Monday, September 14, 2015

Mister Retailer, Tear Down This Virtual Operator

My journey began when I’d ordered a specialized audio cable from an online retailer.  Of course, the part was out of stock and required a back-order from the factory in Outer Mongolia.  After it finally arrived at my front door—two months later—I happily installed it only to discover that it was dead on arrival ... Stiff City ... nonfunctional ... kaput … pronounce it, doctor.

After slogging through fourteen pages of fine print—we’re not talking magnifying glass here; we’re talking microscope--in 116 languages, I finally located the retailer’s English-language return policy:

“...We will happily accept returned merchandise under the following conditions: that it has not been opened; that it has not been used; that it has not been connected to electricity; that it has not been connected to any devices; that it has not been touched by human hands; that it has not been exposed to light of any kind; that it has not been exposed to air of any kind; that it has not been looked upon by human eyes; that all parts, accessories, and component parts are included and have been exactly repackaged in their original wrapping; that the outermost container has been shrink-wrapped—at the customer’s expense--to new condition; and that the original order was placed on February 31st of the current calendar year...”
Sounds pretty liberal compared to some policies I’ve seen.

However, the next line of sub-molecular print sent a chill through me: “Please call our automated Customer Support Line to obtain return authorization.”

 Oh no!

 Automated Customer Support Line?  To paraphrase that mournful 1960’s folk song, where have all the people gone?  Has humanity been outsourced to a sterile universe inhabited by databases, servers, routers, electronically-reproduced voices, and decision trees, and governed by cost-cutting, spreadsheets, and efficiency studies?  Computers don’t care about mistreated consumers.  Computers don’t concern themselves with customers dying of old age while waiting for some other computer on the other side of the cosmos to issue return authorizations.  Computers rarely visit that e-mausoleum packed with virtual customer corpses who were entombed while still clutching purchase receipts and begging for return authorizations.

I would prefer visiting a DMV Facility, applying for a bank loan, submitting to a job interview, enduring a root canal, or listening to 24 consecutive hours of paid political announcements rather than attempting to navigate a phone tree. 

Lord, please deliver me from the day when I’ll be forced to explain myself to a computer.

But, the Almighty apparently pays no heed to the pleadings of indie authors and customers needing to return merchandise.

So, I dialed the phone and began an odyssey that would all too quickly degenerate into a sadistic virtual pinball game running amok.  I knew I was in trouble when I was greeted with:

“Hello.  Your call is important to us.  In order to serve you more efficiently, we have recently installed a voice-command-recognition system.  When our Virtual Operator greets you, simply speak slowly and distinctly, and we will happily assist you.”

Oh no again!  I’d been consigned to voice-command-recognition hellI knew instantly that I was destined for a nightmare far worse than the DMV visit, the bank loan, the job interview, the root canal, and the paid political announcements combined. 

This was the absolute bottom of the Heaven / Purgatory / Hell / Voice-Command-Recognition-Hell hierarchy of the afterlife.  In the vastness of the firmament, there is no punishment more universally dreaded and feared.

Lord, what did I do to deserve this?  You wouldnt’ve allowed this to happen to me if I’d written a best-seller.  You wouldn’t force Grisham, Turow, Roberts, Rowling, or Patterson to converse with some voice-command-recognition android, would you?

Of course not; a slot on the best-seller list does have its privileges.

After 15 minutes of listening to some truly crummy music on the phone, I felt the first pain stick (Trekkers will know what that means) being jabbed deeply into my ribs:

“Hello.  I’m your Virtual Operator and I’ll be happy to assist you.  Your call is important to us.  Please choose from the following options.  To place an order, say “out of stock.”  To join our mailing list, say “spam.”  To receive our hot specials flyers, say “more spam.”  To open a new account, say “no privacy.”  To cancel an order, say “no way...”

What I really WANTED to say was apparently not an option.  I must’ve briefly dozed off because the next thing I heard was:

“....  To check the status of a repair, say “whenever.”  To check the status of your shipment, say “lost.”  To order a CD of our really awful background music, say “noise.”  To hear about employment opportunities with us, say “indentured servitude.”  To hear a generic personalized message from our company president, say “advertisement.”  For the weather forecast for Antarctica, say “brrrrr.”  To hear testimonials from some of our employees, say “coerced…”

I indulged in another quick snooze.  When I woke up:

“...For warranty information, say “not covered.”  To hear about our super clearance items, say “unsold junk.”  To apply for our credit card, say “rejected.”  To hear what I look like naked, say “pervert.”  To purchase our gift card, say “worthless.”  To hear about my favorite sexual position, say “doing it.”  For help with a gambling problem, say “I’ll bet.”  To hear me talk dirty to you, say “yeah baby....”


“To return a purchase, say “forget it.”

Eureka!  An upward movement on the evil phone tree ... or was it?  Encouraged by my foolish optimism, I quickly repeated the magic words only to be answered with:

“Your call is important to us.  We’re here to serve you.  Please tell me what item you’d like to return so that I may route your call to the proper department.”

I already had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  It wouldn’t take long for it to travel further south.  Enough said.

Since I was returning an audio cable, I replied, “Audio cable.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it?  Not to the Virtual Operator.

“You’re returning a kitchen table?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with our Furniture Department.”

“No, no, no,” I countered.  “I’m returning a—“

“You’re returning a garden gnome?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with our Lawn and Garden Department.”

“I’m returning an audio cable,” I insisted.  “An audio cable.”

“You’re returning a patio table?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with our Outdoor Furniture Department.”

“DAMN!” I growled into the phone.

“You’re returning a fan?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with our Hardware Department.”

“I’m returning an au-di-o ca-ble!” I shouted, emphasizing each of the 5 syllables.

“You’re returning an auto radio?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with our Automotive Department.”

At this point, my frustration was mounting quickly; but I wasn’t yet ready to surrender to this synthesized simpleton.

AU-DI-O CA-BLE,” I repeated through clenched teeth.  “AU-DI-O CA-BLE.”

“You’re returning a baby cradle?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with our Nursery Furnishings Department.”

I give up.  I Surrender.  Wave the white flag.  Cut me, Mick.  Throw in the towel and stop the fight.  I’d been stopped dead in my tracks by a digital dingbat who had defeated me with artificial intelligence, an artificial voice, and an artificial personality.  I’d been outmaneuvered by an artificial e-being capable of nothing more than climbing up and down an artificial decision tree.

To quote Curley Howard, everybody’s favorite Stooge: “I was a victim of coicumstance.”  

It’s finally happened, I seethed.  Mankind has become ‘a victim of coicumstance.’  Technology has finally taken over the world.  Machines have at last triumphed over man.  WE are now serving THEM; not the other way around.  WE must now conduct our daily business by THEIR parameters.  We’ve finally been assimilated by the Borg; returning something is futile; humanity is irrelevant.

It was a sad day in this author’s world.

In a near-whisper, I mumbled to myself, “What do I have to do to return a stinkin’ audio cable?”

“You’re returning an audio cable?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with our Electronics Department.”

Wha?  Maybe there was still some glimmer of hope!

“Yes, I’m returning an audio cable!” I rejoiced.  “YES!  PLEASE!  THANK YOU!!”  In my elation, I neglected to consider the insanity of being polite to a collection of circuits, chips, and software.

After waiting 20 more minutes on hold and enduring the mind-numbing drone of truly nauseating music, I heard a connection being made to yet another machine menace that welcomed me with all the warmth and sincerity of an LCD display.  “Thank you for contacting the Electronics Returns Department.  Your call is important to us.  We’re here to serve you.  The estimated wait time to speak to a representative is currently 36 hours.  Would you like to hold?”

My blood pressure clocked in 450/300 and rising fast.  “No, I wouldn’t like to hold, you miserable piece of—“

“I’m sorry.  I do not understand your response.  Your call is important to us.  To serve you more efficiently, I’ll transfer you to the Virtual Operator so that—“

 Another series of clicks warned me that the gates of cyber-hell were about to open a little wider, enticing me to draw closer to the flames.  I was then greeted by a soft female voice so tiny and distant that it was nearly inaudible.  Her voice sounded as though it were emanating from the farthest reaches of the Delta Quadrant.  “This is the Electronics Department.  How may I assist you?”

What?  Had I finally lost it?  Had senility finally set in?  Or had my plaintive cry for help been mercifully answered by—of all things—an actual live human being complete with human vital signs, a human brain, and perhaps a scintilla of human compassion for another human being hopelessly ensnared in the diabolical web of automated Customer Support.

And they said the age of miracles was over.

To paraphrase Captain Montgomery Scott’s immortal line from that Star Trek movie, “There be HUMANS here!”  The Customer Support Universe is not yet the exclusive domain of computers, decision trees, synthesized voices, and truly crappy music.  Raise the flag and salute a small victory for mankind; the people are still in charge.  Perhaps the Virtual Operator should cook up some FIREHOUSE-HOT jalapeƱo dip and eat its own chips.  I hope it gets a case of heartburn that fries its logic circuits and sends its decision tree up in flames.

My inner celebration completed, I recovered quickly and answered the human person to whom I was speaking.  “Yes, I’d like to return an audio cable.  Could you help me with that, please?”

“I’m sorry,” she answered, “I’m not authorized to accept returns.  But your call is important to us.  I’ll transfer you back to the Virtual Operator so you can be properly routed.  Please hold.”

Properly routed?  Perhaps properly REAMED would’ve been more appropriate.

“No, please wait--” I pleaded weakly.  Too late.  I’d already been held, subjected to truly awful music, transferred, routed, mis-routed, re-routed, re-re-routed, through-routed, connected, disconnected, and re-connected; now I was being dragged screaming and kicking back to Square One to again face the synthesized stupidity of the Virtual Operator.

The next twenty minutes were devoted to listening to yet more truly wretched music and waiting for the Sword of Damocles to come crashing down on my skull.

“Your call is important to us.  We’re here to serve you.  Please speak slowly and distinctly, and tell me what item you’d like to return so that I may route your call to the proper department.”

Blood pressure: 800/600 and climbing.


“You’re returning a shovel?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with our Hardware Department.”

That did it.  I decided it was time for us humans to stand proudly and mount one final act of defiance and honor before submitting forever to the machines.  If I and my fellow humans were destined to be subservient to technology, I, for one, was going down with my fists flying.

I wonder if Custer felt this way enroute to Little Big Horn. 

Behold … Homo sapiens’ last stand.


Expecting something—although I had no idea what—in the way of decision-tree-based retaliation, I heard an extended series of clicks as though I were being pinballed around the world several times.  Finally, the connection went silent, but my curiosity compelled me to hang on for a few more moments.

“You’re returning an (expletive) (expletive) (expletive) and (expletive) (expletive)?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with the (expletive) (expletive) (expletive) and (expletive) (expletive) Department.”

I was officially the vanquished owner of a thoroughly useless audio cable.

But this entire exercise wasn’t a total loss.  Before I hung up, my writer’s thirst for knowledge drove me to investigate those options tantalizingly represented by “pervert,” “doing it,” and “yeah baby.”

As a result of that vital scientific research, the Virtual Operator has just become a principal character in my next book.

The novel’s working title?

The Thing That Ate Virtual Operators.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

A September Song: the calm before the storm.

August of 2015 has taken its place in the history books, stepping aside to allow September to take center stage for its brief moment in time.  Before we know it, the year’s ninth month will likewise join its dog days predecessor on Memory Lane.  But for now, this is September’s turn to shine on time’s unrelenting stage.

Behold, the beginning of my undisputed favorite season of the year.

We’ve already lost more than an hour’s daylight since the peak of Sol’s warming power back in late June.  Most schools are back in session now much to the dismay of billions of students; the sigh of relief likewise breathed by billions of American moms is almost deafening (“Finally, I have the house to myself!”).  Retailers across America are tallying up their profits from their “back-to-school” sales.

The baseball season is winding down as the out-of-contention teams play out their schedules and call up hopeful prospects from the minor leagues to “show us what you’ve got.”  The playoff contenders, on the other hand, are gearing up for the season’s home stretch and plotting strategies to be one of the “IN” teams once the rough-and-tumble jockeying for coveted playoff berths has ended.

True die-hard baseball fans are already dreaming about the upcoming playoffs and the generations-old thrills of the Fall Classic now mere weeks away.

Football’s preseason tweaking is nearly done as teams survey the gridiron landscape and start mapping out their pressure-packed crusades to a Super Bowl championship.  Pigskins and players alike will be flying through the air with reckless abandon in pursuit of the “Hail Mary” pass, the extra yard, the first down, and the “plane of the goal line” so near yet so far away.

January gridiron glory (as well as product endorsements and commercials up the wazoo) await that group of men equal to this Herculean task; the rest will need to content themselves with the ubiquitous wait 'til next year.

Will the last team standing again be the group from New England with their deflated balls (don't even think about commenting!)?  Could it be the team from the Mile-High City with their air-loving quarterback?  Perhaps a sleeper team like the retooled, rebuilt, and restaffed Chicago Bears will emerge from their hibernation and stake out their dens within the mountain of Super Bowl gold.

Who knows?

The American football season is the stuff of bar room wagers, Sunday afternoons of pizza, nachos, and beer, and Monday-morning quarterbacking at the office water cooler.  It’s an autumn ritual like raking leaves, storing away the lawn furniture, and getting reacquainted with your favorite sweatshirt.

And it starts in September … right now.

Not about to be left out of the fall sports euphoria, hoop fans and hockey fans are also anxiously awaiting tip-offs and face-offs as they anticipate three-pointers and slap shots being driven into the opposing team’s nets by their home-team superstars.

In sports bars across the country, basketball fans are again plotting to ensure that LeBron James is again deprived of an NBA championship ring; hockey fans are likewise calculating the odds of the Chicago Blackhawks capturing yet another Stanley Cup.

On a more natural plane, the grasp of summer’s oppressive heat and humidity will soon be broken and meekly surrender to pleasantly cool days and crisp nights.

I so look forward to Mother Nature’s annual fall color spectacular as she paints her domain with a brilliant palette of red, gold, yellow, orange, and crimson.  As though bidding us a fond farewell before the stark days of winter, the trees explode with vitality one last time in the waning sunlight and chilly autumn air before surrendering their colorful finery to the ground and falling quiet until next spring.

What could be more soul-satisfying than a lazy autumn stroll with the crunch of leaves underfoot, the fading sunshine, the invigorating breezes, and that distinctive “scent” of approaching snow in the air?

Autumn is such a sad, melancholy time.  Perhaps because it is—of course--a season of endings: of hot weather, thunderstorms, iced tea, lemonade, picnics, days at the beach, playing outdoors, warm nights, cooling breezes, gardening, and long, lazy afternoons dozing on the porch swing.  However, within its brief embrace, nature consoles us with fall colors, apple cider, pumpkin pie, the harvest moon, frosty nights, sweatshirts, hayrides, hot toddies, and the abundant harvest from the farmer’s labors.

But this season is also one of promise: of the first snowfall, the upcoming holiday season, hot chocolate, family gatherings, candy canes, icicles, holiday dinners, Santa Claus, snowball fights, those wonderful generations-old carols, egg nog, cuddling under a blanket before the fireplace, and all those special (and sometimes delightfully silly) moments that are born of that “most wonderful time of the year.”

With autumn’s arrival, you can juuuuust see it all on the horizon.

Don’t worry; it’s coming.  As soon as the nights become long and decidedly cold, things will start happening quickly.

By mid-October, many retailers will already be decked out in their holiday merchandising best.  I fully expect to see the first Santa Claus well before Halloween‘s ghosts and goblins have embarked upon their annual trick-or-treat trek (try saying THAT 5 times fast!).  Christmas carols will be in the air and blending with the tantalizing aroma of Thanksgiving turkeys.

Be forewarned: the supermarket will find the Christmas turkeys fighting the Thanksgiving birds for freezer space.

Be careful, dear reader; it could get bloody in there!

Once the holiday frenzy reaches its insane peak, psychiatrists everywhere will be treating patients tormented by nightmares of being buried alive by avalanches of cranberry sauce, dressing, mashed potatoes, and gravy.  Millions of people will cry out for relief from beloved Christmas carols so cruelly mangled into mindless merchandising jingles.  The ghosts of turkeys past, present, and future will roam the earth to avenge the people who had feasted upon them.

Calorie counts will soar out of control like the national debt.  For those of us who simply cannot resist the temptation of an extra mug of egg nog or one last cream puff (ME!), Congress will have no choice but to enact emergency legislation requiring each and every American to purchase and carry Christmas Gluttony Insurance.  This law will come to be known as … you guessed it … SantaCare!

The consequences could be catastrophic. 

Yet another generation of American children will be forever disillusioned by the sight of Santa on television hawking everything from veggie slicers to cell phones, from computers to insurance, from cars to cable TV, from big-screen televisions to rotisserie ovens, and from energy drinks to video games.

I predict that this Yuletide will find Jolly Old Saint Nick the victim of an attempted sleighjacking.  Luckily, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer will thwart this dastardly deed by taking cellphone video of the entire disgusting episode and posting it on YouTube.

That, dear reader, will be history’s ultimate viral video!

Oh, the humanity!

I’m simply not ready for all that craziness yet.

Considering what awaits us in the coming months, why don’t we simply relax and enjoy the peace of this quiet, reflective time of year?  Why don’t we savor the falling leaves, the crisp temperatures, the cozy nights by the fireplace, and the mugs of steaming apple cider while we’re lucky enough to have them?  Mother Nature blesses us with this magnificent season for such a brief period that it somehow seems so wrong to waste it mourning for the departing summer.

Enjoy autumn’s peace and quiet, dear reader.

They won’t be here for long.