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Nescafe NES

I’m not a total coffee snob (I think Peets beans are fine), but I do use a coffee grinder and a french press to prepare my daily caffeine intake. We just took 2 week vacation in Europe, and we took advantage of the easily available high-quality espresso. The first place we stayed, in Switzerland, had a Nespresso machine, so we bought some pods for it at the nearby grocery store (despite my vague California guilt about the wastefulness of said pods). The coffee it made was quite good.

The second place we stayed, in Paris, was supposed to have a Nespresso machine, but it was nowhere in evidence (the host claimed it should have been there, so we wonder if a previous guest might have swiped it). Since we didn’t want to have to hit a cafe every morning for our caffeine hit, my wife grabbed some Nescafe NES instant coffee in hopes it would be ok. I generally have a few low opinion of instant coffee (based on prior experience), but I have to confess it was surprisingly good. We actually brought it back to the States with us to finish it up. Not that I’m going to buy more when it’s gone, but if you need coffee and don’t have a better alternative available, it’s a perfectly acceptable solution.

I’m not sure that research is a good idea

I’ve commented before that one of the reasons I left academic research is that I felt it focused too much on novelty and coolness rather than providing actual value. I don’t think most of that research is actively bad; it’s just often pointless (and thus often a waste of resources). But there is some research that may cross over into being actively bad. I personally find it hard to see the redeeming value in research on creating deepfakes.

A :”deepfake” is the result of using AI techniques (generally deep learning) for image, audio, or video synthesis, allowing the creation of fake content that is increasingly indistinguishable from real content. I’m sure the initial academic research was motivated by the challenge: hey, could we take old movie or TV footage and appear to have the actors voice different content? Maybe Hollywood sponsored some of the work as a way to repurpose old content.

But what exactly is the redeeming value of continued research on making it as easy as possible to create deepfakes? What beneficial cases will outweigh the inevitable use for spreading disinformation and fake news? Think internet trolls are bad now? Wait until they can falsify news footage with a few clicks. How well will social discourse fare when a flood of fake content overwhelms real content, and users are unable to easily tell the difference?

While at this point the technology has advanced enough that motivated amateurs will be able to make continued, if incremental, progress on their own, it seems like a fundamentally bad idea for researches to continue to push the state of the “art”. When your house catches on fire, you should probably reconsider whether you want to keep playing with matches. And you really shouldn’t pour gasoline on the blaze.

…and you’re fired from it

After putting up with a couple more months of crashing and overall latency, I finally gave up on tracking my runs using the Nike running app on my Apple Watch Nike+. The final straw was when it started to freeze during the countdown when starting a run. I considered getting a new watch (I’m still using a Series 2, and a Series 4 should be more responsive), but as an experiment I just used the built-in fitness tracking capability. It was extremely responsive and gave me zero trouble, so I’ve just switched over to it. I do feel a little sad about losing my accumulated run stats, but I don’t care enough to keep putting up with the crappy experience of the Nike+ app.

Frankly Apple should be embarrassed by the quality of the experience. If they’re going to sell a Nike-branded Apple watch, it should provide a fitness tracking experience equivalent to that of the Apple-provided one (or better). And it’s just frankly awful. I’m sure part of the responsibility is Apple’s; 3rd party apps on watchOS are clearly 2nd class citizens, so even if Nike were doing a good job they’d still be facing a handicap in providing an equivalent experience.

But clearly Nike is not doing a good job. Instead of focusing on the core experience (a fitness tracking app should be good at tracking fitness!), they’re busy cramming in challenges, themed runs, and other things that I could care less about. And meanwhile the basic tracking experience has been getting worse and worse.

But the fix is straightforward: just avoid the Nike app. It had one job, and it was lousy at it. So it’s fired.

Traveling lighter

I enjoy traveling light. It makes it easier to get on and off flights, and particularly when taking public transit it makes it easier to get around at your origin and / or destination. This week I traveled to NYC for the annual internal Google UXE conference, and I managed to fit everything I needed into my backpack. It allowed me to get to the airport a little bit later (no need to worry about overhead space), navigate AirTrain – NJ Transit – the subway Into the city (I prefer flying into Newark since Google is on the west side; it ends up being both cheaper and faster than sitting through traffic, particularly near rush hour), and get to my hotel.

I got an Evergoods CPL24 backpack last summer after a short work trip up to Seattle last summer, where I realized that I didn’t have a good travel bag for trips that were just a couple of days, but I haven’t had a good opportunity to use it until now (really light travel is easier in warm weather; cool weather clothes are too bulky). For this trip I managed to get 4 days of clothes into the backpack, plus assorted other things (ablutions stuff, chargers, etc.). It was great; the backpack doesn’t get too bulky, it’s easy to stash stuff to be at hand quickly, and it distributes the weight fairly well.

It helped that I was also able to bring my Pixelbook so that I had a laptop / tablet for both work and personal use. I could download / stream movies for watching during my downtime (and keep up with personal email), while also keep up with work email, tweak my talk, etc. The setup isn’t quite perfect yet, since Chrome OS 75 (which will bring USB adb access) isn’t released yet. So developing on the Pixelbook is still problematic. As part of the conference I added a Flutter workshop, and for coding I ended up using Chrome Remote Desktop to connect to the workstation on my desk. A little kludgy, but it ended up working fine. And when 75 releases next month handling coding tasks on the Pixelbook will be much easier.

Overall I’m happy with the setup; I now have a good solution for traveling light on work trips. At least those to warm climates.

Rain? Weird.

You know you’ve lived in the Bay Area for awhile when you find it weird to get rain in May. We’ve had rain for four of the last five days (Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and today), and I think the last time we got this much rain late in May might have been the year we moved here. When everyone exclaimed how weird it was to get lots of rain in late May, and we (moving from Atlanta) wondered what the heck they were talking about. But it is unusual; this could very well be the last rain we get until September or October.

The rain today has been a series of showers; every time I think it’s finally stopped and cleared up, another shower seems to roll in. I did manage to sneak my run in during a break, but it started raining again just as I came indoors (I’ll confess to feeling pleased at my timing). And in fact it’s sprinkling again now; clearly we’re still not out of the rain bands.

We did take advantage of the cool, rainy day to do lots of cooking. Kate made chili and soup, and I made carne adovada using Milk Street’s recipe. We’ve made it once before and it’s quite tasty (and makes a ton of food), but it requires over 5 hours of cooking time (granted lots of that time isn’t active; it’s soaking the chiles for 30 minutes, marinating the pork for an hour, cooking for almost four hours, etc.). That makes it perfect for a day when you mainly want to stay indoors and kick back with your oven making your kitchen nice and toasty. Like today.

Monet exhibit at the DeYoung

This weekend we caught the Monet: The Late Years exhibit at the DeYoung. It includes paintings from the latter part of his career, roughly 1913-1926. While the majority of the paintings are of water lilies (or other flowering plants from his gardens), and they are quite lovely, I found paintings of some of his other subjects more interesting. That might be because his water lily paintings are so well known, but I think it’s also because it’s easier to compare his paintings that are part of a series when the subjects are a little more fixed in space.

In his paintings of the path under his rose arches, you can really contrast the different lighting and colors. The painting on the left feels to me like.a bright sunny day, with its bright colors and warm light. The painting on the right feels like a cloudier day with its cooler and darker colors.

The exhibit only runs through May 27, but it’s worth catching if you have the opportunity.

Pixelbook vs. Macbook Pro

Last year I picked up a Pixelbook as an experiment to see if it would simplify business travel by allowing me to bring a single device I could use for both work and personal tasks (previously when I’ve traveled for business I’ve generally brought my work laptop and a personal tablet). I haven’t had many opportunities to try out that idea yet (although I have a couple coming up soon), but I have been splitting my time between the two, so I do have a few thoughts about the two.

First, I found that I missed Mac apps less than I expected. Good Android applications for tablets are still sadly pretty scarce (and the relative scarcity of good Android tablets isn’t helping), but most services I use have a good web equivalent, so there isn’t too much I’ve missed. Heck, even iCloud has a pretty good website, so I can still access my Apple email and calendar on my Pixelbook. I think the application I miss the most is Things, since it doesn’t sync to Android or have a web app. And I haven’t found a service that works across iOS and Android that I like as much.

Second, I greatly prefer the Pixelbook keyboard to the MBP keyboard. I don’t buy Apple’s excuse that they needed to ruin their keyboard in the name of thinness; the Pixelbook is really thin and yet manages to have a really good keyboard.

Third, it’s really useful to be able to access both personal and work accounts on the Pixelbook. There have been a few times where I’ve worked from home using it, and between Linux support and Chrome Remote Desktop I’m nearly set for work tasks. As soon as they add support for adb support over a USB connection I’ll be able to do pretty much everything I need.

The one thing I really don’t like about the Pixelbook is that its battery drains noticeably even when off. I can turn the device off and come back to it in a few days to discover it’s lost ~20% of its charge. Contrast that to the MBP, which might lose a few percent.

My suspicion is that the drain is related to the processing that the Pixelbook is doing to allow you to check the battery level even when it’s powered off: you can double tap on the sides or top to show the current power level. Because they need to be able to respond to taps, they need to continuously sample and process the device accelerometer. Hence continuous power drain.

If that is the reason for the steady drain when powered off, then it’s reflective of really poor decision-making by the device team. I have used that feature exactly never, so would trade it for NOT draining power when I’ve turned the device off in a heartbeat. Heck, if the device didn’t slowly lose power when off then there’d be less need to check the power level in the first place.

The Pixelbook does charge pretty quickly, and if you’re using it daily then the drain isn’t that big a deal. Still, it reflects a trade-off that I don’t think the team should have made.

If I had to get just one, which one would I get? Well, working at Google makes the Pixelbook arguably more versatile than the Macbook Pro, since I can easily use it for both work and personal tasks. If I didn’t work at Google and couldn’t leverage that capability, though, I’d probably go with the Macbook Pro. As with all things, the best choice depends on your preferences and your particular situation.