Emails to Melbourne’s trees

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Melbourne gave 70,000 trees email addresses so people could report on their condition. But instead people are writing love letters, existential queries and sometimes just bad puns.

In an effort to facilitate better tracking of the health of their trees, the city of Melbourne assigned an email address to each of them and allowed them to be looked-up using a map. The thinking was that people could email if a tree needed attention by the council, and the human that processed the email would automatically be able to determine the location of the plant.

But people started emailing the trees themselves. And not just people who’d seen them in person: people from all over the world. From “You are just outside my work and you make me happy :)” to “I love the way the light looks through your leaves and how your branches come down so low and wide it is almost as if you are trying to hug me. It is nice to have you so close, I should try to visit more often.” Delightful.

GMail Tip: Use A Plus Sign To Avoid Spam

This technique’s about a decade old, but a lot of people still aren’t using it, and I can’t help but suspect that can only be because they didn’t know about it yet, so let’s revisit:

You have a GMail account, right? Or else Google for Domains? Suppose your email address is dan@gmail.com… did you know that also means that you own:

  • dan+smith@gmail.com
  • dan+something@gmail.com
  • dan+anything-really@gmail.com
  • d.an@gmail.com
  • d..a..n@gmail.com

You have a practically infinite number of GMail addresses. Just put a plus sign (+) after your name but before the @-sign and then type anything you like there, and the email will still reach you. You can also insert as many full stops (.) as you like, anywhere in the first half of your email address, and they’ll still reach you, too. And that’s really, really useful.

Filling in an Equifax registration form.
Often, you end up having to give your email address to companies that you don’t necessarily trust…

When you’re asked to give your email address to a company, don’t give them your email address. Instead, give them a mutated form of your email address that will still work, but that identifies exactly who you gave it to. So for example you might give the email address dan+amazon@gmail.com to Amazon, the email address dan+twitter@gmail.com to Twitter, and the email address dan+pornhub@gmail.com to… that other website you have an account on.

Why is this a clever idea? Well, there are a few reasons:

  • If the company sells your email address to spammers, or hackers steal their database, you’ll know who to blame by the email address they’re sending to. I’ve actually caught out an organisation in this way who were illegally reselling their mailing lists to third parties.
  • If you start getting unwanted mail from somebody (whether because spammers got the email or because you don’t like what the company is sending to you), you can easily block them. Even if you can’t unsubscribe or just because they make it hard to do so, you can just set up a filter to automatically discard anything that comes to that email address in future.
  • If you feel like organising your life better, you can set up filters for that, too: it doesn’t matter what address a company sends from, so long as you know what address they’re sending to, so you can easily have filters that e.g. automatically forward copies of the mortgage statement that come to dan+yourbank@gmail.com to your spouse, or automatically label anything coming to
    dan+someshop@gmail.com with the label “Shopping”.
  • If you’re signing up just to get a freebie and you don’t trust them not to spam you afterwards, you don’t need to use a throwaway: just receive the goodies from them and them block them at the source.
The email address dan+equifax@gmail.com being entered into a form.
Certainly, you can have… THIS email address.

I know that some people get some of these benefits by maintaining a ‘throwaway’ email address. But it’s far more-convenient to use the email address you already have (you’re already logged-in to it and you use it every day)! And if you ever do want a true ‘throwaway’, you’re generally better using Mailinator: when you’re asked for your email address, just mash the keyboard and then put @mailinator.com on the end, to get e.g. dsif9tsnev4y8594es87n65y4@mailinator.com. Copy the first half of the email address to the clipboard, and then when you’re done signing up to whatever spammy service it is, just go to mailinator.com and paste into the box to see what they emailed you.

A handful of badly-configured websites won’t accept email addresses with plus signs in them, claiming that they’re invalid (they’re not). Personally, when I come across these I generally just inform the owner of the site of the bug and then take my business elsewhere; that’s how important it is to me to be able to filter my email properly! But another option is to exploit the fact that you can put as many dots in (the first part of) your GMail address as you like. So you could put d…an@gmail.com in and the email will still reach you, and you can later filter-out emails to that address. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide how to encode information about the service you’re signing up to into the pattern and number of dots that you use.

Go forth and avoid spam.

Pay To Post

I see that Facebook is experimenting with allowing you to pay a nominal fee to make sure that your posts end up “highlighted” over those of your friends’ other friends. That’s a whole new level of crazy… or is it?

A screenshot of Facebook's new "Highlight" feature.
A screenshot of Facebook's new "Highlight" feature. For about a quid, you can push your wall posts to the top of everybody's list.

I’m not on Facebook, but I think that this is a really interesting piece of news. The biggest thing that makes Facebook unusable (and which also affects Twitter) is that people will post every little banal thing that comes to their mind. I don’t care what you’re eating for your lunch. I don’t want to read the lyrics of some song that must have been written for you. I really can’t stand your chain messages (for a while there, after I hadn’t received any by email for a few years, I hoped that they’d died out… but it turns out that they just moved to Facebook instead). If you’re among my friends, I know that you have some pretty smart and interesting things to say… but unless I’m willing to spend hours sifting through the detritus it’s buried in, I’ll never find it.

Social Media Citation. The littering fine tickets of the digital generation.
Social Media Citation. The littering fine tickets of the digital generation.

But this might work. If the price sweet spot can be found, and it’s marketed right, then this kind of feature might make services like Facebook more tolerable. When you’re writing about a cute picture of the cat you’ve seen, that’s fine. And when you write something I might care about, you can tick the “this is actually relevant” box. You’ll have to pay a few pence, but at least you know I’ll see it. And if I want to churn through reams of “X likes Chocolate” (who doesn’t?) and “Y is… in a queue for the bus” then I can turn off the “only relevant things” mode and waste some time.

The problem is that the sweet spot will vary from person to person, and there’s no way to work around that. Big Bucks Bob can probably afford to pay a couple of pounds every time he wants to push some meme photo to the top of your feed, but Poor Penniless Penny can’t even justify ten pence to make sure that all of her friends hear about her birthday party.

Google+ tries to use heuristics to show you "top" content you might be interested in.
Google+ tries to use heuristics to show you "top" content you might be interested in. It feels less insidious than charging you, as Facebook will, but it still doesn't quite work.

It’s a pity that it won’t work, because a part of me is drawn to the idea that economic theory can help to improve the signal-to-noise ratio in our information-saturated lives. Turning my attention to email: of all the cost-based anti-spam systems, I was always quite impressed with Hashcash (which Microsoft seem to be reinventing with their Penny Black project). The idea is that your computer does some hard-to-do (but easy-to-verify) computational work for each and every email that it sends. But in its own way, Hashcash has a similar problem to Facebook’s new system: the ability to pay of a sender is not directly proportional to their relevance to the recipient. If my mother wants to send me an email from her aging smartphone, should she have to wait for several minutes while it processes and generates an “e-stamp”, just because – if it were made any faster – spammers with zombie networks of computers could do so too easily?

Yes, I just equated your social network status, about what you ate for your lunch, with spam. If you don’t like it, don’t share this blog post with your friends.

hashcash token: 1:20:120511:https://danq.me/2012/05/11/pay-to-post/::UVHo081pj6bSDWkI:00000000000001sxI

HDMI Virus, or How I Became An Old Person

So I saw this HDMI cable online:

Apparently the plastic coating around this cable helps to prevent 'virus noises', whatever those are. Red scribbles added by me.

Somehow, this triggered a transformation in me. You know how when Eric eats a banana, an amazing transformation occurs? A similar thing happened to me: this horrendously-worded advertisement turned me into an old person. I wanted to write a letter to them.

My letter... er... email to Bluemouth Interactive.

There were so many unanswered questions in my mind: what is a “virus noise” (is it a bit like the sound of somebody sneezing?)? How a polyester coating protects against them? And what kind of viruses are transmitted down video cables, anyway?

It took them five days but, fair play to them, they – despite Reddit’s expectations – wrote back.

Bluemouth's response to me. Like the other pictures, you can click it to see it in full.

Their explanation? The ‘Virus’ was transcribed from French terminology for interference. It’s not a computer virus or anything like that.

The world is full of examples of cables being over-sold, especially HDMI cables and things like “gold-plated optical cables” (do photons care about the conductivity of gold, now?).

Does anybody have enough of a familiarity with the French language to let me know if their explanation is believable?

Back In Aber

[this post was lost during a server failure on Sunday 11 July 2004; it was finally recovered on 12 October 2018]

As expected, I had very little internet access over the Christmas period. And now I’m back in Aber. Mozilla reports 688 new e-mails. Joy.

Will say more when I can be arsed. I came back here from Lancashire via Merseyside and Norfolk. That’s a fair journey by anyone’s standards.

Hugz;

Something In The Water

[this post was lost during a server failure on Sunday 11th July 2004; it was partially recovered on 21st March 2012]

People keep getting together. Kate and Leu, Tom and Liz (now with a journal!), and now: Sian and Andy. Must be something in the water. The latter pair (and the one I most recently heard about) is the most unexpected, and the middle one the most blatant. Sian and Andy???

Well, best of luck to them anyway: a long-distance relationship isn’t necessarily easy, but I’m sure that Sian knows that by now anyway.

I’ve challenged Paul to find the link between Tonari no Totoro, which we’ll be watching next Troma Night, and Troma. There is a link, and it’s a lot less complicated than he’s looking for. He has until Saturday before I tell him anyway.

I tried to send an e-mail to a load of people the other day, telling them about something I’ll later tell to one other person. Unfortunatley I accidently e-mailed the other person at the same time (was thinking about them … [the rest of this post, and one comment, are lost]

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #51:

Spend all night playing e-mail tennis with somebody cross-campus, simply because it’s 2:40am and you haven’t got anything you’d rather be doing (except sleeping, but I’m not sleepy, soo…).

The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #48:

Discover, by sheer coincidence, that one of your more recent aquaintances down here (Claire) went to the same high school as one of your longer-running friends up North (Faye), and that they know one another! Freaky but completely true: the two parties are contactable on storm_lady0@yahoo.com and clb9@aber.ac.uk, for verification!

The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #38:

Recieve an e-mail criticising the way you send your e-mails. It appears to be from some big-headed student, who thinks they know it all (which they can’t, ‘cos then they’d know that I already knew that they didn’t know <sigh>, which is slightly self-defeating). Set them straight with a well-placed flame, and bite them by e-mail. Later, while filing their e-mail, check their signature, and realise that you’ve just accidently flamed the President of the Students Union!!! AARRGGGHHHHH!

The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #36:

(1) Recieve an e-mail from your Personal Tutor, asking to see you in his office in ten minutes. He knows I check my e-mail 1440 times a day, but dragging me to this level of nerdity is ridiculous…
(2) …make it to his office, cross campus, within eight minutes of him sending the e-mail… Okay – so I *live* in my anorak. I don’t care. =o( I’m going to go and sit in the corner and sulk now.

The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.