Friday, February 26, 2010

Pobox Best Practices: Changing ISPs

We want you to get as much value as you can out of your Pobox account. Pobox Best Practices will share our methods for using Pobox features for common problems, tips and tricks from other customers, and the ways Pobox staffers use their accounts to manage their own email.

One of the most frequent tickets we see at Pobox Customer Service is, "Help! I just changed my email address, and now I can't log in to Pobox!" Ouch. But the bigger problem, as we see it when we're helping you, is that your Pobox account didn't make that seamless.

One of the best features of a Pobox address is the ability to change your forwarding address, whenever you want, without having to tell all your friends and contacts about your new address. Most people change where they read their mail every 2 years. (If you're sick of your current provider, you can always keep your mail at Pobox by upgrading to a Mailstore account.)

It's no big deal if you're switching between Yahoo and Gmail (or back again), because both addresses will stay open. But, if you're switching from Comcast to Verizon, your access to your Comcast mailbox gets cut off with your last bill. So, how can Pobox help smooth the transition, and make sure you don't lose any mail?

First, as soon as you get your new address, log in to Pobox, and add it as one of your forwarding addresses. (All Pobox accounts can forward mail to up to 5 places.) Don't wait until your current forwarding address goes away. In fact, don't even remove your current forwarding address from your Pobox account just yet.

Now, your mail is going to two places. Why? We know your email is important to you, so you'll want to makes sure your mail is actually arriving at your new address. You may not have the address you thought you did. (I once had a support agent over the phone set up my address as, instead of vanessa.cannon... took 2 calls for them to figure out what was wrong.) Your password may be wrong, and so even though the mail is getting there, you can't log in to read it. No matter what the reason, losing access to email has been known to cause irritability, headaches, bloating and irrational behavior.

So, go ahead and send a test message, from your old account to your Pobox address. It should show up in both of your mailboxes. If it doesn't show up in the new address (and it isn't in a spam or junk mail folder), let us know. But this way, you still have access to your email while we work out any problems with your new address.

Also, if you keep old mail, like most people do, you'll probably want to move it to your new address. This is really easy if you're using an email program like Outlook or Mac Mail. Just set up a second account for your new address. Then, when both accounts are set up, just drag and drop the files from your old account, to your new one. Your email program will move everything for you in the background! If you have a lot of mail, don't shut down your computer. It could take a while for everything to get moved.

Once you know you have access to all your existing mail at your new address, kill that old account! Log in to Pobox and remove it as a forwarding address. Send a nasty cancellation letter. Go and leave a bag of your shredded old bills on their doorstep. They were hoping to lock you in with your email address, and they would have gotten away with it, too... if not for your meddling Pobox address!

Friday, February 19, 2010

How to ask questions to strangers, part 2

Mark Dominus continues his series of articles on how to send email to strangers asking for help. Read the previous entry.

Last week, I told you the one big rule of asking email questions to strangers. This week, I'll discuss a smaller rule:

Use an informative Subject

We all get a lot of junk mail. We all throw away most of it. If the a message doesn't have an eye-catching subject, we may throw it away without opening it. And "eye-catching" here means "does not look like spam". Spammers are very stupid, and they have a very stupid idea of what sort of subjects will be eye-catching:
  • Please reply ASAP
  • Seeking your expertise
  • Help me!
  • READ THIS!!!!!!
You must be cleverer than a spammer. Just adding more exclamation marks is not clever enough. Good subjects in messages I have received and replied to are:
  • Question about apache module
  • Length of day question
  • how to optimize for speed
The key property here is that each subject contains something specific that makes clear what the message is actually about, and that it is something that might reasonably be directed to me, rather than to someone else, or to one million someone elses. Do you remember the important rule from last week? Experts want to be consulted in the area of their expertise. They do not want to be consulted about random garbage. If you can make clear in the subject line that you sought them out for specific knowledge that only they can provide, the expert is much more likely to read your message.

Here the subjects of some messages that I have sent to famous people that have received prompt and detailed replies:
  • Computing with lattices: An application of type classes
  • Hegelian Taco
  • Octopus anatomy
Each of these is good because it instantly tells the recipient two things. First, it tells them what the message will be about. "Hegelian Taco" may not mean anything to you, but it does mean something to the author of the paper about the Hegelian taco that I was asking for. And second, it tells the recipient that the message was intended for them, and for them alone. Anyone else might throw away a message titled "Hegelian taco" in puzzlement, but the author of the Hegelian taco paper is certain to read it, and that's all you care about.

Similarly, the "Computing with lattices" message was sent to the author of a paper with that title, asking for a copy of the paper, and "octopus anatomy" was sent to an octopus expert.

Once you've gotten the recipient to open and read your message, you still have to get them to answer it. I'll return in three weeks with an article about how to keep the expert from throwing away your message in disgust.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

How to ask questions to strangers

Pobox is proud to have several very active members of the open source community as staff or alumni, which means they get many questions about how their software works (and not just from me!) Today, Mark Jason Dominus, Perl expert, noted author and Pobox staffer, offers his thoughts on how to ask a good question.

I once emailed Dr. Mark Norman, one of the world's foremost experts on octopuses, to ask some questions about octopus anatomy. I once wrote to a well-known writer of computer programming books asking for advice on how to choose a publisher for my own book. I once bugged one of the inventors of the Unix operating system for information about the early technical details of Unix. Last month I wrote to a famous mathematician to ask for a copy of a paper he had written that was too old to be available on the web.

Maybe you're not interested in octopus anatomy or in digging up copies of obscure mathematics papers. But I know some of you are interested in emailing some sort of questions to well-known experts on something, because I'm a well-known expert on computer programing, I get email from strangers all the time, and I know I can't be the only one who does. Someone must be sending those messages. Maybe it was you.

Sometimes I'm really happy to get the messages, and I answer quickly and at length. Other times, I snort and throw the message away, or save it to chuckle over with my friends — or worse, I save it to ridicule in a blog post years later. Here are some easy rules to follow if you want to know how to send the first kind of email, the kind that gets a reply, and not the second.

The rules are pretty simple. Probably the biggest one is:

Pick the right expert for your question.

Only ask the expert questions about an area in which they actually have expertise. If you write to the octopus expert with a question about advanced mathematics, or to the mathematician for advice about octopus behavior, you'll look like a fool, a lunatic, or both. And even if the mathematician is feeling indulgent and is willing to help you, she can't, because she doesn't know the answer to your question anyway.

Does that seem obvious? About ten years ago I received this awesome specimen:

I am a student of Romance and Germanic philology faculty,
I am getting my Master's degree, so I have to write a thesis.
The theme I have chosen is "Lexico-grammatical peculiarities of
the language of constitution" I have to compare the UK(magna
karta)and US Constitution. . ... Will you provide me with the
information, or give a hint about those sources where I can read
about my topic?

I didn't bother replying to this message. I'm a computer programmer. What do I know about lexico-grammatical peculiarities?

But really, there was nothing wrong with the request itself; the only problem was that it was sent to the wrong person. Somewhere out there is a professor of linguistics who specializes in the study of legal documents. That professor would probably have been delighted to offer this poor schmuck some pointers.

People I meet often worry that the expert will be annoyed that a member of the general public is taking up their time. But if you observe this rule, you won't have to worry. I promise you that the expert on the history of knitting would love to get your email inquiring about the origin of the slip stitch. The education expert who wrote about penmanship education in last week's local paper will be thrilled to hear from you. People become experts because they are interested in their topics. Getting email from another interested person brightens their day. People write papers and articles because they want other people to read them attentively. Their great fear is that nobody is listening. Hearing from someone who not only read their article but who cared enough to follow up is a shining joy.

But even if you send your question to the right person, there are still a few ways to go wrong. Next week, I'll discuss some of the other mistakes people have made in asking me for help.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Wonderful World of Emailed Reports

I love Pobox spam protection, and I think it's wonderfully accurate. Still, I do identify with Ronald Reagan. Trust, but verify. And getting an emailed spam report every day makes that really easy.

The emailed report provides a list of all the messages the spam filters have picked up for my account since the last report 24 hours ago (approximately). You can get a report that includes both the messages we've held for you, and the sending addresses of everyone who's been bounced. But I use the Aggressive pre-set, so the only messages that are bounced are the ones that we're really confident were spam. So, I set my report to only include the held messages, which makes it easier to review (read: shorter.) The emailed report also has a "Mark This Report Reviewed" button, which lets you delete all the messages in that report, right from your Inbox!

Unfortunately for some users, if your ISP uses content filters (like Comcast), you may end up finding your emailed report in your Spam or Junk Mail folder. That makes sense -- it is a report full of the email addresses and subjects of spam! While having a list is great, some people also just like having a daily reminder to go have a look at the spam we've picked up. So, we're testing out an emailed summary report. It doesn't have a list of all the messages, just a note about how many messages we've picked up, and a button to go check it out on the web. If you'd like to be part of our tester group, just contact Customer Support, and tell us that you want to switch your emailed reports to the summary version!

If you want to keep an up-to-the-minute eye on your spam, you can also get an RSS feed of your messages! That's customized per-person, so I can't give you a link, but head over to the Spam section if you want to grab one. The feeds are customized per view, so you can subscribe to just the view you want to see.

And, of course, some people are happy just knowing the Spam section is there if they need it, but don't need to be reminded just how many people in the world want to sell them a degree. (Only 10 this month, thank you!) If that's you, you can turn off your emailed reports at any time. Please don't report them as spam. That can cause your ISP to think they are spam, and other Pobox customers who do want them may not see them.

Signing off from snowy Philadelphia -- I hope all of you East Coast residents stay warm!