Saturday, May 29, 2010

Unimportant observation of the day

Once upon a time, a young Scottish lady with who I was a little enamored (okay, a lot enamored - sad story) told me about how as a child she had doubted the existence of dolphins. These were apparently creatures from imaginary stories, like the tooth fairy. This was not a childhood belief I was able to share, because I lived near the Australian coast, and schools of dolphins swimming past were something I commonly saw. Once in a while I would see whales, too.

What makes me remember this now is that I was having a conversation with someone recently and the subject of penguins came up somewhere. (Perhaps we were talking about Linux). The person observed that penguins were exotic and strange creatures to him, and I observed that "Surely you must see them off (and on) the coast of Scotland sometimes". This observation was seen as somewhere between odd and hilarious.

Thanks to Wikipedia, I have since discovered that penguins for some reason only live in the southern hemisphere. For me, penguins are like dolphins. They were quite common where I grew up. In the evenings as I child I would see and hear them running along the beach in the distance. Once, we had one in our bathtub for a few days, as it had managed to get caught in a fishing net that had been washed up on the beach, and my father had rescued it in the hope that it would get better and he could let it go. (If I recall quickly, it was loud and vicious). Until now, I had made the assumption that penguins were pretty common on a much larger portion of the coastlines of the world than is in fact the case. I am usually pretty intolerant of people who assume that the whole world works in exactly the same way as the small bit of it they are familiar with, but in this instance I was guilty myself.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Yesterday, my mobile phone rang. I answered the call. There was a pause, Clearly some computer somewhere was waiting for me to pick up before connecting me to someone in a call centre.

"Good afternoon. Am I speaking to Dr Jennings?"
"I am calling from that manages your mobile phone contract with O2"

For odd regulatory reasons, when mobile phones were introduced in the UK, the mobile networks - Vodafone and BT Cellnet (now O2) - were not permitted to sell their own services at retail. Instead, other companies were required to do the actual selling of mobile phone contracts, and were required to manage the customer relationships and provide the after sales service. Later entrants - Orange, Mercury One2One (now T-Mobile) and Three - were never subject to this requirement, and the requirement was dropped for the original two operators in the mid 1990s when the third and fourth operators entered the market. However, some of the odd characteristics of the British mobile market that exist to this day are a consequence of this original policy. The independent mobile phone retail business remains unusually large in this country, and although Vodafone long ago bought out all other organisations managing its customer base, O2 did not completely do so. Thus my customer service relationship with O2 is indirect and via another company.

"Dr Jennings, we have noticed that you are near the end of your contract, and we have analysed your usage patterns and we think we may have different tariffs that might be cheaper for you than the one you are on. So I would like to tell you about those and if you like we could also upgrade you to a new phone"

Basically, they wanted me to sign up for another lengthy contract. They may or may not have actually looked at my usage patterns. The deal they gave me last time was actually so good that I doubt they were going to offer me anything better, but I am usually at least interested to see what companies will offer me.

"Dr Jennings, before I can proceed further I need to check your identity. Can you please tell me your date of birth and mother's maiden name".

I pause for a moment

"Your security system is not acceptable. You cannot simply cold call me and then ask me to give you personal information"
"I have this information in front of me already. I just need to confirm your identity".
"If I were to call you, I would know who you were and that I could likely trust you, because I would have looked up your number somewhere reliable. Therefore it would be reasonable for you to ask me for personal information. When you have called me, the situation is reversed, and it is not reasonable, because I do not know your identity".

Clearly this is not in his script

"This is standard procedure"
"Then it is a very bad procedure. I actually believe you are who you say you are, but having such a procedure in place encourages bad practices. In fact, it is so incompetent that I am tempted to cancel my phone right now. Good bye".

At that point I hung up the phone. I immediately wished I hadn't been so hard on the guy, as he was just working from a script, and the incompetence of his employer wasn't his fault.

This is absolutely terrible practice however. One should never give personal information to someone from who one has received a cold call and whose identity one cannot confirm. Legitimate companies encouraging or requiring customers to do this makes customers used to doing it, and makes it easier for the genuinely dishonest to commit crimes. The fact that large companies with who you trust your personal information are not able to understand that the situation is different when they call you from the situation when you call them is really quite troubling, too.

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