Not in Chicago anymore

Mundane life from rural Minnesota.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Trolls and other unpleasant discussion participants

This blog post was inspired by my reading another blogger's thoughts.

The subject at hand is all the current hoopla about censorship, bullying, abuse, and general trolling on public electronic forums. Perhaps the most visible right now is Redditt.

This is not a new problem. I can't point to the first vile post on a public forum or the first abusive email, but I am sure that they happened very soon after public forums and email were invented. It's human nature to forget that there's another human being sitting there reading what you wrote. Being able to post anonymously exacerbated the problem, but I am sure that plenty of examples exist even from the days when every online action was traceable back to the author.

There are people who post or email as a kneejerk response to what they've just read, and wish afterwards that they could retract what they said. That's one of the downsides of this media; in general, you simply cannot un-say what you said. Kind of like real life.

Then there are the trolls who get their kicks out of causing a ruckus, or hurting people, or being generally obnoxious. There are two ways to handle these people -- ignore them, or filter them. One doesn't work, and the other creates its own set of problems.

I've heard so many people over the years pontificate, "Trolls are not the problem. It's the people who respond to them." And while that may be true, telling people to ignore trolls simply isn't effective. I have seen many thriving online discussions destroyed by trolls while the participants bemoan what's happening by trying to out-troll the trolls. It doesn't work. The only way to get rid of trolls is to ignore them, at which point they'll go somewhere else to get the attention they so desperately need. In a forum with more than a handful of users, especially if new people are joining, the poking of the troll will always provoke a response.

The other response to trolling and other abusive behavior is moderation – having a human look at each submission and approve it before it becomes public. While this is generally effective at solving the abuse problem, it introduces many other difficulties. It slows down the discussion. It's time consuming. And invariably there will be disagreements about what should or should not be censored. Yes, it's a form of censorship.

So, as someone I worked with used to say, "Would you like mustard or mayo on your shit sandwich?" Because those are the only two choices. Completely open, or not.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Electronic Health Records

I don't know how much of this article is true. I actually read the followup first. The basic premise is that Electronic Health Records are not working, impeding doctors in doing their job to the point of motivating them to stop practicing, bankrupting small practices, and degrading the quality of care.

I had high hopes for the concept; I still do. Think of how valuable it would be if the doctor examining you right now had access to what all the doctors you've visited have discovered about you. It would improve the level of health care immensely and make life easier for everyone. I've actually seen this in action; as you might expect, Mayo has done a lot to integrate health records for their patients, so when I went to a different location for a checkup the doctor there had access to my records from my usual office. It was useful. In a more urgent scenario, it could have been a life-and-death difference.

But I've also see the gaps pointed out in the article. My local Mayo location actually uses a completely different computer system than is used at Mayo headquarters in Rochester, fifty miles down the road. So, yes, the data is there, but it's very difficult for the doctor to actually use it. Mayo may be at the forefront in health care, but their computer systems are stuck back in the dark ages. And if Mayo is this far behind, I can only imagine the situation in other health care environments. Actually, there are probably providers who are ahead of Mayo (it wouldn't be hard) but I expect that the norm is pretty depressing.

That's too bad. I stand by the idea that integrating health records is a noble goal. But the Information Technology folks have let us down. This is another example of the breakdown between the people who use the system and the people who build the system. And maybe the technology isn't quite here yet. Another aspect is the legal structure that controls protection and sharing of health data. That's a tough area and the current laws are a patchwork of complexity that often do more harm than good.

The article author's premise is that it was happening and that it should have been allowed to happen in its own time. I think there's a compromise position. There's little incentive for the medical profession to make their work available to their competition, even if it might save someone's life. But imposing arbitrary dates when the technology isn't ready isn't the answer. But wait . . . "compromise" is a word that seems to have disappeared from the political arena.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Discussion groups

This article on the Reddit blog discusses a topic that has been around since there were enough people with access to computers to support electronic discussion groups.  That happened back in the 1970s when Usenet and bulletin board systems became popular.  Both of these support an open discussion in which people type their comments rather than speaking them. Other than the mode of interjecting the material, these discussions are much like having a group of people together face to face.

But there are two big differences.

First is the scale.  In some of these large systems like Reddit, it's not unusual to have thousands of people involved in the discussion. This strains the analogy with a traditional in-person discussion.

But the most important difference is the element of being anonymous. People will say things when they can hide behind a computer screen that they would never consider saying to another human face to face. It's actually rather sad.

So you end up with a situation for which there is no perfect answer. Free speech versus an environment in which meaningful discussion isn't possible.

People have been wrestling with this since the beginning of the mode.  In Usenet, one of the first large discussion forums, the situation was address by inventing moderated newsgroups where a human moderator examined each submission and approved it before it was seen by the group as a whole. This concept continues to be used by systems like Reddit in different forms – sometimes every submission is screened, or some members are whitelisted so that they can contribute directly, or articles are removed after submission.

Reddit has done a remarkably good job of handling this problem. The fact that they're still around testifies to that; PostSecret attempted an open discussion system that they finally shut down because they simply couldn't police it (or didn't want to). As you can see from the article above, Reddit continues to wrestle with the issue.

It's interesting to watch the reaction of different systems to this issue.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Are these guys real?

The day is new and I'm already in awe of our fringe politicians.

There's this article that reports that a number of Republicans have formed a group to try to change the ownership of national park land into state hands. The article reports it as a move to seize land and turn it over to developers, and the actual statement is more of a state's rights "We can do it better than the Feds" theme. I suspect that the truth is somewhere in between. But please . . . the national park system in the US is one we can be proud of. It's not broken. Can we not try to fix it?

As an aside on that article . . .  this quote, "Earlier this week, Bishop attached a provision to a defense spending bill to delay the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from protecting the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act for at least 10 years."  This technique of attaching riders to a bill that have nothing to do with the actual purpose of the bill is so sad. If you want to debate the merits of the greater sage grouse, fine . . . but debate it.

Then there's this NPR article about deploying the National Guard to keep Obama from taking over Texas. Really? Well, it is reported by more than NPR, including this article that includes a video of Ted Cruz pandering to this conspiracy theory. I understand the the sources I'm using, like NPR, have no credibility because they are controlled by raging liberals . . . but Ted Cruz is speaking for himself in the video, and what I hear scares me.

Sunday, April 26, 2015


I did a really stupid thing this morning. Using a web site, I made an anonymous donation.

My definition of "anonymous" is obviously outdated. Silly me; I thought that if I made an anonymous donation that "no one" would know where it came from. I am not naive enough to think that "no one" means "not a single human in the universe". It was made using a credit card, so obviously it is linked to me at some level.

Literally within seconds of my hitting the {donate} icon, my phone rang. The donation was earmarked for an individual in a team – one of these deals where the individuals compete to see who can garner the most donations – and the "recipient" was calling to thank me. I was kind of flabbergasted. To me, the whole idea of "anonymous" is that I don't want the recipient to feel somehow obligated to me because I made a donation to the team and she gets credit for it. But no, anonymous does not mean this.

I have subsequently found out that there are many people who know about the donation and exactly who made it. "Anonymous" in the sense used on the web site only meant that my name was not shown in the list of donors on the web site. It could well show up in material published by the organization, in public expressions of appreciation, or anywhere else.

It's not that I am ashamed of making the donation. But I said "anonymous" for a reason, and I am disappointed that my wishes are not being respected. So beware – in today's world, "anonymous" may not mean what you think.

Blog Archive