Headmaster’s Thoughts January 2019

Happy New Year. I mean that sincerely. Happy New Year!

All right…we got that out of the way. Let us talk about gadgets. I grew up with very few; my family had a telephone and a radio. I say “a” telephone because, in my family, we had one. It was black and you turned the dial to get the number (you older folk will know what I mean) and I never used it. Children did not call children. We also had a radio, and it was listened to for the news from the BBC, which was the only channel that was broadcast. When I was a teenager we, one day, got a third gadget, a record player which was a combined turntable and speaker.

So I am impressed by the plethora of gadgets that now surround our everyday lives. I use a computer for internet questions, student data retrieval, e-mail, and word processing. It works amazingly well. I have no idea how it works, but then I also do not know how cars work or planes fly. Actually, I do not know how any appliances work. I was consistently impressed by my grandchildren when they barely could read, who could add apps to my IPad in no time at all.

My problem is what happens when these incredibly complicated devices go wrong. Lately, our television has given us trouble. Actually it is not the television itself but the cable provider. In the interests of fairness, I will not mention the name of the cable provider (SPECTRUM) because that would imply that it (SPECTRUM) was worse than any other, and I am not sure, in our area, that there is another option. I do know that it used to be Time Warner, and is now this new company whose name I will, of course, not mention.

We recently found that we could not get the BBC channel on our television. To most of you, this would not be a hardship. I understand that the word “hardship” is somewhat of an exaggeration but, since we pay for the channel and watch it, the sudden absence of the channel was, at least, annoying. So I rang up the cable provider whose name I will not say, and the first thing one gets is a voice asking if you want to continue in Spanish. After indicating that the preferred language of dialogue would be English, I get a different, but still female, voice listing a variety of products that they can offer and giving me a small menu of numbers to press to pay my bill, or question my bill, or add a channel. They never give a number to press for help or an operator but, and I pass this tip on free of charge, if you stay on the line eventually they say that they will refer you to technical service. You then get a voice saying that “due to the current volume of calls there may be a long wait” and it would be better to go to their website. Ignoring that, since there is just no way that I would ever understand written directions how to fix anything on an appliance that I have no idea how it works in the first place, one gets music. Music that is interrupted frequently by the voice repeating that “due to the current volume of calls” etc. It does not matter what time you call, and I have experimented with this for purely spiteful reasons (which anyone in my position would immediately understand), you will get the same “due to the current volume of calls” message at any time of the day or night. You are stuck with anywhere from 15 minutes of music (at 3.00am) to 35 minutes or more at normal evening hours. Eventually someone will interrupt the “due to the current volume of calls” repetition and answer.

This is now the moment of truth. Do you get a man in from a town in India or a woman in the United States? Let me categorically state that you are better off with a woman in the good old US of A. The man in Bangalore, India (where, I am told, the entire town is gainfully employed in answering questions on gadgets for the United States and Canada) is always pleasant. And I am all for Bangalore, which for obscure reasons has recently changed its name to Bangaluru. I admit that I admire these Bangaloreans, or Bangalurians, (yes, I made those words up!) and they certainly are entitled to make their living doing what they do. They do it with charm. The man will say he is called Bob, and he will ask how I am enjoying the weather. He may well say encouraging words about the New York Jets. But he is not who he says he is. His name is unpronounceable, and if pushed he will admit that he is in some town which is at least 8000 miles away. However, he does have a manual (which you certainly do not) and if the manual can solve the problem, then he can.

The advantage of a woman in the home country is that she actually can answer if the problem is not in the manual or if, and this is almost always what happens, you have to reboot. It sounds so simple…just reboot. Like putting on a shoe. Only it takes at least half an hour and does not necessarily work the first time (similar to some surgery) so you have to do it again. The advantage of the lady is that she will stay with you on the phone while you reboot. She will guide you every step of the way. I knew a friend who flew jet planes for the Air Force. In the modern fighter plane, when things go terribly wrong, the computer tells the pilot what to do. They use a calm female voice for this. I fully understand. You would rather hear “if you don’t eject immediately you will die in a fiery explosion” from a calm female voice than a man’s voice from Asia. And so it is with rebooting.

Since everything is now bundled, by which, as you know, you get your phone, television, and internet service from the same nameless (see above) provider, you are bound eventually to have to call about one of these gadgets. Be prepared! It will take at least an hour and you will need a shower afterwards because, as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, you will be sweating before the call is ended.

All of which leads me back to my childhood. Our gadgets, few as they were, did not break. The phone always worked unless a telephone line came down because a tree fell. The radio always told us the news, grim as it may have been, and the record player played records. If any of these gadgets failed, and that rarely happened, there would have been no-one to call. If the gadget was in the warranty period, you took it back to the store for a repair, and if out of the warranty period you bought a new gadget. But, because they were simpler, they did not fail.

I suppose we were spoiled. We assume that the incredibly complex systems we now use are as simple as they were then. They are not. They get mysteriously upgraded whether you want the upgrade or not, and then the upgrade adversely affects everything. It requires a “reboot”. This requires that you call the number and…you are off and running.

So my New Year wish for you is that none of your gadgets fail, that you never have to hear “due to the current volume of calls there may be a long wait”, and that if the worst happens, you have two aspirin at hand and then go to bed to sleep it all off.

Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep School