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Virgin Trains: Worst Customer Care Ever Gives Up

Speeding train

After months explaining my case to Virgin Trains [1, 2] because they made a booking mistake they finally compensated me for their error and also issued compensation in the form of a coupon for all the trouble. It does not make up for all the time wasted, but it does at least prove that I was right all along and justice was served as a matter of principle.

BT Down for 14 Hours in Manchester Area, Company Misinforms Customers

As we have seen here before, when BT messes things up, it messes up royally [1, 2, 3]. Yesterday was another reminder of this. At 9AM, without any warning or notification, the connection went down, apparently affecting entire large areas in Manchester and perhaps Bolton. The helpline which is only ‘manned’ by a recorded message preferred to draw attention to some Yahoo! (E-mail access) problem and there was no estimated time for return of service (for those who may resort to contingencies). The less advertised number through which one can speak to an actual person later contradicted the automated messages, which preferred to pretend the connection problems were over long before these were over (the connection was said to have been resorted at 3PM). The actual person whom I eventually spoke to (based on India) was very kind, but he used the same strategy of emphasising that the phone line is fine (while knowing perfectly well that the problem is the Internet connection, not the landline). It was very hard to actually ‘squeeze out’ information and empty reassurances from the rep I spoke to. Why not be honest and forthcoming? BT was seemingly reluctant to even acknowledge that this was a large-scale failure at its end. Does reputation or the customer come first?

Eventually, 14 hours after the disruption had occurred, the connectivity was suddenly restored, no sooner than 11PM. So en entire day from morning to night was essentially without Internet and with very unreliable estimates of recovery time (if any estimates at all).

Now good, BT, not good…Many people’s job these days depend on the Internet. If you cannot provide an Internet connection for an entire day, then please at least provide reasonable status messages and estimates for restoration of service. If one expects the connection to be down for so long, a dongle or another PC (elsewhere) can be approached and used.

Wikileaks Makes the World More Civilised

Wikileaks cite

Earlier on in the day, Wikileaks’ official account echoed my tweet to over a million followers, which is rare (I have posted over 50,000 tweets and never was I mentioned by Wikileaks). For whatever reason, people still associate Wikileaks with crime, even though its only connection to crime is that it helps expose crime. In this world and in this strange age of oppression, exposing crime is criminal if the criminals are very rich. If they are poor people who commit petty crimes, nobody seems to care — neither about them nor those who expose them.

Whether people realise it or not, there is a coordinated campaign to slander Wikileaks and put down those who support it. Evidence was leaked that millions of dollar were going to be invested in the defamation of Wikileaks simply because ad hominem attacks are the last resort for those whom Wikileaks exposes, e.g. Bank of America.

To a certain degree, Wikileaks has been de-funded and driven ‘underground’. Its founder is treated like a criminal even though he is not and the organisation is being deprived of donations. Is this justice?

Some people would hastily state that leaking is a crime, but actually, most crimes are exposed and the criminals caught after a sort of leak — either by the police or a member of the public (civilian). The difference is, Wikileaks exposes some bigwigs who can afford PR operations that falsely characterise Wikileaks as the problem. It’s a deflection tactic. They actually do use those tactics a lot (look up “HBGary”).

In some sense, Wikileaks suffers a similar reputation problem to that of the British public, whose gripes are collectively referred to as “vandalism” and “looting” as it helps trivialisse real grievances. At Wikileaks, praises and awards are received when they expose criminality in rogue African nations, but when the same type of scrutiny is applied to people in the West, suddenly Wikileaks is an “evil plot” that must be shut down. In the UK, when millionaires that include MPs steal from the public, it’s alright, but when misguided individuals steal smaller amounts of money/assets, then it’s a punishable crime that warrants expanding the police’s scale and powers. In both cases, the allegation that the police serves rich people (oppresses the poor and protects the rich) is only further validated. To an extent, the same applies to the court systems, which are themselves run and managed by rich people. See what Julian Assange is being subjected to.

Wikileaks — unlike looters — can be defended without risk of being associated with criminality. The only ‘crime’ of Wikileaks is that it exposes criminals. By doing so, it removes uncivilised people from society. Some leave in disgrace.

Speaking for myself, as someone who wrote about corporate crime over at Techrights, I sure empathise with Wikileaks. It is common for those who expose criminals to be portrayed as criminals and in some cases “poisonous” (a projection from the accused).

Network Uncertainty Problem

Cables

What happens when the network does not function or functions very poorly? What happens when the Internet is altogether down or goes on and off almost indefinitely/infinitely? The problem need not apply to the Internet connection as a whole; it might for example be a DNS server, a particular Web site which is necessary to access, a server at work, or even a message/call which is anticipated. When there is no estimated time for service restoration one can just assume that normality will resume shortly. Only in retrospect can one decide that it would have been better to just walk away and do something else (even offline) until the problems are resolved for good.

Before going any further, it is worth naming the motivation for this post. Yes, it’s BT again. All morning so far their service has been awful; sometimes the connection goes down altogether, requiring reconnection to SSH servers (which takes a lot of time). It also leads to gaps in IRC logging, makes Web surfing a real nightmare, and so on. Connection persistence is crucial here. The rest of the time there seems to be a capacity issue, so any bandwidth-heavy process is out of the question. To be fair to BT, for the past couple of months their service has been perfect, after a rather rocky first month (weekly unscheduled hangups) and many problems with setup (explained in length in this blog).

In any event, the point worth making is that in many circumstances in life there arises a dilemma where one must decide whether to walk away from the temporary problems early on (when they first occur) or wait patiently for a while and if so, how long for. The correct thing to do — if there is at all such a thing as “correct” in this context — very much depends on the knowns and unknowns; it may also rely on communication with people who are more familiar with the problems encountered (e.g. those in the back rooms). The network of people can better assess whether to plan for a contingency offline or just carry on waiting. This is why it’s a sort of network uncertainty problem. There is never a solid solution to it and the hours lost due to downtime can only ever be minimised by becoming better informed and also preparing alternative activities to pass time (I escaped the bad connection to write this post from the City Centre).

Free Software More Than a Hobby

Throughout my career I’ve always had many eggs in the basket. I’ve usually had multiple jobs and I was never fired; I always succeeded in job interviews (since 2003), except the ones with Google, which came to me three time (I never approached them regarding a job). One thing I’ve learned over the years is that one must choose a job one enjoys, otherwise it’s a chore. I never accepted a job that I disliked. I have been working in two jobs simultaneously several times (simultaneously as in overlapping months/years), sometimes on top of already being a full-time Ph.D. candidate/student. I still work two jobs and I very much enjoy both; it’s like leisure as there is a sense of achievement. Besides all of this, as a hobby I maintain some sites that promote freedom; I was never paid for this. This is part of my reading of material; it’s like a learning experience which also proved beneficial to many others — those who share interests with mine. Being enthusiastic about freedom comes very naturally.

After many years wanting to be running an independent business on the side I’ve decided to start creating a professional site. The original idea was to come up with a new name (and domain), but after much consideration I came to the conclusion that giving visibility to a new name and new site would be a lot of work. As this new blog post from Forbes correctly indicates, reputation matters a lot when seeking business. That’s why I decided to stick with my surname and in the coming days/weeks there will be a formal announcement regarding my third job, in which the work capacity cannot be guaranteed (depends on clients). The focus is affordable scientific computing solutions that put the client in control. In essence, it is about spreading free/open source software and charging for the scarcity, which is skill and (wo)man hours. There is nothing unethical about it.

Together with some friends (I shall add people to the appropriate pages), a new logo, CMS theme, and a soon-to-be redirection (dupe of index.htm will ensure all the older pages remain accessible), schestowitz.com will soon have a sort of relaunch. The site no longer attracts about 3,000 visitors per days like it used to (back in the days when it was regularly updated), but we shall see if it takes off not just as a personal workspace with a lot of informal pages. I remain very much committed to all my jobs; starting something as my own ‘boss’ will just be something on the side.

1,500 Blog Posts

BACK IN 2004 I started this “Web Log” (yes, back when the term “blog” was somewhat of an unprofessional word, so I tried to avoid it). I posted at a pace of several posts per day for the next couple of years, but it slowed down when Techrights began to occupy more of my time (I’m approaching 15,000 posts over there). Anyway, the previous post was post #1500 and it is an important milestone now that I resume regular activity in this blog, which is one in about half a dozen that I run (most of them no longer active). In the coming days I will write more about the use of Free software in research and I shall also try to produce some technical screencasts if time permits.

Cheat Sheets and the Command Line

Connections
The command-line access still reigns in the back room

ALMOST anything which can be done from the command-line can also be done using a GUI, and vice versa. The question is, which can be done more flexibly and quickly? There is no “correct” paradigm as both are necessary under different circumstances, depending on the nature of the task and the learning curve involved.

Are you a GUI person? Or do you consider yourself to be a command-line guru? A combination of both paradigms is probably the best one can have; it is abundantly clear that some tasks do require a GUI to be carried out efficiently without much training. Standardised syntax and GUI usually ensure that skills are transferable, too.

Personally, I am a GUI person around 95% of the time. I still use the command-line interface on the desktop (e.g. “ffmpeg2theora -p preview –sync ./Desktop/file“) but especially for quick server operations (e.g. “tail -n600 /var/log/httpd/thelog-error_log” or “/etc/init.d/httpd restart” or “vim etc/mime.types” or “/sbin/iptables -A INPUT -s [IP] -j DROP“). SFTP with a graphical user interface is still a lot better for certain types of file management tasks. It is impossible to say very generally if a GUI application which accomplishes task X is better than a command-line counterpart. It very much depends on the circumstances and the skills/training. So, to rule out the command-line and calling it arcane or unnecessary is a foolish thing to do.

One of the merits of the command-line is verbosity. It is a merit, not a design flaw or built-in drawback, especially in specific circumstances. I use the command-line interface for little scripts which are better off run manually and in stages because things may go wrong in the middle and easily cause trouble. For instance, here is what I run when a new version of WordPress comes out (3.0.1 in the examples below):

cd
wget http://wordpress.org/wordpress-3.0.1.zip
unzip wordpress-3.0.1.zip
cd ~/wordpress
rm wp-config-sample.php
rm -rf wp-content/
cp -r * ~/public_html
rm -rf ~/wordpress

There is a lot that can go wrong in any of these stages and failure to achieve the task perfectly may mean a broken Web site with little information as to what went wrong or how to fix it.

The bottom line is, do not dismiss those who favour the command-line. These are usually the people who keep the servers you connect to running.

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Original styles created by Ian Main (all acknowledgements) • PHP scripts and styles later modified by Roy Schestowitz • Help yourself to a GPL'd copy
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