Category Archives: UC&C

Office 365 Exposed ep 01 / Exchange Exposed ep 05

We’re baaaaack…

Last year, Tony and I started producing a podcast for Windows IT Pro called “Exchange Exposed.” It was moderately successful, but the demands of producing and delivering the podcast on a regular schedule didn’t mesh well with Penton’s plan for world domination, so Tony and I took back the rights to the podcast and are recording and distributing it ourselves. However, because of some peculiarities of the way the iTunes Store lists podcasts, we couldn’t just add new episodes to the existing podcast… but we didn’t find this out until the current episode was recorded and ready.

Going forward, we’re retitling the podcast to “Office 365 Exposed” to reflect the reality that Exchange and Exchange Online are part of the Office 365 family. Unlike some other Office 365-branded media that focuses exclusively on SharePoint, we’ll be covering the non-SharePoint part of the ecosystem with vigor and depth. There’s a lot to talk about!

In this episode, recorded at IT/Dev Connections in Las Vegas, we get some quality time with special guest Bhargav Shukla of KEMP Technologies to discuss the release of Exchange 2013 CU10, the impending release of Exchange 2016, and what the future of on-premises Exchange looks like. Give it a listen below. In a day or two, iTunes should pick up the feed and you’ll be able to subscribe, or you can point your RSS feed reader to the “Podcasts” category here.

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Office 365 Pro Plus licensing change?

Microsoft has a really complex infrastructure for deploying new features into Office 365. This deployment process, internally known as “flighting,” involves rolling out code changes across a huge base of servers— by some estimates, more than 600,000 worldwide— spread across dozens of data centers all around the world. This poses an interesting challenge. Flighting has to be automated because of the scale necessary, but with an automated tool that works at high scale, you can make a quickly replicated mistake. Think of it like shooting yourself in the foot with a machine gun.

Recently one of my customers notified me that they had noticed a change in their tenant: each user with an E3 or E4 license was now showing a possible total of 10 product activations for Office 365 Pro Plus. The limit had previously always been 5, meaning each user may install Pro Plus on up to five PCs and Macs. The release of Office applications for Windows 10, iOS, and Android devices changed things slightly; you were allowed to install on 5 PCs/Macs plus 5 tablets or mobile devices. At various times I’ve been told that the limit was 10 (5 PC + 5 devices) and 15 (5 PC + 5 tablet + 5 phone), but in any event, the user interface in the Office 365 management tools has always reported per-user activation as N installed copies out of a maximum of 5.

Immediately upon hearing this, I checked my tenants. Sure enough, now my tenant users were showing a maximum of 10 installs.

I followed up with some local Microsoft folks and was told that they were told by Office 365 support that this was a mistake, whether in flighting or configuration I’m not sure. However, two-plus days later, tenants are still showing 10 activations. I took the below screenshot a few minutes before writing this post; it shows 4 activated Pro Plus installations, with 6 more available.

10 license

I’m going to reach out directly to the O365 team to ask whether this is: a) a temporary mistake that will be reversed b) a policy change that hasn’t been officially announced or c) a restatement of the 5 PC/Mac + 5 device policy that was already in place. I’ll report back what I find out. 

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Operational maturity and Exchange

Over at my work blog, I have a post that tackles an important issue: how do you reliably design and operate Exchange if you don’t happen to have a large team of Exchange rock stars on staff? (Short answer: hire me. Longer answer: read the post to find out). Bonus: the post contains a picture of Ross Smith IV Yoda.

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Setting the record straight on Microsoft and subpoenas

This week I had the opportunity to present a session called “Cloud Best Practices” at the Alabama Digital Government Summit. I had a great time— it was fascinating to see how many different agencies in our state are putting advanced IT to work to save money and get more done for the taxpayer. However, there was one blemish on the experience that I wanted to polish away, so to speak.

Part of my talk concerned the fact that no matter where you live, your local government has lawful means to get your data: they can subpoena you, or your cloud provider, to get it. There’s nothing that you can do about it. It’s a feature, not a bug, of modern legal systems. I often talk about this in the context of people’s fears that the NSA, GCHQ, or whomever will snag their data, by lawful or unlawful means. Here’s the slide I put up:

NewImage

I don’t think these are controversial assertions. However, at this point in my talk, Stuart McKee (chief technical officer for state and local government at Microsoft) flatly asserted that Microsoft does not comply with government subpoenas for customer data; I believe he used the word “never”. He went on to say that Microsoft has a pattern of resisting subpoena requests and that this “has gotten [them] into some trouble.” He concluded by saying that Microsoft’s standard action is to tell governments that they must subpoena the data owner, not the service provider.

I believe these assertions to be largely untrue, and certainly misleading. (I’ll leave aside the insulting manner in which Stuart asserted that I was wrong— after all, I am certainly wrong sometimes and generally appreciate when people point it out.) I want to set the record straight to the extent that I can.

First, Microsoft absolutely does comply with lawful subpoenas for customer data. This page at Microsoft’s web site summarizes their responses to lawful legal demands for customer information (both information about customers and information belonging to customers) across a broad variety of jurisdictions, from Argentina to Venezuela. To assert otherwise is ludicrous.

Second, Microsoft has a pattern of complying with these lawful subpoenas, not refusing them. When Stuart said that Microsoft is “in trouble” for refusing a subpoena, I suspect that he’s referring to Microsoft vs United States, where the issue at hand is that Microsoft was served a search warrant for data stored in a Microsoft data center hosted in Ireland. The data are stored there because the customer is located outside the US. Microsoft moved to have the warrant vacated, and when that failed, asked the cognizant district court to vacate it. The district court upheld the original warrant; Microsoft refused to comply and was held in contempt. Now this particular case is working its way through the US federal court system.

Let me be clear: I applaud Microsoft for standing up and resisting the overreach in the original warrant— there doesn’t seem to be (at least not to my layman’s understanding) a right of the US government, at any level, to subpoena data belonging to a non-US person or organization if it’s stored outside the US, even if it’s held in a cloud service operated by a US person or organization. The brief Microsoft filed likens this to a German court ordering seizure of letters stored in a safe deposit box in a US branch of a German bank. Having said all that, claiming that this kind of resistance is routine is overblown. It isn’t. If Microsoft were refusing subpoenas left and right, the numbers I mentioned above would look very much different.

Third, Microsoft’s policy is indeed to try to redirect access requests whenever possible. The Office 365 privacy page has this to say:

We will not disclose Customer Data to a third party (including law enforcement, other government entity, or civil litigant; excluding our subcontractors) except as you direct or unless required by law. Should a third party contact Microsoft with a request for Customer Data, we will attempt to redirect the third party to request the data directly from you. As part of that process, we may provide your contact information to the third party. If compelled to disclose Customer Data to a third party, we will use commercially reasonable efforts to notify you in advance of a disclosure unless legally prohibited.

In other words, Microsoft will try to redirect subpoenas from themselves to the data owner, where they are allowed by law to do so, and if they can’t, they will notify you, if allowed by law to do so. This is the only one of Stuart’s claims that I think is inarguable.

Finally, Microsoft proactively cooperates with law enforcement. The Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit newsroom contains press releases touting Microsoft’s cooperation with law enforcement agencies around the world (here’s just one example). This cooperation and disclosure extends to Microsoft proactively notifying law enforcement agencies when their PhotoDNA service identifies child porn images in customer’s private OneDrive data. I support their right to do this (it’s covered very clearly in the terms of service for Microsoft cloud services), and I believe it’s the right thing to do— but to claim that Microsoft never discloses customer data to law enforcement agencies while they are voluntarily doing so is both untrue and misleading.

Everyone’s interests are best served when everyone understands the specifics of the legal interaction between local and national governments and cloud service providers in various jurisdictions. This is a really new area of law in many respects, so it’s understandable that some things may not be clear, or even defined yet, but I wanted to correct what I view as dangerously misleading misinformation in this specific instance.

The bottom line: no matter what cloud service you choose, be sure you understand the policies that your cloud provider uses to determine the conditions under which they’ll cough up your data.

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Fixing “Cannot find registrar pool” error for sipfed.online.lync.com

I was recently setting up hybrid Lync Skype for Business for a customer. This is more properly known as “split-domain” configuration because you share a single SIP namespace across both the on-premises and cloud portions of the infrastructure.

If you’re not familiar with the process, it goes like this:

  1. Set up AD FS or whatever other identity federation solution you like.
  2. Configure the service to allow federation.
  3. Configure the on-premises Lync/SfB servers to allow federation.
  4. Turn on federation.
  5. Enable your tenant for split-domain operations with Set-CsTenantFederationConfiguration.
  6. Start moving users.

Adam Jacobs’ summary is worth reading if you haven’t seen this before, but even without reading it, it seems straightforward enough, right? I found that when I got to step 6 I got a vexing error: “Cannot find Registrar pool. Verify that ‘sipfed.online.lync.com’ is a valid registrar pool.”
sipfederr

I was 100% sure that the registrar pool name was correct and that it existed, so why couldn’t the Move-CsUser cmdlet find it? I spent some fruitless time binging for a solution (note: this is not the same as “binging on beer” or “binging on carbs before my race”); the few hits I found all suggested ensuring that you’d connected to the service with Import-PSSession, which is, as suggestions go, right up there with “make sure it’s plugged in.”

After some experimentation, I finally figured out that step 3 above hadn’t been performed completely; when I ran Get-CsHostingProvider, the EnableSharedAddressSpace and HostsOcsUsers parameters were both set to “false”. I reset them (and the AutodiscoverUrl parameter, also required), and that solved the problem. It’s not clear to me why anyone at Microsoft thought “cannot find registrar pool” would be an appropriate error for this condition; there are distinct error messages for most other problems that might occur (such as trying to move users to the wrong pool) but not here.

Perhaps this breadcrumb will help some future admin who gets the error, or maybe Microsoft will fix it…

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Fixing SharePoint Online OneNote “something went wrong” errors

I recently ran into a problem with a SharePoint Online site that had previously been created on BPOS and moved around through various iterations of Office 365. None of the site users had ever used the OneNote notebook associated with the site, but the link was present in the side navigation bar. When I tried to access it, I got the infamous “sorry, but something went wrong” error page. (For another day: discuss the Fisher-Price-ization of service error messages; the low information content doesn’t scare end users but makes it impossible to troubleshoot problems.)

A little binging turned up a plausible solution: “SharePoint 2013 OneNote Notebook something went wrong error“. I was a little leery of turning off the feature for fear that it wouldn’t turn back on. However, I took the plunge. After disabling the feature and re-enabling it, I was able to open the OneNote Online notebook, but I wasn’t able to use the “open in OneNote” link until I added some content in OneNote Online. All’s well that ends well. This may not be the only solution for this problem, but it has a 100% success rate for me so far.

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A brief rant about the Mac Lync client

I’m supposed to be working on my Ignite slides, but I just ran into something that has flipped my safeties.

I just don’t understand.

Sure, I know the Lync/Skype for Business team has a lot of irons in the fire, what with their new product line and all. And I get that the Mac install base is small relative to the other things they have to do. But there is no reason I can see for the Mac Lync client to be as buggy and underfeatured as it is. They’ve had years to improve it.

The Lync PG has proven they can do rapid engineering work, as evidenced by the excellent speed and quality of the Lync mobile apps for Android and iOS.

And they’ve proven they can build a robust client, as evidenced by the history of the Lync desktop client for Windows.

The Mac Office team, for their part, has shown that they can produce high-quality clients that reliably work with Microsoft’s services.

So why does the Mac Lync client make me want to start throwing things?

Today’s example: I am signed into Lync with my work account. I want to create a meeting in my personal Exchange calendar, invite attendees, and set it up as an online meeting. This is trivial using Windows Outlook and the Lync (and, now, SfB) client: create the invite, click the “Lync meeting” button, and boom.

On the Mac, however, this scenario doesn’t work– clicking the “Online Meeting” button produces an obnoxious dialog telling me that I must be signed in to the same account in Lync as I’m using in Outlook.

This is just the latest in the pecked-to-death-by-ducks experience of using the Lync client on a Mac. In honesty, the client is more stable and has more features than its predecessors; hell, it even supports the Conversation History folder now. But what I want is a robust client, with feature parity with Windows, that works to enable the same scenarios I can easily perform in Windows. That’s not too much to ask.

I don’t know (and, as an end user, don’t care) which team inside Microsoft owns this. And I don’t have an opinion on who should own it. All I want is a solid client experience.

(And while I am on a rant: damnit, the Windows Phone sync client for the Mac is a giant pile of fail. Microsoft has apparently abandoned it in place. Bug reports go into a black hole. Latest example: after months of prerelease availability, Apple released the Photos app and… surprise… the WP8 sync app doesn’t work with it.)

 

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Preparing for Ignite

I’m heads-down working on my materials for the upcoming Microsoft Ignite conference. This year, I have three sessions:

  • MVPs Unplugged: Real-World Microsoft Exchange Server Designs and Deployments. This is a panel with Jeff Guillet, Nic Blank, and Sigi Jagott, so I am really looking forward to it. I love panels in general, and my co-presenters are incredibly knowledgeable about the ins and outs of large and small Exchange deployments.
  • Exchange Online Archiving: Notes from the Field. Archiving is one of those topics that isn’t interesting to everyone— but for people who are interested, they tend to be very interested. In this session, I’ll be talking about various aspects of EOA, including what it is, how it works, and how to efficiently move to it.
  • Servicing Microsoft Exchange Server: Update Your Knowledge: this is a joint effort between me and Microsoft’s Brent Alinger. As you may know, he is Mr. Exchange Servicing. I’m really excited to have the chance to be onstage with him. He has some very interesting (dare I say “provocative”) things to say. I consistently find that people misunderstand (or maybe under-understand) how Exchange servicing works and why Microsoft does things the way they do, and I think this session will help shine a brilliant beam of knowledge down from the mothership.

As always, Microsoft has deployed a whole behind-the-scenes infrastructure for managing all this stuff; this year, the system allows attendees to register their session preferences, and we see projected attendee numbers in the speaker portal. When I check these sessions in the speaker portal, all 3 of them are shown as having more enrollees than the currently booked rooms can support— that’s an excellent sign.

Of course, I have to point out that the session schedule is still not 100% set in stone, and sessions may change both times and locations. That’s a good thing, as right now my EOA session is up against Julia White’s keynote, generating the following exchange:

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(Just for the record, Julia, you are more than welcome in my sessions, and I promise to come up with better jokes before you arrive!)

In addition to our assigned sessions, Microsoft has asked each speaker to conduct peer review of other presentations. In addition to the sessions I’m presenting, I’m peer-reviewing sessions on Clutter, Office 365 Groups, and SharePoint enterprise search (pretty sure this last assignment was an accident). We’re also all supposed to man the show floor Office 365 booth, plus there are various side events to plan and RSVP for. In particular, if you haven’t yet requested an invitation to the Scheduled Maintenance party, you’d better act quickly; I hear it will introduce a new level of awesomeness.

Apart from my sessions, the only logistical item I have to complete is to book my flights; until the session schedule is finalized, I can’t. While I’d much prefer to fly myself, Microsoft only covers commercial airfare for speakers. I might fly myself anyway, though!

The workload is ramping up quickly as we get closer to the event, but it should pay off with some excellent sessions. I’m looking forward to Ignite– drop by and say hello if you’re there!

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License usage reporting in Office 365, part 2

If you’ve been wondering where part 2 of my series on reporting in Office 365 was, wonder no more; it just went live this morning.

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Microsoft rolls out Clutter admin improvements

Back in November, I wrote about my early experience with the Office 365 Clutter feature. I’ve been using it on and off– mostly off, due to a rare bug that surfaced because my mailbox is actually hosted on a portion of the Office 365 cloud that descends from the old Exchange Labs “friends and family” tenant. The bug kept Clutter from correctly moving clutter messages automatically; once it was fixed things returned to normal after I re-enabled the Clutter feature, and I’ve been happily using it since.

One of the big advantages of Office 365 is that the service team can develop and release new features much faster than they can for on-premises services. Sure enough, Microsoft today announced three new features for Clutter.

The biggest of these is the ability to create transport rules that flag messages, or senders, as exempt from Clutter processing. This is exactly the same thing as specifying safe senders for message hygiene filtering, although the implementation is a little different. You’ll create a transport rule that has the conditions and exceptions you want, but with an action that adds a header value of “ClutterBypassedByTransportRuleOverride: TRUE”, as described here. I have not personally had even a single false positive from Clutter since I’ve been testing it, and I haven’t seen any complaints about false positive problems from other users, MVPs, or customers. Having said that, Microsoft was smart to include a way to exempt certain messages from processing, as this will soothe some users and tenant administrators who are worried about the potential to have important messages be misdirected.

Second, the Clutter folder can now be managed by retention policies. This is an eminently logical thing to do, and it nicely highlights the flexibility of Exchange’s messaging records management system.

Rounding out the trio, you now have a very limited ability to customize the message that users see when they enable Clutter for their mailboxes: you can change the display name that the notification appears to be from, and you’ll soon be abe to change the logo. Frankly, this is weak sauce; there’s no way to customize the text of the notification, add custom URLs to it, or otherwise modify it in a useful way. Long-time Exchange administrators will recognize a familiar pattern exemplified by customizable delivery status notifications (DSNs), quota warning messages, and MailTips in previous versions of Exchange: first Microsoft delivered a useful feature with no customization capability, then they enabled limited customization, then (after prolonged complaining from customers) they broadened the range of things that could be customized. Let’s hope that pattern holds here.

There’s still one weak spot in the Clutter feature set: it still requires individual users to opt in (or out). While it’s true that users would likely be alarmed by the sudden forceful application or removal of the Clutter feature from their mailboxes, it’s also true that Office 365 as a whole needs to provide better controls for administrators to regulate which service features users have access to. I am hopeful that we’ll see better admin controls (and reporting) for this feature in the future.

While these improvements aren’t necessarily earth-shaking, they do add some welcome utility to what is already a valuable feature. Clutter is a great example of a feature that can make a measurable positive difference in users’ satisfaction with the service, and I look forward to more improvements in the feature.

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License usage reporting in Office 365, part 1

On this blog, I write about whatever interests me. To the chagrin of some folks, this often includes aviation, fitness, and various complaints, but hey.. it could be worse. I save the really inane stuff for Twitter.

Besides the content I post here, though, I also blog at the Summit 7 Systems blog collective. Right now I’m publishing a series on reporting in Office 365. The first part of the series, on license usage reporting, is here, and the second part will be published shortly. In general, when I post content there that might be of interest to readers here, I’ll cross-post it with a short post like this one.

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Universal version of Outlook coming to your phone

Big news from today’s Windows 10 announcement: Microsoft will be shipping a “universal” version of Outlook that works on Windows tablets, phones, and PCs. This is a really interesting move, and not something I expected based on the existence of OWA for Devices (MOWA) on iOS and Android. The universal Outlook uses the universal version of Word as its editing engine, a huge plus because it delivers all the rich formatting tools available on Windows PCs (and which are still, sadly, missing from Mac Outlook, hint hint), and during the demo, Joe Belfiore showed a fluid touch-based interface that nonetheless preserved much of the look and feel of Outlook and OWA.

This announcement raises a lot of interesting questions, though. A partial list, just off the top of my head… (and a disclaimer: I haven’t seen any preview versions of Office 16 so perhaps these are naive questions that have all been well dealt with in the code)

  • Is this new version of Outlook a replacement for, or a complement to, the existing rich Outlook client? In other words, will it be able to do everything that I can do with Outlook 2013 on a Surface Pro 3? If not, what will they leave out?
  • Will this app replace the native WP calendar and contacts app? I’d guess not, given that the People app got a lot of play in today’s announcement.
  • Outlook’s resource requirements would seem to be a poor fit for phones and low-end tablets. I’d imagine that we’ll have sync controls similar to what exist on WP8.1 to allow users to sync a certain amount, but not necessarily all, of their mail, but it’s going to take a lot of optimization to provide acceptable performance on these devices.
  • Will this version of Outlook support on-premises servers? If so, that means it probably won’t rely on MAPI over HTTPS, which isn’t widely deployed. But it’s hard to imagine Outlook built completely on Exchange Web Services.
  • Will the universal Outlook team match the slow release cadence of desktop Office or the faster cadence of, say, the Lync mobile clients? One of the nicest features of OWA for Devices is that new OWA/Office 365 features (such as Clutter and the People view) just automatically show up in MOWA because it’s essentially a container for OWA views. How will the universal Outlook team bake in support for new features as Exchange and Office 365 ship them?
  • Will Exchange ActiveSync-specific features (especially remote device wipe) be included in this version of Outlook? They aren’t included in the existing Outlook family, of course.
    • If the answer is “no, but you can use InTune or Office 365 MDM”, that’s going to displease a lot of existing users. On the other hand, you can’t remotely wipe a desktop Office installation, something which has led several of my customers to block Outlook Anywhere so that people can’t easily use Outlook from personal machines.
    • If the answer is “yes”, then it will be fascinating to see how Outlook interacts with native data such as contacts stored on the device.
  • What does this mean for OWA for Devices? I’d guess that we won’t see Outlook for iOS and Android, but I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out. Maybe we’re headed back to the days of yore, where the premium clients run on Microsoft operating systems, with a sort of best-effort client set for competitors.
  • Is this the logical vehicle for incorporating the technology Microsoft acquired from Acompli? Or is that being baked in somewhere else?
  • When can I get a Surface Hub?

Given the upcoming availability of previews for Windows 10 for phones, I suppose we’ll get the answers to these questions soon.

 

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Microsoft sneaks out Mac Outlook update

Good news: Microsoft just issued an updated version of Outlook for Mac. (I guess that’s the official name, as opposed to the older Outlook 2011). The list of fixes is pretty nondescript: you can change calendar colors, add alt-text to images, and use custom AD RMS templates. I suspect most of the effort for this release was actually focused on the “Top crashes fixed” item in the KB article.

Bad news: you have to manually download it from the Office 365 portal. The AutoUpdate mechanism shipped with Office 2011 doesn’t yet know how to handle updates for Outlook for Mac. I suppose Microsoft could either update the Office 2011 AU mechanism or ship a new one as part of a future Outlook update; presumably the latter choice would actually deliver the Office 2015 update mechanism, since there’s undoubtedly going to be one.

The real news here is how quickly Microsoft released this update. While this is only one release, it’s an excellent sign that we got it quickly, and it makes me hopeful that we’ll see a steady stream of updates and fixes for the Mac Office apps in the future— with a cadence more akin to the Lync Mobile clients releases than the glacial pace of past Mac Office updates.

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My first week with Office 365 Clutter

Immediately after Microsoft announced that Clutter was available, I enabled it in all my personal tenants and started training it. As you may recall, you can train Clutter in two ways: implicitly (as it sees how you interact with mail from particular senders, such as by ignoring it or deleting it without reading it) or explicitly (by moving messages into or out of the Clutter folder). Because I’m fairly impatient, I set about explicit training by moving messages to the Clutter folder. I’ve done this with all of the clients I use: Outlook for Mac, OWA, Outlook 2013, the iOS mail app, and Outlook Mobile. Whenever possible I move the message while leaving it unread, so as not to make Clutter think I’m interested.

The upshot: it works reasonably well, but it seems to have trouble learning about messages from some sources. For example, both Strava and Twitter alerts remain resolutely un-Cluttered even though I’ve been moving 100% of those messages, unread, to the folder. I think that’s because the message subject for these messages often changes to reflect the message contents (e.g. “@jaapwess retweeted a Tweet you were mentioned in!”) and that confuses the algorithm in some way. It may be that the algorithm used to categorize these messages needs more data to act on before it can decide. The downside of machine learning systems is that, as an end user, you often can’t see just what the machine has learned, only the actions it takes. In this regard, machine learning is somewhat like owning a cat. I can see that Clutter isn’t moving some messages I think it should, but I don’t have any way to see why, nor any way to effectively correct it. This reminds me of the good old days of training neural networks from HNC Software to do various interesting things and sometimes being bewildered by the resulting behavior.

One bit of good news: I have been very pleased to see no false positives; that is, Clutter has not taken any mail I wanted to read and treated it as clutter. If the price of zero false positives is that some real clutter isn’t treated as such, I’m OK with that.

The junk mail filtering infrastructure continues to catch some messages that might more properly be treated as clutter, e.g. the flood of marketing crap I get from GameStop. I don’t mind such messages being treated as junk, though.

One unexpected side effect is that I have been much more diligent than usual about unsubscribing from newsletters or marketing mails that I no longer care about. This has helped to cut the volume of clutter I have to deal with.

In closing, I note that no matter how many times I tell Clutter that notifications from Yammer should be treated as clutter, they keep going right into my Inbox. I suspect a conspiracy.

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Why the Outlook for Mac folder pane changes colors

I mentioned in my review of the new Outlook for Mac client that the background of the folder list seemed to randomly change colors:

It may also be a feature that there is a color gradient fill in the folder list. At first I thought the color was the same as the color of the category of my current calendar appointment, but after changing all the category colors, waiting for sync, and quitting and relaunching Outlook, the color didn’t change, so I’m not sure what Microsoft had in mind here, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to turn it off.

Thanks to the most excellent Bill Smith, long-time Mac Office MVP, now I know the answer:

You’re seeing translucency in the navigation pane. So long as you have a window or other white object behind Outlook you’ll see a whitish background, but arrange Outlook over your Desktop picture and you’ll see those colors peeking through it. Choose Outlook menu > Hide Others to quickly show Outlook over your Desktop.

Sure enough, that explains it. I use SatelliteEyes to update my desktop background, and as I move around (and thus get new satellite maps), or as change the Z order of other open windows, voilà color changes. I normally don’t mind window translucency, but I don’t care for the combination of OS X Yosemite and this effect. Looks like I’m stuck with it, though.

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