Nano 10, and a fleeting attempt at procrastination

I am participating in NaNoWriMo 2010.  I just decided this, and I have the vaguest of ideas for a book, and I really need to flesh out an outline, but I’m having trouble getting the thoughts into an outline this second, and I’m glad my copy of Call of Duty is not in the house, because this is typically the point where I’d switch on the PS3 and spend the next three hours “thinking about my outline”.  This is a story I’ve gone back and forth on for the last year, and reading The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch earlier this year made me realize I totally need to do it.  So I’ll get there.  I have two days to start an outline, or at least have enough of an outline that I can start typing on Monday.

So yeah, that probably means I won’t be updating on here much for a month.  I’m sure both of you readers will be okay.  If not, there’s a thousand old posts here.  And if you get really desperate, you could always go read a book.

I’ve been listening to Sabbath’s Master of Reality on repeat for the last couple of days.  I think it’s one of their best albums, and for whatever reason, you can’t get it on iTunes.  You can in the UK, but you can’t buy music in the UK iTunes store if you have a US account.  I realized I did not have a copy of this on CD, and it was missing from my iTunes library, even though I am certain I had a CD of it in the mid-90s when I went on this Black Sabbath fit of purchasing and bought everything of theirs I could find.  (I think this was around the time I had my first root canal and got Vicodin.  I also think this was around the time I was interviewing someone for a tech writing position, and the whole thing went south, so I started asking them trivia questions about Black Sabbath.)  Anyway, I got a copy of it – it was re-released in the UK a couple of years ago with more bonus tracks than original tracks, which is great if you want to hear a version of “Orchid” where Tony Iommi starts the track by coughing and then counting in, but maybe that’s a bit obsessive if you’re just a stoner rock fan who wants to hear “Sweet Leaf” because it’s been covered by 84,238 other bands, who probably all think it’s pretty damn original when they decide to cover it.  Probably the hardest part of assembling a Sabbath tribute album is 90% of the tracks submitted are covers of “Sweet Leaf”.

Okay, I really need to do at least a token amount of work on this outline.

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Desks, a viewport into the mind

As a writer, I spend a lot of time at desks.  And I have some strange obsession with the workspaces of writers, which is why I always seem to be snapping pictures of my desks.  And every time I go back and look at it, I can tell the era and the project and the general zeitgeist by seeing what things I needed to keep within arm’s reach during the marathon stretches at the typer.

Here’s a bunch of pictures of my desks over the years.  Why?  I don’t know.  A good way to waste a Friday afternoon, I guess.

Here’s where I spent a lot of 1999: in Washington Heights at Marie’s, my first stop in New York, and where I hacked out the ending of Summer Rain. This must have been soon after my arrival.  There’s my Polaroid, which I bought during the cross-country trip, and some Hi-8 tapes, probably also from the journey.  That silver thing between the speakers is a MiniDisc recorder.

That winter, I moved to Astoria, and got my own place.  Still working off the office table, but I have a real chair now.  This must be in mid-2000, because I’ve got my surround sound speakers installed.  I probably got the bulk of my work from 2000-2005 done at this desk, where I used to type from nine to midnight over the sound of Jersey Shore wannabe douchebags screaming at each other outside my first floor window (hence the speakers.)

My desk at Juno, from 1999-2001.  I didn’t do as much fiction writing here, but I pumped out a lot of tech writing.  It was my first cube, after years of Seattle offices with closing doors.  There’s some xmas lights up; they told us we could decorate our cubes, so I went to K-Mart and bought $100 of lights, including one of those blinking strands that played 24 different holiday songs from an annoying watch-type speaker.

By 2001, I added this stupid aquarium to my desk, in some effort to be less stressed out or something.  I was too lazy to buy fish though, which is probably for the best, since they would have died after 9/11 when my power went out for a week.  You can also see the corner of my beige mini-tower computer on the floor, the case I bought back in 1992.  I must have replaced it a few months later.

In 2002, I started writing on the road a lot more, taking last-second fare deals every time we had a long weekend, so my “desktop” looked like this a lot.  That’s my Latitude LS, the first “real” computer I bought new.  A screaming Pentium III with 256 MB of memory and Windows 98, for a only $2500.  I dual-booted into Linux so I could fire up emacs at 40,000 feet and type away.  No, no wifi.

Here’s what it looked like in action: a hotel room in they Hyatt connected to the Pittsburgh airport, on Good Friday of 2002.  There’s also a Handspring Palm-clone PDA in action, something I bought to jot down ideas and read e-books, but ended up using primarily to play Dope Wars.  I was probably finishing edits of Rumored to Exist around then, although I was also mostly getting drunk and thinking of stupid movie ideas.

When you’re a bachelor for too long, this is what happens.  This is probably early 2005, and the mail collection has gotten out of control.  I think the browser window is opened to my old /photos directory, running its hacked-together PHP gallery software, before I finally gave up and just started using flickr for everything.  If you look carefully, you’ll see a PlayStation 2 on the floor, which is responsible for my lack of writing output for most of the 2000s.

Hey look, I got a Mac!  This is from spring of 2005, and I also got an ergo keyboard.  And I must have started dating Sarah, given that I felt the need to clean the apartment so it didn’t look like a serial killer was there, or maybe they were filming a special two-part episode of Hoarders.  Don’t worry, the stacks of unopened mail are still there; I found a spot on a bookcase to hide them, which is a miracle, given the number of books I had at this point.

New house, new desk.  This was late 2005, when I moved in with Sarah on the Lower East Side.  That desk was brutal to put together.  That red phone followed me around since maybe 1988 or so; I’ve still got it in storage somewhere.  There’s also the receiver for a Microsoft wireless mouse, a wretched little pointing device that ate batteries faster than a walkman with a 20-inch subwoofer.

That desk followed me to Denver, and in 2007, this is where I spent most of my time writing an unpublished book about time machines, and hacking at Ruby on Rails code.  The thing in the center is a full-spectrum light; I hadn’t sold the Mac Mini yet; this was well into September and going into Rocktober, given the order form for postseason tickets sitting in the corner of the picture.

In 2008, we moved to LA, and I worked from home again, this time with a place back in Denver.  I spent my days in VMware, slogging away in a Windows virtual machine, which is shown.  This was during my massive weight loss campaign, as evident by the 100-calorie pack and the diet Sobe Lean pink grapefruit soda.  I had an okay view from the window, with lots of California sun and the occasional crow on the tree outside.

Here’s my officemate for much of my writing.  Loca loved to crawl on the desk and crash, especially when I had documents spread out.  It’s always nice to have cats around when you’re writing, though.  You can also see how I hid my laptop on a keyboard tray, and a close look at the whiteboard shows some Ruby on Rails for hackers cheatsheet, which I probably looked at once and then ignored.

A bad stitch of some pictures of my office at Samsung.  Note the early 80s decor, like the old-school cubicles.  I didn’t have much on my desk, because any time a senior exec from Korea came to visit, they would go apeshit if anything was out of order, so everyone would panic and hide every single thing on their desk in an effort to make it look as sterile as an operating room.  Well, an operating room with early 80s wood paneling.

I wish I had pictures of my desk from 1992, when I lived at the Mitchell Street house and worked off of an old card table, the same one I used to use to build model airplanes in my early teens.  I also had a pretty kick-ass Sauder L-shaped desk in 1993, where I really started my writing career.  I either sold it or gave it away when I left Bloomington, but it was a nerd command center, with plenty of CD storage and a keyboard tray and plenty of room for 3.5″ floppy disks, since you needed roughly 87 of them to install Linux back then.


Precious cups within the flower

I broke my arm in 1992.  It was stupid – I was riding my new-ish bike that I bought because my Volkswagen’s brakes went out and when I got it to Meineke, they couldn’t put it on the lift because the Indiana winters rotted through the floorboards and frame, and the hydraulic arms would have popped right through the bottom of the West German toy and snapped it in half.  So I bought this bike, with the hopes of just using it instead of a car, although you can’t buy groceries on a ten-speed, and you can’t bring sixteen weeks of laundry to the laundromat, and you definitely can’t get laid if you show up for a date on a Huffy.

I headed home from work at Ballantine one day, and took the ramp that connected the two levels of the parking garage, which had one of those giant arms blocking the entrance, unless you had a magic cardkey or you were a pedestrian.  As I rode downhill toward the two-foot gap between the gate and the wall, this dude came toward the gate on foot.  So I slowed down and moved to the left, and he moved to the left.  I should have just gotten off the bike, but this was a racing bike with toe clips, and I hated pulling my feet out of them, so I slowed down and moved to the right.  Then he moved to the right.  So I slowed down and moved to the left.  Then he moved to the left.  So I slowed down and moved to the right.  And he moved to the right.  And then BAM, I was flat on my ass, my feet still stuck in the pedals, because I had slowed down to zero and whatever laws of physics keep you balanced on a bike when it’s moving forward no longer applied, because I wasn’t moving.

Here’s the only saving grace: I never took my hands off the bars.  Your first instinct is to put your arm out and stop your fall, and if I would’ve done that, I would have snapped all of those tiny little bones in the wrist, the ones that never, ever heal right.  Instead of slamming 180-some pounds of weight into those little bones with names I will never know even if I go to Wikipedia and look it up (because I am sure some nutjob has removed all of the English names in a revert war, because they promote sexism because the 16th century doctor that named all the bones was a man, or whatever), all of my weight hit my elbow, which from a nerve ending standpoint is probably worse.

I got back up and pushed my handlebars back in place from the 40-degree angle they got knocked to, and rode my bike home.  But the arm felt worse and worse, and this was an aluminum road bike that you pretty much couldn’t ride one-handed because it was way too balanced and stiff.  So I got home at like 4:15 and called my then-sorta-girlfriend-but-not, and told her I thought I broke my arm.  She worked for a year at a loony bin in Chicago, which made her a medical expert, and she asked if I could move it, and I could barely move it, maybe a sixth of its normal motion.  So she said “you didn’t break it, you’ll be fine.”  And she said she couldn’t make it over until later (which I later found it was because she was dating another guy at the same time) and so I hung up, and fretted and fumed and finally said fuck it and got my wallet and set off for the Health Center.  But I couldn’t ride my bike, so I had to walk across campus, now holding my busted up left arm with my right arm in an impromptu sling.

Everyone called the Health Center the Death Center, and the only good reasons to go there were:  1) birth control 2) Prozac 3) antibiotics and 4) you could send your bill to your bursar’s account and not pay it until the end of the year.  I didn’t even know if they could treat breaks and sprains, but the real hospital was miles away, and I didn’t have insurance, and I definitely didn’t have a credit card with more than $3 of open credit on it.  By the time I got there, the pain seared through my body, the kind of thing where you fantasize about being tortured at the Hanoi Hilton by Soviet-trained Viet Cong interrogators, because that might take your mind away from the millions of flaming nerve endings turning your entire body into a throbbing vessel of pain.

I don’t remember what the hell I had to fill out or how long I had to wait or what decade-old issue of Reader’s Digest I got to flip through before they wheeled me into an x-ray lab with a machine that looked like it came off the set of a 1940’s science fiction serial.  The radiologist wanted to hold my arm in 528 ways on this table, and of course 475 of the poses were impossible without moving my elbow, which wasn’t happening anymore.  I sat and wallowed for another twenty minutes, then a doc came in with a couple of floppy translucent sheets of film that he slapped on one of those light-up glass things on a wall.

“See that shaded area on the radius,” he said.  “That’s a break.  It’s just a compression fracture, but I bet it hurts like hell.  You won’t need a cast, but we can give you a sling for it. Let me get you something for the pain,” he said, digging for a prescription pad.

“I’m allergic to aspirin, advil, and tylenol,” I said.  I also rattled off the short list of various mind-benders the shrink was feeding me on a regular basis so he could get that Aruba vacation from Pfizer.

“Um, how about you ice it, and keep it elevated.  Come back and see me in a month, okay?”

I limped home, the third time that day I’d self-propelled myself across the campus with a broken arm.  I called the not-really-girlfriend and told her I went to the fucking hospital and the fucking doctor took a fucking x-ray and told me the fucking arm was fucking broken.  No fucking painkillers.  I think she came over, maybe with food, maybe not.  I don’t even remember, I just remember trying to sleep that night, and not being able to get anywhere close to a minute of shuteye.  I was a restless sleeper back then, and couldn’t stay in one position, so laying on my back with my arm propped up on sixteen pillows didn’t help the situation.  Holding the arm above my heart and putting ice on it was like wrapping yourself in crepe paper streamers to prevent a flamethrower attack.  I counted the minutes until 8 AM, when the stupid health center opened again.


“What did the doctor prescribe for the pain yesterday?” the phone-nurse asked.


They said to come in.  I got there (I walked again, except this time at least I had a real sling) and a group of four or five residents all converged and flipped through a big book of pills and potions and finally decided on something that would not give me seizures or cause my throat to swell shut in fifteen seconds.  “Okay, I’m going to prescribe some codeine cough medicine.  I know you don’t have a cough, but it doesn’t have any aspirin in it, so you can take a higher dose and it should help.”  Sold.

Man, I love me a good opiate.  I’d never taken one before that, and didn’t take aspirin or any of that stuff, because I had a weird allergy to it, and my eyes would puff up for days and I’d wheeze like an asthmatic at a Cypress Hill concert, so when I got a headache, I’d just think peaceful thoughts, and maybe drink 19 Cokes.  I sat in the pharmacy on the second floor, arm in sling, waiting for that magic bottle, and checking out all of the people waiting too.  (The only two prescriptions they really filled there were birth control and Prozac, and the place was always crawling with hot co-eds and I constantly wondered if they were loose or batshit crazy or both.)  They gave me this brown glass bottle that looked like it contained an old-tyme remedy formula, and I walked home (again!) and doubled up the suggested dosage.  The syrup tasted like an industrial adhesive mixed with something you’d wash your dog with when he contracted an outbreak of a strain of African disease-carrying lice.  So I hit the syrup, then downed half of a Coke, and put in a CD on repeat, and went to lay down in bed, and it felt like that three foot drop from standing to prone took about 45 minutes, like a slow escalator ride through a wall of clouds.

Suddenly, every lyric on every Black Sabbath album made perfect sense.  (“‘sleeping village/cockrels cry’… of course!  of course!”)  I stared at the half-deteriorated suspended ceiling patterns for a few minutes with visions of Ozzy dancing through my head, Mr. Francis Anthony Iommi’s fingers sticking out of the air ether emanating from the speakers, manipulating the molecules in my brain with his detuned zombie notes. Then the girlfriend-not-girlfriend walked in to check up on me; I thought ten minutes had passed, but I’d listened to the titular first Black Sabbath album nine times and it was lunch and she wanted to bring me to Subway or something.  (She was on Nutrisystem or one of those things where you eat their food, although she was at her goal weight, but she wasn’t into my diet at the time, which consisted solely of whatever meal at Burger King cost $2.99 that week.  So Subway was the compromise lunch place.  Of course, the first time we go to Subway, this friend of mine who happened to also be a stripper comes in and sits on my lap and starts asking me about my summer and flirting with me and playing with my hair which freaked the fuck out the not-girlfriend, who was the jealous type, although as I mentioned, I don’t know how many people she was dating when we were “dating”.)

The arm healed up fast, and I was back on my stupid bike within a month.  I think the sling did more damage to my neck and back than the fall did to my arm.  It always felt like I was one of those GI-Joe dolls where the torso was attached to the pelvis with a piece of elastic, and if you didn’t turn it the right way, the torso would be dislodged and stuck at like a twenty degree angle off center until you pulled the whole thing apart and let it snap back together the right way, except this was the arm-ribcage joint, and I had no easy way to pull my arm four feet out of the socket for the correctional manipulation.  I didn’t need to take the codeine after about a week, although I then found out that in addition to stopping the pain of a broken arm, it stopped that horrible overwhelming feeling you get when you’re absolutely sure your girlfriend is not really your girlfriend and she’s probably fucking that guy in her study group she keeps talking about.  Things completely fell apart with the not-girlfriend around the time I got to the bottom of that brown bottle, and I didn’t do a Rush Limbaugh and get a hundred different croakers to write me scripts to different pharmacies; I just went on to the next potential dating disaster.

So that’s the opium story.  I was thinking about this and realized that my old roommate Yusef also broke his arm, maybe a year before I did.  And when he came home, I told him it probably wasn’t hurt and he shouldn’t be such a pussy.  Key differences: 1) he was stoned out of his gourd when he rode home; 2) he fell on his wrist because he was carrying home this $800 classical guitar he hadn’t paid for yet, and he wanted to protect the guitar; 3) he really, really broke the wrist and had to be in a cast for the rest of the semester; 4) he was a guitar performance major, so this totally screwed him up for the better part of the year.  I could still fart around on the computer with my arm in a sling (this was before the conquest of the mouse, and everything was either DOS or unix), but he had studio and recitals and stuff he had to reschedule.  And 5) he had to pay for that guitar even though he couldn’t play it.  (Or maybe he returned it – I don’t remember.)


Begetable Bag

So we went to Daiso yesterday.  Daiso is maybe the Japanese equivalent to a Big Lots or something, where everything is $1.50 unless otherwise marked, and everything apparently comes from Japan.  This would obviously be a huge boon to the type of Japanophile who spends a lot of time watching anime and eating Pocky in their mom’s basement, but based on the signage, it also seems like it’s a popular place to shop if you’re Japanese-American and miss the trappings of home.

It was too rainy to do anything interesting yesterday, so we drove to Union City to find the Daiso down there.  When we lived in South San Francisco, we had one in San Bruno, across from the parking lot of the Target.  We went there in 2008 and filled a couple of carts with odd stocking stuffers at $1.50 a clip, stickers and Japanese bubble gum and candies made in flavors that maybe candies should not have been made.

Some of the stuff at Daiso is interesting in the sense that everything in Japanese housewares, or at least what we saw there, carries these common traits of extreme efficiency, cleanliness, modern design, and a compactness that’s appealing if you don’t live in a 28-room McMansion.  But the real draw here is the absolutely horrifying Engrish on everything.  It’s not just the marketing copy or the product instructions, which are also pretty poorly translated; but even the logos and slogans on things like coffee cups and stickers and magnets and things.  There are many other examples of this stuff on the web, but I felt a need to defy the “no photography” sign (which probably said something like “nothing of taking of the photos a person shopping”) and whip out the iPhone for a few shots.

It makes me wonder – do they know the stuff is so horribly translated, and keep it for the kitsch value?  Or is it done on the cheap, and they’re like “fuck it, ship it!”?  Or do they honestly not know?  I wonder how bad the Japanese copy reads, if it’s equally as appalling, or if it’s a slick as an Apple ad, and then gets mangled by some machine translation software.

Engrish like this is a mixed reaction for me now.  I mean, I remember when my friend Reece spent a year in Japan in high school, and came back with stories of the Japanese fetish for English-texted clothing, even though they didn’t know what it said.  (Like a guy walking around with a fancy jacket that just said DRUGS on the front of it.)  I’ve always found the stuff hilarious, until I worked at a certain company where I spent my entire day immersed in very poorly written English, often with little or no opportunity to change things because of a lack of time or because my corporate overlords across the Pacific were too bull-headed to let you change their work.  Like I remember having to work an all-nighter once, not because of a lack of time, but because a web site had to be QAed and launched, but the team flipping the server’s switches was in Korea, and of course us lowly Americans couldn’t be trusted to do this ourselves, so our entire San Jose team had to be there for the jump from staging to production.  And even though we spent months going over beta stuff and copyediting every line of the site, when it went live, we got tons of “improvements” from the web design team that were absolutely gut-wrenching, like a giant banner ad at the top of every page that said “blow your brain cell up!”  And for maybe every dozen things like that we yelled and screamed about, maybe one or two would get changed.

So now when I see a warning label that says “when itch and the like it occurs”, it makes me chuckle, but also makes this part of my brain go “oh shit, I need to file a bug report and spent ten hours going through this entire thing only to later have all of it ignored, and every single sample for my writing portfolio is going to look like it went through Google translate, and also they won’t let me use a red pen here, on the off-chance that I will accidentally imply that someone is actually dead.”  And it’s funny when said company gets called out on their Engrish skills on Engadget, or I see one of their press releases and think “oh man, nobody in the American branch read this, or maybe they did but were powerless to change it”, it makes me feel helpless and small again, and then a couple of cycles later, I remember I don’t work there anymore, so fuck’em.

Anyway, I didn’t buy anything.  Then I came home and we had no power, so I spent a few hours digging up flashlights and the hand-crank radios and all of that crap.  And we went to Home Depot and bought $40 of glow sticks and flashlights, and of course when we got home, everything was back on.

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The rainy season is here

It’s almost dead quiet here, except for the hum of the HEPA filter, which we just found and got online again, and the distant hum of traffic on the 880, which doesn’t look horrible for a Friday evening, but give it another hour. The house is somewhat clean now, and Sarah is going to pick up her sister, who is here from Milwaukee and will spend the next few days with us. I actually have a few minutes to relax and do nothing and sit on the couch in this cavernous new loft and take in the light grey sky from a misty October afternoon.

The weather reminds me of Indiana Octobers and Seattle Octobers (and basically October to Aprils) and why I always liked that season. I don’t care about the turning leaves or apple cider or any of that crap, but there is something about the melancholy and undecided sky that always made me like this part of the year. When I got smart enough to stop going back to Indiana in December, I started taking these preemptive-holiday trips back in October, and always liked walking around the Bloomington campus this time of year. A lot of my best memories of IU involve this period of the calendar, of long walks from the Mitchell house to Lindley Hall with leaves all over Third Street sidewalks, and just enough chill in the air to require a jacket, but not so much that it made walking a chore. It was this time of anticipation, the start of a school year before I torpedoed the whole thing by skipping too many classes, when I was still enthusiastic about getting good grades and doing well, instead of researching the drop/add policy to find some medical loophole and exit without total carnage, because I spent too many late nights trying to publish a zine or trying to hack unix or whatever else stopped me from actually going to school.

I have not been writing at all lately. Things have been busy with work and various house projects, so I can’t even think about it. I need to, need to get back to reading more and try to get the ideas flowing. I theoretically have the time, and this whole ipad thing is supposed to revolutionize my idea collection process, but all it has done so far is revolutionize how I play this stupid risk-type strategy game I found the other day. I did find a good app to read all of my google reader feeds today, so that will hopefully plug me in a bit more there. And this is my first try at actually writing an entire post here without my ‘real’ computer, and it is going okay so far.

The Whirlpool warranty repair guy was here today to fix our stove (it works, but the cooktop is cracked, so they will replace it, but it’s seriously going to take them at least five appointments to do it, because, well just because. Murphy’s law, I guess.). Anyway, the repair guy had this computer that looked like it was seriously from like 1993. It was some kind of ruggedized thing, but it was maybe three inches thick. I thought at first there was no way it was any newer than twenty years old, but then i saw it had a built-in WAN connection of some kind, maybe a 3G card or a radio back to the truck. But it seriously looked about as thick as three regular laptops, maybe something built in Soviet Russia right before the 1991 self-destruct.

I installed a new router, a gigabit thing with 802.11n and the whole deal. I now have a total of four routers, wireless points, and/or switches around the house. All of the ethernet is working, and I think all of the computers are talking to each other, although i am sure there’s some routing disaster waiting to happen.

Just got a call that Sarah is en route, so I need to fire up yelp and find us a place to eat tonight.

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I now have an iPad. Sarah surprised me with one for our anniversary, and I’ve only had a bit over a full day to play with it, but I think it’s a pretty damn revolutionary device. I had my doubts when it came out, especially because I already had a very capable iPhone for pocket-oriented computing and a top-of-the-line MacBook Pro for my full-time yet portable workstation. So what the hell do I need a tablet for?

Okay, first, the hardware itself: technically, it’s pretty solid – very thin, very light, seamless usability, and flawless integration with the other Apple stuff I have. The display is amazingly clear and the perfect size. The iPhone in general has pretty decent speed, or at least the perception of speed. I think that’s an important difference; I’ve used Windows Mobile phones that were CPU giants, but still stuttered and clunked along because nothing was seamless, and you were mushing your way through endless layers of lipstick on a very well-hidden pig. The iPad is an order of magnitude faster than the original iPhone from a hardware perspective, although it’s not running a version of iOS that’s as optimized as it could be. (It also doesn’t multitask yet, like the latest iOS 4 machines.) But going from app to app is pretty damn snappy, and I never really hit any stutter or pause or other issues.

Web browsing on the iPad is pretty much perfect. It makes the ideal machine to use when sitting on the couch or in bed, and that’s pretty much the use case for this, as a sort of appliance computer, like those things in Star Trek that you just whip out when you need to look up technical information about dilithium crystals. It’s weird that the machine has no natural “up” direction, and it doesn’t care if you hold it landscape or upside-down landscape; it corrects itself just fine. And something I didn’t notice for almost a day: it has a lock button that locks the orientation, so when you’re sitting in bed on your side, it doesn’t flip orientation on you, which is one of my annoyances when I sometimes check my email on my phone before getting out of bed in the morning.

I think the weird thing about the iPad is just that it’s so polarizing of a machine, because it’s a niche machine in price and marketing, but it does so much from such a simple design. It’s not a specialized device like a phone, that makes calls and stores contacts, and then the solitaire game and calendar are an afterthought shoehorned into its form factor. It’s very much the 90% of what you’d do on a computer, sitting in front of you in this 680-gram viewport into a digital world. And the tech world is divided between people who get this, and people who don’t. It’s always been true of Apple products for a while, but the iPad is the clearest line in the sand.

The deal is, a lot of people judge technology quantitatively. It has to do the most; it has to have the most RAM; it has to have the highest benchmark; it has to have the most megapixels. It’s classic penis-waving at its best, and it’s a very right-wing sort of way to view the world, because you can have a one-megapixel camera that takes far better pictures than a crap 10-MP plastic-lens, cheap-chip camera built into a cell phone. (Don’t believe me? Take a look at any image from the Hubble space telescope. That thing has a camera smaller than one megapixel. Yeah, it’s sitting behind a few million dollars of optics, and its images are typically pieced together with expensive software from hundreds of exposures, but it’s a good example that the raw megapixel-to-megapixel comparison is flawed.) It’s a lot like shopping for a car and only using horsepower and torque as your only metric for performance. Which is a nicer car to drive, a used Dodge Ram pickup truck, or a Maserati Quattroporte? The Dodge has more horsepower and more torque, but it’s not quite the same overall experience. I feel the same way about people who go on and on about how their computer or their phone has more memory or more storage or whatever – that’s great, but when you’re running an OS that’s bloated and runs code to meet some legacy requirement set up in 1989, it’s not the same deal.

And when I google around various iPad news, I see a whole lot of “well it can’t do everything my desktop computer can.” Of course not. You can’t haul lumber or strap six kiddie seats in the back of your Ferrari 458 Italia. But does that mean you have to drive around an extended-bed truck every time you need to run to the store for milk, just because once every other month you need to pick up a pallet of drywall? I saw someone in a thread bemoaning the iPad because you couldn’t rip CDs on it, which is an absolutely asinine argument. It’s like arguing against the adoption of the car because it won’t give your horses exercise. You don’t need the horses if you have a car; you don’t need to rip CDs because you can just buy music from iTunes and zap it across the ether a million times faster than trying to actually find a store that still sells CDs that don’t suck.

It’s the same argument when someone says “there are 18,273 programs to burn DVDs on Windows but only a couple for the Mac”. But when I need to burn a DVD, I don’t want to have to spend a week shopping for authoring software and memorize what IRQs are in use on my system and read the entire history of laser-written media; I want to put in a blank disc and click a button and that’s it. I don’t care if the hardware is ten percent slower, if it saves me hours and hours of tech support insanity.

Anyway, that’s the story. I’m sitting on the couch and tapping away and in a second I’ll zap over to see how the game went. This thing is truly awesome.

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One thousand

This is the 1000th post in Tell Me a Story About the Devil history. When I started this experiment in 1997, I never thought about how long it would be around or how many entries I would amass. But here I am, with a nice, round four-digit number to stare at, and maybe I feel some sense of accomplishment, but I mostly think that I still need to write more.

I was a bit curious about word count, so I did a dump of the posts from the database and found that from April 11, 1997 to yesterday, I’ve written about 950,000 words here, which makes sense, seeing as my goal is about a thousand words per entry.  If you divide that up into 400-word printed pages, that’s 2375 pages.  In comparison, the bible is just under 800,000 words, and War and Peace is about 560,000.  The longest book I ever wrote was Summer Rain, which was about 220,000 words.  The longest book I’ve ever read is probably Infinite Jest, which is something like 400 or 500,000 words.

When I started working on this journal, the word blog had not been invented yet. There were a few people doing online journals, and I vaguely remember scattered pieces of them in my mind, bits of peoples’ inner self.  Web rings were really big back then, and I spent some time wandering through those, trying to find like-minded writers.  The mommy blog was not big yet, and neither was the “I graduated from an Ivy League school and now I’m an office assistant” journal.  LiveJournal was a couple of years off, and wordpress wouldn’t be released for another half-decade.  When you did stumble upon a journal site, it usually belonged to a pretty hardcore, dedicated person writing, and the entries were usually longer and more meaningful.  You had to know how to write HTML by hand, and you had to have an account somewhere other than AOL, which eliminated 90% of the online population.  But that type of writing reminded me a lot of the personal zines that came out in the 80s and early 90s, the punks and artists who chronicled their life experiences in little xeroxed books. I always dug that kind of writing, the Cometbus type of zine, and I tried (and failed) to do that on paper.  That’s one of the reasons I started this thing.

I’ve gone through many iterations of the technology used here.  First it was individual posts in HTML, with a shell script that put together an index in a different frame.  (Remember frames?  Ugh.)  Bill Perry helped me with some elisp so I could sit down at emacs every day, do a C-c C-j, and enter my text into a buffer.  For the first few years, I actually telnetted to, who host, in Pittsburgh, and entered the text there.  Then everything moved to my home machine, at some point when I was in New York.  And then I got rid of the shell script crap and went to PHP.  And after years of ragging on WordPress, I finally broke down and switched over a couple of years ago.  So everything looks completely different, but all of the old entries remain.

I published a book that contains most of the first three years of this journal, located here. It’s a bit of a hard sell to convince people to buy the paper book for twenty bucks when you can read everything here, and I think the best writing I did was after those first years in Seattle.  But I really wanted a paper copy of all of it, so there it is.  I’ve gone back and forth on doing a second volume of the later stuff, but it’s a huge task, and I’d have to pare down things, as most print-on-demand book binding will only let you do about 800 pages, which is a few thousand less than all of this.

This project was never my life’s goal, and I never set out to make it my sole output for writing.  I never developed a gimmick, and I never thought that if I blogged enough, I would sell a movie idea or get a meeting with someone about a book deal.  None of that stuff existed in 1997, and by the time people were getting famous by blogging about their cooking adventures or their sexual escapades with government officials, I already got jaded on the whole thing.  I always wrote here as a way to warm up to my actual writing, the books, the zine stuff, the short stories.  And I have not been doing as much of it lately, but it’s still an important distinction to me.

I’ve recently started going back to my old entries, because none of the pre-wordpress writing had titles, and I feel a need to get everything titled and tagged, and maybe remove the absolutely dead stuff.  And I’m almost embarrassed by the earliest writing, but there’s some great entries from the mid-00s when I was really firing on all cylinders.  I wish I could write like that every day.  I wish I could write like that today; I feel like taking a nap instead of writing this up.  And I would, if I didn’t have half a kitchen in boxes right now.

So anyway, there you have it.  Thanks to everyone who has read regularly, left comments, and helped me keep things going here.  I always appreciate the input, and I’m glad someone out there does read this stuff.  One of the things that saddens me even more than the fact that the long journal entries of people’s inner conflict have been replaced with 140-character descriptions of people’s lunch and not much more is that people seem much less connected now than when I started this.  I mean, I remember a lot of detailed exchanges with the people I used to read, and it seems like that has all gone away.  I’m hoping it’s a cyclical thing, and someday people will want to respond to emails with more than five words again.  Who knows.

Anyway, thanks again, and here’s hoping the next thousand come easier.

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Wirth nightmare

I don’t remember learning BASIC – I think the start of my programming career just happened.  I mean, they’d herd us off in small groups to the grade school’s two Apple II’s and one of us would be the typist, and we’d enter 10 PRINT “HELLO” and someone would always type 10 PRINT HELLO and wonder why it would return 0.  And we’d eventually learn GOTO and a little math and maybe an INPUT or GOSUB, and after we finished a chapter per week, we got to play some crappy text-based game that made you run a lemonade stand and allegedly teach you some math.  And then I got my own computer, and got more time on those Apple computers, and pretty soon I knew most of the language, but only from a brute force perspective.  I was only interested in writing my own Zork, and had no idea about run-time complexity or how to sort something efficiently, or any of the stuff you were supposed to learn to really program.

And then I learned Pascal.  I think I may have dabbled in it a bit beforehand, but it all came out of a C201 class in my sophomore year, at IUSB, and we had to do all of the usual stuff, like fahrenheit to celsius or julian to gregorian converters.  The one pisser about this class was that IUSB had one shared computer, a Prime 9955, a mainframe the size of a dishwasher that had the computing power of a middle-of-the-road 386 at the time.  But the whole school was wired into it: payroll, registration, gradebooks, and this huge rube goldberg set of programs resided there, and did for years until they finally boat-anchored the thing and managed to get to some unix or NT system in place.  The teacher handed out slips of paper on the first day of class with logins for the Prime, and we all got some cryptic username, like NS837489, and a certain amount of funny money cash balance, because any time you logged out of the system, it told you how much money you “spent”.

This was insane to me, after a year at IU.  In Bloomington, they just started permanent student accounts, in which you paid a technology fee every semester, but in return you got accounts on any of the university machines operated by UCS.  That meant you could spend all day plunking around on a VAX, learning how to program or VAXPhoning strangers or just reading dirty chain mails.  But from a hacker ethics perspective, it meant you could stay up all night trying to hack the VAX C compiler, or learning obscure details about ULTRIX, or writing elisp crap for emacs.  You didn’t get a balance due every time you used a clock cycle, and you didn’t have to worry about your entire world vanishing at the end of the semester when they shuttered your temporary account.

Logins to the Prime only worked well on these TeleVideo terminals straight out of a 1970s bank, and logging in on a PC using Procomm tended to freak things out; you’d hit a cursor key and a stream of garbage would come across your screen, like someone picked up the other phone when you were on a modem.  Also, they used this thing called Sheffield Pascal, which wasn’t optimal, but was nowhere near as bad as the not-visual text editor you had to slog away with, which was roughly like using vi without an escape key.  After suffering through the first assignment, I asked the teacher if I could do my projects on a different system, since we only handed in a printout of our program listing, and he said fine.  I’d log into the VAX down in Bloomington, where I still had my accounts, and do my assignments there.  Okay, the TPU editor wasn’t that much more thrilling compared to working in Eclipse or something, and VAX Pascal had its own issues, but I got through the assignments with no problems.

Here’s the thing that astounds me: I managed to go from not knowing the difference between a function and a procedure to pretty much knowing the full nine yards of how to get around Pascal in a pretty short time.  I mean, a semester is only a few months, and by mid-fall, I was screwing around with my own stuff in Pascal, trying to write a game and messing with the starlet VAX libraries, which let you do cool stuff like ANSI graphics animations and .  It’s so surreal to think this, because now it takes me a month to find my checkbook, and back then I learned this language in not much more than that, and this was when I also took a calculus class and a philosophy class, and Spanish, and worked part-time, and commuted every day, and everything else.

But I knew Pascal wasn’t the be-all, end-all of languages.  Real men used C; I knew that already, and I knew I’d have to learn C to do really cool shit.  And I messed with it, I bought a copy of K&R, and I looked at it, but I didn’t commit.  For whatever reason, I took to Pascal faster, and I used it for whatever little stuff I needed to do.  I started writing crap for Sowder’s utility program, and Pascal was my go-to language at the point.  But I knew I had to learn C.  Unfortunately, they weren’t teaching it at IUSB.  When I took C202, the point where you usually learn C, they got this wise idea to teach us all about object-oriented programming in Modula-2, which was basically a rewarmed version of Pascal that glued enough crap on the side to make it look functionally as useful as C, but with none of the allure.

One of the good things was that the Prime did not have a Modula-2 compiler.  The CS department just got a couple of HPUX servers and a couple of X Workstations, and we all got accounts to shell into the unix machines and whittle away at our code there.  But the workstations were locked away in a different room, only available to people in some advanced class, and they all sat idle all of the time.  And the administrator of the CS machines was this shitheel that would routinely snoop around your home directory and read your email and sometimes delete files if he thought you shouldn’t have them.  He was some right-wing nutjob that got off on security and authority and probably later got a job in the Bush administration administering illegal wiretaps.  Granted, I was being a huge pain in the ass, spending all of my free time downloading games off of usenet and trying to get them to compile, but it always ticked me off that they had these giant-screened workstations that my tuition paid for, and I even worked there, and I had to spend my time plunking away on a Leading Edge Model D, which was like the Yugo of personal computers.

I don’t know when I had time to learn C, but I know that the Modula-2 class was in the spring of 1991, and by the fall of 1991, I was back in Bloomington, taking a 400-level class in C++ and Objective C, and don’t remember a period of time where I seemed entirely overwhelmed by the premise of learning C, at least like I was when I needed to take C311 and had never taken C201 in Scheme, and the thought of taking a class taught by the guy who literally wrote the book on Scheme with almost no knowledge of how it worked gave me panic attacks.  But Unix and C went together like alcohol and bravado, and I couldn’t imagine trying to write any stuff during the infancy of Linux with Pascal.

My last big hurrah for Pascal was this xinfo database I wrote for Sowder’s utils, which was basically a cheap relational database used to keep track of user address information.  Somewhere, I have a piece of lime and cream colored tractor-feed paper with a bunch of handwritten Pascal code, probably from the summer of 1991, from when I was working on that project.  I didn’t have a home computer, and then when a girlfriend loaned me her Mac so we could keep in touch without insane phone bills, I still didn’t have reliable access to the VAX machines because IUSB’s dialups were crap.  So I did a lot of coding on paper, by hand.  I remember a whole Christmas break in 90/91, stuck in Toledo with a different girlfriend at her parents’ place, bored out of my mind, trying to write a chess game on paper, then trying to write a tic-tac-toe game in the primitive BASIC included on my Casio-9000 graphic calculator, which I think had less RAM than a twitter message.  And that’s why I probably learned this stuff so fast – I spent every waking moment thinking of programming, and how I’d build a computer, and how I’d save up money to buy the cheapest Amiga possible, and how I’d get some shareware C compiler and write a ripoff Star Wars video game.

Now, all of this seems alien to me.  I can barely remember any Pascal, and if I had to learn a new language now, I’d hop onto Amazon, buy a couple of the hundreds of books published  on the topic, and read a bunch of tutorials or watch screencasts online.  But it would be nowhere near as fun, and the entire sport of it would be gone, which is probably why I don’t spent much spare time programming anymore.

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First photo on a junk camera

This is the first picture I took with my Fuji Finepix S3100 when I got it on March 13, 2005.  I bought the camera on a lark from a sale on Amazon, specifically to take on my second trip to Hawaii. It was my second digital camera, after having an Olympus for about four years.  It was a 4MP and was “SLR-inspired”, meaning the front lens stuck out a bit and it was impossible to put in a pocket easily.  It took some decent pictures, but also suffered in low-light.  I took 4329 pictures with it over the next two and a half years, but shortly after taking pictures at a Rockies-Giants game on 9/3/07, it completely died, and made a horrible glass rattling sound inside, so something was definitely wrong with it.

Some random things about this picture, in no particular order:

  • It’s at my job in New York, and it’s at the job I recently re-started, so it’s weird to see my old desk again.
  • I bought those noise-cancelling headphones at Tower, which is now gone.  They never really worked – I hoped I could wear them at night in my apartment to drown out the sound of the Jersey Shore-wannabe douches that always hung out on the sidewalks in Astoria, but they don’t really work like that.
  • It’s strange to see the non-diet Coke cans on my desk.  They used to be a constant, but now that I only drink diet, the red cans seem alien to me.
  • There’s some Arizona and Snapple bottles.  We used to always get lunch at Han’s Deli across the street, and I’d always get something like that to drink.
  • There are a couple of horror movie action figures, also from Tower, sitting under the monitor.  I see the Freddy Krueger in particular.
  • I switched to a flatscreen by that point at work.  I started with a huge CRT that did not seem huge at the time.  There’s actually an ancient CRT monitor sitting in my new cube in Palo Alto that I use when I’m there, and it’s astounding how colossal those things seem now that everyone uses LED for everything.
  • I can’t be 100% sure, but it looks like Outlook is running on my screen.
  • On the cube wall, I see a cheatsheet of Framemaker keystrokes, and a printed copy of a style guide I wrote.
  • I also see part of a red “remove before flight” tag pinned to the wall.
  • We got those translucents blue calculator for free as leftovers from some trade show.  They had this cover over them, where you clicked a button and it swung open like a Star Trek communicator, but the spring broke and it would take 39 seconds to open, so I tore off the cover.
  • I don’t even remember that analog clock or where I got it; I don’t think I have it anymore.  I used to have this cool digital one that had a calendar and the time on it, also trade show swag, but the battery died and I think I threw it out.
  • That grey cup in the foreground is an IU cup that I had in Seattle that followed me and is now here in my kitchen.  The IU logo is entirely worn off of it now.
  • The “45” thing was a tag on an Ogio bag, which I used as a coaster.
  • The picture in the frame is from a helicopter ride at Lake Mead, just outside of Vegas.

Here’s the last picture I took with the camera.  What I remember about it:

  • I think I went to this game on a whim, and I went by myself.
  • I got seats in left field, just because I never sat there.  They were cheap, but not that ideal – you really can’t see much of the action.
  • I wanted to make an asterisk sign for Barry Bonds, but I didn’t get around to it.  He didn’t play that day, I think because it was a lefty on lefty situation.
  • There was this crazy dude sitting next to me who had season tickets and was a die-hard fan who spent the whole game yelling and heckling every single player.

So that’s the life and the death of a camera.  It’s been Canon all the way since then, two point/shoots and a DSLR, with no regrets.

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River of stress

I continue to stress out over the move.  I have two painters coming over today for quotes on patch/paint on the old place to get it ready to sell.  I have no news and no commitment on when we will get keys for the new place, so I’m now putting together the contingency plan so that when on Friday they tell us, “oh, maybe next Friday, or the one after that” I can scramble and try to reschedule the dozen things that will happen in the next few days.

I bought a KVM yesterday, a DVI one and the adapter I need to hook it up to the new work laptop.  I’m currently dragging both computers and my four-million-pound 20″ LCD monitor to the kitchen table and working there.  I’ve started using the LCD in portrait mode, because it rotates 90 degrees, and I find it pretty helpful while writing and editing.  I can open two full-page views, one on top of the other, or one really long page, and avoid a lot of scrolling.  I’d like to do this from now on, although my monitor stand is slightly shaky like this.  I’ll be glad to have the KVM – I currently keep the mac running, mostly to run iTunes all day and to keep my mail open, and I have it sort of behind my other computer, so I have to look around to see it.  I work the music with the remote, and that’s fine, but when I do look at the mail, I have the bad confusing habit of trying to move the pointer with the wrong mouse until I realize what the hell I’m doing.  I’ve thought about one of those systems where you can hang multiple displays on one set of input, and can drag windows from the Mac to the PC or whatever, but I’m sure they all involve some form of VNC that will bog down machines or require jumping through network hoops that I can’t deal with right now.

I also found a NeXT VMware image at and fired it up yesterday in Fusion.  I got it to work with no real problem, except I’d forgotten about a lot of the weird quirks about the NeXT interface.  And I think a lot of the allure of it back in 1991 was probably that it was a generation ahead of everything else out there, and it ran on the cool black hardware.  I like the idea of a NeXT cube, but I think clunking along on a 25 MHz 68030 is probably not ideal.  Back when a Mac IIfx was a speed demon and cost you $9000, the NeXT was a steal.

I just went off on a browsing tangent, reading about the IIfx.  It’s weird, it was the fastest Mac until the Quadra AV came out in 1993.  And in 1995, I had the Centris version of the AV at work (the Centris 660AV) and I had the same machine when I went to WRQ in 1996.  And in both cases, they were already doorstops at the time.  Like I remember when MP3s were first starting to become popular, and I downloaded some MP3 ripping software and popped a CD in the player (actually into the required caddy, and that into the player), and it took roughly two days of running day and night to rip the 9 tracks.  There are times I romanticize old hardware, but then I remember how clunky the stuff was back in the day, and I’m not as fond of filling up my storage space with it.