Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Tools for Readers 1, updated

A couple of years is a lifetime in the world of software. Mailwasher is still a great and highly recommended program, but its free version is long since a thing of the past; it now costs $37.00. It's worth every cent, and it now comes in Windows and Mac flavors (though the Apple OS X version is still a little buggy at this writing). The Oxford English Dictionary on disk still has its bugs, too, though it's been upgraded to v. 3.0. I find that I use it less than the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, which comes bundled with a CD-ROM that is refreshingly problem-free.

More columns and updates to follow.

Tools for Readers 1

The Bloomsbury Review, December 2002

Of Spam and Light

One of the stated purposes of The Bloomsbury Review is to help readers find the books that are most worth reading out of the many thousands of books published each year. Only rarely do our writers take time and room to point out work that, for whatever reason, is of questionable value, or of no value at all. We seek habitable islands in the flood of information, not more water.

Even so, we find ourselves drowning in a sea of unwanted, unsought, unappealing words: that is, unsolicited e-mail, or “spam.” Daily, our inboxes fill with offers to enlarge various organs, heighten various passions, regain lost hair and vigor, and make millions of dollars. Getting rid of this stuff each day, as we must do to remain sane, absorbs minutes, even hours that could be put to reading email that we asked for, or even the odd chapter of Poe, Pooh, Proust, or Proulx.

Several remedies are available. The simplest, and most satisfying to the Luddites we wish we could be, is to sign off permanently from the Internet, eschew emailing, retreat to a Montana cabin. That’s a fine option, to be sure, but impractical for those of us who make our living in the here and now. Another is to apply a battery of inbox filters, file complaints with the Fair Trade Commission, use “traceroute” or other arcane command-line prompts to ferret out offenders, burn down their server farms when they can be found. Such cures may appeal to our inner Buford Pusser or closet hacker, but they, too, are a sinkhole into which valuable time is poured, never to be recovered.

A third option, at least for Windows users, is to snag a copy of a user-friendly, well-intended, and thoroughly well-made little utility called MailWasher. The brainchild of New Zealander Nick Bolton, the program sits between your service provider’s mail server and your own inbox, allowing you to examine the contents of received email before downloading it to your own machine--which means that only mail you want gets onto your system. (You can also see whether a file contains attachments, a useful means of intercepting viruses and worms before they have a chance to make your life miserable.) Among its more brilliantly diabolical features is a “bounce” command that flags spam and sends a message to the sender, instructing said miscreant that your address is no longer in service. Bolton’s fond hope--which seems to be borne out, at least in the tests that I’ve conducted--is that when spammers cull their lists, as most of them do from time to time before selling them to still other spammers, then your supposedly inactive address will be dropped and, voilĂ , no more unwanted mail, at least from that list.

MailWasher is available for download at www.mailwasher.net. It’s free, though unregistered users have to put up with a scrolling nag message that reminds them that it would be nice to offer a modest donation—as little as $3.00, Bolton says, will keep his cats in chow and a roof over his head. For $20.00, users receive a fully licensed version and are entitled to perpetual upgrades, as well as access to some of Bolton’s well-considered recipes for battling spam on a total-war basis. The program is well worth the investment, and one of the smartest pieces of freeware to come along in a long while.

If you crack open the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary, that epic, multivolume hymn to the English language, you’ll learn that the term spam has its origins in “a type of tinned meat consisting chiefly of pork” invented in 1937. The trade magazine Squeal noted in July of that year that “In the last month Geo. A. Hormel & Co. launched the product Spam. The think-up of the name [is] credited to Kenneth Daigneau, New York actor. Seems as if he had considered the word a good memorable trade-name for some time, had only waited for a product to attach it to.” By 1939, the stuff had become common enough that it could make a lowercase appearance in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and the rest is history. Those data, along with half a million other definitions and 2.5 million quotations, can now rest on your hard drive with the release of the Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM version 3.0 ($295.00 list), a fine example of what computers were meant to do in the first place--namely, to make huge amounts of information instantly accessible. The installation program is buggy, the registration temperamental. But, if you’re a logophile, having this invaluable reference just a couple of keystrokes away will make up for the headaches involved in getting the monster up and running, though you’ll need a good fan to clear away the blue cloud of profanity that may enshroud your office while you’re doing so.

Spam the pork derivative and spam the nasty mail are things best left unexamined, but many other things in life are best seen in strong light. Tampa-based Ott-Lite Technology has released a series of energy-efficient VisionSaver lamps that simulate natural daylight with low glare and low heat, an outgrowth of the company founder John Ott’s work in designing phototherapy products to combat seasonal affective disorder. The product line ranges from clamp-on desk lights to desktop and floor lamps. For a catalog, call Ott-Lite at (800) 621-0058 or visit www.ott-lite.com.