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Spam

I'm just back from the British easter SF convention — last weekend, in Chester — and one of the things that irritated me while I was away was the level of spam I was having to mop out of my email account.

I did a little experiment yesterday; I emptied my trash then began letting it build up. As I normally archive all "real" email, this allowed the spam to build up. As of 24 hours, there are 796 items of bulk unsolicited email in the trash can. About 70% of it is in non-western character sets — among the ones I recognize are Hebrew, Arabic, Thai, Russian, and Japanese, along with what I suspect is a metric ton of Chinese — and of the stuff that's readable, most of the headers appear to be preoccupied with (illegal non-prescribed sales of) drugs for weight loss and sexual dysfunction, attempts to persuade me that I've won a lottery I never entered or that an online bank account I don't have has been compromised, offers of financial help from Nigerian clergymen's widows, attempts to sell me software for an operating system I don't use, and rather dodgy hardcore pornography.

... And Kurt Vonnegut is still dead.

Meanwhile, just what's happened while I've been away? (I mean, aside from the usual political posturing over Iran, the unfolding train wreck in Iraq, Tony Blair doing his best to ensure that his place in the history books is not the one he was hoping for, and George Bush making people nostalgic for Richard Nixon.)

Days after the system went live, the operators of a talking CCTV surveillance system in Middlesborough are having to apologize over a case of mistaken identity for yelling at the wrong person in public.

Colony Collapse Disorder has arrived in the UK, with who-knows-what implications for agriculture.

It's beginning to look like there might be an extra EU member state shortly after the May 1st elections in Scotland.

... And the world is about to be menaced by the dire spectre of Bill Gates in Spaaaace!.

Damn, I wish Kurt was around and writing. He'd be sure to have something to say about all this.

41 Comments

1:

Mr. Stross,
I've been sifting through this site looking for comments on Missile Gap. I'm not finding anything yet. It was a great story. And although I'm sorry to hear about Kurt's death, a writer like you can talk about Gates-in-space without any trouble. Think of all the fun B. Gates could have with A-gates and T-gates. Now that would put a new spin on demonic beings from the void!

JJ

2:

You ought to join my campaign to create a US national health service *because it'll cut the spam*, before we end up hacking our eyes out over the last jar of honey..

3:

Since you run your own server, you can block character sets that you can't read at the MTA dialog.

I see that you run Exim, but if you were running Postfix, it would take only a few lines to do this. Feel free to ask me about it in private email if care to -- I do this and it stops an awfully large fraction of my spam.

4:

Alex: it's not the honey that's the problem; most of the food we eat is based on insect-pollinated plants, and bees going gaga is potentially Very Bad News Indeed for the entire food chain. (Especially now we've hunted the fish stocks into collapse.)

Perry: I need to poke at my SpamAssassin configuration and see if I can get it to flag the spam as such. Then a procmail recipe to file it in /dev/null should do the trick ...

5:

I know, Charlie, but I'm trying to make 'em laugh. What would Kurt do?

7:

Maybe if Bill goes up, he'll decide he doesn't want to come back? :-)

8:

As you have discovered, Charlie, running your own mail server is quite a job and keeping down the level of spam is just the beginning. What are you gaining from doing it yourself?

A commercial email service or even just a clued-in ISP offering bundled email service should get your spam traffic down into the single digits per day.

9:

Johan: it's inertia. (I've had this server -- modulo some hardware changes -- for a decade, dammit.) Plus, I have multiple domains, multiple mailing lists, and a bunch of other things that tend to rack up the charges if I farm it out to an ISP.

... However, bandwidth via SDSL and cable is going up hereabouts so much that it's closing in on the 1mbps (outbound) target I set myself a couple of years ago for moving the mail and dynamic web content in-house, onto something like a Mac mini running OS/X Server (with all the neato easy-configuration GUI utilities to make life easier). With some cheap web hosting for the static content that might be where I end up going in the next year or so.

10:

Kurt Vonnegut:

"I am, incidentally, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that totally functionless capacity. We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point, 'Isaac is up in heaven now.' It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, 'Kurt is up in heaven now.' That's my favorite joke."

Farewell Vonnegut, in non-heaven with Asimov. But more specifically:

Sonja Rae Fritzsche
http://titan.iwu.edu/~sfritzsc/cv.html
has done first-rate research into the bizarro world of Science Fiction publishing in Cold War East Germany. For instance:

(Book) Science Fiction Literature in East Germany. DDR Studien/East German Studies Series. Bern; Oxford: Peter Lang, September 2006.

(Articles)
"Utopia, Dystopia, and Ostalgia: The Pre- and Post Unification Visions of East German Science Fiction Writer Alexander Kröger." Journal of Utopian Studies 17.3 (Winter 2006): 441-464.

"Reading Ursula Le Guin in East Germany." Extrapolation 47.3 (2006): 471-487.

Asimov and Le Guin were 2 of the 3 first American authors whose science fiction was translated into German, with special forword and afterword, for East German publication. The two were politically vetted.

Asimov was allowed as he was determined to be "a bourgois secular humanist."

Le Guin was a trickier case. They liked her attack on Capitalism in "The Dispossessed" but denigrated her for failing to point out that Communism was objectively superior to the false dichotomy between Capitalism and Anarcchism.

When Sonja Rae Fritzsche gave a talk at the SFRA (Science Fiction Research Association) annual meeting about 2 years ago in Las Vegas, Ursula Le Guin was in the audience. I questioned Dr. Fritzsche, by explaining the Asimov/Vonnegut role in the American Humanist Association.

Le Guin now entered the discourse, although usually she listened without comment to papers on her writings. She said approximately:

"Are you now or have you ever been a Secular Humanist? Well, I am not in the American Humanist Association, and didn't know that Asimov was President."

Asimov was certainly a scientist, and Biochemistry Professor, who was also one of the greatest Science Fiction authors of all time, and proud of it. Vonnegut and Le Guin and Harlan Ellison and some other major authors have made a valid marketing decision in declining to have the phrase "science fiction" on their book covers, or used to denote them in TV interviews and the like, on the grounds that it could actually decrease sales.

Vonnegut thus wrote some Science Fiction, and metafiction about Science Fiction (i.e. Kilgore Trout), without being deemed a Science Fiction Author as such. Le Guin writes quite a bit of first-rate Science Fiction, where the Science is mostly Anthropology (given who her parents were!), Linguistics, and Sociology.

All of these writers were interested in Religion, interested in Science, yet had distinctive analyses of how the two magesteria interacted. I'm sorry to say that I'd discussed this with both Asimov and Le Guin, but now can never ask Vonnegut directly. Nor do I expect to go to Heaven. And I can't fathom why (according to survey) more Americans believe in Hell than in Heaven. The first does not exist in Jewish theology, but, in the USA context, don't they come together in the same box?

11:

I am sorry to hear that in the UK, you have cameras yelling at the wrong people, but I am even more sorry to hear that you cameras yelling at people at all. It sounds like the climate across the pond is turning very 1984.

12:

Oops. I meant, "...sorry to hear that you have cameras...". I wish I could edit that.

13:

Charlie --

Spamassassin is ok, but the CRM114 Discriminator -- http://crm114.sourceforge.net/ -- is generally more effective. (a wee tad bit arcane about the setup, but worthwhile.)

Between the ISP's spamassassin, my spamassassin, and CRM114, in-the-inbox spam is down to about one per quarter.

14:

Stephen: yes, Big Brother Blair seems to think 1984 is some kind of aspirational utopia. He never met a paternalistic panopticon IT project he didn't like. Luckily it appears that the conservatives (the main opposition at a UK level) have decided that their old-time small-l libertarian tradition -- in near-total eclipse during the Thatcher years -- is a good way of differentiating themselves from the technocratic control freaks in the current government; unfortunately I suspect it'll last about 15 minutes after they take power, because the tabloid media in Middle England have a perpetual hard-on for crime, and tech fixes seem to be about the only place where major mileage is easy to make these days.

Graydon: the false negative rate is fine, but what about false positives? (In the past 24 hours I've had false positives for: email from a literary agent -- not mine -- answering a rights inquiry I'd sent to a different partner, and email relevant to a literary award. False positives are, from my business POV, worse than false negatives insofar as they can carry very real financial implications.)

15:

The most bluntly hilarious SPAM subject line I ever got simply said: Re: vaginas. I love that they were able to boil their pitch down to one word.

16:

Yeah, I noticed the CCD story too; it's not getting a lot of coverage yet - if indeed it is CCD - but if it reaches the levels it's at in the States we're going to be hearing a lot more about it. From what I understand, it seems only to affect commercial hives rather than wild colonies. I say `seems' because nobody appears to know for sure. And it seems to be something that comes in waves - there may have been outbreaks in the US as far back as the 1800s. And nobody is certain what it is.

17:

Charlie --

False positive rate is good, and the learning rate is generally excellent. (I don't remember the last actual false positive; it might be more than a year, certainly more than six months, though there were a number when I was training the filter.)

I don't send anything to /dev/null; I sort into "spam" (at least two of ISP spamassassin, local spamassassin, and CRM114) and "CRM spam" (just CRM114); stuff in there that's actual spam goes into a folder to be taught to local spamassassin, and false positives get used to teach the CRM114 program.

There are things I leave getting flagged as spam by CRM114 -- electronic flyers for various tech supplies that I really did sign up for, bank statements, etc. -- because I'd rather not risk weakening the filter strength, but anything I've marked as ham has been effective at keeping further email like that out of the spam bucket, generally on a single correction.

18:

I grew up in Indianapolis, home of the Vonnegut family and would go with my Dad (also deceased) to Vonnegut's Hardware. What a remarkable place. While memory is faulty, I think I was introduced to Mr Vonnegut at some point.

It is a loss of a great mind and sharp wit -- something in these times of inane but deadly insanity that is desparately needed and will be sorely missed.

19:

Regarding overwhelming influx of spam, I still consider greylisting one of the better protocol-based sanity-checkers that just happens to have a nice side-effect of blocking a good portion of spam. No secondary sender actions are required, compliant sending mail servers "just work". Spammers are blocked since spammers often use drive-by methods that will be foiled by the greylisting, and, if they do what's necessary to deliver through the greylisting, that makes them and their zombies identifiable and therefore blockable.

For more info based on what I believe is your software, you can start here: Greylisting.org - Exim implementations

Disclosure: Though I'm no longer there, I used to run the mail systems at the fourth entry in the "Major users" list (A&M). It made a huge difference and I still run it on both my personal and work servers, though I still use the open-source version of Sendmail.

Though speaking of A&M and conferences: here's to hoping you might be invited and accept to one of Aggiecon or ConDFW one of these years and also congratulations on the pending award results (Hugo/Prometheus).

20:

Now Kurt V's gone, it's up to you Charlie!

21:

Regarding Colony Collapse disorder, read this:

http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0404/p13s01-sten.html

Then tell me you aren't just a teensy weensy little bit concerned:

"Many worry that what's shaping up to be a honeybee catastrophe will disrupt the food supply. While staple crops like wheat and corn are pollinated by wind, some 90 cultivated flowering crops � from almonds and apples to cranberries and watermelons � rely heavily on honeybees trucked in for pollinization. Honeybees pollinate every third bite of food ingested by Americans, says a Cornell study. Bees help generate some $14 billion in produce."

22:

Also regarding Colony Collapse disorder: Anyone here read Pellegrino`s "Dust" ?
It starts with the collapse of the food chain after all the insects dissapear.

Andreas

23:

Or perhaps the bees are all shipping themselves into some super colony, hoping to raise the ultimate army with which to overthrow their steam-can wielding oppressors.

Whoh - I should write this shit down.

Kurt's loss is a real blow. But it's nice that folk outside of the SF loving genre are taking notice...then again I suppose you would get that kind of attention too - if you were Kurt V.

24:

Charlie, I've found Pegasus Mail's baesian filter is considerably more powerful than spam assassin. Oh sorry, wrong OS. *runs away*

CCD...right. And what new pesticides were authorised last year? Oh. And let's not forget the temperature sensativity... (gee, almost got back to global warming there.)

As for Bill Gates in space, I don't suppose they could leave him up there...he'd have quite a Vista. Um? Oh yes, I'll get my hat now...

25:

I wonder if more hybridization of honey bees might help. I haven't heard that the Africanized bees are affected. Most honeybees used now have been selectively bred for centuries.

26:

My own completely unqualified theory is that it sounds like that parasite that makes ants climb to the top of trees and die - one that somehow alters their behaviour for its benefit.

I had considered the possibility that bees had declared general mobilisation as in comment 23, though.

Interesting question - where are the dead bees?

27:

Here's some discussion by beekeepers of africanized honey bees and CCD:
http://www.beesource.com/forums/showthread.php?t=208841

Preliminary information suggests africanized honey bees (AHB) aren't affected, and there are strains of AHB that aren't very agressive. Note that this is all anecdotal, but by people who know what they're talking about.

I'm not suggesting we don't panic.

28:

I also wonder if the introduction of or hybridization with the Eastern Honey Bee might not help. They aren't affected by the parisite either, since it coevolved with them over in Asia.

29:

Pellegrino's DUST was the first thing that came to mind when I heard about colony collapse,, accompanied by a Growing Sense of Helpless Dread.

One of the many good points you made during Eastercon's Climate Change panel, Charlie - I was lurking at the back, pondering the irony of the Crowne Plaza's charmingly inhomogeneous air conditioning system.

30:

It's not just food crops.

Oilseed rape, aka Canola, is one of the crops being pushed for biofuels: the oil can be used in a diesel engine. And it's a bee-pollinated crop. I skimmed the Wikipedia article, and the timing and pattern of the spread doesn't feel right for an agriculural side effect. Farming is a Red Queen's Race, and a farmer can't afford not to use the latest crop varieties, pesticides, etc.

[At the moment, the whole fuel-crop business seems to be focusing on only using a part of the crop, pressing out oil;d or fermenting grain to alcohol. This is a first step, but loses a substantial percentage of the energy the crop collects.]

31:

Re SPAM: At least it doesn't try to rewrite your biographical memory. In related news, I really like Glasshouse (and just try to figure out (1) which of the many possible associative meanings of Glasshouse gave the installation the name, and (2) if I like more the Sf-Thriller aspects of it or the part about contemporary society and its reality filters. And I also wonder about the backcover blurb and it's relation to the book ...).

32:

Til: it's UK military slang for a military prison.

It also references a panopticon.

33:

Ah, thanks. Didn't know that. And of course, the panopticon reference makes sense.

My ideas were going in the direction of either "Glasshouse" as in a hot house in gardening (as it is used for "growing" human plants) or a reference to the German saying "Wer im Glashaus sitzt, soll nicht mit Steinen werfen" (Sitting in a house of glass yourself, you shouldn't trow with stones), referencing in a way the de-militarization of the people in the glasshouse (but this second one is a bitch far-fetched, I'll readily agree).

34:

Til, the British-English version of that proverb is "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones". And it's a long way behind the other two, but it's still there. Somewhere.

35:

The search for a CCD smoking gun has begun: http://news.independent.co.uk/environment/wildlife/article2449968.ece.
The article ignores the fact that CCD has been going on, on and off, long enough to be on its second official name - it used to be called `fall dwindle disease' - but expect more interest groups to join in.

36:

Given that bees might be able to sense quantum fields (see e.g. http://www.math.rochester.edu/about/newsletters/spring98/bees.html), surely a possible explanation is that someone has been carrying out some weird particle physics experiments and messing with some fundamental constants?

http://www.antipope.org/charlie/fiction/moderator.html

37:

The article also simply ignores the biggest-ever study into the health effects or otherwise of mobile radio telephony, which concluded there were none. It also misstates the Finnish results - rather than being "40 per cent more likely to have a brain tumour on the side they held their phone", the people who had brain tumours were 40 per cent more likely to have them on that side, but the risk of a brain tumour was no higher.

Furthermore, the study relied on self-reporting of which side of the head the phone was used, going back 20+ years. Enter cognitive bias here.

WRT bees, there is only one problem with this theory...it doesn't fit the evidence. OK then - so why didn't this happen in 1978 when NMT450 switched on, 1983 when TACS(UK) switched on, 1988 when NMT900 switched on, 1992 when GSM900 switched on, 1994 or thereabouts when GSM1800/1900 arrived, or 2002 when UMTS2100 switched on? Note, after all, that the Tx power ratings involved have FALLEN between each technology iteration.

The Indy has done a positively Daily Mail-worthy job of bad science here. Mind you, they also published a report by John Lichfield on the same day in which he ascribed unemployment in France to the number of people not in work...

38:

I'm afraid that in every comparison I've seen other than those run by CRM114 authors, SpamAssassin thrashed it. Its FP rate is, to be blunt, awful :(

(A CRM114 plugin for SpamAssassin exists.)

39:

Just because Mr Vonnegut is no longer writing doesn't mean that 'So it goes' doesn't apply just as it did when he first wrote it, only more so.

40:

Nix --

I'm going by my actual experience; generalizing from this is done at individual peril. :)

And yes, the initial false positive rate is high. The post-learning false positive rate is very low.

41:

Glasshouse: Way Back When, the military prison in Portsmouth had a glass roof and was known as Pompey (=Portsmouth) Glasshouse; later extended to all military prisons.
Colchester is currently home both to the Royal Military Prison and to the paratroops of 16 Air Assault Brigade. This sort of co-location of producer and end-user can create significant cost savings.

When I heard about the shouting cameras of Middlesborough, it took fifteen minutes for me to be convinced that it wasn't a joke. Fortunately, from the story linked it appears that we are headed for a dictatorship tempered by incompetence.

"Smith! 6079 Smith W.! Come on, comrade, you can do better than that!"
..."Well done, comrade," the woman on the telescreen added as Smith, with a violent lunge, succeeded in touching his toes for the first time in ten years.

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