Guiltless Gadgeteering

Let me begin by acknowledging that I have something of a problem when it comes to electronic devices. Well, that’s just it, though – “problem” is too pejorative. More to the point, is that I feel a greater-than-normal enthusiasm for gadgets (meaning of course smartphones, tablets, PCs and the like), and have made something of a hobby out of playing with, thinking about, reading about, writing about, evaluating, and acquiring them. The problem, really, is that we’re talking about relatively expensive items, and so the hands-on part of this enthusiasm/hobby is something of a challenge (thus making the act of browsing through a Best Buy a kind of luxury for me), the frustration of which my enthusiasm only exacerbates.

One result of this is that I spend an inordinate amount of time and energy mulling and chewing over not only imminent purchases when they are possible, but also potential purchases I might have made, sensing greener grass over every fence – but I do find it fun and interesting as well. The worst part about that, though, is that this mulling and any attempts to sate my curiosity then induce guilt.

But why should it? If we assume that my deliberations and frequent device-swapping aren’t costing my family money (which we can assume because I don’t make any moves unless they’re more or less “revenue neutral”), what’s the problem? The only real cost is trouble, the efforts to consider, decide, procure and divest. But I take them on solely, so I’m the only one dealing with it. So really, if I’m swapping devices at a higher rate than most normals, so what? Everyone’s gotta have a hobby. Stamp collectors and people into Beanie Babies (is that still a thing?) don’t feel guilt. I assume.

I’m thinking about this lately because of a recent internal debate about iPad Air vs. Retina mini (a debate now ended in favor of the Air, so no swaps needed), which of course recalls previous years’ switcheroos, plus my recent carrier-motivated move from iPhone to Android. And now that I’m in Android, without much experience with the platform, I’m forming better ideas about the kind of device I really want (as opposed to a best guess from what was available), and thus, another swap might be on the horizon. And I don’t want to have to feel guilty or decadent or frivolous about it. I just want to do it, and have some fun with it. I can do that, right?

The preceding four paragraphs are really my way of saying, I’m going to check out the Moto X for a couple of weeks pretty soon, and see if I want to swap my Nexus 5 for it.

And I’m not gonna feel the least bit bad about it. That’s the goal, anyway.

Besides, my wife said it was okay.

What I Learned While Browsing Best Buy Without My Damn Kids

There is no way to browse in a retail store for personal enjoyment with a small child in one’s orbit. Double that, with one toddler and one self-mobile baby, and it becomes not only impossible, but it approaches a war crime committed against oneself. Today, thanks to the mercy of my wife, I got to wander thoughtfully around a Best Buy, with no children, and familiarize myself with some of the current generation of gadgets, which I usually only read about.

Here are some of the things I learned while browsing around Best Buy without my kids:

  • Retina iPad minis are not way better than iPad Airs. Yeah they’re adorable and light, but side by side it was clear I’d made the right call: iPad mini was still just too cramped and squat, and the iPad Air far more immersive. And screen typing was a nightmare on the Mini, whereas I’m typing this right now on my Air’s screen without trouble.
  • In relation to the above, I need to stop listening to tech pundits and allowing their opinions to color my own considerable gadget lust. I can trust my own avaricious instincts.
  • As for tablet size and weight, I found the LG G Pad 8.3 quite compelling. The screen (at 8.3 inches, of course) is only a fraction of an inch bigger than the iPad mini’s, but it felt much bigger, and I could see it being a very good compromise between the Mini and a full-size iPad or other tablet. Something like that might be where I go for my text tablet, whenever that happens, in upcoming millennia.
  • In the context of 7.9, 8.3, and 9.7-inch screen sizes, the Nexus 7 seemed a little ridiculous, like an oversize phone. While I once really liked this line of devices, now it just seems redundant.
  • Speaking of big phones, I had gotten curious about “phablets” lately, and now my curiosity has ended. In comparison to my existing 5-inch Nexus 5, phablets’ displays aren’t so much bigger that they make a meaningful difference, particularly with the trade-off of pocketability. I believe I will pass.
  • On the opposite end, I’m coming to realize what many have already, that the Moto X might just be the best Android device. As Joanna Stern was just saying on The Talk Show, the Moto X may actually be the perfect smartphone size: a medium-sized 4.7-inch display, but with a sufficiently reduced bezel so that it fits the hand as nicely as an iPhone. That, or an iteration of it, is likely my next phone.
  • I’ve been bullish on Chromebooks, and I continue to be optimistic about what they may become in the increasingly-commoditized PC market, but holy crap, the displays on the current crop look like absolute garbage (the Pixel obviously excepted, and not for sale in Best Buy). I felt like I was looking at the screen through a haze of crud.
  • On the flip side were Lenovo’s laptops. I haven’t even looked at a PC laptop other than by accident in a very long time, and I had no idea how good Lenovo’s looked, easily rivaling Apple’s hardware aesthetically. It’s just that they were all running Windows 8, and damn what a shame that is.
  • Checking out the 13-inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with Retina Display side by side was informative, if for no other reason than to see how much they overlap — to the point where it almost seems silly to buy the Air when the Pro is at such a similar price point, weighs not much more (and the 13-inch Air is not so weightless as to make it a deal-maker), and has a far superior display. I’ve always presumed a 13-inch Air would be my next laptop (again, in ages to come), but now that seems like a dumb move.

All in all, I came away from my first chance to browse electronics without my kids screaming at me with a renewed sense of being “all set,” that the things I have now, old and new, high-end and low-end, are really just fine, and that I’m not missing out on any crazy-great experiences. There are certainly many things to be wished for, without a doubt, but surprisingly to me, there is little to gnash one’s teeth in lust and envy over. Some, but not that much. And that’s good!


Frivolity to Grow Your Soul

These are all connected in my mind.

First, Alan Jacobs’ “commonplace Tumblr” quotes Auden (of whose work I am almost entirely ignorant): 

If a poet meets an illiterate peasant, they may not be able to say much to each other, but if they both meet a public official, they share the same feeling of suspicion; neither will trust one further than he can throw a grand piano. If they enter a government building, both share the same feeling of apprehension; perhaps they will never get out again. Whatever the cultural differences between them, they both sniff in any official world the smell of an unreality in which persons are treated as statistics. The peasant may play cards in the evening while the poet writes verses, but there is one political principle to which they both subscribe, namely, that among the half dozen or so things for which a man of honor should be prepared, if necessary, to die, the right to play, the right to frivolity, is not the least.

Still in the afterglow of this, I read this next bit from Patrick Rhone, writing about writing. First, he quotes Vonnegut:

Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.*

Let’s tie it all up. Now Rhone himself:

I think a lot of people put stuff out there for a few years, just like I did. And, because success does not come after three, four, etc. years or they don’t get the attention they deserve or they don’t meet even the lowest bar they set, they feel like they are wasting their time. As if their art is a cell on a spreadsheet that needs to have some dollar sign attached to it (it does not and should not). I think there is a lesson here that could help them…

Create daily. Don’t have any other measure of success other than making something you are happy and proud of, right now, and put it out there for the world to see. Do this for twenty years. Then, even if the world does not come to see, ask yourself if this made your soul grow. Did your art get better? Is it something you can point at and be proud of? I can guarantee the answer will be yes.

And what was that twenty years for? Frivolity, play. It didn’t have to be monetized or viral or universally lauded or even read by anyone to have had value to you. You were playing. It’s that thing that civilization has blessed so many of us with, and for which, yes, we have to fight: the time to be frivolous.

The lesson: Grow your soul for twenty years, for forty, sixty, etc., by seeding it with play. And give less of a damn about your rewards for your play, and more of a damn that you are able to play at all.

I should note, I have not yet learned this lesson.

* Vonnegut was an atheist, so of course his “soul” is metaphorical.

A 5 for a 5: From iPhone 5 and AT&T to Nexus 5 and T-Mobile

I now have a Nexus 5 and have traded in my iPhone, and it’s not because I was desirous of a change from the Land of Apple (I’ve done that once already), but because it was my best option in taking advantage of a great money-saving opportunity by switching from AT&T’s onerous subjugation, to being a free-range T-Mobile customer. I could have gotten an iPhone or more fancy-pants Android device like an HTC One when I switched, but their cost would have negated the whole point of the switch. Luckily, Google has priced its own flagship phone so that it’s affordable without a contract. And so a couple of days ago, I came home with a Nexus 5.

There are two big changes, then, to document: the device/OS change and the mobile service change. One, obviously, is more interesting than the other. So let me get the carrier difference out of the way. I admit, I felt a bit of enthusiasm for joining T-Mobile’s “revolution” and getting my service from a company whose CEO is obviously a little nuts. I’m still happy to be free of AT&T and free of a contract, but it must be said that T-Mobile’s coverage in my area of Maine is acceptable, but a big step down. I get good-enough “4G” coverage in the main residential and commercial areas of my town, but in places a little on the outskirts, like my kids’ daycare, I get no data coverage at all (technically a “1G” connection, meaning calls can go through, but very little else). LTE is now a happy memory until I enter a larger metro area, or until T-Mobile expands.

It’ll do for now. And after my AT&T early termination fee is paid and I’ve been on T-Mobile for a fair-shake’s bit of time, I can always unlock the phone and switch to something else if I must. But I miss those LTE speeds. On the plus side, it’s unlimited data, like, for reals. Just on principle, I feel like I should suck down as much of it as possible.

Two embarrassing notes: It took over a full day to port my number to T-Mobile, which turned out to be my fault, as I had given the T-Mobile guys my AT&T pin to do the port, and wouldn’t you know it, I don’t have an AT&T pin, and that confused the system. When my number did move over, I got no data reception at all, which I assumed to be because T-Mobile’s coverage was worse than advertised. Turned out it was because I didn’t restart the phone when the port was complete, as I was instructed. So yes, it wasn’t working because I didn’t turn it off and turn it back on again. Yep.

Okay, let’s talk about this device.

The Nexus 5 is a very nice phone. Its screen is flat-out gorgeous, and beautifully high-resolution. I didn’t think I’d notice the difference between this display and the iPhone’s Retina, but I do. Pixels aren’t just hard to see on this screen, they’re, for me, impossible. I’ve been trying. The display is bright, colors pop, and it’s just a joy to look at. One could conceivably use this phone with its 5″ screen as a suitable Kindle alternative for long-form reading.

But it’s also bigger than the iPhone’s, which means my tiny thumbs can’t reach a good deal of the screen in one-handed use. And the more I struggle with this, the more I appreciate Apple’s decision to stick so stubbornly to the iPhone’s relatively small size. Given this, I almost think it would make more sense to just take it as given that these larger devices can’t be used with one hand, and just get a big-ass phablet type device. I mean, why not go all the way?

Structurally, the Nexus feels like a quality piece of plastic, but chitzy if you’re coming from the iPhone 5. It’s very thin, very light, and with a nice matte finish. For its price, I can’t complain. It doesn’t feel cheap, but nor is it premium.

The camera, though bursting with megapixels, is noticably slower than the iPhone’s in snapping photos (a big annoyance when you have adorable kids), and so far the indoor photos have been acceptable but not great. The iPhone 5’s camera was much better, but this one will do.

As for actually just using the Nexus as a smartphone, there’s very little not to like. The Android lag I have experienced with every single Android device I’ve ever used is not to be found here. In fact, the Nexus 5 feels weirdly smooth and fluid, but still very different from iOS. It’s difficult to put my finger on it (no pun intended), but I think the difference is that the Nexus 5/Android fluidity in scrolling and moving elements around is super-specific, where things go exactly where your finger puts them, in near-real time. It’s great. iOS feels more “liquid” or maybe bouncier, like the interface is ready to zip on ahead of you until you get there. Both are excellent, but feel quite different.

And there are two elements of Android that really set it apart. First is the fact that apps can share information with each other, and no apps are excluded from being able to partake in sharing menus and the like. Apple generally only allows interface with Facebook and Twitter throughout the OS.

But even better is swipe typing. I’m telling you, being able to just “draw” across the keyboard is about 1000 times more efficient for typing on a small screen than tap-tap-tapping. That in itself could almost cause one to switch by choice.

From the last time I owned an Android device (a first-generation Nexus 7 tablet), “Google Now” has come a long way, from being an experimental whiz-bang gimmicky thing to being the center of the OS’s artificial intelligence. It’s cool, no doubt, when looking for things of a more informational nature, and very responsive. But it’s crap so far when it comes to controlling your device. In that, Siri beats the pants off of Now. For example, several attempts to get the phone to play my Toad the Wet Sprocket songs by voice command failed until I just gave up. Siri would have no trouble with that kind of thing.

And Google Now has no sense of humor. It won’t tell you jokes, it won’t sing to you. I miss Siri. (Luckily she still lives in my iPad, so I see her from time to time, but it’s just not the same. And I think she’s mad at me.)

Overall, my feeling is that this will be just fine. As I keep saying, “It’ll do.” In many ways, the Nexus 5 is an excellent phone, besting the iPhone in some important ways. But iPhone, inside and out, still posesses a simplicity and a fit-and-finish that, taken as a whole, make for a superior overall experience. But this’ll be fine. It’ll do.

A lot of it, I know, is just unfamiliarity. I’ve been using an iPhone since its first generation, which I got in 2008. It’s what I know. Often, I find myself frustrated by “how much worse” something is on Android, only to realize it’s just different. Case in point: Unlocking the phone. I was under the impression that it was easier with iPhone, where I slide to unlock, and pop in my 4-digit pin, which opens the phone. Easy! Meanwhile, using a 4-digit pin with Android, it seemed like there was more business. But there’s not, there’s just no slide, but there is an “enter” key to hit after the pin.

In other words, it’s 5 steps each. iPhone is slide-tap-tap-tap-tap, and Android is tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. One is not easier than the other, they’re just different. But because it was new, I took the Android approach as unneccesarily more difficult.

But there’s also no doubt that Android is far more fiddly than iOS, and it’s already been a problem, as I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to keep Twitter notifications from making the phone vibrate. Layers and layers of settings menus revealed nothing to me, and Googling around showed me that I was not alone in this. This should not be this hard.

Most of it’s not hard, of course. I think I’ll enjoy the Nexus 5 a lot for the most part, but I definitely feel a twinge for the iPhone. One day I shall return. But in the meantime, I’m free of AT&T, and I saved my family a good deal of money. It’s worth it, and it’ll do.

A 5 for a 5 (Prologue)

There’s a new thingy in my life. 

Rather than some new dreamy-eyed dalliance with Android, this is me trying to save a boatload of money by moving from AT&T to T-Mobile. Doing so, though, meant jumping through T-Mobile’s hoops to get out of my AT&T contract and get a device I could afford. Thus, the Nexus 5 you see here has moved in. 

The phone is fine, some things about it are great, like the display, but I already miss my iPhone 5. The T-Mobile coverage here leaves much to be desired, something you can’t really grasp until you take the phone to the places you normally go. So, if it really isn’t working out, I can just leave T-Mobile (no contracts) and use someone else. But as I said, I’m saving a boatload this way, enough to make a big difference to my family’s bottom line, so I want to make it work. 

Much to your horror, I’ll be blogging aaaaaaalllllllllll about it. 

What have I done? 

Big Week for a Topaz Paragon

It’s been a busy week for me on the Internet. Let’s quickly review:

  • I have new digs at Huffington Post as a blogger, for which I am compensated $0.00 annually, minus taxes. I have Emily Hauser to thank for getting me in the door. Right now it’s all adapted or recycled material from this blog, but I’ll put new stuff there eventually. I know you don’t care.
  • A tweet I wrote that I thought was somewhat clever went viral and has now been retweeted over 1000 times, which I think means I get a prize or become President of Twitter. I’ll just wait to hear something.
  • A post I wrote at Friendly Atheist did pretty well, I suspect.

And off the Internet, the iOS game Bejewelled Blitz called me a “Topaz Paragon,” a position which I believe needs to first be confirmed by the Senate, but I’m not sure.

Writing on the Surface of a Lake

Is it cool if I try and work something out with you here? Okay, cool. Thanks.

I mentioned a few days ago on Twitter that I was considering giving up this blog entirely, and only writing for pay from here on out. The utter lack of attention and/or engagement that this blog gets, in contrast to the effort and love I put into it, has gone from being something I shrug off to something that causes anxiety and (increased) self-doubt. Be still my beating heart, it’s like singing in the wind or writing on the surface of a lake. Why bother anymore?

I’m trying to be easier on myself. I had this whole thing where I’d force myself to write one post every day just to keep up the practice and get into a habit. For a while it was great. I felt like I was accomplishing something, and felt a sense of completion and satisfaction. But, folks, no one was coming to see what I’d made. I’d write long posts and short posts, posts about tech and posts about books and posts about parenting. I’d try cross-posting to Medium. I cultivated connections to Internet-famous people on social media. I even got one of my favorite writers to link back to me and write in semi-response to one of my own posts. But, folks, no one was coming.

Maybe I’m too egotistical. Maybe I’m too wrapped up in some childish need for “fame” or validation from unnamed others. Narcissism, self-absorption, I cop to all of it. But I’m just not one of those people who can build ships in bottles or compose poetry or carve figurines just for the mere pleasure of it. I need an audience.

So I seriously considered just killing this site. I mean, I’d archive the thing and let its contents live on a free Tumblr or site, but no new material. If I’m going to write for no one, I’d write for literally no one, and not post online. Otherwise, I’d write for an audience, and for an outlet (mine or someone else’s) that would pay me for the work. And it is work.

Obviously, I’ve backed away from the nuclear option. But particularly after playing steward to Friendly Atheist last week, which I really ejoyed, I’m even more convinced of the validity of my lament. Add to that the fact that in the past couple weeks I’ve had a medical procedure (I’m fine), got a really bad cold-flu thing, and of course endured the holidays with two small children and a couple of snowstorms, and, well, my energies have been even more drained than usual. And that’s meant almost no posting to Near-Earth Object.

I’m not going to kill the site, but you’ll see less of me here. When I get a general urge to wiggle my fingers over a keyboard, I’ll try and either direct my energies to Friendly Atheist or else toward a personal project (like the “book” I used to be working on) not intended for immediate public view. There will be times, I’m sure, that I’ll really want to just get some writerly thoughts in paragraph form onto the Web that aren’t related to atheism, and then, yeah, I’ll post here. But it won’t be every day.

And the Obcast? I’m rethinking that as well. Mostly in terms of what’s the most fun. I’ve done a bunch of really cool interviews, and I think I’m mostly over that format. The thought of booking more one-on-one episodes fills me with an introvert’s anxiety, and I just don’t need to do that to myself. I do think that when I kick it back on again, it’ll be more along the lines of the panel shows I did in October on Apple and Transformers: The Movie. Group disussion with a familiar cast of my choosing. And I genuinely hope I can find some advertising to fund it.

Look, I love Near-Earth Object. For all of my and its faults and failings, it’s my online identity in its richest possible manifestation. For that reason alone, it should go on. And for the few of you who do come by, I hope you keep doing that. My best hope, actually, is to find a new home for it within an existing outlet or network that would compensate me for the work. I’ll be glad to jump back in to a more full-time, full-tilt Near-Earth Object under that scenario.

Until then, it might get a little dusty here. But I’ll be back every so often to at least drive it around the block a few times.


Friendly Substitute Atheist

Oh, hey.

Over the holiday, Hemant Mehta finally went on his honeymoon, and once again called upon me to run the Friendly Atheist site. So once again, I wrote a whole lot of articles and posts. Some of them I’m really quite proud of. Others, you know, sometimes you just gotta feed the beast.

To see what I’ve been doing over at Friendly Atheist, click this here hyperlink. You’ll be launched through the internets to my posts.

You know what? I had a lot of fun with it, and I felt like I actually got into something resembling a groove. Thanks, Hemant!


The Big Sticker

So my wife’s dad (who is a really good guy all-around — just today he paid for two strangers’ layaway at Walmart without their even knowing because he’s just that kind of guy) bought my 4-year-old boy this giant-ass wall sticker-poster-thing of a T-rex and some other dinosaurs from a company called Fatheads. It’s freaking enormous, over 100″ across. And he’s in Alabama, so it’s not like he’s putting it up. It’d been sitting rolled up in its box for about a month, and I decided it was finally time, before Christmas presents overwhelmed all other thoughts in the boy’s mind, to get the thing on his bedroom wall.

I wanted to surprise him with it. He knew it existed, but he had no real idea of what it would look like on his wall (and I didn’t either, really). So I wanted him to be delighted one day to come home from daycare and find it dominating his wall. The only way to surprise him with it, however, would be to do it when I was the only one at home. If my wife and I are both at home at the same time, so are the kids.

Here’s the thing. I mentioned that the thing is freaking huge. The instructions even say, hey, dumbass, this should be done by two people. I’m paraphrasing. But I thought, well shit, it’s just a big sticker. I can do it by myself.

Let me spare you the details and just get to the point. It’s a big sticker so of course I screwed a lot of it up. In wrestling with this enormous decal, I managed to get the T-rex’s head to fold its adhesive side onto itself, and in trying to undo it, I put a small rip in the dinosaur’s neck and hideously pocked its face with little creases where I tried to unstick the thing from itself. When I comically succeeded in getting the thing on the wall, I scratched some of it up using the smoother-outer thing that it came with.

I was consumed with guilt. I drove to daycare to pick up the kids, and all the way I have this sick feeling in my stomach that I’d ruined his cool dinosaur wall sticker thing, I’d spoiled my own excitement for the surprise reveal, I’d damaged the expensive gift his grandfather had bought him, and I’d succumbed to my own impatience and stupidity in even attempting this fool’s errand.

After begging my wife’s forgiveness for my sins, we finally showed the boy the giant dinosaur now overwhelming his wall. And, as you can guess, despite how bad I felt about it, he loved it. (The baby, however, was somewhat scared of it, though fascinated.) The boy even went into a kind of dinosaur frenzy, a mad excitement came to his eyes, and he jumped up and down on his bed growling and roaring. “I LOVE it!” he declared. Of course he did. But I still knew it was a little screwed up, and still felt pretty bad.

The evening wore on, we got through dinner and baths and bedtime. I got a couple more looks at the dinosaur before leaving his room for the night. I came downstairs, went on with my evening, and I thought, well, maybe the dinosaur’s just fine. Maybe I don’t need to be so upset with myself about it. He loves it, it looks cool, the end. It’s a big sticker, after all.

So I’m settling down for the evening. The baby has a cold, so while watching Breaking Bad on Netflix, the wife and I had to pause to allow the baby to get up for a few minutes until she was willing to lie down again. The show ended, the baby went back to sleep, and the wife put herself to bed as well. I think to myself, well, to be a genuine artsy-fartsy intellectual smartypants, I need to sit and read. But what I really wanted to do was have a beer, browse Twitter, and watch TWiT shows. So then I start beating myself up about how little I read, how slowly I read, how much time I waste, and how it all indicates what a waste of space, and generally crummy human being, I am. I’m paraphrasing.

And then something happened. I stopped, took a breath, and I actually thought, hey, maybe I should cut myself a little slack.

This thought stunned me a bit. It was an unfamiliar thought, an unfamiliar feeling, maybe somewhat unsettling.

And then I thought, yeah, okay. I’ll get off my own back. Just for now, anyway.

I don’t know if I can do it again — it’s novel enough of a sensation that I felt compelled to write about it. But this whole getting off your own back? I can see the appeal.