Thursday, February 16, 2006

Spam for Google Mail

No, this isn't a rant on how Google's spam filter works, it's an observation on how two different technologies can come together in unexpected ways.

One technology is Google Mail's spam filter. Nothing new about that, and Google's spam filter probably isn't any better or worse than any other. It does tend to put most spam into a folder labeled, appropriately enough, Spam (okay, it's not a folder it's a label, but you get the idea).

The other technology is Google's context sensitive advertising, which displays ads relevant to the text of the message you're reading. Normally, these ads display only when you're actually viewing a message, but recently Google Mail started displaying some ads, along with the headlines of RSS feeds, in a banner on all the pages. So you can get context sensitive ads based on the titles of messages, or even based on the labels you're viewing.

Lately, every time I look at what's in my Spam label (because sometimes it does put real messages in there), I'm treated to ads for "spam casserole", "spam primavera", "spam roast", etc.

So if you're ever in the mood for a good spam recipe, get a Google Mail account and take a look in the spam folder.

Monday, February 13, 2006

USB Stick Goodness

At the risk of spamming my own blog, I'll make a second post today.

This is one I've been meaning to make for some time, but have always forgotten about. In September, I picked up a 2GB Memorex Travel Drive USB stick. I'd been using a 512MB USB stick, and ran out of room, so I decided to skip the 1GB stage and go right for the most space I could afford.

Naturally, with all that space, I had to see how much of it I could fill up, so I started sticking anything and everything I could think of that might be useful. YBook went on first, along with several SF novels downloaded from the Baen Free Library. Personal files went on next, followed closely by lecture notes for classes I'm teaching and have taught in the past.

I was still woefully short of filling up the 2GB, so I went looking for an easy way to put Apache, PHP, and MySQL on the stick. I'd done it with my previous stick, but it involved editing configuration files and wasn't an ideal solution. After a bit of web searching, I found someone who'd done the same thing, but also wrote a small application that starts everything up and shuts it all down when you're done.

It's called WOS, available at I've been using it for a while now, and it works much better than my hacked together version. Starting WOS automatically starts up Apache and MySQL, and included in the download are both PHP4 and PHP5, the one you use easily selectable in the WOS settings dialog.

Everything's configured for relative paths, so it doesn't matter what drive letter your USB stick ends up with, it all works. About the only drawback to WOS is that it uses port 80 for the web server, which won't play well if you already have a web server running on the machine. That isn't a problem for the machines I'm typically using this on, so I haven't needed to go back into the Apache config file and change the port number.

So, now, if I find myself with a few free moments, I could either stare out the window at the snow flurries in the parking lot, or I could start up the web server and make a little more progress on those web development projects I keep meaning to finish.

So how am I doing on filling up the 2GB? Well, I also backed up a web site I run to it, and downloaded the latest JDK (just in case I found myself with time for some Java development), and a copy of Game Maker (just in case I found myself with time for game development).

I'm still about 300 MB short, but I figure I'll need some room for data files, so I think I'll stop there. At least until I feel the need to get a 4GB stick.

Opt-out Lists

A few years ago, we signed up for opt-out lists for telephone solicitations and for postal mailings. The lists were a great idea...telemarketers and mass mailers theoretically used the lists to prevent contacting people who weren't going to buy anything anyway.

It worked pretty well, too. Lately, though, with our daughter born in June, we didn't have any time or energy for shopping for Christmas, so we did all our purchases through catalogs. Now, we're getting more and more catalogs in the mail from places we've never heard of, and even more telemarkter calls.

I'm not sure what happened, but we'll probably need to add ourselves to the opt-out lists again, and hope that the deluge lessens.

Recently, I ran across Blue Security's opt-out list for email spam. The idea is the same as the other opt-out put your email onto Blue Security's opt-out list, and spammers don't send you email since you're not going to buy anyway. And we all know spammers are intelligent, reasonable people, right?

Yeah, if that's all there was to it, the Blue Security opt-out list would quickly become a target for the most intensive spamming ever known. Blue Security has taken it one step farther, though, and allows members of the opt-out list to report spam that has arrived at their mailbox. Blue Security then tries to determine which merchant the spam would benefit, and then sends an email to that merchant with a complaint.

That's right, for every spam email you get, you can get one sent, anonymously, back to the merchant who would benefit from the spam.

Suddenly, spammers complying with the opt-out list makes more sense. Merchants aren't going to use spammers who result in tons of complaints coming back to them, which encourages spammers to use the opt-out list to clean their mailing lists before sending spam.

Blue Security also has a tool you can download that integrates with the big three webmail services, so you can easily report spam you receive. You can also just forward spam email to a special email address you get when you sign up. You can go to for more information.

I've recently signed up, and am actually looking forward to getting some spam to report!

Sunday, February 05, 2006


Okay, how about a bit of geek fun? Skype is a fun little program that allows you to talk to anyone else in the world running Skype using a headset with a microphone. Suitable headsets are pretty cheap these days, and Skype makes the whole process easy.

So, let's say that your family is in another state, but has a computer. You can call them using Skype from your computer to theirs for free. The cool thing about this is that, if you're a geek type, you're already paying for a fast Internet connection anyway, so Skype truly is free.

But, the folks at Skype weren't content to just have you calling computer to computer, and they also have a for-cost service that allows you to use your computer to call out to any regular telephone. The way it works is that your computer calls one of their computers close to the city in which the person you want to call lives, and then makes a local call to the telephone in question. You end up paying a lot less than regular long distance (it's about 2 cents per minute in the United States).

As if that wasn't enough, you can also buy a phone number from the Skype store that lets people with regular phones call your computer. The coolest thing about this option is that you can choose a phone number in several different countries. So, I could be sitting in Ohio, and my computer could have a phone number that's local to Paris, France. That'd really only be useful if I knew anyone in Paris, but it's still cool!

As a community building tool, Skype is interesting because you can set your status to "Skype Me", which means you're sitting at your computer wishing you had someone to talk to. Someone else can search the Skype directory for people with that status, so you might get a random call from another person looking to talk.

While none of the features of Skype are anything revolutionary if you've been following Voice Over IP over the years, they've put it all together in a very professional package that leaves the core feature, computer to computer telephony, absolutely free.

Now if I just had someone to call!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Self-defeating Emotions

I'll probably be accused of getting way too introspective in this blog lately, but I've been thinking a lot lately about self-defeating emotions.

We all have them, to one degree or another. I'm talking about the sort of lack of self-confidence that tells us it makes more sense to do the wrong thing, and be secure that we know it's wrong, than try to do the right thing and be uncertain. It can be as simple as not knowing how to pronounce a word, and saying it wrong because you're not absolutely sure how to really pronounce it (but are sure that how you said it is wrong).

Or the person who really wants to be loved, and treats the person you want love from badly, hoping they reassure you in return by continuing to love you.

There are lots of other examples, but they're all ways that we act contrary to what we really want, because we're not brave enough to risk the failure of getting it.

Okay, so enough depressing introspection. Why am I thinking about this sort of thing? Because I'm thinking about what I'm really teaching my daughter about how to be a well-adjusted adult. She observes everything that happens around her, and is putting it all into her subconscious for later use in developing emotional reactions to what happens in her life.

I'd really like to make sure that I'm not setting her up with the same issues I have. Like any parent, I'd like my daughter to be better than me, and have bigger and grander issues than me. ;-)

Seriously, it's worth taking a hard look at what your behaviors teach your children, if you have any or are thinking about having any. It isn't always pretty, but the action of introspection can help you to identify and, perhaps, break out of the patterns you've set for yourself.