June 17, 2024

Quite a variety this time around. Let’s get started:

Article: “The Decline of Wikipedia” by Tom Simonite

Years ago, it was famously easy to edit a Wikipedia article— that was one of the things that made it so unreliable as a source of information. The people who run Wikipedia responded to that problem by making it mud more difficult, and giving a few key individuals the ability to accept or reject edits. While that move worked, in the sense that it got rid of most of the rapid, malicious changes and vandalism, it also had a side-effect: dramatically reducing the number of people working on Wikipedia articles. Reducing the number means slowing down the growth of Wikipedia, but it also means reducing the diversity of editors, which makes it harder to solve one of Wikipedia’s other big problems: its blind spots in certain areas (like, say, women writers).

I’m interested in this because, actually, I really like Wikipedia. I think it’s a great idea, and that in many ways it has, really, become a fantastic information resource. I use it constantly, even in an academic context— I just use it certain, very specific ways, which are a bit safer. But I think that a good Wikipedia, that is well-run and open, and at least relatively reliable, is a great thing. I don’t know how they should strike the balance between editorial control and attracting contributors, but I think we should all be rooting for them to do it.


Article: “How a Grad Student Trying to Build the First Botnet Brought the Internet to Its Knees” by Timothy B. Lee

Robert Morris was a computer science grad student at Cornell in 1988, when he created and released what would later be called the Morris Worm, the first real malware distributed on the internet. He didn’t really mean for it to be malware, didn’t mean to do any damage— and the courts seemed to agree, sentencing to probation and community service rather than giving him jail time. All the same, he made computer security a real concern for the first time, and provided a model for countless other more destructive viruses that came later. This story encapsulates the early years of the internet in a number of ways: the smallness of the community, and the consequent level of trust; the way in which its development, for good and for ill, was driven by curiosity first and foremost; and how old much of the basic infrastructure is everything still runs on today.


Article: “The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think” by James Somers

Douglas Hofstadter became one of the most prominent scholars in the field of Artificial Intelligence in 1980…and then became much, much less prominent, in large part because most people in the field more or less gave up on trying to actually do what he considers to be “artificial intelligence.” For Hofstadter, AI is the attempt to actually model human consciousness— to create machines that genuinely think, more or less like human beings do. From the perspective, the field is as much concerned with figuring out what consciousness is and how it works and how it is connected to the brain as it is with writing software. For others working in AI, though, the goal is to solve specific problems, to find ways of making computers perform complex tasks faster and more efficiently than humans can; it’s about automation, with the tasks to be automated getting more and more subtle and difficult. But whether the computer perfuming the task is doing anything remotely like human thinking is not considered. Hofstadter partly just seems to find this less interesting, but also thinks that, eventually, that approach is going to hit a wall that cannot be surmounted without gong back to his approach.


Article/Images: “Zalipie: Poland’s Painted Village”

After those three technology articles, here’s a piece about a place that seems radically outside all of that: In this little village in Poland, supposedly in order to cover up soot stains from fires used for cooking and heating, women began painting designs on their houses. The practice spread beyond what was necessary for dealing with soot, and now the village is entirely decorated in this way, right down, in at least one case, to the chicken coops. This is apparently unique to this village, and it’s been going on now for a couple of generations. The designs are intricate and lovely, and it’s also a great example of how the homogenizing forces of globalization consistently leave these kinds of nooks and crannies untouched.


Film: “Ponte Tower” by Phillip Bloom

Ponte Tower was a large apartment block in Johannesburg, South Africa, built to house the wealthiest people in the city in luxury. Then, for various reasons, the building was essentially abandoned by its owners, who left it poorly maintained and dirty, with, at one point, a three-story pile of garbage in the center of its cylinder. More recently, though, new owners have started paying attention again, and because of their focus on security the building has become a kind of affordable safe-haven for people in one of the most crime-ridden cities in one of the highest-crime countries in the world. It’s a surreal place; you can see how luxurious and spacious the apartments originally were, but the building as a whole remains in such poor condition. This film left me, at least, with many unanswered questions, but it’s a fascinating look at the unexpected consequences of economic and political change.

Via The Verge


Music Video: “V (Island Song)” by These New Puritans

I was thinking recently about how, with MTV abandoning music altogether, there is no obvious, reliable outlet for music videos any more. I know you can find them all on YouTube and whatnot, but you have to go looking for specific ones; you can’t just turn to a channel to watch videos, any videos, whatever comes on, like you turn on the radio. It seems that this has taken a lot of pressure off of the video; bands don’t have to make them at all, and if they do they don’t see the video as a key means of selling more records, so they can mess around with it and take risks. I don’t know if that analysis will stand scrutiny, but I thought of it in part because of this very weird video for a weird, long, almost wordless song taken from a pretty weird album. This probably wouldn’t have gotten played on MTV at all, and as such it probably wouldn’t have gotten made in the first place. So that seems like a good aspect of the way the internet has changed the music industry.

Via Pitchfork

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