Stuff and such

The iPhone SE won’t get off my mind. Partly it’s because I’m in pain thanks to some long-needed nasal surgery and gooned on opiates, and in need of distraction, but partly because the reviews are starting to trickle in and they’re uniformly just what I’ve hoped for: a premium phone at a better price point that makes no meaningful concessions and gives you a quart in a pint pot, with significantly better battery life. And after fiddling with an old 5S for a couple of days because of the reduced dexterity the drugs gave me, I’ve come to realize that the beginnings of joint pain in the first knuckle of my middle finger on both hands is probably down to gripping an iPhone 6 for a year and change.

But my iPhone 6 got unlocked and I got my 703 number, two of the biggest things that made me want a new phone in the first place, so the traditional urge to need the things I want isn’t there, and it’s a tough one to justify. There are a lot of things like that floating around lately. The new solid-color Rickshaw Sutro backpacks are only $99, half what they usually cost – but I have two messenger bags more suited for carry-on and don’t carry my laptop back and forth at work enough to need a bigger backpack than the tiny Timbuk2 I’m currently using.  I really like the retro-60s-NASA-engineer-in-short-sleeves look of the Warby Parker Ames frames, but I have a pair of prescription glasses I spent way too much on three years ago and don’t wear enough as is. I really REALLY like the look of the new Coast, the classic single-speed beach cruiser by Priority Bicycles which is belt-drive and basically salt-and-weather-proof, but I don’t ride my Public M8 enough as it is. The Apple Smart Battery Case would easily double the life of my iPhone 6…which I’m trying to talk myself out of using, and which has one battery case and half a dozen battery packs in the drawer already.

This led me to think of my Zippo collection. I haven’t carried a lighter regularly in a decade or more, but the Zippo is one of our greatest technological achievements: simple and elegant, made in Bradford PA since 1932, a wind-resistant source of fire with only a flint and almost any flammable liquid. It’s as perfect a device fit to purpose as exists.  And in so many ways, so is the Coast. So is the Sutro. So is the iPhone SE. The draw of that ideally suited perfect fit is compelling even when what I already have and use is 85% of the way there. Unlike the phone, though, it’s safe to assume my Timbuk2 and Rickshaw messengers will last a lifetime unless deliberately damaged, as will my new California cap or my Navy surplus peacoat or my Alden boots. 

But if anything happens to my work phone, at all, a rose gold iPhone SE in the midnight blue leather case is going in my pocket in a heartbeat, believe that.

Further review

The iPhone SE combines 2 GB of RAM and always-listening voice control on a one-handable package. So did the Moto X when it dropped at the end of the summer of 2013. It’s still flabbergasting to me that Google didn’t take better advantage of that – it was (and in my opinion remains) the most genuinely innovative phone since the original iPhone, and they utterly flubbed it by combining premium pricing with virtually no promotion. Were circumstances reversed, Steve Jobs would have sold a million Moto X first-gens and probably buried the iPhone – but then that’s why Apple is the world’s most valuable publicly-held company and Moto is now a subsidiary of Lenovo churning out (very good value for money) budget phones.

The thing is, the iPhone 6 (technically the fifth different body style) is just a hair too big, made worse by the fact that you have to put a case on it – partly because the damned camera protrudes from the back, partly because the rounded-off sides make it like handling a bar of soap that’s already at the edge of what you can handle in one hand. My iPhone 6 is in Apple’s leather case, and it’s just a little too big to do everything one-handed. My wife’s iPhone 6S is in a different style of case, and it feels (and even looks) like a larger phone. And looking around the last couple of days, it occurs to me that the whole world has pretty much just shrugged and said “okay, phones are five inches now” and decided that we’ll all two-hand it. Which – I mean, how do you hold your drink? How do you stay upright when commuting? (Actually don’t bother answering that last bit. If I had a nickel for everyone at work that I see whizzing by on a bicycle with both hands on the phone instead of the handlebars, I could pay my bail.)

Nope, the iPhone SE is pretty much Apple’s concession to what I’ve said all along: we crossed the finish line in 2013 and all that’s left is to make the bits better. And they largely did – more RAM, always-on voice control, faster processor, greatly-improved camera (and fully enclosed in the body of the phone!) – not to mention the battery life. My random scribblings and attempts at algebra led me to think there should be a 17% battery life improvement from the 5S. Instead, I got 17% battery improvement from the 6S – which is a substantial premium over the original 5S.

The thing is, if the iPhone 6 were my only device, it would be tough to take the hit on screen size. But it isn’t. I have the iPad for movie watching and heavy reading (not to mention the Kindle, which is ideal for long rides on trains and planes). The kind of reading I do on the phone – RSS feeds, Twitter, text and email – isn’t that diminished by going to a 4” screen instead of 4.7”, and the audio (the endless podcasts, and occasionally even music) isn’t affected in the least. 

And the other nice thing: the SE is completely 100% backward compatible with the entire ecosystem of iPhone 5/5S accessories. I already have my Magpul case. I already have a Mophie charge case. I could take this to London without spending a cent on accessory support and could almost certainly make it through a full day without even needing to pull on additional charging (largely because I won’t be playing audio all day and most of what I do will be either photography or navigation).

Long story short: I don’t need to replace my work phone now. But as soon as I do, the iPhone SE is the move, because it’s basically the 6S-Minus – all the same stuff, everything I want and nothing I don’t, in a perfectly-sized package. For the first time in I don’t know when, there’s an Apple product ideally tailored to my needs – if only I needed it.


So it’s real. The iPhone SE is basically the slightly polished body of the iPhone 5S, with most of the guts of the iPhone 6S. No 3DTouch (whatevs), no barometer (feh) and the front-facing camera is more or less the one from the 5S (no auto HDR for video, an f/2.4 aperture instead of f/2.2) – and, of course, a display 30% smaller. And a battery larger than the 5S had, one not very much smaller than the 6S. 

The 6S famously has a smaller battery than the 6, to make way for the 3DTouch display. But by eschewing that, and pairing the presumably-more-efficient chipset with the smaller screen, Apple has turned out a phone that leapfrogs its parent – the cited battery life on Internet use and HD video playback is across the board at least 20% greater than what was claimed for the 6 or 6S. 

Twenty percent, in a phone which is available for $500 off contract in a 64GB model as compared to $750 for the same capacity 6S. The same phone under the hood for one-third off. (And one-third off the screen natch).

I’ve been mulling this one over since September, if you go back far enough. Certainly since the rumors began to pick up steam in December. And out of pocket, it’s only going to run me $360 plus tax. It’s a tough call – on the one hand my work-provided phone is unlocked and certainly good enough for daily use. But it’s a better battery in a smaller phone which would be my own damn phone, not the one from work. The best personally owned phone I have right now is that two-plus-year-old Moto X, which has gotten its last OS update. 

It’s not the most irrational thing I’ve ever wanted to spend that kind of money on, no doubt. This is going to be a tough one…and it may depend heavily on whether the battery improvement is as advertised. But I’m tired of having to keep low power mode on all day, and rely on plugging in at the desk…

I know I should wait. I should definitely wait. We’ll see how long and how effectively I hold out. 

THE most electrifying man in sports-entertainment

It’s not like Michael Jordan or Dominique Wilkins, flying through the air with the greatest of ease.  It’s not Wilt or Kareem or Shaq wading through the lane like kaiju to attack the hoop.  Steph Curry is 6-foot-3 and weighs a buck-ninety. He rarely dunks, and when he does he barely dunks. I mean, I’ve got over thirty pounds on the guy and only give away an inch of height. And in a way that’s what makes this year amazing: nothing he does wouldn’t theoretically be possible for any high schooler of decent size who just lived in the gym and shot and shot and shot and shot.

Nothing he does is in any way precedented.  There have been great three-point specialists in the modern era, but Craig Hodges and Reggie Miller and Ray Allen tended to catch and shoot. I can’t think of any jump-shooter who created jump shots off the dribble thirty feet from the basket. And that’s the killer with Curry: his quickness and handle are so good that if you face-guard him, he’ll wrap around and slide by you before hitting a pull-up dagger. And if you play off him so he can’t go by you…he’ll just spot up and let it fly from damn near anyplace over the half-court line.  More than once this season, with the game clock below 2 seconds, he’s brought the ball over half-court, stopped and set himself, and let one go from 40 feet if it’s an inch…and knocked it down.

No one’s ever done that. Nobody. There were guys in the pre-3-point era who could just stroke it from a distance, like Pete Maravich or Oscar Robertson, but were they intentionally firing from thirty-five and hitting it routinely? I’ve been watching pro basketball off and on for over twenty-five years, and I’ve never seen anything like what Steph is doing night in and night out – right now, it’s the greatest show in sports. Nothing compares right now, and I can’t remember the last thing that did.

And that’s a good thing, because I need pro basketball to take the edge off the college game right now. More about that when I stop being mad.

How We Got Here, revisited

The Democratic Leadership Council was formed in the mid-1980s to cope with the problem that the Democrats went 1-4 in Presidential elections from 1968 to 1988. It was Southern in nature – Bill Clinton was its leader for the longest time – and it was focused squarely on what could be considered the New South Governor model. Almost every Southern state had one (except, tellingly, Alabama) – could be from either party, but was always some good-looking young white guy who tried to downplay the racial angles of Southern politics while coming across as broadly pro-business and hammering hard on the importance of education. Writ large, and looked at with 30 years of hindsight, it comes across as “we’re going to take care of you, traditional minorities, but we’re going to do it as quietly as we can so as not to scare the white folks – and when push comes to shove, we’re going to err on the side of not scaring the white folks.”

It was a clear-cut effort to be the lesser of two evils. And at a time when the Democrats still had a significant Southern component (lest we forget, Clinton won Georgia and West Virginia pretty handily in 1992), it was broadly feasible and tactically clever. But it had two major problems. For one, it perpetuated the idea that the “Reagan Democrat” – the working-class and usually Southern white voter – was the most to be desired and somehow counted more than female or black or Yankee voters, maybe because they thought those would always hold their nose and pull the Democratic lever. And for two, it staked everything on capturing a voter base that the Republicans had spent a quarter-century diligently working to pry away from the national level down. Once the Gingrich Revolution completed the capture of the South, the DLC strategy was shot straight to shit.

Flash forward twenty years and here we are.  Things have changed again. In an age of political ennui and indifference and apathy, the biggest risk isn’t defection, it’s that your base will stay home. The GOP has relied on base activation almost exclusively in the 21st century, with tremendous results in mid-term elections every time out save one. The Democrats got incredibly lucky with Obama’s appeal to black and young voters, but at present, those blocs are split between two different primary candidates (and the enthusiastic youth are lining up behind arguably the less electable one). But the demographic component of the New South Governor strategy is of less interest to me than the economic one.

You see, the New South Governors were eager and anxious to create a “good bidness environment,” which meant tax cuts and economic incentives to get your auto plant to go to Smyrna or Spring Hill or Vance instead of Dearborn or Fort Wayne or Sandusky. It meant unbalancing your tax code with the result that somebody got socked with ridiculous income tax or property tax or sales tax to make up for the cuts (which is how a resident of Birmingham could wind up paying 9% sales tax on everything, food and medicine included, and a state income tax that started at $5000). It means, in essence, giving away the game and imitating the GOP so as to get the business angle off the table. And in the rush to be business friendly, the Democrats left a gap in their coverage. A fatal one, as it turns out, because that gap left just enough room for Ralph Nader to get some traction beating his drum. And now that drum has been picked up by Bernie Sanders, and he’s got rhythm, as it turns out.

Because despite the economic recovery, there are still huge gaps in the economy. Nothing has replaced the manufacturing sector as a source of good livelihood for high-school graduates without a college degree. And with the college degree as a necessary but not sufficient criterion for employment, lots of folks are out there on the starting line with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and taking jobs that a) barely service the debt and b) don’t actually need a college degree as anything more than a signifier of what a high school diploma used to stand for: some base level of education to float your resume over the transom. If a degree is so damned important, how do we get swamped with all these stories of people dropping out of school to create their whizzy tech thing?

Which is the other problem: having so many people start their professional life shackled to a debt greatly decreases the flexibility in what you can do. You can’t afford to take jobs that are important and do necessary work but don’t pay enough. (Honestly, I don’t know how the hell anyone becomes a teacher out of college anymore.) Couple people in debt to the new generation of app-enabled contractor service jobs, and you’ve not only invented an entire new class of day labor, you’ve let employers off the hook. Who needs to feel guilty about paying insufficient wages if they can always just go pick up a couple of days a week of driving Uber or doing Instacart deliveries? And then Uber slashes their rates, and Instacart slashes theirs, and you’re back to “well you can just hustle harder and make a living doing this full-time” and next thing you know, you’re on the 80-hours-a-week schedule.

Maybe this was easier in the shadow of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Maybe there was a time when demand was high, unions were strong, and management looked at the money and said “there’s enough to go around” instead of viewing every penny spent on labor as a penny that could have been profit. But we’ve had three substantial recessions since the last time “socialist” meant anything other than “I’m a right-winger in search of some way to slander anyone to the left of Ayn Rand” and no round of downsizing or offshoring or outsourcing has been meaningfully reversed. The clothing comes from Bangladesh instead of Russellville, the electronics are assembled in Shenzen instead of Fremont or Fort Worth, and you have the opportunity and flexibility of free agency instead of actual job security. The net impact of the last thirty years, the productivity revolution and globalization, has been to transform and expand the day labor class in America.

Could we even bring it back? Consider the iPhone in my pocket. Donald Trump thinks he can somehow make Apple make them in the United States, which, okay, let’s just take it as read that we can move an entire supply chain and manufacturing base that hasn’t existed in this country in over a decade. Sure. No problem. Even allowing for that particular impossibility, from how many companies has Apple taken a bite? Consider where I was in, say, 2000: I had a PDA (Palm), cellphone (Nokia), Walkman (Sony), pager (Motorola), camera (Kodak), plus a regular record store (Sam Goody). How many of those companies even exist any more? Everyone but Sony either got axquired or bankrupted, and none of them ever the ability to replace all the others. That’s not even a question of a new company replacing an old, that’s entire categories of consumer goods done away with at all but a superfluous level. Point-and-shoot cameras, cassette players, consumer pagers and PDAs – those are done. They aren’t coming back. It’s not enough that rust-belt heavy manufacturing has decamped elsewhere, the cutting-edge high-tech sector eats its own just as quickly.

And the other problem is that all those broke folk in the red states, whose good solid blue collar livelihoods have been drummed out of existence by the invisible hand of globalization – where do they get the things they need to get by? How about Wal-Mart? And how does Wal-Mart sustain those Everyday Low Prices? By ruthlessly slashing away at supplier contracts until the supplier has to resort to outsourcing and offshoring, and the circle of life continues – because we can’t charge enough for American-made goods to pay American workers a decent wage to make them, and in turn the workers can’t afford to buy American-made goods. Economic death spiral. If you want to blame somebody, miss me with Apple and instead ask what the hell they’ve been thinking in Bentonville these last couple of decades. And be grateful that government and unions still required some measure of made-in-America to keep up what manufacturing we still have in those sectors.

So there you have it. We turned the American Dream into a luxury good, and along the way one side spent years whipping up the oooga-booga at the foreigners and the gays and the MOOslims and such.  And the folks whose world was slowly starting to crumble believed what they were told, and grew to buy into this “you’re entitled to your own facts” mentality. And right on time, here comes a prominent TV figure offering simple solutions, and he’s rich so he must be smart, and you get what we have now. Which is terrifying, but so so utterly predictable.  And now…who knows.

Is it worse now?

That’s the question I keep asking myself. How much of the state of the world is just me getting older and crankier and how much is actually great heaping quantities of bullshit? Moreover, how much of this has always been there and is just now getting noticed because of social media and technology proliferation?  I saw a line somewhere about “amazing how as soon as everyone got a camera on their phone, police brutality went up and UFO sightings went away” and I think there’s something to that, especially for things like police shootings and stuff that was more easily hushed up in days of local centralized media.  After all, when a major city has four or five TV stations and two newspapers, there aren’t a lot of channels to get the word out.

But I’m less concerned with coverage than things going the other direction. Consider the likes of Donald Trump, or indeed any major right-wing political figure in the 21st century who trades heavily in what can only be described as “racism that took a bath and put on shoes.” Twenty-five years ago, in the age of David Duke, this meant a lot of trafficking in newsletters and flyers, things that you had to go to some effort to connect with. If you wanted somebody to hype you up about immigration and the threat to America, you had to make an effort to connect with some like-minded people. Even into the 1990s, there was plenty of that sort of thing on AM shock radio, but it was considered unsavory at best and was sort of limited in what it could do – it was broadcasting and not particularly effective. Now, Facebook and email forwards are synonymous with the kind of old-white-people racism that had a tough time proliferating beyond personal contact. Or rather, the scope of personal contact has increased beyond reason.

Consider the Clinton Chronicles, that pastiche of fever-dream conspiracy theory hawked by right-wing nutjobs throughout the 90s with all the various anti-Clinton slurs bound up in it: sex, drug trafficking, murder, you name it. It was limited in its distribution by whatever holy rollers were willing to sell you a copy (and risk their tax-exempt status) or whatever radio hosts were willing to flack for it. And while it was out there, it was also limited to this subculture and had trouble leaking out of the sewer (although the willingness of Congressional Republicans to do just that was probably the first sign of the modern conservatism through which we new suffer).

By contrast: how long did it take for the “Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya” thing to proliferate? And how long was it sustained in the complete absence of evidence? And how long as it kept up despite the lack of evidence – and indeed the copious evidence to the contrary not to mention the limits of basic reason? It’s been sustained, and remains sustainable, because technology allows the like-mindeed to keep the fires burning, to keep feeding the madness with minimal effort.

Or consider the ongoing issues with GamerGate harassment or how easy it is to turn social media into an unlimited firehose of abuse. In the past, what would be the opportunity cost for thousands of people to bombard a target – whether it be Brianna Wu or the Nashville Tennessean – with threats and hate speech?  You’ve got to sit down, write something out, put it in an envelope, find an address to send it to, pay for a stamp and get it in the mail – who the hell has time for that?  Now you can just dash off something threatening with a single click, and rally thousands of like-minded people to do the same – when a couple of decades ago, you might have been hard-pressed to locate thousands of like-minded people, let alone connect with them. Now Reddit and Twitter have done it for you.

I keep going back to Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age for this, and the Neo-Victorian society that concluded that the solutions to these technological issues could not be technological: it had to be cultural. Our notional asshole above, in addition to having to find stationery and stamps and everything else, had to contend with the fact that society would frown on what he (almost always he, for some reason) was doing. Now he’s just one angry tweeter in a storm of thousands, with the protection that comes from just being a face in the crowd and (to borrow a line from WWII airpower doctrine) the fact that the bomber will always get through. You can’t block all 10,000 harassing tweeters, not with accuracy and precision. In the end, you either have to just let it happen or retreat and bail out altogether. Neither of which seems to be an acceptable solution, but right now, we don’t have door number three.

I don’t know if it’s manners, or norms, or what it is. It’s just that there used to be some things that were clearly beyond the pale. Some people misused those manners and norms, and so apparently the decision was taken that rather than curb the misuse, we should throw out the idea of manners and norms altogether. And now we’re reaping all the benefits – there are no standards of conduct, and no ways of enforcing the old ones without making trouble. Call out the guy smoking on the train platform beneath the “No Smoking” sign, and you’re the asshole. Writ large, there’s nobody to call you out if you decide to say something completely different one day from what you said 24 hours earlier. Everyone gets their own opinion, everyone gets their own facts, and the results are predictable.

Ian Malcolm’s Jurassic Park warning about dinosaur DNA is even more apt when you consider that we’ve put equal access to the most powerful communication instrument in the world into the hands of everyone, with no rules and no safety catch: “you’ve spent so much time thinking HOW you could do it that you never considered whether you SHOULD.” We’ve put the entire elementary school out to recess with only one teacher supervising, and that teacher just keeled over. And when you decide that whatever you want to do is fine, without any sort of societal framework to contain it, you get everything from people blowing stoplights because it’s inconvenient to Donald Trump as the leading candidate to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States.

Yes, some things were always this bad, and it’s just now becoming easy for people to see. But we’ve also created entirely new ways to make things worse, eroded the things that helped prevent them getting worse, and we aren’t going to get them back into the bottle. It’s past time to start thinking of how we can make a society that makes it possible to live with what we’ve done to ourselves.

Ran off on the plug twice

Two companies, two plug-in hybrids, two disappointments.  First came the Chevy Volt, which reminds me of the old Mercury capsules: you don’t get in, you put it on. There’s no damn room in that car. Yes, the plug-in hybrid system is genuinely impressive, especially when you can pull a paddle behind the wheel for regeneration and slow the car almost as fast as braking while getting twice the power back to the battery. But there’s no sunroof, the trunk is not particularly capacious, I don’t know how well I’d be able to fit in the back seat (if at all) and it’s inherently compromised – it feels like it’s smaller on the inside than out, as if all the space afforded by being a large-ish compact gets used in the service of the battery system.

So we drove the Ford Fusion Energi instead, and that was even more compromised. Sure, full size, and sure, there’s a sunroof, but it has two completely separate power systems and two completely separate batteries depending on whether it’s in pure-electric or hybrid mode…and based on that, the trunk space is virtually non-existent. No getting around it. So the Fusion Energi is shot.  At this point, it’s going to have to be a regular electric-first hybrid…and that means back to the Prius.

Except the Prius V – for all the space, for the cavernous backseat, for the flat floorboard that means a legit five adults can sit in it – has no sunroof that opens and has a horrific proprietary entertainment system instead of just implementing CarPlay or Android Auto. And to even get the panoramic roof with retractable shades means the highest trim level and a technology package on top of that. So that’s a special order, can’t just get something off the lot. Which puts us back to square one.

For a moment, square one meant the hybrid Jetta – which inexplicably means a seven-speed automatic transmission and better highway than city mileage, which kind of defeats the purpose of having a hybrid and makes me think it’s a mild hybrid at best, something where the gas will always be running if the car’s moving. Not particularly useful.  And I’m wary of buying any Volkswagen that has more electrical systems than the typical model, never mind a more complicated transmission than the ultimately-disappointing Rabbit.

And then comes word that the ninth-generation Chevrolet Malibu will have a hybrid option based on the electrical system in the Volt.  Not a plug-in, this will be running the gas as often as a Prius, but it does get up to 55 mph before the gas motor has to kick on and will supposedly get an aggregate 47mpg with superior city mileage. And it uses CarPlay. And it has the same regenerator paddle as the Volt. And it has a real sunroof.  

Only problem is, it won’t physically ship for a couple of months at least. But it’s all largely proven technology; it’s not like buying the first iteration of Chevrolet’s electrical system (or even its first cut at a hybrid; there was a mild-hybrid Malibu some years ago). And it’s possible I could buy it at invoice on an employer discount and continue my streak of never having to dicker over the cost of a new automobile. And it would mean not having to install some sort of charger system in the house. And I could still pull through the drive-thru at In N Out with a clear conscience while still getting to Disneyland on one tank of gas.

For now, it’s the leader in the clubhouse. Given that my family once went from 1970 to 1993 without buying any car that wasn’t a Chevy, and that there was always one in the driveway or garage for the last 46 years, it just feels right. We’ll see if that holds up once I’m sat in the driver’s seat.

The strangest thing

I went to the otolaryngologist this morning for a consult, to see if taking a Roto-Rooter to my nose won’t fix some of my apnea and breathing issues (spoiler: it almost certainly will, and in an outpatient procedure at that). But one of the things she did was put the scope up my nose (after a generous squirting of Lidocaine first) and do some inspection, which I could follow on the screen overhead.

She stopped and looked at something and said “You had your adenoids out with your tonsillectomy.”  I affirmed I had, and she said “I thought so, you can see the scarring here and here.”

And I looked, and saw for the first time some forty-year-old scars I never knew I had, from an operation performed two thousand miles away in a hospital that was torn down over thirty years ago.

There’s a lot there to unpack.