Because of my muscular biceps, strong cyclist legs, shaved head and the professional attire I wear at work, nobody would ever guess that beneath all that lies the heart of a leet geek. As a geek, I run my own server, manage my e-mail delivery software, fiddle with various security programs and write my own bash scripts. Don’t look at me funny, it’s not like I’m doing something so surprisingly different: some people like to cook fabulously elaborate meals or have an incredibly manicured garden, others like to soup up the engine of their car so that it purrs like a kitten but runs like a cheetah. I like to run a server packed full of open source software. And just like that cook, gardener or mechanic, I aim for a certain level of personal professionalism in order to achieve a finely tuned, highly optimized and manicured machine, and that gives me a rewarding sense of self-satisfaction and accomplishment.
Recently, the term ‘geek’ has been reclaimed and turned into something cool. It’s not unusual to see these people wear retro-gaming t-shirts, sporting Buddy Holly glasses while carrying the latest indie vinyl they picked up at the music store. Ten years ago, girls would have rather become nuns than date a geek and be the joke of all their friends; these days, they go around calling themselves geek-girls, so as to take advantage of this market of potential males that are obviously “in the scene”. Unfortunately, those are not geeks, but just poser hipsters. Put anything more complicated than an iPhone in front of them and they’ll go into a technological panic.
Real geeks, especially computer geeks, are still the unappreciated underdog of society. No, really, it’s true: an elaborate meal can be appreciated by someone that has never cooked before; the beauty of a well manicured garden can be seen by anyone who has the fortune to walk through it; a finely tuned automobile will be a rewarding experience for any driver, regardless of their understanding of what goes on underneath the hood. But show someone a superbly run, energy efficient, hacker-proof server and instead of appreciating the genius that went behind it, they’ll just look at you with contempt and pity reserved for the less fortunate members of society suffering from some bizarre mental health issue. The fact that you have something useful to contribute to society, whether as an open source programmer or as a leet user of such software, will only be remembered when they’ll want you to fix their computer and immediately forgotten once it’s up and running. It’s tough to be a geek and when things just don’t work your way, you have no-one to tell. Don’t believe me? Let me tell you a story.
So a few nights ago I’m with the various husbands of my wife’s friends. It’s a fair deal, really: she watches re-runs of Stargate SG1 and goes paintballing with me. In return, I tag along when “the girls” have a gathering and try to mingle in with “the boys”. As husbands, we all know this, so we try to make the best out of it. Except that, we have nothing in common. So after a brief conversation about the weather, followed by some silence, we all discuss how our respective days at work went. This guy will talk about which client he saw and what happened. This other guy will talk about a vehicle he had to deal with and the issues that he endured. And so, when the question came to me as to how my day went, I smiled and began to explain:
I recently applied for a job with a government organization. I have the skills and then some that they were looking for, and they were clearly looking for people. On Sunday I looked up on their website all the information they needed, printed it, filled it out, included all the documents, certifications and letters of reference they wanted. On Monday I mailed my package. By priority mail, I was told that it would arrive on Tuesday.
On Thursday, I am sitting at my desk at work, working on a medical examination report on one screen and watching the logs of my server scrolling on the other. Being a geek, I can connect to my server via an encrypted channel, so that no one at work can look at what I am doing, and I can virtually attach what appears on my monitor at home to my monitor at work. I do this so that I can monitor various aspects of my server, such as traffic, breach of security attempts and the minutiae of communication that takes place between my server and the rest of the Internet. I can chat online with various other geeks using IRC. I can surf the net without being limited by the company’s proxy limitations. I can remotely start downloading torrents of the latest episodes of the television shows I am currently following (all SCI FI, of course). There are no graphics or fancy icons. The mouse doesn’t work, as it is all keyboard controlled and completely text driven. With the colours in reverse than your typical shell, it looks like a giant Notepad.exe window. People walk by my terminal and just see another screen full of uninteresting letters. No one looks twice at what I’m doing and just assumes that I am working. If only.
As I’m mangling a report away, I see the following conversation take place between my server and that of what could be my potential employer:
Connect from BigGovernmentServer.ca. BigGovernmentServer.ca: ehlo there! I have an e-mail for Leo! MyServer: hi back! That's so awesome that you do, but I'm kinda busy right now, so here's an error 450 and please, could you try in a few minutes? BigGovernmentServer.ca: FINE! BigGovernmentServer.ca disconnects.
I get excited because the BigGovernmentServer.ca is the place I applied! To me this meant two things: that my greylisting was working (take that, spammers!) and that the job I had applied was contacting me hopefully to tell me how much they loved me and if I could start tomorrow. All I had to do was wait for their mail server to try again and read their glorious e-mail. The excitement was overwhelming.
Except that 15 minutes later, the average time of a re-try, there is no sign of that e-mail. Strange, I think, maybe this one takes longer. I get back to work, but my heart just isn’t in it. Every few minutes I’m looking at my tail -f -n 50 /var/log/mail waiting for it to show me that indeed it has tried again and I’m just beginning to sweat cold for nothing.
At the one hour mark, and with still no sign of the e-mail, I’m thinking that something isn’t quite right. I switch to the IRC channel full of fellow geeks and I ask, looking not just for comfort, but to be told that I’m just being paranoid:
[leon – 14:01] How long does it take for a server to try again when greylisted? I just watched an e-mail from the place where I applied for a job come in, be asked to try again later and never try again.
[Gard – 14:02] fifteen, twenty minutes? ive seen longer though
[leon – 14:02] It’s been more than an hour at this point.
[Gard – 14:02] hmmm, i dont know if thats going to try again at this point, it probably thinks its not working…maybe its a M$ exchange server that doesn’t speak ‘internet’
[jester – 14:02] Leon, under technical expertise, you should put on your resume: “lost job due to greylisting”.
[leon – 14:03] Jester: I would normally find that funny, except that it’s happening to me right now.
The mockery carried on, which I left my idle client to endure, my fragile ego only able to handle so much. But I got curious… really, Microsoft mail servers can screw you over like this even when you’re not using them? I’ve been running Greylisting for quite a while now and out of all the mail servers that connect to it, the mail server of the place I applied for a job is going to show me that there’s an issue? You gotta be kidding me.
A quick Google search yields that, indeed, there is an issue with Microsoft Exchange 2003:
Greylisting is used on some mail servers to tempfail first attempt of an email, asking the sending server to retry later. When Exchange tries to send mails to certain domains that implement ‘greylisting’, the mails fail to get delivered and an NDR is generated.
Turns out that Microsoft Exchange, unlike what RFC2821 states, thinks 450 is bad and just tells the recipient, my future employer, that I don’t want their e-mail. It’s not kidding. I just rejected the e-mail that could’ve changed my life. Or at the very least, the way I head for my morning commute. I’m stunned and unsure as to what to do.
Not convinced, I decided to write to the person that wrote the open source Greylisting program I am using on my server. I explained my experience and this is what he had to say:
From: David Schweikert
To: Leo N.
Subject: Re: Error 421 versus Error 450.
Date: Fri, 12 Mar 2010 16:34:05)
The fix was to use DSN 4.2.0 instead of 4.7.1, which really should resolve that Exchange-specific issue.
There are however many other wrongly configured / broken mail servers out there… Sorry.
Get this: he’s sorry. It’s not even his fault and he feels my pain. He provides me with free software to improve my digital life and he bothers to take the time to give me feedback. When was the last time the author of Microsoft Word apologized that their software crashed yet again and ate all my work? The most you can expect is to pay a hefty sum for their technical support and no real solution. I can’t even look at the source and try to find the bug to fix it myself, that would be illegal. One thing is certain: each new version costs more and adds more eye-candy, but the basic feature of it dying on you in the middle of your work survives throughout all its versions.
At this point, it’s clear that it’s not my fault that the e-mail bounced back and their server thought I didn’t have a valid e-mail address; but, I ask myself, how do I go about explain that to them? Can you imagine me calling them up and explaining that their mail server sucks? Alternatively, I could blame myself, but imagine how stupid I will look considering the amount of technical savvy I slobbered all over my resume: I can build you a network, but I can’t receive an e-mail?
After a little more research, I discovered that Exchange liked error 421 better than 450, so I changed Postgray to give that out. And, to complete my paranoia, I made sure that BigGovernmentServer.ca was whitelisted by Amavis, SpamAssassin and ClamAntivirus, just to be on the safe side.
In the end I bit the bullet and the next day I wrote an e-mail to the person that had written to me. I explained that, uh, the network provider that handled my e-mail had experienced an error and warned me that the e-mails I had received had all bounced. I also suggested we’d continue further communication using my university’s e-mail address to avoid any issues.
The Human Resources person wrote back, thanked me for the updated e-mail address and told me that her e-mail was simply to let me know that they had received my application package and that they would get in touch with me if they felt I was worth their time.
That’s it? Incidentally, I checked her e-mail’s header and, indeed, the e-mail is from a Microsoft Exchange server.
In the end it goes to prove that stressing about anything is totally not worth your time. I did learn a few more things about managing my server–though I do wish I didn’t have to learn with the one mail server that was insanely important to me. This incident also gave me a chance to add another reason as to why I hate Microsoft, a company that somehow manages to disrupt my day even without using of their products. What’s the point of having standards if they make up their own? And this then forces the rest of the world running open source to turn their mistakes into a real standard in order to maintain some sense of compatibility. Regardless, the issue was solved and I am now in communication with them to arrange for an interview down the road. I just hope I don’t make an ass out of myself over something else.
Remember how I said it is tough to be a geek and that when you have a tough day in Nerdville, there is no-one you can tell this to? As I finished my story, I looked proud in the eyes of my wife’s friend’s respective husbands thinking that, if not applause, at least I’d get a few words of understanding, admiration and maybe even provide me with some encouraging feedback.
But their eyes had glossed over. I am not even sure at which point of my story I had lost them, but probably somewhere near the beginning. Maybe they weren’t even sure that I had finished my story and were either at a loss for words or just thinking I was taking a break from talking so much. After I was staring at them, hopeful, someone clued in that I had finished filling the room with both hot air and Greek and asked if anyone wanted coffee.
I learnt a few things out of this: always apply to jobs with an e-mail address that isn’t prone to filters and blocks; that blaming a third-party for mysterious computer failures will get you an understanding nod and no further questions; and when asked how my day went, simply smile and answer with, “it was busy, stressful and worrisome, but it ended well”.
Leo is the editor of the puerile web zine Capital of Nasty. On special occasions, when not bashing away on his Debian-powered server, he gets off his pulpit to write pointless rants such as this one, which he hopes will entertain at least one other person. When not writing, Leo likes to mix the red and blue pills. You can find his site on http://con.ca/ or you can read his latest rant here.