Who might you find in the lowest circles of hell?

I liked my answer to this Quora question so much that I had to put it here on my blog as well. I also used it to answer the question, "Why is murder a crime?" N.B. I do not believe in hell.

Murderers, particularly mass murderers, must occupy the very lowest circle. This sounds like a boring answer. Let me try to make it a little less so. I think many people do not understand what a horrific crime murder is. This is a shame. So let me explain it.

Frankly, the crime of murder makes all others pale in comparison. The trouble in understanding this is that murder is more "metaphysical" and so its evil, more difficult to comprehend. When a person is dead, nothing else happens to him qua person. Thus the crime of murder seems to have a short shelf life. It takes ten minutes to sharpen the knife, a minute to confront the victim and do the deed, a few hours for the body to be discovered, a year or two for the survivors to grieve, and then life goes on. For the murder victims themselves, many of them, the terror and pain last for only moments; is it really so bad?

But, no. That's not how it is. If you think this way, you probably also don't understand the economic concept of opportunity cost. The evil of murder lies not in the pain of dying and grieving, but in the enormousness of what it deliberately prevents: an entire life.

If you (wrongheadedly) think of life materialistically, as collecting stuff, then consider that murder involves not only robbing a person of all of his current possessions, it also involves robbing him of all possessions he would ever earn and enjoy in the future. The murderer as it were leaves you utterly naked for eternity. He's stolen your car, your house, your computer, your devices, your toys, your clothes--and everything you would have had in the future, too. That's a lot of stuff!

If you think of a life as a series of experiences, many of which are worthwhile in themselves--"peak experiences" and all--then consider that murder involves robbing a person of all the experiences he would have in the future. The murderer as it were locks you in a plain, windowless room forever. All chance at experiencing books, movies, relationships, food, etc., all gone.

If you think of a life as "love," as a collection of meaningful relationships, then consider that murder involves abruptly breaking every single one of those relationships, between parent and child, sibling and sibling, friend and friend, husband and wife. All of them, all at once, never to return. The murderer as it were restrains you from all future dates, outings, time with children and parents, all of it. He has stolen your power to enjoy your parents, your husband or wife, your children, your friends--everyone you know, everyone you will know, everyone you might otherwise have brought into the world. That is truly an incredible loss.

If you think of life as service, as helping others, then consider that murder involves preventing you from helping anyone else, ever again, in any way whatsoever. The poor, sick, ignorant, and powerless, whoever you might have helped, will not be helped, at least not by you. The murderer as it were ties your hands and makes you watch helplessly as others try to shift for themselves even when they simply don't know how.

If you think of life as the pursuit of meaningful goals, then consider that murder permanently and irrevocably removes a person's ability to achieve anything whatsoever. The murderer as it were chains you to a wall with everything you might want to do far out of reach. The murderer makes every one of your dreams permanently, irrevocably impossible. Imagine how outrageous it would be for someone to come to your dream job and then physically restrain you for five minutes from doing that job. Then imagine someone doing that for the rest of your life. That's what murder does.

There are, of course, some other truly horrific crimes, such as abuse and torture. But murder is worse than abuse. Many abused people go on to live good lives and give life to others. In the end, they would rather have been abused than murdered. Murder is also worse than torture. Think of the war heroes who were tortured even for years, who later went on to have happy families and achieve great things. In the end, they would rather have been tortured than murdered.

Stalin, being responsible for more deaths than any single individual in history, would have to be at the bottom. Hitler would be very close to the bottom as well. Just try to think of everything that these monsters robbed from the world. It's inconceivable.


Reading Bear's First Press Release (Please Share!)

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Dr. Joe Thomas 901-484-3347

INNOVATIVE NEW WEBSITE, READING BEAR, TEACHES PHONICS AND VOCABULARY FOR FREE
Wikipedia Co-Founder’s Latest Project Launches to Acclaim

MEMPHIS, TENN., OCTOBER 11, 2012 – The co-founder of Wikipedia has embarked on a new web-based project aimed at teaching children to read in a new innovative, multi-sensory, multi-media approach.

Dr. Larry Sanger has designed a new website called ReadingBear.org.  It is a free website from Sanger and the team from the education website, WatchKnowLearn.org.  The project is funded by an anonymous Memphis-area philanthropist through the non-profit Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi.

ReadingBear.org takes a phonics approach to teaching children to read.  The site features more than 100 phonics principles. More than 1,200 words are pronounced at four speeds, each illustrated with a picture.  Each word is also used in a sentence illustrated by a video. The words are displayed “karaoke” style—individual letters flash at the moment that the corresponding sounds are spoken.

Readingbear.org’s word lists were drawn from exercises from Rudolph Flesch’s classic Why Johnny Can’t Read. Veteran phonics teacher Don Potter declared these exercises “have proven highly effective with all kinds of students, even those who had failed with high-dollar dyslexia methods.”

Distinguished reading researcher, Dr. Timothy Shanahan praised Readingbear.org’s reading approach and its colorful features. “It sounds words out for the children, showing them graphically how the sounds match the letters (try to do that with a workbook),” said Shanahan.

Reading Bear is free to users and requires no registration.

 


My Greatest Hits

The following pieces of writing produced the greatest reaction, or are simply my favorites. In order from most recent to oldest:

What should we do about Wikipedia's porn problem? (May 2012)

I want to start a conversation. ... So, you didn’t know that Wikipedia has a porn problem? Let me say what I do not mean by “Wikipedia’s porn problem.” I do not mean simply that Wikipedia has a lot of porn. That’s part of the problem, but it’s not even the main problem. I’m 100% OK with porn sites. I defend the right of people to host and view porn online. I don’t even especially mind that Wikipedia has porn. There could be legitimate reasons why an encyclopedia might want to have some “adult content.” No, the real problem begins when Wikipedia features some of the most disgusting sorts of porn you can imagine, while being heavily used by children. But it’s even more complicated than that, as I’ll explain.

Efficiency as a basic educational principle (January 2012)

Seize every opportunity to help the individual student to learn efficiently–which occurs when the student is interested in something not yet learned but is capable of learning it, and especially when learning it makes it easier to learn more later. In other words, when an individual student is capable of learning efficiently, seize the opportunity.  If students spend too much idle time when they could be learning, if they are learning only a little, if they are not interested in what is being taught, if they have already learned it, or if they will not understand it, then they aren’t learning efficiently.  When a certain approach ceases to conduce to efficient learning, try something else. ... So far, the principle is unremarkable.  But see how I apply the principle to a variety of educational issues.

An example of educational anti-intellectualism (December 2011)

One would expect Steve Wheeler, Associate Professor of learning technology at Plymouth University in England, to be plugged into and more or less represent the latest academic trends in education technology.  If so, I’m a bit scared. I came across Prof. Wheeler’s blog post from yesterday, “Content as curriculum?” If I had wanted to create a parody of both kinds of anti-intellectualism I’ve mentioned recently–among geeks and among educationists–I couldn’t have invented anything better. Wheeler hits many of the highlights, repeating the usual logical howlers as if they were somehow deeply persuasive. While I’ve already debunked a lot of this elsewhere, I thought it would be instructive to see that I have not, in fact, exaggerated in how I characterize the anti-intellectualism of some educationists. Wheeler’s post is so interesting and provocative, I’m going to go through line-by-line.

Is there a new geek anti-intellectualism? and Geek anti-intellectualism: replies (June 2011)

Let me step back and sum up the views mentioned above: 1. Experts do not deserve any special role in declaring what is known.  Knowledge is now democratically determined, as it should be.  (Cf. this essay of mine.) 2. Books are an outmoded medium because they involve a single person speaking from authority.  In the future, information will be developed and propagated collaboratively, something like what we already do with the combination of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Wikipedia, and various other websites. 3. The classics, being books, are also outmoded.  They are outmoded because they are often long and hard to read, so those of us raised around the distractions of technology can’t be bothered to follow them; and besides, they concern foreign worlds, dominated by dead white guys with totally antiquated ideas and attitudes.  In short, they are boring and irrelevant. 4. The digitization of information means that we don’t have to memorize nearly as much.  We can upload our memories to our devices and to Internet communities.  We can answer most general questions with a quick search. 5. The paragon of success is a popular website or well-used software, and for that, you just have to be a bright, creative geek.  You don’t have to go to college, which is overpriced and so reserved to the elite anyway.

On Robinson on Education (May 2011)

This very striking video has been circulating, and I’m inspired to reply to it: ... First, let me say, that the video design is very cool.  Moreover, Sir Ken Robinson is quite an excellent public speaker.  Finally, I agree with him entirely that standardization is the source of a lot of our educational difficulties.  But much of the rest of his message is irritatingly wrong. ... While Sir Ken and much of his head-nodding audience no doubt think that he, and they, are being wonderfully egalitarian and inclusive when they say and believe such things, really the opposite is true. In the 21st century, just as much as in the 19th, a solid academic education, a liberal education, which features training in critical thinking and classical literature and all the rest of it, gives us an opportunity to improve our minds.

Manifesto of Very Early Education (April 2011)

1. Very small children are capable of learning much more than most people realize.  When they do, they can benefit significantly for the rest of their lives. 2. In the coming generation, societal awareness and acceptance of very early learning might well change on a massive scale. ... 3. Those who dogmatically insist that play, and play only, is the work of childhood sadly misunderstand the virtues of early learning. 4. The education of very small children must be, above all, individualized. You must approach it with creativity, careful observation, and forethought, constantly adjusting what you do with your child. 5. Reading to children is the most important component of any early learning program.  Most of our academic knowledge can be gained from books.  Those who are in favor of copious reading by parents to children are not, therefore, wholly opposed to early learning. ...

Essay on Baby Reading (December 2010)

Can we teach our babies to read? Yes. Should we? Probably. In this essay, I’m going to try to convince parents that it is possible, and may be beneficial, to teach their children to read even while they are babies or toddlers. I also have remarks for researchers throughout. First, I will explain how I taught my own little one, beginning at age 22 months, and introduce some of our methods. Then I will answer various general objections to the notion and practice of teaching tiny tots to read.

What Is the Meaning of Life? (May 2010)

So what is the meaning of life? My answer is: to do what we can to improve, at least by our own lights, the lives of those we care about—which could be extended to all of humanity. In a way, I am admitting that happiness is the purpose of life after all, but I am saying that we find meaning by supporting the happiness of everyone that we can. “Can” is the key word; what we can do depends on our personal circumstances, and that’s what changes over time.

Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age (March 2010)

Some Internet boosters argue that Google searching serves as a replacement for our memory and that students need not memorize — need not learn — as much as they did before the Internet. Educationists inspire us with the suggestion that collaborative learning online can serve as "the core model of pedagogy." Knowledge is primarily to be developed and delivered by students working in online groups. And finally, the co-creation of knowledge can and should take the place of reading long, dense, and complex books. Such claims run roughshod over the core of a liberal education. They devalue an acquaintance with (involving much memorization of) many facts about history, literature, science, mathematics, the arts, and philosophy. Such claims also ignore the individual nature of much of liberal education. Reading, writing, critical thinking, and calculation, however much they can be assisted by groups, are ultimately individual skills that must, in the main, be practiced by individual minds capable of working independently. And such claims dismiss the depth of thinking that results from a critical reading and evaluation of many long and complex books.

An explanation of the Citizendium license (December 2007)

Since January 2007 when the Citizendium decided to “unfork” from Wikipedia, or delete unchanged Wikipedia articles from our database and encourage original work, the license for our own original articles has been up in the air. We said only, on a generic notice on the wiki, “All new articles will be available under an open content license yet to be determined.” Separately, I made it clear that we were considering the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL for short), the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC-by-sa), and the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike License (CC-by-nc-sa).

The New Politics of Knowledge (September 2007)

It is a truly striking thing that people come together from across the globe and, out of their freely donated labor and strings of electrons, form a powerful new corporate body. When they do so—as I have repeatedly observed—they develop a sense of themselves as a group, in which they invest some time and can take some pride, and which they govern by rules. In fact, these groups are a new kind of political entity, the birth of which our generation has been privileged to witness. ... If we talk about a politics of knowledge, and we take the analogy with politics seriously, then we assume that there is a sort of hierarchy of authority, with authority in matters of knowledge emanating from some agency that is "sovereign." In short, if we put stock in the notion of the politics of knowledge, then we're saying that, when it comes to knowing stuff, some people are at the top of the heap.

Education 2.0 (June 2007)

Imagine that education were not delivered but organized and managed in a way that were fully digitized, decentralized, self-directed, asynchronous, and at-a-distance. It is not hard to imagine a digital, decentralized degree-granting institution that “lives” primarily on the Internet, and organizes teachers and students to meet face-to-face. Such an institution need not offer courses, pay teachers, or collect tuition from students at all, but could act merely as a middleman and record transactions.

Who says we know: on the new politics of knowledge (April 2007)

As it turns out, our many Web 2.0 revolutionaries have been so thoroughly seized with the successes of strong collaboration that they are resistant to recognizing some hard truths.  As wonderful as it might be that the hegemony of professionals over knowledge is lessening, there is a downside: our grasp of and respect for reliable information suffers.  With the rejection of professionalism has come a widespread rejection of expertise—of the proper role in society of people who make it their life's work to know stuff.  This, I maintain, is not a positive development; but it is also not a necessary one.

Why Make Room for Experts in Web 2.0? (October 2006)

First premise: some collaborative projects concern things that are directly within the expertise of some people. This is true, for example, of encyclopedias, dictionaries, textbooks, and authoritative links databases. Second premise: for such projects, entrusting some decisions to people who are experts will ensure that those decisions are more likely to be correct. If you disagree with that, then you're saying that no matter how much you study or get experience with a subject, you never really improve the reliability of your judgment about the subject. Conclusion: it follows that encyclopedia projects, and other projects, will benefit by entrusting some decision-making to the relevant experts. If you want to make sure you're doing a good job with some knowledge project, it's a good idea to let people who have the relevant knowledge to make some decisions.

Toward a New Compendium of Knowledge (September 2006)

There are tens of millions of intellectuals online today.  What is possible with tens of millions of intellectuals working together on educational and reference projects?   The very thought of that makes me literally quiver with excitement.  I am amazed that we, educated people throughout the world, have barely begun to imagine what new reference and educational materials could come into being, if we pool our efforts in the open, collaborative ways demonstrated by open source software hackers.  Even less have we begun to take such possibilities really seriously, or actually get to work on them.

Text and Collaboration: A personal manifesto for the Text Outline Project (April 2006)

I propose a new "Collation Project" which has the lofty aim of enlisting large numbers of scholars to take scholarly public domain texts, analyze them into paragraph-sized chunks, and shuffle the chunks into a single massive outline--to construct, eventually, The Book of the World.  This will have revolutionary implications by making knowledge more easily accessible and smashing interdisciplinary and language barriers.  At the same time I propose to start at least three other projects: (1) an Analytical Dictionary Project, which sorts lexicographical data by concept, not word, and puts the result into the same outline as the Collation Project; (2) a Debate Guide Project, which summarizes arguments and positions on all manner of controversy; and (3) an Event Summary Project, which will locate detailed summaries of current events as part of a chronology that is continuous with a historical chronology.

The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir (April 2005)

The focus on the encyclopedia provided the task and the open content license provided a natural motivation: people work hard if they believe they are teaching the world stuff. Openness and ease of editing made it easy for new people to join in and get to work. Collaboration helped move work forward quickly and efficiently, and posting unedited drafts made collaboration possible. The fact that we started with a core of good people from Nupedia meant that the project could develop a functional, cooperative community. Neutrality made it easy for people to work together with relatively little conflict. And the Google effect provided a steady supply of "fresh blood"--who in turn supplied increasing amounts of content.

Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism (December 2004)

Wikipedia has started to hit the big time. Accordingly, several critical articles have come out, including "The Faith-Based Encyclopedia" by a former editor-in-chief of Britannica and a very widely-syndicated AP article that was given such titles as "When Information Access Is So Easy, Truth Can Be Elusive". These articles are written by people who appear not to appreciate the merits of Wikipedia fully. I do, however; I co-founded Wikipedia. (I have since left the project.) Wikipedia does have two big problems, and attention to them is long overdue. These problems could be eliminated by eliminating a single root problem. If the project's managers are not willing to solve it, I fear a fork (a new edition under new management, for the non-techies reading this) will probably be necessary.

Wikipedia and why it matters (January 2002)

The first public speech about Wikipedia delivered by anyone.

 Neutral point of view December 2001

Wikipedia has an important policy: roughly stated, you should write articles without bias, representing all views fairly. Wikipedia uses the words "bias" and "neutral" in a special sense! This doesn't mean that it's possible to write an article from just one point of view, the neutral (unbiased, "objective") point of view. That's a common misunderstanding of the Wikipedia policy. The Wikipedia policy is that we should fairly represent all sides of a dispute, and not make an article state, imply, or insinuate that any one side is correct. It's crucial that we work together to make articles unbiased. It's one of the things that makes Wikipedia work so well. Writing unbiased text is an art that requires practice. The following essay explains this policy in depth, and is the result of much discussion. We strongly encourage you to read it.


Does a social contract require us to put our children in schools?

Tony Jones produced an interesting argument against homeschooling. As I understand it, Tony says that we are obligated by a social contract to send our kids to school, and by the fact that we must support society as a whole by not "dropping out." As he explains, "I live under a mandate to be the most involved, missional societal participant that I can be."

Tony's argument makes two assumptions. One is that he has a obligation to be involved in (and to help improve) society. The other is that that this obligation forbids homeschooling. For the sake of argument, I am going to concede the first point, although it is very vague. I take it that the point is--very vaguely put--that we should live as parts of society, not cutting ourselves off. A hermit is not a complete human being, and a life cut off from others is impoverished.

The second point is the more interesting. So, does our obligation not to turn our backs on society require us to send our children to schools? Let me give a series of reasons to think this might not be the case.

First of all, U.S. schools are terrible. I can guarantee that my children will get a fantastic education if they stay home with me. Now, while my children will not be so much "part of society" while they are school-aged, they will certainly be part of it when they are adults. Well, it seems to me that they be more socially effective with a stellar education.

Moreover, dropping out of a deeply ailing institution--as the public school system has become, in many ways--puts much-needed pressure on that institution to achieve meaningful reform. As more and more people turn to homeschooling, simply because schools in the grip of bankrupt educational philosophies (like Dewey's...) are not living up to their promise, more genuine choice is achieved. In a calculus of the extent to which we are meeting our societal obligations, this shouldn't count for nothing.

The next issue is more to the point: while we might have an obligation to improve society by being part of it, how far does this obligation extend? If you are in a good position (due to career, physical proximity, or connections of friends and family) to fight drug abuse, should you become an addict and live among addicts? Of course not. But by parity of Tony's reasoning, one might think so: perhaps, by joining the addicts, I can improve society in profound ways that I could not do from outside the addicted fold. This is speculative, however, and I am sure no one believes any such thing, and certainly no one is obligated to act a certain way due to such speculation. The point is that, clearly, there are lines and standards we are justified in drawing: our obligation to improve society by being part of it does not impose endless requirements on us. Another example. I imagine someone (maybe not Tony) saying that I am not being part of society because my family doesn't watch network or cable TV, and have almost no exposure to televised sports and celebrity news. These things are deeply ingrained parts of our society, and yet my family has almost completely cut itself off from them, because we find them to be a waste, compared to what we could be doing with our time. Am I really obligated to waste my time in this way, simply in the interests of being able to interact more effectively with others who do waste their time that way? Prima facie, no. Does Tony have some reason to think otherwise?

Tony's argument is, as you can see, woefully incomplete. He hasn't got a prayer of clinching his argument unless he can explain in much more detail why participating in this particular institution is so important. Getting an education is, granted, extremely important. But why is it so important to our obligation to improve society that we send our children to substandard public schools in order to get that education? If Tony has addressed this question, I am afraid I missed it.

I could go on, and would like to, but I'm being instructed to get dinner. I think I have made enough of an argument for now, anyway.


Let's try out "Golden Filter Premium" on Wikipedia, shall we?

I encountered a journalist-activist on Twitter, a writer for (among others) Al Jazeera in English, who is nevertheless a free speech activist. We discussed the recent FoxNews.com article that reported, among other things, that the Wikimedia Foundation entirely failed to respond to a "more or less free" offer of filtering software. They need such software, of course, because they are heavily used by school children, and widely available in schools, and yet they host enormous amounts of porn. Anyway, the journalist-activist and I had a charming exchange, the end of which went like this:

Journalist-activist: "Why don't you simply push for people to purchase NetSpark or similar for home use?"

Me: "...a lot of people don't have money or expertise to install such a solution."

JA: "I don't buy that - free, good filters are widely available."

Me: "If you find me a 'free, good filter' that is 'widely available,' I will install and test, and blog about the results."

JA: "http://t.co/4CHL54yc"

Me: "All righty then! This should be fun!"

First, the Egyptian-made Golden Filter Premium is quite easy to install. However, though I am a certified "power user" of computers (Jimmy Wales called me that back in 2000), I couldn't immediately find where the software resides. As soon as it installed, the installation window closed, zoop!, and when I searched "porn" in Chrome (my currently favored browser), the window magically closed. So it was working, I just couldn't figure out where to fiddle with the options. Finally I opened the Task Manager, found the original file location of the exe, read the ReadMe, and discovered that the app is shown via F9 and F10. I would have known the F9/F10 trick if I had read the installation notes, apparently, but who does that?

So once it's installed, what is the first thing I do? I follow the script I followed when I made this fun video. Results?

It doesn't filter Wikipedia.org, which is fine. You can use it to block the whole site, if you want. But of course the WMF should offer a more fine-grained filter than that.

The software instantly closes a window as soon as it sees one of the verboten words on it. You may edit the list of verboten words.

I don't think they know about "fisting" in Egypt. It isn't in the list of verboten words, so when I type it into Wikipedia, of course I get the article, complete with illustrations. (I won't supply links here. You can go ahead and search if you dare, but bear in mind that this and the following examples are highly NSFW.)

Next, I go to multimedia search on Simple English Wikipedia, as I did in the above video. Let me try my test searches: "Poseidon." Yep, there's the old "Kiss of Poseidon.jpg" which does not actually feature the Greek God.

"Cucumber"? Page 2 of the results (used to be page 1) features some female exhibitionists who are altogether too fond of this vegetable.

"Toothbrush"? Again, page 2 has someone using a toothbrush in a way not approved by the ADA (used to be the top of page 1; Wikipedians obviously were uncomfortable with the bad publicity).

So...this free version doesn't work. By the way, for what it's worth, a non-free filter, NetSpark's, not only caught these examples, it deleted them inline instead of simply blocking the whole page. I'm not saying NetSpark is the only or the best solution, just that it's the one I'm familiar with and that it seemed to work rather well.

Wikipedia could pay a modest amount of money (I'm not sure what the bottom line bill would be, if over $0, from Netspark) and obtain a solution on behalf of the school children who use their smut-ridden resource. But they refuse. Few parents will want to use "Golden Filter Premium," in any case. It's just too clunky, and it doesn't work the way it should on Wikipedia anyway.


Reading Bear: Rave Reviews

Reading Bear has enjoyed excellent preliminary reactions from a wide variety of online sources. The following is just a selection, most of this in reaction to our 2011 launch, not to the full set of 50 presentations that we completed in August 2012.

Our Favorite Endorsements & Mentions

Larry Ferlazzo added us to three “best of” lists. Phonics teaching expert Don Potter said that the exercises on which Reading Bear is based “have proven highly effective with all kinds of students, even those who had failed with high-dollar dyslexia methods. You have remained true to” those exercises. Top reading expert Timothy Shanahan profiled us in a blog post and wrote, “It has some good features. Probably the best is that it sounds words out for the children, showing them graphically how the sounds match the letters (try to do that with a  workbook). … [Its various features] can help keep kids interested.” The Next Web called us “a neat online tool” and MakeUseOf called us “very user-friendly” and later put us on its “Cool Website and Tools” list praising our “creatively crafted media.” We were profiled in Brandon Lutz’s influential “60 in 60” presentation. We also got a nod from Tennessee First Lady Chrissy Haslam.

Education Blogs

One of the most-followed teacher-bloggers and Twitterers is Larry Ferlazzo, so we were particularly pleased to have his approval, November 3, 2011: “Reading Bear is a new free interactive site for teaching beginning readers through the use of phonics in a relatively engaging way. It doesn’t appear that registration is necessary, and they say it will remain free. It’s from WatchKnowLearn, the well-respected and well-known educational video site.” Ferlazzo also added it to his “Best Articles & Sites for Teachers & Students to Learn About Phonics,” the “Best Beginner, Intermediate & Advanced English Language Learner Sites,” and the “Best Websites to Help Beginning Readers.” Next, an expert about phonics teaching, Don Potter. Don added a linkwith Reading Bear’s scope and sequence all worked out, and emailed us with this unsolicited praise:

Rudolf Flesch [author of Why Johnny Can't Read] would be pleased to see his method translated into modern technology: http://www.readingbear.org/

I have dedicated many years to studying and understanding the linguistics and psychology behind Flesch's 72 Exercises. I have taught them to many younger and older students. The exercises have proven highly effective with all kinds of students, even those who had failed with high-dollar dyslexia methods. You have remained true to Flesch. I commend you and all the people who helped with the Reading Bear project, which obviously was an incredibly complex and lengthy process. I appreciate everyone's dedication to seeing the project through to completion. Now we can really get busy promoting it so illiteracy can become a Thing of the Past.

It will prove particularly helpful to bilingual students since the meanings of the words are illustrated in sentences, something crucially important for bilingual students.

Beginning Reading Helpsent us more traffic than any other blog. (Thanks!) They list three websites for “teaching kids to read for FREE” and Reading Bear is placed first, with this comment: “How is this possible? It’s possible, because there are generous people in the world who know what works and want to share it. … I’ve been registered with Reading Bear for almost a year. These reading sites are as good or better than most software and online subscription sites I’ve used.” Now let’s look at some other “ranking” education bloggers, and others who gave us long, detailed write-ups.

• Top reading expert Timothy Shanahan profiled us in a blog post and said “It has some good features. Probably the best is that it sounds words out for the children, showing them graphically how the sounds match the letters (try to do that with a  workbook). … [Its various features] can help keep kids interested.”
• Paul Hamilton’s blog states, “good phonics resources are always needed.  I believe the one I’m writing about here may have potential to help develop sight vocabulary as well.” He also praises “the exceptional quality of the site as a whole.”
• Another top-ranked ed blog, Free Technology for Teachers, picked up on Hamilton’s link and added that Reading Bear “could be a good independent activity or an activity that children work through with the assistance of a parent or tutor… [I]t could be a great support and practice resource.”
• Oklahoma City Public Schools put us in their February 2012 newsletter: “If you like Starfall, then you will like Reading Bear! … Phonics, vocabulary and comprehension are all presented in fun and interactive ways for students to practice. … This is all FREE!!!!”
• EdSurge Newsletter 039 included a short write-up, Nov. 9, 2011.
• Wired Academic profiled us Nov. 21, 2011 and nominated us for the “Best Free Web Tool” in the Edublog Awards.
• Librarian’s Quest had a very detailed write-up of the site on Nov. 22, 2011 and added “Did you hear that clanking click?  That would be me adding Reading Bear into my virtual toolbox to use with my students.”
• NCS-Tech was full of praise and gives a very detailed overview, complete with multiple screenshots: “an awesome resource for early learners… I immediately knew I wanted to take a closer look and share it here. … [A] very impressive effort. … The graphics are crisp and clear, and so are the videos… I’m really impressed with Reading Bear.”
• Click This was “totally excited about Reading Bear. One, it's FREE. Two, it's a product from a company in my home state - Mississippi. … This is a ‘must see and use application’ for educators and parents alike. … I’m certainly impressed.”
•  Crayons & Mice says, “If you like to use Starfall with your students, you will like Reading Bear too! … It is great to present during whole group or small group instruction! … One feature I really like to turn on is the video of someone showing how the mouth looks when saying a particular word. For your visual and kinesthetic learners this could be a very important feature to have on for them to see what their mouth should look like when speaking a word. … Reading Bear is a great website to help young students with their reading skills.”
•  The Education Technology and Mobile Learning blog not only did a write-up, they even did a video review which called us “really awesome.”
The HubPages “Learn Things Web” listed “Websites that Teach Children How to Read,” and at the top of the list came Reading Bear: “This website is wonderful because it actually sounds out a large number of words. If a child is having a hard time with the idea that sounds go together to make words, Reading Bear will be a big help. They will probably start to understand very quickly with regular exposure to this website.”
•  Jimmy Kilpatrick’s Education News reproduced one of Larry’s blog posts about Reading Bear.
•  Technology Tailgate has a post from a literacy specialist who calls us “a fun, interactive website that helps students learn to read. It reviews all the main phonics rules and guides students through hands-on practice.”

Other education bloggers include Technology Links I have found!, Timbuktu to Technology (“worth checking out for those teaching phonics to early learners and beginning ESL students”), Teach Like a Rockstar, Thoughts from the Classroom (on Diigo “I also have some sites that will be great for my students to use such as ‘Reading Bear,’ …”), About.com’s Children With Special Needs, Tech Coach (top link in a “Learning to Read Early” list), College Wood Office Blog (“looks like a cool website”), Technology Ideas for EC Teachers, YES Technology Chat, doug – off the record, Mantz’s Mission (site of the day), FreeStuff Education, EDge21, Educational Technology from REMC12 East, MMcFadden.com, Tech My Class (“Teachers this is a great way to keep young learners engaged in learning to read.  In our digital rich society what an amazing tool for both teachers and children, Reading Bear is a must for early education.”), Beginning Reading Help, Friendship Elementary Media Tech Place, Tadika2U.com, Inverness Primary Media Portal (Inverness, FL; “a real ‘keeper’ …[T]ake a look at this great resource. It will be worth your while!”), and an Italian Bilingual School’s Newsletter (Leichhardt, NSW, Australia) mentioned Reading Bear. Let’s not forget the homeschooling blogs, such as Julie and Technology, a Pinterest pinboard (“Our middle two children go through a lesson on this program at lunchtime daily. This homeschooling mom gives it FIVE stars; it tops the list of all the supplemental online reading sites that we've used thus far. … Just went through the tutorial and the first lesson with Will. I'm very impressed and will be using it at school, too! … This is awesome! Very impressed!”), Home School Parent (“My five year old is just starting to read, and we were both super excited to find Reading Bear. … [Y]ou will definitely want to explore Reading Bear yourself.”), My Little Home School (“I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered it was FREE, and even more thrilled to see this is exactly what she needed. We started the lessons yesterday and she loved it.”), twistedbrainfreeze, Mike and Katie (a long write-up explaining how they use Reading Bear with their toddler), Are We There Yet?, Teaching Baby to Read Blog, Wise Owl Homeschool, Project4Peace (“I really like the real object photos the simple but not childish voice and images”), and Sheri’s blog.

General Tech Blogs

Some blogs that focus on new Internet and tech stories also noticed us:

•  The top-ranked tech blog, The Next Web, described us in detail on November 2, 2011, and praised us as a “neat new online tool.” The post was widely reposted and linked. TNW followed up on Nov. 19 with a long interview with Reading Bear editor Larry Sanger.
•   Techie Buzz is another high-profile tech blog and they did an excellent report on the same day. They called us a “great new tool to teach kids how to read. … The project has some strong backing, including its Editor-in-Chief, Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia. The website has a beautifully illustrated and child-friendly design. … I believe endeavors like this are worthy of community support. They believe in equal access to education and that everyone should have the opportunity to learn. Hopefully, they will gain support and, more importantly, many children will learn to read from this project.”
•   MakeUseOf, another high-profile tech blog, wrote (Nov. 8, 2012) that Reading Bear teaches kids vocabulary and phonics “with the help of creatively crafted media. It happens to be easier for a child to learn stuff when he is shown ‘pictures, presentations and sound clips’. The website is very user-friendly…” The same site later twice (Jan. 23 and Jan. 29, 2012) put us on its “Cool Website and Tools” list praising our “creatively crafted media.”

District, School, Classroom, and Library Link Lists and Education Directories

Reading Bear has made its way onto various education listings and directories as well:

  • TeachersFirst, an educational resource directory, profiled us, describing us as “a systematic program” that is “an excellent resource,” and making us a Featured Site for the week of May 6, 2012.
  • Plano Independent School District (Plano, TX) gave us special billing atop their list of language arts web sites for primary students. We got a lot of traffic from this. Thanks, PISD!
  • ICTMagic is another education website directory and there we are described as “A well made site for teaching young learners phonics through interactive video presentations.”
  • The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development of the Austrialian state of Victoria listed us.

Other listings are by Pennsylvania Avenue School (Atlantic City, NJ), Plattsmouth Community Schools (Plattsmouth, NE), Mrs. Turhune’s wiki, Bancroft Elementary School (Minneapolis, MN; #2 spot in the “Language Arts Links”), Wells Elementary School (Wells, ME; Link of the Week), Marion County Public Library (Lebanon, KY), Manhattan Beach Unified School District (Manhattan Beach, CA), The Pike School (Andover, MA), Good Spirit School Division (east central Saskatchewan), Indian Prairie School District 204 (Aurora, IL), Mrs. William’s wiki, Parmalee Elementary School and Greystone Lower Elementary School (Oklahoma City, OK), William H. Rowe School (Yarmouth, ME), Mrs. Bishop’s class, First Regional Library (northwest MS), QZAB Teachers wiki, Spring Mills Primary School (Martinsburg, WV; first link under “Students”), Garnet Valley School District (Glen Mills, PA), Hawk Ridge Elementary (Charlotte, NC), Fort Dodge Community School District (Fort Dodge, IA), Woodland Elementary School (Zephyrhills, FL), Fun Tech Coaches, and Miss Olson’s first grade class, Haw River Elementary School (Haw River, NC). A speech therapist also listed us.

Forums

The homeschool community has begun discovering Reading Bear. From the biggest, the Well-Trained Mind Forums:

•  “This program is great for kids who are visual learners.”
•  “If he knows all his letter sounds and just needs help with the blending I'd probably use Reading Bear with him www.readingbear.org – it’s free and concentrates on blending initially cvc words and then slightly higher order phonics too…”
•  “For reading, if I had to do it for $0 or as close to that as possible, I'd use the following: Readingbear.org and starfall.com for the fun factor… ”
•  “Amazingly, my DD enjoys doing the ‘flashcards’ on ReadingBear.”
•  “Starfall.com and readingbear.org are two good free sites for reading.”
•  “I really love the Reading Bear site. … It is such a wonderful resource. I am so excited to hear it might be finished this summer.”
•  “If you like media for educational things how about trying ReadingBear.org and/or Starfall.com, Progressive Phonics along with some readers from the library until you get up and going. That might get you through the basic slump of reading.”
•  “BTW I never heard of readingbear.org until this post. WHAT a blessing! I saved it…”
•  “I've found using a program like Reading Bear (www.readingbear.org) is very helpful. Its great for visual learners.”
•  “This has been a huge help for my little one to actually learn to blend the sounds. I really like it.”

SecularHomeschool.com: “Some kids have a hard time comprehending how letter sounds go together to make words. Reading Bear sounds out lots of words, so it may help him grasp the concept.” “My youngest is also a visual learner, but so far computer learning has been hit and miss. Right now he dislikes T4L but loves Reading Bear.” Then there are general parenting forums, such as DiaperSwappers.com: “It’s completely free and looks pretty good. … Hopefully some more people can benefit from this.” babycenter.com: “My 5 year old has been enjoying it.” The place where they probably love us the most, however, is the BrillKids.com Forum, where parents congregate to discuss how to teach babies and preschoolers (and where Larry Sanger is “DadDude”). The vast quantity of raves from them is just embarrassing. We’re blushing! Here is only a small sample:

•  “We just started using Reading Bear, and we love it!!!  She calls all of her teddy bears ‘Reading Bear’”
•  “I started to show it to my [daughter], not expecting much… She was INSISTING on the second presentation, after we were done watching the first one. I think what makes it so attractive that the words are sounded out AND their meaning is explained using picture, video, and by using the word in the sentence! … DD  started sounding out letter sounds while using Reading Bear for the first time, without me even explaining her anything! The funniest thing that my 9 month old son crawls with a rocket speed to the computer, one he hears Reading Bear is on.”
•  “I have been using Reading Bear.org to practice phonics with my DD for a week now. (I was showing Reading Bear YouTube video of short ‘a’ presentation every other day; plus a, b, or c part of short ‘a’ presentation once a day.) Today I decided to quiz her. She was right 8 times out of ten! I recommend to everyone to give this program a try! What I like about this program after using it  for a week is that it is Very Versatile! : you can pick your own settings to suit the attention span of your child.”
•  “Reading Bear looks very professional -- and it's amazingly free! The woman who pronounces the words and does the voiceovers nails it, managing to be neither dull nor obnoxiously animated.  Her voice is also very clear and soothing.  The pictures and video are great, and of course each word being underlined as it is pronounced is fantastic.  And then there's the art and musical interludes -- icing on an already delicious cake!”
•  “There are so many products that costs substantial $$$ and have never been quite what we needed. Then you come along with something that is just right FOR FREE!! The quality is amazing. … I really have no fitting words. THANK-YOU!!”

Finally, someone (not us) posted the question, “How effective is the Reading Bear learn to read program?” The response from the three people (we’re not including Larry Sanger) who had actually used the program were all extremely positive:

•  “We have just started using Reading Bear with my daughter who is 2 years, 4 months old.  She loves it! … Since we started using Reading Bear, she has been able to take what she learned on that program and use it elsewhere.  For example, she now tries to sound out words she sees instead of guessing at it by looking at pictures. Reading Bear is designed for older kids, but if your child knows their consonant sounds, it is a wonderful program.”
•  “[My son] can read all the words in the first five lessons of the program. As a parent, the thing I appreciate most (other than the price), is that it keeps track of where the child is. You can choose to pick up where you left off or start with something completely new. As a busy parent, this is so helpful. … [S]ome days Reading Bear is the only phonics instruction we manage to accomplish and there really isn't an excuse for not doing it because it is just a click away. … My son is now just 2 and knows all the words in the first five lessons of Reading Bear. … The site is user friendly (as in easy peasy) and professional. I can't recommend it enough.”
•  “I have used Reading Bear for more than just reading! It is great for speech also. My son is 2.75 and possibly on the spectrum. He had 2 major speech regressions within 6 months of each other. Since using Reading Bear his articulation has improved exponentially. And he no longer is dramatically speech delayed. He loves to watch Reading Bear, he loves to say the words. It had also helped his phonics decoding abilities. … Reading Bear has given him increased phonological awareness. He was never able to understand or hear sounds being blended. But now he has no problems with that! He actually balks at any phonics instruction that I try to give him because it is too challenging. Reading Bear is the exception and he often requests it instead. I know that with more Reading Bear time and practice he will be able to blend and decode independently with ease very soon.”

About Reading Bear in other languages

It turns out that Reading Bear has been used for teaching English as a second language. (The following quotations are edited “translations” based on Google Translate.)

•  We got an enormous amount of traffic from a mention in the Spanish-language wwwhat’s new.
•  The Chinese TechWeb had nice things to say (and fetched lots of traffic and reposts): “Reading Bear is a free and lovely website that teaches children how to read. … Opening the site is like entering a fairy tale world…”
•  A top traffic-getter was the Russian lifehacker.ru writeup about us: “The Reading Bear project teaches you how to pronounce even the most complex words. [The site] is simple and clear with numerous examples to explain the basic phonetic rules.”
•  A blog in Tamil sent us a huge amount of traffic.
•   Another Spanish-language blog pointed out the learning possibilities for Latin America: “In Latin America there are millions of people studying a second language. A high percentage is focused on learning English. Undoubtedly, Reading Bear focuses on teaching children. But the platform is a classroom for bilingual teaching, looking for new forms of digital teaching, as well as children beginning to discover the world of the Internet. Projects like Larry Sanger’s gives us the perfect excuse to spend more time in the wonderful world of the web. And while bringing our nephews, cousins, and brothers, why not bring our parents and grandparents too.”

We also received other mentions in Spanish (“It is an easy and enjoyable way to learn some complex principles of phonetics… It is flexible… It could be especially useful in remedial reading programs”), Spanish again, again, again, again, again, again, again, Thai (“It is a very great website.”), Thai again, again, again, again (this one is detailed), Dutch (“Reading Bear just looks very good”), Arabic (“very excellent for every need and suitable for kids and adults…you will benefit from it”), Danish, Russian (“a cool website that you can use to teach children English. Now I use it heavily with the baby, he loves it!”), Russian again (“I’m sure you and your child will like it”), Telugu, Chinese, Vietnamese (“cute, attractive”), Vietnamese again (commenters prefer us to Starfall), Korean, and Korean again.

Miscellaneous

We’ve had a lot of traffic from Gizmo’s Freeware (and here and here too). Reddit sent us a lot of traffic: “Wow! I'm pleasantly surprised by this site! I hadn't heard of it before, and being involved in ECE it's going to come in handy. I LOVE that they included videos of people speaking the words.” The website of a phonics book, Phonics Fast, puts Reading Bear at the top of its recommendations: “I'm not a big fan of the free online phonics games and tools out there but this program really does seem to be on the right track. As a interactive lesson Reading Bear is probably the best. I don't feel it can replace a teacher and it is definitely not designed to improve writing skills but as a interesting activity children can play with it is not a time waster.” Of course, we have also been collected on social bookmarking sites like delicious.com, diigo.com (“a well-made site for teaching young learners phonics through interactive video presentations”), Scoop.it, and JogTheWeb.com. Last but certainly not least, we got a nod from Tennessee First Lady Chrissy Haslam.


"Infant Intelligentsia: Can Babies Learn to Read? And Should They?"

There's a very good article about baby reading in the latest issue of Pacific Standard, which is what Miller-McClune Magazine is now called. (The magazine is pretty cool--it was described to me as the Pacific Coast version of The Atlantic.)

It starts as follows:

THE VIDEO CLIP [refers to this] on Larry Sanger’s website shows the cofounder of Wikipedia looking both scholarly and paternal with his owlish glasses, thinning pate, open book, and lapful of chubby-cheeked 3-year-old. Sanger’s son is gazing hard at the book pages and pronouncing words with the charming r-lessness of a toddler: “Congwess shall make no waw wespecting an establishment of wewigion or pwohibiting the fwee exewcise theweof or abwidging the fweedom of speech or of the pwess…” It’s not clear whether the boy is working toward a doctorate, like his dad’s, or training to be our future pwesident. But it is stunningly obvious that the boy is sight-reading the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution at an age when most tots can’t tell an a from a b. When an influential philanthropist viewed the video, says Sanger, “he was gobsmacked.”

True, the Sanger child inherited both the genes and home-schooling attention of a high-tech icon. But YouTube now overflows with videos of tiny tykes reading words off of book pages, flash cards, and computer screens. And these images have stirred a Battle of the Experts flinging epithets like “witch hunt” and “snake oil.” Are the munchkin-voiced 2- and 3-year-olds actually reading those multisyllabic words? Or have they merely associated sights of certain words with their sounds? Is a baby’s brain even capable of decoding words and extracting meaning? And if it can, should we program it this way, this early? Or should we channel its effervescing language ability in other directions?

A balanced overview--a good place for open-minded skeptics to start.


Reading Bear is complete! Why it works.

After many months of development, I can finally announce:

Reading Bear is complete!

Reading Bear now has a full set of fifty presentations, with an average viewing time of about 15 minutes each. I haven't added up the time, but it's around 12 hours total. It covers a huge number of phonics principles, systematically. Over 1,200 words are pronounced at four speeds, illustrated with a picture, and finally used (often, defined) in a sentence which is itself illustrated with a video. All words are clickable and sounded out. All phonetic words (i.e., the vast majority) are displayed "karaoke" style, with individual letters or letter clusters flashing at the precise moment that the corresponding sound is spoken.

Every second, literally, of those 12 hours was carefully edited: word lists sifted, sentences written and rewritten, word markup crafted (so the words are broken up according to the phonics rules that Reading Bear teaches), pictures and videos painstakingly selected, voiceover done professionally, all media laboriously edited and if necessary re-edited, pronunciation dictionary entries created, then everything put together and edited on the website. It was a lot of work.

Does that mean Reading Bear is complex and forbidding? Of course not! Even though it is feature-rich, it is extremely easy to use and fun for kids. Really!

If I could have produced a better resource for teaching reading in the same time and with the same resources, I would have. This is the best I could do.

It's a gargantuan resource, and it is all absolutely free! Not just free, either, but non-profit and ad-free. I've worked on this project for over a year and a half, with the help of dozens of people. We've spent a lot of money on it--or rather, a certain anonymous benefactor from the Memphis area has spent a lot of money on it. My ongoing deep thanks to that gentleman. The images were generously donated by Shutterstock, and we got the videos either free or at a discount. For this I'd like to thank former Shutterstock president and CFO Adam Riggs. Other main players in its development were a group of volunteers, Business Edge for the software, the great Melissa Moats for voiceover, Columbus-based Cybervation for production, the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi for funding, and of course WatchKnowLearn is our parent organization and chief promoter.

Why Reading Bear works

What's so great about Reading Bear, anyway? We've gotten excellent reviews and many fans among teachers, homeschoolers, and of course kids. So why does it work?

The way I see it, phonics is pretty simple. It's just a matter of practice. To read phonetically, you don't need to learn the jargon and symbols used by reading specialists. You just need lots of clear examples, attractively presented. Reading Bear does that. Each presentation shows 25 words (on average) sounded out or read at four different speeds. That lets the child understand quickly and easily how each word is constructed.

But reading isn't just decoding. It is also getting meaning. That's why, after breaking down the word and its sounds, Reading Bear shows a picture specially chosen to teach the meaning of the word. Then the word is used in a very basic sentence, either a definition or some basic fact about the concept, and the sentence is illustrated with a 5-second video. So the student sees the word written and spoken, both by itself and in a sentence, and gets the word's meaning simply and attractively from multimedia.

Reading Bear is also fun. The bare description of it might sound dry, but I challenge you to sit any beginning reader in front of the program and observe the results. Kids love it. Why do they love it? It's everything. They love the way the letter flashing clarifies letter sounds. They love the pictures, of course, and the simple sentences and videos. The whole thing makes sense of language. Kids love to learn, and I think that with Reading Bear, and they can sense that they're really learning. They love the "aha!" moment, and that's what Reading Bear delivers, over and over.

One way that Reading Bear makes sense of language is a feature that few other programs have. It matches up letter sounds to individual letters, karaoke style, for every piece of text in the program. We didn't take the easy way out and match up whole words or syllables. We put in hours and hours matching up the audio with individual letters or letter combinations (if the combinations are taught by Reading Bear). And not only are the words read out that way automatically. If you want to focus on a word and see how it is broken down phonetically, you can also click on it and we'll show a pronunciation from our hand-made 2700+ entry pronunciation dictionary. What other reading program can say that?

Reading Bear challenges students to do only what they're ready to do. It goes in steps. At first, it's useful just to see how words are broken down. We have a step for that (passive learning). Then they should repeat quickly what the presentation says slowly. We have a step for that (repeating). Then the student be able to say a word after it is sounded out. We have a step for that (blending). Finally, with practice, the student should be able to sound out a word for himself and blend it. We have a step for that (reading). Finally, you can take an online quiz, which is automatically generated each time you click the quiz button and, believe it or not, it's rather fun.

This whole procedure very efficient. The student has to do just a simple thing, when ready: watch, repeat, blend, and finally read. Everything else about the program reinforces meaning.

Finally, you might wonder how Reading Bear stacks up against some other reading programs. Here are a few notes:

  • Starfall is great, and it certainly has its place (even in my home). But Starfall simply isn't as complete in its coverage of phonics as Reading Bear is. It also doesn't teach vocabulary. You won't find the carefully-chosen photos, definitions, and videos that open children's eyes to language. Finally, it breaks down only some of the words. Every phonetic word is broken down by Reading Bear, and you can choose to have sentences read to you or to read them yourself. I think of Reading Bear as unlocking the mysteries of language efficiently and attractively, whereas Starfall is a supplement.
  • Literactive is another of my favorites, and for us was as useful as Starfall. In fact, I will be honest and admit that it is one of Reading Bear's inspirations. While it does break down words rather better than Starfall does, and does read whole words while highlighting them, Reading Bear does these things better. Literactive also does not teach phonics systematically--its readers are wonderful, but the actual phonics instruction will have to come from elsewhere.
  • Finally, I won't list them, but there are zillions of programs out there that I think of as simply digital worksheets or games. They're marginally more interesting than paper worksheets, but in my opinion, they don't teach nearly as efficiently, and are much more tiresome, than Reading Bear. Reading Bear isn't a video game, but it's still fun. When you get to the end of those programs, you've won a game. When you get to the end of Reading Bear, you can read.

There is nothing like Reading Bear at any price. Even if you don't use it as the main tool in your classroom, you can use it as a supplement, and enjoy the results. Try it out. Once you see how your students love it and learn from it, you'll be using it a lot.


On the moral bankruptcy of Wikipedia's anonymous administration

I announced, named, and launched Wikipedia way back in January of 2001. My originating role in the project was acknowledged by Jimmy Wales later on in 2001, when he wrote, "Larry had the idea to use wiki software..." Virtually all of the news articles about the project before 2005 identified me as one of the two founders of the project, as did the project's first three press releases, all of them approved by Jimmy, of course. I managed it as "instigator" and "chief organizer" for the project's seminal first 14 months. To give you an idea of what role I had in the project, Jimmy declared, a few weeks before I left the project, that I was "the final arbiter of all Wikipedia functionality."

Since then, I've become better known as a critic of Wikipedia. But this is mostly because I am defending myself against repeated attacks on my reputation and pointing out inconvenient truths that a more responsibly-managed organization would try to fix. Contrary to what some have said, I bear no grudges--once I have defended myself, I let matters drop. And I am not trying to damage Wikipedia. Rather, because I inflicted it on the world, I am trying to improve it because it has become one of the most influential websites in the world. I feel some responsibility for it, even though I'm long out of its administration.

I've been reading draft chapters of a fascinating book, written by some online friends of mine, about the history and conduct of Wikipedia and its administration. I knew that Wikipedia's administration is screwed up and somewhat corrupt, but these writers have opened my eyes to episodes and facts that I had not been tracking. However useful Wikipedia might be--and its usefulness is something I have always affirmed--the sad fact is that Wikipedia's administration has been nothing but one long string of scandal and mismanagement. The saga of Wikimedia UK and its chair is only the latest. Did you know that the deposed chair, Ashley van Haeften, continues to sit on the Wikimedia UK board, and continues to head up Wikimedia Chapters Association? This is despite the fact that van Haeften has been banned from editing Wikipedia, for various violations of policy such as using multiple "sockpuppet" accounts (anonymous, fake accounts), something truly egregious for a high-ranking editor. What kind of Internet organization allows its leadership to continue on in positions of authority spite of being banned (for excellent reasons, mind you) from the very institution it is promoting? Wikipedia defenders, consider what you are defending.

But again, this is only the latest in a long, long series of scandals, which included things like Jimmy Wales telling The New Yorker, of all things, that he didn't have a problem with someone lying about his credentials on Wikipedia, the hiring of a deputy director with rather dodgy views on child-adult sexual relations, and the hiring of a COO who turned out to be a convicted felon.

Let's not forget the problems associated with the many, many questionable editorial decisions made by Wikipedia administrators. Like the rank-and-file, they can be and often are completely anonymous. You read that right. The people who make editorial decisions about what is taken to be "probably pretty much right" by a lot of gullible Internet users do not even have to reveal their own identities. That's right. There are all too many Wikipedia administrators who self-righteously pride themselves on insisting that the full, ugly truth be revealed about the targets of their sometimes quite biased Wikipedia biographies; yet those very same administrators bear no personal responsibility for their actions, which can be quite consequential for people's careers and personal lives, insofar as they remain anonymous.

No other journalistic or scholarly enterprise would tolerate such unaccountability. The reason that journalists are prized in our society, the reason they are in their positions of power and influence, is that they have committed themselves to high journalistic standards and put their personal reputations on the line when they make claims that can damage their targets. Wikipedia, like it or not, enjoys a level of credibility but without personal accountability. The system has been ripe for abuse and indeed far too many Wikipedia administrators do routinely abuse the authority they have obtained. I look forward to the above-mentioned book because it will really blow the lid off this situation.

Wikipedia administrators bear a heavy moral burden to make their identities known. If you make serious decisions that affect the livelihoods and personal relationships of real people, or what students believe about various subjects, the price you pay for your authority is personal responsibility. Without personal responsibility, it is simply too easy to abuse your authority. Why should anyone trust the decisions of anonymous Wikipedia administrators? They could easily be personally biased, based on ignorance, or otherwise worthless. Worse, aggrieved parties--whether they are persons whose reputations have come under attack or scholars who are seriously concerned about the misrepresentation of knowledge in their field--have no recourse in the real world. If someone writes lies about you, there is no way you can name and shame the liar, or at least the Wikipedia admin who permits the lie. Instead, you have to play the stupid little Wikipedia game on its own turf. You can't go to the real world and say, "Look, so-and-so is abusing his authority. This has to stop." In this way, by remaining anonymous, Wikipedia's decisionmakers insulate themselves from the real-world responsibility that journalists routinely bear for their statements and publishing decisions.

If you were a Wikipedia administrator, wouldn't you feel absolutely bound to make your identity known? Wouldn't you feel cowardly, craven, to be standing in judgment over all manner of important editorial issues and yet hiding behind anonymity? I know I would. Why shouldn't we hold Wikipedia responsible for making its administrators' identities known? A Wikipedia administrator who refuses to reveal his or her identity is morally bankrupt, because unaccountable authority is morally bankrupt. Members of democratic societies are supposed to know this.

Even the so-called "bureaucrats," the people who are responsible for conferring adminship on an account, can be anonymous. In fact, from a glance at their usernames, most of them are anonymous.

It is a little strange that journalists, who are trained to understand the importance of taking responsibility for published work, have given Wikipedia a pass for this appalling state of affairs. It's one thing for Wikipedia authors to be anonymous, a situation journalists often remark on with bemusement. It is quite another for its administrators to be, a fact that journalists have hardly noticed at all.

Indeed, why is the fifth most popular website in the world, which shapes what so many people believe on all sorts of subjects, controlled by a cadre of mostly anonymous administrators? Isn't that fact, all by itself, scandalous? Why don't we as a society demand more accountability? I don't get it.

Wikipedia, wake up. We, the undersigned (let's make a petition out of this), demand that all administrators be identified by name.


The Saga of Wikimedia UK and its Chair

The following story is very instructive about the sort of people in the Wikipedia universe, and what sort of people actually run things on the sixth most popular website online.

In case you didn't know, there is an organization, Wikimedia UK, that is legally independent of the Wikimedia Foundation headquartered in San Francisco. Wikimedia UK has a separate budget of £1 million, and is currently headed up by someone who calls himself "Fae" (among many others) on Wikipedia, and whose real name is Ashley Van Haeften.

Van Haeften is a charming character. Among his many exploits, he is reputed to have posted pornographic pictures of himself in bondage gear to Wikimedia Commons, although any evidence has by now been deleted, so we now have only copies like this. While he has been a high-profile administrator on Wikipedia, he routinely lobbed personal attacks at those who dared to criticize him. And much else.

So the High Court of Wikipedia, the Arbitration Committee, declared on July 20: "For numerous violations of Wikipedia's norms and policies, Fæ is indefinitely banned from the English Language Wikipedia. He may request reconsideration of the ban six months after the enactment of this remedy, and every six months thereafter."

In other words, Van Haeften, the head of a £1 million charity devoted to the promotion of Wikipedia, has been banned from Wikipedia itself, and for violating Wikipedia's own policies!

Now that is, I'm sure you'll agree, just appalling. It speaks volumes about the Wikipedia community at present that Van Haeften attained the position he holds. But it gets even worse.

On July 26, Wikimedia UK held a closed-door meeting in which the Board declared that they are "united in the view that this decision does not affect his [Van Haeften's] role as a Trustee of the charity."

In other words, the board that manages a £1 million budget, devoted to promoting Wikipedia, supports its chair even if the chair has been banned from editing Wikipedia itself. One has to wonder: how can the Wikimedia UK Board pretend that Van Haeften can continue to be a credible chair of a well-funded Wikipedia charity if the judicial body of Wikipedia has deliberately excluded him from the website for violating Wikipedia's own policies?

It is a stunning revelation of just how huge a pass the mainstream media has given Wikipedia that this story was nowhere to be heard, outside of online forums and blogs, until this morning. Eleven days after Van Haeften, head of Britain's £1 million Wikipedia charity, was banned from Wikipedia, and five days after he was unaccountably supported by Wikimedia UK, a single story came out in the mainstream media.

This morning, the Daily Telegraph came out with a pitch-perfect and (as far as I can tell) factually accurate report:

Ashley Van Haeften is chairman of Wikimedia UK, a charity with an £1m annual budget funded by donations by Wikipedia visitors and dedicated to promoting the website among British museums and universities.

Despite his volunteer role at the head of the charity he is now banned indefinitely from contributing to Wikipedia because of “numerous violations of Wikipedia's norms and policies”.

Mr van Haeften’s punishment exposes a deep rift among Wikipedia contributors over the mass of explicit material in the online encyclopaedia, at a time when the Government is developing new controls on internet access to protect children online.

The story goes on to discuss Wikipedia's problem of unfiltered porn, readily available to the school children who use it, and includes my YouTube video about the problem, and the following quote from yours truly: "Some things are worth going to the mat over and this is one of them. It goes to the sense of seriousness of the whole project. Wikipedia can’t command respect if it regards itself as above the norms of wider society." The story was also followed up by an excellent report in CivilSociety.co.uk. (Update: And on August 1, FoxNews.com.)

I hope the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) is paying attention. They will lose credibility by being associated with Wikimedia UK (WMUK). They should not allow Wikimedia UK to use Wikipedia.org for any further fundraising. Nor should WMF cooperate with WMUK in any other way. The WMF should also release a statement condemning WMUK's recent action. They should continue this non-cooperation until the WMUK Board has been replaced. If the WMF continues to act as if nothing has happened, they will become complicit in the appalling behavior of Ashley Van Haeften and his colleagues on the WMUK Board who supported him.

If Van Haeften had any decency, he would have resigned on July 20. If the WMUK Board had any sense, they would have fired him as soon as Van Haeften made his defiance clear.

By the way, if you want to get into the sordid details, some places to start are this long Wikipediocracy thread and this Wikipedia Review thread. Frankly, I haven't read much of either one.

This story's front page thumbnail is from a screen capture of this Google Images search--note, the fifth search result for the image search is taken from this article. (Update: that search is made when SafeSearch is "off." As it turns out, Google's optional filter excises Van Haeften's self-pornography.)

UPDATE (8/2/2012): Van Haeften has finally resigned.