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October, 2006

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The Byte Files
by Paula Moser
It’s definitely getting harder to keep up with the fast pace of change in society these days and it leaves one feeling quite small in this ever expanding universe. Even the trusty resources we once cherished are becoming obsolete. It used to be the rage to invest in a home encyclopedia and proudly display it in a living room case.

Some of you still have those encyclopedias don’t you? You might want to hang on to them for the Antiques Roadshow, but, as an informational resource, they are vastly out of date. What about that 50 pound dictionary you were so proud to own that now seems too heavy to hold and is missing all those words you hear on TV such as “dis,” “ollie,” “goth” (no not Goths, as in Germanic tribes), and “bling.” There is no denying it anymore. Those hand-held electronic dictionaries hold more words than your antiquated paper version. And even the electronic versions can’t be up to date since they are static.
It’s an inevitable fact we must face. Hard copy is going the way of the dinosaur. To keep up, we would need to change dictionaries every year. But don’t despair. The internet has everything you need. We have online dictionaries, online encyclopedias and now we have wiki’s. Even Miriam Webster online doesn’t define “wiki.” A wiki is an online collaborative effort. It’s a website (actually many many websites) of an online resource allowing users to add, edit and comment on the content. A wiki is constantly being updated, corrected, and commented on. You can’t get more up to date than that.
One wonders how accurate a user-edited encyclopedia can be. Surely there must be a multitude of mistakes, jokes, and poorly written entries in an encyclopedia written by the masses. It seems that these worries are unjustified. Nature.com (www.nature.com) conducted a survey of fifty entries from Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica covering a wide range of subjects. These sites were then sent to experts in their respective fields to be compared for accuracy and errors. The experts did not know which article came from which website. The results showed that, on average, the difference in accuracy between the two entries was not great. For the full report on how the data was collected and the results of the experts see http://www.nature.com/news/2005/051212/full/438900a.html (if this is too long to type, just google “wikipedia britannica study.”)
Wikipedia has many interesting features. One feature I particularly like is the Random Article feature. As of September 14, 2006 wikipedia has 1,385,529 articles and 5,695,427 web pages. It’s surprising what you can find. I decided to try a search on “Moser” and, to my surprise, I found a page for Leo Moser (my late uncle.) This page was empty so I added a brief biography (taken from William Moser’s website, with copyright permission of course.)
Now comes the fun part. You too can edit, add or comment on a page in Wikipedia. On every page there are tabs at the top labelled “article,” “discussion,” “edit this page” and “history.” To edit a page click on the tab at the top or to edit a portion of a page click on the edit link above that section. The pages are formatted using a simple markup language called the wiki markup but for small edits you can just type and not worry about the formatting. You can be sure that someone else will fix it up if you make a mistake. If you are more adventurous, take a look at the Help section, which explains how to use the markup language and what the pages should look like. Wikipedia even offers an area where you can experiment without actually changing the pages, if you want to practice before leaving your mark. So here’s your chance. Add your knowledge to the world by leaving your mark in the pages of Wikipedia.

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