Email-letters

I’ve been attempting to write to people again lately. As in, proper letters on paper and in envelopes and stuck through holes in walls and doors. It doesn’t work though. Ten years ago I wrote to people, and it was reasonably easy although one had to ignore the anachronistic self-consciousness. Now, it feels like writing a telegram, for all the relevance it has to modern life. And doing so on some sort of rare letterpress’d form at that — the mechanics have become harder, the whole thing far less familiar. Where even is there a post box around here? Do stamps still come in booklets? What’s it even cost to send a letter? Only people having weddings send things in the post these days.

I once wrote a little system for writing email-letters. It was a bit like Gmail’s system of having the reply-box at the bottom of the to-and-fro conversation, except it went to further extremes of actually deleting the quoted reply text from emails, and of actually tracking correspondents as entities in their own right and not just by email address. It also prohibited writing to more than one person at once.

It feels like there’s a place for a letter-writing system that really is just email but also isn’t one’s normal email client (be that Fastmail, Gmail, Thunderbird, or whatever). Writing to a friend should be a different act to tapping off a note to a colleague or haggling with a civil servant. The user interface should reflect that. It should be simpler, calmer, and prioritise longer paragraphs and better grammar. (I’ve read similar sentiments relating to the design of the Discourse forum software; the developers of that want the software to shunt people towards better discussions, and I’m pretty sure Google don’t have anything like that idea with the Gmail interface. No one wants to write a letter on a blotter edged with full-colour advertisements for Fletcher’s Fantastic Fumigator, and Google want you to use the exact same interface for work and for social interaction. Doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.)

I’d still be using my email archiver, but it dates from an age before two-factor authentication, and improvements in the security of email providers broke it and I’ve not yet gotten around to fixing it. Perhaps it’s time to do so.

Backing up thunderbird email

When backing up Thunderbird, the only files I worry about are the actual mbox files that store the ‘Local Folders’ (archived) email, and the *.mab addresbook files. Everything else is operational cruft. This might seem a bit extreme—after all, why not backup the account configurations and user preferences etc.—but I jump from machine to machine often enough, and reinstall things so regularly, that setting up a few email accounts now and then is too easy, and I prefer the minimalism. This way, I know exactly what I’m backing up and where my emails are, and I’m only backing up what’s essential. I’ve tested restoring to other email clients too (like sylpheed), and all is seamless and heartening.

This minimal backup works too because I use the ‘archive’ function of Thunderbird, which is just a simple “copy to date-based (i.e. year-based) folder hierarchy in Local Folders” function, activated by pressing a. Hence, I don’t bother filing emails by topic, and I store all sent items in the same folders are those received (yeah, I’m not suggesting that anyone else is ever going to find my system at all sensible). So the files backed up are small in number and never disappear (new ones are added, is all). I don’t back up what’s still up in the IMAP server, but then there’s not much of that at any given time.

The last part of my backup is to include all the files, both mbox and mab, in a version control system (in this case, Subversion). This way, I can roll back any file to any previous revision, easily. They’re all text, so the revision space-usage is efficient and of no worry; I’m only talking about half a gig per year anyway.

The script that does all this for me is simple:

#!/bin/bash

TB_PROFILE=/home/sam/.thunderbird/po2p7m5o.default/

MBOXEN=$(dirname $0)"/mboxen"
ABOOKS=$(dirname $0)"/abooks"

echo "Copying addressbooks to $ABOOKS..."
cp -v "$TB_PROFILE"*.mab "$ABOOKS/."

echo "Copying mail files to $MBOXEN..."
rsync -rv --exclude=*.msf "$TB_PROFILE/Mail/Local Folders/Archives.sbd/" $MBOXEN

# ...Followed by a svn commit

mbox is a pretty ridiculous format, really. It’s based on the idea that it can determine the beginning of each email by the fact that the word ‘From’ starts a line and is followed by a space. That’s it! Daft. Thunderbird supposedly has some greater means of delimiting messages, but still I’ve on a number of occasions had email corrupted due to this silliness. Not hard to recover from, usually.

Marco Arment on why you should own your online identity

Own your identity by Marco Arment:

If you care about your online presence, you must own it. I do, and that’s why my email address has always been at my own domain, not the domain of any employer or webmail service.

Sadly, most people don’t care about giving control of their online identity to current or future advertising companies.

But there will always be the open web for the geeks, the misfits, the eccentrics, the control freaks, and any other term we can think of to proudly express our healthy skepticism of giving up too much control over what really should be ours.

I am reminded of that old thing: “if you do not pay for a service on the web then you are not a customer, but rather your content is a product that is sold to advertisers”.

The Speed Of Response

The speed at which one is required to respond in various forms of a) long-distance communication, and b) woodworking.

I have been thinking about the various forms of long-distance communication that are in common use, such as email, telephone, and snail mail, and in particular the length of time each gives one to respond to what the other person says. With traditional postal correspondence one has ample response time — months if so wished — and this I think gives letters a distinctly ‘thought about’ tone. The same is true, to a lesser extent, with email: although it is easy to quickly rap out a reply to someone and send it without really thinking, there is still the opportunity for leisurely consideration of what you want to say, over perhaps a couple of days. This is not true with the telephone — it is at the extreme end of this ‘speed of response’ continuum and necessitates a faster and less considered reply than even a face to face conversation. Silence just doesn’t work on the ‘phone, and can’t play the important role of reflection and consideration that it does in all other forms of long-distance communication — including postal and electronic mail.

There is a parallel between this increasing response time in communication and the time that one has when working with wood to respond to the tools, materials and workshop environment. Take the saw as an example: a portable circular saw can give you very little time indeed to change your grip, stance or in some other way avoid being hurt — its a bit like a ‘phone; a table saw is more forgiving because the table, blade, fence(s) and work-piece are all (hopefully) fixed in their positions or trajectories and are therefore more predictable, but there is still the opportunity for rashness and accidents — similar to email one might say; the handsaw is the slowest of the saws and as such gives the user much more time to respond to the work-piece moving, or an unseen knot that puts the saw off a bit, or any of a thousand other things that necessitate a response to the timber or tools — I would liken using a handsaw to sitting down and spending an hour or so writing a letter, knowing that far from being a ‘waste’ of time it is just more time spent being close to a dear friend.