I’ve Got a Phone to Pick with You

This article was originally published on Humorality, on January 18, 2010.

Can you hear me texting now?

Cell phones are an amazing technology. One small handheld device has the ability, from nearly anywhere in the world and across unthinkable distances, to cut you off in mid-conversation. For reasons like this, plus issues of national security, I’ve avoided getting a cell phone. So, I was more than a little apprehensive when my preteen son wanted his own phone. You yourself might be having this same anxiety, and he’s not even your kid!

My son had been asking me for a cell phone for quite some time, at least since the eighteenth century, providing many convincing proofs as to its usefulness, including facts such as, “Everyone has a phone but me,” and “I guess you don’t really love me anymore.” Still, this was a big decision, and instead of simply acquiescing to his childish demands, I needed to spend some time researching cell phones and calling plans. Then I could acquiesce to his childish demands like a good parent should.

My research began with a thorough examination of the cell phone system, in that I took an educated guess as to how it all works. Cell phones transmit the human voice through a “cellular network,” a distributed system of eighty-foot-tall radio towers that evolved over billions of years from simpler single-celled towers. These cells are placed strategically throughout the world, often disguised to blend in with the surrounding scenery. You probably even have one in your kitchen, near the Cuisinart.

During a call, a cell phone converts the caller’s voice into millions of digital bits which are passed to the nearest cell, where all but the choicest and tastiest bits are discarded. The remaining ten percent or so are sent to “the network,” a CBS TV station in central Nebraska. The call is then linked to the callee; the network connects to the target cell tower, the cell tower connects to the cell phone, the cell phone connects to the ear-bone.

All cell phone providers use this type of system. Regardless of which vendor is used, each call gets routed to the destination network in seamless and billable ways. The selection of a cell phone company, therefore, boils down to two simple considerations: (1) which provider offers the best coverage and features for the most reasonable cost based on a customer’s calling habits and financial situation, and (2) which provider’s contract promises the quickest return of a customer’s first-born.

Selecting a phone is a little more involved. There are dozens of phones on the market, and the selection changes three times per day. Especially popular are so-called “smart phones,” which include advanced features for managing a schedule, browsing the internet, taking pictures, hacking into top-secret military installations, uploading videos to YouTube, and so on. Even the standard “stupid phones” include easy-to-use features that—and mind you, this is all without you needing to configure anything complicated—allow the phone to receive calls from unidentified numbers at 2:00 a.m.

In addition to selecting a phone, there is also the issue of “texting,” the ability to send short type-written messages to other phones that bear no resemblance to the English language (the messages, not the phones). All kids, including Baptists, text things to their friends all the time. It can be a little unnerving when you see a bunch of youngsters tapping mindlessly on their phones, especially when there are better ways for them to spend their days, such as tapping mindlessly on their portable game systems.

Households interested in using more than one phone should consider a “family plan,” so named because Vinnie, a member of the provider’s family, visits periodically to make sure the monthly payments are up to date. These plans also include a set number of monthly calling minutes that all phones on the contract share. Additional minutes are charged directly to the customer’s second mortgage.

In the end, I decided to get phones for the whole family. My son’s new phone includes a touchscreen, a flip-out keyboard, hundreds of family-calling minutes, unlimited texting, and a can opener. It was a little pricey, but the costs are clearly outweighed by the sense of safety. As a loving parent, I can now take comfort in knowing that, in an emergency, my precious offspring will be able to text his friends about it.

Tim Patrick

Tim Patrick is an author, software developer, and the host of Japan Everyday. He has published a dozen books and hundreds of articles covering technology, current events, and life in Japan. Find his latest books at OwaniPress.com.

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