Luddite Chronicles: Whatever Happened To The Telephone

Why must I feel like a washed-up nobody just because I have no need for a new "data plan"? All I want to do is make (and pay for) a simple phone call.

A red phone booth alongside the road

"Calling used to be an ordinary if not always a pleasurable activity"

Alidad Vassigh


MADRID — I recently tried telephoning my mother in Tehran. By that, I don't mean some kind of 1950s rotary phone or 1990s cordless relic. I've long embraced the convenience of using my mobile phone — though now we are told that it is a smart phone.

Well, I couldn't do it. A bit too smart? Once the Tehran number began ringing, I began to hear a strange digital whimper before the call up and died on me. Combining logic and paranoia, I concluded that I cannot use "my" phone to call a landline in Tehran. It has nothing to do with the receiving end, but rather that it's not included in my outgoing Spanish tarifa, the fixed 10-euro fee I've picked, valid for a month.

But you apparently can't use it for one big long faraway call if you wanted. If I "top up," the money just gets sucked into more computing bytes rather than what I want to do: talk to my mother.

Technology does not always favor free-market capitalism

Calling used to be an ordinary if not always a pleasurable activity. Just five years ago, I would recharge my phone with 5 or 10 euros, and speak to relatives in Tehran until the money ran out. And then recharge.

It was expensive, but I was making my consumer choice. One reason for buying my first mobile phone in London in 2001, was precisely for essential calls, which means family in Tehran. I remember using it to call my parents after the 9/11 attacks. The other reason, of course, was consumer compulsion — everyone else had one.

I'm a bad consumer of our electronic world

It's another case of technology disrupting not just free-market capitalism, but freedom itself, as my Swedish colleague so aptly wrote after the recent Facebook outage.

There is WhatsApp of course, which they tell us is the telephone. And although I like to tell myself Iran "keeps cutting the Internet," the application regrettably works most days. The point is, I don't feel I am calling. There is no formality in touching a screen and being connected for free. No, what I want is to make a call and pay for it in cash. Anyway, they're going to get my money...

photo of four old pay phones in Canada

Old pay phones in Canada

Maarten van den Heuvel

Bad consumer of electronics

A few days ago, the service provider, Vodafone, called again to propose a package to include far more bytes than I could ever eat, and stuff I could never understand. They want a contract, but I won't give them my bank account. I told the saleswomen that I don't look at the internet on my phone, so I don't need a xillion bytes. I adopted what was for me a benign, respectful tone, but realized afterward I may have sounded more like Doctor Evil in therapy.

Clearly, the problem is at this end of the line. I'm a bad consumer of our electronic world. I admit I've used the microwave every now and then, and I remember successfully sending a fax, circa 1999. The answering machine came and went and I never left anyone a message. I hate LED lighting. You get the idea.

Having said all that, maybe you can still call Tehran on my phone, and I just bungled it all. I don't care to find out. I know that near my apartment in Madrid, there's a Bangladeshi-owned shop that still has telephone booths.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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