Dealing with Microsoft Products, or Battling Loss of Gumption

I was slightly frustrated and irritated with a situation at work today, which caused me to think about the word “gumption” as it’s used in Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. That led me to Wikipedia’s article on gumption trap which in turn led me to learn about the concept of learned helplessness.

So, what was the situation and how is it connected to learned helplessness?

The rest is just slightly tongue-in-cheek ;)

What to standardise on

I’m in situation where the powers-that-be have standardised on applications. Not on open formats or open protocols, but on specific applications that use proprietary formats and proprietary protocols. Of course these applications suck. That’s what a lack of competition does, it removes any will for a company to actually make improvements to their applications! Some of these applications have captured such a large market share that reverse engineering of the formats was inevitable. Yay! That means I can use a sane OS and vastly better applications. However, one protocol is not reverse engineered yet and I’m forced to use the standard application. This application is painful to use and only runs on a crap OS.

How bad can it be? you ask. The application is Outlook, the OS is Windows! Yes! It’s that bad. Hence the thoughts of gumption, or rather the loss of it. Which is exactly what starting Outlook causes. Every time!

Connection to learned helplessness

It continues to amaze me that companies standardise on Windows and applications that only run on Windows. There are better alternatives, especially in this day and age with fast networks and powerful and fast execution environments that completely sidestep the whole question of which OS to run. Still there seems to be very little will to upgrade to Linux, or to standardise on web-based applications. Why is that? In the past I’ve thought it might be the network effect. Most often I’ve come to the conclusion that it most likely is simple inertia. What’s the explanation for the inertia though?

This is where learned helplessness can offer an explanation. People have been conditioned and have grown so used to Windows and other Microsoft products that they simply don’t recognise that there now is a way out. No matter how many escape routes that become avilable people simply won’t see them.

What to do about it

As the experiments on dogs showed there is hope (from the wikipedia page):

To change their expectation and to recover the dogs from helplessness, experimenters had to physically pick up the dogs and move the legs in a close replication of the physical actions the dogs needed to take to remove themselves from the electrified grid. This had to be replicated at least 2 times before the dogs would exhibit the functional response of jumping over the barrier to get away from the electrified grid. Threats, rewards, and observed demonstrations had no observed effect in helping the dogs to independently move away from the shocks.

Oh how I whish I could pull off the direct translation to my work place: re-install my co-workers computers and replace servers and services. Too bad that’s not a realistic plan. What I can do though is civil disobedience (or maybe it should be called something like civil disobedience in the workplace instead). By simply not conforming and at the same time showing that there are better ways of getting the job done others will hopefully notice and either adopt my way, or come up with something that suits them better (which I then can learn from). Even if that doesn’t happen at least I’ll keep my gumption at healthy levels :)

What I’m doing at the moment

This is what I’m doing at work right now to avoid loss of gumption:

  • Use Linux as my main OS.
  • Run Windows in a VM.
  • Use pandoc to generate MSWord docs.
  • Use LibreOffice.

Finally, for Outlook. The decision of the powers-that-be to disable IMAP forces me to:

  • Limit my mail reading to twice per day.
  • Be logged into Skype to make up for not reading mail more often.

Oscar Andreasson

I am in a very much alike position at the moment so I can relate very well.

Just a hint however regarding Outlook, evolution has a plugin called evolution-ews which uses Exchange Web Services to access Exchange servers, which replaces the old Exchange formats (such as OWA). I’m no expert on Exchange/EWS/OWA but thought I’d mention it. I’ve run it now for the last 1,5 years or so, and it works fairly well, except for some hangups in the calendar function and swapping up the “tentative” and “accepted” responses on calendar booking mails…

My main issue is reading all the Word documents people are writing, people pump them full of Word images (don’t know the name of them), which will just not show up in LibreOffice.


@Oscar, earlier I’ve tried the evolution-mapi thingie, but never got it to work. I just made an attempt using evolution-ews but after what looks like a successful configuration process evolution silently just drops the configured EWS account. Very strange. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rather clueless sysadmins have activated EWS but not configured it so that discovery is possible but real use is not (this was the case with IMAP earlier, before my prodding and asking prompted them to deactivate it completely).


@Oscar, have you tried davmail?

I can’t get it to work, but then that just suggests that it’s the local exchange server that’s badly configured (now there are two different clients that can’t work with it).


Apparently it took the Devil three releases of Hell before he was able to accommodate Outlook.

Gareth Rowlands

For Outlook, why not use the web client? It works well enough.


@Gareth, I have been using the webclient, and no, it does not work well enough. At least not for me. It’s painfully clunky compared to GMail, and not even GMail comes near mutt.


Ah, finally I have an expression describing me feelings for the Volvo companies and anything Microsoft makes - gumption traps! Huge, powerful traps indeed. Just did my last day at Volvo and I feel hungover…

Oscar Andreasson

Hi Magnus,

Sorry for the late response, I expected an email reminder or some such ;). Anyways, no, I never did try davmail as I’ve been lucky using the EWS plugin with some success (yes, buggy to some extent also… but working well enough at least).

And oh yes, I fully agree, Outlook OWA makes you want to cry, and the new version they made is very sad as well, albeit better from the little I’ve seen of it ;).

Leave a comment