Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Nobel Prize

The difference engine

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Earlier this month, within the space of less than a day, two significant events occurred in the life of Donna Strickland, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo. She won the Nobel Prize in Physics, and she finally got her own Wikipedia page. As the biologist and Wikipedia activist Dawn Bazely writes in an excellent opinion piece for the Washington Post:

The long delay was not for lack of trying. Last May, an editor had rejected a submitted entry on Strickland, saying the subject did not meet Wikipedia’s notability requirement. Strickland’s biography went up shortly after her award was announced. If you click on the “history” tab to view the page’s edits, you can replay the process of a woman scientist finally gaining widespread recognition, in real time.

And it isn’t an isolated problem, as Bazely points out: “According to the Wikimedia Foundation, as of 2016, only 17 percent of the reference project’s biographies were about women.” When Bazely asked some of her students to create articles on women in ecology or the sciences, she found that their efforts frequently ran headlong into Wikipedia’s editing culture: “Many of their contributions got reversed almost immediately, in what is known as a ‘drive-by deletion’…I made an entry for Kathy Martin, current president of the American Ornithological Society and a global authority on arctic and alpine grouse. Almost immediately after her page went live, a flag appeared over the top page: ‘Is this person notable enough?’”

Strickland’s case is an unusually glaring example, but it reflects a widespread issue that extends far beyond Wikipedia itself. In a blog post about the incident, Ed Erhart, a senior editorial associate at the Wikimedia foundation, notes that the original article on Strickland was rejected by an editor who stated that it lacked “published, reliable, secondary sources that are independent of the subject.” But he also raises a good point about the guidelines used to establish academic notability: “Academics may be writing many of the sources volunteer Wikipedia editors use to verify the information on Wikipedia, but they are only infrequently the subject of those same sources. And when it does occur, they usually feature men from developed nations—not women or other under-represented groups.” Bazely makes a similar observation:

We live in a world where women’s accomplishments are routinely discounted and dismissed. This occurs at every point in the academic pipeline…Across disciplines, men cite their own research more often than women do. Men give twice as many academic talks as women—engagements which give scholars a chance to publicize their work, find collaborators and build their resumes for potential promotions and job offers. Female academics tend to get less credit than males for their work on a team. Outside of academia, news outlets quote more male voices than female ones—another key venue for proving “notability” among Wikipedia editors. These structural biases have a ripple effect on our crowdsourced encyclopedia.

And this leads to an undeniable feedback effect, in which the existing sources used to establish notability are used to create Wikipedia articles, when serve as evidence of notability in the future.

Bazely argues that articles on male subjects don’t seem to be held to the same high standards as those for women, which reflects the implicit biases of its editors, the vast majority of whom are men. She’s right, but I also think that there’s a subtle historical element at play. Back during the wild west days of Wikipedia, when the community was still defining itself, the demographics of its most prolific editors were probably even less diverse than they are now. During those formative years, thousands of pages were generated under a looser set of standards, and much of that material has been grandfathered into the version that exists today. I should know, because I was a part of it. While I may not have been a member of the very first generation of Wikipedia editors—one of my friends still takes pride in the fact that he created the page for “knife”—I was there early enough to originate a number of articles that I thought were necessary. I created pages for such people as Darin Morgan and Julee Cruise, and when I realized that there wasn’t an entry for “mix tape,” I spent the better part of two days at work putting one together. By the standards of the time, I was diligent and conscientious, but very little of what I did would pass muster today. My citations were erratic, I included my own subjective commentary and evaluations along with verifiable facts, and I indulged in original research, which the site rightly discourages. Multiply this by a thousand, and you get a sense of the extent to which the foundations of Wikipedia were laid by exactly the kind of editor in his early twenties for whom writing a cultural history of the mix tape took priority over countless other deserving subjects. (It isn’t an accident that I had started thinking about mix tapes again because of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which provides a scathing portrait of a certain personality type, not unlike my own, that I took for years at face value.)

And I don’t even think that I was wrong. Wikipedia is naturally skewed in favor of the enthusiasms of its users, and articles that are fun to research, write, and discuss will inevitably get more attention. But the appeal of a subject to a minority of active editors isn’t synonymous with notability, and it takes a conscious effort to correct the result, especially when it comes to the older strata of contributions. While much of what I wrote fifteen years ago has been removed or revised by other hands, a lot of it still persists, because it’s easier to monitor new edits than to systematically check pages that have been around for years. And it leaves behind a residue of the same kinds of unconscious assumptions that I’ve identified elsewhere in other forms of canonization. Wikipedia is part of our cultural background now, invisible and omnipresent, and we tend to take it for granted. (Like Google, it can be hard to research it online because its name has become a synonym for information itself. Googling “Google,” or keywords associated with it, is a real headache, and looking for information about Wikipedia—as opposed to information presented in a Wikipedia article—presents many of the same challenges.) And nudging such a huge enterprise back on course, even by a few degrees, doesn’t happen by accident. One way is through the “edit-a-thons” that often occur on Ada Lovelace Day, which is named after the mathematician whose posthumous career incidentally illustrates how historical reputations can be shaped by whoever happens to be telling the story.  We think of Lovelace, who worked with Charles Babbage on the difference engine, as a feminist hero, but as recently as the early sixties, one writer could cite her as an example of genetic mediocrity: “Lord Byron’s surviving daughter, Ada, what did she produce in maturity? A system for betting on horse races that was a failure, and she died at thirty-six, shattered and deranged.” The writer was the popular novelist Irving Wallace, who is now deservedly forgotten. And the book was a bestseller about the Nobel Prize.

Written by nevalalee

October 15, 2018 at 9:04 am

The stress test

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Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back

When you’re trying to figure out how the world works, you can often learn a lot from extreme cases. If you’re putting together a computer simulation, for instance, you can test it for degeneracy by entering zeroes—or another lower or upper bound—for all the parameters and watching how the model responds. In engineering, it’s the principle behind the stress test, in which you subject a system or a machine to unrealistic conditions in order to find its breaking point. Semiconductor manufacturers, for example, talk about process corners, which are the extremes of the parameters within which an integrated circuit is supposed to keep working. As part of the design process, they’ll make corner lots, which are essentially batches of chips that have been deliberately fabricated with these extreme values, and test them against various conditions to see how they hold up. The result can be graphed on a chart called a shmoo plot, which allows you to visualize the operating range of the device that you’re developing. Even if these conditions seem unlikely to come up in practice, they can provide you with valuable data that wouldn’t be obvious using more moderate or conservative assumptions. They can show you the limits of the design. And they can allow you to prepare for “black swan” events that occur more often than experience itself would imply.

Over the last month, we’ve experienced two unforgettable examples of such extreme values in the real world. The first, obviously, is the strange case of Donald Trump, who sometimes behaves as if someone had created a political candidate using an avatar editor in a video game and turned all the knobs to their lowest setting. Trump isn’t qualified to hold office. He isn’t a likable human being. You can’t even say that he appeals to the ideologues, since his ideas are either nonexistent, repulsive, or so unreliable as to be meaningless. He isn’t a good debater; he’s at war with the establishment within his own party; he’s gone out of his way to alienate entire groups of voters; and these days, he doesn’t even seem all that interested in campaigning. Yet his support has held more or less steady at forty percent. It’s alarming, but it’s also an immensely important piece of information. Trump’s share of the popular vote, whatever it turns out to be, represents the effective floor for a Republican nominee in this country. It’s hard to imagine what he possibly could have done to make it harder on himself. As a result, he’s established a baseline for candidates in the future, and he’s taught us that the marginal difference between the worst and the best conservative candidate amounts to something like ten percentage points. If this were a simulation, we’d have trouble believing it.

Donald Trump

But we recently saw another test case, at the opposite end of the spectrum, when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dylan has failed to even acknowledge the honor, which has led at least one member of the Swedish Academy to call his behavior “impolite and arrogant.” Yet his response only underlines what many of us subconsciously realized when the award was first announced. It’s going to be harder to take the Nobel Prize seriously in the future, not because Dylan isn’t a deserving recipient, but because when you put the prize next to him, it looks small. Dylan, like Trump, is an extreme case: he’s already acquired all the wealth, critical acclaim, and popular success that any artist could desire. This means that his selection gives us valuable insight into the real worth of a Nobel Prize, when you’ve stripped away all of the usual benefits that it confers. The answer isn’t all that flattering to the prize itself. In fact, it starts to look like it doesn’t mean anything. When you give the most prestigious award in existence to one of the world’s most famous men, it’s a stress test, not just for the Nobel Prize, but for all prizes whatsoever. The committee presumably hoped to make a statement by picking a popular artist, but it would have been better off continuing to award European poets and playwrights who are virtually unknown outside their native countries. By presenting it to Dylan, they’ve inadvertently exposed their own irrelevance.

And such examples are interesting primarily because of the light that they shed on more routine cases. Trump is less illuminating in isolation, since I doubt we’ll see a candidate like him ever again, than in the perspective he affords on all the little Trumps with whom he surrounds himself. He tells us how large a proportion of the Republican base is utterly indifferent to its candidate’s strengths or weaknesses, which is a data point that needs to be taken into account in every future election. Bob Dylan’s lesson is less obvious, but even more instructive. There’s only one Dylan, but he’s just an extreme instance of what every artist ought to be: you stick to your principles, you don’t sell out, you follow your own intuitions rather than those of your audience, and you find satisfaction in the work itself. We should all be little Dylans. If the Nobel Prize doesn’t make a difference to him, then maybe any material reward whatsoever shouldn’t matter to any working artist. (And yes, this includes the money, which few artists would turn down, but which ultimately seems unnecessary, or at least beside the point.) From now on, whenever we hear that someone has won an award, we should ask ourselves: “How would this change Bob Dylan’s life?” The answer is that it wouldn’t, which should serve as a reminder to those who strive to embody his virtues without his fame. The Nobel committee couldn’t add a cubit to Dylan’s stature, any more than Trump could lower the bottom any further. And we’ve learned a lot from them both—which doesn’t make it any less stressful.

Written by nevalalee

October 27, 2016 at 9:13 am

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