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Long weekend in Santa Cruz

Despite living in the Bay Area, we’ve only ever done short trips to Santa Cruz (typically to the Board Walk). So for President’s Day weekend we decided to take a long weekend in Santa Cruz to finally have time to explore the area a little further.

The first day we walked around downtown for a bit, exploring some of the shops and restaurants. Bookshop Santa Cruz was fun to poke around, but then bookstores always are. The Patagonia outlet was sadly packed; they were having.a sale, so it was so packed that it was impossible to actually look around. The Verve Coffee Roasters location on Pacific was a nice, light space, but it wasn’t really designed to actually sit down and enjoy your coffee (but then, there were enough people ordering that the space was clearly designed with throughput in mind.

We also walked along W Cliff Drive, which offered great views of the Santa Cruz Wharf and the Boardwalk. You could also watch surfers (both beginners and those with more experience) catch waves (or wait to catch waves, which actually seemed to occupy most of their time). We followed the drive out to the lighthouse on the point (the lighthouse actually contains the Santa Cruz surfing museum, but we didn’t bother to check it out).

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The next day we hiked through Wilder Ranch State Park along the ocean. The day was gorgeous, with bright blue skies and lots of sun. The wind along the ocean was fierce, though; I had to keep a hand on my hat constantly to keep it from blowing away. But the views more than made it for the wind (and its chill). After our hike we also explored the original ranch site a bit.

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After Wilder Ranch, we grabbed a quick bite to eat and then headed to Natural Bridges State Beach. Sadly the monarch butterflies were already gone (which was doubtlessly better for then; I shudder to think how they would have fared with the wind), but we got a great view of the remaining bridge (at some point they should probably rename it to Natural Bridge State Park). And the wind driving the waves caused some great impacts against the rocks with some truly impressive spray (I actually got my boots a bit wet when I misjudged the size of an incoming wave).

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Overall the weekend was fun, but I’m glad we didn’t plan on spending more time there; a long weekend was about right. Santa Cruz really isn’t that big; I hadn’t realized that it’s less than half the size of Sunnyvale (roughly 65,000 people vs. 150,000). Of course, living in the Bay Area we get a bit blasé about being near the ocean. There were other folks staying in our hotel that were clearly thrilled about being near the beach (they were also clearly from much colder climates). So if you need more time near the ocean, Santa Cruz is a good place to hang out.

Teotihuacan exhibit at the de Young

I found out almost by accident the de Young museum in San Francisco was having an exhibit on Teotihuacan, an ancient Mesoamerican city that was the 6th largest in the world during its time (roughly the first half of the first millennium). Kate and I managed to catch it on its closing weekend, and I enjoyed learning a bit about the city, its time, and its culture.

While overall the exhibit was quite good, the one thing I wish they’d covered more of was the layout and structure of the city itself. They had drone footage video (naturally) and an overhead map, but I would have loved to have seen some architectural dioramas of the city as a whole as well as of the individual pyramids and important neighborhoods just to get more of a sense of the structure of life in the city. But since the exhibit was at an art museum, I guess it’s not too surprising that the exhibit focused on the city’s art instead of its architecture.

Moving from the Note 5 to the Pixel 2 XL

Pixel 2 XLI typically replace my phones every two years; in that time the technology generally advances enough that a new phone offers a noticeably improved experience. Plus after two years a phone’s battery tends to hold its charge for a noticeably shorter time, so a new device also avoids the need to charge as often.

I held off replacing my Note 5 this fall because I was considering moving from Samsung to Google, and if I did I thought I might switch to a Pixel device (since I would likely be working on Android, and Pixel devices are the only way to use the latest and greatest Android version).

I did indeed move to Google in November, joining the Android UX team. But I held off getting a new device, largely because I wasn’t sure whether to get the Pixel 2 XL or the Pixel 2. The choice would normally be a no-brainer; I like bigger phones. But the LG display in the Pixel 2 XL has gotten a lot of bad press, while the Samsung display in the Pixel 2 has gotten praise (Samsung does make great displays).

Last week I finally went ahead and bought a Pixel 2 XL. I’ve been using it for about a week now. I also switched carriers for the device, from AT&T to Project Fi. That choice was driven by two factors:

  1. AT&T’s coverage the Googleplex sucks; my Note 5 battery was draining extra fast because it was straining to contact AT&T’s cell towers.
  2. International data rates that are (in most countries) the same as domestic rates.

It was also a nice bonus that I could use my Google Voice number for the phone directly.

Here are my observations about the switch so far, in no particular order:

  • The Pixel 2 XL display does indeed exhibit a blue tint at a much smaller angle than Samsung (and Apple) devices I’ve used. It was really noticeable for the first day of use, and then I totally stopped noticing it, due in large part to the fact that I generally look at my phone directly while using it. So yeah, the display should be better. But it’s really been a non-factor in daily use.
  • Battery life has been amazing. Even with Location kept enabled (ti’s using the first thing I disable on a Samsung device to preserve power), I’m generally only using 20% of battery a day. Now those are days where (a) I’ve got WiFi available most of the day, (b) I don’t use the device a ton, and (c) I turn the phone off from roughly 10 PM to 6 AM. But still, that’s way better than I ever got with my Note 5. I think the improved battery life is a combination of a new battery, Project Fi (shifting radio use more to WiFi than cell), and improved software (both Android O and Google vs. Samsung). It’s also a factor that I haven’t set up a smartwatch with the phone yet (I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to just use my Gear S3 with it or try out an Android Wear device), so the phone isn’t using the Bluetooth radio much.
  • Unsurprisingly, Android seems snappier. TouchWiz (now the Samsung Experience, I suppose) has gotten better, but it’s still got room for improvement.
  • The one thing I miss from Samsung’s phones is Samsung Pay. Android Pay is fine for NFC payments, but Samsung devices offer MST (Magnetic Secure Transmission) so that you can use Samsung Pay with swipe credit card terminals. I won’t be able to use the Pixel for payments in as many cases as I could my Note 5.
  • Project Fi offers much better account handling and tools than AT&T. Shocking, I know.

I haven’t used the camera much since I haven’t gone anywhere particularly interesting since switching, but I’m looking forward to trying it out.

Role swapping in political parties

One of the things I remember most about AP History (oh so many years ago) is how the political parties sometimes totally switch places. During the Civil War, Republicans were anti-slavery and Democrats were pro-slavery (yes, simplifying). During the civil rights era, Democrats were pro-equal rights while Republicans were pro-segregation. During the Civil War, Republicans were for a strong federal government, while the Democrats were all about states rights. During the civil rights era, Democrats were for a strong federal government, while the Republicans were all about states rights.

I always thought switching roles like that seemed a little strange; how could a party be for one thing at one moment, but then somehow be against it the next? After all, while I was growing up, the parties seemed pretty set in their roles. Republicans were:

  • For free trade and international commerce.
  • Strongly anti-Russia.
  • Strongly pro-law enforcement.
  • All about family values and “moral’ behavior.
  • Fiscally conservative.

And yet in just a couple of years, the Republicans have completely reversed themselves. Now they’re:

  • Protectionist and America-first.
  • Pro-Russia.
  • Anti-law enforcement (since when is the FBI a tool of liberals?).
  • Tolerant of divorce, infidelity, and other “immoral” behavior.
  • Free-spending.

I wonder what people who were part of the Republican Party when they held that first set of values feel about the party now, and whether the shift will be long-lasting. If so, it’ll be very interesting to see if the Democrats now shift to again diametrically oppose the Republican values. With their recent anti-Russia and pro-law enforcement positions, they’re certainly being pushed that way. Or will we see the creation a new 3rd party that grows to supplant the Republican Party? It’s happened in the past; it’d be interesting to see it happen first-hand.

Bitcoin and other digital currencies

I find it hard to see breathless stories about Bitcoin and other digital currencies and not be reminded of previous investment manias, like tulip bulbs. Where at least, when the market inevitably crashed, you’d at least be able to grow tulips. Or the beanie baby craze of the late 90s, where you at least ended up with stuffed animals you could give as gifts to small children. When digital currencies also crash, what will you have? A lot more pollution. Aaaaaand that’s about it.

Normally I’d just be somewhat amused by the latest crazy investment fad and go about my day, but living in Silicon Valley it’s hard to escape the breathless hype about transforming society through inventing a new, libertarian currency, free of the control of nation-states, that also provides true anonymity. Part of me hopes that the people peddling such tripe are just blowing smoke to prop up their investments, but, Silicon Valley being what it is, I know that there are unfortunately true believers who somehow believe their hype. They manage to ignore the fact that cash is already a perfectly fine mechanism for anonymous payment. And that Bitcoin isn’t actually anonymous: if all your transactions are on the blockchain, then you’re pseudonymous, not anonymous. Oh, and if the vast majority of your currency is concentrated in the hands of the few, then you’re just trading control by a nation-state (which is governed by laws) for control by a small minority of power brokers who have pretty much no constraints at all. Yeah, that’s a big step forward.

The latter group, despite seeming to have few if any interactions with regular people, seem to think that digital currencies will usher in a new egalitarian society. At least the folks hyping the Web, which was probably the last technology that was going to bring us universal peace, prosperity, and openness, could point to it as a mechanism to provide voices to millions, nay billions, of people and to increase access to information. And how’d that turn out? Well, let’s just say that it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses. So far all that digital currencies have demonstrated is that there’s a sucker born every minute, and that people are always looking for a way to make a quick buck. You’ll forgive me if I don’t hold my breath while waiting for the new and better society that they’re going to usher in.

Biking and company buses

One of the parts of my job that I really enjoy is that I can bike to work. And living in Silicon Valley, I can pretty much bike to work every day between May and October because it won’t rain. November through April is the “rainy season”, which means it does occasionally rain, so biking is a little more hit and miss, and I actually have to check the forecast before deciding whether to bike.

When I decided to change jobs from Samsung Research to Google in November, one of the benefits was that on rainy days I didn’t have to drive; I could just take a Google bus (there’s a stop roughly 2 blocks from where I live). Now my car use is pretty much restricted to a couple of uses on the weekend; were it not for the fact that my daughter is going to start driving soon, my wife and I would seriously consider getting rid of my car.

But there’s an additional benefit. At Samsung, once I decided to drive, I was committed to driving that whole day. At Google, however, that’s not necessarily true. Sometimes we have rain forecast for the afternoon / evening with a 60% probability. At Samsung I’d go conservative and drive, and occasionally the rain wouldn’t happen and I’d regret the fact that I hadn’t biked. With access to the buses, though, I can bike in the morning, and then if it does rain I can take the bus in the evening, take it back the next morning (when the roads / trails are likely to still be wet and slippery), and then bike home that evening. Instead of potentially two days driving, I’d still get in a bike trip each day. And if it doesn’t rain, I just bike home in the evening. I tried that approach out for the first time this week, and I quite like it (it helps that it didn’t rain and I could go ahead and bike home).

Now Silicon Valley just needs to install more bike racks, so it’s easier to run errands by biking (it’s pretty sad how few businesses have them).

Our definition of augmentation is too narrow

I’m pretty down on the current, through-the-lens version of augmented reality. The need to set up a new spatial map each time limits sustained interactions, and most prominent use cases aren’t actually that common. Interior decorating! Measuring things! Leaving random notes floating around the environment!

But part of the issues is that people are settling for a very narrow definition of augmented reality. We already have AR technologies that work great. Google Maps, as one example, is a great example of an app that augments your current reality. It’ll provide you with information about what’s around you, and if you want to go somewhere else it’ll help you get there. That’s a really useful augmentation. But it’s no longer novel, so we take it for granted and don’t regard it as that neat.

Through-the-lens augmentation is what people typically think of when they hear AR. That requires (in various incarnations) identifying objects in front of you, understanding the spatial arrangement of those objects (plus possibly the broader space), and determining how to render content to appear to blend in with that space. Neat when it works, but there are a host of technical challenges that haven’t really been solved. Spatial understanding sort of works in certain situations for relatively simple environments. Object recognition sort of works for some objects, particularly visually distinctive ones, ideally with some text on them. Think books and movie posters. Otherwise it’s kind of lousy. Identifying that something is a chair isn’t necessarily that useful. What kind of chair is it? An Eames chair? An Aeron chair? Before you can augment an object, you need to know more than just it’s general type.

I’m actually all for augmenting users’ realities. I just think we should be aiming to build more general augmentations rather than getting too caught up in flashy through-the-lens demos. Useful augmentations, not just neat augmentations.