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The Old Man and His Smartphone

I recently started using my very first smartphone, and it was suggested that I blog about the resulting experiences.  So here you go!
The previous episode speculated about the past, so this episode will make some wild guesses about the future.

There has been much hue and cry about the ill effects of people being glued to their smartphones.  I have tended to discount this viewpoint due to having seen a great many people's heads buried in newspapers, magazines, books, and television screens back in the day.  And yes, there was much hue and cry about that as well, so I guess some things never change.

However, a few years back, the usual insanely improbable sequence of events resulted in me eating dinner with the Chief of Police of a mid-sized but prominent city, both of which will go nameless.  He called out increased smartphone use as having required him to revamp his training programs.  You see, back in the day, typical recruits could reasonably be expected to have the social skills required to defuse a tense situation, using what he termed "verbal jiujitsu".  However, present-day recruits need to take actual classes in order to master this lost art.

I hope that we can all agree that it is far better for officers of the law to maintain order through use of vocal means, perhaps augmented with force of personality, especially given that the alternative seems to the use of violence.  So perhaps the smartphone is responsible for some significant social change after all.  Me, I will leave actual judgment on this topic to psychologists, social scientists, and of course historians.  Not that any of them are likely to reach a conclusion that I would trust.  Based on past experience, far from it!  The benefit of leaving such judgments to them is instead that it avoids me wasting any further time on such judgments.  Or so I hope.

It is of course all too easy to be extremely gloomy about the overall social impact of smartphones.  One could easily argue that people freely choose spreading misinformation over accessing vast stores of information, bad behavior over sweetness and light, and so on and so forth.

But it really is up to each and every one of us.  After all, if life were easy, I just might do a better job of living mine.  So maybe we all need to brush up on our social skills.  And to do a better job of choosing what to post, to say nothing of what posts to pass on.  Perhaps including the blog posts in this series!

Cue vigorous arguments on the appropriateness of these goals, or, failing that, the best ways to accomplish them.  ;-)

The Old Man and His Smartphone, Episode VI

A common science-fiction conceit is some advanced technology finding its way into a primitive culture, so why not consider what might happen if my smartphone were transported a few centuries back in time?

Of course, my most strongly anticipated smartphone use, location services, would have been completely useless as recently as 30 years ago, let alone during the 1700s.  You see, these services require at least 24 GPS satellites in near earth orbit, which didn't happen until 1993.

My smartphone's plain old telephony functionality would also have been useless surprisingly recently, courtesy of its need for large numbers of cell towers, to say nothing of the extensive communications network interconnecting them.  And I am not convinced that my smartphone would have been able to use the old analog cell towers that were starting to appear in the 1980s, but even if it could, for a significant portion of life, my smartphone would have completely useless as a telephone.

Of course, the impressive social-media capabilities of my smartphone absolutely require the huge networking and server infrastructure that has been in place only within the past couple of decades.

And even though my smartphone's battery lifetime is longer than I expected, extended operation relies on the power grid, which did not exist at all until the late 1800s. So any wonderment generated by my transported-back-in-time smartphone would be of quite limited duration.  But let's avoid this problem through use of a solar-array charger.

My smartphone probably does not much like water, large changes in temperature, or corrosive environments.  Its dislike of adverse environmental conditions would have quickly rendered it useless in a couple of my childhood houses, to say nothing of almost all buildings in existence a couple of centuries ago.  This means that long-term use would require confining my smartphone to something like a high-end library located some distance from bodies of salt water and from any uses of high-sulfur coal.  This disqualifies most 1700s Western Hemisphere environments, as well as many of the larger Eastern Hemisphere cities, perhaps most famously London with its pea-soup "fogs".  Environmental considerations also pose interesting questions regarding exactly how to deploy the solar array, especially during times of inclement weather.

So what could my smartphone do back in the 1700s?

  • Record, store, and play back audio.  This seems unimpressive, but given Dom Pedro II's "My God it talks!" reaction to a demonstration of telephony, perhaps it might pique some interest.  Or provoke accusations of witchcraft, as the case might be.

  • Take, store, and display photos.  But it would not be possible to print them, so the services of an artist would still be required.

  • Edit photos.  However, this might not be seen as particularly valuable, especially given the need for an artist as printer.

  • Measure sound and light intensity (courtesy of Clifford Dibble).  It is not clear how valuable this would seem to our 1700s counterparts, but given the N-ray fiasco much later on, there can be no doubt that this would be quite useful.

  • Act as an electronic whiteboard, albeit a rather small one.  Chalkboards might be perceived as a better option, especially given that the services of a scrivener would be required to make any needed permanent records.

  • Store vast volumes of information.  A significant portion, and perhaps even all, of the 1700s English-language body of literature and technical works would fit into a single smartphone.  "A library that fits in yor pocket!"  Except that the device's long-term health would probably require it to be confined to an actual library with physical books, so perhaps it would be the searching capabilities that would be most useful.  And the most threatening to 1700s men of books, which might also provoke accusations of witchcraft.

  • Take, store, and display video.  This could be quite impressive.  However, making a permanent record would provide permanent employment for the aforementioned artist.

  • Act as a small flashlight.  Which is said to be the most frequent use for OLPC laptops, so this might well be the smartphone feature rated most valuable by our 1700s counterparts.

  • Act as a motion sensor.  I must confess that I was unable to come up with any applications of this feature that would be of any interest to my 1700s counterpart, but Maged Michael noted that it can be used as a compass and a level.  Given the right apps, anyway.  Perhaps given appropriate (yet to be written?) apps, this could be used for inertial navigation, perhaps for mapping caves.  But given that Peter Puget was able to produce an accurate map of significant portions of Puget Sound in about a week using a pair of rowboats, some oarsmen, and standard late-1700s navigational equipment, it is not clear that smartphone intertial navigation would be seen as all that valuable.

  • Tell time.  But is a smartphone's timekeeping all that accurate without the occasional contact with a cell tower, GPS satellite, or Internet timeserver?  If so, this would be a killer app for the Longitude Problem, but too bad about the electronics-unfriendly environmentals of 1700s ships.  And the fact that there would be only one smartphone, severely limiting its usefulness.

  • Human-language translation (courtesy of Clifford Dibble), at least assuming that the required translation dictionaries were downloaded ahead of time.  It is quite possible that simply displaying various translation dictionaries all in a small package would be more impressive to our 1700s counterparts than the actual translation.

  • Portable mathematical tables (courtesy of Clifford Dibble).  Although this would likely involve a scientific-calculator app, it is likely that the best way to explain this to our 1700s counterparts would be as a very compact set of mathematical tables.  The concept of a scientific calculator would likely need to come later, and perhaps much later if the 1700s counterpart in question was prone to accusations of witchcraft.  (Yes, I do still have my old and well-used copy of the CRC Standard Mathematical Tables along with a rather less well-used copy of Gradshteyn and Ryzhik.)

  • Act as a computer, at least assuming the requisite code-development environment was installed.  This could be quite impressive, assuming that you either had an app already or snuck away somewhere in order to carry out the debugging process.  I would guess that our 1700s counterparts would be thinking in terms of computing more accurate and more extensive mathematical tables.  Very meticulous scriveners would of course be required for this work.  Of course, this leads to really important questions, such as "What editors and computer languages would be most popular with our 1700s counterparts?"

I leave off any number of uses that involve ferrying information from 2019 back to the 1700s.  Even an accurate seacoast map could be quite useful and illuminating, but this topic has been examined quite closely by several generations of science-fiction writers, so I would not expect to be able to add anything new.  However, it might be both useful and entertaining to review some of this genre.  Everyone will have their favorites, but I will just list the three that came to mind most quickly:  Heinlein's "The Door into Summer", Zemeckis's and Gale's "Back to the Future" movies, and Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  So let us proceed, leaving back-in-time transportation of information to today's legion of science-fiction writers.

The upshot of all this is that if my smartphone were transported back to the 1700s, it would be completely unable to provide its most commonly used 2019 functionality.  However, given a solar array charger and development environment, and given a carefully controlled environment, it might nevertheless be quite impressive to our 1700s counterparts.

In fact, it would be quite impressive much more recently.  Just imagine if, at the end of the Mother of all Demos, Douglas Engelbart had whipped out a ca-2019 smartphone.

But the hard cold fact is that in some ways, a 2019 smartphone would actually have been a step backwards from Engelbart's famous demo.  After all, Englebart's demo allowed shared editing of a document.  Lacking both wifi and a cell-phone network, and given the severe range limitations of NFC, my smartphone would be utterly incapable of shared editing of documents.

In short, although might smartphone might be recognized as a very impressive device back in the day, the hard cold fact is that it is but the tiniest tip of a huge iceberg of large-scale technology, including forests of cell towers, globe-girdling fiber-optic cables, vast warehouses stuffed with servers, and even a constellation of satellites.  Thus, the old adage "No one is an island" was never more true than it is today.  However, the bridges between our respective islands seem to be considerably more obscure than they were in the old days.  Which sooner or later will call into question whether these bridges will be properly maintained, but that question applies all too well to a depressingly broad range of infrastructure on which we all depend.

Which leads to another old adage: "The more things change, the more they stay the same".  :-)

The Old Man and His Smartphone, Episode V

So after many years of bragging about my wristwatch's exemplary battery lifetime (years, I tell you, years!!!), I find myself a member of that very non-exclusive group that worries about battery lifetime.  But I have been pleasantly surprised to find that my smartphone's battery lasts quite a bit longer than I would have expected, in fact, it is not unusual for the battery to last through two or three days of normal usage.  And while that isn't years, it isn't at all bad.

That is, battery lifetime isn't at all bad as long as I have location services (AKA GPS) turned off.

With GPS on, the smartphone might or might not make it through the day. Which is a bit ironic given that GPS was the main reason that I knew I would eventually be getting a smartphone.  And the smartphone isn't all that happy about my current policy of keeping the GPS off unless I am actively using it.  The camera in particular keeps whining about how it could tag photos with their locations if only I would turn the GPS on.  However, I have grown used to this sort of thing, courtesy of my television constantly begging me to connect it to Internet.  Besides, if my smartphone were sincerely concerned about tagging my photos with their locations, it could always make use of the good and sufficient location data provided by the cell towers that I happen to know that it is in intimate contact with!

GPS aside, I am reasonably happy with my smartphone's current battery lifetime.  Nevertheless, long experience with other battery-powered devices leads me to believe that it will undergo the usual long slow decay over time.  But right now, it is much better than I would have expected, and way better than any of my laptops.

Then again, I am not (yet) in the habit of running rcutorture on my smartphone...

The Old Man and His Smartphone, Episode IV

I took my first GPS-enabled road trip today in order to meet a colleague for lunch.  It was only about an hour drive each way, but that was nevertheless sufficient to highlight one big advantage of GPS as well as to sound a couple of cautionary notes.

The big advantage didn't seem particularly advantageous at first.  The phone had announced that I should turn left at Center Street, but then inexplicably changed its mind, instead asking me to instead turn left on a road with a multi-syllabic vaguely Germanic name.  On the return trip, I learned that I had actually missed the left turn onto Center Street courtesy of that road's name changing to Wyers Road at the crossing.  So I saw a sign for Wyers Road and sensibly (or so I thought) elected not to turn left at that point.  The phone seamlessly autocorrected, in fact so seamlessly that I was completely unaware that I had missed the turn.

The first cautionary note involved the phone very quickly changing its mind on which way I should go.  It initially wanted me to go straight ahead for the better part of a mile, but then quickly and abruptly asked me to instead take a hard right-hand turn.  In my youth, this abrupt change might have terminally annoyed me, but one does (occasionally) learn patience with advancing age.

That and the fact that following its initial advice to go straight ahead would have taken me over a ditch, through a fence, and across a pasture.

The second cautionary note was due to the Fall colors here in Upstate New York, which caused me to let the impatient people behind me pass, rather than following my usual practice of taking the presence of tailgaters as a hint to pick up the pace.  I therefore took a right onto a side road, intending to turn around in one of the conveniently located driveways so that I could continue enjoying the Fall colors as I made my leisurely way up the highway.  But my smartphone instead suggested driving ahead for a short way to take advantage of a loop in the road.  I figured it knew more about the local geography than I did, so I naively followed its suggestion.

My first inkling of my naivete appeared when my smartphone asked me to take a right turn onto a one-lane gravel road.  I was a bit skeptical, but the gravel road appeared to have been recently graveled and also appeared to be well-maintained, so why not?  A few hundred yards in, the ruts became a bit deeper than my compact rental car would have preferred, but it is easy to position each pair of wheels on opposite sides of the too-deep rut and continue onwards.

But then I came to the stream crossing the road.

The stream covered perhaps 15 or 20 feet of the road, but on the other hand, it appeared to be fairly shallow in most places, which suggested that crossing it (as my smartphone was suggesting) might be feasible.  Except that there were a few potholes of indeterminate depth filled with swiftly swirling water, with no clear way to avoid them.  Plus the water had eroded the road surface a foot or two below its level elsewhere, which suggested that attempting to drive into the stream might leave my rental car high-centered on the newly crafted bank, leaving my poor car stuck with its nose down in the water and its rear wheels spinning helplessly in the air.

Fortunately, rental cars do have a reverse gear, but unfortunately my body is less happy than it might once have been to maintain the bent-around posture required to look out the rear window while driving backwards several hundred yards down a windy gravel road.  Fortunately, like many late-model cars, this one has a rear-view camera that automatically activates when the car is put into the reverse gear, but unfortunately I was unable to convince myself that driving several hundred yards backwards down a narrow and windy gravel road running through a forest was a particularly good beginner's use of this new-age driving technique.  (So maybe I should take the hint and practice driving backwards using the video in a parking lot?  Or maybe not...)

Which led to the next option, that of turning the car around on a rutted one-lane gravel road.  Fortunately the car is a compact, so this turned out to be just barely possible, and even more fortunately there were no other cars on the road waiting for me to complete my multipoint-star turn-around manuever.  (Some of my acquaintances will no doubt point out that had I been driving a large pickup, crossing the stream would have been a trivial event unworthy of any notice.  This might be true, but I was in fact driving a compact.)

But all is well that ends well.  After a few strident but easily ignored protests, my phone forgave my inexplicable deviation from its carefully planned and well-crafted route and deigned to guide me the rest of the way to my destination.

And, yes, it even kept me on paved roads.
I still haven't installed many apps, but I have already come across lookalike apps that offer interesting services that are less pertinent to my current mode of existence than the apps I was actually looking for.  So perhaps app spam will become as much an issue as plain old email spam.

I also took my first-ever selfie, thus learning that using the camera on the same side of the smartphone as the screen gets you a mirror-imaged photograph.  I left the selfie that way on my obligatory Facebook post for purposes of historical accuracy and as a cautionary tale, but it turns out to be quite easy to flip photos (both horizonally and vertically) from the Android Gallery app. It is also possible to change brightness and contrast, add captions, add simple graphics, scrawl over the photo in various colors, adjust perspective, and so on.  An application popped up and offered much much much more (QR code scanning! OCR! Other stuff I didn't bother reading!), but only if I would agree to the license.  Which I might do some time in the future.

I have not yet worked out how I will carry the smartphone long term.  For the moment, it rests in the classic nerd position in my shirt pocket (truth in advertising!!!).

My wife was not all that impressed with the smartphone, which is not too surprising given that grade-school students commonly have them.  She did note that if someone broke into it, they could be taking pictures of her without her knowledge.  I quickly overcame that potential threat by turning the smartphone the other side up, so that any unauthorized photography would be confined to the inside of my shirt pocket.  :-)

The Old Man and His Smartphone, Episode II

At some point in the setup process, it was necessary to disable wifi.  And I of course forgot to re-enable it.  A number of apps insisted on downloading new versions.  Eventually I realized my mistake, and re-enabled wifi, but am still wondering just how severe a case of sticker shock I am in for at the end of the month.

Except that when I re-enabled wifi, I did so in my hotel room.  During the last day of my stay at that hotel.  So I just now re-enabled it again on the shuttle.  I can clearly see that I have many re-enablings of wifi in my future, apparently one per hotspot that I visit.  :-)

Some refinement of notifications is still required.  Some applications notify me, but upon opening the corresponding app, there is no indication of any reason for notification.  I have summarily disabled notifications for some of these, and will perhaps learn the hard way why this was a bad idea.  Another issue is that some applications have multiple devices on which they can notify me.  It would be really nice if they stuck to the device I was actively using at the time rather than hitting them all, but perhaps that is too much to ask for in this hyperconnected world.

My new smartphone's virtual keyboard represents a definite improvement over the multipress nature of text messaging on my old flip phone, but it does not hold a candle to a full-sized keyboard.  However, even this old man must confess that it is much faster to respond to the smartphone than to the laptop if both start in their respective sleeping states.  There is probably an optimal strategy in there somewhere!  :-)

The Old Man and His Smartphone, Episode I

I have long known that I would sooner or later be getting a smartphone, and this past Tuesday it finally happened.  So, yes, at long last I am GPS-enabled, and much else besides, a little of which I actually know how to use.

It took quite a bit of assistance to get things all wired together, so a big "Thank You" to my fellow bootcamp members!  I quickly learned that simply telling applications that they can't access anything is self-defeating, though one particular application reacted by simply not letting go of the screen.  Thankfully someone was on hand to tell me about the button in the lower right, and how to terminate an offending application by sweeping up on it. And I then quickly learned that pressing an app button spawns a new instance of that app, whether or not an instance was already running.  I quickly terminated a surprising number of duplicate app instances that I had spawned over the prior day or so.

Someone also took pity on me and showed me how to silence alerts from attention-seeking apps, with one notable instance being an app that liked to let me know when spam arrived for each instance of spam.

But having a portable GPS receiver has proven handy a couple of times already, so I can already see how these things could become quite addictive.  Yes, I resisted for a great many years, but my smartphone-free days are now officially over.  :-)

Announcement: Change of Venue

This week of September 30th marks my last week at IBM, and I couldn't be more excited to be moving on to the next phase of my career by joining a great team at Facebook! Yes, yes, I am bringing with me my maintainership of both Linux-kernel RCU and the Linux-kernel memory model, my editing of "Is Parallel Programming Hard, And, If So, What Can You Do About It?", and other similar items, just in case you were wondering. ;-)

Of course, it is only appropriate for me to express my gratitude and appreciation for the many wonderful colleagues at IBM, before that at Sequent, and more recently at Red Hat. Together with others in the various communities, we in our own modest way have changed the world several times over. It was a great honor and privilege to have worked with you, and I expect and hope that our path will cross again. For those in the Linux-kernel and C/C++ standards communities, our paths will continue to run quite closely, and I look forward to continued productive and enjoyable collaborations.

I also have every reason to believe that IBM will continue to be a valuable and essential part of the computing industry as it continues through its second century, especially given the recent addition of Red Hat to the IBM family.

But all that aside, I am eagerly looking forward to starting Facebook bootcamp next week. Which is said to involve one of those newfangled smartphones. ;-)
I build quite a few Linux kernels, mostly in support of my deep and abiding rcutorture habit. These builds can take some time, even on modern laptops, but they are nevertheless amazingly fast compared to the build times of the much smaller projects I worked on in decades past. Additionally, build times are way down in the noise when I am doing multi-hour rcutorture runs. So much so that I don't bother with cut-down kernel configurations, especially given that cut-down configurations are an excellent way to fail to spot subtle RCU API problems.

Still, faster builds do have their advantages, especially when doing a series of short tests, such as when chasing down that rarest of creatures, an RCU bug that reproduces reliably within a few minutes of boot. Which is exactly what I was doing yesterday. And during that time, a five-minute kernel build time was much more annoying than it normally would be.

But that is why we have ccache, a tool that is considerably more attractive than it was back when my laptop's mass storage weighed in at “only” a few tens of gigabytes. With a bit of help from here, here, and the ccache man page, I got ccache up and running, and somewhat later got it actually making kernel builds go faster. Sometimes considerably more than an order of magnitude faster!

But I do get spoiled really quickly.

You see, the first ccache build goes no faster than a normal build because the cache is initially empty. And yes, a five, six, or even seven-minute build was just fine a couple of days ago: After all, there is always some small task that needs to be done. But having just witnessed builds completing in way less than one minute, even a five-minute wait now seemed horribly slow. And a five-minute build is what I get the first time I run a given rcutorture scenario. Or after I modify an rcutorture scenario. Or if I specify unusual arguments to rcutorture's --kconfig command-line option. Or if I modify a heavily used include file. Or when I configured ccache's cache size too small.

Nevertheless, I most definitely should have installed ccache a very long time ago! :-)