Liberal Distillation Of Thread Mode

Many of us in the UK read the following distillation of some fascinating real life ThreadMode in TheTimesOfLondon? this morning.


Monday, November 6, 1995


In a British government aeroplane flying back from Jerusalem to London after the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel.


Charles Windsor, Prince of Wales and heir to the throne of the United Kingdom

Tony Blair, then leader of Her Majesty's opposition, now Prime Minister of the UK

Paddy Ashdown, then leader of the UK's third largest political party, the Liberal Democrats

Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the UK


Camilla Parker Bowles, long term mistress of Prince Charles (who was once married to a Roman Catholic)

Some UK cultural background:

There is loads that might add value. The most important piece is that England still has a StateChurch, the ChurchOfEngland, of which the Monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, is officially the Supreme Governor and Defender of The Faith. The faith itself meaning the somewhat woolly and wobbly but originally Protestant and stridently anti-Catholic faith of the C of E (altho' the title was given originally to Henry VIII by the Pope). The Act of Settlement (1701) prohibits a Catholic from ascending to the British throne, or anyone married to a Catholic. An atheist would probably be preferable for some of the "old guard". It is now known that Prince Charles would like to change at least some, probably all, of this.

The surprise OffTopic conversation

At one stage, however, we had a very interesting discussion about religion. Blair revealed to Sacks that he is reading the Bible nightly and has got as far as Ezekiel. This led a discussion about the disestablishment of the Church. Sacks said one or two things, to which the Prince of Wales immediately said: "Are you making an argument for disestablishment?"

Sacks retreated. But I said: "Yes, of course he is. And he's right." Charles looked at me, smiled broadly and said: "I really can't think why we can't have a Catholic on the throne." I gulped. It seemed such an obvious reference to Camilla Parker Bowles.

-- Paddy Ashdown in Volume 1 of his diaries (available today at at a 15% discount!)

This short, no doubt highly distilled account of the conversation that afternoon raises some very interesting issues for those of us who grew up with UK Cultural Assumptions. These few lines, part of a serialisation of Ashdown's diaries the whole week, led to a Times front page banner headline "Monarch could be Catholic says Charles", plus two further articles of analysis within.

Note that it's short and very easy to read, yet captures the essence of the most important things communicated that afternoon, at least as far as Ashdown is concerned. Even though they are clearly highly distilled it's the fact that the statements are attributed to named individuals that is crucial to the impact of the story.

This is the kind of distillation that I sometimes think is appropriate for ThreadMode on Wiki. Any comments? -- RichardDrake

Some people seem to think that just making pages smaller will automatically make them better. I think that's backwards; I think that making pages better will often have the side-effect of making them smaller. I think that I would prefer ConservativeDistillationOfThreadMode - thoughtfully targeting distillation at pages where it is likely to do more good than harm.

Distillation seems like an appropriate tool for making a bad page better. Especially pages that are full of heated debate. Invective seems to be self-replicating so removing it is probably a form of FixBrokenWindows. Leaving a distilled version behind would allow for all of the arguments to be represented. This would serve two purposes: the original participats would still be treated with respect and given a voice; and potential future contributors might be persuaded to make their arguments in the same cool headed style as existing arguments or they might see their own opinions already reflected and choose not to contribute at all.

Distillation does not seem like a good tool for improving high-content ThreadMode, however, these discussions can contain many subtleties that distillation would necessarily lose. In this case distillation might still prove valuable -- especially for very old, frequently read, conversations like those found on some of the XP pages. Instead of replacing the ThreadMode on those pages you might place a distilled version near the top of the page. It would make the page larger overall but it would provide the information in ways that are accessible to any reader from the most to the least casual.

I have some ideas about how to distill ThreadMode into document mode (I like your word "distill" better than "refactor" by the way). Specifically I think I may know HowToDistillThreadModeToPortlandForm?. Ultimately it's something that will take a lot of effort, a lot of skill and a lot of objectivity to do well. -- PhilGoodwin

See RefactorByCondensingConversation for some initial thoughts Phil.

I found that page to be disturbing and confusing, but not enlightening. I don't know what points you were trying to make, only that you were driving at them quite forcefully. -- pg 3 main points. Examples, examples and examples.

Do you agree that in the real world example here, that however much the conversation was condensed it was central to the impact and meaning to maintain the attribution:

"I really can't think why we can't have a Catholic on the throne." -- Prince Charles

[rather than a contributor list including the Chief Rabbi!]

Do you think that analogous situations ever occur on Wiki? That a condensed version of certain conversations might be extremely useful (for instance to those with too little time) but attribution remains crucial to meaning? -- RichardDrake

Yes I do. In many cases, the authors would probably appreciate it. I did a bit of distillation of AlistairCockburn's contribution to WikiMaster when I restored it. I doubt that he would be able to tell what I removed and I feel confident that he'd be glad that I did if I showed it to him.

I think I wrote a bit in HowToWriteAndEditThreadMode about how to carve up a post so that the individual pieces were focused and cohesive in preparation for distributing them to more appropriate locations. I think that distillation is a very close relative to that idea: distillation pulls out the best part of a thread and throws the rest away, refactoring extracts multiple threads from a single thread, puts the good parts where they can be of most benefit, and throws the noise away.

I've always thought that our biggest difference is that I see a lot of signal in what you consider to be noise. I want to make all contributions as good as they can be while you seem to want to remove all but the best contributions. -- PhilGoodwin

No, that's a false attribution to me Phil. I am open on the issue of the BackStack in relation to the Prince Charles story. OnceAndOnlyOnce and effective drill down both matter in this area. For example, the inclusion of Ralph's bit in WikiMaster just now: great! The duplication with WikiCreep and WikiMasterDiscussion: not so great.

I don't want people to have to read WikiCreep in order to see Ralph's great post. I didn't know about WikiMasterDiscussion when I restored WikiMaster. My personal opinion is that discussion pages aren't usually beneficial. -- pg

Not my choice to create it, but I kinda liked the sparse WikiMaster having toiled with Sunir earlier today.

Sparse is sometimes better, should leave a back link if you're gonna do that though. I thought that the discussion that I left was all pretty pithy and was better, on balance than the sparseness was. I could be wrong, sparseness and separate discussion served ExtremeNormalForm very well. Say, there's one of those examples you've been talking about.

A WikiMasterpiece. One of the best. Exactly.


The key point is: do you wanna open a distillery to liven up our day toiling away as Wiki librarians?

I would like to explore distillation as one mechanism for RefactoringWiki?. I would also like to look at including examples on refactoring how-to pages.

Ok. Five year project started. I'm still working with "condense == distill" for the moment, so as not to add pages more than necessary.

Did you look at what I did on PortlandForm? I put in all of those example questions. Do you think that's a good way to provide compact and effective examples, or would you prefer more of a before/after kind of approach? -- PhilGoodwin

I think all kinds of examples add value, if well judged. Small, skeletal and really big, "real life" ones. You've shed light with some excellent smaller ones on a number of occasions Phil. Will take PortlandForm off to read in the train. Probably best not to take it to bed or are the examples that good?

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