Why not to use AOL

I’m sure everyone who runs a mail server already knows this,
but clearly all the thousands or millions of people who use AOL,
including a number of my personal friends, do not.

This is addressing only the problem of the AOL mail delivery
service. I know there have been other problems with AOL in the
past; I don’t know or especially care about the current status of
those problems.

I also know that the people who are using AOL are doing it because
they haven’t actually done any research about the alternatives. So
while I don’t know anything about the price of using
AOL versus the alternatives, I strongly suspect that they don’t
either, which suggests that AOL is probably using this ignorance
to get away with charging more than the alternatives.

The reason to not use AOL to deliver your mail is that they
have an official corporate policy of not caring whether your mail
is delivered or not.

When they get one spam report about anyone in your
domain, they block all email the mentions that
If you think this sounds like something an
organization that wanted you to get mail from your friends would
do, you can stop reading now. I assure you, this policy includes,
and is often applied to, very large and famous and frequently
referenced domains like harvard.edu.

They currently have laymusic.org blocked. My
normal method for sending email uses this domain in the Sender, From,
Reply-to, and signature of my emails, so I have to do something
radically different from usual to not mention laymusic.org in my

It took
me a while to remember the magic for finding out where to report
this. If you try going to postmaster.aol.com, you have
to be a better documentation reader than I am (I used to make lots
of money being a good documentation reader)
to figure out what
to do from what they tell you there.

If you run your own webserver, the mail log gets the bounce
response from AOL which includes a URL to go to to fill out a form
asking them to stop bouncing your mail.

I used to run my own, but when I finally decided not to depend
on Verizon being able to fix anything for my internet access, I
had to give up my static IP address, which means that while I can
get dynamic dns and refer to my address by name instead of number, I can’t get what’s called reverse
dns (being able to go from the address to the name), which means lots of places (even ones that really want their
customers to get their mail) will bounce my mail if I use a server
on my machine, so I’m using the comcast server. Comcast doesn’t
pass on the bounce information from their logs in the bounce

So the trick to find out where to go to tell AOL to debounce
your domain is to send a mail from gmail, which will put the
information from the log into the bounce message they send you.
Then you go to that URL and fill out your form. I did this last
Fall, and my domain was unbounced in a small number of days.

This Spring, this hasn’t happened yet. They asked me to fill
out a customer satisfaction survey this morning, and this is what
I wrote:

I reported that email from or referring to my domain was bouncing on May 21.

I was told that the problem had been resolved and mail would stop bouncing in “24 business hours” from then on May 27.

The mail is still bouncing on June 3.

I think your policy of bouncing all mail that mentions a given domain name based on one spam complaint about that domain is not the policy of an organization that wants to deliver the mail.

Your performance on resolving such a block is not the performance of
an organization that wants to resolve problems.

Then when I submitted the form I wrote that on, they said they
couldn’t count my survey because they didn’t think my verification
number (which I’d gotten in the mail this morning) was valid.

Even if you think AOL is the best way to get internet access,
you should still have some other way to get email. gmail,
hotmail, and yahoo will all give you an account for free, and many
organizations and universities will give you an account if you’re
a member or an alumnus/a. Even if you currently have a good isp,
you should still have a mail address that doesn’t depend on its
name, because it’s likely to change its name or go out of business
or become a not-so-good isp for you, and you’ll have to change
your email if that happens.

Buying ebooks, Part II

I’m sure you’re sitting on the edge of your seat to find out
what happened to my quest to give the publishing industry money
for a book I can read on my Nokia 810 Internet

I told you a couple of days ago about trying
to buy a .lit book from a linux computer running firefox.

Next I tried buying one from a Windows computer running
Internet Explorer. Here’s what I wrote about it to a mailing
list that discusses such things:

I keep hearing (I think on this list as well as other places) that
people buy ebooks at fictionwise.com in .lit format, and then use clit
to turn them into html and read them on the platform of their choice.

I have occasionally gotten a .lit format book from somewhere and been
able to use clit to read it, but I’d never seen one I wanted to buy.

Then last week, I found out that The Lord of the Rings is now
available as an official ebook, and decided I would buy it.

This turns out to be too hard for me to do. You would think that if I
wanted to give someone $30 for a book, they would give me the book, but
not if Microsoft is involved.

First they said I should get a free one to make sure I had a process for
making it work. That sounded reasonable, and they actually sold me a
free ebook without asking for my credit card number.

Then I went to download it, and they said I had to be on a Windows
computer (and in Windows Explorer).

So I went away, but after a few days, I realized I had a couple of other
things I needed to boot windows to do, so I booted Windows, and fired up
IE and went to my bookshelf in Fictionwise.

Then they said I needed the latest Microsoft Reader software, so I
downloaded that.

Then they said I needed to activate the Reader on that computer. It
took quite a while to find out how I should do that, and I had to type
illegible characters several times to set up a Passport account.

Then they said I needed to install ActiveX, without telling me how to do
that. I did a search, and found someone who had the same problem and
had been told that it’s a browser option and where to go to change it,
so I did that.

But I’m still getting the error message about needing ActiveX, or to be
logged in as a real user (which I am).

So how do you buy a .lit book from Fictionwise, if you do, or is there
some other way to get commercial DRM books like the Tolkein that will
let me read it on a linux computer?

And how does anyone stay in business if it’s this hard to buy something
from them?

This reminds me of the time when I was in college and the lock to my
dorm room was balky, so I started thinking about getting the kind of
religion where you don’t ever lock your door. I already almost have the
kind of religion where I never buy DRM, and it looks like I’m not
capable of backsliding from it even if I want to.

One of the readers of the list took pity on my and sent me a
500 line python script that converts ereader books to html.

So this morning, I bought The Hobbit from fictionwise in the secure ereader
format. I had to tell the download program my name and credit
card information, but then it just gave me the file, without
complaining about what browser I was using or making me type
illegible characters or anything.

After that, there was only an hour or so of debugging, and now
the book looks pretty good in all of ereader running under Wine, firefox, and FBReader.

Actually, it looks a bit better in firefox than in the other
versions. FBReader is clumsy about placing the .png files for
the runes, and eReader doesn’t indent the verse gracefully.

For those who want the gory details, the two problems I had to
fix before the HTML displayed correctly were:

  • The .html file didn’t specify the character encoding, so all the
    quotation marks and such were displayed as something like 222
    in emacs, and as a ? in a diamond box in firefox. The fix was
    to put:
    <META http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html;

    at the top of the file.

  • The html file referred to a lot of the graphics as generated
    with mixed case letters, but the script had actually written the
    names with all lower case. I haven’t scripted that fix yet, but
    if I hit the problem again, I probably will.

I haven’t yet read it on the Nokia, but my experience is that
if FBReader on the desktop can read it, so can FBReader on the

So if you want electronic books without being a pirate, you can
have them, even if you want to use non-commercial software to
read them.


Buying ebooks

On my list for later this morning is to boot the laptop into
windows and do several things I can’t do on linux:

  • Print the final tax returns from TaxCut.
  • Fix some annoyances with the Universal remote
  • See if it’s really possible to buy DRM’d books from Fictionwise and read them
    on a non-comercial OS.

The others have been discussed at length (taxes
and remote); this is the day for
my rant on the ebook marketplace.

I’m surprised that this topic hasn’t come up before, more than
two months into this daily blog, because a lot of the blogs I
read are devoted to rants about the publishing industry’s
benighted attitude towards ebooks. So I would have expected to
have wanted to rant myself before this, but it wasn’t until last
week that I felt the rant coming on.

What happened last week was the discovery that
The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit
and The Children of Hurin, but apparently not
The Silmarillion) is available in official ebook

I’ve had an illegal download for some time, and that’s the way
I reread it these days, but it certainly isn’t ideal — it
screws up all the letters with accents, for instance. So
although I’ve already bought it in both paperback and hardcover,
I would be willing to buy it again as an ebook, if that meant I
could read it on my device of choice (the Nokia

If you haven’t been following this topic, the major topic of
debate is the fact that many publishers and authors aren’t
comfortable just letting you download a book in a format like html
or text or various open book-specific formats that you
can read on any computer you can put it on. They feel that there
will be too much piracy, and they’re only comfortable letting you
buy their books if they have something called DRM (digital rights
management) attached to them. There are a lot of good arguments
against this point of view. The most concise summary of them is
that if you buy a book with DRM, you don’t own it, you’re only
renting it for an unknown length of time.

The conventional wisdom these days is that if you need to
convert a DRM’d ebook to something readable on an open platform,
the Microsoft .lit form is the format of choice, since it’s
apparently just a wrapper around some html. So once you’ve
unwrapped it, you aren’t any longer bound by the DRM limitations.

So when I found that Fictionwise didn’t have Tolkein’s books in
what they call “multiformat”, which means you can download any
of a number of open formats to any device you like once you’ve
paid for it, I attempted to buy them in .lit format.

The shopping cart was fairly confusing, but I manged to get to
where I could push a button to complete the purchase, but it
warned me that I should download a free one first to verify that
I would be able to read it on my platform of choice.

That sounded like a good idea, so I moved all the Tolkeins to
my wish list, and tried to “buy” the suggested free .lit

They had no problem letting me do a $0.00 purchase without
giving them my credit card number (don’t laugh — lots of
shopping carts won’t), but then when I went to
download it, I couldn’t because I wasn’t on a Windows

So in order to give them lots of money for a book I want to
buy, I have to boot an operating system I don’t want to run.

And then they’re surprised that ebooks aren’t taking off

If you do want to see whether you like ebooks, I recommend
getting started the way I did — either download works that are
out of copyright from gutenberg or manybooks, or buy non-DRM’d
books from Baen or

Maybe it will turn out that there’s a way to get DRM’d books to
work without booting windows, or that booting the windows
occasionally to do the download is worth being able to get the
books. If so, I’ll let you know.



Two Weeks of Life

I was up far too late last night finishing this

Eleanor Clift, the author, is a reporter whose husband was
dying at home under hospice care during the same two weeks that
Teri Schiavo’s feeding tube had been disconnected.

I had ordered the book when I read the review
in the New York Times,
because one of the things I wanted to use this daily blog to
write about was my experiences last year with the death of my
friend Bonnie.

I had expected to be more interested in the account of the
husband’s death than in the interviews with all the participants
in the Teri Schiavo frenzy. I was, but the Schiavo stuff was
better than I expected, especially the stuff about the role of
the Catholic Church.

For instance,
a small number of weeks before he died, Pope John Paul II had read
a pronouncement that getting food and water through a tube was not
an “extraordinary means” of prolonging life, which was interpreted by
some people to mean that Catholics were prohibited from ordering
the removal of feeding tubes. However, in his own end of life
care, a feeding tube was inserted and removed twice.

One of the links between the two stories is that Clift feels the
hospice movement didn’t do a good job of getting the message out
about what its aims were, when hospice caregivers were being attacked as
murderers by the Right to Life people.

My own experience with the hospice facility where Bonnie spent
her last month was very different from the one described in this
book, probably mostly because I wasn’t being a caregiver, so I
wasn’t getting all the training and support I would have needed
to do that. My difficulties communicating with Bonnie’s
caregivers are another post, but I was certainly glad to have
the internet to look up vocabulary like “active phase of dying”,
because I wasn’t getting good explanations of it from the

One of the points of this book is one I have been trying to make
since last year: that we spend too little time thinking
and talking about dying, which makes it much more difficult for
us to get through it when we finally have to.

Anyway, if you’re interested in any of these issues, this is a
well-written book. It could have used a bit tighter editing:
there are places where the same anecdote is repeated in
different chapters, But on the whole, it’s really well-written
and if you want to think about how to communicate with the
medical profession and how to make decisions about how to die
and what the religious contribution to the politics of all these
decisions is, you should read this book.


Spams and Scams

gleefully reports that the US attorneys’ office mistook a classic Nigerian
spam for a letter from a distressed Madoff investor in its
submission to Madoff’s sentencing judge.

It is funny, but reading through the whole document, with the
several hundred possibly real letters and emails isn’t funny at
all. The spam was probably just a slip of a finger — easy to do
if you’re moving hundreds of emails into one document. But all
those people who want to encourage the judge to lock Madoff up and
throw away the key, and especially the ones who want sympathy for
having lost their entire life’s savings, are really sad.

I’m not saying he shouldn’t be locked up — obviously one of the
things someone should be working on is finding all the money,
which will be easier if he doesn’t have unrestricted communication
with the people who can help him hide it. And I’m not saying I
don’t sympathize with the people who are really mad and spending
some of their mental energy inventing suitable punishments for

But I really have very little sympathy for the people who
invested all their money in one place and have lost it all. You
don’t need a degree in high finance to have heard the proverbs
about putting all your eggs in one basket.

And while I understand the people wanting to invent the
punishments, I really don’t understand either the original person
or the US attorney wanting that kind of fantasy life to be part of
the public record.


I saw the movie Milk
last night, on DVD from Netflix.

I usually watch movies with as much acclaim as that one had, so
I’ll be able to talk about them with people. In this case, I was
interested in the subject — I did do left-wing politics (mostly
Cambridge rent control) in the
period covered by the movie, so I was interested to see how
Hollywood would deal with it. Also, I always found it surprising
that the Gay Rights movement took off when it did, because as
someone peripherally involved in the local opera world, I had very
shortly before that been at parties attended largely by gay men,
and I wouldn’t have taken the positive side on any bets on their
ability to work with either women or black civil rights people.

The writing and acting are pretty good, so the award
nominations are justified. Josh
, who plays the assassin Dan
White, is particularly good as a man whose rage grows gradually as
he’s increasingly out of his depth in a situation he can’t
control. (I assume it was a deliberate decision not to ever show
him eating a Twinky.) He was intermittently brilliant in W,
and is consistently so here.

Clearly, nobody would expect any in-depth coverage of the
content of late seventies left-wing politics. I assume that the
word “Marxism” did in fact come up in gay rights circles, but I
wouldn’t expect it in a Hollywood script. What did disappoint me
was that there was no coverage, either verbal or visual, of the
actual work that goes into building a movement. There was one
argument about the content of a flyer, but when the activists are
standing around the store-front campaign office, there’s nobody
stuffing envelopes or making phone calls, or even holding lists of
addresses or phone numbers in their hands. So we’re going to have
to wait for the good European cinematographers to show us what an
political movement actually looks like. Like most such films, the
writers and actors do know how to depict the drunken sensation
of crowd-swaying rhetoric.

As far as how the gay rights movement hooked up with women and
blacks, that does get a little bit of coverage. The scene where
the female campaign manager comes in and takes over the
ultimately successful campaign for Supervisor is really
well-done. But there’s no depiction of any of what led to
Harvey Milk’s Gay Rights bill being co-sponsored by a black
woman, although they do include the scene where it passes and
Milk and the woman embrace.

So I would say to watch this movie if you’re interested in the
subject matter, but don’t expect it to enlarge your
understanding of the politics of the time.

Blog schedule

I’ll be at my Mother’s house in darkest Fall River, Massachusetts, for the next three or four days. I’m
expecting to have a good enough internet connection to continue
with this blog, but if I miss days, it’s because something didn’t work