The Year of Phones

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One year ago today, I began a weird, fun, stressful, ridiculous, and revealing process of choosing the right Android phone for me. That process didn’t end until just a few days ago, meaning that I had so much trouble settling on a phone to stick with for the long term, the Earth had to get all the way around the Sun before I could bring the project to a conclusion. But this first-world consumerist quest is indeed over – as it must be, because I promised my wife I’d be done, and stick with what I have for at least one year. And that’s okay, because I also happened to have finally nailed it.

On Halloween of 2014, I popped open my newly purchased, lightly used Nexus 5. I had owned a different Nexus 5 briefly earlier that year, but got cold feet over being on Android after being an iOS devotee since the first iPhone. For most of 2014 I was on an iPhone 5S, but Android remained so compelling to me, especially as 5.0 Lollipop was being announced. Feeling increasingly bored with iOS, I sold the iPhone, and just in time for Lollipop’s rollout, I dove back in with this Nexus 5.

There was so much to love about it, but its abysmal camera and poor battery life were frustrating me, Lollipop or no Lollipop. Now that I was skipping the whole carrier-contract rigmarole, and simply buying a device outright, I felt rather liberated to try other devices. I knew that if I shopped wisely, and sold my used devices skillfully (or returned them when necessary), I could freely experiment with different phones until I found one that suited me best, and more or less remain, as they say in Washington, “revenue neutral.” More or less.

This turned out to be mostly true as the year unfolded, if I do say so myself. But this is not to say there were no ill side-effects to what started as a sort of hobby, and turned into something of an obsession.

I won’t go over every detail of every device I tried. I will give a rundown of my impressions of the individual models later in the piece, but as far as the process itself that went from one October to the next, it’s as you might expect. I’d get a device, put it through its paces for some length of time, and decide that some aspect of it wasn’t working for me, and try something else instead. A few times, of course, I would receive genuine lemons, devices that were defective or damaged in some way, which had to be returned. There were a lot of opening and packing up of shipping boxes, a lot of waiting for the UPS truck to pull up, a lot of trips to the post office, a lot of listings on eBay and Swappa, and a lot of accessories bought, sold, and returned as well.

As readers of this blog know, one problem that arose from this process was that Amazon apparently grew weary of my returning items, and exiled me. I have documented this story in detail already, but I’ll simply say here that, as I mentioned, I got quite a few bum devices that simply had to be returned, and I also returned devices that I simply wasn’t satisfied with, which I assumed was fine until they unceremoniously gave me the boot. All of which I may or may not have deserved, but that’s another discussion.

The larger lesson of the Amazon exile, however, was not really about my behavior as a customer, but about my state of mind in regard to seeking out a satisfactory phone. Why was I going to such lengths and expending such mental resources on this project? Couldn’t I have settled at some point far earlier in 2015 and been just fine?

Eventually, it would be my wife that would shake me out of my pursuit of the technological white whale. It was she who pointed out to me the disparity between the effort I was putting into strategizing and researching and buying and selling and plotting for the sole purpose of having a gadget I’d be marginally happier with than I was with the last one, while there was so much else in our life that required those resources. It wasn’t an accusation or a complaint that I was not available, or that I needed some kind of A&E-style smartphone intervention, but a dose of perspective about what it is I was prioritizing in my free time, my limited finances, and my emotional bandwidth. And she was right. It had started out as a fun project, until I gave it too much of myself. This came about as I had One Final Device on the way, and I promised her this would be the last one for one whole year.

I had made that promise before, actually, and wriggled my way out of it in order to give it one more go. That in itself, that I felt the need to weasel out of an agreement with my wife on something so relatively trivial, showed me that I needed to be done with it. Again, not because anything was being hurt by it, but because nothing about a consumer purchase decision should have this kind of gravity in my life.

So, enough about me. Let’s take an overview of the devices that passed through my hot little hands during the Year of Phones.

Photo credit: iamos / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Nexus 5: I don’t know what it is about this device, but it inspires genuine affection not just from me, but from a legion of fans. Something about how it feels and how fast and simple it is, and how inexpensive it is, made me come back to it even after abandoning it. But there was simply no getting past its bad battery life (for a heavy smartphone user, this is a huge pain), and its terrible camera, which simply wasn’t doing justice to my adorable and very fast-moving children. It had to go. But man, that red one.

OnePlus One: When I got ahold of this one, I decided rather abruptly that it was just too big, and this was before I began to become a phablet convert, so I might have a different reaction today. But I also began to feel a little panic over some horror stories I’d seen online about wretched customer service from OnePlus, with many units turning out to have been shoddily manufactured, and I decided that this was just not something I wanted to put myself through. It probably didn’t get a fair shot, but I’m sure whoever I sold it to is very happy now.

HTC One M8: I actually got three lemon M8’s in a row, buying them used off of Amazon and eBay. This critically acclaimed device, I assumed, had to be a good fit for me, but it was not to be. Even after returning the damaged units I received, the undamaged one I tried to use (which was still the wrong color from what I ordered, by the way) was physically slippery and slow in performance. No one else ever complained about poor software performance from the M8 before, so it may too have been a bad apple, but after a fourth try, that was it for me.

Moto X 2014: Bought direct from Motorola, opened it up, saw it had a defective screen, returned it, and never tried again. Though I was often, often temped.

LG G3: This came the closest to being my keeper, such that when one phone experiment didn’t work out, I’d think, hey let’s just go back to the G3. It was by far the least interesting phone. Not much to look at, but comfortable and reliable, with a great screen, a great camera, a swappable battery, and expandable storage. The main reason I didn’t stick with it was that its size, which was big for me at 5.5 inches, convinced me that big phones were in fact the way to go, and that, if anything, I should get something bigger. Which led me to…

Photo by the author.

Nexus 6: My relationship with this phone was a rollercoaster, such that I went through several units over several months. First, because I found that the phone got so ridiculously hot, that surely, surely they must be defective units. A couple returns resulted, until I had to simply face the fact that this is just what this phone is like. But I loved the enormous screen and the pure Android software experience. After rejecting and returning to this phone a few times, I tried my damnedest to mitigate the heat problem, but I finally gave up. But the desire for a big screen was unsated.

Galaxy Note 4: A truly excellent phone in so many ways. But I found that I had trouble reading off the screen for long periods of time, for reasons I could not for the life of me pin down. By this time I had sold my iPad and my Kindle because my big phone (whichever one that was) would now serve all those other device’s purposes. To experience discomfort reading off this phone was a big blow against it.

Xperia Z Ultra: Similar story to the Moto X. A used unit, it came with a bum screen, bad pixels, and it had to go. But I was also pretty sure that it was a little too old of a device, with a crummy camera to boot, such that further investigation was not warranted – despite it’s massive 6.4-inch screen, which I really did appreciate.

Galaxy Note 5: I got this sight-unseen upon release, which turned out to be a mistake. I grew to really love the S Pen, the ability to write on the screen when the display was off, and the raw power of the phone. But I found I was having the same problems with reading off the screen as I experienced with the Note 4, which I really should have predicted. What is it about Super AMOLED, anyway? Whatever it is, I also just felt like this superphone was too precious, too apt to be accidentally destroyed at great cost, and simply uncomfortable to use.

You may have detected a theme. Most of the time, when I’ve rejected a phone, if it’s not because it’s simply broken, it’s because of some physical discomfort. Too hot, too slippery, too breakable, etc. A device that I’m going to use so often and for such lengths of time, to serve as my escape and as the vessel of my augmented self, I felt I needed to be “at home” with it. It should fit me, rather than I having to try and fit myself to it. This is why the Nexus 5 and LG G3 were the only devices I really have “fond feelings” for as I look back on the Year of Phones. They fit me pretty darned well, even if they didn’t check all the boxes.

Oh right, you need to know where I landed.

Photo credit: Janitors / Foter.com / CC BY

LG G4: I am very lucky that my last shot was a bullseye. Purchased October 19 of this year, and I am entirely delighted by this phone. Its display is a joy to read off of for long stretches, its camera is excellent, it has expandable storage and a swappable battery, it looks cool, it performs well, it’s light, it doesn’t feel fragile at all, and perhaps most importantly, it’s really damned comfortable. You might know that the G4 is ever-so-slightly curved, not as severely as its cousin the G Flex 2, but just enough that it feels so nice to hold. And for reasons I don’t quite get, the curve also makes the touch display feel nicer to use. Why??? I really don’t know. Maybe it’s just novelty, but it makes me look at non-curved phones now with a sense of disappointment. As of tonight, as the Year of Phones finally ends, I can really say that I think the G4 is my favorite phone I’ve ever owned.

So that’s where we are. I’m done for the entire year. As of right now, I really do feel like I landed on The One True Device for me. And so it shall be, from here on.

Or at least until October 19, 2016.

Not that I’m keeping track.

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Your Unique Amalgam: On the Fluidity of Geekhood

Geek in training.

Geek in training.

I had assigned myself* the task of writing a post about what it is to be a “geek.” It’s obviously not the same as it was when I was in school, as geekhood no longer implies utter alienation from the mainstream, but being part of a kind of cultural elite, a kind of priesthood that knows the Most Holy Secrets of computers (once nerdy, now cool), comic books (same), science fiction. So am I a geek?

The easy answer is yes. I’m into a whole slew of traditionally-geeky things like Star Trek and Macs and Monty Python and the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. But while I check many of the geek boxes, I can’t help but feel like the label still doesn’t suit me. And not because I’m too “preppy” or conformist, but because I don’t feel like I conform sufficiently to the geek’s clique.

I like Star Trek and some superhero movies, but I never got into comic books. I like science fiction generally, but I’ve never gotten deeply into that genre of books. I love my Mac and my iThings almost more than my children, but I don’t know anything about coding or software development, or even really how the damn things work.

And beyond some of the cultural (or pop-cultural) differences, there’s a class barrier as well, at least that I perceive. Being a geek, or so it seems from the tech blogosphere, is getting expensive. You not only need to have expensive devices (which I barely manage), but clothes and glasses and bags and notebooks and pens and coffee-makers and spirits and cameras and sometimes even cars that meet a certain aesthetic, and cost more than they probably ought to. Do I not qualify as a geek if I can’t see my way to purchasing $300 headphones or a $500 computer bag?

No one’s told me I can’t call myself a geek if I don’t meet all these criteria, of course. But I do feel outside the circle when I can’t match all these references, when I can’t afford the right paraphernalia, when I can’t speak the whole language, but just get by with a phrasebook (a moleskine phrasebook of course). It all makes me recall the old King Missle song that stirred me as a sophomore in high school, “It’s Saturday,” where John S. Hall says, with wide-eyed eagerness:

I want to be different, like everybody else I want to be like
I want to be just like all the different people
I have no further interest in being the same
Because I have seen difference all around
And now I know that that’s what I want
I don’t want to blend in and be indistinguishable
I want to be a part of the different crowd
And assert my individuality along with the others
Who are different like me

What I’m perceiving, I suppose, is really just a popular modern conception and generalization of geekhood. But if you broaden the definition to mean “someone who is passionate about niche subjects,” then I still qualify. Not just on Star Trek and the more consumer-centric aspects of technology, but about things like media criticism, secularism, politics, acting, songwriting, and prose writing. I even still retain some geekiness around certain small policies around electoral reform! Allow me to go into detail about why you should be into instant runoff voting.

And I reserve the right to get geeky about things down the road. I’m rediscovering a love of drawing (dumb cartoony things), and I may yet delve into Dr. Who one day, which would make my dad happy. Other things, like guitar playing and theatre, I’ve gotten less geeky about as other things in my life have left little room for them.

But geekhood needs to be fluid, I’d say. Especially if we want it to refer to something other than the relatively small circle of technological elites on the west coast. I’d like to think of geekhood, then, not as a description of a group that’s into a certain, prescribed set of things, but as the state of being deeply into one’s own unique amalgam of interests. That hodgepodge of perhaps-unrelated passions is your geekiness. That’s different.

_ _ _

* It’s not so much that I assigned myself, but that I was asked to write about geekdom by the folks at Singlehop, who do private cloud hosting, and are doing a whole thing around what it is to be a geek. If you’d like more info about SingleHop, check out their new private cloud hosting page. Thanks, guys!

What Old Dad Can Offer

Lee Siegel on being the father of young kids while in his 50s:

[I]t isn’t too difficult to squelch the regret that I didn’t have children at a younger age. If I had, I wouldn’t be experiencing the joy of these two particular precious darlings. I wouldn’t have known a little more about life, as I do now, or had the same ironic distance from myself that the years have brought me. Blissfully, I experience no yuppie torments about the duties and sacrifices of parenthood. On the contrary. I’m grateful to my children for helping me grow out of my own childish narcissism.

This mostly rings true as the dad of two wee ones at the age of 36. I was far too stupid in my early 20s to have been responsible for children, and while I’m no dad of the century now, I’m far more able to keep things in relative perspective, and to see things from a useful distance at this age. I’m a little wiser than I might have been, though the bar is low.

But being in my 30s, both my wife and I are still subject to the “yuppie torments,” the endless comparison of our own parenting to others’ — especially since so many within our cohort have reproduced at roughly the same time. It’s pointless baggage, it never helps us parent any better, but we’re still vulnerable to it. Thanks, Facebook!

More Siegel:

The plan is to make myself so present in their thoughts and feelings that my immortality will be guaranteed—life cycles be damned.

I have no illusions of immortality of any kind through my kids, but this is my goal nonetheless; to be their absolute safe place, their lives’ olly olly oxen free, the person from whom they will always draw strength and love. If I do it right, it will still be so when I’m gone.

(Here is a drawing I just did about how I feel about my amazing boy as he outgrows me and everything else. The girl amazes me must the same, but she’s a baby to me, and therefore not yet outgrowing me for now…for now!)

Rocks

I usually really don’t like going to the beach, but I acquiesce for the sake of getting the kids out of the house, plus my wife really loves it. But today, I had a blast. It was cool, the sun was unoppressive, the kids were having a good time, but mostly, I became fascinated by the extraordinary variety of rocks and pebbles strewn all over the shore. And whatever was visible before a wave came in could change entirely after. I took some photos of what I saw, and while I also have plenty of my own personal photos of the family, mostly these are of the landscape and the rocks and the water. 

We Are All Short Now

Reihan Salam writes on short men’s failure to collectively reject heightism, and it’s a piece so good I found myself highlighting more than half of it for potential excerpt here. Rather than do that, let’s see if I can get to the meat of it.

First, a good description of the problem:

As I go through life, I will occasionally say, “well, as a short person …” before making some observation. And I’ve found that my interlocutor will often interject something to the effect of, “Hey, you’re not that short,” as if to reassure me. But why would this be reassuring if there were nothing wrong with being short?

And there’s not, of course. One thing I particularly like about Salam’s take is his acceptance that the preference for taller men in certain areas, such as in women’s choice of a mate, is a totally understandable, if regrettable, vestige of our biology. There’s no point in tying one’s guts in knots over an instinctive preference, which, thanks to civilization, can be overcome. (My wife is a bit taller than me and she likes me just fine.)

But there’s no reason to extrapolate that archaic preference into presumed height-based superiority. Being short is not an affliction, and it’s not a modern-world physical disadvantage. (Salam addresses the societal disadvantages, which of course all spring from these erroneous perceptions.) There’s nothing “better” about being tall. But we all behave – really, almost all of us – as though being short is bad, something to be ashamed of, and indeed, something to fudge.

And that’s the problem Salam wants to tackle here. Heightism is aided and abetted by short men themselves. They perpetuate the false idea that being short is a bad thing by doing things like rounding up their heights, or making fun of men who are shorter than they are. This must not stand, says Salam:

To be sure, rounding up is not the worst thing in the world. I’ll tell you what is the worst thing in the world. It is that short men who have internalized heightist attitudes are more likely to stand by as those shorter than them are casually mistreated. In our culture, men who are 5-foot–8 don’t see men who are 5-foot–1 as comrades. They treat their shorter brothers as strangers, or perhaps even as objects of pity or contempt. … To the short men among you, I’d like to ask: Have you ever poked fun at someone for their size? Have you done so to delight your taller friends, and to establish that you are truly one of them? If so, I’d like you to think hard about the place in hell that is reserved for your ilk.

Like many other accidents of biology such as skin color or sexual orientation, the stigmatization of shortness is arbitrary and baseless, and humans would do well to discard it right along with all of its other stupid prejudices. Of course, this particular stigma is not nearly comparable in severity to those based on race or sexual orientation (no one tries to ban short people from marrying each other, or from marrying tall people for that matter). But that only makes a call for short men to back each other up all the more compelling and sensible: Relative to other struggles, it’s just so damn easy. All we need to do is not buy into the myths and prejudices about height, and reject them out loud when we hear them, and things could change. We could start to make a lot of people’s lives easier and less filled with shame about something for which none should be felt.

For the record, I used to say I was 5-foot–6, when technically I measure 5 feet and 5 and a half inches. I rounded up. (My feelings about my height are a major focus of one of my songs as well.) But many years ago I decided it was absurd to try and eke out an additional half-inch for…well, for what? I’m 5-foot–5, and while there are many, many things wrong with me, that is not one of them.

Peak Outrage and the Exhausted Amygdala

Why have I lost interest in politics, when it was once such a passion of mine that I left theatre and performing Shakespeare for a living to pursue it? John Dickerson gets it. In a piece about the titanic clusterfuck that is the VA, he writes:

One primary reason to despair is that we’re already living at peak outrage. Fake umbrage taking and outrage production are our most plentiful political products, not legislation and certainly not interesting solutions to complicated issues. We are in a new political season, too—that means an extra dose of hot, high stakes outrage over the slightest thing that might move votes. How does something get recognized as beyond the pale when we live beyond the pale?

This is of a piece with the utter lack of a generosity of spirit from even the most well-meaning progressives out there, who have been socialized to salivate at the prospect of uncovering the heretics in their midst, taking as much pleasure in sicking the mob on the perceived transgressions of fellow liberals as they do in substantive policy wins. How can you be truly moved to tackle problems like Veterans Affairs, climate change, or the Boschian hellscape of our prison system, when you’re consumed by your fury over Alec Baldwin on Stephen Colbert?

More Dickerson:

As FDR said, the public cannot “be attuned for long periods of time to a constant repetition of the highest note on the scale.” If we are constantly yelling outrage, it leaves us with nothing when the real thing comes along.

True, but perhaps even worse, the constant repetition of outrage I suspect trains our lizard brains to be in a constant state of threat. Our collective amygdalae are pumping out fight-or-flight chemicals at such a rate, that either everything looks like an equally existential threat or unpardonable offense, or we become exhausted, and cease to care about much at all.

For myself, I have to wonder, now that I’ve passed both of these stages, is there any coming back? 

Being a Bully is Good for You

The old trope has it that while bullies make your life hell during your years in school, once you’re all grown up and in the world, the bullies’ targets all become successful and self-assured while the bullies themselves wind up in crappy, dead-end jobs, miserable and full of regret and self-loathing.

No.

Researchers at Duke say, “Enhanced social status seems to have a biological advantage.” You don’t say. Apparently it has something to do with inflammation:

In adults, a high social status, including income or education level, is associated with lower levels of inflammatory markers, the researchers wrote.

“The finding of lower increases in [c-reactive protein] levels for pure bullies into adulthood is novel,” the researchers said, adding that previous work tended to focus on the those who struggled through adversity.

Meanwhile, we bullying targets, the future-Bill-Gateses of the world, have a different fate.

I had always been skeptical of the bullies-are-doomed myth, which I know is uttered primarily to give the bullied a small sense of hope or justice, but rings incredibly hollow. Whatever the ugly motivations for bullying, the results are pretty much the same: the asshole gets to feel even better about himself than he did before. They get a little burst of confidence, validation, and a sense of superiority. Presuming they are not also getting bullied themselves (by peers, parents, what have you), it’s hard to see how bullying wouldn’t help them with their well-being into adulthood.

Goddamn it.