Whatever happened to… online politeness?

Very early in my BBSing days (1989 or so), I was talking to the operator of one of the first BBSs I called. He said he instantly bans anyone who engages in "flame wars."

I didn’t know what a flame war was, though I found out pretty fast. And they’re just as much a problem today as they were back then. Maybe more, since people can talk any time and they don’t have to wait for the BBS line to get un-busy.Gatermann and I were talking about how rude people can be online. It’s frustrating to me–probably the most frustrating thing about the ‘net. But that human contact is the best thing about the ‘net, so of course I always come back, no matter how torqued off I get.

But I think that’s the problem: Human contact. The computer dehumanizes it.

I first noticed myself dehumanizing when I was meeting girls on eharmony.com two summers ago. The girls outnumber the guys there, so if you’re a guy, unless you’ve really narrowed your focus, you’re going to get a lot of matches. It felt kind of like playing Alter Ego or another early game that tried to simulate human contact. I’d say something and try to see what they sent back. And it was at the point that I got to see one girl’s picture that it suddenly dawned on me that there was a human being sitting on the other side of that keyboard and monitor.

I don’t think some people grasp the concept of talking through a machine versus talking to a machine.

Of course, some people may just hide behind it. They can’t see the look of hurt on the other person’s face, and the other person can’t reach across the table and smack them when they have it coming, so they act like trolls and get away with it. Maybe they even relish it.

The most blatant example I’ve seen is a guy who swoops in on most of the train boards once a month or so. He’s a millionaire in Washington, D.C. (he’s a trash-hauling magnate, from what I understand), and supposedly has a train collection and layout that must be seen to believe. I’m told that in person he’s a great guy, and supposedly just about anyone can come into his house and see his layout just by asking.

But online, he’s a monster. He swoops in, says rude things, watches the volcano erupt as the people who disagree with him start screaming, and then the people who agree with him start screaming, and mostly just sits back and enjoys watching people bicker and throw temper tantrums.

That’s my worst experience, mostly because I stay out of chat rooms, except for a Yahoo chat room that meets on Saturday nights and talks about repairing Marx trains. The start of the whole conversation was Gatermann telling me about someone he knows signing onto a chat room. She got to talking to some guy she didn’t know from Adam, and almost immediately demanded to see pictures. And I’m not talking the kind of pictures you show to your mother.

Maybe some people enjoy being Dr. Jeckyl in person and Mr. Hyde as soon as they sign on to the Internet. Maybe some just can’t get the idea in their head that they’re talking to a human being, since they’re not hearing a human voice and they’re not seeing facial expressions.

Anymore, I try not to say anything online that I wouldn’t say in person to someone I expect to see again. And the funny thing is, that actually keeps me out of trouble most of the time.

To take care of the rest of the time, there are certain things that I just try to avoid talking about.

Using your logs to help track down spammers and trolls

It seems like lately we’ve been talking more on this site about trolls and spam and other troublemakers than about anything else. I might as well document how I went about tracking down two recent incidents to see if they were related.
WordPress and b2 store the IP address the comment came from, as well as the comment and other information. The fastest way to get the IP address, assuming you haven’t already deleted the offensive comment(s), is to go straight to your SQL database.

mysql -p
[enter the root password] use b2database;
select * from b2comments where comment_post_id = 819;

Substitute the number of your post for 819, of course. The poster’s IP address is the sixth field.

If your blogging software records little other than the date and time of the message, you’ll have to rely on your Apache logs. On my server, the logs are at /var/log/apache, stored in files with names like access.log, access.log.1, and access.log.2.gz. They are archived weekly, with anything older than two weeks compressed using gzip.

All of b2’s comments are posted using a file called b2comments.post.php. So one command can turn up all the comments posted on my blog in the past week:

cat /var/log/apache/access.log | grep b2comments.post.php

You can narrow it down by piping it through grep a bit more. For instance, I knew the offending comment was posted on 10 November at 7:38 pm.

cat /var/log/apache/access.log | grep b2comments.post.php | grep 10/Nov/2003

Here’s one of my recent troublemakers: – – [10/Nov/2003:19:38:28 -0600] “POST /b2comments.post.php HTTP/1.1” 302 5 “https://dfarq.homeip.net/index.php?p=819&c=1” “Mozilla/5.0 (X11; U; Linux i686; en-US; rv:1.5) Gecko/20031007 Firebird/0.7”

This line reveals quite a bit: Besides his IP address, it also tells his operating system and web browser.

Armed with his IP address, you can hunt around and see what else your troublemaker’s been up to.

cat /var/log/apache/access.log | grep
zcat /var/log/apache.access.log.2.gz | grep

The earliest entry you can find for a particular IP address will tell where the person came from. In one recent case, the person started off with an MSN search looking for information about an exotic airplane. In another, it was a Google search looking for the words “Microsoft Works low memory.”

You can infer a few things from where a user originally came from and the operating system and web browser the person is using. Someone running the most recent Mozilla Firebird on Linux and searching with Google is likely a more sophisticated computer user than someone running a common version of Windows and the version of IE that was supplied with it and searching with MSN.

You can find out other things about individual IP addresses, aside from the clues in your logs. Visit ARIN to find out who owns the IP address. Most ARIN records include contact information, if you need to file a complaint.

Visit Geobytes.com IP Locator to map the IP address to a geographic region. I used the IP locator to determine that the guy looking for the airplane was in Brooklyn, and the Microsoft guy was in Minneapolis.

Also according to my Apache logs, the guy in Brooklyn was running IE 6 on Windows XP. The guy in Minneapolis was running Mozilla Firebird 0.7 on Linux. (Ironic, considering he was looking for Microsoft information.) It won’t hold up in a court of law, but the geographic distance and differing usage habits give at least some indication it’s two different people.

What to expect around here

I’m still not recovered, but I expect to be on my way. The doc put me on some prescription meds. Which reminds me: The mafia My health insurance company seems to have changed prescription providers YET AGAIN, and I missed my card in the mail. What is this, flavor-of-the-week?
It’s incredibly messed up when it’s easier to get your new license plates than it is to get a bottle of Amoxicillin.

So I’m torqued off right now.

As far as the recurring problems with spammy comments and trolls, I’m fed up with it. I appreciate the people like Dustin Cook and, yes, that arrogant French aristocrat, for telling the most recent one to shove off. But that’s not a permanent solution.

I’m looking at another piece of software that can be set to require commenters to be registered users–if you want to comment, you’ve got to give a username and password. I hate that. I really do. I don’t want people to have to go through the hassle. I don’t want people wondering what else will happen with their e-mail addresses, which I will require. (The answer is, nothing, because I hate spam more than I hate taxes, but the general public doesn’t know that.) Unfortunately, it seems to be the only way to reduce the trolls and stop the spam.

As far as Railroad Tycoon 3, due to my recent sickness I’ve only been able to play two short games. It’s not a radical departure from Railtycoon 2. The economics are a bit different (and far more realistic) and the graphics are a whole lot better, and overall the game is a lot more realistic now. I can safely say I recommend it. They set the requirements at 400 MHz, 128 MB of RAM, and a 16-meg AGP video card. I played on a 366 with 128 megs and a 16-meg Radeon 7000 video card. It was acceptable. You could probably get by with a 300 MHz machine with the same memory and video card, but there’ll be times when you’ll want more horsepower. 500-600 MHz would definitely be more comfortable.

Brightmail, plus voice recognition

Brightmail update. I promised an update earlier (or at least I implied one) on Brightmail, the free (for private use) spam filtering service at www.brightmail.com. They’ll of course gladly sell your business spam filtering tools–that’s the point of their free service: Get you hooked, so you go tell your boss about it and they get some business.
At any rate, early on it was awful, making me wonder if the volume of spam it blocked was worth the trouble of signing up and then reconfiguring my mail client. Lately, however, it’s gotten much better. Last week it saved me from deleting e-mail offering me a free pager, how to find out anything about anyone, viagra, making $2-$300 a day, making what I’m worth (whatever that is), FWD: Check this out!!!, attention homeowners!, and some cable-stealing scheme. (It sends you a weekly summary, just in case it deleted something legit. The forward sounded like it could have been, but it wasn’t from anyone I know. Some guy named Dave Yaprak, who, as a spammer, should be forced by the rest of us Daves to cease using our name because he’s proven himself unworthy of such a cool name.) During that same time frame, two spams got through: One telling me I can double my money in three months by investing in the Yen, and another offering to sell me 15 million e-mail addresses. So it blocked 78% and gave me something to write about. Good deal.

While I still think it’s too early to deem Brightmail a must-have (I’ve been using it for just under a month now) it does seem to be more effective, and a lot less trouble, than any other anti-spam measure I’ve taken in the past. SpamCop does very little good; and as soon as I talked about Bounce Spam Mail ridding me of that blasted used computer broker that invaded Thompson’s site, they sent me something. It’ll be interesting to see if Brightmail finally rids me of them (I never opt out of spam, because that’s honest-to-goodness verification that I read the account, which makes my address even more valuable to sell to others).

“I never feed trolls and I don’t read spam.” –Weird Al Yankovic


From: “Frank McPherson”

Subject: Recognition software

I don’t do much with voice recognition, but I certainly work with a lot of handwriting recognition. I think that with any recognition software the user eventually changes their style to accommodate the software. That is, the software may perform at 95% recognition and then the user changes what they do to get the remaining 5%. That’s how you get to a higher rate over a period of time.

Frank McPherson, MCSE


You’re certainly right about that. And in the case of a writer with voice recognition, that change isn’t necessarily a good thing. I guess the test is whether an editor notices the difference. I know what my writing is supposed to “sound” like, and if it’s different, I’m not happy.

I just got back from a three-hour editing session, with someone who has a very different philosophy and style of editing, so I’m very much tuned in to the ways of writers at the moment. Anything that damages the integrity of the author’s original thought is a problem, from my point of view.

Maybe I’m just too creative or too perfectionistic for my own good. But we’ll see how the Dragon pans out–I’m very willing to give it a shot.

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