To celebrate the release of XNA Game Studio 2.0, I’m going to write about something completely unrelated.
I’m getting increasingly fed up with reading articles dissing Wikipedia. For some reason its very existence makes some people (who mostly seem to be academics) very angry. As far as I can figure out their main complaints are:
- Anyone can edit it, and you never know what axe they have to grind.
- It is just hearsay, not a primary source.
But here’s the thing: I use Wikipedia all the time, and I love it. I can’t remember the last time it failed to quickly and correctly answer my question. For instance here are three things I looked up recently:
- While implementing NetworkSession.SimulatedLatency, I needed to figure out how long to delay each packet. A constant delay time is no good, because packets would still be delivered in their original order, which rather misses the point. I could have just added a random time offset, but remembering my high school statistics class, I decided the delay should follow the normal distribution (aka bell curve). Unfortunately, that was pretty much all I remembered about statistics. What actually IS a normal distribution? Fortunately, Wikipedia knew the answer: I wanted a Box-Muller transform. I read the article, understood the math, coded it up, unit tested the results, and it worked gloriously.
- I recently watched the movie Perfume. I had read the novel many years earlier, but didn’t remember much about it. Curious to see how closely the movie followed the book, I looked up the plot synopsis. While I was there, I found out the Nirvana song Scentless Apprentice was inspired by Perfume. Who knew?
- After eating delicious cassava fritters at a hybrid Indian / East African restaurant, I was curious to learn more about the cassava root. Turns out it contains cyanide, which is broken down by heat, but can be dangerous if not prepared properly. That put me off my plans to cook some for myself!
This is a perfect 3/3 success rate, and better than my experiences with traditional encyclopedias:
- The Encyclopedia Britannica probably does have entries on bell curves and cassava root, but would be unlikely to also satisfy my curiosity about a Nirvana song.
- As a student, I sometimes used the encyclopedia in the library. It had maybe a 50/50 success rate in answering my questions.
- Even if I could afford a paper encyclopedia, I don’t have anywhere to keep such a thing.
So who should I trust? The academics who tell me not to trust Wikipedia, or my positive personal experiences with it? It occurs to me that the main criticisms of Wikipedia could equally well be applied to the critics:
- Anyone can criticize Wikipedia, and you never know what axe they have to grind.
- I count my firsthand experiences as a primary source (albeit for a limited sample size). As far as I’m concerned, the people who complain about bias and inaccuracy are just spouting random hearsay…