Jan. 15, 2011


by Samuel Hazo

What purpose have they but to rub
   skin dry by being drawn behind
   the back two-handed down
   the showered spine or fluffed
   between the thighs and elsewhere?
Yardgoods lack what towels
   proffer in sheer, plump tuft.
Wadded after use and flung
   in hampers to be washed, they clump
   like the tired laundry of men
   who sweat for a living.
                                             Spun dry
   or spreadeagled to the sun,
   they teach us what renewal means.
Touch them when they're stacked or racked,
   and what you're touching is abundance
   in waiting.
                      Imprinted with the names
   of Hilton or the Ritz, they daub
   with equal deft the brows
   of bandits or the breasts of queens.
What else did Pilate reach for
   when he washed his hands of Christ
   before the multitudes?
   when retired to the afterlife of rags,
   they still can buff the grills
   of Chryslers, Fallingwater's windows
   or important shoes.
   small, it seems they have
   their part to play.
                                             But then,
   en route from use to uselessness,
   it's no small asset ever
   to be always good at something.

"Towels" by Samuel Hazo from The Song of the Horse. ©Autumn House Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., (books by this author) born on this day in Atlanta (1929). He is best known for his work as a leader during the civil rights movement and his commitment to nonviolence. On April 4th, 1967, King delivered a speech called "Beyond Vietnam," in which he strongly denounced America's involvement in the Vietnam War. He was concerned that the war was recruiting poor and minority soldiers, that it was draining resources from much-needed social programs at home, and that it was an unjust war anyway, targeting the poor people of Vietnam. He said, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

Throughout the next year, he continued to speak out against the war, and said that the civil rights movement and the peace movement should come together for greater strength. He began a "Poor People's Campaign" to fight economic inequality. On April 4th, 1968, exactly one year after his first anti-war speech, King was assassinated while he was standing on the balcony of his Memphis motel room. He was preparing to lead a protest march in solidarity with garbage workers who were on strike.

He said, "If a man hasn't discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live."

And he said: "Here and there an individual or group dares to love, and rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity. So in a real sense this is a great time to be alive. Therefore, I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that those who pioneer in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms, painful threats of death; they will still be battered by the storms of persecution, leading them to the nagging feeling that they can no longer bear such a heavy burden, and the temptation of wanting to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. Granted that we face a world crisis which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life's restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. It can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark confused world the kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men."

It's the 10-year anniversary of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which was launched on this day in 2001. It was co-founded by Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales. Sanger was a philosopher who specialized in epistemology, which is the study of knowledge itself — how it works, how we learn, how knowledge is spread and why we believe what we do. Wales was an entrepreneur who started out on a more traditional career path, working at a futures and options trading firm in Chicago, before deciding that the Internet was the way of the future. First Wales created a Web domain called Bomis, catered toward men. There were Web rings like "babe," "sports," and "adult." Bomis didn't really take off, but it did make enough on advertising to fit the bills for Wales' next project, Nupedia.

For Nupedia, Wales recruited Sanger, who was a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy. They were both interested in open-source software, and were excited by the idea of creating an online encyclopedia that anyone could contribute to. They decided that articles would go through a rigorous peer-reviewed process to make sure they were as accurate as those in any other encyclopedia. So they launched Nupedia in March of 2000. Unfortunately, it didn't work very well. Writers would get critiqued so intensely by scholarly reviewers that they were too afraid to write more articles. After six months, only two articles had made it through the peer-review process. Larry Sanger was talking to a programmer, Ben Kovitz, who explained the concept of a wiki and suggested using wiki software for an encyclopedia, so that anyone could write and anyone could edit, making the encyclopedia truly collaborative. Sanger brought the idea to Wales, and they decided to give it a chance. They kept it separate from Nupedia, in case it was a failure. Instead, they called their new venture Wikipedia.

And in almost no time Wikipedia became far more popular than Nupedia. In 2009, the English-language version of Wikipedia hit the 3 million-article mark when someone wrote an article on the Norwegian actress Beate Eriksen. Since then, the number has continued to rise, and there are about 3.5 million articles in English. Overall, there are more than 17 million articles in more than 270 languages.

There are two fundamental rules for anyone who is going to write for Wikipedia. One is that the author must attempt to be neutral in tone. The other is that the author should choose items that they support, not that they want to criticize. Another less-enforced rule is that people aren't supposed to edit entries about themselves — but many do, including Jimmy Wales, who has edited his own entry many times, mostly to downplay the adult content of Bomis and to give himself more credit as the founder of Wikipedia.

A common critique of Wikipedia is that, because anyone can write about anything, the encyclopedia places too much emphasis on fringe items that have cult followings — for example, one journalist pointed out that the entry on Star Wars creatures is one and a half times longer than the entry on World War II; another noticed that the entry for Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in Star Trek, is longer than the entry for Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. The other major criticism is that Wikipedia is inaccurate, which would make sense since there are no credentials required for writers. However, a study published in Nature compared the accuracy of Wikipedia to the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica, and was surprised to find that the accuracy was comparable — on average, about three errors per Britannica item and about four errors per Wikipedia item.

Wikipedia itself is open about its own shortcomings. On its "Researching with Wikipedia" page, it says: "Wikipedia's most dramatic weaknesses are closely associated with its greatest strengths. Wikipedia's radical openness means that any given article may be, at any given moment, in a bad state: for example, it could be in the middle of a large edit or it could have been recently vandalized. While blatant vandalism is usually easily spotted and rapidly corrected, Wikipedia is certainly more subject to subtle vandalism and deliberate factual errors than a typical reference work. Also, much as Wikipedia can rapidly produce articles on timely topics, it is also subject to remarkable oversights and omissions." Other weaknesses, it says, are that articles may be incomplete and that not all contributors cite their sources. Their suggestion is just to do more research: "Keep in mind that an encyclopedia is intended to be a starting point for serious research, not an endpoint. Though many casual inquiries will be satisfied merely by referring to Wikipedia, you will learn more by accessing the print and online resources we reference."

In 2009, an Irish student named Shane Fitzgerald was doing research on the Internet's relationship to globalization. He saw on TV that the French composer Maurice Jarre had died, and he decided it was the perfect opportunity for an experiment. Within 15 minutes, he made up a quote and posted it on Wikipedia's Maurice Jarre page, claiming that the composer had said: "One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear." Shawn Fitzgerald didn't even provide a fake citation for the quote — he just left it without a citation.

Newspapers had just one day to write an obituary for Jarre, and sure enough, several papers and blogs picked up the fake quote for their obituaries — including The Guardian, one of Britain's most respected newspapers. Wikipedia actually managed to identify the quote as suspicious. It was deleted after Fitzgerald put it up, and when he reposted it, it was deleted in just six minutes. After he reposted it again, it was left up for about a day, and then deleted again. But it was up long enough to make its way into obituaries, and Fitzgerald had to e-mail media outlets and tell them that the quote was fake — he said that otherwise they probably never would have noticed. Only The Guardian publicly admitted its mistake — others just deleted the quote from their obituary. The editor of The Guardian wrote: "The moral of this story is not that journalists should avoid Wikipedia, but that they shouldn't use information they find there if it can't be traced back to a reliable primary source." Maybe most of all, the story shows how freely people turn to Wikipedia as a news source. In 2007, The New York Times reported that since 2004, more than a hundred judicial rulings in this country relied on evidence from Wikipedia. Some of the instances where Wikipedia was used in court included a definition of the Jewish marriage ceremony in a Brooklyn Surrogate Court, an explanation of "jungle juice" for the Supreme Court of Iowa, and an entry on the Department of Homeland Security's threat levels for a case involving antiwar protestors in Georgia's 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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