Monday, January 30, 2012

Surprising lessons from Wikipedia

I set out the other day to teach my 11-year-old daughter something about Wikipedia and ended up learning a few things myself.

Wikipedia is a familiar stop for a lot of kids, including mine, when they need information for a school project or report. It's filled with just the sort of details names, dates, places that a student needs.

But I wanted to demonstrate to my daughter that she should use caution in using Wikipedia, since anyone can edit the material there. We came up with the idea of adding the phrase "Cheese was invented in Antarctica" to Wikipedia and seeing how long it stayed there until someone corrected it.

I opened a Wikipedia account it's simple; you don't even need to give an email address and proceeded to the website's entry on "Cheese." But right away, there was a problem.  When I tried to add our bogus sentence, Wikipedia told me that the cheese article is "semi-protected and can be edited only by established users."

To become an "established user," I would have to be a member for four days and make 10 edits to articles. This isn't a huge bar, clearly, but it does block someone from joining and immediately making changes to articles that are deemed important enough to have "semi-protected" status.

Not to be denied, we shifted to the Wikipedia entry on "History of Cheese." This article turned out not to be protected, so I went in, deleted one sentence, then replaced it with "Cheese was invented in Antarctica." Done.

I then told my daughter that we would check back later to see if anyone had changed our work. I fully expected that it would take hours, perhaps days, before anything happened.  But about 45 minutes later, my daughter discovered that it had already been changed back. 

What had happened?  Looking closer, I found a message from Wikipedia:

"Hello, and welcome to Wikipedia. Everyone is welcome to make constructive contributions to Wikipedia, but at least one of your recent edits, such as the one you made to History of cheese, did not appear to be constructive and has been automatically reverted (undone) by an automated computer program called ClueBot NG."

I was amazed. A computer had detected our bogus edit and stopped it. How did it know? Was the fact that I was a new user a factor?  Was the program an expert on cheese?

I'm sure it's still possible, if you're determined, to make bogus changes in Wikipedia, but it's definitely not as easy as I thought. The limitations I discovered are pretty reassuring and give greater credibility to Wikipedia.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Book review: "Ice Bound: A Doctor's Incredible Battle For Survival at the South Pole"

This book by Jerri Nielsen slowly drew me in. By the end, it fell into the can't-put-it-down category. I really liked the descriptions of life at the South Pole (the difficulties of living there were far beyond what I imagined), and became caught up in Nielsen's battle with cancer.

There were a few things I might quibble about: Nielsen's relationship (or lack of relationship) with her ex-husband and children hangs mysteriously in the background without resolution. Clearly, there's more going on there than she explains. Also, in describing life at the station, she seems to overemphasize the parties. At times you wonder: Aren't these people there to do some work?

Still, it's a compelling story driven by colorful characters, day-to-day dramas, and the cancer and eventual rescue that you know is coming at the end.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Capital gains tax basics

  • What is the capital gains tax? A tax on income from the sale of property, stocks, bonds and other investments.
  • When was it created? In 1913, when Congress established the income tax.
  • Who makes the most from capital gains?  About 90% of all capital gains income goes to richest 20% of Americans and about 70% goes to the richest 5%, according to the Congressional Research Service.
  • What is the current rate? The maximum capital gains tax rate now is 15%, for those in the mid- to upper-income brackets. This is the lowest rate since World War II.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book review: "The Long Walk" by Slavomir Rawicz

"The Long Walk" combines a great story with outstanding writing and is spiced up with a dash of controversy.

First, the story: At the outset of World War II, 24-year-old Polish soldier Slavomir Rawicz is captured by the Russians and sent to a Siberian gulag. The forced labor, near-starvation diet, and freezing temperatures don't sit too well with Rawicz and six of his fellow prisoners and they decide they might like it better elsewhere. They escape, and start walking out of Russia, through Mongolia, across the Gobi Desert, into Tibet and then over the Himalayas (in the winter, no less) into India. It's not called "The Long Walk" for nothing.

Maybe you think 4,000 miles of walking would make for a tedious story. Far from it. As Rawicz tells it, the men battled hunger, thirst, ice, snow and severe temperatures. Time and again, they seemed on the verge of death, only to be revived by the fortunate discovery of a trickle of water in the desert, or a kind sheepherder offering a meal. (Helpful tip: If you're crossing the Gobi Desert, a snake makes a lovely snack. OK, it's the ONLY possible snack.) Still, not all of them make it through alive.

I've read a lot of survival stories and there are few that can match "The Long Walk" in terms of the length of the suffering endured by those involved. The only two that come to mind are the ill-fated Antarctic journey of Ernest Shackleton and the tale of Louis Zamperini, whose story of torture and abuse in Japanese prisoner of war camps in World War II is told in Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken."

I was so absorbed by "The Long Walk" that I was saddened to read, after I finished, that in recent years an amateur researcher named Linda Willis found documents suggesting that Rawicz never took this journey. The documents imply that Rawicz did not escape, but was released as part of a general amnesty after the period when he was supposedly walking to freedom. This doesn't mean that no one did this walk some believe Rawicz may have been told about the harrowing march by others and passed off the story as his own.

(Another possibility: A different prisoner may have taken Rawicz's name and identity after he escaped, resulting in that name showing up on the on the documents Linda Willis found. This is not unheard of in the ragged world of prisons. A prisoner may have believed he would get better treatment, or be released sooner, under Rawicz's name.) 

It's incredible to me that this widely read book, released in 1956 and translated into 25 languages, endured for over 50 years before these documents emerged. Why did it take so long? Rawicz died in 2004, so he can't respond.

The documents unearthed by Willis raise serious doubts, but they don't definitively disprove Rawicz's story either. My own feeling is that in the book Rawicz describes an amazing amount of detail including some events that reflect badly on him for someone who supposedly wasn't there. I wonder if he did hike part of the journey, but did not cross the Himalayas. He hurries through this latter section relatively quickly and, in the book's most head-shaking assertion, claims the group saw two abominable snowmen in the mountains.

All that said, I do have to give credit to the writing: The book is first-person, but was actually ghostwritten by English newspaperman Ronald Downing, and I'm sure Downing deserves much of the credit for a story that is told crisply and clearly, while avoiding overwrought emotionalism. Downing's clear descriptions are excellent examples of how to "show" readers rather than simply tell them. For example, early in the book, Rawicz and hundreds of other prisoners are on their way to their prison camp when a ferocious blizzard hits:

"The tufts of hardy broad-bladed grass, a roadside feature all through the march, bent over, swung and gyrated under the whiplash of the wind with a constant swishing and whistling. The snow hissed and sizzled as it drove against the fires. We stamped around to save our frozen feet from frostbite, huddled our hands in our fufaikas, damned the storm and wondered how we were going to get out of this place."

With that kind of writing, the author doesn't need to tell you that it's bitterly cold, you can FEEL it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Book review: "Escape from Davao" by John D. Lukacs

At the heart of "Escape from Davao" is a great story the daring escape of 10 American prisoners of war from Japanese captivity in the Philippines during World War II. The escape itself, dramatic and suspenseful, falls in the middle of the book and is the highlight of the work. The other parts of the book, which look at the fighting that led up to the capture of the Americans and the events after their escape, have some interesting parts but are not as gripping as the middle section.

I didn't know much about World War II events in the Philippines before I picked up "Escape from Davao," so the first section showing the desperate fighting by outmanned American troops trying to defend the islands in 1942 was enlightening. Author John D. Lukacs describes how the U.S. government basically abandoned the American forces there, forcing the surrender that led to the brutalities of the Bataan death march. Lukacs further details the starvation and abuses of Japanese prisoner of war camps (for more on this, read Laura Hillenbrand's compelling bestseller "Unbroken").

Lukacs writes competently, but even given good material to work with, his storytelling is fairly flat and he sometimes bogs down the book with excessive minutiae. He tells the story entirely from the point of view of the American soldiers, giving it a simple good-guys-versus-bad-guys storyline. This is not terrible (the Japanese captors really could be awful), but more from the perspective of the Japanese or from the Filipinos who helped the Americans would have given the book greater depth.

In the middle section, as the Americans plot and then execute their escape plan, the action proves page-turning, but it's sometimes hard to tell the characters apart. Lukacs profiles the Americans so similarly -- tough, gung-ho young men all willing to chip in to help the team -- that it is difficult to distinguish one from another.

The last part of the book shows how the escaped prisoners' tales of Japanese brutality struggled to be told publicly in the face of extreme military censorship and message control. Lukacs wanders quite a bit in this section before finally coming to a remarkable point: It took nearly two years for the horrors of the Bataan death march and Japanese POW camps to be revealed to the American people. In this day of instant news updates and Twitter bulletins, it's amazing to realize how different things were back then.

One minor annoyance is that Lukacs uses military time ("1700 hours" and so forth) throughout the book, making me wonder if he expected only members of the armed services to read the book.

The book has some nice maps, but they are introduced too early and give away some of the story. Similarly, the book has a batch of photos at the middle of the book and if you look at them too soon, they reveal what happens to the characters.