It’s Your Mother Calling

A few people have asked for the transcript of yesterday’s commentary on the BBC’s World Business Daily about getting your  mother’s voice to be your ringtone. It follows below, and here’s the (still active) link to the actual program from whence it came. Thanks for listening, and to the crew at Business Daily for their excellent impression of my mother’s voice. It sounds scarily like her. 

audio Listen to Wednesday’s Edition

Updated at 08:32 GMT on Wednesday

The growing spectre of inflation – as elections approach in Russia, how long can the government hold down rising food prices?

and mobile phone RING TONES – what would really grab your attention – how about the voice of your mother – telling you off?


Ringtones on cellphones have long since graduated from beeps into full fledged polyphonic symphonies. And it’s long driven me nuts.

I was on a bus the other day and the guy in front had his handset volume set so loud that when his phone rang he was so disconcerted he couldn’t turn it off. The mindless ditty he had chosen as his preferred form of alert blasted through the bus as he fumbled with the off switch. At least he bothered fumbling. Some people I notice love their ringtone so much they spend a few contented moments listening to it before picking up. This is a variation on the older theme where people stare at their ringing phone apparently mulling whether it’s worth answering. Songs as ringtones are like someone suddenly turning on a radio full-blast and then just as suddendly turning it off. At best you’re relieved your morning reverie is possible again, at worst you’re annoyed you can’t remember what song the snippet of music belonged to, and are stuck the whole day humming a snatch of a best forgotten ditty.

There has to be a better way for ringtones to be less intrusive and yet audible enough to the user so they actually hear it. My solution is simple. I read somewhere that the US Air Force in the 1950s was experimenting with early versions of synethesized voices delivering cockpit warnings. What they found was that a pilot was much more likely to hear an important instruction if the voice used was the pilot’s mother. You can just imagine a disembodied voice saying “Pull up, you silly boy!” just as she might have said “Pull up your socks, you silly boy!” Who wouldn’t pull up under such conditions?

So this is what I propose. When I buy my phone, I hand it over to my mother and have her call out my name at a reasonable volume. That recording becomes my ringtone. Trust me, I’m always going to recognise her voice, across the room, across town, across continents. Mothers’ voices have that kind of quality.

Why would this work so well on phones? Well I may hear my mother’s voice in the middle of a crowded and noisy rave, but everyone else? Unless they’re called Jeremy, it won’t register. If they are called Jeremy, it’s unlikely the voice is going to have quite the same impact. I will know my phone’s ringing. No one else is disturbed, because people are yelling out other people’s names all the time.

This is easy enough to do, by the way: Most phones let you record something and turn it into a ringtone. There are even websites that let you upload sound files and turn them into ringtones. But even better would be to set up a service that let mothers send recordings of themselves to the phones of their offsprings — without them knowing. I’d love to see the son’s expression when he hears his mother’s voice calling him from his pocket. I suspect he’d pick up pretty darn quick.

BBC World Service | Business Daily

How To Fix The Annoying Ringtone Problem

Ringtones. The day of the fancy, polyphonic, clip-from-your-favorite-song-or-theme-tune ringtone is here. Especially in North Asia, it seems. And it’s annoying. It’s like hearing someone turning on a radio full-blast and then turning it off, and jabbering instead. Either you’re just beginning to get into the music, or recognise it, and it’s off. I thought I would never say this, but I miss the inane, twee, monophonic warbles of the old cellphone. At least you knew it was a phone, and what the tune was. Is there nothing better?

You could argue that everyone having their personalized call sign is good, because they know it’s their phone. No longer do you have people grabbing at bags, pockets or private parts thinking the phone ringing is theirs. Unless, of course, everyone just loves the same song so much they all choose it as their ringtone.

But all this does is shift the problem from getting your peace and quiet shattered by inane monophonic warble to getting it shattered by two bars of inane pop tune. It doesn’t seem to actually help any of us excise the intrusion that is the cellphone ringing in public. We’re still looking, in my view, for a way for people to know their phone is ringing without everyone else hearing about it.

My solution is simple, and probably not very original. But I haven’t read it anywhere else, so until someone points me there, I’ll assume this is My Own Idea. When people buy their phone, they record their own voice saying ‘hi, this is Joey. Leave a message’ for the voicemail. Then Joey hands it over to his mother/father/foster parent or other significant elder in the family and has them call out “Joey!’ at a reasonable volume. That recording becomes Joey’s ringtone.

The point? Joey’s always going to recognise his ma’s voice, across the room, across town, across continents. Mothers’ voices have that kind of quality. So he’s going to hear his phone ringing. But everyone else on the train? Unless they’re called Joey, it won’t register. If they are called Joey, it’s unlikely the voice is going to have quite the same impact. Simple. Joey will know his phone’s ringing. No one else is disturbed, because people are calling other people’s names all the time.

Ok, the business end of all this? Set up an online service that lets people record and store them saying their children’s/spouses/relatives’ names. Every time one of the folk involved buys a new phone, they can just synchronise it with the website and download the appropriate voice calling their name, even after Ma has passed onto that cellphone-free waiting room in the sky. Cellphone providers etc would jump at the advertising opportunities. is taken, but doesn’t seem to be yet. I’m onto it.

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. 

Loose Wire: Excuse Me, My

Loose Wire: Excuse Me, My Ego’s Ringing

[ this appeared in FEER, 01/31/2002]

Few of us stop to think just how revolutionary the mobile phone is. It enables us to be always on call and always in touch with those important to us, it frees us from the confines of office and home, but perhaps most importantly it gives us something to fiddle with during awkward moments at meetings, parties, funerals, etc. And the revolution is only just beginning.

Mobile phones have redefined the concept of personal space, of what is meant by communication, as well as allowing us to send messages to each other — mostly consisting of such vital data as smiley icons, jokes and “you owe me rent.”

Mobile phones, in short, have altered the way we behave. The phone has become an extension of our bodies, and we feel lost without it. It’s the first thing we park on the table at restaurants, bars, desks, pulpits, etc. As cultural observer Sadie Plant, in her entertaining treatise On The Mobile, has observed, whether we have one, how we use it, how many names we have stored in its memory, all define what kind of person we are, indeed, whether we are anybody at all.

As mobile phones change us, so in turn we feel compelled to ensure they say as many good things about us as possible, short of hanging a placard around one’s neck saying “really nice guy, cool but not aloof, interesting job but even more interesting hobbies involving water, rocks and rugged footwear.” We buy the latest model and parade it until another model comes along, after which we sheepishly stuff it in our pocket. I was mortified when my Nokia Communicator, a bulky but state-of-the-art number incorporating keyboard, big screen, tumble-dryer, etc., was mistaken for one of those brick-sized monstrosities of yore.

Smaller phones don’t necessarily mean less intrusive: In fact the fancier the phone is, the smaller it is, which means the more prominent it should be. To assist visibility, buy a snap-on cover sporting designs from Snoopy-esque to racing cars. The next stage, of course, will be for the phones to actually be shaped like a Disney character or a packet of cigarettes, which might well mark the end of civilization as we know it. In the meantime, Nokia this month unveiled a subsidiary called Vertu to produce handphones encrusted in precious gems and sporting luxurious metal finishes. Sadly, tackiness and handphones seem a good fit.

As if that wasn’t enough, ring tones show no sign of getting tasteful. A new generation of palm-sized devices which double as phones will use ordinary sound files as ring tones. In the future, expect to hear more melodious stuff or, more ominously, recorded voices of Hollywood characters uttering personalized messages along the lines of: “Sebastian, you have a call from your mother.”

Of course, handphones have wrought broader change. The overthrow of Philippine President Joseph Estrada is an oft-cited example of the broadcasting power of short messaging, or SMS, but protests have been coordinated by mobile phone for much longer. Many middle-class students involved in the anti-military uprising in Thailand in 1992 had the bulky units of the day stuffed into their jeans, which must have been painful when their soldier captors forced them to crouch or crawl.

But more importantly, it’s no longer a revolution confined to the elite. In poverty-stricken Indonesia, for example, mobile phones will out-number land lines this year. Transvestite prostitutes wandering the streets near where I live all seem to be sporting the latest silver-plated Nokia, and when the shoeless busker who accosts your car at a junction pauses in his rendering of “Ole Ole Ole” to answer his Siemens you know the mobile phone has broken out of its traditional socioeconomic limits. This is no bad thing. The more of us have these dang things, the quicker we can agree on how they are used and, most importantly, what to do to people who use overly glitzy phones with annoying ring tones. Make them eat the precious gems, I say.

(Copyright (c) 2002, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)