Deaf Studies: After the third day of classes

Exciting times. This morning opened with our second ISL class — our first without an interpreter. We were mainly refreshing our knowledge of the alphabet by dint of spelling out our own and each other’s names, and also where we’re from.1 (This may also help with getting to know each other.) We also covered some basic vocabulary, such as most of the question words (What and Why and When and How and Where and Who) and a few other bits and bobs.2

After class, and lab work (recording ourselves again, in a bit more detail this time), I had a clinic appointment with IT Services. It took a bit of back and forth, but I finally have access to campus wifi, to my TCD e-mail, and to Blackboard (an online system for accessing lecture notes), and can request library books from the stacks (I do intend to abuse my access to the largest library in Ireland, and to read a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with my course).

And then, this evening, we had John Bosco Conama again, this time for Perspectives on Deafness. The two courses he’s teaching — Working with the Deaf Community and Perspectives on Deafness, have a definite overlap, but seem to be approaching their topics from different angles.3 We spent a lot of this introductory class discussing terminology: Deaf, hearing impaired, hard-of-hearing, deafened, profoundly deaf, etc.

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Charlotte Brontë, feminist

The Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, originally published under gender-ambiguous pseudonyms, as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Ellis Bell’s Wuthering Heights was republished under Emily Brontë’s real name shortly after her death. At the beginning, Charlotte Brontë wrote a biographical note on Emily and Anne, now both dead. It included this note on their choice of pseudonyms:

Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called “feminine” — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality and, for their reward, a flattery which is not true praise.

The biographical note is followed by an editor’s preface, also by Charlotte Brontë. Talking about the qualities of constancy and tenderness in the characters of the novel, she wrote,

Some people will think these qualities do not shine so well incarnate in a man as they would do in a woman, but Ellis Bell could never be brought to comprehend this notion: nothing moved her more than any insinuation that the faithfulness and clemency, the long-suffering and loving kindness which are esteemed virtues in the daughters of Eve, become foibles in the sons of Adam. She held that mercy and forgiveness are the divinest attributes of the Great Being who made both man and woman, and that what clothes the Godhead in glory, can disgrace no form of feeble humanity.

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Female Wizards on the Discworld

I have a theory about female wizards on the Discworld, which is just about possible to defend on the basis of the first three books (The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, and Equal Rites), but which also owes something to much later ones (The Last Continent and Unseen Academicals).

Unseen University is the Discworld’s premier college of magic (in its own mind, at least); not the only one. We already know there are wizards on Krull, which is almost completely separate from the rest of the Disc. We know that at least one of them (Marchessa) was female, and that this was not remarked on.

Buggarup University in XXX is another example of a separate college of magic, though it too is all-male.

In Unseen Academicals, we see that in fact Unseen University has rivals not only in places separated from the rest of the Disc, but also on the main supercontinent. The UU Dean has just set one up in Quirm; there’s a visiting professor from one in Genua; and I recall hints that there are others, with long-standing rivalries between them. (And Ponder Stibbons can play academic politics as well as anyone, thank you very much!)

We also see that there are differences in academic culture. UU wizards must be celibate (there’s a hint in The Colour of Magic (and again in Sourcery) that it’s only straight sex which is outlawed, but the possibilities thereby left open are never explored. This does not appear to be the case in Genua. When Ridcully heard that a Genuan wizard had been “named in divorce proceedings”, he just assumed that the Genuans didn’t prohibit their wizards having sex with women. He had to be explicitly told that in this case it was gay sex.

So UU has a “straight sex explicitly outlawed” and “gay sex doesn’t happen, does it?” culture, but accepts that other universities have different cultures. The one in Krull even accepts women, and did even before Esk’s time. Maybe others do too? Maybe, in fact, UU is the sole remaining holdout?


Experts and Expertese

I have a great deal of respect for experts. Actual, real, honest-to-goodness experts. The people who have written theses. The people who put massive amounts of work into coming up with original ideas, then do their very best to poke holes in them before publishing them. The people who will graciously admit defeat when they’re proven to be wrong, and will carry on working, carry on developing new ideas. I have a great deal of respect for the scientific method and for scientists themselves. And I know it doesn’t always work like that, but it does often enough.

And what really annoys me, what really gets me going, is seeing that respect misappropriated by “psychic healers” and similar bullshit artists. Those people dream up ideas which sound good, but are disdainful of the tools humanity has painstakingly developed over centuries for checking whether ideas are true. In fact, in many cases, they seem to not even care whether or not their ideas are true. It is dispiriting to see such people given respect that is not their due.

The utter contempt these scam artists have for the real experts, the people who put their life’s work into working out how the world really works, is the rudeness.

And besides all that, there’s the issue of how dangerous these people can be. Should I mention vaccines?

This entire blog post is under the license CC BY-SA 3.0. Feel free to repost elsewhere, as long as you link back.

Why did Thorongil warn Ecthelion against the White Wizard?

I’m rereading The Lord of the Rings. Appendix A, “Annals of the Kings and Rulers”, tells us that Aragorn son of Arathorn spent part of his youth in Minas Tirith under the assumed name “Thorongil” serving under Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor.

Thorongil often warned Ecthelion not to put trust in Saruman the White in Isengard, but to welcome rather Gandalf the Grey.

Appendix B, “The Tale of Years”, tells us,

2957-80 Aragorn undertakes his great journeys and errantries. As Thorongil he serves in disguise both Thengel of Rohan and Ecthelion II of Gondor.
10th July 3018 Gandalf imprisoned in Orthanc.
18th September 3018 Gandalf escapes from Orthanc in the early hours.
25th October 3018 Council of Elrond.

Saruman’s treachery was not clear to anyone before the dispute with Gandalf in July 3018. And Aragorn did not learn of it till he and Gandalf met again in Rivendell in October. So why was Aragorn already suspicious of Saruman roughly 40 years earlier?

I asked this question a while ago on Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack Exchange. I got a few good answers. Here’s the one I selected as the best, from Peter Turner:

Not sure where this is in the annals, but it says in the Tolkien Companion by J.E.A Tyler

Saruman made his first deliberate move in this direction (toward imposing his will, which was forbidden of the Istari) in the year 2759 Third Age, when he appeared at the Coronation of King Frealaf of Rohan, successor of the mighty Helm Hammerhand. The Wizard brough with him rich presents, and declared himself the friend of Rohan and gondor, and a little later was able to persuade Steward Beren of Gondor to grant him the Keys of Orthanc, the mighty Tower which, together with its fortress of Isengard, commanded the strategic Gap of Rohan. All thought this was a welcome move.

All, that is, except a weary ranger who would see everything given up by Gondor as a challenge to its power.

And it further says that

all the time the Wizard was secretly searching the Tower of Orthanc for a long-lost treasure of the Dunedain … the Palantír of Orthanc.

Then in 2851 the White Council met to think of ways to stop Sauron from coming back

Saruman, hoping that the Ring would expose its location if Sauron were left unharassed, deliberately overruled a strong recommendation (from Gandalf) … that Dol Guldur be attacked.

By his actions, Gandalf may have suspected that Saruman was up to something, although I don’t think Gandalf even knew of the ring.

So, either through his own understanding of the Palantír through the lore of his people or through his association with Gandalf, Aragorn was more naturally suspicious than Gandalf and I think it makes sense that he’d know something was amiss well before anyone else had reason to suspect.

You can read Peter’s answer and all the others at SF&F SE. This entire blog post, both my own writing and the section I quoted from Peter, is under the license CC BY-SA 3.0. Feel free to repost elsewhere.


Tu Chu asked a question on Stack Overflow:

I am developing a game for the iOS (and later for Android) devices which needs to get data from a database on a server. What I have done so far is to use PHP to echo out the data from the database as XML. The program will check often with the server so performance is a big deal here. So, would JSON or XML be better for this task?

Well, which is better? I don’t know. It depends on the specific use case, and we don’t have enough detail to answer that question. And this, indeed, is what I said:

Produce XML output. Check the time taken and the file size.

Produce JSON output. Check the time taken and the file size.

Decide which is best.

What more could I say?

When Alice asked a more general question on Programmers Stack Exchange, I was able to say more.

Alice asked,

How important is it to learn XML when JSON is able to do almost all that I need? Having said that, I use JSON mainly for AJAX requests and obtaining data from various APIs. I am a total newbie to web development and the reason I am asking this is that I want to know whether I should go ahead and buy a book on XML or whether I can just give it a pass.

Well, while XML and JSON do have overlaps in use-cases, they are actually very different languages with very different design goals, so I replied,

XML definitely outshines JSON for markup (which is, after all, hinted at in the name).

I wouldn’t like to see a random XHTML page converted into JSON format. It would be horrible. OpenOffice and the latest editions of Microsoft Office all use compressed XML as their format of choice.

As a general rule: Markup goes in XML; structured data goes in JSON.

That’s when you’re outputting data and have full control yourself over the format. If you’re outputting data according to industry standards, or consuming other people’s data, you may need to use XML even in places where JSON would seem more appropriate. That’s because XML is longer established and has been used in many standards.

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How can I send 100,000 e-mails weekly?


That really is the simplest answer.

On Stack Overflow, xRobot asked for guidance on setting up a system which would send 100,000 e-mails every week to a variety of addresses. This is, actually, quite tricky, as was demonstrated in Piskvor‘s rather awesome answer. Here it is:

Short answer: While it’s technically possible to send 100k e-mails each week yourself, the simplest, easiest and cheapest solution is to outsource this to one of the companies that specialize in it (I did say “cheapest”: there’s no limit to the amount of development time (and therefore money) that you can sink into this when trying to DIY).

Long answer: If you decide that you absolutely want to do this yourself, prepare for a world of hurt (after all, this is e-mail/e-fail we’re talking about). You’ll need:

  • e-mail content that is not spam (otherwise you’ll run into additional major roadblocks on every step, even legal repercussions);
  • in addition, your content should be easy to distinguish from spam — that may be a bit hard to do in some cases (I heard that a certain pharmaceutical company had to all but abandon e-mail, as their brand names are quite common in spam mailings);
  • a configurable SMTP server of your own — one which won’t buckle when you dump 100k e-mails onto it (your ISP’s upstream server won’t be sufficient here and you’ll make the ISP violently unhappy; we used two dedicated boxes);
  • some mail wrapper (e.g. PhpMailer if PHP’s your poison of choice; using PHP’s mail() is horrible enough by itself);
  • your own sender function to run in a loop, create the mails and pass them to the wrapper (note that you may run into PHP’s memory limits if your app has a memory leak; you may need to recycle the sending process periodically, or even better, decouple the “creating e-mails” and “sending e-mails” altogether).

Surprisingly, that was the easy part. The hard part is actually sending it:

  • Some servers will ban you when you send too many mails close together, so you need to shuffle and watch your queue (e.g. send one mail to, then three to other domains, only then another to
  • You need to have correct PTR, SPF, DKIM records.
  • You need to handle remote server timeouts, misconfigured DNS records, and other network pleasantries.
  • You need to handle invalid e-mails (and no, regex is the wrong tool for that).
  • You need to handle unsubscriptions (many legitimate newsletters have been reclassified as spam due to many frustrated users who couldn’t unsubscribe in one step and instead chose to “mark as spam” — the spam filters do learn, especially with large e-mail providers).
  • You need to handle bounces and rejects (“no such mailbox”; “mailbox full”).
  • You need to handle blacklisting and removal from blacklists. (Sure, you’re not sending spam. Some recipients won’t be so sure — with such large list, it will happen sometimes, no matter what precautions you take. Some people (e.g., your not-so-scrupulous competitors) might even go as far to falsely report your mailings as spam — it does happen. On average, it takes weeks to get yourself removed from a blacklist.)

And to top it off, you’ll have to manage the legal part of it (various federal, state, and local laws; and even different tangles of laws once you send outside the U.S. (note: you have no way of finding out whether lives in Southwest Elbonia, the country with world’s most draconian antispam laws)).

I’m pretty sure I missed a few heads of this hydra — are you still sure you want to do this yourself? If so, there’ll be another wave, this time merely the annoying problems inherent in sending an e-mail. (You see, SMTP is a store-and-forward protocol, which means that your e-mail will be shuffled across many SMTP servers around the Internet, in the hope that the next one is a bit closer to the final recipient. Basically, the e-mail is sent to an SMTP server, which puts it into its forward queue; when time comes, it will forward it further to a different SMTP server, until it reaches the SMTP server for the given domain. This forward could happen immediately, or in a few minutes, or hours, or days, or never.) Thus, you’ll see the following issues — most of which could happen en route as well as at the destination:

  • The remote SMTP servers don’t want to talk to your SMTP server.
  • Your mails are getting marked as spam (<blink> is not your friend here, nor is <font color=...>).
  • Your mails are delivered days, even weeks late (contrary to popular opinion, SMTP is designed to make a best effort to deliver the message sometime in the future — not to deliver it now).
  • Your mails are not delivered at all (already sent from e-mail server on hop #4, not sent yet from server on hop #5, the server that currently holds the message crashes, data is lost).
  • Your mails are mangled by some poorly designed server en route (this one is somewhat solvable with base64 encoding, but then the size goes up and the e-mail looks more suspicious).
  • Your mails are delivered and the recipients seem not to want them (“I’m sure I didn’t sign up for this, I remember exactly what I did a year ago” (of course you do, sir)).
  • There are problems with users with various versions of Microsoft Outlook and its unique handling of Internet mail.
  • You hit wizard’s apprentice mode (a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop — in other words, automated e-mails as replies to automated e-mails as replies to…; you really don’t want to be the one to set this off, as you’d anger half the internet at yourself).

And it’ll be your job to troubleshoot and solve this (hint: you can’t, mostly). The people who run a legit mass-mailing businesses know that in the end you can’t solve it, and that they can’t solve it either — and they have the reasons well researched, documented and outlined (maybe even as a PowerPoint presentation — complete with sounds and cool transitions — that your bosses can understand), as they’ve had to explain this a million times before. Plus, for the problems that are actually solvable, they know very well how to solve them.

If, after all this, you are not discouraged and still want to do this, go right ahead: it’s even possible that you’ll find a better way to do this. Just know that the road ahead won’t be easy — sending e-mail is trivial, getting it delivered is hard.

I’ve rewritten that slightly to tweak the grammar and to avoid a couple of unnecessary and potentially triggering metaphors. As good as it is, it’s not the last word on the subject. Here’s more advice, from splattne, on how not to be marked as a spammer:

Be sure that your e-mails don’t look like typical spam e-mails: don’t insert only a large image; check that the character-set is set correctly; don’t insert “IP-address only” links. Write your communication as you would write a normal e-mail. Make it really easy to unsubscribe or opt-out. Otherwise, your users will unsubscribe by pressing the “spam” button, and that will affect your reputation.

On the technical side: if you can choose your SMTP server, be sure it is a “clean” SMTP server. IP addresses of spamming SMTP servers are often blacklisted by other providers. If you don’t know your SMTP servers in advance, it’s a good practice to provide configuration options in your application for controlling batch sizes and delay between batches. Some mail servers don’t accept large sending batches or continuous activity.

Use e-mail authentication methods, such as SPF, and Domain Keys to prove that your emails and your domain name belong together. The nice side-effect is you help in preventing that your email domain is spoofed. Also check your reverse DNS to make sure the IP address of your mail server points to the domain name that you use for sending mail.

Make sure that the reply-to address of your emails are a valid, existing addresses. Use the full, real name of the addressee in the To field, not just the email-address (e.g. "John Doe" <> ) and monitor your abuse accounts, such as and

Of course, on the other end, it’s also important to protect against spam coming in.

The copyright for the two essays quoted above rests with their original authors. They were originally published on Stack Overflow and Super User, respectively. Both of those essays, and this entire blog post, are under the license CC BY-SA 3.0. Feel free to repost elsewhere.

Am I small-minded?

This thought occurred to me just last night:

There are some opinions I understand and agree with. They are based on arguments and presuppositions which make sense to me, and which seem to me reasonable and well supported.

There are some opinions I disagree with. The arguments in their favour seem to me lacking in some way, perhaps by being based on presuppositions which I do not share, or perhaps due to a failure in logical reasoning from those presuppositions.

There are some opinions I disagree with completely. The arguments in their favour are non-existent, or are based on presuppositions so completely alien to my mind that I simply cannot make sense of them, or follow a chain of logical reasoning which I cannot grasp.

It occurred to me last night that the middle set, the arguments which seem lacking, but not fundamentally unreasonable or utterly incomprehensible, is a quite likely to be a reasonably good proxy for how open-minded we are. (Compare Aristotle’s dictum that it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it. What I’m saying is not quite the same thing, but it is a related concept.) It also occurred to me that, for me, the middle set of ideas is, actually, rather small. I find it quite hard to get my head around conservative politics; I find it very difficult to understand or communicate with people who are uninterested in scientific evidence for or against the types of medicine they advocate; and I often find religious concepts difficult to grasp (which last is especially odd, given that I was raised religious).

So, how worried should I be about that?

License: CC BY-SA 3.0. Feel free to repost elsewhere.