Wikipedia on common misconceptions

It is way too easy to get lost on Wikipedia.  Pages upon pages upon pages of information, with links to each other and to outside resources make time stop.  But once in a while one can stumble across a page that conveniently collects numerous bits of knowledge and wisdom in a lengthy item list.  Today I saw just such a page – List of common misconceptions.

Some of those misconceptions are well popularized by now.  Some I’ve seen before by accident (for example, “MythBusters” show on Discovery channel takes care of some).  Some are not at all important to me.  But some really surprised and shocked me.  After reading through the whole list, here are those that were new and surprising to me:

  • It is a common misconception among Americans that the signing of the Declaration of Independence occurred on July 4, 1776. The official signing occurred on August 2, 1776.  Never knew.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte (pictured) was not especially short. 1.68 meters.  I thought he was indeed short.
  • There is no evidence that Vikings wore horns on their helmets. This is the biggest shock to me.  No, really.
  • In ancient Rome, there was no wide-spread practice of self-induced vomiting after meals, and Romans did not build rooms called vomitoria in which to purge themselves after a meal. Vomitoria were tunnels underneath the seats of a stadium, through which crowds entered and exited.  I’ve heard this too many times and never heard anything of the opposite.  So I assumed it was true.  Better check next time.
  • Entrapment law in the United States does not require police officers to identify themselves as police in the case of a sting or other undercover work.  Every time I saw it in the movies, I thought it was stupid nonsense.  Turns out I was right.
  • When a meteor lands on Earth (after which it is termed a meteorite), it is not usually hot. In fact, many are found with frost on them.  Never knew.
  • It is a common misconception that seasons are caused by the Earth being closer to the Sun in the summer than in the winter. In fact, the Earth is actually farther from the Sun when it is summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Seasons are the result of the Earth being tilted on its axis by 23.5 degrees.  They taught me this misconception at school.  Back when I used to believe my teachers.  Damn it.
  • People do not use only ten percent of their brains.  I never believed this anyway.  Good to know I was right.
  • There is also no evidence that reading in dim light or sitting close to a television causes vision to deteriorate.  Again, I am surprised I was right.  Never ever did I believe this for a second.  And I had proof of my perfect vision.
  • Prolonged exposure to cold weather such as rain or winter conditions does not increase the likelihood of catching a cold.  I kept saying this for years.  Every time people looked at me like I am an idiot. I’m not denying that I am an idiot, but give me a break with the looks when I say at least something that is true.
  • Although it is commonly believed that most body heat is lost through a person’s head, this is not correct. The head loses as much heat as any other part of the body.  I was told this so many times that I almost believed.  Good thing I had my own data for not wearing a hat at -25C.
  • Humans have more than five senses. I always knew that we have more. I just was not smart enough to think of examples.  Thank you, Wikipedia.
  • Bulls are not enraged by the color red, used in capes by professional matadors. Cattle are red-green color-blind. It is not the color of the cape that angers the bull, but rather the movement of the fabric that irritates the bull and incites it to charge. This is new to me. And shocking.  I’ve seen an angry bull once.  I should have been more worried about my movements than my cloths.  I’m glad I survived to learn this.

Have you been surprised by any of the misconceptions in that page?

One or three?

While reading through Matt Damon Wikipedia entry on the subject of Jimmy Kimmel, I scrolled further down to his Matt’s personal life, where I found the following sentence:

From 2001 to 2003, he dated Odessa Whitmire, a former personal assistant of Billy Bob Thornton and Ben Affleck.

I know, I know all those jokes about Matt and Ben are getting pretty old now.  But still, the question popped up in my head: is it a single person, as in Odessa Whitmire, who used to work as personal assistant for Billy Bob Thornton and Ben Affleck, or are these three different people, as in Odessa Whitmire, Billy Bob Thornton’s personal assistant, and Ben Affleck?

Before anyone assumes anything, I have to say that:

  1. I don’t care who dates who – that’s their own business.
  2. I have great respect for Matt Daemon, based on many of his movies (I am re-watching the Bourne trilogy at least once a month) and many of his appearances on TV (live shows, talk shows, YouTube interviews, etc).
  3. I have great respect for all those people who made the Wikipedia what it is today.

The above quote looked funny to me probably only because I am not a native English speaker.  That’s all.  Enough with disclaimers – you can now tare me apart and flame me into oblivion.

Résumé vs. Curriculum Vitae

While searching for a correct spelling of the word “résumé“, I ended up reading Wikipedia, where I found an interesting clarification of the difference between  curriculum vitae (aka CV) and résumé:

A curriculum vitae (loosely translated as course of life) provides an overview of a person’s life and qualifications. It differs from a résumé in that it is appropriate for academic or medical careers and is far more comprehensive. A CV elaborates on education to a greater degree than a résumé. A résumé is tailor-made according to the post applied for. It is job-oriented and goal specific. One of the key characteristics of a proper résumé is conciseness.

Also, here is the bit on how to write it properly, from the same page:

Curriculum vitae is Latin meaning “course of life” and résumé is French meaning “summary”. In the business world, the word résumé, also spelled resumé and resume, is used in the United States and in English Canada. Curriculum vitae and “CV” are used in the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland and New Zealand in all contexts, with résumé having very little currency.


The term curriculum vitae means “course of life” in Latin. While it is appropriate to write either curriculum vitae or just vita, it is incorrect to use the phrase curriculum vita, the form vitae being the genitive of vita. The plural of curriculum vitae is curricula vitae.


The Truth According To Wikipedia

Before the official closing of The Next Web Conference 2008, we were shown the premier of the new documentary “The Truth According To Wikipedia”. IMDB page suggests that the film is post-production and the director, who was present at the conference and had a few words to say before the premier, noted that he finished editing of the movie just that morning.

Boris, one of the conference organizers, had this to say in one of his recent blog posts:

The video led to heated debate between the maker of the documentary and some of the audience members and even during the party afterwards people where still discussing the video. […] The questions it raises are far from answered […]

Note that as organizer Boris has to be nice to people, so that they won’t be too afraid of showing up next year.

I, on the other hand, can say whatever I want and feel like. And here is how I feel about the movie – it sucked. Not to offend organizers for showing it, but they probably haven’t seen it themselves before it was premiered.

Purely from the movie purpose of view – it was boring. It hadn’t much pace or depth and it wasn’t packed with information either, so I was struggling not to fall asleep most of the time. From the documentary point of view it was very weak. The interviews in the movie were vaguely connected, presenting only two view points on the situation. And there weren’t enough numbers and references to support either side. And the whole argument looked like a semi-heated discussion on something somewhat important between a couple of somehow famous guys. Anybody who ever participated in any forum or have been subscribed to any mailing list for longer than three month is familiar with the type of the discussion. Not trolling yet, but pretty close.

Now, to the point of the argument. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia where everyone and anyone can add, edit, or delete content. There is no way to establish credentials of any contributor and there is no way to identify experts. Nobody is responsible for the accuracy of the information. And so on and so forth.

As I said before, there are two sides of the argument in the film. One side suggests that people are good by nature and given some guidelines will improve things constantly. The other side suggests that in order to contribute something, someone should be “an established expert in the field” (whatever that means), and by such the information contributed will be more accurate and trustworthy.

Can you guess which side I am on? You probably can. I am all for wisdom of the crowds. I do believe that wisdom of the crowds is very much like meat – it’s nice and all, but it needs some cooking to taste its best. So, just opening Wikipedia for everyone and everything will degrade its quality. Gladly, as open as Wikipedia is, there is a certain level of control to rule abusers out. I think Wikipedia has just enough.

How do we know if information in Wikipedia is accurate and trustworthy? We don’t. Human history has been through enough discovery iterations to prove that things people believe in change. As do things proven by our own science. As one of our professors in the college used to say: “There are no absolutes. Only vodka.”

Ask any expert out there if they were ever proven wrong. If they say they weren’t, either they lied or they aren’t experts. Now, if you still want to go deeper into this then think about how do you distinguish an expert from a non-expert. Degrees? Certificates? Years of experience in the field? Recommendations of other experts? A combination of these? How well does your criteria apply to different areas of human life? Can you still find experts in such subjects as Philately and Dog training? If so, how many languages do those experts speak? After all, you will need to verify the translations too, won’t you?

Do you want to continue? If so, try to remember a few experts that you talked to. On any subject. One thing that I often come across is that experts are some of the most difficult people to understand. They usually know their subject inside out and can freely manipulate it back and forth and side to side. They also often use plenty of terminology. So if I’d ask an expert to explain me the subject matter, I’d often be better of with a non-expert book which will know how to assume that readers don’t know much just yet. Nice touch to Wikipedia is that experts can actually share the knowledge while less knowledgeable people can edit it into a plainer text, available to the rest of the world’s understanding.

So, yes, I believe that knowledge bases should be as open as possible. Anyone (or almost anyone – minus the abusers) should have full access. People should contribute to knowledge bases as much as they can – be that original, high level knowledge, or editing of the form, or fixing typing mistakes, or providing references and supplementary materials, or anything else. There is no way to know for sure if any article or page or fact is trustworthy. But anyone can establish that for themselves. If you don’t trust a piece of information – don’t use it. If you doubt something – check, double check, and cross check. If you notice an error or just know better – contribute your knowledge. This way we’ll have the most updated, most accurate, most cross-references, and most easily explained knowledge gathered and organized.

Oh, and if you are to make a movie about a popular phenomena, at least do your home work. Study as many different views as possible. Bring in as many people as possible. And look at history, numbers, and trends. That should put you on a right track.

Update: There is also a discussion about the movie over at TechCrunch.

The origin of toasts

Yesterday I heard the story of toasting origins.  It sounded interesting, but somewhat unrealistic.  It turned out to be true:

The practice of toasting originated in Ancient Greece, at a time when fear of poisoning was a significant concern. To put guests at ease, the host would pour the guests’ wine from a common decanter, take the first drink to demonstrate its safety, then raise his cup to the guests and invite them to drink in good health.