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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (communicatio non potuerunt)

A Game of Phones

On the 4th November I rang Yodafunk to tell them that I was moving house at the end of the month. As is usual when anyone rings Yodafunk, I was immediately put on hold, and I spent 45 minutes or so listening to a music tape with only three songs on it that repeated and repeated ad nauseam. You push the phone button down, the music goes round and round, (woh, woh oh, oh) and it comes out in your ear. It wasn't long before I felt like screaming because I had every note and every word of every song permanently etched into every single cell of my brain and my IQ had dropped by 50 points. Then, finally, I got a human being to talk to. Whew!

“I'm moving house,” I said to Yodafunk.

“I'll arrange for a relocation expert to contact you some time during the next seven to ten days” said Yodafunk.

“Can't you be any more precise that that?”

“No, sorry.” Yodafunk rang off and I began to wait. I indulged in much thumb-twiddling, and three days later, on 7th November, the phone rang.

“Hello, I'm Chris, your relocation consultant. I understand you are moving house and need to have your services moved to the new address?”

“That's almost right,” I said. “I only need a phone line and internet access at the new address. You can cancel the TV service, we've decided we don't need it. Also the internet connection I currently have is through your cable service but I know that doesn't apply at the new address, so what alternative can you offer me?”

I gave him the address of the new house.

“Just a minute while I check the location,” said Chris. I heard the clatter of keys as he typed stuff at his computer. “There we are,” he said at last. “ADSL broadband, phone line and TV.”

“No TV,” I said.

“No TV? Are you sure?”

“No TV,” I confirmed.

“No TV,” said Chris reluctantly. “Now, when should all this be done?”

“I'd like the current services cancelled on 27th November and the services installed at the new address on 3rd December. Oh – and you'll need to arrange for a technician to come and pick up your equipment from my old house. I've got a cable modem and two TV decoders which belong to you.”

“I'm not sure we can pick the equipment up,” said Chris.

“You have to,” I said. “It's connected with some rather complicated cabling that requires a special tool to dismantle. A technician had to visit to install it and a technician has to visit to de-install it as well.”

“I'll see what I can do,” said Chris, “but I can't promise anything.”

“I suppose I could always cut the cables and take the gear to the tip,” I mused.

“No, don't do that,” said Chris. “I'll arrange for a technician.”

“And you'll need to arrange for an ADSL modem to be delivered to the new house. Since the services go live on 3rd December, how about you deliver the modem on 2nd December?”

I heard more keys clatter as Chris made complex notes to himself.

“All arranged,” said Chris.

“Thank you. Can I have a phone number for you in case I need to ring you again?” I asked.

“I'm sorry,” said Chris, “but company policy prevents me from giving you my phone number. You will have to ring our usual toll free number if you need to talk to me again. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” I said with my fingers crossed.

Crossing my fingers made not a blind bit of difference. From that point on, everything started to go wrong...

The Mutant Season is a collaborative novel by Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber. It is based on a short story that Silverberg wrote donkey's years ago. It is also (sigh!) the first volume in a four volume sequence called Fire In Winter.

It has a fairly standard plot – several hundred years ago, children with golden eyes and strange abilities began to be born. Somehow, despite the fact that some of these mutants can teleport themselves and other objects, and despite the fact that some of them also have telepathic abilities, nobody seems to notice, and they manage to keep themselves hidden from mainstream society. But in the late 20th century, they “go public” as it were and announce themselves to the world. Immediately, of course, they face prejudice and persecution and, as the story starts, the murder of a politician adds fuel to the fire of this conflict.

The plot may be standard and fairly predictable but nevertheless I enjoyed the story. The characters have complex motives which often they don't really understand themselves and it makes for an intelligent and interesting read. The remaining three books in the series are written by Karen Haber alone (though Silverberg provides introductions to them). The events all take place starting in 2017, so I've only got a couple of years to read the rest of the books...

Josh Bazell is a new author to me, but based on Beat The Reaper, I'm definitely going to have search out anything else he might have written.

Dr. Peter Brown works in a hospital in Manhattan. It quickly becomes clear that he is a very good doctor, passionate about his job and very concerned with the welfare of his patients, However he mixes this compassion with a degree of cynicism that is often quite breathtaking. There are no flies on Peter Brown – he knows exactly what is wrong, corrupt and underhand about the system because he has first hand experience of what goes on behind all the political manoeuvres and, like the Shadow, he knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.

You see, he wasn't always Peter Brown the medical doctor. Once he was Pietro Brnwna, a hitman for the mob, with a genius for violence. As his back story slowly emerges, we learn that he befriended the son of a prominent mobster and was gradually drawn into the world of the mob where he (often literally) hacked out a place of respect for himself. However there was some kind of falling out (the details of this only gradually emerge and they form the bulk of the story), and he turned his back on the mob, sold out his boss to the law, and assumed a new identity with the help of the Federal Witness Relocation Program.

A new patient arrives in the hospital – Nicholas LoBrutto, aka Eddy Squillante is suffering from stomach cancer and only has a few months to live. He immediately recognises his new doctor as being someone other than just plain Peter Brown and he takes steps to protect himself – in the event of his death, certain enthusiastic enemies of Pietro Brnwna will make sure that Peter Brown also meets his (probably well deserved) end.

What a dilemma! In order to keep himself alive, Peter has to ensure that his terminally ill patient stays alive as well. All the resources of the hideously corrupt American health care service are quickly called into play...

This is a deeply cynical, very dark and very, very funny book. If even half the things that it reveals about hospital administration are true, then the system really is in a very sorry state indeed (I'd hate to fall foul of that degree of corruption and incompetence). And if the mob really does work in the way that the novel suggests, I'd hate to fall foul of that degree of corruption and incompetence either!

But whichever way you look at it, this is an utterly brilliant novel.

We tend to think of global communications as being very much a late twentieth century idea that didn't reach it's full potential until the twenty-first century when the internet really came into its own. But in When The World Was One, Arthur C. Clarke makes it clear that in fact it was very much a late nineteenth / early twentieth century phenomenon.

The book tells the story of attempts to lay cables connecting the world's land masses so that messages could pass almost instantly between seats of government and business, instead of taking weeks or sometimes months as the messages were carried by slow shipping services. The advantages of the cables are obvious and so despite heartbreaking and hideously expensive failures and setbacks, the efforts continued and were, of course, ultimately very successful indeed. It's a truly fascinating story...

On 11th November I got a text message from Yodafunk. My ADSL modem would be delivered overnight to the new address. Please make sure someone was present to sign for the modem. Since I hadn't moved to the new address yet (indeed, I didn't even own it yet, settlement not having happened) I was faced with a bit of a quandary...

The first thing I did was ring the estate agent who was handling the sale. I asked him to tell the current owners of the house about the modem and, if they happened to be in when it arrived, to refuse to accept it. He promised to do that.

Then I rang Yodafunk and settled in for the usual interminable wait. However this time I was lucky – I only got the Yodafunk Song Cycle for a mere 20 minutes. How lucky can a person be? I was connected to a charming lady who confessed to be greatly puzzled by the early delivery of the modem. She promised to adjust my notes and have it delivered properly on 2nd December as I'd originally asked for it to be. On the face of it, things were now under control. Little did I know that I was living in a fools paradise...

A week later I got another text from Yodafunk confirming my new telephone number would be 09... That couldn't be correct! The 09 area code is Auckland and I was moving to Hawke's Bay which is area code 06. Time to ring Yodafunk again. Nearly an hour later I got to talk with a man who had a delightful Scottish accent. I explained my dilemma.

“Oh, joy!” he said gloomily. “There's no way that is going to work. I'll pass you on to our accounts people.”

He pressed some buttons and I went back on hold and the Yodafunk Song Cycle played its stunningly banal notes repetitively at me until eventually, after geological aeons...

“Hello, how can I help you?”

I explained it all over again. I was getting very bored with explaining it all over again.

“Ah yes,” said the lady. “I'll pass the request on to Provisioning Services. They'll fix it, no problem. Goodbye.”

On 27th November, somewhat to my surprise, a Yodafunk technician actually turned up at my old house to disconnect and collect the equipment. Wielding his special multi-purpose tool, he finished off so fast I barely felt a thing! Finally they got something right. Could this be an omen? No, it couldn't...

Initially things looked good. At the end of November we moved to our new house and, just as promised, the modem was delivered on 2nd December. The courier who delivered it banged on the front door and demanded a signature from me at the ungodly sparrowfart hour of 6.30am. But fortunately I am an early riser, so that didn't worry me at all. I looked forward eagerly to 3rd December when everything was scheduled to go live.

About half way through 3rd December I got a text message from Yodafunk. Apparently my connection was now scheduled for 4th December and could I please make sure that I was home all day so that the technician could have access. There was no explanation for the delay but since it was only for a day, I didn't worry too much and I duly made sure that I was home on the 4th. No technician ever appeared, and the phone line remained stubbornly dead as a dodo. The next day I re-entered the fray and rang Yodafunk on my mobile phone. The hold music hadn't changed since the last time I'd rung and I welcomed it back like an old friend. After about 40 minutes or so a voice said, “Hello?”

I explained my problem.

“Do you have a dial tone?”

“No,” I said again. “There is no sound whatsoever on the line. Nothing, zilch, total silence.”

“Hmm,” said the human being. “Everything looks correct at this end. The line is active and the number is 09...”

I explained again about the original 09 vs 06 mistake.

“Oh!” he said, sounding very surprised. “That's odd. You're right, the place where you live is in the 06 area code. I wonder how you got an 09 number? That's never going to work. I'll get Provisioning Services to change it. Now, what about your broadband? Does that work?”

“I don't know,” I said. “I haven't connected the modem. Since the phone line is dead I assumed that broadband would also be Yodafunked up.”

“Oh no,” said the voice. “The one doesn't depend on the other. I'm sure you'll find that broadband works. Meanwhile I'll see what I can do about the phone. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” I said, but I was wasting my time. He'd ended the call.

I unpacked and connected the modem. Rather to my surprise, it detected a signal and declared itself ready to give me internet access. The speed was terribly slow, but at least the connection was there. Whoopee!! Welcome back world. I spent some time catching up on my email and checking out my favourite web sites.

The following day I still had no phone line. I sent an email to Yodafunk but without any real hope of anything happening. Over the years I've sent dozens of emails to their support services but none of the emails have ever been replied to and no action has ever been taken on any of the subjects I raised. So as a backup to their write-only email service, I rang them from my mobile phone again. I sat in the usual queue and listened to the usual inane music for an hour and a half whereupon the robot voice said, “We are experiencing difficulties connecting you to Customer Services. Please try again later.” Then it hung up the call.

An hour later I tried again with exactly the same results. Obviously everyone in Customer Services had gone home for the day even though it was only lunchtime.

The next day I tried again. After sitting in the queue for about 40 minutes this time, I again got a human being. I explained that I still had no land line. The human being brought up my case records.

“I've found your number,” said the voice. “It's 09...”

Wearily I explained yet again about the 09/06 Yodafunk up.

“That's odd,” said the voice. “There's no mention of that in the notes. I'll pass it on to Provisioning Services and they'll sort it out for you.”

“It's been passed on to Provisioning Services several times now,” I said. “And quite a few people have assured me that they've updated my notes with that information. However as yet everyone involved has utterly failed to take any action whatsoever. Why should things be any different this time? All I want is a telephone line. How hard can it be? It's your basic business after all. That's what you do – you install telephone lines for people. Why can't you install one for me?”

“Leave it with me sir,” said the voice. “I'll chase it up for you. Goodbye.”

Two days passed and still I had no telephone. Neither had I received any reply to my email bemoaning the situation – which did not surprise me in the slightest. So yet again I girded my loins and joined the queue waiting for someone to deign to talk to me. A mere 50 minutes later, someone did.

I explained it all yet again. And once more the person I was talking to expressed complete surprise that I'd been given an 09 number when it should have been an 06 number. Strangely there was no mention of this error my notes. Perhaps someone ought to tell Provisioning Services, they'd be able to sort it out for me

“Could I talk directly to Provisioning Services?” I asked.

“Sorry sir, they are an internal department.”

“Can you talk to Provisioning Services and get them to put a technician onto solving the problem?”

“I'll do my best sir. Goodbye.”

Later that day I got a text message from someone at Yodafunk. A technician had been assigned to my problem and was scheduled to start work on it at 4.00pm. I would have a phone line by close of business that day. No mention was made as to whether or not the technician would need physical access to my house, but just to be on the safe side, I determined to stay in.

From about 4.30pm I checked my phone every hour. It remained completely dead and no technician came to knock on my door. Late that night I went to bed, still without a phone. The next morning the line was still dead, so I rang Yodafunk again from my mobile. Because it was very early and nobody was up yet, I only had to sit through quarter of an hour of musical banalities.

Once again I explained the situation in detail. Once again the operative expressed surprise at my 09 phone number. Once again Provisioning Services was invoked as the only department who could possibly address my problem. Once again promises of speedy action were made and the operative rang off.

I have no idea whether my last phone call had any practical effect or not, but an hour or so after I made it, I picked up the phone in a moment of idleness and, wonder of wonders, I had a dial tone. Whoopee!! Obviouly the technician had fixed the problem without needing access to anything in the house. It would have been nice if I could have been told that...

“Robin,” I yelled excitedly, “we can call people! We have a phone line at long last!”

“That's nice dear,” said Robin. “But can people call us? What's our number?”

“I don't know,” I said. Yodafunk haven't told me what the number is.”

“Why don't you ring my mobile?” suggested Robin. “That always reports any numbers that ring it, so it's a good way to find out who we are.”

“What an excellent idea,” I said, and I dialled her mobile. It rang and rang and she squinted at the screen. “Here we are,” she said. “06...”

“A last!” I said. “Finally Provisioning Services have got their thumb out of their bum and done something about the situation. Phew!”

And so we had a phone line at long last.

I note in passing that at no point during this dreary saga have I received any apology from Yodafunk about the hoops they forced me to jump through. They still haven't informed me that I have a phone line (they just left me to discover it by accident) and they still haven't officially told me what my number actually is. Indeed, they've barely spoken to me at all of their own volition. I've initiated almost all of the calls. Mostly I've just been left hanging in limbo.

It is well known that Yodafunk is currently losing money hand over fist, and I'm really not very surprised by that. Not only are they technically inept, their communications with their customers are really quite abysmal. Waiting times in excess of an hour are very common, and they completely ignore any emails that are sent to them. Nobody ever seems to want to take ownership of any problem and, despite promises that they will follow through on the customer's concerns, that rarely seems to happen. Positive action to address a problem seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Once the operative has said goodbye to the customer, they just move on to the next call in the queue, and the problem is forgotten about.

My only solace, such as it is, is that the other major telecommunications company in New Zealand is equally as inept. Perhaps that's why Yodafunk manages to remain in business – their only “competition” is just as efficient as they are, for very small values of efficiency of course.

Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber The Mutant Season Bantam
Josh Bazell Beat The Reaper Little, Brown
Arthur C. Clarke When the World was One Gollancz
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