Wednesday, February 13, 2008

An honest mistake?

I was watching the City Council on television one night, and they were dealing with restaurant owners who had failed the City's sting operation and served alcohol to a minor. One owner's defense - "It was an honest mistake" - was ignored (and probably correctly so).

But something happened recently that made me realize there are errors and there are errors, and perhaps an honest mistake is different than intentional malice.

Suppose we are managing a database of CDs, just a listing of CDs, their artists, titles and track names. Input comes from the community at large. Someone puts a new CD in their computer, it looks it up in the online database (via the Internet), and if it isn't found, they type in the info and it is submitted.

Suppose that instead of typing "The White Stripes", they enter "The White Stirpes". Or suppose that instead of entering all the track info carefully, they enter the first one, then get bored and then enter "track 2", "track 3", ... or worse, "asdf", "lkjh", ...

If the database is smart, it will recognized that "The White Stripes" and "The White Stirpes" are the same artist. And by carefully culling data from the online community, it can recognize that "The White Stripes" is correct, and "The White Stirpes" is a misspelling. Anyone else asking for info about "The White Stirpes" will then receive information about "The White Stripes", which is almost certainly what they want. (Yes, it's possible that Weird Al Yankovic will for a new band called "The White Stirpes"). This kind of error provides valuable information to the database.

But "track 2", "track 3" or "asdf", "lkjh" are not as valuable. "Track 2" is recognizable as filler, but random characters aren't. Neither provide the same information that an "honest" misspelling does.

In this case, honest mistakes are far better than intentional malice (well, intentional laziness).

Any other cases? Counterexamples?