DETROIT LAKES - Technology has put a stop to a lot of mischief. For instance, you no longer can call the store and ask if they have Prince Albert in a can. Thanks to caller ID, they'll know exactly which idiot you are when you say, "well, you'd better let him out!"
The Prince Albert-in-a-can joke may be dead, but technology has opened up dozens of other cans of mischief to take its place, not all of it funny.
Anybody with an e-mail account knows what I mean. As soon as you open one, you are flooded with junk e-mail, otherwise known as "spam."
Most spam is easily discarded, such as the e-mails that come from Nigerians who need somebody to liberate the $1.2 million in their Swiss bank account, or from people who have stock secrets, or the veterans down on their luck that want donations.
Other e-mails sell products, the type of products you would be unlikely to pick up down at the local store, especially if you know the clerk.
Others sell cheap prescription drugs, or hair regrowth potions, or get-rich-quick schemes -- typical stuff one is exposed to by telemarketers and junk mail.
But the most pernicious result of e-mail technology isn't the obvious scams. It is the e-mails that are forwarded en masse by people you know, people for whom you once had respect.
Well-meaning friends and acquaintances see no harm in forwarding e-mails which contain no truth whatsoever, but which are designed to stir one up into a paranoid fit.
One of the first e-mails I ever got: Don't party with medical students! They are known to etherize drunk people, harvest their kidneys, sell them on e-Bay, and leave the poor victim to wake up on ice in the bathtub near a note which warns them to get dialysis quick or they'll die.
Other warnings: Don't take calls from the 809 area code! Don't buy gas from this or that station, it's full of water! Don't buy coffee from Starbucks, they have refused to give coffee to troops!
Missing child e-mail forwards are almost always false, or continue to circulate years after the child has been located.
In fact, almost all mass e-mails are false. Completely false. And it doesn't take much research to prove it.
Jay Leno, Garrison Keillor and Andy Rooney are favorite sources of mass e-mailed articles -- not a one of which they have written, by the way.
There is a theme to these e-mails. To have legs, an e-mail just has to play into the deepest paranoias and prejudices of the dimmest Americans.
Obama is really a Muslim in disguise! Illegal immigrants are destroying this country! Children are being jailed for reading the Bible!
A judge has ruled that you can't say Merry Christmas! Liberals want to ban the Pledge of Allegiance! Wal-Mart is firing all blacks!
Or, an e-mail must show resentment against a favorite target. Aren't you sick of having to dial 1 to speak English? Aren't you sick of illegal immigrants getting free homes, free college tuition, free medical care, free cars and all the rest?
Never mind that the nasty e-mails are all untrue. They race around the Internet, coming in from unexpected places, from people you thought were educated, from acquaintances you thought were decent.
Never has it been so important to exercise one's critical facilities than today. We live in an information age. Trouble is, so much of it is false.
But never before had we been so well equipped to uncover the truth ourselves. All of the above scams have been researched and discussed at length on the Internet.
Obama is not a Muslim, nor did he take the oath of office on a Koran. Fifteen-year old Ashley Flores is not missing. No medical students have ever sold kidneys. And nearly all of those scary bills that we are supposed to write our congressman right away to oppose have never existed.
So, before sending on the latest panicky e-mail to everybody you know, simply type in the basic facts in the e-mail on the Internet and find out how reliable those facts are.
To pass on panicky information without checking its accuracy identifies you as ignorant. You don't want that reputation, especially amongst the hundreds of dear friends on your e-mail list.