Pixel 5 Follow-Up

A picture of my Pixel 5.

John ScalziI’ve had a number of people ping me to ask me if I had any further thoughts on the Pixel 5 since I did my first impressions review a couple weeks back; apparently a lot of folks are in the market for a phone right about now. The answer is, yes, I do, and they are mostly: I really like this phone.

Some bullet points to expand on this:

* To begin, the battery life is, for me at least, phenomenal. For the first time that I’ve owned a cell phone, I’m not experiencing battery anxiety; I can use the phone like I usually do all day and still have a significant amount of battery left at the end of the day, when I set it back on the charger. I honestly don’t know what to do with myself; I keep checking my battery levels in the middle of the day, expecting them to be something like 30%, and then the Pixel 5 tells me it’s at, like, 85% and looks at me judgingly. Eventually over the lifespan of the phone the battery life will decrease, as this is the way of all things, but even when it does, it’s likely to get to the sort of battery level I had on the Pixel 4 when it was new. That’s acceptable to me. I can enthusiastically recommend the Pixel 5 simply on the battery experience alone.

* But the rest of the Pixel 5 experience is quite pleasant too! As noted before, the pictures out of the phone are as good as they ever are out of the Pixel line, the Pixel-specific phone features continue to be lovely, and if there’s any slowdown in the daily function of the phone because it’s using the 765 Snapdragon chip (save for a slight lag in photo-processing when you ask it to do portrait mode), I haven’t noticed it. The phone continues to be a delight to hold; the “bio-resin” coating on the aluminum back is not slippery and doesn’t attract fingerprints, and I can use it with a single hand.

If I have any complaint at all, it is that the fingerprint scanner on the back is slightly too sensitive and it accidentally drops down my notification drawer from time to time. But I think that’s at least partly due to me being out of the habit of positioning my finger on the back, thanks to the Pixel 4 using face unlock. I suspect the muscle memory will return.

But by and large, the Pixel 5, as a piece of technology, is transparent to me, which is to say that I don’t have to think about it as hardware, in order to access the things I use it for. It’s really well-designed as an everyday tool.

(Oh, and, I finally saw 5G on my phone the other day! It’s fine, it runs a little faster than 4G here in the boonies, but not enough so that I’m going to spend any amount of time thinking about it.)

* I was forwarded an Ars Technica review of the Pixel 5 today, which effectively said “why pay for the Pixel 5 when the Pixel 4a is almost as good for half as much?” For me, the answer is: Better camera, better screen, better build quality and better battery (also better processor and RAM, but I’m sure the 4a’s processor and RAM are fine). The way the review sort of elides all of that is a bit, well, sloppy. But honestly, if the 4a fits your lifestyle better, I’m sure Google, who makes both, would be happy to take your money either way!

It’s about use cases. In my use case, the Pixel 4a wouldn’t be enough, while the Pixel 5 is perfect. If you really like the feature set of the Pixel 5 but are kinda on the fence on the cost, you might check out the Pixel 4a 5G phone (No, Google is not helping with these too similar phone labels). The 4a 5G has the same camera and processor as the 5, but the build quality is slightly less robust, and it doesn’t have as much RAM. But it’s $200 cheaper! So, again, it’s about what you want out of a phone.

As it happens, I think the price of the Pixel 5 is perfectly reasonable for what you get, and also (and again, as noted in my previous writeup), the price is going to go down real soon anyway as the holiday sales get fired up. So if you want the phone but are price sensitive, wait a couple more weeks and you’ll see some price drops.

* So, yes. To repeat: I really like the Pixel 5; it sort of perfectly fits how I use a phone here in 2020, and I suspect that it will be a solid fit for a lot of other people. To borrow a phrase from one Google’s competitors in the phone arena, “it just works.” I like it just working.

— JS


And Now, Some More General Thoughts on the 2020 Election

Picture of Trump with the words

Original photo by Gage Skidmore, used under Creative Commons license.

John ScalziEarlier today I wrote a long piece about white supremacy and the 2020 election, which is here if you want to see it, but in case you’re wondering if I had any other thoughts about the election, here are some of them, in no particular order.

1. I am fucking relieved. In part because for a few days there the election looked closer than it would turn out to be, and if there’s one thing I know about the GOP, it’s that you never let the election get close, because then they are more than happy to steal it. Tuesday night it looked stealable, and I was trying to get my head in a place where I had to live another four years in a country with a corrupt dimwit bigot as president. I avoided most news and social media on Wednesday and Thursday, on the basis that if something genuinely bad happened, someone would probably text me.

Friday tipped Pennsylvania over and given where the outstanding ballots were still coming in from, and who they would likely to be for, I began to feel, well, better. And then after that, it was just waiting for the inevitable, which finally came on Saturday. Trump lost! He’s a loser! Biden won! He’s not a loser!

I thought when the official word came down that Biden had won it that I might cry. I did not, in part because the whole thing was extended over several days, and basically my psyche got to have some time to deal with the idea that Biden would actually win this thing. I did choke the hell up at several moments, however. In a larger, existential sense, the joy of not having to deal with Trump after January 20 is immense. And I am, let’s remember, a well-off cis, het white man. I cannot even fathom how relieved someone who is not white or cis or het feels right now.

This election is not the end of things, it’s just the beginning, and things will get harder, especially if Mitch McConnell is not punted as Senate Majority Leader. But I think it’s okay for the moment to be relieved. For four years, at least, we won’t have a president who is a real live grifting toxic piece of shit, and we won’t have all his grifting toxic piece of shit cronies to deal with, either. I will take that, thank you.

2. Related to this, while my previous post was a bit of a downer in terms of how many US citizens voted for Trump, in fact, I’m reasonably happy about events. Hey! 75 million people voted for Biden! That’s a majority of voters! And that’s likely to grow, both in raw numbers and percentages, as votes continue to be counted. This is a larger gap between voter numbers than Clinton got over Trump (remember: Trump lost the popular vote — most voters didn’t want him as president). I think the current estimate is that Biden will wind up with 306 electoral votes, which in a nice bit of irony is the number of electoral votes Trump got the last time around. Suck it, Trump! Biden got all your electoral votes and the popular vote!

More than that, these folks voted en masse — in the largest turnout, percentage-wise, in a century — despite active and real-time suppression of the vote by the GOP. The GOP wasn’t even pretending to be subtle about it this time around: You don’t fucking argue that one ballot drop-off location is sufficient for a county of four and a half million people, as the governor of Texas did, with a straight face. And of course there was Trump and his toadies, screaming about “legal votes,” i.e., the votes that were for him, not for Biden. And, well, one, fuck them, and two, given the election results, lots of the people who voted for Biden apparently voted for Republican senators and representatives on the same ballot, so one wonders how the GOP is going to square this with any more logic than “all votes for the GOP are inherently valid; all votes for anyone else are inherently not.” Which brings us back to point one: Fuck them.

It doesn’t appear that this particular election was notably plagued by voter fraud, any more than any other election ever is. There’s not an election fraud issue in the United States, it’s just the dog whistle that the GOP uses do it doesn’t have to explicitly say “we’re disenfranchising people who aren’t white.” Their problem this year, such as it is, is that the president and all his cronies are movie villains; they monologued well in advance what they were planning to do. Which, fortunately, gave the rest of us time to prepare, by voting early enough that ballots got in no matter how much the Trump administration slowed down the mail, by voting early in person, and by understanding that the entire GOP platform this year was “Keep People From Voting.” As I said on the day I cast my ballot, early and in person: Fuck you, I voted. There were literally millions of other people who said the same thing. And we won!

3. With that said, for the second presidential election cycle in a row, polls seemed awfully skewed and inaccurate, not regarding the national popular vote, but in the state and local races. Polls suggested that a number of Democratic senatorial candidates were up, and above the margin of error, and then on election day these candidates lost their elections by significant percentages. In both 2016 and 2020, polls seemed to offer, for lack of a better term, a “blue mirage,” where the Democratic support seemed stronger than it actually was.

Why? Got me, I’m not a pollster. But it’s a very real thing. The Biden campaign told its people to act and work like they were behind in the polls, and warned its voters not to become complacent. This was very wise! If the Democrats had ever let up, we might be looking at a very different presidential election result. The electoral college favors the GOP enough that a Democrat has to outperform in the popular vote to win, and sometimes even that is not enough: See 2000 and 2016.

(Yes, we should retire the electoral college, and yes, in a perfect world the president would be elected by popular vote with ranked choice. We don’t live in that world right now.)

I tried myself not to get too complacent regarding polls, but I still was surprised at how the Democrats underperformed in the senate races. Going forward my new plan is to simply subtract 5 points from the Democrat for any senate poll I see, and at least a couple points off any presidential poll. Seems a reasonable coping strategy.

In the meantime, remember that at this point control of the Senate is still up for grabs, due to the senatorial runoff elections in Georgia, which will happen in January. If you’re a Democrat, you might want to, you know, donate to those races (and vote in them, if you’re in Georgia).

4. As of this writing, Trump has not conceded the election and plans a series of legal challenges to it, which is unsurprising because he’s petulant fucking child who stomps his feet when he doesn’t get his way, waaaaaaaah. I don’t expect him to ever concede the election in any meaningful sense; at the very least he’ll whine and complain and gripe how it was stolen from him, which is a lie and is now a thing every news outlet will note, because he lost fair and square and the transition machinery is already in process. It doesn’t matter if he concedes; it’s not legally required and Biden will be the next president happen no matter how much he stomps his feet (unless he resigns and lets Pence have a couple of weeks in the big chair. Which would be amusing. And then Biden would still be president on January 20). But it’s certainly a reminder that he’s a petty and truculent waste of protein, and that to him losing is literally the worst thing that could ever happen to him.

It’s not — check with the New York State Attorney General about that, she’s got some plans to harsh his mellow starting at 12:01pm on January 20th — but I don’t mind if he feels that way. He deserves all the misery he heaps upon himself.

5. It took about 15 minutes from the race being called for Biden for conservatives and GOPers to start demanding that Democrats reach across the aisle to them, and Biden, because he’s Biden, has said nice anodyne things about wanting to be the president for all Americans, not just the ones who voted for him. It’s a pretty sentiment that I vaguely approve of in theory but as a practical matter think is… naive as things stand.

Why? Because, look: The modern GOP is a goddamned shithole of money-grubbing white supremacy whose entire political strategy is “fuck you, you get nothing,” and which sees conciliatory acts by the Democrats as a sign of weakness. If every time you reach across the aisle someone stabs you through the hand, you eventually stop reaching, or you’re a fool. I don’t mind if Biden makes some conciliatory gestures, or puts a couple of Republicans into his cabinet, or whatever. He’s a chummy guy and he’s old and thinks the relationships he had in the Senate 20 years ago still matter. And maybe he’s right! Maybe he can move whatever dessicated husk of a soul that resides in Mitch McConnell to cooperate on something. But I sincerely fucking doubt it, and I think he damn well better have a Plan B for after the first time that doesn’t work, which I expect will be, roughly, 12:02pm, January 20th, 2021.

6. By the same token, everyone saying that people who voted for Biden should be nice to the Trump voters’ tender feelings at the moment should maybe take a seat. As I noted in a tweet yesterday:

Let’s not pretend that quite a few of the people who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 spent the last four years reveling in the fact that, since their idol was a raging bigoted asshole, they got to be a raging bigoted asshole as well. Four years of open racist bullshit, of science denial that contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, of loud homophobia and transphobia and sexism, of morally plastic “Christianity” and of, yes, seeing “fuck your feelings” as a moral trump card, pun absolutely intended. I don’t have to care what you think, the big toddler I helped put into the White House said I don’t have to. 

Then, the instant that big toddler loses, the people who they’ve spent four years screaming Fuck Your Feelings at, whose rights they’ve ignored and tried to curtail, who they’ve openly been bigoted toward, have to, what? Welcome them back into the fold with soothing, comforting hugs? Pretend the last four years didn’t happen? Accept as ground rules for moral behavior things that not only did Trump supporters not accept for themselves, but spent four years celebrating that they were released from? Those Fuck Your Feelings t-shirts didn’t come out of nowhere. There was a market for them. Trump supporters wanted them. Why? Because fuck you, that’s why.

We are all Americans, and we all have to work to live together. But let me suggest that at the moment, there are some people who will need to work a little harder at it, and, surprise, it’s not the people who have been having “fuck your feelings” hurled at them for four years. If you’re a Trump supporter and you don’t think it’s fair that you might have to do some work here, well, honey, that’s your privilege showing, and as much as you hate it when other people point that out, it’s a hard fucking fact. It’s totally fair you have to put in a little more work to meet in the middle when you spent the last four years running as far from the middle as you could possibly get.

So get to it! You can do it! I believe in you!

7. Here’s what I wrote yesterday on Twitter about where we are at the moment:

Yes, I do actually mean it. Trump is a virus and he infected our body politic, a body that the GOP spent four decades lowering its immune system so that it could receive just the sort moral and political sickness that Trump personifies. And it worked! We got very sick, and we’re very sick still.

But it turns out our antibodies were stronger than suspected. We rallied despite the best efforts of the virus. And now we have the opportunity to get better. It’s not a done deal; the GOP is still out there trying to get us sick again, and our viral load is still regrettably high. But now, at least, there is a chance to rout it and get our body politic healthy again. That works for me, today.

— JS

The Sound of a Landslide Not Happening

John ScalziThis election should have been a landslide. Faced with a choice between a decent, if uninspiring, former Vice President with a long and solid track record of competent governance, and literally the worst president since the Civil War era — a president under whom the economy cratered, corruption reigned, human rights were stripped and mocked, social inequality reached new heights and a pandemic was allowed to blaze unchecked, killing a quarter of a million American souls — the decent man should have walked away from this election with 400 electoral votes at least.

America should have forcefully repudiated Donald Trump; this wannabe despot, this childish authoritarian who fawned over dictators, this incipient fascist whose first impulse towards American Nazis was to collect them into his embrace, and could only querulously condemn them under duress. This liar, this racist, this cheat, this sociopathic bundle of insecurities and anhedonia, this sad example of a human for whom the White House was merely an ATM with an oval office, this pathetic creature for whom everything was about who would flatter him and who he could punish, this impeached debauch, this bad man, should have been shown the door on the end of a broom.

Instead, Donald Trump received (at the time this was written) seventy million, four hundred thousand votes — 47.7% of the total vote. Four years of being worst president in modern history gained him seven million, four hundred thousand more votes than he received in 2016, and nearly two percentage points more of the total voting electorate. Seventy million, four hundred thousand American voters lived through four years of corruption and incompetence and eroding social norms and decided they wanted another four years of that. They saw a president be a bully and a bigot and a thug, and voted to give the bully four more years. They saw four years of a man siding with fascists, and then sided with him.

And let’s be blunt: “They” here are mostly white people. The exit polling, while not perfect, makes this clear. White men, white women, white people without college degrees, white people who make over $100,000 a year, evangelical white people — the majority of them who voted gave Donald Trump their vote last Tuesday. They did it again, please note; these same people gave him their vote in 2016, in nearly the same percentages. And while of course hashtag Not All White People — I mean, I didn’t vote for him — at the end of the day, according to those exit polls, 57% of white voters in America decided this awful man, with his lies and his hate and his corruption, was who they wanted, and who their country deserved to have. Again.

There is no excuse for it. I’m not going to be the white man who sanctimoniously tries to apologize to the rest of the United States population for the fact that the majority of white voters, when given a choice, will vote for an ethnically “pure” pseudo-Christian police state with an angry tinpot dictator at the tippy-top. Twice. It’s not my place to do that, not least of all because I’m well aware of how much I benefit, unwillingly or otherwise, from their tendencies. But at the very least I can acknowledge that even someone like me can see there is something wrong with whiteness in America: Something pathological, something hateful, something inexpressibly awful about it. This election was a literal no-brainer, possibly the easiest moral litmus test any presidential election has offered in the more than 220 years of presidential elections in the United States, and 57% of white voters just failed it, a non-trivial number of them flying vast “Trump” flags from their pickups as they did so.

Yes, I know. Folks who are not white (and a lot of them who are, but also happen to be LGBTQ+ or disabled or non-Christian) are rolling their eyes at me and saying “welcome to the party, pal.” I’m not under the illusion that I am telling anyone who has lived under whiteness all this time anything new about it. But let me re-emphasize here that this election was an easy test for white folks, likely the easiest of all possible tests. I mean, Jesus, the Democrats ran with Biden, the whitest of all possible white candidates this year, just to make it easy for other white people who don’t want to acknowledge their ingrained racism to do the morally and ethically correct thing! And still: 57% of white voters voted for Trump. 70.4 million voters, of which white people comprised the great majority. He gained votes and percentages after the four worst years any president has had since Hoover at least.

What I came away from the 2020 election knowing was that when given a choice between the worst president in living memory, who would happily dismantle the country and all its institutions if he could suck a nickel out of it — because he did just that for four straight years — and not that, white voters in their majority chose the worst. White voters will not defend the United States against its worst impulses. White voters will not save the United States from itself or anyone else. They’ll let it burn, to “own the libs,” but in reality because they’d rather be on the top of a pile of ashes than just another part of anything else, with people who they don’t see as being like them.

Which, well. Is disappointing.

Trump won seventy million, four hundred thousand votes. Joe Biden, thankfully, won seventy-four million and won a bare majority (50.5%) of the available voting populace, and the majority of the electoral college. White people did vote for Biden, of course; 42% of those who voted. But others voted for him more, in percentages if not raw numbers. Biden won because of black women and black men, because of Hispanics and Latinos, because of Asian Americans, Native Americans and others, all of whom came out to vote for Biden in much larger percentages than white people.They voted despite racist state and federal policies and ploys established to make it more difficult to vote — for fuck’s sake, the Trump administration started dismantling the postal service to keep early Democratic (read: minority) votes from arriving on time, and Republicans from Texas to Ohio made it more difficult to vote early in person. They voted as if their lives depended on it, because they did.

So did the life of our nation, at least as we understand it today. We don’t have to wait for history to say it, we can say it now: it was black women voters and black men voters who pulled the United States back from the brink. It was Latino and Hispanic voters. It was Asian American and Native American voters. It wasn’t just them — LGBTQ+ voters and new voters (many of whom overlap those aforementioned categories) broke toward Biden as well. They held better faith in the United States than white voters did. In his victory speech, Biden wisely acknowledged that his voters came from all quarters and pledged to make his administration look like the nation that had voted for him.

He had better keep that promise. It’s not enough to thank those who saved us — all of us, even the ones who voted for the wannabe dictator — from four more years of moral and institutional decay. Give them the levers of power that they should have access to already. Let them make this country better and more fair for everyone. We know what the alternative is. We’ve just had four years of it.

And if you think we can’t go back to it, remember: Trump got 7.4 million more votes and almost two percentage points more of the voting population after four years of being the worst president in living memory. Those voters aren’t going away, and not all of them will be peeled away from voting for the worst possible option, so long as it is white, before they shuffle off this mortal coil. 2024 is coming (and 2022 mid-terms before then). We’ll be fighting white supremacy for a long time, folks. At the very least, I can’t pretend to be surprised about it any more.

— JS

(Update: a piece with more general thoughts on the 2020 election is now up.)

Small Administrative Note Regarding Comments

Which is:

The spam filter has been unusually aggressive in the last month and is capturing a larger-than-expected number of actual comments from real humans. So if your comment doesn’t post immediately, don’t panic: I will (probably) find it in the spam queue and release it at some point.

Now, back to your scheduled Saturday —


Twenty Years an Author

The cover flap for The Rough Guide to Money Online, framed.

John ScalziToday’s a special occasion for me: Twenty years ago today, I became an author. Not a writer — I had been writing professionally for more than a decade at that point, and had been writing non-professionally even before then — but an author, someone who had written a book and then had that book put out into the world. Today, twenty years ago, The Rough Guide to Money Online came out into the world.

But wait, some of you say. Wasn’t Old Man’s War your debut? It was my debut novel, yes. But a quick glance at my bibliography shows that I had actually published four books before then, all non-fiction: The Rough Guide to Money Online, The Rough Guide to the Universe, and the Books of the Dumb, 1 & 2. Prior to becoming a novelist, I had quite a reasonable career as a non-fiction author going on, which has been a continuing thing as well — I have eleven non-fiction books, the most recent dating to 2018. In 2005, when Old Man’s War came out, I was often introduced as someone who was “primarily a non-fiction writer.” Which was at the time entirely true.

I’ve told the story of how I got signed to do Money Online before, so I won’t go into great detail about it now. But to briefly recap, in 1999, Rough Guides, which had great success with its Rough Guide to The Internet, wanted to publish a sequel relating to financial services online. One of the Rough Guides editor was talking to my then-agent Robert Shepard about it, and Robert said “I have just the guy for you,” and mentioned me, because at the time I was writing a financial newsletter for America Online. The Rough Guides editor said, “great, ask him,” and then Robert called me and said “I have a book lined up for you, do you want to do it?” And, well. Yes. Yes I did.

Athena, holding a copy of Money Online. She's three in the photo. Overall the writing of the book was a fairly painless experience. I submitted an outline (a fact that will make my fiction editors bowl over in shock), we had a little back and forth about it, and once it was finalized, I mostly worked from that. The nature of the book was pretty cut and dried — lots of explaining how to sign on to financial sites on the Web, and also how to use then-common financial programs — but I was allowed to drop in some personality here and there. The only time they really gave me any pushback was when my section on day trading consisted of a single word (“DON’T”) in the largest possible type. They felt this was a tad incomplete. They weren’t wrong, and I revised to explain why and then show people how to do it if they still felt the need. But to this day I stand by my initial draft.

I turned in my manuscript in the first quarter of 2000, and my Rough Guides editors were very happy with it, and assured me that even if it sold only a tenth of what The Rough Guide to the Internet had sold, it would be a smashing success. They did a nice amount of pre-publicity, including the mailing out of promotional plastic piggy banks (I still have one) and scheduled me on a six-city book tour, which included stops at Bloomberg and CNBC. They scheduled the book for early November, on the basis that after the Election Day results came and went, there would be a bit of a news vacuum. I and my book would be perfect to fill that. Everyone involved was expecting big things from The Rough Guide to Money Online.

The book failed. Pretty comprehensively.

There were reasons for that. To begin, between me turning in the manuscript and the book’s publication, the first Internet bubble had popped, and people were losing money on the Internet left and right. No one wanted a book that told you how to put your money onto the Web, even if it was more instructional than aspirational. To continue, the 2000 US Election was not, shall we say, a cut-and-dried affair; it dragged on for a month. There was no news vacuum to fill, and in at least a couple of cases our scheduled segments on news shows were cancelled. No one had time for my book when there were hanging chads to be discussed. My first book store event — a weekday lunchtime slot at a Chicago Barnes & Noble — had one audience member, a staffer who graciously spent her lunch hour listening to me while she ate her sandwich. After two stops on the tour, Rough Guides cancelled the rest of the dates and sent me home. I could not blame them.

Rough Guides gave me an $18,000 advance for Money Online and everyone assured me that they anticipated the book earning that out in the first couple of months. It never came close to earning out; only the fact that it is now out of print keeps it from still being in the red.

How did I feel about my first book being a commercial failure? I mean, it wasn’t my favorite thing. I would have liked it to have been more of a success. But no one blamed me for it being a complete bomb. The book was good and did everything it was meant and designed to do, except sell; it just had the misfortune of being released at the worst possible time for a book with that subject matter. Sometimes you do everything right and you fail anyway. Life is like that.

The book was a commercial failure. But here’s the thing: It wasn’t a failure for me. Rough Guides, who had been pleased with the content of the book and with me as a writer who did not induce headaches for them, asked Robert and I to pitch them another book. We pitched the book that would become The Rough Guide to the Universe, and that book was a success — it went into two editions, in fact, the first and to date only book of mine to do so. That led to The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies in 2005, which was also a success. Money Online, although a commercial failure, opened the door for more work as an author. It doesn’t always work that way, but in this case it did.

It was also useful for other work. At the time I was doing a lot of corporate consulting and marketing, and core clientele were financial services companies and tech companies. Money Online straddled both spheres, and being able to point to a published book that covered those topics was an advantage with clients when selling myself for their various projects. It reassured clients that I knew what I was talking about, and that I wasn’t a complete flake. I wrote a book, after all. You need an attention span for that.

But more than that, for me it represented a personal milestone. I should be clear that one may have a long, happy and profitable career as a writer and never once write a book, and many writers have done just that. Likewise, having written (and having published) a book doesn’t mean you’re a better writer than someone who hasn’t. It’s a medium, not a medal. For all that, I think that it’s accurate to say that books feel special to writers, and almost holy — they represent an achievement and to a great extent make you feel like what you’ve written has achieved some sort of permanence.

I certainly felt that way. My career up until the publication of Money Online had been primarily in newspapers and online. In a decade I had written hundreds of thousands of words, and all of them were essentially disposable, meant to be read once and recycled (in the case of the newspaper writing), or scrolled away from for the next thing (in the case of the online writing). None of it was meant to stay, held in a form you could hold, and put on a shelf, and take down and refer to anytime you wanted.

Athena, as a toddler, holding a couple copies of my book in the bookstore.But finally I had that — I had a book. I had written it, it was real, I had been paid for it, and it went out into bookstores. I remember calling a local bookstore the weekend before the book was meant to come out, to see if they were planning to have it in stock, and they said, “Oh, we already have it out. We have lots of copies.” So we took a family trip and I got to see my very first book, in a bookstore. Multiple copies! That anyone could buy! How great was that? Answer: it was pretty great.

Twenty years has tempered my expectations on the permanence of books, I will note. Money Online itself brings that home. It was mostly off bookstore shelves in a couple of years, and the accuracy of the information inside the book began to decay almost instantly, because the Internet is not set in stone, or even in paper and ink. If you were to read the book today it would be comically inaccurate and functionally useless. Rough Guides took it out of print several years ago, along with my other books for them, when they decided to refocus on travel and ditch all the other things they had branched out into. You can still find Money Online if for some reason you are absolutely determined to have it (try eBay); the question is why you would be so determined to have it. Books, like everything else, pass out of sight. Very few books achieve cultural permanence. My very first book was not destined to be one of them.

For all that I am still excited for every new book of mine. It is never not amazing to see your book for the first time. And Money Online will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s the book that made me an author; once it was published, even if I never published another book, I could still say I wrote a book. That was satisfying in itself, and would have been enough, if that had been all there was for me.

It wasn’t. When Money Online was published, Krissy presented me with the framed cover flat for the book, and on the frame were the words “The First of Many.” She was right; twenty years on I have written 32 books, not counting books I’ve edited or anthologies I’ve contributed to, and I will get beyond 40 before all my current contractual obligations are fulfilled. That’s a lot of books.

And it all started on this date, two decades back, with that one little book. A small start. Look where it’s gotten me.

— JS

How I Got Over Phone Anxiety

Athena ScalziIn my last post, I mentioned how I had a hard time understanding people who can’t order at drive-thrus or ask for help in a store. I also mentioned people who can’t make phone calls, and noted that a lot of the time, these people can’t really explain why they feel the way they do. At least, that’s the experience I had many years ago when I was plagued with phone anxiety.

For as long as I can remember, up until I was sixteen, I couldn’t make phone calls. The idea was so horrifying to me. I didn’t get a cell phone until I was twelve, but even before that, I couldn’t use the landline to call friends or talk to family members. What if I dialed the number wrong and a stranger picked up? What if there was a bad connection and I couldn’t be understood or heard right? Eight-year-old me was simply petrified.

I distinctly remember my mother being dumbfounded by this idea that I had difficulty calling people. One time, when I was eleven, I wanted to know if the roller rink was open, so my mom told me to call and ask their hours. I remember my heart racing as I dialed, and when I got an answering machine, I hung up abruptly and cried. Looking back at it, I really don’t understand why I did that. Wasn’t a recording that stated the hours and address better than talking to a person? Why did I freak out? What was my problem? I didn’t know at the time, and I’m still not sure.

I remember another instance of this happening when I wasn’t so little anymore. I was sixteen and had just been given a credit card, and had to call the company to register it. Dealing with the automated bot was easy enough, but when it asked me to speak my social security number out loud, it couldn’t understand me for some reason, and I ended up getting connected to a real person. I couldn’t respond to the person on the other end because my throat immediately closed up and tears came to my eyes. I literally couldn’t talk because I was freaking out so bad.

So what happened to change this phone anxiety? Well, a few months later, I got a job at Jay and Mary’s Book Center, a book store two towns over. Little did I know that in retail, you have to answer the phone a lot.

At first, it was beyond difficult. I had to make calls to people whose books came in, I had to answer the phone and be ready for any kind of question or request. It was stressful. But then, after a few weeks, it just went away. Completely faded. Being exposed to it every day for a month really just kind of made me better.

Nowadays, I’ll call literally anywhere. Every restaurant has online ordering, but most of the time I just find it easier to call and give them my order. Oftentimes it’s faster! Not sure if a store is open and Google has unreliable information about their hours? Call ’em! I don’t know what I was so afraid of.

Exposure therapy does not work for everyone, and it can sometimes make things worse. But it helped me. And I’m thankful for my retail experience. Which is not something I ever thought I’d say (though my book store job was great and I’m happy I had the opportunity to work at the best bookstore this side of the Mississippi).

I know how hard it can be to live life with this debilitating anxiety of talking to people, whether it be through a phone, a drive-thru screen, or simply a grocery store worker. If you have this kind of problem, I hope it gets easier for you someday, whether it’s through exposure therapy or otherwise. In this hectic world of nonstop communication, I know it can be tough. Stay strong, and have a great day.


Understand That You Can Never Understand

Athena ScalziIf you live with a disability, I’m sure you’re familiar with how difficult it can be to explain your disability to others. Whether it be a doctor, a friend, or a family member, trying to get them to understand how it feels to have your disability can be rather challenging. Trying to make someone understand your disability goes beyond explaining symptoms, it’s more like you’re trying to explain the effect these symptoms have on you, and how they can take a toll on your physical and/or mental health.

If you know someone who has a disability, I’m sure you’re familiar with the feeling of confusion, the lack of understanding of what exactly their issue is. And no matter how many times they try to explain it to you, there’s still a part of you that just doesn’t get it.

You have to make peace with the fact that you will never fully understand a person’s disability. No matter how much you listen and learn, you will never know how it feels to be them, to have their disability. You can know the symptoms by heart, but you’ll never be able to know first-hand how it feels to experience those symptoms.

I know it can be frustrating to not understand, to not grasp why a person is affected the way they are by their disability, but you just have to be as understanding as possible, and accept you’ll never truly know what it feels like.

For example, I have narcolepsy (with cataplexy). As you may or may not know, narcolepsy is a neurological disorder where the affected person gets tired very suddenly, and has sleep attacks where it’s almost impossible to not fall asleep. So people assume it just means I get sleepy or I’m tired all the time. But the tiredness I feel when my narcolepsy hits me out of nowhere is a completely different type of tired that feels incredibly difficult to explain. It’s something more than sleepy, it’s more than just a standard “tired” feeling. As much as I can try to sit here and explain it to you, the simple fact is that you’ll never really get it.

This is especially true for cataplexy, a side effect of narcolepsy that makes me lose complete muscle control when I laugh too hard. If I laugh too much I’ll literally collapse onto the floor like a ragdoll and just lay there, not moving or breathing. But I’m still totally conscious! Though you really can’t tell since my eyes shut because I lack the capability of keeping them open while enduring a cataplexy attack. When I ragdoll, though, my nerves actually become hypersensitive so anything I feel physically is amplified. And I truly cannot explain how that feels. It’s so different from anything I’ve ever experienced.

Before I developed narcolepsy with cataplexy, I never knew these feelings that I feel all the time now were even possible. To be fair, I developed it around twelve or thirteen, so I’ve been this way for a while. And you’ll never really understand how living with this disability, one that makes me fucking sleepy, has greatly impacted my life. It’s not just an annoyance, it’s not just frustrating, it’s not just maddening. I genuinely fear it sometimes. What if I fall asleep somewhere I’m not supposed to, or if I cataplex on the edge of a cliff? And yes, I use cataplex as a verb, I don’t really know if it’s right but it’s my brain disorder and I can do what I like.

The point is, everyone has things that they simply can’t explain, and even when they do their best to, it doesn’t mean you’ll really know what it feels like for them. Even if you have a disability, it doesn’t mean you understand other disabilities. Like, if I have depression, it doesn’t automatically mean I can understand how a person with anxiety feels. Just because we both have brain issues doesn’t mean I get theirs at all! Like I don’t understand how some people with social anxiety can’t order at the drive-thru or ask for help finding something in a store? Similarly, someone could look at me and be like “I don’t understand why she can’t just get out of bed and do the things she has to do”. The answer is, I’m not really sure. Just like how some socially anxious people who can’t make phone calls usually don’t really know why they can’t, either.

Anyways, enough about me. What I’m trying to say is that you should do your best to be understanding of those who have problems different from your own. And if you ever find yourself not really getting someone’s issues, you should consider yourself lucky. Be patient. Be understanding. And be kind.

And as always, have a great day.


It Is a Good Day to Vote

The US flag flying in front of my yard, with the word

John ScalziMind you, almost one hundred million Americans have already voted, via early voting and mail-in voting (including me and my family). This is around three quarters of the number of people who voted in the 2016 election, so, well done them. But if you haven’t voted yet, today is a very good day to do so. You may find your polling place here. Be prepared to stand in line. If you’re an adult US citizen, don’t let anyone keep you from voting.

Reminder: Trump may try to declare victory before all votes are counted, and then try to use that as an excuse not to count all the ballots, on the basis that doing so would keep him from winning. Just remember he’s a liar and a cheater, and wait to hear from actual reputable sources. We may not know tonight who has won. It may take a while to count all the votes. Be patient.

I hope we see the end of this election with a new president for January. Whatever happens, I am proud of every American who took the time and effort to vote. This is the most important election of our lives. I’m happy so many of us stood to be counted.

Sound off in the comments if you’ve voted in this election!

— JS

The Big Idea: Erica L. Satifka

What does a futuristic, high-tech world look like for those who can’t afford said high-tech? When cities start to look like Blade Runner 2049, what do the rural areas and boondocks look like? In Erica L. Satifka’s newest novel, Busted Synapses, she explores a kind of dystopian future that perhaps isn’t so far off from where we are now.


There was a popular tweet a few years ago that stated “If you’re under sixty years old, you weren’t promised a flying car. You were promised an oppressive cyberpunk dystopia. Here you go.” As a congenitally pessimistic person I’ve always been drawn to cyberpunk, both for the aesthetic and because no other type of science fiction seemed to really describe what I thought life was going to be like in the future (i.e. bad). Cyberpunk also tends to focus on more everyday types of characters as opposed to starship captains and scientists. It’s these types of characters, and this type of bleak future, that are the basis of my novella Busted Synapses, a cyberpunk novel that takes place near where I grew up in small-town Appalachia.

Most cyberpunk stories take place in cities, of course, the type of cities where twenty-foot-tall televisions invite you to the off-world colonies. But in Busted Synapses, cities are for the wealthy and powerful only, thanks to a gentrification program centrally planned and carried out by the fictional Solfind Corporation. Everybody else is priced out to the crumbling suburbs and rural towns that aren’t worth Solfind’s investment, towns like Wheeling, West Virginia. In my take on the very near future, people are only worth what value they can give back to the billionaires who have effective control of the government and all other arenas of power. (This is a purely fictional situation, of course. We’d never push eight million Americans into poverty and leave millions of others unable to pay rent to prop up the stock market. That’s sheer fantasy.)

The “hero” of the story, if you can call her that, is Jess, a recent college graduate who tried to make it in the new “development zone” of Pittsburgh but was forced out, leaving her resentful and disgusted by the Wheeling residents (including her own family) she now lives among. Her unhappy life turns upside down when an android – dubbed a “New Woman” by Solfind – who was designed to drive humans from the labor market shows up in town. While Alicia the New Woman is much more personable than the automation that’s disrupting our society, the frustration of being a human in a world that’s rapidly losing the need for humans is all too real.

And of course, people need an escape hatch to deal with all this dystopia. In Busted Synapses one of those escape hatches is Trancium, an analogue to the opioid and meth epidemics that have devastated rural communities. The third focal character, Dale, has a foot in this underground economy, though he at least has the decency to feel a little bad about it. Many other people, like Jess’s own mother, find their escape in never-ending feeds that cascade their users in a flood of vapid Solfind-approved infotainment. In both cases, the goal of these distractions is to keep citizens narcotized and obedient, and prevent them from seeing what the Solfind oligarchs have really done to their society.

Some people might say that you can’t have cyberpunk without an urban setting, and it is true that Busted Synapses looks superficially more like our world than Neuromancer looked like 1980s Japan. But the spirit of alienation, techno-pessimism, and anti-corporatism are still there. If walled-off (either physically or economically) cities are our future, then the real revolutionaries have to be located outside of them, in the places where the neo-aristocrats of the very near future fear to tread. Bruce Sterling once called cyberpunk a combination of low life and high tech, and in this light Busted Synapses is about a gang of low lives dealing with the highest tech that capitalism lets trickle down to them, which isn’t much.

Tonight, an election will be decided, but regardless of who the victor turns out to be it’s hard to imagine that the many problems caused by extreme economic inequality and corporation-backed gentrification will vanish within the next few years. The causes of the opioid crisis and other “deaths of despair” will still be with us. While I hope it entertains you, I also hope Busted Synapses makes you stop and think about where we are headed. Jess’s world may not be inevitable if we act now to stop it.


Busted Synapses: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.


And Now, In News Unrelated to the Election

Me, having trimmed back my hair rather severely.

I’ve been annoyed with my hair a lot recently; it’s sort of gotten a look that I can only describe as “consistently failed comb over,” which is not a look that I think is great either for me or for people in general. So today I decided to do something about it, and after consultation with and approval from Krissy, who after all has to look at my head on a regular basis, I went ahead and took a pair of clippers to my head and made all my hairs a consistent 5 millimeter height.

And… I think it looks fine! This is not the first time I’ve done this — I did this for a while most of a decade ago — but more to the point my hair is not annoying me anymore. Maybe it will have learned its lesson and will not grow out again in comb-over mode. And if it does, well. I still have the clippers.

— JS

Election Eve Info

Reposting from Twitter, because that’s the easiest way to do it:

— JS

2020 Halloween Dance Mix

John ScalziAs promised, here is the playlist from the (virtual) Halloween dance party I DJ’d last night. Enjoy for your own future Halloween enjoyment. Click on any song title to take you to a YouTube video of the song.

1. “Superstition,” Stevie Wonder

2. “Devil Inside,” INXS

3. “Disturbia,” Rihanna

4. “Heads Will Roll,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs

5. “Toxic,” Britney Spears

6. “She’s In Parties,” Bauhaus

7. “Come Alive (War of the Roses),” Janelle Monae

8. “Dead Man’s Party,” Oingo Boingo

9. “The Monster,” Eminem feat. Rihanna

10. “Dragula,” Rob Zombie

11. “Somebody’s Watching Me,” Rockwell

12. “Monster,” Lady Gaga

13. “One Step Beyond,” Madness

14. “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” REM

15. “Highway to Hell,” AC/DC

16. “This is Halloween,” Marilyn Manson

17.  “I Want Candy,” Bow Wow Wow

18. “Maniac,” Conan Gray

19. “Ghostbusters,” Ray Parker, Jr.

20. “Boogieman,” Childish Gambino

21. “Master and Servant,” Depeche Mode

22. “Cannibal,” Ke$ha

23. “Cuidao Por Ahi,” J Balvin and Bad Bunny (this was a dance attendee request)

24. “Nemsis,” Shriekback

25. “Time Warp,” Rocky Horror Picture Show Soundtrack

26. “Everyday is Halloween,” Ministry

27. “Spiderwebs,” No Doubt

28. “Why Can’t I Be You?” The Cure

29. “Cities in Dust,” Siouxsie and the Banshees

30. “More Human Than Human,” White Zombie

31. “Thriller,” Michael Jackson

Also, here’s how I decided on these particular songs.

— JS

The Pixel 5: Why I Got One + First Impressions

The Pixel 4 and the Pixel 5 side by side. They are about the same size but the Pixel 5 has a noticeably larger screen.

This entry has two roughly equal parts: The first part is why I decided to get a Pixel 5, despite some initial misgivings, and the second part is a “first impressions” review. I’m separating them out for reader convenience; if you just want the review, scroll down to the second part.

Part One: In Which I Rationalize the Purchase of a Pixel 5

John ScalziI’ve been using the Google Pixel phone line since the Pixel 2, prompted by the fact that the line uniformly has the best cameras on cell phones, and also because it always has the latest edition of Android, plus the various neat tricks that Google implements on the Pixels — like “astrophotography mode” and call screening, which then may or may not trickle out to the rest of the Android OS universe. I’ve upgraded with every new edition because a) I can, and b) because I am always curious about the new things that have come with each edition of the phone.

With that said, when the Pixel 5 was announced, I had to give some thought about whether this time I would pick it up, or just hold steady with Pixel 4, or even — gasp! — go over to something like a Samsung. The reason for this was that the Pixel 5 is in many ways not so much of an upgrade as it is a “side-grade” to the Pixel 4, and a recasting of the Pixel line from a “flagship phone” to something more pedestrian. The Pixel line has gone mid-range.

So: The Pixel 5 no longer has the fastest available processing chip; it has the upper-midrange 765G Qualcomm chip, and it doesn’t have the specific chip that Google previously put into the Pixel line to speed up photo processing. It has more RAM than the Pixel 4 (8GB, up from 6), which is good, but has the same resolution screen with a (very slightly) lower pixel density, which is meh. The main camera is the same 12MP main camera as has been in every Pixel since the 2, and the telephoto lens — which I prefer — is replaced with a 16MP wide-angle lens, which I am indifferent about. The motion sensing on the Pixel 4 is entirely gone, as is face ID, and the fingerprint scanner is back. There’s only one form factor this year, so if you were a fan of the larger XL variant, you’re out of luck this year.

And so on. Basically, spec-wise, the only real improvement the Pixel 5 has over the Pixel 4 (save one, which I will get to) is the amount of RAM. Everything else is either technically a downgrade (the processing chip), or a lateral move (the ultra-wide lens instead of the telephoto). Now, Google is also selling the Pixel 5 for substantially less than it did the previous iterations of the Pixel — $699 out of the gate, and with holiday price drops already planned — so neither I nor anyone else can complain that Google is charging the same for less. But when it comes to phones, I’m not a price-sensitive person; I don’t mind paying extra for bells and whistles. So the question is, what do I get out of the Pixel 5 that either I don’t already have, or, could get from another phone?

The back side of the Pixel 5.

The Pixel 5’s “Sort of Sage” color, which is an almost perfect match for my office walls. Note this is not why I got it.

One answer is the one Pixel 5 upgrade that I didn’t mention: The battery. The Pixel line has always been mostly underpowered for its technical specs, and so this time around Google shoved a 4000mAh battery into the P5, a better than 50% capacity boost from the Pixel 4. A much larger battery paired with more modest processing specs means that finally I — whose phone has its screen on a whole lot — might get through an entire day without needing to recharge. This is less of an issue in our COVID times, when I’m at home anyway and never far from one of my Pixel charge stations. But one day we might be able to leave our homes again (safely, wear a mask, people) and that will be useful.

Otherwise, excepting a few features Google is offering the Pixel 5 first, but which will inevitably trickle down the Pixel line (for example, its new “Wait on Hold” feature, which has the phone stay on hold for you so you don’t have to listen to horrible repeating wait music), the answer is: Actually, the Pixel 5 doesn’t offer me anything I don’t already have through the Pixel 4, or could get, and arguably better, elsewhere. It’s a mid-spec phone, and, surely, a decent one at that, but it is what it is, and what it is not is a flagship phone. So if I do want all the latest bells and whistles, then it’s time to look elsewhere.

But here I am with a Pixel 5. So what happened?

First: I kinda need a new phone? My Pixel 4’s battery has gone downhill in a significant way in the last couple of months, and while its capacity was acceptable when I first got it, more recently it really has not been, even just hanging out at home. I’m not going to ding Google itself too much for this, other than for its choice to go with a comparatively small battery to begin with. Battery tech in general is something I could rant endlessly about; suffice to say Google isn’t the only one with battery issues. Point is: I was shopping anyway.

Second: The Pixel Android experience is, for me, a significant enough differentiator that I am loath to leave it behind. Most obviously for me, the computational processing that goes into the pictures is better than anyone else’s — the fact Google can use the same camera hardware for three iterations of the Pixel and still stay in the top ranks of camera phones is ridiculous, both as a testament to Google’s acumen, and to how far everyone else had to go to even catch up.

But even outside of that, the Pixel Android experience is fantastic. The Pixel is first with security and other updates, including, clearly, the newest versions of Android. Google’s phone experience is the best — call screening delights me in ways I can’t express — and its other Pixel-exclusive functionalities may or may not be essential, but are useful, or at least, interesting. Other Android makers’ UI implementations tend to be more “look at me” than actually useful (exception: Motorola had nifty gestures I still miss), and in the worst case (looking at you, Samsung) things one had to work around. I like bells and whistles, but at the end of the day I want my phone to actually work in a way that doesn’t aggravate me. Bells and whistles are the frosting, not the cake.

Which leads us to the third thing, which is about me specifically: In thinking about the Pixel 5 and whether I should upgrade to it, I engaged in, if not exactly a journey of the soul, then at least an examination of how I actually use the phones and tech I have, and what, exactly, I want out of them at this point in my life.

And the fact is that as much as I hate to admit it to myself, on a day-to-day basis, I don’t use my phone in a manner that requires a high-end experience. I take photos but I do nearly all the serious processing of the photos on my desktop, where I have a big-ass monitor that lets my 51-year-old eyes actually see what the hell I’m doing. I don’t do much video on my phone at all, but when I do I also port that over to the desktop to process. I don’t play a lot of videogames on my phone or (when I’m not traveling) watch all that much video on it, and most of that tends to be snippets from Reddit or Facebook rather than full-length videos. Mostly I use my phone to read — social media sites, articles, ebooks and emails.

In terms of what I need from my phone, on a daily basis: I am a mid-range user.

So, what the hell, I decided to try a mid-range Pixel and see what it gets me.

Part 2: Initial Thoughts on the Pixel 5

And now, after that probably-too-long preamble, here are my first impressions of the phone.

1. I like the size. I prefer phones that I can fit and use in one hand, and I am not notably monster-handed, so the Pixel 5 is pretty much perfectly sized for me. It is, in fact, almost exactly the size of the Pixel 4, which I also considered a very nice-sized phone (it’s apparently a tenth of an inch wider, which I don’t notice, and actually a smidgen lighter). The screen is larger (see the picture at the top of the entry) because the Pixel 5 loses most of the top bezel, which is nice but which I don’t really notice relative to the previous phone. My feeling about it is that it offers an almost seamless continuation in size from the Pixel 4. Which is good!

2. The Pixel 4 has a motion-sensing Soli chip which it used for unlocking the phone with your face, and to do some gestural commands, and in doing so forewent the fingerprint sensor on the back of the phone. The Pixel 5 ditches the chip and motion sensing and brings back the fingerprint sensor. I am very happy about this. The Pixel 4 face unlock experience for me was… sporadic. Indeed there were a couple of months in there where it hardly worked at all, and I couldn’t figure out why (and then it fixed itself, and I couldn’t figure that out why, either). Likewise the hand gestures worked for me maybe 40% of the time, i.e., not nearly enough to make it part of my everyday use experience.

The fingerprint sensor, on the other hand, works perfectly pretty much all the time, is nicely placed on the back on the phone where my hand mostly is anyway, and the neat function where you can use the fingerprint sensor to pull the notification panel up and down is back, and I love that. And also, in a world where everyone who is not a callous piece of shit wears a mask in public, face unlock is useless. So: Hooray! Fingerprint! It’s back, and really useful, and I don’t miss face unlock at all.

3. Photos are, well, Pixel photos. Which continue to be very very good! The following are straight out of the camera, no editing, all taken in the same place, with different levels of zoom. Here’s a 1x photo of my backyard oak, taken from my back deck:

So, your basic nice Pixel color fidelity, slightly crispy processing, and overall (to me) pleasant photo experience. Now here’s the .6x wide angle:

Which is also fine! The colors are a little lighter and I notice a bit of distortion at the edges, but it’s a wide-angle lens, it’s what a wide-angle lens does. Personally I’d’ve preferred to have stuck with the telephoto lens, as it suits my own use case better than a wide-angle lens, but it’s not that I won’t get use from a wide-angle — you may have heard, I take lots of sunset pictures. It’s fine. But it does mean that for the rest of my Pixel 5 experience, any zoom I have is going to be a digital zoom rather than an optical zoom. Let’s see what the Pixel 5’s 2x digital zoom looks like:

It’s fine. It’s not as good as an optical zoom, but for posting pictures to the web or social media, only a photo snob will complain. Here’s 4x zoom:

Yeah, that’s getting fairly impressionistic.

My experience of the Pixel 5 and its zoom is pretty much what it was with the Pixel 3, which is: Keep it at 2x or under and you’re fine, and after that your pictures start looking like a watercolor. The digital zoom on the Pixel 5 goes to 7x, but I don’t recommend that unless you are really looking forward to abstraction.

This is not a huge problem for me personally, since I have a dSLR and other portable cameras with optical zoom capabilities. Also, at the end of the day I prefer how Google does its computational photography over other phone manufacturers: Google “night sight” photos are still the gold standard, and while I only rarely use the “astrophotography mode,” whenever I do I am very very glad I have it.

But, yeah: If you are more of a telephoto user than an ultrawide user, and your phone is your primary camera, then the Pixel 5 is not your phone.

4. On the subject of the camera, the Pixel 5 does a couple of things I’m going to have to adjust to. First, it’s changed the way that “portrait mode” is outputted — it used to be that after you took a picture in portrait mode, it would output a photo with the artificial bokeh, and one without it. Now it appears to offer up just one photo, which you can then go in and fiddle with in settings, adjusting the level of bokeh and a few other things in the in-app photo editor. This actually makes sense to me and it does give you more flexibility in the final output of the photo, so that’s good. But, it’s also different, and so it’ll take me a while to get used to.

The other thing that’s different, which I don’t really like, is that when the Pixel senses it’s in a low light situation, it will automatically turn on the “night mode” setting. Theoretically that’s good because Google’s night mode is excellent and you’ll likely get a better photo. As a practical matter, it’s annoying, because night mode photos are longer exposures, so you have to hold the camera still for a second or more, and also, in a number of situations I’ve had so far, the camera handled the scene just fine without night mode — the difference two pictures, one with night mode on and the other with it off, were negligible.

The Pixel 5 seems really aggressive in swapping over to night mode, so if you’re indoors in even slightly dim light, be ready for that. In the cases when the Pixel 5 autoswitches to night mode, it offers a quick touch to disable it, which is fine but still requires your attention. I’m not in love with that, and there’s no obvious way in settings to turn it off or to fine-tune it. Hopefully that will happen. I like night mode, but I want to be the person who decides when to use it.

5. Other camera notes: The “selfie” camera is fine and like all selfie cameras makes me look like I have a moon face. The Pixel 5 was supposed to have come with the “face retouching” feature off, but mine had it on out of the box, which might have had something to do with me importing settings from the Pixel 4, which does have it turned on by default (and I never switched off the default). Other reviews of the Pixel 5 tell me that the video aspects of the Pixel are much improved and I’m willing to believe it, but I almost never use the video capabilities of my camera, and haven’t so far with the P5, so I can’t say at this point. I’m sure they’re fine.

Others have noted that without the special photo-related chip previous Pixel models had, the camera on the Pixel 5 takes longer to process portrait and night mode photos than the Pixels 3 and 4 did. This is correct and was something that I noticed almost immediately. It’s not great! But I also don’t know if it’s something that’s going to bug me a whole lot. Normally-shot photos seem to process just fine. I think it will probably be fine for what I use the Pixel for.

Finally, Google’s in-camera editor (which is now available on other Pixels as well) has some significant feature bumps, which include a nifty and actually very effective artificial fill light for portraits: If you don’t like the lighting on someone’s face, you can move around a procedurally generated light to fix it. I like this a lot and find it useful.

Generally speaking, the Pixel 5’s camera is at least as good as any previous Pixel (minus optical zooming), which means it’s at least on par with any other phone camera out there. I, like pretty much every other reviewer I’ve read, assumes that with the Pixel 6 (or whatever the next version of the Google phone is), Google is going to have to a) bump up the resolution on that main sensor, b) actually put optical zoom and ultrawide on the same phone because, come on. Google used to be way ahead of competitors and now it’s head-to-head. If they stay where they are with the next iteration, other manufacturers are going to eat their lunch.

6. Moving away from the camera and toward the rest of the functionality of the phone, at least so far it seems I was right: for how I use the phone, I’m not missing the top-of-the-line chip. The Snapdragon 765G handles all of my social media and text reading with aplomb, doesn’t seize up when I have a bunch of apps open, and plays music and video without any problems whatsoever. It’s fine! And unless I suddenly become a mobile gaming junkie, which seems unlikely, I doubt I will have any problems (I’ve seen other reports that it handles mobile gaming just fine, which seems reasonable to me). The screen is a variable-refresh-rate deal with its top refresh rate at 90fps; I don’t notice any problems scrolling through articles or watching videos. All my apps work fine.

I’ve seen some kvetching about the in-screen speaker on the Pixel 5 (the speaker vibrates the screen to make noise and thus is apparently quieter than the bottom speakers, which are standard phone speakers), but, meh. One, as a practical matter it seems plenty loud enough to me, and two, I tend to like to keep my phone as quiet as possible, so the “use your phone as a boombox” scenario is not a real concern of mine. Again, it’s fine! The Pixel 5 paired quickly and painlessly with my Pixel Buds, which are what I use for phone calls and most of my phone listening anyway.

(“Hey,” I hear some of you say, “Doesn’t the Pixel 5 have 5G capability? Aren’t you gonna comment on that?” Well, it does have 5G capabilities, but I’m not using them right now. I bought the phone from Google, not Verizon, in no small part so my phone isn’t cluttered up with Verizon’s bullshit non-deletable apps. As a result it didn’t come with the 5G SIM card it apparently needs to access that speed level. I’ll get around to ordering it from Verizon eventually. The other thing is: See the map below? The red part is where they have 5G. That little pink hole in the middle of that? Literally where my house is. My driveway has 5G coverage, but the house doesn’t. Come on, Verizon, that’s just mean. Anyway, 4G works just fine.)

Verizon is evil.

In short, the Pixel 5 does everything I want it to without fuss or complaint, and seems to be more than enough phone for my daily needs. I will obviously have to deal with my existential pain of not being a “top-end” user and instead just being a poser who chases the new and flashy, but that’s between me and my psyche and nothing you need to be involved in.

7. Oh, and, the “sort-of-sage” color: I mean, I liked the Pixel 4 “Oh So Orange” color better, but it’s perfectly nice. It fits my office decor better, in any event.

Would I recommend the Pixel 5 to others, based on my first impressions? I would! I would caveat the recommendation with the note that I don’t think it’s an essential upgrade for anyone with a Pixel 4 (or really, even, a P3) or anyone who has a recent-ish phone they’re happy with. But if you’re looking to upgrade, don’t feel the need to spend $1000 on a flagship model this year, and have a use case for your phone that’s similar to mine (photos + social media + reading with occasional video/games), then this is an overall very pleasant and very competent phone, tightly integrated with the Google informational ecosystem.

(That last thing may be either a plus or minus depending who you are; for me, who long ago decided Google was the tech monster I was going to willingly feed my data to, it’s mostly a plus. Your mileage may vary.)

Plus: Lovely photos. It’s why I came to the Pixel line in the first place, and a reason why I stay.

Red oak leaf on the tree.

— JS


Learn More About Me: My Favorite Song

Athena ScalziBack when I wrote on here in 2018, I did two posts where I shared a “favorite” of mine. One was my favorite movie, and the other was my favorite anime (both of these remain true, two years later). So I decided to continue on with another one of my “favorites”!

Today, I’ll be sharing with you my favorite song. I’ve always loved this song immensely, but I only started calling it my favorite about two years ago. Before then, I just never had a favorite song. Whenever someone would ask me, I would tell them I wasn’t sure, because there were just too many I liked. But then I thought about it one day, like really thought about it, and I knew then what my favorite was. And one of the ways I determined that it was my favorite was by asking myself, if I was about to die, and I could listen to one song before I go, what would I pick? 

The answer? “Starlight”, by Muse.

I’ve been listening to this song since it came out in 2006, when I was seven. It was one of the first songs I ever even remember listening to and thinking “yeah this is a banger”. I didn’t develop my own music taste until I was about eleven or twelve, so before that I just listened to whatever my parents played for me. And my dad liked this song, so I liked this song, too. I remember hearing it play in his office, and singing it alongside him.

So, this song is very nostalgic for me. But, it also genuinely is a good song. The vocals, the lyrics, my god the piano! And the way the music stops as he holds the last night so the vocals are isolated before the end? Amazing. It’s so beautiful sounding. It makes me feel far away from everything else. If I close my eyes and listen to it, I feel like the world around me fades for a moment.

For a long time, I didn’t know what this song was called. I would only listen to it when it came on by chance, when my dad played it. And I just knew it in my head as the song about a sailboat, because of the first line. I always thought of it as a kind of sad song, like the singer was forlorn about something.

Muse has some other great songs as well, personally I like “Supermassive Black Hole“, “Madness“, and “Uprising” a ton. Something about their overall sound is such a vibe, y’know? They are not my favorite band, however. I think I’ll save that for another “favorites” post.

Anyways, I hope you enjoyed the song. If you decide to check out the other songs I mentioned, I hope you like those, too! Let me know your thoughts in the comments, or share your favorite song. And have a great day!


Dish Network and the New Google Chromecast

We’ve had Dish Network at the Scalzi Compound basically for as long as we’ve lived here. Back in the day cable didn’t go all the way out to where we are in rural Ohio, and then until earlier this year what internet was available to us was too slow to reliably stream all the time. We could watch Netflix on one TV, or we could use the internet for any other thing we might want to do, but we couldn’t do both at the same time. Beyond that, getting all the streaming services onto the TV was a hodgepodge affair — some had apps on the TV itself, others had to be streamed through my phone, and still others (I’m looking at you, Apple TV+), I had to stream off a friggin’ Web page because there was no app for an Android phone, because, apparently, fuck you, that’s why. So all told it was easier to keep Dish Network for its ease of use, breadth of content, and because my Internet sucked.

In the present, however, two things have happened: One, my internet speeds have finally been upgraded enough that we can actually stream to more than one TV (in 4k, even!) and still have bandwidth for checking email. Two, Google released its “Chromecast with Google TV” dongle, which I have bought and installed on my television. And now, suddenly, dropping Dish Network is actually viable idea for us.

It’s not Dish Network’s fault, really (well, it kinda is, Dish Network gets into carriage fee fights all the time so you never know what channels will just suddenly up and disappear; we haven’t had HBO through Dish for more than a year now). It’s doing the thing it does, offering up a ridiculous number of channels, of which we watch about five. But the fact is like many people, we’ve pretty much switched over to the whole streaming television lifestyle. Much of the most interesting television is available via streaming, and it’s there when we want to watch it.

And — importantly for me — the new Chromecast does a very solid job of putting all the streaming services I subscribe to (except Apple TV+, because, once again, fuck you, that’s why) into one coherent accessibility and viewing experience. I don’t have to hunt around for the streaming app or remember whether it’s on the TV or the phone, because they’re all natively on the Chromecast (if there’s an Android streaming app for your service, it’s on the dongle). You can tool around the various services by using either an included remote or (in my case) the remote that comes with the TV; no streaming from a phone or computer required, although that capability still exists. This is important because previous editions of the Chromecast needed the phone or computer to cast from, which was not great if, say, I wasn’t at home and someone wanted to stream something from an app that lived on my Pixel. The Chromecast can stream in 4k with Dolby sound and HDR, so everything looks good — as good as it will look on satellite, anyway.

The problem for Dish is that most of their content providers are now beginning to have their own streaming services, so even the five channels we habitually watch are largely replicated at this point. The new Chromecast, has largely made navigating the streaming services as easy as navigating Dish Network was (easier, actually, since Dish hasn’t really updated its user interface since the early aughts). So, sooner or later the actual economic question will come into play, which is: Why are we paying for 300 channels we don’t watch, and replicated content on the five channels that we do?

(Also, and related: I would be personally deeply pleased not to have another penny of mine sent to Fox News; currently about $1.50 of my monthly bill goes there. Suck it, Rupert Murdoch. Less militantly, I don’t watch any sports channels and vaguely resent that they constitute the single largest percentage of my Dish Network bill, in terms of programming.)

I suspect that at the very least, we’ll soon be downgrading the Dish package we do take — or alternately, just subscribing to Sling, which is Dish’s streaming service. Even Dish knows which way the wind is blowing. Ditching Dish was not a palatable prospect before, but now it is, and all because of one little dongle (and, uh, internet that doesn’t suck). I realize that “cord-cutting” is not exactly a new phenomenon, but, living in rural Ohio as I do, it is new to me. Progress: It will have its winners and losers.

— JS