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Decolonizing Functions[edit]

In the newsletter two weeks ago, we discussed the history of the idea of a compendium of functions, tracing it back to al-Khwarizmi and his influential book on Algebra. I noticed an uptick in reactions to that piece from people of cultural backgrounds that relate to al-Khwarizmi. And that should come as no surprise.

If one identifies, even roughly, with white, Western, Christian, heterosexual, cis-gendered men, it is easy to miss how many of the narratives we encounter are tuned to that demographic. If one doesn’t identify with that demographic, having a figure or narrative that reverberates more with one's own identity or heritage can feel empowering and inspiring. It can offer an example of, “look, there’s someone like me, and look at that great thing they did!”

For a few decades now, we have seen a refreshing trend of diversifying the protagonists in the stories being told in books, movies, and in newspapers in the Western world. Unfortunately, these 'novel' protagonists are often met with pushback and resistance, as if the world of stories and narratives was a limited space, as if by having more narratives that are tuned to under-represented demographics we thus reduce the narratives that are tuned to the most prominent demographic. But the cultural space is not a zero sum game; the space of narratives is infinite.

Similarly, Wikipedia, by being online, does not have to think about page limitations in the way a printed encyclopedia does. Writing two paragraphs more on al-Khwarizmi in a Wikipedia version does not mean I have to write two paragraphs fewer on Pascal. I do not have to balance the space I dedicate to Ada Lovelace with the space dedicated to Charles Babbage. Writing more about the history of the Dagomba people does not mean I need to cut down on the history of Rome. Each Wikipedia has to (and does) struggle with the effect of its policies and guidelines on how we are biasing the encyclopedia towards certain narratives, but that is a different story, to be told by someone else in a different place.

A few weeks ago, Nature, one of the leading science journals in the world, published two articles in tandem: one on making mathematics truly universal through the program of decolonization, and the other on why the idea of decolonizing mathematics is no cause for alarm. These articles are part of a much-needed series on decolonizing science Nature is running. Decolonizing mathematics is not a novel concept nor phrase the term goes back at least a good quarter century, and also this newsletter wrote about it previously.

Predictably, the articles in Nature have caused alarm and have been misunderstood, pretty much in the way the articles themselves predicted.

The way I understand the program of decolonizing mathematics is to follow two principles:

  • first, to recognize the contributions of people with diverse backgrounds, in order to offer more protagonists who can inspire and with whom more people can identify
  • second, to provide examples and motivations that are relatable to under-represented backgrounds and identities, in order to reach and be more immediately helpful to more people
Yanghui's triangle, published 1303

The first principle relates more to Wikipedia than to Wikifunctions, and even though there is room for improvement, Wikipedia is already pretty good at reflecting a comprehensive and multi-faceted history (see, for example, the history of Pascal’s triangle on English Wikipedia), especially across different language editions (compare to Yang Hui’s triangle on Chinese Wikipedia). I hope that with Abstract Wikipedia we will see an even tighter integration of different narratives, and see their wider distribution in many languages.

The second principle in particular can and should also be applied to Wikifunctions. We should make space for examples which are rooted in the individual backgrounds of under-represented users of Wikifunctions, to highlight how many different people can benefit from Wikifunctions. This was exemplified by al-Khwarizmi’s book and its focus on Muslim inheritance law, but also how relatable examples in university courses lead to much better results, as described by Jessica Nordell in her book The End of Bias: A Beginning. I very much hope that Wikifunctions will consciously provide the space for relatable and diverse examples from many different areas.

Recordings[edit]

The recording of Maria Keet’s presentation on abstract representations is now available on Wikimedia Commons. Maria Keet talks about the design of the "abstract content" language for writing "constructors", which are those pieces of structured information that are positioned between Wikidata and Wikifunctions as a source on the one side of the pipeline and the machinery for rendering that content into natural language sentences or paragraphs of text on the other side in the pipeline. The recording can now be watched on Commons here: File:Abstract Wikipedia Natural language generation working_group - 2023 February.webm

The regular Conversation with Trustees is an opportunity for community members to speak directly with the Wikimedia Foundation's Trustees about their work. The Board of Trustees is a volunteer body of movement leaders and external experts in charge of guiding the Wikimedia Foundation and ensuring its accountability. The 23 February 2023 conversation included a short update on Abstract Wikipedia and Wikifunctions, and answered some community questions that were asked. A recording of the conversation is available on YouTube for now, and will also be available on Wikimedia Commons eventually: www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGqHUrpU2Rc (content about WikiFunctions and Abstract Wikipedia starts at 25:44)


Volunteers’ corner on 6 March 2023[edit]

This upcoming Monday will see our monthly Volunteer’s corner. The meeting will be on Monday, 6 March 2023, at 18:30-19:00 UTC and you can join on Jitsi on the following link: https://meet.jit.si/AWVolunteersCorner

Bring your questions, your ideas, or even just your curiosity, and we will find and help with places you can contribute.

Development update[edit]

  • The large patchsets we have been working on are landing or close to landing
  • Goal 2 (efficient and correct evaluation) has seen the patch land that splits the one big evaluator into individual language evaluators. We are working now on propagating these changes to the beta.
  • Goal 3 (meta-data) has seen the patch land that reorders implementations. We are now working on enabling that on the beta.
  • Goal 5 (meta-data) the work on typed lists is ongoing, and work on function calls has been picked up and a first version has landed
  • Goal 6 (stable and secure system) has seen the rights system land, and now requires deployment and testing
  • QTE has presented the work on e2e testing that will lead to integration testing become part of CI
  • Design has reached a state where we have caught up with the state of the implementation, and are have prepared most of Goal 9 and have starting now to prepare for documentation in the next phase