Archive for March, 2005

Cell Phonies

Thursday, March 31st, 2005

Several years ago, I remember discovering a little shop at Oakbrook Center displaying cell phones by a company called PrimeCo. The phones weren’t particularly special, but one feature really caught my eye: at any time, you could select a command on the phone and be shown your current account balance.

Fast-forward to the present. PrimeCo is no more, and its domain name forwards to U.S. Cellular. They offer a similar balance feature: just dial #BAL, then choose 1 for English, then enter your 10-digit account number, then please hold while your account is being accessed, then… who the hell knows. I hung up.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Carriers are supposed to be able to provide a superior experience because they control every device that connects to their network. In fact, here in the U.S. their power is even greater because of the huge popularity of “free” phones provided with contracts.

Yet rather than use the power to demand better, more integrated hardware, they’re actually reducing functionality1. That’s gotta stop, and then maybe they can take a look at how to actually improve the phone experience. There are plenty of obvious ones (standardized phone books that can be easily synched, menus that actually make sense, ringtones that don’t annoy the room) but let me also float my own idea: integrated voicemail.

What if your phone connected directly to your voice mailbox, using your screen to provide the information normally read to you? With a voice mail menu, you could see call information merged with your in-phone phonebook. Rather than hearing “Your callback number is 3..1..2..” you could see a list:

=Thursday 2:12p
Mom, Work  -  42s
=Wednesday 11:12a
Neff Cell - 1m12s

You could scroll up and down, highlight any message and choose “play” or “delete”. No need to navigate through voice-prompts and touchtones. See at a glance what it takes RoboGirl precious seconds to read out.

And, you know, make the carriers’ iron-fisted control actually work for you for a change.

1 Multiple carriers are disabling Bluetooth wireless support in an effort to force users to transfer files (for a fee) over the cellular networks.

Boston Bound?

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

Awhile ago, I mentioned reading an article by Paul Graham called “How to Start a Startup.” After publishing the article a few weeks ago, Mr. Graham and others started a group to provide early-stage seed money to people who might want to create startups of their own. The initiative is called the Summer Founders Program, and for its inaugural summer the group received 223 applicants for 6-10 slots. (The announcements page helpfully notes “This means the SFP’s acceptance rate will be slightly lower than Harvard Medical School’s, so please don’t be discouraged if your proposal isn’t accepted.”)

The team of B-don and myself was one of those applicants, and I was thrilled to learn an hour ago that we’ve advanced to the next stage. This means that our chances have improved from 1 in 25 to even money. It also means I get a ticket to Boston for the interview process next weekend. I love Boston, so I’m trying to focus on the fact that a trip is reward enough (“It’s an honor just to be nominated.”) And it is, really, because the application process has really helped me to crystallize my thinking.

If we make the cut, it means a summer in Cambridge trying to turn the proposal into a product. If we don’t, well, I’m still pretty pleased we tried.

What Fresh Hell is This?

Monday, March 28th, 2005

Last week Slashdot mentioned an X Windows upgrade that would allow for some OS X-level “eye candy” features for Linux. In describing one of the effects, the author wrote:

The wobbly window effect is mildly addictive. Kristian hasn’t gotten much work done since he wrote it. He (and now I) spends all day moving windows around and watching them settle.

(See link for video.)

This is a good thing? I understand that it’s a demo, and therefore devoid of any actual usefulness. I’m okay with that. But I’m not wild about the section later in the post that covers button styles. Do we really need buttons with swirls around them, or buttons that appear to be hand-drawn?

At least one Microsoft cheerleader seems to think so. After first pointing out the standard button that Windows users have come to expect (shown here in the 1.0, 3.0, ’95, and XP iterations):
4 'OK' buttons

…this dude gushes over the ability to create “a Flippin’ CD Button!”:
frames of an animated CD button

Now, I hate to sound like a curmudgeon here, but I don’t want my buttons to bounce, swirl, or dance. I don’t want my windows to wiggle. I don’t want to have to click odd, walking diskettes to select folders. I just want to do whatever I set out to do with the program, and be done with it.

Is that too much to ask?

Airline Recording

Sunday, March 27th, 2005

Two things for the idea file this evening. For the first, let me quote from The 9/11 Commission Report:

29. Calls to American’s reservations office are routed to the first open line at one of several facilities, among them the center at Cary, N.C. … The call from Ong was received initially by Vanessa Minter and then taken over by Winston Sadler; realizing the urgency of the situation, he pushed an emergency button the simultaneously initiated a tape recording of the call and sent an alarm notifying Nydia Gonzalez, a supervisor, to pick up the line. Gonzalez was paged to respond to the alarm and joined the call a short time later. Only the first four minutes of the phone call between Ong and the reservations center (Minter, Sadler, and Gonzalez) was recorded because of the time limit of the recently installed system. [footnote 29, page 453 of printed edition (emphasis added)]

So the first idea is to fire whomever approved this ridiculous system. Is it not bizarre that your entire conversation with sales staff could be monitored (even when you’re on hold) but only 4 minutes of a bona fide emergency would be saved? This on a new system? The technology to do more is certainly available, and with digital phone systems is really quite cheap. I think it would be much smarter to just record all calls transferred to a supervisor as a matter of course. We make stockbrokers do it!

I’ve mentioned before that I think we should consider solutions to record cockpit chatter remotely, and if it’s done appropriately I think it’s still a good idea. A related idea would be to have planes send their GPS coordinates back at a set interval automatically.

Take, for example, any plane outfitted with Boeing’s Connexion wireless internet service. That plane maintains an Internet connection, so why not have it send GPS coordinates every 15 seconds (or other rate, as appropriate for minimizing search radius based upon speed)? True, it would be almost never used, but for those times a plane went missing, wouldn’t it be great to go to the server and pull up the last known location?

In both cases, the amount of data (and cost!) involved is truly negligible, but the insight gained could be life-saving.

Unleash the SplashPad!

Saturday, March 26th, 2005

From the “I wish I’d thought of that,” and, more importantly, the “I wish I could buy that” categories, may I present the SplashPad:

green mousepad-like device with Palm and cellphone resting on it

This is a mousepad-sized device which allows you to charge phones, PDAs, and the like wirelessly. Just plop your device on the pad, and it starts charging. How cool is that?

Unfortunately, I first heard about it some time ago and there appears to be no progress since (note how this image, from, features the rather old Palm V.) I also predict that even when the product is viable, all sorts of OEMs will balk at paying a licensing fee.

Which is where my idea comes in: I think Splashpower should provide the pads to hotels at cost. That way, when people come visit and ask “what’s this plugged-in mousepad thingy in my room?” The staff can respond: “that’s a Splashpad, and it means you don’t have to pack all the transformers for your phone, digital camera, PDA…” Bam, watch how fast people look for phones that support it. Since phones have a roughly 18 mos. refresh cycle, you could be in serious business.

But whatever. I want one!

Nice Work, All

Friday, March 25th, 2005

I figured I might see some creativity in response to my subject lines post, and I was not disappointed. Jesse opted for a subject of read this! there are words in it., and brother Jeff had fun with [eom].

But the lovely Cath deserves a special prize, because she just sent me a message where the entire text — all 1,884 characters — was in the subject line.

I didn’t even know you could do that.

But Is It Comedy Or Tragedy?

Friday, March 25th, 2005

I’ve just discovered that there’s a film listed in IMDb that’s called The Fuck Up. The discussion board predicts the title will be changed, but I’d love it if they don’t. (It’s not entirely unprecedented: in Ireland I saw a Danish film called Fucking Åmål, though in the UK/USA/Can. it became Show Me Love.)

Anyway, the IMDb post includes a rough plot outline, but I’m going to suggest some current events which would be adequately summarized with the same title.

There’s the Guns N’ Roses album that’s cost $13m and gets no closer to completion:

The process was drawn out even further after Mr. Rose hired two new musicians – the guitarist Buckethead, a virtuoso who wore a mannequin-like face mask and a KFC bucket on his head (picture)…

…He accompanied Buckethead on a jaunt to Disneyland when the guitarist was drifting toward quitting, several people involved recalled; then Buckethead announced he would be more comfortable working inside a chicken coop, so one was built for him in the studio, from wood planks and chicken wire.

That’s clearly a fuck-up. Another contender would have to be Congress, which is back to its old naming tricks with the PIRATE Act:

The bill, obtained Thursday by Wired News, also would seek penalties of fines and prison time of up to 10 years for file sharing.

Ooh, Congress is often a tough act to follow in the fuck-up department. But hold the phone, we have a winner!

A federal lawsuit filed by several Navy SEALs and the wife of a special forces member claims the Associated Press violated copyright and privacy laws and endangered the servicemen’s lives by publishing photographs of them with Iraqi prisoners. …

The photos, distributed worldwide with a Dec. 3 story, appear to show the servicemen in Iraq sitting on hooded and handcuffed detainees and also what appear to be bloodied prisoners — one with a gun to his head.

Suing the Associated Press for copyright infringement for newsworthy photos obtained legitimately. Now, that, friends, is a masterful fuck-up!

Will the plaintiffs prevail? Have to wait for the film to find out, but I’m betting the AP will get off. If only they’d distributed the photos with P2P… Or perhaps if the SEALs had worn KFC bucket disguises…

HiDef-Defying Cable

Thursday, March 24th, 2005

The inimitable B-don is displeased. It vexes him to have a TV mos’ def and yet be forced, by nature of his location, to cope with some standard-definition programming. Why, he wonders, does the cable company provide duplicate (standard def) network feeds from two different cities, yet still fail to offer even one HD signal from either of those same stations? Why isn’t there a satellite network that provides all the broadcast nets?

Worse, he continues, why is it necessary to deal with “tiers” (such as Basic, Expanded Basic, Digital, HDTV) each of which require additional fees? When will it be possible to access just the programs he watches? I’ve often wondered the same thing (and not just for PitS shows.)

I also wonder: how much will these shows cost? How much should they cost? A recent study (quoted here) estimates that $1/episode is the magic number, and, indeed, you’ll find DVDs that charge you more: based on list price, an epsiode of “Buffy” is about $2.75, while “Friends” weighs in at $1.40.

Of course, that’s to own the shows. How many things that you watch would you want to own? For me, the answer is “all”, because I watch a total of perhaps 3 shows, which would set me back a whopping $12/mo. at the $1/ep rate. But most people watch a lot more TV than I do.

In fact, any household that watches more than two shows a day (on average) would have to pay more than $60/mo, so that gets expensive fast. Could they go cheaper?

Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope math. According to Nielsen Media Research, the highest-rated non-live show for 14-20 Mar 2005 was “Cold Case”. The CBS show came in at #3, with a 17.0 share of HUT for total of just over 12 million households.

“Cold Case” is an hour-long show, which means it has roughly 18 minutes of commercials. Now, keep in mind that some of that time will be used for network promos, some given over to affiliates, etc. But we’ll ignore that in our calculations, and assume it’s all sold at the highest rate. So if these figures, which purport to be lifted from Advertising Age, are correct, CBS charges about $153k per 30 sec. spot on this show. That means the most recent episode of “Cold Case” could have brought CBS as much as:
18 minutes * 2 spots/minute * $153,305 = $5,518,980

So the highest possible figure for that episode would be $5.5m. Not bad for an hour, eh? Let’s further suppose that B’s household contained at least one “Cold Case” fan. If they wanted to download an episode, and pay CBS what they would have earned, how much would that be? I’d say:
$5,518,980 per episode / 12,041,000 households = 46¢ per household

Well! Not bad at all, there. Of course, there’s no easy way to charge so small an amount, and without multicasting or a similar solution, the bandwidth costs would be extortionate. (I can hear Pech now: BitTorrent! BitTorrent!) But if we could solve those problems, we could all pay CBS our 50¢/show and go on our merry commercial-free way.

Except: why does CBS deserve a cut? CBS and the other networks are merely methods of delivery. It’s the production companies that make what we want to see: Sony brought us “Seinfeld”, Warner Bros. Television creates “ER” and “The West Wing”, and so on. The nets have been buying into these production companies as a way to control their costs, but according to my searches still only tend to pay in the $2-3 million/episode range (except for extremely expensive shows like “ER”).

At $3m, the production company needs just 25¢ a household to cover its nut, which even B-don would probably pay. And hey, if he didn’t, there’s always another solution: advertising companies that pay us to watch the ads…

For Further Discussion

  • How fast a “pipe” would we need for HD downloads not to suck?
  • If internet delivered TV, what would CableCos charge for broadband?
  • If every TV show (ever) was available on demand, what would happen to ratings?
  • How would we find good, new stuff?
  • What would happen to the “water-cooler” effect if everyone’s watching TV-on-demand?

A Government of Laws?

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2005

From S.686 (“For the relief of the parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo”):

Nothing in this Act shall constitute a precedent with respect to future legislation, including the provision of private relief bills.

From Bush v. Gore:

Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances…

When government crafts narrow decisions and laws solely to benefit certain people, is it really holding true to the ideal of the rule of law, and not of men humans?

Down With the Mini-plug

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2005

I have a text file in which I collect fragments of ideas that may or may not make it here. One of them was “iPod = defacto car connection”, an abbreviation meant to remind me that it’s the unique, breakthrough popularity of the iPod that’s finally pushed car manufacturers like BMW to provide direct connections to its stereo.

dash with iPod plugged in

I thought of that when I saw that GM plans to include a mini-plug connection in the dash of some of their 2006 models.

That’s nice and all, but jesus! What took so damn long? We’ve been dealing with crappy cassette adapters for CD players for ages. Despite some admirable upgrades, they’re a poor solution (ours tends to get very hot.) Ditto FM adapters like the iTrip, which are nice enough, but a pain when you want to use shuffle.

Would it be so hard for the automakers to hash out a generic digital connection? Even if it required an adapter of some kind (such as something that plugged into the iPod’s dock connector), wouldn’t it be great if all cars had a standard connection that allowed you to bring your tunes with you? It might not have all the capability of each specific player, but hey, even some track/artist advance options and a connection for dash display would rock.

Twenty years after the CD, and several years post-iPod, I just can’t believe that the best GM can do is plug into the headphones slot. This is what happens when you don’t have common standards.

Press Pause

Monday, March 21st, 2005

Wow, I don’t know about today. I’m in this weird mood, a combination of amped-up/fidgety and just totally emotionally drained; I’m waiting on a few heavy e-mails, pondering a few worries.

It’s one of my “press pause” days, when I wish I could just press pause on the world and chill out a bit. That’s not how it works, of course, so I just gotta play through.

I kinda think that this is the perfect frame of mind to work out. Get up a good sweat, get your mind off things. If only I wasn’t such a lazy bastard…

Shallow Thoughts of the Day

Sunday, March 20th, 2005

1. Could there possibly be a more annoying way to write “opportunity” than this:
the words what is opportunityIowa, with 'unity' in italics
I keep wanting to say “op-por-tehyoonity.” (From here.)

2. Who exactly is downloading these AIM icons:
lynette from desperate housewives  rex from desperate housewives  bree from desperate housewives  gardener dude desperate housewives

It’s one thing to love the show, but are you going to pimp it?

3. Could I be any more obviously lazy than to put up filler for a day just to avoid breaking my string?

Missing the Trademark

Saturday, March 19th, 2005

Ahh, the first few months of the year. First we’re urged to buy big-screened televisions for “the big game”, then we can win trips to L.A. for “Hollywood’s biggest night” and of course now in March, there are “double dribble” specials on pizza and the like.

I used to find these generic ways of representing trademarks mildly amusing, but now I’m convinced they’re doing more harm than good. How is that we can allow groups to create names and then control how they’re used? I’m not talking about counterfeit products, of course, but who really cares if Best Buy uses the words “Super Bowl”?

Even worse are the recent lawsuits against Google for its AdWords tool. Companies such as Geico, AXA, and various travel agencies sued, claiming that competing companies were misusing their trademarks. No doubt they’d love to control every mention of their names, but where does it stop? Does an ad that boasts “Cheaper than GEICO®!” need to be approved by that very company?

As usual, I must ask: who’s looking out for customers?

The Lost Art of Subject Lines

Friday, March 18th, 2005

Does anybody know how to write a subject line anymore? I’m talking about something tight, meaningful, and sortable that actually summarizes the message.

Now, before I get into this, let me just emphasize this doesn’t apply to you unless we work together, and even then it’s only for predominantly work-related messages. To people who send me personal messages: I love you, you’re perfect, don’t change.

But for those who actually expect me to do something, could I maybe get a little more than this:

To: [me]
Fr: [him]
Subj: [company name]

Yes I do.

I just got this a few minutes ago, in response to one of three messages I sent to this guy. To what is he responding? I have no clue. Am I supposed to do anything? You got me. Perhaps the subject line would have given me a hint, but the huge, huge majority of messages I get from this person simply have the company name as the subject. (As if he’d be e-mailing me about anything else.)

Let me contrast that with a few messages from my outbox. See if you can guess what each message contains:

  • Changes to Shift Summaries Page
  • leave requests report active
  • i'll kill the bitch myself
  • quote/invoice customer experience [was: [Fwd: Re: quote format & project display [edited]]]
  • To-Do List: Phase II bugs / Phase II+ wish list

(I slipped a personal message in there, see if you can guess which one it is.)

Of course, I cherry-picked those; like everyone else, I certainly have written several that are not at all clear. Often it’s because we’re rushed, or it’s a one-off. But I think much of the blame also falls on the standard layout of the message composing window. Perhaps it would be better if the subject line and “send” button were along the bottom edge of the window, so that you got to them when you’d completed writing. At that point, you’d have a much better idea what the message actually was about, and could try to summarize it there.

While I’m on the, erm, subject, I like to sometimes use the subject line as the “body” and write a brief message with “[eom]” appended to signify there is no more. Some of my coworkers (Pinky, this means you!) have also adopted this approach and it’s just great to be able to quickly see a subject line such as “Server has been restarted, as requested [eom]” and know you don’t have to open it up. (This is especially good for slow webmail.)

Finally, I’d like to single out two more subject lines. One is from a client, and I received it yesterday. It’s too long by half, but I’d certainly take that over yet another subject that says nothing. The second is from Jesse, and I think he deserves the last word:

  • Enquiry regarding sales agents display in drop down menu when creating a new lead
  • you know I don't like subjects and you just use them for your archives anyway

Major E-mail Fuckups in Progress

Thursday, March 17th, 2005

Okay, yesterday I was able to confirm that at least 3 separate messages were never delivered to me. I put this down to an overzealous server-based spam filter, but now it seems my hosting company reports they have misconfigured a mail server. Rather than delivering mail, it’s been queuing it. As a result, things have gone from bad to worse overnight: Thunderbird now times out, and Pech has confirmed he got a message rejected.

So, if you’re sending to anything other than this domain (which, thanks to the fine folks at easyDNS, has redundant mail servers) I probably didn’t get it. My Gmail account is johnperk /a/ gmail just so you know.

Might be time to go TextDriving

Update [7:00p]: E-mail is starting to trickle in, some of it two days old. Should be back to normal.