Turn off your damned phone!

I love my iPhone. I really do.

There is, however, one thing I don’t like about it, a characteristic that (or so I’ve learned) the iPhone shares with many other “smart” phones, and that’s its annoying tendency to interfere with poorly shielded electronic devices. The phenomenon, known as radiofrequency interference, manifests itself as hysterical bursts of mid-frequency electronic buzzing that sound something like “dit-dit-dit-dah-dit-dit-dit-dah,” or Morse code on speed with a continuous buzz behind it. The problem appears to be most common with GSM-based phones, such as AT&T (the iPhone’s carrier), T-Mobile, and the old Nextel networks but is not limited to them.

I first learned of this phenomenon the day after I had activated my iPhone. I was sitting at my desk listening to my iTunes library, when the (now) characteristic buzz started up, drowning out my music as it poured out of my speakers. I figured out that I could shield the phone with my hand and stop (or at least attenuate) the drone, or I could put the phone in a drawer and risk forgetting to take it with me whenever I leave my office. I later noted the same interference when I tried to play my iPhone during the drive home using a cassette adapter. Oddly enough, there was no interference if I was not using the adapter to listen to music (i.e., if I was just listenign to the radio or a CD), implying that it was the adapter that was inadequatlely shielded, not the car stereo itself. Subsequently, I learned that, to be sure of avoiding this problem when using the iPod to play music, one needs to use devices certified to “work with iPod,” which apparently means their electronic shielding is up to the barrage of RFI that the iPhone produces.

Little did I expect to hear that same buzz here at the AACR during a talk.

I won’t say what talk it was. Suffice it to say that it was during one of the tumor angiogenesis sessions. It happened almost immediately after the speaker walked up to the podium to start speaking. I had noticed hints of it with the speaker before this one, but much quieter. In retrospect I think it may have been this speaker sitting at the podium waiting his turn; alternatively the speaker before him may have also had the problem, but not as loud. Be that as it may, as the speaker began his talk, first it started low, a relatively quiet howl underlying the talk. It was enough to be noticed but not yet really distracting. Unfortunately, it would not remain so.

As the talk went on, the well-known (and, to me, now hated) drone came back. Louder. So loud that at times it almost drowned out the speaker. Surely he must be aware of it, I thought. And then the friend I was sitting with pointed it out to me: The buzz appeared every time the speaker started gesticulating as he spoke. Clearly he knew what was going on, because I started to notice him putting his left hand on his hip whenever the buzz became too annoying, after which it would disappear for a while–until he started gesticulating again.

I wanted to leap up and yell: “Could you just turn off your damned phone so I can pay attention to your science?”

I felt sorry for the guy. Really I did. But I was also annoyed at him. He had clearly figured out what the problem was. True, it would have been somewhat embarrassing to have to take his phone out and turn the damned thing off, but that’s what he should have done. If he was clever about it, he could even have turned it into a little joke. (I hope that’s what I would have done.) Of course, now that I’m acutely aware of the problem from my own experience, I will always make very sure my iPhone is turned off or on “airplane mode” before stepping up to the podium to give any talk.

The really sad thing is that the talk contained some good science about tumor angiogenesis. Unfortunately, I can’t remember very much of it at all. All I do remember about it is that irritating GSM buzz.