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Welcome to the Machine

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If you are like me and live in commercial property you find that the rules of life differ greatly from general residential living. We've been without Internet for several weeks and the dispute is grounded in the commercial nature of the account. You see, AT&T loves small business so much that they want to help us because they're just the kindest most benevolent folks on Gumdrop Lane.

They allow commercial accounts to carry a balance over from month to month, and they encourage online payment of bills. In September2009, AT&T claimed my son short-paid the account by $26.32. My son, being young and trusting, paid the bill online from the current services box so $26.32 turned into $31.11, which turned into $47.21 and, well, you get the picture. Then in October 2009, AT&T claimed that my son didn't make a payment, but the bank says he did.

AT&T says that we have some paperwork to fill out before they can investigate that.

The past-due bill is now more than $200 --with late fees, interest, and adjustments -- it is $228. AT&T made no effort to collect these charges. Instead, they buried them in a sub column of the bill until finally they shut us off with a past-due balance of $349.63. There were charges tacked on for service calls for service outages that were AT&T's fault. At the top of the bill is a figure called "adjustment" and, at the bottom is an identical figure called interest.

"What are we paying interest on?" I asked. "That's the interest charged on the past-due balance or the late charges," they responded."But the bill was always paid by the tenth!" I exploded. "Sir, it was explained our billing closes on the 27th of the month." Meaning that if you pay by the 10th or even by the 5th you're late. "Jinkies, that's convenient," I said.

In his landmark book "The Gulag Archipelago" Alexander Solsinetisin described the Soviet penal system doing business much the same way. He called it the sewer system, where prisoners where brought in to be interrogated. There was no question of innocence or guilt; you had been arrested and the blue caps' (NKVD) job was to get as much out of you as possible.

The defendants had no attorneys and the state was fully behind the blue caps. Their motivation was the same as in any other system. Their advancement and promotion were dependent on what crimes they could make you confess to committing. You began with the screamer as you sat on a small, hard wooden stool and he would scream at you and tell you how vile you were.After eight or nine hours they might even threaten to shoot you in disgust.

Then the mediator would come in, "Look," he would explain, "you're in a bad spot here and really the easiest way out would be to admit your guilt and save us all this trouble because you will have to confess sooner or later. When you don't confess now, it only makes them think you are hiding more!" After the mediator came mild torture, your finger or toes broken and then you would be physically beaten.

It was a system where the blue caps knew how the system operated and the prisoner did not. Solzenitsin was warned, "Do not confess too soon because it only encourages them to seek more charges against you." So -- if you will admit to stealing potatoes from a collective farm perhaps you are the leader of a gang of thieves?

The AT&T system works as follows: you are asked for your account number and then switched to the first level --the friendly droids --"Thank you for calling AT&T how can I help you?"

"Yes I have a problem with my bill and you've shut us off."

"I'm sorry about that sir, would you like to pay that balance now?"

"No, I have a problem with my bill."

"I'm sorry about that sir, let me connect you with the business office and thank you for using AT&T!"

I swear, as God is my witness every time I spoke to the business office the volume went down on the line. If this had happened only once I wouldn't even mention it, but it was every time. An accident? Sure, I'm certain that's all it was. I mean, a phone company unable to keep sound integrity on the line is absurd.

"My name is Juanita Johnson how can I help you today?

"What? I can't hear you?"

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I who am I? Born at the pinnacle of American prosperity to parents raised during the last great depression. I was the youngest child of the youngest children born almost between the generations and that in fact clouds and obscures who it is that (more...)

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