Friday, May 12, 2006

Cell Mates

By ROBERT RECTOR Like many other of my fellow Americans, I share a love/hate relationship with my cell phone. It can be the very model of convenience, allowing me easy and instant contact with business associates, friends and family, anytime, anywhere.
It can also be intrusive, rude, annoying and maddening. Like a lottery ticket, it promises a lot more than it delivers. I was reminded of this recently on a trip to Hawaii. While soaking up the sun along with a few mai tais, a friend called me from Los Angeles on my cell phone. We chated easily, a clear and static-free conversation that sounded like he was in the next room.
Trouble is, if he had called me at my home on the mainland, I would have never received it.
That's because the cell that works in the middle of the Pacific doesn't work at my home in Glendale or anywhere within a mile radius of it.
Which means I own an instrument that sends and receives calls and text, takes pictures, downloads television shows, plays the entire score of Swan Lake, rings to the sounds of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" but blinks "no signal" when I walk in my front door.
Sure, there are a few hills around by why is it a signal that can be heard in Maui can't make it past Montrose? Well, technological schizophrenia, for one thing. Most major cell phone companies in the United States use different operating systems which means one carrier might work where another won't.
The Europeans are smarter than us. They have one universal system for most of the continent which means you get reception from the bottom of the Paris Metro to the top of the Swiss Alps.
In the meantime, we Americans all suffer together. According to a Consumer Reports survey, 80% of U.S. cell phone users have experienced service problems.
The report said overall satisfaction with cell phone service is generally below average compared with other services rated by the magazine. We can presume that means they rank behind bank tellers and telemarketers in the minds of the public. This probably doesn't bother the Cell Phone Boys, who have managed to get us addicted to a device that is so ingrained in our culture you feel naked if you leave home without one.
Sure, there are some pesky problems: they may cause brain cancer, they do cause auto accidents, they can be used by terrorists to trigger bombs.
But you can bet your sweet Samsung that most families own more than one.
That explains why an authority like the CIA World Factbook tells us there are more cell phones in the United Kingdom than people. Then again, the CIA's batting average on fact finding hasn't been so hot lately.
There are some among us, however, who consider the cell phone to be the most reprehensible invention since the car alarm. Or rap music.
That's because, thanks to the cell phone, you are now a participant in, or a prisoner of, the intimate conversations of any stranger who stands within 20 feet of you.
We've all been there.
At a restaurant recently, a woman in the booth next to me loudly disparaged someone in such emotional terms she sounded like a prosecutor in the throes of closing arguements at a murder trial.
My daughter once was trapped in a jury assembly room one time with a guy who discussed his eye surgery for nearly an hour. She could recite the procedure in minute clinical detail when she got home that evening.
A college librarian wrote on the Internet that "I don't know how the students manage to study when they are on their phones every two seconds having pointless conversations that distract everyone else. One night I was forced to listen to one patron talk to her friend about how she tans her butt crack for 2 hours!! "
If the loud conversations aren't enough, I recently sat in an office when three unattended cell phones rang at the same time, each one playing a different 16 bars of music. It was rock 'n' roll hell.
I heard one go off in the middle of a funeral once, and more times than I care to count at plays, movies, restaurants, even rest room stalls.
It seems our world is being divided into two camps: the quiet and courteous and the loud and boorish.
But maybe technology is on the verge of rescuing us. There is such a thing as a cell phone jammer.
Simply put, a cell phone jammer is a device that emits signals in the same frequency range that cell phones use, effectively blocking their transmissions by creating strong interference. Someone using a cell phone within the range of a jammer will lose signal, but have no way of knowing a jammer was the reason. The phone will simply indicate poor reception strength.
The trouble is, they're illegal.
But it just might be worth 30 days in jail for the satisfaction it would bring.

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