Friday, October 31, 2008

Rage Machine Podcast: "Electile Dysfunction (part 1)"

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Back at last, just in time to be almost late for election coverage, our hero discusses the final week of electioneering and keeps a tally on how many lawsuits have been filed so far.

First aired on Radio Six International, October 29th.
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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Why Bother, One Asks?

I remember the first conversation I had with my parents about voting. I was just turning eighteen, had no interest in politics or politicians and was planning on sitting the whole thing out. My mistake, apparently, was mentioning this out loud. This horrified my mother, whose parental generation were the ones fighting and dying in the second world war, the generation that the war physically touched, whether they had enlisted or not, and had friends and relatives and entire neighbouring families wiped out whilst in the "safety" of their own homes. "By God'n you'll vote!" she said, almost threateningly.

For her generation, the vote is a sacred voice. Civic duty. She comes from a time when the wounds of war were still fresh and when the very real loss of liberties and rights were a puddle away. Really. The French channel is so small that people can swim from one end to the other. Oh sure, people like to crow these days about how the fighting forces are "defending our freedom", but they really aren't. Our freedoms aren't being threatened. At least, not by an exterior force.

Well, some time has passed since those heady bygone days, when I wore a younger man's clothes. Many things have changed, I certainly respect my parents a lot more and I no longer believe they're the reactionary fools who just "don't get it". But one thing hasn't changed; I'm still not voting.

What happened the first and only time I exercised my civic duty? I voted for Tony Blair, and look what happened. Talk about leaving a bad taste in your mouth.

I'm often asked when I'm going to become a citizen, particularly now I'm well past that period where I'm not allowed to apply. Oh sure, I could claim test anxiety. I could claim that my British citizenship is more important to me. The real reason is this: As a permanent resident, which is the position I hold now and one that automatically renews and doesn't expire, there are very few things that you can do as a citizen that I'm not allowed to. I can't be charged and convicted of a federal crime or I'll be deported, I'm not eligable to work for the government (including VOA) and I'm not allowed to vote. Other than that, you and I are exactly alike. I pay taxes. I was blackmailed into registering for draft eligability. Everything you can do, I can do sexier. Except vote. And therein lies the rub.

The question is 'why bother'? I mean, really. I could go on and on about how the way the 2000 election was handled was an utter embarrasment and made me trust the American electoral system in the same way that the Rodney King trial helped me to trust the American judicial system, but that's practically ancient history. What scares me is electronic voting machines. Regular reader(s) will know that I'm a huge fan of technology and that I'm utterly thrilled to be enjoying the bountiful pleasures of the twenty-first century. Who now would want to live without wi-fi, TiVo, the ability to make phone calls wherever you please? Only nutjob survivalists and fans of the Victorian era! The two-thousands rawk, make no mistake. But when it comes to something that's supposed to be so important, simplicity is king. It's a whole lot more difficult for someone to get cheeky and mess with twenty thousand individual ballot papers, to re-punch a hole or rub out a check mark and put it somewhere else, than it is for someone with a working knowledge of "e-voting machines", a USB keydrive and a political agenda to make things swing his way. And it only takes seconds. Less time than it took Ferris Beuller to change his grades to 'A's.

When you've got the CEO of the company that makes voting machines saying at the last general election, ''I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year'', how can one NOT be suspicious? A CEO's job is to deliver the company line. He IS the company. How can one have hope that something didn't go on in a state (and maybe beyond) that was known to be vital to both sides' victory, particularly amidst claims of huge differences in the straw polls and the final numbers, and other irregularities, when the CEO of the company that makes the voting machines says that he is committed to delivering such an important state. That's almost an admission of guilt.

One would hope that the debacle of 04 in Ohio would be enough warning for the rest of the country to steer clear of something so inherantly tamperable, but no. My own home state of West Virginia has since adopted the machines for this election cycle, with great success.

voters say electronic voting machines changed their votes from Democrats to Republicans when they cast early ballots last week.

This is the second West Virginia county where voters have reported this problem. Last week, three voters in Jackson County told The Charleston Gazette their electronic vote for "Barack Obama" kept flipping to "John McCain."

Shelba Ketchum, a 69-year-old nurse retired from Thomas Memorial Hospital, described what happened Friday at the Putnam County Courthouse in Winfield.

"I pushed buttons and they all came up Republican," she said. "I hit Obama and it switched to McCain. I am really concerned about that.

Bobbi Oates of Scott Depot said her vote for incumbent Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller was switched to GOP opponent Jay Wolfe.


Well, at least the good news is that the organisers are confident that this very obvious problem with the software and/or hardware can be fixed before anything else happens.

"People make mistakes more than machines," said Jackson County Clerk Jeff Waybright.
...oh. OK, so let's recap. The voting machine are changing people's votes. But it's not the machine's fault, it's the people who are voting wrong. Gotcha.

So with that in mind... why bother? I mean, really. If it's already decided, why spend the hours on end queueing that are being predicted when the machine, owned by a company that is ''committed to helping [state] deliver its electoral votes to [candidate]", will tell me who I'm supposed to be voting for?

Nah. Keep it.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Adventures In Customer Service (Dish Vs Direct Winner Revealed)

They say that the artform of customer service has gone astray these days, but I'm not so sure. Maybe I'm luckier than most. Maybe it's the financial crisis that's forcing these companies to work harder to gain or keep customers. Either way, it's been a reasonably positive week.

But first, let's recap the fun and games from last week:
For a while now, my basic cable channels - your networks, your TNTs and AMCs, your Nickelodeons and Disney Channels - have had a really rubbish picture. A call to the company resulted in a whopping $5 off my monthlies for the next year and the promise that a tech would come out to see what the deal, yo. Next day, the tech calls - CALLS, never sets foot in my house or, as far as I'm aware, ever gets close to my house - and says something to the effect of "we still get our networks from rabbit ears and we get a lot of co-channel interference at this time of year". I kid you not. So, I ask him if there's anything I can do at my end to improve the picture. There is not, he says. So, the short version is that they're aware the picture is rubbish, but there's nothing anyone can (or is prepared to) do about it, so you're just going to have to like it or lump it. That's when I decided it was time to move on. And you're already familiar with the Dish Vs Direct conundrum. Dish won, for extensive reasons that may form another blog post later.

Tried Dish Network's flash-based "DishBuilder" online, but still had some questions. Called Dish Network, they got me sorted out good'n proper, and they scheduled an installation for that Thursday. Looking back, I'm glad I did it that way. Most CSRs make their money from commission and even though the first time I called Dish, whilst I was researching my options and calling round a few places, I got some needlessly tenacious wanker who wouldn't let me hang up the phone and was practically BEGGING me to buy it then and there. I'll tell you now, if I hadn't dug a little deeper, DirecTV would have won the battle just based on that call alone. But the woman I spoke to this time was great - low pressure, answered all my questions and made me feel like I was getting exactly what I wanted without being rushed or given the hard sell into crap I didn't need or want. It turns out, after almost a decade in America, I still have some Britishness in my DNA; I apologised (yes, with an "S") to her for taking up so much of her time with my questions, especially since they work on commission. Because, you know, it's not like that's her job or anything. She told me she'd much rather make sure I was getting what I wanted and that I had a good experience. Prime shite, I'm sure, but good to hear nonetheless. So I'd much rather she get what little extra they make from sales than buy online - she was worth it.

Later that evening, as if by retribution for it's impending replacement, my beloved TiVo craps out. It makes a whiney noise, the picture freezes and then... nothing. Flatlined. Dead. Gone forever.

Called TiVo to, regretfully, cancel my service. I've been a TiVo faithful since my clunky silver 40-hour Series 1 in 2002. I've never, ever had a beef with the service or the company. (I'm not supposed to tell you this, but I was even one of the chosen few; a TiVo firmware beta-tester! That's how much I loved my TiVo.) But, $13 a month is $13 a month, and those monthlies could be better spent upgrading my Dish package to get Boomerang and the Fox Soccer Channel, so cancellation it has to be. He asks me why I'm canceling, I tell him that I get a DVR from Dish and that my TiVo box was dead. The CSO thanked me for being a valued customer, as per the script, but told me he was amazed that my Series 2 box, now five years old, had lasted as long as it had. Remember that a TiVo box is, essentially, a Linux-based computer. Imagine having your PC running all day and all night for five years straight with the hard drive perpetually birling around. He's right, something like that should have a lifespan of three years, max. So, back on the script, he offers me two free months of service and a free replacement box. You read that right - two free months of service and a free replacement TiVo box. Naturally, I'd jump on that if I was going to be completely DVR-less, but as much as TiVo has far more features than the bog-standard Dish DVR, like online scheduling and the ability to pull shows off to the portable device of your choosing, that's just not worth $13 per month to me. Channeling the doorkeeper in Kafka's "Before The Law", I took their two free months only because I didn't want them to think that they failed to do anything in their exhaustive measures to retain my account. But before the offer dies, I'll go to close it.

Lovely man in a white Dish van turns up in the pouring rain, reads the installation agreement sent from my landlord that insists the dish be installed on the rear of the building (which would be facing away from the satellite) and not on the walls. Which means a roof installation. And the company won't let Mr Nice Installer go up on the roof when it's raining. So they reschedule for the next day. Shame, he was a terribly nice man.

Mr Redneck Installer turns up, reads the installation agreement, comes to the same conclusion regarding dish placement and realises his ladder isn't long enough to reach the roof. Really. A ladder. Not long enough. I don't live in Trump Towers, it's a two-story townhouse, but yet... his ladder isn't long enough to reach the roof? Whaa..? After some humming and hawing, he calls his company, they send out another van (and an even neckish-er installer) in the area with a bigger ladder and the dish goes up. All fine and dandy, dramatic increase in picture quality from cable. And when I say 'dramatic', I mean it. Even the colours are more vivid. So far, so good.

I realise that Classic Arts Showcase, one of the shorties' absolute favourite cable channels, isn't in the lineup, despite being promised as available in my package. I call Dish Network, they tell me (and, curse my diminishing eyesight, is confirmed in reeeeally small print on my handy-dandy laminated channel guide) that "some channels may require an additional dish". Part of me is PO'd, but part of me doesn't care - after all, it's for just one channel I want, and I have a slew I didn't have before. And HBO. Looking at it logically, when would I ever be watching the other channels that this affects - like, for example, The Pentagon Channel? I mean, really? But it's the principle of it all. I was promised those channels, and the shorties love to go to sleep to it. And I like it too - except when bloody opera is on. Because I bloody hate opera. I hate opera with the intensity of four thousand suns in supernova. You know how Groucho said that golf was a good walk wasted? Opera is good music wasted. Hate it, hate it, hate it. Hate. It. So the CSR, based in THIS country I might add, said we need a second dish to pick up this fabled distant satellite upon which lives Classic Arts Showcase and other "community programming". I enquire how much this installation might be, taking into consideration that I had already used the free installation promised with my two-year commitment, and that the company that installs them are based an hour's drive away from my house. The answer to this question took almost ten minutes on hold. Ten minutes of a 90 second loop of music. I waited. I hummed along. I danced. Even today, more than twenty-four hours after the call, I can still sing that bloody tune. There were profuse apologies when she came back, something about having to talk to a different department and supervisors, but the basic upshot of it all was this; it will cost nothing. Nothing at all. Hee-fuckin'-haw, as we say dans l'ouest de l'Écosse. They're going to drag some schmoe out of his comfortable office an hour away, to string up and connect a second dish so that my kids can fall asleep to some skinny woman walking around on her toes, whilst a guy with socks down the front of his tights lifts her up, and they're not going to make a dime from it. Awesome.

I freaking love this company. I hope that doesn't change, but there's one year and three hundred and sixty three days left on the contract, and I get disappointed very easily...

Sunday, October 05, 2008

I Need Your Help

There was a time when I was a media shill. A shameless promoter of cable TV. I was good, too. I worked hard at it and there was, for a while, talk of larger prospects. But even with the words of Bill Hicks echoing in my ear about being cast off the artisic rollcall for pimping my ass for The Man, I'm not going to say I'm not proud of it. I had a blast and I got cheap-as-free cable. Including the movies. And, at one time, every NHL game. I had no problem extolling the virtues of what I considered to be excellent value for money. Did it matter that the public at large paid considerably more than I? Not a jot, mate. They were big enough to make decisions for themselves and if they, like I, thought that cable was excellent value for what they paid, more power to them. I certainly thought that the service I got was worth what I paid.

Well, now I'm culturally irrelevant. A media nobody. And with irrelevance comes anonymity. And irrelevant anonymous ex-media personalities don't get free stuff. So, for the past six months, I've been paying what Joe Schmoe does for his cable. And lemme tell ya... it's not such a good deal anymore. My three-figure cable bill gets me reasonably good internet, but rotten telly. When I lived in a place where I was a big media slag, where people knew my name and quoted my catchphrases, we had toys. A cable box made in the 90s - with s-video and coax digital sound - and real on-demand channels. Now that I've moved to Bedford Falls, our cable box only handles RCA outputs, the picture quality and channel line-up is rubbish and it doesn't get on with my Tivo. If I'm lucky, it manages to change the channel on ye olde cabbel boxe 30% of the time. And that's if I'm lucky. And that's not even mentioning the cost of it all.

But don't cry for me leaving the media elite, just help me to make the right decision:

There are advantages and disadvantages to both DirecTV and Dish Network. DirecTV offers slightly more channels for the monthlies for the first year, but the price jumps $13 for the second year of the contract. Dish Network has that two-room-one-receiver type dealio, but getting two DVR receivers with DirecTV would mean twice the storage.

The package I've selected on both systems would have all the channels I want (and more), so that's not at stake. What I want to know from yous guys who have one or the other, or have dabbled in both, is this: which is better? And why?

Partisan Meanie

And now, a scene from my Sunday afternoon:



OLD WOMAN: And how are we today?
SPIKE: Fine, thanks. And yourself?
OLD WOMAN: Oh, I'm just fine.
SPIKE: Good.


OLD WOMAN: Whoops! I didn't do that!
SPIKE: (GOING ALONG WITH THE JOKE) That's alright, I didn't see you doing it.


SPIKE: In fact I was on vacation at the time it didn't happen.
OLD WOMAN: (LAUGHS) That sounds like one of the excuses that Obama would use.