Internet Users Under Pressure

I subscribe to a few email lists. One of them, a low traffic affair, is Sky and Telescope Magazine’s comet bulletins. When a new comet is discovered, they’re right there with information… often more than I want or can comprehend for comets too dim to be seen by anything I’ll ever get my hands on.

However, just seeing this stuff interests me, and from time-to-time gives me something extra to talk about on TV. Martha would say, “It’s a good thing.”

Somehow today, this list opened up and began spewing virus and mail bounce information. That was it. Before long dozens of people were sending messages which said, “unsubscribe” to the list, and those messages were getting forwarded to everyone.

There are instructions on how to unsubscribe, but that seemed too challenging. Within a few hours, out came the do-gooders, telling people that every message they sent was another that everyone got.

More unsubscribes based on that.

Then came the loudmouths who berated the unsubscribers.

More unsunscribe notes followed that.

Now, it’s a mix… but a larger quantity of email than I’ve gotten since the list began! In fact, I’ve now gotten over 200 emails from this mess-up. Here’s as typical message at this stage:

1. Thanks for ADDING to the mayhem aj. Smart.

—–Original Message—–

From: Kayla Folkins []

Sent: Tuesday, April 13, 2004 11:48 AM

To: Aristotle Jones; Karban, James W.


Subject: Re: today’s foolishness

Actually, I’m finding the whole thing rather amusing…

—– Original Message —–

From: Aristotle Jones

To: Karban, James W.


Sent: Tuesday, April 13, 2004 9:18 AM

Subject: Re: today’s foolishness

All Right, Everybody out of the Gene-Pool!

1. It is NEVER possible to unsubscribe by posting on the mailing list you

are subscribed to.

2. Complaining about the volume of messages during this incident only ADDS

to the volume.

3. This is a perfect example of the fundamental difference between a

democracy and a constitutional republic.

4. Maybe there should be an intellectual means test when subscribing.

5. The sad part is that most of you people are supposed to be educated.


—– Original Message —–

From: “Karban, James W.”


Sent: Tuesday, April 13, 2004 8:35 AM

> Unsubscribe


I’ve yet to see anyone from Sky and Telescope chime in, or shut it all off. It’s funny to watch, but a royal pain in the butt to deal with.

Blogger’s note: On May 3 I received an email explaining the whole affair. Read on for what actually happened.


This Is SKY & TELESCOPE’s AstroAlert for Comets


[This message went out to our AstroAlert list for comets on April 27th. It

has come to our attention that some list subscribers did not receive that

message. Please accept our apologies if this is a duplicate of an e-mail

you’ve already received.]

As you know (unless you subscribed to this list only within the last two

weeks), we recently had a serious problem with our AstroAlert system. On

Monday, April 12th, we issued an alert about the discovery of Comet

Bradfield. By Tuesday morning the 13th, list subscribers had received

dozens more e-mails from our list server, some containing mysterious virus

or security warnings, and some containing pleas from other subscribers to

stop sending mail. The problem worsened throughout the day until we finally

figured out how to stop it that afternoon.

Some list members suggested that the problem was a virus. It was not; the

original alert was clean. Others suggested that the problem was a failure

to secure our Majordomo listserv software against unauthorized postings. It

was not; only Sky & Telescope’s editors and our AstroAlert partners may

post alerts, and only if they supply a valid password. The problem was a

malicious attack by an unknown person who exploited an obscure security

hole elsewhere in our e-mail system and made it possible (temporarily) for

members’ messages meant solely for us to be bounced back out to the entire

list. This hole has now been found and plugged, so the problem should not


If you tried to unsubscribe from the comet list by replying to one of the

messages you received from the list on April 13th, you did not succeed

(obviously, since you’re reading this). Instructions for how to unsubscribe

from the list are at the bottom of this message, as they are at the bottom

of every AstroAlert.

All of us at S&T apologize for the maddening inconvenience that our runaway

AstroAlert system caused on April 13th. Thanks to those of you who

weathered the storm with good humor.

Meanwhile, Comet Bradfield is putting on a good show in the dawn sky. For

details, see our online story at

And here are links to some nice pictures of Comet Bradfield taken in recent


— Rick Fienberg, Editor in Chief, Sky & Telescope

2 thoughts on “Internet Users Under Pressure”

  1. I’ve seen this happen to so many mailing lists. One very smart list owner filters any message with the word “subscribe” in it. This list has never seen this problem.

  2. I had this happen at work. I was asked to set up such a list even after my protests. They waited 2 months after everyone subscribed before they sent out the first note. By that time everyone forgot they subscribed and thought we were spamming them. The best notes were the “Why did you send this to me?” . . . “I didn’t send anything to you.” . . . “I don’t know how my e-mail sent a note to you,” ones. The unsubscribe ones were also funny. Again, not reading directions people would send one note in lower case and the next couple would be in all caps, yelling to unsubscribe.

    I saved all the responses. I look at them whenever I need a good laugh at human stupidity.

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