Category Archives: Online Life

How the Attention Economy Hurts You via Social Media Sites like Facebook

Note: This post is also available on my website, where it will be periodically updated.

There is a whole science to manipulating our attention. And because there is a lot of money to be made by doing this well, it means we all encounter attempts to manipulate what we pay attention to each day. What is this, and how is it harmful? This post will be the first on a series on the topic.

Why is attention so important?

When people use Facebook, they use it for free. Facebook generally doesn’t even try to sell them anything, yet has billions in revenues. What, then, is Facebook’s product?

Well, really, it’s you. Or, more specifically, your attention. Facebook sells your attention to advertisers. Everything they do is in service to that. They want you to spend more time on the site so they can show you more ads.

(I should say here that I’m using Facebook as an example, but this applies to other social media companies too.)

Seeking to maximize attention

So if your attention is so important to their profit, it follows naturally that they would seek ways to get people to spend more time on their site. And they do. They track all sorts of metrics, including “engagement” (if you click “like”, comment, share, or otherwise interact with content). They know which sorts of things are likely to capture your (and I mean you in specific!) attention and show you that. Your neighbor may have different interests and Facebook judges different things are likely to capture their attention.

Manipulating your attention

Attention turning into money isn’t unique for social media. In fact, in the article If It Bleeds, It Leads: Understanding Fear-Based Media, Psychology Today writes:

In previous decades, the journalistic mission was to report the news as it actually happened, with fairness, balance, and integrity. However, capitalistic motives associated with journalism have forced much of today’s television news to look to the spectacular, the stirring, and the controversial as news stories. It’s no longer a race to break the story first or get the facts right. Instead, it’s to acquire good ratings in order to get advertisers, so that profits soar.

News programming uses a hierarchy of if it bleeds, it leads. Fear-based news programming has two aims. The first is to grab the viewer’s attention. In the news media, this is called the teaser. The second aim is to persuade the viewer that the solution for reducing the identified fear will be in the news story. If a teaser asks, “What’s in your tap water that YOU need to know about?” a viewer will likely tune in to get the up-to-date information to ensure safety.

You’ve probably seen fear-based messages a lot on Facebook. They will highlight messages to liberals about being afraid of what Trump is doing, and to conservatives about being afraid of what Biden is doing. They may or may not even intentionally be doing this; it is their algorithm predicts that those would maximize time and engagement for certain people, so that’s what they see.

Fear leads to controversy

It’s not just fear, though. Social media also loves controversy. There’s nothing that makes people really want to stay on Facebook like anger. See something controversial and you’ll see hundreds or thousands of people are there arguing about it — and in the process, giving Facebook their attention. A quick Internet search will show you numerous articles on how marketing companes can leverage controvery to get attention and engagement with their campaigns.

Consequences of maximizing fear and controversy

What does it mean to society at large — and to you personally — that large companies make a lot of money by maximizing fear and controversy?

The most obvious way is it leads to less common ground. If the posts and reactions that show common ground are never seen because they don’t drive engagement, it poisons the well; left and right hate each other with ever more vigor — a profitable outcome to Facebook, but a poisonous one to all of us.

I have had several friendships lost because I — a liberal in agreement with these friends on political matters — still talk to Trump voters. On the other side, we’ve seen people storm the Michigan statehouse with weapons. How did that level of disagreement — and even fear behind it — get so firmly embedded in our society? Surely the fact that social media shows us things designed to stimulate fear and anger must play a role.

What does it do to our ability to have empathy for, and understand, others? The Facebook groups I’ve been in for like-minded people have largely been flooded with memes calling the President “rump” and other things clearly designed to make people angry or fearful. It’s a worthless experience, and not just that, but it’s a harmful experience.

When our major media — TV and social networks — all are optimizing for fear, anger, and controvesry, we have a society beholden to fear, anger, and controvesy.

In my next installment, I’m going to talk about what to do about this, including the decentralized social networks of the Fediverse that are specifically designed to put you back in charge of your attention.

Update 2020-12-16: There are two followup articles for this: how to join the Fediverse and non-creepy technology purchasing and gifting guides. The latter references the FSF’s page on software manipulation towards addiction, which is particularly relevant to this topic.

Review of Secure, Privacy-Respecting Email Services

I’ve been hosting my own email for several decades now. Even before I had access to a dedicated Internet link, I had email via dialup UUCP (and, before that, a FidoNet gateway).

But self-hosting email is becoming increasingly difficult. The time required to maintain spam and virus filters, SPF/DKIM settings, etc. just grows. The importance of email also is increasing. Although my own email has been extremely reliable, it is still running on a single server somewhere and therefore I could stand to have a lot of trouble if it went down while I was unable to fix it

Email with Pretty Good Privacy & Security

(Yes, this heading is a pun.)

There’s a lot of important stuff linked to emails. Family photos. Password resets for banks, social media sites, chat sites, photo storage sites, etc. Shopping histories. In a lot of cases, if your email was compromised, it wouldn’t be all that hard to next compromise your bank account, buy stuff with your Amazon account, hijack your Netflix, etc. There are lots of good resources about why privacy matters; here’s one informative video even if you think you have “nothing to hide”.

There is often a tradeoff between security and usability. A very secure system would be airgapped; you’d always compose your messages and use your secret keys on a system that has no Internet access and never will. Such a system would be quite secure, but not particularly usable.

On the other end of the spectrum are services such as Gmail, which not only make your email available to you, but also to all sorts of other systems within the service that aim to learn about your habits so they can sell this information to advertisers.

This post is about the services in the middle – ones that are usable, can be easily used on mobile devices, and yet make a serious and credible effort to provide better security and privacy than the “big services” run by Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. Some elements of trust are inherent here; for instance, that the description of the technical nuances of the provider’s services are accurate. (Elements of trust are present in any system; whether your firmware, binaries, etc. are trustworthy.) I used the list at Privacy Tools as a guide to what providers to investigate, supplemented by searches and NoMoreGoogle.

It so happens that most of these services integrate PGP in some way. PGP has long been one of the better ways to have secure communication via email, but it is not always easy for beginners to use. These services make it transparent to a certain degree. None of them are as good as a dedicated client on an airgapped machine, but then again, such a setup isn’t very practical for everyday use. These services give you something better — pretty good, even — but of course not perfect. All of these pay at least lip service to Open Source, some of them actually publishing source for some of their components, but none are fully open.

I pay particular attention to how they handle exchanges with people that do not have PGP, as this kind of communication constitutes the vast majority of my email.

A final comment – if what you really need is an easy and secure way to communicate with one or two people, email itself may not be the right option. Consider Signal.

Protonmail

Protonmail is, in many ways, the gold standard of privacy-respecting email. Every email is stored encrypted in a way that even they can’t see, being decrypted on the client side (using a Javascript PGP implementation or other clients). They definitely seem to be pushing the envelope for security and privacy; they keep no IP logs, don’t require any personal information to set up an account, and go into quite a lot of detail about how your keys are protected.

A side effect of this is that you can’t just access your email with any mail reader. Since the decryption is done on the client side, you pretty much have to use a Protonmail client. They provide clients for iOS and Android, the Web interface, and a “bridge” that exposes IMAP and SMTP ports to localhost and lets you connect a traditional mail client to the system. The bridge, in this case, handles the decryption for you. The bridge works really well and supports Windows, Mac, and Linux, though it is closed source. (The source for the Linux bridge has been “coming soon” for awhile now.) Protonmail provides very good support for bringing your own domain, and in my testing this worked flawlessly. It supports Sieve-based filters, which can also act on envelope recipients (yes!) The web interface is sleek, very well done, tightly integrated, and just generally exceptionally easy to use and just works.

Unfortunately, the mobile clients get the job done for only light use. My opinion: they’re bad. Really bad. For instance:

  • There’s no way to change the sort order on a mail folder
  • The Android client has an option to automatically download all message bodies. The iOS client lacks this option, but no matter; it doesn’t work on Android anyhow.
  • They’re almost completely unusable offline. You can compose a brand new message but that’s it.

There are some other drawbacks. For one, they don’t actually encrypt mail metadata, headers, or subject lines (though this is common to all of the solutions here, Protonmail’s marketing glosses over this). They also seem to have a lot of problems with overly-aggressive systems blocking people’s accounts: here’s a report from 2017, and I’ve seen more recent ones from people that had paid, but then had the account disabled. Apparently protonmail is used by scammers a fair bit and this is a side-effect of offering free, highly secure accounts – some of their deactivations have been legitimate. Nevertheless, it makes me nervous, especially given the high number of reports of this on reddit.

Unfortunately, Proton seems more focused on new products than on fixing these issues. They’ve been long-simmering in the community but what they talk about is more about their upcoming new products.

Protonmail’s terms of service include both a disclaimer that it’s as-is and an SLA, as well as an indemnification clause. Update 2019-03-04: Protonmail’s privacy policy states they use Matomo analytics, that they don’t record your login IP address by default (but IP logs might be kept if you enable it or if they suspect spamming, etc), collect mobile app analytics, IP addresses on incoming messages, etc. Data is retained “indefinitely” for active accounts and for 14 days after account deletion for closed accounts.

Support: email ticket only

Pricing: $4/mo if paid annually; includes 5GB storage, 5 aliases, and 1 custom domain

Location: Switzerland

MFA: TOTP only

Plus address extensions: yes

Transparency report: yes

Mailfence

Mailfence is often mentioned in the same sentence as ProtonMail. They also aim to be a privacy-respecting, secure email solution.

While it is quite possible they use something like LUKS to encrypt data at rest (safeguarding it from a stolen hard drive), unlike ProtonMail, Mailfence does have access to the full content of any plaintext messages sent or received by your account. Mailfence integrates PGP into the Web interface, claiming end-to-end encryption with a “zero-knowledge environment” using, of all things, the same openpgpjs library that is maintained by ProtonMail. While ProtonMail offers a detailed description of key management, I haven’t been able to find this with Mailfence – other than that the private key is stored encrypted on their servers and is protected by a separate passphrase from the login. If we assume the private key is decrypted on the client side, then for PGP-protected communications, the level of security is similar to ProtonMail. With Mailfence, decrypting these messages is a separate operation, while with ProtonMail it happens automatically once logged in. (Update 2019-03-01: Mailfence emailed me, pointing to their document on key storage – it is AES-256 encrypted by the client and stored on the server. They also passed along a link describing their PGP keystore. They also said they plan to work on a feature th encrypt plain text messages.)

While technical measures are part of the story, business policies are another, and Mailfence does seem to have some pretty good policies in place.

In experimenting with it, I found that Mailfence’s filters don’t support filtering based on the envelope recipient, which limits the utility of its aliases since BCC and the like won’t filter properly. A workaround might be possible via the IMAP connection filtering based on Received: headers, but that is somewhat ugly.

Mailfence also supports “secure” documents (word processor, spreadsheet, etc), WebDAV file storage, contacts, and calendars. There is no detail on what makes it “secure” – is it just that it uses TLS or is there something more? I note that the online document editor goes to a URL under writer.zoho.com, so this implies some sort of leakage to me and a possible violation of their “no third-party access to your data” claim. (Update 2019-03-01: Mailfence emailed me to point out that, while it’s not disclosed on the page I liked to, it is disclosed on their blog, and that since I evaluated it, they added a popup warning in the application before sending the documents to Zoho.)

Mailfence supports POP, IMAP, SMTP, and — interestingly — Exchange ActiveSync access to their services. I tested ActiveSync on my Android device, and it appeared to work exactly as planned. This gives a lot of client flexibility and very nice options for calendar and contact sync (*DAV is also supported).

Mailfence’s terms of use is fairly reasonable, though it also includes an indemnification clause. It makes no particular uptime promises. Update 2019-03-04: Per their privacy policy, Mailfence logs IP addresses and use Matomo analytics on the website but not within the application. Deleted messages and documents are retained for 45 days. The policy does not specify retention for logs.

Support: email ticket or business-hours phone support for paying customers

Pricing: EUR 2.50/mo paid annually, includes 5GB storage, 10 aliases, and 1 custom domain

Location: Belgium

MFA: TOTP only

Plus address extensions: Yes

Transparency report: Yes

Mailbox.org

Mailbox.org has been in the hosting business for a long time, and also has a privacy emphasis. Their security is conceptually similar to that of Mailfence. They offer two web-based ways of dealing with PGP: OX Guard and Mailvelope. Mailvelope is a browser extension that does all encryption and decryption on the client side, similar to Mailfence and ProtonMail. OX Guard is part of the Open-Xchange package which mailbox.org uses. It stores the encryption keys on the server, protected by a separate key passphrase, but all encryption and decryption is done server-side. Mailbox’s KB articles on this makes it quite clear and spell out the tradeoffs. The basic upshot is that messages you receive in plaintext will still be theoretically visible to the service itself.

Mailbox.org offers another interesting feature: automatic PGP-encryption of any incoming email that isn’t already encrypted. This encrypts everything inbound. If accessed using Mailvelope or some other external client, it provides equivalent security to ProtonMail. (OX Guard is a little different since the decryption happens server-side.)

They also offer you an @secure.mailbox.org email address that will reject any incoming mail that isn’t properly secured by TLS. You can also send from that address, which will fail to send unless the outgoing connection is properly secured as well. This is one of the more interesting approaches to dealing with the non-PGP-using public. Even if you don’t use that, if you compose in their web interface, you get immediate feedback about the TLS that will be used. It’s not end-to-end, but it’s better than nothing. Mailfence and Protonmail both offer an “secure email” that basically emails a link to a recipient, that links back to their server and requires the recipient to enter a password that was presumably exchanged out of band. Mailbox Guard will automatically go this route when you attempt to send email to someone for whom the PGP keys weren’t known, but goes a step further and invites them to reply there or set up their PGP keys.

Mailbox.org runs Open-Xchange, a semi-Open Source web-based office suite. As such, it also offers calendar, contacts, documents, task lists, IMAP/SMTP/POP, ActiveSync, and so forth. Their KB specifically spells out that things like the calendar are not encrypted with PGP. The filtering does the right thing with envelope recipients.

Mailbox.org has an amazingly comprehensive set of options, a massive knowledge base, even a user forum. Some of the settings I found to be interesting, besides the ones already mentioned, include:

  • Spam settings: greylisting on or off, RBL use, executable file attachment blocking, etc.
  • Restoring email from a backup
  • Disposable addresses (automatically deleted after 30 days)
  • A “catch-all” alias, that just counts as one of your regular aliases, and applies to all usernames under a domain not otherwise aliased.

I know Protonmail has frequent third-party security audits; I haven’t seen any mention of this on the mailbox.org site. However, it looks probable that less of their code was written in house, and it may have been audited without a mention.

Overall, I’ve been pretty impressed with them. They give details on EVERYTHING. It’s the geeky sort of comprehensive, professional solution I’d like. I wish it would have full end-to-end transparent encryption like ProtonMail, but honestly what they’re doing is more practical and useful to a lot of folks.

Mailbox has a reasonable T&C (though it does include an indemnity clause as many others do) and a thorough data protection and privacy policy. Some providers don’t log IP addresses at all; mailbox.org does, but destroys them after 4 days. (Update 2019-03-04: Discovered that all of the providers reviewed may do this at times; updated the other reviews and removed incorrect text; mailbox.org’s is actually one of the better policies) mailbox.org goes into a lot more detail than others, and also explicitly supports things such as Tor for greater anonymity.

Support: email ticket (phone for business-level customers)

Pricing: EUR 1/mo for 2GB storage and 3 aliases; EUR 2.50/mo for 5GB storage and 25 aliases. Expansions possible (for instance, 25GB storage costs a total of EUR 3.50/mo)

Location: Germany

MFA: Yubikey, OATH, TOTP, HOTP, MOTP (web interface only)

Plus address extensions: Yes

Transparency Report: Yes

Startmail

Startmail is a service from the people behind the privacy-respecting search engine Startpage. There is not a lot of information about the technical implementation of Startmail, with the exception of a technical white paper from 2016. It is unclear if this white paper remains accurate, but this review will assume it is. There are also some articles in the knowledge base.

I was unable to fully review Startmail, because the free trial is quite limited (doesn’t even support IMAP) and anything past that level requires an up-front payment of $60. While I paid a few dollars for a month’s real account elsewhere, this was rather too much for a few paragraphs’ review.

However, from the trial, it appears to have a feature set roughly akin to Mailfence. Its mail filters are actually more limited, and it’s mail only: no documents, calendars, etc.

Startmail a somewhat unique setup, in which a person’s mail, PGP keys, etc. are stored in a “vault” which turns out to be a LUKS-encrypted volume. This vault is opened when a person logs in and closed when they log out, and controlled by a derivative of their password. On the one hand, this provides an even stronger level of security than Protonmail (since headers are also encrypted). On the other hand, when the vault is “open” – when one must presume it is quite frequently for an account being polled by IMAP – it is no better than anything else.

They explicitly state that they have not had a third-party audit.

Support: ticket only

Pricing: $60/yr ($5/mo), must be paid as an entire year up-front

Location: Netherlands

MFA: TOTP only

Plus address extensions: unknown

Transparency report: no

Not Reviewed

Some other frequently-used providers I didn’t review carefully:

  • posteo.de: encrypts your mail using a dovecot extension that decrypts it using a derivation of your password when you connect. Something better than nothing but less than Protonmail. Didn’t evaluate because it didn’t support my own domain.
  • Tutanota: Seems to have a security posture similar to ProtonMail, but has no IMAP support at all. If I can’t use emacs to read my mail, I’m not going to bother.

Conclusions

The level of security represented by Protonmail was quite appealing to me. I wish that the service itself was more usable. It looks like an excellent special-needs service, but just isn’t quite there yet as a main mail account for people that have a lot of mail.

I am likely to pursue mailbox.org some more, as although it isn’t as strong as Protonmail when it comes to privacy, it is still pretty good and is amazing on usability and flexibility.

A Final Word on Trust

Trust is a big part of everything going on here. For instance, if you use ProtonMail, where does trust come into play? Well, you trust that they aren’t serving you malicious JavaScript that captures your password and sends it to them out of band. You trust that your browser provides a secure environment for JavaScript and doesn’t have leakage. Or if you use mailbox.org, you trust that the server is providing a secure environment and that when you supply your password for the PGP key, it’s used only for that. ProtonMail will tell you how great it is to have this code client-side. Startmail will tell you how bad Javascript in a browser is for doing things related to security. Both make good, valid points.

To be absolutely sure, it is not possible or practical for any person to verify every component in their stack on every use. Different approaches have different trust models. The very best is still standalone applications.

The providers reviewed here raise the average level of privacy and security on the Internet, and do it by making it easier for the average user. That alone is a good thing and worthy of support. None of them can solve every problem, but all of them are a step up from the standard, which is almost no security at all.

Where does a person have online discussions anymore?

Back in the day, way back in the day perhaps, there were interesting places to hang out online. FidoNet provided some discussion groups — some local, some more national or international. Then there was Usenet, with the same but on a more grand scale.

There were things I liked about both of them.

They fostered long-form, and long-term, discussion. Replies could be thoughtful, and a person could think about it for a day before replying.

Socially, you would actually get to know the people in the communities you participated in. There would be regulars, and on FidoNet at least, you might bump into them in different groups or even in real life. There was a sense of community. Moreover, there was a slight barrier to entry and that was, perhaps, a good thing; there were quite a lot of really interesting people and not so many people that just wanted answers to homework questions.

Technologically, you got to bring your own client. They were also decentralized, without any one single point of failure, and could be downloaded and used offline. You needed very little in terms of Internet connection.

They both had some downsides; Usenet, in particular, often lacked effective moderation. Not everyone wrote thoughtful posts.

Is there anything like it these days? I’ve sometimes heard people suggest Reddit. It shares some of those aspects, and even has some clients capable of offline operation. However, what it doesn’t really have is long-form discussion. I often find that if I am 6 hours late to a thread, nobody will bother to read my reply because it’s off their radar already. This happens so often that I rarely bother to participate anymore; I am not going to sit at reddit hitting refresh all day long.

There are a few web forums, but they suffer from all sorts of myriad problems; no cohesive community, the “hot topic” vanishing issue of Reddit, the single point of failure, etc.

For awhile, Google+ looked like it might head this way. But I don’t think it really has. I still feel as if there is a vacuum out there.

Any thoughts?

Suspicious Blog Activity – any advice?

I’ve been noticing a number of odd things happening surrounding my blog lately, and I thought it’s about time to figure out what’s going on and how to stop it.

The first problem is that people are illegally copying my posts, probably using RSS scraping, and putting them up on their own ad-infested sites. It is trivial to find them using Google for any somewhat unique word or phrase in one of my posts. Lately one of them, linux-support.com, actually sends me pingbacks announcing the fact that they’ve scraped me! Most of these sites seem to be nothing but content farms for selling ad impressions, and almost none of them have any identifiable names for the owners.

(There is an exception: I have specifically set up sites like Planet Debian and Goodreads to copy my blog posts.)

I’m obviously an advocate of open content, but I do not feel it right that others should be profiting by putting photos and stories about Free Software, or photos of my family, on their ad farms. While I release a great deal of content under GPL or Creative Commons licenses, I have never done so with my blog – an intentional decision.

What should I do about this? Is it worth fighting a battle over, or is it about as useless as trying to block every spam follower on my twitter account?

So that’s the first weird thing. The second weird thing just started within the last few weeks. I have been getting a surprising amount (a few a week) of email addressed to me. It does not bear the appearance of being 100% automated spam, though it is possible that it is. It’s taken a few forms:

  • Someone wanting to buy an ad on my blog
  • Someone wanting to send me a story hyping their product (and intending me to pretend that I wrote the story)
  • Someone wanting me to write a story about their website and link to it

The profit motive in all of these is high, and in at least the second and third, so is the sleaze factor.

I’ve gotten two emails lately of this form:

Hi John,

I am curious if you are the administrator for this site: changelog.complete.org/archives/174-house-outlaws-fast-forwarding-senate-pres-next

I am a researcher / writer involved with a new project whose mission it is to provide accurate and useful information for those interested in the practice of law, whether as a lawyer or paralegal. I recently produced an article detailing the complex relationship between law and technology and the legal implications on personal privacy and free speech. I would love to share this resource with those who might find it useful and am curious of you are the correct person to contact about such a request?

Thank you!

All my best,

The details vary – the URLs appear to be random (the one cited above was little more than a link to an article), the topics the website claims to discuss range from law to schizophrenia (that one actually came with a link to the site, which again seemed to be a content farm). I am slightly tempted to reply to one of these and ask where the heck people are getting my name. It seems as if somebody has put me into a mailing list they sell containing sleazebag bloggers.

Frankly, I am puzzled at this attention. I guess I haven’t checked, but I can’t imagine that my blog has anything even remotely resembling a high PageRank or anything else. It’s not high-traffic, not Slashdot, etc. Either people are desperate, naive, failing to be selective, or maybe working some scam on me that I don’t know yet.

In any case, I’m interested if others have seen this, or any advice you might have.

Social Overload

I’m finding social media is becoming a bit annoying. I enjoy using it to keep in touch with all sorts of people, but my problem is the proliferation of services that don’t integrate well with each other. Right now, I have:

  • A blog, which I have had for years. I used to post things like short links, daily thoughts, etc – almost every day. It seems that there is some social pressure to not do that on blogs anymore, so I don’t too much. My blog gets mostly edited, more carefully thought-out, longer-form posts now. I’m not entirely happy with that direction though, since it means I don’t post much on the blog because it takes a lot of time to compose things nicely for it.
  • A twitter account, which I sometimes use to post links and such. However, I have noticed a significant decline in the number of actual conversations I have on Twitter since Google+ came out, and I wonder how relevant Twitter will remain to people in the future.
  • I also have an identi.ca account, though I almost never have any interactions there anymore.
  • A Facebook account, which is mostly used to keep in touch with people I know offline in one way or another. Many of them use Facebook exclusively, sometimes even more than email.
  • A Google+ account. I post similar content there as I do on twitter, though probably more of it because it doesn’t have a character limit. I really enjoy the community on Google+ – there are few people I’ve met in person in my circles, but many people I know from various online activities. And many just plain brilliant, engaging, or interesting people. As an example: I follow Edd Dumbill, the (former?) chair of OSCon, on Google+. He started talking about his Fitbit getting broken, which led me to ask him some questions about it – which he, and others, answered – and me ordering one myself. I just don’t have that kind of interaction anywhere else.
  • A Diaspora account that I created but honestly haven’t had time to use.

So my problems are:

  1. Posting things multiple places. I currently can post on identi.ca, which automatically posts to twitter, which automatically posts to Facebook. But then I’d still have to post to Google+, assuming it’s something that I’d like to share with both my Facebook friends and my Google+ circles – it usually is.
  2. The situation is even worse for re-tweeting/re-sharing other people’s posts. That is barely possible between platforms and usually involves cutting and pasting. Though this is somewhat more rare.
  3. It’s probably possible to make my blog posts automatically generate a tweet, but not to automatically generate a G+ post.

All the hassle of posting things multiple places leads me to just not bother at all some of the time, which is annoying too. There are some tools that would take G+ content and put it on Twitter, but without a character counter on G+, I don’t think this would be useful.

Anyone else having similar issues? How are you coping?

Download A Piece of Internet History

Back in the early 1990s, before there was a World Wide Web, there was the Internet Gopher. It was a distributed information system in the same sense as the web, but didn’t use hypertext and was text-based. Gopher was popular back then, as it made it easy to hop from one server to the next in a way that FTP didn’t.

Gopher has hung on over the years, and is still clinging to life in a way. Back in 2007, I was disturbed at the number of old famous Gopher servers that had disappeared off the Internet without a trace. Some of these used to be known by most users of the Internet in the early 90s. To my knowledge, no archive of this data existed. Nobody like archive.org had ever attempted to save Gopherspace.

So I decided I would. I wrote Gopherbot, a spidering archiver for Gopherspace. I ran it in June 2007, and saved off all the documents and sites it could find. That saved 40GB of data, or about 780,000 documents. Since that time, more servers have died. To my knowledge, this is the only comprehensive archive there is of what Gopherspace was like. (Another person is working on a new 2010 archive run, which I’m guessing will find some new documents but turn up fewer overall than 2007 did.)

When this was done, I compressed the archive with tar and bzip2 and split it out to 4 DVDs and mailed copies to a few people in the Gopher community.

Recently, we’ve noted that hard disk failures have hobbled a few actually maintained Gopher sites, so I read this archive back in and posted it on BitTorrent. If you’d like to own a piece of Internet history, download the torrent file and go to town (and please stick around to seed if you can). This is 15GB compressed, and also includes a rare video interview with two of the founders of Gopher.

There are some plans to potentially host this archive publicly in the manner of archive.org; we’ll have to wait and see if anything comes of it.

Finally, I have tried to find a place willing to be a permanent host of this data, and to date have struck out. If anybody knows of such a place, please get in touch. I regret that so many Gopher sites disappeared before 2007, but life is what it is, and this is the best snapshot of the old Gopherspace that I’m aware of and would like to make sure that this piece of history is preserved.

Update: The torrents are now permaseeded at ibiblio.org. See the 2007 archive and the 2006 mirror collection.

Update: The ibiblio mirror is now down, but you can find them on archive.org. See the 2007 archive and the 2006 mirror collection.

Review: Linux IM Software

I’ve been looking at instant messaging and chat software lately. Briefly stated, I connect to Jabber and IRC networks from at least three different computers. I don’t like having to sign in and out on different machines. One of the nice features about Jabber (XMPP) is that I can have clients signing in from all over the place and it will automatically route messages to the active one. If the clients are smart enough, that is.

Gajim

I have been using Gajim as my primary chat client for some time now. It has a good feature set, but has had a history of being a bit buggy for me. It used to have issues when starting up: sometimes it would try to fire up two copies of itself. It still has a bug when being fired up from a terminal: if you run gajim & exit, it will simply die. You have to wait a few seconds to close the terminal you launched it from. It has also had issues with failing to reconnect properly after a dropped network connection and generating spurious “resource already in use” errors. Upgrades sometimes fix bugs, and sometimes introduce them.

The latest one I’ve been dealing with is its auto-idle support. Sometimes it will fail to recognize that I am back at the machine. Even weirder, sometimes it will set one of my accounts to available status, but not the other.

So much for my complaints about Gajim; it also has some good sides. It has excellent multi-account support. You can have it present your multiple accounts as separate sections in the roster, or you can have them merged. Then, say, all your contacts in a group called Friends will be listed together, regardless of which account you use to contact them.

The Jabber protocol (XMPP) permits you to connect from multiple clients. Each client specifies a numeric priority for its connection. When someone sends you a message, it will be sent to the connection with the highest priority. The obvious feature, then, is to lower your priority when you are away (or auto-away due to being idle), so that you always get IMs at the device you are actively using. Gajim supports this via letting you specify timeouts that get you into different away states, and using the advanced configuration editor, you can also set the priority that each state goes to. So, if Gajim actually recognized your idleness correctly, this would be great.

I do also have AIM and MSN accounts which I use rarely. I run Jabber gateways to each of these on my server, so there is no need for me to use a multiprotocol client. That also is nice because then I can use a simple Jabber client on my phone, laptop, whatever and see all my contacts.

Gajim does not support voice or video calls.

Due to an apparent bug in Facebook, the latest Gajim release won’t connect to Facebook servers, but there is a patch that claims to fix it.

Psi

Psi is another single-protocol Jabber client, and like Gajim, it runs on Linux, Windows, and MacOS. Psi has a nicer GUI than Gajim, and is more stable. It is not quite as featureful, and one huge omission is that it doesn’t support dropping priority on auto-away (though it, weirdly, does support a dropped priority when you manually set yourself away).

Psi doesn’t support account merging, so it always shows my contacts from one account separately from those from another. I like having the option in Gajim.

There is a fork of Psi known variously as psi-dev or psi-plus or Psi+. It adds that missing priority feature and some others. Unfortunately, I’ve had it crash on me several times. Not only that, but the documentation, wiki, bug tracker, everything is available only in Russian. That is not very helpful to me, unfortunately. Psi+ still doesn’t support account merging.

Both branches of Psi support media calling.

Kopete

Kopete is a KDE multiprotocol instant messenger client. I gave it only about 10 minutes of time because it is far from meeting my needs. It doesn’t support adjustable priorities that I can tell. It also doesn’t support XMPP service discovery, which is used to do things like establish links to other chat networks using a Jabber gateway. It also has no way to access ejabberd’s “send message to all online users” feature (which can be accessed via service discovery), which I need in emergencies at work. It does offer multimedia calls, but that’s about it.

Update: A comment pointed out that Kopete can do service discovery, though it is in a very non-obvious place. However, it still can’t adjust priority when auto-away, so I still can’t use it.

Pidgin

Pidgin is a multiprotocol chat client. I have been avoiding it for years, with the legitimate fear that it was “jack of all trades, master of none.” Last I looked at it, it had the same limitations that Kopete does.

But these days, it is more capable. It supports all those XMPP features. It supports priority dropping by default, and with a plugin, you can even configure all the priority levels just like with Gajim. It also has decent, though not excellent, IRC protocol support.

Pidgin supports account merging — and in fact, it doesn’t support any other mode. You can, for instance, tell it that a given person on IRC is the same as a given Jabber ID. That works, but it’s annoying because you have to manually do it on every machine you’re running Pidgin on. Worse, they used to support a view without merged accounts, but don’t anymore, and they think that’s a feature.

Pidgin does still miss some nifty features that Gajim and Psi both have. Both of those clients will not only tell you that someone is away, but if you hover over their name, tell you how long someone has been away. (Gajim says “away since”, while Pidgin shows “last status at”. Same data either way.) Pidgin has the data to show this, but doesn’t. You can manually find it in the system log if you like, but unhelpfully, it’s not on the log for an individual person.

Also, the Jabber protocol supports notifications while in a chat: “The contact is typing”, paying attention to a conversation, or closed the chat window. Psi and Gajim have configurable support for these; you can send whatever notifications your privacy preferences say. Pidgin, alas, removed that option, and again they see this as a feature.

Pidgin, as a result, makes me rather nervous. They keep removing useful features. What will they remove next?

It is difficult to change colors in Pidgin. It follows the Gtk theme, and there is a special plugin that will override some, but not all, Gtk options.

Empathy

Empathy supports neither priority dropping when away nor service discovery, so it’s not usable for me. Its feature set appears sparse in general, although it has a unique desktop sharing option.

Update: this section added in response to a comment.

On IRC

I also use IRC, and have been using Xchat for that for quite some time now. I tried IRC in Pidgin. It has OK IRC support, but not great. It can automatically identify to nickserv, but it is under-documented and doesn’t support multiple IRC servers for a given network.

I’ve started using xchat with the bip IRC proxy, which makes connecting from multiple machines easier.

Mailing List Hosting

I’ve hosted email lists of one sort or another probably all the way back to 1995, when I first bought complete.org as an email-only domain fed off a UUCP connection on a long-distance dialup link.

I’ve only used two mailing list hosting programs in that whole time: Majordomo and Ecartis (used to be known as Listar). Unfortunately, Ecartis has not seen upstream work in several years, and as a result was removed from Debian in May.

That got me to thinking: what am I going to do with the mailing lists I host? I’m not pleased with my current list archives, which are very similar to what you get from Mailman: no search engine, and every thread is broken at the end of each month.

I also want to preserve my archives.

I’m presently looking at whether to continue hosting the lists myself, or turn to something like Google Groups or Nabble. Hosting it myself, the main choice is Mailman, which really has more features than I need in most areas, and fewer than I need for archiving.

For other hosts, I’ve looked at Google Groups, Yahoo Groups, and Nabble. Google Groups looks like the best option, and even has a (somewhat hidden) way to subscribe via pure email without having a Google account. They can import and export subscriber lists, though not archives.

I’m thinking I’ll also make sure all the lists have full archives at Gmane. Then, based on message IDs, I can generate a bunch of RedirectPermanent lines for Apache to links to the archives don’t get broken.

My current thought for list hosting itself is Google Groups. It would be nice to be free of the hassle of administering a mailing list host, which is nothing special these days. Another benefit of Google Groups is that those people that like web forums (who ARE those people anyway?) get a forum-like interface to the list if they so choose.

Nabble has some interesting features, and can optionally import a full history of a list, but it concentrates far more on the forum than the email aspects. It doesn’t even appear to have basic moderation settings.

Web Design Companies That Understand Technology

There are a lot of companies out there that do web design work that looks fabulous.

Unfortunately, a lot of these sites look fabulous only when viewed in IE6 build xxxx, with a 75dpi monitor, fonts set to the expected size, running on Windows XP SP2, with JavaScript enabled. Try looking at the site through Safari, Firefox, with larger-than-expected fonts, and things break down: text boxes overlap each other, buttons that should work don’t, and it becomes a mess.

So, if your employer wanted a web design company that has a good grasp of Web standards and the appropriate use of them, where would you look? A company that can write good HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and still make the site look appealing? A company that has heard of Apache and gets the appropriate nausea when someone mentions ColdFusion or Frontpage?

So far, I’ve seen these places mentioned by others:

WebDevStudios.com
Happy Cog
Crowd Favorite

Converted to WordPress

I have been using Serendipity on my blog for some time now. Overall, I’ve been pleased with it, but the conversion was a pain.

Serendipity is a simple blog engine, and has a wonderful built-in plugin system. It can detect what plugins need upgrading, and install those upgrades, all from directly within the management interface. There’s no unzipping stuff in install directories as with WordPress.
Continue reading Converted to WordPress