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BOFH: Blocking the chutney ferret

Advanced Bayesian filtering

Episode 18 There's a bit of a flap on! I know because the Boss, the new Head of IT and the CEO have been speaking earnestly behind closed doors for some time...

No sooner have I alerted the PFY to the situation than the phone rings.

"Dreamytime Escorts!" I answer.

"Sorr.. I... What?"

"Systems and Networks."

"Oh.. I.... Could you come into the meeting room for a moment please - no need to make a fuss."


With a summons like that one almost feels obliged to attend.

"We need you to go back through some mail and check that it was sent!" the CEO asks "Is that possible?"

"Sorry, are you suggesting you want us to... ...intrude on someone's privacy and read the contents of their Sent Items folder?" I ask, horrified.

"They don't work here any more so I'm sure it's ok," the Boss adds.

"Still, don't you think it might be a little... wrong?" I say, possibly overdoing it a little.

"It's important. It seems that one of our people might have said something which may, if interpreted in the wrong way, have an impact on the company's standing."

"Insider trading?" I ask hopefully, mentally kicking myself for not paying more attention to the dullards in trading...

"What? No, no, nothing like that."

"Then what?"

"I'd rather not say."

"I'm going to need to know what to look for..."

A brief series of non-verbal communications later it's decided to let me in on the secret.

"It's... a... delicate matter which must remain confidential."

"You can trust me," I respond caringly. "Mother is the word."

"Well it seems that in an unguarded moment one of our ex-board members may have used the company email system to allude to the sexual preferences of a board member of another company, resulting in the threat of legal action."

"Oh, is that it?" I ask disappointedly. "Just deny the message was ever sent.”

"They have a copy of it which they forwarded to us," the CEO replies tersely, handing over a printout.

"No, they have an electronic representation of some text which may or may not have been sent through our mail system. In fact, I'm almost certain this message ID will turn out to be that of a message sent to me at my home address."


"In ten minutes it will be."

"Oh. So there's nothing to worry about?"

"Well there'll be a bit of name calling, but it'll be their word against ours."

"Oh good," the CEO burbles. "But I think we should take steps to make sure this doesn't happen again."

"Hear hear!" the Head of IT blurts, getting in some good anal-nasal interfacing while the Boss nods vacantly.

"What are you proposing?" I ask. "Putting a breathalyser on keyboards which can detect when someone's a little... uh... 'tired and emotional'?"

"No, I mean blocking messages with anything offensive in them," the CEO says.


"Yes, anything that might be construed as offensive, harassing or libellous."

"So... uh 'rude' words?"

"Yes - stop them getting in or out for a start!"

"What about colloquialisms which might be construed offensive?"

"Sorry?" the CEO asks.

"Things like 'Queer as a lemonade sandwich'," the PFY says helpfully.

"I... Uh... Suppose so."

"What about chutney ferret?" the PFY asks.


"Crafty Butcher?"


"What about..."

"LOOK, I'm not going to vet expressions!" the CEO snaps, interrupting the PFY's recall of the more homophobic portions of Roger's Profanisaurus.

"So what you want is for us to install something like Mail Marshal to restrict the content of email, etc?" I ask.


"Or we could just save a bit of cash and write one ourselves - because I don't know that we could trust third party software to recognise the subtleties of the Queen's English," the PFY suggests, pointing to a section of the offending email which may or may not be alluding to an odd use of a domestic appliance.

"I see what you mean. Well, use your best judgement."

With those words in a parallel universe a locker bearing the name "Pandora" creaks open...

. . . One day later . . .

"TURN IT OFF!" the Boss shouts.

"But it's working!" the PFY snaps.

"It's bloody not, it's blocking everything!"

"Everything offensive," asserts the PFY. "It uses Bayesian filtering and learning to build up blacklists of words - it's very advanced!"

"I can't send anything to anyone! ALL my messages are getting rejected."

"Because the filter recognises your address as one which has offended a number of people."

"Who? HOW?"

"Well let's see." >clickety< "Ah-ha! Your first hit was in a message to me, using the word 'bloody' which has a score of five. That in itself isn't offensive, until you used the word 'shit', which is 80 and meant an instant rejection."

"Where?" the Boss asks, as the PFY brings up the message concerned.

"I didn't say shit, I said 'finish it'."

"Sneaky, but we noticed it anyway."

"Are you suggesting I did it on purpose!?"

"Of course. I was dubious till the filter highlighted the word serving, its dictionary meaning, the links to subservience, the link from that to submissive and from there to leather gags and male bondage."

"What? Are you serious?"

"Not as serious as the people in personnel."


"Of course. I don't see why I have to take that deliberate abuse."

"You slimy little basta..."

In the parallel universe the sound of Pandora's locker slamming shut is simultaneous with the sound of a rather nasty slap being landed on the PFY's mush and the shout of the HR bloke who's just walked in to tell him not to be such a git.

Now THAT is timing... You can't just plan it like that. ®

BOFH is copyright © 1995-2005, Simon Travaglia. Don't mess with his rights.

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