05 August 2007

partial orderings and power outages

Yesterday my power went out for a couple hours.

I did what I usually do when my power goes out (it doesn't happen that often) -- I went for a walk and hoped it would be back when I got back. That didn't work, so then I remembered some people I sort of knew were having a party (and fortunately I remembered the address!) and went there; when I came back again the power was back.

But at one point the following question occurred to me: when my service from Comcast (which provides my TV and Internet) goes out I get angry. Yet at first it seems like a power outage must cause more inconvenience than a Comcast outage, because when the power goes out, not only can I not use the Internet or TV, but I also can't use the lights (not terribly inconvenient in this case -- the power came back on before dark), refrigerator (you're not supposed to open the fridge during a power outage because otherwise all the cold air gets out), or most importantly the air conditioner. (At one point I tried to turn on a fan. I forgot that fans ran on electricity, too.)

You can imagine a partial ordering of "collections of things that could be wrong with my apartment". Clearly if one collection contains the other, then the latter is worse. Everything that is wrong in a Comcast outage is also wrong in a power outage, so clearly the power outage is worse, right? (Note that it's also possible to compare some collections that don't contain each other. For example, I think I'd prefer the gas being out to the Internet being out, at least in the summer.)

But there are two things that are part of such a collection that I didn't notice at first. The first is the expected length of the problem. The second is the identity of the people that are going to have to fix the problem. These are of course connected; some companies have better customer service than others. But it's not just the time. I never talked to anyone at PECO, my electric company, unless you count their automated hotline that you're supposed to call to report an outage. I never waited on hold. With Comcast I would have waited on hold, had to explain my problem to someone at a call center, and probably had to schedule an appointment to have someone come out and take a look at it; Comcast seems to assume that whatever the problem is, it's on the customer's property (or their landlord's, in my case). So the identity of the problem-fixers is important not just for telling me how long the problem will last, but how much of my own time I'm going to have to spend dealing with it.

And PECO's power outage hotline works by using Caller ID to identify who you are, then says "for your privacy, only the first four digits of the building number where you have service will be repeated". (There was a button to press if the number you're calling from wasn't where you have service.) That's nice of them -- but kind of silly, since almost all buildings in their service area have four digits or less in their number. And I can imagine a situation where this would create confusion for someone who had a five-digit building number -- say I live at 12024 John Street (yes, this name of a street is a bad joke) and I own the house next door, 12026; I rent out that house to tenants and I pay the electric bills there, so the phone number on the electric bill is my phone number, because I don't wish to go through the trouble of changing the phone number every time there are new tenants. (This is reasonable, because people have cell phones and land line numbers are more portable than they used to be.) I call, it says "1202" at this point. Clearly they should use the last four digits; it's a lot more likely that I have some interest in 12024 and 12026 (which are next door to each other!) than that I have some interest in 2024 and 12024. Of course, the real privacy issue here is that it doesn't say what street the building is on.

Also, PECO's power outage hotline pretends to tell you an estimated time when your service will be back. I say "pretends" because every time I've ever called (a few times during each of the two outages I've had here) it gives a time between two and two and a half hours in the future. If you call them at 6, they'll tell you 8:15; if you then call at 7, they'll tell you 9:15; then it'll come back on at 7:45. It's possible that this might just be the average time to restore service and they're concentrating more on restoring service than telling people when it'll be back, which is probably a Good Thing. (I bet they figured nobody would ever figure that out.)

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