What tools I use to deal with email

March 11, 2011

The most important thing I do to deal with my email is that I am not on any high-volume mailing lists. As far as I'm concerned, that's what gmane.org (or some equivalent) is for, plus a good newsreader. I sometimes temporarily subscribe to such mailing lists, but only when I'm going to send email to them. This one decision means that I don't need a mail environment that's designed to cope with a huge volume of email, which in turn means that I have a lot more choices and options.

I sort incoming email with procmail, mostly to divert spam and certain routine 'things are fine' administrative reports off to separate files. Everything else goes into my inbox.

I read my email using MH, in its current modern form of nmh. MH is natively a command line environment, but there are GUI interfaces for it as well. At the office, I primarily use MH through exmh, because I like good graphical interfaces and because it's the best option for showing me various sorts of MIME-encrusted messages. My exmh environment is fairly extensively customized to fit what I like.

(I have been using exmh for a very long time, more or less since it was first announced publicly, so I have all sorts of bits accreted on top of it.)

At home, I use MH through its command line interface. Well, I don't use the raw MH commands as-is; instead, I have a large suite of aliases and shortened names for things and so on (for example, loading my MH environment defines a 'd' alias to delete the current message, clear the screen, and show the next one). Part of my customizations are things to make MH less verbose and to do things like show fewer message headers; for obscure reasons I do this in peculiar ways instead of with the built-in MH facilities to do some of this.

One important part of this command line environment is a replacement for the stock nmh way of displaying MIME-encoded messages. The problem with the stock version is that it wants to quiz you and pause and flail around and so on (as anyone who has ever used it knows). My version's goal in life is simply to print out a plain text representation of as much of the message as possible, doing a sensible job with things like HTML and so on. This can then be run through the pager of your choice to actually see things (I use a very simple one that just pauses every screen's worth for me to hit return; most people would use less).

Even at work I sometimes drop into the MH command line environment; sometimes it's the easiest way to do something quick and simple, and sometimes it's the best way to do some more sophisticated operation. Exmh does not have a great interface for picking out messages, among other things; I do sometimes envy Thunderbird's really convenient UI for this.

(And of course I am not always in front of my desktop that has exmh running. If I am checking email from a laptop or the like, I am effectively 'at home' as far as MH usage is concerned.)

Written on 11 March 2011.
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Last modified: Fri Mar 11 02:06:02 2011
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