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Vegas 2023

It’s been three years, but I managed to get to Las Vegas for my birthday. It was a good trip overall, so here’s the stupid bulleted list trip report.

  • Flew in Thursday afternoon, out Monday afternoon, with the actual birthday being on Friday, so the timing was great. The trip was slightly front-loaded with activities and we spent the back half of the trip in “well, what now?” mode, but the pace was pretty decent.
  • This was a trip with a full crew. Bill shares the same birthday as me, and Marc’s often on these trips. We also had Lon, who I haven’t seen in a while, and my old roommate Andrew, who I think I last saw on one of these trips maybe ten years ago. And there was Todd, who I literally had not seen since he was on the 2002 birthday jaunt, when I stayed in the Elvis suite of the long-gone Stardust.
  • Because I’ve had to fly business select on so many last-second Southwest flights, this was a free trip, airfare-wise. The trip itself was flawless; very easy in and out. I brought no luggage, just a computer bag and a duffel.
  • No camera gear would fit in my duffel, except my Canon EOS M1, which is a bit garbage, and my iPhone took better pictures all trip.
  • We stayed at the Mirage. This may be the last time we stay at the Mirage, because it was recently purchased by Hard Rock and will probably be gutted and turned into something else soon. (Or not, given the economy.) I am not sure I’ve ever stayed there, although I’ve wandered through a lot. Rooms were decent, and the view of the strip was nice. The food and the casino were eh.
  • Went to Penn and Teller on Thursday. The show was decent. I think it was solid, but not outstanding. Some of the tricks were new, and this was one of the first shows of the year, so I think they’re still working stuff out. Great crowd, though.
  • Dinner at the Rio, a bit eh. We went to some diner and I got a thing of nachos about as big as a bus tub. The Rio is such a mixed bag and I’m a bit surprised it’s still rolling.
  • Birthday brunch at Bouchon was over the top. I had a chicken and waffles, and there were far too many pastries and breads. Amazing stuff, but I needed insulin after that one.
  • Got a Swedish massage at the Mirage spa for my birthday, and my shoulders hurt for days. But, like, in a good way.
  • For dinner we went to The Palm, which was also way over the top. Really loud in there on a Friday night. The food was great, and wagyu steak is always good.
  • I’ve always had really good luck gambling on my birthday. That streak continues, but for accounting purposes, I won’t say how well I did.
  • Had a good lunch the next day at the Grand Luxe in the Venetian. There are actually two of them, which is confusing. This was no Bouchon, but bacon was involved.
  • We went to Resorts World, which is the first time I’ve been to a brand new casino probably since the Wynn was built? Or maybe City Center, I guess. Anyway, it’s a weird looking place. It’s absolutely cavernous, and looks more like an airport than a casino. We went to some bar to get drinks and then a few minutes later, they told us football was starting and we had to pay fifty bucks each to keep sitting there, so nope.
  • Saw this show called OPM at the Cosmopolitan, which was really fun. It was themed like a futuristic starship’s variety show, and the interior was all cyberpunk/neon looking. There was an “android” hostess/MC who was funny, and then they had various acrobatic or musical things, all of which were impressive. The one I liked best was Billy and Emily England, who did a roller skating/acrobatic routine that was absolutely insane, especially in the close quarters of the very small stage.
  • Went to the Trop for a Sunday comedy show that had Mike Binder opening for Rich Hall. Binder was garbage. He started off with the “I’m old and I don’t understand pronouns” and went from there. Rich Hall was amazingly good. He played songs and did a ton of crowd work. Very quick, sharp, and it was hilarious to see him pivot a song on a dime to start singing about the concrete world trade show. I didn’t know what to expect from him since the last thing I knew him for was the Sniglets thing thirty years ago. Absolutely didn’t do that, and it was great. The Tropicana, not so much.
  • Weather was the coldest I’d ever seen. I think it was down to the mid-30s some nights, sitting in the mid/high-40s most days.
  • I walked an extreme amount every day, usually between 12 and 15 miles. That almost counterbalanced my meal schedule going completely sideways and eating like 100 Weight Watchers points per day.
  • The best part of this trip: I have not spent any time with guy friends in a long time, probably since three years ago. And the last time I was with a group this size was maybe 10? 15? years ago. I really needed this trip, and being able to just bullshit for hours with other tech geeks was absolutely awesome.

Good birthday. Good trip. I need to do this more than once a year, though.

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52

I am fifty-two today.

I’m trying to think of what the number 52 conjures in my head. A deck of cards, obviously. Games of “52 pickup” which we “played” with my little sister. The B-52 bomber, which my dad worked on when I was born on a desolate Air Force base in the middle of nowhere. The number of weeks in a year. The number of hostages Iran freed on my 10th birthday. Denver is at 5200 feet. (Well, 5280.) It is the fifth Bell Number and the third untouchable number. There are 52 white keys on a piano.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I like even-numbered ages. I liked 50, and did not like 51. 52 sits better with me, but it’s also solidly in my 50s. And 52 sounds way older than 50 for some reason. I do like the even number. And I dislike odd-numbered years. Unfortunately, there’s only 19 days where both my age and the year are even. Age is just a number and time is an abstract concept, but I do like a good even number for some reason.

* * *

I am getting old. 52 is old. I mean, we all are getting old, but this year, I look in the mirror and… yeah. I’m no longer young. When I was in my 40s I could sort of pass for 30s, but now I’m definitely in my 50s. I had to get my driver’s license renewed, and I don’t recognize the guy looking back at me. I look seventy. Not having hair anymore really does it. Things are happening to the skin on my neck that no face cream will fix. The eyes are not the eyes of a thirty-something. I shouldn’t care about any of this. I do.

* * *

I am going to Las Vegas for my birthday this year. I’m writing this before I leave, so it’s autoposting while I’m already there. This is the first big trip to Vegas in a while on the actual day of my birthday with Bill, Marc, and a few others. I think the last one like this was 2011. I don’t know what Las Vegas will be like post-pandemic (or during pandemic? I don’t know what their cases look like these days).

I’m staying at the Mirage this time, and maybe the last time, because it was bought by Hard Rock and it’s rumored that it will be completely gutted this year or next. I can’t remember if I’ve stayed at the Mirage before. I’ve been there a lot, and I know I stayed at Bellagio before. (2006?) It’s amazing that at one point, I knew enough about this to write a book, and now it’s a bit of a blur. And I generally don’t stay in hotels with casinos anymore. The last few times I was in town, I decided I needed a kitchen. So this time, I’m back to the regular grind of being on the strip.

A few plans this year: Penn and Teller, Bouchon. There will be steak. I’m not sure what else, but it will be good to get out of town for a few days and see friends.

* * *

A lot of amazing people left in their fifty-second year. Zappa. Houdini. Christopher Reeve. Chris Cornell. Luke Perry. Bob Ross. Grace Kelly. I’ve now outlived Shakespeare, Napoleon, Proust, James Gandolfini, Roger Maris. I’ve outlasted Alois Alzheimer and don’t have his namesake disease (yet). I’ve lived longer than Walter Reed and haven’t stayed at his hospital or caught yellow fever (yet).

Whenever I make these lists, I’m grateful I’m not on them, but it also makes me think about how these people are old, and I don’t even feel like an adult half the time, let alone an old, fully-formed person. I have a healthy dose of imposter syndrome when I think about this, and it’s deeper than thinking I haven’t accomplished enough. It’s this uncanny feeling: I am not an adult, am I?

* * *

Any time I make one of these posts, there’s always some forward-thinking statement about what I want to do in the next year of my life. I do a bit of that in my end-of-year summaries, and the two are almost back-to-back posts, so there’s a lot of redundancy there. (Also, I’ve already broken the no-Taco Bell goal.)

Year 51 was grim and not entirely happy. And I obviously want better than that in year 52. Otherwise the goals are the usual: write more, read more, do more, be more. So I will do that.

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The death of an uncle

I know I’m always writing these “the death of” posts left and right about malls and stores and whatnot, but I really hate when I have to write one about a person, especially a person who I’ve known my entire life. And I’m not a fan about writing about family, because people get weird when a fact in your brain doesn’t match the narrative in theirs, which is why I’ve largely given up on autobiographical fiction or whatever it’s called this week. But this post isn’t about any of that; it’s about my uncle Jim, who died on the 27th.

My uncle Jim was my dad’s oldest brother, the oldest of the seven kids. His real first name was Ambrose, which I didn’t even know for years, because he was always Jim, or Jimmy. (My grandfather and my great-grandfather were also Ambrose. Prior to that, the names were significantly more Austrian: Paulus, Johann, Georg.) My grandfather died in a car accident when my father was six. Shortly after, my uncle joined the Navy and spent the next twenty-some years all over the world, working on planes, living on aircraft carriers. I vaguely remember him returning when I was maybe four or five. My memory was that he flew home and gave me the pack of peanuts from the plane. Nobody in my family ever traveled, so this was amazing to me at the time.

We lived in my dad’s home town from when I was an infant until I was seven. This was Edwardsburg, Michigan. It’s immediately north of Elkhart, and it’s a small village that had maybe a thousand people back then. My grandmother lived there, and was retired. My uncle retired from the Navy when he was 40 or so, and moved back in with her around 1975, to take care of her until she passed in 1993.

My uncle never married. I’m not sure he ever dated. He didn’t smoke or drink; he never swore. I can’t remember him even raising his voice. What I do remember is him always being around, always helping, coming over to do things around the house. My parents had this rundown cinderblock house, and they were always continuously adding onto it, sealing off the front porch into a room, covering the bricks with wood planks, adding in new windows, painting new trim. He was always around doing yard work or playing with us. And we spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house, which was maybe a mile away, near the lake. That place was a central hub of activity for all seven kids, their kids, the neighbors, and many others. Almost my entire memory of Catholicism was going to the service, getting donuts, then going to my grandmother’s to play with my uncle and my cousins.

I have a lot of memories of specific things we did, things he taught me: playing golf, collecting cans for the deposits (ten cents in Michigan), playing card games, reading books. He and my grandmother were garage sale fiends, and any time he found a trove of Encyclopedia Brown books for sale, they were mine.

I also think a lot of his selflessness, and how he took care of my grandmother. He always drove her everywhere: to appointments in Elkhart; to see family in South Haven; to Florida in the winter when her health was poor. I remember him coming back from one trip and telling me all about watching an early Space Shuttle launch. I think he was a father figure to all of us cousins, and later the second cousins. (There were I think 13 cousins, and I don’t even know how many second cousins.)

After my grandmother died in 1993, he continued to live at the same house, and it was still our central hub for the family. I would go there any time I was home. Unfortunately, his health deteriorated over time. He managed to live alone until maybe four years ago, when he fell and went to a rehab center. He managed to hang on until he was 88, which is phenomenal. It’s sad for him to have gone, but he lived an amazing life. There was much tragedy in his lifetime, the loss of both parents and four siblings (one to suicide, three to cancer, all too young). But there was such great humility and service and selflessness in his whole life.

My uncle used to take us to McDonald’s when we were little. There wasn’t one in Edwardsburg; you had to go to one in Elkhart. This was pre-McNuggets, pre-Happy Meal, everything fried in beef lard, everything inside a shade of brown. I know it’s stupid, but when I got the news Tuesday morning, I went to McDonald’s for lunch and ordered two cheeseburgers and thought of that. A dumb tribute, but a strong memory to a long time ago. He will be greatly missed.

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2022

I guess I have not done one of these year in review things in a while. Well, I haven’t done much of anything here in a while. New Year/New Me, so here’s a summary:

  • Various health and psychology things, which I won’t go into here, because this is public. Spent a lot of time on various self-improvement schemes, some of which were useful. I also managed to not catch COVID.
  • Finally gave up on the battle versus male pattern baldness and having hair. I know, ha ha, middle aged balding guy wants hair plugs, much laughter. Giving up and shaving my head was a difficult decision, and it impacted me more than I could know. And yeah, everyone says “just own it,” but that advice only works if you are psychologically self-confident, and maybe don’t live in a society where hair = power.
  • 2,200,380 steps; 1,038.01 miles; Workout streak: 2,522 days. 2021 was 1,872,548 steps 883.23 miles, so good improvement there.
  • Weight was… not good. I lost 35 pounds in the last nine months of 2021, and I gained back about 25 of that in 2022. So, guess what my resolution is? (Please, no stupid advice on fad diets. I know what I have to do; I just didn’t do it.)
  • I don’t like to talk about work stuff here, so I won’t, but I did get promoted to director, finished hiring my team, and worked on big stuff.
  • I sold my land in Colorado. End of an era there.
  • Went to Chicago for my sister’s wedding in April. This was my first time on a plane since the beginning of 2020. It was a quick long weekend, and I saw a lot of relatives I haven’t seen in decades. I didn’t catch COVID, although many people there did. I also got to hang out with John Sheppard for an afternoon and do some mall-walking with him.
  • Visited Denver for a week in June. I haven’t been back in a dozen years, I think. (2010?) I spent a day photographing the city with my friend Tarasa, and met one of my coworkers (only the third person I have physically met at the company). Lots of walking, took a side trip to Pueblo, and many photos were taken.
  • Visited Stockholm for a week in August. This was my first time leaving the country since 2016, and a good test of if I can deal with long plane rides in my fifties. (I can’t.)
  • Visited Maui for a week in October/November. Stayed upcountry this time, and that made all the difference.
  • I was supposed to visit Indiana for Christmas, but hell froze over, and I decided to cancel.
  • Completed a two-year MBA program in five months. Wrote 184 pages, memorized thousands of terms, and I’ve probably forgotten most of it by now, but I have that line on my LinkedIn forever. And I can get into arguments with people about the Federal Reserve, although I now know that anybody who is talking about the Federal Reserve who hasn’t taken a finance class is 100% wrong and most likely financially illiterate, so don’t bother.
  • I quit writing in 2021. Towards the end of 2022, I “un-quit” and went back to identifying as a writer, and wrote about 50,000 words, mostly about how I couldn’t write and trying to figure out what I should be writing. I am not in a daily writing practice, but guess what my second resolution is?
  • Blogged 17 times here. I need to work on that.
  • I took exactly 12,600 photos. This is by far the most photos I have taken in a year. The highest was 3898 in 2011, and 2021 was 3779, with half of that in December. I had the idea that I’d take way more photos, and tried to hit 100 a day for a while, but there were some pretty dead months, and I did not take nearly as many as I wanted on vacations. I’m not sure how much I will do in 2023.
  • I had a huge interpersonal drama situation that probably burned up six months of my life. I cannot get into that, and this is just a reminder to myself in ten years that you really need to cut the shit there.
  • I don’t know how much I read, but it wasn’t much, except for finance and accounting books, and I really need to not do that.

So my goals are to keep writing, stop eating at Taco Bell, and keep writing. And all things related to writing need to change or get back on track: read more, take more notes, find new things, and write. And write. And write.

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MBA, Maui, Writing

So I finished my MBA. Did I mention I was doing an MBA? I should probably write a larger post about this. But I completed my final capstone project in mid-October, then spent a week or two in administrative purgatory, and now it’s done. It feels odd to have this giant framed thing saying the trustees have conferred on me blah blah blah, but here it sits. I didn’t even think about having an MBA until maybe this spring, and it’s over. I am an MBA. I can read a statement of cash flows. Ask me anything about Pareto charts. But make it quick, as I will forget most of this in a month.

* * *

Went to Maui last week. This was our fourth trip to this island; we also went in 2013, 2015, and 2017. We stayed on the windward side each time previously, which is nice but very touristy. (Complaining about the Four Seasons being full of tourists is like complaining about Disney World “selling out,” but the combination of tripping over octogenarians at every turn and getting charged ten bucks for a baby-sized bottled water does get old.)

This time we stayed at a yoga resort in upcountry, which was a few clicks south of Mama’s Fish House on the north shore. It used to be a bunch of indigent housing built by the Baldwin family (farming magnates that owned half of everything at one point) and it was used for military training housing during the war, then plantation worker housing, then it sat empty until someone restored and reconfigured it in about 2011 to make it into a bougie new-age yoga retreat center. It’s a semi-circle of bungalows with decks on the front and rear, a big courtyard in the middle, lots of trees and landscaping and the occasional fake buddha statue. There was almost nobody there, and although they offered various yoga and meditation classes, I didn’t go and I actually didn’t even see them happening. When I booked the place, I had the fear that some new age zombies would start chanting at four AM every day and try to beat some cult veganism in my head if I left the house, but there was nothing like that at all.

The rooms were cool. The whole place had high ceilings, big wooden ceiling fans, and old, dark wood furniture. We had two big rooms and the bathroom, plus the front and back decks. Lots of hammocks overlooking the ocean in the distance. The whole thing looked like a French plantation in Vietnam from the 1950s.  No AC. No TVs. No espresso machines. No wall tablets and room service intercoms and everything else you find in modern hotels. I always hate it when I go across the country and check into a Hyatt and it’s the same exact Hyatt I’d see in Denver or Chicago or San Jose. This was very distinct, so that was cool.

Being upcountry was generally 10-15 degrees cooler than being elsewhere on the island. Lots of trees, too. Unfortunately, walking was not great there – a winding road with no sidewalks or room for pedestrians, and nothing in every direction. I still got my 10,000 steps a day in, and we saw a lot of other areas on the island, so that worked out. The place had a small restaurant where the food was decent, but it was usually two or three couples sitting on the porch for dinner, and a server and a chef, and they would just say what they were serving and we said “ok, cool” and they brought it out. I like that a lot, though. Also went to a good Italian place, and actually a tiki-eque lounge a bit further south.

No real big adventures while we were there, just a lot of chilling out, walking, and eating. No work. That’s the most important part. Usually on these trips, it’s a big thing to come up with an itinerary and activities, things. Zip-lines and jet skis and museums and shops and statues of dead people that you must see. I think we’ve covered most of that in previous trips, and it was an opportunity to just do nothing. So, that was good.

There are pictures, but honestly I haven’t even sorted out my Denver pictures, and that was like three trips ago. I’ll get to it when it starts raining and I can’t go outside anymore.

* * *

Now that school is over, I’m trying to write. I should probably make this a separate post and explain it fully, or maybe I shouldn’t talk about it at all. But I completely quit writing fiction just over a year ago, just a sudden rage-quit “I can’t do this anymore.” thing, and it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, and it was probably the wrong one.

Right before I doused every bridge with gasoline and lit them on fire, I wrote some notes on exactly why I stopped writing. And at the time, I thought these issues were insurmountable, and maybe some of them are. And maybe it’s impossible to write fiction in a world when everything has become TikTok-ified. I don’t know. There are a lot of other major obstacles that I have to figure out. The big one is I simply do not know what to write about anymore. I’m out of ideas, and I can’t keep repeating myself.

So I’ve been chipping and trying to get started again, trying to figure out which way is up. I used to write daily, and for almost ten years, had to write something every day. I always had this strong belief that if I stopped, I would lose momentum, and then the next thing I knew, years would go by and I wouldn’t even know what went wrong. That’s basically what happened. And starting from an absolute dead stop has been difficult. I have a feeling it will take me months to get back to the same cadence I was at a few years ago. But that’s the goal.

* * *

Nothing else going on. Lots of other stuff going on. I should write more about the writing thing later. And the MBA thing. Stay tuned.

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Labor, Sweden, Cameras, School

Labor day. A day off. As always, I haven’t updated here in forever, and a lot has been up. It’s good to have a Monday off to get caught up on things, so here we go.

It is unbearably hot this weekend. I think inland east in Pleasanton and Concord, it’s supposed to be like 110 this afternoon. It’s 93 here, and we have no AC. I have all the windows closed and drapes shut right now, and will open them as the sun sets. This generally keeps it cool, but I expect tonight to be unbearable.

* * *

OK, so, Sweden. I was in Stockholm last month. I was going to write a big thing about it, but I lost momentum, and then I ran out of time. I was anxious to pick up travel again, and haven’t been to Europe since 2016, so I threw a dart at the map (actually, looked at places with direct flights) and ended up on Sweden. I don’t know anybody there, except for maybe random Death Metal people I met once in 1993 or whatever. Didn’t know what to do, didn’t have time to make any plans, and just booked the whole thing on Expedia, forgot all about it, and next thing you know, I’m on a 13-hour flight to Scandinavia.

The trip was… weird. Stockholm is a beautiful city. I loved the bullet train from Arlada airport to downtown: 125 miles an hour and so clean, you could perform surgery on the floor. The whole city was spotless, and the architecture was a perfect mixture of a 16th-century city that had never seen war, mixed with the ultra-modern development of a thriving economy. Every subway station was a work of art. I think I had four bars of 5G at all times. I went to the Westfield mall, the biggest in Sweden. 224 stores, no vacancies. Everything about Stockholm was ultra-modern and progressive and advanced and almost surreal.

But… it didn’t click for me. I think part of it is that the people were a bit standoffish. They weren’t impolite, but they weren’t entirely inviting. I guess this is a thing? Also, I’d always heard that everyone in Sweden spoke English. They do, but by default, everyone spoke Swedish to me. I do not know one word of Swedish. Maybe I looked like a native, or because I was traveling alone and not in a pack, they assumed I wasn’t a tourist. I don’t mean to go on a rant about how people in other countries don’t speak English; I get it, and it would be stupid to think otherwise. I guess my experience in places like Germany or the Netherlands is that the switch from the other language to English was more fluid, or maybe the tourism was more English-oriented. And for me to be in a place where I can’t go to a record store or a camera shop and chat, or crack a joke to a waiter, it made the whole thing feel somewhat isolating.

I quickly ran out of things to do. There are a lot of museums, but I can only look at so many 600-year-old swords, and I’m not terribly into Vikings. I walked a lot every day, but I also found that I should have planned a train trip out of town to go walk in nature. You can easily walk for ten miles and still be in what looks like downtown. Went to lots of stores, bought some records even though I don’t have a record player, and I tried some of the native food at an old-school restaurant that had antlers hanging from the ceiling and looked like a ski lodge. Reindeer meatballs and lingonberries, along with a Swedish cake that put me in a coma. Cool, but two nights later, I’m at Pizza Hut. I am the Ugly American.

I don’t remember if I mentioned it in the Denver trip, but these solo trips are really getting to me. I mean, unless I have a really solid list of things to do, I tend to drift off into depression and loneliness, and it’s never good. Add to that not speaking more than ten words all week, and this one got pretty dire. Also add to that the jet lag situation. Normally, I’m chatting with people all day on messenger and reading posts online, but I was waking up just as people were falling asleep, and my day was the dead part of the news/doom-scroll cycle when no updates were happening. The trip made me realize how dependent I am on social media and chats to stay sane on a daily basis, and I sure didn’t in Sweden.

* * *

I posted a few pictures here and there, but the trip was a bit of a bust, photo-wise. I brought that Canon 5DS, and fought with it the entire week. First of all, Sweden is at a high latitude, so the light was just weird. It felt like there was maybe five minutes surrounding noon where light was directly overhead, but otherwise I was caught with harsh shadows from either side. (Or maybe I don’t know what I’m doing, which is very likely.) But like Denver, I had a lot of trouble getting clear shots with the high-megapixel 5DS. And it’s a beast of a camera to lug around all day. I think part of it is that lens has such poor dynamic range, and it really brings out any imperfections in lenses. Even that EF 24–70 f/2.8L II I have (also heavy) is pretty iffy on that camera, and it’s not image-stabilized. Locked down on a tripod taking pictures of a building, the 5DS is a great camera. On the go, I was finding my metering was just off and I was getting too many blurry shots. I also had an EOS M1 mirrorless with me, but I’ve been saying for almost a decade how bad that camera is. Most of my best shots were with the iPhone.

Short story long, the 5DS went back to KEH, and I got a 6D Mark ii. It’s a bit lighter, a bit smaller, but just a more well-rounded camera. It’s got half the pixels, but seven times the ISO performance. It has more creature comforts like a folding touchscreen, a built-in GPS, and all the bluetooth/wifi stuff I will never use. I still need to figure out my lens situation, but the few times I’ve taken out the camera, it’s been decent. I went out to the former NAS Alameda this morning at about nine to walk early before the heat got bad, did a quick lap, and shot a few hundred shots. I think it will work much better next vacation.

I also shot half a roll of film on my old Vivitar point/shoot today. I need to shoot more film. I just checked, and between my freezer and my closet, I have fifty rolls of 35mm, and a dozen more of Polaroid, and a dozen rolls of 120. Film’s hard because I can’t take it on a plane, unless I want to deal with TSA hand-checking stuff, and there’s not enough deodorant for that conversation. At some point I will have to go hike somewhere nearby and blow through some of the stockpile, but most days, I want to go digital.

* * *

Still motoring away on school. I actually finished my ethical leadership class while I was in Sweden. On day 100, I passed my financial management test, which was my worst class so far. Lots of math, lots of terms to memorize, but it’s done. I have this quant analysis class I’m about a third done with, then econ, and then the big final project. The goal was to finish by Thanksgiving, and I might be slightly ahead of that, but we’ll see.

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Sunday

Sunday morning. It’s been two months since I updated, so here goes. Unrelated picture: thanks to Jessica Anshutz for the Christmas ornament. Do people still call it surfing the net, or was that just a 90s thing? The phrase reminds me of my time at Spry/CompuServe, when Internet World was a big thing, and there was no shortage of dumb marketing trying to drive people online. And look how that turned out.

Exhausted today. I had an accounting final yesterday and it was like running a marathon in warm weather. I’d been studying three or four hours a day for the last two weeks, and in May, I’d done a finance boot camp that covered the same information. I took the practice test twice, and woke up at 0500 on Saturday to drill for three hours before the proctored exam. The class is a graduate-level accounting class, and I’ve never taken accounting. One test, 70 questions, three hours, about half multiple-choice stuff about auditing rules, and the rest big formula problems. I got through it in about an hour and twenty minutes, and got an exemplary score. So I’m happy, but tired.

I haven’t gone into any details on this program, and I will probably write an end-to-end summary when I finish, but the basic gist is that it’s an MBA in IT management, and it’s a self-paced degree, meaning you pay every six-month term, and you finish the classes as fast as you finish them. Yesterday was day 60, and I am 54% through the program. But aside from an ethics class I am taking now, the only things I have left are not easy. I blew through most of the IT planning and project management classes fast, because that’s all I do all day every day. But now I’m left with that business ethics class, then finance, econ, a data-driven decision making class, and the capstone project. I’d like to finish by the end of my first term, but this might creep into next year.

* * *

So last night, I crack open that ethics class. Chapter one, section one, example one, page one: the 1978 Ford Pinto explosion in Elkhart. That happened about a mile from my house when I was a kid. I only vaguely remember it, but it’s one of those events that launches me down a deep k-hole every few years, digging up old newspaper articles and pictures. Anyway, I can never escape. I think Kurt Vonnegut said something about this, but I’m too lazy to look.

* * *

In two months, I’ve written exactly 100 pages of papers. When I was writing fiction, I would write maybe a page a day. So even though I have “quit” writing (or whatever), I’m putting out way more than I used to. But, it’s not exactly enticing stuff, unless you want to read the marketing plan of releasing new Irish-themed Taco Bell menu items in Japan. I have fun doing this stuff, even though it is a completely different part of the brain. But one of the sad realizations of this is that these papers have no audience. I put in some cute reference I find clever or funny, and the paper goes to a grader who reads through it with a checklist in the other window, looking that I completed each step in the grading rubric, and that’s it. Nobody is “reading” my papers. I didn’t have much of an audience as a writer, but there was that thought that people would read my books and catch the little jokes I would hide in there, and I realize that is an important part of the writing cycle. If I was writing fiction and never releasing it, I’d have the same problem. Lots more to say about this problem, but not right now.

* * *

Big trip next week. On Saturday, I leave for Stockholm, Sweden. I’ll be there for a week, taking pictures and eating. I have not planned anything yet, and have been too busy with work and school to do anything other than book the tickets and the hotel. More on that as it happens, I guess.

I have not really been taking any photos lately, either. I think I took the new camera out once since I’ve been back to Denver, just the usual loop around NAS Alameda. I don’t think I even posted that many pictures from Denver. I’d go take more today, but I’ve got to tear down the camera gear and plan my pack. I’ve wanted to go to Sweden probably since college, so it will be a fun one.

 

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general

Denver

Hello from Denver. I’ve been out here for a week, for the first time in a dozen years, and… it’s weird. Weird doesn’t start to explain it.

So I lived in Denver from 2007-2008. Made a few work visits back in 08, and I think I came out maybe two more times for Rockies games. I haven’t been back since except for the occasionl layover in the airport. I had to take a week off, and wanted to get out somewhere to take some pictures and do nothing, and after the usual searches of prices versus temperature versus infection rate, I landed on taking the week in Colorado.

This whole trip has been a weird deja vu experience. I sat in the baggage area and had flashbacks of every time I ever flew home, going back to the first time I flew to the city in 2007. Got my suitcase, went outside and breathed the rarefied air and gazed out at the big sky and fluffy clouds that looked like they were floating ten feet above the ground, and I felt like I’d been gone for a week and was back. Something about the look of the place, the way the light comes through the sky, the way the air tastes, is totally unique in my head, always brings me back to that specific time of my life.

I got the rental car, headed out on the highway towards my hotel in the tech center and realized everything was different. They built a train to the airport. They built apartments everywhere. They built shopping centers everywhere. There are new giant towers of tech industry where there used to be empty fields. It’s like when I go back to Indiana and the bones are the same but everything has decayed, but the opposite. Some of the highways and such are in the same place, but everything else has grown.

* * *

One of the reasons I came out was to work on school stuff. So part of the stay has been hanging out in this residence hotel and banging out papers. I’ve written three, and barely started a fourth. Not into talking much about this yet, except to say I’m incredibly rusty and not in the zone yet. First, I haven’t written anything in six months, but I haven’t written sourced scholarly papers in… a while. 1993, maybe? So, it’s taking me about an hour a paragraph to knock out 16-page papers, which is not ideal. Didn’t I used to write thousand-page books?

The other reason was the photo thing. I got a new camera before I came out, a Canon EOS 5DS. It is a monster of a camera, weighing about double my old DSLR. Full-frame, 50 megapixel, weather-sealed, dual-card, and none of the nicey consumer features like a built-in flash or a selfie screen or a Wi-Fi adapter or anything. It’s a beast, and honestly, I’ve been fighting it the whole trip. I’m not used to any of the settings, and I’m constantly screwing up metering or getting depth of field wrong, because it responds completely differently than my old body. So I’ve shot a few thousand shots on this trip, but I’m not super happy with much.

* * *

I’ve been specifically avoiding various nostalgia points, because I don’t want to completely deep-six myself mentally. I did see my old apartment Sunday; I went on a long walk with a photographer friend, and went in loops around the ballpark area and the 16th Street mall for like eight miles. The more I walk around Denver, the more I see that either I didn’t get out much, or things have totally changed. And the areas where I did spend time are completely different. I used to work down in Meridian/Lone Tree, and all I used to do is drive to work, drive to Taco Bell, drive to Target, drive home. And that area was nothing but the Target, the Taco Bell and a few other fast food joints, and lots of barren land. I went down there, and it’s now a sea of condos, and a new train station and pedestrian bridges and lots of parks and sod and outdoor sculptures and the whole nine. So I lived here, but I didn’t live here.

Lots of other photo ops. I drove down to Garden of the Gods. Drove to the Air Force Academy. Hit air museums in Pueblo and at the old Lowry AFB. Went to Idaho Springs and walked around the old mining town a bit. Three or four malls were visited. Also met with a coworker (only the third time this has happened in a year) and did a big lap at Washington Park. Weather’s been decent, other than a freak hail storm when I was in Colorado City, so the walks and photos have been nice.

* * *

Had a really weird deja vu last night. I was walking around this area after dinner. This part of the DTC is all residence inns and empty condo buildings, with the occasional warehouse or factory, so it’s a great walk to take at dusk. Something about the weather, the heat, the air, the darkness, gave me this exact time travel portal, and I felt like it was a night in the summer of 1989, a late night after working at Wards all day, in the air conditioning from 10 to 9, then hitting the air that was a hundred all day and was then 80 after sunset. There was always such a strong feeling of… I don’t know, a mix of loneliness and possibility. Like I was the only person alive in the town, mixed with an uplifting feeling that something big was going to happen soon, and this was the temporary lull before it did. I don’t know how to explain it more than that, except I would get fleeting flashes of the same thing in the summer of 1992, the summer of Summer Rain, and that was one of the real motivating reasons to write that book.

And I’m thinking about that, too. And I should write more. But the sun is going down in about 20 minutes, so maybe I will go take another walk.

Flying out tomorrow, then it’s back to the grind. Stay tuned for more pics.

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general

The backpack

backpackMy nephew is graduating high school and going to Indiana University to study computer science in the fall, which has set off all sorts of nostalgia triggers for me, as I think about when I made the same journey 247 years ago. My sister updates me on various registration and orientation events and visits and whatnot, asking questions on what dorms are better and where you’re supposed to eat lunch on campus and everything else. I love talking about this, although most of this has changed. Computer science is now in a new modern building that’s built where part of my freshman dorm was, and every restaurant and store I remember has closed or changed names ten times. But the bones are still the same. Kirkwood is still Kirkwood, even though Garcia’s, Spaceport, most of the record stores, and even McDonald’s are long gone.

I was shopping for various graduation gifts, and one of them he wanted was a laptop backpack, which is my forté, given that I buy a new bag about six times a year (in the Before Times, anyway) and I’ve got travel coming up and I’m probably due again. But that got me thinking about my backpack I had for my entire IU journey, as pictured above. There’s a story behind it, of course, and I’ve probably told it nine times, so buckle up for #10.

* * *

OK, so when I was a freshman (and this still happens, apparently) there’s a series of events leading up to matriculation, culminating with class registration. That takes place in the summer, maybe in July. This is a bit of an evil trick by IU, because what happens is you go there and they reserve blocks of typical freshman classes, like all the hundred-level math, English, and foreign language classes. They run a special registration and hold your hand and you get all the classes and time slots you want, and it’s easy-peasey. Then when you have to register in the winter for the next semester, you find out that the entire process is horrible, and registration dates are based on how many credits you’ve completed, so you’re dead last in line, and every good class is taken and you end up with an 8am basket weaving class.

Anyway. I had to go down to Bloomington for this thing, and it’s usually a parent/child event, where your folks take you there, and they go to various orientation things that convince them it’s a good investment and their child is safe and whatever, while the new student goes through registration, takes any assessment tests to test out of foreign language or learn how much math they really know, and sits through some orientation things where guidance counselors tell you how important it is to study. Also, some people in specialized programs met with advisors, and music students did their auditioning.

I did not go there with a parent. Every time I write anything about my parents on here, I get in trouble about it, even though I have lived on my own for almost twice as long as I lived with them, so I’ll shut up about it, except to say I had to figure out how to go there by myself. I was 18 and had a car, so whatever.

IU had a deal for registration where they opened up Foster dorm like a hotel, and you could rent a room for some ridiculous amount, like eight bucks a day including food. So even though I had a day and a half of stuff to do, I rented a room on the top floor of Foster-Harper for the entire week. My plan was to drive down the four hours and change, get the registration over with on the first day, and then just hang out all week.

One thing that really stuck in my head about this visit is that it was the only time I had my old Camaro in Bloomington. The Camaro era and the Bloomington era had no overlap, except for that one week. Those are two heavy nostalgia eras, and it’s bizarre to me to think about driving around the IU campus and going to College Mall in that old car. It’s like thinking about Helen Keller and Jimi Hendrix hanging out together. (Technically possible, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen.) It was a bizarre colliding-of-worlds that really stuck in my head.

I loved that week. Bloomington in the summer is always awesome, and I got to explore all those record stores and restaurants and booksellers and everything else off campus, plus wander around the big limestone buildings and wonder what it would be like in a matter of weeks when this place would be my home. If I could re-live any part of my life to experience it again for the first time, I think it would be that week.

I met a lot of music majors during the stay in Foster, because they were all auditioning. That was great, because people come from all over the country to go to IU’s music school, so I was staying up late every night, sitting on the rooftop deck of this nine-story building overlooking the entire campus from the north. I met musicians from places I’d never been, from Boston and Vermont and California and Washington, and we’d stay up there in the cool summer air and wait until midnight when they would turn off the main library outside lights. I didn’t know if all of college would be like this, but I hoped it would be.

(And oddly enough, I had a brief but spectacular relationship with someone who lived on the same floor in Harper a few years later. Another colliding of worlds, and some late nights there, but I was too busy to watch the library lights.)

* * *

So during that visit, I was super amped to buy my books at the bookstore in the student union. I don’t know why, but I really wanted everything in hand and ready to roll for August. (I was the opposite later on, especially when those book costs added up. I remember taking this SPEA class on public management in 1993 and never buying the book.)

I went there with this new friend named Susan, from Dyer, Indiana. (It was always important to find out where people were from, and figure out where that was. “Oh, you’re from Auburn? Isn’t that right down the road from Kendallville? They have that speedway.”) I had my schedule, and could buy like half my books. And while I was at the store, I bought some other IU paraphernalia, like some notebooks and pens, and a backpack.

The backpack was this gray thing, with an IU logo on the front. It was made by Caribou, a company in Chico, CA that made bags for L.L. Bean and others. It was a bit of a knockoff of the JanSport bags that were popular in the 80s, made of 100% nylon. It had a single main compartment with a wraparound zipper, a smaller front zippered pocket, and a pair of very non-ergonomic, barely-adjustable shoulder straps with like a millimeter of padding in them.

Like I said, I used this backpack for the entire time I was at IU. It held maybe four or five textbooks, plus whatever I could cram in the front pocket. That usually held the cassettes I needed to get through the day in my walkman. I usually wore this slung on one shoulder, unless I was on a bike. It was one of my trademark items, as stupid as that sounds. I always had three things with me: my leather jacket, my walkman, and this backpack.

It’s odd to look at it now, compared to modern bags. It’s so small, with no organizational compartments or sleeves or dividers. This was the pre-laptop era, and it was meant to carry books, a few pencils, and nothing more. There were none of the creature comforts that backpacks developed in the 90s and beyond. There were no ergonomics to the straps; there wasn’t a side sling or any other handles; the bottom was not weatherproofed; there were no cell phone pockets or cord management solutions. There wasn’t a side pocket for a water bottle, because this was before we were told to always carry water, and before most people drank 300 ounces of soda a day. It’s so simplistic, and it’s amazing I used it for so long without complaint. It’s even more amazing it still exists.

I can’t think of the last time I actually used this bag. There was a gap of a half-decade between when I went to school and when I had to start carrying a laptop everywhere. By then, I was in New York, and messenger bags were a thing, so I moved on to one of those. I still have it for some reason, probably because I can’t throw it out. I have a lot of stuff like that.

* * *

Also, a spoiler alert. Another reason I am in this fit of nostalgia is I’m going back to school, starting this week. All virtual, so no backpack needed. More details on this later, although this might also mean my already scarce posting might get worse.

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general

Finger

There was an interesting post that came up recently about the history of the unfortunately-named finger command in unix here. This jogged a few memories for me, because I remember finger as being the early precursor to blogs, web pages, and social media platforms.

Back in the days of unix and logging into mainframes and big workstations through terminals, there was a program called who, which listed every user currently logged into the machine. That was cool, except when there were hundreds of people on a machine and it quickly scrolled past in an indecipherable flood of text. It would show you a few brief details about each user, like how long they were logged in, or what program they were currently running. This was, in a very primitive way, similar to the little green dot next to a name in a messaging program, that tells you if the person is online or not. (Or maybe they never logged out, and their terminal was sitting idle overnight in a locked office.)

The next level of granularity was finger. If you were logged in and typed finger jkonrath, it would show a bit of info about that account, like that user’s home directory, the shell they used, and where they last logged in, or how long they’ve been logged in. That can lead to some stalker-y situations, but this was decades before anyone really thought that through.

One cool feature about finger was that if you had a text file named either .project or .plan in your home directory and they were would readable, they would also be displayed. The former was a one-line thing, and the latter could be any length. I think the original intent when this was written back at Stanford in 1972, you’d set your project to “AI Lab, Compiler Division” and your plan would be something like “I teach M-W-F in the basement of the science building. I will be on vacation June 1-9. Contact Dave Smith for questions.”

I first got a unix account (ULTRIX, actually) at IU in December of 1989. One of the first things I was absolutely infatuated with was the idea of coming up with a perfect plan file. I was 18 and of course had Big Thoughts I needed to tell the world, probably involving dumb song lyrics or movie quotes. I think for months, the only thing I used my account for was setting a new plan file and playing the text-based Tetris game someone installed on there. But it was almost like a really rough social network, sort of.

At some point, a CS buddy (it may have been either Brad Ramsey or Jesse Martin) told me about named pipes. A named pipe was a way of creating a file that really was a redirect to a program. I don’t remember how this worked, but they showed me a way to create a plan file that actually ran a script which did a who command, looked for the person who was running the finger command, then print some cute message like “hey $username quit spying on me” and output that to the pipe. It worked great, as long as the person was on the same machine, which was almost never the case. (I forgot to mention: you could run a finger command to any other machine that had a finger server running. So finger jkonrath@gnu.ai.mit.edu would also work on my burner account over there.)

Most undergrads and casual users were over on the VAX computers at that time for their general email use, and that VMS system had some half-baked implementation of finger that didn’t entirely work right, or didn’t support plan files, or something. VMS had its own arcane commands, like the much less sexy SHOW USERS/FULL and the like. This led to Sid Sowder and 19 other people (including me) writing their own VMS utility programs to meld together the disparate systems into something more usable as a social network, way back when Mark Zuckerberg was probably still learning to read.

That’s all another story I’ve told before. But one tangent on it is that I wrote a replacement for the finger command, sort of. The thing was, we needed a database to store various things about users, like preferences and login times and dates and whatever. So I wrote a program for Sid called XINFO, which was a horrible Pascal database program where his utility program would stash login information. Then I wrote a couple of different client programs that could hit this database for information, like an XFINGER command which was everything the VMS finger command wasn’t. And one of the biggest draws to Sowder’s program was a WHOIS program that was all neat and pretty and would show you where your friends were logged in from and so on. So yeah, maybe I should have filed a patent on this and sued everyone. Or maybe I should have gone to classes and studied instead of doing this.

The plan thing had an interesting connection to present. Back in like 1992 or so, the Computer Science department installed this thing on their server that at first was touted as some king of super-finger doodad. It was a server that would show your plan file, but let you put graphics and markup text in it. It called these a HyPlan file. You would write them in this weird markup language which was apparently called HTML, and then people all around the world could use a special program to read your HyPlan and click links on it and go to other HyPlan pages. This was called the “world wide web” and of course I thought it was a stupid fad and made a dumb HyPlan that I think had a gigantic uncompressed audio file of like three seconds of a Cannibal Corpse song that would play when you clicked on it. The name HyPlan became Homepage and was forgotten, and thirty years later, people are using a distant relative of that same system to try and sell me boner pills. And once again, I should have gotten in front of this early and maybe patented selling books on the web or something.

Anyway, the finger command still works if you’re on a Mac. Maybe I should go back to just updating my plan file, instead of upgrading WordPress plugins every 17 minutes so this site doesn’t get hacked by Russians again.