The Delightful Escapism of 'The Good Place'

Trucking through modern television series is usually an exercise in exuberance or exhaustion, no matter how good or demanding a show turns out. Of all the substantial dramas, quick-witted comedies, and metaphysical laments, one show — a network show, of all things — captured my attention in a way that many shows haven’t: it was a joy to watch.

I’m talking about Michael Schur’s NBC show, The Good Place, a drama-comedy that came seemingly out of the blue, and since its first episode has been one of the easiest and most delightful shows on television. The writing is quick-witted enough, the material substantial enough, and the concept entirely metaphysical. How does a show capture so many things at once without being burdened by its own complexity?

Looking at Shur’s backlog of work is telling, I suppose. He wrote, produced, and directed a number of previously successful shows, contributing to many cultural milestones such as The Office (US version), Park & Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-nine, Master of None, and Saturday Night Live. He also dabbled in the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive” as its writer, one of the more ludicrous but pitch-dark comedy episodes of the future-shock Netflix series. But for The Good Place, a certain kind of nonchalance permeates its very soul. No one character dominates (though I would argue Kristen Bell’s Eleanor and Ted Danson’s Michael steal the spotlight), and the story is smoothly unwound over a sprint of 25 minutes per episode, each one ending in a credits sequence cliffhanger. The entire format begs you to binge watch without feeling bogged down in a mountain of episodes (each season squares off at just ten episodes a piece).

The Good Place is at its core a show about relationships among four key characters, and whose narrative tackles karma in a constructive and deconstructive way — all in an afterlife setting. The premise is keen on exploring absurdist situational humor, and is at its strongest with character interactions that take full advantage of the quickly-developed dispositions of each of the show’s stars. Michael operates as a kind of foil for everyone’s delights (and toils), sound-boarding off everyone's reality check of the afterlife's meandering eternity.

What perhaps helps set this show apart from many others competing for your attention is the colorful sets and nearly cartoonish narrative brokered through bubbly music, jovial cinematography, and dialogue bantering that exudes a PG-style appropriateness while nodding gracefully to a cleverer audience’s intellectualism. The Good Place sits in stark contrast to HBO’s dreary, somber The Leftovers, but intriguingly both share similar stretches of exploratory existentialism. Of the two, I certainly feel better after finishing an episode of the former.

In a cluttered world of show choices — many of which are exceedingly excellent — The Good Place stands out for its unusual territory and easy format, and has something almost everyone can find delight in.

Lava Cheese

Exploring Iceland’s Snack Directly (But Indirectly)

My wife recently jetted over to Iceland for a quick few days with her sister and a friend. When she arrived back, she left a few goodies for me, one of which was a curious, “handmade” concoction called Smoked Lava Cheese. Though I won’t claim I’m a connoisseur of cheese by any stretch, I would consider myself an enthusiast for the age-old custom of melting a pile of cheese into a merged form and eating with a fork. This may sound strange, or maybe you’ve done it (either way, I recommend doing it, now?), these little circular cheese bites remind me exactly of this practice. Except in portable, snack form. And that’s a good thing.

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An Icelandic snack made from “pure” cheese, Lava Cheese is a brand that began in Iceland back in December of 2016, engineered by the founders Guðmundur Páll Líndal and Jósep Birgir Þórhallsson. As they state in their origin story:

The idea of a snack made from pure cheese came to us when we realized the best part of a grilled cheese sandwich is the melted cheese which hits the grill.

So right you are. I’ve always loves the crunchiness of the slightly hardened cheese bits from microwaving or oven-heating nachos (the shredded pieces that missed the tortilla chips and get a heat-flash during the warm-up), which gave me the idea of doing this when I was a kid. Skip the chips and just toss a pile of shredded cheese on a plate, microwave for 1:30, and there you go. Pure cheese. I’ve since migrated to using a small egg-sized pan to do the heating work, and at this age, it’s only once and a while. But… Lava Cheese. These Icelandic guys came up with a few variations, and I’m very thankful Ashley brought me home a box.

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Since the cheese has been “smoked”, there is a slightly different flavor than when I’d do it. You can feel the hardened cheese texture with your tongue, which nails the first part of the idea of crispier cheese. I suppose, according to the company’s naming convention, this texture reflects the Icelandic lava fields. I’m terrible at describing tastes, so from here, you’ll likely experience a harsher aroma of cheddar, and a sharper association with the cheese you’re likely most familiar with, just restructured in harder, less dairy-like form. It delivers, though, and I have to imagine it’s a better snack than some faux bullshit cheese flavorings from Cheetohs or whatever other hell-spawn snack food from PepsiCo/Nabisco/Mars.

While I was able to enjoy the Smoked Cheddar version, I found that after researching the company’s other products, they also have a Crunchy Cheese series that includes Licorice Root and With Chili. The largest hurdle here is that line of snacks is only available at retail in Iceland, though they hint that new locations are coming soon. I certainly hope so, as I can attest to the magic of this stuff, and think it would do well in any other country on the planet. In the meantime, fry some cheese on your own, toss bacon in there, whatever it takes — it’s an easy, decadent, go-to late-night snack.

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Apple AirPods Review

A Foray into the Future of Audio Platforms

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While the unveiling of Apple’s AirPods at last year’s September iPhone 7 event was met with both awe and meh, it’s one of those products that you have to use to appreciate. Ignore the aesthetics and your assumptions regarding their audio output quality, and instead fixate on:

  • Wires into your ears, around your body, and connecting to your phone cause friction and annoyance in movement, can get snagged on things (especially when commuting on public transportation
  • Storing wired headphones is scattershot, and wires typically tangle more often that not, requiring extra time to detangle
  • Wireless headphones have historically not always retained a stable Bluetooth connection to your source device
  • Switching wireless headphones between devices for audio connectivity is not always intuitive or easily accessible
  • Dancing (or other energetic activity with full-body motions) with any kind of headphone is fairly unworkable

While all these points of contention are not deal breakers for any traditional (or even wireless) headphones or earphones, they do illuminate the possibilities of completely wire-free ear buds and new kinds of audio platforms.

Since it’s been over a year since Apple and other companies like Bragi have released this new kind of earphone (“truly wireless” seems to be the current moniker for them), a lot has been said, written, and discussed about their usefulness and application. I’ve only had the AirPods for the latter half of 2017, but I’m ready to provide a perspective on them.

AirPods’ Functionality is Fluid

Some perceptive technology writers have indicated Apple’s master strategy with personal devices is shrinking and handing-off capabilities from one device to another in its ecosystem. Whether that will come to its full realization, the AirPods function exceptionally well today as truly wireless earbuds, and their bridge to Siri expands their convenient usefulness exponentially. Here’s what I like about them:

  • Settings. Customization of both earbuds’ physical tap actions (e.g., you can customize a double-tap on the physical exterior of either bud to pause music, initiate Siri,skip a song, etc.) is great.
    • Gestures like this could expand in the future, as Apple did update the ability to tap both earbuds separately for separate actions
  • Comfort. The AirPods fit is fairly similar to the original EarPods, though they are ever so slightly larger in the ear. I don’t have a problem with the fit, and contrary to what you may assume, they do not fall out of your ears.
  • Lightweight. Hardly any heft to them. You forget they’re in your ear.
  • Ear detection. Truly an Apple move — you pluck one out of your ear while listening to audio and the audio pauses automatically. Place the bud back in your ear and it picks up right where it left off.
  • Pairing with multiple devices. Sure, the W1 chip Apple incorporated into AirPods makes it very easy to pair with with your iPhone or other Apple device right away (you simply open the AirPods case next to the device and it pairs within seconds), but the behind-the-scenes cleverness of using iCloud to then also pair them with all your other devices from which you’re signed into the same iCloud account is brilliant.
  • Speed. These are fast to use. Open the case, pop them in your ears, hear the “bing” noise, and you’re good to go. Pluck them out, slide them into the case (magnetic attraction pulls them right into their slots), and slip the case in your pocket. No wires. No tangle.
  • Lightning charge. While a proprietary cable, they use the ubiquitous Apple Lightning connection to charge. If you have an iOS device, you have this cable (or several) laying around. It also charges exceptionally fast.
  • 24 hours charge in case. The AirPods case acts as both a battery charger for the AirPods and their housing unit. Once charged, the case has 24 hours of life to give, plus the 5 hours of life the AirPods hold themselves.
  • One-bud Use. That’s right. You can use one bud at a time, with mono audio, to make calls or listen to music while you give your other ear some breathing room.

The Current Limitations to AirPods

The AirPods aren’t without issue, though I must say for a first generation Apple product, it’s about as good as it gets. The last time they nailed an accessory so well the first time was probably the original AirPort WiFi router. Here’s a list of things I’ve noticed after using them for several months that derail them from perfection, but could be iterated via improvements in future versions.

  • Sound isolation. EarPods weren’t great at this, and neither are AirPods. You can easily hear noise outside these earbuds quite easily, and commuting on a train nearly defeats the audio output in your ear lest you crank the volume up to unreasonable levels.
  • Lack of physical volume controls. This is by the far the most annoying part of the AirPods. I loved having a remote for volume, pause/playing, and Siri on previous EarPods models and some other earphones/headphones I used in the past. This is a first world problem, though. Volume controls on your device control them just fine. You can use Siri to control the volume, but this is impractical and slow more often than not. But if you have an Apple Watch, the auto-face change on it usually provides volume controls if you’re listening to something, and this is the easiest way to remote control them.
  • 5-hour battery life. I’ve never run them dead before, as I usually am not listening to them for longer than a few hours, but five hours is a limitation for longer flights or extended activities using them. Of all the truly wireless earbuds, though, the AirPods have the longest battery life (as of Dec 2017).
  • Sharing audio. While you can share an AirPod “bud” with someone else to listen or watch the same device’s media, you can’t pair two AirPods to the same device and output the audio simultaneously (which is, granted, an annoying technological limitation for any wireless headphones — dual audio output to two headphones listening to the same iPad on an airplane, for instance, is a drag).

Overall

AirPods are my favorite Apple product of the last few years, and have already become my second-most used device next to my iPhone. They are great for music while quietly getting ready in the morning, the perfect companion for my morning commutes listening to The Daily and The Intercept, and a pleasure to pop in for the evening jaunt home listening to whatever’s left in my podcast queue. I’ll even slip them in a few times during the day at the office to catch a quick track or two while cranking through emails. While I prefer using my Bose QuietComfort 35s when flying (since they cancel out the miscellaneous noises in-flight), I have used the AirPods a few times with the wife while traveling and watching a movie together, and they work just fine as long as the volume is cranked.

Highly recommended.

You can pick them up at Amazon for $160.

Trove Returns with the Swift Wallet

Iterating on a Good Thing

The team behind what I've called (and remain firm on) the best slim wallet available have taken to Kickstarter to rev up funds for the next phase of its wallet, which they call Trove Swift.

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The fundamentals of the original wallet remain intact:

  • It's virtually the same physical size as its predecessor
  • It retains the same two layers of bonded, full grain Italian vegetable-tanned leather
  • The same (from what I can tell) tight, high-quality elastic
  • Same composition of three separated slots for cards, cash, Instax photos, business cards, and so forth
  • A reversible design that permits versatile options for storing different kinds of slim materials

What’s New

What's different, however, is one of the available slots access to stored cards. As the creators state on their Kickstarter page:

Our backers and customers over the last three years have given a lot of feedback on the TROVE Wallet, they love the versatility of having 3 separate compartments, the quality of materials and workmanship and the compact and minimalist aesthetics. The TROVE Swift retains all of the qualities our customers love about the original wallet and adds a quick access pull-tab. We know everyone has that one card that they use everyday more than others, and we wanted to improve the speed and accessibility by adding the Swift pull-tab.

 Trove Swift with Pull Tab on the way out

Trove Swift with Pull Tab on the way out

To confirm, the single, obvious differentiation between this version of the Trove wallet is the pull-tab. I was actually surprised by this when they graciously sent me a review unit. So let's get this out of the way: this is an impressive pull-tab. They summarize having tested several different materials for the ribbon and the pull-tab itself, finally landing on a union of polyester ribbon and coated metal tab. The ribbon feels like a micro-sized version of a belt buckle of the smoothest variety, and the feeling it provides when you glide it out of its resting place is a tactile pleasure. At 0.3mm thick, it's indecipherable as part of the wallet's in-pocket feel, and the tab itself only juts out slightly once a card or set of cards are placed in the one slot it functions in.

 The Trove Swift Wallet

The Trove Swift Wallet

As a functional pull-tab, it far out-performs and out-feels the pull-tabs in Bellroy wallets, and a week in, feels entirely up to the task of long-term viability.

But is a pull-tab what the Trove needed?

Honestly, it brings nominal value to the wallet's design and functionality. It's not unwanted or unwarranted -- the feature is squarely about improving accessibility of a favorite set of cards. But of the two core slots with easiest accessibility of cards, neither caused any problems pulling the cards out in the original version of Trove (those front-facing cards in a stack prodded out just enough to easily grab with a finger). The more difficult-to-access single-slot (I'll call it the slot on the "bottom"), is actually where I think a pull-tab would have been more useful. This slot is typically where I dump my RFID office access card and another one or two rarely used items. But because of the tightness of the wallet, that tends to be where it's a little more difficult to stick a finger in and extract a card.

 Trove Swift next to the original Trove (Hackett edition)

Trove Swift next to the original Trove (Hackett edition)

Where the pull tab does benefit the user is when you need to extract cash. While I usually don't carry any currency, if I do, I always fold it three or four ways to fit into one of the two easier "top" slots, and jam it into the crevice. With the cash resting against a card in the pull-tab slot, the feature works great -- the cash pulls out swimmingly.

Other Miscellany to Note:

  • This version of the Trove seems to be, at least initially, limited to a set of monochromatic colors (all of good taste). Perhaps a "build your own" option will be coming later on.
  • It's only available on Kickstarter, but as of this writing, they've exceeded their goal and aim to ship by the end of the year.
    • Based on this review unit, though, it's in perfect working condition, and I have to imagine it's just a matter of scaling up production and materials to ship to customer demand, but I wouldn't worry about there being any quality assurance issues whatsoever.

In Summary

Overall, the Trove Swift is an excellent iteration on what I continue to deem the best slim/minimal wallet you can buy. Whether you care for the pull-tab or not, Trove still is the right choice.

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