I had a run-in with a spamcatcher this week. At some point I realized that messages I sent from home into were not getting through, and not returning error messages either.

It turned out they were getting caught up in the university's new spam filtering appliances. Apparently the servers run by my ISP Optimum Online (Cablevision) have some pretty bad scores on some of the black-lists. That really sucks.

It's a little hard to describe how I felt when I realized that 4–5 days' worth of messages – to my colleagues, to my dean, to members of the committee that I chair, to the chairs of committees on which I serve – that all of them were lost. It must be something like the “metaphor shear” that Neal Stephenson describes in In the beginning was the command line. Email has become so natural and essential that it really feels now like communication is happening as I write it. To find out days later that the communication never really happened at all is jarring.

And I know it's not rational – these filters are just computer programs after all – but the thought that kept seeping back into my brain was, “your work isn't valued.” As if the filters were a collective “talk to the hand” from the university itself. There's probably something deeper going on there – the brain's a marvel, ain't it? – but I'm going to let it slide for the moment.

It's not clear to me that things are completely resolved, but I've been enough of a thorn in the side of our IT folks for now. They're actually supremely competent. We just have a clear difference of opinion on the tolerance for false positives. :)

It seems there's often some minor tension between computer science faculty and IT staff. Many larger CS departments hire their own system administrators and just ask the campus IT department to carry the bits in and out of the building with no questions asked.

And even then the faculty often dump on the sysadmins. I've seen it from both sides. As if the ability to sling some code and prove some theorems makes one well-qualified to provide semi-reliable email service to tens of thousands of needy users.

The admins did put me on a list so that messages addressed to me bypass the filters. That doesn't help with mail I send to others from off campus, of course. But this morning I managed to get one particular message through, so maybe the black-listing of Optimum Online was a fluke anyway. If not, I guess I can always tunnel onto campus and send to their blessed SMTP servers through the tunnel.

Meanwhile, being left outside the spam wall did cause my junk messages to increase slightly. I had been running my own SpamAssassin installation since before all this began, but it has had trouble keeping up with spammers' ‘innovations’ in the past 6 months or so. I train the Bayes filters weekly, but it's not always enough. So I upgraded to the latest and realized that all the network-dependent tests (Razor, Pyzor, etc.) had not been enabled. Since upgrading and reconfiguring SpamAssassin my junk messages have dropped dramatically, and still no false positives yet.

©20022015 Christopher League