Obfuscating your email addresses is pointless

I’m with Cory Doctorow here: Keeping an email address secret won’t hide it from spambots.

When I had to change email addresses a couple of years back, I considered not posting the new address on my site, to keep the spambots from harvesting it. (My previous email address had been published before there even was spam, so keeping it secret from spammers had never been an option.)

In the end, though, I decided—just as Cory has—that there’s no point. The benefits are very small (the spammers will get your email address anyway), and the costs are significant (all your correspondants have to go through extra work to track down and de-obfuscate your email address).

In the end I did make one concession to the spambots. My email address is no longer in the footer of every page, the way it used to be. Now it just appears in my “contact” page (linked to from the sidebar). That hides it from the very most lazy spambots (which seems to be a large fraction of them). But my email address is right there as a clickable mailto link. Not obfuscated. Not presented as an image. Not hidden behind a contact form.

If you’ve got something you want to say to me, send me some email!

Localization—not just for food

I spent the whole decade of the 1990s hoping that the economic upturn would prove that the strategy of letting employees go the instant there wasn’t any work to do was unwise. Surely, I thought, those companies would suffer—missing out on business because they didn’t have the skilled employees to do the work (and screwing up on what business they did get, because rushing to hire new employees would result in picking up some duds).

My hopes remained unfulfilled. Oh, probably plenty of companies did suffer from an inability to hire skilled, reliable workers at reasonable wages. Certainly employers complain that they can’t, especially when they’re lobbying Congress for an expansion of the H1 visa program. But it didn’t matter, because the company’s were profitable. (Profitable companies may do as they please; unprofitable companies must kowtow to the financial markets.)

I’ve written about this before, in a two part series at Wise Bread called “What’s An Employee To Do?” Part 1 laid out the issue in some detail, and part 2 talked about the best strategies for an employee to follow. (There’s actually a lot of opportunity for employees in the current situation, as long as they don’t make the mistake of thinking of themselves as employees.)

Prompted by Tobias Buckell’s recent post Working culture, though, I wanted to talk a little about the broader impacts of the way we’ve come to arrange society, because there were other reasons that employers kept employees on during a business downturn. Business owners kept employees on during a downturn because they cared about them as people, because they were friends and neighbors, because the whole community suffered when one person lost a job.

A small part of the reason that things are different now is that this is less true. Managers are not as likely to live in the same neighborhoods as their employees. They don’t shop in the same stores. Their kids don’t go to the same schools. In any case, the decisions are being made far away. (The local managers were completely out of the loop when the site where I used to work was closed down three years ago.)

But that’s just been an enabler of this shift. The real cause is the behavior of the financial markets, which since 1990 have crushed any employer that tries to resist, by driving its stock price low enough that someone could acquire them and bring in new management—management that would lay off plenty of workers.

This isn’t new, of course. Business owners knew that going public meant putting their business in the jaws of the financial market nutcracker—but they made so much money it was worth it. You occasionally hear about the rare business owner who has declined to go public for just that reason—but you hear about it because it’s rare enough as to be news.

As Toby describes, Germany has structures and institutions in place to support businesses that are small and local. Unions are a big one—including the government support for unions that encourage and enable unions to work together in a block. Also important are rules that lean against market pressures for business consolidation, offshoring employment, etc.

Personally, I used to support a purely market-based approach. That’s why I spent the 1990s waiting for markets to punish the bad actors. I’ve changed my mind. It’s fine to leave the fate of the companies up to the markets, but it unacceptable to leave to the markets the fate of whole communities.

Similarly, I used to support the notion that the right way to address this sort of issue was education (because I believe in free choice). Yes, stuff made by prisoners, slaves, and children costs less. Yes, stuff made by heavy industry costs less if the manufacturers are allowed to wreak environmental destruction all across their supply chain. But surely people would make different purchasing choices if they understood that they’re not only paying to have all this harm done, they’re also putting their friends and neighbors (and themselves) out of work. There again, I’ve changed my mind. It turns out, I simply didn’t understand how much cheaper that stuff was than stuff made locally.

Given the option to have the accoutrements of a middle-class standard of living—clothes, dishes, furniture, gizmos—it’s become clear that most Americans will cheerfully accept any amount of slave labor and environmental destruction (as long as they don’t have to see it) and tolerate the destruction of local businesses and the bankruptcy of their neighbors.

They’ll complain about how it affects property values and how it makes it tough to find a job. But then they’ll take their unemployment check and food stamps and go buy the cheapest stuff they can find at WalMart.

Neither markets nor eduction are going to do the job. The U.S. needs to create institutional support along the lines of what Germany provides.

Recycling for apartment dwellers

Recycling Bin
Recycling Bin

To me, recycling is kind of a declaration of failure. It’s a statement that that I needed something so badly that I couldn’t just do without it, nor make do with something I already had, and yet didn’t need it so badly that it made sense to buy an item of enduring value—something I’d keep, rather than tossing into the recycling.

Champaign-Urbana, though, is very much a recycling kind of place. Locals in both communities have long had curb-side recycling—but only people who live in houses. For some insane reason, there was no easy way for people in apartments to recycle. (There was a “recycling center,” but it wasn’t satisfactory—it was 3.6 miles away, and really only accessible by car. You could get there by bus, but it took an hour—and you still had to cover a mile of the distance on foot.)

The story, as I understand it, was that apartment dwellers weren’t the sort to take to recycling: They were too lazy, too uninvolved, too low-class. Only house dwellers were the sort of upright people who cared enough about their environment and community.

It’s a story that pisses me off, because apartment living is much more sustainable than vast suburbs of detached homes. To simply dismiss people like me (who chose to live in an apartment on the grounds of simplicity, frugality, and energy efficiency) over an offensive stereotype of apartment dwellers is annoying.

Far more annoying, though, would be to have that stereotype vindicated by my neighbor’s behavior. And the opportunity to find out has arrived here in Champaign. A few weeks ago, recycle bins appeared next to our big dumpsters (sealed shut with a strip of tape asking us not to dump recyclables until Thanksgiving). We all got fliers asking us to feed the thing.

So far, I haven’t seen much use by other residents. We don’t use it a lot, because we don’t produce much recyclable waste, but we have started separating our cans, bottles, paper, and cardboard from the food waste. But even if our neighbors are quite conscientious about reducing and reusing, I’d expect to see more recyclables than I do.

It’s not looking good for team simple-living. Let’s hope it’s just some combination of newness and holiday craziness—that by early next year, my neighbors will be recycling up a storm.

I really don’t want the stereotype of the disengaged apartment dweller to be true.

[Updated 2011-03-11: Once the recycling bins had been in place for a couple of weeks, my neighbors started doing a much better job of putting the recyclables into the recycling. Phew.]

Adoration of the Snowman

Adoration of the Snowman, originally uploaded by bradipo. Photo by Philip Brewer. Snow sculpture by some neighbor kid, I assume.

I almost captured the posture in this picture—the snowman leaning back, face turned up, arms spread wide. He looks like there’s nothing in the world more interesting than the apartment building across the path.

Creative Commons License
Adoration of the Snowman by Philip Brewer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Applications open for Clarion

If you’re a writer of speculative fiction, you’ve probably already heard of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop—and probably already spent some time wishing you could go. At least, that was my experience. I first heard of the workshop in the late 1970s; I didn’t manage to attend until 2001.

For me, Clarion was a purely positive experience. I learned a lot about writing, wrote several stories (one of which got published in a good market), met a bunch of great writers (both teachers and fellow students), and generally had a blast nearly every day for six weeks.

If you want to know what Clarion was like for me, you’re in luck—I kept a journal of my time at Clarion. (Other possibly useful stuff I wrote about Clarion include my article How I Learned at Clarion, which talks about my surprise at discovering that the activities that I thought would be more or less useful turned out to be just about backwards, and my page on Clarion Costs, which talks about my Clarion expenses.)

But what’s more important is what Clarion will be like for you, which is something that you can’t read about—it’s just something that you’ll be able to write about, if you go.

Here’s the official announcement.

If the idea appeals to you, there’s a button at the bottom of the Clarion page that you can click to start your own application.

Website revisions

I’ve made some revisions to my website.

  1. I’ve updated to a new theme that includes support for “asides” (brief posts like this one) and thumbnails (pictures to be featured when only an extract of the post is shown, such as on the category and search pages).
  2. I’ve removed the “sticky” post that had my picture and text about me, and replaced it with an abbreviated version at the top of the sidebar.

What do you think?

NaNoWriMo ends

As NaNoWriMo ends, I’ve taken down my progress bar. It topped 15,000 around mid-month, but hasn’t moved much since then. I’ve re-learned a lesson I’ve learned before—I can only produce around 1000 words of fiction per day on a sustained basis.

At the end of the first week I managed a 2300-word day to get back on track, but then only hit 300 words each of the next two days. That pretty much put paid to the notion of hitting 50,000 by the end of the month—and the related discouragement made it all the harder to be productive over the second half of the month.

However, I’m by no means giving up. At 1000 words per day, I should be able to finish this novel in just another couple of months.

That’s my plan. I may even put up a non-NaNaWriMo progress bar.

Even with the failure to produce a novel in a month, I’ve found the process to be useful. Two things in particular stand out:

  1. I had a boatload of new novel ideas that I’ve had to push aside to keep working on this one. They all seem particularly shiny. I’m looking forward to picking one of them to work on next.
  2. I’ve learned a lot about structuring a novel, which is very different from structuring a short story. I’ll have more to say about that in the future.

I spent most of the morning making minor revisions to my outline, based on insights into how the novel should be structured. There’ll be some more of that this afternoon—but also, hopefully, some new text generation as well.

The moderately grim truth

Via Dmitry Orlov, I happened upon America: The Grim Truth, which I think is worth reading, even though I disagree with both the forecast and the prescription.

It’s worth reading because I think it’s actually pretty good descriptively—it nails the split between the reality of the current situation and the average American’s perception of it. I am persistently amazed at the things that Americans just accept.

On food:

Much of the beef you eat has been exposed to fecal matter in processing. Your chicken is contaminated with salmonella. Your stock animals and poultry are pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics.

On education:

In most countries in the developed world, higher education is either free or heavily subsidized; in the United States, a university degree can set you back over US$100,000. Thus, you enter the working world with a crushing debt. Forget about taking a year off to travel the world and find yourself – you’ve got to start working or watch your credit rating plummet.

On wealth:

America has the illusion of great wealth because there’s a lot of “stuff” around, but who really owns it? In real terms, the average American is poorer than the poorest ghetto dweller in Manila, because at least they have no debts. If they want to pack up and leave, they can; if you want to leave, you can’t, because you’ve got debts to pay.

On freedom:

Why would anyone put up with this? Ask any American and you’ll get the same answer: because America is the freest country on earth. If you believe this, I’ve got some more bad news for you: America is actually among the least free countries on earth. Your piss is tested, your emails and phone calls are monitored, your medical records are gathered, and you are never more than one stray comment away from writhing on the ground with two Taser prongs in your ass.

Even though I agree with just about all of that, I disagree on the prospects for the future.

First of all, the current situation is still an improvement over most of US history. Through our whole first century and a half, the average American lived a life just as dangerous, just as precarious, and just as vulnerable as the one described above. And if the average American didn’t owe just as much money, it was only because he didn’t have access to that much credit.

My point is not that things are okay now, but rather that the fact that things got better serves as an existence proof that getting better is something that can happen.

Second, although the situation in the US is very bad for someone who has gotten caught in the wage-slave/debt-slave trap, it remains possible in the US to opt out. It’s actually pretty easy, as long as you avoid debt. And avoiding debt is pretty easy: just don’t let yourself be sucked into the consumer lifestyle. There’s an awful lot of crap for sale—don’t buy it. There are plenty of big houses for sale—don’t buy one. You can live in a bigger, nicer apartment if you’re willing to live an hour’s drive from where you work—but if you live where you can walk to work, you don’t have to buy a car. With the money you save, join the rentier class.

I think we ought to change things, and I think it would be great if we could get the government to set rules that would encourage those changes—require uncontaminated food, prohibit predatory lending, protect workers from abuse, etc. But individuals can actually make those changes in their own lives without needing the government to act.

So I don’t see a need to flee the country. But that doesn’t mean that I think things are okay—which is why I think that’s a post worth reading.

On the ethics of submitting to airport security

I don’t want to say that I’m never going to fly again. I’d fly—if it were necessary to hurry to the bedside of a sick relative or to rescue someone. I might, just possibly, fly in order to take the vacation of a lifetime. But routine flying? I’m done with it. I’m simply no longer willing to participate in the system.

Megan McArdle hits almost the right note in this piece in the Atlantic: Dear Airline, I’m Leaving You. She seems to get the ethical aspect of being a willing participant in an immoral system, although she plays it for laughs.

Through most of the past decade, I flew on business a couple times a year. I got to watch as airport security became more and more a kind of shamanistic ritual better suited to deflecting blame in case of a terrorist incident than actually preventing one.

It always annoyed me—the pointlessness, more than the actual inconvenience. But even more than that, the fact that I submitted to it was a blow to my self-image. I take security seriously—all those business trips were for my work on Bluetooth security. As a person who takes security seriously, I really hated my role in the mock security at airports. Each time I submitted to it, simply because it was the only way to get where I needed to go, I thought less of myself.

I also worry about the TSA agents. Where I was only playing a brief role in the security theater, they were doing it as a career. How soul-destroying must it be when your whole career is performing pointless acts of mock security?

And spending your working life doing mock security is nothing compared to what those poor TSA guys and girls are doing now. Spending your days staring through the clothing of the traveling public? Getting paid to grope a steady stream of tourists and business people? No one with good moral character could do the work—which means that any such people will be quickly driven out of the job. Soon the only TSA agents left behind will be degenerates who don’t understand why what they’re doing is wrong.

And that is what I refuse to participate in. It’s not that I worry about people seeing me naked, nor about someone touching me inappropriately. It’s that the whole system is wrong. It mandates behavior that is uncivilized, unethical, harmful to everyone involved.

If I fly again, it will be because I’m doing something so important that it outweighs the harm of participating in the degrading system of mock security our society has foolishly bought into. That’s a pretty high standard.

[Update: After posting this I discovered TSA Enhanced Pat Downs : The Screeners Point Of View, which shows pretty clearly that many of the screeners know what they’re doing is wrong.]

Feeding the soul

I was feeling kind of glum yesterday. It was just brain chemicals, I think—the result of a gray day when I was already feeling a little discouraged about my progress on my novel. (My recent post on how I’m not suffering as much from seasonal affect disorder notwithstanding.)

Poster detail showing loom setup

Poster detail showing loom setup

I was feeling kind of glum yesterday. It was just brain chemicals, I think—the result of a gray day when I was already feeling a little discouraged about my progress on my novel. (My recent post on how I’m not suffering as much from seasonal affect disorder notwithstanding.)

I was already feeling better today (it’s sunny), but decided to do something cheering anyway. So, I went to the Krannert Art Museum, which turned out to be showing an exhibit of turn-of-the-century poster art. I’m a big fan of poster art and art deco, so it was full of wonderful stuff. By merest coincidence, I’d earlier in the day happened upon this Art of the Poster 1880-1918 site, so I got a fun double dose of poster art.

Plus, one of the posters featured a loom, which I thought Jackie would appreciate.

There was also an exhibit of student art in the lobby outside the art museum that was much more interesting than 90% of what was in the museum itself. I couldn’t find a link, which is too bad. There was a lot of good stuff—some pretty, some funny, some thoughtful.

When it comes to dealing with glumness, I think it’s basic things that really matter—nutrition, exercise, getting enough sleep, spending some time out in the sun whenever there’s a sunny day. Once I’ve got that covered, though, the best short-term response to short-term glumness is to fit something cheerful into the day; preferably something that’s not just cheerful, but also meaningful in some way. For that, I particularly like going to museums. Something that’s merely cheering is worth doing. Something that’s cheering and also feeds the soul is even better.