Dear FedEx

I wrote about picking out a keyboard-and-case combo for my iPad.

FedEx has quite efficiently bolluxed delivery.

I’ve just spent two days waiting for a 2 lb box — after receiving a door tag on the WRONG DOOR on June 6th, The building super called the local office to advise them that the residential delivery door is on the side of the building, where it’s always been. We also left a note on the front (in BIG BLACK LETTERS with a helpful arrow) directing any deliveries to the side door.

Then I set out to actively watch for your driver, so as not to miss the delivery a second time—only to find out via the tracking service on your website (both yesterday and again today) that the driver has apparently reported attempts to deliver the package as “Customer Unavailable” which leads me to wonder to where precisely FedEx is supposedly trying to deliver my package. After today’s tracking report of a completely fictitious attempted delivery at 11:35 AM, I called the FedEx customer support number. They took my phone number and tracking number, and said they’d “sent a note” which I foolishly took to mean they’d follow up on the matter and call me back to arrange delivery.

The delivery exception excuse of “Customer Unavailable” is patently and demonstrably false—since I’ve been at the building entrance for the last two days, watching multiple FedEx delivery trucks go by without so much as tapping on their brakes or glancing at the building.The FedEx customer service guy never called. Nor have I received another door tag, since the initial attempt on July 6th, when the tag was left on the wrong door of the building. Nor have any of the PSE workmen in the alley from 7 am to 5 pm for the last two days seen anyone from FedEx attempt to deliver a package.

I’m really, really angry.

I live in a 110 year old brick building that’s been partially residential for decades—a building where I’ve lived for 3 years. It’s not like it’s a new and confusing subdivision.

What do I need to do to get FedEx to actually DELIVER MY PACKAGE?

At this point, to be blunt, it’s looking like I’d have better luck by simply waiting for the box to go back to the company, and re-ordering but specifying they ship via UPS or the Postal Service—both of whom, I’ll point out, have made deliveries to this same building all week.

ETA: FedEx claims that they attempted to deliver the package at a little after 6 AM on Saturday. We finally asked them to deliver the package to a local FedEx storefront, where we picked it up. I note that the package has a local phone number printed on the label and on the tracking data, a number that they never called.

It does seem based on comments here that FedEx ground has a much worse record than FedEx air.

Sometimes, it is the User’s Responsibility

I’m generally a user advocate, but there are limits to even my patience and understanding. For instance, users who knowingly use beta software pretty much are out on a limb. Users who use Beta software as part of an active, primary production system are, well clueless. Dori Smith linked to this post from Mary Hodder regarding losing data (in the form of subscription feed data and post data) using a beta of an application. Now, frankly, if she’d just been unhappy about losing the data, I’ve have been far more sympathetic and understanding.

I’m not at all sympathetic since Mary Hodder posted what I can only see as a public attack on Ranchero Software, the developer of NetNewsWire, a beta of which Mary Hodder was using. Having decided she liked it “better than Shrook” she decided, based on the beta, to buy NetNewsWire. Here’s an excerpt of what she wrote (the entire post is linked above):

When they synced [I think she misunderstands syncing and how NNW works] my local copy of NetNewsWire with their server, to make sure I’d paid for the license, they lost all my data from the previous 30 days.

I emailed them. And they knew they blew it, offering a refund, and said they’ll fix this eventually. But they don’t understand! I’m tracking data on tons of services, people, companies, websites, blogs, projects, as well as reading feeds. This is fucking social media after all, people. And it’s my work, professional and academic. It’s a huge part of what I do. This is aweful [sic]!

Just so we’re all completely clear about how risky this kind of user behavior is, I’m going to enumerate the sequence of mistakes, mistakes that Mary Hodder made.

  1.  She’s using unfamiliar software in an active production environment.
  2.  She is using unfamiliar software that is clearly labeled as beta software. She could have downloaded 1.0.8 the current stable version at any point and used it, but she chose to use the beta.
  3.  She apparently doesn’t make daily backups, even of her production data, data that she herself says is for “my work, professional and academic.”

Mary Hodder clearly blames Ranchero Software, yet she herself made very poor poor choices at several points. Ranchero, to their credit, not only apologized for a bug in their beta, they refunded her money (yes, that’s right, she was purchasing a software beta). You should note that Ranchero has placed the beta download link on an entirely separate page on their site, a page that is clearly labeled as a beta download page. What’s more, right at the top of the page it says:

Warning!

Beta software has bugs! Nasty, vicious bugs with great big, sharp teeth!

Don’t use beta software unless you’re clear on what “beta” means and you’re comfortable running beta software.

You can’t be much plainer than that. But Ranchero, like the good citizens and good developers they are, have a second warning. They explicitly advise making a backup, and tell you how:

This is a beta, and you may want to go back to NetNewsWire 1.x. Before installing the new version, back up your preferences and data folder:

Preferences:

~/Library/Preferences/com.ranchero.NetNewsWire.plist

Data folder: ~/Library/Application Support/NetNewsWire/

But the final touch is this bit here from Mary Hodder’s original post:

ANSWER: I’m paying for the Shrook license now, because I need a backup, because I can’t trust NetNewsWire. But I will have Shrook’s data from two months this summer, added to current data, which [sic] a huge 2.5 month hole in the middle.

Because she “can’t trust” a beta, she’s going to use a product she’s already said she doesn’t like as well. Moreover, not only is she using beta, which is, by its nature, is buggy and unfinished, like all beta software, she’s not using it in an intelligent fashion. What she really should be using is a local database, perhaps DevonThink, or any number of other similar products, but she’d still have to learn to make backups. If it’s critical data, back it up daily, even hourly, and in more than one way, using more than one kind of media.

One of my old bosses, when I worked in development, was known to refuse to sell our software to some users, because in his judgement, they didn’t deserve it, or they weren’t smart enough to use it. I think maybe he had the right idea.

Update: I notice in the comments to Mary Hodder’s post that she says “Also, I didn’t download this from their site. It was sent to me to try. .” That’s an engraved invitation to disaster.

Update: Mary Hodder has had some second thoughts and toned down her attack, no longer referring to Brent Simmons as a moron; good for her— it changes the entire tone. I’ve mollified my own tone as well, though my essential take is unchanged.

Rant: Appropriate Instructional Technology

This is shaping up to be a solid, rather lengthy rant about the nature of instructional technology, though I will endeavor to avoid foaming at the mouth. Feel free to go elsewhere.

I’ve been percolating, so to speak, this particular rant for a long time. You can see my early eruptions in Thomas Wortham’s 1998 article for the ADE Bulletin “After the Fall: Teaching “English” on the Internet at UCLA,” which quotes me at some length, but I’ll get back to that in a minute. A couple of weeks ago I sat in a meeting where a much respected professional in Instructional Technology kept referring to technology and teaching in terms that made it very clear that technology exclusively referred to digital technology, nothing else. Finally, last week I saw this “Live Colloquy” in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “When Good Technology Means Bad Teaching.” Here’s a sample:

Colleges have spent millions on “smart classrooms” packed with the latest gadgets to assist teaching—computerized projection systems, Internet ports at every seat, even video cameras with motion detectors that can track the movements of a lecturer. But colleges have spent far less time and money giving professors the skills to use even the simplest technology effectively.

The result: Students say technology actually makes some of their professors less effective than they would be if they stuck to a lecture at the chalkboard.

There’s a lot of truth to this. It really doesn’t make much sense to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on digital technology if you don’t have support people to take care of the technology (always budget for maintenance, updates, and support including training), and staff to help faculty and students use the technology. As I say in my “About This Blog” page for this blog:

As much as I am personally fond of things geeky and digital, quite often I see technology in instruction being used simply because it’s there, rather than because it’s a better way, or because the technology enhances student learning. I also see a lot of silliness in terms of technology and instruction, where a particular technology is forced on end users and faculty because some manager or administrative person thinks it’s cool, or will draw fame and fortune to his career, rather than because it’s effective or appropriate. Frequently faculty who would like to use technology are bewildered by the jargon and by the unfortunate arrogance of the technical experts they must work with, who, for all their technical expertise are, not surprisingly, sometimes woefully ignorant about pedagogy, and have no interest or understanding of the humanities.

Let’s just step back a minute and think about the phrase “Instructional Technology.” The whole point of the “technology” use is to enhance instruction. If the students are frustrated, if the faculty are frustrated, if the technology interferes with rather than enhances learning, then there’s very little point to the technology. It’s the instruction, and its efficacy that’s important, not the means used to implement the instruction.

Back in 1997, when the world was new and I was young, UCLA brought forth the Instructional Enhancement Initiative. Among other things, the initiative funds and mandates a class web site for every undergraduate class in the humanities and social sciences. The I.E.I. was largely established by fiat (I suspect if it hadn’t been, we’d still be forming committees and task forces to discuss the possibility of class web sites). Here’s part of what I wrote my departmental chair in 1998 about that initiative, and digital instructional technology, in the ADE Bulletin article I mentioned up-rant:

The problem with the way digital technology is being implemented is that the university has put the cart before the course. In the “real world” of commercial software and technology implementation, you start with the data, the “content,” and then you look for the most suitable technology to use with it. You do not start with the technology and then tell the content expert (jargon for scholars and teachers) to find some use for it. That strategy is completely ineffective and any commercial enterprise that proceeded in that fashion would quickly be in Chapter 11. . . . Someone needs to evangelize, so that the concerns and needs of faculty and students are met. The content must be emphasized, and there need to be reasons for using digital technology. It isn’t enough to put something on the Web or on a CD-ROM just because you can. The point is to enhance scholarship and pedagogy, not to take scholars and teachers away from what they do best so that they can learn to use constantly changing technology.

Faculty are hired for their skills as teachers and scholars. I’m happy that they see a use for digital instructional technology, delighted to help them incorporate it in their courses, or teach them to create their own digital content. But I don’t see mastering digital instructional technology as something they should feel compelled to do. They are content experts, they were hired because they’re content experts, and not, (until fairly recently) because of their technical skills.

Here’s another quotation from that Chronicle Colloquy:

“The support systems are not in place right now to really promote effective use of technology,” says Mr. Loomis. “I basically waited until I was a tenured full professor until I started getting into this kind of stuff.”

There’s a solution. Hire experienced instructional designers and developers with a background in instruction and in the specific content areas to support faculty. Hire graduate students to assist faculty with content development. We’re generally fairly comfortable with technology, some of us are downright proficient. We often have teaching experience, or look forward to gaining it, and working with faculty to develop content for their classes will help us learn about pedagogy from experienced scholars and teachers. Train these graduate student assistants in using the technology to create content. I know this will work— Dr. Wayne Miller set up just such a program for the humanities at UCLA in 1996. In addition to hiring and training graduate students to support technology content development for instruction, include teaching with technology in all the pedagogy experiences graduate students have. Teach future teachers so that they understand the effective use of all the technologies available to them, not just the really cool and rapidly outdated digital ones.

Finally, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the only good technology for teaching is silicon based. That’s all too common, and it’s just plain wrong. Think about the word technology; the Indo-European root *teks is the same one that gives us the words text, and textile, among a host of others. Writing itself is a technology. How we write is less important than what we write. Writing, on an (analog) whiteboard, blackboard, or overhead transparency, showing a video—these all still work, they’re low maintenance, and sometimes, may be more effective than a multimedia production or yet-another-Powerpoint-presentation. Think about the purpose of the class, or exercise, or lesson, and the technology best suited to express that purpose; it may end up being a living teacher, pacing up and down while leading a discussion of involved, thinking students. The appropriate technology may be a brainstorming session on a board—white, black,or digital; it may be a Moo, a discussion forum, or email list, even a wiki or blog.

The best technology might, possibly, even be Powerpoint, if you’re including a variety of media, or Keynote for the aesthetically sensitive. It might even be that marvel of two thousand years of technology, the codex book.

Argghhhhh Mac OS X: Virus-Free

The Chronicle of Higher Education has, once a week or so, a “Colloquy,” or live discussions about a set topic. Readers submit questions in advance, which are answered by an “expert.”

This week the topic was “The High Cost of Computer Worms,” and the expert was one Gregory A. Jackson, vice president and chief information officer of the University of Chicago.

Just for the heck of it, I submitted a question; I’ve posted an excerpt below, but you can find the entire discussion here.

Question from Lisa L. Spangenberg, UCLA:

Given that there are no viruses or Trojan horses for the current Macintosh system, OS X 10.3, and given that it is essentially UNIX, and given that the most common applications (Microsoft Office Suite, Adobe applications) work very well on OS X, why don’t more institutions adopt Macs and encourage faculty to use them?

Gregory A. Jackson:
Well, first of all, there are viruses and Trojans that afflict MacOS, witness Apple’s periodic release of security fixes to counteract them. But the small installed base of Macs makes them an unexciting, low-visibility target for the bad guys, and so the weaknesses don’t get exploited much. In the case of Unix, the vulnerabilities are greater — even in the Mach kernel underlying MacOS — but once again the installed base makes for an uninteresting target. If, as you suggest, suddenly Macs were much more widely used, they’d rapidly become an interesting target, and we’d see more bad-guy action. An interesting consequence of this would be a focus on Apple’s policy for security updates, which is approximately that after a brief while you have to pay for them. But I digress.

As to why we don’t recommend more Macs anyway, which isn’t really what you were asking but what the hey, there are two vexing and continuing problems: it’s becoming harder and harder (and hence more and more expensive) to find qualified Mac technicians and support staff, and Macs themselves, with a couple of exceptions (such as iMacs and low-end iBooks), remain stubbornly more expensive than their Windows or Linux competitors.

His response is, of course, somewhat idiotic, as well as wrong. There are no viruses or Trojan Horses for Mac OS X. None. What’s more, all previous versions of the Mac OS (OS 9 and earlier) have a grand total of less than 30 non-Microsoft specific Macro viruses.

I would guess that the havoc caused by Microsoft Windows Trojans and viruses, not to mention the expenses related to university IT staff constantly updating and patching the OS, would exceed the supposed cost difference between purchasing and supporting Mac OS X. As for Jackson’s statement Apple’s “periodic release of security fixes to counteract them,” it is at best somewhat uninformed. Sure there are frequent security updates, but not because of viruses or Trojans; they’re proactive, before the problems can be maliciously exploited. Then there’s Jackson’s bizarre statement regarding “Apple’s policy for security updates which is approximately that after a brief while you have to pay for them.” This is completely false; Apple has never charged for a security update for Mac OS X. Heck, they’ve continued to produce updates for Jaguar/10.2, even though the current OS is Panther/10.3.

Next Jackson offers the particularly vapid chestnut that “the small installed base of Macs makes them an unexciting, low-visibility target for the bad guys.” This frequently repeated statement is particularly idiotic. First, Mac OS X is inherently more secure and harder to attack right out of the box because of basic precautions (via David Pogue).

  1. Windows ships with five of its ports open; Mac OS X by default has those ports closed. Worms like Blaster use known vulnerabilities, including open ports, attack millions of PC’s. Microsoft says that it won’t have an opportunity to close these ports until the next version of Windows, “Longhorn, currently due some time in 2006.
  2. When a program tries to install itself in Mac OS X (Linux does something similar), a dialog interrupts the user and asks for permission for that installation by asking the user to log in with an OS X account ID and password. Windows XP will go merrily ahead and install an application, potentially without the user even knowing, since the user doesn’t have to consent.
  3. Administrator accounts in Windows (and therefore viruses that exploit Windows) have complete access to the entire operating system. In Mac OS X, even an Administrator user can’t touch the files that drive the operating system itself. A Mac OS X virus (if there were such a thing) could theoretically destroy all of the current user’s files, but wouldn’t be able to access other user’ files, and couldn’t touch the operating system itself. “Root” access is turned off by default in Mac OS X, and most people never have to create a root account.
  4. No Macintosh e-mail program automatically runs scripts that come attached to incoming messages, as Microsoft Outlook does.

What’s more, the underlying core of Mac OS X is a descendent of BSD Unix. This is an operating system that’s roughly thirty years old, thirty years of life as an open source operating system, with thousands of professional engineers poking and prodding it in an effort to remove vulnerabilities. Microsoft, on the other hand, has millions of lines of proprietary code.

Certainly my university spends an inordinate amount of time and money simply on patching Windows boxes. The university purchases, and designs, systems to force updates on users’ (without, by the way, actually having to have those users consent to the practice) as preventive medicine. On a Mac OS X computer, Software Update will automatically check for updates, and politely ask if the user would like to install them.

I genuinely believe that for those users whose needs are met by using a Mac, the long term support and security cost savings will more than make up for any apparent difference in purchase price. That said, I’m also quite sure that there will eventually be Mac OS X specific Trojans and viruses, it’s just a matter of time, but I very much doubt the Mac OS will ever be as virus ridden and vulnerable as Windows. I think this earlier post is likely a more accurate reflection on why at least some academic IT departments don’t consider Macs.

Oh, and if there’s a college or university that truly thinks it’s difficult to find “qualified Mac technicians and support staff,” drop me a line; I know some people, (not to mention the spouse and myself) and heck, the dissertation is winding down anyway.

Update: I’m now speechless. Gregory A. Jackson serves on Apple’s Higher Education Advisory Board.

Flash Woes

Bear with me while I engage in a controlled rant.

One of the more trying aspects of shopping this past holiday season was that, for one reason or another, I had to do most of it via the web. That’s not a problem, I shop a lot on the web anyway. But I kept being thwarted by sites that didn’t like Safari, and in each case, a quick look at the source revealed why: the site developers were targetting Internet Explorer, and Windows, exclusively, down to coding for bugs in I.E.

The other Really Annoying Web Experience has to do with commerce sites built using Flash. Now, I don’t hate Flash, I like Flash, really I do, both the silly sorts of Flash sites, and the appropriate uses of Flash to build attractive interactive, even instructional sites, or to make report layouts built from a database attractive and naviagable. But sites like this and this, that use Flash to reproduce a printed catalog are both annoying and stupid. At the opposite extreme are easy to use, well-organized user-centric online stores like Amazon, and Lands End.