Been around Lerner lately? Of course you have, everything happens in Lerner. But could there be a darker side to the building that we students don’t know about? Investigate with Bwogger Nadra Rahman as she tries to get to the bottom of the sinister mailbox replacement fee hike.
A persistent tipster will not let this go, so here goes: Lerner mailbox replacement keys now cost $50 (according to the official website), an increase from last year’s price of $13. You probably check your mail once every three weeks, and the rest of the time your key hangs out in a drawer filled with old math homework, or at the very bottom of your backpack coated with a fine layer of granola dust, so this is troubling. And while it’s relatively easy to swallow a fee of $13, $50 can be conceptualized as six Chipotle burritos, or discounted tickets to the latest buzzworthy Broadway musical, or even a pretty substantial haul of sketchy eBay goods. It hurts a lot more.
I reached out to the Undergraduate Mail Service for comment on the price increase, but all I received was a cryptic message. It read simply “Follow the numbers,” and nothing else. Puzzled already, I noticed an attachment to the email: a photograph of a battered key lying on the unmistakable Lerner ramps. It felt like I was getting into something a bit bigger than myself.
I have followed the numbers, and this is what I have to show for it: the transition we care about is the one from $13 to $50, so naturally 13 and 50 are our beginning values. If you add the two numbers, you get 63, and that divided by 3 (the floor your mailbox is on) is 21. If the digits of this number are switched, the resulting number is 12. The difference of 12 and 1 is 11, and the only digit in 11 is 1. From this, it follows naturally that the conclusion of this calculation is 1/11, a date. It’s not just any date, either. It’s the birthday of your favorite “started from the bottom now we here” historical crush (and noted alum), Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton was born in 1755, and if that figure is mirrored (because you know it couldn’t be that straightforward), you are left with 5571—a Lerner mailbox number. Interesting. Unfortunately, mailboxes each have unique keys, and there was no way to access this particular box without its key.
Then I remembered the battered key, lonely and distressed on the ramps. I knew some Columbia student had to have found it on the ramp, and that they, being an ethical and global citizen, would return it to Public Safety. And so, I ventured into the bowels of Low Library, and after enduring the stoic judgement of the officers and the violent fumblings of student aides, emerged with the key, warm and alive in the palm of my hand.
I don’t know what I expected when I opened the mailbox, but it wasn’t a flash drive. And I didn’t expect, when I inserted the flash drive into my laptop, to get a virus, but I did. After ridding myself of the virus (a long and laborious process), I opened the not-so-innocuous folder marked “Project AlHam”—and to my surprise, I was greeted by page after page of scanned documents: the letters and documents sent and received by Columbia students via mail.
Certain phrases, like “everything sucks”, “manuscript for your consideration”, and “activate your debit card by” were circled and compiled and analyzed. I found databases and algorithms, a frightening display of previously-unencountered bureaucratic efficiency, all in an comprehensive attempt to see what motivates, disgusts, alienates, and attracts Columbia students. The huge project seems, ostensibly, to be an extension of Columbia’s more public efforts to collect information on student life, and from the documentation I viewed, has informed different facets of administrative decision-making –from the setting of Bacchanal prices and the breadth of course offerings, to the number of days the lawns stay uncovered and the daily menu at Ferris. It is being funded by the increase in key replacement fees; in fact, some students have been recruited to distract their friends as they get mail simply so another can stealthily abscond with the key, thus generating more income for the service.
It’s a nefarious breach of privacy, and yet—I grew up in the era of the NSA. It’s not that weird, right? The email was probably just from some mailroom guy tired of having to scan countless sheets of paper, not an enthused tipster. And it’s not like I ever get anything important in the mail besides letters from the bank. I can see the University’s point of view: sheltered Ivy-Leaguers that we are, we need protecting, and they’re just trying to help. After all, when has this school ever done anything that has resulted in harm for its students?
Sleuthing for the truth via Shutterstock