Terry Zink's Cyber Security Blog

Discussing Internet security in (mostly) plain English

Ironies

Ironies

  • Comments 4

I'm currently working on a research paper on how to alleviate outbound spam.  As I was going through it in my head today, I started thinking about how difficult it can be to separate out real spam from false positives, that is, mail marked as spam by end users that isn't really spam.  A false positive in regards to outbound spam is not the same thing as inbound spam.

Anyhow, as I was reading through my paper, I came to a couple of conclusions.

  1. University math courses did not serve me well 

    I took a lot of math courses in university, a good chunk of them calculus.  I have never once used calculus in my day-to-day job on how to fight spam.  But that's okay, calculus is useful in statistics, the one math course that did serve me well.

    But more than that, as I was thinking about how to determine if something is spam or not, I thought to myself "Self, I wish I had taken a course in Signal Analysis, something on how to separate out the signal from the noise.  Wait a minute, I did take a course in Signal Analysis!"  As I recall, that was one of my worst classes.  But even more, nothing I took in that class has been useful in real life.  Things like a Signal-to-Noise ratio is interesting (ahem) on paper, but not once has it been useful in real life.

    All of the work that I have done on my own for noise elimination when dealing with spam has been stuff I invented on my own.  One day, if I ever write a book, it will contain actual useful information.  Mark my words.

  2. Technical communication is not my strong point 

    In my first year of engineering, I took a course called Technical Communication, or Tech Comm.  It was a course about technical writing.  I don't remember much of the specifics other than I wasn't good at it.

    In Tech Comm, they teach you things like to never use the passive voice (eg, I was going to the store), to put the most important things in the documents first, to be assertive in your statements, and so forth.  That has never been my strong point.  If you read this blog for any length of time at all, I do pretty much the entire opposite of what I was taught in that class.  And you know what?  The writing style I use in this blog is the same as I use in documents at work. 

    You see, as my regular readers know, way back in my Tech Comm days, my writing was described as "flowery."  That's the one thing I remember from that course.  And to this very day, my writing is still flowery, even more so.  Even my functional specifications are verbose and flowery, and it drives my Dev Lead nuts.  And I can say that because I know he doesn't read this blog, ha-ha-ha!

    Ahem (I'm poking fun at myself by the way), anyhow, I don't think my lack of non-technical writing has held me back much, if at all.  Conversely, I think it's one of my strengths.  I think that people actually like my writing style because it gets into the depths of an issue and tries to paint a story and then interpret that story, rather than presenting everything.  After all, my 25 regular blog readers can't be wrong.

So how about you, readers?  Anything ironic about your school days compared to what you are doing now?

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  • That's not the passive voice.

    Your example sentence isn't a good candidate for the passive voice for - it would be "The store was gone to by me" which barely sounds like English. You might regard it as a good advert for the rule, except in British English (i.e. *English* English, aka proper English; can you guess where I'm from?) the passive voice gets used all the time. But despite our love of the passive voice, no brit would use it in that particular context. (But I did just use it there: "the passive voice gets used" is in the passive voice.)

    The passive voice means that the object is acting on the subject, rather than the more normal way round where the subject acts on the object. Or, to rephrase that last sentence in the passive voice: the subject is acted on by the object, rather than the more normal way round wher the object is acted on by the subject.

    Again, that's a clunky example. But in British English, you would only avoid the passive voice there because it sounds ugly in that particular context. But that's by the by. Your example is in the active voice, it's just in one of the more wayward tenses.

  • I like your writing style, even if it would be defined as "non-techical." Pure technical documentation tends to be coma-inducing; telling a story and blending the technical details into it is perfect for a blog post.

  • We are told time and again to use the active voice for technical writing, but I have to admit, the net result is that the writing is less "meaningful" and less searchable.  I don't know if that's be cause I'm more used to it, or if the English professor types are just trying to keep themselves employed.  There was actually a similar discussion on our local NPR the other day, and it turns out that a lot of language "rules" are really just arbitrary anyway.  If passive voice allows you to convey the meaning better, and in fewer words, I say we need to adopt a new standard for technical writing.

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