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Aha! Strava is (partly) to blame

There are unfortunately more than a few people that seem to treat the Stevens Creek Trail as if it’s part of the Tour de France (although there are thankfully fewer of them these days, now that almost no one is using it to commute). I may have accidentally discovered at least part of the reason why.

Since Bike to Work Day wasn’t a thing this month (biking to work is pointless if you can’t actually work there), Google kicked off a “bike anywhere” competition. To log your bike trips, you need to install and use Strava. I’d never installed Strava before (I don’t care how long it takes me to bike to or from work), but I decided to use the competition as motivation to resume biking every day (I miss the forcing function of commuting). So I installed it and started using it.

And I discovered that Strava breaks the Stevens Creek Trail down into segments, and times how long it takes you to complete each of those segments. Thus every time you ride you get little rewards if you beat your previous times, and there are leaderboards for those segments so you can compete with other cyclists.

One of the things about people in Silicon Valley? They have competitiveness issues. Big ones. So of course people are racing on the trail as if they’re trying to beat someone. They are.

Strava seems like a very nice app, but I think we’d all be better off if they scrapped the leaderboards and achievements for multi-use trails.

Working from… where?

As our working from home period stretches on (and on), a number of technology companies are revisiting remote workers and looking at the possibility of more of their work force shifting to permanent work from home (or wherever) status.

I’m personally a little skeptical that Google will shift most (or even much) of its work force to permanent work from home status. Sure, we’ve been fairly productive so far. But we’ve largely been executing on previous plans to this point. I suspect where the lack of face-to-face conversations and meetings will really start to bite us is when we shift to making new plans and coming up with new ideas. I personally find it harder to be creative when I can’t easily exchange ideas in casual conversation or jam at a whiteboard when talking an idea through with someone.

But the possibility does raise the question: if you could work from anywhere, where would you want to work from? While the Bay Area does have lovely weather (and we’re appreciating it anew now that we’re spending so much time at home; being able to spend lots of time outdoors is wonderful), the housing prices and traffic are definite downsides.

I could probably spend a couple of happy years working from the San Juans, but the increased isolation would probably drive my wife crazy. Someplace near Tahoe would provide lots of lovely outdoor scenery and opportunities for exercise and fresh air. Some place near Yosemite would make it really easy to take advantage of the park.

Or we could move someplace that would pay us to relocate. Vermont still has a program that will pay you to relocate there for remote work. I’d love to work from Alaska in the summer, but I’m not sure I could take the winter (and the Permanent Fund is probably hurting right now).

Or we could aim for a mid-size city that has reliable internet service, solid cultural institutions (symphony, theater, museums), a variety of tasty restaurants, and affordable housing prices. Ideally one also close to outdoor recreation opportunities and an airport to enable easy travel to other locations.

I don’t expect we’ll leave the Bay Area anytime soon. Among other factors, we want to let our daughter finish school before we relocate. But once she’s off to college, we might find ourselves looking more seriously at where we’d want to live, particularly if work is no longer tied to a specific location.

I think that’s week 10

It feels at this point like time has lost much of it’s meaning; the days tend to blur together with their similarity. But I’m pretty sure we’re starting week 10 of mandatory sheltering-in-place in the Bay Area. And for those who started working from home when it was optional it’s been even longer.

At this point people finally seem to have gotten enough toilet paper; it’s no longer a surprise when you actually see paper goods (toilet paper, tissues, paper towels) in stores (although the shelves are certainly not full). And the baking aisle is no longer totally ransacked; it’s possible people have baked themselves out (or maybe their just pausing while they catch up on eating their baked goods).

It’s still hard to find at least some cleaning supplies here. We’ve been trying to find liquid soap refills for over a week now, but the stores we’ve checked (Target and our local grocery stores) have consistently sold out. We may cave and order online if we can’t find any in the next week.

After a couple of weeks of looking, I finally found and ordered a recommended model of hair clippers online. I was at the point where I needed a haircut right before the lockdown, and after two more months I was seriously shaggy. My first foray into cutting my own hair actually went fairly well. I didn’t try anything ambitious, and I’d reached the point where most changes would have been an improvement, so I definitely think I came out ahead. Who knows when we’ll actually be able to get cuts from professionals again; the Bay Area is being extremely conservative with re-opening; our county only started allowing curbside pick for non-essential retail a few days ago.

It’ll be interesting to see how much people adhered to social distancing over the long weekend. When my daughter and I went grocery shopping on Saturday there were noticeably fewer people out and about; I’m curious if they actually went out of town or were just sleeping in.

Pixel Buds first thoughts

I bought a pair of Google’s new Pixel Buds this week (technically they’re the Pixel Buds 2, I suppose, but since the Pixel Buds 1 are better forgotten let’s just all stick with Pixel Buds without a number), and they arrived on Friday. So far I like them: easy to set up, comfortable to wear, good sound quality.

One feature in need of better design is the real-time translation, though. It’s a promising idea; trigger the Assistant and ask it to help you speak another language (e.g., “help me speak French”), and when it hears you speak English it’ll speak the French translation in your ear so you can speak it to the other person. And when the other person speaks French (continuing the example, the Buds will hear the language and speak the English translation in your ear.

So what’s wrong with it? Two things. First, the Assistant speaks the translation way too fast; by the time it’s finished translating a phrase you’ve already forgotten the first part of what it said. It needs to slow down when speaking the phrase, possibly saying it more than once until it detects you saying it, and potentially giving the option to display the phrase on your phone as well.

Second, there’s no cue to the other person when they can speak. If you try to explain to the other person what’s going on and when they can safely speak, you’re likely to confuse the Assistant and have it translate your attempts at explanation (which could, of course, be what you want). It’d be better if you could either provide a cue to the Assistant when the other person is saying something you want translated, or provide a cue to the other person when the Assistant is ready for them to speak (possibly again using your phone).

So as a wireless music and Podcast listening tool, I like the Pixel Buds so far. But I can’t see actually using them for real-time translation except in an utter emergency.

Please wear a mask in the bank

We stopped by the ATM at a local bank on the way to the farmer’s market today, and there was a security guard standing outside. It seemed a little strange, but times are strange and he confirmed the ATM was available. It was only while using the ATM that I realized why he was there: the bank was now asking patrons to wear facial coverings before entering. So that’s how far we’ve come in a couple of months: from “please don’t cover your face and remove your hat and sunglasses”, to “please cover your face”.

Day One and Google Photos are taunting me

Technically it’s our daughter’s spring break this week. It’s not really a vacation, though. She doesn’t actually have classes, but with AP exams approaching she still has plenty of homework. And it’s not like we can actually go anywhere. But in prior years this week has commonly been one where we’ve taken family vacations.

I typically take photos on vacations to remember them, and for awhile now I’ve been using Day One to capture thoughts and experiences from those vacations. Awhile back I uploaded lots of our vacation photos to Google Photos, so that we could have our Google Home Hub display a rotating carousel of those images. Normally I like that both services remind me of previous photos or journal entries: it’s a chance to be reminded of a fond memory. Now that we’re all trapped at home for an extended period of time, those reminders are a little painful.

Remember last year, when you were in the San Juan islands and Victoria? How about this trip to Joshua Tree? Yosemite? The trips to wide open spaces seem particularly painful now. Why yes, I do remember hiking through Yosemite and think it’d be awesome to be wandering through the meadows right now (well, ok, except for the increase in bears casually wandering around). Except, oh yeah, the park is closed. Joshua Tree? Closed. Pretty much every place we’ve spent spring break in the past is now closed (and even if it weren’t, it’d be hard to get there).

And yet the reminders go on. Daily, because the software isn’t smart enough to realize that the individual entries actually belong to larger events. So for the past week I’ve been treat to daily tauntings of when we could go out and enjoy ourselves as a family. Sometimes our “intelligent” software? Not so intelligent.

Changing buying patterns

It’s been interesting over the past few weeks of grocery shopping to see how buying patterns have changed. First there was a run on toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels (and it’s still nearly impossible to find them in stores around here), and then it was meats and frozen foods. In the last week or two people have shifted to buying out sugar, flour, and yeast (local stores have been limiting how much yeast each customer can buy, just like they’re limiting toilet paper supplies). CNN today had an interesting article this week talking about how this pattern is occurring across our society in general; apparently next up is hair care equipment and supplies now that we’ve been unable to visit salons and barbershops for weeks.

The NY Times also had an article today looking at how the virus has changed how Americans spend money. Travel spending has gone through the floor, as has spending on fitness and entertaining in general. Spending on groceries, by contrast is up, even after people have slowed their panic buying. Video streaming is also up, and gaming has jumped a lot (Google has opened up Stadia Pro to everyone for free for two months; I’m still playing regularly – I finished Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, and now I’m working my way through Shadow of the Tomb Raider). It’ll be interesting to see if people continue to cook as much at home once we can go to restaurants again, now that they’ve had a chance to practice their cooking skills, or whether they give it up and resume eating out.

My tablet use is through the roof

Speaking of tablets, my tablet use has been through the roof while we’ve been stuck sheltering-in-place. Reading the news over breakfast in the morning? Tablet. Take a break from work during the day? Tablet. Relaxing in the evening? Tablet. Since I’m pretty much always at home, my tablet use now substantially outweighs my phone use.

My primary tablet is now several years old, and with the increased use I’ve noticed that its battery doesn’t seem to last nearly as long as it used to. Just a month ago I feel like I’d only have to charge it once a week or so, but now I find myself charging it every other day. Some of that increase is due purely to the increased usage. What I can’t determine is how much is also due to the battery no longer holding its charge as well as it used to. If we end up stuck at home for a substantial period going forward (here in the Bay Area we’ve been ordered to shelter-in-place at least through the beginning of May) I may end up doing a little bit of my part to prop up the retail industry by ordering a new one. Or at least getting the battery replaced.

Is it a 2-in-1 if you only use 1-in-2?

I have a Pixelbook that I use regularly. I like the fact that I can log into it with both my work and personal accounts, so pre-Covid-19 times it was a way to be able to access work email and tools when necessary without always lugging my laptop home. Now, of course, I’m home all the time with my work laptop, so that’s less useful. I also liked that I could bring it, rather than my much heavier Macbook Pro, when traveling for work, and I could both stay on top of work and use it for personal entertainment on flights and in the evening. That too is something I haven’t needed in awhile, but hopefully will again in the not-too-distant future.

When I first got the Pixelbook I thought I would potentially use it as both a laptop and a tablet; that is, after all, the premise of a 2-in-1 device. But in practice I almost never use it as a tablet. There are two primary reasons. First, Chrome OS doesn’t provide a great tablet experience. Sure, it’s usable. But touch interaction feels like it’s bolted on, rather than a first-class citizen. And Android applications still don’t provide good tablet experiences (if they provide tablet experiences at all). The NY Times app for Android, for example, is slowly getting better, but it’s still not as good as the iPad version.

The second reason is that I just don’t like resting my fingers on the keys when the device is folded into tablet mode. Yes, the software disables key input when the device is in tablet mode, but it still feels wrong to be randomly pressing keys while holding the device as a tablet. I thought I might get used to it over time, but nope. When it comes to laptops and tablets, I definitely prefer separate devices. Or tablets with detachable keyboards. I know the Pixel Slate wasn’t well-received when it was released, but as a dual mode device I actually prefer the Slate to the Pixelbook. As a pure laptop, of course, I prefer the Pixelbook.

More walkers, runners, and bikers than cars

California still has a car-heavy culture, even in the Bay Area (where someone is always more environmentally conscious than you). In the past when I’ve gone running on the weekends, drivers outnumber walkers, runners, and bikers by an order of magnitude. Actually, it’s more like two orders of magnitude.

With the current shelter-in-place order, however, that’s changed. Now you only see the occasional car on residential streets, and as the weather has gotten nicer (we got a batch of cold, rainy weather just in time for the shelter-in-place order, and it’s only now starting to clear) more and more people have been spending time outdoors (most are good, if not downright paranoid, about maintaining 6+’ of distance). Today when running I think the ratio of people I encountered flipped the other way: an order of magnitude more walkers, runners, and bikers than cars (I’d be tempted to say it might have been close to two orders of magnitude, but I briefly pass over 85 and there were still a fair number of cars on the freeway). Even after a couple of weeks of sheltering in place it still feels weird to see so many people going places without driving.