The case of the 500-mile email

18 Jun 2020

I love this story. It’s from the early days of the interwebs, mid 1990s.

Many stories from the world of IT support will leave you feeling that “everyone who asks for help is a fool”. It’s a world where the Bastard Operator from Hell is still seen a positive role-model, and any assistance often comes with a hefty side-helping of contempt.

This one starts with the classic:

“We can’t send email more than 500 miles,” the chairman explained.

I’m reading this, and I’m braced for the traditional “Ha! Ha! These lesser mortals are such fools!”

But it goes on, and there is some investigation, and test emails are sent, and the user is entirely right. They can’t send email more than 500 miles.

It’s complicated; there are sendmail configuration files, and the speed of signals in a fiber backbone is relevant (this story has a FAQ page) but my main take-away is that.. wait for it…



Phil Agre: How to help someone use a computer

23 Dec 2012


Years and years ago, I used to work in user support. At some point I found the following article on an email list and I personally found so useful and so to the point that I had the printout laminated and stuck it to the wall next to the main support desk. That was years ago, and since then I’ve had many jobs, learnt many things, and I no longer have the advice on “how to help someone” stuck to the wall.

Earlier this year, I bought a Mac and had to learn to use it after 20+ years of working with a PC and Windows. This meant I had to unlearn the habits of a lifetime (copy is Cmd+C, not Ctrl+C) and it was a sharp reminder of what it’s like to be a beginner again, and made me think of the article on “how to help someone use a computer” after many years. I went and dug it up out of the depths of the internet. It’s still valid, it’s still good, it’s still useful. And if you ever have to help anyone else (friends, family, members of the public, passing strangers) use a computer then this should be required reading.

Read More

Names Changed to Protect the Guilty

3 Jul 2012

, ,

This came to me via one of my clients – they were talking about problems they’d had with another web developer.

The site in question is a standard ecommerce site where users have to register as part of the checkout process, and login to get downloads, and special discounts. Problem started when the site owner got this email from one of their customers.

I want to report that your site is NOT secure.
I had forgotten my password. So I did a Google search to see if I can find the webpage on how to re-set it.
Guess what? Someone has hacked your site and obtained all the passwords and email addresses and posted them online.
Sure enough, I found my email … and my forgotten password.

Basically, some script kiddies had hacked the site and posted all email addresses and passwords online with lots of (in)appropriate “ha ha, we got you good!” messages

Read More

How to fail at user support (part 27)

29 Nov 2011


“In addition, we’ve found that some users have unknowingly created tags with spaces before or after the word, which then looks to them like two tags with the same name.  If you’re seeing two tags that look the same on your profile, try renaming the tags to eliminate hidden spaces.”


We don’t know how to use trim statements.  Instead of fixing our string handling to deal this issue (and we already know for a fact that it annoys our users), we’re going to get all defensive and blame our users for being idiots who can’t use a spacebar properly.