A Spam Filter for America?

How unusable would your email be if you didn’t have a spam filter? Would you even bother with email? Like spam, Russian attacks don’t have to be that successful if they are high-volume. Facebook estimated that Russia’s attacks reached over 100 million accounts. That would mean a lot of money if it were spam instead of influence campaigns.

The main impediment to spam filtration on these platforms is the control held by the operators, especially in the context of mobile apps, which are not readily extended or modified by third-parties to filter out nefarious posts. You cannot directly insert a Bayesian filter into the Facebook app, for example, even while you could probably whip something up in a webextension for the Facebook desktop website.

Another issue is that Russian attacks are not the only notable sources of spam in the American media diet. Television and radio platforms are not amenable to spam filtering, and overall the prospects for cutting down on those sources of spam are slim. You have something we haven’t seen with email: an entire class of media consumer dedicated to eating spam.

One important part of the spam filter model is that it is voluntary and transparent. You can always look at the crud filling up your spam folder. You can shape the filter to include items of annoyance or exclude items that you wish. It’s a tool to be used to improve your life and save you the aggravation of unwanted email.

Browser vendors and the W3C should work on implementing changes to the web that make filtration of unwanted content easier. This may include the introduction of an ad HTML element, with the design including a way to easily remove or block it from view. Vendors should block-by-default ads from sites that continue to display ads through other HTML elements. The ad element should include properties that make it easier to identify who paid for the ad, whether it tracked the user, and any keywords associated with the advertising that might become associated with the user.

Overall, it’s time for the online ad industry to step up its game in policing itself, or like many industries before it, it will face regulation that it does not like.

But while we’re at it, maybe we need to install a spam filter on the doors of the capital. A lot of lobbying goes on, and currently our nation is being sold a lot of boner pills and bad advice.

Review of Pyro Changes in Team Fortress 2: Jungle Inferno

Ten years on, Team Fortress 2 continues to receive new content. The latest is a new campaign and new weapons for the Pyro. This review assumes you are familiar with the game.

Here be not Flyros

Prior to the update, but after the announcement of the new weapons, there was widespread memery about the Flyro, which was a flying Pyro that was speculated to be utter havoc. The reality of the Thermal Thruster isn’t quite what was pondered. It grants some mobility, to be sure, but the delay in switching off to a flamethrower is such that the threat is mostly limited to Pyro being in places that one does not normally expect.

This is still a solid addition to the Pyro toolbelt, even if it denies the prospect of airborne combustion-based death-swarms. You can get places you couldn’t, and that plays into the flanking-style of Pyro. You give up a secondary weapon, though, which is quite painful as the Pyro already lacks range of attack.

They have awoken a sleeping dragon

The Dragon’s Fury feels like a combination of short-range rocket launcher and flamethrower. It packs a punch, is difficult to reflect, and can even light up other Pyros. But it is still range limited, which means Pyro still relies a lot more on position than some other classes.

One of the keys to this weapon seems to be its overwhelming force. It feels like classes that were used to taking Pyro down have at least a touch of fear to them now.

Upload them to the cloud

The Gas Passer has downsides. You don’t start with it, it has a slow recharge, and while you can recharge it through damage, it feels weird to give a player no secondary to start. But it is also versatile. It is a weak smoke grenade, it is a team-support weapon, making enemies easier to kill, and (people seem to forget) it’s a finisher. You can hit afterburning players with the gas, and the afterburn damage will itself light them up some more.

Of these three, it’s my least liked because of the downside of not starting with it. That feels like a cop-out. Other than the Soldier horns, this is the only item you don’t get an immediate benefit for running (and even there, the Concheror gives healing). It feels like it should at least have a passive effect or something else to make up for the delay in use.

That melee weapon

The melee category is all over the place, with some items giving great help and others just leaving you scratching your head. Most melee weapons are situational to begin with. So the Hot Hand isn’t really a big departure or disappointment. The main difficulty I found is that the speed burst is very short-lived, making it difficult to capitalize on. By the time you realize you landed a hit and got a speed boost, it’s already wasted.


Pyro is improved, both with these weapons and the other changes to flamethrowers. The sticking point for my own play remains sentry guns, and Pyro remains unchanged on that front. You can try to move around them, possibly with the Thermal Thruster, or you can search for a spot to flame them from cover, but you don’t have the sentry-busting capacity of Demoman or Soldier, and so ultimately you have to change classes to deal with sentries.

My choice for how to balance Pyro vs. Sentries would be to reduce the sentry’s range against Pyro. Lore-wise, the argument that the flame-retardant suit makes Pyro harder to track is plausible, and the change can be made in a way that Pyro has an easier time moving past sentries while not making them much easier to destroy.

The Snappings-back to Come

There comes a time when things get stretched out. And then there is the snapping-back. Expansion and contraction. Not just financial, but ethical, procedural, and on other axes, too.

At some point, the US Congress will find itself overwhelmed with investigating the present and will busy itself enacting new restraints. At some point, online advertising will be regulated, not just against a malignant Russian Federation’s meddling, but against the ordinary scams we see advertised every day on sites big and small.

The bailouts of polluters will come to an end. The protections of financial companies, drug companies, and other overlarge snowflakes, long seen by some as too fragile to have real regulation, will terminate.

We see it now with the public recognition of Harvey Weinstein for the depraved exemplar of power run amok he is. We see shadows of other exemplars coming into focus, yet to be queued for their runs through the wringer. These things take time.

But there are axiomatic protections we should seek out as a society. Diversity is among these, not just of race or sex, but of background and of philosophy. Of saying, even if single-payer might be best, we can still walk calmly into that future rather than leap into what might end up badly. If tax cuts are so wonderful, we can cut taxes a point at a time and see the results unfold.

Why tear the Brexit bandaid off, risking reopening the wound it covers? Why not soak it, loosen the adhesive and then pull it off a bit at a time? The same goes for the Kurds in Iraq, the Catalans, and so on. Rome was not in one day built, and yet so many want to see every imagined panacea poured down the throat of the world at once.

In Colorado and the rest, they have legalized marijuana. The successes there seem destined to spread a new march against a failed war on drugs. And the less slack we leave, the more gradual the expansion, the less severe the contraction when we go too far.

We should reject all the Republicans who want to full-throttle their policies. But we ought also reject the Democrats equally on that measure. If the ideas be good, a pinch should convince before we go for the pound. Any politician that says otherwise is looking to rip us off. And they’re doing it, folks. We should unseat them.

How to Fight Fake News

First, a proper definition of the problem. The problem of democracy is always about the electorate choosing the people who will best-advance government, given the difficulty of figuring who that is, the complex tradeoffs at hand, and limited information.

The Russian Federation Fake News and any other rogue propaganda from any nation state agent are therefore just a subset of the problem of a dirty information stream flowing to the electorate. Trying to solve the de-Putinification of social platforms and the larger web, even if that were possible by itself, would not solve the larger problem.

So, we look to traditional noise problems for inspiration.


From Wikipedia: “Signal-to-noise ratio”: Improving SNR in practice:

It is often possible to reduce the noise by controlling the environment. Otherwise, when the characteristics of the noise are known and are different from the signals, it is possible to filter it or to process the signal.

From Wikipedia: “Combined sewer”:

This type of gravity sewer design is no longer used in building new communities (because current design separates sanitary sewers from runoff), but many older cities continue to operate combined sewers.

From Wikipedia: “Ad blocking”: Methods:

The more advanced ad blocking filter software allow fine-grained control of advertisements through features such as blacklists, whitelists, and regular expression filters.

From Wikipedia: “Bug bounty program”:

These programs allow the developers to discover and resolve bugs before the general public is aware of them, preventing incidents of widespread abuse.


Unless you can eliminate the source of contamination, you must rely on some sort of filter. It can be a complete sequestration of the contaminant (in the case of separating wastewater from runoff) or it can be a processing filter as with ad blocks or some radio noise removal systems.

The platforms that act as inlets of pollution may have their own cases against adopting of appropriate filters here, which makes it a harder problem.

But some combination should work to reduce the noise.

Separate the streams

In the vein of sewerage, social sites can make a hard break between reputable periodicals and up-and-comers. This should not present a barrier to entry, but should be based upon independently-verifiable indicators such as readership, credential-issuance by major organizations, and other factors. They should likely separate opinion and commentary from reporting for similar reasons.

This is in line with what companies often do. Newspapers separate opinion from reporting, and Valve Software, maker of the Steam game platform, separates humorous reviews from serious reviews for similar reasons. It’s something social sites should do, too.

Strength-in-numbers

Google and other search engines have long sought to fight against those gaming their rankings. Many of those techniques can be employed to de-rank noise, including looking for multiple, independent submissions that give credence to a source before spreading it. This is also similar to Wikipedia‘s notability requirement for article creation.

While this technique will not eliminate much, it does raise the bar for cranks to inject their swill, as it will be easier to identify when a group is colluding to post noise unless they expend considerable effort to make their fake accounts seem credible.

Check for divergence

Most credibly-sourced news content contains a chunk of background that isn’t new, with a small supplement that is new. Fake news tends not to follow that rule, and looking for that can be useful. Again, the enemies of signal may work to change their formats to avoid this detection, but it raises their costs considerably.

Make ads public

Finally, micro-targeted advertising creates the problem that it is not readily subjected to many eyeballs who can debunk it or call it out. If advertising platforms were required to maintain records of all the ads they serve, allowing for independent review, it would help guard against abuse.

Alternatively, if regulators and advertisers are opposed, browser extensions that automatically upload copies of ads to a non-profit service could enable this practice.

A brand opportunity

Apple has tried to brand themselves privacy-conscious. Google attempts to tout speed and security. Mozilla, openness. Microsoft… has a marketing problem, because I’m not sure what their salespitch even is now.

But the point is that all these browser and OS vendors can work on the problem of fake news and try to brand themselves the one that gives you the tool to quash the invasion.


These are just some ideas of how to combat propaganda in our news feeds. The problem is worth working on. It’s not impossible, as we have had noise problems in other areas and have done a lot to minimize them.

OK Google and Siri, Where is the Gunfire?

The lack of action on… err, on gun violence is stunning. But there’s a ubiquitous technology that can help us respond more rapidly to gun owners that seek to harm others.

The virtual assistant, whether Siri or Echo or Home Assistant or Cortana or whatever, has a basic design:

  1. A recording loop that is checked for a watch-word
  2. Upon hearing the watch-word, recording begins being sent to the cloud
  3. When the audio indicates no more words are coming, or a number of other end-conditions, the device returns to watch-mode

Gunfire has a distinctive enough audio signature (“sound”) that it can be listened-for during the loop phase of operation. Combined with GPS, the data of a gun being fired could be rapidly located.

Some at-risk and chronically violent communities have deployed fixed gunfire detectors, and it would make sense for hotels and other public venues to install them. But given the number of people with mobiles, there’s no reason not to give ordinary folks the tools to help stop violence when it breaks out.

The program would be opt-out for anybody who owns the devices but doesn’t want to listen for gunfire. The loudness of the signals from multiple phones could be quickly correlated with GPS data to give even better precision.

Knowing where the gunfire is coming from means that police don’t have to divert as many resources to checking nearby areas unless a manhunt develops out of a situation. In cases of apprehension, automated gunfire reports are more evidence for trial.

As other technologies co-evolve with mobiles, automated rotary-wing drones might one day respond to reports of gunshots by flying to the best-calculated origin and giving police a much earlier picture of the scene.

Regardless of gun control efforts (or whatever the banned term is) we should still invest in other technologies that will improve public safety. Having mobiles help reporting gunfire (and regular fires, too, and really any threat that’s readily detected) makes sense.