Killing Spam

Spam is an absolute scourge. I don’t understand why people do it, but then I’ve never really understood why people spray graffiti on walls, or write viruses either. I guess some people just get a kick out of being a bloody nuisance.

Of course, spam is a little different in that there is money involved. Big money apparently. If you send enough emails out about methods to enlarge your p3nis or buy p0rn and viag4r4 or whatever else spam tends to focus on, there are apparently enough stupid and gullible people in the world that someone, somewhere can make a comfortable living off their stupidity. It still amazes me that people respond to these messages in any way whatsoever, but apparently they do. The best way to deal with spam is to completely ignore it – don’t read it, don’t respond to it, don’t acknowledge it… just totally ignore it.

For the first time ever I feel like I’m winning the battle against spam, so I thought I’d share how I’ve managed to arrive at this point.

Firtsly, my Australian ISP (Optusnet) provides spam filters at their mail servers, and I have these enabled. I get a monthly report emailed to me from my ISP, and I’ve always been surprised at just how much mail I get flitered. For the past year or so since I turned the filters on, approximately half of the roughly 3000 messages I get each month have been identified by Optusnet as spam. The percentage floats around the 50% mark, although I’ve seen it as high as 57% spam. Interestingly the most recent report said that only 37% of my mail was spam so perhaps things are improving, or maybe spammers take a break over Christmas?

So, what of the remaining 1500 or so messages that arrive at my mailbox? The Optusnet filters are a good start, but they are certainly not foolproof. I would estimate that about 60% of the remaining messages I receive are still spam. I tried creating some basic filtering rules within Entourage to catch the worst stuff, and it certainly helps, but things still get through.

I get a lot of mail from email lists and these are fairly safe messages so I filter these immediately into folders for later reading.

The remaining mail has filters applied that do things like identifying any messages that were sent to the Optusnet domain but do not start with my username. This kills off most of the mass mailout stuff. I have a few other tricky filters that try to avoid the most obvious spammy stuff, but I was still getting more junk coming into my Inbox than I really wanted.

Then I discovered an amazing little tool called Spam Sieve. Spam Sieve is for the Mac OSX platform and uses a complex mix of safelists, whitelists, blacklists, Bayesian classification and intelligent heuristic scoring analysis to make some incredibly subtle and refined decisions about what comprises a spam message. It looks at word counts within the corpus of my messages and decides statistically what a spam message looks like.

The really neat thing about Spam Sieve is that it learns to make decisions based on MY actual mail flow and at the moment it’s running at 97.4% accuracy in identifying spam. ISP filters can only do so much because they are making blanket decisions about spam messages according to some fairly general rules that suit all users, but Spam Sieve is able to make constantly updated decisions about spam that is actually arriving in my mailbox, giving a far more nuanced view of what a spam message looks like.

On the few occasions when it makes a wrong decision, a simple keystroke lets me teach Spam Sieve which messages were actually spam and the software learns from its mistake, relegating the messages to the spam folder where they belong. Just to make sure the creature is dead, I also set up a mail rule in Entourage that automatically empties the Junk Mail folder every 5 minutes. Begone foul spam!

It’s a $30 purchase but the best $30 I’ve ever spent. I deal with a lot of mail, and I haven’t seen a single spam message in weeks. The bottom line is that email has actually become pleasant to use again.

I’ll also say a nice word for Microsoft Entourage for the Mac which , apart from being a little slow under Rosetta, is probably the best mail client I’ve ever used. I can hardly wait for the Universal version!

There are probably similar solutions for Windows users. Maybe someone could leave a comment if you know of anything, or if you have any good spam coping strategies that you would like to share.

Shiny Object Syndrome

I admit it. I’m terrible at staying focused. Especially when you put me in front of a computer, I find it easy to get distracted by the million and one things that can distract a computer user… emails coming in constantly, IM messages bleeping at me every few minutes, RSS feeds constantly updating and all the other services that tend to bombard one with “stuff”. Sometimes, especially when I need to write, it would be good to just shut it all out for a while and resist the temptation to answer that email, respond to that IM or browse that RSS feed.

I suppose I COULD try to use a bit of self discipline and just ignore these things, but where’s the fun in that? I COULD turn off all that stuff and just shut it out, but it’s too tempting to need a distraction from what I should be doing… and that’s the problem in the first place.

So I thought this piece of software looked interesting… it’s called WriteRoom, and basically turns your fandangled, geewhiz, all-the-bell-and-whistles MacBook Pro into something about as distracting as an Apple IIe. Writeroom blanks your screen to fullscreen mode, and gives you plain green text on a black background. Your digital world is hidden behind the fullscreen mode and can be retrieved in a single keystroke, but all the distracting IMs and emails are shut out temporarily… sounds like a good idea to me. Windows users can use a similar tool called Dark Room.

I think it’s worth a look if you also suffer from Shiny Object Syndrome.

One Fast Mac

I bit the bullet and bought an extra Gb of RAM for my Macbook Pro yesterday, bringing it up to its maximum memory capacity of 2Gb. It’s a pretty fast laptop anyway, but I was finding that when I had a lot of big programs open, and particularly when I was running Windows using Parallels, it would occasionally have a bit of lag when switching between running apps. Not any more…

The extra gig makes a big difference to the way that non-Universal apps run. Apparently there is a fair bit of memory overhead required for Rosetta (Apple’s built-in emulation layer that enables applications written for the PowerPC chip to run on the new Intel-based Macs), and even with the Macbook Pro’s standard gigabyte of RAM it works the machine hard to run Rosetta apps such as Office and Photoshop.

For anyone using a new Macbook or Macbook Pro, I’d suggest seriously thinking about adding that extra gig. I’d say it’s definitely worth it, although you ought to shop around as the aftermarket memory from places like Crucial seem to be much cheaper than buying memory directly from Apple.

The UI Paradox

As a power user on the Windows platform and a quick learner on the Mac platform, there is something about the difference between the two that has always intriuged me. I’ve noticed it in many forms over the years, but I was reminded of it when I read this rather silly report on the TUAW site… I’m sure the fellow who wrote it had his tongue firmly in his cheek, but if you browse through the comments under the main article you’ll find a very interesting thread of discussion has emerged relating to the Mac’s little green zoom button. Seems the zoom button is not without its fair share of controversy and a rather passionate, yet civil, debate is raging there about the differences between the way windows (with a small ‘w’) behave on Windows (with a big ‘W’) versus the way they behave on the Mac.

The basic gist of the discussion is about the subtle difference between the user interfaces of both platforms and the author tries to draw an assertion that the UIs actually cause people to work in quite different ways, and he even goes so far as to suggest that the differences in UI design actually attract different personality types. Not too sure about that one…

But it has always intruiged me that PCs – the machines with the DOS heritage, the machines that started life with nothing more than a simple black-on-white command line interface – are these days operated by the vast majority of users almost exclusively with only a mouse. It’s interesting to contrast this with the Mac, a machine born of a GUI heritage. The Mac is the machine that revolutioned the world with a point-and-click interface. Yet, in my experience, Mac users are far more likely to be the ones who know all the fancy keyboard shortcuts for tasks. Ask any reasonably competent Mac user how to perform a task on their Mac and in a majority of cases they will answer you with a keyboard shortcut. I just think it’s interesting that the machine with the GUI heritage is the one that seems to spawn the user base with the greatest knowledge of keyboard shortcuts – some of which really are quite arcane. The average Windows user on the other hand, drives his or her PC almost exclusively with the mouse. Maybe it’s just that there really are so many average (and below) users on the PC platform that they just don’t bother to learn these shortcuts… I don’t know.

The other paradox, as was mentioned in the comment thread on the TUAW article, is that most Windows users operate in full screen mode nearly all of the time, whereas most Mac users are far more competent and skilled at managing multiple open applications – they have to be because of the Macs UI design – and therefore more skilled at actually using the whole windowing concept. (The commenters to the TUAW article look to blame this behaviour on the controversial zoom button.) I find it mildly amusing that the operating system actually named ‘Windows’ seems to have a far lower percentage of users that CAN actually deal with multiple open windows.

Does this actually say anything about the types of users each platform attracts? Are Mac users better multitaskers? Or is it more to do with the fact that Windows users have a larger user base, and therefore a larger percentage of clueless users? Or is the average Mac user generally more competent at finding their way around the operating system than the average Windows user? Do the navigational quirks of each operating system in fact encourage a totally different approach to learning and using them? Is the Zoom button a flawed idea or a great idea?

I don’t have any answers… I just find the paradox of it quite amusing.

Stark Contrast between OSes

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As I write this, I’m downloading updates for Windows in the background. Yes, you read that right. Windows. But wait, aren’t I a Mac guy?

Yes. Absolutely. But I also teach computing in a mainly Windows environment, and it still makes sense to be able to use those few apps that I need in a classroom situation in their native platform environment, and that means Windows. Although I personally prefer to use Mac versions of most applications, it gets too hard to teach a class about the Windows version of Word when they look up and see my Mac version on the data projector. (Despite the fact that everything is there in both versions, the Mac version has a slightly different IU and a few added features, so it doesn’t look identical.)

Anyway, I figured the simplest solution would be to just use the Windows apps for those few times when I need them. There is also a proprietary Markbook app that the school uses that is Windows only, and I would like to run that occasionally too.

As you may have read in a previous post, I was pretty blown away with CrossOver. And despite the fact that CrossOver worked well for Microsoft Office, it still didn’t support Access and Frontpage at all, nor the Markbook app.

So I decided to give Boot Camp a go. Boot Camp lets you dual boot an Intel Mac into Windows natively. No emulation or virtualisation involved, it just runs native on the Intel DualCore processor in the Mac, much as it would on a Dell, Toshiba or ThinkPad. There was really only a handful of apps I was interested in on Windows, mainly Office, so I pared off a 5Gb partition from my 100Gb hard drive and used the Boot Camp installation assistant to package up all the required drivers, etc, stuck the Windows XP disk in, and an hour or so later had a dual boot Mac that easily runs both OS X and Windows XP. Just hold the option key down at startup, choose your operating system, and off you go.

Anyway, it’s always interesting getting a Windows machine up and running. Despite the fact that I really only want a very minimal machine to use occasionally, I’ve just spent a good couple of hours setting it up. I had to install an antivirus program, and my computer is currently in the middle of downloading 59 – yes, 59 – updates for Windows. These are mostly security updates, critical updates, patches, malicious software removal tools, etc. I’d forgotten just how much effort has to go into simply maintaining a Windows box. Add to that the several dozen antivirus update files that AVG needed to pull down, installation of basic utilities like Acrobat Reader to allow me to read a simple PDF file, and I’ve just spent the last 2+ hours simply updating this machine so it’s safe enough just to go online. What a joke.

By contrast, when I got my Mac I just opened it up and started to use it. No driver issues, no AV issues, no missing utilities, and only a couple of updates – mostly version updates for iLife apps, not security updates. The updates were all done in a couple of minutes.  Back in Windows I’m experiencing the usual symptoms – “menu lag”, unacceptably long delays between clicks, excessive hard drive activity, hung applications, and a system that gives error messages at shutdown. This is a clean install for goodness sake!! That’s pathetic!

It’s installing those updates now, only 42 more to go. Seriously, I’m SO looking forward to rebooting and going back to an OS that Just Works.

Crossing Over

I’ve just been playing with a very cool piece of software for the Mac. Or is it a piece of software for Windows? Actually, it’s kind of both.

Crossover is based on the work of the WINE project – a curiously-named self-iterative anagram that stands for Wine Is Not an Emulator. WINE has long been used in the Linux community as a means of getting Windows programs to run under Linux. When I first looked at it several years ago it was still very raw and new and difficult to use. However, in the last few years, WINE (and in fact Linux too) has come a very long way. Linux development moves forward at an amazing pace and the last few distributions I looked at were very impressive indeed.

Back to Crossover. Although it’s still only in Public Beta, Crossover runs as an application on either the Mac or Linux platforms and it allows genuine Windows applications to be run natively on either of those OSes. Not emulated. Natively. That means you can take a Windows program and install it on the Mac (or Linux) and have it run as just another application under Mac OSX. It works by translating the API calls of the Windows app directly to the equivalent API calls in the Mac OS, effectively allowing the program to exist in the new OS environment. It’s an incredibly clever piece of software engineering that I think is greatly significant for those of use who don’t want to be restricted in our choice of operating system.

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The neat thing is that it truly does run the program under Mac OSX, so the speed of the programs is pretty much the same us it would be under Windows… it’s not an emulation like Parallels, and it doesn’t require a reboot like Boot Camp. It just runs the program in OSX as though it was in Windows. You can copy and paste between the two environments, and the Windows app has full access to the Mac’s file system. The application toolbar resides in the window, just as it would under Windows, while the Mac toolbar shows the Mac as running Crossover… very neat! The installation was very straight forward, and sports a long list of supported Windows apps, including several versions of Photoshop, several versions of Office, plus a bunch of others, including games. You can also try to run other Windows apps, but obviously they can’t test everything. I suppose that’s why it’s still a Public Beta.

It’s kind of weird seeing Windows apps running on my Mac. I don’t really have a need to do it, since there is a Mac program to do do pretty much everything I need to do. I suppose it would be good for software training, as you can effectively use one machine to run an application for whatever platform you need. Other than that, I’m not sure why I’d even want to run a Windows app on my Mac. Still, it’s pretty cool that it can be done, and opens up a whole range of options for those people who would really like to switch, except for that one Windows program that they just can’t live without…

We live in interesting times.