Friday, February 09, 2007

Fun At Work

I work in the interface between two different organisations, each of which has its own LAN and e-mail (albeit bridged to the other) and I have a workstation on each network.

I recently registered to attend a Novel SUSE Linux presentation, and was sent directions to one of my two workstations in the form of an HTML document with a Mapquest link embedded for the directions to the presentation location. Since the printing wasn't working for that workstation at the time I mailed the directions to my other workstation, but it never arrived.

Suspecting e-mail bridge and LDAP nonsense at work I re-sent the mail to each of my work aliases. No joy. I also sent it to my home account, then did things the hard way and wrote down the address. Stevie can read maps, after all. That evening I discovered no e-mail at home.

I went to the Linux thing and did my best not to cause trouble (very difficult during the obligatory 5 minute BSOD rant - I mean, when was the last time you saw a BSOD? I digress) and upon returning to work sought out the e-mail administrator.

Who brusquely informed me I had used a racist term in the e-mail.

I insisted I had done no such thing, and furthermore had merely forwarded a Novel official publication. He showed me his filter report that accused me of trying to pass the word "yid", an ages-old derogatory word for a Jewish person. I was dumbfounded, firstly because outside of English people of my generation I doubt anyone even knows the term, and secondly that the administrator thought Novel would include it in their mailings.

"Is it possible the Regex1 is buggered?" I asked. "Could it be grabbing something like COMPANYID?". You might wonder how I might have this suggestion ready to hand, and might put two and two together if you also knew I was in my fifties and had worked with computers all my life. The Indian gentleman concerned was quite a bit younger than me, I would guess in his early thirties. He didn't use any of that information. He already had his explanation and now just wanted rid of me.

"Impossible! It would detect the space" he replied.

"What space?" I asked, genuinely puzzled.

"Between COMPANY and ID" he said.

So I explained that software writers, especially webpage form authors, had a habit of concatenating words so there would be no space. Could we discuss the matter with the filter's author?

"That would be me" he said.

"Are you seriously suggesting that Novel, a multi-national corporation of many years standing, would send out a public statement that included a phrase like Don't bother applying if you're a yid or Apply even if you are a yid? Does that seem likely to you?" I was, by this time, quite incredulous.

He just shrugged in reply and wouldn't meet my eye.

Well, I know a dead horse when I see one, but I'm also bloody minded and not at all happy when some snot-nosed kid thinks just because I trained on computers that took up a whole room and know a few languages for which there are no longer compilers or compatable hardware that I am A Nidiot.

So I went back to the workstation and searched the page. Nothing. Then I remembered that Mapquest link, so I copied it into the notepad and took a butcher's at it.

The guy was right. No COMPANYID. But right there in big letters there was a PROPERTYID.

I called the administrator.

"I've just looked at the racist e-mail you claim I sent through the firewall. It doesn't contain the word "yid", but it does contain the word "PROPERTYID. It looks like the problem is exactly what I suggested it might be thirty minutes ago".

"What? That shouldn't happen."

"No kidding?"

"I'll have to have a look at the code. It shouldn't do that."

"I'll send you the e-mail so you can check it for yourself."

"There's no need."

"No, no, I want you to see for yourself that I didn't send a racist e-mail."

You'll note that nowhere was there even the suggestion that the administrator appologise to me for his boneheaded unworking software, nor anywhere where such an appology was actually offered.

The next day I began wondering at the amount of automation that the administrator might have deployed. His mentality suggested a high reliance on such things and the organisation he works for is big on reporting matters that reflect on staff relations. It would be just my luck if this idiotic mistake had caused an automated report to be sent to HR or some high-level manager for "further action".

Accordingly, I fired off an e-mail asking that he inform anyone who might have been erroneously alerted by, say, an automated report generated from the broken filter, that any reports of my racist behaviour were the fault of improperly tested software and emphatically not due to any inappropriate behaviour on my part. On the off-chance that yet another false positive in The Filters of Doom would snag this message I included a request for a reply.

There were two things that bothered me in this sorry tale:
Firstly that I was called a racist. Like most people I am occasionally guilty of racist statements, usually because I simply don't think through the ramifications of what I am saying, but I've always believed that to consciously discriminate against someone because of the colour of their skin is just moronic.

Secondly, the tacit assumption by the Prince o' Filters that because I was old I couldn't possibly know anything relevant about a problem involving clever new software. The fact that I had probably seen the problem I was describing a gazillion times simply never occured to this paragon o' programming.

Only in the world of computers could years of experience be viewed as a liability.

  1. Geekspeek for "Regular Expression", a powerful technique for specifying masks used by software to search text for specific phrases. Obscenety filters are typically a cascade of such expressions with entries that look like this: " /[Ss]illy [Ss]od/ " which will match Silly sod, Silly Sod, silly sod and silly Sod. It will also match silly sodium, which can be detected if you bother to test it. Searching for /[Yy]id / will recreate the problem I experienced. Though I've no doubt the actual filter was more complex than this, I'm equally sure that the King of All E-Mail didn't test it for "close but no foul" cases. In such a sensitive matter, such inattention to detail is inexcusable

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