Everyone has their ups and downs. As a contractor, sometimes I’ll have a dry spell. I’m pretty confident in myself, and I work in a really profitable field where I’m usually in high demand, so I don’t usually get too worried if I’m out of work for a couple of weeks.

But a few weeks ago, I was looking at my savings, and looking at my prospects, and I was feeling just a little paranoid about all my bills.

So I decided to forego my Apple Car subscription for the month.

Man, what an eye-opener. People talk about the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots. You don’t appreciate the difference until you have to call a Google Car to get around.

Concept by Meni Tsirbas

Concept by Meni Tsirbas

I mean, normally, with my Apple Car subscription, if I have a regular job, Siri asks me if I’ll be leaving at my usual time. And then when I step outside, the car is waiting for me. The temperature is slightly cool, the way I like it, the seat is reclined just a tad, and my morning mix is already playing on the 10-speaker stereo. My Facebook feed is on the heads-up display. I can talk to Siri and make adjustments to all this as she drives me.

It’s kind of amazing how quickly I got used to it. I’d always owned my own car (hey, I’m a California guy.) The idea that I’d have to depend on someone else for a ride was pretty foreign. “Part of your monthly subscription goes towards ensuring a quick response to your Apple Car requests.” I think living in L.A. helped. They really loaded up the city with cars. The longest I ever waited for a car to show up was 15 minutes. Nowadays, it’s usually around five minutes.

And self-driving. That took some getting used to. I remember for the first month riding with the steering wheel deployed, sometimes almost grabbing it because I wasn’t sure Siri saw an approaching hazard. But she always did. And, of course, the Apple Cars weren’t the first self-driving vehicles on the road. It seemed like less than a year after Apple’s entry (three years after Google’s) it was already rare to see someone physically driving a car.

I’ve been using the subscription service for three years now, and it just keeps getting better. More customizations, more comfortable seats, stereo upgrades, suspension upgrades – they just keep improving the Apple Car.

We’re still in the middle of this huge shift in how people get around. There are still busses on the street, there are still some diesel-powered trucks, but almost all the cars are part of the Google, Apple, or Tesla fleets. None of them use gas. It so bizarre that L.A. is a net-oil exporting county.

Anyway, you all know the history. And I think most of you on my list have an Apple Car subscription. But let me tell you how the other half lives.

So. I had to go from my place in Santa Monica to a theater in Hollywood at around 6p.m. Normally, that would only take half an hour. Since this was my first time using the Google Car app, and this is on an iPhone, not an Android, I thought I should give myself a lot of setup time.

As you know, the big difference between the Apple and Google services is that the Google one is free. And I was about to find out why…

The setup was pretty easy. I told it where I wanted to go, and it told me a car would be there in…

30 minutes.

And the trip would take…

One hour.

One. Friggin’. Hour. What is this, the ‘teens? Okay, well, maybe it would give me time to catch up on some reading.

It's just not as sexy.

It’s just not as sexy.

So, I’m standing on the curb, waiting. And waiting some more. Finally, five minutes late, the car arrives. The door opens and I am slammed with a wall of skunk. Yes, weed is perfectly legal, but you’re not supposed to smoke in the car (that’s why I prefer Hershey’s.) Of course, since the Apple Cars are by subscription, if you pull that kind of crap, you get fined. I guess Google either doesn’t do that or doesn’t care. I think Apple takes cars out of circulation for cleaning, too.

Anyway, I put the windows down and the car started off. Rather than my music, I was treated to a commercial for Macy’s. The heads-up display didn’t seem to have a browser, just a bunch of ads for relatively local businesses. Yeesh.

I think, like most people, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t normally pay attention to where a car is taking me. But I noticed almost right away that we were not getting on the freeway. That seemed unusual. That was going to add a few minutes to the drive. Of course, all the driverless cars flow through each other at intersections, so there’s really no such thing as a traffic jam anymore.

After trying a few voice commands, I finally got a browser window open (more ads,) and was able to at least get to a couple of websites. It seemed kind of slow, but I was still able to read… until…

The car suddenly slowed, and the entire front windshield became a collection of items for sale at Best Buy. A voice started describing all the amazing specials as the car turned off the street and slowly drove past the front of the Best Buy we happened to be passing (Oh, wait a minute, we actually had to make a couple of turns to get here… The car actually went out of its way to drive me past a Best Buy!) There was a large PRESS TO STOP AND SHOP button flashing red on the windshield. The car took a full 45 seconds to cruise by the Best Buy before finally exiting back onto the street and speeding back up into traffic.

Holy crap. Now I understood why the Google Car was free. These companies were paying a lot of money to Google to re-route the cars past their businesses. And that’s why it was going to take an hour for a 30 minute trip! Sure enough, my Google Car again went into stalker mode outside a Target and a Bed Bath and Beyond before finally reaching Hollywood. Finally!

I had dinner with friends, saw a show, had drinks afterwards (speaking as someone who’s been hit by drunk drivers twice in his life, it’s so cool… there’s no such thing as DUI anymore.)

Once again, I had to wait half an hour for a car to arrive. It was pretty late now, and I was curious as to whether it was going to drive me by a closed Best Buy and offer to drop me off. Nope, they’re smarter than that. I couldn’t even get a browser window up on the screen. I was forced to watch a half-hour infomercial for a truly unique piece of molded plastic that would change my workout routine forever. I could order it right from the car. Not a bad scheme, selling to drunk people.

For a couple of weeks, I put up with the Google Cars until I finally got another contract. My first order of business was renewing my Apple Car subscription.

Some people prefer the Tesla Cars. There’s some variety, and they’re much better if you have to travel a long distance (for example, you can set up a relay where one car will take you halfway to S.F., and a fully charged car will be waiting to take you the rest of the way.) But the subscription fee is a lot more, and the single use fee is pretty high, too. I did use it once to move some equipment (the van carries a lot.) It was pretty cool.

I kind of feel bad for people who have to use the Google Cars now. I remember asking a housekeeper how long it took her to get to work. She said an hour, and I thought she must live way out in Santa Clarita or somewhere. But if she’s taking a Google Car, she probably lives relatively nearby, but has to slink by a bunch of Targets on her way to and from work.

I guess the new world hasn’t really democratized things the way some of us thought it might. There are still haves and have-nots, and someone has to pay for this stuff somehow. I suppose it will still be a couple more years at least before things finish shaking out. In the meantime, I’ll consider myself in good financial shape if I’m not waiting on a Google Car.

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Apple’s September News in a Giant Nutshell

A couple of friends have posted on my wall asking me to comment on yesterday’s Apple announcements. I guess I’ve set myself up as the guy for such tasks, so here goes…

I’m going to go in the same order as they did.

Well, you look okay to me. Just put some ointment on it.

Well, you look okay to me. Just put some ointment on it.

The Apple Watch update. To be clear, there’s no hardware “innards” update to the Watch. They’ve just added some new colors. However, they’ve released WatchOS 2.0, which is a dramatic improvement over 1.0. To try and put it in simple terms, with 1.0, apps ran on one’s iPhone and the results were displayed on the Watch, almost like a web browser. In 2.0, the app runs natively on the Watch, making full use of its hardware and graphics engines. I’ve been using it for about a day, and it’s much more responsive. The demo they showed on stage, of an app showing a patient’s live EKG, is a good example of just how powerful this tiny device can be. It is still a luxury item, and I would still suggest that the average person wait for the second iteration of the hardware. I love the Watch and think it has a bright future.

The doctor is standing by with his Apple Watch for when I cut my ear off.

This “Draw Tippy” submission is gonna blow them away!

The iPad Pro. To me, this was the most underwhelming part of the show. It’s a 13” iPad, it’s incredibly powerful… but it starts at just $100 less than a MacBook Air (or the same as an Air in the Refurb Store.) If I’m going to spend that much on a computer, I want a computer, not a giant pad. If I want a pad, I’ll get a regular iPad. Now, if one is paid to draw professionally in some way, I’d say rush out in a buying frenzy, and don’t forget the Apple Pencil (their stylus.) For people who draw, this is an amazing tool. But for the average user, I say get a regular iPad or spring for an actual MacBook. This is my opinion.

I'd like to plug "Drunk History" and "Rick and Morty."

I’d like to plug “Drunk History” and “Rick and Morty.”

The new Apple TV. This is exciting to me. Basically, Apple has stealth-introduced a new gaming console with an OS that’s used by literally 100,000 developers. On top of that, the rumor mill claims that they’re “this close” to striking deals with the major networks, which would make this a complete cord-cutting device. The implication during the presentation was that iPhones could be used as extra remotes, but that’s still not clear. It was also implied that the Siri remote was a universal remote. Also still a bit unclear. What is clear is that the Apple TV is no longer “a hobby,” that they’re now serious about it. I’ve entered the developer lottery to get one early, and I plan to port my games (and I have some thoughts about some other stuff) to it. Also, to be clear, it isn’t just for gaming. Any app on an iPhone or iPad can theoretically be ported to the TV.

How most millennials see their phones anyway (I'm so hip.)

How most millennials see their phones anyway (aren’t I hip?)

The iPhones (6s and 6s+.) The dimensions appear to be the same as last year’s models. The internal chips are, as usual, dramatically faster. And the camera, as usual, is dramatically better. The two big new features are a rose gold model (because China,) and best of all, “3D Touch.” This is the same as “Taptic” on the Watch. It combines pressure sensors and tiny motors to give you the sensation of pushing INTO the screen as you press harder on it. If you’ve never experienced it, you’re in for a treat. This allows for some neat interface tricks, kind of like “right-clicking,” but for the phone. Obviously, this is a hardware thing, so it’s only available on the new models. If you’re due for an upgrade, I’d say it’s worth it. The Taptic engine is open to developers, so plenty of apps will be taking advantage of it. Also with the 6s and 6s+, Apple has invented Harry Potter pictures. When taking a photo, the camera grabs a second or so on either side of the actual shot and saves it (optionally, of course.) You can then view it using 3D Touch or use it as a moving wallpaper on ANY device, even a Watch.

And speaking of upgrades, almost as a throw-away, Apple announced their own yearly iPhone Upgrade Program. So, why does this matter? Well, all of the U.S. carriers now have month-to-month service options as opposed to two year contracts. Formerly, an iPhone was normally advertised as “$199 with a two year contract.” But the true cost of the phone was $650. So the carrier locked you in for two years and inflated the monthly price to cover subsidizing your phone. That’s the old way. Now, for example, with T-Mobile, I can get an iPhone 6s for $0 and pay $27 a month for 24 months. If I leave T-Mobile before I’ve paid off the phone, I have to pay the balance. It’s a zero-percent loan, basically. It’s just separating out the phone subsidy from the actual cell service. Okay, but here’s the difference with Apple: For what amounts to around $4-ish more per month, you get AppleCare+, AND you get to trade in your phone after ONE year and get next year’s model. This is better than the carrier plans where one has to pay off the balance of the old phone before getting a new one. If you’re lucky, you might break even when trading in the old phone. If you’re lucky. What’s the downside of the Apple deal? If you ever decide to leave the ecosystem, you’ll have to finally pay off that last phone completely. On the plus side, the Apple phones are unlocked and you can flit from carrier to carrier each year (I don’t think you can within the year, but I could be wrong. It could be that easy.) I plan on giving the program a shot. If you don’t feel the need to have new toys every year, a carrier plan might be better. But keep in mind that you’ll have to shell out $100 for AppleCare+ up front at the very least.

And finally, next week (Wednesday, September 16,) we get iOS 9. This will work on all the same devices as iOS 8 and iOS 7. I’ve been running it for over a month on my old test iPhone 4S and iPad 3 with no problems. A major goal of this release was to improve performance and smooth out rough edges rather than add tons of new features. Oh, there’s some nice new, like Siri’s ability to get search results from apps (once they’ve added that feature,) a more robust Notes app, transit info in Maps, and swipe gestures on the iPad keyboard for editing. But it’s mainly about speed and stability, which is good. It’s good to pause every once in a while and catch one’s breath. I’m going to do that right now.


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Children of the Bomb

Originally written 8/6/2005, updated 2015…

Seventy years ago today, over 80,000 people died in a matter of minutes as an atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, Japan. Many tens-of-thousands more would die in the months and years after the bomb due to radiation.

I am alive only because they are dead.

My father, Ensign Lyle L. Laws, was the captain of a small landing craft in the Pacific. His boat, like so many others, was preparing for the massive invasion of Japan. There was a sense of foreboding everywhere.

Different generals and their staffs estimated that the American dead would number anywhere from 100,000 to over 800,000 and it would take years to conquer the Japanese home islands. The U.S. made so many Purple Hearts in anticipation that the surplus has been used ever since, and is still used today in Afghanistan.

Humanity's first successful cruise missile*. *Note: computer not yet available. Willing pilot required.

Humanity’s first successful cruise missile*.
*Note: computer not yet available. Willing pilot required.

The cost in Japanese lives would be in the millions. The Japanese army was preparing for the invasion with a dizzying array of Kamikaze planes and boats, as well as volunteers willing to wear explosives and run at the enemy. On every Pacific island the Americans invaded, the Japanese fought to the last man. The only prisoners taken were those who were too wounded to kill themselves or run at the enemy. In Japan, schoolgirls were being taught to run at soldiers with long bamboo lances. The government and the army believed that it was better for the Japanese “race” to perish than to surrender to the U.S.

Then the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The city had been spared the firebombing with which we were destroying most other Japanese cities. This was to let us – and Japan – see just how much damage the one bomb would do. The center of the city was vaporized. The outlying districts were destroyed by fire.

The Japanese did not surrender. In fact, the army started looking for ways to protect soldiers and citizens from the effects of the bomb. Some of the Hiroshima survivors happened to have been wearing white clothing, so word went out that one should wear white to protect oneself from the American weapon. Radiation poisoning was not understood. It was thought that perhaps there was poison gas in the bomb, so gas masks were issued.

But the point is, their resolve remained.

On August 9, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, another city that had been spared so the effects would be… obvious. Now it was clear that Hiroshima wasn’t a fluke. The Americans had something that could destroy a city, or any large area, in one stroke. The government and army faltered in this realization, but vowed to fight on rather than surrender.

The Emperor had had enough. He intervened and said it was time for the unthinkable, it was time for surrender. Many members of the government and army committed suicide. Others attempted a coup. But the country surrendered.

All over the Pacific, allied soldiers celebrated. A new weapon that none of them had heard of and very few could comprehend had magically ended the war. There would be no invasion. They could all go home, including Ensign Laws, and get on with their lives.

I remember arguing with my father about this when I was young and more “militantly” liberal. He tried to explain the situation with Japan. He tried to explain the fear he had. But I was not listening. We blew up two cities. We were war criminals. Later on in life, neither of us ever brought it up again.

Now older, I find myself in the odd position of being very anti-nuclear, except for the two bombs that were actually used. I would truly love to see every country’s nuclear stockpile – including ours – destroyed.

But the two bombs we actually used? Well, from a pragmatic, un-emotional view, it seems like a win/win in the short term. 300,000 people died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Millions more than that would have died in an invasion. But that un-emotional view strikes at my emotional core. How can such a thing be justified? It can’t, not in the real world. But in the world of total war, where more than 30,000,000 people had already died, and where literally dozens of cities around the world had been bombed into non-existence, it’s easy to justify. Just two more cities to end it. Just two more cities and the biggest, bloodiest conflict in history stops. 1945 is a unique place in history. It’s the only place an atomic bomb can be used.

This is an extremely brief overview of a major turning-point in Human history. For every sentence I’ve written, you can find an entire book on that subject alone. And there are many more major and minor points to this whole argument that I don’t have time to write about. I have by no means read everything written on the subject. But I’m quite certain from what I know that I have to live with this simple fact:

I exist because of the bomb.

It doesn't mean I have to be happy about it.

It doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it.

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Large Hodor Collider

Sure, the Large Hadron Collider is back online and bound to make some amazing discoveries, but I’m just as excited about the new Large Hodor Collider!

Large Hodor Collider

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King Tut’s Burial Mask Damaged!

As you might have seen in your morning news feed, King Tut’s burial mask was damaged during cleaning. Someone tried to repair it, but they did a pretty shoddy job. The museum is trying to keep it under wraps, but I’ve obtained this exclusive photo:


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Color Me Stupid – Literally

Over at one of my favorite sites, Literally Unbelievable, I found a post this morning titled “Color Me Stupid.” The smart-ass center of my brain leapt into action and I imagined a Crayola crayon with the color “stupid” written on it. Surprisingly, a cursory google search revealed no results. So, I threw one together for the benefit of future generations of smart-asses. Use it responsibly.


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Ode to Los Angeles Skies

Little metal tadpoles
Hum by my window on the breeze
Flitting randomly to and fro
Sometimes they gather
To watch Human affairs
Car chases are their favorite

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Do You Want an iPhone 6? Maybe. How About a 5s?

The iPhone 6, with a big, bright screen for talking to your friends when you're in the fjords and they're in the tropics.

The iPhone 6, with a big, bright screen for talking to your friends when you’re in the fjords and they’re in the tropics.

So the brand-spankin’-new iPhone 6 and 6+ are out. Even though it’s in short supply, you can usually call around to a couple of Apple Stores to find one with a few in stock. Consumer Reports proved they don’t bend any worse than other phones, iOS 8.0.2 has fixed the fingerprint and battery life problems, so all systems are go.

But what about the iPhone 5s? This powerful phone has been out for just over a year. Sure, the 6 has some “new,” like the larger, denser screen and Apple Pay built in, but mostly it’s the 5s, but MORE. More battery, more camera, more speed, thinner, etc. It is next year’s model. Only there’s no completely new earth-shaking doohickey.

Of course, the 6’s camera is amazing. It’s as far beyond the 5s’s as the 5s’s is beyond everything that came before it.

It’s vastly superior if you’re:

  • Making videos on an unsteady platform (stabilization.)
  • Changing from close to distant subjects quickly (focus pixels.)
  • Need to slow fast things down quite a bit (better slow motion.)

If you’re like me, with a 5s, and without a pressing need to do any of those things, you have no reason to rush out in a buying frenzy.

But what if you’ve got an older iPhone? You’re a couple of generations back now, maybe your 2 year contract is finally up and you’re wondering if it’s time to make a move. What should you get? The 5s is only $99 now. And some people are getting them for less. Will it last you for a while? Or should you save your pennies until you can afford the $200 needed for a new 6?

The iPhone 5S: more than cromulent, it will embiggen your Edisonograph experience.

The iPhone 5s: more than cromulent, it will embiggen your Edisonograph experience.

Well, let’s start with the easy group: if you have an iPhone 4s, 4, or 3gs, yes. Yes, it’s time to upgrade. You’re going to enter a whole new world no matter what you get (I’ve been there, and I’ve helped others upgrade who’ve said the same thing.) The difference is astounding just going from a 4s to a 5s. Oh, and you 4 and 3gs people haven’t met Siri yet!

If you have an older phone and don’t want to spend a lot, upgrading to the 5s is a good move. The 5s will still be supported for at least another three years, possibly four. It’s very powerful and capable. And it has an excellent camera.

(Note: DO NOT upgrade to a 5c. Someone may offer you one for free. It is not nearly as good as the 5s. I mean, obviously. It’s a whole bunch of letters earlier in the alphabet!)

Here’s another cool thing: If you go into an Apple Store with your old iPhone – even an old 3gs – if it’s in good condition, they’ll give you an Apple Gift Card for its trade in value on the spot, which you can turn around and use against the price of your new phone right there! Now, 3gs’s are a little iffy, maybe $20 or so, 4’s might get you $30 or more, 4s’s might get you into the $50-ish range, and on up. So suddenly the cost of a new 5s becomes a lot less than $100. You can usually get them to give you a trade in price range for your model over the phone, but they’ll have to look your device over in person to give you an exact price. Apple Store employees do not work on commission. It is okay to ask questions and leave.

If you have an older phone, or an iPhone 5 or 5c, and are not a starving actor or do have access to a rich uncle, then go ahead and spend $200 to get the 6. It’s got a gorgeous screen, an even better camera, it’s super-fast, and it will be supported for quite a while. I personally am not a fan of large cell phones. Didn’t we spend the ’00’s constantly making them smaller? Still, it’s quite a machine.



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