plinka plinka plinkin’ out loud

There are rumblings that the new iOS 13, so-called but probably as safe an assumption as death and taxes, may cut off support for the iPhone SE. When this was first mooted, speculation centered around the screen size, but with the unexpected refresh of the iPod Touch it seems that 4” will be enough for the brave new world of Apple’s game service. But since the refreshed phone has the same processor as the iPhone 7, the Great Mentioner now turns to the A10 as the baseline of support for the future iOS.

This is kind of tough to swallow, given that the SE could be bought new as late as February and was only discontinued formally in September. Even tougher to swallow is the notion than an OS that still supported the late-2013 chipset of the iPhone 5s and iPad mini 2 would suddenly cut off everything prior to the iPhone 7 in a single upgrade, knocking three years’ worth of shipping hardware off in one go and shortening the presumptive lifespan of an iOS device from 5 years to 3. Which is still more than you can expect from any Android phone, but still.

There are also ruminations about a notional iPhone SE2, although nobody seems to know for sure what it would look like or how it would be equipped. One can assume it would have no less than the A10 processor, and an assumption that there will be at least a couple of updates available. But the original iPhone SE jumped straight to the processor of the currently-shipping top of the line iPhone, the 6S, and while you could make an SE2 by just thickening up the new iPod Touch and adding the improved camera and a cellular chipset, I don’t see Apple making a new phone that comes pre-aged three generations.

So what’s possibly out there? Remember that the SE was basically new wine in old skins, the chipset and camera of the 6S in the body and TouchID and front camera of the 5S. It stands to reason that Apple might want to maintain their investment in existing parts and models and such. The new presumptive chipset is the A13, so-called BPASAAADAT, and one has to think it could be paired with similar or older parts. Flipside: all the X-series phones have at least a 2600mAh battery, and no previous iPhone that wasn’t a Plus had one over 2000 mAh. It may not be possible to put the A13 (or even A12) in a 4-inch-display body and have a phone that lasts til lunchtime.

The iPhone 8 would be the low-end (previously free-with-contract) iPhone this fall after the next round of revisions. A notional iPhone 11/11Max/11 Whatever line at the top, then the XS/Max/R, then the 8/Plus. By that logic, you’re more likely to see an iPhone SE2 with the body of the iPhone 8 – or maybe even the 7, to save space and cost on the wireless charging and two layers of Gorilla Glass. If the 3D Touch is also going away, as has been rumored, an SE2 based on the iPhone 7 would have the room freed up by no headphone jack, no 3D Touch and no wireless charging to fit the A13 (or A12) and close to a 2000 mAH battery to run it all. Existing parts, cost savings, possibly use the body of the 7. Where it gets interesting is this: the A12 phones (XR/XS/Max) all have Face ID. The A11 phones are either/or. In theory, you could have an A13 phone with TouchID. You might get the XR camera, with its single lens and processor-assisted photography (the apparent trend) but it stands to reason you probably can’t expect to get FaceID or Animoji. Might still get the 7MP front camera though.

Basically you’re looking at the prospect of something like an iPhone 7, upgraded to the iPhone 11 processor and iPhone XR camera, probably for around $500 or so. The obvious comparative target is the Google Pixel 3A, which takes most of the guts of the Pixel 3 and stuffs them in a polycarbonate body without waterproofing or wireless charging, and makes up for a slower processor with a full-power camera, and goes for $400. The iPhone 7 currently goes for $450 at 32 GB, and the iPhone XR (the current entry-level device) will set you back $750 for a 64 GB model. By contrast, when it was the top of the line, the iPhone 6s at full price cost $650 at retail for a 16 GB model, and the SE started at $399 six months later for the same 16 GB capacity. If $450 is the current “cheapest iPhone,” it stands to reason that is a viable price point around which to build some new replacement-class entry level device, and a notional iPhone SE2 would be around $450-500.

Which then leads to the inevitable question: would that be enough?

I’m happy with my SE. I don’t need anything else in the way of feature additions, and things like 3D Touch, FaceID or wireless charging are superfluous to my requirements especially if it means more room for battery. If that means having to go to the size of an iPhone 7 – well, it’s a hair too big, but the iPhone X I carry for work is a hair too big to be a hair too big, and I did live with an iPhone 6 for a year and a half, and a 4.7” display would probably split the difference for “big enough to read Kindle but small enough to use without putting my drink down.” And it would be worth $500 to have an unlocked new phone of my own, current chipset, current camera and the prospect of four years of updates to the OS.

Probably won’t know before next summer, but it will become more acute in a hurry if my iPhone SE is suddenly obsoleted on Monday.

the bloodbath continues

There is no precedent for a governing party in Britain taking the kind of bollocking the Tories just took in European Parliament elections. It’s a bit of an irony, of course, because by rights these elections should not be happening – but the omnishambles brought about by Theresa May’s waiting until the eleventh hour and the fifty-ninth minute to consider looking outside her own party for a deal has borne fruit. The “Brexit Party,” a sort of sentient yawp established six weeks ago to elect people to a body they don’t want to be part of, finished first past the post albeit not with a majority. The Tories came fourth, and the Liberal Democrats have seemingly sprung back to life as the most visible coherent anti-Brexit party.

Problem is, if you do the math, actual anti-Brexit parties finished with a greater share of the vote than the Brexit Party. And the parties of the center-right and center-left, both internally divided over Brexit, have very little ground over which to build a bridge, especially as the sort of Norway-or-Switzerland notions that UKIP supposedly pointed to three years ago are now anathema to a gang of Brexiteers that wants out tomorrow with no deal, mostly because bugger everyone who says that would be a catastrophe, what do they know, elitist arrogant scum.

In a way, we’re getting a glimpse into an alternate universe where the GOP stripped Donald Trump of his delegates in June of 2016 and refused to let his candidacy go forward under the Republican banner. What we’re seeing in the UK is sort of a three-legged contest between Trump, Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton (because Labour are under a similar cloud of being saddled with a leader that a lot of their rank and file don’t want). 

And yet, Brexit has to continue, because…oh right, to pull the plug would be to undermine democracy and frustrate the will of the people – never mind that the margin was 52-48 and that there was never a coherent version of what “Leave” actually entailed. At least the Electoral College is part of the American system, if merely an appendix distended and near to bursting in a fit of civic sepsis. The notion of a national referendum to take the UK out of the EU, which must be followed despite having no status in law, is just proof positive (if any were necessary) that when they write how the United Kingdom was destroyed, it was David Cameron what pushed the plunger down on the dynamite. (Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain by bigger percentage margins than England or Wales either one voted Leave, so do the math and see where public opinion is likely to go in the next decade especially when the Good Friday peace process is in the balance and Scotland’s already narrowly missed breaking away once.)

And ultimately, that’s the bitch of the thing. Non-Parliamentary elections in the UK are usually there to take the piss out of the ruling party, as when Labour polled 16% in the European Parliament elections a decade ago. There is a large school of thought that suggests the Brexit referendum was the same: people voting to punish the Tories after six years of government. In a way, maybe they did, because now the suggestion will emerge that the Conservative Party can only survive by going full on Brexiteer – in which case you can logically expect substantial Tory Remainer defection to the LibDems or elsewhere. And then you wind up in a position where the May deal, or some other Norway-plus arrangement, is enough to get the votes of Remainers who conclude that Brexit can’t be revoked outright and the only hope is to get the least Brexit possible. Which will almost certainly necessitate a general election, somehow, because a no-deal Brexit can still happen merely by running out the clock with no further affirmative legislation.

David Cameron blow Britain’s balls off in 2016. It may take three and a half years, but bleeding out is now legitimately on the cards.

faire play

We went to Maker Faire last weekend for the first time in years. Our motivation was the warning from some quarters that it might be the last year for a Bay Area edition of the iconic show, and it gave me a frisson of rage to think that the contemporary “techie,” so-called, probably had the weekend circles for Bay to Breakers rather than Maker.

But the show, while considerably scaled down, seemed much closer to the spirit of the event. Gone were the aisles and aisles of vendors selling flashlights or Arduino kits or electric scooters. Also gone were most of the Burning Man elements and the big show pieces – no life size Mouse Trap, no Bellagio-style Coke Zero/Mentos fountains, no fire breathing mechanical octopus or rolling house (and there were effectively no steampunk elements at all).

Instead, it was heavy on the actual makers making – people doing felt needlework, high school kids who built an AR topographic sand table from an XBox Kinect, handbuilt tiny trailers towed out from Salt Lake City. People who are making stuff not to sell, or selling stuff for you to make, but making and crafting and building for its own sake for themselves. Craft that rises almost to the level of art while still being eminently practical on its own merits.

It used to be fun to be in tech. It used to be aspirational. That was before the age of “get bought by Google or Facebook” and “drop out of Stanford and get Y Combinator to put you on the VC sugar tit forever so you don’t have to face the market.” There were always rich assholes here (cheers, Larry) but the tech sector never used to be the chosen destination for assholes wanting to get rich quick. Not on this scale.

That’s why Maker Faire is important. It calls back to the days of the Homebrew Computer Club, the days when technology was very much a hands-on proposition and you couldn’t just farm out your servers to AWS and your manufacturing to Shenzhen. And it celebrates technology that isn’t just internet-of-Shit gimcracks or gig-economy services to provide assisted living for rich millennials in the city. It’s participatory. It’s motivating. It’s inspirational. And if it goes, it will take a good chunk of the soul out of what it used to mean to be Silicon Valley.

final impressions

Nine weeks on, I haven’t missed my Apple Watch at all. The Charge 3 has had its flaky moments, but they are few and far between, and I have to take it off to charge once a week (usually Wednesdays, as it happens). The sleep tracking and step counting seems reliable enough, and the notifications are as reliable as they were on the series 0 Apple Watch – which is to say, not perfect, but close enough. Aside from the occasional need of Duo Push at work – which I have contrived to reduce to once every couple months – I haven’t missed the Watch in the least.

And this concerns me. Because I also find myself grasping for my personal iPhone SE instead of the iPhone X on nights and weekends. My iPad mini from Christmas 2013 is still mostly functional and I have no plans to replace it. And the first phone since the SE that has tempted me to spend my own money is…the Google Pixel 3A, the $400 mid-range version of the Android flagship. It’s not difficult to see why the iPhone isn’t really in a growth spurt: too much money for not enough improvement over the pocket rocket of three years ago.

This is of serious concern, just because every dime I’ve made since 1997 has been in some way connected with the support of Apple products. As I approach 50, there’s no getting around the fact that my professional life is tied to the Beast of Cupertino and that if they start to falter, I may find myself in a hell of a fix. The move to “services” is no comfort: I don’t think anyone is going to need support administration for AppleTV+ anytime soon.

The trick is going to be this: is a premium-and-service Apple going to be something that people continue to buy and just keep and use longer, or is the “cheaper and good enough” model going to do them like the 1990s again? After all, if they can’t compel me to keep laying out money, how are they going to lure cash out of wallets of people who don’t depend on them? 

so which is it?

Are things really worse now than they’ve ever been, or are we just now able to see it more clearly? Is it just because of YouTube and cameras that UFO sightings are down and police brutality reports are up, or is the state of the world getting materially worse?

Why can’t it be both?

There’s a very good case to be made that technology is letting us see more of what was always there – the hate, the ignorance, the general bullshit. But twenty-five years ago, if you wanted to be a white supremacist terrorist, you had to find people through badly mimeographed flyers and post-office boxes, try to build some kind of bomb, and hope that one of your pals wouldn’t turn out to be an undercover FBI agent. Now it’s as easy as buying an AR-15 and several magazines, posting a rant on the same message board you learned everything from in two clicks off Google or Facebook, and going on a shooting spree while live-streaming the whole thing.

A lot of this shit was always with us, but we had at least established some unwritten rules that said it was wrong, and even if people didn’t follow the rules they were obligated to acknowledge the breach. What has changed is that the quiet parts are now said out loud – which means that yes, it was always bad, but also there is now nothing against saying them out loud, which is a worsening. One of our political parties is trafficking in the kind of talk that as little as twenty years ago would have been beyond the pale even for the kind of Southern Republicans who had just taken control of Congress – although they went to great lengths to bend the curve of what was acceptable and pave the way to where we are now.

And now people have the gall to talk about how dishonest this era is, as if the 21st century doesn’t sit on a quivering foundation of lies and bullshit and choose-your-own-reality. And that’s why the next challenge, if we survive, is the struggle to write the unwritten rules into law. This administration, the Confederacy at its apotheosis, is about codifying the underlying racism that was starting to find itself on the ropes as its practitioners aged out of power. Conversely, we need to be writing the guardrails into law to prevent yet another Republican minority presidency running wild. Income tax disclosures? Mandated by law. Electoral college bound to the result of the popular vote? Mandated by law. Anything that was “tradition” or “the way it’s always been done” or otherwise limited only by norms and manners? Has to be mandated by law, because norms and manners are worth nothing if you have a big enough asshole.

And the risk you take at this point is that people don’t care. The indolence and indifference, the tuning out of “it’s just politics” and “this isn’t important to my life”  is all it takes for one side to dig in. You won’t get a Watergate reckoning now, and you may not get an electoral solution if you don’t take all three branches of government – and the Supreme Court is probably lost for a generation at this point, which means you’re back to trusting that the norms of stare decisis and judicial review are all that’s preventing nine old men from wrecking shit for the rest of our lives.

It’s past time to fight, but it’s also time to start making plans for losing.

one device

So I ordered a new Bluetooth keyboard for use with my phone. It’s a pretty good size, not pocketable, but neither is it as big as the default Apple wireless keyboard. It’s the sort of thing that could go in the travel bag if I wanted to do this abroad.

I’m still carrying the iPhone X, despite the fact that it’s bigger than I want, simply because it’s impossible – or at least highly impractical – to carry two devices. Even though everything is in the cloud, or most of it anyway, it’s just easier to have one device with all the work apps and all the personal stuff and the Downtime protocol to weed out what runs when. And nobody wants to have to keep track of two phone numbers for you, which means that unless literally everyone in your life is on iMessage, you’re going to have to have some kind of hack to use a different phone. In my case, it means creating a group in Signal with both my numbers and a friend’s number for every friend I want to have unimpeded contact with me. Which is a hack. A workable one, but still a hack.

I’m reminded of the old slogan “what’s on your PowerBook is you.” That was an era when the only place I ever saw Apple specs was not at the Apple stores (there weren’t any) nor on the Web (there wasn’t any), but at college bookstores. It was an era when you’d have all your papers on the laptop, I suppose, or maybe programs if you were taking computer science. Now it seems like everything is in the cloud, enough that an iPad is probably more than enough for work – but at root, your phone is in that spot now. What’s on your phone is you. It’s your camera, your daybook, your Personal Data Assistant in a way no PDA could ever be at the edge of the 21st century, because it’s always on the network and always on your person and because asynchronous communication is the stuff of life now whether it’s Slack or WhatsApp or whatever.

And it’s only getting worse, because of 2FA. Two factor authentication is a functional necessity of modern life, a crucial tool to ensure you don’t get hacked or fleeced or worse. Because what’s on your phone (and in the cloud) is you, the locks have to be tight. Which means some sort of 2FA…which probably only runs on one phone at a time. So if you’re going to break out a second device, you also need to have Duo installed. Or Google Authenticator. Or LastPass’s tool, or something. And having two separate 2FA pieces is…problematic. And we’re back to one phone for everything.

Which means that you need the perfect phone for you. Whether it’s screen size, battery life, hand ergonomics, whatever – your phone is too critical to your daily life to be anything less than a perfect fit. And the iPhone X is bigger than I want, but Apple won’t make anything smaller. Maybe that’s my itch to keep looking at things like the Pixel 3A, the first Google-branded phone since the original Nexus One to draw my attention (and the first Android phone to do so at all since the original Moto X). It’s possible to turn out a phone that does everything you need and nothing you don’t and bring it in for half the price of a flagship device. I still think that you could make the perfect phone by putting the chipset and components of the iPhone 8 into the body (and battery) of the original Moto X, with its customizable polycarbonate and 4.7” OLED display and 2200 mAh battery (still bigger than any non-X non-Plus iPhone ever made). And it would be one-handable but not too small for Kindle or video consumption, frankly.

But that’s the problem: the 3A is not materially different from the X in terms of hand size, and for all the chattering bullshit about how Android is open and flexible, I can’t find one single current Android device with a screen smaller than 5.2 inches on the diagonal. You can have small, or you can have current, but you can’t have both. And moreover, you can only lock down Android so far. Google still has you by the nuts, and unlike Apple, they don’t make any bones about how important your data is to their business model. And if no one on Android is going to make a one-handed phone anyway, there’s nothing to do but punt while acknowledging that we crossed the finish line in 2013 and peaked in 2016 and that it’s not your imagination: things really are worse than they were before.

Of which.