Archive for June 2007

Is Junk E-mail Impeding Postal Mail?

June 17, 2007

I get 200-300 email messages a day in my three accounts, about two-thirds of them in my STScI (work) account.

On a recent day, the Institute junk mail filters caught just 21 messages, one of which was a false-positive. 39 other obvious spam, including several with a charming oversize image of a flayed penis, were not caught. Since the filters catch only a quarter to a third of my spam, and flags things that I thought were on my allowed senders list, I have to check them all.

The false positive is a puzzle: Bruce Schneier’s Crypto-Gram. *.SCHNEIER.COM was on my whitelist, but it seems Bruce switched the return address from MAIL.SCHNEIER.COM to simply SCHNEIER.COM at some point. Still, the message is long, but is all text with some embedded URLs. I don’t know why it’s marked as spam. I get a very similar daily summary from Northrop-Grumman of new JWST documents, but has not (yet) been flagged as spam.

The effect, though, is that I have to scan the envelope information of all the spam messages, 60 to 80 a day, looking for false-positives. That’s almost half of my STScI mail, due to the combination of poor rules and a clunky, unreliable whitelist interface. Gmail is a completely different experience, with less total spam, and very rarely do I get a false positive. Better yet, telling Gmail that it guessed wrong (either way) is quick and easy.

What I find interesting is that I use the same technique for junk postal mail. I get 5 to 10 pieces of mail per day about 75% of it junk mail. I scan the envelopes, looking for obvious ads, but also for credit card, refinancing, and home equity loan offers. I discard (shred, actually) most envelopes without opening them. It would only be slightly more efficient to shred them directly into a recycle bin at the mailbox.

But I also get false positives. My mortgage company needed my signature on some paperwork to clarify the agency relationship for tax purposes. From my perspective, the envelope information on the tax-related documents looked the same as the envelope information for the refinance-offer-of-the-month. So I shredded it. Twice.

The first bit of good news is that I get very little porn (or near-porn, “male enhancement”) junk paper mail.

The second bit of good news is that there are things we can do (but don’t) to improve email filtering, like domain keys, authenticated from addresses, and improved blacklist and whitelist user interfaces. We don’t do those things, but we could.

I wonder if the overwhelming load of crap in electronic mail is causing me to look differently at paper mail, or if the overwhelming success of electronic direct mail advertising has increased the volume and sophistication of paper-based direct mail ads. Is my experience unusual? Have others thrown away non-junk paper mail because they are simply tired of plowing through junk mail?

Or is this just the reverse of the Al Gore thinking model: New ways of thinking about old technologies. That, at least, would be amusing.



Tim Wise followup: Implicit Preference?

June 15, 2007

Harvard University has a series of tests of implicit assumptions people make, under the aegis of Project Implicit.

I took a couple of the demo tests, the African American – European American IAT and the Gender – Science IAT. According to the tests, I have a slight automatic preference for black people over white people, and moderate association of male with science and female with liberal arts.

If you register and follow the link to the research side of the project, you get different tests. One of the ones I took was whether I have a preference for “lucky” people. For example, one guy got run over by a bus, while another won a car in a raffle. It turns out I have no preference.

I am occasionally amazed at how preferences develop, and how our unconscious, or at least unacknowledged, preferences affect the decisions we make and the assumptions we act on.

Upper middle class PTA leaders assume that the people around them grew up the same way they did, and it never occurs to them that one of their number grew up poor. We get something of a break on the religious issue, because there are enough Muslims, Jews and Bhuddists to avoid the automatic assumption that everyone is Christian, but they were shocked to find a Wiccan. (Atheists don’t even surprise even the most Christian among them.) They assume that, because they want to “protect” their daughter from information about sexuality so that she’ll wait until marriage, that I want the same thing, and am trying to provide the same “protection.” In fact, the most shocking thing I think I’ve ever said to another parent was that I hoped my daughter would learn a lot about sex, so that she could make her own choices. I hope she’ll wait until she’s old enough to know her own mind, but I would be surprised and concerned if she committed to a marriage with no experience at all. From the look on that mom’s face, you’d have thought I was pimping my daughter.

People do have preferences about who they like being around. We build “tribes” around common interests, both online and offline. I value diversity, and I also value shared goals and aspirations. Building those communities based on expressed preferences is healthy. Picking your associates based on your assumptions, particularly assumptions about skin color and gender isn’t tribalism, it’s racism and sexism.

I’m fortunate to have grown up in a racially mixed environment, and to have been exposed to both poverty and wealth. While I could have made different choices and gotten a better technical education, I think having a liberal arts background has made me a wider person.

So to torture the metaphor at the end of Tim Wise’s talk, I recognize the stinking pot of two-day-old gumbo, and I’m willing to help clean up. The problem is, I don’t think I know how to clean it. I’m inclined to throw it out, but I fear replacing the pot would be expensive, and dangerous.

So, watch the talk, and think about the problem. If you have ideas for how to clean the pot, I’d like to hear them.

Looking for Help on FOS

June 14, 2007

We are looking for help for the Flight Operations Subsystem team.

The position is posted internally now, but will be external any time. The ideal person would have experience with control center systems, ideally building one, and be experienced in working with developer, astronomer and system engineering communities here and at Goddard. This is work that Carl Biagetti is leading, and Carey Myers is starting to work on.

To quote me:

The JWST Flight Operations Subsystem Engineer will be responsible for refining the FOS operations concept, defining systems requirements, interfaces and architecture as well as supporting the development of FOS elements and their integration with the JWST Science and Operations Center. The FOS Systems Engineer will work under the direction of the STScI FOS Systems Engineering Lead as a member of a concurrent engineering team responsible for the FOS Ground System. This position will require interaction with JWST science, operations and development staff, the JWST NASA GSFC project, JWST contractors and representatives of other missions to achieve the work objectives.

Knowledge of the state of the art in satellite control center systems is required. This includes experience with the following: one or more NASA GSFC developed systems such as TPOCC, ITOS, ASSIST, HST CCS; one or more commercial systems such as EPOCH, ECLIPSE or OS/COMET; ground station and communications satellite interfaces; satellite command procedures languages; satellite control center operations procedures.

If you are somebody like that, or know somebody like that, I want to talk to you, even if you aren’t interested in doing this kind of work yourself. (For one thing, I can use help on the interview team!)

This is new stuff for us, so it’s a challenging, exciting opportunity.


Sixteen more digits

June 1, 2007

Heh. The AACS revoked the previous “master key” but it didn’t take long for the new key to show up in blog posts:

It looks like somebody is working on the appropriate website, but in the meantime you’ll have to settle for a description of the story.


Women like the work, but not the workplace.

June 1, 2007

A while back I expressed surprise about girls being more effective than boys at a particular programming task. The more I learn, the less I’m surprised.

The problem, it seems, is not the conventional wisdom that girls don’t like math and science, and they just need to be encouraged to be interested in those things. The problem is that while girls and women do like those subjects, they don’t like the behaviors of people who work in those areas.

Debra Perlman, in eWeek a couple weeks ago, writes:

The vast majority of women working in the field of technology enjoy their jobs, finds the “Women in Technology 2007” report published by WITI (Women in Technology International), a trade association, and Compel, a management consulting and research firm. Of the survey’s nearly 2,000 female respondents, 75 percent said that they would encourage other women to pursue similar interests.

Yet, female tech workers have mixed feelings about their companies’ climates, with only 52 percent believing that their organizations offer a favorable one for women.

So women do like the work, but they don’t like the workplace they see around them. Some of these behaviors are policy decisions. (Follow the link in the article for a couple of examples.)

Some are the result of discrimination, as I previously discussed, and as we saw from a couple of court cases this week. An important point, missed in some of the coverage of the Supreme Court case, is that a jury found salary discrimination did exist at Goodyear, but The Court found the claim was barred by the plain language of the law. The GE Transportation case will not suffer from that defect.

Next week at the Institute we’ll also have some discussions around behavior, which we’ve known since the 2000 employee survey is a problem. Women get ignored, their input is not solicited, and their achievements are not recognized.

That shouldn’t happen either.