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By Joel Klebanoff

Caffeinated Game Controllers

On December 7, 2006, The Washington Post ran an Associated Press news item under the headline "Nintendo Investigating Wii Strap Problem." That sounded excruciatingly dull, so I ignored it. Then I stumbled on Computerworld's version of the same story. Its headline read, "Nintendo investigates flying Wii controllers." Flying Wii controllers! Wow! Now, there's something I can get excited about!

Unfortunately, as I read beyond the headline, I learned that this was not a story about people directing UFOs from the planet Wii. Instead, the article discussed some very well-identified flying objects, the flight of which was not powered by anything other than inertia. Damn! There goes another good story out the window.

Before I go on, let me back up. If you are almost as uninterested in video games as I am (it would be impossible to be more uninterested), you may not know what Wii is or why it's called Wii.

First, the what. Wii is Nintendo's latest video game machine. Many gamers became terribly excited when it was launched, and they stood for hours, forgoing sleep and bearing horrendously inclement weather, just to be one of the first to get their hands on a Wii. The same thing happened again when Sony launched its new PlayStation 3. In case you were wondering what the socio-psychological term is for people who risk their lives, limbs, health, sanity, and day jobs just to be the first on their block to own the latest, greatest game console, academics generally refer to them as fanatics, freaking lunatics, or both. I'll let you guess where I come down on this issue.

As to why it's called Wii, I haven't any idea. I think it has something to do with a total lack of creativity on the part of Nintendo's marketers, but I could be wrong about that. Nintendo probably has some phantasmagorical marketing jive about the name's origin posted somewhere on the Web, but, despite my unquenchable thirst to bring you, my loyal reader, all of the pertinent information that's fit to print (and, when I can get away with it, some that's not fit to print), this isn't the least bit pertinent to anything of the slightest consequence in this crazy world, so I couldn't be bothered looking for the answer. Instead, I'll make up a story. I think Nintendo's marketers put an alphabet chart on a dartboard and threw darts until they hit same letter twice in a row. Then they used all of the letters they had hit up to that point as the name of the new machine. Fortunately, they had someone with a good aim in their midst, otherwise the name could have been Xsielsadihsoidkaoelsdhfksdidjj. But, again, I could be wrong about that. (Note to Victoria, the editor: Please double-check that I haven't "accidentally" included any swear words in Xsielsadihsoidkaoelsdhfksdidjj.)

With those explanations out of the way, you're probably anxiously wondering, "What's up with the flying controllers you mentioned earlier?" Patience, patience. I'm coming to that right now. Wii's motion-sensitive controller is designed to be waved around like the implement of the game you're playing—a golf club, a baseball bat, a sword, a proton canon, a facial tissue, or whatever. (OK, maybe not a facial tissue, but what do I know about video games? Nothing.)

It seems that some players are so vigorous in their game-playing that neither their grips nor the straps that attach the controllers to their wrists have been sufficient to hold the controllers in these exuberant players' hands. There have even been reports of controllers flying into and cracking the screens of the television sets that were being used to display the games.

I thought this was just another example of crazed gamers going overboard until I heard about the television sets. Then I figured it out.

Nintendo has, no doubt, put considerable intelligence into these controllers. I figure that the devices have been programmed to always act in the best interest of their owners. Isn't that what all technology always does? (Yeah, right.) My theory is that, after countless hours of rambunctious play, the controllers are forcefully, under their own power, jumping out of their owners' hands and intentionally flying into and destroying the television sets, thereby preventing the owners from squandering any more of their precious time on mindless play. Because the display medium for these games is a normal television set, this act of well-intentioned vandalism has the added benefit of saving the players and other members of their households from wasting their time watching the idiotic televisions programs that pass for entertainment these days. Either that or the controllers are committing suicide out of boredom after all that repetitive play and the television sets are merely innocent bystanders. It's only a theory, but I think I'm right.

* * * *

Apropos of nothing, in a few previous columns I mentioned that I frequent Starbucks. In one or two of those pieces of prose (you may have your own thoughts on what they were pieces of) I stated, accurately, that Starbucks hadn't paid me for the plugs but that I'd gladly accept its payment if it chose to make one. I was joking about my willingness to accept payment, but only because I assumed that no one from Starbucks reads my columns, let alone cares what I say. Maybe I was wrong. Either that or Starbucks treats all of its customers well.

I own a Starbucks espresso maker. A thin, disc-shaped filter is affixed to the machine by a small screw. The manual recommends cleaning the filter monthly (highly unlikely at my residence). The last time I did so, I must have tightened the screw too much because when I next tried to remove it, I destroyed the screw head, without dislodging the screw. (Things like that happen to me often. I'm not the handiest person on the planet. In fact, I don't make the top six-billion list.) After many months of ignoring the problem, I decided to invest in a tool likely to remove the beat-up screw, but first I called Starbucks to find out if it's a standard screw. I wanted to buy a new one in advance to avoid the risk of being without my morning espresso jolt for even a day.

I called the toll-free number printed on the front of the machine. A human answered almost immediately after a single "press one for …" instruction. In response to his request, I gave him my name and postal code. He quickly replied, "Is that the candy apple red Barista model?" "Yes."

I explained my problem. The customer service person wasn't sure if it's a standard screw and, since my machine is off warrantee, Starbucks normally charges for a replacement filter and screw, which come as a set. "But," he said, "because there aren't any in Starbucks stores now, I'll send you one for free." He already had my address on his screen. He also volunteered a helpful hint for removing the recalcitrant screw.

It normally takes a week or so for the U.S. Postal Service and Canada Post to deliver a standard letter from the U.S. (Starbucks is in Seattle) to me here in Toronto. I expected that Starbucks' handling time and the fact that it wasn't a standard-size letter would delay it somewhat longer. My machine was still working, so I didn't mind the wait. Nor, as it turns out, did I have any reason to mind it. A few days later, somebody buzzed my condo from the lobby. "Hello, this is UPS."

Not only had Starbucks couriered the filter disk and screw I required, it also sent a new Rapporto Filter assembly, a separate apparatus that I wasn't having a problem with—all at no charge. (If you don't know what the trademarked Rapporto Filter is, never mind. Suffice it to say that it's neither tiny nor cheap.)

That's what I call amazing service. As in the past, Starbucks hasn't paid me to say this. Nor did I tell the customer service person that I've ever written anything nice about the company or that I would do so now. Heck, there was nothing in our conversation to indicate I'm even literate. (Many of my readers question that.) No, these words weren't bought; they were earned. If anyone from Starbucks is reading this, thanks! Nonetheless, I do have one piece of advice. You'd be well-advised to ensure that you have healthful food in the Starbucks locations I visit. You'll profit by helping me to live longer because you now have a customer for life.

Come to think of it, maybe this is apropos of something. Regular readers know that I have been, to say the least, underwhelmed by my experiences with the customer disservice departments of some technology companies. More often than not, I wade through multiple levels of "press one for …" menus, only to wait interminably on hold. When I finally speak to a human, I'm often passed from one friendly, courteous, but totally unhelpful person to another before I finally give up in frustration. A word of advice to those companies: Maybe if you treated me less like you do and more like Starbucks does, you too would have a committed customer for life. It's just a suggestion.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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