Filter This!

Joe Lavin's Humor Column

Filter This!

December 17, 2002

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Send me a message containing the phrase, "this is not spam" or "we honor all removal requests," and your message will never even make it to my inbox. Long ago, I decided that such phrases were only used by spammers and set up my e-mail filters to delete all messages containing them. After all, when was the last time a friend ever felt compelled to say, "this is not spam" in a message to you?

Admittedly, I came around slowly to message filtering. For years, people have been filtering for spam, but until a few years ago I never bothered. I used to claim that filtering just wasn't worth it. Why bother when setting up all your filtering rules probably takes up just as much time as simply deleting the spam when it arrives?

But then I started tinkering with my e-mail software and realized that message filtering can actually be fun. Perhaps this is merely indicative of the fact that I need to get out more, but I actually enjoy the daily challenge of trying to deflect as much spam as possible. Open my e-mail client, and you will find a myriad of complex filtering rules, all acting as some sort of Star Wars-style nuclear defense system on incoming spam. If it walks like spam and quacks like spam, my computer will shoot it down.

Granted, it's not a perfect system. Spammers are so prevalent and resourceful that many messages still make it through, but I'm not about to give up the fight. Whenever an unwanted message makes it to my inbox, I actually find myself studying it to see how I can deflect it next time. I probably read more spam now than I ever did before. It's a little pathetic, but, in a war like this, I feel that you have to know your enemy.

I have used a variety of techniques. Early on, I would simply block e-mail addresses under the misguided expectation that this would make a difference. Little did I know then that spammers shed addresses by the hour and that most of the addresses listed are not even real. Next, I moved on to blocking e-mails with suspect phrases in the subject or body. Lately, I have been testing out the somewhat scorched earth policy of sending any message without my exact address in the recipient field to a bulk mail folder. Since in a lot of junk mail the recipient field is filled with a dummy address, this will usually capture much of the unwanted mail.

As I continued playing with e-mail software, I also discovered that filtering isn't just for spam. I was recently tinkering with Outlook Express, and a whole new world of geeky options opened up. For example, I can now assign each of my friends a specific color for their messages. (My friend Jody has asked for her e-mails to be fuchsia, but all other colors are still available.)

Or I can automatically forward messages containing certain phrases. When Bill Clinton was still President, I briefly thought of forwarding all the spam with "young and 18" in the subject to his e-mail address, but then I figured that he was probably already getting them.

There's also an option to mark certain messages as "ignored." I'm pretty good at ignoring messages on my own, but I'm glad to see that Microsoft is trying to help.

Later, I even discovered that Outlook Express will automatically reply to messages. That's right. If that guy you're always trying to avoid keeps e-mailing, simply set a filter with his address and type up a message that will automatically be sent to him whenever he e-mails. Personally, I recommend, "Can't talk. Gotta run. I'm off to Zimbabwe tomorrow to work in the Peace Corps. See you in 2004 when I get back!"

Or if you really don't like someone, you could even have Outlook Express send back a fake "Returned mail; addressee unknown" message.

"Oh, Jim, that's too bad. You must have mistyped my address. That's a shame. I could have really helped you with that project."

Perhaps I'm taking this a little too far, but it's wonderful to discover that at last -- after years of broken promises -- computers really are making our lives easier. With just a little forethought, you can now configure your e-mail software so that you may never have to deal with another annoying message ever again. There's only one problem. If we manage to delete all our annoying messages, what on earth will we have left to read when we check our e-mail? Hopefully, the next generation of e-mail clients will handle that problem as well.

This piece originally appeared in San Diego Computoredge. Somehow, I doubt it would have made it through most e-mail filters, so I never posted it to my mailing list.

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