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!

January 26, 2016 January 26, 2016 infrastructure by Scott 1 Comment

Every­body just please stop say­ing “Inter­net of Things.”

January 3, 2016 January 3, 2016 tech by Scott No Comments

Radiator air valve

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.

Scotch 2228That 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.

October 3, 2015 October 3, 2015 home by Scott 1 Comment

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.


  1. Remem­ber alarm clocks that aren’t phones? 

September 16, 2015 September 16, 2015 design by Scott 5 Comments

I final­ly moved this site from a first-gen­er­a­tion Rack­space Cloud instance to a mod­ern SSD-based Dig­i­talO­cean droplet. I’ve been mean­ing to do that for at least a year.

It should be way faster. And it final­ly sup­ports IPv6. If you’re not using IPv6, it’s time to get on that.

September 16, 2015 September 16, 2015 meta by Scott No Comments

Finger

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.

September 3, 2015 September 3, 2015 family by Scott 3 Comments

LG B450

You’ve prob­a­bly heard of the B450, the hottest new flip phone from LG. It sup­ports voice calls, text mes­sag­ing, and it can take pic­tures with up to 1.3 mil­lion pix­els. The mar­ket­ing lit­er­a­ture promi­nent­ly fea­tures stock pho­tos of elder­ly peo­ple smil­ing at each oth­er.

F need­ed a new dumb­phone so we brought one of these bad boys home today. I was dis­ap­point­ed to find that you can’t sync files to it over USB. It only shows up as a USB device if the SIM card is removed, but then you’re locked out of the phone. That’s crazy. (Hey, it’s 2015, isn’t it?)

Copy­ing con­tacts off the old dumb­phone was easy with Wammu, which can quick­ly save them in any of a half-dozen file for­mats. But get­ting them onto the new one was going to be prob­lem­at­ic. The man­u­al says noth­ing about con­tact sync­ing, nor are there any menu options for it. LG offers no desk­top soft­ware for it. There is even an offi­cial T-Mobile forum post claim­ing that con­tact sync is just not pos­si­ble.

Wrong they are! In an act of des­per­a­tion, I found that you can send it a vCard (VCF) file over Blue­tooth. The phone responds by ask­ing if you want to restore con­tacts from the file. What! Since this is an undoc­u­ment­ed fea­ture, I here­by com­mit it to the Inter­webs.

August 18, 2015 August 18, 2015 tech by Scott 1 Comment

WKRC-TV Master Control c. 2001

I haven’t watched his show in years, but it is strange to think it’s done. When I worked (briefly!) in tele­vi­sion years ago, I would end every shift with the first 15 min­utes of Let­ter­man.

May 21, 2015 May 21, 2015 in-the-news by Scott No Comments