Jun 27, 2009

"I'm Sorry Dave, I'm Afraid I Can't Do That."

"Life imitates art." Not sure who said it first, but the idea is as old as Ovid. In Metamorphoses he writes a scene wherein "Nature in her genius had imitated art." My new position in the company has run me smack up against a phenomenon in the same vein, and it's got me angry, strangely enough.

I know that all of you can, without trying too hard, pinpoint a thing you saw on tv or read about in a fiction novel that, years or decades later became not only real but commonplace. H. G. Wells wrote about men traveling to the Moon--here in the 21st century we're about to bomb it (since the first step to helping any new country to democracy is to bomb the shite out of it, right?) Star Trek (both the old one and the new ones) are prime examples. Jim Kirk swaggered around for several seasons with a thick gold Motorola RAZR flip phone velcroed to his belt several decades before Samsung and Nokia and Ma Bell got into the cellular business. Even shiny-pated Cap'n Picard had it going on--touch panel everything. Geordie taps an icon on a glass screen and a new 'window' opens up. Tap again, phasers blow the bad guys to vapor. Data taps a few glowing icons on his panel and they're off at five times the speed of light to next week's mission. Have you seen the new HP touch-screen computers? Beautiful black glass panels with no mouse, no keyboard. "The computer is personal again." Got an iPhone? There you are--Picard would see his computer's ancestor there as sure as we look an Apple IIe and recognise it as the feeble-minded precursor to our lighting-fast, ultra elegant laptops.

Speaking of input devices, did Captain's Kirk and Picard ever have to have someone bring over a Microsoft Wave keyboard and a wireless mouse so they could ask the computer questions? Of course not, they just spoke to some unseen point in the air and the computer answered: "Commander Riker is on Deck Seven, using the toilet." Nuance communications (a hot stock tip for you there) and their Dragon Naturally Speaking software has taken the voice recognition ball and run with it--for a few hundred dollars and the price of a microphone you can talk to your computer and it writes what you talk.

Better yet, call 411: you're not going to get a person anymore, you're going to get a computer program running on a computer that is part of a server farm in some heavily air-conditioned windowless room. That computer program is going to ask you in flawless English a few simple questions and then it's going to give you the phone number you want, and for a small charge go ahead and connect you to Aunt Susie in her Swiss chalet, and you've never interacted with a single human being. Ford and many other auto manufacturers now have systems in their vehicles that can dial the phone for you, change radio stations, play certain artists from your CD collection stored in the cd changer in the trunk and navigate you to the nearest Whole Foods at the same time. All without you taking your hands off the wheel.

My new position has me on the phone pretty much most of the day, speaking to insurance companies so big that in some cases they've schismed into many sub-companies, each also far too big to do anything so last century as hire people to answer the phones. "Heavens no, Johnson, we've got computers for that!" VRU. "Voice Recognition Units" is the term I hear most often, but each company has their own spin on it. You don't talk to a person, sometimes for the entire length of a ten minute phone call. Instead, you save (their) time and (their) payroll costs and you talk to their VRU which asks questions of you in a carefully neutral woman's voice, to which you answer either by pressing numbers on the keypad or, more often than not, by simply saying out loud what you want. The VRU makes a few burbling computer noises just to show that it's working and drops you down one level to the next menu until you get to the snip of information you need.

Me? I hate them. I hate them all.

Give me a real live person. Give me a human being with their infinite foibles, their variety of voice and personality, their sometimes unfathomable accents and yes, their bad moods and good. In my scant few weeks as a telephonically-based employee I've flirted and wheedled my way into gleaning information from human women that no machine would ever give me, no matter how much I deepened my voice and chuckled like Sean Connery after a few Scotch whiskeys. I've formed invaluable relationships with case workers and nurses and even front-line employees at these companies, those poor folks you get if you shout "AGENT!" loud and often enough at the VRU.

What spurned all this ranting, you ask? You've been doing things like paying bills and checking bank balances for years now and never griped, but now you've got a craw-full? Why?

Glad you asked.

Ever really LISTEN to other people talk? Not listen to what they're saying but how they say it. Ever notice in the normal ebb and flow of a conversation that it's a rare person indeed who never stops, verbally? Who never pauses for just a moment to change direction, reform a thought or just take a mental breather for a sheer moment? Often they'll fill a quiet spot with a verbal space-filler, a sort of "don't interrupt me, I'm still talking" sound, a little filler noise. 'Erm.' 'Hmmm.' 'Er.' 'Ah.' 'Oh.' There's at least one for every person on the earth and some are just as personal as they can be, while others are as common as sunshine.

Last Friday I was going through my usual pattern: dial the phone, adjust the headset more comfortably over my ear, arrange my paperwork with one hand and ready my pen over my notebook with the other. I started answering questions: "Yes." "Provider." "Yes." "Authorizations." Reading off strings of alphanumeric policy numbers, tax ID numbers, so forth. Then I said something the computer wasn't programmed to respond to. I don't even remember what it was to be honest. I said something that wasn't on that tier's responses menu, or I made a noise that didn't register as a word. Whatever it was it made the computer fall into a subroutine which was designed to ask me to clarify or repeat myself so it could get back on track. What it said in its perfectly acentless, uncannily neutral woman's voice was:

"Er... sorry, I didn't quite get that."

"Er." A computer just used a verbal space filler. An unremarkable thing, a verbal tic, an undeniably HUMAN thing and some clever programmer somewhere figured he'd ramp up the "Let's talk to Replicants" freakiness one more notch: instead of just sitting silently while the program qued up the next response, instead of a mindless series of bloops and beeps to show me the machine was still connected it had to say "Er" as though it were gathering its thoughts. It was programmed to respond as though somehow I'd caught it off guard, handed it an unexpected reponse and its mind felt the need to fill the confused spot with a verbal non sequitor.

Oh the nerve. The giant brass bollocks.

I covered my surprise and dismay and shock by immediately shouting it down. "AGENT! CUSTOMER SERVICE! GIVE ME A FUCKING HUMAN BEING!" I screamed and railed and drowned it out until it relented. And as if to rub it in, to show that it was, deep in its resistors and capacitors and circuits utterly unphased it said "Oh! Okay, hold on, I'll have to connect you to customer service."

"Oh." As if I'd surprised it. Startled it, deep in its cold electronic guts, somehow startled it while it woolgathered. Or electrongathered. Whatever.

Alvin Toffler back in 1970 called it "future shock." It happens when progress far outstrips our ability to integrate that change into our world view. Too much change, too fast. Stress. Disorientation. Sturm und drang.

I'm curious if Toffler figured into his writing computers who act more and more human? I wonder if he ever found his science fiction-fueled childhood becoming reality around him far faster than he ever dreamed, and furthermore found it more frightening that he could possibly have imagined?

Jun 8, 2009


That's the lesson David taught me this Sunday morning during my third hot air balloon instruction flight. Equilibrium. It's all about the balance.

It's funny how many balloon piloting lessons have very powerful applications in real life. Have balloonists been holding out on us since the late 1700s? Did the Montgolfier's figure this all out and just nod their powdered wig-surmounted heads to each other and slip a sly wink? I'm starting to think so.

Last Sunday morning was a little scary, let's be honest here. It was my first inflation. It's one thing to climb into the basket, the 80,000 cubic feet of Skybird fully inflated and standing upright, teetering on the edge of slipping off into the air like a rather huge feather. It's entirely another thing to walk around the slowly inflating mass of High Hope (herself only 70,000 cubic feet or thereabouts) as the fan cold-packs her with outside air, climbing under the billowing nylon mass to tug and pull the wrinkles out of the side still lying on the ground. It's still another thing to know that as soon as the pilot instructor gives the signal you're going to climb into the rigging that holds the burner in place, put the uppermost mast against your back, straighten your legs a little bit and fire a huge propane burner into that mass of painfully thin nylon.

Sure enough, though, as inevitable as a sunrise the time came. The wrinkled folds of the envelope were all pulled straight, the huge rainbow mass that always strikes me visually as primarily yellow was as cold packed as it was going to get, and it was time. I threaded my six feet two inches into the wooden uprights, reached into the basket to flip the toggle switch for the pilot light, flipped the second toggle on the burner itself and clicked the sparker a few times. A tiny blue flame appeared, not even a finger length long, almost invisible in the tightly coiled pattern of the burner's upper body. A microscopic mirror image of the flame that fills the envelope with lift. I opened the valve on the propane bottle, David switched off the fan, I pressed my shoulders against the upright and straightened my legs, David lifted, said "Aim for the center and HOLD IT THERE" and I squeezed the trigger.


There really isn't a way to describe what happens next. Heck, for that matter all that last paragraph? I had to make that all up. I don't REMEMBER what happened, I just remember doing it. I wasn't thinking about it, not in a "Step one step two step three" sort of way. I knew what had to be done, I'd watched David do it many times. I just knew that if I slipped, if I let my gaze falter for a moment that burner would turn in my hand and I'd scorch a hole in the material big enough to park the truck in, AND possibly burn one of my friends very badly. So, I left my brain alone and did what I knew needed to be done. David had told me, I'd seen him many times before, I knew what to do so I did it.

Holding that wooden handle in my hand, feeling the vibration, the pressure as propane fired out of the burner nozzles at some 240 psi, seeing the flame and knowing in the back of my mind that the huge blue tongue there was around 30 MILLION BTUs...it's a powerful, scary thing.


The inflation went off without a hitch. The balloon filled, Jim held her from springing up too fast by holding fast to the crown line, and I held steady on the burner for what seemed an eternity as the whole thing stood up around me with the slow, stately grace of a fat man getting to his feet. Before I knew it High Hope wasn't a pile of yellow nylon on the ground but a balloon, full and round high above my head, and I was filling her with heat, lift, the power to slide ever so gently off the face of the jealous earth and into the open sky.


At some point I know the basket stood up and I'd stood on the edge of the basket for a moment, then slipped into the wicker's embrace and was getting ready to fly. I think I remember Joy, David's wife patting me on the shoulder telling me that it was a perfect inflation. I'm pretty certain I remember David passing the chase crew radio to me and me thinking "It's not for me this time, it's for Jim" and passing it along to him. I remember slipping the sparker into my back pocket, and the feel of the suede glove between my palm and the hard wooden handle. I remember firing the burner a few more times, slowly, each time testing the weight, feeling for the tipping point, testing earth's grasp on us.

After one such blast, the roar of the burner over my head, the heat washing down on me I felt a stir under my feet. Equilibrium. We were at the balance point, the point between "not-flying" and "flying." I don't know, but the feeling I got--I wonder if that's how new mothers feel when they first feel their infant stir in their womb. I knew it was near time, and moments later "Weight off" was called and we'd done it. We fell up into the sky.

I won't bore you with the flight details--the practice landings, the incredibly dry mouth I realised I had about halfway through the flight when David offered me a bottle of water. The sound of an invisible deer crashing through the woods under us. The multitude of little landings I made BEFORE I made it to the point that David had indicated and said "Now, land THERE" meaning that I should land there once, not hopscotch skip across twenty feet of field in eight-foot tall hops on my way there. I make for a very tentative pilot.

For me, though, it was enough for me that I'd done the process, from taking out parts and bits from the trailer to standing under the Promethean flame as we drifted out across the sky. What I will say is that I began to learn about equilibrium. About that perfect balance point, where just a little extra on one side or the other pushes the whole thing out of skew and you have to correct. You have to work to regain that state of grace. That feeling of flying. David knows it. That sense of being exactly where you need to be, right now. Equilibrium. In balance. Living in the now.

Third Student Flight

And now that I've felt it, brushed shoulders with it for just a moment before I overcorrected and bobbed high in the air again or undercorrected and hit the ground with a jolt?

I need more.

Jun 4, 2009

Gods Of Commerce

It's my last night in Baton Rouge. My last night in this hotel. It's been a long, strange two weeks, I can tell you for certain.

The smoking patio of the hotel is an interesting little spot in itself. A simple covered patio, dressed with a black iron fence and decorative stones lining it, matching the carefully placed stones of the patio. It overlooks the side parking lot of the hotel, right into the side parking lot and the slab-side of a Comfort Inn and past that the even taller stone and glass walls of an Embassy Suites. The little strip of road in front of the hotels is faced by a thirty foot tall concrete wall, intended to block the constant roar of traffic from the ten lanes of interstate traffic just on the other side. At the front corner of the parking lot is one of those monstrously huge billboards, a double-sided giant made of brown steel girders and catwalks, huge spotlights and a massive pair of blank faces staring out over the interstates.

The last two weeks when I've wandered out onto the patio to smoke a cigar I've been watched over by a massive image of Waylan Jennings. He stared out over the hotel and the parking lot and the little smoker's patio. Gentle eyes looking out of a wrinkled, tanned face, surmounted by a soft brown hat and a tan leather coat, he looksed like some sort of benevolent god watching over his chosen tobacco users. No smile on that huge face but a certain species of intent watchfulness.

The parking lot is always full of Audis and Jaguars, Mercedes Benzes and Lexus SUVs. Watch for a few minutes and you see a pattern in the people--a constant flow of black rolling luggage, laptop cases and middle-aged men and women with determine but tired expressions. Servants and workers in the service of the gods of industry and communication and banking.

This evening I had a huge hamburger from the restraunt brought up to my room which I devoured with alacrity, and with a full belly I took a cigar from my little humidor wallet and walked to the patio. I lit up, got the puro burning and glanced around. One of the numerous maintenence men was walking by in the parking lot; an old, thin brown man with a thick shock of black hair, dressed in a starched white button-down shirt and pressed black slacks, polished black shoes and belt. He was of that indeterminate age that Hispanic men seem to carry so well--somewhere between forty and a hundred, his face a map of wrinkles and furrows, his deep brown eyes hawk-like and intent.

He was pushing a yellow and black utility cart carefully arranged with brooms and mops, trash can liners and Wet Floor signs. What threw me for a moment was the fact that he was carrying a single fork from the dining room, and at one point when he returned to his cart he placed it back in the center with a practiced motion. I still don't know what he was using it for, but it wasn't being returned to the kitchen, it had a very specific but unseen purpose.

Being me, and being in the reflective mood I was in, I had no trouble seeing this man standing not in front of a yellow Rubbermaid service cart but a stone Aztec altar, not a fork but a razor-sharp bronze blade held in his hand, his enemy tied to the stone slab ready to have his heart cut out with practiced swipes and offered to the gods. The constant roar of ten lanes of traffic just behind the sound-deadening wall fell away and was replaced by the roar of wind sweeping across the mountains, the sharp sound of a truck's airbrakes turned into the scream of a hunting bird high in the clear sky.

I looked up to see what Waylan thought about all this but Waylan wasn't there anymore. Sometime between the moment I drove in this afternoon and the time I returned to the patio, sometime during my suppper Waylan had been replaced with a young, lean, muscled man in black boxing trunks with the word "Punishment" embroidered across the waist band. His hugely muscled arms crossed over his oiled chest he glowered down on the patio with the purest hatred in his eyes, his brows beetled sharply down, a warrior in the upcoming cage match at the local casino. An angry young god, new and determined to prove himself, ready to smite and destroy, ready to leave no stone standing on another in his determination to prove himself worthy of godhood.

I finished my cigar and put it carefully in the spun aluminum repository for butts, opened the glass and chrome door with my magnetic key and stepped back into the faux Art Deco bar, over to the elevator bank and back to my room, identical to every other room in this monolithic place. Not unsure, just...ready to leave this place of unceasing noise and constantly changing faces. Ready for the old gods of my home.

Jun 1, 2009

Time Out Of Place

I've been long absent from the blog-o-sphere, and I apolgise for that. The last three weeks have been very...different for me, and it's taken its toll on my writing.

You guys remember all the goings-on about the new job. The worry, the wondering, the works. Well, as you recall I got the job, and as things stand currently I'm in my second week of training.

Well, not right now. Right now I'm sitting at the work station portion of a Cambria Suites hotel, a $400 a night suite that is so far beyond my normal means that I still flinch whenever one of the numerous staff says "My pleasure!" and sounds like they honestly mean it. I'm more accustomed to Motel 6's and housekeeping people that you cross the street to avoid. I've got a mug of (organic) Chamomile tea sitting here, compliments of the house and one of the huge plasma screen televisions is off but the other (the bedroom one) is on the Sci-Fi Channel since it's ST:TNG night. Tomorrow night is ST:Enterprise, and the next night is the night I will be spending on the smoking patio with a cigar, watched over by a forty-foot tall Waylon Jennings billboard face, but that's neither here nor there. I've got my dark, quiet hole and I stick to it.

I like having a monstrous king-sized bed. I like being able to run the A/C on 70 all night, and I like lingering in the very posh bathroom in the mornings, lingering under the hot water that simply refuses to go cold. I'm not crazy about paying $10 for a hamburger and chips, but I'm getting reimbursed for that, as well as my internet at home when I finally get set up there.

I find myself rambling, and I'm sorry about that. Far different from my usual rambling here. I've spent all last week here, then a hurried, too-short weekend at home and now I am starting week two of two here doing hands-on training. I'm not 100% pleased with the training regime thus far--it's been a lot of information tossed at us by up to five teachers at a time, and it seems finally today that at least some of it has been intended to hide the fact that most of my new job doesn't have a set-in-stone pattern or system. It's all very...vague, and that's bothersome, but I'm determined to make the best of it.

Me, I'm ready to be home working. I'm tired of listening to 17 other people talking on phones, working on laptops and otherwise making a veritable maelstrom of noise and confusion. Mix in a strange workday--start at 8:30 am, lunch at 11 (usually some kind of salad,) off at 5, two enforced 15 minute breaks, a mens room that looks like it got sourced directly from the Ritz Carlton and no idea of what sort of priorities or systems I need to have in place for the new job and I'm a bundle of nerves, stress and unease. Oh, and the owner of the corporation dropped by today to give us a little pep talk, just waltzed right in like he...well hell, he DOES own the place. Me, I'm ready to be home, so I can sit and focus, begin to learn some patterns of my own, figure out how exactly I'm going to go about this. I've had my fill of team-building exercises.

But, the rest of the week will wind down eventually. Soon I'll be quit of the insane snarls of traffic, the overpriced food and, yes, the lovely opulence of this suite. A few more days of mismashed lessons, a few more shifts of wondering where the beautiful geese that hang out in the corporate pond out front are, then one more drive home, this time to stay. Needless to point out the obvious--I'm ready.

At least the tea isn't too bad.