Why I Despair Sometimes for Technology

I nearly shot Mozilla Thunderbird with my imaginary ray cannon this morning. This is why.

I am a hip, with-it, capable-of-adapting, technology person. I am a beneficiary of a middle class American upbringing and a private engineering college education. I have self selected myself into a realm of (moderate) computer skills which assist me in carrying out my daily tasks, including this blog post.

But sometimes, it feels like banging my head on a wall.

I remember back in the day of MS-DOS 3.0 when I sat down with a manual and started playing the “what does this command do?” game. That was when I first learned about paths and command line interfaces. Every computer geek that I’ve ever been associated with has at one time or another spent days figuring out how to do something; a lot of learning is packed into that process. Undertaking a daunting computer task is a good way to learn all the ins and outs. I respect this method of learning and do it myself (although less these days) especially now that the web has provided a wealth of resources to help, literally at your finger tips.

But again, sometimes computer problems are like pulling the nails off those tips.

Case in point: I have recently switched from POP mail to IMAP mail for all my normal email communications. This allows me to a) access my messages wherever I go rather than having to wait ’til I get home and b) retain easy access to encrypted communications. I’m using Mozilla Thunderbird for various reasons, the trump of which was that it easily allows GnuPG through its extension of Enigmail. All good and simple. As long as you’re familiar with how to set up an email account on a mail program, Thunderbird will give you no issues.

Unless, for some reason (say) you can’t send mail because Thunderbird insists on using your login ID as “nematode” rather than “nematode@roundworm.org”. It so happens that the “@roundworm.org” is a critical part of the login of your mail server and Thunderbird just won’t send it! You mess with the settings. You delete and reload the account. You pore over the server variables. You delete and reload the account again. You stare at the screen until your eyes bleed. You go three whole fucking weeks without being able to send email from this account.

Then you notice the little scrolly bar on the left side of the account set up window.

nematode

Yes, ladies and gentleman, I agonized for three weeks because I couldn’t figure out that I should scroll down to the bottom where it helpfully says “Outgoing Server (SMTP)”. This is where all those settings I’d been looking for were hiding. This was the root of my despair. Why wasn’t this placed with all the other account settings? Why why why!?

I’m a bit upset by this, as you can probably tell.

Technology is a wonderful thing. Good design is also a wonderful thing. Good design isn’t just making things look good (and I praise Thunderbird for having a simple and attractive display), it’s about making things usable, and my wife will probably agree.

I’ll be forwarding this comment to the Thunderbird developers. While not everyone probably has a horror story like this one, it’s the exceptions that create the largest amounts of grief.

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5 Responses to Why I Despair Sometimes for Technology

  1. Pingback: The Evil Eyebrow » Roundworm.org

  2. Pingback: The Evil Eyebrow » Public Key Encryption

  3. Chris says:

    Of course, if you’re like me and you have multiple email ‘names’ on the same email server, you are somewhat happy that the SNMP setup and POP/IMAP setup are separate. This way I can receive email from “N” different aliases, but reply to the messages with a consistent one.
    Different strokes.

  4. James Cronen says:

    I came in here to say what Chris did.

    Due to the nature of e-mail, validation is required when picking up mail, not sending it. It’s not unlike the postal service — you can put mail in any mailbox, but it only gets delivered to those who have the appropriate mailbox key.

    Thunderbird happens to know this, and so it doesn’t care which SMTP server gets used for ALL outgoing mail. SMTP servers (which live on port 25) don’t care where the mail is supposedly coming from — it takes the information it has as gospel and sends it along without even looking.

    My dormmates and I learned to do this freshman year of college. SMTP servers take about six different commands, and if you learn them you can send mail apparently from any address. (My favorite was “god@heaven”.)

    This is also why spamming is easy. Anyone who leaves port 25 open for the world to exploit might as well be a co-conspirator in the spamming operation.

    It’s a weird, but sensical, asymmetry in the mail delivery system — sorry you had to learn it the hard way.

  5. Pingback: The Evil Eyebrow » Email Encryption How To (not Why)

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