Beef Panties

Many of the gems from the newspaper correction blog Regret the Error qualify as a revealing errors. One particularly entertaining example was this Reuters syndicated wire story on the recall of beef whose opening paragraph explained that (emphasis mine):

Quaker Maid Meats Inc. on Tuesday said it would voluntarily recall 94,400 pounds of frozen ground beef panties that may be contaminated with E. coli.

ABC News Beef Panties Article

Of course the article was talking about beef patties, not beef panties.

This error can be blamed, at least in part, on a spellchecker. I talked about spellcheckers before when I discussed the Cupertino effect which happens when someone spells a word correctly but is prompted to change it to an incorrect word because the spellchecker does not contain the correct word in its dictionary. The Cupertino effect explains why the New Zealand Herald ran a story with Saddam Hussein’s named rendered as Saddam Hussies and Reuters ran a story referring to Pakistan’s Muttahida Quami Movement as the Muttonhead Quail Movement.

What’s going on in the beef panties example seems to be a little different and more subtle. Both “patties” and “panties” are correctly spelled words that are one letter apart. The typo that changes patties to panties is, unlike swapping Cupertino in for cooperation, an easy one for a human to make. Single letter typos in the middle of a word are easy to make and easy to overlook.

As nearly all word processing programs have come to include spellcheckers, writers have become accustomed to them. We look for the red squiggly lines underneath words indicating a typo and, if we don’t see it, we assume we’ve got things right. We do so because this is usually a correct assumption: spelling errors or typos that result in them are the most common type of error that writers make.

In a sense though, the presence of spellcheckers has made one class of misspellings — those that result in a correctly spelled but incorrect words — more likely than before. By making most errors easier to catch, we spend less time proofreading and, in the process, make a smaller class of errors — in this case, swapped words — more likely than used to be. The result is errors like “beef panties.”

Although we’re not always aware of them, the affordances of technology changes the way we work. We proofread differently when we have a spellchecker to aid us. In a way, the presence of a successful error-catching technology makes certain types of errors more likely.

One could make an analogy with the arguments made against some security systems. There’s a strong argument in the security community that creation of a bad security system can actually make people less safe. If one creates a new high-tech electronic passport validator, border agents might stop checking the pictures as closely or asking tough questions of the person in front of them. If the system is easy to game, it can end up making the border less safe.

Error-checking systems eliminate many errors. In doing so, they can create affordances that make others more likely! If the error checking system is good enough, we might stop looking for errors as closely as we did before and more errors of the type that are not caught will slip through.

Send in the Clones

Earlier in the summer, Iran released this image to the international community — purportedly a photograph of rocket tests carried out recently.

Iran missiles (original image)

There was an interesting response from a number of people that pointed out that the images appeared to have been manipulated. Eventually, the image ended up on the blog Photoshop Disasters (PsD) who released this marked up image highlighting the fact that certain parts of the image seemed similar to each other. Identical in fact; they had been cut and pasted.

Iran missile image marked up by PsD

The blog joked that the photos revealed a “shocking gap in that nation’s ability to use the clone tool.”

The clone tool — sometimes called the “rubber stamp tool” — is a feature available in a number of photo-manipulation programs including Adobe Photoshop, GIMP and Corel Photopaint. The tool lets users easily replace part of a picture with information from another part. The Wikipedia article on the tool offers a good visual example and this description:

The applications of the cloning tool are almost unlimited. The most common usage, in professional editing, is to remove blemishes and uneven skin tones. With a click of a button you can remove a pimple, mole, or a scar. It is also used to remove other unwanted elements, such as telephone wires, an unwanted bird in the sky, and a variety of other things.

Of course, the clone tool can also be used to add things in — like the clouds of dust and smoke at the bottom of the images of the Iranian test. Used well, the clone tool can be invisible and leave little or no discernible mark. This invisible manipulation can be harmless or, as in the case of the Iranian missiles, it can used for deception.

The clone tool makes perfect copies. Too perfect. And these impossibly perfect reproductions can becoming revealing errors. Through its introduction of unnatural verisimilitude within an image, the clone introduces errors. In doing so, it can reveal both the person manipulating the image and their tools. Through their careless use of the tool, the Iranian government’s deception, and their methods, were revealed to the world.

But the Iranian government is hardly the only one caught manipulating images through careless use of the clone tool. Here’s an image, annotated by PsD again, of the 20th Century Fox Television logo with “evident clone tool abuse!”

20th Century Fox Image Manipulation

And here’s an image from Brazilian Playboy where an editor using a clone tool has become a little overzealous in their removal of blemishes.

Missing navel on Playboy Brazil model

Now we’re probably not shocked to find out that Playboy deceptively manipulates images of their models — although the resulting disregard for anatomy drives the extreme artificially of their productions home in a rather stark way.

In aggregate though, these images (a tiny sample of what I could find with a quick look) help speak to the extent of image manipulation in photographs that, by default, most of us tend to assume are unadulterated. Looking for the clone tool, and for other errors introduced by the process of image manipulation, we can get a hint of just how mediated the images we view the world are — and we have reason to be shocked.

Here’s a final example from Google maps that shows the clear marks of the clone tool in a patch of trees — obviously cloned to the trained eye — on what is supposed to be an unadulterated satellite image of land in the Netherlands.

Missing navel on Playboy Brazil model

Apparently, the surrounding area is full of similar artifacts. Someone has been edited out and papered over much of the area — by hand — with the clone tool because someone with power is trying to hide something visible on that satellite photograph. Perhaps they have a good reason for doing so. Military bases, for example, are often hidden in this way to avoid enemy or terrorist surveillance. But it’s only through the error revealed by sloppy use of the clone tool that we’re in any position to question the validity of these reasons or realize the images have been edited at all.