I had a bit of email drama this week; Gmail started classifying half of my incoming legitimate email as spam. I got some great help from Gmail support who explained the problem and taught me how to properly forward email.

In detail, what happened… I get all my email to nelson@monkey.org, which I forward via procmail and SMTP to my gmail account. For some reason monkey.org recently got branded a possibly spammy domain. Because of my forwarding Gmail was under the impression that all my email was coming from monkey.org, so a bunch of it started getting marked as spam. The Gmail UI is a bit buggy in this circumstance; it was misidentifying which domain was the problem, telling me “we’ve found that lots of messages from gmail.com are spam” and the like when the real problem was monkey.org.

I fixed the problem by forwarding my mail properly. Gmail doesn’t just use the From: email header to identify the sender, it also uses the (normally invisible) From⎵ SMTP envelope. And because I misconfigured procmail, that header was always being set to nelson@monkey.org (since I was sending the mail). You can spoof the envelope too via -f, you just have to set it up that way. (Which makes me wonder why the spam filter pays any attention to it.)

It's a subtle problem; I only noticed it after several years. If you use procmail to forward to Gmail, you may want to look into your configuration. I believe most more ordinary forwarding mechanisms don’t have the envelope problem. Procmail is weird in that it’s generating new emails, not forwarding existing ones.

  2013-01-27 18:46 Z
Actual Facebook Graph Searches is a brilliant blog collecting creepy uses of Facebook's new social graph search. Facebook's product is controversial and I'm glad they launched it. It's fascinating data. Facebook's entire business since day one has been about taking semi-private data and making it semi-public. They blur privacy lines all the time. And they keep abusing their users in all sorts of terrible ways, proactively changing the rules (like the Beacon fiasco). But it doesn't matter, there are still hundreds of millions of people using Facebook every day. Elite nerds complain and wring our hands and have no impact; Facebook just lurches on. They are shifting the definition of privacy.

Our society fundamentally doesn't understand how to treat privacy in the age of databases. From reverse phone books to gun permit maps to scraped lists of political donors, we are continuously astonished when semi-public data seems creepy and privacy invading when aggregated.

So now we have Graph Search, a whole new way of looking at semi-private data that is public and can be creepy when remixed. It's either going to fail fantastically or it's going to be something great and useful. I don't know which. But I'm glad to watch the experiment.

Adapted from my comment in a Metafilter discussion.
  2013-01-23 16:04 Z
The zero width space is a useful Unicode character. It's white space but renders with zero width. Useful for hinting where a line break could go if a browser needs to wrap a long line. It's also good for faking out Twitter's annoying URL rewriter; if you stick a ZWS in the middle of a domain name then Twitter won't rewrite your text with a t.co redirect.

The zero width space is Unicode character U+200B. (HTML ​). It's remarkably hard to type. On Windows you can type Alt-8203. On Linux you apparently can type Ctrl-Shift-U 8203. On a Mac you need Character Viewer; search for "zero" and double click the invisible character on row 4, column 1 to insert a ZWS.


Or you can just cut and paste it. I put one up there for you, between the left and right angle brackets. Of course being zero width you can't easily select it; best bet is to copy the angle brackets too, all 3 characters. Then paste and delete the brackets. You can verify the ZWS is still there by using the arrow keys to move the cursor; it should get "stuck" on the ZWS and require two movements to pass.
  2013-01-21 22:33 Z

Astronomy enthusiasts have an expression: first light. That’s the first view through a new telescope, the thrilling moment when something you’ve long anticipated, maybe built by hand, is finally real. First light is the beginning of a telescope’s life. It’s cherished for the excitement but it’s also a way to honor all the work, use, and joy to come.

I have a problem with first light. I love the experience of building something new, the moment when a bunch of abstract work and thinking results in the first tangible, visible product. I’m pretty good at achieving first light, at exploring a new idea or area and figuring out how to get something working.

But first light should be the beginning of an endeavour, not the end. Real products come from months or years of polishing, refining, tuning. Astronomers enjoy the thrill of first light through a new telescope, but real astronomy comes from folks like William Herschel or JLE Dryer spending years using those telescopes to systematically catalog the skies. Years of minute, careful work; ultimately rewarding, but terribly repetitive and fiddly.

I don’t have much patience for consistent finishing work. And since my last full time job (in 2006!) I haven’t had requirements to finish things, to turn random software experiments into real usable artifacts. And so I have a string of half-finished prototypes not worth showing people. I find that intensely frustrating.

  2013-01-16 18:59 Z

A few months back we bought a house in Grass Valley, CA. We’re now got the house pretty well set up and have some idea what it’s like. Mostly it’s awesome. I really like the area. And I’m loving being in a big, spacious, quiet place with privacy and calm. San Francisco was really getting me down, so crowded and noisy and aggro. Nevada County is worlds away from all that and very comfortable. I’ve ended up spending a lot more time at the new place than I originally expected, mostly because it’s just so pleasant. My big decision yesterday evening was whether to watch the sunset from the hot tub or set up the telescope to look at Io’s shadow transiting Jupiter.

I’ve gotten to know the area pretty well and there’s a lot more depth than I originally expected. Grass Valley and Nevada City are a surprisingly sophisticated enclave for rural California. There’s a lot of independent tech oriented folks up here, some working full time (typically remotely) and some semi-retired. I was fortunate to be able to join the Nevada City Hackathon last month and met a lot of great people.

We’ve had a few guests come and stay for a couple of nights which has been great. We’ve got a really comfortable guest bedroom, a big social kitchen, and plenty of relaxing quiet. My hope is that more friends from the Bay Area will want to come up and spend some time with us.

  2013-01-09 19:28 Z