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I Am A Snob

I enjoyed reading lately of a FireFox plug-in called the YouTube Comment Snob which filters out comments featuring

  • More than a certain number of spelling mistakes
  • All capital letters
  • No capital letters
  • Doesn’t start with a capital letter
  • Excessive punctuation
  • Profanity

I’d use it if I ever read YouTube comments. I would also suppress all comments featuring the word “anyways” (wouldn’t a feedback system that showed people how they’d been filtered be terrific too?). I know some very smart people who can’t spell, however, so this would be unfair if efficient. And the fallibility of obscenity filters is well known (even risible; click here for The Clbuttic Mistake).

Can we actually construct a web with reputational filters? Would it really be a good thing to do? Wouldn’t the system just be gamed?

Which leads me, in passing, to Schneier’s Law:

Any person can invent a security system so clever that she or he can’t think of how to break it.

And, no, it doesn’t mean everyone forgets passwords, nor is it a banality. It’s a profound truth.

The captcha system for moderating comments is now said to be completely broken, in part because evil people have farmed out the data entry to humans in the developing world who sit there all day long decoding captcha puzzles. WordPress’s founder Matt Mullenweg says that content is the only way to filter. His plug-in Akismet does an astonishingly good job, but really it’s nothing more than a windscreen wiper.

Some of the best jokes on Slashdot sometimes involve profanity and may not feature any capital letters at all. Slashdot uses peer review and adjustable filters that help keep loons with no history and bad karma off the screen, but it’s a weird little universe unto itself.

Why can’t the entire web have some unbreakable cyberkarma filters?

It’s the author, stupid

I’ve been scanning a new book called Content by Cory Doctorow which is available online as a PDF. It begins with a lecture to Microsoft staff on how Digital Rights Management is bad, unworkable and bound to fail.

I haven’t decided yet whose hubris is worse, the would-be immovable or would-be unstoppable. Science fiction authors take their own and each other’s genius a little too seriously at times. I haven’t decided about this one yet.

Whether DRM is borked for content or not, and I don’t think that’s decided yet either in practice or philosophically, we have an interest in it being workable as far our digital identities are concerned.

In general (not referring to this book), I would far rather read something by a person with a history and real knowledge of a subject than some merely popular opinion. It’s why I think the new news site NewsCred, which aims to rate news on its popular credibility, is fundamentally misguided. What people en masse think either of the news or comment on the news is of interest mainly to politicians and marketing people and is completely irrelevant as far truth is concerned (which credibility is presumably intended as a proxy for). Millions of people can be entirely deluded (read this IHT article about thinking in the Middle East on 9/11; update: now on the NY Times site).

Why is it that on 9/11, the Jews didn’t go to work in the building,” said Ahmed Saied, 25, who works in Cairo as a driver for a lawyer. “Everybody knows this. I saw it on TV, and a lot of people talk about this.

What, no Internet connection? It’s truthiness as Stephen Colbert defined it

What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.

Clearly, it’s an issue well beyond the country whose conceit is that it is the greatest on earth.

There is no safety in numbers at all. Discrimination and insight matter, even in quantity 1.

Tell me that Bruce Schneier, one of the wisest authorities on IT security, has written something in a newspaper and whether it’s the New York TImes or The Times doesn’t matter, I’ll be interested, precisely because he is a voice of reason who punctures popular prescriptions offered by the “something must be done” and “everybody knows” choruses.

When Google Chrome can show me, among other things, news of interest to “readers like you”, without my having to Digg stories, it will have my attention. Whitelisting with relevance. The world needs it.

Meanwhile, News-Spider seems to be an interesting news site.

Update: note in blue added after comments from the author.

5 Responses to “It’s The Author, Stupid”

  1. I’m not sure what sort of authority you’re seeking: I worked for one of the best-known bodies concerned with the law and practice of DRM (EFF), served on technical and commercial committees in multiple international standards bodies working on DRM specifications (including the CPTWG, the BPDG, the XrML committee at OASIS, and the DVP’s CPCM committees), was accredited to the United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organization in order to participate in a worldwide treaty concerned (in part) with DRM. I’ve also cofounded and sold a venture-financed software company that entertained several DRM vendors and evaluated their products and even funded some test-development into DRM. I’ve broken DRM and written articles about it for 2600 magazine. I’ve spoken to a large plurality of the cryptographers and execs at the firms where DRM is used, reported on it in depth for eight years, lectured on the subject at Harvard, Yale, MIT, Berkeley, and many other institutions. I’ve written about the subject for a large variety of daily newspapers, magazines and even learned journals.

    As to Schneier, he has also evaluated these technologies, and came and lectured to a class I taught at USC on the subject. He has also unambiguously condemned DRM, see, for example:

    http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2007/02/drm_in_windows_1.html

    http://www.counterpane.com/crypto-gram-0105.html#3

    You may not like me, you may not agree with me, but to say that I’m unqualified to speak about DRM is a pretty strange thing.

  2. What’s more, credentialism is a pretty lazy form of rebuttal.

  3. I didn’t say nor mean to suggest you were unqualified, nor did the idea cross my mind and I apologise for any such impression. I have no reason to dislike you. I admire what you have done with your book in making it freely available. I’ll decide on the content when I’ve read some more and thought about it, but I wouldn’t have linked to it if I thought it had no merit. Indeed, I’m favourably disposed and I’m tuned in to the debate. I’ve added a sentence to the post, in blue.

    There is, I think, some hubris, righteous posturing and offputting pretensions of coolness, on both sides of the intellectual property debate. The impression the book gives is of being hip and the “excitement” about JPB’s endorsement seemed a little overdone for my taste.

    Coincidentally I had a minor surfeit of sci-fi authors finding each other “exciting” lately (see the August issue of Wired e.g.,; I am a fan of Stephenson’s but I feel he needs an editor). This is mainly just a bit of weariness and not a comment on the validity of any ideas or your indisputable eligibility to comment.

    I had somewhat the same reaction when I read about “Caseous” and “Diatomaceous.” Fine if you are writing of chalk and cheese but in the context of cryptography using adjectives as faux Roman names didn’t impress and it coloured my impression. Even geniuses need spelling checkers and decent editors. I don’t mean it unkindly.

    I don’t think I really need apologise for saying that some sci-fi writers take themselves too seriously, but if it offends you I’ll buy you a drink sometime and you can tell me why.

    The DRM that interests me and which I believe we DO need to defend is digital reputation management. Endpoint security is a part of that in so far as we determine that people are who they assert they are, whether doing electronic banking or commenting on blogs.

    I’m aware of Schneier’s views on DRM. I am also well aware that many important and thoughtful people whose opinion I respect (Laurence Lessig, Yochai Benkler and others) feel that our intellectual property laws are seriously flawed and must be changed. I agree, but I don’t think society as a whole has agreed yet. In fact, I know this, nor do I believe we’re going to see an overnight revolution either, much as I’d like to be wrong.

    As a former IT manager I’ve put up with more digital rights management inconvenience than most people. The claims that it doesn’t work are true only in specific circumstances. Bill Gates being a billionaire is evidence that it in practice it works.

    I don’t get your 2nd comment, which seems at variance with the thrust of your response.

    My reference to Schneier was only to the idea that conventional wisdom can be entirely wrong and I’d rather read his views than listen to the vox populi.

    My overall point was that trying to evaluate content purely on the basis of intrinsic properties has limited use. Knowing who the author is changes everything, as the change in value following the discovery of a famous signature on a painting attests.

    Maybe I see the problem. “I would far rather read…” was not intended as a comment on your book in any way.

  4. Seattle says:

    I CANNOT spell. Well maybe I am not very smart either. But let me tell you… I can do crosswords in any direction… that is I can fill in the words from left to right, right to left, top to bottom, bottom to top. Though I often have to leave out the vowels because I have no idea what they should be… even in simple words. I can read upside down too. Easily. It all looks the same to me. But I can’t spell. Since the little training tool Spellcheck came on the scene… my spelling has improved 87%… but it is STILL atrocious. Some people see the letters… and some just see a pattern that speaks to them… it’s all hardwired in the brain and has nothing to do with intelligence… (Which isn’t to say I’m not stupid… you be the judge.)

  5. Yikes. Reading upside down? That would make my head hurt. However, I agree it’s hardwired. As a schoolchild I recall being given spellings to learn (by writing out the words or who knows…) and all I ever did was glance at them once and they were imprinted. It was a complete mystery to me how, when asked to spell diabolical, say, someone could begin, hesitantly, “B” and then look hopeful or terrified. However, since I learnt to type I do make typos of words I know perfectly well how to spell because of kinesthetic memory being dominant occasionally. Things like “it’s” when it should be “its”. I know the difference but my fingers do their own thing sometimes.

    I have little patience for scrabble or crosswords however. I’d rather read. My “sifting” circuitry is slow, as is my mental arithmetic. Did you ever see one of those FIND THE WORD books with PARIS hidden in a matrix of random letters? I find even being in the same room with people doing those things gives me the willies. Can’t exactly say why (something to do with the sheer pointlessness of it). There are armies of grannies with them on cross channel ferries.

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