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.