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Our sponsor Meh is a cool daily deals site that doesn't over-promise, but delivers thoughtfully curated mostly cheap off-brand gadgets. Read the rest

Google says spammers are giving up

Google's chief spamfighter says that he's seeing less spam email coming into Google Mail and speculates that spammers are giving up on bulk spam because of the efficacy of filters; he predicts an enormous rise in quasi-spam from companies that you did business with once or twice and now feel entitled to email you all the time. I get craploads of this stuff myself -- PR releases (any PR person who puts me on a mailing list goes straight into my killfile, forever), circulars from some etailer I bought something from eight years ago, even monthly newsletters from a clinical massage place in Toronto I saw for a sore shoulder, once, in 1988. Unsubcribing to this stuff is time-consuming and only works about a third of the time, in my experience.

Of course, I also get thousands of spams a day (most of which are successfully repelled by greylisting, leaving only a thousand or so that get through to my mailer, which filters all but a couple hundred).

Google won't disclose numbers, but the company says that spam attempts, as a percentage of e-mail that's transmitted through its Gmail system, have waned over the last year. That could indicate that some spammers have gotten discouraged and have stopped trying to get through Google’s spam filters.

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Tax-authorities deploy anti-cheat web-spider

Tax authorities in the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Britain and Canada have deployed a stealthy web-spider called "Xenon" that looks for people earning unreported online income, and subsequently busts them as tax-cheats:

The spider can also be configured and trained to look at particular economic niches -- a useful feature for compiling lists of business in industries that traditionally have high rates of non-filing. "For instance, weight control (yields) 85,000 hits, some for products ... also services," says Sweden's Hardyson.

Once the web pages are screen-scraped, Xenon's Identity Information Extraction Module interfaces with national databases containing information like street and city names. It uses that data to automatically identify mailing addresses and other identity information present on the websites it has crawled, which it puts into a database that can be matched in bulk with national tax records.

As illuminating as Xenon is for the tax man, the data-mining effort poses dangers to citizen privacy, said Par Strom, a noted privacy advocate in the world of Swedish IT.

"Of course it's not illegal," said Strom. "I don't feel quite comfortable having a tax office sending out those kind of spiders."

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Fighting spam shouldn't mean fighting free speech

My cow-orkers at EFF, Annalee Newitz and Cindy Cohn, have co-authored a brilliant white-paper on how spam-fighting is endangering the ability of nonprofit mailing-list operators to send email to people who ask for it.

MoveOn.org is a politically progressive organization that engages in online activism. For the most part, its work consists of sending out action alerts to its members via email lists. Often, these alerts will ask subscribers to send letters to their representatives about time-sensitive issues, or provide details about upcoming political events. Although people on the MoveOn.org email lists have specifically requested to receive these alerts, many large ISPs regularly block them because they assume bulk email is spam. As a result, concerned citizens do not receive timely news about political issues that they want. Often, MoveOn.org's staff doesn't discover that the mail isn't getting through for days or weeks, and even when it does, ISPs respond slowly to "unblock" requests or refuse to explain why email has been confiscated. Although ISPs may have the best of intentions, what we see in this scenario–one that is all too common–is free speech being chilled in the service of blocking spam.

In their zeal to stop spam, many organizations and companies are blocking the delivery of wanted messages, especially those sent through email lists. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most blocking processes are not transparent to the email sender or recipient, and email users are generally given little or no control over which emails are blocked. Instead, system administrators, creators of spam-blocking tools, and ISPs all too often attempt to predict what mail a recipient does and does not want.

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Air Force report on Teleportation Physics

Chris sez: "I subscribe to Steven Aftergood's Federation of American Scientist's Project on Government Secrecy 'Secrecy News' mailing list (that was a mouthful). It's an outstanding (and usually very dry) source of semi-classified material. Steven's been featured on The Daily Show and NPR's On the Media, among a lot of other media outlets. The following was the last entry on today's e-mail, dealing with Air Force research on psychokenisis and recommends further government experimentation to develop the USA's psychokenisis capabilities. It's a true story that I doubt Vonnegut could improve upon..."

The Air Force Research Laboratory has paid for and published a new study on "teleportation physics," referring to the disembodied transport of objects across space.

The author strives to distinguish his subject from the fictional Star Trek "transporter" concept, and notes that "we are still very far away from being able to ... teleport human beings (and even simpler biological entities such as cells, etc.) and bulk inanimate objects...."

But after fifty pages of opaque physics, he concludes with an endorsement of remote viewing, psychokinesis and spoon bending by psychic Uri Geller.

"During a talk that he gave at the U.S. Capitol building, Uri caused a spoon to curve upward with no force applied, and then the spoon continued to bend after he put it back down and continued with his talk," he reports.

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Help Blog

Gordon Meyer, one of the founders of the old-school cyberculture hax0r zine "Computer Underground Digest" is working for Apple these days, on the built-in help system. He's got a blog devoted to documentation and help systems -- a great peek into the world of the context-sensitive.

A thread on the always-excellent TidBITS-Talk mailing list discusses a "report card" for Mac OS X. Editor Adam Engst gives the documentation a "C" grade, and in the process brings up an interesting point.

"I think I'd give Mac OS X a C for documentation and help. A D, in my mind, would imply it was actually wrong in a lot of cases, rather than just being overly simplified. Plus, I bump it up a bit because there is a lot of good information out there from third parties, if you can find it." [Full Message]

This never occurred to me before, but if we're objectively evaluating how well documented a product might be, should the universe of third-party documentation be excluded? From the customer's perspective, how much does it really matter if the bulk of the documentation is not "official?"


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