One eMail-Rule to Misrule Them All

“If automobiles had followed the same development cycle as the computer, a Rolls-Royce would today cost $100, get a million miles per gallon, and explode once a year, killing everyone inside.”
Robert Cringely

Vanishing eMails might be one of the worst things when it comes to eMail communication. It’s just too easy to depend on eMail. Sure, some people might overlook an eMail, or not consider the mail important enough to reply. But it’s hard to image that an eMail might get lost.

During that last two weeks a handful of eMails vanished. I know that they were sent. With the help of the IT at the institute I learned that they did reach the institute eMail-server. But somehow between them arriving on the server and getting to my eMail client … they simply vanished. They were logged as delivered but they never arrived.

A very annoying, very stressful situation.

What makes the situation worse is that I created the problem myself.

I noticed it when I did search by sender for an eMail which did arrive, and two other eMails — which had vanished — suddenly were shown as well. In the trash. No idea why they did not show up earlier. Perhaps because it was the trash on the server and the query took too long, or I was offline. But there they were.

Hmmm, in the trash. I didn’t delete them, how did they end up there?

And then I saw why the eMails had vanished — right into the trash. Not into the trash of the work mail server, but in the trash of my private mail account.

As usual with insight problems, you don’t see the solution until you make the final step. Then it suddenly becomes clear.

I did create a rule to move spam eMails in the trash. I did it months ago, when I had not added my work account to OS X’s Mail.

It made sense for my private eMails. Identifying spam mails worked very well — no false alarms that I could remember. But this criterion did not apply to my work-account. Those eMails, and esp. the calendar notifications, had a high amount of messages falsely classified as spam, i.e. false alarms.

And so, whenever my notebook was online and an eMail arrived, it applied the rule. It did not remove all eMails — that would have been obvious, but some. And given how the spam filter worked, it was rather imperceptibly at first. But the missing messages added up — until it became obvious that something was wrong.

The problem itself wasn’t easy to find — given that I had made no connection to an eMail rule made for my private mails and the missing eMails of my work account. It’s obvious in retrospect that the eMail-rule would apply to work mails as well. But it wasn’t when I was searching for the error. Until those messages appeared in the trash — the wrong trash.

Luckily, the damage isn’t that grave. Some minor communication mishaps, a few minor delays, and some annoyances. And on the plus side, a newfound respect for automatization. As great as it is, and as flawless as it can work, it create a lot of stress when the circumstances change.