No mail. In three whole days. Weird. I wonder if it’s Thanksgiving
over in the States. Not even any football related banter. Is this
thing even on ?
Then I realised precisely why I was sitting alone in an island of
blissful isolation, devoid of all email communications and staring at
an Inbox in a perpetual state of ‘Zero’.
I had forgotten to configure inbound email.
When I was testing, I used mbsync to synchronise emails from my ISP
which worked well (fast, reliable, well documented) with
bi-directional sync between IMAP and my local Maildir.
Note: For Linux types, the ‘mbsync’ utility is contained within the
My needs at work are slightly different though. We use IMAP but are
encouraged to download and work locally. This corporate edict is
implicitly enforced by configuring users’ IMAP folders with a measly
Using mu4e, I needed to fetch new messages from the IMAP server,
transfer them to ~/Maildir and then delete them from the IMAP server.
Although mbsync has ‘push’, ‘pull’ and ‘expunge’ options, it wasn’t
entirely clear (to me) if removal of messages from the server was
possible. However, the getmail utility written in Python met the
requirements exactly and was easy to configure.
Previously, I used Thunderbird to get new messages from IMAP, filter
them at source and transfer them directly to various ‘Local Folders’.
The filtering was pretty basic - typically mailing lists and routing
corporate communications to /dev/null.
I tended to configure mailing list folders with a retention period of
30 days and retain ‘Starred’ messages for ever. Essentially, this
meant mailing list traffic didn’t clutter my precious Inbox and would
automatically expire. I then had a full month to scan the mailing
lists and mark any interesting messages for further reading or more
unlikely in my case, action.
Anything left over simply came to Inbox. This was normally email
directed (To: or CC:‘ed to me) so this system worked pretty well.
Sending email is easy - mu4e sensibly uses Gnus message mode to send
messages. I also built the latest version of msmtp from source for
future flexibility (multiple account support) and it seemed marginally
quicker than talking directly to the SMTP server.
Initially, I didn’t like the mu4e initial screen. Where’s my Inbox ?
Where’s my new messages ? I need to see my new emails and start
working, dammit !
Then, to my horror, I realised mu4e doesn’t have an Inbox per se -
just a list of email messages that sit in ~/Maildir. Unread messages
reside in ‘/new’ and read messages live in ‘/cur’.
I was immediately annoyed at a plethora of irrelevant mailing list
messages and corporate communications littering my Inbox - sorry
littering my ‘List of unread messages’.
God - this is terrible. I can see that the only solution here is for
me to shave that yak again and configure procmail or use Sieve
and Dovecot merely to mimic what I had working fine in Thunderbird
out of the box.
Then I saw a post from Dirk (mu4e’s author) on the mu4e mailing list
‘mu4e doesn’t really have folders - instead “All Mail”, “Inbox”,
“Important”, “Sent Mail” etc. are queries - so the same messages
can be present in more than one of those’.
Then it struck me like a bolt of lightning. He was absolutely right. I
don’t need a ‘Corporate’ folder. I don’t need a stupid
‘Oracle/MailingLists/dba-wizards’ folder with a 3 level hierarchy. I
don’t even need an ‘Inbox’.
What I need is a set of queries to mine the database. Yes - a set of
structured text files is in fact a database. mu4e calls these queries
‘bookmarks’ and provides some useful ones out of the box.
- bu (unread messages)
- bw (messages sent in the last week)
- bp (message with attachments)
Then I would need some ad-hoc or stored queries (e.g. large messages).
For example, if I wanted to find that excellent email from Frank about
table partitioning he sent out last year:
- contact:oracle-dba-wizards from:frank date:2015 partitioning
The ‘Inbox’ processing now changes slightly. I needed to read each
unread message and quickly decide what to do with it:
- Delete it. ‘Blue Nova with lights on in car park 710 East’
- Act on it. Do something. Or reply. Then (optionally) delete it.
- Mark it for (later) ‘Action’. Absolute last resort. Obviously.
- Archive it. Something potentially interesting but not now.
Then I remembered that this tied in nicely with an post by Ben Maughan
on his excellent Pragmatic Emacs blog which made me question the need
for a ‘ToDo’ folder. Or any folders, in fact.
‘I also had folders for putting emails in and I would occasionally
have a painful cleanout of my towering inbox, agonising over which
folder to put an email in, or whether I should create a new folder
Then something else struck me. Joking aside, it was quite pleasant and
liberating when I had no incoming email. The fact I didn’t have a
cluttered Inbox presented by default, staring me in the face was
great. I had to make a conscious effort to get new mail (‘U’) and I
then had to make a conscious effort to read it ‘b u’).
Initially, I explicitly disabled periodic automatic fetching of new
email (as I had configured in Thunderbird) so I could verify getmail
was fetching (and deleting) the correct number of messages from the
server and attachments were being handled correctly. However, I
decided to stick with manual email processing initiated by me when I
was ready to process email. Notifications of ‘new email’ are
incredibly hard to ignore and a needless context switch if you are
busy concentrating on something else (watching Shetland ponies dancing
Now I am wondering what the point of all my historic folders are;
archives by year, mailing lists, personal, sent etc. Previously, in
Thunderbird, they were logical groupings and I viewed annual archives
as ‘read-only’ but now in the new scheme, they are merely entries in a
database and strictly speaking every single message belongs in
‘~/Maildir’ for simplicitly. With one file per message, there is no
longer any advantage in logical folders.
So yes, I must be the only person in the world who intentionally went
from ‘Inbox Zero’ to ‘Inbox 47,339’ and didn’t care.
Also, inevitably, I am now being increasingly tempted by the lure of
org-mode. In particular, Ben’s quote struck a chord with me.
‘your inbox is not a todo list’
This is so true and something I have been abusing for years. An email
message doesn’t have a start date, an end date, a category, a priority
or a current status whereas org-mode supports all of those elements.
In addition, org-mode capture takes this further. You can capture
anything from any source; an email message, a Web site, a phone call,
an instant message, a news article, a blog post, anything.
A lot of people conclude and help the reader by including their
‘gnus’, ‘mu4e’, ‘msmtp’ and ‘getmail’ configuration files but mine are
simply variants on the many excellent, annotated examples out there
and I’d only repeat an idiotic mistake and post something crucial and
security related in clear text on the Internet.