@Orcon, Should I Stay or Should I Go?


Life used to be so easy when it was just Telecom who looked after landlines. Now when something goes wrong it’s all like, “your call is really important to us and is there anything else we can do for you?” BUT:

Our connection, which is unbundled, (so there is no dial tone and if the Internet is down, so is the phone) started playing up on Friday. Saturday it was on and off intermittently. I rang the nice man at Orcon who said that they would put a monitor on the line and he could see that it had disconnected about 9 times so far that day. So there was definitely a problem.

He said they would monitor it for 24 hours and see if they could find the problem. I was OK with that. I’m not an unreasonable person.

But I never heard back from them and it continued to be on and off all weekend until this morning, as I was trying to sort out emails and confirm my hydrotherapy for midday for my back injury, it all died. No phone, no internet.

So I rang them again and told them I suspected it could have been something to do with the company who looks after our water who had done some repairs for a neighbour and I asked if anyone else had any problems. “No” they assured me, Chorus had not advised of any other problems.

So they said they would try to get someone on to it today BUT:

  • If it was on our property, it would cost us $130 for them to locate it.
  • If they had to come inside and fix something it would be $230; and
  • If I wasn’t home when they had to come in to check it out, and they therefore couldn’t come in, they would charge me $130.

So I had to cancel my hydrotherapy which I had been looking forward to. If you’ve ever had a serious back injury, you know how good it is to be in water and not have gravity pressing down on those bulging disks. The therapy is very important and I am doing it to either avoid serious surgery, or at worst be strong for a speedy recovery if I need it. I don’t need the stress on top of the pain.

Chorus I went up to the end of the driveway to see if there was anything obvious and found an engineer who was working on a fault for my next door neighbour who apparently had reported problems since Friday and also had no Internet or phone!

The problem is that her account is with Vodafone and it seems that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. With so many companies busy clipping the ticket of old copper wires, you have to wonder what happened to the ‘Kiwi Share’.

Given that I couldn’t go and do my physio, I got my daughter to stick around so I could at least go for a walk around the block and not get ‘fined’ if Chorus needed to get into the house.

When I got back I learned that yet another neighbour also had no phone. He didn’t report it because he knew that Chorus were working ‘on the line’. But he was with Spark, who don’t share information with Vodafone, who don’t share information with Orcon. It seems that internally Chorus don’t escalate things unless they are widespread, so they treat each call from the various ‘providers’ as isolated events.  My third neighbour didn’t realise that if he didn’t report it, nobody would know he had no phone or Internet and it wouldn’t get sorted.

So he is now ringing Spark and between us we don’t know if there are any other neighbours with a problem.

OrconI did get a nice email from Orcon  saying “We’ve Got This’ and suggesting that I might want to reboot my modem as this often solves ‘problems’. I was thinking more that the telecommunications systems of virtual telecommunications providers might need solving.

I replied to the email from Orcon telling them how annoyed and frustrated I was with all the advice of what everything could cost me, when I know the problem is not on my side of the network. I then got a nice automated response telling me that they usually deal with issues within one working day and there were a couple of websites with “loads of answers for some of the most common questions”.

Chorus vanNext thing you know, as I am writing this, a Chorus wagon comes down my drive with another engineer who apparently knew nothing about the first engineer that had the plinth off, working on my neighbour’s line. No wonder they need so many lots of $130. I can’t imagine the overhead this all takes.

What I also don’t understand is why so many people have to be manually engaged in help-desks (at least one for each brand), manual testing and logging calls whilst not communicating with each other. Why doesn’t the network have some sort of intelligence that monitors lines and reports faults and outages?

I’m not being silly here. My first job was as a Technical Service Officer and I was the guy on the other end of ‘Faults Service’. I was highly trained and given a very thorough knowledge of all aspects of telecommunications. Now that was a long time ago and the systems were already reasonably sophisticated.

It was very easy to run ‘line tests’ and if there was a fault, we could usually see what type of fault it was from the ‘Test Room’ and what type of person (faultman, lineman, cable jointer etc) we would need to send out to check on the problem. The types of tests they do today are not dissimilar because much of the country still uses those same copper cables that haven’t been replaced in many decades.

I explained to the new Chorus representative what had happened. He went and had a look and eventually came back and told me that there was a problem in the neighborhood and that he would  report it to Chorus so they could send the right kind of engineer, probably tomorrow.

He also said that for a small monthly fee I could have a service agreement maintaining the telecommunications system on the inside of my property and house. I have never had a single problem in my house except for faulty Orcon routers! With today’s systems I don’t need to use the slick Cat 5 cable system my house was wired with, everything is wireless. I don’t use any of the other jack points. They are now redundant.

So now, he has told me they will hopefully send someone else out tomorrow!

So what do you think? Should I stay or Should I Go Now. Isn’t it ironic that this song is by The Clash.

I just got a text message saying the first available technician will be booked to look at my problem tomorrow. They had better come before my dentist appointment. They charge a lot more than $130 if you cancel on them.

Am I being unreasonable? Can one of the other Telcos do better? They know how to charge and threaten with additional costs, but what about compensation for me, including mobile data and lost time?

 

Of Asimov, Robots, Artificial Intelligence and What is a Human Anyway


You might say I have too much time on my hands. I would answer that I never have enough time, but my back injury continues and I have had time to think in a few directions.

Whether it is HAL 9000, remember “I’m sorry but I can’t do that Dave” as an answer to “Open the Pod bay doors HAL” from 2001 A Space Odyssey?

If you haven’t tried it, ask Alexa, Siri, Cortana or whatever your speech interface is to the internet, those famous words. “Open the Pod bay doors HAL” If only Arthur C Clarke was around to experience that.

Damn, I just remembered that they had a 4K restoration of the movie at Imax last month for the 50th anniversary of the movie. I was hoping to find someone to go with and then totally forgot about it. That would have been amazing.

AsimovI collect books and in recent years have given away many books that I was never going to read again, but decided to extend my collections of specific writers and starting at the beginning of the alphabet, I looked at what was missing from my Isaac Asimov collection and amongst others bought a copy of The Bicentennial Man.

Asimov is of course famous for the 3 Laws of Robotics. Ironically a lot of people debunked his laws and said they were flawed and used that to criticise him as being unrealistic or perhaps idealistic, which is a trait of many SciFi authors of the 70’s. However, he knew that himself. In many of his stories, robots disobeyed the laws.

There is a great story in this book called That Thou Art Mindful of Him, in which is a play on Psalm 8:4-6, he also infers in some of the stories that he was Jewish through some of the characters and had a keen sense of humor.

In this story (and I’m sorry for the spoiler) a series of robots are produced and given the capability to become self aware, in effect sentient. They redefine what it is to be human and declare themselves as such.

I played with the thought of Singularity and imagined if autonomous cars could pass the Turing Test 

I also looked at what might happen if they didn’t and what hackers might be able to do.

What I keep coming back to and writers like Philip K Dick, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and many others foresaw 50 and more years ago and similar to where the TV series Humans is heading, is that humans are dangerous to the planet.

Now I like being human and I hope that my descendants will have safe and healthy planet for thousands of years from now and many of my little stories are in jest.

BUT, if climate change, plastic pollution, air pollution, brinkmanship politics, drought, famine, and war are the result of how great and committed we humans fancy ourselves to be, would it not be realistic if an Artificial Intelligence was developed to the point of Singularity and able to continue to learn with or without programmed biases, would their logic determine that the human race should either be limited or allowed to exterminate ourselves?

Kurzweil looked at it a different way and said that Singularity would occur around 2045 and potentially be a synthesis between human and machine, in effect human 2.0. He would be about 98 at that point in time, so it will be interesting to see if he is still around and if he is right.

Maybe Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and many futuristic projects should have the last word. He’s pretty successful and walks the talk. DARPA, Rex Bionics and hundreds of companies, universities and other innovators are developing systems that will be able to think for themselves. Yes, for specific purposes, but they are being created.

It’s interesting that in this clip, they say that Science Fiction is usually about 50 years ahead of its time. So back to Asimov, reading him today, especially a book like The Bicentennial Man, where like Stephen King and others, he talks about his stories, was he in fact prophetic?

Yes, maybe I’ve had too much time to think, but do you think we should be thinking about this. Just imagined if a machine, say a Robocop decided that using facial recognition or perhaps racial recognition, that you were, could be, or could become a criminal and then think about biases that go into programming, often of necessity.

What conclusions could an AI start taking when given some information and some bias and then left to learn on the basis of that starting point? Oh and I didn’t even mention George Orwell. He wrote Animal Farm in 1945. Remember “All humans are equal, but some are more equal than others”? Shutting up now……..

 

Why Would You Want an Amazon Echo and Who Else is Listening


Amazon EchoHow do you feel about a device that is listening to everything that is being said in your home or office and is connected to the Internet? Especially in this age of cyber terrorism,  when we know that criminals already use tools like Facebook to target people with easy to steal and easy to sell assets.

How do you feel when Gmail bombards you with advertisements for products you have just bought or vacation location deals when you have just returned home from that place? Besides being a waste of time because you already have those things, it shows how Google (in return for giving you free email software and storage) has access to everything you write using their freeware.

So when Amazon had their massive sale on Prime Day, I thought about the Amazon Echo and wondered what I would do with it if I had one and why.

I very occasionally use Siri to save a reminder, a note, perhaps in the car to reduce the risk of having pen and paper in my hand when the lights change, or illegally using my phone because of the inherent risks, even at a traffic light. No joke, my wife has had 2 cars she was driving totalled, both while she was legally stationary at a red light. I’m not saying she could have avoided them, she couldn’t, but the people who hit our cars were certainly not paying attention.

So when I take Siri, and I have to admit it has improved in it’s ability to understand my Kiwi accent, the number of times I have said one thing and Siri has randomly rung a phone number for someone I had no desire to speak with and the fact that Siri has even randomly responded to a sound it heard, when I hadn’t even touched my phone is interesting.

I would love to have an automated home. When I got home last night from dinner in the freezing cold city it was around 6 degrees inside our house and I said to my wife how nice it would be if I could have turned on the heat pump via my phone. It has a timer, but we didn’t know when we would be home and I’m sure we could get an electrician to wire a remote switch into that circuit without having to buy a new heat pump, but I digress.

When everything I write makes a permanent footprint on the Internet and the supplier of that service has access to it all in order to ‘assist me’, I struggle with why I would want another device listening to everything I say.

Imagine living in a country like North Korea where you can be put in jail or worse for just saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, and then having a device that YOU PURCHASED providing access to every word that you said in the ‘privacy of your own home’.

Now I know that Amazon is not a spy agency, they can’t afford for this product to risk your privacy because if it did, they could go broke, but they do want to know what you are interested in and devices like these are supposed to be your personal digital assistant. I used to have an executive assistant in one of my jobs and she knew what I wanted or needed often before I did. It was awesome because I knew and trusted her. this device has to listen, even for the Alexa command to work, so technically it is listening to every word, even if in theory it is identifying most as not relevant.

The biggest issue for me with devices like this, which was also why I digressed a little with the heatpump, is that hacking or cyber crime is easy if you know how,or are prepared to pay someone to do it for you. Whether it is hacking someone’s wireless internal garage door or front door, checking Facebook to see who has a boat in the their back yard AND is on holiday overseas is really simple, because most people don’t know how to or don’t want privacy, because they don’t realise the risk.

I read a CBS story this morning about how some cheap Chinese mobiles are apparently surreptitiously sending information from the mobiles back to China using firmware that was in the phones from the factory.

You could say that Alexa can only be woken by people using the word Alexa, then it starts listening for instructions. So what is the first thing that is going to happen when you buy one of these devices? You’re going to tell your friends about it and show it off, so you are going to be using the word frequently and waking it up frequently and it will start listening.

For now I think I’d at least like to be able to use the fingerprint recognition on my phone and tap a button to turn on an appliance if I can’t be bothered standing up to do something like turn on a light. I am happy that I can have a wireless remote system with security algorithms to do that. I’m not sure I want Amazon or a hacker to be able to listen to everything said in my home and then using data mining tools to look for keywords or information that could be used by criminals, or by advertisers to send me more info I don’t want.

How about you?

 

Nice One Orcon


317019_10150310135863188_76190173187_7703929_5794010_nWhy is it that the little things are so hard? Why do I really dislike credit departments? Do you know how yours talks to your customers?

So today I got home after a long but great day at the office. I found a ‘letter’ from Orcon saying that I had 5 days to pay my overdue account or risk getting my phone and Internet disconnected. I previously took up the option to pay by American Express to make sure that it was always paid on time, along with my power bill.

I rang Orcon and their credit department answered way faster than their support help desk ever has, less than a minute! I gave them my details and said I had received the letter and the person on the phone (Philippines accent I think) responded with “and when are you going to pay it?” I was taken aback. As far as I knew, it was always paid on time by Amex.

It transpired that my Amex card expired at the end of July, but I never received the replacement that American Express subsequently told me they had sent. I didn’t receive anything from Amex asking why the card had not been authenticated, nor did I receive anything from Orcon saying the account hadn’t been paid. I spend over a thousand dollars a year with Orcon, so at least a response like “How may I help you?” Rather than “when are you going to pay?” might have been nice.

So Orcon, I paid your account, that I didn’t know was overdue, on my Visa and American Express will no longer get a commission on that monthly transaction.

If you know that’s how your ‘Accounts Receivable’ treat your customers, you should also know that they don’t like it.

The last company that spoke to me like that was GE Money, through which I once bought a Canon SLR camera on 12 months interest free and was about 5 days overdue (because I didn’t get a reminder note from them). That was about 5 years ago and I have never used them again and told lots of people who follow me, my story.

Maybe it’s time to shop around and see what packages your competitors are offering, Orcon….. I’m sure my blog and social media followers would welcome my opinion. For everyone else, if you use 3rd party call centers, it’s a good idea to check them out as a customer once in a while and see how they are representing your business, because they are your front desk, especially if you don’t have a bricks and mortar presence.

3,000 Teen Deaths from Texting and Driving


A study done by the Cohen’s Children’s Medical Center in New York, revealed that drinking and driving resulted in the death’s of 2,700 teens in the US, compared to 3,000 from texting and driving.

How about a quick, honest but anonymous poll:

I was listening to the Peggy Smedley Show this morning while cleaning the bathroom and enjoyed some great interviews in her Distracted Driving Month series. The topics were great, everything from the value of reversing cameras through to why car manufacturers are putting social media technology into their cars.

Anyway, a subject that peaked my interest was comparisons of factors impacting on or causing accidents.Talking or texting on the phone is one that that police and others who examine the results of motor accidents look for by default these days.

Peggy quoted a study (can’t remember which university) where they found that people with a blood alcohol level of .08 performed better behind the wheel than people who were using their mobile phone. If you want more detail, listen to Peggy’s back shows on her website or on iTunes, the latest ones being about Debunking Myths about Cellphones and Driving.

Just putting that into context, most people think that dialing a number (I only dial on my hands-free via voice commands with  Siri, or not at all these days) or sending a txt isn’t a big deal. I see ‘professional drivers’ holding their mobile up to their ear pretty much daily. One would assume they are sober, and mentally alert. I was also going to say relaxed, but if they were relaxed, they probably wouldn’t feel the need to take a personal risk, let alone knowing they are breaking the law; so you could surmise that they are already distracted and their minds are not on the road. Yet the study showed that drivers using their mobile were more distracted and less able to perform than those who were at a blood alcohol level where, according to a Blood Alcohol Chart on Wikipedia, they were at the upper range and would be experiencing:

  • Impaired reasoning
  • Reduced depth perception
  • Reduced peripheral vision
  • Reduced glare recovery; and behaviors including
  • Blunted feelings
  • Dis-inhibition; and
  • Extroversion

SheepI really enjoy listening to music when I drive and I have a full subscription to Spotify. I love it. My iPhone FM Transmitter sends it to my car stereo, while charging my phone. I like that. I have been guilty of occasionally looking down at my iPhone for the name of an artist or to skip a track. Our maximum legal driving speed on motorways and highways in New Zealand is 100kmph. Often that is on highways where kids play or cycle on the side of the road. All it takes is for a ball to bounce onto the road, or wandering stock to change things in an instant.

So I thought I’d have a look at the numbers and went to the Unitarium online speed calculator. I worked out that if my eyes were on my phone for 3 seconds (doesn’t sound like much) whilst driving at a legal 100km per hour, my eyes would have left the road  and I would have been oblivious to what was happening on it for 30 meters!

Have you ever done that?

Can the NSA track you on your prepay mobile?


The recent news about PRISM and NSA surveillance on people based on their Internet usage and mobile usage is fascinating. The concept of being able to monitor people’s activity based on their mobile is nothing new, although of course we all thought that it would only happen under a warrant, or in emergency circumstances such as when someone makes a 911 call or perhaps in a SAR emergency.

USA 162Commercial vehicles are being tracked as a normal process, in some cases to ensure staff are working, but more commonly for more practical purposes, such as driver behaviour and safety, making sure that refrigerated trailers maintain correct temperatures and in countries like New Zealand to allow diesel truck operators to claim Road User Charge rebates when they are not driving on public roads, which can save businesses a truck load of money if you will pardon the pun.

As a fan of TV programs like Person of Interest and 24, which I hear is making a comeback, I often wonder why it seems so hard to track criminals, but if you follow my blogs and tweets you will see that more and more criminals are being caught, especially after stealing iPhones or other devices containing GPS and communications. I love those stories.

So, to the question of this blog. What we know is that government agencies (and businesses with their clients’ approval, such as finance and insurance companies) are tracking people and monitoring their behaviour. By monitoring Big Data about the location of people’s mobiles, algorithms can identify information such as where people live, work and play. They can identify associations with other people through this same data. For example if you monitor a person and establish their home (where their mobile is most nights of the year) and identify other mobile devices that are also at that location during most nights of the year, then you can identify that they also probably reside at that location.

If those people were criminal suspects of any kind, you could thereby potential make some assumptions that those people might also be criminals. This would be very useful, not only with terrorists, which we thought were the prime reason for being able to spy on people, but also gangs, drug dealers and manufacturers and more. I guess part of the issue there is whether this evidence is admissible in a court of law. But again I digress.

If you are able to monitor mobile phone radio connections using GPS or less accurate technologies and identify unknown devices such as prepaid mobiles that frequently appear at the same locations as known devices, that would suggest that you could infer the identity or characteristics of a user. If, for example, a person had a mobile for normal use and an anonymous prepaid mobile for more nefarious purposes and they were carried around together, you could infer that the user was the same person.

This could mean that effectively the use of a prepaid mobile, being used for the purposes of criminal activity, on the basis of its implied anonymity, could be fatally flawed. Not a bad thing in my opinion. The problem is more in the assumption that a governmental agency has the right to spy on its citizens without recourse and without obtaining a warrant from a court first, a bit like apologising after the event.

I am all for keeping law abiding citizens safe, but there should be transparency on how that is done, especially in countries that we consider to be enlightened democracies. Anyway, the answer to the question in my opinion is that using a prepaid mobile will not by default prevent you from being tracked or identified if an agency has the power to track radio devices. the technology is certainly easy to access.

Why is Telecom Making 1500 staff Redundant?


telephoneTelecom is once again making a large number of staff redundant. According to Labour ICT spokesperson Clare Curran up to 1,500 people will lose their jobs. This is the result of a planned restructure, although Telecom is not prepared to confirm the numbers. My question is how did Telecom get to a position where they were so overstaffed? You don’t suddenly find you have 1,500 people more than you need on the payroll, do you? 

I started my career with Telecom as a Technical Service Officer back in the day when they had 26,000 staff and was part of NZ Post, which all changed back in the late 1980’s. I joined them because at school they taught us that the communications age was on us and I had a fascination for the future from the age of 7 or 8, reading the Science Fiction greats.

I went to Post Office Technical Training School on College Hill in Auckland and enjoyed a phenomenal education, covering all elements of technology from engineering and how transistors work, through to how exchanges work, management and people skills and everything in between. My training included working in the different types of telephone exchanges, working with fault-men, linesmen, cable jointers, engineers, radio and much more. I loved my job. I loved learning and was one of only two people over the years to score 100% in most of my exams.

I recognized early on though, that the ‘system’ that provided people with 40 year gold watch careers was fatally flawed and whilst the education was world class, HR was pretty much non existent. Promotion was based on a system called ‘Reporting’ where each year we were asked to rate, rank and comment our colleagues, who spent the month before, almost like politicians going to all the colleagues, saying “I’ll give you a good report if you do the same for me.”

PeterI saw totally incompetent people rise to the top of the flock, whilst others continued to work their 24 hour shifts who really should have been making the move into management, because they had the people skills, experience and the ability to take on senior decision making roles. That was my second experience of the Peter Principle, the problem was that it wasn’t one off, it was institutionalized. Telecom was an old school Government Department and whilst many of us worked very hard, those who didn’t want to, could graze on the effort of those who did. If the organisation was better managed and only staffed by people who wanted to work, we could have easily cut 5,000 from the staff without significant reduction in productivity.

I left Telecom at the time, because I wanted to grow into a management career, but I also wanted to be working in the industry with a company that was forward thinking and fortunately I found  7 year career opportunity at Tait Electronics, who I subsequently left to move to a more senior level in another ICT company.

After I left, Telecom made many of my colleagues redundant. 6 months later they found out they couldn’t function without their skills and brought many of them back as contractors (some of whom stayed for more than 10 years) on a significantly increased pay scale. They did the same jobs, but as self employed people, and it cost Telecom much more.

There seems to be, in my opinion, a major problem that creeps into corporates. The bigger they get, the more politics comes into play, just as it did back in the day. They become inefficient, decisions are often made in the interests of senior people, rather than in the interest of the company. They add on staff to grow empires and create division after division of people to fill roles that aren’t necessarily needed, often at the cost of other areas that are not well served.

Telecom spokesperson Andrew Pirie told Stuff that “while job reductions would occur across the board at Telecom, many of the cuts would be to middle management functions in administrative areas such as finance and human resources.” That begs the question of why there are so many people in those roles in the first place. I can understand that there could be a couple of dozen people in a company of that size that from time to time need to change roles, departments or as focus changes, may find their positions redundant. I have to ask though, how does a corporate get to a position where they have 1500 people more than they need?

Who is responsible to the shareholders and the staff for allowing this to happen? Are the shareholders asking questions as to why their share value is going down, if those staff were redundant, why were they employed? What has changed? The classic result then would be that someone will have to fall on the sword, but I think perhaps the discussion should start with Minister Steven Joyce asking some serious questions. Problem is, he’s still asking questions about Novopay. Don’t get me started on our education system. I’ll leave that for another day’s soap box about how we are paying lip service to the importance of the future of our children, tomorrow’s leaders and the teachers who we have been let down so badly, but continue to serve for the sake of the children.

So the good news is that Rod Drury of Xero and Ian McCrae of Orion Health are looking for quality staff and are struggling to find them here. The bad news is that Telecom is saying that most of the people being made redundant aren’t the ICT people that Rod and Ian want.