Leslie Huckfield case exposes Wikipedia’s weaknesses

Wikipedia (Photo credit: Octavio Rojas)

Les Huckfield is hardly likely to be famous outside his own household, but 35 years after he was a junior minister in Jim Callaghan’s Labour government he is back in the news again today – because, now living in Scotland, he has backed Scottish independence.

The pro-independence “Yes” campaign are, not surprisingly, doing all they can to milk this endorsement: they desperately need some “Labour” support if they are to have the remotest chance of winning.

Ordinary folk might be inclined to say “Leslie Huckfield [as he now calls himself], who’s he then?” and go to Wikipedia and look him up (click the link to see).

What they get there is a short article that is pretty light on detail and does not do much to impart the flavour of his politics – having once been a strong critic of far left entryism into Labour, Huckfield turned into one of the strongest defenders of the Militant Tendency’s/Revolutionary Socialist League’s presence in the Labour Party and, reports John Rentoul, once proposed banning all car imports into the UK.

But more importantly, it completely leaves out the one thing from his time as an elected politician that Huckfield should be famous for: successfully stopping his attempted prosecution for allegedly dishonestly obtaining expenses of more than £2,500 from the European Parliament by deception.

The story of that – and why it proved important in more recent British political history – is covered in this article in the Law Society Gazette.

There is no sign, that I can see, that someone has deleted this information from the Wikipedia article and certainly no suggestion that Huckfield himself has stopped this from getting out. (Nor, I should add, is there any suggestion that Huckfield did anything improper in seeking to stop his prosecution.)

But this is a warning against relying on Wikipedia as a complete source. And it is also a reminder of why paying someone to do a job thoroughly – such as compiling an encyclopaedia – may still have advantages over relying on crowd sourcing.

I love Wikipedia, it is surely one of the greatest things to come out of the Internet – but it is not something I would rely on when it really mattered.

The problem with Wikipedia

Image representing Wikipedia as depicted in Cr...
Image via CrunchBase

Personally I love Wikipedia and have dabbled in editing various entries in it in areas where I have some reasonably expert knowledge over many years and can still see some fragments of my edits from many years ago in the much expanding encyclopedia.

But I have also recognised for years that there are some serious biases in it: and let me give you a few examples…

Many years ago I stumbled across the entry for Sasolberg – an industrial town in the Free State province of South Africa. This town paid a highly significant part in the modern history of South Africa – for it was here in 1980 that the cadres of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress, signalled to the world – and more importantly to every South African – that things were different now, by blowing up one of the highest profile parts of the apartheid regime’s efforts to evade a spreading oil embargo, an oil fabrication plant.

But repeated efforts to get this into the Wikipedia article were resisted and eventually reduced to one sentence – and a cursory look across the very thin entries on South Africa show, to me at least, a systematic bias against the ANC.

For another South African example have a look at the entry on the Soweto Uprising – surely one of the most significant events in the country’s history whatever way you look at it but only given a very short entry.

Things are getting better – there are now quite a large range of articles on South Africa’s liberation struggle, when only four or five ago there were very few.

But, as a recent article in the New Scientist points out, Wikipedia has a real blind spot when it comes to covering to Africa – there are more articles on “Middle Earth” than many African states and there are perhaps 10 times as many wikipedia edits (in any language) originated in the United Kingdom than in all of Africa.

And that’s not the only problem – 91% of Wikipedia editors are male and, of course, that is contributing to Wikipedia’s growing reputation as the home of the same sort of maladjusted and poor socialised individuals who inhabit various parts of the “open source” software world.

One thing the article does not cover is the high rate of articles on the encyclopedia that are clearly being edited by the subject (or their paid agents) – or their partners: have a look at Scottish independence supporting tax exile Jim McColl‘s entry and the entries made by “Shona7” – Jim McColl’s wife happens to be called Shona, that’s all I am saying!


Getting booted from Wikipedia

A short article on “Binsic Is Not Sinclair Instruction Code” (BINSIC), my BASIC-like interpreter/DSL for Groovy faces getting deleted from Wikipedia on the grounds of lack-of-notability.

It would not be right or proper for me to intervene to stop this, but if you have been a BINSIC user then a proper third-party reference to it (followed by a clearance of the deletion message in the prescribed manner) would be very much appreciated.

The BINSIC article does not generate much traffic here (perhaps a visit a day), so I admit it is not a particularly important project in the world of computer science, but I hope it has been fun for at least a few people and it is worth keeping as a link to a quick and easy way to get BASIC on your computer.

Not even on Wikipedia…

If you are old enough, like me, to remember the Cold War before the days of glasnost and perestroika, you will also recall that one of the strategic weaknesses of the Soviet Union was that it was forced to steal and copy advanced western technologies, seemingly unable to invent them itself.

In many cases that was plainly true – spies stole the secrets of the Manhattan Project to give Stalin his atomic bomb (though Soviet scientists devised H-bomb mechanisms independently).

But in the case of computing, the decision to copy the west was a deliberate and conscious one, taken despite real skill and specialism existing inside the Soviet Union. A while back I wrote about how Soviet computer scientists appeared to be some years ahead of the west in the study of certain algorithms that are important for operating system management. In hardware it was not that the Soviets had a lead – but the first electronic computer on continental Europe was build in the Soviet Union and was based on independent research – but they certainly had real know-how. What killed that was a decision by the Soviet leadership to copy out-of-date IBM machines instead of continuing with their own research and development.

All this is recounted, in novelised form, in the brilliant Red Plenty. The book highlights the role of  Sergey Alekseevich Lebedev, the Ukrainian known as “the Soviet Turing“. Like Turing, Lebedev was taken from his work (as an electrical/electronic engineer rather than a mathematician) by the war and played an important role in Soviet tank design. Afterwards he returned to his studies with a vengeance and by the mid-fifties he was building some of the world’s fastest and, arguably, the best engineered, computer systems  – the so-called MESM (a Russian acronym for “Small Electronic Calculating Machine”.)

Yet today he does not even appear to rate an entry in Wikipedia.

The Soviet computer industry was not just killed by poor decisions at the top, but by the nature of the Soviet system. Without a market there was no drive to standardise or commoditise computer systems and so individual Soviet computers were impressive but the “industry” as a whole was a mess. Hopes that computers could revolutionise Soviet society also fell flat as the centralised planning system ran out of steam. Switching to copying IBM seemed like a way of getting a standardised system off the shelf, but it was a blow from which Soviet computing never recovered.