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Vacation message considered harmful

…and I don’t mean in its jealousy-inspiring aspects.

One of our managers is going to be away next week. Being the forward-thinking type, he set up and started his vacation message last night. (A “vacation message,” if you’re not familiar with it, is an automatic reply sent to any incoming email which says something like, “I’m going to be away from my email having fun for a while, and that’s more important than whatever you’re writing about. If you need immediate action, it isn’t coming from me; try someone else.”) If the program is smart, it will only send one of these responses to any email address in any span of time (say, a week) to avoid “ringing mail” (infinite loops) or simply annoying someone to death.

This morning he opened his inbox to a blizzard of “Undeliverable message” notifications.

To figure out why, think about the makeup of your incoming mail nowadays. It’s a fair guess that for many people on our system between 50% and 90% of incoming email messages are spam. Spammers are not known for putting correct return addresses on their email messages, but that’s what his vacation message program was using to direct its little missives. What spammers tend to do is either invent email addresses which look valid (like sender@invalid.net) or spoof real addresses which belong to someone else.

Since this particular manager has relatively common first and last names (not quite “Bob Smith,” but close) he gets a pretty significant spam load. And for every message, his vacation reply was either blitzing a reply out to someone who hadn’t sent him mail, or trying to send to a non-existent address, generating an undeliverable in his mailbox.

Beyond that, in the hypothetical case of a spammer actually supplying a valid return address, he’s just confirmed that his address is functioning and has a real person (eventually) reading it, thereby inviting still more spam.

He and I discussed this briefly this morning, and he decided that there just wasn’t any benefit to it anymore. The spammers have wrecked whatever positive aspects the function once had.

Still, thousands of office drones still think it’s a pretty cool thing. You don’t have to be on a list-serve discussion list for long before someone goes on vacation and their program starts replying to every post on the list. You can’t get mad at the robot for being too dim to recognize a listserv (OK, you can, but it won’t do any good,) but you can build up a decent head of steam at the person who didn’t think about all their incoming mail before telling a program to reply to it.

An aside about the title: “Considered harmful” is geek-speak for “It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but quit already, you idiots!” It started with a 1968 paper from the great computer scientist Edsger W. Dijkstra, which sparked so much controversy with its boldly assertive title that it spawned thousands of imitators. (Google “considered harmful” for more.) In fact, now they’re even saying that the phrase itself is considered harmful.

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