Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Accidental Spammer

Go easy on the evil.

By James Hanback Jr.

JUNE 8, 1998:  There are times when a series of events finally leads to conflicting emotions. On the one hand, there is a feeling of elation when a goal has been accomplished, but if that achievement has affected someone else adversely, there may also be a twinge of regret.

That's how I'm feeling now, since I was at least partially responsible for the cancellation of two Internet accounts last week. I do not know whose accounts they were. Only company names were included in the e-mails I received.

I confess. I'm guilty.

For years, people have complained about junk mail filling their mailboxes, but they're downright intolerant of the constant barrage of unsolicited bulk e-mail that clutters the Internet. Spam, it's called--like the lunch meat.

When I subscribed to America Online in 1995, I suddenly began receiving e-mail from companies that wanted to sell me things. They wanted to sell me dentistry. They wanted to sell me bulk e-mail lists. They wanted to sell me sexual pleasures. The only thing they didn't want to do was leave me the hell alone.

Last year, I opened my AOL account's mailbox to discover 30 e-mail messages that had accumulated in approximately five hours. All of them were junk e-mail.

I decided it was time to cancel my account.

Oh, sure, I tried a few other means of coping first. I replied to the authors of the e-mail and asked them to remove me from their lists. (In many cases, I was added to two additional lists instead.) Then I complained directly to America Online.

Neither effort was effective.

Now I have a much smaller mailbox on another Internet service provider, and I get far less bulk e-mail. It's up for debate whether that's because my ISP is local, or because ISPs in general are less tolerant of spam. I do know, however, that ISPs have become militant about seeking out and eliminating the accounts of customers who are spamming.

Someone from Mindspring sent me e-mail last week, encouraging me to buy, buy, buy. I automatically scrolled to the bottom of the message to find the e-mail address I needed to reply to in order to be removed from the mailing list. There was none. Nor was there a note informing me that this was a one-time e-mail. I would've been happy with either message.

Instead, I was forced to send e-mail to Mindspring's special spam alert address for non-members, abuse@mindspring.com. My message was simply, "Please have this customer remove me from their mailing list."

I received an e-mail from Mindspring two days later informing me that the customer's account had been terminated. Not long after, I received an e-mail from another ISP informing me that they were investigating another e-mail account from which I had received multiple, unwanted messages.

At once I popped open a Pepsi to celebrate, but a guilty little part of me sympathized with the bulk e-mailer. After all, as Webmaster of the Nashville Scene's Internet presence, I recognize the value of the publicity e-mail can generate. I also maintain a tiny list of people I e-mail from time to time when there's a major update on http://www.nashscene.com.

I sent out such an update last week, but I accidentally shipped out four copies of the same message to each person on my list. If there's any way to be accused of spamming, that'll do it. Thankfully, I only received one complaint. I promptly apologized for the error, explained my situation, and removed the recipient from my list. That's what any honest accidental spammer should do.

Overall, I'm ecstatic that the ISPs are taking measures to reduce the amount of spam traffic on the Internet. But there's still that guilty part of me that enjoys letting a few people know when http://www.nashscene.com has some breaking news or a great new feature.

So, here's my effort to be a kinder, gentler e-mailer and e-mail recipient. I resolve to:

  • respond to the "Remove" addresses in any bulk e-mail I receive before I go to the ISP for help.

  • barring any "Remove" address, make certain a bulk e-mail is more than a one-time thing before I complain.

  • if neither of the above is true, e-mail the ISP's postmaster for information on how to deal with the matter. (Usually, "postmaster" is a valid e-mail address for most ISPs, as in "postmaster@nashscene.com.")

  • be more careful about sending out my own bulk e-mail from now on.

Spam is still a pain. But now that the ISPs are more involved in stopping it, perhaps my role doesn't have to be as drastic as when I subscribed to AOL.

For the trivia-minded, bulk e-mail and Internet newsgroups postings are called spam as a result of an old Monty Python sketch, which took place in a restaurant. Spam, the pink lunch meat, is listed in almost every menu item. Fans of the television show will recognize this as the sketch that made famous the Vikings' chorus of "Spam, spam, spam, spam..."

For those of you who need a little hilarity in your day, a transcript of the sketch is available at www.ironworks.com/comedy/python/spam.htm.


Microsoft mourns

Microsoft Corp. has a lot of legal battles left to fight. On top of that, the shipping date for Windows '98 has been moved up from its original June 25 date to June 15. A new book has just been released that purports to tell the story of Netscape and its fight against Microsoft's attempt to dominate the World Wide Web browser market.

In the midst of all this, the company has lost Nicole Mitskog, a 33-year-old engineer and one of Microsoft's best.

At her funeral, according to reports from abcnews.com, a letter written by Mitskog was read to the crowd, which consisted mostly of Microsoft mourners, admonishing them to slow down and enjoy life. Mitskog, like many other people in the high-tech industry, started work in her field before she even graduated college. And, like many others at Microsoft, she was considered a workaholic.

She died of melanoma on May 18, the day the federal government and 20 states filed an antitrust suit against Microsoft.

The dependency factor

The recent Galaxy 4 satellite outage that caused millions to lose their pager services upset a lot of people in the media. The big news crews asked, "Are we too dependent on technology?" And who can blame them? It's a question that comes up virtually every time the power goes off.

The answer is: Of course, we are. We're dependent on a lot of things nowadays--electricity, the telephone, pagers, the Internet, computers.

But just because we've become dependent on them as modern conveniences does not mean that the world would grind to a halt if we suddenly lost them.

What would you do if you had to add two numbers and didn't have a calculator? Use paper and pencil? Or how about your fingers and toes?

What would you do if you had to cook a meal and didn't have a microwave or even a conventional oven? There's always fire.

Human ingenuity overcomes the obstacles of inconvenience. Our media shouldn't be asking, "Are we too dependent on technology?" Instead, they should be asking, "How would we be inconvenienced if our technology suddenly died?"

James Hanback Jr. is systems administrator for the Scene. E-mail him at james@nashscene.com.

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