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Crank Yankers

by Terry Joseph
April 18, 2003

Among the many things about this country that never fail to astonish me is its people's apparently intrinsic preference for worry over wealth.

On the evidence, your average Trini is inclined to do nothing more than grumble about or, for that matter, discard items and issues people of other cultures routinely interpret as business opportunities.

Not until recently did anyone notice that pan-tuning, deriving symphony music from garbage, practised here since 1940, was fundamentally a template for what the world later came to discover and turn into the lucrative recycling business. Instead, we frittered away our lead, sounding off about noise-pollution and stigmatising the concept's most zealous proponents.

Of course, there are sporadic examples of clever conversion-from complaint to commercialisation-by visionaries like Energy Ministry employee Carlisle de Bourg, who defied tradition itself to solve a crucial Christmastime conundrum.

Presumably after hearing decades of groaning over grief encountered in fermenting a popular seasonal fruit into nectar, he invented a mechanism to safely peel sorrel, one that distanced milady's fingers from the bud's annoying tines.

Mr de Bourg came to mind this week when the National Security Ministry took a break from mundane tasks like pursuing murderers, kidnappers and corrupt politicians, to mount a two-day exhibition highlighting its latest problem-crank calls.

Justifying this extraordinary approach, director of the Ministry's communications network, Glen Shah said between New Year's Day and March 31, nuisance calls accounted for some 95 per cent of the times telephones rang at the E-999 Rapid Response command centre.

The problem, we learnt, has been with us from inception of this particular service. And the information will get worse. Since the current quarter includes April 1-All Fools' Day-we may confidently expect exacerbated statistics.

During the review period, only 20,273 calls received at E-999 were authentic, while a whopping 356,579 were pranks. Mr Shah was therefore attempting to educate the public about the rapid-response system, in an effort to thwart this disruptive practice.

Interestingly, Mr Shah also has a Christmastime problem. During that period, he said, the system experienced a noticeable increase in the number of prank calls; their content ranging from requests for coordinates of a neighbourhood pizzeria to lewd sugestions for his telephone operators.

Here was I, naively finding comfort from the thought that, in this context, police service was best organised to protect and serve. The law officers, I convinced myself, could intercept crank calls at will and positively identify suspects through sophisticated electronic surveillance, yanking the guilty off to jail.

And since "wasting police time" is a separately listed crime, crank callers, I felt certain, could only increase personal jeopardy by phoning the very department in charge of prosecuting those caught at such foolery.

But alas! It seems no such system exists, leading us to consider petulant, Senator Robin Montano's recent storming out of Parliament on what, in the face of Mr Shah's admission, is now a flimsy premise.

Senator Montano openly accused the State of using spy-equipment to tap his personal phone calls. Clearly, Government is unable to tap its own phones, even in the most sensitive of national security situations.

The only other defensible assumption that may spring from Senator Montano's claim, is that our secret service has dedicated all its espionage resources to monitoring conversations between Opposition Members, leaving not a single channel available for departmental use.

To paraphrase last Tuesday's contribution in the Upper House by Senator Arnim Smith: If this Government bought millions in spy-equipment and it is not helping reduce crime by finding out when, where and how kidnappers are making ransom arrangements, then against whom is it being used?

Indeed, it seems utterly ludicrous that the police service cannot trace line calls or train its scanners to pick up details from mobile-unit users who are, after all, broadcasting on radio frequencies far easier to track. Or, where all else fails, that the telephone company would be hostile to requests for covert assistance.

So in addition to our other woes, it is now open season for stalkers and other such psycho-types, as police remain limited to bringing to public attention its ability to sincerely empathise with the plight of us victims.

Now, had Mr Shah indicated the global standard, a manageable ratio of pranks to genuine emergency calls, there may have been no need to ponder his figures, which indicate on average, some 125,000 nuisance calls are received each month at the country's best-equipped police division. Worse, that after more than three years of this harassment, he did not point to a single conviction for this offence.

You see, Mr Shah's statistics set an average of one in ten Trinis making at least a single crank call each month. In any but the most bizarre of cultures, even considering repeat offenders, this is a fairly large constituency. On the supply side, however, it more than meets the basic requirement for testing viability of a novel television product.

American comedians Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Corona teamed to produce a hilarious muppet-show from the very situation Mr Shah's is lamenting and are minting money from its syndication via the Comedy Central cable channel.

But as earlier indicated, it seems we prefer worry to wealth, since with superior material, presumably voices already recorded, we can begin shooting (oops!) almost immediately.

And if Mr Shah's argument be that we cannot afford state-of-the-art detection devices, then he should note the success of Kimmel & Carolla's Crank Yankers show which, as part of its downstream merchandising, sells videocassettes, phone messages and T-shirts at eye-popping prices.

At least that way, if the department's integrity cannot be retrieved, at least it will earn its keep.

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