Gone to Texas: Day Two

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One of the few good shots I got on the trip.One of the few good shots I got on the trip.

One of the few good shots I got on the trip.

I slept like the dead after the rehearsal dinner. Between waking up super-early for my flight and the many events of the day, I was thankful for the freedom to sleep in. I woke up some time around 7 AM feeling refreshed and excited for the day ahead. After a quick shower, I queued up the poem I would be reading that afternoon and read it over and over. I knew I wouldn’t be able to memorize it in time, but being comfortable with the piece would be more than enough to make it look good. (Well, good enough.) Rain intermittently pattered on the balcony outside my room as a paced back and forth, playing with tone and emphasis.

Just after 9 am, I received a text message from Amelia, who was wishing me a good morning on her way back from the fitness center. I know down to the month how long it had been since someone had last wished me a good morning, and it’s long enough that I know better than to share. It was nice. Less nice was the fact that my phone got next to no signal on the resort grounds. After a few responses, the phone seemed to stop sending my messages, so I walked to her room and knocked on the door.

Because she hadn’t received my text messages, my visit took Amelia by surprise. We quickly settled on grabbing brunch in a half hour. After a little more time practicing the poem, we drove to the resort’s restaurant to check out their buffet. Finding the selection to be somewhat limited (biscuits and gravy, sausage, a few other country staples, and fruit), Amelia and I instead decided to order from the menu. Since I hadn’t had it in over a decade, I got a bowl of oatmeal topped with brown sugar and bananas. Amelia opted for a breakfast sandwich, substituting the meat for an extra layer of eggs. While we ate, Amelia told me about her teaching career.

With a few hours to kill before the wedding, we each retired to our rooms. Amelia did homework for a calculus course she was taking, and I continued to practice reading the poem Gir and Peanut wanted me to present. I also took a quick nap and jotted down notes about the trip. While reading, the song Youth, by Daughter, got stuck in my head. I collapsed onto my bed and stared at the ceiling, letting any number of jumbled thoughts and daydreams overrun me for a while.

Knowing how easy it was for me to get wrapped up in my own head, I’d set an alarm to remind myself to get ready for the wedding. Its blare pulled me from contemplation and got me back on track. I took a quick shower and got dressed. The main color of the wedding was purple, so I wore a shirt and tie to match it. My suit was the color of charcoal, with faint grey pinstripes.

I decided to wait outside until Amelia was ready. I watched a squirrel romp about near a tree. Although the sky remained somewhat overcast, the day’s rain had subsided. She emerged from her room wearing an elegant purple dress the featured striking lacework at the shoulders. She looked lovely.

(I know, you should always tell a woman who put a great deal of effort into getting dressed that she looks beautiful, but she really was.)

On the way to the Welfare Cafe, where the event was being held, we listened to Daughter’s Wild Youth EP. More than halfway to our destination, I realized I’d forgotten the purple handkerchief for the front pocket of my suit. I had no choice but to shrug it off. Amelia again acted as navigator for the trip. True to form, I drove right past the location’s parking lot and had to turn around. As we walked to the barn-turned-restaurant, Amelia and looked for the soon-to-be-newlywed’s car so that it could be readily identified for vandalism later.

Outside the Welfare Cafe, The Edge and Pinky were engaged in a match of wits. They were playing a game of Jenga with two-by-fours, and had reached a point where the stack nearly rose above them. Both of them had remembered to wear their suit-pocket-handkerchiefs, effectively making me look like a schlub. In fact, everyone there looked fantastic. It was basically a party full of photogenic people and then me, the goofus who couldn’t remember his handkerchief and had to ruin the whole thing.

I walked with Amelia into the cafe, past a table where sangria and poblano goat cheese dip were being served. Gir and the other bridesmaids had taken over the second floor. Although I did not join Amelia and the others upstairs, thanks to Hollywood I can assume the following occurred:

1. Gir almost certainly ruined some part of her wedding gown, probably with fire.

2. Whoever was to bring either something borrowed or something blue totally forgot it, leading to a mad dash through the crowd before the entire day was ruined.

3. Peanut had to provide something of dire importance, but since he could not see Gir before she walked down the aisle, he awkwardly climbed the stairs with his eyes covered.

4. Lots of complaining about men. Stupid, stupid men.

5. Gir went through two bottles of wine as she had a minor freakout.

6. Milhouse doesn’t count.

Again, I can neither confirm nor deny that these things happened, but if romantic comedies can be believed — which they almost certainly can — at least some of them did.

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Giant Jenga, with Bags/Cornhole in the background.Giant Jenga, with Bags/Cornhole in the background.

Giant Jenga, with Bags/Cornhole in the background.

While memorable mishaps were with 99% probability happening just a few feet away, I observed the giant Jenga match between The Edge and Pinky. The pile was balanced precariously, now well over the heads of both of them. Because this was a handmade facsimile, the blocks were not sanded, finished, or perfectly cut. This made some pieces hard to pull than others, leading to a great deal of testing between moves. As the competition wore on, The Edge took to skillfully performing knifehand strikes upon blocks that would otherwise not budge. Children stood and watched in awe as two masters played what may have been the game of their lives. In the end, The Edge sent the tower toppling over. As punishment for his failure, he was forced to pick all the blocks up and reset them for a new game.

At the request of the bridesmaids, the three of us haplessly searched the grounds for a safety pin(I told you — madcap whimsy, just like in the moving pictures!). All the while, cafe staff were preparing the grounds and the wedding planner was making sure everyone in the wedding party was properly outfitted with flair. Eventually, a pin must have been found, though not by us. The bridesmaids and groomsmen, along with the bride and groom themselves, headed toward the area the ceremony would be held in order to take pictures.

I walked the grounds of the cafe and made small talk with some of Gir’s other friends. Event staff had nearly completed the task of setting up tables, complete with decorations that fit another theme of the wedding: Gir and Peanut’s shared love of stories. Strewn about each table were a variety of books and comics. Some of them I recognized, some I had even read, but there were far more that I did not and had not. It made me think of going to the library, picking up a book from the shelf, and just reading. It has been a long time since I did that.

Despite the rain having subsided, there was still a chill in the air. It was an unseasonably cool day for Texas, or so I am told. The temperature was making Amelia uncomfortable, so I volunteered to get her sweater from the car. After I returned, we played an impromptu game of “Bags” with Bono and The Edge. A particularly large and aggressive bee honed in on Amelia’s wine, however, leading us to call the game off temporarily. Bono and The Edge went to go look at the animals on the farm next door, and Amelia and I instead returned to play “Bags” with Pinky and The Brain, although they called it “Cornhole” and played by slightly different rules. Amelia proved herself to be incredibly skilled, scoring more points than everyone else combined.

Shortly thereafter, the wedding began. I took a seat toward the far end of the second row so that I could quickly walk up when called upon. The entire ceremony was quick and to the point. It was officiated over by a close friend of Gir, and true to her nature, skipped over the religious aspects to focus only on the affection the bride and groom had for each other. There were points where I strained my ears to hear everything, but by and large the entire thing was wonderful.

Toward the end, just before the vows, I was called up to speak. I read Tim Pratt’s Scientific Romance, which you can read here. Despite my slightly rushed performance, I got a few chuckles from the audience. After me, a friend of Peanut read another poem. I took my seat, and then the couple read their vows. Each of them earnestly praised the other, with Gir making sure to point out that Peanut was absolutely perfect. It was really wonderful. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a wedding where two people adored each other more.

After the wedding party left, everyone else headed to the cafe. Though some of the guests were seated outside, I was in the main dining hall. I was pleasantly surprised to find my place maker next to Amelia. I don’t know where else it might have wound up, since we were going to be at the same table, but it was still nice. Bono and The Edge found a pop-up book about computers among the tomes on our table. The Edge excitedly presented it to everyone within earshot. It was an impressive piece, with intricate moving parts and removable hardware. At the next table, a young woman who had the most dazzling blue eyes — so bright that I figured they had to be contacts — tried to talk to me. Sadly, the cacophony around us made it difficult to converse. She was asking how I knew Gir, but we may as well have been speaking different languages.

Somehow, the subject of having an Ice Cream Truck at a wedding came up. I declared I would make a note of it and pulled out my trusty moleskine. I also wrote “Mirror” and “Bono insists upon ‘Better off Ted,’” but only one of those makes sense now. A few onlookers asked to see what else I had written, and I quickly presented some of the scrivenings within.

Like the previous night’s rehearsal dinner, food was served buffet style, with each table being called up in turn. The feast began with a large basket of dinner rolls, beside which were a multitude of thickly-cut pads of butter. Beyond the bread, servers dished out portions of brisket, chicken fredricksburg, vegetarian lasagna, green beans, and mashed potatoes. Gir insists salad was also offered, though I do not recall seeing any. I skipped the lasagna and the potatoes, but had a little bit of everything else. Amelia had vegetarian lasagna and passed on the brisket. She probably made the right decision. Although the chicken fredricksburg was phenomenal, I didn’t see the appeal of the brisket.

Following the meal, speeches were given by the fathers of both Gir and Peanut, as well as the best man. Gir’s father recalled a story about her as a child. They’d had an argument, and she attempted to get back at him by writing him a letter: she pretended to be her mother, demanding he leave the house immediately. It was classic Gir. Peanut’s father asked them to hold hands, with Peanut placing his hand upon Gir’s. “That’s the last time you’ll have the upper hand,” he declared. The best man recalled the trials and tribulations of growing up nerds in Texas before the Internet boom, and how thankful he was to see Peanut realizing his dreams.

Because Peanut moonlights as a dance instructor, the first dance of the bride and groom was exceptional. The newlywed couple moved about the dance floor with practiced grace, completely in sync. They were perfect partners.

Knowing that there would be a great many dancers at the wedding, and knowing that Amelia was a big fan of dancing herself, I decided it would be prudent to take a few dance lessons before the wedding. I was able to fit in four salsa lessons before leaving Chicago. It was time to put my training to the test.

When the dance floor opened up, I first danced with Dmitry’s wife, who had taken a single salsa lesson several months prior. It was simple and low-pressure for the both of us. We stuck to the basic step and a couple turns. Later, I danced with Gir. She knew I had taken a few dance lessons, and was surprised with my progress. Although I stuck with simple steps, I got more daring with our turns. “Definitely level two,” she told me.

I danced with Amelia twice, though neither attempt went as well as I would have liked. The first time we danced, I rather unsuccessfully attempted to use salsa moves to merengue, and the second time I was distracted by the concern that I would wind up bumping into someone else. It was still fun, albeit unimpressive.

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Vandalism + Censorship = Hypocrisy!Vandalism + Censorship = Hypocrisy!

Vandalism + Censorship = Hypocrisy!

While Gir and Peanut danced, The Brain collected Pinky, The Edge, myself, one of the groomsmen, and me. We quietly left the cafe and headed to the parking lot. After collecting our vandalism kit from my trunk, we went to work on Peanut’s car. The Edge blew up balloons, the groomsman wrote on the rear windshield with shaving gel, and Pinky and the Brain painted the windows. I wrapped the car in streamers, then took the shaving gel and drew a giant smiley face on the hood of the car. The others took it upon themselves to draw lewd images across the front of the car, which mercifully fell off before the night drew to a close. Proud of our handiwork, we crept back into the party unnoticed. Amelia talked to Dmitry and his wife about taking dance lessons, and later had a similar discussion with Bono. Bucking tradition yet again, no wedding cake was served. Instead, warm blueberry cobbler a la mode was provided as a dessert.

As the party came to an end, we gathered outside the cafe to talk. Many of us saw bats in the wild for the first time. We chose to dub them nightbirds. We spent the remainder of the night in a circle, cracking jokes and telling stories. When Gir and Patrick finally left the party and headed to their car, we followed them in order to catch their reactions.

With the bride and groom gone, the party was over. We all said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. I made it back to our resort missing only a single turn this time. Amelia and I quickly went over our plans for the next day, then said our goodnights.

Gone to Texas: Day One

One of my oldest friends — let’s call her Gir, since I didn’t ask permission to user her name — got married last weekend. The whole event would have come as a surprise more than a year prior. A Chicago native and staunchly liberal, Gir found herself deep in the heart of Texas while pursuing an advanced degree. She lamented the necessity. Every time we spoke, she told me she couldn’t wait to leave. However, Gir was set on completing her education.

It didn’t come as a surprise that Gir met someone while studying in the San Antonio area. She is a bubbly, exciting individual who is pretty much always fun. True to her nature, she told the man she’d met (whose name was… Prefect? Pontiff? I’ll remember eventually.) that the relationship wouldn’t last, and that once she was done with school she’d be leaving town. Undaunted, he courted her. He looked for work in Chicago when she moved back to the city, but when nothing panned out, she decided to move back to Texas.

Oh yeah, and somewhere in all that, they got engaged.

The wedding invitation was a work of art in its own right. Packed in an envelope that was lined with a page from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, the invite itself was designed to resemble a library check-out slip. The care that went into making them was evident, right down to the texture of the paper. Despite having just vacationed in Los Angeles, I tightened my budget so I could be sure to make the trip. While I would not be standing up at the wedding, Gir did ask me to read a poem during the ceremony.

While making plans to travel with an old friend, I received a message from one of the bridesmaids, Amelia(also not her real name), asking us if we were interested in splitting the bill three ways. Figuring that a woman would want a little privacy from two (technically)eligible bachelors, I started planning for a suite instead of a room with two beds. My friend, however, was hesitant to settle on anything. After a week of back-and-forths, and with barely a month to go before the wedding proper, the original hotel I’d planned to reserve a suite at was booked. I scoured travel sites and began to plan anew, this time cutting my friend from the trip and considering only myself and Amelia. I found that two rooms at a local resort would cost little more than a suite, and paid for the trip after quickly verifying that Amelia was still on board. With flights and hotel rooms reserved, I counted down the days until we could celebrate one of my favorite people getting hitched to the man of her dreams.

Because I was worried about getting stuck in rush hour traffic, I arrived at O’Hare Airport an hour earlier than I should have. Thankfully, I have a friend who works there. He took a break from his work and we spent my extra time catching up. I can neither confirm nor deny that this friend pushed me through the VIP line while I may or may not have glared derisively at the plebeians in the regular queue. I met Amelia at the boarding gate. We toyed with the idea of grabbing a fast food breakfast but wisely decided against it.

I enjoyed the flight from O’Hare to San Antonio. It was on a smaller plane that had comfortable two-by-two seating, even in economy. Amelia and I spent part of the flight getting to re-know each other(I’d taken her on a less-than-impressive date more than a decade prior) and watching an episode of Community, then did our own thing for a bit(she read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and took a nap; I worked on a writing project and read a few chapters of Randal Munroe’s What If?).

After landing we took a shuttle to pick up our rental car, selecting a Nissan Altima as the chariot for our weekend adventure. We started with lunch at El Chaparral, where I had my first enchilada and Amelia enjoyed tortilla soup. Our waitress offered us what I believe was the first “Y’all” of the trip, a portmanteau I didn’t hear nearly as often as one would assume. You’re slipping, Texas.

Following lunch, we traveled to Gir’s house so we could help complete last-minute crafts for the wedding. Her home was in the middle of a subdivision with the most frustrating naming scheme ever: every street was named Spring something: Spring Grass, Spring Breeze, (comedy options: Spring Autumn, Spring Spring, or Spring Roll), and so on. One of the other bridesmaids, Bono, and her husband, The Edge, were already there.

(Unlike Gir and Amelia, those are not pseudonyms. Bono is indeed actually a woman, and she is married to her constant collaborator, The Edge. Gir and Bono have been friends for years, ever since Bono dated a mutual friend of ours, Dmitry. That also isn’t a pseudonym, as Dmitry has a healthy ego and enjoys being the center of attention. Hi, Dmitry!)

Along with Gir, Bono and The Edge were making tassels. Amelia and I joined them in the task. I was not great putting them together, and failed miserably when it came to tying a final wrap around the bundled string. Instead, I breezed through the second part of our project: punching holes into personalized bookmarks. Some might argue that this task is far less challenging than creating tassels, and they would be right. Finally, we strung the tassels through the bookmarks, creating the eighty-some mementos needed to act as table assignments and keepsakes in less than twenty four hours. More of the bridal party and other close friends of Gir arrived just in time to not have to do anything. While the group conversed, The Edge and I sneaked outside to play with Gir’s dogs, Navi and Fumble(since dogs can neither read nor legally compel me to do anything, I feel perfectly comfortable using their real names). After spending a little time hanging out with more of the bridal party, Amelia and I hit the road.

While making the way to our hotel, Amelia spotted a sign for a Dairy Queen. “I could go for a Blizzard,” she remarked. I’d like to act like I stood my ground and stuck to my semi-strict diet, but the truth is and has always been this: if a cute woman asks me to do something, I will probably do it. Compared to previous indulgences(”You want to call a TV psychic from my phone for an hour? Sure!” “Of course I’ll give you and your family some laptops!” “What harm could there be in giving you access to Caprica’s defense systems?”), a tasty treat is infinitesimal. I left the expressway and pulled into the restaurant’s lot. We each ordered small ice cream treats: hers blended with M&M’s and mine a superior combination of mint and Oreo cookies.

After our refreshing pause, Amelia and I got back on the road. We made our way along a winding road that eventually let to Tapatio Springs. The resort was a far cry from the disappointing hotel I found myself in during my LA trip. Far from traffic and right in the middle of nature, it was decorated with a rustic-ornate palette largely made up of wood and stone. Featuring opulent on-site facilities like a spa, fitness center, golf course, and working ice machines, at no point did it seem like the terrible compromise my last hotel was.

Amelia and I had rooms that were side-by-side but did not share a door between them. After resigning myself to the fact that the weekend would not feature any farcical door-slamming, I took a moment to get ready for the night’s main event: rehearsal dinner.

Held at a restaurant just a few miles from the actual wedding location, the rehearsal dinner took place at restaurant called Po Po. When we arrived, we discovered buildings on either side of the locations’ sign. To the left, along the road, was a stone building with a neon sign declaring “EATS.” On the right, through an old gate, a path led to a wooden building. Amelia and I first followed the path to the right, but upon approach it appeared to be empty. Finding this suspicious, she suggested we check the more lively structure just a few yards away. Seeing the logic behind that line of thinking, I followed her. We approached the reception area, where the restaurant’s staff redirected us to the place we’d just left.

The door to the hall where the rehearsal dinner was held lacked a proper doorknob, but Po Po staff opened the door before I could properly comment on its non-existence. Following a quick round of introductions, the entire wedding party filed out of the dining area and onto the building’s back porch, where a very quick rehearsal of the next day’s event took place.

Upon returning to the dining hall, I took a seat an empty table. I soon found myself flanked by Bono and Amelia, with more of the wedding party following suit. We made small talk as Gir and her almost-but-not-quite-yet husband (Practice? Purchase?) handed out gifts to the bridesmaids and groomsmen. I didn’t see what the groomsmen got, but the bridesmaids received personalized scented lotions and necklaces that suited each one beautifully.

Once gifts had been handed out, buffet-style fajitas were offered. Everyone at our table waited patiently as others filed through the line, eventually making our way to the table. I filled my place with a chicken fajita, some salad, tortilla chips, and queso — that’s cheese dip to anyone not from Texas. In the hubub, Dmitry and his wife appeared, so I sat with them for a moment to catch up. After quickly polishing off my meal, I returned to my original table, whereupon Bono and Amelia jokingly chided me for ditching them.

It was a long but wonderful evening; Gir and Peanut (that’s it! Has to be!) moved about the room as their closest friends and family members got to know one another. The Edge shared his phone’s WiFi hotspot with me when I discovered my service in the area was less than stellar, and I found that I got along swimmingly with one of the other bridesmaids, The Brain, and her husband, Pinky. I tried, and was unimpressed with, bread pudding.

The party ended well after dark, which led to another discovery about Texans: they don’t believe in lighting busy roads or clearly marking them. Amelia took on navigation duties as I struggled to see through the inky darkness of unlit Texas night. I missed nearly every highway entrance and exit at least once as we traveled to a local Walgreens. After making it through the ordeal, Amelia and I purchased supplies that were almost certainly not for vandalizing the car of the bride and groom, and returned to our hotel. After making tentative brunch plans, I almost immediately passed out in my comfortable, inviting bed.

Flagship Killer: The Impoverished Geek Review of the OnePlus One

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The OnePlus One.The OnePlus One.

The OnePlus One.

I’ve been using smartphones for a long time. Several years before the iPhone was announced, the likes of Blackberry, PalmOS, and Symbian vied for a much smaller market. Apple and Google have driven the concept forward tremendously for nearly a decade now, locking customers into a two-year upgrade cycle that keeps technophiles enrapt and swells the coffers of wireless service providers.

The two biggest names in smartphones are Apple and Samsung, but companies like HTC, LG, Motorola, Nokia, and Sony are all trying to create the perfect device — or, at the very least, a device that’s a step ahead of their competition. With the market having matured, gimmicks like being waterproof or having self-healing materials are thrown into the mix to better differentiate devices. Apple trumpets design, and Samsung packs every possible feature they can into their Galaxy line of phones.

OnePlus, an offshoot of Chinese company Oppo, wants to break free of that mold. Their first phone, simply called “One,” matches 2014’s flagship phones in every appreciable way, dropping gimmicks in order to refine what a user’s base expectation of a smartphone should be. It has the same processor as the Samsung Galaxy S5, HTC One (M8), and LG’s G3. It has a screen as big as or bigger than the competition, with a resolution that is eclipsed only by the G3. It meets or exceeds the competition in regards to RAM and storage.

The big difference? It costs half as much as anything else on the market.

Buying a flagship phone on-contract typically costs around $199. Take that contract away, however, and you’ll find yourself paying over $600 for a base model. Add more storage to that device, if you can, and watch the price skyrocket. The OnePlus One is only sold unlocked, and offers two options: the standard 16 GB of storage for $299, and 64 GB of storage for $349. Again, that’s off-contract, with no carrier subsidy.

What does that mean? First and foremost, it means you have the right to jump between carriers as much as you want, so long as their network is compatible with the phone. In the US, that means you can choose between AT&T and T-Mobile. If you find that one carrier’s service is better than another, or if you see a better deal with the competition, just get a SIM from your carrier of choice and pop it into the phone. If you change your mind, you can contact your old carrier to restart service. You’ll never see an Early Termination Fee.

All this excitement is moot if the phone doesn’t live up to the hype, though. The general consensus among the geek elite is that the OnePlus lives up to its promises, but I had to know for myself. Getting the OnePlus One isn’t easy. Supplies for the device are incredibly constrained, so OnePlus has taken to using an invite system to sell the phone. You could buy one on eBay or Amazon for an inflated price, but if you want to take advantage of one of the One’s best features — it’s unbelievably low price — you’ll have to wait and hope.

OnePlus has presented a number of promotions to sell the phone as well, but after entering a few of them their novelty wore thin. They all involve using social media to push the device, and I don’t like the idea of marketing a product I’ve never used to my friends. Fortune smiled upon me, however. Two months after adding my name to a waiting list, my opportunity arrived. I jumped on it, and less than a week later a 64 GB OnePlus One arrived in the mail.

 

Fit and Finish

The first concern one might have with the OnePlus One is that its low cost will lead to poor production quality. I am happy to report that this is not the case. The OnePlus One feels solid and well-built. In fact, while it’s not as nice as an iPhone, it is considerably nicer than the Galaxy S3 and S4 that I have used at work. Of particular interest is the back of the phone. It has a slightly rubbery, gritty finish that OnePlus refers to as “sandstone.” It’s an interesting design choice that makes it feel like the phone will adhere better to a loose grip, whereas most phones feel like they’ll immediately slip. It’s an interesting texture that you don’t often find on electronics. I like it, but if you put the One in a case, the unique texture is replaced by whatever is on the back of your new enclosure.

 

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The 5.5" display can take some getting used to.The 5.5" display can take some getting used to.

The 5.5″ display can take some getting used to.

Display

The majority of the OnePlus One’s face is its giant 5.5” screen. Clocking in at an ultra-sharp 401 pixels per inch, the 1920×1080 array is clear and radiant. Although it does not get as bright as other flagships, it went toe-to-toe with the iPhone 5 and 5S I have on hand. It did not fare as well as Apple’s products in direct sunlight, but I was still able use it with little effort.

Some feel that the screen on the OnePlus One is too yellow. Although I agree that it does appear warmer than some other displays, I didn’t find it to be any more yellow than the screen on my iPhones. Whether this was a design choice (warmer displays are often used by professionals for proper color temperature) or an attempt to correct for display deficiencies (some users allege there is a yellow cast to part of the screen, regardless of temperature), I am unable to say. I think the display looked great.

Just beneath the display is a row of capacitive buttons. The light beneath them is very dim; so much so that you can’t see them outdoors. If you prefer, you can disable them and use on-screen buttons instead. I stuck with the capacitive buttons to maximize screen real estate, but it’s nice to have the option.

Performance

Featuring a Snapdragon 801 processor and Adreno 330 graphics, the OnePlus One is just shy of being bleeding edge from a technical standpoint. Brand-new phones like the Galaxy Note 4 and iPhone 6 edge it out of the top spot, but it’s more than likely you won’t notice the difference. Unlike the iPhone, the One also has a generous 3 GB of RAM. This allows for better multitasking, meaning you won’t have to constantly reload web pages and apps when you switch between them. In theory it should also allow for more complex software and games, but since mobile software is written to work on many devices, you’re more likely to see smoother animation and quicker transitions between apps than anything else.

Overall, there’s no real cause for concern in terms of performance. The next generation of Android, currently known as “Android L” will work well on the OnePlus One, as will pretty much any app you download. The One should perform admirably well into its second year, but the exponential growth of mobile processor power likely means that any phone you buy right now will be eclipsed by the competition past that point.

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The Sandstone finish on the back of the 64 GB OnePlus One.The Sandstone finish on the back of the 64 GB OnePlus One.

The Sandstone finish on the back of the 64 GB OnePlus One.

Battery Life

A 3,100 mAh battery feeds the OnePlus One and its massive screen, and it handles the task admirably. Like any phone, the length of time you spend between charges will vary depending on how much you use the device. If you spend ten hours watching video and posting online, you’ll drain the battery in less than a day. If you use the phone sporadically throughout the day like a normal person, it will easily run from morning until night. Nine hours of semi-frequent use during my work day leaves me with around 70% remaining battery life. When I plug my phone in at the end of the day, I typically have something in the area of 50% remaining.

The giant battery in the OnePlus One has a downside, though: it takes longer to recharge. While my old iPhone 5 would typically regain twenty to thirty percent of its capacity during my hour-long drive home from work, the OnePlus One gets back perhaps 10 percent. What’s more, the iPhone pulled that back over my car’s standard USB port, which supplies 500 milliamperes. The OnePlus One is using a higher-amperage DC adapter that is rated at 2.1 amps. When using GPS, that 2.1 amp charger could do nothing more than maintain the battery at its current charge. Trying to use GPS with the standard USB port reduced battery drain, but did not eliminate it.

If you’re in the habit of charging your phone each night, this won’t be a big deal. If you charge at random intervals during the day, however, expect to either wait longer or juice up more frequently.

 

Camera

I took an iPhone 5 and a OnePlus One to a local nature center to take some test shots. The One was able to hold its own for the most part. There are a few shots where I think the iPhone edged it out, but the One took a surprisingly good macro shot toward the end of my walk — one that the iPhone didn’t capture anywhere near as well. Overall I’d say they go toe-to-toe, which is really a compliment for the OnePlus. There are more expensive phones that can’t make that claim.

Things are a bit more dicey when it comes to video. Although standard video looks fine, the high frame rate (slow motion) capture was less-than compelling. I’ve included a gallery of OnePlus One versus iPhone 5 shots to make my point. The photos are entirely unretouched.

Call Quality

I know it’s hard to believe, but some people do still use their smartphones as phones. The OnePlus One features not one but two noise canceling microphones, which should make for remarkably clear communication. In practice, the people I test-called were neither impressed nor frustrated by the quality of my voice. My only complaint is that the significantly larger phone required a short period of adjustment before I could find optimal positioning of the earpiece.

 

Multimedia

Generally speaking, audio and video applications on Android are a mixed bag. Nothing goes toe-to-toe with iOS when it comes to easily syncing the audio library on your computer, and iOS apps tend to play better with each other when it comes to interoperability. Those aren’t really issues caused by anything OnePlus has done, however, so I don’t blame them when I try to pause a podcast on my bluetooth speakers and a playlist in Google Music start running instead. It’s a failing of Android that has been around for some time.

From a performance standpoint, the OnePlus One plays video and audio like a champ. This sort of thing is to be expected from any modern device. The only thing I can find fault with is the “dual speakers.” The OnePlus One has two speakers on the bottom of the phone, near the microphone and micro USB port. Normally, I’d note that this is not ideal placement for stereo speakers. Instead, I have to point out that the phone features a pair of mono speakers, which really doesn’t make any sense to me. Without placing one speaker at each end of the phone, though, you’d never notice if there was stereo separation anyway.

If you plug in headphones or pair a stereo bluetooth device, you’ll get proper stereo audio. It’s probably best not to dwell on the odd choice of dual-mono speakers and just accept the quirk.

 

CyanogenMod

After its unbelievable price, the most compelling feature of the OnePlus One is its use of CyanogenMod, a community-built version of Android. Every Android phone has slight variances, with each manufacturer taking its own spin on the operating system. Although this serves to differentiate between devices, it almost always leads to bloated, inefficient software and the need to re-learn what should be a similar operating system with each device.

Google produces their own line of phones, often referred to as “Pure,” “Stock,” or “Vanilla” Android devices, and some manufacturers have offered “Google Play” editions of their phones that strip their customizations to better match Google’s original design. CyanogenMod takes its cues from Pure Android and presents more customization than the stock experience while still maintaining its overall design aesthetic and stability.

If the OnePlus One was running a custom variant of Android, like most other flagship phones do, I would not have considered it. No manufacturer version of Android runs as smoothly as the vanilla versions.

 

Accessories and Miscellany

One category where Android devices can’t compete with Apple is the third-party accessory market. Although you typically find a few options for cases, no model of Android phone has as many options as any version of the iPhone. OnePlus has taken the initiative to produce their own small line of cases, and sells them for a reasonable price. None of them wound up being to my taste, so I purchased a handmade wallet sleeve from etsy. Considering its limited availability, I would not expect much in the way of third-party accessories for the OnePlus One.

On the fun side, like most modern Android phones(and the iPhone 6), the OnePlus One has NFC, allowing you to use the phone to approve transactions and interact with other NFC devices. This is more useful than you’d think, but less useful than you’d like. It also means the phone often makes a goofy noise when it brushes up against credit cards.

Finally, the OnePlus does not have a MicroSD slot, so you can’t expand the memory. It’s too bad, because although the 64 GB of storage will be plenty for most users, it can barely contain my music library.

 

Overall

At the end of the day, OnePlus’ One wins on price versus performance alone. It performs competitively — far better than “good enough” — for half the price. Unless you have a truly compelling reason to spend twice as much on a phone, there’s absolutely no reason to.

Of course, you have to be able to get your hands on one.

 


The OnePlus One scores a 1/5 on the Impoverished Geek Scale of Buyer’s Remorse.

 

Pros: Inexpensive, well-built, unbelievable performance for the price

Cons: Extremely limited availability, no Micro SD storage expansion

 

All my invites have been sent out! If I wind up with more, I’ll send more out in the order of requests received. I don’t have any special connections to OnePlus, so I can’t guarantee I’ll get any more.

After Two Months, Does the Surface Pro 3 Keep Its Shine?

I’ve been using a Surface Pro 3 more or less as my main personal computer for the last two months. It has been an interesting experience, to say the least. I have found that pretty much anything I did regularly on my Mac or iPad can be done with this device, not that it should come as too much of a surprise. Of all the computing platforms, Windows has always had the largest selection of software.

The Surface Pro 3 does falter in the usual Windows ways, of course. You don’t get software like iTunes, iPhoto, or iMovie with it. Oh, you get a media player and you can download software to do basic photo and video editing, but Apple’s media apps are far more user-friendly.

One of the main reasons I switched to the Surface Pro 3 was to get my hands on an ultra-light device to use with Scrivener, my writing software of choice. An iOS version has been in the works for over two years, but its development has been hit with frequent delays. There are ways to edit Scrivener documents on the iPad, but they are neither elegant nor simple. They also do not support many non-text functions that Scrivener provides, such as archiving of research, outlines, and note cards.

The Surface Pro 3 appealed to me because it can serve double-duty as a tablet and a laptop. Most real work still requires a laptop, at least part of the time, but tablets outshine them when it comes to reading. Writers spend a lot of time reading their work (and the work of others), so having a single device that can excel at both is invaluable. Although I certainly pondered pairing my iPad Air with a MacBook Air, such a combo would weigh almost twice that of a single Surface Pro 3, and be far more cumbersome.

It is also nice to be able to play games on a tablet. The iPad has lots of games, true, but not as many as Windows, and most games on iOS are nowhere near the caliber of their PC brethren. More than that, as a fan of retro games, I can also emulate classics that I otherwise couldn’t easily carry with me on the go.

I am currently looking at moving my iPhoto library to Lightroom; it’s not as simple a task as it should be, and syncing the data between my MacBook Pro and Surface Pro 3 is not going to be easy, so I’ve put it off for the time being. I’ve dabbled with Lightroom, which is basically iPhoto for professionals, so I have no doubt it can take iPhoto’s place.

It takes a little while to get used to how the Surface Pro operates. It has separate interfaces for touch-focused tablet-style apps and traditional Windows software. The app store for touch-based software still doesn’t hold a candle to what’s available on iOS or Android, and the market is full of fake and unofficial apps. Google doesn’t support the platform at all. You can still access their services via the “classic” Windows side, but it’s shocking to see there still isn’t an official YouTube app! It’s not an insurmountable problem, but it is a little annoying.

In fact, I have only two issues with the Surface Pro 3 at this point: it still has unreliable wireless functionality, and it’s unreasonably fragile. Let’s start with the simple one first: sometimes, when you wake the Surface Pro 3 from sleep, WiFi and Bluetooth stop working. The OS insists no hardware for this functionality is available. A restart fixes the issue, and the device restarts very quickly, but it’s incredibly annoying, and happens with frustrating regularity. The issue presents itself almost daily. Microsoft has put out several firmware updates, none of which have addressed this issue. It’s annoying, and it has gotten old. It needs to be fixed. If it’s a hardware issue, then there needs to be a recall/repair program. Wireless connectivity is not optional or trivial in 2014.

The bigger complaint I have — and it’s one that makes me reexamine my suggestion that others purchase the device — is that it is shockingly delicate. The Surface Pro 3 marks the first time I have broken a portable device since I was in middle school. I’ve owned eight personal laptops, four work laptops, three tablets, fourteen portable gaming consoles, and nine cell phones since 1998. I have never broken any of them. Part of the reason I am able to afford such nice hardware is that I take really good care of it and sell it when it still holds a reasonable value.

I dropped the Surface Pro 3 from less than two feet, and the screen entirely shattered, rendering it unusable. Granted, a drop is a drop, but nearly every device takes a short tumble or two in its lifetime. I have dropped my iPads in exactly the same way as my Surface Pro 3 (not often, mind you, but once or twice, sure), and they have nary a scratch to mark the ordeal. It’s not just me. IFixIt did a teardown of the Surface Pro 3, as they do for every major consumer electronics device, and found it to be one of the most delicate things they ever worked on. They could not keep from breaking the screen while trying to remove it.

Further compounding this issue is Microsoft’s handling of it. Although they offer a $300 replacement service, you have to mail the device to them and wait for them to mail back another one. Even if you go to a Microsoft Store, they will only offer to mail it out for you. It’s frustrating, because I know that if I walk into an Apple Store for the same service, I’ll walk out with another device in that same trip. When you pay a premium price for a product, you expect premium service to go with it. The representative at the Microsoft Store I visited was able to get his manager’s approval to swap my device in-store, which I greatly appreciated. However, I can’t guarantee you’ll have the same experience.

If you purchase it from them directly, Microsoft offers a $150 insurance plan on the Surface Pro 3. It covers a single accident. I usually don’t recommend insurance policies on hardware, but in this case, I’d take it. It’s a useful, exciting device, but it pretty much the polar opposite of robust. The knowledge of its fragility makes me reconsider the reliability of the device. I still really like it, but the honeymoon is over.

The Search

It was an uncharacteristically warm day in the midst of a harsh Chicago winter. The skies were clear, and the sun was beaming as brightly as it could. Though the relative comfort would certainly give way to the harsh cold of the evening, for the moment Abraham was thrilled. He hoped the warm afternoon would find Zoe in good spirits.

Abraham knew he was getting ahead of himself, but as Zoe approached him outside of Gulliver’s Pizzeria, he thought, “She could be the one.” Certainly, she was very pretty, and that was undoubtedly a factor in his wanting to pursue her. She wore a pansy-purple top coat over a simple black dress. That, along with her slender-but-curvy-in-the-right-places build and pixie cut made her almost an echo of Audrey Hepburn. More than just pretty, she was smart and had a magnetic personality. The moment she walked into his cafe, he saw her potential.

He didn’t say any of this, of course. He simply smiled, introduced himself, and opened the door for her as they entered the restaurant. For his part, Abraham was a very attractive man, perfectly fitting the mold of tall, dark, and handsome. He knew that a significant number of the customers in his cafe —men and women — were there because of him. They would smile at him, gently prod with unobtrusive questions, and ultimately leave unfulfilled. He imagined that many men in his position would have been very happy. That wasn’t what Abraham was about.

“Abraham and Zoe,” she mused while entering the restaurant’s vestibule, “We’re the beginning and end of a naming dictionary.”

Abraham smiled and fought the urge to point out that the more likely names to appear at the ends of a naming dictionary were Aaron and Zykela, because that was a thing that he did that people did not like. Instead, he just walked in behind her. Without any effort, he quickly moved to open the door to the restaurant proper for her. Zoe came to an immediate halt as she left the establishment’s vestibule.

Nearly every inch of every wall was covered in art. Paintings, sculptures, vases, and any number of other art pieces were tightly packed onto the restaurant’s walls. A plethora of chandeliers ran across the ceiling.

“Dude,” she mused. “It’s like my gramma decorated this place.”

“Everything in here is an antique,” Abraham explained. “Well, everything on the walls. I imagine most of the furniture doesn’t qualify yet.”

“And the staff,” Zoe mused. She beamed as she looked at the ceiling. “Wow. The electric bill for this place must be through the roof.”

The night’s hostess, a chubby young college student with curly brown hair, chimed in from behind, “It’s a closely guarded secret.” Startled, Zoe put a hand to her chest and took in a deep breath. The hostess cringed. “Sorry.”

“No harm done,” Zoe returned.

“Just the two of you tonight?”

“Yes,” Abraham confirmed. “Where do we get the best view?”

“Oh, it’s all good, but my favorite table is open if you want it.” The hostess grinned.

“We’ll take it,” Abraham said. He and Zoe followed her to one of the restaurant’s dining rooms, where she seated them in a wooden booth under what looked like a Tiffany lamp. An art nouveau bust of a beautiful woman rested on a small shelf and protruded a few inches over the table. The booth itself was incredibly tall and made entirely of stained wood. Abraham took Zoe’s jacket. She sat down, the back of the booth looming over her and making her seem tiny in comparison.

Abraham hung up Zoe’s jacket on a coat hook on the end of the booth, along with his. He turned to the hostess. “Is this really your favorite table, or is that just something you say to everyone?”

The hostess smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Another closely guarded secret.” She placed two menus on the table and left the couple to themselves.

Zoe flipped through the pages of her menu for a moment before asking, “Did you just want to order a pizza?”

“If you like,” Abraham said, “it’s very good here.” He shrugged. “Everything’s good here. Would you prefer something else?”

“Nah, a stuffed pizza sounds good after the day I’ve had.” She stopped short. “Sorry. I know it’s a faux paux to complain on a first date.” She looked away for a moment, searching for something to talk about that wasn’t work.

The moment was mercifully interrupted by their waiter. He was a rail-thin man in his early thirties, somehow tanned in the middle of a Chicago winter. He wore a black apron over a white dress shirt and black slacks. “Hello,” he said, “I’m Roger, and I’ll be taking care of you tonight.”

“Hey, Roger,” Zoe said.

“Are you ready to order?”

“We’ll have a medium stuffed crust,” Abraham began, then paused. He looked at Zoe. “What do you like on your pizza?”

“Spinach and mushrooms,” she said.

“A medium stuffed crust with spinach and mushrooms,” Abraham said.

Roger jotted down the order on a small pad in his hand. “Excellent. Anything else? Appetizers? Drinks?”

“A Sprite,” Abraham said.

“Just water for me,” Zoe added.

Roger placed his note pad in an apron pocket, then took the menus from the table. “I’ll be back with your drinks in a moment.” With that, he left the pair alone.

“So,” Abraham began, “Rough day?”

Zoe sighed. “Yes, but it’s okay. I won’t bore you with the details.”

“Oh, please do. Bore away.” Abraham leaned back as best he could against the tall, stiff back of the booth. He looked pathetic and knew it, but it made Zoe smirk, so it was worth the discomfort.

“Well,” she began, “I’m a social worker at a school for kids with behavioral and emotional problems. We had an incident the other day where a parent hit their kid on school property, and it’s turning into a huge legal thing. My days off are now filled with writing up statements and being grilled about the event.” She sighed. “I probably shouldn’t even be talking about it. Not that I think you’d get me in trouble. Just…” She trailed off.

As if sensing the perfect moment to interrupt the discussion, Roger returned with their drinks. He placed the glasses, frosted and about to perspire, on the table, then put two straws in the middle of the table. “Pizza should be up in about half an hour,” he said. “Can I do anything for you in the meantime?”

Abraham glanced at Zoe and raised an eyebrow, turning the question to her. She closed her eyes and shook her head. “We’re good,” he said. Roger left. “So. Rough day at an already taxing job. You carry a lot of weight on your shoulders.”

“I suppose. Someone has to do it. Or, at least try to.”

“It’s still commendable. Not everyone can deal with such frustration.”

Zoe shrugged. “If it’s all the same, I’d prefer not to talk about it.”

“Sure. Got something else in mind?”

Zoe scrunched up her lips to one side and looked away. “Hmm. Did you catch the Walking Dead last week?”

Abraham’s lips twisted in a sheepish grin. “I don’t watch a lot of TV,” he admitted.

“Oh, no. Are you one of them?”

“One of who?”

Zoe paused for a moment and let Abraham stew. “Those people who don’t own TVs.” She leaned in. “A reader.

Abraham barked out a quick laugh. “I do enjoy a good book,” he admitted, “but I own a television. I just don’t watch it much.”

“What do you watch?”

Abraham pondered this for a moment. “I suppose my favorite show is The Twilight Zone, but there hasn’t been a new episode in years. I really liked The Wire…” He trailed off.

“But nothing recent.”

“I hear Breaking Bad was good.”

“What about film?”

Abraham lit up. “Love it. I just saw Her. It was fascinating.”

“Really? I didn’t care for it.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I mean, it was competent and everything. I just found the idea of people falling in love with an AI to be kind of silly.” She shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I just don’t get it. Everyone else seems to have loved it.”

“Well, you’re certainly entitled to your own opinion.” Abraham smiled and raised an eyebrow. “As wrong as it may be.”

Zoe scoffed. “Well, what about some other recent stuff? Gravity? Catching Fire? Wolf of Wall Street?”

“Haven’t seen ‘em. I’d like to, but running the cafe keeps me pretty busy.”

“Okay. Fair enough. What’s you’re favorite part of running the cafe?”

“Oh, meeting people. Without a doubt. You never know who will walk through your doors. A doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, the future president of the United States… Pretty much everyone drinks coffee.”

“Do you ever worry about competition?”

“Not really. I make enough to keep the store afloat, and I never wanted to be super-busy. I’m not that ambitious.”

“You run a business. You’re at least more ambitious than most.”

Abraham shrugged. “I keep busy, I pay my bills, I meet cool people. That’s all I want from life. The cafe is a means to an end.”

“What about all the paperwork and legal stuff? Isn’t that a hassle?”

“I pay someone to handle that. I keep all my receipts, and log what I am told to in a bunch of spreadsheets. It’s not as much work as you’d think, once you have a system.”

Zoe raised an eyebrow. “Makes sense. It’s just you hear all these people complain about how hard it is to run a business…”

Abraham dismissed her comment with a wave of his hand. “It’s still work. People who complain about having to work are actually complaining about having to work at all. That’s my philosophy, anyway. People who actually work are too busy working to complain about it.”

“I think I follow you. But you don’t think people who are unhappy at work should complain?”

“Well, I didn’t say that. You can be unhappy with your life, especially if your job isn’t something you want. But that’s not a complaint about having to work, it’s a complaint about not doing the work you want.”

“Interesting.”

“You don’t agree?”

“I don’t know. I get what you’re saying. My career turned out to be very different from what I thought it might be.” Zoe took a straw from the table and slipped it into her water. She took a long sip. “It’s important work, I know, but lately it seems like parents just think schools are a babysitting service. No one trusts me to do my job, let alone respects what I do. At least the kids have an excuse…” She stirred the straw in her glass.

Abraham shook his head. “Everyone complains about how bad the school systems in this country have become.”

“They’re a mess. Education is essential, and we’re dropping the ball in so many ways.”

“So why don’t you do something about it?”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. You see there’s a problem. What’s the solution?”

Zoe sulked. “How do you change the whole world? The failures come from multiple fronts.” She raised a hand and counted off on her fingers as she spoke. “Teachers get jaded. Unions keep bad teachers employed. Administration is more worried about politics than education. Parents don’t want to take responsibility for their kids, or make their kids take any responsibility for their actions. Politicians are more worried about the election cycle than anything past it. The list goes on.”

“The journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Zoe rolled her eyes. “Oh, please.”

“It’s true!”

“Sure. But this is more complicated than that.”

“The whole education system? Sure. But you can pick one problem to focus on and go from there.”

“I can’t fix it. That’s not who I am.”

“You’d be surprised what you can accomplish if you set your mind to it,” Abraham pressed. “I think you’d achieve more than you think.”

“That’s sweet of you to say, but you don’t know me that well.”

Abraham smiled. “I’m really good at sizing people up.”

Zoe sighed. “Can we drop it, please?”

“Sure.”

The pair sat in silence for a moment. It felt like hours.

Quietly, Zoe said, “I don’t think social work was my calling.”

Abraham did his best to keep his disappointment hidden. Moment by moment, Zoe was proving she wasn’t what he was looking for. “Oh?”

“I’m kind of stuck. Whatever I do, I’d have to start over from scratch. I’d have to make less money. Still, I think about moving on. I don’t know how much longer I can take my job. It just wears you down.”

“So, you’d leave if the opportunity presented itself?”

“In a heartbeat.”

“What do you want to do instead?”

“I don’t know. Is there a job where you can sit at home all day and watch TV for the rest of your life?”

“You don’t think you’d get bored with that?”

Zoe shrugged. “Eventually, maybe.”

Roger approached the table with two plates in one hand and a pan held with a pair of tongs in the other. He placed the plates on the table, then put the pan on the table between Abraham and Zoe. “Here we are,” he began. He extracted a pie server from his apron and sliced two wedges from the deep dish pizza resting in the pan. He placed one slice on each plate, and placed them before the diners. “Anything else I can get for you?”

“Nothing for me,” Abraham replied.

“A Diet Coke,” Zoe said.

“Sure.”

The duo silently unrolled their silverware from the napkins that sheathed them and prepared to eat. Roger returned with Zoe’s drink. “Enjoy,” he said, before leaving the two to their meal. They each took a knife and fork and cut through thick layers of tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms, mozzarella, and finally a flaky crust.

After a few bites, Zoe broke the silence. “This is really good.”

Abraham smiled. “One of my favorite restaurants in the city.”

Still chewing, Zoe carefully squeezed out, “I can see why.” She swallowed the gooey conglomeration in her mouth and drank deeply from her soda. “So, Mister Let’s-save-the-world, if you could do anything, what would you do?”

Abraham rolled his hand to signal he had something to say but didn’t want to speak until he’d finished chewing. After gulping down a large bite, he took a sip of his drink. “I know it’s going to sound like I’m ass-kissing, but education would be pretty high on my list. Though I think the biggest thing humanity needs to work on is probably empathy. People are quick to destroy what they don’t understand, and that includes other humans.”

“And how would you fix it?” Zoe sliced a long strip from her pizza and then cut that strip into bite-sized portions. She brought one to her lips and waited for her date’s reply, savoring it as it melted in her mouth.

“Start small. Find a community, find a leader, bring the two together, and build from that point.”

“Pretty vague, Abe.”

“Hey, I didn’t ask you for a step-by-step. Like I said: one step at a time. Find a group of like-minded people, get them talking. Bring in a few more. Find people who disagree, figure out why, compromise to bring accord. Repeat.”

“You make it sound so simple.”

“The concept is. People have worked that way for centuries. Longer.” He sliced off a piece of his pizza and raised it to his lips. Before placing it in his mouth, he said, “Ideas are easy, bringing them to fruition is difficult.”

“So, why don’t you do that? Why don’t you get together a group of like-minded people and save the world, one step at a time?” Zoe, near the end of her first slice, put down her silverware and lifted the crust to her mouth. She took a big bite.

“How do you know I’m not?”

“Wouldn’t I have heard of you if that were the case?”

“Maybe we’re just not there yet.” Abraham stuffed the remainder of his pizza into his mouth and chewed vigorously.

“You know what’s another important skill a good social worker has? A strong bullshit detector.”

Abraham attempted to hurriedly swallow the large chunk of pizza he’d bitten off, but it got caught in his through. He coughed, still holding the chewed mass in his mouth, and then carefully gulped. “You think I’m messing with you?”

“I think you believe what you’re saying. Which might be even more troubling. Everyone lies to themselves a little, but I think you might go too far with it. Some people would probably find it sweet. I just think it’s kind of sad.”

“Wow.”

“Sorry.”

“Well, at least you’re not lying to me, I guess.”

“Why not be honest? This date didn’t go as well as either one of us hoped it might.”

“True. I guess the only thing left is to ask if you want to take the leftovers.”

“Nah. It was good, but if I have any more I’ll need to spend half the day at the gym.”

“I appreciate you being direct,” Abraham said. He saw Roger in the distance and waved to him. Roger approached them. “Check, please,” Abraham requested. “And a box for the pizza.”

Zoe stood up and put on her coat. “You’re a nice guy, Abraham. I hope you find what you’re looking for. Don’t be so hard on the next girl.” She smiled and waved goodbye to him before turning to walk away.

Abraham was flabbergasted. It was hard not to be. Usually the person across the table was trying so hard to impress him, it was a breath of fresh air to sit and talk with someone so direct. True, she was not what he was looking for. He lamented this for a moment as he waited for Roger to bring his check and pack the remainder of his meal.

After settling his bill, Abraham put on his jacket, picked up his leftovers, and walked out of the restaurant. The sun was still out. He waited at the bus stop just outside for the Pace 215, and rode it to the end of its route. From there, he caught the CTA Red Line train. He stared out of the window the entire trip, forlorn. He felt like he was so close. Zoe seemed like she was just what he was looking for. She wasn’t, obviously, but the feeling of her being right had not yet left him.

The pizza, still warm, slowly heated his lap. Had the ride been longer, he might have had to move it. He arrived at the Lawrence stop in just shy of twenty minutes. He headed to the stairs that led away from the elevated platform and down to the street below. He headed west, into the setting sun.

From behind him, a syrupy-sweet voiced young woman spoke. “You going for a record, Abraham?”

He knew her voice without having to turn and face her. Anastasia. “On your way to the meeting, Stace?”

“Of course.” Anastasia caught up with him and locked an arm in his. His shoulder being too tall for her to reach, she leaned her head against his arm. “Don’t take it so hard. The right one will come along when you least expect it.”

“I know. I’m just impatient.”

“No one else in the group has found their matches yet. Don’t worry.” She suddenly noticed the pizza in his hands and smiled. “Oooh. Food for the meeting?”

“Yeah, leftovers. We made it two slices in.”

“Geez, you really are going for a record.” She unlocked her arm and took the box from him. She lifted the lid. “What’s on it?”

“Spinach and mushrooms.”

Anastasia wrinkled her face and closed the lid. “Never mind.” She thrust the box back into Abraham’s hands. He laughed. “There’s the Abe I know,” she added, bumping him with her shoulder. “Don’t worry. Things will work out, eventually.”

The pair strolled for a few more blocks before coming to an abandoned storefront. Anastasia drew a key from her purse and opened the door for Abraham. “Age before beauty,” she said as he walked past. Abraham rolled his eyes and continued on his way.

In the empty store’s back room, a circle of thirteen chairs were arranged in a circle. On a table to one side was a coffee decanter, a samovar, and a pile of leftovers. Abraham added his pizza box to the collection. An old man with short, curly grey hair was already digging through the stack, pulling a half club sandwich from a styrofoam container. Upon glancing at Abraham’s addition, he immediately stuffed his selection back into its carton and reached for the pizza.

He smiled as he opened the box. “Deep dish, wonderful.”

“Save some for everyone else, Andy,” Abraham warned.

Androbulos looked hurt. “I am only taking one slice, Abraham.”

Abraham sighed. “I was joking.” He patted the old man on the shoulder and poured himself a cup of coffee before taking a seat. Slowly, other people entered the room, perused the table, and took their own places in the circle. When all thirteen chairs were filled, a middle-aged woman in a sun dress stood up and smiled.

“Good afternoon, everyone,” she began. “Does anyone have any good news to share?” The room remained silent. “That’s too bad, but it’s okay.” She turned to her left. “David, why don’t you begin?”

The woman took her seat, and an obsidian-skinned young man stood. “My prospect was named Corrine,” he said, “she was a police officer who helped plan neighborhood watch meetings and volunteered at a local women’s shelter. She was incredibly driven and strong-willed, but there was a lingering anger in her that would have been a liability.”

David sat down. Beside him, a woman in her mid-twenties stood. “My prospect was named Julie. She was a socialite who dedicated her time to pursuing clean water initiatives across the world. Though she was kind, she was also misguided and her sheltered upbringing made her incapable of understanding the realities of the world.” She sat down.

Each person in the circle stood and told their story in turn until they reached Abraham. When the person to his right sat down, he stood. “My prospect was named Zoe. She was a social worker for children with behavioral difficulties. She realizes the injustices of the world, but her heart has grown hard to them, and she has given up on many of her ideals.” He sat down.

Anastasia stood. “My prospect was Phillip. He was a motivational speaker who believed in everything he said. Unfortunately, he believed more in his own importance than anything else.”

To Anastasia’s left was the meeting organizer. She remained seated after Anastasia sat down. “Our goal is not a simple one. Our mission is not one to be taken lightly. And though we continue to struggle, it is only because things truly worth doing are always difficult. One day, we will all find the person we need to, and the world will be better for it.” She smiled. “I’ll see you all next week.”

Abraham stood up and headed for the door. Androbulos grabbed his arm. “Abe.”

Abraham turned around. “Yeah?”

“I can tell you really had your heart set on this one,” he said. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”

Abraham forced a smile. “Thanks.”

“Maybe next time, eh? There’s always next time. For us, more than anyone else.”

Abraham signed. “The search has gone on for almost two thousand years, Andy. Sometimes I think it’s a lost cause.”

“We were too anxious last time. We acted prematurely, and it cost them dearly. This time, we must be cautious and sure. There won’t be a time after this one. We have to do it right.” Androbulos patted his shoulder. “See you next week.”

Anastasia and David stood by the exit, waiting for Abraham. “Come on, Abe,” David said. “I’ll buy you a drink. Stacy says a wonderful new band is playing at the Empty Bottle.”

Abraham shrugged. “How could I say no to that?”

“Exactly.” Anastasia shooed them out the door before turning off the lights and leaving herself.

Review: Microsoft Surface Pro 3

The rise of the ultrabook has led to good-enough laptops that actually are just that — good enough. From the MacBook Air to the Asus Zenbook, light-but-powerful(enough) laptops have been around for a few years now. Though they do not muscle through intensive tasks like their larger brethren, they handle the majority of common computing tasks with aplomb. Alongside the ultrabook, tablets have created a new market of devices even lighter and more portable than ultrabooks, with the trade-off being that they don’t run the same software. You can still work on an ultrabook; a tablet is designed more with entertainment in mind.

Microsoft has been trying to merge the two concepts into one device with their Surface Pro line, and the first two models met with some success. I reviewed the original Surface Pro about six months ago, and found the concept compelling but the execution lacking. Among my chief complaints were the less-than-accurate pen and the fact that the keyboard covers were too small to be immediately used by a touch-typist like myself. The Surface Pro’s successor, the Surface Pro 2, greatly improved battery life while incrementally improving performance, but did not address my chief complaints about the device. In June, Microsoft announced the Surface Pro 3, a larger, yet somehow lighter upgrade that uses a different pen technology to improve accuracy.

So far, I’m really liking it.

The basic design of the Surface Pro has been altered slightly; it’s thinner and lighter that previous models, though it is wider and taller due to its bigger screen. The black magnesium frame of the previous models has been recolored a light grey, and the one or two-step hinge for the built-in stand has been replaced with a completely adjustable one. The Wacom pen hardware has been swapped with a less sensitive but more accurate solution created by N-Trig. The improvement that really sold me on the new Surface Pro, however, is that the larger screen size led to a larger type cover, finally providing the width to support a nearly full-size keyboard.

Microsoft took great pains to improve the keyboard for the Surface Pro 3. On top of its larger size, it also features a second magnetic strip that attaches to the bottom bezel of the display, lifting the keyboard to a slight angle. It makes the keyboard more stable, though it does nothing to eliminate the light flexing the keyboard does as one types. I’ve written a few thousand words on its larger keyboard, and have found it passable. It’s not my favorite thing to type on, but is completely functional. There are a few keys that don’t quite line up as you’d expect, but you can expect to touch-type with the speed and accuracy of any other keyboard.

At the bottom of the type cover is a small trackpad, which I am not a fan of. It tracks accurately enough, and after disabling tap-to-click, I found myself working quite well with it. However, it is incredibly small. This is an unavoidable compromise; there isn’t much more room on the cover after including a full-size keyboard. Thankfully, the Surface Pro 3 features two alternate pointing methods: a capacitive touchscreen and pressure-sensitive stylus. Capacitive touch is great for tablet-style apps, but by its nature is not as precise or fast as a mouse or stylus. Still, it’s great when reading or viewing movies. It’s okay for web browsing, but getting pinpoint accuracy — say, when editing text or crafting fine details in a drawing — is not really possible. The N-Trig pen, while not the preferred stylus of digital artists, appears to be more accurate across the entire face of the tablet than its predecessor. There is a bit more lag in its response than the Wacom solution used in previous models, but I did not find it to be a problem. The pen is also less sensitive to pressure than previous models, sometimes requiring more force than I would like. The tip of my Surface pen is already showing signs of wear, though replacing the little nibs should not be difficult or expensive. It’s not perfect, but I like it.

The most noticeable change to the Surface Pro 3 is its larger screen. With a more reading-friendly 3:2 aspect ratio, it is sharp and bright. Both full frame and widescreen video appear with letterboxing, but it is slight and largely unnoticeable. The Surface Pro 3 has completely supplanted my iPad for watching video at work, in bed, or on the go. The stereo speakers are surprisingly loud for their size, and produce sound comparable with competing tablets. Like the previous Surface Pro tablets, you can use Mini Displayport to output video to an external monitor or projector.

Despite its larger display, the Surface Pro 3 readily lasts through the average work day. If you are only using it sporadically, it can probably last more than one. Actual battery life will obviously depend on how hard you push the device; increasing the brightness or running processor-intensive software will result in shorter running times between charges. The Surface Pro 3 gets around eight hours of use with a full charge, which is not bad. It’s not outstanding, either, with an iPad getting ten and some models of Macbook Air pulling an unbelievable twelve, but it’s still acceptable. For the sake of comparison, the 13-inch MacBook Air weighs over a pound more than the Surface Pro 3, and that weight is largely from the battery. Since the Surface Pro 3 must also function as a tablet, I consider reduced battery life to be a reasonable compromise.

There are a few mars on the Surface Pro 3, though. It only has one USB port, so you’ll need to have a hub handy if you want to use multiple devices. There are still a few hiccups in the software, as well. I often have trouble waking the device from sleep mode, sometimes WiFi drops, and I’ve also found myself unable to remove the orientation lock from time to time. Hopefully the software issues will iron themselves out with a few updates. None of the issues occur often enough to cause any real trouble, and it’s nothing a quick restart can’t fix. The material used for the keyboard cover attracts every fleck of dust and dirt around, which is annoying, but so far it has always wiped clean for me. Finally, how well the Surface Pro 3 will work on your lap largely depends on how long your legs are. If you are shorter than average, like me, it may be a tight squeeze.

The more I use it, the more I feel that the Surface Pro 3 is what the original Surface Pro should have been. I actually find myself wishing it was Apple who had taken initiative on this concept, because I am so entrenched in their ecosystem. I don’t think that can be held against Microsoft, though, as nearly every application I use on the Mac can be found on Windows or has an equivalent. The tablet side of things is a little less rosy, with the Windows App Store paling in comparison to Apple and Google’s offerings, but many major apps are now available there. I am very happy with the new Surface Pro 3. I had no misgivings about returning the first model in just a few days, and I have no misgivings about hanging on to this model for the foreseeable future. It’s a little expensive, but it is incredibly flexible and can actually do double-duty as a laptop and a tablet. The Surface Pro 3 gets a 0.5 on the Impoverished Geek Scale of Buyer’s Remorse.

PROS: Effectively serves as a laptop and tablet, excellent display, performs incredibly well for its size
CONS:Expensive, limited selection of tablet apps, single USB port limits use of external devices

Net Neutrality

There’s a big-to-do about Net Neutrality these days. Everyone is stumbling over themselves to explain it, providing any number of stilted and self-serving analogies to dumb the concept down. I’m not going to do that here. Instead, I’m going to explain to you, very simply, how the internet actually works, so you can understand why Net Neutrality is such a big deal. Ready?

The Internet — which includes the web and any number of other types of communication services — is not a single network. It is, in truth, many networks linked together. Your Internet Service Provider(ISP), be it Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, or one from a multitude of smaller companies, has their own network that you connect to. If you and your neighbor both have the same ISP, you’re both on the same network. You could directly transmit data between one another, and it would not cost your ISP a cent, because they don’t need to connect to anyone else’s network.

Of course, not everyone uses the same ISP. In order for the Internet to work, every ISP must agree to work together and share the data requested from one network to another. This is done through an Internet Exchange Point(IXP). If a web site is hosted on another ISPs network, the two providers transfer the data at an IXP. The various ISPs that connect at an IXP typically share data without expecting compensation. The cost of hardware is covered by the ISP using it, and the cost of upkeep is shared among all concerned parties. A smaller ISP may pay a third party for access to an IXP rather than set up their own hardware and peering agreements.

When moving large amounts of frequently-accessed data, an IXP can be inefficient. To handle the heavy load of things like software updates and streaming video, Content Delivery Networks(CDNs) come into play. A CDN will place servers with regularly-synchronized data across multiple networks. They often have agreements with multiple ISPs, and house their servers on many major ISP networks in order to avoid going through IXPs whenever possible. Companies like Netflix pay lots of money to CDNs in order to make sure their customers can access their services reliably and quickly. Major internet presences like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft even build their own CDNs.

The issue of CDNs and ISPs has come to head with Netflix, however. Netflix has worked with many ISPs in order to have their own CDN, brokering peering deals in order to stream extremely high-quality video. The deal, according to most sources, was simple: Netflix would provide the (incredibly expensive) hardware, and the ISP would in turn provide a free connection to their customers. This would reduce the load on third party CDNs, and make the transmission of Netflix’s data cheaper and more efficient for both Netflix and the ISP. Netflix also advertised which ISPs would offer their improved “Super HD” service.

Some ISPs, like Comcast, did not like Netflix’s proposed terms. In these instances, Netflix continued to use third-party CDNs. A funny thing started happening: Netflix noticed that customers using third-party CDNs were getting noticeably worse connections than customers on ISPs with direct peering agreements. In fact, connection quality was actually getting progressively worse in many cases. Netflix claims Comcast is purposefully slowing traffic from the CDNs they partner with. Comcast claims that their connections to the Netflix-partnered CDNs were congested, overburdened with traffic too heavy for their hardware to support.

Netflix argues that ISPs should be upgrading those connections. Their customers are paying for high-quality internet service and ISPs are not keeping up with their end of peering agreements.

Comcast argues that companies like Netflix put excessive stress on their network, and should pay for the cost of increased traffic.

Net Neutrality is the belief that ISPs must make sure that all connections have the same level of service, regardless of their source or content. Under Net Neutrality, ISPs are required to make sure every connection operates at the same level of performance.

ISPs would prefer charging more for high-bandwidth content like streaming video, or to charge both the customer and the source for the transmission of data, fundamentally changing the many peering agreements that have been in place since the inception of the Internet.

Proponents of Net Neutrality argue that allowing ISPs to limit the speed of certain connections will prevent competition and keep smaller companies from being able to reliably offer services on the Internet.

It is true that the Internet is a far more complex beast than it once was. However, if an ISP promises a certain level of service, do they have the right to only provide that level of service when the connection on the other end is also paying them?

Isla Vista

I wrote 750 words about the shooting in Isla Vista, California, but I don’t think I have anything to add to the discussion. A spoiled brat with an entitlement complex let his imagination run wild and, having never looked inward to consider that his issues might stem from within, decided to take his frustrations out on the world instead of trying to fix himself. That his family intervened and failed is unfortunate, that they could not convince authorities to take action beforehand doubly so.

Everyone is looking for somewhere to place the blame. Some will blame the availability of guns, some a lack of mental health care, some the unfortunate sway of Pick-Up Artist culture. It was all these things and more, culminating in Elliot Rodger making the decision to lash out. The blame falls to him. I say this as a person who find his nation’s obsession with guns disturbing, its lackluster treatment of mental health abhorrent, and the worship of destructive, antisocial behavior unconscionable.

Feminists —  a group I’d like to count myself among — are right to be up in arms about Rodger’s rambling, self-aggrandizing schlock of a manifesto. It is trash that I could not bring myself to read end-to-end. It reads like the rant of any other serial killer, focusing vitriol upon everyone but himself, especially women. His greatest obsession was seemingly with the fact that women were not throwing themselves at his feet.

Gun control supporters are right to believe that a person as obviously unstable as Rodger should not be allowed near firearms. Whether he shared the entirety of his issue with his family and therapists is hard to say. His pent-up aggression and rage lead me to believe he internalized much of his frustration. Someone with more experience, time, and patience may be able to better discern whether everything possible was done to manage his obviously volatile mental state.

Pick-Up Artists, and other misogynists, may be too far gone to ever “fix” or “save.” They are already convinced some human beings are objects that exist solely for their pleasure. I don’t know that you can change a group like that. You have to work hard to make sure no one else joins their ranks and hope some of them eventually see the error of their ways. Bigotry and hate isn’t something you can reason out of a person, it seems to me. If they thought reasonably, they’d never have come to their stupid conclusions in the first place.

Inevitably, tragedy of this nature will strike again. It may not be the exact same circumstance. Rodger wasn’t just a misogynist. He was also a bigot and a classist. Though the brunt of his hatred was focused on women, he confessed to loathing people of different races and societal standing. He placed himself above everyone, women most of all, but everyone. Another nut will come to the same conclusion over a slightly different set of circumstances, and we’ll have this same problem all over again.

People will say that these conversations shouldn’t be had in the wake of tragedy. That this time should be spent rebuilding and getting on with lives. These people are wrong. These conversations are important. But they can’t just happen with the ebb and flow of the news cycle. They need to be kept front and center well past the point of trending topics and breaking news.

We, as a society, are failing. We have to do better.

Los Angeles, Day Six

I left Pasadena just before 2 am, and made the drive back to my hotel in Hawthorne in less than forty five minutes. The drive there took nearly an hour and a half. That’s LA traffic in a nutshell. All big-city traffic, really.

I packed my bags, leaving a single change of clothes out for the next day and attempted to go to bed. I did not sleep well. Perhaps it was apprehension about the flight, or just a sense of the area still tugging on me. I went to LA intending to do a number of things. I accomplished most of them. I met up with friends. I took in the sights. I experienced new things. I came to realize that, yes, Los Angeles is a place I could be happy living. I did not decide whether it was somewhere I would move right away, though. That one lingering thing continues to gnaw at me.

Where do I go from here? I don’t have the answer yet.

I woke up way too early and could not find my way back to sleep, so I gave everything in my room a once-over and then watched Sunday’s episode of Cosmos. Of course, I immediately fell asleep, waking just moments before I’d set my alarm in the first place. I showered, loaded my luggage into the rental car, and checked out of the hotel, the last of many firsts for me on the trip.

Returning my car was a lot faster than picking it up. I was checked out in short order. The shuttle to LAX left just as I was approaching the door, but another one pulled up minutes later. The bus quickly loaded with other travelers, and we made our way to the airport. The only stand-out passenger on the ride was a very serious businesswoman who spent the whole trip talking to her subordinates on a bluetooth headset. It was impressive; she jumped from subject to subject without skipping a beat, each time recalling volumes of very specific information without ever referencing a notebook or mobile device.

I arrived at LAX far too early, with three hours to kill. I made my way though security relatively quickly. The only hang-up was a woman who kept setting off the metal detector as she walked through it. After finding my gate, I looked for a place to grab a bite to eat. Inside a nearby food court was a Real Food Daily. I got a Breakfast Sammie, which I did not care for. Either the avocado or the veganaise just didn’t suit my palate. I ate a few bites of it just to be sure I wasn’t being a total wuss before giving up on it.

I got a phone call from the person who would be picking me up at the airport as I was leaving the food court. I verified my plans with her as I walked to the gate. I sat down and read a screenplay to pass the time.

My seat on the flight back was far better than the one I had on the way in. I was seated beside a window, and the the seat to my right was blocked, allowing all the space I could hope for in economy. An older religious man sat in the aisle seat. He spent most of the flight reading from and taking notes in a book on scripture as he munched on a snack mix.

As the plane banked over the ocean, before heading east, there was a moment where I could see nothing but water. It was as if the entire world had disappeared. Even from our height, with clouds between us and the expanse of the Pacific, it seemed so close. My seat was right beside the port wing, so I could not get an unobstructed view of the land beneath me, but the occasional peek at the world beneath us was still beautiful. The mountains we passed over still filled my view, revealing both our elevation and their grand majesty.

As we reached cruising altitude, I finished reading a television pilot sent to me by a friend and worked on a story of my own. As I wrote, the person in front of me leaned their chair back, revealing in no uncertain terms that a 15-inch Macbook Pro is just barely too large to use comfortably in economy. With the wrist rest pressed firmly against my stomach, I was able to tilt the screen just enough to make it visible when I looked down at it. I pressed on, determined to make the most of my four hours in the sky. American Airlines helped by playing Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit as our inflight entertainment.

I completed another section of my interactive story and made a writing schedule for the foreseeable future.  In total, I wrote over 7,000 words during the trip. 1,200 words a day is far more than my usual average. I was proud, but knew I could to do better. I found myself wondering if I could do 2,000 a day while still working full time? What if I could do more?

O’Hare was busy when we landed; outbound planes were rushing to leave before heavy rains set in. We still got off the plane early. All in all, my return flight was far more pleasant than my departing one. I made sure to chew gum during takeoff and landing, significantly reducing the pain in my ears during major altitude changes.

My ride from the airport arrived more quickly than expected, so we stopped by Pita Inn for a late dinner before she dropped me off at home. One thing has changed about me since the trip: I didn’t ask them to nix the tomatoes or tahini this time around.