Computer security experts have contributed a great many things to human society in recent years, most of which are quite positive, some of which are less so. One of the lesser-known entries on the negative side of CompSec ledger — at least according to linguists — is medireview. The word didn’t really exist until computer security willed it into being, largely through a rather clumsy application of email protection.

Medireview, you see, is a synonym for medieval that was conjured up within the confines of Yahoo! Mail during the summer of 2001. In an attempt to neutralize email messages and attachments that contained nefarious elements of Javascript code, Yahoo! ran a find-replace function over all its mail traffic to substitute certain command phrases with plain-language synonyms. Actual written communications would supposedly see little appreciable change, but Javascript attacks would be rendered useless.

Alas, no security plan survives contact with the user. Yahoo! substituted the Javascript commands eval, expression, and mocha with the rough English equivalents of review, statement, and espresso. Unfortunately, Yahoo! didn’t put any context parameters around the substitutions, so the word medieval became medireview — among other rather odd linguistic manglings. (Who knew Van Gogh was a statementist painter?)

Believe it or not, there’s actually a formal computer security term for these types of sorting issues involving dangerous plaintext words. It’s named after an English township that famously ran afoul of some early online profanity filters.


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Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire, England is an industrial town in eastern central Britain known for its metalworks. However, in computer security circles, it’s the namesake of the Scunthorpe Problem, a phenomenon where computer language filters are befuddled by widespread false positives, rendering the filter (and often the system it’s defending) useless.

The origin of the Scunthorpe Problem can be traced to 1996, when a number of Scunthorpe residents were suddenly unable to enroll as new customers for America Online’s Internet service. AOL’s profanity filter mistook the second through fifth letters of the word Scunthorpe for what Captain Kirk would describe as a colorful metaphor and the US Federal Communications Commission would describe as a finable offense if uttered over broadcast airwaves.

The Scunthorpe Problem isn’t limited, however, to variations on George Carlin’s infamous Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television. The existence of medireview illustrates how even non-profane words can be mistaken for threatening terms by crudely designed language filters. While profanity filters have matured — pun intended — to the point they avoid false positives for most common curse words, the rise of crude spam filters has caused the Scunthorpe Problem to evolve. For example, attempting to block spam messages for the drug Cialis can result in any use of the word specialist being banned.

The need for a Semantic Web has never been clearer. Until computers can tell the difference between bank, the place where I keep my money, and bank, the side of a river (these are, in fact, two separate places), the Scunthorpe Problem will always be with us.

That’s not just some infuriating English-language interpolation, it’s an etymologically excellent example of Geek Trivia.

The quibble of the week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best quibble from our assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

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This week’s quibble comes from the Aug. 19, 2011 edition of Geek Trivia, which asked how many parents did Dolly the cloned sheep actually have?

To no one’s surprise, the column sparked a rather impassioned debate about the definition of mother, starting with the following declaration from member TGGIII:

I see the need for refineing terms in the future as we have many modifiers for the word Mother implied:

Mother – Provided genetic material

Surrogate Mother – Carried the fetus

Adoptive Mother – Nurtured and cared for the neonate to adulthood

Not to mention the mother that donated non-genetic material, as noted by member Dr_Zinj reminds us:

Biggest problem with using “blanked” egg cells, or transferring nuclear material to another cell, is that the non-nuclear material of the cell also exerts control over the development of the organism. This is especially true of the mitochondria.

Meanwhile, member apricot says none of the above qualify as mothers:

The only sheep that is biologically related to Dolly is the DNA donor sheep, and since the two have identical DNA, they are biologically SIBLINGS.

Member JamesKelley argues the same point from a different perspective, and comes to a different total for Dolly’s parents:

The sheep seems to be the child of five parents. The three you describe, and the two that provided the original genetic material for the cell donor. If you were to do a DNA test, you would see the two left out as the biological parents.

Clearly, the English language has its work cut out keeping up with the advances of science. And you thought time-travel-mitigated verb conjugation was hard. However you phrase them, keep those quibbles coming!