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Breaking the chain will set you free

Possibly it has something to do with resolutions for the new year, or maybe people are just cooped up inside because of the weather, but I’ve been receiving more chain letters in my e-mail inbox. You know the kind: the virus-that-will-blow-up-your-computer warnings, the sick-kid’s-dying-wish, the what’s-everyone’s-birthday list, and so on.

Typically, these messages exhort you, the reader, to pass them along to five or 10 friends, promising some form of good luck if you do so, and threatening some ill omen if you don’t. As I routinely delete these messages and have yet to be struck by lightning or the like, I have to believe the threats are empty. On the other hand, having never passed such messages along, I can’t say for sure that good luck wouldn’t come of the practice. I am, however, content to stay the course.

Most are fairly harmless, in that they’re not directly scams, though some begin circulating simply to harvest names for mailing lists: more spam will follow.

Some, however, are clearly pyramid schemes. The classic example of this is what’s known as the Dave Rhodes chain letter, a longtime staple on Usenet newsgroups. You’ve probably seen a variation of this one:

“My name is Dave Rhodes.  In September 1988 my car was repossessed and the bill collectors were hounding me like you wouldn’t believe. I was laid off and my unemployment checks had run out. The only escape I had from the pressure of failure was my computer and my modem. I longed to turn my avocation into my vocation. This January 1989 my family and I went on a ten day cruise to the tropics. I bought a Lincoln Town Car for CASH in February 1989.”

The e-mail then talks about how this is not a scam, that it really works and that it’s perfectly legal. Wrong on all three counts, but there’s a sucker born every minute.

Later, the post details how you’re going to make a fortune in a matter of weeks by investing just $5. The gambit involves sending $1 to each of the first five names on the list provided. You then insert your name and address in the first spot, bumping the others down accordingly, and then begin spamming others with this message.

In time, envelopes containing cash ($1) will begin arriving at your door. You’re on your way to Easy Street. Or are you?
Not likely.

Like all pyramid schemes – all of these chain letters are pyramid schemes, but not necessarily for financial gain – this one will eventually leave at least 90 per cent of the participants high and dry, even under the best-case scenario of unanimous participation.

It’s all about the math, as explained by the Rutgers University computer science department, which maintains a list of such things.

“The reason people are even tempted by these schemes is that the human mind does not have an intuitive view of geometrical progressions.

Suppose we presume the chain letter to have a list of five people. You are asked to send one postcard to the person on top of the list, and re-mail the letter to five friends. You are promised thousands of postcards from all over the world if everyone participates. Your cost: a postcard, five photocopies and envelopes, and six stamps. Not much to risk to see what comes back …”

If every on the list participates and makes five copies, you are one of 5x5x5x5 or 3,125 people receiving copies in your “generation” of the letter. So far, the numbers don’t seem outlandish. And looking the other way, you stand to get postcards from 3,125 people. That doesn’t seem impossible either. But view it as the “chain” you’re in the middle of, and there will be 5 to the 11th power or 48,828,125 people receiving copies in that generation of the letter. That’s already more than the population of Canada, and would surpass the population of the U.S. in the next generation.

Simply put, there aren’t enough people to keep even the most innocuous chain letter going.

So, why do we perpetuate chain letters at all? Each one you receive came from somebody, after all.

An Ohio university psychology course looked to determine just that.

“One reason is that it is a great source for obtaining new e-mail addresses. These addresses may lead to new contacts.

“Some people send chain letters simply to see how far it will go or to harass another person. There may be times when someone decided that they want to damage a person’s or organization’s reputation.”

The originators are one thing, but when we pass along these letters, we’re chewing up Internet bandwidth (again, it’s about the exponential power). Quite simply, many of us perpetuate these e-mails because of superstition – we don’t want to risk bad luck – or wishful thinking about the benefits that will come from the good luck we’ve been promised by passing the message along.

In reality, you’ll be doing yourself and everybody else down the line a favour by simply hitting the Del key.

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