Ask SIPB - August 29, 2006

Want to read your MIT mail on your personal computer? Or figure out exactly where all those addresses go? In this column, part 2 of 4 of our introductory columns, we cover mail and mailing lists.

Mailing lists at MIT

There are two commonly used types of mailing lists at MIT, Moira lists and Mailman lists. Moira lists can be managed using Athena-based and Web interfaces, and can be used to control access to Web pages, AFS files, and other moira lists. Mailman lists can be managed using Web interfaces, have Web-accessible archives, and support moderation and filtering.


Moira lists (also known as Athena lists) are more than simple mailing lists. They can be used to restrict access to Web pages and AFS directories, and control who can manage other Moira lists. From Athena, an easy way to access Moira lists is using the mailmaint command. To run it, open up a Terminal window and type:
athena% mailmaint

For a non-menu driven interface, you can also use the blanche command. To add yourself to the "cluedump-announce" list, for example, use:

athena% blanche cluedump-announce -a $USER
To remove yourself from that list, type:
athena% blanche cluedump-announce -d $USER
Or to get the list of members on that list, type:
athena% blanche cluedump-announce

From any non-Athena computer, you can add yourself to lists, remove yourself from lists, and get list information, by getting MIT Certificates and opening up your Web browser to Alternately, you can connect to Athena via SSH and run mailmaint or blanche from there. See for instructions on how to do this.

For more information on manipulating Moira lists, see the November 22, 2002 Ask SIPB column at


Mailman lists offer an alternative to Moira lists. They support moderation and filtering, but cannot be used to control access to Web pages, AFS directories, or manage Moira lists. To add yourself to or remove yourself from a Mailman list, you can visit (replacing listname with the name of the Mailman list).

If you're not sure whether a list is a Mailman list, you can check the list information. Using the Mailman list reuse for example,

athena% blanche -i reuse
contains the line:
reuse is a Mailman list on server PCH.MIT.EDU
From this, you can tell that to subscribe to reuse, you should go to

I signed up for a bunch of mailing lists at Activities Midway. Help!

If you find that you're starting to get too much email, it's easy to take yourself off of most mailing lists. For most Moira and Mailman lists, you can use the methods mentioned above to take yourself off the lists. Note that it can take up to 4 hours to stop receiving mail from Moira lists. If for some reason, you get an error message when trying to take yourself off a list, you should try to contact the list owners. If the listname is example, then you should try to send mail to or Sending mail to a mailing list should generally not be done for this, as most of the people on a list won't be able to remove you from the list. As a last resort, you might want to ask if you're having trouble removing yourself from a list.

How do I read my mail on Athena?

Athena has many programs you can use to read mail. The simplest program to use is Evolution. You can start it by clicking the "Mail" icon in the GNOME panel, or typing

athena% evolution &
The other recommended and officially supported program to read mail on Athena is Pine. Unlike Evolution, Pine is a text-based program, so you can even run it over an SSH connection. You can start Pine by typing
athena% pine
If you try Pine, you will probably find that it runs much faster than most other clients.

How do I read mail from non-Athena machines?

MIT supports two mail protocols: IMAP over SSL, and Kerberized POP. With most mail programs, such as Mozilla Thunderbird, Outlook Express, Apple Mail, and Pine, you can use IMAP over SSL. Eudora, which is being retired by IS&T, supported both protocols.

To use Pine, which requires no setup, login to Athena at or using an SSH client and start Pine by typing

athena% pine

To setup email in any program that is not already configured to do so, you will need the following settings:

Outgoing mail server:, SSL (port 465 or 587) or TLS (port 587) if your software supports it
Incoming mail server: poXX.MIT.EDU (where XX is a number)

You can find your incoming mail server by entering

athena% hesinfo $USER pobox
at the Athena prompt.

In general, we recommend that you use IMAP, as it stores your mail on the mail server, and allows you to read your mail anywhere. With POP, your mail is downloaded onto your computer, and deleted from the server. You can find more about the difference in these protocols in our previous mail column at

Note that there are no user-accessible backups of your mail, so you may want to back up your mail from time to time. You can do so with the following:

athena% add outland; imapback directory-to-backup-to
Note: this is unsupported software. Read tomorrow's column for details.

Alternately, MIT has an IMAP Webmail service, which you can visit at .

Note that Webmail is a lot slower than connecting to your mail server directly with one of the mail clients mentioned above, and lacks many features available in other mail clients. While it is useful to use when you are not using Athena and not using your machine, we recommend that for daily use you use an IMAP mail client, such as Pine, Evolution, Mozilla, or one of the other clients mentioned above.

Does MIT offer spam screening?

Yes, MIT uses a combination of two systems to detect spam. Since IAP 2003, MIT has been using SpamAssassin, an open-source mail filter that uses a set of rules to determine how likely a piece of mail is spam. These rules look for common patterns in spam and add points to give a message a score; the higher the score, the spammier the message. In August of this year, MIT deployed several Barracuda Networks Model 800 spam appliances to give a "second opinion" about mail coming in from outside MIT. These machines are based on SpamAssassin as well, but receive an updated set of rules hourly to keep up with new types of spam, and can do additional things like analyze images included in mail, which account for much of the current influx of spam. For more information about these two systems, see and

If the higher of the scores given by these two systems is above a user-configurable threshhold, MIT will put these messages into a folder in your INBOX named Spamscreen. If your account was created years ago and you never created a Spamscreen folder (note the capital "S"), you can do so now to begin having your spam filtered for you.

Keep in mind that the scoring is not perfect, so you should do at least a cursory check of your suspected spam before deleting it; by default, spam more than 3 weeks old is automatically purged. For information on configuring your Spamscreen settings, or enabling spam filtering with non-IMAP mail clients, see the IS&T Spam Screening Web page at

To ask us a question, send email to We'll try to answer you quickly, and we can address your question in our next column. You can also stop by our office in W20-557 or call us at x3-7788 if you need help. Copies of each column and pointers to additional information are posted on our website: