Don’t hate me for trying to be the best friend I can be. Hate me for other, more substantive reasons like my failure to floss daily. Rules for email engagement. Ignore these at your peril. If I’ve told you to read this, there’s a reason, and you’re it.

An Open Letter to Some of My Friends
I like you. Okay, well, I’ll admit it: I love you. Not in the same head-over-heels way I do my wife, the Pittsburgh Steelers or Macintosh computers (and not necessarily in that order! hahaha), but I think you are pretty great. I’m not always in an unabashedly sentimental mood, but this is one of those times, and I sincerely hope that you can feel the Woodstockian love vibe that I’m sending out in your direction. Because if you can, it’ll be much easier for you to hear what I’m about to say, namely, that you’ve committed a major Internet fax paus (pronounced in the original French as “Facts-Puss”).

In other words, you’ve breached a wall of online ettiquete that was constructed specifically to prevent the type of behavior you’ve just exhibited, and if you continue on this path, you will surely become an email outcast, destined to always wonder why your friends consistantly fail to reply to your electronic correspondence. (Hint: It’s because they’re not your friends anymore.)

Briefly stated, if I’ve told you to read this article, you’ve done at least one of five things:

  1. You forwarded a message about some Internet hoax, likely while appending a sentence similar to “I don’t really know about this, but it seemed important, so here you go.”
  2. You attached a large file, over 100k, to your email without bothering to compress it with StuffIt or Zip.
  3. You sent a PC file (.exe) to me, a Macintosh user, and unless I use a PC emulator like Virtual PC or SoftWindows, I will be unable to do anything with the file. Did I mention I hate PCs?
  4. You didn’t bother to virus-check a file attachment that you received from somebody else before sending it on. At least if you did, you didn’t mention it.
  5. You sent a chain letter email of any kind.

In the long term, let me assure you that repeatedly taking any of the above-referenced actions insures a fiery seat for you in a poker game with the Devil somewhere in the bowels of Hell. Our mutual task is to prevent this awful fate by helping you to be the best online correspondent you can be.

Internet Hoaxes
I could speculate on how many different warnings I’ve received from people concerned about various computer viruses, but I’d probably pull a brain muscle trying to count higher than I have fingers and toes. I’ve been on the Internet a long time (since the early ’90s) so I still remember the 1994-era days of Good Times, an alert about a virus which never existed except in the endless spam of warnings that well-meaning users passed to one another. Specifically, the Good Times virus warning read:

    The FCC released a warning last Wednesday concerning a matter of major importance to any regular user of the InterNet. Apparently a new computer virus has been engineered by a user of America Online that is unparalleled in its destructive capability. Other, more well-known viruses such as Stoned, Airwolf, and Michaelangelo pale in comparison to the prospects of this newest creation by a warped mentality.

    What makes this virus so terrifying, said the FCC, is the fact that no program needs to be exchanged for a new computer to be infected. It can be spread through the existing e-mail systems of the InterNet. Once a computer is infected, one of several things can happen. If the computer contains a hard drive, that will most likely be destroyed. If the program is not stopped, the computer’s processor will be placed in an nth-complexity infinite binary loop—which can severely damage the processor if left running that way too long. Unfortunately, most novice computer users will not realize what is happening until it is far too late.

Now that’s some lovely prose, but hey, guess what? It’s all a lie. There is no virus that will operate in this fashion. Heck, the FCC doesn’t even have anything to do with computer viruses (though they were forced to put out a press release disclaimer in this case). There were only two good things to come out of the Good Times hoax: First, more people than ever before realized that you couldn’t believe everything you read, especially on the Internet. Second, this Good Times spoof written by Patrick J. Rothfuss in December 1996:


    Goodtimes will re-write your hard drive. Not only that, but it will scramble any disks that are even close to your computer. It will recalibrate your refrigerator’s coolness setting so all your ice cream goes melty. It will demagnetize the strips on all your credit cards, screw up the tracking on your television and use subspace field harmonics to scratch any CD’s you try to play.

    It will give your ex-girlfriend your new phone number. It will mix Kool-aid into your fishtank. It will drink all your beer and leave its socks out on the coffee table when there’s company coming over. It will put a dead kitten in the back pocket of your good suit pants and hide your car keys when you are late for work.

    Goodtimes will make you fall in love with a penguin. It will give you nightmares about circus midgets. It will pour sugar in your gas tank and shave off both your eyebrows while dating your girlfriend behind your back and billing the dinner and hotel room to your Discover card.

    It will seduce your grandmother. It does not matter if she is dead, such is the power of Goodtimes, it reaches out beyond the grave to sully those things we hold most dear.

    It moves your car randomly around parking lots so you can’t find it. It will kick your dog. It will leave libidinous messages on your boss’s voice mail in your voice! It is insidious and subtle. It is dangerous and terrifying to behold. It is also a rather interesting shade of mauve.

    Goodtimes will give you Dutch Elm disease. It will leave the toilet seat up. It will make a batch of Methanphedime in your bathtub and then leave bacon cooking on the stove while it goes out to chase gradeschoolers with your new snowblower.

    Listen to me. Goodtimes does not exist.

    It cannot do anything to you. But I can. I am sending this message to everyone in the world. Tell your friends, tell your family. If anyone else sends me another E-mail about this fake Goodtimes Virus, I will turn hating them into a religion. I will do things to them that would make a horsehead in your bed look like Easter Sunday brunch.

Darn funny stuff and pretty effective too, but the number of Internet users has multiplied several times over since the was written, and variations on Good Times’ “warn all your friends immediately” theme continue to be propagated on the net.

So let’s be clear: Do NOT pass along virus warnings unless you have personally verified their legitimacy with sources like the U.S. Department of Energy’s Computer Incident Advisory Capability, MacVirus [no longer active], or MiningCo.Com’s Antivirus site.

Similarly, don’t rush to warn people about the latest urban myth either. Remember the one about not flashing your headlights because it was a “gang signal” that could get you killed? (What kind of confused hoodlums would use that kind of signal? And for what?) I received that message from dozens of people. Read my lips: No new taxes! I mean, read my lips: It’s a myth! An urban legand! A hoax! While the desire to be helpful is laudable, in 95+ percent of the cases online warnings are bogus, and you need to verify, verify, verify before wasting other people’s supposedly valuable time.

Large File Attachments
If fake virus warnings are a waste of time, imagine what uncompressed file attachments represent. I once had someone send me an uncompressed 1.8 MB file of a Barney the Dinosaur-like song for little kids. Anyone care to speculate how long it took took me to download that with a 28.8k modem and how my face looked at the exact instant I discovered what it was? The correct answer is: Too darn long and contorted beyond recognition!

And what’s worse, even if I had recognized it as a lame attachment early in the download process, I was stuck. In fact, I *had to* download it since if I cancel the download the email would’ve stayed on my ISP’s email server. Next time I go to check email, guess what the first message to come up would’ve been? Yep, that same 1.8 MB download. It’d just sit there and block my ability to retrieve any of the messages behind it.

So if you want to send a large file to a friend, consider the speed of his or her internet connection. Even with compression, the 1.8 MB will still be about 900k, and that’s pretty large on a 28.8k. (If the receiptient has a cable modem or DSL connection, you can pretty well damn the torpedos, send whatever sized file attachment you want, and not worry about compression or the consequences.)

For the rest us, however, as a rule of thumb, file sizes over about 100k should be compressed using either StuffIt or Zip. Your friends will thank you, or more accurately, they’ll still talk to you the next time you see one another.

PC Files to a Mac User
The Macintosh is in ascendency. It’s true. Apple’s selling hundreds of thousands of these machines per quarter, and since Macs typically don’t go obsolete as fast as PCs, the installed user base is in the tens of millions.

So if you don’t know what type of computer your friend is using, for gosh sakes don’t assume. I’ve received so many PC executable (.exe) files over the years—and typically uncompressed, of course—that I lose count. Word of warning PC users: Macintosh computers don’t run .exe files. In fact, most of the time we don’t want to run .exe files since the odds are that the sender has violated at least a couple of the different guidelines I’ve posted here.

Yes, technically I can run .exe files on my Mac using an emulator like Virtual PC, but that brings up a whole other problem, namely our next item which is…

Lack of a Virus Check
I have yet to run across the PC user who regularly virus checks the email attachments he or she sends out. This is astoundingly naive since the PC has something on the order of 8000 viruses in circulation. (In contrast, the Mac has less than 100, which is just one more reason to switch.)

Of course you’d never knowingly send someone a computer virus, but if that attachment is infected, you may not know it until it’s too late. If you’re using a PC, virus check your software and especially virus check anything that anyone sends you or that you send to anyone.

As a final note, remember to tell those you’re sending the file to that you’ve virus checked it. Then they can rest a little easier. (Though they should virus check it again themselves to my way of thinking.)

Chain Letters
I don’t care what the content of the letter is, if you’re sending me a chain letter, I will not like it. The latest twist on these has been “Christian” chain letters which encourage you to spread the message of Jesus (i.e. “The Romans could be nicer”) by emailing this (a) heartwarming story, (b) tale of hope and faithfulness, (c) plea for help to everyone you know. As a person married to a high school religion teacher, let me be clear: God hates chain letters. You should too.

There is almost no online fate worse than getting to the end of a touching story only to read: “If you love Jesus, send this to ten people and the person that sent it to you!!!!!!!!” (Punctuation note: Extra exclamation points don’t help.) One would hope that it would be obvious that nowhere in the Bible does Jesus actually command his followers, “Go forth and spam everyone you know with chain letters.” Unfortunately, something seems to have gotten lost in the translation from the original texts because I keep receiving these letters.

While we’re on the topic, someone send the mobile psychiatric unit complete with straight jackets and leg irons to the deviants who email around those “Free Porn!” and “Get Rich Quick!” chain letters. They simply need more help than I’m capable of giving.

I presume I’ve made myself clear here, but if you have no idea what I’m talking about, maybe these examples will help. As a clue, any email which concludes with a not-too-subtle threat of violence and the sentence “This could happen to you!” is probably a chain letter.

So, my friends, let’s recap:

Item #1: I love you.
Item #2: You must think before you send me an email.
Item #3: If you don’t, I will love you less.
Item #4: I would prefer to love you more, not less.
Item #5: I will have to kill you if you don’t change your evil ways.

Now send me some email. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.