Email: how much does it suck?

Yes, this post is going to mention notmuch. Whether that’s the answer to the question posed is another matter…

My email habits have defaulted to mutt and procmail for quite some years now (and prior to mutt, pine which was essentially the same except older and less nifty). I had a brief interlude under OS X with Thunderbird and IMAP right up until poor filesystem performance drove me back to Linux, and with it mutt. Spam has obviously also been a problem, and I’ve variously used spamassassin, greylisting and dspam to combat it. Greylisting was great when it started, but now seems mostly useless, at least for my mail — and the delay it causes when you register to websites who want to send you an email for confirmation gets annoying. dspam was working great for a while, but ended up taking too much time and CPU the way I was using it, and trying to move it from my laptop to my server broke it almost completely.

When I went off to this year I decided to take my netbook, and decided it wasn’t worth trying to move my email from my laptop over to my netbook (having 40k mails in your inbox isn’t very workable, least of all when 80% of the recent ones are spam), so decided to get all my new mail copied to my gmail account instead. I figured when I got back I could work something out, and in the meantime, gmail was at least easy.

The only real work I ended up needing for that was to setup a bunch of filters for incoming list mail (I’ve got 19 at the moment) and a couple more to do away with stupid automated mails I don’t actually want to ever see. That worked, but what was really shocking was just how wonderful it was that all my spam just went away — my gmail spam folder currently has 7057 messages from the last 30 days, but I only ever actually see maybe a couple a day. Presumably the fact that gmail sees heaps of emails and has lots of users pressing “Report spam” makes it a lot less likely for any individual user to see any individual spam, too. And having effectively declared email bankruptcy was nice too; a clean inbox really is much easier to work with. I’m not especially convinced by tags; I’m not really getting much more value out of them than folders, but having filters that can automatically (and quickly) apply to existing mails as well as new mail is quite useful. Another advantage Gmail has is it’s easy to access from multiple devices — different laptops and my mobile phone in particular.

Last time I looked at Gmail I dismissed it with the comment:

GMail is kind-of nice, but I like to be able to read my mail offline, so whatever.

And though I suppose I could try Google Gears or something to deal with that, ultimately I still feel pretty much the same way. There have been a couple of times Gmail’s been not working quite right (not loading an email in particular), and it’s often a little bit slow just due to network lag, and, honestly, I want all my email archives in one place, and I don’t particularly want to upload it all to Google. Gmail also seems somewhat unfriendly to people who want to send/read their mail in fixed-width, 80-column format.

So the question becomes how to run my own email system again and have it not only be usable, but have it be as pleasant as I’m finding Gmail.

So far, I’m thinking that (despite what I just said above) tagging is probably a key feature: not so much from making it different to use, but making it easier to work with mails. Tagging messages as spam, versus moving them from one Maildir to another just seems lots easier to deal with. And not having messages get constantly renamed when being read or replied to would be nice too. So using the aforementioned notmuch seems like a win on that score.

The idea, I think, would be to basically mimic gmail: have tags for “inbox”, “unread”, “starred”, “spam” and “trash” as well as tags for different lists I follow, and tags for other collections of things (receipts for tax purposes, particular projects). Make sure those tags are applied automatically to incoming mail, and then have some folders corresponding to various tags.

I’m not quite sure how I want to deal with spam. A major problem with dspam for me was that once a few spams got through (perhaps because I simply wasn’t reading mail), the hit rate would drop off and even more would get through afterwards. I’m not sure if that’s simply to be expected, a configuration error on my part, or what, but I think the solution needs to ultimately be doing spam scans on unread but already delivered mail, as well as during delivery. That way once I mark a few mails as spam, the system can recheck others and make them go away too, reducing my workload. I think I’d also like to start using something like Vipul’s Razor, to maintain some of the benefit of many other people noticing something is spam. I’m still not sure whether I prefer spamassassin or dspam or both, though.

For mobile access, IMAP seems like a no-brainer of a way to go; especially since Gmail’s already come up with a pretty reasonable behaviour mapping from IMAP to tags. IMAP also has a SEARCH command which might possibly be a reasonable way of exposing notmuch’s searching. An IMAP server would also solve the problem that you can currently only really use notmuch from emacs or vim, neither of which appeals to me. I guess it would also support disconnected operation to some extent by way of offlineimap. Ideally, though, I guess there’d be a way that synchronises the Xapian database. In theory it ought to be possible to make extra notmuch functionality available via IMAP extensions, but you’d need the client to support those too.

I’m not sure what client I’d want to use — I suspect it’d just be a toss up between mutt and Thunderbird. The only possible drawback there is that neither of them have the clever per-thread view of messages that notmuch and Gmail have adopted. I’m not sure how much I’d miss that.

Anyway, I’ve currently imported my old mail into notmuch (mostly), and I’m currently running my old inbox through spamassassin to try to clear out all the garbagey spam stuff. The notmuch stuff went quickly enough, but spamassassin’s currently only about a quarter of the way through.

(And yeah, I’m claiming the Hawaii/New York woblomo exemption again. Even missed UTC this time…)

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