Yuri Geller’s iPhone

You’ve heard that the new iPhone 6 Plus bends in your pocket. Part of me is interested in how this is news when phones by other manufacturers bending hasn’t been. Well, maybe it has in technical press but I’d not heard of it until tonight.

So there’s that sense that because it’s Apple, it becomes a big deal. I don’t think that’s terribly fair but grief, the idea of it happening to you and your phone when you’ve spent all that money. Wince.

I’m especially concerned because my iPhone 5 lived in my top shirt pocket for two years and my previous iPhones did the same yet recently I’ve been slipping it into my jeans. Chiefly because I seem to have gathered a lot of shirts without top pockets.

I will rethink my wardrobe.

What do you mean, I should look at revising my dress sense at the same time?

It’s not just me – the phantom phone vibration

Countless times I will feel my iPhone vibrate with an alert or a message and I will get it out of my pocket – only to find nothing. No message. No notification. Nothing.

Up to now I have suspected that I am psychotic or that someone at Apple is gaslighting me. Granted, these are extreme possibilities.

But they’re better than the idea of my very soul so aching for human contact that I am creating my own vibrations by telekenesis. Which I’ve also wondered.

I sound like I’ve got the answer to why it happens but really I’ve only got reassurance that it happens to you too.

In 2010, a team of researchers from Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts asked 232 of their colleagues to answer a questionnaire about phantom vibrations from their cell phone (or, more correctly, from the area where their cell phones usually are). Of the 176 who responded, 115 — 69% — stated that yes, they experienced the disconcerting fake alerts like the type described above. The researcher’s plain-as-day conclusion: “Phantom vibration syndrome is common among those who use electronic devices.”

Feeling the buzz: where do phantom phone vibrations come from? – Dan Lewis, Boing Boing (22 August 2014)


The article does go on to suggest reasons and answers and possibilities but I’m just happy to not be alone in this profound manifestation of a longing and a yearning that rests within my soul, like.

What causes it? There are a lot of theories. Discovery News suggested that “[i]t could be because cell phones produce electrical signals that transmit the feeling of vibration directly to a person’s nerves or simply because of the mental anticipation of alerts.” Mental Floss explains how the first of the two theories would work, likening it to “a physical stimulation similar to what happens when your phone is near a speaker and you hear that weird buzzing sound as it does a ‘hand shake’ with a cell tower and gives off some electromagnetic interference.” And the anticipation aspect is not dissimilar from any other sort of psychological conditioning — we are so used to our phones vibrating that our brains make it feel like it is happening when we “want,” not when it actually does.

Ewww. That person on your conference call is probably also on the loo

At the same time. I suppose you should count yourself lucky if he or she has at least muted the call first.

I don’t run any conference calls, I don’t think, but I take part in enough of them and I have been caught doing something I shouldn’t. Not that. It’s not like that. I have had a habit of writing something while on the call and, believe it or not, the vibration of my typing has somehow got through to the others. Busted, I believe is the phrase.

But I haven’t gone to the loo during one. I haven’t muted any. (I was once on the loo when Tony Robinson phoned me back about a Radio Times article but I shuffled to my office so fast that nobody ever found out.)

Apparently, though, I’m less than common in all this:

More than 60 percent of Intercall’s respondents admitted to doing other work or sending an email while on a conference call. More than half the people on the line are eating (hopefully on mute). Just under half are in the bathroom (hopefully on mute!). One in five are shopping. One in 11 are exercising. Six percent are taking another call. Suddenly I don’t feel so bad about looking up Clayton Kershaw’s ERA+.

The academic literature doesn’t say that meetings are intrinsically pointless. After all, that conclusion wouldn’t make any sense. There are some questions that require input from entire teams, or from individuals from multiple divisions, and it would be absurd to call for dozens of one-on-one meetings rather than call a single get-together.

Study: Nobody is Paying Attention on Your Conference Call – Derek Thompson, The Atlantic (21 August 2014)

Weekend read: How Phones Go Cross-Eyed at Airports

Wired has an interesting piece on what goes on inside your mobile phone when you switch it back on after a flight. If you think about it at all, you think that it’s just sometimes a pain waiting for it to find a carrier. But according to Wired, it’s a street fight:

The average mobile phone is programmed to search out the five closest antenna signals. When you’re driving in your car this system lets you switch from antenna to antenna — usually without losing your connection. But in an airport, things can go haywire, especially as you’re switching from the powerful outdoor “macro” antennas that you’ve connected to on the tarmac to the smaller indoor devices that AT&T has tucked all over the airport.

For travelers, that means that the moments after you walk inside an airport are where you’re most likely to have a dropped call.

Why Your Phone Freaks Out When You Get Off a Plane – Robert McMillan, Wired (22 July 2014)

The full piece has a little interview with someone whose job it is to see that your phone wins the fight.

Produce your phone calls to make them easier and quicker

18th Street Phone-1I’ve only got three phone calls I have to make today but I started at 11am and as I write this, it’s 11:13 and I am finished.

As you can expect and fair guarantee from any round of phone calls, they aren’t all finished and done with: right now I’m waiting for a call back from two people with more information and an email from the third. But the calls are all made and these issues are all underway and the response rate would be no different if I’d spent the day fretting over them.

And I do fret. Given that I’m a journalist and it is routine to phone people up, I find it really hard calling for myself. So I do several things to make it better. To make me do it, really.

There’s quite a bit about this in The Blank Screen book (UK edition, US edition) but since writing that I’ve been focusing on one particular piece of advice I learnt for it. I’ve made making calls be my thing, be the work I have to get better at. And I’ve done it by making days like this. All of which boil down to this:

Produce the calls.

You don’t go into any meeting and you don’t ever pitch without knowing who you’re talking to and what it’s about. So I take some time during the morning to build up a list in Evernote of who I am calling. I run my life through the To Do software OmniFocus and it’s very easy to use that to get a list of calls to make: I just tap or click on a button marked Phone and it shows me every call I have to make in every project, ever. But if I then start writing that out in Evernote, I can build up this:

Who I’m calling at what company

What their phone number is

The specific aim of the call and the most recent conversation or correspondence we’ve had about it

All obvious stuff but each line does something in particular. The first one, who I’m calling where, that acts as much as a heading as it does a To Do. Then the bit about their number is crucial – I know that sounds obvious, I know you’re thinking that without it I won’t have much luck calling them but it’s more than that. The point is having the number right there. See the name, ring the number, go. That’s the plan.

Then the specific aim is equally important to both sides. Usually there’s just one thing you can get done in a call so I pick that and we’re off. Knowing it, knowing it precisely and having written it down focuses me on it so that I am right on the topic and they get a quicker call out of me.  And similarly, how we last left something means I sound like I am on top of things, I am fully aware of what we’re doing and also that I’m moving this stuff on, I’m not hanging about, I’m not kidding. Without being rude or abrasive, you know I am working and this is business and as much as I may like nattering with you, today we’re doing this thing.

So I’ve spent the morning building up that Evernote note in between other jobs, then it comes to 11am and I start. See the first name, see the number, I’m dialling it before I can hesitate and it’s ringing while I’m fixing the rest of the information in my head. Ring, speak, done, next. See the second name, see the second number, I’m dialling.

I do also use Evernote to make notes about the calls and that’s not brilliant yet. What I find is that I will build up a lot of information under a call but then the next time I have to call them, that information is back in the previous day’s call list. I need to get more organised about copying the information out and into a single place per person or per project or per something. Not sure what yet.

But it’s surprising how much sheer data you can write up about a call. I record just whether I got them or voicemail, I make a note that I said I’d call back and perhaps when if I said a particular time. Also any numbers they need to tell me like fees or contracts or purchase orders. The list goes on and on.

One extra is that I also record the time of the call. I do that in Evernote but using a TextExpander snippet. As the phone rings and as I’m reading, I will type the words “Called at…” and then the TextExpander snippet ;ttime – a semi-colon and the word ‘ttime’ which pops in the current time. If it’s a long call or I’m routing through a hundred service desks who keep me waiting, I’ll log the time along the way because why not?

Then the last thing I do after all the calls is I make a note of them in a separate Calls Made list in Evernote. This has no function at all except to make me want to make more calls. It’s showing me that I’ve made 162 phone calls so far this year and, hand on heart, I wish I hadn’t looked because I thought it would be more impressive than that. Just 162 in five months? I promise to do better.

Starting now. I’ll just add today’s 3 to the list and I’m on 165. That’s a bit better.

Phone a friend. Randomly.

I have not one single idea whether this is productive but it is fun.

You know that after you’ve produced something, you go back to all those people you needed beforehand and you thank them. Of course you do: without them, it wouldn’t have happened.

But I was scrolling down my iPhone’s Contacts list to one of them and right underneath her was an old friend and colleague I haven’t spoken to in a year or more.

So I rang her. Nothing to say, nothing to ask, just a call in the dark.

I hope she enjoyed it as much as I did because I had a blast. So much so that I have actually considered doing this more deliberately, phoning more people randomly. Except if you do it deliberately, it isn’t so random, is it?

Not sure about that now. But I had a lot of calls to make that day, plenty of them fun like the post-event ones, enough of them tedious like chasing this or that, and this random one-off in the middle. I tell you, it made my day.

Put – the – phone – down

UNICEF – seriously, UNICEF? – has released an app called PlayTimer which is specifically built to make you put that bloody iPhone down and go play with your kid:

Together with your child you can set how long you are going to play for and then take your child’s photo to set the playtimer. This will then lock your phone and show a black screen. If the phone is touched in locked mode – say, by a parent checking their work email – an alarm will go off. You can only turn the alarm off by taking another picture of your child – proof that you’re still playing with them. (In case of emergency, you will still see incoming calls and can make emergency calls, as no app has the power to over-ride your phone lock settings.)

UNICEF’s new app lets your children confiscate your smartphone Katherine Crisp (15 May 2014)

Read more on the UNICEF blog here or go straight to downloading the free app from the App Store

Snap everything to your phone

Just launched on Kickstarter: a device called Snap that lets you connect things to your phone – or your phone to things. Keep your credit card wallet snapped to the back of your phone; snap your phone on to the back of a passenger seat headrest to watch films on it.

It's a neat idea but I also just like the wry, make-you-smile approach that the makers have taken to their video about it. Take a look at that and commit some cash to kickstarting the product here.

Productivity lessons from Blake’s 7


In fact this came from Blake himself: Gareth Thomas suggested I do this when I was interviewing him for a forthcoming book about the BBC science fiction series.

Actually, full disclosure, it was more that he couldn’t fathom why I was such an eejit that I wasn’t already doing it.

It’s just this: put your phone calls on speakerphone and tape them.

For all that I said yesterday about finding it hard to make certain types of calls, I have made a fairly constant stream of them throughout my writing and especially journalism careers. With Gareth, I really wanted to phone him over Skype so that I could record the call on my Mac. But he wanted to phone me instead.

I do loathe costing my interviewees any money, I don’t see why they should pay for the call or go out of their way for me, but Gareth couldn’t do anything else. He was on tour in a play and fitting me in on a Saturday morning; he might be able to predict what town he’d be in but there was no way to give me a phone number to ring. I would of course have accepted a mobile number, very happily, but mobile to Skype to Mac has proved tricky before. More than one interviewee has said I sound like I’m in a barrel down a mineshaft.

So I’m genuinely mithered over what to do in order to record the interview. I have to record it. Have to. I’m not going to get a huge amount of time with him and he is somewhat vital to the book, I need to make the most of the chat.

I’ve never actually met Gareth Thomas, I’ve just now done two phoner interviews with him over the years. But even in those short times, I can tell you that he is as charming and funny and interesting as you would expect. Yet I swear I could feel him thinking the word ‘eejit’ before he explained to me that I didn’t need to route the call through my Mac to record it.

Ever get the feeling you’ve been doing something wrong for twenty years? So that happened.

I recorded that man three ways from hell. I rang him on my landline, had my iPhone and my iPad recording the sound from the speaker and I even got my Mac to do it too.

And that’s the productivity lesson: use your Mac or presumably your PC to record calls. You can’t just record anything, it has to be with permission and agreement like I had there with Gareth and a book interview, but you can record anything – in that anything that makes a sound, you can record.

Since that interview, I’ve recorded many calls. Lots of interviews, naturally, but also phone meetings or conversations where I’ve really needed to find out a lot of things and there isn’t much time.

I don’t know how you do this on a PC, though I imagine it’s part of Windows Media Player, but on a Mac you just launch QuickTime Player. Doubtlessly because of its name, few people realise that this Player also records. It can record anything that happens on your screen – so it’s ideal for showing someone how to do something – or it will record your face through your Mac’s camera. Or it will simply record audio.

Choose that, hit the record button. Here’s a second productivity tip, this time discovered by me without the aid of Roj Blake, fictional freedom fighter: identify yourself for the recording. I say my name, the date, the time and who I’ve agreed to record. You don’t think you’ll do this all that often but over the last six months I’ve gathered up a stock of maybe fifteen such calls and being able to identify them in the first few seconds of playback is a godsend.

Especially since QuickTime Player confuses me continually. Once you record something, it is there as an untitled document. Close it and it will ask you for a name to save it under. Or you can just save it and then close it. I say this to you and I cannot see what is so hard. Yet I regularly end up wondering whether I’m going to save or accidentally delete the recording. And I postpone worrying about it by leaving them all there.

So I’ve currently got about seven Untitled phone recordings on my Mac.

I promise to sort through them.

One more productivity tip, this time from my years producing UK DVD Review. That was a podcast from 2005-2010 which I’m proud to say peaked in the top ten of all podcasts, of all genres, across the entire world. I think there were only 11 podcasts then. But I learnt this. If you’re recording a lot, I mean for a long time and maybe just doing a few calls one after another, clap your hands.

I clap three times before the start of a long recording. Interviewees think I am strange. But they suspected that anyway.

This is pointless if it’s just a quick call and even with the much longer one I did with Gareth, it was straightforward: I just transcribed it afterwards from start to finish. Often, though, I will have such a long recording that I need to find parts of it quickly. Usually that’s the start of the next interview. When I was doing this for broadcast, it would be to find the next take or the next section.

These are all things that I would tend to listen to in a proper audio editor instead of just through QuickTime Player. (You don’t have to launch QuickTime Player to listen back to a recording: just find it on your Mac and tap your spacebar. It’s gorgeous how fast that is when you have a lot to look through.) With a proper audio editor, you get wave forms.

And with waveforms, the clap is really distinctive. You get three massive spikes in a row and you can just skip straight to that.

So. With permission, record your interviews or other detailed calls. Do it simply on your computer, label everything, and clap yourself if you’ve done a good job.