paulmurray.net
Paul Murray's weblog, with news you may have missed and my $0.02 worth on a number of topics.

"You can't make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you're doing is recording it."
- Art Buchwald

I bet you don't have a friend who's an acupuncturist

E-mail me: pmurray [at] despammed.com

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Tuesday, December 30, 2003
A minor spam mystery solved.
My brother and I have been puzzled by the sudden drop in spam at our Hotmail accounts -- to virtually none. I'm not talking about a sudden improvement in the spam filters; even the Junk Mail folder has been relatively empty.

I've been thinking that Microsoft's lawsuits against spammers may have frightened them off. Talk about a plaintiff with plenty of money to pursue its case!

And then late last night I found this NY Times article about Alan Ralsky, one of the world's most notorious spammers (and who lives maybe 20 miles from me):
Alan Ralsky, according to experts in the field, has long been one of the most prolific senders of junk e-mail messages in the world. But he has not sent a single message over the Internet in the last few weeks.

He stopped sending e-mail offers for everything from debt repayment schemes to time-share vacations even before President Bush, on Dec. 16, signed the new Can Spam Act, a law meant to crack down on marketers like Mr. Ralsky.

He plans to resume in January, he said, after he overcomes some computer problems, and only after he changes his practices to include in his messages a return address and other information required by the law, the title of which stands for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing.

Mystery solved!

Regardless of what Ralsky says for public consumption ("Of course I'm worried about it," he said after the law was signed. "You would have to be stupid to try to violate this law."), I don't think the law will accomplish much. Neither do antispam organizations.

It's amazing to me how Ralsky and other spammers see themselves as victims. The big guys are out to screw them. They wouldn't resort to their dirty tactics if they weren't forced to by others. And so on. A few examples from the NYT article (emphasis added):
"E-mail is not working any more," said Brendan Battles, a longtime marketer who has sold CD-ROM's containing long lists of e-mail addresses. "More people are mailing and you get less and less response." Mr. Battles says he has virtually given up the business.

"E-mail marketing is a good thing," Mr. Battles said. "I create jobs. But the media has made e-mail out to be some sort of terrorist plot."

[snip]

"The law was not written for a commercial e-mailer," [Ralsky] said. "I don't think what they are doing is fair." He suggested that the law was largely a plot by the big companies that connect homes and businesses to the Internet to keep all the profits from online marketing for themselves.

[snip]

Mr. Ralsky then redoubled his efforts to use fake names and other techniques so his e-mail could not be easily traced.

"I have changed the way we mail totally," he said. The spam fighters, he added, "have no idea what I'm mailing. They could never pinpoint it and say this is from Al Ralsky."

Mr. Ralsky said that he was uncomfortable about this deception, but that he had no choice. "Is putting bogus information in your registrations the right way to do business?" he asked. "No. But the Internet world has forced me to do that."

[snip]

Mr. Ralsky also acknowledged that he had used "open proxies"- computers with improperly configured software that allow spammers to relay messages without the knowledge of the computer owner.

"I personally hate mailing with proxies," he said. "It's rough. But you do what you got to do."

So let's all shed a tear for those misunderstood capitalist little guys who fill up our mailboxes and make us pay for the privilege.



Monday, December 29, 2003
More astroturfing.
Josh Marshall points out that newspapers continue to print form letters submitted by readers, as a simple Google search demonstrates. This one originates at the Bush re-election web site.



Thursday, December 18, 2003
The Wright stuff.
Nice to see that the tradition of "hacking" (challenging and amusing pranks) is alive and well at MIT for the 100th anniversary of flight. (via slashdot)



Visit the Empire State Building.
Columnist Sydney Harris liked to write columns with things he learned while looking up something else; this fits into that category.

I followed a link to a piece of software that turns a folder of your images into html pages ready to upload to a webserver. Why, I'm not sure, since Photoshop Elements 2.0 already does this for me (example), but I did. The software is called snapGallery, and it's free. The creator links to galleries that others have made with the software ... and one entry labeled "Virtual Empire State Building" caught my eye. Don't expect any virtual reality or anything high-tech, but there are some neat photos. What a beautiful building. I'm a sucker for art deco.



No pleasing some people.
A few years ago (1995?) the Smithsonian Institution had a display on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was an uproar because it seemed to come down squarely on the "this was unnecessary and wrong" side of the debate.

Fast forward to this week, when their National Air and Space Museum opened its new facility at Dulles Airport, which is large enough to display the entire restored B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. The curators sought to avoid controversy by staying away from a discussion of what happened. Essentially they're saying, "Here's the plane that did something historic," and leaving it at that. (Here's their official statement.)

This makes sense to me. It's an ongoing debate and you'll never please both sides, so who can blame them? Well, it turns out that some people can.



Yes, the National Weather Service has a sense of humor.
Check out this test message today from their Missouri office. (via TVBarn)



The greatest football player I never heard of.
That would be the late Otto Graham, a Hall of Fame quarterback for the Cleveland Browns.



I got mine, you're on your own.
More fuel for the fire over trucks vs. cars:
Michelle White, an economist at the University of California, San Diego, estimates that for each fatality that light-truck drivers avoid for themselves and their passengers, they cause four fatalities involving car occupants, pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists. "Safety gains for those driving light trucks," Ms. White said, "come at an extremely high cost to others."



Thursday, December 11, 2003
Next study: the effectiveness of beer goggles.
I suspect this should go in the "Well, duh!" file:
Psychologists in Canada have finally proved what women have long suspected - men really are irrational enough to risk entire kingdoms to catch sight of a beautiful face.

[snip]

Male students, when shown pictures of pretty women, were more likely to opt for short-term economic gain than wait for a better reward in the future.



Monday, December 08, 2003
"I'm a lot more worried about my money than I was before this."
More Wall Street scandals? Nope. That's the reaction of a security consultant to the news that ATMs running Windows were infected by a virus last August. The computer "monoculture" of Windows running on everything -- thank you so much, Microsoft -- makes it easier for viruses to spread.
"It's a harbinger of things to come," said Bruce Schneier, chief technical officer of network monitoring firm Counterpane Internet Security.

"Specific purpose machines, like microwave ovens and until now ATM machines, never got viruses," said Schneier, author of "Beyond Fear." "Now that they are using a general purpose operating system, Diebold should expect a lot more of this in the future."

John Pescatore, an analyst at Gartner, agreed.

"It's a horrendous security mistake," he said, of specific-purpose machines like ATMs running Windows, written for general purpose computers and for which Microsoft Corp. releases security fixes on a regular basis. "I'm a lot more worried about my money than I was before this."

Diebold switched from using IBM's OS/2 on its ATMs because banks were requesting Windows, said Steve Grzymkowski, senior product marketing manager at Diebold.

"They have been asking us to ship ATMs with Windows because of the graphics capabilities. They want a common look between the ATMs and Web banking sites," he said. "Another advantage is they are familiar with Windows."



Sunday, December 07, 2003
Musical genius.
I can't let this appreciation of Carl Stalling's scores for Warner Bros. cartoons pass unmentioned.

If you've never stopped to think about the music in these cartoons, take a few moments to read this.

It's nice that he mentions the new DVD set -- which I own, but have barely watched, believe it or not -- but he should have also mentioned the two CDs that have been out for several years: The Carl Stalling Collection, Volumes 1 and 2.



Friday, December 05, 2003
Would you believe version 3.0?
The Washington Post's Dana Milbank provides the latest White House version of Air Force One's purported encounter with another airplane during Bush's trip to Baghdad. (via Romanesko)



Thursday, December 04, 2003
Origins of Photoshop revealed.
From an article in the Financial Times:
It was developed by two brothers, Thomas and John Knoll, the former an expert programmer, the latter the executive in charge of special effects for the first Star Wars film.

"Photoshop is here today because of that movie," says Mr Brown. "John needed software tools to convert images for special effects and Tom would write the program. Then John would say 'I wish I could paint on the image', so Tom provided painting tools." Thomas Knoll is still contributing to the development of Photoshop today.
(via BoingBoing)



Wednesday, December 03, 2003
Pardon my cynicism, but ...
Any time a billionaire says that his lawsuit is not about money ... it's about money.



The 800-pound gorilla strikes again.
Just a few days ago I speculated to my brother that, having squeezed its other suppliers, Wal-Mart would start twisting arms at Visa and MasterCard. He agreed.

I turn on the news during my morning commute today and voila!
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will stop accepting signature debit cards issued by MasterCard starting in February, the first major retailer to take such action since a lawsuit settlement freed merchants to pick which credit and debit card services they use.

Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, said Wednesday that MasterCard's fees for the signature debit cards are too high. It will continue to accept Visa's signature debit cards.

A few more calls like this and maybe I can hang out a shingle as a pundit.

Now here's the tough question: who do you root for in this one? The behemoth retailer or greedy bank associations?




Tuesday, December 02, 2003
And speaking of major league...
WASHINGTON - Ralph Nader (news - web sites) has not yet decided whether to make another run for the White House, but he's authorized a new exploratory committee to raise money for a potential bid.

While the site wasn't completely up, Josh Marshall found the FAQ page and ridiculed it (along with the whole idea of a Nader candidacy). It's been removed, but someone cached it.



Major league.
The best way I can describe the guy suing to have "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance is a short phrase used by George Bush to describe a New York Times reporter. You know, the one that begins with "major league."




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