Have you missed a few TidBITS issues here and there? Geoff Duncan explains how overly aggressive filters on your email server could be bouncing TidBITS issues (and other email) into the ether. Also in this issue, Eolake Stobblehouse sings the praises of the flat-panel iMac, Adam looks ahead to events at next week’s Macworld Expo New York, eBay buys PayPal for $1.5 billion, and Microsoft releases Internet Explorer 5.2.1.
eBay to Buy PayPal for $1.5 Billion — Internet auction pioneer eBay has announced plans to acquire PayPal, the leading Internet payment service, for $1.5 billion in stock. The move is a natural one – approximately 60 percent of PayPal’s business takes place on eBay, and 25 percent of eBay auction payments are settled using PayPal (another 15 percent are settled via other electronic payment mechanisms). eBay will phase out its competing service, eBay Payments by Billpoint, which struggled to compete against PayPal and was losing $10 to $15 million per year. PayPal’s services will continue, with the exception of the company’s support for online gambling, a field that’s coming under increased legal scrutiny. Though both companies are highly regarded in general, both have also endured criticism – eBay for its response to security exploits and for not cracking down on fraud hard enough, and PayPal for poor customer service (resulting in several class-action lawsuits from users whose accounts were frozen) and investigations from several U.S. states as to whether or not PayPal should be regulated as a bank. [ACE]
Internet Explorer 5.2.1 Released — In a singularly unhelpful move, Microsoft has released Internet Explorer 5.2.1 for Mac OS X with absolutely no indication of what has changed. Installing Internet Explorer 5.2.1 did require quitting all running applications, which seems unnecessary, but it didn’t change my home page setting this time (others have reported differently). We presume Microsoft fixed a bug or two, but without release notes of any sort, it’s impossible to recommend the update either way. I’d encourage Microsoft to read "The Seven Deadly Product Release Sins" in TidBITS-491. [ACE]
Put on your walking shoes and Mac t-shirts – it’s show time! Macworld Expo in New York City rolls around again 17-Jul-02 through 19-Jul-02. I’m looking forward to the show, as I do every year, although there’s trepidation in the air once again thanks to the news that two major companies – Adobe and Macromedia – wouldn’t exhibit. The two previous Macworld Expos, in San Francisco in January and New York last year, proved surprisingly strong given the economic climate, and I hope this show does as well.
Macworld Keynote Webcast — For those not attending Macworld Expo in New York, you may still be able to view a streamed webcast of Steve Jobs’s keynote via QuickTime Player at 9:00 AM on Wednesday, July 17th. I say "may" because success with such a heavily watched event is often sporadic. Obviously, it helps to have a fast Internet connection.
TidBITS Events — The East Coast contingent of the TidBITS staff, meaning me and Contributing Editor Mark Anbinder, will be looking forward to meeting TidBITS readers. If you don’t see me on the show floor, you can be sure of finding me at one of the events below – come by and say hello.
At 1:00 PM Sunday, July 14th, on my drive down to New York City for Macworld Expo, I’ll be giving a "Meet the Expert" session and signing copies of my latest book, iPhoto 1.1 for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide, at the Apple Store Palisades in West Nyack, New York.
On Wednesday, July 17th at 12:30 PM, I’ll be giving a Macworld Users conference session entitled "Getting Started with iPhoto" in room S09. I plan to do an overview of iPhoto, making sure to pass on the various tips and tricks I learned while writing the iPhoto Visual QuickStart Guide. Then, at 2:00 PM, I’ll be at the Peachpit booth (#661) to sign copies of the book and answer questions about iPhoto.
On Thursday, July 18th at 3:00 PM, I’ll be at the Aladdin Systems booth (#1742) to do a Q&A session on iPhoto. Bring your toughest iPhoto questions and problems – I may not be able to answer every one, but I’d like to hear what you’re experiencing.
On Friday, July 19th, at 11:00 AM, I’ll be talking about TidBITS, the state of the Internet, Apple’s show announcements, and the status of Mac OS X in the User Group Lounge in room 3D04 (just off the show floor). Then at 2:00 PM, I’ll be back at the Peachpit booth (#661) to participate in a panel discussion about digital photography.
At 6:30 PM Saturday, July 20th, during the grand opening week of the Apple Store Soho in Manhattan, I’ll swing by on my way out of New York for another "Meet the Expert" session and book signing.
Netter’s Dinner — Al Tucker is organizing the 5th Annual NY Macworld Netter’s Dinner on Wednesday, July 17th. Everyone should meet at 6:00 PM by the doors leading out of the Javits Convention Center. The food will be a Mexican-style buffet with appetizers and soft drinks included. Pre-registration via Kagi is required, so be sure to visit the Netter’s Dinner Web page for the details. I have an engagement for later that evening, so I’ll be at the dinner for the beginning.
Hess Event List — Although the downturn in the economy has put a significant dent in the Macworld party scene, there are still some events happening, and the place to find them remains Ilene Hoffman’s Robert Hess Memorial Macworld Expo Events List. If you’re going to Macworld, be sure to check out Ilene’s list, and if you’re hosting an event, send it to Ilene for inclusion.
I discovered to my shock recently that during my short career as a Mac user (since 1995), I have already owned something like 10 different Macintoshes. Although each one was different, I have loved them all. So when Steve Jobs says that the flat panel iMac is perhaps the best Mac Apple has made yet, do I agree? In a nutshell, yes – but not simply because of its catchy design or impressive hardware specifications.
Do you know how you sometimes get an emotional sort of vision that is hard to describe? Well, I got one of those in the late 1990s when Apple described the upcoming next-generation Mac OS. Looking ahead to a much slicker and more stable operating system, coupled with the (then) future developments of the PowerPC chip, gave me a wonderful feeling. I imagined a computer which never got in the way, never delayed me, and which multitasked at least as well as I did. I may be a long-time Mac user, but I am not a geek. I’ve never programmed, and I haven’t even launched Terminal in Mac OS X.
This ideal of a Mac has been a bit slow in the coming, for a number of reasons. Apple clearly bit off an awfully big chunk in developing an all-new operating system, based on Unix, no less. Motorola and IBM have failed at fulfilling the promise of the PowerPC chip: it’s barely keeping up with the Pentium (remember Apple’s snail ads?). Of course, the tech slowdown around the millennium, along with a loss of focus on the part of the PC industry in general, has hampered everyone’s development schedules. But there’s also the simple fact that I am getting better with practice. A computer which is as fast as I am and multitasks as well wouldn’t have had as high a bar to clear three years ago.
Now, Apple offers the flat-panel iMac. A couple of weeks after purchasing my new iMac, sitting there using it, I suddenly realized how close the machine really is to my vision of the ideal Mac.
A Professional Consumer — I think first I should explain why I have the iMac at all. After all, I work with photos and art, design for the Web, and so on. I have a nice dual-processor Power Mac G4 tower with a Cinema display. So why would I want a consumer computer? Well, apart from the fact that I just like the iMac, it boils down to the fact that I am one of those hyper-sensitive "ahhhtistic" types for whom pleasing industrial design actually makes a significant difference. So, I kept the Power Mac G4 for my creative work, and switched to the more discreet iMac for the communications work (Web, email, and writing) which occupies the bulk of my time.
I’ve liked just about everything about the iMac. The half-basketball design with the flat-panel screen supported by a gleaming chrome arm is eye-candy, but it’s also highly functional. The screen moves smoothly and I find I adjust it small amounts throughout the day to match my posture. The performance of the 700 MHz G4 processor has been more than sufficient for Mac OS X and my email and Web use. Even the speakers sound wonderful, much better and even much louder than those in my Power Mac G4. Speaking of sound, I hate the noise of the Power Mac G4 tower – it grates on my nerves. If I were to be granted one favor from Apple, it would be a quiet professional Mac (and one with more power and expansion possibilities than Apple’s first experiment in this category, the Power Mac G4 Cube).
It’s important to note that the iMac was the first machine on which I use Mac OS X full time, so my impression of the iMac is tied into my impression of Mac OS X. I’ve tried all the versions back to the public beta, but they just weren’t up to snuff, since my important applications ran poorly under Classic. However, since I primarily use email and the Web on the iMac, it runs just fine with Mac OS X; I’ve never booted into Mac OS 9 at all.
Well, I do have one half-hearted reservation: it’s clear that Mac OS X is designed with future developments in screens and screen size in mind. It looks good on the iMac’s 15-inch screen, but it’s even better on the 22-inch Cinema display. (After Photoshop 7.0 went native, I switched to Mac OS X on my Power Mac G4 as well.) But setting aside overall dimensions, the iMac screen is, in a word, fantastic. It’s much brighter than the 22-inch Cinema display.
If we take economics into consideration, it will be a while before you see 22-inch screens on consumer computers, and the dual processors in my Power Mac G4 are great for intensive image processing work. So in all practicality, even if I’ll keep using the Power Mac G4 for my design work, the iMac is as close to my idea of the perfect consumer computer I can imagine. It’s fast, it’s quiet, it’s compact, and it looks great.
In short, the iMac is so good that it almost makes me wish I was in its target audience, just to have the pleasure of getting such a fantastic computer for the first time. For the student or family member, messing around at an amateur level with email, Web browsing, digital photos, and maybe a bit of video editing in iMovie, this is… well, like I said, as perfect a machine as I can imagine.
One of the things I handle behind the scenes for TidBITS is bounce management: the tedium of figuring out which addresses should be removed from our various mailing lists due to delivery errors. We consider maintaining "clean" mailing lists part of running an email-based publication responsibly: just as we don’t want to send TidBITS to people who don’t want it, we don’t want to waste bandwidth, effort, or time (for us or anyone else) trying to deliver TidBITS to addresses which aren’t accepting it. I can’t claim there are no undeliverable addresses on our mailing lists – that’s an impossible goal – but we try to run a tight ship. And it’s necessary work: Internet access providers regularly shut down, are acquired, and change their names; and – if our experience is any indicator – people simply abandon (or are forced to abandon) email addresses far more often than they unsubscribe from mailing lists. So we get lots of bounces.
I briefly outlined TidBITS’s bounce management process in "Not Your Grampa’s Mailing List" back in TidBITS-420, and although some of the details have changed, the idea remains the same. Basically, a custom tool I wrote ferrets out bouncing email addresses from the collection of bounces we receive each week, determining whether an address is eligible for removal based on the number and types of errors that come back over a particular period. Different lists have different removal criteria: it might take four to eight weeks of errors for an address to be removed from the main TidBITS list (which only sends a message once a week), while addresses would be removed from a discussion list like TidBITS Talk more quickly (although a higher number of errors would be required).
In the last year or so, we’ve noticed a new trend: some weeks, we get errors from hundreds (or even thousands) of subscribers whose servers refuse delivery of TidBITS issues. On the heels of these errors, we usually receive a flurry of complaints: "Why didn’t I get this week’s issue?" or "Please fix my subscription – I didn’t get TidBITS today but your system says I’m still on the list!"
The reason for these errors is that from time to time, some email systems conclude that TidBITS is spam or – worse – an email-borne worm or virus. These email systems are utterly wrong – TidBITS is never sent to any address that has not subscribed, and an issue of TidBITS has never contained a worm or virus – but they serve to highlight some interesting points:
Email is increasingly being filtered for its content;
That filtering is often being done without the knowledge or consent of affected users;
Over time, inaccurate filtering will substantially reduce the general utility of email.
In short, we’re starting to see signs that email, often hailed as the Internet’s "killer app," is in danger of becoming an unreliable, arbitrarily censored medium – and there’s very little we can do about it.
Them’s Spam-Fighting Words! What causes some email systems to misinterpret TidBITS as spam or malicious email? I can’t be specific here – or thousands of subscribers will never receive this TidBITS issue! – but I can point to some recent examples:
Jeff Carlson’s article on the Palm i705 in TidBITS-635 made a passing reference to a well-known Pfizer drug for men, technically known as sildenafil citrate. Our mail error logs indicate over 2,500 TidBITS issues were rejected by over 1,000 sites because they contained the drug’s name; many of the rejections were from relatively high-profile sites like the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and VeriSign. (Even leaving aside errors which cited that particular word, we received a substantially above-average number of errors for the week, which probably puts the total closer to 4,000 rejected issues, or about 10 percent of that week’s mailing).
Adam’s article on bandwidth limitations on Apple’s Mac.com service in TidBITS-634 caused TidBITS to be rejected as a worm by approximately 250 sites because it contained the proper name of Apple’s Web page hosting service and the words "my" and "pictures" in succession.
In a particularly bizarre example, approximately 180 mail servers rejected TidBITS issues containing Matt Neuburg’s articles on Unicode under Mac OS X, seemingly because the title of his articles named a particular fruit and the text contained the words "keystroke" and/or "keycode."
Adam’s article in TidBITS-618 on copyright caused issues to be rejected by approximately 120 servers because it mentioned the name of a well-known peer-to-peer music swapping service and the name of a pop music group.
Adam’s article "A Couple of Cool Concepts" caused TidBITS-616 to be rejected by over 1,100 sites because it sarcastically referred to an advertising campaign for a particular type of wireless video camera. Still other sites rejected it because it contained the word "undress" and another word describing a hair color.
Filter Me Timbers — It’s important to note that these TidBITS issues are being rejected by mail servers – typically run by businesses, organizations, or ISPs – rather than by individual mail clients like Eudora or Outlook Express. Current email programs can process incoming mail in any number of ways, and there’s no way to prevent users from intentionally – or unwittingly – creating a rule or filter which marks TidBITS as spam and deletes it outright. In fact, publications like TidBITS have run afoul of client-side filtering such as that included in Microsoft’s Outlook Express and Entourage.
Although the utter opacity of tools like Microsoft’s Junk Mail Filter somewhat belies this distinction, the crucial difference between client-side mail filtering and server-side mail filtering is that the former are largely under the control of individual email users, while the latter are typically governed by organizational policy. In an organization, this may mean only one or two people in charge of thousands of email accounts determine what mail will or won’t be accepted in the organization, and there’s often no way for users to determine whether or how their email is being filtered.
For instance, the servers which rejected Adam’s article on Mac.com services largely did so because they were running particular commercial anti-virus packages, and those organizations trusted those products would not reject legitimate email. Obviously, they were wrong. On the flip side, every copy of TidBITS-601 sent to subscribers at a large aerospace company (whose name sounds like "boing!") was rejected because it contained a particular URL; apparently, an email administrator somewhere within this organization of tens of thousands of people decided that any email message containing that URL should be rejected outright. Ironically, the offending URL was owned by a company that counts the aerospace company among its clients. Oops.
Senseless Censors — It’s hard to argue with the practical necessity of filtering email, given the tremendous amount of spam clogging the Internet. (A company that provides an anti-spam filtering service to large organizations, Brightmail, estimates that the amount of spam has gone up by 600 percent this year.) The costs of spam are quite real in terms of storage, bandwidth, and processing power, not to mention vast amounts of human time deleting, filtering, identifying, and cleaning up after spam. There’s no denying administrators are trying to save time, trouble, and (in some cases) actual harm by assaying email before it gets to users’s desktops. Even TidBITS performs some very basic filtering on incoming mail, and I’m more aggressive with mail filtering on my business’s servers.
The thing to remember is that, like Web content filtering, email content filtering is at best unintelligent and arbitrary. A rule which seems perfectly sensible to reject spam regarding long distance telephone service may have the unintended consequence of rejecting all email from your Aunt Tillie, simply because Aunt Tillie’s Internet provider has IP numbers which contain a subset of a spammer’s advertised phone number. (That’s a real problem one of my clients encountered – although Aunt Tillie’s name has been changed.) Similarly, a rule designed to screen out promotions for adult Web sites might prevent a user from participating in a breast cancer support group’s mailing list. It’s easy to come up with countless examples where blocking mail based on specific words, terms, and phrases in email can do the wrong thing.
As much as on-target filtering might save administrators and users time, money, and trouble, filtering that backfires also has direct costs. Part of that cost is passed off to the sender whose email has been improperly identified: every time spam filtering hits TidBITS, I get to track the problem down, deal with email administrators, and assuage irritated subscribers. (That’s time I could be spending – should be spending – doing useful things like writing articles or improving TidBITS services.) Part of the cost also stays with the organization doing the filtering, largely to support users who didn’t receive expected email or dealing with remote administrators like me to figure out what’s going wrong. Misfiring filters reduce the utility of email for all involved.
Put a Sock In It — We’ve sometimes tried to avoid words and terms in TidBITS that might trigger overly broad content filters. (Here "we" mostly means "me," because I’m the staff member most familiar with the email errors and problems TidBITS encounters.) For instance, we changed portions of Dan Kohn’s "Steal This Essay" series to omit a term describing adult materials (it starts with the letter P and rhymes with "corn"), and lately hardly a week goes by where we don’t make changes to an issue to avoid phrases and terms which have set off overly aggressive filters. Recently self-censored articles include Adam’s series on converting to Mac OS X, "Corrupt Audio Disks Stick in Mac’s Craw" in TidBITS-631, "Goodies from Kensington" in TidBITS-630, "Mac OS X: Curse of the New" in TidBITS-629, and "Was Bill Gates Lying?" in TidBITS-628. These articles run the gamut of everything TidBITS covers from analysis and commentary to news and reviews. As you’ve noticed, in this article I’m also trying to avoid terms or sequence of words which have caused TidBITS to be rejected.
To a degree, publishing offensive or controversial terms is a judgment call: is the editorial value worth the potential backlash and arbitrary rejection of TidBITS? But when we reach a point where TidBITS cannot mention the name of Apple’s Web hosting service in the same issue as a phrase such as "my" followed by "pictures" without confusing hundreds of readers and committing (already limited) staff hours to sorting out the problem, a line has been crossed. When TidBITS cannot publish the name of a common fruit in the same issue as a word like "keystroke," mention a type of medication even in passing, or discuss a well-known online advertising campaign, we’ve exited the Realm of the Reasonable and landed squarely on Planet Preposterous.
All Done Now — There’s no way TidBITS can hope to self-censor against these types of mishaps: the terms and phrases are simply too arbitrary and unpredictable. Maybe tomorrow someone will release a new Windows worm, and commercial anti-virus software will start blocking all email containing the words "stopwatch" and "banana." (If you didn’t get this issue as expected via email, maybe that’s why!)
As a result, there’s no way we can make reasonable assurances TidBITS will be able to reach you via email: we simply have no way of knowing what you or your provider might consider content non grata. We will continue to make reasonable efforts to avoid controversial or offensive terms, and may "dress up" such terms in ways so they are likely to get by some types of email filtering. We will not, however, refrain from publishing commentary about topics that are likely to set off spam filters: that’s knuckling under to the email administrators who – probably unintentionally – have caused this situation. And although all discussions of true censorship and freedom of the press are generally only relevant in relation to the government, if this sort of content filtering continues to become more prevalent, there will be no freedom of speech through email.
So here’s what you should do. If TidBITS doesn’t arrive when you expect in email, first check our Web site to make sure the issue was published (we do take a couple of issues off each year). Then send email to <[email protected]>, which should always return the current issue, probably within minutes. If it hasn’t arrived in an hour or two, it’s a good bet that whoever manages your email server has a foolish content filter in place that we’ve failed to anticipate in our use of the English language. (If this requested issue does arrive, it’s more likely that there were communication problems between our servers and yours that have cleared up since we sent the first copy.) The next step is to ask your email administrator – nicely – if they are performing content filtering on incoming email because you haven’t received mail you expected. You may wish to ask them to remove their content filtering for all the reasons mentioned above: feel free to point them at this article. These actions won’t solve the larger problem, but it might make administrators think a little harder about the impacts of email filtering.
If all else fails, you subscribe to the announcement version of TidBITS, which delivers a brief email message containing an abstract of the issue and a table of contents with links to articles on the Web. Because the announcement version of TidBITS doesn’t contain the full text of the issue, it has a good chance of passing through content filters.