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I wrote in this space last weekthat chúng tôi an election-reform group, had issued a report signed by several Ph.D.s claiming there must have been vote tampering in one or more U.S. states in the 2004 presidential election.

The analysts, most of whom are professors of computer science or mathematics at such institutions as the University of Notre Dame and Southern Methodist University, made their claim after finding that exit polls, which are usually reliable, had diverged 5.5 percentage points from official vote tallies. (This disrepancy was larger than was found in one of two Ukrainian exit polls, which played key roles in overturning the December 2004 election in that nation.) Statistically significant variations between the U.S. exit polls and official results were concentrated in five states, four of which were “battlegrounds,” such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

In Defense Of The Official Tallies

Steve Weeks is an attorney in Ohio, one of the most hotly contested states in the 2004 election. Weeks argues that the exit polls and the official tallies were far apart because Bush voters felt social pressure to say they were Kerry voters. This possibility is distinct from the one I described last week that was offered in a study of the discrepancies by the National Election Pool (NEP) exit pollsters themselves. They theorize that Bush voters were less likely than Kerry voters to participate in exit polls at all (a premise that was then statistically disproved by the Ph.D. group).

“You should be old enough to remember GIGO [garbage in, garbage out],” Weeks writes. “The fanciest statistical analysis ever done is meaningless if it is based on false premises.

“The fundamental premise of any poll is that the respondents are telling the truth about the candidate they prefer (or that falsehood rates are substantially the same for all candidates). In 2004, that was manifestly not the case. Bush was vilified far beyond anything that I have seen in a Presidential campaign in my lifetime (I am 55); even when Johnson toasted Goldwater with the A-bomb ad in 1964, the personal attacks did not approach those seen this year.

“As a result, it became unacceptable in politically-correct society for ANYONE to support Bush. When cornered by exit pollsters, a few percent of Bush voters were too embarrassed to admit it. The pre-election polls were incorrectly biased in favor of Kerry for the same reason.”

I’m primarily interested in using computer technology to prevent future voting problems, not to overturn any previous election. I wholeheartedly agree that Weeks’ theory is worth testing.

A variation in the exit poll at a particular precinct from the final, official tally is called Within Precinct Error (WPE). The USCountVotes group summarizes this theory by citing NEP’s own study, saying, “the required shift toward Kerry in the exit polls must have been 6.5%. They [NEP] note that this number is greater than any WPE from past presidential elections going back more than 20 years, to a time when polling science was less sophisticated and less reliable than at present. They also note that this 6.5% WPE stands out in comparison to an average 1.9% WPE from 2004 state primaries exit polls.”

The Ph.D.s behind the latest analysis have called on NEP to release the raw, precinct-level data that were used to calculate the 2004 exit poll figures. As of this date, the raw data that would allow testing of the WPE theory have not been made available.

How Vote Tallies Might Have Been Changed

Maribeth McIntyre believes the NEP exit polls may show a pattern of vote tampering. This wouldn’t require a massive army of crooked election workers, she writes, but only a hidden routine in the vote-counting software:

“As an IT professional with 25+ years of experience (and, yes, a very partisan Democrat), I have been concerned about the ease with which election fraud can occur with the voting technology in place today,” says McIntyre. “It would not require anything like a large conspiracy; one or two programmers for the voting software companies could easily pull it off.

“After studying both the Edison/Mitofsky report and the chúng tôi analysis, I am completely convinced that the 2004 Presidential election was stolen. In addition to good old-fashioned voter suppression (lack of sufficient machines in predominately Democratic precincts but an overabundance of them in Republican precincts, among other tactics), there were numerous reports of vote-hopping on touch-screen machines — a vote for Kerry records as a vote for Bush, but never the other way around.”

The provision of extra voting machines in Republican areas of Ohio and “vote hopping” that affected some machines was reported in a Washington Post article last December. An interview with an election equipment worker who indicated that very few people would be required to pull off vote tampering on some of today’s machines was published by Christopher Hitchens, no Kerry fan himself, in a March 2005 Vanity Fair article.

Solutions For Future Elections

Finally, reader Lance Franklin (my choice to represent Independent voters) proposes printed records as a way to ensure that vote counts are tamper-proof:

“My solution would have been a device that would have been placed between the voting machine and the printer generating the paper trail,” Franklin writes.

“In essence, the device would have displayed the vote that was going to the printer, asked the voter to verify their vote, and then passed the OK/Revote response back to the voting machine, for it to either save the vote or reacquire a new vote.”

This sounds like a decent requirement for all elections. In fact, groups seeking reform of the U.S. election process consistently call for a “voter-verified paper ballot.” How citizens have voted should be clearly visible to them on their own paper ballots, which should comprose the official tally of an election, regardless of what any “quick-count” electronic devices may say.

The problem, according to chúng tôi is that approximately 30% of America’s votes are now cast on equipment that has no paper trail and can’t be audited in any way, shape or form.

In my opinion, Americans can either go through this trauma every election (“The count was fair!” “No, the count was hacked!”) or they can demand that all election equipment maintain auditable paper ballots. Computer experts, especially those who are asked to work on vote-counting systems, should insist on this. It won’t by itself eliminate all vote fraud — history has shown that ballot-stuffing is all too common — but it should prevent any partisan programmer from single-handedly goosing the results.

For information on the electoral studies at the heart of the matter, see the March 31 chúng tôi analysis and the Jan. 19 Edison/Mitofsky report on the exit-poll discrepancies. (These PDF documents require the free Adobe Reader.)

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Fraud Detection In Machine Learning

Fraud Detection with Machine Learning is possible because of the ability of the models to learn from past fraud data to recognize patterns and predict the legitimacy of future transactions. In most cases, it’s more effective than humans due to the speed and efficiency of information processing. Some types of internet frauds are: 1. ID forgery. Nowadays IDs are fabricated so well that it’s almost impossible for humans to verify their legitimacy and prevent any identity fraud. Through the use of AI, various features of the ID card appearance can be analysed to give a result on the authenticity of the document. This allows companies to establish their own criteria for security when requests are made which require certain ID documents. 2. Bank loan scams. These may happen if a person contacts you and offers a loan scheme with suspiciously favourable conditions. Here the person contacting you will ask for your bank details or for payment upfront, without having any proper company information or even using an international contact number. Such frauds can easily be handled by AI using previous loan application records to filter out loan defaulters. 4. Credit card frauds. This is the most common type of payment fraud. This is because all details are stored online which makes it easier for criminals and hackers to access. Cards sent through mail can also be easily intercepted. One way to filter such fraud transactions using machine learning is discussed below. 5. Identity theft. Machine Learning for detecting identity theft helps checking valuable identity documents such as passports, PAN cards, or driver’s licenses in real-time. Moreover, biometric information can be sometimes required to improve security even more. These security methods need in-person authentication which decreases the chance of frauds to a great extent.  

Model to predict fraud using credit card data:

Here a very famous Kaggle dataset is used to demonstrate how fraud detection works using a simple neural network model. Imports:

import pandas as pd import numpy as np import tensorflow as tf import keras from sklearn.preprocessing import StandardScaler from keras.models import Sequential from keras.layers import Dense from sklearn.model_selection import train_test_split from sklearn.metrics import classification_report

  Have a look at the dataset

data= pd.read_csv(‘creditcard.csv’) data[‘Amount_norm’] = StandardScaler().fit_transform(data[‘Amount’].values.reshape(-1,1)) data= data.drop([‘Amount’],axis=1) data= data.drop([‘Time’],axis=1) data= data[:-1]

  Now after some data cleaning, our dataset contains a total of 28 features and one target, all having float values which are not empty.   Our target is the Class column which determines whether the particular credit card transaction is fraud or not. So the dataset is divided accordingly into train and test, keeping the usual 80:20 split ratio. (random_state is fixed to help you reproduce your split data)

X = data.iloc[:, data.columns != ‘Class’] y = data.iloc[:, data.columns == ‘Class’]

X_train, X_test, y_train, y_test = train_test_split(X,y, test_size = 0.2, random_state=0)

  We use the sequential model from keras library to build a neural network with 3 dense layers. The output layer contains only a single neuron which will use the sigmoid function to result in either a positive class or a negative class. The model is then compiled with adam optimizer, though it is highly suggested that you try out different values of hyper parameters by yourself, such as the number of units in each layer, activation, optimizer, etc. to see what works best for a given dataset.

model= Sequential() model.add(Dense(units= 16 , activation = ‘relu’, input_dim = 29)) model.add(Dense(units= 16, activation = ‘relu’)) model.add(Dense(units= 1, activation = ‘sigmoid’)), y_train, batch_size = 32, epochs = 15)

  This is the result after running the model for a few epochs. We see that the model gives 99.97% accuracy very fast. Below, y_pred contains the predictions made by our model on the test data, and a neat summary of its performance is shown.

y_pred = model.predict(X_test)   print(classification_report(y_test, y_pred))


So this way we were successfully able to build a highly accurate model to determine fraudulent transactions. These come in very handy for risk management purposes.  

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Wikipedia Censorship Sparks Free Speech Debate

The banning of a Wikipedia page by a U.K. Internet watchdog is raising tough questions over how far online censorship should go — and the decisions made in the coming days could prove crucial to how we balance free speech with content regulation in the future.

“Indecent” Decision

The Internet Watch Foundation — a nonprofit, nongovernment-affiliated organization — added the Wikipedia page for the Scorpions’ 1976 album “Virgin Killer” onto its blacklist Friday. The IWF’s concern comes over the image on the album’s original cover, which shows a young girl completely nude. (A cracked glass effect obscures a direct view of her genital area.) Someone had reported the image as inappropriate through the IWF’s online submission tool, the organization says, and its internal assessment found the photo to be “a potentially illegal indecent image of a child under the age of 18.”

The IWF’s blacklist is used by the vast majority of British Internet service providers to maintain decency standards for their subscribers. As a result of the ban, affected U.K. Internet users are unable to view the page or access Wikipedia’s article editing function.

Ethical Quandary

Here’s where things get tricky: The image, by all accounts, has never been flagged as illegal. The FBI did reportedly launch an investigation this past May, but no resulting decision has been announced. If you read over the legal definition of “child pornography,” you can see where this image might fall outside of its lines.

That’s the main complaint of those who oppose the IWF’s ban — the idea that this image may be deemed “distasteful” by many people, but as long as it’s not illegal, a self-governing group has no right to impose its own moral assessment onto millions of others. The image is also printed in books accessible in libraries, a spokesperson for Wikipedia’s U.K.-based volunteers pointed out to the BBC.

The IWF ultimately acts as the morality police for about 95 percent of the U.K.’s Internet users, and the fact that one nongovernment company has so much control over what’s decent and what isn’t is a bit alarming. Where does the U.K. government stand on all of this? Should its opinion count?

Broader Implications

The questions reach further than this single image on this specific Wikipedia page. If an independent group such as the IWF can make its own assessments as to the appropriateness of content, many are asking, where do we draw the line? A complaint has already been filed with the IWF against Amazon for hosting the album’s image on its store pages. Should Internet users in the U.K. be banned from accessing Amazon, too? Does a group of self-appointed moral judges have the right to make that call? And how far do we take it — should we block other sites like, say, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, since one could pull up the image there as well?

Don’t get caught in the “not my problem” line of thinking, either — this model of private censorship could easily be exported to the U.S. In fact, we’ve already seen a taste of it. Clear Channel faced claims of banning “offensive” songs shortly after 9/11, and Verizon blocked an activist group from sending text messages over its network late last year. Verizon said the content, which focused on the issue of abortion, could be considered “controversial or unsavory.”

Slippery Slope

It’s a potentially slippery slope, and one reminiscent of other battles as to the appropriateness of various content. Just this month, a representative from The Family Foundation — a nonprofit group from Virginia — put out a statement suggesting “porn has no place in civil society.”

Regardless of your feelings about the image on the Scorpions’ album cover, is this group’s stance any different than the IWF’s on its most basic operating level? Each organization is asserting its own right, outside of the law, to determine what legally acceptable content you should or should not be allowed to see. The IWF just presently has the power to enact its decisions, while The Family Foundation does not.

To be clear, I’m by no means suggesting an image of a young girl nude is comparable to adult pornography. I’m not even saying that the image of the young girl should necessarily be legal. I’m just saying that I’m in no position to make that determination — and, so long as the image is legal, I’m in no position to keep you from looking at a Web site about it. And I’m not sure if a group like the IWF should be, either.

These are tough questions, and there may not be any definitively correct answers. I sure don’t have them. But there’s no doubt an important debate brewing here that’s far bigger than this one case — and everyone who uses the Internet has reason to be invested in its outcome.

5 Better Usenet Readers For Linux

USENET is a massively decentralized information distribution system. It was first developed in the early 1980s and over the years grew to become one of the largest messaging networks in the world. At its peak, USENET facilitated over 100,000 newsgroups that discuss just about anything.

Because of the decentralized nature of USENET, there are multiple ways of accessing the network. One such way is through Google Groups. While that may be appealing to some, accessing USENET through Google might not always be the best solution for everyone. This article will showcase five better alternatives for browsing USENET in Linux.

The Issue with Google Groups

However, there are many issues with the Google Groups interface that makes it painful to use for discussions:

Google Groups does not thread discussions. This makes following a large USENET discussion in Google Groups hard – if not impossible.

Google Groups does not have filters. There is no way for us to remove spammers and malicious actors from our inbox.

Lastly, spammers and malicious actors also use Google Groups. Because of this, Google accounts are often filtered out by the majority of USENET users. This makes participating in discussions harder for Google users.

Connecting to USENET Today

Connecting to USENET outside Google used to require a USENET account from an internet service provider (ISP). This account often came with an internet plan to subscribe to. However, most ISPs do not offer USENET services anymore.

Luckily, there are a few websites that offer free or cheap text-only USENET access.

1. Eternal September

Eternal September is a private USENET provider that serves text-only newsgroups for free. It holds all of the Big 8 hierarchies as well as hundreds of local and regional groups.

Setting up an account is also relatively straightforward. Simply go to the website and press “User registration.” The website will ask you for some information about yourself.

When you are done filling out the information, you can use the connection information to access USENET.


Similar to Eternal September, AIOE offers free text-only USENET access. It also includes the Big 8 hierarchy as well as a good amount of regional and local groups. The main difference is that it does not require its users to register for an account to access the servers.

However, this means there are strict limitations on how often you can access AIOE’s network in one day. For example, there are limits to how long you can be reading posts online. Further, AIOE also has relatively short retention time for USENET posts.

3. Individual.NET

Unlike the other two in this list, chúng tôi is a paid USENET service for text-only newsgroups. At the moment, it is providing unlimited USENET access for 10 Euros a year.

One of Individual’s main selling points is that spam is automatically filtered in the server level, so you do not have to do as much filtering as you would with Eternal September and AIOE.

Further, chúng tôi offers a significantly long retention time of 1175 days. This is useful for users who want to archive a newsgroup they are following.

When you have finished registering, you can log in to chúng tôi and initiate a payment to activate your USENET account.

The following list contains USENET readers for Linux that are better than accessing through Google.

1. Mozilla Thunderbird

Mozilla Thunderbird is a great client for browsing USENET. The application already allows you to read your email and RSS feeds offline; however, it can also be used to connect to a USENET server to fetch news posts.

Further, Thunderbird is available on almost all Linux distributions. To install Thunderbird in Debian and Ubuntu, use apt:





For Fedora, use dnf:





For Arch Linux, use pacman:

In the next window you will need to provide some information, such as your name and the e-mail address you want other people to use to reach you.

The next window will ask you for the address of the USENET server you want to connect to. In my case, I am connecting through

2. Claws Mail

Claws Mail is also available in almost every available Linux distribution. For example, you can install Claws Mail in Debian and Ubuntu using apt:





In Fedora, use dnf:





For Arch Linux, use pacman:

In my case, I am connecting through Eternal September. To do that, I need to provide the server’s address.

Further, Eternal September requires an account to read and post. To use my account with Claws, I need to tick the “This server requires authentication” checkbox and provide my USENET username and password.

3. Pan

Unlike Thunderbird and Claws Mail, Pan is a dedicated graphical newsreader for Linux. Because of that, Pan has dedicated USENET-only features, such as post queuing, article header caching and scorefiles.

It makes Pan a more attractive option for someone who wants to have an easy-to-use yet flexible newsreader.

Pan can be obtained from most Linux repositories. Install Pan in Debian and Ubuntu using apt:





In Fedora, use dnf:





For Arch Linux, use pacman:





Once that is installed, adding your USENET server to Pan is extremely simple. When you start it for the first time, Pan will automatically ask you to set up an account.

From there, you only need to provide the address of the server you are connecting to and any additional account information that may be needed.

After you finish adding this information, Pan will download all of the newsgroups that the server is hosting. It may take a while if your Internet connection is particularly slow.

4. TIN

TIN is a terminal-based USENET reader. It supports both remote (NNTP) and locally (/var/spool) sourced newsgroup access.

TIN also supports article threading, scorefiles, and the ability to use your favorite text editor to send messages. TIN is, therefore, useful for people who are more comfortable with terminal-based applications.

Further, it is also available in almost all Linux distributions. You can install TIN in Debian and Ubuntu through apt:





In Fedora, use dnf:





TIN is a very powerful program but still easy to use. To get started, we need to create two files in our home directory:

.newsrc file that contains the newsgroups we are following

.newsauth file that contains the authentication details for the USENET servers that require an account.

Setting Up the .newsrc File to Connect to USENET

To start reading posts, you need to populate the .newsrc file with the newsgroups you want to follow. The general format of the .newsrc file looks something like this:

“newsgroup” is where you will insert the particular newsgroup you want to follow. For example, comp.lang.c.

The second argument tells TIN whether we are subscribed to that newsgroup. “:” indicates that we are subscribed, and “!” indicates that we are not.

The last argument tells TiN which article numbers we have already read. Since we are just starting out, it is better to leave this argument blank.

Setting Up the .newsauth File to Connect to USENET

If you are using a USENET server like Eternal September, you need to provide your authentication details in the .newsauth file.

This file allows TIN to automatically log you in whenever you open the application and whenever you post. The general syntax of the file looks something like this:








“nntpserver” indicates the specific server where the authentication details are used. For example,

The second argument is where you will put your user password.

The third argument is where you will insert your user name.

Once done, you need to also change the file permissions of this file. Because this file contains your password, you need to make sure no one else can access it. To do that, type the following:






With that done, you can now start using TiN. To connect to your USENET server, use the following command:




The -A option forces TIN to authenticate when you first connect to the server. You only need this when you connect to a server that requires you to have an account.

The -r option tells TIN that you are using a remote source.

The -g option tells TIN the address of the USENET server you want to connect to.

5. slrn

Similar to TIN, slrn is a terminal-based newsreader and also supports article threading, scorefiles and using your favorite text editor to write your posts.

However, unlike TIN, slrn automatically generates your .newsrc file and provides you with all of the available newsgroups that the USENET server hosts. Further, slrn also has its own configuration file which allows you to further customize and configure its behavior.

Install slrn in Debian and Ubuntu using apt:





For Fedora, use dnf:




slrn Setting Up Your .slrnrc File to Connect to USENET

Once done, you will need to copy the .slrnrc file from slrn’s installation directory. To do that, use the following command:


















The .slrnrc file is highly detailed and walks you through every aspect of configuring the program. However, for our purposes, we only need to set three things: the “hostname,” the “username” and the “real name.”

In my case, my .slrnrc file looks something like this:










"Ramces Red"

... NNTPSERVER Variable and Connecting to USENET

At this point, you need to set the NNTPSERVER environment variable for your shell to allow slrn to determine which server to connect to.

The commands do slightly differ from shell to shell, but to change that in bash type the following:




With that done, the last thing to do generate the .newsrc file for slrn. To do that, type the following command:







This will run slrn with your preferred settings and connect to your USENET server. It will get a list of all of the available newsgroups to subscribe to and put that in a file called .jnewsrc.

You can now subscribe to your newsgroups by pressing L to search for your particular group, then pressing S to subscribe to it.

If the last two programs made you interested in learning more about the command line, check out our guide on how to send an email from the Linux terminal.

Frequently Asked Questions How can I reconnect to

This is most probably because you were banned due to exceeding the daily allotted time for accessing Aioe. You can check back in 24 hours whether you can access it again or not.

However, if you feel that the allotted time in Aioe is a bit restricting, you can also set up an account with either Eternal September or Individual.NET

I am using Mozilla Thunderbird with Eternal September. Why are there no available newsgroups outside eternal-september for me to connect to?

This is because you have not authenticated your account through Mozilla Thunderbird yet. To do that, go to your “Account Settings,” then to your “Server Settings.”

There will be a check box labelled: “Always request for authentication when connecting to this server” to allow you to connect to Eternal September through your account.

I am using slrn. How can I reconnect to my USENET server when I open the program again?

This is because the NNTPSERVER variable was not set. When we first set up slrn, we just indicated the NNTPSERVER for the current terminal that we were using. Once we load a different terminal, that variable will not be present anymore.

To make this permanent, you will need to edit your .profile file and insert the same commands that we ran:

After that, you have to log out and log back in to your user account to see the change.

Ramces Red

Ramces is a technology writer that lived with computers all his life. A prolific reader and a student of Anthropology, he is an eccentric character that writes articles about Linux and anything *nix.

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Uber Preps First Diversity Report Following Harassment Allegations

Uber preps first diversity report following harassment allegations

Diversity reports have become popular among tech companies in the face of growing public criticism over low-diversity workforces and potential discrimination. Some companies have been issuing such reports for years now while others are just getting started, and one such notable company is Uber. The ridesharing company is said to be preparing its first ever diversity report following allegations that its didn’t adequately handle alleged sexual harassment within the company.

The issue began when a now-former Uber site reliability engineer named Susan Fowler published a long blog post in which she detailed sexual harassment from her then-manager at Uber. He reportedly shared intimate details about the nature of he and his wife’s sexual relationship, and then allegedly proceeded to proposition her over company chat.

Fowler states she took screenshots of the inappropriate messages and contacted HR about them. “I had pretty standard expectations of how they would handle situations like this,” she wrote. “I expected that I would report him to HR, they would handle the situation appropriately, and then life would go on – unfortunately, things played out quite a bit differently.”

This manager was reportedly given only a slap on the wrist, and Fowler says she was informed that she could choose to leave the team or stay on it, but that staying on it would likely result in the manager giving her a poor performance review over which the company could do ‘nothing.’

“One HR rep even explicitly told me that it wouldn’t be retaliation if I received a negative review later because I had been ‘given an option,'” Fowler wrote. Later on, after leaving that team and working elsewhere in the company, Fowler states she began talking to other women in the company and learned that others had allegedly reported the same manager over ‘inappropriate interactions,’ this despite Uber HR personnel allegedly claiming that the manager hadn’t previously committed any such offenses.

Fowler states:

It became obvious that both HR and management had been lying about this being “his first offense”, and it certainly wasn’t his last. Within a few months, he was reported once again for inappropriate behavior, and those who reported him were told it was still his “first offense”. The situation was escalated as far up the chain as it could be escalated, and still nothing was done.

Following this, VentureBeat has published an email Kalanick reportedly sent to Uber employees, saying that former US Attorney General Eric Holder will be conducting an independent review of issues raised in the blog post, as well as partner Tammy Albarran. He went on to state in the email:

Third, there have been many questions about the gender diversity of Uber’s technology teams. If you look across our engineering, product management, and scientist roles, 15.1% of employees are women and this has not changed substantively in the last year. As points of reference, Facebook is at 17%, Google at 18% and Twitter is at 10%. Liane and I will be working to publish a broader diversity report for the company in the coming months.

Css Support Is Poor In Rss Feed Readers

Once upon a time, different Web browsers supported different forms of HTML markup or “tags.” It was difficult or impossible to make a Web site look good in different browsers.

Beginning a few years ago, fortunately, browsers started adopting some common markup styles, loosely known as “Web standards.” Web sites now look roughly the same in different browsers. Users said, “Yea, verily, it is good.”

The same painful evolution now seems to affect “feed readers,” which aggregate content published online via RSS (Really Simple Syndication). RSS readers currently render the old form of HTML tags fairly well. But these readers have almost no support for cascading style sheets (CSS), known more familiarly as “styles.” My test results of the largest feed readers are shown in Table 1, below.

It’s not really news that RSS readers don’t yet support styles. Until a few months ago, the most popular feed readers didn’t even support such basic HTML elements as “tables.” This prevented RSS content from including readable rows and columns of financial figures and the like.

But now that support for elementary HTML has been achieved by RSS readers, it’s time to ask what’s keeping the companies behind these readers from taking the next step and adding style support. To find the answer, I attended Gnomedex 6.0, the annual gathering place for RSS aggregators and bloggers, to pin down the biggest reader makers.

Why Styles Make Content More Readable

If you don’t personally write much HTML code, it might not be clear to you why support for styles is important.

In a nutshell, authors of Web content can always insert old HTML tags like to make words bold and to make them italic. But helping Web surfers understand more complex content requires more detailed styles — various sizes of headlines, captions that position themselves next to images, and so forth.

It’s a lot easier for publishers of Web content to define these relationships just once by including a “stylesheet.” Each style can then be efficiently invoked when needed without hard-coding all of the details every time there’s a caption or whatever.

CSS Level 1, the simplest form of styles, was standardized in December 1996. By 2000, such browsers as Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 5 and others had almost completely implemented it.

Six years later, most RSS readers still lack support for CSS Level 1. But it wouldn’t take much cooperation from aggregator makers to get Web-standard styles to work in RSS. According to the Pheed Read Spring 2006 Report (PDF version) by the blogging service, only four aggregators are responsible for downloading 76 percent of RSS feeds. These are Bloglines, MyYahoo, Firefox (and other Mozilla-based products), and NewsGator Online (and its Mac software, NetNewsWire).

As shown in Table 1, neither Bloglines nor NewsGator Online currently support any styles. This is true whether the CSS is defined in a single block within the body of the feed (“embedded styles”) or once upon each use (“inline styles”).

Each aggregator also has its own inexplicable quirks. Bloglines insists on imposing a grey background on every other news item in a feed. This creates distracting visual conflicts for some content that looks fine on the publishers’ own Web sites. NewsGator Online, for its part, forces hyperlinks to be smaller than normal text, and turns them a garish red color when hovered over.

NewsGator Strips Out All Styles Except Its Own

In an interview at Gnomedex, NewsGator CEO Greg Reinacker confirmed, “Styles we do strip out on purpose. Using purely styles, you can write something that would completely cover the screen. … If you use a table in the old [HTML] format, we leave that in, but if you do it with inline styles, we strip it out.”

It’s well-known that some CSS code can download programs or otherwise play havoc with a user’s monitor. But there would be little danger in supporting harmless CSS styles like “background-color,” in case a blog publisher wished to, for example, use a yellow-highlighter effect on some text.

“We err on the side of being heavy-handed,” Reinacker said. “If you start changing fonts, people may get a font that is unreadable on a TV screen.” Nonetheless, NewsGator Online does support the old HTML “font” tag that allows publishers to specify fonts. NewsGator strips out only the newer, CSS method of specifying fonts. And are people who use TV screens to surf the Web really the target audience for online news feeds?

Regarding hyperlinks that NewsGator Online forces into strange sizes and colors, Reinacker acknowledged, “Those sound like CSS bugs on our side.” The NewsGator Online Web service uses CSS styles to control the links in its user interface, and these styles wrongly affect the links within news feeds as well, as far as I can determine.

Bloglines Anticipates More Style Support

Bloglines senior developer Paul Querna told me at Gnomedex that styles are currently stripped out by his company’s Web service, “but we’ve talked about ways to support more of this.” The biggest challenge is to read a publisher’s CSS and leave in only those styles that cannot, say, download programs or write garbage all over the Windows Desktop.

“No one’s really done it yet,” Querna explained. “We’ve been kind of waiting for an easy way to do a CSS processor.”

Since every online RSS aggregator is, by definition, running within one browser or another, it’s not difficult to simply allow that browser to render any styles that are found. RSS readers such as Bloglines, however, must write routines that accept safe styles within CSS Level 1 while excluding dangerous styles.

One promising development for RSS feeds is that Bloglines now supports Macromedia Flash, which NewsGator Online currently does not. Bloglines has supported Flash videos for a few months, but gained Flash audio support only within the last week, according to senior product manager Robyn DeuPree. (The company hasn’t yet announced this — you read it here first.) Although Flash files can theoretically harbor suspicious code, Bloglines makes Flash safe by restricting it from running any script commands. Flash files, therefore, can only display video content or play an audio track.

Browsers, E-Mail, and Soon RSS Aggregators

Let’s hope it doesn’t take many more years for the promising field of RSS news feeds to gain support for Web-standard styles. Some content just isn’t that compelling when it’s forced into a plain-vanilla mold.

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