FOE.

Dropping by The Tensor, I found a post about a new unit of measurement, the foe; as the Wikipedia entry says, “A foe is a unit of energy equal to 1044 joules.” Naturally, my first thought was not “Man, that’s a lot of energy” but “What’s the etymology?” Fortunately, Wikipedia goes on to explain that it’s “an acronym derived from the phrase fifty-one ergs, or 1051 ergs.” So now you know, and the next time you hear the output of supernovas discussed, you won’t feel out of it.
(I was about to write that there should be a hyphen in “fifty one ergs,” and then I realized “It’s Wikipedia—I can add it myself!” So I did.)

Comments

  1. “It’s Wikipedia — I can add it myself!”
    There’s a pop-culture blog I like for a number of reasons, but one of them is not the blogger’s occasional rants about Wikipedia. He feels compelled to post every time he finds that “they” made an error in Wikipedia, and “they” can’t be trusted to get anything right. My feeling is, if you find an obvious error in Wikipedia, and that error is still there when you close your browser, then the error is now yours. Of course, I’ve never done much beyond simple copyedits (homophone trouble is fairly common). The most substantive edit I’ve done is to provide the correct title of the Chevalier tune in this article, and I was rather proud of myself.

  2. My feeling is, if you find an obvious error in Wikipedia, and that error is still there when you close your browser, then the error is now yours.

    Albert Einstein’s entry says (and said, back before its current vandalism):

    … remains the only United States citizen ever to be offered a position as a foreign head of state.

    That was obviously false to me—Josiah Harlan was offered and accepted a position as a non-US head of state in the 19th century. Someone reverted my edit on the basis that Harlan’s story wasn’t certain enough for them; is that error in the Einstein page my error?

  3. (Sorry, that was unclear; I edited the Einstein entry to remove the absolute claim, and it was that edit that was reverted.)

  4. There’s a pop-culture blog I like for a number of reasons, but one of them is not the blogger’s occasional rants about Wikipedia. He feels compelled to post every time he finds that “they” made an error in Wikipedia, and “they” can’t be trusted to get anything right. My feeling is, if you find an obvious error in Wikipedia, and that error is still there when you close your browser, then the error is now yours.
    Well, that’s certainly the ethic that the WikiProprieters would like WikiReaders to internalize, but I think it’s not central to the problem. The real trouble with WikiAccuracy isn’t when readers recognize errors in articles on subjects they’re familiar with (and then fix them or not), it’s when readers unfamiliar with a subject come across errors they accept as true. It’s true that Wikipedia should, given good will and volunteerism [cough], converge on some generic consensus truth in high-traffic articles that many readers have the expertise to edit. I think it’s likely, though, that there will always be a fringe of articles on less widely understood subjects that are inaccurate because either (a) not enough knowledgeable people read and correct them, or (b) opinionated or malicious people take over and deliberately distort their content.
    The question is, are you interested in WikiSubjects that are well-traveled, stable, and accurate? If so, Wikipedia will be a useful and reliable resource; if not, maybe not.
    Wikipedia: Mostly accurate on many subjects much of the time—and worth every penny!

  5. Paul Lucic says:

    Its interesting how things you learn in school become an unexamined part of one’s life. As I read your post I realized that I always write ’51′ as ‘fifty-one’ (as I was taught) and am not even conscious that there might be other possibilities. The ‘rule’ just gets automatically executed. While I was feeling the strangeness of my hands ‘hearing’ the echo of teachers past I remembered that I was taught to write ’151′ as ‘one hundred and fifty-one’ but that has always seemed tortuous (think of writing ’1,001,151′ as ‘one million and one thousand and one hundred and fifty-one’). Plus the ‘dollar’ line on checks is never long enough for all those ‘and(s).’ So I’m wondering – what is the correct way to write out ’151′?

  6. The Wikipedia entry for floccinaucinihilipilification contains the following passage:
    In fact, as given in the first edition of the OED, the word includes four sets of quotation marks and is presented thus:
    “Flocci” “nauci” “nihili” “pili” fication
    I have never seen the 1st edition of the OED, but in the 2nd, the quotation marks (placed in a different way) are used to mark stress, as I remarked on the discussion page. The only way to fix the passage would be to remove it completely, but I fear the action might be treated as vandalism.

  7. Using “and” in the spelled-out version of long numbers was traditional everywhere, until educators in the U.S. in the 20th century started using the “and”-less variety. As of now you can do what you like.

  8. The only way to fix the passage would be to remove it completely
    I just did it. How can it be vandalism to eliminate an error? If this be vandalism, you can call me Gaiseric!

  9. Aiden, I would say that ownership of the error reverts to the person who reverted your edit. And of course your correction lives on in the article’s history page.
    In retrospect, I should have written, “I feel that if I find an obvious error in Wikipedia, and that error is still there when I close my browser, then the error is now mine.” Which is an accurate reflection of how I feel, but doesn’t prescribe how you ought to feel.
    Is there a rhetorical term for saying “you” when you mean “me”? It seems a common enough construction.

  10. Martin M. says:

    See, I was always taught in grade school not to use an “and” except at the decimal point. So 151 = “one hundred fifty-one”, but 151.9 = “one hundred fifty-one and nine tenths”.
    But that’s just me.

  11. I don’t think I was ever taught how to write out the number 151. I want my grade-school tuition back for causing me to wander in a wilderness of orthographical ignorance all these years. That means YOU, Ms. Johnson!

  12. As I’m probably the only commenter here who gives the address of his Wikipedia user page in the “URL” field, I feel compelled to comment on this.
    Wikipedia is what it is. It’s more complete than any other general-purpose encyclopedia I’ve ever heard of. It’s not perfect – it has errors, it has information that’s really not important but that’s presented as though it were central to a topic, it has inconsistencies, it has horrific typos, it has blatant advertisements presented as fact – but it’s a very convenient, amazingly accurate resource for general information on a great range of topics.
    I don’t know what pop-culture blogger HP is referring to, but it seems kind of ridiculous to blog about errors rather than fix them. I mean, I’d at least understand if he completely ignored them (laziness is a powerful tempation), but blogging about them seems actively malicious.

  13. Richard Hershberger says:

    A hearty “What he said!” regarding The Tensor’s comment. The biggest problem I find with Wikipedia, though, is not discrete factual errors but articles that are such a complete mess that the only fix would be to throw the entire thing out and start over. Even for those subjects where I am qualified to do this, this puts rather a different light on the idea that I should simply fix the error before closing my browser. Wikipedia seems to have a tacit, unexamined assumption that entries are simply a string of discrete facts, and if we devise a mechanism to ensure that each fact is correct then we will end up with a great entry. To which I say: heh.
    That being said, for the sort of information which does consist of discrete facts, and where the traffic is high enough to let the self-correcting editing mechanism kick in, Wikipedia is often a very good place to start, and a decent place to end for items of casual interest.

  14. I don’t know what pop-culture blogger HP is referring to, but it seems kind of ridiculous to blog about errors rather than fix them. I mean, I’d at least understand if he completely ignored them (laziness is a powerful tempation), but blogging about them seems actively malicious.
    Which is why he’s going unnamed, because it’s a smallish, special-interest music blog and his occasional jabs at Wikipedia are entirely beside the point. I don’t think he’s being actively malicious — I think he’s just unclear on the concept. I think he views it as equivalent to pointing out errors in the BMG All-Music Guide or Ken Burns’s Jazz — or perhaps a Safire column.
    Have you ever been in a run-down saloon that keeps copies of Webster’s Dictionary and the Guinness Book of World Records behind the bar? That’s because people look to reference works to settle arguments — “See? It’s right here in black-and-white.” The Wikipedia is not a reference work that settles arguments; it’s a reference work that starts them.

  15. it’s a reference work that starts them
    And that’s part of its value. The more people come to realize that any reference work, no matter how august, contains errors and must be examined with a critical eye and double-checked if possible, the better off we’ll all be. (And no, I’m not saying Webster’s or the Britannica is “no better than Wikipedia.”)

  16. How can it be vandalism to eliminate an error?
    Oh you know, that page’s been vandalised a lot, and it might seem to someone that a chunk of text has been deleted for no reason. Let’s hope not.
    BTW, is it safe to put a real e-mail address in the comments?

  17. Don’t ask me. I always put a real e-mail when I leave comments on blogs and trust my spam-blockers to deal with any spam mail that results, but others (my wife, for example) are much more careful of how they spread their e-mail addresses around. Depends how worried you are about spam, I guess. I doubt there would be any other consequences.

  18. In case it’s not immediately obvious to other commentators: if you want to suggest a change to wikipedia, or point out an error that can’t be fixed without rewriting the whole article, the probably the best thing to do is leave a remark on the “talk page” of that particular article. Click on the tab that says “discussion” at the top to get to the talk page, then leave your comment. Sign it by putting “–~~~~” at the end (which will automatically turn into your IP and a timestamp)
    Pointing out errors rather than fixing them is, I admit, frowned upon on Wikipedia, but it is ridiculous to expect everyone to have the time and energy to make every correction they deem necessary.
    It is also useful to leave a comment on the talk page if you suspect your edit will be controvercial, and fear it will be blindly reverted.

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