Stupid Use Of Profanity Filter Makes A Mess Of Virtual Paleontologist Conference

from the beavers-and-bones dept

We've known for some time that the sorts of automated filters that get applied to various internet-y things are flawed in the extreme. But of all the filters that annoy me the most, profanity filters are the worst. And, no, it's not just because I use curse words like commas. Rather, it's the combination of just how badly this is used, such as how Google thought for years that "bisexual" was a naughty word, along side how nefarious actors can block all sorts of non-profane language just by calling it profane. Add to all of this that a total lack of nuance for identifying so-called "naughty words" regularly causes perfectly non-profane content to be blocked or censored and this all begins to look like an exercise worth giving up.

For a great example of that last bit, we need only to look at a recent remote conference conducted by paleontologists that went awry due to a profanity filter.

Participants in a virtual paleontology session found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place last week, when a profanity filter prevented them from using certain words – such as bone, pubic, stream and, er, beaver – during an online conference.

“Words like ‘bone’, ‘pubic’, and ‘stream’ are frankly ridiculous to ban in a field where we regularly find pubic bones in streams,” said Brigid Christison, a master’s student in biology attending the event, in an interview with Vice.

Why, yes, that is really stupid. If your profanity filter is filtering out words you need to use for your field, then your profanity filter sucks and should be done away with. And, really, are members of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology really so sensitive that any profanity filter need be in place at all. These people are adults and can be trusted, not journalists for The New Yorker.

Now, much of the blame for this comes from the organizers of the event for some reason including a filter setup for typical business meetings.

“Apparently it came with a pre-packaged naughty-word filter. After getting a good belly laugh out of the way on the first day and some creative wording (my personal favorite was Heck Creek for Hell Creek), some of us reached out to the business office, and they’ve been un-banning words as we stumble across them,” an SVP member explained to Reddit users.

I'm not entirely sure why any of this is funny, to be honest. It's just annoying. Especially, as the article notes, when there are some curious choices made in the stock filter as to what words to filter out as profane or not. "Wang" is filtered for instance, despite it being a common last name, but "Johnson," which has the same slang meaning, is totally allowed.

Again, all of this is simply annoying and unnecessary. Trust adults to be adults and either not use profane words, or else be able to handle it if someone else occasionally does. These filters aren't working.

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Filed Under: automated filters, content moderation, paleontologists, profanity filter, word filters


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  • icon
    Samuel Abram (profile), 21 Oct 2020 @ 6:18pm

    So basically…

    This is the Scunthorpe problem all over again?

    I feel sorry for any paleontologist named Woody Johnson…

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 21 Oct 2020 @ 8:37pm

      Re: So basically…

      Yeah, it's the classic Scunthorpe problem, but combined with a set of dictionaries that really defy logic. It's one thing to accidentally block innocent words while aiming to block the "c" word, which has no inoffensive connotation when used on its own. It's quite another to be causing problems while trying to block a word with as many innocent uses as "bone", and blocking the word "stream" in any online conference setting is obviously going to cause issues no matter what.

      "I feel sorry for any paleontologist named Woody Johnson…"

      Or not...

      "Wang" is filtered for instance, despite it being a common last name, but "Johnson," which has the same slang meaning, is totally allowed."

      Long Wang on the other hand might as well not turn up...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2020 @ 5:08am

      Re: So basically…

      Nope. The Scunthorpe problem is where the "dirty word" is a segment of an otherwise acceptable word. You know, like "assassin".

      While the conference may ALSO have had the Scunthorpe problem, their main problem was simply having quite common words filtered at all. Blame euphemisms and common usage.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Oct 2020 @ 8:15pm

    Wormtongue asks:

    What about your own racist-tinged and gratuitous, like this?

    "There are white people, and then there are ignorant motherfuckers like you...."

    Should that be filtered, or in any sanctioned by the site of which you're now a re-writer?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Oct 2020 @ 10:15pm

      Re: Wormtongue asks:

      What about your own racist-tinged and gratuitous

      You mean like antidirt and his request for Masnick to die in a fire?

      Or your boyfriend John Smith who professed his desire to anally rape folks with Asperger's?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Oct 2020 @ 8:15pm

    Pssst! Geigner! Can "Gary" come out to play?

    I've been hoping.

    In case of any new readers lured in from Drudge, "Gary" is obvious sock-puppet Geigner used to astro-turf here last year, and in particular to harass me, a point at least known to Masnick if not approved, and maybe even paid-for.

    Evidence abounds. After a few comments in first 2 years after 24 Aug 2015, "Gary" took off to total of 2,160, until ending abruptly Nov 9th, 2019, five days after I quit commenting here. About half of "Gary's" comments were directed at me. "Gary" was ardent supporter of Techdirt even to promoting others to First Word, apparently paying to do so! Unique bombasticism, aggressive, abusive -- of course never chastised for it by Masnick nor fanboys; in IT and mentions around lawyers as Geigner has: in short, a 99% match which in the only couple dozen regulars at Techdirt nails it down.

    And for obvious, "Gary's" user name quite similar to Geigner's "Dark Helmet":
    https://www.techdirt.com/user/darkflite

    Skip that, though, Geigner. So long as "Gary" stays inactive.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 21 Oct 2020 @ 8:33pm

      Re: Pssst! Geigner! Can "Gary" come out to play?

      Wow... so now that you can't find people who are posting to whine about, you're now posting multiple essay-length rants on people who aren't posting often enough for you?

      "In case of any new readers lured in from Drudge"

      Don't you Trump suckers dislike that guy now after your orange buddha attacked him? It's hard to keep track.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 22 Oct 2020 @ 8:37am

        Re: Re: Pssst! Geigner! Can "Gary" come out to play?

        "...now that you can't find people who are posting to whine about, you're now posting multiple essay-length rants on people who aren't posting often enough for you?"

        I'm just waiting for him to come up with the brilliant idea that people who have never posted here might be sock puppets as well.

        I swear, old Bobmail really goes the distance just to give paranoid, malicious schizophrenics with dunning-krugers a bad name.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Dark Helmet (profile), 22 Oct 2020 @ 6:28am

      Re: Pssst! Geigner! Can "Gary" come out to play?

      Let's play a game. Let's say I would promise to authorize Mike (no idea if he would do so) to release any information that would prove whether or not I ever, literally ever, posted under the name Gary, or any other account name.

      What would you be willing to put up for your side of this bargain? Because I'd seriously have zero problem doing this for reasons that should be obvious.

      So your bluff is called. Let's play.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
        identicon
        Me, 22 Oct 2020 @ 10:14pm

        Re: Re: Pssst! Geigner! Can "Gary" come out to play?

        I'm just here noodling around wondering where the lite option went, or why it's not working for me.

        I note two points:

        You don't deny.

        And you expect me to trust your co-conspirator (if correct) Masnick.

        Let's game it this way: I have no lever on you than public exposure and I'm certainly risking nothing when you and Maz hold all the cards and have marked the deck! -- Anyone who wishes can see the evidence that "Gary" is uniquely bombastic.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2020 @ 10:27pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          I note you're still an ignorant motherfucker.

          Game, set, match.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Stephen T. Stone (profile), 23 Oct 2020 @ 9:26am

          “I don’t have any evdience that proves my theory, and if presented with evidence that proves it wrong, I can always claim it’s bullshit and keep saying my theory is right.”

          …holy shit are you a member of the GOP

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Oct 2020 @ 8:16pm

    These trivial little pieces have worn you down.

    You should quit and start from scratch, totally abandoning your writing habits as they're clearly crap.

    Better to leave than Masnick "lets you go"... Another possibility is that Masnick may do something really stupid -- even astro-turfing isn't actually legal, you know, it's civil fraud, and the abuse you've heaped won't help -- that YOU could be the patsy for. You'd better have "insurance", evidence of Masnick authorizing all that you do. Potential patsy may be the only reason he keeps you writing this trivial crap. -- I'd a hundred times rather read you ranting on any current topic than "trademark". Do this by choice, or is it all that Masnick lets you do? He may ENJOY watching you burn out. -- Either way, if wish to be a writer and not a hack, you should break away.

    Now, of course I'm using this for wedge, but it's also my opinion as fellow Lousy Writer. Just think on how you're wasting life next time you're grinding out one of these.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 23 Oct 2020 @ 2:13am

      Re: These trivial little pieces have worn you down.

      "...Another possibility is that Masnick may do something really stupid -- even astro-turfing isn't actually legal, you know, it's civil fraud..."

      So man up and finally take it to the judge already. It's all a single motion of discovery away.

      Or is it just that you keep trying to do so and by now the judge has issued a restraining order compelling you not to get within 500 feet of a law enforcement officer or courtroom judge?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 23 Oct 2020 @ 6:53am

        Re: Re:

        Blue's problem is that someone already tried taking Masnick to a judge. And Shiva Ayyadurai failed miserably.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Oct 2020 @ 8:20pm

    Let me start your new career, for free!

    Take this premise, topical with "work from home": a hack writer, let's call him Tom Gogner, begins to suspect that his "editor", Mosnick, has been replaced by AI. The real Mosnick was DULL to start, and they communicate only by email, so it's slight changes, mainly lacks. -- After Turing tests are inconclusive, Tom decides to vacation in Napa Valley, he's a big wine "afficianado", and take a side trip to Mosnick's office, just drop in without warning. -- Mosnick is found to be only a 4-core CPU, but "connected". Face-recognition catches Gogner. He's hunted. City police are guided by the main AI doing voice synthesis (point up that is outside the recorded 911 system), using location from phone until he ditches it, but he's still followed intermittently by cameras, for car chases and shootouts. The police (point out is only a few so will be easier to mop up if need to, also handily limits costs of actors) are next told that Gogner is a deadly terrorist, so they switch to automatic weapons: eventually corner Gogner and despite his shrieking, shoot a thousand rounds into him for minute of LOUD splashy gore until only a puddle of blood and scattered bone fragments remains. Working title: "The Googly".

    There ya go. Original with me, fairly fresh, besides unprecedented ending GORE. Take it for free! Keep it short and snappy, one narrow escape after another. DROP all bombasticism, no one likes it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mononymous Tim (profile), 21 Oct 2020 @ 9:06pm

    This is why AI, machine learning, algorithms, self-driving vehicles, et al scare me. When it comes down to it, extremely overconfident, shortsighted, sloppy humans write the code.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 21 Oct 2020 @ 9:12pm

      Re:

      It's not so much the code, as it is the classic principle of Garbage In, Garbage Out. The code might be perfect, but if the dictionary of verbatim words it's given to work with is bad, then the outcome will be bad.

      Actually, AI would improve this, as it would be able to make some kind of determination based on context rather than just blocking a word outright.

      But, no software will change the ultimate human problem here - that a bunch of supposed professionals in their field can't be trusted to have adult conversations without the need for moderation. Whether thats the fault of management being overcautious or scientists being dicks, who's to say, but this shouldn't be the use case for this kind of software in an ideal world.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2020 @ 8:49am

        Re: Re:

        "no software will change the ultimate human problem here "

        But that fact will not deter those grifters from asking for more funding to support their most awesome filters needed to protect us all from those very nasty words.

        Is this backdoor censorship?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Cyber Killer, 22 Oct 2020 @ 12:15am

    Not a problem with the filter

    This is not a problem with the filter, instead it's a problem with the western/USA culture, that is so preoccupied with sex, that it associates a multitude of common words with this context. This taboo needs to stop, sex is probably the most natural thing there is, there is no need to hide it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mark, 22 Oct 2020 @ 1:22am

    There was a filter that changed actor Dick van Dyke's name to Penis van Lesbian

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2020 @ 2:56am

    "...some of us reached out to the business office, and they’ve been un-banning words as we stumble across them.”

    Couldn't we just, you know, turn it off? If the software is so ridiculous that it cannot be turned off, just wipe the reference dictionary.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Bobvious, 22 Oct 2020 @ 4:05am

    It's a good thing that Gedde Watanabe

    didn't become a paleontologist, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qwBuBCTKTU

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 22 Oct 2020 @ 5:00am

    Know your audience.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2020 @ 8:16am

    "Wang" is filtered for instance, despite it being a common last name, but "Johnson," which has the same slang meaning, is totally allowed.

    Given their interest in selectively unblocking, my guess would be that originally both were on the ban list, but they happened to have someone named Johnson report in and get that fixed, but they had not yet had anyone named Wang report in to get that unbanned. Just as Wang is common in some Asian cultures, Johnson is common in some European-derived ones, so depending on the ancestry mix of users, they could have had a Johnson use the product just as readily as a Wang.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2020 @ 8:55am

      Re:

      There was a company called Wang, they made word processing equipment. Instead of asking the secretary to type a memo, one would submit it to the Wang Pool. We were very professional about it and did not make any jokes ... lol

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2020 @ 8:42am

    Wow - I had no idea that paleontologists were such foul mouthed cretins!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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