Success by a thousand cuts

In many initial reviews, the Apple Watch was criticized for being an unfocused product, trying to do too many things without a clear purpose. It’s natural to ask “what is it for” and “do I really need this” when a new product category emerges. Having used the Watch for nearly a month, I’m struck by the similarity to the iPhone. I have found the Watch to be an invaluable addition, but it’s not any one particular function that elevates it to a core piece of technology in my life. It’s rather that it combines a host of useful functionality in a single piece of technology.

I stopped wearing a watch years ago. While it may have been more convenient to glance at my wrist than pull out my phone, it wasn’t better enough to warrant wearing something additional. A traditional watch might display the time and the date, which my Watch will do as well. I also get a timer display, the temperature, and my next appointment (and could choose different pieces of information to use as watch face “complications” if it suited me). Add to this the activity monitoring and workout tracking that integrates with HealthKit, providing superior tracking, heart rate monitoring, and other functionality when compared to competing fitness trackers like the FitBit. This combination would be worthwhile in and of itself, but quickly the watch starts seeming like those late night infomercials (“but wait, there’s more!”). Order now and the Watch also will offer you a more convenient way to use Apple Pay, easier access to important notifications, a convenient speakerphone, and a quick way to reply to important messages.

It’s the opposite of “death by a thousand cuts”. It’s combining functions that in and of themselves are minor conveniences and producing a product that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Watch This Space

My Apple Watch arrived 5 days ago, so I have only had a brief time with it. With such a new product category, it’s too early for me to provide any sort of substantive review, but here are a few first impressions:

Build quality: I have the stainless steel model with the Milanese loop. The fit and finish are fantastic, and it looks great. Men don’t have many ways to “accessorize”, and watches can either be a beneficial stylistic addition or a detractor. The Pebble struck me as clunky appearing and awkward, but the Apple Watch looks like a legitimate piece of jewelry. I wear the smaller 38mm model given my relatively modest wrists, and it does not look bulky or out of place.

The screen: It’s sharp and beautiful, though some of the smaller text can strain my aging eyes. I have not needed to adjust the font size, however. I cannot see the black border around the screen: the screen itself is so dark when off, that it seamlessly blends with the border, an excellent visual effect and an advantage of the OLED technology used.

Battery life: Everyone will have a different experience based on usage patterns, but I’m finding it more than adequate. I have not yet dipped below 50% by the end of the day, despite frequent checks.

Functionality: The main utility of the Apple Watch at this point is to display information that would normally go only to your phone. In that sense, it’s just like a traditional watch, but with a broader scope than just time. I may look at my watch to check the time, but now it also shows me the weather, my activity, my next appointment, or my current timer.

I initially used the “modular” watch face, but soon switch to “utility”, which I find less cluttered. It forces you to be more selective with “complications” (the little information additions to the watch face like temperature, moon phase, etc.), which is a good thing. I currently add the date, the temperature, a timer (which I use frequently), and my next appointment. All have proven useful, but the time still appropriately takes the bulk of the display.

I’m still learning how to take advantage of “glances”, the mini-apps you get by swiping up, but in many cases these seem more convenient and just as useful as many of the full-blown apps. The watch is best for quickly accessing information, not for lengthy interactions.

Easy access to notifications are one of the main advantages of having the watch, and it’s key that you carefully curate what gets pushed to your wrist. Fortunately, Apple’s watch app for the iPhone makes this fairly easy. For example, my watch displays a banner whenever I get an email, but my Watch only notifies me if the email is from someone I have tagged as a “VIP”.

The taptic engine is great, but I wish the notifications were a little more prominent. I have the “prominent haptic” feature turned on, which makes the tactile notification stronger for certain alerts, and this works well, but I sometimes miss alerts that don’t use this feature. This is something that could be tweaked with software updates in the future.

The biggest surprise so far has been how much better Apple Pay is on the watch compared to the phone. I thought it would be awkward paying with the watch, but in fact it’s more discrete and faster than using the iPhone. I want to pay for everything this way. I was initially skeptical about how much time Apple Pay would save compared to simply swiping a credit card, but particularly with the Watch, it’s striking how quick and easy it is.

Downsides? None of the third party apps have been particularly useful so far. I think it will take some time for everyone to figure out the best ways to use this new platform. Trying to replicate iPhone apps on a smaller screen is not really useful, particularly if extended interaction is required. The current WatchKit approach (which will be superseded by true native apps later this year) is also far too slow.

Banh Bao

A recent weekend ritual our family picked up was traveling to a regional Vietnamese bakery for a variety of goods. One of our favorites has been the banh bao. This slightly sweet steamed bun is packed with pork sausage, ground pork, quail eggs, and the odd vegetable. They have become a tasty and satisfying breakfast treat or snack. Of course, I immediately wondered if I could replicate this creation at home. Not being a huge fan of the pork overdose of these buns, one advantage was the fine tuning of the fillings.

After some online searches as well as trial and error, this is what I’ve come up with so far:

Banh Bao

makes 6 small buns

Ingredients

  • 140 g AP flour
  • 1.5 teaspoon baking powder
  • 0.25 teaspoon salt
  • 40 g sugar
  • 1 teaspoon oil
  • 70 g milk
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar

Instructions

  • Mix all ingredients together until all flour is absorbed into dough.
  • Kneed for about 10 minutes. Dough will start to develop a smooth surface though may not be perfectly smooth. If the dough is dry, add kneed in some water. The dough will be tacky, but if it sticks excessively to your hand, dust with some flour and kneed it in to incorporate.
  • Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap.

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  • Rest for 30 minutes
  • Divide into 6 balls and flatten each into a disk with the palm of your hand
  • Using a rolling pin, roll each disk into a 4 inch circle

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  • Place a small amount of filling (I used pork sausage, water chestnut, egg, and shiitake mushroom, all cut into small pieces) in the center of each disk

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  • Fold up the edges from four sides and pinch together. It may help to moisten the outer rim of the dough circle with water using your finger to help it to stick.
  • Place each bun on a small piece of parchment paper, then prepare a steamer (e.g. a steamer insert in a pot with a small amount of boiling water).

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  • Steam the buns for about 15 minutes.

Steeling my resolve

I tend to collect obsessions as I get older. Many of them involve cooking. One that has evolved over the years is pizza making. I started making my own pizza dough over 5 years ago, but I have slowly refined the recipe to settle on one that is fairly reliable.

Making pizza at home is great because not only can you tailor it to your personal tastes (I find many pizzerias too greasy), but you can guarantee that the pizza will be fresh.

My general approach is to make the dough one to two days in advance and let it’s flavor mature in the refrigerator for a couple days before using it. I add a simple sauce, Maplebrook Farm mozzarella, and a few toppings.

For the past several years I cooked the pizza on a stone in my maxed out oven, giving it at least an hour to warm up. This has worked very well, and improved even further once I added convection. The pizza cooks in about 6 minutes, and the results are great, though the crust has never been as crispy as I would like.

Recently, I discovered the Baking Steel, a quarter inch thick, 15 pound behemoth that replaces the stone. The idea is that steel transfers heat to the dough better than stone. To my surprise it worked rather well. I’m still experimenting, but it definitely added a crispness that I was missing before. Next up is trying the elusive Neapolitan style, which has never worked well for me in the past.

Adventures with Siri

I’ve been a fan of Siri since her introduction, but she has not been without her quirks. Until this fall, she would sometimes respond quickly, sometimes take her time, sometimes have remarkable accuracy, and sometimes fail completely. In the past few months, however, I’ve noticed a marked improvement in both accuracy and response times, to the point where I’ve not hesitated to employ her for routine jobs.

During a recent family trip, we were searching for decent cupcakes and settled on a bakery we had never been to before. As my wife struggled to guide me with directions, I decided to call upon an old friend. Despite the fact that we were in the car, and Siri would use the somewhat suboptimal Bluetooth microphone setup the car dealer had installed, I thought I’d give it a go.

“Navigate to Sugar Bakery.”

Siri was on it. This was a real test of maligned services – both Siri and Apple Maps at the same time! Surely we’d end up somewhere exotic. Perhaps the Ngorongoro crater? No, the pair did an impressive job, sending is right to the destination.

Upon exiting the bakery, we realized we had more than enough cupcakes to go around, and decided to share the wealth with my parents, who live relatively close by.

“Navigate to my parent’s house.”

Not a problem for Siri. So far, I was quite impressed. As we were driving, my son announced that he wanted to listen to some music, so I asked Siri to help us out.

“Play the album Strangeland.”

Within seconds, it was playing. Miraculous. Who needs flying cars when you have this kind of power.

It occurred to me that we hadn’t actually told my parents we would be coming. Since my parents were raised in a country once occupied by the British, certain customs carried over from the UK, including the habit of having afternoon tea. It was this occasion for which the cupcakes were destined.

Me: “Text my mother: we are coming for tea.”

Siri: “Here’s your message: ‘We are coming freaky.'”

That won’t do, let’s try this again.

Me: “Text my mother: we are coming for tea.”

Siri: “Here’s your message: ‘We are coming 4G.'”

This doesn’t even make sense. I’m beginning to get embarrassed.

Me: “Text my mother: we are coming for tea.”

Siri: “Here’s your message: ‘We are coming for me.'”

As of this writing, Apple stock is down 10% in after hours trading.

This Is Not Your Belfry

I came home earlier this evening hoping to relax and prepare a nice dinner. After entering the kitchen and switching on the lights, a shadow seemed to flash by. A moth, I thought. It must have snuck in when we opened the door.

But something told me it was no moth. The shadow seemed too large and it was too cold outside for moths.

Another flutter past my head and into the living room. This time I saw the distinct flap of wings. “Was that a bird?” I wondered aloud to my wife, realizing that birds had almost certainly gone south. I cautiously approached the living room. I switched on the lights and the wings fluttered into the adjacent family room, which was still dark. I stepped closer and switched on the lights. Slowly, carefully, I peered around the corner. My fears were confirmed. Perched upside down, high up on the crown molding was a bat. Now we’ve dealt with the land-based rodent invaders in the past, but there’s something particular disturbing about having a bat flying around your house. Or even, as it was at present, hanging around your house.

We needed a plan of attack. We sent our son upstairs and closed the door that connected the living and family rooms to the rest of the house. We needed to get this thing O-U-T. So I propped open the front door (which connects to the living room) and then donned battle gear to protect me from a potential bat assault. The battle gear, in this case, consisted of hastily collected snow gloves, a winter hat, and a broom. For good measure, I added a flashlight to the mix (the idea being that bats like darkness and thus the flashlight could serve as a bat-saber of sorts). Looking completely ridiculous to any outside observer, I hoisted up the broomstick and returned to the family room to drive the bat toward the door.

Bats are sensitive to motion and noise, so a few close waves of the broomstick against the nearby wall was all it took to send the bat fluttering over my cowering head back toward the living room. To my dismay, the dumb creature didn’t fly right out the door as I had clearly set out for it to do, but instead flew back and forth several times across the living room before perching high up in a corner near the ceiling.

I approached again with the broomstick and swooshed near it, like a brave knight approaching the fearsome dragon, only dancing around it in a rather ridiculous manner instead of launching an assault. This succeeded only in several more swoops around the room before it escaped again into the family room. My fellow warrior (a.k.a wife) had been dispatched to the computer to collect intelligence and informed me how I should rearrange the lighting pattern to drive the bat out the door. If lights away from the door were on and those near the door were off, the bat should just eventually find its way out. After several minutes of broomstick swinging and diving for cover were met only with the bat finding new places to perch in the room a new plan of attack was needed. Strangely, yelling “go away, stupid bat” was surprisingly ineffective.

We opened all the windows in both the living room and family room to increase the bats chances at exit, but this only caused us to succeed at making our home a cold, bat-infested house instead of just a bat-infested house. Maybe it was time to throw in the towel. While my wife made a few vain attempts at broom jousting, I scoured the Internet for bat removal services. After a few phone calls, it quickly became apparent that no such service was going to be available on a Sunday evening.

I returned to survey the situation. The bat was now sitting atop a window in the family room. Lacking a butterfly net (which the Internet tells me is one of the better tools for catching these winged bearers of rabies), I searched the house for other approaches. I picked up a wire wastebasket and walked around the house with it for a few minutes before realizing that the holes in the mesh may be suboptimal while trying to prevent claws or teeth from inflicting damage. After a long search, I settled on a plastic storage box from the basement.

I slowly approached the pest and carefully lowered the transparent box on top of it. Surprisingly, it didn’t move, but stayed glued to the window frame. I carefully slid the box lid between the mouth of the box and the wall, eventually knocking the bat down into the box. In a panicked motion, I swooped the box downward, slid the lid into place, and clamped it shut. My prisoner was safe inside.

My wife and I rushed to close all the windows, lest any family members of this fellow decide to join in the fun. Once the house was secure, I took our friend down to the sidewalk and slowly removed the lid, jumping back as it clattered to the ground. The dumb creature just crawled along the bottom of the box. “Idiot,” I thought, “this is your chance at freedom. Fly away while you still can!” This bat was going to need some more encouragement. Using the box lid, I gave the side of the box a firm push, knocking it onto its side. The bat seemed startled at first, but finally got the message and flew into the trees.

I returned home, empty box in hand, weary, but victorious. Maybe next time I won’t get upset when we forget to turn out the lights.