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Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport

Cal Newport’s second book, Digital Minimalism, is somewhat timely given the increasing concern about the role of technology in our lives. In it, he asks us to look critically at the technology we allow into our lives as individuals and consider whether it adds genuine value, or whether we use it as a crux to pass time which would be better spent doing something else.

Top of his hit list is social media, which he argues most people simply do not need & those that do need it probably need it a lot less than they think they do ( he says 20 – 30 minutes a week, tops). In 2015 I closed my accounts on the big social media platforms and am embarrassed to admit how difficult I found it. On reflection it hasn’t made any meaningful difference to my life. True, there are people that I have lost contact with, but I still talk to the people that matter and the level of that contact is more substantial than a ‘like’ or a quick comment.

He goes on to set out the merits of of solitude – being alone with your thoughts without external interference. We’ve become so accustomed to filling every spare minute with something: checking social media feeds, reading emails, listening to podcasts and audiobooks – we very rarely allow or brains the time to just think. This something that we don’t fully understand the long term effect of.

He also makes a case for analogue activities. Humans are happier, he says, when they are creating something. We should prioritise demanding activities over passive consumption and cultivate high quality leisure activities – things that are meaningful and have defined outcomes.

It’s a good book and there isn’t a lot of waffle in it. It isn’t anti-technology, it just reminds us that we are the masters of our own time and need to take responsibility for how we use it. It was persuasive enough for me to reset my iPhone and ruthlessly cull and lock down my apps.

Definitely worth a read.


1.32 Terrabytes

We have a weird internet set-up at home, with our connection coming in from a device on our roof instead of via fibre or ADSL. It mostly works okay, but if the provider starts to oversubscribe connections then our speed suffers, especially at peak times. We had some extended periods of poor service when the service first went live but we stuck with it and over the past year or two it has worked mostly okay. It’s not stellar, but it’s cheap and unlimited.

In January we started no notice that we were struggling to stream at peak times and my wife was having issues browsing on her phone. I figured that this might be a good time to switch to fibre, it’s around £15 a month more expensive, but bound to give us a more stable connection and it would be faster too.

I logged into my router to find out how much data we use so that I could price up the right fibre package, and noticed something strange:

During a standard month we usually download around 500gb of data, and upload 50-60gb. In January we downloaded 450gb, but wait, what the.. we uploaded 807gb. We’ve already uploaded nearly 700gb this month too, in total nearly 1.5 terabytes of data and more than we’d use in two years. Something was very wrong somewhere.

My instant reaction was to ask my teenage daughter if she had anything on her laptop that might be uploading stuff. Torrents? She offered me a blank look. Then I remembered the torrent client running on our home server. And there was the problem: three torrents had been seeding endlessly since the end of December, to the tune of 1.32 terabytes. Whoops. Theoretically uploading shouldn’t affect download speeds, but I think that my creaky network was saturated by the constant transfers. Lesson learned.

Anyway, to those lucky people that were able to download a particular torrent 987 times.. you’re welcome.


Analysing Pager Traffic with a Cheap USB Radio

I’ve been having some fun with a cheap USB FM/Dab radio. With some clever software this little gadget can do a lot more than it was designed to do, including decoding pager messages. People really do still use pagers.. The pager as we know it was invented in 1956 by Multitone Electronics for use in London hospitals, but it was Motorola who gave the device a name and introduced it to the masses. The popularity of the pager surged in the 1980s as it became the must have gadget of professionals. Teenagers and pop stars jumped on board in the nineties and it looked like the pager was here to stay, but as pager use grew so did the mobile phone network which eventually supplanted it. Mobile phones became more reliable, affordable and feature rich and usage of pagers dived.

Pagers still have some advantages over mobile phones. Coverage tends to be better, especially indoors and their battery life can be measured in weeks rather than hours. They can be used in places where mobile phones are banned for security reasons, or where they might interfere with sensitive equipment. Pager messages are broadcast in clear text by powerful transmitters over FM radio bands. You’ll need a cheap USB DAB/FM radio receiver to decode them. I bought mine for less than a tenner.

A search for ‘sdrsharp pager messages’ should give you give you all of the info needed to get up and running. For the technically inclined, the system works by modulating a tone between two frequencies to create a binary stream. The transmitter alternates these frequencies very quickly – up to 6400 times a second. Here’s a sample of some of the messages that I decoded:

0101158 23:39:12 29-07-15 FLEX-A  ALPHA  3200  FROM GLOUCESTER POLICE CONTROL ROOM, 
HAVE ASKED EVERYONE AND NO POLICE OFFICER HAS THE KEYS THAT HAS BEEN MISLAID. TEL NO 
IS 101 IF YOU NEED TO CALL.

0121305 23:01:17 29-07-15 FLEX-A  ALPHA  3200  PLS CALL ANNE AT OBSTETRIC THEATRE 
ON 458 47`` 

0118459 23:58:43 29-07-15 FLEX-A  ALPHA  3200  20150729 23:57 boc1web03.servstream.
com:conn CRITICAL ALERT 

0119043 23:58:45 29-07-15 FLEX-A  ALPHA  3200  Room S17 Isolator Z21 Hatch Pressure 
BMT  42.5 (Alm:D Lmt:<50.0000 Grp:BMT)

I’m surprised that no effort is made to encrypt the messages because many of the messages contained personal details such as names, addresses and phone numbers.

Warning: It is extremely unlikely that this will get you in trouble, but decoding pager messages is illegal. See Section 48 of the UK Wireless Telegraphy Act for more information.


Scanning for Bookmooch using Android

I’m loving my new Android phone. It’s a real smart piece of technology and I keep finding great applications for it. One neat application that I have found is the Android Scripting Environment , which basically does what it says on the tin, allowing you to create quick and dirty scripts, on the device, which make use of the extensive Android API.

One of the example programs that came with the application made use of the barcode scanner to add a book to Google Books. I’ve adapted this program to allow you to quickly add a book to your Bookmooch inventory, just by scanning the barcode on the back of a book.

It’s a bit rough and ready but a fun little hack.

Here’s the code:

import android
droid = android.Android()
code = droid.scanBarcode()
isbn = int(code['result']['SCAN_RESULT'])
url = ("http://bookmooch.com/m/add_do?text=%d" %isbn+"&store=amazon.co.uk")
droid.startActivity('android.intent.action.VIEW',url)

The original code, along with a load of other examples can be found here . I’d love it if someone were able to develop this a bit more, if only to provide a nice exit routine. Sadly that’s way beyond my ability.