Friday, September 28, 2007

Conflict Junkies

True or False: Journalists are attracted to conflict like moths to a flame.

Ben Stein is a freelance commentator who occasionally appears on CBS Sunday Morning. He narrates a new film, due out in January, entitled, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.”

The film explores aspects of the conflict between science and religion arising from the controversies over Intelligent Design vs. Darwinian Evolution.

There is a good NY Times article by Cornelia Dean about the film, and the controversy surrounding it. The controversy isn't just about the subject matter of the film, but the ethics of making the film, itself. Some of the scientists interviewed for the film claim they were misled about the film's slant.

I suppose people can argue about the character of the film's slant, but it occurs to me it's slanted toward controversy. And so are the characters who step up to these controversies.

There is already a Wikipedia article about the controversial film, written by members of the controversial Wikipedia Project on Intelligent Design.

It's unclear whether these Wikipedia editors consider themselves to be journalists, but it's increasingly apparent they are attracted to controversy like moths to a flame.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Fake Bombs and Fake Art

I'm not an artist. I only play one on the Internet.

Which is to say that any art I produce is merely fake art of the lamest variety.

Here is my latest attempt at art...

You probably can't make out what this is, but it's a telephone punch-down block with a computer battery on the right, an electrolytic capacitor on the left, and a cluster of NE2 bulbs in the middle. It took me about 20 minutes to make it, mostly looking for the box of NE2 bulbs in the basement. Actual fabrication time was about 3 minutes.

Last week, a 19-year old MIT student with marginally more artistic talent than me constructed a similar artifact, using green LEDs instead of NE2 bulbs. She arranged them into a star pattern, since her name is Star. It was her name-tag for MIT Career Day.

And then she was arrested for displaying a 'hoax device' that journalists covering the story labeled as a 'fake bomb' in their breathless national headlines.

The only hoax was the one perpetrated by the authorities, who took one look at a harmless cluster of green LEDs and trumpeted 'hoax device' to a gullible press.

Shame on the authorities and shame on the press.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Antisocial Darwinism: Diversity and Wikicide

The popular CBS series, Survivor, illustrates the political drama of the elimination of one's rivals by voting them off the island.

The term, Social Darwinism, reflects a more conventional version of that political practice, when it comes to extinguishing an unwanted socio-cultural lineage. In the worst case, Social Darwinism devolves into Ethnic Cleansing and even Genocide. On the other side, there is the celebration of Cultural Diversity.

At the intersection of politics, culture, and religion, those of us with a scientific or journalistic perspective find no shortage of human phenomena to observe and chronicle.

On the other hand the practice of observing and chronicling the phenomenon of Social Darwinism can sometimes subject a scientist or journalist to a firsthand experience of being voted off the island.

A good example is the case of Judd Bagley vs Gary Weiss.

Judd Bagley is one of the principals behind OverStock.Com, a commercial website that remarkets surplus retail merchandise. Incidentally, Bagley is also the owner of another website, AntiSocialMedia.Net, which levels criticisms at writers who "abuse social media for personal gain." In Veni, Vidi, Wiki, Bagley turns his sights on a business journalist, Gary Weiss, whom Bagley also identifies as a frequent contributor to Wikipedia. Bagley's criticisms of Wikipedian practices and ethics is so scathing and so stinging, that neutral editors on Wikipedia can't decide how to present the controversy in Wikipedia's own article on OverStock.Com and Judd Bagley. Some editors want to brand AntiSocialMedia.Net a "Bad Site" and forbid its mention on Wikipedia. Other editors adopt the view that if a Wikipedia article is going to mention and characterize AntiSocialMedia.Net, then the article should include a live link to the so-called "Bad Site." The editors have taken their impasse to arbitration on Wikipedia.

Without passing on the merits of the charges and counter-charges arising in the above kerfuffle, there does appear to be some kind of liminal social drama in play regarding cultural diversity, freedom to publish responsible criticism, and Wikicide.

Whether Wikicide refers to critics killing off Wikipedia, or Wikipedia killing off its critics remain to be discovered.

After they finish voting each other off the island, there may not be any survivors at all.

There may not even be any island left when this war is over.

See, for example, this proposal to supplant Wikipedia by a more intelligently designed system: