This article is a really thoughtful answer to a common question. It’s an interesting predicament for those (like me) who think we should build more things in America. And it offers further proof that the anti-globalization, anti-trade policies championed by many candidates in this year’s election–guilty parties include Trump, Cruz, and yes, Sanders–are a completely wrong and disastrous solution to the problem of declining industrial output.
I just spent a few days at the Embedded Linux Conference. I get that it’s probably one of the largest communities of desktop Linux users assembled anywhere, but I am surprised to see that Microsoft-bashing is still a thing.
The fact is–and I don’t know how they’re doing it–Microsoft is firing on all cylinders these days. Windows 10 is actually really nice, to the point where it feels like a subtly colorful, human-centric breath of fresh air next to Mac OS X. They are increasingly embracing open standards, interoperability, and open source in surprising ways, while Apple and Google move the other direction.
Meanwhile, Linux as a desktop is still pretty terrible in 2016 for all but console-driven programmers. (I say this as a serious user of the Linux command line.)
Ubiquitous and reliable [landline] telephone service was one of the great electrical engineering achievements of the previous century. Its story is fascinating and the ways in which it changed communities and economies are innumerable.
I am fortunate enough to have had a brief period of access to a telephone central office back in the peak of the landline telephone’s popularity (1999). A CO is an engineer’s dream. Tens of thousands of copper pairs in improbably thick bundles, sheathed in all manner of period-appropriate materials (including lead), drape across massive steel supports in cable vaults beneath the city streets. They rise up into the distribution frame where they are terminated with the prevailing technology of their time: solder, wire-wrap, or punch-down terminals. From there the copper continues its journey to racks and racks of telephone switches which effectively bridge more than 100 years of communication technologies.
In spite of the Bell/AT&T monopoly that lasted well into the 1980s, the system was designed with insane attention to quality and reliability. Hardware was robust and over-engineered. Wires were artfully routed through racks with cable lacing techniques. Buildings housing switching equipment were designed to withstand a range of disasters, natural and unnatural. Power was provided by enormous central batteries, making the whole system independent of the whims of the power grid. Some customers experienced uninterrupted service for decades.
Unfortunately, the whole system is falling apart. The problem here in New England begins 16 years ago with the made-up word Verizon.
In a weird turn for a once-mighty sector broken up by federal antitrust action, huge waves of consolidation began taking place in telecom around Y2K. Lack of competition and relentless focus on short-term profits (thanks in part to the emergence of mega-profitable mobile phone service) led to a complete lack of investment in infrastructure. Old cables were left to rot in place. Upgrades simply didn’t happen. Verizon, aware of the opportunity presented by this new “Internet” thing, briefly started deploying mega-fast future-proof fiber-to-the-home service, but permanently froze investment before the system could be expanded to urban Boston. If you want high speed Internet service here today, you’re stuck with cable TV (America’s other favorite monopoly)!
I have been a landline phone customer for far longer than my peers. I still have one. But for all the purported advantages (call quality, reliability) it sucks. My service fails at least once a year now, usually due to wet cables. Verizon dutifully “repairs” it every time, a technician once explained, by moving my service to an open trunk pair with less water damage.
The final nail in the POTS coffin is nuisance calls. My phone rings a half-dozen times a day now with everything from surveys to news that I’ve won a free cruise, a vague “problem with my credit card account,” or (most commonly now) a recording claiming to be National Grid seeking to scam some personal information of mine. Verizon is doing nothing about it, and they honestly seem to not give a fuck.
I like having a home phone. The audio quality is so much better than that of highly compressed mobile phone calls. I like the bulk and weight of an old-school receiver in my hand. It’s great not to worry about battery charge. Or holding a warm radio transmitter against my brain for hours.
So here we go, into the brave new world of VoIP. The golden era of analog phone service is over. One last holdout, cutting the cord!
Everybody just please stop saying “Internet of Things.”
There are a lot of bad jokes about fixing things with duct tape. None of them are funny because–let’s be honest–duct tape sucks. There are lot of fine tape products out there, and 3M makes most of them (disclosure: I’m a huge fan of pretty much every 3M product), but there is one standout that nobody has heard of and every homeowner should own. That would be Scotch 2228, an EPR-based self-fusing mastic rubber tape intended for the electrical industry. It is thick, a little bit sticky, and stretches like taffy. It has the incredible property of fusing with itself to form a solid rubber blob. It is meant to be wrapped around outdoor electrical splices to protect them from moisture, but I have discovered a much more awesome off-label use.
That would be for the temporary repair of plumbing leaks. Like all good New Englanders, we heat our house with cast-iron hot water radiators, which are generally awesome. But they have an Achilles heel, the lowly air bleed valve, which has one job in life: to let trapped air out and keep the water in. Until one day, when it just can’t take it anymore. Once the air valve starts dripping stinky radiator water on the floor, it’s hopeless. You can try to tighten it way harder than it’s designed for and hope that helps (that’s what plumbers like to do, judging by the wrench marks). Or you can replace them. But what do you do in the meantime?
Enter Scotch 2228. Wrap a piece of this stuff very tightly around the leaking valve. Cinch down on it with a couple of zip ties. Blammo! The leak is stopped within minutes. When you come back to replace the valve for real, you can’t peel the tape off because it has fused into a solid object. You have to saw it off with a knife. That’s how great this product is.
In my dream last night, I was confronted with a product so annoying that, upon waking, I couldn’t believe it doesn’t already exist.
It’s a Selfie Alarm Clock. You know, like a regular bedside alarm clock1, but instead of a snooze button, it has a “selfie” button. It works as you’d expect.
Go ahead: build it and get rich. You can thank me later.
- Remember alarm clocks that aren’t phones? ↩
I am pleased to announce that, two weeks ago, I became the father of a healthy, amazing baby girl. The experience has been beautiful and meaningful beyond my wildest expectations. I look forward to watching her grow up, and being there to observe and take part in every milestone along the way.