Stupid Cell Phone Tricks

February 27, 2009

Even the most basic cell phone is a marvel of technology, when you stop to think about it. You can go basically anywhere in the United States and call anybody else in the country. It’s pretty impressive. Of course, we’ve demanded far more from our cell phones now that this technology has become commonplace, but you can actually squeeze a bit more power out of almost any phone with some of these tricks.

PC Magazine (which recently went to an all-digital format after years of being in print) has a list of cool tricks to use with your cell phone or to message other people’s cell phones.

The highlight of that article is the description of how to send SMS (Short Message Service) text messages to subscribers of almost all the major US cell carriers through e-mail. As regular readers to the blog know, I’m not a huge fan of SMS messaging, but sometimes social protocol requires you to use them. In this way, you can avoid the huge text messaging surcharge, especially if your phone has a built-in data plan. The only problem with this plan is you have to know what carrier the other person has, or you could just send a message to each one and have the incorrect addresses bounce back. Be careful that you don’t do this too often or you might look like a spammer.

Lifehacker also has a great tip in a list of 10 potentially useful tips that will actually work for landlines as well. At the start of your voicemail you can use the US Special Information Tone, (that’s the one you hear before the operator says “Sorry, but your call cannot be completed as dialed…”) this will cause telemarketers to hang up and not call you back again since this signals a “vacant circuit” to an automated dialer. You should be careful with this trick because regular people are used to getting that tone when they get the wrong number, so they may never leave you a message…but you probably didn’t want to hear from them anyway.

The last thing I’ll talk about is something a friend of mine has been trying to get me to use for a while and that is 1-800-GOOG-411. This is a free directory assistance tool that you can use from your any phone. The basic idea is that you can looking for the street address or phone number of a business. Google uses their voice-recognition software, which I understand is very good, and then connect you with the business when they find it for you. With your cell phone you can get a text message, or with a more advanced phone, they can send a map to you of the surrounding area. I still haven’t had a real-world need to try this yet, but my test searches have worked pretty well.

Feel free to give any of these tips a try and let me know what you think in the comments.


Call Waiting and Privacy

February 23, 2009

The excellent publication Wired had a good article on a new service offered by a company called TelTech systems called TrapCall. The main function of the service is to circumvent the privacy block that can be used on the Caller ID service, so that people can’t see who is calling them.

The interesting thing is that this is a service that is probably not very well known and most commonly used by telemarketers to prevent you from knowing that you are about to get a sales pitch. There are two ways to use this privacy block, first you can dial *67 before the call and use the block only when you would like, or you can have your phone provider put a permanent privacy block on your line so that all calls will come up on Caller ID as private. (There’s actually a bunch of these “star codes” that still work. Check out this site for a bunch more to try, beaware that your phone company could charge you for some of them.)

The way this service works is that as you receive a call you can hit a button on your phone that will forward the call to a toll-free number. Since calls to toll-free numbers are always revealed to Caller ID regardless of the privacy settings, (because the receiver is paying for the call) TrapCall now has the information of who is calling you. They forward this information on to you, and now you know who is calling you and whether to pick up the phone or not.

I have not tried this service myself, but Wired says that it works pretty well. It seems to be a very clever use of technology, and they work on the “freemium” economic model, where the core service is free and you can pay to gain advanced relevant features that may be useful to you.From a technological standpoint, I think that it is a good product that could be successful.

I’m more concerned about the privacy implications. Wired describes the anger of domestic violence groups that are concerned that court-required phone interaction between abusive partners and victims could lead to information about their location being revealed.

My concerns are not nearly so serious, but it seems to me that a person ought to have the right to make a phone call without announcing who it is in advance. Of course, the person on the other end of the phone has the right not to answer the call. By taking away the rights of the parties involved, situations like the ones described by Wired can arise.

Thanks to my colleague Steve for pointing this story out to me.


The Rise and Fall of Gimmicky Retail

February 15, 2009

As I’m out looking for the best deals, I’m often intrigued by all of the gimmicks that are out there to entice shoppers to use their service.

What led me to develop this concept into an update for all of you is the new website Wujwuj, which I found out about here through the great blog TechCrunch. While the site is not operational yet, they work on a very interesting “Group Buy” system. The idea is that a retailer offers an item for sale and as more people agree to buy that item all of the members get a discount on it. It’s basically buying in bulk on a bigger scale.

The interesting development that this site plans to implement is a set of social networking tools that will allow you to tell your friends about what you want to Group Buy on things like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. The user’s goal is to get more people to buy the same item to drive the price lower. Obviously, the store gets greater revenue and more sales. It also allows them to have viral marketing work for them with very little effort on their side. The users are doing all the work.

It will be interesting to see if this will catch on or if it will close down like the ill-fated Jellyfish.com. Jellyfish.com worked on a reverse auction system. Their would be a series of “shows” in a variety of product areas, like video games, clothing or sporting goods. They would start the item at its retail price, and the price would slowly come down overtime. Eventually, people lock in their price, and when the item has sold the allotted amount, the next item would come. This was an interesting concept, but I found the prices were never low enough for me to justify a purchase. I would also be worried about missing the best price by jumping the gun and buying the item too soon.

The last item I’ll mention are the copious “Deal of the Day” sites. These sites, Woot.com is probably the most famous offer one item at a time, usually in daily intervals, but not always. However, it can be difficult to track the large numbers of these sites. One good tool that I use for doing just that is DODTracker. (I actually prefer this link that gives you all of the items on a long list.) You can simply scroll down and see what site is offering what items that day. I find that there are some good deals, but there is also a lot of junk that most people would not be interested in. (I’m looking at you USB Foot Warmer)

It will be interesting to see if sites like these manage to flourish in this tough economy or whether they will go extinct like the Jellyfish.


The World of Digital Comic Books

February 9, 2009

I was able to go to New York Comic Con this past weekend. While I’m not a huge reader of comic books, a number of people in my life are, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to find out more about the hobby and industry.

First off, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Peter Rios and Bryan Deemer of the Comic Geek Speak podcast for offering me a great amount of insight into the state of the industry and interesting things going on there.

I was also able to speak with Chuck Moore who handles marketing for a new venture called Comics XP. I had heard several people mention this new innovation to me while at the convention, and while the site is still not fully implemented yet, they are have a very intriguing business plan.

The idea behind Comics XP is to serve as a warehouse for independent comic book creators for digital content. Initially, I believed that this was a totally new way of doing business in the industry. Marvel has been doing something like this for a couple of years now and has an offering of over 5,000 of their comics on a subscription basis of $10 a month or $60 for a year.  DC, the other major comic book publisher, offers comparatively very little of their content digitally at this time, and it will be interesting to see how their methods work out for each of them.

Comics XP, though, would serve as both a social networking tool for comics and a store for content. They would also work on a a la carte basis. Comic book creators who aren’t in a position to transition their content to the digital realm, or those who just want to increase its visibility could both use the site. It serves as both a marketing tool and a revenue generator as Comics XP would share revenue with the content creator. Moore envisions it as the “iTunes of Comic Books.”

This is the sort of thing, in my opinion, that this industry needs. As the guys at Comic Geek Speak podcast pointed out to me, while there is a lot to be said about the feel of paper comics, the costs involved in producing them are going to be an increasingly large drain on the industry.  I will be watching this industry to see if it needs to and is able to develop a viable post-print business model.

To get back on point as far as the blog go, the costs of digital comics are drastically different from those of print and some of those savings will certainly be passed along to the consumer as the Marvel site and assurance from Comics XP tell me. As digital content in all areas grows more and more prominent, generating revenue off of this content will become more and more crucial if want more quality content to be generated. With these two pressures pushing the industry, only time will tell what the results will be.


New Ways to Put Stuff in Your Brain

February 3, 2009

At the risk of shaking the crotchety stick, I’ll point out that back when I was in school studying was a very different process. I won’t say whether it was more difficult or worse, but it was clearly different.

Today, there are a lot of interesting new tools to help you study in a variety of different areas. So whether you are still in school or just looking to pick up a couple of new skills. Here are a couple of sites that can help you increase your knowledge in a useful, systematic way.

The first is a site I heard about on ReadWriteWeb called Cramberry. This site, which is still in beta, serves a very simple purpose. They are an online note card tool. When you study vocabulary words or any number of discrete pieces of information, you might make physical note cards and write the question on one side and the answer on the back. This ‘eco-friendly’ way to study involves simply creating a new set of ‘cards,’ looking at the question, answering it and letting the computer know if you got the answer correct. The system will put the cards you got incorrect into the rotation more often, and you’ll continue to click through the note cards until you feel like you’ve mastered that particular area.

It’s a little disappointing that there isn’t a little more variety in cards. You can’t really color them or do very much creatively with them. Also, they do not seem to give you access to other people’s cards, which could save you some data entry. I’m hopeful that since this is still in Beta more features are forthcoming.

My next tip is to help your note taking. One of the techniques I like to use is called mind mapping. This where you take a main topic, circle it, and like a spider web build a map of relationships that thing has to other piece of information. Mindomo is a site that offers their users the ability to create their own mind maps. This site works on a free-mium basis, where the basic functions of the site are free, but some of the advanced functions require a monthly fee. This is a business model that I hope to see become more common. It’s great to have access to some good tools, and a good feel if this is something that you would use frequently before you hand over some of that hard-earned money. Plus, it lets developers get compensated for something they’ve worked hard on.

The interface of this site takes a little getting used to, but after an inital warm-up, it is a pretty intuitive site and you can really get some impressive mind maps going. I recommend giving it a try.

The last site I’ll recommend is for when you’ve completed that report and it is time to do that dreaded bibliography. The thing about the bibliography is not citing sources it is about getting the correct info in the arcane formats required. Plus, it can be difficult to find the rules for online formats like websites. At EasyBib, all you have to do is insert the information and they will export it in the MLA format for you. (The Chicago and APA formats require the Pro version.) The coolest thing about the site though, is if you insert the ISBN # of the book, it will automatically hunt down the info on it and format it. This is a process that can save you a lot of time.

So now that you know your stuff, can get it organized and can site it properly, no one can stop you from making the grade.