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Friday, October 27, 2017

Review of the Google Pixel 2

First week with my Pixel 2.

Not impressed with the appearance -- the glossy plastic at the top of the back looks cheap, and in general there's nothing distinguishing about its appearance. In particular, I'm surprised how much of the front is NOT screen-- a good 1.5" or so vertically, and 0.25" horizontally. The iPhone X is going to make it look years behind.

No real problems so far, except that the headphone adapter USB C connector is a bit wobbly and loose (partially because USB-C never seems to have any grip... I much prefer lightning's physical design). It gets a little staticy in my pocket here and there.

Also, weirdly, on some calls I've been able to hear my own headphone microphone, which is weird. That could be a Google Fi issue. (I'm still a big fan of Fi, I'm guessing it's interior quality to Verizon but it's much, much better than T-Mobile for connection reliability for me in NYC, and absurdly cheap)

Also not crazy about the battery. It's fine, it just seems to use about 5% per hour just sitting in my pocket, and I was hoping the hardware and OS would do better than that.

Android 8.0 seems to have shifted enough of the API to destabilize a few apps I use quite a bit (Instapaper, TrueCaller, Advanced Task Manager Pro [for monitoring what's chewing up CPU in the background]) and I'm hoping that settles down.

It's certainly fast, and I especially appreciate how quick the camera access is.

It pushes Google Now (you can squeeze the sides to pull up the assistant, which is kind of satisfying) but I still find Google Now pretty useless. I tried getting it to add something to my calendar a few times today and gave up. Part of the problem is that it fails to parse the whole command to figure out which part is the event name, what time range I'm describing, etc. The other part is that even when I repeat the name, the voice recognition just isn't that good.

(I just tried creating a random event, "Meet Bruno for pizza" and it heard "MIT pronoun for pizza"... disappointing. It has hundreds of samples of my voice! And Google Now already knew I was creating an event! "Meet" has to be one of the most common first words used in events... Have some context, guys!)

So, it's solid, but I'd be thinking about reselling it and just holding onto my still decent Nexus 5x if the Nexus's headphone jack wasn't so janky.

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Monday, October 09, 2017

Is the NY Times a good product?

It's interesting to see the NYT Magazine's recent "Fractured Lands" mega-feature through lens of magazine trying to find its unique niche.

The NYT mag for many years has been a bit of a mess, considering how clear and good a product the broader paper is. (The real ad money is in the Times's "T" fashion magazine, if you can believe it.)

New York Magazine, meanwhile, has become the greatest local magazine in the world. And the "potpurri of random semi-newsy stuff that wouldn't belong in a newspaper" role has been decisively taken over by the internet. In contrast, "Fractured Lands" seems like a perfect example of work that the NYT Mag is uniquely equipped to do. I have plenty of my own criticisms of the NY Times. I subscribe to Noam Chomsky's criticism in Manufacturing Consent that mainstream media companies tend to approach truth through the lens of the powerful and through the lens of existing reader worldview, which are mutually reinforcing.

The Awl's terrific parody, “The Most Emailed ‘New York Times’ Article Ever”, nails that point perfectly.

I've also observed that the more I've known about a story in real life, the more wildly wrong I've seen mainstream publications, including the Times get it. Around 2010, Chuck Schumer's office decided to vilify an obscure, fairly inconsequential, and totally voluntary form of stock market trading called "flash trades", and decry high-frequency trading companies for taking advantage of them. I won't get into why I think this was 100% performance art and 0% consumer protection; my point is that not only did the Times run these stories on the front page multiple times using precisely the line of attack that Schumer was advancing, the pieces made little effort to explain the aspects of flash trades that brought them into existence, and little effort to identify anybody who was ever hurt by them. The coverage was a revelation to me in its combination of ignorance and cravenness.

On the other hand, the coverage of the former Soviet Union was pretty great, and I'm a huge fan of one of their longtime foreign correspondents. The more rarefied New York Review of Books, in contrast, has been pathologically dovish on Russia since the Cold War.

Despite the Times's not being quite the paper I wish it would be, the quality of reporting and writing is generally high, the coverage is reasonably comprehensive, and the output is fast. That execution--150 articles a day or something, many of which are the best reporting in the world on their topic--is incredible.

NB: Twitter and FB also fall short of being what I wish they were, but like the Times, they do a great job of being the product that they are.

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MailChimp frustrations

I've been using MailChimp for a while now, and I'm totally mystified as to the basic units of logic at my command in deciding who gets sent what, when.

Obviously I understand how to create an email (sorry, a "campaign") and send it to an entire list.

But how do I send that same email only to people who never got it in the first place? Or, send an email only to those who got previous email X but not previous email Y?

I see that I can create a new field for everyone on the list, which might be useful for manually keeping track of what's true for each user a completely individual basis. But how do I set the value of a field for everyone I'm sending email Z? Or set this for everyone who got email W, but has field V false?

It seems like there are all of these sequential workflows that presume very specific stories about what I want to do. I suppose there are people out there who already know exactly what sequence of messages they wish to send, when. But I'm trying to just get to the point of understanding such sequences well enough to start designing them in my imagination.

That power is crucial to my being able to actually use MailChimp in real life. Without that understanding, my imagination is misspent and not applicable to reality. If I'm imagining scenario A, does that mean I basically have to go through all of their different specific messaging scenarios and try to find one that I can shoehorn A into? I'm really hoping that instead, I can find logical building blocks and units of information that I can use as I see fit. That way I can start to imagine in MailChimp, rather than have no idea if MailChimp can do the things I want to do until I hit that particular wall.

Can I send a particular email to people who haven't gotten that email before? Why on earth am I unsure if that's possible were impossible with MailChimp?

What I would also like to do is be able to select a subset of my list based on some search type logic (the "signed up through magazine ad" field is true AND they've received my promotional email X) and set some field value (make the "considered promotion combo Y" field true)

I can't even figure out how to find out whether these things are possible, because MailChimp's communication and knowledge base is so clogged with buzzwords and references to many-step workflows, rather than to explaining the core units of functionality, and core limitations.

This problem is in no way unique to MailChimp. And I understand that part of the issue is that I'm not really the customer: the customer is an enterprise which knows what such a service can and can't do, and is ready to spend money or time to hire knowledgeable consultants or train up employees. I also know that MailChimp is doing just fine without my advice. Still, it's flabbergasting to me that basic information about what the heck your product does and doesn't do is so obscured--and it's an industrywide problem, particularly bad in the customer relations management space.

Note: MailChimp support let me know this is impossible to do within MailChimp, but that if I export my list to a competitor's contact management system or spreadsheet and at the proper field there, I can then re-import the list back into MailChimp.

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All the incidental irrelevancies that make up oppression

Reading some of the outrage generated by Rachel Aviv's infuriating New Yorker piece, "How the elderly lose their rights", I've come across some a wide spread of responses.

Some assert their absolute refusal ever to be victimized this way; for instance writing in the Hacker News thread:

I'm shocked at how docile and accepting those old folks were! I mean if someone comes to my house and tries to kidnap me and my family against our will, they better come armed.

That comment prompted this excellent reply by HN user JohnicBoom:

I am reading The Gulag Archipelago, and in it, Solzhenitsyn says about the mindset of one who is facing unjust arrest by the authorities:

"...But as for you, you are obviously innocent! You still believe that the Organs [of state security] are humanely logical institutions: they will set things straight and let you out.

Why, then, should you run away? And how can you resist right then? After all, you'll only make your situation worse; you'll make it more difficult for them to sort out the mistake. And it isn't just that you don't put up any resistance; you even walk down the stairs on tiptoe, as you are ordered to do, so your neighbors won't hear. At what exact point, then, should one resist? When one's belt is taken away? When one is ordered to face into a corner? When one crosses the threshold of one's home? An arrest consists of a series of incidental irrelevancies, of a multitude of things that do not matter, and there seems no point in arguing about any one of them individually - especially at a time when the thoughts of the person arrested are wrapped tightly around the big question: 'What for?' - and yet all these incidental irrelevancies taken together implacably constitute the arrest."

I think same kind of thoughts go through peoples' heads in all manner of less serious circumstances. They might know it doesn't feel right or that it's wrong, but they feel that surely someone will help them correct the mistake. And if they just go along for now, they'll be in better standing when they finally find the right time to raise their objection.

Monday, October 02, 2017

mother! is a masterpiece

Spoilers aplenty!

First of all, it was one of the most visceral moviegoing experiences I've ever had, right up there with Mad Max Fury Road, Children of Men, and Natural Born Killers. I thought the personal level and the metaphorical level were intertwined very effectively. Obviously at a certain point the metaphorical level takes the driver's seat completely, and that disengaged me a bit, but the personal level felt real and central all the way up to the last few minutes of the movie for me.

I think it's crucial to the movie's effectiveness that it works entirely on the personal level, and doesn't require the viewer to spot the various metaphorical references for it to be meaningful. I can see somebody finding these references somewhat pat, but I felt again and again that the take on them was being constructed naturally from a basis in human experience rather than clunkily imposed by the author's hand. A huge part of that, for sure, was the excellent cast, including a ton of perfectly delivered bit parts.

So crucial was that the four main parts were so expertly acted. Watching Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem is a joy, and they both managed to be deeply sympathetic and bewilderingly opaque.

The movie felt to me even more about gender and human power than about ecology or religion. my wife Kate and I talk and think a lot about the wildly different expectations of mothers and fathers (see this hilarious McSweeney's piece), and the dynamic between the two principals brought up a ton of feelings and memories about my own parents. I've never seen such a great exploration of the patterns of the stereotypical male focus on being important to strangers, versus the stereotypical female focus on interpersonal relationship. It was breathtaking to see writ large patterns I know privately, like the way self-aggrandizement exists in symbiotic binary with feelings of powerlessness. The relationship between JLaw's mother and JBard's father's writing was fascinating.

There were a few moments that didn't click for me: I took it that the argument between the sons was designed to be stagey and mannered; it echoed the simulated feel of their parents' characters, in a sort of Hal Hartley or David Lynch way. But where the parents' surface artificialness felt compelling to me, the sons did not, and I didn't feel interested when they were on screen. Also, I was thrilled when Kristen Wiig appeared, but it didn't feel like her character had a clear reason for being there (unlike, for example, that first disciple-type guy who kept appearing).

As I told my frield Josh on the way out, I'm not sure there's another director alive who could have pulled that movie off. Maybe Cuaron or Inaritu. It was a phenomenal demonstration of all of the tools and experience Aronofsky has assembled in the 19 years since I saw Pi in the same Manhattan neighborhood. (And it's a reminder of how disappointing it is that other brilliant filmmakers, like Wes Anderson, Woody Allen, Martin Scorcese and the Wachowskis, haven't continued to grow their craft.)

Can't wait to see it again!

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