Friday, December 19, 2003

Bloody Vikings!

On some level, spam e-mail is just like junk mail.  Why can’t people just use their Delete key and get rid of it, just like tossing (or recycling) paper junk mail?  That’s what I do.  (And it doesn’t even waste paper.)

On the other hand, let’s look at some of the negative issues which surround it:
  • There’s an awful lot of it.  I have a half-dozen or more e-mail addresses I deal with every day, and I get a minimum of 50 spam items a day, probably closer to 100.  But I also make use of spam blockers at work and with my home e-mail ISP.  The former blocks maybe a dozen a day, while I check the latter every three weeks and clear out more than 1000 items each time, making for another 50-plus items each day which I don’t have to delete directly.
  • I have DSL at home and a LAN at work, so the impact of getting a single spam message — or even a few dozen — is minimal, a matter of seconds to download it all, usually in the background while I do other tasks.  My mother, on the other hand, uses dial-up with a 56K modem, so the impact for her of getting spam is 10 times as much or more.
  • Spam items are usually just a text or HTML message, but some contain graphics.  Again, for me with high-speed connections, downloading a 100K spam e-mail is a matter of a few seconds, but for someone on dial-up, it can be a minute or more for each message like that.
  • I’m on a lot of e-mail lists and Yahoo! groups, so I get a lot of legitimate e-mail every day, probably 4-5 times as much as the spam I get.  As a result, dealing with the spam is a small part of my e-mail time, especially since I don’t need to reply to them or otherwise deal with them in depth.  If my daily amount of real e-mail was in the range of only a dozen or so items, a couple dozen spam e-mails would drown out and hide the real stuff.
  • I’m a very process-oriented person, and I’m quick to pick up on patterns.  (Dealing with a couple hundred e-mails every day, you have to be.)  As a result, I can usually tell just from the subject line that it’s spam and thus never have to open it.  (Anything saying “girls”, “viagra”, “xanax”, or with no subject at all is spam.)  Less savvy people may open every item to be sure it’s not legitimate, and thus take half a minute with each item where I take half a second.
  • Many spam items come as HTML with embedded graphics, content which doesn’t come with the e-mail but gets downloaded from a server at open time, just like visiting a web page.  Thus, what takes 2K to download as e-mail can then load hundreds of KB more when you view it, making people wait wait wait that much longer.
  • Once the item is in your Inbox, it appears to take the same amount of space as anything else (one line per item), but if you look more closely (and have the mail program UI set to show it), you can see the size listed for each item.  Comparing to junk mail, that would be like seeing your mailbox stuffed with envelopes, but when you pull them out, finding that some have cleverly concealed bricks inside.
  • HTML-coded spam sends a request back to a server, especially is the graphics are server based rather than embedded.  That request may be able to carry the e-mail address the message was sent to, and thus just by opening the message to see what it is, you send a message saying “We’ve got a live one!  Send more spam!”
  • Paper junk mail is often legitimate on some level: it was sent by a real company which is trying to sell you a real product or service (admittedly, sometimes a scam, but typically real), but they are doing it basically blindly, since they don’t already know you are someone who might be interested.  Some spam is like this, but most has false return addresses, subject lines intended to mislead (not that “check enclosed” or “date-sensitive information” on junk mail aren’t in that class, too; if the envelope says “this is important!”, it probably isn’t), and spam messages point to sites unrelated to what the message is about.
  • There’s an awful lot of porn flying about.  Really, my mother isn’t interested in making her penis larger or in seeing Suzy do it with a Great Dane.  (Frankly, neither am I.  I’m gay, not into animals, and my a penis is already long and thick enough, thank you very much.)  Imagine if junk mail delivered by the post office had such text splattered all of the envelope!
In the end, most (99.9%) spam is intended to mislead, to block the ability of ISPs to send and deliver legitimate e-mail, and generally to bring down the infrastructure of the Internet.  Somewhere between malicious and terrorist, frankly.  (Yeah, that last term is extreme, but realize the effect these spammers have.  While not intending to cause fear and terror, they sometimes are attempting to disrupt international communications and destroy legitimate commerce.  That ain’t the equivalent of jaywalking.)

I met one of the spammers (as he called it, “e-mail direct marketing”) who was active around 1997 or so.  He tried to use marketing “Dilbert-isms” to explain why his sending unsolicited and unwanted e-mails was a good thing, but in the end, he was unconvincing: the spammer was just a scammer.  The ones today deserve to have the book thrown at them.  (Make it a heavy one, please.)

[Weblog title reference: Monty Python’s Flying Circus did a sketch involving the breakfast meat SPAM.  It involved Vikings in the background singing about how lovely and wonderful SPAM is, until they get so loud and abundant that they drown out the rest of the sketch.  And thus junk e-mail is called “spam”.]

Updated on November 2, 2010
These days, I’m up to 10 or so e-mail accounts I get mail from every day — different types of messages go to different accounts.  I no longer check the spam filters (my old ISP no longer even makes viewing the filtered spam doable), except at work when I know something I sent there form one of my own accounts didn’t come through.  (Those are usually messages with just a picture or a URL attached — high on the list of potential spam, although of course they aren’t, but the computer can’t reliably know that.)

I removed a bullet point above which implied that virus packages could come with HTML e-mails.  I don’t believe that was ever true.

An additional term has been created for e-mail messages which you in theory expect to get, but which clutter your Inbox because while you want them, you don't want them now: bacn (“bacon”).  Things falling in this class would be Facebook updates, specials from your favorite airline, ads from the candy company you ordered from last Christmas, etc.  (I get at least three a week from Shepler’s western wear, which results in me never reading any of them.  If it was one every two weeks, maybe I would order something, but why would I ever bother with this frequency?  I complained once, but they said they couldn't change the setting.  Really?)

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Conflicted about the Conflict: Ace in the Hole

I’m sure it’s purely coincidence.

There’s been this rumor for some time that the U.S. government has actually had both Saddam and Osama for a while, just waiting to announce their capture.  And now they have announced that they have caught Saddam.

Since a story like this can be expected to have good for just over a week, the date of Saddam’s capture looks suspicious: twelve days before Christmas and capture on a Saturday ensures that the story keeps hitting strong for the first couple business days following, and then slopes off just right to ensure that people have a good feeling about the conflict and the Troops (and the President, of course) right up to and thus through Christmas.

A few days earlier and there would have been a news focus gap before Christmas during which something anti-Bush could have snuck in.  A few days later, and the media would have had to force the story to die off quickly so as to not impact the feel-good crap that has to be projected for Christmas.  (Can’t have war impact the holidays!)  A few days further yet and it would have had to be reported at Christmas, which would be a double-big no-no.

Okay, fine, so they caught him.  Now would you please get the country stations to stop playing that damn Toby Keith song, “American Soldier”, every time I turn around?  How about a nice piece of Lee Greenwood ├╝ber-patriotism instead?

[Weblog title reference: Hussein was the Ace of Spades in the deck of “most wanted” cards issues by the U.S. military, and Hussein was found in a “spider hole.”  “Ace in the Hole” is a country song by George Strait.]

Updated on October 27, 2010

Friday, December 12, 2003

Punishment is a Capital Idea

The Death Penalty has always been one of the more controversial pieces of our penal system.  On some level, it hearkens back to Biblical punishments: “An eye for an eye.”  Some deem it a way of providing closure for victims’ families, especially in light of our system’s parole methods, whereby a killer can sometimes eventually go free before having served an entire term (although they have to convince a board that they have learned their lesson, are sorry, have changed, etc.).

Opponents like to put up four primary arguments against it.
  • First, that we know our system is flawed, and we sometimes unfortunately put innocent people in prison.  And given that that is bad enough, how much worse is it to kill someone for a crime that they did not commit?  This is really the most cogent argument against the death penalty, that it raises major moral and ethical dilemmas.  I tend to think that we should not use it if there is the barest shadow of a doubt; in my college days, I was much more willing to to discard some innocents in the name of disposing of the truly bad ones, but I know more about the real world today.  Fortunately, with DNA evidence techniques and such, we are increasingly able to toss that shadow of a doubt.
  • The second standard argument is that European countries have almost to a one done away with the death penalty, and so should we, in order to become more civilized.  Unfortunately, this ignores the question of why the Europeans have discarded it.  I don’t think it is only because they are more “civilized” (whatever that means).  I think that because of their smaller societies, different diversity of populace, language, and thought, different legal structures, and so on, that they simply have a lower incidence of such extreme violent crimes.  (Statistics bear this out, from what I’ve seen.)  As a result, they simply don’t have either the number or percentage of criminals involved in death penalty-level crimes, and thus perhaps less need to deal with them in extreme ways.
  • Third is the claim that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment.  Hello?  The person (assuming they are actually guilty) killed someone.  (In most cases.  I don’t know that the death penalty is appropriate for violent or serious crimes which don't result in death or maiming.)  I suppose you can argue that some of the death penalty methods (electrocution, hanging) may be more painful than others, and thus more “cruel” (but then again, some death crime methods are also more painful than others), but in the end, the criminal is getting what he or she dished out.
  • The fourth — and my “favorite” &mdash argument against the death penalty is that it doesn’t work.  Not that it fails to kill people, but that as a deterrent, it doesn’t work.  Follow that thinking through: despite having the death penalty available as an option (in most states), people still kill, and thus the death penalty doesn’t serve to stop anyone.  Do you see the fallacy in there?  Let’s try it with a different violation of the law and a different penalty.

    There is a fine associated with automobile speeding.  The more you speed, the higher the fine, and it may be increased further in construction zones, school zones, and under other circumstances.  But people still speed, don’t they?  Does that mean that the deterrent of the fine doesn’t work, that the existence of the fine doesn’t stop speeding?  What if the fines were ten times as high: speed and you face a $2000 fine.  Would that stop speeding altogether?  No.  What if the penalty was the extreme: death.  Would no one ever speed again?  Heck no.  What you would find is most people would pay really close attention to their speedometer, and a heck of a lot of people would abandon their cars completely, to prevent the accident.  A small minority would still speed, most of them probably only a little (like many of us do now, 3-5 miles over the speed limit), with the expectation that they would not get caught, or they would be able to legally wrangle themselves out of the extreme punishment.  But so long as there were cars and speed limits, people would do it, no matter what the penalty.
So back to the death penalty for capital crimes…?  The question isn’t whether the death penalty is a deterrent at all, it’s whether the death penalty is an effective deterrent. We know there will always be extremists (of whatever stripe) who will commit the crimes.  But will the existence of major penalties slow them down any?  Will it stop any of them?  Has there ever been a single person who, because of the death penalty as a potential result, decided to cool his or her head and thus did not kill someone?  I don’t know, of course, but I sure do believe that it’s likely to have happened at least once, and thus probably actually fairly often.  (On some level, every time you, a non-criminal, give any thought to the penalty, it is doing its job as a deterrent, reminding you of the extreme result that extreme actions can have.)

So then we’re left with the much dicier question: given that the death penalty presumably does act as a deterrent, for some people and in some cases, can we measure how good a job it does?  (I suppose we could try to find similar populations in states which do and do not have the penalty and compare violent crime rates, but I suspect that the cognizance of “There’s no death penalty in this state, they can’t kill me for this crime” really doesn’t enter into things to the degree that “The death penalty means I could get killed for this crime” does.  Even if a given state doesn’t have the penalty, the thought probably is that the country as a whole does, and that’s sufficient.)  And the parallel question: is it possible to shift the way our system operates so that the deterrent of the death penalty is more effective, such that people will both be aware of it and won’t believe that they can get off with a lesser penalty for the crime.

Needless to say, I don’t have an answer for these.  So I’ll just settle for recognizing that the argument that the death penalty isn’t a deterrent is flawed and doing my best to make sure the opponents of it are aware of that.  In my experience, on many social issues, neither proponents nor opponents have genuinely thought through their support/opposition to it; rather, they just parrot a simplistic phrase about the subject that they got from someone else, someone who had an agenda to conflate a deterrent which isn’t 100% effective to one which isn’t effective at all, or someone who is just over the top with regard to punishment in general.

Updated on October 26, 2010

Monday, December 8, 2003

Conflicted about the Conflict: Giving Thanks

On Thanksgiving Day, President Bush made a covert visit to Iraq, to have Thanksgiving dinner with a selected group of soldiers.  The event was done under heavy security, apparently with many in the White House itself not aware of what was happening, nor the President’s own family, and only a select group of aides and reporters were taken along.

To hear Talk Radio go on about it for the next few days, you would have thought he bit the head off a puppy on live television.  The lefties ranted about how the event was a superficial photo op, pure politics.  The righties ranted about how Bush was a “stud” for doing this (yes, that term was used) and how the lefties were just trying to co-opt the event.  (And then they went on to decry Hilary Clinton’s trip to Afghanistan as superficial photo op, pure politics.  And the same thing about Howard Dean and his brother’s remains in Laos.)

In reality, they are both right.

We’re less than a year out from the next Presidential election.  Everything that Bush does is geared for maximal political effect.  The administration wants to direct and control the media as much as possible, and to get big impact out of every event they can.  Don’t be surprised to see further big “events” occur every couple months — at Christmas, at Memorial Day, at July 4th — any time that Bush & Co. see their numbers needing to be propped up.  Expect most of these to involve the Troops, which plays to both the pro-War side and the “Support the Troops” folks.

At the same time, everything that the Democrat candidates do is also geared for maximal political effect.  (In the Dean case, the 30th anniversary of the death of his brother was in mid-December, but Thanksgiving week plays better.)  Nothing will be done without the impacts — both Democrat-positive and Republican-negative — being carefully scoped out, maximized or minimized, and targeted to where the largest impact will be.  Expect to also see some attempts by both sides to pre-empt the stunts of the other.

On the other hand, Bush’s visit to the soldiers in Iraq was, without a doubt, the right (ahem) thing to do.  Discarding the political photo op side of things, it was a brave action to visit a strife zone like that, and it is bound to be a morale boost for the Troops, to know that the President is willing to take that sort of an action and show his direct support for them.  (I’ll stop short of calling Bush a “stud”, though.)

(As for Hillary’s visit to the Troops in Afghanistan, some pundits said it was yet another overture on her part to test the waters for a 2004 Presidential bid, but I think that she would need to have declared by now if she was going to do that.  It was definitely a photo op, and arguably a really good thing to do for the morale of the Troops who are being forgotten about in Afghanistan, what with 99.9% of the media focus having turned to Iraq for the past year.  I can’t help wonder, though, if she didn’t somehow get wind of Bush’s trip, and did hers to suck some of the wind from his sails.)

Updated on October 22, 2010

Gay Marriage: The Meaning of Massachusetts

I’m on the Legal Marriage Alliance mailing list for Washington State, and after the Massachusetts decision was handed down, someone asked:
If I interpret the decision correctly, in six months time, same-sex couples in Massachusetts will be able to marry.  How does this impact out-of-state couples?
I responded with a number of bullet points, and I’ve added a little more to them here.
  • The court said that not letting same-sex couples marry violates the state constitution and that the legislature has to resolve this in 180 days.  I don’t know what happens if that deadline comes and goes with nothing happening.  Does the court fine the legislature?
  • In Vermont, it was “resolve it or create a parallel institution,” and hence “civil unions” were created, but that’s apparently not an option provided here.
  • Hawaii and Alaska sidestepped the issue a few years ago by amending their state constitutions.  That evidently takes three years in Massachusetts, while the deadline is six months.  An amended constitution could happen anyway, but with a gap where same-sex
    marriage is legal.  Every year it takes will surely work in our favor.
  • Assuming things do progress as we would hope, this directly affects only couples who reside in Massachusetts, as the state can only grant the benefits that the state has power over.  But it’s a stepping stone to insisting on those benefits elsewhere.
  • According to an Associated Press piece (no longer available at the original site), Massachusetts state law doesn’t allow non-residents to marry there if their marriage would not be legal in the state where they live.  A little web research indicates that there is no basic residency requirement.  Given that such legal here/not legal there marriages have not been an issue for decades, this may be a law dating to miscegenation times (or earlier).  If this law is still on the books, it’s not clear what value or legal weight it has beyond being a stop sign to convince couples to not get married in Massachusetts.  In particular, does it have any effect when Massachusetts residents marry and then move elsewhere?
  • The Massachusetts marriage issue itself is not something which should go to the Supreme Court, as Massachusetts’ definition of marriage is limited to Massachusetts.  What would go to the Supreme Court is someone being denied marriage benefits in another state when they are married in Massachusetts, via a violation of the Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution.  Framed in terms of whether a marriage in one state should be recognized in another, regardless of who the married people are, that’s the same thing that the Supreme Court has already ruled on decades ago, regarding miscegenation (inter-racial marriages) and should be a win for us.  (But it ain’t over ’til the fat Justice sings.)
  • One potential outcome of this is likely to be a national hodgepodge: some states allowing the marriages, all states being forced to grant the benefits.  That might take decades to resolve to where the marriages could be legally done in every state.
I’ve often personally wondered why the religion card has never been played on the gay side of this puzzle before.  If MCC marries a same-sex couple, then DOMA and other laws are Freedom of Religion violations (“Congress shall make no law…”) in refusing to recognize those marriages and give the benefits accruing to them.  (Of course, non-religious performed marriages would not be covered, so it’s not a slam dunk for everyone.)

Updated on October 21, 2010
Indeed, some of that “hodgepodge” has become the case now, several years later.  Some states recognize same-sex marriages done in other states despite not being willing to do them directly.  In other cases, states which do not recognize same-sex marriages have refused to grant same-sex divorces (since that would mean tacitly “recognizing” some legitimacy of the marriage, but at the same time, Massachusetts will not do a divorce unless the couple (or at least one member) resides in the state and has for at least a year, leaving those couples high and dry.

The “religion card” idea is still untested, so far as I know.