Playing with Negative Space

Uber’s robocall blitz to NYC landlines

Uber was robocalling me about Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to place a cap on the number of vehicles they could operate in New York City. Uber has robocalled my home phone number - not the mobile number they have on file for me - four times to ask me to lobby on their behalf. This number has never been tied to my Uber account, so I asked them about the calls on Twitter.

(At the time, I had forgotten that I took an Uber last November with friends while traveling in San Francisco.)

I followed up with Uber over email a few minutes later at 10:08 am on Wednesday, July 22 to ask where they got my number:

Date: Wed, 22 Jul 2015 14:08:55 +0000
Subject: Stop calling my number
From: "Liz A. Denys"

Hi Uber -

You have been robocalling my *non-published* phone number*, [number elided], to talk about De Blasio's changes to NYC livery rules. I do not wish to be contacted by you by phone, especially at a number that is not even tied to my Uber account. Further, I have not used your service under any definition of recently (Nov 2013 was the last time), so you should be respecting my number's entry in the do not call list.

If you'd like to give me information about how you obtained this number and why it was included in your business calls, I'd like to know.

*I verified this last night with my provider.

-Elizabeth Denys

Uber responded three days later:

Date: Sat, 25 Jul 2015 18:16:35 +0000
From: "Josh from Uber (Uber Support)"
Reply-To: Uber Support
To: "Liz A. Denys"
Subject: [Uber] Re: Stop calling my number

Hi Elizabeth,

Josh here, Uber Support. Thanks for reaching out.

Sorry to hear about these unrequested phone calls. It looks like there is another Uber account (not in your name) that has registered this phone number. In order for me to remove this phone number from the account that's using it, I will have to verify that this number is in your possession. This can be most efficiently done by sending in a screenshot that shows your full phone number (most often found in the settings section of your phone). After that, you should no longer receive this type of communication from us.

Again - I apologize for any inconvenience. I am happy to help if you have any other questions.

All the best,
Josh from Uber

I had been curious to hear how Uber had found a number that shouldn't have been available, but apparently, Uber believes that someone else signed up with my number! This is interesting, because Uber uses your mobile number and you have to confirm your mobile number over SMS. Last I checked, my landline couldn't do that.

Wondering how to get my landline out of their system, I replied:

Date: Sat, 25 Jul 2015 23:24:42 +0000
Subject: Re: [Uber] Re: Stop calling my number
From: "Liz A. Denys"
To: Uber Support

Hi Josh and Uber Support,

This number is not a cell phone, but a landline; there is nowhere to take a screen shot. How should I proceed?


Uber was nonplussed that I have a landline¹:

Date: Sat, 25 Jul 2015 23:40:57 +0000
From: "Josh from Uber (Uber Support)"
Reply-To: Uber Support
To: "Liz A. Denys"
Subject: [Uber] Re: Stop calling my number

Hey Liz,

What an odd situation! I have removed this number from the account in question, regardless, so you should no longer be receiving those phone calls. Please reach out if you experience any further issues.

All the best,
Josh from Uber

I was happy that Uber probably wouldn't call my number again, but that still doesn't explain something else about their calls - that they knew I lived in Stephen Levin's district. (He sponsored the bill against Uber.) I reached out again:

Date: Sun, 26 Jul 2015 01:47:09 +0000
Subject: Re: [Uber] Re: Stop calling my number
From: "Liz A. Denys"
To: Uber Support

Hi Josh and Uber Support -

It does seem a little odd to me that someone was using my number for Uber since Uber needs a mobile phone number, not a landline, right?

I'm also curious how your voice messages knew that I lived in Brooklyn, if it wasn't tied to my account. I was even more confused that Uber's voice messages mentioned that I specifically live a district with a council member sponsoring the bill in NYC Uber was concerned about. (I assume you are referring to my council member Stephen Levin?)

Do you have any more information on this matter?


Uber has yet to get back to me.

I personally know other New Yorkers who have received calls from Uber at their landlines about the bill - including some who have never even created an Uber account or stepped into an Uber vehicle.

These are the voice messages Uber left me. I've added the dates and phone numbers from caller ID into the transcript for reference.

You have 4 old messages.

Thursday 3:32 pm [July 16, 2015 from 347 695 8537]

You spend your whole life unable to get a cab home, just because you don’t live in Manhattan. Now, de Blasio wants to make it harder for Uber and other apps to help you get home - just to take care of his buddies with taxi medallions that give him lots of campaign cash. But your council member should stand up for you. Call your council member and tell them to protect you, not the taxicabs who snub their noses at you every day. You deserve better. Paid for by Uber.

Saturday 2:07 pm [July 18, 2015 from 607 385 2105]

Hi, it’s Molly with Uber, and we need your help. Uber ended the days when you couldn’t get a ride home because cabs didn't want to leave Manhattan. Now, Mayor de Blasio is trying to bring the bad old days back because his millionaire taxi donors are telling him to. But why on Earth would your council member ever consider voting for something like this? He should stand up for you!

Monday 2:55 pm [July 20, 2015 from 718 690 9407]

Uber ended the days when you couldn't get a ride home because cabs didn't want to leave Manhattan. Now, Mayor de Blasio is trying to bring the bad old days back because his millionaire taxi donors are telling him to. But why on earth would your council member ever consider voting for something like this? He should stand up for you, not take orders from the mayor. Your council member is sponsoring this bill, and we need your voice.

Tuesday 11:44 am [July 21, 2015 from 914 775 7597]

Hi it's Derek with Uber, and we need your help. Uber ended the days when New Yorkers had to worry about being able to find a reliable ride home. But now, Mayor de Blasio wants to cap the number of drivers that can partner with us, ending Uber as you know it just because his millionaire taxi donors are telling him to. The Daily News has called de Blasio’s cap on Uber, quote, disingenuous and a bad deal for New Yorkers. Please call your council member and tell them to oppose the anti-Uber bill, because --

End of messages.

¹To be fair to Uber, my friends are also nonplussed when I mention my landline.


Save your old bio: it stores confidence as well as content

I cringe at having to describe myself or write my own bios. No matter how casually an email, site, or form says "introduce yourself, no pressure", I shrink back. How do I convince myself that other people find who I am or what I do interesting?

I found myself asking this question a lot this past year, probably because I've written myself quite a few bios in the last year. Conference applications ask me who I am, social websites want me to fill out my profile, and social and professional networking has me introducing myself over email. I'm often uneasy about what to write, so I draft my bios in emacs and copy them over when I'm ready. As a result, I've ended up with a copy of every bio I've written in the last year. This turned out to be a happy accident - having copies of previous bios makes writing a new one a lot easier for me.

When I can look back at old bios, I benefit from having words at my fingertips to reuse when appropriate. When I see that I included something about me in a previous bio, I feel more confident that it's something worth including instead of something that isn't good enough. When I reread old bios, I remember what people told me worked well and what could have been better. (Keeping feedback nearby would be handy, too.) But mostly, when I see that I've written successful bios before, I feel confident that I can write a good one again.

And once I've written a new bio, I ask a friend to read it.


Who is WHOIS: a brief biography of Internet user privacy

If you look up the registration details for my personal (and currently non-commercial) website, you'll see

Registrant Organization: WHOISGUARD, INC.
Registrant Street: P.O. BOX 0823-03411
Registrant City: PANAMA
Registrant State/Province: PANAMA
Registrant Postal Code: 00000
Registrant Country: PA
Registrant Phone: +507.8365503
Registrant Phone Ext:
Registrant Fax: +51.17057182
Registrant Fax Ext:
Registrant Email:

because I register by proxy. When I first registered over five years ago, I used proxy registration because I value my privacy, and I continue to do so.

Starting in mid-2013, 282,867 domains registered by eNom via Google Apps had their hidden registration information made public. On April 11, 2014, I noticed was among them. Having my personal information freely available online to everyone wasn't just theoretical anymore. I am lucky that most of that information is now outdated and that the worst that happened to me was that a slew of recruiters contacted me through the previously unreleased number in my WHOIS record. (I have to admit I'm probably about as impressed as I am creeped out that recruiters admitted to finding that phone number through a WHOIS lookup.) My domain is again protected through a proxy registration.

But ICANN, the global domain name authority, is considering a proposal to disallow proxy registration services for commercial websites. Currently, isn't and doesn't look like a commercial site, but it could very easily become one. If I needed to put ads on my website to cover hosting costs, could be considered commercial. If I finished and published my cookbook, Counter Productive, and promoted it here, would almost certainly be considered commercial.

But the problem with the WHOIS database runs deeper than what should or should not qualify as commercial and whether or not commercial domains should be allowed to use proxy registration services.

To understand the WHOIS database, we have to start with its origins - before the Internet. ARPANET, an early packet switching network whose technologies became the foundation of the Internet, was a closed network for the purpose of supporting government research. Personal and commercial use was discouraged.

ARPANET Directory collected the identities of its users, along with their workplace address, phone number, and network mailbox, and provided this information to other users. As described in RFC 812 (1982), the WHOIS protocol and Identification Data Base were originally designed to provide an "online directory look-up equivalent to the ARPANET Directory". WHOIS was created to have a very specific purpose of connecting those supporting government research more readily, but did not provide information that was not previously available to its users.

In 1984, MILNET, the part of ARPANET used for unclassified Department of Defense traffic, was physically separated from ARPANET for security reasons, but the two networks continued to communicate. RFC 954 (1985) described a natural evolution for the WHOIS Database - that it should continue to include sites that were on the now independent MILNET. The purpose of WHOIS was again scoped to identifying the locations of network names supporting government research, and it still did not provide information that was not otherwise available to its users.

In 2004, RFC 3912 updated the protocol but did not state changes to the scope of the database. By this time, the Internet had expanded from only connecting Department of Defense researchers to also including personal and commercial web endeavors. The WHOIS Database expanded with it, despite no stated change to its purpose, from physical sites of machines passing traffic on a government network to also including personal information about people using an ISP to physically host their site somewhere other than their home address.

During the early days of electronic commerce in the mid-1990s, most participating individuals did not have to worry about their personal information being a part of the WHOIS database. For most sellers, the only WHOIS records for their site were those of their online store platform, such as Viaweb (founded in 1995, later bought by Yahoo! to become Yahoo! Store) and eBay (founded in 1994). Even medium-sized sellers didn't own their own domain names until later in the dot-com era, and individual sellers followed even later. Contact information for e-commerce was handled in other means. While WHOIS records were expanding beyond the needs of the ARPANET Database, they still tended to catalog only major organizations making up the network, not every website owner by their personal information.

In the last two decades, an increasing number of individuals sell through their own domains, where they have the freedom to customize the purchasing experience for their products. Many more individuals, such as myself, have personal domains that will probably venture into partially commercial territory someday by showing ads or promoting their work. Each of these domain owners is also required to be in the WHOIS directory - either they must give their home address, create an alternate address possibly to be used solely for domain registration, or use a proxy registration service. (Most domain owners I know use both proxy registration and an alternate address underneath, like a PO Box, though obtaining an alternate address costs much more than a domain name, a proxy registration service, hosting, and SSL certificates combined.) It's a recent phenomenon for domains to be owned by individuals instead of large companies and government agencies. Proxy registration service is, effectively, a workaround for how WHOIS was not designed to handle this.

The Internet of 2015 isn't the Internet of 2004 or 1994 or 1985 or 1982, and we deserve better than the WHOIS system designed 33 years ago.

That's a lofty undertaking that isn't currently in the works, but the threat of removing proxy registration for commercial websites is immediate. ICANN's working group has called for public comment on this issue - you can send your comments by emailing and clicking the required confirmation when ICANN replies that they have received your response. I've written in, and I hope you will, too.


To err is human, and definitely not just feminist

I am a feminist. I am also human, and with humanity, another core part of my identity, comes shortcomings and failure. When I inevitably mess up, it's because like you, I am human - don't blame feminism.

Filed under: Feminism
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Dresses, “dressing up”, and the software industry

A few days ago, Lea Coligado, a junior at Stanford, wrote about some of the sexism she's experienced in computer science. One of the things she mentioned was how wearing dresses caused her to be treated differently. I, too, prefer dresses because I find them much more comfortable than pants; I (probably) wear pants once or twice a year outside of the gym and cleaning my apartment. I, too, have noticed that people treat women differently for deviating from the "software engineer uniform" of jeans and a t-shirt.

It seems like fashion choice shouldn't be that big of a deal within academic environments and the workplace, as long as it's appropriate.

An acquaintance mentioned that he gets treated differently when he wears nice slacks to his workplace. His experiences match up with the ways I've seen my male friends get teased by others in the industry for dressing up, and they'll hear comments like "Oh, are you going on a date tonight?" and "What kind of occasion could be cool enough to warrant putting in that much effort?" Both my friends and Lea are dressed up because they think it's important to "seem like they tried", and they both get responses for it.

It is unfortunate that our industry questions people who choose to regularly or occasionally dress up for work. But there are a couple of ways that this bias manifests particularly badly for women.

The first is that wearing a dress and "dressing up" aren't the same thing. Similarly to how there are places where jeans and a t-shirt would be highly disrespectful, there are dresses too casual for many settings as well. Many women, Lea and myself included, wear dresses for the same reasons that many men in software wear t-shirts: comfort and personal preference more generally. It's no more of an attempt to flirt than wearing a witty t-shirt; it's just another option.

On top of that, the responses I've gotten when I've worn dresses are usually directed at my character or skill level. The kindest of them call me naive or better suited for non-engineering positions: "Software engineers learn they don't need to dress that way." Men, too, are mistaken for different roles, though for dressing up as opposed to simply wearing a different article of clothing. However, women are told much more frequently than men that they are just not suited for the positions those people already know they hold: "Real coders don't focus on fashion." I've even seen men who don't dress the part get extra credit for commanding respect in spite of their atypical clothing choices!

Clothing choices have nothing to do with technical ability, and conflating the two will only help perpetuate the gender gap in an industry that already has a serious problem retaining women.