Patrick Mooney's blog

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Posts tagged technology

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Why I’m Just About Done With Google+ Photos

TL;DR I’m tired of the service not working in small but super-annoying ways that make me do a bunch of additional work. Narrative and more details below.

I’ve been using Google+ Photos since 2008 — back when it was “Picasa,” after Google had acquired the service but before it had been wrapped into Google’s social layer, Google+. I initially went with it because of recommendations from various image-creation professionals I know who said it had the best balance of services offered and problematic restrictions against content types. But that was in 2008, and perhaps it’s time for me to re-evaluate that. At this point, the only things that are genuinely keeping me tied to Google+ photos are:

  1. Posting my photos to Google+ means I’m posting at least something to Google+, at least occasionally; and, since Google
  2. It would be kind of a pain to move everything somewhere else.

Neither is insoluble, and it’s occurred to me over and over lately that perhaps some initial pain when I’ve got some free time would be worthwhile in saving frustration later on. Too, other services are offering more these days than they used to, and though I like the format of G+’s photo-collection web layouts (the lightboxing is quite nice, and the galleries are well-constructed), this is a minor concern compared to some of the problems I’ve had with it.

One thing I can say about Google+ / Picasa photos is that, for as long as I’ve been using it, it has always been annoyingly buggy in little yet extra-work-for-me-producing ways. My initial experience of this fact came when I was using the Picasa desktop client for Linux, which was (annoyingly) just the Windows build bundled with a tweaked version of Wine, the Windows compatibility layer for Linux. Google officially insisted at the time that I started using the client that it was a bad idea to try to just install the current Windows build of Picasa under the current Wine layer that was installed in Linux distributions (this turned out, if I recall correctly, to just be Google washing their hands of the possibility that problems might crop up, not a claim that there were actual problems with this approach). This meant, effectively, taking up a chunk of hard drive space just to install a second copy of Wine just to run the Picasa client, and was plagued with problems that occurred when, for instance, the Google-tweaked version of Wine lost track of how Linux file system folders were supposed to be mapped onto virtual drive letters, and these problems were exacerbated by the fact that there was no easy way to configure the Google-tweaked secondary Wine installation. It was also a serious problem that the Picasa client was extremely aggressive about trying to keep things in sync without asking the user for input: I was keeping my photos on a separate hard drive at the time and once started Picasa without noticing that that external hard drive was unplugged, so Picasa silently deleted all of my albums off of my Picasa web profile. Plugging the drive back in and restarting Picasa didn’t result in them being restored, either: Picasa noticed on that first program launch that they were gone and decided without asking that that was a permanent change. All those hours I’d spent picking which particular photos would be uploaded to different albums? Totally fucking wasted. Thanks, Picasa. Similarly, it was constantly uploading second copies of albums that had already been uploaded. There were enough stupid problems that by 2009, after using it for half a year or so, I was asking for advice on drop-kicking the Linux Picasa client … and there were no Linux replacements that made me happy, so I finally went back to sorting my images by hand in GQView, copying the ones I thought I might want to a separate folder, going through them again to cull effective duplicates, and then uploading them through the web interface.

Needless to say, this is a lot of work, but it’s still better than using the Picasa desktop client.

What makes it unbearable is that the web client doesn’t work reliably. There have been problems in the past where, instead of properly capturing and displaying the photo, what I got was just a black box; for a while, this was nearly one in every twenty photos. This is annoying because (especially if the missing photo was part of a large batch) there’s no easy way to tell which photo didn’t get uploaded (G+ Photos doesn’t, for instance, show you the file name of each photo that’s been uploaded, which would have made things far easier); I had to go through the whole batch, comparing photo by photo, until I figured out what wasn’t included. If I was trying to upload three hundred photos at once, I had to identify the fifteen photos that turned into black boxes, then I had to upload them again, and then I had to manually drag them, one by one, into the locations where they should have been in the first place. Identifying exactly where the photo was supposed to go often involved a substantial amount of additional digging through the original “upload these photos to Google” folder, then dragging them, one by one, through the slow-ass Google+ photo-album interface. This is a substantial amount of additional work.

That problem seems to have been fixed … or, to be more specific, I should say that that symptom seems to have been ameliorated, because there’s a similar problem happening now that’s even more annoying: the “some photos just don’t upload” problem.

I noticed this Monday morning after getting back Sunday night from a weekend in the desert with my girlfriend. I came home with nearly nine hundred photos shot during the weekend, and spent four hours going through my shots, trying on this first pass to accomplish two tasks:

  1. Entirely deleting any photos that are unequivocally and entirely without merit (e.g., shots that were taken from the passenger seat of a moving car that have a large speed-blurred tree as the primary foreground image) — shots that I will definitely not ever miss if I delete them.
  2. Copying photos that I might want to put in my Google+ album for the weekend into a new folder, then going through those shots again and culling out the ones that I didn’t want to include. This was the primary task that took up time, and when I was done with it, I wound up with 263 photos that I wanted to upload, totaling about 1.8 GB of data.

So the short version is that I spent four hours of my evening constructing a visual narrative of my weekend, thinking carefully about how I wanted to represent it to my friends, to my family, to fans of my photography who want to see the raw shots and not just the final products that will pop up on my DeviantArt gallery over the next few months, to the public — to anyone who might get at my Google+ profile and want to see how my trip to Joshua Tree National Park was. This is not a random collection of photos: it’s a carefully crafted visual story about what I did and who I am, as a person and as a photographer. Moving elements around or dropping them destroys the carefully designed narrative that I’d been constructing in my head all weekend and had spent much of my evening fine-tuning. Having something just not transfer across is completely unacceptable.

What did I do after sorting? Log into Google+, go to the photos tab, and upload a new album. I select all 263 photos in the folder I’m using as my sorting folder, then wait to see that the photo upload process is actually beginning. Then I went to bed. Because, you know, I get it: nearly two gigabytes of data takes a long time to transmit and process. Once I started seeing the progress bars moving on the first few photos, my expectation is that the whole upload process is (a) going to work, and (b) not require any more intervention from me.

What did I expect to happen? In more detail, I expect that all of the photos, without fail, will upload, and will upload in the same order that I’d named them in the folder. I expect that I will not need to intervene at all in the uploading process, and that, if more information is required from me, it will not be needed until all of the photos have been transferred to Google’s servers. Don’t stop the upload to ask me to tag things, for instance: this is the default behavior that users expect, and Google understands this and tries to make it happen, as far as I can tell.

I got up nearly eight hours later, expecting that all 263 photos had been uploaded and were waiting to be captioned and/or tagged. Was this the case? Fuck no. 17 photos were still stuck with more or less complete progress bars that weren’t moving. After eight hours, the photos should have transferred across, because I’m not using dial-up here. The problem was that the transfers on those 17 photos had timed out. 

What can I do about this? Not much, actually. If the transfer of an individual photo has timed out, and the web client has detected this, then I can retry each photo individually … which is annoying, because I have to scroll through 88 lines of three thumbnails each searching for each of the 17 photos and retrying each of them individually, which is irritating but not catastrophic. (However, a “retry all” button would be a great idea, Google. Hint, hint.) Of course, the fact that some had timed out and nothing fucking happened at all when I retried the transfer is a separate problem that tends to strengthen my belief that Google’s been having weird back-end server problems on multiple services over the last few days. (I note this because I know several people who have been more or less unable to log into GMail and the Picasa web interface over the last few days, and my chat client, Pidgin, has been having real trouble connecting to whatever XMPP server is associated with my GMail account.)

However, if the transfer of a photo has timed out and the web page has not figured out that out, it’s catastrophic, because … I can’t save the album while the web client thinks that transfers are still happening. If the progress bar is just sitting there, not moving, and the web client can’t figure out that it’s timed out, then most or all of the work that I’ve done has been wasted. Out of 263 photos, 246 uploaded successfully. Yes, having to find and re-upload and re-organize the remaining 17 photos would have been a pain, but I figured that was what I was going to have to do. So this is, apparently, a variation of the black-box-photo problem, but with one substantial difference that makes the problem much, much worse:

Since I couldn’t save the album, I just hit the back button in my browser, hoping that the 246 photos that had uploaded successfully would be saved and I could just find and upload the remaining 17, then sort them.

Nope. I looked at the album that had been automatically created, and it only contained sixteen photos.

I tried to upload 263 photos.
247 made it across.
16 were saved.

Completely.
Fucking.
Unacceptable.

What’s my best option here? If I decide I want to try host this weekend’s pictures on Google+ photos again — which, let’s face it, is the most likely course of action: not because I’m heavily invested in representing my identity to the public at large through Google+ (I’m not; I also have many other social networking accounts, and, let’s face it, Facebook is a platform where the majority of social-networking interactions take place; it’s where “conversations really happen” for most of us, not Google+); nor am I so bedazzled by the beauty of their photo-presentation systems that I’m unwilling to go elsewhere. The single thing most tying me into Google+ as a way of presenting my photos at this point is that that’s where my unedited photos currently reside, and I’m invested in keeping my unedited photos and the narrative sequences that they create in a single place.

I’m invested in not presenting my photos on Facebook because (a) I don’t want Facebook to have any more information than it already has about me, because I’m ambivalent about Facebook in general, and (b) I hate Facebook’s clunky privacy controls. But I’m increasingly not impressed with Google’s ability to provide a working fucking piece of photo-presentation software through its web interface. 

Because let’s face it: it’s 2014. One of the real things that Facebook has going for it over Google as a photo-presentation service is that if I select 263 photos for uploading to a new album and then go to bed, when I wake up in the morning, definitely, without fail, unless my network connection actually goes down, all 263 photos will absolutely for sure have been transferred.

This is what Google needs to ensure. For me, it’s priority one. I don’t give a shit if I have individual progress bars for each photo as it’s uploaded. I don’t care if thumbnails for each photo display as soon as that photo is uploaded. I don’t even care much if I have to wait for all photos to upload before I can tag and describe them. Priority one is that I don’t have to sit there holding its hand and doing extra work to compensate for its errors. I don’t want to be told that I should be watching the computer and uploading ten photos at a time so I can more easily identify which ones are failing (just make it fucking work; don’t make me babysit). I don’t want to hear that it’s because I’m using Firefox 26 with X and Y extensions under Linux (just fucking develop to open standards so it works for everyone with a standards-compliant browser instead of only testing it on a bunch of proprietary crap).

Priority one is that it just fucking works for everyone with no problems all the time. A distant priority two is that you have all sort of fancy doodads like individual progress bars, thumbnails, and the ability to caption each file as after it uploads. 

This is 2014. Web sites that millions of people use shouldn’t function as if they were developed by two high-school hackers in a garage. Google is (according to Wikipedia’s current article on the topic) the world’s twelfth largest technology company. Intermittent, sporadic service that’s nearly guaranteed to fail in at least small ways nearly every time I use it is unacceptable. I don’t want to use a service whose quality-control maps Herp derp, it serta werks onto “acceptable.”

Because, see, I’m a busy guy. I may be using a free service, but this means that I’m paying in other ways: by viewing ads, occasionally clicking on them, and by contributing content that draws in other people to their website and increases their ad revenue, by providing a marginal increase to the value of their ecosystem as a whole. If the service doesn’t meet my needs, there’s no reason for me to keep using it, and being invested in the ecosystem doesn’t really change that, although it does provide a big exit-friction buffer that will keep me from doing it immediately.

Still. What I think I’m going to do is try again to upload my 263 photos right before bed tonight. If it doesn’t work … I suspect I’m moving to Flickr.

Filed under Google social networking photography Linux Wine Picasa software technology frustration Internet incompetence Flickr

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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)

Filed under Internet technology quotes frustration literature American literature detective fiction Cox Communications technical support corporatism incompetence annoyances coffee shops

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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 such we didn’t bother to actually read what you wrote before responding, because we’re just working off of standard scripts moments as 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 add codes 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>
X-Mozilla-Status: 0001
X-Mozilla-Status2: 00000000
Message-ID: <52D39C8C.7000105@umail.ucsb.edu>
Reply-To: <{ my email address }>
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Reply-to: { my email address }

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
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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>
X-Mozilla-Status: 0011
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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
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Thread-Topic: eGrades question
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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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Thread-Topic: eGrades question
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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>
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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/

Filed under technology University of California college frustration education software technical support bureaucracy fb UC Santa Barbara

1 note &

The story of each book by Fleming, by and large, may be summarized as follows: Bond is sent to a given place to avert a “science-fiction” plan by a monstrous individual of uncertain origin and by definition not English who, making use of his organizational or productive activity, not only earns money, but helps the cause of the enemies of the West. In facing this monstrous being, Bond meets a woman who is dominated by him and frees her from her past, establishing with her an erotic relationship interrupted by capture by the Villain and by torture. But Bond defeats the Villain, who dies horribly, and rests from his great efforts in the arms of the woman, though he is destined to lose her. One might wonder how, within such limits, it is possible for the inventive writer of fiction to function, since he must respond to a demand for the sensational and the unforeseeable. In fact, in every detective story and in every hard-boiled novel, there is no basic variation, but rather the repetition of a habitual scheme in which the reader can recognize something he has already seen and of which he has grown fond. Under the guise of a machine that produces information, the criminal novel produces redundancy; pretending to rouse the reader, it, in fact, reconfirms him in a sort of imaginative laziness and creates escape by narrating, not the Unknown, but the Already Known. In the pre-Fleming detective story, however, the immutable scheme is formed by the personality of the detective and of his colleagues, while within this scheme are unraveled unexpected events (and most unexpected of all is the figure of the culprit). On the contrary, in the novels of Fleming, the scheme even dominates the very chain of events. moreover, the identity of the culprit, his characteristics, and his plans are always apparent from the beginning. The reader finds himself immersed in a game of which he knows the pieces and the rules–and perhaps the outcome–and draws pleasure simply from following the minimal variations by which the victor realizes his objective.
Umberto Eco, “Narrative Structures in Fleming”

Filed under Ian Fleming James Bond Umberto Eco semiotics structure literature quotes 20th century detective fiction science fiction genre studies textual studies technology

0 notes &

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>
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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>
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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/

Filed under technology University of California college frustration education incompetence software technical support bureaucracy UC Santa Barbara

0 notes &

One has to assume this is an attempt to launch some sort of philosophical debate. Arguing with anonymous strangers on the Internet is a sucker’s game because they almost always turn out to be—or to be indistinguishable from—self-righteous sixteen-year-olds possessing infinite amounts of free time.
Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon (page 302 in ISBN 978-0-06-051280-4)

Filed under science fiction Neal Stephenson 1999 Internet quotes 20th century absurdity American literature postmodern writers ignorance trolling technology knowledge critical thinking solipsism debate deindividuation self-expression cyberpunk

1 note &

According to Adam One, the Fall of Man was multidimensional. The ancestral primates fell out of the trees; then they fell from vegetarianism into meat-eating. Then they fell from instinct into reason, and then into technology; from simple signals into complex grammar, and thus into humanity; from firelessness into fire, and then into weaponry; and from seasonal mating into an incessant sexual twitching. Then they fell from a joyous life in the moment into the anxious contemplation of the vanished past and the distant future.

The Fall was ongoing, but its trajectory led ever downward. Sucked into the well of knowledge, you could only plummet, learning more and more, but not getting any happier.

— Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood, ch. 36 (p. 188 in ISBN 978-0307455475)

Filed under Margaret Atwood Canadian writers quotes literature The Year of the Flood critique religion 2010 Bible postapocalyptic fiction biology Christianity Genesis primates vegetarianism meat instinct reason technology grammar semiotics fire war sexuality sex past future presentism knowledge identity

2 notes &

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.

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