kottke.org posts about email
Ray Tomlinson, who implemented the first email system on the ARPANET (the Internet’s precursor) and decided on the @ symbol for use in email addresses, died on Saturday at the age of 74. From his biography at the Internet Hall of Fame:
Tomlinson’s email program brought about a complete revolution, fundamentally changing the way people communicate, including the way businesses, from huge corporations to tiny mom-and-pop shops, operate and the way millions of people shop, bank, and keep in touch with friends and family, whether they are across town or across oceans. Today, tens of millions of email-enabled devices are in use every day. Email remains the most popular application, with over a billion and a half users spanning the globe and communicating across the traditional barriers of time and space.
Still one of my favorite internet things: The case of the 500-mile email.
I was working in a job running the campus email system some years ago when I got a call from the chairman of the statistics department.
“We’re having a problem sending email out of the department.”
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“We can’t send mail more than 500 miles,” the chairman explained.
I choked on my latte. “Come again?”
“We can’t send mail farther than 500 miles from here,” he repeated. “A little bit more, actually. Call it 520 miles. But no farther.”
“Um… Email really doesn’t work that way, generally,” I said, trying to keep panic out of my voice. One doesn’t display panic when speaking to a department chairman, even of a relatively impoverished department like statistics. “What makes you think you can’t send mail more than 500 miles?”
“It’s not what I *think*,” the chairman replied testily. “You see, when we first noticed this happening, a few days ago—”
“You waited a few DAYS?” I interrupted, a tremor tinging my voice. “And you couldn’t send email this whole time?”
“We could send email. Just not more than—”
“—500 miles, yes,” I finished for him, “I got that. But why didn’t you call earlier?”
“Well, we hadn’t collected enough data to be sure of what was going on until just now.” Right. This is the chairman of *statistics*. “Anyway, I asked one of the geostatisticians to look into it—”
“—yes, and she’s produced a map showing the radius within which we can send email to be slightly more than 500 miles. There are a number of destinations within that radius that we can’t reach, either, or reach sporadically, but we can never email farther than this radius.”
Here’s a FAQ that addresses some of the questions the more technically inclined among you may have about this story.
I’m going to link again to Errol Morris’ piece on his brother’s role in the invention of email…the final part was posted a few hours ago…the entire piece is well worth a read. As is the case with many of his movies, Morris uses the story of a key or unique individual to paint a broader picture; in this instance, as the story of his brother’s involvement with an early email system unfolds, we also learn about the beginnings of social computing.
Fernando Corbato: Back in the early ’60s, computers were getting bigger. And were expensive. So people resorted to a scheme called batch processing. It was like taking your clothes to the laundromat. You’d take your job in, and leave it in the input bins. The staff people would prerecord it onto these magnetic tapes. The magnetic tapes would be run by the computer. And then, the output would be printed. This cycle would take at best, several hours, or at worst, 24 hours. And it was maddening, because when you’re working on a complicated program, you can make a trivial slip-up - you left out a comma or something - and the program would crash. It was maddening. People are not perfect. You would try very hard to be careful, but you didn’t always make it. You’d design a program. You’d program it. And then you’d have to debug it and get it to work right. A process that could take, literally, a week, weeks, months -
People began to advocate a different tactic, which came to be called time-sharing. Take advantage of the speed of the computer and have people at typewriter-like terminals. In principle, it seemed like a good idea. It certainly seemed feasible. But no manufacturer knew how to do it. And the vendors were not terribly interested, because it was like suggesting to an automobile manufacturer that they go into the airplane business. It just was a new game. A group of us began to create experimental versions of time-sharing, to see if it was feasible. I was lucky enough to be in a position to try to do this at MIT. And we basically created the “Compatible Time Sharing System,” nicknamed CTSS from the initials, that worked on the large mainframes that IBM was producing. First it was going to be just a demo. And then, it kept escalating. Time-sharing caught the attention of a few visionary people, like Licklider, then at BBN, who picked up the mantle. He went to Washington to become part of one of the funding agencies, namely ARPA. ARPA has changed names back and forth from DARPA to ARPA. But it’s always the same thing.
And it was this shift from batch processing to time-sharing that accidentally kickstarted people using computers in a social way…programming together, sending notes to each other, etc.
Robert Fano: Yes, the computer was connected through telephone lines to terminals. We had terminals all over the MIT campus. People could also use CTSS from other locations through the teletype network. CTSS was capable of serving about 20 people at a time without their being aware of one another. But they could also communicate with each other. A whole different view of computers was generated.
Before CTSS, people wrote programs for themselves. The idea of writing programs for somebody else to use was totally alien. With CTSS, programs and data stored could be stored in the common memory segment and they were available to the whole community. And that really took off. At a certain point, I started seeing the whole thing as a system that included the knowledge of the community. It was a completely new view. It was a remarkable event. In retrospect, I wish I had gotten a very smart social psychologist on the premises to look at and interpret what was happening to the community, because it was just unbelievable.
There was a community of people using the computer. They got to know each other through it. You could send an e-mail to somebody through the system. It was a completely new phenomenon.
It seems completely nutty to me that people using computers together — which is probably 100% of what people use computers for today (email, Twitter, Facebook, IM, etc.) — was an accidental byproduct of a system designed to let a lot of people use the same computer separately. Just goes to show, technology and invention works in unexpected ways sometimes…and just as “nature finds a way” in Jurassic Park, “social finds a way” with technology.
This is the first part of a five-part blog post by Errol Morris investigating whether his brother Noel Morris
co-wrote the first working email system at MIT in the mid-1960s. From an MIT colleague of Noel’s, Tom Van Vleck:
In 1965, at the beginning of the year, there was a bunch of stuff going on with the time-sharing system that Noel and I were users of. We were working for the political science department. And the system programmers wrote a programming staff note memo that proposed the creation of a mail command. But people proposed things in programming staff notes that never got implemented. And well, we thought the idea of electronic mail was a great idea. We said, “Where’s electronic mail? That would be so cool.” And they said, “Oh, there’s no time to write that. It’s not important.” And we said, “Well, can we write it?” And we did. And then it became part of the system.
Van Vleck maintains a web page about what he, Noel Morris, and their team were working on at the time. To go along with Morris’ article, the NY Times has an MIT Compatible Time Sharing System emulator that you can use to send email much as you could back in the 60s.
In London during Jane Austen’s lifetime, mail didn’t move at such a snail’s pace.
Austen wrote more than 3,000 letters, many to her sister Cassandra. They corresponded constantly, starting new letters to each other the minute they finished the last one and sharing the minutia of their lives. From reading Austen’s novels, I’d always assumed that people in her era spent a long time waiting for the mail. But the show mentions that during Austen’s life, mail in London and environs was delivered six times a day. Sometimes, a letter sent in the morning was delivered the same evening. Which makes snail mail sound a lot more like email or twitttering.
Update: Two related links: The Twitter-like postcard culture of Edwardian Britain and from 1912, A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England by Edwin A. Pratt. (thx, liz & martin)
Actress Kristin Scott Thomas made an interesting observation the other day while discussing foreign language films:
“People will now go to films with subtitles, you know,” she added. “They’re not afraid of them. It’s one of the upsides of text-messaging and e-mail.” She smiled. “Maybe the only good thing to come of it.”
The abundance of scrolling tickers on CNN, ESPN, and CNBC may be even more of a contributing factor…if in fact people are more willing to see films with subtitles. (via ben and alice)
Inbox Victory: take a photo of yourself and your mail program when you get your inbox down to zero items.
If you Google “email me”, kottke.org is the first result. This may explain all the spam I’ve been getting. (via two separate most-likely-drunken emails last night)
Permanent Vacation, a piece by Cory Arcangel consisting of “two unattended computers send endlessly bouncing out-of-office auto-responses to each other”. (via vitamin briefcase)
Has anyone else noticed that Mail.app and IMAP aren’t perfect playmates in Leopard? The unread counts in my folders don’t update until I click on them (and my inbox unread count never updates), which is suboptimal and time consuming in the extreme.
Merlin Mann on the temptation of declaring email bankruptcy:
Email is such a funny thing. People hand you these single little messages that are no heavier than a river pebble. But it doesn’t take long until you have acquired a pile of pebbles that’s taller than you and heavier than you could ever hope to move, even if you wanted to do it over a few dozen trips. But for the person who took the time to hand you their pebble, it seems outrageous that you can’t handle that one tiny thing. “What ‘pile’? It’s just a fucking pebble!”
This used to be a problem primarily for those, like Merlin, who run high-traffic web sites but now I feel like most people, either because of their jobs or keeping up with friends & family from far away, have email pile problems…we all get more incoming correspondence than we know what to do with.
Email bankruptcy: “choosing to delete, archive, or ignore a very large number of email messages without ever reading them, replying to each with a unique response, or otherwise acting individually on them”.
David Shipley and Will Schwalbe have written an email style guide, an Emily Post for the cubicle set. I can’t abide by the endorsement of excessive exclamation points, but maybe the rest of the book is more useful? Send is available at Amazon.
An HR department looking for someone with internet experience dumped emails from candidates with Hotmail email addresses because “you can’t pretend being an internet expert and use a Hotmail account at the same time”. (via bb)
Tom Hodgkinson has given up on email. “At the weekend I set up one of those auto-reply messages, informing my correspondents that I would no longer be checking my emails, and that instead they might like to call or write, as we used to in the olden days.”
Update: Stanford computer science professor Don Knuth stopped using email more than 15 years ago. (thx, dan)
Apparently, signing off your emails with “Best” is “something close to a brush-off”. I sign most of my emails with “Best”, especially when I don’t know the person particularly well, and I definitely don’t mean it as a brush-off. “Sincerely” is too formal, “Warmest regards” is a lie (you can’t give absolutely everyone your warmest regards), and “xoxo”…I’m not a girl. So “Best” it is…don’t take it the wrong way.
Why the functionality of MsgFiler isn’t automatically built into Mail.app, I don’t know, but I’m definitely coughing up the $8 on this because my life primarily consists of moving email from one folder to another. (via df)
Update: See also Mail Act-On. (thx, brandon)
I’m currently testing out this rule for filtering image spam messages with Mail.app. I’m hoping it works because all of the unfiltered image spam clogging my inbox is slowly killing me. Not sure it’s going to work though…because of kottke.org, I get a lot of email from people who have not previously contacted me. (via matt)
Check out all of the chrome in the new version of Outlook. Good grief. Even the veracity of the emailer’s claim is questionable.
Sorry for the lack of updates…we’ve been having some trouble with the internet and I’ve been wrestling with my email for the past two days (I finally pinned it in the 8th round). If you sent me mail, I think I got it, but expect a slower than normal response…most of it will probably wait until I’m back in the States.
Been doing some reading up on Vietnam (we’re heading there in a couple of days). I’m finding that Wikipedia (Vietnam, Vietnamese cuisine) and WikiTravel (Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City) are good sources for the 50,000 view of things, taken with a grain of salt. The guidebook is better, but it takes a lot longer for you to get the gist. Reading Wikis Pedia and Travel and then the guidebooks seems a good strategy.
Also, we’ve been Flickring photos while we’re in Asia (thank you T-Mobile for finally fixing my International Roaming), check out Meg’s and mine for off-blog goings-on. (Completely off topic, here’s some Flickr photos tagged “comic sans”.)
Responsible spam messages. “Can’t SATISFY your woman? Perhaps the two of you should sit down and discuss the issue.”
Merlin’s excellent advice for writing sensible email messages. This one is excellent advice for email and blog comments: “Emails to a thread are like comments at a meeting; think of both like your time possessing the basketball. Don’t just chuck at the net every chance you get. Hang back and watch for how you can be most useful. Minimize noise.”
Justin’s looking for the largest inbox smoothly handled by Mail.app…the current high is 26,700 messages. Mine only has around 100 because I filter most messages into a variety of folders. Update: he’s up to
43,000 283,686! (That’s gotta be on a G5 with a ton of RAM…my Powerbook would melt under that kind of weight.)