Ask SIPB - September 1, 2009

This week's column covers electronic communication at MIT — email, mailing lists, and zephyr.
Mailing lists are used for all sorts of things here, and IS&T has placed a large amount of control over mailing lists in the hands of students — we can even create our own mailing lists! Whether you want to get access to loads of free stuff ( and, or want to follow the latest on your dorm's discussion list (ask your neighbor if you don't know already), you'll need to deal with mailing lists in some form.

How do I get to my email?

Starting this year, new students are given email accounts on a mailserver running Microsoft Exchange, as opposed to the traditional Cyrus/IMAP mail servers. This allows for better integration of email and calendaring with Outlook clients, but also means that you access your mail in a slightly different way. For web access, use; for non-web clients, use either or (more on that in a later column).

How do I deal with all this spam?

Also new this year, MIT is switching its spam-filtering solution from the open-source SpamAssassin to Symantec's Brightmail Spam Quarantine. Instead of going to your inbox or some other folder, messages flagged as spam are sent to a quarantine server, and a daily spam summary is sent to your inbox. If any legitimate messages are flagged, you can click on a link to "release" them. To check the quarantine area between daily summaries, visit or just follow a link from one of the summary emails.

How do I manage my mailing lists?

There are two types of mailing lists in use at MIT, so the first step is to determine whether a list is a Moira list or a Mailman list. To test if a list is a Mailman list, try the command
athena% blanche -i listname
and see if it contains something like
reuse is a Mailman list on server PCH.MIT.EDU
If there is no mention of Mailman in the output, then the list is a Moira list.


Moira lists (also known as traditional or Athena lists) can be used as mailing lists, as well as to give a group of people access to web pages and Athena directories. From Athena, an easy way to access Moira lists is by using the mailmaint command, which brings up an interactive menu to navigate through the various options for Moira lists. At an Athena prompt, type

athena% mailmaint

(If you don't have an "athena%" terminal window open, click the button at the lower left labeled "Prompt".)

If you have a web browser and MIT certificates, another way to manage your lists is by going to

A more direct (but slightly more arcane) method is to use the blanche command. To add yourself to the "cluedump-announce" list, if your username is "joeuser", type:

athena% blanche cluedump-announce -a joeuser

To delete yourself from the list, use "-d" instead of "-a"; to view the members of the list (if the list isn't hidden), just type "blanche cluedump-announce".

If you want to create your own list, you can do so online at Fill out a form, and the list will be available immediately for use with commands such as blanche. You can also use this website to create Mailman lists (see below).

Our November 22, 2002 column has more detail on manipulating Moira lists.


Mailman lists are an alternative to Moira lists. They're less integrated with Athena, but they have a fancier web interface, including automatic list archives and the ability to hold messages for moderation or restrict sending to list members. To subscribe or unsubscribe from a Mailman list, visit the website
(replacing listname with the name of the appropriate list, of course).

Hey, what's this window with a message that just popped up?

That would probably be a zephyr. Zephyr is Athena's instant messaging system, which displays both official Athena notifications and messages from friends. To send someone a zephyr, type the "zwrite" command followed by their username:

athena% zwrite joeuser
Type your message now. End with control-D or a dot on a line by itself.
Hi, what's up?

Message queued for joeuser... sent

But I can already do that with AIM, MSN, Gtalk, Facebook... Why should I use zephyr?

There are a couple of reasons. One is that Athena logs you in to Zephyr automatically, so it's a good way to talk to your friends when they're on Athena.

One of Zephyr's most compelling features is its multi-user chat support. In addition to sending messages to individuals, you can send messages to a particular "class" and "instance". In general, a class is like a chatroom, and an instance is a particular topic within that room. For example, if you want to subscribe to joeuser's "personal class":

athena% zctl add joeuser \* \*

(The first * indicates that you want to subscribe to all instances of class joeuser, and the second * indicates this is a group chat. Then, if you wanted to discuss, say, orientation with joeuser and other people subbed to his class, you would use

athena% zwrite -c joeuser -i orientation

Some commonly used public classes include "help", for asking various sorts of questions, "geek", for technical discussion, and "message", the default class (if you specify an instance and no class). In some situations, you may want to subscribe to just one instance of a class: for example, if you're asking a single question to class help, you can subscribe to that instance alone with, e.g., zctl sub help zephyr \*.

An introduction to zephyr, as well as tutorial for the BarnOwl client (see below), is available at .

I don't like these windowgrams. Aren't there any other Zephyr clients?

Yes; one popular one, "BarnOwl", displays all your messages in a single terminal window. BarnOwl also has support for AIM and Jabber, so you can talk with all your friends from AIM, Google Talk, etc. with the same program you use for Zephyr.

To get started with BarnOwl, type add barnowl and then barnowl at an Athena prompt. This will bring up an empty message window with an introductory notice. You're already logged into Zephyr; to send a message, hit "z" to start a zwrite command. If you want to subscribe to classes from within BarnOwl, type :sub class instance *. For more instructions on navigating the interface, hit h; note that you can type a colon (:) to start a command.

To log in to AIM, type :aimlogin username; to use MIT's Jabber service, type :jabberlogin You can then send AIM messages with "a" and Jabber messages with "j". To add friends to your Jabber buddy list ("roster"), type :jroster sub username@service — you can use both Gmail and MIT e-mail addresses here, as well as JIDs from any other Jabber service.

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: