Back to the Mac, part 3

Occasionally I try to remember things I used to write about. Recently I’ve become unemployed, and thus re-visited my custom Mac install. The strangest thing about frequent startup failures is that I am left with a plethora of computers.

Here, then, are my thoughts on software for them, updated to the Spring of 2020. It’s as good a thing as any to write about instead of thinking about the world situation.

Due to the above circumstances, I have two Macs, a much-loved and little-used 13” MacBook Pro 2015, top of the line, bought second-hand when I left my job and started consulting in 2017. I love that laptop, the last MacBook Pro with ports, a magsafe power adapter, and a good keyboard. It is still my favorite Mac ever made, a title I hope it doesn’t hold forever.

The other Mac is the kind of gift we hope not to get. A 2016 13” Touchbar MBP, it has the absurd specs of a well-funded IT department, 16 gb of RAM and a 1 TB SSD, the kind of specs that seem good now but were quite expensive when it was handed to me my first day at Anki in May 2017.

As to the install I still espouse minimalism, and try to go long periods of time without touching the defaults just to see if I can. The most amusing part of the prior list is how little it has changed in seven years. The sad part is the explosion of messaging clients, a poorly-maintained and fragmented app situation I wouldn’t wish on my 2013 self who only had to hate the odd interactions between Skype and Lync.

  1. Dropbox - I’ve started paying for Dropbox, after a decade of being a free user. Support what you love, I say, and after using Google Drive, One Drive, and Box at various startups over the past few years, I really love Dropbox.
  2. 1Password - There’s still an app-only purchase, not a subscription, and so that’s how I continue to use it, sync’d to Dropbox. A must either way, and I hope the recent VC cash infusion doesn’t change the company.
  3. Little Snitch - Still perfect, still made by a small German company, still an early part of my Mac set up
  4. Office - As before, installed only for Excel, which remains my must-have work app.
  5. LaunchBar - On work Macs I skip this, just to see, but once the Mac becomes mine eventually LaunchBar is necessary. Every time I’m shocked I lived without it. More than 15 years now of being a critical app.
  6. Fantastical - Again, installed mainly for the menu bar item.
  7. Ulysses - Now a Mac App Store version, still where everything I write, including this post, starts.
  8. 1Blocker - As far as I can tell this is the best Safari ad blocker.
  9. Soulver - I really love this app, a quick calculator that somehow is smarter than Excel and simpler than a calculator. It’s one of my top 5 iPhone apps, and the new version 3 for Mac is incredibly nice.
  10. ExpressVPN - Living abroad and spending a lot of time in China, a VPN is mandatory. Express is the best I’ve found for the situations I’m in, and I’ve been a customer for years.
  11. Slack - I use this begrudgingly due to it’s huge resource load, poor adherence to Mac standard interface items, and awful propensity to take over focus repeatedly on launch.
  12. Zoom - Likewise begrudgingly used due to their horrible security, propensity for hiding useful preferences on a web page, and willingness to sacrifice everything for growth. This shouldn’t be a surprise, there’s an entire job in Silicon Valley called Growth Hacker’.
  13. Signal - While not perfect, Signal is excellent and getting better every day. The only app I proselytize now.
  14. Whatsapp - Another annoying Electron-based chat app that unfortunately is the social mainstay in Hong Kong.
  15. Wechat - The worst of all the chat apps in terms of adhering to good design principles, but likewise critical for conversations with suppliers and friends in China.
  16. Tweetbot - I use Twitter a lot less lately, but Tweetbot is still the only functional way to do so.

There are others, edge cases, but those are the apps on this Mac that see regular use. What has changed since 2013, when I wrote the first version of this list? Two big things:

  1. Most of the software I love I pay for. The first 10 items on this list all cost me money. This, in my 2020 opinion, is a good thing, as it means the people may still be making it when I update this list next. For a lot of these apps I’ve been paying for a long time. I started using Ulysses in 2003, LaunchBar in 2006 if not before, 1Password, Fantastical, and Soulver in the iPhone era.
  2. Chat apps are the problem. The list above contains 5 chat apps, all of which overlap in functionality and are on a system which already includes Messages and Facetime, both of which I use regularly. The swelling of this category was hard to predict in the Adium era of standards-based services that could be aggregated. I desperately wish the same were still true. Without much hope for that, I’m working hard to move my life to Signal/iMessage for personal, and Wechat for China. Whatsapp/Slack/Zoom remain a must due to Hong Kong and work, but I’d prefer to abandon all three. Unfortunately I hold out little hope for this category’s improvement, given the drivers behind each app’s growth.

Conbini

My first night in Shanghai, in August of two thousand three, I wandered Nanjing East road, the pedestrian street. I was overwhelmed by China, unable to speak or read, and afraid of spending money. As I’ve written before, I ended up at a Lawson’s, the Japanese convenience store brand an island of familiarity in the flashing neon.

In some ways convenience stores are the signposts of my life in Asia. In Saitama in two thousand one I paid my cell phone bill at the AM PM down the street. In Shanghai I relied on the All Days on the corner for phone card refills, water, and directions, once I’d learned enough to ask the women who worked there where things were in the neighborhood. In both cases the convenience store, one block from my apartment, was a hub for the neighborhood and the first place to try when in need of anything.

This idea is familiar to Americans. Convenience stores dot the suburban American landscape, attached to gas stations and owned by oil companies. They feature slushy-makers and horrible coffee, and have spawned the big gulp and helped fuel the rise of Red Bull and Monster Energy. When we head out of San Francisco on a weekend we inevitably end up at one, bright exterior and interior a welcome respite from Interstate 80 and the traffic that always halts us near Vacaville.

And yet here in the city there are none. The fundamental unit of Asian life, the corner convenience store open 24/7 and featuring fax machines, hot food, liquor, milk, toiletries and basic first aid supplies, does not exist. There are bodegas, small family-run groceries, and liquor stores, each featuring some subset of the true conbini’s goods and all closing between 8 and midnight. There is no neon beacon of familiar branding, no Lawson to anchor the visitor from out of town, no central place to buy water, milk or a phone card.

Walgreens, CVS, and Duane Reade fill this niche in New York and San Francisco, the drug store turned grocery turned convenience, but they close at eleven and their wares vary incredibly by location. Out in the Richmond district of San Francisco I lived next to a Walgreens that had fresh produce and was open till midnight. In the Mission the Walgreens features toys and makeup and is, on the whole, dirtier than one would hope. I am sure the employees would agree. Down in the tourist areas of the city there are Walgreens with fresh food, with good coffee, with tourist souvenirs and a wide array of local delicacies. These stores are true centers of neighborhoods, save for the fact that their customers live at hotels, and the stores still close in the evenings. They are comforting, and frequented by visitors who need food and supplies and have no familiar options, but these stores do not provide true convenience for the residents of San Francisco.

In Bangkok a few weeks ago I would go to a 7 Eleven every day or two for extra water for our hotel room, for bandages and ointment for our cuts, and for beer for our spirits. All over the city the bright yellow orange and green sings stand out and are relied on.

I understand the downside to this kind of globalization and the dominance of single brands, and value the strange bodega in Bed Stuy where a friend and I get egg on croissants some days. The cooks are middle eastern and the clientele black, jewish, hispanic. The diversity of food and supplies there is a reminder of how special local places can be, how different than the global norm.

And yet, in San Francisco late at night, the only option are liquor stores that primarily cater to the homeless population, and have no food or household necessities. Walking home late in the evening after a long day in the sun I wonder why, and imagine a Family Mart on my corner. How useful that would be, for myself and the neighbors. How quickly it would become an institution, relied upon for shipping, mail, concert tickets, scanning, printing, or just the occasional late night hot meal. I would dearly love the cold ramen dishes Tokyo locations stock daily.

Unfortunately Family Mart peaked at nine stores in the US, all in Los Angeles, and closed them all in 2015. None were attached to gas stations.

Sad to think that convenience, in America, requires a car.

Rise above

When I was a child the Ramada Inn was one of the tallest buildings in Ithaca. Now called the Hotel Ithaca and a Holiday Inn in between, it’s a nondescript building in a city that’s gotten taller. In the early 90s though the tower stood out. The bulk of the hotel is a standard two story structure, but on Cayuga street there is a ten story tower with a great view of downtown. It also has a glass-walled elevator that facing north, towards the Commons and the heart of Ithaca.

Towards the end of high school I spent a lot of time in this elevator, usually late at night. As it rose above the second floor and the roofs around, Ithaca spread out. With hills and the towers of Cornell and IC on them, there are a lot of good views in Ithaca, but not many downtown or indoors. Or there didn’t used to be.

For a few years the comic book conventions were held at the Ramada, and so a couple of weekends a year I’d spend a lot of time there, helping out and wandering around. Somewhere in this time I learned about the elevator, and the view from the 10th floor. More importantly I learned that there was a side door to the tower and no one cared if I walked in and just rode the elevator up to watch the city.

So I did.

In that Chang’an hotel the first time I was surprised. From the lobby’s white lights and interior feel the change is sudden, especially at night. Glass backed, the elevator lifts through the atrium walls and out into the night. Dongguan spreads out to the hills and beyond, lit but muffled. Across the street the shopping center flashes neon and behind it apartment towers fill with the light of evening. Below, on the roof of the hotel’s lobby and restaurants, a curved pool shines from its own light. The unlit portion of the roof fades as the elevator continues upwards, immersed in the dark of the evening. Further out across the city other towers blink or beckon. Office towers darker, apartments bright, shopping brighter still. With rooms between the 10th and 15th floors, the ride is long enough to notice, and to enjoy.

Only the middle two elevators get the glass treatment. The others, for a repeat visitor, feel like a waste, metal boxes without any view. Returning, I’m glad when door 2 or 3 open. After a few days of this I tried to remember other glass elevators I know of. Long term parking at SFO. A hotel on Union Square. And that old Ramada. More, surely, but those are the ones that stand out immediately.

Wherever I go, indoors or out, I always want a better view or a higher perch. Elevators represent that, a chance for a better view, though usually not so literally as my Chang’an hotel’s four options and 50% chance. Even without a glass wall though, there’s a view implied by the building’s height, the buttons outlining just how high, a maximum number. While I’ve always wanted to check every floor, the highest one calls most clearly. I am not alone in this. Witness the world’s tallest bar, hotel, restaurant, deck, pool, and gym, each promising a view in addition to their primary function.

In Tokyo I used to enter office buildings at random, seeking ways up to a view of the city that I love. In Shanghai I started trying hotels, which often have a bar or deck at some height. The best moments, though, come with discovery of glass walls on the ride up, the feeling of leaving the earth behind.

Space elevators are going to be the most amazing things.

Picharpak Travel Wallet thoughts, part 1

I’ve been looking for a travel wallet lately. I’d like something that will hold a passport, a couple of different transit cards, money, maybe a spare SIM, a couple of business cards, and still fit in a back pocket. Over the past year or two I’ve started traveling with my passport tucked behind my wallet in my back pocket, so I know a wallet sized for the passport would fit my use cases. What I didn’t know was how well, or where to get one. Money too has been a problem, as most US-made wallets don’t gracefully hold larger bills. As someone who spends a lot of time in China, where the 100 RMB notes are large, this is an annoyance that grates. So I was looking for a wallet that fit a passport, fit in a back pocket, held Chinese currency, and possibly had a SIM slot.

While there are plenty of blogs devoted to frequent fliers, milage points, hotel reviews, two week camping trips, and non-tent sleeping options, the parts of travel that matter to me are surprisingly lightly covered. Traveling light but not backpacking, carrying as little as possible, carrying it in a way that allows for inconvenient travel methods and locations, and yet still being presentable for business meetings seems to be an under-served market. Or just a small one.

The only wallet I found that seemed designed around my needs was Bellroy’s Travel Wallet. At $120, it’s still on my shopping list, or Christmas list. The video though perfectly encapsulated my use cases. I don’t particularly care about the pen, as I have a favorite cheap pen on hand at all times, but the rest? It’s got a SIM slot, a passport slot, spare card slots for transit cards, and is big enough to hold boarding passes! If that doesn’t sound exciting, I’ve proven how specific the use case is.

For the last two years I’ve carried a Yasutomo 2020 wa-ben cuben fiber wallet. Like so many people, this was inspired by William Gibson’s interview. As someone who spends a lot of time looking at outdoor gear, fibers, bags, and clothing, I have been talking to and watching Jason’s company, now Picharpak Workshop, ever since. He’s been building a broader product base, and during a conversation one night in Hong Kong, I offered to test new products. For Christmas I bought my fiancée one of his limited edition hybrid wallets. To my my surprise an early sample of a travel wallet showed up in the package!

Built on the same idea as Bellroy’s, Picharpak’s travel wallet features a couple of extra card slots in the back and two spare SIM slots on the passport sleeve. It also has an extra slot for a touch pay transit card behind the normal card slots. Otherwise it resembles the wa-ben, with the same two slots for bills or receipts and the same cuben fiber construction. Like my original wa-ben, the travel wallet prototype is made of CT9.5, and so won’t offer good abrasion resistance. Jason’s newer hybrid wallets have different outermost layers and offer much better abrasion resistance. From the turfed-up photos of my 2 year old wallet it’s clear this is a serious design improvement. Along with the limited hybrid, I ordered one of the newer woven fiber cuben hybrids, to possibly replace my old wa-ben and to check whether the transparent options had been improved as well. They have, and the new woven cuben hybrid retains the old look while offering a smother and more durable outer shell. I’m all for it.

Testing has taken some time. A couple of day trips to Mexico in January provided the first opportunity. The wallet was a relief from carrying passport and wallet in the same pocket, l as I’d supposed, convenient and simple. Swapping wallets prior to travel was the only obstacle. After the second trip I considered carrying the travel wallet as my regular wallet. However on the second trip I learned that the slick CT9.5 slips out of pants with stretch. Not ideal, but I’d expect a full version to feature the hybrid construction. At this point I also switched full time to the hybrid wallet, and now can’t see myself returning to the CT9.5 construction full time. One of the early concerns, that the SIM card would slip out its holder, proved unfounded. My China Unicom SIM, seen in the photos, has been secure for the past three months.

Travel wallets like this may be a small market, but they’re an excellent idea. For those of us who travel lightly, frequently, and yet for work, the simplification is worth the wallet-swapping. I can’t wait for a finished version.

GR1 thoughts, part 1

The GR1 was a Christmas present last year, 2012. As the number of day trips I make to factories increases, I was looking for a single backpack to carry clothes, samples, and a laptop into strange environments. I needed a backpack because of the walking, and a single bag because of the flights, cars, busses, and hassle of travel. Because these trips are usually only for a couple of days, I didn’t need that much space. The last two years of repeated packing have made me a more economical traveler, and I started as a minimalist with regards to things.

I did about thirty hours of reading before putting the GR1 on my Christmas list. I already have a couple of really wonderful bags, including a custom-built R.E.Load Civilian messenger, a Tom Bihn ID briefcase, and a Timbuk2 Q backpack. For work I’d been using the Q, as carrying a laptop, samples, and notebook on one shoulder had gotten painful. Backpacks and dress clothes will never meld perfectly, but for frequent travel they’re far superior. The Q has wonderful pockets and access points, and remains one of my favorite bags, but it was stretched to capacity with clothing, and simply couldn’t handle a spare pair of shoes. In many ways the GR1 was simply a step up from the Q, with similar intentions and a larger carrying capacity.

As an operations and manufacturing person, the US-made nature of all of these bags is important. While the Q is imported, many of Timbuk2’s bags are made in the US and the R.E.Load, Tom Bihn, and Goruck bags are entirely US-made. Manufacturing will only come back to the US if the end customers care, and I do. Money before words.

How then has the last year been, traveling with the GR1? How has it weathered Mexican factories, Chinese ferries, Japanese business meetings and dozens upon dozens of airports, sports fields, and shopping trips? Are the straps really better for their width, and the laptop slot better for the curved zipper? Is the ability to pack it flat really better than a top-loading style bag, and is the minimal aesthetic in terms of pockets really more customizable with additional smaller pockets or pack-it cubes? These were some of my questions, especially given the price, and some of the things I wanted to answer publicly, to help those doing similar research.

First, a sketch from months ago outlining some of my thoughts at the time:

image

The notes from 8 months in hold true at 12, with a few changes.

Best parts of the GR1:

  • It rarely looks dirty, and cleans easily.
  • It’s always big enough for one more thing, which is usually my hat or jacket when the sun comes out.
  • It’s sturdy enough that I can pick it up from any reachable part, even fully loaded.
  • It stows cleanly because there are few dangling pieces to catch in doors and overhead bins, or on branches and other people, like in a crowded bus or subway.

Worst parts:

  • There’s no side handle, which the Q has, so sometimes it’s hard to get a grip on.
  • Because the zipper on the laptop slot wraps from side to top, it hampers me in two ways:
    • The zipper dangles down into my back, rather than off the side of the bag
    • It’s very hard to take the laptop out without taking the bag off, a useful ability in airport security lines. The Q backpack laptop compartment is incredibly easy to access one handed while wearing the bag. The curved zipper design on the laptop/hydration pocket is the biggest drawback of the GR1, and something I’d really like to see changed. Maybe it’s different with a hydration bladder, which I never use. It’s hard for me to see how, given that the zipper would still hang down into the wearer’s back even if the access isn’t an issue.
  • The straps are set a little wide for a 5’9″ guy, especially when first purchased, as they’re very stiff to begin with. 12 months later this bothers me less than it did at 8 months.

What then are my thoughts on this bag, three hundred dollars and three hundred and sixty five days later? It’s a very good backpack, built in the US for people who move and travel in much the same way I do. In the same year I’ve owned it, Jorve has also carried one every day, and Seth has purchased a GR2 and dragged it to Myanmar and back a few times, as well as around Asia and up through the New England coast to Maine. The Goruck bags are good bags. If the money makes sense, and the use that’s outlined above, in other reviews, and on their site sounds like yours, then yes, the gear’s good.

Remnants of previous inhabitants

As a child of the countryside I am often surprised by how many mistakes are made in cities. Not mistake of great magnitude but small mistakes of location and history. A year and a half after moving into this apartment we still receive mail intended for a photographer’s studio, a business once housed here long before. Before too the couple who preceded us, who lived in this apartment for three years. I track these mistakes, noting not their number but the variety. Amanda. Jamie, Brad. None of these names are of the couple before us, which is as far back as my knowledge stretches. For any of these to be correctly addressed would have been five years earlier. Some of these are automated mailings and probably date back to the first tech bubble, to the last century. How many of these people still live in this city, this state?

How mobile are we, and how fragile are the records of place we use daily to communicate? Fragile? Or strong in that they persist long after we’ve departed. I think of phantom contacts in my address book, names with but one piece of information, a yahoo.com email or a phone number from China. These pieces of information I know to be wrong, and yet have nothing current to replace them. I do not want to delete these once friends, once business contacts, and so they remain in my phone, reminders of past relationships I have no ability to rekindle. Like the physical mail, these connections are so easily disrupted, an account unchecked or a phone number abandoned upon moving home. Without a forwarding address, without a reporting mechanism, Yahoo will continue to accrue unread emails, and letters for people I do not know will pile at my door. Susan, specifically, will probably continue to receive birthday notices at this address long after she, and we, have moved on.

In April a hand-written Easter card to a new name arrives. I imagine someone’s grandmother addressing it in a small town on a floral vinyl table cloth. There is no return address. The small envelope is a pale yellow with a pink printed ribbon across the front. I ask each of the other three apartments about it in vain. The recipient hasn’t lived here for at least six years, which is as far back as our collective memories of this building stretch. Six years suddenly does not seem so long.

I wonder if we still get mail to our Sunset studio of a year and a half ago. Do personally addressed credit card offers still arrive at our Houston apartment? Long-lost postcards in Shanghai? Bank account statements in Tokyo? Imagining this invisible layer of the world, sadly incomplete and with reasons for return to sender’ unknown, keeps me in a gloomy mood for almost weeks.

Until one morning on her rounds the postwoman takes the Easter card away.

Finding Marun

There’s an amazing feature on eBay, something probably well known by frequent users but a new find for me: saved searches. After finding the name of the shoe, a lengthy process outlined here, I set one up for the Marun.

Amazingly, it works. I get about two hits a year, for pairs of Marun in varying sizes and conditions.

Luckily I’m a very central size, being able to wear both adidas 9 and 9.5, so the searches come up relevant more often than they might for someone else.

Two years later, the results are good. My first pair is lightly used, size 9:

Adidas Marun in black, gray, and white

And, as just posted below, yesterday Tara found me a brand new, still in box pair, 9.5 and wonderfully colored.

So, despite fears of replaceability in the world of modern manufacturing, the items we once loved are out there, somewhere.

Or so we can keep hoping.

Back to the Mac, part 1

Two weeks ago I switched back to a Mac (MacBook Air 2013 13 inch) at work. I tweeted as much and was asked for my install checklist for a new Mac. As the IT support for my office (and home), documenting my steps and thinking is a good idea.

First, I am firmly of the lighter is better” category in terms of software installs, preference tweaks, and other edits. My feeling is the less tweaking I do, the fewer conflicts I’ll introduce, and more importantly the less I’ll have to remember. Also, although it’s not an every day scenario, the faster I can get a new machine up and running the better. So each new install is an opportunity to test how much I really need any single piece of software. As I don’t get new computers (at home) that often, this is also my chance to evaluate whether OS updates have made 3rd party software redundant.

As a result of this type of testing I don’t change the OS X defaults for scroll direction, button colors, or menu bar transparency. I’ve gotten used to them all in previous updates, making for fewer settings to flip. The only customization I do is to Safari tabs, using Keyboard Preferences to set Command-Option-Right and Command-Option-Left to Next Tab and Previous Tab respectively. The defaults don’t work for my fingers. I also use the text line selection shortcuts (Command-Shift-L/R) all the time, and the two integrate well.

To start with I have two accounts logged in with System Preferences: Exchange (work) and Gmail (personal). Everything else can wait. To avoid one extra install I’m trying to use Mail, Calendar, and Reminders instead of Outlook. One less app to manage, and Outlook’s crashing was one of the big reasons I ditched the PC at work (having always had a Mac at home).

As a result of the above, my day one install list was incredibly minimal:

  1. Dropbox - gets installed first because it holds my 1Password backup

  2. 1Password - access to everything

  3. Little Snitch - inbound & outbound traffic monitor

  4. Office - Excel alone is probably enough for me

And that was it. I used the computer for two days this way, at work and at home, trying to see what else I needed for work to integrate with the all-Windows environment there. On the personal end, I was holding off on everything as this is a work-first machine. At this point I had neither Flash nor Java installed, and hadn’t launched iTunes.

So here’s my added install for work, with Office already on the machine:

  1. Windows Server Launchpad - to connect with Small Business Server Essentials 2011, works flawlessly on OS X

  2. Microsoft Lync - Hopefully Microsoft continues to unify products and Skype becomes the default MS messaging client soon

  3. Chrome - for Flash player

  4. GoToMeeting client - poorly named but functional

Two more days and it was weekend time. I’d gotten into a pretty good routine at work, using two monitors, Mail, Lync, Excel, Safari, and Calendar relentlessly. So far the Mac transition has been all upside, with faster boot in the morning and less time relaunching Outlook.

For personal use what did I miss? Surprisingly little. But after four days, I was done testing Spotlight. It’s better than the last time I’d tried (Lion) but I want something that remembers my search terms and allows me to Google from the keyboard.

Final personal use installs:

  1. Amazon MP3 Downloader - I buy almost all my music from Amazon and then match it into iTunes with iTunes Match for cloud sync

  2. LaunchBar - This is usually the first Mac app I install, and it still should be. Spotlight can’t really compete, and I use only a handful of the abilities. Amazing that two of my top ten apps come from the same small German company.

That’s it. I’ve got all my work data and my music on this computer. I’ve got Office, search, meetings, server connections, and my own passwords and essential data. The computer’s good to go.

Almost.

After another 2 days I added two apps from the App store (that I already owned) to make my personal use better:

  1. Ulysses III - This is my main writing app, and I love it.

  2. Tweetbot - I like Twitter, but without this app only use it on my phone.

Another day at work and I added one more thing, specifically to handle the display of tasks from Exchange. I could use Microsoft’s My Day app, which comes with Office, but then it launches Outlook, which I’m trying not to use. Task display will probably determine my success with avoiding Outlook on the Mac.

  1. Fantastical - A menu bar calendar, task list, and quick input method. Available from the App Store though I already had a license. I had hoped to avoid installing this, just to reduce clutter, but it’s a great app.

Two weeks later I still haven’t installed Java or Flash player, outside of Chrome.

The amazing thing about this list is both how much has changed and how little. In 2006 I got the first Intel-based Mac, the 15″ MacBook Pro. Hot as hell and bigger than I need in a computer, but a great step up from my 2000 (Pismo) PowerBook.

In February of 2006 Twitter, Dropbox, Amazon MP3, and Chrome didn’t exist. 1Password would come out a few months later. But Little Snitch, LaunchBar, and Ulysses were among the first apps I installed.

When I think of that, installing LaunchBar on 10.4 Tiger on that brand new Intel Mac in 2006, it makes me smile. I wish I had a list of my set up steps for that machine.

Build a home

Above the Pacific on a JAL flight to Tokyo the question strikes gently. Like most moments of introspection it lingers for days, long after I have landed at Haneda and taken the monorail to a tiny business hotel in Hamamatsucho. Opening the single window to the rain and lights of evening I think of it again: Where do I love enough to settle in?

Not settle down in the traditional sense, not stop moving and become a fixture at the local pub, but settle in with property, invest in making a place more than just a passing habitation. Where is it that modifying a space to my specific interests would be feasible, as well as useful?

Out the window the roof lines slope in a particularly Japanese way, from balcony to balcony to fire escape. After all these years away it is a comforting view, this slice of Hamamatsucho I have never seen before. In the foggy evening whole floors are lit, offices and apartment building balconies. Neon from the chain restaurants and convenience stores below sparkles, wet and inviting against the gathering dark. Looking around my room, well-shaped and just large enough for the bed, I think of my old apartment in Saitama and it’s Fuji-facing balcony. A space like that, designed for minimal possessions and a place to tuck necessities away? A space like this?

A few days later in a Harajuku studio I am sure this is not enough space, nowhere to hang towels or stash bags once they are unpacked. Close though, with a tiny balcony and decent light, on a side street without too many visitors. Private and central. How much more space would I need?

In a Saitama apartment not unlike my own a decade earlier, I think this is enough, this may be too much. With two bedrooms, almost three, the tendency is to acquire things, a larger screen, a computer, a collection or two. To invest in a place like this, with balconies and room for friends, would be a call to remodel completely, move walls and consolidate closets. This is an apartment to rent, not a space to own. As I did in Yono Honmachi, I want to see inside the neighbors doors, to learn if anyone else has taken to the space like a beaver, damming and redirecting the flow of traffic in their residency.

In a hotel in Fukuoka, overlooking a river, the windows are the most important thing. They open, letting in huge gusts of weather, and run floor to ceiling, allowing in light and neon in equal measures. Across the water a parking garage, invisible in daytime sun and billboard-lit evening, shines starkly through the night, bright enough to wake those bothered by light. Power plugs are everywhere in this room, a central point of convenience, and a huge mirror guards the entryway to prep visitors for their excursions. A wooden half table slides quickly away when not in use, leaving two chairs that become a sofa in front of the windows. This is a space designed for tight occupancy from the ground up, and welcoming with its futuristic feel. For two days we enjoy each perk, save for the fridge, which has its own on off switch separate from the room’s key-card controlled power. This trick sits undiscovered until the second evening. A brand-new building, this hotel displays the benefits of designing from scratch, and impresses with the feasibility of small-space living. At least without a kitchen.

In Kagoshima, the southern end of our journey, the hotel is likewise new and completely purpose-built. With textured flooring in place of carpets, a bathroom on the outside of the building, windows to the bedroom and tiny, custom-built clothes hanging spots, it is an excellent example of re-thinking space. This is the kind of thing I’d like to do, if not exactly how. A kitchen is a challenge. The living space needs windows, and yet the bathrooms need air and light to dry. Wrapping all these separate uses into a tiny square requires compromises, requires settling on one use or another, discussing our needs.

This, here on the southern tip of mainland Japan, may not be where we decide to settle down. These islands may never be home again. But from the constant reinvention of space, from the dedication to cleanliness and the attention to detail and maintenance that ownership rewards and requires, we learn so much. We learn with every hotel and apartment, floor and bed, balcony and bathroom.

For the time is coming, one way or another. We will settle in to a space, be able to reorganize, reconstruct and utilize. Exactly where is hard to say.

Out the window in Kagoshima the rain is falling. In our tiny hotel box we look at the architecture and discuss the future. It is a wonderful break from the rest of our lives.

Accidental meaning

In Omiya in 2001 the billboards soared large above the streets, clogging the skyline on both sides. A random city in Saitama, it satisfied my youthful desire to live in the future of Japan. A decade later one of those signs remains in my mind, its strange language still near at hand.

In every city we read without thinking. A background process of our eyes and brain assimilates any language we can understand, without focus or need. We notice funny license plates on the highway, t-shirts on passers-by; advertising thrives on this, creating whole markets for billboards in video games and products used in TV shows. We absorb until we cannot, until we find ourselves somewhere with no knowledge of the written word. And then we work harder.

Japan was like that, in 2001. Like fresh snow, untracked with meaning. Young and impressionable I wandered open to new in all forms, and was forced to learn from watching people rather than words. Without the context of the written and without maps, bus trips from Warabi to the shopping mall in north western Kawaguchi where I taught once a week were journeys that relied on help from the driver, from watching the passengers and the landscape. In many ways those rides were the first of the lost moments. They were the  first time I would think of the globe and my location and wonder how I had ever come to be there, so far from upstate New York where I’d been born.

In the decade since these moments have become frequent without becoming common. Walking alone over the bridge towards the US border in Juarez at three pm on a dusty Wednesday in November. Driving over the Golden Gate bridge at dawn. Crossing the Yangtze by ferry at eight am on a Monday in September. These moments, to me, are proof of the unpredictable path of life and the scale of our world.

To the value of words, the subconscious emphasis we grant things read, I return to Japan. In these moments of scant knowledge the few words we find and understand stick out stronger. Most Americans in Japan are obsessed with strange English usage. In Omiya the billboard I recall was for a pachinko parlor, happy caucasian women in front of a blurred nature background overlaid with white text. Yes, Go Open! it said. Three words out of a skyline of neon. Here in San Francisco I still say them to myself, at the start of an evening out or as the disc is pulled in an ultimate game. Yes, go, open. I doubt I’ll ever forget these things I never meant to read.

Life is littered with strange collections of words glimpsed unintentionally. The numbered stickers that for years were affixed to the back of the plexiglass in Shanghai taxi cabs. Slow children at play, which followed me throughout college. We do not go searching for them, these mantras, they simply exist. Double fine, a road sign that became the face of a company. Face slapping goes international, just blocks down the street. The price is very low like mud, from a Chinese restaurant about their pork.  Words, adrift in our environment, take on meaning through rarity, through repetition, location, and design. They become part of our memories, another layer of geography tied to our lives.

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.

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.

Palm Pre 2 thoughts, part 2

Last of it’s kind, the Palm Pre 2 arrived in December at my office, unlocked, direct from HP.

I have been asked a dozen times why, happy with my iPhone 4, I purchased a Pre 2. The answer can be found here. It was not a joke, I firmly believed releasing unlocked hardware would help Palm. The fact that it took a near-collapse and subsequent assimilation by HP to push the new corporation (HPalm?) into releasing unlocked GSM hardware does not deter me. By all accounts the Pre 2 and webOS 2 were far superior to the originals, and I was eager. The results speak both to the Palm team’s successes and to the difficulty of their chosen task.

The Pre 2 is what I consider to be the best form factor possible. While I have gotten very comfortable typing on a touch screen over the last several years, the speed allowed by a hardware keyboard can never be equaled.  I do not mean the typing speed, though that may be true. I mean the speed of access. The iPhone has a single means of access: the screen. Although the display can function as a variety of inputs (keyboard, number pad, chooser list, etc.) the phone and OS must first be told which one of those to present.  With a single swipe left from the home screen every application, person, message, and web site is searchable. The key to that sentence is the beginning, with a single swipe left from the home screen”. Without that gesture from that particular location, there is no search.

On the Pre 2, and any other device with hardware keyboard, search can simply be a function of beginning to type. Context for the display, from an unaccessed state, does not matter. On my iPhone 4 I often attempt to swipe left while in an app only to realize I have to first return to the home screen with a button press and then swipe left. Only after that is complete will I be able to start my search query.

Likewise, storing the hardware keyboard in portrait orientation, below the screen, is a fantastic fit. It means the phone can be all screen whenever possible. It also means that when the keyboard is extended the phone feels incredibly natural to hold. Landscape keyboards unbalance phones, making them unwieldy and heavy, impossible to hold in a single hand, let alone type on with one.

The Pre 2’s small screen size does not bother me after an hour or two. In fact it is the iPhone that feels large and strangely flat upon returning to it. This is a long way of saying the Pre 2 feels great in the hand and pocket, and is easy on the eyes.

However, the Pre 2 desperately needs a rotation lock. The hardware rotation lock on the iPad (prior to iOS 4.1 or post iOS 4.2) is a brilliant feature.  Turning the Pre 2 can be a surprisingly frustrating experience, because the sensor’s calibration and response speed lag slightly, meaning that one turns the phone to landscape (when reading a web site, for example), waits, returns it back to portrait and then to landscape again very quickly, and then watches as the phone performs all 3 transformations in a disjointed manner.  The odd shake” of the phone to make the sensor adjust the screen that old (pre iOS 4.0) iPhone users knew is back with webOS.

There it is then: the Pre 2 is hardware I constantly want to touch. It looks good, it feels good, and using it is, mostly, absolutely wonderful. Every time I go back to it I’m happy, and every time I leave it I miss the small shape and the clicking keys.  WebOS is a delight to use, works as advertised and has a sense of motion and organization lacking from it’s competitors, Android and iOS.  It is a wonderful platform, and something I will watch further.

Why then do I constantly return to my iPhone 4?  There are two reasons, and they revolve around the same concept, something only my time with these two phones has made me understand.

Trust.

When I have to work on my phone, which is a more and more common occurance globally, I can’t hesitate. When I’m driving to a vendor’s office or a FedEx location I googled three minutes ago, when I’m trying to call someone from a restaurant, or when I’m looking for an email with pricing I got a month ago, I have to know that my phone will do what I want.

The Pre 2 and webOS are pretty, they multitask well, their notification system is achingly simple and wonderfully functional. And when I launch Google Maps it sometimes works.  Sometimes it sits pulsing at the launch screen for several minutes, until I use the wonderful card interface to go back to my email.  When I try to call someone from my bluetooth headset and realize that I have to find their information on the phone, because bluetooth voice dial, while listed as a feature for webOS 2.1, does not yet work on my Pre 2’s webOS 2.0.1, I miss my iPhone.

When I am going out for the afternoon and look at the battery meter on the Pre 2, it often reads 40%.  At 2 pm that is a worrisome thing, something that makes me think about my charger’s location and my ability to power the phone from my car’s USB socket.

The Pre 2 and HPs new OS are wonderful things. But they do not inspire trust. Not yet. Battery life and responsiveness are two things I used not to consider critical with smartphones. They all had poor battery life and they all were a little slow to respond.  In that market the Pre 2 looks great, because the thought that went into webOS is clearly worlds above what went into most phone operating systems. That is not the current market.

I enjoy using the Pre 2, and wish I could do so more often.  I hope that webOS 2.1 brings better performance, fewer bugs, and bluetooth voice dialing, which is a deal breaker for my 45 minute commute.  Perhaps the Pre 3 will feature a more robust battery, and a more responsive mapping application. I hope so. I would love to be able to recommend webOS, to show my friends my phone and to have them be able to buy one, from HP unlocked, from T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon. I would like more people to see this carefully designed OS. I think that would be good for everyone.

Maybe this summer.

Until then I’ll admire my Pre 2 and use it, with my hand-cut SIM card adaptor, on days I don’t need to do a lot of work.

Permanence

What do you still have from your childhood?” he asks her.

Earrings and things… jewelry from my family,” she answers, the hesitation brief. Things long kept come easily to mind, would come easily to hand in her home. She almost reaches for them here, walking under the stars of San Francisco.

Why?” That’s the question behind all things. He does not let it have space, following question with question. What of the things you have now will you still in ten years?” Without thinking he leads the conversation to the questions he asks himself.

He does not know where they will live in ten years. Neither does she, and were it to be the same place as today both would be surprised.

The compromises unthinkable for the last decade have become… acceptable,” a friend writes. He is speaking about relationships, the largest things anyone maintains for long. Having kept scant few from the three decades of their lives thus far the men on either end of that letter are each trying to understand what such permanence would require.

I guess the jewelry, my black & white shoes, that coat.” The answers are all things that have already survived long past the average lifespan of possessions.

I’ve gotten rid of everything I own,” a woman tells him, before abandoning her country.

Good,” he says. I try to do that every few years. Leaving the country’s the best way.” His advice is half cynical, the continual purging caused by the lack of permanent ties as much as any desire for monastic minimalism.

It is very freeing,” she replies. Two months later she is in a different country and her teenage home burns to the ground.

Without journals and books and clothes, things frequently consigned to others when fleeing the country, is she really now more at ease, able to move more freely?

Or does she miss most those mementos of visits home and memories?

I own a few books bought in Japan,” he says eventually, answering his own questions as they walk along. Justine, and some books from long before that, high school. That’s about all I can think of.” Fragile things of paper easily consumed by flame, how could they survive another decade?

You’re more settled now. In another decade you might still have things.” She is right, and yet the rate of wear does not seem to be reduced by locational stability.

I guess it depends what we try to end up with,” he says, as they cross 19th, hand in hand.

At least permanently.”

Feels like the future

In the gravel parking lot of a factory across a river in Nanchang a man paces. He walks along the concrete barrier that edges the space, one foot in front of the other. Beneath the bike canopy to his left a half dozen scooters are scattered, some electric some gas. The sun smothers the courtyard, pressing down the plumes of pollution so that they stick to his skin in the humidity. With one hand held to his ear in the familiar pose, the humidity and dirt do not bother him. He is not distracted by the trucks that rumble along the rough gravel road outside the factory’s gate, and the smell of the nearby bathrooms, their waterless troughs open to the sky, does not slow his conversation.

At a bus stop beneath an overpass in San Rafael a man waits. In his white hood and black jeans he leans against the structure’s thin plastic wall, one hand in his pocket the other cupping a distant voice to his ear. The bus is late and the morning fog limits visibility. He does not seem to mind, smiling into the shrouded distance, his eyes picturing some other place.

These two men do not know each other, and will never meet. Their conversations do not intersect, and yet would not surprise. They are both calling someone to be free of where they are, to pass the time waiting.

In the parking lot in China the man is waiting for a sample run to dry, for screens to finish printing, for a washer that he has filled by hand with hot water to cycle down.

In Marin the man waiting for the bus is on his way to work, to a job too far away, in a city he can’t afford to live in. The phone call to a friend already on the road distracts them both.

The future is coming, we tell each other, searching movie star filmographies on our phones in a bar. One day we’ll be able to send each other live videos of our cats as they try to sit in ever-smaller boxes. One day we’ll be able to read Chinese with our phone.

Listing off milestones of future connectivity, possible abilities, we forget the parts that are here, the parts that have already changed the world. They are no longer startling. Sitting in a conference room a song begins. The half dozen people seated at the table or on the floor do not move, they are not surprised at this strange music. One man, typing something, reaches a hand into his bag, his other hand continuing the words, and fishes out a phone.

Hello,” he says. I’ll be downstairs in a minute.”

We are no longer surprised to hear from people we can not see.

In China, in the heat of Nanchang, the man does not pace all day. He sits and talks to the factory owner, and then the man who mixes color for the prints. He works with the ayi who washes the clothes and has volunteered her machine for his testing. He hangs the samples on bushes to dry. Sent here alone, far from home and without a plan to return to it, he is not afraid, nor will he be forgotten. His phone keeps him connected to colleagues in Shanghai, to colleagues in Los Angeles.

We spend every day with abilities unimaginable two hundred years before. The future is coming, surely, with cows tracked by satellites rather than dogs and refrigerators that order Coors Light long before the last one is opened. Yet the future is here, too, with the voices of our friends from other continents, the answers to our questions from other time zones. Stepping off the plane in Salt Lake or in Texas we are no longer alone. Were we ever? Did we really drive miles to pay phones?

On his drive home years later, through the fog of Marin, he sees a man leaning against the bus stop, alone in the evening light. A lonely place to wait, the driver thinks, and then he sees the laugh, the hand holding phone to ear, and smiles.

The phone tucked in the center console rings.

Hello,” says the man driving home in Marin.

Hello,” says his mother, on a beach in Jamaica.

Mobile

In Pescadero, along the coast of the Pacific an hour south of San Francisco, the water and the sky are one. The sun has set and the lightning, when it breaks, blankets everything. The ocean, in the last light, was white and whipped with the onrushing storm.

In a parking lot a group of a dozen debate shelter. Possible permutations of bodies to fill four bunks and one queen are offered and countered. Camping, formerly the refuge of the rugged or underfunded, has become undesirable.

As the hail hits there comes agreement. Newly gifted with the ability, we withdraw our need from the group. For the remainder of the stormy evening, the Fit that brought us here will be our home. It’s rear seats folded flat and padded with zipped-down sleeping bags, the little car has ample room for two people who routinely claim 5’10. With a bit of contortion I manage to stretch my legs straight, a blessing with hip joints that ache from a day spent running in wet sand.

This ability, to travel short distances to strange places on our own schedule, is not newly gained. For years now the trusty Volvo has been our steed, taking us across the western states with pace. The Fit would not win by any measure of speed or acceleration, but this new found capacity, to shelter, impresses greatly.

In the two months it has been with us the Fit has seen the Pacific from a wide range of angles. Manzanita, Oregon last month and Pescadero, California today represent but the end points. It crosses the Golden Gate daily, winding first through the Presidio and then up into Marin. It has seen Mount Shasta and driven the streets of Portland, not to mention Berkeley and San Mateo. Some day soon it will see Los Angeles, I imagine.

First though will come more days like today, random parking lots and stands of weeds made into them, near grass fields or beaches, with cleats and discs and water bottles filling the back seats. The mobile is good for that, with it’s small frame and seats for five it handles odd spaces without question.

And, as we woke this morning, we realized it could do so much more, having sheltered us comfortably through downpours while moving and now while asleep. Wiping condensation from the windshield’s interior with a t-shirt though it occurred to us exactly why door visors are an option. Sleeping with ventilation that did not also let in the weather would be an improvement.

Perhaps the mobile will get a Christmas present.

The iPhone 4 conundrum

I currently have an iPhone 3G. After two years of daily use it is definitely worse for the wear, with cracks in the plastic casing and dust stuck under the screen. The battery is also failing, resulting in a standard 2 hours of usage. For those curious, the cracks occur between the holes in the plastic (for volume rocker, sleep/wake button, sim tray, screws, 30-pin connector, and speakers) and the metal edge to the front of the phone. These cracks grow over time, and multiply.

Of course I’ve dropped it. I list these things as facts rather than as points of failure. In the past ten years I’ve had a number of phones. Not one survived two years without showing the wear. This is one of the reasons I take mugshots (via dailymugshot.com), to see if the wear is as visible on my body. It must be.  The point for the phone though is that two years is a long time to commit to a single object. It is a lot of hours of use, a lot of strange locations, a lot of potential drops and spills. There is no other object in my life that spends so much time with me and is so delicate. And survives. So a two-year commitment to any single phone seems an odd decision. But that is the current US cellular climate, and despite my vocal protests and Google’s attempt at direct sales, it will not be changing this week.

I am ready for a new phone. I enjoy the iPhone, and am not currently enamored of any other maker’s offering, though I watch them all. I had hope for Palm, and believe Android/HTC will tempt me repeatedly, but at the current moment, they do not. My main desires, for a faster processor, better battery life and nicer display, are all at least partially addressed by iPhone 4.

What hesitation then? Well you see it comes to this: I live in San Francisco. I spent an hour or so at the Haight Street Fair yesterday (which may or may not be spelled with an additional e’). My iPhone 3G spent that time bleeding battery into a No Service” search. A futile one, because in addition to the thousands of people who would bring down AT&T’s modest network regardless of the location, there is another problem: AT&T has no coverage on Haight Street.  This is a well-kept secret, as Haight and Ashbury are relatively high-profile streets in San Francisco, and a mainstay of the tourist circuit.

How then can AT&T simply abandon the neighborhood? Your guess is as good as mine. But the dead zone, as these things are called, extends some 100 yards up and down Haight on either side of Ashbury, and is reliable enough that, when riding a bus down Haight, I can count down to the moment my phone will lose coverage. This is not the only such spot, but it is an excellent example of why AT&T customers in San Francisco are so unhappy.

But we have the fastest 3G network,” claim the ads. But your network doesn’t work, I say. Yes, in other cities AT&T remains relatively useful.  In San Francisco, however, it is a wish and a prayer.  In my first three hours back from New York last week I made three calls to three different people from three different locations. They all failed. Perhaps this is my hardware, save that the same phone had worked fine in New York scant hours before. Perhaps it is the network.

There is one other thing. In China, to take as an example a location whose carriers and cellular industry I am at least comfortably knowledgable about, this service would not be so maddening. In China, at the end of the month, I received a bill for the number of minutes used and the amount of data transferred. If AT&T functioned in this manner (or any US carrier, for that matter) such a dead zone would not be as frustrating, because I wouldn’t be paying for service in it.

The US wireless market remains that rare combination of uncompetitive, expensive, and mediocre. And yet here I live, in San Francisco. What to do, what to do?

Luckily I have another 24 hours until iPhone 4 pre-orders to make up my mind.

List of mobile phones I’ve used

A Japanese Panasonic candybar model with a monochrome screen which, being old and cheap at the time (2001) I can’t find any information about online.

Nokia J-NM02 - A model that’s very hard to find information on, but in 2002 was pretty sweet.  Flip, color, camera, web, and that wonderful antenna.

Nokia 2100 - On moving to Shanghai in 2003 I bought the cheapest phone I could.

Siemens M55 - Quite an upgrade after about a year in Shanghai.

Nokia 6681 - An incredible phone.  A little slow towards the end, but with Opera Mini and the Gmail app the best phone experience I had ever had, by far.  Also synched with my Mac via Bluetooth, which was a huge win.

HTC P4350 - Windows Mobile.  Great hardware, worst software ever.  Only lasted six months before I got tired of having the messaging app crash while texting.  No sync.

BlackBerry Curve 8300 - An incredible phone, but by 1 year the trackball was breaking. Also better with Opera Mini and Gmail app.  Qwerty keyboard was great.  Used w/ Exchange.

iPhone 3G white 16GB - Fun, versatile, but hands down the worst phone I’ve used since the… ever.  Horrible reception, prone to crashes in the phone app, generally slow, and after 1 year the plastic is cracking at the edges.  Note that this is my first time on a US post-paid contract, though I did use T-Mobile pre-paid at times on the BB and the 6681.

The test of a mobile’s keyboard

The test of a mobile’s keyboard is at what length of intended entry one gives up and waits until a laptop is available.

Pause.

For me, with the iPhone, that point arrives sooner than it has in the past.

Regardless of what Gruber says now about it being good enough” or what he said at it’s introduction, regardless of how biased I may be, and how wonderful the customization of keyboards is, the length I enjoy typing directly onto the screen is lower than it was on other devices.  List of devices used prior here.

As a related note:  has anyone else gotten worse at typing on an iPhone lately?

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:

  • AT&T isn’t as bad as many people think.

  • 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.

  1.  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.

From far away

They arrive gradually. Each one in turn is slotted underneath a single magnet. Eventually more will be needed, to keep up with their flow. They go up backs face out, a collage of hand-printed lettering. Their fronts contain scenes from this country or others, strange photographs, or sketches made popular not by the artist’s fame but by their very printing.

The longer I inhabit this house the more crowded that space will be, on the freezer’s front. Eventually these first to arrive will be replaced, their pictures long forgotten. They will be read one last time, to revive the memories, and placed in a box that has come with me from Houston, from Shanghai. That box is filled with similar already, and though I can not remember from where, the list of from who comes easily to mind. These ones, fresh delivered to a mailbox I have owned but a month, are a good representation of whose handwriting might also be found in that box. Because, like all habits, that of postcards written and stamped is one born out of repetition, reinforced by reciprocation.

Turning them over now, a momentary cataloguing of their pictures presents me with the Potala Palace, proof that my friends, again, have been on journeys I meant to take myself and have so far not managed. The next is of Brandenburger Tor, ensuring that my catalogue of famous monuments enshrined on postcards continues to grow. It too is proof, though of a different kind: that friends from Shanghai were not as daunted by Europe’s expense and moved eastward. The lessons are similar though, that all of the places I wished to go, whether to visit or live, are as accessible now as they have ever been. Yet here I sit, receiving these in a city in the country of my birth, the borders of which I have not crossed for more than a year.

The last is of Old North Wharf on Nantucket, a beautiful shot of houses with their boats at anchor in place of a lawn. It is America, in the view of water and peace, something I appreciate, from my house mate in Shanghai, who is likewise learning a new coast. It has traveled long, chasing me here from Colorado, to which it was sent at the end of the summer as I fled westward.

As we settle so too do I send out these missives, currently featuring whimsical Japanese art, to the corners of these United States and a variety of countries. I must learn where the post office is, and mailboxes. These worthwhile efforts are fueled by our decorated freezer, and the envelopes of longer letters that lie in the phone nook. For the most part they are small stories of happiness, and share a sense of wonder. Because although we are not beyond our borders, we are exploring, learning a new city and state. And after so long parts of America are as foreign to me as anywhere, all the more so because they ought to seem natural.

I am grateful though for the reminders of places and people I always mean to see, and one day will be glad to.

Unpacking and re

With each new home there come a hundred secrets: the ancient heater’s grate just wide enough for bathroom reading collections, the key to a gate never closed.  Like all those before it this apartment has a legacy of ghosts I do not know, people whose decisions painted these walls, put in this air conditioner, removed that socket.  Opening each closet and cupboard merely to discover their shape I can feel them a year from now, gradually giving up their contents to moving boxes.  There are so many versions of myself because there are so many houses to fill and empty.

In a box packed years before by a boy forced out of his home after graduation there lies a set of keys on a simple ring.  No label or familiar shape hints at their purpose, long abandoned and far off.  Vague recollections whisper of campus buildings and security doors, of late-night raids and back entrances.  That party thrown in a squash court, dj and tables smuggled in long after the staff had gone home, complete with disco ball and sock-footed dancers?  One of these keys, quite possibly.  Long evenings spent in offices of theaters now demolished or refurbished?  Perhaps some subset of these keys.  Missing are the electric cart keys, used one glorious night under the hot pursuit of campus security.  Those keys were singled out and passed down, so that the freedom and the danger they presented would remain available long after their original discoverer” had gone.  This ring of nameless keys could be anything, their possibilities suggested only by memories of past abilities long lost.  Perhaps instead they open houses since vacated in cities up and down the eastern seaboard.  Or bicycle locks long made pointless by more dedicated thieves.  Uncertain as to which of these sets of keys he holds, the man tasked with sorting out this box of remnants consigns them to the trash, their history invisible and gone.

The act of settling in is really two separate reconciliations, that of the un-needed and the now necessary.  A swipe card for Shanghai’s metro system, carried for years behind the driver license, is removed and consigned to a folder of remnants.  In its place goes a shoppers card for a grocery store with an unfamiliar name.  Sifting through that folder, that box, I discover remnants kept safe for so long because of the same words.  Maybe one day,” I say, pulling that Shanghai card from my wallet.  It settles beside my Suica from Tokyo, unused since 2003, and my gaijin card, kept as a memento rather than turned over to the authorities as I exited the country.  Sometimes I am smarter, and there is no card, my Octopus from Hong Kong passed on to a friend on his way there.  Bank cards, from Tokyo, Shanghai, Ithaca, airline cards from days of belief in frequent flier programs, bank books from countries where they mean everything, all these pieces of places have traveled with me to this new house, where they are unpacked into a dresser drawer and ignored for months.  In the summer I suspect I will pack them again, adding pieces acquired in Houston, in this apartment that shakes with the neighbors’ joy and fills with the breeze of oncoming storms.  There are badges, pins, free-drink punch cards and gift cards for coffee shops I used to bike to, or walk past, or work near.  These are replaced in my bag by the cardboard cup holders of Rice’s student Coffee house, cycled endlessly for $1 off my ninth drink.  When I leave I am sure there will be one half-punched, and one of the first decisions for the folder in our new home will be whether to keep it.

Houses hold each person’s secrets, comfortable with their inhabitants even for a short while.  The desk I write at, nailed to the wall at window height to provide a standing view, will be removed and the holes plastered over when we leave, the amount of time spent in this corner invisible to the next occupant.  Looking around, at our black chairs and wooden stools, I imagine a sofa, a television, the belongings of previous iterations.  Not particularly unique possessions to consider, yet odd uses there were, I am sure.  In this house I have secreted a pile of foreign currency, not for the financial stability but for the pleasure of discovering it when we depart, a roll of Philippine pesos, Thai baht and Korean won.  Did we pick the same hiding place for cash, those other tenants and I?  Hard to imagine, unless they too favored the spare towels closet.

Where do these choices come from, the places that feel right for each object?  Wanting them by the door I am forever moving the scissors from their home near the fridge.  When asked why I require cutting tools immediately accessible upon entry I have no answer, and they return, grudgingly, to the other drawer.  These curious habits that seem to have no ancestor may indeed be the apartment, or may be tied to some other similar kitchen I have lived in.  That idea appeals, that all these houses, which bear the marks of generations of use may likewise leave echoes on their tenants.  The secrets of each home accumulate in us, so that, moving constantly, we are shaped by the growing trail of places we no longer inhabit.

Heelys

Once upon a time I believed 29 going on to be too old for such frippery as Heelys.  I abandoned my first pair upon leaving Japan at 24, believing that Shanghai lacked   pavement suitable for wheeling.  It did, so I didn’t miss them too much, but now, back in the US and attempting to avoid the automobile, the appeal of shoes w/ wheels in the heels is impossible to avoid, and I search the internets for options.

In short, there are none.  I found one cool white/lime green pair, but unavailable in my size.  A brown/tan one likewise.  Most Heelys are black/gray and have huge horrid graphics on them, thus undermining their very purpose: James Bond-style getaways.

Yes.  The point of shoes with a wheel in the heel is NOT to broadcast the fact, but to hide it until it is needed.  The point is to blend in with pedestrians.  The main advantage of Heelys is the lack of extra crap to carry.  This is why Heelys beat skateboards, scooters, rollerblades, bicycles, cars, motorcycles, unicycles, tricycles, and four-wheelers.  When you get to where you’re rolling, you just walk in.  No sitting down, parking, packing up, unlacing, locking to a tree, or any of that.  Simply slow down and walk out of your wheel, and bam, you’ve arrived.

I miss my Heelys.  Links to any Mens 10 Heelys in a non-black non-obvious color combination greatly appreciated.

Going somewhere

This fascination with motion is the central thing.  Travel and transit, the celebration is not of destination but of journey.  Whether on foot or on scooter, on bicycle, airplane or maglev, the undeniable appeal of going somewhere bonded with the desire to leave this place creates a sense of excitement rarely rivaled.  The main holidays, worldwide, involve some huge amount of travel, as most of the world goes to see people they are too far from the instant they are able.

Not strange then that we romanticize the means of transit, is it?  From America’s car stories to the long trail rides of cowboys, there is a love affair among us not only with the motion but with the vehicle or steed.  The spaceship, the rocket, the car, the train.

I dream of touring like Duke Ellington
in my own railroad car,

says Ani, and I know what she means.  Even on crowded Chinese trains, crammed in between cars and forced into standing with a half dozen smokers and a set of doors I’m not allowed to open there’s a beauty to train travel.  It is hard to write with all the rocking, though it’s possible to type, and the bathrooms overflow onto the floor. Still, if there’s somewhere I have to go domestically I’m in the queue at the station, looking for a ticket on those rails.

In Japan, I slept through my stop on the Saikyo dozens of times, one night walking home from Kawagoe, the end of the line, at almost two am.  I slipped in the door at four, glad to beat the rain, and willing to do it again the next day.  I loved living on the Saikyo line, despite its deserved notoriety for chikan and the evening salary-man-drunk-crushes.  I was happiest, in some ways, sipping canned whisky and water on the platform at Akabane, waiting for the nine twenty eight train home after a long Tuesday at work.  Five years later when I think of Tokyo I think of the trains and the views they afforded me, twenty two and curious.

The fascination with my electric scooter endured through hundreds of repairs, cracked casings, broke brakes, and pieces of it falling away month by month, exposing the bare metal beneath.  Despite being stranded one night after a dodgeball game, a mile or two from home in a strange part of town, stuck waiting on a curb in the heat of August for a man I’d woken from sleep to put in a new converter, I loved that scooter.

People asked me often, what’s it like, don’t you hate the battery, how long does it take to charge?  The answer always disappointed them: a long time, first six hours, then eight, by the end too hard to find a power outlet for that long without taking the battery out, all seventy five pounds of it, and carrying it up to my apartment, or office.  I loved it despite these things. Despite losing both rear view mirrors, cracking the headlight, destroying the sides.  Despite its horrible unwieldiness in rain, spilling me out onto the street on the white stripes of zebra crossings again and again.  Against all those things stood my freedom, the sense of wonder and invincibility, youth and daring, flying through Shanghai’s streets, staring up at buildings and pedestrians, dodging taxis and bicyclists, early in the morning for breakfast or a few beers in on the way home.  I love it, I’d answer, I can’t imagine living here without it.  And I couldn’t, the days before it a strange mishmash of other forms, all those hours crushed on the busses, or running for them.  Through all of my life in Shanghai two wheeled vehicles remain a high point. The various bicycles, Sanch’s oft-broken gas-powered scooter, and the two plastic electric ones together, granted me an entirely different city to explore.

There are similar stories, this one is not unique.  Friends who named their first cars, friends who have named their fourth, who care for them and relate tales of their personalities.  Of ships, named for as long as we can remember, with captains who would die with them, or at least consider it.  While we may be, as a culture, a people of intractability and motion, of discontent and the continual attempt at perfection, we are also a culture of worship, of object desire and anthropomorphism.  At thirteen, fresh returned from a trip to Telluride I spent all of the money in my savings, some hundreds of dollars intended for college or another grand idea, on a snowboard, fetishized and loved, given a bag hand-made for it, and stored reverently each time.  Covered in stickers and soon in scrapes and dings, the first purchase of any weight was, as it is for many of us, a means of transportation, even if a frivolous one.

As many before I have noted, it’s not the destination but the journey that remains, years later.  I agree, even on a shrunken scale, to late night rides and complete disasters, to asking policemen for directions and pushing cars towards gas stations.

Quoted lyrics from Ani DiFranco’s Self Evident’ off of her 2002 live compilation, So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter, used with appreciation.

Rooftops, carts, and cats

The streets of Hong Kong are packed with delivery motion. As Manhattan swirls at three am, so does Sheung Wan bustle in the morning as dried fish in vast quantities is hauled off trucks by men with giant metal hooks. At break time they leave these implements carelessly in giant bags of rice, handles up, points embedded in the compacted mush. Each sack in turn is flung from truck to cart, bundled up into a store, frontless, wares open to the air. Each bag is sliced open and dumped into bins for later measurement again, into smaller bags individually carried home. So many stairs in this city, so much vertical travel, and all of these homes furnished, all of these kitchens filled, all of this waste removed. What of this massive expenditure every day, to carry vegetables home to supper? The cost of yet another tower does not include this.

The carts themselves, ubiquitous on the streets, will be tied to poles at the day’s slackening, around three. Their metal handles, circular and hollow, will fold down to the bed, compacting the entire device into a rectangle of green steel with four blue wheels. The wheels are fixed. These carts are so basic, so mass-produced, and so communal that they have neither names, nor dates, nor manufacturer’s brand. The flat slats of metal that form their weight-supporting base seem not to mind the pounding of sacks tossed from trucks, the blue wheels seem not to heed the curbs they are perpetually banged into up and over. At least one per shop, the carts outnumber the trucks, themselves a half-dozen, most with Japanese engines. There are, later in the evening, twenty carts scattered around unoccupied and seeminly unowned on this three-block stretch. A sense of public space pervades this city, which has so little that all must be carefully shared.

In a park near Lan Kwai Fong a trio of ladies rehearses a dance routine at mid-morning, before the rush of lunch and smokers, after the street sweepers have cleared the broken bottles away.

From our Sheung Wan rooftop the cats seem multitude. They scale the construction site, they swarm the streets and fences, alleys. This vantage point reveals their secret paths, startles one with their numbers, the city below in constant motion. Strange too, as most of the cats I find on the ground spend large periods of time hunkered down beneath some shade. It is early April and Hong Kong is beginning to sweat. We lie on the roof top at night, assailed by mosquitos, in gym shorts, barefoot and considering the skyline. Rooftops like this are a gift, sitting as it does above an apartment that barely slept five, all laid out next to each other, last November. The rooftop triples the floor space. The rooftop raises the ceilings to the clouds.

Which are themselves coming down. The air here is getting worse, the view shorter than it used to be. So they tell me, people everywhere during these few weeks. So I can see from my vantage point, high above Sheung Wan and watching. The air may indeed be getting worse, smog pouring out of Shenzhen, Guangzhou, all of the motherland to the west. Hong Kong remains the most beautiful city I know of, a mass of thin towers and green peaks that slide into the water in a confusion of street vendors and colonial organization. For a few weeks in April it is a gracious host to me, a peaceful place of feline grace and hand-pushed cargo transport, and I am glad of the hospitality.

The last mile

Cities. These hubs, these networks of people, piles of houses, thousands of miles of roads. Humans able to live at complete abstraction from food production, from waste removal, from power creation. Invisible networks of wires buried, of tunnels built, of pipes laid. Yet late at night these networks become visible. Early in the am Manhattan fills with trucks, with men whose jobs, though mostly invisible, are necessary to feed the vast spread of stations where things are dispensed though not produced. Newspapers, fruit, alcohol, power, gasoline, clothing. The weather warms, and I sit in a park watching rollerblading lessons. None of us, not me, not the children stumbling in padded falls, not the teacher, closest of all, not the swarms of parents paying watching worrying laughing gossiping, have grown food for tonight’s dinner. None have made the clothes or skates they now wear.

Yet none seem concerned, this breezy Sunday afternoon. Starvation does not threaten, nor nakedness. We, after all, lie at a hub, a spout of a vast spread of human effort geared to provide. Like New York, Shanghai. Much that is sold in each is made in the same places, the goods that arrive in New York shops, in Shanghai malls, have common hands on them, far back up the chain. Only the network differs. In Manhattan, late night trucks, the gruff voices of loading docks.

On my scooter in the morning I pass a man pedaling a cart across town. 300 dozen eggs, stacked carefully, wired down. A case of beer on the back of a motorcycle. An entire city’s worth of Coca-Cola distributed by bicycle. As he pushes past a BMW I marvel at this telling difference between places. The factory, brand name, profit earning shareholder may be the same, but the last mile, this vast human network of distribution does reflect it’s place.

Three bicycle moments

He is in his fifties, hair going white at the roots, dyed almost red at the tips that whisper about behind his head. He squints into the onrushing breeze, his knuckles clenching the grips. The scooter’s square frame long ago went out of style, it’s rear compartment has been taped together and the tape cut, replaced by twine. His pants are gray, half of a suit long separated from it’s kin. Purring and puttering in parts down this leafy block, he does not move too fast for this Sunday afternoon. He stops thirty yards short of the next street, not at all for traffic’s sake. Stepping off, left leg still stiff, as though injured, he pauses, left hand still holding the bike upright. After a moment’s concentration, right foot on the ground, balance precarious with the left leg tethered so, he opens the seat compartment and rummages in. After a moment he withdraws thick black plastic frames, almost safety specs. He dons them without pause, his hair waving in the breeze. The straight leg scuffs it’s sole across the scooter, and he is off again, never once considering traffic, never once unsure of his glasses’ capacity to clarify.

She walks slightly behind the bicycle’s rear wheel, her black dress whipping against her stockings, it’s formal length strange on this wide open stretch of road. The heels of her boots clink on the pavement, a staccato counterpoint to the angle of her voice as it spikes at his back, a chisel of words outlining fault. Two steps ahead he pushes the bike, shoulders slumped in the winter jacket, slacks neatly creased. Shoes of black leather look unworn, unfit for cycling. The bike is a dull red, it’s basket black, the rear’s flat metal shows telltale signs of it’s second life as a seat. Her words slip past, around his body, sharp barbs of condemnation that match precisely the tear in her stockings, the scuff on her coat’s elbow. They walk past me like this and on for yards, the harangue common in any language, the blame, the lateness, the fine dress for a Saturday luncheon neither will make. The cold air of Pudong’s November envelopes them both, and I wish a better afternoon, some warmth and friendship, and a safe ride home at their vanishing backs.

His arms are straight outstretched, his mouth wide open, his eyes large. These are the features I notice, that convey his emotion long before I can see the source, it’s wreckage hidden by the taxi’s teal side. It was once a bike, the form clear in the mind, if not on the street. Two wheels, one now slightly less than round. Pedals, each distinct if slightly rusted. The frame itself, painted black but whipped by wind and weather, rust showing so much like moss on an old maple walnut in a clearing near the stream on my parent’s property. The handle bars are truly mangled, and I wonder at the impact. The taxi blocks my view, any indentation on the other side. Its driver stands, abashed, his arms at his side, apologetic yet uncertain in the center of the rider’s onslaught. In the taxi a girl types on her phone, explaining the delay, reassuring a boyfriend, mother, classmate. I am whisked past them, traffic picking up again, my taxi escaping the dangers that weave through our lanes on two wheels. I follow him, my head turn the only expression of sympathy I have, trapped in this steel box. Tomorrow morning I will join his side again, dodge the teal and yellow shapes, speed through intersections with hope, and be indignant when crushed, as all so at a loss must be.