Death, Remembrance, and Notre Dame

January 23rd is always a day of celebration in my family. It is not only the day that my wife entered this world but also the day my father did - many years earlier. On some January 23rds, however, the feelings of joy are tempered by feelings of loss - the conspicuous absence of a father's birthday party and a father's age that no longer increases by one every year. He would have turned 70 this January 23rd and I, nearing 36 years of age, would have known him for more than half his life and all of mine. Instead I knew him for 11 years before he died, nearly 1/4 of his life and a little more than 1/3 now of mine.

Perhaps due to the milestone birthday or perhaps because we spent January 23rd this year at a funeral, this was one of those January 23rds that carried more mixed emotions.

Katie and I spent the end of this week in South Bend, Indiana, where her father grew up, celebrating the long life of Katie's recently departed grandmother. Thursday we flew into Chicago, where we met up with the rest of Katie's immediate family, and carpooled down to South Bend. The weather was cold, but not nearly as bad as it could have been in this part of the country this time of the year. Because Katie's grandfather had been a professor at the University of Notre Dame, the funeral service and burial would take place on campus. As such, we stayed in a hotel near campus for easy access.

One thing was immediately evident in South Bend: this was a Notre Dame town. Fighting Irish logos were everywhere: on buildings, on jackets, on cars . . . everywhere. Even our hotel was decked out with pictures of Notre Dame sports legends. This was fine by by me as it included many life size likenesses of Joe Montana, my favorite QB of all time. Seriously, though, I thought Chapel Hill was a UNC town or Austin a UT town but they don't come even close to the single-team mentality of South Bend.

Friday we spent much of the day on the Notre Dame campus, where I had never been before. If I had had my druthers, my first trip to Notre Dame would have been for a football game, not for a funeral, but sometimes life has other plans. Katie's father, Chris, was an excellent tour guide on the Notre Dame campus, having spent much of his youth there. If the weather had been nicer I might have taken more time to walk around and explore but we still got plenty of its flavor from inside the heated car.

The funeral mass was held in Notre Dame's basilica, which . . . is . . . BEAUTIFUL! I have been to some of the most spectacular churches in the world and this is definitely one of my new favorites. The deep blue ceilings with starry motifs were really quite beautiful and it struck a good balance between impressive and intimate - a nice combination for ushering someone into the next world.

After the burial, Katie's family was kind enough to indulge me in a brief stop at the Grotto. I had heard of the Grotto when Rice football played at Notre Dame last year and I saw this story about a Rice football player seeking it out after the game. It's a quiet little enclave just below the basilica with candles and prayer benches. Just as the Rice football player had sought it out, it now turned out to be exactly what I was seeking as well on this day of mourning.

I lit a candle for Dad and spent a little time on the prayer bench (which would have made my Nonna happy!) wishing him a happy birthday, letting him know that we still miss him, and encouraging him to seek out the recently arrived grandmother of another January 23rd baby who now brings me so much joy. It was a very nice moment that was really facilitated by the quiet, spiritual nature of the Grotto. A great deal about Notre Dame's campus impressed me: the basilica, the golden dome, the football stadium . . . but the Grotto was my favorite.

At the wake, most of Chris's siblings and extended family joined him in celebrating Katie's grandmother's life. They told stories for hours on end. Some stories evoked laughter, some evoked tears, many evoked both, but all were helpful for the grieving process.

Later that night we went out for Katie's birthday - not necessarily the one we would have planned but a good one all the same. At the end of the day it doesn't really matter which kind of cake you eat or which presents you get; being with those you love and who love you is the best gift of all. And that, of course, is a lesson that transcends birthdays and is even relevant to funerals:

"... The ones that love us never really leave us. And you can always find them in here [heart]."
- Sirius Black, the Harry Potter series

My father continues to live on in the hearts and minds of those whose lives he touched. This includes several friends from his youth who continue to keep his memory alive by sharing stories about him with me, much like the stories that Chris's family shared about their mother.

On this January 23rd I am thankful for so many things: the 11 years I did have with Dad, the friends and family who help me continue to get to know him through their stories, Katie's family for unwittingly helping me work through my grief even as they were mourning their own loss, Notre Dame for having just the right place that I needed when I needed it, and most of all for Katie - we've celebrated 13 birthdays together now and I hope to celebrate many, many more. January 23rd is indeed a day of celebration!


Google Glass

Google officially shut down the prototype version of Google Glass (the Explorer Edition) yesterday. Following are a few thoughts based on my year of being a Glass Explorer (beta user).

First, some context: early in 2014 I received a prescription for eye glasses for the first time in my life. I was told that my eyes were pretty good but that I might like having some glasses around for night driving.

After I got over the crushing blow to my ego by this affront to my once-perfect eyes, I actually became a little excited about entering the four-eyed world. Would I look smarter with glasses? More sophisticated? Cooler? I didn't know but I was intrigued.

To those readers who know me personally it will come as no surprise that I am a tech gadgetophile. From cars to sports watches to speakers, my chief criterion for just about anything I have or use is how much I can geek out on it. Thus my search for technologically advanced glasses led me straight to Google Glass.

Glass takes normal glasses (Originally they were only available with non-prescription lenses but they added prescription lenses at almost the exact time that I received  my prescription - could it be fate?) and adds a heads-up display (HUD), camera, microphone, speaker, and touch pad. It connects wirelessly to the phone in your pocket and acts as a more convenient interface for everything you would normally do on your phone.

The Good
Glass is very handy for conducting the basic triage that you would normally do on your smart phone: reading emails or texts, sending short messages, etc. When your phone receives an inbound message Glass makes a sound and you simply touch the frame or tilt your head back to see the message on your HUD.

This sounds like such a #firstworldproblem but Glass really does save me a lot of pulling my phone out of my pocket. The end result is that I spend less time with my head down looking at my phone and more time with my head up taking in the entire world - I like this aspect a lot.

I find myself messaging more when I'm wearing Glass. For example, if I'm on my way home from work and I have a question for Katie about whether or not I need to pick up something on the way, I just tell Glass to send her a message and the voice recognition is pretty fantastic (I swear it's better than basic Android voice recognition but I have no idea why this would be the case.). Without Glass I wouldn't be able to send any messages while driving so would have to pull over somewhere and whip out my phone or, more likely, just guess the answer.

In much the same way I also find myself taking many more pictures with Glass than I do without it. Glass has a "take a picture" button but you can actually train it to take a picture any time you make a big, exaggerated wink. This has really transformed my picture-taking: instead of having to take my phone out of my pocket, unlock it, hit the Camera app, and then take a picture (again, #firstworldproblems!), I simply wink.

I take more pictures, the pictures I take are more candid/less staged, and I also take pictures for more purposes than I did previously, e.g. snapping a pic of a billboard that's quickly going by on the highway to remind me to follow up on something related later. The camera isn't amazing but it's full 720 HD for both pics and video and the optics are much better than I would have expected.

The killer app for Glass by far is driving navigation. It takes everything that's great about Google Maps navigation and puts it on your HUD. No more glancing down to look at a GPS or your phone; it's right there in front of you showing you where to turn without obstructing your view of the road. Considering that the main reason I was supposed to get glasses was for night driving, this is a huge win.

The Bad
Unfortunately that's the only killer app for Glass. Most Glassware apps are just lightweight versions of apps that already exist on phones. For Glass really to flourish it will need an ecosystem of apps that are not "ports" of pre-existing apps but rather are only possible on this unique platform.

Glass should serve as a good bluetooth headset for calls too but it falls short in this area. I made a few calls with it but the microphone isn't great (The other side often reported having a hard time hearing me, especially if I was in the car.) and the bone-conductive speaker, which ensures that no one else hears what you are hearing, often ensures that you can't hear all that well either. You can plug in an earbud but I found that I almost never took the trouble (another #firstworldproblem - wow, I'm a real brat!) to do that.

Similarly I also never took advantage of Glass for sports. There are Glassware apps that will connect to my sports watch and display my heart rate, pace, etc. on my HUD. Rather than getting my nice prescription lenses all sweaty and dirty, though, I would only take advantage of this by swapping in the more ruggedized sunglasses lenses. This is possible but it takes several minutes and a special tool. If these lenses were more "hot swappable" then I would get more use out of the sports apps.

The final "bad" aspect of Glass is the controversy that surrounds it. Many people freak out when they see Glass because they think it's recording them without them knowing it. This fear is rationally unfounded as A. a conspicuous light shows on Glass whenever it is recording and B. its battery life wouldn't allow it to record much anyway! It would be much easier to record people without their knowledge by using a mobile phone or a GoPro camera than with Glass. But people don't understand Glass so they fear it - understandable but it still brings about some awkward experiences with individuals who are uncomfortable or with businesses that expressly ban the devices.

The Ugly
The worst aspect of Glass to me is that it doesn't "just work." As someone who is often running late, a real benefit of Glass is that I should be able to put it on, use the touchpad to access my calendar, click the event for which I'm late, and have it navigate me there (or just say, "OK Glass, get directions to XYZ.") without any fuss. When it is already connected to my phone, this works like a champ. Maybe it would be better if I wore it all day every day but, because I only wear it occasionally, I often have to spend a couple of minutes reconnecting it by Bluetooth to my phone when I first put it on, which somewhat defeats its convenience.

Also, as I hinted above, the battery life isn't great if you want to do anything other than just the basic messaging. Using Glassware apps, especially those that are always on in the background, really saps the battery life. Battery technology has advanced a great deal in recent years, though, so I would expect a next generation to be better in this regard.

Final Thoughts
So is Google Glass a success or a failure? As a mass market product, it would definitely be a failure. It simply doesn't "just work" enough to be consistently useful. However, it isn't a mass market product. It's a prototype in an open beta and trying to figure out what it could/should be. To measure its success in this light I suppose we will have to see how successful the next generation is as a mass market product.

It is clear that wearable technology as a trend isn't going anywhere so we've got to try-fail-learn if we're going to produce something truly transformative. When I decided to give Glass a try I was inspired by the "jewel" that Andrew "Ender" Wiggin wore during the sequel novels to Ender's Game - an inconspicuous, intelligent, connected device that augmented his capabilities in real-time. Glass definitely isn't there yet but I think it's a decent first shot on goal and I look forward to seeing what comes next.