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  • Newsletter Issue #405

    September 2nd, 2007

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    As with the Intel-based Macs when they first came out, it seems lots of people couldn’t wait to find a way to hack the OS X-based iPhone. Whether unlocking the phone, to remove its ties to AT&T, or to add more features, this became nearly a full-time occupation for some people.

    Well, on this week’s all-star episode The Tech Night Owl LIVE, Macworld’s Ben Long talked about hacking the iPhone, and even described a special installer that even regular people can use.

    In another segment on the show, Denis Motova returned to present hints and tips on having a good-looking Web site. This will become part of an ongoing feature, and we welcome your questions and your comments.

    In addition, the one and only Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus explained why he prefers the new iMac’s glossy screen and listed his favorite keyboards. We also welcomed a new friend, Tim Robertson, of MyMac, who discussed his popular online magazine and the latest scuttlebutt about Apple Inc.

    This week on The Paracast, conspiracy theory expert Kenn Thomas, publisher of Steamshovel Press, talks about the real conspiracies and the ones that don’t pass the logic test. What sort of conspiracies? Well, perhaps the most common ones involve the JFK assassination. But there are lots more, and it seems that every time some disastrous event occurs, there are people who will blame the government or perhaps a “secret government” as the cause of the tragedy. One example is 9/11.

    Also along for the ride on this episode is controversial “Saucer Smear” editor/publisher Jim Moseley, who discusses the “Culture of Ufology.” Long ago Jim decided that the people who get caught up in the UFO field are often more interesting than the phenomena itself, if that’s possible. Whether or not you agree with what Jim has to say, he’s always a good listen.

    Now just to remind you again: In previous weeks, I’ve presented a sample of my regular commentaries for listeners to The Paracast here, but that’s going to change from here on. If you’re a listener — or a potential listener — to the show, you’ll want to subscribe to our weekly issues of The Paracast Newsletter to get more of the same, plus regular information about the show. To sign up, just pay a visit to our Paracast Home Page, enter your email address and click the Subscribe button to join.

    THE NIGHT OWL’S SPAM FIGHTING EFFORTS REVISITED

    Whenever I write a column of this sort, I wonder if some of those spammers might just want to make a concerted effort to go after me, just to show “that old so and so” how powerful they really are. But it’s a casual thought, and not an active part of any paranoiac instincts. At least I hope not.

    At the same time, I have noticed that the amount of spam that clutters my mailbox these days is less than it used to be, but I don’t think people are less vulnerable. Instead, I believe the steps I’ve taken have improved the situation over the past few months to a point where the problem has become more and more manageable.

    Understand, however, that you don’t want to live under the illusion that it’ll go away, any more than computer viruses (even if they haven’t really hurt the Mac thus far), phishing scams, or even the criminal who wants to hijack your car or break into your home.

    You see, it’s a dangerous world out there, but there are some ways you can at least insulate yourself a little from the worst of the online offenders who ache to fill your mailbox with unsavory schemes for home-based businesses, penny stocks, porn, and all the rest. Or even hijack your computer.

    One of the most important steps I’ve taken is to, as much as possible of course, make myself nearly “invisible” to the scourge of the online world. Of course, when you have popular sites with roughly a million page views a month, that’s not easy, nor does the fact that my name is plastered all across Google and other search engines help matters.

    Yet, my mailboxes these days rarely contain more than a two or three dozen pieces of spam out of hundreds of messages received each day. So how did that happen?

    For the most part, it’s a matter of lots of little things rather than a single, major action that made my mailboxes mostly impenetrable.

    Not everything I’ve done can be translated to your particular situation, and I’ll give some items brief coverage as a result.

    First, I moved my email back to our Web server, where it was previously hosted by another company. In doing that, I got full control over how the spam filtering is implemented. Our server, which runs the CentOS, a Linux distribution, uses the open source SpamAssassin as its major weapon. In passing, Apple also supports SpamAssassin with Mac OS X Server.

    The latest version, 5.2.3, which ships with cPanel, a Linux-based application used to manage a Web site, has a number of handy configuration options, such as automatically blocking messages with a high spam score. That means they are gone, kaput, and do not appear in your Spam mailbox.

    Another option, supported on our server, is one that automatically blocks messages “if the sender host is in the zen.spamhaus.org, or bl.spamcop.net.” Of course, if your mail host is being erroneously flagged by either, you won’t reach me, unfortunately.

    For the email that isn’t caught by this online filtering process, the junk filters in Apple Mail, Microsoft Entourage and other applications can usually make up the gap.

    The other steps, however, are things that most of you can do, and I’ll list them in no specific order:

    • Be careful what you check or uncheck when you order something online. Many online vendors provide options so you can tell them whether or not you want to receive email from them or third-party sources. Unless you really want to receive announcements from that company, I’d make sure you do not select the first, and always opt out of the second. That can clear your mailbox of lots of excess content.
    • Hide your email address from your site: The old-fashioned method of creating an email link to a Web page, using the “mailto” tag, is sadly broken. Spammers know how to mine the contents of a page to find it, and add the address to their lists. So what to do? Well, first perform a Google search for some JavaScript tools to encrypt your address. Online blogging tools, such as WordPress, which we use for this site, have plugins that accomplish this task. You might also consider creating a Contact form, as I’ve done. It really helps a lot.
    • Create a disposable email address for online orders. Most ISPs offer you the ability to create several email addresses. You can also sign up for free accounts with Yahoo, Google Gmail, and other services. If your mailbox is inundated with junk, simply kill the address. If you want an online store to stay in touch with you, just send them the change of address.

    Those three steps can really help keep spam at a reasonable level. But you’ll also want to double-check your spam filter every so often to make sure it didn’t flag legitimate mail. This may not mean much unless you’re in business, where you might otherwise lose an order. And yes, it’s happened to me.

    All these steps may seem like a holding action in the face of a greedy enemy that’s always devising new schemes to stay a step ahead of the spam fighters. Alas, so long as a very few people fall victim to some of those bogus offers, they’ll never stop trying.

    But at least you can be protected — well, mostly anyway.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: IS THE WORLD READY FOR AN iCAR?

    Just when you thought that all possible Apple products had been discussed over and over again, along comes a report from a European publication that Apple and Volkswagen are talking. About what? Well, they aren’t saying, but speculation is mounting.

    Among the most fascinating possibilities is a low-cost, gas-stingy vehicle with some uniquely Apple interface elements. Why a sub-compact, when Apple seems to play in a higher-priced arena? Why even consider such a venture in the first place, unless Steve Jobs has full control of the design of the final vehicle? Even then, what does Apple know about cars anyway?

    Besides, why VW? Well, among all the car makers, their vehicles seem to cater to a younger, hipper demographic. A VW is not just another German car, but each model (save for the somewhat Japanese aspect to the latest Passat) has a unique, distinctive look with an interior design envied by the rest of the industry.

    Now I’ve owned two VWs over the years. The first, a Passat, wasn’t quite so distinctive from the outside, but it had a wonderfully-designed interior. The latest, a Jetta, is more youthful-looking, which is why it was adopted by my son, Grayson.

    In any case, VW’s biggest disadvantage is mediocre build quality and reliability, but that’s besides the point.

    What could Apple bring to the table in such a relationship? Well, in adding lots and lots of electronic gizmos, car makers have developed user interfaces from hell, one being worse than the other. Perhaps the worst offender is the builder of the “Ultimate Driving Machine,” none other than BMW. Although a BMW is a simply wonderful car to drive, its usually optional iDrive navigation interface is pathetic, with even basic functions requiring navigation through multiple menus. No wonder you have to master a large manual to figure it all out.

    Other car makers have provided their own variations on the navigation theme, usually with the same single round button that’s used as the motor vehicle’s equivalent of a computer mouse.

    Over the years, I’ve played with some of these systems. The one on the Audi, VW’s luxury division, looks all right, and is somewhat simpler to handle than iDrive, but not necessarily easy. The Japanese auto makers have a better grasp of user-friendly behavior. In fact, the systems on the Acura and Infiniti are reasonably usable, with less of a learning curve.

    But nothing stands out as being particularly user-friendly. However, as they did with the wireless phone, Apple may provide solace for auto makers who have, for the most part, fared no better than cell phone makers in adding sophisticated features to their products.

    Certainly, all the basic driving accouterments, such as steeling wheels, shifters (more or less), gas and brake pedals and such have reminded constants for over 100 years.

    So what can Apple bring to the table?

    Well, world-class user interface design capabilities, for one thing. But would Apple have its say in the entire vehicle design process, or just the navigation and other information-based systems? That’s a good question, and one that may or may not bear fruit.

    In the end, though, all that we might see out of these talks is just a nicer interface for the iPod and iPhone. How’s that for lowering your expectations?

    On the other hand, it has now been disclosed that Apple was responsible for some of the interface elements in the forthcoming Jaguar XF, the long-awaited successor to the S-type. Unfortunately, this vehicle is expected to sell for a starting price of upwards of $50,000. It would be really nice to see an Apple-inspired vehicle that’s actually affordable, and certainly a VW would be a great candidate.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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