For Those Long Nights on the Computer

For some years now, Hotel Tonight has been offering last-minute rooms for some above average hotels. I haven’t yet been able to use the service because I have a brother who works at a major hotel chain and usually comes through with a family discount.

Today, Hotel Tonight announced Hack Tonight. The service, currently in Beta, is for people who are staying up all night writing code:

Up late coding? Unable to get home… or leave the office? We’ve got your back. Starting today, we’re rolling out HackTonight. HackTonight takes mobile to a whole ‘nother level – it’s the hotel experience that comes to you!

This sounds like a great service! I especially could use the Blue Bottle Drip and the Hoodie Dry Cleaning services. Please offer one for academics, too, and you got a lifelong customer.

How I Almost Didn’t Obsess About the Word “Baggage”

About a year ago, although it seems longer ago now, I installed Webster’s 1913 Unabridged Dictionary as an alternate dictionary on my Mac. James Somers gave a few compelling reasons to use this particular dictionary and outlined very detailed instructions for installing it on different platforms. (Sorry, Windows users.)

The great thing about the Dictionary app on a Mac is that you can simultaneously look up several different dictionaries and reference works to get a better “feel” for a particular word.

Take, for example, the word baggage. As I prepared for an upcoming trip, I was searching for a synonym for “baggage,” as in what one carries while traveling.

The default, contemporary dictionary defines the word as

baggage—
personal belongings packed in suitcases for traveling; luggage.
past experiences or long-held ideas regarded as burdens and impediments: the emotional baggage I’m hauling around | the party jettisoned its traditional ideological baggage.

Those two correspond to the way I more-or-less hear and read the word. “It’s best to meet arriving passengers outside of baggage claim,” and “my last relationship left me with a lot of emotional baggage” are examples of those two usages.

But in 1913, the word had many, many more meanings

baggage—
The clothes, tents, utensils, and provisions of an army.
The trunks, valises, satchels, etc., which a traveler carries with him on a journey; luggage.
Purulent matter. [Obs.] –Barrough.
Trashy talk. [Obs.] –Ascham.
A man of bad character. [Obs.] –Holland.
A woman of loose morals; a prostitute.
A romping, saucy girl. [Playful] –Goldsmith.

Wow! What a crazy word. The first two definitions survive, referring to articles and the bags used to carry them. The third, purulent matter, refers to pus, meaning that “baggage” once meant something excreting pus. Yuck!

The last four definitions apparently refer to something a bit more… colorful. Trashy talk? Men and women of ill-repute? And, a playful, romping, saucy girl? Are you kidding me? Those Victorians really had a word for everything!

Conspicuously absent from this list, however, is the meaning referring to “past experiences and ideas” that “burden” us. My guess is that anything like that, back then, was simply repressed and went unacknowledged.

Mad Men Relics Will Go to the Smithsonian

Mad Men props and costumes are going to the Smithsonian (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta).

Mad Men props and costumes are going to the Smithsonian (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta).

The final seven episodes from the “seventh” season of Mad Men will begin to air next Sunday night on AMC—and begin streaming on Monday for cord cutters like me. As the program wrapped production, the producers donated many of the props and costumes from the series to the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.

Brett Zongker from the AP reports…

Curators at the Smithsonian were particularly interested in “Mad Men’s” real 1960s-period relics, from cigarette cartons and liquor bottles to shaving kits and tooth brushes that were used in the show, along with costumes that were recreated for the period. Some objects, including Draper’s suit, will be featured in an exhibit on American culture slated for 2018.

Relics from a television series ending up at the Smithsonian reminded me of my friend Derek and the time he worked as a docent at the Paley Center—formerly known as the Museum of TV and Radio and sometimes referred to as the Museum of TV and Television. When he would greet visitors, informing them that they can request to watch almost any TV program from the history of the medium, many visitors would ask to instead see props and costumes from television shows. One common request, he told me, was to see The Puffy Shirt from Seinfeld.. He would inevitably disappoint everyone when he informed them that, although patrons could watch the episode at the museum, the museum did not have the shirt or any similar objet. That’s because the shirt is at the Smithsonian.

NMAH-2006-7467

I always found that curious because the Smithsonian Museum of American History is the closest thing we have in the US to an official national museum and ministry of culture, and this was an almost official endorsement of television as part of our national heritage.

By the way, those in New York can already indulge in the world of Mad Men at the Museum of Moving Image in Astoria until mid-June. However, you’re too late to get a $19.69 prix-fixe, “era-appropriate” lunch special for Mad Men Dining Week.

Unlike the seemingly continual Restaurant Week, this special was only good for a single week.

Pay Me!

Personal Square Cash payment page for Juan Monroy

For the last few years, I’ve been using Square Cash for small transactions between friends. Since its introduction, it’s been dead simple to send money: you send your friend an email, copy cash@square.com, and enter the dollar amount in the subject line. I’ve preferred it to Paypal, which most everyone else I know uses, for several reasons:

  1. Having occasionally sold things on eBay, I’ve watched a lot of my sales earnings evaporate with Paypal fees. That left a bad taste in my mouth.
  2. Speaking of fees, Paypal insists on having my ABA bank routing and account numbers to send money in order to avoid the recipient incurring a transaction fee. Square, on the other hand, uses a debit card number, which comes with fraud protection and allows you to dispute fishy transactions. It’s difficult to do that with ABA transfers.
  3. One of Paypal’s founders is a billionaire that encourages students to drop out of college.

Today, I noticed that the Square Cash iPhone app was updated to include support for a few new features:

  1. They have a dedicated domain name for the service at https://cash.me.
  2. Users may now have custom web address to receive payments, which they cleverly call “$cashtags.” For example, you can send me money—all kinds of money—at https://cash.me/$juanmonroy.
  3. They also introduced something called Cash Pro which provides businesses with a simple Cash-style payments for a 1.5% transaction fee.

That last bit is interesting mostly because it explains how this Cash service makes money. It was a bit of a hard sell when I would recommend the service to friends. Each would invariably ask how Square can transfer money with no fees. My response of “they make it up in volume” never seemed satisfactory.

I hope this lasts longer than that recently killed Square Order app.

International Obscura Day Returns May 2015

A little over a week ago, Atlas Obscura—the Greenpoint, Brooklyn–based purveyors of the strange, the offbeat, and, yes, the obscure—announced that they are relaunching their International Obscura Day. In the past, the day has consisted of organized tours, located throughout the world, in the spirit of the Atlas Obscura.

Obscura Day is the real-world manifestation of Atlas Obscura – a day of expeditions, back-room tours, unusual access and discovery in your hometown. More than just cataloging the curious, wondrous and overlooked places of the world, we’d like to encourage you to actually go out and explore them. Special events will be taking place at unusual locations across the globe as we highlight obscure collections, eclectic museums, hidden wonders and curiosities near and afar to show that the same sense of wonder invoked by exotic travels can be found close to home if you know where to look.

On Obscura Day 2012, Sarah and I went on a couple of tours, including a jaunt around our very own Superfund site and a lower-Manhattan pub crawl with a bunch of Victorians. As a validation of my photography that day, the New York City chapter used some of my photos to illustrate their recap of the day.

Although I didn’t attend any events in 2013 or 2014, I didn’t actually miss any events. Apparently, Obscura Day went on a two-year hiatus but will be returning this year at the end of May.

Atlas Obscura Day return May 30, 2015

As of right now, Obscura Day is in the save-the-date stage. You can, however, sign up for the newsletter, to learn of any updates. As excited as I am to see what tours will be scheduled around New York this year, it might make for a worthwhile reason to organize an out-of-town bike trip.

Pedal the West for Five Days

Earlier today, registration opened up for Glen’s Pedal the West bicyling tour. The tour looks pretty impressive. It lasts five days in late September, which everyone knows is the best time of year to travel, and goes from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon. It’s a fully supported ride, including lodging, most meals, and transportation for bike and rider. It sounds like an awesome excuse to take a late-summer vacation, but sadly, the price is a little high for me. It costs $3000, in addition to airfare and the inevitable other odds-and-ends.

But $3,000 is not that bad for a tour of this scale for 57 cyclists. Consider that this year’s Ride to Montauk registration costs $195, as of today, plus $65 for the optional, but really useful, bike-and-rider return transportation from Montauk. That’s $260 for a single-day event with 1,500 riders cycling past a bunch of angry malcontents in the Hamptons.

Anyway, I’m confident that Glen will get a bunch of riders to register for his Pedal the West tour. Cyclists are, after all, a spendy bunch. For example, the upcoming Grand Fondo New York costs about $289, plus registration fee for a single-day ride that consistently sells out, likely because you get a jersey and a bottle of wine. And if you want to upgrade to the GFNY Plus package, which includes access to a VIP tent in Fort Lee, New Jersey, you’ll need to spend $1,900 (registration fee waived). Shelling nearly $2,000 for a single-day bike ride makes spending $3,000 for a five-day tour seem like a downright bargain.

Before you ask, no, I’m not riding the Grand Fondo New York. But if I were riding and were rich enough to afford the Plus-package, I would never spend $1,600 for an upgraded riding experience. Because, as spendy as my fellow cyclists are, I’m a comparative miser, and $1,600 in my mind can buy a pretty nice bike.

Disclosure: Although I have ridden the Ride to Montauk in past years for free, I’ve done so in exchange for route marking services. The opinions expressed here are my own and were triggered only by the public announcement of the Pedal the West tour. I don’t think Glen even knows who I am.

There’s Cheap, and then There’s Cheap and Ugly

A market research firm based in New York sent an email soliciting participants for a focus group on consumer electronics. To adorn their communique, the author of the message included an illustration of a notebook computer, a tablet, and a smartphone, suggesting that this workshop would be on personal computing devices.

Way to Keep it Real Fake.

Way to Keep it Real Fake.

The image, however, looks really cheap for a few reasons. In fact, the image offended me to the point that I did not even sign up for the focus group and have taken to write this post.

First, the devices in the photo are pretty obvious knockoffs of Apple devices. The notebook looks a lot like a MacBook Pro, complete with the silver aluminum unibody case, the off-color trackpad, the black keycaps, and the black bezel surrounding the display. The mobile devices look different enough from an iPad and iPhone, mostly because they each bear three marked buttons below the display, whereas Apple mobile devices stubbornly have only one slightly recessed button.

iPad has only one button.

iPad has only one button.

Second, the desktop backgrounds of each of these devices bear a pretty striking resemblance to an old version of iOS. The scattered water droplets look a lot like what Apple used to market iOS 5, back in 2011.

iOS 5 was cutting edge in 2011.

iOS 5 was cutting edge in 2011. Way to keep it current, guys!

The devices depicted in the illustration reminded me of Engadget’s Keeping it Real Fake series on clones and imposters of more popular and expensive products.

Ceci n’est pas iPhone

Third, the watermark identifying the stock photo agency on the illustration made the email communique look even more cheap and ugly than the knockoff devices depicted therein. The image is available for purchase from Dreamstime. Had this market-research firm paid the photo agency for the image, which seems like a justifiable business expense, the image would not have had the watermark, and it would have been of higher resolution. In short, it would have looked less ugly.

Despite being overly educated in film, I would hardly call myself an aesthete, but this solicitation offended me to the point where I felt compelled to shame the author. I regularly encounter this with students who don’t give much thought to the look of their papers. Why do they all have to be written in Times New Roman or Calibri (you know, the Times New Roman of Google Docs)? Why not take a few minutes and make your paper look nice and distinct from the others? The same goes for stock art. It’s bad enough when generic looking stock images infiltrate emails, newsletters, or webpages because rather than enhancing the work, the stock images taint the message with corporate blandness. And in the case of this particular email, it also looks sloppy because the author apparently just did a quick Google Image search, ripped the image off the web, and stuck it in the email composer.1

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the linked survey is done in a garish orange and blue color combination, accented with lime-green buttons. This medley of colors shouldn’t be a legal combination in HTML and CSS: browsers should instead render the colors in black and white.

Screenshot 2015-03-18 20.33.15

I wonder if this is what the kids today mean by Internet Ugly. Or is just ugly?


  1. I have no way to prove this, of course, but it appears that this was likely the artist’s workflow. 

A Quetzal in Prospect Park

In the last few weeks, I started watching television again. I stopped because most of my television watching was with Sarah, and in my new living situation, watching “my shows” was going to be a solitary affair. And, lately, I have been in no mood to do much of anything by myself.

One of the programs I’ve started to watch again is Broad City on Comedy Central. It is an absurdly funny series featuring Ilana and Abby, two twenty-something–year-old women living in New York. Not only is the second season as pee-your-pants funny as the first season, Andre is also a fan. Over the last few weeks, we have watch each episode of the second season with each other.

The most recent episode, “The Matrix,” involves Abby and Ilana leaving their phones at home to escape the digital matrix enabled by their digital devices. To aid in their pure, unmediated experiences, they decide to ride their roller blades to a dog wedding at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. (I told you this show was absurdly funny.)

Broad City, The Matrix, Ilana and Abby roller blade through Prospect Park

Almost immediately, I noticed on Abby’s helmet a sticker bearing an image of a familiar flag. A subsequent, close-up shot reveals that the image is of a Guatemalan flag.

Broad City, The Matrix, Abby wears a helmet with a Guatemalan flag on it.

Whoa! Coming from a Guatemalan family, I couldn’t help but notice it and point out this easter egg. After all, how can I not notice a quetzal?

A quetzal

I imagine that this is a nod to Arturo Castro, the Guatemalan-born actor who plays Abbi’s roommate Jaime on the series.

It’s nice when I see more of us.

And Now, the Apple Watch Makes Sense

Remember how I seemed pretty cool to the whole Apple Watch thing? As certain as I was that this new piece of technology would be expertly designed, well-constructed, and very user-friendly, I could not figure out what function it would serve that my iPhone wasn’t already doing. After all, the wonderful thing about a smartphone is that it is the computer you always have with you. Reaching for it, I reasoned, will always be easy.

Or so I thought before going on a bike ride today.

Ride-to-Panera-in-Northvale.png

Last Saturday, I had planned to ride to the Panera Bread in Northvale, New Jersey with the cycle club.1 But, bitterly cold temperatures, icy roads, and the closure of the George Washington Bridge pedestrian/bicycle path kept me off the bike for the entire weekend. Feeling restless, I rode to my various jobs this entire week, which I had not been able to do since mid-December, and, today, I scheduled a makeup ride to Northvale to eat that long-awaited soup–and–half-sandwich combo.

Not sure why I find biking 50 miles to a Panera in New Jersey so amusing, but we have to train for beer rides #irodemybikehere

A “Bicycle for the Mind” for the Bicycle

It was on today’s ride through Bergen and Rockland counties that I recognized the utility of a smartwatch. I could care less about monitoring my heart rate, my speed/cadence, and elevation gain during a ride. At one time, that mattered to me, but in the last few years, I don’t consider it as important. No, as someone who likes to explore new routes and brewery tap rooms, it’s really important to not end up horribly lost. An Apple Watch would actually be really helpful as a navigation aid because, even on group rides, we often have to stop to find directions.

Peepin'

Decades ago, Steve Jobs called the computer a “bicycle for our minds” because he saw it as a tool that can elevate the human mind above its natural ability. Similarly, applications elevate the computer from a machine to a tool. What made iPhone different from all other smartphones and PDAs before it were all the apps developed for it. Although I never had a smartphone before getting an iPhone 3G in 2008, I did have a series of Palm PDAs. Those were useful personal organizers and decent notetakers. However, each one was really limited—not because it had a crummy screen or required a stylus to use, but because it simply didn’t do very much. Today, I have about 200 apps loaded on my iPhone, including task managers, an array of readers and writing apps, and apps for dozens of other functions. I may not regularly use all 200+ apps, but having them gives my iPhone purpose, especially compared to the PDAs and smartphones of yore.

Palm Vx

For the past two cycling seasons, I’ve been using a Garmin Edge 200 on my long bike rides. I can track my speed, my distance pedaled, the time of day, and if I load my course before heading out on the road, which I almost always do, I can follow a route. I know I could use my iPhone with some app, such as Strava or Ride with GPS, to function like my Garmin, but there are a lot of drawbacks to this. On a warm day, the battery can power my Garmin for over 12 hours; the battery inside my iPhone might not. If I get caught in a rainstorm, my Garmin is water-resistant, whereas soaking my iPhone would be devastating. And, the plastic-and-rubber Garmin sits on my handlebars taking various shocks and shakes from our bumpy potholed roads: I’m not certain my glass-and-metal iPhone would fare as well.

The Garmin is only useful because of the various websites that communicate with the device. The stock Garmin Connect is fine for beginners, but the third-party apps are much, much better. For example, Strava is for those who obsess over every esoteric metric imaginable, and Ride with GPS is for those who love to plan routes, as I do. In due time, I can see the latter two making apps for the Apple Watch, just as they do for iPhone and other smartphones. Their smartwatch apps could communicate with an iPhone, securely stored in a Ziploc bag and safely tucked away in a jersey pockets. In fact, I’ll bet dollars to donuts that both of these companies have at least considered developing for the Apple Watch. Sorry, Garmin.

Free to Escape

The great thing about going on a long bike ride is to escape life for a few hours, which is why I rode a lot during the latter half of 2014. Though I keep my phone stashed away in my pocket during a ride, I can still hear it dinging and feel it buzzing whenever I get a new message, phone call, or some other notification. Today, I heard a series of alerts as I pedaled through the relatively quiet suburban streets of Bergen County, New Jersey. I tried to put those distractions out of my mind, but as a product of the digital age, I simply could not. As soon as I encountered a red traffic signal, I hurriedly pulled out my phone to check who had been messaging and calling me. Fortunately, none of the callers had anything pressing to tell me, but right there, I recognized the value of having a smartwatch. Instead of kvetching about "who could be trying to reach me right now," I could have just glanced at my watch, saw that it was a doting relative, and continued on my way.

Part of me is bothered that I have cannot have a few hours on a bike without being interrupted, but I realized today that a smartwatch is a piece of technology that allows me to do what I want without being disconnected. Twenty years ago, when mobile phones started to become a thing, one of my mentors said that she would never carry a cell phone because she wanted to preserve the freedom from always being reachable. It was a sensible argument at the time. A few years later, after I got some Nokia candy-bar phone, I realized that the mobile phone didn’t tether me to work or other obligations, as I had feared. Instead, it allowed me to do whatever I wanted—and to go wherever I wanted. I didn’t have to sit by the phone waiting for someone to call me or, worse even, to keep calling my answering machine at home checking for any incoming messages.2 With a cell phone, I gained a new freedom from my landline telephone.

Maybe that’s what this new piece of technology—the Apple Watch with its plethora of apps and seamless connection to an iPhone—is supposed to do: ever-so-slightly liberate us from our older devices, even if one of those devices is only about eight years old.


  1. It’s something we did last year, and I thought it was funny that we were biking all that way just to eat at a ubiquitous bakery chain. 
  2. Kids today—who probably never use voicemail—must presumably consider the practice of calling your home answering machine to retrieve messages a positively antediluvian ritual.