The Phone Belch

Why is it that cellphones ring louder the longer they go unanswered? The ring starts quietly, then builds up to an ear-splitting crescendo. I know what the apparent logic to this is — if the phone is right in front of the person, they don’t need it loud to be able to hear it, so the loudness is only needed if the phone hasn’t been answered immediately — but is that really logical?

What happens most of the time is that folk don’t hear the phone ringing immediately because it’s in their pocket/bag/desk/mouth. So they remove it just as the ring gets louder. The phone is now ringing at the loudest volume it can reach, without any clothing/leather/hardboard/teeth to muffle it. By now other folk in the bus/train/office/bed are getting irritated, which is not helped by the callee staring intently at the phone display to figure out who it is and whether it’s worth answering. It’s at that point that the phone’s clever software cranks the volume up a notch.

If phones are so smart, why don’t they fix the volume so that it starts quietly for two seconds, gives one polite belch if no one has answered, and then stays at a modest volume — or no sound at all — until answered or ignored? The belch would be good because everyone will look around, something people never do if a phone is ringing, so there’s very little chance of the callee not being made aware that something is going on. Those offended by the belch idea, or living in classier neighbourhoods, could go for discreet coughs, sneezes or subtle but distinctive exhalations of air. In Hong Kong, still nervous about SARS, a cough or sneeze would empty the bus. That’s how you’d know your phone was ringing: Everyone suddenly got off at the same stop.

Anyway, my message to the phone industry is: Think before you implement clever tweaks like the increasingly-loud-ring-tone. Oh, and if you need someone to record the polite belches, I’m free next Thursday. 

How To Collect And Access Data?

A reader wrote asking

I am a writer who has tens of thousands of 3×5 note cards and no system to organize them. What I want to do is have their content available on my computer so that I can mine them as I write. Do you have a suggestion for any software that can do this? TheBrain seems to be more of a project organizer, rather than a free-form database.

It’s a question I’ve asked myself. I’ve still not found the perfect way to organise notes, especially if you’re a writer in the sense of doing a book (where the requirements can be slightly different).

Here are some of my suggestions, although doubtless there are more ideas to come:

  • SuperNotecard from Mindola. This is a real writer’s tool which “uses virtual notecards to help manage writing projects. This approach focuses on the basic compositional parts and keeps the structure flexible so that it can be easily rearranged”. For both Windows and Mac
  • Any outliner program (check out a list here). My current favorite is MyInfo from Milenix, which is into version three. That said, I would have to warn that its latest incarnation, though sporting some very neat tweaks, is not really stable enough yet for primetime.
  • Then there are things like EverNote, which are much more of an ideas and notes collector rather than an organiser (if you think about it, it’s a two stage process, and not always easy for software to be good at both).
  • Ever tried a Wiki? Wikidpad is an acquired taste, but an excellent leverage of Wiki technology. Another option, no longer being supported, is Pepys.
  • If you’re using cards, you might want to check out Merlin Mann’s Hipster PDA solution, which uses the same technology. In fact, I’ve just bought some of those cards myself to try it out.

I’m not sure which of these I’d recommend. I suspect it’s personal taste. I also think that the field is still wide open, and that the software for this kind of task has not yet been written. I can hear the Mac guys sharpening their keyboards ready to tell me I’m wrong. Go ahead guys, the lines are open.

The Danger Of The Mistyped URL

F-Secure Computer Virus Information Pages: Googkle:

F-Secure staff has found a malicious website that utilizes a spelling error when typing the name of the popular search engine – ‘Google.com’. If a user opens a malicious website, his/her computer gets hijacked – a lot of different malware gets automatically downloaded and installed: trojan droppers, trojan downloaders, backdoors, a proxy trojan and a spying trojan. Also a few adware-related files are installed.

The name of the malicious website is ‘Googkle.com’. PLEASE DO NOT GO TO THIS WEBSITE! Otherwise your computer will get infected! We have reported the case to the authorities.

I guess this kind of thing is more common than we realise. It seems to be a bunch of guys with Russian names who ahve registered misspelling of the Google name (how many more are out there) as a way to install phishing and other tricks on your computer. The website is still active at the time of writing.

(Via Hotlinks)

SkypeIn And Miscalls

Just got my first SkypeIn miscall! That was fun. A guy called Christian, calling a guy called Simon, somewhere in the UK, but got my UK SkypeIn number. Simon, he’s only going to be there until five pm.

That was fun! Could I be the first? I feel that the least we should do is to be more polite and helpful on miscalls. Should I call Christian back and tell him he dialled the wrong number? Or should I put his number on my blog so someone else can do it?

Cutting Through The PR Dross

A hilarious Translation From PR-Speak to English of Selected Portions of Adobe’s ‘FAQ’ Regarding Their Acquisition of Macromedia by Daring Fireball, which blows a hole a mile wide in this — and all such — verbiage-laden press releases. This for example:

Do you anticipate a reduction in force as a result of this transaction?

When two successful growing companies join together, the result is a combined organization that creates new and exciting opportunities. The combination will lead to powerful new areas of innovation, new products and solutions, and an acceleration of our respective growth agendas. At the same time, there will be some duplication of employee functions between the two companies, and upon the close of the transaction, we anticipate some level of reduction in force. While we anticipate the integration team will identify opportunities for cost savings, the primary motivation for this acquisition is to continue to expand and grow our businesses into new markets.

[Translation] Yes.

Very good stuff. Unless of course you’re an employee of Macromedia or Adobe. We need more of these translations. In fact, why not set up a ‘press release translation service’ for everyone sick of reading PR dross? I’d sign up.

via Joi Ito, via Dvorak

The Technology Of Packing

In this week’s column I write about the joys of modular packing (subscription only, I’m afraid):

I’m a journalist. I don’t travel as much as I used to but I do travel. I’ve learned a few tricks over the years. And what has struck me is how, on the surface, not much has changed in thousands of years. Early business travelers would grab their stuff — a spare bearskin, a backup club, a few flints — and throw it into some sort of primeval pouch, hitch it over their shoulder and hurry after migrating mammoth prey, who were already pulling out of the terminal gate. (OK, I didn’t do much research for this bit.)

Nowadays (which I have researched extensively), things aren’t much different. We leave everything to the last minute, throw it into a bag, sit on it while getting the spouse to call a cab. Sure, our wheeled carry-on may look more sophisticated, but the technology is basically the same as that used by our hirsute forebears: A container, all our stuff, a mad rush and a mess.

Here are some links readers of the column may find useful on the general art of packing:

And here are some modular packing products (I’m sure there are more):

There’s also an interesting reference, which I didn’t explore in the column, about the ties between modular packing and the container industry’s revival in the 1950s, as told by Peter Drucker in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, on Rajesh Jain’s Emergic blog.

A Directory Of Windows Explorer Replacements

I’m always amazed at the inadequacy of Windows Explorer and how most users just seem to accept its limitations. The good news is that you don’t have to. Here’s a list of programs that seek to replace, one way or another, Windows Explorer (not to be confused with Internet Explorer) used not only to view directories/folders and move files around (otherwise known as file managers), but to view the contents of files without having to open them, manage photos etc. In no particular order (although I must confess I use ExplorerPlus):

  • ExplorerPlus
    The price: $40
    The blurb: This file manager offers built-in file previewing, multi-pane folder views, instant access to often visited folders, and a large collection of file, document, multimedia and picture management tools, making it easy for you to perform any file management task. Screenshot
  • PowerDesk Pro 
    The price: $50
    The blurb:  PowerDesk® Pro 6 is a simple, fast and fun way to organize and manage files, digital photos, MP3 music files and web images on your PC. It’s convenient and it saves time! In just one, two or three clicks, you can customize your PC: move, copy, zip, label, color code, search, view, prioritize, convert, and use your files the way you want to use them. Screenshot
  • Directory Opus 8 
    The price: $65
    The blurb: Powerful File Manager & Explorer Replacement Screenshots
  • A43 File Management from BG’s Home 
    The price: freeware
    The blurb: A43 is a freeware file management utility for Windows 2000/XP. Screenshot
  • ExplorerXP
    The price: freeware
    The blurb: ExplorerXP is a very fast, small, compact and innovative FREEWARE (for non – commercial use) file manager for Windows 2000/XP. Unlike the regular Windows Explorer, it displays the total size of each folder and allows you to browse multiple folders from a tabbed interface. Screenshot
  • xplorer²
    The price: $30 (there’s a free lite version, and a free earlier version, called 2xExplorer)
    The blurb: All the shell goodies from windows explorer — none of the hassle! Plus all the features you would expect from a powerful tabbed dual-pane file manager, including Omni-Finder, a find files module that simply outclasses all known search tools. Don’t take our word for it, seeing is believing! The screenshot
  • JExplorer
    The price: freeware
    The blurb: JExplorer is a dual-panel type file manager and web-browser as well. It is similar to widely used Norton Commander, WinNC, or Windows Commander. It provides many advanced features such as compressor/decompressor, FTP file transfer, POP3 mail/SPAM mail monitor, MAPI mail sender, directory comparator, and Dial-up Networking (DUN) interface. It runs under Windows 95/98/ME and Windows NT4/2K/XP. The screenshot
  • FileAnt
    The price: freeware (welcomes donations)
    The blurb: FileAnt is a Windows File Manager (like explorer) on tabs (like UltraEdit-32), it is also a cool Ftp Client (like leechftp) and has nice features such as folder pie charts, and a viewer for commonly used file formats. It loads quickly from the tray and uses very little memory to achieve what it does. The Ftp Client is multi-download (you can keep browsing while downloading lots of files). The Pie Chart features 2D telescopic browsing. Advanced tools let you modify file dates, sync folders, and change file attributes en masse. There is also a nice little mp3 player in the tray. Screenshot
  • MeeSoft Commander
    The price: freeware (welcomes donations)
    The blurb: File management utility and image viewer. The program has an effective split screen interface with two directory views or a directory view and a file viewer. The image viewer can launch MeeSoft Image Analyzer for editing images. Screenshot
  • Total Commander
    The price: $34
    The blurb: file manager for Windows® 95/98/ME/NT/2000/XP, and Windows® 3.1 Screenshot
  • Magellan Explorer
    The price: $40
    The blurb: Magellan Explorer is an advanced, yet easy to use, Windows file manager based on the powerful dual window pane concept. Previous users of the Norton Commander file manager software and similar tools will feel right at home. It can also act as a Windows Explorer replacement with a tree view on the left. Or you can enjoy a combination of both! Screenshots

I’m sure there are more out there. I’ve tried to limit this to file managers which might be suitable for the ordinary user, but I’m very open to including more. Let me know (along with any errors on pricing etc).

A Wake, And A Wake-Up Call

Just got back from a ‘wake’ for the Far Eastern Economic Review, which, after 58 years, went monthly last October under the ownership of my employer, Dow Jones. I won’t get into the politics of that decision, but it did occur to me, listening to some eminent former FEER personnel talking this evening, that three things go into a publication like FEER, if you ignore distribution, financing, marketing and the non-editorial side. And it’s worth considering, from a blogger’s point of view.

First is material. You’ve got to have good material. Not just off-top-of-head stuff like this, but real material, gotten by use of footwear, dialling numbers or other forms of real digging.

Second, editing. Common wisdom is that material is no good if it’s not written and edited well. This includes writing style — an important part of traditional media that sucks up a lot of the whole publishing process.

Third, production. I’m an editor right now. A lot of our time is spent on layout, fitting stories to length and making everything look nice.

If you look at this from a post-print, blogging perspective, only the first remains a necessity. Editing? If we can write ok, who cares if it’s brilliantly written? I think it was Paul Graham who characterised as incongruous some NYT reporting when read in a blogging context. Print media need to look closely at how stories are written and why they’re written that way, and ask: Does it need to be like that anymore?

The last thing: production. Blogs, by their nature, involve very little production. In fact, part of the beauty of blogging is not just the lack of effort in producing something (write it up, post it. If it needs editing again, edit it), but in the fact that it looks good on the page. Blogs, well most blogs, actually have strong production values built in. It’s hard for a blog not to look nice on the page. Some look wonderful, really very aesthetically pleasing. At worst they look like this, a bog-standard TypePad template I’m too lazy to change. But who cares? You’re probably reading it in a RSS reader anyway, or using GreaseMonkey to tweak the formatting. (Then there’s efforts at standardising this sort of thing a little more, like StructuredBlogging.)

The bottom line is: Blogging is a powerful publishing force, not just a voice. Blogging has established a way to publish on the net and be noticed, without huge capital and design resources. Traditional media need to look at that and realise that the battle is not going to be over allocating resources to the second and third elements of the game I mentioned above, but the first. It’s going to be about material. It’s not going to be about the medium. Blogging — and the Internet — has already won that round.

Another PR Mis-step

This blog occasionally touches on the border between PR and journalists, usually when PR start approaching blogs and bloggers. But my perspective is on how PR folks connect, or misconnect, with journalists. And I notice that PR folk often misfire on one key issue: how to present their credentials to journalists.

It’s like this: Journalists, especially those of us who pride ourselves (foolishly and mistakenly, probably) on developing story ideas ourselves rather than being spoon-fed them, hate being told by a PR contact of the long line of other publications, journalists or colleagues that she or he has previously had dealings with. For me there’s no bigger turn-off.

It’s a simple thing: We like to think we were there first. If a PR person says, ‘glad you called! We can send you clippings that have appeared in [insert names of rival publications here].’ Or ‘glad you called! I know [insert name of journalist’s colleague here] very well, and was actually pitching this very story to them last week.’ Or ‘glad you called. We have been a regular source for your publication.’ Or ‘glad you called. We think you should write about us. Everyone else has’. All this means is that I as a journalist am not plotting any interesting new path, but have just stumbled on someone else’s patch, be it a colleague’s or a rival publication’s. I don’t want to know that. I want to feel I’m breaking new ground.

Advice to PR: Treat every journalist as if they operate in a bubble, independently of everyone else in their profession. At least initially. Of course, if your company has just been written up in a rival publication, or the journalist’s own, it’s better to tell them about it, but don’t expect it to be good news. They’ll thank you, and probably leave the story alone for a while, or try to find a different angle. Everyone hates getting to a source late, however mundane the story may appear.

However much the phrase is used, there’s no such thing as a pack of journalists. We hunt alone, although, if we happen to be camped outside your door, it may not always look like it.

The Context (Menu) Revolution

Either we’re spoilt or something is really changing and others better catch up. Either way, I like it.

Software is becoming more integrated. With features like Firefox extensions and other tricks we are able to move material from one program to another, check the spelling of a word, value of an amount in another currency, look up a term in an online database, without doing anything other than typing the word once, or selecting it if it’s already there on the page. Right-click select what you want, and bam. It’s a revolution, really, if you think about it — especially if you see what they’re doing to the context menu at RadialContext.

I can hear Microsoft saying they got here first with selecting a word in Word, hitting F7 and getting a definition. (I even seem to recall this being possible in pre-Windows versions of Word, but I can’t be sure). But I’d say it’s only taken off with the browser, and in particular some of the cool extensions that Firefox users have been adding in recent months. Way too numerous here, but I’m sure you know them.

You notice, then, when these features don’t work. I am a fan of Milenix’s MyInfo, an outliner whose latest release automatically pastes in to its file anything you copy to the clipboard. It’s not perfect but it’s pretty neat. One or two less steps to take. Of course, I’d like it to go the other way too: Why not select a word in MyInfo — or any program — and be able to look it up on Google, say? I can hear Buzz say his ActiveWords does that, and that is true. That’s a good feature. I just (gulp) haven’t figured out how to use it properly. I can also hear people say select and Ctrl+Alt G will take you straight to the Google Toolbar with the text already entered in. Also true, but wouldn’t it be better to have the feature already there in a right-click menu, a la Firefox extension?

Anyway, it’s cutting out these intermediate steps that help glue applications together, even if they’ve never met each other. I want all the programs I use to have that same level of intelligence that something like Firefox is beginning to show. Is that going to happen, or is it not really a priority? What has to happen before these kind of time-saving features are standard, across the board?