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The Fone Of Bafut

I was away from home, on business in Auckland, and the battery on my mobile phone was getting rather low on power. But that wasn't a problem – I've had a university education, which means that I understand about half of the instructions in the manual that came with the phone. I consulted the instructions, then I turned the phone off and plugged one end of the charger into a power point and the other end of the charger into the phone. To my surprise, the phone turned itself on again. Then it said, "Unable To Charge."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Unable To Charge," said the phone smugly.

"Yes, yes. I heard you the first time," I said. "Why are you Unable To Charge?"

"I don't know," said the phone. "I'm only a phone, not an electrical engineer. Unable To Charge."

I turned the phone off again and took it to the Vodafone Shop that was just up the street from the office. The person behind the counter looked to be about twelve years old. He was deeply immersed in something on his laptop computer, but eventually, after indulging myself in much throat clearing, screaming and a significant amount of violent banging on the counter, I managed to attract his attention.

"Can I help you?" he asked, his eyeballs still superglued to the screen of his computer.

I explained that my phone was Unable To Charge.

"How old is the phone?" he asked, finally glancing away from the laptop.

I took the phone out of my pocket and showed it to him.

"Gosh," he said, greatly impressed with its clunkiness. "That is really ancient. It must be at least four years old!"

"Possibly even five," I said. "I imagine that you had only just completed Stage 2 Potty Training when this phone rolled off the assembly lines."

"It's well out of warranty," said the child. "There's nothing we can do."

"Nothing?" I asked.

"If you leave it with us," he explained, "we'll charge you a small fortune just to look at it in order to decide whether or not it can be repaired. And if it turns out that it can be repaired, we'll charge you another, significantly larger, fortune to repair it."

"I see," I said. "There really isn't anything at all you can do, is there?"

"Well I could always sell you another phone," he said.

I looked around the shop. There were many phones on display. Prices ranged from mildly expensive to $OH-MY-GOODNESS. I pointed to the cheapest one. The leaflet attached to it informed me that it had a built-in still camera, a video camera, a music player, bluetooth compatibility, a coffee percolator and a device for taking stones out of a horses hoof. Oh, and it also allowed you to make phone calls.

"I'll have one of those, please," I said.

"We haven't got any of those in stock," said the urchin. "How about one of these instead? It has the same functionality and it only costs $100 more."

"No thank you," I said, and left the shop. The child went back to his computer and I went back to my hotel. I plugged the phone back into the charger and it turned itself on again.

"Unable To Charge," it said.

"I know," I said. "You don't have to keep repeating yourself."

I noticed that the little symbol that showed me how much power was left in the battery had vanished from view.

"Where's the battery power icon?" I asked.

"Don't need it," said the phone. "I can use the power from the mains to drive all my functions. As long as the charger is plugged in, I can bypass the battery completely."

"Why can't you just pass the power along to the battery instead?" I asked.

"Oh, that would never do," said the phone. "Unable To Charge."

I rang Robin and explained the situation.

"Fortunately it seems I can still use the phone as long as it is plugged in to the mains via the charger."

"Aha!" said Robin. "So your mobile phone has now become a stationary phone."

"That's right."

"Hmmm," said Robin. "When you ring me, the caller-id gadget at this end says Alan Mobile. Shall I change it so that it says Alan Motionless instead?"

"No, don't bother," I said. "You'll only have to change it back again when I get a new phone."

All went well for a couple of days. Being tethered to a power socket was mildly inconvenient, but I was willing to put up with it in the short term. Then, one day, I plugged the charger in, the phone turned itself on as usual, and then it said, "Registering With The Network."

An hour glass appeared and twirled around and around. Tiny pixels of sand fell through the hole in the middle.

"Get a move on," I said impatiently. "You aren't boiling an egg."

"I'm doing my best," said the phone, sounding quite disgruntled. "Registering With The Network."

Finally the hourglass vanished. "No Signal!" said the phone triumphantly.


"Unable to Charge."

I turned the phone off, unplugged the charger, and moved to a different place. Sometimes the signal strength can vary quite markedly depending where you are in the room, though I'd never before had any problems when standing in my previous location. I plugged the charger into a different power socket.

"No Signal! Unable To Charge. No Signal!"

"Can't you do anything any more?" I asked.

"No I can't," said the phone, and it switched itself off. Nothing I did would persuade it to turn on again. It was utterly dead.

I threw the corpse down in disgust and I went back to the office where I phoned Robin on the land line.

"My phone is pining for the fjords," I told her.

"I didn't know you spoke Norwegian," said Robin, greatly impressed. "Us English speakers always call them fiords."

"Either way, my phone is now moribund. I'll have to go shopping for a new one when I get home."

"Oooh, how exciting! Can I come with you?"

"Of course you can," I said. "Someone has to make the aesthetic decisions, and I'm no good at that."

"Gosh, I can't wait for Saturday," said Robin. "It'll be good to have you home."

And so it was that Robin and I went shopping in Lower Hutt. We chose Lower Hutt because Robin knows it well and there are several electrical gadget shops within easy walking distance of each other.

"That's a nice phone," said Robin, pointing at an incredibly slim "beam me up Scotty" phone. It had a metallic grey finish and the keyboard was covered with a membrane that shielded all the individual keys from the elements, thus preventing moisture from damaging the delicate circuits should it chance to be raining while you were making a call. It was the cheapest phone on display, as well as the most elegant. I liked it immediately. There was only one fly in the ointment. A sign beside the phone said that it required a SIM2 card, which could be obtained for only an extra $40.

"I wonder what a SIM2 card is?" I pondered thoughtfully. "And how does it differ from an ordinary SIM (or possibly SIM1) card?"

"Perhaps we should ask a man," suggested Robin.

However there were no men to be had. The approach of a real live customer appeared to have frightened all the sales people away. I whistled casually, and picked up various expensively shiny things; then I put them down again in different places. I waved my arms and jumped up and down. I unveiled an enormous placard which said I WANT TO GIVE YOU LOTS OF MONEY in eye-searing fluorescent Day-Glo orange letters. Nothing worked.

"Let's go to the next shop," said Robin, and so we did.

The next shop had exactly the same phone on display with exactly the same notice about a SIM2 card. I polished the phone carefully with a soft cloth, and it emitted blue smoke which coalesced into a salesman. I felt encouraged.

"What's a SIM2 card?" I asked, pointing to the notice.

He stared at the notice as if he'd never seen it in his life before. His lips moved as he read the words to himself. "I don't know," he said. "I'll go and ask someone."

He went away, never to return.

"Let's go to the next shop," said Robin, and so we did.

Again, exactly the same phone was on display.

"Can I help you?" asked a sales droid.

"I'm interested in this phone," I said. "What's a SIM2 card?"

"That's a very old fashioned phone," said the sales weasel. "Flip tops are terribly passť. Wouldn't you much prefer this model with the slide-out keyboard and a built-in vegetable garden? It's only an extra $85 plus $40 for a SIM2 card."

"No I wouldn't," I said. "What's a SIM2 card."

"It's the next generation card after a SIM1," said the sales thing.

"What does it do, and will the phone work with an older SIM card?"

The sales monkey shrugged its shoulders.

"Let's go to the next shop," said Robin.

"There isn't a next shop," I said. "We've run out."

We drove home. Gloomy clouds hovered and rain threatened. Perhaps I was destined to remain forever incommunicado.

"Sod it," I said. "Let's go down the road to the local Dirk Smooth. I never did trust the shops in exotic, foreign locales like Lower Hutt. Local shops are always the best."

Again the same phone was on display. It was still the cheapest phone in the shop and, to my eyes, still the prettiest.

"Nice phone, that," said the salesman. "I particularly like the slim styling. Small is beautiful. And it's a very cheap phone as well – it gives you a lot of bang for your buck."

"What's a SIM2 card?" I asked.

"It's just got a bit more software on board," said the salesman. "It's a mechanism for plugging more functionality into the phone."

"Will the older SIM cards still work in it?" I asked.

He nodded firmly. "Absolutely," he said. "A SIM card is a SIM card. The phone doesn't care."

"OK, I'll take it," I said.

"I'll go and get one out of stock," said the salesman and he trotted off to the back of the store. A few minutes later he was back, clutching a bright red box. "It comes with a one year warranty," he said. "We also offer an extended three year warranty for $40, but frankly it's not worth it. The phone's so cheap that if it dies after a year, you might as well just buy a new one."

"Fair enough," I said. "Can I sit down for a minute? I feel quite faint. I've never met such an honest and knowledgeable salesman before."

"I get that a lot," he said, smiling.

He also got the sale.

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