Made in the Shade


For the home gardener or professional landscaper who absolutely must work in the sun on a hot day, there are no satisfactory ways to temporarily create sizable shaded areas. Beach umbrellas offer only a small circle of shade, can become dangerous projectiles in the wind, and at any rate are configured for people to sit under, not stand upright under, to gain their protection.


A portable canopy, such as may be found at a farmer’s market or a flea market, where it shades a seller’s wares, as well as the seller and any buyer, offers a sizable area of shade but is not as portable as one would like if the need arises to pick it up and move it several times during an afternoon of garden work. Four-legged canopies are also unsuitable on uneven ground, where they are likely to tip even without encouragement from a breeze. Preventing tipping requires the use of sandbags or other weights, and after a few repetitions setting up a so-called portable canopy becomes a real chore.

Guarda-chuvas em Cerveira
Umbrellas overhang a street in Vila Nova de Cerveira, Portugal, as part of an arts festival in August 2013. The original display of umbrellas in this way was in the Portuguese city of Águeda in 2011. Photo by Joseolgon.

Those are two of the more portable, easier to set up options. Other methods of creating shade, such as deploying sail shades, are hardly portable at all. The Labor Day weekend is the traditional end of summer in the United States, yet there is still plenty of hot weather in store for September and even into October. Working in a sunny garden would be more pleasant with the assistance of a device that is easily workable, portable, and gives a sizable amount of shade. What follows are guidelines for the inventor or inventors of such a sorely needed garden companion.

1) In order to be useful, the device should shade an area no less than 100 square feet, and still fold up compactly enough to fit in a small kit bag. It should weigh less than 20 pounds.

2) The device should remain stable on uneven ground and in the wind, though obviously within reason in both cases, and it should do so without the use of heavy weights.

3) One reasonably fit person should be able to erect the device or fold it up within a minute, and it should be easy for that person to move the device from one location to the next, also within a minute.

4) The shading material should be shade cloth with a density ranging from 60 to 80 percent, which allows cooling breezes through, is lighter than a more tightly woven fabric, and remains more stable in the wind.

5) The supports should be strong, light, and corrosion resistant. Use of spikes to anchor the device is inadvisable since shallowly penetrating spikes can be unreliable, and deeply penetrating ones negate portability.

6) Ideally it should cost less than $100, and definitely no more than $200, even though it should be able to take some rough treatment and last a decade or more.

Is that too much to ask? Certainly it may be too late to have the new Shade Giver ready this year, but surely by next year, when summer heat starts seeping in by April or May, some enterprising person will have created a prototype that could become the new Gardener’s Friend. Perhaps instead of a sail it will resemble one of the shells of the Sydney Opera House. Whatever the design of the device, it should bring sweet relief to those who must labor under the hot sun and still not hurt their backs or pocketbooks. In these warming times, asking for the protection provided by shade has become a necessary request.

The Saga Siglar, a replica of a Viking ship, sails near Australia’s Sydney Opera House in September 1985. Photo by Islandmen.

— Izzy


Watch the Birdie


Most of the publicity regarding cameras hidden in the rooms of paying guests has centered on Airbnb, but conventional hotels have also engaged in spying, as in a recent scandal in South Korea where some hotel staff peddled captured video footage of guests online as pornography. With cameras getting smaller while retaining good lens quality, and storage capacity on digital solid state chips growing larger, for ordinary people the temptation to spy has never been greater. No longer does someone need thousands of dollars and considerable technical knowledge to set up and conceal a surveillance camera or two or three.


Airbnb claims it does not allow cameras, hidden or otherwise, in bathrooms and bedrooms, and that it requires hosts to disclose to guests the locations of any cameras in the more public spaces of rental properties. They allow cameras in spaces such as living rooms and kitchens in the interest of monitoring and protecting the hosts’ property. Airbnb says it’s all there in the rental agreement a guest signs. Hotels have always operated without surveillance cameras officially and knowingly installed in guest rooms. Following the reasoning from Airbnb, their situation is different because the rentals are in privately owned dwellings, where damage and abuse caused by guests can more seriously impact business for each host, who can’t spread out losses over the income from a hundred room hotel.

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16 GB (GigaBytes) of data storage and wi-fi capability, packed onto a card the size of a person’s thumbnail. There are now cards with 512 GB capacity, which can store several day’s worth of high definition video. Photo by Hegro Berlin.

That’s a good economic point, but not a good moral one. No spying on people in a domestic situation is acceptable. When people are out in actual public spaces, as opposed to the relatively public spaces of a domestic living room, kitchen, or hotel room, they should nonetheless be entitled to complete privacy. Having guests waive their right to privacy by signing off on yet another head spinning legal disclosure, like the multitude of such documents they encounter now, is not acceptable. The choice then becomes either accept spying or do not rent rooms from Airbnb. That could be acceptable as long as Airbnb hosts explicitly and clearly disclose the locations of every camera and show to the guest what the camera is seeing in real time. After the guest’s stay concludes and the host has had the opportunity to assess the property for damages, arrangements can be made between the guest, the host, and Airbnb to destroy the video footage to the satisfaction of all.

Airbnb has undertaken a new business model filling a niche and has apparently been successful with it, but if it cannot ensure guest privacy while also preserving the integrity of host property, the company will see a loss of public trust, and with it a loss of revenue. The latest news stories about spying hosts can’t be good for business. Left unattended, the problem for Airbnb will only get worse.

In the 1960 film Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, owner of the Bates Motel, spies the old-fashioned, low tech way on guest Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh. If by peeping at his guest, Marion, with the same supposed motivation as some Airbnb hosts, Norman was trying to catch her stealing, he was far too late for that. It did not end well for Marion Crane, Norman Bates, or the Bates Motel.

Technological improvements will continue to make cameras smaller and more capable of capturing high quality images in low light; digital storage capacity will continue to increase and be put on ever smaller devices, along with the increasing capacity of wi-fi networks to handle the flow of information; batteries will get smaller and more powerful, allowing tiny cameras to operate without wires, which will make them even easier to hide. All these technological improvements, as always, are amoral in themselves. The question becomes, for people who desire extra income by renting out rooms in their homes, as for all of us, does what technology makes possible mean that we have to use it, even if the technology trespasses on moral boundaries? Just because you can do something, does that mean you should do it?
— Techly


The Path of Least Resistance


There are a confusing amount of options for protecting home electronics from power surges coming both from within the home and outside it. Within the home, surges can come from refrigerator or air conditioner compressors turning on; and outside the home, surges can come from electrical storms or power company lines. Looking for answers on the internet is only slightly helpful, since there appears to be a dearth of black and white information from reputable sources, while there is a wealth of arguing shades of gray on forums.


Surge protectors of the kind most home electronics users will find convenient and affordable. The one in the middle includes coaxial cable connections. Photo by Stevebwallace.

This post does not propose any definite answers to the trickiest questions about surge suppression because there is a strong element of safety at issue, both to electronic equipment and to a home and its inhabitants. When it comes to solving electrical problems, there is no substitute for calling in a trustworthy and knowledgeable professional electrician. Clerks at electronics stores may or may not possess those qualities. Their primary quality lies in selling electronics, which doesn’t necessarily negate the other qualities, but the wise customer regards their advice skeptically so as not to end up like the customer played by Albert Brooks in the running store scene from his 1981 film Modern Romance, in which his brother, Bob Einstein*, plays a store clerk who ruthlessly upsells Brooks.

The first thing to know is that a power strip is not a surge protector. The second thing to know is that if a surge protector has coaxial cable connections for television or internet service, it is not absolutely necessary to use them. This is a matter of some controversy, and a researcher can end up floundering in internet forums looking fruitlessly for a black and white answer. Mainly it is important to understand that the best protection for electronics from surges traveling over coaxial cables coming from outdoors is proper grounding of those cables, preferably with a metal gas discharge tube integrated into a grounding block. Grounding is a complex subject and as such should be addressed by a qualified electrician when there is any doubt about it.

There is the question of signal loss when using a plug-in surge protector’s coaxial cable connections, and despite all the argument about it, throwing around of terms like “insertion loss”, difficulty of determining said insertion loss from manufacturer’s specifications, or use of expensive diagnostic equipment, the simplest answer comes from taking advantage of the signal diagnostics included within the settings menus of all modern televisions. Check the signal strength and quality with the surge protector connected in the cable loop and then again without it connected. A decent plug-in surge protector should show negligible signal loss. Signal is signal, and therefore the same diagnostic results for a particular plug-in surge protector should apply to internet signal. Length of cable runs and quality of the cable and its connectors will usually be the more important factor affecting signal loss.

The last thing to consider when using the coaxial cable connections of a plug-in surge protector is whether it creates a ground loop. That’s a subject which can make anyone but an experienced electrician dizzy, and for those folks who are hopelessly confused and have thousands of dollars invested in home electronics, it would be best to consult an electrician. For everyone else, it is best to understand a ground loop is not inherently dangerous, as long as everything is indeed grounded. A ground loop caused by differences in electrical potential between pieces of equipment introduces a buzz or hum of interference, and the easiest and cheapest way to minimize the problem is to clamp ferrite beads, or chokes, on the ends of coaxial cables and power cords.

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The end of a USB (Universal Serial Bus) cable with a ferrite bead, or choke, included along the line. Many cables for electronic equipment are manufactured with such ferrite beads molded in place on them, a good indication they actually work as intended. Photo by Stwalkerster.

Again, the best safety feature of any home electronics setup is proper grounding of coaxial cables and power cords, giving a path of least resistance for power surges, whether they arise from inside or outside the home. Add a quality surge protector to prevent damaging current from traveling the live wire into sensitive electronics and it will save them most of the time as long as dangerously high current has a path out of harm’s way.
— Techly

* Bob Einstein, most well known for his persona as daredevil Super Dave Osborne and for his role as Marty Funkhouser on the TV show Curb Your Enthusiasm, passed away on January 2 at the age of 76. R.I.P.


Listen Up


The vinyl record revival that started after the turn of the century continues to this day, and is even picking up momentum as younger people discover vinyl record albums anew. It’s encouraging to see renewed enthusiasm for the old format because it means manufacturers will produce new equipment for playback of 33 and 1/3 long playing albums, and some record companies will also press new albums in the format. The 45 revolutions per minute format has fewer adherents, and consequently there will be less quality equipment made for its playback.


In the 1950s, 60s, and even into the 70s there was a large market in 45 rpm records with a single song on each side. Typically 45s were played by teenagers on cheap portable record players they kept in their rooms. Those record players were capable of playing LPs, but their owners more likely used them for the cheaper 45s. Sound quality was not the biggest concern with those portable players. Now fast forward 50 years and there is a glut on the market of relatively cheap, poorly made portable record players with retro designs meant to evoke the teeny bopper record players of times past. There lies a dead end to the vinyl revival.

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A Swedish made Radiogrammofon Granada III. Photo by Dan Johannson. It was not uncommon in the mid twentieth century for well made stereo playback equipment to be housed in well appointed pieces of furniture such as this console.

The main point of the resurgence in interest in recordings pressed on vinyl is that it is driven by audiophiles looking for better quality sound than can be found on digital recordings. A secondary point relates to maintaining playback equipment for old vinyl record collections. That by itself is heartening news, because there are unfortunately too many people with media files of one sort or another they are unable to play back because manufacture of the appropriate equipment has been discontinued. Vinyl at least has new life in that regard.

Just don’t expect younger people to understand the reason for the revival and the superiority of vinyl in the ears of audiophiles when their only experience of it comes from a shoddy portable record player. Using such poor equipment, its appealingly retro design aside, misses the point of the vinyl revival. In the old days, some people had no choice but to use cheap record players. There were no other options such as compact disc players, MP3 players, cassette decks, or even 8 track players, bad as they were, until later on in the 70s. In the middle of the twentieth century, for the majority of music lovers vinyl record players covered all the options from high end to low end for all but the few who used reel to reel tape decks.

The owner of this Sanyo Hi Fi manufactured in the 1970s and built into its own furniture enclosure was good enough to share his enjoyment of it on YouTube and, admirably suited to showing off this mid-twentieth century ensemble of hi fi with wood cabinets is the owner’s selection of “Early to Bed”, a swinging tune by Elmer Bernstein from the movie soundtrack to The Silencers, the 1966 entry in the Matt Helm series of spy movie spoofs.

Now the situation is different, with many more options for listeners. Buying a cheap, poorly made record player now misses the point, pleasant as it may be to imagine teenagers listening to individual pop songs on 45s played through tinny speakers in their room rather than blasting the rest of the family out of the house with a more powerful system. Those days are over. The vinyl revival now is for audiophiles and record collectors, probably nearly all of them at least in their twenties. To play vinyl LPs now and enjoy them for what they’re worth it’s necessary to spend the money for high end playback equipment. Otherwise, with many easier options available, what’s the point?
— Techly


Nothing to Lose Sleep Over


Technology for helping people sleep appears to be a booming business, with everything from machines that mimic ocean wave sounds to sensors built into mattresses to adjust the sleeping experience for maximum comfort. Technology also is ushered out of the bedroom, in the form of light temperature filters for smartphones and electronic tablets. Sleep difficulties, especially for older people, are nothing to be taken lightly since lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can lead to all sorts of problems in the larger society, some of them dangerous, like driving a motor vehicle while deprived of good sleep.


One of the factors often ignored in discussions of sleep is how the natural sleep cycle of our species appears to broken up into two, and often three periods. The natural cycle seems to drop into the background during most of maturity for many people, giving rise to the common illusion that eight hours of continuous sleep from late evening through the night to early morning is the norm. Nothing could be further from the truth. The true sleep pattern for our species makes itself known in youth and in old age, when work schedules are less demanding. The young and the old typically sleep several hours from evening into the night, then are up for an hour, maybe more, and then back to sleep from late night into the morning. They also often partake of a midday nap.

Asleep, a 1904 painting by Rupert Bunny (1864-1947).

The introduction of widely available electric lighting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries played a part in resetting humanity’s internal clock, particularly for those living in industrial societies originating from northern Europe. Southern European societies retained a more relaxed rhythm and honored the tradition of the siesta, or midday relaxation. But in industrialized England and America the norm became 12 to 16 hours of work during all of daylight and into twilight at both ends of the day, followed by 8 to 12 hours of some sort of relaxation and sleep at home before getting back at it the next day. Sleep had to be concentrated in those hours, or foregone. Sleep at home when you got the slim chance, or fall asleep at the wheel of some dangerously unprotected machinery, risking death, maiming, or at the very least loss of employment.

To have been an insomniac working in a factory of the last centuries in the industrial north must have been utter hell, as it must be today for those working in the garment and electronics sweatshops of southern Asia. Some of the devices advertised for sale to help the sleepless may seem ludicrous or indulgent, but for those afflicted it may not seem so. The question is whether those who truly need those devices can afford them or are even aware of them. Probably not.

Madeline Kahn, as Lili Von Shtupp, sings “I’m Tired” in the 1974 Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles. Warning: foul language.

The sound of waves crashing, the gradual transition of blue light to red on electronics invited into the bedroom, and the monitoring of sleep quality, as far as that may be possible, all are geared toward the middle class and above, the office workers who have followed the 9 to 5 mold set for their kind one hundred years ago. Many work more hours than that, usually appended to the end of the day. All the same, sleep for them is crowded into the overnight hours, and if they don’t get it then they will miss out. There’s nothing wrong with them if they can’t sleep all 8 hours in the time allotted; it’s the mold that is broken and needs remaking.
— Techly


The Proof Is in the Printing


When a computer printer works as it should, smoothly turning out page after page and photo after photo, it’s a wonderful thing that is easy to take for granted. But when that printer acts up and doesn’t feed pages or photos properly, or prints unevenly in streaks even though it has full ink cartridges, then a user’s patience can be stretched to the limit of frustration. Unlike the computer a printer is often connected to, a printer has a lot of moving parts, and that is typically the source of their malfunctions.

Since a home user likely has an inexpensive inkjet printer, replacement of the entire unit is usually preferable over any repair that will get time consuming and therefore expensive. The cost of such a printer is subsidized by purchase of proprietary ink cartridges at inflated prices, which is an economic model a bit like cell phone subsidizing through service contract, but not quite. In the case of a cell phone being available at a nominal initial cost while the complete cost is spread out over the term of a two year contract, the user of the phone is the one and only subsidizer. With printers, the artificially low cost of many of them is subsidized by all the users of the ink, and the heaviest ink users do the most to support the cost of printers for everyone.

If people had to pay the full cost of a printer, they might have a better understanding of the value of these remarkable machines. Like computers, printers that fit on a portion of a desktop now are doing the work that machines in earlier times did while taking up a full room. The inflation adjusted price has also gone down over time, and really the comparison of technological capability does not hold up beyond basic numbers in saying that a modern desktop printer or computer can do the same work as room size machine of fifty years ago. The new machines can do much, much more.

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Peter Small demonstrating the use of the Gutenberg press at the International Printing Museum in Carson, California, in 2009. Photo by Flickr user vlasta2.

What appears to make a printer a special object of loathing when it doesn’t work as it should is the usually mechanical nature of its breakdowns, something that people have a visceral understanding of, rather than the electronic or computing problems of a computer or its hand held cousin, the smartphone, which many people find inaccessibly difficult. When a printer’s paper feed mechanism breaks down and starts chewing up pages, leaving a crumpled mess stuck partway in the printer’s maw, it’s like a willful dog has chewed up our slippers. We can understand that, and it taps into an older, simpler part of our brains than the aloof error message we occasionally see on a computer screen.

In this scene from the 1999 dark comedy Office Space, written and directed by Mike Judge, a few workers take out their frustrations on the temperamental office printer, a stand-in for their frustrations with their workplace generally. Warning: foul language.

This time of year, Christmas, can be especially perilous for an inexpensive home inkjet printer to get glitchy. People are trying to print out photos for their Christmas cards, invitations for parties, and year end summations of their activities and personal growth to include in Christmas cards. In addition to the increased demand on their services in the lead up to Christmas, another danger to marginally useful printers is the frazzled, harried state of mind of their users during the year end holiday season.

No, a printing machine at Christmas that has started to show its age and groan with mysterious mechanical aches and pains is more likely to end up getting recycled by a user whose patience is at an end, rather than get repaired and restored to tip top condition. The latter outcome would be more likely if the printer was valued at its true price. Instead, the home user will replace it with a new printer promising two or three years of trouble free operation. The lesson there for the home user is that inexpensive inkjet printers are a reasonable investment for light use, but people who print a lot are better off with a more expensive machine that reflects its true value, is worth repairing, and relies on a fairer economic model than the highly subsidized market for ink.
― Techly


They Went Thataway


Some people have an inordinately difficult time shutting off their smartphones and putting them away. Several entertainers have tried over the past few years to ban the use of phones for recording their concerts, to the point of enlisting the help of a company that makes locking pouches for smartphones. People check their phones into the locking pouches at the door and continue inside with their phones still with them, but unusable. To use their phones during the concert, they must return to the lobby to have the pouch unlocked, and then when they’re done using their phone they repeat the procedure of locking it in the pouch before going back into the theater.


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Ignoring each other, two women check their smartphones. Photo by Michael Coghlan from Adelaide, Australia.

It’s a shame adults have to be treated that way, like children who can’t be relied upon to control selfish behavior even for the few hours of attending a concert where they should recognize the rights of the entertainer giving a performance, as well as their fellow audience members. Experience has shown, however, that simple requests to put away phones are not effective, at least not for an oblivious, thoughtless few. Once those few flout the rules, others are emboldened to do the same. The result is a diminished experience of the concert for some attendees because they are forced to view it through a forest of smartphones held over the heads of others in front of them.

Besides public venues where obsessive use of smartphones can get in the way, there are semi-public areas like classrooms, and private areas such as home dining tables, where phone use diminishes experience. Since some people simply won’t heed the call to shut their phone off, perhaps the locking pouch will be the best answer in those private and semi-public settings as well. Imagine attending a family gathering this holiday season where the various family members actually get together with each other and catch up on news and views. For some families, staring into their respective phones is preferable to talking to each other, but in their cases the phones are not the problem, but a way of ignoring the problem.

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A woman in Japan checks her smartphone. Photo by francisco.castro.

People can use television in a similar way, though it’s more difficult because everyone can view what’s on television, thereby making cause for discussion. Some television viewers try to forestall discussion by turning the volume up to ear-splitting level, making conversation practically impossible. Even at that level of discouragement, television viewing at a family gathering doesn’t entirely isolate individuals to the extent of generalized smartphone use. Add an earpiece attached by a wire or wirelessly, and that person or persons might as well have not attended the gathering at all. Or the family dining table. Or the classroom.

Like the western TV shows and movies where a town institutes a rule that everyone coming into town must leave their guns at the sheriff’s office, conduct their business, and then retrieve their guns upon leaving town, perhaps in the near future it will become standard practice to insist smartphone users check their devices into locking pouches before interacting with others in planned settings like concerts, classrooms, and even family gatherings. When the itch strikes the afflicted smartphone user and he or she simply can’t resist any longer the urge to scratch, that person will have to exit to the lobby or to the outside of the building and, after unlocking their device from its pouch at the door, enjoy a few minutes of sweet relief away from others, like a smoker huddled in a designated area. Those locking pouches could offer the boost that’s needed to bump pervasive, impolite smartphone use into the same territory of social disapproval as smoking in a theater, a classroom, or at the dinner table.
― Techly


Pushing Buttons


The television remote control is a wonderful device, allowing a television viewer to turn the channel, adjust the volume, and even turn the television off altogether, all from the comfort of a chair or couch across the room. As entertainment components have proliferated in the home, innovators have kept pace with the implementation of the universal remote control to control all of them. The universal remote control of today is to the basic television remote control of yore as wonderfulness squared and then some.
Vietnam War on television
In the old days, a television viewer had to get up from a chair and cross the room to change the channel or turn the TV off in order to avoid unpleasant scenes such as this obviously taped-on picture of Vietnam War footage. Photo from the February 13, 1968 issue of U.S. News & World Report Magazine by Warren K. Leffler.

When the beginning of a National Football League game comes on the television then, and some of the players are kneeling during the National Anthem as a way of protesting police brutality and institutional injustice towards black people, and some people in the home audience are offended by the players’ exercise of their First Amendment rights, there is always the option of using the wonderful hand held device at their side and either turning the channel or turning the television off. For offended people in the stands at the game, the options are different of course, including turning away from the offending sight and riveting their attention on Old Glory, or taking the occasion to visit the food concourse or the restrooms. For our purposes, we will be concerned with the home viewers who vastly outnumber the people willing to put up with the rigmarole of attending an NFL game in person.

Let us suppose that the home viewer has discarded the options of turning the channel or turning the television off using their wonderful remote control, perhaps because the fate of the western world depends on their viewing of the game at hand, and so is left with the spectacle of highly paid professional athletes, many of them black, kneeling during the National Anthem. Never fear!

Firstly, remember that the protest itself is against the police and the judicial system, not the revered Anthem and the Flag, much as Supreme Leader would like to pervert the understanding of the protest to push white America’s jingoistic buttons. If, realizing this, the kneeling is still offensive, remember that the Constitution was written in large part to protect unpopular minority (meaning less than majority in this case, not necessarily differently skinned) expressions from the tyranny of the majority. Yes, it’s in the Constitution that they can do this! God bless America!

Secondly, remember to stand at home during the National Anthem and either salute or place one hand over your heart. Just because a football fan is at home viewing the game, that is no excuse for not showing due respect to Flag and Country during the National Anthem if that is what is so important to them that they are eager to publicly shame others for not doing the same. If you don’t have a flag displayed at home (and you really should), stand and face Washington, DC, or whatever direction indicates the position on the globe of Supreme Leader at the moment. He could be in South Korea just across the line from North Korea, childishly taunting his rival in idiocy, Kim Jong-un!

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The Heitech Universal Remote, one of many wonderful devices available on the open market which, with sage usage by the discerning consumer of entertainment, should shield that consumer from offensive content such as the free exercise of Constitutional rights by black athletes. Photo by Raimond Spekking.

Lastly, remember to take pictures of yourself standing at home for the National Anthem and pass them around for the scrutiny of your friends, neighbors, family, and co-workers. You must pass muster! What use is your sunshine patriotism if no one else notices it? It’s all well and good to be in the stands at the game and boo the kneeling players and berate your fellow citizens who side with them, but for the stay at home football fan there has to be a more influential option than firing off angry emails to the league and the local paper. Take pictures and post them on your social media accounts. Burn your NFL merchandise in the front yard. Lynch Colin Kaepernick in effigy – oh, wait, that’s a little too Ku Klux Klan for the suburbs. Too many echoes.

Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk in 1965’s The Great Race understood the importance of pushing buttons on mechanical devices to achieve desired results, though their efforts didn’t always work out as planned.

You get the idea. There’s one technological hurdle that the wonderful remote control device can’t overcome, and that’s answering the question “Why?” Why, for instance, do grown men (and some women) get so emotionally invested in a game that they have blown a simple political protest out of proportion and selfishly, narcissistically claimed it has ruined their fun? Why is it no one refutes the silly argument about “pampered millionaire athletes”, when after all it was all of us who made them rich, with our misplaced priorities that reward hundreds of jocks with millions of dollars while thousands of talented schoolteachers and others who provide vital services scratch to make a living? Who are we then, after elevating them, to tell these athletes to shut up and play, and why do we think it’s important that they should? Why do the rest of us allow the childishly insecure and testosterone poisoned among us to set the agenda and bully everyone else to follow their foolish commands? Too bad we can’t point a remote control at ourselves for the answers. Meanwhile, if the protests bother you so much that you get your knickers in a twist about them, push a button on your remote control and read a book instead.
― Techly



Old Before Their Time


The newest model of Apple’s iPhone is due out this month, and for people with deep pockets, or for those who absolutely have to have the latest and greatest from Apple, that’s good news. No doubt it will be an excellent product. But will it be worth the high price tag of $1,000 for a device that will be useful only two or three years before the user discards it? Apple’s smartphones have always been high priced, and they haven’t had any trouble selling them. Apparently enough people think iPhones are worth the high price to keep Apple churning out new models.


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“No Walking Smartphone” sign in Okinawa, Japan. Photo by Connie Ma.

And churn is what it’s all about for the phone manufacturers, who want consumers buying the newest model to replace models that are only one, two, or three years old. It’s not all planned obsolescence, a sneaky plot by the manufacturers, because some of the churn is driven by the pace of changing technology and by consumer’s desire to have the latest and greatest. There are things phone makers have done, however, to make an older model phone prematurely less useful, such as creating barriers to repair by independently operating technicians. So much of the hardware is proprietary and locked down in one way or another by the manufacturer, with parts and service available only from their own very expensive shops, that consumers usually come to the conclusion they might as well buy a new model.

The situation in the electronics industry regarding independent versus factory authorized repair shops is comparable to an automotive repair scene where nearly the only option available to the consumer is the auto dealership because independents have been nearly frozen out by the manufacturer’s practices. The difference is that, unlike with cars, which cost $10,000 or more, many consumers seem to feel that electronics, the prices for which are generally below $1,000, are items better replaced than repaired, considering how the manufacturers have rigged the economics. Smartphone manufacturers in particular have widened and exploited this chink in the market.

Laptop and desktop computers are also sophisticated electronic devices, yet consumers don’t generally feel the need to replace them every two years. They are also more easily repaired or modified by independent agents or by the consumer, by adding higher capacity Random Access Memory (RAM) modules, for instance. The software lasts longer, too, with some users still relying on ten or fifteen year old operating systems, though that can be a dubious proposition for some less technologically savvy users who don’t know how to keep their software’s security up to date. None of these attributes appear to apply to smartphones, even though the frugal consumer will note that higher end smartphones fall in the same price range as the average laptop or desktop computer.

Smartphones by their nature have a small form factor, and that can make it difficult for manufacturers to pack every consumer’s every desire into each new model, at least until technology progresses further. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that between a smartphone’s internal data storage and a fingernail sized card that a user can load into the device, the data storage capacity of smartphones is now in the hundreds of gigabytes, up from several dozen just a few years ago. The computing capacity of these handheld devices now surpasses that of the average laptop or desktop computers available to home users at the beginning of this century. There’s little question then that, dollar for dollar, smartphones are a good value when comparing their computing power and usefulness with laptops and desktops.

2012.11.26 mobile relationship
Mobile Relationship, a 2012 cartoon by Manu Cornet.

What is in question is why a smartphone should give a consumer only two or three years of use before needing replacement. That’s an expensive proposition for people who are struggling to meet the mortgage payments on a modest house. Do those people need iPhones instead of other phones that cost two or three hundred dollars? Of course not, especially since some of the high price of Apple products is driven by fashion, not usefulness. Now that many of the telecommunication carriers have adopted up front or installment payments for their phones instead of rolling the price into a monthly plan on a two year contract, effectively hiding the price as far as the consumer was concerned, maybe the question of why that consumer can expect less than half the useful life from a smartphone than from their home computer will come up more often, and if the question is asked by enough buyers, especially if they withhold some of their dollars by skipping this year’s model, then maybe the phone manufacturers will amend some of their questionable practices.
― Techly


We Are Controlling Transmission


“It seems odd that every day we hear about a new smartphone app that lets you do something innovative, yet these modern-day mobile miracles don’t enable a key function offered by a 1982 Sony Walkman.”
― Ajit Pai, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in a speech he gave at a North American Broadcaster’s Association symposium on February 16, 2017.


If you have a smartphone, you might not be aware it has a chip in it that allows it to receive FM radio broadcasts. The phone manufacturers include the chip as a matter of course for all phones worldwide, and then coordinate with the carriers about activating it or not. In the United States, only about 44% of smartphones have activated FM radio chips, according to Mr. Pai. There are smartphone applications available that take advantage of the FM radio chip in the phone, and downloading and trying to use one of those applications is a way of determining if your carrier has activated the chip. Most likely, though, if you don’t see an application for “FM radio” already installed on the phone, then the chip is not activated.

5.6.2014 E-Rate Modernization Workshop (13959900047)
Ajit Pai at an FCC workshop on May 5, 2014.

Since the chip is already in the phone, why would the carriers not want it activated for their customers? Activation costs them nothing, after all. The carriers are suspiciously silent on this issue, which allows the rest of us, their paying customers, to speculate on their motivations and judge them harshly. Cellular phone companies are in the business of selling internet access along with phone service. Even though their phone contains a chip capable of receiving FM radio, most smartphone users can only access FM radio stations through an application such as TuneIn, which uses the internet to tap into a station’s streaming service, if it offers one. That sells data for the carriers. If your phone could access FM radio directly, your carrier would get nothing.

“We are controlling transmission.”

Besides saving data when accessing FM radio without using the internet, smartphone owners can expect longer battery life because their phone is not constantly using its transmitter to talk to the nearest cell tower the way it does when streaming media. The screen and the transmitter of a smartphone are the two biggest battery drains. Ownership of the phone brings up another issue – if it’s your phone, and it has the capability of receiving FM radio, your carrier should not be able to prevent you from using that feature. It appears the motivations of the carriers come down to greed and arrogance. Shocking!

To be fair, not all carriers disallow FM radio service and some of them disallow it only on some of their phones. No one understands why, because the carriers, who are in the communications business, are not talking. Some carriers don’t even bother to acknowledge there are public safety benefits to their customers of having access to FM radio outside of internet or cellular service during and immediately after a natural disaster, when those two services might be out of commission. The best course of action for smartphone users is to bring pressure to bear on their carriers, who up until now have been relying on the ignorance of their customers to get away with their policy. When you bought your phone, did your carrier advise you that it contained an FM radio chip? Most likely not, because then they would have had to explain why they wouldn’t let you use it. Take back control and make them explain themselves to you here and now.
― Techly

Motorola Transistor Radio 1960
An early transistor pocket radio by Motorola. The first Motorola brand automobile radio was produced in 1930. Motorola began the commercial production of transistors at a new $1.5 million facility in Phoenix in 1955. This advertisement is from the May 23, 1960 issue of Life magazine (page 13). The 1960 price of $24.95 translates to a little over $200 in 2017.


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