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Wikipedia articles that are too technical.
August 30, 2007 7:36 PM   Subscribe

Tonight I present to you Wikipedia articles that are too technical. Warning: Your brain may explode.
posted by loquacious (51 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow, a link to a number of things that I am interested in. Thanks, loquacious!
posted by turing_test at 7:39 PM on August 30, 2007


Thanks I . . . *brain explodes*
posted by nola at 7:40 PM on August 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Good poster. Bad post.
posted by Kwantsar at 7:40 PM on August 30, 2007


umm, most of the articles are empty.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 7:41 PM on August 30, 2007


Kuujjuarapik, you have to hit "article" in the tabs at the top of the Wikipedia page. The links go to the discussion portion of the article.
posted by barchan at 7:44 PM on August 30, 2007


Not as cool as this Google search.

Still cool, though.
posted by darksasami at 7:46 PM on August 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ok. That did it. That's the straw that made me stop giving money to wikimedia.

For all the good they still do (the things I search for are consistently well-covered) the hall-monitors have taken over.

What alien mind virus has made such a decent idea into some sort of finite-space analog where quality is second fiddle to conformity?
posted by abulafa at 7:47 PM on August 30, 2007 [5 favorites]


I don't quite get the point as regards the math articles. Yes, the page about "cohomological dimension" is technical. Too technical for most people who might stumble across it. But not too technical for anyone with the slightest reason to want to know what cohomological dimension is! The math articles on wikipedia are, by and large, one of the site's finest features; I use them all the time when I'm in a coffeeshop and need a definition or a theorem statement.
posted by escabeche at 7:47 PM on August 30, 2007 [2 favorites]


I've often looked at math and science articles on wikipedia and have understood maybe a third of what's on the page, and I think I'm a pretty bright guy.

I think it's amazing that there are so many technical, detailed explanations on there, and I don't think they should be removed but I do think more attention should be paid to the 'cohomological dimensions for dummys' sections of the articles.
posted by empath at 7:51 PM on August 30, 2007


empath: Some topics simply have no "for dummies" explanation - it's silly to demand laymen's introductions to every arcane topic under the sun. It would be nice, but it's certainly no reason to condemn and article.
posted by phrontist at 7:57 PM on August 30, 2007


The point is that I don't think there is any sensible way of talking about cohomological dimension that doesn't presuppose that you are not, say, at least a first-year graduate student in pure math. It's not about being smart or willing to read carefully; it requires having spent years climbing the very grand heap of prior ideas in order to get to the place where cohomological dimension sits -- not all that near the top.

(on preview, what phrontist said.)
posted by escabeche at 7:58 PM on August 30, 2007


I wonder why the links go to the articles' talk pages, rather than to the articles themselves.

It seems like sound policy to make Wikipedia articles as accessible as possible, and that many of the articles on this list could be improved. I'm glad to see editors paying attention to this.

This page explains Wikipedia's philosophy re accessibility, and it seems pretty much like common sense to me:

Every reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that material is presented in the most widely accessible manner possible. If an article is written in a highly technical manner, but the material permits a more accessible explanation, then editors are strongly encouraged to rewrite it.

I don't think this is cause for alarm.
posted by washburn at 8:01 PM on August 30, 2007


For all the good they still do (the things I search for are consistently well-covered) the hall-monitors have taken over.

I'm not familiar with the editing nuances of wikiworld, but it seems like these flags maybe don't get revisited when the articles in question get revised. For example, the complaint about aquifer (an object whose basic description is pretty simple) seems to have been addressed rather clearly.
posted by kittyprecious at 8:07 PM on August 30, 2007


Reading about stuff like cohomological dimensions is something that makes me hope for the future. It's like how they came up with the complex numbers many many years before anyone figured out you could use them to figure out electric circuits, before anyone was even trying to figure out electric circuits - what are they going to figure out how to do with the cohomological dimensions?
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:09 PM on August 30, 2007


you have to hit "article" in the tabs at the top of the Wikipedia page. The links go to the discussion portion of the article.

Ah. Thanks.

Yesh, these must be too technical for me if I can't get to the article without a helpdesk ticket.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 8:14 PM on August 30, 2007


those articles made my head explode!

warning:exploding heads
posted by vronsky at 8:18 PM on August 30, 2007


The one that turned me was the discussion of the Bridge Pattern. An anonymous editor's critique: "Why are there all these code samples?"

A moderator responds favorably, belying a misunderstanding of the value of seeing the same concept illustrated across many languages. You learn nuance and best practice that way, and wikipedia was once a fine place to figure out comparative programming.

Sure, give me an overview and justification, great. But give me the detail that editors are willing to provide, validate, and maintain.
posted by abulafa at 8:20 PM on August 30, 2007


From the list, the link to the Banzai Pipeline entry caught my eye. In question is the use of jargon employed in describing Pipeline's particular wave mechanics:
When hit by a north swell, the peak becomes a true A-frame, with Pipe closing out a bit and peeling off left, and the just-as-famous Backdoor going right. As the size at Pipe increases, over 12 feet usually, Second Reef starts cracking, with longer walls, and more size. At an extreme size Third Reef starts to bomb out.
Seriously, that got me stoked. But I think this entry is on the wrong list - it needs to be moved to "Wikipedia articles that need more technical info, brah."
posted by krippledkonscious at 8:27 PM on August 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


it seems like these flags maybe don't get revisited when the articles in question get revised

Usually "serious" flags add those boxes at the top of the article. Like "biased" or "doesn't cite sources". (Maybe it changes the page template.) This flag is just a category, and I think people just ignore categories.
posted by smackfu at 8:28 PM on August 30, 2007


Some topics simply have no "for dummies" explanation

I disagree with this sentiment, both generally and in detail. One of the most profound things an old prof of mine once told me was that if you can't explain the gist of a topic to an interested layman in a sentence or two, then you really don't understand it yourself.

There are plenty of examples of people who can do this well. Feynmann was a master at it: read his Six Easy Pieces. See Hawking's A Brief History of Time. See Holldobler and Wilson's The Ants. I could name a dozen more covering all the fields of scientific inquiry.

Is it hard to do this well? Sure, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth a try. I do not support dumbing down the articles one bit, but brief introductions in plain language help even experts orient themselves to a topic.
posted by bonehead at 8:29 PM on August 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


One of the most profound things an old prof of mine once told me was that if you can't explain the gist of a topic to an interested layman in a sentence or two, then you really don't understand it yourself.

I do think that's profound, but I also think it's false. I review popular math books all the time. Some of them are really first-rate (John Derbyshire's book on the Riemann hypothesis is a good example.) They don't try to explain the gist of the topic to laymen in a sentence or two; they use a whole book. And still, they don't really come close to a gist. At best, you get a milligist.

I hope I don't seem cranky about this, but I really do believe that you can't learn very much mathematics without concerted study.
posted by escabeche at 8:38 PM on August 30, 2007


Sometimes it takes a whole book to give a dummy's explanation. Simon Singh is really good at this. See his books on the Big Bang and Fermat's Last Theorem.

But he does it by explaining each concept as he goes along, and Wikipedia already has that... you just have to follow the links.
posted by smackfu at 8:39 PM on August 30, 2007


This is silly. For example, could someone please explain to me how an article about the Boltzmann Equation could be any less technical without omitting important information? The intro is fine for us liberal arts majors, we just stop reading when we get to the funny looking symbols and letters.
posted by chlorus at 8:45 PM on August 30, 2007


The highly technical things I know about "Contemporary Art Production" ain't listed... WTF Wikipedia???
posted by R. Mutt at 8:48 PM on August 30, 2007


I found the articles to be largely accurate (perhaps missing a nuance here & there) and far from incomprehensible, or "too technical". If I had the time, I'd sign up as an editor, merely to correct some of the more glaring (minor) errors that I noticed. I have a mental list of about 387 things I'd prefer to see corrected, in the collective interests of other lay readers like me.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:08 PM on August 30, 2007


All this is is a list of articles for which some Wikipedia user has put the "This article is too technical" infobox on the article's discussion page. That's it.

It's not a Wikipedia-official list, or a particular damnation -- it's just a list of articles that someone (and not the same person every time) thought was too technical and would therefore like someone who knows the subject to take a look and see if it could benefit from simplifying.

(The reason that the talk pages are linked is because the "too technical" cleanup tag goes on the talk page, so that people reading the article itself helpfully remain ignorant of the claim.)
posted by mendel at 9:25 PM on August 30, 2007


Wait - the articles aren't actually made unavailable because someone flagged it as "too technical," right?

This is just a plea for someone to ... wait, bollux up a perfectly informative page into a "biphenyl degradation for dummies?"

I dunno - would including links explaining the background for certain terms/ideas required to "understand" a particular wiki page be sufficient to remove the "too technical" flag? Using the biphenyl example, rudimentary ideas that are required to understand the body of the article are linked.

From definitions of an organic compound, chemical formula, or even crude oil to methods such as distillation, salient information about it's handling by providing a definition for flashpoint, and even related products like liquid crystals. It also has links to explain common chemical reactions like coupling reactions to more specific reactions like the Suzuki and the Ullmann.

Maybe this particular post wasn't such a great one to flag as "too technical."


empath - ... and have understood maybe a third of what's on the page, and I think I'm a pretty bright guy

What were limitations to you're understanding the other 2/3rds of a page?
posted by porpoise at 9:30 PM on August 30, 2007


Oh... can I flag post on some random over-exposed celebrity as "too technical" because I find the the subject matter alien and I lack the associated cultural knowledge to appreciate why that celebrity matters?
posted by porpoise at 9:33 PM on August 30, 2007


There are 200 pages in this section of this category.

Miss Shirley, hold my calls.
posted by spock at 10:07 PM on August 30, 2007


I'm still with bonehead, others here and with the originators of this flag. In the majority of cases, it is certainly possible to at least include some text that attempts to summarize the scope of the article and it appears that many of the articles with this flag either don't attempt to do so, or do it inadequately. That's not the same thing as saying that Wikipedia editors need to water down their content in any way, and it's certainly not a suggestion that any layperson reading such a summary would come away with a full grasp of the subject.

And porpoise, although your question may have been rhetorical/sarcastic I think the answer is actually yes (sort of). It's still specialist knowledge that requires specialist training.
posted by christopherious at 11:12 PM on August 30, 2007


These are some of Wikipedia's finest articles. They are written not for a general audience, but for the average person seeking a definition of the term. What the fuck is wrong with that?

Here's an examle: Cytochrome P450 reductase; as someone who has taken one semester of microbi and one of biochem, this is at the limit of what I can comprehend prima facie. I may have to follow a few links, but I don't have to do a search to know what NADPH is. I actually learned something from this article. I needed to read up on Cytochrome P450, but what of it? I have lost 20 minutes and gained a fuller understanding of the composition and nature of electron supply chains, the way reducing potential is used for energy inside the cell, steroidogenesis and hepatic detoxification.

Thanks Wikipedia! Stay too technical.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 2:10 AM on August 31, 2007


I can understand the argument that some things are very difficult to, and doesn't neccessarily have to be explained in laymans terms. The example with cohomological dimensions, and that only people who would have a chance of understanding what the article was about, would read up on it in the first case, is easy to understand.
But in the cases where you have a topic that has a greater likelyhood of interesting the ordinary me, I find it annoying when the article is filled with technical words, all the way through, and neither in the overview nor anywhere else is there given room for 'ordinary language'. Medical text on wikipedia is very prone to this juxtaposition between a likelyhood of being of interest to a great deal of ordinary people, but having been written only with others, proficient in the language of the profession, in mind.
posted by Catfry at 2:50 AM on August 31, 2007


It's a bogus category. I see most articles there are not too complex. And two complex is subjective. In fact they have categories for "needs expert attention". If you feel an artcile istoo complex, it probably means it needs an expert to trim it down.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:29 AM on August 31, 2007


It's not a Wikipedia-official list,

??? This is Wikipedia. Everything is just a list put together by some random users.
posted by smackfu at 5:53 AM on August 31, 2007


And of course, since it's Wikipedia, you can remove any of the articles that you think don't belong in this category.
posted by smackfu at 5:54 AM on August 31, 2007


I was actually just thinking of this the other day. One of the coolest things about wikipedia is that as you get into more technical issues, you get more technical writing.

I disagree with this sentiment, both generally and in detail. One of the most profound things an old prof of mine once told me was that if you can't explain the gist of a topic to an interested layman in a sentence or two, then you really don't understand it yourself.

You ought to be able to explain it, but a sentence or two? I mean I don't know what your area of expertise is, but how could you explain a non-deterministic finite state automata in a sentence or two? Or context free grammar? You could maybe explain those things in a few paragraphs, but not one or two sentances.

I found the articles to be largely accurate (perhaps missing a nuance here & there) and far from incomprehensible, or "too technical". If I had the time, I'd sign up as an editor, merely to correct some of the more glaring (minor) errors that I noticed. I have a mental list of about 387 things I'd prefer to see corrected, in the collective interests of other lay readers like me.

Dude, you don't need to sign up to edit! The next time you see something you want to correct, correct it! Just press the 'edit' tab at the top. The only reason to sign in is if you want to keep track of the work you're doing, otherwise it goes under your IP.
posted by delmoi at 6:36 AM on August 31, 2007


For all the good they still do (the things I search for are consistently well-covered) the hall-monitors have taken over.

The behavior I find most amusing, as a former Wikipedian, is this tendency ... well, I'm not sure how to label it, but essentially, Wikipedians love to flag something as needing work of one kind or another — they never love to actually do the work they're flagging the article for.
  • This article needs copyediting. Well, copyedit it.
  • This article has a trivia section. Well, assuming that that's a bad thing (I don't, but they do), integrate it into the main article's text.
  • This article is written from a fictional point of view. Well rewrite it.
  • This article has too many kumquats. Well pick 'em, for God's sake.
Seriously, those folks on Wikipedia are, to my eyes, an amazing example of how mankind, if left to form its own bureaucracy by mass rule and forcefully shepherded by a scary Ayn Randic meglomaniac, can create one hell of an amusement that rivals the government for inefficiency and failing at its essential purpose.
posted by WCityMike at 7:41 AM on August 31, 2007


I use them all the time when I'm in a coffeeshop and need a definition or a theorem statement.

To drop into casual conversation, or perhaps to spice up that poem you're about to recite?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:44 AM on August 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


I saw no mention of fellatio, so why do so few folks get it right?
posted by davy at 9:17 AM on August 31, 2007


if you can't explain the gist of a topic to an interested layman in a sentence or two, then you really don't understand it yourself.

There are plenty of examples of people who can do this well. Feynmann was a master at it: read his Six Easy Pieces. See Hawking's A Brief History of Time.


I think these books are longer than a sentence or two.
posted by yohko at 9:20 AM on August 31, 2007


"If you can't explain the gist of a topic to an interested layman in a sentence or two, then you really don't understand it yourself."

Here's one: somebody please explain in a sentence or two the gist of Shiite theology. Not Muslim theology generally, not the political notion of who should rule the Muslim community, but those theological concepts that separate Shia from Sunni.
posted by davy at 9:45 AM on August 31, 2007


Note that I'm not holding you to a limit on the length of the sentences nor am I forbidding subordinate claues.
posted by davy at 9:46 AM on August 31, 2007


subordinate claues

Or subordinate clauses either. (I'm starting to think I need to clean my keyboard thoroughly, sorry.)
posted by davy at 9:47 AM on August 31, 2007


I got into an argument in a taproom with a buddy of mine and wikipedia settled it for us.
We were shooting pool and talking about enzymes that regulate glucocorticoid action in the brain.
See we knew 11-Beta Hydroxysteroid Dehydrogenase was the name of a family of enzymes that catalyzes the conversion of inert 11 keto-products to active cortisol, or vice versa and regulates acccess of glucocorticoids to the steroid receptors but he was saying coenzymes composed of ribosylnicotinamide 5'-diphosphate coupled to adenosine 5'-phosphate by pyrophosphate linkages were used as a cofactor and I said no, it must be nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate because it’s a coenzyme composed of ribosylnicotinamide 5'-phosphate coupled by pyrophosphate linkage to the 5'-phosphate adenosine 2',5'-bisphosphate.
As turns out, they’re both cofactors - Thanks Wikipedia!
posted by Smedleyman at 1:15 PM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


The central theological concept that separates the Sunnis and the Shiites is whether religious leadership is to be determined by egalitarian means and statecraft or through bloodline (of the prophet Mahammad), heirarchy and divine inspiration, respectively.
Of course - given the iteration of heirarchy in Shiite sects (Twelver Shiism, Sevener Shiism, the Zaydis, the Alawites, the Druzes) it’s tough to get your Shiite straight, so your point is taken.
Like saying “Martin Luther” in explaining the difference between Catholics and Protestants.
But I think the issue is making a complex point clear rather than overall brevity.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:00 PM on August 31, 2007


WCityMike:
The behavior I find most amusing, as a former Wikipedian, is this tendency ... well, I'm not sure how to label it, but essentially, Wikipedians love to flag something as needing work of one kind or another — they never love to actually do the work they're flagging the article for.
I beg to differ.

As someone that has participated in both sides of that system, I see the value of flagging an article for later followup.

The simplest argument in favor of this system is the same that applies to open-source software development: just because you can't — or don't have the time to — code (write encyclopedia articles) doesn't mean you can't help development by participating in the absolutely critical peer review process.

I can get terribly distracted but even I realize that if I'm hunting for something specific: information on a software development tool, say, and I find a semi-terrible article that nevertheless points me in the right direction, it's not a good idea for purposes of time management to stop and spend an hour fixing everything wrong with the article. But I can make a note so that someone who does have the time knows where to start, and so that someone having trouble reading the article knows it's not simply a problem with their reading comprehension.

I've flagged articles, I've outright edited articles, I've done work based on others' flags, and I've gone back and implemented my own suggestions later. I'm proud of each of those instances because in each case I've contributed in a tiny way to improving a public resource. Better than scratching dirty words in the walls and throwing cigarette butts all over the street, anyway.

And with that, I'm done with both Wikipedia and Metafilter for the day and off to do some real work.
posted by vsync at 2:51 PM on August 31, 2007


MetaFilter: it’s tough to get your Shiite straight
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:07 PM on August 31, 2007


The one that turned me was the discussion of the Bridge Pattern.

Ya, that is a good example.. The graphic doesn't even have a representation of a bridge pattern. If they mean that the graphic itself is the bridge pattern (seems to be the case), they should say that explicitly (like, with a box around the whole thing labeled 'design pattern').

On top of that, the connection symbols used in the diagram have no meaning to me, and certainly no meaning at all to a general audience.

And another, from the article:
One thing all shapes can do is draw themselves.
Huh?

And I'm only getting started..

From the design pattern article:
Design patterns gained popularity in computer science after the book Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software was published in 1994. ... The scope of the term remained a matter of dispute into the next decade.
Heh..

Perhaps this is the root of the problem. There seem to be a lot of "new" concepts in software engineering that only serve to muddy the actual issues. I guess that is a common property in every young field - it takes time for the language to settle.

On the other hand, software engineering is in a unique position.. In software you can always layer another level of abstraction onto what has gone before, and you can always claim that the new level is actually something new, rather than just some guys latest pet way of describing the same old thing. I mean, software is inherently just more and more layers of abstraction anyway, so.. If that mechanism is at work here, it is in the interest of the person promoting the new term to muddy the water, so that the overlap isn't obvious.

Nah, that second possibility must be wrong, 'cause the article says:
the practical application of design patterns is a phenomenon
Phenomenal! Too bad they haven't settled on a definition yet.
posted by Chuckles at 2:03 PM on September 1, 2007


One of the most profound things an old prof of mine once told me was that if you can't explain the gist of a topic to an interested layman in a sentence or two, then you really don't understand it yourself.

As a matter of personal philosophy, I totally agree. However, to add a little objectivity, one might say that this is more provable as it applies to an entire field, rather than an individual practitioner. Which is, I guess, just an abstracted way of interpreting my screed on software engineering :P
posted by Chuckles at 2:14 PM on September 1, 2007


One of the most profound things an old prof of mine once told me was that if you can't explain the gist of a topic to an interested layman in a sentence or two, then you really don't understand it yourself.

Well, if it were as simple as that, then we'd all understand everything, wouldn't we? Clearly even those easy explanations for the layman don't really make everything completely clear... In a way it's a misguided hope of our capacity as teachers, and a stupid expectation to have of our students, to think that issues of real complexity, and honestly, long, hard drudgery, can be communicated so neatly.

That's not to say you can never open a topic up, show someone why it's interesting, or give them a peek into what you study, but I dunno if that can be called "the gist", and even then it really depends on the topic, and what about it is so interesting.

I would say that the ability to explain complex topics in simple terms is probably not indicative of how well you understand the complex topic to start with. Some people are just good at explaining things straightforwardly. Sometimes they also have a very good grasp of the higher order difficulties, but sometimes, they are simply thinking the whole time in a more boxy configured straightforward model that's easier to translate to lay terms. And sometimes the people who can't explain in lay terms have trouble because they're still fundamentally lacking a real sense of the big picture, but sometimes it's because they have so many details and complications that to them, telling the boxy straightforward model is missing the entire point of the investigation and a complete waste of time, that's nothing to do with their research.
posted by mdn at 6:38 PM on September 1, 2007


Well, unfairly to you, I'm replying very late, but:

just because you can't — or don't have the time to — code (write encyclopedia articles) doesn't mean you can't help development by participating in the absolutely critical peer review process.

[and]

it's not a good idea for purposes of time management to stop and spend an hour fixing everything wrong with the article.

You've misunderstood the crux of my statement. I am not arguing that there is something inherently wrong with the act of flagging an article for a certain problem. I am saying that the concept of flagging an article is being heavily abused on Wikipedia, because slapping an abbreviated tag (with the slapping of that few-letter tag often even automated by 'bot') is inherently easier than creation, citation, and copyediting; it is also abused there as a weapon of internal politics.

Nothing is wrong with actually tagging an article for a problem. But when it takes the place of actually writing for most Wikipedians and still allows them to maintain the self-illusion that they are making a substantial contribution, then its misuse becomes a problematic trend (that shows little sign of abatement).

To use your analogy, there's nothing to submit to peer review if people don't actually keep contributing code — and if those people who actually code end up having their code mangled by countless peer reviews, they're going to lose most of their desire to contribute further code.
posted by WCityMike at 9:23 PM on September 9, 2007


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