Nashville and Memphis

I went to Nashville and Memphis last weekend, just a quick four-day getaway thing with another couple from New York.

Pictures: Nashville and Memphis

Various thoughts, because I am too lazy to write a whole entry:

  • Everything has music in Nashville. Like, if you go to get your oil changed, the 15-minute jiffy lube place is going to have a small stage with a bluegrass band playing on it, and they’re going to be totally pro. Every restaurant, hotel, gift store, bar, and tavern has performances. I don’t know the economics of being a musician in Nashville, but it felt like the last place in the world that still had a viable ecosystem for music.
  • I know nothing about country music, and it’s horrible to say this, but it all sounds the same to me. I won’t say I hate it, but in general, I don’t like 95% of it. It was like Christmas music to me: when I first hear a Christmas song (in like fucking August) it offends and irritates me. By the 50th holiday song, I pretty much have it blocked out and don’t even realize it is playing. The country music was like that for me.
  • We took the tour at the Ryman Auditorium, which confused me, because I thought the Grand Ole Opry was a place, not a show, and didn’t realize it had been at the Ryman forever. And then as we were taking the tour, I found out it’s not still at the Ryman. I should have at least skimmed Wikipedia on the plane before we landed.
  • The Johnny Cash museum had a lot of interesting artifacts, but it’s a very basic museum, a square maze in an brick building. But his house burned down in 2007, so there’s no destination to park it at. It is a convenient location, though. And well curated.
  • We walked around by all the bars and restaurants. There were a lot of bridesmaids walking around. They all looked identical.
  • It was hot. Not Vegas last year hot, but in the low 90s and humid as hell, which probably made it worse.
  • On Friday, we went to the Grand Ole Opry, which is in a large auditorium that looks like it was built at a ski lodge in Aspen in 1974. It’s out by a mega mall way east of town. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of hallowed history and Disney homogenization,  because they have hundreds of shows a year of top-tier country acts, but the whole thing feels like it was prefab constructed at EPCOT center.
  • The big draw the night we went was Carrie Underwood. Next was the actor who plays Deacon on the show Nashville. Lee Greenwood played the one song that I won’t even mention because it will get stuck in my head for four days, so google it. There was also some girl who was the runner-up on American Idle, and like a dozen other people.
  • The show ran like clockwork. They had a warm-up person, then MCs, then opening acts, then middlers, then the big acts. Everyone played like two songs. Every band change was flawless. Every cue was hit exactly. They finished at exactly 00:00:00.000 past the hour. They got everyone out and turned it over for the next show. It ran like a Space Shuttle launch, and they do it something like 250 times a year. That was very impressive.
  • The warm-up person and a few of the acts skewed slightly to the right in their banter. I think there was a requirement that you mentioned God or Jesus in your crowd work.
  • They also plugged their big sponsors between all acts, which were Boot Barn and Cracker Barrel.
  • Next day, we went to Franklin, which is a small town-square type place with lots of local shops, which reminded me of upstate New York towns, but with a bit more southern flare. Everyone was very nice. The place we had brunch had a stage, but no musicians playing at that moment. Lots of guitars on the walls, though.
  • We went to Carnton Plantation, which is the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. We took an hour-long tour, which was pretty phenomenal. The tour guide was far too into the history of the place, but that made it even better.
  • We also went to the Parthenon, which is a full-size replica of the real one, built in Nashville for some damn reason a hundred years ago. There were food trucks. Oh, and a stage and bands.
  • We went to a steakhouse for dinner, and when I went to the restroom, the muzak was Coltrane, which sort of freaked me out after hearing new-country everywhere we went.
  • On our last night in Nashville, we went to The Bluebird Cafe, which has a long and rich history as an 80-some seat music club, and is now famous because Taylor Swift was discovered there and a fake version of it is always on the show Nashville. It is almost impossible to get tickets there now, which is a shame because you won’t see anyone “famous” but you will see some quality entertainment.
  • The night we were there: singer/songwriters Dave Berg, Tony Arata, Craig Carothers, Annie Mosher. They all sat in the round, and went around the horn, each doing a solo number. This wasn’t even really country music, as much as it was very personal poetry set to acoustic guitar, and I really, really liked it.
  • Sunday — drive to Memphis. We had a giant SUV, which was about the size of a Hummer, so it was like sitting on the couch, watching the countryside scroll past.
  • We went straight to Graceland, for the big tour. We did not know this was Elvis week. It was packed, to say the least.
  • Graceland is strange, because it’s in a really dumpy part of town, like by a Harley shop and a discount mall. I expected it to be a giant plantation like the one in Franklin, but it was just sort of crammed in a neighborhood like the kind of decay you’d find around an airport. (It is near the airport.)
  • They now give you an iPad for the tour, which starts playing and showing various screens of info as you walk around. The tour is narrated by John Stamos.
  • The Graceland mansion is not huge, and it isn’t really that extravagant. It is about ten thousand square feet, but it didn’t seem that big. If you subtracted all of the out-buildings, it felt like a very big house, but not a mansion.
  • You can’t go upstairs. You can’t see The Toilet. You do get to go through the basement, with the infamous three TVs, and you see the jungle room on the back of the house, which is a Tiki seventies wonder.
  • I admit I went for the kitsch factor, and found it all funny, but the somber mood and the enthusiasm of the die-hard fans is infectious, and after seeing so many gold records and old women who show up every year for decades, you can’t help but get swept up in all of it.
  • The food at Graceland is horrific. There’s a cafe and I’m pretty sure they are just re-heating hamburgers and hot dogs from Sam’s Club in the same oil they started with in 1982.
  • We stayed in a new hotel on Beale Street. It’s a heavily gentrified area, all brand new, and it could have been Denver or Seattle or San Diego’s downtown district. Beale itself had a lot of the same bar. A lot of town was closed on Sunday.
  • We went to this hotel where they have ducks in the lobby fountain, and at 5:00, the ducks march into an elevator and up to the penthouse. I have no idea what the hell that’s about.
  • We saw the Mississippi. There is also a Bass Pro Shop that is a 40-story tall pyramid.
  • The Lorraine Motel, where MLK was shot, has been preserved and restored to its 1968 livery, and is now a museum. It’s really surreal there. What’s also strange is that area all pretty much looks like 1968 still.
  • Memphis was interesting, though. It’s probably got a weird, lost history that’s worth researching. There was also a lot I did not have time to see — I really wanted to go to the Gibson factory, and maybe catch a baseball game. There were also endless restaurant opportunities.
  • After we got back, there was a news cycle of Elvis stuff, because of his death, and I spent far too much time reading about it. I still am, really.

 

Death of the Concord Mall

I didn’t hear about this, and I saw it coming years ago, but the default mall of my childhood, the Concord Mall, is dead. I’ve written far too much about this mall in the past, but it’s time for me to drive in the last nail and ramble on about it a bit more, so here goes.

The basics: Concord Mall was built in 1972. At that time, it had two anchor stores, Montgomery Ward and Robertson’s. In 1976, they added a third anchor, JC Penney. The mall was a large T-shape, with a large fountain in the middle. Its current store count (total number, not occupancy) is about 60, although one reference I saw had it up to about 72 at its peak.

I’m about a year older than the mall, and my family moved to Edwardsburg, Michigan, which is right across the IN/MI line, around the time the mall was first built. I have no real memories of it until after the JC Penney was added. In 1978, we moved to Elkhart, about a mile from the mall. So it became my default destination for shopping and wandering around. There were two arcades, and a Kay-Bee toy store, plus the Walden Books sold enough D&D stuff to keep me occupied. There was a two-screen movie theater outside the mall, where I saw a lot of the films of my childhood. I remember fondly waiting in a giant line outside of there to see ET, which took several attempts, because it was sold out for weeks.

As a teenager, I also spent a lot of time there. They had a Musicland, which was lame, and a local record store called Super Sounds. They had a better selection there, and cool people behind the counter. I bought my first CD ever there (Iron Maiden – Somewhere in Time) back when they were still sold in long cardboard boxes designed to fit in LP bins. They also had a Ticketmaster outlet, and I remember buying tickets to see Rush and Metallica there. And there was this metalhead guy Frank who worked there, who would sometimes turn me onto stuff. One time, he was listening to the advance release tape of some band that sounded like Rush, but way more metal. When I asked him about it, he popped out the copy and gave it to me. That was an advance tape of Dream Theater’s first release, When Dream and Day Unite, which I still have.

When I was a kid, I used to walk to the mall. I remember at some point, my parents forbade me from crossing US-33, which lay between my subdivision and the mall. But my friends and I discovered we could walk underneath a bridge where the road crossed  Yellow Creek and get to the mall without technically walking across 33. Later, I had a bike, and then a car. The mall was a routine after-school hangout, although it didn’t have many places to eat. I still wasted a lot of time flipping through every record at Super Sounds, looking for anything on Megaforce records I may have somehow missed.

In my junior year, I became further entrenched when I got a job at the mall. I became a Master Paint Specialist at Montgomery Ward, making $3.65 an hour or commission, whichever was higher. I worked in the Four Seasons department, which also included toys, lawn mowers, snowblowers, lawn furniture, and other seasonal items. I was a part-timer, but after I fell into the groove of things, I was spending more and more non-work time hanging around the store, shooting the shit with other employees, joking with the guys in Automotive and trying (and failing miserably) to hit on the girls in housewares. During the summers before and after my senior year, I weaseled my way into as many hours as possible, working in almost every department. I unloaded trucks starting at 6AM, painted the entire store one summer, worked shifts in mens’ wear, and ran a Nixdorf register in virtually every department of the four “worlds” of the department store.

Working in the mall showed me an entirely different side of the facility. I would sometimes get there before it was open to the public, or when only the inner concourse was unlocked for the mall walkers, all the storefronts gated, with the lights shut off. I stayed after closing all the time, counting down registers and signing in cash and checks after the 9:00 announcements. I used to work a full day, a ten to nine, never going outside, using a 30-minute break to run to a pretzel stand to get a corn dog and fries as my only meal of the day. I still went to school, but I spent more time at the mall and my store than I did at home.

I knew everyone in my store, but also knew a lot of managers and regulars at every other store in the mall. It was a good experience for me, because I was ostracized and introverted as a kid, and didn’t get along with many people at my school, because I felt like an outsider. Given the choice, I would have hunkered down with an Apple II for all four years and ignored the people around me, and I did a fair amount of that. But when I worked at the store, the adults treated me as an adult, even when I was a dumb 17-year-old kid who only cared about Anthrax and Megadeth. I learned to interact with humans in a way I should have learned at school, but couldn’t, because I didn’t fit in there.

When I worked for Wards, I saw a few things happen that pointed to the huge wave that would eventually crest, the last big spike of growth in the mall industry:

  • Right before I started there, our store was given a massive makeover. The old yellowing-white tile floors, walls, and ceilings bathed in fluorescent light went out. They moved to more modern-looking eighties-style decoration, with maroons and pastels and cobalts as accent colors, and Helvetica everywhere. I’m not saying it looked cool, but it looked very 1987. And it always pissed off old people. Instead of being a giant rectangle with straight up-and-down alleys like a grocery store, the layout was a very subtle labyrinth, designed by shopping habit researchers to optimize floor space and give psychologically-designed flows through the merchandise. This is a huge science right now, and we were at the forefront of it in 1987.
  • That remodel also included modern point-of-sale systems. No more running a credit card through a carbon copy machine and looking up defunct numbers in a six-month-old booklet. Every terminal was wired to our credit agency, and inventories were also stored and updated in these then-modern PC-like machines. It was the beginning of an IT age in shopping. (And it was one that would – spoiler alert – eventually kill Wards – more on that in a minute.)
  • The paper catalog was killed right when I arrived. This really pissed off the old people, because the Monkey Ward catalog had run continuously since the birth of Christ, and it was suddenly gone. Why? Cost/benefit analysis, and the need to expand the retail business into more profitable ventures, like consumer electronics. It wasn’t Aaron Monty Ward calling the shots with his gut feeling anymore; retail was being run by MBAs analyzing data in spreadsheets.
  • Wards was divested from their corporate owner, Mobil Oil. In 1976, Mobil bought out Wards during the great Fourth Wave of mergers and acquisitions. When I was there, in 1988, there was a management-led leveraged buyout of the company (assisted by GE Capital, who retained half the company), for $3.8 billion. This was rich in the middle of the Fifth Wave of mergers and acquisitions, one that would set the stage for the eventual downfall of almost everyone.

OK, so back to this mall thing – I graduated high school in 1989, went off to college, and returned to work at Wards again two times, briefly: for about a week over the holiday in my first year of college, and then for most of the summer of 1993, unloading trucks from 6-10 AM.

A bit more background on the Michiana mall thing, too. There were four malls in the Elkhart/Mishawaka/South Bend area. Aside from Concord, Elkhart had Pierre Moran mall, which was in the bad part of town, and had Sears and Target as anchors, and a cool record store, but not much more. South Bend/Mishawaka had Scottsdale Mall, which was a double-decker with a much bigger Wards, a Target, and a fair amount of other stuff. The big one was University Park, right by Notre Dame, and it had everything.

So Peak Mall was about when I worked at Wards in 1993. First, Simon Property Group was formed in 1993, and they bought every mall they could find in this era. University Park is still a Simon mall; Concord was, and I’m not sure of the others. But this was a time when malls were apex predators of consumerism, after we’d gotten out of a recession, when personal consumption was up and continuing to grow. There was no online, and catalog business was dead. Wal-Mart and other big-box stores were just finding their footing. And after the big decade of the mall and establishment of mall culture, suddenly these large public companies were ready to double down and rush into a huge arms race of spending that appeared like it would have no end.

In my microcosm of these four malls, there were varying reactions. University Park, roughly twice as big as Concord, continued to grow, and expanded. (Also, oddly enough, all of its big-box competitors like Meijer and eateries like Red Lobster, Famous Dave’s and Olive Garden, popped up around the mall, but only seemed to make mall traffic surge.) Scottsdale, which was now poised on a new bypass road for US-20 and much easier to get to from Elkhart, expanded in this timeframe, adding a large multiplex and food court, plus redecorating. Pierre Moran painted their awnings blue. Concord added a new bathroom by the mall office, and waxed the floors once.  (Also, don’t fuck with me about exact dates and changes here. I’m writing this from memory.)

I left Indiana in 1995, and only saw the four malls on the occasional Christmas visit home. But the bottom line is that shopping habits changed. People were more content going to Wal-Mart, and later buying everything online. All of the malls (except University Park) fell apart. Major tenants went bankrupt and weren’t replaced. Other big tenants with new overlords or strategies moved to nearby locales where they could build new stores with more optimal freestanding layouts, usually in neighboring townships or cities where tax dollars and incentives were to be had.

The wheels fell off of Montgomery Ward in the late 90s. They filed for bankruptcy in 1997, with GE grabbing ownership of the whole company. Three years later, they closed their doors. The simple answer here is Wal-Mart, with a touch of Target. But really, the quicksand was much deeper. Remember that IT thing I mentioned? Wards went through a massive IT retooling in the mid-90s, spent way too much money on it, and it didn’t work out. Also, remember when I said they got into more profitable things like consumer electronics? Well, the margins fell out on that stuff, and it wasn’t profitable anymore. You can dig further and argue about how Wards stores were not as well-placed as Sears, and that the management had some borderline racist tendency to buy into locations further out from urban centers. But it was basic math: sales were down, profit margins were smaller, and too much money was pumped into the bleeding company.

Scottsdale Mall in South Bend never recovered after its Wards closed in 2000. They also lost another major anchor, L.S. Ayres, and floundered headless for about four more years. It was then de-malled, the building bulldozed and turned into an array of freestanding big box stores. Pierre Moran suffered the same fate a few years later; its Target bugged out for a new Super Target in an unincorporated area outside the realm of higher city taxes between Goshen and Elkhart. Its Sears and a new Kroger were made freestanding, and most of the rest became a parking lot for some little storefronts that never found tenants. University Park grew like a monster, adding a giant food court area, a huge Barnes and Noble, and upgrading the interior, while upping the roster of premium stores. (An Apple Store! A Tesla charging station! Is this still Mishawaka?)

Concord Mall never entirely recovered, but it still struggled. The Wards was sliced into multiple stores, the largest being a Hobby Lobby. The big fountain in the center of the mall was removed. The Osco’s drug store in the mall left, and was replaced with a food court that only had one tenant, a Subway. Much of the mall’s interior never changed, the same tile and brown wood trim that was in the mall in the seventies. Some stores vanished because they vanished from every mall in America: Musicland died; Walden Books went bankrupt. KB Toys was Romneyed into bankruptcy by Bain Capital. I don’t know if Aladdin’s Castle or Time-Out arcades still exist as a legal entity, but they vanished from every mall I’ve seen, including Concord. Other stores just spiraled down into low-rent alternatives. Jewelry stores became dollar stores. Boutique clothing stores became televangelist churches. Music stores became storefronts with nothing but vending machines in them.

I was at the mall in August, and was amazed at how many of the stores were closed. JC Penney is still there, as is the Hobby Lobby and whatever department store is now in the Robertson’s spot. The only other remaining stores I can remember: Enzo’s pizza, GNC, Jo-Ann Fabrics, and that’s about it. I can see some of the remains of stores, like the Super Sounds location’s wood walls are still evident in the bakery currently there. But it’s like a ghost ship now, empty and sad.

The plan now is to de-mall Concord. They are spending $50 million bulldozing the building, leaving the anchors, and building some freestanding stores as a “community center.” There are no named anchors or new stores, and apparently nobody even told the tenants of the mall until it hit the news. This approach is laughable, because like I mentioned, both Scottsdale and Pierre Moran de-malled, and both of them are ghost towns of empty stores. More than half of Pierre Moran (now Woodland Crossing) is vacant. Scottsdale, now Erskine Village, was recently sold at a sheriff’s sale when the owner stopped making loan payments. And while Elkhart’s unemployment numbers are down at the moment, it’s an incredibly streaky economy of all industrial jobs related to the RV industry. The next time gas prices fluctuate, the entire region will be wiped out again, like it was in 07-08.

I think the saddest part of it all is that the community is gone now. It’s easier for people to sit in front of their big-screen and click on the Amazon web site, along with a weekly resupply run to Wal-Mart for BluRays and high-calorie frozen foods. Elkhart doesn’t even have movie theaters anymore, aside from the Encore 14 north of town, which has been falling apart for 20 years. It seems like life there is entirely encapsulated and isolated. I mean, I left the state for a reason, but it’s distressing to see the end-stage capitalism unspool and see the last remnants of my past vanish.

I feel silly clinging on to these memories, and need to stop, but this is the last gasp of it, so there you go.

 

London 2016

I’m back from a week-long trip to London. Had a decent time, but caught a cold and flew back with it, which has rendered me deaf, voiceless, and stupid. Spent the weekend on NyQuil, trying to sleep it off, but I’m still not there yet.

The weather wasn’t entirely cooperative, but that meant more time in museums. A brief rundown:

  • Science Museum – I actually went here twice. The Apollo 10 command module is the big draw, but there’s a lot of other technology, ranging from steam engines to space travel.
  • Victoria and Albert Museum – Mostly sculpture, which doesn’t interest me, but it’s a huge museum, and about to get bigger.
  • Tate Modern – Picked the exact wrong time to go. They have a brand new tower addition which will greatly expand their space; of course it opens two weeks after I’m there.
  • Royal London Hospital Museum – A very small space in the basement of an old chapel, which is nestled away from the growing sprawl of the giant, modern hospital. I had to go for the John Merrick exhibit, though. There’s also some Jack the Ripper stuff there, too.
  • Imperial War Museum – Went here in 2012, but they’ve since expanded, with a large WW1 space, which was interesting, as well as a bunch of “war on terror” bits and pieces.
  • Handel & Hendrix Museum – Geo Handel’s pad was restored to 18th-century trim levels and made into a museum; turns out Jimi lived next door when he was in London, so they got his place done up in 60s regalia, too. It’s just a restored room and another room of pictures and other bits and bobs, but it was awesome to be standing in the room where he wrote all that great music.
  • Bletchley Park/National Computing Museum – The big highlight. It’s an hour north of town on a high-speed train, but it’s one part Imitation Game, two parts computer hoarding. I’ve never seen so many Enigma machines in one place.

Other vague observations:

  • The AT&T Passport service is highway robbery. $60 for 50-cents-a-minute roaming, 300MB of data, and use of WiFi hotspots. They make it sound like there were tons of great hotspots, and there were none near my hotel. (And my hotel WiFi was out, and $10/day if it had been running.) There’s a bizarre little program you have to run to get hotspots to work, and it will kill your battery. BT is now putting WiFi in their remaining phone booths, which is neat, but it only really works if you are ten feet away.
  • The amount of supercars that are daily driven in London is astounding. The $440,000 Porsche Carrera GT is like a Toyota Camry there. You regularly see people parallel parking their Lamborghinis on the street. I saw some asshole who was driving a $1.7 million dollar Bugatti Veyron in the rain, and parked it on a cobblestone street, in a spot I would not have left my Prius. (And for the record, my Prius costs less than the price of a Veyron’s oil change.)
  • South Kensington wasn’t a great place to stay. It’s right on transit, and there’s a Boots drug store and a Tesco market, but the food was either ultra low end or ultra high end, with no real in between. I copped out and ordered room service more than a few times because I was too frustrated with wandering around in the rain to find some place to eat.
  • London’s a good place for introverts to vacation. Nobody will talk to you at all on a subway or in public. I had one cabbie that did talk to me, and the conversation was like Arsenal -> Nick Hornby -> The American movie version was stupid/fuck the Red Sox -> Uber is the death of mankind. But otherwise, people kept to themselves.
  • There are some really tall people in London. Apropos of nothing here, just something I noticed.
  • I had connecting flights in Dublin, and forgot that they are on the Euro, but England’s on the GBP, so there were three kinds of money in play. Also I never pay attention to coins, and by about day three, I had like a hundred dollars of change and scoliosis from all that weight on one side.
  • Everything is ridiculously expensive, and even worse with the exchange rate. The only thing that was not: Tylenol with codeine. 24 tablets was £2.59, cheaper than regular Tylenol.
  • English Breakfast is great, but I could not deal with eating it every day, and eventually just switched to Pop Tarts from Tesco.
  • US Customs has gotten completely ridiculous at this point. Getting back into the US was basically more involved than visiting NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain facility in 1968 while dressed in a Ho Chi Minh costume with a fake bomb strapped to your stomach.
  • Coke Zero is now available pretty much anywhere.

Pictures posted here: https://flic.kr/s/aHskxKfCMa – I didn’t have time to edit/caption everything, so if you see something you’re curious about, feel free to comment.

The iCloud Music Library Different Version of a Song Thing

I’ve been having some odd problems with iCloud Music LIbrary and Apple Music. Here’s a description and walkthrough of the issue, partly so I won’t forget it in six months when something completely different doesn’t go sideways, and partly so there’s a record of it somewhere on google, because googling on stuff like “iTunes different version of song” only results in insane hyperbole having nothing to do with the issue.

(Also, take all of this with a grain of salt. This is my experience, and what I tested. Maybe I have the terms or usage screwed up. If so, please comment. Also a big warning: there are a bunch of edge cases that you can hit by screwing around with your settings, potentially destroying your entire music library. This isn’t a list of those. PLEASE do more reading and back up all your shit before you do anything.)

First – I subscribed to Apple Music. It’s like Apple’s version of Spotify; ten bucks a month, and you can stream a bunch of music without buying it, ad-free. It’s not the entire iTunes store’s contents; I don’t know if it’s a subset, or a different list, but it’s fairly comprehensive. There are also various curated playlists, which are neat, and I’ve found a lot of great new experimental music there. It’s all confusingly integrated into iTunes, and I have some complaints there (as does everyone else).

So at home, on the Mac, I’ve got 17,000-odd songs that I’ve either ripped from CD, bought from iTunes, or otherwise downloaded (cough). When I’m at home, I listen to those fine, and also have added some Apple Music playlists to “My Music” as it’s called in iTunes. I listen to the mix of those two when I have internet access, or just the ones on my physical machine when I don’t.

Second – the iPhone Situation. Back in the day, I kept no music on it at all, and carried around an 80GB iPod with a mirror of my collection on it. When the 64GB iPhone came out about five years ago, I started mirroring my entire collection to my phone. When that stopped fitting, I created a bunch of playlists and only synced those, to only sync stuff that was higher rated, recently played, recently added, etc. I also used to sync everything I purchased, but that got to be too much after a certain point. Right now, I sync about 2000 songs, 20GB of stuff. The partial collection sync works okay, although every once in a while, I’d get stuck without something I wanted to hear, but I’d live.

Now, about iCloud Music Library. The text next to this option is “Store your Apple Music songs and playlists in iCloud so you can access them from all of your devices.” The general idea is that you are pushing a master list of all tracks and playlists to the cloud. Then when you use the Music app on another device with that iCloud account login, you get a copy of those lists, and can then stream the songs from the cloud without having them on the device. In theory, I could sync no music to my phone, have zero bytes of music stored or synced, and just get everything from the sky.

There are really two things going on here, and it’s a very subtle difference that is not clearly explained. First case, let’s say I don’t have an album on my Mac. I never bought or ripped the Krokus album Headhunter. (Of course, this is a lie. I think I own 17 copies of this album.) But I found it in Apple Music, I liked it (who doesn’t) and I added it to My Music. What I’ve done is added a link to the album in Apple Music within the big list of songs and playlists in my library. I didn’t download it, though. But if iCloud Music Library is turned on in my Mac iTunes and on my iPhone, that link is added to my iCloud Music Library, and it’s synced to my phone. I can then stream the song “Eat the Rich” from my phone, and all is well (until I drive into a tunnel, or like 80% of Indiana.)

Second case: what also happens is that I am syncing the master list of all of my tracks and playlists to the cloud. So let’s say I ripped that copy of Headhunter from a CD back in 2002, and it’s been knocking around various music libraries on my computers since then. (Probably true.) And maybe I one-starred the song “White Din” because it’s a 90-second intro track of sound effects, and it’s stupid when it comes up when I’m driving around with my windows open stuck in traffic. So the file never gets synced to my iPhone, but it’s in my master list in iCloud. The song “Screaming In the Night” is synced and is physically on my iPhone, so that plays fine, even when I’m in a plane at 40,000 feet and don’t pay extortion prices for WiFi. But if I’m listening to the entire album (which is itself a list of the tracks, stored in this synced master list my phone got from iCloud) and it hits “White Din” it will stream that song for me.

(To also slightly complicate things: if you don’t have the physical song on your device, there is a way to download the Apple Music copy and have a cached version of a song you didn’t even buy on your phone, so you can play it without internet access. This is nifty, but it never ever works, because you will always forget to download that version, and the feature is half-buried and impossible to find or use, and you have to do it on a per-playlist basis.)

The second case is a nice-to-have. The first case, you have to turn the iCloud Music Library to see your Apple Music playlists. It appears to me that there’s some difference between Apple Music playlists and an iTunes playlist I’ve created by hand, because you can’t sync Apple Music playlists unless iCloud Music Library is turned on. I’d been adding all these neat playlists to my library, but couldn’t see them on my phone. So, I turned on iCloud Music Library, and that’s when my problems started.

(Yes, I’m a thousand words into this post, and just now getting to the problem.)

I noticed my playlists were getting weird. Like with this theoretical Krokus situation: I’d be syncing the entire album to my phone, from my own non-Apple Music playlist. Then I’d be out and about, and when the song “Headhunter” came up, instead of playing the studio version that’d I’d ripped from the 1983 album back in 2002, it would instead stream some shitty live version with only one original member recorded at a county fair in 2012.  Or it would stream a horrific EDM dance remix by a DJ from Ireland who also happens to use the name Krokus and has a 38-minute trance number he also called “Headhunter.”

(This is a theoretical example; I don’t know if Krokus was having an issue. Here’s one that really happened though: I had the entire Queensryche album Empire synced to my phone, in a playlist of songs rated above a 3. The album was originally ripped by me from a CD. When the last song “Anybody Listening?” played on my phone, instead of using the synced studio version, it would instead stream a live version of the same song.)

My first attempt at trying to fix this: I renamed the track on my Mac, adding an “(r)” to the filename, thinking that would break the match. It did not. I don’t know why, but it still played the same fucking live song.

My second attempt: I turned off iCloud Music Library. I then told it to delete everything from the phone (which is fine, it’s all copies there) and re-sync. It went back to the way it was. I can’t play Apple Music playlists anymore, but all of my music is fine.

I don’t know why this happens, and I don’t fully understand it, but I’ve got a trip later this week with limited internet, so I’m not screwing with it any more.

Freshly

I am lazy. I can cook, but given the choice, I don’t. That means either I eat sad microwave dinners, or I go out to eat, and eat too much. That has been catching up to me, and I had to do something out of desperation. I wanted to get those Zone delivery meals, where they  cook everything and measure it out and do it to a certain nutritional profile, and then deliver them every day. I think if I was given three pre-portioned meals a day and told to eat just that, I’d be fine.

The big problem with this is that most Zone delivery things cost roughly as much as my mortgage. They also usually use their own delivery people, which means they will 100% get lost or not be able to get in my building. (Case in point: Amazon Logistics always fucks up deliveries here.) And some of the food delivery things have some flexibility with getting less than 21 meals a week, but some don’t.

I thought about Blue Apron, since they advertise constantly, and a bunch of people won’t shut the fuck up about them. But those involve cooking, and they’re more for two people, and my wife doesn’t eat. So that was out.

I finally found Freshly, which seemed to fit the bill. They delivered with FedEx, packed in ice. They have meal plans of 6, 9, 12, or 21 meals a week, which you pick from their rotating menu. They list ingredients and nutritional information. And their web site did not look that impossible to use.

I tried this out with the 9-meal plan. I did not need breakfast, since I have oatmeal each day. I also left some dead space for weekends or going out for lunch once in the week. 9 meals, including shipping, was $99.

First, packaging was interesting. The meals came in a cardboard box, which was lined with some padded stuff which is actually recycled jean denim, wrapped in brown paper. Then inside that were alternating packs of white plastic containing a frozen gel, along with the individual meal trays. Each meal tray was in a cardboard sleeve with nutritional info, then was a standard black plastic bottom/clear plastic wrap sealed top.

The food was all made with minimal ingredients, no preservatives. I generally don’t care about that either way, but it was all fresh, not frozen. There was zero prep involved: poke holes in the top, nuke for two minutes, done. I plated them after cooking, but that’s it. No flavor packets or mixing or anything else. It’s just prepared food in a plastic tray.

The meals I had ranged from pretty decent to excellent. Each one was protein-centric, with mostly carbs from vegetables and no sugar or starches. The best meal was a Lebanese meatball dish with spinach, chickpeas, tahini, and raisins. I would have easily eaten nine of those. There was also a beef provencal with brussels sprouts, and I absolutely hate brussels sprouts and I ate all of them. The first meal I ate was the most meh, a paleo toasted almond chicken. I wasn’t entirely into the coating, but even there, the chicken was perfectly done inside and not dry or knuckly or weird.

As far as ordering, their web site lets you choose what you’re going to get a week in advance. You can skip a week or throttle up/down from your chosen plan if you need to. If you did nothing, you’d get the same stuff as last week. It looks like it would be fairly easy to cancel the account if I needed to bail completely. (There’s a link at the bottom of the subscription settings page, so it’s not completely buried, or one of those things where you have to sit on hold for an hour.)

The one bummer about the whole experience is that the food expires fast. I got my meals on Thursday, and they were all marked best by Monday, and the weekend of eating out was in the middle of that. Their web site says you can freeze meals, but is really dodgy about it, saying some freeze better than others, but no specifics, and no instructions on the best way to thaw them. I froze two of the meals (a chili, and an asian steak) and they were not as on point as the rest of them, but were as decent as an average TV dinner. There’s no real way around this, other than maybe two deliveries a week, or knowing what freezes well and planning on that.

Other super minor gripe is there was no FedEx tracking number. That’s a big deal for me because every delivery person fucks things up, even though I am home all day, and it’s nice to feed the number into a delivery status app.

I ended up losing 3.3 pounds last week. I generally only lose weight from diet. I don’t subscribe to any belief on fad stuff like paleo or gluten-free or no-GMO or any of that. You eat more than you burn, you gain weight. That said, I also walked 36 miles last week, so there’s that. But I think having controlled portions to prevent me from gorging, and not having any bread or empty carbs helped most.

And the Amway part of the post: If you’re interested in trying this, go here: http://refer.freshly.com/s/7xqc7. Like I said, it’s not exactly cheap, and it’s not available coast-to-coast, either. But it’s been good for me so far.

 

Recent k-holes: maps

I’ve been falling down some horrible nostalgia k-holes as of late. Here’s an exercise you should never do: go find the toys and games and things that completely obsessed you at the age of about twelve, find the addresses of the corporate headquarters offices of their makers, and plug them into Google Maps. The total disconnect between what you envisioned as a child and what these places look like now are phenomenal.

I think there are a few reasons this fascinates me. One is, I never travelled much as a kid. Any preconceptions about any area outside of northern Indiana/southern Michigan or Chicago was either based on TV, or just a guess. I never had any spatial awareness for any other geographical areas of the country. When I was playing with Star Wars toys and somehow found out they were made in Cincinnati, in my head, that meant WKRP, and Les Nesmond’s domain was the same as where my Han Solo was injection-molded. Never mind that the show was a loose montage of stock footage for the establishing credits, and then some sets at CBS Television City in Los Angeles. (If you’re curious on this one, btw: http://www.kennercollector.com/2013/12/kenner-tour-of-cincinnati-kenner-street/)

Another thing that informed these thoughts is that these toys and things were everywhere, so I envisioned massive operations, Detroit-sized city-factories, pumping out GI Joes and Milton Bradley board games. In reality, most of these were small operations, with a few dozen people working on a couple of machines. I probably should have known this, given that my dad worked in a factory, except instead of Hot Wheels, it was pumping out PVC pipe fittings. But they could have just as easily swapped out the molds in their machines and injection-molded Atari joystick pieces or whatever else.

Here’s a couple of examples of these rabbit holes. One, I was into model railroads as a kid. It was a passing phase, somewhere between Legos and model airplanes. I was never that interested in the train aspect, more the scale model stuff, but I also enjoyed the electronics, and the track layouts. One of the big names back then was Atlas Model Railroad. When you got the pre-packaged oval-track train set on Christmas, it was a Tyco. (Or Lionel, if you were O-scale.) But when you went to Kay-Bee Toys or a local hobby shop, Atlas was the big ubiquitous brand of cheap add-on track, running gear, and other accessories. If you read the train magazines, they worshipped the expensive imported German trains, or scratch-built stuff, and eschewed the Atlas stuff because it was cheap or not as detailed. But I wasn’t a retired dentist and didn’t have the cash, so Atlas it was.

And although I bought a lot of their track, the big infatuation back then was their layout books. They published these paperback 8.5×11 blueprint books with a bunch of different track designs in them, things that would fit on various table sizes. The books were well-illustrated, lots of details, and most importantly, had parts lists of everything you needed to build and wire the setups. Of course, these were all intended to get you to go buy more Atlas stuff, and it worked, because I would make endless lists of part numbers and pieces I needed to buy with my allowance. I would get so lost in those books, even though I never fully built any of those layouts. I just enjoyed reading the blueprints for hours, dreaming about what I could build if I had an unlimited budget and way more space.

So, in my twelve-year-old head, I always thought about the Atlas headquarters when I saw the address in the corner of a package or book. They were in Hillside, New Jersey. New Jersey was right there by New York. And I’d seen Ghostbusters, so of course I knew exactly what that looked like. I envisioned the Atlas empire as being something like the Chrysler Building, a hundred or so floors of people packing up HO scale snap-track in yellow envelopes and shipping them off to the sixteen billion stores that sold the stuff. Well, not quite. First, I didn’t know back then that New Jersey wasn’t New York. It’s not twenty square miles of bedrock with massive skyscrapers; it’s thousands and thousands of square miles of warehouses and single-story homes and suburbs sprawled out in every direction.

So, plug in 378 Florence Ave, Hillside, NJ 07205 and you get an unassuming two-story brick building, about the size of a bowling alley. At first glance, it almost looks like a junior high school, and resembles half of the factories near where I grew up, with a single semi bay and a parking lot for a dozen and a half employees. It’s right off the I-78, around a bunch of postwar cape cod houses wrapped in vinyl siding, maybe two miles west of Newark Airport. I haven’t even thought about model railroading in decades; I’m sure they still do great stuff. But the reality of the company is such a disconnect from what I thought of as a kid.

Seeing this building and the surrounding neighborhood is such a strange look inside something hallowed from childhood, something I could never see in the pre-internet days. Sure, looking at a Google Maps photo sphere of Pyongyang, North Korea is astonishing and bizarre (another k-hole to fall down…) but slicing open a childhood memory like that and attaching a completely different context to it is oddly mind-blowing. I mean, I flew in and out of Newark many times; I took the PATH over to Jersey and walked around, drove a car through the suburbs and probably ate at the Taco Bell just around the block from that place. But it’s a weird words-colliding thing to think about that now.

Here’s another big one: D&D. Like most geeks, I was stuck on Dungeons and Dragons back in the day. (Unlike many people who now say they are geeks, this was when geeks were geeks and you’d get the shit beat out of you for being into stuff like D&D.) From maybe fifth to seventh grade, I was infatuated with all things TSR, and I was sure that Gary Gygax and crew hid out in some Tolkein-esque castle surrounded by thousands of acres of meadows and caves. Even the name Lake Geneva, the city in Wisconsin from which they hailed, sounded palatial, like its namesake in Switzerland. I remember once when we drove to the Wisconsin Dells from Chicago, and passed a sign for Lake Geneva on the 94, and I freaked out at the thought of being right there, near where my Monster Manual was originally penned.

TSR had a more rocky history past those days in the early 80s: the ousting of Gygax (see this), the ups and downs of board gaming (and the video game crash), and the eventual purchase of the failed company by Wizards of the Coast. I have no interest in WotC’s corporate offices in Renton, because that was way after my dreams ended. (In fact, I lived in Seattle at the same time they bought TSR. And plugging their Renton, WA address into maps shows me a building that looks almost exactly like every other software company in the 90s in Seattle.) So I had to do a little more digging, but I found more.

I won’t write you a whole history about TSR, because a lot of other people have. But from this article, I found that one of the headquarters was a building on Main and Broad that used to be called the Hotel Clair. The first floor had a game/hobby store run by Gygax, and the top two floors had creatives, designing away games and modules and books. This three-story brick building looks almost identical to most of the storefronts in downtown Elkhart where I grew up, or any other small city-square town in the Midwest. My mom worked as an interior decorator in a building like this; the other buildings had insurance salesmen and stationery stores and banks and dry cleaners. They did not seem like a place that would hold the mecca of all role-playing games of the 1980s.

TSR outgrew this space, and found a warehouse at 201 E Sheridan Springs Road. This looks even more like the factories I knew from growing up, two connected, low-slung buildings with a large parking lot in the front. The building next door’s current occupant is Wisconsin Precision Casting Company, which seems like it could be in either building. TSR wasn’t in some huge Disney-esque building in the shape of a dragon, but in an anonymous warehouse that could have held a plumbing supply company or a place that did fiberglass extrusions for the mobile home industry.

The TSR thing is odd to me, because the worlds created in each of these games and books and modules were, in my mind, as big as the world I was in sometimes. And to think about a bunch of people creating these things, one after another, was mind-blowing to my twelve-year-old self. There’s already the time distortion of youth that causes these things to be so much bigger. But these huge and infinite worlds were created by a few dozen people in hundreds of square feet of below-average commercial real estate in small town America. I felt like companies like TSR, or Commodore, or Coleco were on another planet, a thing much bigger than my small town. But in reality, it was pretty much the same place.

Not that much else to say about this, except that it’s a bottomless rabbit-hole. I don’t even want to start looking at where the original Atari 2600s were built. I’ll leave that as a homework assignment to the reader. (Hint: start reading here.)

 

New Camera

I finally upgraded DSLRs last week. This was a nagging thing with a convoluted thought process, something like this:

  • I should save a ton of money and get a full-frame DSLR / that’s too much money to blow on someone who doesn’t take a thousand pictures a day.
  • I should upgrade to the newer version of the Rebel camera / that’s not that much of an upgrade, and I don’t use my DSLR that much, because of weight/size/fear of getting it damaged or stolen.
  • I should look into these mirrorless cameras like the Fuji or Sony, because so many people are ditching DSLRs for these / I can’t deal with an LCD screen viewfinder in the sun and with my eyesight, and I have a lot of Canon lenses I’d be junking.
  • I could buy the Canon EOS-M3 mirrorless with an eyepiece viewfinder, and it can use my lenses with an adaptor / I bought an EOS-M1 and it’s a huge regret.
  • I should just use my fucking iPhone and realize I’m not a photographer and nobody looks at this shit anyway.
  • Maybe I’d be a photographer if I bought a full-frame DSLR.
  • etc.

Pressing the issue: a bunch of amazon credit card points, an upcoming trip to London. So I gave up and bought the Canon Rebel T6i. My previous DSLR was the Canon Rebel XS, which I got on my birthday in 2010, and took about 11,000 pictures with in six years, which either seems insanely high or pretty low, depending your experience level. I got in at exactly the wrong time with the Rebel, right before they got high megapixel counts, fold-out screens, really good autofocus, and video. So the new camera is a pretty big step up.

Interesting things about this one: the new STM kit lens seems much faster autofocusing, and is way quieter. There is a flip-out video screen, which makes live-view shooting much easier. The screen is a capacitive-touch, so you can swipe and touch focus points, which is neat. There is built-in wifi, which I will never use. And there’s video, which is actually pretty decent, especially the autofocus.

Minor nits: the battery is a new, proprietary Canon one, with a chip in it, so third-party clone batteries don’t work properly. It will complain, and then the battery level gauge won’t work. This would be less of an issue if Canon batteries were not sixty bucks each.

I think the biggest thing is that despite the wiz-bang features, this feels like an incremental upgrade, like the pictures aren’t astounding; they’re just pictures of whatever I point it at. A new camera doesn’t change what’s around me, or my skill level. It’s still collecting light through the same lenses (and one new one) and aside from the various future-proofing stuff, it’s still my responsibility to put something interesting in front of the lens.

I brought the new gear to the Rockies-Giants game last week, shot a few hundred snaps, but wasn’t happy with any of it. I’ve taken so many pictures at AT&T that I’m bored of it, and although I had suite tickets and could get down to the dugout area, I was too late for batting practice. Weather was too cloudy too. I did like the game (Rockies won, ate a lot) but not a good photo op. I’m hoping to get some good work in while I’m in the UK, though.

So many blogs are shutting down. I just heard The Toast is shuttering on July 1. Bookslut has published their last issue. And it seems like I have a hundred blogs all added on my feedly account that haven’t done anything in months, years. It seems like every “blogging is back” article is matched with a dozen soft closings, the authors moving on to whatever the next scheme is.

We’re five and a half months in, and I’ve only posted a dozen times here. I did the back-of-envelope math, and based on number of published posts (1175) divided by number of years (19) divided by 52 times weeks in 2016, I should have like double that. But average in the dead weeks and months of the past, and whatever whatever (shut up about the math Larry, this isn’t a deposition) I should be posting much more.

The reason for all the high-profile shutterings is those are businesses, with a business model and ads and serious attempts at engagement and community and all of the bullshit I do not care about. I was blogging before there was blogging, and in the early/mid 00s when blogging was Serious Business and every single-focus blog was getting book deals, I was still posting about what I ate or read or wanted to write. And most of those blogs died when the ad revenue died, and all of these “veterans” who started in 2010 are now falling away, and I’m still here. Except I haven’t been here. What’s my reason?

I hate blogging now because when I sit down at the wp-admin console and look at the blank screen, I always feel a need to write an “article,” like a full-on Esquire piece. I feel like writing a hundred words about the Lebanese meatballs I had for lunch is somehow “off-brand” or not becoming enough to be a blog post. But when I go back through posts from 2004 or 1996, I realize that’s all I did, and I enjoy going back to see them. I have this feeling that when it’s 2025 and I go back and look at 2016′s entries, I’ll wonder what the hell happened to me.

Is it because of WordPress? I wonder if it is the tool. It’s not the best writing experience anymore; I really dislike the little text editor window on the web page. I bought a copy of Desk and it was interesting, but kept fucking up formatting and could not sync correctly. But aside from authoring tools themselves, there was something different in how doing this by hand in emacs framed things. Like I never had to enter titles before, and I loved that. Just that little difference made spontaneous blogging easier.

I’ve thought about either opening some microblog or switching tools here. That launches me into a spiral of indecision. I don’t like the idea of moving to Tumblr and getting sucked into the politics of the teenage SJWs there; I don’t feel like going to Medium and competing with the New Yorker-wannabe writers there. I want to own my content, and not have to deal with an insane migration path when whatever hosted service gets acquired by Google and then shut down.

I should just get in the habit of coming here, posting something short, and not giving a fuck about the blogosphere or the business of the web, because ultimately, I don’t. But I guess at some level I do, and that’s the rub.