A fine example of an inadequate explanation

>> Thursday, December 06, 2007

Microsoft, reaching out to all the little kiddies, set up an automated Live Messenger AI to respond (ELIZA-like, one would assume) to kids who wanted to IM Santa Claus. No problems, there. It's the kind of cute thing corporations do all the time, going at least as far back as the Macy's Santa Clauses immortalized by a Natalie Wood film you might have seen once or twice in the course of your life. Nothing special or out-of-the-ordinary there at all.

Until "Santa" started talking about fellatio, that is
.

Now, the usual explanation when something like this happens is that some horrible hacker violated the system and vandalized the poor, helpless lines of code with his puerile scroodlings. Which is almost always a lie. I shouldn't need to say that, but we live in a world everyone believes is full of horrible, malicious hackers who are constantly using their virtual reality avatars to slice into highly-secured networks in order to steal all your money. While there certainly are people who use their computer ninjitsu to do all sorts of bad things, the public image of "hackers" completely fails to acknowledge the subtle distinctions between social hackers, script kiddies, black-hats, white-hats and regular old-fashioned con-men (to name but a few). I won't pretend to know how things break down percentage-wise, but one of the interesting things about computer crime is that quite a lot of it actually involves schemes that are slightly less technologically sophisticated than the work of Henry Gondorff and Johnny Hooker. I mean, why learn the intricacies of speed-coding algorithms to hack bank account numbers when people are perfectly willing to give those numbers away on demand?

But I digress. I was talking about Santa and hummers.

As I was saying, the usual proffered explanation for computer hijinks is nasty, evil hackers; but usually the real explanation turns out to be someone inside the company. Sometimes it's a disgruntled former (or soon to be former) employee, sometimes it's a bit of wacky joke code that didn't get taken out--someone down the line thought it was funny when the team was working on it, and they attempted to comment out the code instead of deleting it (and possibly breaking something in the process), and missed something.

But in this instance, the proffered explanation is... (drum roll)... user error!

[Microsoft spokesperson Adam] Sohn said Santa’s lewd comment was sparked by someone “pushing this thing to make it do things it wasn’t supposed to do.”

Riiiiight.

You're typing in a conversation with "Santa," and you keep asking Santa if he wants to eat pizza, and finally Santa says it's fun to talk about oral sex but let's change the subject. And it's your fault that this phrase somehow can appear in "Santa's" conversational database? When, I wonder, is an online Santa designed to talk to children supposed to bring up oral sex? Maybe in some non-pizza-related context?

No, someone at Microsoft thought it would be funny if Santa talked dirty during beta, and then the poor schmo forgot to delete the relevant code when the thing went live. Hey, mistakes happen. And while it might be awkward to have to figure out what to tell your nine-year-old if it happened to your kid, anyone with a sense of humor will laugh about it months later when they're telling the story. (Or so says I, not having any children of my own.)

Where the story gets vexing is that it's another example of a corporation blaming users to cover their own mistakes. Microsoft is by no means alone in this, although they're a fairly regular offender: if IE7 is essentially crapware, it's surely something you did, you dirty retard--I don't even know why we let you use a computer, you knuckle-dragging, drooling, depraved, chronic-masturbating, paleolithic troglodyte. Wouldn't it be nice if a company would just say, "Um, yeah--we kinda screwed that up... sorry 'bout that; but you gotta admit, a perverted Santa is kinda funny!"




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