The anger of an adept man

20 Oct 2009

This is why I am right now very scared.

Being an inconsequential geek with more taste for nostalgia than for future glories, I had been following Randy Baud's blog for some time.

For those that don't know, Randy "Terminator" Baud was widely known in the Eighties (and in the relevant circles) as one of the best programmers alive. Not because of the speed or extent of his works, but because he could look at some system and say: "Hey, if you do this, it breaks." His example programs caused many a programmer to bolt up from front of a smoking ruin of a terminal, screaming wordless curses of praise and horror.

Randy Baud was the world's best finder of pathological counterexamples. Others did programs and systems; he showed how you could make them malfunction and burn. Occasionally people didn't think he had found anything big; on more occasions than one, they were five minutes later without a working computer. (I've heard of one case when there was an actual explosion, but that might be just an urban legend.)

Well, Randy was never so very famous beyond those circles that are interested in esoteric failures and neurotic perfectnesses (a significant fraction of programmers, though) because he didn't have the success of a project or a program to link to his name: no Linux, no GNU, just a path littered with the broken dreams of others.

Oh, just so you understand this correctly: He was liked. He was loved. An asshole might have exploited the slips of others, but Randy pointed them out. And if he had more than a little bit of fun doing it, hey, a spectacle attracts more eyes than a mere disaster, and if something is done wrong, it ought to be known so it won't be done wrong again.

But twenty years later Randy was in semi-retirement, his only technological pursuit writing a mostly nostalgic blog because of his intense hatred, very much shared by me, of the vacuous future-promisers that had taken over the geekosphere.

And then the spammers came. Spam comments of varying degrees of sophistication: some just keywords, each phrase a link to some hit-hoarding site. Some had grabbed random words from some other blog, from a dictionary, or from an archive of erotic stories, and slipped a link into that nonsense. ("His lips quested down her taut brown stomach, worshipping their way to her cialis cialis cialis"?) Some were just nonsense, nothing more, with a link in the mix.

There were ten, fifteen of us computer history buffs regular in Randy's comments, and spam really broke up the conversation. Randy was angry because despamming took time and patience, and he usually had only one of the two. First you could post anything with less than three links, and if any spam slipped in, he manually removed it. Then, because of sheer volume, everything that had more than one link went into moderation.

Then anything with links at all; and this was a bother because there were legitimate comments there, and Randy either had to pick through the slush and see if anything of value was there; or then those that slipped into the queue had to e-mail him, with was frustrating additional work both to him and to the commenter.

Because of strong personal opinions, Randy wasn't willing to demand any commenter registration. You might keep things tidy that way, he said, but you turn away nine-tenths of the casual commenters, and they're often the most fresh and interesting ones. Typing in some e-mail address and a screen name is a whole lot easier than getting involved in one more idiotic password scheme; and (said Randy) such schemes were idiotic for assuming people would want to consolidate their cyberidentities; not the people who had tech-talk identities, family-talk personae and a leading name in furry-pornography art circles, no they wouldn't. And then there was the whole freedom and fascism angle.

(Besides, every time those came up Randy grumbled he could break those things in half in three days flat, and refrained from it mostly because of the litigious nature of the people nowadays; this usually led to a rant on how people weren't so damn serious and ready to blame the messenger all the time in the good old days.)

Because Randy had thousands of blog posts up --- you blog for ten years and they tend to accumulate --- and many just kept generating new discussion, you couldn't lock each post after a week either.

Randy tried one commercial program that promised to use analysis of word and phrase patterns to detect and junk spam comments; three days later he posted a video clip titled "Installation disk inferno 2009"; some thermite was involved, and he never mentioned the program again.

You couldn't block e-mail addresses, because they are trivially easy to make. "You might just as well try to keep ants from your larder by tagging individual ants and keeping those out", he said. "There are enough first-time offenders to make those that return a thing of little importance." And he wasn't willing to indiscriminately block various sources because he didn't want to bother legit commenters.

It seemed an insoluble problem.

And then, after one really snowed-in week, he posted a daily note for a week, with a reposted memory and the words "CODING: do not disturb". The spam comments proliferated; seemed he wasn't doing anything.

And then, that fateful Friday, he posted this:

Hi folks. Sorry for the lack of talk lately. I was lost doing some really involved code work; most probably illegal but highly satisfying. The spam problem should be fixed soon.

Here's a metaphor for you: If you're besieged in a castle and some bastard is lobbing fire arrows at you, what's the best thing you can do to keep a fire from breaking out? Answer: you don't deal with the arrows, you deal with the guy shooting them.

Will go to work cleaning the posts of the buggers now; sigh.


And, curiously, over the next week the amount of comment spam fell to a tiny fraction of what it had formerly been.

I thought it was some super-filter Randy had made; others thought the same, congratulated him, and asked if he could either give out a copy, or please finally become rich and famous for making, like, the most important tool the Internet ever made necessary.

Then we started noticing the comment spam wasn't just dropping on his blog.

It was dying everywhere.

Then I noticed an article on a tech site that told how the Russian part of internet had been all wonky for a while; seemed their hardware was suddenly so bad their servers just kept falling. And things seemed to be getting worse.

There was even an article, one I wouldn't have noticed except because of Google and my growing paranoia, that said several people had died in Angarsk after some computer system caught fire and burned down the high-rise it was in.

Youtube has been down twice during the past week; it's up now, but for some reason commenting is disabled. No great loss, those comments were indistinguishable from spam anyway.

Now, ever since the suicide of the NSA Director popped up in the news, I've been looking that way, but as I don't have any movie-level computer wizard skills, the results of that looking are limited to noticing that those NSA employees that blog don't seem to have had time to blog much anything for the past few weeks.

I'd like to post a comment on Randy's blog and ask what he's done, but there have been curiously few comments there lately; no spam, but less actual comments as well. And he's added more reposts with a tag of "doing urgent bug fixes do not disturb"; and all of a sudden I'm... well, afraid.

Heck, I'll buy a fire extinguisher today, then comment. Without links, and about the subject at hand. This must be just paranoia. (Or maybe I'll use the university computer.)

Just a careful, on-topic comment. Something that clearly shows, if show I can, that I am not spam.

Wouldn't want to anger the new sheriff in town.

last updated: (Mar 15 2011)