Prying Light Bulbs Out of Cold, Dead Hands

Wired did a cover story on the light bulb, which is fascinating to me, for many of the same reasons two freight trains containing rocket fuel and napalm colliding at full speed is fascinating to most people. Wired never has more than four god damned things a year even worth reading, unless you’re always in the mood to buyer’s guides for $700 headphones, or twelve-page ad spreads for crap Toshiba laptops, the glossy layouts disguised to look like actual articles. (I got a free subscription by trading in some about-to-expire miles on an airline I never fly, something that looked like a borderline identity theft request. Wired was by far the best magazine offered, with the second and third place choices being Vibe For Pregnant Teens and Country Shitkicker Kitchen.)  What fascinated me was the fact that Lightbulb-Gate has reached the level of fury where you can get guaranteed linkbait with a title like “Five things you need to know before Congress takes all of the light bulbs out of your house and rapes your children in the dark”, and we’re an election cycle away from adding a Constitutional amendment prohibiting any legislation regarding incandescent lighting.

It amazes me that people can get so bent out of shape about manufactured swing issues. I think all it takes is convincing side A that their mortal enemies on side B hates something, and side A will suddenly champion their complete opposite. If I could find the magic place to leak a story that the President is trying to criminalize the consumption of dog shit sandwiches, you’d see within three days a photo-op of some far-right nutbag with a foot-long hoagie of Doberman links, lettuce, and tomato, screaming “TAKE THIS ONE AWAY YOU GODLESS COMMIE BASTARDS!”  Sarah Palin would be working part-time as a night cashier at an Arco gas station, collecting food stamps, and living paycheck-to-paycheck in a studio apartment if the left wouldn’t keep blathering about how much they hate her.  And yeah, both sides are guilty; I’m sure that NASCAR does not implicitly endorse slavery, chaining women in kitchens, or impregnating first cousins, although that’s generally the opinion held by most people with an extensive secondary education.  I’m not saying I’m ready to tattoo a giant number 3 on my face, but I’ve never watched more than two seconds of a race, so I’m not about to condemn it.

News isn’t news. People argue that the news is the reporting of fact, and that the reporting of “incorrect” news is “bias”. We don’t read news to find out facts as much as we read it to validate our worldview.  You could replace the root page of CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and all of the other media sites with a single story that says “Your beliefs have been validated, and that makes you the center of the universe”, and 90% of the function of the media would be functionally replaced.  News stopped being news when the media realized that the most important part of journalism is pumping up your number of page impressions to increase ad revenue.

Here’s a cheat sheet on the “light bulb ban”:

  • It doesn’t “ban” anything; it sets new standards for efficiency that will eventually make the use of incandescent light bulbs impractical.
  • It was signed by law by George W. Bush.
  • The whole issue with Chinese workers getting mercury poisoning while making CFL bulbs would probably be irrelevant if people stopped buying so much Chinese-made shit at Wal-Mart.
  • Mercury thermometers contain way more mercury than CFLs, and you put those in your kids’ mouths and asses. (They are also banned in many countries but not the US.  If you’re looking to manufacture next year’s fake crisis, maybe something involving Nancy Grace screaming about how our babies are going to die of fever because Congress is takin’ away our thermometers.)
  • Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb.  It’s not an American invention.  Joseph Swan patented it a year before Edison, and Edison avoided litigation by eventually merging with Swan’s company.
  • CFLs are not condemned, condoned, or even mentioned in the Holy Bible, at least not in the version I stole from a Las Vegas hotel room to use as a coaster.
  • The focus of all of the fury is currently on the CFL bulb, but LED bulbs are coming down in price, don’t have the weird flicker/refresh effect, can be dimmed, are more efficient, and produce a more natural looking light.  I expect that once the LED bulbs break the $10 price point for an equivalent 100-watt incandescent, we’ll start hearing stories about how they’re really produced by homosexual Muslim terrorist splinter cells that abuse children.

I keep hearing that this is a libertarian issue, that we need to keep Big Government off of our backs, that we’ll spend some ridiculous amount of money on the light bulb police to kick down doors and send felon soft-white-light lovers off to maximum security prison.  And all of these laws and regulations will stifle the growth of business and kill jobs (even though all of the biggest industries in this country — pharma, telecom, aerospace, finance — are all heavily regulated.)  People keep talking about a return to “simpler times”, when we could dump raw sewage in drinking water, cut the mufflers off of our giant V-8 engines, and buy a table saw with absolutely no warning labels, guards, or any other pussy communist safety features that would prevent one from cutting off their fingers or launching a piece of wood at 800 miles an hour into your abdomen.  (Those fags in Europe only sell table saws with riving knives to prevent kickback when ripping lumber, but where’s the sport in that?  If I want to risk fatality and save $3 on a $947 table saw purchase, god damn it, that’s my right as an American!)  I wish we would return to simpler times – like the ones where idiots were too afraid of computers to use them.

And none of this is about the math, or the savings, or the efficiency.  It isn’t about mercury poisoning or the color of light produced by CFLs or the up-front cost of bulbs.  It’s because one side said “don’t do this”, the other side had to say “well FUCK YOU I am totally doing this”.  It’s about people who have been told to be angry by a for-profit news source that they feel validates their lives.  It’s about millionaires becoming billionaires by telling the poor that they should be pissed off at someone trying to save them a dollar.  It’s a non-issue.  Let it go.  There are more important things to fight about.

Small Fish Big Pond

I was listening to Mark Maron’s podcast the other day – specifically, an interview with Aubrey Plaza – and they started talking about how they both used to live in Queens.  But then Maron said where he lived, which was at 37th Street and 30th Avenue, and it completely blew my mind, because I lived about a block from there, at 36th and 28th.  And we both lived there at the same time, which means we shared the same subway stop, and the same restaurants and bodegas and fruit stands and drunken assholes sitting outside of cafes, blocking the god damned sidewalk.  And I’m sure my day job and his life as a late-night comedian probably didn’t place us on the platform for the N train at the same times, but I’m sure there must have been at least a couple of occasions when we were up there, looking down the tracks and wondering where the hell the next train was.

That’s a reminder that the world is much bigger than I imagine.  Or maybe I mean more dense.  I came from a life where you knew every single person in your neighborhood.  Our subdivision had a homeowner’s association – not like a condo HOA where you were required to be a member, but rather a group of do-gooder PTA motherfuckers that liked to be overbearing and have a Christmas decoration contest and post crimestopper signs that did no good and that sort of crap.  And they used to put out an annual directory, a photocopied thing that listed every damn person in the subdivision, along with their kids’ names and if any of them did chores like babysitting or snow plowing or whatever.  I think the whole purpose of the thing was to shame people into giving twenty bucks to the group, or maybe because people were so god damned proud of their kids, they needed to show everyone how many of them they had.  I don’t know, but I know in my infinite boredom stemming from a life of only five TV channels, I pretty much memorized that book and knew the names of every person in every house of our neighborhood.

The entire city of Elkhart – not just my little subdivision – had a population just under what Astoria’s population was, except Elkhart is about 25 square miles, where the 11103 is maybe three-quarters of a square mile.  So you’re talking about a serious number of people piled on top of each other; nobody’s got a giant ranch house or a backyard or even a place to park a car, let alone a collection of cars, like pretty much everyone in Elkhart has on their front lawn.  And at first, this was overwhelming to me.  When I first visited New York, I was amazed that it wasn’t just one single main arterial street had clusters of stores and shops, like every town in the Midwest.  Every time you turned off of one street and onto another, that would be a main drag too, with wall-to-wall storefronts.

But at some point, I got desensitized to all of this, and had this mental picture of my neighborhood as having vast amounts of nothing.  I mean, I’d have this internal diagram that would say “my house, five blocks of nothing, the Key Foods, two blocks of nothing, the subway stop, and then ten blocks of nothing until the tunnel and the city.”  In reality, every one of those blocks of nothing had thousands of people living there.  And even though half of the storefronts in Astoria are abandoned and boarded up and probably used as illegal gambling halls, and of the other 50%, a certain plurality were these stores with maybe $17 of merchandise on all of the shelves, probably because the place was a mafia front. But there were all of these places where you could get lost forever, that were their own worlds within one street address.  I’d duck into that horrible Rite-Aid on 30th, and it was not the world’s biggest drug store, but it was its own universe, once you got in there and got stuck waiting an hour while the only cashier finished her cell phone call and rang up your purchases.

I still feel like that now.  I mean, there really is nothing in my neighborhood – we’re like on the edge of the ghetto, patiently waiting for gentrification to happen, maybe the next big earthquake to suck under a mass of old Victorian crackhouses and leave room for a new Trader Joe’s. But then when I go back to Indiana, everything truly looks abandoned.  It always amazes me when I go back there, because it looks like some post-apocalyptic movie, where the whole population has vanished.  And when I did go back to New York, I felt overwhelmed again, which means my sense of scale has reset itself.  But the moral of the story is I should be taking a closer look at what’s around me.

Anyway.  I spent far too long looking at the picture above, then looking at Google Maps, to see if that is indeed 37th Street and 30th Ave, and I think it is, but you can’t tell because so much of the stuff has changed hands.  Someone said you’re officially a New Yorker when you say “do you remember when this used to be a ______”?  Yeah, something like that.

Review: Lost in America by Colby Buzzell

It appears that someone over at HarperCollins saw my previous review of Colby Buzzell’s first book, My War, that I wrote last March, because they sent me an advance copy of his latest, Lost in America: A Dead-End Journey, which is coming out in September.  I remember looking for more info on him after reading My War, and not finding much, except for an article at Esquire, and some blog posts about how he got called back up for IRR duty, but got discharged before going back to Iraq because of PTSD or alcohol abuse or whatever they call it these days.  So I was happy to hear he had another book coming out, and I was curious to see how it went.

I mentioned in my other review that I’m always skeptical of these people who do a successful blog and then turn it into a book, which was all the rage a few years back.  It’s not that I think this is good or bad; it’s just that when people blog about their life and the biggest moment in their life and turn it into a good project, when you ask them to do a second book, it’s almost always garbage.  I mean, Citizen Kane might be the best movie in the world, but if it came out in 2011 and made bank, you know they’d do a CK2 with reporter Jerry Thompson played by Ted McGinley or some shit, and they’d do it in 3D, so there would be all these scenes of Chuck Kane throwing glasses of water or shoving spears into the audience.  (“Wow, that sled was coming right at me!”)  And half the time, the second book by a blog-to-book author is this whiny tome talking about the huge letdown of having to do talk shows and meet famous people and go to dinner parties and get their URL plastered on the sides of busses.  So I was seriously curious what would happen in this book.

Buzzell’s assignment was to take the great American road trip, to retrace Kerouac’s footsteps and head across the country and report what was going on in that big space between New York and LA.  He was told to “write a love letter to Kerouac”, and fortunately, he didn’t really do that.  I was hoping this would not turn into some overly academic circle-jerk that treated the Kerouac journey as authentically as Olive Garden turns out Italian food.  In fact, very little time’s spent talking about Kerouac, finding parallels between his work and the world today, or pondering why Jack looked for kicks.  That was all quickly brushed aside as Buzzell set out in his ’64 Mercury Comet, driving east and looking for his own version of kicks.

There are some strange parallels that Buzzell doesn’t consciously ponder here.  Kerouac and friends set out on their travels partly as a reaction to the Iraq of their generation, which was World War 2.  Jack struggled with the death of his father, and Buzzell talks greatly about the memories of his mother, who died from cancer right before he started his trip.  And like Kerouac’s attempts to reconcile his place in humanity, Buzzell wonders about his recent marriage, his new child, and how all of those pieces are supposed to fit together.

Probably the biggest takeaway from the book is that the middle class is dead, and the middle of America is a prime example of it.  He stumbles through various jobs at day laborer places, talks to people living on minimum wage, hangs out with guys stripping Detroit buildings of their copper pipes, and sees firsthand the abject poverty and lack of any hope in places like Cheyenne, Omaha, and the former motor city.  It’s like his own version of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, except I thought her book was a pretentious slow-pitch to the NPR crowd, while his was more authentic.

Is this pure journalism?  No.  But that’s the struggle, and one that he acknowledges: you need some kind of plot or gimmick or device to provide forward motion in a book like this, and he struggles through the 297 pages to find that.  You can’t just load up a car in San Francisco and say “go!” and write down each place you stop for gas and call it a book.  There could have been many different ideas that would have propelled the book more, that he mentions but never returns to.  Like, what if he would have taken that book advance and drove from SF to NY and stopped at every VFW in between, hoisting beers and asking the patrons what they thought about America?  What if he did try to only survive on the money he got from those shit jobs?  What if he tried to look up every army buddy in his platoon, John Rambo style, and see what they made of their lives?  What if he pulled a Hunter Thompson and searched for “the American Dream”?  He has his motives and he ends up doing the work as far as remembering his mom and his past, but it’s not a focused effort toward any one thesis.

The writing in this book seemed a bit better than the last.  I don’t think he’s completely found his voice, and I found some clunkiness in places, but for every point where he violated the show-don’t-tell rule, there was another point with incredible detail and clarity.  Some of the best examples of this were his depictions of Detroit.  It’s easy for outsiders to simply say “Detroit == Somalia/Bosnia/Tripoli/whatever”, but there is some strange duality in the old houses versus the abandoned stores, the proud residents and the scared whiteys.  He explores a lot of the urban terrain, which is something a bit cliche now that every hipster doofus in a fedora is out wandering abandoned warehouses with their digital SLR, but it’s coming from this guy who was in the shit, who had the crazy experiences in Iraq and knows what real devastation is like.

This book is sure to piss off some people, because Buzzell isn’t easily pigeonholed.  He’s got some strange allegiances, like his odd infatuation with Wal-Mart and views on Fox News.  He didn’t drive a hybrid, instead choosing an old dinosaur V-8, and instead of being fiscally responsible, he spent his nights blackout drinking.  It’s not like his last one, where it’s easy to pitch it and say “read this if you want to know about Iraq”.  There are a dozen other books about cross-country driving or exploring the underbelly of poverty that I’d recommend over this one.  And yeah, the message is not cheery, from an economic standpoint. But this one was a good read, and I’d love to see what he knocks out next.

The Death of Palm

In a serious WTF move yesterday, HP announced they were ditching their hardware manufacturing business, and abandoning their work on WebOS devices.  HP just bought Palm a little over a year ago for 1.2 billion dollars.  Their big splash was the iPad killer tablet, the HP TouchPad, which sold roughly as well as the Edsel in the year before its demise. It’s a sad end to Palm, and evidence that doubling down doesn’t always pay off.

I have a long history with Palm, mostly because I’ve always wanted some kind of little portable machine to store my “brain” of vital info and capture little bits of writing ideas as I’m away from my desk.  I remember first hearing about Palm back in 1996, when I was still at my first job in Seattle.  At that time, the gold standard of portables was the Apple Newton, which were nice, but cost somewhere around a grand.  US Robotics rolled out their new device for only $300 for the low-end model, and they were way smaller and lighter than the Newton.  When I first stumbled across this new product on the web, they had a little Palm Pilot simulator you could download, which let you walk through the various screens of the PDA, albeit without the touch-screen area for a pen stylus.  I was 90% sold on this initial model, but 10% of me had serious doubts.  (And 100% of me didn’t have $300 burning a hole in my pocket.)

The thing that was most offputting to me was that the Newton was essentially a shrunk-down computer. You could put cards in it and it had its own file system that you could fill with apps and documents and whatever else.  But PalmOS was based on this alien concept that you carried a mirror of your important data, a copy, that got synced when you plugged the device back into the mothership of your home PC.  It was a sort of parasite, like one of those little helicopters on the decks of huge yachts, and wasn’t a “real” computer.  I don’t know why that bothered me, but it was new at the time, and I didn’t like it.  (It’s the same stumbling block a lot of Windows people have about the iPad, and why you see tons of people in message boards yelling “IT DOESNT HAVE A PCMCIA SLOT!  I CANT RUN VISUAL STUDIO ON IT!  HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO CUT BROADCAST-QUALITY HD VIDEO ON THAT THING?”)

So I didn’t get one. In the meantime, a bunch of people I worked with at my next job bought into a lot of bleeding-edge PDAs that have since left our collective consciousness.  Some of them were Newton or MessagePad die-hards, and a couple bought into the Magic Cap platform.  Windows CE devices also started appearing, which I thought was absolutely ridiculous at the time.  I spent my cash elsewhere, mostly on this other portable reading system better known as paper books, and patiently waited until Moore’s Law kicked in.

After I moved to New York, though, I foresaw a future of sitting on subway trains for a good chunk of my day. So I went down to J&R’s Music World, which is like the East-coast version of Fry’s electronics stores crowded with off-brands and flashy bright pricetags. I bought a Palm IIIx, which I think set me back $200 or so, and then figured out all of the cryptic mumbo-jumbo I needed to get it to talk to a linux machine.  (It probably involved recompiling the kernel five times.)

My use of the Palm fluctuated, and went through phases.  I’d go through periods when I downloaded a ton of ebooks, tried to keep a journal, and jotted down everything I saw or thought of, in hopes of eventually rolling it into my own writing.  I’d play dope wars forever (“you found two hits of acid on a dead dude in the subway!”) and remember reading that Bruce Sterling book The Hacker Crackdown and a good chunk of the Unabomber manifesto on that little 160×160 greenish LCD.  I never got the hang of writing in graffiti, the shorthand system of scratching on the little input area; I can barely print in Latin letters, let alone a system I haven’t been using for decades.

Everyone had a Palm back then.  When I worked at Juno, I think every single person on my team had a Palm III or V, except for one dude that had a Handspring Visor.  (I think one of the Directors also had the ultra-expensive Palm VII, which had an antenna hanging off of it, and could pull down the amount of web traffic you’d consume in about 60 seconds now over the course of a month, all for $14.95.) One of the project managers on my team found a hangman game you could play wirelessly over the IR ports, and our meeting productivity suddenly dropped 100%.  I’d get on the train and see dozens of people clicking with their little styluses on the charcoal or silver boxes, all of them drowning in crazy NASDAQ money as the tech bubble continued to expand like a huge zit on a teenager’s face.

I never fully sunk into the system, though.  Part of it was that it wasn’t 100% of what I needed to do with the damn thing.  I couldn’t really write on it; I couldn’t run totally kick-ass games with it.  There was no camera, no web browser, no way to send emails on the go.  I couldn’t write my own programs for it.  I could barely get the damn thing to sync with my PC, and would only plug it in maybe once or twice a month.  There was also the issue that I had a cell phone that could do about 23% of what I wanted, and this Palm that could do maybe 41%, and then I carried around a MiniDisc player, which totally solved the music issue, but only for the discs I remembered to shove in my pocket that morning.  I really needed some device that would do all of this and more, but that would be almost a decade away.  In the meantime, I assembled this mess of cables and adaptors to plug the Palm into the ass-end of this Samsung feature phone I had back then, so I could use the phone as a modem and dial in to a modem when I was on vacation, which almost worked.

Around 2001 or 2002, I took a half-step in that general direction, and upgraded to a Handspring Visor Prism, and got the Visorphone. The Visors had this cartridge port on them called the Springboard port, and the Visorphone was this sick attachment that  snapped on the back and essentially turned it into a cell phone.  And the Visor could use the phone for data, so you could fire it up and get SMS messages on your phone, or send out an email.  The Visorphone sounded like the coolest thing since the Boba Fett action figure with the shooting rocket pack that some stupid fucking kid shot down his throat and got the whole thing banned, but it was a total piece of shit.  It had its own battery in it, and you had to charge it separately from the main unit.  The software was barely integrated correctly, so it almost worked as well as one of those piece of shit Jitterbug phones.  And your monthly bill of 40 or 50 bucks came with just enough minutes to download and delete about four of your spam email messages.  Plus it got me locked into a T-Mobile contract, which was absolutely craptastic.  I did use the Prism for a while, and it was a nice step up from the IIIx, but I did miss the sleekness of the old Palm, the little fliptop case that reminded me of a Star Trek communicator, and the fact that it ran forever on AAA batteries.

I also owned Palm stock briefly.  I probably don’t need to explain how that went.

I sold the Handspring to a coworker, and jumped to a Sidekick, which, despite the fact that it was designed for emo 14-year-olds, had its shit together as far as data integration.  It was essentially useless as a phone, but I don’t like talking on the phone, and preferred getting the data-only unlimited plan and spending all day in AIM or browsing the web.  I did briefly consider getting a Treo when everyone else got Treo fever, but talked myself out of it.  Years later, when I was at the big S, we got a couple of Palm Pre units when they came out, and I spent twenty minutes screwing with one, long enough to lock it up two or three times.  I’d already moved to the iPhone by then, and it was the perfect solution I’d waited ten years for, so I was pretty nonplussed.  The WebOS UI had some nice features, but in a world where everyone had Ataris and Commodores, I didn’t want to buy a Coleco Adam because it had a neat keyboard.

I was thinking about all of this, and what happened to all of my old Palm files, and I remembered I used a program called jpilot on linux to sync my old devices.  It made a .jpilot directory, and it turns out I have two full backups of my old Palm’s filesystem, one from 2000 and another from 2001.  It is a total mindfuck to see what I carried on the thing back then.  I’ve got a list of DVDs I wanted to buy; a list of books to research later; and there’s an attempt at a journal that’s mostly a list sorted by date of when I was having panic attacks.  There’s an itinerary from a February 2000 trip to San Diego, and a copy of an early draft of my second book in PDB format.  I have all of the applications that were installed too, from a universal remote app to an R2D2 sound generator to some app that takes a Manhattan street address and tells you the cross streets.

Sometimes I wish I never kept things like this, because now I’m going to spend the next two hours digging through these files.

Thoughts on a random picture: the N

This is the N:

I took this picture just over ten years ago.  I was on the way home from my second date with Kelly.  We went to Jackson Heights, and then to Target.  It doesn’t sound that exciting, but when you live in New York in 2001 and you spent a good chunk of your life in Indiana, and suddenly, there’s no Target, the idea of taking two trains and a bus to the middle of nowhere in Queens to see a real Target is pretty enticing.

That picture was taken on Queensborough Plaza, which is the first stop in Queens after the N train goes through the Steinway tunnel and under the East River.  It’s the start of a new borough, a transition to a different land, and the point where the normally-underground subway train suddenly appears up on an elevated platform that snakes above the rooftops in Long Island City and Astoria.

I hated the N train.  The N and R trains ran into Queens, and they stood for Never and Rarely, because you could wait forever for one of the damn things to show up.  And while you were up on that elevated platform, freezing your ass off in January as the wind tunnel effect made the extreme weather even worse, they’d run twice as slow.  And while those A trains or F trains ran every 2 minutes for the last century in “The City”, the MTA had this habit of randomly shutting down the N trains all weekend, which started roughly around two weeks after I moved to Astoria, and went on until about the time I left.  They said it was for “station work”, but I was almost certain that some Sopranos wannabe motherfuckers paid off the MTA to force all of us to spend our money in their craptastic shops and restaurants all weekend.

Queensborough plaza was in a sketchy neighborhood, a part of Long Island City where everything around was either taxi repair shops, scrapyards, or the kind of strip clubs you go to if you have a c-section scar fetish.  There was also a “bootleg” Dunkin Donuts there; it had a sign with the same font and same colors as the real place, but it just said “fresh donuts” or “fresh coffee” or something.  I was waiting for the whole thing to get painted over after a cease/desist, but there were a lot of blatant trademark violations in Queens, and nobody gave a shit.  There was this place on 30th Ave called Pinocchio Restaurant, and I swear they had a pixel-for-pixel copy of the genuine Disney artwork on their sign.  I don’t know if a lawyer from Walt’s parent company woke up with a horse’s head in his bed one morning, but the damn thing’s still there today.  I desperately wanted the Olympics to come to New York, just to see all of those IOC lawyers try to shut down every business in Astoria with the word “Olympic” in their names, which is about 70% of them.

Two train lines butted against each other at that station: the BMT’s N/R and the IRT’s 7.  The 7 was the line built to run up to the World’s Fair, and they ran those famous red subway cars, which have since been stripped and dumped in the Atlantic to form an artificial reef.  I’m guessing this is the train John Rocker took out to Shea Stadium described in his infamous rant that got him all kinds of love and adoration from New Yorkers.  On the day I took this picture, we returned from Target on the 7 train, and then I switched to the N to go home, while Kelly got on a different train to head back to Brooklyn.

I spent so damn much time on the N train.  A rough order-of-magnitude guess is 2 times a day x 5 days a week x 50 weeks a year x 5 years = 2500 trips.  Each trip took about 45 minutes, so that’s roughly 78 days of my life.  Yeah, I invested that time into reading, and I probably read a book or two a week, but that’s still a lot of strap-hanging.

The whole idea of the subway seems a lifetime away for me.  I can’t even fathom any part of my existence back then: being single, living in such a big city, living in such a fucked up neighborhood.  I think about it a lot, because I’m at the same job as back then, and I’m working on docs for the same product (among others), so I often play dumb games like “what was I doing around the time I first started working on this?”  I think back to when I was struggling to get Rumored out the door, when I was trying to date, when I would take any free time I had and scrape up enough dough to get on a plane to Vegas, just so I could rent a car and drive again, and be in an open area that didn’t have a fifty thousand people per square mile.

And I think about life now sometimes – like I was in the parking lot of Target the other day (honestly, Target isn’t paying me to mention them in every damn post I put up here) and I was just thinking “fuck, I’m living in California.”  I get so busy with the day-to-day that I don’t even think about it, about how 25 years ago, California was this far off, distant land only seen in movies, and it may as well have been the planet Vulcan.  And now I’ve lived here for three and a half years, and I still don’t even realize it until I’m outside on a nice sunny day, and I realize it’s something like -60 degrees in Elkhart and I haven’t had to dig a car out of a snowbank for decades, and I really do live within a stone’s throw of the Pacific Ocean, a body of water I never even saw until I was 26 years old.

So looking back at pictures like this, the old rolling stock of the MTA, that look of soot and skyscrapers and brick project houses and a view of Queens so vivid, I can practically hear the car alarms and jackhammers at five in the morning and the taxis laying on their horns continually, and it’s a huge time machine for me.  It’s not that I want to go back or that I miss any of it, but it’s a huge reminder that even though I feel like the same person and the same old crap is going on every day, so much time has passed between now and then, and things have changed so radically.

No patience for technical support

I had to go to Target at 8:30 last night and buy a new wireless router.  Okay, “had” is a strong word, but I got to the end of my patience, and was fortunate enough to recognize that and throw this stupid Netgear piece of shit I just bought a few months ago into the garbage and start fresh with new gear from a different vendor.  This is typical behavior, and the reason why I don’t spend any free time screwing with Windows machines, because I simply don’t have the patience to fuck around with reconfiguring IRQ interrupts and re-flashing BIOSes every time I want to print double-sided pages.

My own tech support flowchart typically goes like this:

  1. Power it off and then on.
  2. Unplug everything but the bare minimum of what needs to be plugged in.
  3. Check the power supply and that I didn’t plug it into one of the god damned outlets that are connected to a wall switch and/or start flipping wall switches that don’t do anything.
  4. Do whatever you have to do to reset the whole fucking thing to the default factory configuration.
  5. Throw it in the garbage and buy a new one.

And this is the point when half of you start in with the “huh huh, I have a perfectly good router I found in the garbage”, and other various comments about how I’m a retard for paying someone else to change the oil in my car blah blah blah.  That’s not the point.  The point is, I used to change my own oil and spend way too much time screwing around with my /etc/modules.conf file to get it so my soundblaster card wouldn’t crap out every time I triple-clicked my mouse button, and now I don’t.  Even more, I used to answer the phone for people who would call me because they couldn’t find the “any” key on their keyboard, and spend hours trying to walk them through how to use the vi editor over the phone.

How the hell did I ever do that?  I mean, I remember first getting a job as a computer consultant, and it wasn’t because I had an innate desire to help people.  It was because I knew some amount about computers, and it beat my previous campus job, which involved scraping uneaten food off of cafeteria trays and wearing a hairnet and a stupid smock probably manufactured by inmates at an insane asylum somewhere north of Indianapolis.  Making fries at McDonald’s paid $4.25 an hour, and answering people’s questions about WordPerfect 5.1 paid $6.10 an hour, so it was a no-brainer.  And once I got my foot in the door, the goal was always to get better at it, or at least good enough that I could take another baby step up the ladder and find another position inside the UCS system that involved more computer and less people.

But in between my departure for Seattle in 1995 and my very first consulting gig in 1990, I must have burned through several lifetimes full of patience.  I mean, at IUSB, we had these stupid piece of shit Leading Edge Model D PC clones, which even in 1990 were so behind the curve, I think the main campus had sold them for scrap and the South Bend campus quickly put them back into service.  We’re talking a Daewoo-manufactured machine that originally came out in ’85 as a low-end clone, with a 4.77 MHz 8088, 256K of RAM, and a built-in video card that pushed out 640×200 video.  Our units didn’t even have hard drives; they came with a set of two 5 1/4″ floppy disks, which lead to many stupendous problems as a consultant.

First, a machine with no hard drive can’t boot, unless you put a bootable floppy in the A: drive.  We had a vague system of letting people check out bootable WordPerfect disks to people. Or when you took C101 or whatever, your instructor would probably format one of your disks (or most likely, your only disk) so it would boot.  These were the days before Windows, or at least before this campus would see it, so re-formatting a disk wasn’t a matter of right-clicking or just inserting a blank and clicking OK when it asks you if you want to format it.  It involved booting into DOS and doing a FORMAT /S.  More importantly, it involved every third question out of people being something like “I PUT A BRAND NEW DISK TAPE IN THIS MACHINE AND TURNED ON THE POWER AND IT WON’T START”.

Anyway, nobody at IUSB knew anything about viruses.  When I was at the IUB campus, they ran Norton or whatever, and when you booted from the hard drive and put in your floppy, it got scanned.  Here, you had everyone booting from their own floppy, or booting from one of the lab’s boot disks with WordPerfect on it.  So one genius brings in a floppy with whatever virus was new in 1990, and it’s suddenly spreading across every damn person’s boot floppy like HPV in a Thailand whorehouse.  I printed up a bunch of signs telling people to stop booting from their own disks and let me scan them on the consultant’s computer, and when that didn’t work, I called someone at the student newspaper (this 8-page free thing they handed out in the cafeteria) and dictated to them verbatim this diatribe about how viruses were all over the god damned place, and if you didn’t stop booting from your floppy, a computer like the one from WarGames was going to swoop in and launch every nuke at our own cities and blame the whole thing on your good buddy George HW Bush.  (I think the reporter misspelled or misquoted every seventh word, so I’d love to see this piece of journalism today.)  This eventually slowed down the spread of the virus, but it also meant that instead of spending my four-hour shifts telnetting into different BBSes trying to pick up chicks (that were probably morbidly obese dudes) in Iowa, I had to sit around and scan everyone’s floppy disks on the consulting machine, and it wasn’t like I could just minimize my telnet window and email window, because this was DOS which didn’t have windows, and you’re talking about a machine with so little memory, loading the text of a shopping list would cause a meltdown.

Here’s another funny floppy thing that happened that demonstrates that at one point in time I had way more patience than I do now.  I’m helping a real professor teach one of those intro to business computing classes, where you learn how to run the spellcheck in WordPerfect and how to print a spreadsheet in Lotus 1-2-3, and some middle-aged housewife on the forever plan came up and told me she put her disks in the computer and they vanished.  (The forever plan: when someone takes one class a year with hopes of finishing their bachelor’s degree about two years before the sun supernovas, which I think is going to happen six billion years from now.)  So I go to investigate, and there are no floppies in the machine.  You can’t just put floppies in the machine and have them get “eaten” in the back, because the back of the drive is sealed or something.  And then I take another look and see the problem:

She had crammed two floppy disks into the narrow crack between the top and bottom floppy drive, turned on the power, and then sat there for 45 minutes, wondering why the hell her spreadsheet didn’t load.

I’m not typing this from prison, which shows you I had an infinite amount more patience back then.  I think I even managed to somehow MacGyver a couple of paperclips into the narrow gap and pull out her disks, because of course the machines were all security cabled down and I didn’t have an awesome tool set like Jeff Spiccoli’s TV repairman dad.  And something like this happened pretty much every day I consulted, so five years of that shit is infinitely more trying than a piece of garbage Netgear router that inexplicably refuses to acquire an IP address anymore on day 91 of a 90 day warranty.

The new router’s nice.  It says “best in class” on the box, so I’m hoping it lasts me at least until Christmas.

The Busses of Perception

When I first visited New York in 1998, one of the things that struck me, an odd connection to the past, were the city busses.  I don’t even remember if I rode on one – I never really figured out the schedule, and it was usually easier to walk to a subway stop – but they looked exactly like the same busses we had in Bloomington when I went to school there.  It freaked me out at the time, because I couldn’t think of two more disparate worlds than the late-eighties IU campus, this few hundred acres of green grass and the occasional limestone castle of a classroom building, and the concrete jungle of Manhattan in the late nineties.

Both IU and the MTA had these busses, built by GMC, which upon further research were called the GMC Rapid Transit Series II. The RTS looked like a giant pack of gum, a squarish tube with a flat front end and a slightly futuristic look, in the same way a Disney monorail looks futuristic.  I grew up as a captive in those standard Blue Bird school busses, the kind that could be from 1997 or 1947, with the little square windows you could use to watch the suburbs scroll by on your way to and from your classroom of doom.  But the RTS had these giant rectangular tinted windows, and inside, almost every vertical surface was transparent to the outside.  Both IU and NYC’s busses were mostly white, with a small bit of accent color on them, a crimson stripe or an MTA blue bar, respectively.  I always remember that the difference reminded me of George Lucas’s treatment of the R2 droids in Star Wars; they were mostly white and chrome, but those little blue accent panels on the R2-D2 got swapped out for orange ones so it could look like a different droid.

I only really rode IU’s bus during the fall semester.  They ran a couple of bus lines, denoted by letter (and color) almost like the New York subway system, with the A bus making a loop around campus, and the C and E continuing out toward the campus mall.  When I first arrived in Bloomington, I was convinced it would take me hours to traverse the campus, and bought a bus pass.  They had two options: a full-time pass, which cost a few hundred dollars, and a night/weekend plan that cost something like $53, which is what I chose.  Two years of driving everywhere in rural Indiana reinforced the belief that you had to have a car to live in the Hoosier state, and I feared that first time I’d need to get to the mall to buy something important and I’d have to ride my rusted ten-speed the grueling 1.2 mile distance.  By the time I moved off-campus in 1991, I’d walk absolutely anywhere, in any weather, provided I had enough juice in my walkman to power a tape for the whole journey.

I have very distinct memories of riding that loop around campus.  There were these rubber pneumatic strips on the vertical pillars, and you pushed them to ding a bell and alert the driver you needed to exit at the next stop.  I’d look up at the glossy white ceiling and gaze at the emergency exit hatch worthy of a space capsule, wondering what kind of catastrophic failure would require egress if the bus never really got above ten miles an hour.  I’d sit in on the molded plastic seats, and I’d watch the green campus crawl by.  And I remember many a long wait at the mall, sitting at the corner in front of the Sears, waiting for one of the big white rectangles to cruise down the road and stop with a pneumatic hiss and open its doors for our return to campus.

The campus bus was also this connection back to my first visit alone to Bloomington.  I remember having a very different perception of the campus, before I started classes, before I really settled in.  I think it was my view of the institution of college in general, as seen from the eyes of a high schooler.  I didn’t spend decades planning on attending IU – I didn’t have any family members or friends who went there, and I thought I’d end up at Ball State, until maybe the January of my senior year, when I changed my focus.  I did that parent weekend visit, where you show up with your folks and the school tells you how great it is and how you should really give them your money (red carpet days?) and it all looked so hallowed and distant to me.  All of the students there looked a decade older, even though most of them were mere months ahead of me.  My perception of college life was formed by 80s movies like Breaking Away or Revenge of the Nerds, and I thought everyone was a rich jock or a supermodel-to-be, and it was all very intimidating to me.

But aside from the people, I had this perception of the campus as this hundreds-of-years-old institution, with the ivy-covered buildings and towering library and these bars and hangouts like Garcia’s Pizza and Nick’s and Kilroy’s.  And part of this perception was that the campus was immense.  When I visited that summer before my first semester, I drove down from Elkhart and stayed at Foster quad, which is on the north side of campus.  And they had some special shuttle bus set up to haul everyone from Foster down to the old crescent of campus, to Franklin Hall to meet with advisors and take placement tests and register for classes and do other things involving many scantron forms and number two pencils.  And I remember taking one of these RTS busses for the slow crawl around the campus, down Jordan and across the long stretch of Third Street filled with greek houses and old buildings, and then around the corner by the Law School and up Indiana to the division between the old original campus and the downtown.

I walked past all of these little stores, like the White Rabbit place where you got rugs and posters for your dorm room, and Discount Den, where they sold used CDs and everything imaginable with an IU logo on it.  That stroll around the Kirkwood Avenue buildings, eventually culminating with a lunch at Garcia’s Pizza, is where my perception started to change, from the campus being this distant Hollywood-formed entity to being my home for the next half-decade.  I didn’t know this change in perception had started, but that first glimpse of my new life is what I always remembered every time I got on one of those busses.

And then, a decade later, I’m in the same exact bus, with a different color stripe.  Except instead of being the A bus lumbering past the Arboretum and toward a giant limestone library, it was the M60 going from Harlem, across the Triborough bridge and into Queens.  Even though the lush green lawns got replaced with block after block of graffiti-covered buildings climbing into the sky, I still remembered that July day in 1989 when one era ended and another one began.

On Mix-tapes, floppy disks, and gopher

When we were out for dinner last night, I was talking about the AT&T “you will” ad campaign.  It seems like this happened ten minutes ago, but it was twenty years ago.  I don’t entirely know why I remember these ads, since I didn’t have a TV at the time, and downloading a ten-second 320×200 MPEG would take you half a day, so I’m sure I didn’t watch it online.  But the commercials featured a bunch of far-future technology, which now either exists (the ezpass, telemedicine, RFID, sending PDFs from your phone) or is so stupid we’ll never have it (home automation, robot butler crap.)

What amazes me, thinking about this, is all of the technology that was ubiquitous twenty years ago that a kid today would totally not understand.  I wrote about floppy disks yesterday, but here’s a few more off the top of my head that are dead forever:

  1. Pay phones.  I guess they exist now, in a very limited form, but I remember when even in rural Indiana, you could find a pay phone almost everywhere.  My dorm had a bank of pay phones in these little wooden booths with glass doors, I guess from the days when the dorm rooms didn’t have phones, or maybe for when you wanted to have a private conversation without disturbing your roommate.
  2. Cassette tapes.  Vinyl’s making a comeback, but tapes are dead.  I would probably have an extra year of life if I could get back all the time I spent re-winding fucked up tape back onto the tiny reels with a pencil, or untangling a long strand of tape that vomited out of the little holes on the bottom of the norelco shell and into my walkman.  Which reminds me of…
  3. Walkman.  I guess capital-W Walkman was the registered trademark of Sony, but everyone called every portable tape player that ran off of AA batteries a walkman.  I guess now people call every portable digital player an iPod.
  4. Ghetto blaster.  Is that a politically incorrect name for a portable stereo?  I don’t know, but when I googled “jambox”, I got some bluetooth wireless speaker.  I’m sure someone will come out with a “throwback” version marketed toward people who like hip-hop music and see the old ones in Spike Lee movies, but it seems like a dead format right now.  Now when you want to annoy everyone around you and look cool, you play your music through the crappy little speaker on your phone, which should be punishable by, at the very least, a kick to the balls.
  5. The Wizard.  In the days before iPhones synched contacts, there were these bastardized calculators that would store names and phone numbers.  There was no way to sync or back them up, and they all had horrible chicklet or membrane keyboards.  I got one in the late 80s, either as a holiday gift or when one of my parents got one for opening a checking account or something and couldn’t figure it out.  It was so painful to enter in any phone numbers, and by the time I did, the battery would die and I’d have to start over.  I did my own poor man’s wizard, which was a sheet of paper folded up in my wallet, which I guess now I could call a “hipster organizer” and start a whole web site about.
  6. Floppy disks.  I talked about this yesterday.  It also reminded me of the whole cottage industry of plastic holders for floppy disks, the various clamshells and rolodexes and plastic cubes and whatnot.
  7. Zip disks.  These had a brief window of maybe five years of popularity, somewhere between hauling around fifty floppy disks and just burning a CD-ROM.  All I remember about these is they had this “click of death” issue, and would suffer from catastrophic failure, which almost always caused the owner to freak the fuck out because they didn’t have a backup, because the Zip disk was the backup.
  8. SyQuest drives.  You need to dig deep to find someone who remembers these, but we had a bunch of SyQuest drives on the IU campus in the early 90s.  They were basically a removable hard drive, a 5.25″ plastic cartridge that held a hard drive platter and was nowhere near as sturdy as a floppy.  I never had one, because they were not cheap; I think they cost like a hundred dollars for a 44MB cartridge, and $100 was like a month of beer in 1992.
  9. Film cameras.  I guess they still exist, but unless you are an artist or hipster, you aren’t dropping off an armful of black plastic spindles at the local Osco’s to wait and see if the pictures you took last week were fucked up or not.
  10. Gopher.  Almost nobody remembers it, but it was a brief precursor to the world wide web.  You used a browser program to look at servers, but there was no real page layout, just menus that went to documents.  You couldn’t really publish your own gopher page, but for about ten seconds in 1991, every big university or government office had a gopher server, and it was so cool to browse through links and find text documents up to eight times faster than just FTPing there.  Then the web came out later that year, and we all forgot about gopher.

I think it’s easy to come up with a list of predictions for stuff we’ll have in 20 years.  What’s harder is to come up with a list of the stuff we use every day today that will be obsolete in 20 years.  Here’s my stab at a list of stuff that will go away by 2031:

  1. DVDs.  Probably Blu-Ray, too.  I think either everything will be streamed/downloaded, or maybe there will be some successor for optical media that’s smaller and stores more, maybe with some read/write capability.  I’m also certain that all of the optical media you buy today will be dead by then, either from some defect in manufacturing that will cause the discs to oxidize/disintegrate/fall apart, or because nobody will have the players anymore.  (How many of you still have a Jaz drive laying around the house?)
  2. GPS. I mean the TomTom unit you stick on your windshield with a suction cup.  I think this functionality is going to be built into cars for the most part.  I doubt we’ll get to fully automated driving in 20 years, but I think by then, high-end cars will have some sort of autopilot functionality in bigger cities.  Of course, that means every square inch of Japan will be wired for it, and we’ll see it in parts of New York and LA.
  3. Incandescent light bulbs.  Sorry tea party, but within five years, LED light bulbs are going to be cheap, low-watt, dimmable, smaller, way less fragile, and have no flicker.  That probably means the compact fluorescent ones will die too, if that makes you feel any better.
  4. USB.  It might exist in name only, but I think that some descendant of the optical version of the Light Peak/Thunderbolt interface is going to eventually kill USB, DVI, and HDMI.  I see two stumbling blocks with it: one problem is you can’t power a device over an optical interface, and the other is the endless pissing contest that happens when anyone wants to introduce a new interface format and everyone else doesn’t want to be the next betamax.
  5. Console gaming systems.  A big part of the market is going to mobile phones and tablets as we speak, and we’re just about to reach a massive crash in console sales.  The other thing is that TVs are getting smarter, and you’ll see a point where your TV is the client for the game, and some server out in the ether will do all of the processing.
  6. Printers.  Tablet-type systems will be everywhere and paper-thin, so you’ll just shoot documents back and forth like that.  If you’re one of those “I can only work on stuff that’s printed out” people, you’ll either be dead or blind in 20 years.
  7. Terrestrial radio.  I’m not sure why it hasn’t collapsed by this point, but I expect some combination of right-wing deregulation and greed over those coveted frequency bands to cause the entire system to get shut down and repurposed for commercial long-distance baby monitors or digital parking meter uploads or something else.
  8. Von Neumann architecture computers.  We’re at the point where you can’t fit any more crap on an integrated circuit, and CPUs aren’t going to get any faster.  In the next few years, it’s going to be all about adding more cores and more processors and more GPUs and coprocessors, but that’s all eventually going to go sideways.  Someone will get serious about using optical interconnects at the chip level, and when that happens, they’ll look at stuff like neuromorphic computing, emulating neuron networks, or something.
  9. Pretty much every web site you use today.  Facebook, twitter, and google will all be five iterations gone.  How many of you still use AltaVista?  Friendster?  Something new will always come along.
  10. Microsoft.  If you asked me 20 years ago about IBM, I would have predicted they would run the world.  Now, what do they even do?  I think they do consulting?  And maybe mainframes?  Microsoft is going to go through this 1-2-3 of a CEO change, a collapse of their long-term ponzi scheme of running a constant loss in their online divisions, and probably some major split or sell-off or restructure.  I’m sure there will be a Microsoft in 20 years, but I’m also sure it won’t be ever-present in every corner of your life unless you work there.

I guess I forgot to mention the death of the VCR, so maybe that’s another later post.  I also wonder if DVRs will still be around.  Seems like it would be much more efficient if the cable company stored copies of everything and you browsed them like the web, instead of trying to “catch” the recording and store it on your end, and then if you miss setting the recording or the stupid thing ends 90 seconds after the 30 minute mark, you aren’t screwed.  Why don’t the do it that way now?

It has been a decade since I’ve seen a sector not found error

Someone recently posted a sort of call-to-arms for people to dig up their old floppy disks and back them up immediately, because it would only be a matter of moments before the magnetic media would flake away and vanish forever.  I remember hearing scare stories way back when, that after some huge amount of time like ten years, disks would simply fall apart and vanish, and I thought, “shit, 2002 is like forever away, so nothing to worry about – better get back to flaming this idiot on alt.rock-and-roll.metal.heavy about why Entombed is going to always be the best band ever.”  Now, I don’t even know where the hell my floppy disks are – I think they’re in my storage unit, but they could be in a box somewhere in the house, or they could have all ended up in the garbage in one of the last dozen moves I’ve made.

I remember the first floppy disk I ever had.  It was in maybe 1985 or so, a 5 1/4″ Memorex single-sided disk I had to buy for a computer programming class.  There was no real difference between single and double-sided disks except for a little notch on one of the sides, and you could use a hole punch or x-acto knife and carve out that little hole and you’d magically have twice as much storage.  There was some urban legend or unverified factoid (this was way before google or snopes.com) that the disks that didn’t pass some quality test on both sides became single-sided disks.  And they sold some little device in the back of Compute magazine that punched the hole for you, but why pay for it when you can just use a knife for free?  I saved all of my Apple II BASIC programs on one side of the disk, and then used the back side to save all of my Commodore stuff when I was using my friend Matt’s computer to play games.  I had a Commodore 64, but never got a floppy drive, so I never amassed a huge number of disks like some of my friends did.

I came up on computers around the time when two formats dominated: the 5 1/4″ floppy disk, and the 3 1/2″ not-as-floppy disk.  When I went to school in Bloomington in 1989, I saw both of these in the wild, and it was always this curse that if you chose a 3.5″ disk, you might go over to a friend’s or some off-the-beaten-path dorm computer lab and find they only had the 5 1/4″ drives.  If you used a Mac, you didn’t have this issue, but you had to actually find a Mac on campus, which meant waiting in a Cedar Point-length line for a seat, or spending the cost of a decent car for your own home computer.  And these were the days before “the cloud”, or where “the cloud” meant an account on a VAX machine where you could store maybe a four-page paper, if you could wait an hour to upload it over your 2400-baud modem.

The format also caused great confusion when I started consulting, because people thought “hard disk” meant the plastic-encased 3.5″ disks, when it really referred to a high capacity fixed-platter device.  I probably spent at least a month of my life on the phone with someone playing this “who’s on first” game of trying to determine what the hell they were talking about.

I bought a ten-pack of those 3.5″ disks in my freshman year, but when I returned to IUSB for my sophomore year, the newer and smaller drives were nowhere to be found.  I bought a ten-pack of 5 1/4″ disks every payday, and would promptly fill them up with stuff I downloaded from the internet, old issues of Phrack magazine and pieces of pascal code, images from wuarchive and shareware games that never worked right on the school’s crap computers.  I never labelled anything, and within a year, forgot what was on almost every single one of these disks.  When I built my first PC in 1991, it had both sizes of drive on it, but I eventually phased out the use of the 5 1/4″ disks.  I think my last “big” drive stayed in the tower for a long time though, until the top two wide slots in the case were populated by a CD-ROM and CD-R drive.

My first hard drive doesn’t really count – it was this 5 MB winchester drive that I swear dimmed the lights in the whole damn house when it spun up.  It wasn’t until 1993 that I bought a proper IDE drive, a whopping 40 MB drive for $100.  But floppies were still very much in play.  Every time I wanted to reinstall the latest Linux on my machine, I would haul out a pile of 20 or 30 floppy disks, go to campus, and start downloading.  Of course, I’d always get home and the install would crap out because disk B7 had errors, and I’d have to start over.  I had an endless supply of disks though, because when I worked in the labs, the lost and found bins would fill with disks that were left behind, and after a semester, they would end up in consultants’ pockets.  There were also plenty of disks that came with hardware, install disks for bulk-purchased software that were never used, and promotional things that would end up in my collection.  I had many a disk that had a glossy Quattro Pro or Microsoft Sound Card sticker that was crossed out with marker and sloppily labelled “SLS 1.02 X7/10″.

Apple was the death of the floppy to me.  I mean, I had a Dell laptop I bought in 2001 that had no internal floppy, but it had this external caddy that held either a CD or a floppy drive, and I had both.  But when I switched over to the Mac Mini in 2005, it had no floppy disk drive, and no provision to hook one up, unless I went and bought a USB one.  By then, everything was on my hard drive, and if it had to be portable, I’d either burn it to a DVD or upload it to rumored.com.  I still had the PC tower, and it still had the floppy drives, but after I got the Mac up and running, I powered off the PC, and only powered it back up maybe two or three times.  And that PC ended up getting left in the trash room of my LA apartment when we split for SF.

I don’t know where those last few floppies are, or if any archaeology is needed to recover them.  I think most of the writing I want to keep ended up on this hard drive, and an installer to Epyx Summer Games for the PC isn’t useful to me anymore.  But I do miss the format in some strange way.  It’s entirely useless in the era of thumb drives and SD cards and DVD-Rs, but it’s a token back to the brief time between garage computers as big as a tank that involved soldering and toggle switches, and the era of ubiquitous computing, when there are more computers than people in the country.

All That is Golden

Simms had a hard-on for Kubrick. I’m suddenly reminded of this because of an excellent documentary on the making of The Shining, as filmed by Stanley’s daughter Vivian. Go watch this immediately.  This is required.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4745727919325920852

Simms had these insane theories that Kubrick was obsessed with the Golden ratio.  I’d never heard of the concept, that one plus the square root of five divided by two appears all over the place in art and nature.  1.618 is everywhere, from Greek temples to da Vinci’s paintings to the endoskeletons of shellfish.  Simms argued that 2001 must have been recut before release, using a computer that counted frames and trimmed things according to this mathematical equation.

I remained skeptical of all of this, until he brought me to a midnight showing of The Shining at the student union.  We sat in the front row, and Simms kept whispering at me, “look – look!”, pointing out the framing of shots.  And I’ll be damned, every scene, the hallways of this haunted hotel scrolling by the little kid on a bike, the tracking shots of people running through frozen mazes, everything was blocked and composed with this magic ratio in mind.

This short documentary contains some amazing little things, like a few sneaking glances of a Steadicam in operation, in the making of the film that would become an integral part of the device’s history. And there’s shots in the maze, of the little Danny Lloyd being told to run away from Jack in the snow.  Plus you see all of this behind-the-scenes coverage, of amazing stuff like Kubrick banging away on a portable typewriter at a kitchen table, while Nicholson marks off his lines in a script, using some technique that he claims he learned from Boris Karloff.

But the amazing takeaway of this doc is the glimpse of Nicholson as a working actor, and not the caricature that he has become after decades of every single white male hack comedian on the continent Doing Jack.  You see this charming young man joking with the crew, looking debonair, brushing his teeth before a take.  And then he hops up and down a few times to get the adrenalin going, and BAM, he instantly transforms into the demon-possessed Jack Torrance, wielding an axe and going into the windup to kill his wife.  And then cut, and then he’s Jack N again.  It’s truly amazing to see him switch on and off this role.

Now I’ve gotta go see if the original film is on Netflix or Amazon for streaming…

(Other unrelated trivia: the original hotel Stephen King wrote about is in Estes Park, Colorado.  That’s about 90 minutes away from… Golden, CO.)