Roy Johnstone is in the process of releasing Summertime, a new jazz album (are they still called albums). For me, this is the perfect music for lying in the hammock, listening to the cicadas and breathing in the sweet smell of apple blossoms… (from the liner notes).

More tales from the Customer Service Hinterland

Yesterday my friend Brian phoned me looking for information about WebTV, which is a Microsoft product that lets you surf the Internet and email through your television (a WebTV unit is basically a black box with a single-purpose computer and a modem).

I know something of WebTV from the “back end,” as I’ve worked to make websites WebTV-compatible over the years (they have a very good developer guide on this subject). But I didn’t know if their service was available in Canada. So off I went to the WebTV website to find that out.

For some reason, however, this information is missing from the website. Their find a retailer function only searches by U.S. state or ZIP code. The best I could find was that they have local access numbers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (but not PEI).

So I called the WebTV toll-free number, pressed 2 for “I’m not a WebTV customer but i want to know more” and got a message back saying (and I’m not lying here) “You have reached an invalid termination; please call…” and then it gave me back the number I’d just called.

So I called back and pressed 1 instead, and then selected the option for billing problems. I talked to a very nice man, who answered on the first ring, who told me that I’d reached the wrong department. I told him that I knew this, and explained about the invalid termination. He said he could transfer me to someone in pre-sales who could help.

Then he put me on hold for 6 minutes and 30 seconds (granted he did pop back in a couple of times to apologize for the wait). Finally I got to talk to someone in pre-sales. They told me the service was available in Canada, and explained a little bit about it. I asked them where I could buy a WebTV box in Canada, and they tried to look this up in their system, but found that, like their website, they couldn’t search in Canada.

I asked them if there was someone else who could tell me this information, and I was put on hold again. Finally, at 11 minutes and 27 seconds into the call, my agent came back on the line to tell me (and I’m not lying here) that nobody there could tell me where to buy a box in Canada. I asked her what she suggested I do, and she replied that I should call around to local retailers, or try and buy a used box from someone.

I’m at a loss as to what to suggest to Brian now: can I recommend to him that he should deal with a company that makes me wait 12 minutes to tell me that they can’t help me?

Give Manny a Call

Today I got to live out a life-long dream, which was to be able to say to someone on the phone “Just give Manny a call…”

Longtime readers will remember that, back in the autumn of 1999, the distributor on my 1993 Eagle Summit went kaplooyee, and, in an effort to avoid the insane $1,200 cost of a new distributor, I sourced a rebuilt from Manny at B & B Auto Parts in the Bronx for $350US.

I’m sorry to report that now a similar fate has befallen my wily friend Ann, and so when she called me looking for advice as to where to turn, I was able to relay the aforementioned “Just give Manny a call…”.

My life is now complete.

Fish out of Water

Sometimes amazing things appear from the ether and change the experience of living in a community dramatically for the better.

A recent example of this is the Formosa Tea House, owned by Chien-Ming Yeh, that opened this spring at 73 University Avenue in Charlottetown.

Now I am almost certain that if you went to a bank and expressed your desire to borrow money to open a small tea house with room for about 6 customers, in downtown Charlottetown, where you would serve food like sushi, steamed buns and iced tea, for prices like $1.50 and $2.00, you would be sent away quickly, and much laughter about your insanity would follow in the bank office.

So I imagine that the Formosa Tea House didn’t seek bank financing for their endeavour. Thank goodness.

Located amongst a motely collection of businesses that includes Fergie, my barber, the Lebanese restaurant Cedars, a comic book shop and an antique dealer, the Tea Room is housed in a space which, if memory serves me, used be either a taxi stand, or the former location of my barber. You would never know. This small space — it can’t be more than 12 x 20 feet — has been transformed into a very pleasant wood-filled sitting room. The fixtures are well designed without being precious, the chairs are comfortable, and, somehow, you don’t feel like you’re sitting inside a closet.

The staff are attentive and good-humoured (they offered to give Oliver a strawberry cookie, but checked with us first to make sure it was okay).

The food is simply delightful. The menu, a simple 11 x 17 laminated card, has drinks on one side and snacks on the other. Every item has a colour picture, which is helpful when one is unfamiliar with things like steamed buns and sushi. The prices are crazy-low; we two ate like kings — bamboo rice, vegetable sushi, steamed buns, lemon iced tea — for $15. The food itself is unlike anything else you can get in Charlottetown, and is served in a pleasant fashion, with chopsticks or cutlery at your option.

It was such an odd experience to be sitting in this unusual oasis and looking out at the same old University Avenue traffic flowing by, know that Fergie was still cutting hair a couple of doors down, and people were still enjoying their falafels at Cedars two doors up the other way.

I sincerely hope the Formosa Tea Room attacts a sustaining audience of fans and is around for a good long while.

I heartily encourage everyone to drop in for a bite. And kudos to my wily friend Ann for sending me their way in the first place.

Why Founders’ Hall Fails

I took a visit, as a paying customer, to the new Founders’ Hall today. While many others around me pre-proclaimed this new tourism development a Disney-style washout before it opened, I was willing to keep an open mind, and went in and paid my $7.50 admission ready to sit back and be wowed.

Much of the publicity surrounding Founders’ Hall this week has seen its staff and developers talking about how it is a state of the art tourism attraction; at the grand opening last night, one of the actors on stage suggested that if Province House were a bank, then Founders’ Hall is an ATM. In a television interview on ATV last night, the mission for the exhibit designers was explained as something like “go out and design an experience like no other in the world.”

In that light, I am sad to have to proclaim Founders’ Hall an abject failure in all respects. Emerging from the 45 minute walk through the “experience” I felt assaulted and over stimulated with simplistic and banal sound bite-style infotainment. Somehow, Founders’ Hall has managed to take the rich, complex, fascinating story of Canadian Confederation and turn it into what amounts to an almost content-free poorly executed rock video.

The way the experience works is this: you enter the building through the front door and go up to a cashier where you pay your admission and are given a wireless Sennheiser Stethoset receiver headset unit which you wear like headphones, but with the “loop” down under your chin.

You’re then directed to an opening area, which is made up like a faux TV set and watch a brief introduction in which you’re told, by Canadian actor Tamara Hickey, playing a newscaster, what the illusion will consist of: she will play a modern day news reporter covering the 1864 Confederation Conference and related events.

It’s at this stage that a major technical problem first becomes apparent: the headsets are necessarily of limited range, and depending on where you’re standing, you either hear the proper narration, hear the narration for another stage in the experience, or hear static. Perhaps this will be fine-tuned with time, but I found myself batting about 500 in terms of whether or not I was hearing the proper audio for where I was standing.

The other technical problem with the headset-based approach they’ve taken is that most of the time you arrive at narration spot halfway through the loop, and to get the entire story, you have to wait until it starts over again. After a while, this gets tiresome and annoying.

Continuing on past the introductory area, you pass through a rather mundane “time tunnel”, constructed of copper pipe, clocks running backwards, and a fog machine. You emerge into a series of rooms, each of which discusses, in very brief and superficial terms, one small aspect of the Confederation process.

I was shocked with how little actual content each of these scenes contains. There is a mock-up of the prow of the Queen Victoria, the ship that carried delegates into Charlottetown Harbour for the Conference. One walks into this scene, reads less than 100 words of text posted on small panels, and moves on. One wonders what the point of this expensive prop is.

And so it goes. About half of the rooms in the chain have brief TV snippets where the pretend newscaster offers some fluffy comment or another. Sometimes she’s joined by Harry Holman, who acts like a historical Don Cherry, and sometimes it’s someone else in her place. At one point Mag Ruffman acts as a olde-tyme gossip columnist, for example, offering the usual Sir John A. as drunk titterances.

We’re led through the Confederation and Quebec conferences, past Confederation itself, and then through each of the post-Confederation Provinces joining in, culminating with Nunavut in 1999. Again, there is almost no content in any of this, and the panel text is silly “did you knowisms” and cursory overviews of highlights.

Along the way there are other trivial distractions: there’s some sort of interactive computer kiosk about half way through, but I couldn’t figure out how to operate it, and so I can’t tell you what it does. There are various “open the panel to see the answer to the question” things, and you can actually read the text of some of the conference resolutions, albeit shoddily photocopied and prepared like a grade 5 history assignment.

Once through the Nunavut world, you emerge into a theatre where you can watch a video presentation that’s one half Molson Canadian commercial and one of Bobby Gimby. And then it’s on to the Canada, Eh! Store, which has an uninteresting collection of the kind of tchotchke that can be purchased around the corner at Tweel’s.

I say all this as a longtime museum goer and fan. I spent 6 months in residence at the Ontario Science Centre. I’ve been to Disney World. I’ve seen museums in Germany and the Czech Republic, in El Paso, Texas, Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, and Cuba. I’ve seen everything from the latest and greatest techno-style museum to the most dated and dusty 1950s style dioramas. I can say without any hesitation that Founders’ Hall is the least effective at telling a story than any I’ve ever seen.

What we were promised was a world-class telling of the Confederation story. What we got was simply a series of sub-par television commercials interspersed over an expensively produced but otherwise useless set. If Founders’ Hall serves any useful purpose, it is to show us how lucky we are to have actual heritage sites, like Province House, Beaconsfield, Orwell Corner, Green Park, and Basin Head – sites with real Islanders telling real stories in an absolutely low-tech yet much more compelling fashion. I’m only sorry that the bucketfuls of money that went into Founders’ Hall weren’t spent buttressing these.

Bob Dylan Dreams

As far as I know, short of his weird performance at this year’s Oscars, I have never seen Bob Dylan in performance, live or otherwise.

It is ironic, then, that I had a very intricate dream last night in which Bob Dylan and I drove a very long way together, in a 1965 Chrysler Newport, so as to attend a Bob Dylan concert.

When we arrived at the concert, it was sold out and Bob Dylan refused to trade on the fact that he was, in fact, actually Bob Dylan, to gain admission to the concert. So we had to get back in the car and go home disappointed.

Somehow the logical paradox of all of this didn’t perplex me in my dream state.