A Crash Course in Wikipedia Vandalism

Reader Johnny Cat wrote in to ask about which Wikipedia entries have the highest incidences of false information in them. "I'm aware that almost everything there, from Applebee's to Zorro, has errors every day," he wrote, "but something in my gut tells me there are certain topics that just attract bad submitters."

Johnny Cat—and you—will probably be as surprised as I was scrolling down Wikipedia's List of Most Vandalized Pages, because there doesn't seem to be any method to the madness of wiki vandalism as far subject matter is concerned. Among the victims of "exceptionally high vandalism" are the entries for Jack London, baseball, Halo 2, Harry Potter, piano, home improvement and buttocks. The commonality among some of the most vandalized entries seems to be that they're recent major news events, topics that are currently, or have been, subjects of controversy, or entries that are simply popular and often read.

Back up. What is wiki vandalism in the first place?

Wikipedia defines it as any "addition, removal, or change of content made in a deliberate attempt to compromise the integrity of Wikipedia," which can come in variety of flavors, such as...

Blanking: Removing all or significant parts of a page's content without any reason, or replacing entire pages with nonsense.
Page creation: Creating new pages with the intent of malicious behavior, like blatant advertising pages, personal attack pages and hoaxes.
Page lengthening: Adding large amounts of bad-faith content in order to make the page's load time abnormally long or even make it impossible to load without browser crashing.
Spam: Adding external links to non-notable or irrelevant sites or sites that have some relationship to the subject matter, but advertise or promote in the user's interest.
Silly vandalism: Adding profanity, graffiti, random characters or other nonsense to entries or creating nonsensical and non-encyclopedic pages.
Image vandalism: Uploading shock images, inappropriately placing explicit images on pages, or using images in other disruptive ways.

Once the damage is done, how long does it take to fix?

In the interest of science, Wikipedia user Colonel Chaos vandalized featured articles, the entries that are considered the cream of the Wikipedia crop. Since Wikipedia employs software created to help find easy-to-spot vandalism (like "Your mom!" or "POOP!!!!"), the Colonel engaged in slightly more complex vandalism of three types: Complete Nonsense, where passages of completely irrelevant prose were inserted into articles; Grave Factual Accuracy, where material was changed or inserted in a way that it would be obvious to the average reader or editor of Wikipedia that the material was untrue (e.g. That Martin Sheen discovered hydrochloric acid by mixing potatoes with salt and invented Agent Orange for the purpose of dissolving gold); and Factual Inaccuracy, where articles were changed slightly so a reader would need some knowledge of the topic in order to spot the inaccuracy (e.g. the article on Norman Borlaug was changed from "Between 1965 and 1970, wheat yields nearly doubled in Pakistan and India" to "Between 1968 and 1975, wheat yields nearly tripled in Pakistan and India."

The average response time on these changes were 11.5 hours for Complete Nonsense, 9.25 hours for Grave Inaccuracy and 57.4 minutes for Factual Inaccuracy. Colonel Chaos notes that for featured articles, which rotate on Wikipedia's main page and are heavily viewed, a reversion time of 10 minutes would be more appropriate.

Here are some highlights from the study:

Article Elapsed Time between vandalism and reversion
Medal of Honor 1 Minute
Hydrochloric Acid 14 hours 16 minutes (Edited by an automated bot in between Colonel Chaos' edit and the revert).
Second Crusade 42 hours 38 minutes (According to Colonel Chaos, "This one suffered another incident of vandalism and was reverted to my version before my modifications were corrected. Honestly, how long does it take to figure out that Gregory Peck, Bill Cosby, and Harry Potter didn't lead the Second Crusade and that Paul Revere wasn't involved?)

Is there any way to stop this madness?

Well, there was the plan to simply let vandals run amok on the entry for chickens. By sacrificing this article—"Dudes already know about chickens. Ladies also already know about chickens. Does an encyclopedia really need an article about nature's tastiest birds?"—it was hoped that the rest of Wikipedia would be spared. The plan, like the bird, never really got off the ground.

Then there's WikiScanner, created by Daniel Erenrich and Virgil Griffith, which allows users to trace the source of anonymous edits to Wikipedia entries and by using IP address of the anonymous user (which Wikipedia logs) to identify the owner of the computer network from which the edits were made. In the past, the tool has exposed insiders at Diebold Election Systems, Exxon and the CIA covertly deleting or changing information that was unflattering to their organizations. If you can't stop a vandal, you can at least pull back the curtain of anonymity.

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Apeel
New Plant-Based Coating Can Keep Your Avocados Fresh for Twice as Long
Apeel
Apeel

Thanks to a food technology startup called Apeel Sciences, eating fresh avocados will soon be a lot easier. The Bill Gates–backed company has developed a coating designed to keep avocados fresh for up to twice as long as traditional fruit, Bloomberg reports, and these long-lasting avocados will soon be available at 100 grocery stores across the Midwestern U.S. Thirty or so of the grocery stores involved in the limited rollout of the Apeel avocado will be Costcos, so feel free to buy in bulk.

Getting an avocado to a U.S. grocery store is more complicated than it sounds; the majority of avocados sold in the U.S. come from California or Mexico, making it tricky to get fruit to the Midwest or New England at just the right moment in an avocado’s life cycle.

Apeel’s coating is made of plant material—lipids and glycerolipids derived from peels, seeds, and pulp—that acts as an extra layer of protective peel on the fruit, keeping water in and oxygen out, and thus reducing spoilage. (Oxidation is the reason that your sliced avocados and apples brown after they’ve been exposed to the air for a while.) The tasteless coating comes in a powder that fruit producers mix with water and then dip their fruit into.

A side-by-side comparison of a coated and uncoated avocado after 30 days, with the uncoated avocado looking spoiled and the coated one looking fresh
Apeel

According to Apeel, coating a piece of produce in this way can keep it fresh for two to three times longer than normal without any sort of refrigeration of preservatives. This not only allows consumers a few more days to make use of their produce before it goes bad, reducing food waste, but can allow producers to ship their goods to farther-away markets without refrigeration.

Avocados are the first of Apeel's fruits to make it to market, but there are plans to debut other Apeel-coated produce varieties in the future. The company has tested its technology on apples, artichokes, mangos, and several other fruits and vegetables.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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iStock
The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases
iStock
iStock

Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?

1. BY THE SAME TOKEN

Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”

2. GET ON A SOAPBOX

1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
Express/Express/Getty Images

The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.

3. TOMFOOLERY

The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.

4. GO BANANAS

chimp eating banana
iStock

The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”

5. RUN OF THE MILL

If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.

6. READ THE RIOT ACT

The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.

7. HANDS DOWN

Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.

8. SILVER LINING

The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.

9. HAVE YOUR WORK CUT OUT

The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!

10. THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.

11. THE WHOLE SHEBANG

The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.

12. PUSH THE ENVELOPE

Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.

13. CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE

We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.

14. THE ACID TEST

Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.

15. GO HAYWIRE

What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.

16. CALLED ON THE CARPET

Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”

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