In the beginning, firewalls, and their stricter twins, De-Militarised Zones (DMZs), protected normal people from various forms of attack. What has happened to turn a relatively sensible idea on its head so that, nowadays, these devices exist to protect online vendors from their customers?
What are firewalls and DMZs - historical tableau
I'll explain. The very first firewalls probably came about to prevent human beings and their livestock from being burned to death. Fair enough you say, unless you're a firebug (hold this thought). Then some wise-guy came along and burned some fire-breaks. Smart person, playing the fire at its own game. If the breaks were wide enough (and didn't run out of control during the creation process), they provided a cost effective way of achieving the same effect as an expensive wall.
Of course, someone's life partner was going to question the logic of this, probably centuries, if not millennia, ago:
"Are our lives a matter of cost benefit analysis? Is that all you think of me, Value for Money (VFM)?"
With one eye on keeping the peace and the other on doing penance the other partner says: "We'll do both. We'll have two fireproof walls with a firebreak in between. Then it will be impossible to burn us alive!"
If it had been my own partner, the next question would have already been in the chamber: "But what if we were not being threatened by a forest fire? What if we were being attacked by baddies?"
And I would've had the perfect answer: "We'll surround our home with a deep trench and fill it with water. There will be stone walls on either side of the trench and we'll call it a moat."
Not so easily satisfied with the logic of this, my partner's armoury would never be depleted this easily: "But what if the baddies had trained seagulls who could fly over and drop exploding coconuts into our castle?"
"We'd shoot the seagulls with our bows and arrows and they'd fall into the moat. We'd call the wall/moat/arrow combo a DMZ."
"But what if the baddies could swim across our moat and we wouldn't notice them because we would be looking into the sky, aiming at the seagulls ... ?"
"I would already have finished you off with my sword and run off with the lesser danger, i.e. the baddies."
"Well that's not playing the game, I don't like you any more."
Your customers have faith in you
You may remember that, in the second paragraph, I asked you to hold a thought : perhaps "you're a firebug"? Keep holding on.
By the way, your name is Henley and you are the proprietor of a much-loved High Street cycle shop where your customers come in in a steady stream to choose a bundle of your excellent bikes and accessories. One day a new customer comes through the door.
"I've been recommended to come here by one of your loyal fans. My name is Devon, by the way," the newbie greets you. "I must say I'm impressed. May I call you Henley?"
"Of course," you reply. You love welcoming people to the store and have dedicated staff who enjoy similar interactions.
"I say, Henley, this frame is really gorgeous," Devon exclaims. "Do you have any others like it?"
You beckon one of your assistants and explain that you are about to show Devon some other frames and would your colleague assemble some of the other bits your new customer will need to make up a complete bicycle.
Devon picks out a frame and the required components to make up a dream machine and asks one last question:
"Would you be able to assemble it for me, Henley?"
"Of course," you reply. "It'll be ready the day after tomorrow and then we'll service it for free after you've ridden it for a while. Make some final adjustments."
Devon leaves your shop after shelling out a few thousand and returns at the appointed time two days later.
Avarice sets in
"Wow," Devon exclaims when clocking the new steed with an acquisitive grin before uttering: "Say, Henley, ever thought of upscaling your operation?"
"Not really," you reply, "my staff and family have everything we need. We enjoy our quality of life."
You glance over to one of your assistants who nods assent.
"Fair enough," Devon smiles, obviously dying to try the new velo.
"Don't think we've heard the last of Devon," the assistant mutters after our new customer has left. "That's one guy with an eye on owning a bike emporium."
How perceptive your staff member turned out to be. Devon doesn't give up. If anything, the zeal glows more brightly every day and there are many visits to the shop for new accessories like expensive clothing. Every objection you have to "upscaling your operation" is answered persuasively.
Devon has access to venture capital and the workings of a "Ponzi" model together with all the business structures required.
Anxiety gnaws at your gut. You'll lose touch with your precious customers, many of them friends in the cycling community.
"Don't you think it's you that's being selfish, Dude," Devon is irritated. "What about your staff, Henley, don't they deserve a bigger pie." There are allusions to staff partnerships and share schemes.
"But what about our customers?" you demand.
"Don't be a baby, Henley," Devon exclaims, "they'll love the bigger range and the lower prices available from a virtual shop. Anyway you can always see them at that bike club of yours if you really want to."
"And the lower prices, how will we pay for those?"
"Offshore the whole operation. It'll be a natural DMZ between you and your customers. The call centre will be the outer firewall and an experienced outsourcer will provide an inner firewall between you and its operational staff.
"Now, come on, take a look at this sponsorship model. We can use venture capital to get a team up for le Tour. That'll elevate you above your lycra-clad club mates, especially when we bring home the maillot jaune. You'll be too wealthy and important to talk to them then. Your new club will be business execs and fellow sponsors. The movers and shakers of world cycling."
The rot sets in
See if you can spot the firebug.
For a while everything seems to go as Devon said it would. You appear to have gained some respect, rather than lost it, even though you knew the TdF team and the maillot jaune were always pie in the sky. You were aware that teams are invited to the TdF - it generally takes many seasons to gain their confidence.
Then venture capital starts to dry up and Devon is nowhere to be found. The team hasn't been paid the next instalment of the sponsorship and customers are giving VERY bad reviews to the outsourcing company.
You, Henley, are now in deep depression and decide to go out on a bike ride to try to blow away a few cobwebs. You foolishly follow one of your favourite routes. Foolishly because you are overtaken by a peloton from your old club.
"Hi guys," you wave hopefully.
"Who the hell are you?" one of them retorts.
"It's that Henley," someone you used to cycle with responds. "You know the one who had that brilliant high street bike shop some years back. And then Henley became too important and no longer associated with us. Worst of all, a few mates carried on buying from the multinational operation out of some misplaced loyalty. They were treated pretty badly."
With that, the peloton accelerates, leaving Henley in the dust, contemplating the unfairness of it all.
The final analysis
"But we have online customer surveys," you protest into thin air before the realisation dawns that all the surveys were designed with binary questions that only ask what your marketing team wishes to hear. Usually in order to justify the fee it pays to an external survey company to design and collate.
Clearly this story is somewhat allegorical, in that I haven't exactly witnessed each step in the yarn, but this kind of stuff is happening all over the place and has been for some time. They didn't have online operations in Ponzi's time but I feel sure there was some similar form of obfuscation.
I did say I'd name and shame one or two of the ones I've had the worst experiences with. Those who are completely uncontactable (and DELIBERATELY SO) when things go wrong and you need them most. Taking care to be mindful of the extra strictures that COVID-19 puts on most vendors, I have omitted a few candidates but here is my top 5 inexcusable stress-mongers
TomTom - The story is so long, I can only believe deliberately on the company's part, that I can't face recalling it again.
Hertz - as guilty as most car rental operations of taking your card up front and then making it almost impossible to rectify errors in their favour.
Lloyds Bank - For never being there when you most need them.
"Logistics" firms - those who take advantage of the pandemic and are impossible to contact when things go wrong ... I'm still trying to figure out who the worst is from my own experience.
Oxfordshire County Council - masters of obfuscation when it comes to highway planning.
Coming soon: I'll follow up this blog when and/or if something is amusing or annoying enough for me to repeat
 Pyramid selling
 Tour de France (TdF)
 NB: there are some good ones