Take Control of Spam with Apple Mail
Posted: 16-Jul-2004

Mac Guild Grade

Publisher: TidBits


Reviewer: Dale Mead $5.00

Take Control of Spam with Apple Mail
Electronic Book

Author: Joe Kissell
Publisher: TidBits Electronic Publishing
Version 1.0.1, PDF format, 59 pages
Publication date: May 18, 2004
Cost: $5.00

What the Book is About
Apple Mail users frustrated by the flood of spam can now keep junk mail out of their mailboxes with "Take Control of Spam with Apple Mail", a new ebook (Electronic Book in PDF format) written by author Joe Kissell. This ebook goes far beyond Apple Mail's online help to explain exactly how Mail's Junk Mail filter works, how it interacts with other Mail features, and how users can optimize it to catch spam more accurately. The ebook also provides coping strategies for handling fraudulent, malevolent, and malformed email; reviews software add-ons that improve Mail's spam-catching capabilities; and explains how to use Mail's rules not just to eliminate spam but also to organize important messages.

Apple Mail has the usual personality of Apple products: Standard-setting and state-of-the-art, but with a couple of maddening quirks that result from hacking out a new road. These quirks require that you set it up and maintain it just right, lest spam addresses routinely end up in your non-spam list, putting spam in your In box instead of blocking it. This ebook confronts the challenge head-on with a comprehensive presentation of the problem and specific steps to deal with it - interspersed with disclaimers that "it isn't perfect."  

Target Audience
Take Control of Spam with Apple Mail is aimed at Macintosh OS X users who use the integrated email application, Mail, to handle their email; but any person who uses email will benefit from reading it. This ebook is aimed at all levels from novice to expert. The book tells us what we need to know - and more than non-tekkies would prefer to know - with extremely clear, conversational language.

What to Expect
As a non-tekkie myself who sees his computer mostly as a tool to help do "real work," not as a hobby in and of itself, I spend as little time as possible pondering its inner workings (regrettably, sometimes). So I found the book valuable because it goes from the general to the specific, explaining the problem comprehensively before presenting the solution.  Kissell takes a full chapter to explain what junk mail is, distinguishing fraudulent email from viruses (a virtual non-problem for Mac users) from the blank page spam. Then he takes another chapter to explain how junk mail filters work, including Bayesian and Latent Semantic Analysis (Mail's approach). He discloses nuances such as the fact that filtering isn't deleting, that you need to occasionally go through the garbage in your junk mail folder, and that you need to train your Mail program, and finally the critical role of the Previous Recipients list. Perhaps his most telling revelation is that "there's a logical flaw in the way Mail implements the Previous Recipients list that may cause you to inadvertently 'whitelist' spammers, thus allowing future messages from them into your In box." After the chapter enumerating steps to work with - and around - Mail's settings and lists, Kissell introduces third-party anti-spam software that goes beyond Mail.

The only improvement I could envision is to the chapter "Quick Start to Controlling your Junk Mail," which isn't one, really. The typical quick start section skips explanations and simply lists steps to undertake specific actions; this one instead provides links to the relevant chapters, where you get the full treatment. Kissell should either boil this section down to a true quick start step list, for those who don't need explanations, or change its title. Other than that, the overall structure is explicit and straightforward, a must in a how-to book.

Throughout, the author unhesitatingly recommends doing or not doing certain things and using or not using specific applications while giving the reader the information to make up his or her own mind. This is a reassuring service to those of us who want computers to be simple and may be intimidated by the complexity of this problem as he describes it.

What gems you will find in this book will depend on your understanding of email spam, filters and Mail in particular. Virtually everyone is sure to find something. For me, it had two highlights.

First, Kissell takes us on a tour under the hood of this utility, a fascinating place I'm not usually inclined to peruse. After installing OS X and Mail, I barely, belatedly realized it had an anti-spam function when I discovered and played with the Junk/Not Junk button; but that was about it. I only realized its horsepower after going back to OS 9 and Outlook Express, which dutifully downloaded the myriad multiple copies of pornographic garbage that was magically missing from Mail's In box. (Yes, Outlook Express has a junk mail filter, but it consists of applying the rules we set, not learning. I didn't mess with that very much either.)

Second, Kissell makes abundantly clear why simply training Mail by categorizing In box messages isn't nearly enough. Thanks to him, my interaction with Mail has reached a whole new level: Down in the pits where the trash accumulates, to occasionally check several folders for valuable messages -- and then refine the rules to keep Mail from diverting them. It's an ugly job, but you have to do it. One day soon I'll talk myself down to the final level to tame Mail's biggest flaw: inviting spam in through the Previous Recipients list.

Mac Guild Grade
A (Outstanding)

Final Words
If this were a printed book, at $5 it would be a steal; as an ebook, where the purchaser pays for printing as needed, it's still a bargain - especially with a button to check for updates that may be necessitated by future OS X versions. It's so well written you'll be tempted to check out his other books, including a promised up-coming more general treatment of the Mail application. Overall this is an excellent book for an effective setup of Mail, and then for your reference e-library.