Fake Bluetooth Devices

I always thought bluetooth headsets were a good cover for crazy guys who talk to themselves. You know, you’re driving down the street downtown and come to a junction. There’s this guy, stripped to the waste, praying to the traffic, talking out to the traffic, shouting, waving his arms, remonstrating with all the city-folk passing by. “Hey, look at him, that guy’s crazy!” You look closer and spy the soft glint of brushed plastic sticking out of his ear; “Nah, he’s wearing a bluetooth – he’s taking a call”

So it was with interest that I purchased an aural amplifier that is designed to look like a bluetooth headset. This gadget is one of those ultra-cheap and rubbish “hearing aid” things that offer the chance to watch TV without waking up your sleeping partner or to take part in conversations with your golf buddies without having to guess what the topic was. The point of this particular model was that no one would know that the wearer was actually hearing impaired, possibly as a result of getting old, when actually the image of the wearer sporting a piece of cutting edge technology (as represented by a flashing green LED) is surely proof of their youth. Interesting psychology going on here. Interesting because of the undecided social nature of bluetooth technology. The headsets, you know, do they liberate a man to talk out loud, to the wind, in pretend conversation? And conversely they finally permit someone to look like they might be talking to you when in fact they could be talking to anyone in the entire world with access to a phone. It’s that focus of attention that’s confusing – a feature that allows, for example, people to use their phones when driving where use of a hand-held device is forbidden.

But anyway that’s all old bluetooth stuff. The technology is undergoing a quiet revolution that promises to change how we interact with our gadgets even further. Bluetooth Low Energy, BLE or Bluetooth 4.0 is basically your regular bluetooth that runs low on the energy but also low on the information exchange. Something like a wristwatch that synced with your phone might last two years on a single battery but couldn’t handle anything more than the simple data services – it would connect with your messages, display the time, calendar, alarms and stuff but Bluetooth 4.0 can not handle the audio streaming and you wouldn’t get to to talk into your watch like a twentieth century spy.

So many people have asked what’s the point of it? Of course, bluetooth is notorious for draining your phone or laptop so a new low-energy protocol would be welcome but if it can’t do audio… Then it will find a myriad of other uses. I look forward to the day when I can get a bluetooth hearing aid – a genuine one, you know that interfaces with a digital audio control program on my computer, not the one I have now – a complete fake, designed to be a fake, designed to fool others… well, let’s see how that goes.

Art project: https://www.facebook.com/Oaklajara

First test run at the Oaklajara fundraiser/farewell party: Most people asked why I was wearing a bluetooth. As a disguise – a complete fail. As an aural amplifier – worth every cent of the $12 it cost. I’ll say that much.


The Streets of San Francisco

Stretching straight into downtown.It has been a month, now, in San Francisco.

Away from the Bus and that Central American tropical dreamworld we’ve been wondering through for most of the year, the green jungles hiding ancient temples, the volcanoes, the chaotic towns and paradise beaches.

Every day, walking the dog, from the corner of the block you can see the street stretching away, slide-rule straight, down and then up the next hill and on towards the gray towers of downtown. All the red lights come on at the same time.

This city life. Like many Bay Area People, I have taken to staring at my laptop 12 hours a day trying to understand all that website coding stuff. Possibly unlike them, though, it takes me days to work anything out, turning weeks into a month. The tropical memories give way to an urban landscape that stretches from my desk/bed to the corner of the block and occasionally onto the CVS pharmacy to get something for my occasional headaches. This San Fran city life.

I was walking the dog along the side of the Fresh & Sleazy parking lot – Vaga making the most of  that funny kind of shrubbery they have there, you know that plastic-like mini-hedge stuff they have in car parks the world over.

A guy with a placard approached. He seemed to be protesting about workers’ rights at the store; the sign said something about picket lines but there was just this one guy that I could see. I suppose he wasn’t allowed on the store property itself and so he had to cover a lot of ground to get around all the parking lot entrances on his own.

“You’re on your own here?” I asked, “What are you protesting about?”

Now it had been quite a few hours since I’d heard another human voice and, of course, my hearing aids haven’t been working for months. On top of that, this guy has got a beard, you know, covering the lips – not quite a ZZ-Top fan but he’s sporting a robust version of that all-american backwoods beard that’s so popular in these parts. So I can’t understand a flippin’ word and it sounds like he’s talking in code, to be honest, something about the web page I was just working on.  ” Hey, open bracket, have info, if get info excerpt, close bracket, close widget tag”.

I wanted to ask him whether he had stopped shaving in protest at getting the sack. Instead I just mumbled “Sorry, a bit deaf – what did you say?” I may have motioned this before: Beards, like Islamic veils, like anti-bird-flu face masks, like black-block bandit bandannas, make it difficult for me to lip-read a person. If I can’t see their lips – it’s like someone turned down the volume and the information I receive gets decimated. And, while, the States offers respite for the native English speaker-lip-reader, there are an awful lot of beards here on the West Coast and the phenomena forms an important part of the lesser-known worldwide conspiracy against deaf people.

Anyway, the one-man picket line guy hands me a leaflet, clears his throat, finger-combs the whiskers back from his voice-hole and tries again. “I was wondering what kind of dog that was”, he says. We both look down at Vaga who, long given up on the easy-maintenance, low-interest landscaping, had been standing frozen, as she does, like an Empire AT-AT Walker that’s run out of fuel.

“She’s a Rajapalayam Indian Pariah mix,” I reply, “A street dog from India.”

“That is so awesome – isn’t it? Having a dog…,” the guy says kind of dreamily, “I love watching all those TV programs about animals and stuff. They are so awesome. Your dog’s well trained and you say from India? – that’s awesome.”

Reading the leaflet, I saw that the store workers got a bad deal; minimum wage, no holiday pay, no overtime, forced to work on Sundays and just a veneer of medical insurance… “Did you use to work there? Did you get the sack?” I asked him.

“Me? No, I’m from Grass Valley. I’m here cuz the minimum’s higher here in the city. Ten dollar twenty four. Why is your dog frozen still?”

“She’s just waiting for the walk to continue” I replied. So, of course the guy was being paid to be here, ” but who employs you?”

“The Union pays me. Ten dollar twenty four an hour,  no strings attached but a better deal than Wal-Mart if you just wanna few quick bucks.”

“No strings attached. No holiday pay? No medical?”

“No, it’s just a little job for a couple of weeks…”

“Sunday included?”

“Yes, I’m here Sunday”

“And they’re getting you to protest about Fresh & Easy’s bad deal when they’re paying you the same deal?”

The sense of irony, I guess, hadn’t escaped the guy given, I suppose, the long hours he had to ponder his predicament. “Listen bud,” he said, making nicely sure to speak clearly, “it don’t make much sense does it? None of it makes much sense and it makes even less sense back in Grass Valley at the Wal-Mart.”







Critical Mass

San Francisco celebrated twenty years of Critical Mass a couple of nights ago. Well, some of the people held up in traffic weren’t exactly celebrating: This one guy lost it, got out of his car, shouting at me over and over to move my bike, oblivious to the several other thousand bikes around me and in front of him. You’d think they would have become aware that on the last Friday of every month there’s some traffic action downtown; a parade of bicyclists cruising around going nowhere slowly, thousands celebrating this most holy of movements: Raising the consciousness for twenty years; Critical Mass.

And so it was on Friday, September 25, 1992 at 6 pm, that a few dozen cyclists rode out into the traffic with the idea to begin a series of such events – and this idea of some kind of cycle demonstration was quickly adopted elsewhere. Existing projects, too, morphed onto the Critical Mass movement which has become, two decades later, a survivor of the urban evolution of protest, sub-cultures, anarchy, the surveillance-state and anti-terrorist legislation. In the UK, autonomous zones have always been heavily policed – a new law in the 90’s gave the cops extra powers to stop and control access to any event and they focused on free parties, festivals and protest movements like Reclaim the Streets. We’ve seen the anti-G8, the black blocks and we’re still looking at Occupy this and that only a year after it burst into life. In 20 years we’ve suffered an increase of CCTV, data control, the infiltration of organisations by the authorities… But Critical Mass just goes on, a bulldozer of a movement, unstoppable, building up and up, one month at a time, all over the world

So the San Francisco 20th Anniversary ride was a fantastic mass – hundreds of people came down for it especially, boosting the regular attendance level to several thousand. A very chilled out vibe from the cyclists countered the standard bouts of hysteria from enraged pedestrians and drivers. Some mustachioed gentlemen on high bikes and penny farthings, a few Burners fresh from the Playa, sleek and dark couriers, sound systems and octo-bikes were sprinkled throughout the long procession that wound its way round downtown. We got as close to the front of this flood as we could then stood to one side and watched the celebration pass by, backed up in the end with grumpy looking motorcycle cops and the city returning to “normal”.

Most things that happened to me 20 or even 19 years ago are a little vague now  – there are misty images of having conversations in pubs with fellow activist cyclists and furtive mass rides involving, like, half a dozen of us. I vaguely recall being hassled by the cops as I flyered every traffic light for miles down Edgware Road. This would have been for one of the first Critical Mass in London, one year after San Fran in 1993: Seeing the London Mass grow from nothing, in the cold and the dark and the wet, to hundreds of us by the following summer, I could well appreciate the efforts and enthusiasms of the Bay Area Cycling Nation.

One thing I noticed was that the Bay Area Cycling nation People still cannot ride a bike from one side of it to the other using the Bay Bridge. The bridge is only open to motorized traffic – it’s long and pretty crazy, like a mad max bridge or a scene from a driving game – it’s fun to drive, I admit – you have to be careful not to be distracted by the views of the city and keep it slow for that big bend in the middle of the water. For cyclists, however, it’s a no go. People have tried over the years and most of those got stopped, arrested, fined, whatever, but no bunch of cyclists ever rode across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Oakland. Or even, now that I think about it, from Oakland to San Fran. Please correct me if I’m wrong because I wish I was – I only read this in the local newspaper last week; an article relating another failed attempt to make it further east than the on-ramp. It freaks me out for some reason – imagine, my London friends, if you had to pay 5 quid to get over the Thames (which is now a mile wide), from North to South, South to North. You might never make the trip if you had to do that. (Ahem).

Foggy memories merging into the present kaleidoscope of SF CM aside, here’s the incredible insight into Critical Mass and what it means: Quoting wikipedia:

” in China, both motorists and bicyclists had an “understood” method of negotiating intersections without signals. Traffic would queue up at these intersections until the backlog reached a “critical mass”, at which point that mass would move through the intersection.”

I’m thinking a scene where the mere presence of individuals piling up at the junction forces something to happen – the pressure of a mass of people suddenly overcomes the problems that change means and the people surge across knowing that the opposing forces have been out-numbered and out-flanked. Is it Mob Rule? Possibly –  but surely in the nicest way possible.

The Chinese thing connects a few of these strands: One point was how the Critical Mass would have a gray kind of legal status – a mass made up of law-abiding individuals whose collective weight out-plays the rules of the road. This has been of immense importance in that CM sustainability and, from what I’ve seen in London and SF, an inclusivity. That there are no organizers here, no leaders, is an innocence employed by other protest movements who have always appreciated the traffic calming skills of a well-achieved mass whose individuals are doing nothing more than taking a ride through the streets.
You can also see that Critical Mass has persevered as a mirror, or crucial component even, of the urban evolution of the last two decades where we see bike use go up in cities all over the world. It used to be pretty lonely out there on the streets – now every morning the commuters of the world are flooding through the gaps in motor-vehicle-clogged slave lanes and outpacing the sardines in the bombed out cattle trucks trundling through tunnels beneath them; a growing number of people taking control of their lives and opting to use a bike. It has already become an unstoppable collective momentum –  it means something will one day have to change and the people will pour right on through over that intersection. They might even have take the Bay Bridge.