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December 11, 2008

'Own it on DVD'


Stupidest thing I've ever heard.

Why the heck would I want to own anything on DVD — I just want to watch the movie, for crying out loud.

I've been baffled ever since this supposed good thing, DVD ownership, has become a wonderful experience to be sought.

CDs are one thing, what with listening to great albums over and over again, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of movies I've ever seen more than once.

Just plain dumb.

Speaking of which, books are the same deal to me: read 'em and give 'em away.

Who needs a library?

You want to read one again, do the circling-the-drain publishing industry a favor and buy another copy.

December 11, 2008 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

How much extra would you pay for a customer service agent who speaks 'American?'


Long story short: computer maker Dell thinks you'd be willing to pony up $12.95 a month/$99 a year extra when you buy a new computer to be guaranteed phone support by someone located in the U.S.


Here's Peter Whoriskey's front page article from today's Washington Post Business section with the details.

    The Bangalore Backlash: Call Centers Return to U.S.

    Some Firms See Value in Familiar Voices

    If you prefer a customer service agent who speaks "American," then computer maker Dell has a deal for you.

    Catering to consumers put off by the accents of Bangalore, Manila and other call-center hubs around the globe, Dell will guarantee — for a price — that the person who picks up the phone on a support call will be, as company ads mention in bold text, "based in North America."

    The Your Tech Team service, with agents in the United States, costs $12.95 a month for customers with a Dell account, or $99 a year for people who buy a new computer. It also promises that wait times will average two minutes or less. Without the upgrade, a customer is likely to get technical help from someone in India, the Philippines or the other places where Dell has operators.

    By charging customers extra for a North American voice, Dell's program represents a novel strategy for easing the strains of globalization while maintaining profit, industry officials said.

    Occasionally, "we've heard from customers that it's hard to understand a particular accent and that they couldn't understand the instructions they were getting," said Dell spokesman Bob Kaufman. "This illustrates Dell's commitment to customer choice."

    Complaints about customer service agents based in other countries are an everyday phenomenon across several industries. For many U.S. consumers, the diverse accents that come across customer service lines constitute one of the most pervasive reminders of globalization and the offshoring of jobs. That can make personnel in the call center targets for American anger.

    Companies can save 50 to 75 percent on their call centers by putting them overseas, according to industry analysts.

    But getting a customer service agent with whom it is easy to communicate ought to be a service that is provided gratis, some industry analysts said.

    "Most people in the customer service world believe that if you have sold me a product, then support for that product should be free," said Lyn Kramer, managing director of Kramer and Associates, a call-center consultancy.

    Jitterbug, a cellphone company that markets to older Americans, similarly boasts in ads that its operators are in the United States, but it does not charge extra to speak to them. The company's television spots advertise "U.S. based customer service" and show a headset draped in an American flag.

    "You'd be amazed how many customers ask, 'Where are you based?' " said David Inns, Jitterbug's chief executive. "The response we get when we say, 'We're in Auburn Hills, Michigan, ma'am,' well, they love it."

    Although airlines, banks and some retailers have overseas call centers, computer makers have been particularly apt to put call centers in foreign countries. According to an online survey conducted by CFI Group, more than a third of respondents who recently made a call for computer support reported that the person they reached was outside the United States.

    The customer satisfaction score for overseas PC call centers was 23 percent lower than for U.S. call centers, CFI Group reported.

    "The customers say, 'The agent just doesn't understand what I'm trying to do,' " Kramer said. "The customer explains his or her request three or four times, and then they get a rote answer back."

    Many companies, she said, have "escalation procedures" to use when callers struggle to communicate; eventually, many such calls are routed back to the United States.

    Though some have suggested that the friction between U.S. consumers and foreign operators arises from prejudice, some observers see it differently.

    "I hear people say all the time that people who complain about call centers in India are being racist or nativist — but it's not as simple as that," said Sharmila Rudrappa, a sociology professor at University of Texas at Austin and native of Bangalore, India. "If you need tech support, it already shows you're having a crazy time getting your Dell computer to work. And when things go haywire, you want assurance, you want familiarity, you want someone to hold your hand and say it's okay. What you don't want is to have to work at understanding the person on the other end of the line."

    Deepak Desai, chief executive of GlobalEnglish, a company that sells a program to improve the business-English skills of overseas workers, attributed at least some of the problem to the fact that call center industry has grown so fast in India that the companies have had trouble recruiting employees who have mastered the language.

    "There's a large chunk of people who can communicate in English somewhat, but if you put them on a call interacting with an angry American — that's hard," he said.

    Though the job puts them in contact with people halfway around the world who are often upset about something — a missed reservation, a technical problem, an accounting snafu — many in developing countries consider such a spot in a call center "a good job," Desai said. They try to learn American slang, to say "zee" instead of "zed," and they take on American-sounding nicknames such as Jimmy.

    "People in the developing countries are hungry for any material that will improve their skills," Desai said. "There's a real hunger to improve. It's not that we want these people to be speaking with an American accent. We want them to be intelligible."

    Enough Americans are frustrated by them, however, that companies such as Jitterbug have concluded that keeping their call centers in the United States is the best option.

    Inns said the company briefly considered putting call center overseas — he, too, had heard that costs could be radically cut.

    But he said those estimates leave out the cost of frustrating customers.

    "What's missing from those estimates is what the impact is on customer satisfaction and what is the impact on first-call resolution" — that is, resolving the issue in one try.

    "This is not a protectionist philosophy," he said. "At the end of the day, my data and experience say that Americans are better at providing customer service to Americans — that's all."

    Dell declined to release numbers on how many people had signed up for the Your Tech Team service, but Kaufman said officials have been pleased by the response.

    "That part of the business — the Your Tech Team — has grown, and we think that customers will continue to value it," Kaufman said.


I have a friend whose fuse is so short that if he gets someone with an accent — even after being on hold for a long time — he immediately hangs up and calls back, hoping for a native English speaker.

I was a bit confused by an apparent contradiction in Whoriskey's article above, to wit: in the second sentence he writes, "... Dell will guarantee... that the person who picks up the phone on a support call will be... 'based in North America'" — yet the very next sentence reads, "... with agents located in the United States."

Excuse me, but aren't Canada — and Mexico — part of North America?

Last time I looked at a map they were.

Maybe I'll email Whoriskey for a clarification.

It's not like I have anything else to do.


This just in (3:53 p.m. today) via email from Peter Whoriskey: "The guarantee says North America. Dell told me they don't have call centers for the service in Canada and Mexico."


My confusion is resolved.

At least, about this.

Much else remains baffling but that's a subject for another post.

December 11, 2008 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: The Deadly Dozen — Top 12 diseases likely to explode as a result of climate change


• Bird flu

• Babesiosis

• Cholera

• Ebola

• Parasites

• Lyme disease

• Plague

• Red tides

• Rift Valley fever

• Sleeping sickness

• Tuberculosis

• Yellow fever

David Biello's article in the December 2008 Scientific American explored the findings of an October 2008 report by the Wildlife Conservation Society on likely future patterns of infectious diseases around the globe.

December 11, 2008 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

GettaGrip Musclephone


"Forty seconds' vigorous squeezing of the GettaGrip Musclephone gives a full recharge of the lithium-ion battery. That's 20 seconds per hand. No more scrabbling around for a recharger. No more rationing calls because the battery is getting low. And all the while developing a grip like a gorilla."

[via James Ferguson's "Pat Pending" feature in the December 12, 2008 Financial Times "How To Spend It" magazine]

December 11, 2008 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Why palm scanning is the new fingerprinting


It's quite simple, actually: you don't have to touch anything.

I can say from experience that every time I put my right index finger on the little glass window of my hospital's Pyxis machine to check out drugs for a case, I wonder just what's on that little window after scores of people have done the very same thing earlier that day.

Yo, joe — you're supposed to clean the window off with a little sterile wipe before you put your finger on it.

Yeah, right — maybe you'll help me find those wipes, which disappear early in the morning and never get restocked.


Kim Thomas's November 25,2008 Financial Times article has the details, and follows.

    Identity revealed in the palm of one hand

    Most of us are familiar with the need to prove our identity, whether to access a computer network, liaise with our bank or get into a place of work. But the most common proofs, such as passwords or smartcards, are susceptible to error or fraud. Now some organisations are looking at biometrics systems, which identify individuals by a unique physical trait, such as fingerprints.

    Take the hospitals run by Carolinas HealthCare System, a US healthcare provider, which attends to thousands of patients a year. As in most hospitals, it needs to identify accurately and easily all the patients who come through its doors. If a patient named Steve Jones is admitted, the hospital needs to be sure that the doctors see the electronic medical record for the right Steve Jones, and not one of the potentially many other Steve Joneses on a system that holds 2m patient records.

    "As with any healthcare institution in the world, we struggled with identifying patients at the point at which they arrived at our facility...Even for someone with a fairly uncommon name, we would have a whole list of possible candidates on our database," says Jim Burke, director of information services at Carolinas HealthCare.

    Until two years ago the hospitals checked the patient's address and asked to see a form of identity, such as a driving licence, but there was still a 1 per cent error rate whereby about 10 patients a day were misidentified. Carolinas HealthCare addressed the problem by introducing a technology from Fujitsu that had only been used in cashpoint machines in Japan: palm-scanning.

    This is one of the most promising of a number of new technologies that can identify people through a biometric indicator. Many of us know about fingerprints and iris recognition, but fingerprinting is not totally reliable and iris recognition can feel intrusive.

    The technology works by using near-infrared light to take an image of the unique vein patterns in someone's outstretched palm - similar technologies can also be used with the back of the hand or a fingertip. The technology stores the image as a biometric number. The next time the patient is admitted to hospital, their hand is scanned and matched to the biometric identifier, which is connected to the patient's electronic record.

    The system has several advantages over other biometric technologies the organisation considered, says Mr Burke. Tests of fingerprint, thumbprint and handprint technologies found they all required the patient to touch the device, which meant cleaning it with an anti-microbial or alcohol-based agent in between each use. Palm scanning is different: "The patient never actually touches the device - they hold their hand about 50mm above it," says Mr Burke. In addition, in tests the palm scanners "had the best accuracy of any device we had ever tested". With 250,000 people enrolled on the system, there has not yet been a single case of misidentification. Also, registration time has been halved.

    Ant Allan, a research vice-president at Gartner, the IT analyst, believes palm-scanning has great potential, not just because of its accuracy but because it is not dependent on having the right environmental conditions, such as being clean and dry, which can be the case with fingerprint readers. The downside, he says, is the price: palm scanners cost hundreds of dollars, while fingerprint readers can sell for under $100. This makes palm scanners more suitable for use by large numbers of people.

    Biometrics are also increasingly used to prevent deliberate misidentification for fraud.

    The construction industry's time-and- attendance system is susceptible to such fraud, says Simon Fance, project officer at the UK Biometrics Institute: "With the old clock card-based system, somebody can take a piece of paper off you and clock you in, even though you are not around." Now some construction companies have switched to fingerprints. The US Graduate Management Admission Council uses fingerprinting to stop stand-ins taking its tests on behalf of others, says Mr Fance, adding that GMAC is planning to introduce palm scanners.

    Nigel Jones, director of Cyber Security Knowledge Transfer Network, set up by the UK government to promote research, says the full potential of such technologies has not yet been recognised. He says too many people have become "bogged down" in the association between fingerprinting and crime. "It has distracted us from looking at the research that is going on in biometrics - the idea that you can identify individuals across many technologies is both interesting and ignored."

    A new report by Cyber Security KTN on the gap between research in UK universities and application of the technology reveals that research is under way into a wide range of biometric technologies, including gait and footstep recognition and even otoacoustic emission - noises emitted by the human ear in response to audio stimulation.

    Other technologies are already commercially available, if not yet widely used. Mr Allan points to face-recognition software from Sensible Vision, used for logging into a computer network: the user simply sits in front of a camera attached to their PC. "You can set up the system so it can continue to check the identity of the person in front of the screen, and if they move away from the screen, it can log them out," he says.

    Carolinas HealthCare believes biometric technology has put it ahead in patient safety. The organisation now plans to use the scanners to identify unconscious patients brought into A&E, who are normally treated in most hospitals as new patients.

December 11, 2008 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

World's smallest flash drive — 'washer and dryer safe!'


Can your flash drive do that?


Didn't think so.

8GB, USB 2.0.



December 11, 2008 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Google NewsWorldMap — 'Addictive'*


"A Worldmap full of news" shows where news is breaking out all over the globe in real time.

*So wrote Virginia Heffernan in her "The Medium" column in last Sunday's New York Times magazine.

December 11, 2008 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Cat Butt Meowing Pencil Sharpener


From Lilorfnannie of my crack research team (eewww...) comes the video above to remove any doubt you may have about just how weird this item is.

From websites:

Cat Butt Meowing Pencil Sharpener


It kind of freaks us out that it "meows."

This is a bold statement, but I think we can go so far as to say that this is the silliest and doubtless the most tasteless piece of desk paraphernalia that we have ever encountered here.

Two attributes, of course, that make showing it to you an absolute necessity.


There are no words that readily spring to mind to soften the blow.


It’s a cat, you stick your pencil in its derrière, it meows, and it sharpens your pencil.

Your feline friend stands in his own litter tray which catches your pencil shavings.

Of course, not many people use pencils much these days, but this is perhaps the best reason there has ever been for going out and buying one right now.

A "meowing" sound chip is activated as you sharpen.

The cat is made of plastic.


Suitable for ages 16 years+.

Size: 15 x 12 x 4 cm (6" x 4.7" x 1.6").

No animals were harmed in the making of this product.

Don’t try sharpening your pencil in a real cat if you value your life.

Or even if you don’t, come to think of it.

A necessity for that boring office cubicle.


Sure to get a few laughs and a few looks of disgust.

The most unusual pencil sharpener


you will find on anyone's desk.


White: $16.95.

Black: $19.95.

December 11, 2008 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

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