Posted tagged ‘Mulberry’

The durability of communication

June 2, 2011

On the hard drive of my computer I have, at an estimate, some 250,000 emails that I have sent or received over a period of just under 20 years. Some of them are either very short, or really boring, but even if you discount these I have thousands of emails that document what I have thought or said or what others have said to me. They are a diary, and a notebook, and a miscellany of ideas. Are they also useless?

The early emails were written or received on a PC using an email client called Pegasus. For much of that time I had both a Windows computer and a Macintosh (don’t ask me why). When in 2003 I migrated to a Macintosh-only system, I moved all of my emails to a rather complex but amazingly versatile client called Mulberry, which I still use. Because Pegasus mail isn’t easy to export to another program, I had to do it by copying, bit by bit, all my emails to an IMAP server and then re-copying it back to Mulberry. Since then I have more than doubled the size of my email archive, so I would hate to have to do it again.

But actually, what would happen to all this stuff if I were to fall under a bus this afternoon? I ask this in part because, over the past year or so, I have been taking some time to read through some of my late father’s correspondence, much of it either hand-written or typed. It is a bit of a nuisance working my way through a couple of dozen dusty boxes, but on the whole this correspondence is very accessible. But what if the next generation should want to do the same with my correspondence, say in 30 years time? Always assuming that it hasn’t by then long been deleted, would they have any chance of being able to read it at all? What program would they use? What equipment would be able to load it? In fact, will it all just be lost?

What is the answer to this? Leave aside for a moment the self-important assumption that anyone would want to read my stuff. Just accept that there will be some people whose emails will be of interest to future historians. How will they access them? Indeed how will they be preserved at all?

I have contemplated printing out some emails, as paper copies are still the most reliable archives. But hardly 250,000. And if not that number, how many, and which? As technology changes at such extraordinary speeds, is everything we have written doomed to be lost?

Please, no HTML!

December 1, 2008

For the first time ever (I think), on one day during the past week every email I received was coded in HTML. For those who don’t know what that is (and I’m sure there won’t be many), HTML is Hyper-Text-Markup-Language, and in short it’s the code that produces the formatting for web pages or other hypertext documents. It allows the author to introduce font formatting, font and background colour, bold and italics, images, and so forth. These are of course all things that we expect to see on a website.

Over the past few years, however, it has become more and more common for emails also to be written and received in this way. The original concept behind email was to have everything in text only – i.e. in ASCII characters without any formatting, images or the like. This meant that there was maximum compatibility between people and email clients (programs), and email messages would be small in terms of bytes. But then, perhaps in the desire to differentiate different email clients, users were offered formatting opportunities, and these were implemented through HTML. Emails got bigger (not in terms of words, but in terms of file size) and more complex, and there was always a slight fear that they would be more easily used as carriers of viruses once they were more than just text. Furthermore, the most prolific users of HTML in emails tended to be spammers.

Maybe I’m being unrealistic, but I don’t like formatted emails, and my email client (Mulberry, which by the way is the best there is) has been set by me to reject all HTML and other formatting in emails. If you send me a formatted email, then if that is possible my program will present me with the text only, stripping out all formatting before I open it; and if it cannot do that, it may just present me with a blank email the latter tends to happen in particular with emails from Apple, oddly enough). Just very occasionally I reformat it manually to HTML or whatever if I feel I need to be able to see the email as written. And when I do that, I mutter under my breath about the sender.

Why am I so pedantic? For me, email is a communication and information tool, and I just don’t want to be distracted by fancy formatting; I want to minimise the risk of emails being carriers for stuff I don’t want; I keep every email ever sent to me, and I want to avoid it taking up¬†unnecessary¬†space (the HTML version of an email typically is three times as big as the text-only version); and because email was never supposed to be formatted, and I am holding out for that original purity.

So there it is. If you are sending me emails, do send them text-only; your formatting does not impress me. I shall be very grateful!