Cutting the Apple Cord

My smartphone history has been limited to the iPhone 3G and iPhone 4. The 3G was a revelation, with almost magical apps like Shazam and Runkeeper. The 4 was a beautiful piece of hardware, featuring brushed metal and glass instead of plastic.

After a time, though, my phone grew less and less responsive, with longer latency and complete lack of ability to even open Whatsapp (though my incredibly prolific relatives also bear some responsibility here). The glass cracked multiple times, the updates failed to support my outdated version of the phone, and I became dissatisfied with Apples grip on my devices.

I don’t believe I’ve ever subscribed to the Apple lifestyle, and my disgust grew during recent visits to the Apple store, a transparent cube-cum-rowhouse in DC’s tony Georgetown neighborhood. Now that Google is devoting resources to visual design to go along with their best-in-class engineering, I decided the time is right to go with a device running Android. I chose the Samsung Galaxy S5, a “free” upgrade, and have been using it for a couple of days.

It’s been my first immersive experience with Google’s material design, and it is impressive. The learning curve for the new operating system is surprisingly steep, with unfamiliar gestures, navigation, and design patterns sending me on to Google for instructions in relatively simple tasks. But the uniformity in everything from color to symbols to type helps.

My biggest issues are with the hardware. I like the easy access to the battery and SIM card in the Galaxy S5, but the plastic feels flimsy and the rounded edges allow it to slip out of my pocket. I prefer the heft and blockiness of the iPhone 4, as well as the much smaller screen, which affords one-handed use much more easily.

On the whole, I’m happy with the change. I’ll be even happier if this phone becomes an afterthought, something that I use rarely to accomplish discrete tasks before putting it away and turning my attention to the world off-screen.

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Riding the Coast Starlight

The poetry of train travel is alive and well on the Coast Starlight.

Boarding in Oxnard, California, our route hugged a coast bursting with yellow and red wildflowers that bent toward the brilliant blue Pacific. Surfers, swimmers, and black rocks ribbed by decades of waves zipped across our windows. How could any screen compare, in depth or capacity to capture one’s imagination? The sky alone teemed with life: stubby-headed hawks wheeling high above arid fields; bright blue birds nestling in their thickets; prehistoric pelicans following the rhumb line south along the endless beach.

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The dining car rules dictate that strangers sit together, a rare opportunity to share space and companionship in our increasingly segregated and personal (if not private) lives. My first meal was lunch, which I took with two brothers. One, a veteran, watched the coast go by outside the window and called it “peaceful.” In the observation car, many passengers come simply to look, putting their devices away and gazing instead at the dry riverbeds and dirt roads etched into the landscape.

By San Luis Obispo, the train had turned inland, skirting vast rows of produce and winding around or tunneling through grassy hills studded with cattle. There were also people and their buildings: at a crossing, a whole family stepped out of their car to watch the train roll past; behind a small house, a man leaned on his rake to witness us rumbling by his garden; in the distance, a sprawling beige prison complex shimmered in the heat.

To reach Portland from Oxnard by rail takes more than 27 hours. This deliberate pace seems to attract large numbers of retirees, and they largely seem to appreciate the advantages of train travel: friendly staff, splendid panoramas, early afternoon wine tastings. They relish the communal dining experience as much as the food, which is cooked on the train and is delectable.

North of Paso Robles’ grape vines: a forest of oil derricks. By the time we reached Salinas (“Salad Bowl of the World”), the towns had become dry and desperate. Makeshift but permanent-looking shelters dotted the gravel beside the tracks, one with a tricycle parked outside the cloth threshold.

I went to sleep near Sacramento, and awoke for the last time before 6am, somewhere close to the Oregon border. Strawberry fields and vineyards had given way to lumber mills and frost. We passed pens of stamping horses with breath billowing from their nostrils. Fetching a banana from my luggage, I made my way to the observation car and watched the pine-stitched hills south of Klamath Falls emerge against the mottling sky. Streams and floodplains reflected power lines, low red clouds, and thousands of birds so that it seemed two days were being born at once. Our train swept forward, stirring the stiff morning mist hanging thick over the ground.

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By the time the sun had properly risen, we were racing among snow-capped peaks and broad lakes, surveyed from craggy branches by eagles along the shore. This landscape eventually faded into vast, undulating swathes of timber, cathedrals of trees admitting only an occasional sunbeam or frozen creek. North toward Bend, the terrain became hilly and rich with ferns, mosses, and brooks.

South of Eugene, we met and ran alongside the broad, turquoise waters of the mighty Columbia River. On the banks of the river and the railroad bed, every shade of green seemed to burst forth in dappled sunlight. A blank sky stretched to the horizon. Pastures and orchards grew next to low houses and yards studded with machinery. After Eugene, the route was populated. Agricultural concerns continued alongside other industry. By the time we trundled through the residential neighborhoods of Salem, children were scattering after the end of their school day. The landscape remained lush, but became carved up with fences, sheds and chicken coops. Mt. Hood floated up in the distance, and we arrived in Portland.

Even after more than a day on the train, I gathered my things with reluctance. Profound experiences can often only be recognized as such in retrospect. On the Coast Starlight, the alchemy of nature’s grace and travel by rail was apparent at every stage of the journey.

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My Best Chocolate Chip Cookies

This hearty, not-too-sweet cookie evolved to meet the needs of my growing family. Reducing the butter, replacing eggs with flax seed, and adding nuts are anathema to the older generations. However, times, tastes, and metabolisms change, making this a proper cookie for the 21st century.

Ingredients
1 stick salted butter
2 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tbsp ground flax seeds
6 tbsp water
2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
3 cups flour (approx)
2 cups chopped nuts (pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts)
12 oz semisweet chocolate chip

Preparation
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a small bowl, mix the flax seed and water with a fork, letting stand for 10 minutes. Soften the butter, using the wrapping paper to grease your cookie sheet. Mix the flax seed mixture, butter, vanilla, sugar and brown sugar together in a medium bowl.

Mix the salt, baking soda and about a cup of flour together, then gradually add it to the wet ingredients. Keep adding flour a little bit (about 1/4 cup) at a time until the mixture is stiff so that the peaks in the dough don’t fall, but still moist and not crumbly.

Add the chocolate chips and nuts, mixing thoroughly. Spoon out 12 lumps about the size of ping pong balls onto your cookie sheet. Put into the oven for 7 minutes for chewy, slightly underdone cookies, or 8 minutes for crispier cookies.

Joshua Howes

Memories of the Past

My great-great-great grandfather wrote his memoir in 1916, the year he died. He called it Memories of the Past, and dropped hints throughout that he would like for it to be published someday. Over the past few years, I’ve edited and annotated Memories of the Past in my spare time, and am ready to publish with the generous assistance of the Dennis Historical Society. The project is being funded through Kickstarter. Please back it and get yourself a copy of this wonderful book.

View Memories of the Past on Kickstarter

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A Visit to Puerto Rico

Perhaps you’re familiar with the concept of a babymoon. The basic idea is that an expecting couple takes a trip to a relaxing, ideally beachy destination to revel in each other’s company and stock up on sleep before the arrival of a child. It also gives a very pregnant mom the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the water where the invisible hand of gravity doesn’t press quite so hard.

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It was on this manner of errand that my wife and I repaired to Puerto Rico for a week. In addition to lots of swimming, reading, chatting, watching US Open tennis, and lazing around, we also went on two excursions. The first was into Old San Juan, a charming old city easily covered by foot. The buildings lent a seductive European flavor to the area, while the drowsiness of late summer kept most of the tourist hordes at bay.

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The second outing proved less sedate. We zipped off in a rental car toward Jayuya, the highways giving way to back roads and then to back-back-roads and then to roads that seemed not to be roads at all. Our local guide, Google Maps, seemed unconcerned that Route 530 was little more than two strips of dirt running through the meadow of an abandoned farm. We picked our way through the landscape as softball-sized rocks clattered off the undercarriage of our rented vehicle.

After a mile of this, it seemed foolish to turn around and subject ourselves to the same punishment, so we pushed on into a rutted, muddy track that wound up through a wood. Like a hero in an old book, I asked my pregnant wife to walk ahead and roll away the larger rocks and branches so that our car could safely pass. Even then, there were moments when it seemed we could progress no further.

Finally, we rounded the last bend and found… a chain across the drive, blocking our access to the paved roadway beyond. Proving the theorem that two wrongs can make a right, we decided to prop up the chain as best we could with a bamboo pole on one side and my wife on the other, wrapping that chain in our clothes so as not to scratch the roof as we eased the car under. It was quite a sight, or would have been if anyone else was around.

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This concluded the most adventurous part of our drive, though there were still several hours of rain-drenched, impossibly steep, and sharply curving roads ahead to fray the nerves. In between, we sampled fresh coffee at a plantation and visited a couple out-of-the-way museums. One told the tale of the island’s very brief uprising in the name of independence, promptly quashed by American bombs. The other was devoted to the native culture, which we follow up with a swim in a river, surrounded by Taíno petroglyphs carved into the boulders. When lightning and rain came, we climbed out of the water and lay there, savoring the cool drops falling from above and the sun-baked rock warming us from below.

It was a good trip.

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