his dork materials

The title of this post came to me in a conversation about Sir Phillip Pullman, only to have it pointed out that a nice Canadian fellow called Thomas had long since beat me to it. And furthermore, had written about some of the very things driving my interest lately, like the iPad and the Apple Watch.

The iPad is a late addition to my Apple Glee. I had my retina iPad, my Dynabook, in March of 2012 – and then passed it along to my father-in-law and replaced it with an iPad Mini 2 at Christmas of 2013. Then time happened, and the iPhone X happened, and the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite proved to be the horse for the course, and I basically have barely used the iPad in two and a half years or so. Its battery is nearly shot, the screen prone to weird white streaking at diverse times, and it can’t be upgraded past iOS 12 (not to deny credit for patches up to 12.4.5 as of this very day). It’s still broadly feasible as a device, but there’s nothing it can do at present that the iPhone X doesn’t do almost as well.

And yet. If I haven’t had a new iPad in six-plus years, I haven’t had a new personal laptop since…well, I haven’t had a personal laptop at all since I handed my Dell netbook to my father-in-law and finally gave back the black MacBook I’d had on indefinite loan from my old colleagues, sometime in…2010? Maybe? The last time I laid down money of my own for a Mac laptop was an iBook SE in the autumn of 2000. We’ve had a desktop Mac more or less continuously since 2005, a sort of home furnace for all media content and doing income taxes and a workstation of last resort for when we don’t want to use the ubiquitous work laptops. But I haven’t had – or really needed – a laptop to call my own in I don’t know when.

So why would I consider an iPad now as a laptop replacement? Possibly to stop myself using my phone all evening. An iPad could be used for 90% of what I do at work, but I wouldn’t use it for work – I’d use it mostly for reading and streaming, occasional note-taking and blogging, maybe movies on planes? Not enough to make it worth the investment; that’s at least $800 for one with sufficient storage to be of broader use, and the line for handing money to Apple starts with a new phone and a new watch, both almost certainly in September. Late rumor has it that the 5.4” iPhone 12, so-called, will only have the regular and super-wide lenses, no telephoto, so not that big a jump up from the notional iPhone 9 – but the 12 will still have a newer processor, a bigger display in the same size device, (allegedly) more RAM, and dual-SIM capability with an eSIM, opening a world of flexibility around travel or personal service. Barring calamity, I don’t see how I can avoid waiting until fall.

At which point the Watch will (allegedly) be up to Series 6, with (allegedly) newer lower-powered display technology and (maybe) sleep tracking, the thing I’ve needed most all along. If it’s going to be a question of throwing $450 at a problem, better to throw it at a newer solution, right? Even if it means nine months to wait.

Which gets back to a bigger problem. I look at the ridiculous pile of stuff I accumulated in 2019, everything from an M-65 jacket to a pair of Allbirds (hereafter referred to as Allnerds, even if they are as comfy a sock-less shoe as I’ve ever owned) to a lightsaber to Yet Another Nerf Pistol to AirPod Pros to to to…and I’m starting to get the sense, as I notice my Amazon page signed out and the absence of any new hats at the Vandy bookstore, that I may well be self-medicating through retail. It’s been a long time since I deferred anything; the footwear and Yeti bottles and calling cards and it’s reached a point where if it costs under $50 and I want it, I just buy it. Part of it may be that whole “we could be nuked tomorrow, why defer joy, you can afford it” sense – which at least is a change from spending six months mulling over a $20 Nerf pistol like ten years ago – but I think part of it is just chasing that dopamine hit of giving myself a present, of indulging myself. I honestly think that wanting to duck into the pub for a cheeky pint on the way home is less about the pint and the Guinness than it is about that indulgence, that urge to treat myself. 

It’s a dangerous rabbit hole to find myself sliding down. I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem with alcohol. I’ve used opioid painkillers without ever developing a problem, because I was vigilant and judicious about not misusing them. But looking back on the year, I think I’ve skated too close to the thin edge of expecting stuff to be my panacea. I’ve tried to be judicious about one-in-one-out, especially with hats and Nerfs, and I could probably give away at least one Yeti tumbler, and I do a pretty good job of shopping my closet now that the Friv-o-list is basically exhausted, but it’s something I need to be cognizant of.

Whatever ails me, it’s never going to be solved for good with dork materials.


The trailers for Kentucky Route Zero first came to my attention toward the end of 2012. It was strange, atmospheric, magical-realistic, dreamlike – all things that had a certain appeal as I turned 40, although exactly why, I couldn’t say. And then episode one dropped right in the middle of the crisis of what now gets referred to as “the encryption project”. And it was everything that had been advertised. It was like an escape into someone else’s dream, at a moment when escape from the here and now was something I could sure use. There were four additional acts promised over the course of the year, and sure enough, before long there was an interlude demo of sorts, and then Act Two in May.

And then the delays began.

There was another strange interlude, which only made sense once Act Three arrived – which it did, almost a year to the day after Act Two. And it was long, and complex, and really confusing in some ways – and then there was another long delay, and another strange intermission that was either downloadable or playable over a telephone. And Act Four finally arrived over two years after Act Three, during the summer of 2016 at a time when I was already looking for a place to hide from the world. Act Four was it, taking place entirely underground on a mysterious river, and it was sanctuary from the troubles to come.

And then.

Nothing. Nothing for years, until sometime early in 2019, a final interlude, itself atmospheric as all hell, and telling a story that for once made sense retrospectively instead of being inexplicable until the subsequent Act arrived. And in its one room studio shed, with the storm to end all storms pouring outside, it felt like the ideal metaphor for seeking shelter, seeking refuge, seeking a place to hide from outside…until the storm came pouring in.

And now, three and a half years after Act Four, fully seven years since Act One, we get to see the end of the story. Tomorrow, Act Five of Kentucky Route Zero is available for download. I know what I’m going to be doing more or less all evening tomorrow, as soon as I can skip home early from a vendor meeting. This, to me, has become as important and meaningful as Avengers: Endgame or The Rise of Skywalker. It’s an ending that at some level you wondered whether you’d ever get. And I did wonder sometimes whether there would ever be an Act Five, whether the tailing off at the end was just a metaphor for how we never really know how the story ends, only that it ends for us.

But now I guess we’ll see what actually becomes of our handful of lost souls drifting down the river, along the highway, through dream and through crushing reality. One more story to bring to a close, for better or worse. One more step into someone else’s dream. And hopefully one more download of a soundtrack that always hits the nail on the head, right down to the one mournful bluegrass track per episode.

Here’s where the story ends.

plinka plinka 2020

Big year coming up for me on the mobile computing front. For starters, and unexpectedly, this is an Apple Watch year. With the pending acquisition of Fitbit by Google, it’s no longer tenable for me to rely on my Charge 3 (and given that I’m technically on my third one in a year because of warranty/QA/display issues, it’s not the worst turn of events). I am assured that the Apple Watch is greatly improved since Series 0, and that it is potentially a viable device for those Sunday nights when I don’t want to get the phone out in pub mode.

That’s as may be. I have no doubt that pairing it to a more capable phone than an iPhone SE may work well too, as iPhone processors are rapidly catching up to desktop (or at least laptop) levels of performance. If it’s fast enough that the apps are viable, to let me do Duo 2FA or Transit lookups on VTA or use Siri to dictate text replies and trigger Shortcuts, that would be something. I would like to move into the next stage of mobility computing, where the watch and the earbuds can deliver much of what you need without ever pulling out that phone.

Speaking of phone, the Great Mentioner seems to think the new SE will actually be a notional iPhone 9, which basically boils down to an iPhone 8 with the 3DTouch circuitry stripped out and an A13 processor from the iPhone 11 stashed under the hood. This is quite frankly a Hell of an attractive proposition. I reluctantly concede that a 4″ display won’t get it done in 2020, but a 4.7″ might, and if it means keeping TouchID…actually, the question now becomes whether it’s worth giving up on computational photography and the like.

Because the iPhone 12 supposedly starts with a 5.4″ model that would be the same size. Only more screen, better cameras all around and the possibility that the A14 processor will be as fast as a 15″ MacBook Pro (to some reports). It also means waiting another six months on work’s iPhone X, which is still a hair too big to be a hair too big, and it probably means an out of pocket outlay double what the iPhone 9 would set me back. I also need a minimum 256 GB in the next phone, because I’m tired of playing patty-cake with iTunes in the Cloud to have movies and songs stay available and I also want the ability to work on anything from the home Mac’s desktop in a pinch.

But then the argument becomes – spend half as much now, get six extra months of a phone that will be as fast and powerful as anything currently extant, with a camera no worse than what you already have, and let somebody else go first before buying the next rev of Apple’s flagship phone. And then the counter-argument: you’re buying your next phone for three years, minimum, so what’s the percentage in buying one with half a year already run off the clock and less advanced features?

A similar case exists for the Watch, if we’re being honest; the always-on display is the sole upgrade from Series 4 to 5, but what’s the point in buying before Series 6? If you have to refresh your Apple gear every three years, buying in September gives you a bit of a jump on viability. (And let’s not forget that some of the features may be confined by the fact that I’m still using work’s service, and falling back on prepaid if that somehow ends – an LTE Watch might not even be a viable proposition.)

To be honest, the biggest thing I need is more, faster and better integration with Siri and Shortcuts. I need to be able to roll over in the morning, hold up my arm and ask “how long til the next bus” and hear “the next bus arrives in 19 minutes” so I know I have three more minutes under the covers before facing the bleak day. And frankly, I need to be able to address myself to Cyrano, or Friday, or some name other than Siri. Bring me that and we’ll talk. Literally.

at day’s close

I first heard of the book on a late Sunday night talk show on WAMU, where I first heard described the phenomenon of “segmented sleep” that was apparently the default mode of pre-industrial man. The show itself felt like it was coming from the edge of the world – I don’t know if it originated from UVA-Wise or was just associated with that tiny school in a tiny town in the Appalachians. But it was three years before I remembered to buy the book.

I read it in January 2007, after a year of mostly staying home and settling into our new house and my staff job at Apple and living in a fugue state of trying to figure out who I was now. It was a liminal era, of adult study classes and feinting around RCIA and looking for new pubs the way a Baptist might look for a new church. And into this game Roger Ekrich’s At Day’s Close: Night In Times Past. It was readable, almost hypnotic, building a medieval Europe where natural light ordered the day and night was at once terror and shelter.

2007 was the first year I began making a habit of writing down the things I enjoyed during the year. And “the book about night” was on the list, along with the night class on the history of Catholicism and watching Scottish soccer on TV and the quiet solitude of our own house with a pot of tea or coffee. It was soothing, it was relaxing, and it felt like the beginning of a calmer, more peaceful sort of life. I don’t know any better way of describing it other than to say I liked the person I was while I was reading that book.

And in January 2008, after an awful end to what had become an awful year, I found myself reaching for it again. And going to the same pubs in San Jose again, and playing the same songs again, trying to capture a little of who I thought I was becoming in January 2007, only now with the benefit of having recently been to York and Paris and having a little more European experience to add to my reading.

This will make the fourteenth straight year for me to read the book in January. I don’t know what exactly I’m trying to capture now with a ritual that’s lasted over a quarter of my life. But it’s from that first read in 2007 that you can see my book purchases swing hard toward nonfiction historical reading. Maybe that was the beginning of Sunday pub time: a book, a pint, and nothing else to do until morning. It’s a welcome vacation. I look forward to visiting again this year.

the saga


OK, I need to see it again. I am content with how things wrapped up, and I had fewer immediate nitpicks than I had for Avengers: Endgame. But the more I mull over what happened, I have come to two conclusions:

1) Too much of the new trilogy has depended on the books for explication. There’s an awful lot of “why” that gets tacitly answered with “it’s in the books.” One thing I need to do is reread the original early-90s Thrawn trilogy and see how it holds up because the current Thrawn books, and the Wendig trilogy and frankly all of the new canonical Star Wars books I’ve read all feel like the least impressive of the EU stuff from the late 90s. Could be age or generational bias, but when I was a kid we had the movies and that was it. If it wasn’t in the movies, it didn’t count. And you couldn’t staff out your storytelling to the book for the sake of speeding up the movie.

2) This is a bigger one, and I think the result of a hole Disney put themselves in when they first planned on a new movie every year: The Last Jedi is an excellent movie, but in retrospect, it’s a movie made at a point where they thought there would be more than nine episodes of The Saga, and the decision to curtail their ambition made it a poor choice in hindsight.

Think about it. Rian Johnson, deliberately or not, set out to deconstruct the Star Wars universe and rip up a bunch of things from previous episodes. Let the past die, kill it if you have to – that was the mission statement, and by its own lights, it worked. But you don’t do that in the next to last chapter of the story. If IX was going to be the end for the Skywalkers, and a notional 10-12 the story of Rey and Finn and Poe, then yeah – rip up what we know and reinvent.

As it happens, once IX became the last episode, Johnson had painted the story into such a corner that Colin Treverrow had to quit rather than figure out how to resolve it. JJ Abrams found a way to do it, with a lot of hand waving and breathless action and don’t look too close at the details, and is getting hammered for it – unfairly in many ways, because no one planned for Carrie Fisher to die, and apparently nobody had planned on IX being the true end of the road for a while. So he had to crash-land this bird without notice, and by those lights, he did yeoman’s work and came up with something emotionally satisfying.

But the whole “Emperor Palpatine plots his future return in the Unknown Regions after decades of laying the groundwork for his eternal Empire” storyline, while at the back of almost all the new books, felt like it was shat out of a cannon at the last second on screen. It was a hotshot angle, to borrow the old wrestling term: a sudden change in storyline on the fly to accommodate unforeseen circumstances. And as a result, you can literally throw away everything in The Last Jedi that doesn’t involve Luke, Rey and Kylo until the Resistance lands on Crait. “They fled and this is where they wound up” would cover everything else: the mutiny, the hack, Canto Bight, Rose, DJ, the sneak aboard Snoke’s flagship, all of it. Not that any of that was the strong point of VIII to begin with, but IX definitively renders it all superfluous to requirements.

Which is a shame. It would have been nice to have things plotted from the start and a coherent story for 7-8-9, and somewhere along the way rejigger everything for 10-11-12 and Johnson’s vision for the franchise. As it is, it’s done, and probably for the best, because The Mandalorian has shown the future for Star Wars: smaller stories, more human scale, no lightsaber battles or Sith Lords, and time enough to tell the story at prestige-TV pace and let it breathe. What’s done is done, and if the future of this franchise lies elsewhere?

Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.