The Other Cairo and Internet Archaeology

I took the standard drive-to-Florida Disney vacation when I was twelve, and I’d been to a bunch of the plains states by then: Missouri, Iowa, the Dakotas, Wisconsin.  But in the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, my dad took us on our first big trip out of the Midwest, this two-week journey to upstate New York.  And at the time, I was bored out of my mind, depressed about being away from my car for so long, obsessively reading the JC Whitney catalog in the hundred degree heat.  But we did a lot, saw a lot, and it’s one of those things I always plug into my mental wayback machine, trying to remember the little details or uncover something on the web that connects back to it.  I didn’t have a camera back then, and I never wrote anything, so it all seemed lost to me.  But thanks to the magic of google maps, I did manage to dig up some of that past.

We visited upstate New York because my stepmom’s family vacationed there.  It was the typical Italian-in-The-City migratory thing, where you rented out one of those little camps for a couple of weeks and sat around and played bocce ball and ate a lot and slept in little cabins.  We didn’t stay in the same compound as the rest of her family though; we rented basically like a motel room with an efficiency kitchen near the city of Cairo.  I remember Cairo as being just like all of those other little thousand-person Catskill hamlets, with a single main street and a general store and some other mom and pop places, like a pie store and an IGA grocery.  I drove around there in 2000, when I rented a jeep to bug out of the city for the weekend, but I couldn’t remember where anything was, and I think one of the main state roads running east-west got rerouted and widened, which threw off my mental landmarks even more.

I recently took a look on google maps, because Randy wrote about camping in Cairo.  Last I checked, the resolution on their upstate NY maps was roughly Commodore-64-grade, which wasn’t helpful.  But when nosing around, I found a little clue that zeroed me in to exactly where we stayed.

So, it’s July 1988, and I spent two days in the back of a pickup truck, sleeping on a mattress with all of our luggage, reading all of the Hitchhiker’s Guide books in one pass while watching Ohio and Pennsylvania scroll past me outside the truck cap’s plastic windows.  We got to Cairo, unloaded in this Bates-style motel, and spent a lot of time swimming, because it was always a hundred degrees and you could see the humidity.  The complex was a cluster of small buildings, each one with two units, on a horseshoe drive curved around a main house and an in-ground swimming pool.  Most of upstate New York like this is not in cities or towns, but just the occasional house off to the side of a heavily wooded road, which isn’t conducive to a teenager with no car who just wants to wander around parent-free.  On the first day, I hiked down the highway, my jambox on my shoulder, listening to Back in Black, and I walked about a mile to a gas station to buy a single Coke, which I then drank on the way home.  Of course, the whole voyage was a push, considering how much I sweated on that walk, but it was one of those journey-is-not-the-destination kind of walks.

The next day, I went to this restaurant to get a coke, and that’s my big clue on this search: the Stone Castle.  It’s now called The Stone Castle Inn, and it’s a, well, stone castle; a turret sitting off of this sleepy little road.  I walked over there one day and ordered a coke, but they had no to-go cups, so I sat in this heavy wood restaurant that I think used to serve German food, the prototypical German restaurant with high ceilings and a huge stone hearth and dark wood everywhere.  I guess the place has since been restored and is now an Irish pub, but more importantly, it is on Google Maps, and our place was right next door, so it zeroed me in and showed me I had been searching up and down state road 23, when I was supposed to be looking on state road 145.  If you go here, you can see that horseshoe drive, and the swimming pool to the northwest.  It’s even got a street view picture, although none of this is as high quality as if you aimed google maps at, say, Palo Alto.

If you go northwest on 145, you come to Hitchcock road.  We used to load into the pickup truck, and drive up that road to 32, which crossed Catskill Creek here.  When the motel pool got old, we’d swim in the river. It was blocked partially by a dam to the northwest, which formed this nice little pool with some falls that were perfect for inner tubes.  The water was always cool, crystal-clear, like swimming in bottled water.  I remember sitting on the beach by that water, talking to some older kids who wanted to know where we were from, and when I mentioned Indiana, they said “Bobby Knight, right?”  The one thing I learned on this trip was that Indiana, which was my entire universe at that point, only held a fraction of a fraction of a percent of peoples’ collective consciousness outside of that state.  I always – and still – marvel at what one or two random factoids people do know about the Hoosier state.  Back then it was Bobby Knight, David Letterman, and maybe band instruments like Selmer.  This was pre-Shawn Kemp, pre-kid stuck in a vending machine, pre-meth lab Indiana.  And those “older kids” were probably all of 19 or 20, which seemed like adults to me at the time.

The first time I ever flew was here too, at the Freehold Airport.  (here, here.)  We drove by here, and they had some deal where you could fly for 15 minutes for ten or twenty bucks, so me and my two sisters piled into this little Cessna and took off.  (It was probably this blue and white Cessna 150 shown on this page.) I loved airplanes, but had never been in one.  I got to sit in the front of the little VW-sized cockpit, and the pilot told me not to touch anything, because I had a yoke and a set of rudder pedals right in front of me. I remember so distinctly when those tricycle gear wheels pulled off the ground, watching the ground fall below us, and flying at a few thousand feet around the area.  The pilot asked where we were staying, and we flew over the motel, looked down at the creek and the bridge and the dam, saw little tiny people swimming and tubing in the water below.  It would be seven years until I got on a plane again, not out of any fear of flying, but just because I never had the money or reason for air travel.  But being in that little Cessna made me want to fly, made me spend way too much time kicking tires at airshows and screwing with crappy flight simulators on outdated Windows machines, wishing I could jump in a tiny plane and cruise around at two thousand feet, looking at the scenery.

I’ll have to do more digging to find out more about this place.  I remember we also went to Woodstock, the Zoom Flume water park, and Hunter Mountain.  But what I remember most is how those daytime activities, the little field trips to see old bridges or small towns, were punctuated by these longer periods of boredom and late-night depression.  I thought all of my melancholy feelings had to do with being in Indiana, being around the people in my school, but when I was a thousand miles away, I still felt them, and knew something was wrong.  I didn’t fully realize any of this until a few months later, sitting in a psychiatrist’s office, trying to unravel all of the depression and confusion.  At the time, I just wondered about the strangeness around me, taking in all of this alien scenery of small town New York, listening to people talk about the muggings and rapes and crime of The City, not knowing that in just over a decade, I’d be living there, too.

Anyway, bottom line, google maps is a huge time suck, and take more digital pictures, while you have the chance.


New Glass

I bought a new monitor recently, mostly because I was able to partially subsidize it with points from my Amazon card, which I now use to pay for absolutely everything in this mortal world, except for the couple of things I can’t pay using a Visa card.  I’ve been using the same ViewSonic monitor since 2003.  It was this 20″ LCD, my first flat-screen, which at the time was radical, but now you can’t find a CRT monitor unless you visit a museum or a landfill.  I don’t remember how much I paid for that monitor, but I think it was something insane, like just under a grand.  And aside from being monstrously huge, it worked well, functioning as my main display for my next four computers plus a score of other assorted laptops and work computers.  If you look at all of the pictures in this post, about half of them are with that monitor, from the monster tower PC in my old Astoria apartment to the Mac Mini sitting on my desk overlooking the big Denver parking lot to my white Macbook and the view of the playa in LA to the newest MBP and the loft in Oakland.

The new monitor is another ViewSonic, my third one, if you include the gigantic CRT I bought way back in Seattle.  I wanted to hold out and buy an Apple display, although everyone always bitches that Dell makes the same exact monitor for hundreds of dollars cheaper, which is true, except for the fact that they don’t, and their 27″ LED costs the same exact price as an Apple 27″ LED Cinema display.  So instead of spending a grand on a 27″ screen, I spent just under $200 on a 24″ screen.  And although it’s 4″ bigger than the old one, it seems tiny, because it weighs about a third as much as the old one, and it has very little frame around it.  And instead of a stand suitable for mounting an AT-4 antitank missile, I can use a thin little pole-mount thing and rid my desk of the huge pile of books and dictionaries I was using to raise my screen to the correct height.

The new screen runs at 1920×1080; the old one was 1600×1200.  So I lose a few pixels of height, but gain more in width.  I don’t know if that’s ideal; I think if I do any long, protracted amount of editing on a book-style manuscript, I’ll turn the thing sideways to have a nice 1920-pixel Kerouac scroll of an editor window on my screen.  I spend most of my creative writing time sitting on the couch with the laptop, like I am right now, so I can spend those few minutes of freedom typing away in the bright sunlight that streams through the loft’s giant west-facing windows.  For work stuff, it’s nice to have multiple side-by-side windows open, although I’ve recently moved to FrameMaker 10, which has a whole slew of “pods” and docked palettes and other useless Adobe crap I can’t seem to turn off polluting the left and right sides of my editor window.

Probably the most disappointing part of the upgrade is that my KVM switch seems to be noticeably slower on the kick from system to system.  And of course, the upgrade was flawless on my Mac; plug in the new monitor, pull down the Display Preferences doodad, and select the new resolution.  Windows 7?  Not so much.  It took three reboots and an afternoon of fucking around with driver disks and updates and having to google the entire history of the DVI format until I figured out how to make a custom display size and click through 17 warnings that I was about to explode my monitor and are you really sure you want to do this.  Windows hardware may be cheaper, but not if you value your time.

Aside from the resolution, the difference between LED and LCD is amazing.  When I was at the big S, the main building where we ate lunch had a bunch of their product displays, and for a while, there was a comparison of the old LCD TV and the new LED TV, and it was night and day on the brightness and clarity of the LED.  This was a year ago, and prices on LED TV were ludicrous, absolutely unjustifiable, if you’re in the situation where tech purchases require spousal approval.  Now, in mid-2011, this monitor cost basically nothing.  It’s amazing how fast prices fall on stuff like this.

Why does any of this matter to you?  It doesn’t.  But I used to write about this stuff all the time, the computer upgrades that made up my tool chain, the things I used on a daily basis to carve out these books.  And now, with a decade or two of space between me and them, I look back and wonder exactly when I did swap out that giant CRT that I hauled across the country with a somewhat smaller LCD, and I’m happy that I did manage to capture it in an entry here.  And some other random thing enters my head – like a blind date I had once with a graphic designer, some time before 9/11, when we walked in the shadows of the World Trade Center after dinner, and I wonder what her name was or when we went out for that dinner, and I realize I didn’t keep a journal then, and I lost all of my email from that entire year in a stupid rsync backup mistake, and now I have no fucking idea on any of it except I definitely know it happened before September of 2001, but that’s about it.

It’s just like everything from the 90s.  I’ve been kicking around this book idea, a bunch of stories that take place between 1990 and 1999, and the other day I realized I don’t have one single god damned digital photo from that era, because I bought my first digital camera at the end of 2000.  And I didn’t keep any kind of journal until the mid-90s, and I always wish I would have written everything down, and taken pictures of everything, so I could relive those eras just enough to capture the details in a story.  So, maybe I need to write down more.  And here we are.


Name a candy mentioned in a Husker Du song

The hardest part about not writing here for a long period of time is that when I come back, it can take me days or even weeks to type the first paragraph or even the first sentence in an entry, because I get that writer’s block/paranoia that comes from constantly re-evaluating why I do this.  And then last night – I’m a bachelor for the week, because Sarah went back to Milwaukee to see a sick relative, so you’d think I would be doing something exciting, but in reality, I’m watching episodes of Larry Sanders on the Netflix box and playing some stupid tower defense game on the iPad and talking to the cats too much.

So I’m up too late on a school night, and feeling oddly nostalgic, and go to this page and start digging through old entries.  One of the hazards of having 14 years of old entries online is when I go down this nostalgia k-hole, it’s very easy to play the “so what was I doing in 2004?” game, and spend hours of heat-induced insomnia reading old stuff I wrote.  And I guess that’s one of the reasons I do write here, to trap in amber these states of emotion and experience in some way so I can look back and ultimately think that I was writing a lot more in [insert year here] even though I probably at that time felt I did a lot more writing in some other era of my life.

The rest of the country is in an insane heatwave.  It’s dropped down to 64 here, but we’re west-facing and without central air, so it feels like more.  But I think I have either a touch of food poisoning or stomach flu, and have felt nauseous for the last couple of days, which is exactly what you don’t want when it’s hotter than normal out.  So it’s lots of crackers and diet 7-Up and junior mints, which are named after a Broadway musical based on a bunch of short stories written by the screenwriter who wrote Viva Las Vegas.  And they’re mentioned in the Husker Du song “Eiffel Tower High”.  And I guess there’s a Seinfeld episode too.  But junior mints are one of those strange shouldn’t-work cures that probably make things worse, but I take some comfort in.  And of course food poisoning reminds me of Denver, since I had at least a couple of cases of it there.  And that makes me click on those links to the right in the 2007 range to go back and read about all of my medical maladies and realize I’ve got it easy these days.

Do you remember SOH CAH TOA?  I actually had to use trig the other day to figure something out, which was phenomenal.  I still have not been writing, and have been spending all of my spare time trying to learn enough Cocoa to write a decent game for the iPad.  It’s clicking for me, but it also makes me realize I don’t know how to draw and really need some artwork to make a decent game.   Anyway, I was dicking around with a tank game, where you drive a little tank around a 2D map and shoot stuff, and I needed to figure out some crap having to do with angles and whatnot.  SOH CAH TOA – Sin = opposite/hypotenuse; cos = adjacent/hypotenuse; tangent = opposite/hypotenuse.  I must have learned that 25 years ago, maybe in Mr. Martin’s class.  Trig was my downfall in my computer science career in college.  I barely learned it in high school, and totally forgot it.  I think a guidance counselor told me I should take M126 and I didn’t, so when I got to the second year of calculus, M216, it was a solid wall of trig, and I completely fell apart.  That was 1991, and now it’s 2001, and I’m trying to write a game for a computer I couldn’t even imagine in 1991, and it all comes back to me.  Fucking trig.

Somewhere, in one of my storage boxes, I have an old relic from my attempt to pass M216: a Casio fx-7000g calculator.  I got this thing for Christmas of 1990, I think in some hopes of graphing out trig functions for this calculus class.  I spent the whole break memorizing the damn manual, astonished by this beast of a calculator.  I grew up with the standard 4-function thing, the kind where you would type in 37047734 and flip it upside down so it said HELLHOLE.  And I had a slightly more advanced Radio Shack number that did some scientific notation and basic trig stuff, with ten digits instead of eight.  But this 7000g, it had a 96×64 bitmap display.  You could even program the damn thing in BASIC, if you had the patience to type in all of the tokenized keywords on the chicklet keys.

I didn’t have a computer at that point, and went to IUSB, so the closest one I could use was a 45-minute drive away.  I so desperately wanted to build a junk PC or buy an Amiga, but both were so far out of my reach.  I made something like $100 a week before taxes, and the cheapest, shittiest Amiga was like $500, and I was putting at least a tank of gas in my car every few days just to make enough money to stay broke, so it never happened.  But I had this “computer” in my hands, a whopping 422 bytes of memory.  I spent a chunk of the vacation in Toledo, at my girlfriend’s parents’ place, and I whittled away the entire trip writing a chess game in my head, using BASIC, trying to find a way to smash it all down into 422 bytes, which is absolutely asinine.  I think I gave up on that and went back to pseudocode and pseudo-pascal and eventually got a program on the VAX that drew a pretty chess board and all of the pieces before I got bored of the whole mess and went back to reading Phrack magazine and downloading crap DOS programs from anonymous FTP sites.

That calculator cost $100 in 1991.  That’s maybe $150 in today’s dollars, which could maybe get you a junk laptop on eBay, one that could barely boot Windows 98, but it would still have like 256MB of RAM, which is over 500 times what this thing had.  I had one of those Timex data watches in the late 90s that I think had like twice as much memory.  (Crap, totally forgot about that thing.  I wonder if I still have that in a box somewhere.  I actually had two of them; the original one with a light sensor you held up to your monitor to program, and the USB model.  They were both cool and lacking.)

It’s past my bedtime and it’s still hot, and I’ve got two cats staring at me wondering if their human pillow is going to stop this writing nonsense anytime soon.


Changing Gears

I haven’t been writing.  Probably haven’t put word to paper in at least two weeks.  Normally, this would have me freaking the fuck out, going to see shrinks, getting pills, doing exercises, buying books, studying courses, dissecting plot and premise and buying a flashcard system with 20-sided dice and spinners and software designed to Specifically Help You Write Your Novel in 14 seconds or less.  But I haven’t even thought about it.

I have not been writing because I have been coding.

I knew I would get this horrible postpartum depression after I finished my last book.  I knew nobody would buy it, no matter how hard I pimped it out.  I knew I would not be able to get another project going, and I would enter the downward spiral of over-examining all of my thoughts and ideas, mixed with going to the Amazon royalty page every seven minutes to see if anyone bought the damn book.  Same with the lulu royalty page, and the Google Analytics page to see the hits on this site.  That’s become the ritual; it used to be that the first thing I’d check, first thing in the morning, was my bank account site, to see if various checks had cleared and I would be able to scrape together seven dollars for some TV dinners to last until payday.  Lately, the glass pipe has been that site usage dashboard.

I don’t know when I decided this, but right around when I sent off the PDFs and Kindle files for the book, I decided I really wanted to write an iPhone game.  I realize I’m about three years too late to the party, but I felt some sudden urge to dive into one of the game frameworks and write something crazy, or at least do what everyone does and write a tetris or asteroids or pac man clone.  I know nothing about this, but I also know too much.  When I worked at the big S, we spend a lot of time looking at other developer programs and SDKs and tools, and I knew a lot about what didn’t work.  (Side note: there’s nothing more horrible than being locked in a conference room with a dozen middle-aged guys who know nothing about games or social networking sites, who have never played WoW or Mafia Wars and have never signed up for Facebook or twitter, and being forced to come up with million-dollar ideas for patentable games and social networking sites to be produced with no budget and no manpower.)

I downloaded GameSalad and after ten minutes decided that was a stupid system, so I hit the main vein and grabbed XCode and downloaded that giant multi-gig archive of Apple fun.  Then I dove straight in without looking, immersed myself in howtos and tutorials and O’Reilly tomes and FAQs.  I beat that Hello World like it owed me money and got locked into the Cocos2d framework and started that damn Pac Man clone.  Then I found out about tilemaps, and realized it was absolutely imperative to start that strategy RPG for the iPad.

I haven’t checked my royalty crap or web site stats since.  I used to hit facebook constantly, and now I’m barely on there, except to log in and delete a bunch of the bullshit academic lit journals I used to add in some hopes of finding readers.  I’m still on the web, but instead of picking fights with idiot teabaggers, I’m looking up how to output sorted arrays of keys from an NSMutableDictionary.  I have mixed feelings about this; I think my online time makes up some void that results from working from home and not being around people all day.  But there’s also been more than a few times where I thought about following some link to read about the latest idiot trying to run for president or whatever, and I thought, “I could either do this, or I could try to figure out which TouchDispatcher has handlers to read multitouch input.”  The latter wins every time.

I haven’t worked with C in a while.  We mostly use Java at the day job, and there’s some occasional C# and C++ out there, but my usage is limited to finding some function and unfucking the doc comments so the autogenerated API help is readable.  It’s been a long time since I sat down and tried to really hack out any kind of C code, but I realized that it was 20 years ago I started learning C, and it all came back fast.  What was more amazing is how the Objective C stuff gave me crazy flashbacks to 1992, back when I took C490 and we worked on the NeXT.  I spent most of my time in that class beating against Motif and C++ on the Sun workstations, so when I went to the NeXT and used Interface Builder, it was like showing RoboCop to a 14th century farmer.  The Objective C syntax seemed really foreign to me at first, but then I started getting the :s and [s and ]s in the right places.  I also ran into the usual C barrier of “is this a struct or a pointer to a struct or a pointer to a pointer to an object, and is it getting released here or do I need to retain it” stuff, and really hit the wall with it last weekend.  But I think I’m past it, and making some progress.

There’s also a certain nostalgia in writing a game in general.  I spent a lot of time way back when with graph paper, filling in squares to make bitmap fonts or maps of dungeons or designs of sprites.  Back then, there was only 64K of memory, and stuff like pointers did not exist as far as I knew.  (Yes, they did, but not to a 14-year-old in Elkhart, Indiana with no modem.)  Now I’m working with a thousand times the clock speed and 4,000 times as much memory, but the core thought process still remains.  I’ve got a lot more control over program structure than GOTO and GOSUB, but you still need to think about how those damn ghosts run around the maze by themselves.

There’s a small part of me wondering about when I will write again.  I mean, in a practical sense, I keep thinking I need to start a new blog so when I do find out that you can’t dynamically change tiles in an empty CCTMXLayer without crashing, I can write it down and not have to re-research it a month from now.  But there’s that bigger question of if I need to get back on the horse and write more books, and if it’s worth it to write books, and if anyone even reads books anymore, and if I want to write books that people want to read, and a flurry of other bullshit I don’t want to think about anymore.  I still do have the occasional flashes where I see something and think it would make a great short story.  But I’m waking up every morning and immediately thinking about what to code next, and that’s a good feeling.