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.

Juice up: dealing with outlets and electricity in Europe (or elsewhere) as an American

I’ve been over to Europe several times, but until recently, I hadn’t really bothered to educate myself about the whole “using electrical gadgets in a different country” thing, and tended to just borrow a small transformer (down-voltage converter) from a family member when I traveled, or use someone else’s on the trip. This is because, to me, European electricity basically seemed like witchcraft and figuring out what would work and what wouldn’t constantly resulted in conflicting answers from whomever I bothered to prod on the issue.

As you might imagine, this was annoying. Some people would tell me I needed a converter, some said I just needed a plug adapter, some said I could get a power strip and an adapter, and some said a power strip and converter. If you search the web, you will find equally confusing and conflicting pieces of information out there on this topic. This is apparently because what was true about bringing American electronics to Europe 20-odd years ago is no longer generally true today, but people still are providing advice based on the old understanding of Europe / American electrical compatibility.

Let me see if I can break this down a bit more simply (granted, my explanation is probably not going to be completely complete, nor technically detailed).

Smartphone / tablet chargers, laptop chargers, camera chargers, electric razor chargers, and basically <insert fairly modern gadget charger here> generally do not need power converters. In fact, you can potentially damage these gadgets by using a down-voltage converter.

Simpler appliances like hair dryers, irons, speakers, and lamps, however, usually do. The rule of thumb I’ve found is generally this: if it’s digital, it probably works without a electricity converter. If it’s analog (like the stuff I just listed), it probably doesn’t unless it explicitly says otherwise on the box / cord.

This is because as time has gone on, most gadgets and modern, digital-ish appliances have adopted standardized hardware as part of their charging interfaces. It’s generally much easier from a logistical standpoint to build a charging interface that accepts a wide range of voltages than to tailor them to individual markets, unless absolutely necessary, or unprofitable. Laptops, smartphones, and tablets are almost universally capable of accepting voltage in the range of 100-240v, meaning they can be powered by almost any outlet in the world using only the appropriate wall outlet adapter.

The other thing worth knowing? There are power strips out there capable of accepting 100-240v (aka universal voltage), too. The best-reviewed one, as far as I can tell, is the Monster Outlets To Go line – some of them even have USB ports. While it doesn’t say so on the strip or the box, Monster does say in its FAQ that the OTG line is capable of accepting a wide range of electrical inputs, and they’re presumably rated 100-240v. Just attach the appropriate adapter to the wall plug and you’re set to go pretty much anywhere. Then, you don’t need adapters for your individual gadget chargers.

Image

As far as which gadgets are compatible, just check the charging brick for the respective device. If it says 100-240v anywhere on it, it should work just fine without a converter. And like I said, most smartphones, tablets, and laptops produced today generally are universal voltage-friendly.

The Outlets To Go strip can handle quite a lot of draw, too, so it’s unlikely you’ll need more than one to power all your stuff. I took one to Germany with me and it worked like a champ. There are other 100-240v-friendly multi-outlet solutions out there, though, so it’s definitely worth doing your homework.

Finally, don’t use a power converter “just to be safe.” Travel converters are finicky, cheap, makeshift tools that were never designed to provide precise, consistent, low-current electricity to sensitive electronics. It may be fine, but it may also cook your charger, or worse, your phone / laptop / tablet. Most converters don’t even work with cheap 120v power strips in the first place (I’ve blown enough breakers to know). Power converters should be reserved for things like hair dryers or other high-draw, low-tech analog appliances that simply won’t accept 240v.

You will probably still read conflicting information out there on the web about converters and adapters, but as I said, much of that seems to be based on an outdated understanding of the electronics we travel with. Get an adapter and a universal voltage compliant power strip, and read the labels on your various chargers. If you find one that only works with US voltage (110/120), then it’s time to get a converter, or better yet, think about replacing that gadget. After all, your life will only be easier for it.

Walk it off: how I sort of accidentally fell in love with walking.

I know, walking – it’s been done. Old people can’t get enough of it. They wear New Balance sneakers and high-vis vests and scowl disapprovingly at scantily-clad runners oblivious to the world courtesy of their sporty earbuds. In my quest to lose weight (and save a bit of money), though, I’ve started walking more. A lot more.

I’ve thought about joining a gym for a while, but after taking a tour of the one reasonably-priced local facility I was interested in, I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about this option anymore. The employees really, really wanted to help. And that’s cool, but I feel like personal trainers / fitness enthusiasts have a hard time understanding what it’s like coming out of three years of an inactive lifestyle and want to help too much. I was told I’d be wasting my money just coming in for cardio machines, and should do aerobic classes, weight training, nutrition plan, etc. I like to think I’m realistic when I say that’s not going to happen for me. Not at the point I’m at, not yet. It’s too much. I’d give up, and I’d feel inadequate if I was told my workout routine wasn’t taking full advantage of my membership. So I passed on that route, and saved my $40 / month.

I pondered my other options. Buy a used road bike? Kind of expensive and, frankly, a little dangerous anywhere in Los Angeles. A home cardio machine was well out of my budget, even used. Hiking is a bit daunting, and I’ve never felt comfortable doing it by myself in rattlesnake country. So what’s cheap, healthy, and practical? Well, as it turns out, walking.

I’d started walking before back in March, but at the time I was having radicular nerve pain in my calves from a car accident I had in January this year. It made all but an easy pace on a flat surface very difficult, and painful, to maintain. I’ve since recovered quite a bit from that injury, and it no longer bothers me.

Three weeks ago I started again. My plan was simple: the carrot on a stick approach. Every day after work, I walked to get dinner. A salad at Chipotle (no rice, dressing, or guacamole, regular portions). It’d easily save me a dollar in gas every day (really more than that, because I’d drive further to get food), and I’d work up an appetite by the time I got there.

I started off slowly, and without any fitness trackers. Just me, my triple-seal earbuds, and a Pandora classic jazz station.

The more I walked, the more I liked it, though. It wasn’t super easy at first (it still isn’t, as I push my pace upward), but it had an less expected benefit: it relieved stress. The more I pushed myself, the more my anxieties and worries sort of melted away. I think that’s kind of what’s getting me hooked on it – some part of my brain is nudging me and saying “hey, this makes you feel better, do it!” So I’ve kept doing it. And the more I do it, the easier it becomes to stay committed to the pattern.

I walk 3 (or more) miles a day, five days a week, split into 1.5 mile intervals with a half hour break in between for dinner. I began using fitness tracker apps a couple weeks back, and have been watching my pace get better and better. I think I started at 22 minutes / mile, but as happens when you start focusing on improving a number, that number got better. Within a couple days it was 20 minutes. Now, I’m down to 18 minutes a mile. I want to break 15. And at that point, I want to start jogging in intervals (trust me, I cannot jog after three years of sedentary lifestyle and weight gain. I tried – once, last week. It did not go well).

But the really great thing? I’ve discovered walking is kind of awesome. And not simply the act, but the entire philosophy of setting aside an hour and a half (or thereabouts) of my day every day to do this one thing that improves my health, and that just flat out makes me feel better.

Apps that are glorified mobile web page wrappers are evil incarnate.

AT&T just updated its myAT&T account management app with a brand-new UI! And by “brand-new UI”, I mean a brand-new Android app wrapped around its god-awful mobile web page. The mobile web page has been redesigned, too, and now shows your data usage on the front splash of the app, as opposed to being buried in a secondary page.

Image

This is undoubtedly my biggest pet peeve on Android, or really, any mobile OS. It’s lazy. It’s bad UX. You can see just how lazy AT&T is quite easily – try to swipe left or right on the main page and you’ll see the borders of the viewable area move around slightly. It’s sort of like walking into one of those Hollywood sets where all the buildings are just plywood facades and the skyline is painted on a wall. It’s not a real app, AT&T just wants you to think it’s a real app. 

Now, if AT&T’s mobile web page was actually really good, or pretty, maybe i could understand this. But it isn’t. It’s slow, has ugly animations, and the navigation layout is horrendous. And seriously, a sidebar inside the app that navigates around the mobile web page as a redundant alternative to the shortcuts displayed on the page? AT&T, what are you smoking?

I’m not saying AT&T is the only one guilty of this, far from it. And I’m not saying there is no reason to use a mobile web page as part of an app’s UI. There can be legitimate reasons in some cases. I’m struggling to think of them, but I’m sure they’re out. I hope.

But this. This is bad. This is annoying. It’s lazy. Stop it.

It’s time to let the “$300 Moto X” go.

It seems the Android / tech community at large have recently become obsessed with the idea of the “cheap, good phone.” Every time a new carrier announces unlocked Moto X pricing, it’s news.

Google did a cheap, good phone with the Nexus 4, so why can’t someone else? And Motorola [Mobility] is now a Google company, so shouldn’t they follow along with Google’s revolutionary business model?

The thing is, Google’s pricing of the Nexus 4 isn’t a business model for a phone, it’s a business model for a platform. Just like carriers get you to sign up for 2 years of service in exchange for a low price on your phone, Google is giving you a low price on its phone to get you hooked on Google services and the Android platform at large. How well the Nexus program is accomplishing that in the grand scheme is a bit harder to tell, but the point is this: Google doesn’t make money selling you a phone. Google makes money on what you do with it. A carrier does not make money selling you a phone. A carrier makes money selling you the service that phone requires. Neither Google nor carriers are in the business of selling phones. They’re in the business of selling (I use that term loosely with Google) attached services and products.

This model cannot work for Motorola. Motorola does not sell a platform. Motorola sells hardware, and it derives profit from selling that hardware to consumers, or more accurately, carriers and retailers. If you want to be a successful OEM in the US, you have to play ball with the carrier / OEM relationship. Even Apple does this. It’s how you make money.

You cannot maintain a multi-billion dollar business on razor-thin (har har) margins in a highly competitive, volatile, and ever-evolving market. If I am Joe Consumer, how interested am I in the proposition of – in my mind – walking into a store and paying more for something that isn’t as good (a $300 phone) as something that would cost less and is better (a $200 subsidized phone)?

The idea would undoubtedly resonate with some consumers. But not enough. Not enough to make a multi-billion dollar business of it. Not enough to spend tens of millions of dollars on product R&D.

But what about those $150 Chinese quad-core 1080p phones? Clearly it’s possible. Well, yes, in China it’s possible. Where you aren’t paying hefty import and shipping costs or taxes, where there really is no support structure, few if any OTA updates, and quality control / component sourcing can be most optimistically described as “questionable.”

Maybe one day a $300 unlocked phone really will be something Motorola can pursue profitably. Maybe. Right now, it isn’t going to happen. Not in the US. But what about the Moto X that’s going to be offered outside the US? Why not bring that here? Well, again, because business model. A lower-end phone wouldn’t be as competitive in the US, and it would be less profitable. A cheaper, less powerful Moto X only makes sense outside the US because that is what Motorola is competing with outside the US – other cheap, not very good phones. There’s a low-end phone market in the US, for sure, but the bulk of the profit – and attention – is at the high end of the price spectrum for the time being.

While I wouldn’t buy a Moto X, I applaud Motorola’s current direction. They really seem to have put a great deal of focus into restructuring their business and products in a way that focuses on the company’s strengths; namely, R&D and branding.

Think of it this way – if it were your business, what would you do? I look at Motorola’s trajectory and see a risky, but highly logical, attempt to reinvigorate a company that was falling by the wayside. It may work, it may not. They cut all the crappy smartphones, they kept the highly valuable and successful DROID VZW partnership (killing it would have been monumentally stupid – it’s a moneymaker), and they made one really good phone platform without betting the house on anything too radical (like crazy pricing).

Baby steps. Today, Motorola is focusing on building an image, regaining consumer confidence with quality products, and cementing a position with carriers as a reliable OEM partner that can bring in customers. Let the company get on its feet before you declare it dead.