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Howard Benner, Remembered

It started as a way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon, and it ended up profoundly affecting the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Howard Benner through TAPCIS brought to life for many of us the very idea of an online community. His legacy is a part of our work and our play every single day.
Howard Benner died in June of 1990 at the age of 44 due to complications of malignant melanoma. Howard's pioneering work has made access to CompuServe easy for us. Unfortunately, much pioneering work in melanoma treatment remains to be performed.

Malignant melanoma is a highly malignant cancer of the skin. It is the ninth most common cancer in the US and is now the most common cancer in women between ages 25 and 29. The incidence of melanoma has doubled in the past 10 years. In 1989, over 27,000 new cases of melanoma were diagnosed, and there were 6,000 deaths from the disease.

There is a strong causal relationship between excessive exposure to sun and melanoma. Many investigators believe that the rise in the rate of melanoma is closely related to the desire for a perpetual sun tan. Depletion of the ozone layer and the consequent reduction in ultra-violet filtration has also been implicated in the rising rate of melanoma occurrence. Support for the conclusion that excessive tanning is causal in the development of melanoma is the site of onset, in men on the back, shoulders, or abdomen and in women on the legs, all sites that are only occasionally subject to sunlight and thus easily "sun-burned".

According to the American Cancer Society, people who have had 3 or more blistering sunburns are at 5 times the risk for developing melanoma compared to people who have never been burned. There are many today who feel that even gradual tanning is not safe.

Of considerable concern is the feeling that melanoma may remain dormant for many years. Thus melanomas initiated 20-30 years ago before strong sun-screens were available may first be coming apparent now.

Risk factors also include fair complexion, family history, and a markedly freckled back or shoulders. The incidence of melanoma amongst Caucasians is significantly greater than that in Blacks or Orientals.

In its initial stages, melanoma is treatable and curable. There is a definite cutoff point between the size and thickness of the melanoma lesion and its curability. In its early stage, melanoma is treated by surgical excision with almost 100% cure. However, beyond a very sharply defined lesion size (thickness > 0.75mm), melanoma becomes essentially 100% fatal today.

Today, metastatic (spread) melanoma remains incurable. However, in the past few years several new approaches to therapy have shown considerable promise. New approaches include developing a vaccine which kills melanoma cells. An experimental melanoma vaccine has been derived by infecting melanoma cells grown in cell culture with a virus and then injecting material from these cells into melanoma patients to induce the production of antibodies to the viral/melanoma combination. In initial trials of this "vaccine", there has been a significant decrease in disease recurrence in patients with metastatic melanoma. It is possible that high-risk patients may some day be able to receive an anti-melanoma vaccine.

Another promising approach includes the use of interferon and/or interleukin -2, biologicals which have shown reasonable success in melanoma patients but unfortunately, interleukin-2 is particularly toxic. This approach is not specific for melanoma but has been also used in patients with renal cell cancer.

A third approach utilizes augmented "killer lymphocytes", which patients with melanoma frequently develop. These "killer lymphocytes" appear to seek and destroy melanoma cells. Alteration of these naturally occurring killer cells using recombinant DNA methods may actually increase their ability to kill melanoma cells. This technique is quite new and will not be available for many years.

Currently, while there are several promising treatments for melanoma, prevention remains the most obvious way of combating the disease. An understanding of the long term risks of excessive sun exposure and taking steps to reduce that exposure is the single most effective way of reducing the likelihood of disease.

Everyone should perform a regular self examination looking for these danger signs in moles on your skin. Check carefully under arms, between toes, back and top of your head, back... everywhere. Become familiar with the moles you have, then watch for changes:

ASYMMETRY: One half the mole is unlike the other half.

BORDER IRREGULAR: The mole appears ragged or scalloped.

COLOR VARIED: The mole changes color from one area to another. Shades of brown and tan may contain red, white, and blue.

DIAMETER: Moles larger than 1/4 inch (the width of a pencil eraser.

Not all moles that fit into one of these categories is cancer, but they should be brought to the attention of your physician. Malignant melanoma often signals its presence by a change in an ordinary mole. A mole that grows darker, wider, thicker, becomes irregular, or starts to itch, hurt, or bleed should get immediate attention. If a melanoma is found early and removed, the disease can be completely cured. Do NOT put it off.

For release Sunday, June 24
c.1990 Cox News Service

WASHINGTON _ His name was Howard Benner and he introduced me to hundreds of people. When he died a few weeks ago, at age 44, of malignant melanoma, I mourned him as a friend _ although we had never met.

Benner advanced the information revolution by expanding the world's collective memory. He helped magnify what Marshall McLuhan called the "global village." But where McLuhan had in mind television, a passive system, Benner sought to foster two-way exchanges.

To do that, you need computers and you need phone lines and you need a device called a modem that links the two of them together. The technology required to reach a remote data base or an electronic message center and retrieve useful information is both complex and costly. (That's why many folks shy away from computers.)

This is what Benner, a marketing executive from Wilmington, Del., found to his dismay when, in 1981, he joined Compuserve, a fledgling electronic bulletin board in Columbus, Ohio. To do so, he used a four-pound Tandy Model 100, the first practical laptop computer.

Compuserve had been launched in the summer of 1979 by a hardcore group of 1,200 dedicated computer buffs who shared a certain joy in mastering the arcane commands required to navigate the labyrinth. Benner, an amateur programmer, wrote a routine that greatly simplified the process.

Through Compuserve, he passed it along to others who in turn suggested further refinements. Within two years, he had quit his job to fashion a series of increasingly sophisticated interface systems: Zapcis and Tapcis.

The current version _ and others like it _ makes it a snap to send messages to Montana, faxes to France or telexes to Tunis. More importantly, they permit people with an abiding interest in anything from AIDS to zoology to converse electronically on transparent global networks _ at moderate expense and without hassle.

Today Compuserve has more than 585,000 subscribers, making it one of the largest of the nation's 20,000-plus computer bulletin boards. These systems have spawned a subculture in which people are ranked for what they can contribute.

In that realm, John H. Sununu, the White House chief of staff, a longtime computer aficionado, and William Gates, the billionaire chairman of Microsoft Corp., deal as peers with a 17-year-old French lad who wrote a free program that compresses other computer programs to about half their original size.

A cosmology exists among programmers _ the people who make it easy and more productive for others to use personal computers. On the passing of Howard Benner, a kindred soul who also did not "know" him wrote in an electronic eulogy:

"The moving, changing pattern of the program, here embodied in neurons, there in silicon or magnetic iron or light, was part of me everywhere. And when it incorporated fragments of others' work, and others incorporated mine, then those parts of our minds really fused, at once in many places and [in] no particular place."

Computers will never think the way humans do because the laws of nature won't permit it. So argues Roger Penrose, the British physicist, in his 1989 book "The Emperor's New Mind." He reasons that machines need to run under a problem-solving set of rules, called algorithms, even though there are problems which cannot be solved by any known system of rules.

Yet the true test of these machines is not whether they can outperform the human mind through mastering "artificial intelligence." It is the more basic issue of how we can put them to good use to enhance our existence. That is the question that Howard Benner helped answer so well in his brief lifetime.


It isn't at all surprising that one is touched by sadness at the news of the death of a friend. It is a remarkable phenomenon of our times, however, that one may be moved by the death of a friend one has never seen nor spoken with in person or even by telephone.

Howard Benner was known to me only through messages exchanged on CompuServe. I first "met" him there when I began writing for PC Week and PC Magazine nearly two years ago and signed on to PC Magnet. I'd previously used CompuServe, but only occasionally.

Making my way through the hundreds of messages, not only on the PC Magnet forums, but elsewhere on CompuServe, initially proved to be an arduous task. On the advice of newly found friends there, however, I learned of TAPCIS and downloaded a copy.

That's how I met Howard. Howard Benner was the author and developer of TAPCIS. Written in Borland's Turbo Pascal, TAPCIS is a $79 Shareware program that automates access to CompuServe and CompuServe based services like PC Week Extra! and PC Magnet.

With TAPCIS, you can easily download files and, even more important, messages posted on forums like the PC Week Extra! Corporate Buyers Forum. You can then read and, when inclined, respond to messages off line. TAPCIS thereby greatly reduces the cost of these on-line services and makes them much easier to use.

Howard's modest little program has had a enormous impact. It has made access to these on-line services both affordable and manageable for thousands of people who otherwise would not have used them. From pc support people in large corporations looking for help solving tough problems to ecologists and genealogists, TAPCIS has helped to make electronic information more accessible.

Equally important, however, it has helped to create what is truly a unique new form of human interaction. For in participating (even if only as a "listener") in these electronic forums, one is also engaged with a group of people.

Amazingly, even though people "appear" only in the form of ASCII text strings on an electronic bulletin board, their personalities and characteristics are clearly manifest. One makes friends, forms likes and dislikes for individuals, "talks" more with some, less with others.

I learned of Howard's death from complications related to malignant melanoma on June 8th two days later in a message from Marilyn Ratcheson that Karl Finkemeyer forward to the PC Magnet Editorial Forum. It was hard to keep my eyes from misting over.

When I "dropped over" to the TAPCIS forum I wasn't at all surprised to find that many of Howard's electronic friends, many of whom knew him much better than I did, felt much the same way. He not only showed that an individual with modest resources can still make a difference in pc software, he showed that an individual can make a difference in even more important ways, as well. We will miss him.