podcast September 4, 2020

Podcast 266: Ok, who vandalized Wikipedia?

Teaching your kids to respect The Commons should start early and last a lifetime.
Avatar for Ben Popper
Director of Content

This week, we learn about Paul’s interrogation tactics, ClueBot’s ability to spot naughty edits, and Sara’s penchant for children who break the rules.

Episode Notes

You can read the hilarious tale of how Paul was alerted to “Frenchpoop Butt” here.

Enjoy an all time classic tale of a security expert being outwitted by his daughter. Her approach was not in his threat model. 

Want to try your hand at a little hacking? Here’s a fun online game called Telehack.

We asked some teens what would motivate them to participate more on Stack. The answer was obvious: loot boxes. What kind of digital swag would you want receive for helping spread  knowledge across our network? 

TRANSCRIPT

Sara Chipps But we’re very motivated by like pretend points and badges.

Paul Ford I got these medals in Normandy and I got these other ones from Facebook.

[INTRO MUSIC]

Ben Popper Hello! Good morning, everybody, and welcome to the Stack Overflow podcast. Hi Paul. Hi Sara. 

PF Hey, good morning!

SC Hey!

BP So I hope you all had a great week. I did notice, Paul, you had a semi viral tweet, and I can’t help but think it’s what we should be talking about right now because it involves computers. It involves the kids. It’s got all the good stuff. Tell me what happened, Paul? 

PF It’s got a bot in it too. So I mean, absolutely. Let’s talk about this. So I am home at my posting station–

BP Postlight posting station.

PF Co-running my company, collaboratively running my company. I’m on Wikipedia looking up something that I’m sure was important and work related. And there’s a little modal, an alert, a toast, which says like, it’s kinda like ”just to let you know, cluebot identified what vandalism coming from your IP address.” And I recognize the IP address. It’s the one that they give us. Yeah.

SC Wait you know your IP address?

PF Yeah. We don’t have to talk about that. But like, no, I mean, just like there’s a range that you get for that–they don’t change it too much with the cable modems.

BP Sara, you don’t know your IP address off-hand?

SC No,

BP You don’t put that on your Christmas cards? Weird.

SC No I do not. 

PF Yeah, they don’t, so I know what it starts with, and so on and so forth. And so I’m like, that does look like my IP address. And it’s like, so we found the vandalism and the bot has automatically reverted it and I’m like, this sounds good. And I’m like, Well, let me go see what happened here. And so I click and it shows me that it’s a page about Redwall, which is a series of books about a medieval mice that fight rats.

SC Okay, that’s what I was wondering when I saw it. I was like, what is Redwall? Medieval mice, okay. 

BP It’s like if you did like a Game of Thrones, or like a Braveheart, but all the characters were mice and rabbits.

PF And eight years old. It’s for eight year olds plus, eight to twelve. [Sara laughs]

01:59 

SC Yeah, I was wondering, I was like, that sounds fine, but I think maybe not for my age range. 

PF Yeah.

BP I think that’s it. It’s like you want to get into some deep medieval fantasy with some serious politics and violence, but it’s easier to handle if it’s all furry animals. 

PF That’s right. It came, it came around in the first book was 86. So actually what happened is in the pandemic book series are a big part of our life. So I saw these, somebody mentioned them at work, and then you can get like 15 volumes on eBay for 50 bucks and like, let’s let’s do that, bring them into the house. Because, you know, I showed the kids a picture of the cover, and it’s a mount a little tiny mouse holding the sword and everybody’s face just lit up.

BP It’s like a fantasy novel cover, you know, it’s like a mouse, but he’s wearing like a tunic with a sword and a shield and there’s a badger with a pitchfork. I mean, I was so obsessed with this stuff as a kid.

PF You’re just talking like eight to 12 year old like just brainwave. Right? So they’re both really into it. So I’m like, Oh, it’s the Redwall page. And the Edit is as follows like, it’s a list of all the different languages that the books have been translated into, you know, so Arabic German, whatever and then it gets to French and someone has edited French, so that it says Frenchpoopbutt. [Ben chuckles]

SC Huh, fascinating. Did you at any point think, oh, maybe that was something I did? 

PF Of course I did. I was like did I somehow fumble and then like, you know, word, speech to text insert, insert. Because you know, if you’re–

BP Right. Paul, you haven’t been sleepwalking, you’ve been sleeping editing Wikipedia. 

PF I mean, frankly, this would be appropriate. And so like, No, I mean, it’s very easy, especially on mobile to fumble finger into an edit view on Wikipedia, especially now that they have section based editing instead of the whole page they’ve had for a while. And frankly, I know the media wiki software really well, like it’s quite good. And the the visual editor has gotten really good. So I’m like, wow, it’s totally possible. Maybe I hit it and did text to speech and so on. And then I went No, that doesn’t seem real. So I called a family meeting, two eight year olds, almost nine. And I said, look…

SC Did you suspect your partner at anytime?

03:55 

PF I did not, I did not look at my wife and say I bet you updated that page with poopbutt. So the deal is to our kids, you earn five minutes of unstructured computer time, every hour that you are not violent. If you don’t hit your brother or sister, you earn five minutes. But if you, if there’s…

SC Wow great.

BP I’ll have to look into this. This is a good banking system. I like that. 

PF We don’t take away the computer because that’s like in a pandemic, you need your thing that you control. So everybody gets in our computer day no matter what, but you earn fun computer time throughout the day. And if you don’t, if you do stuff that you shouldn’t do, you are cut back and there is a switchover moment where we go into the router and switch from one set of blocked systems to the, we go from blacklist to whitelist. And the whitelist.

SC Yeah!

BP What HR system are using to track the minutes Paul? Like when they’re when you’re accruing this. [Ben laughs]

PF Yeah, it’s literally like they go in and you say, okay, you talk to your phone and say set a timer for 55 minutes. There’s a one minute warning, and then we do this, so you can save your progress of your game or whatever. And then we switch over to whitelist and whitelist is Wikipedia, Google Docs, Gmail. So it’s a pretty locked down environment. And frankly, this system has brought a lot of order to our life, things are getting a little pandemic out of hand. And now we have a much calmer home. 

SC I don’t think it scales, Paul, because I think what happened, ends up happening, if you have more kids in the situation is like, that thing where your parent is wrong. And it ruins your entire life. Like, like, you know, like where, like you may have be keeping track of how good you were during the day and your parent was busy at their job. And so they don’t remember.

PF Oh this is very much a pandemic solution.

SC Okay. Alright. Well, thanks. Called intervening.

PF We’re with them all the time. Yeah, yeah, this won’t work when we’re at school.

SC Don’t take parenting advice for me. 

BP Sara, doesn’t sound to you like some kind of sci-fi, dystopian sci-fi movie where like, you get to work for the Borg for 55 minutes. And then it changes over to five minutes of free fun internet time. I don’t know. 

05:54 

PF It’s like that. Usually the inverse but what what it means is that my kids have more Wikipedia time than they used to. So anyway, we sit down and I get 10 minutes of… And the problem is I’m like, I literally have to say the words, ”can anyone tell me who vandalized the Redwall Wikipedia page by adding the words poopbutt?” [Ben laughs] So the laughter is hysterical. I have a suspect. But I’m still not sure between the two twins. 

BP This is a serious inquisition, there will be no laughing in court. 

PF Yeah. And I’m like, look, I just need to know we need to understand this because it is important to talk about if you’re gonna just pigeonhole me and you’re welcome to it’s like, you know, vandalizing the Commons is something that we have to talk about as a family, like, you know, it’s a critical piece of social and technical infrastructure. Not you know…

BP A conversation every nerd parent needs to have with their children.

PF Exactly. Right. So, so anyway, it goes on for a while, and it’s increasingly clear to me by from all the squirming I’m like, something happened here. So finally, I did what a lot of parents what you should never do as a parent. I lied. I looked them in the eye. And I said, whenever you make an edit Wikipedia takes your picture on your Chromebook camera. And if we ask them to, they will send it to us.

SC Wow! So this is…that’s wild. Can you imagine if Wikipedia introduced that feature, what people do? 

BP Yeah, this is the point in the police interrogation where they say we’ve got you on tape, even though they don’t, just to see if you’ll crack.

SC Yeah, are the rules the same for parents? Are you allowed to lie to your kids? 

PF No, no, what I did was wrong. And I apologized for it later, and we’re talking about it. 

BP Which is why you wanted to publicly memorialize it on Twitter and a podcast so your kids will definitely have the evidence.

07:39 

PF No, they can bring this to their therapist that at their expensive liberal arts college and be like here, no, I can play to you what a bad father he was. That’s right. And they’ll be like, what what’s the internet you know? So wow, people still had electricity to power computers back then. It seems so long, it’s so recent. So anyway, I’m not gonna mention which kid, we’ll keep it in the zone of plausible deniability, but I definitely got, a kid looked at me and went, ”how bad is it?” And I went ”not really bad, we just have to talk about it.” And that kid went, ”it was me.” And so we talked about it. And I determined that the punishment would be, I would explain Wikipedia to this child. [Ben & Sara laugh] And not only will I explain it, but I will explain to the entire Foundation, including wiki data, semantic triples, and the JSON serialization. And it’s going to happen over a period of some time.

BP What about cruel and unusual punishment that doesn’t, I thought that was out of bounds.

PF No, it’s important, every wiki Wikipedia comments, and then also the media wiki software, which we need to walk through, PHP, MySQL, multiple versioning. And then the plugin architecture, we need to actually we’re gonna have to work through all of it. And…

SC That’s rough.

PF So everyone kind of went back to their day after that, and I tweeted about it and it got a lot of pickup and actually the, the person who runs the Wikipedia foundation said you know, don’t worry, a lot of our editors start with poopbutt. So.

SC Oh that’s so sweet! I love that!

PF It was sweet. 

SC Recently I’ve been reading a lot of posting about the iPhone, kids blocking software. How a lot of their kids are getting around it. And I love that because fell. I don’t know about y’all, but that’s how we all fell in love with computing. It’s like figuring ways around things and fixing problems. And I just feel like I’d have a real problem. If I had kids and they were doing that, stopping them. I think I’d be like, more proud of them than anything.

PF Well, there’s an element here where I mean, this was the single funniest thing I think I’ve seen. I mean, it’s just literally because when you look at the edits, because it pops up I know that view really well. And it’s just like, you know, international additions books in the Redwall series have been translated into Arabic, Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Frenchpoopbutt, you’re just like, compared ones in like a kind of tope and ones in light blue and you’re like ahh, no. No! What’s happening?

10:01 

SC Yeah, there’s like no edit that quite says eight year old.

PF Like poopbutt, no. No. It’s so real, right? The responses, I have to say talking about Twitter responses on a podcast, definitely a danger zone of content circularity. But there were a few things that people said that were really worth noting. First of all, a lot of people came hard to me for oppsec because they’re like, you know, what do you mean you don’t have the cameras covered on your children’s Chromebooks?

SC Wow, fascinating. 

BP Sara, I like your idea. If you had kids, you feel like you’d be setting up little trap doors for them to find, you know, they feel like they’re breaking out but really, you’ve sort of laid a path for them. 

SC Yeah, I like that a lot. I love that story. I’m gonna say it was a friend, I forget who told me this story. But someone I have known, was once aware of, their child decided they wanted to become a YouTube star. And they felt their child was too young. So they built a clone of YouTube locally so the child could upload videos and would get like recognition on this app, but actually, no one was watching these videos, which is something I both love and find extremely unethical. But I love the idea of building things for your kids. 

BP Right, right. Yeah, both of these stories involve a really interesting element, which is Sara, you’re saying like, there’s, what’s that movie with Jim Carrey, where they build the whole fake world for him? 

SC Truman Show.

BP Yeah, there’s a Truman Show element to this YouTube thing, which is nice to your kid. I’m protecting them, but also, eventually will end up in therapy. And same with Paul. He’s like, you’re being surveilled constantly, just so you know. Tell me the truth. Sorry. I lied to you.

PF Well, now they know they’re not right. So I don’t get to use that again.

SC Oh, that’s a one time deal ’cause you told them it’s not real.

BP Oh, you confessed to that?

PF Oh, yeah, I don’t actually. I mean, it was a temporary, bad cop kind of lie. That wasn’t. That wasn’t cool. It was actually I actually didn’t need to lie. I could have waited and kind of got it out of them through traditional interrogation. I just literally had a meeting. I had like an office thing to do in the next five minutes and I was like, I need to get this information. Who pooped butted the Redwall Wikipedia page?

12:03 

SC What other good tips did you get from parents or people responding?

PF Well just a lot of stories. So this is not, there are definitely three or four people apparently in nerdy households where there’s a little Wikipedia time this is not totally uncommon. One person thought that their kids vandalized Wikipedia. But it turns out it was the VPN and someone that had like us, they were on the same IP range using their VPN, someone else had had vandalized it and she was blaming her children. Which I mean, listen, I, now that I’ve been there, I have nothing but empathy. Absolutely.

SC Yeah, was it poopbutt again? Because it makes it really hard to think it was anyone else.

BP That’s actually a really good excuse that the kids who come up with, it wasn’t me. Somebody must have VPN’d in. I don’t know. It could have been like, it could have been anywhere.

PF That story came from Julia Silge.

SC Oh, that’s so great! Dr. Julia!

PF Yes. Who formerly was with Stack and then some other ones. One person sat down with her wife on the couch and then had to kind of explain the whole joke about how Wikipedia works. And it just this moment where you realize like, the world that we’re in and how impossible like, boy, this will be really funny once you understand immutable edit records, and you’re like, oh, boy, so I really, I felt for the wife a lot. Okay, so actually, when it kicked up, somebody’s asking, Hey, does anyone remember which security researcher was whose daughter hacked his world hard, and it, it brought up and we should put it in the show notes. A computer scientist, when you look at his Twitter bio, his name is Ken White. Twitter bio is like cryptography, clinical trials, neuro, cloud, and Ken White. And it tells this story, and it tells the story of how his daughter, he’s like, how did she log into the Chromebook? No idea and it’s like, installed the YouTube app on the Roku and managed to find a video on factory reset for Chrome OS. So she’d locked everything down. Everything, she got the, so first of all, install the YouTube app, got the Chrome OS like instructions, so like got there found the factory reset and then got in and created her own login. And the last line of his thread, which is from 2018 is ”this was not my threat model.” [Ben & Paul laugh] So yeah, no, the kids are smart. 

14:11 

BP Sara is so proud right now.

PF That’s right. 

BP Yeah. I mean, this is what we want them all to do is grow up to hack the world. 

PF I have a recommendation if you’re a nerd like I am, and you occasionally use the software terminal, go to telehack.com, which is a simulation of an old Unix system on, but you run it inside of a web browser. And once you log in, it actually has these sort of little hints to help you hack the system. And it gets increasingly hard I played it years and years ago, and…

SC Telehack?

PF Telehack.

SC Oh I love that.

PF You might actually be able to, and, and the creator I don’t know if they ever came and let the world know who they are. But I think it’s an anonymous creator and just sort of like pretty goofy and you…

SC Was it you? Was it you, Paul?

PF Yeah, it’s good. No, it’s me. No, I’ve done enough open Unix things. I started tildeclub and no, no, no, no, not me.

BP Paul, I have an interesting little story to share. Actually, Sara does on what kids think the future will look like. We were doing some customer research chatting with the teens or even even younger Sara? And they had some ideas for how we can engage them with Stack Overflow, right? 

SC Yeah, well, one of our investors is Union Square Ventures. And they do a program called The Work Bridge program over the summer, where you partner with nonprofits that work with teens and young college students, to present them with some kind of technical challenge. And we worked with them to talk about what we could do to make Stack Overflow more interesting to kids their age. And it was really fascinating actually, we had some great recommendations, a lot of stuff that we’ve been batting around internally for a while. But one thing that’s really interesting is how motivated they are by things and how many platforms out there really utilize that.

16:02 

PF By digital things, you mean like, sort of stuff? 

SC No physical things.

PF Oh, okay. 

SC Like, they’re kind of what what I heard from them is like ’cause points and badges it’s very people our age thing, right? Like, I’m the you remember when points and badges started to be a thing? 

PF Yes. I love points and badges. Yeah, yes. Absolutely. 

SC So they are kind of like, they’re like what I saw from them, they’re over it. What I heard from them was, you know a lot of swag things like send me a USB stick, send me an FC card, that kind of thing, but also a lot of like, pay me, which I thought was fascinating. And there’s a lot of platforms doing this. I don’t know about you, but I get my 36 cents a month from Medium, I think is really fascinating. They there’s a lot of them that have built plugins on different websites that pay you for downloads, and things like that. So they’re very interested in physical goods and money. 

PF What physical goods could Stack provide? Like, wait, like, I don’t, don’t answer that.

SC Swag.

BP Swag.

PF Swag! Oh! 

BP Swaggin’. Stickers, t-shirts, koozies.

PF Laptops. 

BP But yeah, I love that kids who grew up in this digital age and with social media platforms, they know better than to give away that that sweet, sweet content for free. They want to be rewarded with some merch or some loot boxes or some cold hard cash. 

SC Yeah, also, no one’s ever needed a koozie.

PF No.

SC Or used one. 

PF I think too if you’re a kid coming into this world, right? These platforms are so deeply established. You just see like, oh, Wikipedia that exists. Its enormous. Maybe I might find a typo. But like it for the most part. It’s just an entity that exists. And same is true of Stack like that. It’s almost like founder mentality and then the founder has to go home and it’s like, a proper CEO comes in. Nobody get any ideas, but like, we’re all the founders were like, Oh, yeah, Stack. It’s a big database of questions and it’s, you know? 

SC You can get involved. 

PF Yeah, check it out, get some badges, you know, and sort of… 

BP We’re all doing this, we’re building a giant encyclopedia together. It’s gonna be fun.

17:59 

PF Yeah, you don’t remember the world before this, and they’re like, Yeah, I don’t I was born in 1997. It’s like, What? Why would I remember that, and that’s 23. I’m not surprised, right. And you know, the other thing that I always find fascinating when I see especially younger developers in their early 20s, they will simply take a giant public resource that we all treat kind of with tremendous respect, for granted. Like a good example, if somebody wants did a tool that would let you traverse relationships in Wikipedia. And the way it worked is it just hammered the hell out of Wikipedia just went like page, page, page, page. And you had to hit a button and it would download like 5000 Wikipedia pages. And I’m like, that’s not cool. But for them, they’re like, why wouldn’t I? Like they’ll stop me if they don’t want me to do it. 

SC Oh, yeah, absolutely. 

PF You know, and I’m over here going like, it’s our most precious resource, treat every bite as if it’s sacred, and they’re like, nah, download a couple terabytes, throw it away and start over again. Who cares? Not my problem. And they’re right. They’re the ones who are actually like, the world is actually better set up for them because everything in our world is like, Hey, I see that you’ve downloaded this webpage 2 billion times, maybe you need to stop that, click. And they’re like, cool on to the next one. And I sort of see it with my kid, in a tiny bit, which is that, you know, for her, she’s like, Oh, I can edit this cool. I will.

SC Yeah, not gonna hurt anyone. 

PF And she didn’t, you know, the way to really close this segment of the podcast out is go look at cluebot, which is this incredibly powerful vandalism identifying bot inside of Wikipedia that just runs and runs and runs looking, and it has Bayesian models for understanding all the kinds of patterns of vandalism because my child is one of millions and millions of children who is going to think, I’ll just drop the word, I click this button, and now I can put words in I’ll put poopbutt in.

PF Helping to teach the vandal-bot and we appreciate the effort.

[MUSIC]

19:56 

SC Great, so we’ve got some awesome lifeboats this week. I found this one, which is how to get a random number with a negative number in range, which is interesting. This is a Java question. And they want the random number, which as we know is impossible. But it also wants to include, they want to include negative numbers, and get grabbing the random numbers. So this great answer, it just identifies that the min and max function next and in Java, allows for negative numbers. 

PF Oh, look at that.

SC So you can just include that. Yep. 

PF Boy, that is like Stack classic right there.

SC It is! That’s a really good, you know, that’s like a really foundational question.

PF Yeah, it really it’s just sort of, hey, hey, I gotta go below zero here. Can you help me? Well, actually, a couple years later, I can. 

SC Yeah! Really great. Huge thanks.

PF Good lifeboat. Good lifeboat. Thank you lifeboaters.

BP Well, that was pretty incredible. I think we all learned a lot about Wiki, about the future of Stack Overflow For Kids, I can’t wait to give away Stack Overflow loot boxes. I think there’s gonna be some sweet digital swag in there. 

SC No koozies. 

BP No koozies though. Only [Ben laughs] nobody wants that, even a digital one. I’m Ben Popper, Director of content here Stack Overflow. You can find me on Twitter @BenPopper and thanks for listening.

PF I’m Paul Ford and the co-founder of Postlight. Look at our company at Postlight.com. Most of my time is not spent correcting children regarding adding the words poopbutt to Wikipedia pages.

SC And I mean, that’s a tragedy. Really, that would just be a better job. 

PF I’m ready. I’d be good at that.

SC Yeah. Okay, great. And I’m Sara Chipps, Director of Community here at Stack Overflow. You can find me at @SaraJo on GitHub.

[OUTRO MUSIC]

21:58 

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