Harley Hahn's
Internet Advisor


Chapter 5...

Mail

When I was a kid, I had to walk three miles in the freezing snow every time I wanted to check my electronic mail. Then, after checking my mail, I had to walk three miles back (and it was uphill both ways) just to get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Today, life is a lot easier. Once you have Internet access, you can send and receive all the mail you want from the privacy (and warmth) of your own home.

In this chapter, I'll explain the basics: what you need to get you going and keep you going. In Chapter 6, I will give you some extra help and teach you how to use email well. After all, you are one of my readers, and it is my job to ensure that your usage of the Internet is elegant and skillful enough to carry you head and shoulders above the pressing crush of humanity.

So read on. By the time you finish these two chapters, mothers will hold up their children as you walk by and say, "Look at that person. Now, there's someone who really knows how to use email."

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The Basic Ideas

In Chapter 2, we talked a bit about how mail works. Let's take a moment to have a quick review and add a few more details.

On the Internet, we commonly use the word MAIL to refer to EMAIL (electronic mail). Anyone who has your mail ADDRESS can send you mail. Similarly, you can send mail to anyone whose address you have. Mail addresses are in the form:

name@hostname

For instance:

billg@microsoft.com

Like all Internet services, mail uses a client/server system. You run a client, called a MAIL PROGRAM, on your computer. Whenever necessary, your mail program contacts a MAIL SERVER to request services on your behalf. Most people use the mail server provided by their ISP (Internet service provider). However, there are other options, which we will discuss later in the chapter.

To send mail, you use your mail program to compose a message. When you are finished, you tell your program to send the message. Your program contacts the server, and sends it the message. The server then delivers the message to the recipient's mail server.

Similarly, when someone sends a message to your mail address, it is received and stored by your mail server. From time to time, your mail program contacts the server to see if there are any messages waiting for you. If so, your program receives the messages and shows them to you.

Whenever you start your mail program, it will check for messages. After that, it will check at regular intervals (say, every 10 minutes). So although it is possible to tell your program to check for new mail, you usually won't need to. Incoming messages will arrive automatically.

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SMTP Servers and POP Servers

In Chapter 1, I explained that clients and servers communicate with one another by using various protocols. There are three different protocols you will encounter within the Internet mail system. Although you don't need to concern yourself with the details, it is important to at least know the names of these protocols and what they do.

The three protocols are SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol), POP (Post Office Protocol) and IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol). SMTP is used to send messages to a mail server, while POP and IMAP are used to receive messages from a mail server. To explain how this all works, let's take a look at when these protocols are used when you send a message.

Using your mail program , you compose a message and address it to a friend. Once the message is ready for delivery, your program uses the SMTP protocol and transfers the message to your ISP's mail server. The mail server then uses SMTP to transfer the message to the mail server used by your friend. When the message arrives at the destination mail server, it is stored until your friend picks it up.

Now consider what happens when you receive a message. When it is time to check for messages, your mail program uses the POP protocol to connect to your ISP's mail server (where all your incoming mail is stored). If there are messages waiting for you, your program uses POP to download them to your computer. Your program then shows you a summary of the incoming messages, which you can read whenever you want.

Thus, SMTP is used to send messages to a mail server, while POP is used to receive messages from a mail server. (We'll talk about IMAP in a moment.)

Thus, it follows that, before your mail program can send and receive mail, it must know the hostname (computer name) of your SMTP server and the hostname of your POP server. In principle, the SMTP server and the POP server can be completely different computers. However, in practice, both servers usually run on the same computer.

Here is an example. A fellow named Benjamin Dover signs up for Internet service with the Undependable Internet Company, and is assigned an address of bendover@undependable.com. At the time he signs up, Benjamin is told that his SMTP and POP servers both have the same hostname: mail.undependable.com. So, before he uses his mail program for the first time, Benjamin must configure the program by specifying this information. If Benjamin ever changes ISPs, he must reconfigure his program by specifying a new address for himself, his SMTP server, and his POP server.

By the way, notice that the hostname of the mail server begins with mail. This is a common convention used by many ISPs.

— hint —

Some ISPs give you a special installation program to run to set up your service. (For example, they may send you a CD to use to get started.) When you run this program, it will install a lot of software, such as a browser and a mail program. You may also find that the program configures your mail program for you.

In such cases, you will not have to type in the hostnames of your SMTP and POP servers by hand. However, it is interesting to look and see what they are.

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IMAP Servers

The system I have described so far uses SMTP to send messages and POP to receive messages. IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) is sometimes used as an alternative to POP.

When you use POP, messages must be downloaded to your computer before you can access them. This is fine when you always check your mail from the same computer. However, if you routinely use POP to check mail from different computers, you may have a problem, because your messages can end up in different places.

For example, let's say you work for a company that provides you with a computer in your office as well as a notebook computer to use when you travel. In addition, you sometimes do office work at home using your own computer. All your work-related mail is sent to only one mail server — the one at the office — but you need to be able to check for mail from all three computers.

With IMAP, your mail client can manipulate messages on the server without having to download them. Thus, your messages stay on the server and are accessible from any computer you may use. (Of course, you can delete the messages from the server whenever you want.)

Most ISPs would not want their customers to use IMAP, because the tendency would be for people to leave all their messages on the ISP's server. Eventually, the IMAP server would fill up, and there is no graceful way for an ISP to delete their customers' messages. However, within a well-managed private environment, IMAP can work well, as it allows people to check their mail from any computer they want and still keep all their messages in one place.

To use this system, you need both a mail server and a mail client that support IMAP.

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Web-Based Mail Services

The systems I have described so far involve mail client programs using SMTP and POP (or IMAP) to communicate with mail servers. This is the way most people send and receive email. However, there is an alternative system you should know about.

Many companies offer Web-based mail services that allow you to send and receive mail using only your Web browser. With such systems, your browser acts as a simple mail client, while a special Web server at the other end acts as a mail server. Since browsers are not designed to handle mail, virtually all of the work is done by the server. All your browser does is show information and let you make choices.

There are advantages and disadvantages to Web-based mail services. The first big advantage is that, in most cases, they are free: the companies make their money by selling advertising. Free services are nice, but while you are composing, reading or sending mail, you will have to look at advertisements. Personally, this bugs me a lot, although you may not mind it as much as I do. In addition, some services also put a short advertisement at the end of each message you send out. Moreover, you may find yourself the recipient of unsolicited advertising messages. Again, this is all something you may be glad to put up with in return for free mail.

Another advantage to Web-based email is that you can use it from any computer in the world that has an Internet connection. This means that, when you are traveling, you can check your mail from anywhere you can find access to a browser. With the regular mail system, you need to be at your own computer, running your own mail program. (Even with IMAP, you still need a mail client configured for your account.)

Web-based mail makes it possible for people without computers to use mail. For example, many libraries have public Internet access, and many schools provide access for their students. If you don't have your own computer, you can use a browser at the library or at school to establish and maintain a Web-based mail account.

Finally, Web-based services provide a large measure of anonymity. When you register for such a service, you can specify any name and password you want. This is handy, for instance, when your only Internet access is at the office, and you don't want to use your work address for personal correspondence. You can get yourself a Web-based mail account, give out that address to your friends, and then use your browser at work to check your personal mail. (Although, if anyone asks, you didn't get this idea from me.)

One of the great things about such mail accounts is that you create a new one for free whenever you want. In other words, they are disposable. Disposable address are useful in a number of ways. For example, many Web sites make you register before you can use the site. As part of the registration process, you will be required to specify an email address (so the company running the Web site can send you advertising, or sell your address for money). The solution? Just use a disposable address, one that you created for free and don't mind abandoning later.

As you might imagine, the convenience and anonymity of such systems has not escaped the notice of the troublemakers of the world, and there are a lot of dishonest and shady characters hiding behind free, Web-based mail addresses.

A more immediate concern, if you have children, is that any kid with Internet access can register for a free mail address and then use a browser to access the mail when no one is looking. This is something you should be aware of, especially if you are a teacher whose students seem too well-behaved when they are using the computer lab.

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage to Web-based mail services is that they are slow to use. With regular mail service, your mail client runs on your own computer, and all your messages reside locally on your own hard disk (with POP) or on a special server (with IMAP). With a Web-based service, everything is stored at the Web site, and working with individual messages one at a time over the Web can be a frustrating experience.

So do you need a Web-based mail account? For your day-to-day mail, you are better off using the regular mail account with your ISP. But if you have a special need (such as checking your messages when you travel or hiding your mail from prying eyes), you might want to try a Web-based service.

— hint —

The distinctions between regular and Web-based mail services occasionally blur. Some Web-based services offer a POP server, so you can use a regular mail client instead of a browser to check your mail (although you may have to pay for this service).

Conversely, some ISPs offer Web access to their mail server, so you can check your mail away from your own computer.

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Which Mail Program Should You Use?

The two most popular browsers, Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape, are bundled with a free mail program. (The Microsoft program is called OUTLOOK EXPRESS.) Both Microsoft and AOL (which owns Netscape) would like to control the browser market, and one way to do so is to provide lots of other software that is tightly integrated with the browser. In that sense, the strategy works, because most people use the mail program that comes with their browser.

Since the mail protocols (SMTP, POP and IMAP) are standardized, you can use any mail program you want. The Internet Explorer and Netscape mail programs will both work fine. However, you can use a completely different program, one that has nothing to do with your browser. For example, my favorite mail program is Eudora.

Regardless of which mail program you use, you will find it has more features than you need and more options than you will ever understand. Do not get frustrated. In this chapter and in Chapter 6, I will explain the basic features of all mail programs. I suggest that, after you read these chapters, you take a good amount of time — at least a few hours — and experiment with your particular program. Investigate all the menu items, and take a look at all the options. (They may be called "preferences".) Eventually, you will figure out what features you need and what you can ignore.

If you use the Internet at work, you may be forced to use the same mail program as everyone else. In my experience, people who work for large companies often do not like the standard corporate mail program. If you do work in such a company, take advantage of your freedom at home, and choose a program that suits you.

If you are new to the Net, don't worry about making a choice right away. Use whichever mail program is installed on your computer and, once you get some experience, you can download other programs and experiment. If you find a mail program you like better than the one you are using, there is no problem making a switch whenever you want.

— hint —

Some software companies offer both free and commercial versions of the same program. In such cases, the programs that cost money have extra features. However, in my experience, the free programs are usually adequate, and there is no need to pay for a commercial product unless you really want the extra features.

In this book, I have chosen free resources whenever possible.

Note: To get Microsoft's Outlook Express, you need to install Internet Explorer. To get Netscape's mail program, you need to install Communicator. Eudora is a standalone program that is installed on its own.

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The Parts of a Message

Conceptually, mail is simple: you type a message and then send it to someone else. Through the years, however, electronic mail has evolved, and the nature of a message has become complex to the point where it can have up to four separate parts. These parts are: the header, the body, attachments and a signature. In this section, I will give you a quick overview. We will then discuss each part in more detail.

At the beginning of every message is a HEADER consisting of a number of specific HEADER LINES. These header lines contain technical information needed by the mail system: the name and address of the sender, the time and date the message was sent, the subject of the message, the name and address of the recipient, and so on.

After the header comes the BODY, the main content of the message. Most of the time, the body will be simple text that you have typed, but, if you wish, you can also include other elements, such as pictures or links to Web pages.

Along with the body of a message, you can also send a file. When you do, we say you ATTACH the file to the message, and the file itself is referred to as an ATTACHMENT. For example, you might send a message to a friend to which you have attached a sound file containing a song. When your friend receives the message, he can save the file to his hard disk and then listen to the song.

A SIGNATURE is a small amount of information (which you create) that your mail program puts at the end of every message you send. Having a signature is optional, though many people use one. A typical signature might contain your name, mail address, and a link to your Web site (if you have one).

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The Most Important Header Lines

Each time you send a message, your mail program automatically generates a header with technical information and places it at the beginning of the message. Similarly, when you receive a message, it will have a header which you can look at if you want.

Learn how to...

Display the Full Header of a Mail Message

When you first start to use a mail program, take a moment and find out how to look at the full header of a message.

All headers more or less have the same format, but what you see on your system depends greatly on which mail program you use. Some programs attempt to dumb down everything that looks the least bit technical and hide most of the header from you. Other programs show you all or some of the header. Regardless, there is always a way to look at the full header if you really want to, although how to do so may not be obvious. You may have to use the help facility that comes with your program, or just experiment and figure it out by trial and error.

A few of the header lines are crucial, and you must be able to understand them. Others are less important and can be safely ignored. Let's start with a typical message, shown in Figure 5-1. This message shows the most important parts of the header: the From, To, Subject, Cc and Date lines. All mail programs show these lines, or at least the information they contain.

Figure 5-1: A typical mail message

From: Arthur Irwin Choke <artichoke@whitehouse.gov>
To: Harley Hahn <harley@little-nipper.com>
Date: Mon, 30 Jul 2001 22:34:01 -0400
Subject: President wants to meet with you
Cc: Charles Wagon <chuckwagon@whitehouse.gov>

To Harley Hahn:

The President of the United States has asked me to
see if you are free to meet with him next week. He
hopes you will be able to show him how to listen to
music on his computer.

Arthur Irwin Choke
Special Assistant, Computer Stuff,
Office of the President

From: This line tells you the address and name of the person who sent the mail. In most cases, you can simply take the information at face value. However, if the mail seems strange in any way, you should be suspicious. It is simple for someone to configure your mail program to specify any name and address you want. Moreover, if you know what you are doing, you can forge mail so that it looks as though it comes from another computer. This is a common trick of spammers (people who send unsolicited advertising by email). So when in doubt, be careful. If you get a message with an invitation to meet the President of the United States, you might want to check carefully before you make your plane reservation.

To: This line shows the mail address to which the message was sent. Most of the time, you will see your own address. However, this is not always the case. For instance, a message can be sent to more than one person simply by putting more than one address in the To line. So if you see other addresses besides yours, it means that each of the other people received a copy of the message. If you belong to a mailing list (see Chapter 14), the messages from the list are addressed to a special list address, not to you personally. Thus, if you see a mailing list address in the To line, it means the message went to everyone on the list.

Subject: The information on the Subject line is specified by the person who sent the message. The purpose of this line, as you can guess from its name, is to provide a short summary of the contents of the message. When incoming mail arrives, your mail program shows you the Subject line of each message. You won't actually see the contents of the message (the body) until you open it. Thus, whenever you look at the list of incoming mail, you are really looking at the Subject lines created by the senders of those messages.

— hint —

When you compose a message, take a moment to create a good Subject line. The description you write should be short, no more than a few words, but as meaningful as possible. Remember, your Subject line is the only description the recipient is going to see to identify your message among the many others in his mailbox.

This is especially important when you send mail to a Very Busy Person. Some people receive so much mail that they literally do not have time to read it all. A VBP is more likely to read a message with the subject "Need a free ticket to the game?" than one with the subject "Question for you".

Cc: When you compose a message, it is possible to send it to more than one person by putting more than one address in the To line. Alternatively, you can send a copy to someone by putting his address in the Cc line. (I will show you how this works later in the chapter.) The important thing I want you to remember is that, when you receive a message, look at both the To line and the Cc line. Everyone whose address is in one of these lines has received a copy of the message.

Learn how to...

Set the Time and Date on Your Computer

These settings are maintained by Windows, and it is up to you to make sure they are correct.

Whenever you send a message, your mail program uses the date, time, and time zone settings from your computer.

Date: This line shows the date and time that the message was sent. The date portion is straightforward, but when you read the time you must be careful. The Internet is used around the world, and local time is not meaningful unless you know the time zone. For this reason, the time zone is always specified in some way. In our example, the time is shown as:

22:34:01 -0400

The first part of the time tells you the message was sent at 6:23 PM local time. (The Internet uses a 24-hour clock, so 22:34 is the same as 10:34 PM.) However, how do you know what time zone this refers to? The -0400 shows you. It indicates the number of hours difference between the local time where the message originated, and GMT (Greenwich Mean Time). In this case, the local time zone is 4 hours behind GMT. (This happens to be Eastern Daylight Time.)

Such calculations can be a bit confusing. Moreover, you may see other time zone formats than the one I have shown above.

For more information, see Appendix B, where I discuss these topics in more detail.

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A Few More Header Lines

Aside from the Date, From, To and Subject lines, there are a number of other header lines. In this section, I will describe those lines that are important enough for you to care about. As an example, Figure 5-2 shows a typical message containing these extra lines.

Figure 5-2: A typical mail message showing the full header

From: Harley Hahn <harley@little-nipper.com>
Received: from mail.little-nipper.com ([198.68.156.50])
  by mail.whitehouse.gov
Message-Id: <200107302240.WRM012367@little-nipper.com>
Reply-To: Harley Hahn <harley@little-nipper.com>
Date: Mon, 30 Jul 2001 19:40:17 -0700
Organization: The Little Nipper Foundation
To: Arthur Irwin Choke <artichoke@whitehouse.gov>
Subject: re: President wants to meet with you
X-Mailer: Microsoft Outlook Express 5.50.4133.2400
Cc: Charles Wagon <chuckwagon@whitehouse.gov>

> To Harley Hahn:
>
> The President of the United States has asked me to
> see if you are free to meet with him next week. He
> hopes you will be able to show him how to listen to
> music on his computer.
>
> Arthur Irwin Choke
> Special Assistant, Computer Stuff
> Office of the President

Artie:

I am sorry, but I will not be able to accept your
invitation to meet with the President next week.

Please tell him I will be busy helping Bill Gates
reinstall Windows on his home computer.

I'm sure the President will understand.

-- Harley Hahn

=============================================
Harley Hahn            http://www.harley.com/
(202) 456-1414       harley@little-nipper.com
=============================================

Received: Each time a message passes through a computer, the mail program on that computer inserts a Received line into the header. Thus, the header always contains at least one such line. You can look at these lines to trace the path followed by the message to your mail server. In the example in Figure 5-2, we see one Received line. (Although it is so long as to be physically broken into two parts, it still counts as one line.)

Received: from mail.little-nipper.com ([198.68.156.50])
  by mail.whitehouse.gov

From this line, we can see that the message was sent from a computer named mail.little-nipper.com with an IP address of 198.68.156.50, and was received by a computer named mail.whitehouse.gov. Both of these computers, of course, are mail servers. When you look at Received lines, you will often see other types of information. Such information is usually highly technical and can almost always be ignored.

Message-Id: Every time a message is mailed on the Internet, the originating mail server assigns the message a unique identification code. In our example, we see:

Message-Id: <200107302240.WRM012367@little-nipper.com>

This information in itself is not all that useful to a human being. However, what is useful is that part of the code is always the domain name of the mail server that sent the message. Thus, if someone mails you a message with a forged address, the best way to track down the person is to look at the Message-Id line. It is very difficult to forge this line unless you have control over the mail server. Some spammers are sophisticated enough to do so, but most troublemakers — such as mischievous college students — are not.

If someone sends you a bothersome or harassing message from a forged address, look at the full header and find the Message-Id line. This will show you the name of the mail server from which the message was sent. You can then send a message to postmaster at that address and ask for help. When you do, be sure to include the entire original message, including the full header. This will help the postmaster track down the miscreant.

Here is an example. You receive a threatening letter with the following header line:

Message-ID: <3529D136.5B6B6CCC@shsu.edu>

Send a copy of the message, along with the full header, to the address postmaster@shsu.edu and ask for help.

Reply-To: When you reply to a message, your mail program will usually send the reply to the address in the From line. For example, if Eloise Q. Abernathy were to send you a message, the reply would normally go to Eloise Q. Abernathy. However, there are times when this is not appropriate. In such cases, you will see a Reply-To line along with an address. When this line is present, your mail program will send the reply to this address, rather than to the address in the From line. You will often see this with mailing lists (see Chapter 14) in which each message is sent to everyone on the list. Every time a message is sent to the list, the mailing list program will insert a Reply-To line to ensure that all replies go back to the list, and not to the person whose address is in the From line.

Organization: You will sometimes see this header line. The intention is to tell you the name of the organization to which the sender of the message belongs. Such information can be useful, but is easy to falsify, so do not depend on it.

X-Mailer: When the original technical specification for Internet mail headers was developed, a certain number of standard header lines were described. However, it was recognized that there would be a need for other, nonstandard lines, so the rules say that anyone can put extra lines in a header as long as they begin with the characters X-. When you look at the full header for a message, you will often see several X- lines, usually inserted by the sender's mail program. One common line is X-Mailer, used to show the name of the mail program used to compose the message. Such information may or may not be significant in your life, but if you need it, it is there. I find the X-Mailer line useful when I am helping someone who is having trouble with mail, and I want to know what program he or she is using.

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The Body of a Message

The body is the main part of the message, and is usually plain text, so when you compose a message, you just type whatever you want.

Learn how to...

Turn Off HTML in Mail Messages

HTML in mail messages is unnecessary and mostly useless. Moreover, it can cause problems when you send messages to people who use a mail program that is different from yours.

Take a moment, right now, and make sure your mail program is set to use plain text, not HTML.

Some mail programs allow you to include more than plain text by using HTML (hypertext markup language), the same system that is used to specify the appearance of Web pages. With HTML, a message can contain different typefaces, as well as italics and boldface. It can also contain pictures, links to Web sites, and various other elements that might appear on a Web page.

HTML is complex, but you don't have to understand it to use it in a mail message. You just compose the message the way you want, and your mail program automatically builds the required HTML specifications for you. Not all mail programs support HTML, but the most popular ones do, and they make it easy to insert special features into your messages.

Using HTML in a mail message might seem like a good idea, and when used judiciously it can be cool. Mostly, though, people who use HTML tend to go overboard at first and use it to excess. In addition, some mail programs do not support HTML, and when you send such a message, there is a chance the person receiving it will not be able to read it properly. I will talk more about these problems in Chapter 6.

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Attachments

Along with the body of a message (either plain text or rich text), you can send one or more files. These files are called attachments and can hold anything you want: a picture, a word processing document, a program, and so on.

I have a friend named who talks to people in Greece using a chat facility. Before they start the conversation, she and her friends use attachments to send one another sound files containing Greek music. Then, as they are talking, they use their computers to listen to the music at the same time.

Learn how to...

Attach a File to a Mail Message

Attaching a file to a mail message allows you to send any type of information (including pictures) to another person.

Before you send someone a file, make sure the person has the proper software to use that file. For example, there is no use sending someone a file that contains a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet if he or she doesn't have a program to read that type of file. Before you send the file, you should check to see if the person will be able to use it. Don't assume that everyone has the same software as you. ("I need to send you a spreadsheet. Do you have Excel?")

Before you send someone a file, make sure the file name is something that will be meaningful to the person. Here is an example to show you what I mean.

Say that you and I are planning to host a big dinner for the Maharajah of Gaipajama. We have a phone conversation, during which you write down some notes. You use your word processor to type the notes into a file, and you save the file under the name harley.doc. You now want to send the file to me.

On your computer, the name harley.doc makes perfect sense, because it holds information you have collected during a conversation with me. However, when the file arrives on my computer, the same name will not be meaningful.

What should you do? Before you send the file, make a copy under a better name, and attach the copy to a message. In this case, you might copy harley.doc to dinner-notes.doc. After the message has been sent, you can delete the copy.

By taking an extra moment to be thoughtful, you have made it easier for me to recognize the file when it arrives.

Although this might not seem like such a big deal, it really is. I frequently get attachments with file names that make no sense to me whatsoever. Later, when I go back to look at the file, I have no idea what it contains.

In general, whenever you send mail, you should always ask yourself, "What can I do to make the message easy for the other person to understand?"

— hint —

Although it is possible to send a message that contains an attachment and nothing else, do not do so. You should make it easy for the recipient to understand what your message is supposed to contain.

Whenever you attach a file to a message, type a short note within the message describing the file you are sending. ("Here is the spreadsheet we talked about yesterday. Call me if you have any problems.")

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Signatures

If you find yourself typing certain routine information in all your letters, think about putting that information into a signature: a small amount of personalized information that your mail program automatically inserts at the end of each outgoing message. Once you have created a signature, it will appear at the end of all your outgoing messages.

Traditionally, signatures are used for information such as a phone number, Web page address and street address. An example of this is the signature from the message in Figure 5-2:

=============================================
Harley Hahn            http://www.harley.com/
(202) 456-1414       harley@little-nipper.com
=============================================

Some people like to include a witty or pithy saying within their signature. This is fine: after all, we all like wit, and the person does not live who can't use a bit more pith in his life. Just make sure that your signature does not get too long. Over the years, experienced Internet users have determined, by trial and error, that signatures should be no more than four lines. Anything longer is irritating to other people.

Learn how to...

Create a Signature

When you send mail, using a signature allows you to insert a few lines of personalized information at the end of each message.

Remember, your signature is going to be read by everyone to whom you send mail, every time they receive a message from you. For example, in the course of a month, if you send your girlfriend 100 messages, she is going to have to read your signature 100 times.

(The same advice, of course, goes for messages to a boyfriend. However, in my experience, it is almost always the men who are chronic large-signature-offenders.)

When you put a URL (Web address) in your signature, be sure to specify the full address. For example:

http://www.harley.com/

When you use a full address, the mail program at the other end will recognize the address as a URL and display it as a live link. That way, when someone reads your message, he will be able to click on your URL without leaving his mail program. The mail program will then send the URL to his browser automatically. Thus, when you specify a full address, you make it easy for the person to visit your Web site.

Do not use an abbreviated address, such as:

www.harley.com

The mail program will not recognize it as a URL, which means that if the person wants to look at your Web site, he will have to manually retype (or copy and paste) the URL into his browser.

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How Mail Is Stored (Folders)

In this section, I will explain how mail is stored when you use a mail program like Outlook Express (Internet Explorer). If you use Web-based mail, discussed earlier in the chapter, the ideas will be the same, although the details will be a little different.

As the days pass, you are going to accumulate a lot of messages. To help you store them conveniently in an organized fashion, your mail program creates a set of FOLDERS, each of which can hold as many messages as necessary. If you want, you can create extra folders and move messages between them, but you will probably find that the standard folders will work just fine.

The names of the folders will vary from one program to another, but their use should be obvious. Here are the folders used by Outlook Express:

  • Inbox
  • Outbox
  • Sent Items
  • Deleted Items
  • Drafts

The Inbox holds all your incoming mail. The Outbox holds messages you have composed that are ready for delivery, but have not yet been sent. Once messages are sent, they are moved to the Sent Items folder.

The Drafts folder is a temporary storage area for messages that are partially typed, but not yet ready to send. For instance, if you are typing a message and you have to quit the program before the message is finished, you can save it in the Drafts folder. Some mail programs will automatically save unfinished messages to this folder when you quit the program. Other programs will not do so automatically; you must save the message yourself before you quit. (I suggest you take a minute right now and run a test to see exactly how your program works.)

As you read your incoming messages, you will want to delete them. Similarly, you will want to delete messages from your Sent Items folder. When you delete messages, they are not really deleted, they are simply moved to your Deleted Items folder. This gives you a chance to look at your old messages should the need arise. Eventually, you should delete the messages in your Deleted Items folder. Once you do, however, they are gone forever.

For reference, here is a quick reference illustrating the life cycle of a mail message.

Figure 5-3: The life cycle of a mail message

Outbox

Sent Items

your mail server

recipient's mail server

Inbox

Deleted Items

oblivion

— hint —

It is a bad idea to let the mail in your Sent Items and Deleted Items folders build up indefinitely, so you should clean them out from time to time. My suggestion is to get rid of all but the last three months' mail.

Realize, however, that most people are not so well organized. If you foolishly sent an embarrassing message to a friend several years ago, it is probably still in his Deleted Items folder, waiting for you to became famous enough to make it worthwhile for your friend to sell the message to the National Enquirer.

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Address Lines Within the Header
(To, Cc, Bcc)

When you compose a message, there are three lines in the header on which you can specify addresses: the To line, the Cc (copy) line, and the Bcc (blind copy) line. Each of these lines can hold one or more addresses, and every address you specify will be sent a copy of the message.

The To line and the Cc line are similar. The main difference is one of interpretation by the people who receive the message. When you put someone's address in the To line, it shows you consider the message to be of direct importance to that person. When you put someone's address in the Cc line, it shows you want the person to see the message, but only for his own information; you don't expect him to act upon it.

For example, say you live in the U.S., and you think your taxes should be lower. You decide to mail a message explaining your situation to the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. You also decide to send copies to the President of the United States, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Vice President of the United States, and your mother. The proper etiquette is to put the address of the Internal Revenue Commissioner on the To line and all the other addresses on the Cc line:

To: commissioner@irs.ustreas.gov
Subject: Please lower my taxes
Cc: president@whitehouse.gov, chief@supreme-court.gov,
  vice-president@whitehouse.gov

Aside from the To and Cc lines, you can also put addresses on the Bcc line. The addresses on this line will receive an identical copy of the message, but no one else will know about it. Thus, you can use the Bcc line to send secret copies of a message. When you do, the copies are called BLIND COPIES.

In our example, you might decide it would intimidate the IRS commissioner too much if he found out that other powerful people were sent a copy of your message. So you decide to send a blind copy to the most intimidating people, and a regular copy to the other, less powerful people:

To: commissioner@irs.ustreas.gov
Subject: Please lower my taxes
Cc: president@whitehouse.gov, chief@supreme-court.gov,
  vice-president@whitehouse.gov
Bcc: mom@happy-family.com

What's in a Name?

Cc
Bcc


In the olden days, before computers and copiers, people used typewriters to write letters, and once a letter was written, there was no easy way to make a copy.

The solution was to use carbon paper. You would put a piece of carbon paper between two pieces of regular paper and insert all three pieces into the typewriter. As you typed, the keys striking the top paper would press on the carbon paper underneath and cause a copy to be made on the bottom paper. When you were finished, the bottom paper would be a duplicate of the top paper. This duplicate was called a CARBON COPY and would normally be filed in your records. (If you are not sure what carbon paper is, ask an old person.)

If you needed to send an extra copy of a letter to someone, you would have to use a second piece of carbon paper with an extra piece of regular paper, and make two copies instead of one. This extra copy could then be sent to a second recipient. To indicate that a copy was sent, you would type Cc: followed by that person's name at the bottom of the letter.

For example, say you were typing a business letter to Rick Shaw, with a copy to Mary Q. Contrary. At the bottom of the letter, you would type:

Cc: Mary Q. Contrary

When Rick saw this line, he would know that Mary was sent a carbon copy of the letter.

That is why, to this day, we use a Cc header line within an email message to indicate who is to receive a copy of that message. The Bcc (blind copy) designation is simply a variation of Cc.

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Using an Address Book

If you send many messages, it is convenient to have a permanent list of names and addresses. All mail programs let you do this by maintaining a personalized ADDRESS BOOK. The address book contains a number of entries, each of which has room for a name, a mail address, and miscellaneous notes. The actual details depend on your program. Some store only this basic information; others allow you to put in other types of information, such as a company name, a postal address, phone numbers (work, home, fax), and so on.

To use an address book, you create one entry for each person to whom you send mail. Then, whenever you want to send a message, you can select a name from the address book and the program will fill in the details (such as the address). Some programs will automatically look in your address book whenever you start to type a name in the To line of a new message. If the program can guess which name you are starting to type, it will do its best to fill in the rest of the name for you.

Most mail programs make it easy to create an address book. In particular, as you read a message, there will be a way to tell your program to extract the name and address of the person who sent the message and automatically create a new entry in your address book. Thus, it is easy to build a personal address book one entry at a time as you receive messages from various people.

— hint —

Take a moment now and find out how to create an entry in your address book using your mail program. In particular, find out how to save the name and address from a message directly to your address book.

For Outlook Express, right-click on the message and select "Add Sender to Address Book".

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Replying

After you have read a message, you can REPLY to the person who sent it to you. The details vary depending on which mail program you use, but they should be simple.

If the message was sent to more than one person, your mail program will give you two choices: you can reply only to the person who sent the message, or you can reply to everyone who received a copy (that is, to everyone whose address appears on the To and Cc lines). Before you choose, take a moment and ask yourself: Do I really want everyone to see my reply?

When you reply to a message, your program creates a new message, all ready to send. The old message will be included as part of the new message, so you can use all or part of it within the reply, and will be marked in some way to make it stand out. The most common convention is to preface each line of the old message with a > (greater-than) character.

When you include part of the original message within a reply, we say that you QUOTE the original message. For an example of what this looks like, take a look at the message in Figure 5-2.

It is important to make your replies as readable as possible. Do not always quote the entire original message. Instead, quote only what you need and delete the parts that are irrelevant. Sometimes a message will go back and forth several times, with new text added each time, and, if you don't edit and prune the message as it develops, it will grow excessively long and become difficult to understand.

Here is an example to illustrate how to write a good reply. A person named Rick sends the following message to a person named Ilsa:

Ilsa:

Would you like to meet me this evening after the
club closes?

We could talk over old times and have a drink. We
haven't seen each other in years, and I would love to
spend some time with you again.

If you come, please wear a pink carnation so I will
be sure to recognize you.

-- Rick

When Ilsa replies to Rick, she quotes only the parts of the original message that are relevant to her reply. She also makes sure to put Rick's name at the top of the message and her name at the bottom.

Rick:

> Would you like to meet me this evening after the
> club closes?

Yes, that would be great.

> If you come, please wear a pink carnation so I will
> be sure to recognize you.

I don't know if I can get a carnation on such short
notice. Would a ranunculus be okay?

-- Ilsa

Rick now replies to Ilsa's reply. Notice that parts of the very first message are now marked by >> (two greater-than characters). This is because a single > character is inserted into the old text each time you reply. Notice as well that Rick, like Ilsa, has deleted all but the relevant parts of the message to which he is replying.

Ilsa:

>> If you come, please wear a pink carnation so I will
>> be sure to recognize you.

> I don't know if I can get a carnation on such short
> notice. Would a ranunculus be okay?

That would be fine. See you tonight.

-- Rick

When you reply to a message, your mail program will change the Subject line slightly by inserting the characters Re: at the beginning of the subject. This lets the recipient knows he is looking at a reply. For example, say you send a message to your friend Vladimir with the following Subject line:

Subject: Do you need a banana?

When Vladimir replies, the Subject line will look like this:

Subject: Re: Do you need a banana?

If you would like to see another example of how this works, take a look at the messages in Figure 5-1 and Figure 5-2. earlier in the chapter. The message in 5-2 is a reply to the message in 5-1.

People often use mail to have a discussion of some topic in which each message is a reply to the previous one. In such cases, we refer to the sequence of messages as a THREAD. Within a thread, the Subject lines of the messages will all be the same.

When looking back over old messages, it can be convenient to view them arranged in threads. To do so, just tell your mail program to sort the messages by subject. (All programs have a way to do this.)

— hint —

When you reply to a reply, your mail program will not insert a second Re: at the beginning of the Subject line.

Thus, when you see Re: at the beginning of the subject, you won't be able to tell if you are looking at the first reply or a subsequent reply until you open the message.

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Forwarding

From time to time, someone will mail you a message you want to send to a third person. When you do, we say that you FORWARD the message. Like replying, forwarding is easy (though the details vary from one mail program to another).

When you forward a message, some (but not all) mail programs insert a few characters at the beginning of the Subject line to let the recipient know he is looking at a forwarded message. Microsoft Outlook Express uses Fw:. For example, say you receive a message with the following Subject line:

Subject: I am having a party on Friday

You use Outlook Express to forward the message to your friend Alan. When Alan receives the message, it will have the Subject line:

Subject: Fw: I am having a party on Friday

Forwarding mail is so easy that people do it a lot, and it is common to receive a message that contains information that has been forwarded many times, from one person to another. Sometimes this is okay, such as when a collection of jokes is being sent around the Net.

Other times, forwarding is not so benign. For example, it is all too common for people to receive a message with false, but alarming, information, and to immediately forward a copy to thirty of their closest friends. An enormous amount of misinformation is circulated throughout the Net in just this manner.

Whenever you receive a forwarded message, never believe what it says unless you can independently verify the facts. Be especially suspicious of messages that purport to alert you to something bad or outrageous. Such messages are almost always wrong.

Here is a common example. If you ever receive a forwarded message telling you about a dangerous new computer virus, don't worry. Unless the message was sent by a computer expert whom you know personally, you can ignore it. Such messages are almost always wrong, and are forwarded around the Net by misinformed people who think they are doing their friends a favor.

For more information, see Chapter 12.

— hint —

When someone forwards you a message alerting you to something bad or outrageous, do not forward the message unless you are sure it is true.

Misinformation not withstanding, the worst forwarding problems come from people who pass on messages that were meant to be confidential. Some people are incorrigible forwarders, and they love to send messages all over the place. The only way you can stop such people is to not send them confidential mail in the first place.

Once you mail a message, there is no way to get it back, and there is no way to keep someone from forwarding it. Moreover, there are probably copies of the message stored on various computers, so nothing you send is ever completely private. If it seems like a lot of trouble to be careful about sending mail, take a few moments and imagine what fun a jealous co-worker or a disgruntled girlfriend/boyfriend might have with your old messages.

— hint —

Never, ever send a message that would cause you problems or embarrassment if it were to be made public. When you have something delicate to say, do so over the phone, where you will not leave a permanent record that can be saved and forwarded to the world at large.

Although this guideline may seem awkward, it can save you more trouble than you would ever believe (until it happens to you).

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Understanding Mail Error Messages

Occasionally, you will mail a message that cannot be delivered. In such cases, the message will be returned to you. We describe this by saying that the message BOUNCED. For example, a friend might tell you, "I got a message from Tom Cruise last week. He didn't know your email address, and he wanted to know if you would like to spend the weekend at his ranch. I sent you mail, but it bounced, so I had to go instead."

There are various reasons why a message might bounce. Usually, either your mail server could not send the message, or the recipient's mail server could not accept the message. In either case, one or both of the servers insert some lines into the header of the message before sending it back. Thus, when you receive bounced mail, the first thing to do is look at the full header. Some of the header lines will be highly technical and hard to understand, but if you look carefully, there will be a clue as to what went wrong.

When you look at the header of a bounced message, you will sometimes see a notation of a "permanent fatal error". Don't panic, no one died. This is just nerd talk for "the mail server gave up because it encountered a problem that didn't go away".

To help you figure out why a message bounced, here are some of the more common terms you may encounter:

User unknown or Invalid recipient: The recipient's mail server did not recognize the name at the beginning of the address. Check the address. You may have used an incorrect name, or you may have spelled it wrong.

Host unknown or Host not found: Your mail server could not find the computer to which you tried to send the message. Check the address. The hostname may be incorrect, or you may have spelled it wrong.

Time out: Your mail server gave up waiting for the recipient's mail server to respond. Try again later. The recipient's mail server may be down temporarily. If mail keeps bouncing, make sure you are using the correct address.

Mailbox full: The system to which you are sending a message has limits on the amount of storage space for each individual user. The person to whom you are sending a message has so much unread mail that his mail server will not accept any more messages on his behalf. Try again later.

Connection refused: For some reason, the recipient's mail server would not accept a connection from your mail server. Try again. If the message keeps bouncing, check the address.

No route to host: Your mail server could not find a way to contact the recipient's mail server. Try again. If the message keeps bouncing, check the address.

Message size exceeds maximum message size: You tried to send a mail message that was larger than the recipient's mail server will accept. This may be because you sent a very large attachment. Many mail servers will not accept messages that are larger than a particular size.

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