(And why you can’t tell a Scottish head teacher that a child has been naughty.)
Paul Roostercroft came about through a collision of two problems. As mentioned previously (We Will Hide Your Stuff), BT Business has a novel filtering system that hides e-mails that it regards as spam. No customer notification – they don’t even tell you that this filter exists unless you ask the right question – just hiding. In theory – the theory expounded by the helpful BT second-line support guy who gave me access to the hidden system – this junk mail filter uses a learning algorithm. That means that if you tell it that something isn’t spam, it is supposed to look at future mail for similar characteristics, and, on that basis, decide that the new mail isn’t spam either. It doesn’t work. No matter how many times I tell it that I want to receive the regular bulletins from the Ordnance Survey (I like maps), it decides they are junk, whereas it lets through plenty of advertising e-mails to which I’ve never subscribed.
Similarly with Paul’s e-mail. Paul is a playwright whose e-mail I wish to receive. BT wishes to prevent that. The only reason I can see for BT’s objection is that he has the venerable Anglo Saxon surname of Cockcroft. I assume that BT thinks that this name will offend my delicate sensibilities. No matter how many times I tell BTs system that I want his e-mails, they still get trapped in the hidden junk folder.
That brings me on to the other problem (Things You Can’t Say). If BT thinks Cockcroft will frighten the horses, I can expect the same treatment from other e-mail systems. How am I supposed to talk about Paul’s plays in our e-mail newsletter? My solution was euphemism – specifically borrowing the American euphemism for a male chicken.
I thought that the inclusion of Paul Roostercroft had been successful in rendering my e-mails filter-proof until I received a “bounce” message that stated:
“A mail from you to [the head teacher of a Scottish primary school] was stopped and quarantined because it contains objectionable content in line 40”
I thought that this might have been caused by “Puss-in-Boots”, but no. As far as I can see from scrutinising the e-mail, the naughty word in line 40 was, in fact, “naughty”.
Warning: this post contains words that are forbidden in Derby.
I sent an e-mail about a school play script to a customer at a school in Derby. I received an automated reply that said:-
Offensive Words Lexicon Found the expression “bottomless” 1 times, at 2 points each, for an expression score of 2 points.
Total Message Score: 2 points.
The e-mail has been blocked and has not been delivered.
Now, I recognise that in some contexts, the word bottomless can have connotations of immorality, but in this case, the context was the title of Raymond Blakesley’s school play “Santa Claus and the Bottomless Sack”. E-mail filtering systems are good with words, but very bad with context. Unfortunately, context is important. In describing a play to a school, I can’t say that the adult roles are written to be performed by children, as “adult” has been hijacked to mean “pornographic”. Instead, I have to use the childish expression “grown up”. Even worse, I can’t say that a play is written for teenagers as “teen” is blocked because it is used to mean “nubile” (though not in the sense of “marriageable”, unless marriageable is a euphemism).
The final insult from the automated message from Derby was the footnote. It said
The views expressed in this email are personal and may not necessarily reflect those of Derby City Council
So the things I am not allowed to say are dictated by the personal opinions of an automaton.
Some time ago, I heard a bit of a radio series in which the heroine found herself in a weird parallel version of London. (I was fairly sure that this was “Undone”, written by Ben Moor – I got so obsesessed that I confirmed this with the writer! – and therefore the protagonist’s name was Edna.) Edna came across a business called “We Will Hide Your Stuff”. She was so puzzled by this that she phoned them up to find out what it was about. The conversation went:
“You know your stuff?”
“We hide it.”
This seems to be an approach taken in a joint effort by BT and Microsoft. For their business customers, BT provide e-mail via Microsoft Exchange Server. So far, so good. However, the e-mail that reaches the user is pre-filtered for spam. You would think that this means that it goes into a spam folder, and so it does, but that spam folder is not visible to the user. There is a spam folder visible to the user, but nothing goes there, because anything that Microsoft Exchange thinks is spam gets trapped by the hidden pre-filtering system. This is filtering by algorithm, and, of course, it is imperfect. It traps some genuine spam, but it also lets some through. Crucially, it traps some genuine business communications.
BT can give their customers access to this pre-filtering spam folder, but they don’t do so automatically. In order to get access, you need to prove to BT that there is some e-mail that you have not received. You would think that they would see a flaw in this approach.