Blindingly obvious

Assume there are infinite universes. You don’t actually have to believe this. Just… imagine. Infinite universes with infinite possibilities. We’ll call it the multiverse.

Let’s imagine we map all the moments in the history of our world to separate universes. So what happened five minutes ago? Different universe. And it might as well be, right? We can’t access the past in any real way other than looking at history and memories.

Take a universe from, say, 500 years ago. It’s not super important when, but a few hundred years seems good for illustrative purposes. It’s quite a bit different. Imagine being able to go from this universe to that universe and have a conversation with a someone. Anyone. Doesn’t matter who.

Think about all the things that are blindingly obvious to you. The earth goes around the sun. Stuff is made of smaller stuff. Time is relative. Democracy is the best form of government. Free speech is sacred. Whatever. Stuff you think is kind of axiomatic. Imagine explaining these things to that someone.

How might that go?

Well, probably not very well. Things aren’t blindingly obvious instantly. In fact they’re not even blindingly obvious from culture to culture in the here and now, especially when you move away from rigorously provable things like “the earth goes around the sun”.

Now imagine someone comes from a future universe to talk to you. They start telling you stuff that seems blindingly obvious to them.

How might that go?

Again, probably not well.

Why is that?

Dying is worse

It’s important to remember that solution to a lot of problems looks like enabling the problem. It’s OK to acknowledge this. It’s OK to be frustrated by this. But it’s important to not get locked into a “pure” morality—or, to put it another way, it’s critical to be flexible about solutions.

That’s not to say we can’t disagree about these things. Of course we can! But don’t disagree reflexively (don’t use the moral muscles you’re used to). Disagree reflectively. Think about whether or not there might be something else at play when talking about problems and their solutions. Is there a deeper problem? Can it be fixed or treated or dealt with in a way that seems unintuitive?

Take racism. Just for right now let’s put systemic racism aside and use the common “discriminating on the basis of race” definition.

We can all agree that discriminating on the basis of race is wrong. But then aren’t affirmative action programs racist?

We shouldn’t be afraid to say… yes. They are. They are absolutely discriminatory. Because we’re not trying to fix “discrimination on the basis of race” with affirmative action. That’s not the problem. The problem is something else, a deeper, more pervasive problem that has the effect of discriminating on the basis or race without seeming to actually do that.

We’re not trying to fix people; we’re trying to fix systems. The system is the deeply embedded discrimination built into our hiring practices, university selection processes, and so forth. Where qualified candidates are being denied opportunities because they’re a certain race. We do that by intentionally making space for these people. This has the local effect of discriminating against someone, but the system-wide effect of making a more just society for everyone. (And obviously this is just one thing that we do; there’s opportunity for lots more.)

Or take drugs. We can probably all agree that being addicted to drugs is bad.

So then aren’t safe injection sites just enabling addiction? Isn’t decriminalization just tacit approval?

I hope you can see where I’m going here. It’s important to say… yes. Safe injection sites do, on the face of it, enable addiction. But they do that in order to try to prevent worse things like disease and death. And decriminalization aims to treat addiction instead of punishing it. Both these initiative aim to create a path out of addiction. Dying is worse. Going to jail is worse.

These solutions aren’t super-intuitive.

But maybe that’s an indictment of our moral imagination. The idea that you can punish someone into not taking drugs, or that tut-tutting at racial slurs is going to fix racism… these shouldn’t be the first tools in our moral toolbelt. Sometimes it takes a deeper imagination (a more prophetic imagination) to seek answers to problems.

Words don’t have meanings

Seriously. Words don’t have meanings.

I mean, this sounds pretty silly. Of course words have meanings. You’re reading this blog post, it makes sense, you understand it, words have meanings.

So this is going to seem pretty pedantic, but let’s think about you think about when you think about “have”. I have an arm. The arm is part of me. What I call “I” contains this thing called “arm”. Think of any of a billion other examples (and probably some counterexamples) and it’s clear that to have something like a meaning, an arm, a temper, a wallet, is sort of to have that thing as an attribute, or to contain it, or to own it.

That’s what I think of when I think of “have”. You can probably find lots of other ways people use “have” but I’d argue my way is the first one that pops into your head.

Which is kind of the point. How can “have” have a meaning if there are multiple conflicting definitions. How can we disagree about the most common usage of “have” if it has this property of meaning?

You can probably see where I’m going with this. We give words meanings.

Or to put another way that will absolutely get some hackles up: The meaning of a word is a social construct. Just like… well… lots of things. Maybe everything.

We’re so used to words that we take them for granted. I forget that words aren’t blobs of meaning. I forget this every day. I forget that word are made up of letters (except right now, when I’m typing this; I’m acutely aware). I forget that letters are made up of curves and lines. I forget the words are arbitrary, the symbols are arbitrary, the construction is arbitrary. All that. Because frankly if I remembered it, I’d go a bit mad.

The important thing to remember is that words don’t have meaning. We give words meaning. We do. Not the dictionary, not grumpy old librarian, not your English teacher. There’s never been a time where proper English existed. There never will be.

Shakespeare used “generous” to mean well-bred. You don’t. It changes all the time and this is fine.

So anyways that’s why I call mean on a grill barbecue, and I call meat + peppers + tomatoes + beans chili.

Bullet Points for a (I honestly had to look this up) Thursday Evening

  • There’s so much wrong with Conservatism in the US it’s hard to know where to start. Buuuuut I’ve got an analogy. Republicans are like medieval doctors. They’re not wrong: The west has been sold a bill of goods. There’s a disease. So they reach for the only tool in their toolbox, only problem being that tool just makes it worse. Trickle-down economics might as well be bloodletting. You don’t get there via evidence-based economic policy. You have to get there sideways via ideological orthodoxy. Medieval doctors had their humours, Republicans have their trickle down economics.
  • The was probably more evidence for humours tbqh.
  • Lots of chatter re virtue signalling lately, not all of it absolute trash. Most of it’s aimed at progressives (projection, motl). Was talking to an anti-deficit person earlier, saying Ontario is within sight of balancing the budget. The response was to move “so what” and then a move to different topic. But if you’re really a deficit hawk this is fantastic news! We’re trying to get out of this hole, to un-mortgage our children’s blah blah blah. But of course the anti-deficit stuff is just theatre. I haven’t found no sincere anti-deficit folks but few. Very few. I kind of think a lot of this is outrage theatre: You just want a stick to beat the Liberals with.
  • Same for anti-feminists outraged at how feminists are supposedly not outraged about Saudi treatment of women. Outrage theatre. Virtue signalling. Performative morality. They don’t care, they just want a stick.
  • Which is, by the way, a big part of why online debates don’t work, and why centrism is doomed. The stuff people say they care about is never actually what they actually care about.
  • By the way I do think the West has been sold a bill of goods. I don’t like protectionism, I don’t like globalism, I wish there was a third way. Whatever we’re doing now really isn’t working
  • Trump is a symptom.

Bullet points for a Sunday evening

  • Here’s a list of places I’ve lived. Since people don’t seem to know:
    • Etobicoke (before it was Toronto) – Suburban
    • Rexdale (also before it was Toronto) – Suburban
    • Woodbridge (aka Vaughan) – Suburban
    • Brampton – Rural
    • Orangeville – Suburban (this is a weird one though, as it was a subdivision kind of in the middle of nowhere)
    • Bolton – Suburban
    • Mississauga – Urban (basement apartment, near Sq 1)
    • Mississauga – Urban (apartment, south end)
    • Mississauga – Suburban (house, north end)
    • Hamilton – Urban (feels suburban sometimes though, east end)
  • I love living in the country (like, 30 minutes from stuff, not deep country), but I also love urban. What I don’t love is suburban. Living in Mississauga was not for me. I know a lot of folks that just love it, but Mississauga is hella boring.
  • Played a show at the The Casbah this weekend. First gig in FOREVER. Part of what I like about living in Hamilton is there’s a scene here, you know? Like, people play music and other people go to hear them play music.
  • I should have bought a house here 5 years ago. Seriously. The price almost makes a commute worth it.
  • Felt like I was the only one who got the Westworld sermon illustration. Thought there were more people into that show? Or is it just me?
  • Making friends as an adult is hard.
  • I’m sick to death of plodding singer songwriters. Like, we have hooks for a reason, use them every once in a while. Otherwise everything ends up sounding exactly the same.
  • Sad to find out that people you know haven’t vaccinated their kids. I understand the left has their crazy anti-intellectual things like anti-vaxxers, and I know the arguments don’t really work because people have integrated these things into their sociopolitical identities… but that doesn’t mean I don’t lose some respect. We have 70+ years of concrete evidence that vaccinations work, that they save millions of children’s lives. The fact that you don’t see polio around anymore is a testament to that fact. Enough people stop vaccinating though… you’ll get to witness the horrors of polio firsthand at which point it’s a bit too late.
  • Laura texts me when she wants me to put laundry in the dryer. Technology is weird.
  • In the Reformed Church we never celebrated the Christian Year in any form. I wonder why that is. Perhaps it’s too Roman Catholic? In any case it feels like something I missed out on.
  • Speaking of things I missed out on, I took a picture of Audrey’s locker at school the other day and felt oddly emotional about it. Being homeschooled I never got the experience of going to school, having a locker, any of that stuff. It’s like I miss something I never had.
  • Baby # 2 (currently baking) has an intact spine and internal bits. This is good! There were some tests done that indicated a risk of spina bifida. I’m very thankful for socialized medicine right now, too — this situation in a less civilized country would be an absolutely crushing financial blow.

Bullet points for a Saturday evening

Haven’t done one of these things where I peer into a pool of water and admire my reflection for a while so here goes.

  • There’s a lot of hand-wringing about poor, uneducated white people right now. This is, of course, because of Trump. But I think the left is unfair to poor, uneducated white folk living in their little rural nowheresvilles. We want to talk about how black folk are trapped in a cycle of reinforced poverty and isolation but we don’t want to talk about white people in the same terms. This looks bad. We shouldn’t only seek to assist those who vote our way. “White trash” are people too, in the same way that urban poor are people too. Privilege isn’t enough to get you out of the dying company town when there are so many things keeping you from leaving.
  • Libertarians don’t have a chance in the US and they never will, at least as a separate political party. They’re too ideologically pure to be effective, and too laser-focused to appeal to more than middle class white men. And if a Libertarian party candidate ever gains mass appeal it will never be because of their policies, but in spite of them. Unless of course they abandon a bunch of (frankly crazy) policies. But there’s always going to be that (frankly crazy) hardline base trying to reel them back in again. Because if you’re not a general-purpose party you can’t have general-purpose policies. It’s like… the Liberal party in Canada can have a lot of different opinions and policies and platforms that can change to suit whatever. The Libertarian party can’t. Because the Liberals are the student government and the Libertarians are the AV Club. At some point, if the AV Club is organizing fundraisers some nerd is going to get upset that they’re not AV enough.
  • Speaking of Libertarians and Anarchists and all other manner of really crazy bullshit, Libertarianism and Anarchy (which, I mean, we’re talking 1 degree of separation here really) can only function with tyranny or extreme collaboration. And the people that seem most attracted to these philosophies… well, let’s just say they’re not attracted to collaboration. And for systems that end up being built around incentives, that’s a pretty perverse incentive.
  • My furnace fan has died again. Second one in two year, between two different houses. The last one I replaced myself because it was cheaper to do so. I learned a lot about furnaces. For instance I learned that it’s probably a better idea just to pay someone else to do it.
  • We got a new mattress and I just can’t get to sleep on it. I’ve always had trouble sleeping but lately it seems a lot worse. And if I can’t get to sleep before 12 basically I won’t sleep until 3 or 4am. Combine that with a 4 year old who will get up at the crack of dawn come hell or high water, I haven’t been feeling myself lately.
  • Down the street there’s this guy. You don’t know him very well. You notice a lot of smoke coming out of his backyard so you assume he’s burning garbage or something. You go on Facebook and find out a lot of other people in your neighbourhood group are talking about this guy too. Someone says he’s burning tires. Someone else says he’s burning neighbourhood cats alive. Another guy is always calling the fire department on him but the fire department says there’s no evidence of a fire. But the smoke keeps coming. Someone on the group insinuates that he’s been paying off the fire department. One day you’re walking down the alley behind your row of houses and you see someone throw something into his backyard. You look over the fence and see… a smoke bomb. You get to know your neighbour and he’s actually a really great guy, a little nerdy, but nice. He tells you this other guy from across the road really hates him and has been trying to turn the neighbourhood against him by throwing smoke bombs into his backyard and blaming it on him. The guy from across the street created the Facebook page to feed the rumour mill. A lot of people in the neighbourhood who don’t know the guy really hate his guts but the people who do know him think he’s great. So who do you listen to?
  • The people who owned this house (we moved to Hamilton, FYI) before use basically did all their own home improvements. And they did everything wrong. When we moved in there was an exhaust fan in the basement bathroom that you could hear but not see. You could hear it but not see it. It was sucking air up through the pot lights. We have a nice big garage with a sliding garage door. Thing is, they installed the sliding door on the inside instead of the outside. So when it rains, despite a bit of weatherstripping, the rain just runs right in. And now where the water pools (I’ve started mopping it up), the concrete pad is starting to droop. They also installed new downstairs steps but instead of using proper risers they kind of jury-rigged these shelf-like things with nails… which of course are NOT screws. And while they were doing that they cut through an obviously-not-very-important beam that just happened to be holding the upstairs staircase in place, so now there’s a steel pillar there but there’s like a 5 degree angle on the floor in that area. There’s just so much to do without having to redo a bunch of crap that they didn’t do properly… it boggles the mind. This is one reason I’d rather buy a house that is in its original condition rather than a house that’s been quickly buffed up to sell. No one does their home improvements well if they’re not going to live in that space.
  • People wonder why millenials don’t have cars, sex, retirement funds, etc, etc. How about because millenials are poor? That explains it all. All the advantages our parents had are kind of just… gone. If that makes millenials selfish or whiney to you maybe you don’t appreciate what you were given.
  • Canada is a massive failure in urban infrastructure design. It’s 2016 and only just now Hamilton is doing the will-they-won’t-they dance around light rapid transit? There’s still some debate that bike lanes are a good thing? Look, the mark of good urban design isn’t when poor people have cars, but when wealthy people use transit. Let’s get the ball rolling on that.
  • One last thing. I live pretty close to downtown Hamilton (within walking distance) and everything, and I mean EVERYTHING closes up before sundown here. If you’re looking to get a meal after 6pm you’re going to be 90% shit out of luck. It’s SO weird. I mean, I kind of get it, most of the shop owners are people with lives who don’t want to commit to opening their shop when no one is around. But still, I’d love to be able to buy a taco at 1am.

Baby I’m Fine

Baby, I’m fine. You know me, I’m doing alright.
I’ve never been better, on fire all night.

No you haven’t killed me,
I was always a skeleton.

Baby, last time you know how I said we were through?
I’ve never had control over something like you.

No you haven’t filled me,
I am ever insatiable.

You always find me,
You’re always somewhere behind me.
You always find me,
Bright as the sun, you are blinding.

Baby, I’m fine. There’s pills made to keep you in line.
I’d better take twenty, hope you don’t mind.

The Dunning-Kruger-Deboer Effect

Isn’t it strange how every theory about intelligence just becomes a stick to beat other (hypothetical) stupid people over the head with? I mean, I can’t think of a better way to make me feel better about myself or about the world in general.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is one of those things. Its popular formulation is something like “stupid people aren’t smart enough to know how stupid they are”, which is kind of a nice shorthand way to slag other people off: Just invoke the Dunning-Kruger effect!

But this kind of misunderstands what Dunning-Kruger is about. It’s not primarily about intelligence, but about skill. Sure, intelligence comes into the mix somewhere (genuinely stupid people will probably have a harder time learning skills and applying metacognitive filter to the skills they have) but that’s a related but different topic.

The point is that going from novice to amateur at anything is easy. This is because skills level isn’t linear to practice. If it takes, say, 10 hours of practice to graduate from novice to amateur, a linear relationship would mean 10 more hours of practice to go from amateur to expert, and then 10 hours more to from expert to master (and then grand wizard, etc, etc).

Of course we all know that’s not how skills work. If the relationship between practice and mastery were plotted it would probably be some kind of inverse exponential curve. It takes a lot more practice to get from level 3 to level 4 than it does to get from level 0 to level 1. (Makers of MMOs get this. In Eve Online for instance there’s a very tangible diminishing return in skill levels. Training from level 0 to level 1 is quick but training from level 4 to level 5 can take months, while providing the same percentile boost in attribute. This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense to people, as we’re used to real world skill working that way.)

So if you’re the guy on the guitar who just learned Wonderwall, it may see like guitar is actually pretty darn easy! Which leads you to overestimate your own skill level, underestimate the amount of skill you need, and (critically) underestimate the skill level of other more skilled people.

Anyways, that’s the Dunning-Kruger effect, a sort of cognitive bias that gets in the way of proper metacognition.

What I’m proposing is the Dunning-Kruger-Deboer effect, which is when your lack of understand of the Dunning-Kruger effect leads you to apply the Dunning-Kruger effect incorrectly. Which is to say it’s a metacognative bias that gets in the way of proper metametacognition. I’d wildly speculate that about 90% of mentions of the Dunning-Kruger effect online are actual examples of the Dunning-Kruger-Deboer effect in action.

The only thing left now is for someone named, say, Jonathan Smith to come along and coin the Dunning-Kruger-Deboer-Smith effect which is when the author of a blog post creating a new Dunning-Kruger variant hasn’t himself quite understood the Dunning-Kruger effect and is subject to a metametacognitive bias which gets in the way of proper metametametacognitive bias.

Or maybe the Dunning-Kruger-Deboer-XKCD effect where somewhere in a hovertext XKCD did it first.

Three Month Review: Nexus 5X

nexus-5x

So three months ago I got the Nexus 5X. It was an upgrade for my aging (and cracked and dented) Nexus 5. I really enjoy the form factor and size of 5″-ish phones, having had both larger (Samsung Note 2) and smaller (HTC Desire). I tend to use phones for about a year and a half or so before I feel like I really need to upgrade, though I’ve found myself using newer phones longer and longer as they tend to be just better devices over the long run.

Before I say anything about the 5X, let’s talk about the 5 for a bit. It was a good phone, not a great one, for several reasons. The most glaring defect was the terrible camera. It couldn’t really take good photos even in broad daylight. Every photo I took was very clearly from a phone, when what I’m looking for is parity with a point and shoot camera. It also had just average battery life and a fairly unimpressive screen resolution. Especially approaching the end of it’s usable life (for me), I was getting very little screen on time.

I liked the Nexus 5 but didn’t love it. What I really wanted was a newer, better version of the Nexus 5 with upgraded camera and better battery life in roughly the same form factor.

When the 5X was announced, I was excited but a little cautious. I wanted to wait for some trusted early reviews to get their hands on it and give me a real impression of what I was in for (MKBHD first and foremost on that list). What I heard made me pull the trigger, I bought the phone from the Google store, and got it next day, which was nice.

Display

The phone itself is basically an upgraded 5 form factor. The screen is larger and much, much prettier. Mind you, it’s still and LCD screen and I was hoping for an AMOLED display for some of the neat things it can do. But the LCD looks nice. So that’s good. It’s nothing super special but it’s leaps and bounds above the quality of the 5, which had a terribly display even for its time. Colours are crisp, it’s nice and bright, and the display even goes down to a fairly decent don’t-disturb-your-partner-in-bed level.

Form Factor & Design

The back of the phone is made from rubberized plastic, but it’s important to note that it’s not nearly as grippy as the Nexus 5. It’s gotten less slippery over time (good) but still isn’t anywhere near as rubberized and non-slippery as the 5.

The camera bulge is new too. I wasn’t that excited about the camera protruding from the back of the phone, but it looks like that’s something we just have to deal with if we want a thin form factor with a large camera sensor. Then again, the 5X isn’t really that thin. It feels very solid in the hand, a really physical object, and the camera bulge isn’t very pronounced. It doesn’t rock when you set it down on a table. The corners are all nicely rounded, but not rounded enough to make the device more slippery than it already is, and not enough to throw off the geometry of the phone (a complaint I have with the more recent iPhone industrial design: too much rounding just looks… dumb). All in all after using the phone for 3 months it really feels like a lot of thought went into the device’s design, reflected in a really nice package that’s a pleasure to hold and use at first and in the long-term is unobtrusive and most importantly not annoying.

The only bit of industrial design I don’t know if I love is the placement of the fingerprint sensor, a feature new to this phone by the way. The fingerprint sensor is located on the back of the phone. For being on the back it’s in a really good place, falling almost exactly where I would normally put my finger. 90% of the time this is great but there’s that other 10% of the time the phone is resting on its back and needs to be picked up to unlock. From what my friends with iPhones say, they often use their thumbs to unlock their phones (as the iPhone fingerprint sensor is on the front of the device), a motion I know would annoy me. On balance I think the fingerprint sensor on the back is a lot better if you have to pick one. The solution here is of course put a fingerprint sensor front and back which could be a selling point for the phone. This would change the speaker placement too, but I’m sure that could be gotten around.

Sound

Speaking of speakers, the 5X looks like it should be a stereo device (as it has identical grilles above and below the screen), but it’s definitely not. The sound is good and front-mounted speakers are a definite improvement from the bottom-mounted speakers of the 5 which I ended up blocking like 50% of the time, and having to rearrange my hand hold to suit the placement of speakers and buttons and whatnot isn’t something I want to think about.

Internals

This phone could really use is a little bit more RAM. It’s currently at 2gb, which isn’t really enough to do intensive multitasking and stuff like that. I haven’t run into that issue too many times but enough for me to notice apps having to be reloaded from disk and stuff like that. Other than the RAM issue, I haven’t had any problems with the speed of the processor itself. Everything seems buttery smooth. None of the interface artifacts I got on previous devices and versions of Android are present, and I only get slight hiccoughs when doing RAM-intensive stuff. Again, I would really have liked 4gb of RAM in this thing.

Android

Since this is a Nexus device it’s loaded with vanilla Android, my preference. I’ve used vendor skins and while some are okay most can die in a fire (I’m looking at you, Touchwiz). There’s not much to say here except to mention the Doze feature, probably the best thing about new Android versions. It senses when the device is at rest (eg when you’ve put it down somewhere like a nightstand for extended periods) and batches all those annoying wake requests together instead of allowing apps to randomly send wakelocks anytime they like. This means that the Nexus 5X just sips battery overnight instead of chewing through it. It’s really that good: I’ll lose only 1% of battery or so over an entire night. Other than that there’s not a whole lot more to say about the Android experience. There’s some new stuff baked in like Now on Tap, but that feature isn’t really ready for prime time yet.

The cool thing with Android now is the OS is in a place where I can just say “Yep, it’s Android, it’s good, nothing too annoying here”. I could not say that a year or two years ago. Android has come a long way. I think it’s actually better than iOS now, especially the latest versions. I don’t see anything about Android that gives me iOS envy, let’s put it that way. Again, that was not the case a year ago or two years ago. (In fact I think the latest versions of iOS look a little too… I dunno, cartoonish? I used to really envy their interface design; that’s no longer the case.)

So pros and cons time. This is stuff I really like about the phone versus things I really hate.

Cons

I have a couple nitpicks that really annoy me. First they changed the button layout so the power button is directly above the volume toggle on the right hand side of the phone. This is a decent concept because I can reach all the buttons with my thumb, but practically it means I accidentally power off my phone all the time when adjusting the volume. I’d like the power button to be absolutely anywhere else. Seriously, top of the phone, left side of the phone, anywhere else.

Second, the headphone jack is on the bottom of the phone, quite close to the edge on the right side. This makes it really, really awkward to hold when you’ve got headphones plugged in. Every time I have headphones in it just bothers me where this jack is located. I understand some people like the jack on the bottom so they can pull their phone out of their pockets naturally without having to flip the phone around, but if the jack had been located just a couple centimeters closer to the center of the phone it would have been way, way easier to hold.

Speaking of headphones, you don’t get any out of the box. This is annoying, as I basically trashed my last pair and needed new ones. I’ve never had a phone not come with headphones before, and I’m disappointed that they didn’t throw some in-ears or something in there. This is kind of a small thing, but it still annoys me.

The camera doesn’t have optical image stabilization. I get it, at this price point we’re probably not going to see that, and I expect the next generation of this phone will have it. But taking shots in low light conditions without HDR mode is only okay. Movement with definitely screw up your shots.

USB C means all those connectors you have are pretty much obsolete (well, except for the raft of devices that use the old connectors still). The package comes with a USB C-compliant charger and cable which is a good thing because compliant cables and bricks are pretty darn hard to find. There’s lots of dangerous USB C junk on the market right now.

Pros

The camera is great. Like, really great, especially for a Nexus device. In daylight I wouldn’t be able to say if the photos it takes came from a phone or a point and shoot. It has a larger and better sensor than Nexi past; in fact this is probably the biggest upgrade in this device. The Nexus family has always had terrible camera quality and it’s nice to see that boat being turned around. It’s not perfect, but it’s leaps and bounds better than any camera on any other phone at this price point. Low light still struggles a bit, but HDR mode will help out with that at the expense of slowing down your shots. The camera is nice and responsive too, another huge pro. I hate missing shots because shutter speed is an issues, a problem I’ve had so much with Android phone. Thankfully that’s almost never the case here.

USB C, apart from having to buy new cables and whatnot, is just so much better than USB-whatever-came-before-it. The plugs are reversible, small, and fit snugly, so no more turning your USB plug around 3 times to orient it correctly in whatever 4-dimensional space old USB occupied.

Fast charging is just… this is the standout “I wasn’t expecting this” feature for the Nexus 5X. I knew it charged faster, but I wasn’t prepared for just how fast. Not having to wait around for two hours to get a fully charged phone is amazing, and plugging this thing in for 10 minutes will net me a ~50% charge. Excellent. I hadn’t noticed how annoying having to charge my phone the old way was, but trust me, I don’t ever want to go back.

The fingerprint sensor has changed the way I interact with the phone, too. I wasn’t expecting to care about this, even though I knew it existed. But it really took away some of the annoying friction of unlocking a secured device. I should have known I would like a fingerprint sensor, as I’d always just kept my old Nexus 5 unsecured to get around having to type something or draw a pattern or whatever. The fingerprint sensor is fast and accurate, and setting it up is super easy. I use it all the time, and I just love it. The only thing it doesn’t like is when you have any moisture on your finger, like if you’ve just washed your hands or been doing some dishes. Other than that? Awesome.

Verdict

So for a long time every Android phone I’ve had has had some significant downside that would make me second-guess recommending it to your average user. The Nexus 5X is probably the best all-around Android phone I’ve seen, ever, for what it is. It’s a very simple, very good, very well-thought-out package with no really big downsides. I would be absolutely comfortable recommending this phone to anyone except maybe a power user. This is the kind of phone that the Android market has really been missing for a while. Just a good, good phone. And at half the cost of a new iPhone or whatever, sure it’s not as fast, but if you drop it on the ground or accidentally throw it in a river you’re not going to have to empty your savings to get a new one.

The real question is: If I lost this phone tomorrow, would I go buy a new one? And the answer is… hell yeah. And I can’t think of another Android phone that’s made me say that in a long, long time. Maybe ever. This is a great daily driver, a well-rounded experience, and just generally a wonderful phone. There’s nothing on the market right now that makes me say… “I want that instead”.

So the verdict? Good to great. Very happy with the purchase.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Listen, the spoilers are strong with this one, so if you haven’t seen the film and you keep reading anyway, well, you have your reward.

I don’t review films, not really, not often. Mostly I don’t care to, and when I do most of what I’d say has been said elsewhere and better.

But Star Wars is a little different, isn’t it? It’s more of a generational touchstone, a sort of culture-shaping thing that transcends its ambitions and obvious limitations to become this thing we all partake in. In one way or another.

I went to see it in IMAX 3D, and I have some thoughts.

IMAX 3D

I saw it in IMAX 3D because I had to. Not because I wanted to. I don’t like 3D except in rare cases where it’s used for a specific reason. This time was no exception.

But before going on about that, a little bit about the IMAX experience. It’s… okay I guess? The screen is a bit bigger and curved, the sound is a bit louder and they obviously invested a lot of money in subwoofer technology. But the experience ends up being just incrementally better than a regular cinema experience, especially if you’re going to a cineplex. I don’t think it’s worth the extra few dollars. The seats leaned back, so that was something, but if anything the seats felt narrower than normal theater seats: I’m a big dude and I felt wedged in there at points.

Now for 3D. When I got to a theater my brain expects to pan left and right to follow the action. When I have to pan left, right, forward, and backwards, I find this distracting. I don’t like having to constantly adjust my focus. Not to mention that with modern theaters, the resolution they’re capable of producing is absurd, and 3D makes everything look blurry to me. What’s the point of dim and blurry bits and pieces flying at my head?

Modern action filmmaking actually makes this a lot worse. The constant cutting, steadicam, and lack of visual coherence is bad enough on a 2D screen; on a 3D screen it’s unbearable.

The only thing I really liked about the whole IMAX presentation was assigned seating. Which leads me to…

Theatres

This is a big one for me. I don’t actually enjoy the theater experience. I mean, I like the screen and the sound, but I don’t like having to get there an undefined amount of time before the showing for the chance to get a seat in the “good seat zone” (aka center middle). Or worse, doing this with a group of people.

The crucial bit of technology to get me to the theater more is well within reach here. I could see the seating charts online when I did the IMAX purchasing. I knew where I was going to be sitting, and I knew we didn’t have to show up a half hour before the showing in order to get 2 seats together in a decent place.

If I can buy tickets online, know where I’m going to be sitting, print them out at home or show them my phone or whatever, show up, walk in, and watch the film, I’ll go to the theater more often. I know it. It takes away all the annoying “unknowns” of the situation.

I guess I understand why theatres don’t do this. They want to upsell to experiences where they do it, and the probably also think they’ll sell fewer tickets if you know you’re going to be sitting in the front row getting a crick in your neck. But there are plenty of people who still walk in and buy tickets not caring about that stuff, so don’t tell them where they’re going to be sitting. Just have the algorithm assign them next best seating. Or maybe have a section of the theatre (again, center middle) that are specifically reserved for people willing to pay an extra dollar to have assigned seating in a particular place and then have everyone go into overflow.

Anyways. If you were counting on a review of the actual film, sorry about all this theatre bullshit. Technical stuff like this matters to me sometimes more than the actual film (but only sometimes).

Technical Stuff About The Film

Okay, so before I get into what I thought about the film proper and what kind of job they did on the character and story and whatnot, let me get into some good and bad stuff about the film technically.

First off, there was almost no steadicam in the film that I remember being there. This is a good thing. It’s a part of what makes a Star Wars film feel like a Star Wars film: The technique in them has always been more stately and restrained than other more recent action films. I really appreciate that, and I hope that action movies as a whole knock it off will all the unsteady camera work. Part of the reason for this is that when the camera is “part” of the action it really breaks immersion for me. If I’m noticing things about what the camera is doing, if it really seems to have a personality, I can’t help remembering that yes, this is a camera, yes, this is a film. Not great.

The action itself was at once a lot more restrained than other action films, and a lot (a lot lot) more complex than the original Star Wars trilogy. When I say restrained, I’m thinking especially of Marvel movies where a lot of computer generated stuff is flying around and hitting a bunch of other computer generated stuff in a way that’s obviously artificial. The Avengers movies are particularly bad at this, as are any of the Thor setpieces in Asgard. Those action scenes feel meticulously designed and cold, almost built to be too much to handle. I don’t particularly like them. They make me feel removed from the film as an experience. They’re scenes to be marveled at (ha!) but not really grasped and felt. This doesn’t have to be bad: Mad Max: Fury Road did action setpieces on an extreme scale for extended periods of time. I’ve struggled to understand what the difference is between these two franchises, but I think it has something to with scale (Mad Max takes place on a much smaller scale, even when the action is intensely bonkers) and intelligibility (Mad Max makes a kind of visual sense that’s hard to explain; Marvel movies seem chaotic and random in comparison).

In any case, The Force Awakens is mostly fairly intelligible. There are some Tie Fighter vs X-Wing scenes that honestly lost me. Like, I understand what the intention of the scenes was, but especially at the end, right before the trench run… they mostly just left me thinking that yes, I had just seen a bunch of things happen, but no, I didn’t know exactly what. Maybe I was just tired. I’ll have to watch it again.

I don’t want to compare TFA to the prequel trilogy, but I do want to compare it to the original trilogy. Obviously the original trilogy was limited in its approach to space action by the technology of the time, but it was massively simpler. And it made more visual sense. I suppose it lost a sense of scale in not being able to really show a massive space battle in all its chaos, but I’m not sure that being able to show chaos is actually helpful the viewer.

But on balance TFA was very good in its action restraint.

One thing I really noticed was the pacing of the film. There’s not a lot of breathing room here. It’s a modern blockbuster after all, so there’s not much time devoted to just slowing down and taking a moment. This is mostly okay, and it lets the scenes that do breathe (like the introduction of Rey scavenging the bowels of a crashed and abandoned Imperial starship) really speak for themselves. And, frankly, this film was approaching too long as it is. So I understand the pacing. However I would have preferred some of the cuts to last a little bit longer. Like just a few seconds. I felt like the film cut away, especially from faces, a bit too soon. So maybe what I’m trying to say is I would have appreciated a film that kept a similar pace with fewer or less frequent cuts. The editing wasn’t terribly obvious, and definitely wasn’t the sort of stylized editing that draws attention to itself as technique, but it was often cut quicker than I would like. So I did notice it despite its lack of a particular flair.

The staging and locations were uniformly great, though two stick out as really top shelf: The desert planet at the beginning (more on that later) and the lighsabre battle in the snowy woods at the end. Almost every location was an archetype a la vintage Star Wars: Everything is either forbidding or lush. There’s no nondescript temperate planets here.

Characters

The new characters are just great. Just flat out great. Unlike Luke Skywalker, who I originally wanted to punch right in his whiny throat, none of the characters seemed out of place or annoying. They didn’t really need to be changed or redeemed in some way, they were just fully formed right from the start.

Rey is a treat, probably the breakout performance of the whole film. Finn is an unexpected twist, being a fully humanized Stormtrooper (even before he defects, he’s obviously stricken by what he’s seeing done and being asked to do). He does get a little mouthy and jokey as the film progresses, but again, more on that later. Poe is fantastic, though underused (how can you get someone as pure 100% good as Oscar Isaac and not use the crap out of him?). He’s constantly referred to as the best pilot in the whole wide universe, blah blah blah, but we get to see very little of him actually doing that. Of course the film is already jam packed without having to show, not tell us that he’s super duper pilot man, but this character is clearly set up to be important later on. I wish I would have seen just a bit more about him.

I have to say, I had some mixed feelings about Adam Driver as Kylo Ren going in. I’m a fan of Driver as an actor (he’s good in Girls, great in While We’re Young). But nothing about him really said “villain” to me. Until I saw TFA. I just bought it. I loved the character. The idea of a conflicted villain trying desperately to stifle his best impulses is a sly twist of the Force as it’s been revealed so far in the Star Wars universe.

Kylo is a clear inversion of the Luke trope, where Luke avoids killing his father by turning away from the dark side, Kylo does the opposite, killing his father (Han Solo just in case you weren’t paying attention) in order to fully turn toward the dark side. This sets up Kylo as effective antagonist to Luke, having walked the same path and chosen differently.

His bursts of uncontrolled anger, or him punching his own wound to (presumably) level up his dark side powers, all great touches. But allowing him to be wounded, to show his vulnerability, this is a great touch too. He obviously needs to finish his training to get on Vader’s level, formidable as he is.

I think Kylo has been set up to be irredeemable in a way Vader never was: Where Anakin was seduced and eventually taken over by the dark side, Kylo is chasing after the dark side. It’s his goal. It’s the thing that he wants, to finish what Vader started.

Interestingly enough, much like the original trilogy, there’s no mention of the Sith. So Kylo’s master may indeed be a Sith Lord, but we only hear him referred to as Snoke. Much like the Emperor was the Emperor, not Darth Whatever. I like this ambiguity; as the canon of Star Wars stuff got more granularly explained, it lost the magic you find in things that you can’t or don’t need to explain. Sith, Jedi, midichlorians, these things are all best left behind the veil and trotted out for novels and whatnot.

The standout character introduction though has to be BB-8. That thing is adorable! Say whatever you want about JJ Abrams, he has a knack for knowing what not to put in his movies. Jar Jar Binks this is not. The droid has real personality in way that even R2-D2 never had, as affectionate as we may feel for the older model droid.

So that’s the new characters. On to the old. I’ve been hearing rumblings around the web about some older characters looking older. Yeah, Leia and Han look worse for wear, but these actors are actually old now, you know? Even Mark Hamill (who looks very, very good in the movie compared to, oh, the last few years) looks worn out and trampled down. This is expected, I think, and if this seems weird to you, maybe stop pretending people don’t get old.

Han Solo is around for most the film until he dies. Ford puts in a pretty good performance, but honestly I could have done with him dying a little sooner. A lot of the screen time is sucked up by Han Solo, more than I think the character deserves. Yes, he’s a huge part of the charm of the originals, but I didn’t expect TFA to be quite the Han Solo show that it was.

He’s there, Carrie Fisher shows up being all generally and whatnot, and of course we see Mark Hamill at the end. They’re all fine, I guess, and I suppose there are some people who get misty eyed at seeing them again, but I could have done with seeing them a little less.

Before we get to story, I’d just like to say this: C-3PO can go ahead and fall into a volcano. I hated him in the original trilogy, I triple hated him in the prequels, and I hate him now for talking up valuable real estate that could be given to just about anything or anyone else.

Story and Miscellanea

So here’s the thing. Before I watched TFA, I was very familiar with JJ Abram’s work. He’s a good filmmaker, not great, but good, and very solidly good at that. He hasn’t made any real stinkers (I even liked Into Darkness). But where his real genius lies is his chameleon-like ability to imbibe the essence of a thing and then produce something that smells the same. None of his movies are original ideas, they’re all remakes or entries in series, and his strange proficiency with capturing the tone of a property makes him something of a reboot auteur. (Before you say anything about Super 8 being an original property, I’d like to point out that in Super 8 JJ captured and reproduced Spielberg; the movie might be original script but it is not by a long shot an original property.)

I used to think of the Star Trek reboot as a dry run for doing Star Wars. I don’t know if that was the intention at the time, but it just looked like the obvious next thing. And so here we are. When they announced Abrams was doing Star Wars I wasn’t surprised… but I was a little worried.

And my worries were borne out here. I said on Twitter before I went to see the film that I was afraid that TFA would be such a faithful reproduction that it would be old hat before I saw the film.

There’s nothing about the story that’s really hugely different from anything Star Wars has been before. There are some subtle twists and some things are certainly done a lot better, but it’s a beat-for-beat photocopy of Episode IV. Everything that Episode IV did, TFA does, just bigger. It starts on a desert planet like Tatooine… but worse. It has the Empire… but more Nazi-ish than the Empire. Our heroes get sucked into the Resistance which is just… the Rebel Alliance. There are space fights… but bigger. There’s a Death Star… that kills stars and planets and is as big as a planet. There’s a trench run to blow up the thing that makes the SuperDeathStar blow up. All the archetypes are there, all the plot points get hit.

Thing is, that’s kind of what we need. Star Wars is in need of a cathartic release, a reawakening if you will, to cleanse it from the stink of the prequels. If that means taking the original Star Wars movie an half-rebooting, half-remaking it, then so be it.

This film doesn’t have to be a great film, it just has to be a great Star Wars film, and in that I think it does the job really well. I enjoyed most of it, and I want to see where the next episode takes the universe. As long as the next film isn’t The Empire Strikes Back 2.0. I really want a Star Wars installment that takes the series and universe as a whole in an unexpected direction. I want not just to be given what I already know I want, but what I don’t know I want because I’ve never seen it before.