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, 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 $270, 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.

A fair-weather audiophile’s response to Pono

If you’ve not heard of Pono by now, you either aren’t much into the audio scene, don’t pay attention to Kickstarter all that often, or are not a Neil Young fanboy. This is all very understandable.

The tl;dr is it’s a portable mid-to-high-end ($400) headphone DAC/amp combo with storage and a music playback interface that’s being marketed alongside FLAC-format songs to be sold at various resolutions through a Pono-branded storefront. Woo summary.

The Kickstarter ends in a few hours and is at over $6 million. Yes, audiophiles / Neil Young fans are a bit crazy.

First things first: it is very easy to call anything in the audiophile world snake oil. Because a lot of it is. I get really tired of hearing about how vinyl is better than CD, 24/192 sounds better than 16/44.1, and FLAC sounds better than 320Kbps MP3. None of these statements hold any objective water. All the evidence is 100% anecdotal, and I don’t care what “your ears,” your uncle’s ears, or Neil Young’s ears hear.

This is the part of Pono I would call, to be frank, bullshit. Because it is. FLAC is not magical unicorn juice for your ears, nor is a high sampling rate or bit depth.

The part of Pono that is legitimate, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the device itself. Part of me does hope that the idea catches on, even if it means some of the late-night-informercial crap about FLAC and “digital lossless quality” ends up riding in on its coattails.

The thing is, most people today have never heard their music through anything better-sounding than their iPhone. The iPhone, as smartphones go, does have a very good DAC / amp combo (if this terminology is unfamiliar, Google it, because the explanation would be unnecessarily long here), better than what you’ll see on pretty much any Android device. Still, the nature of smartphone / tablet SoC design pretty much ensures that, for now, real good DACs and amps need, if in the everyday sense just a little, more physical space.

This is where Pono comes in – this quirky triangular prism has the necessary headroom and area to house and isolate a decent digital to analog converter (DAC) and amplifier. You would be surprised what a difference in quality of audio this can allow. Pono seems to be working with a very reputable name in the audio business on this (Ayre Acoustics), and at this point I’m fairly confident that, from an audio quality standpoint, they’re going to have a very good product. I can’t know for sure, of course, but hear me out.

My strong inclination is that the jump in quality from iPhone to Pono will, for many (if not most) people, be very easy to hear. Like removing a fog from their music. If you’ve always used on-board audio on your PC / laptop or a smartphone / tablet for music, you would be genuinely surprised what a difference dedicated hardware can do even for a ‘lowly’ 128Kbps MP3. This is what I think Pono has the potential to do – to introduce the concept of quality listening to a wider audience. Who knows, it may even work.

Now all we need to do is convince people that their iPhone EarPods are going to make them deaf and give them cancer and that they should spend $30 on some headphones that aren’t basically like putting an industrial trash compactor in your ear.

Time Warner Cable and Comcast merging is bad, period – consumers should fight it viciously.

Imagine one day you woke up to the news that one company controlled essentially 70% of the access to electricity production in the United States. Or gasoline refinement. Or wireless phone service.

Comcast buying Time Warner is like that, but the internet. And TV. And make no mistake – the internet is as much an economic necessity as the gas in your car, or the electricity in your home. This country established over a century ago that anti-competitive monopolies, whether in-effect or actual, are generally not in the interest of consumers – especially when those monopolies are on markets we all essentially have to participate in as consumers.

“The purpose of the [Sherman] Act is not to protect businesses from the working of the market; it is to protect the public from the failure of the market. The law directs itself not against conduct which is competitive, even severely so, but against conduct which unfairly tends to destroy competition itself.”

Those words, in reference to the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, were written by the US Supreme Court in 1993. The spirit of that act holds as true today as it did 134 years ago. Cable companies never got the memo.

In the US, we have broken monopolies of the phone lines, the oil business, and even the photography industry. If the Comcast-Time Warner merger is not stopped, we will face a monopoly of television and landline internet.

Combined, TWComcast would be accessible to over 70% of the US TV and broadband subscriber base – not one, but two massive industries. General consensus at this point seems to be that the DoJ and FCC will likely approve the deal, because the merger will not have an immediately anti-competitive effect. The logic goes that, because Time Warner and Comcast have carefully gerrymandered their respective regions of control in the US, the tiny amount of service overlap between the two means they don’t actually compete. So, the thinking from there is: how can two companies who don’t even compete conduct a merger that is “anti-competitive”?

I would pose the following question in response: how are two companies who actively discourage competition (by definition, an anti-competitive practice) going to merge in a way that does not continue to discourage competition? It is fucking absurd to me that anyone could possibly assert with a straight face that TWComcast would show restraint in its tyrannical control of nearly every major broadband and TV market in the United States. Once Comcast has Time Warner, its only focus will be on that remaining 30%, and dominating it. In the short term, this will probably be a plus for consumers, because it will actually create some competition – TWComcast would go on a prolonged promotional blitzkrieg in markets where Verizon, AT&T, Cox, Charter, or a number of other, smaller providers dominate. Those smaller providers would respond in kind – everybody wins! Lower prices, faster internet, more free DVRs! Until the day comes where, inevitably, TWComcast wins because they’re the only company with the capital and marketing reach to sustain a short-term loss in order to secure a long-term gain. And that’s when the squeeze starts.

But isn’t that competition? Isn’t that the kind of battle we actually kind of want? With a shortsighted view of the market, yes, it is. The cable industry is remarkably noncompetitive right now, and a TWComcast merger would jumpstart that competition – briefly. Much in the way combining Mentos and Coke will produce an exciting reaction only to unceremoniously turn into a flat puddle of brown mess, TWComcast would fizzle out smaller providers in regional markets.

Or, worse yet, TWComcast could just sit on that 70% and figure out the best way to more effectively wring dollars out of it while cutting customer service and slowing infrastructure investment. Either way, the end result is a loss for consumers.

I realize the cable / broadband market right now is far from highly competitive, but allowing the two largest players in what is already a laughably complacent industry to merge into a fifty billion dollar clusterfuck is like smearing Crisco on a Big Mac. It’s not any better, it’s just worse for you.

Guinness is good for you – why Dublin’s famously hearty dry stout is actually the best dieting beer

Down the street from me is an Irish-themed pub that I have a drink at once or twice a week. And every other or week or so, almost without fail, I will overhear a comment about Guinness beer.

I love Guinness – I think it’s a beer lover’s sort of ‘kick back and watch the game on Sunday’ kind of beer. It goes great with potatoes prepared in just about any way, deep-fried snacks, or even a burger or sausage fresh off the grill. That is to say, unsurprisingly, Guinness tends to pair well with white, starchy carbs and red meats. That’s because, particularly as Americans, we associate Guinness with hearty, filling foods. Guinness is hearty and filling, after all. Isn’t it?

This is actually something of a myth, largely perpetuated by your taste buds and your brain. Working in tandem, they will readily convince you Guinness is a big, heavy beer that goes straight to your gut. One or two pints is more than enough for most people before they feel as though they’re going to burst at the seams. Now, I’m not a food scientist, a chemist, or a neuroscientist. I can’t tell you exactly why Guinness tends to evoke these feelings, but I can give you a pretty good layman’s flyover, I think.

First, there’s the taste. What does Guinness taste like? Well, like most dry stouts, it tastes like burnt malt to a degree. Malt is short for malted barley, and it’s what can give a beer a “toasty,” “nutty,” or “bready” flavor profile if we’re talking about something like a classic British old ale, or a full-bodied German Märzen (the beer of Oktoberfest). Malt is also the primary source of carbohydrates in beer, so the more malt you taste (either breadiness or sweetness), likely the more carbs the beer has, in the form of residual sugars not metabolized by the yeast (yeast makes beer alcoholic by eating the sugars in the malt).

Guinness, though, is tricky in this regard – because the malts used to give the beer its distinct flavor and color are so dark and heavily roasted, it doesn’t take much of them to impart that very dark tint and classic stout taste. These dark malts also don’t contain much for the yeast to eat (because of the roasting), meaning they don’t leave much residual sugar behind or dramatically raise the alcohol content of the beer. In fact, most of Guinness’ alcohol and carb content probably comes from other, much milder malts that impact the flavor of the beer very little. Anyway, lets go to the numbers.

Carbohydrates per 12 fluid ounces, in grams:

  • Budweiser (classic): 10.6g
  • Heineken (classic): 9.8g
  • Blue Moon (wheat): 12.9g
  • Sierra Nevada (pale ale): 14.1g
  • Guinness: 10g

Whoah there, Guinness has fewer carbs than a can of Bud? How’s that even possible? Well, again, it’s a trick on your taste buds. Guinness has a much darker, burnt malt profile than something like Heineken or Budweiser, which are lagers. There’s also the texture – Guinness draft is almost exclusively dispensed with a nitrous oxide infusion system (I believe rarely it’s still had from a cask at the brewery in Dublin). Nitrous, as opposed to CO2 (carbonation), is a flavor muter, rather than an enhancer. You taste less of the beer, though sometimes with certain styles nitrous imparts benefits that outweigh the loss of some of those characteristics. Nitrous is what can give beers like Guinness their signature rich, creamy, dense head of foam. The entire pour of the beer also adopts some of this profile – nitrous beers feel more syrupy, thick, and dense than highly carbonated (standard draught tap) ones. And, once again, your taste buds fool you: the popping, bubbly carbonation of most beer is something we tend to associate with “lightness.” Soda, champagne, sparkling water. Does anyone generally think of those beverages as “heavy”? No – they’re light and refreshing! Guinness, by contrast, feels dense, thick, and even looks filling.

If you want to know what Guinness tastes like without the muting, heaviness-imparting nitrous infusion, go to a local BevMo or other large dedicated wine / beer/ spirits retailer (eg, not a liquor store probably) and find Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. It comes in a four-pack, and is fully carbonated. It’s a bit more intense than standard Guinness (7.6% ABV vs 4%), so it’s not like it’s the same beer, but it’s obviously a very similar recipe. It’s outstanding, by the way – if you like Guinness, you owe yourself an opportunity to try Foreign Extra (not to be confused with the standard Guinness Extra Stout, which is just OK).

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Why is Guinness a good dieting beer, then? Well, good luck finding an alcoholic drink your brain is going to interpret as rich and carby (and thus convince you that you should be feeling full) without actually being all that rich and carby. A 12 oz bottle of Guinness contains a mere 125 calories, and has just 10g of carbs. That means an American 16 oz pint is around 160 calories, and about 12.5g of carbohydrates.

As with anything, Guinness can be overdone on a diet, and you may eventually develop a tolerance for the “full” feeling as your brain catches on to the fact that Guinness isn’t actually all that carb-rich. If you’re counting calories or going low-carb, you could still end up missing your goals because of overindulgence in Ireland’s famous liquid repast. But if you were under the impression dieting meant no beer at all, let alone good beer, don’t be afraid to raise a glass or two of Guinness a few times a week – it’s certainly a healthier late-night “snack” than a Big Mac.