PACKET RAT

The Rat palms off techie help request by calling on a blast from the past

R. Fink

The Rat can always tell when the fortunes of the tech sector have swung south.

His leading indicator is when the number of calls he receives from people claiming to be relatives in need of tech support exceeds the number of calls from relatives looking for stock tips.

By that measure, tech stocks are cool as a polar bear's posterior these days. That, or the booming economy has placed way too much technology in the hands of the clueless. Lately, the wirebiter's phone has been ringing off the hook with cries for driver configuration help.

The Rat has always offered members of his family a helping paw. But every now and then, one of the extended clan gives out his number to a friend or someone they met in the checkout line at the video store. He gets calls from folks he's never met about everything from installing modems to troubleshooting advanced firewalls.

For that reason, the cyberrodent has instituted a rigorous protocol for familial tech support. At the last family gathering, he issued his and his wife's relatives a card with a phone number and a personal identification number for access to his voice response system.

Audio menus push the furry one's kin through a frequently-asked-questions list, read by a text-to-speech system that uses the Rat's voiceprint. Most callers don't even realize they're not talking to him.

In the event a question falls outside the domain of preset responses, the call is forwarded to the Rat's Home Tech Hotline, which brings up the relative's entire help desk history on a screen by the kitchen phone.

Off the hook

Even with these safeguards in place, however, the call volume still occasionally overwhelms the Rat. And with the scores of new computer-driven gadgets and Internet appliances on the market, the help demands have soared in inverse proportion to Amazon.com Inc.'s stock price.

Recently, the calls have been arriving from fairly suspicious sources.

'Either the growth of the Internet has led to the discovery of previously lost branches of our families, or we've been unwittingly adopted,' the whiskered one told his better half after an unexpected half-hour phone call one recent weekend morning.

'Do you have a cousin named Boris?'

Mrs. Rat stirred her chai and thought. 'The only Boris I can think of is my cousin Darlene's ex-husband's half-brother's college roommate. Funny, my mom said she bumped into him last week.'

'Apparently we need to have a chat with your mom, then,' the wirebiter grimaced. 'She must be giving out the family tech support number again.'

'What did 'Cousin Boris' need?' his wife asked.

'First, it seemed he needed help configuring the sound card on the PC he just bought. But as it turned out, what he really wanted was for me to write a Java servlet that would let him change the settings on the TiVo digital video recorder for his Palm VII,' the Rat said.

'It's good to know my relatives are so prosperous,' Mrs. Rat chirped. 'So, did you help him?'

'Let's just say he'll be watching nothing but 'Gilligan's Island' for the next couple of weeks,' the Rat replied darkly. 'Of course, he might mistake it for 'Survivor' reruns.'

The Packet Rat once managed networks but now spends his time ferreting out bad packets in cyberspace. E-mail him at rat@gcn.com.

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