E-mail issue is red hot; Nick Burns lives

Controversy highlights inferior U of M e-mail system and disgruntled students.

John Hoff

A passionate column about stolen bikes gets me no furious, flaming e-mails at all. “Welcome to Minneapolis” is how one person put it, so well.

On the other hand, a column about how much the X.500 e-mail system sucks produced something like 70 e-mails and an “unofficial official response” with a strictly worded “do not publish” request. One of my favorite e-mails comes from somebody I will call [email protected] We’ll have to give her a very modern pseudonym so she isn’t exposed to geek revenge, some cybervirus equivalent of the mythical “gopher warts.” The very anonymous Miss Triple X writes:

“Applause to you, for I have long awaited a sign that someone out there felt just as passionately against the University’s horrible e-mail service. Half the time my account doesn’t even work. It isn’t at all compatible with other e-mail services (my friends messages from Yahoo!, due to what I believe high color content and various smiley faces turns into complete gobbledygook nonsense on my X.500 account), my forwards never send right, lacks proof my e-mail actually sent, and the list goes on and on and on. For such a ‘prestigiously advanced university,’ the e-mail system is sure lack-luster, or more like just lacking necessities. It is simply unacceptable. I just wanted to say you really hit the nail on the head with this one. Thanks for riling me up!”

Many other e-mails pointed out that it was possible to create, add, activate, turn on, or otherwise get a damned sent file into X.500, but the e-mail accounts are deliberately issued to students missing some features, like a live sent file, to save resources. And right there is the crux of the problem. The bare bones X.500 lacks a live sent file when issued, and must be “pimped out” through a series of steps. It’s kind of like so many empty, rotting houses on the bleak North Dakota plains. Does this old house have indoor plumbing, you might ask? Well, maybe, if you can get it turned on after so many years of disuse. And define “working toilet.”

This controversy over X.500 all comes down to administrative efficiency, and saving a gnat’s eyelash of data space by giving students bare bones e-mail accounts which most of them will never bother to improve creates much greater inefficiency elsewhere. History shows us (and the Orientation Leaders tell us) that many students proceed to neglect or ignore their X.500 accounts, even if there are ways to accessorize the accounts. Why bother improving an X.500 account when getting a superior Yahoo! account is literally easier than buying a Pepsi?

The seething, mostly unpublicized loathing of X.500 creates massive inefficiency and everybody in the administrative system must deal with the problem of students being uninformed because of neglecting X.500. Somewhere a student is going to be weeping with frustration, pointing out that a tuition reciprocity letter was indeed mailed to her home address after she filled out and mailed the proper forms. But it turns out it was the student’s responsibility to get the letter forwarded to the University before deadline. If she’d been reading her e-mails, perhaps she would have been warned. Who gets blamed? The student. Who should get blamed? Nick Burns.

That’s right, Nick Burns, or his University equivalent. You may recall Nick Burns from “Saturday Night Live” as the computer geek whose personality was a mixture of nerdy arrogance and raw contempt for anybody who lacked his highly developed technical skills. Without our society’s excessive dependence on computers, people like Nick Burns would revert back to their natural state in the social hierarchy: trembling bully-bait clothed in ill-fitting Star Trek shirts, not invited to the keg party and not missed, either.

Scores of people griped about X.500, about my previous column, and described in geeky detail how to bring features to inadequate X.500 accounts, and yet nobody noticed the only actual error in that column.

In 490 B.C., during the Battle of Marathon, an Athenian soldier named Pheidippides ran an important message which, according to legend, helped turn the tide of the battle. The solidarity gained among the Greek states ultimately laid the foundation for our Western civilization, which provides us such goodies as, well, indoor plumbing and e-mail.

“Pheidippides” was the name of this mythical messenger, or something close to it, since history has badly mangled his name as well as other facts about the incident surrounding his exhausting run. “Marathon” was actually the name of the battle. Worse yet, the mistaken substitution of “Marathon” for “Pheidippides” was actually corrected in my second draft, but the first draft was acted upon, like a mistaken military dispatch. So “into the Valley of Death rode the six hundred.”

Forgive me, brave and noble Pheidippides, for being yet another person to mess up your name. Your sacrifice teaches all of us that a single message – delivered or undelivered, accurate or inaccurate – can change the fate of the whole world.

And frequently does.