806: Tech Support

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Tech Support
I recently had someone ask me to go get a computer and turn it on so I could restart it. He refused to move further in the script until I said I had done that.
Title text: I recently had someone ask me to go get a computer and turn it on so I could restart it. He refused to move further in the script until I said I had done that.


Cueball runs into some problems with his network connection and contacts his Internet service provider's (ISP's) tech support for help. The customer service agent (represented by Hairy) is not very helpful, giving clearly pre-scripted advice that has nothing to do with Cueball's problem. Cueball gives up and asks to speak to an engineer, i.e. someone more knowledgeable about the technology and suggest to Hairy what to look for. Noticing a woman with black ponytail who has the stuffed Tux penguin on her desk and a poster of a bearded dude with swords (a reference to Richard Stallman particularly as he stands in 345: 1337: Part 5, and a reference to 225: Open Source) he tells Cueball about her and Cueball recognizes the signs of a GNU/Linux geek and asks to talk to her. Hairy transfers him over to the engineer, who immediately recognizes the problem and fixes it. Then she tells him of a secret word (shibboleet - see below) which, if he speaks on the phone, will transfer him to a tech-savvy person able to help him, something installed already back in the 1990's by the geeks of that time. Cueball is elated but then at this point Cueball wakes up and unfortunately discovers the incident to be just a dream.

It's common for technical support lines to be staffed by low-tier workers with minimal technical training, with the primary function of taking the caller through a script of common problems and simple solutions (such as rebooting their computers). This is generally done because many customers call because of easily resolved problems. Forcing all callers to go through this script is an inexpensive way to resolve such problems, rather than taking up the time of a more highly trained (and presumably better paid) engineer. This practice, however, tends to be highly frustrating for technically skilled people, who can generally resolve simple problems on their own, and only call tech support when a problem genuinely needs engineering support. Even though they may know that the problem isn't with their system, the call center workers are generally trained to go through the entire script, attempting each solution on the list, before moving on, even if the customer knows that the entire exercise is pointless.

Cueball's dream solution (and Randall's, by implication) is to have a special code, known only to those with high technical knowledge, which can be used to bypass the first steps of customer service, transferring them directly to an engineer (defined here as "someone who knows a minimum of two programming languages"). The idea that "the geeks who built these phone support systems" would build in such a backdoor suggests an affinity among computer and electronics nerds, who would want to help one another out. The engineer's request that Cueball not tell anyone suggests that such a system could only be maintained as a secret conspiracy among geeks, as to prevent it being overwhelmed by the general public, and therefore becoming useless.

Cueball is running Haiku, an open source operating system, which is still in a state of active development, being in an alpha release at the publishing of the comic and in beta since 2018. While low-level tech support operators are given scripts which are predicated on the assumption that many computer problems are actually caused by the actions of clueless end users (as, in fact, they are), it's exceedingly unlikely most of these first-tier operators would have even heard of Haiku, not to mention that their scripts' assumptions would never apply to the sort of person who would be using an experimental OS as opposed to Windows, for instance.

"Shibboleet" is a portmanteau of "shibboleth" and "leet". A "shibboleth" means any word, custom, or other signifier which is used by members of a group to recognize other members or those who are "in the know" about something. Its use originates in the Hebrew Bible, where the precise pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish Gileadites from Ephramites. Leet (based on the word "elite") refers to "leet-speak", a practice of character substitution and abbreviation common across the Internet (or "teh 1n73rn3t", as you would say in leet). Thus, "shibboleet" is a shibboleth used to identify someone whose computer-knowledge is "elite." Leet is again in leet written as 1337 so again a reference back to the 1337 comic series including the comic mentioned above with Stallman. In 2633: Astronomer Hotline a tech support is also asking very silly questions as it is going through a script.

In the title text, Randall mentions that this had happened to him recently and is possibly the reason for this comic.


[Cueball is on his cellphone, and holding up a small square piece of hardware with a foot in the other hand. Two wires go from the hardware down to the floor, where one is connected to a box on the floor with two black antennas, and then another wire goes out the other side of this, and both this and the second wire from the hardware Cueball is holding goes under his desk, on top of which is his open laptop.]
Cueball: ...restart my computer? I know you have a script to follow, but the uplink light on the modem is going off every few hours. The problem is between your office and the modem.
[Zoom in on Cueball's torso, still on the phone and with the hardware in hand.]
Cueball: My computer has nothing to do with... OK, whatever, I "restarted my computer."
Cueball: It's still down, and even if it comes back, it's going to die again in a few hours, because your—
[Cueball on the phone has walked closer to his desk with the laptop, but holds down the hand with the hardware so it is below the panels frame.]
Cueball: I don't have a start menu. This is a Haiku install, but that's not import—
Cueball: Haiku? It's an experimental OS that I ... oh, never mind.
[Cueball has paced away from his desk to the left so it is no longer in the panel. He has put the hardware down next to the box with antennas on the floor. Wires going off panel right toward the desk.]
Cueball: I'm sorry, but this won't get fixed until I talk to an engineer. Can you look around for someone wearing cargo pants, maybe a subway map on their wall?
[Hairy is the tech support person on the other end sitting in an office chair at a desk. A phone is hooked up on his table with two wires coming out. He is wearing a headset. He leans back in the chair and looks behind him to the right. Cueball talks to him over the phone indicated with a zigzag line.]
Hairy: There's a chick two phones over with a stuffed penguin doll and a poster of some bearded dude with swords.
Cueball (on the phone): Perfect. Can you put her on?
Hairy: Sure.
[The engineer, a woman with black hair in a ponytail, sits in an office chair at her desk typing on her lap top. She also has a headset. Behind her laptop sits a small penguin doll. Cueball talks to her over the phone indicated with zigzag lines.]
Cueball (on the phone): Hey, so sorry to bother you, but my connection—
Engineer: Yeah, I see it. Lingering problems from a server move.
<type type>
Engineer: Should be fixed now.
Cueball (on the phone): Thank you so much.
[Zoom in on the engineers torso. The back of the chair and the top of her laptop just inside the panel.]
Engineer: No problem. Hey, in the future, if you're on any tech support call, you can say the code word "shibboleet" at any point and you'll be automatically transferred to someone who knows a minimum of two programming languages.
[Zoom in on Cueball on the phone scratching his neck. The engineer talks to him over the phone indicated with zigzag lines.]
Cueball: Seriously?
Engineer (on the phone): Yup. It's a backdoor put in by the geeks who built these phone support systems back in the 1990's.
Engineer (on the phone): Don't tell anyone.
[The last panel is split in two sections. In the top part still with a zoom in on Cueball, he takes the phone down to hang up. Only this section is inside a frame. The frame is normal at the top and half way down to the left, but only a small way down on the right side. The bottom part of the frame connects these two normal parts but with a wavy line to indicate that this is the end of a dream. In the frame-less part of the panel below Cueball is sitting up in his bed, having lifted his head fro the pillow behind him to the left. He lifts him self up with one hand while the other takes the sheet down over his body. The last part is thus drawn outside the rest of the framed part of the comic.]
Cueball: Oh my god, this is the greatest—
Cueball: Wha—
Cueball: ...Dammit.

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Actually, a shibboleth's meaning is more complex. It's actually a phrase or principle that distinguishes a group of people and can be used to identify people foreign to said group. For example, in WWII, words with lots of L's were used as a shibboleth to identify Japanese spies, as many Japanese pronounce their L's as R's. 04:06, 23 December 2012 (UTC)Liz

As such, the term has been modernized to have the meaning of "password". 13:09, 11 January 2013 (UTC)

The "bearded dude with swords" is probably Richard Stallman. See 225 and 344. 22:39, 5 June 2013 (UTC)

This comic perfectly illustrates why I prefer nightmares over dreams in which things are better than in real life. Truthfully! -- (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

There is a company in UK that has XKCD/806 comppliance: http://revk.www.me.uk/2010/10/xkcd806-compliance.html 18:33, 7 November 2013 (UTC) The ravk link is broken. It can now be found at https://www.revk.uk/2010/10/xkcd806-compliance.html

Cueball asking if anyone has a subway map in their cubicle is likely a reference to Subways (http://xkcd.com/1196/) which is clever cross-marketing as the Subways poster is available for purchase (http://store-xkcd-com.myshopify.com/products/subways). Lakeside (talk) 16:02, 22 November 2013 (UTC)

Oh, Randall planned in 2010 a reference to a former (oh, future) comic from 2013? It's BS, I'm sorry. Please do more advertisements for Randall, he uses this shop for his own income and all the payment he has to do for the xkcd web site!.--Dgbrt (talk) 20:36, 22 November 2013 (UTC)

I think the "bearded dude with swords" = Stallman is a huge stretch. It makes much more sense, and is the simpler of the two explanations, that she would simply be a fantasy fan and have a poster of someone from say LOTR or a sword-and-sorcery book/film/game. AmbroseChapel (talk) 06:43, 15 September 2017 (UTC)

You can think that and be entirely wrong. 16:23, 12 December 2018 (UTC)

Interestingly, I just used 'shibboleet' as a shibboleth to identify friends who do not read xkcd. Better unfriend them. Just kidding. 12:10, 17 August 2019 (UTC)

So I’m guessing this has been taken out in the clean up (which I’m sad about, there were some extremely funny dogmatic opinions expressed) - changing “leth” to “leet” was discussed? It’s a reference in the strip that amused me, but no comment on it here. Rereading xkcd (talk) 23:46, 29 March 2020 (UTC)

I always thought a shibboleth was a spell from DnD; never actually knew what it meant --Wielder of the Staple Gun (talk) 21:35, 10 May 2021 (UTC)