BIO 256 - Computer Applications in Biology

Assignment 1 - Electronic mail

Important References:

Electronic mail, or email, is probably the most important use of the Internet, even more important than the World Wide Web, because it allows you to communicate with both individuals and groups. Email is fast, in fact it is virtually instantaneous if the computer is working. Email users refer to the traditional U.S. Postal Service as "snail mail".

However, email is not without problems. One issue is privacy. Although managers of computer systems and others are not supposed to read email, and will often claim it's impossible for them to read messages, you should never assume your messages are private. Electronic messages (when sent off campus) travel through many computers, and there are many opportunities to copy. There are encryption programs available, but for every programmer writing an encryption routine, there are 1000 others writing routines to decode it. Government agencies such as the National Security Agency can probably decode pretty much everything. (Of course, if the NSA is reading your email, encryption may be the least of your problems.)

Another problem with email is "spam", unsolicited advertisements (the name "spam" comes in a roundabout way from a routine in an old Monty Python movie). With ordinary snail mail, the sender pays the cost, but with email, most of the cost is paid by the recipient (in your case, the University or your commercial Internet service provider). Mass-marketers have taken advantage of this, and in certain circumstances it is possible for half or more of your email to be "junk mail". There are currently no easy solutions to spam.

There are some problems that you can cause with email, some of which can cause you to lose email privileges. Here are some examples so you can avoid them.

  • You may receive mail that asks you to forward it to others, either ordinary chain mail ("send this on or have bad luck"), mail soliciting get-well cards for dying children, mail purportedly from Bill Gates offering you money for forwarding it, or mail warning of malicious email messages that can erase your hard drive. Don't forward any of these. The dying child recovered years ago, and the Bill Gates letter is an "urban legend" (you can find out about urban legends at Mining Company's Urban Legend Site). The "email message will erase your disk" message is especially insidious: simply opening an email message will never give your computer a virus (although running a program or opening a Microsoft Word document that you receive by email might), but the bogus warning has spread faster than any virus. Sending along any of these things wastes time and resources.

  • Be especially wary of "multi-level marketing" schemes where you sell reports by email and recruit others to sell them for you. Although some people do make money from these (mainly the people who start them), they are illegal, despite what the messages may proclaim, and you can lose your email privileges if you take part.

  • It is possible to "spoof" email addresses (to appear to be someone you aren't). No, I'm not going to tell you how, and you can get yourself into a lot of trouble by doing that. But it is important to realize that you might end up doing something like that inadvertently, by using computers in the student labs. It is possible to send mail from Netscape, and many lab computers have the Eudora mail program, but in both cases the program has a place to enter the identity of the person using it, and whatever has been entered, it isn't likely to be you (actual spoofing is a bit more complicated than just changing these values). There will be times when it will be convenient for you to send a Web page to me from Netscape by email as a way of completing an assignment. It is crucial that you put your name, SSN, and actual email address in the body of the message in case the mail program in Netscape is telling me you are someone else. Also, never use Netscape in a lab for critical communications, unless you have entered your own data in the mail setup dialog, and if you do know how to enter your own data, be sure to erase it when you leave.

  • Especially if you are using Webmail, or using Pine directly from the Intranet Unix shell, be sure to exit the web browser or log off before you leave. There have been incidents at Cal Poly where someone has sat down at a computer after a student forgot to log off, and sent threatening messages using that student's account.

Remember that (unless you are paying for a commercial Internet service provider) the university is providing your email access. What may be free and protected speech when you are supplying your own resources will not necessarily be tolerated by the university on their resources. We are guests on the university system; we can't treat it like our own home.


Send me an email message. My email address is

  • The subject must be "bio256a1" (no caps, no spaces).
  • The message must consist of two lines:
    • Your name on the first line.
    • The sentence "My email address for this course will be:" followed by your email address (e.g., on the second line.

You will receive a reply, so check your email to see if you were successful.

Summary of assignment

Check off Format Content Subject line
Email message Information above bio256a1