A Rant about Ads

I’ve posted in the past about my ambivalence about blocking ads online. On one hand, I installed AdBlock Plus because internet advertising has gotten really obnoxious, with sites seemingly competing to see who can make the most irritating ads and who can place the most ads in places that obscure content. The Internet got a lot cleaner when I starting blocking ads.

On the other hand, I recognize the importance of advertising on the Internet. Free sites with ads have an implicit contract with the viewer: view the ads on the page, maybe click on them if you’re interested, and we’ll let you use our site for free. An individual can block ads, and it’s somewhat like stealing cable — on your own, it’s insignificant and almost a victimless crime. But in the long run, it’s happening a lot and it endangers those sites’ abilities to support themselves with ads. (I work for an ad-supported site, so I’m biased.)

I went a few months with AdBlock Plus disabled entirely. It went pretty smoothly, but most of the sites I visit frequently are like my own company: we don’t accept invasive ads. Ads the make sound, cover content, or *gasp* open popups are never allowed. (We also reserve the right to reject “sleazy” ads.) Recently, I’ve found a few sites with popups. (I’m not sure, how “Block popups” was disabled in Firefox. I just fixed that.)

It may be possible to offer fine-grained control of blocking ads, but I really can’t be bothered. So here’s my new system: I browse with AdBlock Plus disabled. But if I go to a site that I know has invasive ads — popups, noisy ads, content-obscuring ads, etc. — I turn AdBlock Plus on, which blocks all ads. The sites I frequent also have AdBlock plus set to not run, so that even if it’s on, I still view the ads.

A quick note, by the way – “I don’t click ads, so they’re not losing any revenue anyway” is incorrect. A lot of sites get paid for impressions (“CPM”), not clicks (“CPC”), so whether the ads are clicked on or not is irrelevant. If you block ads, you are depriving the site of revenue. Hence my compromise: I’ll view your ads in return for the free content you provide, unless your ads are obnoxious.

Quick ‘n Dirty Spam Rejection with policyd-weight

I’ve blogged about DNSBLs before. They’re DNS-based blacklists of spammer IPs. (To see if was listed in blacklist.example.com, you’d do a DNS lookup for If you get an IP, usually, back, it’s listed. If you get an NXDOMAIN, it’s not listed.) Some lists are abysmal, but I found some that are very accurate. I never loved DNSBLs, mainly because you cede way too much control to DNSBL operators — if they list an IP, your mailserver will refuse mail from them. Sometimes people running DNSBLs are vindictive, and other times they’re clueless, so it’s not at all unheard of for legitimate IPs to wind up in blacklists.

I set up policyd-weight on my new mailserver a little bit ago. The reason I’m so crazy about policyd-weight is that it queries multiple DNSBLs and computes a score based. I have it configured so that someone needs to be listed in multiple blacklists before anything happens, so one erroneous listing won’t do any harm.

Over time, I’ve been logging IPs of people emailing my spamtraps, and looking them up in various DNSBLs when they were listed. (Whenever I poked around there, I’d also look up the IPs of mailservers that recently sent me desired mail, and check those; any blacklist listing any non-spam server was summarily removed.) So I set up policyd-weight with this configuration file:

   @dnsbl_score = (
#    HOST,                    HIT SCORE,  MISS SCORE,  LOG NAME
    'pbl.spamhaus.org',       3.25,          0,        'DYN_PBL_SPAMHAUS',
    'sbl-xbl.spamhaus.org',   4.35,          0,        'SBL_XBL_SPAMHAUS',
    'bl.spamcop.net',         3.75,          0,        'SPAMCOP',
    'dnsbl.njabl.org',        3.25,          0,        'BL_NJABL',
    'ix.dnsbl.manitu.net',    4.35,          0,        'IX_MANITU',
    'psbl.surriel.com',       4.25,          0,        'PSBL_SURRIEL',
    'list.dnswl.org',         -100,          0,        'DNSWL_PASS',
    'ubl.unsubscore.com',     3.50,          0,        'UNSUBSCORE',
    'dnsbl-2.uceprotect.net', 2.00,          0,        'UCEPROTECT_2',
    'b.barracudacentral.org', 4.00,          0,        'BARRACUDA',
    'dnsbl.sorbs.net',        2.00,          0,        'SORBS',
    'dyna.spamrats.com',      2.00,          0,        'SPAMRATS_DYNA',
    'bl.spameatingmonkey.net',2.00,          0,         'SEM_BL',
    'bl.mailspike.net',       3.00,          0,        'MAILSPIKE-BLACK',
    'wl.mailspike.net',       -100,          0,        'MAILSPIKE-WHITE'

   $MAXDNSBLHITS  = 5;  # If Client IP is listed in MORE
                        # DNSBLS than this var, it gets
                        # REJECTed immediately -- set high due to whitelists on list too

   $MAXDNSBLSCORE = 9;  # alternatively, if the score of
                        # DNSBLs is ABOVE this
                        # level, reject immediately

   $MAXDNSBLMSG   = '550 Your MTA is listed in too many DNSBLs';

It’s worth mentioning that this isn’t even a good configuration. For one, the whitelist (-100 points if you’re listed) should be up top, because policyd-weight seems to stop processing DNSBLs once the threshold (a score of 9, or listing in 5 blacklists) is hit. That would also argue that you’d put your fastest / most accurate blacklists up front. Spamhaus, SpamCop, Manitu, Surriel, and Barracuda Central are all first-rate; I’d move them to the top, right after the whitelist check.

You need 9 points to be listed. I thought this was conservative, and might match maybe a quarter of my spam. If you hit the highest-scoring DNSBLs, you’d still need to be in three DNSBLs before your mail was rejected — you need 9 points and the highest is 4.35. You’ll also note that, towards the end, I threw in some 2-pointers. These are lists that can be a little too aggressive, but they’re safe.

I pointed a couple of my less-used domains’ MX records to this setup. They’re ones that get tons of spam but are either used not at all, or ones that have mailboxes that, in practice, don’t get much mail, and that could afford to lose a few messages to a bad configuration. The results?

I’ve rejected mail from 150 different IPs today alone. And here’s the interesting thing: 100% of spam has been rejected, with zero false positives. This is much better than I expected. I made mailboxes for some spamtraps I have, and not a single one has any mail. I sent myself email from every legitimate service I can think of, and it went right through. And actually, it not only went right through, but it came in with a negative score — policyd-weight gave a “bonus” to people with good configurations, like if a DNS lookup for their HELO string actually matched the connecting IP. And mail from GMail and Apple had the -100 points from being in dnswl.org’s list, too.

My results surely aren’t typical of real-world settings. I’d expect to eventually have some spam slip through the cracks, and I’m a little uneasy about all the checks for HELO matches, etc., that are performed, if only because I haven’t taken the time to fully understand them. But based on a week’s worth of spam to my low-traffic mailserver, this configuration is batting a thousand. I’d planned to set up postfix-policyd to do greylists / spamtraps / blacklists / HELO checks, but thus far, and I’d planned to set up and tune SpamAssassin for mail that was ultimately accepted. And I still will someday. But right now, it’d be pointless. (It’s also worth mentioning that development of policyd-weight stopped two years ago.) But if you’re getting a lot of spam, give policyd-weight a look. It’s worked better than I imagined was possible.


I’ve had a 55mm* polarizing filter for a while now. I bought it for my old camera, but it conveniently fit my 55-200mm lens when I went to an SLR system. The 55-200mm is my least-used lens, though; my 50mm f/1.4 prime and the 18-50mm wide-angle both see more use. Both of them need 58mm filters.

* In discussing filters, 55mm refers to the diameter of the mount on the front of the lens, not the focal length of the lens.

I was at the mall yesterday, so I impulse-bought a 58mm circular polarizer. It just so happens that yesterday and today were, bright, clear days, so I got to put it to use.

Magnolia Tree

The rich blue sky closely matches what I saw, but it wouldn’t have been possible to capture without the aid of the polarizer. Similarly, I’d have expected the details on the tree to have been lost somewhat.

Here are a couple less-awesome photos that illustrate the benefits. First, here’s a not-terribly-inspiring shot of a puddle Kyle and I passed while going for a walk today:


Here’s the same shot with the polarizer adjusted to block the glare, allowing you to see into the puddle:


In this particular case I think the reflected trees in the first shot actually help the photo, but this shot of a puddle isn’t going to end up on anyone’s wall either way.

Here’s a more subtle effect of polarizers:

This is a shot of some power/phone lines being overgrown with vines. (Yikes!) Here’s a very similar shot, in which I correctly-adjusted the filter:

The sky looks nominally better, but the real gain is subtle — it’s in the details on the vines and the power lines. Look at the bottom line, for example: with the polarizer, you’re able to see the silver (silver-colored, at least) wire that wraps its way around, whereas it’s mostly lost in the first photo. Again, this shot won’t win any awards, and using a polarizer to capture details in power lines isn’t exactly exciting. But the sort of small gains can be far-reaching and are worth it, I think.

I don’t have a before-and-after on this one, but this shows another great benefit of polarizers:

The foliage is vibrant and saturated, whereas it’s much more washed out without it.

Polarizers do have some downsides. One (which can also be a benefit in some cases!) is that you lose some light. Any sort of filter always loses some, but the whole point of polarizers is to reject certain types of light. Don’t use a polarizer if you’re shooting in low-light… Also, they can introduce some distortion; this isn’t just polarizers, but anything you stick in front of your lens. ($400 lens, $20 polarizer… D’oh!) Another pet peeve I’ve noted with filters is that under just the wrong situation, they can pick up glare themselves, as the filter itself receives a ton of sunlight.

Given that you can pick up a mediocre-enough polarizer for $20 or so, you probably owe it to yourself to pick one up if you do much outdoor photography.