February 14, 2000

By Karen Kenworthy

IN THIS ISSUE

This should be interesting. Tonight I'm snuggled in bed. My bedroom is on the north side of the secluded Power Tools workshop, the side that faces the woods. Normally, it's very pleasant back here. But my throat's been sore for about a day, and now I have a fever and chills. I'm also feeling a bit light-headed. Not my idea of a perfect St. Valentine's evening ...

Fortunately, my work doesn't require any heavy lifting. In fact, thanks to my friend Brian, I don't even have to leave my bed. Last summer he installed network connections throughout the workshop, including one here beside my bed. At the time I worried it was a silly extravagance. But it turned out to be a great idea. Even sick in bed, I'm connected to my local network, and to the Internet. What a world.

CRCRLF

And that means I can read my e-mail. Last week I mentioned that the lines in Netscape's Cookies.txt file were terminated by two carriage return (CR) characters, followed by a single line feed (LF) character. Along the way I mentioned that the names of these characters date back to the olden days of Teletype printing terminals.

Well, it turns out I'm not the only one old enough to remember these machines. A few of my fellow old-timers wrote to explain why two CR characters were often used in the old days. George Collar wrote:

"Actually there always were two CR at the end of every line. The problem was that on the old mechanical teletypes (TTY), (I'm talking about 40's and 50's vintage when 100 words per minute was high speed) if the carriage didn't make it back to the start of the line before the next character was received, the TTY would start at whatever position it was at when it received the next character. The extra CR was inserted to give the carriage time to get all the way back to the start of the line, a convention that continues to this day in the military messaging systems."

Sid and Bruce Kauffman wrote with similar tales. I guess I'm not as old as I thought, because I don't remember sending two carriage returns at the end of lines. But I do remember programming computers to pause briefly after sending a CR or LF character. This served the same purpose, allowing the mechanical printer time to respond. Believe it or not, these delays were even necessary when communicating with early CRT terminals, at very "high" speeds (say, 4,800 baud).

I doubt this is the reason Netscape Navigator cookie files contain these extra characters. Individual bits of cookie information are sent across the Internet, but only after characters like CR and LF have been stripped. Still, it was wonderful to spend a moment recalling the early days of computing. It's important to remember that those old times are connected to the amazing times we live in today.

MSIE vs. Netscape

A few other readers wrote to thank me for pointing out such a glaring flaw in the Netscape Web browser. As much as I enjoy thanks and compliments, I'm afraid I must decline these offers. That's because, although the format of the Netscape cookie file did give me a few headaches when enhancing my Cookie Viewer, these headaches are just par for the course. They are the kinds of things programmers deal with every day. And the kinds of things that have no effect on regular users.

Besides, Microsoft Internet Explorer (MSIE) cookies are weird too. Although they also purport to be text files, inside they contain solitary line feed characters delimiting multiple data/value pairs. This was discussed in some detail in my "Power Tools" column appearing in the September 1998 issue of Windows Magazine. Like Netscape's use of extra CR characters, these lone LF characters violates Windows' standard for text files. And like Netscape's practice, Microsoft's decision only effects programmers, not users.

So those fighting the browser wars will have to find some other route to victory. Sorry I couldn't help out. :)

Mystery Files

Last week also brought a couple of questions I'd been expecting for some time. Reader Duane Ericson wrote:

"I have a thing about cookies and today, I installed your Cookie Viewer and all I can say is 'Thank You!' However, it didn't touch the one that came with Windows 98. A beauty at 32K called INDEX.DAT. How do I dump that one? Also, I still had some cookies in my Temporary Internet Files directory. Were these supposed to go bye-bye too?"

The short answer is, not exactly. The files Duane mentioned are "housekeeping" files, files that help MSIE keep track of where it has stored data. They allow Microsoft's Web browser to quickly locate cached copies of previously downloaded Web pages, graphics, and other information.

Depending on the version of Microsoft Internet Explorer you're using, you might find the files INDEX.DAT, MM256.DAT and MM2048.DAT files in your \Windows\Cookies directory. An INDEX.DAT file probably resides in your "\Windows\Temporary Internet Files" directory too. The MM256.DAT file tracks cache file entries whose names contain 256 characters, or less. The MM2048.DAT file helps MSIE locate files with longer names. When used, the INDEX.DAT reminds MSIE where it stored information, regardless of the length of the cached file's name.

Normally, these files are difficult to remove because they are always in use. But you can remove them by first restarting your computer in MS-DOS mode. Next, remove any Hidden, System or Read-only file attributes using DOS's ATTRIB command. The command syntax for this job is:

ATTRIB -R -S -H filename

Where filename is the file you want to change. Finally, delete the file using DOS's DEL command, following this example:

DEL filename

However, if you remove these files and they are needed again, MSIE will automatically recreate them.

What about the mystery Cookie files in the "\Windows\Temporary Internet Files" directory? Those are housekeeping files too. They are actually phantom images of the real cookie files stored in the \Windows\Cookies directory. MSIE automatically cleans up these images, by removing their references from the INDEX.DAT, MM256.DAT and MM2048.DAT files, once it realizes the cookies they reference are gone.

Kill All Cookies?

Cookie Mayhem was another popular e-mail theme last week. Several folks wrote to explain how they swiftly remove all Web browser cookies from their computers. And to ask why they need my Cookie Viewer program.

Of course, if your goal is to rid the world of cookies, my program is of limited help. Although it can remove all your cookies, it's not especially handy for that purpose. It's better at removing selected cookies, preserving those you want to keep.

But that brings up another question. Are there "good" cookies, ones we'd want on your computer? Each of us has to decide that for ourselves. But for me, the answer is yes. In fact, I'm of the opinion that virtually all Web browser cookies are "good", at least when compared to the alternative.

To provide services such as e-commerce, Web sites must keep track of the page's we've visited, and the buttons we've clicked. Without that they'd have no idea what we were purchasing. Longer term memory of the information we provide is beneficial too. Personally, I appreciate a site that remembers who I am, and doesn't require me to re-enter lots of information (such as shipping address) each time I visit.

If you agree that Web sites must store some information about us (and I realize that many folks don't agree with this proposition), the question becomes: where should this information be stored. There are only two possibilities. The information can be stored on my computer, or the Web site's computer. Personally, I'd rather have the information stored on my own machine, where I have custody and control.

All this is not to say that Web browser cookies don't pose a risk to privacy. They do. But we surrender a bit of that privacy each time we visit a Web site, or a mall. Sellers have always wanted to learn more about their customers, to help them provide better service, and help them make better decisions about which products to stock, etc. The Web hasn't changed that desire, or its potential for abuse.

But on balance, I feel Web cookies, and other methods Web sites use to remember us, are put to reasonable and proper use. And to insure that continues, I wrote the original Cookie Viewer. It lets each of us see the information stored on your computers, by the Web sites we visit. And it let's us delete any information we feel is inappropriate or sensitive.

To decide for yourself, why not run my Cookie Viewer? Like all my Power Tools, it's free. You can download your copy from https://www.karenware.com/powertools/ptcookie. Those who want to see how my Cookie Viewer works, or add features of their own, can also download the program's free Visual Basic source code from the same page. While there, feel free to look around and download any of my other programs found there.

You know, I'm feeling better already. Maybe the bug I caught was the 24-hour kind. Or perhaps just writing to you has made me feel better. Either way, I think I'm on the mend. But it's time to put my little laptop to sleep, turn out the lights, and pull the covers up around my head. The next time you see me on the Web, be sure to wave and say Hi! But don't look for me at least until tomorrow. Right now I'm going to sleep ...