Whoa, dude! Whoa!

As I go through my ticket queue I am often confronted with some pretty wacky stuff. When people lose their grips, the results can range from funny to disastrous. One of the tickets I worked today reminded me of this remarkable story from a few years back:

The City Manager of Tuttle, Oklahoma loses the plot. (you only need to read the first few to get the idea, I promise)

This is a perfect case-study of how bluster and threats can backfire in the most unexpected ways. Mr. Taylor, I am certain, never expected to become the laughingstock of the Internet overnight. The site got 516,147 hits total, and I remember that it got most of them within 48 hours of the original post. It spread like wildfire, and the howls of derision rang from one end of the world to the other. Emails were sent to his superiors, to his City Hall, to anywhere people could think of to spread the word to the town’s inhabitants and the world that Mr. Taylor had made a serious tactical blunder. He himself was sent so much email that their mail server fell over, and his email address was removed from the city website, as was his photo shortly thereafter. The Tuttle City webserver made a small sad sound, and died under the load. The tale made it to several large online newspapers, including The Register, in the UK. In a town with less than 5000 inhabitants, it must have been a very uncomfortable time for the guy.

I feel a certain sympathy for him. His initial reaction was a classic panic response, which happens to everyone sooner or later. Where he made his mistake was getting into a land war in Asia…^H^H oh, wait – was in rapidly escalating the situation to threats of FBI involvement, instead of actually reading the emails being sent to him by the CentOS developer that detailed how to correct his issue. My sympathy largely evaporates right about there.

Panic is a natural human response to stress. Getting out of a panic-inducing situation generally involves taking a step back and using rational thought processes, even if you only have a split second to do it – say, your parachute fails to deploy at 3000 feet. Uh-oh! Now that’s cause for panic! Mr. Taylor wasn’t falling out of the sky at 120MPH, though. He was safely on the ground, sitting in front of a computer and freaking out about his town’s website. He had the time to stop and think, but he didn’t use it, and the end result was world-wide mockery that is archived for the public, in all its painful glory, to this day (and probably until the end of time).

I get this sort of thing a lot. People don’t pause to read and think, or do a quick online search, or follow links provided in the bounce they got – they make assumptions, draw faulty conclusions, lose their tempers and come in swinging with blood in their eyes – or worse, hysterically weeping. One of my particular skills is talking this kind of person down out of the trees. I am almost always successful, but it’s hard work, and I do wish people wouldn’t do it to themselves – or me. Often when the panic is over, they wind up thanking me for trying to help them out, and if applicable, I explain how to avoid $FOO next time, then hang up hoping that they will indeed stop and think the next time.

Here’s a handy (but non-exhaustive) guide to avoiding email-related freak-outs*:

  • * Panic first. Think, second. Act, third or even fourth.
  • * Follow links in error messages, and read what they have to tell you. If you don’t understand what they say…
  • * Web-search is your friend.
  • * Back up important emails. Better yet, print them. Your inbox is not a bulletproof storage place.
  • * For really crucial contacts, have a phone number, or at least a secondary email address.
  • * Always double-check the “to” before you hit “send” on an email.
  • * Don’t put stuff in an email you would cringe to see published in the Washington Post.
  • * ISPs do not have magic powers or time machines. If you deleted an email in 2006 and it’s now critically important to a legal case, you are out of luck. That email is gone, never to return.
  • * Don’t ever believe an email that’s offering you money, or telling you “confirm your account details or bad things will happen”. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. No modern institution with a lick of sense will send you such a confirmation email either. If you do business with one that is stupid enough to send an account-details-or-else email of the sort that phishers love to use, fire them.
  • * Always check the file extension of an attachment. If it’s a .exe, proceed with extreme caution. Like, don’t open it, pick up the phone and call that number I told you to have for your contacts, and ask them if they meant to send you an executable file.
  • * If you do fall for an email with an .exe in it, DONT REBOOT. Back away from the machine and get help.
  • * Abusing the person who is trying to help you is rarely going to have a good outcome for you.
  • * Did I already mention backing up important emails and contacts? Yeah? Well, it’s worth repeating. Back-ups will save your hide.

* Yes, of course! Some of these lessons were indeed learned by painful first hand experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *