2020-06-19 Wikipedia via Gemini

When is this Gemini posting finally going to stop‽ I don’t know.

I don’t know.

It’s easy to work with, and so it’s easy to write new software for it. And so, when I saw a post on the mailing list jokingly ask when Wikipedia was going to be available via Gemini, I sat down and wrote a little server that acts as a proxy. It asks for the language and page, it goes and looks at Wikipedia and returns with some plain text, which the server then translates into some form of Gemini response and returns to you.

Here’s an example page: Project Gemini on Wikipedia. If you’re interested in the source code, take a look at the source repository. It’s written in a few lines of Perl 5.

Peter Vernigorov also wrote a Gemini to Wikipedia proxy, which looks quite different from mine. Compare this rendering of the same page as above: Project Gemini on Wikipedia, again.

I think there’s something to be learned, here. Both of our attempts seem to illustrate that it’s hard to shoehorn a dense hypertext like Wikipedia back into a simple text with separate links for references.

Here’s what Peter’s code produces, for the Project Gemini page:

Gemini’s objective was the development of space travel techniques to support the Apollo mission to land astronauts on the Moon. In doing so, it allowed the United States to catch up and overcome the lead in human spaceflight capability the Soviet Union had obtained in the early years of the Space Race, by demonstrating: mission endurance up to just under fourteen days, longer than the eight days required for a round trip to the Moon; methods of performing extra-vehicular activity (EVA) without tiring; and the orbital maneuvers necessary to achieve rendezvous and docking with another spacecraft. This left Apollo free to pursue its prime mission without spending time developing these techniques.

→ NASA
→ human spaceflight
→ Mercury
→ Apollo
→ low Earth orbit
→ land astronauts on the Moon
→ human spaceflight
→ Soviet Union
→ Space Race
→ Moon
→ extra-vehicular activity
→ orbital maneuver
→ rendezvous
→ docking

All Gemini flights were launched from Launch Complex 19 (LC-19) at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station in Florida. Their launch vehicle was the Gemini–Titan II, a modified Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Gemini was the first program to use the newly built Mission Control Center at the Houston Manned Spacecraft Center for flight control.

→ Launch Complex 19
→ Cape Kennedy Air Force Station
→ launch vehicle
→ Titan II
→ Intercontinental Ballistic Missile
→ Mission Control Center
→ Manned Spacecraft Center
→ flight control

Having every paragraph followed by so many links makes it hard to read as a complete text. Now, many people don’t read an encyclopedia like that. You’re often looking for a particular section and so it makes sense to keep all the links with the text. But still...

In this respect, my copy does better:

Gemini’s objective was the development of space travel techniques to support the Apollo mission to land astronauts on the Moon. In doing so, it allowed the United States to catch up and overcome the lead in human spaceflight capability the Soviet Union had obtained in the early years of the Space Race, by demonstrating: mission endurance up to just under fourteen days, longer than the eight days required for a round trip to the Moon; methods of performing extra- vehicular activity (EVA) without tiring; and the orbital maneuvers necessary to achieve rendezvous and docking with another spacecraft. This left Apollo free to pursue its prime mission without spending time developing these techniques.

All Gemini flights were launched from Launch Complex 19 (LC-19) at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station in Florida. Their launch vehicle was the Gemini–Titan II, a modified Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).The only Gemini spacecraft not launched by a Titan II was the reflight of Gemini 2 for a Manned Orbiting Laboratory test in 1966, which used a Titan IIIC Gemini was the first program to use the newly built Mission Control Center at the Houston Manned Spacecraft Center for flight control.Gemini 3 used the Mercury Control Center located at Cape Kennedy for flight control, as the new center was still in a test status. Gemini 4 was the first to be guided from Houston, with Mercury Control as a backup. From Gemini 5 through today, all flights are controlled from Houston.

But where have the links gone? They’re on a separate page because the library I used (WWW::Wikipedia for Perl) provides a separate list of references for each entry. The problem is that this article, for example, has over 250 of them.

→ NASA
→ Gemini 8
→ Gemini 9A
→ Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
→ NASA
→ human spaceflight
→ Project Mercury
→ Apollo program
→ low Earth orbit
→ Moon landing
→ human spaceflight
→ Soviet Union
→ Space Race
→ Moon
→ Extravehicular activity
→ orbital maneuver
→ space rendezvous
→ docking and berthing of spacecraft
→ Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 19
→ Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
→ launch vehicle
→ Titan II GLV
→ Intercontinental ballistic missile

And on and on, for many pages. In my first attempt to render this Wikipedia page with links I had appended all the links at the end. All 250 of them. That didn’t work too well.

I guess this is the interesting question with ramifications for hypertext in general: what user-interface do we use if all we have in terms of structure is headings, text paragraphs, list items, code blocks, and link items (and these are separate from text paragraphs and list items). It’s a bit better than Gopher, where we have link pages (menus) and text pages, but still, Wikipedia was obviously written with the original vision of hypertext in mind. Whenever there is a term you don’t understand, or a term, that seems related, you can click on it, and it takes you on an on through all the texts. Wikipedia is a dense hypertext. It doesn’t just link an item here or there, like I might do on this blog.

I’m starting to wonder how well a format like Gemini is suited for the task. Does that mean there’s no point in translating Wikipedia and other dense hypertexts for Gemini? Is there a need for manual curation? Or, looking at it from the other end: is dense hypertext maybe not a good idea? How valuable are all those bot links in Wikipedia, anyway?

I sometimes wonder whether there’s a link-to-word ratio that we shouldn’t exceed when writing text for humans to read in a linear form, like a Wikipedia page section. And now I’m wondering whether the Gemini affordance miraculously matches my imagined link-to-word ratio limit.

I think I love dense hypertext. I love the promise that eventually you can click on any term you are interested in and learn more. Just that. There is always more. I love that idea. I’m starting to suspect that this idea is not well suited for the Gemini format.

Perhaps the three protocols reflect three mindsets:

The people that like the separation of text and links seem to think of these links as visual clutter, like they are on paper, in Gopher text files, or in Gemini documents, best relegated to “after the text” wherever that may be, like footnotes in a paper document, a letter written to a friend or an article written in a journal.

The people that like dense hypertext like I do, the people that come from the old wiki culture where we used CamelCase to indicate “this should be a link and even if the page does not exist, somebody please write more about it,” I think we don’t see a problem in reading the text of a heavily linked page. The links don’t register as visual clutter. Instead, they are the sweet, sweet promise of further information.

I love that aspect of hypertext.

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Comments

What I like about Gopher and Gopherpedia Vs Wikipedia is easier keyboard navigation. I find keyboard navigation impractical on the web, especially Wikipedia with its “heavy hypertext”. On Gopher I find the separation of content and navigation makes it ideal for keyboard nav., and I like that. On the other hand I love the functionality of hyperlinks too. I’m not sure if Gemini is the best of both worlds or the worst of them in this regard. Possibly I’d be happy with hypertext pages indexed with gophermaps in a standardised way, so you can always jump to a page from a hyperlink, but then jump to a simple gophermap for navigation away from there. Like the web if index.htm actually was always a gophermap-like index, and content was always kept in meaningful directories.

On Wikipedia the index might be the category pages. They are often underused and disorganised, but have potential to be useful.

– Anonymous 2020-06-20 13:31 UTC


Hyperlink arrangement in gopher is one of the reasons I ended up preferring the web as I wrote in a phlog some time ago.

edkalrio 2020-06-20 14:29 UTC


I made some changes to my proxy.

  • it uses the API directly
  • it transforms the wiki text to plain text manually
  • it strips all links and references, aiming for maximum reading pleasure
  • it handles wiki tables

– Alex Schroeder 2020-06-25


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