In Just Say No to Cookies, I pontificated self-righteously about the prying eyes of big brother invading our personal lives by dropping little data packets on our computers. I told all my fans to disable cookies, thus forcing the computer establishment to abandon that Orwellian practice.
Of course, that was before I had to figure out a way for you, dear reader, to cycle through all of my columns once without any repeats, on the home page, during any given week.
Talk about an optimist. I have more than 80 columns. If you read them all in a week, please send me a note; I could use a quick review on the content.
So that's what I did. If you're reading this page, my cookie is probably planted on your computer. Don't you feel violated?
They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, so here goes: The cookie is a text file. On my computer, it gets stored in c:\Documents and Settings\joelt\Cookies, and it's called joelt@bootup. Your copy will be somewhere similar. And here, fully exposed, are the file's treacherous content:
colnumPretty spooky, huh? When I want to see that number (in this case, 76); I look for a cookie named colnum. And, when I find your cookie, I decrease that number by one.
Delete my cookie and I'll plant another one. Disable cookies and it might break my page. Or, just lump me in with all the other cyber-Girl Scouts -- eat the cookie, let your system mindlessly swallow it, and bask in the glory of 80-plus columns appearing one-by-one across your favorite home page, fresh and exciting with every visit!
Hey, such is this machine we call the internet. Know what I do with the title of that cookie? You know, the "joelt" part, or the name of the user folder? Nothing; I can't see it. I can see the name I use -- colnum -- and the number, and that is all. If I didn't write it, I can't read it.
Imagine what I might know about you just by looking at all your other cookies! Nothing; I can't read them. I can't even see the file name of my own cookie, or any other information on your computer, except that little crumb of data, colnum=76.
If you visit my page once with Explorer and again with Netscape, you'll have two cookies, each working independently of the other. That's the secret -- a cookie is something the browser uses, internally, and only to store miniscule bits of data, by mutual agreement.
Your browser makes it possible for me to leave small notes on your computer. They can contain any information I already know -- when you got here and how many pages you looked at, for example -- or any information you give me. All my cookies put together can take up less than 6K on your machine.
In our example, the cookie size is less than 1K.
And nothing prevents you from finding those files and deleting them -- but you might find things a little screwy at the stockbroker site that stores your login in a cookie, or the online bookseller that always steers you to your favorite subjects, or that site that lets you set up custom news reports and sports scores.
Cookies are each very small. A server can only read a cookie that it has written, and not one written by another server. Total cookie disk space is limited by the browser; when the stack gets too big, the browser deletes older cookies as needed.
If I don't know your name and you don't tell me, I'll never know it, with or without a cookie. Still, the thought that I put a mark on your computer when you visit once, and change the mark when you visit again, can be unnerving.
Be at peace, dear Reader; here's my privacy pledge: I will share with no one the value of colnum on your computer, or the fact of its existence there. It's our little secret; I don't even know your name, and I don't want to know. Just show me the number next time you visit, and I'll show you the next column. That's the deal.
I'm glad we had this little talk about cookies. I hope we all feel better. I know I do.
Send your questions or comments by mail to this newspaper or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.