Review: Air France Premium Economy on A380, 772 (777-200), and domestic – seat, service, and food

Recently (Feb/Mar 2015), I had the opportunity to fly Air France round trip to Barcelona, and I booked the entire fare as W class – Air France’s premium economy. The fare was surprisingly low for the season and the seat, as I typically would expect to pay 50%+ over standard economy for a W fare seat, but in this case the price was almost of negligible difference, so I took a chance and booked.

Quick overview (intercontinental / long haul – A380 and 772 (777-200))
  • The seat: The intercontinental/long-haul seat for AF’s premium economy is a fixed shell that is completely different and bespoke to the class, and it can’t intrude on other passengers since it’s fixed in place. Recline is liberal for economy, but still limited. Width is great, as is legroom. Some may find the seat hard, I personally thought it was pretty OK. One universal wall outlet and 1 USB port is included per seat. There is a footrest, but you’ll have to be short to want to use it. There is more than enough room for a standard laptop on the seat tray.
  • The service: No doubt – premium economy gets much faster meal service than standard economy, as well as a premium economy-only drink and snack bar (very handy).
  • The perks: PE had an exclusive bathroom on my 772 (777-200) flight from CDG->LAX, but on the A380, the bathroom was shared with standard economy. The free comfort package (earplugs, face mask, toothbrush, etc.) was a nice bonus, and the main meal was served with an extra appetizer. You also get an apertif of champagne before dinner. You get a second checked bag free of charge.
  • The entertainment: AF’s infotainment screens in PE are pretty well sized, but the system is old and the resolution abysmal. Bring an iPad. There is no Wi-Fi on any long-haul Air France flight.
A380

I flew on an Air France A380 (the double-decker) from Los Angeles to Paris (LAX->CDG) for the first leg. Boarding was pretty well-managed by intercontinental standards, with the clerks at the gate calling up first, business, premium economy, and SkyPriority (plus other member levels) to board first. Air France seems unique here, in that there are only two boarding calls – first tier customers, and then… everyone else. Given the science suggests mass-boarding is the best technique for boarding quickly, this is pretty close to optimal. I found this system used on all legs of my journey, at 3 different airports.

Upon reaching my row on the upper deck, I tossed my bag in the spacious overhead and got into my seat. There, I found a blanket, a larger and cushier pillow than standard economy, and a bottle of Evian in the area between the infotainment screens. Everything still seemed pretty fresh, and even the complimentary noise-cancelling headphones looked quite new (not so on my 772 flight back).

I sat and immediately found lumbar support in the seat lacking, but stuffing the pillow behind me quickly resolved that. The seat itself had truly ample legroom, and the width is more than enough for someone as large as myself (very large – 6’1 and quite… fat). I buckled up and we taxied off.

After hitting altitude, about 30 minutes after our late afternoon departure, the crew distributed everyone in the premium economy cabin a bag of accessories (quite a stylish little bag, too), including a face mask, large foam ear plugs, booties for the headphones (because ear germs), a toothbrush, and a couple other small items. At the same time, we were provided our menus for dinner (you can only select a main, which appear to be the same mains as standard economy), and shortly after that, offered an apertif glass (cup) of champagne or any other beverage we desired, along with some pretzels.

Around 30 minutes later, dinner was served. I had a shepherd’s pie (the other option being red sauce pasta with veggies), but an appetizer exclusive to premium economy of smoked salmon and green salad was also served, along with the typical accouterments – butter, bread (rolls were generously distributed), cheese, fruit, a bottle of water, and a brownie. The main was quite typical but certainly not bad, and the smoked salmon salad was actually quite tasty – a pleasant surprise, to be sure. You also got first dibs – it was unlike the meal service would out of either main course, since they had yet to serve standard economy.

The extra large tray in premium economy seats, which folds down twice, allowed me to eat my meal without arching my head into the seat in front of me, and then comfortably fold half the tray back up after I had finished, so it wasn’t an intrusion on my ability to recline. Reclining was the first thing I did after that meal, by the way – the amount of food served was more than adequate, and I was stuffed.

As I started to settle into the seat, I played with the various recline options and the built-in metal footrest. The seat on Air France’s A380 reclines a good amount, but business class passengers won’t be impressed, as it’s nowhere near lie-flat. There is a recliner-style legrest you can prop up, but it’s basically useless unless you’re very short, as is the metal footrest (I put it down once and promptly put it back up). After selecting a movie, I grabbed my free bottle of water (really, this is a nice thing to have!), took a gulp, and watched Guardians of the Galaxy in potato resolution.

The included noise-cancelling headphones were quite good at the noise cancelling part, though I found the quality of audio middling at best. Worry not, though, audio-lovers, as there is a standard 3.5mm (yes, really, no attenuator or multi-plug required) jack right above the storage area for the included cans, so you can plug in your headphones of choice. The touchscreen was typical crappy resistive fare, and the remote control felt like something from 2002. But, everything worked, and I was content enough at that.

I charged my iPad and phone through my travel power strip attached to the seat’s AC adapter (very easy to find unlike many airlines – between the seats, facing the seats in front of you) and stretched out the recline like no one was watching. I was actually pretty comfortable, for a plane. After-dinner coffee was served (or drinks, whatever you wanted), the lights were lowered, and I began to wonder just what I’d do for the next 9-plus hours with my extra wide arm rest, since fighting over it wasn’t actually going to be necessary, and the fixed shell seat in front of me could not angle my infotainment screen into invisibility.

As we neared Paris, breakfast was served. A small omelette which was quite delicious along with some bread, cheese (of course!), fruit, and yogurt were provided. Nothing extraordinary, but service was again quick and efficient. We landed, and after an agonizing 40 minutes of taxi / gate assignment, we deplaned alongside business class ahead of the pack.

Domestic

I flew two domestic short-hauls to and from Barcelona on Air France. Premium Economy did have significant perks: Air France serves all its business and premium economy passengers a full meal for flights >1 hour in duration, including beer, wine, and champagne. Standard economy gets only snack service. The seat gets more legroom, but otherwise, it’s economy with food and early boarding (nothing to scoff at, though). The food was quite good for the most part, and again, Air France rigorously enforced the 2-stage boarding procedure to ensure business and priority flyers were on the plane first.

772 (Boeing 777-200)

For my flight from CDG->LAX, I had originally booked an earlier seat on an A380, but I missed the plane. I was rebooked to an older 777-200 (AF calls them a 772), and I feared the worst. My fears were, largely, unfounded.

Boarding was a bit of nightmare – the plane had an unexpected security screening, and a gaggle of grandmas in wheelchairs took about 30 minutes to be carted onto the 777 ahead of all the other passengers (entirely fair, but it took entirely too long), and it was obvious no one was looking forward to this nearly 7000-mile red-eye, with many passengers visibly agitated at the delay (bad vibes = bad plane ride).

We got on, and while the PE section was much smaller on the 777 than the A380 – a mere 32 seats by my count – it looked basically identical. Overhead storage was configured differently, but there was still ample space, and all the same amenities provided. Free bottle of water, nice pillow, blanket, pre-dinner snack (this time some delicious butter crackers), bag of stuff, champagne, dinner menu. I noticed one of the restrooms ahead of us was out of service, but after takeoff, the steward curtained off premium economy from both business and standard economy, so a scant 32 people had an exclusive bathroom. Very nice – on the A380, we were required to share with standard economy, though there were only a small number of economy passengers on the upper deck (maybe 60).

The seats were older, for sure – my neighbor’s only reclined after vigorous encouragement, and the footrests were substantially narrower than those on the A380. The seat had the same width and pitch, though, so it basically felt the same to me, down to the extra-wide armrests. We got our snacks and champagne and hunkered down.

Dinner was actually surprisingly good – PE’s exclusive appetizer was 3 cold shrimp on a bed of mint and parsley tabbouleh, and while the shrimp were a bit tough, they tasted refreshingly real to me. The main course was chicken in a brown sauce with couscous, and I found the quality substantially better than the American-sourced fare we received on the flight from LAX. Bread, cheese, fruit, and a mini lemon meringue pie were provided, though we did not get our after-dinner sweets on this plane (I’m guessing they couldn’t source any).

The lights went down, and I played with the infotainment system. This unit was even worse than the on the A380 (again, no Wi-Fi on Air France long haul, either, and probably not till 2016-2017+), and had huge banding issues. I watched Interstellar in the most forgiving sense of the word (I heard it and saw some images, occasionally, I think). The Air France headphones on this 777 were battered and bruised, clearly in need of replacement, so I used my own set instead. After the film, I went over to the private premium economy snack area and refilled my now-empty bottle of Evian with a larger one.

The seat, I thought, was just as comfortable as the A380 I took from LAX, and seemed basically identical in every functional sense of the word. Outlets, USB port, headphones, etc. The remote control was older, though, and placed at thigh-level instead of vertically nearer the front of the seat divide, meaning I would accidentally activate it relatively often when shifting in my seat.

Our special little bathroom had a couple of perks, too – there was face wash and hand lotion, with small cotton pads to scrub your face. It was a refreshing apricot-scented wash that didn’t need to be rinsed, and after getting a bit greasy sitting on the plane 5 hours and, before that, 7 hours at the airport, I relished in the clean and refreshed feeling my face got after a quick scrub.

Later, breakfast was served (my jetlagged stomach politely declined). About an hour after that, we landed and gated quickly at LAX (way ahead of schedule considering we departed 40 minutes late).

Air France Premium Economy: Overall value assessment

Air France premium economy is, at 15-25% above standard economy fare, an excellent deal all things considered. I’ve read whining and moaning about the seats and the service, but honestly, it’s so much better than standard economy on a large long-haul flight that I’m not sure how those people justify their complaints. It’s better in almost every way, and worse in basically none. The extra checked bag alone almost pays for itself! Now, if we’re talking in-demand season, I believe Air France charges quite a lot more for these seats, something like 40-70% over standard economy. At such a premium, there is no way these seats are truly worth the money, but if you have miles or a credit card with good rewards, the spend could be entirely worth it to avoid suffering with the rest of the herd for 10-plus hours. Additionally, if you simply have the disposable income but don’t want to splurge on Air France’s largely unremarkable long-haul business class, premium economy is much better value for money.

The lack of Wi-Fi is definitely a major drawback (Air France knows it, and they’re pricing competitively), and the infotainment system is in dire need of updating, though it’s functional. Food and drink extras are modest, but what is provided over standard economy is certainly appreciated (who doesn’t want to be greeted with champagne?).

I think the PE experience across all of Air France’s long-haul fleet is basically comparable, too, something that isn’t always true of this fare class on other airlines. The problem is that not every Air France plane has it – 747s are still business and economy only, though the A330s, 777s, and A380s do all appear to have at least one supported configuration.

No, Vinyl Does Not Sound Better Than MP3 – Making The Case For Digital Audio

The resurgence of vinyl as a “high-fidelity” music playback medium is becoming more and more recognized in popular culture. “Hipsters” and true audiophiles alike are quickly starting a new-age vinylphile scene, largely because of a small but noisy backlash against digitally distributed music.

First things first: this phenomena isn’t new – the anti-digital audio movement was alive and well in the early days of compact discs and digital mastering, two phenomena that took off roughly contemporaneously in the 1980’s. By the 90’s, both had improved by leaps and bounds in terms of quality and consistency, though numerous music artists like Neil Young decried the rise of digital production and the “ones and zeroes” of compact discs, compared to the warmth, character, and high fidelity of analog vinyl records at the time. But the Walkman and in-car CD players made the compact disc a consumer smash-hit, and cassettes quickly fell by the wayside as the better-sounding and more reliable CD took over the marketplace.

With the rise of the iPod, things changed again: MP3 and other digital audio formats rapidly eclipsed compact discs in terms of total distribution (even if much of that distribution was illegal), and personal audio entered a new age.

In the early aughts (00’s), the quality of digitally distributed audio wasn’t exactly stellar, but nor was the playback equipment. Laptops and desktop computers had middling audio reproduction to start with, but this was something of a blessing in disguise: low expectations set by computers and laptops (and those old iPod earbuds, yuck) meant that digitally distributed music could be encoded at low bitrates without having an extreme impact on the perceptible quality of the audio. A 64 or 48Kbps MP3 was not uncommon to see in these early days, perhaps ripped from a scratched CD using a sketchy drive, and encoding tools were not nearly as standardized or effective at compression. This is where ire toward digital really started, even if those problems are basically nonexistent today.

But with huge amounts of digital distribution happening extralegally during this time, there was no real concern for preserving quality or the effects of burning/re-ripping/re-encoding on lossy audio formats – people simply didn’t care. While Apple was distributing comparatively very high-quality 128Kbps AAC files by 2003 on iTunes, that still comprised just a tiny amount of the music being distributed around the internet. Who wasn’t illegally downloading music in the mid to late 2000s?

Today, things are rather different. Even the lowest of the low streaming services generally stream at 128Kbps MP3 over Wi-Fi (though they do go down to 96 or even 64/48Kbps over mobile – see: Pandora), and if you’re actually buying digital music, it’s all but guaranteed to be at 192-256Kbps MP3 or higher. I have still yet to see real evidence that even 192Kbps MP3 sounds better than 128Kbps MP3, by the way – which should tell you something about all the FLAC and lossless weirdos out there.

In this context, listening to music on vinyl makes little sense. Vinyl is, by its nature, an imperfect medium – all the “warmth” and “character” vinyl lovers describe of their records is generally attributable to the natural sonic qualities of vinyl playback, qualities that will come through on a $100 Pyle turntable pretty similar to a $1500 Marantz. Yes, a nicer turntable / stylus will produce much nicer audio than a much cheaper one, but that’s not really the point here: the point is that the “vinyl effect” is basically psychological – these people have come to associate “quality” with the inherent characteristics of vinyl playback, and that’s an entirely inappropriate conflation.

Vinyl is a carburetor in a fuel-injected world. Yes, a properly tuned, calibrated, and expensive vinyl setup can sound and perform much better than many digital setups, but that’s missing the point: most vinyl playback today happens on cheap turntables with cheap or old records and cheap or old needles and goes through cheap or old speakers. It is far easier and cheaper to make a digital setup that sounds as good or better than a very carefully tuned and much, much pricier vinyl setup. Vinyl love is nostalgia, plain and simple.

Much as the man driving a ’69 Mustang Boss 302 may proclaim that his underrated V8 puts out 350-plus horsepower and was one of the most potent vehicles of its day, that doesn’t mean a $21,000 2014 Ford Fiesta ST with a scant 197HP won’t spank it in essentially every measurable performance metric while being more reliable and far less expensive. Could you make the Boss faster than the Fiesta by throwing huge sums of money at it? Sure. But claiming that the Boss is the better car because you can make it better is an obvious fallacy. This is the argument vinyl-heads will have over and over with nonbelievers – vinyl can sound better than MP3, you just have to know what to buy and be willing to spend. And clean your records. And your needle. And set your tracking force. And your pitch. And balance the turntable.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s look at the records themselves. Let’s say you have a mint condition, unopened copy of CSNY’s Deja Vu on vinyl, original pressing. And then let’s say you have the remaster from 2006 in 192Kbps MP3. The vinyl already has a disadvantage: the MP3 has been mastered for digital to remove analog hum, hiss, and other artifacts of the production process that weren’t possible in 1969. Some remasters do end up ruining records, but most are careful exercises in restoration and utilize new technology to more effectively present the music as the artist originally intended while eliminating problems in the original mastering. Right out of the gate, the MP3 is almost certain to sound superior – while the vinyl has the appeal of “originality,” this advantage is rooted – like almost all vinyl arguments – in nostalgia. Original does not sound objectively better, no matter what vinylphiles will try to tell you. Then let’s look at money: how much would such a record cost? Well, for a truly original copy, you’d be looking at $100+ for an unopened record. A later high-grade reissue in excellent condition would run you more like $15-35+, so let’s say you use that. How much does the 2006 remastered MP3 cost? About $10. Or it’s included as part of a music subscription service and costs you nothing but your monthly fee.

So, which is going to sound better? That, of course, is almost entirely contingent on the setup. With the digital file, $330 will buy you a great DAC, headphone amplifier, and very good set of Grado headphones quite easily. At that point, you’ll probably have 95% of the perceptible audio quality money can buy in the realm of digital audio.

The record? Well, let’s start with turntables. If you go cheap, a fully-manual Pyle that’s serviceable but not great will set you back $70. A good but cheap AudioTechnica needle, maybe another $30. You’ll also need a phono preamp, say $25 for that. Then you have the same cost for the headphone amp and headphones. A grand total of, we’ll say, about $325.

Which sounds better? I would know, because I have this exact setup, and it’s the digital audio every single time, without a shadow of a doubt. No vinyl hiss, cracks, pops, or hum. No dust to contend with. No adjusting tracking force. The digital sounds fuller, with superior bass, channel separation, and fidelity. Maybe if I had a $300 turntable, $200 needle, and a $300 small tube amp with some open-back Sennheisers, I could get the full vinyl experience. Oh, and pay the insane cost of getting all the music I want on vinyl. And to do it right, that means chasing down audiophile high-weight reissues, which run anywhere from $30-100+. Why would I do this? I don’t know, because there is no truly justifiable reason for it from the perspective of sonic quality. It makes no sense.

Now, it’s easy to say “that’s not a fair comparison – the digital reissue is a new master, of course it sounds better” because this allows vinyl-heads to postulate that if the digital version was the exact same master as the vinyl, the vinyl would be superior because the digital is lossy. Except this is a moot point: half of the advantage of digital is in having the newest, cleanest master of the song. Now, sometimes true originals are interesting to hear, but no one is listening to them for fidelity! There’s historical value, there’s nostalgic value, and that’s really it – for sheer listening pleasure, I will take the digital remaster of nearly any album any day of the week over the analog original. They sound better.

Anyway, the real point here is that in almost no real-world setting will vinyl sound better than a legitimate MP3 of the same song or album when played through the same equipment (aside from the record player, obviously). It’s an absurd thing to argue. If you throw the same money at a DAC as you would at a high-end turntable, stylus, and preamp, you’d struggle to even find a place to spend all that cash. Like a lot of the high-end audiophile market, though, it’s very easy to find a company that’s happy to convince you of whatever it is you want to believe about how to get the “best” sound, and the sudden demand for vinyl has made a $1500 turntable a viable business model again. Make no mistake: this phenomena is cultural, not technical, in nature. Audiophiles with deep pockets love to be told that what they like is what is also objectively better: modern, high-end vinyl gear merely caters to a demand of the market, not some rediscovery of vinyl’s obvious superiority. Vinyl is cool again, and so people, even audiophiles (unsurprisingly), want to be in with what’s cool. That’s all this is really about, at the end of the day.

If you’re really serious about sound, you should also be serious about getting value for your money, and high-end vinyl is the antithesis of value. Vinly is fashion – it is tasteful, classic, and calls back to a time when we consumed music differently. That doesn’t make it better. If anything, it serves to discredit it.

Taking FLAC: Pono reviews generally confirm FLAC purists are full of it, and so is Pono

So, it turns out I was wrong about Pono: the difference is not easy to hear. In fact, according to pretty much every review of the device, Pono provides no credible evidence of audible improvement over a smartphone when playing the same file, or even that Pono sounds appreciably better playing back FLAC versus a smartphone using high-bitrate (256Kbps) AAC. David Pogue even went so far as to conduct a blind test with well over a dozen people.

Make no mistake: Pono was developed by some very respected names in the audio industry, sporting components similar to those found in good portable headphone DAC/amplifier units. But instead of showing that a “proper” DAC/amp can noticeably improve the listening experience over an iPhone, Pogue’s test found that ordinary people, even when wearing some universally-lauded Sony monitoring headphones, simply couldn’t tell the difference between Pono FLACs and iTunes 256Kbps AACs.

This bodes poorly for portable amplifiers and DACs, but also supports the apparently unassailable truth that most people simply will not be able to observe an appreciable difference using FLAC versus high-res MP3s or AAC files. If they can, they’re probably telling themselves they can, or are simply conflating undesirable distortion (non-harmonic distortion increases at ultra-high sampling rates) with greater detail.

FLAC purists maintain that it is these higher sampling ceilings and greater bits rates which are responsible for the more pronounced “texture” and “feel” in music (cymbals are often cited, for no apparently good reason – almost all instruments produce ultrasonics). In fact, it is these higher sampling ceilings that expose even my audiophile-approved Onkyo TX8255 receiver-amp as unable to avoid audible distortion (that is, not true to the recording) at these supposedly inaudible ultrasonic frequencies. It’s unlikely the distortion would cause a truly noticeable effect on listening experience, but Pogue’s experiment supports the notion that such sounds in FLAC files might actually be undesirable – more people voiced a preference for the iPhone playing back 256Kbps AACs, rather than FLACs on the Pono.

If anything, Pogue’s test goes to show that, unsurprisingly, the world of digital audio has improved leaps and bounds from the early days when MP3 really was a dirty word and we were all trading crappily encoded CP rips on Kazaa and Napster. This tends to really be my theory anymore: audiophiles were among the first to explore the world of digital audio on the web, and they were around to experience the growing pains of that community. When a 96Kbps MP3 rip was what you downloaded because no one was ripping at 256 or 320, and the rips were sourced from old, scratched CDs read by cheap computer drives and then often compressed into oblivion.

I agree that, for a while there, the digital music industry really kind of was screwing the pooch on audio quality by leaving it to the bootleg community, and early streaming services like Pandora really did no one any favors, dipping down to a wretch-inducing 48Kbps on their mobile app at times. But Apple and the labels themselves started remedying this, and by the time the 128Kbps AAC became the de facto quality floor on the later iPods, we were probably already 90% there in terms of the listening experience.

With the iPhone, we saw a smartphone manufacturer pay attention to audio on a hardware level, and Apple remains the bar to meet in the mobile industry for audio hardware on a smartphone or tablet. They actually care about this stuff (let’s not forget they had 6 years to get it right in the iPod) – and Pogue’s test shows it pretty decisively. The fact that he was able to get away with this while driving a big set of Sony MDR7506 monitoring headphones is even more impressive, proving that mobile amplifiers have come a tremendously long way.

While I’ve generally understood the direction Neil Young and Pono were coming from – even if I disagree with some of the premise – I can’t help but agree with Pogue’s conclusion that Pono seems terribly misguided and reeks of the common snake-oily claims you find in the high-end audiophile world. It also proves that audiophiles will convince themselves of whatever they want, regardless of whether or not data controverting those views exists, and will continue to throw money at products catering to those beliefs because you can’t “really” hear the FLAC difference unless you have the budget (a pretentious argument at best).

Pogue also emphasizes what I’ve always said: focus on your equipment, not the files. The files are only going to be bad if you go out of your way to find ones that sound bad.

While I even find it mildly surprising few people preferred the Pono in Pogue’s study, I think it really does just go to the point that the engineers doing DAC and amplifier work on today’s modern smartphones and the related chipsets have figured out how to downsize and isolate those components very effectively. Is it so surprising that Apple, the world’s largest producer of MP3 players and high-end smartphones – that see vastly higher adoption rates in the music business – is creating an excellent audio experience on its products? I don’t think it’s exactly inconceivable, and Qualcomm seems to be doing a fine job, too.

While I would not go so far as to say standalone DACs and headphone amplifiers are without purpose, I will suggest that it generally seems safe to assume that a high-end smartphone is probably the best headphone DAC/amp in your home if you don’t own such dedicated products. I still believe a good DAC and amp are necessary with most laptops and PCs (I prefer Schiit’s Modi and Magni combo), because I’ve always noticed a very real difference with them on my desktop system.

Still, your best investment remains good headphones, and I can’t recommend Grado’s SR80e enough – they’re insanely good value for money. If you want something a little nicer, I really like the Blue Mo-Fis, whose active amplifier setup really do seem to make a difference to my ears when using a smartphone, since they’re of such a high impedance.

As for Pono, I’d suggest taking a pass: you’re supremely unlikely to notice the difference it provides, and FLAC albums simply aren’t worth the money unless you’re playing home music archivist. Put the money toward a good set of cans or studio monitor speakers – you’ll notice a far greater difference than any triangular prism can provide.

The Spoonfed Product: How Apple Stores have made buying complicated things unnecessarily simple in America.

Simple.

It’s a word the modern culture of technology has come to worship, and at that altar, startups and megacorporations alike pay their respects to the great simplifiers of our time, most notably one Steve Jobs.

I won’t go off on a huge Steve Jobs rant here, but let’s be clear: Jobs was a minimalist and a streamliner – he wanted everything his company made to be as easy possible to use while integrating seamlessly into your life and the other products in that life, which would preferably also be made or at least sold by Apple. He also took this mantra pretty literally, as anyone who’s read about the man even briefly will understand.

But when the iPhone, iPad, and the crazy-high-margin MacBook really started picking up steam in the marketplace and Apple became the world’s most valuable tech company in under a decade, suddenly everyone took notice of “simple.” Simplify, simplify, simplify: it is a word with a connotation so positive that its more archaic meanings have all but evaporated in common usage in our society. Simple is the “gentle” insult we used for those with learning disabilities, or as a way to look down upon or call someone gullible – a simpleton. Simple has not always been so simple.

Why are we obsessed with “simplifying” our tech lives? It’s a good question. The tech space has become so single-mindedly focused on the concept of simplicity that it has begun to dominate as the sole motivation behind many products and services. The very fact that “Yo” is a thing should make us actively question the mantra of simplicity in product – simple is limiting.

It is often said that you can have two of three things in abundance: cheap, good, or fast. I’d argue that, equally, you can have two of these: simple, good, or powerful. The problem with many mainstream consumer electronics today is that companies have begun to lean so heavily on the “simple” corner of the product triangle that goodness and power have both begun to suffer, and the architect of this shift is so clearly Apple it hurts.

I was prompted to write this after listening to stories from former Apple employees on a recent NPR program. These people were all “specialists” – the employees selling products and answering basic questions of prospective buyers and providing non-Genius-level support to customers with issues. When I hear one of these people saying they “didn’t know what a ‘gigahert’ [SIC] was” when they started working there, I sort of cringed. I don’t think salespeople need to be technical superstars – just look at any car salesman – but I do believe that holding up your ignorance of underlying concepts as a facet of your employment shows the very sad state American product consumerism is in right now.

The problem is not that American consumers are widely uninterested in how or why things work – I think that is a deeply pessimistic attitude that serves corporate interest in not training employees or customer support enough or paying them a living wage. It’s an excuse to spend less money, and to keep consumers from demanding more out of their products, or more variety or options. It’s also a way to get them to spend more money: holding up a product as so complicated that you “couldn’t” understand it makes people believe a salesperson knows more and better than they do or even could begin to know. It’s insulting.

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via iFixIt

This picture, to me, says a good deal about what is currently wrong with American tech consumerism in a weird way. Pop-tarts are actually pretty delicious. Do you know what’s in a Pop-tart? You probably have a basic idea that it’s a sweetened, vaguely naturally fruit-derived goop in a mass produced pastry crust with some frosting and preservatives. You know a Pop-tart isn’t particularly good for you, that it has a lot of sugar, and that sugar can be bad for your health, and that preservatives are a marker of mass-produced, refined food that is falling out of vogue in America. A whole lot of people could probably tell you about how this Pop-tart relates to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, even if they couldn’t get very technical. But they understand a lot about this very simple thing, and they’ve become very interested in understanding other foods, too – America is undergoing a food and health renaissance.

The iPhone 6 next to it? A lot of people wouldn’t even be able to tell you what operating system it runs, let alone explain what an operating system is in even a basic sense. RAM? Nope. Storage? Maybe. What a gigabyte is, though? No clue. A megapixel? Nuh-uh. To many of us, a smartphone or tablet, or any computer really, has become no different than a Toyota Camry. We don’t understand how it works (number of people under 30 in America who can explain internal combustion: I’m guessing like 5, and even as a car nut I still barely fucking understand it) because the companies who make the products have decided that’s not relevant to the things we do with them or the decisions we make when buying them.

And I think this fucking stinks. I think it’s a bad attitude, and it’s a disservice to people – there’s a reason America’s output of scientists and engineers isn’t so high lately, and in part it’s because the cult of simplicity has made it uncool to understand, to be weird, geeky, or take things apart. To really understand something is to be an oddity, and why would you care about what an API is when you could be at some shitty music festival or having a $6 latte frappuccino clusterfuck talking about how “you just need to find yourself.” The very sad thing is that technology, and in particular Apple, has begun to adapt to the “me culture” that is emblematic of the current generation of Americans by oversimplifying the universe instead of attempting to cultivate that sentiment into something useful.

Is there any way of stopping this trend, though? Honestly, I don’t know. The are things Americans are genuinely interested in understanding – food, the environment, and health are big ones, and the latter is how Apple is attempting to really bill the Apple Watch, as a health tool. Many of us are also interested in creating, and that’s somewhere I think technology can still make a lot of inroads in terms of engaging the average person on a more technical level. It’s very sad, though, to watch companies embrace the notion that you don’t need to understand a product because you’ve got better things to do.

It’s the same ignorant attitude in the auto industry that got a bunch of Americans into giant SUVs and pickup trucks they didn’t need – because no one was telling them any better, or really trying to engage them on a technical level. Fast forward 10 years from the heyday of the 7-passenger mega-SUV and people, it turns out, do care about buying cars that are better for the environment, get higher gas mileage, or have advanced connectivity features and technology. And, you know, look good. American cars are at their best since the 1960s right now – and people are actually kind of getting into them on a deeper level again.

The road that Apple is taking American consumers down, though, the road of maximum “simplicity,” is fraught with the danger of stagnation. When we decide something is “good enough,” we tend to start ignoring it, commoditizing it as something we “need” but don’t actually find all that interesting. For now, Apple does seem to be rolling along well enough, bringing its products forward to compete, giving users new software features, and promoting its strategy of strong product integration as a gateway to superior functionality and usefulness.

The problem is that for all the good Apple does, it tears down the vast majority of these achievements the moment a consumer walks into an Apple Store – the moment where engagement really matters. And that does make me a bit sad.

“Is that the 6?”

“Yes.”

“Does it come in gold?”

“Yes.”

“OK, I need the cheapest one for AT&T, ring me up.”

Review: Linus Roadster 8 Bicycle

When I was looking for my first bicycle in 4 years, I decided I wanted something that was not only dependable and well-equipped out of the box: I wanted something interesting. Linus Bikes, based in Venice, CA, is indeed interesting. The company has made its name building cruiser and hybrid bikes in a vintage European style, though with the convenience and reliability of modern components.

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Upright riding positions with curved handlebars, steel frames, and big, soft touring saddles have earned Linus a reputation for making some of the best leisurely rollers in the business right now, in both the cruiser and hybrid-commuter segments.

I settled on the Roadster 8, Linus’ top-of-the-line commuter-cruiser hybrid. At $869, the Roadster 8 is the second most-expensive bicycle Linus currently makes, with the new Libertine road bike being the company’s flagship product. The Roadster’s companion models, the Roadster Classic (a no-brake, fixed-gear bike) and Roadster Sport (3-speed hub) retail for $465 and $665, respectively – meaning the Roadster will cost you nearly double the price of the “base model” bike.

What do you get for your extra money?

The Roadster 8, as its name implies, possesses 8 speeds. The Roadster Sport has only 3, and the Roadster Classic is a fixed-gear. The 8 and the Sport both use Shimano Nexus internal hub transmissions as opposed to the more common derailleur systems, an increasingly popular choice in the hybrid segment.

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Compared to the entry-level Classic, both the Sport and 8 gain a set of Tekro R369 brakes (the classic, in true fixie fashion, has none), a 40lb rear rack, and front and rear painted steel fenders. Plus, of course, the hub transmissions.

The extra $205 over the Sport is largely accounted for by the 8-speed transmission, which is honestly most of what you’re paying for here. The Nexus 8 retails for a solid $100 more than the Nexus 3. The other difference is in the frame – the Roadster 8 has a full chromoly 4130 frame and fork. The Classic and Sport use generic high-tensile steel apart from the downtube, which is chromoly on all Roadsters.

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Chromoly steel is stronger than high-tensile steel, meaning you can build a frame of the same robustness with thinner tubes, resulting in a lighter bike. Linus likely does this to keep the weight of the Roadster 8 down, because the Nexus 8 hub is a hefty piece of gear. It weighs twice as much as the Nexus 3 setup, at around 4.5 lbs.

The Roadster 8, because of its use of chromoly, weighs in at 30lbs on a medium frame, 2 lbs less than a Roadster Sport of the same size, meaning that chromoly frame is shaving off a solid 4 lbs of heft. For $200 more, I’d argue you’re getting your money’s worth here.

For the record, steel framed bikes are much less common than they used to be thanks to the introduction of high-strength aluminum. Aluminum is much lighter than steel, basically as strong in most scenarios, and only a bit more expensive. Economies of scale have further trimmed the price difference between steel and aluminum, though steel bikes are definitely making a niche comeback.

The ride, generally

My last bike was a basic hybrid – an entry-level Trek FX 7.1 with an aluminum frame and 21 speeds on basic Shimano gear. Compared to what I remember of that bike, the Linus rides divinely. Bumps are absorbed readily by the steel frame, and the upright riding position with the curved handlebars makes maneuvering feel deliberate, precise, and smooth. I’d say a more traditional fitness hybrid might be more agile – though more twitchy – with straight handlebars, but I’m not darting in and out of traffic on this thing.

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Linus’ house-brand Elysian tires are built for quick cruising, with a simple and shallow radial tread that keep vibration and road noise very low. The Elysians are a welcome piece of gear in a market segment that is dominated by needlessly “rugged” tread patterns that just reduce grip and increase vibration on the road for the reason that “hybrid” bikes might, one day, see a surface other than pavement or concrete, even though most never do.

The downside to the Elysian is that, unfortunately, they’re very pricey for a hybrid tire, at $35 apiece. The upside is that they come in some really fun colors (white, black, black with gum wall, brown).

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The Nexus 8 is a bit of tossup for me. If you’ve ever used an internal hub transmission with more than a few speeds, you know they have some quirks – low gears can feel “grindy,” and high gears can produce grating sounds when over-torqued. These problems are especially apparent with a heavy rider, like me. Hopefully one day I’ll be light enough that these issues will go away, though from what I’ve read they’re benign and common.

Shifting the Nexus 8, though, is a breath of fresh air – you can go from 7 to 4 at a complete stop with no risk of damage to the hub, and the chain is essentially impossible to derail. This is huge when biking in a city with lots of lighted intersections and stop signs. The only downside to shifting is the shifter itself. It’s a twist-shift made of rubber, and when your hands get sweaty (as they inevitably do on leather grips), it can become difficult to shift, and the action isn’t nearly as mechanical and precise as I’d like.

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The brakes, frankly, aren’t great. They may need some tuning on my bike (not enough bite by my standard), and it may be my weight, but they’re extremely underwhelming. I may end up opting for some different pads, too, because the stock ones seem much too soft.

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The gear

I specifically chose Linus because they give their bikes with a high level of equipment out of the box. A bell, fenders, 40 lb rear rack, leather grips, and decent leatherette touring saddle are all standard.

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Linus also sells a dizzying array of accessories, many of which bear the Linus brand, including some of the best-looking bicycle storage systems made, in my opinion. I actually bought the Shopper bag when I picked up the bike, because it’s just brilliant.

It attaches to the rear rack with two rubberized hooks, and even includes a small padlock to secure it. It’s flat while empty, and stays that way thanks to a strip of Velcro along the bottom as well as the lid. Open it up, pull out the bottom, and then drop the hard plastic insert into the bottom of the bag. Toss in the groceries, close it up (or don’t), and off you go. At $80, it’s not cheap, but I love it. Because it can stay flat, it also makes a great alternative to a fanny pack or pipette bag for keeping your keys, phone, and wallet while biking.

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Linus Shopper bag – closed (left), open (right)

And as to practicality in terms of maintenance, the sealed 8-speed hub will also never get any sand, grime, or mud in it unless it’s totally engulfed in material, meaning no cleaning, and for me, no fears riding on the LA bike path along the coast. Aside from total immersion or snow, the hub is also waterproof.

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The Shopper’s included padlock, mounted to rear rack.

Should I be looking at this or something more road bike-ish? Less road-bikish?

This was my concern when I was considering the Roadster. Those 700x35c tires are meaty, though they have become more common on urban and commuter bikes these days. I’d say the choice between something like the Roadster 8 and a bike with more road “pedigree” comes down mostly to where you’re going to be riding it.

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If it’s going to be a trail queen and never see a city street apart from the smoothly-paved suburbs, I’d say go with a road bike, and preferably one with a derailleur system. You’ll be able to travel faster, farther, and with less effort. Nice derailleurs have better pedaling efficiency and are more robust than the internal hubs, though you can spring for Shimano’s high-end Alfine line of hubs if you really want one.

The same, I’d say, can be true if you live in a larger city with very good roads and your purpose is basically just commuting – if you’re not constantly riding over pavement cracks and dodging potholes, a road bike will pay dividends in performance.

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On the opposite end of the spectrum, some buyers are doubtless between considering a hybrid or a cruiser / Dutch-style town bike. If your bike is something you’re going to throw on a rack when you go camping or to the beach and not see much action otherwise, get a cruiser. They ride softer and are much less dodgy on loose surfaces, not to mention they’re a lot cheaper, too. If you want to get around town, though, I can’t recommend a cruiser. Some people like them – and I see many cruisers when I ride in west LA – but they’re terribly inefficient and a lot of work to pedal on even gentle inclines. If cost is the big driver for you, look at single or 3-speed town bikes before you look at cruisers.

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The one situation I’d recommend a cruiser (or something with cruiser-like tires) for transportation is if you have to go over cobbled, dirt, or brick roads on a regular basis. A sprung seat and fat, low-pressure tires will do wonders for your spine versus a comparatively much harder hybrid with a touring saddle.

Is it worth the money?

$869 is, frankly, what many people would consider to be an obscene cost for a bicycle that does not beg for a Lycra shopping spree. Granted, if you know much about bikes, you know that competition road bikes can easily dip into the $5,000-and-up range, so really, $869 is very much “entry-level” in the world of cycling. The Roadster 8 isn’t a cyclist’s bike, though – it’s far more casual than that, so $869 is probably expensive for people shopping in this category.

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Bell, yes, whistle, no.

Commuter bikes generally live in the $500-1200 price bracket, which puts the Roadster 8 smack in the middle of the segment. At the high end you have “hardcore” commuters like Trek’s CrossRip, and at the bottom a large selection of fixed-gear, 3-speed hub, and derailleur options, generally varying by perceived “seriousness.

A natural point of comparison for potential buyers is probably Trek’s Steel District at $769. It has a 9-speed Acera derailleur set, disc brakes (why), a touring saddle, alloy pedals, a Trek “custom steel” frame (AKA still not chromoly), leather-ish grips, color-matched fenders, and a front basket. It also has a more road-ish frame stance.

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With the Linus, I’d argue, you’re getting a – theoretically – nicer frame, a more commuter-friendly gearset, and a much, much better-looking bike. You also get a far more versatile rear rack as opposed to the basket on the Trek, though the price difference could be made up for by just buying a decent one and bolting it on to the District.

Considering the competition, I’m quite comfortable saying the Roadster 8 is priced very acceptably, especially considering Linus is a relatively boutique bike company. If Trek were to make an 8-speed hub and chromoly steel District, it would likely come in around $900-1000 based on their current pricing scheme. Linus is clearly making their business one of accessories – an amazing selection of bags, bells, lights, seats, grips, and house-brand tires are obviously the moneymakers. After all, I did shell out $80 for a Linus grocery bag, and I will shell out another $70 to Linus when it comes time to replace the tires.

And if you live in southern California, you can actually buy the bike from Linus themselves – they operate a small store in Venice. If you purchase direct from Linus, they also assemble it at the Linus shop, which is certainly a benefit in my opinion. I’d rather have the guys who deal with these bikes and only these bikes every day be the ones who put mine together.

I also think it looks great in blue.

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A review of the iRobot Braava 380t, aka the Mopbot

Some time ago, iRobot bought a company called Evolution Robotics. Evolution made a product called Mint. Mint was a floor-mopping robot that could use wet or dry pads to clean your hard floors. iRobot re-branded the Mint-bots as the Braava line a little less than a year ago (August 2013), and [presumably] apart from some modifications to suit iRobot’s production and supply chains, remained unchanged.

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The new robots were the Braava 330 and the Brava 380t, formerly Mint and Mint Plus. They cost $200 and $300 (though the 380t seems down to $240 these days), respectively. We just got a new Braava 380t for our apartment, which is floored 100% in laminate and vinyl throughout.

Why Braava and not Roomba, or Scooba?

Honestly, the cost barrier on Roomba and Scooba is huge. The Scooba is $600, and the new high-end Roomba is $700. A 750 sq. ft. apartment does not require a $600 automatic vacuum cleaner. And really, what you pay for in Roomba in Scooba, more than anything, is convenience. To elaborate on what I mean by this, let’s talk about what Braava doesn’t do. The Braava does not:

  • Support scheduling or automatic cleaning – you have to tell it to clean.
  • Dock back into its charger at the end of a run (it’s a standing duck, or a plug with a wall wart).
  • Vacuum (duh).
  • Memorize the layout of a room (more on that later).

These are the features you pay for in a Roomba or Scooba. Personally, I’d call them luxuries, not necessities. I’ll take the Braava at half the cost if it means I have to take a hand vacuum along the edges of the room / furniture (takes a whole 5 minutes) and physically put the robot on a charger and physically push a button in order for to clean. Not a big deal, if you ask me.

Also, Scooba isn’t technically laminate floor-safe. It puts out a fair amount of liquid, and if your laminate isn’t installed with sealed joints, including along the walls, you could get seepage and warp the floor. No bueno, especially if you’re leasing. Some people use Scoobas on unsealed laminate, but I would not.

What does Braava really do, then?

Braava is actually two things, which is why it has two cleaning mode buttons (dry and wet). One, it’s a mop. But it’s also a floor duster and sweeper. The “dry” mop mode of the Braava (doesn’t mopping imply wetness? who uses a dry mop? crazy people, that’s who) just runs in a pattern over the cleaning area, including along the walls, and uses a dusting cloth to gather up debris and push larger junk to the edge of the room. It collects a lot of dust on that rag, too, and for the allergen [and grossness] reduction alone, this feature is awesome. You can slightly dampen the cloth, too, if you want to increase the dust collection factor.

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Hitting the wet mode button initiates a different behavior in Braava. Instead of just zigzagging across the cleaning area, Braava will go back and fourth, overlapping and “scrubbing” the floor with the textured terry pad. The reservoir pad base (standard on the 380t) slowly wicks liquid out of the reservoir and onto the cleaning pad (via a small antimicobrial fabric wick, which is replaceable), so the mop stays wet throughout the cycle. There’s no bladder or pump or anything, it’s totally passive and low-tech (reliable!) – just a plastic tank and the fabric wick.

Does it actually work?

Yes! Our mopbot has absolutely exceeded my expectations in some regards. In dry mop mode, it covers a huge surface area (up to 1000 sq. ft.) and collects a whole lot of dust, even if I run it every day. It has never once gotten stuck, either, and it always covers the full area it can reach.*

(*except the kitchen and bathroom, because there is raised trim separating their vinyl floor from the laminate, and the Braava won’t “jump” over it by design.)

In wet mop mode, it gets up a fair amount of stains in our kitchen, and I usually have it do two or three passes to get it really clean (our kitchen is checkered B&W soft vinyl, it gets dirty really easy, and it shows it). On the laminate, the wet mop mode covers our whole living area, though if you want it to do more than 350 sq. ft. of wet mopping, you’ll have to move it where you want to go, along with the navigation beacon (more on that in a second).

What in god’s name is a “navigation beacon”?

iRobot has chosen not to give the former Mint-bots the company’s iAdapt on-board navigation. That’s because the way the mopbot navigates is supposedly superior and – given the tasks it’s designed to complete – necessary. Braava uses something called a “navigation beacon” (aka companion cube), which bounces a signal off the ceiling which the mopbot uses like a sort of GPS. The Braava has a big, transluscent window on the top, and this is where the magic happens. Using the static beacon as a reference point, Braava builds a map of a room as it cleans, making sure it cleans the entire room, and in dry mop mode, that it doesn’t cover the same area twice. In wet mop mode, it uses this map to ensure all areas are thoroughly scrubbed. Also so it doesn’t run off stairs or ledges.

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The mopbot’s trusty companion cube.

The cube needs to sit somewhere relatively high up (eg, waist height), and point roughly toward the center of the area you want the robot to clean. The cube takes two C batteries (yuck! Li-ion and a charger next time, guys), so you can move it anywhere without dealing with cords. The Braava displays a rating of 1-3 lights for signal strength with the cube, though if it goes out of range (never happened so far, even with 3 walls separating them at the furthest point), it can usually find its way back. This sounds like overkill, right? If you look at the product, though, it really isn’t.

Roomba navigates itself and memorizes basic room layouts for future use (Braava starts fresh every run), but it also has to cover the same area many, many times in order to achieve desired results, because vacuuming requires multiple passes from multiple directions for maximum effectiveness. A mop is a mop – it sweeps along the floor. It doesn’t really matter in what direction, and it’s kind of a binary operation – an area has been mopped or it hasn’t. A vacuum is far more variable in terms of efficacy. A mop is going to sweep what it can sweep. Dry mopping, especially, doesn’t really benefit from multiple passes, so the Braava requires a more precise location system to achieve maximum efficiency and coverage to make sure it doesn’t hit the same area too many times. It’s less important for wet mopping, but the robot still needs to map the room to make sure it’s getting all the nooks and crannies.

If you want to cover areas outside the cube’s range – wait for it – you’ve got to buy another cube. They’re $40 apiece. The cubes need to have some coverage overlap to work in tandem, and only the 380t supports working with multiple cubes. The cubes don’t extend the maximum sq. footage of the robot, either, so watch out for that (granted, that just means picking it up and moving it to where you want to sweep or refilling the reservoir).

OK, this cube business sounds pricey for a multi-room house. Any other drawbacks?

Yes. The Braava will not go over floor molding. If all of your rooms are separated by floor molding (a raised piece of trim under a doorway or other transition), the Braava may not be for you. Granted, if you only have occasional molding (we have it in the kitchen and bathroom), it’s not a big deal. In fact, I like that when I put the mopbot in the kitchen, the floor molding makes sure it only wet mops the kitchen (honestly, who wants it dragging around stuff from the kitchen floor into the living room?). Of course, this feature is designed with carpet in mind, so that the Braava doesn’t climb up onto a rug or into a carpeted room.

Relatedly, the Braava does not work on carpets. It’s a mop. Of course it doesn’t. You don’t mop a carpet. Or a rug. Unless you’re insane. Get away from me, you carpet-mopping maniacs.

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Pro Clean Reservoir, top view with filler cap, cloth at edge of photo

I also wish the liquid reservoir had more capacity. As it works now, it holds 4oz, plus whatever’s in the cloth when you attach it (you should always dampen it beforehand, otherwise the wicking won’t get it fully damp until halfway through a cycle). More capacity would mean a greater wet mop surface area (that’s why it has a 350 sq. ft. limit, because it runs out of liquid around then).

And while it’s not a drawback per se, it needs to be said, because so many people (and reviewers) don’t seem to get it: Braava is not. a. vacuum. It does not pick stuff up, at least not stuff of substantial size. It collects dust, hair, liquids, and maybe a few small crumbs if you’re lucky. You will still have to vacuum. If you want a vacuum and a mop and don’t want to ruin your laminate, buy a Roomba and a Braava, or a Scooba if you don’t have laminate.

There’s a reason that it’s half the cost of the Scooba, and less than half the cost of the latest Roomba.

And on that same note, it’s also not a steam cleaner or a floor buffer. It lightly mops your floors. It is not going to pull up years-old tar or random sticky spots that have been in your kitchen since that one time you made fried Oreos a few summers ago. If you want a deep clean for your floors, you still need to mop.

So, why get it?

Easy. Because It removes 95% of the work of mopping and sweeping up a hard-floored house / apartment, and it does that 95% a lot more often and a lot better than I [and probably you] would. The remaining 5% is vacuuming the areas it can’t reach and the stuff it piles up, and the deep cleaning or scrubbing you’d want to give your floors a couple times a year.

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A Braava will reduce the allergen factor in your house when used regularly, it will keep your floors looking nice and clean, and it doesn’t require much in the way of babysitting. It’s super quiet (just the whisper whine of the electric motor), it can do up to 4 hours of work on a single charge, mine hasn’t gotten stuck or lost a single time at this point, and if you use the included cloths and either water or a water / vinegar (cheap) solution as opposed to Swiffer pads and solution it’ll even help pay for itself.

Granted, a $300 mop / duster is not for everybody.

Any other things I should know?

  • Don’t get the cheaper one. The 380t comes with the extended-release Pro Reservoir attachment which wet cleans a lot better, which is otherwise $30 separately. It also comes with a Turbo charge dock that takes 2 hours to charge as opposed to 4+ on the wall wart. The 380t has a bigger 2000mAh battery, and by design covers more square footage. (The 380t is often on sale on Amazon for $240, too, so it’s even less of a hit to take.) The only reason to get the base model is if you’re only using it for like, one small room.
  • If you have pet hair issues, this is actually probably better than a Roomba for keeping it under control, especially if you just dampen the cloth. And a lot cheaper.
  • The Braava has three moving parts: the electric drive and the two wheels attached to it. Call me crazy, but I’d venture a guess that this thing’s pretty reliable. Which is good, since it’s only warrantied for one year.
  • You don’t need a second cube unless you want it for the convenience, just move the one it comes with to another room if you want it to clean another room. Cheaper, and not really difficult.
  • It really does clean along the edges of walls. It’s actually very good at it. And it gets around chair / table legs really closely, too.
  • You probably can’t just put any pad you want on this thing, they have to be roughly Swiffer shaped. You could cut your own cloths, though, just know that the Pro Reservoir wet mount requires a pad that will stick to Velcro. The dry mount just holds the cloth with some rubber grips.
  • There are no forbidden solutions in the Pro Reservoir pad, use whatever you want. I’d recommend non-viscous liquids only, though, both for the wicking and the fact that the reservoir would probably be hard to clean out if something got stuck in there.
  • There are “quick” modes for both dry and wet mopping that skip the precision edge cleaning to save time. Just hold either cleaning mode button to start them.
  • You can pause and then resume cleaning by pressing the cleaning button or just picking up the robot.

What would I like to see in the next version?

This is easy.

  • Smartphone control app. Yesyesyesyes.jpg
  • Self-docking and scheduling would be nice, they don’t seem cost-prohibitive. They’re probably afraid of cannibalizing Roomba and Scooba sales more than it being a technical / cost issues, sadly.
  • Larger wet mop area support (so, bigger battery, larger reservoir).
  • More wet mop modes (eg, a deep clean mode with more passes).
  • Rechargeable cubes. Screw this C battery business.

I don’t care about Edward Snowden.

Edward Snowden gave an interview with everyone’s favorite newscaster this week, and the internet is once again awash with “Snowden is a hero” and “Edward Snowden did the right thing” kind of language everywhere I turn. Well, except Fox News’ website. But the day I agree with Fox News on something besides the current temperature outside will be a strange one indeed.

I don’t care about Edward Snowden. I don’t care what admirable qualities he has, I don’t care if you think he’s an American hero, I don’t care if he’s standing up for what’s “right” under the US Constitution as interpreted by a bunch of people who don’t have law degrees and are not constitutional historians. Edward Snowden was given access to classified information – information which his job only necessitated he have access to for technical, not substantive, reasons – and took it upon himself to say “I think this is wrong as judged by me and I’m going to leak it on the advice of nothing but my own subjective moral compass.”

As it turned out, Snowen’s moral compass aligned with much of the privacy-charged internet community, and the outrage poured like margaritas at a Jimmy Buffet cover night. The problem is, this corner of the web doesn’t represent America at large. America at large, it seems, doesn’t really care about Snowden and at best is mixed on what do with him if he comes back to the US. In fact, most of the polls I looked at that were taken more recently tended to lean significantly more to the “do charge” side. According to Gallup, even the sentiment around what the NSA is doing is increasingly apathetic – a full 64% of those surveyed are either somewhat, not very, or not at all concerned about their privacy in light of the Snowden leaks. 35% are “very concerned,” but this is a dramatic drop from the 47% who were “very concerned” about their privacy in 2000, when the internet was a much different, younger place.

Well, you might say, part of this change is almost definitely a result in a change of demography on the web. There are more older Americans on the web than there were 14 years ago, and rural access to the web – where conservative politics are often a given – has dramatically increased over the years. This would make sense if the party lines on privacy were the same as they were in the Bush administration. But they aren’t. With a democrat in office and that democrat supporting a massive surveillance program, democrats have become much more likely to back that program. Meanwhile, grassroots republicans have returned to their highly self-determined, get-out-of-my-backyard independence rhetoric (see: Tea Party), and are of course now vehemently against mass government surveillance. At least, this is what Gallup tells us. To be clear, there is still a very large part of the republican base which support these programs and a very large part of the democrat base which don’t. Eg, traditional Reagan-era republicans and liberal democrats.

Now, I’m not a pessimist, but to be frank, the only thing I’ve seen come out of Snowden’s leaks is that the government now has to pander on a surface level to the most vocal and annoying (yes, you’re really, really annoying, I’m sorry) web community in existence. The NSA still only answers to the president and FISA courts and, on some level, to congress. The NSA is still going to strongly suggest to them that what they are doing is the best – and not just that, the only – way they can maximize the safety of America and its allies.

Do I think the NSA is doing the right thing? No. In fact, their actions speak more to the fact that the culture of paranoia within the American intelligence community is perhaps only rivaled by that of those who most vocally critique those institutions. Which is really kind of funny, in a way. My biggest complaint about the NSA is that it’s a blatant misuse of government resources (read: money) that is attempting to entrench itself as another “indispensable” arm of America’s anti-terror, homeland security obsession, essentially scaring congress and the executive branch into funding its folly. That really does bug me, as does the fact that the NSA is a total “black budget” program and essentially immune from public critique in regard to spending. We do not need details of exactly what the NSA spends money on, but knowing how much money the US puts into the agency at large is clearly not a matter of national security, and it should be open to criticism.

What I don’t really care about are the hilarious 1984 comparisons and fear-mongering internet privacy wackos are synthesizing out of this whole mess. America is no more a police state than it was when it was legal to have separate schools, bathrooms, and seating for people whose skin color wasn’t to your liking. Or when communism threatened the very fabric of our democracy and if you decided to protest an unjust war (Vietnam) the FBI was liable to start a file on you, let alone what authorities did to demonstrators like those at Kent State. Or when the government literally passed a bill making it a criminal offense to protest a war, say bad things about America, the flag, or the president (Sedition Act of 1918).

I am not saying no one is entitled to privacy outrage in this day and age. What I am saying is that America remains one of the nations most protective of the individual rights of its citizens (admittedly, rights of non-citizens is not one of our strong points, and that’s an issue I am deeply concerned about at times) and has one of, if not the most, defendant-friendly criminal legal systems on the face of the earth. I am not saying there are not problems with America in regard to privacy and surveillance, but I do believe that those who continue to spout rhetoric about how “the government” has “a file” on you and everyone you know and one day will use it to send you and your family to Gitmo for thinking bad things about the NSA have way too much in common with people who also think the government is conducting mind control on its citizens by spraying chemicals out the back of commercial airliners.

We’re allowed to have a middle ground. I am not required to hate and distrust anything the government says because it classified some surveillance programs. You don’t have to think the NSA is one day going to be watching every aspect of your life and is listening to your phone calls and scraping your text messages to believe that hey, maybe the NSA needs a little more oversight and a little less “collect ALL THE DATA” going on. And, admittedly, what Edward Snowden did has encouraged this conversation – not that I think he had the right to do it, especially in the way he did it (“Oh hey here are all these classified documents I stole en masse from the NSA basically indiscriminately, leak what you see fit to leak kbye”).

As a nation, we all know deep down that we cannot encourage people with access to sensitive information, now often much more centrally stored and easy to steal – given a motive – than it was 30 years ago, to leak things simply because they think they’re “wrong.” With Edward Snowden, it was an alignment of internet privacy interests and careful handling by journalists that cut the line between “hero” and “Bradley Manning round 2″ (it’s worth noting that the latter had far, far less support than Snowden publicly). There are likely many other “wrongs” committed by the US government that we don’t know about, but dumping archives of documents potentially compromising legitimate and supportable state secrets is not the way to remedy them. I’m not saying I have the answer for what is – I just know that the way Edward Snowden didn’t wasn’t right.

That’s all.