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Bil Lewis

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

How Do You Manage Email?

January 12, 2010

When I got my first email account on the ARPA net in '78, things were
pretty easy. We have a nice little mail reader that worked on an ASCII
terminal and all messages were in 7-bit ASCII. The actual mail files
were stored somewhere, but I never touched them directly. I'd get a
few messages per day.

Data files were copied via FTP, so we didn't have any encoding issues.

Gnu EMACS changed all that for me in '85.

With it and its RMAIL mode, I could do all my email directly in
EMACS. I could copy text from any buffer anywhere directly into my
message, format it as I saw fit and feel certain that my recipients
would see exactly what I sent them.

I would sometimes GREP through the email folders for stuff. Sometimes
I'd even edit them directly (dangerous, but useful). I felt like a
god.

When I started at Sun Microsystems in '87, I had access to graphical
mail readers, but found EMACS to be superior. Everything was still
mainly text.

I left Sun in '96 to travel the world and talk about threads. I lived
on a 110MHz SparcStation 4, which was a sweetheart of a machine. I
still used EMACS. When I traveled out of the country, I would telnet
to my host server and use the PINE mail reader. (I was disappointed to
find PINE inferior to what I used in '78.) It was a bit awkward, but
worked.

Large attachments were beginning to be a problem. I would normally
save the attachments and delete the messages.

In 2000, at SRI, I had the opportunity of using the Microsoft reader,
which left me cold indeed. It felt like they had all these bells and
whistles, but forgot to include fundamental functionality. At Nokia
five years later, it wasn't any better.

With my iMac, I started using Thunderbird and discovered some
disquieting trends. The user interface is surprisingly buggy and the
functionality weak. They include a few basic operations for formatting
and choosing fonts, but there are no guarentees that your recipient
will see what you wrote in the form you wrote it.

The infinite length line is quite popular these days, but no easier to
read than it was 30 years ago. Persumably based on the assumption that
everyone uses infinite length lines, the "include" option on REPLY
slices up your lines to some predetermined width, with a pre-pended
">". But should you format your messages, or reply to the reply,
you'll get a mess:

> > Now is the time for all good men to come
> > the
> > aid of their country. When in the course
> > of
> > human events, it becomes necessary for

The compose window cleverly does not use ASCII, even though all I'm
typing is ASCII. The result is that copying text out of the mail
reader is problematic. These days I write any big messages (or
articles) in EMACS, then copy them into the compose window. It ain't
perfect, but it works.

It irritates me to no end that the mail readers today are
significantly inferior to those of '78. Not only are they harder to
use, but they're SLOWER!

But I don't mean to complain too much. I really want to ask something
instead...

How do you organize your email?

I am an officer in Toastmasters here in Massachusetts and I have 162
clubs that I need to keep track of, a dozen different training events
and two big conferences. I started by having a folder for each of
these, but I'm not happy with the results. I find that some messages
really belong in several places, and searching across multiple mail
folders isn't easy. I have lost messages because I don't recall where
I put them.

I keep my INBOX as empty as possible. Only things that are important
and need immediate response stay there.

When I travel, I use HOARD, a simple web interface that leaves the
messages in the spool directory, so when I get home, I can bring them
all down. I hate HOARD as much as PINE. I want more functionality and
more speed from my mail reader. I do still GREP though my email every
now and then.

So how do you deal with these things? 

Where do you keep your email and how do you access it out of town?

How do you divide your email into folders?

Is your INBOX huge or tiny?

Do you ever GREP though your mail folders?

-Bil

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