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[joint post] unsubscribe by Alan Z. '23

a post about fortune cookies

Alan: Oh boy, here we go again.01 CJ: I find this appropriate given you watched Mamma Mia five times this summer. (Alan: For the record, it’s been <em>seven</em> times in this <em>calendar year</em>, and, also, spoilers for a future blog post.)

CJ: Why does it have to be “oh boy”? “Oh girl”? “Oh child”? “Oh sweet mercies”?

Alan: It’s too early in the post to get derailed, CJ. The people have come here for fortune cookie content, not pedantic deliberation on the origins of particular phrases in the English language.

CJ: Business, then. It was a dark and stormy night…

Alan: It was a dark night. I don’t think it was particularly stormy. I was visiting Shuli in East Campus one night, and, afterwards, thought I might as well stop at CJ’s room while I was at it.

CJ: It was a Friday night after a party, I think, so I was exhausted. Alan and I were sitting on my excellent couch and shooting the breeze.

Alan: What does “shooting the breeze” mean anyway?

CJ: I’m pretty sure you asked that just to give me an opportunity to snap back at you, but I’m above that. I’m above petty games, Alan. I’m so above petty games, in fact, that in that evening, my thoughts were filled with pious and noble ambitions, which I so eloquently conveyed in our insightful conversation.

Alan: Ah yes, our conversation. How did we get there?

CJ: We were talking about emails. You know how MIT has big email culture? Well, that day, we’d gotten some flame wars sent over email to all the undergraduate dorm discussion lists.

Alan: The classic MIT flame war looks like this. Some poor, unsuspecting frosh accidentally sends an email to every undergraduate dorm mailing list without bcc’ing, meaning that anyone can reply-all to the email. Since these mailing lists have thousands of people on them, someone inevitably does, and it all sort of cascades from there.

CJ: Someone replies, giving advice about how to unsubscribe from the thread. The advice was to reply with the message “unsubscribe”.

Alan: This, of course, does not work, and only results in an additional flood of people sending the word “unsubscribe” to thousands of people, sometimes to the point where MIT’s email servers start slowing down.

CJ: Do they reply “unsubscribe” because they think it’ll unsubscribe them, or because they want to keep feeding the flame? We may never know.

Alan: Regardless,02 CJ: It's irregardless, Alan. an event like this had just happened. The truth is, however, that it isn’t actually that hard to unsubscribe from a mailing list, or even just a specific flame war. CJ and I wanted to ask the question: “what can’t you unsubscribe from?”

CJ: What can’t you unsubscribe from? Mail. Not email. Actual, physical mail. And you know what’d be really funny? Us, sending everyone mail, all saying nothing but “unsubscribe”.

Alan: We started by considering mailing real envelopes to people with stamps and everything, but that seemed like a lot of work. I mean, writing out addresses would be a pain and envelopes and stamps cost money, so it all seemed like too much hassle to actually manage.

CJ: But what if we didn’t have to address them? After all, the mailboxes in dorms are managed by undergrads. I lived in East Campus, and Alan lived in Next, and we both knew desk workers who could get us access to the mailboxes.

Alan: This was progress. We ran into another roadblock, though, which is that CJ and I are incredibly lazy, and cutting out pieces of paper which just said “unsubscribe” and putting them into envelopes seemed annoying.

CJ: But what if we didn’t use envelopes? What if we just cut small slips of paper that said unsubscribe and put them in the mailboxes?

Alan: That seemed too low-brow. See, the incredibly difficult thing about being both lazy and a perfectionist is that one is never satisfied.

CJ: MIT students, huh.

Alan: Eventually—and perhaps because of related shenanigans occurring in my wing of Next House at the time—we thought: “what if we bought custom fortune cookies which just said the word ‘unsubscribe’ in them?”

CJ: My first thought was: no way. That would be too expensive, right?

Alan: My first thought was: this is stupid. My second thought was: let’s do it.

CJ: One quick search later, we found a website selling custom fortune cookies for about $0.70 per cookie, and cheaper if ordered in bulk.

Alan: We wanted to deliver the fortune cookies to Next and EC, which meant ordering around 700 cookies.

CJ: The pricing was such that it cost around the same to buy 700 and 1000: around $500.

Alan: This is bad pricing design, but we saw the opportunity, and we were absolutely going to exploit it.

CJ: But where could we get $500? As much as I wanted to see this happen, I wasn’t willing to use my own money.

Alan: This is where the third participant in our story comes in. The De Florez Fund for Humor.

ink splotch that says "De Flores Fund For Humor"

Alan: The De Florez Fund is a grant run by MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, which gives grants to various student organizations when they want to do something funny, or, as they put it, “make MIT smile.”

CJ: We promise we didn’t get paid03 CJ: Not by the De Florez Fund, at least. MIT Admissions pays us to write blog posts. (Alan: <a href="">This could be you!</a>) to write this post.

Alan: I’ve been in a few clubs which have gotten De Florez grants before, and they’ve always been very nice, so I wondered if we could apply for a De Florez fund grant for this project.

CJ: There’s a saying I’ve heard, along the lines of, if you want to do anything in MIT, you can get funding for it.

Alan: So we decided to go for it. And by “decided to go for it,” I mean that, on that Tuesday, we put a grant proposal together in the span of about two hours at a random table in the third-floor atrium of Building 34.

CJ: You make it sound like the proposal was hastily written. I thought it was rather eloquent. Quote: “this project hopes to provide to students who are tired of reading their email inboxes, a pleasant surprise upon opening their mailboxes, especially during a stressful time of the semester.”

Alan: We also called the fortune cookie place to ask how long it would take to make all the cookies, since we didn’t want them to arrive after everybody had left campus already. They assured us the cookies would arrive in no time.

CJ: I also asked if they would reproduce the message faithfully on the fortune cookies, punctuation and capitalization and all. It was important to us that it said “unsubscribe”, all lowercase, no period at the end. The nice person on the other end of the phone said yes, and we were satisfied.

Alan: Honestly, we were more than satisfied. I feel like this is the exactly the kind of request that a company that makes custom fortune cookies might be exasperated by, and the person on the other end of the line was very nice to us and our particular demands.

CJ: We submitted the grant proposal at 12:48 PM.

Alan: I went to Maseeh for lunch, and then went home. Then, at 2:58 PM, just two short hours later, CJ sent me a message that just said “APPROVED”.

CJ: I was ecstatic. I had a feeling it was gonna be approved, but seeing that email gave me so much joy. I placed the fortune cookie order immediately.

Alan: We filed the reimbursement request with MIT’s systems just twenty minutes after the approval email came in. This was an incredible turnaround.

CJ: Two days later, we got confirmation that it’d arrive the next Tuesday. Alan and I made plans to receive the fortune cookies and place them in mailboxes that night.

Alan: Just to clear, the time between having the idea and a thousand fortune cookies arriving at Next House was just a week and a half. Just ten days. The UPS Ground shipping information said that the package was twenty pounds.

CJ: That execution, man, that was fast. Er, woman. Person?04 Alan: please just imagine me gently shaking my head.

Alan: Unfortunately, this is where we have to introduce a fourth participant in the story. COVID-19.

CJ: Alan got COVID.

Alan: More specifically, my roommate tested positive for COVID just twelve hours after we had spent a significant amount of time sightsinging barbershop quartets together.05 honestly, probably the quintessentially 'me' way to get COVID. Naturally, I tested positive around 24 hours later. This meant that I would be unable to see our plan come to fruition, but the show had to go on.

CJ: I took the shuttle to Next and greeted our story’s fifth participant: Jason C. ’22.

Alan: Our lord and savior.

CJ: Jason was working desk that night, so Alan and I told him about our plan. He agreed to help, of course.

conversation where Jason C. '22 agrees to help us with our project

Alan: I sat quietly in my room, wondering how it was going. Alas.

CJ: Jason and I opened the box. And wow, what a sight. We sent Alan some pictures.

CJ: We filtered through the thousand fortune cookies, discarding the ones that were broken. I didn’t feel too bad about “discarding” them, though, because Jason was saving them all to eat for himself later.

Alan: Apparently, these fortune cookies also happened to taste particularly good.

CJ: Have you not tasted the fortune cookies?

Alan: Of course I have. The first thing I did when I got out of isolation was go to my mailbox and collect my “unsubscribe” cookie.

CJ: Well, you certainly aren’t the only diligent Next resident to check their mailbox.

Alan: While CJ and Jason were still presumably hard at work behind desk—

CJ: —and it was hard work, because we were short06 I am 158 cm and Jason is about as tall as me. (Alan: if only I were there.) and the mailboxes were tall—

Alan: —Nicole H. ‘2207 who features heavily in an upcoming blog post. had apparently sent an email to next-forum, our dorm mailing list. Remember those “related shenanigans occurring in my wing of Next House at the time”? Well, here they are. I don’t think I can write anything funnier than the email itself, so here it is:

unhinged email from nicole h. '22 about her goal to eat 100 fortune cookies by the end of the year

CJ: The reason Nicole found out in the first place, I think, was because Jeffery Y. ’22 found out and sent it to some group chat. And my confession, Alan, is that I told Jeffery to come check his mailbox that night.

Alan: You did not!

CJ: I did. I’m sorry. It would’ve happened anyway, because you know how scrupulous Nexties are about their inboxes.

Alan: Ah yes, MIT students and young people in general are obviously notoriously good at checking their mail.

CJ: They’re not, by the way. Jason told me that half the fortune cookies were still there on his next shift.

Alan: Honestly, there were probably still a couple dozen left in the mailboxes by the end of the semester. What a shame.

CJ: After we infiltrated the mailboxes in Next, we packed the remaining cookies in the box, and I took the Tech Shuttle back to East Campus.

Alan: Unable to help in any other way, I sent an extremely cryptic email to both next-forum and the EC mailing list, telling folks to look out for surprises in their mailboxes and to fill out a feedback form once they had done so.

cryptic email from alan z. '23 about checking your mailboxes

the complete lack of details is astounding

Alan: CJ’s part of the story is, of course, much more interesting.

CJ: In EC, I walk up to this innocent desk worker. For the life of me, I can’t remember who it was, but it wasn’t someone I talked to often, if at all. I place the huge box I’m carrying on the desk, and guess what I say.

Alan: sigh. What did you say, CJ?

CJ: Thanks for humoring me, Alan. I said, “I have six hundred fortune cookies in this box all saying the word ‘unsubscribe’, can you let me in so I can place one in each mailbox?” They stared at me with wide eyes, waiting for me to give even a hint of explanation, but I refused. Suddenly, they burst out laughing, and open the door to let me in. After all, what else would you have said in that situation?

Alan: I mean, they could’ve said no.

CJ: Yeah, but the memes.

Alan: The call of the memes was too strong.

CJ: So true, bestie.

Alan: So yeah. That’s the end of the story. To summarize, we convinced MIT to give us five hundred dollars08 CJ: Five hundred plus <em>shipping</em>. to buy a thousand fortune cookies, just so we could make a stupid joke into a reality.

CJ: Was it worth it, Alan? Was it worth buying a thousand fortune cookies and placing them into a bunch of mailboxes?

Alan: I mean, the fortune cookies tasted good, so…yes? Also, I didn’t do any of the “placing them into a bunch of mailboxes part,” so definitely worth it on my end. All I had to do was write some dumb emails.

CJ: Alan, I was trying to lead into the data analysis.

Alan: Oh, of course. How could I possibly forget the most important part of this project: customer feedback. Here are some highlights from the Google Form:

Jason C. ‘22: what does ǝqᴉɹɔsqnsun mean?
Toomas T. ‘23: resubscribe
Paolo ‘old: i didn’t get a fortune. still in need of one. ty.
anonymous: i wanna know if they were all the same (Alan: as you can see from this blog post, yes)


pie chart where the answer to "did you like your fortune" is overwhelming yes

if you read the options in order, it sounds like a poem

Alan: And, finally, here are some of the important conversations that followed.

[7:04 PM] Fatima N. ‘25: *picture of fortune*
[7:04 PM] Fatima N. ‘25: ihtfp
[7:05 PM] Alan: how do you feel
[7:05 PM] Fatima N. ‘25: violated

[8:12 PM] Derek Y. ‘22: I’m scared
[8:14 PM] Alan: hi scared, i’m alan
[8:21 PM] CJ: lmaooooo
the next day
[3:27 PM] Derek Y. ‘22: bruh

  1. CJ: I find this appropriate given you watched Mamma Mia five times this summer. (Alan: For the record, it’s been seven times in this calendar year, and, also, spoilers for a future blog post.) back to text
  2. CJ: It's irregardless, Alan. back to text
  3. CJ: Not by the De Florez Fund, at least. MIT Admissions pays us to write blog posts. (Alan: This could be you!) back to text
  4. Alan: please just imagine me gently shaking my head. back to text
  5. honestly, probably the quintessentially 'me' way to get COVID. back to text
  6. I am 158 cm and Jason is about as tall as me. (Alan: if only I were there.) back to text
  7. who features heavily in an upcoming blog post. back to text
  8. CJ: Five hundred plus shipping. back to text