“It Just Works”

by Steve, October 7th, 2014

techApple released it’s latest shiny toy last month, and the faithful lined up to buy a phone with tech specs roughly equivalent to two-year-old Google phone that sold for $350 (the current generation Google Nexus 5 has even better specs, and also sells for $350). Apple’s “new” phone ranges $649-$949 depending on storage and screen size, and that’s before accessories.

Now, let’s pause to give Apple props for finally giving in and making phones with screens big enough for grownups to use. But it’s kind of funny that they’re hyping it as “bigger than bigger” after years of pretending people didn’t want large screen phones. You’d think they were the first phablet on the market. (Samsung released it’s 5.3″ Galaxy Note in 2011. It’s third generation Galaxy Note 3, released in 2013, leaves the iPhone 6 in the dust in virtually every technical category. And it costs $600.)

Apple fans get defensive about their two-years-behind-the-curve tech specs, usually falling back to the old saw that Apple products “just work” and non-Apple products require constant care and feeding. It’s pretty much the same old Mac vs. PC argument that Apple is for cool creative people and everything else is for nerds who would rather tinker with tech than be cool and creative. People really buy into this.

One thing that Apple is indisputably good at is marketing.

Anyway, our family recently became an all smartphone household, evenly split between iOS and Android. Up to this point, I’d had the joy of setting up two iPod Touches and two iPhones (a 4 and a 4s).

It never “just works,” at least for me. Please don’t think I’m belittling you if you’re an iPhone fan. Two people I love very dearly like their iPhones very much, and I understand why. There are definitely good things about iPhones. It’s just that those things are not economic or technical, so they don’t persuade me.  Also, I suspect I know a little too much about technology for my own good, and that this leads me to difficulties with consumer tech that is designed to be set up and used by non-technologists. The whole Apple experience chafes me, and makes me fell like I’m being talked down to. True fact: I experience less stress setting up a Linux server in the cloud than setting up an iPhone in my hand.

But I digress.

Last month, after the iPhone 6 was released, we picked up what has become the  ”bottom-end” iPhone, the 5c, with the goal of moving the old 4s user to the 5c and erasing the 4s as a new phone for another family member. We also got a Blu Advance 4.0, an $80 Android phone with a 4″ screen, dual-core 1.3Ghz CPU (roughly the same tech spec as the $500 iPhone 5c, but with lower quality screen and cameras).

Anyway, let’s set up the iPhone 5c. Should be easy! Right? It’s gonna “just work,” right? Well, let’s see.

  1. Open iPhone 5c. Try to distinguish stylish packaging from things you need to keep. I’m being serious here.
  2. Turn on. Won’t turn on. Battery has no charge at all.
  3. Put on charger. Oh, yeah, it’s a new charger, the old ones don’t work. Unpack the new charger, plug it in. Wait half an hour before you can turn it on. Spend that half hour contemplating the hundreds of dollars you’ve already spent on Apple-specific chargers and docks that will not work with this new Apple phone.
  4. Turn on phone, begin setup.
  5. Enter wi-fi pass phrase.
  6. Enter Apple ID and password.
  7. Wait.
  8. Get error: no SIM. “Insert valid SIM to continue.” Well, we haven’t started with the new carrier yet, so let’s just grab the SIM from the 4s.
  9. Oh, crap, the 5C has a different SIM (nano) than the 4s (micro). We’ll have to wait till we get the SIM from the new carrier. Can’t we just activate it and use it on wi-fi? No, we cannot. Why not? No reason. We just can’t. Search Apple help online. No answers there. Find same question on forums, with no answers anywhere: Why can’t we do this? You can search the totality of human knowledge on your smartphone and not find an answer to this question. Steve Jobs took the answer to this question to the grave with him.
  10. (a week later) Get the new SIM, insert it. Repeat setup 4-6.
  11. Yay! it’s ready to restore a backup from iCloud from the old phone!
  12. Oh, wait, the backup is from a phone running  iOS 8, and this phone is running iOS 7. Upgrade required before restoring this backup.
  13. Can we just install that? No. We have to start setup. Again. Redo steps 4 and 5. Again. Skip the Apple ID bit, since we just want to set it up long enough to upgrade.
  14. OK, it sets up without the Apple ID. Now let’s upgrade it. Start download. It’s 1.3 GB. Looks like it’s going to take forever. Go to bed.
  15. Get up a 5 am. Download has failed. No reason given. Restart download. Go back to bed.
  16. Get up at 8am. Screen of phone shows an Apple icon and a progress bar about 75% complete; apparently the download has completed and it is installing.  (Side note: The “progress bar” is hands-down the stupidest, most useless widget in GUI design, and it’s not just Apple). Two hours later, progress bar hasn’t moved. (Somebody with a degree in UI design please explain what purpose this widget serves!) Two more hours later, it still hasn’t moved. Try to turn off phone. Nothing. Hold down power button and home button together. Nothing. Eventually get it to turn off. Not sure what made this happen. Maybe the cursing?
  17. Turn phone back on. It boots to a home screen, as if nothing happened. It “just works!” But… is it fully upgraded? Did something go wrong? We may never know.
  18. Erase phone. “Are you sure you want to erase phone?” Yes. Erase. “Are you sure?” YES, FFS. Erase. OK, it erases
  19. Repeat steps 4-6.
  20. Restore backup from iCloud. It “just works!” Hand over phone. Take some deep breaths.

OK, that sucked. (Now, maybe there was a better way to do this without constantly repeating steps, etc. But Apple docs treat users like complete fecking  idiots, and offer no help whatsoever for anything outside of the most basic scenario. There is no “troubleshooting” because Apple products “just work.” Except when they don’t, in which case I guess you’re expected to go see one of the “geniuses” who works at the mall selling overpriced pocket computers to passionately credulous conspicuous consumers.)

OK, more deep breaths. Let’s set up the Android.

  1. Open nerdy, unstylish packaging and remove phone.
  2. Turn on. Battery at about 39%. Plug it in, just so it doesn’t die while going through what surely will be an hours-long process (right?).  It uses the same micro USB charger as virtually every phone on the market (except iPhone), so just use the nearest one handy. (We’ve got lots of them, because all the cheap-ass phones we’ve burned through over the last several years came with them. They’re not all sleek and white like a 1969 vision of what the year 2001 would look like. But they’re everywhere, and they’re basically free.)
  3. Enter wi-fi pass phrase.
  4. Answer a few basic setup questions. (No SIM? No problem.)
  5. Set up a new gmail account for cloud backups, address book sync, etc.
  6. Done. Wait, what? Yes, that’s it. Five minutes total, if that.

Now, I wasn’t trying to restore a backup to the Android, so it’s not a totally fair comparison. That might have taken another five minutes.

With all the phones are set up, we start to bicker about which is better.

    Kid 2: ”Name one thing the iPhone has that the Android doesn’t.”
    Kid 1: “Emoji.”
    Kid 2: “Look, I’ve got emoji.”
    Kid 1: “Those aren’t emoji, those are just little pictures. How about iCloud backups?”
    Me: “Google backups.”
    Kid 1: “Facetime.”
    Me: “Google Hangouts.”
    Kid 1: “Nobody uses Google Hangouts. Everybody uses Facetime.”
    Me: “Google Hangouts is used in business every day. Nobody uses Facetime for business.”
    Kid 1: “The camera on the iPhone 5c is so much better.”

There is no arguing with that. The $500 phone has a much better camera than the $80 phone.

Wait, we’re actually having this argument?

Pop quiz: what’s the least-used feature on a teenager’s telephone?

Answer: The telephone.

True fact. Teenagers today generally do not make phone calls. The phone has been replaced by a device that is capable of making phone calls but rarely does. It can even make video calls, that holy grail of mid-century modernist telecom dreams. But social media has taken over the phone and killed the phone in one fell swoop.

The joke when the first iPhone came out was that some people had actually figured out how to make phone calls on it. Or: the iPhone is just a really small iPad with a crummy telephone app. Or: the iPad is just a really big iPhone with no phone. These are no longer a jokes.

We saw a middle aged guy standing in the parking lot at the grocery store the other day, staring at his iPhone 6 Plus. At first I though, damn, this guy is really into his new phone. Then it occurred to me: he’s probably trying to figure out how to call his wife to ask her what the hell he came to the store to get.

Nutreahenge

by Steve, October 6th, 2014

Nutrea-henge

The neighborhood whales on the Tee Vee

by Steve, September 22nd, 2014

The Land Shark

by Steve, September 8th, 2014

An Ode to the Bicycle, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the WalGoose

me and pixieThe bicycle is a really remarkable invention. Next to the piano, it may be the pinnacle of human ingenuity. I’ve had a lot of bikes over the years; I’ve probably taken them for granted.

The first bike I remember was hand-me-down Schwinn Pixie in 1972. It had hard plastic tires. No pumping! No flats!

I probably got Butch’s Schwinn after I outgrew the Pixie. Then I got my first 10-speed in 1974, a shiny new Raleigh Record, serial #7 (my sister still has hers, lovingly restored by our dad). I was the first one in my class to have a ten speed. I wasn’t allowed to ride it to school, so a lot of kids didn’t believe me. That was third grade. Getting used to hand brakes was tricky at first. I crashed into a guy wire at the end of our cu-de-sac on Kirkwood Court, back-pedaling madly. But I got the hang of it.

I was eight. My family took a two week bike trip from Iowa City to Galena, Illinois and back, by way of Dubuque. We got our picture on the front page of the Preston Times. The reporter chased us down on the highway to get the interview and some photos. I remember being in some Mississippi River town with a levy and somebody singing American Pie. I had an idea what whisky was, but I wasn’t sure about rye. There was some kind of junk shop that had hermit crabs at the checkout. They weren’t for sale. And I didn’t have any way to get them home if they were. One of our stops was Maquoketa Caves, I think. Sue probably remembers. There was talk of impeaching Nixon. I remember seeing an editorial cartoon about it. Ten-Speed Touring, 1974

I also remember stopping at a small town general store with a house attached. You could see into the shopkeepers’ dining room. There was a big zucchini on the table. We also went to a parade where they threw candy. They didn’t do that at the only other parade I ever went to, the University of Iowa homecoming parade. And we met a dirt track motorcycle racer named Charlie Brown. He showed us the metal plate he wore on the bottom of his left boot. We went to see him race at the fair ground.

I got another 10-speed around high school time. A chocolate brown Raleigh something or other. It was a Christmas present too big to fit under the tree, so my old man put it in the shower to surprise me. My buddy Mark and I took a bike ride up to Wisconsin one summer, probably 1981 or 1982. Or maybe 1983. We didn’t make it to Baraboo or Wisconsin Dells, but we had a good time. One night we had to camp out in the yard of the Sheriff’s office in Dodgeville because the campground was full at Governor Dodge State Park. I think that’s as far as we got. We had old county maps that we photocopied at the library. We were lost more often than we knew where we were, probably. Mark bought a sausage in Wisconsin as a gift for somebody. When we rode across the Mississippi, I think it was the Bellvue Bridge, it fell off his bike rack and skipped overboard. “There’s nothing funny about sausage” became our catch phrase for senior year of high school. One of our last stops was Maquoketa Caves, I think. Mark might remember. Actually, I think we were going to stop there, but decided to keep riding, all the way home. I think we rode 150 miles that last day.

After high school, it seemed like there were always beat up 3-speeds around. I dragged one out to Oregon with me in the fall of ’89, tied to the top of the ’63 Step Van with some old rope. I rode it around some in Portland that winter, completely taken by the fact that I could ride my bike in the winter. With a sweatshirt on. And only get wet (not frostbitten). I bought my first cruiser in 1990 or so, at a yard sale down the street from my house on SE 26th and Sherman. It was a black cantilever frame, with 2-inch wide tires and decals and stickers all over it. I rode it until I had replaced almost every part on it. When I finally gave it away to somebody I worked with at the food co-op, the only original part was the front wheel. I’d changed everything else, including the frame, part-by-part as they wore out or broke. I used to ride it three miles to work from SE Taylor, across the Hawthorne Bridge, to John’s Landing, then home, then, if I was feeling good, up Mt. Tabor and back. One speed. I was in pretty good shape.

Bike in the woodsAt some point, I’m thinking 1992 or ’93, I decided to make the move back into a geared bike. In the intervening years, they had gone from 10-speeds to 21. Some even had 24, I heard. Mountain bikes were starting to get popular, and my boss claimed to have been one of the originators of the sport (doubtful). He talked me into investing in one. I think I dropped $470 on mine, which I eventually converted into a cross bike with 1.5 inch slicks. I did a fair amount of bike-packing on it. When TriMet first introduced their bikes-on-buses program, I hurried to to Pioneer Courthouse Square to get one of the first permits. I would put my bike on the Estacada bus, take it to the end of the line, then ride up the Clackamas River and camp at Fish Creek or at Indian Henry or somewhere else around there. I also took that bike on the Pacific Coast Highway, from Cape Lookout to South Beach, then across the coast range to Corvallis and back up the valley to Portland.

I still have it, and it’s still my main city ride. It’s my sleek black beauty. I used to take it up to the Bicycle Repair Collective on SE Belmont to clean it and overhaul it when necessary. (I was really sad to hear the Bicycle Repair Collective closed down, when the owners decided it was time to retire.) It still has the original shifters, dérailleurs, brakes, stem, handlebars and front wheel. Probably the best $470 I ever spent on a vehicle.

Ready to cruiseNow, we recently started spending a lot of time at the beach, and I remember quite fondly taking my original Portland cruiser to Cannon Beach one summer weekend and riding it in the surf. That was fun. Really fun. So I thought I better pick up another cruiser. First I got a white one with pink wheels for Nancy (and Emmy!).

Then I got blue one for me. Craig’s list specials.

I rode them both on the beach, but our sand is pretty coarse at spots, and it was pretty hard going. Not at all like I remembered. Much of our beach was basically not ridable.Cruising

Then I saw something at Fred Meyer that stuck in my head. A bike with massive 4-inch wide tires. It was branded as a Mongoose Brutus, and despite some dorky paint and graphics, it just looked cool. And knowing what little I know about physics, I deduced that those tires would be just the ticket for our soft sand. But the price… $279 on sale. So I just filed that away in my mind, and probably started googling fat bikes while waiting for builds to finish at work.

What I discovered was that this same bike, with different paint and graphics, was being sold as a Mongoose Beast at Walmart for $200 (delivered), and there’s a whole subculture of people buying these things and modifying them in some pretty cool ways. (They’re also sold at Target as the Dozer, with probably the worst color scheme of all.) It turns out they’re all basically the same cheap Chinese-made bike, and most bike geeks agree, a couple Franklins is a pretty cheap entrée into the fat bike world (light-weight geared fatties start around ten times that).

Opinions on the Walmart Fattie (a.k.a. the WalGoose) vary widely from utter disdain to sheer glee. In fact, there is apparently some serious disdain for fat bikes in general in the mountain bike community. My sister, the mountain bike racer and coach, calls them “fad” bikes, and says there’s always some fat guy showing up with a fat bike for races, ready to start drinking beer. “What’s the point?” she asks, and rightly so. For the races, it’s hard to see any point carrying that much extra weight. (And talk about weight; the Beast weighs in at just under 50 pounds.)

BeforeBut for sand or snow, there is definitely a point. We don’t get much snow, but I’ve got miles of sand to ride on, and I won’t be deterred by the righteous, multi-thousand dollar indignation of the serious gear heads. I decided to make one of these beasts mine. I picked red (they also come in green and blue), and this is how it looked out of the box.

The first thing I should have done was pack the bearings. They come with very little grease, and they are clamped down tight. (I did loosen the headset a little when I put it together.)

But the first thing I actually did was strip off the department store decals — they peel right off — and apply a little of my own branding. I toyed with names a bit before coming up with Land Shark, a ’70s Saturday Night Live reference. I also considered “Beach Whale.” If I get another one, I’ll go with blue and call it that.
New graphics

(This was before I knew there was a high-end bike manufacturer in Oregon called Land Shark, but I don’t think anybody’s going to mistake this tank for a carbon fiber road bike.)

The other first thing I did was take it for a ride on the beach (because of course I did) where I confirmed the still other first thing everybody says: You need to change the gearing. These things are geared way too high considering their weight alone, not to mention the extra rolling resistance of sand. The stock gearing of a 32-tooth crank and an 18-tooth cog was actually okay for dry pavement. (It turns out they had been shipping them with a 36-tooth crank, which would make it basically impossible to ride on any kind of incline.) So, anyway, the third first thing I did was put a 22-tooth cog on the back. It’s really easy to do, and only required crescent wrenches to remove the rear wheel, and a little screw driver to remove the springy thing that holds the cog in place. The stock chain is too short with these four extra teeth, so I picked up a chain at Fred Meyer and added two or three links from that. I already had a chain tool; you’ll need one if you don’t have one.

This made riding much easier. Or at least possible. It’s still a lot of work, especially on the coarser sand.

I eventually got around to pulling the bottom bracket apart and cleaning the bearings out and re-packing them. These are not sealed bearings, so the only tools you need to get the bottom bracket open are a big crescent wrench and a crank puller. I really should have done this first, at least before getting hit by a few waves. Yeah, the bearings were pretty trashed, but I cleaned them up and packed the hell out of them.

By now, I was able to actually ride this thing for a while, and the stock seat was making my ass pretty sore. So I picked up a cruiser seat at Freddies. Not the kind with springs; these jumbo tires running on five pounds of pressure (yes, five pounds) are all the suspension I need. It was worth it. I also wanted to ditch the narrow BMX handle bars (funny, the bike looks like a giant BMX bike out of the box, but that’s not the look or feel I wanted.) I got some cruiser bars, which give me a more upright, laid-back posture for cruising. (If you’re following along at home, keep in mind that the little BMX stem has a 22.2 mm handlebar clamp, and you’ll have to get some kind of whack stem adapter to go with standard MTB bars. I went with cruiser bars, and you can find them with 22.2 mm mounts pretty easily.) I took off the flimsy chain guard, and this is what I get: my Land Shark.
After
That’s the ticket!

Some guys are going all crazy trying to shed pounds off these beasts, drilling out the rims, changing seat post, saddle, stem, all that. But honestly, I can probably lose ten pounds off my arse more easily than all that, and for a lot less moolah. As it is, I’m into this thing for under three bills, and having a blast. It might just be my favorite bike yet.

Another thing everybody will tell you about these things is that you cannot go for a ride in public without getting comments from just about everybody. Kids are the funniest. I’ve had kids spluttering, trying to get the attention of their siblings. “Alex, look at the size of that guy the tires he has! ALEX! LOOK!” I wish I had videos of this. It would make a funny mash-up.

Here’s a small taste of what it’s like to ride on the beach, at a time when the only gawkers were sea birds. (I’m riding one-handed and filming with my phone, which is why it looks a little wobbly at first).

Nice to be back in Oregon after just a few days away

by Steve, September 2nd, 2014

Mt Hood, north side

Nature church is better at the beach part ∞

by Steve, August 11th, 2014

I love mountains and forests and alpine meadows and lakes and streams and wilderness backpacking and backcountry skiing. But this inland-bred landlubber is pretty high on maritimas vitae right now. This past weekend stands out as one of my favorites at the coast so far.

Saturday we saw a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) flying over Highway 101 with breakfast in its talons (species unknown), closely chased by a western gull (Larus occidentalis) looking for table scraps.

Then we took a walk on Taft beach and had a gander at the local harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) colony across the mouth of Siletz Bay at the end of Salishan Spit.
The neighborhood harbor seal colony

Later Saturday, at low tide, I rode my bike north up Salishan spit to the end of the road. Great blue herons (Ardea herodias) are in abundance around Siletz Bay; I saw three on wing and one fishing in a lagoon.
Blue Heron

I had planned to ride to the end of the spit on the beach, but there was a stiff north wind blowing. Since I’d already said hello to the seals from across the bay, I decided to just head back south on the sand. The north end of the spit is in its natural state, with dunes, beachgrass, no riprap and only limited human presence. Even the southern, built-up end of the spit is quiet, since it is a gated community with no public access except by foot (or bike).

All the way down the beach on Salishan Spit I saw just one other house ape (Homo sapiens sapiens). This common invasive species was in much greater abundance once I got to Gleneden, but not enough to harsh my nature church mellow.

The tailwind made the four mile beach ride home a giddy pleasure. My face started to hurt from so much grinning. I made the four mile sand ride in 22 minutes, including a stop to pick up a nice chunk of amber agate. At the end of my ride I picked up a pocketful of smaller agates.

Sunday we got up early to watch the full moon set into the sea, but were fogged in and instead treated to a minus-tide walk on the sea bed and a sunrise from behind the shore pines (Pinus contorta contorta).
sunrise

Later in the day, we saw a number of California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) heading north out beyond the breakers. (Apparently they’re back from their annual spring/summer mating party trip to California. What a life.) Then we saw a couple of our resident gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) lazily swimming south a little further out, spouting as they went. They were too far out to get a picture of, but here’s a little video from last spring of what I now believe to be two mothers and two calves feeding and frolicking in the shallows.

Summer Project

by Steve, August 4th, 2014

The Land Shark
I got a “fat bike” this summer, and I’ve been making some mods. I plan to do a post about everything (where I got it, how cheap it was, mods, etc.), but for now let me just say that fat bikes are fu-u-un. Biking on the beach at sunset is sublime. And covering 2 miles of sand in 15 minutes (vs. an hour by foot) is awesome.
Fishing Rock
Fishing rock is just under two miles from our front door. It takes about an hour to walk there, which you have to plan in advance if you want to hit low tide.

At a normal low tide, there are some nice tide pools. At minus tides, the whole wall is exposed, with layers of barnacles, anemones and sea stars.
Fishing Rock tide pool

Heading north instead of south, it’s about five miles to the end of Salishan Spit, where a pod of harbor seals is known to hang out. For that kind of distance, I’ll probably ride surface streets home. This bike is quite heavy, and even with the 26×4.0 tires floating on the sand and a reduced gearing, it’s a lot of work to pedal.

Sunset on Siletz Bay

by Steve, August 2nd, 2014

Sunset

The Prettiest Agate

by Steve, July 28th, 2014

The other side

Doorway to the Temple of Nature Church

by Steve, July 24th, 2014

Into the woods