Me and Mister Rogers

culture / TV

Neighborhood watch

As a kid, I loved Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I had reasons to like the star; I was a quiet, gentle kid from southwestern Pennsylvania, and Fred Rogers was a quiet, gentle man from the same area. More importantly, I had precious few male role models in my family life, and Rogers modeled a warm-hearted, happy, self-assured masculinity that didn’t rely on mustering bravado or projecting toughness. Instead, he expressed his feelings, smiled and laughed, and freely shared his vulnerabilities. That gave me hope, as an insecure kid.

Of course, I eventually outgrew the show. Mister Rogers was geared for the five-and-under crowd, and I moved on to other series: Square One, Carmen Sandiego, Batman: the Animated Series.

Still, I retained an affection for Mister Rogers, and I would check in on his show from time to time, even as a teenager. It was reassuring to see his program continue, largely unchanged. Oh, his hair was whiter and his posture more stooped, but he was that same happy neighbor, beaming as he stepped into that familiar, dingy little sound stage.

The trolley, but bigger

My reentry into Fred Rogers’ orbit came from an unexpected angle: a summer job.

In spring of 1999, as my high school graduation neared, I needed to earn cash for college, but I dreaded the thought of another summer spent mowing lawns or slinging quarter pounders at McDonald’s. Fortunately, I had another option: the family-friendly amusement park near my house.

At the brief screening interview, I expressed interest in a “character” role—a park job that that involved performing a script, rather than pushing a sequence of buttons. I secretly hoped to land a job leading tours at the Wild West illusion house, where I’d get to create an over-the-top, old-timey character. (More importantly, I’d spend the summer working with my then-girlfriend, who was returning to that same role.)

To my dismay, there were no open positions at the illusion house. Instead, I was offered a job as the only male trolley driver on the park’s “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe” ride.

Yes, this was a real thing. The thirteen-minute experience piled thirty park guests into a life-size replica of the trolley from Mister Rogers’ show. This electric train trundled through a plywood tunnel and emerged into a humid, sun-dappled patch of forest. The track wound its way through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe, stopping at King Friday’s castle, the tree house of X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat, Lady Elaine Fairchild’s Museum-Go-Round, and Daniel Striped Tiger’s clock house.

My job was to “drive” the trolley through the Neighborhood and encourage passengers to engage with its animatronic residents. As our trolley neared, each character would emerge from its set and “talk” (i.e., play back a recording of Fred Rogers himself, in character). Pauses in their delivery were my cue to recite a well-memorized script.

The plot wasn’t exactly Shakespearean; at the first station, King Friday commanded us to invite every character we met to attend an imminent “Hug and Song” party. At each stop along the way, I would dutifully lead the passengers in the prescribed mantra: “Come along, come along, to the castle Hug and Song.”

I spent two full summers driving the trolley, and this routine grew very familiar.

For example, by my calculations, I recited that “Hug and Song” line tens of thousands of time. By the end of my second season, I could have performed the script in my sleep and knew precisely where there was room for improvisation.

By sheer repetition, I had also mastered the skill of trolley-driving: I could stop the massive train on a dime and could tell by feel when the tracks had been recently greased. I knew exactly how each scene was likely to malfunction, too: the Merry-Go-Round would fail to spin open, leaving Lady Elaine to squawk at us from inside. X the Owl’s door would get stuck. Daniel Tiger, true to his shy reputation, would stay hidden away inside his clock. I had even invented ways of explaining away these problems, satisfying curious kids and amusing parents with a knowing wink.

It was a good job, as park jobs go, and it kept me entertained far better than working the carousel or the roller coaster ever could have. Still, the work eventually grew tiresome, and as my second summer drew to a close, I was eager to disembark the trolley—permanently.

Meeting the man himself

There was one perk of trolley-driving I haven’t yet mentioned: we were treated to visits from the show’s stars. For example, more than once, Mr. McFeely (the Neighborhood mailman) dropped by. All fine and good, but that paled in comparison to the time that Mr. Rogers himself visited.

We spent the better part of a week sprucing up the ride for Rogers’ arrival. We swept and re-swept the loading deck, scrubbed down the trolleys, and washed the scene platforms along the track. Park maintenance repaired animatronic malfunctions that hadn’t worked properly for ages. Everything was well-oiled, crisp, and shiny when an elderly Mr. Rogers showed up, slim and hunched but not particularly frail.

There’s not much I can say about Fred Rogers himself that others haven’t written more eloquently. But it’s true what they say: his real-life personality was very similar to the one he projected for the TV audience. I remember that he smiled a lot and that he seemed genuinely interested in each of us college kids working the ride.

We lined up for photos (I still have that snapshot, somewhere) and accompanied Mr. Rogers to a nearby pavilion, where we shared a picnic lunch and said our goodbyes. It was a wonderful way to bookend my summer—and my twenty-year relationship with Mr. Rogers as his “television neighbor.”

Last thoughts

A few years later, I was heartbroken to learn that Fred Rogers had passed away. He had kept his stomach cancer a secret from the public and died soon after his diagnosis, at the age of 74.

Reading through his obituaries, I was astonished to learn that Rogers and I had shared a birthday. That’s a coincidence, of course. But it felt significant to me—one more thread linking me to a remarkable man. ■

AirPods after 18 months

apple

I’ve owned AirPods since soon after their release in late 2016. After a year and a half of daily use, I jotted down some thoughts:

Pleasures

Happy little habits

In an earlier post, I celebrated the “ritual” of AirPods—the tactile, repeatable “nano-gestures” that makes using them so much fun:

Retrieve the case and turn it over in my palm like a glossy worry stone. Thumb the lid and feel the magnet give way. Nudge the AirPod to jar it free from its alcove. Pinch and lift, feeling that slight friction as the stem slides free. Spin the AirPod between my fingertips and align it to my ear. Settle it into its place by feel alone. Hear that happy little hum when the Bluetooth connects. Get that satisfying SNAP as the case is thumbed closed. Then repeat the whole process in reverse when I’m done listening.

Months later, that ritual remains a simple pleasure.

Utility

The AirPods aren’t just fun, they’re functional. For quick YouTube hits, they’re far better than their wired counterparts, which require constant detangling and rewrapping. Because they’re so easy to pop in and out, I find myself turning to them more frequently. Even if I’m just washing a single pan, I’ll catch up on a news podcast. On a road trip with sleeping passengers? AirPods make it easy to stave off boredom—without snaking a wire across the cabin.

Durability

The AirPods are surprisingly sturdy. I have snapped the AirPods case shut literally thousands (maybe tens of thousands?) of times. The mechanism still feels completely solid—with no sign of looseness or wear.

And I’ve dropped the things more times than I care to admit—often from waist height or higher. They’re none the worse for wear, physically—although the reliability issues discussed below could be related to these many falls.

Overall, though, I’m impressed with the AirPods’ build quality over the long term.

Pains

There’s a lot of delight in AirPods, but they also cause their share of headaches. Here are a few additions to an earlier list of quibbles, after eighteen months’ use:

Dis-connected?

More and more frequently, it seems, I’ll put in both AirPods and hit play, only to discover that one (or both) of them aren’t receiving audio. I’m left with three fixes, each more desperate (and cumbersome) than the last:

  • Wait it out. Sometimes, the offending unit will recover its connection after a few seconds. Too often, though, that recovery never happens.
  • Manually AirPlay to the AirPods. This requires that I pull out my AirPods and fiddle with the clunky Control Center interface for audio targeting.
  • Return both AirPods to the case and try again. Even this doesn’t always fix the issue. Occasionally, I’m forced to do this dance again and again.

In other words, the AirPods connection process isn’t rock-solid. I want it to be automatic and I want it to happen faster. As things work now, I don’t trust them to work every time.

Even aside from reliability improvements, Apple could improve the AirPods connection experience. Each AirPod should emit the “connected” chime independently, as they’re inserted into your ear. Too often, I’ll hear the sound in one ear before I get the other one out of the case. That leaves me unsure as to whether both units have connected—or whether one missed the wireless memo.

Corrosion and water resistance

The AirPods are the best running headphones I’ve ever owned. I didn’t realize how annoying that dangling wire was until the AirPods severed it for me.

But runners get wet; it’s nearly unavoidable. I sweat like mad in warm weather, and that moisture inevitably drips from ears onto my headphones. Plus, running outdoors means venturing into rain, fog, and snow, which all find their way onto my earbuds, as well.

To be fair, Apple doesn’t market these devices as water-resistant. But I had hoped that AirPods would cover all the use cases of their wired predecessors. Plus, various YouTube videos have proved that it’s possible for the AirPods to survive being submerged in a washing machine. I hoped they’d prove similarly resilient to raindrops.

Fate may have caught up to me recently. I began to notice that my right AirPod frequently ran low on power. I would head out running, only to hear the sad little “low charge” chirp after just a mile or two. After experimenting with the case, I realized that the right-side earbud wasn’t making a reliable connection to its charging element. Looking closer, I spotted greenish-blue corrosion on the metal tip of the AirPods stem.

Thoroughly cleaning both the case and the AirPods themselves has made charging more reliable (but not foolproof). Again, that’s more my fault than Apple’s, but it’s still irritating.

Earwax-orange clashes with AirPods-white

Last week, my family trekked to a family-friendly amusement park, several hours away. At day’s end, my daughter begged for one more ride: the log flume, which ends with a watery splash. Hoping to avoid further water damage to my AirPods, I handed the case to my wife and jumped in line with my eager kiddo.

After splashdown, we found my wife relaxing a nearby bench. Handing the AirPods back to me, she teased, “Your headphones are gross.” Snapping open the AirPods case, I realized that she was absolutely right.

In my earlier list of AirPods quibbles, I explained just how filthy AirPods can get. Earwax collects in the speaker grills, migrates its way to the AirPods stems and eventually starts to stain the charging case, too.

Now, in Apple’s defense, I apparently produce a lot of earwax. Not to get too scatological here, but I’ve occasionally had to ask my doctor to clean out build-up from my ear canals. That’s not Apple’s fault.

But you could hardly pick a worse color than Apple White™ if you’re hoping to hide otic excretions. Here’s to hoping they offer black or (even better) (PRODUCT)RED alternatives next time around.

Conclusions and AirPods v2

Despite all my complaints, after eighteen months of daily use, AirPods’ positives outweigh their negatives. I’m eagerly looking forward to the product’s next iteration. Rumored features would address at least two of my earlier quibbles:

  • Wireless charging (coming to a future AirPods case, as announced at last September’s iPhone event) would eliminate the fiddly plug-in process.
  • Built-in noise cancellation (recently predicted by Mark Gurman) would make the AirPods a more viable option in high-noise environments. As things stand, it’s nearly impossible to hear the AirPods over the roar of a lawnmower or a jet engine.
  • Water resistance (another Gurman-sourced rumor) would be welcome. The current product is too difficult to keep bone-dry. ■

Best buy: on Facebook and Instagram

internet

Back in 2012, many observers scoffed at the billion-dollar price that Facebook paid for Instagram. Who’s laughing now? That acquisition seems more and more prescient as time goes by—as M.G. Siegler remarked recently, “The smartest thing Facebook ever did was buy Instagram.” The social networking giant managed to secure its own life raft, long before most of us noticed that the seas were getting choppy.

Now, Facebook itself is sinking. My friends, at least, have long since stopped posting there. The conversations that do happen on Facebook tend to be politically-charged and impolite. As Seigler notes, many teens never even join the service. At the same time, the company faces increasing pressure from government watchdogs—both for its role as a Russian lever in the 2016 election and for alleged censorship of particular political viewpoints.

Happily (for Zuckerberg & Co.), Instagram has avoided these problems. The service’s exclusive emphasis on photo-sharing—formerly Facebook’s best feature—has made it irresistibly sticky—even to the Snapchat generation. Plus, because Instagram only does photos (i.e., no text posts and no links), its conversation threads are less political, less controversial, and generally less fraught than on Facebook. Meanwhile, the branding firewall between the two companies has prevented Facebook’s regulatory controversies from engulfing Instagram. Six years post-acquisition, many users still don’t know it happened.)

Facebook’s strategy has worked perfectly on me, at least. I visit Facebook only rarely—and often only for a few seconds each time. There just isn’t much there for me.1 But Instagram remains a daily habit; who doesn’t love seeing snapshots of friends and family?  ■


  1. To be fair, I may not be the best anecdotal example, since I’ve worked hard to detach myself from Facebook these past few years. I’ve deactivated my account multiple times, I refuse to install the app on my phone, and I run content blockers to prevent the news feed from showing up on the web.

Does a treadmill desk make losing weight easy?

health

Every week, I walk between 60 and 70 miles on my treadmill desk. That’s the equivalent of 2 1/2 marathons or a three-day weekend of intense backpacking. For someone my size, that translates to over 12,000 extra calories burned—roughly equivalent to three pounds of body fat.

Based on these numbers, you might think that a treadmill desk would make weight loss automatic. Alas, no.

Or, at least, not over the long haul. Yes, when I first installed the desk back in 2014, my weight plummeted. I lost thirty-five pounds in the first eight months! However, I eventually hit a plateau. Despite keeping up the same daily distances, my weight began to creep slowly upwards again. Twelve months later, I had regained nearly half the weight I had originally lost.

I realized that I had experienced a dispiriting truth about weight loss, first-hand: physical activity isn’t a panacea. Eat irresponsibly, and I will gain weight, no matter how far I walk at work or run before breakfast.

Why is that? Why doesn’t burning thousands of calories give me a license to eat whatever I want? Here’s my guess, in short: the more I move, the hungrier I get. Our bodies and brains seek out equilibrium; if I burn 1,500 calories on the treadmill desk, my instinct is to consume 1,500 extra calories as compensation.

So—whether I walk or not—maintaining a calorie deficit requires dietary self-control. I’ve found only one way to reliably burn off extra pounds: watch what I eat. I track my calories, measure my portions, and avoid “bad” foods, including extra salt, refined grains, and added sugar. It’s not super-fun, but it is effective: I’m down forty-five pounds from my all-time heaviest weigh-in.


I haven’t stopped “treading,” though. While it doesn’t give me a license to gorge, it does raise my daily “calorie ceiling.” Earning the occasional unhealthy splurge makes portion control a little bit less painful. ■

Is it too late to switch to the Mac?

apple

After a quarter-century using Windows, I’m finally getting a Macintosh.

Wait, does “Mac” even stand for “Macintosh” anymore? Or is “Mac” more like “KFC”—an abbreviation that eventually supplanted the original name? You’ll have to forgive my ignorance; my last Apple computer was the venerable Apple IIGS of the late 80s and early 90s. Since my early teen-aged years, I’ve computed exclusively on Windows PCs—everything from beige, bargain-bin boxes to high-end portable workstations. I’ve never owned a Mac.

Oh, over the years, I’ve occasionally lusted after the Mac’s build quality, thriving indie software community, and visually consistent interface. And yes, as an iPhone owner, I’ve often wished for a computer that played nicer with my smartphone. But despite the Mac’s attractiveness, switching always seemed financially or professionally impractical.

As my career has shifted into more creative fields, however, the Mac has become a more reasonable option. Among machines geared for creative power users, Macs still cost more—but not dramatically more, relative to comparable PCs. My new 15″ MacBook Pro should arrive within the next week or two.


In some ways, it’s an odd time to shift platforms. I’m swimming against the current; bloggers, podcasters, and creative professionals have grown increasingly frustrated with Apple’s stewardship of the Mac. Some have openly speculated whether the Mac will eventually be deprecated in favor of an iOS-flavored replacement.

So, before making the leap, I considered the risks in terms of both software and hardware:

Switching to Mac software: am I moving to a ghost town?

Depending on who you ask, the Mac ecosystem has either reached maturity—or it’s gone completely stagnant. Whatever your perspective, it’s hard to deny that Apple invests more engineering resources in iOS than macOS these days. Yes, the Mac still gets new OS features (e.g. Mojave’s welcome Dark Mode), but these updates are relatively minor compared to those introduced for Apple’s flagship product, the iPhone.

Third-party software development on the Mac has slowed, too. The Mac App Store may not be a ghost town, per se, but it’s not exactly a bustling metropolis, either.

As a new switcher, the Mac’s decline as a developer platform bums me out. But it’s not all bad news. Most big software houses (including Adobe and Microsoft itself) support Mac and Windows with equal gusto. And the Mac remains a better platform than Windows for indie-developed productivity apps and creative utilities. UIKit’s upcoming release on the Mac (slated for 2019) will likely widen this gap, as devs port over projects that were previously iOS-only.

One particular indie app is almost enough, all by itself, to make me switch to Mac. I’m talking about Omnifocus, the to-do tracker that maps most neatly onto the Getting Things Done productivity method. The app really is that critical to my workflow these days. I’m pumped that I’ll soon be able to use it without hacks or workarounds.

Switching to Mac hardware: did I miss the “golden era”?

The Mac’s software ecosystem may be languishing, but it’s Mac hardware that has Apple bloggers most alarmed. Longtime developers are openly criticizing Apple’s irregular Mac releases. Last year, lamenting the state of the Mac Pro, Sebastiaan de With wrote,

[Apple] let the Mac languish, with a lack of updates to the hardware making it increasingly difficult to use the Mac for demanding work. …. And year after year, without any word from Apple, the professional desktop Macs got older without updates. Four years passed. Four years. An eternity and a half in computers. Creatives started to leave. Most of my friends that are in 3D, film and other creative industries have switched to PCs. And more continue to leave.

The Mac laptops haven’t escaped criticism, either. Power users frequently deride the current Macbook Pros for their shallow, unreliable keyboards and irregular update cadence.

I share their worries. I’ve only typed on the new “butterfly ”keyboard style once or twice (in Apple retail stores), but I’m not a fan of its “clicky” (rather than “clacky”) feel. Plus, I find the Touch Bar (Apple’s little-loved touchscreen function row) distracting and somewhat pointless. Finally, I resent the fact that my “new” machine will have year-old internals. But I don’t have much of a choice—I need a machine now, not “whenever Apple gets around to refreshing its laptop lineup.”

Conclusion

Despite all the concerns and caveats, I’m excited. My very first computing experiences as a kid happened on Apple-designed machines. Adopting the Mac now, thirty-odd years later, feels like coming home.

I’m just hoping the house doesn’t come down around me. ■

The unscratched itch (why I meditate)

health

Every morning before dawn, I roll out of bed, stumble through the dark to our living room, and plop myself down in front of a massive light box. This suitcase-shaped panel blasts 10,000 lux of faux sunlight directly into my face. “Light therapy” serves as a sort of reality check, realigning my body clock to an earlier sunrise than we enjoy here at our northern latitude.

To stave off boredom during these half-hour light box sessions, I practice mindfulness meditation. These two practices, meditation and light therapy, are similar, in my mind. Just as bright light realigns my body clock to a healthier rhythm, meditation realigns my thought life to healthier patterns, too: from anxiety-driven obsessions to the steady rhythm of my breath.

Context: prayer as listening

I came late to the mindfulness party. In the evangelical tradition of my childhood, prayer was more about talking than listening. Every day, during my “devotions” (Christianese for bible-reading and prayer), I followed a familiar script: recite a list of God’s best qualities, confess where I screwed up, thank God for the good stuff in my life, and, finally, ask God for what I wanted—or what I felt I should want.

By the time I hit college, this daily prayer regimen had grown tiresome. I would often spend hours a day talking at God, churning through a long list of required topics. I came to dread that time, spent locked my dorm’s study room. The burden grew so heavy that I stopped praying altogether, save for hurried recitations before meals.

Fortunately, I eventually met faith-minded mentors who approached their spiritual practices less rigidly, more humbly, and more thoughtfully. They demonstrated how “quiet time” is better spent being quiet—i.e. shutting my mouth and stilling my mind—than babbling on and on.

Adopting the practice

Along these lines, seven or eight years ago, a close friend introduced me to mindfulness meditation and shared how it helped tame his anxiety. As he framed it, the practice was simple: just focus on your breath. When your mind wanders, return your attention gently to the breath. Repeat.

At first, I was suspicious. It seemed almost too simple—like some sort of trick. Eventually, though, my curiosity won out. I gave meditation a try, and, before long, I was hooked.

Reflections & results

What makes meditation “sticky” for me? In short, meditation provides a reliable way of short-circuiting anxious thought cycles.

Here’s what I mean: I occasionally find myself haunted by uncertainty. I wonder whether I said something dumb in a past conversation (“Did I offend her?”). Or I worry that my haircut looks stupid (“Is my head weirdly shaped?”). Or I fret about my health (“Does that bad test result portend a medical disaster?”). I retread the same mental territory over and over again, trying to think my way out of the problem. That never helps; instead, rumination makes me more anxious than when I started. It’s like scratching an itchy rash; in the end, the sensation only gets worse.

In meditation, I resist the temptation to scratch that mental itch. Instead of ruminating on an unanswerable question, I focus on something else instead: my breath. The sounds in the room. The physical manifestation of anxiety itself. Anything but that troubling question. As many times as it pops up, I acknowledge it, but don’t pursue, gently returning to my focus object instead.

In this way, meditation is “practicing the turn”: rehearsing the shift from unhelpful thoughts to steadier sensations. In my morning session, I repeat that cognitive move, again and again—so that I can perform it later that day and and derail circular trains of thought in “real life.”

There are signs that it’s working. I’ve noticed at least two encouraging improvements that I attribute to my meditation practice: first, I’m more aware of my own emotional state. It’s a subtle change, but I often find myself thinking, “Man, I’m really anxious” (or tired, or hungry, etc.). Somehow, the simple act of acknowledging those feelings loosens their grip and makes it easier to act charitably, in spite of them.

A second hopeful development? I no longer dread my morning “quiet times”; I actually look forward to visiting the meditation pillow. That was rarely the case when I dedicated that time to talk-heavy prayer.

Getting started with meditation

If you’re interesting in trying mindfulness meditation, I would highly recommend checking out an app called Headspace. The program was designed by a former Buddhist monk and provides an entertaining, novice-friendly introduction to the technique. The full program requires an incredibly expensive subscription, but the first ten sessions are free—and that might be enough to get the hang of things.

Once you’ve established your practice and feel comfortable meditating with less guidance, consider transitioning to an app like Insight Timer. It provides an intuitive interface for scheduling chimes to mark your meditation stages. ■

Imagining the Apple Watch Series 4

apple

Every year since the Apple Watch’s debut, a new hardware version has been released. The OG Watch dropped in 2015, the Series 1 and 2 hit in 2016, and the Series 3 was released this past fall. Should this pattern hold, the Apple Watch Series 4 will show up later this year.

What hardware improvements could we hope for in the Series 4? Here are the changes I would like to see:

Better heart rate sensor

The Apple Watch may well have the best wrist-based heart rate sensor in the industry. But it’s not good enough. On runs, my Watch often fails to register my pulse at all. Once it does, it’s comically incorrect—either 30 BPM too high or “half off,” as if it’s missing every other heartbeat. I’d almost rather not have a heartrate reading at all than one I can’t trust for adjusting my effort level.

Now, we may be running up against physics here. Like all other wrist-based heart trackers, the Watch uses an optical sensor; green LEDs illuminate the blood flowing through your wrist. Apparently, that’s not a particularly reliable way to measure heart rate.1

But if it’s possible to either a) improve the optical heart rate tech or b) adopt some other, more reliable technology, I’d love to see Apple do it. Right now, I bring both the Apple Watch and my chest strap on runs. That’s annoying.

Always-on screen

It’s right there on the tin. The Apple “Watch” is a “watch”—i.e., a wrist-worn device for telling the time. But compared to every other “dumb” watch on the market, the Watch does worse at performing this basic task.

The Apple Watch manages its power aggressively, switching off the screen after a few seconds of inactivity. If you steal a glance at the device without raising your wrist—say, while you’re typing or reading or eating or driving—you’re greeted by a black, blank screen. If you do flip your wrist, the Watch often fails to register this movement and stays dark.

Given the Series 3’s stellar battery life, I’d like to see Apple loosen the power management reins a bit, in favor of an always-available clock. Just light up enough pixels to show the current time. The Series 4 could still hide its complications (weather, Activity rings, sports scores, etc.) until I raised my wrist; fade them in when you’re sure I’m watching. But at all other moments of the day, show the time in dimly-lit, grayish digits, glanceable from any angle.

Thinner body

The Watch has always seemed a bit chunky, and it’s actually been getting chunkier with each successive generation. It’s time to reverse that trend. My ideal Apple Watch would be about 25% thinner than the Series 3 and would feel less like a nerd-alert badge on my wrist. That may not be possible this year, but I’ll be irked if the Watch gets thicker again.

Slimmer bezels

Because the Apple Watch cleverly blends its bezels with its OLED screen, it’s easy to miss just how wide those bezels are. In the era of “edge-to-edge” phone displays, I’d like to see that tech trickle down to Apple’s wearable devices. Push those corners out just a bit with the next hardware revision.

Longshots: glucose monitor and temperature sensing

Finally, two less-likely hopes for an Apple Watch Series 4:

  • Last year, Apple was rumored to be developing a blood sugar sensor that worked without piercing your skin. This would be a godsend for diabetics, but it could also help non-diabetics get a better handle on healthy eating. I’d be less likely to down a Coke if I could see exactly how high it spikes my glucose levels.
  • Finally, temperature sensors could be fun. What if the Series 4 Watch could detect your body temperature and the ambient air temperature? There are algorithmic challenges here, of course; your wrist’s temperature may not reflect your core heat, and body heat would throw off ambient readings. But maybe Apple could correct for these problems. Imagine a Watch that could detect a fever before other symptoms arise. Or a Watch that could confirm, once and for all, that your favorite restaurant sets its thermostat three degrees too cold. ■

  1. My chest strap heart rate monitor works far better than the Watch, but it has the unfair advantage of sitting literally an inch or two from my heart—from that location, it can detect the electric impulse generated by my ticker itself. 

Imagining the future of AI photography

tech

Portrait mode and corollary features (e.g. portrait lighting) are halting first steps towards a true AI-augmented camera. Here’s a fanciful look at our smartphone future:


It’s April 4, 2027, and Julie is making good progress. For the seventh time that day, she clambers up the squeaky attic ladder and crouch-steps her way to a tall pile of cardboard boxes. She squints at the next box in the stack, just making out her mother’s scrawl: “FAMILY PHOTOS.” It slides easily across the dusty floorboards, and Julie descends the ladder, flopping the box from step to step above her.

With a heavy sigh, she sets the box down on a dining room chair. Her kitchen scissors make quick work of the duct tape; Julie glances inside—and winces. No neat stacks, no carefully-curated photo albums. Instead, the box is full to the brim with loose snapshots, unlabeled and unsorted. Just a few years back, organizing these photos would have taken an entire weekend.

Fortunately for Julie, times have changed. She works quickly, plucking photos from the box and tossing them into a messy grid on the table. Within a few minutes, she has strewn hundreds of memories across the oak panels. They’re arranged in no particular order; Julie spots a baby photo of her grandmother from the 40s, adjacent to a faded Kodak print of Aunt Susie driving in the mid–70s. The very next snapshot in the row is a Polaroid from Christmas 1991; her little brother triumphantly lifts a brand-new video game console package above his head.

With a nostalgic smile, Julie whips out her smartphone and opens the photo enhancement app that makes this spring cleaning possible. The real work begins; she waves the device over the table, lazily panning its viewfinder across the rows and columns of snapshots.

As she does, the camera does its magic. Each individual photograph is extracted, cropped, and saved to its own file. The process is nearly instant; after just a minute or two of haphazard scanning, the app beeps and confirms that it’s captured all the data it needs. Julie sweeps the impromptu collage into a waiting trash cash.

It’s almost hard to believe how much she trusts the phone to capture these photos. Once, she would have been horrified to throw away such precious memories. Now, in a single day, she has filled a half-dozen garbage bags with old snapshots.

As she breaks down the empty cardboard box, the phone app (and the cloud service that powers it) does its own tidying up. First, it leverages machine learning to automatically recognize every object in every photo: that’s a baby beneath a maple tree in late fall. That’s a 1976 AMC Hornet. That’s a Sega Genesis.

With that context in hand, the service can clean up the photos. First, the easy stuff: wiping away physical scratches. Removing decades’ worth of discoloration and fade. Filling in missing, damaged details using robust healing algorithms. The AMC logo on the Hornet’s hood, obliterated by a coffee stain on the photo, is now recreated from a library of vintage car logos. A gouge in the leaves gets repaired too; maple leaves have a distinctive shape, and the app generates a few more to fill the hole. The Sega Genesis, motion-blurred in the boy’s excitement, is sharpened using actual product photography.

The restoration isn’t limited to inanimate objects, though. The app knows that it’s Aunt Susie who’s sitting behind the wheel of the Hornet, even though she’s obscured by glare on the windshield and some lens flare. Using Susie’s existing visual profile, the tool sharpens her face and glasses and fills in the blown-out highlights with data from other images.

The service automatically assigns metadata to each image, too. Every calendar, clock, Christmas tree, or party hat in the background helps the service narrow down the image date. Less obvious visual clues can help, too; the app might recognize that ’76 Hornet from previous scans and assign the photo of Susie to the same era. Even the girl’s tight perm could help to date the photo; given enough data, the app might know exactly when she adopted—and abandoned—that distinctive look. In the same way, visual cues could help pin down each photo’s location, too.

As Julie sets the last of the trash bags by the curb, she feels a twinge of bittersweet guilt. The garbage truck is on its way; soon, the original photos will be gone for good.

But based on experience, she’s confident enough in the restoral to let them go. The digitized shots are far more portable, more flexible, and more interesting than the paper copies ever were. She can make edits that would otherwise have been impossible—like tweaking the exposure level or even the location and brightness of the original scene’s light sources. Or altering the camera’s focal length, decades after the shot was taken; the app’s AI has used the source image to extrapolate exactly where each object sits in three-dimensional space.

Finally, Julie can even perform that “Zoom… enhance” magic promised by science fiction movies for decades. As she steps back into the kitchen, she grabs her tablet and plops down at the counter. Time to take a closer look at Aunt Susie’s unbelievable 70s curls. ■


My favorite Black Friday tradition? Complaining about Black Friday.

culture

It’s Black Friday—the highest of high American holidays.

For years, I puzzled about the traditions that have built up around the start of the holiday shopping season. “Who in their right mind,” I wondered, “would willingly wake before dawn to stand outside in sub-freezing temperatures, on the off chance that they might score a slight discount on a terrible TV set?”

And so I scoffed at the plebian masses, standing in line for the right to be the first to sprint into their local Wal-Mart. I shook my head sagely when the local news aired videos of shoppers trampling and berating each other to get their hands on the latest disposable toy. I rued the erosion of a family-oriented holiday and derided retailers who opened their doors on Thanksgiving evening.

Looking back, I relished my own Black Friday tradition: complaining about Black Friday.


Alas, I gave up my right to sneer at early holiday shoppers a few years ago—when I became one of them.

Back in 2013, at the height of the iPad’s popularity, Target announced a killer Black Friday deal: $20 off, plus a $100 gift card. I had been hankering to join the “post-PC revolution” this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

But to snag the discount, I would need to show up, in person, at the local Target outlet at 6 PM on Thanksgiving itself. With some embarrassment, I explained to my wife that I would be slipping out to shop. (Fortunately for me, she was more amused than annoyed.)

The shopping sojourn went as planned. I bought the tablet without incident; no sprinting or elbows required. I even sort of enjoyed the cultural experience—chatting up other people in the line as we waited for the doors to fling open. Power-walking through the store to the electronics department. Clutching my hard-won prize on the victory walk back to the car. Most of all, I felt a strange kinship for my fellow shoppers, who like me saw fit to celebrate the Day of Gratitude by buying more stuff.

As the Black Friday fever subsided, though, I found that I had lost more than I gained. I never really found a good use for the iPad itself. (For me, tablets have always fallen “into the cracks” between devices: worse for portable usage than a phone and worse for “real work” than a laptop.) In the ensuing months, I couldn’t really justify going to such lengths to secure a device I barely ever used.

The lost money and squandered family time are bad enough. But I have a more poignant regret about my participation in Black Friday mania: I lost any credibility as a couch critic of America’s bizarre shopping celebration. How can I sneer at the “mindless hordes” gathering outside the nearest Best Buy when I’m one of them? ■