Hatred is not dead. I’m sure that surprises none of you, but it always bothers me, especially when people use computers to spread hatred. The most recent examples would only be interesting for their trivia value were it not for their closeness in time and the fact that both cases directly involve Microsoft.
Several weeks ago on the Info-Mac mailing list, a discussion list dedicated to things Macintosh, Gann Matsuda posted that he had noticed that the spelling checker in Microsoft Word 5.0 suggests "Nips" as a replacement for "Nisei." Now, "Nisei" means "second-generation Americans of Japanese ancestry," but more to the point, "nips" is derogatory slang for "Japanese-American." Based on a posting Gann made later, I don’t believe he was implying in any way that Microsoft is racist, merely that this was an unfortunate coincidence that could have been avoided had "Nisei" been in Word’s dictionary. Unfortunately, the conclusion that Microsoft is racist was immediately aired, and some suggested that Microsoft should alter Word’s spelling checker so it didn’t produce that combination (interestingly, "Nips" was the second choice behind "Nice" and ahead of "NYSE"). Even more unfortunately, Gann reported later that he received some offensive personal mail in relation to his posting. Hatred spreads any way it can. Sigh.
This is the issue, then. The fact that Word’s spelling checker makes an unfortunate suggestion is meaningless (it’s been known to make others – it used to suggest "kidnapper" for "childcare" – and it’s not even alone. MacWrite II apparently suggests "Nazi" for "Nisei"). In fact, the incident points to the fact that nothing is offensive to a computer. The spell checking code (which wasn’t even written by Microsoft, by the way) merely matched a combination of letters that it didn’t recognize with other likely combinations that it did recognize. To accuse Microsoft of racism based on that computer generated match is ludicrous.
If you agree that the above Microsoft-bashing is ludicrous, wait until you hear this one. A recent article in the New York Post alleged that Microsoft was in fact anti-Semitic because if you type the letters "NYC" (for New York City) into Word for Windows and then change the font to Wingbats (a dingbats font in Windows), those three characters will change to the skull & crossbones poison symbol, the star of David, and the thumbs up sign. Actually the allegation was not just that Microsoft was anti-Semitic, but that those symbols were a coded death threat to Jews in New York City. As Brad Silverberg, vice-president of Personal Systems at Microsoft said, "This allegation would be silly if it weren’t so ugly." He’s right – ludicrous doesn’t even begin to do this allegation justice. This sort of thing borders on the darkly paranoid numerology and cabalism in Umberto Eco’s fictional "Foucault’s Pendulum" and does not belong in the technological light of day.
Just to inject a little of the silliness back into this idiocy, we checked out some of the other characters in Wingbats so other conspiracy buffs can get in on the action. NUT translates to skull & crossbones, cross (as in the Christian cross), and snowflake, which obviously means that Bill Gates intends to secretly freeze the Pope using state of the art cryogenic technology developed at Mr. Bill’s biotechnology firms near Seattle. For followers of Nostradamus-like ambiguities, USSR translates to a cross, two raindrops, and a sun, which obviously points to the pivotal role the Pope played in all that tumult and indicates that much hardship (the two raindrops) will be followed by the sun’s prosperity. Mixed signals come from the translation for USA, which is cross, raindrop, and the finger sign meaning peace since this country is obviously being run by the Moral Majority, environmentalists, and the peaceniks of the 60’s. But wait! That peace sign was also used as a "V for Victory" sign, no? Perhaps the most telling translation is the one for the New York Post’s initials, NYP. That becomes skull & crossbones, star of David, and a waving flag, which obviously means that the New York Post is promoting anti-Semitism through its silly article. It’s all so obvious.
(And for anyone who doesn’t realize how obvious it is, especially if you happen to be a lawyer for the New York Post – I am kidding!)
Microsoft may be guilty of Windows and non-standard Macintosh programming practices, but to accuse them of racism on the basis of a spelling checker coincidence and a font is ridiculous. We’ve all got better things to worry about, not the least of which is making computers help with the creation of good and beauty in the world, something they actually do quite well with things ranging from the lovely Mandelbrot set to the wonder of global network communications.