RogerBW's Blog

The Voice of God Camera 09 April 2014

You tell it to the kids these days, they won't believe you. This happened some time late in 2000, when I was working for a medium-sized consumer ISP (that's now a forgotten asset owned by a brand name of a business-only ISP).

We had some kit at the offices, and more in a small machine room in Telehouse. Most of the new stuff was going into Telehouse; we had about twelve rack cabinets in there.

Every few weeks, therefore, we got a new batch of analogue phone lines terminated in Telehouse. Someone who knows phone tech better than I do can tell me what they were called; basically it was something like 36 or 48 lines presented as a single cable, and this could Only Be Installed By BT. But we had a problem: the BT engineers were consistently ignoring our signs and terminating these things under the wrong rack. We had to call them back, at extra cost, to get them moved. Given that BT wouldn't specify an appointment time more closely than "Thursday afternoon", we couldn't have anyone sitting in the machine room all day to wait for them and tell them what to do...

So. I had a digital camera I wasn't using much (Fujifilm DX-7, 640x480 resolution), and Linux drivers for it that allowed full control. Next time I went over to the machine room, I took it with me and plugged it into my dedicated server (some readers may remember incandescent.firedrake.org); I also plugged in a couple of speakers borrowed from the office. When I got back, I installed the festival speech synthesis package on incandescent, and set up the camera/server to capture images as fast as it could (I think it was every five seconds or so) and feed them to my desktop.

When the next BT engineer arrived, we were watching. He went to the right cabinet, read the sign, moved two to the left and started pulling up the floor tile.

$ echo "Not there, two cabinets to the right." |festival --tts

He jumped. He looked up. His lips were moving.

$ echo "We can't hear you. But we want the new lines in cabinet number 9." |festival --tts

The job got done right.

I know, by a few years later you'd get a webcam with full audio hookups in your cereal box, and these days you'd just install motion or a VoIP client on each end. But it was still bloody good fun to see the look on his face.

Tags: anecdote

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:22pm on 09 April 2014

    Given he'd clearly read your sign, it sounds as if he was deliberately and maliciously going to install the lines to the wrong cabinet. I just can't fathom why on earth he'd do that (and all the previous engineers).

    The line may have been an E1, that's a digital system with 32 voice lines on it.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:29pm on 09 April 2014

    My goodness, I can't imagine why a BT engineer should choose to behave in such a way as would require an additional appointment (at extra cost to us and extra profit to BT). A reputable company like that.

    Might well have been an E1, I wasn't really involved until things were translated to IP.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 12:39pm on 10 April 2014

    But how can someone live with themselves if they work for a company that asks them to behave like that? You're suggesting it was BT policy. I'd leave and find a job with an honest company if I were working under those conditions.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 12:43pm on 10 April 2014

    I would never suggest such an actionable thing.

    Not everyone thinks like you. I like to think I have a reasonable ethical sense, but when I had a choice between running the Westlife and SClub7 web sites or not eating, I chose the former.

    I did leave the Job from Hell, but that's another anecdote.

  5. Posted by John Dallman at 08:58pm on 10 April 2014

    A company doesn't have to tell people to do such things to encourage it. A personal example: in a previous job, I did support, and sometimes got sent out as a "consultant" to sort out really complicated problems.

    This one was a customer who'd managed to corrupt his MS-DOS filesystem. Re-partition, re-install DOS, re-install the application of ours they ran, tart copying their data back from backups ... something's not right. Prod it with various analysis tools, and become fairly sure that the hard disk is sick. It's mostly working, but only mostly, which will not do.

    The customer is horrified, thinking this will cost a fortune. "No, it's easy. We can't replace your disk with one the same ... because they don't come that small any more. Simply Computers are only a couple of miles away. If you get £150 from petty cash and drive me down there, we can just buy one immediately, and I can install it and set this up. Buying it through us will take longer, and you want to get back in action."

    So we did that. The time lost before I realised the problem, and the buying and the hardware work meant that I'd have to go back the next day to finish up, but the customer was very happy.

    Back at the office, the boss congratulates me on selling another day's consultancy. That's what he was focused on; I was just trying to solve the problem.

  6. Posted by Phil Masters at 08:15am on 11 April 2014

    Roger's case doesn't have to have been BT company policy, or even encouraged by the managers. If that location was an easy drive from where the engineers were based, and moving cables around is easier than actually solving unknown problems - and if genuine tasks were getting scarce enough that management were looking at headcount and wondering what they could save... It could just have been the engineers' way of guaranteeing themselves continuing employment without too much hassle.

    It's not defending the practice to say that people can fairly understandably compromise their ethics when unemployment is a possible alternative. Unfortunately, of course, the costs there transferred to the customer, so management had no particular incentive to clamp down on that sort of thing. Indeed, something that keeps more engineers around secures the managers' own jobs (and status).

  7. Posted by RogerBW at 08:32am on 11 April 2014

    It could be something as simple as the engineers getting paid more for a site visit than for sitting around in the office.

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