Solo

I’m in bachelor mode for the week because Sarah is out of town, so I decided to see Solo last night, the latest Star Wars movie. I’ve largely dropped the thread on Star Wars movies as of late. The first trilogy, of course, was a big part of my childhood. The prequels in 00 were largely garbage, and pretty much threw me. I went back and watched The Force Awakens, and it was very exciting to see a Star Wars movie on the big screen and gave a certain nostalgic jolt for me. But ultimately, I did not like it; it was a bunch of stunt casting into what was essentially a remake of the first trilogy for millennials. I didn’t see the one after that, do not care. It was the first Star Wars movie I did not see in the theaters, and I felt bad about that, but whatever.

I like the idea of the anthology films, though; films in the sandbox of the others, but different plot lines, different characters, different directors and styles. I really liked Rogue One, maybe as much as the original trilogy. It had a roughness to it, and was not as associated to the big merchandising arm of the main canon, not as wired into the usual summer blockbuster bullshit tactics. It was like when George Harrison did a solo album that had none of the baggage or bubblegum of a proper Beatles album, none of Paul McCartney’s bullshit involved. It was also more of an “adult” movie and (my own theory) had to do more with modern conflict, ala Syria, than the usual good guys wearing white against bad guys wearing black. (I guess stormtroopers wear white, whatever.)

I really do not like comic book movies, do not like Marvel movies at. all. Every Marvel movie is the same, and has the same mechanics: “we’re rebooting something we just did, and we’re going to spend half of the movie setting up the character origin, just to make the fanboys happy and/or piss off the purists to generate more buzz.” It’s like a magician who spends all their time showing you how they are going to do the trick, as if that makes them cool. It bores me. I don’t really care about comics that much, but I really don’t care about the annual Spider-Man reboot, and how they slightly change the origin story this time, or how it’s tangentially related to all the other Marvel movies written with the same exact template. So I was a little worried about that type of movie when I heard about a Han Solo origin movie.

This movie was directed by Ron Howard, but it wasn’t really “his” movie – he’s just a hired gun that was pulled in when the original co-directors shit the bed. It doesn’t feel like a Ron Howard movie, aside from stunt casting his crazy brother in one small scene. The movie goes into the origin of Han and Chewbacca and Lando and the Millennium Falcon, but there’s absolutely nothing about the Skywalkers or the force or any of that, and I wasn’t that off-put by the mechanics of that. Woody Harrelson plays Han’s smuggler mentor, but doesn’t fuck things up. The kid who played the cowboy actor in Hail Cesar plays Han, and does a decent enough job. The story is pretty straightforward, just a standard three-act adventure burn-through, pretty textbook but enjoyable.

What I liked about the movie was that it’s not overly sentimental, or cartoony, like if Lucas had been involved. It doesn’t have the wooden acting, the incredibly obvious good versus bad, and has a slight bit of the more “adult” feel that Rogue One had. It also isn’t too JJ Abrams-y, with tons of CGI and smash cut editing. I think Lucas had minimal involvement and Abrams had none, which was a big plus for me. I really like the idea of different directors doing completely different things with these films. Like I’d love to see Tarantino or someone do a spaghetti western or mobster-like Boba Fett movie.

I don’t have anything bad to say about the movie. I think the main issue is that the movie just sort of is. No high concept, no camp, no big drama, no big theatrics. It just is. It doesn’t perform well as a standalone blockbuster, and doesn’t have the power of any of the main films. And that would be fine if it was a low-budget thing, or a Showtime original. But it’s the sixth most expensive movie ever made, costing something like $275 million, and there’s no way it’s going to pull a half-billion dollars to break even. So it will have a bad legacy because of that. I’d expect it to drop out of theaters this week or next, and then there will be a hard push for VOD and home release, so maybe the completists will buy all the various box sets and they will break even. At any rate, it was a meh for me. Glad I saw it, glad I didn’t go out of my way to see it.

 

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Bourdain

Usually, these things don’t get to me. But for some reason, this one has.

So Anthony Bourdain is dead. Suicide, hotel room, 61. I feel some need to extrapolate on this, front-loading this with a lede of what he accomplished or why this is so tragic, etc etc. I have no energy for that. You can go to Facebook and see that 50,000 times.

I’m trying to figure out why this bothers me so much, and I think it’s because of when I became connected with his work. I remember exactly when and where I first picked up a copy of Kitchen Confidential. There was a book store called Coliseum Books in Columbus Circle, and I’d go there every Friday after I went to my shrink. (She’s also dead, I found out recently – lymphoma, I think.) I think I read the New Yorker article, so I picked up his book. This was back when I spent hours and hours on the subway, and was single, lived alone, had no cable TV, so I would plow through books, reading a book a day most of the time. But while I read a lot of forgettable work back then, his stuff had a real resonation for me.

My kitchen career was low-level and short-lived. A summer on the Taco Bell drive-through; a couple of months washing dishes at an old-school Italian restaurant; part of a semester doing the same at a dorm, with the very brief and slight promotion of being the dude who stocked the milk and juice bar in the front-of-house. But when Bourdain described the camaraderie, the in-the-trenches slog of working the back half of a restaurant, I immediately related. I’d never aspired to cook or even stay in the business long enough to do anything other than collect a small paycheck, but I’d spent enough Friday nights at war with the dinner rush, completely slammed with a wall of dirty pans and plates, and no way out. I got it, and it pulled me in.

Bourdain had a persona, and I think it grew much more when he became a TV personality, picking fights with other chefs, with vegetarians, with food chains. His work as that persona was good, but it’s easy to forget he was a hell of a writer, and that’s what drilled into my brain. It wasn’t that he was a good brand; he was a guy I knew, someone telling stories and shooting the shit and talking war, a war I briefly fought. There’s something about any writing about a very involved job like that – it’s the reason I probably go back and re-read Bukowski’s Post Office every other year. Bourdain had chops, but he also had the ability to figure out what to write from such a career, and to do it in a different template than all the other stodgy food books up to that point.

I think he’s also a very intertwined part of the early 00s and New York for me. I was not a foodie, and spent far more time at McDonald’s than at any French restaurant. But if I had to make a list of the things that made up the background of my time in New York from 1999 to 2007, he’d be on that short list. I used to walk home down the back alleys of south Manhattan to avoid the tourists and bustle of Broadway, the Broome to Jersey to Mulberry to Prince to Bowery route, the interior of the blocks that were grand and exquisite on the exterior, but I’d be seeing the service entrances and freight elevators. And that’s where I’d see the chefs, always smoking, always preparing for a battle that was about to start when I was heading home from the cubicles. And that always made me think of Bourdain and other chefs, and the underbelly of the city, and those folks who took the long train from Jackson Heights or Hoboken to cut up fish or wash dishes for minimum wage in a city where bankers earned millions of bonuses in the W years.

It’s weird because I feel like I knew Bourdain, although I didn’t. When I stop and think about it, I think, wait, did I know him? Like did I meet him at a signing, or have a friend of a friend that worked with him, or run into him at some point? I didn’t, but it feels like it, because his writing got so in my head. I don’t have a connection to the TV host who jetted to France to eat oysters with someone famous in the food world. I mean, good for him that he got the money and the opportunity, and it’s fun to binge-watch on Netflix, but that’s not what did it for me. He somehow burned into the background of my brain, and that’s why his death bothers me.

There’s also the usual thing I do, where I look at him at 61, and me at 47, and I’ve wasted a lot of time on 401K calculator sites that all tell me I have to keep this optempo going for another twenty years, and I feel like I want to retire in 20 weeks, and who knows when I’ll even get started with this writing thing in earnest. He broke big because he wrote what he knew and he wrote as a person, and I’m so burned out and sick of writing what I write. So I keep thinking, well maybe next week I’ll reinvent myself, and do everything different. But the clock is ticking, and when someone goes, it puts that in perspective.

I’m not going to go into the why of how he did it, or if this is some epidemic, or if prescription drugs played a part, or what 800 number you should call, or any of that shit. You’ve probably seen it a million times already this morning. Just like how I couldn’t think of a snappy paragraph to open this, I don’t have one to close it. Just wanted to get down my thoughts now, because it seems like I never get to do that anymore.

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Oculus Go

I tried out the Oculus Rift last January (see Oculus Rift Impressions) and I was impressed, but not convinced enough to drop the cash on building a two-grand PC to run one. Now, the Oculus Go is out, and I picked up one last Sunday. Now I’m convinced.

The Oculus Go is a free-standing VR headset. It looks similar to the Rift, except it doesn’t hook up to an expensive computer. It is self-contained, with the Qualcomm CPU from a cell phone contained inside the headset. It’s like a cross between those headsets that require you to put a phone in front of your eyes and a Rift. For $200, you get the headset and a single handheld controller, and are ready to go.

I’ve been wanting to write a long article on this, but every time I start, I go back to playing with the Go. So here’s a quick bullet list of impressions.

  • The Go is roughly the same size and weight as a Rift. The fit and finish are not bad; maybe the straps are a bit more cheap-feeling. But it fits well, and once I put in a spacer piece, it worked great with glasses.
  • You can’t change the PD (width between lenses) or focus at all, but they are fine for me. I’ve noticed the focus is really, really finicky depending on the fit and angle. Sometimes it is 100% blurry, and I adjust my glasses or the angle by like less than a percent and it’s completely in focus.
  • The sound is amazing. There are small speakers built into the strap mounts that aim right into your ears, so you can hear perfectly. (There is also a standard headphone jack if you need to be silent to everyone around you.) The spatial sound is also amazing. If you are listening to someone speak in front of you and you turn your head to the right, you will hear them mostly in your left ear.
  • I thought the lenses and graphics would be a big step down from the Rift, but they are very close. I’m not saying it is exact, but it would take a serious A/B test to demonstrate that they are very different.
  • The basic interface — the home room, the control menu, the store — are all fairly identical. I think that’s a big selling point, that someone can start on a Go and then easily transition to a Rift or whatever future model.
  • The Go has 3DOF (degrees of freedom) while the Rift has 6DOF. That means on a Go, the three axes of your head movement are tracked; on a Rift, it additionally tracks your position. Big difference for activity games; not a big deal if you’re sitting around watching 3-D videos.
  • There is a single controller with a touchpad where your thumb is, a trigger at your index finger, and two buttons (back and home) below the touchpad. It will sense the position of that controller inside the Go. It usually looks like a laser pointer, which you use to point at various items in the interface. The Rift has two controllers, one on each hand, which is really amazing, but the Go’s controller is pretty handy, too.
  • I’d say the generated graphics quality is maybe on par with a PS3. I haven’t done the math; that’s just my impression. With pre-rendered items, like 360 videos on YouTube or Facebook, it is phenomenally good, incredibly realistic, and when you turn your head and look at another view, it is instantaneous.
  • Generated graphics vary, though. It just doesn’t have the horsepower a PC with a GTX-1080ti does. The best comparison here: an iPad retina has a screen that is as good or better than a high-end gaming rig. Pixel-for-pixel, it’s going to look better, and watching a movie on either one, the iPad screen will probably win. But the iPad doesn’t have the GPU power to run a AAA game at max settings. It’s for casual gaming, and isn’t going to run Overwatch. But you aren’t going to bring your water-cooled tower computer on a plane to watch movies for a cross-country flight, either.
  • The game situation is at best casual on the Go. Not enough horsepower, and the controls and latency won’t work for a Call of Duty type thing. Where it really shines is media consumption, and “experiences” – moving through 360 environments and looking at things.
  • Battery life sucks. It gets maybe two hours at most. It charges from a USB jack.
  • A phone app is used to initially connect to WiFi and to do basic management of the headset, but you don’t need a phone nearby after that point. The phone app is handy for browsing the store and checking your battery level when it’s plugged in and put away.
  • Oculus is Facebook, so it’s somewhat tied into its ecosystem. It’s very easy to view your FB photos, livestream to FB, etc. It could use better integration, though. I’d love a way to check Messenger without going to a web browser.
  • Yes, there’s a web browser in the interface. It’s really weird to be in a room, looking at a big screen with web pages on it.
  • You also have this concept of having a room where friends can meet you and you can chat, watch videos, and play simple board games. I don’t know anybody else with an Oculus, so I haven’t tried this, except to go in my room and change all the artwork and colors and stuff.
  • My favorite game so far is Ultrawings, which is a sort of cartoonish flight simulator with very good simulation. The graphics and music sort of remind me of Diddy Kong Racing on the Nintendo 64, but the flight control is very good, and it works well.
  • I’ve also wasted a lot of time in Viso Places, which is an app that lets you wander around Google Street View data and see everything in 3D. Very strange to be wandering around Bloomington in this, completely immersed.
  • There are two Blade Runner experiences. One has an intro where you are flying in a spinner in downtown LA 2049 at night, when it’s pouring rain. Someone is talking to you on the video phone, the rain is dripping on the windows, and the neon lights are whizzing by next to you, and below you in the windows by your feet. You can look all around the car as it flies, and it is truly incredible.
  • I’ve had no nausea problems, although doing a quick look to the side while doing a barrel roll in a flight game does make me half-dizzy for a second. I’ve also had zero fogging problems with the lenses, a problem I did have on the rift.
  • One strange side effect is you cannot really multitask in VR. If I had a writing program in it, it would be ideal, because I couldn’t open a second window to look at FB, or pull out my phone and start checking stuff. When you’re in it and watching something, that’s all you’re doing.
  • The biggest plus to the Go is that it’s self-contained, and instantly on. No cables, no Windows 10 Updates on the host computer, no power-sucking gaming tower in the corner. If you have a Windows PC, it’s a big ritual to get the computer started, then get the headset plugged in and started. With the Go, you put it on, done. It’s like the comparison between a PC and an iPad. The iPad isn’t going to do everything a PC will, but it’ll be on instantly, and if you just want to mess around, the convenience is amazing. Maybe they could come out with a more expensive model with more horsepower, but they really hit the sweet spot for market penetration here.

Overall, this is the best two hundred bucks I’ve spent on a computer gadget in a long time. Very exciting stuff. I’m not sure if Best Buy is doing demos of the Go, but if they are, check it out. Or go get one on Amazon. And if you have one, drop a line and we can connect inside there, play a game of Boggle or something.

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The Death of NetworkedBlogs

OK, minor annoyance here.  I’ve been using NetworkedBlogs as one of the pieces of duct tape holding together my blogging stuff here. It’s a program that checks an RSS feed, and when it sees a new blog post, it puts it on Facebook. I think Facebook used to do this automatically, if you gave it an RSS feed, and it died around 2010 or so. So I used this service, and now it’s going out of business. Mad scramble to find a new piece of duct tape, etc.

I’m now using IFTTT to do this, which seems to work. If you notice anything weird, let me know. Knock wood that they don’t get bought by Google and shut down.

 

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i like when this didn’t require me to enter a title before i entered a post

1. I was on this stupid thing where I thought I should start carrying a fake phone and wallet in case I was mugged. So I bought an iPhone 3G for $20 on eBay, which is the same exact phone I had nine years ago. It is ridiculously small and uses a different dock connector and has a shit camera and plastic back and is missing about every feature you could imagine. No Siri, no Apple Pay, no Find my Phone, no Facetime, no front camera. The OS is stuck like six or seven versions ago. I think the current Facebook app wouldn’t even fit on this phone. It’s sort of wonderful.

2. My allergies are so insanely bad since I got back from Alaska. I always joke about moving there like the Anthony Edwards character from Northern Exposure, who lived in a geodesic dome to escape his allergies, but I’ll be god damned, that would actually work.

3. My new watch tracks my sleep now with the Sleep++ app, and I don’t have to remember to start the app first – it just figures it out. It’s amazing to see how much I sleep when I take Ambien, and how many times I wake up in the middle of the night when I don’t.

4. For some freak reason, I didn’t drive my car at all this week. When I had to drive somewhere Friday, it was caked with a layer of dirt like I’d left it outside at Mt. St. Helen’s in 1980 or whenever that was.

5. I remember people selling bottles and jars of ashes after M.S.H. blew up. This was all pre-internet, so I’m not sure how I knew about this. Maybe it was in the el-cheapo ads in the very back of Parade magazine, where they normally sold biblical coins that were supposed to be older than Jesus but were actually punched out of sheet metal from Ford Pintos and then artificially aged in vats of Coca-Cola.

6. I’ve been writing the bulk of my next book by hand. No reason, except I write a lot of it in diners. It’s challenging, because I can’t read my own handwriting, and I only get maybe a hundred words per page of these little pocket notebooks.

7. I started reading about the bad effects of cortisol, the stress hormone, and how it stops you from losing fat and makes allergies worse, and now I am convinced that is like the nexus of every problem I have right now. And googling “get rid of cortisol” gives you ten million pages that basically just say to sleep more and be happy about your life, and maybe eat more salad.

8. I subscribed to a Facebook group about people who grew up in my home town, and everyone in the group is functionally illiterate. Like, they don’t know the difference between “to,” “two,” and “too.”

9. I also looked up my home town on TripAdvisor, and the top ten restaurants included Cracker Barrel, Perkin’s, and Texas Roadhouse.

10. I was going to go on a big rant about tenderloin sandwiches and mandala effect, but my dinner is here. (I ordered a salad for some inexplicable reason. Maybe the cortisol thing. I need to stop it with the Joe Rogan Podcast.)

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Anchorage, recap

OK, I’m back. I’d planned on doing updates every day, and that just didn’t happen. The first half of the trip was too busy; the second half, I ran out of things to do and had no motivation to write in here.

I did upload my pictures. They are on Flickr here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmhtk2H2

Here’s a high-level bullet list of stuff I did do, mostly so I’ll remember it in ten years:

  • I went to Arctic Comic Con, mostly on a lark. I’m not a comic book fan, and I didn’t really know any of the people appearing, aside from comedian Brian Poeshn. It was their first year, and not very big, but people were happy they did get some people to show up. The convention was about the size of a large high school gym, with a dozen or two booths, mostly selling comics, but also some weird ones, like the Army was there, and someone selling hot tubs. There was also a place doing tattoos and piercings, and it was weird to hear a constant BZZZZZ as people on panels were talking. The crowd was mostly younger, and parents. Every teen with blue hair and an anime fetish within a hundred miles of Anchorage was there. Didn’t stay that long, didn’t buy or eat anything, but it was an interesting time.
  • Climbed Flattop mountain just south of town. If you need to listen to any one song while driving into snow-topped mountains, make it the song “Antarcticans Thawed” from the new Sleep album. It was maybe 30 out, everything covered in snow, and very windy, like 25mph. The trail was buried, so lots of ice, and I fell in up to my thighs a few times. Forgot gloves, broke my water bottle in the car so no drink. Absolutely beautiful on top, could see the water, the city in the distance, and all the other peaks in the area.
  • Moose Tooth pizza was a good experience. Also, very cheap.
  • Went to The Mall at Sears, which no longer has a Sears. Was shooting the outside of the mall and a security SUV rolled up on me, lights flashing. The dude came up and said “hey are you the guy from the sign company?” then started babbling on about all the old Sears signage on site. Then started to talk about the break-ins, then about how everyone’s stealing Tahoe trucks because they don’t have a chip in it. I’m in a hooded sweatshirt and freezing to death and he goes on for fifteen minutes before saying “who were you with again?” I told him I was a photographer from California and he said “sure, OK. Did you hear they’re putting a Safeway in here?”  That mall was sheer desolation. Maybe a dozen stores, the only national chains being a GNC and a Payless, both of who are on the death list. A local cell phone store. A shuttered grocery store anchor on one side, the dead Sears on the other.
  • Went to a surviving Blockbuster. This was in a John Oliver skit, which I don’t watch, but I guess he sent some Russell Crowe stuff to them, and it was not on display yet. It looked like a 2002-vintage store, trapped in amber. I bought a t-shirt, and took a few pictures.
  • The Anchorage Museum got redone and expanded since I last went, and it looks like a full reset, because I don’t remember anything. I like the new building a lot – it has a very Euro look to it, like a museum you’d see in Berlin. Not a fan of the collection, because I’m not that into Alaskan art. I know that’s horrible, I’ll leave it at that.
  • Rice Bowl is a good old-school Chinese place. When I worked in Factoria in 1995 and would find an old strip mall Chinese place and think “this shit is straight out of the Eighties,” that was Rice Bowl today. Nothing wrong with it – I loved the food, the look, and the folks were nice.
  • Had a lunch at Snow City, which never disappoints. I have this weird conspiracy theory that Snooze in Denver and Snow City in Anchorage are somehow related, and I like them both, and being in one reminds me of the other. Anyway, pancakes.
  • There’s a Japanese place (the sign actually says “oriental food”…) called Da Mi, which is on the back half of an Econo Inn, which sounds horrific, but it was great food and cheap, and had the fountain and the neon sign above the sushi bar and gave you a fried oreo with your check and the whole nine. Ate there twice.
  • I know I ate a lot, but La Cabana, great Mexican place – I didn’t think you could get good Mexican this far north, but this was on par with a few of my LA favorites, which says a lot. (Side note: I hate Bay Area Mexican food. Enough with the cilantro.)
  • Red Chair Cafe, too – good brunch. Went there three or four times.
  • Drove to Girdwood, which is about 45 minutes south. It’s a nice drive on the Seward highway, with the water from the Turnagain on your right side, the mountains in the distance, and the single line of the Alaska railway snaking past. I stopped a few times for pictures, then went to the Aleyaska resort for a hike around woods at the base of the mountains. I really wanted to ride the chair lift to the top like I did last time, but it was closed for maintenance. The hike through the woods was pretty nice, the streams running wild with the meltoff from the glaciers. There was a fair amount of packed snow/ice on the wooden bridges of the path, so it took some work to not fall down, but there was a nice elevation change, and at this point, nobody was out. I also walked through the big ski resort, which was mostly empty and sort of Shining-like in the offseason.
  • Chair 5 was a good lunch stop in Girdwood. Kobe beef sliders and onion rings really hit the spot after the hike.
  • I drove out to Talkeetna, which is about two and a half hours north, on the way to Denali State Park. It’s the town that Northern Exposure was allegedly modeled after, although it was actually shot in central Washington. The drive out actually reminded me of driving around Southwest Washington – no real views of the mountains after I hit Wasilla, just lots of tree farming. The town itself is cute, a little general store, a brewpub where I grabbed a reuben for lunch, and a lot of closed galleries and stores. (Offseason!) I walked around a lot, and looked at their small bush pilot airstrip. Found out the general store sells Mello Yello, which I haven’t seen in forever.
  • Kept seeing F-22s take off from Elmendorf AFB, which was on the horizon across from my hotel. I tried taking some pictures with a 300mm zoom, but didn’t get much. They had two accidents involving the F-22 last month, so I couldn’t believe they were out flying that much.
  • Went to the Alaska Aviation Museum. Their WW2 hanger was closed for renovation, and it was a dreary day to visit the planes outside. The two things different since last time were that they have an F-15A now (not in great shape, though) and they have an Alaska 737-200QC, which is a weird plane. It’s a 737 that has a passenger door on one side, and a cargo door on the other – basically, the whole side of the plane in front of the wing swings up. The seats are all removable, so they can reconfigure it for various ratios of cargo in the front, people in the back. They had it set up so you could go inside and look around, with half the plane configured with seats with the backs against the wall, and the front half ready to be filled up with Amazon prime boxes, fresh vegetables, and livestock. They retired this example in 2007, and their last Combi (a -400) earlier this year. (https://blog.alaskaair.com/alaska-airlines/fleet/combi-plane-retires/)
  • Stopped in Obsession Records, worth a visit if you’re into vinyl. My hotel was right next to Mammoth Music, which was a great guitar shop, although my luggage and my marriage could not withstand another guitar purchase. Tidal Wave Books was still hanging in, although they’re all used books now, and it seemed a little less lively than 2006. There’s an REI at the same strip mall, which was packed with gear I wanted and did not need. That REI used to be a two-story Montgomery Ward forever ago, and I could still see a few remnants of that design.
  • I expected to see a ton of dispensaries, now that weed is legal, but I didn’t see many. I don’t partake, so I don’t care that much, but I expected it to be fully lit up like Denver, and it wasn’t. The back side of the REI in the strip mall did have a place called “Dankorage” so that’s neat. There’s a street named Fireweed, and I expect that to be the name of a dispensary or a stoner metal band.
  • Flight back was uneventful. A middle seat again for ANC-SEA, but I upgraded to a window seat for SEA-OAK and the person next to me was a no-show, so I got to actually use my laptop for once.

So, that’s it. My general takeaway was that if you want to go do tourist stuff, go after Memorial Day, but then you’re going to pay more. If you want to ski or do snow stuff, you’ll need to go much earlier now. I was surprised skiing and snowmobiling were closed at the end of April, when they were open at the beginning of June in 2006. The strange desolation of the off-season was interesting to me, so I enjoyed it. I don’t think I could hack Alaska 52 weeks a year, but I don’t think I can hack my home location 52 weeks a year either. Anyway, check out the photos, and apologies in advance that I took too many.

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Anchorage

Hello from Anchorage, Alaska. I just got here last night, and my first impression is that is is really weird up here. Like Omega Man weird.

So, the trip up was fairly unremarkable. Quick flight up to Seattle, and that was unusual in that I haven’t been back to Jet City since I left in 1999. SeaTac isn’t really Seattle, and I did not recognize the inside of the airport at all. It looks like it has 100% changed, probably because Amazon is hurtling so many people through there  per day. I also never flew Alaska before, so maybe it’s a different area than I remember. I also didn’t get to leave the airport. There was just a hint of nostalgia that made me want to see more of Seattle, but I was in a rush to get from plane to plane, and I didn’t have a window seat, so I didn’t get to study the landscape on approach. Maybe I need to get up there on another trip.

The three-hour flight to Anchorage was a beast. I was in a middle seat, and the guys on either side of me were Wilford Brimley looking dudes who honestly should have been required to buy two seats. I was squished between them, and practically had to sit sideways. No computer, no iPad — I read for a bit (The Crying of Lot 49, not sure why I always re-read this on vacations. It’s a small book, I guess. Easy to carry) and played solitaire on my phone. For three hours.

When we landed, it took forever to get off the plane — lots of wheelchairs. But within the Ted Stevens International Airport, it was empty. It felt like an airport built to handle 100,000 passengers a day, and there were only twelve. And it was a long, long walk to baggage. I got my bags quick, then went down another long corridor — by myself, nobody there — and got to a Hertz counter, also with no line whatsoever. Got my keys, and there was no gate, no exit inspection, nothing. It was like the exterior of a small municipal airport, traffic-wise. Drive around the South Bend airport on a Tuesday afternoon, and that was Saturday night at ANC.

The drive in is surreal. Mountains in the distance, a slight chill from the 40-degree weather, and way too much open space. It’s a bizarre Twin Peaks trip. And then when you get into the outskirts of town, it feels a lot like Reno, the strange desperation of old motels turned into apartments, tattoo parlors closed for the winter (in April), and liquor stores. Then, downtown. And my stay at the Sheraton.

I dumped the car and luggage, then set out on foot to find something to eat. Anchorage has a downtown — there are normally about 300,000 people here. Most of downtown is small one and two story sprawl — you have to keep in mind the entire city was pretty much leveled in 1964. There are a dozen or so buildings taller than ten stories, almost all hotels, with I think a bank or an oil company of mirrored glass, the kind of early 80s office space you see appear when the crude starts flowing. But downtown is a lot of buildings that sort of appeared because of tourism or seasonal work at fisheries and oil fields. And it has the same density and feel as a city like South Bend, but maybe three times bigger.

I walked around, trying to find some place to eat, and it was absolutely vacant. Like, post-apocalyptic. I saw nobody on the street. Nothing was open. The tourism business doesn’t really start for another month, so a lot of small galleries and shops are still closed for the winter. And there isn’t really that much density, like not a lot of little restaurants and things.

Also, the light. It is currently daylight until about ten at night. But it’s a really bizarre daylight. I don’t know if it was the clouds or the longitude, but the daylight has a strange glow or cast to it, like you’re shooting photos with the white balance set on the wrong setting. It reminds me of what the sky looked like during the wildfires last year. It only reinforced the strangeness of the situation.

I ended up going to the Fifth Street Mall, because of course I’m going to fly thousands of miles to a mall. It’s a strange setup, a Simon mall with a JC Penney’s and a Nordstrom, but not that long of a concourse, and multiple levels (I think four). There was nobody there, except super aggressive panhandlers, and lots of security trying to get rid of them. The top floor is a large food court with windows around the perimeter, looking out to the mountains in the distance. But all the food is weird local chains, wok shops filled with MSG, and off-brand taco places that guarantee botulism. I walked back to the hotel, got room service, and went to bed at like ten, when it was still mostly daylight outside.

The plan for today is to go to the Arctic Comic Con. I’m not really a fan of comic books, and I really can’t deal with people jerking off all over themselves about the latest Marvel movie that I refuse to see. But I figure if it’s here, I should go. Cultural experience. Why not. I think the weather is supposed to be okay tomorrow, like 37 and clouds. (It’s a touch colder today.) So maybe I’ll drag the camera to the top of Flattop and get some pictures.

I should figure out where this convention is, and what I can bring. I don’t want to drag a bunch of camera gear and then find out you can’t bring it in. Also need to find out if they have corn dogs.

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49th, take two

After that last post on the Concord Mall, there was an influx of attention on it — at least three video tours, lots of threads on dead mall groups, articles in the paper about the bankruptcy, etc etc. The net result is that I spent way too much time wallowing in this nostalgia, and I’m now completely burned out on it. The obsession with trying to find old photos or watch shaky videos of dead malls is too much. I thought about going back to Indiana this summer, getting a last look at the mall before it completely died, but I remember how depressing it was to see it in 2015, and I can’t spend a week in that mindset. So, I need to let that shit go for now.

I have been scheming when to take some time off, because thanks to Agile, I’m always in the middle or the end of a release cycle, and can’t plan anything more than a week out. Thanks to a weird scheduling hiccup, I found out I’d have almost six weeks between releases, so I put in for a week off, in May. Then I had to figure out where to go.

Vegas was out — last time was too depressing for me. It’s not a great place for a solo tourist. I thought about Seattle, Denver, LA, but I’ve lived in all those places, and too many ghosts. Berlin or maybe Oslo popped in my head — Norwegian has started very cheap direct flights to Europe. But either you red-eye out or waste most of two days in multiple flights, and then you’re nine hours out-of-cycle, and by the time you get used to it, you have to turn around and leave, spend a day or two in the air, and end up lagged by half a day for your return to work. Maybe next time.

Then I started fixating on Alaska. I was there in 2006 (there’s a trip report and some pictures somewhere on here) and I liked it back then, but due to some political events a few years after that, I sort of lost interest in any future travel there. But, I’m curious again. I looked into the trips up, maybe flying into somewhere else like Juneau, but did end up finding a deal on a fare to Anchorage, along with room and car. Solo trip, no plans yet, which I need to get busy on. All I know is I’ll be hauling the camera gear up there, seeing what I can capture, and hopefully doing as much hiking as possible.

The early May weather is a bit of a curveball. I might catch a day or two of snow/rain, maybe high temps of about 50, lows below freezing. So it could potentially be the miserable high 40s and rain that I’ve been fighting over the last few months here. But it will be daylight most of the day. Daylight from 5am to 10pm; twilight the rest of the time, and no full darkness. I hope the place has blackout drapes like last time.

Life has otherwise been a blur of work, which I don’t want to talk about. Writing on a new project, which I also can’t talk about. Maybe I’ll get some good time on it over the break. New Apple Watch recently, went from the 1 to a 3, but no big change to talk about there, just a battery that lasts all day now.

OK, I’m now reading like nine different photography books at once, trying to get back into the swing of it before I leave. Fun.

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Death of the Concord Mall, Redux

Almost two years ago, I wrote a long eulogy for the mall of my childhood: Death of the Concord Mall. This was after I heard of plans of the de-malling of the forty-something shopping center. Well, plans have changed. Here’s an update.

First, since I last wrote about this, more stores obviously closed. The christian book store that was there was part of a national chain that went under. The bizarro book store that took over the old Walden’s books folded. A BoRics hair place that still had the old logo on the sign has vanished. I haven’t kept track of whatever else, but today, just for kicks, I went to the mall web site and tallied up their directory list. (It’s a bit deceptive, because they list stores by category, and then list the same stores in multiple categories, to sort of hide that nothing is left.) Anyway, a 2015 planning document showed 62 total spaces and nine kiosks. The current tally is 29 total tenants (including kiosks). That includes a few dubious spots, like the “conference center” that’s really an abandoned jewelry store. And that includes the various half-baked stores, like the place that’s just a bouncy castle indoors.

Also, one of the anchors, a Carson’s store, is about to close. This store was originally a Robertson’s, which was a local department store chain. Back before my time, they had a sprawling multi-floor old-school department store in downtown South Bend, the kind with a beauty salon and a tea room on one floor, a place where people would register their china pattern before their wedding. Then they moved to the malls, and scaled back a bit. The store was bought during the mid/late 80s mall expansion bubble, and it changed to a Meis store. I never shopped there — I wasn’t wearing Izod shirts and sweaters — but I do remember they had an electronics department with gray-market Japanese gear, like Sony Walkman tape players much smaller than the ones normally sold in the US. They got bought again, and around the time I left Indiana in 1995, they became Elder-Beerman. They got bought by the Bon-Ton corporation in 2003, and renamed to Carson’s at some point. And shortly, they will be gone.

One odd memory of that store: it is probably one of the first times I was ever on an escalator. In contrast to the rest of the single-story mall, it has a voluminous first floor, with a second floor far above it, and a set of massive escalators connecting the two. Most of my childhood was in single-story buildings and malls and stores, and I can’t think of a single place where I would have encountered an escalator other than that store. So that’s weird.

Next up, that big fifty-million dollar project to demolish the mall and drop in a bunch of freestanding stores that was supposed to happen in 2017? Well, it didn’t. It never got further than a bunch of renderings and some “coming soon” signs at the mall. No tenants got on board, and no financing happened. They did move the old Martin’s supermarket to a new building just over from the old one, and started rehabbing the old building to move the JoAnn Fabrics there. But nothing else happened.

And now, the big news is that the mall is in receivership. The owners have stopped making payments on their bank loan, haven’t paid property taxes, and there are multiple liens on the property, meaning they probably aren’t paying bills. Jones Long Lasalle is the new receiver, and will continue running the mall for the time being. (Oddly enough, they also were the receiver at my local deadmall, Hilltop.) The bank has asked to foreclose on the property, which means it will likely go up for a sheriff’s sale. This happened at Erskine Village, the old de-malled Scottsdale Mall in South Bend, in 2016. It was bought back by the bank, and I have no idea what happened to it, except it’s still running. But it’s just a Target and a bunch of other random stores spread across a parking lot.

I have a feeling not much will happen with Concord. They won’t be able to attract new tenants; there are Walmarts and a Target nearby, and any possible stores are either in nearby strip mall shopping centers, or wouldn’t pull enough customers to be viable. Nobody will be able to fill the old Carson’s store. The JCPenney can’t be too far behind. The only other national chains in the mall are Claire’s (which is going bankrupt), GNC (which is about to go bankrupt), Champs, Spencer’s, and Kay Jewelry. (All three seem to go down with the ship in a dead mall.) There’s still Hobby Lobby, which is going strong. (Except on Sunday, because, Jesus.) My guess is that each store’s lease will time out, and they’ll board things up and let it sit for a decade, until they eventually tear it down. I’m sure the Hobby Lobby will be decoupled and live on. But what else can they do?

It’s so sad to me, because I spent so much time there as a kid, and have such vivid memories of the place. When I look at pictures of it now, the decor inside is exactly the same as when I worked there in 1993, when I was unloading trucks at the Wards store at six every morning. We’d work for four hours, and then I’d go out into the just-opened mall to grab a drink, and it would always be empty, just the mall walkers and the day shift of store managers getting their day started. This strange calm would be there, a vacancy, an odd quiet, when nobody was there. It contrasted so much with the hellish rushes we had at nights, on holidays, going into the holiday season. In those boom times, I would work twelve-hour shifts, long lines of people for the entire twelve hours, everyone on their late Eighties Greed-is-Good kick, maxing out their plastic to live the Reagan era of excess. And then when I was there in the day, in those early hours, there was so much tranquility and quiet, just hearing the sound of the central fountain echoing through the halls. It was so magical, yet so out of place. And now, when I go to these malls, it’s like that same feeling of calm, except all the potential is gone, all the shoppers have vanished, and all the stores are abandoned. For me, it’s like the quiet of a battlefield long after a war. It’s eerie, and it’s sad.

I have a lot of problems with nostalgia, and with memories, and with looking back. I think it becomes more painful as things like this vanish. I don’t want to go back; I never would want to live there again. But it still bothers me. I can’t explain it, but I can’t get past it.

Anyway, we’ll see what happens here, but it probably won’t be good.

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Take Care of Scabbard Fish

This entry is a bit of a placeholder, in hopes that somebody will find it in a google search and maybe chip in more information. It’s very odd that searching on “Take Care of Scabbard Fish” brings up almost no results. Even more weird that it doesn’t come up on sites like discogs or allmusic.

Take Care of Scabbard Fish is a 1994 compilation released by Japanese record label Scabbard Fish (I think?)  Its claim to fame is that it contains the first track released by the band Boris.

Track listing (song title/band/time):

  • Children Of The Revolution – REAL BIRTHDAY 3:31
  • Access – Speeeedway Baby 5:31
  • 50 Times – Puka Puka Brians 8:34
  • Mother Drive Sky – Romeo 5:55
  • Golden Finger – 50’s Junk 5:29
  • Papillon – Jam-Jack 6:25
  • Spacetime – Hula 7:34
  • I Can’t Stop Laughing – Long Fish,But,Blue 2:16
  • Eventualy – 20.000 Dope Disk-Junkie 3:50
  • Maria – Love Sick Lovers 3:09
  • Water Porch – Boris 5:27
  • I Never need – Ja-Dow 9:05

A general description would be that this stuff is Japanese noise/rock from the mid-90s. Lots of feedback, lots of jangly guitar, some stuff bordering on surf rock. But not a lot of it is noise-noise, like beatless, screeching, experimental noise; a lot of it has a heavy groove to it, like basement alt-rock without commercial goals. It’s good stuff.

I haven’t googled through all the band names or songs, although a lot of these seem like dead ends. (How many bands named Romeo are out there?) I don’t have a physical copy of the album, but accidentally found the MP3s on a deep-dive for something else. (Of course, I immediately deleted them and called the police, because piracy is wrong.)

Anyone else have any info on this?

 

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