Overlooked

I feel a rant coming on. Bear with me: it’s not political, nor does it have anything to do with television.

Recently, I was talking to an acquaintance about gadgets. He’s, well, let’s say, behind the times, technologically speaking. He’s got a computer, a five-year-old laptop, that he uses two or three times a month, mostly to do banking-related things. He does have a cell phone: it’s a flip-open model with a four line LCD display.

He told me the phone was on its last legs, and he was thinking about getting a smartphone to replace it. “Which would be better for someone like me, an Apple or a Samsung?”

And I realized the only possible answer was “Neither”.

Remember when the first iPhone came out? The idea of a touchscreen in a phone wasn’t exactly new, but the focus on ease of use and a consistent interface was. Learn to use one app–which took about five minutes–and you could use all of them. Granted, it was a limited selection, but that’s beside the point. They were simple and consistent.

Today, not so much. Want to delete something? Do you select it with a tap-and-hold or by tapping a selection indicator? Or do you first have to tap an Edit button, swipe to the left, or swipe right?

Let’s not even consider the number of times Apple has changed the way we get to the Control Center. Or the fact that there are two mutually-conflicting ways to change the font size on an iPhone.

Android is no better, whether you’re talking about “pure” Android or Samsung’s customized version. Has anybody ever figured out exactly how the Back button works?

And Google’s hands-off approach to the apps going into their store means every designer gets to come up with their own interface. Want to turn off the sound effects in that new game? Maybe there’s something in “Settings”. Or “Controls”. Maybe there’s a dedicated “Sound” menu–if you can find it.

There’s no way a rookie can jump in to a modern device and expect to use it without spending hours learning to do the most basic tasks. Be honest here and take a look at your phone. If you were seeing it for the first time, could you figure out how to call someone, hang up at the end of the call, and save the phone number so you could call them again?

I finally told my acquaintance to check into the phones marketed to seniors. They come with a strictly-curated list of apps designed to work together and work consistently. They’re simple and they work. They’re cheap, too.

And the stigma of using one is so great that nobody younger than seventy-five considers them as their first phone.

Year End Reminders

In this, the final blog post of 2019, I want to remind you of a couple of things.

First, change is inevitable.
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I believe the subject Lefty is discussing with Rhubarb is “If this is the dining room, why aren’t the hoomins giving us food?”

Second, technology advances.
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This shot of Lefty was taken with my work iPhone 11 Pro. Over my shoulder. Without being able to see the subject. (I’ll note that the photo is heavily cropped. Lefty was nowhere near the center of the frame. But it still came out rather nicely.)

And third, some truths are eternal.
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Just as the mound is sixty feet, six inches from the plate, the dining room heat vent is exclusively owned by Sachiko from November to May.

A very happy New Year to one and all. May 2020 be better for you and yours than 2019. See you when the arbitrary astronomical odometer kicks over the tens place.

Downs and Ups

Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to connect a device to the local Wi-Fi, only to find yourself staring at a list of available networks long enough that you have to scroll halfway around the world.

Yeah, that’s what I thought. You can put your hands down.

I started thinking about this when I was setting up the work iPhone. Even at home in my office, I can see ten networks and only three of them are mine. At work, it’s even worse: several different internal networks, networks from businesses nearby, and a whole bunch of those not-really-a-network networks associated with random bits of hardware*.

* If you don’t connect your Wi-Fi-capable printer, TV, or streaming media player to a real network, it’ll announce itself to the world as a network of its own. It’s part of the setup process, so it’s almost necessary. But if that gadget is connected with a USB or Ethernet cable, or you’re just not networking it at all, and you don’t explicitly turn off the Wi-Fi, it’ll be screaming at the world “I’m here, I’m here!” eternally. And, let’s be brutally honest here: nobody I know turns off the Wi-Fi.

Or in a coffee shop. Say you’re in Peet’s and you want to put your laptop on their Wi-Fi. It’s there. But so is the network used by their cash registers. And the networks from the Starbucks across the street. And the three customers using their phones as hot spots, the ubiquitous Comcast and Xfinity networks, the possibly-a-trap network called “FreeWIFI”, and a dozen or so individual machines cut off from their respective corporate networks and desperately trying to reconnect.

It makes for one heck of a lot of scrolling.

As I said, I noticed the issue with the iPhone, but Android, Windows, ChromeOS, and MacOS are just as troublesome. Nor, by the way, is the problem confined to Wi-Fi. Despite the limited range, Bluetooth is nearly as bad.

Sure, the list is sorted by signal strength. Theoretically, that means the local network will be at the top of the list. It’s a nice theory, but one that’s not entirely supported by the evidence. And that’s without even considering that the list reorders itself every couple of seconds as signals come and go.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could focus the list to make it easier to find the network want? I can think of several ways to do it: a menu option to sort the list alphabetically, a quick filter (type “sta” and the list now only shows “Starbucks-Registers,” “Starbucks-Guest,” and “FeedingStation-Guest”), or–since Google, Apple, and Microsoft all have databases of Wi-Fi networks anyway–use geographic and other data to put the most likely candidates at the top of the list*.

* If GPS data shows you’re in Peet’s, you’re probably more interested in their Wi-Fi than Starbucks’, and you almost certainly don’t care about “HPPrinter9000”.

Similar logic could be used for the Bluetooth list: a menu to limit the list to one type of device (headphones/speakers, printers, keyboards, etc.) or the quick filter.

Come on guys, make it happen.

And, now that I’ve griped about the big names, how about a quick shout out to a tech company that got one big thing right?

Remember a little while back when I sang the praises of my Kobo ebook reader?

Two months later, I stand by everything I said then. What I missed was the lack of expandable storage. Eight gigs should be enough for anybody, right?

Not so much. First of all, not all of that space is available for books. Then, put a few picture and art books, a handful of “complete works of…” titles (with cover illustrations for each story in the set), and a bunch of copiously illustrated biographies on the reader, and suddenly eight gigabytes seems cramped.

Sure, I could leave some things off the reader. On a daily basis, I don’t need more than two or three books, after all. But why should I have to decide which ones to take with me? I want the whole darn collection.

I just bought the reader a few months ago. I wasn’t about to junk it and buy a new one with more storage space. So I did my research.

Turns out, Kobo got two things very right in the design of their readers: they are–at least compared to most tablets and similar devices–very easy to take apart and reassemble, and the storage is actually a standard micro SD card in a standard reader. Yes, just like the card from your camera.

The Clara HD–my reader–is particularly easy to open up. It snaps together, with no adhesive, screws, or tricky clips. But most of Kobo’s readers are almost as easy to work with, and most of them have SD cards inside, not soldered-in flash chips.

I won’t go into the details of the upgrade process; the instructions are easy enough to find online. Suffice to say that you don’t need any tools more complicated than a credit card* and the entire process–including reloading my collection after I did something stupid–only took a few hours. If I hadn’t been stupid, it would have been more like an hour and a half.

* Both to buy a larger SD card and to pry open the case.

The reader now has approximately fifty-six gigabytes available for storing my library. Unless I go wild loading it up with comic books (unlikely), that should be enough for the next five years or more. And by then, I’ll probably be ready for a new reader, one with all the latest technology.

And if Kobo continues to make their devices as easy to upgrade as this one, it’ll be an easy choice.

History Repeats

I’ve got to give up swearing off things. It just backfires.

For example, when I was in grad school, far too many decades ago for comfortable remembrance, I lived in Austin, Texas. No offense intended to anyone who thinks of the place fondly, but it wasn’t for me. After I graduated, I left Texas cheerfully, and swore a mighty oath never to return.

So what happened?

My previous job–the one I left to devote myself to writing–required me to visit Texas several times a year.

The universe is a perverse place.

There are plenty of other examples, but I chose that one for a reason. You see, that previous job required me to carry an iPhone.

I’m not really an iPhone guy. I use ’em. I appreciate the effort that goes into the design, and despite my usual snarky comments about the annual WWDC, I do respect the thought that Apple puts into their devices and their software development process.

But, given the choice, I prefer Android*. I didn’t have a choice. There were sound, logical reasons why it had to be an iPhone. And, since I didn’t want to put my contacts, messages, and other private information on a work device, I wound up carrying two phones: a work iPhone and a personal Android.

* Actually, given a totally free choice, I’d go for a pre-smartphone RIM device, from before they became Blackberry. But I digress.

It was a pain in the neck. Literally. Holster technology was primitive, so I usually carried the iPhone in my shirt pocket, and I suspect the unbalanced pressure on my neck contributed to the development of left shoulder issues that plague me to this day.

It was a figurative pain as well. Double entry of contacts. Having to mute two phones every time I went to a meeting–or a movie. Juggling twice as many chargers. And so on. When I left that job, I swore a mighty oath not to carry two phones again.

You see where this is going, right? Fast forward a few years, and guess what?

No, my new job isn’t sending me to Austin. Try to keep up. My new job requires me to carry an iPhone.

Holster technology has improved. I can put one phone on each hip and preserve some kind of balance–though it does make me look a bit like an Old Western gunslinger.

Or I could try to adapt to wearing the phones vertically and put them both on one side. I’m leery of unbalancing myself that much, though. Between the weight of the phones, their cases, and the holster mechanism, we’re talking several pounds of ongoing pressure on my hip.

Any of my massage-and-or-yoga-aware readers want to chime in with suggestions?

The iPhone, by the way, is a new requirement. I just received it yesterday and I’m still trying to get it set up. Preliminary indications are that my Apple ID* is corrupted or not properly set up at Apple. Joy.

* For those of you not in the know*, the Apple ID is an account at Apple which is critical to using some Apple services with the phone. Nothing important, of course, just such minor things as backing up data to the cloud; installing apps; and using iMessage, Facetime, and Find My iPhone. Trivia.

* For those of you in the know, I can use stand-alone services tied to the Apple ID, such as the App Store, but anything that touches iCloud, such as setting up the phone, fails with an “invalid account or password” error. It’s not the phone that’s at fault: I get similar errors logging into iCloud.com with a web browser, but other web-based Apple service are fine. Including the Apple ID site for creating and changing IDs.

So it’s a bit of an adventure. I’ll spare you the saga of getting basic phone service working–let’s just say that Verizon needs to put some serious thought into their user interface. Maybe they can contract it out to Apple.

The universe’s overall message is clear.

You’ve heard the saying “Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it”? I’m here to tell you that you’re in far more danger of getting what you explicitly don’t wish for.

Still Wrong

Now it’s personal.

I haven’t said anything about Black Friday and the rest of the post-Thanksgiving (and pre-Thanksgiving) shopping nonsense since, what, 2016? (Nope, just checked. It was 2015.)

Nothing’s changed for the better. And in one giant step in the wrong direction, I’m participating in the madness. Not, I hasten to say, as a shopper, but rather as a victimseller.

Let me emphasize that this is not an invitation to play guessing games about my current employer. As I said when I started the job, I want to keep a separation between my personal and paid opinions. That’s still true.

That said, yes, I am required to work tomorrow. From late afternoon into the wee hours when any rational person and most irrational ones would be in bed*. And then I’ll need to be back at work on Friday at roughly the usual time.

* Not necessarily asleep, mind you, but in bed. Those late night reading marathons are an essential part of my mental health regime, and I’m quite sure I’m not the only one who finds that to be the case.

Fortunately–something to be thankful for–I don’t have to work today. Maqgie, regrettably, is working, but at least it’s telecommuting. So she, the fuzzies, and I are celebrating Turkey Day a bit early. (And yes, I do have deep sympathy for my cow-orkers who are working today. They will, one and all, be working tomorrow as well.)

The bird is in the oven. We’re going to try doing the mashed potatoes in the Instant Pot when the appointed hour arrives, and the other essential sides are prepped and ready.

It won’t be the peaceful celebration of sloth and indolence we normally engage in, but traditions do need to change to stay relevant.

And, let’s face it, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and all of their ilk are among the traditions that badly need to have some work done. Maybe not a full facelift, but a nip here and a tuck there would work wonders.

Step One, unquestionably, is to get Black Friday the hell out of Thursday. It’s even in the name! “Black Friday“. Not “Black Thursday Night”.

You want to start the sale at midnight? Fine. Keep the store open for twenty-four hours? Abi gezunt. At least let your employees spend the day that everyone else has off with their families. Happy, rested employees are far better suited to face Friday’s onslaught and sell more merchandise.

Remember, if everyone does it, nobody’s market share is affected.

SAST 15

Some days a Short Attention Span Theater is the only option.

The West Coast Ragtime Festival is this weekend. Not much notice, I realize, but stuff happened. Nothing worthy of a story, unfortunately.

It looks like a good group of performers are on the schedule this year. There are several young players, and there are plenty of new faces among the adult performers I’m already familiar with.

The usual caveats about the unexpected apply, including the expected unexpected–this is California, Home of the Majestic PG&E Planned Power Outage and the Diabolical Unplanned Forest Fire–but I expect to be there all day Saturday and most of the day Sunday.

If you’re in the Sacramento area, drop by and say hello. Or, better yet, drop by and listen to some good music. Much more entertaining than hanging out with me*.

* Your Mileage May Vary, of course, but I feel obligated to exercise a little modesty, since the festival wasn’t organized to showcase my talents.

Moving on.

After some work-related delays and distractions and some purely writerly procrastination, I began work on the third draft of Demirep recently.

Yesterday, I reworked somewhere north of 5,000 words. I’ve always said that rewriting is faster and easier than writing* and Draft Three is the easiest one in my usual process. Even so, that’s a lot of words in one go, and it gives me hope that the book is on the right track.

* In some ways, it’s more fun, too. Finding the perfect word instead of the one that’s almost right is the good kind of challenge.

Draft Three is usually the one that goes to beta readers. That’s the real acid test for any book, of course: how does it resonate with people who weren’t involved in its conception? Will I be asking for beta readers? Probably. But not yet. This draft is still in the early stages, and I may yet decide it needs a major change of direction. Stay tuned.

Moving on again, this time to something that’s not all about me.

Perhaps you’ve heard that Apple just announced a line of 16 inch MacBook Pro notebooks.

The timing is odd. MacBook Pros are designed for a small group of professionals–tech, video, and other such industries that need big power on the go–not the general consumer market. There’s no real need to launch the line during the holiday season. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to hold off until next month and launch them alongside the new Mac Pro workstation? Let people spend their Christmas gift money on the consumer devices and then bring out the pro goodies. Aside from those people buying them in pallet loads for businesses, almost anyone buying any Pro product from Apple is going to be financing the purchase, so they don’t need that holiday cash in hand, right?

But then, I’m clearly not a marketing expert. I’m sure Apple has plenty of expertise in that area and neither wants nor needs my advice.

In any case, new MacBook Pros look like great machines. Apple’s usual premium pricing applies, but still, $2800 will buy you a lot of computer. If you’re considering getting one, though, make sure your budget includes a wheeled computer case. Four pounds doesn’t sound like much, but schlepping it around for ten hours a day (Apple claims a ten or eleven hour battery life; these machines aren’t designed for a nine-to-five workday) will put a serious dent in your shoulder.

And finally…

Speaking of those planned blackouts for fire prevention, we’ve been lucky so far.

I’m probably jinxing us by saying this, but the first three blackouts all missed us. In at least one case, it was only by a few blocks, but blackouts are not one of those situations like horseshoes and hand grenades where “close” counts.

There’s a movement afoot to force PG&E to bury all of its power lines. The reasoning is that underground lines don’t cause fires, so there’s no need to shut off the power during high winds. That may be true–as far as I can tell, we don’t have data showing complete protection–but it’s not a total fix for all of PG&E’s woes.

Case in point: while we’ve avoided the planned shutoffs, we had an unplanned outage a couple of weeks ago thanks to a blown high tension line. An underground line.

We’re now in Day Six of PG&E digging up our street and sidewalk to get access to the line and, based on a conversation with some of the workers, the job is going to stretch into December and include at least one planned outage.

Burying the lines may make them safer–though, since this is California, let’s not forget about earth movements, both slides and quakes–but it does make them harder to repair.

And there are secondary effects of outages. Ones that apply regardless of whether a protracted blackout is planned or unplanned. How many stories have we heard recently about fires and deaths caused by improperly maintained or incorrectly used emergency generators?

Before we spend decades and billions of dollars burying power lines, let’s spend a bit of time considering all the implications and hidden costs, financial and otherwise.

Now Listening

Yes, I know I’m a couple of years late on this one, but I’ve got an excuse.

I’m talking about the “Now Playing” feature on Pixel phones.

For those of you who don’t have Pixels, “Now Playing” runs in the background and identifies music playing nearby. When the phone is locked, it will display titles and performers on the lock screen.

Sure, it’s a minor feature, but it’s got its uses–which is part of the problem. Not all of those uses are necessarily for the good of the phone’s owner. But I’ll get back to that.

“But, wait,” someone out there is undoubtedly saying, “hasn’t Casey had a Pixel for over a year? Why’s he only now getting around to ‘Now Playing’?”

Simple: Until a few weeks ago, I kept the phone in a belt pouch. It couldn’t hear a thing unless I took it out. However, I’ve now switched to a phone holster-and-case combination for convenience and protection. Now “Now Playing” can hear much better.

And I’m starting to wonder about the ethics of feature.

A quick digression: According to Google, they don’t see any. The phone periodically downloads a database of songs, all recognition is done on the device, and the history is only stored locally.

The database comes from Google Play Music–it’s based primarily on what tracks are being played there. This naturally means that “Now Playing” can only recognize popular music (for some values of “popular”). (According to one source, the database is also tuned to accommodate regional preferences, based on where the phone was purchased.)

The history on my phone suggests that to be an accurate description. Many of the songs I hear on the radio in the car show up on the list, as does much of the music that other people are playing at work.

A few anime opening and closing credit songs show up. But only for very popular shows; nothing from the current season. Snippets of background music from TV shows turn up in the history.

My tastes in radio tend toward oldies channels. Not much swing shows up in my “Now Playing” history. Most of the music from the 70s and 80s does show up–but primarily the tracks that charted at some point. Fringe material, not so much. Case in point: the Dark Wave show on SiriusXM features “goth, post-punk, and industrial”. Not a single track from last week’s episode made it onto my phone. (Correction on deeper inspection: a few show up in misidentified form.)

I’m inclined to think the failures are a good thing. To some extent, some inaccuracy improves the security of the system.

Let’s face it: how willing are you to believe Google doesn’t have access to your history? Because any sort of halfway competent Big Data miner could match up that history with radio station playlists, Muzak tracklists, and other data to create a profile of your musical tastes and physical movement, especially when paired with data from Maps. Whether that would give an accurate impression of your other tastes is a matter of opinion, but how many advertisers would be willing to buy that information? Quite a few, I’d bet.

Nor does Google make it easy to clean up the history. Once you find it–buried in Settings, not in an app–you can delete individual tracks or wipe the entire history. But there’s no way to search and remove those embarrassing low points. Want to get rid of last month’s early Madonna binge? You’ll have to do it one song at a time or nuke the whole historical record.

No provision for a timed delete (“On the first of the month, delete everything older than two months.”) Not even “Wipe the entire history once a month.”

And don’t forget: it’s always listening. Well, okay, popping in once a minute or so. I imagine certain political figures would love to get their hands on a list of people whose phones are hearing a lot of Latin pop. There are all sorts of interesting, non-advertising ways to use that kind of data.

Come to think of it, Google must know at least which phones are pulling down track databases from, let’s call them “countries of interest”. Would that be data that DHS could requisition, either legally or covertly? They’d certainly find uses for it.

Sure, I’m a bit paranoid. These days that’s a survival trait.

Not paranoid enough to turn off “Now Playing”. Not yet, anyway.

Not Quite Instant

Maggie and I have succumbed.

Not to the lure of another cat. Please don’t tempt us with the thought.

No, what we’ve given in to is the latest kitchen fad. Maybe not the latest-latest, but at least the latest long-lived.

We held out against the sous vide apocalypse, but we’ve accepted the Instant Pot into our lives (and our kitchen).

Seriously, given how often we use our slow cooker, the Instant Pot was a no brainer. A six quart IP takes up about the same amount of counter space as our three quart crockpot–maybe even a bit less–and that’s important in our one-and-a-half-butt kitchen.

Is it going to revolutionize our existence? Not likely. But that extra elbow room from the doubled capacity will be very nice when we do a fauxtisserie chicken. Might even be able to do it faster. Must experiment one of these days.

Though it may be a while. We’re still learning its quirks. Heck, we’ve only used it three times so far.

Braising a hunk of cow big enough for two dinners in ninety minutes–including heat-up time and extra time for the potatoes–was nice. More work involved than in using the oven, but the savings in time and electricity make up for a lot.

The pasta dish turned out well. I’m not certain we’ll do that regularly–for one thing, it actually took longer than the traditional stovetop approach–but I’ll admit that not having to drain the pasta was nice.

The Instant Pot “one dish meal” method is not the way to go if you’re looking for a bowl of sauce with noodles swimming in it. The goal seems to be to balance the ingredients so the liquid from the sauce goes into the pasta, leaving the sauce solids bonded to the outside of the noodles. Tasty (though we’ll definitely tweak the recipe next time–more oregano at the very least) if a bit disconcerting at first.

And it does function well as a crockpot. We did chili as our first slow cook experiment. Yes, there are plenty of quick chili recipes for the Instant Pot out there and we’ll probably try some eventually. But for this test we wanted to see how it handled a known recipe.

It seems as though Low Heat is a bit lower than our crockpot’s “Lo” setting. The onions were a bit crunchier than we expected, and the meat not quite as soft was we’re used to. It’s probably as well that we used thin fajita-cut meat instead of cubes. Next time we’ll set the pot on Medium, and that should improve matters.

Our slow cooker let us set a timer–cook for some amount of time, then either turn off or, if it was on “Hi”, switch to “Lo”. We never used it. The thought of coming home to either room-temperature food or excessively-cooked food didn’t appeal. The Instant Pot, on the other hand, can be set to switch over to a “keep warm” setting after the cooking time runs out. That might just be worth a good chunk of the admission price right there.

Speaking of warming things, I hadn’t realized just how many people believe microwave ovens are tools of the Devil.

Okay, I exaggerate slightly. But only slightly. I started researching how to reheat the chili in the Instant Pot, instead of using the oven as we normally do. Nearly every site I read warned about the unspecified health hazards of microwaves–and especially reheating food in one–though none actually stated what the risks are. I conclude they’re the same risks one runs by not eating “organic” foods.

Several sites said–and I’m not paraphrasing–“Thank God for my Instant Pot!” I’m not sure how much Hephaestus had to do with the creation of the Instant Pot, but I’m sure he appreciates their gratitude. Or maybe they were addressing Hestia–a goddess of the hearth might be a more appropriate vessel for cooking-related thanks.

But I digress.

Are there Instant Pot recipes we’re not going to try? Absolutely.

As a typical example, consider lasagna. I admire the dedication and determination of all the people who’ve created Instant Pot lasagna recipes, there’s no way I’m going to try them. Every one I’ve seen requires even more effort than traditional oven-based recipes do, most of them take longer, and a significant percentage call for finishing the cooking in the oven. Why bother?

But our initial experiments with Instant Potting (Instant Pottery would be something else, I think) have been successful enough to encourage us. I don’t think this will be the sort of kitchen gadget that gets used once or twice, then shoved in a drawer, never to be seen again.

And, as soon as the weather cools off a bit further, I intend to see how the Instant Pot handles our favorite hot spiced cider recipe. I’ll report back if we figure out how to reduce the cooking time without compromising the flavor.

A Singletasker That Works

Last time I wrote about my daily-use tech tools, I praised my Surface Go as–among other things–“far more capable than I expected” and noted that “it works well as a tablet-slash-ebook-reader”.

I still stand by those remarks, but I have uncovered a significant flaw in the Go. A flaw not unique to that device, by the way, but endemic to gadgets.

There’s only one of it.

I’d frequently settle down on the bed to read for a while and discover I’d left the Go upstairs, connected to the big monitors. Or go upstairs to do some pre-bedtime writing, only to realize I’d been reading in the living room and left the Go downstairs.

First world problem, sure. But labeling it that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

So, following the traditional pattern, I turned to technology to solve a problem created by technology.

My first attempt involved using a remote desktop app on my aging-but-much-beloved Nexus 9 tablet to bring the Go’s display to the bedroom while leaving the computer upstairs.

It worked. Mostly. Our Wi-Fi is a little spotty, so I’d sometimes lose signal mid-page and have to wait for it to reconnect before I could finish a sentence.

And, of course, the solution would be useless outside the house on those occasions when I needed reading material, but didn’t want to take the Go with me. Like, say, waiting in line for a BABYMETAL concert.

Enter the dedicated ebook reader.

Yeah, I know: it’s a singletasker. Usually not what I want. But in this case, it makes sense to go with a gadget that’s specifically designed to do one thing.

Sure, it might be nice to have a clock on it. And a calendar. And email. But keep layering on the “would be nice” features, and I’d be back in the “why not just buy another Go” headspace.

So I resolutely ignore the dedicated band of hackers who work diligently to push the gadget into realms it wasn’t designed for.

And it’s a very pleasant experience reading on this thing–a Kobo Clara HD, by the way.

It’s tiny. Remember stuffing a paperback into your back pocket? You can’t do that with a tablet. Not even a seven-inch model, much less a ten-inch iPad or Surface Go. The Clara fits perfectly. I’m careful not to sit down with it in my pocket, because it’s not going to take well to bending, but as a place to put it while I’m walking around, it’s delightfully retro.

Despite the reader’s size, the screen is shaped much better for reading than a smartphone screen. And the display is wonderfully sharp. I can crank the font down to the point where I get almost as much text onscreen as would fit on a paperback page without having to squint. Even without my glasses.

It’s not perfect. No gadget is. Loading books onto it can be slow. And there’s only one level of sorting when looking at the list of books on it. Sort by author, say, and series display in random order. Sort by series and multiple authors get mixed together. (Side note to Kobo’s developers: Please give us two-level sorting!)

But from the perspective of sheer convenience, the reader can’t be beat. It migrates from my work bag to the bedside table, so the Go can stay upstairs on days I’m not writing at work*. And on writing days, the Clara can stay home while the Go accompanies me to the library, the DMV, or wherever else I expect to be sitting for several hours.

* During meal breaks and before shifts, not while I’m on the clock. I’m not getting paid to write, unfortunately.

Even if you’re an avid reader, I’m not recommending you rush out and buy an ebook reader. A phone with a reasonably large screen or a smallish table may be all you need. But if you find yourself reaching for your multipurpose device, only to discover you left it somewhere else so it could do something important, maybe, just maybe, you should let a singletasker into your life.

Google Looks to 2018

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at Microsoft’s hardware announcements. This week, it’s Google’s turn. Where Microsoft was looking ahead to 2020, Google seems to be looking backward. Think I’m kidding? Consider the evidence:

New “Pixel Buds,” true wireless headphones that–in addition to letting you listen to music and made phone calls–allow you to talk to an electronic assistant. Regardless of your feelings about Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and HeyGoogle, these earbuds would have been revolutionary a couple of years ago; now they come off as “We’re going to jump off the same bridge as all of our friends.”

Then there’s the Pixelbook Go. Hmm. Where have we heard the word “Go” in a computer name lately? Microsoft used it for a machine that focused on portability. Sensible, even logical. Google uses it for a computer that, uh, has long battery life and was “thin”.

I don’t see the connection. (Google’s Go, by the way, is approximately twice as heavy as Microsoft’s.)

And, let’s be frank here. People didn’t buy zillions of the earlier Pixelbooks because they were too heavy. They didn’t buy them because nobody saw the benefit of a ChromeOS device at that price point. The Pixelbook Go will be cheaper, but it’s still at the upper end of the Chromebook price range.

Moving on, we have a new incarnation of the Google Home Mini. It’s now the Nest Mini, comes in a new color–blue–and has a wall mount. Supposedly it also has twice as much bass (which at least answers one of the major concerns about a device that small designed for playing music) and an additional microphone so it can eavesdrop on you more accurately.

After the “Apple is listening to you having sex” scandals, does Google really want to be promoting its enhanced listening capabilities?

The changes really feel like Google is repairing the deficiencies of something that wasn’t all that exciting or original in its first incarnation.

Of course there has to be an update to the mesh Wi-Fi gadget. The new version looks cooler. Slightly. It’s got Google Home built in, so your Wi-Fi network can listen in on youplay music and answer questions. Isn’t that what the Nest Mini and your phone are for?

Is it any faster than the previous generation? Able to support more simultaneous users? Dunno. Google didn’t say.

Again, incremental tweaks to a “me too” gadget.

And, finally, there’s the Pixel 4.

That actually has a unique feature: a radar sensor. No, not for detecting speed traps. For registering nearby motion so you can control it with hand gestures without picking it up.

I can see so many uses for that. Like changing the volume when listening to music while driving. Dismissing notifications while driving. Pausing videos while, uh, driving. Um. Let me get back to you on this one.

I’ll admit the new audio recorder with built-in speech recognition to transcribe lectures sounds neat. I do have to wonder how long it’ll be before they get hit with a lawsuit because someone figured out how to use it to transcribe song lyrics.

And, of course, there are the usual highly touted improvements to the camera, some physical and some in the software.

Granted, better and better cameras are, IMNSHO, a more useful arms race than bigger and bigger screens, but still, I have to wonder who the audience is. How many people use their phone camera in anything other than full automatic mode? Do the majority of us really need control of Google’s HDR algorithms? Or would we be better off with a cheaper phone that takes decentish pictures, while the few who actually need total control of their photos put the money they save on the phone toward a better lens for their DSLR?