Swift-footed Hermes Must Be Expunged

Eddie Millett 1 May 2014

To those of you who are classically minded, or at the very least remember Disney’s Hercules film, the god Hermes probably conjures up images of a speedy, efficient messenger god, holding an ambulance sign and possibly bathed in a blue aura. Not to mention those awesome flying sandals that leave your pristine box-fresh Jordan Nike Airs looking a bit tired.

You can thus probably see why the odd-bods over at the University Computing Service chose it as a name for the Cambridge email system. It’s redolent of a zingy messenger who has access to everyone and everywhere, from Zeus’s palace on Mount Olympus to the depths of Hell, from the Classical purity of the Senate House to the periphery badlands of Homerton.

It’s also in keeping with the idiotic and faintly annoying practice of polluting Cambridge-speak with silly things that can fly. Ravens are depressing birds that can’t sing and hang out with witches, and the only thing worth knowing about Lapwings is that they are also known as Plovers (“Mummy sends them from Brideshead. They always lay early for her.”) Personally, I’m of the opinion that a couple of made-up Pokemon birds or suchlike might help to liven things up, but that might be a bit far-fetch’d…

As for swift-footed Hermes, apart from the possibility of getting stuck looking at silk scarves on the Hermès website (the French fashion label; go on, have a look), when all you want is to get your essay sent off before your supervisor clocks off for the day and goes home, the first problem with Hermes’ webmail service is that it is a completely inaccurate and misleading name.

Hermes is clunky, ugly and unintuitive. And that’s even AFTER they tried to smarten it up last summer. I was never forced to submit to the horrors of the old version, with its mythical ‘expunge’ button, but it is still, for the time being, available here – https://old-webmail.hermes.cam.ac.uk/ – for your amusement.

My God is it ugly. So ugly that it has managed to accumulate a sort of cult-following among some compscis. By contrast, my faithful old Hotmail account, in existence since about 2005, was always a bright, glittery wonderland (of Bebo updates and spam, admittedly, but a wonderland nonetheless).

Gone are the wondrous email addresses of old, to be replaced by the ugly, utilitarian, immemorable em567@cam.ac.uk. The telling couch_potato118@hotmail.co.uk, and the indefatigable the_edster may be defunct, but their memories will live on, and even the Other Place have managed a reasonably sensible firstname.surname@ox.ac.uk format. By contrast, the new-look Hermes is a vast improvement, to give the UCS people some credit. Rather than resembling a Mesozoic-era MySpace that would have looked at home in American Pie, it is a somewhat snazzier affair.

It does, however, seem astonishing that something as basic as a font update has escaped their notice. Doesn’t that American-typewriter-PC-crisis look just make you want to ignore all 2,149 unread emails, throw the computer into a skip and run for the sans-serif-ed hills? You could have been offered a dream internship, had your essay cancelled, or been given an unconditional first and it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference. Those aggressive serifs, the illogical layout, and that bastard of a crystal ball that seems to gloat smugly and do nothing at all.

Hermes had better look out, or face being ‘expunged’.

(Or should that be Outlook)