E-tales: They do have a sense of irony

Computerworld reporter rings Telecom wanting to speak to one of the managers. Reporter is told they are all at a strategic meeting. Reporter is given cellphone number to contact one of the managers, but is told they often go somewhere where there is no coverage.

Computerworld reporter rings Telecom wanting to speak to one of the managers. Reporter is told they are all at a strategic meeting. Reporter is given cellphone number to contact one of the managers, but is told they often go somewhere where there is no coverage.

Call of the wild

A reader encountered a few problems trying to diligently update his Norton AntiVirus program. The 0800 number in the Symantec manual took him through to Sydney, where the call centre woman took his details until it came to his credit card.

"We don't accept New Zealand Diners Club," she twanged. Our fellow responded that surely Diners is a global card and tried -- unsuccessfully -- to escalate his problem to the centre manager. "Can you borrow a card?" the call centre woman asked. No, he couldn't or wouldn't. He would have to send a bank cheque, she said. He did so, being charged $15 for the pleasure, but was told on its receipt that the cheque was drawn on an Australian bank and could he send one of his own cheques. This seems to have done the trick, oddly.

Of islands and trees

One of internet pioneer Vint Cerf's widely profferred views was that the internet, aided by search engine quirks, could broaden the mind through "serendipity" (see Cerf's up(beat) on net future).

Another useful technique for happy discovery is URL truncation. Leaping through a search engine to a multi-slashed URL for a specific subject, it's often useful, after reading the page, to delete the last term or two of the address. Having read up on the technical nitty-gritty of a device, we noticed that the URL had as its penultimate term the name of one of the workers shown proudly standing next to it in an illustration.

What other areas might this person be working on? Truncating back to the name, we were pitched abruptly into pictures of the wedding of a friend of hers. Nice to be reminded occasionally that contacts and technical nose-to-grindstone types have private lives.

Often of course a truncated URL simply gets you a 404 error (page not found) or a 403 (access forbidden). Occasionally too, we end up with a vision of the site's raw scaffolding, in the shape of an unprotected tree of folders and files. In some nefarious circles devoted to hacking computer systems or getting free access to information you should pay for, this is greeted with glee and called a backdoor. For the rest of us, it's just a setback in our respect for website developers.

Easy as QWE

Tom, a spammer based in Hong Kong, claims to represent a company responsible for "the next evolution of fashion keyboard"; an outfit imaginatively called Hunt & Peck, after the proverbial hesitant novice style of typing.

We all know the QWERTY layout, "which is, as everyone can see, so random", Tom says. Some of us will have seen, or even tried to operate, the Dvorak keyboard, where the letters in the top row run: PYFGCRL -- scarcely less random, but according to its proponents more amenable to speed typing.

Hunt & Peck’s revolutionary layout runs:

ABCDEFGHIJ

KLMNOPQRS

TUVWXYZ

"The core competence [sic] of this product are that it is the first of its type in the world," says Tom. "It is also protected in many countries by patent right. The name of our product is called The ‘Logical Keyboard’."

As Lewis Carroll’s White Knight would have pointed out, what the name is called could be different from what the keyboard is called, or what the name of the keyboard is.

Moreover, Tom is wrong. Some of the earliest typewriters had an alphabetical keyboard and it reached its electronic zenith in the late 70s and early 80s with the French Minitel home inquiry terminal, which pioneered mass-market videotex technology. Alphabetically keyboarded Minitels were handed free to each French household and paid for by the abolition of paper telephone directories.

In New Zealand’s then monopoly state-run telecomms environment, a body called the Communications Advisory Council considered for more than a year whether videotex would fit with New Zealand culture. One question was whether New Zealand videotex terminals, if allowed to exist at all, would adopt the QWERTY or the alphabetical layout.

How far away it all seems now with our internet-enabled population happily qwertying away, seemingly uncaring that, as Tom puts it, "the Roman alphabets are arranged in an alphabetical sequence. The objective of this arrangement is to make it logical."

As any lexicographer would tell you, the "Roman" alphabet came about through a series of historical accidents, and a wider sample of languages favours G in place of C, with V and Z among the first seven letters.

Sorry, Tom. Been there; didn’t do that.

Card games

Cambridge University researchers say they have figured a way of cracking bank ATM PIN numbers. Mike Bond and Piotr Zielinski have published a paper detailing how a complex mathematical attack can yield a PIN in an average of 15 guesses. The attack works by not going after pin numbers directly, but by gaining clues from the decimalisation tables used to translate between a card PIN and the hexadecimal value of a PIN generated when the hardware security module checks the validity of a number. Check it out.

Bush telegraph

Don't "misunderestimate" George Bush Jr. CNN.com reports that Dubya's mangled phrases top the lists of new words for 2002. Paul Payack, compiler of yourDictionary.com, says there are 11,000 instances of "misunderestimate" on the web, while other Bush-isms like "embetter" are also likely to become permanent additions to our speech. Misunderestimate means to seriously underestimate and embetter is to make emotionally better, the opposite of embitter. Non-Bushisms from last year included the accounting practice disease of "Enronitis"; the verb to Nasdaq (as in his fortune was "nasdaqued"), and "dot-communism", a belief that everything on the web should be free, or at least paid for by someone else.

Indian rubber rings

India is fundraising for the US Republican Party, reports the Business Standard. Rather than use American market researchers, the GOP will be using call centres in Noida and Gurgaon to raise funds over the telephone. Operator HCL refuses to comment, but industry sources. The Republican contract follows a US politician using HCL in a successful anti-abortion campaign. The Business Standard does not report how much US political knowledge the Indian staffers may have to learn, but E-tales recalls a US multinational using the sub-continent for its Australian operations, with Indian employees learning Australian place names, language, sports, and "culture", and being given Australian names.

Elephant chips

The Thai government is to spend over $1 million putting microchips in another 700 domesticated elephants in a bid to control their movement. Its agriculture ministry believes elephants roaming around large cities with their handlers is a problem and using microchips would help eradicate the poaching of wild elephants. Some 1700 domesticated elephants have been chipped so far. Meanwhile, the government says it plans to create jobs for the elephants and their handlers, such as patrolling national forests and training the animals to perform in shows, reports the Bangkok Post.

Nicked by pix

Those new mobile cameras phones have a serious use after all, reports Ananova.com. An Italian tobacconist snapped two men after he grew suspicious of them hanging around his shop. He sent their pictures to Rome police, who wanted the pair for a series of raids. The robbers were caught and jailed for six months, in what is believed to be the first criminal conviction using a picture text message.

Kids say darnest things

Manchester City Council is seeking UK government funding to install webcams in five schools in a bid to curb rowdy behaviour. The council says parents often refuse to accept that their kids can be so naughty and seeing their children misbehave could spur them to work with education officials to improve their child's behaviour. However, teaching unions fear the "Big Brother" plan may be used to monitor underperforming teachers and say the money would be better invested in special units for disruptive children, reports BBC Online.

Dead messages

US cartoonist Paul Kinsella has set up a website allowing people to send messages to the dead, reports Ananova.com. His recently launched www.afterlifetelegrams.com uses terminally ill people to pass on messages once the volunteers themselves have passed away. Kinsella charges $10 a word (minum five words) and says his messengers will memorise the message before dying so they can pass it on at the "other side". He admits: "Truthfully, nobody knows what happens when someone dies. Since we cannot guarantee the delivery of our telegrams, our clients only pay for the delivery attempt and not for the delivery itself."

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