The Missed Call: The Decade’s Zeitgeist?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a longer version of an upcoming syndicated column.)

When people look back at the last decade for a technology zeitgeist they may choose SMS, or the iPod, or maybe even Facebook. Me? I’d choose the cellphone call that rings, briefly, and then is silent.

It’s one of those social phenomena that has so embedded itself in the culture that we don’t even notice it. It developed its own syntax, its own meaning, and even shifted the boundaries of cultural mores and social intercourse. Even I didn’t realise it was so widespread until I started researching this article. And yet, at least in the middle of the decade, it spanned all continents and was accounting for more than half of cellphone traffic in many developing countries.

So what is the miscall and why is it—was it–so big? The miscall is simple: I call your cellphone but hang up before you pick up. Instead of you thinking there’s a mistake, you know exactly why I called, and either call me back, or don’t, depending on how we’ve agreed on what the miscall means. It’s a form of communication that requires no words, no speech, and, most importantly, no expense. At least for you and me. Not, sadly, for the cellphone operator.

But initially cellphone operators weren’t too bothered.

There’s a temptation, after all, to regard the miscall as a poverty thing, done by poor people. I don’t have any money; you have money, so you call me. Indeed, in Ethiopia it’s called miskin—Amharic, deriving from the Arabic for “poorest of the poor”, with a distinct connotation of being worthy of pity. And among youth the lure of the cellphone is matched only by the limits on a budget. So, someone somewhere is going to call back, so money will be spent on a call, somehow.

But two researchers for Norway-based Telenor Hanne Geirbo and Per Helmersen found that was only part of the picture, even in a place like Bangladesh. Combing the data from a single day of Grameenphone’s traffic, they concluded that “the charged traffic generated from an initial missed call is minimal compared o the missed call activity.” In short, a missed call didn’t result in a real call.

This was communication in itself, not just a plea for communication.

Not only that: making the missed call was so easy—hit the green button, wait for a ring and then hit red—that it was stopping other services, like SMS, from getting any traction. And we’re not talking small potatoes here: Missed calls constituted upwards of 70% of Grameenphone’s total network traffic in any hour. Some people were sending miss call after miss call, one after the other—100, or even several hundred, miscalls in a short period. This, in the words of the researchers, was “a major cause of congestion at peak periods,” leading to calls disconnected, or not being connected in the first place. In 2005 one Kenyan cellular network estimated that four million miscalls were being made daily on its network.

A miscall, then, is a lot more than a call me back thing. It’s a fast way to communicate a key piece of information to someone who is already expecting it around that time, and only needs to be activated:  “I’m home, throw the gate keys down.” The timing is the context that gives the unspoken, unwritten message meaning: A miscall at 6 pm may mean I just left work.

And, if there isn’t any specific time context it may just mean: “I’m missing you.”

Then there’s the another parameter: how many missed calls are made can vary the message. Two missed calls means “I’m running late” or “I’m at home, where are you?” depending, it would seem, on what part of Bangladesh you’re in. In Syria five missed calls in rapid succession means “I’m online, let’s chat.” There are business uses too: Farmers in Bhutan, according to UNCTAD’s annual Information Economy Report published in October, know how much milk their customers want by the number of miscalls. They then miscall the customer back within 15 minutes; no miscall means no stock. Researchers in India, where miscalls accounted for about 40% of all calls, found that the miscall was used by print and ticketing shops to let their customers know their orders were ready.

Missed calls can be fun if you don’t have much else going on in your life. Try to irritate your friends by miscalling them; if someone is doing it to you, try to pick up before they hang up, losing them credit and the game. This may sound inane, but these calls are likely to be serious network congesters. If the power goes off, the researchers found, Bangladeshis would entertain themselves by miscalling friends, relatives, and even complete strangers. The researchers found one young woman met her boyfriend that way. If you call communicating only by cellphone a relationship. Who said blackouts couldn’t be fun?

Talking of flirting, missed calls can create a private space between two people who couldn’t otherwise connect without fear of exposure or ridicule. One 44-year old Bangladeshi admitted to expressing his love by sending the object of his affections hundreds of miscalls. In Damascus it’s no different: One young man proudly explained to a journalist from Syria’s Forward Magazine last year that he sometimes gets 250 miscalls from his girlfriend.  Young couples in a relationship miscall each other to check the line is free or to keep the line busy—either way ensuring their paramour is not otherwise engaged, so to speak. Starting to feel sorry for the network operator yet?

Husbands expect calls from spouses at fixed times as signals that the house is running smoothly. Children check in with their parents. Newly married women get their mothers to call without incurring the wrath of their mothers-in-law. Friends miscall a member of their circle who couldn’t make their evening out, as if to say: we’re missing you.

There are rules, of course, about who one can and cannot miscall. No one below you in the hierarchy, either in the family, the office, or the community (one man is quoted as specifying “driver and electricians…it’s a matter of prestige.” And don’t miscall your teacher or your boss. At least in Bangladesh. in Africa, where it’s called variously “flashing” and “biper”,  there are complex rules about who can be flashed. Among friends, one commenter on a Nigerian blog said, it’s about exclusion: with miscalls “there is complete communication beyond the scope of outsiders.”

In other words, the missed call is not some reflection of not having enough credit. It’s a medium of exchange of complex messages that has become surprisingly refined in a short period. Much of it is not communication at all, at least in terms of actual information. It’s what the researchers identify as phatic communication: where the interaction is the motivation not the content of the message itself. Or, as a Filipino professor, Adrian Remodo put it to a language conference in Manila in 2007 at which they votedfto make miscall, or miskol in Tagalog, the word of the year: A miskol is often used as “an alternative way to make someone’s presence felt.”

Indeed, the fact that the message itself has no content is part of its beauty. Just as the SMS is confined to 160 characters—meaning it can either be pithy or ambiguous, depending on the effect you’re looking for—so can the missed call be open to all kinds of interpretation. A lover receiving a missed call can fill her evening contemplating what was meant by those few unanswered rings.

The Telenor researchers speak of how this “practice contains valuable information about the communication needs and preferences of our customers.” Very true. But one gets the feeling that their call for more research to “provide the telecom industry with a much-needed window into the socio-cultural life space of our customers , and suggest new service offerings that better match their needs and circumstances” may have fallen on deaf ears.

I’ve not found much evidence of this, and that was written back in 2008. Some African cell providers gave away five free “Please call me” text messages to each subscriber. A Swiss company called Sicap has had some success in Africa with a service called Pay4Me, which is a sort of reverse charge call for mobile phones. The only difference I can see between this and the miscall is that the callee doesn’t have to make the call, so to speak. That, and the fact that most prepaid services nowadays don’t let you make a call if you have a zero balance—which accounts for 30% of African users, and 20% of Indian cellphone users, according to Telenity, one company hoping to offer the callback service.

Telcos in Afghanistan offer polling services where respondents, instead of texting back their answers, miscall a number depending on their choice of answer. More creatively, some socially minded organisations have used the miscall as a cheap way to communicate: Happypill, for example reminds you to take medication if you fail to miscall them at an appointed time each day.

The point is that while usage may vary it’s common in many countries—and has been for much of the past decade. As soon as mobile phones came with prepaid vouchers, and operators included the name and number of the caller on the handset display, so did the opportunity arise for someone to pay for your call.  In France and in French-speaking Africa it’s called “un bip”, I’m told, and one commenter said that it’s included in some prepaid packages. In Iran it’s called “tak”; in Australia “prank” and in the U.S. “drop call”. In Italy, apparently, it’s called “squillo” and in Oman a “ranah” (where there’s even a pop song based on the practice).

And it goes further back than that: “Call me and hang up when you arrive,” my mum used to say to her impoverished student son.

Of course, there are reasons to be concerned about this. One Indian columnist wrote:

What, then, will happen to the human voice? If two rings on the mobile are sufficient to say “I miss you”, what will become of the impassioned verses that poets have so far written to appease their beloved? I wonder how a dialogue will sound in a world where voices have become ringtones.

It may be that the miss call culture is in decline. Jonathan Donner, a Microsoft researcher who has looked into this phenomenon more than most, noted back in 2007 a “beep fatigue”, leading some to turn off their caller ID function and ditch phone numbers that clearly indicate they are on a postpaid package. And in some places where the costs of a call and an SMS have fallen to pretty much nothing, the appeal of the miscall has waned in some places.

An SMS would work, but requires typing, and in a place like Bangladesh, where more than half the population is illiterate that’s not a popular option. And text messages sometimes take a couple of minutes to arrive: a call is immediate—something that’s apparently important to my Filipino friends.

Then there’s the fact that the missed call can be discreet in a way that a phone call, or an SMS, can’t be. You could make a miscall from inside one’s bag or pocket (and I frequently do, though that’s by accident.)  Which may explain why, a student  in Pakistan wrote earlier this year:

what amazes me the most is unlike other fads such as texting obsessively etc have gone away pretty quick ,this ‘miss call’ culture still reigns supreme in most of our society.

My tupennies’ worth? As the SMS, which created its own culture out of the limitations of what was not supposed to be a commercial service, so has the miscall created its own norms. Whether these survive the next decade is unlikely. But we should watch these things carefully, not because they represent commercial opportunities—we’re bound to mess that up—but because they speak volumes about the inventiveness of the human spirit, and its ability to squeeze rich new forms of communication out of something that, on the surface, seems to be nothing—a briefly ringing, and unanswered phone.

Driver Phishing II, Or Who Is Trentin Lagrange?

I’m fully awake now, and doing some digging on who is behind the Driver Robot “driver phish.” The digging has introduced me to a whole level to the software scam industry.

The company that sells it is Victoria, BC, Canada-based Blitware (“or Blitware Technology Inc.,  to be precise,” as its website urges us). Nothing gives on its Who Is page, nor on the driverrobot.com website the software is hosted at. But a clue to the possibility that this isn’t just some cute little software developer is back on the LogitechDriversCenter website, which carries some named testimonials, among them this:

“I got a new graphics card but the framerate was terrible, and the manufacturer’s website didn’t help at all. It turns out that the driver that came with the card was 6 months out of date! Driver Robot got me the latest driver automatically, and now my whole system is more responsive, especially the games.”

Trentin Lagrange, CA

The good thing about a name like Trentin Lagrange is that it’s not that common. Not like the other two testimonials, which come from one Tim Whiteman and one Susan Peterson (not that they aren’t helpful. But nothing like Trentin.)

Who is Trentin?

A Google search of Trentin Lagrange indicates that either he’s a huge fan of driver update software, or that it’s not just about Logitech drivers or one small Canadian company anymore.

Trentin Lagrange, it turns out, has left glowing testimonials for driver update software, not just on the dodgy Logitech website (and a sister one at logitechdriverdownloads.com) but on websites like Realtekdriver.net, which also carries the company’s logo and calls itself “Realtek Drivers Download Center”:

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As with the Logitech website, it’s only if you scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on a link “About us”

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do you get to the truth of whether it’s a company website:

REALTEK is registered Trademarks of Realtek Semiconductor Corp.
All other trademarks are properties of their respective owners.
This website is not owned by or related to Realtek Semiconductor Corp.
We are not associated with Realtek Semiconductor Corp. in any way.
We are just running a site to help users who have trouble to getting hardware device drivers,
This web site is not associated with Realtek Semiconductor Corp. in any way.

Trentin has also left testimonials on websites that impersonate Dell-–delldriverscenter.com—complete with Dell logo

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and favicon

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And SIS at sisdrivers.org:

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and MSI at msidrivers.org

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and Intel at inteldriverscenter.com

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and Asus at asusdriverscenter.com

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and Acer at acerdriverscenter.com

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and canon at canondriverscenter.com

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as well as HP – hpdriverscenter.com

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and driverforhp.com, with this HP-looking banner atop:

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No denials of being associated with HP on their about page, so I’m guessing HP’s lawyers haven’t been in touch yet.

Another website, atidriverscenter.com, seems to have closed. It was active in July, when this person fell for the scam and complained on a forum.  At least some companies seem to be watching.

Well, maybe not. This website, atidrivercare.com, is still working:

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You get the picture.

Google’s Role

All of these websites appeared as sponsored ads above the search results in Google when looking for that manufacturer’s drivers (hp drivers etc) which throw up links to, for example, “official HPs [sic] Drivers & Updates”:

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(For many users these sponsored ads are either normal search results, or sponsored in the sense of vetted, so they’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re clicking on something official.)

It seems that either Trentin, Tim and Susan are just really generous with their comments and share software tips on a regular basis, or this software schmoozefest is linked to Swishsoft the company that sells Swift Optimizer, software that compresses Flash files. All three put glowing reviews on the software website, althought it seems Susan has moved from the U.S. to Australia in the meantime. Must be the taxes.

And no, I couldn’t find any reference to Trentin Lagrange apart from glowing software testimonials. Either the guy just lives to write software reviews or he is not really living.

So, we’re clear that whoever is behind DriverRobot is also behind a number of websites that basically impersonate the websites of popular hardware vendors, either within the boundaries of the law or outside the knowledge of these companies’ lawyers.

Sponsored Run

But it’s also energetically fending off accusations that it’s all a scam. Do a Google search for driver robot and you get these sponsored ads above the results:

Similarly, the ads on the side of the results:

  • DriverRobot This Is The Real Deal?
    The Truth Will Shock You! reviewblogs.info
  • “DriverRobot” Report We Bought It And Tried It.
    The Truth Will Shock You! www.todaysreview.info/DriverRobot
  • Driver Robot Exposed Buying Driver Robot?
    Get The Facts! RealityChek.net

    The top one is a straight link to the download site. The others sound like links to stories exposing the scammery, right? But they’re not: They all take you straight to driverobot.com. No reviews, or even pretence at reviews.

    Clever, huh? Outwit your detractors who accuse you of impersonating official company websites by impersonating your detractors. There’s a twist I hadn’t thought of.

    Where are the Reviewers?

    But what about those logos from respected software reviewers, like PC Magazine, Softpedia (five stars!), Geek Files ((5/5 stars, Exceptional Product!) and Chip on the LogitechDriversCenter.com website and elsewhere?

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    I could find no reference to Driver Robot on the PC Magazine website. On Softpedia’s website I could find no “editor’s review” but found one user review—giving it two stars out of five but saying it used “borderline means to promote its service.” GeekFiles.com contained only discussions, no reviews.

    Depressing

    All of this is faintly depressing, because all the usual checks and balances we look to on today’s web seem to have gone out of the window:

    • a website address can contain a company’s name, with no apparent action from the company itself to protect either its name or its customers;
    • Googling a product doesn’t seem to work: sponsored ads mislead with words like “official” and what look to be review sites are actually redirects owned by the product’s owner
    • Badges from third party download and software websites don’t seem to be a guide, because they are either out of date or fake.

    The fact is that many people are going to be taken in by this kind of thing. Everyone needs drivers, and everyone searches for drivers by googling the manufacturer’s name and the word driver. As many people search for hp drivers as search for kenya on Google:

    So what I want to know is:

  • What are the companies involved doing to protect their brands, their products and their customers from misleading and potentially damaging products sold in their name?

  • What are software reviews sites doing to protect their brands, and their consumers from fraudulent badges?

  • What is Google doing about sponsored ads that mislead the public? 

Driver Phishing

Maybe because it’s early in the morning, but I fell for this little scam pretty easily. I’m going to call it “driver phishing” because it has all the hallmarks of a phishing attack, although it’s probably legal.

I’m looking for the latest drivers for my Logitech webcam, so I type in Logitech QuickCam driver in Google.

An ad above the results looks promising: a website called LogitechDriversCenter.com:

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So I click on it.

It takes me to a site with a Logitech logo, lots of shareware and PC Magazine stars, Logitech product photos and three options for getting the right driver:

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DriverRobot, the first one, sounds promising. Maybe, I think, Logitech have consolidated all their driver downloads into one program. Good idea, given I’ve got quite a few of their products hanging around the computer. So I download and install it.

Looks OK so far. A window appears prompting you to start scanning your computer. Lots of green arrows and ticks to reassure you:

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Once the scan is done you’re told how many drivers you need, with another green arrowed button indicating what you should do to get them (“Get drivers”):

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(I should have been forewarned at this point. Plenty of warnings, but one key one: None of the drivers it suggested were Logitech ones. Certainly nothing to help me with my webcam.)

Click on that and you’re told you’ve got to “Register” which is “quick and easy”.

Notice there’s no other option, unless you can see the little Close Window X in the top right corner of the window:

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Try to click on the other radio button (“Allow 11 drivers to remain out of date (not recommended). Critical updates for your computer will not be installed. Your computer may be vulnerable to crashes, performance problems, freezes and “blue screens.””) and then click Continue and the window disappears, but nothing else. It’s like those supermarkets where you can’t get out unless you buy something.

Click on the Continue button and your browser fires up with page requesting your Name and Email to register:

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Notice all the seals, locks, starts and 100% guaranteed things going on. Reassuring, eh? Except there’s no link on the page, nothing for the casual user (or a slow-witted guy who got up too early) to click on to get more information.

So the slow-witted guy enters his name and email address, thinking that’s going to get him registered. Of course not. Instead he’s asked to shell out cash–$30—for the software:

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Once again, no links to explain who is behind this, or what other options there may be.

As far as the casual user knows, this is either a Logitech product or one approved by them.

But it’s not. The software comes from a company called Blitware. The Complaints Board website has several complaints about the company and software:

The Driver Robot software does not work and the company tricks consumers in to believing that it is freeware. Am trying to get a refund of my purchase price now.

And worse: For some of those who do buy the software and follow its driver updates, it only makes things worse:

My computer completely crashed after using driver robot when it installed a generic mouse driver every time I touched my mouse I had a blue screen crash with a driver check sum error … It has also installed an elan touch tablet driver which is now in the toolbar. I dont have this device on my machine. This software is completely useless and will be going for a refund.

Others found they had no way of getting support:

Useless garbage–no contact info given. I attempted use and could see it doing nothing. What now, am I really out $39.90?

So who is Blitware? Its website says

Blitware (or Blitware Technology Inc., to be precise) is a small Canadian software vendor from Victoria, BC, Canada. Blitware’s mission is to take great software products to market and bend over backwards for our partners who help promote them.

(Notice how the company doesn’t say it’s a developer, and stresses the marketing, rather than the consumer, in its literature. That should probably tell you all you need to know, if you hadn’t gotten up too early.)

There is an encouraging link on the home page inviting you to click for Support (“Need support for a Blitware product? Our expert technical support staff is standing by to help you”) –

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– but far from take you to that helpful support staff, the link takes you to a Frequently Asked Questions page, and only at the bottom to a link for contacting technical support.

That in turn takes you to a link demanding you register at Blitware first, and then, when that is done, to a page for you to file your question.

Do that and you’re told:

We will reply to this message soon! You will receive an email when we do.

OK, so, what’s wrong with all this, and why call it phishing?

Well, phishing is the art of using social engineering tricks to lull a victim into thinking s/he is interacting with a legitimate site/product and to get him/her into coughing up passwords or cash.

Usually with banks, or emails, or accounts etc.

To me this Driver Robot is no different.

From the Google search—where a website with the word Logitech in it—everything is designed to make you think you’re dealing, if not with Logitech, then at least with a company/product that Logitech has endorsed.

The website’s title—the bit that appears in the browser’s top-most bar indicates it’s a Logitech site:

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Even the website’s favicon—the little log before the web address—is Logitech’s:

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To me this is no different to a scammer putting “Citibank” or “Paypal” somewhere in a web address to fool the user into thinking they’re dealing with someone kosher.

Anything the tricks the user, either into thinking they’re dealing with the real thing, or thinking they have no other option, is, in my view, a scam.

That the software doesn’t seem to work—it found no Logitech drivers or updates, and seems to crash computers—only makes matters worse.

I’m going to find out what Logitech make of their logos and name being used for dodgy purposes.

(more on Driver Phishing here.)

The Traffic Light Scam

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If true, this is a scam that is going to fuel the conspiracy theories of every driver who feels they were fined unfairly for crossing a red light. Police in Italy have arrested the inventor of a smart traffic light system, and are investigating another 108 people, on suspicion of tampering with the software to speed up the transition from amber to to red, netting the local police and others in on the scam millions of dollars of extra fines.

The question is: Is this kind of thing limited only to Italy?

The Independent writes:

Stefano Arrighetti, 45, an engineering graduate from Genoa who created the “T-Redspeed” system, is under house arrest, and 108 other people are under investigation after it was alleged that his intelligent lights were programmed to turn from amber to red in half the regulation time. The technology, which was adopted all over Italy, employs three cameras designed to assess the three-dimensional placement of vehicles passing a red light and store their number plates on a connected computer system.

Those now under investigation include 63 municipal police commanders, 39 local government officials and the managers of seven private companies.

The fraud, The Independent says, was uncovered by Roberto Franzini, police chief of Lerici, on the Ligurian coast, who – in February 2007 – noticed the abnormal number of fines being issued for jumping red lights. “There were 1,439 for the previous two months,” he said. “It seemed too much: at the most our patrols catch 15 per day.” He went to check the lights and found that they were changing to red after three seconds instead of the five seconds that had been normal.

Unanswered, of course, is why it’s taken two years for the fraud to be stopped and investigated. The inventor’s lawyer has said he is innocent. Mr Arrighetti’s LinkedIn page is here. He is described as the owner of Kria, a Milan-based company which sells the T-Redspeed and other traffic monitoring systems.

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Image of Arrighetti from Insight24 webcast

The T-Redspeed system is described in the company literature as “the newest and most innovative digital system for vehicle speed and red light violation detection. Based on special video cameras, it doesn’t require additional sensors (inductive loops, radars or lasers). It measures the speed of the vehicles (instantaneous and average) up to 300 km/h.”

Some forum posters have suggested a system used by British authorities, RedSpeed, is the same, but on first glance it doesn’t look like it. That said, reducing the amber phase seems to be a widespread source of extra revenue: The National Motorists Association of America has found six cities that have shortened the amber phase beyond the legal amount, apparently as a way to increase revenue.

Illustration from Kria brochure (PDF)

links for 2008-09-11

  • Avego.com is where travelers cooperate to make the whole transport system more efficient, saving us all money, wasted time and reducing pollution.

    A 5-seat car traveling with only a driver is inherently inefficient, and yet 85% of the time, that’s how cars travel in much of the world. With our iPhone GPS technology, web services and your participation, we can fill up those empty seats.

  • Did I get enough exercise today? How many calories did I burn? Am I getting good quality sleep? How many steps and miles did I walk today? The Fitbit Tracker helps you answer these questions.

  • Swype was developed by founders Cliff Kushler and Randy Marsden, along with a very talented team of software programmers and linguists.

    Cliff is the co-inventor of T9, the standard predictive text-entry solution used on over 2.4 billion mobile phones worldwide. He is the named inventor on multiple patents related to alternative text entry.

    Randy is the developer of the onscreen keyboard included in Windows, with an installed base of over a half a billion units. He is a recognized leader in the field of assistive technology and alternative computer input.

    Together, their experience is unmatched in developing onscreen keyboard-based text input solutions for mobile touch-screen devices.

  • ShiftSpace (pronounced: §) is an open source browser plugin for collaboratively annotating, editing and shifting the web.

  • # Create and track invoices you issue to clients.
    # Determine what you’re owed, by whom, and when it’s due.
    # Keep track of timesheets for yourself and your employees.
    # Notify your clients of new invoices.
    # Create interesting reports and analyze payment history
    # Save time & collect your money.

Bye Bye, Laptop?

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The day seems to be getting closer when we can do something that would seem to be pretty obvious: access our pocket-sized smartphone via a bigger screen, keyboard and a mouse. Celio Corp says it’s close.

Celio Corp have two products: their Mobile Companion (pictured above), a laptop like thing that includes an 8″ display, a full function keyboard, and a touchpad mouse. At 1 x 6 x 9 inches and weighing 2 lbs, the Mobile Companion promises over 8 hours of battery life and boots instantly. After loading a driver on your smartphone you can then access it via a USB cable or Bluetooth. (You can also charge the smartphone via the same USB connection.)

Uses? Well, you can say goodbye to coach cramp, where you’re unable to use a normal laptop. You can input data more easily than you might if you just had your smartphone with you. And, of course, you don’t need to bring your laptop.

The second product might be even better. The Smartphone Interface System is, from what I can work out, a small Bluetooth device that connects your smartphone, not to the Mobile Companion, but to a desktop computer, public display or a conference room projector  — these devices connect via a cable to the Interface, like this:

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The important bit about both products is that the Redfly software renders the smartphone data so it fits on the new display (this will be quite tricky, and, because it will carried via Bluetooth, would need quite a bit of compression. The maximum size of the output display is VGA, i.e. 800 x 480, so don’t expect stunning visuals, but it’ll be better than having all your colleagues crowding around your smartphone.)

The bad news? Redfly isn’t launched yet, and will for the time being be available only for Windows Mobile Devices. Oh, and according to UberGizmo, it will cost $500. The other thing is that you shouldn’t confuse “full function keyboard” with “full size keyboard”: this vidcap from PodTech.net gives you an idea of the actual size of the thing:

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this is the keyboard size relative to Celio CEO Kirt Bailey’s digits:

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Until I try the thing out and feel sure that the keyboard doesn’t make the same compromises as the Eee PC, I’d rather use my Stowaway keyboard.

For those of you looking for software to view your mobile device on your desktop computer, you might want to check out My Mobiler. It’s free software that purports to do exactly that for Windows Mobile users.

“It Says Take a Left Up This Impassable Mountain Track”

 
photo from Reuters

Apparently technology is making us so dumb we need signs to jolt us back to common sense. Reuters reports that Britain has started trials of special road signs warning “drivers about the dangers of trusting their satellite navigation devices (satnavs)”:

Some have reported that software glitches have sent drivers down one-way streets or up impassable mountain tracks.

One ambulance driver with a faulty satnav drove hundreds of miles in the wrong direction while transferring a patient from one hospital in Ilford east of London to another just eight miles away.

At what point, I wonder, did the ambulance driver think that perhaps he wasn’t taking the fastest route? The original story, according to The Times, involved the driver and his colleague driving

for eight hours before finally delivering the patient. After the equipment sent them north, they covered 215 miles in about four hours. The way back was only slightly shorter and took more than 3½ hours.

The device was reprogrammed, as were the two drivers. The Times comes up with a couple more examples:

Last month a woman dodged oncoming traffic for 14 miles after misreading her sat-nav system and driving the wrong way up a dual carriageway.Police said it was a miracle that no one was injured after the young woman joined the A3M, which links Portsmouth to London, on the southbound side — only to head north.

In September a taxi driver took two teenage girls 85 miles in the opposite direction after keying the wrong place name into his sat-nav. The girls asked to go to Lymington in the New Forest, Hampshire, but the driver tapped in Limington, Somerset.

I hear Somerset is very nice in September.

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Revenge of the Bollards

Is it a design fault, or is there some malice afoot in the Bollards War?

The UK city of Manchester has introduced something called ‘retractable bollards’ (non UK folk may call them posts) that sink into the ground when an approved vehicle approaches. (Sensors trigger the bollard’s retraction.) Great idea, right, since it means that buses and mail vans can get into pedestrian zones of the city but others can’t. The only problem is other drivers:

  • who assume that if a bus can get through, so can they; or who
  • try to cheat the system by sneaking through after the bus

This is what it looks like in action (thanks to Charles):

Now Manchester isn’t the first to try these bollards. Edinburgh ditched them last year after spending £150,000 when a local paper led a public outcry (I always love a good outcry.)

As you can see from the video, getting impaled on a bollard is not fun. They come back up as soon as the permitted vehicle has passed, so even the fastest driver isn’t going to have much luck. The Manchester Evening News reports some folk being taken to hospital and cars being written off. A 63-year old man died in Cambridge after crashing into one. This is all somewhat ironic given, according to another report in the paper, the bollards were introduced “on a trial basis because of the street’s high casualty rate.”

Surprisingly, many of those commenting support the bollards (variously spear bollards, rising bollards, those bollards, bollards from hell, and, inevitably, Never Mind the Bollards.) One points out the guy driving the SUV/4×4 is clearly trying to speed thro before the bollards come up. You can only imagine the conversation taking place as his partner grabs their kid and struts off (“Bollards! You bollarding idiot! I told you you’d never make through the bollarding bollards!”).

My tupennies’ worth: I think traffic maiming (as opposed to traffic calming) is a great idea but doesn’t go far enough. We need similar measures to punish, sorry deter, drivers who routinely flout the law and common decency. Why not, for example, deploy the retractable bollards elsewhere, like

  • the centre of a restricted parking space, so it would rise at the end of the designated period, impaling the vehicle if the driver had overstayed his alloted time;
  • at random points on the hard shoulder on toll roads/motorways so that cars illegally using it as a fast lane would be impaled,  or flipped over into an adjacent field

Where necessary, bollards could be replaced by other features such as

  • a mechanical arm, installed on the roadside and connected to a speed sensor, which would crush cars passing by too fast or too slow, depending on what irritated other drivers the most.
  • or cars driving through built-up areas too fast would be taken out by snipers deployed in trees/tall buildings. If necessary the snipers could be automated.
  • cars straddling two lanes or changing lanes without indicating first would be sliced in half by retractable blades intermittently rising out of the demarcating lines
  • motorbikes using the sidewalk (a particular bane in my neck of the woods) would risk having their tyres slashed by strips of spikes activated by the annoying sound of approaching underpowered Chinese-made engines.

Of course, there’s always a less, er, physical option. The retractable bollard contains a second sensor, which tells it that there’s a second, unauthorized vehicle passing over it. It doesn’t rise, but instead squirts evil-smelling goo onto the bottom of the car which renders the vehicle uninhabitable for at least a month. The driver is suitably chastened but no one dies.

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How To Fix A Broken Installation File

This is another public service announcement of interest only to a few people, but if you experience a problem under Win2K/WinXP installing a driver, with the folllowing error message:

The required section was not found in the INF

this might save you hours of fiddling around. In this case it happened with my vodafone/Globe Trotter 3G PCM card but I’ve seen people with scanners, printers etc experience the same problem. Basically the drivers won’t install, and that’s that.

I couldn’t find any solution on its own that fixed the problem, and I don’t know whether this works in all cases, but this is what I did, and it worked for me:

Open your C:WindowsSetupapi.log file, and look around for the “INF” reference. You should see something like

#E067 Could not locate section [ClassInstall32].
#E142 Class: {4D36E971-E325-11CE-BFC1-08002BE10318}. Install failed. Error 0xe0000101: The required section was not found in the INF.

This tells you the section that is missing in the installation file. So now you need to find that file.

Go back up the log and see what INF file (a file with the last three letters, after the period, as inf, like c:windowsinfoem126.inf.

That’s the file that’s causing the problems. Open the file in notepad (in some cases you can do this simply by pasting the full path and file name into Start/Run. Sometimes this won’t work.

Save a backup of the file in question.

Then in the original, add a section with the name of the missing section. In my case, [ClassInstall32].

Save the INF file. Close it, remove the hardware and connect it again. Keep your fingers crossed. Now the installation should proceed normally.

At least it did for me. How dumb can installation software be that this basic problem cannot self-heal?

(Here’s where I got some information for this from.)

Hotel Complaints, Blackmail and Bribery

Why is it that big chains in the service industry assume that when you write to them complaining about something that you’re just out for a freebie? The thinking seems to go: this person is trying to blackmail us. So bribe them.

Case in point: Just got back from a weekend at five-star hotel in central Java. I’ve been there plenty of times before; it’s a quality hotel, very well run and the only big name chain in the area. But while they’ve done a great job of creating a serene ambience — a view of a volcano as you enter the lobby, a gorgeous garden and golf course, the trickle of fountains mingling with the tinkling of Javanese gamelan along the walkways — they use a system of summoning drivers and taxis that is usually seen in a mall.

It’s basically a tannoy system, a request for a driver or taxi puncuated at beginning and end with a distorted xylophone scale, climbing and ascending like a man riddled with gout. It’s normal stuff in Indonesian office blocks, urban hotels and malls, where few people actually drive themselves, but thoroughly out of place in the paddies of central Java. If it was far from the hotel it would be bearable, but It’s sufficiently loud to be heard in at least a third of the hotel rooms, starting early in the morning until late at night.

So, we complained, quietly and reasonably, to the front desk and resisted their invitation to change rooms. Why should we when the solution was as simple as turning down the volume of the loudspeaker? Anyway, they promised to look into the problem, but of course it was never resolved, the xylophone rising and falling from early in the morning, so I fired off an email to the chain’s U.S. head-office. Nothing too harsh, but making it clear that it was undermining our confidence in the hotel that something so straightforward couldn’t be addressed — or a reason given as to why it couldn’t be fixed.

Upshot: an email from head office that didn’t address the source of our complaint at all. Instead:

I would like the opportunity to restore your faith in [hotel chain deleted] by offering you a complimentary one room upgrade the next time your travel plans include a [hotel chain deleted] hotel to compensate you for what you encountered. We ask that you make your future reservation for a standard room at the lowest rate you can find. Then contact the [hotel chain deleted] Customer Service office with the confirmation number, and we will upgrade you to the best available room that the hotel has to offer, based upon availability. Please let me know if you would like to accept my offer.

No mention of whether they’re looking into the problem we raised, or asking for more information about it. Just the simple assumption that an upgrade would shut us up. Sure, we’ll take the upgrade but why won’t you take our input seriously, at face value? Why is customer feedback considered a threat, assuaged by a freebie?

Lesson for today: Maybe feedback is just that. We customers want things to be better next time we stay; that’s why we let you know what’s right and what’s wrong. Not all of us are trying to blackmail you. We just want a nice place to stay.