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Re: st: Reading Statalist efficiently


From   Phil Schumm <pschumm@uchicago.edu>
To   statalist@hsphsun2.harvard.edu
Subject   Re: st: Reading Statalist efficiently
Date   Thu, 4 May 2006 10:38:30 -0500

On May 3, 2006, at 8:28 AM, Campbell, Richard T. wrote:
But Phil Schumm's message this AM refers to an email cliet "with a good interface." I have used Eudora for years, and I suspect that it doesn't meet Phil's requirements. But what does?

Sorry for that rather cryptic remark. I was thinking specifically of the following features:

1) Filtering. This is perhaps the most important feature, as it permits you to automatically direct mail from Statalist into its own, dedicated folder. One of the biggest complaints people have about mailing lists is that they can't handle all the messages -- filtering solves this problem. Unless and until you look in the folder, it's as though the messages from the list don't even exist. Of course, it's nice if your mail client has a flexible and easy-to-use interface for configuring your filtering rules, but if all you're doing is setting up a single rule to handle the mail from Statalist, it's not necessary.

2) Flexible notification. This is the one issue that (1) doesn't address. Many people (perhaps even most?) have their mail client set to notify them immediately (via a noise and/or visual indicator) when new mail is received. This can work well for personal messages, but when you are subscribed to a list with a lot of traffic, it can become a real nuisance (i.e., if you're getting interrupted with every new message from the list). Being able to exclude certain mail (e.g., mail filtered to certain folders) from automatic notification is very useful. Even better is to have a flexible notification mechanism that offers different levels of notification so that, for example, you can avoid being interrupted with new messages from Statalist but can still, when you want, quickly determine how many new (i.e., unread) messages are in your Statalist folder.

3) Threading. Ok, so now you've got a dedicated folder which contains all of the mail from Statalist, and perhaps you've even been able to avoid being interrupted as these messages have arrived. Depending upon how long its been since you've last looked at the folder (and how busy the list has been), you may have many new messages to read through. I suspect most people keep their mail folders sorted by date, and going through each new message in chronological order is a good start. However, rather than having to go through each individual message, it's much more efficient if you can take one whole thread at a time, dismissing with a single keystroke (or click) an entire thread that is not of interest.

Note that there are really two issues here. The first is the procedure your client uses to determine which thread a message belongs to, and where it falls in that thread. There are many ways to do this. The best way is to use the In-Reply-To header, but the problem with this is that some mail clients and commercial MTAs (read MS Exchange) don't always respect this. Another way is to rely on the Subject header, however parsing and matching these can be difficult in cases (such as lists) where the subject header has been automatically modified. Moreover, threading based on subject headers alone cannot reconstruct the hierarchical structure of a thread (i.e., which messages were sent in reply to which others). Good algorithms use a combination of these methods, together with additional information. Different mail clients offer different levels of sophistication (and flexibility) in threading.

The second issue concerns how your mail client's interface permits you to work with threads once they have been identified. For example, in my client messages belonging to a single thread are brought together into a single item, and if I select it, I get an automatic summary of the entire thread (i.e., the main subject header, how many messages are involved, and the From, Date, and Subject headers of each message, in order). This permits me to dispense with an entire thread in one keystroke if it is not of interest, while at the same time permitting me to conduct a quick visual check on whether all of the messages involved really belong to that thread.

One final remark. In order for this to work properly, it is important that Statalist members do the following:

- When starting a new thread, always use a clear and concise Subject header
- Always use the "Reply" function in your mailer when responding to a message
- Don't modify the Subject header when replying to a message
- Never hit "Reply" and then start a new thread

These guidelines are, I believe, already codified in the FAQ. By not following them, people risk annoying others on the list (at best) or having their message inadvertently ignored (at worst).

4) Searching. If you save all Statalist messages (and even if you don't), being able to search through them quickly and efficiently is invaluable. Many mailers (and even OSes) have made great strides in this area recently; in my case (under OS X), I can perform complicated searches of my entire Statalist folder from my Desktop almost instantaneously, and can save a specific query as a dynamic folder which is then automatically updated as new messages that meet the criteria arrive (e.g., I have one such dynamic folder that contains all postings by members of StataCorp). Note that in many cases, it takes a bit of time and effort to learn how to use the search facilities available to you most effectively.

5) Marking. Some time ago, someone on the list suggested that there be a mechanism for identifying certain postings as particularly "valuable" and collecting references to these in some web-accessible location. The problem with this, however, is in determining which messages should be flagged (i.e., who will do it and what criteria will they use?). Note that if your mailer has a facility for flagging messages (sometimes referred to as "marking" or "labeling"), you can construct your own personal list (which would probably be more useful to you than a list maintained by others). For example, when reading new messages I generally flag any that are especially relevant to me, and then have a dynamic folder which contains all such flagged messages. This serves as a kind of personal Statalist- based FAQ.

6) Editing. As a consumer of Statalist, one quickly comes to appreciate well crafted postings. And constructing such postings is much easier if your interface for editing messages is a good one. For example, the ability, with a single keystroke, to modify the level of quoting and to bring in other messages (in quoted form) can make it much easier to construct a well-crafted and readable contribution to a long or complex thread. Facilities such as being able to rewrap lines, strip non-ASCII characters, etc. can also be helpful. In some cases, it is even possible to construct messages using your primary text editor.

I hope this gives you some sense of what I was referring to. In case you're interested, I used to use Eudora, which as of 2-3 years ago had excellent capabilities for (1) and (5) and some limited capabilities for (3), (4), and (6). I currently use Apple Mail, which is pretty good in all of these areas, but is unfortunately only available if you are running OS X. I'm afraid I don't have much (or any, really) experience with other mailers, but as you know, there are lots (both commercial and open source) to choose from. I will say, however, that while it may be worth spending a little time taking a look at what's out there currently (and this is almost certainly not as objectionable as having a colonoscopy), I'd certainly suggest taking some time to make certain that you are getting all you can out of your current mail client. It may have features (or ways of using those features) that you're not aware of, and many mail clients are extendable (e.g., via 3rd party plugins, your own code, or external editors). What matters most is that you are comfortable with your mailer and can use it effectively to its fullest potential. After all, for many of us, our mailers are our 3rd most important application (after our text editor and Stata).


-- Phil

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