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.

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.

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.

Wikimedia Foundation Board Officially Rejects Porn Filter

Last Wednesday, the Wikimedia Foundation board quietly voted, in person, 10-0 in favor of repealing the "personal image hiding feature"--in other words, a very weak, opt-in porn filter. "Quietly," I say, because the resolution was not posted publicly until the middle of the weekend. Note that the page mistakenly states that Jimmy Wales voted against it: "That page is wrong," Wales clarified on his user talk page, "I voted yes."

This is certainly news. A brief recap of some related events will help put it in essential context. (Here's another recap.) You may not know that funding for the early years of Wikipedia came from Bomis, Inc., which made much of its money from what Wikipedians have called "softcore porn." I've always said that Bomis was the fertilizer on which Wikipedia was built. Jimmy Wales was CEO and one of the three partners of Bomis. I started Wikipedia for Bomis, which paid my paycheck. Anyway, I'm not sure when Wikipedia first started hosting what most people would call porn, but it may have been around 2003. Over the years, there have been many proposals to rein in or filter the "adult content," all of which have failed. In March 2008, Erik Moeller, who had recently been appointed Deputy Director of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), came under heavy fire for what Mashable called "his continued self-defense of statements generally indicating that pedophilia is something that’s less than evil." Moeller continues to hold the post. In December, 2008, Wikipedia was temporarily blacklisted by the British Internet watchdog, the Internet Watch Foundation, for hosting "images of child pornography." The site continues to host the offending image, as well--an album cover feature a nude, and very sexualized, picture of a pre-pubescent girl.

Things really began to heat up in 2010. In March, I reported the WMF to the FBI because they hosted graphic depictions of child sexual molestation on Wikimedia Commons--and they still do. At the time, I also strongly urged the WMF to install a pornography filter. In the fallout, Wales and others started purging porn from Commons, but Wikipedians summarily swatted down the erstwhile "God-King" and reinstated much of the porn that had been deleted. There was also ongoing concern about Wikipedia's pedophilia problem. In reaction, the WMF commissioned a report, which recommended installing an opt-in porn filter. In May, 2011, the WMF unanimously approved a "personal image hiding feature." Matters were far from settled, however. In September, 2011, Wikipedians came out strongly in favor of allowing minors to edit pornography articles right alongside adults, and the German Wikipedians voted 86% against even a weak, opt-in a porn filter.

In March of 2012, Board members dropped hints that work had stopped on the filter and that they, like others, no longer supported it. I began conferring with some colleagues about what to do; I had been largely silent on the issue since the WMF demonstrated some commitment to tackle it responsibly. I was surprised to learn that the amount of "adult" content on Wikimedia servers had grown substantially since 2010. With the help of those colleagues I carefully wrote and posted this explanation of the problem, which got quite a bit of exposure. As I put it via Twitter: "Wikipedia, choose two: (1) call yourself kid-friendly; (2) host lots of porn; (3) be filter-free." Jimmy Wales responded via Twitter, stating clearly and unequivocally that he supported the filter. My impression is that members of the public who recently commented on the issue online have been overwhelmingly supportive, many expressing surprise and even shock at the amount of "adult" content that Wikipedia hosts. This video of mine may help clarify the trouble.

That takes us up to today. On the issue of a weak, opt-in filter, the WMF perfectly reversed itself, going from unanimous support to unanimous rejection. "Unanimous" rejection assumes that Jimmy Wales voted yes on Wednesday's resolution, as he said on his Wikipedia user talk page, and contrary to what the resolution page says, as of this writing. He has further clarified (if that is the right word) that, despite his apparent "yes" vote for Wednesday's resolution, he continues to "strongly support the creation of a personal image filter." If I were cynical, I would say that he and the WMF had deliberately left his views unclear, so that he could speak out of both sides of his mouth. Anyway, if he still strongly supports the creation of a "personal image filter," voting to rescind the resolution that would create the filter is a mighty strange way to show his support.

However matters are, the filter is now officially and overwhelmingly rejected. Unless they make another 180° change and actually get to work, publicly, on a filter, I believe a boycott may well be in order.

UPDATE: Jimmy Wales is now hosting a discussion (talk) of how the filter should be written. Let's see if anything constructive comes out of it.

Your Baby Can Read closes up shop

The companies behind Your Baby Can Read have, faced with daunting legal costs, gone out of business, according to this Facebook post and, now, the text on YourBabyCanRead.com:


For more than 6 years, Your Baby Can Read! has been enjoyed and appreciated by families world-wide as an innovative reading concept for babies and young children.

Regretfully, the cost of fighting recent legal issues has left us with no option but to cease business operations. While we vehemently deny any wrongdoing, and strongly believe in our products, the fight has drained our resources to the point where we can no longer continue operating.

To our thousands of loyal customers who have provided overwhelmingly positive feedback, and particularly to those who took the time to send written and video testimonials about the success stories of their children, we sincerely thank you for being such great champions of our products.

If you have questions regarding an existing order, please contact us at [email protected] Until August 15, a customer service representative will be available to respond to your emails during business hours.

If you would like to purchase our products, you may be able to find them at www.Amazon.com.

Based on all available public information, including my analysis of a court filing, I sincerely believe that there was no case. Nevertheless, Your Baby Can Read was proving too successful for the comfort of people whose views and practices of early education the program threatens. I am sure that their "expert" testimony made it possible for this case to gain some legal traction. Still, apart from those who actually support baby reading, I have yet to encounter a single expert in a related area--reading methods, developmental psychology, preschool education, etc.--who has commented on a careful examination even of a single case of a child who was taught to read using Your Baby Can Read, and similar methods like Doman's or dare I now add, Reading Bear. In short, the people trotted out as experts have no experience and hence no particular expertise in the phenomenon they comment on (baby reading). Sadly, however, such uninformed "expert" opinion can make a big difference in court.

I maintain that Your Baby Can Read played an important role in the very early reading ability of my first son, now six years old and reading chapter books meant for much older children. It is also an excellent and effective supplement to the program my second son, not yet two years old, is using. He is reading quite a few words now, including (but not limited to) those in Your Baby Can Read.

I will be very interested to learn what happens next with the company, the product, and Dr. Titzer. I wish them well, and I sincerely believe that, in time, they will be amply vindicated.

An assortment of things that should exist

Occasionally I wish I had time to write a book to explain these ideas in detail. (Some of these are actually book ideas. Some of them are project ideas.)

1. A tutorial system, independent of any university, managed via a neutral online database; and an expanded system of degrees by examination.

2. Textop! I love this idea whenever I think about it!

3. A medium-sized secular (but not anti-religious) chapter book explaining for elementary-aged children, in non-condescending but easy language, why various virtues are virtues and their corresponding vices are vices. It should also explain why moral relativism is silly, which of course it is. I've looked for such a book, hard. I've started to write such a book, but never find enough time to finish. I truly believe such a book would be an enormous best-seller.

4. A system of non-fiction e-books, roughly similar to what you can find here, but which have more intelligently-written scripts, like some of these videos and these powerpoints. I hope to start such a system using the ReadingBear.org software as a platform.

5. This is going to be very hard to explain briefly, and it will sound half-baked, but since when did that ever stop me? Actually, the rough idea (not my version, but something vaguely like it) comes from a Heinlein novel (I forget what Heinlein calls them and where--maybe someone will tell me) combined with my original idea for neutrality on Wikipedia (and before that, Nupedia). I think that civilization could use a society of people who are meticulously and publicly committed to neutrality. Somewhat like judges, but who operate in the public sphere, they do not make any public judgments on controversial issues of any sort. Their role in society would be, rather, to summarize "what is known"--or what various people take themselves to know--about this and that, according to some clear and deeply studied rules of scholarship and neutrality. If someone, or a group, required a neutral, expert analysis of a question, a field, or a situation, they would provide it. These people would have to be experts in ideology, logic, and the arts of communication, understanding when a statement is the slightest bit tendentious, and be able to quickly formulate a more neutral one. These people would be perfect candidates to write neutral Congressional reports as well as serve as expert witnesses in trials. There would have to be a fairly elaborate system of professional ethics for this group, and members would no doubt have to be regularly evaluated by their peers. Among other things, they would not be able to serve in politics, as attorneys or judges, or as corporate executives. They could serve as journalists and scholars, but under stringent rules that do not apply to most journalists and scholars. -- Why such a profession? Because the world has gone insane, and it desperately needs people who are professionally committed to explaining obvious things to crazy people. Do you really think that people well-qualified and publicly committed in the way I've described would lack for work? They'd be extremely well employed as consultants, internal and external.

6. A website+app with spaced repetition questions that teach basic facts school students (preK and up).

I've had quite a few more. I'll make another post later, perhaps, with more of the same.

Feel free to swipe any of these ideas and do a world of good by bringing them to fruition. You might or might not get rich, but if well-executed, you certainly could help a lot of people.

Why is spaced repetition not better known?

Suppose a method let you remember things with a 95% success rate--in other words, whatever information you've put into a system, you'd have a 95% chance of recalling it--and this effect is permanent, as long you continue to use the method. That would be quite remarkable, wouldn't it?

Well, there is such a method, called spaced repetition. This is the method used by such software as Supermemo, Anki, Mnemosyne, and Memrise.

The figure, 95%, is very impressive to me. I've been thinking about it lately, as I delve into the world (it is a whole world) of spaced repetition. Ordinarily, we require much less out of our metrics. 95% is practically a guarantee. With just 15 or 30 minutes a day, adding maybe 20 questions per day, you can virtually guarantee that you will remember the answers.

In particular, I am wondering why spaced repetition is not used more widely in education. Of course, I'm not the first to wonder why. The answer is fairly simple, I think.

The more I read from and interact with educationists and even homeschoolers, the more I am struck by the fact that many of them hold knowledge in contempt (q.v.). Of course, they will cry foul if you call them on this (q.v.), but that doesn't change the fact (q.v.). So naturally I expect them to sneer at me when I express amazement at the 95% recall figure. I can hear the "arguments" already: this is "rote memorization" (not if you understand what you're memorizing); education is not about amassing mere facts (not just that, no); it suffices that you can just look answers up (wrong); we should be teaching critical thinking, not mere memorization (why not both?).

I am not going to defend the value of declarative knowledge (again) here. I simply wanted to observe what teachers (including homeschooling parents) could do with spaced repetition, if they wanted to. They could spend a half hour (or less) every day adding questions to their students' "stack" of questions; then assign them to review questions (both new and old) for a half hour.

Imagine that you did that, adding 20 questions per day, five days a week, 36 weeks per year (the usual U.S. school year), for six years. This is not impossible to manage, I gather, and would not take that long, per day. Yet by sixth grade, your students would have 21,600 facts in recall with about 95% accuracy. These would merely be the sorts of facts contained in regular textbooks.

Next, consider an exam that drills on a random selection of 100 of those facts. The students who used spaced repetition faithfully would probably get an A on the exam. That, I suspect, is much better than could be expected even from top students who used ordinary methods of study.

Would students who spent 30 minutes out of every class day on this sort of review benefit from it?

I think the answer is pretty obvious.

Wikipedia's porn filter DOA, and a proposal

Warning: this post has links to pages that are definitely not safe for work or school. I'll warn you which ones those are with "NSFW."

The post has two parts. The first is about the availability of porn on Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons, which for most people reading this is probably old news; but they've reached some new lows, such as actual pornographic films. The second part contains what I think is real news: that the much-debated porn filter they were developing is no longer in development and looks likely to be dropped.


There are, as many people reading this know very well, stupendous amounts of explicit imagery on Commons as well as Wikipedia itself; simply search for any fetish, porn industry term, or body part, and you'll be likely to find it illustrated literally ad nauseam. Users, whether they like it or not, can be exposed to all sorts of inappropriate, explicit content when doing perfectly innocuous searches. This degree of smut is obviously inappropriate for an Internet resource touted as "educational" and promoted for classroom use.

Almost two years ago, I reported the Wikimedia Foundation to the FBI (as I was required to by law) on grounds that Wikimedia Commons was hosting two image categories, labeled "Pedophilia" and "Lolicon," which featured depictions of child sexual abuse. I tracked the fallout in two posts. Recently, FoxNews.com followed up their coverage, reporting that little had been done since then. The Fox News reporter did a good job, I think. But some more developments have come to light.

The pervy categories are still there, and include whole hierarchies of categories under the titles "Erotic images of children" (NSFW) and "Child sexuality" (NSFW). The garbage by Martin van Maele, who drew many illustrations of children being sexually abused in the early 20th century, is still there, aggressively and proudly defended by the powers-that-be on Wikimedia Commons as "historical" and "educational." To give you an idea of the attitude of the pedophilia sympathizers on Commons, who clearly feel themselves to be put-upon and wronged, consider that there is a so-called "Hate for pedophiles" category which has existed, unmolested, since May 2010 (which, come to think of it, is the month when my FBI report made news). Consider also (as was recently pointed out to me) that the activists-for-free-porn on Commons have been awarding each other the new, outrageously gross, "Hot Sex Barnstar" (NSFW!) for their efforts. There are clearly some (to me) extremely unsavory characters involved who have made it their mission to make Commons, and Wikipedia as well, as free as possible to host the most explicit sorts of imagery on this tax-exempt, non-profit 501(c)(3) website.

Recently I received an email from someone who follows this issue. He called a few things to my attention. One item: a convicted child pornographer has apparently been prominently involved in curating adult pornography. It seems he is one of those who loves to use Commons to post pervy naked pictures of himself--discussion here. He is probably not the only one. Another item: Commons is now hosting an antique video (really, really NSFW) which I am told (I didn't watch the whole thing) shows a dog fellating a woman (in a nun's habit) and a man.

The Wikipedia community's more prurient tendencies are, so far from being reined in and moderated, exercised more boldly than ever.


My correspondent also directed me to this extremely interesting discussion on the Wikimedia Foundation mailing list (Foundation-L). Read both pages--here is page 2. As I write this, discussion is ongoing.

This discussion has revealed two pieces of news so far.

First, the powers-that-be at the WMF have directed their programmers to stop working on their opt-in "controversial content" (including porn) filter. They have higher priorities, we are told.

This needs some background. The very least that Wikipedia could do, on this issue, is to let people turn on a filter so that they (or the children using their computers) would not be shown porn and other grossly inappropriate content. In fact, my understanding is that the porn would merely be "collapsed," meaning that the user could still easily display it by "uncollapsing" the image. This, as sane people can agree, sounds both welcome and completely uncontroversial. This is what the WMF's consultant recommended in 2010, and it was widely assumed, after a referendum indicated general support (if lukewarm), that it would be implemented soonish. After all, the tool would simply let people turn on a personal filter. (It wouldn't be turned on automatically--users would have turn it on in user settings.) And the filter would only hide "controversial" images, not completely block them. But, no. There's no compromise on porn in Wikipedia-land, despite this being an "educational" project constitutionally committed to consensus and compromise. They want their commitment to free speech so loudly proclaimed that two full-color vulvas greet you at the top of the page (with a variety of others further down), should you have the temerity to look up the subject on Wikipedia. There has been such a groundswell of loud opposition to the opt-in filter idea that the project was never implemented.

This leads me to the second piece of news. It appears that two Wikimedia Foundation Board members, Kat Walsh and Phoebe Ayers, have both changed their positions. The Board was sharply divided on the need of this filter (which is just as amazing and silly as it sounds) last fall, but things have become even sillier since then. There is more community opposition, and so Ms. Walsh and Ms. Ayers no longer support it. They strongly imply that the earlier decision to build a filter is now a dead letter.

This says something very disappointing and even disturbing about the Wikimedia Foundation as an institution. It certainly looks as though they are in the thrall of anarchist porn addicts whose scorn for the interests of children--the group of users that stands to gain the most from a high-quality free encyclopedia--is constrained only by the limits of the law, and maybe not even that.

Eighteen months ago, after speaking at length to both WMF Executive Director Sue Gardner and the consultant she hired, Robert Harris, I had the distinct impression that the WMF might be capable of prevailing on Wikipedia and Commons to the extent of, at least, installing a completely innocuous opt-in filter system. So color me disillusioned.

I don't wish any grief or embarrassment upon Wikipedia's more sensible managers, like those I've mentioned--Gardner, Ayers, and Walsh. They are clearly right that politically they're in a "damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't" situation. But given the choice, I'd rather be damned for doing the bare minimum needed to meet the needs of children, or at least trying to do that, than be more richly damnable for not doing anything. I'd suck it up and remind myself that there are quite a few more important things than power and status. Since such a complete no-brainer as an opt-in filter is currently politically impossible, Gardner and other sane adults among the Wikimedia managers face a dilemma: maintain some degree of power in the organization, but implicitly supporting what is only too clearly a deeply dysfunctional and irresponsible organization; or resign. If I were Gardner, or a member of the Board, I would seriously consider resigning and making a clear and pointed public statement.

Ultimately, the WMF, which has legal responsibility for the project--and which is supposed to be the grown-up, after all--has shown in its inability to act on this issue that it cannot avoid a truly spectacular scandal or a really serious lawsuit. The potential trouble isn't that the government might shut Wikipedia down, or slap it with judgments it can't repay. Rather, the biggest potential trouble is a mass exodus of profoundly disillusioned contributors, which is surely the Achilles' heel of a project with tens of millions of articles and files to manage.

If she really wanted to take serious leadership on this issue, what Gardner might do is spearhead a brand new project to use some of the many millions they've amassed and start a serious Wikipedia for young people, one that K-12 teachers can be proud to use with their students. It could be a curated version of Wikipedia. It would not only have obvious controls regarding age-appropriate content, it would also have reviewed versions of articles, Citizendium-style. They could brag that they have finally adopted "flagged revisions," which the media has been repeatedly led to believe is "right around the corner."

I do not think the WMF needs to ask the Wikipedia rank-and-file to vote on this. Or, if they ask those people, they should also ask their contributors to vote on it, as well. The WMF has to ask itself: who are we serving, the Wikipedia rank-and-file, which is dominated by anarchist porn addicts, or readers? Are they sensible enough to answer this question correctly?

As an added bonus, if a WMF-supported responsible version of Wikipedia existed and were growing healthily, then I would shut up about the X-rated version of Wikipedia. Maybe.

Response to David Wiley on an education "badge" system

Here is my response to David Wiley's very interesting blog post about an educational badge system, similar to the Mozilla Open Badges program.

David, I didn’t mean to be unpleasant in my Twitter responses to you. I’m still grateful to you for agreeing to be a WatchKnow (now WatchKnowLearn, and now in the able hands of Dr. Joe Thomas) advisory committee member. I didn’t mean my remarks personally or even especially confrontationally–I was just giving you my honest reaction, in response to your call for comment. I care about this because I’ve written about something similar, and as someone who has started an ambitious project that got away from him, I see significant potential for that happening here. I also care because I really think that something like this may well lie in our future. So let me develop my points more fully.

1. About the word “badge.” As the above discussion [on Wiley's blog] makes plain, this talk of “badges” marks this whole endeavor as one started by boys, or former Boy Scouts. On a marketing point, I would worry about losing some traction with the female majority of the college-going public. Speaking for myself, I don’t like the talk of “badges” because this implies that hard-won credentials are merely bragging rights, or a mark of authority, of the sort Boy Scout badges or police badges are. I have a Ph.D. but I don’t put my diploma on display like a “badge”; that’s bad taste [unless you're a doctor, in which case the diploma serves as an important selling point]. Also, you aren’t reporting much thinking about how this whole project will be received by academia; academics are not apt to find “badges” very compelling.

2. So, let’s talk about the whole idea of academia confronting this endeavor. Far be it from me to speak for academe (you’re the paper-publishing professor, not me), I think this deserves some consideration.

Let’s begin here. You say, “the gold standard for learning credentials is acceptability by employers.” I’m not sure what this means, exactly. Is this a statement about what degree-seeking students (the customers of universities) believe, what “society in general” believes, or what is really, in fact, the highest conceivable standard in your own personal opinion?

When it comes to evaluating someone’s B.A. in Philosophy, do you want to say that “the gold standard” is “acceptability by employers”? Would that mean that I am a better philosopher if my degree has a better chance of getting me hired? Speaking as a formerly under-employed philosophy major, that sounds utterly ridiculous. A degree is, objectively speaking, supposed to indicate some actual level of intellectual attainment in the field. Surely you don’t mean to say that, if an employer hires me for such-and-such a degree, that indicates that I have reached that level of attainment in the field? Of course it doesn’t mean that.

3. Speaking as someone who hires people from time to time, to help with my projects, what I’m looking for depends entirely on the job. When I was looking for a voiceover person, the absolute only thing I cared about was the quality of her performance. But when I was hiring editors for an educational website, I was looking for the ability to write, as well as do or understand other things that a college education trains to do or understand. In that case I required a college degree and in fact was strongly preferring an M.A. in the relevant subject area.

Suppose I were hiring ten years from now and, lo, a dozen candidates lacked an M.A. but had “badges” that, the candidates (or some organization) claimed, was “equivalent” to an M.A. So how do I evaluate this claim of equivalence? My mind might have already been made up (I know that various companies are hiring such grads with no more complaints, so far, than they have about their recent college grads). But if it is up to me, I am going to look at the process whereby the “degree equivalent” is granted.

If a “badge” is the sort of thing that by common practice almost anybody can define, and then claim, then I’m not likely to take it seriously, and most others won’t either. In other words, the badge is a credential and a credential has to have, well, credibility. If supposed credentials are granted as easily as diploma mill “degrees,” the whole endeavor will–obviously, I think–not get off the ground. Some geeks might go about claiming to have all sorts of “badges,” but when it comes to hiring, I will ignore such self-claimed badges.

Your blog makes it very clear that you don’t propose a system in which badges are self-claimed. You want badges awarded by some sort of objective body. That is, of course, as it should be. (By the way, why not Excelsior College? They’ve been doing this, although they award things that they call “degrees” instead of “badges.”) But what do you imagine this objective body would look like?

The impetus behind your proposal, and the Mozilla white paper (which I read a version of a while ago), does not seem so much to be to make credentialing cheaper and more lightweight, as it is getting it away from academe altogether. Well, why? Come on now–do you really think that a Google employee is going to be able to evaluate a “badge” portfiolio better than a professor of computer science, who has long experience doing exactly this sort of thing?

4. You mention that badge evaluation might be, somehow, “crowdsourced.” This is a startling claim. It is one thing to crowdsource an encyclopedia article or software. We know why those work, at least as well as they do work. Why on earth think that evaluating credentials is something that could be accomplished Wikipedia-style? Perhaps (I doubt this, but just suppose) you are proposing that people vote on whether a person has made the grade. Well, I obviously don’t know, but I seriously doubt you’ll get many volunteers to do the hard work of portfolio evaluation–unless identified personalities are involved and the evaluation is not done in “blind” fashion. I mean, if people can get “badges” by getting a thumbs up from some benchmark number of people in a community of practice–boy, count me out. You mention gameability; that very suggestion positively screams gameability, precisely because personalities are involved. If the crowdsourcing is suitably double-blind, I doubt you’ll get many volunteers. In my experience, people volunteer for the fun stuff. They don’t volunteer for the real gruntwork; you have to pay people for that.

I’m guessing that you think that grading should be kept as independent of personalities as possible, and moreover, you agree with me that employers and graduate schools etc. are going to care, a lot, about the quality of the “badge” evaluation program. Well, it seems pretty obvious to me that this is going to end up calling in the professionals–the experts, in whatever field. After all, if I’m looking at two candidates, one of which was credentialed by some outfit I’ve never heard of, and the other of which was credentialed by Harvard, well, I’m going to respect the “badges” of the latter quite a bit more, won’t I? Surely the “badges” as recognized by more prestigious institutions will be worth more. And even if, in the move to bring this sort of system into the online world, there is some shuffling of players (say, Harvard makes the switch to an online badging system, but Yale is late to the game and fails), that won’t stop there from being competitive credentialing.

I think a lot of the starry-eyed dreaminess about this whole venture stems from the fact that it would seem to take credentialing out of the hands of elites and put into the hands of the masses. Well, I really don’t think that’s going to happen. Why should it? Indeed, what about your project, insofar as it is plausible, puts credentialing in the hands of the masses?

Well, the credentialing isn’t put into the hands of the masses. It is put into the hands of people who are willing to take money from people to evaluate exams, portfolios, etc., in exchange for small and large credentials. The only thing that makes this more “open” is the fact that one does not have to enroll as a student at an institution in order to get the credential. And that is something I’ve supported, wholeheartedly, at least since 1995.


Let me add something I didn't put on David's blog.  I find that a lot of the talk about Web 2.0 (and 3.0) stuff is, in a certain way, very unreflective.  The whole idea of Open Badges is very interesting, but it absolutely demands a careful philosophical examination of a whole series of questions.  But I don't see a lot of evidence that this sort of thinking has been done by many people in that whole movement, or scene, or whatever it is.  Despite a rather flimsy white paper and support by a major foundation, Mozilla seems to be going off half-cocked.  And let me tell you something--it's one thing to go off half-cocked when you're making an encyclopedia.  It's another thing altogether if you're proposing a way to compete with universities.  Surely, if there's one thing that absolutely demands careful forethought, it's the design of a system that attempts to replace [or even credibly compete with] university education.