net.wars: Gosford Perl

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 04 July 2003

Wendy celebrates Independence Day with a unilateral declaration of independence from Spam - even at the cost of learning a new language.

Wendy M Grossman

"First, you must install Perl," writes Mrs. Beeton.

I read that sentence something like six weeks ago, and succeeding sentences which listed arcane commands to type in order to install Perl modules with this package instead of that package (neither of which I'd ever heard of), and of course the reality was I didn't care about Perl, I wasn't interested in Perl, what I wanted was spam filtering on my new Communigate Pro mailserver. And the spam filtering I'd picked was SpamAssassin because it was the best and the most transparent, they all said so.

I quailed. It sounded complicated and time-consuming, and the kind of thing you'd get halfway through and regret intensely having started. Besides, it said, "This is very easy."

When you see that sentence in technical documentation, run.

I did some more wandering around the Net looking at spam filters. Most are made for client software, and I really wanted something to integrate at the server level, so I could download mail onto the Palm, the laptop, or any machine I happened to Web in from and have one set of filters to update. With some relief, I noticed that Brightmail, which CIX has, had an "enterprise" edition. A mail server with about six users, three of them different versions of me, is an enterprise, right? And Brightmail is a company. You can review commercial software.

The thing about Brightmail is that it wants Windows 2000 Server. Now, I know that, like Perl, any self-respecting remotely technical person already has it installed if they don't run GNU/Linux and sneer at it. But I manage with a collection of Windows 2000 Professional machines. So, there it was: install and configure Windows 2000 Server, or install Perl and all the little Perlites. W2KS - Perl - I went with Perl. The instructions tend to be written by techies who think you already know what all the words mean, but at least the instructions don't direct you to the online help, which advises you to contact your system administrator.

In fact, it was pretty painless. Getting SpamAssassin to work wasn't, but it turned out there was a newer utility I didn't know about that did most of the integration stuff for me. And last Saturday night, magically, SpamAssassin started marking Spam and CommuniGate Pro began removing it from my view. So far, its default settings seem to pick up about 85 percent of the junk; it's had no false positives whatsoever. It's wonderful. I can just sit back and watch the numbers in the "trash" mailbox add up and not do a damn thing except flush occasionally.

The fact that this works so well – I still have to turn on the learning features so it will filter ever more and more accurately – is close to a miracle to me. And it really does, as it let me pick up email on the Palm while I was at Wimbledon yesterday surveying the IBM network that reports scores and statistics, puts all those graphics on your TV screen, and even lets selected folks roam the grounds viewing current scores and bits of video on handhelds. (Now, I know what you're going to say. You're going to say that if you're at Wimbledon you don't need to see video clips on a handheld, you can just go watch the match. Tell that to the people on Aorangi Terrace watching Tim Henman on the giant widescreen TV they've got there.)

The relief is intense. (To give you an idea of the level it had reached, the trash inbox has collected 415 pieces of junk in five days. And that's without the throwaway addresses that get nothing but spam. Overall, I'm probably averaging 100 pieces a day.)

And it was this coalface I had in mind when I went to look at Sony's collection of electronic gizmos intended as gifts for the holiday-which-shall-not-be-named-before-November. They have this very sleek, metallic, all-in-one PC-TV-DVD-stereo system-clock-radio thing.

It looks like a smallish flat widescreen TV, with a keyboard that folds up, and speakers, and probably a slot into which to stick bread so it can toast it for you in the morning. Sony's fantasy is that it will live in the bedroom, and you can watch a DVD on it in bed before going to sleep, and then it will wake you up in the morning and you can do your email. My fantasy is that they will redesign it so the screen is detachable and I can prop it up in front of me in bed like a book. The way they had the demonstration set up, this machine was on a table at the foot of the bed. Now, where's the sense in that? At that distance, the screen's too small for comfortable movie viewing, you can't use the keyboard without getting out of bed, and it's a damn long way to the snooze button. "You use the remote," they said helpfully.

Ah, yes, the remote. But will it filter spam?

This machine is the devil. It looks like consumer electronics, but you know that lurking behind its quietly ostentatious exterior is all the same PC stuff that drives you mad on all the rest of them. It's like IBM's effortlessly elegant Wimbledon Web site, which has hordes of people ministering to it – did you know that the unused capacity is busy folding proteins for a research project? – and servicing its needs. Behind these fronts are the coalface, where you must install Perl to keep hackers from setting off your alarm clock every 20 minutes all night.

In Gosford Park, the languidly luxurious lifestyle of the rich and titled could only exist because below stairs was an energetic army of people doing all the hard, physical work. If Mrs Beeton lived now, she'd be writing books on programming.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).