Letters from and to Dick

Disclaimer
I usually avoid blogging about work-related stuff specific to one of my clients. However, this isn’t ABOUT the client, so it’s different. Also, many of you already know — or can find out with 2 seconds of Googling — that I’m the webmaster for a union local here in town, namely the union I belonged to when I was a part-time university instructor. I’m no longer a member because I haven’t taught in so long, but I remain the local’s webmaster on a contractual basis. So this blog entry is about an e-mail exchange over the last 6 weeks with someone who is still a member of the local, but clearly isn’t happy about it. And you all know that when someone pisses me off and makes cheap insinuations in writing, I’m likely to come back with a nice little dose of vitriol that’s bound to be entertaining.

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So sit down and let me tell you a tale of a member who makes it a sport to piss off this humble webmaster. For the purpose of this story, we’ll hereafter refer to said member as Dick. It seems to fit.

Dick has never left any doubt as to how he feels about the union, which isn’t much, and what he guesses is a typical member of the union. Back in mid-December, in response to a regular notice I sent to one of the listservs to which Dick is subscribed, Dick sent me this one-liner that I quote, unedited:

why does your link take me to a sales pitch for netscape?

I’m no fan of people who proclaim being mightily big-shot professionals yet can’t be bothered to use uppercase letters in e-mail messages, but I let that pass.

For a minute, I tried to figure out what he meant. It is true that I have designed the content management system that runs the union website to bounce off people who are still using Netscape 4.x because it’s an archaic browser that doesn’t support the most basic things encountered on websites today and, consequently, is still used by only a few Web surfers. For those people, about 10 seconds after arriving on the website, they get taken to a page encouraging them to download a more recent version of the Netscape or Firefox browser. It is also true that at the bottom of the first page of the site’s members’-only area, I encourage people to get either Netscape or Firefox, but not Microsoft Internet Explorer. That’s because the rubric is about how Netscape 4.x is obsolete, and I assumed people who are already using Netscape would rather stay with Netscape, but there’s also the fact that the current version of MSIE is outdated. Otherwise I simply couldn’t figure out what Dick meant by “a sales pitch for Netscape,” but I tried to answer him as best I could:

Hello Dick,

Are you using Netscape 4.x by any chance? The only time I’m aware of any links redirecting to what could be called a sale pitch for Netscape (or Firefox) is when the site’s content management system detects that the visitor is using Netscape 4, which is an antiquated browser that even our little site manages to crash. For now, the only reason the CMS favours those browsers over MSIE 6, which hasn’t been significantly upgraded since 2001, is because MSIE 6 has the unfortunate tendency of badly garbling sites coded in a “standard-compliant” manner (sorry for the geek talk). However, once MS releases its much-anticipated MSIE 7 (or whatever it will be called), a browser that is expected to “behave” more like the other mid-2000s browsers, a link to MS will likely be provided for visitors’ convenience.

Having said all of that, if you’re *not* using Netscape 4.x but are still getting the “sales pitch,” can you help me trace back exactly how you got to that page, so that I can try to replicate the problem and fix it for you and everybody else? Did clicking from Outlook on one of the two links provided in the e-mail lead you to that page? That should not happen, so I’m eager to fix whatever is causing this behaviour…

Maurice

Dick never replied to this message, and I didn’t give it a second thought afterwards. That was until last night, when he responded to the listserv notice I sent earlier in the day. This is his message that really pissed me off:

hi maurice, am i forced to download netscape in order to read your email? if i am, i ask whose idea was this – i suspect the typical socialist, ndp, tree hugger, never had a real private sector job in their life professor ? for the record some of us part-timers actually run businesses and don’t feel bad about using explorer – really, bill’s billions does not keep us awake at night.

Geez, maybe his keyboard is broken, or his contempt is such that he can’t even give me an uppercase letter…

One thing’s for sure, though: he has a real chip on his shoulder as far as the union goes. But the thing is, on a personal level, he just went somewhere he shouldn’t have gone. I might well be, as he condescending surmised, a “socialist, ndp, tree hugger,” but I do run a small business as well, for what it’s worth. So, figuring at this point that the gloves were off, I couldn’t resist going at him on that level via baffling him with my know-how in *MY* business:

Hello Dick,

Respectfully, I am not sure what you’re talking about. I can plainly see from the header of the e-mail you just sent me that you are using Outlook 6 as your mail client. Are you telling me that the notification e-mails you receive via the listserv are not getting through? That doesn’t seem to be the case, since you were able to resend it to me (below). For personal and professional reasons of my own that have nothing to do with those you enumerated, I choose to use Eudora to send those notices (after getting a fresh copy of the listserv’s subscribers via the website’s extranet module, using whichever browser I happen to have running at the moment), yet no one until now has told me that those messages aren’t getting through. Therefore, if you are having problems reading the e-mail I send you, I would need a few more details in order to help you troubleshoot, although it’s possible something has gone haywire on your installation of Outlook, which would be beyond my control. (That’s not an anti-Microsoft slur, by the way; it’s a conclusion resulting from years of helping Web hosting clients solve e-mail-related problems.)

As for the website itself, as far as I can tell, it renders well in Microsoft Internet Explorer 6, Firefox 1.0+, Safari (a Mac browser), Opera 7+, and Netscape 6+ …so no, no one is forcing you to download Netscape. Because I *DO* run my own small business in Web development — the union is just one of my clients, for I am no longer a member because I haven’t taught in over three years — I wouldn’t dream of creating a Web-based application or website that doesn’t run with MSIE given how it’s the most widely used browser on the planet. But as I believe I explained to you before, also as a Web developer, I do find MSIE wanting simply because it hasn’t been seriously updated in several years and, as a result, is falling behind in terms of compliance with Web standards, especially with respect to style sheets. Even worse, however — again from my perspective — is the fact that some people are still visiting websites with Netscape 4.x, which ended its production run in 2000 and is notorious for getting completely confused with basic style sheets and cookies that are ubiquitous on today’s Web. For these people, and given the current drawbacks with MSIE, I recommend getting a more recent version of Netscape or Firefox because it’s similar to what these individuals have been using for so long. However, once MSIE 7 is out of beta and is stable, which is expected by mid-2006 according to most sources, I will definitely modify my content management system so that readers will have the choice to link to the MSIE download area. So my question to you is, “Are you already using MSIE 7 Beta and, if so, is it kicking you out of the website?” Nothing in the content management system’s routine to detect the user-agent string should be forcing that to happen, but if it is happening, I would definitely want to fix this serious bug.

So to sum up, the union’s website is not constructed in a manner to ban the use of IE and neither the union nor I could care less what browser people use (except Netscape 4.x), so I don’t understand what you’re asking me in your message. However, if you’re referring only to “someone’s idea” not to link to Microsoft at this time, then yes, I do own up to that idea. But as you should see by now, this decision was never due to political fervour or ideological reasons. Rather, it’s a decision I made precisely because I run a business in which I spend a lot of time providing clients with technical advice and support, and I am not given to recommending outdated software simply because it’s the most widely used. Besides, it only makes business sense for me to send clients along their merry way with software that works than having to explain to them — usually for free — why an innocuous application such as a Web browser is not doing what it should. In fact, that’s the rationale behind my recommendation to PC users to upgrade their operating system to …Microsoft Windows XP.

You may not like the union, Dick, but that doesn’t stop you from availing yourself of its services, to which you’re fully entitled as a member and part-timer, as well as the gains it has made on your behalf over the years. Too bad you seem so contemptuous towards it that you “typically” end up suspicious of anything it does.

Maurice

I’m not holding my breath for Dick’s reply. It’s too bad, though, because there might be an underlying technical glitch on how Eudora creates a link in the body of a message and how it’s handled (or mishandled) by Outlook.

I know some of you prefer Outlook by far, but I’ve never made a secret of the fact I don’t like it ……and it’s not because it’s a Microsoft product. It just doesn’t work for me, and every single query I’ve received from clients about e-mail troubles has been Outlook related. That’s just crazy!

I know it has to do with Microsoft wanting to be the one to set the standards and all of that, but given how the record on integration among Microsoft products is spotty, it’s little wonder that some of us aren’t quite ready to entrust it with total dominance in the computing world. (For example, in standard-compliant code, an apostrophe generated by MS Word, once copied-and-pasted into a webpage, will screw up the layout of the page in MSIE, but not the other browsers.) The fact Windows XP is MS’s most stable operating system since DOS is only the first step towards earning that dominance.

{1} Thought on “Letters from and to Dick

  1. “And you all know that when someone pisses me off and makes cheap insinuations in writing, I’m likely to come back with a nice little dose of vitriol that’s bound to be entertaining.”

    This is an example of one reason I think you are great.

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