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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.

Stock coronavirus email

Dear <Name>,

In these trying times, we wanted to let you know that we at <Company> are here for you and want to support your <company focus> needs. However, when we say we’re here for you, we don’t mean we’re physically here for you. Our stores are closed. And our call center people aren’t here for you either, so please stop calling. What we mean when we say we’re here for you is that our website is here for you. Please visit it.

Thank you,

<Corporate executive>

Alton Brown’s Pantry Raid videos

Alton Brown has started a series of short Pantry Raid videos to tide us over while we’re all trapped at home during the coronavirus outbreak. Each video is fairly short, and so far they’re covering timely topics (how to make popcorn to go with all the streaming content you’re watching, making cookies for the kids, making a cocktail for the adults, and what do to do with old Saltines you find in the cupboard. Worth watching.

Thoughts on the Galaxy Fold after a few days

I wanted to get some first hand experience with foldable devices in order to start building a sense of their potential, so I borrowed a Galaxy Fold from our device library at work and set it up as a personal device. I’ve been living with it for the past few days, and here are my initial observations:

  1. When folded, the Fold is not a good phone. The external display (for use while the device is folded) is too small to use for more than quick glances, and it’s not even particularly good for that since it presents a stock (but small) launcher. The display needs to be bigger (so that it can actually be used to get things done when held in a single hand). Another approach would be to redesign the experience for the smaller screen to emphasize glanceable interaction with apps (which would require deeper modifications to Android), but would still require unfolding the phone and using it two-handed for any sustained interaction.
  2. When unfolded, the Fold is not a good tablet. The aspect ratio is too square to really support structuring applications with a focus+context approach (and it doesn’t help that Android apps don’t tend to provide useful tablet designs). The end result is a form factor that doesn’t feel like a good tablet (not enough horizontal space to support full tablet layouts) or a good phone (enough horizontal space that scaling up an interfaced designed for a phone feels weird). Even if more apps provided tablet layouts I’m not convinced they’d work well with this size / aspect ratio.
  3. Keeping the screen clean is an issue. I keep my phone in my pocket, and it undergoes a certain amount of cleaning just from sliding against the fabric as it moves around. If the screen picks up more severe smudges, some harder swipes against a leg or my shirt tails is sufficient. With the Fold that’s a problem: it’s closed when in my pocket, and I don’t dare rub the screen hard enough to remove fingerprint oils. The interior screen has picked up smudges, and I have no idea how to clean it safely.

My current opinion is shaped by my circumstances: I have the luxury of being able to afford a smartphone, a laptop, and a tablet. Given those circumstances, so far I wouldn’t replace my current smartphone or my tablet with a foldable device. I’ll keep using the Fold to develop a better sense of it, but so far it looks like foldable devices still have lots of room for improvement.

Stadia after two months

I’ve been using Stadia for a couple of months now, and I like it. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m more of a casual gamer than a hardcore one, so I was drawn to Stadia by the ability to play console games without the upfront cost of buying a console (although I did have to pay for the Stadia controller, it should be reusable as a generic USB controller in the event I stop using Stadia.

After two months I’m still enjoying Stadia and playing it regularly. More specifically, I’ve been enjoying and playing Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. After initially thinking more about the technology, now I primarily focus on the games. Destiny 2 was initially fun, but it quickly got repetitive and I lost interest in it. I’m sure it’s got a passionate fan base, but I personally don’t really see the appeal; I didn’t find the storyline that compelling. AC:O, by contrast, has way more story than I expected. Every time I suspect I might be nearly the end of the game, there’s more game.

My shift to focusing on the games highlights the primary challenge I think Stadia faces. If you’re focused on the latest and greatest games, Stadia’s library is still sorely lacking. If, like me, you’re more interested in just playing some fun games, Stadia is a great way to try them without committing to a console. To bring in the gamer audience, Stadia needs to grow its library as quickly as it can. Which they clearly recognize and are working to do.

The part of Stadia’s technology that I really like is its ability to work across devices. While I starting off playing mostly on our TV using the Chromecast Ultra, these days I primarily play off the iMac in our office. It’s really convenient to be able to choose which device to play on, rather than being tied to a particular room and device.

I wasn’t sure in my first month of use whether I’d stick with Stadia, but for now I’m planning to continue my subscription once my initial three month subscription completes.

Android on Chrome OS: kind of embarrassing

These days I often reach for my Pixelbook over my Macbook Pro, often because it’s easy for me to log into my work account as well as my personal one. Plus the keyboard still way better than the awful butterfly one; here’s hoping Apple quickly introduces their improved keyboard across their laptop line (although I haven’t personally tried it, so I can’t yet verify how much it’s actually improved).

But I gotta say, Android on Chrome OS is still kind of a mess. Why can I still not put apps on the home screen? Why is there still no clear differentiation between Android apps and web pages? And why on earth do downloads from the Play Store occasionally slow to a crawl?

The latter is something I’ve observed twice now. For no clear reason, downloads (both new installs and updates) from the Play Store will suddenly slow to a crawl. We’re talking 20 minutes to download and install a 10 mb update slow. The slowness will last for a couple of weeks, and then suddenly it’ll clear up, again for no clear reason.

I suspect it’s potentially an issue with Google Play Services, since at the same time content will stop downloading in the Play Movies & TV app (or it could be an issue with the Download Manager, assuming PM&T uses it to refresh the app content, but is possible but not certain). None of the proposed workarounds suggested online work: forcing stopping apps or services, clearing caches, clearing data. It’s frankly embarrassing that Google even has to propose those solutions; an app should never force users to go in and manually clear out the app’s data. Don’t get me started on the proposed “uninstall and reinstall Android” solution.

I really hope that the relevant teams at Google identify and fix the issue(s). If the company wants to run with Android on Chrome OS as their preferred tablet and laptop solution, they need to make the ability to download and update apps rock solid. A solution that doesn’t reliably let you use apps isn’t a solution.

Final Star Wars trilogy: Abrams vs. Johnson

We (finally) got around to seeing Rise of Skywalker last night. It was fun, but afterward we could help comparing J.J. Abram’s movies (Force Awakens, Rise of Skywalker) against Rian Johnson’s (Last Jedi). I know a lot of die hard fans complained about Johnson’s entry, but frankly it was the best movie of the three.

My major issue with Abram’s movies is that they were intellectual lazy: they didn’t bother to tell an original story. They instead just loosely copied the structure of the corresponding entry in the previous trilogy. Force Awakens? Planet destroying base threatening the rebellion, our heroes have to infiltrate an imperial base, the bad guys kill an older father figure, and after much running around the good guys manage to destroy the base at the last second. It’s A New Hope with some tweaks.

Rise of Skywalker? Look, it’s the emperor! We’re not even going to bother to have a new bad guy, we’ll just recycle the old one along with the plot. Once again he’s poised to crush the rebellion. The good guys have to figure out how to get to him, and they need to take down the shields of the Death Star, I mean imperial cruisers, before they can destroy it. I mean them. All looks lost, to essentially the same sequence in the emperor’s throne room with him gloating, until things turn around at the last second. Sure, it’s not exactly Return of the Jedi, but the structure is pretty damn close.

Johnson’s entry, although many fans got all bent out of shape about Luke still essentially being a rather whiny twit (which, let’s face it, is pretty much his character in 4-6), was actually a fairly original tale. Yes, we still have the mentor sequence, with Luke instead of Yoda, but Johnson arguably keeps it different enough to not feel like he’s just cribbing off Empire Strikes Back. And Ren taking out Snoke in the second movie was definitely an angle I did not see coming. I was actually looking forward to Ren being the sole bad guy in the final film, which hopefully was the direction Johnson was heading in.

But then some hardcore fans got bent out of shape, Disney panicked, Johnson got booted, and we ended up with Return of the Jedi 2, now more returny, instead of something more interesting. Ah well. It was still a fun movie, but I bet Johnson’s version would have been better.