806: Tech Support
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.
Poor customer and technical support is a common complaint of many ISPs. Many ISPs outsource their support staff to foreign countries to reduce costs, and/or they delegate first-tier support to workers with little or no training. Typically, these workers are given general scripts that prompt the customer to try common troubleshooting steps, such as restarting the computer, without any specific knowledge of the customer's complaint. While these scripts may help resolve problems for the average customer, a representative using such a script is usually unprepared to assist someone who has a more advanced problem. Furthermore, these scripts generally assume that the problem is on the customer's end and do not acknowledge problems that occur within the ISP, such as server or line problems.
Customers like Cueball in this comic often find it frustrating to deal with representatives reading from scripts. As Randall mentions in the title text, this frustration is magnified when the representative refuses to move on to the next step until the customer has performed the previous one, whether or not it necessary or helpful. In cases like this, it's often necessary to request an escalation to a higher "tier" of support, or to speak to a supervisor who presumably has more knowledge and/or influence, though even that can sometimes be a painful process. Thus, it is easy to see why Cueball would be elated to discover a way to automatically connect with the most helpful technical support representatives whenever he has a problem, and thus also why he get really disappointed when he realizes it was just a dream (dreams being a recurring theme in xkcd).
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.
Randall mentioned in the title text 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 it 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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