Some Notes On Installing Federated Wiki On Windows

It’s 2018, and I’ve still not found anything that helps me think as clearly as federated wiki. At the same time, running a web server of your own is still, in 2018, a royal pain. Case in point: recently a series of credit card breaches forced a series of changes in my credit card number (two breaches in one year, hooray). And that ended up wiping out my Digital Ocean account as it silently failed the monthly renewals. Personal cyberinfrastructure is a drag, man.

But such is life. So I recently started looking at whether I could do federated wiki just on my laptop and not deal with a remote server. It doesn’t get me into the federation, per se, but it allows all the other benefits of federated wiki — drag-and-drop refactoring, quick idea linking, iterative note-taking, true hypertext thinking.

It turns out to be really easy (I mean as things go with this stuff). I’ll go into detail more below, but here are the steps:

  1. Download Node.js for Windows. Install.
  2. Open a command window and type: npm install -g wiki
  3. Launch via command window: wiki -p 80 –security_type friends –cookieSecret ‘REPLACE-THIS-SECRET’
  4. Navigate to localhost in a browser
  5. Click the lock to “claim” the wiki as owner
  6. Click the “wiki” link to take it out of read-only mode.
  7. Go forth and wiki…..


Step one: Download Node.js for Windows. Install.

Step two: Open a command window and type: npm install -g wiki

It’s installed!

Initial Startup

To start your wiki go to a command prompt and type:

wiki -p 80 --security_type friends --cookieSecret 'REPLACE-THIS-SECRET' 

You may need to give node some permissions. I won’t advise you on that. But you definitely don’t need to give public networks access to your server if you don’t want.

Go to your localhost. You’ll get the start page.

Claiming your wiki

When you first visit your wiki it will be in unclaimed, read-only mode, and the bottom of the interface will look like this (though probably not have 47 pages):

When you click that lock icon, it will create a random username and go to unlocked position.

Once you do that you can click on the word “wiki” and now it will move out of read-only into edit mode:

You’ll know it’s in edit mode because you’ll see the edit history icons (sometimes colloquially referred to as ‘chiclets’) at the bottom.

And — that’s it. You’re done. Wiki away.

You’ll need to launch the server from a command window each time you want to use it, but if you’re familiar with Windows you can write a bat file and put it in your startup folder.

(Incidentally, this isn’t a tutorial on how to use federated wiki. I’m tired, frankly, of trying to sell it to people who want to know why it takes more than fifteen minutes to learn. I don’t teach people it anymore because people have weird expectations and it wastes too much of my time trying to get past them. But if you’re one of the people who has made the jump, you know this — I just want to help you do it locally on your laptop.)

Optional stuff: Changing your name, importing or backing up files

You don’t need to know where files live on your computer, but sometimes it is useful. For instance, you might want to back up your pages, or reset a username. Here’s how you can do that.

In the single user mode we used above, wiki pages will be in a .wiki directory under your user directory. For instance, my directory is C:\Users\mcaulfield\.wiki\pages. They are simple json files, and can be backed up and zipped. You can also drop json files from other wiki instances here, though you’ll have to delete the sitemap.json file to reindex (more on that below).

For ownership and indexing issues there is a status directory under the .wiki directory (e.g. C:\Users\mcaulfield\.wiki\status). This has two important files in it. One is owner.json, which maintains login information (initially this will not be there — it’s written when you claim it). The other is your sitemap, which has a list of all pages and recent updates on them. Deleting the sitemap is useful when you want to regenerate it after manually uploading new files.

To change your username, you can edit the owner.json file. Change the name property.

If something goes wrong and you want to reinitiate the claim process, you can delete the owner.json file.

If you clear your cookies and hence loose your claim (i.e. are logged out), you can pull the secret from the json and enter it when prompted. It’s OK to change it to something simple and more password-like that you can remember.

The node files of your wiki installation will be in your AppData roaming directory under npm, e.g. C:\Users\mcaulfield\AppData\Roaming\npm\node_modules\wiki. There’s not an real reason to touch these files.

Running a personal desktop farm

This is only for federated wiki geeks, but it is completely possible to run a small personal desktop farm, where you can run multiple wiki sites in what are essentially separate notebooks. Just go into your hosts file (C:\Windows\System32\drivers\etc\hosts) and add localhost aliases:

# localhost name resolution is handled within DNS itself.
#       localhost
#	::1             localhost       disinfo       journal       papersonwiki	sandbox	teachersguide	wikipediawomen	opioidcrisis	raceinamerica

Launch in farm mode (-f) and type these words into your browser omnibar. Each will maintain a separate wiki instance. If you want to be able to search across all instances, use the –autoseed flag. Note that you’ll have to go through the minimal claim process with each one (two clicks, shown above).

Pushing to a larger federation

If you want to push to a remote server, you can. There’s a couple ways to do this.

First, there’s a flag in wiki that allows you to point to a different directory for pages. So you can point that to a mapped drive or Dropbox or whatever on your laptop, and then point a remote server to that same directory.

Alternatively you could do a periodic rsync to the server. Windows 10 has bash native to it, so you can install that, reach your files through Bash for Windows’s /mnt/c/ mapping, and push them up that way.

In each case, you probably want to delete the sitemap.json and sitemap.xml to trigger a regeneration.

Interestingly, you could also use this scheme (I think) for joint generation of a public wiki.

IIRC, there is also a way to drag and drop json export files into wiki instances.

Finally, you can share files with people by zipping them up and emailing them or providing them as a zipped download. They in turn can drop them into their own federated wiki instance to work with. I’ve been thinking a lot about this model, which is very memex like — I make a notebook of my notes on something, post it up, you pull it into your machine. The provenance gets messy at scale, but among a group of people in a subfield that are being more descriptive in their practice than rhetorical this might work out fine.

It’s Good To Be Back

Using federated wiki again reminds me once again of what wiki means, in an etymological sense. It means quick.

What all other non-federated wiki systems lack is not just federation. They lack quickness, largely because they are designed towards novices and trade away possibilities for fluid authorship in exchange for making the first 15 minutes of use easier.

So while it may seem weird to run a federated wiki server on a laptop in a way that makes federation less available, if you’ve learned the method of multi-pane wiki it’s not really weird at all, because every note taking system you’ve used besides federated wiki is unbearably slow, clunky, and burdensome. Federated wiki, in the hands of someone that has mastered it, works at the speed of thought. And it does that whether your in the federation or not. So here’s to a very wiki New Year.

“Conspiracy Theorists” in 1934 and 1961

A quick follow-on to my last post — it’s worth mentioning that “conspiracy theorist” is also a much older term than many realize. A few years ago, in fact, a story was going around the forums that the term was either invented by the CIA or at least made an undesirable moniker by them.

Again, in reality, the term is much older and appears to have long been a term of derision even back then. Consider this use from 1934:

The differences of opinion now to be observed in the Congressional committees laboring with the Stock Exchange bill are explained by some thick-and-thin opponents of all changes in the bill by the existence of a conspiracy to defeat it. If there is a conspiracy, it is one of the most vocal in conspiratorial history. The investment bankers, their employees and some of their customers have been making the welkin ring with their complaints. If there has been any secret, backstairs work, the conspiracy theorists will surely find receptive audience for its exposure.

It is to be suspected, however, that the reorganized hesitation within the committees about the Fletcher-Rayburn bill “as is” rests upon more solid ground. The probability is that Senators and Representatives, like people, have come to see that there are risks in an indiscriminate attack upon “Wall Street” which cannot be brushed aside by references to the supposedly dubious of those who resist the attacks.

There’s lots for cultural historians to dig into here — this is, after all, a charge of conspiracy theory against supporters of an anti-Wall Street bill, which shows the ways the term is used to police narratives, for better and worse. But again, we see what we saw with conspiracy theory in the last post. From the beginning these terms have been negative, even if sometimes groups may have used that negative connotation to their own political ends.

It’s worth noting, of course, that conspiracy theory is used against hysteria as well, as in this letter in 1961 to a New Jersey paper (also not usually cited, the first cites for the OED are in 1964):

The conspiracy theory of history takes an admitted Communist plot against all free men and makes it virtually the sole factor responsible .for all phenomena that are not to the liking of the conspiracy theorists. Thus the fiasco of the Cuban revolt is seen not as the tragic miscalculation of wishful-thinking incompetents, which it apparently was . . . but as the usual sinister work of pro-Commie elements in our Government.

That there is a call, and a pretty unsubtle one at that, that the Bay of Pigs fiasco not be used as an excuse to slide back to McCarthyism. The letter is actually headed “Conspiracy Theory”. (The author, William Monaghan, actually wrote on this issue at least one more time — decrying rising Holocaust denialism of the time in 1963.)

The author continues after some details:

This sort of puerility also never recognizes that the admitted world conspiracy does have at times a large mass base of people who consider themselves in no way conspirators, but rather downtrodden ones who have found a cause and a regime that will bring better days to them. This was the case with the Chinese peasantry in the period of the rise to power of the Chinese Reds. . . . And it was the case recently when the Cuban masses refused to rise against a regime they still for the most part consider their benefactor, not their oppressor. No internal C. I. A. conspiracy but the facts of life in Cuba today foredoomed the invasion and , revolt attempt, much as we might wish it to have been otherwise. …

He concludes:

The conspiracy theorist will never abandon his pet intellectual hobby, because it gives him far too much of a sense of his own importance and his group’s significance in history. It is therefore not at all surprising that he should from time to time proclaim that his small group will turn out to have been the savior of this nation and of the liberals themselves.” 

WILLIAM E. MONAGHAN 548 Studio Road , Ridgefield, May 12, 1961.

The academic calls to think more critically about how we deploy the charge of conspiracy theory are welcome and overdue. Still, on the merits, I’m with William most days of the week, and hope that more people will cite his treatment of conspiracy theorists in their own histories.

The first use of the term “conspiracy theory” is much earlier — and more interesting — than historians have thought.

Was reading the new Oxford collection on conspiracy theory (quite an impressive collection, can be bought here) and noted that one of the articles dated the term conspiracy theory back to the 1870s. It’s not central to the author’s argument, but it’s not trivial either. The author sees the term as coming out of crime, and then navigating to politics:

Such considerations encourage a more systematic approach. By consulting databases that have digitized American newspapers from the nineteenth century, it is possible to gain an appreciation of how theory as a term made inroads into the discourse of crime. Thus, a search of the database America’s Historical Newspapers identifies the following dates as the earliest mention for conspiracy theory and other terms built on the template (crime x + theory):

murder theory (1867)
suicide theory (1871)
conspiracy theory (1874)
blackmail theory (1874)
abduction theory (1875)

From Conspiracy Theory: The Nineteenth-Century Prehistory of a Twentieth-Century Concept from Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them (p. 62). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. .

This is fairly common dating — scholarly accounts I’ve read have had similar or even later dates for the occurrence [see Wikipedia, for example, for the OED date of 1909(!!) as well as some other potential dates.]

However, unless I’m missing something, most of this is wrong. The first mention found in newspapers is in 1863, not the 1870s, and it does not come out of court terminology, but rather politics. In fact it is used much as it would be today, to derisively refer to a set of allegedly less educated people who see a secret plot when a simple non-conspiratorial narrative has much more explanatory power.

One note here for people who haven’t delved much into the literature on this — conspiracy theory as a popular term doesn’t really take off until the late 1950s, and the scholarly concern about conspiracy theories (under a variety of names) gets its first significant lift in the 1930s and 40s in discussions about totalitarianism and populism. And of course conspiracy theories — under different names — have existed since the dawn of time. When we talk about early mentions we’re talking about the evolution of the term — the idea that you could have a theory that hinged on conspiracy, and how that would be regarded back then. This in turn plugs into a debate about how much our perception of such theories has shifted over time.

The Conspiracy of the British Elites Against the Union

So now we come to the first mention of “conspiracy theory” I’ve found, apparently missed by the OED and others. It will take a little explaining to set up. But it’s particularly surprising others have not found it since it’s from an exchange in the New York Times.

It’s from 1863, and it’s a response to a letter that had run the Sunday before. That letter had dealt with the question of why England — whose papers and elites had spent so much time attacking the United States over the institution of slavery in the 1850s — was now taking the side of the South in the Civil War.

The answer, the writer says, is obvious. America had been exerting influence on English institutions, and this had threatened the aristocracy, which feared loss of power. So they had embarked on a plan. They would support whatever side was weaker, in the hope that America would be destroyed. Once America was destroyed, then the governing classes could point to the failure of the U.S. as proof that democratic reforms don’t work, and reclaim power. In order to do this they would support the South verbally, but, importantly, not intervene on their behalf since the point is to avoid any decisive action that would hasten the conclusion of the war. Their best play was to draw out the conflict.

The ultimate endgame? Creating the “most terrible financial explosion ever seen in a civilized country” — all to benefit the small class of English aristocrats!

New York Times, January 4, 1863. Page 2.

I am not a Civil War historian, so I can’t say if any of this was true. But in form it’s not terribly different from the conspiracy theories promoted by Sanders surrogates about the DNC, or theories tossed around the right wing blogosphere from time to time. Small set of elites that are afraid of the success of brilliant progressive/conservative ideas, and so what do they do — they sabotage them, just to say, hey I told you so.

Again — is it true? Who knows. But the form of the argument is very congruent with what we think of as conspiracy theorizing nowadays.

So the next week another person replies in the correspondence section of the NYT. And he says, look, you don’t need to invent this whole bizarre plot. England supported abolition when it was cheap for to them to do so. Now it’s looking like it might get expensive if their cotton is cut off, so they are muddling through this. Their lack of intervention is not due to a desire to let the war do maximum damage or cause financial collapse, but based on the fact that they have other foreign entanglements that are much more consequential at the moment and can’t afford a new one.

Here’s the text of the portion that mentions “conspiracy theory”:

Now, when we look for the cause of this, any man who has made European politics his study at home, or, being abroad has known mercily so much of them as one cannot help knowing, from dally perusal of the French and English papers, sees fast enough that since 1849 (to go no further back) England has had quite enough to do in Europe and Asia, without going out of her way to meddle with America. It was a physical and moral impossibility that she could be carrying on a gigantic conspiracy against us. But our masses, having only a rough general knowledge of foreign affairs, and not unnaturally somewhat exaggerating the space which we occupy in the world’s eye, do not appreciate the complications which rendered such a conspiracy impossible. They only look at the sudden right-about-face movement of the English Press and public, which is most readily accounted for on the conspiracy theory.

New York Times, January 11, 1863.

You’ll note here that conspiracy theory — almost ten years before the other examples historians often note — is used much how we would use it now. It’s a put down, an assertion that the complexity someone else sees is a result of ignorance or worse.

You’ll note too something that is almost too delicious: the first use of conspiracy theory is about a conspiracy said to involve the press . The first reference to conspiracy theory we have on record is, in part, a “The press is so unfair because they’re in the bag for the elite cabal” conspiracy. Fake news, man.

I can’t help but feel that this citation raises some questions — a few at least — around some of the cultural history I’ve read on the use of the term conspiracy theory. But it’s Christmas Eve, and I’m not really interested in those conversations right now — I just wanted to correct something I’ve been seeing people get wrong.

To my knowledge I’m the first to trace back the etymology this far, but if I’m not, you can let me know in the comments. If I’m not the the first, it’s worthwhile anyway to get this up so that people stop making this mistake.

The Homeostatic Fallacy and Misinformation Literacy

I wrote a thing for Neiman’s year-end journalism predictions yesterday that I’m quite excited about. Hopefully will be out soon. (Update: it’s here.)

In the article I finally publish this term I’ve been throwing around in some private conversations — the “homeostatic fallacy”. 

Homeostasis is a fundamental concept of biology. The typical example is human temperature. For humans the temperature 98.6 tends to be a very desirable temperature. And so what you find is no matter where you put a human body — in the arctic or the tropics — the human body finds ways to keep that temperature constant. In hot environments you sweat, and the condensation helps cool you. Your blood vessels dilate, to bring more heat to the skin where it can be dispensed with. In cold environments your blood vessels constrict. 

There are a lot of people out there that think that misinformation is sort of like hot and cold environments are towards the body. In other words, both misinformation (let’s think of it as cold) and information literacy (let’s think of it as heat) have relatively little effect, because the mind has certain homeostatic mechanisms that protect against identity threat and provide resistance to new ideas. And there’s a certain truth to this. Knowing the facts about nuclear power won’t suddenly make you a supporter, and learning the history of Reconstruction won’t turn you woke. 

And as such, we hear a lot of critiques about media literacy of the sort that you can’t change people’s minds by giving them better information. Homeostatic arguments sometimes go even further, claiming bad information is likely not leading to bad decisions anyway.

Often this is posed as a counter to a naive Cartesian view of beliefs, that treats our decision-making processes as scientific. But weirdly, both the homeostatic view of misinformation and the Cartesian one suffer from the same transactional blindspot. On a case by case basis — show a person a fact, check if it changes them — homeostatic mechanisms often prevail. Your mind has certain psychological set-points and will often fight to keep them constant, even in the face of disinformation or massive scientific evidence. 

But the fallacy is that the set-point itself will not change.

People often use temperature as an example of a homeostatic set-point, but I think another example is far more educational. Consider weight.

Your body has a natural weight it gravitates towards, and the power of that set-point can’t be underestimated. Think about this astonishing fact — one pound of weight is about 3,500 excess calories. To maintain weight over a year, your average intake would have to stay within about 10 calories a day of maintenance levels. Few people account for calories at this level of precision, and yet many retain a stable weight year after year. That’s the power of homeostasis.

How do we gain weight, then? There’s quite a lot of debate on this, actually. But, more or less, temporary behavior and adverse events, in sufficient quantities, not only increase our weight, but change our set-points. And now the homeostatic mechanisms that kept us trim work against us, to keep the pounds on.

In short time frames, a sort of psychological homeostasis is protective. We see bad info or good info and nothing changes. We share a corrosive meme and we’re still the same person. Just as a single cookie at the Christmas party will have a net zero effect on your weight through the magic of homeostasis, a single bit of disinfo isn’t going to change you.

But the goal of disinformation isn’t really around these individual transactions. The goal of disinformation is to, over time, change our psychological set-points. To the researcher looking at individuals at specific points in time, the homeostasis looks protective — fire up Mechanical Turk, see what people believe, give them information or disinformation, see what changes. What you’ll find is nothing changes — set-points are remarkably resilient.

But underneath that, from year to year, is drift. And its the drift that matters.

Recognition Is Futile (and also dangerous)

I often talk about the dangerous of teaching students to “recognize” fake news. Here’s a good example from today of why recognition is a lousy strategy that can lead to bad results, a tweet proposing that the President of Nigeria has been replaced with a clone.

Here is how Peter Adams’s excellent newsletter The Sift  describes the conspiracy theory:

Speaking on Sunday to Nigerians living in Poland, where he is attending a U.N. climate conference, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari denied viral rumors — amplified by his political opponents — that he had died and that a look-alike from Sudan had taken his place.

The rumors first emerged in 2017 amid Buhari’s lengthy, unexplained disappearances from public life. They have been strengthened by misinformation and conspiracy theories shared on social media — including by Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, a political activist and leader of a separatist group.

But wait, are those the same person? Look closely…

What do you think? 

See, here’s the thing, and I really wish we’d put this at the center of what we do. If I tell you these are the same person, you’ll say, “But of course, it’s so obvious!” and point to some details. On the other hand, if I say actually I played a trick on you and swapped a picture out for another one, you’ll say… “But of course, it’s so obvious!” and point to other details.

Why is that? Two reasons. First, the informational field here is dense. A photograph has literally hundreds of things I can drill down on, and given an initial orientation towards the photo I may often find whatever I need to bolster that initial orientation. Second, there’s no stopping rule for declaring whether these are the same person or not. There’s no point, for example, where you can have looked at three precise things and declare, with high certainty, that this is confirmed to be him. So instead of bringing you to more certainty, the longer you look at it the more likely you are to find some strange differences, and the more likely you are to become confused.

Most things aren’t quite as informationally dense as photographs, but the same problems come into play. The more features you have to look at, the more you start to be manipulated. Don’t believe me? Here’s a cruel trick you can play on your faculty. Show them this page:

Tell them — hey this is a suspicious medical site, how do we know? Unless they know the site is the site of one one of the most prestigious journals in medicine they’ll tell you all the reasons why it’s obvious this is a junk site:

  • It’s a .com, not a .org. Probably an imposter.
  • There’s literally an “Our Company” link at the top. Like, hello!?! This is not a journal!
  • “Beating sugar taxes” in that headline doesn’t sound very scholarly
  • And look at these pictures, they look like something from a clickbait site, stock photos, etc.
  • There’s a popup ad that looks like an ad for some sort of pharmaceutical promotion in the bottom, what a scam!

Start by telling them the opposite — that it’s one of the top five medical journals published in English, and again, they’ll come up with all the reasons why it was so so obvious from the start this was quality:

  • Good clean style
  • Lots of focus on medical practice
  • Scholarly titles on some articles
  • Mentions of the CDC
  • Research tab and Authors tab looks legit.

In a dense informational field you think you’re being Sherlock, and feel pretty smart. But the more data you look at the more you’ll get confused.

This is well known by people outside online media literacy of course. Ever go to buy a car? The psychology of dealerships is to put complex configurations of car options in front of you — this one is $1600 more but it has the power windows and the satellite radio is standard, it has seat warmers and leather interiors, this one is less but but doesn’t have ABS and doesn’t come in white, at least on the lot. All of this stuff is fed to you deliberately to overload your cognition so that by the time you sit down and hear about their special warranties you’re putty in their hands. 

If you want to survive on the internet or in a car dealership, you have to radically reduce what you look at. If seat warmers and satellite radio were not things you came in looking for — ignore them entirely. Their value to you is zero. Reduce the information you look at dramatically, and prefer things that are resolvable to comparable criteria (is this journal well cited compared to other journals) to things that aren’t comparable (which page looks more professional). Choose a couple crucial things, and stop there if those things suggest clear answer.

Our four moves approach, of course, deals with just this issue, and you can read about it here.

Empower Teachers First

Someone asked me today whether I could share any insights about OER creation. I have a few thoughts about that, but the one I always come back to is that you have to empower teachers first.

You know that thing on planes where it’s like “In case of sudden decompression, put on your own oxygen mask first. Once it’s securely fastened, help those around you put on theirs?”

That’s OER. If the teacher gets their mask on they are going to save the damn plane, and if they don’t you’re all screwed. 

There are other models of course — every mega-MOOC wanted to do a direct-to-student play back in 2011. The OpenCourseWare movement largely ignored teacher-facing resources for most of its history. In both cases, the lack of focus on reuse by teachers resulted in impact patterns that followed the “Matthew Effect”, with most gains going to the students that came in with privilege, knowledge, and access.  Those who already had knowledge and opportunity gained more opportunity, but those who didn’t never get a foot on that first rung.

The way to help at-risk students and the way to create more diversity in professions lacking it is not to create more and better self-study materials. It is to find teachers that are already teaching the populations you want to attract or help and relentlessly focus on helping them be better and more effective teachers. 


I’ve written on this, alone and with Amy Collier, a bunch of times over the years. Here are some posts on it. Some of this is dated but the larger points still hold:

Why I Am Concentrating On Open Teaching Resources (2010)

Openness as a Privilege Multiplier (2011)

Why We Shouldn’t Talk MOOCs as Meritocracies (2012)

Rethinking Online Community in MOOCs Used for Blended Learning (2013, with Amy Collier)