Friday, April 28, 2006

The Wikipedia fails...

...when a large number of editors have decided they'd like to skew things.

I'd like to say the page under scrutiny here for bias is a political candidate; that's understandable and expected. But it's not... it's a corporation.

According to Richard Demsyn, Wal-Mart lobbyists work very hard to keep any controversy about Wal-Mart off of its main entry page. Discussions about its labor policies, connections with sweatshops, union controversies, benefits, protests, etc., are moved to the "Criticism of Wal-Mart" page, and there, discussion reads more like an advertisement at times. From the conclusion:

"The only conclusion I can make is that Wal-mart has used its economic power to hire lobbyists who as part of their job use Wikipedia to spread disinformation for the benefit of Wal-mart. This stands as a powerful strike against the very integrity of Wikipedia."

We already know Wal-Mart has found bloggers to be PR mouthpieces. But blogs are already admittedly biased. The wikipedia is known for attempts to be fair-minded. I'm sure these things must affect stock prices.

I tell you one thing, if I'm ever running a misinformation campaign, I'm hiring Wal-Mart.

Wikipedia tale shows China’s love-hate approach to change

Well, I know this is an old news story, but it is a really neat one, and I include it here in all its text so it won't dissappear into the bowels of paid-only archives. (Sorry, Washington Post. No dime for you.) Freedom isn't free, but information should be, right? --Lacey

Wikipedia tale shows China’s love-hate approach to change

PHILIP P. PAN; The Washington Post
Published: February 26th, 2006 02:30 AM

A packed Internet cafe in Beijing reflects the growing use of the Internet in China, where the government sometimes blocks the popular Wikipedia online dictionary.

BEIJING – When access to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, was disrupted across China last October, a lanky chemical engineer named Shi Zhao called his Internet service provider to complain.

A technician confirmed what Shi already suspected: Someone in the government had ordered the site blocked again.

Who and why were mysteries, Shi recalled, but the technician promised to pass his complaint on to higher authorities if he put it in writing.

“Wikipedia isn’t a Web site for spreading reactionary speech or a pure political commentary site,” Shi, 33, wrote a few days later. Yes, it contained entries on sensitive subjects such as Taiwan and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, but users made sure its articles were objective, he said, and blocking it would only make it harder for people in China to delete “harmful” content.

Shi hoped the government would agree. When the site was blocked in 2004, he had submitted a similar letter, and access had been quickly restored. Since then, the Chinese-language edition of Wikipedia had grown, broadening its appeal not only as a reference tool but also as a forum where people across China and the Chinese diaspora could gather, share knowledge and discuss even the most divisive subjects.

But today, four months after Shi submitted his letter, Wikipedia remains blocked.

The government has declined to explain its actions. But its on-again, off-again attempts to disrupt access to the site highlight the Communist Party’s deep ambivalence toward the Internet: The party appears at once determined not to be left behind by the global information revolution and fearful of being swept away by it.

Officials tolerated Wikipedia at first, perhaps because it seemed to be exactly what the party had in mind when it began promoting Internet use 11 years ago – an educational resource that could help China close its technological gap with the West, encourage innovation and boost economic growth.

But as the Chinese Wikipedia flourished, the authorities apparently came to see it as another threat to the party’s control of information and an example of an even more worrying development. The Internet has emerged as a venue for people with shared interests – or grievances – to meet, exchange ideas and plan activities without the party’s knowledge or approval.

With 111 million people online and 20,000 more joining them every day, the landscape of Chinese cyberspace resembles a vast collection of new and overlapping communities. Although Chinese write less e-mail than Americans, they embrace the Internet’s other communication tools – bulletin boards and chat rooms, instant-messaging groups and blogs, photo-sharing and social networking sites. A popular feature of the Chinese search engine Baidu lets users chat with others who have entered the same keywords.

Studies suggest this digital interaction is changing the traditional structure of Chinese society, strengthening relations among friends, colleagues and others outside family networks. In a multinational survey, a much larger percentage of Internet users in China than anywhere else said online communication had increased their contact with people who shared their hobbies, professions and political views.

The Communist Party polices these emerging Internet communities with censors and undercover agents and manages a Web site that it said received nearly a quarter-million anonymous tips about “harmful information” online last year.

But the methods the party uses to control speech and behavior in the real world have proved less effective in cyberspace, where people get away with more, and where the government is often a step behind.

When authorities catch up, citizens often have already weakened the party’s grip on public life and succeeded in expanding civil society. They have organized charity drives for rural schoolchildren and mobilized students for anti-Japanese protest marches. And they learned to work together to write an encyclopedia.

“Wikipedia is special because other places don’t have this kind of discussion, at least not such an intellectual discussion. It’s a place where people with different backgrounds interact,” said Shi, a prolific contributor to the Chinese Wikipedia. “But that wasn’t even our goal. Our goal was just to produce an encyclopedia.”

Created by volunteers who write and edit articles in a collaborative process, Wikipedia is the Web’s largest reference site, and it boasts editions in more than 200 languages.

To many educated in China, the governing principles of Wikipedia – objectivity in content, equality among users, the importance of consensus – were relatively new concepts. Yuan said he consulted the work of philosopher John Rawls and economist Friedrich Hayek to better understand how a free community could organize itself and “produce order from chaos.”

“We had heard of these ideas, but they really didn’t have much to do with our lives,” said Yuan, now a computer programmer. “In school, we were taught an official point of view, not a neutral point of view. And we didn’t learn much about how to cooperate with people who had different opinions.”

In early 2004, state-run newspapers began writing positive articles about the Chinese Wikipedia, and the coverage fueled further growth. By February, more than 3,000 people had registered as users and there were more than 5,000 entries.

By April, the site was getting nearly 100,000 page requests per day. By May, the number of definitions on the site had climbed past 10,000.

Then, on June 3, 2004, people in China who tried to visit Wikipedia saw an error page instead. The government had blocked the site on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

But after Wikipedia was blocked on the eve of the Tiananmen anniversary, Shi – who describes himself as a supporter of the Communist Party – was among the first to call his Internet service provider to complain. He also submitted an appeal.

Then without any explanation, the government restored access to the site.

The 19-day disruption caused Chinese Wikipedia use to drop and prompted hand-wringing in the community that built it. Some suggested that the site practice self-censorship to avoid being blocked again. But most opposed the idea on principle.

“It would have violated our policies, because Wikipedia is independent of any government,” Shi said. “We aren’t publishing political editorials, just providing information from a neutral point of view.”

Instead of backing down, the site attracted more users, and the debates intensified as people tried to hammer out their differences on subjects such as the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, the one-child policy and even the Chinese Communist Party.

Because users hailed from Taiwan as well as the mainland, the most-passionate fights were related to the status of the self-governing island. At one point, there was even talk about splitting the site in two, because residents of Taiwan and the mainland write Chinese with different sets of characters.

Technology bridged that divide. A student wrote a computer program to automatically convert text from one set to the other.

Slowly, a community was consolidating outside the party’s purview, one that was learning to settle its own disputes, that crossed borders and tolerated those who contradicted the party’s views and that began organizing get-togethers in the real world as well as cyberspace.

It must have been disturbing to some in the party, which has long sought to dominate all organized social activity in China. In September 2004, the government blocked access to Wikipedia again.

Some blamed the decision on an influx of Internet users who were upset that the censors had shut down a popular university Web site. Others linked it to a message posted by a disgruntled Wikipedian on the losing side of an argument two days earlier.

“I have already called the police, and told them there is a lot of Taiwan independence, Falun Gong and other reactionary content here,” the user wrote. “I even gave them many entries as examples. After a few days, they will come for an inspection. You’d better get ready. … Ha, ha.”

To the community’s relief, the second block lasted only four days. Then, for more than a year, Wikipedia operated free of any government interference.

The encyclopedia flourished, passing the 40,000-entry mark in September, and the community thrived, growing more stable and mature. Users continued to discuss and write about sensitive subjects, branching into current events, but the rancor of the debates seemed to subside. When newcomers resorted to overheated language, veterans stepped in and cooled things down.

So the government’s most recent decision to block Wikipedia was a deep disappointment. Shi Zhao submitted another appeal. Cui Wei, 25, a graduate student at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, wrote one, too.

“By blocking Wikipedia, we lose a chance to present China’s voice to the world, allowing evil cults, Taiwan independence forces and others … to present a distorted image of China,” he said. “We lose a chance to share academic knowledge with the world, and as users, a channel to gain information. …

“Such an act is no different than cutting off our tongues and shutting our eyes and ears. It is closing and locking up the country in the age of the Internet.”

As the weeks passed, many concluded Wikipedia had been blocked for good.

In December, a message appeared on a Wikipedia page alleging the site had been “conducting anti-China activities under the flag of being neutral” and accusing its senior users of being “running dogs for American imperialism.” Some suspected the note was posted by a government agent.

The number of people using the Chinese Wikipedia site has dropped, but devoted users are finding ways to access it. The community now boasts 45,000 registered users, most from the mainland. Among the site’s 56,000 entries is one that explains how to get around the government’s firewall.

Researcher Zhang Jing contributed to this report.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Rough draft feature

This is the rough draft of my Feature assignment for Capital Campus News. Many thanks to JJ Deng, who let me interview and observe him playing the game.

I didn't particularly like my introduction, and I HATE my conclusion. I just can't figure out what is missing though. This will get a rewrite before it's published, I'm 100% sure, so if you have suggestions, let me know! Thanks.

Feature: MMOs

Lacey Waymire

He looms seven feet tall. He has shaggy brown fur across his muscular shoulders and two cruelly-pointed horns above his fierce snout. Clenched in his hooves is a massive, bonk-up-Godzilla kind of staff. The armor on his shoulders alone probably weighs more than your grandmother… and he’s coming for you.

No, it’s not a nightmare. It’s the virtual appearance of 23-year-old JJ Deng of Davis. He is a Tauren, a sort of bull that stands on his back hooves, named Amurko. Amurko lives in the online game World of Warcraft (WOW).

It’s a world that 5.5 million are playing in already, and it’s changing the social lifestyle of its players. Once installed on any computer with online capabilities, players can send text messages to interact with thousands of other players who exist in the same virtual world. They can create their own characters with unique stories. Those characters in turn have their own virtual lives—they can trade items, gain power and reputation, fight enemies, make friends—and even get married.

In real life, Deng is a hard-working graduate student at UC Davis, where he is studying applied science after graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in engineering science.

Though he is not studying this Sunday afternoon, his one-bedroom apartment in downtown Davis shows every sign that he works hard for his grades. On his computer desk, sitting amongst scattered sheets of complicated-looking math homework, is a worn copy of “Modern quantum mechanics.”

Deng gently moves aside some sheets of homework as he logs into WOW.

“My friend in the Bay Area got me hooked,” he says of why he started playing WOW. “Playing together in the game—this is how we’re keeping in touch.”

Deng used to be part of a guild—a group of players who roleplay together and help each other complete quests. But now, he says, most of those players have migrated from the game, and he has no way of keeping in contact with them. He is looking for a new guild.

Player vs. Player in the battlegrounds

He tells me he enjoys fighting in the battlegrounds against his fellow Warcrafters. Today he is going to show me a player-versus-player fight in Arathi Basin.

The game-within-a-game has one goal: to gain the most resources. There are five resource nodes on the battlefield that need to be protected from the other team at all times.

The gates open, and Amurko rushes onto the battlefield without wasting a second. The first thing I notice is that players seem to be running everywhere, and no one is telling them where to go or what to do.

Deng smiles a bit when I mention this. “I usually play in a pick-up group, so we don’t have a lot of time to build a strategy,” he says. “Lately the games haven’t been real organized. There’s no clear leader.”

This doesn’t seem to bother him. All the players on the field are level 60, which is the highest level in the game. It took Deng nine months to reach level 60—these players must know the drill by now.

Onscreen, his Tauren rushes towards a resource node known as the “lumber mill.” Amurko is a druid, which means he can transform into different animals while he fights. When he spots a group of three enemies ahead of him, he slows, transforms into his lion form, and stealthily creeps up behind the unsuspecting group.

He waits to ambush them until they are already engaged in a fight with a tall green Orc and a small Forsaken. He jams on the mouse button, rapid-fire, while dodging wildly around his enemies with the keyboard arrow keys. Aside from his quick finger-strokes, his posture gives no indication of the flurry of activity onscreen. He looks almost relaxed.

It does not take long before he and his teammates have secured the lumber mill for themselves. Seeing this, Deng’s avatar rushes down the virtual hillside through virtual foliage to the next resource node: the smithy.

Here the battle does not end so well. Though Amurko charges with some teammates, he is quickly surrounded by enemy players. A human mage launches a barrage of spells his way, and suddenly Deng’s screen goes gray. He has died.

While he waits 30 seconds for the spirit healer to bring him back to life, he pulls up a chart of game statistics. His team is losing. It only takes one glance for him to see the problem.

“No wonder,” he says calmly, assessing the numbers like an old army commander. “We are outnumbered.”

Sometimes, button-mashing skills just aren’t enough.

Meanwhile, chat on the screen from his teammates has turned to strategy.

“We should rush the stables,” someone suggests.

Amurko has been resurrected; he sprints into the fray once again, and hurriedly types his agreement as he runs: “Yeah let’s go stables.”

It’s a daring move. The target is close to the enemy’s base, and the long field they must cross will offer no cover. Yet if they can pull it off, they will have a chance at winning despite the skewed odds.

Their charge of five is intimidating. Two green orcs wielding heavy battle axes lead the way, followed by the looming Tauren with his hefty staff and two rotting Undead in black robes. They rush across the field and are met by an equally intimidating force of humans, night elves, and gnomes.

Amurko is a blurr of action. He attacks first as a spry yellow lion. His health starts to drop fast, so he changes into a bear—the bear’s claws are slower, but the fur has more armor. He kills off a night elf, and notices a teammate is in trouble. He changes back into a lumbering Tauren to cast a quick healing spell before jumping in as a lion once again.

The fight is hard. The team lasts for a while, but Amurko dies again, and they do not manage to steal the stables from Alliance control. The game is lost before it is over.

Online economics

When he is not playing in the battlegrounds, Deng may complete quests in the world that earn him gold, armor, and reputation. He can spend his hard-earned gold in the Auction House – a place where players trade their virtual money for virtual goods.

The economy is booming in Warcraft—in fact, it is comparable to the economy of a small country. And while it is strictly forbidden by Blizzard (the company in charge of Warcraft), real-money trades are being made for these virtual items.

1,000 gold is typically advertised on eBay for $60. That’s an exchange rate of roughly $1 for each 16 gold.

But 1,000 gold is hard to earn for the casual player; it takes a lot of time. Not spending that time is appealing to many gamers, according to “flam3on,” a San Diego player who tries to make money selling his characters on eBay. He asked not to be identified because Blizzard could terminate his account for selling characters.

“Blizzard fails to realize how many of their customers bought accounts on eBay, which is why WOW is a top-played game still,” he writes via e-mail. “To me, that’s more money for both sides.”

Buying items online is not a practice Deng likes.

“I never spend real money on virtual property,” Deng says. “I like to earn everything myself, even if it’s with other people helping me.”

For the economy of Warcraft, Deng’s attitude is a good thing; it helps keep gold rare. Just like in any other market, the more common the currency is in a populace, the higher prices rise. To stave off inflation, Blizzard designers had to design ways to take money out of the economy. Thus players have to repair their armor and pay for new training as they grow in level.

The stories

Aside from economic challenges, the game also offers a world rich in lore and hero-driven stories. Deng plays on a roleplaying server, which means the characters are expected to speak and act as though the world around them were real.

Though he may look fierce, Amurko has his own reasons for fighting and exploring the world. Deng’s expression is unreadable as he tells me that Amurko’s parents were killed by centaurs when he was young, and that Amurko has been searching for his twin brother, who went missing years ago.

Deng controls what happens to Amurko, so I thought I might ask for a preview. Will Amurko ever find his brother?

His tan face breaks into a knowing, enigmatic smile. “That’s a very interesting question,” he says. “There have been rumors lately that his brother is a rebel against the Horde. Who knows who he’s working for? It could be any hostile group—not the Alliance, but maybe the Grimtotems.”

It may be that Amurko would have to fight his twin brother if he is found. Clearly, it is a mystery our hero will have to solve…

Though it isn’t real-life contact, his time in the virtual world does keep Deng in contact with his Bay Area friend. And it is fun.

“I have no obligations in-game,” he says, “so I can go on whenever I feel like playing.”

So for 10-12 hours a week and $10.99 a month, Deng can go from being a hard-working student to being a heroic druid.

“It’s definitely worth it,” he says.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Creative funks are like X-Wings in swamp water

I just realized today I hadn't blogged this week. Faced with writing this blog and yet another one next week, I find myself stuck in a black void of anti-inspiration.

Lately my creativity has been dry. I'm supposed to write several fiction snippets for my various creative hobbies. I'm going to play in a Star Wars game this summer. I LOVE Star Wars. Coming up with a character concept should be as easy as failing a midterm! But I'm stuck. I feel a bit like Luke Skywalker trying to raise his X-wing up from the swamp in Degobah.

I often find inspiration in ice cream and oil paintings - the ice cream is to change my brain chemistry just a little, and the art gives me visual stimuli which my brain interprets creatively. Deviant Art helps feed my need for paintings. But lately... my creative methods are stagnating.

Maybe you can help me escape this horrible mucky swamp. How do you get out of a creative funk?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

When I rule the world..

Things to remember if I'm in a leadership position. This was taken from a Poynter article on young managers who work over veterans of many years. This is what the empolyees want to know about their managers:

# How well do you really know me and my work?
# How much respect do you have for my skills and contributions?
# Do you want to motivate me or manipulate me?
# What do you stand for? How will I know?
# What are you good at? How can it help me -- and others?
# Can I trust you?
# What have you done for me lately?

Monday, April 03, 2006

Toy Room Gallery

For our feature project, my group went to the Toy Room Gallery downtown. (I was, as a few others here, lost on my way in. Isn't downtown lousy that way?)

It's a "pop surrealism" art store, with T-shirts that look like tags and strange stuffed octopi-bunnies. I have to admit, as my eyes slid from shelf to shelf of merchandise, I scrambled to find something I could understand. I don't know anything about urban culture at all. Ren and Stimpy's "Shaven Yak" toy was the closest I could come. I've never actually seen an episode, but I know it's a Nickelodeon cartoon. Or something like that.

The art in the gallery was something I really enjoyed - especially the robots. They're metallic angels with sad gothy eyes. Simple and profound. Moreover, they were about $50 for the small ones - something I could purchase, unlike the rest of the art. There's a great painting of a woman pepper-spraying some punk who gets a little too grabby - for half a million sheets of dough...

Talking with the co-owner was really a lot of fun. I enjoyed his story, and I enjoyed his point of view on life. His main complaint was that out-of-towners bought the most stuff. Sacramento doesn't like spending money on art; our pocketbooks do not match the caliber of those Bay Area folk.

I can see, because of talking to him, that the store is something special - something SF and LA folks don't have. But I wish I could experience for myself why any of that merchandise was cool. I know I don't get it at all.

If his customers walked into a dice shop they'd have that same lost feeling, I'm sure. Is there a cultural rift here? I feel like I need an anthropologist to explain an era of pop culture I've missed. I can hear myself begging, "What about the bunny with tentacles? Is there no context?! For the love of God, show me the context!!" But as I have rejected pop culture, I don't think I'd even understand the context.

It's a nightmarish feeling for a journalist. I should have watched a few episodes of Ren and Stimpy as my research for this place.