Mac Lab Report

Prioritized Email: Up with the Good, Out with the Bad

- 2003.02.20

I'm giving away an idea here, so pay attention.

Either someone's already done this or someone will. If you use this idea and make a marketable product, I hope you'll give me credit for it.

The problem with spam filters is that it is a contest between you and the spammer. Filters recognize key words in titles or note which domain the spammers send from and automatically handle that piece of mail. Then the spammers change the title and/or the sender's name (sometimes using innocent people's names as substitutes) - and they get through your filter again.

My proposed solution doesn't filter spam so much as evaluate it on a priority scale. In fact, my idea is not a spam filter at all but rather the development of an expert system for sorting your mail by priority.

Instead of using priority codes assigned by the sender, you use a sort of reverse filter built upon rules you gradually create. For example, an email from your boss automatically gets a "score" of 10. Key words you tell your friends, such as Scott Adams rule for mail from readers instead of spammers - "Include Dilbert at the end of your subject line" - are also awarded 10 points. Key words within the body of the email that are important to you, such as project names or specific job titles, ("Bob Anderson" or "Department Chief") may be awarded a certain value. Messages about topics you are interested in may be awarded points.

Each message gets evaluated upon a set of rules you build up gradually. Each time a message arrives, you can select key words or senders names, just as spam filters do now. However, instead of assigning an absolute rule - if the message contains the word "offer" it automatically gets filed in the trash - you just assign a point value to it which is totaled for the entire message and tagged in you inbox. Incoming and already read mail can be listed in tagged priority.

For spam and other undesirable mail you can assign a negative tag to certain key words, making sure they end at the bottom of the list; you can even create a rule that says messages with an overall score of -50, for example, automatically get deleted. Messages containing executable files automatically get deleted. (Why doesn't Eudora's spam filter allow this? Seems like a glaring omission.)

My old boss used to get upwards of 200 messages a day. I know for a fact he never read all of the messages. Who could and still function? Instead, he sorted his mail by sender and read mail according to the importance of the person sending it. Mail from his boss he read first; then his staff; then everyone else. He used to tell us to put exclamation points in the titles if we really wanted him to read something urgent. This is like Adams' method.

The great thing about my suggestion is he could go right on using his system by having a large point value assigned to multiple exclamation points - but a large negative value associated with just one. Obviously, using my system he could assign large point values to the boss's name and then not have to sort the mail later.

You could assign a variable importance scale to such things as the send date - the longer a message goes unread, the higher the score becomes, so unread mail will percolate to the top. Or to the bottom, if that's your preference.

I imagine people more clever than I could adapt some sort of AI or fuzzy logic rules to make it learn how you normally sort your mail. I don't know as I'd trust such a thing until I saw it in action.

Nevertheless, I think this would be a useful feature for mail. The great spam-fighting power of it is that because every user would have a unique set of rules with variable priorities, no spammer could ever figure out a way to blast through a message that would reach everyone the way they can now. All they could hope for is a random chance of reaching a small number of people, who by coincidence had either not applied any rules or had some word in their message set at a very high priority by accident.

I see managing the filter being user friendly only if key words throughout the email - and attachments - can be tagged through a dropdown menu which includes the prioritization filter as one of the options.

Taking it one step further. What if you could apply the same prioritization rules to your outgoing mail? Or even to the contents of your hard drive? You could build an index by priority, similar to the search indicies now used in the Finder "Find" function, which would take a while to set up on the first pass, but would update in the background during idle time.

This set of filters, being unique, would have to be a kind of preference that could follow you around to different locations; perhaps an iSync-able file that might reside on your iPod for when you access information off of a server or at a remote workstation in an intranet.

Maybe that's a little too ambitious.

Anyway, if you're interested, the idea is free (though I wouldn't object to anyone paying me off to keep your lawyers happy) provided you cite the source and link to Low End Mac.

If, on the other hand, the idea's already in use and I don't know about it-- let me know so I can try out the product and sing its praises. Remember, though, this isn't just filtering by way of yes/no decisions for every rule; it's a prioritization filter, sort of like a personal Google for your inbox, sorting your mail with the most prioritization hits first, perhaps with one window per category like "unread prioritized mail," "read prioritized mail," "chronological prioritized mail," and "lowest scores awaiting deletion."

Just a thought that popped in my head.

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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