Perfecting 3: The Search for Spock Breakfast a different ACK

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Obsession.

As I’ve mentioned before, obsession is rarely healthy and never pretty. Despite the fact that I know this, I still struggle with it. (Blame it on a 1976 high school project on mental health if you like. I drew ‘neuroses’ and nothing has been the same ever since. Oh well, the first step and all that.) And of course I don’t direct my obsessive tendencies into constructive or socially endorsed channels, not me. No, I try to beat the high score in obscure video games, watch movies more times than is strictly considered ‘normal’ and I count the number of times that people say the word ‘perfect.’ (A week ago last Friday the nice lady named after a soccer team who brought me a pizza said it twice. For example.)

And why do I do this? Because ever since someone pointed out to me that waiters say ‘perfect’ a lot, I’ve noticed EVERY SINGLE ONE. (To be honest, it drives me a little crazy. But I can’t stop. I suspect my friends wish that I would. Not gonna happen.)

And it’s getting worse. Or at least no better.

A couple of Saturdays ago we (Ms. Rose and I) were at the Insomniac Capriform Cafe for breakfast. I always (well, almost always) have the same thing — bacon and eggs — partly because I enjoy the irony of eating bacon at a nominally vegetarian restaurant. Oh, and a beverage. In the summer the beverage is often lemonade (because lemonade is seasonal); in the winter it’s usually water (because water isn’t). So I ordered my plate-o-irony and the nice lady whose hair happened to be green that day dutifully wrote it down. And then I ordered my glass of water.

Now, water as an accompaniment to a restaurant meal can be a lot of things. It can mean that you’d rather concentrate on the food. It can suggest that you’re all about the hydration. Or it can simply imply that you’re nothing more than a cheap bastard. When I asked for water, however, she said something totally unexpected.

She said “Perfect.”

That stopped me in my tracks.

Her response told me that the bacon wasn’t perfect. The eggs? Not perfect. The (real) homefries and toast and strawberry jam? Not perfect. But the tap water? That was perfect.

I was confused. I stood there with my mouth hanging open for, well, longer than I like to think. (Not my best look.) Then she asked me where I was sitting. (The ICC doesn’t have table service — you order your food at the counter and the kitchen staff brings it to your table. So they have to ask you where you’re sitting when you order.)

I pointed toward our table where Ms. Rose was sitting, wearing a pink sweater and reading a newspaper or something.

“Pink sweater” I told the green-haired lady.

Apparently the pink sweater was perfect too.

 

Existing

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Over the years, Man (By which I mean H. sapiens sapiens, not just boys. The capital ‘M’ means that I’m trying to project a certain level of gravitas here. Is it working?) has struggled with a lot of questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the nature of reality? How do we know something exists? Is there a God? What is the meaning of lifeHow many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? Complicated questions. Important questions. Big questions.

Some years ago, I gained some insight into one of them from a totally unexpected direction. (Not the Journal of Fluid Mechanics.)

An aside. (It only looks like one. It isn’t. Really. Would I lie to you?)

I’ve talked about call centers a few times (well, maybe more than a few), pretty much entirely in the context of computer tech support. These call centers exist to take your call (duh) and delay, complicate and restrict access to the people who can actually help you so that the computer company can claim proudly that they have an effective support arm but at the same time render it ineffectual. So they can make more money. Because, as it is so often, it’s all about the money.

(The purpose of a support arm isn’t actually to help people. It’s to help people who are able to pay while keeping costs tightly controlled and forcing customers users to jump through elaborate hoops so they feel helpless, powerless and lost. And did I mention Procedures and Metrics? Managers (and other people in expensive suits) love Metrics. (Not that kind. Odds are they wouldn’t understand one of those.) And Procedures? They love those too. (Procedures are sort of like cancer: nobody knows exactly where they come from but they can’t be ignored.) (Am I just being cynical? I don’t think so.)

It’s an interesting factoid that one of the best pieces of software I’ve ever used had the development team doing product support — without a call center.

Well, I find it interesting.

Since it’s all about the money and because phone calls are essentially free these days, call centers pop up in the oddest places. For example, for years the multinational computer company that I’ve never explicitly named had a call center in Cape Breton. Atlantic Canada. Cape Breton was a logical choice: it has an adequate communication infrastructure, an educated population and perhaps most importantly, economic depression and massive unemployment. The fact that the population is good-natured and friendly almost certainly wasn’t part of the equation but it made dealing with that particular call center, not fun exactly, but not entirely a chore.

One day I had to call in a fairly minor hardware problem; I forget the details but it was probably something innocuous like a failed hard drive. (In a system with mirrored drives and up-to-date backups, a single drive failure is usually nothing to get excited about. Hard drives, when you have enough of them, sometimes fail a lot.) It happened late on a Friday afternoon, late enough that I had already gone home but one of my homebrew monitors (sort of like this one but, you know, written by me so a little uglier) had detected a fault and sent me a message. I sat down in the Green Chair of Thinkitude And Blowing Stuff Up and called the magic phone number. As luck would have it, the Fairy Godmother of call centers routed my call to Cape Breton.

It was late afternoon/early evening here; in Cape Breton it was an hour later so it was early evening. On a Friday. The exact time when a call-center-answering-the-phone guy might be expected to be a little… testy. But he was pleasant. Heck, he was more than pleasant — he was cheerful. Upbeat. Sunny, even. And then things got weird.

“Is that Rose?”

Wait, what? I hadn’t identified myself, I hadn’t given him the ridiculously long string of digits that identified me as a customer, I hadn’t provided a serial number or a contract number or any of the other forms of identification that might tell him who I was. He was basing his guess on me saying “Hello, I’d like to open a hardware issue please.” And how many calls does he handle in a week? Hundreds, certainly. I was impressed.

(That may have been the tipping point for me forming an unofficial Procedure of my own — if I got a difficult call center I’d call back over and over until random chance ‘took’ me to Cape Breton.)

But I was talking about Existence and Reality and stuff.

Back in 2002, the computer company that I’ve never explicitly named introduced a new server named after a breakfast staple (not bacon; I don’t find that particular meme particularly interesting). It was labelled ‘entry-level’ so they weren’t suitable for any sort of heavy lifting but they were entirely capable of modest production duties or development and testing. Plus they were dirt cheap so we bought a bunch — for a while there was quite a lot of them in the machine room — often in piles on shelves. (Stacks of computers, while convenient, are a bad idea: when one breaks — and one thing you can say with certainty about computers is that they WILL eventually break — it’s INEVITABLY the one on the bottom of the pile.)

One day I took one out of its box, put it on a shelf, connected a power cable, a network cable, a console cable and turned it on.

Nothing happened. DOA. Well, that happens sometimes. No worries, though — it was under warranty so I just had to call the brain trust and get them to send either a part or a guy named Mike with a part. Like I said, no worries.

Except.

The computer company that I’ve never explicitly named had recently opened a new call center somewhere in the third world. They had told me, though, that this call center wouldn’t be handling any of our calls.

Guess what? They lied.

“Hello, I’d like to open a hardware call. It will be a warranty call.”

“I can do that for you. Can you give me the serial number of the affected system?”

“I can.” I did.

“I’m sorry — that machine does not exist.”  Not “can you repeat that”, not “can you double-check that”, not “I can’t find that serial number in my records”, but “that machine does not exist.”

And then he hung up.

Earlier I mentioned that one of life’s Big Questions was ‘How do we know something exists?’ Well, we know that a computer exists if a call center employee in India says that it doesn’t.

Like I said, you can sometimes find insight into the Big Questions in totally unexpected places.

 

Licensing

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I had this appointment.

H’m. It occurs to me that many of my ‘stories’ start with that line or one just like it — probably too many. I guess I just seem to encounter absurdities and incongruities when I have appointments. I don’t think it’s anything I do.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

Be that as it may, I did have this appointment. I even decided that I wasn’t going to be late. (After all, they have free wi-fi and comfy chairs in the waiting room — perfect for working on rambling, incoherent and overwrought stories.) The appointment was with a very nice young lady who wears red shoes (not orange, thankfully) and, despite the fact that she sometimes wears a white coat, it’s the wrong right kind so she’s decidedly non-scary. (Well any more than is usual — girls are, after all, intrinsically scary.)

The appointment wasn’t that far from home and since I’m not totally pathetic and since the city has, um, ‘restricted’ parking in that area I decided to walk. (It was also the first day of spring. That may have been a factor too.) I went to the corner, turned down the street named after a dead mathematician and there it was — a parked car.

Horrors.

(I’ve mentioned before that our neighbourhood is a popular parking Destination so it’s not really horrific. I exaggerate shamelessly.)

It had, unsurprisingly, a license plate. A standard, government-issued, four-letters-three-numbers generic, you take what you get license plate.

The four letters were BDSM.

I was surprised.

I wasn’t shocked or appalled or anything. Just surprised.

I mean, the Ministry of Transport has a faceless drone (please tell me there’s not a whole office of them) who probably wears grey suits who probably toils somewhere in a grey little office (probably dusty — it has to be dusty) inside a grey little building and his (her?) job is to veto ‘inappropriate’ license plates. ‘TRYMYBED?’  Vetoed. ‘GNGSHW?’ Vetoed. ‘CARRNAGE?’ Vetoed. Back in ’07 he (?) wouldn’t let a minister named Joanne have the plate ‘REV JO.’ While he (?) ‘mostly’ deals with vanity plates, his (?) job also extends to ‘conventional’ plates — certain letter combinations just aren’t allowed, all in the name of protecting the delicate sensibilities of the Ontario public. And we appreciate it.

I guess.

The thing that surprised me is that the Grey Little Man (or Woman) approved BDSM. And not just once but 999 times. Odd, even in the current Post-Jian era.

My first thought was that maybe this meant that it’s possible for bureaucracies of faceless drones to have a sense of humour. Maybe guardians of public decency have redeeming features.

Maybe.

But then I looked a little deeper and found that he/she/they recently vetoed the vanity plate ‘BONDAGE’ (the ‘B’ in ‘BDSM,’ remember). So bondage is bad but BDSM is good — a thousand times good, even. (Or maybe words are bad and acronyms are good — bureaucracies love acronyms, after all.) I think what it means, though, is that he/she/they doesn’t have a sense of humour — he’s just erratic, inconsistent and capricious.

Oh well, at least I don’t have to revise my opinion of guardians of
public decency. I guess that’s good; change is, after all, hard.

 

Kegging. Birding.

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I am not a birder.

I mean, I’m obsessive enough I guess, just not the right kind of obsessive.  I don’t have a big enough… camera (what did you think I was going to say) and I don’t own either a vest with a bazillion pockets or a Tilley hat. I have never seen a red-whiskered bulbul and I don’t really care that I have never seen a red-whiskered bulbul. But I do enjoy looking at them, watching their behaviour and watching other people watch them. (Birders are so cute when they gather in flocks with their huge… lenses. (You’re thinking of something else again, aren’t you? Shame on you.)) With that in mind, a few months ago Ms. Rose and I visited the extinction capital of the world.

That’s not why we went, but it is an interesting factoid that the native flora (not that one) and fauna (or that one either) are often hard to find. Foreign versions of both are ubiquitous, of course. Heck, even the official state bird is Canadian.

Sort of. Would national geographic lie to you?

While we were there we did some of the traditional things one does when visiting remote tropical islands — we put on parkas and looked for snow, we (only me, really) played chicken with Ms. Frizzle and we both ‘acquired’ giant green bugs from a highway patrolman. (I did it under false pretenses, but I’m like that.)

We also did some more conventional stuff — toured public bathrooms (and took photographs), stalked edible birds (non-native only, I assure you), got lost (my fault), admired the flowers (the evil ones were particularly pretty) and checked out art that we couldn’t possibly afford (although there was some affordable stuff — it was just hidden in a box under a table in the back room).

And one morning we even went to the beach.

But which one? Remote tropical islands are full of beaches. Just type ‘best beach name-of-remote-tropical-island-of-choice into google and you’ll get, well, a metric buttload of results. Top ten lists out the wazoo — and all of them include what appear to be real gems. But our guidebook suggested a hidden gem. It was just down the road, it wasn’t on any of the lists I looked at (slow wi-fi so I didn’t look at all that many) but did have the best possible name for a beach. (Relax. It’s not what you think. It’s named after a telephone pole.)

We arrived there on a Thursday morning. It was a beautiful day, full of sunshine, promise and little birds singing as they sat on windowsills.

Untillll…

There was a machine in the parking lot — apparently even paradise has parking meters. I immediately burst into song because machines in parking facilities have been known to cause me problems. I mean, technology in general has been known to cause me problems. In parking lots it’s just worse.

As we walked toward the machine someone was walking away from it, clearly unhappy. Apparently the machine had taken his money but hadn’t given him the little ticket thingy. (Obviously there was no little bird singing on his windowsill.) So we prepared for trouble. To our surprise, though, at first there was no trouble — it didn’t take our money but did give us a ticket. (Score!) Except it was pretty clear that the ticket belonged to the disgruntled guy; we tracked him down and gave it to him. (It didn’t magically un-gruntle him, but it helped.)  Then back to the machine because, you know, we still wanted a ticket thingy.

The machine persisted in not taking money for a long time — a long enough time that we (a) acquired an intimidatingly long line of impatient people behind us and (b) flirted with despair. (More than usual, I mean. I flirt with despair on a daily basis.) But eventually it did take money and (inevitably) didn’t produce a ticket. One more try Several more tries and we had a ticket so, with a feeling of triumph, we walked back and put it in the car so it could get all brown and icky in the sun. By the time we got back to the machine, the guy who had been behind us in line was screaming and punching it. (Have I talked about schadenfreude recently?)

(Apparently it wasn’t just us: a review on a travel site fourteen weeks later said that the machine was still broken.)

We moved on to the beach. It was stunning. Everyone there was having a good time.

beach69

Almost.

In one of the many patches of shade (a beach with shade — what a concept) there was a couple. The husband was happily asleep but his wife was neither; she was wide awake and looked like she had got out of the wrong side of the bed that morning or something. I looked back at her husband. He still looked happy, but then most people napping look happy. Especially if they’re napping on beautiful tropical beaches. I looked down. In the sand, inches away from his feet, were at least a dozen (non-native) birds. They were dancing. There’s no other word for it, they were dancing. (They weren’t wearing pastels, though.) I looked back at the woman. She had moved on from the wrong side of the bed to an oft-criticised song. I looked back at her husband — he was still asleep but his entourage was still dancing — possibly a conga line but I couldn’t be sure. I looked back at the wife — she had moved on from Alanis but it looked like someone had peed in her corn flakes. (It wasn’t me. I can say that with some confidence.) Hubby snored on, oblivious. I think the birds were setting up to do keg stands but we decided to move on before I could get a good look at exactly what they were up to.

So. While the birder in our group was observing something totally new — an extremely rare endangered species in its natural habitat, I got to fight with a parking meter, watch a guy nap on the beach and see a ubiquitous bird do something mildly amusing..

I’m not sure he’d agree, but I think I won.

 

Touching 2: it’s not the Empire striking back

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I should be so lucky.

A year and a half ago I had an appointment. With a doctor. In a clinic. In a hospital. When I went to the appointment, two things happened:

  1. I was publicly humiliated by an obsolete PC and a pair of orange shoes.
  2. They sent me home. Despite the fact that I had a little slip of paper that said ‘APPOINTMENT’ on it, I wasn’t ‘in the computer’ so apparently it was wrong. Live and learn I suppose.

Last week I went back. Since it’s the middle of winter and the middle of a cold snap, I didn’t think I had much to fear from orange shoes. The evil PC? Well, I took an extremely clever engineer with considerable IT experience with me. Just In Case. And of course that meant that random comic-related flashbacks were practically de rigueur.

“The two of us side by side against the implacable foe.”
Fred the Hammer

The waiting room was pretty much how I remember it — the same furniture, the same atmosphere of boredom and unfocused dread, the same people, even. (Well, probably not the same people. They just looked the same. I’m confusing my perceptions with reality. Sorry.) And, at the far end of the room was…

the implacable foe. The PC that I was supposed to use to check in. Suddenly I understood why it felt so much like Dreadsylvania.  I advanced on my Nemesis, trying to look confident. After all, I had a secret weapon. It wouldn’t be so bad, would it? In fact, it started out just fine. The touchscreen accepted my input. It accepted my plastic card without commenting that the picture makes me look like a three-day-old corpse. It even read the data from the card. Every step of the check-in process went smoothly and flawlessly. I almost thought that bringing an IT consultant may not have been entirely necessary.

Almost.

Because there was a problem. The final step. The step where you hit the last button to submit all your data and tell them you were there. The only step that matters, really.

It didn’t work.

I hit the button. Nothing. I hit it again. Nada. I hit it again and again. Bupkis. I tried different fingers. I tried a different hand.  I hit it and poked it and prodded it and swiped it and wiped it and stroked it and nudged it and got out a thesaurus and tried every verb that seemed remotely relevant.

Squat. Zilch. Zippo.

That was when Ms. Rose leaned over and touched the ‘Submit’ button. Once. Like you’re supposed to. Worked like a charm.

So on the down side, I was bested — again — by a dumbed-down PC running an application designed to be idiot proof. (I’m not sure that my inferiority complex really needs that level of care and feeding.) On the up side, though, my inadequacy wasn’t laid bare to the whole room of people who had seen it before (I’m doing it again. Sorry.). No, the only person who saw it was the one person I see more than anyone else on the face of the planet. Score.

I guess.

From there it was off to the designed-to-be-uncomfortable waiting room furniture, then the designed-to-make-you-feel-uncomfortable examination room furniture, the ice-cold instruments, the bottle full of pins to be inserted into various extremities, the other machine that goes ping, the white coats, the inexplicably-placed windows, the bludgeons. Stuff. (Not exactly as shown.) But it was all okay, because afterwards I was going to go play hockey.

Except.

We finished with just enough time to walk home, get my hockey bag and make it to the rink on time. But as I went to leave, I was presented with a form. “Give this to the receptionist” he said. I looked confused. I mean, I always look confused, but right then I looked more confused than usual. My skills at repartee weren’t affected, however: “Huh?”  “We want to get some blood.” Oh. Have I mentioned recently how much I hate needles? But, since I occasionally do what I’m told, I gave the form to the nice lady at the desk and she told me to go sit in the designed-to-be-uncomfortable furniture and someone would be right with me.

Depending on your definition of “right with you” she might even have been telling the truth, although hockey was beginning to look a little like a long shot. Another nice lady summoned me into a room where a third nice lady was assembling a frighteningly large pile of empty vials. “That’s a rather large pile of empty vials.” (I can underline the obvious with the best of them.) Apparently I was expected to fill them all. About halfway through the pile I decided that hockey was a really, really long shot. By the end it was fairly obvious that it wasn’t going to happen. My arm was too sore anyway.

So.

I walked a couple of kilometers in twenty below weather, was embarrassed by a computer, got poked and stabbed longer than was entirely comfortable, was drained of a suspicious amount of blood and missed hockey. “This has been a bad day” I thought when riding the elevator down to the street. “Can it get worse?”

We walked out the front door. A gust of wind blew a lump of twenty-below snow off the roof. It fell seven stories and hit me in the head.

Why yes. It can.