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Wikipedia for Schools

The Wikipedia for Schools project is an effort to distill the vast content of Wikipedia onto one DVD. This single-DVD version is very portable, and can be used in schools worldwide, though its focus on articles written in English probably limits its global appeal. The project focuses on children, and what's most interesting (and appropriate) for them in a school environment; project volunteers selected articles for quality and appropriateness, then manually reviewed them for content (avoiding "adult" topics and obvious vandalism). But what happens when Wikipedia is compressed like this? Is it really a useful encyclopedia when it's whittled down to only 5,500 articles (versus the 2.5 million plus available online in English)?

Well, have a look for yourself. The project includes both a Title Word Index and the aforelinked Visual Subject Index. As a test, I thought of a few potential study topics and then tried to find them on the Wikipedia for Schools site. Here are the results:

Afghanistan

There's a lot going on in Afghanistan these days. A student could do a paper on the country's history, the current war, its relationship with Pakistan, influence of drugs on the economy, and so on. So let's see what we can find on the country. Starting with the visual index I wasn't sure whether to choose Geography or Countries, but I went with the latter. From there I selected Asia, and Afghanistan. The article is quite good -- it's truly an encyclopedia-quality entry on the country, with tons of detailed information, images, and specific data. All the topics I mentioned above are at least mentioned, and there's certainly enough information for a complete school report on the country. So that's one win.

Space Shuttle: Challenger

I'm a student of disasters, so I wanted to see whether Challenger ranked highly enough to be included in the selection. I wasn't sure where to find this in the visual index -- is it under History, Design and Technology, Science, or what? So I turned to the title word index and chose "S" and "p" to form a search beginning with "Sp" (for Space Shuttle). Sure enough, entries entitled Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Challenger disaster were right there. The articles are excellent, particularly the one covering the disaster in detail. This is college-level material.

Sarah Palin/Joe Biden

Since the Wikipedia for Schools selection requires a manual effort to select and review articles, I wondered whether recently-prominent people would make the cut. Is it possible to get relevant information on Vice Presidential picks (particularly Sarah Palin, who wasn't nationally known until quite recently) from this encyclopedia, or would we have to go online? As it turns out, the online source is clearly better for these people. Palin isn't mentioned at all in the Wikipedia for Schools selection (at least, according to a Google Search over the selection). Biden is mentioned six times but doesn't merit his own article. The most prominent mentions of Biden come in the articles on Barack Obama and the US Senate in a section about age qualifications for joining the senate (Biden had just turned 30 when he was sworn in). So I suppose the online version of Wikipedia is still necessary for some research topics. (For the record, the online articles on Palin and Biden are stunningly detailed.)

So the Wikipedia for Schools project is definitely useful, and its price (zero dollars) makes it a serious competitor to traditional encyclopedias. I can see it being of particular interest to schools (and homes) that lack internet access, or in which parents are particularly worried about their kids coming across inappropriate content. While it's possible that some inappropriate content has found its way into the selection, it's far less likely that a kid would find it there than on the equivalent live Wikipedia article on the web.

One major concern is article quality and accuracy. Wikipedia's superpower is the fact that it's constantly updated; taking a static snapshot means that articles are frozen and cannot be updated. If a factual inaccuracy exists in the selection, it may not be fixed for up to a year (when the next full selection is released), though the selection is updated as needed if major errors or vandalism are found. Having said that, to some extent the same problem exists for traditional encyclopedias -- and they aren't free (though they are professionally edited and, one hopes, thoroughly fact-checked). So the question there seems to boil down to whether the crowd of editors at Wikipedia does a "good enough" job at editing and fact-checking to compete with professionals.

A final failing I see in the selection is its lack of citations and references; they were excluded because volunteers couldn't verify each of them. I'd prefer that students had access to the references and could check them out themselves -- this process is, after all, one of the core functions of academic research!

You can browse Wikipedia for Schools online, or download the whole thing via BitTorrent. (If you're not familiar with BitTorrent, read the bit on downloading in the site's press release.)

Have you used Wikipedia for Schools? Do you have an idea for how this selection could be used? Share your experiences in the comments.

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WWF
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Animals
Watch an Antarctic Minke Whale Feed in a First-of-Its-Kind Video
WWF
WWF

New research from the World Wildlife Fund is giving us a rare glimpse into the world of the mysterious minke whale. The WWF worked with Australian Antarctic researchers to tag minke whales with cameras for the first time, watching where and how the animals feed.

The camera attaches to the whale's body with suction cups. In the case of the video below, the camera accidentally slid down the side of the minke whale's body, providing an unexpected look at the way its throat moves as it feeds.

Minke whales are one of the smallest baleen whales, but they're still pretty substantial animals, growing 30 to 35 feet long and weighing up to 20,000 pounds. Unlike other baleen whales, though, they're small enough to maneuver in tight spaces like within sea ice, a helpful adaptation for living in Antarctic waters. They feed by lunging through the sea, gulping huge amounts of water along with krill and small fish, and then filtering the mix through their baleen.

The WWF video shows just how quickly the minke can process this treat-laden water. The whale could lunge, process, and lunge again every 10 seconds. "He was like a Pac-Man continuously feeding," Ari Friedlaender, the lead scientist on the project, described in a press statement.

The video research, conducted under the International Whaling Commission's Southern Ocean Research Partnership, is part of WWF's efforts to protect critical feeding areas for whales in the region.

If that's not enough whale for you, you can also watch the full 13-minute research video below:

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iStock
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technology
AI Could Help Scientists Detect Earthquakes More Effectively
iStock
iStock

Thanks in part to the rise of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, earthquakes are becoming more frequent in the U.S. Even though it doesn't fall on a fault line, Oklahoma, where gas and oil drilling activity doubled between 2010 and 2013, is now a major earthquake hot spot. As our landscape shifts (literally), our earthquake-detecting technology must evolve to keep up with it. Now, a team of researchers is changing the game with a new system that uses AI to identify seismic activity, Futurism reports.

The team, led by deep learning researcher Thibaut Perol, published the study detailing their new neural network in the journal Science Advances. Dubbed ConvNetQuake, it uses an algorithm to analyze the measurements of ground movements, a.k.a. seismograms, and determines which are small earthquakes and which are just noise. Seismic noise describes the vibrations that are almost constantly running through the ground, either due to wind, traffic, or other activity at surface level. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference between noise and legitimate quakes, which is why most detection methods focus on medium and large earthquakes instead of smaller ones.

But better understanding natural and manmade earthquakes means studying them at every level. With ConvNetQuake, that could soon become a reality. After testing the system in Oklahoma, the team reports it detected 17 times more earthquakes than what was recorded by the Oklahoma Geological Survey earthquake catalog.

That level of performance is more than just good news for seismologists studying quakes caused by humans. The technology could be built into current earthquake detection methods set up to alert the public to dangerous disasters. California alone is home to 400 seismic stations waiting for "The Big One." On a smaller scale, there's an app that uses a smartphone's accelerometers to detect tremors and alert the user directly. If earthquake detection methods could sense big earthquakes right as they were beginning using AI, that could afford people more potentially life-saving moments to prepare.

[h/t Futurism]

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