Spammers do A/B testing

I’m a regular reader of Linda Bustos’ excellent Get Elastic blog. Ecommerce isn’t my specialty but it’s something that affects all of us who shop online so I find it very interesting to see just how much work goes into the tiniest of details.

One of the subjects that came up recently and intrigued me was A/B testing. To perform an A/B test, an online retailer makes a change to their website and supplies the changed pages to some but not all of their visitors while the remainder see the original pages. By monitoring the statistics from both groups separately, the retailer can determine whether the change is a good thing or not. For instance you might change the colour of the “add to cart” button. A casual observer might think a change like that makes no difference at all… but test with enough people and it seems that there can actually be a measurable variation from something this small. And if you don’t A/B test then you’ll never find out. The world of online retailers appears to be full of folks fretting over whether they’d get a 0.3% increase in conversion rate if they reduced the width of their checkout button by 2 pixels. And while you might laugh, they have every right to fret – that’s money they could be making… or losing.

I was looking through my email spam folder the other day and noticed something interesting. Spammers are doing A/B testing too.

Look at this extract from my junk mail folder. This isn’t showing all my spam but it is showing an interesting subset of the spam that arrives to various usernames on a domain that I’ve owned for nearly 10 years now.

some of the spam in my mailbox

From the subject lines it’s easy to see that there are two usernames which are receiving this spam. This is backed up by the emails appearing in pairs. But the most interesting feature is that the duplicated emails frequently have different subject lines. So, for example, the baby laundry detergent spammer is sending out (say) 5,000,000 emails seeing if it’s dermatologist testing that helps make the sale, and another 5,000,000 seeing if it’s the stain removal powers (and, for all we know, another 50,000,000 emails trying out other variations). Of course it goes without saying that the links embedded in the two emails are slightly different so the spammer can check the different response rates.

Other amusing things I noticed…

  • the use of famous brands to increase recipient trust (that’s not really from Dell)
  • one spammer selling both Rolex and Viagra (might as well hit all the spam stereotypes)
  • he didn’t really have a job for me (the lying spamming b&%!#*d)

26th September 2008 at 8:01 am 2 comments

Employment testing

I was at a job fair recently and met a very enthusiastic HR person from an interesting company. Actually, if the truth be told, I went to the job fair specifically to make contact with this one company.

One of the things I’ve found annoying about job fairs is that they’re losing some of their purpose. In the olden days you would hand over your resume and virtually get a first interview on the spot. Nowadays it seems much more “I’ll tell you a bit about the company but if you’re interested go check the careers page when you get home”.

I very much enjoy the opportunity to talk to people face to face and make a personal impression – but when the people I speak to at the fair aren’t actually there looking for people then it doesn’t really get me anywhere.

Anyway, this HR person was full of praise for her company from an atmosphere and organization point-of-view (as you would expect). And what I’ve been able to find out about their technology also sounds very interesting.

The first stage of their recruitment process is an online “logical reasoning test”. Sounds pretty fun – I was all fired-up so went home and applied. Nothing happened for a month.

I was under the impression that the test was pretty much guaranteed. Unless you were totally unsuitable then you’d get to sit the test… doesn’t take them much work to send you the link. I like to think I’m good at logic tests so I was keen to take it and show what I can do. Eventually I phoned up my HR contact to ask about it (voicemail *sigh*). And guess what… very next day the invite appeared in my inbox. A coincidence? I don’t know!

So I sat the test… 105 minutes 11 questions. Starts with flowcharts… 1) take the contents of box 6 and add it to the contents of the box whose number is in box 3 and put the result in box 1… 2) alter instruction 1 by subtracting the number in box 11 from the first box mentioned in instruction 1… 3) if the contents of box 1 is even, jump to instruction 1. That sort of thing. Then at the end it’ll ask you for the number inside a specific box.

Basically it’s describing a software algorithm without using actual code. But I tried to not be too clever working out what the algorithm was – I actually worked through the logic, doing the steps and altering the contents of the boxes. Took me ten minutes to do the first question and I’m worrying that I’m going to get into time trouble… after all, they always put the easiest questions first, right?

Well the first third of the test was all like that. The middle third was similar but the box that you were supposed to watch for the answer was not part of the data set (i.e. numbers are getting added into it) but was part of the instruction set (i.e. a loop variable or something like that) so you had to look at things slightly differently. But after the first two questions I was getting into the swing of things.

Then the last third were very easy indeed. They didn’t involve following any program flow, just had to look at the logic and write down the answer. In the end I had enough time to go through the test a second time to check my answers so I’ll be surprised if I’ve got anything wrong (not that I’ll ever find out!).

So now we wait. Hopefully my resume and test combine well enough that they’ll call me in for an interview.

24th September 2008 at 8:35 pm Leave a comment

What else has been keeping me busy. Part 3!

Somewhere, in amongst all this, I’ve been volunteering at Free Geek.

And, it must be said, having a fabulous time.

I spent last Thursday dismantling the computers that are being scrapped. Open the case, remove the power supply, remove the motherboard, remove the RAM, the battery, the processor and heatsink. Put it all in separate piles, grab the next machine off the rack and repeat.

Does that sound boring? Oh no – it’s great… every machine is different – some of them are 15 year old pre-ATX machines, some maybe as new as 5 years old. Every machine is put together differently, different challenges to getting the parts out. The more modern machines were interesting because of the economy of construction and, for the business oriented models, the mechanisms inside them designed to make it easier to change components. The older ones were equally fascinating… plenty of times I stopped to admire an ancient component and thought “wow – I used to have one of these” (and in many cases still do!).

I’ve been fiddling around inside PCs for almost 15 years now so I could pretty much do this with my eyes closed. I’ve also got several years experience with Ubuntu – Free Geek’s operating system of choice. So, with a bit of training, I’m someone they could easily use anywhere in the process.

Their volunteer co-ordinator said something about “fast tracking” me through the system which sounds great… give me a day or so in each position and then maybe find something challenging for me to do there. But first I need to spend time doing each of the jobs so I know how it all works.

I went back on Saturday and spent half the day at “eval 1”. This position is responsible for the initial assessment of the incoming machines. Open them up, remove memory, hard drives, addon cards, optical drives, vacuum them out and then decide if the machine is up-to-spec for re-use. If it is, it goes to “eval 2” where it’s tested to see if it actually works. If not it goes to dismantling.

Underneath the eval1 desk there’s a big plastic bin into which you drop all the removed cards – a fair mix of graphics cards, sound cards, network cards etc. This bin had reached overflowing so I offered to ‘deal with it’. Dealing with it involved sorting the cards… graphics cards in one pile, network cards in another, modem cards, sound cards etc. And then they’re very fussy about which cards of each type they can reuse. For example the Ubuntu install is done over the network so if you’re keeping a network card it has to be network bootable. Most motherboards already have sound built-in so if you’re keeping a sound card it better be a good one. And graphics cards… that’s where it gets really complicated. They have a very clever flow-chart to help non-technical people identify what to keep and what to bin but I’d seen all this stuff before so could whizz through the bin pretty quickly. Then back to eval1 to help out. Another great day.

I’m back there again tomorrow… officially a “floater” which might just mean I get to stand-in for someone who doesn’t show or (hopefully) it might mean I get to do a couple of different jobs.

Can you tell I’m enjoying this? *LOL*

24th September 2008 at 6:45 pm Leave a comment

What else has been keeping me busy. Part 2.

Flashback time… cue the wibbly-wobbly screen effects…

I’ve been in Toastmasters for just over a year now and greatly enjoying it. When it came time to elect a new executive for my club, several of the more experienced members suggested quite strongly that I take the post of VP Education. Now something like that takes a lot of time to do right and really my extra time right now should be dedicated to getting a job. Added to which, when I do get a job who knows if I’m even going to be able to make it to the meetings at 7pm, let alone have the time to dedicate to a VP role. So I decided not to get myself involved in the executive and stood firm.

In a way it was lucky I did because I’m now taking an evening course on my Toastmasters night so I won’t be attending any club meetings at all for three months!

We have a new Toastmasters club forming in my neighbourhood with a specific focus on business and technology people. “Perfect,” I thought, “let’s go network there”. So I attended a couple of meetings as a guest during the summer. One of the experienced Toastmasters mentoring that club took me aside and asked me if I was interested in being the new Area Governor. Whoa! That’s a heck of a vote of confidence (or desperation *LOL*) – but also something that sounds quite exciting. The Area Governor is responsible for serving the needs of the clubs in their Area (in our case, 6 clubs), visiting them and motivating them.  Despite my reluctance to be on my own club’s executive, I did consider this for a bit. But again, it’s a commitment of time and energy that should be going somewhere else so I said no.

Fast forward a month… and one of the experienced members of my club announces that she’s decided to accept the offer of becoming the new Area Governor. Good for her!

Fast forward another month… and I get a frantic 3am email from our new Area Governor begging me to help her out as she’s too busy to do it all herself. Of course put like that, that’s a request that I can’t turn down… and so I’m now Assistant Area Governor.

What does this mean for me? Well, I’ve attended a couple of Toastmasters training sessions, networked with a lot of experienced Toastmasters. I’ve also become a regular at our new still-getting-off-the-ground club, taking on whatever roles are vacant to help make sure they’ve got enough experienced people to conduct each meeting. And last week I visited two other established clubs in our area, with my official hat on.

A club visit is a major thing. It takes preparation (contact the club president, find out about the club, find out what the president’s direction is for the club, prepare a presentation that fits along with that), then the visit itself, then a meeting with the president afterwards to discuss things face to face, then a write-up, a thank-you email and some form-filling.

Historically speaking, all the clubs in our area have kept themselves to themselves – not a lot of contact between them. Which is a shame because I find you get a lot more out of Toastmasters if you’re listening to different speakers, and it’s more of a challenge for you when you’re presenting to strangers. So one of the things that I personally want to do this year (and fortunately our Area Governor wants the same thing too!) is encourage the clubs to communicate with each other. Get some of the members to drop in on other meetings, maybe organise a debating contest or two between clubs… that sort of thing.

My club visits went very well. Both clubs are stable and well run. Both clubs would like to have more contact with the other clubs in the area. I’m greatly looking forward to facilitating that!

24th September 2008 at 6:06 pm Leave a comment

There’s a reason I haven’t posted

No… nothing broken, no hospital visits.

It’s the beginning of the fall term at BCIT and time to choose courses. This term I really wanted to concentrate on Java. I’ve got a lot of previous Java experience but it’s getting a bit rusty and the tools and APIs have moved on since I last used it in anger.

BCIT offer a very interesting looking course called Java Web Applications (COMP 3631) that covers some great technology – primarily servlets and JavaServer Pages. Stuff I’m really keen to learn about and great marketable skills. However it requires Advanced Java as a prerequisite. Now I’ve done all that stuff… I’ve even taken an Advanced Java course in the past. But I’m kinda rusty on it.

BCIT do offer an Advanced Java course (COMP 3621). Maybe I should take that one instead. It would be a good course to get me back up to speed… but it’s basically revision – I wouldn’t really be learning anything new.

That was a tough decision. In the end I decided to take the Java Web Services class on Tuesday evenings – what Java I’m missing I can pick up as I go along. Class was great, lecturer is great, course content looks fantastic. Then on Wednesday I’m musing… you know, if I’m SERIOUS about this then I should give my Java all the help I can and be sure to fill in any gaps – and I should take the Advanced Java course as well. And so I signed up for that one as well and I’ve been going along to that on Thursdays.

Same tutor for both classes which is good. As well as a couple of assignments for each course, he also sets lab work each week for each class so I’m spending time outside the classroom working with the course material – which is great, but eats into my free time.

That’s actually only ONE of THREE major time sinks over the last week or two… more to come later.

21st September 2008 at 11:27 am Leave a comment

Free Geek

So it took rather longer than anticipated but I finally got to pay a visit to Free Geek Vancouver at the weekend for my introductory volunteer training session (and also to donate a trunk full of unwanted hardware of my own).

First impressions? Besides the rather unsavory neighbourhood (two blocks North of Hastings, just East of the docks). Bigger than I expected… a 60’x30′ receiving area stacked to the 12 foot high ceilings with cases and PCs, one person disassembling incoming PCs and cleaning them, another person testing the components and a third person disassembling the junk to be sent off for recycling. Then upstairs a 30’x10′ office that looks kinda like my study on a tidy day – components and part-built PCs everywhere! Four people in there building customer PCs and loading them up with Ubuntu (and presumably OpenOffice, Firefox and Thunderbird).

They also have a little thrift store where they sell surplus components – if you want a 3GHz Athlon Thunderbird or 256MB of PC133 memory this is the place to go!

Amongst all the cookie-cutter PCs that people donate to them, there’s also a lot of historical gems… in the hour I was there I spotted a Commodore Pet 2001 (Qwerty keyboard, not the original chiclet keyboard), TRS-80 portable, Apple IIe, an original Macintosh and, something I didn’t even know existed, an extremely late model 8000series Commodore Pet looking remarkably like this.

One thing I hadn’t realized about their business model: the majority of their output goes to non-profit organizations who fill in a hardware grant request and get whatever they want built for free. The rest goes for free or ultra-cheap to individuals who want to get online but can’t afford a new computer. As far as actual revenue to pay the rent, I think the majority of it comes from scrap sold for recycling and money from the thrift store.

I think I can be quite useful there – 15 years experience dismantling and rebuilding PCs for fun and 5 years experience in Linux. Now I’m ‘trained’ I can’t wait to get back there for a proper day’s “work”!

4th September 2008 at 1:49 am Leave a comment

Job application typos

What is it about replying to a job posting that means it’s impossible to spot a typo in your cover letter, even if you read it through a dozen times?

However approximately two seconds after you hit send (you know – at the moment when the “sending” progress bar hits 95% and disables the cancel button) the error jumps out and hits you in the face.

“Please accept this resume in application for the Java developer position advertised on Craiglist.”

Damn!

7th August 2008 at 4:55 pm Leave a comment

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