Diverging to nonsense? Thoughts on Wikipedia

Will Wikipedia converge into a useful encyclopedia, or will it diverge to nonsense?  That is one of the central questions discussed in a story I heard yesterday morning on NPR‘s Morning Edition.  An interesting story to listen to if you are interested in where Wikipedia is going, though for those who are already familiar there may not be a whole lot of new info.  One ‘a-ha’ moment for me was the observation (paraphrased), “If the community of people who volunteer and maintain Wikipedai breaks down, the Wikipedia will turn into a wasteland of spam, porn, etc.”

The NPR story also touched on – but didn’t delve into – the question of whether Wikipedia should try to be a “legitimate” encyclopedia, focusing on only things that a legitimate encyclopedia woud address, or a repository of whatever information users want to post there.  For more information on that debate, check out Deletionists, inclusionists, and delusionists from Nicholas Carr.

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Escher and Hilbert on passion

From my M. C. Escher calendar:

Any schoolboy with a little aptitude can perhaps draw better than I; but what he lacks in most cases is that tenacious desire to make it reality, that obstinate gnashing of the teeth and saying, “Although I know it can’t be done, I want to do it anyway.”

This brings to mind a passage from John Derbyshire‘s book Prime Obsession, a combined biography of Bernhard Riemann and history of attempts to solve his famous hypothesis:

[David] Hilbert believed firmly in the unbounded power of the human mind to uncover the truths of Nature and mathematics. In his youth, the rather pessimistic theories of the French philosopher Emil du Bois-Reymond had been very popular. Du Bois-Reymond maintained that certain things – the nature of matter and of human consciousness, for example – are intrinsically unknowable. He coined the apothegm ignoramus et ignorabimus – “we are ignorant and we shall remain ignorant.” Hilbert had never liked this gloomy philosophy. …

We ought not believe those who today, with a philosophical air and a tone of superiority, prophesy the decline of culture, and are smug in their acceptance of the Ignorabimus principle. For us there is no Ignorabimus, and in my opinion there is none for the natural sciences either. In place of this foolish Ignorabimus, let our resolution be, to the contrary: “We must know, we shall know.”

As I’ve mentioned before, desire and passion (and a touch of obsession) are key to achieving mastery, and accomplishing things that no one else thinks is even possible.

Wir müssen wissen, wir werden wissen.