My report on Bunty Justin's complaint that her subscription number for Home & Gardens magazine has 43 characters in it has brought both reassurance and further complaint.
Steve Willard, circulation manager of Four Wheeler magazine, tells me that these numbers, which the trades call "match codes," are "not so foreboding," and are very important.
"Quite simply," he writes, "a match code is an abbreviation of subscription information ensuring that each unique subscriber's account will be handled without flaw. . . .
"Most firms have a unique formula, but a general 'decoding' might go like this: The number contains some or all of the numbers of your ZIP code, perhaps the first, third, and fourth letters of your last name, a sampling of the numbers of your street address or P.O. box, a sampling of the letters of your street name, and some check digits to make sure the computer record is correct. In a very large subscription file, the magazine may also include a sampling of your city or state or even first name, and may possibly include the original source of your subscription and your expiration date. . . .
"Sure, that ends up making a long and cryptic code, but it's the best and most efficient way discovered to date to keep subscription records unique and accurate. In the current tidal wave of computerization, numbers seem to further compound treatment of individuals. But, rest assured, the match code on your magazine mailing label is yours and yours alone, and hopefully as unique as each individual. . . ."
That's all very impressive, but I still think it's weird.
Why isn't my name and address unique enough? There is no other Jack Smith, as common as that name is, who lives at my precise address in Los Angeles, ZIP code 90065.
What bugs me most about 43-character numbers is that some of the magazines ask you to use them in correspondence. I don't believe that anyone, with any degree of certainty, can copy off 43 meaningless characters without making a mistake. Try it.
Speaking of overkill, Paul Sandorff of Granada Hills observes that "some idea of the ridiculousness" of Justin's number can be gained by considering that "if the Earth were comprised entirely of fine sand, each grain could be individually identified with its own personal 43-character number and not exhaust the supply of different file numbers. . . ."
Sandorff points out that magazines aren't the only businesses guilty of prodigality with numbers.
"There are only 120 area codes in the telephone book; the three-digit code, with leading zeroes and ones omitted, would comfortably handle six times as many. Then why do we need to dial or punch a one when we identify the area code?"
Another example, he says, is the account number given customers by the Department of Water and Power. "No slouches they--the number is 22 digits in length, enough to give every person on the face of the Earth, as well as all those who have lived and died since mankind began, some hundred billion different numbers each. . . .
"Consider license plate numbers. The obsolete six-character display was good for at least 2 billion different vehicles, 50 times as many as we now have. Not all bad, however; seven characters has allowed us the pleasure of personalized plates, even if it makes it impossible to remember our own."
Good point. If we weren't allowed seven digits in our license plates we couldn't have the fun of watching some girl zip past us on the freeway with plates like SCUZA ME and DO I BUG U.
David S. Robinson writes that while many match codes defy interpretation, he has decoded a few.
"One quite common code is the first, third and fourth letters of the subscriber's name. Hence the JST in Ms. Justin's code, the SIT in yours, and the RBI in mine. Somewhere in the numbers, you will probably find some of the numbers in your street address and, perhaps, a snippet of the street name--and the ZIP code.
"Although most codes have elements unique to a particular magazine," he adds, "it is fun to locate and interpret the similarities."
Julian (Bud) Lesser thinks he got to the bottom of this mystery when he asked Dear Abby's "other sister, Harriet" in Colorado Springs, signing his name Dis Gruntled, and got this answer:
"Dear Gruntled: Your letter is one of thousands asking the same question. No one here would answer my calls, so I wrote my fellow columnist How Com in a Third World country where they actually process the labels. He replied:
" 'Dear Harriet: Why is everyone asking the same question? I asked my daughter Mensa to punch it into her Abacus II and she got these answers:
" 'WRONG COMMAND
" 'HARMFUL IF SWALLOWED'
"So I asked my publishers, and this is what he says, but not for attribution:
" 'The long numbers are to discourage people from writing us. It's quite efficient, but if people do write in we tell them they gave a wrong number.' "
I am disturbed by the following from James C. McCormick:
"Your recent ruminations about the lengthy strings of numbers by which individuals in today's complex computerized society are classified and encoded came to mind a few days ago when I received my invoice from your very own Los Angeles Times. Would you believe a 35-digit sequence at the bottom of the invoice?"
William Swan of Glendale makes the same complaint about The Times. He says, "Here is the number on my bill: 31703D0438120200031703D04381202000."
My advice to McCormick and Swan is to pay their bills and don't complain, like me.