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ralph robert moore


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ralph robert moore

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Robert Moore.

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dead flies floating past ice cubes
march 1, 2008

Have you ever noticed how you can tell someone's intelligence by their ability (or inability) to repeat your phone number back to you?

"My phone number is dah dah dah, 3326."


"No, 3326."


"No, no. 33,26."

I hate calling customer service. Absolutely hate it. For one thing, you know you're going to be on the phone a long, long time.

For another, you have to start off by talking to a robot that only responds to voice commands. Remember when we used to be able to just press a number on our phone's keypad to indicate our response? It was the perfect system. No chance of error. So why have companies abandoned that idea, and gone with voice recognition? Why deliberately switch to a less reliable method? Are we being prepared for something really awful that's going to happen in the near future?

"I see you're calling from [phone number]. Is this the phone number associated with your account? You can say Yes for yes, or No for no."


"I think I heard you say…Yes. Is that correct?"

"Yes." (Usually here I clear my throat, anticipating a human.)

"I'm sorry, but I didn't catch that. Would you say it again, please?"


"Good. What is the reason for your call? For example, you can say, Order Parts, Technical Support, or Invoice Query."

"Technical Support."

"I think I heard you say…Order Parts. Is that correct?"


"Try saying your request a different way. For example, I would like to inquire about my latest bill."

"Technical Support."

"Good. Please tell me the appliance for which you would like to order a part. For example, you can say, Television, Dishwasher, Refrigerator, or Range."

It's like trying to place an order at the drive-through of a fast food restaurant with a really bad speaker. There was actually a period we went through where every time we ordered fries, once we pulled up to the window there'd be a Sprite waiting for us. It got to where I couldn't just say, "Fries," I'd have to add as many non-Sprite descriptors to my order as possible, to make it absolutely clear I wanted fries, not Sprite. "And an order of FRENCH fries please, the type of FRENCH fries that come in a RED CARDBOARD CONTAINER, which I'm sure will be STEAMING HOT as most FRENCH fries are, plus I'd like some KETCHUP with my FRENCH fries, because a LONG, RECTANGULAR POTATO PRODUCT as tasty as a FRENCH fry just isn't that good without KETCHUP."

Mary and I decided to buy a big TV.

For a lot of years we didn't have a TV.

We'd listen to the radio, or our records, or ourselves.

But eventually we thought, You know, it would be nice to watch the news, to actually "see" what's going on in our world, rather than just read about it. If you don't have a TV, if all your information of what's happening around the slow curve of the globe is a newspaper, you're willfully blind, and those narrow newspaper columns are Braille.

Plus there were TV shows we had heard about that sounded interesting, and here we were, unable to experience them.

We lived in a number of different apartments in southern and northern California. In the final apartment we lived in, at Mariner's Island, before we took off across country, we rented a TV for a couple of months.

It was fun.

When we arrived in Maine, we didn't have a TV our first year. We preferred sitting at our kitchen table, listening to music, doing crosswords (God, we got into an obsession with crosswords. We'd do all the area newspaper crosswords, plus buy all the crossword magazines we could find in the local shops. I don't know what started that phase, but we were enthralled. I even created a crossword composed entirely of words and clues that related personally to us. I also created a board game based on our life together. Every couple should do that.)

After our first year in Maine, living in Portland, we moved into a Holiday Inn. That may sound extravagant, but in truth, off-season, the motels were surprisingly cheap.

Our room came, of course, with a color TV. That's when we really rediscovered the joys of watching TV. It's nice, sipping coffee before you go to work, to watch the morning shows, like Today. You feel a part of the world. It's nice, coming home from work, mixing drinks, to unwind with conversation while a beloved black and white repeat from our mutual past played.

When we moved to Texas, we bought a 27 inch TV, and used it for years. When it finally broke down, we went up to a 33 inch TV (but still a standard picture tube TV, rather than an LCD or plasma TV.) We really liked the picture tube TVs, because they seemed to deliver the greatest detail, and true color representation. We'd seen LCD and plasma sets, but honestly, they didn't look that good. Kind of grainy, with washed-out colors.

Two things happened.

Number one, we found out AT&T U-verse was available in our area.

For those of you who aren't familiar with U-verse, it's a fiber optic based telecommunications system (Verizon offers a similar system, under the name Fios.) At this point, U-verse and Fios are only available in certain areas of the country.

Homes have three basic signal delivery needs: television, broadband, and telephone. Most households contract with different vendors for those services. For example, we have Dish Network for our television, Comcast for our broadband, and AT&T for our phone. What U-verse does is bundle all those services under one vendor, saving you money (we'd save over a hundred dollars a month). And by using a fiber optic delivery system, we would wind up with much more dependable service (the fiber optic signal is a "dedicated" signal, meaning you're not sharing that signal with other households, like you do with cable).

Fiber optic has a far greater data capacity than any other delivery system (cable or satellite). With Dish Network, we can only record one TV show during a specific time slot. With U-verse, we could record four different shows during the same time slot. That's a big help if you have two or three or four network shows you want to see that are airing at the same time.

In addition to that, U-verse comes with a wireless broadband connection. Under our Comcast broadband, we have to buy a router, and have a long, long cable run from Mary's computer in one room, which is the entry point for broadband, to my computer in another room. If we wanted to add a third computer downstairs, we'd be talking about a hundred feet or so of additional cable, which we'd either have to tack against the baseboard of several rooms, and down our staircase, or hire a drywall specialist to come out and run the cable through our walls. But with U-verse, since the broadband signal is wireless, we could place a computer anywhere we want to in our home, upstairs or downstairs, or out in our garage, and it'll be instantly connected to the Internet, with no cables whatsoever.

Down the road, U-verse is expected to allow you to watch new DVD releases through its television receiver, starting and stopping them as you please, eliminating the need for Netflix and Blockbuster (No more shipping physical DVDs back and forth, or getting them lost in the mail; no more being told there's a "Very Long Wait" for the new release you want to see.)

U-verse seemed to be the future. One step closer to The Jetsons.

The only downside would be the installation (which is free), but which takes anywhere from five to eight hours, because of its complexity. But hey, I don't mind having technicians in our home for a day if it means we're going to save money, and have a technologically superior system, at the end of that day.

Since we were upgrading our signal delivery system, we decided to also upgrade our TV, which is the second thing that happened.

Like I said, we'd seen LCD and plasma TVs in various stores, over the years, but had never been impressed by them.

But this past Christmas season, while we were getting ready for the annual visit by Joe, Mary's dad, while cleaning our home, our vacuum crapped out. It no longer sucked (and a vacuum cleaner is the only appliance in the world where you want to be able to say, It really sucks!)

Since it no longer sucked, we had to buy a new one, that would suck.

So we went to Sears. They have good products, and a great warranty (for which you pay extra). If something sucks, they come out and fix it (unless it's a vacuum cleaner, in which case they come out if it doesn't suck, and make sure, by the time they leave, it does suck.)

As it happens, the cash register for the vacuum cleaners was located in Sears' TV section. So while we waited for the associate to ring up the vacuum sale, we got to look at the different LCD and plasma TVs on display.

We were really impressed. The TVs had improved significantly since the last time we saw them.

So when we signed-up for AT&T U-verse, we decided, since we'd be receiving high definition signals now, it made sense to buy a TV that displayed high definition.

We went back to Sears.

We wandered around the flat screen aisles, where a hundred or so different flat screens, different sizes, different manufactories, were all displaying the same loud demonstration (a loop of movie scenes, sporting events, concert footage, cartoons.)

Seeing a hundred rectangles of the same image made us feel like flies.

We compared one TV to the next, to the next, to the next, then standing side by side at the head of an aisle to see all the TVs in that aisle, to see which one popped out, then moving to the next aisle.

We were nervous.

Flat screens cost a lot. You want to make sure you're handing over thousands of dollars for the right set.

We weren't predisposed one way or the other regarding the whole LCD vs. plasma issue, but once we got to the store, and looked at dozens of flat panels displaying one system or the other, it was obvious to us the LCDs were better. Plus, the Samsung LCD was noticeably better than any other LCD display (Samsung has an LED backlight display mode, further brightening the picture, unlike any of the other LCD manufacturers. That doesn't mean the image is brighter per se than other sets-it just means the image picks up more detail in the darker areas of the screen.)

So we chose a Samsung 52 inch LCD flat panel TV.

We went over to the nearest "Sears Associate", which is where our problems began.

We wanted the TV to be wall-mounted, and in fact professionally wall-mounted. We didn't want to do it ourselves, because we didn't want anything that expensive falling off our wall one day, when we're otherwise in a happy mood. But the associate couldn't figure out how to key the mounting charge into her computer (it requires a specific code she didn't know.) So she called over another associate. And another. And another. And called one up on the phone (putting a finger in her right ear, since she was having trouble hearing this other associate over the phone, what with the loud explosions from the demo loop in the background.)

At one point, Mary and I were standing next to the cash register with six different Sears associates shouting over the demo noise to each other, trying to figure out how to charge us for a professional wall mounting.

Finally, they figured it out. After an hour (I do not exaggerate, dear reader.)

So everything's set. Mary and I go home. We're getting a big TV!

That evening I get a call from the guy who's going to mount the TV for us. "Do you have your cash register receipt from Sears, sir? Would you mind reading me the charges, please? Because I don't see where they ever charged you for the professional wall-mounting."

And in fact they hadn't, even after half the store staff had discussed how to do it for an hour.

But we finally did get the TV professionally mounted. Loved the picture.

So now we're waiting for AT&T to come out and install our U-verse system.

We had been to the AT&T store in Dallas earlier in the week. After we signed up for the service, the representative asked when we wanted U-verse installed.

The earliest day would be that Friday (our LCD TV was mounted on Thursday.)

We arranged to have the U-verse guys come out between eight and ten in the morning (we had to wait an hour in the store for that to be confirmed.)

A day or so later, we got this big, colorful introductory package in the mail from AT&T. Welcome to U-verse!

The packet was filled with over-sized, glossy brochures, extolling all the advantages of U-verse. Must have cost a pretty.

Friday morning. Mary and I are up, dressed, ready to go.

Ten o'clock, I call AT&T customer service.

"I am so sorry the technician hasn't arrived yet, Mr. Moore! May I put you on hold while I check with them to see when they will arrive?" He'd come back on the line every couple of minutes. "I'm still waiting to hear from them. Thank you for your patience. May I put you on hold again?" And so on and so forth. Finally, "They tell me they will be there 'momentarily'." That's the word he used. Momentarily.

Noon. I call AT&T again. I am so, so sorry Mr. Moore, etc. They're in your neighborhood. They'll be there very soon.

Two o'clock. They're just finishing up with another client.

Knowing that whenever they do get here it'll be anywhere from five to eight hours before the installation is complete, I schedule the installation for another day, about two weeks off. I am guaranteed they'll arrive between eight and ten in the morning.

We get another big, colorful package in the mail. Welcome to U-verse!

This time, an AT&T technician does show up when promised.

Okay. We're finally getting U-verse installed!

Except after futzing around with our outside phone box for about an hour, he came back inside and told us our signal wasn't strong enough. The "cross box" had to be within at least 3,000 feet of our home, and the nearest cross box was, in fact, 3,785 feet away.

My first thought was, Why did AT&T send him out if our cross box wasn't close enough? AT&T had contacted us, via email, to say we were capable of receiving U-verse. We even went to their site, put in our phone number, after which AT&T said, Congratulations! You are able to receive U-verse!

We went to their store, in Dallas, and they also confirmed we could receive U-verse at our address.

But now it turns out we can't?

Plus the "technician" they sent out completely screwed up our phone wiring. We pay for two separate phone lines (two separate phone numbers.) The AT&T "technician" had somehow managed to disconnect our main phone line (I picked up the phone, there was no dial tone.) The "technician" tried to fix the problem, for about an hour, but it was beyond his skills. He had to call out another technician, who restored our phone service in five minutes.

So we waited for a cross box to be installed within 3,000 feet of our home (the "technician" told us this would take a day or two.) It took a week.

We set up a third appointment to get AT&T U-verse installed.

There it is again in our mail: Welcome to U-verse!

The same "technician" from the second visit arrived. Our hearts sank.

After fiddling around for an hour outside, at the box where the phone line connects with our home, he came in to tell us the signal was too weak.

It turns out you not only have to have a cross box within 3,000 feet of your home, you also have to have someone connect that cross box to the actual telephone lines.

Which hadn't been done.

So we wasted another day.

Plus, as we found out a day later, the "technician" had once again fucked up our phone lines, so that this time we were without service to our second phone line, necessitating still another visit to our home, yet another wasted day, just to correct the problems the AT&T U-verse "technician", in his incompetence, had caused.

So what's the deal with AT&T U-verse?

The biggest problem is that the different departments of AT&T (customer service, in-home installation technicians, in the field line technicians), are unable to communicate with each other. AT&T has no structure in place for that. When you call customer service, they don't really know if U-verse is available for your home or not. They just assume it is. The in-home installation technician doesn't know if a cross box is within 3,000 feet or not. They have to call one of the in the field technicians, from your home, to find out (for some reason, they don't call before they get to your home. For some reason, there's no one at AT&T coordinating all these efforts, so consumers' time is wasted-and their own employees' time is wasted.) Plus the in-home installation technician is unable to find out from the in the field technician when a cross box is going to be installed, or when that cross box will actually be connected, and therefore useable.

It's the blind leading the blind.

When I asked our "technician" when our cross box will be connected, he had no idea.

"Could you ask the in the field guy?"

"He wouldn't know, sir."

Nobody knows anything.

Now maybe if this were a small operation run out of someone's garage, I could understand ("Dad, can I borrow the car again? I gotta install another friggin' cross box.") But a multi-national octopus like AT&T? The level of corporate incompetence is stunning. AT&T used to be the gold standard in telecommunications. What the fuck happened?

The second major problem with AT&T U-verse is that the "technicians" they send out to install U-verse are obviously not trained properly. The "technician" we got didn't have a clue what he was doing. As witness the way the "technician" repeatedly messed up our two phone lines.

On paper, AT&T U-verse sounds like a great deal. But in actuality, AT&T has been so clumsy in rolling it out, tripping over its own feet repeatedly, and so corporately indifferent to consumers' convenience, we no longer want it.

It's amazing to us that a company as large as AT&T, having developed such advanced technology, that would allow it to dominate the field, seems perfectly content to fumble the ball, over and over again.

If you don't believe me, Google "AT&T U-verse", and go to one of the forums discussing U-verse problems. Everything from general incompetence to one U-verse DVR after another failing to work properly, to U-verse "technicians" stealing items (such as I-Pods) from the homes they visit.

Randall L. Stephenson is the Chairman of the Board and CEO of AT&T. Randy, pull your head out of your ass, which will probably require extraordinary neck muscle action, veined hands braced behind the backs of your knees, considering how far up your ass your head is, and act like AT&T is an industry leader, rather than a sad little lemonade stand with dead flies floating past ice cubes.

One of my heroes, one of the last of my heroes, Alain Robbe-Grillet, died in western France this past month, of cardiac problems. He was eighty-five.

Robbe-Grillet was one of the giants of the "New Novel", an attempt started in the fifties to move the traditional novel in different directions. He wrote what he called "objective" novels, meaning books in which the novelist dispassionately states what visually exists in a scene, much like the literary equivalent of a camcorder, without otherwise providing any information as to significance. We don't get inside any of the characters' heads. A bug crawling across a veranda is given the same descriptive weight as a woman running a hairbrush through her hair.

I thought his approach to fiction was brilliant, an absolute rejection of the nonsensical Joycean notion of "stream of consciousness." A vantage point of "outside", rather than "inside", which I have always greatly admired, and have tried to emulate in my own fiction. I have always thought fiction should be about "experiencing" characters, rather than the childish naiveté of "understanding" characters. We can't understand anyone, least of all ourselves.

My novelette "Freedom From Want" will be appearing soon in a Sensorotika anthology.

Alain Robbe-Grillet

"Now the shadow of the column - the column which supports the southwest corner of the roof - divides the corresponding corner of the veranda into two equal parts..."

--Jealousy, 1955