I have a crazy friend who says we dont need zipcodes...is he CRAZY?
April 25, 2013 11:15 AM   Subscribe

On July 1, 1963, The US Post Office introduced the five-digit ZIP Code with a series of PSAs broadcast on national TV. The Atlantic looks at a new report [PDF] that details the history of the now $9.5 billion a year product and its current state of affairs.
posted by Potomac Avenue (63 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
Scientists have discovered that even monkeys can memorize five numbers.
posted by dsfan at 11:21 AM on April 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


That PSA is making me want to join a rightwing gunnut party and shoot metric speed limit signs down.
posted by DU at 11:24 AM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you ever wandered why the British Invasion happened to pop music when it did, it's because the US shores at the time were protected by the Swingin' Six.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:25 AM on April 25, 2013


I think they need to deduct about a fifty dollars from that value to account for the annoyance I experience whenever I enter my address into a web form and it "corrects" my address to city that I do not live in based on the zip code.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 11:31 AM on April 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


I like the British Postcode system, because it's *so* much more specific than ZIP Codes are in the US. They can usually place you within a specific neighborhood (and specific house in some cases).

The alphanumeric numbering scheme also allows the codes to be pretty short, despite being so precise.
posted by schmod at 11:36 AM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


The title sounds like something I would expect to appear on AskMe.
posted by deanc at 11:36 AM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


cosmic.osmo: the USPS has a single "preferred city" for each zip code that they'd prefer for everyone to use, even if they don't actually live in that city. That's what your address is being corrected to. There are also "acceptable cities". Using preferred or acceptable cities will, as the USPS says, "minimize delivery delays". Look at what cities are in a zip on this USPS page.
posted by zsazsa at 11:40 AM on April 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


The British system is so fine-grained that you can just type a post code into your GPS and end up close enough to see your destination, which saves a lot of typing.
The letter & number combos seem more memorable too. I still don't know the full zip code for the US house I live in, and I've been here for years.
posted by w0mbat at 11:47 AM on April 25, 2013


The Irish concept of town lands, still sort of used. Basically everywhere has a name, even the empty spaces between places. My brother took much enjoyment when he had to send Christmas cards to his girlfriend's parents as the address was something like "The Walshes, Camlough, Armagh" (name changed).
posted by Damienmce at 11:49 AM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


British post codes usually contain 7 alphanumeric characters with a split in the middle to make the thing easier to remember (mine looked like AB12 3CD).

If we assume that they're using the full range of base-36 characters, that's 78,364,164,095 possible postcodes.
posted by schmod at 11:50 AM on April 25, 2013


Golly, I don't know how anyone had time to send letters when there was quality entertainment like that on TV!
posted by phunniemee at 11:52 AM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Canadian postal codes, a combination of letters and numbers, make for more fun mnemonics. V6B 4A2 was 'vacuum six basements, four attics too" as Arthur Black used to say.

(as I demonstrate my extreme age in referring to Arthur Black)
posted by GuyZero at 11:54 AM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


I like the British Postcode system, because it's *so* much more specific than ZIP Codes are in the US.

ZIP+4. Mostly it goes down to individual buildings.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:01 PM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


On a related note, see Allan Sherman's The Let's All Call Up A.T & T And Protest To The President March, protesting all digit telephone dialing.
posted by zachlipton at 12:01 PM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


The 'Swingin' Six' remind me a lot of the Let's Go Out to the Lobby Characters.



GuyZero: Make Five Weiners, I'll Eat Six. We're both old.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:02 PM on April 25, 2013


Canadian postal codes, a combination of letters and numbers, make for more fun mnemonics. V6B 4A2 was 'vacuum six basements, four attics too" as Arthur Black used to say.

I memorized my current postal code by turning it into a Craigslist personal ad for hydrogenation: M4C 4H2 becomes "molecules looking for carbon: 4H2"
No fatties, 14C need not apply.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 12:20 PM on April 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


The great thing about Zip codes is that they are free. Not so in other countries; in the UK for many years it was utterly locked down, and Canada Post is suing the free geocoder.ca service, partly because they had the audacity to use the term "postal codesOM" for their crowdsourced data.

Of course, in the future, we'll just use "geo:" URIs like geo:43.64685,-79.38339.
posted by scruss at 12:24 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think they need to deduct about a fifty dollars from that value to account for the annoyance I experience whenever I enter my address into a web form and it "corrects" my address to city that I do not live in based on the zip code.

If your mom worked for the USPS like mine, you'd know that the city really doesn't matter. The USPS only really cares about the ZIP code.

Instead, you'd be annoyed that you had to fill in the city/state AND the ZIP code. I should really only have to fill in the ZIP, that should be enough info to populate the city and state.
posted by VTX at 12:28 PM on April 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


BEHIND THE MUSIC: The Swingin' Six

The years had not been kind to the Swingin' Six. There was Mike's heroin bust, Marcy's very public divorce, Alan's imprisonment for South African espionage, and Sara's horrific journey of plastic surgery. Only Bob and Barry were able to keep the band going, on the road with journeyman singers. The seventies were especially difficult as hotel after hotel and city after city closed their doors to the "obscenely named sextet", as the Cincinnati Globe once termed them, although our investigations found little to corroborate the allegations beyond unpaid minibar bills. The sponsorship by the Post Office had long since been terminated when the throat steroid abuse controversy reached the halls of Congress....
posted by dhartung at 12:29 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


That PSA is making me want to join a rightwing gunnut party and shoot metric speed limit signs down.

That sort of reaction may explain this, from related videos: How zip codes remove your rights which links to SOVEREIGNTY FORMS AND INSTRUCTIONS ONLINE
posted by MysticMCJ at 12:30 PM on April 25, 2013


"Swingin' Six" ZIP Code Video

oh god it took them fifteen minutes to explain "hey we're putting some extra numbers on your mailing address to make our lives easier, k? k" No wonder we had to invent the internet if this is the sort of entertainment that was available at the time

Also, "Swingin' Six" to explain a five digit code? They couldn't think of an alliteration for "Five"?

Also, I didn't realize it was possible to be as white as those people, the six of them count as at least thirty white people just on sheer whiteness alone

Also I cannot stop watching I just keep rewinding and rewatching it's like Infinite Jest up in here please kill me now

posted by ook at 12:31 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm with VTX. My address gets corrected to another nearby city based on my zip code and I DUN CURR because my mail still gets to me and I shouldn't have to put anything but the zip code anyway.

DOWN WITH CITIES AND STATES
posted by Nattie at 12:31 PM on April 25, 2013


I wonder if I just put my name and my zip+4 mail would still get to me? (My nine digit zip code narrows things down to one block of one road, which shouldn't be too bad.)
posted by Karmakaze at 12:34 PM on April 25, 2013


For me, this was one of the recommended videos -- "How Zip Codes Remove Your Rights, Part 1/4". So apparently this guy talks for an hour about how Zip Codes are... I don't know, denying us our essences or whatever.


... I always thought it was just to make it easier for the post office to do their job. Huh.
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 12:35 PM on April 25, 2013


The title sounds like something I would expect to appear on AskMe.

I actually thought I was on the green, because I use the Professional White Background.
posted by Tomorrowful at 12:37 PM on April 25, 2013


ROU_Xenophobe: "ZIP+4. Mostly it goes down to individual buildings."

But completely optional, and seemingly much harder to remember.

I don't know a single Zip+4, but I still remember every British postcode I've lived in.

As well as my absurdly long British mobile phone number, but that's a different story. 0118999....
posted by schmod at 12:39 PM on April 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


The Irish concept of town lands, still sort of used. Basically everywhere has a name, even the empty spaces between places. My brother took much enjoyment when he had to send Christmas cards to his girlfriend's parents as the address was something like "The Walshes, Camlough, Armagh" (name changed).

Or famously, a letter addressed to "Pat Spillane, The Bollocks, Co. Kerry" reached its indented destination.

I think there are plans to finally introduce postcodes to (the Republic of) Ireland (An Post currently just uses OCR on the address). The main benefit will be finally having something to type into all those damn website order forms that require them.
posted by kersplunk at 12:40 PM on April 25, 2013


The guy in the "How Zip Codes Remove Your Rights" videos linked above actually has a fairly pleasing voice. Pretty sure I'm just going to listen to him for the rest of the afternoon -- for the soothing and the crazy.
posted by sparklemotion at 12:40 PM on April 25, 2013


The title is a take-off from The Simpsons. . .

When Lisa becomes a vegetarian, she watches an (ahem) educational film with Troy McClure (you might remember him from such films as "The Boatjacking Of Supership 79" And "Hydro: The Man With The Hydraulic Arms").

A young girl asks Troy, "I have a crazy friend who says it's wrong to eat meat. Is he crazy?"

To which Troy replies, "No, just ignorant."
posted by MoxieProxy at 12:43 PM on April 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


Does the report say how many billions of dollars a year are lost by problems caused by zipcodes that start with a zero?
posted by alms at 12:44 PM on April 25, 2013


Select column
Copy
Format Cells
Number
Special
Zipcode
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:47 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anyone remember PBS' Zoom?

"Write Zoom, Z-double-Oh-M, box three-five-oh, Bos-ton Mass. Oooh two ooone three fouuur."

After six seasons in the '70s before being taken off the air, the show produced almost entirely by children returned to the Allston, MA (a neighborhood of Boston) TV studios and began airing again on PBS in 1999 for another seven seasons before ending in 2005, however with the rise of the Internet requests to have viewers e-mail the show trumped snail-mail requests and thus the 02134 address jingle was rarely recited after its late 90s comeback.
posted by Gungho at 12:48 PM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


One of my favorite Internet arguments of all time was about whether it's valid to say that something "is in the same zip code" as something else, because, technically, zip codes are not defined geographical areas (although that's mostly how they're used) but instead lists of addresses, which, at best, can be formed into postal routes.

The argument itself was a delight that involved many, many hypothetical zip code edge case scenarios. What if a building has 2 zip codes? What if the 2 zip codes are freely intermingled within the building? What if you're standing somewhere that has no address equidistant from 2 addresses, each with a different zip code? And so on for as long as anyone had the will to argue for the layman's definition of a zip code.
posted by Copronymus at 1:00 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I only write to Santa Claus, and all I have to do is write his name and "North Pole" and he gets it every year.
posted by briank at 1:02 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


In addition, contestants will receive a $50 gift certificate from the Spiegel catalog. Spiegel, with over fifty thousand items. Spiegel....Chicago, Illinois.....Six Oh Six Oh Nine!
posted by gimonca at 1:37 PM on April 25, 2013


I distinctly recall when I realized these things hadn't been around forever. I was reading a Peanuts collection when they introduce 5.
posted by RobotHero at 1:42 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]




My mother-in-law once received a letter (from out-of-state) with this as the only address:

Miss Dianne
Stockholm, South Dakota
posted by straight at 1:57 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Swingin' Six" ZIP Code Video


Hey everyone, look, we discovered The Squarest Thing. None more Square.
posted by The Whelk at 2:02 PM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]




The argument itself was a delight that involved many, many hypothetical zip code edge case scenarios. What if a building has 2 zip codes? What if the 2 zip codes are freely intermingled within the building? What if you're standing somewhere that has no address equidistant from 2 addresses, each with a different zip code? And so on for as long as anyone had the will to argue for the layman's definition of a zip code.

I highly doubt a building would have two zip codes. The whole point of zip codes is to get letters to the right place, and I don't think the post office would find it convenient to have two zip codes in the same building.

If memory serves, the Merchandise Mart in Chicago is the only building with its own zip code. The Pentagon might also have its own.

And yeah, zip+4 is quite localized. I believe they have it sorted down to the carrier route so the computers can take an envelope, sort it through the system and end up in the correct carrier's bag without any human intervention. Possibly even to the correct block and side of the street. Where I live, my building of 12 units has 2 different +4 suffixes even though the mailboxes are in the same place.
posted by gjc at 2:15 PM on April 25, 2013


I don't want to argue about the relative accuracy of UK and US zip codes, I just want to ask if any European Post services have any street performers who have memorized all of their postal codes?

Cause in America, we have David Rossteicher, a man who will take any zip code and tell you where it is and where to get a bite to eat nearby. Take that, Canada!

Ahem... Oh' say can you see...
posted by midmarch snowman at 2:23 PM on April 25, 2013


If memory serves, the Merchandise Mart in Chicago is the only building with its own zip code. The Pentagon might also have its own.


As cool as MerchMart is, my college's student union building had its own zip code as well. I imagine this isn't that rare, given it was only a medium sized school. Indeed, there's other examples as well...

http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/archive/index.php/t-222656.html
posted by midmarch snowman at 2:27 PM on April 25, 2013


I highly doubt a building would have two zip codes. The whole point of zip codes is to get letters to the right place, and I don't think the post office would find it convenient to have two zip codes in the same building.

If memory serves, the Merchandise Mart in Chicago is the only building with its own zip code. The Pentagon might also have its own.


I believe some institutions have their own zip codes. The Wikipedia has some examples. It's not inconceivable to me that if the CIA rented a couple of floors in another office building their mail would come to the CIA zip code and the rest of the office's would come to another.
posted by Copronymus at 2:27 PM on April 25, 2013


The thing that's always astonished me about zipcodes is that they contain *almost* but not quite enough information to eliminate all the other text required to deliver a letter.

Living in the US, it's galling that in order to receive a letter I'm required to write down several times as much raw information as you would need to uniquely specify the exact physical location of my incoming mail file drawer on the surface of the earth.

The extra effort required in going from a 5 digit code to a 12 digit code is trivial. But, think what it would allow: you could assign an individual number *for life* to every human being on the planet. Then, instead of a massively complicated system of computer vision, language processing, and lookup tables required to turn all the extra information into what's actually used for routing, you have a single lookup table that maps a 12 digit number to a mailbox.

Never tell your friends you've moved. Never change an address book. When you switch cities, a single interaction with the post-office instantly takes care of all mail forwarding forever, with no delays or lost packages.

Some might object that there are privacy concerns. And, I agree, there are. But, even if implemented in the worst possible way with no protections for residents, the privacy concerns associated with telling your real identity to the post-office pale in comparison to the privacy implications of telling *everyone* you need to communicate with your real location. Unless you're going to extremes to live off the grid, the government already knows your address. Today, so does everyone else.

What's more, the privacy implications are pretty easy to solve. Instead of 12 digits, we go to 15. Now we can have a unique code for every mailbox on the planet as well as hundreds of "disposable" ones for every living person. Don't want the postoffice to know who you are? Just use your location code instead of your personal code. Don't want your ex to be able to send you mail? Just tell your friends to start using a new personal identifier and have the post-office permanently block the old one. Unlike today, where it's almost impossible to keep your current address out of commercial databases, you'd be free to transact business with people without ever having to tell them your name.

In an ideal world, you don't even need to tell the post-office who you are. You hit the "generate a unique ID" button on a web-page, and you get a 15 digit number and a passphrase. Then, every time you move, you just put in the same passphrase and give them the lat & long of your new address. Convincing the government this is a good idea might be hard. (As would be dealing with user screw-ups and stolen identities. . . but, that's true for any anonymous system.) But, in principle it can be far more anonymous than our current system.

And, now that we've got a location ID, we can forget all the long half-readable addresses written on post-it notes that get clumsily punched into GPS receivers. Nevermore will your friends show-up at East 18th Ave and Sunday Drive instead of East 18th Street and Sunday Parkway. If the geo codes are arranged in a smart way, you don't even need a lookup table. Just put Lat & Long (or equivalent) on the bottom of street signs, instead of house-numbers, and even the people without maps or computers can find your party.

Of course, if you're willing to make things a bit harder for character recognition systems and speakers of non-Roman alphabet languages, then going to alpha+numerals makes things even simpler for people who prefer to write four lines of text rather than 15 digits. It doesn't take many bits to specify who I am and where I live.

Be sure to tune in to Techno-Utopian Rant for next week's program: ten Calendar Reform proposals that are better than Julian.
posted by eotvos at 2:46 PM on April 25, 2013 [11 favorites]


A number of buildings in have their own zip codes: the Empire State Building and the Sears Tower are two. 30 Rock, the Chrysler Building, some others...

Since the new WTC isn't being assigned 10048, which was the old WTC zip, that makes it perhaps the only zip code to be permanently retired.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 2:56 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Depopulation can do it too, apparently.

Centralia lost its in 2003.
posted by Earthtopus at 4:22 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Canadian postal codes, a combination of letters and numbers, make for more fun mnemonics. V6B 4A2 was 'vacuum six basements, four attics too" as Arthur Black used to say.

I only write to Santa Claus, and all I have to do is write his name and "North Pole" and he gets it every year.


These two comments lead to the perfection that is the Official Canada Post postal code for Santa Claus: H0H 0H0.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 5:49 PM on April 25, 2013 [7 favorites]


See also: ZipDecode, a visualizer that helps you understand the relationships in zip codes.
posted by Wild_Eep at 7:07 PM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


"78,364,164,095 possible postcodes"
How do you pronounce that number?

"The great thing about Zip codes is that they are free. Not so in other countries; in the UK for many years it was utterly locked down"
What does this mean?
posted by glasseyes at 7:09 PM on April 25, 2013


glasseyes: " What does this mean?"

It's all very complicated, but there are a fixed number of postal codes which are revealed through a process known as 'mining.' In order to create a new postal code you have to solve a complex mathematical problem using a computer, sometimes known as a 'mining rig.' You can anonymously exchange your codes for drugs on the internet, which I guess would complicate the system.

I don't claim to understand it. The system was invented by crazy trickster God Warriors who live in a mountain somewhere in Japan.
posted by krinklyfig at 7:27 PM on April 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


Scruff, McGruff, Chicago Illinois. Six oh six five two.
posted by msbutah at 7:28 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


In college I worked in a retail store that had us ask for customers' zip codes at the cash register. This store was in a popular tourist area, and we got customers from all over the world. After a year there I could hear someone's zip code and figure out at least which state they lived in.
posted by Sara C. at 7:50 PM on April 25, 2013


Wait. You guys. Is the north pole in RUSSIA?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:54 PM on April 25, 2013


VTX: "Instead, you'd be annoyed that you had to fill in the city/state AND the ZIP code. I should really only have to fill in the ZIP, that should be enough info to populate the city and state."

It is enough, but then I have to send another lookup to a different web service to get it. That being in addition to the one I have to send to correct your address because you don't bother to type carefully and look up the zip+4 so I can charge you the correct sales tax and you, like everyone else, doesn't bother to type it in.
posted by wierdo at 8:54 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


"The great thing about Zip codes is that they are free. Not so in other countries; in the UK for many years it was utterly locked down"
What does this mean?


Until recently, it was illegal to sell a database of which postal codes went with which locations. If you wanted this information (ie if you did mass mailing), you were required to license the database from the Crown at *looks* GBP4000/year.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:33 PM on April 25, 2013


Great. Now I have to address my letter to:

John Doe
2001:db8:85a3::8a2e:370:7334
posted by gjc at 3:08 AM on April 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


The canadian Santa Post Code is way better than the UK one, which is
SAN TA1
Which is annoying because it isn't even a valid postocode!
Also it gets mapped to BT1 1AA, which is the dead letter office in Belfast.

In the UK I've tried two different postal experiments, one was simply addressing to house number + postcode, (i.e, 74 PL4 7QC, for random example) which got there after a few days.
The other, and complete opopsite was when I couldn't remember my friends address, but had visited her flat, so I gave directions from the railway station to her front door on the envelope. That one actually got there quicker.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 5:20 AM on April 26, 2013


How do you pronounce that number?

78,364,164,095 is seventy-eight billion, three hundred sixty-four million, one hundred sixty-four thousand, ninety five.
posted by alms at 6:34 AM on April 26, 2013


alms: "How do you pronounce that number?

78,364,164,095 is seventy-eight billion, three hundred sixty-four million, one hundred sixty-four thousand, ninety five.
"

Alternatively, it's ZZZZZZZ.
posted by schmod at 7:15 AM on April 26, 2013


My town's so small that we only have two choices for mail delivery... a box at the end of my road and PO Boxes. I used to have the former, but the boxes got raided twice so I switched to a PO Box. So now I have my own plus 4. :)
posted by luckynerd at 9:59 AM on April 26, 2013


Eventually, all these zIP addresses will become unwieldy, and we will associate them with easy-to-remember alternatives such as "Rome, New York".
posted by dhartung at 2:15 PM on April 26, 2013


Copronymus: One of my favorite Internet arguments of all time was about whether it's valid to say that something "is in the same zip code" as something else, because, technically, zip codes are not defined geographical areas (although that's mostly how they're used) but instead lists of addresses, which, at best, can be formed into postal routes.

I work with a lot of geographic data sets and it's such a pain to use things done by zip code because they're not polygons. They're basically lines (which is what you just said, I know). The Census has come up with Zip Code Tabulation Areas, which are helpful in a general sense, but they use block majority, which shits the bed where there are a lot of zip enclaves/exclaves or lots of water features (no zip codes for lakes, apparently).
posted by troika at 2:24 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


« Older Coming home   |   Sundoggin' it Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments