomenology is a philosophy or method of inquiry based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived or understood in human consciousness and not of anything independent of human consciousness. Developed in the early years of the twentieth century by Edmund Husserl and a circle of followers at the universities of Göttingen and Munich in Germany, phenomenological themes were taken up by philosophers in France, the United States, and elsewhere, often in contexts far removed from Husserl’s work.

"Phenomenology" comes from the Greek words phainómenon, meaning "that which appears," and lógos, meaning "study." In Husserl’s conception, phenomenology is primarily concerned with making the structures of consciousness, and the phenomena which appear in acts of consciousness, objects of systematic reflection and analysis. Such reflection was to take place from a highly modified "first person" viewpoint, studying phenomena not as they appear to "my" consciousness, but to any consciousness whatsoever. Husserl believed that phenomenology could thus provide a firm basis for all human knowledge, including scientific knowledge, and could establish philosophy as a "rigorous science".

Sarcoidosis

Sarcoidosis, also called sarcoid (from the Greek sarx, meaning "flesh") or Besnier-Boeck disease, is a multisystem disorder characterized by non-caseating granulomas (small inflammatory nodules). It most commonly arises in young adults. The cause of the disease is still unknown. Virtually any organ can be affected; however, granulomas most often appear in the lungs or the lymph nodes. Symptoms usually appear gradually but can occasionally appear suddenly. The clinical course generally varies and ranges from asymptomatic disease to a debilitating chronic condition that may lead to death .

Cascading style sheets

[This is what it said before I edited it, to try to make it a bit more understandable to those who don’t already know about the topic.]

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) is a stylesheet language used to describe the presentation of a document written in a markup language. Its most common application is to style web pages written in HTML and XHTML, but the language can be applied to any kind of XML document, including SVG and XUL.

CSS can be used locally by the readers of web pages to define colors, fonts, layout, and other aspects of document presentation. It is designed primarily to enable the separation of document content (written in HTML or a similar markup language) from document presentation (written in CSS). This separation can improve content accessibility, provide more flexibility and control in the specification of presentation characteristics, and reduce complexity and repetition in the structural content (such as by allowing for tableless web design). CSS can also allow the same markup page to be presented in different styles for different rendering methods, such as on-screen, in print, by voice (when read out by a speech-based browser or screen reader) and on Braille-based, tactile devices. CSS specifies a priority scheme to determine which style rules apply if more than one rule matches against a particular element. In this so-called cascade, priorities or weights are calculated and assigned to rules, so that the results are predictable.

Markup language

[This was how it began before I cleaned it up slightly.]

A markup language is an artificial language using a set of annotations to text that give instructions regarding the structure of text or how it is to be displayed. Markup languages have been in use for centuries, and in recent years have been used in computer typesetting and word-processing systems.

A well-known example of a markup language in use today in computing is HyperText Markup Language (HTML), one of the most used in the World Wide Web. HTML follows some of the markup conventions used in the publishing industry in the communication of printed work among authors, editors, and printers.

RNA

Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is a type of molecule that consists of a long chain of nucleotide units. Each nucleotide consists of a nitrogenous base, a ribose sugar, and a phosphate. RNA is very similar to DNA, but differs in a few important structural details: in the cell, RNA is usually single-stranded, while DNA is usually double-stranded; RNA nucleotides contain ribose while DNA contains deoxyribose (a type of ribose that lacks one oxygen atom); and RNA has the base uracil rather than thymine that is present in DNA.

RNA is transcribed from DNA by enzymes called RNA polymerases and is generally further processed by other enzymes. RNA is central to the synthesis of proteins. Here, a type of RNA called messenger RNA carries information from DNA to structures called ribosomes. These ribosomes are made from proteins and ribosomal RNAs, which come together to form a molecular machine that can read messenger RNAs and translate the information they carry into proteins. There are many RNAs with other roles – in particular regulating which genes are expressed, but also as the genomes of most viruses.

Twelve-tone scale

The chromatic scale is a musical scale with twelve pitches, each a semitone or half step apart. "A chromatic scale is a nondiatonic scale consisting entirely of half-step intervals," having, "no tonic," due to the symmetry or equal spacing of its tones[1].

[Image of “Chromatic scale on C: full octave ascending and descending”]

The most common conception of the chromatic scale before equal temperament was the Pythagorean chromatic scale, which is essentially a series of eleven 3:2 perfect fifths. The twelve-tone equally tempered scale tempers, or modifies, the Pythagorean chromatic scale by lowering each fifth slightly less than two cents, thus eliminating the Pythagorean comma of approximately 23.5 cents. Various other temperaments have also been proposed and implemented.

The term chromatic derives from the Greek word chroma, meaning color. Chromatic notes are traditionally understood as harmonically inessential embellishments, shadings, or inflections of diatonic notes.

I find the above pretty much incomprehensible.

Semiotics

Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems. It includes the study of how meaning is constructed and understood.

One of the attempts to formalize the field was most notably led by the Vienna Circle and presented in their International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, in which the authors agreed on breaking out the field, which they called "semiotic", into three branches: …

Designated hitter rule

In baseball, the designated hitter rule is the common name for Major League Baseball Rule 6.10[1], an official position adopted by the American League in 1973 that allows teams to designate a player, known as the designated hitter (abbreviated DH), to bat in place of the pitcher. Since then, most collegiate, amateur, and professional leagues have adopted the rule or some variant; MLB’s National League and Nippon Professional Baseball’s Central League are the most prominent professional leagues that have not.

Derivatives (finance)

Derivatives are financial contracts, or financial instruments, whose values are derived from the value of something else (known as the underlying). The underlying on which a derivative is based can be an asset (e.g., commodities, equities (stocks), residential mortgages, commercial real estate, loans, bonds), an index (e.g., interest rates, exchange rates, stock market indices, consumer price index (CPI) — see inflation derivatives), or other items (e.g., weather conditions, or other derivatives). Credit derivatives are based on loans, bonds or other forms of credit.

The main types of derivatives are forwards, futures, options, and swaps.

Derivatives can be used to mitigate the risk of economic loss arising from changes in the value of the underlying. This activity is known as hedging. Alternatively, derivatives can be used by investors to increase the profit arising if the value of the underlying moves in the direction they expect. This activity is known as speculation.

Because the value of a derivative is contingent on the value of the underlying, the notional value of derivatives is recorded off the balance sheet of an institution, although the market value of derivatives is recorded on the balance sheet.

This intro doesn’t do a good job explaining derivatives or hedges, but the article itself is actually fairly clear.

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20 Responses to “Is Wikipedia getting too hard? A random sampling”

  1. Quality will certainly vary with Wikipedia. The semiotics entry would probably be difficult for someone who hasn’t taken literary theory (or a similar course). If most people referring to the definition have some background in the field, it may be a minor issue, but I think the problem is that it sounds too much like a dictionary.

    I’m not sure why you find the DH rule entry difficult. It seems to state that there is a rule that allows a “designated player” to take the place of the pitcher in the batting order and that most major professional and collegiate leagues use such a rule. Not trying to be snarky. Just genuinely curious.

  2. Chuck, I don’t find the DH entry difficult. Why do you think I do?

  3. Simple.Wikipedia to the rescue!

    i.e. http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fibonacci_number

    They should really push this part of wikipedia more.

  4. I had no idea, Joseph! Cool!

  5. There are a couple of special flags for difficult introductions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Template:Context – “The introduction to this article provides insufficient context for those unfamiliar with the subject.” and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Template:Technical – “This article may be too technical for a general audience.”

  6. Longtime problem… once an academic steps in, intelligibility and accessibility go out the window.

    Everything depends on the social setting of the people taking main responsibility for that section of Wikipedia.

  7. David,
    Honestly I did not see any problem of hardness on Wikipedia yet. In your random samples, too.

    But you may be right, that as time passes, wikipedia may go into a phase where particular articles, actually going deeper and deeper, must get some “hardness” to the general public.

    See, if it (wikipedia) says today, on top of some article: “This article is in need of attention from an expert on the subject (…)” – that is sign of that process.

    I expect, over time, wikipedia will get more “verticality” of explanation, over initial “horizontality”.

    But, as for me, its OK :-)

  8. That’s always been a problem with wikipedia IMHO. It’s fairly much inevitable with any group created content. In any group, there’s always the engineers/scientists/academics, who are fastidious about being *right*, *perfect* and completely accurate. They never consider the costs of those things – clarity, intelligibility, accessibility. They would rather be 100% accurate to the finest detail and alienate 90% of the audience, than be 90% right and appeal to 90% of the audience. More to the point, they never consider that trade off – there is no option in their mind apart from 100% completely and totally accurate, down to every detail. Technical writing, making unintelligible things intelligible, is a real skill, and in a public forum like wikipedia the sparse voices of intelligibility will almost always be drowned out by the screaming of the “right” masses.

    In other words, Wikipedia is run by the comic book guy from The Simpsons.

  9. Mark Baartse, I shared your concern. But, my very sketchy browse through various WP entries (as documented in my post) seems not to bear out our concerns overall. Do you have evidence that your hypothesis is correct?

  10. I think Wikipedian authors work hard to try to make Wikipedia articles as accessible and intelligible as possible in my opinion. If you want to contrast an accessible Wikipedia article with more difficult reading, examine the supporting references to the following statement which is part of the Hawking Radiation article:

    “Since the laws of physics at such short distances are unknown, some find Hawking’s original calculation unconvincing.[7][8][9][10][11][12]”

    (See scientific content in links 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 for an example of content that may be necessarily “less accessible” .)

  11. […] only one problem: recently, Wikipedia has gotten very technical on us (mentioned by Joho) and – gadzooks – removed the web 3.0 entry. For heaven’s […]

  12. […] only one problem: recently, Wikipedia has gotten very technical on us (mentioned by Joho) and – gadzooks – removed its web 3.0 […]

  13. David: Nope, just a personal anecdote. I can’t think of a way to test the hypothesis which doesn’t involve prohibitively large amounts of research.

    I just know, personally, I frequently encounter articles where basically the only way to understand them is to already understand them – great for the authors, not so good for the readers. I find myself asking “ok, but what actually IS it” too often.

    It’s possible I’m being too harsh – while “In particle physics, the Higgs boson is a massive scalar elementary particle predicted to exist by the Standard Model.” is pretty meaningless to someone not familiar with theoretical physics, you can’t expect a complete Physics 101 course in every single wikipedia article. It’s very hard to know where to draw the line.

  14. Ok, so I was just surfing wikipedia and came across this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allostasis

    “Allostasis is the process of achieving stability, or homeostasis, through physiological or behavioral change. This can be carried out by means of alteration in HPA axis hormones, the autonomic nervous system, cytokines, or a number of other systems, and is generally adaptive in the short term”

    I don’t have the SLIGHTEST clue what Allostasis is. Stability of what? The weather? The economy? Mental state? The article infers a medical term, but only indirectly and vaguely.

  15. Interesting timing, I came across your blog tonight after spending a couple of hours with the kids using the big tv as a computer monitor doing research into Costa Rica (we are heading there soon on vacation).

    I started with Google Earth then went onto wikipedia. The articles were mostly geared to PHD’s not grade schoolers.

    If the purpose of wikipedia is to share knowledge with the intent of supporting learning, what we saw tonight missed the boat. Adults can work through the smart people words but kids just give up.

  16. I am currently enjoying the inscrutable entries for “hammer”, “hot rod”, “orange(fruit)”, “joystick”, “wheel”, and especially “hypercube”.

    And I’ve learned that a noun is not only a “person, place or thing,” but a member of a large, open lexical category whose members can occur as the main word in the subject of a clause, the object of a verb, or the object of a preposition.

  17. ‘In other words, Wikipedia is run by the comic book guy from The Simpsons.’

    what a super ending to your piece and really made your point – clear and simple

  18. Remember Wikipedia is not only for doctors, engineers,scientists or academic students etc. which consist of only 5% of total site visitors.

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