Archive for February, 2010

Feb 15 2010

When you have to freeze your phone, technology is too complex

My iPhone seemed to work better on ice, so I spent the last two hours alternating between chilling it in the freezer and pressing buttons. The WiFi kept cutting out, and I read somewhere that one of the failure modes for the iPhone radio was thermal. Amazingly enough, it worked, and the WiFi would run for maybe three minutes after ten minutes of chilling. I desperately needed it to work, because my 3G service was down until I could install Ultrasn0w, the iPhone unlocking software. Which can only be installed by a program called Cydia, which only downloads new software over a WiFi network. I have to use unlocking software in the first place because US model iPhones are keyed to work only with AT&T, which doesn’t exist in Hong Kong. I successfully unlocked my phone months ago, and everything was working fine until I upgraded the firmware, which I did in the hopes of fixing the WiFi which failed last week.

If you didn’t follow that, consider yourself fortunate. You’ve never needed to wonder about such things.

It gets better. When I reset my phone it lost the WiFi password to my home network. I couldn’t find it written down. I couldn’t remember the password to log into my router to look it up. The internet told me how to reset the router at the hardware level, but to reconfigure the wireless I’d need to connect my laptop to it with a cable. Which I didn’t have. Luckily, I eventually remembered the router password.

I started drinking.

Password problem solved, every ten minutes I’d open the freezer door, reset the WiFi on my phone, wait for Cydia to download its package list, then tell it to download the mere 50kb of Ultrasn0w and hope to hell the radio didn’t blink out in the middle of the tiny transfer. Now I know exactly how many bars I get in the back of the freezer.

After eight or nine tries, I opened the freezer door to find my phone on the 3G network. Success!

Actually, it was way more involved than this. I left out a bunch of steps, all the things I tried that didn’t work. And of course the firmware upgrade did not fix the WiFi, so this experiment put me right back were I started and wasted six hours of my life and two tumblers of rather nice whiskey. At least I didn’t have to go out of my way to retrieve the ice.

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Feb 13 2010

Brain-Sharing, Illustrated

I found this awesome little video exploring the idea of plugging in someone else’s brain for a while to see how they see the world.

I sort of feel like this is what I’m doing when I hang out with certain people, or when I read certain authors or watch certain films. It’s always exhilarating to step inside someone else’s exquisitely constructed universe. Communication excites me.

This is from TV Ontario’s YouTube channel — that would be in Canada, folks, and the purveyor of my childhood television. My mom used to direct shows for them. Glad to see they’re still doing the occasional interesting thing.

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Feb 08 2010

In Xinjiang, the Internet is Guilty Until Proven Innocent

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We are witnessing the birth of a new kind of internet censorship in the Xinjiang province of Western China: the kind where a web site must be specifically allowed, instead of specifically disallowed.

China’s largest province was disconnected from the world completely, including a shutdown of phones and SMS, after hundreds of people were killed in separatist protests by the Uyghur minority people in July. Today, the Far West Blog reports that 27 more web sites have been allowed through the previously complete internet block. Wow. A whole 27. That brings the total number of extra-provincial sites accessible to Xinjiang residents to 31, and all of them are inside China.

The Chinese government maintains that the US-based “World Uyghur Congress” instigated the riots from overseas using the internet and SMS. No communications, no riots, the logic goes. And perhaps this is true, if myopic (fascinating debate on this here).

But there is something very wrong about opening up sites one by one like this, despite the fact that state-run Xinhua news agency is playing it up as communications being “restored”. The current Xinjian policy represents a new and extremely troubling flavor of censorship: rather than some sites being blocked, some sites are allowed. This is a white list, as opposed to the usual black list; the default is now “no”. Bearing in mind that personal satellite dishes are illegal in China, this means the government has complete control over the information that people are exposed to. This is just like the pre-internet era in any number of times and places, really, but that doesn’t make it any better.

At least text messaging, including international text messaging, was restored two weeks ago.

According to Far West Blog, here is what you now get from the outside world if you live in Xinjiang:

  • 7 News Sites (including China Daily and CCTV)
  • 4 Travel Sites (including Ctrip and Air China)
  • 3 Business & Finance Sites
  • 3 Telecom Sites (all three major Chinese carriers)
  • 2 Shopping Sites (including Taobao, China’s version of eBay)
  • 2 Computer Service Sites (so you can update your anti-virus)
  • 2 Gaming Sites (more flash games…yippee)
  • 2 Education Sites (study materials for students and help for teachers)
  • 1 Fashion Site

Yes, this also means no IM, no Skype, no email, no nothing outside of the province. “I have had to sit here and endure a frustrating feeling that we are now living in the stone ages,” says Far West Blog writer Josh.

These 31 sites seem ridiculously limited, and these limits (no email!) would severely hamper business in the affluent Eastern provinces. Xinjiang has only 20 million people, so perhaps China can more or less do without it for a while. But what if the national firewall let through only, say, the top 10,000 or 100,000 currently uncensored international sites? How much easier it would be to prevent some pesky overseas message board from cropping up to corrupt Chinese minds! Why, your world-censoring work would practically be done for you, and almost no one would be the wiser.

Let’s hope that this isn’t a precedent.

UPDATE: There are rumours, based on government statements in December, that a national whitelist is planned. Nothing definitive yet.

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Feb 01 2010

Jürgen Habermas says he’s not on Twitter

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Over the last several days there has been considerable hubbub around the notion that pioneering media theorist Jürgen Habermas might have signed up for Twitter as @JHabermas. This would be “important if true”, as Jay Rosen put it. Intrigued, I tracked him down through the University of Frankfurt. I succeeded in getting him on the phone at his home in Sternburg, and asked him if he was on Twitter. He said,

No, no, no. This is somebody else. This is a mis-use of my name.

He added that “my email address is not publicly available,” which suggests that perhaps he didn’t quite understand what I was getting at. In fact, the father of the public sphere doesn’t seem to understand the internet very well at all, judging by his few previous references to the topic.

I know many people will be disappointed, especially @bitchphd who tweeted “JURGEN HABERMAS is on twitter. definitive response to all future articles about how stupid twitter is.” Personally I believe that Twitter is significant even without Habermas, but it’s clear that this is an issue for the next generation of theorists to decide.

UPDATE: here is an audio recording of my question and his answer.

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