Blog: Tech

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Not the customer but the product

There's apparently another widespread Gmail outage, but this one is more harmful -- it's lying to senders about addresses being invalid (permanent error).

This might be the swift kick in the rear that I needed to figure out a different approach to email. I have a domain, so I should set up a single "collector" address there to receive everything I'm currently forwarding to Gmail (which I'll have to hunt around for; Pobox is easy but not the only one). I hadn't done that before because I thought that relying on Google (a huge, hardened service) was a safer bet than relying on my domain -- what happens if my domain gets hijacked, my hosting company compromised, etc? Rethinking that now...

Fortunately, I'm already forwarding Pobox to an address on my domain, a backup for Gmail, so I probably haven't lost anything. But I might be getting silently dropped from mailing lists I cared about. We'll see.

Ok, I think I now have everything going to one mailbox on my domain and, from there, mirrored to Gmail for now. I'd like to have all my mail in one place, but the last download of my Gmail mailbox was a 10G file in mbox format, which I don't know how to read or plug in to something else. (I mean, obviously that's a standard format, but what can I use on my Mac to read it?) I don't really want to store all that on my domain server long-term (it'd raise my storage costs), but there's probably a lot of junk in it, mixed in with the stuff I care about. I'd already done some passes to, for example, nuke years-old mailing-list threads that I don't care about now, because Google has storage limits, but that's time-consuming.

I welcome input from people who've wrangled large mailboxes, domains, and email more generally.

Google security question

Dear brain trust,

I have an Android tablet. As with my phone, I use it with my Google account. My account confirms new sign-ins or other access grants by sending a confirmation to my phone (so I have to say "yes it was me" there before the sign-in completes on another device). This is all good.

Google also sends that confirmation to the tablet. How do I disable that part, while still remaining signed in on the tablet? I want to use it, but I don't want it to be a source of trust. I've been through the Google security settings and I don't see a way to do this -- a way to say "trust it to be signed in but don't trust it to grant trust".

From comments, apparently this is no longer possible (but once was). What gives, Google?

"Blah blah blah."

Today's bit of randomness:

When I was a young programmer I worked for an AI company on a text-categorization project -- for a commercial client, all hush-hush for a while to preserve their competitive advantage and such, apparently really innovative (didn't realize then; I was just writing code to solve a problem, y'know?). Then somebody accidentally published the training dataset. And apparently it's gotten quite a lot of use in the research community, which I was completely unaware of, having never really been that kind of researcher.

For 30+ years there's been a mystery in that dataset that people have noticed, commented on, and apparently never tried to track down...until now. This podcaster got in touch with me and some others last week, and here's the result: Underunderstood: The Case of the Blah Blah Blahs. (36 minutes; has transcript).

It was neat to hear this trip down memory lane, and also to hear other parts of the story I'd never known about before, including the discussion from a researcher from the "other side" of one of the big arguments in AI in the 80s.

Our legacies are not always what we think they will be

In the mid-80s, in my first full-time position after college, I worked for a now-defunct software company doing artificial intelligence, specifically natural-language processing. The most significant project I worked on while there was a text categorization system. I was the tech lead (this was 1987ish). The client was Reuters, who at the time had literal rooms full of people whose job was to skim news stories coming over the wire, attach categories to them, and send them back out quickly. Our job was to automate that -- or, more realistically, to automate the parts that machines could do and send a much smaller set of "don't know" cases to humans. I'm writing this from memory; it's been more than 30 years and details are fuzzy.

I left that company and went on to do other things. I was vaguely aware that, at some point, the corpus of news stories we used for training data had been released publicly, by agreement between Reuters and my then-employer. I wasn't a researcher, wasn't in the NLP business any more, and lost touch. Technology moves on, and I figured our little project had long since faded into obscurity.

Tonight I got email with a question about that data set. My name is in the README file as one of the original compilers, and somebody tracked me down.

Somebody still cares about that data set.

I Googled it. Our data set was popular for close to a decade, during which time people improved the formatting (SGML, baby!) and cleaned up some other things. It spawned a child -- the original either had, or had acquired, some duplicate entries, and the new one removed them. (The question I got was actually about the child data set.) And now I'm curious about the question I was asked too, because I either don't know or don't remember how it got that way.


Location services + police

We know that any device (like a phone) with location services turned on is generating a large pile of data about your every movement. If you don't want Google or Apple to know that, you turn location services off.

And if you're about to commit a crime and you're planning to get away with it, you leave your phone at home, or you turn location services off well in advance and keep them off so you don't create an obvious window.

These things I knew. What I hadn't previously heard of is geofencing warrants, where police can subpoena location data for everything in range of a crime scene, dig through it, and then get an arrest warrant for the owner of a specific device. Fortunately Google gave the target a heads-up; unfortunately I do not know if that is them "just being nice" (so they could decide not to) or if they have to.

Looking back at Usenet

Steven Bellovin, one of the creators of Usenet 40 years ago, has written a retrospective and history of the project. I've actually had this open in a tab for a while; when I first came across it about half the articles had been posted and there were placeholders for the rest. He's now finished it.

This is a mix of technical and political history. At the time I was using it (I gained access around 1983, I think), I didn't know any of the background; to me as a student, ARPANet and Usenet were just two different networks that moved stuff around. (My experience of ARPANet at the time was limited to mailing lists.) I knew that Usenet was decentralized (unlike ARPANet, a government network), but I didn't at the time know the extent to which it was put together by a scrappy band of grad students with limited resources and an attitude of "it's easier to ask forgiveness than get permission". Or so it seems to me in reading this series of posts, anyway.

I learned a lot about the behavior of networked communities on Usenet. I made lots of mistakes, of course; I mean, not only was it a new concept to me, but I was an undergrad without a lot of broad, cultural experience outside my own. And even though I was a bumbling student learning the ropes, I could participate alongside everyone else there -- what you wrote and how well you communicated mattered a lot more than who you were. I -- a lowly undergrad and relative newcomer -- was taken seriously by the architects in planning the Great Renaming. Later the New Yorker would publish that famous cartoon about how on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog; even before that, I had already learned that on Usenet nobody knows (or cares) that you're an undergrad, or insert-demographic-here, or whatever. In retrospect, this might have been somewhat formative for me online.

Technologies change and communities change. Spammers got more aggressive, some of the communities I participated on either scattered or moved elsewhere, and the web emerged as a new way of interacting online. I preferred mailing lists to web forums (because email is push and web sites are pull; this was before syndication was a thing), and then I discovered blogs and LiveJournal. I gradually drifted away from Usenet. And over time I drifted away from some of those other things in favor of yet other things; online communities aren't done evolving by a longshot. (And then there's social media, which feels...different from intentional communities to me. Less cohesive, more episodic and sound-bite-ish.) I imagine that looking back to today in 40 more years will seem just as foreign and quaint as looking back to the beginnings of Usenet must seem to those who weren't around at the time.

Young coworkers

Last week the director of engineering sent email announcing prizes for an "improve our tests" hackathon. He labelled one prize (about finding and fixing the most bugs) as "write yourself a minivan".

Later, in response to questions, he sent a copy of the 24-year-old Dilbert strip.

Over the weekend our CTO, in response to questions, sent email explaining what a minivan was.

I'll be over here, weeping into my prune juice and yelling at kids to get off my lawn.

Hardware upgrade

I finally emerged from analysis paralysis and things being out of stock and did I say analysis paralysis? and bought a mechanical keyboard. It came today, so I haven't done much typing on it yet, but ooh, first impressions are very positive!

I bought the WASD V3, with Cherry Silent Red switches and no dampeners. (I asked; they said with Silent you don't also add dampeners.) I made one small modification (see if you can spot it in the picture), and otherwise played it straight. (Part of the analysis paralysis was ooh, colors! but how does what I see on the screen compare to reality? should I ask for samples?. Ok, I guess technically I made two modifications, because I did change the color scheme.) Read more…

Windows: accessibility obstacles

I got a new laptop at work last week, so naturally it came with Windows 10. Some of the software my group uses requires Windows; I'm currently still on Win 7 on my old machine. (And haven't gotten updates since last November. Eventually IT would have noticed. But even aside from that, the machine is five years old and starting to become unreliable.) The migration has been...challenging, with some accessibility regressions I don't know how to fix.

On Win 7 I defined a custom theme which had the following important properties:

  • Window background is not bright white but a light tan: bright white backgrounds hurt my eyes a lot, especially over a sustained period. This is set at the OS level, so all applications get it by default.

  • Font size for menus, window titles, and assorted other UI elements is increased so I can actually read them.

  • Colors for the title bars of active and inactive windows are very different so I can easily spot which window is currently active.

Read more…

TIL: ophthalmology edition

I started getting noticeable floaters something like 8-9 years ago. (I see I failed to record it at the time, so I'm estimating now.) Floaters are bits of stuff in the vitreous in your eye that, as the name implies, float around and sometimes get in your way. They don't go away. They were quite annoying at first, but over time they became less invasive -- presumably my brain was learning to ignore them for the most part. I'd still see hem but they didn't get in the way as much.

A few weeks ago I noticed/realized that I've been having more trouble reading lately, whether sitting at a computer or reading a book. It wasn't a sudden change -- not the sudden onslaught that sends one for a same-day appointment to check for retinal detachment. I think it's been building for a while and finally crossed some critical threshold. I couldn't quite tell if the problem was obstruction (what floaters do) or acuity, but I'm not generally having acuity problems.

I had a checkup scheduled for earlier this week anyway, so I asked my ophthalmologist to take a look. She said yup, sure are a lot of floaters and stuff in there. I asked if she could compare what she's seeing now to the last photo she took of the inside of my eye, but that photo didn't help much. She sent me to a retina specialist just to be safe.

I saw that specialist this morning and learned some new things. Read more…