ISP support staff are in a class of their own

IN JAPAN, friends of mine who visit the country regularly tell me, the attitude towards customers is summed up in one line: “The customer is always right [1].” When it comes to the men and women who man the support desks at Australia’s ISPs, the reverse seems to be the case.

There is no other way one can account for their attitude. The one overriding aim they have is to disclaim responsibility. The customer is asked to jump through numerous hoops and a great many customers are not able to do so.

The first test the support person puts one through is the “power-cycle the modem” test. I’ve never been able to figure out why one needs to do this. I can understand if one is asked to reboot (a more earthy term which means the same thing) a Windows box in order to restore it to its “normal” state of functioning.

But one has to go through this switching on and off of the modem before the support person will deign to continue the conversation.

Then we come to the more difficult tests. You are asked to test the modem by switching over to another modem. How many customers keep a spare modem at home? Well, says the support person, you have to do it to rule out the possibility that your modem is at fault. You know, modems don’t last forever.

If, by chance, you are among the minority who do keep a spare modem, why then you are asked to switch ADSL filters. The support person is just warming up.

Let’s assume that you are also one among the rare minority who keep a spare modem and spare ADSL filter at home. You do the switch and the problem still remains. What then?

OK, says Mr/Ms Support, disconnect all devices from your telephone line and see if the problem persists. And then there are a plethora of questions: do you have a fax machine on your line? what about any other device?

It goes on. After 15 or 20 minutes, finally the support person finds a loophole. Can you test the sync speeds at your end and let me know? comes the query. How many people know how to do that? What is sync speed?

Or there is another question: can you see what percentage of packets are being dropped? Either of these questions is enough to discourage even the hardiest – except for the 1 percent of nerds who know what this means.

At the end of it, you are left wondering why this is called “support.” One often pays top dollar for this kind of service.

[1] One of those friends adds a correction: “It is more correct to say The customer is God. It follows from this that the customer is always right. However, it’s important to note that in Japan the matter of right and wrong is besides the point. It’s more basic than that even, and operates at the level of obligation that starts with the standard greeting that one receives when entering any store in Japan: Irasshaimase!”

Saudis, booze and the Manama causeway

MANY years ago, in order to curry favour with its citizens, the Saudi Arabian government funded the building of a causeway between the kingdom and Bahrain. While many reasons were advanced to explain this generosity, the truth was known to all in the region: it was a means whereby the liquor-starved Saudis could slip across to get pissed.

Which means that these days, there will be plenty of parched throats in Saudi Arabia; it is doubtful whether any Saudis would want to risk getting caught up in the political events in Bahrain just for the sake of a drink.

Both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are members of the Arab Gulf Co-operation Council – they hate it when the place is rightly called the Persian Gulf, with Iran being public enemy number 1 – and citizens of all six countries belonging to the council can travel freely to each others’ countries. For the Saudis it is a short drive to enjoy the taste of a cool beer – and Lord knows, in the searing heat of the Gulf region, nothing is more welcome.

Alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia though one can find a bar in the house of every Saudi of any standing. These supplies are said to be imported in as furniture – many a royal has been summoned to the airport with the reverential advice, “Sir your furniture is leaking.” Saudi Arabia is the home of Islam, with the religion’s two holy cities, Mecca and Medina, within its borders, but the ban on booze has nothing to do with Islam although the religion does advise against the use of alcohol.

In 1953, a member of the royal family, Prince Mishari, in a drunken fit, shot and killed the British consul to the country. At that time, the British envoy to any part of the Middle East was only slightly lower in status than the Almighty so this act could not be taken lightly. King Ibn Saud offered the prince’s head as compensation and paid the required blood money to the envoy’s widow. But that was the end of booze sales in the kingdom; from that point onwards, ships were launched with a bottle of water, not champagne.

As per the law, any person caught with liquor or having consumed liquor will be either jailed or deported. A person who enjoys a drink now and then thus has to make the most of trips outside the country; a friend of mine consumed three bottles of Absolut vodka during a trip to Dubai to cover a golf tournament. He never went to the tournament, but wrote his reports after watching it on TV in an alcoholic haze. When I inquired why he was spending most of his time blotto, he replied that once he went back, it would mean another nine months of forced non-consumption until he took his annual holiday in Bombay.

In Bahrain, on the other hand, one can buy liquor in the bigger supermarkets. There are plenty of hotels built close to the causeway and it is very convenient for the Saudis and other visitors who arrive with the express purpose of getting tanked.

Thus, the Saudis will be watching the situation in Bahrain with the greatest interest. Not because they fear that the riots may spread to their own country, but more because they fear that they may not be able to quench their thirst at short notice if the little island falls under the control of radical elements.

Mubarak falls – and ABC News 24 stands exposed again

AT ABOUT 3am AEST (+11 hours GMT) on Saturday, February 13, the reign of Egytptian dictator Mohammed Hosni Mubarak came to an end. Thirteen hours later, the Australian 24-hour news channel, ABC News 24, was still struggling to cope with the developments.

Every 24-hour news channel of any repute had round-the-clock coverage of the historic events in Egypt as they unfolded; right until early Sunday (February 13) morning, the majority of the time was spent on discussing the fallout from the 18 days of protests, something unheard of in the Middle East.

The last time there was a simliar earthquake in Egypt was back in 1952 when one Gamal Abdel Nasser and his group of Free Officers overthrew the monarchy. Then, as this time, the older members of the armed forces backed the status quo; Nasser was supported by the younger elements.

But that isn’t what this post is about. ABC News 24 has struggled on many occasions – when then Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd was toppled in 2010 by his own party, the network was caught with its pants down. Sky News and the Nine network were much quicker off the blocks. This time, was even more embarrassing.

I switched on the network at midday; the fare available was a repeat of some anodyne programme shown on the analog channel, ABC1. At this time the BBC World Service was running hot with stories from Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities. On ABC News 24, it was a normal dreary Saturday.

I then had a look at the 4pm bulletin. It was tragic. The ABC correspondent in Cairo had gone AWOL – or so it seemed. The news was led with a story from Al Jazeera – yes, the hated Al Jazeera, the network that has often been linked to Osama bin Laden by the prima donnas in the West, the network whose office was shut down by the Egyptian authorities, the network that has caused more convulsions in the Arab world in its short lifespan than the ABC has caused anywhere, even Australia, in more than 80 years of existence.

The second story was from the BBC – and this was not even acknowledged. Unless one was aware of the fact that the reporter is a longtime BBC hand, one would never have known. The ABC’s contribution mirrored the cultural cringe that seems to afflict the whole of Australia – it was a report about US president Barack Obama’s reaction. Funny, one could get video footage from Washington, but not from Cairo where seismic events were taking place. Priorities, priorities.

And then, after a clip from the analog service, showing a demonstration by Egyptians in Sydney, there was a most curious interview conducted by ABC employee Jane Hutcheon with Lydia Khalil, an Egyptian woman from a think-tank. Khalil is obviously an American-Egyptan; your chances of getting on the ABC are better if you have a Western accent. The curious part of the interview came when Hutcheon asked “can you imagine what it will be like in cities like Alexandria?” This, when the BBC had reported four hours earlier exactly what has happening in that Egyptian city. Tells one a lot about Hutcheon’s news sense, and the reaction time of the network as a whole.

As I’ve said before, ABC News 24 has been set up to satisfy the ego of managing director, Mark Scott. Its resources are insufficient and when one really needs a 24-hour network – when a major story breaks – it is found wanting. It may be better to deploy those resources locally, shut down the network – and avoid repeating programmes so often.

Banks: people love to hate them

THERE are four big banks in Australia – Commonwealth, Westpac, National Australia and ANZ – which bitch right through the year about the rising costs of operating and then report stunning profits. It is the same year after year, no matter if there is a global meltdown or not.

The banks put it down to skillful management. I put it down to gouging.

Given the manner in which these banks rort customers by imposing fees for anything and everything, they are understandably not the most popular businesses in town. But I often wonder why the people do not react by taking their business elsewhere.

It is not as though these four banks are the only ones in town. There are plenty of other, smaller players who offer better terms and conditions, charge half as much or even less, and do not treat their customers as cash cows. One has to exercise one’s choice and switch banks.

This is easier said than done. When one has regular payments being debited to one’s bank account, it is difficult to pick the right time to switch. A single payment cannot be missed and the more such direct debits one has, the more difficult moving from one bank to another becomes.

My personal experience is that it is possible to move, once the move is carefully planned. All one needs is a good reason to move – minor irritants are often not enough to motivate one to take the trouble to organise a move.

The first time I moved, it was from the ANZ to Westpac. I opened an account with ANZ as soon as I landed in Australia simply because it was the one name with which I was familiar. ANZ used to operate in India, Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates under the name Grindlays.

I stayed with them less than a year. The day I opened my account, I was asked for my tax file number. I didn’t have one at the time. Later when I obtained one, I did not bother to give it to the bank. The bank did not ask me for it either.

But one day I found that 92 dollars had been deducted from my account; on calling the bank I was told that it was because I had not given them by tax file number. On asking why they had not requested it, I was told ” it is not our role to remind you of government policy.”

That was enough for me. Two days later I closed the account and took my business to Westpac – once again convenience played a role, it was the one bank closes to my home. I overlooked the fact that I paying 20 dollars or a little more every month as fees and charges as the bank had combined my savings and cheque accounts in one. This was the advice they gave me – it was geared towards making money for them, not saving me from paying these charges every month. I even overlooked the fact that on one occasion when I went to make a withdrawal dressed in track pants, the bank asked me for identification; I had gone there in a suit the previous day and not been asked to identify myself.

The years went by and the number of direct debits grew. But again there was a seminal event which jolted me out of my complacency. In the year 2000, I asked the bank for a car loan and it was sanctioned over the phone. I was asked to come and pick up a cheque for the amount on a designated day in the year 2000. The amount was small, just $13,000. The interest rate was around nine percent.

When I went to the bank, they gave me some papers to sign and I noticed that the interest rate was considerably more; I then noticed that the money was being advanced as a personal loan. When I inquired why, I was told that one had to borrow a minimum of $20,000 for a car loan; lesser amounts were issued as personal loans. This was not what i had been told when I negotiated the loan on the phone. I had not asked the phone banking person for her name; when I was asked who had sanctioned the loan, I had no reply.

Given that I had committed to pick up the car that day, I had no choice but to take the loan on the terms that Westpac tricked me into accepting.

That ripoff was what made me move to a smaller bank. I paid off the loan, cursing Westpac every time I had to go to the bank. I planned the move carefully so that no direct debits would be missed and took my business to Bendigo Bank. The process was painful but I was determined to move. I got the right advice about accounts – keep a cheque account and a savings account separate.

Since then, rarely have I paid the bank any charges. The online service works well and the bank serves my needs. But I’m in this position because I was prepared to make the effort to move.

Beating up on multiculturalism

TO ANY politician, people equate to votes. A particular community equates to a vote-bank. When it’s convenient to humour that community – i.e. when one needs their votes – the politician will speak good of them. If sucking up to another community will bring in more votes – doesn’t matter if it alienates the first community – the politician will take that route.

Multiculturalism is a popular political football. When politicians start talking it up or down it’s generally because they have spotted a potential vote-bank and want to try and consolidate their position
before the next poll comes around.

British prime minister David Cameron’s outburst about multiculturalism – at a time when the English Defence League was scheduled to hold a big rally – is nothing new. I’ve heard similar sentiments from former Australian prime minister John Howard, comments that contributed greatly to the Cronulla riots. Howard had form in this regard – he won an election in 1998 on the back of discrimination against Aborigines and a second one in 2001 by villifying Afghan asylum-seekers.

Others in the Liberal ranks, like Kevin Andrews, a former immigration minister, have also weighed in, drawing succour from Cameron. This Andrews is the same man who condemned an Indian doctor, Mohammed Haneef, to time in jail and trashed his reputation in the search for votes back in the run-up to the 2007 Australian national election.

This kind of beat-up often happens when economic conditions are bad – one can always blame the foreigners for it. And the UK isn’t in the best of economic health at the moment.

In the UK, within a few years, white people will be in the minority. If the experiment of bringing in migrants and making them part of British society has failed, then society and the government have to bear most of the blame.

A great deal of British policy on migration has been created in order to expiate guilt over its colonial rapaciousness. British guilt over the division of the Indian subcontinent is a classic example. No policy created because of such reasons will ever succeed. No politician has ever bothered to think about the settlement of people in such a way that ethnic ghettos will not be created. As the saying goes, birds of a feather…

Of course, one cannot dictate to people where they should live, unless one is living in a country like Singapore. But there can be more interaction to ensure that the kind of enclaves that one finds in places like Bradford in England are not created.

When ethnic people feel alienated from the mainstream, they tend to band together. This sense of alienation can be imagined or it can be real. Discrimination in the workplace, in public and the media – very subtle stuff at most times, things you can;t really pin down – tends to push people together with others of their kind and create a siege mentality. But when the government is only interested in is votes, these things do not weigh heavily on its collective mind.

There are cases when people in some areas realise the problems that are building up and move to make things better. Box Hill in Melbourne was a dangerous place to visit after dark; there were needles aplenty in the car parks some 10 years ago. But things have changed after local officials took steps to clean up the suburb. The population mix is still the same. But things are now very different because the community decided that it had to act and clean up the suburb for the good of its own children.

Politicians are unlikely to change their methods. People in various areas should act to ensure that newcomers get settled in and contribute to society. Making them feel they are outsiders greatly increases the possibility that the newcomers will turn against the very people whom they live amongst.

Melbourne can learn from Brisbane’s bus system

MELBOURNE prides itself on many things. But when it comes to transport, it has to take second place to the much smaller and less-populated Brisbane. That city has a bus service that should be emulated.

No doubt, Melbourne is trying to put something in place. But its most recent effort, the myki, has turned out to be an expensive disaster. An inquiry is underway to decide whether the system should be scrapped or extended to the rest of the state. It is already over budget by about 200 percent with well in excess of a billion dollars having been spent.

The Brisbane system works, and works well. One only has to place one’s go card next to the reader when one is boarding and leaving the bus and it registers immediately with a moderately loud beep so that the driver knows the passenger isn’t cheating. If the card has insufficient funds, the beep sounds different.

There are two swipe points near the driver so people can get off the bus without delay, even at peak times. Touching the card to the reader does not delay people at all.

In sharp contrast, one has to hold a myki close to a reader for at least 5 seconds before it registers. And it does so with such a weak noise, that hardly anyone, except the passenger, knows it has registered. The same process happens when one leaves the bus.

If everyone in the bus was using the myki, it would delay those leaving the vehicle quite a bit, not something that would be welcome on a working day. One needs to remember that Melbourne has about four times the number of people that Brisbane does.

The myki also has its quirks. I normally pay $4.96 for a trip to the city – but if I do not close the trip the same day, the next time I touch on, I am charged only 2.02 for the journey. I found this out by accident when I forgot to touch off while leaving the bus one evening.

And on days when the trip to the city from the suburb where I live is different – the route is split into two on the weekends, the first bus taking one to the next suburb and a second bus taking one from there to the city – I get charged $2.02 for the first bit and 98 cents for the second part. Puzzling indeed.

The Brisbane system seems to be similar to London’s Oyster card. If you register the card, then you are asking for trouble because your movements are tracked. But an unregistered card does not open you to being tracked as you.

Sexism reigns in AFL commentary box

FOR all the talk about the number of women involved in Australain rules football, better known as AFL, there are fresh indications that, like many other things in the country, it is run by, and meant for, middle-aged and old white Australian males.

The latest indication of this comes in the dumping of commentator Kelli Underwood by Channel 10, one of the two free-to-air channels which won the right to broadcast the game in the last bidding contest for TV rights.

Underwood was given a two-year trial and has now been relegated to doing the job of boundary rider; an all-male team will call the games for this season and, conceivably, for the foreseeable future.

The decision smacks of sexism. It was made after a local tabloid, the Herald Sun, published the results of an online survey that ranked AFL commentators according to the annoyance factor. That anyone could take an online poll seriously is surprising; further the Sun’s readers cannot be exactly said to be at the high end of the IQ spectrum.

My rating of Underwood comes from nearly 43 years of listening to sport on radio and watching various kinds of sport on TV. Among the many commentators I have listened to are Bob Harvey (Sri Lankan – rugby union), Dicky Rutnagur (Indian – cricket), Alan McGilvray, Jim Maxwell, Glen Mitchell (Australian – cricket), John Arlott, Brian Johnston, Don Mosey, Christopher Martin-Jenkins (all British – cricket), Tony Cozier, Reds Perera, Fazeer Mohammed (West Indies – cricket), Dennis Commetti, Gerard Whatley, Drew Morphett, Mark McClure, Stan Alves, Rex Hunt, Anthony Hudson, Sam Newman (Australia – AFL), and many more whose names do not come to mind immediately.

Underwood is no better and no worse than any male commentator employed by a TV channel or a radio station; in fact, several of the men who commentate on the game are much worse than her. She has the right approach to communicating the state of the game, and never allows herself to go overboard. Instead, in the manner of top commentators like Brian Glanville, she builds up the excitement, never indulging in the kind of yelling and verbal diarrhoea that many of the men do.

Hudson, one of the Channel 10 commentators, should not be allowed anywhere near a commentary box. His delivery is poor, he gets excited all the time and screams, and for him every goal is “unbelievable.” But he has the characteristics which Underwood lacks – he is white, middle-aged and male.

This isn’t the first time that a woman has ventured near the commentary box of a predominantly male sport: in 1983, actress Kate Fitzpatrick joined the cricket commentary team of Channel 9. She did not last long, only until the end of that season. There are other women like Rebecca Wilson (who lasted one episode of the National Rugby League’s footy show) and Caroline Wilson, who appears on Channel 9’s Footy Classified and has done so for some time.

The commentators of today indulge in a lot of hyperbole, in the belief that they have to jazz up the game that they are covering. They use tired, worn phrases all the time and try to outdo each other in the use of superlatives. For the most part these days, I turn off the sound if I watch an AFL game.

Australians are willing to endure Bruce MacAvaney (who when describing young Hawthorn footballer Cyril Rioli gushed “what a delicious young player he is), Hudson (who shoots off at the mouth all the time), and Hunt (who is prone to the occasional racist gibe and whose commentary is mostly understood by an audience of one – himself).

At a time when even a country like Pakistan has put a competent woman in the commentary box – sadly, after the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009, she has not been able to commentate because international cricket matches are not being staged in the country – it seems absurd that a country like Australia, which claims to be oh-so-progressive, cannot do as much.

But then, on reflection, why am I surprised? Graphic evidence of the sexism in the country was provided when elections were held last year. One shouldn’t be surprised that a smaller subset of the population expresses the same sentiment.