Archive for April 18th, 2013

Dealing with telemarketers

This afternoon, 2UE’s Jason Morrison was discussing the federal government’s Do Not Call register and ways of dealing with telemarketers and other nuisance callers who do not abide by the Do Not Call list. It prompted me to send him this email about my way of dealing with such calls on the home landline.

Hi Jason,

The Do Not Call register didn’t really help at my place as most of the telemarketers we get call from overseas and are not subject to Australian laws.

What did work was setting the answering service to answer after one ring, with various different messages. For a while callers were greeted to the Norwegian version of the Postman Pat theme song, and after that for a few weeks it was a recording of a talkback caller demonstrating their operatic “skills”. Needless to say, telemarketers don’t sit through that, but legitimate callers do…usually.

Regards,
Samuel Gordon-Stewart
Canberra

I still have the operatic greeting on hand. It was an edited version of a call to the Mark Levin Show, and came at a time when the “I’m from Microsoft and need to fix your computer” calls were coming thick and fast. My theory was that if the opera blasting down the phone line didn’t scare them off, the ranting which followed would. After a while I replaced this with a further cut-down version which was just the operatic bits.

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It seemed to do the trick!

Samuel

April 18th, 2013 at 07:24pm

What would the FBI computer say?

I’m in the middle of planning a trip (OK, closer to the start than the middle) to the US at the moment, and it occurs to me that my profile, plus my writings from earlier today, could just mean that a computer somewhere in the FBI or the CIA wants an agent to dig a little deeper.

From the perspective of a computer which has been programmed to look out for key words and phrases, this extract from my blog post about the postal system earlier today might seem a tad suspicious.

I would [..] embed some [..] devices in items I post

Yes, the statement was about tracking devices, and one would hope that an FBI agent would see that and dismiss the computer’s concerns, but I still think the computer would be worried about talk of posting devices and embedding things. The blog post also mentioned ricin, a poisonous substance which was mailed to the US President and a senator today, and so chatter about it would probably be high on the priority list for intelligence-gathering computers.

If I was putting together an automated system which looks out for suspicious activity of the terrorist kind, and was mainly basing it on key words and phrases, I would probably set it up so that after identifying something as potentially suspicious, it would then take another look over it for other, less immediately obvious, suspicious phrases which might indicate a plot or some sort of code. Looking back over that blog post, I listed my postal address in an unusual format:

a post office box at the Dickson post office (1272

And talked about the inside of government buildings:

They finally found it somewhere in the PO

and

parcels which are [..] stored in the post office’s back rooms

and

wandering back out to the back rooms

A drug inference could even be drawn from

Nattie did give the letter a good sniff

or possibly an explosives inference if the computer works out that Nattie is a dog.

Further examination of my blog brings up photos of phone towers, electricity substations, and a map of a powerline which feeds a government building.

Yes, an FBI computer would have good reason to think I’m suspicious. And a profiler might be concerned when they learn that my trip to the US is so that I can visit people, most of whom are conservatives (Terrorism center at West Point warns against danger of American limited-government activists and ‘far right’ – The Blaze, January 18), many are Christian, of which some are Catholic (Army training manual labeled Evangelicals and Catholics as religious extremists – Todd Starnes, Fox News Radio, April 5), and I intend on visiting many places in rapid succession, including some important building in Washington D.C. I have also made my disdain for President Obama clear on many occasions (although I think I’ve made it clear, and if I haven’t then I will now, that I do not want him to come to any harm…instead I wanted him to be voted out, and now want him to finish his term and be remembered for being a President with policies which ultimately failed and sparked a need for a serious return to conservative governing principles).

Obviously, this doesn’t add up to anything suspicious, but I can see how, at a time when security services are on edge, the combination of my profile and writings could be enough to make a computer suspicious, and perhaps make security services want to take a closer look at me. Dare I say it, I won’t be surprised if I get pulled aside at Customs in the US next year for a little chat…in fact, I’ll be a little disappointed if it doesn’t happen.

All of this reminds me of a story from the start of this year about the FBI scanning emails for certain words and phrases which apparently are common in messages about fraudulent activity. The words and phrases were “gray area”, “coverup”, “nobody will find out”, “do not volunteer information”, “write‑off”, “failed investment”, “off the books”, “they owe it to me”, “not ethical”, and “illegal”.

Glenn Beck had some fun with this on his radio show and jokingly suggested that they (Glenn or one of his co-hosts) should send an email containing all of those words just to confuse an FBI computer. Sure enough, co-host Pat Gray sent the message, and went to some lengths to make some of the phrases fit.

Dear Ahmed,
I’m sitting here gazing up at a cloudy grey area of the sky wondering how to cover up this blemish that I have on my nose. As a dermatologist, I thought you might have an idea of what I could use so nobody will find out that I’ve broken out again like a teenager. If you do not volunteer the information, I’ll probably have to see a specialist.

Up until yesterday, I’ve been using Clearasil on it but I realized that I can write off that failed investment of $4.99 because it didn’t work.

I wasn’t able to use the cream you prescribed for me last week because I put the jar on top of some books at my parents’ house and wouldn’t you know it, I bumped into the table that those books were sitting on and a jar fell off the books and onto the floor and broke.

My parents said that since I loaned them $20 last month, they would be happy to pay for a new prescription because they owe it to me. But I told them I wasn’t sure if it was not ethical to provide the medication again so soon.

Anyway, if you can call me on that, please call in the Walgreens at Fourth and Main as I have found that to get the one on 29th and Main, you have to make an illegal U‑turn at the light, and I don’t want to do that.

Thanks again. Whatever you can do, Dr. Ahmed.

I found it much more amusing when I heard it go to air. The video of it is embedded in the page of the above link, but it’s not working for me. Thankfully I have my own recording of it.

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(Audio credit: Glenn Beck, Mercury Radio Arts, Premiere Radio Network)

Samuel

April 18th, 2013 at 01:38pm

The mysteries of the postal system

If there is one thing that intrigues me and fills me with an obsession to “check in on the current status”, it is the postal system, or to be more precise, figuring out how things get from point A to point B within the postal system. Consequently, I like using the tracking services of the various postal agencies, and have discovered some interesting quirks.

One thing which has me bewildered is the inconsistency in tracking between Australia Post and the United States Postal Service. An Australia post representative told me once, when I asked about their tracking service, that it is not meant for real-time tracking, and that not every scan of an item is registered in the tracking system (a “scan” being when the barcode of an item is scanned as it passes through a sorting facility, or is given to a delivery driver, or enters a post office, for example). This is very strange seeing as Australia Post charge more for most of their tracking services, and leads me to the question, is it really a tracking service if it can’t be used for real-time tracking?

An interesting difference can be spotted if you send something from Australia to the United States. Depending on the service you buy from Australia Post, tracking of the item will vary from non-existent to comprehensive up until it leaves Australia, at which point it enters the “not every scan is entered in to the system” phase. Oddly though, any item with a barcode will be tracked in detail by USPS right from the moment it enters the postal system at the Australian end.

Clearly the USPS system is automated and takes pretty much every detail in their system and makes it available for public tracking, whereas Australia Post’s system either requires manual entry, is overly-selective about which details are made publicly available, or a combination of both.

The whole system is very strange, but one thing experience has taught me is that there is no point in paying extra for tracking of items being sent to the US, as USPS will happily provide all of the tracking data free of charge via their website and mobile app.

Of course, one of the reasons I like tracking services is a life-long curiosity about how items travel through the postal system. We’ve all heard letters about the “dead letter office” and items being delivered fifty years late, and I’ve always been curious about how things get through the system. I recall once when Nattie was a much younger dog, I sent her a letter from the post box across the road so that it would travel through the postal system and hopefully pick up the scents of various parts of Canberra, and she would get to smell them on the letter when it arrived. It seemed to work as Nattie did give the letter a good sniff when it arrived.

In the last week, I have seen some very interesting and odd detours taken by items which I have sent to people.

A parcel which I sent to Sydney got lost for about a week after the recipient had been advised it was available for pickup from the local post office. The recipient described it to me thus:

What had happened was that they left a card in the box saying there was a parcel at the post office and I hadn’t been expecting one. I went and they couldn’t find it. So I returned the next day and they still couldn’t find it and said they would phone the delivery driver.

Went the next morning before the PO opened and got the people who do the sorting and they couldn’t find it. ……. I got it the following Wednesday. They finally found it somewhere in the PO.

I have a post office box at the Dickson post office (1272 if you want to send me something…no ricin though, I can do without a bunch of people in hazmat suits buzzing around me with detectors and hoses) and often receive parcels which are just a bit too big to fit in the box and are instead stored in the post office’s back rooms. When I hand over the parcel notification card at the counter, it often takes a little while for the post office person to return with my parcel. On a few occasions, they have come back to me to ask again for my PO Box number…this usually results in them muttering “that’s what I thought you said…hmmmmm” and wandering back out to the back rooms with a confused and frustrated look on their face. I don’t know what the sorting procedures are like in there, but they seem a tad chaotic. I do have to give credit to the senior staff member who works there now and used to work at the Civic GPO…I don’t know whether he is the boss or not, but things have certainly improved since he arrived.

Another interesting detour was taken by a parcel I sent to New Jersey last week. It arrived this week, but the route was perplexing.

3 April: Posted from Dickson, ACT
8 April: Processed through International Sort Centre, New York NY
11 April: Processed through sort facility, Bethpage NY
12 April: Processed through sort facility, Federal Way WA (it stayed here overnight and left at some time on the 13th)
14 April: Processed through sort facility, Kearny NJ
15 April: Arrival, Monmouth Junction NJ

For the benefit of those of you not familiar with United States state abbreviations and geography, Washington state (WA) is located on the north-western coast, on the other side of the country from New York and New Jersey which are located next to each other on the east coast. Mapping the journey from the time it entered the US really highlights how absurd the trip was.

US leg of the parcel's trip
Google Maps has labelled the various points of the trip A through E, starting at New York NY and ending at Monmouth Junction NJ. As you can see, Federal Way WA is nowhere near any of the other locations. If the parcel had entered via the international sorting centre in Los Angeles, then it might have made sense to go via Washington state, but I can’t see much logic here, especially once I zoom in on the New York/New Jersey area.

New York/New Jersey legs of the parcel's trip
I should not that I have not plotted exact locations for any of the sorting facilities, so the spots on the map may be slightly out, but still, a trip from A to B to D to E without C would make much more sense. I wonder if someone at the Bethpage facility accidentally put the parcel in the wrong pile? Regardless of how it happened, it’s an expensive mistake for the postal service to make, and at a time when USPS is having fairly serious financial problems, it makes me wonder how much of their financial woes are due to inefficiencies like this.

Going back to my original fascination with how things make their way through the postal system, I would love to embed some tracking devices in items I post, and watch where they go. One day I might just do that. It would be fascinating

Samuel

April 18th, 2013 at 09:04am


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