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There are many examples where users are now being inundated with pop-up messages asking them to respond to things they don't know about or don't understand, and it leads to weaker security overall.

Context and knowledge is everything. With it, the strangest things can make sense; without it, the strangest things sound, well, strange. For instance, I like to keep track of some of the conversations my wife Denise and I have, as many of them are positively surreal. Recently I stumbled across this fragment, written in March 2003.

Scott: Why are there so many pickles in the kitchen sink?

Denise: Because I was cleaning out the bathroom!

At the time, this probably made complete sense, but looking back now, from almost three years, I have no idea at all why scrubbing toilets and tubs necessitates loading the kitchen sink up with pickles. Or rather, I have some ideas, but I just don't want to go there.

It's not only domestic situations worthy of Christoper Durang that stress the importance of context and knowledge, but also language itself. Robert Lane Greene published an excellent piece in Slate titled "I'm Trying To Learn Arabic: Why's it taking so long?" that contained a description that made me understand just why Arabic would be very, very hard to learn.

"Arabic is a VSO language, which means the verb usually comes before the subject and object. It has a dual number, so nouns and verbs must be learned in singular, dual, and plural. A present-tense verb has 13 forms. There are three noun cases and two genders. Some European languages have just as many forms to keep track of, but in Arabic the idiosyncrasies can be mind-boggling. When Karam explains that numbers are marked for gender - but most numbers take the opposite gender from the word they are modifying - we students stare at each other in slack-jawed solidarity. When we learn that adjectives modifying nonhuman plurals always have a feminine singular form - meaning that 'the cars are new' comes out as 'the cars, she are new' - I can hear heads banging on the desks around me."

When I read that, I thought "Arabic? That's Greek to me!" (actually, that sounds more like something Denise would say), but then I realized that most of the people I run into every day would find the kinds of discussions we have on SecurityFocus - about computers, technology, and security - pretty much as incomprehensible as the dialog between Denise and I, or what Arabic is to Robert Lane Greene. Even the simple stuff - like don't click on attachments, or don't accept strange ActiveX controls, or update your anti-virus software - comes across like adjectives modifying nonhuman plurals using the feminine singular form: guaranteed to induce a "Huh?" or a glassy-eyed stare more than understanding.

Software and hardware makers have tried to compensate for this lack of knowledge and context in users in a variety of ways, and there's still a healthy debate to be had about the best way to work with Joe Average User. On one extreme, it can be argued that software and hardware should just do stuff without the user's involvement at all, because the system should know best. Virus scanning just happens in the background, and if a virus is found, it's taken care of. Why bother the user? Just do what needs to be done without informing Aunt Alice what happened, since she won't understand it anyway, and everyone's happy.

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