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kottke.org posts about telephony

Fauxliage - Disguised Cell Phone Towers

posted by Jason Kottke   May 14, 2021

disguised cell phone towers

disguised cell phone towers

disguised cell phone towers

For the past several years, Annette LeMay Burke has been traveling the American West in search of disguised cell phone towers, collected in a project she calls Fauxliage.

As disguised cell phone towers proliferate, I find it ironic that instead of providing camouflage, their disguises actually unmask their true identities. The towers have an array of creative concealments. They often impersonate trees such as evergreens, palms, and saguaros. Some pillars serve other uses such as flagpoles or iconographic church crosses. Generally the towers are just simulacra. They are water towers that hold no water, windmills that provide no power, and trees that provide no oxygen. Yet they all provide five bars of service.

The photos are also available in book form. (via the morning news)

How to Kick Your Phone Addiction Using Stop-Smoking Techniques

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 16, 2020

I don’t know if you’ve been listening lately, but yesterday’s episode of Kottke Ride Home was a particularly good one.

I was amused by the jetpack story (as well as Casey Niestat’s denial) and the idea that there’s a 50/50 chance we’re all living in a simulation is right up my alley. But I was most interested in the segment on how we can curtail our phone usage using proven techniques learned from people who have successfully quit smoking (aka the thing that people did with their hands when they had free moment before phones came along).

From the article by McKinley Valentine that Jackson highlighted:

I tried turning notifications off on every app. I just got anxious and opened the apps more often.

I tried deleting the apps that caused problems-social media, news, messages-from my phone. I ended up just accessing them in the browser.

I tried using apps like Stay Focused to block my access. I’d just disable them.

I tried just not checking my phone — the cold turkey method — and folks, it didn’t go great. All it did was add a layer of guilt to my bad habit and sour mood.

I thought: I have to get smarter about this. Who knows about addiction? What addiction has been studied in-depth, for decades, with an absolutely massive group of experiment subjects, to establish the best-practice methods? Cigarettes!

Valentine tried three main methods to kick her phone addiction habit: substitution, urge-surfing, and following the techniques in Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking. Carr’s advice was the most effective:

Carr notes that there is a huge disconnect between what we want and what we actually enjoy. They’re different neurological processes. That’s why you can desperately crave, for example, an entire blueberry cheesecake, but when you actually eat it, it’s only OK. Or why you often don’t feel like going out with your friends at all — it seems like kind of a hassle — but when you actually see them, you have an amazing time.

So Carr recommends working to really notice and internalise that disconnect. He tells smokers to pay attention to their next cigarette. It’s like mindfulness but for noticing the unpleasantness. How does it taste? Not, “how did you imagine it would taste when you were craving it,” but how does it actually taste? Does it smell nice? Do your hands smell nice? How do you feel — do you actually feel more relaxed, or do you feel worse?

Wow, “a huge disconnect between what we want and what we actually enjoy”…boy, have I observed that in my life many times. Gonna totally use this on some of my less constructive pandemic coping habits… (via kottke ride home)

1947 Film That Eerily Predicted How People Would Use Smartphones

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 30, 2020

This clip is from a 1947 French film about the imagined future of television called “Télévision œil de demain”. The film is based on a premise by science fiction author René Barjavel and directed by J.K. Raymond-Millet. It predicts not only handheld smartphone-like devices but also, with uncanny accuracy, the behavior that comes with them — like people walking around looking at screens, people on screens bumping into each other, oblivious screen users walking out in front of cars, etc. I mean, just look at this:

Smartphone 1947

Smartphone 1947

And a bit later in the clip, the film shows a car crash resulting from distracted driving.

See also some early smartphone predictions by Nikola Tesla (1926), W.K. Haselden (1919), and L. Frank Baum (1914):

When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.

And also from Mark Sullivan (1953):

In its final development, the telephone will be carried about by the individual, perhaps as we carry a watch today. It probably will require no dial or equivalent, and I think the users will be able to see each other, if they want, as they talk.

Pok√©mon Grandpa’s Incredible Phone Array

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 25, 2020

Chen San-yuan, a Taiwanese man who has been nicknamed Pokémon Grandpa, has affixed an array of 64 phones to his bike in order to play dozens of simultaneous games of Pokémon Go.

Pokemon Grandpa

When I first posted about Chen back in Nov 2018, his mere 15-phone setup looked like this:

Pokemon Grandpa

How much bigger can he go? He’s averaging adding ~2.5 phones per month to the array (assuming linear growth, which I’m not sure we can, but let’s start there) so he could reach 100 phones by August 2021. Stay tuned!

Cellphone Data Shows How Quickly Partying Spring Breakers Spread Across the Country

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 29, 2020

People on Spring Break in Florida for the past couple of weeks were famously unconcerned with social distancing measures implementing in other areas of the country to help stem the tide of COVID-19 infections and save lives. Using cellphone location data from just the phones of the people gathered on a single beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, this video shows just how far those people spread across the country when they went home, possibly taking SARS-CoV-2 with them. They go everywhere.

Show of hands: who feels uncomfortable being reminded of the extent to which 3rd party companies know the location of our cellphones? With tools like the one demonstrated in the video & other easily available info, it has to be trivial to identify individuals by name using even “randomized” data and so-called metadata. (via @stewartbrand)

Face ID Compatible Respirator Masks

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2020

Face ID Respirator Masks

This site is making N95 respirator masks that work with facial recognition software, so that, for example, you can unlock your phone while still wearing a mask.

After uploading your face, we use computational mapping to convert your facial features into an image printed onto the surface of N95 surgical masks without distortion.

Our printer uses inks made of natural dyes. It’s non-toxic and doesn’t affect breathability.

You can use your mask for everyday life as a barrier for airborne particle droplets.

Face ID Respirator Masks

Face ID Respirator Masks

It is unclear whether these will actually ship or not — “Q: Is this a joke? A: Yes. No. We’re not sure.” — but they’re definitely not planning to make them while there are mask shortages related to COVID-19. And it appears the masks will work with iPhones…you just add a new face (while wearing the mask) to your phone’s face database.

The Delightfully Nerdy Rotary Cellphone

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 13, 2020

Scientist Justine Haupt recently built herself a rotary cellphone as a “statement against a world of touchscreens, hyperconnectivity, and complacency with big brother watchdogs.” Look at this gloriously eccentric gadget:

Rotary Cellphone

So it’s not just a show-and-tell piece… My intent is to use it as my primary phone. It fits in a pocket.; It’s reasonably compact; calling the people I most often call is faster than with my old phone, and the battery lasts almost 24 hours.

Haupt has open sourced the technical design files so you can build your own rotary cell if you’d like. The files are currently unavailable though due to (I’m assuming) the interest in the project; this Wired piece says her website crashed. So check back in a couple days after the hubbub dies down?

Watch This Chimpanzee Swipe Effortlessly Through Instagram

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 16, 2019

I’m not so surprised that this chimpanzee can navigate Instagram — chimps are quite clever tool users — I’m more interested in what this says about social media and smartphones.

These things have such a grip on us because they appeal to our prehistoric primal urges, which are ancient and deep within our animal makeup. With our phones’ touchscreen gestures, we can directly manipulate objects as we would in the real world (more so than with a keyboard and mouse) — chimps and human toddlers can easily use the interface as they would any other tool. And social media satisfies requirements further down towards the base of the pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs than we would often like to believe, sometimes to the detriment of our esteem and self-actualization.

Snowbrawl

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2019

Snowbrawl is a fun short film of a children’s snowball fight shot as if it were a John Wick or Mission Impossible action sequence. David Leitch, the uncredited co-director of John Wick and director of Deadpool 2, shot the whole thing for Apple on an iPhone 11 Pro.

iPhone Case Is Also a Playable Game Boy

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2019

Game Boy iPhone case

Here’s a thing I just found out about: protective iPhone cases that are also playable Game Boy-style handheld gaming console. Here are a bunch of different ones on Amazon for different phones in a variety of colors that come preloaded with games.

Buyer beware on these though — the reviews are just ok, many of them likely don’t come with actual NES or Game Boy games, and who knows if they’ll actually protect your phone? The CaseBoy claims to come preloaded with games like Super Mario Bros, Donkey Kong, Tetris, Galaga, Contra, and the like, but it seems unlikely that Nintendo (or anyone else) licensed these games to them. The Verge panned one of the cases in this review (so did MacWorld).

I scrolled to “E” to find the Frogger knock-off, in which I maneuvered a single block through rows of moving bricks. The letter “D” let me play a Galaga clone, although I had to imagine the missiles since they didn’t show up on screen. Games I-Z are all variants on Tetris, ranging from the standard tile-matching puzzler to one that made the stack of blocks move to the right every few seconds.

As for its actual effectiveness as a case? It depends.

Fun idea though! Has anyone used one of these? I’m tempted to order one just to see how bad/good it is.

AT&T Exec Predicted the Smartphone in 1953

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2019

In an April 1953 newspaper article in the Tacoma News Tribune, Mark Sullivan made an uncannily accurate prediction about the future of the telephone.

Phone 1953 Prediction

In its final development, the telephone will be carried about by the individual, perhaps as we carry a watch today. It probably will require no dial or equivalent, and I think the users will be able to see each other, if they want, as they talk.

The curious use of the word “users” made me think this was a hoax, but Snopes says it’s genuine. Anyway, Nikola Tesla beat Sullivan to the punch with his 1926 wireless vision of the world:

We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.

(via @ma11en)

Is Your Phone’s Electromagnetic Pollution Making You Ill?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 08, 2019

According this video by Kurzgesagt (and their extensive list of sources), the answer to that question for now is: no, our electronic devices are not causing long- or short-term health problems in the brains or bodies of people who use them.

Electrosmog is one of those things that is a bit vague and hard to grasp. When personal health is involved, feelings clash extra hard with scientific facts and there is a lot of misinformation and exaggeration out there. On the other hand, some people are really worried and distressed by the electricity that surrounds them. And just to wave this off is not kind or helpful.

While there is still a lot of researching being done on the dangers of constant weak electromagnetic radiation, it is important to stress that so far, we have no reason to believe that our devices harm us. Other than… well… spending too much time with them.

The end of the culture of the telephone

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 01, 2018

This is an excerpt from this week’s edition of Noticing, Kottke.org’s newsletter.

Alexis Madrigal wrote movingly about the death of 20th century telephone culture in “Why No One Answers Their Phone Anymore.” A combination of more media options, a glut of robo-calls, and the transformation of the telephone technology itself, with caller IDs, individual rather than household numbers, and mutable ringtones have changed not just a communication medium, but a way of life. And it’s part of a pattern of shifting media use from real-time to my-time. (When this first emerged, I used to call it TiVo Time.)

I wonder though, whether telephone culture has died or it’s metastasized. Madrigal writes: “When you called someone, if the person was there, they would pick up, they would say hello. If someone called you, if you were there, you would pick up, you would say hello. That was just how phones worked. The expectation of pickup was what made phones a synchronous medium.”

Avital Ronell, a wonky writer/philosopher I read a lot back in my grad school days, writes in The Telephone Book (1989) about the always-on nature of the telephone as a key element of its mode of being. “Respond as you would to the telephone, for the call of the telephone is incessant and unremitting. When you hang up, it does not disappear but goes into remission…. There is no off switch to the technological.”

This is now basically our state all the time! Not exclusively on the telephone, but on at least one of the electrical vibrations of telecommunications, everywhere we go, every minute of every day.

So it’s almost as if we’re now always on the telephone. A ring is like a call waiting notification that we can acknowledge or ignore. And most of the time, now, many of us ignore it. But only on the rarest occasions do we ignore the entire electronic hum. That’s where most of us live now.

(See also: this 1927 documentary on how to use a dial telephone.)

The Face of Distracted Driving

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2018

Filmmaker Errol Morris has made a pair of videos for AT&T’s It Can Wait campaign against distracted driving, which “kills an average of 8 people every day in the US”. Each video features the friends and family of someone who was killed in a car accident as a result of texting while driving.

Fair warning: do not watch that second video unless you want your coworkers to see you sobbing at your desk. I very rarely look at my phone while driving and let me tell you, even that little bit stops today.

Morris joins his friend and fellow filmmaker Werner Herzog in the campaign against distracted driving. Herzog made a 35-minute documentary about texting while driving back in 2013.

Nikola Tesla Predicted the Smartphone in 1926

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2018

Pocket Telephone 1919

In an interview published in Collier’s magazine in 1926, Nikola Tesla, then in the twilight of his career, made some predictions about the future that included electric airplane flights “from New York to Europe in a few hours”, more frequent earthquakes, and temperate zones becoming cooler or warmer. He predicted that we would be communicating wirelessly with each other with devices that fit comfortably into a pocket.

When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.

We shall be able to witness and hear events — the inauguration of a President, the playing of a world series game, the havoc of an earthquake or the terror of a battle — just as though we were present.

When the wireless transmission of power is made commercial, transport and transmission will be revolutionized. Already motion pictures have been transmitted by wireless over a short distance. Later the distance will be illimitable, and by later I mean only a few years hence. Pictures are transmitted over wires — they were telegraphed successfully through the point system thirty years ago. When wireless transmission of power becomes general, these methods will be as crude as is the steam locomotive compared with the electric train.

He also asserted that “struggle of the human female toward sex equality will end in a new sex order, with the female as superior”, bringing the humanity “closer to the perfect civilization of the bee”.

Through countless generations, from the very beginning, the social subservience of women resulted naturally in the partial atrophy or at least the hereditary suspension of mental qualities which we now know the female sex to be endowed with no less than men.

But the female mind has demonstrated a capacity for all the mental acquirements and achievements of men, and as generations ensue that capacity will be expanded; the average woman will be as well educated as the average man, and then better educated, for the dormant faculties of her brain will be stimulated to an activity that will be all the more intense and powerful because of centuries of repose. Woman will ignore precedent and startle civilization with their progress.

Humanity has made tremendous progress toward gender equality, but with the bee stuff Tesla goes a little off the rails, swerving into eugenics, which he also stressed in an article published nine years later in Liberty magazine:

The year 2100 will see eugenics universally established. In past ages, the law governing the survival of the fittest roughly weeded out the less desirable strains. Then man’s new sense of pity began to interfere with the ruthless workings of nature. As a result, we continue to keep alive and to breed the unfit. The only method compatible with our notions of civilization and the race is to prevent the breeding of the unfit by sterilization and the deliberate guidance of the mating instinct. Several European countries and a number of states of the American Union sterilize the criminal and the insane. This is not sufficient. The trend of opinion among eugenists is that we must make marriage more difficult. Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny. A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal.

But at least he got the iPhone right? Speaking of which, the cartoon shown above was drawn by W.K. Haselden and published in the Daily Mirror in 1919.

Update: From his 1914 book Tik-Tok of Oz, here’s L. Frank Baum on the wireless telephone:

…Shaggy suspected the truth, and believing that Ozma was now taking an interest in the party he drew from his pocket a tiny instrument which he placed against his ear.

Ozma, observing this action in her Magic Picture, at once caught up a similar instrument from a table beside her and held it to her own ear. The two instruments recorded the same delicate vibrations of sound and formed a wireless telephone, an invention of the Wizard. Those separated by any distance were thus enabled to converse together with perfect ease and without any wire connection.

“Do you hear me, Shaggy Man?” asked Ozma.

“Yes, Your Highness,” he replied.

(via @GRobLewis)

Gorgeous 50-megapixel panoramas shot on an iPhone at 20,000 feet

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 17, 2018

Laforet Iphone Pano

Laforet Iphone Pano

Laforet Iphone Pano

Over on his Instagram account, photographer Vincent Laforet is sharing some 50-megapixel panoramic photos he shot for Apple. He strapped an iPhone 7 to the bottom of a Learjet, set it on Pano mode, and flew it over various landscapes at a height of 20,000 feet. Here’s the first one.

For 7 consecutive days I will be posting a series of 50+ Megapixel Panoramic Photographs shot on an @apple iPhone 7, from the belly of a LearJet from 20,000 feet above the earth.

We set the standard Camera App to “Pano” Mode and flew for 2-7 minutes at 220+ Knots on a perfectly straight line and we witnessed the iPhone effectively paint the landscape like a roller brush. It produced a stunningly high quality image that I’d never before seen before from any smartphone!

Laforet also shot a video from some of those same flights using a RED camera in 8K resolution.

Watch this on as big a screen as you can in 4K. Wonderful.

Area man uses telephone to fight back against sleazy debt collectors

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 08, 2017

When Andrew Therrien told off a sleazy debt collector for calling about a debt he didn’t owe, the collector called back to threaten violence to Therrien and his wife. Therrien got mad and reached for the most potent weapon in his arsenal: the telephone. Over the course of the next two years, he charmed and bullied his way into the debt collection world in order to learn how it worked and how to take it down.

When the scammers started to hound Therrien, he hounded them right back. Obsessed with payback, he spent hundreds of hours investigating the dirty side of debt. By day he was still promoting ice cream brands and hiring models for liquor store tastings. But in his spare time, he was living out a revenge fantasy. He befriended loan sharks and blackmailed crooked collectors, getting them to divulge their suppliers, and then their suppliers above them. In method, Therrien was like a prosecutor flipping gangster underlings to get to lieutenants and then the boss. In spirit, he was a bit like Liam Neeson’s vigilante character in the movie Taken — using unflagging aggression to obtain scraps of information and reverse-engineer a criminal syndicate. Therrien didn’t punch anyone in the head, of course. He was simply unstoppable over the phone.

Great story…read the whole thing. This is perhaps not your takeaway from it, but reading this, I wonder how much different my life would be if I knew how to talk on the telephone 1/10th as effectively as someone like Therrien.

Some early thoughts on iPhone X

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 06, 2017

I got an iPhone X on Friday and have been using it all weekend. Here are some of my initial thoughts about it, some of which will likely change after more use and reflection. As an hors d’oeuvre, Apple’s guided tour of iPhone X’s new features and capabilities:

In some ways, the setup process has been streamlined. Soon after turning on the iPhone X, it asked to use my nearby iPhone 7 to transfer its settings. The verification step for this used a cool swirling blue pattern on the X that I had to view with my old phone’s camera…the iTunes visualizer is finally coming in handy.

In other ways, the setup process could still use some work. Anticipating afternoon delivery of the X, I’d backed up my iPhone 7 that morning. When it came time to set up the X using that backup, it failed…iTunes said the backup was not compatible. It didn’t specify why but I had a hunch: my 7 had iOS 11.1 installed but the X had an earlier version installed. I upgraded the X and the backup worked. Less savvy users are going to be completely lost here and Apple should fix it.

The X is slightly thicker and heavier than the 7. With the larger screen area, the iPhone is no longer a one-handed device for me in many situations. This might be a dealbreaker for me.

Haven’t used the “wireless” charging yet. Just added this $25 charging pad to my shopping cart though, so I’ll get to try it out in a couple of days.

Animoji is the “Ewoks in Return of the Jedi” feature of the iPhone X. After the novelty wears off, approximately no one will use it.

I don’t like the notch. It looks idiotic. I’ll probably get used to it. I don’t care for the display’s rounded corners either. If you look at the apps that have been updated for the X, many of them don’t make use of the bottom 1/4” of the display because of the rounded corners. I feel like there’s an optical dissonance happening where I see the edge-to-edge display and think, “wow, massive display” but really the bottom slice of the screen and the two weird bunny ears at the top are not actually that useful. (Pls don’t email me about the utility of the bunny ears for the time, network, & battery display and the tradeoffs involving the camera placement, etc. “You’ve gotta put those somewhere!” I am aware.) Call me old-fashioned, but I want all my screens to be rectangles with square corners.

Face ID works great for me. I had a week of stubble on my face for the initial scan and it still worked after I shaved. It worked with glasses on. (My Ray-Ban sunglasses: no.) It worked with a baseball cap on. It worked in the dark…like a really dark room. It worked in a dark room with my glasses on. It worked with my head rested on my hand with pretty much half my face covered (this one surprised me when I realized what had just happened).

Thank god the home button is gone. So far, Face ID + swiping up is a superior interaction 99% of the time. It’s quicker and you don’t have to think about it. App switching is super simple now…just swipe left/right on the bottom of the screen. Relearning the new Home-less Siri, screenshot, and power-off interactions isn’t that hard.

A note on Face ID security, from Apple’s Face ID Security Guide:

The probability that a random person the population could look at your iPhone X and unlock it using Face ID is approximately 1 in 1,000,000 (versus 1 in 50,000 for Touch ID).

I hadn’t read about the 1 in 50,000 for Touch ID…that seems really high.

The TrueDepth camera is fun for taking new kinds of selfies. (I wonder…can someone take that video and make an animatronic face that can be used to break into my phone?)

Everything on this phone happens instantly…or somehow faster than instantly. It would be fun to use the first iPhone (which seemed really fast at the time) just to compare how blazing this this really is. And I wonder…will the X feel as slow in 10 years as that first phone feels today? It doesn’t seem as though it could get much faster…

The OLED screen is beautiful. I mainly use my phone to read Twitter and my email, so I’m not sure I need this beautiful new screen, but damn your tweets look good!

The camera quality remains the key advantage of the iPhone…they’re just so far ahead of everyone else here.

Update: The reviewers at DxOMark disagree with me on the camera quality. They place the Google Pixel 2 ahead of the iPhone X for image quality and a few other Android phones aren’t far behind.

Yes, barbed wire fenced cows but also provided telecommunications

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2017

Barbed wire is one of the most important inventions of the past 150 years. It tamed the Wild West and solidified the concept of land ownership in America. Tim Harford, author of Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, writes:

After Europeans arrived and pushed west, the cowboys roamed free, herding cattle over the boundless plains.

But settlers needed fences, not least to keep those free-roaming cattle from trampling their crops. And there wasn’t a lot of wood — certainly none to spare for fencing in mile after mile of what was often called “The American Desert”.

Farmers tried growing thorn-bush hedges, but they were slow-growing and inflexible. Smooth wire fences didn’t work either — the cattle simply pushed through them.

Barbed wire changed what the Homestead Act could not.

Until it was developed, the prairie was an unbounded space, more like an ocean than a stretch of arable land.

Private ownership of land wasn’t common because it wasn’t feasible.

With demand came fierce competition; there were dozens of different types of barbed wire:

Barbed Wire Types

Just two years after Joseph Glidden patented his design for barbed wire in 1874, another of the 19th century’s great inventions burst onto the scene in the form of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. The two world-changing technologies would combine in a surprising way in the western United States. Because of the expense of running dedicated telephone services over long distances, some farmers opted to run their telecommunications over the hundreds of thousands of miles of barbed wire criss-crossing the land.

It was in building the network connecting homestead to homestead that the farmers’ ingenuity came to the fore. Instead of erecting new poles and wires, many either ran phone wires along the top of wooden fence posts or used the barbed wire itself to carry signals. The latter hardly worked as well as insulated copper wire, but with the lines already in place, installation and operating costs could be kept to a minimum. By one estimate, service ran a mere $3 to $18 a year, far less than the regional phone companies charged, and labor for maintaining the network was supplied by volunteers.

So cool. I’m reading A Mind at Play right now. It’s a biography of Claude Shannon, “the architect of the information age”. As a boy, Shannon wired the half-mile stretch of barbed wire fence between his family’s farm and a friend’s house:

He charged it himself: he hooked up dry-cell batteries at each end, and spliced spare wire into any gaps to run the current unbroken. Insulation was anything at hand: leather straps, glass bottlenecks, corncobs, inner-tube pieces. Keypads at each end — one at his house on North Center Street, the other at his friend’s house half a mile away — made it a private barbed-wire telegraph. Even insulated, it is apt to be silenced for months in the ice and snow that accumulate on it, at the knuckle of Michigan middle finger. But when the fence thaws and Claude patches the wire, and the current runs again from house to house, he can speak again at lightspeed and, best of all, in code.

In the 1920s, when Claude was a boy, some three million farmers talked through networks like these, wherever the phone company found it unprofitable to build. It was America’s folk grid. Better networks than Claude’s carried voices along the fences, and kitchens and general stores doubled at switchboards.

(via mr)

Update: See also the Devil’s Rope episode of 99% Invisible. (thx, dave)

Apple’s diseconomies of scale and the next iPhone

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 19, 2017

Apple is the biggest company in the world and they sell one of history’s most successful consumer products. As the total human population of Earth becomes a limiting factor in the iPhone’s continued sales growth (see also Facebook), they are perhaps running into problems designing a desirable product that they need to produce 200 million times over the course of a year.

This is one of those areas where Apple may be the victim of its own success. The iPhone is so popular a product that Apple can’t include any technology or source any part if it can’t be made more than 200 million times a year. If the supplier of a cutting-edge part Apple wants can only provide the company with 50 million per year, it simply can’t be used in the iPhone. Apple sells too many, too fast.

A Daring Fireball reader put it this way:

People commonly think that scale is an unambiguously good thing in production, but the tremendous scale at which Apple operates shows this not to be the case. Annual iPhone production is so large that Apple is likely experiencing diseconomies of scale, a phenomenon one doesn’t often hear about. What significant, break-through technology can a company practically introduce to 300 million new devices in a year?

Diseconomies of scale is a real thing, btw. John Gruber has been arguing that Apple’s way around this is to produce a more expensive iPhone ($1000-1200) with exceptional components and features that the company simply can’t produce at a scale of 200 million/year. Rene Ritchie describes this iPhone++ strategy as “bringing tomorrow’s iPhone to market today”. Gruber compares it to the Honda Prelude, quoting from the Edmunds description of the car:

Honda established itself in America with the Civic and Accord — both good, solid but basic cars. But big profits in the automotive world don’t come from basic cars that sell for commodity prices. Those profits come from cars that get consumers so excited that they’ll pay a premium price just to have one. The Prelude was Honda’s first attempt at an exciting car.

The Prelude was Honda’s technological leading edge. Features that are now expected from Honda, like the double-wishbone suspension under the Accord, fuel injection, and VTEC electronic variable valve timing system showed up first on the Prelude before migrating across the Honda line (though VTEC first showed up on the 1990 Acura NSX).

Keen observations all around and it will be interesting to see if Apple can benefit from this strategy.

The rolling shutter effect explained

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2017

When your phone takes a photo of something, it scans the frame of view line-by-line from top to bottom quickly. But, if you’re photographing an object like a fan or plane’s propellor that’s moving very quickly, the scanning exposure can warp the final image. That’s the rolling shutter effect. Using high-speed camera footage to simulate the warping, Smarter Everyday shows us exactly how the rolling shutter effect occurs. The guitar strings are the coolest; more of that in this video:

P.S. Here’s the behind-the-scenes for Smarter Everyday’s rolling shutter video.

How the Internet has changed in the past 10 years

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2017

Alexis Madrigal is back at The Atlantic, where he’ll be writing about technology, science, and business. His first piece is a reflection on how the Internet has changed in the 10 years he’s been writing about it. In 2007, the Web was triumphant. But then came apps and Facebook and other semi-walled gardens:

O’Reilly’s lengthy description of the principles of Web 2.0 has become more fascinating through time. It seems to be describing a slightly parallel universe. “Hyperlinking is the foundation of the web,” O’Reilly wrote. “As users add new content, and new sites, it is bound into the structure of the web by other users discovering the content and linking to it. Much as synapses form in the brain, with associations becoming stronger through repetition or intensity, the web of connections grows organically as an output of the collective activity of all web users.”

Nowadays, (hyper)linking is an afterthought because most of the action occurs within platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and messaging apps, which all have carved space out of the open web.

That strategy has made the top tech companies insanely valuable:

In mid-May of 2007, these five companies were worth $577 billion. Now, they represent $2.9 trillion worth of market value! Not so far off from the combined market cap ($2.85T) of the top 10 largest companies in the second quarter of 2007: Exxon Mobil, GE, Microsoft, Royal Dutch Shell, AT&T, Citigroup, Gazprom, BP, Toyota, and Bank of America.

In 2007, I wrote a piece (and a follow-up) about how Facebook was the new AOL and how their walled garden strategy was doomed to fail in the face of the open Web. The final paragraph of that initial post is a good example of the Web triumphalism described by Madrigal but hasn’t aged well:

As it happens, we already have a platform on which anyone can communicate and collaborate with anyone else, individuals and companies can develop applications which can interoperate with one another through open and freely available tools, protocols, and interfaces. It’s called the internet and it’s more compelling than AOL was in 1994 and Facebook in 2007. Eventually, someone will come along and turn Facebook inside-out, so that instead of custom applications running on a platform in a walled garden, applications run on the internet, out in the open, and people can tie their social network into it if they want, with privacy controls, access levels, and alter-egos galore.

The thing is, Facebook did open up…they turned themselves inside-out and crushed the small pieces loosely joined contingent. They let the Web flood in but caught the Web’s users and content creators before they could wash back out again. The final paragraph of the follow-up piece fared much better in hindsight:

At some point in the future, Facebook may well open up, rendering much of this criticism irrelevant. Their privacy controls are legendarily flexible and precise…it should be easy for them to let people expose parts of the information to anyone if they wanted to. And as Matt Webb pointed out to me in an email, there’s the possibility that Facebook turn itself inside out and be the social network bit for everyone else’s web apps. In the meantime, maybe we shouldn’t be so excited about the web’s future moving onto an intranet.

What no one saw back then, about a week after the release of the original iPhone, was how apps on smartphones would change everything. In a non-mobile world, these companies and services would still be formidable but if we were all still using laptops and desktops to access information instead of phones and tablets, I bet the open Web would have stood a better chance.

Building an iPhone from scratch

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2017

Scotty Allen built a working iPhone 6S from scratch using parts bought in the electronics markets of Shenzhen, China.

I built a like-new(but really refurbished) iPhone 6S 16GB entirely from parts I bought in the public cell phone parts markets in Huaqiangbei. And it works!

I’ve been fascinated by the cell phone parts markets in Shenzhen, China for a while. I’d walked through them a bunch of times, but I still didn’t understand basic things, like how they were organized or who was buying all these parts and what they were doing with them.

So when someone mentioned they wondered if you could build a working smartphone from parts in the markets, I jumped at the chance to really dive in and understand how everything works.

It is kind of amazing that he ends up with a fully functional iPhone, complete with a box with charger, headphones, etc. The era of transistor radio kits is not quiiiite dead yet. (via bb)

Update: Allen also modified his iPhone 7 to include a dedicated headphone jack.

Is your smartphone betraying you?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 21, 2016

Introspection Engine

Edward Snowden and Bunnie Huang are working on a system to help smartphone users determine whether their phones can be tracked. Their aim is to protect journalists from being detected while they’re in the field.

National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden has been working with prominent hardware hacker Andrew “Bunnie” Huang to solve this problem. The pair are developing a way for potentially imperiled smartphone users to monitor whether their devices are making any potentially compromising radio transmissions. They argue that a smartphone’s user interface can’t be relied to tell you the truth about that state of its radios. Their initial prototyping work uses an iPhone 6.

“We have to ensure that journalists can investigate and find the truth, even in areas where governments prefer they don’t,” Snowden told me in a video interview. “It’s basically to make the phone work for you, how you want it, when you want it, but only when.”

They are calling the device an introspection engine:1

Snowden and Huang are calling this device an “introspection engine” because it will inspect the inner-workings of the phone. The device will be contained inside a battery case, looking similar to a smartphone with an extra bulky battery, except with its own screen to update the user on the status of the radios. Plans are for the device to also be able to sound an audible alarm and possibly to also come equipped with a “kill switch” that can shut off power to the phone if any radio signals are detected. “The core principle is simple,” they wrote in the blog post. “If the reporter expects radios to be off, alert the user when they are turned on.”

Huang also announced today that he’s suing the US government over Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act:

Section 1201 means that you can be sued or prosecuted for accessing, speaking about, and tinkering with digital media and technologies that you have paid for. This violates our First Amendment rights, and I am asking the court to order the federal government to stop enforcing Section 1201.

  1. Good name, although I believe they missed a good opportunity to call it the Snow Bunnie. Perhaps that was the code name?

Amazon’s ad-supported Android phone is only $50

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 19, 2016

If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can buy the BLU R1 HD smartphone for only $50 (or double the memory and RAM for $10 more). The phone is unlocked so you don’t need to sign a 2-year phone contract, but Amazon’s ads and product offers display on the lock screen (just like they do for the Kindle). According to Joanna Stern at the WSJ, it’s no iPhone or Galaxy, but it’s great for the price.

No, the R1 doesn’t feel or look like a premium phone, but it also doesn’t feel like something you’d find on a Toys “R” Us shelf. The metal frame and the touch screen’s curved edges give it a weighty feel, while the black plastic casing is more firm Coke bottle than flimsy ShopRite water bottle. Even the power and volume buttons have a satisfying click.

The 5-inch, 720p screen is very bright and viewable at multiple angles, even outdoors. It’s not as crisp as the 1080p displays you’ll get on $200 Moto G4 or Honor 5X, but again…$50.

In only 9 years, we’ve gone from smartphones with touchscreens being magical to companies nearly giving them away. Back in 2009, John Walkenbach predicted that Kindles would be free by sometime in 2011.

The price for Amazon’s Kindle 2 has dropped again. It started at $359, and then was reduced to $299 last July. Now it’s $259.

If this price trend continues, it will be free by June, 2011. I’m actually serious about this. At some point, the Kindle will be free. It will probably be before June, 2011.

The cheapest Kindle is currently $80, so we haven’t quite gotten there yet. Which is a bit puzzling now that I’m thinking about it again. Amazon is famous for playing the long game. If compare the cost to giving away a free Kindle (or highly subsidized higher-end Kindle) to every Prime member who signs up or re-ups for two years vs. a) the revenue gained from the ebooks purchased by those customers, b) the revenue from new Prime members, and c) being able to offer a package which is basically free shipping on all Amazon orders + Netflix + Spotify + a ton of free books + a free Kindle…that’s gotta make good economic sense for them, right? I mean, unless so many Prime users already have Kindles that giving them to those that don’t doesn’t make sense.

Anyway, it’ll be an interesting race…will the smartphone beat the Kindle to free? (via df)

Phones for the people

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 15, 2015

From Kevin Slavin and Bunnie Huang on location in Shenzhen, China, a look at what changes when you stop designing phones for companies and start designing them for people. You end up with a variety of phones satisfying different desires, from tiny phones that double as Bluetooth earpieces to phones that look like a race car or a pack of cigarettes or a soda can to phones with built-in lamps.

Diverse Phones

Diverse Phones

Diverse Phones

A spin around the internet reveals many more examples of these kinds of phones: flashlight phones, lighter phones, phones with up to 4 SIM slots, super-rugged phones w/ walkie talkie capability, credit card-sized phones, watch phones, and USB key phones. (via @triciawang)

Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 28, 2015

In the NYT, Sherry Turkle provides the backup data to confirm what you already know about the digital age: Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.

Studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel … Even a silent phone disconnects us.

Screen addiction (or why Grandma’s sad)

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2015

Screen Addiction Is Taking a Toll on Children, from Jane Brody in the NY Times:

Parents, grateful for ways to calm disruptive children and keep them from interrupting their own screen activities, seem to be unaware of the potential harm from so much time spent in the virtual world.

In reply, John Hermann writing at The Awl:

The grandparent who is persuaded that screens are not destroying human interaction, but are instead new tools for enabling fresh and flawed and modes of human interaction, is left facing a grimmer reality. Your grandchildren don’t look up from their phones because the experiences and friendships they enjoy there seem more interesting than what’s in front of them (you). Those experiences, from the outside, seem insultingly lame: text notifications, Emoji, selfies of other bratty little kids you’ve never met. But they’re urgent and real. What’s different is that they’re also right here, always, even when you thought you had an attentional claim. The moments of social captivity that gave parents power, or that gave grandparents precious access, are now compromised. The TV doesn’t turn off. The friends never go home. The grandkids can do the things they really want to be doing whenever they want, even while they’re sitting five feet away from grandma, alone, in a moving soundproof pod.

As a writer for screens, someone who spends a tremendous amount of time each day staring at screens, and an involved parent of two grade-schoolers, this is precisely where my professional and personal lives meet, so I’ve done a bit of thinking about this recently. Here’s what I’ve come up with and am attempting to actually believe:

People on smartphones are not anti-social. They’re super-social. Phones allow people to be with the people they love the most all the time, which is the way humans probably used to be, until technology allowed for greater freedom of movement around the globe. People spending time on their phones in the presence of others aren’t necessarily rude because rudeness is a social contract about appropriate behavior and, as Hermann points out, social norms can vary widely between age groups. Playing Minecraft all day isn’t necessarily a waste of time. The real world and the virtual world each have their own strengths and weaknesses, so it’s wise to spend time in both.

How the iPhone surprised and then crushed the Blackberry

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 04, 2015

The full story is behind a paywall,1 but the WSJ’s The Inside Story of How the iPhone Crippled BlackBerry is kind of amazing. The piece is an excerpt from Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry.

The next day Mr. Lazaridis grabbed his co-CEO Jim Balsillie at the office and pulled him in front of a computer.

“Jim, I want you to watch this,” he said, pointing to a webcast of the iPhone unveiling. “They put a full Web browser on that thing. The carriers aren’t letting us put a full browser on our products.”

Mr. Balsillie’s first thought was RIM was losing AT&T as a customer. “Apple’s got a better deal,” Mr. Balsillie said. “We were never allowed that. The U.S. market is going to be tougher.”

“These guys are really, really good,” Mr. Lazaridis replied. “This is different.”

“It’s OK — we’ll be fine,” Mr. Balsillie responded.

RIM’s chiefs didn’t give much additional thought to Apple’s iPhone for months. “It wasn’t a threat to RIM’s core business,” says Mr. Lazaridis’s top lieutenant, Larry Conlee. “It wasn’t secure. It had rapid battery drain and a lousy [digital] keyboard.”

“RIM’s chiefs didn’t give much additional thought to Apple’s iPhone for months.”

“RIM’s chiefs didn’t give much additional thought to Apple’s iPhone for months.”

“RIM’s chiefs didn’t give much additional thought to Apple’s iPhone for months.”

Oof. (via @craigmod)

  1. You know how to circumvent the WSJ’s paywall, right? You paste the title of the piece — in this case, The Inside Story of How the iPhone Crippled BlackBerry — into Google and click on the story from the search results or in Google News. Boom, instant access.

Your iPhone is tracking you like Lester Freamon from The Wire

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 04, 2015

Freq Locations

Since iOS 7 came out in 2013, your iPhone’s Location Services has included a little-known feature called Frequent Locations, which keeps very detailed track of every distinct location you visit. How detailed? This, precisely, was when I was in my apartment over a three-day period last month:

Freq Locations

All told, my phone recorded all 33 different locations I’ve visited in NYC since April 15, including 84 visits to my apartment and 54 visits to my office, down to the minute and a ~130-foot radius. The feature is on by default if you’ve got Location Services switched on, so you can find your information by opening the Settings app and going to Privacy > Location Services > System Services (at the bottom) > Frequent Locations. You can also turn the feature off if you wish.

Apple says the feature is used to learn your favorite places and the data is kept only on the phone:

Your iPhone will keep track of places you have recently been, as well as how often and when you visited them, in order to learn places that are significant to you. This data is kept solely on your device and won’t be sent to Apple without your consent. It will be used to provide you with personalized services, such as predictive traffic routing.

It’s likely that Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and the NSA (until recently) are collecting this same sort of data about you regardless of what sort of phone you use, except that these organizations do not share Apple’s public commitment to privacy. (via @dunstan)