Spocks and Datas

DataSpock

SPOCK: He intrigues me, this Picard.

DATA: In what manner, sir?

SPOCK: Remarkably analytical and dispassionate, for a human. I understand why my father chose to mind-meld with him. There’s almost a Vulcan quality to the man.

DATA: Interesting. I have not considered that. And Captain Picard has been a role model in my quest to be more human.

SPOCK: More human?

DATA: Yes, Ambassador.

SPOCK: Fascinating. You have an efficient intellect, superior physical skills and no emotional impediments. There are Vulcans who aspire all their lives to achieve what you’ve been given by design.

DATA: You are half human.

SPOCK: Yes.

DATA: Yet you have chosen a Vulcan way of life.

SPOCK: I have.

DATA: In effect, you have abandoned what I have sought all my life.

 

– Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Unification Part 2” (1991)

For the socially alienated, such as autistics like myself, the characters of Spock and Data from Star Trek are immediately relatable. Not because of their lack of emotion, but because of their estrangement from their peers. Extraordinarily intelligent, yet unable to understand the motivations or the social and emotional needs of the humans around them. Though full members of their respective crews and fully equal members (eventually, for Data) of their adopted societies, they are nonetheless alone.

But apart from being non-human, the sources of Spock’s and Data’s alienation are quite different. Spock, genetically half-human and half-Vulcan, aspires to overcome the psychological weaknesses he believes his human side burdens him with. Data, the creation of humans, has put himself on a quest to exhibit the qualities of humanity as faithfully as possible. While he may be confused by human weaknesses, he nonetheless wishes to replicate them.

Framed this way, Data may be the more relatable to the socially alienated. Those with Asperger’s like me, for example, are obviously the product of humans, and live and work among other humans, but struggle to make meaningful social and emotional connections with the neurotypical majority. This is painful, and there seems to be no remedy. No matter how hard they try to ape the behavior of neurotypicals, it is just that, an aping. And yet they, we, pine for that connection. For belonging.

spockbrowSpock represents something that I would guess is less common, the socially alienated person who wishes to remain alienated, because to assimilate would be to corrupt oneself, to debase oneself. Surely there are those intellectuals and savants who identify with Spock in this, and surely they too experience the discomfort of alienation. But I suspect that is the Datas among us that are truly suffering from their estrangement.

To the normals and the neurotypicals, I have to assume that these two dispositions, the Spock and the Data, are more or less indistinguishable. Both exhibit as emotionally distant. Both are prone to say things that, to the normals, are considered inappropriate, offensive, or bizarre, despite innocent or benign intentions. Both invite varying degrees of pity or condescension from normals for what they perceive as naivete or “disability.”

For a Data, there is a constant pull toward the group, a tug toward the tribe. The Data will practice the mannerisms and idioms of the normals, and often fail laughably. For a Spock, the social distance is actively maintained. Rather than gravitate toward inclusion, they prefer to observe from a safe and less distracting distance. There is no attempt to do as the Romans do. To the Spock, the Romans are silly.

From my own point of view, to adopt the Spock approach would be a luxury. While I do not believe that a Spock-type never suffers in her alienation, she certainly suffers less. A Spock has already decided that there is little to be gained from full social inclusion, and little to envy from the normals’ mindset. What a relief that would be.

datadanceThe Data, however, is all too aware of the myriad ways she does not match up to her normal peers. She suffers from the humiliation of failed attempts to assimilate, and she suffers from her solitude. And unlike the character of Data the android, Data-types definitely experience emotions, often severely. It is a sisyphean way to live, except that everyone is watching and audibly commenting on how weirdly one is pushing the rock up the hill.

In a previous piece, I chose another Star Trek character as an Aspie-analogue, and reflecting on it now, it seems to fill a kind of middle-ground between the Spock and the Data. I’m talking about Odo. I wrote:

ds9odoThough he takes a humanoid form as best he can, no one thinks Odo, the changeling, really looks like them. He doesn’t understand humanoid behavior, but he does try to map it out in order to follow others’ motivations and how they lead to actions. He is impatient with the things that humanoids seem to find fulfilling and important, which to him seem pointless and wasteful. He comes off as mean when he doesn’t intend to. He craves companionship, but knows he can’t have it. And when it all comes down to it, when he’s tired of pretending to be one of the “solids,” he must — absolutely must — return to his bucket. He must resume his true liquid form, stop pretending, find total solitude, and rest.

If Spock and Data show us two poles of how the socially alienated cope with their weirdness, Odo shows us the consequences of all that work. What does the outcast do after all the failed attempts to commune, or after a day of navigating the incomprehensible absurdities of the normals’ behavior? What toll does it take?

Odo shows us. We must return to our bucket, or we dissolve.


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Busted Heart

How’s this for an eventful couple of years: I discovered that I was autistic. I lost much of the hearing in my right ear for reasons unknown. I turned 40.

And now—let’s go ahead and rip this excruciating band-aid off—my marriage of ten years has ended.

(This is not going to be a post about what lead to this, nor will it be about the ongoing cascade of pain, depression, and fear I’ve experienced, as I’m just not ready for that, so adjust your expectations accordingly.)

The cliche about turning 40 is that I am now “over the hill,” and if so, the timing for that could not be worse. Over the course of two years I have made the most profound self-discoveries of my life, having the nature of my brain, personality, quirks, aversions, talents, and handicaps revealed to me as products of Asperger’s syndrome. In the midst of this, I was given opportunities to put my talents into practice in new ways; directing plays, doing a residency at a writers’ refuge, hosting a podcast with an actual audience, writing for an excellent technology website, and soon, the publication of my work in a journal near and dear to my heart. Of course I’ve also been learning to deal with my hearing loss.

The end of my marriage, obviously, is quite something else. It is utterly disorienting. It gives me the feeling of being uncontrollably adrift, like an astronaut on a space walk whose tether has been severed. This is particularly so considering that Maine is not my home turf. We came to live here to be near my wife’s family. While they have gone out of their way to make certain that I feel that I am still and will always be a part of that family, it remains that I have no circle of friends here of my own. Almost all of my acquaintances are second-degree connections from the marriage. Because of the love of these wonderful in-laws (former in-laws?), I am not actually alone. But because I have no social or familial foundation of my own, in some important ways, I am indeed alone.

I keep thinking of the song “Busted Heart” by the band Bishop Allen, which says:

Follow me
To the shipwreck shores
Of a dark and strange country
I was born
A stranger thinking out loud
In a foreign tongue

I was out of place
I was looking all around
Just a trying to find a friendly face
But they’re all gone

This reminds me of how I feel in any new environment, really, but seems particularly apt for suddenly finding myself spouse-less in Maine.

What a thought. At the dawn of my fifth decade, I am forced to reset. I begin 40 without nearby close friends, without nearby relations, and without a significant other. (In fact, I haven’t been “single” for more than 16 years.) I begin 40 with a new debilitation, my hearing loss, and with a still-new and bewildering understanding of why I am as weird as I am, my autism.

In one positive sense, it’s a refreshing chance to “start over,” and begin a fresh, new life with a deeper understanding of who I am, what I’m capable of, and what I’m not. But it’s not really starting over, because the time has still passed. I don’t get to start from 18 again. I still have to go from 40.

And so it must be. When I was diagnosed as autistic, part of me mourned for the years I had lost in which I had no idea why I was the way I was, why I couldn’t meet others’ expectations of normalcy, why I couldn’t bring myself to share others’ priorities or interests, and why I felt like a member of some different species.

The second verse of “Busted Heart” reminds me of what it’s like to be weird like me, to have Asperger’s:

And wisdom is a whisper
And I’m trying to understand
What I say, what I think,
Where I sleep, when I breathe
What I do with my hands

So perhaps I am now in a dark and strange country, but maybe it means I have the chance to re-enter that country with this greater understanding, but instead of laboring to apologize and make up for my oddness, I can embrace it, and advocate for my right to be the way I am. More than that, maybe I can “be like what I’m like,” and consider my differences to be positive, distinguishing qualities.

Maybe.

No, really. Maybe. The song is called “Busted Heart,” which is a sad thought. But read the lyrics of the chorus:

And a busted heart
Is a welcome friend
And when that heart leaves
What will you do then?

Really, my heart was busted long before my marriage, long before I grew up. In a way, I was born with a busted heart. But you know what? A busted heart is a welcome friend. Not to me, but to others. I’m a little broken, and I think out loud in a foreign tongue, but because of that, not in spite of it, I might be worth having around…to someone.

I’m 40. I’m over the hill. Over that hill is a dark and strange country. But maybe the people there will be cool.

Maybe.

Hearing, Loss

It’s the late autumn of 2017, and I’m in Point Reyes Station, California for a two-week writers’ retreat. I was walking down a remote road, taking one of my regular strolls into town for supplies, a bit of exercise, and to take in the landscape, which was stunningly beautiful. The weather was nearly perfect, and being so removed from everything, cars and other pedestrians on the road were quite rare. I was alone and enjoying the movement and the environment.

The wind picked up a little and it whooshed deeply in my ears. You know the sound, the low thup-thup as the air pummels your earlobes. Maybe I hear it more than others because my ears are little on the bigger side, so they scoop up a bit more air.

Only something was off. The whooshing sound was there, but it was only coming in on the right side of my head. That was weird. I must have just happened to be facing in such a direction that the wind was hitting my head at that particular angle. So I checked.

I pivoted my head in different directions, while walking, while standing still, and nothing changed. I walked to different parts of the road with different landscape features; fewer trees, fewer houses, atop an incline, then toward the bottom. Still the same. I wasn’t hearing the wind in my right ear at all.

I snapped my fingers in both ears, and noticed no meaningful difference. I rubbed my finger along the surface of my earlobes and ear canals. In the left ear, I could hear the deep rubbing and rumbling sounds of the friction. In my right ear, I heard a faint and wispier sound, like something soft brushing on paper, at a distance.

I got out my headphones and attached them to my phone. I played some songs, and only listened through one earbud at a time. In the left ear, the full, rich sound came through that I had come to expect and enjoy from this particular pair of headphones. In my right, the bass and mids were, alarmingly, almost nonexistent, save for the high-frequency sounds of strings being scratched or plucked. All I heard were higher-end sounds, such as vocals, snares, and cymbals, only much tinnier, thinner, weaker.

Finally, I tried listening to a voicemail to see if I could hear a phone call. Again, the expected normal sound of the voice came through the phone’s little speaker into my left ear. Putting the phone up to my right ear, the voice sounded like it was coming from a tin can stuffed with cotton. I could hear the voice, but barely.

This was unmistakable. I wasn’t being paranoid. I had lost hearing in my right ear.

*

It’s the spring of 1994 in Absecon, New Jersey. I’m a 16-year-old junior in high school, in an exurban basement. It’s the house of one of my friends from marching band, Chris, and by way of some now-forgotten confluence of agreements and compromises, I have formed a crappy little band with him and two other friends; Chris on drums (talented thrash metal devotee), my best friend Rob on bass (had never played, and was borrowing my dad’s sort-of vintage bass guitar), me on lead guitar (I had no business being a lead guitarist but I could play chords and learn songs by ear relatively easily), and one guy I met through Chris, Corey, our lead vocalist, a kind of Axl Rose/grunge type (and who was tone deaf).

I told you it was a crappy band.

Nonetheless, it was my band, and my sole outlet for playing with a full set of musicians on a few songs I really liked (and some I really didn’t, but like I said, agreements and compromises). In the year or so we played together, I don’t know that we ever got to the point of being “good,” but we did manage to scrape together a handful of songs that we could enjoyably hack our way through. It was fun, at least some of the time.

On this occasion, we’ve been a band for a few months, and Corey and Chris have brought with them a friend of theirs, another guitarist who was straight from the Metallica/Megadeth school of metal. He had the requisite long hair and patchy teenage facial hair, including that mustache so many of those guys wore back then that usually signaled to me, for some reason, that I should be wary of them. I don’t remember his name, so let’s just call him “Patchy-stache.”

Apart from having some obviously advanced skills in metal lead guitar, Patchy-stache also brought with him something else we didn’t have: a giant-ass stack of huge amplifiers. For our usual rehearsals, I hauled back and forth my dad’s ancient Vox tube amp and a very small beginner’s amp that I’d gotten as a birthday present. Corey had a decent amp and PA for his vocals and occasional guitar playing. With what we had, we could barely hear ourselves over the astounding pound of Chris’s drums. That guy did not mess around behind that set. Usually I wore earplugs to protect my hearing, though not always. I was afraid it made me seem like a wuss.

So here we were in this small space, enclosed in concrete, with our usual collection of aspirationally loud shit. And now here’s Patchy-stache with his menacing obelisk. When he played through it, the obelisk emitted these teeth-rattling, piercing riffs, filled with stabbing licks and needle-like harmonics. It was painful. I of course didn’t know at the time that I was autistic, and already wired to be overwhelmed by stimuli like noise, and I didn’t have my earplugs in.

But I dared not show my discomfort. Checking for the other guys’ responses to this sonic assault, they seemed totally unfazed. I tried to indicate that this decibel level might be a bit too much with some humorous gesticulations of my ears exploding. It got me some smirks, but nothing else. It was really quite awful, but if there was one thing I found more excruciating than a storm of stimuli, it was the threat of social rejection, of being called out as lesser than the others. So I endured.

That night, I of course had ringing in my ears, like anyone would after a loud concert or something. But in addition to the ringing, there was also a low humming sound in my right ear, which happened to be the ear that was more directly facing Patchy-stache’s amps. It had clearly taken the brunt of the abuse.

The next day, the ringing had left both of my ears, but the hum remained. And it stayed. Forever.

*

I got used to it. At first it drove me nuts, and I had trouble sleeping. But I think it was only a few months before I’d learned to manage it. When there was sufficient ambient sound, the humming almost “turned off.” It weirdly just seemed to stop when there was enough sound around, not just fade to the background to become less noticeable. Whether that’s true or not is kind of academic, since tinnitus (the name of the condition) is mostly about the brain responding to a trauma. It’s a kind of illusion, but also not.

I’d learned to sleep by having music on at night, and that became a years-long habit regardless of my tinnitus. Throughout high school and college, most of my music listening happened in bed, where I’d fantasize scenarios in which I and my friends, all of us now musical virtuosos, were the ones performing these songs. I loved those fantasies. Now they just hurt, but explaining that is for another time.

Going into full adulthood (assuming I have actually done that), the hum became a total non-issue. It was always there, and I was aware of it, but it no longer troubled me at all. It was just part of the sound of being alive.

The right ear remained sensitive, however, so I’d shrink from blasts of sound directed at it. I’d had a few scares after, say, acting partners or overexcited children would inadvertently scream in my ear, causing me acute physical pain, but it always subsided and things went back to normal. And if the stabbing that Patchy-stache’s amps perpetrated on my ear had reduced my hearing at all, I couldn’t tell. For over two decades, I enjoyed the full scope of stereo sound, and as far as I could perceive, heard equally well out of both ears.

I didn’t appreciate it like I should have.

*

It’s the early autumn of 2017, a few weeks before I’d go to the writers’ retreat in California. My sinuses feel a little plugged up, which is not at all unusual for me. The usual pressure, the usual feeling of crud in the back of the throat, but it’s all very mild. I don’t even really notice it.

What I do notice one evening is my tinnitus. As I said, I have a baseline awareness of it as a matter of course, but I don’t often “notice” it. Well, now I did, a lot. The subtle hum was now blaring in my ear, several orders of magnitude louder than usual. Though this was unpleasant, it wasn’t totally surprising. Once every long while, some nasal or sinus related thing will make it sound a little more present in my head, and it always passes, returning to normal.

But jeez, this was really quite loud.

Days went by, and it wasn’t getting any better. If anything, it was getting worse. The sound was even louder, producing a sensation that was kind of like something pressing against my face. It felt like I had my head flat up against a some sort of enormous air compressor, subtly pushing into me. Or like the hum of all the electricity in the world was behind a wall to which my ear had been affixed with superglue.

My doctor said it was probably just a sinus infection affecting the existing tinnitus, and that would hopefully clear up with some antibiotics and decongestant. This felt particularly urgent, given that I was about to head off to California for my fortnight of writing. The last thing I wanted while trying to enjoy the peace of staring out over the San Andreas fault was to have the sublime state constantly interrupted by the jet engine in my head.

Unfortunately, by the time of my trip, the problem still persisted. The sinus treatment had no effect. I had some hope that maybe the shifting air pressure of my upcoming flights might sort of pop the problem out. But, of course, no. So I just had to cope.

A few days in, I noticed that I couldn’t hear the wind in my ear. A couple of days after that, the sound amplified yet again, out of nowhere, to the point that it physically hurt, causing me to experience a little vertigo. I saw a doctor in town and was prescribed some ear drops as a kind of shot in the dark, which also did not help.

Shortly after my return home, I saw a couple of specialists and had my brain scanned. The audiologist was the only one with any news, and it was not really news. I had indeed lost much of my ability to hear the low and middle frequencies of the sound spectrum in my right ear, and the tinnitus was my brain’s misguided attempt to investigate and compensate for the loss. Because they were happening at the level of the brain and inner ear, both were almost certainly permanent.

Both are permanent.

*

I have lost very little, really. I’m not by any means disabled. I’m not even a good candidate for a hearing aid. Someone whose pinky was cut off in an accident will struggle far more with their loss than I will have to with mine. With all the things that a human could suffer, with all the debilitating diseases, injuries, and accidents of fate that could befall a body, this doesn’t even approach the status of “big deal.”

But it’s still a loss, isn’t it? A little one. And sometimes little things matter a whole lot.

There is a space in the constellation of sound that one of my ears won’t ever experience again, not meaningfully. It’s just gone.

When I’m working on a recording for one of my songs, I’ll no longer be able to rely on my own senses to find the right blends and mixes of sounds that will bring the music to life. One side of my head will be missing way too much of it. It would be like directing a play with the lights dimmed on half the stage.

(I guess I could produce everything in mono. I mean, the Beatles did for a while.)

The other ear is fine. The full sonic palette remains available to it. But both ears, of course, will now only get worse as I age, because that’s what happens to human bodies. More colors will dry up or be scrubbed off my palette.

And then there’s the hum. Or rather, the droning. That’s a new reality that must be accepted as well. I became so accustomed to its first manifestation over the past 23 years, that I had the luxury of giving it almost no thought at all.

Now it’s a different story. This new, louder sound is always there. Even when I’m distracted by other sounds, ambient or otherwise, I remain aware of the droning. And because it pulses erratically in tone and intensity, it’s as though it’s not satisfied to merely exist. It’s like it wants my attention. It wants me to feel menaced by it.

It might yet become tolerable or even of negligible concern as the years go by. I kind of doubt it.

But I’m fine. As far as da-to-day obstacles, the hearing loss just means I’ll have to say “what?” more often, which will at times get a little frustrating for me and the people around me, and that’s really nothing. The droning, well, that will bother me exclusively.

Regardless of the relative severity (or lack thereof) of the loss, I’m grieving it. I’m sad and angry about the fact that I’ll never experience music and sound to the full, rich extent that I once did. That I so loved. That filled me up and saved me. Most of it is still there, but it will never be the same again. And I’m going to mourn that.


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Writing Without a Mask

Clearly, there’s something I’m not doing right.

It is my third full day at the writers’ refuge and I am researching my article’s topic, the muscles in my neck and shoulders simultaneously taut and compacted such that I find my range of motion constrained.

IMAG1268.jpgI am in a veritable paradise, with astounding natural beauty, a sublime and comfortable writing environment, surrounded by books and supplies and various corners and nooks into which I can settle and work my craft, smart and friendly people around who are both few in number and fully understanding of my need for solitude, but also interesting and enlightening when I do get into conversation with them, and two weeks to pursue this project in any way I please. Oh, and I am right now looking at a different tectonic plate than the one on which I stand. Seriously, it’s right there. Also, deer aren’t afraid of us, and they hang out and eat apples. Oh oh oh and there’s a hawk that flies around my part of the house, sometimes so close I can look into its eye.

And I’m lost. Whereas I had begun this retreat with a lot of enthusiasm for this project and eagerness to get it going, I’m now overwhelmed by the breadth of the topic, unsure of the degree of depth that is most appropriate, ignorant of the best practices for this kind of work, anxious about the unwise use of my time, and generally feeling beneath the task. I even think I broke the electric kettle in the kitchen.

I am being treated to more privilege than billions of people will ever experience, and here I am, angsty. I hope I at least get credit for recognizing the absurdity of my own hangups.

I know there is no right way to go about this. That’s really the point of this retreat, to give writers the space and time to take things at a pace and within a structure that suits the writers themselves. I’m so accustomed to stop-and-start times, specific formats and styles for particular written products, and an established approval process, that this freedom, this liberation, is bewildering.

But now that I think about it, I suspect that what’s really going on is very similar to the distinction I make between performing as an actor on stage in a play and giving a presentation on a real-world topic for my job. There is too much of me riding on it.

Let’s begin with the theatre/work-presentation distinction. Upon learning of my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis, many people who know me from my theatre life are in disbelief. How can I feel anti-social, afraid of human interaction, uncomfortable in crowds, and oversensitive to stimulation and also thrive on stage? It’s a perfectly reasonable question (though I bristle at the skepticism of my diagnosis that it implies), and one that took some time to for me to understand myself.

When I’m performing a role in a play, there is no question as to what I will talk about. My words are predetermined, and not just for what I will say, but when I will say it. The play will also have been blocked, meaning that where I am in space will also have been set and rehearsed well in advance. Through the rehearsal process, it will be determined how I will say all these words, how I will conduct myself physically, and even how I will imagine my character to have reached those various decisions. There is always room for change, iteration, adjustment, and depending on the production, sometimes even improvisation, but the structure is always there, and it is firm. Most importantly, I am not me. I am someone else. Not literally, of course, but there are sufficient layers between me and the audience (and even between me and my fellow actors on stage) that the excruciating discomforts associated with my autism are, if not wholly eliminated, sufficiently dampened. The role is a mask.

But take me out of the world of the performing arts, and into the world of speaking on behalf of an organization or a cause, and those layers are stripped away. If I am, for example, expected to give a talk about communications work, I know I will be utterly exposed. Not only can I not play a character (try as I might), but the “real me” must also lay bare whatever degree of expertise I have, or claim to have. “I’m Paul, and this is what I know.” My words, my physical comportment, my inflection, my gestures, and even the very contents of my brain are open to public scrutiny. There is no mask. That is unbearable.

So let’s apply this basic idea to writing, and, in a way, the dynamics flip, with two different areas of my life producing opposite results. As I mentioned, my writing for work is routinized with established formats and processes. As with a public presentation, I am the one producing the words, but I am rarely writing them in my own voice. In a very real sense, when I write press releases, emails to supporters, and newsletters, I am writing “in the character” of the institution I work for. I’m playing the role of my organization. My job title and the institution’s logo, they are my masks. Those layers are sufficient, once I am settled into the given employers’ needs, processes, and, importantly, voice.

Here at the refuge, I am attempting to write a long form magazine article on a topic of great interest to me. But I am not writing or “reporting” it in the voice of my institution, nor in the voice of the publication in which it will appear, as one might do with a straight-news newspaper article. With this project, the speaker is me. The facts I present, the sources I’ve chosen to mine, the people whose perspectives I’ve sought, the conversations and quotations I’ve initiated, the things I’ve chosen to omit or gloss over, and the conclusions reached, they’re all me, in my own voice. Whatever is wrong or unsatisfying or weak about the final product is a reflection of me, with no mask to hide behind. That, I tell you, is dizzying.

Now, one might then wonder, hey Paul, you seem to have no trouble opening every one of your precious little wounds and examining them in detail on this little blog of yours. Too true! And I’m not certain why this kind of writing that I’m doing right now doesn’t make me feel just as vulnerable. But I suspect it’s because I’m rather sure of the topic at hand, that being myself. Even if I’m completely deluded about what is going on within my own tempestuous morass of a psyche, there’s no one else in existence who can claim a greater level of expertise or comparably intimate knowledge. There is relative safety in that. Whatever the reason, exposing my inner thoughts and struggles is far less perilous than claiming the authority to expound upon an external subject.

So perhaps a healthy approach, and even a more fruitful approach, is to lean into my own inclinations and preferences, and tackle the subject of this project through my own lens. In other words, rather than present facts and an argument impersonally, maybe I can chronicle my own experience of the subject as I absorb it, and recount for the reader my intellectual journey to better understand it. The cliché is that one ought to “write what you know,” but I really don’t know much. So maybe the best thing to do is to write what I am coming to know – of the project’s subject and of what it comes to mean to me personally.

Okay, maybe I can do that. Take it easy now, oh knotty neck muscles of mine. Let’s get a few deep breaths in. Let’s take in the vast scene of nature around us and indulge in its otherworldly peacefulness. Let’s let the brain soak up what it’s learning and let the new information bounce off the thoughts and values that are already there.

And then, let’s write.

(And pay for the kettle I broke.)

IMAG1345.jpg


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A Sore Thumb, a New Face

I’m on a plane to California, about to spend two weeks at a refuge for writers, a retreat for which I was nominated by a colleague who had himself been a resident as part of a fellowship for writers in the freethought community.

Being selected for this wasn’t just a surprise. Certainly, I went through all the thoughts of “what an honor” and “what a wonderful opportunity,” and they are very sincerely felt. But my dominant attitude is, “Oh, dear, they’ve made a mistake.”

Wait, this isn’t the usual imposter-syndrome lament. Let me go at this sort of orthogonally. As I was preparing for this excursion, I figured I ought to get at least a couple of new shirts or pairs of pants, since so many of the nicer items in my already spare wardrobe are looking worse for wear. As poked around the men’s section, haplessly, I found myself fixed to an idea of what a “real writer” is supposed to look and dress like. It wasn’t a fully conscious thought, just something I became gradually aware that I was aiming for as I shopped. Despite the anxiety this caused me, whatever that writerly image is or was, I’m fairly certain I did not achieve it. I’ll come back to this is a bit.

This retreat will take place in what appears to be a big, gorgeous house in a ridiculously picturesque area of Southern California, overlooking a fault line I think, and yes, the weather is supposed to be heavenly while I’m there. Apart from a couple of formal meet-and-greet meals held by the proprietors, writers are otherwise left to themselves to work on whatever it is they’re working on. When not writing or sleeping, we’re encouraged to take advantage of the local restaurants, outdoor activities, and I think there’s even a tennis court.

I’ll be in residence with two other writers, selected, I assume, through different means, since my spot is specific to those writing about freethought and secularism. These two writers, my soon-to-be housemates, are very accomplished, particularly for their ages, as I suspect they are both a good decade younger than me, though that’s just a guess. One is an award-winning novelist, the other a journalist with bylines at prestigious outlets and publications. Me? I’ve written a whole lot of press releases and email newsletters. I have a personal blog that more or less no one reads. I have a blog for work where I round up news stories and make dumb jokes. That’s…kind of it. And I’m gonna be 40 soon! I mean, I also now host a podcast that is listened to by a few thousand people, but I was selected for this retreat well before that got started. So what am I doing here, on this plane, heading for this gorgeous place and joining these amazing people?

I’m not seeking validation. I mean, I usually am, but not here, not for this. I actually do think I’m a pretty good writer, so my discomfort and foreboding aren’t due doubts about my skills. I suck at many, many things — but I’m fairly sure I can write. 

But I also know I don’t have the resume, the credentials. For the vast majority of my public writing, there are several layers separating me from the material. I am writing in the voice of an institution, not my own. I am rarely writing in the first person, or from my own personal perspective at all, but from the point of view of an organization or one of its leaders. Even were I to grant that my work was uncommonly exemplary, it wouldn’t even begin to approach the prestige or cultural significance of what my fellow residents have achieved with their work. My predecessor for this fellowship who nominated me to succeed him is also incredibly accomplished. Holding a similar position to mine in his own organization, he has been a well known and highly respected leader, not just in secularism, but in political advocacy in general. He’s written books, academic articles, and has had a leading role in the advancement of the cause for which he fights. He’s not only qualified to be at a writers’ retreat like this, he’s overqualified and overdue for even greater honors.

Oh but hey, I’m kinda funny on Twitter!

Okay, well, they knew all of this when I was nominated and selected. And they didn’t hedge their invitation with anything like, “Well, you don’t quite have the pedigree we normally look for in our residents, but your friend seemed to think you might be worth a shot.” They were as warm and welcoming and excited about my arrival as they would be for anyone else. (Or at least they made it seem so, which is almost the same thing. As a parent, I know all too well the emotional and psychological cost of feigning enthusiasm.)

Remember the clothes shopping? Half-consciously, I was focused on looking the part of what I think they think a real writer is supposed to be. I didn’t want them to think of me as a weird outlier, an exception to their usual standards. Just as I have always done as an unknowing-autistic for all of my life, I was aiming to pass.

In attending this retreat, I am entering a world that is both aspirational and alien to me. I have always wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, a thinker, a creator. I’ve been on the cold street, looking in through the window at that society of the humanities, the creative class, the intellectuals, feeling simultaneously compelled to become one of them and certain that I could never, ever truly belong. So I never stood close enough to that window to fog up the glass. Someone might have noticed me.

In my mind, this is a world of people with deep, varied, and rich life experiences, who have achieved greatness in their fields, who have been intellectually and creatively ahead of the curve since toddlerhood. And now, they write thinkpieces and longform articles and nonfiction books and novels and poetry, and are rewarded with respect, admiration, income (I assume), a place in a network of brilliant and thoughtful people seeking to learn from and collaborate with each other, invitations to speaking engagements, conference panels, NPR interviews, generous fellowships, and, of course, retreats.

The stereotype in my head gets richer still! They love nature and trekking about in it. They also love the city and its unrelenting stimuli. They love fancy and eclectic restaurants. They also love — really love — dinner parties, where they drink and laugh and eat exotic food and swap stories of their adventures and the many, many books they’ve read.

I’m not one of these people (whom I’ve mostly made up). I don’t like dinner parties or almost any kind of party. I don’t like exotic or unfamiliar food. Hell, I don’t even really like eating at all. I wear silly T-shirts and ratty jeans, I read very slowly, and I am averse to being outdoors, what with the sun and bodies of water and insects and all that. My education has been modest and not culturally rich, and both my acting and nonprofit communications careers have been fairly static, owing in large part to my own reticence to do what is necessary to advance socially and professionally. I’m an awkward little man with Asperger’s and a lifetime of experience considering myself broken, failed from birth, only achieving what I have by dint of happenstance and people making exceptions for me. I am the sore thumb. Humiliation is my default expectation.

But here I am on this damn plane. Here I go, nonetheless, onto alien soil. My best hope would be to go there, to *be* there, as me, unapologetically, and perfectly content with myself as I am, without crossing the line into being ungenerous or unaccomodating. If I am truly not “like them,” then so be it. They asked me to come, and this is who they get. It’s not like I’m going to do any damage or hurt anyone’s feelings. I just might not be the usual thing, or what they expect.

I want it to be okay to jut out a bit, not like a sore thumb, but simply to stand out as a new face. The face of someone who thinks and acts a little differently and has something meaningful to offer. Someone who, if he’s not liked or appreciated, is okay with that too.

I suppose I’ll find out if this is possible, at least to some meaningful degree. I’ll enter that world in a few hours. I guess we’ll see what things look like at the other side of a fortnight.


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Noble Fictions and Sacred Texts

Note: This is my contribution to the book What Do We Do about Inequality?, the first such book from an initiative called The Wicked Problems Collaborative. The book just marked one year since publication, and with the blessing of WPC publisher and editor Chris Oestereich I’m posting it here. It has been very lightly edited from the original.

It has been asserted that the relative morality of cultures and practices can be scientifically determined—“scientific” not in the sense of people in white coats doing lab experiments, but in the sense of being empirically perceivable. The idea is that we can compare one cultural practice or norm or moral tenet to others, observe how they affect human happiness, and make an objective judgment. This is a controversial way of thinking, notably advocated by Sam Harris in his concept of “The Moral Landcape,” and I largely agree with it. To be broad, I feel very secure in saying that a culture or morality that, say, makes a virtue of the subjugation, demonization, or abuse of entire classes of people is objectively worse than one that values all members of society and works to see them realize their individual potentials.

In order to say that a practice is morally better because of its impact on human happiness, we have to first decide that human happiness is something worth achieving. For if we choose not to grant that human happiness is an assumed goal of any moral code (in favor of, say, maximized production or complete subjugation of a given class or ethnic group), what we then determine is and isn’t “moral” changes drastically. There is no Cosmic Rulebook that states with utter authority that human happiness is something anyone, humans included, should give a damn about, so we have to choose it as our goal. We have to decide for ourselves that we will base our morality on what best allows for the flourishing of human happiness, and then behave as though it is an irrevocable law of existence. If we behave as though this is a malleable idea, that human happiness is only sort of important, then all choices that flow from this change entirely. Not only do we choose human happiness as our moral bedrock, but we also act as though it could be no other way even if we wanted it to be.

Let’s leave this aside for a moment.

I used to make my living (such as it was) as a Shakespearean actor. In the theatre world, there exists the concept of “the sacred text,” a kind of secular devotion to the words on the page over all else. If, as an actor, you want to make some kind of bold choice with your character, it cannot be out of the blue; there has to be support for it, an explanation of that behavior, in the script. If one is playing Willy Loman, and one feels compelled to perform him with an outlandish Australian accent, one had better see something within the words written by Arthur Miller in the text of Death of a Salesman that provides the basis for this.

The idea of the sacred text is given extra weight when referring to Shakespearean drama, partly because Shakespeare is widely considered to be the English language’s greatest writer (and so we assume that he probably knew what he was doing), but also because his works are, to us, so very old. They are now part of the very foundation of Western civilization. Go ahead and muck around with a Neil Simon comedy, even get crazy with your Bertolt Brecht (he is practically begging you to, anyway), but if you think Hamlet is entering from stage right on a hoverboard, you better find the line where he or someone else on stage says something synonymous to “But soft, what yonder hoverboard is this?”

Even if Shakespeare’s genius is taken as a given, adhering to his text and treating it as sacred is still a choice. But to take this to its extreme, to decide that the Word of William is infallible as far as the production of one of his plays goes, something has to be sacrificed. Usually, this is the audience’s attention. I suppose one could remain entirely faithful to the text of Comedy of Errors and probably wind up with a more-or-less satisfied audience. It is rather short and intellectually light for a Shakespearean play, so it doesn’t demand much of the audience’s brain power, and it also has a lot of dirty jokes that transcend time and space. On the other hand, as someone who has sat through full-text versions of plays like Henry IV and Hamlet, I can tell you that a production’s reverence for the text can go horribly awry, causing some of the most beautiful lines of English ever written to syphon off the audience’s will to live.

This gets us into what it means to treat a text as sacred. Certainly, we keep every written line intact, but must it then also be performed exactly as Shakespeare himself might have? Complete with the accent and pronunciations of sixteenth century England? The same clothes made from the same fabrics, fashioned without any industrial tools? Should the actors not bathe frequently? You see where this can go.

The idea of the sacred text is fine; it serves as an excellent guideline, a starting point for the choices that will have to be made in the mounting of a theatrical production. But if we choose to behave as though the text of a play is inerrant (and I say “behave as though” because we assume the play was written by a fallible human), the production can become shackled, rigid, and, essentially, bad art. If the goal is an entertaining, moving, and enlightening performance, choosing to treat the text as entirely sacred is a bad strategy. Instead, a production can remain faithful to the spirit of the play, cut lines where needed, add elements where they enhance the show, and make the best of it. But if the goal is to rigidly honor the words of a 400-years-dead man at all costs, those costs will likely include the joy of the art itself. By restricting the production to what it “must” be, we miss out on the all the possibilities of what it could be.

Laws are like this. As with plays, strict adherence to the precise wording of a given law (literally, “the letter of the law”) is a best-intentions means of making sure a law is applied equally to all parties, but the spirit of a law, the problem it seeks to solve, can be lost. And if they were not considered at least somewhat malleable, the Supreme Court would not have much to do. The same goes for musical notation, codes of ethics, and, yes, religious texts.

Let us now then look at an example that covers a lot of these aforementioned bases, as both a kind of code of ethics and religious text, at least for a civil religion:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

American society, as well as the broader Western world, gets a lot of mileage out of this couple of sentences. It is not a law, really, nor a code, but an expression of values—a “founding document” in the clearest sense. It is a declaration that a new nation has been established, one basing its very reason for being on its statement of purpose, that “all men are created equal,” with a particular set of rights that cannot be revoked even by said nation.

For this to work, though, for the “mission statement” of the United States to make sense, one has to accept that all men are, in fact, equal. But, of course, the very men who signed this document did not believe this to be the case. The man who wrote it certainly didn’t believe it, or, if he did, he was primed for a very awkward encounter with his slaves (who would be explicitly decreed a fraction of a person each), and an uncomfortable night at home, with the wife that he and his colleagues had forgotten to include in the franchise.

We’re off to a rough start with what is more or less the single most “sacred text” on the continent, excluding of course religious scriptures. It did not have full buy-in from its authors and signatories, and certainly was not applied in any broad sense. If we presume that the word “men” in “all men are created equal” was intended to mean “humans,” it was an utterly unfulfilled idea. And if it was meant in the narrow sense of males, the fact that only white, landowning men were allowed to vote still gives the lie to this assertion.

Not much of a sacred text then.

Interestingly, subsequent generations have broadened the meaning of “all men” to include more or less all human persons, at least in definition if not in practice. Despite enormous resistance, it seems to get broader all the time. And a lot of that progress has to do with the fact that so many of us today treat the opening words of the Declaration of Independence as a sacred text, in a way that its authors and signatories clearly did not.

But let us be coldly rational for a moment. Are all humans created equal? Of course we aren’t. We are unequal physically: not only do we come in a bewildering variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, but some of us are born with catastrophic conditions, and some with mind-boggling natural talents and innate geniuses. Beyond biology, we are born into different geographies, each with its own advantages and disadvantages to flourishing depending on any number of factors from availability of natural resources to whatever form of government manages the people within one’s borders. We are born with different tastes in food, sex, art, and activities. We are born into different stations in life, some into wealth and rank, others (most?) into abject poverty, and desperation. We each, individually, then take our collected circumstances, and make vastly different choices about how we will go about our lives. To assert flatly that we are created equal is so astoundingly and blatantly incorrect that it implies a fundamental problem of word comprehension on the part of the speaker.

Does this throw the entire human experiment in democracy, and well, humanism itself, into the toilet? Of course not: we still have some degree of agency here. And the founders, narrow as they were in their definitions, helped us out with this.

As a humanist myself (and a secular one at that), as much as I revere the broadened meaning ascribed to “all men are created equal,” the most meaningful words in all of America’s founding documents are actually its first:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

It is most decidedly not self-evident that all humans are created equal, for the reasons previously mentioned and an infinite number more. But the Declaration says that we will behave as though it is. It does not say, “Whereas it is self-evident that all men are created equal,” but “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” We have decided, on our own, using our fallible human brains, that we will act as though all men are created equal and form our government around this noble fiction.

I derive great inspiration and resolve from this. In the face of staggering inequality among the human population (where, in America alone, there were slaves and royalty, aristocrats and massacred indigenous people), these men said that their new nation would begin its very existence with those words, which amount to an admission that this founding idea of equality was entirely anthropogenic. God did not say we were all equal, and there was nothing embedded in our genes to tell us this by instinct. We just decided to think that way.

That part of the text is particularly sacred to me. It is both humble, in that it admits to being wholly invented, as well as grandiose, in that it means to act on this invention and use it to build an empire of the people.

This is all very well; we have announced our intentions as a people to treat each other equally, but, why? Because it seems nice? To what end? Evidence suggests that treating all human persons as though they were equal, even if they are not inherently, increases overall human happiness. Throughout the democratic world, where societies have rejected the official codification of castes, class distinction, and discrimination and disenfranchisement based on race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation, things have been better. Where everyone gets the same relative shot at an education, at employment opportunities, at business transactions and patronage, at social interaction, the society as a whole flourishes, leading to more opportunities and more happiness.

We are, of course, fallible humans, so we still manage to screw it up, but because this is science, we get to keep trying. It takes a long time to go from experiment to experiment, and the failed experiments can often be devastating, but we do learn. And through all the twists and turns civilization has taken in modern history, and the roller coaster ride on which democracies have taken their citizens because of varying interpretations of equality, it remains pretty obvious that those societies that act on the fiction of equality across the board contribute more to overall human happiness than those that do not. That means that even for self-serving narcissists, it makes more sense to back a system based on equality than inequality, if for no other reason than that because it tilts the odds for happiness in your favor.

Many plays begin with an acknowledgement that what the audience is about to see is fake. The opening of Shakespeare’s Henry V is not only an acknowledgement, but also an apology:

…But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts…

This thing you are about to experience is a fiction, we are told, but we need you to buy into it. It won’t work otherwise. Excuse the fact that it’s obviously not true, and go with it, and we will all benefit. You’ll have a wonderful time at the theatre, and we actors will get paid. And when it’s over, we all know that it was just a show.

Knowing that these are our goals, to entertain a crowd and keep a troupe of performers employed, we can take the text given to us by the playwright and make the best of it, without treating it as immovable. We can remain true to the spirit of the play, but cut lines where necessary, make acting and staging choices that enhance the experience of the performance but may not be explicitly called for in the text. We can do all that because we know that our aim is not to robotically recite thousands of lines of verse, but to deliver an experience of art and entertainment. We need not treat the text as “sacred” in the theological sense, though we can revere it.

Ostensibly, the aim of government is to establish the parameters of societal behavior within which human happiness can be maximized. So we make rules and laws, and we establish systems and methods for carrying them out. If we follow each one to the letter, rigidly enforcing their literal meanings through all time and in all scenarios, we miss the chance to experiment and improve. If we follow the spirit of these laws and rules and systems, we offer ourselves more of a chance to make things better for everyone affected. If we were to treat “all men are created equal” as a sacred and inerrant expression of divine will, the majority of the American population would still be left out, and human happiness would be severely stultified, capped at the happiness of males, presuming we are at least not limiting this definition to white, property-holding males.

It is a remarkable thing, to see a theatrical performance in which the play itself acknowledges its own artifice. It is liberating for audience and actor alike to openly agree that we will all now consent to a fiction for the purpose of maximizing the happiness of the evening.

It is astounding that we could do the same when building a society. We can admit to ourselves that while our collective equality may be a fiction, yet we will hold it as a self-evident truth in order to maximize human happiness over the span of generations. The rest of the words in our play—in our constitutions, in our law books, in our manifestos, in our declarations and proclamations—are there to uphold the spirit of that idea, the idea of universal equality as a means to the general well-being. This suspension of disbelief is difficult, for some more than others, but once we all buy in, we can enjoy the hell out of the show.


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HTC U11 Review: The Phone Worth Not Waiting For

With the 10th anniversary iPhone looming, with a second Google Pixel coming soon, with Andy Rubin’s debut of the Essential Phone, and with the release of the Galaxy Note 8, little attention has been given to the HTC U11, other than a few obligatory reviews that range from “hey this is great” to “this is good but I don’t care.”

That’s a shame, because people are overlooking a great device. I know this because after a year with my deteriorating Galaxy S7, I was ready for a new device, and I picked the U11.

The red one.

I could have waited to see what was in the offing with all these other big-name releases, but I didn’t need to. It was pretty clear that the U11 was the one for me. And now that I’ve had it for a couple of weeks, I feel even more certain I made the right call. In no particular order, Here are some reasons why.

It’s so red.

Oh my god it’s so red. “Solar Red” is the name HTC gave this particular variant of shining, liquid, blazing red. The other colors available also looked fantastic, but good god damn, that red.

I mean come on.

The software and performance.

HTC’s Sense skin on Android has been shaved down so thoroughly, that if you use a different launcher than HTC’s, you’d almost never know it wasn’t stock Google. And mercy me, it is fast. Now, the Galaxy S7 I had used to be fast, but it never felt as crazy-fluid as, say, my Note 5 did for a time. But the U11 is in a different league altogether. It’s such a pleasure to just zip through transitions, animations, app launches, share menus, and the rest.

The display.

It’s quad-HD and LCD, which is just what I needed. Yes, I’m a stickler for 1440p over 1080p if the screen in big enough to notice, and at 5.5″, this one is. (Would I notice the difference in normal use? Probably not. But I’m not normal, and when it comes to making imperceptible a display’s pixels, I check. Up close.

The fact that it’s LCD and not AMOLED like Samsung and OnePlus use means that the colors aren’t super-saturated and my eyes aren’t put under as much of a strain in just, you know, absorbing all that color. HTC’s LCD screen looks gorgeous, bright and crisp and easy on my eyes. It lacks the ostentatious pop of a Samsung display, which can be quite nice, but it’s truer to life and more akin to an iPhone or iPad display. But, of course, with much higher resolution. It does suffer more under direct sunlight and heavy glare than a rich AMOLED, but I’m cool with that.

It has bezels.

Yeah I said it. I like bezels on my devices. I like that I can actually hold a phone with my human hands made of meat and then operate it without the constant worry that I’m inadvertently making contact with the touchscreen on the sides. The U11 has just enough of a border around the conventionally-proportioned screen to look awesome and remove accidental-touch anxiety. Which sounds dirty now that I see it typed. Hm.

Oh, and HTC was kind enough to include a clear case with the phone, but it’s crap. I’m using, and would recommend, the Spigen Liquid Crystal case.

The fingerprint sensor.

It’s so fast! It’s almost too fast. With the S7, making contact with the fingerprint sensor to unlock the phone was all like touch, wait, click sound, unlock, whereas with the U11 it’s more like touchHOLY SHIT IT’S READY TO GO! It may even be too sensitive, waking the screen when any part of my hand comes near it.

The squeeze gimmick.

If you heard of the U11 at all, you probably heard that it is equipped with something called “Edge Sense,” wherein was literally squeezes the phone to activate certain functions. Most reviews have been critical of this feature, but it seems to me that they’re either not making good use of it or were simply predisposed to think it was silly before they ever tried it.

I think it’s default setting is to launch Alexa, but you have several additional options for what a squeeze does, and you can differentiate between short and long squeezes. Me, I chose the function that seemed the most useful and, frankly, the most obvious.

I made it turn on the flashlight.

I know, right? You’re like, damn, Paul that IS a good idea! I have the long squeeze activate Alexa, but I might even turn that off, since Alexa is also activated by the usual voice command.

The camera.

This is the feature that is being most lauded by folks like Vlad Savov and Daniel Bader, saying the U11’s camera rivals or even bests the Pixel. I have to say, it seems great, I have no complaints, but the S7’s camera was pretty great, too, and it doesn’t seem to my untrained eye to be obviously superior, but that’s fine.

It’s also a lot faster than my previous phone, especially when HDR is turned off, and that makes a huge difference, especially when you have squirrelly kids.

The sound.

I saved this one for last because it’s the area where the phone both enrages and delights me.

Let’s get this out of the way: It does not have a headphone jack.

I always thought this would be a deal breaker for me, the thing that solidified my alienation from the iPhone. I still think it’s stupid and needless to omit the headphone jack, and it will prove, I have no doubt, a pain in the ass for the length of my ownership of this phone. No headphone jack is a strike against it. Yes, it does include a USB-C adapter dongle for wired headphones, but still. (And third party adapters won’t work because of HTC’s proprietary DAC technology. Double-grumble.)

But also included with the phone is a pair of USB-C earbuds. But not cheap EarPod type earbuds (though I think EarPods sound fine for what they are), but truly great sounding earbuds that – get this – have active noise cancellation built in. Now, this is not Bose-level noise cancelling. I think it’s fairer to call it “noise dampening,” but it nonetheless makes for a fantastic listening experience. Ambient noise mostly melts away and the music has the space and depth it needs to shine. I still think I like the sound of my Zero Audio Carbo Tenore earbuds better, but not enough to make me miss them when I have the U11’s included headphones.

(There’s always a lot of attention paid to HTC phones’ hardware speakers and how loud and full they sound for teeny tiny phone speakers. And they’re fine, but I don’t think they’re anything to get excited about.)

The bottom line.

As I said at the beginning, I was pretty sure I was going to like this phone, and while I may be engaging in some post-purchase confirmation bias, fine. The fact remains that not only did I wind up being happy with it, but it delighted me far more than I expected.

The tech press has been pretty unanimous in its warning to consumers to refrain from buying any new phones until the big release season is over. I’m sure the next Pixel and iPhone are going to be stellar, and that the Galaxy Note 8 is a technological wonder to behold. I would simply add to that warning, “unless you plan to buy the HTC U11.” As much as I’ll gaze in a awe at the devices to come, I’ll be happy to do so from afar, cradling my weird and wonderful U11.

And it’s red.

* * *

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