Mail Handling

One of the other things that’s changed quite dramatically in the past three months is the way in which I deal with my mail. I’ve been through a number of different mail clients and setups in the past, and have never quite found any approach that quite fits my needs. I was a long term fan of MH on unix, mostly because there was no real client getting in the way. Everything was just simple files on disk with a series of commands to allowed you to slice and dice them in interesting ways. (Actually it was really only one big command that was hard-linked to be called as different commands, changing its behaviour depending on the name it was called as!)

This meant you could chain your mail commands into a normal unix pipeline, allowing you to manipulate them in simple ways – as long as you’re comfortable with the unix command line, of course! And if MH didn’t offer something you needed, you could just write your own as simple shell or perl scripts. One of my first perl scripts was a recursive grep through my mail archives.

Eventually I was persuaded to move to mutt, the one true unix mail client, and it has served me well for past 7 or 8 years. Its scoring and colour coding became very useful during the years I started drowning in spam, and once I got spam detection tools working, the ability to set up keybindings to integrate mutt with those made my life much easier.

I’ve had a rather strange mutt set-up though. I never really mastered procmail, or Mail::Audit, or equivalent, so rather than filtering on ‘From:’ lines, I’ve always filtered on ‘To’ lines. (Having my own domain means I can have an infinite number of email addresses). Each of the many mailing lists I subscribe to, and each commercial site I have to sign up for, gets a unique address, which then get gatewayed to their own folders through a series of .forw.d files. I then have a little script triggered from my mutt startup, to inform mutt of their existence. I then read ‘groups’ of mail in turn, rather than having them all mixed up in one big box.

I’ve experimented with other mail setups from time to time, and have been using Thunderbird via IMAP as by secondary mail reader for a while – particularly for my commercial mail folders which tend to mostly be in HTML these days (and, though some will be horrified to hear me say it, usually better for it), and for dealing with attachments.

But two things have changed in my mail set-up recently, and it’s making me rethink the whole approach again.

Firstly, I’ve switched my spam detection to the new service we’ve set up in UNITE. This is proving much more accurate than bogofilter (which had gotten stuck around 85-90%), and is currently running at 98.8% on the mail that arrives in my box (and a much greater amount of spam is also stopped upstream, never even reaching me). It also operates a web-based quarantine, so I get almost no spam arriving in my inbox. All my fancy mutt bindings to tag, report, and delete spam are to very little avail any more, and with a much clearer inbox, my scoring and colour coding loses a lot of its value.

Secondly, I’ve moved almost all my mailing lists and commercial email to Gmail. As a general mail client, Gmail is disappointing. I don’t think I could use it as my primary tool. But its ‘conversation’ approach works surprisingly well for mailing lists. With judicious use of labels and filters, I can not only direct each list to a different “folder”, but actually allow multiple messages to be in multiple ‘folders’ (so that, for example, Class::DBI discussion on the Maypole mailing list can also appear in my CDBI list, along with any CPAN uploads with Class::DBI in their name). This also allows me to stay on some of the mailing lists I was going to unsubscribe from. There are a variety of lists I subscribe to but rarely read (although I still occasionally skim the threaded subject lines for the occasional post that looks interesting). These are usually related to technologies that I use from time to time, and whose lists don’t have good archives. Often, when I have a problem, I can then just search through my own archive of the list. Gmail, of course, makes this even easier than before.

With these two changes, I now have a situation that I haven’t seen for close to 15 years, where almost all the email arriving on my desktop is either personal or work-related, and almost all requires some action! This theoretically enables me to massively simplify my mail set-up (and then probably add a new layer of complexity in a different way!)

I’m currently thinking of reverting to a single inbox, and doing all my filtering after reading rather than before, probably to a variety of categorised ‘TODO’ folders, leaving my inbox as a real inbox, ideally emptying it every time I access it.

The fact that it’s taken me 15 years to get close to the position that the majority of email users have as their normal set-up probably says something interesting. I just don’t know what that is yet.

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