I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve put on a shirt that wasn’t a T-shirt with at most the flannel or work shirt over it – and most of those times it was a plain black American Giant T of some sort. I’ve alternated between the same pair of cargo shorts and the same two pair of jeans for six months. Footwear is either the black plastic Birks or the soft-footbed suede-leather Birks, with the very rare use of the canoe mocs if I’m leaving the house for somewhere even slightly presentable (although usually it’s either the walk to the corner, a medical professional or the farmer’s market if I’m leaving the house and the car at once).

Then there’s the diet. Black coffee in the morning, peanut butter honey sandwich for lunch, beef or turkey jerky for a snack, or maybe an apple with almond butter, and at least 48 ounces of black iced tea to wash it all down with. Occasionally a walk out will lead to a big Coke Zero, or a boba run will add a Baja Blast to the mix, and if there’s a convenience store stop it usually comes with a couple of pop tarts or powdered donuts, but the days of keeping bags of donuts and bags of pizza rolls and multiple styles of ice cream in the house are mostly gone. Even the booze supply has been curtailed to whatever will make a couple of standard pints on Sunday night and almost nothing in between.

And the gadgetry has even been simplified since the beginning. It’s reached a point where the phone is the only iOS device, and on the work laptop, all personal stuff happens through the browser only. The iMac on the desk is still used for ad-free YouTube videos on pub night and for workday Zoom, basically an enormous two-way television. The iPad doesn’t get used at all for anything. We’re down to a watch (which replaced the Fitbit’s ecosystem) and a phone and a keyboard-equipped browser, and until a week ago, it genuinely seemed like there might not be a new phone in the works before Christmas 2021. There may yet not be, who knows.

And there’s a routine. Meetings at the same hours every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. The Thursday night family call. The Sunday pub night. After nine o-clock, it’s go upstairs and lay on the hot pad and use the chi machine whilst listening to Brexitcast or something similar, then shower, then read myself to sleep. The same three or four amusements on TV if left to my own devices: Watched Walker, Country Music, maybe rarely a turn through the U-Verse shows or the mallwave videos again from earlier in the crisis. Even the regular TV shows have gone by the boards since Ted Lasso ended, and Clone Wars hasn’t driven the same engagement as Rebels, and the new Mandalorian doesn’t start for another week and a half.

I have reacted to the world by building a cocoon of stability and retreating inside. In a world of nothing but uncertainty, I have tried to make everything around me as simple and certain as possible. No plans for the future beyond the occasional drive, or maybe an unexpected Zoom call. Minimize inputs, eliminate surprises, bring down the anxiety and the pulse rate by putting things on rails as best I can. And hope the rails don’t break.


“I still hope against hope for the prospect of an iPhone SE2, with the processors of the 8 and maybe a camera improvement while eschewing the space-wasting of 3D Touch and wireless charging. Or an iPhone X-Minus, with a 5-inch AMOLED display in a package roughly the size of the original Moto X – a hair bigger than the SE but smaller than the 6/7/8 line. Either would open my wallet.”

-Sept 22, 2017, launch day for the iPhone X
“I guess I’m good, really. There aren’t things I want – anything that piques my interest for under $20 I’m probably just going to buy, whether it’s a pen or a Nerf gun or a bomber of milk stout – and if you gave me actual wishes for my birthday, I’d probably spend them all on family health and regime change (unless I could sneak an iPhone X-Minus in there at the end, of which etc).”

-Feb. 28, 2018
Well, here we are. Now that the iPhone 12 mini is a real thing, it’s time to take a hard look at it. The space-wasting of 3D Touch is gone. The display is AMOLED and 5.4”. The documented width is 64.2mm, just a hair thinner than the Moto X. It’s smaller than the iPhone 9 in height and width, same thickness within a tenth of a millimeter, and the display is three-quarters of an inch larger on the diagonal. Seven years after the debut of the Moto X, Apple has finally matched it with a one-handed phone that has a modern display, a battery over 2200 mAh (per Brazilian regulatory filings) and the ability to run iOS. 

So the question is: do I trust Apple to deliver the same size phone next year with an A15 processor and who knows what else? Because honestly, that’s the trick. Every time Apple upgrades phones now, the only thing left behind is the 6.1” variety, and if they choose not to repeat the 5.4” size next year, I’ve missed the boat on the first genuinely small flagship iPhone in seven years. On the other hand, as I said yesterday, if the smallest new phone were 5.8” I wouldn’t even be bothering to watch the event, let alone wondering whether to splash out for the new device; once I had the original iPhone SE nothing was of interest until the X. And on the third hand, the sudden rush to MagSafe has already opened speculation on how long the iPhone will have ports at all – the final revenge of Jony !-ing Ive.

I don’t have to make a decision right away; they won’t even be taking pre-orders for the 12 mini until November 6. But it’s kind of a dilemma: they have finally given me the phone I wanted – even if there are questions around 5G and whether it’s worth a third of a damn – six months after I already spent good money on a phone which will trade in for half what I spent. Do I really want to be That Guy and can I afford to be in this economy with the state of the world as it is?
I guess we’ve got three weeks to find out.

plink plink lap plinka

The last time I came out of pocket on a new computer was sometime around 2016 when we last replaced the home iMac. The last time I came out of pocket on an iPad was 2012, for my 40th birthday. The last time I came out of pocket on any laptop was a Dell netbook in 2010. The last time I came out of pocket on a Mac laptop was 2000. This says two things: one, the locus of personal computing has shifted substantially to the phone, and two, I’ve been coasting on work’s laptop for a couple of decades now. 

Comes now the news that work is going to require a specially secured laptop in the near future, which means mostly moving my personal stuff off of it. So it might be time to consider a personal device yet again. The funny thing is, what do I need a computer for at a personal level? Well, this blog is certainly easier maintained with something that has a physical keyboard, although that could be finessed with Bluetooth (and has been). Reading books, watching movies and doing Zoom calls with friends is certainly a more pleasant experience on a larger device.  And at some point, you really do need an actual physical computer to manage the photos and music files, cloud be damned. 

Even if I take the plunge on the iPhone 12 – which the new watch makes me feel as though I don’t have to, especially in a world of masks where we aren’t going anywhere worth photographing for a long time – that’s still a 5.4” display. Fine for reading Kindle on the bus, suitable for brief FaceTime at the farmer’s market or grocery store, but not great for leaning back to watch WandaVision or Long Way Up or carrying on a two hour chat with the other side of the world. In fact, the iPad mini – bought at Christmas 2013 with ill-gotten money from an ill-starred training transaction – has sat mostly unused for three years, hasn’t gotten an OS update in two, and was only lately pulled out for use as a Zoom client.

Which is a useful data point. An iPad has been surplus to requirement as a separate device for three years, ever since the coming of the 5.8” iPhone X. But the iPad was most a thing when my default phone screen was a 4” display, and the 4.7” iPhone plus a Kindle Paperwhite has carried me most of the way; video gets watched on the AppleTV or the iMac in the upstairs office. And a non-trivial amount of activity – mostly this blog – transpires periodically on the work laptop. Long form blogging requires a physical keyboard of some sort. But if that’s going away, that would mean a LOT of stuff going away from the work laptop – Notes, Evernote, Safari bookmarks, iCloud Drive – and most of the stuff that happens for convenience on the work laptop is not necessarily more easily done on an iPad than a phone, especially if the iPad isn’t with you.

There’s also the travel factor. In the time of my iPad ownership, I’ve been to London, Japan, Ireland and Patagonia, and I’ve never taken the iPad with me, not once. I mean, I haven’t taken a laptop either, but the principle is the same: you can go abroad for two weeks with only an iPhone and as long as you have a local SIM and a compatible charger, you’re golden. An iPad wouldn’t be a travel device, for the most part; it would be a thin laptop substitute for putting personal stuff on the work machine, and a living room device for evenings and shutdowns. Streaming media apps, IMDB, Zoom – no social media, no work tools, nothing you’d use the phone for because the phone is upstairs on the charger and anything important will ping your wrist anyway. 

Originally I was going to say that the iPad isn’t much use if you’re only going to be at home, but if it’s not going anywhere with you, that sort of defeats the purpose as well. Easier to just stash things on the web and get at them with a browser on the work machine for now, for what it’s worth, and use the home computer for the heavy lifting for things that can’t be done on the phone. I guess I’ve sorted it out – for the time being, the next likely Apple purchase is going to be a replacement for the iMac, of all things. As much as I’m intrigued by the thought of a sub-$1000 12″ Apple Silicon laptop – and as much as it would be preferable to an iPad – we have to be able to actually go anywhere for a prolonged period of time to make it worth the investment.

sleep baby sleep

Twenty-five years ago, in a Southern Studies seminal in grad school at Vanderbilt, my professor mentioned as an almost offhand remark, “if modern media had existed in the 1920s, Elvis Presley would have spent his life as a third-rate Jimmie Rodgers impersonator.”

For some reason, that line sank into my imagination, and I began to envision what that world would look like and how it got there. What I wound up with was a world where for whatever reason, Robert E. Lee remained loyal to the Union and led the Army of the Potomac in a dead rout of the Rebels at Bull Run, ending the Civil War almost before it could start. Half a million men lived who might have died, including some who could make technology progress further and faster but differently, and the United States never became an is rather than an are. With the result that modernity was widely and wildly distributed, with major cities having art-deco sci-fi retrofutures while the rural areas remained barely changed, and by 1960…well, everyone has a civil war eventually, right?

That world became the setting for the Great American Novel that I never wrote and probably never will at this point, but thanks to Ken Burns, I’ve had an opportunity to think about it and revisit it somewhat. Jimmie Rodgers was undoubtedly one of the biggest media stars of his day, but the media was limited to phonographs and word of mouth, with a short film or two. It’s not hard to extrapolate that Gene Autry had the career that a healthy Jimmie Rodgers would and could have had, and Gene Autry literally started his career as a Jimmie Rodgers impersonator before dying as the richest entertainer in America.

But on Wednesday, August 4, 1927, in Bristol, Jimmie Rodgers recorded “Sleep Baby Sleep” in his first recording session. It bears all the hallmarks of a recording over ninety years old: scratchy, twangy, a voice from out of time. The sounds he made on that summer afternoon are still preserved: transformed to a string of ones and zeroes, kept in my wristwatch, and beamed via radio waves to plastic buds in my ears that electronically suppress the surrounding noise so that I might more clearly hear the guitar strings and voice from ninety-three years ago. To paraphrase William Gibson, we are too used to the marvel that a dead man sings.

The song sounds like a clear night, like empty railroad tracks disappearing over the horizon, like a two lane road through abandoned and haunted countryside. It manages at once to evoke the era of its recording and the era in which I first heard the name of Jimmie Rodgers: a clear cold night in Nashville with scratchy AM radio coming in from Cincinnati or Cleveland or St Louis. A liminal era, a new world just beginning to creep into view, a great unknown waiting to be shaped.

iPhone Eve

On paper, there’s not much to recommend the iPhone 12 this year. Sure, slightly faster new processor. Sure, 5G if you have a carrier that actually has it anywhere nearby. Sure, half a dozen tweaks to the camera or the battery or what have you, and nothing that would make you turn in last year’s phone to get this one. The days of wild radical change are over.


I made a list over a year and a half ago of the things I would want from a notional “iPhone X-Minus” in those innocent days where a bigger phone was “Plus” and not “Pro Max”. A surprising number of them were picked up by the new iPhone SE when it dropped in spring (and when I promptly bought it). But the rest went by the board for a long time, because the new SE itself – in the hair-too-big body of the iPhones 6 through 8 – was smaller than the smallest X-series 5.8” phone.

Except now we have all but confirmed that there is a 5.4” iPhone 12 mini, so-called, and it does have an AMOLED display that goes edge-to-edge and will have all the assorted features of the new phones like night mode, Animoji, or a battery over 2000 mAh and puts all these features into a package somewhere between the two SEs in size – making it just about the size of the original Moto X, the only Android phone to ever sufficiently tempt me into buying it. I said for years that what I wanted, as Apple’s handsets got ever larger, was a Moto X capable of running iOS. And the iPhone 12 mini might just be it.

That’s why I’m still tempted. If the smallest iPhone 12 were still 5.8”, I would be no more desirous of owning it than I was of owning the iPhone 7 once I bought the original SE. My iPhone X from work has sat untouched in my backpack ever since iOS 14 dropped for the new SE, bar some experimentation last night for the first time in a month because reasons. I don’t need the newest iPhone at all. It’s just the temptation of a bigger screen in a smaller package, something I’ve been coveting the notion of for three years at a minimum and in some ways longer, ever since the Moto X put the same size display as the iPhone 6 in a smaller device with a bigger battery.

I guess we’ll see if it’s worth it.

insta at 10

So Instagram turns 10 today. I don’t recall the exact timetable but I think it lasted a couple of years before being eaten by Facebook for what in retrospect was the low price of $1 billion. It was of its time when it began: yet another photo app offering filters to help make up for the comparatively shitty experience of phone cameras of the era (don’t forget, at the time it launched 5 MP was the new hotness from Apple) but within six years, it had grown to be the only part of Facebook I could still tolerate the use of.

And that’s sort of gone by the boards now. Constant UI tampering, the privileging of Stories and the addition of Reels and the focus on shopping and above all, the constant Facebook-ian need to show you things you didn’t ask to see. Having turned Facebook from a millennial college party into the canonical safe space for racist Boomers, Werner von Zuckerberg needed something new he could crap up beyond recognition, and Instagram is it.

It’s funny how these apps all seem to fail in the same way – they reach a point at which, for whatever reason, it’s not enough for you to see what you asked to see; they MUST show you things you didn’t ask for in hopes of triggering “engagement” or some bullshit like that. It happened with Twitter and the algorithmic timeline and the dry-snitching from what other people liked (or even just follow). Instagram has gone all in with a continuous scroll of stuff you didn’t ask for, presumably in an attempt to ape TikTok (because Insta is where Facebook rips off any possible competition now, be it TikTok or SnapChat or whatever).
Meanwhile, you’re back to the problem of wanting to follow your friends without having to bring all of their friends along into your private space, and either having a dozen different apps or just giving in to the modern social media world. I still don’t have a good answer.