A message from the future

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Reader JM has been away from home since last Thursday (Nov. 1), and plans to fly back home tomorrow (Nov. 7). This morning (Nov. 6) she got an email from the U.S. Postal Service reading as follows:

From: MailHold@usps.com
Sent: Tuesday, November 06, 2012 1:38 AM
To: [redacted]
Subject: USPS – Holdmail Expiration

Your hold mail request has ended 11/07/2012
The Hold Mail Service for 11/01/2012 has ended. So we'll be resuming your regular mail delivery. Remember to pick up your held mail at the Post Office if you're not having it delivered to your address.


  1. Rob said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 10:32 am

    The other day in class I was showing my international students the conventions of book title pages and publication information, so I reached down to a book on my desk which happened to be a new release that Wiley-Blackwell sent me. I put the book on the visualizer/projector and turned to the publication information where to my students' surprise the first line read "This edition first published 2013"
    I paused dramatically and said, "This book's from the future."

  2. Lazygal said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 11:13 am

    I got the same – and then they delivered it a day early (when I was still not home).

  3. MattF said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 11:26 am

    The 11/06 email is merely correlated with the ending of the postal hold. A causal email will be sent on 11/07.

  4. Nicholas Waller said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

    @ Rob "This edition first published 2013" –

    Back in the 80s and 90s I used to work for the UK international office of college publishers Prentice Hall, and I remember we (or our US publishing people) used to do this sort of thing a fair amount.

    Mainly, as I recall it, it was in the last 2-3 months of the year – ie the first academic term. I can't remember if this happened both to new books and new editions of established books, though I suspect mainly the latter. I assume your copy, as you say you were "sent" it, is a free sample for you to consider for adoption as the class text in the next academic year, ie 2013/14.

    The motivation is/was freshness maximisation, so that students buying the book in September 2013 will feel that it is bang up to date (even if actually nearly a year old). Unlike a movie, which gets its biggest sale on the opening weekend, adopted textbooks might well have their maximum sales eight months or so after publication. I imagine freshness maximisation is even more important with these fixed, printed items in this time of instantly editable online content.

    I used idly to wonder, without ever researching it, whether having the copyright date 2013 means the book can legally be copied to everyone's heart's content up to the end of December 31st 2012.

    Magazines also do this sort of thing – the current issue of Asimov's seems to be December 2012.

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

    As Geoff Pullum says, English has no proper future tense, and in this case the present perfect seems to be serving as a kind of future.

    By the way, it's common for the nominal date of American magazines to be the that of the day they are pulled off the rack, typically (for a weekly) a week after the actual publication date. For someone unfamiliar with the convention it seems odd, for example, to find no mention of the San Francisco earthquake of October 17, 1989, in the October 23, 1989, issue of Time,

  6. Rodger C said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

    Yes, but why do title pages solemnly inform us that the book contains pages and centimeters?

  7. James Iry said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

    I wonder if it's not a linguistic glitch but just a minor technical glitch where the email was sent a day early.

  8. Nathan said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 1:46 pm

    @Nicholas Waller: In the copyright regime of the USA, at least, the copyright notice and date are certainly not what establishes copyright. The book was copyrighted from the moment it was printed ("fixed in a tangible medium of expression"). But IANAL.

  9. Rod Johnson said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

    Comics used to be published predated, and in some cases the schedules were so out of sync that the October issue would come out in April. I've never been sure exactly what glitch caused that to happen.

  10. Ellen K. said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

    Coby Lubliner: As Geoff Pullum says, English has no proper future tense, and in this case the present perfect seems to be serving as a kind of future.

    I don't see how. Yes, the present tense can sometimes be used for the future. But the particular construction here is "has ended". That construction refers to something that already happens. In this case, the present tense referring to the past, in a sense.

  11. Dick Margulis said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

    On the copyright page question (which I actually know something about): The Library of Congress requires that the copyright be registered within three months of publication (this has nothing to do with copyright, which obtains the moment the work is rendered in fixed form, meaning the instant it is keyed into a file or scribbled on paper). Registration of copyright has to do with how much you can collect in damages if someone infringes, but it doesn't fix the copyright date. In any case, the consequence is that most publishers advance the copyright date and publication date on the title and copyright pages to the next year for any book whose publication date is October 1 or later. The reason is the appearance of freshness, and it truly does affect sales for trade books (I can't speak for textbooks, but the same effect may work there).

    Going back to the email from USPS, though, the message comes from" MailHold." The subject refers to "Holdmail." The body refers to the "Hold Mail" service and to you "held mail." SOMEBODY BUY THESE FOLKS A FRIGGIN' STYLE GUIDE, WILL YA?

  12. Faith said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

    @Rodger C — Assuming you really want to know: when complete, the title page verso tells you how many numbered pages the book contains and how many centimeters tall it is. This is Cataloguing-in-Publication data that is used by local libraries, and it is about being able to match a record for an item in a library catalogue with an item in hand. This is important for books with multiple printings and editions, for research-integrity purposes. (We do it for every book because we don't know which books are going to go on to multiple editions). Because the CiP data is often created before the book is finalized, those fields are sometimes blank, and local libraries will fill that in themselves. So yes, to the uninitiated it looks like it's saying the book has pages and centimeters. But now you are initiated. Congratulations.

  13. Joe Green said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

    @Rodger C, @Faith,

    Yes, but why do title pages solemnly inform us that the book contains pages and centimeters?

    They do? I hadn't noticed, and indeed when I pluck two at random from the shelf, neither seem to. Am I reading the wrong kind of book? Or from the wrong kind of publisher? Or in the wrong country? Or simply looking at the wrong page? You mean the one telling me (sometimes) the ISBN and what it's typeset in, I presume?

  14. The Ridger said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 5:57 pm

    I've gotten several of these notices. Fortunately, they haven't actually restarted delivery while I was still on vacation, so I don't think the notices mean what they so clearly say they mean.

  15. Chris C. said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 6:44 pm

    On a peripheral note, when the client of an MMORPG I play crashed on me recently, I posted the stack dump it automatically writes to my system clipboard into their "Bugs and Glitches" forum. The dump as written includes my account name.

    "Now we know your account name!" replied another user.

    However, I'd been careful to remove that information before I posted. On cold, damp evenings, I comfort myself with the knowledge that some script kiddie out there is diligently trying to crack the password of a user named "redacted".

  16. Rodger C said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 8:54 am

    @Joe Green: I was referring to the line that often reads, "[space] p. [space] cm."

    @Faith: Thanks. I sort of thought something like that.

  17. Joe Green said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 7:27 pm

    @Rodger C: yes, I assumed it would be that explicit. I looked at even more books and found no example; finally I found a couple in some textbooks. It does look rather strange. I might just fill in the gaps myself :-) (Why only in textbooks though?)

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