iPhone 4S thoughts, part 1

A preamble: Given the current uncompetitive US cellular climate and relatively atrocious level of service provided by all of the major players, a major goal of mine remains minimizing the total dollars given to my cell provider. If this is a shared goal, the optimal time for cell phone replacement, on contract, at subsidized rates, is the first moment possible.

To clarify: Apple sells unlocked iPhones for $650. AT&T sells locked iPhones for $200. That means AT&T purchases iPhones at some rate slightly lower than $650 and subsidizes some amount less than $450 to each customer to entice them into a 2-year contract with a total value somewhere north of $2,000.

This means for every iPhone sold, AT&T pays Apple up front, and earns it back over time. When the subsidy has been recovered, usually between 18 and 24 months, AT&T begins offering its customers new phones at fully subsidized rates in exchange for signing a new contract.

Because the user’s monthly bill does not decline once their subsidy is paid off, AT&T’s profit increases immediately for every customer who continues to use their old phone after it is paid off.

Thus, to avoid paying AT&T any extra money, AT&T customers should upgrade immediately upon being able to receive a full subsidy again.

Hence, 16 months after standing in line for an iPhone 4 at launch day, I have an iPhone 4S.

Slow boat

Two or three days a week he reads the paper out of doors, no matter the weather.  Perched at one of the tables overlooking the water, he drinks coffee out of a battered plastic mug. With a duct-taped handle, it is big enough to have come from a gas station, years before. Sometimes he acknowledges other customers, hustling in and out of the cafe’s warmth. Other days he is engrossed in tiny print, the paper held close in front of his eyes.

Wide brimmed hat and overalls on, he is always dressed for warmth. Sometimes he wears a puffy jacket, the kind that goes past the waist. Sometimes only a sweater, though with layers beneath.

The cafe owners know everyone’s story, from the office workers to the dock hands. They know the sheriff whose skiff has a special motorized lift, the lawyer whose wife took the house in the divorce and who now lives on his boat. They must know the story of this man, in his layers reading the newspaper, strangely cordial with the dentist and men in suits that also occupy these tables in warmer weather.

His beard is white and big, bristly and a little wavy. Not thick and curly, broom like, each fiber having a visible strength. Beneath the hat and above the beard his cheeks are weathered, eyes hard to read. A lot of time out of doors, they say.

“My home doesn’t have a motor,” he tells a passer by one day, indicating one of the boats in the marina in front of him. “I just cast off and sit back, pretty soon I’m on my way somewhere.”

Some weeks he’s not there. Adrift somewhere down river, I imagine, on the long windy course to the bay.

Replaceability

There is a feeling, which happens with greater and greater frequency as we age, that some product is perfect for us. That we will need no improvement, and that any future iteration will probably be worse.

We’d like to freeze time, to have whoever makes whatever it is continue, indefinitely.

Occasionally we are lucky, and the product is of such mass appeal that the company in question does continue to produce it, with alternate versions in addition to the key product, for decades.

Occasionally the jeans we wear are the 501, and will be available effectively forever.

Occasionally the shoes we wear are the Adidas Samba, and have been brought back by our love for them, become the uniform for thousands of men looking for flat leather sneakers that will look good with any outfit and be available for half a hundred dollars world wide.

Occasionally we are comfortable in Hanes underwear, with Dove soap, Budweiser beer, or Coca-cola.

Even then, the products will occasionally change beyond recognition, for no apparent reason, as we still purchase them in similar quantities as we have prior.

Because of these changes, because of our awareness of the temporary nature of mass production and the consumer culture, we find ourselves with a new kind of worry, a new sense of desire. Not for one of an object, a hat, a jacket, but for an infinite supply, for an immediate replacement should anything happen to our treasure.

We will wish for another Adidas Marun, and know that, were we smarter, had we more money and storage space, we would have purchased two pairs at the beginning, rather than one. We would have purchased a second, a back up, for each of these items we so love.

The idea that we should be prepared for loss, that we should no longer rely on brands or manufacturers, on stores or models, but should instead stockpile, is not crazy. In his biography we learn that Steve Jobs had hundreds of his specific mock turtleneck. This can be seen as obsession, but also as anticipation of change, and the desire to avoid it.

Is this good? Sustainable? Desirable? Should we shift tastes forever as we age, constantly accustomed to new products and new surroundings, or should, at some point, our tastes coalesce into the person we will be, and our desire to be constantly replacing things we once loved with new fade into the background, become less important than it was in our teenage years, in the years of our first job.

It’s a strange feeling, to discover a new thing and immediately be concerned with its replaceability.

The setting sun

From the rooftop we can see the edge of the continent. In the last light of Sunday it looks appropriately epic. We are quiet in the face of majesty, at least initially. I remember standing with friends on the rim of the Grand Canyon one morning in the year two thousand, all four of us silently willing our minds to process what our eyes were taking in. The task remains daunting even in my memory a decade later.

Few events require that kind of silence, the re-routing of all brain power from chatter and output to absorption of spectacle. The sunset this evening was that kind of thing, pink and gold and dusty rose and purple filling the sky and reflecting off of all the glass of the city’s windows behind us, up and down its hills, in between trees and large structures. The shifting clouds led the light inland and gave it the rippling texture of the wind.

I am obsessed with satellite imagery of our planet, of the surprising intricacies and overwhelming scale of this globe.  Photos, events, descriptions in books lead me inevitably to the true magic of our generation, the unstated masterpiece of our global connectivity thus far: the easily available view of our planet. No longer is knowledge of the world a challenge to obtain, no longer is a sense of geography the province of those who spend days outdoors or a life on the road. The world is a thing to be seen and the tools to do so can fit in our pockets, can take over our walls.

I wait eagerly for a multi-touch display the size of a Minority Report screen not to wave away dialogue boxes on, but to view the Maldives from a thousand meters up, to observe the east coast of the United States, where I grew up, from the spartan furnishings of whatever tiny Asian apartment I then inhabit.

Watching the sunset this evening, though, my desires are quieted and the vast list of adventures to plan, tickets to purchase, and accommodations to discover slide out of my brain along with all thoughts of technology. I do not even remember the camera, that falls to my companion, who hustles down the stairs and returns with image capturing equipment. Instead I turn my head from ocean to hills and stare. The light fades earlier these days, and is no less impressive for the arbitrary change in hour.

The year is coming to an end, surprisingly. It feels as though it just began, twenty eleven with its frantic pace. The colors that fill the sky tonight promise, like an afterthought on a gorgeous day, that all is not yet done.  Brief though are the remaining pauses where the eyes can overwhelm the brain’s thoughts of work and obligation.

Our minds finally still then, here in the last of the week’s light, we stand on a rooftop in San Francisco, gaze towards the ocean and feel the wind.

The happening world

In a borrowed Mini I tear down Alameda and onto Washington. Los Angeles is hot and bright in the morning, and I squint. Without ever having lived here, the streets feel familiar, and the potholes are an entertaining obstacle course. The air is drier than San Francisco, but not as dry as Juarez. Nor as hot. The trucks that ruined these roads bounce around me, and I revel in the tiny size and excellent horsepower of this two door vehicle. Twice the tires squeal unintentionally as the light turns green.

“Where have you been?” a former colleague asks me later that evening, and I grin.

“Around.”

It is true. This is the busy season, the time of each year when everything accelerates towards the calendar’s end. In the last thirty days I have seen Shanghai, Hangzhou, New York, San Francisco, Juarez, and Los Angeles. Saturday I will see Chicago. In between, near home, I have danced in the park and drank wine beneath an aquarium. I have run on the fields of Stanford and watched the sun rise over Hong Kong. Behind these sights, behind the thrill of motion and the exhaustion of sickness, has lurked a single phrase, coined by a man I will never meet.

“Script cue: the happening world”
-John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar

It is Saturday, and the boat does not rock. Lake Shasta is far stiller than the lake of my childhood, Cayuga in upstate New York. Made by man behind the Shasta Dam in nineteen forty eight the lake winds through valleys, not having had time to wear them down and make them part of a single whole. The shore line is tumultuous, coves abound, and small points challenge those who have never boated very close to shore. On this house boat that is all but one of us. We crash twice, in the minor fashion of shallow board vehicles that move but slowly.

The first morning I sit on the bow and begin anew this book, first read in Japan in two thousand two, a gift from my then roommate. It has been out of print for the intervening almost-decade. At the above line on page two I look up and marvel at the distance we have come: from Chicago the weekend before, from San Francisco the day before, and from the dock in darkness the night now ending.

The sun peeks over the hills and scatters the last pieces of shadow. The water’s clarity is striking. Out a ways from the shore, where the depths of lake bottom should be difficult to judge, long dead trees poke their trunks upwards. These hulks, chewed through by woodpeckers and, without branches, resistant of wind, reach out to the sky. This was not always lake, they say, and in the mid-day we will swim to them, climb, perch, and jump.

Likewise from the houseboat’s third story roof we will fling ourselves, seeking moments in the air to anticipate the water’s chill. Like these leaps the weekend is an escape, a vacation.

An escape from what, I wonder, sipping coffee made on the boat’s stove and a French press remembered by someone more prepared than myself.

With my feet on the rail and Brunner’s book, newly re-published, on my lap, the answer is surprisingly clear.

An escape from the happening world.

An escape because our travel is not of distance any longer, the world a well-known sphere, but of pace. The borrowed Mini, a go kart-like mobile of power and short wheelbase, was a friend’s, and is now gone, will never be driven again.  It has been replaced by some far more elegant machine in the two weeks it has taken me to write this.

The week I spent in Juarez, prior to landing in Los Angeles to race its red frame up and down Fruitland Ave, its then-owner spent in Belize, mostly underwater.

Later in the afternoon I will swim out to the center of our current section of Lake Shasta, mostly underwater.

In between visits to each other’s neighborhoods my friend and I discuss possible futures, both short term and further afield, while in transit between San Francisco and Petaluma, between Santa Monica and Los Angeles. These journeys are carried out in vehicles both Brunner and I saw as temporary. Like the red Mini. These trips occur with such speed and rapidity that we do not consider them travels, having invented a separate and more boring word for daily excursions done in the name of employment.

The members of the Shanghai book club prepare to read Brunner’s book, at my urging. Strangely almost the entire group is now re-constituted in San Francisco. Somehow the founding circle has re-located without shared plan or even much communication to this city on the opposite side of the Pacific.

One of our six was in Chile for three weeks, the book assigned in his absence. Upon returning he discovers an empty house, save for the cat and some plants. His roommate, also a China hand, has left the country and will be in the Philippines for six weeks. At a brunch after his return friends compare stories of Dallas, visited recently, as well as New York, and share stories of the art movement re-districting Detroit. One guest has been on the road for a year. Much talk is of jobs and houses, of gardens and school districts. The motion does not indicate a lifestyle as much as the extremes of the world, the pace of our lives.

On this lazy Sunday we pilot the boat beneath the bridge of I-5, amazed at the train tracks that run beneath it. I lie on the roof, curious as to the empty rail cars and their destination, certainly far away and busier than this lazy waterway.

Their destination is the same as my own, once returned, later that afternoon, to my car and that same highway, to the Bay Area and the city.

Cue the happening world.