NASA’s Spaceship Factory

Last week I visited NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to view the newly-built Orion pressure vessel. I found the whole thing to be a deeply moving experience, and a glimpse of the kind of future we all want desperately for our grandchildren, and for the human species. I am very proud of this essay that came out of the event. It’s published at Mental Floss, and I hope it finds a good audience.

A little sample:

Michoud looks like a place where things are built. Spacecraft, yes, and rockets—the biggest ever imagined—but things all the same. With only slight changes, it could be a place where cars are manufactured, or supercomputers, or valves, or motors. Michoud is like the world’s greatest high school metal shop, only instead of turning wrenches to automatic transmissions, the men and women here apply tools to spacecraft. Sheets of metal roll in the front door, and spaceships and rockets roll out the back.

The facility is located on the outskirts of New Orleans, amidst vast footprints of vacant land. Across the street from Michoud is a Folgers Coffee plant, leaving the air outside redolent with the soft bitterness of a newly opened bag of ground coffee. That itself is striking—the mix of coffee, concrete, cars, and cranes. This is where science fiction is realized, and it’s all so normal. The workers here are some of the smartest people in the world doing some of the most challenging and important work in the world, but they seem like true workers in the grandest human sense of the word, the kinds of men and women otherwise seen with sleeves rolled up on wartime propaganda posters. Together we can do it! Keep ’em firing!

Read the rest here.

Thoughts on Walt Disney and Parenthood

If Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination were about anyone else, it probably wouldn’t have been as fascinating a read as it was. (If it were about anyone else, it would also have a pretty misleading title.) But Disney is such a compelling person, his story so unlikely and extraordinary and American that every little morsel of information about him somehow becomes hyper-interesting. In the end, of course, one feels like the reporter trying to figure out Charles Foster Kane: it’s impossible, and the more you learn about Disney, the more enigmatic he becomes. On that point, I greatly admire his serious biographers for the sheer will that must be necessary to peel back the steel layers of “Uncle Walt” forged by the Walt Disney Company, and tease out a fallible human being inside. That can’t be easy, and it can’t be fun.

(On that point, an aside: Of late, Apple seems eager to borrow the Disney mold, and shamelessly rewrite Steve Jobs into a kind of sagacious, enlightened Uncle Steve. The most visible, laughable example I can think of involves the covers of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography: Before and after. Meanwhile, poor Isaacson has been pilloried for what is very likely an accurate depiction of Jobs—one that’s consistent with every other pre-cancer biography out there. Jobs was a horrible man who happened also to be a visionary. He could be monstrous to those under his employ, and was profoundly selfish with his personal fortune. He wasn’t Yoda, and he sure as hell wasn’t Walt Disney, who was a genuinely good person. That doesn’t mean Jobs wasn’t a great businessman or genius, but let’s not pretend he was anything other than what he was: a powerful, miserly asshole.)

I think a lot about Walt Disney and how he might fare today. Lately, I think about what his childhood would be like in 2016. Disney wasn’t a great student, and dropped out of high school in order to join the Navy during World War I. (The Navy turned him away because he was 16, and so he lied about his age and managed to get into the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. He would eventually drive ambulances in France.) Today, I suspect that Disney would have been given a prescription for Concerta at a young age, and would have gone on to earn an MFA in studio art. I doubt he would have forged his birthday to go to Afghanistan. He would have listened to his father, and I believe he would have gone on to be the best foreman at the O-Zell jelly factory.

It raises the question of how important were the wrinkles in Walt Disney’s character. Had Elias succeeded in ironing them out, would Walt have conformed thoroughly? Or beneath the surface of any young person, is there something more durable than that, and consequently, is it a parent’s job simply to get out of the way? (This makes psychoactive drugs an even more terrifying enterprise: if I make some catastrophic parenting decision, I might create a problem but I won’t likely rewrite my child’s makeup. But medicine acts at a chemical level—it is changing someone’s brain, and by design. So which are the defects and which are the blessings in disguise? Choose wisely and good luck!)

Elias wasn’t exactly Ward Cleaver, and he certainly wasn’t trying to create Walt Disney the Entertainment Colossus. So is it all dumb luck, genes, and disposition? As a parent, I wonder which is the more unsettling prospect: that I’m invaluable, or that I’m irrelevant? Am I one bad decision away from quashing the next Walt Disney, or was the die cast at childbirth? Alternatively, is it going to come down to how the wheels align, and either they do or they don’t?

After 100,000 years, how has our species not yet determined the proper and foolproof rearing of children? How have we not at least answered the big questions? (E.g.: If you do this your child will become a drug addict.) Parenting on some level is an almost laughable endeavor—”After 100,000 years, I’ve figured it out.” As a father, I operate under the assumption that I should give my daughter enough guidance for her to find her own path, and that I should help correct her worse impulses, but not all of them, because some friction with society is essential if she’s going to move ahead. A strong work ethic is imperative, and instilling that ethic is fraught with peril.

Here I would consider such childhood hardships as Walt Disney was forced by his father to endure: the newspaper route, most notably and notoriously, foisted upon an 8-year-old in the sub-zero Missouri winter. It haunted Disney through adulthood—but you can’t argue with the results. I couldn’t intentionally traumatize my child even knowing it would lead her to greatness. Is that a moral failure? Sacrificing immortality, essentially, for her joy today? Again, this is something to which I’ll never know the answer, which is a small comfort. I’ll labor under the assumption that I am right, though, which has taken me this far in all other pursuits. Ultimately, the variables of personality are just so wild and plentiful that to even consider them is to stare into the abyss.

Everything You Remember About the Original Star Wars Trilogy is Wrong

Last night I re-watched Star Wars Episode I. Like everyone else on the Internet, I’ve been conditioned to remember the film as the worst thing ever—an abomination before God and man!—but I do recall very much enjoying it when it first hit theaters in 1999, and post-re-watch, I feel comfortable saying that it’s still a fun movie.

It’s not The Empire Strikes Back, which I think is what everyone wanted and likely the go-to film for most Star Wars fans when they need a fix of the originals. Instead, it’s its own thing, and while the acting isn’t great, the direction is a hell of a lot better than George Lucas is given credit for, and the story is a solid enough foundation for the films to come. I was surprised by how well the special effects have held up. Somehow over the years, I’d come to remember the CGI characters as cartoony and ridiculous, but they really aren’t. Even the Gungan/battledroid scene at the end looks great. A lot of craftsmanship went into the film.

Now, look, there are things I didn’t like. (Midichlorians, primarily.) And in my own fantasy world, the prequel-era Jedi Order was entirely different than what we got. I would have much preferred them to be kind of do-gooder knights, fighting battles that they decided were worth fighting—whether or not they were asked to help. In other words, they would have joined the Clone Wars because it was being fought, and they got caught up in the frenzy, and hey, let’s go kill those clones! (I’m imagining that scene in Gone with the Wind where all the Southerners run off in excitement to fight the War of Northern Aggression, or whatever.) I would have liked the Jedi to get involved in things in which they have no business. Local disputes, high crime places, wars, and so on. Sometimes government officials put them on the payroll to help (as in the Clone Wars) and sometimes government officials just kind of roll their eyes—there go the Jedi, meddling again.

In other words, I would have had them as highly militarized Jesuits or Freemasons. The Jedi would have seen themselves as the “guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy,” but few others would have. Their secrecy and mysteriousness would have explained the ease of their later persecution. Palpatine comes to power and says, “Look, the galaxy is in a real bind because these Jedi people keep causing problems. We need to stop them.”

I suspect this is what George Lucas originally intended in the seventies. It explains why Uncle Owen called Obi-Wan Kenobi a “crazy old wizard,” and suggested that Anakin was inveigled into some “damned fool idealistic crusade.” (Crusade is the key word here.) It explains why Obi-Wan lied so often. (It’s just what Jedi do—they’re delusional and rationalize anything that gets them into the fight.) It explains why Obi-Wan was so eager to get involved in a rebellion he otherwise had no business joining. (Leia basically wanted him to mail a file to her father. Instead, he’s hiring smugglers, recruiting a team, getting into bar fights and, once he finds himself on the Death Star, running off to handle Jedi business.)

I mean, look, Uncle Owen wanted Luke to stay away from Obi-Wan because Obi-Wan might cajole Luke into fighting a hopeless war. Then Luke and Obi-Wan meet, and what’s the first thing the old man does? Cajoles Luke into fighting a hopeless war! “I need your help, Luke. She needs your help!” No he didn’t and no she didn’t. She needed a file to be carried from point A to point B. Had Alderaan not been destroyed, the two of them (plus Han and Chewie and an invoice for 10,000 credits) would have delivered the file, and Leia’s father would have said, “Great, thank you Obi-Wan. It was great seeing you again. So do you and Luke need a ride back to Tattooine, or…?”

Indeed, the whole reason Obi-Wan was recruited for the epic challenge of delivering mail was because he lived on Tattooine, and that’s the planet Leia happened to be near when she was captured. Had she been captured near Naboo, she’d have sent it to Ric Ollie, who served her mother in the Clone Wars and who would have then been her “only hope.”

The Jedi as delusional, meddling knights would also have explained why only Jedi carry lightsabers (it’s an ancient, insanely dangerous weapon for an ancient, insanely dangerous group of people). It would have explained why Darth Vader carried a lightsaber (he was a former Jedi) and explained why Emperor Palpatine was so amused by Luke’s own lightsaber and condescending about the whole thing. (“Ah yes, a Jedi’s weapon.” As in: very cute. You’ve joined the crazies, too.)

None of this would have contradicted the original trilogy. But here’s the thing: if George Lucas had gone this route, the fans would have strung him from a tree. By the time Episode I went into production, the Jedi had become Magic Super Priests in popular culture. The ultimate good fighting the ultimate evil. Had Lucas undermined this by making them a crazed, stateless French Foreign Legion, he would have all but gone to war with popular (though groundless) myth. It would have been like trying to rewrite Greek mythology.

And so he was basically forced (ha ha!) to figure out how to make a group of Super Good Guys remain super good, while somehow still writing a compelling drama. It was an impossible task. Consider how he handles Obi-Wan and Yoda in the prequels. Qui-Gon Jinn should have, by every measure, been Obi-Wan Kenobi. Reckless. Heedless of the orders of the Jedi Council. Fast to do a Jedi Mind Trick. That’s the Obi-Wan of the original film! But that would have made Obi-Wan a problematic character in Magic Super Priest terms. By 1999, Obi-Wan Kenobi was a Christ figure! You can’t have Jesus going around lying, deceiving, stealing, and pulling lightsabers at the first sign of trouble. So Lucas had to push Obi-Wan across the chessboard of his story without ever allowing Obi-Wan to make a mistake.

The same goes for Yoda. We remember Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back as a saint and an oracle, but he’s neither of those things. The first thing he does when he meets Luke is lie to him and act crazy. Then he seduces Luke into joining the Jedi Order by building it up (talking to the dead!) and denying Luke access (you always want what you can’t have). After suggesting to Luke that he’s the only hope against Vader, the first thing Yoda says after Luke leaves is: “No, there is another.” (This even suggests that Yoda had been lying to Obi-Wan!) In Return of the Jedi, Yoda’s parting wisdom to Luke is… be a good person? Love your neighbor as yourself? Nope! It’s “Go kill your father.” Go handle old Jedi business, in other words. He even tells Luke that there is another Skywalker. As in: “Go recruit a team to do the job if you need to.”

But by 1999, Yoda was a magical green Dali Lama. In the prequels, therefore, Lucas couldn’t go the more natural direction of having a half-crazy goblin priest encouraging his followers to go fight the Clone Wars. Instead, he was forced to write a character who has to be totally mistaken about everything (i.e. Palpatine) without allowing him to ever actually make a mistake. Think about Yoda’s dialogue. Aside from not wanting Anakin to be trained, he basically says things like “Blind we are!” and “Down a dangerous path this leads.” Yoda never actually says anything helpful to anyone, and never uses a neuron of wisdom, because in either case, it would have revealed a tremendous fallibility that culture would not accept.

I actually find it offensive that the only Yoda we see today is the one swinging a lightsaber. What happened to “Great warrior? Wars not make one great.” But that’s because I’m as much a part of the culture as anyone. In fact, Fightin’ Yoda is far more honest to the character than the Space Ghandi I remember.

It’s impossible to appreciate the burden George Lucas carried into the writing room. If for no other reason, I admire the hell out of the prequel galaxy he created. It’s diverse, brooding, and interesting. The Clone Wars computer animated series bears this out. Using the canvas Lucas created, the series was able to tell an rich, extraordinary story on an epic scale.

While I enjoyed Episode VII, I confess that it leaves me feeling a little empty. It’s a really good film, but it takes no chances. George Lucas has long been accused of simply being in the business of selling toys, when in reality I think he’s been in the business of solidifying a mythology that will be remembered forever. The toys just paid for it. By foregoing an original story, the latest Star Wars film suggests that it’s borrowing carefully from a mythology for the sole purpose of—you guessed it—selling toys. The mythology will be footing the bill.

“It’s too late, Peter.”

“Life and money both behave like loose quicksilver in a nest of cracks. When they’re gone you can’t tell where, or what the devil you did with them.” (The Magnificent Ambersons)

Today I turned 37 years old, which, by my reckoning, means that this year I will cross into middle age. Everyone who is dealt a reasonably playable hand, health-wise, seems to get 75 years on Earth. (After that, you’re on bonus time and shouldn’t really complain much.) If my math is correct, 75 ÷ 2 = 37.5, so here I am, a few steps from the summit of life and looking down on the other side of the mountain.

This will not be a soul-bearing post in which I share the things I’ve learned along the way (a lot), and lament the mistakes I’ve made (a lot). This isn’t blogging-as-therapy; I’ll leave that to the Tumblr people. The truth is I don’t do well on birthdays in general. They do depress me, and I do take measure of my life and see where I’ve fallen short, and I do compare myself with my heroes when they were my age. I think everyone does this, to some extent, so I’m not special in that regard.

If there is one good quality about me, it is that I enjoy learning new things. One of my New Years resolutions was to learn, for fun, the C# programming language, and to that end I’ve re-immersed myself in a phenomenal course on Udemy called “Learn To Code by Making Games,” which is taught by Ben Tristem. I’ve very familiar with coding of course; C is my “native language” from my computer science years. I’ve always been fascinated by video game development and thought that alone might motivate me to finish. (I’d started the course previously, but had to step away one-third of the way into it due to my publishing workload. I’ve started over this go-round because I really, really want to understand the subject, both in terms of language and the techniques necessary to complete a project.

Programming is nice in that it lights up a totally different part of my brain than my job, and I can roll into my real-life writing assignments without feeling mentally drained. (Just the opposite, in fact.) I mention all this in the context of my age because there’s no hope of this turning into a career or side-job or whatever. The process of learning, here, is its own reward. I think often of a haunting scene at the end of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, in which Peter Keating, who in his youth longed to be an artist but ended up a parasitic, second-rate architect, returns to painting in middle age. He shows his work to Howard Roark, who studies the canvases, puts them away, and says, simply, “It’s too late, Peter.”

The process of aging, I’ve felt so far, is like the trimming of branches from some great tree. When you are born, anything is possible. I believe that. As you age, branches fall away based on your decisions and your circumstances. You chose not to study in high school, and all the good colleges (and the attendant opportunities) are cut away. You reach 35, and if you’ve never run for elected office, you’ll never be president. That branch, gone. If you’re 40 and going back for your MBA, you might get a promotion at your job, or a new one, but you’ll never be the CEO of Microsoft. That branch fell away two decades earlier.

In other words, I will never be an astronaut.

This isn’t an assertion that we lack free will, but just the opposite—it is one’s free will fully expressed. If I devoted myself today to becoming a concert pianist, and spent the second half of my life doing nothing but practicing the piano, by 70 I might be one hell of a player, but I’ll never play Carnegie Hall because of the other factors that go into such things: a lifetime of self-promotion, playing for symphonies across the country and around the world, networking with other musicians, etc. There’s more to greatness than technical proficiency, and those branches were long severed from the tree.

Nor is this an assertion that life is futile and that (for example) if you’re not published by 40, you never will be, and should give up the dream and just die already. Again, it depends on your actions and circumstances. If you’ve been writing for 20 years and just never quite got around to finding an editor, or never managed to snag an agent, you’ve still been writing for 20 years. It’s not too late for you. The branch is there, and healthy. But if you first pick up a pen at 50, don’t expect to become Stephen King in 5 years. It’s possible, but it’s one hell of a hard climb and beyond the abilities of most mortal men and women.

It is on some level a relief to cultivate my new little hobby of software development without that voice in the back of my mind saying, “You could make this your life’s work! You could be famous! You could be the next John Carmack.” When I was much younger, all of that might have been true. But there’s simply not enough time left for that to happen, now, and I accept that. Thankfully, I didn’t need Howard Roark to tell me that, but in a way, he did.

Some Nonfiction I Liked in 2015

There’s a great anecdote about Stanley Kubrick’s search during the 1970’s for the perfect novel to use as the basis for a film. His process involved reading the first 50 pages or so of a book, and if he didn’t like it, throwing it against his office wall. This went on for some time and his assistant was accustomed to the daily, ritual thumping of book-against-wall. When the thumping stopped, the assistant became alarmed, fearing Kubrick had died. She bolted for his office, only to find him enthusiastically reading The Shining.

I feel a lot like that, minus the genius and the assistant.  There were a few books I read this year that I absolutely hated, and a lot of books that disappointed me for their awesome potential ruined in execution. There’s no need to call out the worst of the offenders, but of the 50-ish nonfiction books I read in 2015, there were enough letdowns to leave a good-sized hole in my office wall.

Any favorites list is going to be biased toward the second half of the year because I’m human, writing this for free, and not thinking too hard about it. So I can’t say for sure that The Wright Brothers by David McCullough was my favorite work of nonfiction, as I read it the last week of December, but it’s certainly one I didn’t expect to enjoy and finished it in a single sitting. The book is great, but feels so effortless that I have to wonder if there was any need for a second draft. It’s the work of a master, obviously, which helps, and it’s a wonderful American story that everyone knows, kind of, but really doesn’t. Upon reflection, I’m not sure if I was ever even conscious of the words on the page. The book was more absorbed than read, as though the information existed as a mist. McCullough wrote without ego, not once imposing himself on the work. There were no rhetorical tricks at work, or literary artifice. It was simply a story perfectly told. God, what a book. What a writer!

Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson was another unexpected pleasure. It’s about treasure hunters who search for sunken pirate ships. It struck me as I was reading it: Wow, I am having a lot of fun reading this book. I love reading and enjoy reading, but I never have fun reading, exactly. “Fun” is video games or amusement parks. But this book was positively ebullient, like sitting across from the best conversationalist at a party, and being afraid to refill your wine glass lest you miss something she says.

I fully expected to love Church of Spies by Mark Riebling, and did. The pope’s secret efforts to assassinate Adolf Hitler? It’s hard to go wrong with a subject like that, but I was astonished how gripping the whole thing was and in awe of how much excruciating work must have gone into researching the subject. How do you even begin? How forthcoming is the Vatican for such a project, and how do you convince its leaders that you’re not secretly writing a hatchet job? How do you convince them that there’s any need for a book right now? I mean, the Catholic Church operates on a millennial timescale. World War II is only 70 years behind us. That the book even exists seems like an accomplishment. That’s it is excellent seems like more than we deserve.

On T-Mobile, Pandora, and Streaming the Holiday

A couple of months ago I switched from AT&T to T-Mobile because I hate AT&T. Anyone who has used AT&T will understand why I left. They consistently overprice and under-deliver. Their stores are so metaphysically awful that I suspect they were derived from some unpublished B.F. Skinner experiment. The thing that really got me, though, was their international service. I was up-sold on a plan that included an app for finding wi-fi hotspots internationally so that I could save on (massively overpriced) data. What a great idea! Except the app requires the use of international data to find said hotspots, which it never actually did, by the way.

But like most consumers, I would probably have just taken it forever—the gouging, the extortion, the stores aspiring to be a joyful as the DMV—but T-Mobile announced an unlimited streaming plan that seemed (and seems, frankly) too good to be true. It works like this: streaming data does not count against your data plan. Netflix? YouTube? Apple Music? Go wild. Run it 24/7. Stream 730 hours of video a month, and you’ll pay for 0 bytes of data. This is a Crazy Eddie type of deal, but it’s real. I expected fine print or some sort of gotcha when I went to the T-Mobile store (the Siegen Lane location in Baton Rouge), which, incidentally, was clean, bright, and pleasant, and so overstaffed that at one point I had three people helping me at once. It was like I was slowing them down.

(This is the precise opposite of the AT&T experience. Life hack: the next time you have to visit an AT&T store, bring along all of last year’s receipts and do your taxes while your wait for an employee to call your name. And not the 1040EZ, either, but the long form.)

T-Mobile paid-off my AT&T contract and bought my old phone. Here is how that worked. They asked me how much time was left on my contract. (14 months.) They asked me what new phone I wanted. (iPhone 6s.) They asked me to back up my phone (I already had) and they typed things into a computer. Twenty minutes later, I had a new phone, 6GB of (tether-able) data, unlimited streaming, and it cost me… nothing. Like, they handed me a bag with my activated phone and I had to ask them if they were sure it was OK if I left without giving them any money. Until then I had never left a mobile phone store without paying somebody something. In fact, not only did I not pay, but they paid me to leave. The value of my phone applied to the first two months of my cell phone bill. They told me when AT&T sent me a final bill, to bring it in and they would process it for a final refund. (Yesterday I did, and they did.)

The thing that struck me about the employees was their weird zeal for sticking it to the competitors. Like, I get it when the CEO of T-Mobile insults AT&T and Verizon. He’s the CEO. He wants to make millions of dollars. But these guys at the T-Mobile store aren’t getting stock options or use of the company jet. They just really seemed to like their jobs and hate the competition. They were excited to have a new member of their tribe. (It was almost cult-like in retrospect, but a really good cult, like those weirdos who’ve started an actual Jedi religion.)

It seems like I’m on the payroll here by writing all this (I’m not, though if you’re reading T-Mobile, call me!), but the whole experience was so rewarding and free of frustration that I feel like I have to tell somebody lest I wake up from a really great, if boring, comparatively, dream.

*

All of this occurred during the holiday season. Christmas. Whatever. God I miss when you could just write “holiday season” without it being some sort of political statement. I just mean the winterish time when people suddenly remember that gingerbread is a valid cookie. See, I’m not a huge music fan (well, I am a great fan of music, but I’m not one of those people who calls it “my music” when referring to their album collection), but I love Christmas music. Not just any Christmas music, but the classics of the Bing Crosby and Burl Ives variety. If you are a Christmas song and were written or performed after 1950, you are suspect to me.

Because I now have unlimited streaming, I figured that I would try it out. (In truth, when I switched over I wasn’t sure what it was I wanted to stream. It’s not like I’m watching Netflix while driving.) I signed up for Pandora because it was free and required no thinking on my part. (For some reason, the signup for Spotify feels like buying a timeshare.) So I signed up for Pandora and searched for a radio station or channel or whatever they’re calling it and found “Christmas Traditional Radio.” (It might also be called “Holiday Classics”—I have no idea how Pandora works.)

Hmm, I wondered. Will it be actual holiday classics or will it attempt to foist upon me that horrible Paul McCartney “Wonderful Christmastime” atrocity that society seems hellbent on making a classic even though nobody likes it if they’re honest with themselves. (Don’t get me started on “Happy X-Mas (War is Over),” which actually makes me hope for total thermonuclear armageddon. If ever I’m a prisoner of war, you can pry off my fingernails and I won’t talk, but play that godforsaken John Lennon abomination and I’ll tell you everything you want to know. I’ll become a spy for you. Anything. Just make it stop.)

Dear reader, this station was the real deal. Bing Crosby and I spent weeks together and it was glorious. Only once did Holiday Classics fail me, when it attempted to sneak “Merry Christmas, Baby” by the Beach Boys into the rotation. God. But mostly the algorithm (I’m assuming the station is automated) achieved near perfection. Nat King Cole, the Andrews Sisters. Mitch Miller. Frank Sinatra is hit and miss with his Christmas music. The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to hear a Frank Sinatra song and not think, “Oh, that’s Frank Sinatra,” which destroys the immersion. Sinatra is simply bigger than Christmas music. But Bing Crosby? He is Christmas. (Sinatra isn’t alone in this. The Rat Pack, collectively, fails miserably and almost embarrassingly at Christmastime.) Moreover, a lot of musicians are a little too fondly remembered for their Christmas music. Perry Como has about 2,000 songs of the holiday, and exactly two good ones: “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and “Home for the Holidays.” Andy Williams isn’t quite as good as he’s remembered either.

It’s worth noting that the Pandora stream never once buffered, which is a testament, I think, to both Pandora and T-Mobile. Indeed, I had zero outages driving from Baton Rouge to Orlando and back. I think that’s pretty impressive, and it alleviated my greatest fear when switching to T-Mobile: that the network would be spotty. But I can say that streaming music had a measurable effect on my life over the last month: it’s put me in the Christmas spirit.

Thoughts on the Jawbone UP3

Two months ago, I gave in to temptation and bought the Jawbone UP3 wristband. (Previously, I wore the Jawbone UP24, which was an extraordinarily comfortable and durable device with excellent customer service. My primary motivation for upgrading was to get the pulse feature. I’m an avid runner and updates on my heart rate just seemed like something that would be cool to know.

Here are some brief thoughts on the device when compared with its predecessor. The app for the Jawbone UP3 is much, much better than that of the UP24, which almost never worked by the time I upgraded. (It basically required a daily phone reset in order to sync my device. This had the effect of training me not to bother checking the app but for once or twice a week, tops. More on this in a minute.) It now seems clear that Jawbone simply abandoned the old app in favor of the new, or at least, has its B-team working on that one. (The old devices and new apps are incompatible.) Regardless, the new app is fast and fun to use. It’s functionally identical, but it actually works. It’s almost worth the upgrade for that alone.

In terms of comfort, once you have the device strapped to your wrist, it’s easy to forget about. It has a very low profile, and on the rare occasion that it catches on something, it’s not a panic-inducing concern. I can’t imagine how one might damage the rubber-like band, and the two-inch plastic “device” component of the band seems well-hardened and scratch resistant. Either way, it’s not like you’re going to damage the nonexistent screen, or a Jony Ive designed, multi-axis milled, cold-forged-alloy-and-diamond-carbon-coated case. If anything, the rubber-and-plastic band is more durable than the Apple Watch in daily use, as there’s no high polish in need of constant cradling. It would be hard to spot a scratch on this thing.

(N.b. that this isn’t really to compare the two devices, which serve entirely different purposes. The Apple Watch is a very attractive watch that happens to track activity. The Apple Watch wants to be seen. The Jawbone UP series tracks activity, and wants to stay hidden.)

The UP3 seems close in appearance and fit to those Livestrong bands. (I’ve never actually worn one, so I cannot comment on the similarity of comfort.) In practice, it takes a couple of weeks to really figure out your fit and learn how to strap on the device. It’s not a watch clasp, exactly, but a weird overlap clipping mechanism that requires you to stretch the band with your non-dominant hand, align the clasps and clip them. The device was intended originally to be waterproof, and with that in mind the clasp makes perfect sense. Regardless of the headache that is its design, if you only have to remove it once a week, there are no worries. Unfortunately, the device is not waterproof, which means daily removal while you shower. (It is water resistant, however. I even cleaned my pool yesterday while wearing it. So technically you could wear it in the shower, I guess, but it seems like it would be a pain to rinse the soap away from underside.)

The battery life is much worse than the Jawbone UP24. Within six days, the device is dead, and I never realize it until it’s too late. The previous model trained me to just forget about it. It was always there, always working, this immortal machine powered as if by plutonium. This one is like a really healthy octogenarian. There’s no reason to worry, exactly, but you know the end could come at any moment. The charger, meanwhile, is a mess. Just this weird, terrible dongle-like thing whose magnetic contacts are impossible to properly align the first five or six times you go to charge the device. This is only like a minute of my week lost, but I’m glad my pulse isn’t measured for that minute; my frustration with and bafflement of the design would throw off my average.

The pulse measurement is passive. That is to say, you can’t push a button and get a reading. It happens when it happens and that’ll just have to do. It measures both resting and passive heart rate. It doesn’t give a whole lot of guidance for the information it collects, and I suspect that has something to do with federal regulations. Its advice is usually something to the effect of: “Your heart rate is slightly higher than last week. Try getting more sleep.” I’m pleased to have the readings, though, and it really is a motivator to remain on top of my running. My RHR is generally in the high-40s and I’d like to keep it there, or even get it a bit lower. (Now that fitness is measured by how rarely one’s heart has to beat to keep you alive.)

Lastly, the cost. I’m not sure of the price at which it premiered, but earlier this year it ran $179, which was a shade too much. $159 would have made it a real bargain. But the price has since dropped to $129, making it an absolute steal. Despite its minor frustrations, I heartily recommend the device. It does what it sets out to do, and does it well.

If Beijing Is Worried about Its Air Quality, Worry.

The front page of the New York Times today features an astonishing story about Beijing that begins: “Residents across this city awoke to an environmental state of emergency on Tuesday as poisonous air quality prompted the government to close schools, force motorists off the road and shut down factories.”

Abstractly, it is the kind of story you read, consider for a moment, and go about your day. “Smog,” you think. “Just awful.” Had I not visited Beijing last year, I’d have thought the same thing, and immediately forgotten about the problem. But having been there, I’m thunderstruck by how horrible things must actually be this week for the government to admit there’s a problem, let alone close the city down.

Beijing is the kind of city where you’re never more than ten minutes from a marvel of human history. The Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, Lama Temple, the Summer Palace—they all just seem so impossible, so immense, so stunning to behind and impossible, really, to comprehend. The city’s parks are splendid, and the food and the vibe and the people—it’s a terrible place to have to leave.

But the air pollution is scary. Not the way weepy environmentalists find everything not made of hemp to be scary, but scary in a humanity-cannot-survive-this sort of way. If you don’t believe humans can be the cause of climate change, visit Beijing.

Nobody warned me about China’s pollution problem in advance, and I’m not the sort of person who notices that kind of thing. When I close my eyes and visualize the word “pollution,” I see a toxic waste dump (or what I imagine a toxic waste dump to look like), with barrels floating on a lake of sludge. Anything short of that tends to escape my attention. So upon arrival, I thought, “Wow, foggy day.”

Within two days, my eyes were burning. It wasn’t like seasonal allergies, where your brain acknowledges the discomfort, you complain a bit, and then go about your business. This was alarming on a visceral level. My eyes were burning simply because I was using them. And that deep part of your brain that knows when something is definitely Not Right was at red alert. Whatever was burning my eyes wasn’t natural—wood on fire, say—but artificial and chemical, something that human beings did not evolve to handle.

It didn’t ruin my trip, and I don’t want to sound (too) apocalyptic about all of this, but it did give me a new appreciation for the urgency of addressing human environmental impact. At the top of this post is a photograph I took of the city that is representative of every photograph I took there. This is what Beijing looks like on a clear, sunny day, when nobody is particularly worried and the city government wants everyone to go about their business. I can only scarcely imagine how much worse things must be for them to panic.

 

iPads as Education Placebo

The Washington Post has a depressing op-ed written by a teacher whose third grade class was issued Apple iPads. I don’t need to tell you that the ending is unhappy. As it turns out, if you give $500 gaming devices to children, they tune out and play games. Here’s a heartbreaking passage:

One of my saddest days in my digital classroom was when the children rushed in from the lunchroom one rainy recess and dashed for their iPads. Wait, I implored, we play with Legos on rainy days! I dumped out the huge container of Legos that were pure magic just a couple of weeks ago, that prompted so much collaboration and conversation, but the delight was gone. My students looked at me with disdain. Some crossed their arms and pouted. We aren’t kids who just play anymore, their crossed arms implied. We’re iPad users. We’re tech-savvy. Later, when I allowed their devices to hum to glowing life, conversation shut down altogether.

The Internet didn’t begin rolling out to schools in any meaningful way until my last years of high school, and I was spared the worst of the technology jihad mounted by people who were just certain that “a computer in every classroom” (that was the rally cry) would Change Everything, and that Our Children Need Computers, and so on.

(N.b. that now that computers have ruined schools across America, the new demand is for students to learn how to code, which, writing as someone with a B.S. in computer science, is about as hilarious and pointless an endeavor as anything ever attempted ever. Only a very tiny percentage of people will ever or should ever need to touch a compiler, and of them, only an infinitesimal number will be any good at it. The argument is that students need to learn coding because it’s the “job of the future,” but it really isn’t. Plumbing, carpentry, auto repair—those are jobs of the future. Computer science is a field that’s only existed since, oh yeah, 1822, but because someone with an education major and a clipboard doesn’t know how to do it, it’s new and critical and that somehow kids who were otherwise destined to work middle management at the local factory are going to be swept away in the magic of parsing algorithms and fixing buffer overflows. The mentality seems to be “Well if we only help one…” (which suggests right away that we’re dealing with a religious cause an not an intellectual one), but the question is why you’d want to waste the time and energy of the other 99%. I get pushing STEM on students, and largely support the effort, which is why I’d be fine with a high school course like Practical Chemistry and Biology. (How to read a medicine bottle. Why that magic weight loss cure doesn’t work. Why does hydrogen peroxide  disinfect an abrasion? Why does gasoline make your car run? Why do you need to change the oil?) But “coding” has limited value at best, and considering the quality of most high school “computer science” teachers, is a waste of time if not poison being poured into the STEM well. The best thing I can say about coding in schools is that casual observation suggests the only thing schools are really teaching is HTML, which, while a colossal waste of time, at least isn’t actively harmful.)

The problem with iPads in every classroom is that they (i.e. the iPads) give the illusion of innovative learning without actually teaching students anything. In the writing world, there’s this whole psychotic fascination among amateur writers with finding the perfect computer software. The thinking goes like this: I can’t seem to write my book, but if I had [whatever], I would be a great writer! And so would-be writers buy new laptops, download programs like Scrivener and elaborate Word templates, and research the best brightness for their screens, and look for the best online dictionary and scour the Internet in search of productivity apps and sites, and maybe something that’s cross-platform so they can work on their iPad, iPhone, AND computer, and they “build platforms” on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr—you get the idea. These people always buy Moleskine notebooks. Hundreds of hours go into these prodigies of activity, and these writers have the best literary command centers money can buy, and they go to their graves without having written a single word.

Writing is hard, just as teaching is hard and engaging students is hard. And this obsession with writing apps is a way to seem very productive—look at all I’m doing to make my career a success!—without actually doing the one thing guaranteed to make your writing a career a success: writing. Likewise, look at this wonderful tool I’ve given my classroom! Let’s spend the next month learning how to use our iPads! Let’s test new apps! Let’s attempt cooperative noncompetitive group learning using digital [whatever]…

All this, when months, and by the time students graduate, years, could have been better spent practicing math with a pencil and reading a play by Shakespeare in a book.

What is perhaps most infuriating about the efforts by schools to infest their classrooms with iPads is that, on a very basic level, I think teachers, administrators, and students know that computers and tablets don’t help, and oftentimes actually hinder, the learning process. But man, no ambitious school administrator’s resume is complete without a bullet-point that says: “Wrote successful grant for 500 tablet computers.”

The New York Times reported a few years ago on the habit of computer executives in Silicon Valley to send their children to technology-free schools. As one blog explained, “The tech-free teaching methods are designed to foster a lifelong love of learning and teach students how to concentrate deeply and master human interaction, critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills.”

You’ll find none of those benefits while smearing your finger on a glass screen. But everyone knows those benefits aren’t really the point.

The Fascinating Scrabble AMA

There’s a wonderful AMA with a North American Scrabble champion happening right now on Reddit. Here are a few favorite exchanges.

On “hooks.”

Q: You get to go first, your letters are: UUUTJNZ. What do you play?

A: JUN and JUT are the only words really worth playing, though I’m not happy about keeping two U’s. JUN is better defensively

Q: Can you give me a brief explanation as to why it’s better defensively? I’m not great at scrabble, but im always interested in high level game strategies.

A: Simply due to the “hooks”, i.e., the letters you can add to the front or end of the word. JUT can hook an E or S to make JUTE or JUTS. Whereas JUN can only hook with a K to make JUNK. So by playing JUT, you’re giving the opponent more options

The letter “Q.”

Q: Would the fact that you have a U make it more worthwhile to hold on to the N so you have the UN prefix? I guess it might not in this case, since you probably won’t be bingoing next turn with that leave anyway. It’s decisions like this that separate great players like you from decent ones like me!

A:The U is a horrible letter. There is a disproportionately high number of them in Scrabble simply because of the Q. If you draw a U, you should try to play it off if possible.

On playing your rack.

Q: I’ve read that top scrabble players focus on bingos, whereas the average best-among-your-friends focuses on tile placement for multipliers. Any tips for transitioning from the latter to the former?

A: Improve your bingo-finding skills! First, learn how to look for them on your rack. Most bingos include a common prefix or suffix. If you have -ING, -ERS, -ABLE, or -IEST on your rack, that’s a good place to start. It’s a lot easier to find the 8-letter words in EEGINRST if you start with the common suffixes. Second, learn how to manage your leaves better. The “leave” is the leftover tiles when you make a play. We know that ERS is very powerful, so if we’re not able to bingo this turn, it might be a good idea to make a play that saves those tiles for next turn.
Third, learn more words. There’s no way around this one. You’ll play more bingos if you learn more words. One of the most common 7-letter words in Scrabble is ANEROID. You have to know it to be able to find it!

How to get rid of vowels.

Q: I still have problems coming up with words when I end up with so many vowels. What are some good tips or words to use when you end up with so many vowels and the board is already full ish?

A: The bag is inherently vowel-heavy, so it always takes some care to not end up with too many. Try not to unload as many vowels as you can each turn.
Also, it helps to learn some of the less-common vowelly words. Words like AUREI, MIAOU, UNAI, or ILIA can clean up those ugly racks quickly.

On being a Scrabble player.

Q: How many of the less common words do you use in your daily lexicon?

A: Do you mean outside of Scrabble? None. I try to act like a normal person when I’m not at tournaments

I wrote about the fascinating Scrabble tournament subculture for Mental Floss a few months ago. This is also a good opportunity to throw rocks at Scrabble for blundering the move to apps, and at Words With Friends for allowing players to jumble their letters endlessly on the board, clicking “play” until one is accepted by the computer. In case you’re wondering, the reason that Words With Friends isn’t a flagrant violation of Hasbro’s copyright is because a game’s concept can’t be copyrighted for a game—only the game’s rules. Words With Friends places its bonus squares in different locations on its board, and its BINGO bonus is different. This feels wrong on a lot of levels, but if Hasbro couldn’t bother to invest its billions in a good app, I can’t be bothered to shed many tears for them.

(Image credit: Local Scrabble)