Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Porkolab: all of our agents are busy helping other customers

You've all called the "customer service" number for some faceless monolith like AT&T or Comcast and heard, over and over, "all our agents are busy helping other customers". The useful content - the denotative significance, as semanticists would say (though it might take them a couple of goes, especially if they've already started on the semiotic cocktails) - is "so you're just going to have to hang on for another hour or two". But what else is it saying? Why did they choose this rather than just stopping at "all our our agents are busy right now"?

The answer is of course that it is subtle psychological manipulation. If they just said "all our agents are busy", you could reasonably get cross after the third full cycle of hold music, asking yourself why they don't hire more agents. But because they say "helping other customers", there's an instinctive reaction - even amongst cynical uber-rationalist grouches such as myself - that this wouldn't quite be cricket. The subtext is "the other people they're helping are just as important as you are, you have no right to expect that you should be served any quicker". Clever, huh? Instead of being mad at Comcast for being such cheapskates and not hiring enough people, you feel guilty because you were putting yourself above your fellow man.

I'm sure they pay psychologists a lot of money to come up with this. It's amazing how easy it is to manipulate people's feelings without them realising - there are various recent books about this, though offhand I can't remember any of their titles.

Another good one is "your call is important to us". I don't actually care whether my call is important to them - I just care that it's important to me, because otherwise I would long since have given up listening to cheesy electronic renditions of classical music. But it really does work - even though you know it's a blatant lie, and the only reason your call has the slightest importance is because of the remote chance that you might transfer your custom elsewhere, it still takes a little of the edge off your impatience and anger.

Then there's "please listen carefully, because our menu has changed". Without knowing you personally, how can they possibly know whether it has changed since the last time you were obliged to take your cardiac health in your hands and call them? Nearly always, you can short-circuit all of the "press 1 to pay your bill, press 2 to order a new service, press 872344100000019461111 to complain about your existing service" by just banging away on the 0 button - guess how I know. But the subtext here is that not listening carefully would be on a par with conspicuously keeping your iPod earphones on during the cabin safety announcement. Not only would you be imperilling your own safety, but you would also be acting irresponsibly to society at large. You would be a Bad Person.

You may wonder how they decide exactly what subtle implicit psychological lies they decide to use. Do they have batteries of simulated users, with blood pressure monitors and positron scanners? Probably. I was inspired to write this partly by having to deal with Comcast, but also by a piece of business spam I got today (you know the kind of thing, very professional-looking emails inviting you to vitally important conferences about the latest developments in HR). It was from someone called Porkolab (a somewhat uncommon Hungarian family name, so I've learned). In British English, a "porkie" is rhyming slang for a lie (via "porky pie"). I'm sure the "porkolab" is just the place where they try out all these messages.

"Hey, we're getting a lot of complaints from Islamabad about people being rude to the call centre operators. I think we need some new decoy messages."

"OK, let's get on to the Porkolab and see what they can come up with."

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Comcast - such awful customer service that words fail me

So yesterday, while I was eating breakfast, my Internet service went down. The lights on the cable modem weren't blinking, and indeed nothing worked. It was time to go the office anyway, so I figured they would have fixed it by the time I got home.

But they hadn't. Still nothing worked. After the usual "press 1 for this" hell, and a ten minute wait, I finally got to talk to someone. "Oh yes," he said, "we discovered a signal leak back in February, and you hadn't made a service appointment, so we turned off the service."

Hang on... "Did you tell me about the problem?" "Oh, we probably left something on the door."

"And what about reminders, like on each of the five bills I've paid in the meantime, or an email?" "Yeah, that would probably be a good idea, but we don't do that."

"OK, so now I've made a service appointment, can you reconnect the service?" "Oh no, we have to wait for the technician to inspect it".

So... they may or may not have told me, for sure I never saw anything. Then they sit on their hands for five months, and then cut off the service without warning. And this passes for their idea of customer service!

The service guy did come on time, though he called the wrong number to warn me he was on his way! And guess what... his conclusion was that a different service guy needed to come, maybe in a day or two, maybe not. And no, of course they can't restore the service even though it was working fine for five months with whatever fault exists.

Comcast is outrageously expensive, the only thing that stops me switching right away to AT&T is that I know for sure that their customer service is even worse. Sigh.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Cross Country to Alturas

About a year ago I finally decided to get serious about my Commercial Pilot's License (CPL). Not that I have any ambitions for a second career as a pilot, but with well over 1000 hours of flying under my belt it just seemed like an appropriate thing to do.

Getting a CPL involves a checkride with an examiner, a written test, and a bunch of experience requirements, such as a minimum of 250 hours of flying. Most of the training goes towards the checkride. For single-engine planes, this requires a bunch of new things which don't form part of the Private Pilot checkride, specifically some not-quite-aerobatic maneuvers: chandelles, lazy-eights, eights-on-pylons.These are actually pretty hard to fly to the required standard, but after struggling with them for a while I can begin to see some point to them: they definitely do make for a finer touch in aircraft handling.

One of the experience requirements is a long cross-country flight, at least 300 miles round trip with the furthest point at least 250 miles away. Oh, those are nautical miles, of 6080 feet or about 15% more than the everyday statute mile. Why flying uses nautical rather than statute miles - and the corresponding unit of speed, knots (nautical miles per hour) rather than mph - is lost in the mists of history. And not all the time, by the way - some things, such as visibility requirements, are expressed in statute miles. More on that later.

There are a bunch of other requirements associated with this flight, such that, although I have many flights of this length, none of them qualifies. There have to be at least three landings, it has to be day VFR, and it has to be solo - nobody else on board, not even a non-pilot passenger. I suppose this is intended as a test of flight planning and navigation skills. The FAA, or the part that deals with "airman certification" anyway, doesn't seem to have heard of GPS, and doesn't know that nowadays all you need to do is enter the code for the destination airport and follow the resulting magenta line on the screen. Well, almost - it's as well to take things like mountains and restricted airspace into consideration, and to make sure you have enough fuel. So anyway... in the preparation for my checkride, I needed to make such a flight.

There are lots of places I could go. The LA area is over 250 miles, so a round trip to say Santa Monica would qualify, or to southern Oregon, or to somewhere in Nevada like Elko. I've done all of those, though. It would be nice to do something I've never done before. Looking at my wall-map of California, with pins for the airports I've been to, showed one big pin-free expanse, the north-east of the state. There a very few towns and it's not even on the way to anywhere. Alturas, the north-eastern most town in California, is 251 miles from Palo Alto, so just qualifies.

A straight line from Palo Alto to Alturas passes overhead Livermore, east of Mount Diablo, overhead Sacramento and Grass Valley, then across 8-9000 foot mountains to Quincy. The mountains are gradually replaced by high plains at around 4000' with the occasional pointy story-book volcanic peak. You can't fly in quite a straight line because of the TFR for the pilotless aircraft testing centre at Chico, so I flew a slight dogleg to the south which also kept me out of the big military training areas in the region. The easy way to do this is to find a waypoint in about the right place for the desired route. My route ended up as KPAO-SUNOL-HAGAN (the waypoint in question)-KAAT (Alturas).

The flight northwards was uneventful but beautiful. Crossing the mountains is always a bit scary - there really aren't too many good options if the engine stops. Luckily it didn't. I flew just to the south of Quincy airport. That's a scary place too - I went there one Saturday when I was on my own. It's the only airport I know that has mountains in the traffic pattern! You can't fly left traffic at approach speed, if you tried you'd quite literally hit a mountain.

Past Quincy, there was really almost nothing. I picked out Susanville to my right. There were just vast, green grassy plains, a few lakes, the very occasional small settlement and a few roads. For nearly a hundred miles I didn't pass within ten miles of a town. The last part of the flight, over the high plains, was very bumpy, too much for the autopilot, so I hand flew. Finally Alturas came into sight. It's a tiny place and the runways are narrow, so it took a while to find the airport. Needless to say I was the only person flying.

It was with great relief that I pulled up to the fuel pump and stopped. It had been an enjoyable flight but it's a long time to sit in the same position. The airport was completely deserted - a sign gave the number to call for fuel, and it took about 15 minutes for the fueller - who is also the county building inspector - to show up. Later the airport manager showed up too. I ended up spending nearly an hour on the ground, which allowed me to witness the arrival of another airplane. It's a quiet place, and beautiful in a Swiss, mountainous kind of way.

It would have been nice to walk into the town, which is only about a mile away, but it would all have been closed by then and anyway I wanted to get back before dark. Alturas would make a nice destination for a quiet weekend, except that unfortunately there is no car rental. Without a car there is really not much you could do, and as far as I can tell the nearest are at Klamath Falls, over 60 miles away.

So after saying my farewells - it's hard to imagine I'll ever go back, although it's a pretty place - I set off on the next leg. I'd decided to hop over the mountain to Cedarville. It's only about 30 miles but the Warner Mountains are in the way, ascending to 9000 feet, so the whole flight is spent first climbing then descending. Cedarville is an even tinier place, population 514 - the kind of place you'd retreat to when you just couldn't stand the bustle and crowds of Alturas (pop 2827). It's in the centre of a long narrow valley mainly occupied by three large alkali dry lakes, imaginatively called the Lower, Middle and Upper Alkali Lakes. Unsurprisingly, the airport was deserted, the narrow runway further limited by high weeds at the edges. I turned straight around and set off on my next leg, to Susanville.

I chose to fly down the eastern side of the mountains, just for a change of view. At the end of June there was still plenty of snow above 8000 feet. Once out of the valley I quite literally saw no human presence until I was close to Susanville, a hundred miles south.

Susanville has a huge prison, like so many small, remote California towns. California of course has the highest per capita prison population in the world, higher than China or Soviet Russia, thanks to some seriously misguided right-wing politics and the even more misguided "war on drugs". The state is bankrupt and can't afford to run even the most basic services, but is still not willing to reduce its prison population. But that's not really a topic for this post.

The prison did however make a convenient visual aiming point. When I landed there were still a few people around the airport, and a very friendly dog. But I didn't linger - I was getting hungry as well as tired.

The rest of the flight was uneventful - back across the slightly scary mountains, then over Sacramento, to the left of Mount Diablo, and so home. The landing was spectacularly beautiful - by good luck I landed exactly as the sun set, disappearing under the horizon as I descended on short final.

When not flying, I'm working on my written - actually a computer based multiple-choice test. Fortunately, all the possible questions are published by the FAA, and assembled into a book called Gleim, which also has (one hopes) the correct answers and the reasons behind them. The majority of the questions are perfectly reasonable, having to do with things like the airspace rules and how to read charts. But others are ghosts of a former age. There is not a single question about the use of GPS, even though probably 90% or more of long flights are made using it. But there are dozens of questions on a nearly-obsolete device called the "Automatic Direction Finder", a miracle of 1940s vacuum-tube electronics. The operational side of the FAA is busy closing down the corresponding radio beacons as fast as it can. New planes (sold in the US anyway - the rest of the world is a different story) haven't had ADF equipment in them for well over a decade. Mine had one when it was new, in 1980, but I had it removed when it developed a fault about five years ago.

Not only is the ADF obsolete, but the questions are about ways of using it that nobody has ever done in flight, complicated trigonometric exercises to do with angles of intercept. Flying a plane looks easy enough but it actually takes a lot of concentration. The idea of doing complicated mental math at the same time is as absurd as it would be to do the crossword. (Airline pilots do of course, but they have at least one extra pilot and three autopilots which they are obliged to use in cruise. And they are not constantly looking for reasonable places to land if the engine stops, since they have several of them).

My pilot friend Bill thinks that a lot of the regulations, and the questions that go with them, are just a thinly-veiled intelligence test. For example, there are three definitions of "night" (sunset, civil twilight which is about 30 minutes later, and one hour after sunset). There are many things you must or must not do at night, but which definition applies to which activity is pretty much random and just something you have to learn off by heart. The same applies to the various sources of aviation weather information. These exist both on the ground (via phone and now the Internet) and in the air, from various different places. Each one provides slightly different permutations of all the available information, without rhyme or reason. There are of course numerous questions on these. And, as you probably guessed, there are no questions at all either on Internet data sources, or on in-flight satellite based weather - which between them probably account for 90% of what pilots actually use nowadays.

The written will be my next step, in another few weeks - whatever one may think of it, it just has to be done. I don't expect it to be as enjoyable as my cross country flight to Alturas. More pictures from the trip here.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Worst-ever Dining Experiences: #2, Mouleydier, France

One of the nice things about eating out in France is that pretty much any restaurant you go to will serve an enjoyable meal, corresponding to the price you pay and sometimes even a lot better. They have to - the French take their food very seriously, and a restaurant that disappoints its customers will see very little repeat business. It follows that tourist traps are an exception, since they don't really depend on repeats. But even in Paris I can only think of one meal where I've been disappointed - often we've just dropped into a restaurant round the corner from where we're staying because it looks nice, and been delighted with the food. Of course it could be because Paris just has such a fantastic ambience anyway - but I think there's more to it than that.

The same is true outside Paris. Even when I first used to visit France, before my French was up to very much, I remember some spectacularly good dining experiences. We'll gloss over the restaurant in a small town in Brittany that was - I swear - closed for lunch, preferring to remember a hotel in the same town where we had an assiette de fruits de mer that took all evening to eat, there was just so much wonderful stuff.

But of course there are always exceptions. This one happened a very long time ago when my daughter - now in her late 20s and a mother herself - was just a bump. We went on a last-time-as-just-the-two-of-us holiday to the Dordogne, renting a cottage outside the town of Bergerac for a couple of weeks. It was a wonderful holiday, and filled with equally wonderful meals in the picturesque, ancient towns that litter the area. I've never had a chance to go back to the area, but I loved it.

Some way into the holiday, buoyed by the confidence of having eaten so well in restaurants chosen fairly randomly, we decided to eat at a place we'd noticed in the nearby village of Mouleydier. It looked nice enough, nestled in a corner near the station. Probably it was called Cafe de la Gare - it seems to have disappeared now, for which we should be thankful.

We should have been suspicious straight away. Instead of the customary buzz and crowded tables, the place was deserted. It felt chilly, despite the pleasant June weather. It was nothing fancy, with cheap checked table cloths, but in itself that doesn't mean a thing. The Cafe de Commerce in Geneva - an old favourite from when I used to visit there regularly - was just like that. Their speciality was delicious lake trout. The portions seemed a bit small, but when you'd finished the first one, they brought you another.

And worse, we were the only people there, though another group did come in later. But that was it. The service was surly, the waitress (most likely the proprietress) was sloppily dressed and didn't even seem especially clean. She certainly didn't seem to be taking any pride in anything she did. I've mercifully forgotten the main course, though I do remember that neither of us found it very appetising.

What does remain in my memory is the cheese board. France is a country that famously has hundreds of cheeses, all of them delicious even if some are a bit of an acquired taste. My first ever business trip to France took me to Annecy, where a restaurant chosen completely at random served an extraordinary cheese called Explorateur. It's about 99% fat (or so it seems), extraordinarily creamy and with a delicious nutty taste. Sadly, it's essentially unobtainable in the US - on the rare occasions when you do see it, it's invariably past its best. Creamy cheeses like that neither last long nor travel well. But in France it can be truly ecstatic.

The Mouleydier restaurant didn't have Explorateur, nor any other of the hundreds of delicious French cheeses. They had a Brie of some kind, dried up to a crusty yellow on the outside and definitely inedible. They had a couple of dried up goat cheeses. Soft, creamy goat cheeses with just a faint nutty taste are one thing. Well-matured ones are quite another, and most definitely an acquired taste. The theory, so I'm told, is that just a single small piece on the tip of a knife will taste so strong that it will seem like you ate a whole cheese. Back in the times when the art of eating was to make a few vegetables and a scrap of meat seem like a feast, this mattered a lot. But well-matured and then dried out is never going to be a good combination.

The final cheese, and the only one that could conceivably be eaten, was some kind of Tôme, a fairly hard cheese eaten like Cheddar. I can still remember that there was a black wax rind, which had at least partly protected it from drying out completely. We dared to take a piece of this each, but even after cutting away the driest of the exterior, it was old and dry and not up to much.

By the time we left, we were once again the only people there - the group of three or four guys who had come in after us had evidently had enough of a good thing, and already left.

The following night we went back to the excellent restaurant in the centre of Beaumont, a town a few kilometres away. Mouleydier remains the only place in France where I've been offered - in a proper restaurant at least - a truly awful meal. (The story of the fast food cafe in Entrevaux will have to wait for another time).

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Worst-ever Dining Experiences: #1, Janos, Tucson - Pretentious to die for

I chose the title carefully... not necessarily worst-ever meals, but considering the whole experience (including in some cases the extended period of discomfort afterwards).

So... we visited Tucson, Arizona. Our main reason was to go to an Indian Rodeo in Sells on the Tohone O'Odham reservation, which was quite an experience. But that's not important right now. On our first night, we asked the hotel to recommend a restaurant. We had trouble finding it, because it was nowhere near the town centre, but in the hills quite a way to the north in a fancy golf resort hotel kind of place.

There's one advantage to the location... Tucson is quite a pleasant small-ish town, but one of the main trunk rail lines goes literally through the middle of it, with level crossings every few hundred yards. This means that several times per hour, a mile-long freight train passes through, horn blaring, not just audible but loud through the whole city. All night long. Amazingly, you get used to it.

Anyway, it was obvious as soon as we arrived that this was a very pretentious place. It just had that air about it. We both get easily irritated by places whose pretentiousness greatly exceeds their quality, and this place had it stamped all over. We took our huge, pretentious seats, in the pretentiously decorated dining room, led by the pretentious hostess.

As we suspected, the meal was so-so. Nothing wrong with it, but nothing special either. For half the price and a tenth the pretentiousness, we would probably have quite enjoyed it. And of course the wines were over-priced. A dead giveaway for a restaurant that takes itself much too seriously is that the wines are priced at about double what you'd reasonably expect. I can only suppose that people who like pretentious places want to pay more for wine, I guess it makes them feel superior or something.

What elevates this place from merely annoying to the short, distinguished list of The Best of the Worst, though, was the total contrast between the airs and graces they gave themselves, and the actual quality of the service. Our waiter was a kid, maybe 19, who had clearly received little or no training. Probably he'd learned on the job at Denny's or some such, then managed to talk his way into a job at the restaurant. The service would have been perfectly acceptable, if we'd been at Denny's and paying Denny's prices. He had no idea how to serve and kept getting things wrong.

One thing which drives my wife absolutely nuts is when she's still eating and the server says "You still workin' on that?" It would annoy her even in Denny's, but frankly eating a meal in Denny's is more work than pleasure so it may make sense. At a fancy restaurant, even a legitimately fancy one, it is just so inappropriate. Maybe a Jeeves-like "Is Madam still profiting from the enjoyment of her repast?" would be better, but simply observing that she has not put her knife and fork down beside each other, and is still chewing, and saying nothing at all, would be even better. You can guess, of course, that our Denny's waiter came by not just once but several times to ask, "You still workin' on that?".

Finally I ordered dessert, I can't really imagine why since by then we were thoroughly fed up with the whole place. The waiter served it, but didn't bring anything to eat it with. After waiting a while - I wasn't in a hurry anyway - I finally helped myself from the next table. Nobody even noticed.

We didn't leave a tip. That doesn't happen often. We were just relieved to escape the overwhelming pretentiousness combined with total ineptitude.

The next day was delightfully different. We had lunch at a diner in the middle of nowhere on the way to Sells, for less than the tip would have been the night before. And in the evening we went to a very unpretentious restaurant near the university - it pains me that I can't seem to find it now, and it probably isn't there any more. The tables were small, the waitress was friendly, and the food was excellent. What a contrast!

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Jeppesen Customer Service (not!)

One of the first things I did when I bought my plane was to install a then state-of-the-art GPS navigator, a Garmin GNS530. This complemented the smaller GNS430 which was already there, albeit lacking some necessary approvals. The data for these comes on little data cartridges, slightly bigger than an SD card and completely proprietary to Garmin. I signed up with Jeppesen, the universal and only provider of aviation navigation service, to send me updated cartridges every month. Until about a year ago, this worked perfectly. I would take the new cards to my plane, swapping them for the old ones which I then sent back to Jepp. Once a year I sent them a check for quite a lot of money, and everything was flawless.

A couple of years ago, Jepp was acquired by Boeing. I presume that the new owner sent in the usual bean-counters who proceeded to look for "economies", of course at the expense of the customer, whose only role after all is to pay the bills.

The first sign that things weren't right came with last year's bill. I've always had a substantial discount for having two GPSs in the plane, which makes it only about 25% more than a single one. This had been forgotten, and the bill was for twice the single-unit price. I called, listening to hold music for about half-an-hour, interrupted occasionally by the usual pathetic excuse about "increased call volume" - the latter caused, of course, by the fact that they had messed up their complete order management system. Finally I spoke to someone who apologised, took my credit card number, and told me it was fixed.

I got various bills and reminders, which I ignored, until eventually the supply of new data cartridges dried up. I called again. This time I got someone very unhelpful who accused me of not paying my bill. Luckily I'd kept notes of the previous conversation, and eventually all was restored.

That was last year. This year they had a new trick, aimed no doubt at saving a few more dimes. They have suspended the data cartridge service altogether, replacing it with an online service where you update your own cartridges. They sent me a USB thingy to plug the cartridges into, and told me to call them for more information. It actually took several calls to get the service set up. Tonight, I finally tried to download into my cartridges. One worked fine. But then, I only had the right to a single cartridge! So we're back to where we were before.

I'm sure that all the calls to try and straighten things out have already wiped out the savings from not sending me the data cards. So I have to spend more time, not to mention hours on the phone to Jeppesen, and it costs them more money. If there was an alternative, I'd already be there - the disadvantage of monopolies.

But I'm sure that somewhere there's an accountant who's jolly pleased with himself.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Telephony, the definitive work

One of the treasures of my youth was the Harold Hill public library, which I should really write about some time. For some unknowable reason, their collection included the two-volume definitive work on the UK telephone system, Atkinson's Telephony, published in 1949. I've always been fascinated by complex electro-mechanical devices, and I borrowed these books dozens of times. Of course that may be why I'm fascinated by them.

Telephones are run by computers now, but back then everything was done with relays and stepping switches. A telephone exchange was a vast hall filled with them. The noise was just unimaginable as the switches followed the subscribers' dial pulses (telephone users have always been called subscribers) then rocketted off on their own to look for the next free switch, later clattering back to their rest position at the end of a call.

The automatic telephone system was invented, improbably, by an undertaker called Strowger. The story has it that the telephone operator in his small town just happened to be the wife of his rival. In those pre-automation times, people would call the operator and say "connect me to the undertaker". You can guess who got the business. The telephone dial and the clever two-dimensional stepping switch that interpreted it were his invention, and the system was forever after called the "Strowger System".

Manual telephone exchanges were still very much present when I was a teenager. I had a friend who lived in the next town, Brentwood, which was one of the very last places to be converted to automatic operation, in the 1970s. Even manual exchanges involved some complex electro-mechanical gadgetry, though, to detect when the user picked up their phone, make it ring and so on. Atkinson deals at length with this, and the problems of interconnecting manual and automatic systems. Operators are always referred to as "she" - not sexist, in itself anyway, just a reflection of the fact that all telephone operators were women back then. And not outsourced to Bangalore either - every telephone exchange, even automatic ones, had a hall full of operator positions to handle long-distance calls and other odd cases.

About half of the first volume deals with the basics - cable design, network organisation, and of course the relay. A relay is just an electro-mechanical switch, a bunch of contacts operated by a coil when electricity is applied. They're still used extensively today - a car has dozens of them - but in the telephone system there were millions of them, implementing complex logic functions that today would be a few dozen lines of C code. The basic idea is simple enough but the realities of the telephone system called for great subtlety in their design. There were relays that were quick to engage but slow to release, and vice versa, relays specially designed to respond quickly to dial pulses - all done by varying the windings, the magnetic arrangements and the contacts. Their design is a lost art now.

The rest of the first volume deals with the circuits and arrangements for manual exchanges. The real excitement is in the second volume, the circuits for automatic exchanges. Just how do you build an electro-mechanical telephone exchange? The basic concept seems simple - the pulses generated by a telephone dial operate Strowger switches, until all digits are dialled and the final switch - called a final selector because it works very differently from all the others - has made a connection to the called number. But actually making it all work, dealing with all the real-life complications, was a phenomenal achievement. It's not surprising that the first ever computers - built to crack German codes during World War II - were designed by engineers from the Post Office Research Laboratory. They were the only people to have designed circuits of this level of logical complexity.

It's worth commenting on the difference in the scale of the phone system in those days. The book uses the city of Derby as an example. Its population then was over 100,000 people. The telephone exchange had a maximum capacity of 4000 lines, or one for every 25 people. In 1949, ordinary people never had their own phone. Businesses did, and a small minority of better off people would have a phone at home. For ordinary people working- and middle-class people, there were phone boxes. (The book includes a lengthy section on the classic British phone box design, including its weight - being made largely of cast iron, it weighed 13 cwt, or about 660 kg). My parents didn't have a phone at home until about 1965.

There are lengthy chapters on the design of small rural exchanges, partly I suppose because they were small enough that the book could describe them in complete detail - each of the hundreds of selectors and relays. There are complete circuit diagrams, and text to explain the function of every last relay contact and selector. It is the best technical design documentation I have ever seen, bar none.

The smallest of the rural exchanges, designed to occupy a small brick building somewhere on the outskirts of a village, had just 100 lines. It replaced an operator in the back of the post office working a manual plug-and-socket switchboard, disproportionately expensive and only available during the day time. At night, the doctor would be plugged straight through to the main circuit, and everyone else would just have to wait until morning. There were always telegrams for anything urgent that might arise. (My wife tells the story of her father using just such a rural manual exchange, fuming as he waited for the operator, grumbling "She's knitting, I just know it, she's finishing her row before she answers". And he was probably right).

Sadly, the book was never updated to discuss the nec plus ultra of electromechanical telephony, Subscriber Trunk Dialling (STD). When it was written, trunk calls - anything further than the next town - were handled manually. You would dial 0 for the operator, and say in your best BBC voice, "Derby 6543 please". If there was a circuit available you'd be connected. More likely, she would call you back later when a circuit became free.

The first STD installation was in 1958, and the first public long-distance call was made by the Queen, from Bristol. It came to my home town in 1964, I can still remember the presentation in the local Post Office. It made no practical difference to us, nor to most people - the furthest we ever called was my aunt in London. Although calls were automatic, they were still ferociously expensive.

The implementation of STD relied on a magnificent piece of equipment called a register/translator, or its "marketing" name of GRACE. Each unit was a box about two feet square, packed full of relays and miniature uniselectors. As the subscriber dialled, each digit was remembered on a mechanical switch. As soon as the first three digits had been collected - the STD code, or as we would now call it, the area code - it could start translating them into the actual routing code which would switch the call through the trunk network to its destination. Once that was done, the remainder of the digits would be replayed, one by one, from the switches that stored them. Sadly there seems to be no detailed technical description of these systems still available. I was told by someone who joined the Post Office in the seventies that the schematics, spread out, occupied the whole floor of a large office. It was truly a tour de force of the available technology at the time.

It was thanks to my curiosity about the design of trunk network that a friend and I became "phreaks" in the 1960s, long before we knew the term existed. But that is a story for another time. For now, back to reading Atkinson... there are a couple of details of the UAX14 exchange design that I'm not clear about...