• Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

The New-Phone Blues: A Reminder That Hackers Shouldn’t Fix


Mar 22, 2022

For all the convenience and indispensability of having access to total human knowledge in the palm of your hand, the actual process of acquiring and configuring a smartphone can be an incredibly frustrating experience. Standing in those endless lines at the cell phone store, jumping through administrative hoops and staring in sticker shock at a device that is going to end its life, submerged in a toilet, add to the frustration.

But for my money the real problems start once you get over all those things and start trying to set up the new phone just right. Sure, most phone manufacturers make it pretty easy to clone your old phone onto the new one, but there are always hitches. And for something as tightly integrated into the workflows of your daily life as cell phones, that can be a real disappointment. Especially when you find out that your shiny new phone can’t do something you absolutely depend on.

The problem

A prime example of this is my experience this week, when I finally admitted that I needed a “real” cell phone plan, rather than the pay-as-you-go phones my wife and I have been using for the better part of a decade. . We got what looked like a hot screaming deal – brand new Pixel 6 phones for free, with a plan that would cost just $10 a month more than what we were currently paying. So we signed on the line and waited for our phones to be sent. It was actually quite painless.

That should have been my first guess of what’s to come. The Pixels did a pretty good job of porting all of our apps over from the old phones. Setting things up exactly like this, with the right ringtones and screen settings, was tedious but simple. Where things started to fall apart, however, was with one special, critical app — the one we use to monitor our diabetic daughter’s blood sugar.

This is the data I need to access on the new phone.

I’ve written quite a bit about diabetes and how continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) has been both a godsend and a curse for us as parents of a child with type 1 diabetes. But that app, which connects us to a cloud service that its CGM system uploads data to, is absolutely essential to us. Our daughter sleeps like a log; literally nothing wakes her up, especially not the beeping of her CGM when her blood sugar drops dangerously low in the middle of the night. That means we need to have the CGM app on our phones so we can get notified that she’s in trouble and wake her up to give her a snack before severe and potentially fatal hypoglycemia sets in.

And what would you know, the CGM app wouldn’t work on the new Pixels. We dug a bit and found that the vendor has only certified the app as compatible with a very small number of phones, including the Pixel 6. Strangely, none of our old phones are on the list either, but it worked on both. That’s why I wasn’t too concerned about the Pixels – if it runs on my wife’s old Moto G4, it should run on the latest and greatest, right? Error.

With an afternoon wasted on the phone with tech support from both the CGM salesperson and the phone company under my belt, I sat down to dinner with my wife and felt defeated. With despondency, we considered the possibility that we might have to roll back the changes to our phone plan, when I thought, wait a minute! You are supposed to be a hacker. So hack!

the hack

What I needed was a way to be notified on the new phone when the CGM app on the old phone went off. I realized that my old phone, where the CGM app now runs just fine, would be the focus of my hack. The other asset on my old phone was MacroDroid, a scripting tool I used to make sure I woke up if my daughter’s alarm went off more than five times in the middle of the night by sounding a super annoying alarm – deep sleep comes within the family.

Unfortunately none of the old phones had a SIM card anymore, so texting the new phones via SMS or MMS was off the table. I played around with sending an email, but that never worked very well. Then I came across ClickSend, a service that specializes in sending bulk text messages for marketing purposes — you know, text spam. But they have an API that allows me to set up an HTTP GET request to send a short text to both our phones. And luckily MacroDroid supports GETs as one of the actions it can perform.

So, with a morning of hacking, I came up with a workaround that is good enough for now. When my daughter’s CGM detects a low blood glucose event, the app on my old phone sets a notification that MacroDroid recognizes as a trigger. It then sends a GET request to ClickSend, which immediately sends a text message to both of our new phones. All I have to do is leave my old phone on my desk, and it’s almost as good as running the native app on the Pixel.

Next steps and lessons learned

It functions! My daughter was away for the day and the old phone (right) texted the new phone when her blood glucose dropped below the limit.

Is it perfect? Far from. I liked the convenience of having the full CGM app on my phone and being able to check her number whenever I wanted. It’s also important to see her chart, to make a judgment about how to treat her – there’s a big difference between staying stable at 80 mg/dL and 55 mg/dL and falling quickly. It takes some getting used to not having direct access to that information.

But my main problem with this workaround is that it relies on a long set of dependencies: my old phone works, my wifi and ISP stay online, no interruptions in the cloud app from the CGM vendor, and ClickSend is active. That’s a lot of things that can break. I’d really like to cut out all those middlemen and build a widget that will receive the RF signals directly from my daughter’s CGM and sound some local alarms when she goes low. I imagine a nightstand that can flash the room lights or activate a bed shaker — or, you know, pelt her with Nerf darts. There must be something positive about diabetes.

Until I have the time to build something like that, this hack will have to do it. Is it an epic hack for ages? Not at all. What it is is a quick hack that I was able to piece together with what I had on hand to fix a specific hardware problem right now. In my book, that’s a win.

But I think the biggest lesson here is that sometimes it’s easy to forget exactly who you are. I got beat up by the process and got to a point where I couldn’t see I had a way around the problem. Ultimately, hacking is about optimism – it’s about not accepting what the system throws at you and finding another way to come to a solution. And in times like these, we need all the optimism we can get.

This post The New-Phone Blues: A Reminder That Hackers Shouldn’t Fix

was original published at “https://hackaday.com/2022/03/22/the-new-phone-blues-a-reminder-that-hackers-shouldnt-settle/”

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