“More experiences with people I love. Less validation from strangers.”

meta

My online audience is minuscule, and it’s likely to remain minuscule for the foreseeable future. My Twitter follower count stalled out years ago, my blog gets precious little traffic, and my podcast boasts very few subscribers. When I write or record, it feels a bit like shouting into the wind. Is anyone listening? Does anybody care?

Marshall’s tweet reframed this feeling for me. Yes, I’d love a larger audience, but would that really make me happier? Would strangers’ appreciation make me feel more loved or less isolated? I suspect not.

I want to use that feeling—of underappreciation by the internet—as a cue to invest in relationships that have a guaranteed return: my family. My friends. My hometown.

The next time my follower count threatens to bum me out, I want to be mindful enough to shut my laptop and go wrestle with my daughter instead. I want to silence my phone and sip a quiet latte in my neighborhood coffeeshop. I want to close Twitter, leave behind the iDevices, and invite my family on a rainy-day hike. ■

Apple preorder thoughts (2018 edition)

apple

It’s 4:30 in the morning here, and I can’t sleep, so I might as well jot down some thoughts about the Apple Preorder Dance:

  • Preordering jacks up your sleep schedule—especially on the East Coast. It’s not just the interruption of a 3 AM alarm. After all, the order itself took less than five minutes—shorter than a late-night pee break. No, the real problem is that preordering floods my brain with adrenaline. It’s the mad scramble, knowing that any delay could make the difference between having a shiny, new device on Day One or getting it three weeks later. By the time my order actually goes through, I’m wired.
  • My purchase? A Series 4 Apple Watch in space gray. I already own the Series 3, so I certainly don’t need an upgrade. Still, I’m excited about the larger screen, smaller bezels, and improved information density of the new edition.
  • I skipped out on cellular (again). It’s not that I can’t see the utility. I would love to stay connected on my runs—without lugging my phone along. And it would be nice to know I could summon help if I get hit by a car or have a heart attack while exercising. But I just can’t justify the extra cost: $100 more up front, then $15 or so tacked onto my cell phone bill every month, forever. On top of that, to add an Apple Watch to our AT&T family plan, we would have to ditch our grandfathered shared data pool. That would raise our bill at least another $35. It’s would be tough to justify that price hike to the other family members who split the monthly bill.
  • I opted to trade in my Series 3 as part of the purchase. I thought the $175 credit would be automatically deducted from my purchase price, but that didn’t happen. Apparently, I’ll need to wait until Apple’s vendor actually receives my unit. That’s not a big deal, but I might hunt around to see if I can get more for it by reselling through Swappa.
  • One nice perk: Apple’s trade-in program doesn’t force you to return your accessories. I’ll get to keep the gray Sport Band that shipped with the Series 3. Knowing that, I ordered my Series 4 with the nylon Sport Loop instead. I can’t say I’m pumped to try out the “sweat pants of watch bands,” but I am looking forward to a change.
  • I’ll also retain my current Watch charger, which means I’ll have two charging disks for the first time. It’ll be nice to leave the extra charger in my travel bag permanently.
  • After making a fuss about adopting an annual upgrade cycle, I’m holding onto my iPhone X for another year. The Xs just doesn’t feel like it’s worth the outlay. Plus, I haven’t saved enough to buy both a new phone and a new watch, and the Series 4 was by far the most interesting product announced on Wednesday.
  • If Apple had announced new iPad Pros this week, I would have faced a dilemma: new Watch or new iPad? But it’s likely that I would have chosen the Watch (which I wear everyday) over the tablet (I’ve owned three iPads and ended up selling each one).
  • For whatever reason, the shipping address and email associated with my Apple Pay account were incorrect, but I didn’t realize this until after my order was processed. The physical address is close enough that I think it’ll go through, but the email address no longer exists. Hopefully the mistake doesn’t derail my order; if I had to submit a new one, I’d be waiting well into October at this point.

One last thought: as tablets and smartphones inch toward maturity, I see less less and less reason to upgrade annually. I don’t feel much FOMO looking at the Xs vs. last year’s iPhone X. So it might make sense to adopt a longer-term upgrade cycle—say, two years for my phone and three or four for my tablet (if I ever end up buying one again).

But the nascent smartwatch category is still growing by leaps and bounds every year. In 2016, the Watches got significantly faster. In 2017, the device gained standalone cellular capability. This year, the form factor changed radically.

Given that, if I had to choose one device to upgrade annually, it would be the Apple Watch. That’s a testament to the gadget’s utility, considering I didn’t even own one two years ago.  ■

Should we feel bad for loving Apple keynotes?

culture / tech

Today is the “high holiday” in Apple’s liturgical calendar: iPhone keynote day. In a few hours, Tim Cook and his cardinal executives will unveil the new devices designed to drive Apple’s business during the upcoming year. Apple devotees around the world will attend (virtually), eager to heap adoration on the innovations heralded from Cupertino.

That may sound a bit cynical, but the whole Apple scene is a little silly. We’ve spent the past year speculating about today’s event on podcasts, on Twitter, and in blogged think pieces. We’ve chased down a thousand supply-chain rabbit trails. Today, we’ll salivate over devices that are only incremental improvements over the ones already in our pockets and strapped to our wrists. And in the weeks to come, we’ll exhaust ourselves in post-event analysis—then prepare to hand over piles of cash to buy into the hype.

Honestly, we invest too much time and money in these keynotes, considering the serious news unfolding in the “real” world. While we focus on Apple, a hurricane is bearing down on the East Coast. Free speech is under threat throughout the country. Refugees struggle just to survive.

Should we geeks feel guilty about our self-absorption and shallowness? The answer is “Yes, probably.”

But technology enthusiasts aren’t unique in enjoying frivolous distraction from more important things. Others, for example, follow the celebrity fashion scene. They visit TMZ every hour, follow faux-celebrities on Instagram, and plan their TV-watching around which starlets guest-star on which talk shows. This world has its own “high holidays,” too—for example, the red carpet preshow at the Academy Awards. As at the Apple keynote, industry leaders parade for the cameras, sporting fashions that viewers will eagerly buy in the upcoming year.

Or consider the world’s preeminent distraction: sports, into which so many Americans enthusiastically invest free time. Every team, for example, is orbited by a cadre of sports radio hosts, newspaper writers, podcasters, Twitter personalities, team-focused TV shows, and (most of all) fan bases that consume all this media. Hardcore fans gladly plunk down thousands for game tickets, cable TV packages, team jerseys, and memorabilia. And the “high holidays” come fast and frequent: home games tailor-built for tailgating, draft days, playoff runs, bowl games. It’d be hard to argue that sports deserves this level of attention (and consumption) any more than technology.


Of course, other people’s obsessions don’t justify our own. The existence of fashionistas and sports nuts doesn’t mean that it’s okay that geeks spend so much time and money on tech.

But it helps to know we’re not alone in our penchant for expensive hobbies.  ■

Playgrounds are deserted

culture

My daughter is a connoisseur of fine playgrounds. Often, when we’re driving through somewhere unfamiliar, we’ll hear an excited voice from the backseat: “Look! Over there!” Sure enough, there’ll be a tell-tale yellow slide or a row of swings on the horizon.

What we typically won’t see? People. Wherever we go, whatever the day or time, America’s playgrounds seem empty. No new parents feeding newborns on benches, no infants swaying in the baby swings, no top-heavy toddlers stumbling up the ramps, and no grade-school kids leaping brazenly from the uppermost parapets. Of course, there are exceptions—well-placed, unique parks that still attract a crowd—but more often than not, we’re the only family at a playground.

Why is this? Was it always this way? If not, what changed?

One explanation I can rule out: kids didn’t abandon our parks because playgrounds somehow got worse. Yes, they’ve removed the jagged metal edges and concrete pads of decades past, but playgrounds have undeniably improved over the years. They now feature double curly-Q tunnel slides, massive subterranean mazes, bouncy bridges, two-person swings, climbing walls, and countless other “play-ventions” that didn’t exist when I was a kid. Even fast food playgrounds have evolved into four-story-tall wonder-worlds.

Our playgrounds are better than they’ve ever been. So what it is it? What’s keeping the kids away? Here are some guesses:

  • We’re too busy. Parents are stretched thin and can’t spare the time to prioritize their kids’ outdoor play. For their part, kids have overpacked schedules, too, bouncing from one extracurricular to the next: sports, music, dance, etc., etc.
  • We’re scared. In another era, many parents wouldn’t hesitate to let their children walk a few blocks or ride their bikes to the neighborhood playground and stay there for hours on end. That sort of “leash-free” parenting is pretty rare these days, in an era when cable news amps up our suspicion and anxiety to irrational levels.
  • Blame the screens? As our daughter grows, she’s increasingly obsessed with watching TV and playing simple video games on her tablet. “I just want to watch TV all day,” she pouts, when we take her Kindle away. We’re not alone in this struggle, I know. The kids missing from the playground may well be cooped up inside, staring at a TV screen or poking away at an iPad.

The truth is that all of these explanations probably factor into the exodus of children from the public square.

Of course, on the one hand, we like the fact that playgrounds are uncrowded. Our daughter never has to wait for her plaything of choice, and there’s plenty of room for us to join her, without any worry about stomping someone else’s munchkin.

But on the other hand, town councils and municipal committees are bound to notice that their pristine playsets are nearly always empty. Will they continue to spend precious tax dollars on building and maintaining playgrounds, when so few residents patronize them? ■

The best treadmill desk shoes aren’t “shoes” at all

health

When I first cobbled together my treadmill desk back in 2014, building the desk itself wasn’t the hard part. Yes, it was tricky to hoist my IKEA tabletop onto those crates. And yes, the treadmill unit itself has proven remarkably unreliable over time.

But the real challenge was my feet. I struggled for over a year to find footwear that didn’t leave me limping at day’s end.

At first, I tried running sneakers. It made sense: athletic shoes are built for intense exercise, right? I presumed that they could handle slow-motion walking well enough. However, within a few hours of treading, I was in agony. With each step, the bumps on my heels grated against the hard plastic embedded in my trainers. Of course, that happened when I exercised, too, but I only jogged for an hour or so at a time. Eight hours on the treadmill proved torturous.

Next, I tried walking barefoot. This initially provided some relief—no shoes means no shoe-induced hot spots, after all. But the treadmill itself rubbed against the balls of my feet, and that friction created mammoth blisters by the end of my workday. Given a few weeks, I might have developed calluses—literally, some thicker skin—that would prevent injury. But I didn’t have the patience to wait. I continued my footwear searcb.

I tried traditional sport sandals (i.e. Chacos), but the thick nylon straps created their own special blisters. At one point, I wrapped my feet in duct tape. Obviously, that wasn’t sustainable, if I didn’t enjoy yanking out leg hair every night.

Eventually, almost accidentally, I discovered “barefoot running” footwear from a company called Xero. Their products barely qualify as “sandals” (let alone “shoes”), consisting of a thin, rubbery pad, held in place by a few nylon cords.

I had initially purchased Xero Clouds after reading a book called Born to Run, which advocates for ditching heavy, cushioned trainers in favor of more minimalist running gear and techniques. I soon realized that barefoot running wasn’t for me (gravel is my kryptonite)—but barefoot treading? That was just the ticket.

The Xeros’ flimsy soles offered just enough protection to insulate the bottoms of my feet from the treadmill’s abrasive surface. Their thin cords stayed in place, preventing the friction that causes blisters. Before long, I was knocking out 12+ miles in an eight-hour workday. Now, years later, I frequently hit sixteen or seventeen miles without undue effort.

I’m on my fourth pair of Xero Cloud sandals in three years. I wish they lasted a bit longer, but I can’t judge too harshly. After all, I’ve put thousands of miles on each pair, and it’s hard to put a price on pain relief. When my current pair inevitably breaks or wears through, I’ll plunk down $60 to replace them without a second thought.

That’s high praise for a flappy piece of rubber and some nylon twine.  ■

You already have everything you need to create stuff on the internet

meta

As Apple’s fall announcement event approaches, I’ve been eyeing the rumored iPad Pro. I find myself daydreaming about a “magic” tablet that, paired with a Smart Keyboard and an Apple Pencil, will inspire me to consistently create content and publish it online. That will somehow catapult me to internet nerd success.

Based on my history, that’s not going to happen. I’ve bought three iPads in the past; none of them made me more disciplined, more creative, or more talented. Each time, I struggled to find a use case for the thing, and the iPad would sit, unused and unloved, for weeks. Eventually, I abandoned the iPad upgrade train and sold off my iPad Pro. To be honest, I haven’t really missed it since.

Lesson learned? A new device won’t magically transform me into a prolific creator.

Fortunately, the inverse is also true: if you want to create stuff, you don’t need a new device. You probably already have everything you need to make stuff on the internet. Consider:

  • You could put off podcasting until you have spent $600 on a microphone, an audio hub, and a year’s worth of hosting. Or you could create an Anchor account for free, record using the built-in mic on your iPhone—and start today.
  • You could tie your blogging aspirations to writing software that costs $40 a year—or you could just use the text editor that comes free with your computer.
  • You could believe that a $150 mechanical keyboard will make you a better writer—or you could get by with a $15 Logitech bargain from Walmart.
  • You could “learn to draw” using a $700 iPad Pro and a $100 Apple Pencil—or you could pick up a $10 drawing pad and $20 worth of pencils and pens.

If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s not the tools that hold us back. The real obstacles to creative productivity? Low motivation and overcommitment.  ■

Apple ditching 3D Touch? Good riddance.

apple

Per MacRumors:

“Barclays says it’s ‘widely understood’ that 3D Touch will be removed from iPhones with OLED displays in 2019—aka the third-generation iPhone X and second-generation ‘iPhone X Plus.’ However, they caution that the plans aren’t finalized yet, so they could change.”

Adding fuel to the fire, David Barnard points out that iOS 12 adds an alternative method of entering “text cursor” mode—one that doesn’t depend on force-pressing:


It might seem surprising that Apple would ditch 3D Touch, just a few years after celebrating the “revolutionary” technology. To be honest, I’d be surprised myself. But I wouldn’t be particularly heartbroken. Here are some reasons why Apple should consider axing the pressure-sensitive tech:

  • I would guess that novice iPhone users (i.e. the bulk of Apple’s customers) never really get the hang of 3D Touch—or even understand that it’s different than the long press gesture. What percentage of 3D Touch activations happen by accident? 10%? 25%? More?
  • I’m not even sure that 3D Touch made much of an impression with power users. For me, it’s always been a feature in search of a use case. I never use the “pop” and “peek” gestures, which saved little time over simply tapping a link. I don’t use app shortcuts on the Home screen, either; I could never get over the fiddliness of invoking 3D Touch without doing a long press.
  • And “fiddly” really does sum up the 3D Touch experience. “Press down,” the OS demands, then barks, “No! Not too hard!” Or, “No! You took too long!” Or consider “peeking,” which requires the user to maintain “half-pressure” while she checks out a piece of content, which pulses in and out as her force touch wavers. There’s an unpleasant “analog” quality to the gesture; you’re always on the edge of either releasing the content, or accidentally popping into it.
  • Finally, there’s the matter of consistency across the iOS line. Apparently, engineering challenges have prevented Apple from bringing 3D Touch to the iPad. That leaves the user experience bifurcated; you can 3D Touch on the phone and watch—but not the tablet. That’s irritating; the iPhone encourages one set of gestures, while the iPad demands another approach. Given that iOS 12 aims to unify the UX, it makes sense that Apple would drop 3D Touch now.

Will Apple actually kill off 3D Touch? Who knows? Even Barclays is hedging its bets; they’re careful to include a disclaimer, reminding us that Apple’s plans could change.

But if 3D Touch really does get force-pressed out of existence, I won’t mind.  ■

Could you remote-work from Starbucks full-time?

meta

A month or two ago, we trekked up to Pennsylvania to visit family. My wife took some time off from work, but I decided to save my vacation days, which had run short after a recent beach trip.

That meant I needed to find somewhere to get my work done. Hoping to avoid the dining room table or kitchen counter, I settled on the closest Starbucks. Here’s what I learned about remote work, the “third place” office, and myself:

Starbucks is loud.

Starbucks uses canned music, like most other restaurants. I don’t begrudge them that. If I were meeting a friend for lattes, I probably wouldn’t even notice. But when I’m trying to be productive, it’s not ideal.

Mad dude at Starbucks

It’s not that I hate Starbucks’ musical selections. Their catalog of singer-songwriters is fairly benign. No, the real problem is that any music with discernible lyrics distracts me. The performers’ sung words get jumbled up in my brain with my own. That’s why, at home, I prefer tracks without lyrics: movie soundtracks and classical pieces dominate my playlists.

It’s not just the piped-in music that makes Starbucks noisy. A dozen customer conversations strain to rise over the din. Behind the counter, there’s this constant cacophony of clanking dishes, steaming milk, order-taking, and whipped-cream-spraying. Even the best noise-cancelling headphones would struggle to filter out all that.

My solution? I blast white noise (or more technically, lower-frequency “brown” noise) through my headset. That manages to drown out most of Starbucks’ “atmosphere.” This approach has its drawbacks (e.g. I can’t play my own music), but the constant thrum of static creates an aural bubble that lets me concentrate.

Starbucks’ “food”

Technically, Starbucks no longer requires you to buy something to claim a seat. Visitors can hang out (or work!) without even visiting the register. But I would feel guilty if I occupied a table without a Starbucks cup in hand—especially if others customers couldn’t find a seat. That meant I always ordered a drink.

In a “real” coffeehouse (i.e. a locally owned shop that takes its coffee more seriously), a latte or even a café mocha are reasonable treats—not “healthy,” per se, but not awful, either.

Starbucks is a different animal. I was hard-pressed to find anything on the Starbucks’ menu that qualified as “healthy.” The franchise’s path to ubiquity was paved with sugar. Your drink is pumped full of syrup. Whipped cream comes standard. Expect chocolate drizzled on top (even if you didn’t request it).

The non-liquid options aren’t much better. Starbucks’ checkout counter is surrounded by piles of processed calorie bombs: mass-produced pastries, prepackaged brownies and organic (but still unhealthy) candy.

So, yeah, visiting Starbucks may sabotage your diet. It will also significantly lighten your wallet. Even if you limited yourself to one drink, you’re looking at at least $6 or $7 to claim a workspace. Buying lunch there? That’s $10 more. And a few snacks? Another fiver. Long story short: if you spent a month remote-working from Starbucks, you could easily drop $500 on food and drinks alone.

To be fair, that compares favorably to renting an office or a coworking desk. But you’d save significant cash by working from home, brewing your own coffee, and nuking last night’s leftovers.

The pee dilemma

At a traditional workplace or a home office, you never have to think twice about a five-minute bathroom break. Just lock your workstation and leave.

But at Starbucks, every twinge of your bladder presents a problem. Do you you risk leaving your $2,000 laptop (plus any accessories) lying there on the table? Should you ask a nearby neighbor to serve as your (unpaid and disinterested) security guard? Or do you wind up your cables, stow away your gear, and haul everything to the potty, hoping you can find a seat when you return? Even if you do, all that packing and repacking eats up precious work time.

Cramped footprint

Designers, developers, and even productivity gurus often prefer multiple monitors and the real estate they offer. In my home office, I have four monitors (three external screens plus the native laptop display), and even that often feels inadequate.

At Starbucks, I’m constrained to my laptop’s relatively tiny work space. It feels like working with one arm tied behind my back, no matter how much I practice the multitasking shortcuts and swipe gestures. Yes, there’s something to be said for the increased focus of viewing a single app, but many tasks are far easier when you can set two or three app windows side-by-side. 1

Home, sweet home (office)

After a few days working at Starbucks, I gave up. I borrowed a folding table from neighbors and set up a makeshift workspace in our hosts’ laundry room. What it lacked in ambience, it made up for in quiet, convenience, and cost. When we returned home, I was eager to return to my dedicated home office.

I still do make work pilgrimages to my local coffeeshop. Every Friday afternoon, you’ll find me there, winding up my work week and sipping on a mocha. But those visits last just a few hours. I’m just not suited for days-long work sojourns at Starbucks. ■

  1. Some creative types, facing the same issue, have resorted to hauling their iMac back and forth to the coffeeshop each day. No, thanks.

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. ■