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Hot on the Web

The increasingly readable Wikipedia

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on July 6, 2007
(Issue 2527, Say Cheese!)

When I was a kid, my parents sprang for an Encyclopedia Britannica. It was the sort of thing parents did for their kids. The Britannica wasn't cheap – it was the gold standard of encyclopedias, and I'm sure my parents had to sacrifice to buy it.

Of course, it proved eminently useful for homework research – history, the sciences, biography. There wasn't much you couldn't look up in the Britannica.

But what it was also useful for was just picking a random volume, and opening it to a random page - and reading. From John Adams to the Zulu, I spent many a rainy afternoon simply reading random entries. Camus. Pletarch. The harpsichord.

A little geeky, sure. But not a little fun, too. (Tina Rathbone, former editor of ComputorEdge, once confessed to me that she too liked reading encyclopedia entries for fun.)

The Internet has pretty much killed the market for encyclopedias. Why buy a bunch of books that are obsolete the day you unpack them when the Internet stays up to date?

And while browsing the Web aimlessly is probably more entertaining than my days browsing the EB, I do miss reading the dry academic tone of an encyclopedia.

Meet the Wikipedia

A year ago in this space, we visited the Wikipedia (, the community-based and -written encyclopedia.

At that time, we found an online – and very free – encyclopedia that was becoming more scholarly, more reliable, more accurate.

In place of the chaotic scene in the early years after the Wikipedia was first introduced in 2001, a year ago we found a more carefully edited and written reference. The entry on Israel, for instance, no longer contained the viciously anti-Israeli tone found in 2005. This is due, no doubt, to the Israeli entry being granted semi-protected status, so it can't be easily vandalized.

The strength of the Wikipedia, though, isn't all in its increasing reliability as a reference source. It's also in the breadth of entries – with topics the print encyclopedias would simply never have gotten around to.

And so one can easily spend a day doing nothing but reading random entries in the Wikipedia – learning and being entertained at the same time.

A recent evening was spent perusing entries on Atari 8-bit computers, the original networked first-person shooter "MidiMaze," charcoal briquets and blues guitarist Fenton Robinson. (I really did have no idea how charcoal briquets were made!)

And in writing a recent article on the medical condition Guillain-Barré Syndrome for a magazine, I used Wikipedia to gather basic background about the disease and how it's treated.

More and more Wikipedia entries are now thoroughly cited, and so I was able to use those citations to confirm the accuracy of the Wikipedia entry itself. Which is kind of neat, in that the original reason that Tim Berners-Lee developed HTML (hypertext markup language) was to make academic citations easier in an age when more and more scholarly work exists digitally on networked computers.

Consider Wikipedia the embodiment of his invention.

Even oddities entertain

The week before I wrote this column, I interviewed country singer Heather Myles for the North County Times. I started where I always do, at, getting basic info on her career and discography, but then thought I'd check out Wikipedia to see if it had any info on her as well. There was only a short paragraph giving a quick sketch of her music – and a note to the effect that her entry was being considered for deletion because she wasn't important enough for a Wikipedia entry!

Out of (morbid) curiosity, I looked up hack actress Heather Locklear – and she had a longer, more detailed biography and no question of her importance.

While I accept the fact that more of you reading this have heard of Heather Locklear (William Shatner's busty sidekick on "T.J. Hooker") than Heather Myles, the fact is that Heather Myles is an important singer in the traditional country style, and one with a string of well-received albums to her credit.

Surely she's more culturally important than whose acting ability is apparently confined to her size D cups?

In looking up what defines "notability" in Wikipedia terms, it's the entry itself.

And since all entries are written by volunteers, I really had no excuse – and so I added more details to Myles' entry. Added links to reviews I've written of her CDs.

Hopefully that will elevate her status where it belongs. I mean, anyone who got Merle Haggard to record a duet on her third CD has something going for her in the talent department. Something more, anyway, than serving as eye candy to William Shatner in a TV show.