What you hear is not a test…

It kind of is though. This is me testing how tough it is to blog from just the iPhone with the damn battery case on it. More and more I think it’s going to require some other tool to successfully blog this trip to Japan. 

And I’m going to have to make written notes. Now is the time when the tactical analysis kicks in – what do we actually need day to day? Given my record, the vitamin C and zinc need to start today. And I should start setting stuff aside for the suitcase or the carry-on tonight. First time out of the country in five years. And I won’t have cellular or the ability to understand the language At All. This will be interesting. 

First Impressions

So there was a price cut on Amazon, and I realized I have the gadget glee again, and it was either drop $400 on the first generation of a new Apple device or spend $80 of birthday money on an original Pebble watch.  And I chose the latter, if nothing else because it’s been around a couple of years and much of the functionality is already polished.  Unpaid beta testing was fun and then I turned 40.

So here it is.  I got it Thursday evening, plugged it in for a couple of hours and it’s been running ever since.  Haven’t had to recharge, take it off, anything.  First test passed, something that I don’t think the Apple Watch will be able to match now or maybe ever barring a BIG change in how battery technology works. Doesn’t hurt that I can wear the thing in the shower either. Well done Pebble folks.

Next up: telling time. Well, it does that.  It also illuminates the screen when you pop your wrist, which is very handy in the middle of the night.  Coupled with being able to set a different “watch face” such that the time is spelled out in big letters, it should be easier for me to tell what time it is when I wake up at 5 AM and can’t fall back asleep, dammit. Core functionality as, you know, A Watch: sorted.

Now, the smart stuff. So far I’ve only tested with my work iPhone, not with the personal Moto X or with the iPad (which it will also work with, unlike the Apple Watch so far as I currently know – the Apple Watch app didn’t get put on the iPad by the iOS 8.2 update at least). Although the prospect of the Apple Watch on the iPad is intriguing…of which more later.  Anyway. The principal advantage of the Pebble on iOS is that it has a neat little API hook straight into the Notifications framework. So the app developer doesn’t have to do anything extra. Text message, AmEx card charge, score update from Yahoo Sports or the official Warriors app, Duo Mobile authentication request, doesn’t matter: if it shows up at the top of the phone, it vibrates on my arm and shows on the little e-paper screen. And if I hit the delete button on the watch, it deletes the notification off the phone.  This right here is damn near enough to justify the device; no more pulling out the phone to clear all that cruft out every time.

The vibrate on the arm is key as well, not least because of the number of times I’ve missed a call (or much more likely a text) that I was waiting for because I had the phone in my jacket in a reasonably loud setting. That won’t be happening now, to the point that I’ve turned off the vibrate function on the phone to save a little extra juice. Anything the phone would alert me for by buzz or ding has been staffed out to my wrist.  It can buzz and I can glance and read and dismiss in pretty much the time it would take me to pull out my phone, never mind unlock and swipe and delete. So that’s handy.

The jury is out on the fitness tracking – it seems to be tracking steps for the most part, thanks to the Misfit app, and is notionally doing sleep tracking (to the surprise of no one, less than half my sleep registers as “deep sleep” and I need to go back and look at the charts after a couple of days to see what’s doing). I’ll find out sooner than later whether I’m getting enough steps at work, although the Pebble and Misfit apps do seem to be feeding back into the Health app via the HealthKit API.  Unfortunately the watch will only allow one fitness-tracking piece to be run, so you have to decide if you want Up or Misfit or MorpheuZ or what have you, and I’m still not absolutely committed one way or the other.

As for the other apps: don’t know yet. I installed the ESPN app and just as quickly uninstalled it, because it’s just blunt-force scores for an entire sports league at once and granular notifications are much better. I have a Caltrain schedule app which could be of use on some days when I’m not on the usual commute or when I’m going from a different station, but that hasn’t come up yet and probably wouldn’t for a while. There’s an even more complex app for other transit sources but it’s apparently keyed to showing what’s doing at specific stops selected in advance, and at that point I’d be pulling out the phone anyway. The ability to glance, or make one click or so and be done, is the whole point; if you’re drilling down five layers deep and trying to punch stuff in, there’s no point having it on the watch.

So here we go. The first cut at “Wearables” and like my tablet life, it starts with a black and white e-ink screen and the most basic functions. Four-plus years later, the Kindle is still a regular viable part of my life. Time to see if the Pebble folks have crafted the same sort of staying power.


The Seven Year Itch

We didn’t celebrate St Patrick’s Day that much in the old country.  Oh sure, I got free-rolled into the 4P’s once on the big day, and I did it just to be able to say I had, but we were Irish enough in our regular weekends that we dismissed March 17 as amateur day, a ridiculous confluence of American marketing and the perpetual need of twenty-somethings to seek an opportunity to drink like mad. St Paddy’s was for people who thought green beer was cool, Killian’s Irish Red was authentic and 26, 6 and 32 were something from Lost.

And then I moved west, and suddenly, it felt important to have a Guinness on the train into work on the 17th and blast the Pogues “Streams of Whiskey” at full volume. Now it’s a day to holler back at the old gang, renew the old shtick. And it got me thinking about something else, too, as we bustle around trying to straighten up the house for company coming.

In the late 1990s, the National Geographic Society did a retention survey, attempting to ascertain why people dropped their memberships (i.e. stopped subscribing to the big magazine). And the number-one reason, the overwhelming leader in the clubhouse, was that they couldn’t find a place to store them. People just don’t throw away National Geographic. There was a story, possibly apocryphal, of a sheriff who saw that a well-loved neighborhood family was moving away and throwing out their National Geographics.  He found this odd, sniffed around a little, and discovered that the family were actually Soviet spies. Sounds way too good to be true, but it makes the point.

Sometime this autumn, around Christmas, I will have been at my current job longer than I was at NGS.

It stings for a couple of reasons. I’ve had four major employers in my adult life, none of whom I ever had to explain what they did. But none of them – not NASA, not Apple, and certainly not where I am now – triggered the instant “HOLY SHIT THAT IS SO COOL” that the big yellow rectangle did. And I miss that.  I miss it more than I’m willing to admit to myself, for a couple of reasons.  For one, Silicon Valley isn’t as cool as it used to be.  The influx of tech dickery, the invasion of San Francisco and the growing sense that this is still where your future comes from, only now it’s corporate-technocracy and dystopian – that’s unpleasant enough.

But for another thing, I haven’t grown since I took this job.  I’m not sorry I took it – I needed out of government subcontracting in the worst possible way – but I honestly didn’t think it would prove as stagnant as it did. In my seven years at NGS, I went from a kid off the street with a strong aficionado’s sense of the Mac to a fully certified technical consultant, ably handling Mac and PC issues alike, the guy they called on for times when you needed a satellite phone to call into an ISP to download mail but couldn’t test it until it reached Gabon or when you needed to shorten the pilot program for OS X deployment from 6 months to 3 days.  Eleven years on, it’s…the same thing, only slightly less so.  We don’t actually test or pilot things, we just do them and clean up the mess.  Other IT people break shit and I fix it…just like 2003.  I build out the Mac deployment solution using NetBoot…just like in 2004. I get called in for VIP Mac issues for people I don’t support…just like 1999. I got an Apple class and certification…just like 2002. And I got old.  I was 32 when I left DC, and if you don’t think there’s a huge difference in this valley between a 32 year old workstation tech and a 43 year old workstation tech, you’re not paying attention.

The toughest thing you will ever do in this life is to stop looking back in all the wrong ways. I know that.  I know that being here doesn’t diminish what I accomplished in my previous jobs. I know my life isn’t over. I know I probably have twenty years til retirement and a lot of things to do in the meantime. But I’d really love to feel like I’m not going backward, and that’s what this job makes me feel like. And if somebody dropped a quarter-million dollars cash on me to allow me time to start over doing something else, I’d take it in a second.

The Company Town

For quite some time, there’s been talk about Google wanting to build high-rise housing for employees on the back side of the Plex near 101 past San Antonio. Or maybe in proximity to Moffett Field. Or something else. And it goes back and forth, because while Google’s commute patterns have disrupted Mountain View’s transit and traffic, the notion of locally housing enough employees to give Google a decisive voting bloc in local elections unnerves people. And now comes word that Facebook is eager to do the same thing in Menlo Park, an even smaller-by-population town than Mountain View. 

This comes to mind for two reasons.  One is that I realized this weekend that I enjoy going to Sunnyvale or San Jose for  my pub nights rather than Mountain View; the one place I really like in MV is a dive that’s very suited for somebody knocking back straight Fernet while it’s still light out. The other is that I saw the new office building at the corner of Castro and Central…and it’s going to be occupied by 23 and Me, a company famously associated with Google. Here’s some of that new construction in town, a 2-story motel replaced with a 4- or 5-story office block…and it’s going to another arm, tenuously, of the Beast of Mountain View.

How do you go about getting development without becoming a company town? Mountain View has had famous tenants before, like Adobe or Silicon Graphics or Netscape, but they never accumulated the kind of scale Google has.  Other companies like IBM or Intel or Sun were strewn all over the Valley – you can’t throw a rock without hitting a former HP building, and Apple’s “Campus 2” is going on top of the former HP Cupertino campus – but none of them became the dominant power in their town. Now, Apple’s got Cupertino, Google has Mountain View, Stanford has basically always had Palo Alto, and Facebook is making their play for Menlo Park. And this article sort of nails it: how is it that tech companies, the ones who brought us telepresence and work from home, all have to have these self-contained hamster runs now?

As a native son of the South, I know plenty about company towns. They tend to be good for the company and less good for the town. Mountain View needs housing, all right, but it doesn’t need a Google dorm and it doesn’t need another stack of luxury condos.  What it needs is a safe replacement for all those pre-1989 apartments that sit over carports and will pancake down in the next big quake. But the only way you get a return on your investment is to posh it up, because there’s another name for large-scale dense affordable housing: the projects.  And it’s something no one is eager to bring to town, no matter how badly people who aren’t getting options and restricted stock units need a roof over their heads.  Mountain View has five dozen firefighters, and two (2) of them live in Mountain View.  You’re not surprised at this for some place like Hillsdale or Atherton, but when it trickles down the Peninsula to Menlo and Paly and Mountain View, it’s worth stopping and thinking about what kind of community we’re creating.

It’s a tough choice, really. You don’t have to put new housing in town when everyone wants to live in San Francisco, but then you’ve got problems associated with Google buses on suburban side streets and a train station overwhelmed by shuttles and the density of what used to be a reverse commute and the fact that instead of paying property taxes and sales taxes in town, Google’s drones are being ferried back up to San Francisco on nights and weekends and eating their free lunch on campus in the meanwhile.  When the choice is between occupation and colonization, it’s time to start thinking about how you diversify your town and make sure you’re not in thrall to that one big company who’s going to leave you sneezing if they get a sniffle.  And when your company has 20,000 people working in a town of 75,000, that’s bad arithmetic. UAB is the largest employer in Birmingham (and in Alabama) and still only represents 1 job in 10.  If even half of Google’s Mountain View employees live there, that’s a nontrivial impact on the town – in terms of voting, in terms of public resources, and in terms of what happens to Mountain View when Google decides to go Galt and move to Birmingham for the tax breaks.

And make no mistake, once that company is big enough and once that town is dependent enough, you’re going to be a wholly operated subsidiary.  Nice little city you got there.  Shame if anything happened to it.

One more note

It bears mentioning that the iPad debuted in spring 2010, and that Christmas, I got…a Kindle. It’s not lost on me that the cross-platform-compatible original Pebble watch is two years old and robust/mature in its own right. Or that its e-paper interface is the same as…the Kindle.

That two year old Pebble is still getting functionality upgrades. Makes you wonder how long the slightly newer and slightly colorful model might last.

On ephemerality

“As you get wiser you learn to spend less money on materials and more on experiences”

-former Vanderbilt QB/WR Joshua Grady, 6 Mar 2015


About the time I turned 40, I was taken with the ephemeral nature of our industry, with the idea that you couldn’t reasonably expect your new iPhone to last much more than three years or your laptop more than five, and marveling that I could splash out the same money on a phone that would barely survive its contract or a mechanical watch that would last me the rest of my life without ever so much as looking at a battery.

This is particularly appropriate today.

First things first: the differentiation in Apple Watch lines is all about materials. Functionality is identical across all models.  So set aside the $10,000 model completely; this is about the baseline $349 watch. And nothing’s changed since last night: I still need to see this thing make contact with the real world for a year or two before I’m persuaded of the utility.  For instance: I know someone with an iPhone 6+ and an atrial fibrillation issue; the combination of real-time heart monitoring and not having to take that slab out of the jacket/cargo shorts/backpack is a very real and viable use case. They can actually use the thing in a way I don’t need. But for me, right now, it’s a gimmick…and a short-lived one.

See, the original iPhone was missing some crucial bits. Like video capture or MMS or GPS, stuff that couldn’t be replaced in software.  And the original iPad was missing some crucial bits – like a retina display. And the original Apple Watch is apparently missing some of the sensors they wanted to get into the first generation but couldn’t make practically functional.  And while there’s an expectation that you’d replace your phone every couple of years, that isn’t quite the case yet with the iPad, and nobody anticipates needing a new watch every two years. So if $400 means a watch and a pair of Ray-Bans that will each last me until I’m dead and buried in them, what’s the percentage in a watch that might not make it to the end of Sonny Gray’s rookie contract?

Until I know that the smart watch is a viable proposition for at least – four years? five? ten? – it hardly seems worth getting stuck into it, especially when the things I’d use it for exist on the phone.  That’s money better spent on something like going down the pub every Sunday night to hear live Irish music for two straight months and change. Or on a train ticket to Los Angeles. Or…

Here we stumble across something I think the millenials and their sympathizers have gotten right. So much of the nonsense I see on things like Texts From Last Night and Twitter seems to be checking a series of notional boxes where going for anything, no matter how crazy or absurd or stupid, is justifiable for the sake of being able to say you did it. Or tried it. Or just having the story. And that’s where spending the money on the experience is worthwhile: because while it may seem absurd to pay money to become a Baron of Sealand, you’ve got that story for the rest of your days.  Which makes it an even greater value than if you’d put the same money on a couple bottles of wine…unless those bottles of wine led to a House Hunters International viewing-and-drinking party that led to unbridled shtick you’ll be doing for ages.  Or…you get the idea.

I got a little money for my birthday.  Enough that it would make a sizable dent in acquiring a first-generation Apple Watch.  And yet…there’s much better things I could do with that money that would almost certainly last longer than two years, or three, or five.  I have stuff a-plenty, I have a watch and a phone (or two!) and a peacoat and a trucker jacket and a pair of resoleable boots and things that will last for ages.  What I need to spend money on now is in the service of making memories.  They’ll last as long as my watch or my peacoat…and if done right, they’ll be just as warm and timely for just as long.

Watch the throne

So it begins. Tomorrow, we find out the stuff we don’t yet know about the Apple Watch. Mainly the actual price points and the battery life, which are the two things we don’t know about in any meaningful way aside from $349 to start and possibly “every day”.  The great mentioner’s consensus is that the “Watch Edition” (i.e. the gold stuff) will easily be in the thousands, going against serious watches along the lines of Hublot or Patek Phillips or Rolex, and the $349 will be the base level sport watch with “ion-X glass” instead of sapphire crystal and elastomeric (read: rubber) bands instead of leather or metal.

To me, though. the first obvious question is “how much battery is this going to save me?” My expectation being that not pulling out the phone and illuminating the screen – the biggest battery eater – will make the phone hold out longer throughout the day. But my biggest battery eaters are Tweetbot, Reeder, Mail and Instagram. That represents half my battery use over the last week, and I only have notifications turned on for Instagram. I have my doubts whether I can read my RSS on my wrist without destroying that battery. 

But honestly, what is it I need from a smart watch? I’d be willing to use it for Apple Pay, I wouldn’t mind caller ID when the phone is in my pocket, I’d love to know I got a text when the phone isn’t audible or can’t be felt in a jacket pocket, I guess the pedometer and heart monitor would be cool… honestly, though, it still feels like a solution in search of a problem. The iPad was like that, until it became the home laptop replacement and thus eminently practical. If there’s a must-have use case for a smart watch for me, it hasn’t manifested itself yet, and I’m honestly not sure what it would be. Good money thrown after bad, for something whose lifespan is still up in the air at best as a usable device. Of which, as I say, more later. 

As the world turns

This is the second post of the year.  The entire month of February: nothing.  I don’t know what that says about the current state of my life, because February had some activities.  A reunion in Vegas with friends I’ve never met in person, a chance to throw live dice with a purpose for the first time in over four years, a long weekend in Tahoe to read books and sip cocktails, a birthday trip to see the Santa Cruz Warriors and enjoy live basketball…there were things happening.

I don’t know.  This year feels like the phase-5 version of last year; despondency and despair giving way to “whatever, long as I can have a drink and see friends and/or stretch out by the fire and don’t have to set an alarm.” We’ve been to places this year and have more on the way (not least the long-awaited Japan excursion).  I look at the stuff on my “frivolous things to purchase” list and don’t really want any of them badly enough to spend the money. I haven’t been down the pub on a Sunday night yet this year, I don’t believe, and I am seriously considering making a Tuesday night thing happen with the local dive and the most local Irish place with live music.

I mean, look at the categories…politics is too depressing to think about. Sports – well, Vandy basketball is surprisingly not bad despite the sluggish SEC start and Vandy baseball is defending the title well, the Warriors are still killing it and spring training has started and that’s nice. Not much to sing out about yet.  Technology? Well, the Apple Watch event is on Monday morning and we’ll find out whether it’s worth throwing cash (right now, I suspect probably not) and I still feel drawn to the Moto X even though carrying two phones is no more practical than it ever was.

Honestly? I just need something to happen.  I need my job to change somehow – new job, new workplace, or just a big enough win at the current one that I am propelled into a better spot.  Sort that out, reduce that as a stress factor, and maybe I can get on with improving my life in other areas.  More working out, better eating. That sort of thing.  Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. 

It feels like I’m waiting for the curtain to go up.  On what…I don’t know.