February 2003

What’s he up to now?

I don’t quite get it, but Joshua Schachter’s latest project is reversible. This shows where you’re coming from to reach a certain page, as well as where other people came from to get there. OK, that’s nice, but it’s been done before. This also has some kind of categorization system that I don’t understand. I think the real power will come when he generates customized RSS feeds that people can include in their own pages (if it doesn’t completely swamp his server). That will make everyone as cool as Mark Pilgrim.

Later: Let’s try an experiment: Adam Rice | Adam Rice | Adam Rice.


A discussion over at Macintouch led me to the OS X beta of Ragtime, an integrated app available as a free (but big — 54 MB) download. I’ve downloaded it and will be evaluating it.

Comment spam

Got my first case of comment spam today. The commenter purports to the have the URL “http://www.1heluva.com/cgi-bin/join.cgi?refer=23911” and comes from IP number (which has been banned).

Don’t bother going to that URL. It froze my browser, and damn near gave me a seizure with all its blinky scrolly bits.

Spam in the Times

James Gleick, the science writer, had an article on spam in Sunday’s NY Times. Like Jon Udell, I found it disappointingly superficial — I could say the same about some of Gleick’s other writing.

Spam will be hard to legislate out of existence, mostly because of the Net’s global nature. I already receive a fair amount of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese spam, and a little in German. Perhaps, sooner or later, all these countries will pass legislation with teeth to crack down on spammers, but right now, even the USA doesn’t have any.

I already use Spam Assassin, and recommend it highly. It catches most of my spam, but about ten pieces slip past every day (I’m not sure how much I get, but I believe it’s about 100 pieces/day). My mail client, Apple’s mail.app, catches about half of the rest. We could do better–especially because I probably have a small number of false-positives, which bugs me a bit.

Here’s what I’d like to see:

Better collaborative filtering: mail.app already allows you to flag a message as spam, which refines an internal spam-filtering algorithm. This could be extended by submitting the offending message to a central database, which would then push out updates on a regular basis. Such software once existed on the Mac, called Spam Blaster. It was effective, but it was put out of business by Sound Blaster for infringing its trademark on anything with “Blaster” in the name. I believe that Spam Assassin also uses a small number of people to feed new spam into the system, but it can’t be as effective as a massively collaborative system.

Pay: I’d be happy to see a system put in place where everyone pays, say, $10 into an escrow account. If you try to e-mail me and you aren’t on my whitelist, one penny is deducted from your account (I don’t particularly care where the money goes — give it to your ISP). After I receive your message, adding you to my whitelist would just require pushing a button. This would effectively end spam, as spammers couldn’t or wouldn’t pay a penny for every piece of mail sent out. For individuals, though, it would take a long time to work down that $10–that’s sending e-mail to 1,000 new people.

The latter scheme would require some pretty basic architectural changes in the way e-mail works. But considering the gyrations ISPs and individuals are going to already, it’d be worth it. A bigger problem is that it is somewhat undemocratic and bureaucratic: it assumes that everyone has $10 to spare, and the creation of an escrow system (though the system could probably be funded on the interest of the escrowed money).

The former scheme would be somewhat less effective, but could get up and running quickly. Services like Spamcop are doing this now, but for a fee, and inconvenient if you don’t want an @spamcop,net address. It would be worth it for companies like AOL, Hotmail, and Yahoo to run the back-end of a service like this as a free service, simply because they are so relentlessly hammered by spam.

Rabbit-Proof Fence

Saw Rabbit-Proof Fence yesterday. It’s a quiet, quasi-documentary movie about a shameful chapter in Australia’s history where mixed-race children of Aborigines and Whites were kidnapped by the government and raised in institutions. This went on to some extent until the 1970s. (The same kind of thing happened in the USA with Indian and Hispanic children, though not as recently.)

More specifically, it’s the story of one girl, Molly, a real person (still alive, pushing 90) who was taken in 1931 with a sister and cousin to a compound for children like her, 1200 miles from her home, and their flight home — mostly the flight home, a slow-motion chase with her evading an Aboriginal tracker of some renown.

Molly was a gritty, smart, and almost silent kid, but Kenneth Branagh’s performance as Neville, the government “protector” of all Aborigines in western Australia, was particularly interesting. As he played it, Neville really believed that what he was doing was best for everyone, without a hint of malice towards the Aborigines. His was a paternalistic and beneficent form of racism, if that’s possible. The extent of his paternalistic authority was stunning — his secretary comes in saying “so and so has applied to buy a new pair of shoes” “She had a new pair last year” he responds, without missing a beat.

Spoiled by its own success

The phrase may be hackneyed, but maybe that’s just because it comes in handy so often. I’ve often said that Austin has been spoiled by its own success.

I wonder if the same thing is happening to Blogger. Let’s be clear: I think Blogger is great. It makes it dead simple — and free — for everyone to start a blog, and in my book, that’s a Good Thing.

The problem is, everyone did, and Blogger has become overwhelmed. People find their archives are evaporating, they’re having trouble posting, etc. I made the switch to Moveable Type a while ago, not because of problems, but because (as I half-jokingly say) my life wasn’t complicated enough. Seriously: I wanted to play around with some of the numerous options that MT offers. A little while ago, Jenny encountered these problems, and so I set her up with a blog inside my own installation of MT. More recently, Dori encountered the same kinds of problems, so I helped her set up her own MT blog (I’m getting good at this). I suspect that the same story has been repeated hundreds of times.

Blogger’s excess of success may be Moveable Type’s success as well. I want Blogger to thrive (I also want it to generate RSS feeds for all its users). I don’t know what needs to happen to keep Blogger running smoothly. The fact that it is free is obviously one of its attractions. You can support it by buying a Blogger Pro subscription, or by buying a Pyrad. Perhaps they need to set up a tip-jar for taking voluntary $5 contributions or something.

Duplex zoning changes and the Internet

The city of Austin is taking public comment via a web-form regarding some proposed code amendments that would affect duplexes and two-unit homes.

It’s interesting: just last week, the Economist had a big section on the Internet society (not to be confused with the Internet Society), including one article on direct democracy and how the Internet will change it. Taking public comment via a web form seems like a good example.

Simultaneous invention

This entry at Boingboing recaps (using surprisingly similar language) a comment I sent Greg Elin by e-mail recently. Weird. I’m not accusing anyone of plagiarism — I’m just observing how certain ideas seem to precipitate out of the ether when the building-blocks are in place.

Seven Lives

On any given day, about 6,600 people die in the USA. Mostly of disease, though about 270 of those deaths will be caused by accidents.

On a typical day in Texas, two or thee people fall to their deaths.

February first was not a typical day. Another seven people lost their lives that day.

Those 6,600 dead have friends and loved ones who mourn their passing. Communities that are diminished by their loss. So what’s so special about the seven? Admittedly they are the best and the brightest. Reading the resume of an astronaut always makes me wonder “how many lifetimes did this person have to accomplish all this?” But there’s obviously much more than that. Despite occasional sniping that manned space flight is risky, inefficient, showy, and that it doesn’t produce better science than unmanned missions, the fact remains that astronauts are invested with the highest of all our aspirations. When they fail, we feel it viscerally as a setback — not for NASA, not for some experiment, but for being something more than we are.

The next big thing to worry about

The New York Times Sunday Magazine carries an excellent article today on Hindu fanaticism in India. Read it now. It discusses, among other things, the violence against Muslims in Gujarat a little while back. Two thousand dead and 100,000 displaced: this is the kind of violence that led the U.S. to bomb Belgrade for Serb treatment of Kosovars.

Anil Dash, super-blogger and Indo-American, has been beating a drum of alarm on this subject for some time. And I’ve been aware that the BJP — the party in power in India — is Hindu-chauvanist ever since college. But I wasn’t aware of the systematic, organized quality of the problem until I read this article. And the scale of the problem is potentially so vast that the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict — so prominent in American news and such a focal point of international affairs — will look like the Hatfields and McCoys by comparison.

After I read the article, Gwen pointed out that our friend Ish, an Indian Muslim, has family in Gujarat.