Camera Lucida

March 26, 2006

Lessons from the field

Filed under: Tech — CL @ 8:26 am

The City of Tuttle, Oklahoma has a website, and its ISP uses CentOS, a free open-source version of Linux, as the operating system for its servers. The ISP made some configuration changes, and this resulted in a generic error page (a "no index" page) being displayed instead of the city's home page. Jerry Taylor, the city's manager, wrote a series of e-mail messages to CentOS, demanding that its "software" be removed from the city's servers, accusing it of hacking the city's system, and threatening to report CentOS to the FBI. The CentOS administrators responded by asking Taylor to contact his IT people, and trying to explain why this error page appeared.

CentOS has posted the entire exchange of e-mail messages on its web site, for the amusement of all. The lesson to be learned, however, comes from this perceptive comment posted by a visitor:

Yeah, this is a great idiot user story. I think it's also an excellent demonstration of a big reason why many businesses are nervous about using open-source software. Allow me to enumerate some differences between the response here and what a company or city would normally expect from its vendors.

1. A real business which cares about expanding its customer base does not post conversations with hapless users in order for the world to point and laugh. Not even if said user declares that he is unafraid of the conversation being publicized.

2. "I feel sorry for your city" is an understandable sentiment, but saying it is not going to help fix anything. Especially not if it's the *first* thing you say.

3. Consider the user's state of mind when he first comes to you. He thinks his city's site has been hacked. All the careful work put into building the site may be lost. Maybe the hackers are breaking into city records, too. This is bad! This needs to be fixed yesterday! He may not understand what's going on, but he does understand that powerful people are going to have his head on a platter if he doesn't demonstrate that he is doing everything he can to have this cleared up right this minute.

In this panic, a flat-out "this is not my problem" going to bounce right off the mental filter. You have to use small steps. Start with "Our product is completely legitimate, but perhaps it is causing an error which is blocking your site. Could you please tell me who operates that site…" This allows him to start seeing you as a partner in fixing the problem. As he calms down, you can lead him toward reason.

4. Pick up the phone. If your user thinks it's an emergency, you have to treat it as one to retain credibility in his eyes. Failing that, when he threatens to go to the FBI, consider the cost of a long-distance phone call vs. the potential cost and hassle if he hooks up with an equally clueless FBI agent.

5. Contact his ISP yourself. Okay, this one isn't something the typical tech-support operation would do, but I recommend it because it means you can make sure the problem is reported to them properly, and at the same time it gets you more points with the user for demonstrating that you care about his problem.

6. When he apologizes, don't be a sore winner.

I know a lot of you are exasperated at this point, thinking, "But it *wasn't* CentOS's problem, and the guy *is* an idiot." This is perfectly correct. It's also perfectly irrelevant to dealing with a human being in a state of panic. Saying it won't fix the problem, and it won't make him go away.

Finally, consider this: People who have a good experience with a business or organization can turn into loyal customers. But the *really* loyal customers are the ones who have had a problem and seen it resolved in an efficient and friendly manner. No, I understand the complainer in this case wasn't a CentOS customer. But someday someone is going to suggest that the city check out open-source software, maybe even your software, and this experience is going to be the first thing to come to mind.

This an excellent lesson in public relations.

March 25, 2006

L’affaire Rahman

Filed under: Religion and law — CL @ 5:34 pm

If you read nothing else about the prosecution of Abdul Rahman, the Afghani who is threatened with execution for converting to Christianity, read Eugene Volokh's It's Not Islamophobia When There Really Is Something To Fear. A key point:

This is telling evidence, it seems to me, that there is something very wrong in Islam today, and not just in some lunatic terrorist fringe. Doubtless many, I would hope most, Muslims would not endorse executing converts. But a strand of the religion, and a strand that is not far from the levers of political power in at least some countries, does seem to endorse such a position. This is deeply dangerous, most obviously to residents of countries in which radical Islamism has broad support, but also to residents of Western countries as well.

There are some who are not yet ready to be admitted to the community of civilized nations.

March 11, 2006

A resolution?

Filed under: Politics — CL @ 10:30 am

The announcement that the Dubai ports deal was called off included the following:

“Because of the strong relationship between the United Arab Emirates and the United States, and to preserve that relationship, DP World has decided to transfer fully the U.S. operation of P&O Ports North America to a United States entity. . . “

There is, of course, no information about what the “United States entity” is going to be. It could be a corporation registered in the United States, and nothing more. That would be enough to satisfy this commitment, but it tells us nothing about who would own the corporation, who its directors would be, and who would serve as its officers.

March 8, 2006

South Dakota’s effort at a challenge

Filed under: Constitutional law, Religion and law — CL @ 10:23 pm

Jack Balkin has this to say about the new law in South Dakota:

Many are now wringing their hands over South Dakota’s new abortion law, fearing that it means the end for abortion rights in this country. But the people who should really be cowering in fear are Republican political candidates. For South Dakota has begun the process of undermining the Republican Party nationally. . .

Most Americans may want abortions more difficult to obtain (as they imagine current circumstances) but they don’t want almost all abortions criminalized. If Republican presidential candidates announce their support for criminalizing abortions in the primaries in order to win the votes of the pro-life faithful, their Democratic opponents will be more than happy to remind the public of that position when the general election comes round. That, I predict, will help split the Republican coalition that has governed the country for years. . . By making it important for Republican politicians to take a stand — not on the relatively popular issues of partial birth abortion bans and parental notification requirements, but on the far less popular question of criminalizing abortion — South Dakota has managed to do what years of Democratic politics could not — create a wedge issue that will destroy the Republican party’s winning coalition nationally. 

    It seems to me that most Republican presidential candidates have consistently declared opposition to abortion. It also seems that it would be fairly easy for presidential candidates to dodge this particular issue – passing state legislation is, they would say, a matter for the states, and whether that legislation will stand is a matter for the courts to decide. And as Eugene Volokh has noted, the predicted trajectory for this legislation will be: invalidated by the District Court, affirmance by the Circuit Court, and certiorari denied by the U.S. Supreme Court. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

    March 6, 2006

    An answer to the “Were you there?” challenge

    Filed under: Religion and law — CL @ 10:58 pm

    A twelve-year-old, acting on a suggestion by his minister, decides to challenge his 6th-grade science teacher after she describes the development and then the demise of saurian creatures. She has a comeback:  

    Q    How do you know that occurred? Were you there?

    A    No, but we know it happened. If we had to limit our knowledge to things that we ourselves saw, we would be a stupid race indeed. The advancement of our knowledge as a people has been built upon the collection, recordation, transmission, and learning of stored knowledge accumulated by others.

       You weren’t there to see Jesus Christ, were you? Yet you know that he existed and you know a lot about him. You know what he did and you know what he said. That was because others told you about him, and you are willing to accept what they said.

    Of course, it would be a cold day in hell before the School Board would let her actually say this.

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