Why does Apple brag about the Watch’s accurate timekeeping? 

Are atomic physicists timing their experiments using the Watch? Do NASA engineers schedule booster ignition using Siri?

Apple’s marketing copy for the Watch:

High-quality watches have long been defined by their ability to keep unfailingly accurate time, and Apple Watch is no exception. In conjunction with your iPhone, it keeps time to within 50 milliseconds of the definitive global time standard.

Since the Watch was announced in 2014, Apple has touted its extraordinary accuracy. I’ve never understood why I should be impressed by this.

For over a century, quartz oscillators have made it possible to build incredibly precise timepieces. As early as 1929, the federal Bureau of Standards relied on quartz clocks that drifted from actual time by less than half a second per month. These days, even a $10 Casio wristwatch from your local gas station likely loses less than a minute per year—accurate enough for nearly every practical use.

Digital devices—including laptops and phones—also rely on quartz-based oscillators. But they have an additional advantage over “dumb” timepieces: an Internet connection. Using the Network Time Protocol (NTP), our devices synchronize themselves against precisely-tuned time servers on the Internet. NTP keeps our computer clocks within a few dozen milliseconds of “actual” time; that probably explains Apple’s “50 millisecond” figure in the marketing quoted above.

Now, Apple actually claims that the Watch is “far more accurate as a timekeeping device than the iPhone.” This makes little sense to me, since both devices presumably depend on the same NTP servers.

And even if the Watch were somehow slightly more accurate than my other digital devices… should I care? Do average consumers even need the exact time, down to fractions of a second? Are atomic physicists timing their experiments using the Watch? Do NASA engineers schedule booster ignition using Siri? Do international secret agents synchronize their capers by watching Mickey Mouse’s hand? I honestly can’t imagine a realistic scenario where even a few seconds’ aberration makes a difference in everyday life.

‘For the New Year, Let’s Resolve to Improve Our Tech Literacy’ 

Tech-illiterate leaders cannot govern effectively. But tech literacy also helps us to live well.

Farhad Manjoo, writing about tech illiteracy in the New York Times:

This year we began to see the creaking evidence of our collective ignorance about the digital age. The sorry showing ought to prompt a resolution for the new year. In 2016, let’s begin to appreciate the dominant role technology now plays in shaping the world, and let’s strive to get smarter about how we think about its effects.”

The article chides those leaders and institutions whose tech naïveté made them look foolish this past year. And Manjoo is right; tech now figures prominently into many headline news stories. It’s no longer possible to govern or lead effectively without understanding technology’s impact.


Tech dominates the news because tech now dominates our lives. Our computers fit in our pockets, and they accompany us from dawn to dark (then on through the night). We rely on cloud services for everything from settling bar bets to storing baby photos to driving safely through new locales. Tech is now the air we breathe, the sea we swim through, and the language we speak.

Yes, tech-literate leaders govern more effectively. But tech literacy also helps us to live well. On the one hand, tech can streamline our lives—making time for those things that truly matter: self-awareness, family, relationships, and community.

Conversely, when used thoughtlessly, tech can amplify bad habits and empower self-destructive behavior. Our gadgets isolate us from each other. Online anonymity brings out our gross, secret hatreds. Instant access to information devalues knowledge and tempts us to stop learning.

Yes, as Manjoo implores, we should commit to tech literacy in this new year. And that resolution certainly means we should understand how technology impacts government and society. But we must also think critically about tech at the scale of our day-to-day.[1]


  1. I’m hoping that this blog can explore such issues in 2016.

    Who needs another speeds-and-feeds rundown or list of app features? There are a thousand other writers who handle those topics better than I ever could. To be honest, I’m a rank amateur in traditional tech fields. I know enough JavaScript to be dangerous, but my code is cludgy. I appreciate good typography and can do basic work in the Adobe suite, but that hardly makes me a world-class designer. I’m familiar with some marketing principles, but I’ll never become a titan of business.

    So what can I contribute to the conversation? My educational work in biblical criticism familiarized me with hermeneutics, semiotics and interpretation. I’d like to point these skills at tech and see what happens.  ↩

An Apple “exposé” that “exposes” nothing 

I sometimes forget that “normals” haven’t heard of Apple’s foreign tax shelters or Chinese labor issues before.

If you haven’t yet watched 60 Minutes’s Apple-focused episode, don’t expect any dramatic revelations. The program had very little chance of prying loose a previously-undiscovered nugget. The company’s execs are too well-rehearsed, network TV is too mainstream, and the interviewer (the venerable Charlie Rose) isn’t tech-savvy enough.

But that’s okay. As a nerd who follows this stuff, I sometimes forget that most “normals” don’t already know about Apple’s foreign tax shelters or Chinese labor issues. My wife watched the 60 Minutes report with me; she was (rightly) horrified to learn how Foxconn erected suicide-prevention nets outside its assembly factories.

‘The rise and fall of Kinect’ 

Since its promising early days, the Xbox Kinect has lost all momentum.

Edwin Evans-Thirlwell, writing for Eurogamer:

[Kinect] had become central to Microsoft’s efforts to transform Xbox into an all-singing, all-dancing delivery vector for every kind of media, backed by a futuristic UI, with video games merely part of the package… But when the dream of an all-in-One tomorrow fell over — demolished by Sony’s focus on specs and gaming applications with the substantially cheaper PlayStation 4 — Kinect went down with it.

Fascinating oral history of the Xbox Kinect, which set a Guinness world record as the “fastest-selling consumer electronics device” back in 2011.

I’ve skipped the last two console generations, but Microsoft’s motion-detecting peripheral nearly sold me on the Xbox—in a way that first-person shooters never could. Even my wife, who generally ignores video games, was impressed by Dance Central.

Since those promising early days, the Kinect has lost all momentum. Lackluster console sales forced Microsoft to drop the peripheral from its hardware bundles. That move may have saved the Xbox One, but it also dried up the market for Kinect-targeted games.

That limited selection makes it unlikely that I’ll purchase a game console anytime soon.[1]


  1. It doesn’t help that we haven’t yet upgraded to an HDTV. The latest-gen consoles require a high-res display, which would add hundreds to our purchase price.  ↩

How did a month of daily posts affect my blog traffic?

A month-long blogging experiment comes to a disappointing close.

Just before Thanksgiving, I made several “creative resolutions”: I would blog every day, no matter what, and I would avoid checking my blog analytics until Christmas. I was determined just to write—without getting sidetracked by page views, followers, or blog traffic.

I’m happy to report that I accomplished the writing goal. I’ve posted something to this blog for 38 consecutive days—easily my longest streak ever. Every morning, I wake at 4:30, plop myself down on the couch, and hammer the keys until I finish a post (or until I run out of time and publish anyways). I’m more proud of some posts than others, but I’ve at least established some consistency.

I nearly kept my second resolution. I had originally planned to wait until Christmas Day to check my blog analytics. But some creative reflection yesterday made me curious enough to peek at the numbers. I expected a marked increase in readership, after a month’s worth of content. The reality wasn’t quite so rosy:

Pageviews
My blog’s pageviews since November 16.

This pageview data seems so inconsistent that I hesitate to draw any conclusions. (The session and user counts show similar contours.)

Looking at the acquisition numbers, most of my traffic comes from Facebook. Yet there’s little sign of progress on that front; I’ve earned just three Facebook page likes since my blogging stint started on November 16:

Page likes
My Facebook page likes since November 16.

There’s a clearer spike in my Twitter follower count:

Followers
My Twitter followers since November 16.

But twenty followers hardly constitutes a major shift. Plus, the uptick has stalled—my follower count has flatlined since the start of December.


I find these graphs discouraging. I didn’t expect a “hockey-stick” trend, but I hoped for modest, measurable progress. I wanted some reward for my diligence—some motivation to write in the upcoming year. Instead, these middling numbers tempt to me to abandon my blog (again). Confession: I nearly skipped writing this morning for the first time in a month.

Understand; I’m still determined to continue making something on the Internet. But between family commitments and my full-time job, I have very limited spare time. I’d rather not spend those precious hours writing posts that no one will read—especially since I’ve sacrificed other hobbies to maintain my writing momentum. For example, I’ve exercised far less often this past month than I’d like.

Maybe I need to make a course correction here. Should I narrow my blogging niche? Rededicate myself to self-promotion? Break out my blog into its own brand? Or should I stop blogging for a while and adopt a different medium? Is 2016 the year that I finally try my hand at podcasting?

One thing’s clear: my consecutive-day streak will likely fall victim to a TV-and-Christmas-cookie bender this week. And that’s okay; vacations should be spent relaxing and recharging. The holiday break provides a good opportunity to reflect and retool for the new year.

Besides, after a month of waking before 5 AM to write, I’m exhausted.

‘Land Before Time XIV’: perpetually prepubescent dinosaurs 

The Land Before Time franchise has survived for nearly thirty years.

Ten points for Gryffindor if you knew that The Land Before Time had spawned thirteen direct-to-video sequels. The latest release, “The Land Before Time XIV: Journey of the Brave,” continues the series after a nine-year hiatus.

Somehow, this property has survived without a reboot for nearly thirty years. The original film’s creative team (including director Don Bluth, executive producer Steven Spielberg, and composer James Horner) abandoned the franchise decades ago. Since then, no fewer than nine separate voice actors have played the lead character, Littlefoot the Longneck.

I’d be fascinated to learn more about these movies’ ongoing production. How do the economics work? Was the original movie so iconic that even the diminishing returns of watered-down sequels can justify the production costs? Or is there some minimum threshold that a cute dinosaur movie is guaranteed to haul in?

I’m also curious who works on these movies. Are these films staffed by leftovers from the heyday of hand-drawn animation? Or by eager young film students, determined to get their feet in the show business door? What’s it like to tell friends and family that you’ve been hired to mix sound for Land Before Time XIII?

Finally, who watches these films? Kids are the primary target audience, but do nostalgic parents keep the franchise afloat? Or is there a “brony” factor at play here? Is there a contingent of adults who follow Land Before Time like the bronies track My Little Pony? That seems possible; there is a YouTube channel dedicated entirely to speculation and “hot news” about the Land Before Time franchise. Here’s a recent video in which a grown man spends nearly ten minutes dissecting the Wal-Mart product page for Land Before Time XIV. Yes, really.


To be fair, I also loved Don Bluth’s original feature film when it hit theaters. But I was seven years old then. Now, at thirty-four, I doubt I could make it through Land Before Time XIV without clawing out my eyes. Please, never tell my daughter that these movies exist.

The problem with the rumored 4-inch iPhone 

An “iPhone 6c” would put small-phone aficionados in a difficult place: caught between performance and pocketability.

Mark Gurman, writing for 9to5Mac about the rumored 4-inch iPhone Apple may release in 2016:

Some Apple users have explained that they prefer the smaller size to the 4.7-inch iPhone 6s and 5.5 [inch] iPhone 6s Plus displays as it is easier to use with one hand. The device’s technical specifications will fall somewhere between the iPhone 5s and iPhone 6s.

Count me among the “some Apple users” who prefer a smaller phone. After nearly 18 months of use, my iPhone 6 still feels awkward. When I’m holding the handset with one hand, I can’t reach software buttons placed in the screen’s upper corners. My wife (who has smaller hands) finds the 6 even more frustrating. Not only can’t she navigate one-handed, but the phone won’t fit into the miniature pockets sewn into most women’s clothing. We both pine for a more pocketable, more “thumbable” phone.

So I’m glad Apple plans to release an updated 4-inch unit. But I’m disappointed that this “iPhone 6c” won’t match the “big boy” phones, spec for spec. The feature differences put small-phone aficionados in a difficult place: caught between performance and pocketability.[1]

In my ideal world, the three phones would cycle in lockstep. Every year, Apple would release three iPhone models: the 4-inch, the 4.7inch, and the 5.5 inch. All three phones would boast identical specifications (other than screen size). You can’t call the smallest phone the “Minus” (that sounds pejorative), so maybe you’d brand it the “iPhone Mini.”

Alas, this dream scenario won’t come to pass. Based on the rumors, the 4-inch phone in Apple’s pipeline will lag behind its bigger brethren. And, considered practically, this makes sense. A larger phone chassis provides extra volume. Extra volume means a larger battery. A larger battery can run more power-hungry hardware—things like extra RAM and faster-clocked processors.


  1. Customers face a similar conundrum when choosing between the standard iPhone size and the “Plus” size. If the iPhone 7 Plus retains its hardware advantages over the standard 7 (i.e. hardware OIS, battery life, and/or the rumored RAM bump), it’ll be impossible to pick a phone based on size preference alone.  ↩

What worked (and what didn’t) in ‘The Force Awakens’

It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough.

Yesterday, I complained about the convenient coincidences that litter J.J. Abrams’ Force Awakens film. In hindsight, I probably should have first explained how much I enjoyed the movie, then moved on to pedantic quibbles.

Better late than never, right? Here are the things I liked—and a few more I didn’t—about the latest Star Wars film. Major spoilers below!

The good

  • The Force Awakens doesn’t over-explain every little detail. We’re told that the village elder who hands over the Skywalker map is an “old friend” —but we don’t know anything else about him. Similarly, Han Solo references new misadventures with Chewbecca, but these are left to audience’s imagination. We learn that Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Preparatory School crashed and burned, but we don’t know why or how. Suddenly, the Star Wars universe feels big again—as if the franchise has many stories left to tell.
  • When Stormtrooper FN–2187 (later “Finn”) attends to a fallen comrade on Jakku, his helmet gets smeared with a bloody handprint. That’s clever filmmaking; the mark makes it easy for us to the audience to distinguish him from his white-clad colleagues.
  • I love BB–8. That droid has more personality than most human characters from the prequels.
  • Rey is fantastic. She has an interesting backstory, she’s capable, she’s vulnerable, and she’s playful. I love how the film subverts the traditional “damsel in distress” trope; Rey doesn’t really need Finn to rescue her, and she resents his attempt to play her “knight in shining armor.” I can’t wait until my daughter’s old enough to watch Awakens; I’m glad to have mainstream entertainment that I don’t have to revise for her sake.
  • The movie covers a lot of ground, but it also takes the time to tell Rey’s story properly. We understand her, because we see her life in detail. We know she’s bold, because we see her confidently exploring a cavernous wreck. We know she’s lonely, thanks to her chalk-mark calendar. We know she’s afraid that she’ll never escape Jakku, because we see her watching the elderly scavenger. He know she’s desperate, because she wolfs down her insta-bread. We know she’s got a adventurous streak, because she gazes in wonder at a departing starship. With very little dialogue, we’ve learned exactly who this character is. By the time the sequence ends, we’re fascinated and eager to see what’s next for her.
  • Kylo Ren’s a fun baddie. He may look and sound like Vader, thanks to that bizarre mask. But this character isn’t a rehash. In fact, Ren’s temper tantrums and occasional missteps make him more intriguing than Vader ever was.
  • The bickering between the imperial commander and Kylo Ren felt real to me. Ren subverts the First Order’s clean chain of command in an unpredictable, interesting way.
  • There’s real camaraderie between Finn and Poe Dameron. Their excited banter in the TIE fighter made me grin.
  • Han Solo worked well as this movie’s “Obi-Wan.” After his lackluster recent career, Harrison Ford deserves credit. So do the film’s writers; they made us care about Han Solo again (after his boring Return of the Jedi sleep-walk).
  • Maz Kanata, this film’s Force guru, is the best CG character I’ve ever seen, besting both Davy Jones and Gollum. I was particularly impressed with the character’s facial expressiveness.
  • I loved that we hear Obi-Wan Kenobi’s voice during Rey’s vision. Force ghosts are speaking to her, but she’s not quite attuned enough to hear them yet.
  • Han Solo’s murder helps cement Kylo Ren as a bad guy. I despise Ren more fervently than I ever did Darth Vader or the Emperor. Yes, I’m bummed that Solo’s gone, but I’m glad he was sacrificed for a good cause: to make the new trilogy’s villain compelling.
  • I loved the movie’s last scene: the swelling orchestration of the Force theme, the dramatic reveal of Skywalker’s face, and the proffered lightsaber (a wordless invitation back to the fight). That’s how you do a cliffhanger.

The bad

  • See yesterday’s post for nitpicky gripes about the plot line.
  • Does the Republic exist simply to be destroyed by the First Order? I understand the basic conflict between the Order and the Resistance. But then there’s the Republic, which we learn has its own fleet. Why weren’t they fighting the First Order? Why leave your defense to a ragtag insurgency with no big ships? And even if the Republic had underestimated the danger posed by the First Order, why doesn’t its fleet come charging in once Starkiller Base destroys the galactic capital?
  • Snoke didn’t quite work for me. I get that he’s this film’s Palpatine—a mysterious menace who won’t show up in the flesh until later films. But I don’t understand his motivation, and he looked hokey. He reminded me of the alien from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
  • There’s too much nostalgia and fan service. For example, the Han-Leia relationship doesn’t click. Better actors might’ve redeemed the stilted dialogue, but Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford can’t quite hack it. Another sentimental misstep? Han’s familiar line aboard the freighter (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this”) felt forced.
  • The climactic lightsaber battle dragged on too long. Even the longest sword fight in Empire changed scenery once in a while—from the freezing chamber out to the dangling platform. Rey’s duel with Ren never leaves the woods.

Again, I enjoyed The Force Awakens. The film’s weaknesses don’t sink it. In fact, I’d probably rank it ahead of Episode IV—but well behind Empire Strikes Back. Like “A New Hope,” Episode VII sets the stage for later—hopefully better!—sequels.

Convenient coincidences in ‘The Force Awakens’

Plot holes in Episode VII show where the filmmakers valued nostalgia over good storytelling.

J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot leaned too heavily on unlikely coincidences. Kirk just happens to get marooned on the same moon as elder Spock. Monsters just happen to chase him straight into Spock’s cave hideout. Scotty just happens to be stationed a few miles away.[4]

Abrams’ latest sci-fi epic, The Force Awakens, features several similar plot holes:

WARNING: spoilers below!

  • BB–8 somehow rolls its way to Rey. What are the chances that the droid who knows Luke Skywalker’s location runs into the Force-sensitive girl with apparent ties to the Skywalker clan?[1]
  • Finn stumbles onto Rey and BB–8. Improbably, the fugitive stormtrooper happens upon the fugitive droid and its new master. Jakku must be a very small planet.
  • The Millennium Falcon is rusting away on Jakku—of all the planets in the galaxy. I actually liked the Falcon’s reveal, but doesn’t it seem improbable that the same ship that ferried Luke from Tatooine has been waiting around to carry Rey away from Jakku?
  • Maz Kanata, this film’s Force-sensitive guru character, possesses Luke Skywalker’s old lightsaber. That’s very convenient, since it triggers Rey’s Force awakening. Kanata brushes aside Han Solo’s question about how she acquired it. But… seriously, Maz, why’s this thing in your basement?
  • Finn knows too much about Starkiller Base—more than his low-level First Order position would explain. A stormtrooper peon knows the superweapon’s key weakness?[2]
  • R2-D2 reactivates at just the right time. Why did the trash-can droid pick that opportune moment to wake up? Talk about Deus ex Machina.[3]
  • In general, what are the chances that the events depicted in The Force Awakens would mirror the original trilogy so slavishly? A twenty-year-old orphan on a desert planet finds a droid sought by both the evil imperials and a noble resistance. The droid carries information that could sway the balance of power in the galaxy. Our hero teams up with a roguish outlaw and an older mentor aboard the Millenium Falcon. The mentor character tells stories about the Force and legendary Jedi. A short alien guru guides our hero toward the Light side of the Force. The insurgency destroys a gigantic space weapon just before it blasts them out of existence. Welcome to Deja Vu: the Movie.

    “It’s like poetry. It rhymes.”


Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed The Force Awakens. But these plot seams show where the filmmakers valued nostalgia over storytelling. The writers wanted Han Solo to find our young heroes, so they placed the Falcon (which Solo could track) on Jakku. They needed Luke Skywalker for the cliffhanger, so R2-D2 waits until the denouement to power up.

These twists may cater to aging fans’ sentimentality, but they make little sense in context.


  1. The movie doesn’t actually make Rey’s identify clear. It’s still theoretically possible that she’s just a random orphan, who’s not connected with the Skywalkers at all. But then why even mention the “family” she’s waiting for on Jakku? And why does Anakin’s old lightsaber trigger her Force vision?  ↩
  2. Or was Finn bluffing so that he could rescue Rey?  ↩
  3. One potential explanation: R2-D2 can use the Force. That’s an intriguing theory, but it’s never actually been confirmed by the movies.  ↩
  4. I’ve heard these happy accidents explained away as “fate”—i.e. the universe “course-corrects” and finds a way to bind these characters’ destinies together. Bullshit; that’s screenwriter-speak for “We couldn’t think of a good story reason.”

Unhappy endings for the child actor who played Anakin Skywalker 

The media has exploited Jake Lloyd for most of his life.

Jake Lloyd, who played Anakin in The Phantom Menace, interviewed as a grown man in 2009:

This video makes me cringe. I’m not sure exactly why Lloyd is so bitter, but he clearly can’t disguise his disgust. It doesn’t help that the delighted “reporter” goads him on so shamelessly. Seriously, who ends an interview with this?

Before we let you go, child stars get a bit of a reputation; they turn to, y’know, a life of drugs, so may the Force be with you.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised; the media has exploited Jake Lloyd for most of his life. Back in 1999, Jake navigated the press junkets as well as any kid his age could. But if it’s hard for adult actors to navigate that world, it’s impossible for a ten-year-old boy. Watch this awkward interview, inexplicably conducted on a pastel-colored bed. When Jake voices the vain hope that he’ll be cast in Episode II, the crew chackles from behind the camera. Jake looks instantly crestfallen.

Throughout the ensuing exchange, Jake self-consciously projects a precocious, cute persona, but the performance feels off—almost over-rehearsed. In retrospect, a child that young should never have been asked to do dozens of interviews a day for weeks on end.

For a more recent example of exploitation, take this TMZ piece from last summer. The host can hardly contain his glee as he relays news of Lloyd’s arrest for reckless driving. Who knew you could fit so many podracing references into a two-minute video?

I can muster far more sympathy for Jake Lloyd than for Alec Guinness (who also came to resent his Star Wars fame). When Lloyd was cast, he couldn’t possibly have understood how the role would “dominate his destiny”. Like many child actors, he was ill-equipped to handle the spotlight’s glare.

Priming your ears

Pre-hearing the film score enhances—rather than spoils—the theater experience.

John WilliamsForce Awakens soundtrack dropped on Spotify last night. I’m listening to it as I type—even though I haven’t yet seen the movie.

Does hearing the soundtrack count as a spoiler? It depends who you ask. For me, the music, disconnected from imagery and dialogue, gives away little about a movie’s plot. Yes, track titles can be dangerous, but composers have grown more cautious since the “Qui-Gon’s Funeral” debacle of Episode I.

So, no, soundtracks typically won’t spoil movies.[1] In fact, pre-hearing the score enhances the initial viewing experience. After all, it’s hard to appreciate instrumental music the first time through. Unfamiliarity holds you at arm’s length from the drama. Your subconscious brain whirs away, dissecting the new music instead of enjoying it.

With “primed ears”, you more easily link leitmotifs to character beats. Melodies hook your heart in a way they can’t the first time around. You hear the tension rising; you can feel the plot revelations as they land.


So… what’s my verdict on the Force Awakens soundtrack? It was fun to hear Williams rearrange the classic trilogy’s themes. But, if I’m honest, none of the new music really captured my imagination.

I blame my virgin ears. The next time I hear these melodies—in a darkened theater, popcorn at hand—I’ll be ready to really listen.


  1. A caveat here: you can be too familiar with a soundtrack. I know many John Williams scores (e.g. Raiders of the Lost Ark) by heart—measure by measure, modulation by modulation. I could tell you the exact moment when the hero’s theme gives way to the villain’s sinister melody. That knowledge would spoil a movie (if you hadn’t already seen it).  ↩