Wikipedia is evil, yeah that’s right evil. The other day I was tooling around in the o’le RSS river of news when I stumbled upon a random tweet from apparent computing legend Daniel Bernstein. Who, though I confess I’d never heard of him before (please don’t make me turn in my geek card), was apparently instrumental in getting software code recognized by the judicial branch as protected speech under the First Amendment. His message read simply:
“@engineyard CoWS coWS CowS cOWS DiRTY DIrtY DirTy DIRtY COWS COWS cOwS cOWS bvpDq”
Needless to say the message above left me asking myself a couple of questions, chief among them being: “What the fuck is this guy talking about?” A couple of quick clicks through @engineyard and I soon realized that this was a submission for a contest. The contest itself was a challenge to tweet a twelve word message that when hashed would have the lowest hamming distance from the hash of the original challenge phrase. Simple right, wait.. what? Hamming Distance? Hashed? OK, off to wikipedia.
CLOSE ON an old school analog clock hanging on the wall, the second and minute hands start turning faster and faster until time begins to fly by at super speed.
CUT TO: our intrepid adventurer, mouth agape, hair disheveled, eyes blurry and tired, according to the clock on the wall hours and hours have slipped away into the shadowy night never to be returned.
OK, so maybe that’s a bit dramatic but you get what I’m saying right? It started off as an innocent inquiry about Hamming Distance (seriously who could resist finding out what that means) and ended up with me spending 2 hours learning about Secure Hashing Algorithms. I’m enough of a geek that I’d at least heard of SHA-1 and hashes before but I never really understood what they were or how it all worked. It was high time I did understand how all those things fit together .. right? See that’s the rub, I don’t really NEED to know what those things are, this knowledge holds no real direct application in my current life. No one’s going to stop me on the street tomorrow and ask me to explain the basics of a cryptographic hash function.
But, once I started I just couldn’t stop. That’s the genius of wikipedia, never before have we had so much information so well documented, so well interconnected, with such a low barrier to access. Anything you could possibly want to know from Alien vs. Predator to Halie Selassie is available to you. Those were just two links from todays front page on Wikipedia and I’ve got to be honest I read through most of the entry for Haile Selassie as I was grabbing the URL for this post. Of course I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, everyone loves and uses this service all the time.
It’s good to take a step back occasionally though and recognize just how amazing this is. I don’t want to get all Kant on you here but I think that the desire to learn something we don’t already know is an absolute fundamental aspect of the human condition. It’s hard wired into our brains and now more than ever we have the tools we need to scratch that itch. Like a nicotine fiend with a patch on each arm and an unfiltered Marlboro hanging out of the corner of your mouth, Wikipedia will let you mainline knowledge all night if you let it.
It’s about 1:30 am right now and I haven’t fully thought this through (and I’m still high on my newly acquired understanding of “Hamming Distance”) but I think that Wikipedia might just be the single greatest invention to have resulted from the web, and it’s greatest curse.