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The Mail Spool Tragedy


By Eugene Koh

What would postal service be like if everybody used their mailboxes like file cabinets?

In fact, many students and faculty do this with their "inboxes" (virtual mailboxes). Instead of archiving e-mail for future reference, some folks simply leave old e-mail in their inboxes. It is easy for e-mail users to let their inboxes grow arbitrarily large, since unlike a traditional mailbox, an inbox has no obvious physical constraints.

All incoming e-mail to "fas" is stored on a spool, which is in essence one large mailbox for all undergraduates. Each student's inbox is represented as one file on the spool, and there is no limit to the size of any particular inbox.

There are about 10,000 user accounts on "fas," and over 2000 megabytes of disk space are dedicated to the mail spool. If too many individual users unwittingly let their inboxes grow without deleting or filing old mail, the overall mail spool may fill to capacity (currently it hovers around 87 percent). A full mail spool means that nobody's incoming mail can be stored--and thus the e-mail system comes to a screeching halt.

At Yale, students who mismanage their inboxes are given two days warning, after which their mail privileges are revoked by the system administrator.

Harvard promises not be as draconian. System administrators have already begun sending warning messages to users with unreasonably large inboxes.

User who do not tidy up their inboxes after two warnings will have the contents of their inboxes transferred to their personal directories automatically. Mail privileges will not be revoked, and no mail will be lost in the process. But for users unfamiliar with the UNIX "compress" program, retrieving these messages may be an unpleasant experience.

What, then, is the best way to keep an inbox tidy?

In PINE (Program for Internet News and E-mail), the best way to file messages for future reference is to press the "S" key when reading a message. This allows you to save the message to a "folder" in your personal directory.

Folders allow for extremely organized archival of old e-mail, as they can be given descriptive names. For example, all messages from friends at Yale might go into a folder entitled "Yale."

Once a message is saved to a folder, it is automatically marked for deletion from the inbox. At the end of your session, PINE will ask if you wish to expunge the messages marked for deletion. Be sure to answer "yes" to this question so that your inbox will reflect the deletions.

If you ordinarily read e-mail from your own network-connected personal computer, you may want to avoid PINE altogether and use "Eudora," a program commonly used at Cornell and Stanford.

Eudora collects e-mail from your inbox automatically and allows you to read and write messages without logging into "fas."

HASCS expects to support Eudora officially later this year. In the meantime, free versions (prior to version 2.0) are available for Mac and Windows users at When using Eudora, be sure that the "checking mail" setting marked "leave mail on server" is left unchecked.

The mail spool should be thought of as a scarce resource. If we all do our share by keeping our inboxes as small as possible, we will all benefit from a more efficient e-mail system.

Eugene Koh '96-'97 is Remote Staff Manager, Media Services, at America Online, Inc. He also composes soundtracks for CD-ROMS and may be reached online at "" Koh's column appears every week on the Science/Health page.

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