Just when you thought it was safe to enjoy a beer: Beware the downloaded patch applied in haste

Let us tell you a tale of the Mailman's Apprentice


Who, Me? The weekend is over and Monday is here. Celebrate your IT prowess with another there-but-for-the-grace confession from the Who, Me? archives.

Our tale, from a reader the Regomiser has elected to dub "Simon", takes us back to the early part of this century and to an anonymous antipodean institution of learning.

Simon was working at the local Student Union (or "guild" as the locals called it), which was having problems with uppity education staff censoring the emissions of students. Simon was therefore commissioned to set up a fully independent newsletter.

"We had scored access to the Oracle user database," he said, "but only via the awful Filemaker Mac database. So I built a bridge to export it out to MySQL.

"So far so good."

His next task was to tweak Mailman (we're pretty sure he was talking about the GNU Mailman mailing list manager, which was at that point in the throes of youth) to point at MySQL.

A hunt online turned up a patch, which he duly applied. A view was created to massage the data into something that Mailman would like, and Simon configured things for approved mail only (this was, after all, to be a newsletter rather than discussion list) and declared the independent newsletter ready. Or so he thought.

Simon told the guild secretary that the new toy was good to go: "all she needed to do was send a mail to that server, then go to the admin and approve the list."

"And then, being a late Friday afternoon, I went to the pub (fortunately just over the road from the guild)."

He was just about to embark on his second pint when a co-worker burst into the watering hole, blurting: "The server's gone crazy – everyone is receiving hundreds of out of office replies. EVERYONE!"

"I knew in an instant what was wrong and it was bad," understated Simon. Pint carefully put down, he sprinted to the office and, in his desperation to turn off the possessed machine, managed to knock the server off the desk in his frantic yank of the power cord.

"At least it was turned off."

It transpired that Simon's helpfully downloaded patch had done a bit more than just point Mailman at MySQL. "Turned out," he said, "that patch had completely obliterated both the permissions system AND the bounce detection code."

The result was that the newsletter had gone out as planned. However, it had hit 50 staff-member mailboxes with Out of Office replies set, which were sent back to the reply-to address. The hopelessly borked mailserver dutifully forwarded these on to every address in the list, thus triggering another round of Out of Office replies, and so it went on. Over and over. Right up until Simon physically pulled the power and accidentally sent the server crashing to the floor.

"I never drank so hard as I did that night," he said, "it was the worst day of my career."

Really the worst? We know of one person that accidentally spammed a company's entire internal and external mailing list with a message enquiring where the toilet paper was kept. He followed it up with a cheery "Sorry, found it now!" much to the delight of clients concerned for his digestive wellbeing.

You too can share your memories of email shenanigans or mailing list mayhem, with a confession to Who, Me? - right here. ®

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