RL291 - Arles

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The problem: That’s what you tell a snork, referring to a TSA-agent trying to tell John how things go, although John knows exactly that this is not how it is in reality.

The show title refers to the name of the supervisor at AT&T that Merlin was calling when he was out of data.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

John having computer trouble (RL291)

Many musicians and people from John’s walk of life did not make the transition to computers very gracefully and if Merlin wouldn’t have held John’s hand, maybe he would still be sitting at his Mac Classic II, pecking out Facebook posts, like ”You know what this country needs?…” and he wouldn’t have turned into this psion of the Internet. Merlin saved the listeners from 12 minutes of computer troubleshooting today, something they do over and over and over, which is the definition of insanity.

John sat down at the thing, as he does, Merlin called him, as he does, but this time it didn’t work. Why? Because you had to go to a menu to see if everything was normal, which it wasn’t. Why? John had spinning beachballs all over. When he sees a spinning beachball he always wonders ”Is this it? Is this the end? Are the missiles coming now? Is smoke going to pour out? Is everything John has ever made on a computer going to be lost right now? Because John didn’t buy enough cloud storage?”

John’s mom lost all her music and Apple just told her that she didn’t buy it the right way at the right time. She spent years ripping CDs into her iTunes, except that it didn’t go into the could, but it went away somehow, although it had been duplicated on all these different places. John gets very glassy-eyed talking to her about computers. She pays for Apple Care, because she gets her money out of it. She is on the phone with them 5 days a week and they are trying to help her solve her problems and they have walked her through so many thing. She really believes in Apple Care and got it as her friend to hold her hand through her computer stuff.

Apple Stores (RL291)

Merlin thinks that it is not as fun anymore to go to the Apple Store at the mall, because they have penetrated the consumer market in such a way that lots of people have had their iPhones and iPads for a really long time. They will get this annoying little popup that they are out of Cloud-space or they missed it because they didn’t want to pay the usurious fees that Apple takes to back stuff up to the cloud. It is really ridiculous and Apple needs to improve that.

When Merlin and his daughter stopped for gas on a trip and, she opened her door and her iPad, her favorite possession in the world fell out of the car. She was stricken and beside herself! This particular iPad was her favorite thing in the world. It didn’t only crack the screen, but it crashed onto the pavement out of the rented SUV and you could put your thumb into the corner of the screen. They have other iPads she can use, but she wants that particular 5 year old model.

It took Merlin a week to get a 2-minute appointment at the Apple Store where they told him to replace it. It gave him the opportunity to be in line, and although he had an appointment, he was the 5th person waiting to be triaged. Merlin feels for the people working at the Apple Store, because it is chaos in there and they constantly have to talk to bearers of bad tidings.

They are like pediatric oncologists! Person after person comes in and has to make a strident case. All the photos were on here yesterday and now it is broken and they want them back, but they won’t be able to get them back. The guy in front of Merlin was particularly animated because he had gotten locked out of his Apple ID and wanted them to fix it, but they don’t have a way to do that if he doesn’t have the password.

We are well past the center of the adoption curve and that stuff is now integral to the life of a lot of normal people and it is not backed up. Merlin does cloud backup and local backup and he still sometimes runs into problems. There are people who have never backed up anything and when their stuff just goes away it turns into a feeling of ”Apple fucked me!” They expect this thing to work and even if it is not Apple’s fault, they walk away after they waited 4 hours to get and appointment just to hear that they can’t get any of their stuff back.

Planned Obsolescence (RL291)

John remembers the first time he heard the term planned obsolescence when it was still described as something pretty new. When he and Merlin were kids, middle-aged people then found it insane to hear about planned obsolescence. They had their record player since the 1940s and now the microwave they just bought, which was 15 years ago, didn't work anymore. John has a lot of audio gear which is particularly egregious, because there are a lots of pieces like compressors, mixers, amplifiers, limiters and stuff from the 1950s that are still treasured pieces of gear.

They are still worth a ton of money and they still work great, but as things were moving into digital, many pieces started to connect to the Internet. They weren’t any cheaper than 1950s gear, but John has a couple of pieces downstairs that are no longer supported by the manufacturer, which feels like an abdication of responsibility from the user’s standpoint. John has an analog to digital converter that has no drivers anymore.

Some of the reasons are entirely practical. People who made the apps for your original iPhone are not making those apps anymore and people who make the OS at Apple would have to bend over backwards to support devices that go back 10 years, which is not efficient. John doesn’t want anything updated, but he just wants it to work as it always did. Let it run!

John’s mom wanted her 2011 iPhone back. It worked great when she got it and she never wanted anything to change about it, but then Apple told her to update her OS which she dutifully did and the phone got bricked. She wanted to uninstall the bad update and go back to how it was, but that was not possible. This feels like a new form of planned obsolescence where they actively try and make her thing not work anymore and once you follow their directions you can’t undo it. If you don’t follow their directions they start nagging you, which is one of the things that makes it suspicious.

If the upgrade was necessary, they would just take charge and it would just happen when you turn on the computer, but they need your approval and they are holding out their hand, saying ”Come with us!” You take their hand and you trust them, but every time you do it, you just sit there with your fingers crossed and say ”Is this the one where they are going to ruin my machine?” No-one has done a good job explaining that to the masses. The cloud is still offensive to John and to a lot of people. You used to buy a thing that holds its information and you take it home and back it up to your computer. None of that was confusing. Now you are backing it up to a mysterious off-planet which you have to pay a monthly fee for and people are not doing that because it feels usurious.

They have talked about that little Flip camera before (See RL242) that was dynamite and had changed the game for Merlin and his family. The camera itself is a physical item you buy and to the consumer it was like any other digital camera, but one day Flip just told the users that it wouldn’t work anymore. You can’t even use it as a camera and download it onto a memory stick. It is like when Google bought Nest and EOL:ed their smart hub that you had just spent $200 on as the last person on that train. John really enjoyed that Flip camera a month before they shut it down and before he even really figured out the interface.

The new capitalistic business model (RL291)

The world has changed from a business culture based on the idea ”We want to make customers for life” where businesses wanted to satisfy their customers and exceed their expectations. They were not going to sell them one box of Kraft dinner, but 1000 boxes of Kraft dinner over the course of the next 10 years! The contemporary business model is ”We are going to make something so exciting that people won’t care that it doesn’t work” and businesses don’t want to make customers for life anymore, but they want to sell this thing and get out.

John has the feeling that companies have been burning him. He first had Verizon and that relationship could have been one for life. He is that guy who will say that Ticonderoga is the only pencil he will ever use. In that original business case for cell phones some MBA somewhere made a choice to get users to sign a contract to subsidize the hardware and to turn it into a price war. None of them were going to make any money, but AT&T could sell it for $2 a month until the rest went out of business.

John’s mentality, coming from Ye Olden Times, is to provide the best service, because if you have the biggest network, the fastest service and the cheapest phones, you will be the market leader, but there is this new version of capitalism: Once you sign up with us, you are going to be trapped. You need to be really informed which one you are going to choose and there are penalties if you need to make any change or if you accidentally change a thing and you are resigning the contract with new terms of services.

They justified this new capitalism move with technology that forced them to institute a new program, but it was just some MBA who figured out a way and everybody jumped onboard. It didn’t have to go that way, but at the time John, a person in his mid-30s, was offended by it. He was coming from the Nordstrom model where you can bring this thing back if it broke after 4 years. At one time John had to call Verizon because he was at the store and they had sold him a new bell & whistle, but they signed him up with a new contract, which is not what he wanted or what the person said, because if they had said ”If you do this, you need to sign up for 2 more years”, John wouldn’t have done it.

They told him that getting out of that contract will cost John $400, so John told them that he will never use Verizon again, but the customer service agent literally said ”If you don’t want to be on our 2-year contract, you weren’t going to use Verizon anyway, so why should I care?” and John said that he wouldn’t cross the street to save Verizon from a fire. It was so different interacting with a company who saw him just as a fucking ant. From that moment on, every interaction John had with the tech world started with that mentality. It still burns inside!

Merlin running out of data with AT&T (RL291)

Merlin switched to AT&T when he got an iPhone in 2008 and at a certain point he was grandfathered in for unlimited data, but with a lot of asterisks. At one point his wife got an iPhone as well and they said that if he made that change and used more of their service and gave them more money every month, he would not be grandfathered in anymore. Merlin still did it. Last week, Merlin's family went to Yosemite (this is such a white whine), they had pretty good LTE in their cabin and they were watching TV shows. Merlin got a warning that he was using 75% of his data and another one that he had used 100%, which was fine, but they would kick him down to 1993-level speeds, like 1/300 of what he gets at Comcast at home.

Merlin called AT&T on a Friday night and got launched into a call center speaking with Stacey. She said that the only way to get more data is to change his plan which had all kinds of other impacts, just for having LTE for 26 more hours until his billing cycle restarts. He asked to speak with the supervisor and had to be on hold for 20 minutes while his family was watching their dad being mad, until he reached somebody with the name of Arles, but he couldn’t help him out either. So they had a Saturday without Internet, which was not a huge deal, but Merlin is a nerd and does a lot of things that require a little bit of data. He wished they could treat him like a 15-year customer and give him maybe LTE for free for 26 hours.

Both Merlin’s and John’s expectations come from a place from the distant past and their desire to demand satisfaction from a merchant comes from an old idea which is the soul of capitalism: ”I have other options, I can buy products from other vendors” The current model is what Merlin calls the ”resort economy”. If you are on a ship or some remote resort and you go to the only Bodega in town, they will charge you $30 for sunscreen, because they can do that and it is part of the process, but if there would be any conceivable way for you to get it from anywhere else, you certainly would not continue to go back to that place for 30 years to get your sunscreen, because they are there to fuck people over for a short period of time. You would never abide that in your day to day and go to a place that short-changes you.

There are 2 side-by-side capitalisms now. If you went to a coffee shop and received only slightly bad service or received a slightly bad cup of coffee, you would never go to that place again, but you would instead walk five blocks to the one where they give you a good cup of coffee. Somehow it has been established as Fait Accompli within the tech world that we have no recourse of that kind. People will tell you to pick a nicer abuser and get a Google phone. Before there were iPhones they were wondering why there wasn’t a phone that syncs with the Mac.

2018-May: John’s daughter’s mother in Australia (RL291)

In May of 2018, John’s daughter’s mom was in Brisbane, Australia. After she landed from her 17 hour flight she was standing at the airport and John Facetimed her. It worked perfectly with basically zero lag. It is magic and there is no extra charge, because she has some international plan. John remembers when they were first touring Europe in the early 2000s and you had to have a different phone plan for every country. John had plastic bags with 6 different phones and 15 different SIM cards and they all had money on them somewhere, burner-phones right and left! All that has been solved, except that somewhere along the line we have been asked to accept a business model that doesn’t need to be the case. Where is the humanity? Is there no reward in the system for loyalty and for the fact that Merlin has cuffed himself to AT&T? All he wants is a little dignity, but their response is that they are a machine and there is no solution.

John’s Delta Airlines feud (RL291)

The new model of capitalism has infected other business and everybody is mad at airlines now. You want to use a different airline? Cry us a river! John’s Delta Skymiles problem was a similar thing. He had decided he was going to be a Delta guy because Hodgman and Coulton talked him into it. He was going to collect his miles, maintain his status and make use of his benefits. Somewhere along the line we have decided that we will gauge air travel primarily on price, which has not always been true. It was a lot more costly at the time it was regulated and flights in the 1970s were like $700.

In the early 1980s it became all about the price wars but there were no budget airlines at the time. There were 1000 airlines in Alaska, but Alaska Airlines was the main airline. Wien Air Alaska was another one that was competitive and that was not powered by rubber bands like most of the other airlines up there. John’s mom was a Delta-loyalist in the 1980s and she got free trips to Hawaii. The whole premise of the milage program was customer loyalty and this is precisely the place in your machine where you need a human being empowered to give someone a little pretend dignity. The whole idea is that they want you to think of them as Nordstrom. You do have choices and you do use them. By pursuing status you are demonstrating loyalty, which a business used to want.

As it came to the end of the year, John had a flight booked and he called them to ask if that flight would be enough to get over the line and maintain his status, which they confirmed. As he went back to the airport on January 20th, not only was he not in his status, but he was down in Zone 3 where they didn’t have his TSA Pre-check stuff front-loaded and he had to wait in the normal line with the snorks. They were trying to tell him that the checks were random, but he knows for a fact that they aren’t. That is what you tell a snork, but John is not one. He asked them to put on his pre-check, because he had seen a dozen of times that this happened to others.

John got back on the phone, because they had told him before that he had made it over the line, but what he didn't do was enough spending. There are two things for the status: The miles and the spending. John had spent thousands of dollars on his airline, but he didn’t spend $170 of mystery money somewhere along the line on drinks or whatever. It felt like they were cheating at the game they made up themselves! John talked between human beings, he asked for the manager, and he called them again and again every day. Had they just said that he needed to give them $170 in cash, he would have done it, but they had told him he was fine. He even had a woman go through every flight to see if he had gotten credit for all of them, she found one that was missing, but 10 minutes into the conversation she noticed that it was just under a different thing. They have the power to solve this with a keystroke, but they can’t!

From January to March John was flying on Delta an average of 4 times a month because he was going back and forth to California (to see Millennial Girlfriend) and he was in Zone 3 for all of this. While they were processing his case, he was still a snork and every time he went to the airport he was bruised by this. He was still loyal and he was playing their game, because he wanted his status back, groveling at their feet to please take him back. At one point they said that John can buy that $170 of money he didn’t spend, but they only sell it in $500 increments, like an in-app purchase. John balked at that.

Had a stewardess spilled coffee next to him, he would have gotten 7000 points, but now he would need to pay $500 to not get anything in return except being allowed at their party? He had that shred of dignity left and he didn’t do it, but later he regretted it, because he spent at least $500 worth of man-hours on the phone with these people. In April, John finally talked to a person at Delta who said that they could sign him up for their fly-into-status program, which is a program for people who didn't get their status. John was hearing about this after weeks and weeks of phone calls! He is no different now than he was then. He would have signed up for that immediately on January 17th when he called the first time.

As John signed up for that program, he got a colorful brochure in the mail: If you fly 8000 miles (something like that, he doesn’t remember) in the three months immediately after you joined the fly-into-status program, you will return to your status. From the time that John had initially called them to the moment they revealed to him the existence of the fly-into-status-program, he had already flown the requisite number of miles, but it said that if only counts from the day you joined the fly-into-status program.

It all came by way of one of these email replies where the person has a name like Arles, but the email adress is like noreply at deltaairlines dot com, so there isn’t a person that John can write and talk to. And yet, John still flies Delta, because there isn’t any other option. United is the fucking crime of the century and John is not a South West person, he is not going to do that. John just wants some human dignity in this world. Their version of capitalism is that if you want some dignity, you pay $2500 to fly from here to there. It is like in-app purchases in one of these candy games. The only way to win is to keep giving them money to buy coins.

Rental cars (RL291)

Merlin came back from his recent trip to Yosemite still steamed from his AT&T thing. His wife had rented a crossover SUV and they recommended her to prepay for her gas because if she would return it with less than a full tank, it would be very costly otherwise. The game is to not wreck the car and when you bring it back, have it as close to empty as possible to get optimal value out of this. Merlin’s wife agreed and pre-paid for the tank, but when she brought it back empty, they said that she hadn’t pre-paid the gas and although she had played the video game and went with their rules, she had lost the video game.

It might not be the end of the world, but it ruins your day and it was mother’s day and she was very sad about that. Bad for her that she didn’t inspect every line of the receipt that came out. John once brought a rental car back later than he had said when he rented it. He had exceeded the window, but it was still the same day, and they wanted $150 for it, which is the entirety of what Merlin paid for the crossover SUV. He wanted to talk to the manager, but she was already the manager.

John knew that she could make a keystroke and all of that would go away, but he doesn’t know how he can lower himself to a status so that would be required for her to do that. He doesn’t have a status so high that he can do anything about this either, because if he did, $150 wouldn’t matter to him and he would have rented the biggest car and would have put it on his Gold-Platinum status card and his assistant would have returned it. It is the high price of being poor.

It is when you are trying to be economical and price-sensitive about something, that you get all the fugees. John was trying to calibrate what the lowness was he was prepared to subject himself to. How low can he grovel to make Arles feel… what? Sympathy? That is the only ploy he had. He cannot say that he will never use their product again because that no longer has any weight, even though that used to be the thing you said. If you said that now, they would tell you to go over to Hertz which is in the same booth, they just trade hats and they are not even separate companies anymore, but they are all owned by Facebook.

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