Sunday, January 30, 2011

Happy Birthday Wikipedia

by Conroy

Wikipedia turned 10 this month. The online, user-controlled encyclopedia is one of the favorite websites of this blog (as many readers will know from the numerous links to the site's articles). The distinguished news magazine, The Economist (perhaps the best of its kind), recently included two articles about Wikipedia discussing its rise and relevance over the last decade and the growing editing clique that has made contributing to the site a sometimes (but more and more) vicious experience. The Man is going to write a post addressing the culture and experience of being an active Wikipedia contributor, while I'm going to write on how I use the site and how useful it is in my information gathering.


One Stop Shop
Google virtually any topic, go ahead, try diverse subjects like string theory, Albert Pujols, London, The Godfather, you'll see the link to the associated Wikipedia article within the first few pages listed, if not the first. Currently, Wikipedia offers more than 3.5 million articles in English alone, which has to be far more than even the most comprehensive of traditional encyclopedias. And the returns from a Google search attest to the site's popularity. I can go to Wikipedia and be confident of finding an article on almost any subject I desire...that's useful. What I also like is that Wikipedia doesn't discriminate about the articles included. Sure extensive and numerous articles are devoted to serious academic subjects like say, biology, but articles are also included on mundane topics like Andy Samberg's and Justin Timberlake's hilarious spoof video, "Dick in a Box". This blogger loves the serious and the mundane, so it would follow that I would love a site that caters to my diverse interests.

Further, what Wikipedia is all about is the free sharing of knowledge. A complete listing of every The Simpsons episode will not change the intellectual landscape, but surely having that information easily available, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, enriches human knowledge.

And while the standard knock on Wikipedia is that it's littered with inaccuracies and bias, I've found that when reading about the topics I know well, it gets the facts pretty much correct. Beyond that, Wikipedia's standards for citing and references tend to identify claims and statements that are either unsupported (which is okay for a lot of subjects) or provides helpful links and references that can be used to validate information and pursue additional investigation. And of course, Wikipedia does get things wrong, but really, the site's overall accuracy comes close (if not virtually equal) to many supposedly authoritarian and rigidly reviewed academic and professional sources.

A Chain of Interest
...World War II to The Simpsons
Only with Wikipedia can I link...
One of the ways that I love to use Wikipedia is to follow what I term a "chain of interest". Let's start with a huge subject like World War II. Through Wikipedia's linking, I could jump from World War II to the Manhattan Project, then read about the Trinity Test in New Mexico, which I can then follow to the subject of nuclear fallout, the building of fallout shelters, a depiction of a fallout shelter in The Twilight Zone episode "The Shelter", and finally the parody of that episode in the terrific The Simpsons episode "Bart's Comet" where the town of Springfield takes shelter in Ned Flanders' backyard bomb shelter. Not only do I get to follow my chain of interest, but I also get to link World War II and The Simpsons, the serious and the mundane. Only with Wikipedia.

Keeping Pace
Wikipedia confirms, Pluto is no longer a planet
Online resources are so valuable because they can be so easily and quickly updated. The last time my family bought hardback encyclopedia's was in 1994. The minute they arrived at our house they were out-of-date. Wikipedia has no such issues. I remember when Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet and a fifth ocean was added to the world. These changes were reflected in Wikipedia almost (seemingly) as soon as they were announced by the news media. For any subject where there are major developments or where interest is really keen, the Wikipedia article is updated almost immediately, ensuring that facts are up-to-date and discussions current. Do you know who won the Men's Singles title at the Australian Open today (1/30/11)? Wikipedia does.

Presentation and Consistency
Finally, I have to credit the designers and editors of the site who have provided style and content guidelines that allow for a consistent look and organization of all pages. This allows for much simpler navigation and information scanning, and ultimately a more comfortable reading and researching experience.

The Future
I hope that Wikipedia continues to prosper. The questions about funding, declining numbers of active contributors, and resistance by academic and other rival information resources are not to be dismissed lightly. But hopefully, Wikipedia can continue to mature and become an even more valuable repository for information and research. Wikipedia is a great contributor to human knowledge, we should celebrate this birthday and hope for many many more.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Perfect Climate - Part 2

by Conroy

In Part 1 I detailed my climate formula and the ranking of U.S. metropolitan areas. In this post I want to explore the rankings in more detail, highlighting some interesting aspects.

Los Angeles has a "perfect" Mediterranean climate (Koppen)
My rankings make no reference to existing climate classification systems, such as those by Koppen and Thornthwaite. This is intentional. These standard systems are designed to classify global climates, identifying very large areas by temperature, precipitation, flora and fauna, prevailing winds, etc. This is absolutely legitimate, and I really like the Koppen regime that provides major climate groups (tropical, temperate, polar, etc.) and various sub-groups based on annual precipitation, temperature ranges, and seasonality (among other characteristics).

However, there are two major reasons I chose a different approach. First, I'm interested in where it would be most comfortable to live and/or spend a lot of time, which I think is primarily based on temperature and not other climate characteristics such as precipitation. All aspects of climate matter deeply in the various Earth sciences and maybe even economics, but not necessarily in livability. Second, because these systems are global in scale, they group vast areas together with insufficient differentiation. According to Koppen, Baltimore (my hometown) falls under the Humid subtropical classification, but so does Brownsville, Texas. As my rankings show, Baltimore and Brownsville experience very different climates (mean January temp.: 37 degrees and 60 degrees, respectively). For practicality, we need a system that is more specific.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Perfect Climate - Part 1

by Conroy

Dreaming of Honolulu during cold winter days
As I write this post, I'm experiencing yet another cold January day in Baltimore (click on the links of city names in this post for annual weather data). Every winter I get a little depressed because, well, like a lot of other people - I HATE the cold. I was in Orlando a couple of weeks ago (see my recent Disney World post) and the weather was lovely; very un-winter-like, with highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s and 60s. Places in the United States like Florida and Southern California have very mild (or practically no) winters. Put simply, they would seem to have more comfortable climates than most of the rest of the country, and certainly where I live in central Maryland. I hardly think that I need to explain the simple pleasure of good weather. Comfortable conditions (however they may be defined for a particular individual) improve mood and the enjoyment of nature and the outdoors. Long-term uncomfortable conditions or extreme weather makes you want to hide indoors. I doubt there are many people who would deny a preference for a pleasantly warm sunny day. Indoor climate control allows people to live in extreme locations (think Phoenix in summer or Fairbanks in winter), but deep winter cold and extreme summer heat can be dangerous or evenly deadly. You may prefer heat over cold or vice-versa, but how many enjoy the extremes over a moderate balance between the two?

Thinking along these lines, I asked myself the question: can we identify the locations with the best year-round climates in the U.S.? I think we can, and I think I've developed a quantitative formula to do it. The rest of this post details a major research effort that I have undertaken to identify the cities with the best climate in the United States. I'm pleased with the results and think the formula can be applied to other regions of the globe.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Project: War and Peace - Post 3

by Conroy

This my third post (of six) discussing Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. It's taken me a bit longer than anticipated to get this post prepared, but with the holidays behind me I hope that the future posts in this series will follow at shorter intervals. The first post discussing this project and second post discussing Volume 1 can be found here:

Project: War and Peace - Post 1
Project: War and Peace - Post 2 

As I stated in Post 2, I'm going to write about each volume based on what I find interesting, eschewing a set structure. After finishing Volume 2, and comparing it to Volume 1, I think this approach is validated.

In Volume 2, war, while present, retreats from the center of the action. After the Russian defeat at Austerlitz, so vividly described near the end of Volume 1, Tolstoy does not present the action at the Battle of Friedland, in which the French decisively defeated the Russian army in early summer 1807 and ended the War of the Fourth Coalition. We see the peace made between Napoleon and Alexander at Tilsit, which made Russia and France allies. We hear about skirmishes with the Prussians. There is talk about the far-off campaigns of the French army in Spain. We sense the resentment of Napoleon's Continental System, especially as the years pass after Tilsit. We are told of reforms in the Russian military, and of preparations to raise additional troops to supplement the standing army. We are witness to the quiet pleasure of military life during peacetime.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Experience of Disney World

by Conroy

I spent three days over New Years at the Walt Disney World Resort (official name) in Orlando. This was my first visit since June 1987 - when I was six - so I was interested to know how my childhood memories would compare to an adult experience. I was pleasantly surprised. Some thoughts (in the form of a travel review):

Immersive Experience
Cinderella's Castle in the Magic Kingdom
The Disney World slogan is "Where Dreams Come True", which I think is a little ambitious. What I will endorse is that Disney World is an immersive experience. My girlfriend and I visited all four theme parks over three nights and two days and I was struck at each park by the attention to detail, the direct and indirect references to Disney characters and movies, and the interactive nature of the attractions (they aren't all rides). For instance, on just the first night in the Magic Kingdom we witnessed fireworks, a parade, fake snow falling on Main Street U.S.A., and continuously varying lights on Cinderella's iconic castle. Events that go above simple rides or themes to grab you and pull you more into the "Disney experience". Another good example is the Kilimanjaro Safaris in Animal Kingdom, which amounts to a tour through a park zoo, as opposed to outside of concrete moats and fences, with the standard big African mammals (lions, elephants, giraffes, etc.), but includes travel over a rickety bridge that threatens to collapse (pretty effective) and a continuous mission to aid the park warden on hunting down poachers in search of the park elephants. There must also be electric fences or some other invisible features to keep the lions and other animals from mauling the park guests (hopefully anyway, on real African safaris the guides reassuringly carry rifles and shotguns). These touches raise the attractions above typical amusement park rides. (Incidentally my girlfriend worked one summer as a safari driver - that took the suspense out of the bridge collapsing element.)