The Email Hole

Email is not something to get too upset about, until you lose one to downtime by your provider of choice. And then you realise that it is too important to be left to free services, or even a domain hoster.

I use a hoster called Hostway, and they went spectacularly down last week. (This despite the fact, or perhaps because of it, that Hostway launched a new service recently offering 150 GB of space for $10 a month.) It was only about a day, but several domains I based there lost email access when their storage failed. Now I have no idea who might have been trying to reach me and couldn’t because of bounced emails, what newsletters I’ve been removed from because of bounced emails, what email newsletters I may have missed

Now this kind of thing happens, but it made me realise that losing one email is the same as losing all of them if you don’t know which email it is, since it may be the important one you’ve been waiting for offering you money/marriage/a new nose. Email is different to hosting a website: a website can go down, and you’ll lose some traffic, but it will come back up again. Email is a stream of discrete bits of information, and there’s no way of telling whether there are any missing.

In short, a good hoster needs to guarantee that, should something go wrong, no email is left behind. Hostway have not, so far not been able to assure me of that. They say that emails lost during the outage have been recovered, but as far as I can work out that does not refer to those lost because of the outage — in other words, those emails that were stored on their servers and not recovered by users before the outage hit. (Emails to their technical staff about this were responded to with pasted notifications from their support team, which didn’t address this issue.

This surprises me, but shouldn’t. They are listed by Netcraft as the second most reliable hoster last month and I’ve not had many problems with them. But they are a domain hoster, which means that bullet-proof email is not top of their priorities. As Syd Low of AlienCamel puts it (declaration of interest: I’ve been using Syd’s email service the past few years, and it’s rock solid), there are three types of email service: bundling services (like Hostway), free services (like Gmail) and paid services (like AlienCamel) which provide Web access, lots of redundant backups to make sure no email goes missing, plus anti-spam, anti-virus and anti-phishing features.

My lesson from all this: email is too important to entrust to people who don’t take it seriously, or who aren’t getting money for your business. Of course, no one wants to pay for something they’re getting for free, or more cheaply, but sometimes free and cheap is not enough.

A Chip off the Old Flock

Flock, which I wrote about a few months back, is now in public beta (meaning ordinary folks can use it without too much weeping). TechCrunch carries an interview with the folks behind it.

What’s so good about it? Well, it’s all about trying to build Web 2.0 into the browser, so the browser isn’t so much a browser as a tool to upload photos, blog, read RSS, that kind of thing. You can drag a photo and publish it, view photos across the top of the browser, search faster (the search box includes results that update as you type the word.)

I’m most interested in the blogging tool. And while it’s better, it sure ain’t perfect. I’d like to see a proper editor with all the features of an editor, including shortcuts (Control + k for inserting link seems to be a pretty well-defined standard, for example.) That said, it seems a tad more stable than BlogJet, for which one would have to pay money.

How does these guys make money? Mainly through selling the spots in the search box at the top right corner, I believe. Yahoo! seems to rule the roost at the moment, and it doesn’t seem possible to change that as the default without opening a separate preferences window, unless I’m missing something. I assume that extra step is deliberate, something most folks wouldn’t bother to do.

Anyway, another browser can’t be bad news. I’m not going to dump Firefox for now, but I think I’ll keep Flock a-flickering too for now.

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Blogged with Flock

How to Make More Use of the Vicar

In last week’s WSJ column (subscription only, I’m afraid) I wrote about how Bayesian Filters — derived from the theories of an 18th century vicar called Thomas Bayes and used to filter out spam — could also be used to sift through other kinds of data. Here’s a preliminary list of some of the uses I came across:

  • Deconstructing Sundance: how a bunch of guys at UnSpam Technologies successfully predicted the winners (or at least who would be among the winners) at this year’s festival using POPFile, the Bayesian filter of choice;
  • ShopZilla a “leading shopping search engine” uses POPFile “in collaboration with Kana to filter customer emails into different buckets so we can apply the appropriate quality of service and have the right people to answer to the emails. Fortunately, some of the buckets can receive satisfactory canned responses. The bottom line is that PopFile provides us with a way to send better customer responses while saving time and money.”
  • Indeed, even on-spam email can benefit from Bayes, filtering boring from non-boring email, say, or personal from work. Jon Udell experimented with this kind of thing a few years ago.
  • So can virus and malware. Here’s a post on the work by Martin Overton in keeping out the bad stuff simply using a Bayesian Filter. Here’s Martin’s actual paper (PDF only). (Martin has commented that he actually has two blogs addressing his work in this field, here and here.)
  • John Graham-Cumming, author of POPFile, says he’s been approached by people who would like to use it in regulatory fields, in computational biology, dating websites (“training a filter for learning your preferences for your ideal wife,”, as he puts it), and says he’s been considering feeding in articles from WSJ and The Economist in an attempt to find a way predict weekly stock market prices. “If we do find it out,” he says, “we won’t tell you for a few years.” So he’s probably already doing it.

If you’re new to Bayes, I hope this doesn’t put you off. All you have to do is show it what to do and then leave it alone.  If you haven’t tried POPFile and you’re having spam issues, give it a try. It’s free, easy to install and will probably be the smartest bit of software on your computer.

I suppose the way I see it is that Bayesian filters don’t care about how words look, what language they’re in, or what they mean, or even if they are words. They look at how the words behave. So while the Unspam guys found out that a word “riveting” was much more likely to be used by a reviewer to describe a dud movie than a good one, the Bayesian Filter isn’t going to care that that seems somewhat contradictory. In real life we would have been fooled, because we know “riveting” is a good thing (unless it’s some weird wedgie-style torture involving jeans that I haven’t come across). Bayes doesn’t know that. It just knows that it has an unhealthy habit of cropping up in movies that bomb.

 In a word, Bayesian Filters watches what words do, or what the email is using the words to do, rather than look at the meaning of the words. We should be applying this to speeches of politicians, CEOs, PR types and see what comes out. Is there any way of measuring how successful a politician is going to be based on their early speeches? What about press releases? Any way of predicting the success of the products they tout?

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“Oh God, Another Email From The Office”

If you want to, I mean if you really want to, you can add some weird sound effects to your incoming email.

Chapura, better known for its KeySuite Outlook synchronization software, today launched Email Sound FX, “an Outlook add-in for customizable sound notification of Outlook email on a Windows-compatible PC”. Users can then assign sender-specific sounds enabling them “to decide to read or ignore emails as desired, which minimizes toggling to and from Outlook and improves time management,” a press release says.

According to the blurb you pick the sender’s address from your address book, assign the sound to a person, group or domain, so that when any email from those people arrives, you’ll get the sound. And not just once: All emails you’ve assigned sounds to will, er, sound.

As long as it’s not overdone this kind of thing can be useful. I do it using filters in my email program of choice, Courier. Assuming you’ve already set up filters you can easily add sounds for any particular person, domain, or type of email based on subject or content. In my case I once, in a drunken moment, recorded some WAV files along the lines of ‘somethingsh jush arrived from the offish’, etc. Yes, I know it’s nerdy but it means you know when something important’s arrived in your inbox.

Email Sound FX is available for $10, via the Chapura Web site, www.chapura.com or on Amazon at www.amazon.com.

News: Microsoft Takes Aim At Junk, Document Search

 Microsoft’s Bill Gates has announced new junk e-mail filtering technology called SmartScreen. AP reports the technology will use algorithms to judge whether incoming e-mail messages qualify as junk e-mail and filter them out before they get to the end user’s e-mailbox.
 
More interesting, Gates demonstrated Microsoft Research’s Stuff I’ve Seen project, which is developing a tool for rapidly finding material that users have seen ? whether it was an e-mail, Web site or document. The tool is not to be incorporated in any products anytime soon, but shows people some of where Microsoft’s billions of dollars in research is going.

Update: Outlook Email Organiser

 A program I’ve raved about in the past, Nelson Email Organizer, or NEO, is planning a new version. NEO works atop Outlook to help you better organise and find emails, attachments and whatever. If you use Outlook, it’s a definite boon.
 
 
Caelo say they’re close to releasing Beta versions of NEO 3.0 and NEO Pro, which will deliver “a redesigned user interface, new global filtering capabilities, improved views with more flexibility for organizing and faster, more scalable searching with additional search parameters.”
 
I have to be honest: While I loved the program I found in the end that Outlook just was not the email client for me. I use Courier, although The Bat is just into version 2.0 so I’ll give that a try. Experiment. Email should be what you want it to be.

News: Draw Your Own Website

netomat, “a pioneer in communication software and network-based art”, has just released its new personal multimedia communication service. The beta (for both PC and Mac) is now available as a free download.

netomat allows anyone to “create and publish or send multimedia websites, emails and blogs using any combination of digital pictures, audio, voice, text, free-form drawing and animation — all in just a few minutes”. Looks intriguing.

Software: MessageTag no longer free

 MessageTag, the program that notifies you when your messages are received and opened is no longer available in a free version.
 
 
MSGTAG, which I reviewed (and recommended recently) is now only available in two flavours: MSGTAG PLUS ($20), which works by sending you emails when your mail has been opened, and MSGTAG Status ($60) which runs as a separate dashboard, keeping track of tagged messages and letting you see at a glance whether messages have been received and opened. MSGTG runs on Windows 98, 2000, Me or XP and with any email program which uses the SMTP protocol.
 
MessageTag plan a version for webmail accounts.
 
Although 60 bucks is a bit steep for what you get, I still think it’s a great program and I find I still rely on it. If you’re not sure, try out the $20 version (sadly there’s no trial version available).