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Telephone Armor

I’ve never cracked the screen on one of my phones, and I’ve always used a screen protector and case. I don’t know if those facts are related, or what magic pixie dust gets sprinkled on phone glass these days, but I always feel better after up-armoring my telephone.

For my most recent phone, I landed on Armorsuit MilitaryShield. The product name is silly, but somewhere in their marketing I saw a reference to the material being used on helicopter blades. “Oh,” I thought. “It’s just helicopter tape for your phone.” Now that I was aware that was an option, I couldn’t think of a single reason I would not want it. Helicopter tape – or more specifically paint protective film – is so called because it was developed to prevent abrasion on helicopter blades from small flying debris. I use it on my bike frame. I am told it is often used on racing automobiles. The idea is that it protects whatever surface it is covering from being chipped by debris travelling at high velocity, thus protecting the aerodynamic properties (or stylish paint job) of the smooth surface underneath. When applied to the screen of a telephone, the takeaway is that it is pretty tough.

Armorsuit MilitaryShield is offered in matte and clear versions. I bought both. I installed the matte version first because I was curious what that would look like. I find it to be excellent. It diffuses glare, making the screen easier to see outdoors, and doesn’t show fingerprints. I think it makes reading text on the screen more comfortable. It makes it look vaguely like an E Ink display.

After running the matte protector for about five months, I peeled it off and installed the clear version. Having become accustomed to the matte display, the clear version seemed to be designed specifically to amplify glare and attract greasy fingerprints and cheek marks. I removed it after a couple weeks and reinstalled the same matte protector I had previously removed. It went on just as perfectly the second time as it did the first time.

If you do a lot of multimedia editing on your pocket computer, you might not like the diffusion of the matte protector. It makes photos less sharp. But I think it’s great.

In the subsequent two years after I installed the matte protector for the second time, the upper right hand corner of the protector has unpeeled itself slightly. This happened after I dropped the phone on this corner. The edge of the case absorbed the shock but forced up that bit of the screen protector. I could probably remove the case and try to spray a little soapy water into that corner to reactivate the adhesive, but I haven’t bothered. The phone was dropped over a year ago and the corner hasn’t peeled back any more in that time.

Telephone Armor

The case I use for my phone is the unfortunately named SUPCASE Unicorn Beetle Pro Case. I dislike its chunkiness. But I like that it has port covers, which were builtin to my previous phone. Port covers keep sand out of the charging port (it’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere). The Beetle, so-called, consists of two parts. The upper part comes with a terrible glossy screen cover. I addressed this oversight by dropping that part of the case into a pot of not-quite-boiling-water for a minute or so. This softens the glue holding the screen cover to the frame, allowing it to be peeled away cleanly and easily. The result is a pretty alright case, and a great screen cover.

The matte protector is approaching its third birthday now. But for the aforementioned slight peeling on one corner, the protector looks like new. There are no scratches or other marks. The screen underneath it is pristine. I pay no mind to tossing the phone into a pocket or bag with keys, knives, or other sharp and scratchy objects. I expose it to road debris without concern. All is as it should be.

A Better Phone Mount

When I purchased my first smart phone in 2013, I was motivated primarily by the promise of using Open Street Map for bicycle navigation. This does not require, but is greatly assisted by, a mounting system of some sort. I’ve tried a few over the years. Since 2015 I’ve used the Aduro U-Grip Plus Universal Bike Mount, which I think is an excellent design. It uses a ball and socket to provide complete adjustability. It secures the phone with a spring-loaded cradle and silicon band. Between the two, there’s no way the phone is falling out, unless the mount breaks. Unfortunately the whole thing is cheaply made of plastic. Earlier this month, mine finally broke.

  • Aduro U-Grip Plus Universal Bike Mount: Failure
  • Aduro U-Grip Plus Universal Bike Mount

After seven years, I feel I got my money’s worth out of the Aduro U-Grip, but when a tool like this fails I want to replace it with something better. Purchasing another of the same just resets the countdown to the next failure. Unfortunately, the bicycle phone mount market seems to be flooded with shit. Either they provide limited adjustability, or they require a special phone case. I have no interest in either. I was disappointed, and about to just order another Aduro U-Grip, until I happened upon Tackform. Their Enduro Mount was advertised for motorcycles, but I figured it ought to work on a real bike.


Tackform’s offering is similar in concept to Aduro’s, with a ball and socket providing complete adjustability, and phone security provided by a spring-loaded cradle and silicon band. But it raises durability to the extreme. I’ve had mine for just a few days. I am impressed.

The only plastic component is the wingnut used to lock the position of the cradle. Everything else is metal. The spring that operates the cradle is no joke. It is capable of operating as an improvised finger guillotine. Yet it is quick and easy to operate one-handed. Tackform includes a silicon band for further security, but in the packaging material they say that you really don’t need it. I believe they are correct. When it is installed in the cradle, I can lift the bike with the phone. The phone doesn’t move at all. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where the phone would escape.

The top of the cradle has a lip to prevent the phone from being pulled out straight up. The sides and bottom of the cradle are lined with a thin rubber to provide some protection to the phone. The outer edges of the cradle are quite sharp, which makes me somewhat nervous about a crash. I have no doubt that the mount would come through, and that the phone would still be secured in it, but my face might not fare so well if it comes into contact with the cradle. But, hey, that’s what eye pro is for.

The primary disadvantage to the Tackform Enduro is that the arm which connects the cradle to the bar mount is tightened with a single wingnut. To rotate the cradle from portrait to landscape mode, you have to loosen this wingnut, which also loosens the connection to the bar mount. So while the ball and socket connection gives you complete freedom to position the phone as you like, it’s the sort of thing where you need to figure out what position you want and then tighten the wingnut to lock it in. You won’t leave the wingnut loose enough to allow for adjustments while riding. With the Aduro U-Grip, the socket is part of the cradle, the ball is part of the bar mount, and I was always able to leave the nut which secures the two just loose enough that I could make minor in-flight positioning adjustments without compromising the security of the system. In practice, I have yet to find this limitation with the Tackform to be something I really care about. But if you want to be able to rotate between portrait and landscape modes without stopping and using two hands, look elsewhere.

The other disadvantage that some riders will identify is weight. I didn’t weigh the components, but what you’re dealing with here is basically just a chunk of aluminum. I imagine the whole system is somewhere around 6 oz, which is significantly more than the plastic competitors. If you have much spandex in your wardrobe, you won’t be happy with Tackform. But my bike is carefully built for what I see as the ideal compromise between performance and durability, and the Tackform mount makes the cut.

Beyond the durability of the system, what endures me to Tackform is that their products really are systems. They are not just selling a few application-specific packages, but have whole series of components. It’s like a grown-up Lego set. I appreciate knowing that I could replace an individual component, or buy just the piece I need to expand the mount’s applicability to different vehicles or environments.

None of Tackform’s products are cheap, but they claim that their products are designed to last a lifetime. After the first 100 miles on this mount, I believe that statement will prove accurate. I suspect that the slab-format pocket terminal will be phased out and become irrelevant well before the Tackform Enduro will fail.

Tackform Enduro Mount

The mount is manufactured in the country of Taiwan, so get yours before China expands its beachfront property.

I find it frustrating that no Android phone seems to ship with a decent file manager.

I’m not sure how one is expected to use a computer without the ability to view and manipulate the file system. For the past few years I’ve solved this problem with Amaze File Manager which is a simple, open source file manager that in a world of sane defaults would be entirely unremarkable.

Managing Android Wifi with Tasker

One of the earliest programs I installed when I bought my first smartphone in 2013 was Kismet’s Smarter Wi-Fi Manager. It kept the phone’s wireless radio disabled unless I explicitly enabled it and connected to a network. When that happened, it would store the location by identifying nearby cell towers. Whenever it saw those towers again, it would turn the wireless radio on. In all other cases it would keep the radio off. This was a simple solution to the problem of only wanting wifi turned on at known locations, like home and work. It helped save battery, and prevented information leaks when wandering around meatspace.

Recently, when setting up a new phone, I discovered that Smarter Wi-Fi Manager had been abandoned. I thought I had heard something about the behaviour being integrated into the latest version of Android, but it seems that is not the case. Fortunately I found that Tasker can be configured to replicate the behaviour.

In Tasker, a profile can be created to recognize a location using a few different means. I setup one profile for home and one for work, both using the “cell near” context state. Like the Smarter Wi-Fi Manager of old, this just stores the identities of nearby cell towers. Then I created two tasks: one to turn wifi on and one to turn it off. The first task is added to both profiles as the main task. The latter is added to the profiles as the exit task. The result is that when the phone sees the cell towers near my trusted locations, the wireless radio turns on. When I leave, the wireless radio turns off.

Profile: Home (1)
    Restore: no
    State: Cell Near [ ... bunch o' towers here ... ]
    Enter: Wifi On (4)
        A1: WiFi [ Set:On ]
    Exit: Wifi Off (9)
        A1: WiFi [ Set:Off ]

Profile: Work (2)
    Restore: no
    State: Cell Near [ ... bunch o' towers here ... ]
    Enter: Wifi On (4)
        A1: WiFi [ Set:On ]
    Exit: Wifi Off (9)
        A1: WiFi [ Set:Off ]

The task to turn the wireless off is only triggered when I leave the location, which means I can still manually turn the radio on when I am somewhere unknown without Tasker immediately turning it back off. That new location will not automatically be stored as a trusted location, but if I want it to be remembered it only takes a minute to create a new profile and hook it up to my two wifi tasks.

I found the Tasker interface to be somewhat confusing. It took me a while to figure out how to achieve my desired behaviour. This is probably because Tasker can do a lot of other things. I don’t think my phone is integrated enough into my life to make its other capabilities relevant to me (though I might set it up to only enable GPS when mapping applications are open), but I was happy to pay the low price to retake control of my wireless radio.

Tracking My Phone Bill with Ledger

Back in 2013 I bought my first smartphone and signed up for a T-Mobile prepaid plan, referred to at the time as the “Walmart Plan”. The plan cost $30 per month, was intended for new customers only, and was supposed to only be available to those who purchased the SIM card at a Walmart. It offered a small amount of voice minutes and a large amount of data, which struck me as what one would want with one of these newfangled computer-phones. I bought a SIM card, figured out how to get T-Mobile to sign me up on the plan despite not stepping foot into a Walmart, and haven’t looked back since.

One of the things that appeals to me about the setup is the level of separation it gives me from the service provider. I purchased the phone from the manufacturer and the SIM card I bought with cash. I fund the plan by purchasing refill cards from third-party vendors. I have never provided T-Mobile with any financial information. They have no ability to take any money from me, except what I give them when trading in the refill cards. Obviously, the primary business of any mobile communications provider is location tracking, so I can’t refer to my relationship with them as “privacy preserving”, but I like to think it does allow me to retain some level of agency that is lost in a more traditional relationship.

If there is a downside to this setup, it is that it can be difficult to understand what I actually pay per month. The plan costs $30. There is some limit to the number of SMS messages, but I have no idea what it is. Data is “unlimited”, which means throttled over 4GB, but I don’t think I’ve ever approached even half that limit. Minutes are limited, and if I go over the allotment I’m charged a higher rate, but the service continues as long as the balance of the account remains positive.

I always want to keep more than $30 in the account, in case I do go over the allotted minutes. So I buy $50 refill cards. They have $50 of value, and are supposed to cost me $50. But the vendor I tend to by them from charges a $1 service fee, offers a points program that sometimes results in a discount being applied, and frequently has sales that offer a couple dollars off. So I end up paying something like $48-51. If I do exceed the limits of the plan, I may end up buying a $50 card one month and the next. More often, I buy a $50 card one month and have enough left over in the account that I do not need to refill it the following month. My plan renews on the 5th of the month, so some months I may end up spending $100 by buying one refill card on the first day of the month and another on the last in anticipation of the following month’s renewal.

All of that is to say that it is difficult to have an intuitive feel for what my average monthly phone expense is, but it’s important that I can get that number so that I can determine if the plan is still working or if I should look for a better offer. Fortunately, this is a thing that Ledger makes extremely simple.

Whenever I purchase a refill card, I log the transaction in the Expenses:Utilities:Phone account. With that done, I can ask Ledger to report on all transactions in that account, grouped by month, with a running average in the final column.

$ ledger register utilities:phone --monthly --average --begin 2019-08
2019-09-01 - 2019-09-30     Expenses:Utilities:Phone    $48.50      $48.50
2019-10-01 - 2019-10-31     <None>                      0           $24.25
2019-11-01 - 2019-11-30     Expenses:Utilities:Phone    $46.50      $31.67
2019-12-01 - 2019-12-31     <None>                      0           $23.75
2020-01-01 - 2020-01-31     Expenses:Utilities:Phone    $51.00      $29.20
2020-02-01 - 2020-02-29     <None>                      0           $24.33
2020-03-01 - 2020-03-31     Expenses:Utilities:Phone    $48.50      $27.79
2020-04-01 - 2020-04-30     <None>                      0           $24.31
2020-05-01 - 2020-05-31     Expenses:Utilities:Phone    $48.50      $27.00
2020-06-01 - 2020-06-30     Expenses:Utilities:Phone    $46.50      $28.95
2020-07-01 - 2020-07-31     <None>                      0           $26.32
2020-08-01 - 2020-08-31     Expenses:Utilities:Phone    $51.00      $28.38

Over the past 12 months, I have spent an average of $28.38 per month on phone service. I’m ok with that.

I use Blokada to reduce the amount of advertisements on my telephone.

Blokada registers itself as a VPN service on the phone so that it can intercept all network traffic. It then downloads filter lists to route the domains of known advertisers, trackers, etc to a black hole, exactly like what I do on my real computer with hostsctl. For me it has had no noticeable impact on battery life. I have found it especially useful when travelling internationally and purchasing cellular plans with small data caps. The only disadvantage I have found is that Blokada must be disabled when I want to connect to a real VPN via WireGuard or OpenVPN.

Blokada must be installed via F-Droid (or directly through the APK) because Google frowns upon blocking advertisements (but at least Google allows you to install software on your telephone outside of their walled garden, unlike their competitor).

I published the repository for my mobile weather solution.

Find it at geoweather. I’ve added support for Windy, but otherwise it is the same as it was back in January.

Mobile Weather

Los Angeles is suing The Weather Channel for selling the data of mobile users. This behaviour shouldn’t be surprising. Most mobile software, from the operating system on up, seems to exist primarily to provide some base modicum of functionality in exchange for the privilege of fucking you in new and exciting ways.

There are exceptions to the rule. I starting using Arcus for mobile weather in 2014, and it seems pretty respectable. But it exists solely to display data from the Dark Sky API, which is something that a web browser is also capable of doing, thus raising the question: why install anything?

About a month ago I simply bookmarked Dark Sky‘s website and had Firefox add a shortcut to that bookmark on my home screen. Dark Sky’s website is responsive, so it works fine in any viewport size. I bookmarked the URL for my home location, allowing me to see weather at home in a single tap. Elsewhere, it required two taps: one tap to open the bookmark, and one tap on their geolocation icon to get the correct forecast for my current location.

I find Dark Sky’s data to be great for reporting on the hyper-local now. For reports that are wider in scope – either in terms of time or space – nothing beats the National Weather Service. They provide a mobile specific site that is perfectly usable on small viewports. Annoyingly, they don’t make use of the web geolocation API, instead requiring users to manually enter a location. When travelling I may not know what zip code I’m in or have a nearby address. To work around this I created a shim with a few lines of Javascript that geolocates the user, uses the resulting coordinates to build the proper NWS URL, and redirects the user to that URL. I also added support for building a Dark Sky URL so that I could avoid that second tap when not at home. The resulting HTML page is available on GitHub.

Now I have two URLs bookmarked on my home screen that accomplish everything I need: one for NWS and one for Dark Sky.

Shortly after creating this shim I discovered that the NWS has a beta website that is intended to replace both the current mobile and standard sites with a consistent interface. This site does make use of the geolocation API, requiring the user to click an icon to get the current location. It is unclear why they have yet to deploy this to their main domain. It’s been available since August 2017 and the data on the beta site seems to be the same as the data on the standard site and the data on the mobile site. For now I’m sticking with the officially supported domains in my shim.

A locally installed weather program is useful if your requirements include lock screen widgets or notifications of hazardous conditions. Mine do not. These two bookmarks provide all the weather information I need on my telephone, and do so in a way that does not expand my attack surface in the way installing software does. They are indicative of the usefulness of this World Wide Web thing – an emerging technology that I intend to watch with great interest. I think it’ll go places.