My hotel was guaranteed to come with free wireless. FREE WI-FI, their website said. When I reserved my room, I double-checked.

"You have wireless, right?" I’d asked.

"Absolutely," the clerk assured me. "All of our rooms come equipped with free wireless Internet."

The Internet service hadn’t worked for more than three minutes at a time since I’d been there.

"It’s cocks,” the clerk told me. At first I thought he was describing the men behind the broken wireless service. Later I find out he was talking about Cox, the Internet service provider. “They’re really difficult to deal with. Cox. They just screw you.”

After a few false starts the next morning I found a coffee shop on Frenchman Street that had wireless—not through their own service, which was similarly screwed by Cox, but from the bicycle shop next door.

"Cox loves them,” the girl in the coffee shop told me bitterly as she made my espresso. “Cox always fixes their stuff first.”

    —Sara Gran, Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead (ch. 6; p. 27 in ISBN 978-0-547-74761-3)

Pointless Mendacity for the Sake of Pointless Mendacity

And here we have another interchange with campus technologists, this time about a change that has apparently been made the registration system. What amazes me here is that the technologists apparently think that everyone else who’s not a technologist is such an idiot that they can insist that something has always been impossible even when I’ve mentioned in advance that I’ve done it in the past. Other notable features include several “we didn’t bother to actually read what you wrote before responding; we’re just working off of standard scripts” moments, the fact that it takes four emails for the person I’m dealing with to understand what I’m asking, the use of the trade name Outlook to mean “whatever email client you use,” and the assurance that I can simply look through my Sent Items folder to find information that I’ve given out verbally.

As always, full email headers are included here as a way of asserting honesty on my part. Nothing has been changed, even though a large part of me wants to clean up the odd typo.


 

Subject: eGrades question
From: Patrick Mooney <{ my email address }>
Date: 01/12/2014 11:58 PM
To: <eGrades@sa.ucsb.edu>
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Hello there,

I seem to recall that it used to be possible to view add codes that had been marked distributed, but hadn’t yet been used. Is that still possible? I can’t for the life of me figure out how to find these in eGrades.

Many thanks —

— 
Patrick Mooney, M.A.
PhD Candidate in English
University of California, Santa Barbara
http://patrickbrianmooney.nfshost.com/~patrick/


 

Subject: RE: eGrades question
From: eGrades <eGrades@sa.ucsb.edu>
Date: 01/13/2014 11:53 AM
To: “’{ my email address }’” <{ my email address }>
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Dear Patrick Mooney,

Can you let us know what course or courses you are trying to access approval codes? I am assuming that this if for the Winter 2014 term?

Rosie Quimby
eGrades Team
Office of the Registrar
UC Santa Barbara, CA
egrades@sa.ucsb.edu
(805) 893-2681


 

Subject: Re: eGrades question
From: Patrick Mooney <{ my email address }>
Date: 01/13/2014 01:05 PM
To: eGrades <eGrades@sa.ucsb.edu>
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That’s right — I’m a TA for three sections (50898, 50955, and 50963) of English 193 this quarter. Thanks for your help. (=
Patrick Mooney, M.A.
PhD Candidate in English
University of California, Santa Barbara
http://patrickbrianmooney.nfshost.com/~patrick/


 

Subject: RE: eGrades question
From: eGrades <eGrades@sa.ucsb.edu>
Date: 01/14/2014 01:30 PM
To: “’{ my email address }’” <{ my email address }>
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Dear Patrick Mooney,

I just wanted to check your courses.  if your department downloads the class lists on STAR they will not be accessible on eGrades. I did verify and the approvals codes are indeed listed on eGrades. When you sign into eGrades, selection the section (discussion) not the lecture. Once you open your class on the upper right hand side above the student’s name there is an “approval” tab and a “submit” tab highlighted in dark blue. The “approval” tab is what you select to see the approval codes and are available and those that have already been distributed.  Please let us know if you have any other questions.

Best,

Rosie Quimby
eGrades Team
Office of the Registrar
UC Santa Barbara, CA
egrades@sa.ucsb.edu
(805) 893-2681


 

From: Patrick Mooney [mailto:{ my email address }]
Sent: Monday, January 13, 2014 1:06 PM
To: eGrades
Subject: Re: eGrades question
From: Patrick Mooney <{ my email address }>
Date: 01/14/2014 06:50 PM
To: eGrades <eGrades@sa.ucsb.edu>
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References: <52D39C8C.7000105@umail.ucsb.edu> <B4BA843BD1A16541915FDF23FB0B9FAD094A4304@sa134.sa.ucsb.edu> <52D4551E.7070104@umail.ucsb.edu> <B4BA843BD1A16541915FDF23FB0B9FAD094A6AB3@sa134.sa.ucsb.edu>
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Thanks for the reply — the problem I’m having is that I don’t see any codes that have been marked as distributed, but that have not yet been used by students.


Patrick Mooney, M.A.
PhD Candidate in English
University of California, Santa Barbara
http://patrickbrianmooney.nfshost.com/~patrick/


 

Subject: RE: eGrades question
From: eGrades <eGrades@sa.ucsb.edu>
Date: 01/15/2014 09:21 AM
To: “’{ my email address }’” <{ my email address }>, eGrades <eGrades@sa.ucsb.edu>
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Dear Patrick Mooney,

If I understand you right you want to see codes that have been distributed. These disappear once they are distributed, to prevent an instructor from using the same approval code. If you need a complete list of your approval codes please contact your undergraduate advisor in your department.

Sincerely,


eGrades Team
Office of the Registrar
UC Santa Barbara, CA
egrades@sa.ucsb.edu
(805) 893-2681


 

Subject: Re: eGrades question
From: Patrick Mooney <{ my email address }>
Date: 01/17/2014 12:13 AM
To: eGrades <eGrades@sa.ucsb.edu>
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Hi there.

This is not really an answer to my question. It used to be possible to see add codes that have been marked as distributed but have not yet been used. They were in a separate section of the “approval codes” tab in eGrades, and it was possible to cancel these add codes and thereby render them invalid. Where has this capability gone? When was this changed? Why was input not solicited from the people who are directly affected by this change before it was made? Why was it not even announced to the people affected by this change that the change was made? A simple “FYI: this capability, upon which you may be relying, has been removed from eGrades” email sent to all professors and graduate students would have done wonders in this regard.

Here are some situations that I have encountered this very quarter in which it would be helpful to see add codes that have been distributed but not yet used:

  1. A student wrote an email that said, essentially, “Thank you for the add code. I have decided not to take the class, so I passed the add code for your section on to a friend so that she can register for the class, even though she has not been attending section and has not been in touch with you, and even though there are other students who may be higher-priority  are not trying to sneak into the class by exploiting personal connections.” This is a basic violation of what add codes are for and undermines the ability of instructors to control who is registering for their class once the class is closed. The ideal way to deal with this situation would be to view add codes that have been distributed and then revoke the add code that was illegitimately distributed. However, your change has removed this capability.
  2. The professor for whom I am working this quarter wanted me to distribute add codes to students after lecture. While this is entirely reasonable because it has the benefit of quickly filling empty spaces in the class, and several additional benefits besides, it makes tracking registration a nightmare for TAs if distributed add codes cannot be viewed, because the simplest possible way to keep track of how many “real open spaces” are in the class is to look at current registration numbers + number of distributed add codes. Without being able to track distributed add codes, I have to take up precious instruction time in section by urging students to use their add codes immediately. Had I been informed that the change was made, I would have known that I needed to do additional work in tracking who received which code. Instead, I had to find out that I no longer have this capability after the fact.
  3. Students have emailed me asking “Are there any spaces open in your section?” I have to respond, “I won’t know until section this week, because I can’t track add codes that have been distributed, so I’ll have to wait until section when I can urge people who might be sitting on add codes to use them immediately. Then I have to hope that they actually do so.”
  4. I may wind up over-enrolled, because I have no way of seeing whether people have actually used all of the add codes that I have distributed.
  5. A student emailed me and told me that the add code I gave her is not working. The ideal way to respond to this situation, after trying to walk her through the procedure for using add codes and thereby becoming relatively certain that the add code is, in fact, not working, would be to revoke the add code that she claims is not working, then give her a new one. The problem that I am trying to avoid here, of course, is that a less-than-trustworthy student might falsely claim that an add code isn’t working, obtain a new code, and then pass one of the codes on to a friend. Due to the change that you have made, it is no longer possible for professors and TAs to handle this problem themselves, but requires that the outsource handling the problem to you or to a department staff member.

I have no doubt that there are some technologically incompetent people who have difficulty distinguishing between add codes that have and have not been distributed, despite the fact that they were, previously, clearly labeled on separate tabs of the “approval codes” tab for a course or section in eGrades. However, removing the capability entirely because a few people don’t properly understand what the headings mean and/or have general interpretive problems with web pages is condescending an offensive to the population of instructors in general.

Patrick Mooney, M.A.
PhD Candidate in English
University of California, Santa Barbara
http://patrickbrianmooney.nfshost.com/~patrick/


 

Subject: FW: eGrades question
From: eGrades <eGrades@sa.ucsb.edu>
Date: 01/17/2014 01:46 PM
To: “’{ my email address }’” <{ my email address }>
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Dear Patrick Mooney,

I forwarded your email to our technical support person and he confirmed that there has been no change made to eGrades. Please see email below and let us know if you have any other questions.

eGrades Team
Office of the Registrar
UC Santa Barbara, CA
egrades@sa.ucsb.edu
(805) 893-2681

There is no glitch or recent changes in eGrades. Once a code is marked as distributed it doesn’t show up in the first table anymore until the student uses it (once they use it starts showing up in the second table). This was done so that an approval code is not distributed twice. On the other question, there was never an option to invalidate an approval code in eGrades, the TA should email someone from Registrar Office or department who has access to cancel it through STAR. There is a way to have a list of all approval codes (used and unused) by clicking download before you distribute any approval codes and get an excel spreadsheet with all approval codes for that course. Then he can manually mark them and keep track which approval code was sent to which student. This is also available now in his Outlook Sent Items. When you click ‘Email’ it generates an email with the approval code information (pasted below) that you send to the student. This email should still be in his Outlook Sent Items folder.

Email:

You have been granted an approval code for ANTH      2   in Fall 2013.

Approval Code: PHM8

Enrollment Code: 00042

Section Meeting Time: W    6:00- 6:50 GIRV 2120    

Please do not share your approval code with anyone. This code can only be used once, and will become deactivated after it has been used.

image


 

Subject: Re: FW: eGrades question
From: Patrick Mooney <patrickmooney@umail.ucsb.edu<
Date: 01/17/2014 06:46 PM
To: eGrades <eGrades@sa.ucsb.edu>
Message-ID: <52D9EB08.2050108@umail.ucsb.edu>
Reply-To: patrickmooney@umail.ucsb.edu
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Linux i686; rv:24.0) Gecko/20100101 Thunderbird/24.2.0
MIME-Version: 1.0
Refrences: <52D39C8C.7000105@umail.ucsb.edu> <B4BA843BD1A16541915FDF23FB0B9FAD094A4304@sa134.sa.ucsb.edu> <52D4551E.7070104@umail.ucsb.edu> <B4BA843BD1A16541915FDF23FB0B9FAD094A6AB3@sa134.sa.ucsb.edu> <52D5F78B.2010902@umail.ucsb.edu> <B4BA843BD1A16541915FDF23FB0B9FAD094A6D77@sa134.sa.ucsb.edu> <52D8E62E.8050600@umail.ucsb.edu> <B4BA843BD1A16541915FDF23FB0B9FAD094A832F@sa134.sa.ucsb.edu> <D036D4773EA53E4982C5D7B283A036370D0B63C0@sa134.sa.ucsb.edu> <B4BA843BD1A16541915FDF23FB0B9FAD094A8470@sa134.sa.ucsb.edu>
In-Reply-To: <B4BA843BD1A16541915FDF23FB0B9FAD094A8470@sa134.sa.ucsb.edu>
Content-Type: multipart/alternative; boundary=”——————090205050101040404050602”
Reply-to: patrickmooney@umail.ucsb.edu

Thank you. While I would normally consider an unsigned email that cites another unsigned email without any email headers to be very convincing evidence, I have difficulty believing that this has never been possible in the past because I am quite certain that I have actually been able to see and revoke approval codes in exactly this way during previous quarters. While I understand that the question of whether things are possible can be epistemologically vexing and has tripped up well-educated people who are brighter than either of us, as Sir Robert Ball experienced when he argued in 1892 that it will never be possible to communicate with any people who might happen to live on Mars, I believe that these philosophical questions about possibility are adequately resolved if something has actually occurred.

However, if I cannot obtain a straightforward answer, then I suppose that there is no point in continuing this conversation. Have a good weekend!


Patrick Mooney, M.A.
PhD Candidate in English
University of California, Santa Barbara
http://patrickbrianmooney.nfshost.com/~patrick/

Another interchange with the campus technocrats

More “fun” with the campus technocrats. This statement is true, of course, precisely insofar as the reader understands that putting quotes around a word means that it’s being used in a special, non-literal sense unrelated to its direct meaning, such as ironically.

Special bonus: the technocrats’ verbiage that gets included as a footer in their response to any support request to which they respond describes that reply as “a service,” as if they were doing something optional not required by their job and not motivated by decisions they’ve made without soliciting any input from the people affected by their decisions.

Gosh, thanks, technocrats! That’s so sweet of you, providing me with a “service” by replying to my request for information that’s motivated by your black-box decisions!

EDIT on 26 Nov 2013 to add a reply from the campus technocrats, and to add in full email headers, which were not available when I made the first posting due to the problem about which I was complaining.

EDIT AGAIN on 26 Nov to add my reply to the technocrats’ email.


The contents of the original support request, as submitted on the support request web form:

Patrick Mooney, Nov 22 15:23 (PST):

Contact by: student e-mail - [my school email address]
UCSBnetID: patrickmooney
Platform: unknown
Browser: Default Browser

An email that I received earlier this week suggested that I would stop being able to receive messages via Thunderbird yesterday until I upgraded some unspecified settings. As I recall, what it essentially said was that the settings would not be provided in advance, because you were worried that people would change their settings to early, so that, in a nutshell, once I was no longer able to check my email, you would send me an email telling me how to get at my email.

However, I am still able to get messages through Thunderbird. Did the upgrade go forward? Do I need to change any settings? Has the upgrade been postponed? Will I need to change any settings later?

As you can probably imagine, it’s inconvenient not to know, because every time I check my email and see that I don’t have any new messages over the last, say, four hours, I don’t know whether this is because no one has sent me email, or because the upgrade has silently happened, and having to constantly open a web browser and log into WebAccess is a pain in the ass.

The reply from the mail server’s help desk:

Subject: [UCSB Support Desk Collaboration] Re: U-Mail Help Request - patrickmooney
From: JoeGaucho <notifications-support@ucsbcollabsupport.zendesk.com>
Date: 11/22/2013 04:20 PM
To: Patrick Mooney < [my school email address] >
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Ticket #16382: U-Mail Help Request - patrickmooney

Your request (#16382) has been updated.

JoeGaucho, Nov 22 16:20 (PST):

Hi Patrick Mooney -
The easiest way to tell whether your account has yet been upgraded is whether the strip at the top of the 365 page (at http://umail.ucsb.edu) is blue and there will be a gear next to your name in the top righthand corner. The general display will also look different. You can try sending yourself test emails from another email account to check and make sure it is still working.

Once you determine that Microsoft has updated your account, you can follow the guides here:
http://www.umail.ucsb.edu/usage
to set it up.

Please reply to this message or give us a call if you have further problems or questions. If we don’t hear from you within 10 days we’ll assume this issue has been resolved.


Aubrie
U-Mail Help Desk
1521 Phelps Hall
Collaborate Student Support Center - UCSB
(805) 893-5542

Please reply to this message if you have further problems or
questions. If we don’t hear from you within 5 days we’ll assume this issue
has been resolved.

This email is a service from UCSB Support Desk Collaboration.

Message-Id:AXVPFEE5_528ff4eaaaca1_33de3fa691ac67c41075276d_sprut

What I wrote back:

Subject: RE: [UCSB Support Desk Collaboration] Re: U-Mail Help Request - patrickmooney
From: Patrick Mooney < [my school email address] >
Date: 11/22/2013 05:31 PM
To: UCSB Support Desk Collaboration <support+id16382@ucsbcollabsupport.zendesk.com>
X-Mozilla-Status: 0011
X-Mozilla-Status2: 00000000
Thread-Topic: [UCSB Support Desk Collaboration] Re: U-Mail Help Request - patrickmooney
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In-Reply-To: <AXVPFEE5_528ff4eaaaca1_33de3fa691ac67c41075276d_sprut@zendesk.com>
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The bar at the top is blue. There is a gear in the right-hand corner. I have made the changes suggested on your website (though it would be helpful for people less technically competent than I am if you just explained what needs to be changed instead of requiring people to extract settings from a “how to set up your email client if you’ve never set it up before” document).

Now I can’t get at my email through Thunderbird at all. Every time I try to check it or do anything that requires that Thunderbird access the server, an alert box pops up saying “Login to server outlook.office365.com failed.”

I’m going to take a wild guess here and say that (a) the upgrade is an ongoing process with no particular timeline for completion, since you haven’t bothered to share a timeline with the people who are actually affected by it; (b) the blue header bar and gear icon are not only not a particularly obvious sign that the upgrade as happened, but not a particularly reliable one; (c) I really should go back to my old server settings, as I certainly would if I could still find them anywhere on your website; (d) I’m going to be inconvenienced by checking my email through the webaccess interface all weekend, because no one is in your office for the rest of the upgrade process, or at least not until Monday; (e) the move to outsource our email servers was a bad move from literally every perspective except “Oh boy! We get more server space!”; and (f) your department is staffed by semi-competent morons who have forgotten that their basic goal is to support the larger-scale educational mission of the University and decided that making decisions by fiat that affect the users of the services you provide without soliciting feedback from those users is a great idea.

Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about any of these things, though.

Their reply:

Subject: [UCSB Support Desk Collaboration] Re: U-Mail Help Request - patrickmooney
From: JoeGaucho <notifications-support@ucsbcollabsupport.zendesk.com>
Date: 11/25/2013 08:51 AM
To: Patrick Mooney < [my school email address] >
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## In replies all text above this line is added to the ticket ##

Ticket #16382: U-Mail Help Request - patrickmooney


JoeGaucho, Nov 25 08:51 (PST):

Hi Patrick Mooney -

Are you using Thunderbird Extended Support Release (ESR), or the regular form of thunderbird? Getting your Umail on thunderbird requires thunderbird ESR and it can be downloaded at this link http://www.mozilla.org/en-US/thunderbird/organizations/all-esr.html. Some of the problems you are experiencing may be from this. The gear at the top right is a sign that your account has been upgraded. You can also try logging out and then logging back in to thunderbird. If you need assistance with the installation Alx Sanchez is available to help by phone at 805 - 698-XXXX.


Please reply to this message or give us a call if you have further problems or questions. If we don’t hear from you within 10 days we’ll assume this issue has been resolved.


Riley

U-Mail Help Desk
1521 Phelps Hall
Collaborate Student Support Center - UCSB
(805) 893-5542

Message-Id:AXVPFEE5_52938009b6213_728d3fedabac67b8142244fc_sprut

And my reply to their message:

Subject: Re: [UCSB Support Desk Collaboration] Re: U-Mail Help Request - patrickmooney
From: Patrick Mooney < [my school email address] >
Date: 11/26/2013 06:16 PM
To: UCSB Support Desk Collaboration <support+id16382@ucsbcollabsupport.zendesk.com>
X-Mozilla-Status: 0011
X-Mozilla-Status2: 00000000
Message-ID: <529555FC.9000304@umail.ucsb.edu>
Reply-To: < [my school email address] >
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Linux i686; rv:24.0) Gecko/20100101 Thunderbird/24.1.0
References: <AXVPFEE5_52938009b6213_728d3fedabac67b8142244fc_sprut@zendesk.com>
In-Reply-To: <AXVPFEE5_52938009b6213_728d3fedabac67b8142244fc_sprut@zendesk.com>
Content-Type: multipart/alternative; boundary=”——————040209010906080505050407”
MIME-Version: 1.0

I note with approval that you have backed off from claiming that I can “tell whether [my] account has yet been upgraded” by looking for the gear icon and the blue header bar in favor of making the reduced claim that the blue bar and gear icon “is a sign that [my] account has been upgraded,” on the basis of the fact that this change in wording points subtly to the fact that you are giving me a heuristic rather than a definitive litmus test. Whether it is appropriate to instruct an end-user to apply a heuristic in order to find an answer to the question that he wrote in to get, instead of providing him with definitive information that you have access to but he does not, even on a Friday afternoon, when support reps are trying to clear out the support queue and get their weekend on, is perhaps a separate conversational path best left untrod at this time. I might note (again, as I did in my previous email) that I saw the blue header bar and gear icon on Friday, but that the the upgrade did not take place for me until Saturday. I will explain the reasoning behind the conclusion that the upgrade happened on Saturday in a moment.

I am unsure which “problems” (plural) you think I may have reported, as a quick read through our previous correspondence shows that my initial email asked a set of related informational questions, whereas the follow-up email I sent in response to your reply reported only the single problem that I was instructed to change my server settings too early and was therefore unable to use Thunderbird to check my U-Mail account. Happily, the upgrade kicked in for me at some point on Saturday afternoon, which shows that I was wrong about point (d) in my previous email and that I cannot predict the future with perfect accuracy. Which is always a helpful reminder to have, I suppose.

I noted that the upgrade had happened for me on Saturday afternoon by paying attention to the status bar in the browser I was using to work around the fact that following the previous support rep’s instructions had made Thunderbird useless for the purpose of checking my U-Mail account. Of course, when I log into my email account through my browser, the web interface periodically refreshes the display so that it can display new mail, and the status bar in Firefox shows text that includes the domain name of the server being accessed. I noted on Friday night, after the heuristic that the previous support rep instructed me to use provided me with incorrect information and mandated checking my email through the webaccess interface, that the status bar was still connecting to “pod5[something].outlook.com,” which suggests to me that the upgrade had not happened because the web application itself was still connecting to the server that previously stored my mail. (At that point, I would have tried to change the server settings back to what was displayed in the Firefox status bar if the server name hadn’t been displayed so incredibly briefly.) On Saturday afternoon, however, the status bar showed that the web interface was connecting to office365.outlook.com, which suggested to me that my account had been moved to the new server. Opening Thunderbird showed that it was once again useful (or, at least, somewhat useful) for checking U-Mail while using the new settings, which confirmed my suspicion.

However, you are correct that I am using a standard edition of Thunderbird. There are several reasons for this:

  1. This was the recommendation that your department was making when I arrived on campus in 2009. (At least, this is how I recall it, but it may be that I misunderstood your instructions in 2009 because point 4, below, was already a problem. In any case, it is not possible to use web services like Internet Wayback Machine to see what you were saying in 2009 because your department’s website prevents archiving this document with its robots.txt file.)
  2. I do not recall that I have ever been explicitly instructed to change Thunderbird versions, although it may admittedly be that I simply missed any instructions that were sent out if they were buried deep in other emails or if they otherwise displayed no more communicative fluency than I have come to expect from your department.
  3. I am accustomed to doing my work in a particular version of Thunderbird and have a great deal of irreplaceable data stored in it, so moving to a new version involves not only uninstalling the old version, installing the new one, and engaging in rather extensive checks to make sure that no data has silently been lost, but possibly also re-learning how to use a tool whose use I have previously taken more or less for granted.
  4. Your own department’s current explanation of how to set up Thunderbird not only fails to explain explicitly that Thunderbird ESR is required to access U-Mail, but uses the terms “Thunderbird” and “Thunderbird ESR” interchangeably, creating the impression that either version is acceptable. (Perhaps also notable is the fact [that] the list of options that is presented to users trying to find information and select an email client silently drops the “ESR” from the “Thunderbird” option, creating the impression that non-ESR Thunderbird is “the free email client that we prefer.”) An explicit declaration on that page that Thunderbird ESR is required would go a long way toward clarifying this and would likely be a smart move from a support perspective, because it would reduce the number of support tickets that need to be filed merely because you have not made this clear in your documentation. Which is to say that if you provide people with clear information when they go looking for it on their own, they won’t need to ask you for it, and this may contribute to the possibility that support reps could clean out the support queue on Friday afternoons without having to resort to the tactic of instructing end users to make judgments based on heuristics, freeing up time in which those support reps to provide actual useful information to which only they have access.
  5. Thunderbird ESR is not available in the standard software repositories for Ubuntu-based Linux distributions, which means that the necessity of managing updates and bug fixes for this one software program separately from literally all of the other software on my system will add to my workload.
  6. Thunderbird ESR, as Chris Coulson has argued in regard to Firefox ESR, is likely to be (or become) less secure, more bug-prone, and slower and more of a resource hog than non-ESR Thunderbird, and will drive fewer updates that are larger in size.

Despite all of this, of course, I am naturally delighted to learn that, despite the fact that I have a dissertation prospectus I am trying to beat into shape, emails from students and colleagues waiting on replies, discussion sections to plan, papers I am trying to write, travel plans to finalize for the Thanksgiving holiday, and a personal life that I am trying to keep from becoming entirely moribund, your department has decided to be blasé about announcing, with little fanfare, that I will have to do the additional work of backing up my data, uninstalling my email client, downloading and installing a new specific version, and checking for data loss before I can effectively continue performing tasks that constitute central aspects of my job. I say this unironically because I am hoping that this will resolve other problems that have become increasingly annoying and that I have put off reporting until after the server move so that I can see whether the move to the new server happened to resolve them silently. Alas, the “the U-Mail server often just goes right the hell out to lunch and becomes unresponsive while Thunderbird is trying to accomplish certain crucial tasks, such as saving a copy of sent messages to the ‘Sent Messages’ folder, requiring that I wait around twiddling my thumbs until the server times out and I have the opportunity to instruct Thunderbird to try again; and sometimes it just fails entirely after wasting my time in this way for several minutes” problem, and several other annoying problems that happen only when I am connected to any network other than the campus network, continue to occur after the server settings have changed.

And so I look forward to doing the additional work of changing my email client and am willing to overlook the question of whether a department composed, almost by definition, entirely of people who don’t understand what my job is should dictate what tools I use to accomplish my job. Because — and let’s be honest here — that ship sailed years ago, and the “what services should we provide, and how should we provide them?” question never seems to result in making any real effort to solicit input from the people who are actually using the services under consideration. This rather cynical assessment seems to me to be the only fair way of explaining why services such as U-Lists were discontinued on the theory that one can also use GauchoSpace, which makes sense if and only if (a) the assumption is that everyone works (or should work) in the same way, and that multiple pathways toward accomplishing a task are by definition equally convenient and therefore redundant, and that any pathway can be eliminated just as well as any other pathway; (b) we all ignore the fact that setting up a GauchoSpace presence for a course simply to automate group emailing both is extra work and may be confusing for students who want to know why they’re enrolled on GauchoSpace in a course that has no online content; (c) we overlook the fact that U-Lists was usable by TAs, whereas using GauchoSpace to send group messages requires that the instructor of record set up a GauchoSpace presence; and/or (d) email is a technology so archaic as to be uncool and passé, and that this is a sufficient reason for officially deprecating it as a method by which the university’s technocracy provides pathways by which instructors can communicate with students.

Of course, my eagerness to change email clients is predicated upon the assumption that there are actual differences in functionality between the versions and that the additional or different functionality of the ESR release is required by the server, and not that you are simply following a script that is written with the assumption that supporting open standards is too difficult to be a reasonable expectation for low-paid first-tier tech-support employees, which therefore requires that everyone be using one of a small number of options so that the script can be written with specific support for those applications without requiring those low-paid first-tier employees to make any judgment calls or have any specific technical skill or knowledge. Given the interactions I have had with your department in the past, this is perhaps so ridiculously optimistic as to be naïve, but by golly I believe that people, and even bureaucratic departments, can change, and that giving them the benefit of the doubt is a positive move on my part. We’ll see.

Given that you have suggested that contacting one “Alx Sanchez” is an option if there are installation problems, I have two questions.

  • Is Alx on currently on campus, or has s/he already departed for the holiday weekend? If s/he is still on campus, what hours is s/he available by phone for this purpose? If s/he is not on campus, when will s/he return?
  • Is Alx able to assist with the installation of the Linux version of the client, which after all is just a tarball consisting of executable files and libraries, or is his/her expertise in this matter limited to telling people using a standard Windows installer how to answer certain setup questions before hitting the “Next” button?

Patrick Mooney, M.A.
PhD Candidate in English
University of California, Santa Barbara
http://patrickbrianmooney.nfshost.com/~patrick/

Upsides and downsides to Linux usage, from my perspective

Based on a two-part posting in a Reddit discussion about the downsides of Linux.

I’ve used Linux as my primary OS since a year before I entered grad school (so for nearly six years now). I keep a backup Windows XP installation on one laptop just in case. I’m not a gamer, so that’s not an issue for me, and overall, I’m happy, but there are some downsides. Here are some thoughts on upsides (in the hope that you may find these helpful, too, although you’re not explicitly asking for them) in addition to thoughts on downsides.

Upsides:

  • My computer, which is old, runs faster than it would under Windows. I would have had to shell out for a new computer a long time ago to keep running Windows on a day-to-day basis.
  • I have a philosophical and political commitment to free, open-source software. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of the more substantial of them is that, even though I’m not a coder myself, I feel comfortable knowing that the source code is in theory examinable by other coders and is therefore less likely to have nasty tricks or panopticonic spy/reporting mechanisms in it.
  • I can manage small-level details of the system myself and get it to do just what I want it to do. I can configure it in ways that match how I want to work, rather than just accepting how a corporation decides I should work.
  • Software installation and upgrading is trivially painless on an Ubuntu-based distribution (and on many others). I use Linux Mint and Bodhi, both of which are Ubuntu derivatives. There are multiple ways to install software, and when I want to do so, I don’t have to surf through the Internet and dig down through websites to find system requirements, installation pages, etc. Usually, when I want to install software that does X, I just open Synaptic and search for X, read through the descriptions, and install what I want. Unlike in Windows, where frequently I might have to first separately install supporting software, which involves downloading it and installing it separately before I can install the program I’m actually trying to install, Linux handles dependency installation automatically 99% of the time. Updating 99% of the software on my computer means that I open up the terminal and type “sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade” — that’s it. Everything’s up to date. Everything. No annoying pop-ups from 50 different programs that go online to check for updates when I launch them. If I wanted to, I could easily automate the upgrade process to happen while I sleep (but I like to look over its shoulder and see what it’s about to do before I let it happen). I could also do it through a graphical package manager, but I’m comfortable enough with the terminal to want to do it the quick way.
  • I can try programs and use them without having to buy them, ever. Every piece of software on my system is free. I buy the hardware, the software costs nothing. (There is commercial Linux software, but I can accomplish what I need without using it.) There are eight bazillion choices for most things I need to do, so if I decide after three months that I don’t like a program or that its user interface is awkward, I can find another alternative, which is also free, and I haven’t wasted any money.
  • The support community is a real community, not a bunch of soulless tech-support drones who hate talking to you and assume when they start talking to you that you’re probably an idiot because their last 23 callers were. (I’ve done tech support in the past and it … can be a very frustrating job.) The structure of support is not warped and deformed by commercial interests, but has real human interactions built in (take a look at the support forums for a larger distro, like the Ubuntu Forums, for this, or look back through /r/Linux4noobs). This is true for everything from your word processor and graphics editing software to low-level components of the operating system.
  • Programs are written by people who use them, not by a bureaucratic hivemind. This often means that they’re better designed than they would be if they were planned from the top down by people who will not be using the software: the developers have an incentive to make the software as usable and flexible as possible, because they’re using it.
  • There are good open-source, free software programs that will do pretty much everything I need to do, and they can work with just about every file that someone sends me. It’s been years since I rebooted my slower laptop into Windows just to read a file.
  • If you’re a semi-power user, then the Linux terminal emulator is FAR more powerful than the Windows command line, both because its fundamental capabilities are more flexible and there’s more useful software developed for it. You can chain commands together, piping the output of one to the input of another, to accomplish an amazing number of tasks. If you have to perform the same task on hundreds or thousands of files, this is often far quicker and easier to do with a little bit of terminal knowledge than it would be to use a graphical application in Windows or OS X. Things that are impossible to do, or prohibitively time-consuming, in a GUI are often a real snap from the Linux terminal emulator.
  • Security is better than under Windows in a lot of ways, in part because it was designed in from the beginning, not bolted on later.

For me, the downsides are:

  • No iTunes. There is other iPod management software, but you can’t get at the iTunes store, so I have to boot my slow-as-fuck laptop into Windows if someone gives me an iTunes gift card.
  • Other specific programs that have a more or less monopoly lock on user bases may not have Linux support at all. This is true, for instance, for various professional fields: if you HAVE to use a specific software package because you’re an architect, say, then you may be locked into an operating system that supports that package, which may exclude Windows. Programs that I’ve heard this about include CAD programs, heavily math-based packages for scientists and mathematicians, specific programs for graphic designers, etc. WINE is a great solution in many ways, but it’s not perfect. Often, running Windows in a virtual machine is a better compromise, but then you have to buy and install a copy of Windows.
  • On a related note, even if there is an open-source alternative, you may have people within your field who inadvertently and indirectly insist on you using the equivalent Windows or OS X software. For instance: if your company has to submit, say, a sales proposal to another company and they require that you submit it as an MS Word .docx file, well … yes, LibreOffice can save as .docx, but formatting can get screwy, so it’s best to check it in MS Word before you submit it. Similarly, if people are constantly sending you .docx files, well … those don’t always import perfectly into LibreOffice and acceptably preserve their formatting. The time cost of reformatting everything could conceivably become prohibitive. Similar things could probably be said about Photoshop, AutoCAD, and any number of other programs.
  • There are pieces of hardware and software that explicitly try to lock you into a particular hardware/software ecosystem. Apple is, IMHO, the worst offender here, but they’re certainly not the only company to try to do this.
  • A lot of people who teach computer use — in a broad variety of meanings for the word “teach” — are actually idiots who don’t understand the principles involved and/or can’t explain things in any other way than by listing the steps to accomplish something. So, for instance, if you’re majoring in graphic design, your instructors may very well actually be functionally retarded about computer use: they may not “really understand” how to, say, produce a vignette around a photograph, but have simply memorized the eight steps required to do it in version X of Photoshop, and may need to be retrained when a new version of Photoshop comes out. Idiots are usually reactionaries who resent people who understand what they’re teaching better than they do, so they may very well insist that you use Photoshop in your coursework so that they can understand what you’re doing (evaluating this will involve noticing whether you follow the orthodox eight steps they explained to you in lecture, which were handed down by Jesus Christ himself) while they look over your shoulder and scratch their sweaty hairy nipples with a spork underneath their overalls. Similarly, if you’re searching the Internet for answers to “how to do postprocess a photo to accomplish Y task” questions, you will find that many bloggers have answered them, but only by producing a series of steps that will result in a photograph that looks like Y, provided that you are using version X of Photoshop.
  • More generally, the culture as a whole assumes that “doing X on a computer” actually means accomplishing a certain task while adhering to certain presuppositions about “how a computer works” that are actually not presuppositions about computing, but unexamined prejudices that are based on Microsoft decisions, some of which are 30 years old. You wouldn’t believe how many times people have told me that FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, YOU CAN’T USE A QUESTION MARK IN A FILENAME. In fact, you CAN … under Linux; you can’t under Windows because 30 years ago Microsoft made a series of really stupid decisions about how filenames can be constructed, based on what were, at the time, the requirements of their idiotic DOS command line, which is really just a version of the UNIX terminal for morons. These assumptions have continued forward in current versions of Windows because a huge number of programs have embedded them as presuppositions. Using Linux frees you from these presuppositions. However: try emailing a file with a question mark in its name to your average Windows user and see how angry they get because they “can’t save it” (i.e., can’t just hit the Save button in the Save dialog without changing its name; understanding that you need to change its name requires understanding Microsoft’s presuppositions about what file names are legal under Windows). There are many many many many many variations on this scenario. The upshot is that a lot of people want a computer that “just works (in the way that I spent a lot of time and effort learning how computers are supposed to work, but I learned that by taking the intellectually lazy way of memorizing steps rather than understanding principles).”
  • Hardware support under Linux is generally quite good … with some notable exceptions, which can be annoying. Some hardware manufacturers only provide closed-source drivers and don’t release the specs for the hardware, so support for them under Linux requires trial and error, reverse engineering, or other half-measures, and “drivers” (well, built-in kernel support) may not ever appear for obscure hardware. This is notably true for many wireless card drivers (though, actually, I’ve never had this problem); in my experience as a grad student, it can be difficult to get the projectors on campus to work with my computer. The workaround for this is usually to export whatever I’m going to be showing to a format that can be understood without glitches by Windows, then borrow a university laptop. So. For instance. If I’m giving a lecture that includes a slide show, there are two primary paths that I take. (1) Design it in LibreOffice impress, then export it, not to Microsoft Powerpoint (because the export to Powerpoint is actually not that great, and notably doesn’t handle font auto-resizing well, so I wind up with font-size problems — too small; or too big and doesn’t fit in the text frame, so it’s cut off), but to .pdf. Well, this means that I can’t use slide transitions, because .pdf doesn’t support them. Personally, I don’t care; or (2) designing it in a web-based presentation tool like Prezi. Neither is really optimal, but both are acceptable alternatives for me.
  • Free software doesn’t entitle you to support. If it doesn’t work for you, or doesn’t work in the way that you want it to, you can report the problem or make suggestions, or write your own program, or (if it’s open-source) add the functionality you want or fix the problem yourself, but you don’t have the right to demand that it be made to work. You got it for free. (This has not been a real problem for me because support communities and developers really are a great group of people, on the whole, but you may have an ideological commitment to having the right to be self-righteous to other people.)
  • Software is designed by people who actually use it. Overall, I find this to be a good thing, but this sometimes has a number of suboptimal implications. (1) It may not be as polished as commercial software. (2) It may be the case that the software you want to use works in strange ways that are non-intuitive for you, but are intuitive for the developer; the developer may have no motive to change this. (3) Documentation may be sketchy or nonexistent in some cases (though documentation in Linux, as a rule, is quite good). (4) Because a huge portion of the effort of designing software for a GUI is not developing the basic functionality of the software, but developing the code that handles the GUI, there is plenty of software that requires you use the terminal, or that you configure it by hand-editing text files. (This also has its upsides, actually.)

There are lots of other relevant things that could be said, but I think that many of them have already been touched on by other posters. For my own part, I found that there wasn’t much of a learning curve to Linux, but other people’s mileage will vary. I find it a positive and worthwhile choice overall.

Why don’t commercial software companies port programs to Linux more often?

In response to a question on Reddit about why games aren’t ported more often from OS X to Linux, given the comparative ease of doing so. I discovered after typing this up that it’s longer than Reddit allows comments to be, so I’m posting it here and linking back to it from Reddit.

I’ve always suspected that the real deal-breaker for developers is not development difficulty, but the difficulty of providing technical support. If you’re selling software to people, you have to provide technical support for that software, and this is difficult with Linux for several reasons.

Having worked in technical support myself in my younger days, both as a tech-support provider and as a person who trains people to provide technical support, and having friends who have worked in technical support, I can generalize a bit about how it works. This is possibly enlightening, because it sheds light on the business models involved.

First: the technical support people who provide front-line tech support and resolve 90%+ of questions don’t necessarily know (much of) anything more than the people calling in. This is necessary to keep costs down, because if you’re selling a technological product, you’re going to get a lot of tech-support requests from people who are complete fucking idiots, and you want to resolve those as quickly as possible. This is the reason why when you call any company at all for tech support, if you’re not a complete fucking idiot, the person on the end takes you through several steps you’ve already tried. Think of any tech-support request call you’ve ever made: it’s virtually certain that they ask you if you’ve tried turning your device off, then back on; if the device is plugged in; if the cables are connected firmly; or whatever. The reason for this is that complete fucking idiots often don’t know that they’re complete fucking idiots, so you have to explicitly tell everyone to do basic things because a large number of people can’t be trusted to have tried those things or checked those issues before they call, file an online support ticket, or otherwise make contact asking for (or, often, rudely demanding) help.

Second: a large number of people can’t explain clearly what exactly is wrong. (Look back through problem reports on /r/linux4noobs and ask yourself how many of them are just a small step above “hi i have a linux and it’s broken” or “i tried to do this and it didn’t work.”) The combination of these two factors means that people who don’t know much about technology are supporting people who know even less about technology. This is the case because tech support is expensive to provide. This is largely because a lot of people asking for tech support are idiots, so there’s a high volume of support requests to handle, because idiots need a lot of help.

So, how do tech-support departments keep the cost of providing tech support down? Largely by trying to have people with little specific technical education and knowledge handle as many tech-support requests as possible. If you’re not asking for specific education or training, then you can pay people very little above the effective minimum wage for the area where your tech-support center is located. Many tech-support centers are located in areas where the cost of living is low, so the effective minimum wage for the area is also low, which helps to keep costs down, but living in low-wage areas also tends to be correlated with less effective educational programs for residents, so that exacerbates the level-of-competence-that-can-be-expected-from-new-hires problem.

So, what does this mean in practical terms? Well, the basic requirements for hiring someone to take these first-tier tech-support calls, in general, are:

  • The applicant must have a high school diploma or equivalent.
  • The applicant must be able to show up at work, reliably, on time, on a regular basis.
  • The applicant must be able to pass a drug test, because that keeps workplace insurance costs down.
  • The applicant must be able to speak intelligible English (which may very well be defined in a highly flexible way).
  • The applicant must not have a conviction on record for fraud, embezzlement, mugging, or other financial felonies, because they are probably going to be dealing with people’s credit card numbers at some point.
  • The applicant must have a general idea how to use a computer — not so that they can understand the computer well enough to, say, diagnose problems, but because their job will require them to use a computer in order to complete basic job functions.
  • The applicant must be able to write in English that is standard enough that they can summarize a conversation in a way that is intelligible to another employee without having to talk to the original employee, in case the customer calls back and the second support rep needs to see what has already been tried, and must be able to type quickly enough that typing speed is not going to slow them down while taking notes (probably defined at around 40 w.p.m. with no more than about two errors per minute).
  • The applicant must be able to get through a series of three job interviews without saying “fuck.” (You’d be surprised how many otherwise “qualified” people this weeds out, actually.)


That’s it. When you call your ISP for technical support, you’re getting someone who meets these requirements, but (quite possibly) no more. Same for software tech support. Same for your cell phone company, warranty service for your toaster, etc. etc. etc. The reason that no more technical knowledge is required is that requiring more technical knowledge would require that the companies pay higher wages in order to attract qualified applicants, and that would increase the cost of technical support a great deal.

You may think I’m kidding, or speaking hyperbolically, but I’m not. When I was a trainer for one company, an eight-month battle about hiring requirements and practices between the training department and the recruiting department came to an end when the head of the recruiting department sent the call center’s Operations Manager and the training department’s manager an email that said (and this is nearly an exact quote from memory), “We are changing the recruiting department’s attitude that ‘anyone can do this job’ to ‘some people cannot do this job.’” Think about that: the idea that recruiting for a tech-support department took eight months to acknowledge that some people with high-school diplomas cannot effectively learn to provide tech support in an efficient time frame. Even though they have a high school diploma. Even though they passed a drug test. Even though they can refrain from saying “fuck.”

So when you call these people for tech support, what do they do? You probably already know the answer to this question: they read a script, get your answer, and click a button that corresponds to what you said. Then they repeat that until either the problem is resolved or the script acknowledges that it can’t solve the problem. If they’re trying anything on the back end, it’s not based on the employee’s own knowledge, but is a highly automated process. They give you instructions based on what the script tells them to say at any point in the tech-support experience. The first-tier tech-support agent is not allowed to depart from the script for any reason whatsoever, even if they’re smarter than the other people on their team, even if they have a Ph.D. in computer science. They’ve been hired to read the script and, when necessary, interpret it for the caller, but they have zero latitude in making judgment calls. Their calls are listened to randomly, and if they get caught departing from the script for any reason, even if they know what they’re doing, they probably receive disciplinary action. I know people who have worked for companies that regularly fire employees for a second offense of being caught departing from the script. (At least some of these companies probably would like to fire people for departing from the script on the first time they catch them, but it may be necessary to document that the there has been a conversation at the end of which the employee documents in writing that s/he specifically understands that departing from the script is something for which they can be fired, so that if they depart from the script again and are caught, the employer can avoid paying that employee unemployment, which would also increase the cost of technical support.)

And from the company’s perspective, why not? They want to provide a consistent experience for people who make multiple tech-support calls, and letting people use knowledge that wasn’t imparted in a one- to three-week training program may set unreasonable expectations for the caller in the future. (This is the same reason why, if your native language is, say, Cantonese, and you make six thousand calls to the tech-support center, no one will admit to speaking Cantonese, despite the vanishingly small chances that this is in fact true. In point of fact, someone you speak to in those six thousand calls will certainly speak at least decent Cantonese, and probably more than one someone; they’re just not allowed to admit that to you, because then you might expect that the next person you talk to will speak Cantonese, and then when they find out that the person they’re talking to does, they might want to talk to the original person. This is a logistical nightmare from the company’s point of view, because then they have to start taking “ability to speak Cantonese” into account and making sure that they always have such people on the phones.) Besides, if they don’t require a degree in computer science when they hire people, then they probably want to make sure that any genuine idiots who slip through the cracks don’t decide to just say things more or less at random so that they’re not liable later for damage that occurs to a customer’s computer or data when some idiot says something he barely understands because he heard another employee saying it, or because it’s been passed around as verbal lore. In any case, unemployment is high, and they would rather fire someone who’s a loose cannon who may cause damage in favor of hiring and training another drug-test-passing high school graduate who can avoid saying “fuck.”

Ever called in to a tech-support line and just started by saying, “Hi, I’m having this problem, and I’ve already tried rebooting my computer and checking to make sure the drivers are installed”? And discovered during the course of the call that you had a minimally competent person on the other end of the line? I’ll bet money that when the person on the other end of the line got to the point where the script tells them to have you reboot your computer, they explicitly said out loud, as if they were talking to themselves, “And you said you’ve already rebooted your computer …”. Why? Because someone might be listening in, and they’re trying to remind that person that they ARE following the script, so please don’t fire me, because I’m also trying to keep my support times down and I’m paying attention to the customer and trying to leverage what they’ve already said in order to work more efficiently. I’m not departing from the script, I swear. Seriously: even if they know more than the customer does, they have to go through the script, because they can be fired for transferring you to a second-tier tech-support agent without going through it.

As a general rule, you don’t get to talk to a person with real technical knowledge until the script gives up. Asking to speak to a supervisor probably won’t result in you being transferred to a more experienced tech-support agent, either, because (a) the person you speak to may not be the actual supervisor of the original employee, i.e. the person who has the ability to fire the first person you talked to, but may only be someone who happens to have “supervisor” as part of their job title because they’ve received it so that they can legitimately take these calls, and who’s been given that title based on the fact that they’re good at dealing with customers; and/or (b) people are promoted to actual supervisory positions for reasons having to do with things other than more expansive technical knowledge.

Basically, the employee you talk to first is following a flowchart, one step at a time, and IF your problem’s cause lies outside of what the flowchart can handle, THEN you get to talk to someone who actually knows something about the technology. (This second-tier person may also be following a script, incidentally, but if so, it will be a more complex one, because that person either has some technical knowledge him-/herself, or has at least demonstrated over the course of their employment that they are more intelligent and articulate than the average tech-support employee.) The overriding consideration in all technical-support scenarios, virtually without exception, is to make sure that your question is answered by the lowest-paid employee who could possibly handle it.

So. You have a group of people who have no necessary technical knowledge following a script that they’ve had one to three weeks of training in following. Who writes this script? More experienced tech-support staff. What is characteristic of it? It breaks things down into INCREDIBLY SMALL STEPS, explaining each step with painful clarity, and includes links to documents that help the employee to explain what needs to happen in even more detail, in case they’re talking to a customer who’s really really really really really really stupid. (Yes. There are people who don’t understand that not only can your computer be turned back on if you ever turn it off, but that you can choose a menu item from the Start menu that performs both actions in sequence. I’ve talked to them. Often.)

This xkcd comic parodies this situation and is worth taking a quick look at because it throws the situation into relief.

So think about what is required to make it possible to write these scripts: for one thing, a more or less unified user experience. (Small branches are created for different versions of Windows: So, if you need to make sure that the user has an active IP address, you’ll have a series of steps that amount to “If the user is running Windows XP, have them click on the start menu and choose the Control Panel, then open the Network applet. … If the user is using Windows 7 … If the user is using Windows 8 …”) If you’re providing tech support for Windows, then you can assume that they have a Start menu. That they have a control panel. That the control panel can be selected from the Start menu. That the control panel has standard applets in it, and that each of these applets functions in the same way on everyone’s computer. That there is a standard way to install software. That there is a standard way to check which drivers are installed. That there is a standard mechanism for handling file permissions. That programs definitely reside in a particular location. And so forth and so on for hundreds of system-configuration details that vary widely from one Linux installation to another.

So. What does all this have to do with Linux as opposed to OS X as a tech-support target? Essentially, OS X is a more or less unitary experience for all of its users to much the same extent that it is for Windows (again, you can branch for different versions on individual steps: “if the user is using OS X Tiger … if the user is running Snow Leopard …”). Scripts can be written for providing tech support on it in much the same way that scripts can be written for providing tech support under Windows. But Linux is a hydra: Is the caller using Debian? Linux Mint? Arch? Puppy? Ubuntu? Gentoo? Mandriva? Bodhi? Something even less widely distributed? Even if the companies were to restrict their support to one or two major distros, there are still a huge number of configurability options. Is the user’s desktop environment/window manager GNOME, KDE, Mate, XFCE, Openbox, Cinnamon, ratpoison, Enlightenment, IceWM, sawtooth, awesome, Xmonad? What file system is the root partition formatted with? Where is the program binary that’s being run located? What versions of shared libraries are installed? What is the update mechanism for software on the system? Is SELinux installed and configured? If so, how? Does the system support the sticky bit, setuid/setgid, hard links to directories? What mechanism needs to be used to gain administrative privileges: sudo, su, logging in as root? Which directories are in the system’s $PATH? Where are configuration files stored? Which directories do binaries get installed to?

All of these issues have pretty simple answers under Windows and OS X, and none of them have unequivocal, virtually certain majority answers under Linux. Most don’t even have virtually certain answers within a particular distro, because one of the virtues of Linux (if, that is, you’re not developing commercial software for which you’re trying to cost-efficiently provide technical support) is that it’s nearly infinitely customizable by power users who know what they’re doing and understand the reasons for making alterations.

Problem is, from a tech-support perspective, that virtually nothing can be taken for granted about system setup. Users may very well not know important details about their setup, too: how many Linux newbies are using, e.g., Ubuntu but don’t know for sure that their desktop environment is, e.g., GNOME 3? How many grandparents had a Linux laptop set up by a relative as their first computer and like it because it’s easy to use, but have simply “learned to use a computer” by pointing the mouse at stuff, and have no idea about what the answer to that question is? Moreover, a user may very well break an application’s functionality in one way or another under Linux by making ill-advised changes based on being a newbie, incomplete knowledge, a bad (or badly explained) idea on a blog post, or advice from a not-much-more-experienced user giving advice that worked under one setup, but not on another. Indeed, borking your system a few times is part of the learning curve for many Linux users. Too, Linux users are more likely to experiment with basic system changes that have no equivalent in Windows or OS X.

All of this makes Linux virtually impossible to script tech-support calls for, especially because there are SO MANY options that are difficult to walk someone who doesn’t know the answer through finding the answer for. (How DO you explain to someone whose desktop you can’t see how to figure out what their window manager is if they don’t know?) The upshot, then, is that tech support for Linux is impossible to provide in this tiered, scripted way, and this means that tech support would have to be provided by people who (a) know Linux very well, and (b) have excellent communication skills.

That’s an expensive skill set to hire. That’s why tech support for Linux is difficult to provide. That’s probably a primary driver for the fact that more games (and other programs) for Windows/OS X don’t get ported to Linux by commercial software developers.

An Open Letter to UCSB’s Instructional Computing Department About the U-Web Service’s Retirement

Another interchange with the brilliant minds at UCSB’s Instructional Computing department. Without soliciting any input from the campus community, they announced not long ago that they’ve decided not to provide web space for students, faculty, or TAs.


Here is their original message:

Subject: U-Web Service End-of-Life - February 2013
From:
U-Web Service Management <sysadmin@umail.ucsb.edu>
Date:
11/26/2012 04:26 PM
To: "Patrick B. Mooney" <ADDRESS REMOVED>

Hi -

We’re sending you this note because we see that you’ve uploaded files to your U-Web account.

At the end of the February 2013 we will be retiring the U-Web service. Since the release of U-Web many years ago, a number of providers have begun to offer similar services for personal web hosting. These competing services provide full-featured service suites with better customer support than we’re able to offer. As such, we believe U-Web customers are better served by switching to one of these other services.

We’ve heard good things about NearlyFreeSpeech (www.nearlyfreespeech.net), Weebly (www.weebly.com), and Google Sites (sites.google.com) as possible replacements. For course-related web publishing, we understand the Collaborate project (www.collaborate.ucsb.edu) is developing a new service to meet this need. Until that is rolled out, instructors can request interim accommodations via email to help@collaborate.ucsb.edu.

Unfortunately we’re unable to automatically migrate your existing U-Web content to any new service provider. Any files left in your U-Web account by March 1st 2013 will be deleted.

Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or concerns.


U-Mail Service Management
support-desk@umail.ucsb.edu


Here is my response:

Subject: Re: U-Web Service End-of-Life - February 2013
From:
Patrick Mooney <ADDRESS REMOVED>
Date:
01/12/2013 10:43 PM
To:
U-Mail Help Desk <support-desk@umail.ucsb.edu>
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I would like to say that I think this is a poor choice, and that input from the campus community should have been solicited before it was made.

As nearly as I can determine, the central criterion for the decision is that “U-Web customers are better served by switching to one of these other services.” But as far as I can tell, no input was solicited from “U-Web customers” about what best serves their needs. Apparently, the basis for the evaluation that “U-Web customers” are better served elsewhere is based on the evaluation that other providers provide services that are technically equivalent to the U-Web service, insofar as other servers also serve HTML, CSS, and other files, just as the U-Web servers do.

However, there are a number of other ways in which other services do not adequately duplicate the U-Web service:

Having a U-Web web site provides an ontological guarantee of an affiliation with the University hard-coded into the site’s URL. Anyone can claim on their website to be affiliated with the University, but forcing a member of the campus community to host their website elsewhere removes an ability for the viewer of that website to confirm this assertion on the web designer’s part.

U-Web is paid for without direct cost to its users. Other services are not free (NearlyFreeSpeech), or require posting ads or corporate branding on the web site (Weebly), or unduly restrict the ways in which content can be created (Google Sites, which requires the use of their page-creation tools and prevents direct editing of HTML). I use my web service to provide instructional materials for my students. I believe that this is a valuable service for the students — and the students who have written letters of recommendation for my application for the Academic Senate’s Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award agree. Should I give my students the impression, then, that my course is sponsored by Weebly? Is this the image that the world-class University of California wants to give of itself? Putting corporate logos all over course website designs undermines one of the most basic assumptions of higher education — that academics and intellectuals are engaged in a disinterested search for truth. Requiring that course websites adhere to content guidelines for other services — which often place restrictions on what can be said beyond what is legally required by other sites — also undermines this basic assumption.

At the same time, the only other available non-restrictive option is to pay for hosting. This may not be a problem for some faculty members, but undergraduate and graduate students are already paying more for their education than at any time in the University’s recent history. Asking graduate students to pay out of pocket in order to construct course websites places an additional burden on people who are living on practically nothing in one of the country’s ten most expensive towns. Asking undergraduates to pay out of pocket to disseminate information that they need to disseminate has similar problems.

You also mention that you “understand the Collaborate project […] is developing a new service” to support needs related to course-related publishing, but their website says nothing about this effort, and it seems not to be working yet. What are we supposed to do in the time between when U-Web’s services and and whenever this project goes live?

In short, I disagree fundamentally that other services are equivalent in all meaningful ways to U-Web, even if technical equivalents exist elsewhere. I am disappointed that you have made this decision on our behalf without bothering to solicit input from us, and I think that the evaluation “we’ve decided other alternatives are better for you people” is patronizing, and suggests that the Instructional Computing department has lost sight of the fact that their job is to support educational objectives, not merely to make purely technical decisions. I also think that this decision illustrates perfectly what happens when a group of pompous technocrats makes technical decisions about services based solely on technical criteria and without considering the broader implications of those decisions or communicating with actual users of those services.

Finally, I also intend to publish this email on my blog under the title “An Open Letter to UCSB’s Instructional Computing Department About the U-Web Service’s Retirement.”

Thank you for your time.



Patrick Mooney, M.A.
PhD Candidate in English
University of California, Santa Barbara
http://patrickbrianmooney.nfshost.com/~patrick/

And their respose:

Subject: [UCSB Support Desk Collaboration] Re: Re: U-Web Service End-of-Life - February 2013
From: Alan Moses <notifications-support@ucsbcollabsupport.zendesk.com>
Date: 01/14/2013 05:08 PM
To: Patrick Mooney < { my school email address } >
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## In replies all text above this line is added to the ticket ##

Ticket #9495: Re: U-Web Service End-of-Life - February 2013

Your request (#9495) has been updated.

Alan Moses, Jan 14 17:08 (PST):

Hi Patrick -

Regarding hosting for instructional materials, there are several campus solutions in place. The primary and recommended solution is to use GauchoSpace, which has the advantage of integrating enrollment status to control access as appropriate. Other solutions include departmental hosting, and if that is not available, in the College of Letters and Science the LSIT hosting service can provide a site for a course or project. I would encourage you to use one of these well established and supported services for your instructional materials.

Your concerns about using the alternate solutions in the note from the U-Web Service Management team for instructional materials are well founded; but your assumptions are misplaced. The U-Web retirement note did not provide alternatives for publishing instructional materials, because that was never an intended use for U-Web. Students have used it primarily for personal web publishing, for which the suggested services and many others are entirely appropriate. The other use for U-Web was for students to have a location to complete assignments that required web publishing. That is what the note meant by “course related web publishing” - the student side, not the instructor side. That need will eventually be met by a service that instructors can request for their classes as needed. For the time being, we will be meeting those requests on an ad hoc basis.

Take care -

-Alan

================================
Alan Moses
Assistant Dean for Academic Technology
College of Letters and Science
UC Santa Barbara
(805) 893-5343
moses@LSIT.ucsb.edu


I’m continuing this particular Twitter-originated conversation here because, yanno, some conversations are best held without a 140-character limit … despite the fact that I think that Twitter is a wonderful tool for many purposes.

For those of my readers who are not @PhotoEphemeris on Twitter, and haven’t been following this particular Twitter-based conversation, I’ve provided the above snapshots of tweets so that you can have context for this particular blog post. Here are links to the original tweets between me and PhotoEphemeris: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven. I’m going to take a wild guess and say that, based on the way that the PhotoEphemeris person or people have interacted with me so far, it may very well be that tweets two, four, six, and/or ten may wind up being deleted in response to this blog post, which is part of the reason why I’ve taken graphic snapshots of them (and, in any case, it’s already a public conversation). But then, that’s just a wild guess. I may be wrong.

@photoEphemis: I initially reported that your website is rendering strangely for two primary reasons: partly because its incompetent design left me unable to find basic sales-driving information, and partly because I think that putting one’s best foot forward, as it were, is important. I’d become aware of your product due to a positive review on a website whose feed I follow. It looked like a useful product, and I wanted more info, but was unable to find it because of heavily overlapping objects and other rendering weirdnesses on your website.

I pointed this out to you not just because I couldn’t find the information that I wanted, but because it makes you look bad. Because, after all, the thing is that, regardless of what add-ons I’m using in Firefox, well over 99% of websites display correctly, and it is, in fact, possible to create websites that display properly regardless of how I’ve configured my standards-compliant browser, and to design websites that degrade gracefully under suboptimal browser configurations. No, I don’t necessarily expect you to design for every possible browser and browser configuration, and people who are using Lynx or Lunascape or AOL Explorer 1.3 or Billy Joe Bob’s Minimalist Web n’ Sister’s Shower Webcam Browser are going to be used to seeing that some websites don’t display as the designer imagined that they might. But we’re not talking about Lynx or Epiphany or Opera or Safari here: we’re talking about Firefox, a browser used by nearly a third of those browsing the web (and, incidentally, about 85% of Firefox users use at least one add-on). Website design is a time-consuming process — I understand that — and it involves choices: I also understand that. What I was pointing out is that, as it seems to me, your desire to use a fairly complex layout that invents HTML tags and attributes and disregards basic HTML structural and nesting rules, and your desire integrate Twitter widgets and similar pieces of web 2.0 trendiness, seem to have eclipsed (what I take to be) one of the basic purposes of your website: to drive sales. More generally, it seems to me that you’ve chosen layout coolness over the actual presentation of information in a useful, readable format.

After all, I’m a busy guy who works 80+ hours a week, and photography is a hobby for me; my free time is precious, since there’s so little of it, and although it might be that using a different browser and/or a different computer would result in an acceptably rendered website, I find the necessity to do this annoying. You lost a potential sale here because I’m not willing to start up a second browser or borrow my girlfriend’s laptop and check whether a website that uses the mythical <emphasis> tag might — just might — happen to render correctly under those circumstances: my free time is precious to me, and I’m not going to spend five minutes, or even fifteen seconds, of it working around your web designer’s incompetence. My assumptions were that, if I’m having this problem, it’s almost certainly not unique to me, and that you may be losing other sales as well. I thought you might appreciate knowing this. What I got in return was a set of defensive tweets insisting that (a) it was my fault for not reading your web designer’s mind and knowing that only bleeding-edge versions of the two most popular operating systems are “acceptable” viewing scenarios, and that (b) pointing out your web design problem hoats yo’ po’ whittow feewings.

I pointed out your presentation problem for the same reasons that, if my department were hiring, and I saw a nervous-looking stranger in a suit waiting outside of the department chair’s office, I would let him know if his fly were open: not because I’d be hoping that he would whip out a wad of cash with which to reward me, nor that I’d hope this would lead to a beneficial professional relationship, nor even that I think I’m entitled to live in a world without open flies, but just because it’s the decent thing to do, and because I hope that someone would let me know if I were in that situation. Do unto others, yes? I hope that someone would tell me if I were about to go into a job interview with my fly open. That’s what I was trying to tell you: your fly is open, and your potential customers see their pre-sales interactions with you as a job interview.

Yes, I realize that you’re selling an application program, not web hosting and/or design, and that your website is therefore not a perfectly accurate index into your company’s application programming capabilities. But it’s the primary index that I have without buying your product, and it is, to a certain extent, a fair one: there are numerous transferable skills that are shared between the two related knowledge domains, such as micro-level attention to detail, designing for and understanding how computers interpret data, and testing on multiple real-world versions of the platform. Your “fuck it, I tried your browser under an OS with an 0.2075% [0.25% of 83%] market share and an OS with a 1.34% market share, that’s good enough” response evinces a very minimalist approach to testing, well below the w3c community’s recommendations. I might mention again that the HTML for your front page is invalid, using tags that don’t exist and breaking other aspects of the expected structure for valid XHTML Strict 1.0 (the standard by which your web page itself asks to be judged), and this might — just might — be part of the problem. (I’m a literary theorist, and I can figure this out. Why can’t your professional web designer[s] bother to take a few minutes and run their pages through the w3c’s totally free validation service before putting them online, for fuck’s sake?) True, your coding of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript isn’t a perfect indicator of your employees’ ability to code in Java, C++, FORTRAN, Python, COBOL, Ruby, BASIC, Pascal, LISP, or whatever it is you use — but it is, I think, a more or less fair index of how your company seems to view the relative importance of basic aspects of coding and testing, and of the general intellectual skill of the people you hire to perform coding-related tasks. Even if this is, for some reason I can’t immediately see, an incorrect assumption, it’s one that other potential customers will make, as well. I thought you might want to know that it was happening and how it was affecting your sales. I guess no good deed goes unmocked.

Moreover, I’ve interpreted the conversation that we’ve had as a sample of how your company deals with (potential) customers and (potential) tech support situations. Going back to the fly-open-before-the-job-interview metaphor, I’d expect someone for whom I’d just done the favor of informing him of that particular presentational problem, if not to thank me, then at least to look into the situation and correct it, and to behave decently to a stranger who’d just done him a favor. What I got in exchange in was the equivalent of “Hey, my fly isn’t down. Maybe you should check the configuration of your glasses" and "Well, feel free to zip my fly up for me if it bothers you so much, dickhead.” Or, to re-invoke my earlier claim that you have to make a choice between devoting time to functionality and devoting time to coolness, it’s as if you told me to go screw myself, because all the cool kids are walking around with their flies open these days, and what fucking business is it of mine, anyway? — and, in this case, I’d certainly make sure that the chair of my department knew about our interaction, because I think that, in that circumstance, he might want to know about how the job candidate had interacted with a stranger who’s already in the department. (Treating the attempt to gather sales as if it were a job interview is, I think, a fair metaphor in many ways. This is a secondary motivation for me to write a blog post on the subject: I have a sneaking suspicion that our interaction is a fair indication of your company’s attitude towards customers, and other potential customers might want to know how you’ve interacted with me, so I’m grouping together our [already public] conversation in a set of images above and commenting on it.)

If I were to purchase your app, and it didn’t work for me, would I receive a better response from your company than what I’ve received so far? Or would I get a “here’s the source code, don’t hold back from fixing it for us, you interfering asshole” or “oh, this particular app is not guaranteed to work on iOS devices on which the last.fm app has ever been installed” — a rough equivalent to “oh, our web site is only designed to be viewed on browsers with a particular (non-publicized) configuration and that support tags our incompetent coders have invented on the fly”? Are you more likely to treat me decently after I’ve already given you money than you do when I’m merely a potential customer?

If you feel that I’ve been unfair or snarky, well, then, I apologize. But I might point out that some of your replies have been equally snarky; and I note that our conversation has ended with you blocking me on Twitter. While you can, of course, treat your web presence in any way that you’d like, I wonder (again, in the context of imagining potential future tech-support conversations) about the wisdom of paying money to a company that shuts down dialogue it finds unpleasant, rather than dealing with the issue at stake in that dialogue. You have competitors, and I’ll do business with them instead. Perhaps other readers of this blog post will as well.

In any case, you asked, “why all the snark?” and I’m assuming you actually want an answer — that your question was not merely rhetorical posturing allowing you to play to an audience. This has been your answer.

Posting a letter of complaint here because I’ve had trouble getting in touch with the company any other way. As my father told me repeatedly when I was a child, sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Here is the text of the message, because I want it to be searchable for other (potential) customers:

{my address}
21 August 2012

Michael Kieschnick, CEO
Credo Mobile 101 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94105

Dear Mr. Kieschnick:

I have to say that, as happy as I am that my bill doesn’t go to support the Tea Party indirectly, I’m incredibly disappointed by three aspects of your service.

  1. I sent a message through your web feedback form nearly a week ago about the same primary issue about which I’m writing today, and no one has gotten back to me yet. Shame on you for slow response time with your customer service. Or for ignoring a customer - whichever it is.
  2. I tried to send another message through your web feedback form this afternoon, and, after spending a quarter of an hour explaining my problem, I pressed the “submit” button. All that happens is that I get an error page saying, “The specified URL cannot be found.” This is just incompetent. While I realize that your company not a web hosting provider, you are a technology company, and being unable to keep your web feedback form working reflects very poorly on the competence of your technicians. It also costs me money: To explain what your web form claims I can explain for free, I now need to pay for paper, printer ink, an envelope, and postage.

And this is the issue I originally sent you feedback about, although this item contains more information than I sent last week:

  1. I get periodic text messages on my phone saying that someone I know has sent me a picture message. This happens perhaps once a month, and since I don’t use the Internet on my phone otherwise, it’s not worthwhile for me to get a data plan. It used to be the case that I could view the picture messages on the web through my computer, but I just called to find out why what I used to do isn’t working, and your rep told me that this service was discontinued this month. She wasn’t able to say why, but tried to sell me a $14.99/month data plan, saying this is the only way to get these messages now.

    When pressed, she admitted that I can get a pay-as-you-go plan, but this is still a way of extracting money for a service that you used to provide for free. Shame on you for being a bunch of greedy bastards. What’s the point of using a phone company that doesn’t support a political party that tries to screw me over if that phone company is trying to screw me over directly?

I’m definitely happy about your political orientation, but if you’re not going to provide the services that I need in the way that I need them, then that consideration trumps your politics, and I’ll be looking for a new cell phone company, Republican supporters or no.

I’d like a real explanation - not an empathy statement or set of empty verbiage - of why you’ve made this change in policy. Why, for instance, don’t you continue to make the web interface available? Surely the support burden for your engineers and other technical people is minimal. Or, at a bare minimum, why can’t you auto-respond to picture messages with a text to the original sender that says, “This user does not accept picture messages”? That would be far better than silently accepting them and then trying to sell me access to them.

Shame on you for screwing your customers. And shame on you for not responding to my earlier attempt to contact you after you screwed me. Finally, shame on you for closing off a communications channel, the web form, that customers can use to get in touch with you - and for not even having the decency to indicate that it’s closed until after I’ve spent time composing a message. All of this is very disappointing.

Since I’ve had trouble getting a response from you in the past, a copy of this letter will be posted to my blog at http://patrickbrianmooney.tumblr.com/ - perhaps posting it in a public forum will help motivate you to respond to this letter.

In hopes that I can continue to be a CREDO Mobile user,
Patrick Mooney

Department of Incompetence

So, everyone who pays attention to this blog knows that I’m not a big fan of the Instructional Computing Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara (and if you need a refresher, see this post — I might mention in this context that the problem mentioned there hasn’t stopped, but I’m too busy to continue updating that post every time the problem happens). But I’ve got to say that this problem in the e-mail below really takes the cake, as it were.

The short version: the IC Department seems to have decided to cancel a perfectly good service for instructors called U-Lists, which provided the service of taking messages from instructors and forwarding them on to all students currently enrolled in the class. This was, as you can imagine, a very useful service for instructors. What they apparently want us to do now is to either just suffer through downloading a current class list as a spreadsheet and then copying one column and hoping that it can be pasted into an e-mail client’s “BCC” field (so as, yanno, not to show the students each other’s e-mail addresses) — or going through the all-consuming “GauchoSpace” content management system in order to send a message to all students. I think that forcing someone to get online on a specific site is a bad idea for a variety of reasons, which I outline in my original e-mail below. I sent it to the help desk address from which they originally e-mailed me to let me know that the service would be canceled.

When I woke up in the morning, I discovered a warning message, saying that the message hadn’t yet been delivered, and five days after I sent the original message, I got the message below. You’ll notice that the reason that the message couldn’t be delivered to the help desk is that the help desk address is over quota: it has too much mail, and the server is rejecting more messages.

I get it that summer is a weird time for academic institutions, both budget-wise and in terms of how well staffed various departments (which, yanno, tend to employ students, who are often gone during the summer) might be. But what gets me is that the people who administer this server, and who are responsible for setting the quotas in the first place, haven’t bothered to adjust their own quota upwards to compensate for this. That’s right: the people I’m trying to send an e-mail to are the same people who are responsible for deciding how much mail everyone should get, themselves included. Not only has it, apparently, not occurred to anyone that they might be able to set their own help desk mail account to accept however much mail might come in — to remove their own quota — they can’t even monitor their primary help-desk address well enough to determine that they need to increase their quota. Or, yanno, just clean out some goddam mail. Because nothing a server administrator can do says “We’re a bunch of fucking morons who have absolutely no idea what we’re doing” than proving that they can’t even monitor whether their own e-mail accounts are full. I mean, it’s either incompetence, or it’s a giant middle finger to users. One or the other. (I might note that my interactions in response to the earlier — continuing — problem could potentially be explained, not as incompetence, but as the result of a well-applied “smile while giving them the finger” policy.)

I get it that summer is busy. But if the people who are responsible for maintaining the servers can’t even think outside the box enough to adjust parameters for their own e-mail accounts, is it really any wonder that this problem is occurring?

———— Original Message ————
Subject: mail delivery failed : returning message to sender
Date: Thu, 02 Aug 2012 03:02:37 -0700
From: Mail Delivery System <Mailer-Daemon@umail.ucsb.edu>
Reply-To: help@umail.ucsb.edu
To: {my school e-mail address}

Hi there -

This is an automatic reply from the U-Mail message delivery system (umail.ucsb.edu).

A message that you sent could not be delivered to all of its recipients.

The following address(es) failed:

helpdesk@umail.ucsb.edu
SMTP error from remote mail server after RCPT TO:<helpdesk@umail.ucsb.edu>:
host imap-2.umail.ucsb.edu [128.111.151.205]:
452 4.2.2 Over quota: retry timeout exceeded

——— This is a copy of the message, including all the headers. ———
Return-path: {my school e-mail address}
Received: from resnet-10-5.resnet.ucsb.edu ([169.231.10.5] helo=[192.168.100.100])
by outgoing-2.umail.ucsb.edu with esmtpsa (TLSv1:AES256-SHA:256)
(Exim 4.76)
(envelope-from {my school e-mail address})
id 1SvQFT-0006Vj-Se
for helpdesk@umail.ucsb.edu; Sun, 29 Jul 2012 02:57:20 -0700
Message-ID: <501508FF.2020003@umail.ucsb.edu>
Date: Sun, 29 Jul 2012 02:57:19 -0700
From: Patrick Mooney {my school e-mail address}
Organization: English Department, University of California, Santa Barbara
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Linux i686; rv:14.0) Gecko/20120714 Thunderbird/14.0
MIME-Version: 1.0
To: U-Mail Help Desk <helpdesk@umail.ucsb.edu>
Subject: Re: U-Lists Service End-of-Life - Summer 2012
References: <20120410_160103_064544.sysadmin@umail.ucsb.edu>
In-Reply-To: <20120410_160103_064544.sysadmin@umail.ucsb.edu>
Content-Type: multipart/alternative;
boundary=”——————080503010207090005040504”
X-Virus-Scanned: (umail.ucsb.edu) Clam AV found no viruses in this message

This is a multi-part message in MIME format.
———————080503010207090005040504
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=UTF-8; format=flowed
Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit

I realize that this is a very late reply, and I apologize — I’m just now starting to sort through a hugely full e-mail box after an incredibly busy year. I also realize that one instructor saying this probably won’t make a difference, but then, perhaps, I’m not the only one to say this. I’d like to speak up for U-Lists as a useful independent service and respectfully ask that you consider providing it as an independent service in the form in which it’s been provided in the past.

I think that U-Lists has the following advantages over GauchoSpace:

  • U-Lists takes less time to use. Spending two minutes setting it up once per term means that instructors can reach all students with a single e-mail. (Many of us keep our e-mail clients open all the time because e-mail is a portal to a huge volume of information and communication from all aspects of our professional lives. GauchoSpace has far less professional “reach” for us. For me, anyway, one is worth keeping open at all times, and the other is not.) Opening a new message in my e-mail client takes less time than opening a new tab in my web browser and typing in the GauchoSpace URL (or even opening a new tab from a bookmark), logging in, navigating through the GauchoSpace navigation structure, then beginning to compose. It may be a difference of a few seconds, but the aggregate difference for many instructors on campus, each of whom types a dozen or so messages throughout a term, will be substantial.
  • GauchoSpace is “harder” to use. This is perhaps not true from an objective standpoint, but I think it will likely be subjectively true for many users. How many “gosh, I’m just not a computer person” instructors are there on campus? Dozens? Hundreds? Chances are that most or all of these people already know, at least, how to access their own e-mail account. Even if they don’t have a TA to set up their U-Lists at the beginning of some quarters, learning how to do this on their own is likely to be easier than learning to navigate through the GauchoSpace interface. Clicking “new message” in Thunderbird is far easier for these people than learning an entire new system and taking multiple steps to create a new message.
  • Keeping U-Lists active provides a backup way to contact students in case of trouble with GauchoSpace.
  • Requiring GauchoSpace access to message students restricts the number of access points from which messages can be sent. Using U-Lists, I can send a quick message from any Internet-connected device if I need to reach students quickly (say, if I need to cancel office hours due to illness or a sudden emergency). U-Lists is device agnostic: any device (say, a mobile phone with Internet service or an iPod touch) that can send e-mail can get a message to my students. In contrast, GauchoSpace is a more complex and sophisticated platform that restricts the software that can be used to access it. In particular, there are numerous pages in the GauchoSpace web site that recommend Firefox and say that Safari is unreliable … but Safari is the default browser on iOS devices, and there is no Firefox build for these machines. How many people on campus use iOS devices and were previously able to send messages through U-Lists using those machines, and are no longer able to do so now that U-Lists is defunct?
  • Requiring instructors to use GauchoSpace to send messages increases the GauchoSpace training burden. Instructors who wish to do nothing more with GauchoSpace than to replace U-Lists need to attend a GauchoSpace training session before they can do so. How much of the support burden alleviated by ending the service is offset by the additional training and support required by mandating GauchoSpace usage for this functionality? Especially for those “I’m just not a computer person” instructors?

In any case, those are my thoughts. I do understand that in the current budget climate, when everyone is working at least at (and often far above) a reasonable capacity, eliminating what seems like a redundant service seems like an attractive option. I just wanted to provide my perspective.

Thanks for everything that you do.


Patrick Mooney, M.A.
PhD Candidate in English
University of California, Santa Barbara
http://www.uweb.ucsb.edu/~patrickmooney

On 04/10/2012 09:01 AM, U-Lists Service Management wrote:

Hi -

We’re sending you this note because you or one of your colleagues at UCSB has registered a U-List to the e-mail address {my school e-mail address} over the past year.

At the end of the Spring 2012 term we will be retiring the U-Lists Course Mailing List Service. The functionality provided by U-Lists has been a component of the GauchoSpace Course Management service for a number of years, and we believe we can provide better student communication for our faculty by supporting this single academic communication service.

The folks at GauchoSpace have provided support information to help your transition from U-Lists to GauchoSpace. See their U-Lists Transition Information at:

https://gauchospace.ucsb.edu/help/ulists.html

If you have any questions or concerns about this transition, don’t hesitate to let us know.

IS EVERYONE TAKING CRAZY PILLS?

  • File support request with website because I can’t get at any of my website-specific messages.
  • Specifically ask support not to reply using the website-specific message system, since my problem is that I can’t get at website-specific messages. Provide e-mail address and a place to find numerous other contact options.
  • Support staff sends a generic reply (“try clearing your cache!”) via website-specific message system, which I can’t access, which is the reason why I filed the support request in the first place.
  • After I don’t reply for a week to the message that I can’t see due to the problem that motivated me to file a support ticket in the first place, support staff marks problem as solved.

Man, I want a job like that.

Anyway, problem seems to be solved now. Yay.