Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Confessapedia (What I did when I was alone with the Wikipedia)

For some time, I’ve had this odd habit of looking up the oddest possible topics in the Wikipedia, the online user-administered source on all things that are potentially interesting. When I was a child, the Encyclopedia Britannica played a special role in a lot of homes. They were sold door to door as the gateway to having your child succeed in school and life. Most middle class Asian families couldn’t resist. The biggest patch of bookshelf space was the 34 volumes of the adult edition, though many families only bought the red-bound children’s version. We had both and naturally the almost unreadable entries in the adult Brittanica generally served as my research for almost all school papers.

The Wikipedia is literally open-ended. There’s no limit on the ultimate size of the document and it’s continuously revised, abridged, edited, and refined. This has resulted in considerable controversy about the quality of the information within the Wikipedia since most any volunteer editor can slip in most any slant he or she wants to a given article. The recursive process involved in moving towards wiki-consensus on what belongs and doesn’t belong in a wiki posting is fascinating in its own right. Despite the controversy, if I want to know the basics about something, I find the resource reliable enough that I usually start with the Wikipedia. For example, the other day my wife and I had found a new Mexican restaurant in town and we were arguing about the exact ingredients in Menudo.

It turned out that Ricky Martin wasn’t normally one of them, but tripe or cow stomach lining was. Is there a difference? Sorry Ricky. Where did you go anyway? Well, I looked it up and learned that tripe did indeed come from cow stomachs and was a key ingredient of the soup and that Ricky Martin performed at the 2006 Winter Olympics and World Cup. In addition, he also has a fan in Queen Noor of Jordan who talked him into doing a concert there. Who knew? Ricky Martin could be the key to peace in the middle east.

One thing my cousins and I used to do as kids was look up pictures of body parts in the Britannica. The sixties Britannica had this wonderful anatomically accurate plastic transparency of a nude male and female (both white, though they had a black woman too I think) under “Anatomy”. It also did have articles on sex, penis, vagina, etc. Yes, that was the sort of thing we found exciting in those days until our parents bought Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex, the Sensuous Woman, and the Joy of Sex and started leaving them on the coffee table. That sort of thing really couldn’t have happened back then?

Of course, there was always Playboy, but to be honest there was something much kinkier about finding prurient material in anything that was supposed to be as good for you in school as the Brittanica. I remember one highlight of the encyclopedia’s annual supplements, basically an excuse to keep charging you for updates, was its coverage of Christine Keeler and the Profumo Scandal, an event which made little to no sense to me. For years, I found the chairs from the famous Lews Morley photo terribly exciting for some reason.

In any case, the Wikipedia (or is it the Whackapedia?) goes way beyond the Brittanica. It includes articles not just about sex, but on about every sex act you could ever imagine, including a few I’d never heard of. Just, toss in a term or name and see what happens. There are biographies of hundreds even thousands of performers in adult movies. There’s a list of every centerfold to ever pose for Playboy Magazine. Making it even more fascinating, each of these wings of the Wikipedia tend to be edited not by some stuffy London-based character who strives to make it all sound as clinical as possible, but by the folk who generally obsess on this kind of arcana. In other words, every now and then the article contains some odd bit of trivia or just plain unexpectedly weird information, urban legend, etc. about the less-talked about aspects of sexual imagination.

At the same time, I’ve spent an equal amount of time (I’m sort of OCD when it comes to sexual repression) looking up religious history. This too is manned by enthusiasts. Look up things like "The meaning of Life" sometime on the Wikipedia. Some of the articles are very entertainingly written. Actually, Wikipedia's religious section has far more articles marked with a cautionary “controversial” than its sex portions. Of course, the weird thing is looking at the Old Testament (Eastern religion doesn’t tend to be quite as weird as the big book from the Middle East) constantly reminds me that it’s even kinkier than the “sex” corridors of the Wikipedia.

I’ve learned there that after the flood the seven and hundred and fifty year old Noah got so drunk that his sons saw him naked so one of the sons apparently took it upon himself to have sex with his mother. Noah then throws out the son and condemns all of his descendants to a life of slavery. You find out that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah wanted to rape the angels who came to warn Lot and his people away from plain with the five cities. Lot responds by offering to let the people of Sodom rape his daughters instead. After Lot’s wife looks back to see the Lord’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and gets turned into a pillar of salt, Lot’s daughters decide to have sex with him and both have children through the coupling.

If you wonder, why some of these deeply religious folk turn out to be child molesters or have odd sex lives, this is the reason. Too many of them read the Bible and take it literally. Btw, the wikipedia version of Bible stories tends to be much better because it doesn’t euphemize a lot of what’s going on.

I’m even in the wikipedia, or I was, but not for sexual or religious reasons. Two years ago, I found a mistake in an article about Mark Hannah, who was sort of Karl Rove’s role model. I wound up writing a posting about it and that wound up in a wikipedia article about articles about the Wikipedia. I also got in for making some technical correction about the Schenck Case.

So many years ago, the Brittanica seemed to be my window to the world. Even though I made a couple attempts to read entire volumes of the thing, I never remembered or understood most of what I read. In fact, that frustration made me think that the knowledge inside those 34 or so volumes was extraordinarily vast. It made such an impression on me that one of the first CD roms, I ever bought was Microsoft Encarta followed by a two disk text version of the Brittanica. I was amazed that something that once seemed so unconquerable could be reduced to two little silver disks. Fascinatingly, the wikipedia is a much better tool at least in part because it can't be physically contained in anything as static as a disk any longer. Though I think the Wikipedia physically exists on a set of servers in Tampa, Florida, it's clearly beyond those physical confines as an entity at this point and may be the closest thing we have to Gaia, the notion of a single mass of interconnected knowledge. I have no idea how big the whole thing is at any given moment or if any person could read any interation of the thing in a single lifetime. It literally contains more than any one of us could possibly know.

I imagine someday someone will do a serious study of the thing, kind of like climbing a Mount Everest of casual human knowledge. If they ever get to the top, they could check into things like finding the most searched topics on the Wikipedia, what the longest single article is, what article has been edited the most, etc. and I imagine it might tell us a most fascinating story about us.

If only I could type in a search term into my own mind and memories like that.



At 6/28/2007 05:50:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

I envied my friends who had the set of encyclopedias whereas I had to go to the library to pore over the anatomy and other fascinating sections. When Encarta arrived on the scene, it fascinated me too. Knowing that you're a part of 'the machine' makes me trust it more Chancelucky. And thanks for all the auxiliary information. To describe you would require several entries.

At 6/28/2007 06:11:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks Dale, I think :}
It's funny, encyclopedias were such a part of middle class homes when I was a kid...Now they've disappeared and it's almost like no one notices.

We still have my family's copy of the Encyclopedia, at least I think it was ours and not my wife's family's in the bookshelf in our living room. She's never caught me looking at the anatomy articles in them though.

At 6/30/2007 02:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Holy moly! What a fuddyduddy I must be. It never occurred to me that Wiki had articles on sex.

It does a heckuva job on 'obsidian' and 'GRBs' tho. And best of all to me, it was where I first learned that Karl Christian (sic) Rove was born on 12.25.50 and was so clearly therefore actually the AntiChrist that it took my breath away and I almost forgave Fat E for Her excesses of mischiefs in that last 6 years.

Having grown up on a farm where all the animals wander around with their parts displayed for all to peruse, one never got the repressed obsessiveness that my urban cousins seem to have harbored.

It did amuse me back then that delivering a Holstein calf which was followed in a loud slurp by a 5 inch thick, 3 ft diameter purple, pink, & electric blue spongy afterbirth which Mama Cow blissfully began to crunch was a swell way to get the city boys to throw up.

It's good for you -- like menudo. Special menudo uses cow afterbirth as a hangover recipe. I'm not sure that has made it into wiki yet. Bon appetit, city boys.

At 6/30/2007 02:53:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pugblog,
ew, ew ,ew..!

Might be interesting to figure out some time what's not in the Wikipedia.
For some items, it's clearly the product of some volunteer editor's or group of volunteer editors' own obsessiveness. I think that explains the fact that there's a list of every woman who ever appeared as Playboy Centerfold along with biographical detail for each of them, but you still can't find who were the US ambassadors to Iran at different times.
Also the lists of baseball players in there can be highly unpredictable.


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