Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Friday 14/7/2006It's not often that one gets called into the dock to answer for one's actions concerning intergalactic warfare, sugary doughnuts and Wikipedia. But answer I must.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Friday 14/7/2006

It's not often that one gets called into the dock to answer for one's actions concerning intergalactic warfare, sugary doughnuts and Wikipedia. But answer I must.

It all began last week, when Graeme "The Darth Vader Of The Newsroom" Wearden was innocently committing journalism. We get a lot of spam, so he'd already ditched two emails purporting to be from one Flash Sheridan with the subject line "Your source for Doc Smith and powdered doughnuts (re-sent)" – yeah, right – but something about the third made him take a look. It turns out that Flash really exists and really wanted to talk to Graeme, and was getting quite annoyed to boot.

Moreover, Flash is the maintainer of the Wikipedia entry for EE "Doc" Smith, a deceased science-fiction writer who in the 1920s and 1930s single-handedly invented the subgenre of space opera. Doc Smith was noted for his energetic plotting, florid prose and complete lack of literary shame. He was also noted for working for the Dawn Doughnut Company of Jackson, Michigan, as a food chemist and, says the Wikipeida entry, is reported to have come up with the way to make sugar frosting stick.

So far so good. However, Flash Sheridan had found the reference to the sugar doughnuts in an article Graeme Wearden had written back in 2001 about the hot news that London was hosting a show marking 40 years of computer games. Indeed, at the end of the article was the assertion that Smith's "other claim to fame was that he was the first man to invent a method of getting powdered sugar to stick to doughnuts". Intrigued, Wearden checked the Wikipedia entry and saw that his 2001 story was cited in the footnotes. Which is nice — but attached to the footnote was the claim that Graeme Wearden had not provided a source to back up his claims and was not responding to the pleas of the Wikipedia community. That's the problem with Wikipedia, people can just go and put stuff in — and sometimes it's perfectly true. Dave Langford. He knows everything. He writes SF reference books. He's a thoroughly nice chap. He and a few friends soon chased the story back to at least the early 1970s — "when I wasn't even alive", chortled Wearden — so we can satisfy the demands of the Wiki hive mind with honour intact.

But after a whinge about the awfulness of this accusation ("How can it be right that people can just write things like that and post them on the Internet?" "Well, Graeme, you know this job you've been doing for six years?"), Wearden hit on a new plan. He'd blame me.

"You must have edited it, Goodwins," he said. "I wouldn't know anything about science-fiction trivia, and you're full of it."

"Pardon?" I said. "Just because I know the significance of the line 'Who put the tribbles in the quadrotriticale' and the name of Philip K Dick's cat, that's no reason to pin the rap on me, copper."

"Yes it is," he pointed out, not unreasonably. I hate it when he's right.

I was at a loss — did I really know that about doughnuts? — but fortunately I have a secret weapon at my disposal; a time machine called Cix. This ancient online-conferencing system is still going and still shields a few communities of old-timers from the ravages of the Web. In particular, the science-fiction conference holds some practitioners of the art, most usefully for my purposes, the very venerable practioners.

These things are important.

And now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to listen to Astronomy Domine quite a lot, in memory of another lost spaceman I recommend you do the same.

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