In the Bethesda, Maryland office of Cubit Communications, the in-house user services telephone rang.

“John Thornton, what seems to be the problem?”

“This is Julia Robbins, I was wondering if you could help me?”

“What seems to be the problem?”

“I’m having an e-mail problem.”

“What sort of an e-mail problem, Julia?”

“I’m missing some e-mails. Some times it takes a week before people’s e-mail reaches me.”

“Are you looking at your e-mail right now?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Go ahead and scroll all the way to the bottom of your inbox.”

“Okay.”

“Is the box in the scroll bar all the way to the bottom?”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Go ahead and drag it all the way to the bottom.”

“Okay. But they’re showing up without dates.”

“What do you mean by without dates, ma’am?”

“When I look at the list of messages, I don’t see a date on any of the missing messages. I see the subject and the sender, but no date.”

“Are you looking at a list right now?”

“Yes.”

“Open one of the messages and tell me if you can see a date there.”

“Hold on, let me start my computer up.”

“But…”

“What?”

“Never mind. When did this start happening?”

“It’s been happening ever since I installed our new “Carroll” e-mail.”

“When was that?”

“Four months ago.”

“And before that you used what for e-mail?”

“I didn’t.”

“Okay. Is your computer ready yet?”

“Just about.”

“Where are you located?”

“I’m in front of my computer.”

“No, I mean, which city? What branch?”

“I’m in the Charlottesville office.”

“How’re the Cavaliers doing?”

“I don’t know, I don’t follow sports. I really don’t have time for this. Can we keep going?”

“Uh, sure. Is your computer ready?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, open up one of the problem messages. And tell me if it has a date after you open it up.”

“Yes. It says ‘Wednesday, February 24, 8:17:32 PM EST Plus 0500’.”

“Okay. And if you close the message and look at its line in the listing, you don’t see any date at all?”

“No, no date.”

“Do any of your messages have any dates?”

“Yes, some of them do.”

“Can you give me the date of one that does?”

“Sure. I have one here from February 16 1993.”

“And the bad ones, they’re completely empty where the date should be?”

“No they’re not empty, they just don’t have the date. They have the weekday. Like that one I just read, it says ‘Wednesday’.”

“Just Wednesday…”

“Yes, just that. I need to be able to tell at a glance how old a message is.”

“Do you know how to sort your messages by date?”

“Of course I do, I’m not stupid.”

“Okay, sort them by date. Where are your problem messages?”

“They’re all at the bottom. Do you know how to fix it?”

“It’s not broken, ma’am. Messages show the weekday if they’re less than a week old. If they’re older than a week, they show the full date.”

“But I need to know how old they are!”

“If they show the weekday, they’re less than a week old: they’re from the last day with that name.”

“So it doesn’t show the date?”

“That is the date.”

“No, it’s just a weekday.”

“Yes, it’s a weekday.”

“So it doesn’t show the date?”

“No, ma’am it doesn’t show the date.”

“I think we should fix that.”

“I’ll pass that along, ma’am. In the meantime, here’s what you can do…”


When I was young I used to have this nightmare about dying. I used to lie awake at night screaming. All my schoolfriends went to heaven or hell, and I was sent to Southend.—Arthur Dent (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)