Thoughts on Pixel Buds

A picture of my Pixel Bud earphones, in their carrying case.

Because apparently I’ve gone entirely over to the Google side of the force and will be getting “Pixel 4 Lyfe” tattooed somewhere on my body, I’ve acquired a pair of Pixel Buds, the Google-manufactured wireless earbuds that are designed to work specifically with the Google Pixel 2 line of phones (which I have), although I understand they will work like a regular pair bluetooth earbuds with other phones and Bluetooth-compatible devices. I’ve had these for a bit over a week now but have only really used them a lot in the last couple of days (my previous Pixel 2 met a bad end thanks to a tile floor, and I only paired these with the new Pixel 2 the other day). I have thoughts on them. Here they are.

1. The Pixel Buds were not rapturously reviewed in other places, and I think a major knock on them is that they’re very fiddly, i.e., they work in a very specific way and require you to conform to that way, rather than them conforming to you. And in fact, that’s pretty accurate, not the least because in order to charge the buds you have to put them in their carrying case, so if you lose the case, you’re pretty much boned. Also the touch-sensitive surfaces of the earbuds are super-twitchy, which can be really annoying until you develop muscle memory for how to insert and remove the buds from your ears and otherwise interact with them. They’re certainly the most high-maintenance pair of earbuds I’ve owned.

2. Is their high-maintenance nature worth it? If you’re getting them just to have a pair of wireless earbuds, probably not — there are cheaper and less (literally) touchy earbuds you can buy to pair to your phone and listen to music or make phone calls. But if you have a Pixel 2 (or Pixel 2 XL) phone, and you are excited by the idea of having Google Assistant right in your ear and doing things for you at the tap of an earbud (like play music, or look up something, or get walking directions, etc), then, sure, they’re nifty.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the Google Assistant up in my ear, incidentally. As with many things relating to Google Assistant and Pixel-line products, I’m not sure that the various shortcuts to access it (squeezing the edge of your phone, the Pixel Bud ear press, the Pixelbook dedicated button) make it any more useful in a general sense than just looking something up via a Google search bar, especially because the Google search bar has voice recognition. It’s ostensibly nifty but in a practical sense I’m still looking for GA to really differentiate itself. That said, with the Pixel Buds you can keep your Pixel 2 in your pocket and direct it via the buds, and I suppose that’s not chopped liver.

3. One thing that is very nice about the Pixel Buds — if you have a Pixel 2 — is that it initially pairs with the phone simply by opening the holding case clamshell. It’s the easiest damn Bluetooth pairing I’ve ever done. With that said, in order to pair the buds to the second Pixel 2 after I unintentionally dashed the first phone on bathroom tiles, I had to do a factory reset (pressing a small button inside the case for fifteen seconds) otherwise the new phone wouldn’t find or pair with them. Once I did that, it was again super-simple to pair, but this was kind of a long way around, and I kind of had to figure it out myself. Something to keep in mind.

4. Another thing other reviewers were not in love with was the how the Pixel Buds fit in your ear with the help of cord loops that you adjust and then tuck into your ear folds. But that’s actually working pretty well for me. I guess maybe I have the right sort of ears for it (there are other earbuds that simply do not work for me — the kind that you stuff into your ear canal never work; they always, always fall out). I’ve walked around with the Pixel Buds in and they’ve stayed secure. You do have to readjust them every few times you put them in but that’s not difficult. I haven’t tried heavy exercise with them, but short of that they do just fine.

5. How do they sound? They sound good. The tone is pretty decent and they can get loud if you want them too. They’re not noise-cancelling and they sit outside your ear canal so you can still hear the outside world, which depending on your druthers may not be a great thing (but they get loud enough that you can drown out the outside world, too). Music sounds clear and fine, and the phone meeting I was on this morning was nice and clear in there. They work for their basic intended function.

6. The thing about the Pixel Buds needing to be in their case to charge isn’t my favorite not in the least because I’m almost guaranteed to lose that case at some point. On the other hand it means that the buds are almost always fully charged, and the case itself charges with a USB-C cord, as do the other Pixel products. When you have the Pixel Buds paired with a Pixel 2, the Bluetooth notification also tells you how much battery is left on the earbuds.

7. The major function that the Pixel Buds have that I’ve not tried is translation integration, on the reasoning that I’ve not spoken to anyone in anything other than English since I got them. I’m about to take a vacation to Mexico, and maybe if I don’t too feel dorky about it, I might try it there. The idea of someone speaking in their language and a (basic) translation coming out of my earbuds is gonna be very Babel Fish.

Overall: I like the Pixel Buds, but much of that is because they are in fact so well-integrated with the Pixel 2 and because I’ll willing to work with their inherent fiddliness. If you are as deep into the Google Pixel ecosystem as I clearly am, they are worth a look. If you’re not, maybe wait for the next iteration, or at least better integration with non-Pixel phones.

The Big Idea: Karen Healey

Author Karen Healey has some very specific advice about the use of apostrophes, and prologues. What is it and how does it have an impact on The Empress of Timbra, the novel she co-wrote with Robyn Fleming? Healey is here to fill you in on the details — with all the apostrophes in the correct place.


There are two pieces of high fantasy writing advice, often given, that I think are thoroughly sensible:

  1. Don’t use apostrophes in characters’ names.
  2. Don’t write a prologue.

Don’t use apostrophes in names, because it’s a cliche. You’ll annoy your readers. Don’t write a prologue, because your world-building should be incorporated into the main plot; there’s no point in getting the reader interested in events that happened a generation or a century or a thousand years before your main narrative. You only run the risk they’ll be more intrigued with your prologue than what you’ve decided is the real story.

But just because you’re aware of the guidelines doesn’t mean you won’t convince yourself it’s all right not to follow them, especially when you’ve read enough high fantasy to know stories that have got away with breaking one or both of these rules to spectacular effect.

About a decade ago, my co-writer Robyn Fleming and I wrote an epistolary fantasy novel in the style of the Letter Game, exchanging emails back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. Like us, our protagonists were separated by an ocean, and like us, they were two young women who were close friends. But unlike us, they lived in a second-world high fantasy setting. They were discovering a vast conspiracy, getting embroiled in politics and romances, and saving two nations with a combination of smarts, luck, and magic.

They had apostrophes in their names.

We started the story as a game, but we realised pretty early on that we had something interesting, maybe even something worth developing into a real novel. So we showed it to some friends.

(For the record: Our apostrophes were meaningful. They were significant. They indicated status, linguistic drift, cultural detail, and history. They were the good kind of apostrophe!)

“Ditch the apostrophes,” our early readers said.

“But they are very important,” we told them, and each other. (The biggest joy–and biggest problem–of having a co-writer is that you can easily reinforce each other’s ideas.) “One might even argue that the apostrophes are essential to the very heart of the narrative! You wouldn’t ask us to cut out the heart of the narrative!”

We took the book to a WisCon writing workshop. Every single critique told us to ditch the apostrophes.

“Fine,” we said. “Fine. We guess the world isn’t ready for our apostrophes.” We cut the goddamn apostrophes. The narrative retained its heart. We learned a valuable lesson about murdering our darlings.

Nobody told us to cut the prologue, and the reason for that was because nobody, including us, actually knew it was a prologue until long after we’d finished the sequel to the first book. The sequel wasn’t told in alternating letters, but in alternating chapters. The protagonists are Elaku and Taver, aged eleven and fourteen, the children of one of the main characters in the first book. The story follows them as they meet for the first time, figure out how to grow up, and, just incidentally, get caught up in a political plot that could destroy their homeland.

We had two protagonists again, and political machinations, and hefty doses of smarts, luck, and magic. We had blacksmithing and dangerous herbivores, religion and treachery, pirates and battles at sea.

This time, we left out the apostrophes.

The Empress of Timbra was undeniably a better book than its predecessor. Our villains were more interesting. Our world-building was stronger. The events of the first novel had sparked a period of rapid social and religious change, and through Taver and Elaku, we were able to explore the implications of that from the perspective of characters who were growing up in a world marked by those changes. And then we wrote a direct sequel to that book, still with Taver and Elaku, and plotted a third and realised… the first book was a 90,000 word prologue.

And we had to cut it.

I don’t regret writing that book. The prologue novel gives a depth and vividness to The Empress of Timbra that makes it feel like part of a larger, older world–which it is. Writing it allowed us to explore some big ideas. But when we gently folded that prologue novel away into a virtual drawer, we were able to concentrate on the even bigger ideas that followed it.

The real story isn’t about the women in that prologue novel. It’s about Taver and Elaku, two bastard half-siblings drawn into dangerous conspiracy in a changing world, relying on their smarts, their magic, their luck, and each other to prevent disaster.

So this is our advice to high fantasy writers who might be starting where we started:

  1. Go ahead and write a prologue. But if it doesn’t help you tell the best version of your story, let it go.
  2. Seriously. Ditch the apostrophes.


The Empress of Timbra: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

Read an excerpt (at the Kobo site). Visit the co-author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

Cover Reveal of The Consuming Fire Over at Verge

Yes! Go see it! Here’s the link. The artist is Sparth, i.e., the same artist who did such great work with the cover for The Collapsing Empire.

Plus there’s an interview with me there talking a bit about what’s going on in the book. No spoilers on specifics, but there’s a discussion on general themes (and also I have observations about human nature). You know you want to see me rant about people!

The New Guitar, and a Small Observation About Being a Dick

Most of you know I play a tenor guitar, which I like very much, but recently I decided I want to try playing a six-string guitar again, and went looking around for one that I thought I might like. Eventually I found one I thought I would like from a smallish company called Zager Guitars (and yes, for those of you of a certain age, that’s the Zager of Zager and Evans). The company makes acoustic guitars with a slightly lower action, closer to that of an electric guitar. Well, I like that in concept; one of my problems with six string guitars is I’m terrible at barre chords, so a lower action would be helpful. I checked reviews online and the company seemed to have a decent reputation, so I put in an order.

The guitar arrived a couple of days ago and so far I’ve been pleased. It has a nice sound, is indeed easy to play (I still suck at barre chords, alas) and generally speaking is providing me the enjoyment I hoped I would get from it. I’m still a terrible guitar player, but I’m playing terribly on a decent instrument, and that’s a start.

Tangentially, when I first got the guitar, I posted a picture of it on Twitter, and right out of the barrel someone sniffily criticized the guitar maker and said something along the line that I should have gotten a different guitar. Hot tip: Don’t be that sort of clueless dickhead out loud. One, it’s just rude. Two, if your first impulse when someone excitedly shows off their new instrument (or whatever) is to shit on it and them for getting it, the problem isn’t them, or the object in question, it’s you.

Three, even if what they got is something that’s not up to your standards for whatever reason, if they’re happy, than be happy for them, you jerk (there is a qualified exception here if they’re collecting, say, pro-Nazi paraphernalia or Mammy cookie jars or endangered animal hides or the like. If they’re doing it cluelessly, maybe clue them in gently. If they’re doing it with full cluefulness, maybe drop them off the holiday card list).

I should be clear this dude attempting a poop smear on my new guitar didn’t make me feel bad about my purchase. I researched and knew what I was buying and why, and to that regard have been perfectly happy with the guitar. It’s pretty much as I wanted and expected it to be. But it did annoy me that this was some grown-ass person’s first impulse. Be better than that, people. It’s not that hard to do.

10 Years of Big Ideas at Whatever

On January 22, 2008, the first “Big Idea” post went up here on Whatever, for Marcus Sakey’s At the City’s Edge. The latest one, for Sue Burke’s Semiosis, went up just this morning. All told, including the first and the most recent posts, 828 books have been featured in the Big Idea in a decade, and hundreds of authors (and some editors) have stopped by to talk about their latest books, and what motivated them to tell that book’s particular story, at that particular time. Most but not all have been speculative fiction authors — a few writers from other fiction genres have popped in, as well as a few non-fiction writers as well. We’ve even had at least one video game maker come along and talk about the ideas behind their work. Across ten years, it’s been a pretty cool ride.

(And I realize that last line reads like the next line is gonna be “And so it pains me to say the Big Idea is no more,” but don’t worry about that. It’s going to continue.)

I’m occasionally asked why I do the Big Idea feature here, and there are a few answers to that:

1. It was originally on an AOL-owned literary site called “Ficlets,” where I wrote and helped develop content, and doing a feature where writers talked about their new books seemed like a no-brainer for a site like that. When Ficlets closed up shop, I ported it over to Whatever, because it seemed like the thing to do at the time.

2. Here at Whatever, I basically consider it part of my “pay it forward” dues — I’ve done well and have been successful, in no small part because other writers were kind and helped me along the way. This is a thing I can do, that people seem to like doing, so I’m happy to do it and be useful to other writers.

3. Also, it’s easier to do than, say, doing interviews (which takes a reasonable amount of prep if you don’t want it to be canned and boring, and then takes a reasonable amount of post to make it ready for consumption), since the author does most of the work, and I just format, add links and put in an intro paragraph. It’s also better than doing reviews, because there’s no way I could review as many books as I do Big Idea, that is, if I still want to do my own writing.

4. Because they can be interesting as hell and I like reading about other authors’ processes and ideas, and this is my sneaky way of getting to do that on a regular basis.

5. Also because it serves as a way for me to find books I would want to read too, in my copious free time.

At one point I and a couple of friends intended to take the Big Idea concept further and spin it off into its own site. This happened just around the time I started getting really busy, and they also got really busy, and so it ended up that the Big Idea essays stayed here at Whatever (although I still own the proposed URL,; click on it and you’ll be taken to a scroll of Big Idea posts). Every once in a while I still think of spinning them off to their own site. Then I remember that my life is basically scheduled out through 2027 and I think they will stay here for a while longer.

And again, I plan on continuing to have them here for the foreseeable future, so long as authors still want to participate (I was once asked what happens if I give a writer a slot and they don’t turn in a piece. The answer is: Nothing happens to them. This is all voluntary. It’s not like I track them down and scream at them or anything. I just don’t run their piece).

I think it’s wild that it’s been ten years that the Big Idea has been here, doing its thing. It doesn’t seem that long ago, and yet, here we are, more than 800 books later. That’s pretty cool. Thank you to all the authors who have written about their big ideas, and to everyone here to keeps reading them.

On to the next decade.

The Big Idea: Sue Burke

The Cover to Semiosis by Sue Burke

Got some houseplants? By the time you finish reading Sue Burke’s Big Idea essay about her novel Semiosis, you’ll never look at them the same way again. That’s pretty much a promise.


Who’s in charge of the planet where you live? Is it you – that is, humans? Maybe. But not everything living on Earth is convinced of that. Some of them think you do their bidding, and I don’t mean your cat.

Let’s evaluate Earth from the point of view of fruit. Apples, for example. Apple trees hope you’ll eat their fruit, then throw away the core with its seeds so apples can expand their range. Or as they view it, so they can take over the world. They don’t entirely trust us, by the way: their seeds are too bitter to eat to make sure we’ll do the job right. How has this worked out? Exceptionally well. We love apples even as they manipulate us. They originated in central Asia and now get tender loving care in orchards all over the world. They dominate Washington State, shaping the economy and the lives of many people. Mission accomplished.

Still, you might feel doubtful. Do plants even know we exist? That’s a reasonable question. The answer is yes. Think about how carefully plants create flowers to cater to specific pollinators. When plants want to, they can even communicate with us humans. Tomatoes, for example, change color to tell you something: eat me! Their uncooked seeds can survive a tour of your alimentary canal, so make yourself a salad. Please.

Plants know you’re watching. We humans – and other animals – are very easy to control with food.

Another example: grass. Most of a grass plant grows underground. It sends up its leaves in a cunning ruse. In America’s Great Plains, bison come and eat the leaves, which are easily replaced, and in the process the bison also eat entire weeds and get rid of them for the prairie grass. This is how grasses wrested dominance over the plains. All they needed to do was encourage the evolution of bison, which took a while, but it was worth the time and effort.

Grass took over American suburbs in sort of the same way, using us and our lawn mowers like weekend bison. Your lawn has you well trained.

The fight between grass and weeds also holds a clue: plants can be horrible, especially to each other. In fact, one botanist, Augustin Pyrame de Candolle said, “All plants of a given place are in a state of war with respect to each other.” They fight primarily over sunlight, which is in limited supply, and they will fight to the death.

Roses, for example, grow thorns so they can sink them into whatever is around them and climb over it. If it’s another plant, and if by stealing all the sunlight they kill that other plant, roses don’t care. This is war – in your garden. Whose side are you on?

Jungles are a constant battle of trees versus lianas and other vines, which can weigh down and smother entire trees as they climb to sunshine. Plants also fight each other with poisons, and some fire-hardy plants, such as ponderosa pine trees in the western United States, will drop dry, oily needles to encourage lightning to kindle a flame. This is one reason we can’t prevent forest fires, no matter how hard we try. The pines are working against us.

So we’re not in charge on Earth, at least not as much as we think. Fortunately, our masters – plants – don’t seem to think very deeply, and they seem pretty willing to share the planet with us. But I write science fiction. What about other planets? What if the plants there were more thoughtful and far too willing?

So I decided to send, via a novel, a group of human colonists to a distant planet where they plan to establish a subsistence agricultural colony. They encounter an unexpected problem: the local dominant vegetation notices their arrival and sees what a clever, busy species they are, and how useful they would be. Meanwhile, these humans need to eat. As individuals, they will face dire choices as they struggle to survive and coexist. Who’s really in charge of their new home?


Semiosis: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.



The Pixel 2 is a tough little phone, but it turns out when you drop it from a decent height onto ceramic tile riiiiight on the corner, you may still have a problem or two. A thing to be aware of, folks.

Fortunately I procured a replacement Pixel 2, and with the transfer of the SIM card, everything was up and running painlessly — so painlessly, in fact, that I was a little surprised at how painless it was. I usually go into the local phone store to do all the transferring and so on and whatnot, and that takes time out of my day. But I did this one at home, and… well, no time at all. A lesson may have been learned here.

Another lesson learned: I had been resisting getting a case for the phone, because I quite liked the aluminum and glass aesthetic, and also because I liked the slimness of the naked phone. But clearly there’s a user issue — that dude is clumsy. So, case it is.