Becoming Ununique

Growing up my names were strongly identifying. If someone learned of my first or last name, there was a fair chance they knew of me. Almost no one else around was named Ezra. In college, there was a guy whose last name was “Esra” that caused a bit of confusion. But, all I had to say is “I am not Billy. My first name is Ezra.” And a woman in HR at my first job had a nephew named Ezra. Anyone with a last name of Freelove was related to me.

Of late not so much…

  • A place where I do business confused the two Ezra clients. The conversation made no sense to me. Eventually, it came out the guy I was talking to meant the other one.
  • There is a young boy named Ezra who is at the age where his parents call his name as he goes running away from them. A couple times over the past few month I have heard my name called only to realize it is the same woman who is his mother.
  • A friend’s new nephew is named Ezra.
  • A friend of my girlfriend’s son is named Ezra.

There are a few of us in town according to Facebook. I am getting less and less unique. My identity is getting more hidden in the crowd.

That is a good thing.

Special Characters Are Meaningful Too

Dear Google,

When you treat special characters such as underscores, colons, and hyphens as a space, you corrupt my search for a single term into multiple terms, aka not what I sought, so I get too many useless results. Function names, class names, or file  names ought to be treated as a single word not several words. Even when I place quotes around them you treat it as two concurrent words not a single word.

Please correct your algorithms or at least give me the option to have your product work correctly. Maybe like Google Book Search you should have Google Code Search? Software is information too.

Thanks!

Ezra

Useful User Agents

Rather than depend on end users to accurately report the browser used, I look for the user-agent in the web server logs. (Yes, I know it can be spoofed. Power users would be trying different things to resolve their own issues not coming to us.)

Followers of this blog may recall I changed the Weblogic config.xml to record user agents to the webserver.log.

One trick I use is the double quotes in awk to identify just the user agent. This information is then sorting by name to count (uniq -c) how many of each is present. Finally, I sort again by number with the largest at the top to see which are the most common.

grep <term> webserver.log | awk -F\” ‘{print $2}’ | sort | uniq -c | sort -n -r

This is what I will use looking for a specific user. If I am looking at a wider range, such as the user age for hits on a page, then I probably will use the head command to look at the top 20.

A “feature” of this is getting the build (Firefox 3.011) rather than just the version (Firefox 3). For getting the version, I tend to use something more like this to count the found version out of the log.

grep <term> webserver.log | awk -F\” ‘{print $2}’ | grep -c ‘<version>’

I have yet to see many CE/Vista URIs with the names of web browsers. So these are the most common versions one would likely find (what to grep – name – notes):

  1. MSIE # – Microsoft Internet Explorer – I’ve seen 5 through 8 in the last few months.
  2. Firefox # – Mozilla Firefox – I’ve seen 2 through 3.5. There is enough difference between 3 and 3.5 (also 2 and 2.5) I would count them separately.
  3. Safari – Apple/WebKit – In searching for this one, I would add to the search a ‘grep -v Chrome’ or to eliminate Google Chrome user agents.
  4. Chrome # – Google Chrome – Only versions 1 and 2.

Naturally there many, many others. It surprised me to see iPhone and Android on the list.

Name Collisions

Blackboard has a conference they call BbWorld. I noticed there are some odd tweets with the same #bbworld hashtag lately. These appear to be about a Blackberry conference to be held next month.

Collisions on names are common enough. For example, here are a couple names our clients use to brand their sites which other places also use.

My own project, GeorgiaVIEW is not immune. Some time ago I noticed the GeorgiaView Consortium (geological remote sensing) at the University of West Georgia.

I guess it is a good thing one Bbworld is in July and the other is in September.

For now I’ll just drop my RSS feed for the hashtag.

Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 protects people from malicious actions by state and local governments to prevent people from voting. Yes, we have a president of African-American descent. Yes, the United States Supreme Court took no action. However, the majority opinion statement that, “We are a very different nation,” suggests it could be repealed. The argument against maintaining the law seems to be since governments are behaving now no law is needed.

Are they? The DOJ disallowed a Georgia program to cull voters from the databases who might not be citizens. This strikes me as just like the Florida Central Voter File program in 1998-2006 to cull ex-felons from voter lists. Since they just used names, it was highly inaccurate and wrongly disenfranchised thousands in 2000… in Florida… the state which made international headlines as the place unable to count ballots. When Congress renewed it in 2006, “It held extensive hearings and produced voluminous evidence that minority voters continue to face significant obstacles.” [NYT] I may have to go looking for this in the Congressional Record.

With the protests happening in Iran right now about voter irregularities, is this the time to repeal one of the few deterrents against future abuses to erode the significant improvements over the past 40 years?

Email Harvesters

Good Sign I missed the story about brothers convicted of harvesting emails the first time. Well, I noticed a followup.

Back around 2001, the CIO received complaints about performance for the web server. So, I went log trolling to see what the web server was doing. A single IP dominated the HTTP requests. This one IP passed various last names into the email directory. Some quick research revealed Apache could block requests from that IP. That calmed things down enough for me to identify the owner of the IP. The CIO then bullied the ISP to provide contact information for the company involved.

Previous little adventures like this landed me a permanent job, so I jumped at similar challenges.

Well, a few years later, it happened again. This time my boss had made me develop a script for the dissemination of the anti-virus software package to home users. Basically, it used email authentication for verification if someone could get the download link. So, I applied the same technique to the email directory. Well, this upset some people who legitimately needed email addresses. So the human workers would provide email addresses to people with a legitimate need.

I’m glad since I’ve left, VSU no longer looks up email addresses for people. (I thought some of the requests questionable.) Also, my little email authentication script was before LDAP was available to the university. I think the new solution much better.

One the more vocal complainers about my having stopped non-VSU access to the email directory was my current employer. We apparently list email addresses for employees freely. Which makes me wonder how much spam we get is due to the brothers described at the beginning of this story? Or other email harvesters? Just hitting the send button potentially exposes the email address.

No worries. I’m sure Glenn is protecting me. 🙂

Facebook Usernames

If you cannot find me, then you are not looking. If you search on Facebook for Ezra Freelove, then I am the only result at the moment. Maybe all you knew was Ezra and the city where I lived? Facebook search is not so great you could find me through my first name plus something else you knew about me (other than email or city). Probably this is for the best. We don’t want to make it too easy to stalk people, right?

Allowing users to make a username is a promotion. The blogosphere making a fuss over all this is a Chicken Littleesque. Sure Myspace, Twitter, and a number of other sites have addresses with usernames in them. No one is forcing people opposed to having one to make one. Only in the past month could one choose a username for one’s Google profile. Prior to that it was a hefty large number of numbers.

I think the reason some people prefer usernames comes down to elaborative encoding. To retain something in memory, we associate that something with existing items in memory. Short-term memory has only about 7 slots and digits are each a single item. Assuming a single incrementation per account created and over 200 million users, using a numbers means there ought to be 9 digits worth of numbers to memorize. Words occupy a single slot in short term memory, by far simplifying remembering. Which would you rather try to remember 46202460 or ezrasf?

An argument against usernames comes down to using the memory of the Facebook database or other computer memory. Computer memory is better than human memory for stuff like this.

All of these work and go to the same place:

  1. http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=46202460
  2. http://www.facebook.com/ezrasf
  3. http://www.ezrasf.com/fb

Pick your poison. Enjoy.

Confidentiality

A student wants Blackboard Vista to not reveal his or her last name. The student has already gone to the Registrar and gotten a confidentiality flag placed on the record. As I understand it, this flag in Banner is a FERPA protection to prevent the record from being provided to parties external to the university. It does not provide anonymity within the university. That electronic systems are being scrubbed of the student’s last name means something more than just confidentiality.

We only create new and not update from our student information system (SIS). So in general, the last name should not revert.

The instructor must know who the student is in order to correctly assign grades. If grades were automatically sent back to the SIS, then it would match the IMS id to the what is in the SIS. The user name or any other name is immaterial and not a confounder to the process. Unfortunately, our faculty has to manually transfer the grades. Some rely on the WebCT id / username. Others rely on the first and last name. I guess without names, this latter group is going to have to deal with relying on the WebCT id.

Only username, first and last name, and role are populated into the grade book. So moving the last name to another name field (like other, prefix, or suffix) would not help.

The last name appears to be part of their scheme for creating usernames, so they will likely need to change the username if the point is to not let anyone know what it is. The school in question does not appear to populate their Vista user records with a school email address. So I don’t know if the same would need to be done with it as well.

Blackboard Vista 3.0.7 does have issues with renaming the last name. While many things are immediately updated (good), some things are not. This is not a comprehensive list.

  1. The last name in the grade book was not updated. Removing the user from the section and restoring it to the section changed the name to the correct one.
  2. The last name in discussions was not updated.

So while renaming the account is easy to do, not everything takes place as quicklly as we would like.

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