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By Joel Klebanoff

Junk Rules (Unfortunately)

I can't win.

I used to be overloaded with spam, but I thought I had the problem licked through the use of three separate layers of spam filtering. My Internet Service Provider (ISP) provides the first layer. I've tweaked the settings on my email account so that my ISP now conducts only the lightest possible level of filtering, but, rather than just flagging the offending email, it deletes any suspected spam before my computer ever has to be offended by it. I sometimes think that I'm way too good to my computer, particularly considering that it gives me no thanks in return.

The next layer of filtering is performed by the anti-spam tool provided in the Internet security suite that also includes my firewall and anti-virus software. I instructed that tool to do a moderate level of filtering. It doesn't give me the option of automatically deleting detected spam. Instead, the tool redirects the spam to a special folder that I can view in Outlook, my email software. It might as well just delete it because I rarely look at the folder before emptying it. Life is way too short to spend it sifting through spam.

The final layer of filtering is performed by Outlook, which I set up to do a low level of filtering. I decided not to get too aggressive with spam in Outlook because I told it (and it unexpectedly listened) to delete the detected spam rather than sending it to a junk mail folder. That way, I don't have to bother dealing with the garbage. Because Outlook gets to see email only after my ISP has sent it to my computer and my other anti-spam tool has had a crack at it, I can't spare my computer the burden of looking at this crap. I'm sorry, but the heck with it. My computer can fend for itself as far as I'm concerned.

All three spam filters allow me to add individual senders and whole domains to some variant of an "allowed senders" list. Email from someone on the list or from one of the domains on the list will, in theory (more on that later), not pass through the spam filters, allowing me to see all of the email from those people or companies even if the email would look like spam to the filters. Of course, these lists don't do one bit of good for people I don't know who email me for the first time. If you're thinking of doing that, you might want to phone me first. Just one piece of advice: When you call, make sure that you don't sound like a telemarketer. Otherwise, I might hang up.

Everything was hunky-dory. The spam filters reduced what was, up until a year or so ago, hundreds of pieces of spam that I had to sort through every day down to just dozens now. At least, I thought things were hunky-dory (if, in fact, I knew what hunky-dory meant, which I don't, but it sounds good). But I was wrong.

Recently, after I complained about a couple of people's lack of response to some questions I asked them, both told me, "But I sent you an email."

Hmm. As a first stab at solving this problem, I decided to take a look at the stuff in the spam folder set up by the anti-spam tool that came with my Internet security suite. Guess what? My first attempt at resolving the issue did, in fact, find the source of the problem. There were a couple of pieces of mail in the spam folder that came from people who I had put on that software's allowed senders list. It seems that the filter chose to ignore the list.

Count that as a win for me over the computer god. The first commandment laid down by the computer god is that you're not supposed to be able to find the source of a problem until at least the third try and then only if you've led a very pious life and have never struck the Esc key.

What a fat lot of good that software did me! "Oh, here's some email from people who you absolutely, positively, definitely need to hear from. I'll just get rid of that for you so you won't have to bother with it." Thank you very much.

To those two people (the two I know about) who sent me the emails that didn't make it into my inbox and to anyone else who, unbeknownst to me, sent me an email and is now sitting there cursing me for not responding, please accept my heartfelt apologies. Kindly resend your email or, better yet, give me a call.

Needless to say, I've turned off that spam filter. The only alternative I could think of was to change its settings so that it would delete absolutely every piece of email that comes to me while I go backpacking across Europe and Asia for a few years, but I'm probably getting too old for that.

Now that I'm down to just two levels of protection, I guess I'll be wading through a little more spam than before. Oh well, technology giveth and technology taketh away. Chalk one up for the spammers.

I wish I could say that my aggravation with junk communications was restricted to email. It's not.

The regular, non-virtual type of junk mail is not too bad. Physical junk mail is usually easily distinguishable from desirable mail, so I normally throw the junk directly into the garbage without ever opening it. The only risk is the potential for a hernia when emptying the wastepaper basket.

My phone, however, is getting out of hand. A few companies are in the business of calling up other companies and surveying them about the size and nature of their businesses. They sell that information to telemarketers who want to use it to sell various and sundry stuff to the surveyed companies.

I'm usually happy to answer the surveyors' questions. I figure that Klebanoff Associates is small enough that any telemarketers who know much about it won't want to waste their time calling me. For the most part, that strategy seems to have worked.

The surveys themselves usually aren't too bad. The first question is normally something like, "How many employees work there?" I typically respond with, "Do you mean in just this location or across the whole corporation?" "The whole corporation." "Do you mean just full-time employees, or should I include people who we contract on an occasional, short-term basis?" "Just full-time employees." "Including or not including myself?" "Including yourself." "One."

How the conversation proceeds from that point depends on whether the questioner is a rational human being capable of adapting to circumstances or he or she is just one step above an automaton that is unable to deviate one iota from the provided telemarketing script. (I don't mean to insult automatons. They usually have the programming necessary to adjust a script based on my responses, but I couldn't think of a better example of simple-mindedness.) If the surveyor is of the former type, the rest of the conversation is usually something to the effect of, "Thank you. Good-bye." "You're welcome. Good-bye."

If the surveyor is of the latter type, one small step above a poorly programmed automaton, he or she mindlessly continues with the script. "How many full-time employees do you have in your IT department?" "Do you mean just programmers or should I include managers, architects, analysts, and help desk staff?" After a while, I get tired of being a smart aleck and end the conversation. That can take quite a while because my inherent smart aleckiness tends to come to the fore in situations like this.

Most of the survey companies call me approximately once a year for an update of my company's information. That's not much of an inconvenience. Unfortunately, if you read the first sentence in this paragraph carefully, you'll notice that I said "most of" not "all of" the survey companies. Despite the fact that my company is way too small to be of much interest to any of the survey companies' customers, one such company has decided that it still needs to call me for updates every two weeks or so.

After a few of these calls, I got angry and told the caller to never call me again. "Certainly, sir. I apologize for the inconvenience. I'll add you to our do-not-call list." "Thank you."

(Just as an aside, Canada, my country of citizenship and residence, does not yet have a Do Not Call Registry or the legislation to enforce it. Even if it does follow the U.S. example, that Do Not Call Registry will apply only to personal telephone numbers, not to business numbers. So unless Canada goes further and includes businesses, it's not going to help me.)

A few days after allegedly being added to the survey company's do-not-call list, the same company called me again. Before the caller could get started with his questions, I described my past experiences with his company. "Oh, I'm very, very sorry, sir. That must have been one of our other divisions. They probably added you to just their division's internal list. I'll add you to our master list, and no one from any of our divisions will ever call you again." "Thank you."

Uh huh. A few days later, another call came. I picked it up and started yelling. I didn't stop yelling until I had no voice left. I took a sip from the water glass beside me in order to restore my voice and then started yelling again. I repeated this process until the water glass was empty. I then whispered "good-bye" and slammed the phone down.

The calls kept coming. I now use caller ID to avoid picking up any calls from that company. Unfortunately, sometimes they call from a line that blocks their name and number, and sometimes my caller ID has trouble recognizing them. Now I'm afraid to pick up the phone at all.

Not to worry. I think I've figured out how to solve this whole junk communications problem. There's just one detail left for me to check before I implement my plan. I've sent a letter to the board of directors of my condominium to see if there are any federal or provincial laws or municipal or condominium bylaws that prevent a contained fire on my patio. If not, I'm switching to smoke signals for all of my communications. The junk marketers haven't ruined that medium...yet.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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