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kottke.org posts about Trey Harris

The Case of the 500-Mile Email

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2019

I’ve shared this here before, but one of my favorite Old Weird Internet stories is Trey HarrisThe case of the 500-mile email. If you’ve ever worked in tech support or system administration (or have been on the receiving end of stories by people doing that work), a common trope features someone (usually a boss of some sort) thinking they’ve stumbled across a bug when in fact it’s user error. That’s not where this story goes…

I was working in a job running the campus email system some years ago when I got a call from the chairman of the statistics department.

“We’re having a problem sending email out of the department.”

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

“We can’t send mail more than 500 miles,” the chairman explained.

I choked on my latte. “Come again?”

“We can’t send mail farther than 500 miles from here,” he repeated. “A little bit more, actually. Call it 520 miles. But no farther.”

“Um… Email really doesn’t work that way, generally,” I said, trying to keep panic out of my voice. One doesn’t display panic when speaking to a department chairman, even of a relatively impoverished department like statistics. “What makes you think you can’t send mail more than 500 miles?”

“It’s not what I *think*,” the chairman replied testily. “You see, when we first noticed this happening, a few days ago—”

“You waited a few DAYS?” I interrupted, a tremor tinging my voice. “And you couldn’t send email this whole time?”

“We could send email. Just not more than—”

“—500 miles, yes,” I finished for him, “I got that. But why didn’t you call earlier?”

Read the whole thing if you’ve never had the pleasure.