Chaff

B E T A

Patel Clouds Theme in the Chat Background Tool

How I’ve used Telegram as the ultimate cross-platform Universal Clipboard, file sharing service, and more.

Believe it or not, I, too originally sought the Russian-owned, cross-platform-as-hell messaging service for “privacy” – or perhaps solitude would be more apt. It was in 2017, amidst the shock that the Tump Presidency was actually going to happen [^1], that I happened to hear about his pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, whom had just 18 months prior led myself and some twenty thousand other poor souls in a most capitalist prayer to the Christian God for prosperity at her pyramid scheme’s ultimate “superbowl” gathering in Cincinatti. I had decided to “infiltrate” AMWAY under the ridiculous assumption that I might be able to contribute some new insight in writing critically about what I might witness. (In truth, I found my experiences that summer so utterly traumatic, existentially, that I never was able to do so.) I don’t know what consequences of her ascension to the Lord of American Schooling I expected to happen, but I was pretty hysterical about it – that is, more unhumorously alarmed about some grander world happening as I’d ever been by a long shot. For the first and only time in memory, I felt compelled to take some sort of malicious, obscured action – to organize somehow for a purpose other than to be publicly critical of this person, and to use my knowledge about digital media to the fullest possible extent to scrutinize her administration’s every movement and to be prepared, even, to take some sort of real action if she… well, I don’t know. I didn’t know anything, really, about anti-government organization, generally, but I was not acting rationally in the slightest.[^2]

White Sapphire

I’m bringing this up for a few reasons, and the fact that the very first digital decision of my personal hysteria was to set up a private Telegram channel is telling, though I can’t recall just how much or how little I actually knew about it at the time. I launched myself back to the channel’s very beginning (easier to do with regular URLs than in any other service I’ve ever encountered,) but was only able to bring myself to dig just long enough to grab the utterly absurd photograph above… Though I certainly did not consider myself actively interested in automation at the time,[^3] Telegram’s infamous bot ecosystem proved so prevalent (and accessible,) that I was able to configure at least three bots on that channel within days of first establishing it: a repeater hooked to DeVos’ Twitter account, an RSS-powered bot watching the main feed of a website set up by Senator Elizabeth Warren called DeVos Watch, and another republishing everything from the Department of Education’s press releases feed.

Was any of it genuinely useful in helping me maintain Action Readiness in hypothetical defense of American education? Most certainly not. It was, however, genuinely comforting to have such diligent, automated minions keeping watch – to have a centralized, private, reliable, and purely-chronological feed of information in a super-handy location, regardless of whether or not it was usable. As I began to unconsciously integrate Telegram into my day-to-day online life on both of my PCs and my iPhone, the usefulness of my private channel for other applications became rapidly apparent. On iOS, not even dedicated file managers like DEVONthink are capable (or willing might be a more accurate term) of handling the diversity of data Telegram will happily pass on for you, especially through the Share Sheet.

Drafting

I have used this “flow” so extensively for so long that it has come to define the whole of the abstract method in my muscle memory. Observe me browsing the web on my phone in an exhausted or particularly distractible state and you’d probably catch at least one or two completely irrational, inexplicable instances of sharing to my “Saved Messages” Telegram channel, which would be problematic for just about any other link-saving service. Add too many links to Safari’s Read Later list and you’ll end up crashing the browser on your Mac. I don’t even feel comfortable sending links willy nilly to the brilliant bookmark managing/curatorial service Raindrop, these days, after finding out that my Reading List feed has actual daily followers, but there are zero consequences to sending ultimately-worthless or duplicate links to my personal Telegram channel, which has no content limit and is instantly and competently searchable.

Send to Telegram Drafts Action

Over the years, I’ve discovered a bunch of other uses for the Saved Messages channel. As demonstrated in the screenshots embedded above, the Send to Telegram Action for my writing app, Drafts, utilizes Telegram for iOS’ Universal Links support (in the format tg://…) to instantly send the whole text of the current document in Drafts to a Telegram channel of one’s choice. I suspect this was intended to streamline posting for admins of public channels, but I’ve used it to quickly “back up” work as well as to transfer edits directly to my (Windows-running) PC. By adding &to=+[my phone number] to the end of the action’s URL, I was able to remove the single, unnecessary step of choosing the destination chat. Because text messages are automatically split at 5000 characters, though, I usually depend on the Share as Markdown File Action (the output of which I also send to Saved Messages through the Share Sheet) for the latter function. Anecdotally I’ve also used this method literally just to inspect unknown content passed to the Share Sheet because it’s often faster than Quick Look to share to my Saved Messages channel and then immediately open it in the app. (Hilarious, I suppose. Mostly sad, these days.)

I found my inspiration for this Post in replying to a thread on the Automators.fm Discourse forum regarding a Windows equivlalent to the same Mac/iOS/iPadOS app Drafts mentioned above. I suppose my reply was a bit off-topic, in retrospect, but still worth including:

I have been using Telegram, of all things for years. Notably, if you hit Ctrl + 0 from anywhere in the Windows client, you and your cursor are taken to the compose field beneath your personal “Saved Messages” channel, which is searchable, has an extremely high per-message character limit (after which it just automatically splits,) and is ridiculously reliable in saving “drafts” live as you're typing. As in... I have actively tried to lose characters by killing the application and then logging in on my phone and have yet to accomplish losing a single one (among other advantages: zero formatting added to plain text by default – not even line breaks – no total file limit and 2GB per file limit uploads, absurdly cross-platform, literally more reliable than SMS in poor network conditions.) You can immediately reenter a sent message with to edit, copy it, escape with just Esc and then paste to start a new revision.

The feature within Telegram that makes this whole usecase worthwhile was introduced in June, 2016, and is entitled – appropriately – “Drafts.” Unlike the Drafts function in Twitter’s various native clients, for instance, Telegram’s really is impossible to fool, though it’s not perfect. Markdown formatting support is inconsistent across Telegram clients – the iOS app being the most woeful – and the few keyboard shortcuts the app supports on iPad are not supported whatsoever on iPhone.

Universal Clipboard

Users familiar with the MacOS + iOS + iPadOS ecosystem should be well-acquainted with “Universal Clipboard,” which instantly synchronizes clipboard content across Apple devices. More recently, Android + Windows users have supposedly had access to an equivalent functionality. To my knowledge, though, truly cross-platform clipboard sync has yet to be realized.[^4] As someone who’s used iOS and Windows regularly – along with Linux, occasionally – for more than a decade, now, I’d put my full weight behind Telegram as the best available solution from (far too much) personal experience.

Security Considerations in Telegram for iOS

When first entering a new system, real or virtual, regardless of OS, my very first step upon completion of its setup process has for years been to install Telegram, largely because all of my passwords for any/all given services are huge – 30+ characters, at least – and complex enough that typing them out is both tricky and absurdly time-consuming. Authorizing a new Telegram client, however, is as simple as entering a one-time numeric passcode or scanning a QR code. Managing logged-in sessions (see: the far right screenshot embedded above) is quick, reliable, and includes a handy button to kill all but the current session. Thanks to these considerations, I feel quite comfortable sending myself passwords in Telegram, including .csv exports of whole password vaults, when it’s appropriate, even when working on systems I do not own. For this function, I can’t think of any other service/software capable of replacing Telegram.

For day-to-day hyperlink sharing across my platforms, a variety of alternatives continue to come and go. The “Send to [device]” features represented throughout the palette of available web browsers – Firefox, Opera, Edge Chromium, Chrome, etc. – aren’t exactly reliable, in my experience. Most recently, I discovered a service specific to Hewlett Packard machines called “QuickDrop,” which – along with its accompanying iOS app – does indeed allow me to send files, links, and text between my iPhone and Big Boy HP tower, though even my brief testing was filled with inexplicable prompts to reauthenticate and intermittent hangups, neither of which lend easily to regular use. I still maintain high hopes for Snapdrop, which allows devices to share files and text over a local network from within any web browser, but it, too, is prone to frustrating hangups.

Drake Telegram Joke

File Transfer & Cloud Backup

Amidst the saga of my failed move to Portland spanning 2017-2019, I ended up losing all of my physical file storage – my old desktop and its hard drive, as well as 3 external drives containing a bunch of raw video I probably wouldn’t have gotten around to using, anyway, site backups for Extratone, and who knows what else. This loss taught me many grand, metaphysical life lessons (I hope,) but more practically, it affirmed a (admittedly gluttonous) truth about digital assets: if one truly wishes to make a file permanent, they must back it up in as many different places as possible.[^5] Perhaps the single most durable of these in my own computing life to date has been Telegram, which still has no per-account file upload limit and a per-file size limit of two gigabytes. The amount of pre-2019 work I’ve recovered solely thanks to Telegram is too great to enumerate here, but a rough draft of my 2018 Thankful for Bandcamp Mix comes immediately to mind.

How exactly the service is able to maintain this virtually unrestricted storage, infrastructurally, borders on don’t want to know status. My own net server impact as a user is fairly difficult to estimate, but I’d bet real paper currency it’s between 50 and 100 GB, the vast majority of which I uploaded several years ago. Within any mainstream cloud file storage service – Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, iCloud, etc. – the cost of storing that amount over time would have added up to a not-insignificant chunk of change. I don’t want to advocate for Telegram as a cloud storage replacement for loaded cheapskates, but for working-class users on a $0 budget, it can be counted upon to keep large files in a relatively shareable, ultra cross-platform, and super-accessible manner. Students, especially, should take note.

Local Visibility and Voice Notes Publishing in Telegram for iOS

Community

At this point in my life, I must acknowledge to both readers and myself that I am completely inept at community organization. Especially when it comes to grand suggestions about how I suppose online communities might be ideally-run or just better served by particular software environments and configurations, I have literally received zero positive feedback, and not because I haven’t spent significant time positing publicly within the space. I spent the first half of my twenties trying to Peter Pan an independent online music magazine into existence, written by fresh-minded youths on the fringe at 140% throttle and managed to accomplish startlingly little for my all my invested time and gumption. The relevant component of that tale was a significant and all-out commitment from the beginning to run the whole project entirely within Discord.

The one absent activity throughout my years of Telegram use – save for intermittent correspondence during one relationship – has been messaging other users. I managed to find and participate in a few group chats – “Telegram iOS Talk” and It's FOSS' official channel, notably – in my preparation/research for this post. I’ve discovered plenty of new clever bits, like the button to jump to one’s nearest mention in a chat. I’ve also done my best to actually apply some much-needed administrative attention to my years-old attempt at creating the definitive location-based local group chat for the Mid-Missouri area where I live. Truthfully… It hasn’t exactly gone as I’d hoped, but the failures have been all my own. I have yet to find a satisfactory balance in terms of moderation bots, so I’ve (as of this writing) resorted to manually removing the (significant) spam bot traffic by hand. Also, I must admit that I’ve never had to do so more than once or twice on Extratone’s public Discord, despite how much more circulation its public, open invite links have received.

In the past few weeks, I’ve had the privilege of watching MacStories relaunch their premium membership program, Club MacStories, on their incredible bespoke CMS. Part of this launch included their first exclusive community space, on Discord, which has been deeply rewarding for me, personally, but has also highlighted some serious limitations of that service which I not-so-long-ago advocated so heavily for. Namely, hyperlinks to specific messages within Discord are a hopelessly problematic endeavor. Even for a public server like Extratone’s, navigating to a message link like this example will require any and all users to log in to Discord on the web, which – on mobile devices, especially – seems to struggle to navigate to the precise position of the subject message after you’ve successfully done so. Slack’s public message links are smart enough at least to prompt users to open them Slack for iOS, but Telegram’s system for message links in public channels and groups makes both services look daft.

Read more...

Siri Shortcuts for Scrubs Transparent

![Siri Shortcuts for Scrubs ](https://i.snap.as/KJhBUnBT.png)

How my particular

It’s been three years since I first discovered iPhone-bound personal automation in a late build from iOS 12’s Public Beta channel, having skipped out on the entire cycle for the first release in a good while. I’d been more occupied than ever before with my failing attempt to move myself and Extratone to the West Coast, and my news consumption was more focused than ever on media instead of consumer technology. Somehow I missed not only the news of Workflow’s acquisition by Apple the previous Spring, but its hasty, surprisingly well-covered (by MacStories, anyway) “adaptation” of most(?) of their application’s extensive GUI-based script builder into the Shortcuts app, associated with Apple’s voice assistant as an “end around for the problems with Siri,” as suggested by Dieter Bohn along with the lion’s share of greater tech media supposition.

Popular voice changing app Voicemod is making its way to the iPhone today. Voicemod Clips is a new mobile app that will allow iPhone owners, and Android users soon, to modify their voice for short video and audio clips. The app is completely free to use, with no annoying ads or freemium features. You can choose from a variety of facial and audio filters to create clips that can be shared freely on social networks, messaging apps, and more.

iOS 15 is Not His Year

It's been a tough summer for the Always Feature-Focused Tribe.

Eighty days ago, Apple's Senior Vice President of Software Engineering stood up in front of a crowd of...

No!... It was just me... Alone, in my mother’s basement, on a Monday morning, contorted at stupid angles, typing to my phone with a physical keyboard and unapologetically scarfing as much as I possibly could of the Apple community’s unbelievably unreserved, almost spiritual volume of pure hype from as many simultaneous sources as I could manage. (Hilariously, all of said sources are/were Discord servers, now, as in that “gamer” communications service I launched my little indie mag on in 2015 and kept comparing to Slack, but like an actual madman.)

Anyway, said Senior Vice President of Software Engineering (who we are encouraged to hold accountable for basically all technical changes to iOS) is named Craig, and these are his first few sentences:

For many of us, our iPhone has become indispensable. And at the heart of iPhone is iOS. iOS powers the experiences we've come to rely on. This year, we were inspired to create even more meaningful ways iPhone could help you. Our new release is iOS 15. It's packed with features that make the iOS experience adapt to and complement the way you use iPhone...

I’m dwelling on them because they are patently meaningless. Very little to nothing coming in iOS 15 is what I would call ease-of-use-centric. Some of it – namely controversial (and now backpedaled) changes to the user interface of Safari – feels almost maliciously quartered in the opposite direction. Most of the changes in the subheadings of the full feature list are simply irrelevant in the use for all but the dorkiest iOS users, like myself, and I find the fact unacceptable, at the very least.

The Foundation Image

This is why I would like to try something different, this year, and focus on an entirely different audience: my family, as representatives of the vast majority of the iPhone’s billion-something demographic (read: customers.) That is to say, who Craig should be referring to with the phrase “most of us.” Not because I believe them to be “dumb” or “end users” (in the tech bro derogatory sense,) but because they are busy, working people who depend on their iPhone as a utilitarian device, above all else. They don’t have the time to dive deep into Apple documentation or watch the whole WWDC presentation to gain an understanding of where to look for new features or (unfortunately) how to turn them off. Realistically, they don’t even have time to read this whole Post, though I hope they will (sorry fam.)

Regardless of how we feel about it, Apple has made it clear that our phones are going to be further and further inundated with automated processes in the background. Whether you like it or not, your phone is going to be used to help find other users’ devices over the Find My network, your travel information is going to be used to inform Apple Maps’ live traffic statistics, and so on. For the more conservative members of my family, related truths about their phones are going to continue to feel like we are continuing to give up “ownership” of our devices. There are definitive alternatives, but they involve giving up a whole lot of conveniences. I will do my best to address this a bit later on, drawing from much more articulate critics than I.

Testing Home Screens for iOS 15

What I will dwell on, myself, are the more menial, tactile implications of these abstract changes in design philosophy. A general theme of my own use/writing about iOS has been re-finding or jury-rigging the “buttons” which are gradually being obscured or eliminated entirely in the assumption that Apple’s automation knows better than us users when something should happen or change. A great example: using a simple Siri Shortcut to completely disable Wi-Fi and Bluetooth instead of trusting the unnecessarily complex conditions of doing so with the buttons in Control Center. I have sought out these “hacks” (as other iOS powerusers have rather absurdly called them) for very selfish reasons.

Quite simply, the more automated iOS has become, the less comfortably in control I have felt. For myself, at least, every single functional automation Apple has introduced has drastically failed to simplify my own using life, and the vast majority have in fact complicated it dramatically. Apple-adjacent publications and greater tech media have ceased all-out criticism and instead resorted to justifying and explaining (or attempting to, anyway) just about all of Apple’s subtle retractions of user control over the years, but apparently, I am too much of a control freak to let it go. I have been here since the very beginning, have bitched loudly all along, and do not plan to go quietly into that automated night. This theme pervades throughout this review, so for any of you who do feel like iOS’ automations fit comfortably into your life, please keep this in mind.

Safari Settings in iOS 15

The Gist

Rounder, still! From the first time you enter your passcode immediately after installing iOS 15, you’ll notice that Notifications and other elements have had their rounded corners further rounded, for some reason. Assuming Safari ships with its new look turned on by default, the screenshots embedded above show two locations (subject to change) where one can switch it off. (Your best bet is to visit its menu in Settings as displayed on the right in Settings ⇨ Safari.) As of this writing, at least two of iOS 15’s “headlining” features have been pushed to further iterative updates: SharePlay and iCloud Private Relay. I suspect you will be prompted to explore Focus Modes upon initial installation, which I will eventually analyze in relative detail. Ideally, you’ll also be prompted to explore “Shared With You,” which I personally believe to be the release’s most significant addition for most people, by far.

As far as “meaningful ways iPhone could help you,” I see little more than glimmers. Focus Modes would be promising were they not so complex to set up, and Notification Summaries are (as of this moment) a pretty hopeless implementation of a theoretically useful concept. Some additional filters in Apple Maps search will prove useful so long as the associated metadata has been updated for locations other than San Francisco (say, mid-Missouri.) Optical Character (text) Recognition has been implemented “system wide” under the feature Apple terms “Live Text,” and translation has finally been extended to the places where it’s most useful (think: Safari.)

In general, though, most of what’s coming with iOS 15 has little real value in the day-to-day experience for most iPhone users. A complete inversion of Craig’s phrase feels significantly more accurate: This year, we were inspired to create even more superficial ways iPhone could temporarily dazzle tech media.

And now, I’d like to take you through what I feel are the considerations I’d like my family to know – namely my 70-year-old mother, who depends 100% on her iPhone and MacBook Pro every day to run her private practice – but also my ~8 nieces and nephews spanning 6th grade-graduate school, who all – if I’m not mistaken – have iPhones.

Worthy of note: this “review” is very heavily focused on *iOS* - which is to say *iPhone* - to the point where any overlap with iPadOS/MacOS/WatchOS/HomeOS/any other goddamned operating system are purely coincidental. For coverage of those changes, please seek your regular sources.

Shared With You - Photos App in iOS 15

Photos

Shared With You

The single most important/welcome feature addition to iOS 15 for most people, I believe, is found in Apple’s native Photos app and entitled Shared With You. This view – found in the second tab in the bottom navigation row (“For You”) – is a reverse-chronological timeline of every bit of media (photos & videos) you’ve ever been sent over iMessage. For those with a lot of iOS-using friends (unlike myself,) I would imagine the list will take quite a while to populate.

Memories

I find Alex Guyot’s bit on changes to Memories (from his iOS 15 overview for MacStories) much more concise than what I’d written, so here it is almost in full:

Memories can now be set to your favorite songs from Apple Music, and can be customized with color filters. Setting different filters will result in different song choices and transition effects to nail a wider variety of vibes on Memories videos.

While watching a video generated by Memories, you can tap and hold at any time to freeze a photo so that it doesn’t transition away. The song playing over the video will not pause when you do this, but when you let go the remaining video transitions and timings will be automatically altered to match back up with the song’s beat.

If you don’t want to go with the song that was chosen automatically, you can tap the new Music button to get a pop-up interface into Apple Music, allowing you to choose a song manually. This interface will include smart suggestions for other songs that Apple thinksd you’ll like which would also fit the vibe of your video.

Yeah. I hope you’re at least half as amused as I have continued to be by algorithmic video generation. The above result was created with absolutely zero modification from an album of images and videos which Photos automatically created via face recognition. The only other coherent option from my own limited set of photos is really the only one that matters, I think you'll agree. “Pet Friends” yielded inevitably uplifting results in all three of my test renders, but – given a crop of cute dog photos – little intelligence is necessary to produce.

If you're experiencing any sort of Déjà vu from the idea of auto-generated slideshows with rights-free soundtracks in the Photos app, it's because Apple has made several distinct attempts to implement very similar iterations of the feature throughout iPhone's history, which has involved iMovie on iOS and MacOS once or twice. I have fiddled with every one – including iOS 15's – and my (truly sound and original) advice is to avoid spending time trying to customize auto-generated videos in general. If you explore one of the suggested Memories and find the software's default result satisfactory, of course you should save it, but be wary of any attempts to take editorial control yourself.

Visual Lookup Indicator in iOS 15

Visual Lookup

Perhaps the most unjustifiable background use of your phone’s resources introduced in iOS 15, “Visual Lookup,” seeks to identify “popular art and landmarks around the world, plants and flowers out in nature, books, and breeds of pets” present in your photos so that you might… identify them more swiftly(?) The only means of distinguishing photos on which Visual Lookup has been applied is to look for the modified ⓘ symbol at the very bottom of your screen in the photo browsing view (see the screenshot embedded above.) As you might notice in the screenshots below, not one of its analyses on my own images was usably accurate.

The decision to target the feature on identifying domesticated pets, specifically, is more universalizing than historic landmarks, for sure, but it also immediately sets up the technology (at least this preview of it) for failure.

Visual Lookup in iOS 15

Metadata

Hooray! You can now view an image's basic details in the “Info pane,” by swiping up on an image or using the ⓘ button. This includes the extension (type) and size of the image file, camera identification and configuration details, and – as part of Shared With You – from whom/where you got the image. Bizarrely, the “Adjust” tool also lets you alter a given image's timestamp and location information. While I can imagine infinitely many reasons why you'd want to omit or delete such information, I cannot conceive of a single wholesome reason why one would chose to change it, instead.

Photo Stacks in iOS 15

Messages

Just a few weeks shy of iMessage's tenth birthday, Apple has finally added a button to save incoming photos directly in Messages conversations. It's about as blatant as Apple interface design gets – you'll spot it opposite others' images. Tapping it saves the appropriate photo(s) directly to the Recents folder before a silly animation vanishes the button itself.

Once again, from Mr. Guyot:

Groups of photos that you send will now be shown as stacks instead of in a long list, allowing you to more easily swipe through the images without losing track of the conversation around them. Tap on a stack to open a grid view where you can see and select multiple photos at once.

I took the screenshot embedded above in iOS 15 Developer Beta 5, and… Do “stacks” not look hilariously janky as fuck?

Live Text in iOS 15

Live Text

For someone like myself, iOS 15’s system-wide integration of Optical Character Recognition is undoubtedly its most useful addition by far. Throughout the Developer Beta, it’s moved up this list gradually as I’ve come to see how it could be useful for you, as well.

The video embedded above is a very rough demo, but I suspect it’s more “authentic” than most you’d see elsewhere. The ability to accurately capture text right from the camera is invaluable, but for most folks, line breaks are going to be a real problem. I’m working on a way to address this with a Siri Shortcut, which I’ll obviously share here when/if I succeed.

Audio

Background Sounds

My eldest sister has used a sound/noise machine to sleep for as long as I can remember, so I was especially excited to show her iOS 15’s native “Background Sounds” feature, but she was distinctly unimpressed, noting that her iPhone-based sound generation needs were well met by third-party apps she’d already discovered.[^1] I didn’t have time to try out her recommendations, but I’m going to assume they aren’t able to operate “behind” additional audio playback like the “new” native feature is.

Background Sounds Interrupt Remedy

My personal (hopefully insightful) anecdote: Background Sounds appear to be impervious from the audio interruption issues iOS has struggled with since its origin, which makes them a partial remedy to the discomfort of sudden, unexpected silence when using headphones with active noise cancellation. As configured in the screenshot embedded above (the menu found in Settings ⇨ Accessibility ⇨ Audio/Visual ⇨ Background Sounds) – with “Use When Media Is Playing” toggled OFF– your selected Background Sound should fade in when normal playback from another app is interrupted.[^2]

“Spatial Audio”

Just to be clear, I strongly believe that normal users should basically ignore all mention of Apple’s “Spatial Audio” (read: don’t worry about it) for a few reasons, most of which aren’t all that interesting. Since one of my very first written works on tech was/is directly related to the subject, though, indulge me for just a moment for an attempted explanation. Firstly, I must note that only two audio channels (the stereo experiences in various forms you’ve certainly had in your life, regardless of who you are) are necessary for audio to become “spatial.” If you’re curious about this, my favorite all-time web experience from The Pudding is an absolutely impeccable next destination. Secondly, the actual technology behind Apple’s title was not developed by Apple, but by Dolby. It’s not that Apple doesn’t acknowledge this thoroughly in their explainer docs, nor is Dolby by any means a wee organization in need of my amplification, but this is one of those Apple habits that’s become a particular peev. If you’re interested, here is the actual spec sheet for Dolby Atmos in PDF.

Control Center Decibel Meter

If you happen to have either AirPods Pro or AirPods Max devices, an iPhone 7 or later, and an Apple Music subscription, you might want to disregard my cynicism at least long enough to try “dynamic head tracking.”

SharePlay

The Verge’s Chaim Gartenburg did an excellent – if a bit precocious – job of explaining what he describes as iOS 15’s “headline feature,” called SharePlay:

It’s a new software feature on top of FaceTime that allows you to watch and listen to movies, TV shows, music, podcasts, and more with friends and family while video chatting.

In my opinion, SharePlay represents one of those great, well-thought solutions to some notably youth-specific challenges which nobody (even the youth) will see as more worthwhile than their own. By that I mean, one ear bud per person… now, an ancient tradition. I’ve deprioritized it, in contrast to Chaim, because I’d bet it’s also one of those things one can only learn themselves.

Notifications in iOS 15

Notifications, Focus, and Attention

Yes, notifications have gotten even rounder still for some reason in iOS 15. Contact photos and “larger app icons” also “make them easier to identify,” according to Apple. (This is the one point in my whole writing life where the phrase well I’ll be the judge of that! is 100% valid and applicable.) There’s also a new feature called Notification Summary which is an absolutely useless and unnecessary complication, at least at the moment. Honestly, the one bit of solid advice from The Social Dilemma was… Just turn all Notifications off, or at least as many as possible. Notifications Summary feels like a near direct response to that one goddamned film, and its new Focus Modes do even more so.

Focus(es)

The most glaringly standout parallel between Microsoft’s Windows 11 release (which I have also been beta testing much less dutifully for most of this year) and Apple’s stated goals in iOS 15’s design centers around the design supposition that maximum malleability of the “spaces” in which one dwells on their operating system – namely, the “desktop(s)” and/or “home screen(s)” – lends toward a more healthy digital occupancy of them, especially in terms of attention. Unfortunately, both of them chose respective solutions which – from my view, anyway – add complexity more than anything.

The Verge’s guide frames Focus as a customization feature to be used in tandem with custom app icons to fiddle your way into your own bespoke iPhone experience. I could be wrong, but I suspect very few among my family will find the time investment required worth the end result, but we’ll see.

Focus in iOS 15

I chose to embed Matt Birchler’s guide to Focus above because it’s by far the most succinct and helpful video I’ve yet seen on iOS 15, generally, and demonstrates how a working person might actually use Focus. My one addendum to this (and any other Focus) guide: proceed without the automated bits by avoiding anything under the TURN ON AUTOMATICALLY subsection of the menu. For whatever reason, location-based automation triggers on iPhone, especially, have literally never functioned usefully (or reliably) in my experience.

Maps & CarPlay

(I am going to do a bit of editorializing on this subject, specifically.) If the video embedded above is confusing, know that it's a very insular joke – over six years ago, in my video review of the Nissan Juke NISMO, I praised its integrated navigation screen specifically for its frugality.

I'm not old. I don't need a gigantic nav screen. I don't need to see a 3D rendition of the whole Earth and my position relative to it.

...and yet, a playful, exploratory experience is what Apple has in mind for Maps, apparently. Here's their description of the new “Interactive globe” feature:

Discover the natural beauty of Earth with a rich and interactive 3D globe, including significantly enhanced details for mountain ranges, deserts, forests, oceans, and more.

In the footnotes, it’s explained that the feature will only be available on “iPhone with A12 Bionic or later,” meaning the iPhone X range, basically, which makes sense considering the extent of animation and touch manipulation technology present in this view. It’s an entertaining plaything, but not much more, which is strange and frustrating. If I could gather the usage statistics across all my family’s iPhones, how much time would you suppose they’ve spent in Apple Maps to date screwing around as opposed to searching and navigating?

Put another way – Apple’s developmental direction for Apple Maps as a service seems distinctly toward a travel/entertainment application (notably, like Google Earth,) instead of a utilitarian navigation app (like Google Maps, Waze, or MapQuest.) It’s not just the Interactive globe. One of the most exciting features in last year’s release (iOS 14) was the ability for Maps users to create custom Guides. I created my own containing a few local spots I believe to be especially relevant for first-time travelers/new residents of my area. Clearly, I misinterpreted the intended function of Guides entirely – continuing without a means of discovering user-generated guides, whatsoever, iOS 15 cements (in my view) that they’ll instead continue to be left to travel magazines, none of which I recognize save for Atlas Obscura, who’s “Hidden Wonders of Chicago” guide appears to be the single worthwhile representation of the Midwest on the service.

Apple Maps User Account in iOS 15

One welcome exception to this absence of investment in user-generated content is the new, unified “user account” view, which aggregates one’s curation (both private and public) along with travel preferences and a list of one’s contributions to Apple Maps – another new feature for the app.

Place Cards - Apple Maps in iOS 15

Above is a screenshot of my first test contribution to Apple Maps (my mom’s private practice,) which also serves as an example of Maps’ new “place cards.” As of this writing, all of my test contributions are still held “Pending Review,” yet navigating to the share link with a desktop browser indicates they've already been made public.

3D Hy-Vee

CarPlay

As of this writing, it’s unclear how much of the Maps features I’ve used will be carried over to CarPlay upon iOS 15.0.0’s official release, but I know for certain that CarPlay is a weekly (if not daily) used feature by virtually all of my family members. With the additional variable of differences in support between given automobile marques/models – including which support Car Key – it’s difficult to say definitively what will have changed about your personal CarPlay use. What experience I do have using CarPlay has been exclusively with my mom’s 2019 Volkswagen Jetta and documented visually in this photo gallery as well as on my alt Instagram’s “iOS & iPhone” IGTV Series.

Apple Maps Night Navigation

To once again cite from the official full features list:

An all-new driving map helps you see traffic, incidents, and other details that affect your drive at a glance. See incredible road details like turn lanes, bike, bus, and taxi lanes, medians, crosswalks, and much more. When approaching a complex interchange, Maps switches to a 3D road-level perspective to help you find your way.”

“It's faster and easier to report an issue in Maps” is a standout, literal statement. Once you've navigated to the menu in the screenshot below (via the chatbox with exclamation point icon,) touching any of the three options will immediately report its respective information without confirmation.

Report an Incident - CarPlay in iOS 15

The default Driving Focus can be configured to activate automatically as soon as CarPlay connects which would be the single exception from my earlier advice against automating Focus modes at all were it not for the mode's lockout from the Lock Screen (as shown in the first of the three screenshots embedded below.)

Driving Focus in iOS 15

Once you've locked your device with the Driving Focus on, you must clear an extra step to unlock it by selecting “I'm Not Driving,” which then turns the Focus off. In my (unsolicited) opinion, this renders the Focus unusable at best and arguably downright dangerous. “Hey Siri!” is an option most folks I know leave off and I can't imagine a single reason to add such an obstruction.

Custom Car Focus - iOS 15

I can offer a solution, however, in the form of my custom Car Focus, which only allows calls and texts from my mom, open a single, otherwise-hidden custom (work-in-progress) Home Screen with exclusively driving/nav/travel-relevant apps, and even activates automatically via a very simple automation in the Shortcuts app. Technically, the only feature it's missing from the default Driving Focus are automatic text replies, which (as of beta) weren't working anyway.

For those new to Siri Shortcuts completely, I recorded a rough video guide on how to set up both the Focus and its automation.

Reminders in iOS 15

Reminders

“A to-do list is, ultimately, nothing more or less than an attempt to persuade yourself” concludes a feature by Clive Thompson in the most recent issue of WIRED. In the face of a literally indigestible volume of available (and award-winning!) Task Management applications found on iOS – Microsoft To Do, Microsoft Lists, Todoist, Things 3, Fantastical, GoodTask, OmniFocus 3, and on… – Apple’s Reminders app has always had perhaps the most insurmountable task of all its native applications in remaining competitive. Up until I wrote this review, my personal list in the app was nothing but a wasteland of forgotten, out-of-context items from up to 7 years ago (!) which I’d obviously set with Siri without bothering to correct its voice recognition.

Before you proceed to experiment with Reminders, I’d recommend using my Reminders Backup Siri Shortcut to create a .zip file of all existing items in your Reminders app, even if there are just a few. I insist upon this largely because it’s so fast and so frugal. (Here’s how to allow the addition of Siri Shortcuts from third-party sources.)

For a particularly positive – but very trustworthy – perspective on the additions to Reminders coming in iOS 15, John Voorhees’ overview for MacStories is succinct and informative.

An opportunity for an anecdotal, but genuinely exciting! demonstration is allowed us in Reminders: Drag & Drop is, indeed, finally here.

Safari in iOS 15

Safari

Before you read on… If you’re just wondering how to make Safari go back to the way it was before, refer back to the first subhead on this page (“The Gist.”)

The one commonality in the experience of every single person finishing up their iOS 15 review/overview/guide: we’ve all saved Safari for the very last minute. I am 99% certain the saga surrounding changes to Apple’s native web browser – along with my personal, reactionary gripes spewed along the past two months of iOS 15’s Developer Beta cycle – were the overwhelmingly affirming factors that led to me pursuing this very review. I have rewritten this portion over and over again, but now that you know how to disable the new look, I’m going to as briefly as possible summarize the changes that are actually relevant to you.

  • You can now pull down to refresh, which apparently the youths actually refer to with the acronym “PTR,” these days.
  • Safari Extensions might be worthwhile. I absolutely insist that everyone reading this install one called Overamped, which I have been testing. Basically, you’ll never need to think about Google AMP again, which is an absolute gift, I promise.
  • Tab Groups will almost certainly be nothing but a nuisance for all but the most ridiculous iPhone poweruses like myself.[^3]

If, like me, you’ve always found Bookmark/Favorites management in Safari utterly impossible, you’ll rejoice at the implications of Drag & Drop as demonstrated in the Twitter video embedded above.

Baubles

OMNIMEMOJI

Memoji

Finally, the great, terrible Apple God has granted its bizarre animated minimes a torso! I have always found memoji alarming, mostly, but now that I’ve paid them mind, I would like to express my sympathy for those of you who enjoy using them. I’m sorry to report that you will still need to go to Messages and open the compose window in a conversation in order to select the emoji iMessage app. Though iOS 15 adds full bodies to memoji (and clothes to cover them, as required since Adam & Eve,) as well as “accessible accessories,”[^4] there’s not as yet any way to actually see a memoji in full-body view other than the editing interface (as far as I could tell.) You can also choose to separately color your memoji’s eyes.

Facetime in The Browser Comedy

Facetime in The Browser

Yes, you can technically Facetime with non-Apple devices thanks to iOS 15's changes. In fact, you'll be able to “Facetime” any device with a web browser! However, in doing so you will be forgoing every single one of Facetime's advantages: call quality, “privacy,” ecosystem integration, etc. Without these, it would be silly to use Facetime over literally any other video calling service. What an immense waste of time, eh?

For the sake of thoroughness, though, I should note that I appear to be alone in this view of the new Facetime changes. MacStories founder and Ultimate iPad Sage Federico Viticci’s report on the subject was one of mostly satisfaction.

I will note, too, that my test of the new “Mic Modes” function yielded impressive results (along with a few other experiences I’ve had so far,) especially in the “Voice Isolation” mode’s performance, but – as I lamented on Twitter – its association with FaceTime makes it unavailable where one actually could make use of it on iOS.

Omissions

I know it probably doesn’t mean much to you, but in my lifetime of beta testing iPhone updates, I have never experienced such a disastrous cycle as 15’s. MacWorld’s outline of the expected features not coming in today’s release from the 7th of this month has no less than eight headings: SharePlay, Legacy Contacts, App Privacy Report, 3D CarPlay navigation, Universal Control, IDs in Wallet, Custom iCloud email domains, and CSAM scanning features.

For us powerusers, Siri Shortcuts are absolutely fucked and Apple Dork Twitter is livid about it. Personally, I find these to be the least problematic of the unfixed bugs, and I can only hope it means that Apple has prioritized fixes for the features most relevant in your life. I will be updating this Post as actively as I can in the coming weeks and always appreciate any questions or thoughts you might have about how I could make it more useful.

[1] If you’re reading this and happen to be looking for app recommendations, let me know and I’ll ask her. [2] This wasn’t working reliably in the last Developer Beta, but I’ll do my best to check back for the normal release. [3] This is one of those things I can’t say more about until I actually hear from other folks… I’ll check back in a month or so. [4] The full quote: “Three new accessibility options let you represent yourself with cochlear implants, oxygen tubes, or a soft helmet.”

It is now certainly part of my life cycle: eventually, I will come to those third available Write.as blog slot hoping to de-formalize my composing and perhaps even set about logging my day-to-day activities (mostly for my own writing's benefit.) This time, my not-particularly-original concept for going about this involves scheduling each one of these to publish at 2359 on the given day I started the post (and titling them only with the date of that day.) Commitment to this one bit could be fun – I am already looking forward to a post in which I am obviously cut off mid-sentence or even mid-word, though WriteFreely doesn't exactly work like that.

Perhaps I'll even just leave whatever “notes” I can't help but accumulate per post beneath a horizontal line.


Handset Teaser

“Experimental, topical shorts on media, hardware, and software” sounds a lot like what I've already got going on, I know, but why not have another go at something more casual and see if it means me contributing with any sort of frequency or regularity.

Who's up for speccing the fuckin' tag system I'm going to need for this?

image

My iPhone Wallpapers Shared Folder

I can't believe I've missed commenting this all this time... The Mapaper map images, especially, are too beautiful to miss!

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The Psalms' New Telegram Channel

I've created yet another Telegram channel that I'm going to attempt to use to share related media/documentation/minutia as I have been here but in a slightly different format. I thought I would try it because 1.) I want to take more advantage of Telegram, generally and 2.) I should avoid using GitHub as a file sharing service, and using Telegram as a substitution when particular challenges become an issue might actually stick.

...and here I was, thinking my longform idea might actually seem original in 2021. Marques is very good at what he does, if you couldn't tell already.

image image

Varmilo VA108M

Yes, I bought a mechanical keyboard. It occurred to me that folks who spend a lot of time doing things that require tools – professionals, artisans, craftsmen, etc. – usually seek out the best possible quality offerings of those tools. Even if they're just 5% better than the average alternatives and cost twice as much, when one uses them for hours every day, the last bit of refinement pays off very quickly. Considering how much typing I've done in the past 5-10 years, I find it a bit silly that I hadn't before thought to optimize the hardware I've used to do so. Now that I've put at least some thought into designing the space in which I work and gone back to school, I've also invested in bettering the thing my hands actually touch the most.

I suppose I've let myself be blinded to the advantages of a mechanical keyboard by the gaemer stigma that surrounds them. This time, I believe I began by simply inputting something like “best keyboard for typing” into a search engine, which returns plenty of iffy results, naturally, but among them was a list from Wirecutter – whom I trust, more or less – of “Best Mechanical Keyboards 2020.” Also included were posts in the r/MechanicalKeyboards subreddit, which I actually fucking joined[^1] (but promise never to mention again outside of this post.) Uncovering my eyes, I found a ridiculously-extensive community message board and Wiki, which is undoubtedly the most extensive resource on the subject to be found, anywhere. Though I did place a time limit on myself for any research of 15 minutes, in retrospect, I suppose I also had some criteria, which I assume – if you're still reading – you might be interested in:

  • WIRED as fuck. Bluetooth can fuck off.
  • “Full” keyboard, for the same reason I'd never spend any money on a piano with any less than 88 keys.
  • At least tolerably tasteful, aesthetically. (Not overwhelmingly embarrassing if someone were to actually see me using it.)
  • Cute, ideally.
  • No light shows.
  • Not “ergonomic.”
  • Not from Logitech or Microsoft.

Immediately, it was overwhelmingly clear that my choice must also have The Cherry... The Cherries... The “Cherry MX Switches,” whatever they are. Any of even the most skimmy reading up on the subject will lead you to this conclusion. That addressed, I arrived upon three considerations: the Ducky One 2, Das Keyboard Model S Professional, and Varmilo VA87M.

Varmilo VA108M (Overhead)

Layout of the VA108M seen from above.

As good as the idea of something as German as the Das Keyboard sounded, I hate the way it looks, and the Ducky seemed to take itself too seriously (despite its brand name.) The VA87M seemed to be ideal if it was full-sized. I searched for the equivalent, found the VA108M, and bought one immediately. Specifically...

SKU VA108MP2W/LLK22W
Switches Cherry MX Silent Red[^2]
Dimensions 5.39″ x 17.41″ x 1.30″
Cord Length 60 Inches

I've already written more than I ever wanted to, but let me just say that I love everything about the thing – the particular set of special keys, the way it feels & sounds, and that its heft prevents it from moving around – and I hope to keep it forever. As I said on the photographs I posted to social media, I promise to never bring this or any other mechanical keyboard up ever again unless asked about it.

[1] Yes, I have actually been using the Read It website in the past 18 months or so, which anyone who’s known me at all would find unbelievable. I don’t know if I’ll write about it in the future, so I’ll just say I’ve unblocked it within my psyche largely because it’s no longer horrendous to look at.

[2] I remain genuinely confused as to why the color of the switches matters, considering they are only visible when the keycaps have been removed.

#hardware

Created: Oct 20, 2020 9:26 PM Last Edited: Oct 20, 2020 9:28 PM Tags: Chronicle Timestamp: Oct 20, 2020 9:26 PM

After downloading my full Facebook archive (ended up being just 2.4GB lol,) I picked out some Children of The Corn 30 photos and added them as well as nesting the original [](https://www.notion.so/f7da6731663a4c3d8191a5504e02c002) database into a usable index page.

Created: Oct 13, 2020 2:30 PM Last Edited: Oct 14, 2020 2:27 PM Tags: Chronicle Timestamp: Oct 13, 2020 2:30 PM

My very first external comment in Notion!

I'm still not entirely sure how to organize these. I wish it were possible to set the title of a page in Notion with the (@)now command. (As in Oct 13, 2020 2:32 PM)

Caslon in Notion! Caslon in Notion!!

Mk VII and Mk VI

Though I grew up on a farm surrounded by (and loving) diesel equipment, owning a diesel-powered automobile somehow never occurred to me. This is especially puzzling given the overwhelmingly positive experience I was privileged to have with one 2014 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Sportwagen over the past year. It would find me signing up to Facebook groups, using real Fast Boy terms, revisiting long-lost roads of home, and returning to my local community in an extremely intimate ridesharing stint. Throughout it all, the Jetta made me smile much much more than I would’ve thought. I found a real love for this relatively simpleton form of transportation that I should have seen coming, but did not at all. There is something delightfully indulgent about a manual-equipped diesel wagon. Even The New York Times knows this:

Auto writers have long tooted the horn about the benefits of diesel engines, and a bunch of them have also argued that the old-school station wagon is a far more efficient way to haul things around than a bloated high-set S.U.V.

I knew it, too, apparently, long before I actually decided to act on a purchase. On October 24th, 2012, I Tweeted “I sat in a Jetta wagon today. I need one.” I really did intend on becoming The Jetta Man (perhaps without the fashion.) In acquiring it, my plan – and it was a good plan – was to cease an era of general insensibility in my life's decisions by entombing my wayward self within the most sensible expression of modern automotive design I suspected I could live with. The wagon component joined with diesel power and a manual transmission upon casual research. Diesel, manual, wagon – of the people's car, these I sought. Nay, demanded.

An ex-girlfriend of mine drove an utterly decimated Mk. V Jetta Sedan which she’d acquired in some sort of dicey deal. I remember finding it surprisingly robust given its lot, and quite dynamic to drive. We traveled all over the Midwest in it – from central Missouri to Des Moines to Chicago to Kansas City and back again. I mocked, but it was everything one could hope for in cheap transportation and quite a bit more. It turns out, Volkswagen was shooting high. As Tony Quiroga recalls for Car & Driver:

During the press launch of the outgoing Jetta back in 2005, Volkswagen touted that car as a less expensive alternative to an Acura TSX or Volvo S40. Volkswagen pointed to its growth in size, high-quality interior, new rear suspension, and refined demeanor as evidence that the Jetta had moved out of the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla class.

In terms of premium compacts, my experience is quite limited, but it’s no wonder the company has struggled to find a place in the market for this product: in German, “Volkswagen Jetta” literally means “people’s car jet stream.” The first component is infamous, of course, because of the Nazis and their horrid Beetle, but the second seems to be almost entirely unknown. In my research, I had to specifically investigate the Jetta’s name before reading anything about it. When an American thinks of “Jetta,” they unconsciously dissociate the word from the “jet” sound and make largely unsophisticated jokes. (It’s also Regular Car Reviewsmost hated car.) Now, the name has become a marque in and of itself: in China, Volkswagen began selling several different models under the JETTA brand last year. This also was news to me, and I try to keep up with the industry.

In 2011, the Mk. VI Jetta was released with an outdated base, 115-hp powertrain and a “hard plastic [interior] that wouldn’t look out of place in a Chrysler Sebring.” (Quiroga insults, to clarify.) Compared to the Mk. V, “Volkswagen made it clear that the targets are once again the strong-selling Civic and Corolla.” Once again, I’m at a loss for experience in the equivalent extra-Volkswagen competition, save for the Chevrolet Cruze and Kia Forte. (Surprisingly, GM actually produced a diesel version of the Cruze and AutoGuide compared it against the Jetta TDI.) It’s been too long since I last drove my ex’s Mk. V to really have much to say, but I do remember a particular solidity about the steering – perhaps because it was still hydraulic. Once again, I’ll rely on Tony:

Less obvious cost cutting includes the loss of adjustability for the center armrest, a lack of lumbar adjustment in most models, no more power-reclining seatbacks, and a simpler stability-control program that can no longer be shut off or even reduced.

When I began searching for my first ever truly modern car in February 2019, I surprisingly only needed to pass up a single option in the Kansas City area before I found The One: a 2014 post-Dieselgate example with ~65,000 miles on its odometer in “Deep Black Pearl” with a “Cornsilk Beige” interior which had been previously owned only by a single Michigan cyclist. I’d been without a car since dailying/living in a 1976 Lincoln Continental the year before, in Portland, and my friend had driven me around everywhere in his Wrangler for a full month (thanks, Jack!) I’d walked around and cold-idled another, high-mileage Sportwagen, but I was committed to getting something with a light-colored interior after the red velvet cake Lincoln and my dank smoking room-dark XJR.

Martin Racing

Three of us walked into a dealership in the middle of a frigid Kansas afternoon – Jack, my girlfriend Sierra, and I. We hovered by a smart, gleaming little Golf GTI whilst my salesman, Charles, retrieved the car I had found online. After he finished copying my driver’s license while the little diesel warmed up, the four of us set off into suburban Lawrence. Back when the Mk. VI Golf was released, I attended a Volkswagen dealership event in which Mk. V and Mk. VI GTIs were driven back-to-back – I’m assuming to reassure buyers that yes, they really had made it better (though I was quite vocal in my disagreement about this, to the dealer’s chagrin.) The car I bought immediately reminded me more of the former – perhaps I just enjoy the increased body roll of a 50,000+ mile suspension – albeit with a much longer wheelbase and significantly more torque. Rowing through the gears, I was immediately impressed and bewildered by the characteristics of the 140-horsepower, 236 lb.-ft.-developing diesel powerplant. The diesel engines I grew up around in tractors, combines, and other heavy machinery were designed to more or less remain at a constant, relatively low RPM for the majority of their use cases. It’s not a screamer, but the idea that a diesel engine can rev at all was something that took a bit to wrap my head around. However, it is almost immediately evident that carrying on to the 6000 RPM (?) redline is a futile and incorrect practice. There is nothing at all to be found up there.

I’ve driven some quick straight-line cars in my time, but none of them have delivered their power anything like the Jetta’s long-distinguished 2.0L inline-four. It’s very odd having comparatively so little actual horsepower, yet so much torque – I’d heard Jeremy Clarkson complain about diesel power coming in “great lumps,” but I’d already started to find them extremely (and positively) amusing in my first few minutes. When asked, the oil burner will produce protracted front tire squeal and torque steer from a stop, which is odd and hilarious coming from such an otherwise docile automobile. Also hilarious: Charles likely noted that Jack, Sierra, and I were (and are) entirely unafraid of facing The End when a very near collision during our test drive did not perturb us in the least, but left him huffing and puffing from adrenaline. He was a star, though, throughout the more than four hours of deliberations required for his institution to reckon with my credit history. Eventually, I ended up spending almost exactly $12,000, which was probably too much, and named my new automobile Martin – “Marty” for short – after Martin Winterkorn, the former CEO of Volkswagen AG who bore more than his share of the blame for Dieselgate, including charges of fraud by the German government. Dirty diesel rolling coal in prison.

Naughty Diesel

By “post-Dieselgate,” I mean that my new car was a part of Volkwagen's $10 billion buyback program, so the Michigander sold it back to the manufacturer for its “fair replacement value” – between $12,500 and $44,000 according to Car & Driver on behalf of FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez. To be technical, the powerplant is a 2.0L EA189/CJAA turbodiesel four-cylinder. “The EA 189 was one of the most important engines in the company, destined not only for millions of Volkswagen-brand cars but also for a wide variety of other brands from the parent Volkswagen Group, like Audi, Skoda and Seat, as well as some light utility vehicles,” said The New York Times regarding the “clean diesel” “scheme.” In original spec, 236 lb.-ft. of it arrived between 1750-2800 RPM, but my (admittedly, unscientific) perception indicates that post-update, the torque was coming a bit later. If I thought you were interested, I would attempt to detail exactly what my car was then subjected to by a dealer, but suffice it to say that it was made less fuel efficient and a bit less powerful, to my displeasure. For a complete and comprehensive video on the scandal, try Regular Car Reviews. I’d also recommend the following reading from Jalopnik, The Verge, The New York Times, and The Independent.

Martin and Locomotive

My own views on Dieselgate are entirely irrelevant, but I will note that buying back a buyback car for such a price felt like a favor to my dealer and that it’s pretty cool to have my own copy of VW’s Extended Emissions Warranty Notice, not to mention the fact that I actually made use of it (which I will discuss later.) From my perspective, the automotive industry is the most heavily-regulated business space in the world and I’d suggest a company like the Volkswagen Group feeling like they should cheat on emissions testing might indicate that the standards of the test could be unreasonable and/or unrealistic.

After returning from almost two hellish, extremely confusing years in Portland taking public transport, Martin became a vehicle for a rediscovery and newfound appreciation for my Missouri home – the great Missouri River, especially. Not since owning my Miata had I driven so much in the country. Sierra and I visited Cooper’s Landing in the wet and ventured down to Springfield, Missouri (very far South,) near which we discovered Hodges Speedway – a then-abandoned dirt oval surrounded by demolition derby casualties and the large trucks used to haul them around.

Martin Hiding

Somewhere North of Kansas City, I opened the taps all the way on a very long straight and reached 125mph, which is either the aerodynamic VMax, an electronically limited limit, or both. Surprisingly, the modern People’s Car feels quite stable at this speed – were it not my own automobile, I’m not sure I wouldn’t just travel this fast everywhere. In the past few years, Interstate 70 – which cuts Missouri just about in half from West-East, connecting St. Louis and Kansas City with my hometown in the center – has become significantly faster-paced than I remembered it before moving to Portland for two years. 80mph used to be the accepted number, 70 (the actual speed limit) was the unenforced minimum. In my old Toyota pickup, I could travel at 65 without attracting too much criticism. Now, however, one must maintain 85 to keep up with traffic, especially when traveling with commuters. 90-95 will no longer garner judgmental looks and 100mph left-laners are given a pass.

“I’ll bet that’s great on the highway” is probably the most regular comment received from passersby and riders right after “is this a diesel!?” (Really, the fact of my Jetta’s existence as a manual-equipped diesel wagon seemed to utterly astound a great many people.) There is truth in this general supposition: the ability of the diesel powerplant to deliver hill-climbing torque at low RPM is simply unmatched by gasoline powerplants of the same displacement, which means that “highway” driving entails virtually zero downshifting – arrive in sixth gear, set the cruise control, take a nap. Everything else is taken care of. There is a definite luxury in the knowledge that one is no longer needed in the process at speed – luxury that is NOT present in a gasoline-to-manual Jetta drivetrain. From Hackaday:

[Diesel] has a higher volumetric energy density than gasoline, and thanks to low volatility, diesel engines can run at significantly higher compression ratios without risking detonation. These benefits allow diesel engines to produce significantly more torque than similarly sized gasoline engines.

Fat Martin

“Diesel engines are typically poor when it comes to power to weight ratio, as their high compression ratio and torque output demands heavier materials in their construction,” notes Lewin Day, meaning steel engine block. Here we arrive on my singular dissatisfaction with the Jetta: its weight. While traveling from Kansas City back home in the East one day, I decided to satisfy a longtime bucketlist item and stop by a weigh station. As I drove up to the scale, the police-uniformed attendant looked up at me from his glass box and gave the standard white guy smile frown. It took a moment for the scale to register Martin, but it eventually displayed a whole 3440 lbs. My little “compact” wagon… weighed significantly more than one and three-quarter tons – just 528 lbs. less than the full-sized, supercharged V8-powered Jaguar saloon car I call the automotive love of my life, and almost a full 200 lbs. more than its GLI sedan sibling. There was one single advantage to this weight: we were able to use Martin as a ballast to help re-spool the winch cable on Jack’s Wrangler.

After discovering this figure, I did what I could to diminish the weight easily without tearing into the seats or removing some of the car’s fourteen airbags. Upon lifting up the base of the “car-go” area in the rear, I found a full steel spare wheel – some 30 lbs of it at least – which I immediately removed, along with some sort of flapping cargo restraint that I can only suspect was designed to keep objects (like dogs, perhaps) in the cargo area from sailing into the passenger compartment during an accident (it’s called the “luggage compartment cover” in the owner’s manual.) Ideally, I intended to one day strip out all of the interior except for the driver’s side chair, but it ‘twas not intended to be.

After driving the Jetta for about a week, I was on the short commute back home from the office when I noticed that the cooling fans were running at what sounded like maximum capacity. Then, at a red light, I felt some rough dips in the engine’s idle. When I reached home minutes later, I turned off the ignition and removed the key only to find the fans still spooling. I was convinced I had already broken the car somehow in rough driving, but in reality, Marty was in the process of Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) Regeneration – a procedure designed to clean the little shitpot under the hood by heating it up some thousands of degrees to burn off built up diesel exhaust soot. At least, this is the way I understand it.

Otherwise, I disagree with most reviews about the “diesel rumble” being bothersome. Perhaps it’s because this is by far the most modern car I’ve ever spent this much time with – the only car I’ve ever spent so much consecutive time with, in fact – or because I did, indeed, grow up sitting (and standing) right next to 8-liter turbodiesels at full chat for hours on end. Compared to my mother’s 1.4L gasoline-powered Mk. VII sedan at idle in her garage, there is a more pronounced clacking, but it’s nothing you’d have any trouble sleeping through. I would know! Whilst driving for Uber and Lyft through one of the warmest summers on record, I idled away many hours parked on the street with the (averagely effective) air-conditioning on. I idled when I wasn’t online, too – I would even go as far as to say that I made idling one of the trendiest activities of Summer 2019.

What’re you up to man? Nothin’ much yo. Just over here idling.

Ridesharing

For more than six months, my primary income was from Uber and Lyft driving around Columbia, MO – a distinctly academically-dominated demographic. Frankly, I can’t think of any vehicle more suited to what ridesharing actually entails than a diesel Jetta wagon. It’s a relatively spacious and comfortable place to be for four adults – certainly when no trip lasts longer than thirty minutes – with a ridiculously stout cargo capacity. I was able to fit 9 freshman fraternity guys in for a short trip once. Their faces were all genuinely somber as one expressed “it’s really hard having 8 friends when we try to go out.” (No, you’re not supposed to accept those rides.) It was a challenge carrying some 1500 lbs. of Sad Boys, mostly for the brakes. Once, a group of young men and women began to make fun after noticing the DIESELGEEK decal I’d stuck on my side’s rear quarter window (which I’d acquired with a new shifter bushing kit.) “So are you a diesel geek?” they asked, jeering to themselves, to which I responded: “you know, it’s so weird you mention that because I know this place that sells these stickers…” They no longer seemed amused.

All of the cars I’ve owned have been attention-grabbing in their own way – my old Toyota pickup was adored by the locals; my Miata was adored by other Miata owners. My XJR was gorgeous and my Swamp Continental seemed to be passionately coveted by absolutely everyone over 40. With the Jetta, though, I did not expect any unusual attention whatsoever, yet I must confess that more conversations were started about it than of all of the others, combined. Ridesharing will do that, yes, but it is ridiculous how many people of all races, classes, and ages were enamored by – or overly curious about – Martin.

What is this a Jetta, dude? Is this a Jetta? Whoa! Dude, is this a stickshift!? Dude I think this is a stickshift. BRO. I can’t believe you’re driving a stick right now. He’s driving a stickshift car! Wow I think this is a manual car! Oh shit this is a diesel!? It’s a diesel too?! No way! I can’t believe you’re out here driving a diesel Jetta wagon bro. Is this a stickshift? You can drive stick!?

No.

Early one morning, a ride was requested from the local news station just out of town – a fascinating place. News vans parked in a converted horse stable. They farm televisions out there. A few minutes into the ride, after picking up the young woman, I noticed in the rearview mirror out of my eye’s corner that she had put down her phone to watch my right hand with total bewilderment. Eventually, she asked “what are you doing to the car?” She’d never heard of a manual transmission before. I did my best to explain, but when she asked “but why wouldn’t you just buy a regular car?” I did not have a sufficient answer. Unlike many automotive enthusiasts, I think it’s totally okay that people are allowed to exist independent of this knowledge. There are many, many other things in life to worry about. 80% of cars sold in the United States are shipped with automatics and expecting every young person who lives in an urban environment to think about automobiles as anything beyond simple transportation is asking a lot.

While we’re on the topic of manual transmissions, it’s relevant to mention how excellent the Jetta TDI is as a vehicle to teach first timers how to operate one. With the clutch in, the engine will not rev beyond 3500 RPM thanks to an electronic limiter, which dramatically reduces the number of obligatory stalls when learning clutch control. The learner can simply hold the accelerator to the floor as they get the hang of declutching instead of having to receive shouts of “more gas!” repeatedly. Of course, being a diesel further eases those stresses with much more readily available torque. Sierra was able to grasp the basics this way in a single night, which is unprecedented in my experience. She found particular comfort in the suggested gear indicator on the instrument panel’s main information display, which is very conservative, naturally, but also apparently relief from some great anxiety regarding the question which gear should I be in right now?

Community

I have derided Facebook for my entire adult life for its shitty design, inaspirational effect on its users, and its massive intellectual power, but strangely, through Jetta ownership, I was able to find a community on the service that couldn’t be found elsewhere. Groups like TDI Scumbags, VW TDI Owners, VW TDI support group, and VW TDI Owners Performance and Tech Talk are full of absolutely hilarious and insightful content that I’m genuinely glad I didn’t miss.

On Instagram, I found @jp_eurogarage’s Mk. IV diesel sportwagen, which I adore. I especially love its idle. @projectownersclub posted a video in December, 2018 of a very rusty diesel Mk. III with a straight vertical stack spewing smoke all over its owner’s yard. A video was shared on one of my Facebook groups captioned “when you only drive manual” in which a very generic-looking white man with moustache finds himself gagging in a car with a traditional automatic transmission. The wholesomeness of these posts is often adorable, and not only on Facebook. VW Vortex is an active and helpful forum/blog for TDI owners that I found to be invaluable when researching modifications.

Performance

For the first time in my personal automotive history, I felt the desire to modify one of my own cars. Perhaps the most famous appearance of the Jetta Sportwagen in The Web Era was driving instructor Austin Cabot’s 2014 Sportwagen in one of Matt Farah’s infamous One-Takes. You can find the full list of modifications on the car’s WheelWell page. I intended to emulate Austin with a few modifications including Dieselgeek’s Sigma 6 shortshift kit and “high performance” shifter bushing kit (which I did get around to buying, but never installed.) For those interested in engine/ECU tuning, Malone Tuning has a beautiful tool to help you customize your order.

Malone Tuning Stage 2

Instead of installing the shortshift kit right away, I decided to splurge on a bespoke Raceseng Ashiko weighted shift knob, which made throws immediately better. The issue these products are combatting is the particularly disconnected gearshift which Volkswagen has been notorious for the past few decades. The best way I can describe it is that it feels like you’re just operating a lever instead of shifting a transmission, if that makes sense.

The knob itself is beautifully machined and extremely satisfying to hold. I also “deleted” (removed, in other words) the (likely) faux-leather shift boot after realizing that I’ve always hated the sound and sensation of them, but hadn’t been willing to modify my previous cars in any way. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually quite personally noteworthy that I was able to traverse the unseen boundary into mod culture. The result was a slightly more mechanical-feeling shift that would’ve certainly been vastly improved by installation of Dieselgeek’s kit.

Another aspirational goal of mine for Martin: H&R’s Sport Springs Set paired with a set of Firestone Firehawk Indy 500s. The goal was to sure up some of that body roll and torque-induced wheelspin. I suspect the result would’ve been a very, very sticky Martin. Unfortunately, I would not get the chance before I killed him in an accident on December 22nd of last year.

Efficiency

Average: 29.84 mpg Total Gallons Pumped: 644 Total Spent: $1726.94 Total Miles Driven: 19506

According to my fuel logs, (they are public, yes, though not necessarily 100% complete,) I averaged close to 30 mpg over 78 fillups and just over 19500 miles. Considering that I was ridesharing most of that time and driving quite obnoxiously for all of it, you should be very impressed. “Diesels tend to get about 30-percent better fuel economy than their conventional counterparts,” says Consumer Reports in a comparison between diesels and hybrids dating back to 2013. From the Union of Concerned Scientists:

Much of the reason for diesel vehicle’s high fuel economy has to do with the diesel combustion process; however, some of the increase in fuel economy is due to the simple fact that a gallon of diesel fuel contains more energy than a gallon of gasoline.

The joy my Sportwagen brought me was not expected. My plan to make myself a more reasonable person (and driver) by buying a “boring” car was obviously foiled by the diesel’s torque, the community’s dynamism, and my own communion with mod culture. I spent more consecutive time driving the Jetta than I have in any other automobile and was able to truly enjoy it. After my experience owning a diesel-powered Volkswagen, I would very much like to try driving/owning the Golf GDI – a performance-oriented diesel version of their excellent hatch. Truthfully – given the way I killed Martin – I did not deserve his kinship, but I’m certainly grateful I had the experience.

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