Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haiti and SMS

I didn't realize blogging on a regular basis would be such a challenge!  At the time I started this note, some reports said over $8 million had been raised for Haiti from text messaging the string "HAITI" to 90999.  Think about that, at $10 per text message, that's more than 800 thousand text messages.  No doubt the numbers are much higher now.  This has been done before, as similar mechanisms were in place for the Tsunami and Katrina.  What a great way to help out...  just think how much money would be raised if everyone with a cell phone jumped in... there are over 270,000,000 cell phone users in the United States alone, that's a lot of money!

The mechanism used to raise the money, SMS (Short Message Service), is at minimal cost to the providers, who send the SMS data on a control channel.  This is a nice profit margin for them, some of whom are charging 15 cents for each send and receipt.  The control channel is in place to track which tower your cellphone is connected to, so your phone can change cells as you move around... messages are traveling on the control channel at periodic intervals even when your phone is not in use, as this packet exchange lets both the tower and the phone obtain the service status.  Since the control channel is also used to set up a phone call, care is taken to make sure SMS messages don't overwhelm the channel.  SMS messages may be delayed or throttled to make sure voice calls go through...

The SMS message itself contains up to 140 bytes (1120 bits) of data - this takes care of the 160 characters allowed in your text message.  Confused?  SMS uses 7-bit characters, instead of 8-bit, which leaves 128 possible character values instead of the normal 256. So 1120bits/7bits = 160 characters.  There is a bit of processing to convert the 7-bit data into 8-bit (octets), here's an example showing how the message "hellohello" is converted... as you can see there's a lot going on when an SMS is sent!  I'll spare you the details on the message encoding and other header data necessary to make sure the message gets to it's designated receiver.

Tip : The research I did across the net was made a lot easier with iCyte.com's research tool.  It's a great way to do research and installs as an add-on to Firefox or Internet Explorer.  Create a free account and start a project.  If you come across a page you want to keep for reference, just add it to your project with a simple click. It's more powerful than organizing bookmarks.  iCyte enables you to highlight and save text on any webpage, allowing you to recall the most relevant information. You can save sections of webpages or the whole thing.  Webpages you "Cyte" are saved forever on the server, letting you return to your research even if the webpage has been deleted or modified.  The sites I used included howstuffworks.com - a valuable site to learn the details on just about anything.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

RSS, Feed Readers, and why dial 411?

This month my daughter incurred over $7 worth of charges from calls to 411 on our latest cell phone bill... frustrated, I told her to "just text me and I'll look up the number for you"... her friend, listening in on the conversation, says "just text GOOGLE" (466453)... she quickly demonstrated by sending a text to GOOGLE, with the contents of "Cold Stone Creamery"... boom, within seconds, the nearest Coldstone Creamery location and phone number was texted back!  You can also get weather information, stock quotes, and more... check out more texting tricks at google.com/sms.

Ok, so ever get annoyed by all those quizzes and game invitations on your Facebook News Feed?  Did you know there's a way to avoid visiting the Facebook site but still get all of your friends updates?   Here's how to avoid it but still see what's going on with your friends:  RSS.  Really Simple Syndication.  Blogs, news services, audio, video, etc. are all fed by syndicated "feeds" to whoever wants to subscribe to them.  With a feed reader, you can monitor all sorts of information in one location.  A favorite feed reader of mine is Google Reader.  To follow Facebook with Google Reader, you need to subscribe to the feeds you want, i.e posts, notes, and status updates :


To subscribe to your friends posts, go to http://www.facebook.com/posted.php. On the upper right in the shaded box is a link titled "My Friends' Links" with the RSS logo next to it. Copy that link address/URL (right-click on it and copy the link address) and then subscribe to that URL in your feed reader.  In Google Reader, you would "Add a subscription", and paste the URL you just copied.  You can get the Notes feed by going to http://www.facebook.com/notes.php and repeating the same steps.  For the status updates feed, it's a little trickier as the Facebook powers that be don't advertise the feed... but it's there, just take one of the URLs you copied above and edit it... change the text in the URL that says "friends_notes" to "friends_status."   I edited the text in the browser location dialogue at the top of Google Reader... make sure you keep everything else that came before and after that text the same... after the feed loads, subscribe to it...

Ok, so it's a bit cumbersome to set up and it's not the true Facebook experience, but you may find it less noisy as you wade through all the updates...and with a mobile phone it's ideal... Google Reader is a great iPhone app.  Now you know how to avoid the Facebook noise and we learned a bit about RSS feeds in the process...  while you're at it, add YoungStop.com to your feed reader!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Web 2.0 ? Look no further than mint.com

One of the reasons I started blogging was to learn more about Web 2.0 concepts and the services that advertise themselves as such... one such site that is leading the way to the next generation of the Internet is mint.com.

"The best FREE way to manage your money" is how mint.com advertises itself... and I have to agree. Who doesn't like free?! I've used many financial software packages over the years, going all the way back to Andrew Tobias' Managing Your Money on an IBM/XT clone running DOS. There was Microsoft's Money, and Intuit's Quicken, which remains the standard (not for long?) when it comes to managing your finances. If you do any sort of online banking and budgeting, you owe it to yourself to take a look at mint.com.

Mint removes the pain of setup, requiring just the account information for your banks, credit cards, loans, and investment accounts. That is the extent of the data entry required to get up and running. Immediately, Mint pulls in your balances, purchases, stock trades, etc. to give you a complete picture of your finances. All account data is kept up to date automatically.

Worried about Security? Mint provides bank level security to your data. Mint is read-only. You can't move money around with Mint. Mint actually increases your financial security by providing alerts on possible fraudulent activity. Check out this video on Mint's approach to security.

So where's the service you ask? Mint has intelligence with algorithms that analyze your spending habits.  Mint downloads and categorizes transactions daily. When Mint adds new features you don't have to do anything, the features will be there when you log into the site. No software to install or download, it's ready and waiting for you.

Mint's user interface is second to none. It's clean, edgy, responsive, and easy to navigate. Mint is ahead of the curve with it's mobile support and iPhone app. You have access to your financial status from anywhere at any time... there are plenty of reviews online you can read, so I'll sum it up by stating no other service can give you this level of detail about your complete financial picture this easily.  Did I mention it's FREE?

Web 2.0 - If Mint is any indication of the services we can expect, we will enjoy the ride.