Posts from July 2002

Geektacular

OK, so I’ve been away for a while, as will be obvious to all three of my loyal readers. I’ve been visiting a lot with my friend L. from Detroit, and also celebrating my 21st birthday, which was yesterday (no alcohol was consumed, but I did have some very inordinately tasty bread pudding).

On Friday, I got to see a very fun, if spotty, production of Hamlet at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The costuming was all over the place–doublets, late Victorian costumes, Norwegian commandos with AK-47s. And, I hate to be catty here, but the actor playing Laertes seemed like a terrible ham until I just realized that he has the misfortunate of this really weird, nasal voice that is really distracting. Max, who we saw at intermission, also pointed out that he disliked the direction of Polonius, who was being played completely buffo, without any of his underlying menace. All true. On the other hand, many of the actors were quite good — in particular, Hamlet (whiich is the important thing, of course), Horatio, Claudius, and Polonius (goofiness aside). And as always, the Shakespeare Festival is just a lovely place to go out for a night and see a play. Even if it were god-awful, I would have enjoyed the drive and sitting outside by the fountain. Yesterday we celebrated my birthday by going to see the fabulous film version of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Capri theatre and having dinner at the Warehouse Bistro in Opelika. And today, we are going to Cold Stone Creamery with Max to hang out and get some very tasty ice cream. All of this, I have to say, has been a lot more entertaining than, say, schlepping down to Bodega’s and giving myself alcohol poisoning with 21 shots.

Anyway, to come to the point of all of this reportage, another nice feature of my birthday weekend was that my mother returned home from Dallas bearing several cheaply-acquired computer goods (Office XP Professional for $60 — having relatives who work for M$ is very nice). So, for the next few days I’ll be working on hot-rodding my computer a bit. New wireless mouse and keyboard are already installed; I’ll be upgrading to Winders XP soon, and I’m going to go out shopping with some of my birthday money to pick up new gadgets to slap on to the system. It should be a pretty geektacular couple of days, so if I’m not around posting for a little while, that’s where I’ll be.

SGC’02 rocks the South from Athens, Georgia

As I mentioned, I spent the past weekend attenting the fourth annual Southern Girls Convention in Athens, Georgia. About 250-300 people showed up from all over the South. I had the opportunity to attend a few really good workshops, had a really good time with friends, heard Elaine Brown and Constance Curry give great talks, saw some excellent shows, and most of all, had the invigorating experience of getting touch with hundreds of people and organizations doing social justice organizing in the South.

photo: Natasha Murphy

SGC’02 organizer Natasha Murphy, super-rad and looking a bit like Che in this photo

Before I go on, let me just say: thank you so much to Natasha, Merritt, Julie, Theo, and everyone else who drove themselves so hard to make sure that everything was set to go in Athens. Thanks also to all the wonderful women and pro-women organizers who made it all happen by organizing workshops and participating in the convention. As y’all may know, I helped organize last year’s Southern Girls Convention in Auburn. It’s been really invigorating to see the convention going on—not to mention having a chance to actually participate rather than just driving myself sleepless and staffing the registration desk!

Why am I getting so effusive? Well, simply the fact that several hundred rad people could come together and put on a pretty unapologetically anarchist / radical feminist political convention in the heart of the Deep South (Alabama and then Georgia) is inspiring and a bit humbling—and the fact that we’ve done it for four years now, going on five, is invigorating. The event has risen to the level of even getting coverage in the New York Times (!). The Times story presents a pretty positive image of the convention, but like most major media presentation, it leaves out a lot of important things about what the convention’s all about politically, and how it runs. But you have to understand all that to understand why SGC is as important and inspiring as it is. The convention is a totally grassroots, bottom-up meeting which is completely organized by local kids and run by the participants rather than any kind of self-appointed professional organizers. Workshops are based around the idea that we don’t need to import experts to tell us how to organize (from the North or from privileged sectors in our own community)—we can share our own knowledge and learn from each other. And the convention’s politics are unapologetically radical feminist, generally socialist and/or anarchist, pro-LGBT, and supportive of many other struggles for social justice. It’s not about being Scarlet O’Hara with an attitude (and let’s not even get started on the racism of that ideal…). Rather, as the Times article gets to at one point, it’s about Southern women and pro-woman activists raising hell and working to make our own communities in the South places that we want to live. And I feel really confident that we are beginning to see that happen.

What does this mean, in concrete terms, on the ground?

It means that we are working on having hard discussions about what we can do to improve our communities and our organizing efforts — such as how we can build activist communities that are more open, loving, and supportive even when we are facing emotional stress and crisis; what sort of processes we need to help prevent and respond to sexual assault in our communities; and how boys can become good allies in the work for women’s liberation. Here we got a lot of good starts but also need a lot more work. For next year, we are talking about new formats for workshops that will give people a lot more space for in-depth and focused strategizing on concrete solution—while still offering time for introductory discussion about the issue and the principles from which we want to approach it.

It also means we are doing on-the-ground organizing to roll back the power of the small Right-wing elite that has rigged the game for so long in the South through measures that directly challenge, or simply sidestep, their power plays. A perfect example is the movement to set up abortion funds to ensure low-income women’s access to reproductive choice in spite of the government’s refusal to cover this vital medical procedure under Medicaid.

It also means chances to share our skills in how-tos, whether on good vegan nutrition, political lobbying, bicycle repair, or taking control of your own body and healthcare.

And it means networking and enjoying a community with people doing work all over the South. When Southern activists are primarily used to feelings of isolation and hopelessness, the value of just seeing how many other people are working for change can’t be overstated.

Organizers have discussed all kinds of plans for how we can improve and expand the work we are doing through SGC. The always-rad Ailecia Ruscin is working on a networking project to keep Southern organizers more closely in touch with one another from day to day (if you’re interested in this project, get in touch with me and I’ll let you know more). We’re talking about organizing smaller state-level meetings to accompany the big annual meeting, allow for more discussions and much more on-the-ground organizing meetings. And new organizers are planning on putting on the next SGC in Asheville, North Carolina. Everyone is really excited about making the fifth SGC even bigger and better than before, and continuing to make SGC a transformative presence in the South for many years to come.

Women’s liberation and the rest of the struggle for social justice are not just alive and kicking in the South; the movement is on the rise and can no longer be ignored.

For further reading:

The Solution to Spam Pollution

A few things have recently come together for me. First, Andrew Leonard recently penned an interesting column on spam-blocking technology for Salon; then Jennifer Lee wrote another interesting article for The New York Times. Finally, I made use of a brief free trial of McAfee’s SpamKiller software. I’ve also just been doing a lot of thinking lately about what needs to be done to seriously address the rising tide of spam that is flooding most everyone’s inbox. Spam e-mail has been getting worse over the past several years, and it’s been getting worse at an accelerating pace. If we don’t want Internet communications to become simply worthless from being drowned by spam e-mail, then we have to rethink our basic model for e-mail so that spammers can no longer take advantage of the system’s architecture to overwhelm legitimate messages with their crap. Lee’s article shows a good grasp of the problem and why anti-spam legislation won’t do much to solve it. Leonard’s has a good grasp on the overall technological shift needed to address the problem, but he doesn’t push the envelope nearly enough in the kind of framework that needs to be accomplished.

Leonard’s article describes the development of SpamAssasin, an open source spam blocker being adopted and improved by many system administrators. Leonard points out that the collaborative effort between legions of dedicated spam-fighters can greatly improve the ability of the software to identify spam messages. As Leonard puts it, The only way to stem the flood of unwanted e-mail may be to harness a million eyeballs and an army of open-source hackers. There’s an intuitive reason why this should be the case. Obviously, by harnessing the efforts of thousands of administrators who ferociously hate spam, it will get a big boost in productive energy. But that’s not all.

The basic problem is this: under the present e-mail architecture, the spam market works. It works phenomenally well, and especially well for the seedier side of online industries, in particular pornography and sex-related products, which can’t advertise through conventional media (other than other porn outlets) and don’t have any financial interest in maintaining a reputation as a friendly corporate citizen. The reasons are inherent features of the e-mail architecture:

  • It costs nearly nothing to send spam: once you have an Internet connection set up (which you’ll need for your product’s website, anyway), it costs virtually nothing to send out scads and scads of spam e-mail. Labor costs can be reduced to nill by feeding addresses from a web crawler into an automated spamming program. This is a fundamental reversal from direct mail and telemarketing, where a fixed cost for contacting a person is borne by the advertiser.

  • Lots of people see it: If you send out a spam message to a huge group of people, then most of the people you send it to will see it. In part, this is because e-mail is a durable medium, like direct mail or fax, and unlike the telephone, so if you send a message while the user is away, they still get it. It’s also due to the relatively primitive state of message sorting and spam filtering–users have very little control over the order and priority with which messages appear in their inboxes, so to get to the mesages they want, they generally have to wade through, or at least scan over, any spam that they get.

  • It’s hard to track offenders. Many comparisons have been drawn between spam e-mail and the junk faxes whose rising costs spurred a federal law against them in 1991. The two are alike in that advertisers get a basically free contact, while victims are stuck with the primary costs (in paper, bandwidth, time, what have you) of the interactions. However, there is a crucial difference: junk faxes can easily be tracked to their perpetrator through phone company records. Offenders can be blocked and identified for legal action. Spam e-mails, on the other hand, are generally very difficult to track to their originators. Headers can easily be forged, server relays can be found to use, one-time-only addresses created with free services, work can be farmed out to mule computer users, who are paid a small amount to send out a huge volume of messages, and then take the fall if they get caught. The anonymity of e-mail and its reliance on the honor system for identifying senders makes spam very difficult to flag and filter.

When we look at all these factors, we begin to see that we need a comprehensive solution which will work to address these structural holes. We cannot rely on anti-spam legislation, since spammers will merely relocate to different states or different countries, and use the anonymity of the communication to further shield themselves. Spam is only going to get worse until we have mass deployment of an easy-to-learn, easy-to-use, agile framework which harnesses both human intelligence and high-quality, flexible technological solutions to make legitimate email easier to access and identifies and deals with spam.

Unfortunately, most anti-spam solutions fail, because they are focused narrow-mindedly on a single goal–the goal of accumulating as many heuristic rules as possible to identify and kill spam (this is reflected in the names–McAfee’s SpamKiller, SpamAssasin, and so on. The most common and most maddening manifestation of this is scorched-earth spam programs such as SpamKiller, which works entirely by accumulating thousands and thousands of rules to try to identify common patterns in the way that spam messages are written or addressed. These do indeed catch a lot of spam, but they also slam perfectly legitimate e-mail. For example, my decision to uninstall SpamKiller was finalized when I saw it was trashing legitimate e-mails because a filter (one of thousands, which took lots of scrolling to find) was killing messages because they contained the word rape. Now, look, folks, I’m pretty much physically nauseated by some of the spam ads I’ve received for rape-fetish pornography sites. But I’m an anti-rape activist, and I receive tons of perfectly legitimate e-mail with the word rape in it. SpamKiller’s approach to spam is like trying to kill a swarm of mosquitoes with a cluster bomb, and plenty of perfectly innocent messages were getting clobbered.

The problem here is that most people who work on spam-blocking software and most of those who purchase it are basically in the frame of mind of trying to get rid of a source of long-term and maddening irritation. Programs tend to be reactively focused on axing spam by any means necessary, rather than proactively focused on improving the e-mail user’s experience. But if we keep our mind on what users need and want, rather than what gives us the temporary satisfaction of the kill, then we should begin to see a bit more clearly what needs to be done.

To reduce the effectiveness of spam, first spam management software needs to be widespread, usable, and respectful of user’s legitimate e-mail. With millions of users employing software that lets them take control of their own inboxes, users will be able to stay on top of their legitimate e-mail and sidestep the spam. Information for identifying spam should come from automated reports that millions of users submit: when a spam slips through, the recipient presses one button in the mail client and it is registered as a spam message so that no-one else receives it (SpamAssassin uses Vipul’s Razor, a system which does just this, but it needs to be integrated into easy to use clients, not just arcane Unix mail filters).

Second, we need to plug the anonymity hole through use of double-key authentication and encryption of e-mail. E-mail clients could prioritize messages which can be verified as coming from a valid address, and also messages which are encrypted for the recipient’s eyes only. Spammers who want their messages seen would have to separately acquire a public key for, and encrypt the message for every intended recipient. For millions of e-mail addresses, that’s an awful lot of extra processor time, network bandwidth, and human labor that the spammer has to pay for. Furthermore, the spammer’s PGP signature or signatures can be blacklisted as quickly as the spams start going out.

Finally, system administrators at big ISPs need to get responsible. One of the biggest conduits for spam open relays, poorly configured mail servers which allow anyone on the Internet to send e-mail through the server by forging headers to pose as a machine on the server’s network. System administrators need to get serious about ensuring that connections are only accepted from authenticated users or legitimate machines on the ISP’s own subnet. And when spam is being sent by a user, they need to be quick about axing that user’s account.

What you can do now:

You can do some things now, both short-term and long-term, to keep yourself from being overwhelmed and work towards an Internet not being drowned in spam.

  • Use shield accounts for online commerce. A lot of high-end spamhouses harvest addresses by buying them from merchants such as Amazon.com. For online interactions which won’t be anything other than perfunctory receipts, it’s good to maintain a shield account (say, diespammersdie@hotmail.com or somesuch) as the address through which you interact with online stores.

  • Download and use PGP. You can get PGP — a great security program which will let you securely sign messages (so that the recipient can verify your identity) and/or encrypt messages (so that only the recipient can read them). The Windows version of PGP automates the process of creating and using PGP keys, and has plugins for popular Windows e-mail clients which let you use simple pushbuttons for its functions. PGP will make your e-mail more secure, and also help build an Internet environment where spammers can no longer hide behind forged headers to conceal their identities.

  • Look for solid anti-spam software that suits you. If you can find spam management software which suits your needs, grab it! If you’re willing to geek around a lot, SpamAssasin looks very good. Better yet, Deersoft is in the process of developing SpamAssassin Pro, a commercial product for Windows based on the SpamAssassin engine and integrated with your mail client. Unfortunately, most spam management software I’ve tried (e.g., SpamKiller) is crap.

  • More tips: Jennifer Lee’s article is accompanied by some tips for avoiding spam, some of which I agree with, and others of which I don’t. Unfortunately, the present spam-heavy environment is encouraging a lot of people to take up measures which cut down spam at the expense of breaking human usability of the e-mail system. Lee suggests using complex e-mail addresses, which do thwart spammers who use dictionary searches on mail services, but which also makes it hard for your friends to remember your e-mail address. She also suggests removing your e-mail from any online directories in which it may be included, which will again thwart spammers but also keep people from being able to reach you. I totally disagree with this method of spam filtering. Again, it amounts to protecting your inbox at the cost of shredding real people’s ability to contact you. Nevertheless, some of her suggestions (such as disposable forwarding accounts for use on Usenet and bulletin boards) are solid.

I mean, seriously…

A question has been rolling around in my mind for the past day or so. Why in the hell does anyone take Ann Coulter seriously? For a while I had hoped that Rightists generally recognized that she is absolutely bonkers, but kept her around for the PR purpose of having a token female to point to when criticized for their overwhelmingly rich, white, and male (Ann Coulter is only two of the three) cadre of talking heads. However, I have seen one too many online comment raving to preach on after her sociopathic gibberish and I simply must accept that some people other than Ann Coulter actually believe this shit.

Perhaps I should not be too surprised; after all, Ann’s writings are currently carried by FrontPage Magazine, the house organ of the equally insane David Horowitz. But still…

A couple of months ago, National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen managed to make it into the runoff for France’s Presidential race before he was crushed by a popular front vote for the incumbent President Jacques Chirac. 19.5% voted for Chirac and 17.5% for Le Pen in the first round; in the runoff, Le Pen received the same 17.5% and the 2/3 of voters who had voted for neither all swung behind Chirac. Despite Le Pen’s crushing defeat and the failure of the National Front to gain any parliamentary seats in the June elections, the fact that Le Pen pulled such a large minority of French voters to his side troubled many Leftists.

Three days before his imminent defeat, Ms. Coulter set out on a quixotic mission to defend his candidacy and ruminate on why the cabal of liberals was directing such blind rage against him. However, somehow, in the process of her delirious, racist ravings (In addition to mutilating girls and burning synagogues, another popular Muslim pastime in France is to steal cars, set them on fire and push them off cliffs), she somehow neglected to mention–either because she doesn’t know or doesn’t care–the fact that Jean-Marie Le Pen is an unreconstructed fascist, who founded his National Front party with Vichy collaborators. In her musings on the murky issue of why Le Pen is described as an anti-Semite, his notorious description of the Holocaust as a mere detail in the history of World War II also slips her mind.

But enough on past foibles. Her most recent column, entitled Liberalism and Terrorism, was brought to my attention by Tom Tomorrow, who noted that Coulter attacked him for not being a real American… because of his satirical cartoon against Right-wing rhetoric that dissenters are not real Americans (Irony’s obituary will be featured in today’s New York Times).

Not that that is all that is ludicrous about her column, of course:

  • No matter what defeatist tack liberals take, real Americans are behind our troops 100 percent, behind John Ashcroft 100 percent, behind locking up suspected terrorists 100 percent, behind surveillance of Arabs 100 percent. (Apparently Arab-Americans who object to being singled out for legal harassment and intimidation aren’t real Americans; neither is anyone who is the least bit queasy about mounting assaults on basic Constitutional guarantees. Anyone who fights for the full protection of constitutional due process against arbitrary seizure of power and tyranny by the Executive, is clearly a terrorist-lover who hates our freedom.)

  • These people simply do not have an implacable desire to kill those who cheered the slaughter of thousands of American citizens. (Let us simply meditate in silence on Ann Coulter’s apparent endorsement of having an implacable desire to murder people on the basis of cheering an evil event–that is to say, slaughtering people for having bad thoughts.)

Coulter goes on to cite George Orwell in an attempt to support massive centralization of power in the hands of the Executive branch, disregard for civil liberties, perpetual war against vaguely-defined enemies, and extensive State surveillance.

I mean, seriously.