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Mercury, Retrograde

No, I haven't turned to astrology; but it's handy to have a term for those periods of life that are dominated by Murphy's Law, and the past week has been one of them. Hence the paucity of blogging.

Let's leave aside — for now — the decision to ditch the first 26,000 words (or around 80 pages) of a new novel and re-do from start; this stuff happens. From time to time you dive into a project only to realize you'd started in the deep end and/or the pool was drained for maintenance. You learn to suck it up: part of being a pro is being able to recognize your mistakes and learn from them, rather than blindly pushing on.

Let's also set aside the short-notice turnaround I'm meant to be giving the copy edits on the manuscript of "The Apocalypse Codex" — shockingly, my US publisher is ahead of schedule and so I am expected to return the checked CEM before they close for the last two weeks of December. (This means I can't blame them for my tendency to work over December 25th, which I do every year on a point of principle.)

No. The real pain in the neck has been the Revolt of the Machines ...

First, my iPhone. It's out of warranty and it has developed an amusing little foible; the microphone works fine for all apps, except the phone app. To which it delivers the sound of silence. (Yes, I power cycled it. Yes, I reinstalled the firmware. Yes, I put it into DFU mode and reinstalled the baseband firmware too. Yes, I cleaned the noise cancellation mike port. It works with a wired headset's mike; pull the headset cable and it works for a couple of seconds, then stops, suggesting something wrong with the noise cancellation circuit.) Anyway, the next step is to take it to an Apple Store with a Genius Bar. My nearest one is in Glasgow; two hours away from door-to-door. So I would have done that, but for an intervening overnight trip (to a city even further away from an Apple Store — they're not common in British cities with populations under a million).

I arrived home yesterday, fully intending to spend today on a trip to Glasgow, despite a wee spot of weather; I was going to dash across in the morning and be home before the full force of Hurricane Bawbag struck. But while I was away, the other machines decided to come out on strike in sympathy. Specifically the Virgin Media V+ box (a rather brain-dead proprietary Tivo-like device) had crashed, hard. So hard, in fact, that aside from a brief flash from one indicator LED when switching it on, the thing was completely dead. And thereon hangs a tale of technical support anti-patterns.

One of the reasons I use Apple hardware is that, when something goes wrong (as inevitably happens if you use enough electronic devices for long enough) it's usually straightforward to get it fixed. First you check for fixes online in Apple's support knowledge-base or curated user forums, You either phone AppleCare (with credit card in hand if you're out of warranty) or you make an appointment and drag the gizmo to the nearest Apple Store. The Apple Store staff are specialists — they do one thing (after-sales support and service for Apple devices) and do it quite well. Apple go out of their collective way to make it easy to contact AppleCare by phone or, to make an appointment with a Genius Bar support tech (via phone, web, email, or dedicated iOS app).

Compare and contrast with Virgin Media, who have a UK-wide monopoly on cable TV ...

Virgin helpfully don't let you talk to them by email, snail mail, fax, twitter, or FaceBook. They operate sales kiosks in local shopping malls, but these kiosks are dedicated to acquiring customer leads, not serving existing customers. For existing customers, they provide a phone support system with the menu tree from hell.

First I spent ten minutes on the line, listening to canned messages about service interruptions outside my area, entering various details including my account number and region code, and being offered menu options for billing, account upgrades, various arse-scratching services, and finally to report a problem. Having done this, I got through to an exciting menu with no alternative options and no way back: "we're now going to put you through to an engineer — can you enter the first, third, and eighth letters or digits of your password?"

Guess what: I have no password. I'm a legacy customer, from back when they were Telewest, in the late nineties. I predate their password system by over a decade. I note that it is probably only a coincidence that you hit the "please enter your password" prompt after spending a subjective eternity listening to canned service status messages on a non-free (relatively pricey but not quite premium rate) phone call, with no warnings up-front about needing various bits of information to hand. After hanging up and swearing for a while I hit their website, flailed around in the TV listings for a bit before locating the obscure corner discussing support issues, and discovered that before you can talk to anyone, you're now supposed to register online and create a profile for your account. I did so, set a password, and after a while got to the Boss page that said, "we're sending you an activation email with a link to click to confirm that this email address belongs to you."

(Note that Virgin enforces insecure passwords by design. In order to ensure that you can enter your web account password on your telephone keypad, they helpfully restrict passwords to 6-10 characters, digits and alphabet only, the first character being an alphabet character. Given that off-the-shelf software running on cheap commodity GPUs can brute-force most 11 character UTF-8 passwords in seconds, and that the account password would give an attacker control over an account coupled to billing information, you can imagine my joy.)

An email from Virgin duly arrived. Guess what wasn't in it? Yes, it was a generic "welcome to Virgin!!!1!ELEVENTY!!!11We love you!!!" email without an "activate this account" link.

(Leaving aside the horror that is HTML email, I can only speculate that Virgin are trying to reduce support call-outs by inducing cerebrovascular haemorrhages in their customers.)

I hit the "send the confirmation email again" button. Waited. Hit it again. Slowly succumbed to the kind of existential despair that has hitherto been the rich legacy of dealing with bilingual Japanese corporate double taxation exemption certificates issued in error to the wrong category of taxpayer. Half an hour later, three "activate this account" emails arrived nose-to-tail like Number 19 buses in Wandsworth. Success at last! I activated the account, set the password, and dived back into the telephone menu system from hell.

... Which prompted me to enter my password and then put me on hold. And on hold some more. And on hold for around 20 minutes, condemned to listen to the kind of shitty brainless pablum that passes for pop music these days. Stuff that makes D:Ream sound inspirational and conceptually challenging. Stuff that probably oozed its way off the X Factor B-side list after being down-voted for being too down-market in its chirpy, schmaltzy, autotune-assisted sentimentality. Stuff that made me want to crawl down the telephone line and garotte whoever compiled a bouncy playlist of recent Radio One hits to cheer up grumpy middle aged men who are phoning to complain that their cable box has died 24 hours before a small arctic hurricane is due to make landfall.

Finally a human being came on the line. "How may I help you?"

I explained the situation. "All right sir, I'm just going to put you on hold for a couple of minutes while I test your V+ box from this end ..."

At which point the cordless handset beeped at me.

Now, in the cathedral of advanced technology that is my home, the regular phone system is a dank smelly crypt connected to the land line that time forgot. It really only exists for the third-party ADSL provider to piggyback on, and for emergency service. (I sacked Virgin from providing phone and broadband a few years ago and haven't looked back.) I bought the cheapest cordless phones I could find when I moved in here; they're on on their second set of batteries, half the elements in the LCD on each handset have died, and the battery life is dropping again — they currently have a life measurable in milliseconds for n < 106. I'd been here before with take-away orders and interminable family phone calls to elderly relatives; but this time what was at stake was the risk of having to go through the entire Virgin rigmarole again. So I legged it to the kitchen, and the sole wired landline in the house ... and managed to scoop up the Hello Kitty phone (oh, the ignominy!) about thirty seconds before the cordless handset died. Success! And then I got to listen to the hold music from hell for another couple of minutes.

Finally: "Sir, I'd like to schedule an engineer visit. Can someone be there to let the engineer in between noon and 4pm tomorrow?"

I groaned and mentally consigned myself to another day of no-working-iphone. Engineering visit slots with Virgin are like hen's teeth, and likely as not if I said no I'd be looking at a long weekend (not to mention a radge windstorm) without TV. "Okay," I said.

"Then if I can take your mobile phone number, so the engineer can call you to confirm the visit ..?"

And now to moralize:

Apple have a monopoly on technical support for Apple products.

Virgin Media have a monopoly on technical support for Virgin Media cable TV and related products.

Why does one of them provide a grade A service when you try to get in touch for after sales technical support, and the other a grade D- experience?

I can only conclude that it's because Virgin Media know they're a monopoly and discount the value of customer goodwill as a tool for revenue retention. If I want TV service that delivers certain channels I'm stuck with them — for legal reasons I can't erect a satellite dish, and there's no cable TV competition because Virgin Media is the rebranded spawn of the merger between Telewest and NTL, the former regional monopoly cablecos. To Virgin, technical support is not a profit centre — it's a constant grinding drain. Moreover, many faults are the result of transient glitches somewhere in their network. So if you can stall Joe Six-Pack for half an hour, four times out of five his problem will resolve itself. So they deliberately make it hard to get in touch, milk the customers for the interconnect fees when they call, outsource the call handling side of the operation to the lowest (overseas) bidder, and farm out the maintenance jobs at piece-work rates to small independent contractors (thus making them a monopsony, and driving down the cost of doing maintenance further, at the expense of said local contractors).

Apple don't behave as if they're a monopoly, because until very recently they weren't. Apple was primarily a computer company until 2003, and a struggling one at that. They nearly went bust in 1997, and the horror years of the early 1990s aren't out of institutional memory. When you're trying to build up from a 2% market share in a sector where customers replace their kit every 2-5 years, it's vital to avoid pissing them off sufficiently that they start looking at the competition (especially if you're selling your own goods at a premium price). AppleCare support in the early noughties was almost desperately eager to please. For example, there was the year when I burned out three keyboards on an iBook G3. I'd phone up AppleCare, give them my credit card number as a deposit, and they'd ship me a replacement keyboard by courier with next day delivery. (The deposit was waived if I shipped the old keyboard back in the box provided — uplift was free.) The third time I did this, the support guy asked why. "I'm an author," I said. "Oh, fine." And a new keyboard turned up on my doorstep the next morning. Even today, the general quality of after-sales technical support from Apple rivals the best in the personal computer business.

Final observation: today's monopoly status can be as lost as easily as it was gained. Virgin Media have a monopoly on cable TV in the UK ... but there are rivals; Sky for satellite TV (if you live in an area where satellite dishes are permitted), digital terrestrial TV, and BT have upgraded their phone network to the point where TV-over-ADSL services such as BT Vision become practical. The instant I can get the channels this household needs from some organization other than Virgin I will be out of that contract. And all because they stuck after-sales technical support in the wrong column of the balance sheet — as a liability, rather than an infrastructure investment.



You have my sympathies, I was on Virgin Cable when they took over from NTL. When I phoned up to complain about the hideous picture quality and regular breakdowns they told me that they didn't operate cable in my area and I should phone someone else. The bills for Virgin Cable kept arriving though, in red when I stopped paying for the service Virgin told me they weren't operating.

Virgin are buttock-clenchingly terrible at everything with the exception of their airline which is merely only dreadful. Customer service in Virgin is an afterthought. Once you get beyond paying for something they really don't care about you.

Virgin exists solely to extract as much money from customers as possible (sometime with huge government subsidies - think Virgin Rail or Virgin Money (ex. Northern Rock)) and divert it to the offshore, tax-exempt bank account of that convicted tax evader Richard Branson.

I honestly can't work out why Branson's been given such an easy ride by the press - especially in the US. Is it the smile?


Hmm, quiet round here.

Virgin Media suck. Big time. The only time I found them even remotely responsive was when I ditched them, and even then they were patronising as hell.

As a father of 2.9 children in an 8-6 job, my requirements for channels beyond freeview are minimal as I have almost no truly free time (plus: sports, meh; movie rentals through PS3).


I don't think it's about monopoly. Most customer service experiences fall somewhere between frustrating and atrocious. The standout here is not Virgin but Apple, and in Apple's case I think it goes to something quite fundamental.

In my opinion, pretty much for all of its Jobs years ever since its founding, Apple functioned with a very simple purpose – create products that Jobs (and, ostensibly, other Apple employees) would enjoy using. And this extended beyond the device to every part of the offering – retail, marketing, support, etc. Most companies never take this approach (off the top of my head, I would add The Economist and Tesla Motors to Apple, but few others) – most senior management would never dream of using their own products, the occasional photo-op aside. For most companies, the approach is more of one "how do we best make the tradeoff between revenues and costs, in whatever business we happen to find ourselves in?" For Apple, on the other hand, the approach is much closer to "how do we profitably make these devices we want to make for ourselves?"

Under the first approach, it is no surprise that customer support suffers – it is quite a big expense to maintain, but typically happens rarely enough and a long enough time away from the purchasing/consecutive purchasing decisions not to make too huge of an impact on revenues. Under the second approach, poor customer support is intolerable.


Watch out! If the machines are revolting then that Virgin TV "engineer" might be one of them and he might be coming over to turn you into nutrient soup to feed their bio-droids.

On the other hand I'm sure that you can put your entire trust in Apple. They could never fake a duo like the two Steves.


Ah...Virgin technical support. My building had its "Virgin box" (sounds more exciting than it is) vandalised, I had no internet or landline (in a flat with a poor mobile signal) and it was clearly a problem outside my flat.

Before they would send out an engineer they needed telling that I had tried the landline with a non-cordless, dumb telephone. I ended up having to buy one of these (a day later) to convince them that it really was their problem.

They were good at customer service once though: when I rang up to tell them I was leaving. Too late by then.


This is partly why I'm less than confident my augmented reality specs will be a game changer: apart from having to focus on words that will distract me at critical moments (as does sneezing while driving) I don't trust that they'll work much more than a year out the box, which will deny me their utility for the time it takes to get the regional-monopolist provider to service my needs.

You've reminded me, though, of how I had to convince my dad to return to a corded phone. ("Dad, you run a business from home, and the cordless cuts out regularly, picks up weird noises in the background--such as your Golden Retriever barking--and you can barely hear your caller from it: this is not professional. A desk-side basic-issue phone is your baby.")


Oh goody, a Virgin Media rant thread :-)

While my experience has not been quite as bad as Charlie's, there was the time when VM were pushing video on demand services (pause live TV, iPlayer and so on), advertising them all over the place. We weren't getting them so I called up to ask why not, and was told that there were some issues in our area, but that it should be working in a week or two. Wait a few months, repeat. Still a couple of weeks away. Wait a few months, repeat. Apparently VoD is like nuclear fusion, always due at some point in the future. At this point I did a bit of searching online, and found a UK cable TV forum (not affiliated to VM). It was there that I found out what the "issue" with the VoD service in my area was: VM had only just got planning permission to build the local node for their CDN....


I am still wondering how any hardware-company can afford to skimp on support, seeing as I and all my friends will know in detail if they do so, and will lose a big chunk of money in the long run.

And on the other hand, I have had a motherboard replaced in a MacBook Pro (2005) more than a year after warranty ran out, for free (waived ~800 EUR bill). Guess a which company I shop at least once a year for computer things? It's the one that doesn't screw me over if their hardware breaks.

I still regret picking the WD Live instead of an Apple TV.


My parents recently bought a new-build flat, which came pre-wired by Virgin with their cable. Unfortunately that was all it came wired for - they had "forgotten" to install any normal TV antennas.
If they had been given the choice, they probably would have signed up for Virgin internet and cable tv - but by trying to leave them with no choice Virgin just annoyed them into buying a set-top antenna and getting ADSL instead...


A great rant.

All of my experience with Virgin has been bad:

Virgin Media: cannot wait to leave, constant phone calls from them to buy a mobile, that appalling TV advert for the TiVo service ("I watch footy, she watches 'er stuff, she ain't recording over my stuff")
Virgin Trains: Still smell of sewage
Virgin Books: From personal experience, an abysmal company.

And here I am, holding a Virgin Galactic business card ("Astronaut Relations Executive"), that features a photograph of the actual Iris of the employee's eye...


Somewhere on Usenet a few years ago is a thread of mine entitled: "NTL is shit"
However, I have just returned to Virgin now they have fibre and I get a real 20Mb/s and so far no hassle. Fiona, OTOH, has had issues with their new superModem or whatever its called ie the wifi throughput was about 50kb/s - shit. Turns out that it has this superduper default setting for wifi to make it run at 340Mb/s, which doesn't work. So I changed it (IIRC) about 50Mb/s and I actually get that. Problem solved.


Next time, press the 'I'd like to leave Virgin' option - I just mentioned I was going to go for Sky+ and suddenly they could provide me with a new V+ box and installation and 6 months loyalty discount.

(These days, that would be a new TiVo).

Probably less hassle than trying to get support.

I'd have to say that my experiences haven't been so bad (including the embarrassing one where mid-call I realised the Internets was broken because one of the cats had been in the cupboard and attacked the router) - and perhaps more to the point, everything I've heard about Sky from friends and family has been far far worse.

Plus I like my cable broadband - the minimum package is at least consistently good enough to watch streaming TV, which strikes me as better than fast-but-flaky.

As an aside - this was something I brought up last week when the usual Tory culprits at work were banging on about how we should just privatise the public sector. Have they never been to a shop (especially Currys/PC World/etc), phoned a call centre, or dealt with a delivery company?
Just can't understand where the idea comes from that the private sector automatically delivers better service comes from, when in so many cases it doesn't. Even in competitive industries - although of course the answer is they compete on price, not service.


Virgin Media are truly horrible to deal with, and you have my sympathies. I've got the 100Mbps broadband (because good luck getting anywhere near those speeds on ADSL2+, and good luck getting it truly unlimited - I push and pull close to a terabyte or two of data a month without issue, which is nice, I suppose) - but trying to get them to comprehend that issues exist in their network is tricky. And by tricky, I mean impossible. I eventually, after three engineer visits, got visited by a senior engineer and his trainee (who was not impressive - I corrected him on basic RF stuff that he'd supposedly been trained on, much to the senior guy's amusement). That chap replaced -everything- down from the cabinet, and went through all the hoops "So that networks can't just ignore it and blame it on something in the house". They still did - I'm using their Super Hub in Modem Mode, with a Mikrotik 450G router (680Mhz processor, with gigabit throughput capability), which of course translates to "broken router" in their speak. I still only get 70-80Mbps throughput most of the time, with some seriously variable latency, and had a 4 day outage due to a failed piece of hardware in their Addlestone facility for which they had no spares or standbys.

I've gotten very good at negotiating their phone system. If you have them for phone service (required for broadband, though I have their "no inclusive anything" phone package), then calls to their support number are free. 1, wait 5 seconds, 2, 3, wait 5, 2, password, human!


The history looks complicated, but Virgin Media isn't part of Richard Branson's business. They just paid him rather a lot of money to use the Virgin name for the whole business, rather than the "Virgin" bits alone. NTL and Telewest were financially precarious cable TV companies, which merged with each other, and then acquired some Virgin components.

Bad customer service has been a problem on the cable-TV side almost since the beginning.


Here in the Camberley area Virgin, formerly NTL, formerly Cabletel
don't have enough "head-end" servers to deliver video on demand,
especially HD. This has been in the same state for about 3 years now.
They don't seem to be capable of improving their infrastructure.

a) Order movie
b) Receive magic 9120 error - or a new error code for TiVo
c) Rinse-repeat - either until 3am when the movie will play or fed-up
d) Fed-up: Call customer support
e) Enjoy 90 seconds of idiotic messages blaming you for the problem
f) Listen to cheerful sexy young woman offering call menu
g) Foolishly attempt to pre-dial the 12 digit code for the menu tree
h) Virgin ignores your attempt to re-claim 5 minutes of your life
i) Doggedly navigate the tree
j) Explain situation to india call-centre who won' beleive
1) This happens all of the time
2) It is Virgin's fault
k) Wait for pointless diagnostics
z) Obtain refund for movie.

You can drive into town, park and hire a blu-ray in less time.


Like you i've been with VirginMedia since The Olden Days when everything was brown and cable modems were wierd monolithic boxes. Of course they were called NTL then and the advistisment assured us that a cockney gangster type only wanted first bat and was otherwise going to make your digital life wonderful.

As a result I've run afoul of the godawful customer services of NTL and VM several times. Since I lived down the road from thier UK headquaters and originally dealt with the cs agents stationed there I can categorically state that it was as bad when they were in the UK as when they shifted cs to India.

Whats been puzzling to me is the rather strange attitude account managment they use, witness:

I have a collection of modems of varying ages from several installs. This is of limited use, primarily when moving into a new place, sadly they only work between contracts. When the previous occupants account is deactivated the line is still live. You can screw in any old VM/NTL modem and get internets, I had assumed this was due to the previous account being live, apparently not so. There's a problem if the old account is still live.

When your new account gets activated, a nice person comes round and fits some stuff, attaches beeping devices to the coaxial then a new modem then he sits on hold for 20minutes to VM's activation line. Finally he says you have internet and goes on his way. All is well. Then they deactivate the previous account holders account and it all goes to fucking balls.

What actually happened was that the process of activating the account did not implicitly close the old account. When the old account was closed they shutdown the line and remotely deactivated the modem and disassociated the MAC address from thier records. My new modem. My bloody broadband.

I (used to) work on call quite a lot I also live in an Internet Household, we can do without broadband rather less well than say, hot water.

Much calling of the technical desk later (with the trials that Charlie describes) they mumbled some excuse about the phone line not being done properly and very sorry and they'd fix it next week. I did the not good enough bit and simply kept on calling. I eventaully got through to some smart person on the first line who asked me to plug in a modem, any modem, and promptly reactivated my account, associated the MAC address and all was good. Albeit running on a modem I'd acquired two houses back.

Three days later they shut it down again. Rinse, repeat.

To my astonishment later they agreed to and did not charge us any fees for the next two months until the phone line was fixed (it had never worked).


Once, I had become so skillful in navigating the phone tree of my original cable service provider (to arrive at the second tier of technical support), I was reluctant to switch to a new service when a competitor finally arrived.


So I legged it to the kitchen, and the sole wired landline in the house ... and managed to scoop up the Hello Kitty phone

Pictures or it didn't happen.


Pictures or it didn't happen.

Be careful what you wish for!

In my defense, I'd just like to say that I'm married to a Hello Kitty fan.

(Yes, Kitty's wand flashes when there's an incoming call.)


Bravo, that's a fine rant and I can practically taste the bile.


Priceless :)

(And yes, that there must be an abundance of Hello Kitty somewhere in your general vicinity was clear since I read Accelerando.)


"They just paid him rather a lot of money to use the Virgin name for the whole business, rather than the "Virgin" bits alone."

If they rent their brand, they rent their reputation, at least in my book.


Not 100% on this but I thought Branson's model was to create a company, run until it looked saleable and then sell the brand, company and assets to some other party.


I should probably blog about this, but...

the thing about VMED is that the service is dreadful, but when it's working, it is the national broadband provider. I don't consider anything using BT's local loop to be "broadband". I know that, in theory, ADSL2+ and VDSL can be acceptable. This implies that the copper infrastructure gets maintained.

It does not. Hence I went through two years of 10Kbps uplink/50-100Kbps downlink in north London (and worse before I tore apart the internal wiring and rewired it), even though I was paying silly money to a fancy boutique ISP (Bogons Ltd). Who, by the way, spent 18 months failing to open a ticket with BT Openreach to check the exchange end of the link and accusing me of either not knowing the difference between bits and bytes, or else not being able to multiply by 8.

This is an especially bad problem anywhere there are a lot of flats, because BT seems to struggle to deal with more than one copper line per building. (I took to photographing horrible BT installs for my flickr account.) In my new area, I didn't even bother asking having had a look around at the flapping bights of cable and bits of rotting equipment.

Eventually I cracked and moved to VMED. This seemed a great idea until I had to move house.

Their call centre denied that there was cable in my new street, although the postcode lookup on the Web site claimed there was. Further, they needed convincing that the address existed. Oh, they also asked for a password that could have been one of three different ones, wanted to remote-reset the password on my router, and offered to *tell me the password*.

(Generally, their call centre couldn't have been worse - idiotic IVR design, hideously bad authentication, security fail, poor English, awful call quality, interminable queues.)

They did let slip that there were three other customers in the building, but still denied that there was cable (presumably reasoning that they were all on ADSL).

They booked, without asking, a BT Openreach installer to set up ADSL.

Eventually, after four support calls, a field service engineer showed up at my flat and took note that it existed, confirmed that cable infrastructure was present (in fact, in all the other three flats), and sketched a cable route. He advised me to not answer the door to the Openreach technician (!) and pretend I wasn't there if he phoned (!!) because a missed appointment was the easiest way to kill the DSL install ticket (!!!), and said that a crew with a ladder would be booked.

On the appointed day - having in the meantime burned through a GB of cellular data in three days and gone to a friend in West Kensington to take a Skype video call - the installer turned up, without a ladder, alone, without any record of the survey. Cue waiting around for the cabling team with the ladder to show up.

In all, it took three weeks from the first call to have the link working.



Two data points.

1. I live 500 metres from a BT exchange in a city centre, so I've got reasonably decent throughput over a reasonably well-maintained wire via Be Unlimited; static IP address, 16mbps down/2mbps up (which suits me a lot better than an alleged 50mbps down/0.25mbps up with a 50:1 contention ratio).

2. The Virgin contract engineer who just showed up swapped out the V+ box and had the replacement up and running with no hesitation. Turns out it's a known hardware fault and they've swapped out 4000 of the things in Edinburgh alone ... but does that short-circuit the phone tree nonsense? Does it hell.


I've enjoyed most of your books and am a big fan. I have thought that humour was your weak side until I read this and now take back everything I've thought about you in that department.

Great rant :)


"(Yes, Kitty's wand flashes when there's an incoming call.)"

I assume that's so deaf people know the phone's ringing and can then take the call.


Makes you wonder what Virgin's space tourism business will be like in 20 years... ;)

Scene is a rather dingy, pilotless vehicle, reminiscent of Eastern Airlines under Frank Lorenzo. The vehicle has reached apogee, but as a passenger you can hardly see the view as the windows are scratched to near opaqueness. Barf bags are unavailable for the couple of passengers violently throwing up in the nearly zero-g conditions.
It finally dawns on you that the re-entry configuration has failed and the vehicle is unstably plummeting to earth. You grab the emergency phone and and call customer service...

The rant was so well written, I hope some version of it ends up in a future Laundry novel.


DON'T HAVE or GET TV - simples.
I don't.

I tried to get broadband phone-connection when they wired our street years, ago.
I could ONLY get it with TV.
Usless tossers.
I now routinely send V promo mail back, "with both "Sender pays" scarwled on it, plus rude messages.
They're still sending me stuff!


Be careful what you wish for!

Now I have to pour acid into my eyes!


I once had a Virgin support person try to tell me that a freshly developed problem with my internet connection was due to me using a Mac - because Mac's "weren't compatible" with their (802.11b) WiFi routers. *facepalm* I eventually had to tell the guy he was wasting my time & hang up. I called back later (after a few deep breaths) and got someone more clueful, who realised that it was a problem at their end and it all got sorted, but what a frustrating experience!


Totally off-topic here Charlie, but why doesn't The Laundry issue everyone a small wire cutters for paperclips? That way when a Laundry employee must put papers together, s/he cuts off a small bit of paperclip making it not-identical to all the other paperclips, thus short-circuiting simultaneity and contagion? The wire cutters could even be connected to a low-voltage degaussing rig.


I am surprised that you are willing to tolerate this. Why do you still need cable at all? Why not just watch what you want to watch online? Andrea and I got rid of our cable years ago, and we're still doing fine, although since we are no longer so closely tied into the normalization machine, our political views have drifted a bit.

it is the national broadband provider.

Hardly. They are forever advertising faster speeds, and I periodically check what they can offer me. All the can offer at my location is ADSL over a BT line.

I live in Streatham in south London which is hardly the sticks.

This is a continuation of a long history of similar nonsense from VM, NTL and predecessor companies. They advertise the world and fail to deliver. They couldn't give me digital TV so I moved to Sky, they couldn't give me decent broadband so I went with Zen.

Absolute rubbish


I would like to be a voice of dissent, I have been with Virgin Media for about 3 years, having moved house once in that period.

The couple of times I have had to dial for customer service have been fairly smooth (It's free from a virgin landline) and problems have been sorted promptly. And they offer a very reasonable international call package for dialling the USA for the wife's family.

The V+ box is great for recording TV etc. and offer more stations than I could conceivably use.

The broadband is truly broad, and in the lower packages the throttling during the day for high volume users seems fair to me (I work from home, so appreciate it during the day).

Certainly better than the customer service I have ever had from T-Mobile very recently or when I lived in Hull Kingston Comms (who have a true monopoly on all telephonics).


Other detail: apparently the problem with my address was that the database was inherited from NTWest or TeleL and hasn't been updated since the 1990s.

I just did a few speed tests, btw - I'm getting 30-odd Mbps down and 4.5 up.


Certainly better than the customer service I have ever had from T-Mobile very recently or when I lived in Hull Kingston Comms

You know that Kingston Comms are notoriously bad? And T-Mobile are the worst of the mobile operators I've used. (Sacked due to no signal at home ... less than 500 metres from the milestone marking the official centre of a capital city).

I sacked Virgin for phone and broadband years ago and haven't looked back. I'm not re-upping for phone because, well, £120/year is a lot to pay for free tech support calls, and that's all I can envisage using it for.


Had the same prob with one of our 4S right out of the box. Brought it in and got a replacement, but a couple more things to try in the meanwhile, if you haven't already: 1) disable Siri's "raise to speak" (I suspect accelerometer foul-play) 2) disable Siri completely. YMMV; didn't work for me, but did for others.

Love the Hello Kitty phone pic!


The paperclip fix is in a Laundry business process transformation project team's queue. Has been since 1973.

(It's the Laundry, after all.)


Another happy BE customer here, CS... Can't fault the service and while it's a bit slow compared to the Virgin top speeds, it does 'just work' :)

That said, when I was living in a Cabled area in Newcastle, it was still Telewest providing and they were good as gold - barely any outages and the techs on the phones were knowledgeable and helpful... I moved out to a non-cabled street shortly after the Virgin buyout, which was probably just for the best on reflection :o

My folks were on NTL at the same time, and they were by all accounts godawful.


AIUI the level of service you get from VM depends an awful lot on whether your pre-merger cableco was NTL (bad) or Telewest (good). My Dad lived in an ex-NTL area and had piss-poor service and bailed. We lived in an ex-Telewest area and the service was mostly rock-solid: the worst problems we had in seven years were occasional problems accessing VOD and a nearby lightning strike taking out our cable modem.

It certainly is the case that "Virgin" is mostly just a brand. I believe the Bearded One still mostly owns Virgin Atlantic, but Virgin Trains are majority owned by the Evil-That-Is-Stagecoach-Group, and I think Beardie's stake in Virgin Media is pretty minimal, just a few %.


Where I live cable never came, and never will.

BT 'Infinity' fibre to the home is probably years away. This isn't because we are in the back of beyond. It is an accident of history that our immediate area is served from a little village sub-exchange far out of sight of the house whereas the several quite large office buildings and commercial/light industrial units I can actually see from the bedroom and could probably spit at with the wind in the right direction are served from a big urban exchange and get all the goodies imaginable.

I'm just hanging out for someone to solve the causality issues associated with quantum entanglement so I can get infinite bandwidth wherever in the universe I happen to be.


Ah, so what I take from this is that my local cable company (doesn't matter which, really, they're all equally pathetic in the U.S.) is World Class. I'm happier without them.


A good and justifiable rant, but I'm not sure I agree that VM are that bad solely because they are a monopoly - they are that bad because everyone else (other than apple who don't compete in the same business) is on a par with them as far as customer service goes and so there is no "better" place for customers to vote with their feet in favour of.

As an example, if you think Virgin are bad, here's a (not so) short summary of my recent sky experience:

* Internet breaks down, ceases to function, is dead as the proverbial parrot

* Being keen to get it working again, and a networking expert I troubleshoot to the limits of my abilities/access rights/equipment limitations
- I swap out every piece of equipment, every cable, every micro filter, every computer, etc, reset the router, hard reset it, plug it into the test socket, check with neighbours that theirs is still working, etc, etc

* Conceding defeat I phone support and pay premium rates for the privilege of spending minutes slogging through interminable menus and helpful messages about how I can log my issue online if I'd rather

* I then spend another 50 minutes persuading the 1st line support person that I had done every check they were asking me to carry out and very patiently also dong it again to humour them.... all at my expense

* They conclude I am right, it's either their router or their (or BT's) line and say unfortunately second line support went home 15 minutes ago so I will need to wait for a call back, which they assure me will be within 48 hours

* I wait...and wait...

* just under 48 hours later (because I am sure as hell not going to be caught by the "they've just gone home again" catch) I call again, spend the mandatory 5-10 minutes navigating their system, wait for another 15 to be put through, spend 5 minutes telling them I NEED internet to work and their call hasn't come and I want an update (all at my expense on a 12ppm phoneline again), and they then put me through to second line support again saying the wait may be up to 6 minutes and am I happy to wait?

* I wait... and wait... 45 minutes later I FINALLY get through to someone who can run a line test that I haven't already done

* They tell me that I shouldn't have been promised 48 hour resolution and that I may have to wait a bit longer as the actual max duration of call resolution is 72 hours

* I decline to wait, mentioning I am disabled and work from home and for a variety of reasons the internet is my lifeline, not to mention how I've already been waiting on this call alone for over an hour and paying for about an hour and a half of minutes when you take the talking into account

* They offer to call me back, nice thought, but I NEED my internet now and don't trust them not to "file" my support ticket until another day

* They run the tests, which take all of about 10 minutes, and work out what the problem is

* They tell me it will take up to 5 DAYS to fix and that I will need to pay for it to be done

* I confess to going a wee bit mental at this point, and refusing to pay to have repairs done to enable me to receive a service that I am PAYING them a not insignificant sum to be able to receive already, and that having waited 2 days already, and having probably paid them as much for the phone calls as they want to charge me for the visit DESPITE me having already done all the initial troubleshooting for them and the fault being one of the two possibilities I suggested on the very first call, they damn well ought to be able to do it next day, and how does 5 additional days enable it to fall within even their extended 72 hour resolution target?

* I'm reduced to threatening to leave them, upon hearing which they suddenly cave in and promise it for free, next day.

Needless to say it doesn't happen the next day, but three long days later, but at least (to my knowledge) they haven't charged me for it and it does now work again... although I still only get laughable levels of bandwidth at even non-peak times and if Virgin were allowed to lay cable in my road I would move to them in a heartbeat, solely for the cable internet speeds that would allow!


Yes, Apple has good technical support. I still don't use it.

The reason is pretty simple. I read the EULAs. In a security upgrade to the Mac OSX a few years ago they slipped a line that said (paraphrasing) "We have the right to add, remove, modify, or copy any file on your computer." It wasn't limited as to the purpose for which they could use the information.

It's true that I haven't heard of them abusing the right they demanded, but it's also true that at that point I disconnected my Mac from the internet, so that it would be secure without the upgrade. And I haven't bought one since.

OTOH, I'm a Linux user. MS is worse than Apple. (Apple copied the language from MS.)

Still, now that Jobs is no longer in charge at Apple, you can expect Apple to revert to standard corporate behavior, as it did under Scully. Jobs was someone who was quite unusual as a corporate manager...someone who wanted excellence, possibly even more than profit. As a long term strategy this is good, even though it causes many short term problems. But it is highly dependent on strong support from the very top.


And I thought Concast was bad...

You really shouldn't waste this stuff on a blog; smeone out there would pay you for it...but you already know that.


#19: Having met your wife she didn't strike me as the "Hello Kitty" type. Oh well, we all have tastes we don't normally care to advertise.


"Just can't understand where the idea comes from that the private sector automatically delivers better service comes from, when in so many cases it doesn't. Even in competitive industries - although of course the answer is they compete on price, not service."

It makes more sense when you realize that the real goal is to loot the system, and lock in monopolies.

All else is propaganda.


You might be able to set up a directional wifi link to somewhere on that estate.


I have an iPhone 4, not a 4S. No siri.


<annoyed>Take a yellow card: this is the Virgin Media bashing thread, not the Apple bashing blog. The door is thataway. </annoyed>


"(Yes, Kitty's wand flashes when there's an incoming call.)"

I assume that's so deaf people know the phone's ringing and can then take the call.

Something like this, you mean?

Hearing is not just an on/off affair. There are a lot of hearing disabilities, and for many people having a flash telling when the phone rings is good. They can then use for example the amplifier on the phone or even the induction transmitter on the phone to hear the sounds through that in their hearing aid (or cochlear implant) instead of having to go through the error-prone air channel.

Also the people living with a hearing impaired person might appreciate if the phone isn't unbearably loud.

I'm not saying that even this justifies the Hello Kitty phone. On the other hand, my daughter expressed interest in that kind of phone and was disappointed to hear we don't have a landline anymore.

Sorry, I just have deaf people close to me, and I get annoyed when other people don't realize that many seemingly ridiculous things are really useful.

Once, in a stand-up act, the comedian made a joke about the emergency number soon taking in sms's in addition to calls, because the youngsters just sms all the time. I had to heckle that this very service is now being considered here (in Finland) and many people really want it to happen.

Sorry, I just


Hm, my previous entry was somehow mangled. I blame the baby in my lap.

To be more on topic, I haven't any experience with Virgin, but at the previous apartment we lived in we had some trouble with the internet connection.

We rented the apartment. The houses were built by a company which rented them, and they provided an internet connection included in the rent. They also provided a contact number for the company really responsible for the connection. They might have been even the same company, this was over five years ago so I'm hazy on the details.

Both the company owning the apartments and the internet provider were in an another city in Finland. When the connection went down, I called the ISP. After some, not unreasonable, waiting I got through to the service, but they only told me that they subcontract the service at our houses to an another company.

I called that company the next day, and they told me that they, in turn, subcontract the service to a third company. I got the number for that.

Only, I couldn't reach that company. Some days later I finally got through and it turns out that this company was a one-man thing, and the guy was quite busy. He listened to the problem, but it still took him a bit more than a week to repair it.

I thought that not having an internet connection for almost two weeks was a bit much, but as I wasn't the one getting the bills, I called the local manager in the renting company. I told them that they perhaps could ask for better service, being that they pay for the connection and all.

The guy there basically told me not to complain because "the internet connection is free" and got angry when I tried to explain that even when it's included in the rent, it's not free. I asked if they could consider changing the ISP or something.

After a couple of months, the housing company told the residents that the free internet is going away "because of complaints".

I even asked for a lower rent, but, again, "the internet was free".


Well, there's being a Hello Kitty type, and then there's being an Ironic Hello Kitty type.

(And oops, I think that horrible weather has tried to follow her. It's suddenly become extremely unpleasant down this end of the country. It could be interesting in .NL soon.)


And here I've just been dealing with the minor annoyances of the installation of buried fiber optic cable up and down the street for a new broadband system for the entire city. Fortunately, they've moved the trencher and I can get the car out now to go to a medical appointment (the workers were very accommodating).

Broadband 45d/5u will be $14.95US a month starting in February, through the city. That is, four months before I move 3000km...


WAIT, you watch TV?

WAIT WAIT, most people in this thread DO??

I feel like I've woken up in an alternate timeline.


Ahh .. good old Virgin. Never was I so satisfied as to when I told them to go F themselves even though it cost me a 140 quid for a BT line install (and giving BT money hurts even worse as any one who lives in the UK knows).

* I was always on the top tier package (starting at 10 mb/s) having been a customer of 10 years standing, yet never once did my download speed go over 1.2 mb/s (despite being advertised at 50). After the 15th (count em) call like Charlie describes I just gave up. Installed ADSL, 2.2 MB/S rock solid. It's also 30 quid a month cheaper ..
* On three occasions they were the only UK ISP to lose peering to a online service I used (an MMO as it happens) for days. Despite a 200 hundred page thread every time it happened, they insisted it was the other partie's fault. This was particularly priceless the third time. Apparently they don't rent enough space in the big building down in London that handles international peering (the name escapes me).
* Upon leaving them I am continually (weekly) bombarded with mailings offering me their previous level of service at 1/3 the price. They could offer it for free and I would still see it as a *cost* to me.

PS. I live in Edinburgh too.


I know Who the weather is following. It's Fluff the Plush Cthulhu!


Monopoly mindsets are certainly part of the problem. We (in ever-lovely suburban New Jersey) started getting much better customer support from our cable company ever since the local telco deployed a fiber-to-the-home (for phone, Internet, and TV) service. Sometimes, though, I think it's more complicated.

Customer support costs money. It costs a *lot* of money, and some of the premium that you pay to Apple for their products covers things like the Genius Bar. There are many companies that feel they make more money by eschewing the profit they'd make on some small percentage of "demanding" customers, and making it back and then some on people who look and care only about the initial price. (Think about (but avoid tasting, if you possibly can) mass market American "beer".)

I've occasionally had to lie to Tier 1 droids who are just following the scripts. Once, my phone line started busy-forwarding to /dev/null: if I was on the phone, inbound callers just received a ringback signal, so they wondered why I was never home. Clearly, there's no possible way that could be an on-premises problem, but when I called it in I got "when will you be home, sir?" I tried explaining that that was relevant; her script insisted that she get an answer. I finally said "Wednesday afternoon", knowing that when it got to engineering no one was going to roll a truck.

Then there was the time I had really lousy IP performance. I did enough traceroutes and pings that I had identified the failing link: I was seeing 5-20% packet loss and 4-90% packet duplication. Tier 1 support told me to clear my Internet Explorer cache. I demurred; he insisted that that was probably the problem, and told me that 20% packet loss was pretty good. I asked to speak to his supervisor; he, in turn, complained about me to his management, which got escalated up the chain to some high-level suit who was going to complain about me to my management. This guy, though, Googled me first, and concluded that maybe I did know something about the Internet. The packet loss went away within 24 hours; the duplication took longer, and even my back channels to Engineering weren't willing to say more than "it was a weird one".


How long before tech helplines are being "manned" by a combination of Watson and Siri?


I watch very little TV.

However, I am not the only person in this household.


I'd second this, choose the "I'd like to leave Virgin" option and you'll be put straight through to a UK call centre staffed by impressively servile individuals who'll bend over backwards to keep your custom and offer large "special offer" discounts to your bill at the same time.


I have to say, as an old NTL customer, now Virgin, on the occasions I've had to ring their customer service (either of them) I've generally been reasonably well treated. It helps that I apparently have "Bolshy, Mac Owner, Knows what she's doing" flagged in big letter on the top of my account details since the NTL days - the supervisor that wrote it there told me he was doing so and my experiences have improved ever since. I'm pretty sure it's still there, because occasionally I get someone who says "Are you still on a Mac? Let me transfer you to someone that knows more about them then," which I never object to!

But perhaps, as well, my opinion is based on the fact that I find VM slightly better than typical. Better than BT, GNER, Eurostar, Sky and a plethora of others that I've had to deal with several times over the same period. On a par with Adobe, who were a pain about some things but finally did the right thing with my copy of PS that they'd issued with a duff activation key via the Apple store.

Apple, OTOH, and way back when Virgin was a high street Megastore and music business, their processes, were and are much better than anyone else. Virgin's no fuss money back I tested once or twice, and it worked as advertised. Apple, on the few (I think 3 occasions) I've had to phone them have always been wonderful, both with sorting the problem and explaining the options when that's mattered - I'm on my second iPad because one crashed and burned when updating and the choices about how much I paid to get a new one out were rather important.

As a generalised rant about the paucity of customer service I agree. Apple are brilliant, Virgin could be and should be lots better - but I don't think it's a monopoly thing, I think they're slightly better than average, it's just the average standard is terrible.


A good and justifiable rant, but I'm not sure I agree that VM are that bad solely because they are a monopoly

Not solely. But it is usually a big factor. Here in the eastern US (where I know a little) both Verizon and AT&T have started offering much higher speed internet than DSL speeds along with TV services. AT&T calls it U-Verse and Verizon's deal is FIOS. Both have basically decided to replace most of their copper with fiber. AT&T to the neighborhood. Verizon to the house.

Since that started both Time Warner cable and Comcast have gone from truly abysmal (at times worse that Charlie's rant) to just mediocre. I've talked to AT&T several times about U-Verse but after 2 or 3 years they are just now getting to the point where you can ask technical pre-sales questions and maybe get an answer to matches to the question. Things like static IPs and reverse DNS settings if I want to run a mail server.

One trick on this side of the water is to call AT&T between 2 and 4 am so you get to talk to techs located in the US and they can switch you to a higher level without making you format your hard drive and reinstall the OS when you can't reach Google.

I still have an outstanding beef with TWC about them ending my 1 year promo rate after 6 months. After many calls to various departments I was finally told that TWC (at the time) did not offer 1 year promos on DVR setups. I've since found a printout I made of the ad and online signups and need to get back with them to get my discounted rate. But I keep putting it off as I really don't want to deal with the phone tree and 5 conversations per call where the 1st four have to hear the full story before them bump me up a level.

As to Comcast when we had to move my mother in law out of her townhouse and take care of things for her I called them and asked what I needed to close down her account. They said a letter signed by her authorizing me. When a few days later I got to the "store" an hour away with her boxes they said they could not help me as since my IDs did not match the service address they would also need a photo ID of her to go with the letter. They also said would not have been an issue if I was listed on the account. This was Maryland. She was by then in Texas. So I went outside and made some calls to Texas and got myself listed on the account. Went back inside and they said "no, since we've seen you this might just all be a trick". So that night a phone camera was used to take a picture of her drivers license, send it to me in Maryland where I printed it out and then made another one hour one way trip to have the pleasure of dealing with them again.


WAIT WAIT, most people in this thread DO??

TV in the US has some decent shows. But most of them, in my opinion, are not on the big 3 "free" networks. So over the air is an issue. And then there's college football and basketball. Sorry but I grew up on such things and really get into it. And as I understand things, most folks in the EU just don't get high school sports and bands or college sports in the US. Too bad. :)

And as Charlie mentioned. If you have more than one person in a household, there can be other requirements.

Of course without a TiVo (or Time Warner DVR as a distant 2nd choice) I would not have cable. No one in my house watches much of anything "live" anymore.


I remember the call to the phone company when trying to setup my WiFi router with their ADSL. We were mostly Mac then, and after the fourth time being told they didn't offer any support for any Apple products I finally said "O.K., I understand you don't support Macs. Now will you tell me what settings I would use if you did?" There was a 30 second silence, followed by the correct settings.


I agree that the origin of bad service policy is neither monopoly of services nor monopsony in the service chain. I live where there are 3 providers of broadband/TV services, Century-Link (just ate Qwest Communications, which was a descendant of US West, one of the Baby Bells that resulted from the breakup of the The Phone Company), ComCast (national cable company that is about 6 levels up the food chain from the local cable company that used serious negative feedback training techniques in the 1980's to convince me never to deal with a cable company), and Verizon (broadband arm of the eponymous mobile phone company that pushed me into the arms of AT&T with their horrible customer service). I am, like Charlie, a legacy customer at my broadband provider, Century-Link: I originally got DSL service from my landline provider, US West, in the late 1990's and have stayed with them for 2 reasons: 1) their customer service is marginally better than the alternatives1 and 2) I can't get any faster connection from the competition (and that's been the case for at least the last 5 years). Given that I've got a 7 Mb/s up and 700 Kb/s down ADSL connection that should tell you something about the willingness of the providers to build out infrastructure in our area.

I could go to 12 Mb/s up, but not to the full 20 that the company provides on copper, because I live in an older neighborhood, where the lines and equipment haven't been upgraded in a while. ComCast will sell me a "25 Mb/s" cable connection, but of course that's the capacity of the cable, not what a single subscriber will get. Both Century-Link and Verizon are installing high-speed fiber, but not in my neighborhood; I've been waiting for years now for the fiber. I suspect that Verizon is punishing the citizens of Portland for a suit that Portland brought against them to force them to allow their competitors access to their bandwidth, a suit that Portland lost. Verizon installed 50 Mb/s fiber in Hillsboro, a town of about 90,000 15 miles to the west of us at least 3 years ago. It helps to understand why they went to Hillsboro first when you know that it's the center of the Intel R&D organization and the location of several of Intel's fine-line fab plants, and there are somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 Intel employees living in Hillsboro and the surrounding communities, but it doesn't explain why Verizon still hasn't tried to get into the broadband market here on the west side of Portland.

So why is the service so bad, and the providers so slow to build up their infrastructure for competitive performance? As Charlie points out, service isn't a profit center, and infrastructure is a major drain of capital that doesn't pay back in the near term (next quarter; next year is well beyond the event horizon to modern corporate thinking). Especially since the very concept of loyalty between corporation and employee seems to have disappeared, no corporate manager is interested in anything that doesn't affect the next performance/salary review.

1. On two separate occasions when there were failures at or near my end of the line i was able to get a real support engineer on the phone, one who understood what a Macintosh was and could tell after 10 seconds of conversation that I was an engineer who knew what he was talking about (I'd probably been a computer engineer for longer than she'd been alive at the time of the conversation), and could figure out how to solve the problem without power-cycling every piece of hardware between us.


I should also share my Apple support story. I've got an iPhone 3GS that I bought a little over 2 years ago, with an AppleCare support package. It's now been replaced three times (that is, I'm on my 4th phone) for free. This despite that the first time I dropped it into water, and the third time I dropped it into a freshly-heated-in-the-microwave cup of coffee (both accidents, honest; I haven't been employed to do destructive testing in decades). The second time the SIM card connector failed, so that wasn't my fault at all.

Also, I've had major work done on my laptop under warranty; the DVD drive failed and it took replacement of all the electronics to fix the problem (the least likely component failed, so that was the last thing they tried). But I only lost 5 days of use, and that only because the failed component had to be shipped from California. Better than some auto repair I've had.


This does make me wonder if your host has ever had the pleasure of being able to say something along the lines of:
-"Hi I'm Charlie Stross world famous SF author"
-"Oh shit, give him everything he wants before he blogs about us/ writes us into his next novel as the baddies."


Just saw your tweet about the Glasgow tornado; obviously someone who doesn't like you is still far enough away that with speed-of-light lag they were working from the version of your schedule that'd have had you at the Apple store there then.


Amazon, which I know is not well loved here, always had fantastic technical support for me on the kindle. I'd seen this before, but it is always a marvel when you get to tell the CS department when they should call you. They also immediately replaced my kindle 2 three times for random problems.

Maybe that service is going to vanish as they get the e-book more entrenched.


I'm stuck with Virgin Media as the copper cables into my house are so old you can hear whatever is rotting them away as you speak down the phone.

Be Unlimited lasted about 2 days when on the 4th interruption to Six Music in three hours my wife announced that either I fixed the issue or I bought 4 DAB radios NOW. And while I've been told that the external phone wires need to be replaced Openworld have said the only way they will do so is if I "accidently" cut them.

As for customer services my advice is to use a very old fashioned phone without tone dialling. Granted you have to wait a couple of minutes as the system realises you can't answer the questions they are asking but you do seem to eventually reach a human beings who can actually help with both the issues you are calling about.


Amazon has a simple viewpoint.

The customer is always right - up to the point they decide they don't want you as a customer.

Granted their business practices are not the greatest. But for customer support they are far better than most other retailers.


>>>No, I haven't turned to astrology.
Maybe you should. You call It "revolt of the machines", some may say that people who don't believe in astrology/God/ancient ones/spirits or whatever they believe have a bad karma/end in hell/succomb to the revolt of the machines ...
As a SF author maybe you deserve it, somewher, somewhen the BIG BAD AI wants you dead ! Next time try writing fantasy and the gnomes will happily give you rivers of gold, glory and women (or not). (if not, try the angels, but some wait on line for millenia)


Your rant is very timely.

I was considering moving to Virgin because TalkTalk have taken over Pipex and my internet connection disappears quite freqently. Only for a short time on each occasion, but it's very irritating.

Having read your blog, however, I think I'll stick with the devil I know.

I wonder how many blog entries like yours it would take to damage Virgin's new business enough to justify real customer service? Would any of the suits in Virgin even be aware of it?


If you can get Virgin fibre it will probably be a good service. I have had no problems with mine and I get a solid 20Mb/s plus phone for £34 a month


I'm happy to learn that the Virgin TV engineer wasn't a disguised robot planning to turn you into nutrient soup for the bio-droid army.

One thing that surprises me is that old-fashioned, antiquated Britannia seems to have mired itself into unescapable modern phone tree hell.

In my supposedly newfangled country people who wish to avoid phone tree hell can do so by keeping their fingers off the buttons right at the start when the machine gives the first "press X or press Y or press Z" choice. The system then assumes that the caller has a rotary phone instead of touch-tone, and immediately routes the call to a human being. I've timed the transfer to a human several times. While it might seem like minutes long to somebody who is just waiting, without doing anything else, it was actually much less than a minute in all cases. The trick is to read something while waiting.


Sooner than we like to think.


@19 ... Mr Stross, you've nicked my pan lid


Satellite dish disguised as a chair:


Riiiight ... so that just requires a balcony to be built instead.


That sort of idiocy is not just Virgin.

OK, the people at these call centres are following a script. I infer from my experiences that the people writing the scripts are making stupid assumptions. For instance, routers are commonplace now, and a script shouldn't assume that the password for the ISP-access is found on the computer in a Windows dialogue box. (I had the guy _insisting_ that I changed the settings on my computer, rather than on the router.)


I have a feeling that the particular EULA clause would be unenforceable in Europe, because of our system of Data Protection Laws, on the grounds that it is requiring you to consent to an unlawful act.

The weasel-wording in Cable-TV advertising seems to be pushing the limits for legality too.

I remember, at the County Show, being told by an NTL salesman that their postcode list told me I could get service from them, so of course I could get Cable-TV. I suspect it was a list of where they could sell telephone service over the BT local loop.

There's no escape from the wide-boys and the shysters.


We're about to get a 20Mb leased line here at work, which will be through virgin business.
So far we've not had to deal with them, but I'll be interested to see if their business support is any better than their consumer support.
(Dell would be a good example of having fantastic business support in my experience, but apparently pretty crappy consumer support).


Pretty much agreed, particularly about customer service in ex-Telewest areas. My Mum has been on Virgin (ex-TW) since the mid 1990s, and my Sis NEEDS Interweb for her work. In that time we've had various problems, free and paid for upgrades, and Sis and I have between us spent less time talking on fault reporting and support lines than Charlie spent on the one rant!


#27 - There are also a variety of similar Star Trek spaceship phones.


I used to work for a similar cable company to Virgin, but not in the UK. I was really rather shocked by how fragmented the back end/administration systems were and how that seemed to be the primary reason why customer service was so terrible.

There were at least three or four different systems that the installers and administrators used to schedule work, maintain systems etc. There were several different billing systems as well. Then there were two different CRM systems that CS could access in order to manage the account or deal with enquiries. I think the billing and CRM systems had several linkages, but with many gaps and the CRM/billing barely talked at all to the admin/installation systems. To make it worse, the various systems (CRM especially) seemed to have very little ability to capture new information outside of what had been originally envisaged by the designer.

So, if there were any issues, it was very hard for one person, whether CS, Accounts, Installation, or Admin to actually have a view over the whole account. To make things worse, if someone did, or a fault was identified or solution promised, that may not have been stored on an accesible system. So, if another CS/etc person had to then help, or deal with the problem, they might have to start from scratch.

Everyone in the company knew this, but there was not the money or willingness to work on a root and branch renewal.


As a general comment, I think I agree with the underlying point that, beyond a certain size, there appears to be a perception in corporate organisations that customer retention "just happens" without paying money for things like customer service, giving existing customers the same "fair deals" as new ones get...


If your sister is dependent on the internet for work or any reason then she needs to get (and pay for) something better than consumer broadband or cable internet. What she should be looking for is Service Level Agreements (SLAs) guaranteeing uptimes of 99.9% or better, that is less than eight hours outage a year. This is not cheap but I've seen someone bitch about losing a contract worth 80,000 quid because his home broadband went down for a day.

A cheaper solution to a high-SLA contract would be to get both cable internet and phone-line ADSL installed to her home. If one breaks the other should still be working and vice-versa although even that isn't guaranteed. There are home routers that will "shotgun" both connections to provide inteernet to a single home LAN and allow graceful fallover if one of the connections does go away for a time.


Thanks for the thought, but there's next to no talking to her about computers.


Lovely rant, Charlie. Amusing and spot-on at the same time.

I think that the company ethos is a significant predictor of customer service quality. Specifically, is the company a) set up to provide a good or service and make money in the process, or b) set up to make money and provide a good or service in the process?
If b) is it subset i) in which profit is to be taken as soon as possible, or subset ii) in which the company's management wants long-term profitability?

Leaving for a different provider is all very well once you've made it past the minimum contract period. But can you really leave if you're, say, four months into a 12-month contract? When I lived in the UK I wanted to do just this as they were not providing the service they had promised (mobile broadband provider). As I was extremely busy at the time I accepted their offer of two months free instead. I sometimes wonder whether I could have been rid of the poxy contract entirely had I pursued it.

A Belgian mobile phone provider is known for its spectacularly bad customer service.
If you have ten minutes to spare, watch this video of a comedy team getting their own back in early 2011.
It's in Dutch, but there are English subtitles.


I've only ever phoned up Virgin once.

One of the green boxes at the end of our road was clobbered by a van and left somewhat askew. So I call BT who sent an engineer over the next day -- he calls me from a mobile next to it and says "Ah, it's not one of our boxes, it's Virgin's" and he's not allowed near it, but thanks for trying to report it and so on.

So I call Virgin.

They won't take a fault report. Because I'm not a customer. They invite me to become a customer. No. Perhaps I have a friend or relative who is a customer? No. Maybe I could go round my neighbours and ask if they are and if so if I could borrow their account number? I don't think so.

Eventually we agree that what we'll do is just leave this. It'll probably be OK for a few days until the next rain (This was summer), at which point the water rolling down the pavement from the level crossing on the embankment will pour into the cabletrays under the box. OK, super, says the Indian chap, oblivious to sarcasm.

Sure enough, two days later it rains. Next day there are several vans parked round the box, replacing all the now waterlogged networking kit...


Ah yes.

There's really no provision for many companies to accept helpful calls like yours. What they need is the ability for one of their engineers to give it a quick glance while passing in the general area: it'd be probably less than 5 minutes out of their way in such a case. If they see there is a problem, then they can schedule time for fixing it.

I suspect, in the grand scheme of things, it's easier for them to not bother than to set up something which could be used as a denial of service on their engineers.



Is it a UK / EU thing to call the folks who ride around in trucks doing repairs and installs "engineers"?



You are now part of Virgin's customer service loss ratio.



Custimer etention.
We are SERIOUSLY considering changing our domestic electricity supplier.
( Yes, I know, they are all a crooked cartel, and there isn't any REAL difference, but ...)
What used to be the LEB was eventually taken over by EDF (Electricte de France) who are now BOASTING about spending money - our money, from our bills - on the vile fascist "olympics" - which are heartily loathed by the majority of Londoners.
But, even so, apart from sending EDF the nastiest messages we can, is there any point?
The others will be equally bad, and they won't be any cheaper, probably.
Stuffed if we do - and stuffed if we don't


It's a UK thing. In much of the rest of the EU, it's actually illegal to call someone who's not qualified as an engineer by that title. Or to be a little more precise, for someone not so qualified to represent themselves as one.


It's one of the reasons real engineers are so underrated (and underpaid) here


"Engineer" is an odd word. We Brits could, I suppose, snark about the American habit of calling people such as Casey Jones an Engineer.

There seem to be two parallel threads of meaning attached to the word. One of them is the person who designs machines, often educated to degree level and a member of a professional body. But I have never heard of I.K. Brunel having a degree. Looking at one famous British engineer/designer, I find that R.J. Mitchell was born at 115 Congleton Road, Butt Lane, Kidsgrove, Staffordshire, England. After leaving Hanley High School at the age of 16 he gained an apprenticeship at Kerr Stuart & Co. of Fenton, a locomotive engineering works. At the end of his apprenticeship he worked in the drawing office at Kerr Stuart and studied engineering and mathematics at night school. No degree, so he can't have been much good, right. Except that he designed the Supermarine Spitfire.

The other thread is the person who uses machines, and that's your Casey Jones, and maybe the bloke from Virgin Media. It's not so far from that guy who went through an apprenticeship.

The chances are the guy who gets called a Network Engineer comes to the job from the practical side, and I'd venture to suggest that he's more deserving of the title of "Engineer" that some of those "software engineers" you can run into. If you want to equate Grace Hopper with Brunel, then maybe Charlie's time as a programmer matches up with Mitchell, or maybe better with a guy called Nevil Shute Norway. So what's today in the computer business? Sometimes it feels as though the way to success is to emulate Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom.

Is that how we got Facebook?


I feel your pain. I can't describe my feelings about NTL and now Virgin without using an awful lot of unparliamentary language. All I will say is that they have forced me to use Sky and BT - and like it.

If Virgin were even half way competent they'd have leveraged their fiber advantage to bury everyone else but .... I mean, my five year old Sky+ box still just works, nice and quick. My inlaws newer Virgin Tivo whatnot box is slow, the remote feels like crap and it annoys me every time I pick it up. They must work so very hard to be so bloody awful.


American habit of calling people such as Casey Jones an Engineer.

Well railroad "engineers" of the 1800s had to be able to take apart and put back together their train engines. And cast new parts for them if needed. Especially out west. West of the Mississippi river they might be the most educated / talented person for 100 miles or so. So for train drivers its a historical leftover.

In the US folks go work in the field doing installs and repairs are typically call techs or technicians or field techs. Other than with trains someone called an engineer is expected to have a degree or incredible work experience.

Now the guys come come out and do the planning are typically called engineers but they also have degrees. And I suspect that in all US states you can't call yourself an engineer without the degree and maybe having passed a licensing exam.


Real conversation with British Gas:
Q: Can you send someone to fix it?
BG: We will send an engineer. If he can't fix it we will send a technician.


Having rung up VM on numerous occasions I can say with confidence there are 2 things Charlie did "wrong":

1.) Not having a VM phone line - this means you have to "prove" you are a Virgin customer and not Rupert Murdoch out to bilk them. You have to accept that a VM phone line is part of the package and assess them on that basis. If you get your phone services elsewhere you WILL get crap service, so figure the package costs £10 more than advertised. This will enable you to dial 151 rather than something arcane routed through hell.

2.) Talking to customer services. Don't do that, it's a lottery. You need to talk to the "Customer Retention Team" (yes, there is such a thing - it's off the "Thinking of going elsewhere" part of the decision tree). Even if it's a technical problem Customer Retention have a direct line through to the 3rd line support team who actually know what they (and you) are talking about.

Bitter experience here - but otherwise my choices are to give money to Murdoch (I'd rather slit my wrists first) or pay BT £200 to fix thier buggered line to my house (which they insist must be my equipment because it's, well, my equipment).

VM are the least crap option.


Err, well it all Depends ..says he steepling his/My hands in the Classic Manor of The Super Villain ..." Talk ? Mr Bond? "

IF you are a Citizen of the UK and IF you are in Receipt of a LOW INCOME then ..
All Hope Abandon, Don't ! Whats 'is Face of the Jedi Masters might say ..for, IF ? your Energy Bill, from the UK Energy Co of your Choice is more than that 15% of your income then you are entitled to claim the " Social Tariff ", which they do NOT advertise and which is available from all of the UK's Energy Cos. Amazing how people just don't change suppliers because they cant be arsed ... as we say in the U.K.

So IF your Energy Bill is more than 15% of your income then you are entitled to the " Social Tariff "..which is a good deal lower than the standard Shop Around Tariff of your choice! Wots that you say? THEY will Check up on you if you are One New P above the Limit? Er they can't the moment the Energy Cos are Obliged to take you at your word since the mo they cannot check on your income.

15% folks used to be 10% and they do check up on you every couple of years to ask your what your current income is at the moment.

Whilst you Citizens of the UK do to check on the balance between Income and Fuel Bills you should follow this LINK you may well be entitled to all sorts of home insulation Grants ...

Sorry about that Charlie ..I'm pretty sure - in Retrospect - that my Grandfather died of Hypothermia in his Icy Cold, Coal fire Heated Bedroom hence the over sensitivity.


One thing always worth doing is making sure the line owner and the ISP are the same, and that they also supply the modem. Otherwise, it's never their fault.


"Riiiight ... so that just requires a balcony to be built instead."

A really large window flower box?


On the other hand, my daughter expressed interest in that kind of phone and was disappointed to hear we don't have a landline anymore.

Premicell or other fixed cellular terminal and a Hello Kitty Phone?


(I have a Telular (I think) FCT hooked up to a rotary dial telephone, just to annoy people. Caution: not all FCTs support LD dialling.)


I get junk mail from Virgin Media asking me to sign up for their cable service about every three days. Word of mouth like this is why it always goes straight in the bin.


So do I, and I am already a customer


Satellite dishes illegal?

Dear me. Back in the old days of Yagi and X-shaped TV aerials they worked when mounted in yer loft, most times as good as if they were on the roof. The only time you needed a pole in the sky was if The Boronwski Homefire Smokeless Fuel Plant was in the way and soaking up all the ents in it's giant Meccano-set gridwork. Grr.

But now we have the new improved digi-spiffomatic Satellite systems, no doubt a few fractions of whatever measurment unit you care to choose of roofing blocks the signal nicely, otherwise you could deploy satellite TV in stealth mode by screwing the dish to a cross-truss.

Or is it just that you installed a lead roof and a Faraday cage to guard against e-plagiarists, Charlie?


My favorite Tech Support from hell story appeared in Computerworld's Sharktank a while ago.

A bloke was fuming about how he worked three buildings away from a HP Printer manufacturing and support plant but couldn't get a support visit because the TS hotline was somewhere in India and the monsoon had cause widespread local flooding which shut the place down.

I love the computer age. Keep making everything in the support chain cheaper until it stops providing the function it is needed for, at which point no-one can complain about the support not working. Result!

The worst I personally have had to deal with is both of the leading commercial pay-to-play firewall & anti-virus plus 57 other unwanted features companies. Every time the problem is escalated you go back to box one on the script.

I also hate any voicebot process that asks for an account number before passing me on to a real person who asks...for my account number. We have caller ID; it should be simple to forward the number I just punched in to the blasted phone display of my new friend.


Satellite dishes illegal?

Yes, if you live in a building in a UN World Heritage Site where the entire freaking street is Grade One listed. Possibly something to do with it (the building) being close to 200 years old and architecturally interesting.

(I could make the council very happy indeed if I could get the other residents to agree to take down the existing TV aerials, which are grandfathered in because the listed building status was only applied in 1971.)


Incidentally, I got over to the Apple Store in Glasgow for my iPhone visit today.

How it went:

Around 10am I hit Apple's web site to make a Genius Bar appointment. Picked a slot for 1:50pm to allow some time to get there. The web page offered me a text entry box "for anything you'd like to tell your Apple Genius ahead of your visit" so I jotted down what I'd already done. I caught a train over at 11:30 and wandered around for a while -- I allowed extra travel time in view of yesterday's hurricane -- then went to the Apple store at 1:15pm. Firing up the iOS Store app, I got a "would you like to check in now?" message, so said "yes".

I was about to head out to grab a coffee while I waited, but at 1:20pm I got another push message: "Greg is ready to see you now" (half an hour early -- presumably because of a no-show). "Well, you've already done most of what I was going to do," said Greg when we finished saying hello, "so I'll just take it into the back and check for loose wires inside."

Ten minutes later he confirmed that the microphone and associated circuitry was dead, and it was down to a standard out-of-warranty replacement fee in return for a shiny new refurbed iPhone 4 under a three month warranty. (As the old phone was 17 months old at this point, expecting a free replacement under a 12 month guarantee was maybe a bit optimistic.)

By the time my appointment was due, I was already on the train home.

Apart from the lack of an Apple Store in my home town, the experience was utterly friction-free. And I gather they should be opening an Apple Store fifteen minutes' walk from my front door in another 12 months or so.


Given that I bought a used LG phone two years ago that refuses to break (no idea how old it was at the time of purchase but probably over a year), I'm not sure if I would prefer the flawless costumer service experience over the fact that I don't need it ...


Archy-opter-yx @107
No chance!
I get ~£12k pa pensions (+ part-time work), and my wife works in a reasonably well-paid job ...
So I may just have to change juice provider, just to spite the bastards.


Just to show that the Japanese hunger for Cuteness isn't solely locked onto Cats as in Hello Kitty.

The worlds oldest dog has just died aged 26 years and eight months ..

" Owner Yumiko Shinohara told reporters at her home in Sakura, a city outside Tokyo, that Pusuke, a fluffy tan Shiba mix, died Monday after suddenly falling ill and refusing to eat.

Shinohara told TV network FNN that she "would just like to thank him for staying alive so long." The report said Pusuke's life span would have been the equivalent of about 125 years for a human.

According to Guinness, the dog was born April 1, 1985. Pusuke was recognized as the world's oldest living dog last December. "

I reckon that he could have lived even longer had his mistress refrained from the Cute ear adornments as of last years publicity pics as shown in this linked news item.... the poor chap just died of sheer embarrassment ...though he does look fairly cheerful in the Publicity Photo ..


I fired BT when they started denying that the various BT companies had anything to do with each other and preventing my third party providing me ADSL.

Virgin cable here seem quite adequate.


I could make the council very happy indeed if I could get the other residents to agree to take down the existing TV aerials, which are grandfathered in because the listed building status was only applied in 1971.

I'm guessing there's some obstacle to wiring the whole block for cable TV.

Then again, once you did that someone would probably start grumbling about all the 21st century cars allowed to drive past on the street...


Well, there IS that new satellite dish "chair" that's being marketed in Europe. Using a flat panel antenna, it looks like any other avaunt-garde deck chair, and can be left on your balcony.

You do have to be careful about moving it around, and if your landlord is tech-savvy, he or she may suspect it, but as disguised antenna go, it's a nice implementation of security through obscurity.

Get one or two cheap chairs that vaguely resemble it, an inexpensive table, and you have something that most anyone would overlook as just ordinary "balcony furniture."

Ed Becerra


Wow, and I thought Comcast was bad...

Sadly, I don't think you can use one of the techniques that Robert Heinlein used when dealing with the Aeroflot (and I with Comcast)-stand at a physical window and be just enough of a nuisance (i.e. throwing off their potential metric of customers per hour) without being so much of a nuisance that they call security that they will give you anything just to be rid of you. And, get it in writing (that's how I got three free months of HDTV content from Comcast).

Of course, the crappy boxes might be a part of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN-they're designed to burn out (like fuses) when the Stars Are Right, to restrict potential penetration by Things That Go Bump In The Night. But they're getting too many false positives, so they have to keep replacing the boxes...


That analysis sounds very reminiscent of Baumol's theory of contestable markets.

Commiserations on the electronic trials. I have to say I much prefer Apple's straightforward connecting me to someone who asks if I want to pay the postwarranty service fee, and then, if I pay it, actually fixes the problem. A lot of companies seem to be competing now to provide the least possible customer service. I hope your difficulties end soon.


I'm guessing there's some obstacle to wiring the whole block for cable TV.

Which bit of "Here's a rant about how bad my cable provider is" did yuo miss?


Well, there IS that new satellite dish "chair" that's being marketed in Europe. Using a flat panel antenna, it looks like any other avaunt-garde deck chair, and can be left on your balcony.

What is this "balcony" thing you speak of? Is it perchance some sort of exotic feature unknown to 18th century Scottish architecture?

(Note about Scottish architecture: it gets cold, windy, and rains a lot, and as the area is tectonically stable they use stone as a building material. Also note that in winter we get as little as 6 hours of daylight, and in summer we get midges (mosquitos with stealth technology). So the general construction style is drastically different from anything I've ever seen in North America. In fact, the area I live has stuff like this. No, I am not making this up.)


Ahh, good old Scots Baronial.

Also as Charlie says, it gets windy. The weather on Thursday was rather extreme for the central belt, but you try fixing a good strong balcony onto a house that is built of stone with no frame of any sort, that is capable of dealing with high winds or a foot of snow.
Oddly enough a great many of the older places of settlement (I.e. before the 18th century) are placed in hollows and dips and sheltered spots. Nowadays we built houses where we like, but then people didn't have double glazing and roofs that stayed put.

The whole world heritage site thing helps reduce ugly modern development, but is not entirely effective. For obvious legal reasons I can't say anything more on this blog...


You might like to read the previous comments next time. You know, just to see if the idea has already been raised?

Oh look. Comments 83 and 84. Who'd have guessed?


>I wonder how many blog entries like yours it would take to >damage Virgin's new business enough to justify real customer >service? Would any of the suits in Virgin even be aware of it?

There are companies out there that are starting to get that they are not as in charge of their image as they think they asre . Twitter, blogs, facebook et al mean that ordinary folks are getting much more feedback and back history of products and services from other folk. Horror stories and bad press are not as containable as they once were - the internet has made things much trickier for PR depts.

I was at a seminar the other week for some CRM software and they were describing stories of how the customer is more in charge of their relationship with the company and EXPECT to be able to contact the company via whatever medium they choose and everything to work seamlessly.

Point is really that customer service IS Marketing - Apple do this so they always get good press. Bad CS results in folks moving away and telling others. There's more to it but its more about making sure you engage with the customer and not take their money and run - it doesn't work in the long term* .

* whether those at the top care about the long term is something else entirely but in this climate its probably more important than 5 years ago.


Indeed - go to Google Street view, and type in:
"20, Dublin Street Lane South, Edinburgh, EH1", and face SW.
THIS IS NOT CHARLIE'S HOME ADDRESS, but it is fairly close, and gives you a view of the local (wonderful!) architecture.
the "New" town was bulit in the 18th C.
As for the Old town, that is another story.
We don't actually know how deep some of the buildings go - really!


Unfortunately in the Old town the vast majority of buildings aren't very old. Most date from the 19th century, because after a few fires they woke up to the fact that the medieval and post medieval core had been allowed to decay after the rich folk decamped to the New town, so demolished everything.
I mean Everything - the same effect could have been achieved by bombing the area and rebuilding.

(Except for John Knox's house, which wasn't his house, and one or two places like St Giles {although they clad it in annoying Victorian gothic stuff, losing the fact it is a medieval building} and if you know what you are looking for you can find older walls absorbed into buildings or standing as garden walls. Oh, and Gladstones land)

We're just lucky they kept many of the old street patterns, so enough of the curiosity of it survives.


Charlie sez: "Note about Scottish architecture: it gets cold, windy, and rains a lot,"

Actually Edinburgh doesn't get that much rain compared to the west coast and places like Glasgow or Ireland facing the Atlantic. I think the average is about 750mm spread out through the year -- it rains in summer a bit less, in winter a bit more. That is about the same annual precipitation as Seattle as I recall. As for temperatures it is regarded as exceptional here if they fall significantly below zero for an extended period of time. Compare that to, say, Chicago or the Dakotas in the US which are quite a bit further south than Edinburgh which is at the same latitude as the southern edge of Hudson Bay in Canada.

"and as the area is tectonically stable"

You (and I) live about two km from a pair of dormant volcanoes in the Central Belt of Scotland which is a faulted depression between the Borders and the Highlands. "Temporarily quiescent" would be a better description of the situation here and all these stone-block buildings are a disaster waiting to happen -- see the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 for a preview.


You haven't been everywhere in North America. Old Montreal is full of stuff like that.

Most of that historical area was built at the same time that Edinburgh and other similar cites were rebuilt in the UK.

Old Quebec, "le Vieux Quebec" within the ancient fortification wall, is also like that on a smaller scale.


There are the remnants of regional vernacular architecture in Scotland, the most obvious being the Blackhouse. The architecture being conditioned by available resources and the prevailing weather conditions. E.g. thatch roofing in the long low blackhouse helps muffle the noise of the wind and is pretty wind resistant, not offering quite the same sort of overhangs, edges etc that much modern architecture does.


Au contraire, I have been to Old Montreal. It's relatively low-key and toned-down compared to what you find around here.


"it gets cold, windy, and rains a lot"

Haha, my daughter is doing her "semester abroad" at the University of Edinburgh next month. She's coming from the University of Miami. I expect a steady stream of complaints about the weather for four months.


I suspect there used to be a lot more stone block construction in the US but when steel girders for building showed up the population growth of most US cities in the later 1800s meant that much of it was torn down to build taller things.

Excavations for new buildings turn up all kinds of interesting things. It is no secret that Chicago raised the street level by 1 story for most of its downtown over 100 years ago to get away from flooding. Today we'd spend $1 billion or 10 times that to hold back the water instead of dealing with $10 million in old buildings in a flood plain. Oh, well.


Idle question-just how "full" are those witches caps/turrets (i.e. is there anything actually IN them?). If there isn't, I can see a market for something that looks like a Genuine Heritage Item but is radio transparent to conceal satellite dishes/cell phone repeaters.


is there anything actually IN them?


(My bedroom is in a garret. A really big circular one. From back before someone had the great idea of rebranding them as "penthouses" and selling them to the rich.)


Indeed, and of course the citizens of the Colonies may well not appreciate that even those Cities of U.K that they have barely heard of like, say, Newcastle Upon Tyne have an understructure that dates back to before we were deserted by the Roman Empire.

The - Victorian - Railway that feeds into Newcastle Upon Tyne feeds through the perimeter of a Norman Castle and skirts the remains of The Roman Wall - which runs under a local hotel that has been known to host S.F.Conventions - before it gets to the main station, which is in its turn linked to the Metro System that is fairly recent but which is still in the process of development and is yet to be ancient ... give it time....

And all of it is entangled in the remains of .. See ' wikipedia ' ..

" Hadrian's Wall (Latin: Vallum Aelium, "Aelian Wall" – the Latin name is inferred from text on the Staffordshire Moorlands Patera) was a defensive fortification in Roman Britain. Begun in AD 122, during the rule of emperor Hadrian, it was the first of two fortifications built across Great Britain, the second being the Antonine Wall, lesser known of the two because its physical remains are less evident today.

The wall was the most heavily fortified border in the Empire. In addition to its role as a military fortification, it is thought that many of the gates through the wall would have served as customs posts to allow trade and levy taxation.

A significant portion of the wall still exists, particularly the mid-section, and for much of its length the wall can be followed on foot by Hadrian's Wall Path or by cycle on National Cycle Route 72. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Northern England. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. English Heritage, a government organisation in charge of managing the historic environment of England, describes it as "the most important monument built by the Romans in Britain".[1] "

In just about EVERY major city in the UK if you stick a spade too deep in the ground you hit Archaeology so that any cable company is going to hit major, on going, expense in laying Telecom fibre optics in the form of ferociously rigorous planning regulations.

Our Hosts Mighty Fortress of Fiction, and highly desirable flat ... a Circular Bedroom!! ... is actually quite recently built in terms of the U.K s cities.

In London, England, this example of fairly new inner city development was unearthed a while ago...

Try getting planning permission to lay Telecom s Cables under that!


On the subject of 'engineers', my father was invalided out of the army in 1944 with training as a car electrician. He soon got a job with BOAC and became an aircraft maintainance electrician. Posted to Rome in 1956 he was amazed to discover that because of his job people addressed him as 'Doctor Engineer'.


Great idea!

My cable, Internet, etc. provider isn't as bad as VM and is usually first to market with advanced/improved technology. Even so, I've been tempted to switch at times but the only alternative is still an ugly dish on the roof or second storey wall.

Is there a minimum elevation? Will teh satellite chair still work if covered by 1-2 feet of snow -- not uncommon around here. Has this device been approved/rated for by current satellite service providers? New/non-standard devices are a convenient excuse for providers to point to when there's a signal service/delivery problem.


They are usually called bartizans, and are a development of the medieval tower corner turrets. These originally didn't have roofs, and to be honest were often more for decoration than real usefulness, but were maintained as part of the necessary accoutrements of a lordly person (i.e. if you were rich and owned land you wanted people to see this reflected in the architecture of your houses) into the post-medieval period, which with the removal of the wall walk left them as roofed spaces, and that's when they got the conical caps.

So one of the interesting things about architecture is how they revive things, in this case the examples from above are part of a Victorian revival of a 16/17th century motif based on a medieval original.
In restored tower houses I've seen the bartizans used for everything from a bathroom to a miniscule sitting room.


In one place, Colchester, when a new army barracks was being built they discovered the foundations of a Roman one. Colchester has been a military town almost continually for 2000 years.


Even here, in what is now "outer London" my wife commutes from the Medieaval/Tudor village (Walthamstow) to the Mediaval/Roman/ pre-Roman city (London) on a train that suddenly breaks out of houses and across the (preserved) flood-plain, with canals and wildlife and back into the houses - & where the railway crosses the floodplain, the arches under the train housed the first British-Built Aeroplane (A.V.Roe) ... so much history!
Alternatively, if you stand in the right place in this city, you have the Victorian Baronial lift-bridge - under which you see the WWII cruiser, and behind it the 1000-year old royal fortess, and behind THAT ... the 18thC remnants, and the concrete-&-glass of a 21stC city's towers


Re RJ Mitchell: note that before higher education became meritocratic in the later 1940s, one of the best ways (indeed, to a first approximation, nearly the only way) for a clever lad of good family to get an education as an engineer was as a 'premium apprentice' at an existing engineering firm. Railway companies were good for this. So although I don't know Mitchell's class background, the fact that he lacked a degree isn't very relevant.


Wow. And I thought grandpa was pulling my leg about the homes in the Old Country...

(Mom's side of the family were Scots who made the error of backing Mary over Liz, and had been too vocal about it. So cue dramatic escape to first Ireland, then America.)

What with all those smokestacks, I'd make a wisecrack about the architecture being totally stoned. Heh.

Still, if they can disguise an antenna as a chair, there has to be a way to disguise one as something that would look natural on a building like that.

Ed Becerra


I feel your pain, but at least your experience with Virgin has been better than mine with Verizon. (I blame the letter "v".)

Nearly a decade ago, I signed up for the company's faster-than-dialup-anyway broadband-over-phone-line service.

it wasn't working at first, but that was blamed on problems with my phone line, which took a couple of months to resolve. And no, now that you ask, the phone-line problem wasn't diagnosed by the company. Rather, when I was on a call one day, I started hearing another conversation, then started speaking directly with the people involved, and found one was a neighbor a couple of blocks down; we traded details, then each of us called the company. Two days later, Verizon fixed its local crossed wires.

So then the phone was working, but the Internet still wasn't.

A couple of years later -- and maybe 100 hours in the phone, most of it spent on hold and on hold and transferred and on hold and ... cut off, again; and several days spent waiting at home for repair personnel who never so much as came inside my (squeaky) front gate, but did report that everything worked fine at the service box; and replacing the house wiring Verizon blamed; and running an extension cord outside so I could test the modem at the box, where it still didn't work -- I finally was accidentally put thru to a genuine technical person, in the US, no less.

It took her less than 5 minutes to diagnose the problem: "wow, it looks as if the only thing they've ever activated on this account is the billing."

Despite which, I couldn't get it fixed. And I couldn't get the credits I'd repeatedly been promised applied to my account. And when I told Verizon to stop billing me for the service, it took me another half-year and several more hours on the phone -- during regular business hours! when I was able to finally manage to stay on hold long enough to make progress only because I was out of work after an injury; meanwhile, the on-hold recording kept suggesting that for faster service, I communicate via my Verizon email account, the one the company would have established after it hooked up my DSL -- to get the company to make that happen.

I finally got the billing stopped in 2008. So far, I've been able to obtain a refund for only two months' fees.

(Still, at least I wasn't getting billed an additionsl fee by the company for all those hours on hold.)

Verizon keeps sending me fliers advertising its high-speed Internet service. I keep recycling them.


Slightly off the topic of telecom companies run by chimps, the weather in Scotland has apparently turned foul, to the point that a windmill caught fire. Perhaps Scottish weather actually is out to get us.


It's not about "disguise", it's about a legal requirement to maintain the building using authentic materials and techniques. Something that looks similar to a 14th century castle but was rebuilt out of concrete with a thin cladding fifteen years ago is not a 14th century castle.

(I'm just glad they grandfathered in electricity, gas, and indoor plumbing.)


You seem to have missed the phrase in my original post about Hurricane Bawbag, and the follow-up about the engineer who braved 80mph winds to replace the cable box?


Indeed so - that engineer on his own almost redeems the whole corporate structure you were ranting about.


If he'd actually been part of the company, rather than a contractor being paid piece-rate, I'd have to agree with you.


Aha, yes. The only way for a Virgin Media representative to be any good is for them not to be from Virgin after all.

(I specify Virgin Media because my experience with Virgin Atlantic has been fine. That it has been our family's airline of choice is, mind, nothing at all to do with it having a London-Orlando route, nor anything to do with my sister for a number of years working for VA at the Orlando end. No, nothing at all.)

Having said which, we've had no problems with them here in South East Mercia. We've had one box replacement, which was done without fuss a few months back.


In a single day on the South Downs you can follow the history of defence from neolithic fortifications through Bronze and Iron Age hill forts, mediaeval castles, Tudor shore defences, WW2 pillboxes and tank traps, 1950's ROTOR stations, 1960's bunkers. More recent stuff is presumably there too.

btw re: anti-television comments - this reminds me of my grandparent's distaste for paperback books. There's a lot of crap on TV, but also some really fine pieces. Edge Of Darkness, Quatermass (and the 80's remake), insert your own list here. It's worth it just for David Attenborough, and Paxman destroying some lying bastard politician. Not having a TV because of a contempt for the medium is like not going to the theatre because it's "all just panto". You just have to know when to swtch it off (most of the time).

re: D:Ream - nobody likes the music, not even the band do, that's kinda the point. My mate was in the band, and he gets very embarrassed when people remind him. (no, not the Manc pretty boy, I know the percussionist.)


Apparently, the European Commission has got so fed up of the multiple-company shell games BT play that they now enact charges against any part of BT to whichever other part of BT bills them next...


Phil Knight @ 155
I gave up TV back in 1976 (ish) well pre-internet.
If I really want to watch a programme - I can - just niot at the time it is actually broadcast - it's called "liusten/watch again".
An no licence fee, and no box in the corner.....
But, seriously, at least 99.9% of TV is unuttersble crap - I know - I've been ON some of these so-called entertainment programmes (shudder)


Your weather continues to impress me. Happily from a great distance.

Although the comparisons of 'no rainier than Seattle, and no colder than Chicago' doubtless bear repeating.


I have used some terrible helpdesk before.

I must say, the mob i am with now iiNet in Australia has the finest support i have ever used.

Call them up, 20 minute que, they call me back when they are able to talk.

Helpdesk calls me, tell her i am trying to set up Voip on a router that strictly isn't on their supported router list.

She googles the make and model and we spend an hour debugging the thing from both ends. She knew what she was talking about and helped me when she didn't have to. Hell i expected they would try to sell me on to one of their branded routers. Not a word of that.

iiNet is very quickly tearing market share away from companies that operate like virgin.


That picture was taken about 100m from my old flat; living in the Old Town was fun for a twenty-something, not so great for starting a family - so we moved far enough from the centre of town that we could afford a back garden.

Charlie@116 - the Apple Store for Edinburgh in the 1990s was directly opposite the front door to our stair (before it moved up to South Clerk Street).

guthrie@131 - google "Mary King's Close"; they didn't just demolish, sometimes they built over. There's still a lot of stuff around the Old Town that's more than 200 years old.

Charlie@150 - Of course, you can still build new stuff using new techniques; it just has to "fit in". The then-Scandic Crown (now Edinburgh Radisson) was built in the Old Town in 1991; does a reasonable job of camouflage for a mostly-prefab concrete building... (take a look at the dated carving on the side of the building)


The same thing's been happening to me - I've suffered longterm deprivation of my accustomed Linux windows environment, email, and cellphone through the longest periods of Murphy's Law.

I think our universe must have a bad random generator, that generates astonishingly unlikely results for long periods every once in awhile. They're calling the Year of the Alien Space Bat on Alternate history, because this year'd need Alien Space Bats to make it atall plausible.

The upside is, we've managed to lose a few repressive dictatorships and oligarchies; and even the Assads, whom looked rocklike in 2010, are looking weak now. At least we haven't suffered as badly as Qaddafi ;-).


P.S. on my comment, 161:
Some think 1776 was such a similar year of the unlikely.



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on December 8, 2011 9:48 AM.

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