Making the extraordinary seem ordinary

A couple of days ago over dinner, I was having one of those typical university conversations about whether the Internet had really changed the world. As was pointed out, “We’re still not buying all of our groceries over the web.” I replied with something about delivery of large perishable goods and how in fact the delivery of groceries works pretty well in places in New York. In any case, I said, the Internet has affected some people much more than others and at least for my part, it’s offered me a tremendous number of opportunities, etc. etc.

It’s all very well talking about stuff like that, but it was really brought home to me today. I’d spotted that Amazon Germany was selling the Futurama Season 2 DVDs for only 30 euros and had quickly ordered it. I don’t know any German but it wasn’t difficult ordering it, especially since Amazon had most of my details already. However, a couple of days after I’d ordered it, I started receiving emails from about the order. I had no idea what they were about and figured that it was some kind of promotional thing of the sort Amazon UK sends me occasionally.

After a while I got curious, so I ran the email through the Babel Fish Translation Service and discovered that I hadn’t put in my credit card details properly. Problem solved, and now the DVDs are on their way.

So, a few things. First, I was able to buy a product from another country at a significant saving over buying it here. Second, I was able to use a translation service that, while not perfect, allowed me to get the gist of the email they sent me. This is pretty damn impressive, and the only reason why it doesn’t seem impressive is being we humans have this wonderful capacity of making the extraordinary seem ordinary after only a few repetitions.


Readers of will remember my ill-fated expedition into Mozilla Mail 1.3. There was only one reason behind the expedition – to get rid of the 50+ junk mails that I receive per day.

In itself, the junk mail is not that much of an annoyance compared to other things in life. However, it is something that should be easily fixed and given that there are things like Bayesian analysis and Spam Assassin out there, I was always irritated not only by having to delete the spam, but also about the fact that I couldn’t use these spam killing mechanisms.

Today, while checking up on some websites I run, I was delighted to find out that have finally implemented Spam Assassin on their mail servers. I immediately enabled it on and it has been pretty good at filtering the junk away. Not perfect, but better than nothing.

However, being the sort of person that I am, I have three active email addresses that all run on different servers. One of them, the university mail server, uses IMAP and has no provision for spam detection (I did read that they intend to install Spam Assassin in the near future though). The other one,, does not have Spam Assassin and I don’t see it being installed anytime soon.

Feeling in a bit of a combative mood, I went and downloaded SA Proxy. SA Proxy basically intercepts your POP mail before it reaches your local email client and runs Spam Assassin on it. Best of all, it runs on Windows. SA Proxy always struck me as being an inelegant solution, but I decided desperate times called for desperate measures.

Setting up SA Proxy was relatively straightforward although I am certain they could make the instructions clearer (alternatively, I could just read them slower). Time will tell whether running SA Proxy will make me feel happier; I suspect that it will need some tweaking before it performs optimally. I may also shift over to SA Proxy (turning the server-run SA off, obviously) for greater flexibility.

However, even if I still get a few pieces of spam coming in every day – and it’s certain that I will do, since my uni address is completely unfiltered – at least I will have the satisfaction of knowing that I am doing something about it.

Dark Side

A Note to Parents about our Magic Wands at Alivan’s Wand Makers – “…an Alivan’s wand is only meant to stimulate your child’s growing imagination. Our company does not, in any way, support the dark side of magic. In fact, we completely discourage it.” I love this kind of stuff.

MP blog

Tom Watson (Labour MP) may be under the scrutiny of the web for his patently joking Teens Page but I’m more impressed by the fact that he actually has a weblog. Not just that, but it’s regularly updated, written by himself, and runs Movable Type. Even better, it isn’t a constant litany of propaganda. How many elected officials can say the same?


The Best of Craigslist New York – for the non-American readers here, Craigslist is an online community consisting of (I believe) mainly tech-savvy people looking for jobs, chat and romance. Their ‘Best of’ list is always full of fun ads and messages. Quite apart from that, it’s always interesting trying to figure out all the New York idiosyncracies and terms; I’m currently trying to understand all this F-Train stuff – here are two representative and bizarre posts (one two).


MetaFilter has just become energised about a new project: MetaFilter Online Journalism (aka MoJo). You can see the origin of this idea in this thread. It is basically being put forward as some kind of website in which members of the public will be able to perform collaborative and investigative journalism, something which has been tried often, with varying degrees of unsuccessfulness.

My personal thoughts on the matter are that if MoJo can be designed well, it could really signal a change in how the media works. Of course, designing it well will be damned difficult. However, I’d give the MetaFilter crew (backed by Rusty of K5 fame) as good a chance as anyone else. Here’s a comment about parallels to software development and trust matrices I made in the thread. I also set up a FreeFilter site for discussion of MoJo.

‘Get a life’ redux

There’s been a bit of a ruckus on MetaFilter recently regarding a journalist, Laurie Garrett, who attended the World Economic Forum and sent an email to her friends filled with her personal thoughts an speculations about the conference. The email was of course not intended for publication, but this being the 21st century and what with the Internet and all, the email has spread far and wide.

At first, the MetaFilter denizens were a little bemused about the whole thing and doubtful about whether it really was written by Garrett. Once it was discovered that she did write it, there was some general discussion about the email contents and some comments about her apparent unprofessionalism as a journalist for passing on confidential information to her friends and then simply assuming that they wouldn’t pass it on (instead of, say, encrypting it, or at least putting some kind of disclaimer at the end).

Then it got interesting. Two days ago, Laurie Garrett emailed MetaFilter, castigating all the readers, clamiing that her privacy was being violated, bemoaning all the useless Internet geeks in the world and essentially telling us all to ‘get a life’.

That was more than enough to engage MetaFilter members, who were either infuriated and/or pleasantly amused at the rantings of a Pulitzer prize winning journalist who doesn’t understand how security works*, and seems to think that talking politics over dinner is necessarily better than talking politics over the Internet. Sigh. It’s a wonder that there are journalists who still ‘don’t get’ the Internet. The notion that everyone who participates on Internet forums are clones of the Simpsons Comic Book Guy is, well, completely illusory, infantile and destructive.

* Emails don’t just magically appear on the Internet (or specifically, the web). Someone has to post them there, and in this case, it was one of Garrett’s friends. There’s no rational reason to get annoyed with MetaFilter, but if she does want to be annoyed, it’d be better for her to identify the original culprit(s). But as I said earlier, the blame lies with her as well, for not taking appropriate precautions when passing on sensitive information, which is a pretty risky and unprofessional thing to do.


Collective – the BBC’s latest effort to create its own online community and yet more evidence of their web savvyness. As pointed out on Metafilter, it’s more accessible than h2g2, but to my eyes the front page looks far too busy for newcomers. What I’d like to know is how on Earth the BBC manages to keep what must be an army of web developers and community managers in check…


Dragon Space – a dedicated web portal for all China-related space news. Pretty nifty, and it has all the latest happenings with their Shenzhou craft, the fourth of which is expected to take off within the next few days.