Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Scunthorpe / OWS

There's a lot going on in the world, as usual. There are a lot of stories that are within my bailiwick or my preoccupations.

I have recently been listening to various discussions in the press about bad actions that were being carried out by Occupy encampments. It reminds me in a way of the cluster of familiar ideas and social back-and-forth around the Scunthorpe problem. So in the Scunthorpe problem, you have a perfectly legitimate city name that happens to have an offensive word as a substring. So in the clean, discrete digital world, pieces of software might be deployed to censor certain sequences of characters, because of a belief that those sequences of characters correlate with a fight, a troll, something that is gratuitous, mean, inappropriate, drags everybody down.

First phase. Let's say it begins when some neo-Nazis were harrassing city workers in various cities around the UK and writing them hurtful emails.

City workers in Scunthorpe happened to be getting these messages, and their manager wants to placate them. So the manager asks his IT guy what can be done. The IT guy is brilliant but doesn't have a lot of savvy. He has some autistic characteristics and tends to view problems in a linear way. He's not political. He says, let's just make a list of words that are beyond the pale. We'll discard the mail that contains these words. Problem solved.

The manager and the IT guy both accept this solution because it's quick. The city employees don't have a ton of computer savvy, and they're very grateful that someone took care of it.

Weeks go by and there's something wrong. Scunthorpe city council is having trouble getting its work done because their emails keep getting put in the trash for no reason. People start to miss meetings because they never received the reminder email.

So the manager comes back to the IT guy and explains the problem. The IT guy isn't out to get Scunthorpe or screw with anyone's work. Apparently a regular taxpayer had written in about a water bill and the correspondence got eaten. And now the guy thinks that city hall is persecuting them on purpose. He's a little paranoid anyhow, so it's OK.

So now the IT guy says "Look, I just did what I was told. I'll figure something out."

So a new rule is added to the program. Try to match 'Scunthorpe' and if you do, let the message through no matter what. If you don't match 'Scunthorpe,' try some other rules. Try to make an exact match on the letters 'cunt' and if you do, throw the email in the trash.

more later...

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