Rattling bottles

On the street outside the recycle bin lid thumps open against the side of the building. It is eight pm and just beginning to get dark. Someone begins digging through the bin, pulling out cans and bottles with clangs and dings, the mechanical sounds of a practiced activity. After a while someone else joins, or tries to, and there is a brief debate, some muttering, and then casual conversation, a little too low to hear. Three floors up I sit with windows open to cool the house. Homeless and searching for income the unseen pair below have agreed not to fight over my scraps. This is life in San Francisco in the twenty first century, living in the Mission. While I was at work today someone peed on my garage door, leaving me to walk my bike around the puddle. Between my house and the Bart station one block away several people have slept and defecated in the last few days, and the street is alternately cleaned and crudely dirty.

This is life in the Mission district of San Francisco in twenty fifteen.

Tending our strawberry plants on the rooftop I watch the sun set over the hill while the fog rolls in, wrapping around the base of the Sutro Tower. Many days in the summer the entire tower will be engulfed by six pm, leaving the height of the hill itself a mystery, the fog pouring over and down into the Castro, into Duboce Triangle and lower Haight. The cat and I enjoy this varied weather. He sits in the doorway to the stairwell, feeling the breeze, feeling his fur ruffle after the long day alone in the hot apartment. He relishes these breezy evenings, as do I. One block away, on the rooftop of an expensive apartment complex, someone else watches the sunset too, in shorts and a hoodie. We are too far apart to even acknowledge each other. There is a similar building closer, with swimming pool on the roof, to whose inhabitants I could speak with raised voice. That nearer roof is empty though, the residents so new, the building so recently renovated that they do not venture out of doors on week days. Yet residents of all three buildings enjoy these evening views of the Bay Bridge and downtown SF to the east, Twin Peaks and the Sutro Tower to the west.

This is life in the Mission district of San Francisco, where studios go for $3,800 a month and where 4,000 people sleep on the streets.

In many ways San Francisco is the future, with apps that summon cars and dinners and movies and so many things, with electric scooters for rent and wifi in bars. San Francisco is the future in other ways too, with no rain, with no housing, with an incredible income gap, and with a liberal urban population that did not grow up in these hilly neighborhoods.

This morning the escalator to the 16th St Bart station was out of order again. I was not surprised, there had been several pounds of trash pushing up against the bottom of it when I walked out of the station the day prior, and often that trash gets sucked in to the bottom, jamming and breaking the escalator. This trash comes from the dozens of people who spend all day in the plaza at the metro exit, homeless and searching for help. The escalator is repaired weekly, the people left to wander the streets. Later in the evening they will search for cans in the bins outside my apartment. They share, argue, and curse out the fancy cars that have started encroaching on their sleeping spots, the rooftop terraces that host parties they can barely see from the ground.

This is life in San Francisco today, forefront of the future in all regards.

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.

Bud Selig & the TSA

There are two things that make me very angry today.  They may seem to have nothing to do with each other.  Yet Bud Selig is exactly like the TSA.  They are both higher powers in the American landscape that are forcing their awful ideas on society.  Let me explain.

Bud Selig wants to put ten teams in the MLB playoffs, rather than the current eight, which is already an increase from the six that got in when he became Commissioner.  Six, eight, ten, why the big deal?  Mediocrity.  Baseball is the American pasttime.  It isn’t “the current American sport of the moment”, nor is it “something cool we made for TV”.  Baseball is tough.  The season is long.  The games are played in the sun of long summer afternoons.  Pitchers take forever.  Batters grab their crotches.  Baseball is awesome.  It’s also hard. And most teams don’t make the playoffs.  I don’t mean *half* the teams don’t make the playoffs.  I mean most.  As in, pre-Bud, less than one out of three. One per division.  That was awesome.

Bud Selig implemented the Wild Card, which is pretty solid, as things go, though it does occasionally lead to crazy math.  The idea behind the Wild Card was that teams who happened to have another very good team in their division could still make the playoffs.  This was called the “Yankee rule” or the “AL East rule”, because it gave Baltimore, Toronto, Tampa Bay and even Boston some hope that, in an era when the Yankees went to the post-season almost every year, they didn’t have to beat the Yankees to get in, they just had to be better than everyone else.

I love the Wild Card rule.  I think it’s very rewarding to say “hey, we didn’t win the division but we would have won most divisions, so we should keep playing.”  I like this sense of achievement.  Plus, the Cardinals won the WS as Wild Card entrants in 2006.  And the Marlins in 2003.  And 2007.  Wild Cards are good for baseball.  And eight out of thirty teams is still less than one third.  It’s still tough to get in to the playoffs in MLB.

Why is it good to have the playoffs be tough to get into? Because nothing is more disheartening than hearing a NFL fan say the following: “Our team is 4-6. Maybe if Buffalo loses to Tampa and Green Bay beats Seattle and we beat Chicago, we can make the playoffs!”

That is pathetic.  It’s demeaning to the fans, and to the game. Why? Because their team is simply not any good.  Good teams make the playoffs, bad teams don’t. That’s the whole idea!  If mediocre teams make the playoffs it’s called THE REGULAR SEASON.

But Bud thinks good teams aren’t making the playoffs.  Hence the whole ten teams instead of eight thing.  Wait. What? Did any good teams miss the playoffs in 2010?  The Padres?  Not a good team.  How do I know?  They didn’t make the playoffs.  Also, their run differential was +84.  This means they scored 84 more runs than they allowed, over the course of the 2010 season. Was this good?  Well, in a word, no. The eight teams that made the playoffs were between +163 (NYY) and +100 (Texas). No team had a +100 run differential and did not make the playoffs.  The Cardinals were the only ones even close, at +95 and no playoffs.  And we all know the Cardinals weren’t very good down the stretch.

In case that last paragraph contained too many ideas and failed attempts at humor, let me clarify:

In 2010, the best eight teams made the playoffs, and those eight teams were quite noticeably better than any of the other 22 teams.

Bud Selig is not helping the sport.  He may be helping someone.  That I won’t argue.

And how is Bud like the TSA?  Well the TSA may be helping someone, but they’re not helping passengers. They’re not helping airports.  They’re not improving security. They aren’t saving money. They’re not speeding up transit. They’re not making people’s days better.

What are they doing? Keeping everyone scared.  Remember, the threat is real, they say. The threat level is orange.

The threat level has *always been* orange.

Airplanes got blown up before 9/11. The TSA didn’t exist. Neither did naked scanners, shoe removal, pat downs, nail clipper confiscation, belt removal, or 2 hour security lines.

Are we safer? I guess that depends on us. All I know is that Bud isn’t making the sport I love better and the TSA isn’t making the experience I love (air travel) better.  They may be helping someone, but it’s not me. I love to fly and I love baseball.  Please, Bud Selig and faceless TSA boss, stop trying to change that.

Observing America part 1, cell phones

In the year 2009 the cell phone is pretty inescapable.  Devices have improved, carrier coverage and ability has improved, and the continual investment in manufacturing has reduced the cost of entry.  Via pre-paid SIM and shared-device situations even people without a mobile are able to access the networks and services.

What remains then as the divide is the level of services, devices, and access.  While people like Jan Chipchase, FrontlineSMS and others are tracking and planning the phone’s global advancement, others are tracking the push upwards, into the realm of computers, GPS units, music players, and cameras.  These two fronts are in some ways the same, that of expanding the ability and availability of a single, always-on device carried with the user.  This expansion is truly revolutionary, and understood by both corporations and individuals.

The problem, however, is the gap between desire and implementation, made worse by the almost-identical gap between truth and marketing.

Here in America, for the most part, we are the lucky recipients of an incredible wealth of technological development.  Apple is here, Google is here, IBM and Xerox were here, Microsoft and Sun and countless others are here.  We are a test-bed for software and expensive systems.

But we are not a leader, in most cases.  And the reluctance with which we admit this, or solve it, is startling.  I do not mean to say that America as a nation is failing, or unable to address these issues.  I am simply stating that the specific technological issues which Americans face on a daily basis in the area of mobile telephony and computing are neither necessary nor shared by the rest of the globe.

Recently I have noted a number of people making a variety of arguments that can be whittled down to one idea:

“[subject] is not really that bad [here].”

The subject varies, more on that in a moment.  The here, though, is implied, because most of the writers or commentators have no comparison, or make none.  They do not state that “relative to another system” this one is better.  There is no comparison of advantages and disadvantages.  There is simply the statement that “it’s not that bad.”

What’s not that bad?

1.  Network coverage.

Marco, who writes very well about many things, makes the claim here:

I frequently travel to the fringes of cellular reception areas, including many areas with zero coverage from any carrier. I’ve found:

  1. AT&T isn’t as bad as many people think.
  2. Verizon isn’t as good as many people think.

This is classic “not so bad” thinking.  Why?  Because there is no option for good.  While Marco’s experiences are completely tied to his location, being a US consumer he has only so many options.  However, in San Francisco, AT&T has far, far worse coverage than Verizon.  Not just data coverage, or just voice coverage, but coverage of any kind.  On Haight and Ashbury, a relatively central, relatively famous San Francisco location, there is a thirty meter wide dead zone where no AT&T tower reaches.  Moreover, Marco’s conclusion, while based on extensive personal experience with both networks, comes down to the very unenviable conclusion that:

my phone is a personal computer most of the time, and it’s occasionally used to make or receive phone calls. Most data is downloaded over WiFi, with occasional small transfers over the cellular network. Network flakiness hurts me less than device flakiness. For me, therefore, the device is much more important than the network, because I’m using the device much more than I’m using the network.

Suddenly the inconsistency is clear.  Marco is reviewing cell phone coverage on a variety (he also mentions Sprint) of networks, but, for him, networks are not the primary concern.

There are no good networks in America.  Sprint’s is fast, but small, and can not handle voice and data simultaneously.  It also is based on a non-global standard.  Verizon’s is large, but like Sprint’s cannot handle voice and data simultaneously, and is not based on a global standard.  AT&T’s network is large, porous, minimally 3G, and often overwhelmed.  T-Mobile’s is small and uses a unique band for 3G.

That’s it.  There are other carriers, but they are regional.  There is no “good” choice.  There are no carriers that offer a truly nation-wide network that also interacts with the rest of the world.

2.  Price

My good friend Charles has been known to state the following, which, I suspect, is a sentiment shared by many, especially those writing online about cell phones:

I don’t mind paying the $90 or $100 a month, that seems fine for unlimited data, texts, whatever, I just want service that works, all the time.

I’m paraphrasing, so should you see him in person, apologize for me.  However, the point remains.  There is a portion of the US market that does not see price as the barrier.  The absolutely mind-blowing aspect of this realization, which many have made before me, and Charles makes often, is that, despite a willingness to pay, this group is still unsatisfied. Why?

Because there is no good US network.

Yet that conclusion leads backwards, to an interesting thought: Why then is cell phone service, in the United States, so expensive?  Without comparison, domestically, this question is hard to answer.  Most US carriers offer strangely similar prices, often exactly the same.  There is very little price competition, and therefore very little in the way of media comparisons.  Yet, in most surveys, US cell phone service costs remain highest in the world.  This is not often mentioned because there exists no alternative.  Yet media pressure is an effective tool, and should be utilized.  Paying more for less is not in anyone’s interests.

There are other aspects, like international travel support, carrier locked phones, and early termination fees, that I would like to rail against.  Like pricing and network effectiveness, they are issues defended as “not that bad”, and, I think, all too easy to accept without a view of places where they are not the standard.

Here in America we have a great many things, but not all of them are good, or as good as they could be.  We also have the ability to compare, the information with which to do so, and the outlets to publish our findings.  It is a shame then that so much of the current writing stays within the bounds of what is, here, rather than looking for what is elsewhere and could be, here.