The Case of the 500-Mile Email

[Cross-posted to The Farm.]

The story’s a couple of years old, but it’s been making the rounds

lately, so I thought I’d point to it: The Case of the 500-Mile Email.

Here’s the introduction:

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?”


can’t send mail farther than 500 miles from here,” he repeated. “A

little bit more, actually. Call it 520 miles. But no farther.”


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


“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?”


we hadn’t collected enough data to be sure of what was going on until

just now.” Right. This is the chairman of *statistics*. “Anyway, I

asked one of the geostatisticians to look into it–“



and she’s produced a map showing the radius within which we can send

email to be slightly more than 500 miles. There are a number of destinations

within that radius that we can’t reach, either, or reach sporadically,

but we can never email farther than this radius.”

Read the rest to see what the culprit turned out to be.

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