You’re going to what the what now?

I’ve had a few (read: lots) things to say on the importance of freedom of speech to writers, and now there’s a new threat, brought to my attention by the ever-wonderful Passive Voice, in the form of an app that auto-scrubs “profanity” from ebooks.

I suspect I can guess why this thing was created – it frees parents from the oh-so-tedious task of actually checking what their little darlings are reading and does the ebook version of net nannying them so they never encounter anything bad or wrong or… you get the picture.

Now on one side, sure, people have the right to choose what they do or do not read. But that choice should be an individual one, not something imposed – and you can guarandamntee that this app will be imposed and used to bowdlerize classics like Huck Finn – and probably expanded to keep the badthink out. After all, it can’t be that hard to remove any reference to, oh, guns… or blood… or… oh, here’s a good one… communists (that would make all those cold war spy thrillers really short. And incomprehensible, but that’s another issue).

As one of Passive Voice’s commenters put it: “Phuque that shight” (I hereby award said commenter one internet).

Then – I test software for a living, of course I can see how this could go wrong (and hilariously wrong at that), I can just imagine what it’s going to to do anatomy texts, not to mention cases like this:

  • I was ****ing socks when he came home. (Yes, the example in the link from PV shows images where the word “darn” has been blocked.
  • Oh, I just love Mom’s ***** pudding (Blood pudding. That wasn’t what you thought, was it?).
  • Oh, look! It’s ****!
  • Those hens just can’t stand that ****.
  • The ****plate is too expensive.

And so forth… That’s just a sample of likely words that have perfectly innocent meanings and uses. Seriously. And that’s without considering what happens if it fails to register a space and the ebook has a sentence like “the pen is thick and hard to hold.”

No, there’s just no way this could possibly backfire in ways that would make it even more embarrassing and humiliating and crude. Not at all. Never in a million years. And if you believe that, I have this prime beachfront land in Nevada you might find interesting…

(If you doubt, consider Word grammar check and the amount of resources that have gone into that tool. It still ****, because computers are lousy at context. The ***umptions behind this thing give computers way too much credit.)



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67 responses to “You’re going to what the what now?

  1. On the plus side, many kids will get some useful hacking experience.

  2. I read some of the comments from over at PG’s place to my folks, one of whom still works in the medical field. What really got us laughing was what the app would do to cookbooks, especially chicken recipes. *evil grin* Maybe I should run one of the old books I’ve got about mules and ***es through it?

    And yes, I wanna see the app that does the reverse: adds naughty bits into otherwise harmless (OK, mostly harmless) things like gardening books or birding guides.

  3. It will be like mad libs! Which my kids adored. Only with dirty words. When I was a much younger woman, I had a friend who would invite my sister and I over to his house for movies. His dad had carefully gone through the movie on a VHS tape and edited anything out he thought we shouldn’t see, like bad words, or kissing scenes (we were, indeed, very young). But it was easy to see what had been there, and our vivid little imaginations filled it in.

  4. Luke

    Useful would be the ability to edit the ebook yourself, preferably with an “edited” flag bracketing the changes.
    (I’m thinking of Neil Gaiman’s “Stardust”, which would be a wonderful children’s book, except for one graphic sex scene that’s largely superfluous.)

    This, isn’t useful.
    I have to wonder who they think their market is. (And fear that it might actually exist.)

    • I’d love the ability to flag an ebook such that when the (young) reader reaches specified content, the book gets locked, requiring a passcode to unlock and a page that says, more or less, “go discuss this with Mom or Dad.” Inconvenient? Sure, but at the rate I read as a youth (stupid life with its stupid all the things needing done) I’d fly through a book or three in a day. I expect my parents kept an eye, but there was plenty of stuff that I expect they’d have prefered to at least chat with me about.

      On the other hand, that became more common as I got older, anyway. Something about freedom breeding responsibility, or some such…

      • Reality Observer

        I’m reminded of the long-ago days when my library card was different from those of my parents. Meant I couldn’t check out some of the books that had “adult” themes. (All of those were in a separate set of stacks behind the librarian’s desk, too – so I couldn’t get away with reading them in the library, either.)

        Being a computer geek, I put web access controls on my kid’s computers from day one – they could not access ANY site that I had not added to the “permit” list. The books and videos they were allowed were monitored, up until they were about 14 or so (which makes me a hypocrite; I was reading “Time Enough for Love” when it was first published, so that means I was 13 at the time – we’re not even going to mention reading the first edition of “I Will Fear No Evil”…)

        • We went a few steps further. The children’s pcs come up with a page that says “Go ask your mom or dad if you can use this site”. The keyword flags are also there, which are more parent-side: an alarm goes off if a flagged keyword is used on the kids’ pcs’ searches, and we go look at what they’re looking for. (In the one case though, it was looking for anatomy references for drawing, whereupon a site was recommended and that was that.) They’re also unable to access social media and anything that requires a sign-up or log-in that we didn’t whitelist.

          Draconian? I was worried about this and asked at the local police station. They felt we were doing the right thing and were glad that we were proactive about child safety online.

          I don’t think you’re a hypocrite for filtering at this point; I think we who are now parents (at least here, amongst the Huns and Mad Geniuses) matured faster mentally, and were expected to grow up faster than the kids these days. Also they’re taught things later. I mentioned to my brother the other day that my elder son was learning the first bits of cursive writing. My brother was surprised; we’d learned cursive writing, using fountain pen, in grade one. My son’s in grade 3. I remember learning how to write neatly in kindergarten; kindy now is closer to the preschool, not even nursery level that I recall.

    • Oooh, like the “original translation” of The Princess Bride?

      There’s a great little thing that says something like “what follows here is 45 pages of discussion on the minuatie of hats and fashion” or “27 pages on the politics of sea battles in wooden boats on the X sea during the spring.”

      It’d also be awesome to be able to put in things like the fan-dubs of Inu Yasha do– for example, in episode one of the anime, the villain is a hair-and-spider themed woman in tight black leather who turns into a comb. The notes explain that this kind of kami/oni/demon is a comb that was used to brush the hair of the dead. I’d maim to get that for the fashion and politics stuff in the Peter Whimsy books! It’s obvious that a “black crepe d’chine figured with….” had MEANING, but all I can find is that it’s…well, the stuff that “chinese pajamas” look like, satin-sort-of stuff with a sort of embroidered pattern.

      • Or a translation of the passages of French/Latin/Greek for those who did not grow up in an era where multi-lingual fluency was common. Google translate just doesn’t cut it.

        • Especially when it’s a snippet of a quote and we’re supposed to go “oh, of course! That’s from So and so in the greek play XYZ as translated by That GUy!”

    • Reality Observer

      I download all of my Baen purchases in HTML precisely for that editing ability.

      NOT to fiddle with what the authors wrote, though – to fix things that got through copy editing (they are very good at Baen, but nobody is perfect).

      Very rarely, to take care of a continuity problem that I’m not sure whether it was a copy edit or not (like putting the discussion of putting out the golden lures for the Posleen BEFORE the part where they start encountering them).

  5. Should make political thrillers interesting. All those assassinations – or should I say ******inations. :eyeroll: This is about the stupidest app I’ve ever heard of.

  6. And never discount human ingenuity.The creativity required to write a truly raunchy book that never uses any of the more blunt terms could be …stimulating. True story: My sister once did original document research on one of the first American diplomats in France, post-Revolution. He kept a diary, and several mistresses πŸ™‚ As, er, “busy” as he was, he never used the same euphemism for sex twice. Now THAT is impressive! “Did as our ancestors did before us” is one I remember… and it wouldn’t be censored by the app.

    • Bloodhound Gang’s Discovery Channel is impressive for this– it’s incredibly obscene, but last time I tried I couldn’t find anything that was obscene because of words, rather than meaning.

      I still can’t use the phrase “I’d appreciate your input” without at least a 50% chance of blushing.

      • Luke

        My first thought was of the Bible. Sodom, Lot’s daughters, Oman, and the Song of Solomon pass pretty easily.

        But I do remember that song, even though I’d managed to forget it.
        Thanks eversomuch for the reminder.

    • Getting Crap Past the Radar, and team it with Double Entendre and Punning. Oh imagine the fun we could have…!

  7. Uncle Lar

    A few years back I helped a Baen Barfly (Leo C. if I recall correctly) sanitize a copy of John Ringo’s “Ghost” for his young teenage nephew and his friends. With John’s permission of course. For those familiar with the book what it actually meant was excising about 15% of the text and adding a few bridge paragraphs. Did it for sh!ts and giggles and editing practice. Would not do it again. It made it a lesser work IMHO. Told Leo what he should have done is simply wait a couple of years and give his nephew the unexpurgated version.
    I purely hate what they do to Twain’s books these days, and cannot stand to watch the butcher job commercial TV does to one of the finest parody movies ever created, Blazing Saddles.

    • So it was “Oh, John Ringo… oh, okay….”

    • Reality Observer

      I shudder. OK, you lose at least 50% of the characterization… Then I thought of the ****** of the book – how in the **** did you manage the action in the bunker???

      • Reality Observer

        Addenda – the characterization is a major part, it was so well done. The “Ghost” is a man I would get along with very well, respect, admire – and most likely put 50 cals through his heads if I caught him in the same COUNTY as my daughters (unless he was taking care of business)…

      • Uncle Lar

        The girl’s nudity in the bunker wasn’t that big a problem, just a few minor adjustments. The action on the boat on the other hand was essentially erased.
        And, as I said, the result was flat, much in my opinion was lost when we sanitized Ghost’s underlying dark demons. Would not attempt such again.

        • Reality Observer

          I was thinking more of the rape and torture (WHY he was so pissed off, and other, um, thoughts). Plus the best part – “Why is a bad-ass SEAL carrying TAMPONS???” (Although many of us probably just wondered why he didn’t have any pads along too – I carry some of each whenever I’m out in the boonies. Probably saved me from a nasty hand infection one time.)

          • lelnet

            In civilian life, menstruation is the overwhelmingly most common reason to have to suddenly deal with a lot of bleeding without it qualifying as a medical emergency requiring an immediate trip to the hospital.

            I’ve never been in the military, but it takes very little imagination at all to see why that’s…rather less likely to be true, there. And even less so, for the type whose typical missions involve very small teams, little access to immediate support, and potentially extended covert operations deep in hostile territory.

            • Supposedly, tampons are good for bullet wounds. If you search around, you can find all kinds of things about what size for what caliber.

              I sure as bloop wouldn’t use them, although every medical kit I pack has pads, as sure as it’s got tri-bac or alcohol– feminine pads started out as military medical pads, and their wives kept filching ’em. Someone made the obvious mental jump.

              The reason WHY it’s a really bad idea is because they’re not sterile; not so big a problem with a pad, very big problem when you’re shoving it in a whole. Then there’s the whole “swelling up as it absorbs” thing– there’s a lot more give in the place tampons are designed for than there is in a bullet wound. See also, Hollywood style removing the arrow advice.
              (My mom’s rule: you’re doing major surgery. If you can’t figure out what to do without some stupid rule of thumb, do not touch it. Try to do the least damage, and have some kind of notion of where the blood travels in that area, and tendons, that sort of thing. Watching characters in movies snap off razor headed arrows in someone’s shoulder is enough to make me puke– imagine all the damage they’re doing.)

            • If I remember my trivia correctly, tampons were originally invented to plug bullet wounds in WWII front line soldiers until the medics could arrive.

  8. Stephen Gradijan

    One of Kate’s lines reminded me of a phrase I sometimes use.

    The pen is mightier than the s word.

  9. lelnet

    It’s a stupid idea for an app, but I’m not worried about it. Removing or starring-out specifically-identified words is a simple matter of text search…I could write a regex to do it in a few minutes — writing a parser (or interfacing to somebody else’s too-much-OO-for-their-own-good parser) for .mobi and/or .epub format would be the overwhelmingly harder part of the job.

    An editor that can remove positive references to guns or negative ones to communism or other sorts of badthink-according-to-leftists is basically going to have to be a human being, for the foreseeable future. And while it doesn’t take that many man-hours to expurgate the most popular controversial books, that sort of process just doesn’t scale even to the size of the trad-pub market, let alone indie.

    Computers will be _writing_ novels, before they’re doing that sort of editing on them.

    • Reality Observer

      That will never happen, either – as noted by the commenters, doing “editing” anywhere but on the consumer’s device, on a copy owned by them, is a clear violation of copyright.

      • lelnet

        Actually, if we’re going to drag copyright into it, it’s a violation to do it on the consumer’s device, too…it still constitutes the creation of an unauthorized derivative work, even if one doesn’t subsequently distribute that work.

        So basically, you can only _legally_ do this to works which are too old to be protected by copyright, or whose authors expressly disclaim the right to restrict derivative works. (Which latter clause is basically just a long way of saying “Cory Doctorow”.)

        If you leave the author’s name and original title on, you’re courting trademark problems, too.

        Expurgated movie editions, for example, can only be produced with the consent of the studio that owns the copyright. That permission used to be much more readily forthcoming than it is nowadays, but the process was never legal without it.

        • Reality Observer

          Technically… perhaps. It’s never been tested, to my knowledge. Nor do I think it ever will be – not worth the effort for anyone considering the nil return.

          In any case, I think it would probably run into some problems with “fair use” in any case.

          (At least I hope I am right. Having admitted above what I do with Baen Books, now I’m living in fear of a visit from Toni… Shudder…)

  10. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    “Nothing will go wrong wrong wrong….” [Wink]

  11. I’ve run into some embarrassing search engine moments. For example, it’s always embarr***ing searching in Latin for stuff about the Parable of the Sower… if you know what the Latin word for “seed” is, and I know you do.

  12. masgramondou

    I feel sorry for all those books about people called Richard and some ones about cats e.g. that famous mayor of London, **** Whittington and his *****

  13. Sounds like the auto-bleep in MMOs– which I actually like, because I’m trying not to curse, and the words being used over…and over… and over… make it sink into my vocabulary, even when I try not to.

    Replacing F—! with *****! also helps me avoid the kind of writer who covers up a lack of skill with shock-value– I HATE wasting time seeing if a story will get better, just because I’m tired enough not to notice that the visceral reaction is from the MSG of profanity.

    Heck, if it can be customized, I’d love to have it for personal use– and give a copy to anybody who fusses about trigger warnings. πŸ˜€

    • Timid1

      Replacing Fβ€”! with *****! also helps me avoid the kind of writer who covers up a lack of skill with shock-value– I HATE wasting time seeing if a story will get better, just because I’m tired enough not to notice that the visceral reaction is from the MSG of profanity.

      Yes! It’s like hearing a “comic” use foul language because George Carlin did in his famous skit, but miss that what made the skit brilliant wasn’t the words but his observations on the meaning of words and context.

  14. They probably think they’re the ****s of the walk right now, but when they see the result, they’ll realize they made some false ***umptions. Their *****footing around is just going to lead to a totally fubar’d situation, where they’ll miss profanities that those silly pestilent bumholes haven’t programmed it to recognize, just as the new punk in prison doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him.

  15. Luke

    In case you haven’t seen the news elsewhere, PTerry just died.
    Going home and digging through boxes to find “Reaper Man”.

  16. BobtheRegisterredFool

    I can make a program that can censor all potentially objectionable material from any document. By erasing it entirely. (Okay, I have a lot to learn about file handling, and it wouldn’t work on ROM.)

    As a writer, I prefer to avoid certain words, as I do while speaking.

    I take a certain amount of pride in being able to discuss offensive matters or matters not suitable for an audience anyway.

  17. A child who looks shocked when he hears “those words!!!!!” at school might as well just hand a “bully me” sign on his back.

    • He shouldn’t have to. Not every child grows up surrounded by profanity and foul language. Some parents do try to protect their children from over-exposure to harsh things.

    • Timid1

      In the third grade I learned a little ditty on the playground that I still can’t repeat in mixed company. We were that bad. Which brings up a problem with the use of profanity: It’s occasionally added for shock effect or to be “trendy,” or to be “relevant.” It doesn’t work that way. You have kids like us who aren’t impressed and will critique the execution of profanity. Those who have never heard these words will be puzzled, and know they are considered naughty, but not be shocked. Those who know them and know not to use them in polite company might be shocked, but not in the way the author intends.

      In some instances profanity works, as if we expect the character to use foul language. We wouldn’t expect a Marine DI to say, when a boot almost shoots him on rifle range, “Really Clarance, you must be more careful.” Other than that, if an author feels he must use profanity to make his work shocking, trendy, and relevant, then it’s an admission that it can’t accomplish this without it.

      • Reality Observer

        I have heard of some DIs (probably legend, but who knows for sure?) that can chew out a boot without profanity, and without repetition, for several minutes.

        Myself, I know I had an extremely profane boss once that didn’t impress me in the least when he got mad at me. And a high school English teacher who absolutely TERRIFIED me – that woman could take you down to Planck level without a single off-color word…

        • I have heard of some DIs (probably legend, but who knows for sure?) that can chew out a boot without profanity, and without repetition, for several minutes.

          My dad had one.

          Very religious.

          Didn’t slow him down.

          (Dad’s side doesn’t do stories, so I can be pretty sure he really existed.)

  18. And I can actually sort-of link the expurgation of words to my just-posted-on-my-blog review of Cedar Sanderson’s ‘Dragon Noir’ which is due to be published March 28.
    Because I censored myself from writing any spoilers, that’s why.
    And that means my review queue is officially empty; I have no book, and I must review.
    So please don’t make me beg. I will randomly attack tomorrow, assuming recovery from the NSAIDS-driven gut stuff continues to progress. patpatterson12 at comcast dot net is a good contact, or tell me here, or the review will strike and you shall know that I am your reviewer when I visit my reviews upon you!

  19. Hey, if I have to watch my language, I may as well make it colorful.

  20. I can only imagine that if one of those things came into mainstream usage, writers would just invent different swear words. We’re a creative bunch after all.

  21. Kate Paulk

    Sorry for being so quiet. The news of Sir Terry’s passing sent me into “grief plus hermit” mode and I wasn’t communicating with anyone.