Cool Girls and Faux Feminism

I just finished reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Don’t worry, no spoilers here. It’s a well written book with an exciting story, interesting characters with depth, and plot twists that actually make sense and hold together. It is generally a good read, and I recommend it. But there was a particular passage in the book that caught my attention. I clipped it out so you can read it in its entirety if you want. I promise this will not ruin any of the plot twists for you. If you don’t want to read the whole excerpt, that’s cool, too. I’ll give you the gist.

Cool Girls

Cool Girls (click to enlarge)

This is written in the voice of one of the characters, but I’m pretty darn sure it’s actually a rant that the author believes. Both because of the style of it, and because it’s a big part of the underlying motivation of a lot of the characters in the story. In a way, I feel like maybe she wrote this story as an elaborate frame around this one rant.

The gist is this: cool girls (the girls that guys really covet) do not exist. All those cool girls you’ve ever met are just pretending to be cool. Down deep, those pretenders hate all that guy stuff (giving blow jobs, watching hockey, etc.), but they pretend to like it so they can get a guy.

On my first reading, I thought: Yeah! That’s probably true! All those women on Twitter who appear to be so cool. I bet they are just pretending, because they love the validation and love they get from the Twitter guys who really wish their wives were as cool as these girls. These girls who say they love anal and blow jobs and hockey and baseball. It’s not that their husbands are really that much luckier than we are. Their husbands probably wouldn’t recognize these women on Twitter as their wives at all. They’d read the TL of their wife and say, “Who the hell are you pretending to be?”

And if you read that passage, I bet you had that same thought. Or maybe, “I know a lot of women who are like that. I’m glad somebody is finally calling them out on their shit.” Right?

It’s okay. It’s easy to get drawn into a rant like that. I forgive you. And I forgive me. Because this is actually kind of awful. And shame on us for agreeing.

You see, I actually know some of these women I’m talking about—some of them pretty darn well. And they aren’t faking it. They really are cool. Maybe not every single checkbox, but I’ve met women on Twitter who are into pretty much everything you can imagine. And many of them would definitely qualify as cool girl, and they aren’t pretending.

Twitter Dom in his resting state.

Twitter Dom in his resting state.

The more I thought about it, the more annoyed I got about this whole construct. A lot of that annoyance comes from my time in what I’ll call “Submissive Twitter.” I’ve mentioned before that I have a bit of a following in the Dominant/submissive community on Twitter. I have a lot of followers from that group, and I follow a lot of submissive (and a couple dominant) women. I hardly follow any Dominant men, because honestly, they are the worst tweeters. They have incessant @ conversations that remind me of listening to the prattle of 12-year-old girls. They post a lot of porn pics. They issue edicts on what it means to be a “good Dom” as though they are the only one who knows. It’s like watching a bunch of peacocks. And they aren’t funny. Ever.

Okay, so I can’t stand the Doms, but I adore the subs. They are open and honest. They love each other. They love that they are understood here in their community. They talk about their wants and desires and, for the most part, their inability to have any of those needs met. But when they are met, you’ve never read such joyful, rejoicing tweets. They are at once incredibly empowered and incredibly fragile women. I love them all, and I feel very protective of them.

Cool girl starter kit.

Cool girl starter kit.

And as this rant percolated in my brain, I realized that really, the coolest of the cool girls is the submissive. The key thing to understand about a submissive woman is that what she wants the most is for her Dominant to be pleased. His pleasure defines her pleasure. This makes it really tricky for a good D/s (Dominant/submissive) couple to get together, because if she doesn’t actually enjoy the stuff he’s into, it can’t work. For example, some submissives are into corporal punishment. Others are not. If one who is into being “hit with a fiberglass curtain rod thingy” is matched with a Dom who thinks an appropriate punishment never involves hitting, then they aren’t really gonna click.

But suppose we have a well-matched pair. It’s easy to see that pleasing him could be very pleasing to her. That being the cool girl for her Sir is exactly the thing she likes most. That letting him make all the decisions gives her a freedom which is an amazing escape, and can leave her with an incredible euphoric high. That woman could very easily be exactly the woman that her Dom desires. Not pretending. Actually being.

And so my protective impulse kicks in. That rant is invalidating these women that I adore! Cut it out! Denying the existence of a whole class of people is really offensive, when you think about it.

On my first reading, I thought this was a feminist rant. “…they are pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be.” How awful! How last century! But wait. They are pretending? Says who? Isn’t feminism about empowerment? And isn’t empowerment about letting people be whomever they want to be? If you accuse someone of pretending because you would have to be pretending to be that way, that’s not feminism. That’s using the guise of feminism as subterfuge to actually attack other women. In the rant, there is a clear competition motive involved, but it could just as easily be out of fear or ignorance.

What is it with women and competition? I can see if there is actual competition, but once a woman has settled down with a life partner, why the fuck would she even care what strategy another woman might be using to get a man? You got your man! Time to head over to the sidelines, be a spectator, and stop being all judgy, for crying out loud.

In the context of our subs, they are often pretending. But they aren’t pretending to be what a man wants. Quite the opposite. They are pretending that they aren’t the cool girl, in order to avoid the judgement of other women. I know this, because Mellifluentm (the author of the “fiberglass curtain rod thingy” quote above) herself does it. Go read that linked article. Here we have one of the most open, progressive, honest, unabashed subs I’ve ever encountered. And she pretends not to be who she is, because she can’t stand the scorn of other women.

Wrap that scorn in faux feminism and you’ve got a real horror show. Women can be just awful to each other. You all really need to give each other a break.

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Best of Alfageeek: No Pie for You

I’m reading a book! Strange as it may seem, I don’t do that very often. I read a lot of stuff, but rarely a whole book. Maybe I’ll tell you about it when I’m done. But it chewed up my free time this week, so you get a best-of instead today.

This is a very early post from my blog. It’s super mathy, but I like it: No pie for you.

Viral Poetry

A friend of mine sent me the following email, which I’m just going to include in its entirety, because she’s awesome:

Good morning. This is going to be long winded but hear me out. Because I think this is cool as fuck.  OK for the past year I have been reading a book called Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe. I say the past year because I started and stopped at least three times. I find the subject interesting but I usually have 3 books in flux and well, I got distracted. In light of the recent Ebola outbreak I decided to pick it back up again because with some of the new viruses running around like Enterovirus D68, I thought this guys idea of a mutant Ebola/Flu pandemic prophecy might be coming true.  I was skimming back over the first chapters again and came across some ideas I had highlighted. When I read the paragraphs below I remembered thinking, “I want to do this”. I saw the Computer Scientist reference and immediately thought of you. If anyone could do this it would be you.

Here is the passage:

Viruses manage to function with such few genes through a variety of tricks that allow them to maximize the impact of their diminutive genomes. Among the most elegant is a phenomenon called overlapping reading frames . As an analogy, take a poem of around thirteen thousand letters— say, T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land . It has roughly the same number of letters as the Ebola virus has base pairs. When you read The Waste Land , it has meaning, tempo, reference— all of the characteristics we normally expect from literature. In the same way, the genome of the Ebola virus has meaning, with base pair letters making up genes that get translated into the proteins that provide the virus with its capacity to function. If you take the first stanza of The Waste Land , around a thousand letters, and begin to read it starting with the second letter instead and move the first letters of the other words, it’s a disaster. “April is the cruelest month” becomes “Prili sthec rueles tmonth.” Nonsense.

Now imagine that embedded within the stanza was a second poem so that both readings, the one that starts with the first letter and the one that starts with the second letter, lead to fluent comprehensible verses. Now imagine that you took the same stanza and read it backward and that a third hidden stanza emerged from the same letters. This is precisely what viruses can do. A good challenge to poets (or perhaps computer scientists) would be to create such a stanza to see if they could be as creative as natural selection has been with viruses. Viruses with overlapping reading frames use the same string of base pairs to code up to three different proteins, an incredible genomic efficiency, which makes their small genomes pack a much larger punch.

So, the challenge would be to write a poem that made sense using the normal first letter to start, using the second letter to start and to top it off have it make sense backwards.

Boom, there it is. The ultimate viral poem. Now the question is, would it spread?

My initial reaction when I read this was: no way. Of course, that’s my initial reaction when I get any challenge. I immediately say it’s impossible, and then in the background my mind figures out if maybe it isn’t. Obviously the backward part is possible. “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!” proves that. And I figured the second letter thing was also possible, although I’ve never seen that. But getting both of those at the same time (even with the relaxation that the reversed phrase could be completely different—it didn’t have to be a palindrome) just didn’t seem like something our language can support.

But I could maybe explore the problem a little anyway.

To begin with, I’d need to figure out how to make it workable on a computer. Parts of it are straightforward, but natural language is very hard, so it’s nearly impossible for a computer to recognize whether a series of words actually make any sense together. Then I thought of predictive poetry.

The iPhone is not much of a poet on its own.

The iPhone is not much of a poet on its own.

Predictive poetry is a fun thing to do on your phone. You put in a word. Start with a poetry word. Let’s use Balance. Then the phone suggests three words that you might choose next. I get of, the, and between. Let’s go with between. My next three choices are the, a, and us. I choose a. And so on. My final poem:

Balance between a good time waster and a half hour of sleep

Which actually makes a lot of sense and is probably a decent description of what you are doing right this very minute! In predictive poetry, the computer and human are working together. The computer is suggesting and the human is choosing. As long as you are deliberate, you can create some decent poems this way.

With that idea, I thought perhaps the computer could suggest sentences that meet all the rules, and then I (the poet) could pick the ones that are most meaningful.

First up, how to tackle the programming part? Clearly I need a list of words. I happen to have one, but it’s the list of words that Scrabble-like games accept, which means it has all those weird things like “aa” an “qi” and it’s really, really big (173,528 words, to be precise). Since this is a search problem, having a really big list is going to make things take a long time. Plus I’m going to get lots of answers that include those weird Scrabble words that I don’t even know. So I head to the intertubes and find a list of the 5000 most common words. We’ll start with that.

Now I need to find somewhere to begin with the code. The hardest thing about writing a poem is getting started, so let’s see if the computer can help with that. Can it find a word that if you drop the first letter, another word starts with that? It’s actually a pretty easy search problem. For each word in the list, drop the first letter and look for the remaining stuff in the list. If you find anything that starts with those letters, you’re good.

So I wrote that and got a list of potential first words. Lots of them.

Next, let’s figure out whether we’ll be able to end the backward sentence with that first word. This is a little trickier. I took my list of words and made a second list which is just all those words with the letters reversed. Now I have pretty much the same question I just asked: Does my word start something in that list? If it does, then there may exist a backward sentence that ends with my word. If nothing in the reverse-word list starts with my word, I shouldn’t use it, because I won’t be able to end on it.

“Balance,” for example is not going to work, because there isn’t any word that ends with “ecnalab.” “Bassists” on the other hand is good, because “…st sis sab” could potentially end something. The test for whether the reverse is possible is as follows:

Look through all the reversed words. For each word w:
  If test word t is the same length or shorter than w:
    If w starts with t, this is a good word!
  Otherwise: (w is shorter than t)
    If the first letters of t match w and
    If the rest of t is a good word, this is a good word!

I did a little thing there at the end. My test for whether a long word is a good word requires breaking it up and testing the latter part for goodness. This is called “recursion” and is something we computer geeks do all the time. It’s a way of breaking down a problem into an easy part and a hard part, and then having the hard part disappear as if by magic.

In case you’re curious, that algorithm in actual code (in a language I like called  “Python,” which is named after “Monty Python” and is actually a serious computer language which is super popular right now) looks like this:

def good(t):
  len_t = len(t)
  for w in rwords:
    len_w = len(w)
    if len_t <= len_w:
      if w[0:len_t] == t:
        return True
    else:
      if t[0:len_w] == w and good(t[len_w:]):
        return True
 return False

It turns out that’s a better way to test for dropped-the-first-letter words, too. It can find cases where you drop the first letter, and what’s left starts a couple of different words. “Drawer” for example leads to “raw era” which you wouldn’t find if you were requiring the dropped-letter word to start a single whole word (“rawer”? meh, maybe that actually is a word, although my editor would probably disagree).

I ran those two tests against all the words in the 5000 word dictionary and came up with a list of words my “poem” can start with.

Then, I tried pairing each of these first words with a second word, and I ran exactly the same set of tests. This produced pairs of words that I can use to start my poem. For example “elite rats.” We can drop the first letter and we have “liter ats…” and we can end a phrase with “stare tile.” The number of decent word pairs from my list of 5000 most common words was pretty abysmal. I tried to make some poems using these and they lacked poetry.

The next step was to try this with the big list of words and see if I found anything better, but my simple search algorithms are too slow on that big list. So I rewrote those algorithms to be much more efficient. I’ll spare you the details (you’re welcome), but it involves sorting the lists and then using more recursive magic to search much more efficiently.

With that done, I could run my program on the big list, and I got tons of word pairs I can use. Too many. I tried just ignoring short words. Going to words that are at least 4 letters long was the sweet spot that gave me a workable number of options.

We're hoping this is just a phase, and our tuba will lose the labret when it gets a little older.

We’re hoping this is just a phase, and our tuba will lose the labret when it gets a little older.

Only a computer would come up with the suggestion: “abutter ball” (that’s a neighborhood party with dancing, obviously). If you drop the first letter, you have “butterball” (the menu for our neighborhood party) and reversed you have “..l labret tuba” (the musical entertainment at our party). A labret is a lip piercing.

The big list produced plenty of gibberish, but nothing the least bit poetic. Back to the short list! I tuned up my algorithm so that it wouldn’t cheat and use the same words in the second stanza that had been in the first. For example, if your starting pair is “Bassist is” then the next stanza has “Assist is” so you can put any words after that and technically meet the rules. However, the intent is that you should have three different phrases here, so I rejected any reuse of words between the first and second stanza. In fact, I also rejected words that are just “s” tacked onto a word already used.

The last two changes were to let me specify how deep to go into the stanza (not just two words), and to make sure the last word works out cleanly (the above algorithm assumes you’ll be adding more words to the end).

With all those changes, I can run it on my list of 5000 common words, and get a pile of 6-word candidates to read. I pick one, add some punctuation, and presto:

Era war: Able to her abandon.
Raw Arab! Let oh’ era band on!
No DNA. Bare hotel bar. Aware.

To net age radar, ego : devil
One tag era: dare god evil?
Live dog era: dare gate not?

Tone butt onto net age. Yeah!
One button tone. Tag! Eye? Ah…
Ha! Eye gate not, not tube, not!

It’s practically fucking Shakespeare, right? Running it with 10 words leads to longer phrases, but you’ll notice that there is some commonality with the previous ones:

Trace butt onto net. One use rifle to her abandon.
Race button tone. Tone user, if let oh era band on.
No DNA. Bare hotel fire. Sue note not. Not tube cart.

Instead of going to longer phrases, the next thing to try is to see if I can take my 5000 common word dictionary and spice it up with some more interesting words from the big scrabble dictionary. I ran the program over the big dictionary and pulled out interesting words like “abuse” and “danger” and “retarget.” I added those to the little dictionary and ran my program on the new word list.

Unfortunately, that just generated WAY too many options again. I think the key to the small dictionary is that it doesn’t have that many good palindrome words. So you get a reasonable set of choices to choose from.

I’ll leave you with a few more gems from my experiments:

Here’s a little story: A congressman approaches a man at a bar with a particularly lewd suggestion. The man ditches his date and goes with the politician:

“Eye slop sexes?”
“Yes!” *lops exes*
*sexes pol’s eye*

How about this dominant professor’s to-do list:

_ Flog sex am
_ Logs exam
_ Maxes golf

Here is a sad tale of a coed who didn’t think about her schedule when she woke up in the morning:

Hoop sex A.M.
Oops! exam!
*maxes pooh*

Who hasn’t this happened to?

Eye speeds trap
Yes! (peed strap)  [the yes was ironic]
Parts. Deeps eye.  [read: deep sigh]

How about a poem about Iran in the 1970s:

Elated in Shah sand
Late dins,  hahs, and
DNA. Shah snide tale.

Something biblical:

Flower go relive devil
Lower gore lived evil
Lived eviler ogre wolf

This one sounds like an NRA slogan:

Gun smarts—not stats!
Unsmart snots tats
Stats tons. Tram snug.

I suspect that if I spent enough time searching the streams of gibberish these programs produce, there probably are some decent poems in there. These examples notwithstanding.

So, expert linguist, did you think we could solve this? Well you know now, wonk.

Viral Poetry Teaser

A friend of mine gave me a combination computer science / poetry challenge that she found in a book she is reading. I spent the free time I was supposed to spend writing a blog entry working on that challenge. So the bad news is that I don’t have anything written by my deadline. But the good news is that I have a pretty cool thing to write about once I’m finished solving the puzzle.

I’ll explain the motivation behind the challenge in that post, but for now here are the rules. Make a poem that makes sense regardless of whether you start on the first or second letter (you can move the spaces between letters around as needed), and also makes sense backward.

I’ve got a few that meet the rules and uses all real words and almost make sense. These two are typical:

pop era star tape live reel
opera start ape liver eel
lee revile pat rats are pop

abutter anime el
butter a nim eel
lee minaret tuba

But I’m confident I’ll have much better ones to share when I write the post. Maybe Monday.

Chicks and Dudes

My friend, T, called me the other morning, distraught. It seems T’s significant other had just walked out, very upset, and was about ready to break up. The trouble was, T had no idea what led to this. There had been some joking the night before, and the next thing T knew, it turned into a giant kerfuffle.

“Chicks are like that,” I consoled. “They fly off the handle for no apparent reason and storm off. Just calm down, and wait it out. That’s what we dudes have to do. I bet by the end of the day, your chick will be acting like nothing even happened.”

“We dudes have no idea why chicks do that,” I explained. “But we know from experience that they do, and we shouldn’t take it personally, because it has nothing to do with us. That behavior is just part of being a chick. And dealing with it is just part of being a dude.”

The twist here is that T is a woman. She’s totally a dude, and her boyfriend is totally a chick.

She and I established a long time ago that she is a dude. She appreciates a great set of tits as much as the next dude. She doesn’t sweat the small stuff. If something upsets her, she deals with it and moves on. Drops it. Never brings it up again. Total dude behavior. Chicks don’t drop stuff. They hold on to little petty things and bring them up days, months, even years later.

Anyway, you don’t need me to recite all the stereotypes. Everything that a comedian says is true of women are the things that are actually true of chicks. And the stuff comedians say are true of men, those are the the facts for dudes. But those gender stereotypes aren’t right. I’ve only ever dated women, but I’ve dated both chicks and dudes.

My high school girlfriend was a chick. She would get totally bent out of shape over the weirdest shit. Like one time when she and I and my sister went to the movies together. And she was upset because I seemed to like my sister more than her. What? She’s my sister! What the fuck is wrong with you? I was still young then and didn’t know anything. Now totally weird behavior like that from a chick wouldn’t phase me at all, because chicks are crazy. You just think, huh. Yeah. That’s crazy. And you move on.

Chicks can be fun, but they’re exhausting that way. Always going off the deep end for no apparent reason, then bouncing back and being totally rational. It makes great TV, I guess, but that’s not something I really need in my day to day life.

My friend T is really gaga over this chick she is dating, though. So now she’s got to deal with that. Judging by her rudderless reaction, I’m thinking that he may be the first chick she’s ever dated. So that’s tough. I suspect that’s the case for a lot of women. They’ve never dated a chick, so they have absolutely no idea how exhausting and unsettling it can be. If a chick dated a chick… man, I can’t even imagine that level of crazy.

My wife is not a chick. She is rational and almost never brings up weird random shit from the past. She never gets mad for no apparent reason. I really like that about her. It’s refreshing. If she’s mad at me, I probably did something really awful. And actually, she never gets mad at me, because I’m actually pretty awesome. So there’s that.

I suspect that most relationships are dude/chick, which explains why everyone seems to think fighting is a normal part of a relationship. My wife and I don’t fight. If either of us is upset about something, we write letters or text or talk it out. Whatever works. I’ve never had a relationship that involved fighting. The whole concept of fighting with someone you love just strikes me as bizarre.

I’m not judging. I’m not saying it’s bad or wrong or anything to fight. It’s just completely foreign to me. Fighting is really unpleasant to watch. My wife likes a TV show called “Parenthood” which consists mostly of grown couples fighting with each other. It’s painful to watch. Hey, American TV viewers, what the fuck is wrong with you? They wouldn’t put this stuff on TV if you didn’t reward them with stellar ratings.

It’s gotta be the chicks. Chicks be crazy.

Best of Alfageeek: Waters of March

I had an idea for a new post on Friday, and I wrote about half of it, and then it kinda fizzled. I’m not sure where to go with it. So I’ll let that one stew a while, and you can go read this instead. The post I’m linking to has almost no views, which is a shame because it’s about a really cool song. Seriously, you should go read it, if only to find out about this song that you should hear, because it’s really very seriously cool: Playlist: Waters of March.

Steal this Tweet

The title of this post is an homage to a book published by Abbie Hoffman in 1971. That book is about fighting the power, and it appears that that is at least part of what this Plagiarism is Bad exercise is all about. If you are just tuning in, you should start with Part 1, where I explain what I’m up to. If you’re too lazy to click through that (and I know that you are), we created an account at @PlagiarismBad to keep a list of people who steal tweets.

When I say “we,” I mean me and my collaborators, Frank (@WheelTod) and Andrea (@sheepandrobots). The three of us have access to the account and we are very deliberately going through the massive lists we already have. And the reports are flooding in. We confirm that we have an actual thief and then put them on one or more of the lists.

In one case, I sent a DM to a guy I follow who had been reported, since he really didn’t seem like the tweet-stealing type. In his case, he had stolen his own tweet from an old account. I’m glad I checked!

A funny thing happened as I started going through the reports: I quickly discovered that most tweet thieves aren’t people. They are companies and they are doing it with a profit motive. These companies are ultimately trying to drive clicks to websites full of advertisements. The more people that follow the links, the more money they make. To get you to see their links, they need you to follow their accounts. To do that, they need content. So they steal it.

They start by just tweeting stolen content so they can build a follower base. After a while, they start throwing the links into the mix. An overwhelming portion of these links end up on the site pict-twiter.com. According to the public DNS database, that’s a site run by a fellow named Steven Melton. I found him on Twitter at @StevenMelton14. If following tweet thieving, link baiting, “Professional Poker Player” scumbags is your fetish, he’s your guy.

According to the database and Zillow, Steve lives in Moore, Oklahoma, in a lovely 3 bedroom, 2 bath house worth just over $100K. (The value of his house took a big tumble last year. Bummer, Steve.) I’ll let you search the whois database yourself if you want his address (Google: whois pict-twiter.com). You know, in case you want to send him flowers to thank him for all the lovely links and plagiarism in your feed.

There’s a funny thing about the way that Steve is doing this. He’s mostly using a program called Tweet Adder 4 to post the stolen tweets. I looked into Skootle—the company that makes that tool—and their website certainly looks like a pretty legitimate social media promotion company. They make tools that big companies can use to post content to social media. But as I dug a little further, I found out they have also been a favorite tool for spammers—so much so that Twitter sued them.

The crux of Twitter’s suit was that there was too much automation in the Tweet Adder software. Twitter’s terms of service pretty much ban any kind of automation in managing your followers, so this software was violating those. After putting up a fight for a while, Skootle eventually settled the lawsuit, and took all the automation out of their tools. Their users apparently then started a virtual riot, because they loved all that automation. However, it was never okay with Twitter to do that stuff, so that’s gone now.

Steve doesn’t seem to mind. He’s still using the software to dump his plagiarism and link bait into your feed. It’s just that he needs to click a lot more to do it now than he used to.

I figured that the nice folks at Skootle might be a bit upset if they found out someone was using their tool to violate Twitter’s terms of service. That’s what got them into hot water in the first place. I opened a support ticket with them and told them about what I’d found. This was their reply:

Translation: Fuck you.

Translation: Fuck you.

For those of you not familiar with the fine art of passing the buck, what they are saying is that their software doesn’t violate any of the rules. If their users violate the rules, that’s not their problem. Obviously that’s nonsense, or they wouldn’t have had to settle with Twitter in the first place.

It’s worth noting at this point that it’s not really clear whether plagiarism is a violation of Twitter’s rules. Copyright infringement is banned. But whether a tweet constitutes copyrightable material is a complex legal question. It depends what the tweet is. A photo or a poem is more likely to qualify, a joke less likely, and a simple statement of fact not at all. Here is an excellent discussion of the topic.

So at this point, I can’t stop the practice. It’s not clear that plagiarism is something Twitter cares about in the slightest. And the company that makes the software that this scumbag is using isn’t going to shut him down. (And if they did, he’d just switch to different software anyway.) So what to do? Write code, of course!

If you think about it, this isn’t really all that different from the situation we have with spam. While various governments have banned spam (way to go up there, Canadia!), the reality is that it just keeps on coming. So we all use spam blocking software to detect it and get rid of it. Mostly this is provided by our email provider, like Google, so you might not even know it is happening. They detect spam using a couple of techniques. Some are based on content, but others just rely on lists of known spammers.

Thanks to the @PlagiarismBad project, we have a list of known plagiarists! Well, how about we set up a service that will automatically block them for you as they are added to the list? So that’s what I did for a few hours on Saturday while my wife was making soup and the kids had their noses buried in electronics.

The result is at listblocker.appspot.com if you want to try it out. You give it a list (it defaults to the list of known tweet thieves), and with one click you can block them all. You can also set it to automatically block new accounts as they are added to the list. So together with our curated list of tweet thieves, this is a plagiarism blocker for your twitter feed.

In case you are wondering, no I don’t have a profit motive. I started the plagiarism tracking project because I was sick of having this stuff in my feed. And I wrote the tool because I was sick of having to manually block people as I added them to the list. This is all about me, boys and girls. If the rest of you want to use my toys, you are welcome to. (None of this is costing me a penny, by the way. I’m hosting the app in a system provided by Google that has massive free quotas.)

Update: I wrote a tool to make tracking thieves easier.

Best of Alfageeek: Brown Liquids

I took my daughter to a high school football game on Friday. She’s in 7th grade, so it is very important—socially—to attend the high school football games. No sooner had we walked through the gate, than she disappeared into the crowd of other 7th grade girls. I saw her again near the end of the second quarter when she stopped to have some hot cocoa and needed a place to sit. It was cold out there. And that reminded me of my father. He would take us to the games, and sit in the stands while I disappeared with my friends. And when it got really cold, I’d go sit next to him. And shortly after that we would go get coffee from the concessions stand. I’ve already told the rest of this story, so I’ll let me take it from here: Brown Liquids.

Plagiarism Is Bad

That simple tweet started something kind of big. I had just been followed by a woman with a pretty face AVI, and I was doing my usual vetting, when I noticed that she was being a little too funny, a little too frequently. Comedy is hard, and if you have three great tweets on different subjects all within an hour, you are either brilliant or cheating. So I typed a few words from one of these tweets into the search box, and sure enough, that was not an original tweet. None of them were.

I removed all the stars I had just given. And then I tweeted the above. I didn’t block her right away, since I wanted her to maybe see that tweet.

This happens every couple of weeks. I get followed by a beautiful woman and I discover that her tweets are not original. Or, sometimes, I don’t realize that until much later when my feed starts filling with link-bait. But I’ll get back to that.

So after I tweeted that, a twitter friend @sheepandrobots DM’d me. She had a list of plagiarists that she had been keeping. She guessed I had one too and was wondering if there was some way we could get these out there. She knew I create web applications in my sleep, so I was a natural person to ask.

As it turns out, I don’t have a list. I just block them and move on. And I didn’t think a web application was the way to go. But I loved the idea of getting these lists out there. And Twitter lists seemed to be the way to do it. You could easily go through the lists to block people. The people on the list would get a notification. And if anyone looked at the lists they were a member of, they’d see this tweet thief thing mentioned.

Tweet thieves are probably not nearly as pretty as the AVIs they are using.

Tweet thieves are probably not nearly as pretty as the AVIs they are using.

So I set up a new account @PlagiarismBad, and asked another friend (who also edits my blog; she’s basically superwoman) to make me a cool AVI. We set up a private list containing all of our suspects. My plan is to slowly go through these, and see if they are still stealing tweets. And if they are, move them to a public list.

Why They Steal

When I started this exercise, I had one specific tweeter in mind. Let’s call her “Molly.” I discovered her tweet theft last spring, when I recognized something she wrote. It was a top tweet of someone I followed. I DM’d her and asked her about it. That led to a long conversation in which I learned that she really didn’t think there was anything wrong with what she was doing. “It’s not like it’s my thesis or anything,” she said. I tried to explain that what she was doing was plagiarism. I tried to reason with her. It made no difference. She simply doesn’t understand why stealing tweets is wrong, and she refuses to stop. I really liked the idea of putting her on a list, because a lot of people I know and like retweet her regularly. And I assume that is because they have no idea that every single thing she tweets is copied.

So I figured the first tweeters I would focus on are the 100%’rs. People who do nothing but tweet stolen tweets. Like the one I just found who inspired my tweet at the top of this post. So I started looking through the list for those. And I noticed a pattern.

Noticing patterns is something I do, and do well. It is how I discovered The Minion King. And I used the same tools I described in that post to figure out what I’m about to reveal here.

First, the vast majority of tweet thieves are not actually people. My friend Molly from last spring was an anomaly. These thieves are actually minion accounts created by some corporation. And based on what I’ve seen in the tweet metadata, I’m pretty sure there are just two organizations (possibly only one) that are responsible for almost all the tweet thief minion accounts.

One uses the pattern: pretty girl, generic name, @ handle same as the name but with an _ in the middle. (Elly Hedson ‏@Elly_Hedson) When they advance to link-bait stage (I’ll explain this in a bit), they always link to “pict-twiter.com” sites (which, despite the name, has nothing to do with twitter.com). When you tweet, the client you used to do the tweet is recorded. Usually it’s the iPhone or Android App, or the web site, or whatever. These people have a really weird “source” in the metadata for all their tweets. It’s their twitter home page. That isn’t what the “source” is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a link to the website of the program.

The other uses the pattern: pretty girl, generic name, @handle of first name, state abbreviation, and last name or initial. (Sarah Moore ‏@SarahCAMoore) Sometimes the @ is first name, last name, birth year in the late ’80s. (Shelly Harkins ‏@ShellyHarkins86) These accounts link to a broader range of web sites. The source of these tweets are all “Tweet Adder 4” which is a social media tool.

It’s possible that these are both these same company, just using a mix of strategies. Or it could be two different companies. However, most of those sites linked by the “Tweet Adder 4” group also end up ultimately at “pict-twiter.com” so I think perhaps it’s really just one minion federation.

Stages of Thief

These accounts start off by simply tweeting stolen tweets. They follow people, follow back, unfollow unfollowers, etc. Other than their content being completely stolen, they are just like any other twitter account. Interestingly, they tweet the same things as each other. So if you search for the exact text of one of the tweets on these minion TL’s, you will find a whole slew more minions.

They stay in this stage a while to build a following. Then they start tweeting links. Most of them tweet more than just links. They also continue to tweet stolen tweets. Typically one link and three stolen tweets. The links mostly go to “pict-twiter” or other sites that end up back at “pict-twiter.” That site has short collections of pictures with captions, and is designed to trick the viewer into following a link to an app or another web site. The more people they can trick this way, the more money they make.

One funny thing about all this is that even though the minion accounts are all pretending to be pretty girls, they often tweet things that a girl wouldn’t say. For example:

Um, are you also the kind of guy who has a vagina?

Um, are you also the kind of guy who has a vagina?

Since many of the most popular comedians on Twitter are men, a surprising number of the posts by these “women” refer to themselves as being male. I can’t find the origin of this tweet, by the way. But I found it in a “best of 2011” list, so it’s a classic.

Old Fashioned Plagiarists

I have been so focused on these corporate plagiarism accounts that I’m mostly not looking at the classic plagiarists yet. However, my hope is that people will report cases to the @PlagiarismBad account as they occur, and then I can add them to the list right away. Perhaps we can create a “teachable moment” for the plagiarist. Probably not. But perhaps.

I have a list of literally hundreds of suspects. People who are known to have posted stolen tweets at one time in the past. My inclination is to not put them on the public shaming list unless they are still doing it. People learn, and I don’t think having once done a stupid thing on twitter should brand you forever. I’d love to get an @ to the account saying “I’m sorry I did it; could you take me off the list?” I’d absolutely take someone off the list if they delete the tweet and apologize to the author.

Since I figure more and more people will be coming to look at the lists page of this account, I am also adding other people’s thief lists by subscribing to them. It’s easy to find these, because I just look at the lists on which my most outrageous thieves (like Molly) are already listed.

What can you do?

If you find a case of tweet theft, send a DM to @PlagiarismBad. Other than that, I’d recommend that you simply block all the people on the list. That way you won’t accidentally star or RT them, and you don’t have to worry about them following you. It’s as easy as this:

As easy as 1, 2, 3!

As easy as 1, 2, 3!

Updates: I found out who is behind the accounts. And I made a tool to make thief-detection easier.