Make my phone more like email

I used to love email. I still do, except so few people use it any more.

I used to use email almost like people use text messages now. I’d write little, one-topic messages and send them to one (or a few) people. Most of the people I exchanged email with had their email on for most of the day, so they’d get the message in just a few minutes and then be able to respond (or not, if they didn’t want to). If they (or I) didn’t want to be available to be contacted for a period of time, it was easy to put the computer to sleep, or turn off email notifications.

It was also easy to get a little more fancy than that. For example, I often set my email client to check email every hour or every half-hour, instead of the default of every few minutes. I was still able to be responsive to people who sent me email, but I wasn’t constantly interrupted by random notifications from random sources.

That’s half of what I’d like to be able to get my phone to do—batch up alerts, and then give them to me on a schedule that I pick.

The other half is to shut up about telling anybody else about what I’m doing. My email didn’t send any information back to people, except the information I told it to send back. (Sure, my mail server knew when I was connecting and from what IP address, but it kept that information to itself.)

If I was going batch up notifications so that I’d only get them every hour anyway, I’d like my phone to disconnect from the network for the 59 minutes in between. There’s no need for anybody, including Verizon and Google, to know where I am in between.

(Of course if I get my phone out to check something I’d like it to quickly connect to the network so it can do so, but that technology works just fine.)

I could almost do that by just turning my phone off for 59 minutes and then turning it back on, except that obviously doesn’t do the trick unless I carry around another timing device to remind me every hour that I want to turn the phone back on. Plus it’s a lot of fiddling around for the hours in which I don’t receive any notifications (not that there are very many of those).

Admittedly, all kinds of things are made easier by being always connected, such as the ability to prioritize a handful of alerts to come immediately—phone calls, text messages from intimates, tornado warnings, etc. But for me, the mental model of email was vastly preferable to the stupid array of alerts I’ve got now.

Open Wireless

Both my brother and the local makerspace’s Brian Duggan shared the link to the EFF’s Why We Need An Open Wireless Movement. Steven, because he’s the only person he knows who actually does run an open access point for his home network, and Brian because the local meshing network access point project is already able to provide this part of the necessary functionality.

At the meeting last night with some of access point folks, we got a quick demo of how to configure an access point running OpenWrt so that it provided both a closed network with access to the LAN and an open network that only had access to the WAN (hence, no access to local servers, printers, etc.).

The demo didn’t go as far as to show how to configure the system with quality of service limitations on the open network (so that random strangers can use your network, but can’t suck down all your bandwidth). Figuring that out will be one of my next steps.

There’s some info on OpenWrt’s quality of service page, but it’d be really nice to have an example with some appropriate settings that would allow some basic email and web surfing while leaving most of the bandwidth of a typical cable or DSL connection available for the connection owner. I haven’t found that yet. (Actually, I think I understand why it doesn’t exist. The upload and download speeds are set in kBits/s, so the correct values depend on the speed of your underlying connection. Values that shared 10% of a fast cable-modem connection could consume a large fraction of a DSL connection. Still, it’d be nice if there were some suggested values for typical configurations.)

Maker fair

independent Media Center
Independent Media Center in Urbana

Jackie and I spent Saturday morning at the Maker Fair at the Independent Media Center in downtown Urbana.

I’m late to the Maker movement. Being very much not handy, I’ve always avoided making things. It’s part of the reason that both writing and software have always appealed to me—you don’t have to actually make anything.

Gradually, though, I’ve been coming around.

For one thing, I’ve come to appreciate two ideas: Getting help, and starting by learning the narrowest possible skill set (which can then be expanded if you enjoy the activity).

Me wearing the scarf I wove
Me wearing the scarf I wove (photo by Jackie Brewer)

For example, a couple of years ago, I wove a scarf. I say I wove it, and that’s technically true: I did all the weaving. However, I had quite a bit of help with the other parts. In particular, Jackie wound the warp and put it on the loom. (I came up with the design myself, based on some scarves that we saw for sale that were surprisingly inexpensive for handwoven. The key to the modest price was that they used fuzzy yarn set very wide—about 4 threads per inch. That meant that it both used less yarn and took less time.)

If I’d had to wind my own warp and put it on the loom myself, I doubt if I’d have made it. I’d have had to learn three new skills, and I’d have had to execute all three without making any unrecoverable errors. Instead I got gentle introductions to two of those skills, and actually learned the third. And I made a scarf.

The Maker Fair was great. There’s all kinds of cool stuff going on in Champaign-Urbana. We had great fun talking with Jonathan Manton who was making paper polyhedrons using Inkscape images of the flat shapes of the faces, software he’d written that added tabs and slots, and then a digitally controlled paper cutter to cut out the shapes. He called the whole thing the Large Hedron Collider.

One of the most interesting things that I hadn’t been aware of is the FabLab, a community facility sponsored by the University (and many other organizations) that has various fabrication devices—computer-controlled cutters, routers, engravers—available for use by members of the community. We’re definitely going to spend some time there.

Brian Duggan (one of the organizers, and a guy I know from work) told me that there was a group there working on deploying a meshing networking system, an important technology for protecting our rights. (See my recent post on whether civil unrest would threaten our network connectivity).

Lots of other cool stuff: model rockets, zines, art, music, etc. I’m going to have to get more involved with all this. In particular, I’m planning to start going on Thursday evenings to get involved with the meshing networks project.

Would we lose internet service if there were riots?

All the smart folks on twitter have been asking questions along this line. If we had civil unrest, would the government try to cut off our internet access? (I have no doubt that if they tried, they’d succeed. Internet and cell phone providers are regulated companies; they’d roll over in two seconds.)

I think that would be bad.

First of all, it would be unconstitutional. At a minimum, such an action would infringe several first amendment freedoms: speech, press, assembly, and to petition the government.

More important, in a stable democracy like the US, I think internet and cellular service would be at least as much a stabilizing force as it would be a destabilizing force. In the event of civil unrest there would be many powerful voices calling for calm and for non-violence. Shutting off the internet would silence those voices along with the voices of those trying to organize protests.

So, I just sent this note to my congressman, urging him to take steps to protect citizens’ access to telecommunications services:

Prompted by the recent news that the Egyptian government cut off internet and cell phone connectivity for its citizens, it occurred to me that this tool of repression should not be available in the United States.

At a minimum, I urge you to oppose any legislation along the lines of last year’s “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act,” but I think you should go further.

I’d very much like to see legislation that would specifically bar the government from shutting down internet or cellular connectivity for US citizens, and that would bar telecommunication providers from “voluntarily” complying with “requests” from the government that they stop providing connectivity to persons in the US.

Of course, legal solutions only go so far. They would be much strengthened by technological solutions. Cell phones and internet access points can be designed to mesh with other nearby devices. That would make it vastly more difficult for a top-down order to shut down connectivity—hopefully, difficult enough that governments wouldn’t even try.

[Updated 30 January 2011: Here’s a list of ad-hoc meshing protocols that might serve as a basis for making a top-down shutdown impossible.]