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Sporcle is on the Naughty List

Fun fact: A sequence of symbols used to represent a profane word is called a 'grawlix'.

Fun fact: A sequence of symbols used to represent a profane word is called a ‘grawlix’.

It’s tough to admit, but sometimes at Sporcle we make mistakes. Yeah, who would have thought? However, recently we made a mistake that was so interesting and trivia-related that we had to share the details.

Here’s a little background:

Like many sites, Sporcle uses a word filter we dubbed the ‘naughty list’ for words that we think are inappropriate for usernames and quiz content. Matt and Derek came up with it back when Sporcle HQ was located in whatever coffee shop would let the two of them stay the longest. That first naughty list was born of a discussion in which they publicly discussed each word out loud in their temporary ‘office’ before wondering if, perhaps, they were pushing the limits of common decency.  Awkward!

As the site grew, we added more features (Comments! Clickable quizzes!), and updates to the naughty list didn’t always apply to every new feature. A couple weeks back, we decided to change that, and apply the same rules across the board. Unfortunately, we soon found ourselves in an epic battle with something known as ‘The Scunthorpe Problem‘, along with a couple un-named problems we invented by ourselves.

The Scunthorpe Problem is an amazing computer science issue that we’d never heard of until this week, but it’s something we’d been dealing with since those early coffee shop days. It was first named in 1996 from an incident that prevented residents of Scunthorpe, UK from creating accounts on AOL. It continues to pop up whenever filters on the Internet incorrectly flag words that contain a string that matches a word on the banned list. You might never recognize that Scunthorpe contains a dirty word right in the middle, but when it appears on Sporcle as S****horpe or is completely blocked from being entered at all, it actually serves to highlight the banned word, instead of diminishing its use.

Here are a few other fun examples from that Wikipedia article linked above:

• In the months leading up to January 1996, some web searches for Super Bowl XXX were being filtered, because the Roman numeral for the game and the site (XXX) is also used to identify pornography.

• The filter of the free wireless service of the town of Whakatane in New Zealand blocked searches involving the town’s own name, because the phonetic analysis used by the filter deemed the “whak” to sound like the f-word. The town name is Maori, and in the Maori language ”wh” is most commonly pronounced as “f”.

• Gareth Roelofse noted in 2004, “We found many library Net stations, school networks and Internet cafes block sites with the word ‘sex’ in the domain name. This was a challenge for RomansInSussex.co.uk because its target audience is school children.”

• In July 2011, web searches in China on the name Jiang were blocked following claims on the Sina Weibo microblogging site that former president Jiang Zemin had died. Since the word “Jiang” meaning “river” is written with the same Chinese character, searches related to rivers including the Yangtze (Cháng Jiāng) produced the message “According to the relevant laws, regulations and policies, the results of this search cannot be displayed.”

In our own mini-Scunthorpe problem, we not only ran into a problem of censoring incorrect words, but also our code for determining a correct answer was actually flagging any answer that contained a naughty word as incorrect, which served to make the issue even worse. Not only were we filtering innocent words, but correct answers as well!

In short, we screwed up in ways both strange, and legendary, and we truly apologize to any user who was effected by any of these shenanigans in the last week.

At the end of the day, we did learn a few things about handling these issues in the future, some really interesting trivia involving a city in North Lincolnshire, England and a good lesson about the sometimes unsteady balance between censorship and community on the Internet. Not a terrible trade for a couple silly $#@$! mistakes.

Greenland is not a Country

Editor’s Note: This post was written by hejman, a Sporcle moderator who occasionally graces us with amazing blog posts.

BREAKING NEWS: The citizens of Greenland are valiantly hanging on in their fight to remain dependent.1

The best way to get an error fixed on a Sporcle quiz is to use the ‘Report Game’ feature in the informational box at the bottom of the quiz. Those reports go directly to Sprorcle’s World Headquarters in Seattle, Washington where they are reviewed, around the clock, by a team of geographers, historians, underpaid interns, Pulitzer Prize winning writers, sleep-deprived volunteers and military trained dolphins armed with atomic weaponry2.

As a ‘moderator’ for the site, I get to see, and occasionally act upon, the reports that errors exist on quizzes. For the most part, the reports are made by well-intentioned quiz takers who see a genuine issue. Some, however, are made by those who are, shall we say, less well informed. Others appear to have been made by a well-trained parrot or, perhaps, a kitten walking across a keyboard3.

Nowhere is this clearer than on Sporcle’s flagship quiz- Countries of the World. The kind folks at Sporcle HQ prepared a spreadsheet of all the reports filed on the quiz between the end of June 2010 and the middle of March 2013. A great many of the reports relate to the Countries of the World version of the ‘Axis of Evil’- Kosovo, Taiwan and Palestine4.

Between the U.N. vote on November 29th, 2012 and Sporcle’s announcement on January 14th, 2013 that it was adding Palestine to the quiz, there were no fewer than 18 reports requesting that Palestine be added. In the two months following, there have been 14 more complaining about its addition5. Taiwan gets reported frequently enough that I’m becoming convinced that the Communist Party of China has hired someone solely to serve that function6.

The vast majority of reports are in relation to countries that simply aren’t and the largest number of those reports- more than Palestine before its addition, more than the constituent “countries” of the United Kingdom7, more even than any overseas territory is the heavily populated super-power of Greenland8.

In the last two months of 2012 alone, reports that Greenland was “missing” from the quiz came in at a rate of nearly one every nine days. During the entire reporting period, Greenland received three times as many reports as Scotland and five times as many reports as England and Wales. Maybe it’s because Greenland is so big9. Maybe it’s because it is so sparsely populated10. Maybe, it is because Greenland has had home rule since 1979 and self-government since 2009. But the island is not independent and does not handle its own foreign affairs, national defense or monetary policy.

In that way, Greenland is substantially similar to the situation of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom. Indeed the second and third most frequent reports come in relation to Scotland and England, with Wales and Northern Ireland just further down the list. The confusion in understandable and is, frankly, more semantic than substantial. When we Americans say “country” we mean a fully independent entity that is in charge of all aspects of its own governance and self defense. We seem to have some opposition to the concept of a Kingdom.11Several other frequently reported areas (many of them islands) are also overseas territories, states, constituent countries or otherwise part of a larger nation including places like St. Maarten, Curacao, Catalonia and French Guiana.

Other reports are somewhat more difficult to comprehend. Puerto Rico is a frequent reportee. The Falkland Islands have been reported as ‘missing’ as well12. Sarah Palin appears to have been taking Sporcle quizzes as Alaska has been reported as missing- multiple times13. Disputed states, like Western Sahara and North Cyprus are also reported from time to time.

Every few weeks someone will complain about a country that clearly is a country. I’m never sure whether they’re kidding or not. In September of 2010 there was the report, “Germany isn’t a real country14.” Then there was the December 2010 report, “Georgia is an American state, like Hawaii15.” People also sometimes miss countries that are actually there. The map gets pretty full by the end, so this is understandable when the countries are small, like Costa Rica, Belize and Monaco16 How a user missed Afghanistan17 is beyond my comprehension.

The best reports come from users who knew that a country was there, but just didn’t know how to spell it. You know, like Libia18. Or maybe Bosnia & Herzagovina19. Mama New Guinea was really upset that Papa New Ginuea20 wasn’t accepted. Togo and Tonga got together and had a baby- Tongo21. But when the name of the continent is in the name of the country it’s hard to fathom how the error occurs. But there it was, February 9, 2011- “It wouldn’t accept South Afica.”

I should hope not.

  1. Actual Breaking News may be broken. []
  2. Reviewers may vary by geographic district. []
  3. I’m serious about the last one.  Sometimes the reports are just random letters: “sdfkjsdfjkrtuiy” []
  4. They’re not evil, but ‘Axis of Countries of Disputed International Status that Give Sporcle a Headache and Cause Lots of Quiz Reports’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it. []
  5. Two written in all upper-case letters- closed captioned for the hearing impaired. []
  6. Deputy Undersecretary of the Central Commission for Trolling. []
  7. Constituent countries of the United Kingdom are subject to change without notice of Scottish voting []
  8. Note: Population of Greenland may settle during shipping. []
  9. If it was a country, Greenland would be the 12th largest nation in the world. []
  10. Greenland is 1,828 times larger than the Ohio county I live in, but my county has more than three times the population and we’re considered “rural.” []
  11. See, generally, Independence, Declaration of, T. Jefferson, 1776. []
  12. What, you don’t remember the 1982 headlines in which the bold citizens of the Falkland Islands, armed only with fishing poles and rabid sheep repelled the combined oppressive forces of the Argentine military junta and the Iron Lady in order to maintain their self-governing independence?  Me neither. []
  13. I kid. For tonight’s performance, the role of Sarah Palin will be played by a grizzly bear with a Big Gulp. []
  14. Erich Honecker playing from the grave? []
  15. To my knowledge no has ever complained that “Turkey is a bird and a food, not a country.” []
  16. Reports from August 2012, October 2012 and January 2013, respectively. []
  17. Report from June 2012. []
  18. Hey, there are 31 ways to spell Gadaffi.  Quiz report September 2010.  There was also a report on Lybia in January of 2013. []
  19. June 2012. []
  20. June 2011. []
  21. June 2012. []

What is a Sandwich?

Sandwiches are a part of our everyday lives, but do we really know what makes a sandwich a sandwich?

First of all, why are we even asking this question? Well, we recently published a post answering the question ‘What is a country?’  When we added Palestine as a country on Sporcle, we really appreciated the engaging discussion that followed. However, there are tons of deep questions Sporcle raises, and the Sporcle Blog is about to embark on a long quest to look for some answers. What better way to start a long quest than with some delicious sandwiches?

Read more

The Source of Your Sporcle Addiction?

Since the recent publications of books like The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, zombies (and zombie trivia) have certainly been in vogue. In 2010 Seattle hosted a Zombie-con, which included everything from guest appearances by Bruce Campbell to a vintage zombie prom. Zombie films have exploded in popularity, and these days zombies come in all forms: some are altered by nuclear radiation, others are the classic risen from the grave type, and still others are monsters effected by poisons, evil spirits, what have you. It’s able to be fun because it’s not really possible…right? What if zombies could be a real threat, what if there really were a mind controlling parasite or virus that would manipulate its host’s behavior to its own ends? What if science suddenly becomes a lot more like science fiction?

Read more

What is an Ocean?

In what we hope will be an ongoing series of posts about controversial answers on Sporcle, we’re tackling a subject that raised some questions in the comments of the Safe Cracker Quiz.

Part of the quiz concerned naming the planet’s Oceans and many users expressed surprise or outrage at the inclusion of the Southern Ocean. A lot of people on Sporcle (us included) learned of only 4 Oceans (and 9 planets) in school, and we understand the confusion.

So here’s the deal: in the year 2000, the International Hydrographic Organization designated the area from the coast of Antarctica north to 60 degrees south latitude as a new ocean, which they called The Southern Ocean. In some places, this area is also known as either the Antarctic Ocean or the South Polar Ocean. Not everyone on the planet agrees with this stance, but we believe it should be included as the answer in our quizzes.

Most importantly, we want everyone to be having as much fun as possible on our site, not feeling  frustrated by a particular stance we’ve made on a particular answer.

We’re hoping to continue the discussion on some other topics in the future, and maybe make a few more posts celebrating some of our more frequent answers (Kyrgyzstan and Vinny Testaverde anyone?), so check back often (or subscribe to our feed) to hear more from your pals at Sporcle.