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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

World Enough, And Time

Don’t Tick Off the Tech Writer

LadyQuill has been quiet of late.

She was offered her last book contract (Google Secrets, available now at Amazon, grab it quick before they sell out!) three weeks before her birthday, so I bought her a new laptop as an early birthday present.  Her old one had seen better days and just was not up for the rigors of an 800 page technical book.

I got her a good one, too.  Dell.  Full keyboard with keypad, nice wide screen, and she loved it.  Cranked out that book and it worked like a charm.

It’s starting to show it’s age, too, though.  The B and C keys failed.  This wasn’t that big a deal, as she uses a USB keyboard, but it’s still something that needed to be fixed.

Then the hard drive went out.

Now, LadyQuill has had hard drives crash before.  This computer had a separate partition set aside, called DataDrive, with all of her files on it.  The most important stuff was backed up to “the cloud.”  So, while a crashed drive for most anyone else is a total disaster, for her, it wasn’t much more than a low-level annoyance; the DataDrive partition was even still accessible.  She started working from a bootable CD while I handled the tech support duties.

Yes, I’m the one who needs to speak to tech support.  The reasons will become clear.

I checked the Dell website, and found she still had 70 days left on her warranty.  Then I called the 800 number.

The first tech I reached--I’ll call him L1--had an accent, but nothing I couldn’t deal with.  His biggest problem, though, was that the warranty was due to expire.  He tried four different times to get me to extend the warranty, and finally passed us through to the next level.  

That’s where the real fun began.

The second tech, L2 for short, was totally and completely chained to his script.

“Look,” I said.  “I can tell you this hard drive is bad.  

“My wife keeps three different versions of Linux running on her laptop.  If one of them crashes out and refuses to boot, she can switch to another.  This system had Ubuntu, Debian, and Arch installed, and none of them will boot.  The system will boot just fine from a CD or a Knoppix thumb drive, though.

“Now, she  has tried three different Linux installs on it and none of them work.  One of them ran a hard drive test, and that program said there are over 600 bad sectors in the Master Boot Record.  This drive is hosed, and my wife would like a new one under the warranty.”

“Well, we can’t just send you a new drive,” L2 said.  “Here’s what we’re going to do.  We’re going to use the Maintenance Partition to wipe your hard drive and put Windows Vista back on it, like when you bought it.  Once Windows is back up and running, that will probably fix your keyboard problem, too.”

Right.  Installing Windows Vista solves everything, and the two keys that have not worked for weeks--under multiple Linux versions, too--will magically start working again.  Immediately after this, Icehawk the Barbarian will headline on Broadway and Vidad will be the opening act for the Stones’ next tour.

“I’m sorry, but we accidentally wiped out the maintenance partition,” I answered.  

That was actually my fault; I tried to install MySQL on the laptop, screwed up the instructions, and fried an Ubuntu install, and then wiped out both the Windows partition and the maintenance partition in the repair process...but L2 didn’t need to know that.  

“My wife doesn’t use Windows.  We installed Ubuntu on it the day it came home.  They didn’t even give us the CDs.”

In the course of speaking to these two, I burned up nearly an hour and a half.  I could not get L2 to budge an inch; the only possible solution was to wait for them to send us replacement CDs, then restore the maintenance partition, then restore Windows, and that would fix anything that could possibly be wrong with it.  And, on the very remotest of possibilities that it did not...then we would need to take the laptop to the certified Dell shop downtown--which would very likely then need to send the laptop to Dell for the actual repair.


While waiting for the CDs to arrive, we decided to short-cut the entire issue.  We took the laptop in to the shop, and explained the situation.  The guy behind the counter looked mystified; he did not understand why Dell bothered to involve him, but he said he would try.

Of course, that meant that LadyQuill was without her computer.

...can you say withdrawal symptoms...?

The shop tried three times to speak to Dell, and got even more of a runaround than we did.  Finally, on the fifth day of laptop cold turkey, they called me and asked me to call Dell.  “They should give you a reference number,” he said, “which will authorize us to repair it under the warranty.”

Okay, I can do that.

What I did not know at the time was that Dell had sent LadyQuill a Customer Satisfaction Survey.  

She ignored it at first, but by the fifth day without her laptop, she was steamed.  Not only did she score them straight zeroes across the board, but she wrote in two or three paragraphs for each and every question.  The final draft was over three pages long, and ended with “I will never buy another Dell product, ever again.”

I called Dell, and got a different guy named L1, and L1 tried yet again to convince me to extend the warranty.  “If the warranty dies, then you won’t get free maintenance anymore,” he said, desperate to change my mind.  “You’d have to pay someone to change out the hard drive if it died then.”

“If the drive dies, I’ll fix it myself,” I said.  “In fact, if the drive had waited another 71 days to die, I would have had it fixed within three hours, including driving time into town, and my wife would have had an operating system on it in less than an hour after that.  I’m only on the phone with you because the computer is still under warranty.  You’ve kept us jumping through hoops for over a week.  Would you please put us through to someone who can actually help us?”

I had decided that L1 was not really tech support.  His entire job is to convince the caller to buy more warranty, whether they need it or not.  Deflated, he finally abandoned the sales pitch, and passed us on to L2--who, at any other tech support phone bank, would have been L1.

L2 started in on the same “okay, let’s get out the CDs we sent you” script, and I told him the same thing I had just told L1.  

“All we want is a new drive,” I said.  “The computer is in the shop.  If you’ll authorize them to fix it, you don’t have to do anything.  In fact, if you’ll ship me the drive, I’ll even do the work, and you can save yourself a few hours by not bothering to install Windows on it.”

“I’m going to look at your case records,” L2 finally said.  “Let me see if there are any other options.”

I heard his voice change.  I distinctly heard a kind of strangled "squeak" sort of noise, like you'd expect a stalking cat to make when the mouse whips out a flaming sword and cloak of invulnerability.  I'm making the assumption that he stumbled across that Customer Satisfaction Survey.

“I need to go speak with my supervisor,” he said, very quietly.

I was on hold for quite a while.

When L2 came back, he said “If I send a new hard drive to the same address where we sent the CDs, would that be okay?”

I pressed him on the keyboard, and he added that to the order without skipping a beat.

The spare parts arrived less than twenty hours later.  I brought the laptop home the same day.  And exactly 47 minutes after she cut open the box, LadyQuill was running Linux on a laptop without a trace of Windows software on it anywhere.

Allan Davis is a writer/photographer/database programmer in southeastern Nebraska.  Before he was a programmer, he was a tech, and though woefully out of practice, can still change out a laptop hard drive with the best of them.  

Just don't ask him to install MySQL.
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