A technology blog for The Economist Group IT team

Thursday, May 29, 2003

Ineresting moves in the quest to defeat spam 

Microsoft has announced that it will be offering image filtering capabilities for both MSN and Hotmail web-based e-mail services. All images will be filtered out of messages from e-mail addresses that are not listed in the recipient's contact list. Microsoft say that it has implemented this feature for to protect their subscribers from having to view pornographic or other offensive content and to prevent spammers from authenticating the validity of e-mail addresses by embedding web beacons.

EarthLink are in the process of two anti-spam tools: Spaminator, which works with EarthLink's inbound e-mail servers, and SpamBlocker, a "challenge-response" tool that is optional and free to EarthLink subscribers.

Spaminator works in conjunction with inbound mail servers. It analyzes characteristics of inbound e-mail (from a particular source) such as volume, bounce-backs and content, and takes a digital fingerprint of the e-mail message. If the analysis indicates that a message is spam because of content, volume or other characteristic, a notification is sent to all mail servers that are part of their network to block incoming messages that match the fingerprint. Subscribers have the option to turn this technology off; at this point the adoption rate is approximately 90% with EarthLink subscribers.

EarthLink will also begin offering SpamBlocker as an optional and free feature of their email subscription service in late June or early July. The system automatically responds to every piece of email that is not on an approved list. The auto-responder asks senders to verify themselves by following steps that cannot be automated (i.e., "look at this picture and tell me how many cats you see"). This is another example of the use of a CAPTCHA. Economist.com is in in the process of introducing something similar to distinguish between crawlers and real people (so that bad crawlers can be blocked, but people can continue browsing). Yahoo! and Hotmail already use CAPTCHAs to stop mass creation of e-mail accounts. There is a downside to this, though, as reported by the BBC; visually impaired readers cannot get past a CAPTCHA.

Of course, the big daddy of them all, AOL, do this too and the AOL 8 e-mail client has a button to instantly report a message as spam.

I wonder how long it will be before a system of first class e-mail becomes standard. In addition to the systems being deployed by the likes of EarthLink and Microsoft, simple filter rules on an e-mail client do the same kind of thing. I have a rule set up which sends e-mail from external senders to a folder (which I've called "Priority 2"; maybe I should rename it "Second Delivery" or something). I can check this when I need to and it's much easier to delete spam as it's not as interspersed with genuine messages. For GroupWise users, the body of the rule says: [From contains '<*@*>' and From does not contain 'cohen' and From does not contain 'seery' and From does not contain 'cfo']; I'll leave you to work out why I added additional constraints.

To be able to deal with spam properly, however, it has to be done at the ISP level, before it gets to an individual. To further this aim, I think that ISPs will increasingly need to demonstrate to corporates their capabilities in dealing with spam. Their use of something like Spaminator is a start.

It's also worth looking to tomorrow's technology for solutions. Instant messengers (IMs) give me the ability to ignore certain "friends". The adoption of "closed" IM networks, provided by the likes of Reuters, gives an insight into where this technology is going. Fortune reports that Gartner reckon that by 2006 more people will be using IM than e-mail as their primary communication tool at work. Scary.

Look out for this story in tomorrow's Economist (it should be readable by 18:00 UK time today) about linking ads with relevant content (see the ad at the top of this page and see if it's relevant to anything written here - it's usually for Olympus cameras; I mentioned one in my first entry). This blog is hosted by Pyra Labs, who were purchased by Google earlier this year. CFO.com do this in reverse - some advertisers don't want to appear alongside articles containing certain content (think Enron and audit firms).


We have pretty senior contacts within DoubleClick (which is where some of the info came from). They have a very strong interest in stopping spam and have high level meetings with the ISPs. Challenge-Response responses will be sent to the client (i.e. us, the publisher) via DARTmail).

However, I suspect that we may have to say that the subscriber (to the e-mail) needs to verify their address will accept e-mail from us (or our agents) as part of our ts & cs.
Mike Seery 05-29-2003 12:31 PM ET (US)

The Info Mike posted about anti-spam tactics impacts us on two fronts.

1. As legitimate email marketers we need to update our systems to remain compliant. This might mean adding a review process to replies from our newsletters… and also changing our subscription process so that we get added to the subscribers “white list”

2. As email users we should identify the anti-spam mechanism that we are going to use and deploy it to the Economist Group. And also participate in public discussions to encourage other businesses and influential users to quickly converge on a standard.Do we have any self-anointed experts in the area of “anti-spam mechanisms”? I’d like to learn more about what our options are and the direction that influential industry leaders are advocating.
Rob Cohen 05-29-2003 09:09 AM ET (US)

Friday, May 23, 2003

30th birthday of Ethernet 

The 30th birthday of Ethernet (capital E because the name is in fact a trade mark of Xerox) has been covered in a variety of media recently (not just the tech media, either - the FT and The Economist had articles about it). I suspect that the reason that these publications covered it this time round rather than five years ago (to my knowledge) is that in January 2002, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center became Palo Alto Research Center Incorporated and Xerox was therefore better able to make money from it's innovations. Better late than never. It's worth remembering that Bob Metcalfe (who was the guy from Xerox who went on to found 3Com to sell Ethernet adapters) outlined the idea of Ethernet in a patent after Xerox had developed the first laser printer and Smalltalk (the first object-oriented programming language with an integrated user interface, overlapping windows, integrated documents, and cut & paste editor). Both these, too, were ahead of their time.

I'm one of those that managed a Token Ring (IBM) and Ethernet network in the 1980s and I have to say that at the time (well Token Ring didn't really develop too far) there wasn't very much to distinguish the two from a practical point of view. The difference was that Ethernet became an open standard (pretty much like Linux, but wait a minute, SCO are suing IBM) whereas Token Ring remained proprietry (like, well, where do I start?....Windows, Solaris,...). Token Ring always seemed to me to be very sound technically - whoever has the token can talk (now that's a way to run a meeting!) - but Big Blue kept it proprietry (like a lot of things then). I'm not sure that there's a moral to this story - IBM seem to have learned the lesson, but Microsoft are doing very well, thank-you, ignoring it. A good outline of how Ethernet works is on howstuffworks.com.

I'm delaying my choice of PDA/phone - there's still too much of a gap between phone ease of use and PDA functionality. The Palm Tungsten W is nearly there, but when I dug a little deeper it seemed strange that the device has basically old innards (compare the specs of it and the Tungsten C). A while ago it had seemed that this convergance of technology would arrive soon (both are handheld and essentially consumer devices), but we're still not there. What chance, then, for Microsoft who have embarked upon a far more difficult track with their aim to have us all run our TVs and Hi-Fis from a Windows machine?

To us techies this is not as alien as to consumer (I know of a colleague who has rigged up something similar already), but I think it's a long way off. The problem is that consumer electronics need to be easy to operate (you can do pretty much all you need on a TV with five buttons - on/off volume up & down channel up & down). Using a machine that needs to boot up in the first place doen't seem the right way to go.

However, some consumer technology that's becoming available in the UK now is a fantastic example of ease of use made possible by forward thinking infrastructure and nifty consumer electronics. We've always had pretty crap radio reception in our kitchen and since the aerial broke, FM is pretty impossible to get, even using makeshift replacement aerials. We decided to get a CD player/radio combo as a replacement and when I was browsing I saw the new-ish, cheap (still £99) Digital Radio (no, not one with a digital display) made by Pure. This got me thinking (our kitchen is downstairs and even with a working aerial reception's not that good), but I really wanted one with a CD player. Then I saw the GPS280 made by Goodmans. Yes, it's a bit platsicky and a bit big, but on the basis that I could bring it back within 14 days and get a refund, I decided to give it a go. Now here's the good bit: you plug it in, press a "Setup" button, wait a few seconds for it to build a station list and there you have it! Press "Up" to go to the next station (alphabetically) and "Select" to listen. Press one button on a small remote control to set the one you're listening to as a pre-set. The sound quality (even compared to FM) is fantastic (even on the slightly tinny Goodmans) with no hint of a crackle or hiss. The LCD display shows the station name and has a scrolling space for information provided by the station. xfm sensibly show the name and artist of the track playing, while Radio 4 (while Today is on) shows the e-mail address for the programme. I'm a fan; go out and buy one (the Goodmans is £129 in Dixons).

I expect that those of you who have seen The Matrix Offloaded after reading last Monday's entry will be wondering why Trinity was hacking into a machine on her internal network (take a look at the screen again; the image is here if it's gone from the homepage). Just goes to show that you should always be wary of the risk from inside. On a related (to 10. addresses) note, it's interesting (well I thought so) to see who was around early enough to have grabbed their own Class A network addresses.

You may have noticed the link to a discussion form on the right; please use it, but keep it clean.


... although Sky TV does have the edge over digital radio sets by virtue of its live tractor-pulling coverage from Eindhoven on Eurosport.
Paul Williams 06-03-2003 07:09 AM ET (US)

...or if you want to listen to the radio in the kitchen and your tv's upstairs.
Mike Seery 06-03-2003 04:20 AM ET (US)

Of course if you have Sky satellite you can get most of the radio stations that broadcast on DAB in the same quality through there at no extra expense. Not much use if you haven't got Sky

Stewart Robinson 06-02-2003 05:50 AM ET (US)

The Goodmans is a DAB radio plus an FM/AM radio (so you can still get crackle and hiss if you like that sort of thing)
Mike Seery 05-27-2003 08:00 AM ET (US)

Is the Goodman a digital radio? The description describes a digital tuner with an
analogue radio. Or is that what all digital radios really are?eb

elisabeth butolo 05-27-2003 07:38 AM ET (US)

Monday, May 19, 2003

This is the first post to a blog aimed at Economist Group IT staff. Hopefully it will prove interesting, stimulating and educational and maybe irreverent. I hope to update at least once a week.

Apart from waiting for my Olympus C40-Zoom to be replaced by a C50-Zoom (the C40 takes great photos, is quite easy to use, but has failed twice) I'm mulling over what to replace my ancient (is there a museum that would take it?) Handspring Visor with. I'm torn between a phone which has some PDA functionality, like the Ericsson P800 and a PDA that has a phone bolted on, like the Handspring Treo (or do I want WiFi? - the Palm Tungsten C is getting nice things said about it).

Any ideas? I'm leaning towards the latter (not necessarily the Handspring) with the though that I mostly use the PDA for work and can use my existing SIM card in it during the week, but put it back in my Ericsson T68 at weekends etc.

Of course, this convergance of technology (it's getting there anyway!) can cause headaches for IT departments. How do we support PDAs? Do we standardise on one model (.. or brand .. or OS)? In the end we need to make sure that we can support the things that people will want to use their PDA/phones for when they're using them for business, whatever the make. The last time I looked, we didn't all have the same make and model of 'phone on our desks. Yes, if you want to be able to conference in three people on one call you may need some instructions on how to do it, but you don't generally need to be told how to call someone else for a one to one.

There's a lot of hype about The Matrix Reloaded (even a short piece in The Economist this week; about which I'll say no more), but an article in The Register is interesting in that it outlines how Trinity does some "real" hacking in the film. Make sure those patches are applied!

Note: if you can't get at premium content on Economist.com give yourself access.

That gives me another thought; for those that aren't aware of it, tinyurl.com is neat. That same reference to the Intranet can look like this: http://tinyurl.com/c3vc.

How depressing.
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