Sunday, March 10, 2013

Internet SPAM in 2013: Still a Serious Problem

If you are anything like me, you probably get 20+ emails daily that make it past your spam filter and into your inbox. Nearly 90% of these emails are likely some form of unnecessary email marketing. The volume of noise in our inboxes increases the burden of attending to our mail and as a result  important communications are occasionally lost in the perpetual stream of messages.  What can we do?  Before we address this question, lets first have to take a look some of the problems underlying the email marketing epidemic:

Problem 1:  Short Term Marketing Focus:

The world of the internet moves very quickly.  As a result, most web-based business make marketing decisions quickly using the earliest available indicators. The simplest indicators to track derive directly from the short term click and conversion volumes for the traffic driven by each marketing campaign. It is very well known that clicks and conversions improve proportionally to increases in email volume. As a result, most businesses have a strong incentive to increase email volumes and are not sensitive to the longer term effect of increase opt-out rates. Unfortunately this problem is fundamentally impossible to address directly.

Problem 2: Insufficient Regulation:

The current SPAM regulations prevent many forms of direct communication with end-users and also require the need for an 'opt-out' mechanism.  This has helped considerably as high-quality mailing lists now provide a streamlined 1-click optout mechanisms. Additionally, privacy regulations usually prevent the sharing of email lists. Unfortunately, clever marketing companies have quickly discovered a major loophole in the existing regulation: Opt-Out Obfuscation.  Rather than providing a simple unsubscribe mechanism, marketers have devised several strategies that reduce effective opt-out rate by intentionally complicating the opt-out process. Here's a few of the best:

  • 2-Click Unsubscribe - Rather than opting-out an address when an unsubscribe link is clicked, many companies will require the user to click a second link in a unsubscribe popup dialog.  This unsubscribe pipeline is intentionally designed to increase the burden on the end-user to fully opt-out.  As a result, many users will fail to complete the opt-out process and stay on the marketer's mailing list.
  • Multi-List (3-Click) Unsubscribe - Many marketers maintain several separate mailing lists.  By default, a user is opted-in to all possible mailing lists, but  instead opted-out of each list individually.  Normally, the user is presented with a form to complete on the unsubscribe popup. 
  • Opt-Out Address Verification - In this scheme, the user must type their email address before they are unsubscribed.  Sometimes these systems are case-sensitive, which can require the user to switch back to their email client and identify which variant of their email address has been opted in before they can successfully unsubscribe.
  • Generally Confusing Interface - Countless tactics can be used to complicate the opt-out process, including:
    • Unsubscribe Link Placement 
    • Unsubscribe Link Wording - Numerous variants are possible, which making it harder for the eye to quickly scan for the word 'Unsubscribe'
    • Hidden Unsubscribe Links - Any color other than blue makes the link harder to find.
    • Complex / Confusing Forms

What Can We DO?

  • Use the 'Report Spam' feature:  Most modern email clients expose a feature to report spam email. This feedback is used to inform spam filtering algorithms.  Marketers are aware of the effect of sender reputation and as result closely monitor spam complaint rates. Send markerters a clear message that complex opt-out mechanisms are unacceptable by taking the time to click the 'Report Spam' button in your email client.  As an added bonus, this usually will either automatically opt out the address or adjust personalized spam filtering rules.
  • Contact an elected official

Case Study: Yahoo

     Step 1: Find the initial opt-out link and click.  This link does not contain the words 'unsubscribe' or 'opt-out' and is also not included in the header. 

Figure 1: Email Footer:

     Step 2: Log in to yahoo.  In my case, this only required one additional click because my yahoo account was setup with Facebook SSO, but presumably a standalone yahoo user would have to enter their accout username and password.
Figure 2: Login Page

     Step 3: Opt-Out form.  Most users would have to read two paragraphs before being able to interpret the form actions, and then scroll well below the page-fold before reaching the submit button.

Figure 3: Opt-Out Form

     Total Opt-Out Burden: ~50-200 seconds per user.

Valuable Resources:

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Humanity's Revolutionary Pursuits

Note: This post is and will continue to be a work in progress.
  1. Cheap Renewable Energy - The cost of energy is a limiting factor in the development of nearly any new technology. Currently, about 90% of the world's energy is supplied by the burning the world's limited supply of fossil fuels. At our projected consumption rate, the current fossil fuel supply is predicted to last about around 50 years. The laws of thermodynamics are almost universally understood to rule out the existence of any indefinitely renewable energy source. Fortunately, nature has provided several  resources that have potential to last billions of years. For practical purposes, we can define a 'renewable energy source' as a source that is projected to last at least a million years. Given that energy itself is primarily useful for driving development and implementation of other technologies, we can phrase the revolutionary energy goal as follows: Satisfy the world's energy demand with renewable sources at a marginal cost of less than 5% of the world GDP. Several avenues of research have been identified which hold promise for meeting this energy goal:
    1. Controlled Fusion
    2. Efficient Solar Energy Collection 
  2. Transportation - 
    1. On Earth - Much like energy, cost of transportation infrastructure is fundamental in the development of other technologies as well as in the consumer services industry.  Human navigators pilot an overwhelming majority of our current transportation infrastructure.  This arrangement is inefficient and unrealistic. The next revolutionary milestone of the transportation industry is: Safely automate all transportation. This accomplish will eliminate provide three key benefits:
      1. Virtual elimination of accidents caused by human error.
      2. Overall efficiency boost due to heuristic planning algorithms.
      3. Elimination of need for a driver's attention.  On average, Americans spend about 1 hour driving each day which could instead be re-applied to other activities.
    2. Of People Into Space  - Although space tourism is a worthy cause, the primary rational motivation of transporting humans into space is to prevent against extinction of humanity given a disaster resulting in loss of all human life on earth. The goal is fairly simple: Establish a self sustainable presence on another world. 
    3. Of Goods Into Space - The primary motivations for transporting materials into space is to facilitate scientific research. Although 
  3. Theoretical Physic - Physics is the bridge between the world of  mathematical certainty and the  other sciences. The primary goal of the physics community is well understood: Develop a consistent axiomatic system to that explains all known physical phenomena.
  4. Quantum Computation - Currently, the limit of humanity's computational ability is generally accepted to be problems solvable in polynomial time with a turing machine*. Development of a programmable quantum computer would effectively raise humanity's computational limit and conceivably pave the way for breakthroughs in other fields. Current known applications of a quantum computing system are largely limited to cryptography and quantum simulations.  At the very least, the development of efficient quantum computers would necessitate a large scale re-architecture of the internet for security purposes. This milestone may provide a convenient release mechanism for other well understood but currently unimplemented enhancements.  Develop a quantum computer capable efficiently cracking public key encryption techniques. For those few who are pessimistic about the utility of quantum computers, I provide an alternative goal: Provide a proof of the practical uselessness of quantum computation and a provably quantum-safe encryption algorithm.
  5. Artificial Intelligence - Many experts seem to believe the human brain is fundamentally no more than an advanced, highly paralleled, biological computer. However, as of yet there has been virtually no success in reproducing human level intelligence in a man made device. There are at least three plausible explanations for lack human-level breakthroughs in AI technology: First, the brain is far more powerful than any existing computer. Second, researchers have yet to either engineer or reverse-engineer techniques capable of human-level reasoning. Third, the human brain is fundamentally more complex than existing technology. One proposed mechanism for this additional complexity is the somewhat far-fetched theory of quantum mind. Regardless of how the human brain functions, the primary goal of AI research is to develop artificial methods for generating human-level intelligence. One proposed formulation of this milestone is the Turing Test. However, this test has several intrinsic flaws which have lead to claims of several controversial claims of success by non-intelligent agents. An improved reformulation of the Turing Test might require the judges be knowledgeable in the inner workings of the artificial agent.  For the purposes of this discussion, the ultimate revolutionary goal of AI research is: Develop an artificial agent capable of outperforming any human on any human-level reasoning task. From a utility perspective, this formulation is arguably maximal.  Additionally, this formulation does not explicitly require a human-level understanding of human specific traits like emotion or humor.  The development of a higher-level intelligence would certainly assist with other developments. 
  6. Extraterrestrial Intelligence - coming soon
  7. Disaster Prevention - Scientists have developed an extensive yet incomplete understanding of commonly observed natural phenomena.  Many of these phenomena have potential to cause loss of life or devastating economic loss. For the purposes of this discussion, we can formulate this goal as follows; Develop a strategy to prevent loss of life from all commonly occurring natural phenomena.  Once this goal is satisfied, the same technological advancements would likely be applied to limit potential for economic loss.

This discussion outlines key domains for where humanity is poised to make technological and/or economic breakthroughs within the next century. A set of key milestones for achievement have been identified in each of these domains. Unfortunately, many of the milestones are are necessarily defined using somewhat arbitrary parameters. In general, an attempt has been made to formulate each milestones in way that its satisfaction would provide a revolutionary benefit to humanity and to select milestones conceivably achievable in the next century. However, the author does implicitly claim that each goal is practically or fundamentally achievable, but rather that no fundamental complications have currently been identified. Further analysis of the complex inter-dependencies between these goals is worthy of additional discussion, as is further discussion of the potential moral and political impact of each goal.