The Alpha, the Omega, and the Google

Photo by Daniel Cukier CC BY-ND 2.0

Rumor has it that Google is set to recast itself as a full-fledged smartphone maker, with the expected introduction of its new “Pixel” phones on October 4. I think I understand what they’re up to.

To quickly catch you up, Google has for years offered up phones under the Nexus brand, but these were devices built by other manufacturers in partnership with Google, mainly intended as a “reference” for other manufacturers like Samsung, LG, HTC, and Sony, and to serve the Android die-hard fanbase. Nexus phones offered the “pure” Android experience, as opposed to the phones made by other manufacturers which usually layer manufacturer-specific alterations to “stock” Android. Nexus phones get software updates as soon as they’re available, and they are usually very well received and affordable relative to Samsung and Apple flagships.

Now it’s being reported that “Nexus” is gone, and the new name is “Pixel.” Pixel is not new, of course, being the brand under which they’ve been producing high-end Chromebooks and one (so far) Android tablet. Google reportedly intends the Pixel line of phones to not just serve as showcases for stock Android, but to assert a new level of control over the entire Android experience. The devices themselves, which will be built by HTC, will not carry any HTC branding. Not Nexus, not HTC’s Nexus, but a Pixel phone. A Google phone.

David Ruddock at Android Police has a piece today in which he ponders what the grander strategy is, and this part grabbed me:

This “Pixel versus Nexus” distinction matters a great deal. By framing the Pixel and Pixel XL as Google products and not as Android ones, and by removing all discussion of “partners,” Google will finally be able to assert that, if only implicitly, it is offering a counterpoint to Apple’s iPhones.

It’s more than a name change, and more than Google simply throwing more weight around. This is part of Google’s overall effort to instill in consumers the idea that it is “Google” that they can trust to make their lives better.

Let’s back up. This past summer, Google unveiled its own take on the digital-assistant-in-your-house thing with Google Home, more or less a googly Amazon Echo. This same digital-assistant tech will also live in its upcoming messenger platform Allo, and already more or less exists in a less-personified form in Google Now on Android phones.

But what’s different about what Google does here than what Amazon or Apple does? I mean apart from whatever back-end, A.I., deep-learning, jiggery-pokery is going on in server farms. When you want to talk to the digital assistant on an iPhone, you talk to Siri. When you want to talk to the Echo, you ask Alexa. When you want something from Google, you just ask Google.

Google doesn’t want to separate itself from its interactions with you. It doesn’t want you to imagine some “character” answering your questions. Google wants you to ask Google. Google is the company and the character.

Google is also the search engine. You don’t look up information at the “Nexus Search,” you google, as in the neologistic verb. Your photos live in Google Photos, your stuff is synced on Google Drive. Google is the agent, the entity, that you look to.

But not with phones. Not now, anyway. Following digital thinking, I’m going to guess that “Pixel” is the name of the phone model. There’s the Apple iPhone, the Samsung Galaxies, the Amazon Kindle, and now the Google Pixel. Not “Google and HTC’s Pixel,” but the Google Pixel.

That means it’s an honest to goodness Google phone, just like the Pixel C is a Google tablet and the Chromebook Pixel is a Google laptop.

And perhaps most importantly, again leaning on digital piece, is that the new phones aren’t “Android phones,” any more than Apple is known for “iOS phones” or Samsung for “TouchWiz (gag) phones.” For years, the tech press discussion has been about iPhone vs. Android, but Android means a million different things in a million different contexts in a million different iterations.

Android is just the operating system, and it’s not the brand that regular consumers seek out. Almost no one other than enthusiasts go into carrier stores and ask for the latest Android phones. They might ask for the latest Samsung or Galaxy phone, but not Android. Again, no more than they ask about the latest “iOS phone.”

I frankly think Android as a brand is more or less alienating to most folks, evoking the image of something geeky and complicated. Notice that the Android device manufacturers almost never mention the word Android in their PR. They know that no one other than techies care about that. Brands like Apple, iPhone, and Galaxy give feelings of bedazzlement over cool, useful things. “Android,” I suspect, sounds like homework.

But you know what people do feel comfortable with? Google. You know what’s a nice, cute, safe word that feels both phone-related and still friendly? Pixel. Androids are semi-humanoid robots who have no feelings and might want to take over the world. Pixels are colorful things that make screens glow!

(Imagine how confused folks will get when their Google phone breaks and and they then google “how to fix dead pixel.”)

Google Home, Pixel, and all these other initiatives are of a piece. They’ve decided, I think, to stop making disparate products under disparate banners. Phones, operating systems, tablets, laptops, browsers, search engines, IOT/home devices, digital assistants – we’re meant to stop thinking of these things as separate brands in various arenas. They’re all just part of one thing, and to integrate them into your life, you just think, “OK, Google.”

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The Facile Conflation

Ariella Barker was a Sanders supporter who tried and failed to get the Sanders campaign to take seriously her concerns about what she called the campaign’s “disability outreach failures,” and problems she saw with Sanders’ policies around disabled issues. In the process, she saw Sanders a little more clearly, and now supports Clinton. She writes:

His speeches never change for a reason. It isn’t because, as his supporters allege, he’s authentic and always on the right side of things. It’s because he doesn’t care to adapt, to research issues other than income inequality and the environment, follow up on his lofty ideas with solid policy initiatives or to make any compromises to achieve his goals. Rather, he just plays the blame game, pointing out everything that’s wrong with this country and proposing no specific plans to achieve his goals. He prides himself on being so honest and trustworthy while lying to the electorate about his concern for our well being and Hillary’s lack thereof. In reality, I see now that he doesn’t care about anyone’s well being but his own ability to rise to power.

I don’t actually believe that Sanders “doesn’t care about anyone’s well being,” but I think it’s clear he’s either lost sight of what’s important about this election, or perhaps never really understood it.

Sanders clearly doesn’t know how lucky he is to have been who he is, where he is; to have had Burlington, Vermont as his launchpad into electoral politics. There, he had the luxury of running as an insurgent, in a tiny state that is only rivaled by Texas in its sense of independence from national norms, complete with its own secessionist movement. It’s a place where, frankly, a batty old socialist with no party affiliation could become a U.S. Senator.

So this might be why Bernie thought he could ‘insurgent’ his way through the Democratic primaries, and then to the White House. It might be why he thinks he still can, even though he can’t. It might be why he thinks he’s been somehow robbed of the nomination by some chicanery or conspiracy, which he hasn’t.

(A side note to this: I don’t doubt for a second that Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the DNC are and have always been in the bag for Clinton, and they certainly scheduled the debates as they did in order to make this as easy a process as possible for her. But I also have no reason to believe that there’s been any malfeasance as is often asserted by Sanders supporters.)

His answer to how he will accomplish all of his goals is always the same: “political revolution.” That’s not a plan. It’s not politics. Freddie deBoer wrote a while ago what he says politics actually is:

Right now I just think there’s this fundamental problem where so many people who identify themselves as being part of the broad left define their coalition based on linguistic cues, cultural overlap, and social circles. The job of politics, at its most basic, is finding common cause with people who aren’t like you. But current incentives seem to point in the opposite direction — surveying the people who are just like you and trying to come up with ways in which that social connection is actually a political connection.

DeBoer is a Sanders supporter, and this was written in late 2015. But this critique I think nails the current state of the Sanders campaign, a campaign that reviles everything outside the moral circle of Sanders’ rhetoric. What the Sanders crusaders seem to be against in principle is “finding common cause with people who aren’t like” them. That not only means no compromise with Republicans, but with other progressives.

Andrew Sullivan, in his big New York Magazine piece about Trump and the threat of fascism, wrote:

Those still backing the demagogue of the left, Bernie Sanders, might want to reflect that their critique of Clinton’s experience and expertise — and their facile conflation of that with corruption — is only playing into Trump’s hands.

This facile conflation has dogged actual politicians since time immemorial. It’s what disappoints the left about Obama, and what made Republicans uneasy about Romney. If you actually practice politics, you run the risk of being labeled a shill by those who speak in short sentences made up of little words.

I have no reason to think that Sanders isn’t sincere. I believe he wants to make things better, and that he believes that what he’s doing — as well as how he’s doing it — is absolutely necessary. That doesn’t mean that he’s not also wrong. And now he’s just making things worse.

Power’s Out

The power went out on my block tonight, and it was weird. It started around 10pm, I was the only one awake in the house, and there were no lights outside either. So here I was, alone, in a big blanket of near total darkness. Except for my phone, of course. Which I used to draw this. Me, a little freaked out, in the dark.

Finally getting to get some creative use out of the stylus on the old Note 5. Which I also used to write and publish this post!

Oh, and literally the moment I posted this picture on social media, the power came back.

I Thync This Might Be Bullshyt

There’s been a little bit of curious excitement over a new product called Thync, a wearable module that is intended to reduce stress, induce relaxation, or energize through stimulation of the brain. Here’s how they put it:

Thync uses neurosignaling to activate specific cranial and peripheral nerves to influence this balance and shift you to a state of calm or give you a boost of energy in minutes. …

Neurosignaling is the coupling of an energy waveform to a neural structure (receptor, nerve or brain tissue) to modulate its activity.

Neurosignaling waveforms or Vibes consist of precise algorithms that bias activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, so that you can enjoy a shift into a more energetic or relaxed state.

Why yes, in case you’re curious, I also think it sounds like bullshit.

Okay, maybe bullshit is too strong a word, especially since I’m not qualified to judge the science behind it. It wouldn’t surprise me if something like this could be expected to have some kind of relaxing effects, in a way that just barely stops short of a placebo effect. Heck, even I sometimes use those “binaural waves” apps on my phone, not because I actually think it’s manipulating my brain waves, but because it makes for good white noise when I just need to shut the world out and chill for a bit.

My guess is that, at best, Thync does something like that; distracting you enough with the fact that you have a svelte, expensive doohicky on your forehead that zaps you a little. If nothing else, it’s something to think about other than whatever’s bothering you.

Kyle Russell at TechCrunch tried it out, and certainly had some sort of experience:

While I was warned that Thync might not work the first time, a few minutes into my first session (using the Calm setting) I felt a wave of sluggishness pass over me. I had some difficulty putting words into a coherent question for [Thync CEO Isy] Goldwasser, and felt a strong urge to take a nap that lasted until I got home. While I may have cranked the settings too high for my first go, the impression I got was that it would be great for falling asleep, not de-stressing at the office.

There’s a big red flag for me right at the very beginning of that quote. Why woudn’t it work the first time? Either it’s “neurosignaling to activate specific cranial and peripheral nerves” or it’s not. Unless human brains have some sort of neurosignaling-callus that needs to be worn down first, and I’m going to assume they don’t, it should just work the first time and all subsequent times.

But how does one explain Russell’s sudden onset of sluggishness? The possible factors that have nothing to do with Thync are endless, but it also seems perfectly reasonable to me that the very fact (and, frankly, stress) of having a gadget on your head that you’re told is going to zap your brain would certainly cause you to expend some mental and emotional energy, and zonk you out a bit. Russell says that the device emits “a wavy, tingly feeling on your upper forehead and the front of your scalp” that “would definitely take a few uses before it stops feeling weird.” Again, this is what I’d say is “just short of” a placebo effect. Something is happening, but not what they say is happening.

Encouragingly, Thync posts an actual test it conducted on the product. However, from my admittedy strained and untrained gleaning of the results, it didn’t seem like the Thync product induced any states that were meaningfully different from “sham treatment.” There was definitely an uptick in test subjects saying they were more relaxed than not compared to “sham,” but nothing that appeared all that convincing to me, and certainly not spend-$300-on-a-cranial-dongle convincing.

(I’d post some images of graphs from the study, but they require permission to be granted for that, and whatever.)

And here’s another thing: It seems like what Thync’s CEO tells Russell at TechCrunch is a little different than what is being sold on the website:

During the demo, Thync co-founder and CEO Isy Goldwasser explained that the module wasn’t directly stimulating neurons in my brain (that would be too damn weird for me to try, to be honest). Instead, it uses tiny pulses of electricity to stimulate the skin at your temple, which then activates the instinctual fight-or-flight response in your brain to indirectly affect emotional response.

Well, there are lots of things that can stimulate skin and activate fight-or-flight, and most of them are free.

I frankly don’t understand the science or the published study sufficiently to make any kind of authoritative judgment, but it sure smells like some kind of ophidian secretion.

My Deep, Insightful, and Entirely Novel Think-Piece on Living One Day without a Mobile Device

It fucking sucks! I hate it! It’s total bullshit! Who are you people??? What is going on??? Oh my GOD I just hate EVERYTHING.
I sold my iPad, and now I’m waiting a day for a return and exchange on a phone to go through. Thus, no mobile device. Ugh! Why would anyone voluntarily do this?


“Into the Woods”: Thoughts on What’s Been Changed for the Film

As a piece of culture, Into the Woods holds deep, personal significance for me. As a junior in high school, I played the Baker in our school production, and it was an amazing, empowering experience. One snag was that I didn’t really have the pipes at the time to give the pivotal song “No More” the power it needed, so it was with some satisfaction that at the theatre program’s 25th anniversary celebration last month, I was able to perform the song pretty well, and thereby give a sort of gift to Mr. Garrison, the program director, and tie up a loose end in my creative life.

My expectations for the new film version of Into the Woods were relatively low. I knew there would be high production value and skilled performances from most of the cast, but I had heard about some pretty troubling-sounding changes to the plot, and that the show was going to generally get Disney-fied.

I am delighted to report back that the film is excellent. It’s not without flaws, and there are definitely some important cuts and changes, but in general I can say that they are at worst understandable, done not to gloss over the darker or more difficult aspects of the show, but to tell the important parts of the story and still have a film that wasn’t too long for a general audience.

I’d like to set down some thoughts on those changes here, so obviously, beware, for if you’re not familiar with the show, HERE BE SPOILERS.

First, though, some highlights, just off the top of my head:

  • This production was obviously taken very seriously, with a deep love of the material. This was not a cartoon version of Into the Woods, not played for yuks or to please the Hairspray-going crowd. It was a sophisticated, meaningful interpretation of a masterful piece of theatre.
  • Meryl Streep is a marvelous Witch, chewing scenery with teeth only she possesses, and astoundingly sympathetic. Her performance of “Stay with Me” is gut-wrenching, especially now that I’m a parent. (There were a lot of “now that I’m a parent” moments that hit me harder than I expected.)
  • The painful moral ambiguities of the original script are sharply in focus, perhaps more so than in a stage production, because one level of abstraction is removed: we’re not watching people lit up on a platform surrounded by an audience, but something more “realistic,” making the bad, ugly, and stupid things the characters do and the awful choices they have to make all the more weighty.
  • Little Red Riding Hood is perfectly cast. Lilla Crawford better have a mighty nice career after this.

Now let’s talk about some of the things in the film that are a departure from the stage production.

Cut song: “Goodbye, Old Pal”: An understandable omission, I assume for time. We don’t need a song to know that Jack will miss his cow.

No Wolf/Prince cross-casting: The original stage production had Robert Westenberg playing both Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf, a cross-casting that has a lot of symbolic weight. I didn’t expect a film version to do this, of course, as you obviously want to milk more handsome-actor star power out of casting two famous guys in two roles. No big surprise, but it would have been neat to see nonetheless.

No Mysterious Man: This is a big one. In the original, the Baker is pestered throughout his quest by an enigmatic, crazy old guy who turns out to be his long-lost dad, and they have an important reconciliation which leads to the song “No More.” In the film, however, the Baker’s father is reduced to the role of a ghost of sorts, really only appearing in the Baker’s own mind. (Additionally, the father is also often cast with the same actor as the Narrator.) I barely noticed this change until the Big Moment, at which point I felt pretty certain that the thrust of this aspect of the story, the Baker’s journey to outgrow the shadow of his father’s mistakes, was plenty clear. This brings us to…

Cut song: “No More”: A very disappointing omission given the song’s personal importance to me, but again, it’s a cut I understand. As with the reduction of the Baker’s father’s character, the Baker’s struggle is well told in the film as it is, and his breakdown after confronting his father’s memory is very impactful. If they had to nix the song, they handled it well. That said, if time was the consideration, I would not have picked a song that for many is the show’s climax.

Off the top of my head, Little Red’s “I Know Things Now,” after escaping the digestive system of the Wolf, is lovely, but I think far less necessary than “No More.” While it’s great to have this song to illustrate Little Red’s “coming of age,” I just don’t think this secondary character’s self-actualization is nearly as important as the Baker’s defeating his greatest internal demons in a gorgeous song. So while I understand the filmmakers’ decision to cut “No More,” and that they handled it well, I think it was the wrong decision.

No on-screen deaths: In the stage production, the Steward clocks Jack’s Mother over the head as she rails against the Giant, killing the poor woman on stage. In the film, she’s pushed, not hit, and we only know she’s died much later when the Baker reveals the fact to Jack. “She didn’t make it.” Similarly, in the original, in a fit of rebellion, Rapunzel runs from her mother, the Witch, only to be almost immediately squashed off stage by the Giant, which is witnessed by the other characters. In the film, she simply rides off with her prince.

I have to wonder if a calculation was made that with the aforementioned lack of abstraction normally provided by theatre, the on-screen death of these characters would be too unsettling and distract from the greater story. I’m not sure that’s true, but it didn’t materially affect the story, so I can’t really complain.

There were some other changes that were immediately apparent to me (no full-cast numbers beside the opening, no “Agony” reprise), but these don’t warrant much analysis.

If an audience member comes to the film of Into the Woods without any knowledge of the stage incarnation, these missing pieces obviously wouldn’t matter a whit, and that’s probably the best thing you can say about them. They simply don’t hurt the story by their absence, or by the given change. They do, however, speak to the priorities of the filmmakers that might differ from my own (such as prioritizing Little Red’s “growing up” moment over the Baker’s triumph over his despair). But if that’s the worst thing I can say about the changes, then there’s not much to complain about.

I was scared of what might be done to my beloved show when it was turned into a movie for a mass audience. I am relieved and delighted by what I saw today.

Kirk from “Gilmore Girls”: My Goddamn Hero

I am a man riddled with anxieties, hangups, doubts, and regrets, but I aspire to a greater sense of self-worth (or any sense of self-worth, frankly). And this is why I have discovered a new hero in Kirk Gleason.

Kirk is a character from the show Gilmore Girls, which my wife started watching on Netflix, and that I have taken a liking to as well (with one enormous caveat*). He is at best a tertiary townsperson, and at least from the episodes I’ve seen he has no pivotal role to play other than to lend additional quirky color to Stars Hollow.

But for me, he is a role model.

Kirk is deeply odd. He pursues innumerable passions, hobbies, and career paths, and does so with gravity and determination. He has myriad peccadillos and peeves, and makes no bones about them. He faces personal crisis after personal crisis, never with panic, but always with a very public kind of grit, fighting his internal battles in the public square.

He is congenitally weird, and he is resolutely fussy. But no matter how out of the mainstream or awkward or bizarre anything he might say, think, or do might be, he could not care less what anyone else thinks of him. Unlike me, he is either oblivious or utterly disinterested in the opinions of others. He is, instead, unflappable in his quest for self-actualization, a quest that no setback, no stumble, no public rejection ever seems to dampen. He seems only bemused that others can’t see what he sees.

And while we are of course talking about a fictional character in a fictional town, I can’t help but think it is because Kirk is so self-assured and indifferent to popular opinion that he is accepted. This isn’t to say that people don’t find him exasperating or rude sometimes, but it is understood that it is his very oddness that adds value to the community. Sometimes he is merely humored, sometimes he is asked to take his quest elsewhere, but he is never cast out. Is he loved? I’d like to think so.

But mostly, I’d like to think that I could have Kirk’s psychological fortitude. I wish I could have the strength to be as deeply weird and damaged and different as I am, and not feel the need to apologize for it, to dance around it, to make it a joke within a joke in order to make the people around me more comfortable. I wish I could pursue my quest for self-actualization, unperturbed by the opinions of others, unburdened by my own self-loathing.

When I grow up, I want to be like Kirk.


* Okay, what the fuck is up with the music on that show? The theme song is unbearable enough, a vapid, insipid, overproduced, underconsidered piece that sounds like Carol King wrote it by accident, while very sick with a stomach virus, in between heaves. Worse still is that the song is like a brain parasite, sticking itself to one’s gray matter, burrowing in deeply, and sucking our precious nutrients, all the while driving the host mad.

And then there’s the interstitial music, the acoustic guitar, “la la la” bits in between scenes. Dreadful. They’re like a parody of the music for a parody show on a parody of a Lifetime show. Someone needs to be held responsible for this.

It Seemed Like the World Was Changing.

Matt Licata:

Apple—the philosophy, the hope—is dead. Maybe it never existed in the first place. And to be clear: the company didn’t build it and isn’t directly responsible for it. But their wild success made it feel like pleasant, user-centered design was on the verge of taking over the world and leaving thoughtful, carefully considered objects everywhere in its wake. If Apple could soar past RIM and Microsoft, why not?

What really happened was that ugly, hostile, “business”-oriented ways of doing things infected the new paradigm as much as the reverse. [ . . . ]

The start of the iPhone and iPad era offered a reprieve, but it was only a matter of time before the forces of garbage, disorder, relentless capitalism, and “best practices” caught up and squeezed through any hole they could find. These forces move more slowly than small, enthusiastic, independent creators, so it took them a little while, and it seemed like the world was changing. But it wasn’t.

HTC One M8: Fast to be Dropped, Slow to Respond


In the midst of my enthusiasm/disorder of gadgeteering on the cheap, I managed to have possession for a couple weeks of an HTC One M8, the phone that upon its release was more or less universally hailed for its build quality and performance.

Guess what. I didn’t really like it. And I really, really thought I would.

I assumed it’d be a good phone for me because of the rave reviews, of course, but also because it was the Android device that seemed to have been designed with the same degree of thought and care that Apple products are. The metal, the curves, the heft. It wasn’t a mimic of an iPhone, as it was clearly designed with different priorities in mind. iPhones get generally thinner and more svelte as they iterate, while the M8 looks more like it’s been designed to be felt, with noticeable weight, a striking metallic sheen, and a substantial footprint. It looks absolutely lovely.

But I liked almost nothing else about it.

I’ve passed the point where total one-handed use is a necessity. The industry is clearly moving away from it, and that being the case, it becomes more a matter of degrees and trade-offs. How much one-handed use are you willing to trade for the benefits of having a bigger screen or battery? That kind of thing.

But even with my change in perspective and expectations, the HTC One M8 fails in some basic areas of one-handed usability. Most notably, it’s just too damned slippery. Without using glass or plastic for the chassis, and with the metal polished to an extreme degree of smoothness, the phone is just far, far too easy to drop. Without immediately applying an unnaturally firm grip, the thing just slides right out of my hand.

Making this worse is how sensitive the volume rocker on the side is. The slightest tap against the rocker activates it, which always gets in the way of whatever it was you actually intended to do with the phone. And it’s all the easier to accidentally hit the volume rocker because, again, you need to grip the damn thing so firmly in order to not destroy it. It is a feedback loop of frustration.

I needed to put it into a case just to hold it. Not protect it, just hold it.

And then there was the software. Reviews and anecdotes reported the M8 to be incredibly fast and smooth in performance. This was not my experience. Now, as a gadgeteer-on-the-cheap, my phone was a refurbished unit, so I suppose it’s possible I had just gotten a lemon, but I found the phone to be incredibly laggy and jittery in almost everything, particularly in multitasking, camera, and photo gallery. I kept researching ways to mitigate the problem, thinking it must somehow be my own fault, but nothing helped, beyond the occasional cache-clearing. And that, only a touch.

The HTC skinning of Android, Sense, is not awful. On the whole it adds features and mostly stays out of the way of the “pure” Android experience, but what it does add is mostly pointless, and in the end adds up to needless additional complexity.

One night, desperate for a change, I considered attempting a rooting and flashing of stock Android, but at the last moment I chickened out, afraid to screw something up and brick the device.

Instead, I unloaded it.

I should say, though, that I did like the camera, when it worked. Most reviews are lukewarm on the camera for being gimmicky and insufficiently stuffed with megapixels, but I found that I was getting some lovely shots with it. (See below for a couple of examples.) The editing tools were mostly useful and interesting, and so I actually consider the phone’s camera a big plus for it. But, alas.

I might have had a bum unit, but even if I did, the M8 was a big disappointment. But there is a silver (but not a “Glacial Silver”) lining to this story, as I have settled on what now feels like the phone of my dreams, and it’s a kind of reunification story, and not a reunification with iPhone like you might expect. But that’s for another post.

This photo uses the M8's dual camera setup to alter the focus of a photo after the fact. IMAG0117_1-1