Thoughts on ‘Hamilton’ and theatergoing in the age of the smartphone

Last week, my wife and I had the opportunity to see Hamilton live in Pittsburgh.

We had decent enough seats—ten or so rows back in the left-hand orchestra section. While the view was partially obscured (we couldn’t see the elevated balcony at stage right), we were close enough to see the actors’ facial expressions clearly.

We had an amazing time. There’s a reason that Hamilton is a worldwide phenomenon; it’s a remarkable work of art. The show is cleverly self-referential—reprising leitmotifs and coyly paying off its dramatic promises. It’s playfully historical—grounding itself in real events but freely reinterpreting them, too. And it’s strikingly original—showcasing a genre foreign to Broadway, while also paying homage to musical theater’s long history.

However, my biggest takeaway from the show had nothing to do with the onstage performance. I was more fascinated by what happened in the theater during intermission. While Emily ran to the restroom, I sat and watched the crowd.

Here’s the thing: everyone was on their phone. I mean, literally 90% of the audience spent the intermission either staring at their smartphone or cradling it in-hand. There were very few exceptions: the very old (some of whom may prefer not to own a phone) and the very young (i.e., kids who probably can’t wait for their first hand-me-down device).

We’ve gone through an incredible societal transformation in just a decade. Twelve years ago, a Broadway intermission would have felt very different. Sure, a few people might have made a phone call on their flip phone, but nobody could’ve pulled an addictive “everything” device out of their pocket.

What did the 2006 audience do during those twenty-minute breaks? Doubtless, many would’ve buried their noses in the program—perusing the cast bios or the second act’s song list. But many attendees would’ve chatted up a neighbor and reflected together on the show. The hall’s decibel level might’ve been significantly louder—many more voices adding to the cacophony (rather than silenced in rapt attention to their phones). ◾

Putting screen time to better use

More than three-quarters of all Americans own a smartphone. In 2018 those 253 million Americans spent $1,380 and 1,460 hours on their smartphone and other mobile devices. That’s 91 waking days; cumulatively, that adds up to 370 billion waking American hours and $349 billion.

In 2019, here’s what we could do instead.

Paul Greenberg conducts a thought experiment: what would happen if Americans reallocated the time and money spent on smartphones into more productive activities?

This article is a little silly. It shocks us by quantifying our excessive device time, but it ignores inconvenient questions. For example…

  1. What’s included in “other mobile devices”? Tablet computers fall into that category, presumably. What about e-readers? Laptops? My point: some “mobile devices” can be used for more productive and beneficial activities than others (e.g. reading, work).
  2. Why assume that all smartphone use is bad? Even if we were talking about smartphones on their own, it’s unfair to pretend that phones can’t also be used to read or pursue social justice.
  3. Why single out the smartphone? It’s not as if laziness or self-absorption didn’t exist before the iPhone’s release in 2007. Time wasted on our phones in 2018 would’ve been wasted on TV in 1988 or on radio in 1948.

Still, Greenberg has a point. We claim that we’re “too busy” to launch a new project, read more, or exercise. But what about the time spent thumbing through Facebook, playing Clash of Clans, or binging on Netflix? If we could reclaim just one hour each day from mindless smartphone use—then apply it towards nobler ends—where might we be a year from now? ■

An antidote for smartphone “zombie syndrome”?

The mind is no computer, but our consciousness still merges with our phones and tablets as seamlessly as a painter’s hand fuses with her brush or musicians vocalize through their instruments. This fusion can happen, Buddhist teaching holds, because consciousness is formless and adopts the qualities of everything it “touches.” Once we’ve immersed ourselves in our screens, they become our whole reality—and that’s why texting drivers look up with surprise when they rear-end the car in front of them.

Zen Priest Kurt Spellmeyer, explaining why he never replaced his lost phone

For Spellmeyer, smartphones extend our minds—and this poses both an opportunity and a threat. Yes, our devices augment our mental capabilities, enhancing memory and accelerating calculations. But our phones also super-charge our penchant for self-distraction. As he explains,

The nonstop novelty prevents us from uncovering the sources of our suffering. We shuttle from one screen to the next, trying to allay our nagging sense that something’s missing or not right.


If you’re anything like me, you’ve frittered away entire afternoons, mindlessly refreshing Twitter or dipping glumly into app after app. Even though you never quite feel satisfied, you keep thumbing around, semi-consciously. Spellmeyer claims that meditation can quell our appetite for distraction and prevent “screen zombie” syndrome. 

For me, meditation hasn’t totally sapped screens of their allure. I still frequently drift between apps on autopilot. But I have noticed one difference: I’m more aware of losing myself, in the moment. Questions arise, like “Is this making me happier?” and “Will I regret this, later today?”

Sometimes, that’s just enough to interrupt the cycle, and I manage to set the phone down. ■

AI: from chess computer to… god?

Suppose that deeper patterns exist to be discovered — in the ways genes are regulated or cancer progresses; in the orchestration of the immune system; in the dance of subatomic particles. And suppose that these patterns can be predicted, but only by an intelligence far superior to ours. If AlphaInfinity could identify and understand them, it would seem to us like an oracle.

We would sit at its feet and listen intently. We would not understand why the oracle was always right, but we could check its calculations and predictions against experiments and observations, and confirm its revelations. Science, that signal human endeavor, would reduce our role to that of spectators, gaping in wonder and confusion.

Maybe eventually our lack of insight would no longer bother us. After all, AlphaInfinity could cure all our diseases, solve all our scientific problems and make all our other intellectual trains run on time. We did pretty well without much insight for the first 300,000 years or so of our existence as Homo sapiens. And we’ll have no shortage of memory: we will recall with pride the golden era of human insight, this glorious interlude, a few thousand years long, between our uncomprehending past and our incomprehensible future.

Steven Strogatz, writing in the New York Times

At first, AI as “oracle” seems silly. That term has religious overtones, and we typically apply it to mystics and gurus—not to computers.

But if humans really are hard-wired to worship, wouldn’t we instinctively revere an unexplainably accurate future-prediction machine? It’s not a huge leap from “wonder and confusion” to awe and devotion. ◾

Caught between computers

Caught between computersIn terms of computing platforms, I‘ve been set adrift.

On the one hand, I don’t really want to return to Windows. Don’t get me wrong; unlike many Apple converts, I like Microsoft’s OS, and I frequently miss features and workflows from that platform.

But I left Windows for a reason; my favorite apps—OmniFocus, Procreate, Drafts—are exclusive to Apple’s platforms. There are no real equivalents on Windows, and I’m tired of “making do” with half-baked imitations.

On the other hand, it’s not a great time to have shifted to macOS. Yes, it’s true that Apple has suddenly remembered to make new hardware (see the new Air and Mini or the promised Mac Pro). But the software platform has stagnated, the App Store is eerily quiet, and Mac unit sales have declined in eight of the last twelve quarters, year-over-year. Settling in “Mac land” now feels like buying beachfront real estate in an era of rising sea levels—OK for now, but unsustainable in the long-term.

So what about iOS? Might I make “landfall” there? The short answer is, “Not yet.” Yes, the new iPad Pros are amazing kit, and the software has slowly matured. But too many of my workflows depend on a ‘real’ web browser (e.g. administering SharePoint) or ‘real’ Outlook (building pixel-perfect email templates).

Besides, even if I didn’t work in the enterprise, iOS would be a frustrating place to settle. I want legit external screen support, more robust keyboard shortcuts, and easier font installation. Hopefully, these power user features are on their way. But until they arrive, I can’t make permanent camp on iPad Island. ■

Smarter AirPods gestures

It’s one of my favorite AirPods features: slip in a single AirPod, and iOS will send a mono-mixed signal to the active unit, while ignoring the other.

I use this all the time. For example, if my AirPods are running low on power, I’ll continue to listen in one ear while charging the other unit in its case.

AirPod rainbow Or consider the road trip scenario: we’re rolling down the highway, mile after mile. As the driver, I’m getting bored, but I can’t fire up the car’s built-in stereo without disturbing my snoozing passengers. Wired headphones are too fiddly to safely set up while driving. But I can easily pop in a single AirPod—without taking my eyes off the road. And because iOS mixes down to mono, I can leave one ear free for key safety signals: a blaring horn or the tell-tale thump-thump-thump of a tire that’s about to blow out.

However, there is one drawback to wearing a single AirPod: playback controls. I’ve set the double-tap gesture on each AirPod to separate functions: bump the left AirPod, and the audio pauses; bump the right, and I jump to the next track (or skip past the boring bits of podcasts).

But when wearing just one earbud, I’m stuck with just one gesture. Either I can’t play/pause (when using the right AirPod), or I can’t skip ahead (when wearing the left).

AirPod options I’d like to see Apple add another setting to the AirPods’ “Double-tap on AirPod” options: “Single.” When I’m wearing just one AirPod, whether it’s the left or the right, let me choose the double-tap action. (I would likely set the option to “Next Track,” since I can pause the audio in a pinch by pulling the AirPod out.) ◾

Buying an iPad Pro

Happy consumer

We visited family near Philly this weekend; in between activities, I slipped out to visit the Apple retail store at the nearby King of Prussia mall.

As an aside, if you ever have the chance to visit this edifice of consumerism… don’t do it. This is the Mall Experience™ taken all the way up to 11, from the impossible hunt for parking to the shoulder-to-shoulder congestion in the Apple Store itself.

Given the size of that crowd, I was surprised to find a bleached-white table of iPad Pros available—my own personal demo station. I experimented for a solid fifteen minutes, hefting the two sizes, flipping and fingering the Smart Keyboard folio, and sketching with the Apple Pencil.

As you may have guessed, it wasn’t just curiosity driving my visit. I had skipped a planned phone upgrade earlier this fall, and that left some cash in our gadget savings fund. I’d been considering a reentry into the iPad ecosystem, so I almost wanted to fall in love with the 11-inch. I half-expected to leave the mall clutching a wee iPad Pro, the Pencil, and the Smart Keyboard Folio.

That didn’t happen. As I played with the devices, I realized that the 11-inch iPad Pro makes compromises in all the wrong places. If you want a tablet for content consumption and occasional sketching, the 9.7-inch iPad gets you 90% of the way there—at just one-third the price. Sure, you’d be stuck with chunkier bezels, but are slightly thinner black bars worth $500?

On the other end of the spectrum, if you want “more iPad” than the 11-inch iPad Pro offers, the 12.9-inch model retains its advantages over its smaller counterpart—sketching and multitasking are better on the big screen. And thanks to the shrunken bezels, the new 12.9er is suitable for couch computing in a way its predecessor never was. It’s lighter, its footprint is smaller, and it’s surprisingly easy to handle. It’s a compromise you might be willing to make.

The other advantage to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro? Its Smart Keyboard is superior. The arrow keys on the 11-inch’s keyboard felt like tiny, cloth-wrapped chiclets—toy keys on a toy keyboard. Based on some brief experimentation, I also preferred the 12.9-inch keyboard’s viewing angles (though I would want to try both models while sitting before deciding on this).

As I compared, I realized that I didn’t want—and couldn’t justify—buying the 11-inch over its 9.7-inch entry-level sister. I knew that I could probably pick up that model for something like $250 on Black Friday, so I left the mall without making a purchase.

After getting home, however, doubt set in. No, I still didn’t want the 11-inch. But what about that svelte 12.9-inch model? It had felt surprisingly manageable. And If I wanted to buy it, now was the time; Apple’s online store is back-ordered, and we live too far from the nearest retail store to make a sojourn later.

Long story made short, we stopped by the mall again on our way out of town, and I bought the 64GB, WiFi-only, 12.9-inch iPad Pro in Space Gray, along with the second-gen Apple Pencil.

I’m still questioning the decision. $1,200 is a lot of money to spend on a device that could get squeezed out by my phone and my laptop. Fortunately for me, Apple’s generous return policy means I get a 14-day “trial” period to decide whether this iPad will earn a place in my computing workflow. ◾

The lingering heartbreak of a ruined watershed

Since 2012, we’ve lived in the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia. It’s a beautiful area, full of steep mountainsides, deep canyons, and burbling waterfalls. The region has seen a revival of sorts in the past decade or so, attracting tourists, second home owners, and new residents alike. Many come to explore the area’s unique combination of outdoor recreation opportunities and beautiful natural landscapes.

Many visitors don’t realize that this natural beauty is hard-won. Countless individuals and organizations have fought (and continue to fight) to restore the local environment to good health.

Why is “restoration” necessary? A century ago, this region’s economy was driven by extractive industry—timber and coal. Felling the dense old-growth forest devastated the ecosystem, destroying native species’ habitats and literally washing away the topsoil. Fortunately, over the decades, the forests have regrown. The woods aren’t what they once were, but they are still beautiful.

Coal mining had a harsher, longer-lasting impact.

Acid mine drainage

When a coal company abandons a mine, it shuts down its pumps and allows the tunnels to flood. Water seeps in, bathes the exposed sulfur-bearing rock, and flows out again—only now, it’s highly acidic and infused with heavy metals. This toxic outflow flushes into the nearby watershed, coating everything in a tell-tale orange muck and acidifying the stream itself. Many types of aquatic wildlife struggle to survive in the lower pH; this results in decreased biodiversity and lower animal populations. For humans, the water is undrinkable and unsafe to touch.

Acid mine drainage can persist for centuries; in a very real sense, afflicted watersheds are permanently ruined. Yes, there are mitigation strategies to deal with acidic run-off. But even the most effective methods don’t actually prevent spoiled outflow from entering the watershed; they simply add something else to the water (e.g. lime) to neutralize the acidic pollutants. These approaches treat the symptom, rather than the underlying disease, which has no cure.

Mining’s true cost

When debating coal’s impact, we rarely factor in the cost of preventing permanent watershed degradation. Yes, it’s prohibitively expensive to coat miles of passageways with cement and seal those toxic metals underground. But that should be figured into the coal companies profita and loss calculation. If you can’t afford to fill the hole, don’t dig it in the first place. If you can’t restore the waterways to their pre-mining condition, then you can’t afford to mine. Communities dependent on the watershed shouldn’t be forced to pay for your shortsightedness with their health.

A dose of realism

Of course, given the current political climate, extractive firms won’t be held to this high standard anytime soon. And even if they were, that wouldn’t restore the degraded rivers of our adopted home, since the companies responsible have long since evaporated or been absorbed by other energy companies.

So, while I still love to visit the highlands’ waterfalls and wetlands, those trips are bittersweet, since I know that the beauty masks deadly problems bubbling up from underground. ■

The “$100 iPad Pro”

The iPad’s “jobs”

There are digital tasks for which the iPad is better-suited than a smartphone or laptop.

For example, drawing on the iPad (with the Apple Pencil) is fantastic. Not so much on the other devices (even if you pair a Wacom to your Mac). Or consider minimalist text entry, for which the “iPad + Smart Keyboard” combo is uniquely suited. The Mac feels over-built for that simple job, and the iPhone’s software keyboard falls short.

Despite these legit use cases, I didn’t preorder an iPad Pro last week. Honestly, the inflated entry price scared me off; sure, I like to draw and to write without distractions, but would I do those things enough to justify that much cash? Probably not.

The $100 iPad

Other (cheaper) tools for the same job

I’m bummed to miss out on the hotness, but here’s the thing: I can meet these “needs” without dropping $1,200 on an iPad Pro, a Smart Keyboard, and an Apple Pencil. It simply requires some creativity—and some willingness to compromise.

Here’s my recipe for a “$100 iPad”:

Use Case #1: Drawing

  • A new 7” x 10” drawing pad. No, I’m not talking about a Wacom device or an Android tablet. This is literally a $7 book of drawing paper!
  • A few color markers for “funning up” my line drawings. Total cost for 72 fine and extra-fine colors: about $30.
  • I already had some nice graphic pens, pencils for sketching, and a big honking eraser, but you could pick these up for $20 or less.

Use Case #2: Minimalist text entry

The iPhone works perfectly well for distraction-free writing. In fact, that’s pretty much how I took notes in grad school—on an iPod Touch, paired to an old Palm keyboard. That screen was much smaller than that on my iPhone X.

Here’s what I picked up this time around:

  • A folding stand from Anker to hold the iPhone upright. Eleven bucks.
  • A new folding Bluetooth keyboard. (Unfortunately, I immediately shipped this back to Amazon; its build quality and typing feel failed to measure up. I’m still on the lookout for a decent keyboard that folds into a pocketable form factor. In the meantime, I’ll use this less portable AmazonBasics model, which isn’t awful. It cost $26 when I bought it.)

All told, then, since I already own a smartphone, I can cover the iPad’s core uses for less than $100.

The obvious disclaimer: the real iPad is better

If cost weren’t a factor, I’d rather have an iPad Pro than a bag full of markers and phone accessories. It’s convenient to have one device that can do it all in a portable, compact package. But, as a novice artist who doesn’t need a dedicated minimalist writing device, the convenience of the iPad Pro is not worth $1,000+. ■

Mindless: the sorry state of meditation apps on the Apple Watch

When the Apple Watch first launched in 2015, it wasn’t clear exactly what the device was for. Was it a mini-iPhone, intended to replicate its big brother’s features on your wrist? Or was it a tool for informal communications, punctuated by scribbles and heart beats?

Eventually, the device’s purpose become more clear. Apple sells the Watch as a fitness and wellness tracker with some convenient peripheral functions (e.g. notifications and quick replies).

Given this emphasis on well-being, it’s surprising to me that there seem to be no great meditation apps for the Apple Watch. Oh, these apps exist; they’re just really bad.

Breathe

Well, not all of them, I guess. Apple’s first-party Breathe app is well-designed and fun to use for quick hits of mindfulness. But it’s not really designed to serve as a full-featured interval timer. For that, I’ve turned (without much success) to a variety of third-party apps:

Headspace

Take Headspace, for example. It’s the king in the mindfulness space, raking in tens of millions of dollars in revenue annually. You’d think they’d have the resources to deliver decent Watch app; the company has two dozen open engineer positions at the moment.

But, no, Headspace’s Apple Watch app is pretty sad. Even though its iPhone app is whimsical and well-designed, on the Watch, it’s ugly and weirdly spartan. It boasts two underbaked features: a "Touch" exercise that doesn’t quite work and "SOS", a single guided meditation for emergencies (e.g. panic attacks).

In an ideal world, Headspace offer its rich library of guided sessions on your wrist; at the very least, I wish I could continue a meditation series from where I left off last time.

Insight Timer

Like Headspace, Insight Timer offers its own diverse library of guided courses, but I prefer to set up my own meditation sessions using its interval timer. I love being able to assign different bells to different stages of my meditation practice: high tones for preparation, deeper chimes for focused breathing, and even a gong to round out the exercise.

On the Watch, Insight Timer offers none of these features. I wish I could launch my preprogrammed sets of bell-marked intervals. Instead, the app offers generic timers for meditation and yoga, alongside a shortcut to launch their guided, seven-day introduction to meditation.

Seconds

The Watch app that comes the closest to meeting my needs isn’t actually a "mindfulness" app at all. It’s an interval timer called Seconds. Its target audience is fitness buffs who want to time complex workouts like high-intensity interval training.

But Seconds also supports interval sets for mindfulness sessions. Unlike with the other apps, it allows you to create any number of intervals of arbitrary length and sync the program to your Watch for "playback."

Unfortunately, it has a few fatal flaws as a meditation timer. First, it really is meant to be a workout app; at the end of the meditation, the app shows the calories burned—hardly a relevant statistic for pillow-sitting. More problematically, custom alert sounds on the Watch seem to be broken. Seconds will play both my custom "Tibetan bell" and a harsh mechanical beep—a dissonant combination that I find distracting.

Closing thoughts

The dearth of Apple Watch meditation apps may be a symptom of a deeper issue. There are plenty of other app categories in which there isn’t a single decent option, and many high-profile companies have removed Apple Watch support altogether. Three and a half years after the device’s initial launch, the Apple Watch app ecosystem may be getting worse, rather than better.

That’s harshing my zen. ■