FROM THE ARCHIVES. June 16 - This originally printed in Maximumrocknroll sometime in 2001.
GREMLINS OF BLABBER
Even in this enlightened era when humans can crash a probe into Mars, it's comforting to know that the world remains ripe with the most basic of mysteries. Right now there are no less than four major scientific enigmas, stubbornly refusing the largest of research budgets, lurking over the head of every cell phone user. That modern science can't solve even one of these riddles is proof enough for us cellularphobes. Am I among the anti? Even at this late date, I hold opposition to cell phones in the inner vault of my ever-eroding core beliefs. (Disclaimer; I also felt deep moral outrage at seeing the first Dead Kennedys compact disc in 1987, and I boycotted microwaves from ages 10-12 because I didn't want to eat "radioactive food"). Here goes:
1. CAN CELL PHONES BLOW UP GAS STATIONS?
This is the hardest one for me - unlike the other three, it requires a quick judgment call on making a scene. If you look around most US gas stations these days, somewhere underneath the filthy squeegie bins and unleaded notices, you'll usually find a small printed warning for motorists not to place calls while pumping, under penalty of explosion. The danger? Every activated cell phone transmits brief pulses along its circuits for maintenance - even a phone in someone's pocket could theoretically ignite gas vapors and detonate the underground storage tanks. These decals are discreet as a legal compromise - the oil companies want to protect their asses in future lawsuits, but, hey, no one wants to spoil the fun of pumping gas. So it's a rare warning sticker that appears at eye level. Meaning, I'm over here having a fucking coronary every time I see one of you chatting it up while I'm at the opposing pump. Why not just throw a lit cigarette down your tank? Is it really my job to shriek at you to turn that thing off before you kill us all??
Ok, the odds are actually higher of an ordinary static shock igniting a fireball. And if any kind of spark will do the trick, warnings should probably be posted against biting down on a Wintergreen Lifesavers while pumping gas. There's also evidence that activated cell phones have slowed or stopped fuel pump price counters, so there may also be some veiled self-interest in these warnings. If only Kinkos had placed similar notices on their exploitably flawed counter keys ("warning: tampering with this device could ignite your copy machine"), perhaps none of us would have tasted the joys of unlimited free copies from '94-'96. But who has the guts to be the Neil Armstrong of this particular potential scam?
2. CAN CELL PHONES MAKE YOU CRASH YOUR CAR?
Anyone who has had to deal with Guitar Face knows the hazards of multitasking. Guitar Face is what us non-musicians have to deal with every time we attempt to hold a conversation with one of you band member types while you're softly strumming some Queensryche riff. One moment you're an engaged, talkative adult, the next moment - blammo! - slack mouth, glazed eyes... Guitar Face. This is the facial version of what a computer does every time slowed processing makes it crawl to a halt. It's funny how the human brain can handle putting on one's pants while holding a conversation but apparently cannot handle playing a guitar while holding a conversation. The question here is if talking on the phone while driving is more like putting on pants or more like strumming a guitar. Studies are conflicting, although most people agree that it takes more computational power to hold a conversation with someone you can't see, since your brain is working harder to compensate for the lack of body language cues (I'm not sure how that jibes in car phone conversations with computerized voices). And the more brain cells you use to decipher verbal nuances means the less brain cells for stop signs and pedestrians. But none of the laws are consistent. In New York state, for example, phoning while driving can be legal in one county and illegal in the next. And the poor shmoes who continue to drive around with the early-to-mid-90's fake car phone they still think is a status symbol... it probably takes even more computational power to simulate a conversation for the benefit of passing drivers, so do these people get tickets?
I remember reading a few years ago about two Russian immigrants in New York who pointed a "scanner" out their apartment window at cars passing on the Van Wyck Expressway, captured random motorists' cell phone numbers and used the numbers to clone black market cell phones. Question; If I bought one of these mysterious devices at Radio Shack, captured the number of a random chatty motorist, followed their car, called them while they were pumping gas and managed to blow up their gas station, would I be prosecuted for just manslaughter or the full Murder One?
3. CAN CELL PHONES MAKE YOU CRASH YOUR AIRPLANE?
This one doesn't cause me much stress, and not just because my immediate pre-flight mind is usually preoccupied with midair collisions, pilot rage, seat-to-ass disease and/or the urge to blurt out a bomb joke. No, the nice thing about this situation is that I'm not required to make a scene my own self - there are always trained airline professionals on hand to deal with the offending callers, usually in terms far out of proportion to any actual danger. And unlike the life-endangering boors chatting at the Exxon pumps, the life-endangering boors on a flight can be tossed in federal prison if they don't hang up. A Saudi man (as I make a point of mumbling loudly every time I board a flight) recently received 70 lashes for making a call during takeoff.
What is this danger? Again, no one's quite sure. Certain devices in the cabin can interfere with certain devices in the cockpit. But only sometimes, and not in any way that makes sense. The airline ban is backed only by "anecdotal evidence", not hard science. Disruptions in the cockpit are based on strange electromagnetic conditions that are almost impossible to repeat in a controlled environment. WW2 pilots used to call these types of problems "gremlins". Not banned by the airlines are the gremlins stowed in portable voice recorders, pacemakers, electric shavers and hearing aids, although these devices pose the same threat. I've read that passengers with hearing aids have been shuffled from row to row until their flight's autopilot worked again, the same way people sometimes have to stand in different parts of a room before they can get a clear signal on their TV.
For the swell of people that grew accustomed to making lots of flights AND lots of cell phone calls in the 90's, the ban is treated with frustration and incredulity - "what, we can crash a probe into Mars, but I can't call my drycleaners?" Cell phone calls are also legal on private flights, and airlines still offer their own quadruple priced seat-back phones, so the whole setup looks suspicious to consumer rights groups, which translates into bitchy passengers, which translates into bitchy columns.
4. CAN CELL PHONES GIVE YOU HEAD CANCER?
How did this one manage to bump "nuclear war" off the number one spot in the top ten of radiation fears? Lymphoma, tumors, memory loss, super powers... name any alleged radiation-induced health problem, and chances are cell phones will be creeping up the culprits list. But the manufacturers have been smarter than their cousins in the tobacco industry and are working overtime on an aggressive public relations & scientific studies two-front offensive. Cancer rate studies, like cockpit interference, is highly susceptible to claims of circumstantial evidence. Many of the studies currently underway are funded by phone companies and compress all the back & forth of every unproved health scare of the last twenty years - cholesterol, Alar, power line radiation. Hands free "earbuds", for example, were praised last year as a sure way to avoid dangerous radiation to the brain. This year they're suspected of increasing exposure. In February, the UK issued a leaflet warning children under 16 to use mobile phones only for "short and essential calls", but acknowledged elsewhere in the same leaflet that there were "significant gaps in our scientific knowledge". Personally, I'm waiting for the studies of health effects from mobile phone related embarrassment. I was at a show in Los Angeles last year when a frank conversation between two Spanish speaking women blurted over the PA. Maybe the fact that I couldn't tell what was being said added to the mystique, but I was sure thankful it wasn't my conversation up there. Based on my own anecdotal evidence, at least half the people I know with cell phones have some story of overhearing a conversation they shouldn't have. So who's overheard them?
I picture myself a year from now, driving around town with my shiny new cell phone like every other clod, having a gay old time chatting away, oblivious to the pedestrians leaping out of my path. Meanwhile, in a nearby nightclub, a roomful of people, some of them perhaps not even strangers, is treated to the following;
SAM: ... so it just, like, you know, hurts...
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Yeah.
SAM: ... and it's all red, I mean really swollen.
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Yeah, yeah... that's rough.
SAM: I mean, I don't know. Should I see a doctor about it? The itchiness is just driving me crazy. And of course I can't scratch it in public...
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: I don't know dude, I just don't know...