Hi, Fi

Well, here we go.  In my absence, Google announced the launch of Project Fi, their experiment as a mobile virtual network operator.  It more or less dovetails with what the rumor mill predicted: only works on the Nexus 6 with a special SIM that allows multi-network operation and does everything (including phone and text) over Wi-Fi first but can then roam into T-Mobile or Sprint networks, whichever is stronger. Unlimited talk and text, service in 120 countries (with a slight fee for placing voice calls abroad), all for a flat $20 and then $10 per GB of data thereafter, prorated and refunded.  So if you pay $50 but then only use 2.7 GB of data, you’ll get $3 back.  Or if you pay $40 and use 4.2 GB of data, you’ll be charged $62. Simple.

It’s a gauntlet thrown at the feet of AT&T and Verizon, mainly. The old PCS-only carriers don’t generally have the rural buildout to compete outside the city, because they didn’t inherit any of the old 800 Mhz frequencies the original A- and B-band cellular operators had (all of whom effectively were either AT&T or Verizon by 2006).  But with both Sprint and T-Mob to draw on, and wi-fi to backfill, Google might just be able to compete effectively – or at least put severe pricing pressure on the Big Two, which have in the last decade managed to pivot from selling tons of minutes and throwing in data as lagniappe to selling nothing but data and throwing in unlimited calls and texts as the sweetener.


Seriously. Depending on where you live, Google has gotten way beyond the service sector only.  Time was, Google could be your email, your search, your social networking, your navigation, your media provider, and the OS of your phone, laptop and streaming stick.  Now they can be your ISP, your TV provider and your cellular phone company as well.  If you like and if the geography supports it, you can basically exist in a 100% Google ecosystem.

And that’s problematic, as I’ve described here and elsewhere.  It’s the mirror image of Mountain View as Googleburg: when you’re a company town, it generally works out better for the company than the town, and when Google’s not Google anymore where will that leave you? And it’s not like you can avoid them; Android has a market share bumping around 80% worldwide for smartphones and the majority of my personal email correspondents are on Gmail even if I’m not so it’s not like you can swear off the Beast of Mountain View and avoid being under their sway. And having established that “don’t be evil” is a crock of shit, where does that leave you?

I spoke with someone writing an article about the transformation of some of these company towns in Silly Con Valley, and my line on Google was “right now, it’s kind of like Smaug, sitting there on a huge pile of gold, and here we are on the lake hoping against hope it just doesn’t decide to wake up.”  It staggers me that the same people who got sand in their bungholes at the horrifying revelations of Edward Snowden are still blithely indifferent to how much power they hand over to Google, completely voluntarily.  Of which more later.



First off: set aside the details of the travel qua traveling. Because you should never leave the country with a group of 20 people who are all a decade or more older than you. Old white folks are the worst to see another country with.  Your own culture should be a springboard, not a fortress, and the best part of the trip was when we were on our own (which in fairness did dovetail with the most luxurious accommodations as well).

Now.  Japan.

I suppose the most surprising thing to me was that it didn’t seem all that expensive.  Sure, it was pricey, but so is San Francisco. When you can get a half-liter Coke from a vending machine for the equivalent of $1.43 and a whiskey highball – at LUNCH – for $2.60, that’s downright reasonable.  I’m sure real estate and rent is appalling, but hell, there’s no way our house is worth a million dollars, and yet.

The next most surprising thing, I suppose, is that for all the talk of ubiquitous all-everything Japanese vending machines, I didn’t see anything on offer but cigarettes and non-alcoholic beverages. That said, there were a LOT of drink machines.  I mean, a lot a lot.  As in, you’re walking down a back-alley sort of street and there’s a Suntory vending machine just in the middle of the alley apropos of nothing.  I don’t want to know how much money I sank into vending machines buying Coke Zero, or Coke Life, or Bikkle, or CC Lemon, or any of half a dozen different bottled coffee options with varying sweeteners and temperatures.  That’s right, they’ll sell you a can of hot coffee out of the same machine that sells you a bottle of cold Coke.

And the temptation is there pretty much all the time. The smallest bill is 1000 yen, or ~$8.40 today.  The largest coin is 500 yen, or ~$4.20. Because one yen is less than one cent, you look at ¥130 for a short bottle of Fanta and think “that’s less than a buck thirty” and pour the money right in, and next thing you know you’re spending ten dollars a day just getting drinks at random.  Which is not a problem for me, but it’s the same issue I had in Europe (and especially Britain) – when the base unit of currency is a coin, whether a Euro or a pound or 100 yen, your American brain instinctively devalues it.  It makes me wonder whether you could stimulate the economy just by getting rid of the $1 bill and forcing everyone onto the golden dollar coin, thus getting the push that comes with buying a drink for just two coins. But I digress.

There was a certain frozen-in-time aspect, too. Salarymen are still all off to work in two piece dark suits.  Women are still wearing pantyhose with jeans, never mind dresses. The architecture mostly seems to be Mad Men-era (for reasons that are probably obvious, as is the reason it’s awkward to discuss, especially in/around Hiroshima, of which more later). There are still line items like “drinks for women” in the cocktail menu. It’s as if the Occupation departed and everything more or less froze in place about the time the economy started to skyrocket – and thought “we have a good thing going here, why change?”  And then stuck after the deflation hit and the bubble burst.  You get the sense that daytime TV might have more than a couple ads invoking “ring around the collar” and “occasional irregularity” if you could understand them.

Japan is another train country, like the UK, and it was pretty delightful.  After years and years of public transit, all I really need to know is “do you tag at both ends or just pay on entry and is it a flat rate or not.” Once that was clear, using JR Rail was easy as pie. Even the light rail system in Arashiyama, on the edge of Kyoto, was easy to deal with once you figured out it was “pay as you get off the train if you don’t have a payment card.”  (As an aside, you could easily wind up in a Charlie On The MTA situation if you don’t watch yourself. Through the open window she gives Charlie the finger as the train comes rumblin’ through…)  And the existence of viable bullet trains…honestly, it’s a disgrace we let the rest of the world steal a march on us there.  I don’t know how we wound up bifurcating into cars and planes and ignoring rail transit outside the Northeast when a bullet train from SF to LA should have been done by 1990 at the latest.

Japan is also a very lawful country, in the D&D sense.  You expect that, obviously, but it’s still impressive to see people getting off the train before anyone tries to get on, and people being ready to board quickly, and being able to run trains with one minute headway because you can swap out passengers in 20 seconds.  Nobody was talking on the phone except tourists. Nobody was crossing against the light. Too many people around NorCal act as if it’s a straight jump from enforcing “no skateboarding on the platform” to concentration camps.  Japanese commuters know damn well there are other people, and it shows.

But back to the frozen-in-time thing, which strikes me as important. Japan was still in the throes of a deflationary spiral at the turn of the century when China was granted MFN status.  It seems like that was a critical jump, because most of the stuff that was made in Japan now gets made in one Special Economic Zone or another in China. Televisions, computer components, everything that Americans freaked out about in the 1980s; I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of Japanese people were similarly freaking these days.  I saw an awful lot of “Made In Japan” signs on goods for sale, and it says something about how much things have changed that they feel the need to make it a selling point.

In any event, I’m sure I will have much more to say later as I process the whole trip.  I would go again in a heartbeat.  Probably not on a tour, though.  We broke the seal, we know where to go and what to see, and I think we’d be just fine, especially if I learned more than three phrases in Japanese…

Cherry Blossom Time

And just like that, after years of agonizing and seven months of not-really-planning and a couple weeks of dithering, it’s time to go to Japan. There will be updates and a travelogue eventually, but for the most part, it’s going to be us and a couple of iPhones and a country that for most of my life was shorthand for “the future”. Bullet trains and high tech and 24-hour Blade Runner neon.  And then they too got overtaken by events.

It’ll be worth it, if nothing else for two weeks away from work and time to enjoy some downtime and check another country and continent off the list.

Second impressions

It’s handy to have every notification coming right to your arm.  It’s less handy when you seem to be dropping the connection. I’ve been having weird Bluetooth problems with my headphones, my Pebble and my iPhone 6 for the better part of a week, and I’m wondering how well they will all play together.  I’m also having trouble getting the sleep data out of Morpheuz into the Health app, and it’s annoying me.

Basically I’m starting to see the appeal of the single-platform integration, which is of course what Apple does better than anyone else.  If you need to run a watch with your iPhone, use the Apple Watch and the results will be seamless assuming you are slightly brighter than a turnip.  This is not a sure thing.  The problem with making a computer anyone can use is that anyone will.

Nevertheless, I don’t mind it.  It’s handy enough when I can make it work, and I’m sure some of this is just the teething pains of a new device in my rotation. That said, it’s not coming to Japan. Mainly because I don’t want one more thing to charge, and also because it won’t really be necessary.  The watch hasn’t replaced the phone for alarm clock purposes, and I won’t need instant notifications for things while abroad (not least because I won’t actually be on a cellular network, just a handheld WiFi device feeding Internet access to my phone).  I’ll stick to my mechanical watch when I’m out of the country.  

As for the phone, I’m taking just the iPhone 6.  No iPad, no Moto X – I know the X was meant to be the travel phone, but given that it’s much simpler to have a WiFi device in Japan than to battle through the trouble of getting a SIM card and activating it and having data only and…the juice just ain’t worth the squeeze. And the only thing I need from the iPad is easier reading or movie watching (neither of which I should need while I’m in, you know, ANOTHER COUNTRY) or maybe better access to websites or blogging (which isn’t enough to make it worthwhile). And the iPhone 6 will go in my pocket and has better battery life than the Moto – because Lollipop still hasn’t shipped for the 2013 Moto X, which is further proof that you should never buy Android unless you know you can live with the version of the OS that ships on it.  I’ve gotten from 4.2.2 to 4.4.4, and despite Moto’s assurances, I’m not holding my breath for 5.

So that’s it.  Analog watch, corded headphones, and iPhone 6. Last time I went abroad was with an iPhone 3G. Times have changed.  Hopefully this will work out slightly better.