BBC: Cars we can’t drive

Let’s face it: we’re not about to have driverless cars in our driveway any time soon. Soonest: a decade. Latest: a lot longer, according to the folk I’ve spoken to.

But in some ways, if you’ve got the dosh, you can already take your foot off the gas and hands off the steering wheel. Higher end cars have what are called active safety features, such as warning you if you stray out of your lane, or if you’re about to fall asleep, or which let the car take over the driving if you’re in heavy, slow moving traffic. Admittedly these are just glimpses of what could happen, and take the onus off you for a few seconds, but they’re there. Already.

The thinking behind all this: More than 90% (roughly, depends who you talk to) of all accidents are caused by human error. So, the more we have the car driving, the fewer the accidents. And there is data that appears to support that. The US-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that forward collision warning systems led to a 7% reduction in collisions between vehicles.

But that’s not quite the whole story. For one thing, performing these feats isn’t easy. Getting a car, for example, to recognise a wandering pedestrian is one of the thorniest problems that a scientist working in computer vision could tackle, because you and I may look very different — unlike, say, another car, or a lamppost, or a traffic sign. We’re tall, short, fat, thin, we were odd clothes and we are unpredictable — just because we’re walking towards the kerb at a rate of knots, does that mean we’re about to walk in to the road?

Get this kind of thing wrong and you might have a top of the range Mercedes Benz slam on the brakes for nothing. The driver might forgive the car’s computer the first time, but not the second. And indeed, this is a problem for existing safety features — is that a beep to warn you when you’re reversing too close to an object, or you haven’t put your seatbelt on, or you’re running low on windscreen fluid, or bceause you’re straying into oncoming traffic? We quickly filter out warning noises and flashing lights, as airplane designers have found to their (and their pilots’) cost.

Indeed, there’s a school of thought that says that we’re making a mistake by even partially automating this kind of thing. For one thing, we need to know what exactly is going on: are we counting on our car to warn us about things that might happen, and, in the words of the tech industry “mitigate for us”? Or are these interventions just things that might happen some of the time, if we’re lucky, but not something we can rely on?

If so, what exactly is the point of that? What would be the point of an airbag that can’t be counted on to deploy, or seatbelts that only work some of the time? And then there’s the bigger, philosophical issue: for those people learning to drive for the first time, what are these cars telling them: that they don’t have to worry too much about sticking to lanes, because the car will do it for you? And what happens when they find themselves behind the wheel of a car that doesn’t have those features?

Maybe it’s a good thing we’re seeing these automated features now — because it gives us a chance to explore these issues before the Google car starts driving itself down our street and we start living in a world, not just of driverless cars, but of cars that people don’t know how to drive.

This is a piece I wrote for the BBC World Service, based on a Reuters story.

Afghanistan’s TV Phone Users Offer a Lesson

By Jeremy Wagstaff

IMG_20100831_202009-1

There’s something I notice amid all the dust, drudgery and danger of Kabul life: the cellphone TVs.

No guard booth—and there are lots of them—is complete without a little cellphone sitting on its side, pumping out some surprisingly clear picture of a TV show.

This evening at one hostelry the guard, AK-47 absent-mindedly askew on the bench, had plugged his into a TV. I don’t know why. Maybe the phone gave better reception.

All I know is that guys who a couple of years ago had no means of communication now have a computer in their hand. Not only that, it’s a television, itself a desirable device. (There are 740 TVs per 1,000 people in the U.S. In Afghanistan there are 3.)

But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve long harped on about how cellphones are the developing world population’s first computer and first Internet device. Indeed, the poorer the country, the more revolutionary the cellphone is. But in places like Afghanistan you see how crucial the cellphone is as well.

Electricity is unreliable. There’s no Internet except in a few cafes, hotels and offices willing to pay thousands of dollars a month. But you can get a sort of 3G service over your phone. The phone is an invisible umbilical cord in a world where nothing seems to be tied down.

Folk like Jan Chipchase, a former researcher at Nokia, are researching how mobile banking is beginning to take hold in Afghanistan. I topped up my cellphone in Kabul via PayPal and a service based in Massachusetts. This in a place where you don’t bat an eyelid to see a donkey in a side street next to a shiny SUV, and a guy in a smart suit brushing shoulders with a crumpled old man riding a bike selling a rainbow of balloons.

Of course this set me thinking. For one thing, this place is totally unwired. There are no drains, no power infrastructure, no fiber optic cables. The cellphone is perfectly suited to this environment that flirts with chaos.

But there’s something else. The cellphone is a computer, and it’s on the cusp of being so much more than what it is. Our phones contain all the necessary tools to turn them into ways to measure our health—the iStethoscope, for example, which enables doctors to check their patients’ heartbeats, or the iStroke, an iPhone application developed in Singapore to give brain surgeons a portable atlas of the inside of someone’s skull.

But it’s obvious it doesn’t have to stop there. iPhone users are wont to say “There’s an app for that” and this will soon be the refrain, not of nerdy narcissists, but of real people with real problems.

When we can use our cellphone to monitor air pollution levels, test water before we drink it, point it at food to see whether it’s gone bad or contains meat, or use them as metal detectors or passports or as wallets or air purifiers, then I’ll feel like we’re beginning to exploit their potential.

In short, the cellphone will become, has become, a sort of Swiss Army penknife for our lives. In Afghanistan that means a degree of connectivity no other medium can provide. Not just to family and friends, but to the possibility of a better life via the web, or at least to the escapism of television.

For the rest of us in the pampered West, we use it as a productivity device and a distraction, but we should be viewing it as a doorway onto a vastly different future.

When crime committed is not just saved on film—from Rodney King to the catwoman of Coventry—but beamed live thro to services that scan activity for signs of danger, the individual may be protected in a way they are presently not.

We may need less medical training if, during the golden hour after an accident, we can use a portable device to measure and transmit vital signs and receive instruction. Point the camera at the wound and an overlay points out the problem and what needs to be done. Point and click triage, anyone?

Small steps. But I can’t help wondering why I’m more inspired by the imaginative and enterprising use of cellphones in places like Afghanistan, and why I’m less than impressed by the vapid self-absorption of the average smart phone user in our First World.

Now I’m heading back to the guard hut to watch the late soap.

Why Hotels Should Avoid Social Media

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a copy of my column for newspapers)

If The Wall Street Journal is to be believed—and as a former contributor I’ve no reason to doubt it—the best way to get decent hotel service these days is to tweet about how bad it is.

And reading the piece made me realize that, when it comes to an industry like the leisure industry, social media can only be a disaster for your brand.

An article by Sarah Nassauer says that “hotels and resorts are amassing a growing army of sleuths whose job it is to monitor what is said about them online—and protect the hotels’ reputations.” It also offers a handy list of eight tips on how to “snare better service”, including:

Before you check-in: Post a comment on the hotel’s Facebook page or send a tweet saying you’re looking forward to your stay. A savvy hotel will put you on its radar and may dole out perks or give specialized service.

or this one:

Have a lot of online friends or followers. Hotels will pay more attention to your requests.

Now I’m a big fan of social media. And hotels. And the Journal. But this kind of advice is WRONG.

Basically, what the paper is suggesting is that you abuse social media, and the hotel’s check-in system, to snag yourself better service. Unfortunately it betrays a distinct lack of understanding of how things like Twitter work.

First off, you don’t just “have” a lot of online followers or friends. Followers and friends are earned through providing interesting commentary, in the case of Twitter, or being there for them, in the case of friends. OK, you can buy both, but that’s not the point.

Although I suppose you could calculate your savings through free hotel upgrades and offset that against the purchase off Twitter followers through services like usocial (“become an overnight rock star on twitter!”).

Now I’m not averse to hotels and other companies using Twitter and Facebook to keep an eye on what people are saying about them. That’s good, and, frankly, it should have happened a long time ago. I’m frankly amazed that companies measure their footprint on social media quantitatively rather than qualitatively: in other words, they count the number of followers they have, rather than look closely at who those followers are, learn about them and recruit them as unpaid evangelists.

As the piece mentions, hotels and resorts are setting up their own social media monitoring centers which sound like Churchill in the bowels of London in the middle of the  blitz, but is probably more likely some overworked drone monitoring a laptop in the hotel kitchen or a workaholic F&B manager checking TripAdvisor his BlackBerry while his wife is delivering their 4th baby.

The problem is this: Social media is social. If I grumble about my hotel on Twitter, it’s presumably because the other options open to me aren’t working. And those options usually involve something other than boring all my friends about the state of the bath, or the shortage of Mountain Dew in my minibar.

These are things that I should be bringing up with room service, or the front desk, or the F&B guy. If I’ve started twittering about it, it’s proof the system doesn’t work.

So, unless I’ve got really patient followers and friends, using them as a platform for my grumbles isn’t only an abuse of social media, it’s an abuse of my friends.

The problem with the Journal piece is that it assumes that social media is merely a public platform for self-promotion: either for getting better deals, or for getting better service.

But it’s not. Social media only works because we’re interested in what other people are saying. Those people who tell the world they’re about to have coffee don’t have many followers, unless they’re someone famous.

The value in social media—in any network—is the information it’s carrying. Whines about the view from one’s room isn’t information. It’s a whine. (Unless of course it’s me, in which case I’m being wittily ironic in a post-modernist sort of way.)

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and a recent case in point: hotel guest complains about the quality and price of Internet in their hotel on Twitter, including the hotel’s twitter name. Hotel responds within seven minutes, asking guest to direct message them—in other words, to send a message that can’t be viewed by anyone else.

So, now the conversation goes offline. No more tweets that anyone can read. In short, guest is basically saying to his followers: I’ve got what I wanted, thanks to all of you for helping me get my way. Hotel is saying: We’ll solve this problem privately, thank you, and leave no-one the wiser about whether this was a one-off complaint or something other guests may have to worry about.

Neither respects the audience on social media who have to watch this public face-off and miss the private make-up.

The upshot: Guests learn that twittering gets results. Hotels learn that twitter guests can be bought off as easily as non-social media guests. And the followers of that particular twitterer come away none the wiser and feeling slightly used.

For sure, it makes sense to use social media as a platform to air your grievances–if other paths have failed. If you want to warn others. Just like writing a letter to the editor back in the old days.

But hotels and other companies that scour social media to buy off bad-mouthers will do terrible damage to themselves, and to social media, if they seek to reward anti-social behavior. If you broadcast to social media that bad-mouthing your brand pays dividends, expect to get lots of bad-mouthing on social media.

If you then try to solve the problem in private, all you leave is a paper-trail of bad-mouthing, and no happy ending.

So the solution is simple: Social media should be monitored. Grievances should be addressed. But rather than setting up time-consuming twitter monitoring teams money would be better spent on developing rapid responses internally—a instant messaging service only accessible to guests, say, or a texting service so guests don’t have to listen to jingly jangly phone music while they’re being connected to reception.

It comes back to an old adage: Social media is not another broadcast platform. It’s a very public forum. So having a twitter feed is a life-time commitment to allowing every customer grumble to be seen by everyone on the planet. Don’t go there unless you have to.

Instead, keep those private channels with your guests as free of friction as possible. Don’t encourage them to go public, because however it works out, it won’t be pretty.

Oh, and provide a decent service. That always works.

KL’s Airport Gets Infected

image

If there’s one place you hope you won’t get infected by a computer virus, it’s an airport.

It’s not just that the virus may fiddle with your departure times; it’s the wider possibility that the virus may have infected more sensitive parts of the airport: ticketing, say, or—heaven forbid—flight control.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport—Malaysia’s main international airport—was on Friday infected by the W32.Downadup worm, which exploits a vulnerability in Windows Microsoft patched back in October. The worm, according to Symantec, does a number of things, creating an http server on the compromised computer, deletes restore points, downloads other file and then starts spreading itself to other computers.

image

Enlargement of the photo above. The notification says Symantec Antivirus has found the worm, but has not been able to clean or quarantine the file.

KL airport clearly isn’t keeping a tight rein on its security. The virus alert pictured above is at least 12 hours old and the vulnerability it exploits had been patched up a month before. Says Graham Cluley of UK-based security software company Sophos: “What’s disturbing to me is that over a month later, the airport hasn’t applied what was declared to be an extremely critical patch, and one which is being exploited by malware in the wild.”

What’s more worrying is that this isn’t the first time. It’s the first time I’ve noticed an infection on their departures/arrivals board, but one traveller spotted something similar a year and a half ago, with a Symantec Antivirus message popping up on one of the monitors. I saw a Symantec Antivirus message on one monitor that said it had “encountered a problem and needs to close”, suggesting that the worm had succeeded in disabling the airport’s own antivirus defences:

image

So how serious is all this? Cluely says: “Well, it’s obviously a nuisance to many people, and maybe could cause some disruption.. but I think this is just the most “visible” sign of what may be a more widespread infection inside the airport.  I would be more concerned if ticketing and other computer systems were affected by the same attack.”

He points to computer viruses affecting other airports in recent years: In 2003, Continental Airlines checkin desks were knocked out by the Slammer worm. A year later, Sasser was blamed for leaving 300,000 Australian commuters stranded, and BA flights were also delayed.

For me, the bottom line about airports and air travel is confidence. As a traveler I need to feel confident that the people deciding which planes I fly and when are on top of basic security issues. And that doesn’t mean just frisking me at the gate. It also means keeping the computer systems that run the airport safe. This is probably just sloppy computer habits but what if it wasn’t? What if it was a worm preparing for a much more targeted threat, aimed specifically at air traffic?

(I’ve asked KL International Airport and Symantec for comment.)

Obese Texters, Back to the Future, and Scams

I make an appearance on the excellent Breakfast Club show on Radio Australia each Friday at about 01:15 GMT and some listeners have asked me post links to the stuff I talk about, so here they are.

Texting reduces obesity

If your kids are getting a little overweight, then treat them to a bit of texting. But it’s not quite how it sounds (I thought it might be something to do with the aerobic workout you get from the thumb twiddling.) No, a study by the University of North Carolina suggests that if obese kids are encouraged to keep a record of their eating habits via SMS, they are more likely to adhere to the health regimen—less TV, more exerices, less Coke—than those who just wrote down the same information. (Attrition rate was 28% against 61% for the paper diary kids and 50% for the control group.)

Part of this may be down to the fact that the kids get instant feedback via SMS on their results. So actually this is more about the interactivity of health regimes rather than the physical benefits of cellphones or texting. (Actually this whole SMS for health thing is quite a meme. Check out this conference here.)

The miracles of life in 2000—as seen from 1950

Popular Mechanics of February 1950 predicted a number of things, some of which have come true, some of which haven’t, and some of which should, if we got our act together.

What they got right

  • Highways broad without any curves
  • Doubledecked highways
  • soup and milk come in frozen bricks (but thought that cooking would be a thing of the past)
  • TV connected to the phone; but would buy stuff over the TV with store clerks holding the goods up obligingly for customers to inspect…
  • robots in factories, but controlled by punch cards
  • air travel would be frequent, but expensive because of jet fuel; rocket plane fare from Chicago to Paris would cost $5000

What they got wrong

  • Heart of the town is the airport
  • Clean as a whistle and quiet
  • Crime to burn raw coal
  • Illumnitated by electric suns on 200 ft high towers
  • A house would cost only $5000 to build
  • Houses don’t last more than 25 years
  • Wash using chemicals that shave as well.
  • Dishes dissolves in superheated water, so no washing machines
  • Plastics derived from cottonseed hulls, Jerusalem artichocks and and fruit pips
  • Clean the house by turning a hose on it; everything is synthetic fabric of waterproof plastic; drain in the middle of the floor
  • worried by mass starvation, scientists came up with food from sawdust, table linen and rayon underwear converted into sweets
  • ‘calculators’ would predict the weather
  • storms diverted
  • no one would have gone to the moon—yet…

What I wish they’d gotten right

  • Used underwear recyled into candy

Scam lady

Janella Spears, nursing administrator in a place called Sweet Home, Oregon, who practices CPR and is a reverend, has given $400,000 to scammers. She got letters from President Bush, the president of Nigeria and FBI director Robert Mueller. Wiped out husband’s retirement account, mortgaged the house and took out a lien on the family car. Everyone told her to stop but she didn’t.

This is the problem with scams; it’s very hard to accept you’ve been scammed, and so perversely it’s easier to continuing giving money in the belief that it will all come good.

Pocket Keys

A team at UCal San Diego have come up with software, called Sneakey, that can take a picture of a key and convert it to a bitting code, which is enough for a locksmith to make a new key:

  1. The user provides point locations on the target key with a reference key as a guide.
  2. The system warps the target image into the pose of the reference key and overlays markings of where the bite codes are to be found.
  3. The user specifies where the cut falls along each line and the bit depths are decoded by the system into a bitting code.

In one experiment, the Sneakey team installed a camera on their four story department building (77 feet above the ground) at an acute angle to a key sitting on a café table 195 feet away. The image captured (below) was correctly decoded.

They’ve not released the software but say it would be pretty easy to put together.

Death of a ‘Toughbook’

170620081349

(update: after two days of nothing, the device is now booting again and Panasonic have offered to take a closer look at it and tell me what happened.)

My faith in my Panasonic Toughbook took a bath today when a waitress poured coffee all over it (and me.) It’s that absurd thing that waiters do of having to put coffee and food down right next to you when you’re clearly in the middle of a key discussion/interview/meeting/nap. It was bound to happen.

Still, I held out hope the Toughbook would be up to it. After all, the videos show guys doing stuff to their Toughbook we wouldn’t do to our partners (unless they asked us to.) I splashed the coffee off under a tap, knowing the damage coffee can wreak. To no avail: within minutes the screen went blank and the thing died.

Now I know why they call them ‘drop- and spill- resistant”. If it’s a spill, you might be ok, so long as it’s purified water. And “resistant”? It resists it, like Niles would Maris.

I bought a new one and am charging the hotel for it; they’ve agreed but I’ll send the lawyers home when I see the money. I happen to have a recording of the point when the coffee is spilt. It goes something like this:

Interviewee: in a fast growth  economy like India. Bangladesh, meanwhile.. [sound of crockery slipping, liquid spilling] oo shit!

Flaks (in chorus): oh no!

Me: (bizarrely quietly) Interesting…

Flaks (in chorus): oh dear!

Me: (still bizarrely quietly) OK…

[Sound of waitress disemboweling self with sugar spoon]

Lessons from all this?

  • Don’t order coffee in five star hotel lobbies when you’ve got a laptop in the area.
  • Don’t believe any waterproof claims from laptop manufacturers. Turns out that spillage only applies to the keyboard. You can see the waitress managed to get the latte everywhere except the keyboard.
  • Don’t settle for less from those responsible than full replacement immediately. I made it clear to the phalanx of hotel management that they would face serious claims if I did not check and rehouse the hard drive as quickly as possible and that meant buying a replacement computer immediately (it helped I was down the road from the place I bought it at the time. Singapore is like that.) It’s not about the computer: it’s really about the data, but it’s also about your day. You’re a working stiff and you don’t deserve to sit on your hands while they try to wriggle out of a full refund.
  • Back up your data regularly. I was lucky; the hard drive was safe. But I bet a lot wouldn’t be.

This, by the way, is what Panasonic say at the bottom of the page on spillage:

Furthermore, if you spill coffee, soft drinks, or similar liquids on the computer, the keyboard or other parts of the unit may become stained. Sugar and other substances may also cause corrosion, so liquids other than water are more problematic. Deal with such spills in the same way as directed for water and then have the unit checked.

Be aware that the spill resistance of these products in no way guarantees that liquids will not harm them or cause breakdowns.

The Limits of the Cloud

Microsoft’s FolderShare, a folder synchronizing tool that I’ve recommended in previous columns, is going off the air for up to three days in the middle of the week “for server upgrades”:

FolderShare will be offline for a little while (48-72 hours) next week for some server upgrades.

  • The outage begins Tuesday, June 17, at 6 PM Pacific Times (UTC-7).
  • We hope to be back online by 6 PM Friday at the latest.

I share some of the disbelief of commenters to the blog post and ZDNet’s Michael Krigsman:

Users are attracted to services such as FolderShare for two reasons: useful features and the promise of always-on reliability. Remove reliability from the equation and the service’s value plummets.

(Zoliblog also points to some odd, unexplained changes in the way FolderShare works, whereby the index of files you’re syncing between two computers appears to now be stored on Microsoft’s servers. Whether this is important remains to be seen.)

The bigger point is this: If we are genuinely going to shift computing to the cloud—move our stuff online, think in terms of being able to compute from anywhere, anytime—then we need to have reliable access to our files and accounts.

That Microsoft, of all people, can switch off such access for up to three days in the middle of the week highlights the inadequacies of that thinking. In the longer run it may be that we are in error for considering relying on cloud computing, and Microsoft, for access to our stuff.

(The arguments that it’s free, and in beta, don’t wash. Imagine if Google took Gmail or Google Docs down for three days: beta no longer means broken, at least not for the majority of a working week.)

Windows Live FolderShare Team Blog: Planned system outage starting June 17

Bluetooth Tracking

morning rush hour

Research from Purdue University shows that Bluetooth would be a very good way to track travel time. Bluetooth devices give off unique IDs which could be used to measure speed and movement of pedestrians and vehicles.

But why stop there? Wouldn’t it be possible to track people via their Bluetooth signal, if you knew one of their device IDs? Anyway, here’s the abstract (thanks, Roland.)

Travel time is one of the most intuitive and widely understood performance measures. However, it is also one of the most difficult performance measures to accurately estimate. Toll tag tracking has demonstrated the utility of tracking electronic fingerprints to estimate link travel time. However, these devices have a small penetration outside of areas served by toll facilities, and the proprietary tag reading equipment is not widely available. This paper reports on tracking of a wide variety of consumer electronics that already contain unique digital fingerprints.

Method uses ‘Bluetooth’ to track travel time for vehicles, pedestrians

The Alarm Clock is Dead, Long Live the Cellphone

image

Gadgets, like software and services, often end up being used in ways the creator didn’t intend. But how many companies make the most of this opportunity?

Take the cellphone. More than a third of Brits use their mobile phone as an alarm clock, according to a survey by British hotel chain Travelodge (thanks textually.org):

Budget hotel chain Travelodge quizzed 3,000 respondents on waking up habits and 71% of UK adults claimed that alarm clocks are now obsolete. The faithful bedside companion has been cast off in favour of the modern must-have, a mobile phone. Sixteen million Brits (36%) now prefer using the latest ring tone to rouse them from sleep rather than the shrill bleeping of an alarm clock.

Why? The article doesn’t say, but the answers are pretty obvious:

  • Who wants to take an extra device with you when you travel?
  • Ever come across an alarm clock with a dozen different ring tones?
  • Ever tried to program an alarm clock you’re not familiar with?
  • Ever tried to rely on wake up services?
  • Most alarm clocks are badly designed.

This might even reveal itself in the Alarm Clock Law: if another device can handle the task of a dumber gadget, it will replace it. So does that mean that the alarm clock is dead?

Not exactly. The alarm clock performs a single function: wake the person up. But that has turned out not to be as easy as it looks. While the design of most alarm clocks have been outsourced to the brain-dead, other designers have recognised the potential of alarm clocks that don’t merely wake up the owner, but keep them awake long enough to get up.

This list, for example, illustrates the thriving world of alarm clock design (think Clocky, that has wheels and has wheels and . And in this post about Seth Godin last September there was a bunch of responses suggesting that in fact alarm clock designers have tried to add features to make the alarm clock relevant. As one of the commenters pointed out, the problem is that we’re just not ready to pay more for those features because alarm clocks have become a commodity.

I suspect it’s a bit more complicated than this. There may be other factors:

  • the decline of radio, and therefore the decline of alarm-clock-radios (34% of respondents wake up to the radio in the Travelodge survey);
  • We travel more and carry more gadgets with us, so something had to stay behind;
  • As home alarm clocks became more sophisticated (music, radio, mains-powered) so we were less likely to take them on the road with us;
  • Then there’s security: I know I stopped bringing an old-style ticking alarm clock with me because it made airport security professionals nervous.

Perhaps most important, we have developed a comfort level with our cellphone’s inner workings, and few of us would like to entrust a morning alarm to something or someone we don’t know.

Cellphone manufacturers, to their credit, seem to have acknowledged this new role: I tried to find the alarm function on a Nokia 6120 and did so in five seconds. I bet it would take me longer on any digital alarm clock. The process is quick and painless, and a little bell logo on the home screen reassuringly indicates it’s set. The alarm itself is cute and starts out unobtrusively but then gets louder until you’re up and about.

Or, more ominously, have thrown the phone across the room where it now sits in pieces. Maybe there is something to be said for keeping the alarm clock separate.

del.icio.us Tags: ,,,

Dark Age Messengers

image

Maybe I’m missing something, of I’ve been taken in by those TV ads of guys walking across stepping stones made out of frogmens’ skulls, but I expect the big couriers to be somewhat snappier and higher-tech these days. Not based on today’s experience:

  • Call their hotline to get a guy in either Mexico or the Philippines (based on accent, and he wasn’t saying) who scolded me for giving the second line of the address first, and then refused to accept the package as documents when I told him it was a book (it’s actually a pile of edited pages, so I guess it could be either.) Stoopid that I am, I didn’t realise the huge difference (commercial invoice in triplicate and duties for one, nothing for the other) and should have said “documents” when he asked me. So that session was a bust.
  • My colleague, the recipient and courier account holder tried the other end, and we got somewhere, though both of us still had to give the details twice, including something called a “control number” (I’ve just been watching Terry Gilliams’s Brazil so I’m on the lookout for things like this) to “smoothen things out”.
  • Of course when the guy came there were no documents, no smoothing things out, so we had to do everything by hand. All nine sections. Good luck to whoever has to decipher my atrocious handwriting. We’ll be lucky if the package makes it before Christmas.

So, questions:

What happened to those handheld computers that couriers were using a few years ago to do all this? Wouldn’t it be easier? Just type out the details or input them from Central Service — the guy with the van already has my address, presumably, unless he just drove around knocking on everyone’s doors, and as the recipient is the one being billed, presumably all they need is his account number for all those details to pop into the appropriate fields.

And then don’t get me started on the whole “give-me-your-details-over-the-phone-and-can-you-spell-your-name-again-is-it-German-no-it’s-not-it’s-English-like-Shakespeare” (not that I have anything against German names) thing. Why can’t we do this any better?

Off the top of my head, type “Fedex” or “UPS” into Skype and you’re instantly connected to customer service where you can type your details in so they won’t be misheard, and you don’t have to sit on the line listening to “Rhinestone Cowboy” on a loop (actually it was worse; I think it was “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro).

I’d be up for a USB dongle that the guy carries, and the customer slips into their computer (who doesn’t have one sitting around these days?) and a little courier program pops up so the user can fill in the details from their laptop or desktop. He just plugs it into his handheld device and the data zips across and self-checks. Courier guys could carry round free branded ones and hand them out as promotional items and so customers can fill out the fields in advance.

Or if that’s too complicated, going to the website and opening up a chat box with a customer representative. (I’ve just checked Fedex’s customer support page and it involves filling out 14 different fields. And don’t try to sidestep any:

image

Yeah, I’m going to fill all those in.

Maybe these courier firms are smarter in other parts of the world, but I didn’t come away feeling impressed. I’m sure their package tracking systems are second to none — i.e. once the atoms are in the system. But it seems that the burden is still being passed to the customer, when it could be so much less painful for both parties if it was electronic.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,