Reading E-Mail Attachments


Let me start off by saying that you shouldn't do anything which is described on this page. That isn't to say that shouldn't read email attachments, but the easiest way to do it is to set up a graphical email reader (Such as Netscape or Outlook) and to simply use the features that your mail reader provides. For information on how to set up Netscape as an email client, look here.

The purpose of these instructions is to help out people who use Pine as an email client, or to help out in situations where you need to retrieve an email attachment from someone else's computer. If this is a situation you are in, then read on. Or if you are just bored you can read on too.

Saving your attachment

In order to download an email attachment, you have to save it first. This will involve using the Pine email reader, for which you can consult the reference above. When you have the message containing the attachment open, press 'v' to view and then 's' to save the attachment. Unless you specify an alternate locataion, Pine will save the attachment in your home directory. If that doesn't mean anything to you, don't worry about it. Just save the attachment. I know that isn't exactly intuitive, but give it a shot anyway.

You may be thinking at this point that since Pine has a view command, you might just be able to use that command to see your attachment. Wouldn't that be nice? Unfortunately, unless the attachment is a plain text file it doesn't work that way. You have to go through all of the hard stuff. You can pretty much blame Microsoft for this. If Microsoft had a published standard for MS Office documents then Pine might be able to at least preview them. Unfortunately that is not the case.

Downloading your attachment

There are two different ways that you can do this, a hard way and an easy way. As with most other things, there are some trade-offs here. The hard way is hard, and it doesn't work under Windows 95, but it is secure. The easy way is comparatively simpler and it works in most places, but it is not very secure for reasons that we will get into in a minute. The hard way is to use a command-line FTP client, and the easy way is to use a web browser.

The FTP client method

The secure FTP method is the best method to use if your situation meets the following two criteria: First, you are reasonably comfortable with text based software. If you have gotten this far and used Pine to save your attachment, then you can probably cope with this. The second criteria is that you are not using Windows 95. If you are stuck with 95, then skip to the web browser method.

Open up a command prompt. Under Mac OS X there is a graphical-mouse-clicking-touchy-feeley way to do this. Under most Windows variants there is a "Command Prompt" or "DOS Prompt" menu option. If you can't find it, try selecting the "Run" option and type in "command". Once you have a command prompt, change to the directory you want the file to be in. The instructions for doing this will vary depending on the system you are using.

Okay, now you can actually transfer the file. Type "ftp" and press enter. If everything goes well, then you will be prompted to log in to the system with your username and password. If everything doesn't go well, then just give up and go to the bar. Once you are logged in you will get an FTP prompt that looks something like "ftp>". If you saved the attachment somewhere other than your home directory, you will have to change to that directory using the "cd" command. Now you are ready to get the file, right? Well, not quite yet. You have to use the "binary" command to make the file transfer correctly. Just type "binary" and press enter. Now you can get the file using the "get" command. If the filename contains spaces or apostrophies or stuff like that, you will have to enclose the filename in quotes. If everything works properly, the system will appear to do nothing for a little while and then you will get a message saying that so-and-so many bytes were transferred in such-and-such an amount of time. If so, great. Type "quit" and go open your file. If it doesn't work, you can either try again or you can give up and go to the bar.

The web browser method

As mentioned before, this method is not very secure. Which is too bad, because it is much easier. The security problem lies in the fact that most web browsers remember the URLs that you type in. You will have to type in your password, which means that your pasword will appear in the history list. In order to ensure security, you will have to figure out how to clear the history list. This is beyond the scope of this tutorial. Everything else, however, is easy. Just put the URL "" into any web browser, putting in your very own username and password in the appropriate places. You will then get a listing of all the files in your home directory, and you can download any of them by right-clicking on the filename and selecting "save link as", or something similar. Done.

Deleting the file

After you have retrieved the file, you probably ought to delete the one you saved on the server. Remember when you saved the file on the server? Well, if you don't delete the file then it will sit on the server forever taking up disk space until the system administrator sends you a nasty email asking you why you are using so much disk space. So delete the file when you are done. To do this you will use the "rm" command. Log into the server the same way you logged in so that you could use Pine, change to the directry that you saved the file in, and type "rm filename". Of course, you should use the actual name of your file.


Okay, I realize that these instructions are not very detailed and that they are pretty complicated. That's why I recommended in the beginning that you not try to do any of this. Not that it is impossible, and you probably won't break anything, but it is easy to get frustrated trying to figure it all out. If you have any questions you should contact your system administrator. If you have any ideas for a way to make these instructions any clearer, you should contact your system administrator about that too.
This file was last updated November 18, 2002


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