James E. Clapp jeclapp at WANS.NET
Fri May 7 02:29:42 UTC 1999

Although much of the dialog between Mark Mandel and Andrea Vine on the
subject of e-mail formatting went over my head, I found it valuable because
I really want to understand how to make my e-mail correspondence as
functional as possible.  That means, among many other things, that I'd like
to be able to use formatting when it aids in clarity but not when it
creates confusion; I'd like to be able to use diacritics so that I don't
have to write about "gold lame" (not that it comes up all that often); and
I'd like other people's messages to me to be as readable as they or I can
make them.

In the hope that Mark and Andrea, at least, are still interested, I'd like
to adduce a number of comments and questions inspired by their exchange.  I
hope that list members who think this is way off-topic (or just way
tedious) will delete this and not hold it against me.

1.  I see that Andrea is right in saying that certain coding decisions are
out of our control.  I typed some test messages to myself with a few upper
ASCII characters (e acute, c cedilla, and the like), and sent them *not*
using the "quoted printable" MIME option.  When I looked at the source code
behind the messages upon receipt, they sometimes said
"X-MIME-Autoconverted: from 8bit to quoted-printable by ..." [identifying a
server at my ISP], and sometimes "X-MIME-Autoconverted: from 8bit to base64
by ..." [likewise].  I haven't a clue how my ISP's computers decide what
coding to use when, but I know they don't ask for my advice.

2.  My e-mail program offers me the following choice of settings:  "Send
messages that use 8-bit characters as is (does not work well with some mail
servers)" and "Send messages that use 8-bit characters using the 'quoted
printable' MIME encoding (does not work well with some mail or discussion
groups readers)."  Which should I choose?  (In light item 1 above, it may
not make much difference.)

3.  I guess we can avoid the issue by simply not using such characters
(which is the choice I made in a recent letter to the list referring to
"Cahiers du Cinema" without an acute accent in "Cinema"), but in
discussions of language this is a somewhat unhappy compromise.  Mark, how
would you like to see such characters dealt with?

4.  Given the ubiquity of diacritical marks in English writing and of HTML
on the Web, shouldn't all employers be pressured to get e-mail software
that, at the very least, can handle these things?  Surely we're past the
time when every bit was so precious that institutional software could be
expected only to handle the 128 basic ASCII characters that can be
represented by seven bits.  (And a little HTML formatting--in
moderation!--would go a long way toward making a long message like this
less visually daunting.)

5.  Personally, I don't understand why all communications software doesn't
just use Unicode, which as I understand it handles everything from Arabic
to Thai and beyond--including IPA.  My e-mail program includes two versions
of Unicode as coding options (UTF-7 and 8); I have no idea what would
happen if I selected them.  But wouldn't you think that institutions in the
language business (including all institutions of higher learning, for a
start)--not to mention all corporations wishing to do business
internationally--would flat out refuse to buy any e-mail software that
fails to support this multilingual coding?

6.  In the meantime, for those who get strange codes whenever somebody
tries to send a character with a diacritic, there must be tables that
correlate the codes used in various frequently used systems
(quoted-printable MIME, etc.) with the characters they represent.  Perhaps
someone has access to such tables in a form that could easily be sent out
to the list and printed out.  Obviously, the characters represented by the
codes would have to be *described* in such a table, not simply reproduced
as they actually look.)

7.  Now that Andrea has taught us how to recognize uuencoded text when we
see it, does anyone know where a Windows utility to decode it can be
obtained?  (Especially for free; otherwise I'm not that interested.)

8.  Another big annoyance with e-mail is text wrapping.  Is there a way to
minimize the occurrence of that awful alternating long-line/short-line text
in mail that one receives and mail that one inflicts on others?  My e-mail
program has a setting that says "Wrap long lines at ___ characters"; I must
pick a number from 0 to 99999.  What choice makes the most sense?  (For the
purpose of sending this letter, I have it set at 75.)

9.  Finally, I note that this is not the only list where concern and
annoyance about e-mail incompatibility have been discussed.  I just joined
something called the TechnoLawyer Discussion List, and one of the first
things I received was a posting by the manager of the list that included


Given the proliferation of e-mail, it's only a matter of time until the
private sector realizes that the world needs an e-mail standards
organization with teeth similar to the one that exists for the Web.  Today,
dozens of companies develop e-mail software (I include HotMail and other
Web-based e-mail services in this group).  I'm all for competition -- but
not without standards.  I hate the fact that some e-mail clients can
accommodate HTML e-mail and others cannot.  The same goes for MIME and John
Lederer's beloved LDAP (a very cool technology).  We must make sure that
everyone's e-mail client can accommodate new features and technologies.  A
standards organization may cause some consolidation in the e-mail market,
but just think of the benefit -- seamless communication regardless of
origin or destination.  And no hard returns! ;-)

End Quote.

James E. Clapp

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