Wednesday, October 3, 2012

You need a spare mobile phone

Don't rely on The Man to hook you up when your mobile phone breaks. The Man don't give a damn.

I had a scare a couple of weeks ago. Let me tell you about it. On Sunday I had to pick up the kids from MacDonald's in the afternoon, so I set off for a pleasant 15-minute jaunt through the bushland between where I live and Logan Rd. Naturally I took my phone with me, a 4-month old HTC One X. I thought I'd catch up on some podcast or other while I walked there. To my consternation however, as I strolled along the path that goes through the Roly Chapman Bushland Reserve I found I couldn't get the phone to turn on. Holding the top button down made it beep and vibrate, but there was no screen activity. By the time I'd crossed the creek and reached Logan Rd. I had to concede that the phone was as dead as a doornail.

Or was it?

Later that night when I had a bit of time to investigate, I discovered to my great excitement that the phone had actually been on and working all the time, but that the backlight/screen was the source of the problem. I could see the icons, etc, ever so faintly, far too weak to be able to actually use in any way. But however it might be possible to describe it as technically working, I was going to have to bring it back to the nearest Optus shop tomorrow.

Flickr photo
"The spare tire", by jmschrei

And so had begun my Period of Inconvenience. Over that weekend I had found out the One X was banjaxed I wouldn't really have used it much, except for a check-in or two in New Farm Park and the Powerhouse on the Sunday afternoon. Now however I was staring into the abyss of a working week without a phone, without a smartphone, and immediately suffered the absence of my usual podcasts on the cycle to and from work. No Guardian Science Weekly, no Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, no This Week in Google. You know, I don't want to sound helpless here but there's a difference between starting your day listening to Alok Jha talk to Craig Venter about artificial life and listening to utes on the freeway.

So, if your phone didn't work, and you got to work, what might you do? Well, you might log in to Gmail, seeing as how you can't access your personal email on your phone, right? But you wouldn't be able to. Know why? Hackers, that's why. Ever since I read Jeff Atwood's great post on email two-factor authentication, I've set Gmail up to send an SMS to my phone whenever I try and log in on an untrusted - read work - computer. Can you see this one coming? On Monday morning I went to log in to my Google account on my work computer only to be challenged by the 2-factor verification code screen. Simultaneously, sitting on my desk like a little blind puppy my HTC phone alerted me to an incoming SMS, one sent all the way from Mountain View, CA, with a 6-digit authentication token. But it just couldn't show it to me. Because it was fucked. Aw barnacles!

Fake it with 2-factor

That's when it hit me just how inconvenient this period of inconvenience could be. I knew I could log on to my Google account at home, but it might not be long before my home computer decided to recycle the 2-factor token it keeps for 30 days, being a trusted computer, and then I'd really be snookered. Nor did I think I could even switch the 2-factor off, since I would surely need to answer an SMS challenge before being able to change it. But actually, it turns out I needn't have worried. You can change it from SMS to a voice call with no interim challenge, after which a nice lady calls you and tells you the code without you having to try and read an SMS. As an aside, this is a handy way of faking an incoming phone call. Just set up voice call 2-factor authentication on your google account, and try to sign in on an untrusted computer. The robot lady will call you and you can proceed to impress listeners with a one-sided conversation (as long as you commit the actual 6-digit code to memory first) saying impressive things like "Two hundred grand? I hardly think so!"

I have to admit to walking in to the Optus store on the mall that lunchtime with an optimism I just hadn't earned. There was simply no reason to expect I'd walk out an hour later with any satisfaction. And sure enough, I didn't. Like an airhead, I thought they'd have a deep and dirty supply of smartphones to choose from while they ministered to my broken HTC. That's if they weren't able to execute some secret button combination and restore life to my moribund phone. Well, they didn't. In fact, the guy's suggestion was to buy an interim phone. That's right: at the same time as they acknowledge that the phone is broken through no fault of your own, they will tell you to buy one if you want a phone for the duration of the repair period. $190 was the cheapest he could offer (smartphone, that is, and they would discount $50 of that). Still, $140 was the going rate that lunchtime for a replacement phone. Did I mention that there was no suggestion that it was in any way my fault that the backlight was defunkt?


Flickr photo
"Prof Brian Cox", by Joe Dunckley. I bet he has a spare mobile.

And that's the point of this post - don't throw away your old smartphone. Don't give it to your wife, kid, struggling brother-in-law, a mugger, or your Mum. And don't recycle it for Africans. Keep it - you'll need it. That night, steeped in humility, I rooted out my old iPhone, the one I had given up on because it had begun to slow down somewhat and the battery had begun to run down too quickly. That was the night I got hooked up with LastPass too, since there's nothing like trying to log back in to iTunes after a few months blissful absense to get you into self-harm. So, tip#2: use LastPass.

And that's a clue to the best analogy I can give to what happens if you're like me, someone who uses their phone a lot, and your phone goes out of action for a month. It's like Brian Cox talking about entropy in Namibia - everything goes to crap simply because that's the most likely course of events. Sure, everything could come out golden when something goes wrong with your phone, but entropy dictates that disorder is far more likely. For instance something entropic like, oh, that a day or two after I go to Bali on holiday the repair shop will leave my phone back to the shop, they will phone me, and the message will get buried in my unlistened-to message bank. There are just many more ways that chaos can happen than ways that things can go to plan. You can't change that, it's a law: the second law of thermodynamics, in fact. But you can plan for it, by having a disaster recovery plan in the shape of a spare mobile. Do it.

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