Kearns' column: Message returned: I am on vacation

At least once per year I try to take a real vacation -- no computer, no phone, as little contact with newspapers, television and radio as possible. If something momentous should happen, then someone I'm in contact with will mention it. The downside of this is facing my inbox when I return.

Recently, my wife and I spent 10 days in the relative peace and quiet of Alaska -- great weather, gorgeous scenery and fantastic interaction with the geology and biology of this fascinating state -- all without the electronic trappings of modern life. It wasn't easy to resist -- internet cafes show up almost as often as drive-through espresso stands in Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, Seward, Valdez and Talkeetna -- but resist I did.

I'd taken all the precautions possible with my email -- setting listserv mailing lists to "nomail" and unsubscribing from others without the nomail option. I'd notified my editors and clients that I'd be away. I'd set up a "vacation message", which would be automatically sent (one time only) to people sending me email during the period I'd be away. Nevertheless, more than 500 email messages awaited me on my return.

One-hundred and twenty entries could be attributed to daily digests from news clipping services I use, notes from readers, press releases, and notes from friends or acquaintances. That left more than 75 per cent of the contents of my inbox as things I wasn't expecting, didn't want or had no use for.

One interesting statistic is for approximately 50 per cent of the spam I received there was also an "undeliverable" message returned from my vacation message. Thus, the 200 spam messages ("get rich quick", "get sex now" and "spy on your neighbours" were the top categories) created another 98 "bounce" messages -- a good statistic to use when arguing for the blocking of unsolicited email.

A less-intelligent email package responds to each incoming message with a vacation message so those 98 bounces would generate even more vacation messages and even more bounces, ad infinitum. The Imail server I use only sends the vacation message once per correspondent.

It only took an hour or so to go through the mail and quickly delete the 400 unneeded/irrelevant/unwanted notes; it will take considerably longer to read, digest and respond to the relevant ones. But that's a small price to pay for 10 days of uninterrupted peace and quiet. Try it, you'll like it!

Kearns, a former network administrator, is a freelance writer and consultant in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at

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