The Death of the Good Internet

I’ve been meaning to write a post about this forever, but someone else at The Ringer did such a great job of it. Check it:

The Day the Good Internet Died

The one thing I find interesting about this article is the thought that maybe it wasn’t that the death of Google Reader killed off blogging, but that the death of blogging killed off Google Reader. It’s true that we all devolved into social media doom-scrolling instead of actually reading, but another factor is that Google was pushing people into Google Plus, and the asinine assumption that people would rather find what they wanted to read by scrolling through eleventy million messages rather than going to a list of exactly what they wanted to read. (What Google actually meant was that they wanted you to scroll through eleventy billion messages, with every fourth message being an ad someone paid them to run.)

I’m old enough to remember the first wave of blogs and interesting/time-wasting web sites, because I spent a lot of the late 90s and early 00s paging through them while I was at work or sitting at home without cable TV. But in that pre-Reader era, I did it by having folders of bookmarks. I’d go to my “daily” folder and sequentially click through each bookmark, trying to remember where I left off the day before. This was a great way to waste time, but not user-friendly, and it required me to remember where I left off. (I still had a memory then, which did help.)

Compared to this, Google Reader was amazing. I could keep track of everything in one place, and read the things in order, with counts of unread articles, and indications of what I already did see. All of this was possible because of RSS, which was a perfect example of the interoperable web. The closely-related iGoogle also had the ability to make a widget based on a web page’s RSS feed, and RSS was very integral to the advent of the podcast. It was so mind-blowing and vital at the time, that I hacked together a script that would output RSS for the pre-WordPress version of this blog, which was hacked together with a bunch of homebrew shell scripts, emacs extensions, PHP, and gaffer’s tape.

After the death of GR, I went on to Feedly, but every blog I read either died a high-profile death, or stagnated with no new posts. I keep hearing about these revival of blogging things and people saying Medium or or Longreads or Substack or whatever the hell else is the next big thing. And no matter what it is, it devolves into people selling Tony Robbins-esque bullshit classes on how to get rich in real estate. There are still a ton of people blogging, but “blogs” are now the things hanging off the side of dentists’ web sites and posting daily listicles about proper gum care to increase their SEO.

I used to bitch about how the money people and con men would fuck up the web long before the web even existed. I started throwing letters into this void (ala usenet) before AOL’s Eternal September started. In 1995, at my first real job. I was writing docs for one of the first web browsers that added SSL, while a marketing drone stood in front of my desk barking about how they needed to ship this immediately so they could sell fifty-dollar t-shirts on the web for the first time ever, and I thought this is not going to end well. And it didn’t.

And now, every time Google drops a vital service or Facebook decides they want me to look at stuff in a new inconvenient way, I always have a first thought: maybe I’m just too old for this stuff, and when I lose my shit because I’m forced to watch a TikTok video to figure out how to change my refrigerator’s water filter, I’m doing the same thing my parents did in 1987 when they had an aneurysm and started screaming about the Japanese taking over because channel 16 suddenly moved to channel 34. But then I always remember: follow the money. Google Reader got killed so we could be forced to watch more ads. The Facebook algorithm is set up to force us to watch more ads. Amazon stopped putting the names of products in their receipts because Google was using them to sell more ads. Everything is because of money. I was right. The money people ruin everything.

Baker’s article brings up an old Alex Balk article, which says the following:

Here I will impart to you Balk’s Third Law: “If you think The Internet is terrible now, just wait a while.” The moment you were just in was as good as it got. The stuff you shake your head about now will seem like fucking Shakespeare in 2016.

This is so fucking true it hurts. I blogged almost every day in 2010-2011, frequently wishing blogging was as good as it was in 2004, which is when I was bitching about how much better personal journals (the predecessor to blogs) were back when I started this stupid site in 1996. Now I wish things were as good as 2011.

I always wonder if there will be another era of Good Internet, or if we’re in the middle of it and I don’t realize it. All I know is blogging is still important to me, because I know as long as I keep paying my bills, I can still keep my stuff here, even if nobody can find it anymore.



Coke Zero, Hybrid Failure, SR2, Etc

They recently changed the formula of Coke Zero to make it “more like regular Coke.” It tastes like a mix of Listerine and cloves now. The only thing is has improved is my ability to quit soda, which hasn’t happened yet, but probably should.

I would normally be more upset about this, but I ultimately have no time to care. I drank a case of it and can’t tell the difference now, so on to the next problem/outrage. I used to be much more upset when a company made a lame decision like the discontinuation of Surge, the dropping of the Taco Bell Mexican Pizza, or the fact that I’ve eaten the same exact oatmeal every morning for twelve years and they decided to stop selling in packets. Life is too short.

* * *

After dumping all the money into my car over the last month, I had a fun experience with it. I was driving off to the mall a week ago, and after I got up to highway speed on the 580, every warning light in the dash came on, and the info panel said “HYBRID SYSTEM FAILURE – PULL OVER IMMEDIATELY.” The dynamic braking stopped working, and the EV system went completely offline. There was a Toyota dealership just past the next highway exit, so I swung in there and dropped it off. They said they’d get to it on Monday.

This began a weekend-long spiral into figuring out if I needed to buy a new car. The hybrid system is still under warranty, so if it needed a $5000 battery, that’s covered. But I figured the dealership would add a $4000 spine reticulation charge or whatever the hell, or take six months to fix it. The car’s probably worth about $7000 in good condition. When the Yaris reached the end of the line in 2014 and had unknown wiring problems only fixable by a dealer, I brought it to the sales counter and they made me a good deal on the trade-in, so I figured I’d do the same. They don’t make the Prius C anymore, and the Camry and Corolla hybrids are honestly better cars than the Prius, so I burned a lot of cycles pricing this stuff out, trying to figure out what I wanted to pay, what I wanted to finance, etc etc.

Monday morning, they ran the diagnostic and said it was just the ECC lost communication with the system and threw a few codes, so it shut down the entire hybrid system. (If you stumble across this in a search, the DTC codes were U0140, U0073, and U0126.) The only obvious culprit was that I have a ScanGauge II plugged into the ODBII port. I have since I got the car; it’s a holdover from when I had the largely-gaugeless Yaris. I don’t really use it anymore, and the tech theorized that maybe the cable got bumped, or something else happened. He cleared the codes, unplugged the ScanGauge, and no problems since. No charge on the scan, either. So I saved $200 plus another $25,000 on a new car.

* * *

I’ve been having a lot of trouble getting anything going writing-wise. In a fit of “do something completely different,” I did a Ctrl-C Ctrl-V on the project file for my first book, and started on page 1, taking notes and editing things. I’ve had this stupid idea to write a thirty-years-later sequel of the book, and I thought I came up with a good gimmick to get it going, but I needed to go through the old draft, partly to get it all back in my head, and partly to George Lucas in a few minor changes to get the two books to line up correctly.

It’s an …interesting experience to read writing I haven’t touched in over twenty years, especially when it’s a radical departure from what I’ve been writing ever since. There’s obviously some very wooden writing, and little bone-headed typos abound. The usual complaint about the book is that it’s too long, and generally plotless. I could see trimming the book slightly, tightening up things. But for every subplot I would think about trimming, I think there’s another that could have been explored more. And it surprises me now that there are so many characters, so many subplots. It also follows an overall arc more than I thought.

After I got about a third of the way through it, I got disinterested with the idea, though. I can’t go too into it without revealing the gimmick, but I wasn’t interested in writing that book. And it’s been a long time since I’ve put a lot of focused thought into Bloomington. I haven’t spent more than a few hours in town since 1999 when I stopped there for a few days on my move east. Writing a sequel would need some solid reason to be there, and not just the main character wandering around having regrets about every person he dated a million years ago, and being amazed at how all of the stores at the mall closed. Maybe at some point I will visit again and get the spark to write this, but who knows.

* * *

Speaking of, I’m still on for the Seattle trip in two weeks. I have been working on a list of what to do, but I haven’t done any heavy research yet. I just now started thinking about what camera or cameras to bring, or if it’s time for a new one, and I need to shut down that conversation before it starts.


Death of the Astor Place Kmart

So the Kmart at Astor Place in Manhattan finally closed. I honestly did not know it was still open. I think Kmart only has a couple dozen locations still remaining in the US, and none of them are anywhere near me. I haven’t been back to New York since 2013, and probably won’t be returning any time soon, since I switched jobs. But I still have a lot of random memories of the place from the years I lived there.

Like I mentioned in Death of a Kmart, I was a Kmart kid. (Or K-Mart, rather, before they dumbed up the name for Y2K.) By the time I was in high school, Kmart was a joke, the place where poor rednecks shopped for school clothes and electronics that would break in a month. And by college, it was an ironic place to go. You actually shopped at Target, but you went to Kmart late at night to make fun of the muzak and the bad clothes.

So when I got to New York, Kmart was a strange callback to childhood in a city that was a completely alien landscape to me. There wasn’t a Target or a Best Buy or any big-box store in Manhattan at the time.  It was almost comforting to go back to a store with big aisles and cheap housewares and prices that ended in a .97. I spent most of my time in haphazard bodegas and crowded mini-groceries, where I couldn’t find anything. Kmart was filled with giant-size everything.

The store itself was giant. The only big stores in Manhattan then were places like Bloomingdale’s or Saks. The main floor that opened up from the Lafayette street entrance seemed cavernous, like the ceiling was two stories high, held up with giant pillars, a giant Valhalla filled with Kathy Ireland clothes and the Martha Stewart collection. An insanely long escalator took you up to the second (really third) floor, where there were more home goods and a cafe. Or you could go to the basement, which had electronics, toys, seasonal goods, and as much junk food as you could possibly imagine. And the basement was even directly connected to the 6 train.

I arrived in New York in 1999, a few years after the place opened. I remember first hearing about it because the band U2 played a live show there. At the time, I hated the band U2, largely because I had an ex a few years ago who worshipped them, and I probably wasn’t over her at the time, so I found the whole ironic Bono stunt a bit silly. There are videos of it on YouTube, which are so incredibly 90s, they give me horrible flashbacks, but would be a big hit with the vaporwave folks.

Anyway, here’s a bulleted list of a bunch of random memories of the place:

  • My first celebrity sighting in New York was seeing Gilbert Gottfried there in 1999, trying to buy an oscillating fan.
  • The store had a Big K Cafe on the third floor. Despite the bad food, it had a very nice view of Astor Square from the giant windows on the front of the building, and was a great place to sit and relax, until everyone realized it was a great place to sit and relax.
  • Everyone seems to mention that there was a public restroom by that cafe. Nobody seems to remember how dirty it got after a few years. Every Kmart has horrific restrooms. I think it’s because of the merger with Sears, because every Sears bathroom anywhere in the United States smells like it was painted with a thick coat of raw sewage.
  • When I lived in Seattle, I got addicted to Slurpees. Every night, after I hit my daily writing quota, I would drive to 7-Eleven and get a Coke Slurpee. Then I moved to New York, and there were no 7-Elevens. The Kmart Icee was an imitation Slurpee, and I could never figure out why they were inferior – maybe not enough syrup – but it was almost an acceptable substitute. Also, corn dogs were for some reason rare or hard to find in Manhattan, but they had them at the cafe.
  • In 2000, I met someone online and we had a long-distance thing going for a bit. When she came down to Manhattan to meet me for the first time, the public rendezvous point was at that Big K Cafe.
  • Kmart had holiday stuff disturbingly early, or what seemed disturbingly early then. (Target probably has Christmas trees out already now.) When I was at Juno, they told us we could decorate our cubes for the holidays, so I went to Kmart and bought an unnatural amount of Christmas lights, like a Clark Griswold amount of strands, including ones that played carols and holiday music through a cheap little speaker. They probably stayed up until May.
  • This was the era when Kmart was trying to be a “hypermart” and had an almost full line of groceries in the basement. You typically had to go to the outer burbs and rent a car to get any giant multi-pack staples like this. I could never hack grocery shopping there and dragging everything home on the train. But it was always awesome to buy snacks in bulk and bring them to the office. Either you could buy a candy bar for a dollar at a bodega, or you could buy 96 candy bars at Kmart for like five dollars.
  • I bought a lot of cheap home goods at Kmart, because I could never find them at other places. Like any time I needed a dish drainer or a bathroom plunger or whatever, I normally stopped there first. I had a fluorescent light fixture in my kitchen, and the only place where I could find the special circular bulb was at Kmart. I also remember buying a new toilet seat for my Astoria apartment, and ten years after I left, I saw some realtor photos for the place, and it’s still on there.
  • I also loved wandering around the basement level, looking at all the weird stuff you could only find at Kmart in Manhattan. Like they had a full aisle of fishing gear, in case you wanted to fish for dead bodies and toxic trout in the Hudson river.
  • I talked about this in The Replay but that Kmart was a pivotal memory in my 9/11 experience. When I walked home that day, I stopped at that Kmart to develop my pictures (remember analog film?) and buy a pair of sneakers so I didn’t have to wear my messed up dress shoes home. I ate corn dogs at the Big K Cafe and watched the destruction on CNN while a large armada of office workers all bought new shoes to walk home in.
  • After not going there for years, I stopped in to use the restroom and was dismayed that the Big K Cafe was gone, converted into a makeshift furniture overflow area.
  • My last memory: in 2007, we had packed up everything for our move to Denver. All I had left in the apartment was a week of clothes, and I didn’t have a bag to put them in, because the movers had packed and shipped my luggage. While I was taking a shower on the last day there, one of us who may not have been me (trying not to blame anyone here) turned on the automatic oven cleaner and almost burned down the house. The entire apartment filled with a dense smoke and the fire department showed up. My week of clothes now smelled like they’d been in a house fire, which they had been. So on my last day in New York, I went to K-Mart, bought a large gym bag. a couple of pairs of Wranglers, some generic t-shirts, and a bunch of multi-pack Hanes socks and underwear, plus some junk food and extra toiletries. That was my luggage on the flight to Colorado, and all I had to wear until our house showed up on a moving truck ten days later.

No big surprise on the store going away. Aside from the greater death of everything Fast Eddie Lampert got his dirty hands on in the Sears/Kmart empire, pretty much everything in New York changes every year or two. Within a stone’s throw of that store, there’s been a complete turnover of damn near everything, except Starbucks. And that Chase bank is doing okay. (So’s the six other locations within a thousand feet of there. too.) Anyway.


Cat, Back, Seattle, Dream

First things first, Squeak seems back to normal. She spent a week in cat jail, this playpen thing with a mesh roof on top, something we had from when she broke her leg back in 2009. We’d let her out here and there for supervised play time, but there are metal stairs and too many ledges and things for her to jump on. She was also on a heavy dose of gabapentin, which kept her pretty sedate. But by about day four or five, she was getting restless, and we were lowering the dosage. She seems fine now, and the jail has been taken down, so that’s all good. If the idiots in my neighborhood would cut the shit with the fireworks, things would be perfect in cat-land.

* * *

I guess I didn’t mention it, but my back has been out for about two weeks. It started on a Sunday, and of course there’s no great story behind it, like that I was jumping from a helicopter or fighting sharks or whatever. I think I was putting away a tube of toothpaste after brushing my teeth in the morning.

I have the occasional thrown back, a pulled muscle or whatever, but this is probably the worst one in memory. Maybe back in 2015, I had a situation that lasted about a week, but this one is considerably worse. Sitting, standing, walking, laying down: all were bad. So I iced it every hour, and kept on the TENS thing constantly. (If you have back or muscle pain and you don’t know about these, it’s the best $40 you’ll ever spend. Go to Amazon and pick one up immediately.) I’ve also got the chiro doing some work on it, and it’s getting there, but I haven’t shaken it yet.

My conspiracy theory on this is that the sudden weight loss over the last few months (I’m just shy of 25 pounds since April) is pulling everything out of alignment. Great news that my gut is going away, but my back muscles are used to a certain amount of tension there, and it’s all shifting. So the back tenses up, the pelvis tilts, the front of my thighs are overworked and hurt, etc. It’s getting there, but it’s been brutal. Hopefully in another couple of weeks, I can get it fully under control.

* * *

I figured out the vacation stuff, after a big struggle with travel sites and destinations and stuff. Anyway, I will be in Seattle from the 7th to the 14th of next month, which will be interesting. Aside from a plane change at SeaTac, I haven’t been back to Seattle since I left in the spring of 1999. And things have 100% changed, from what I hear.

Example: I will be staying in Northgate. As I mentioned in The Death of Northgate, the mall in Northgate is completely dead, and currently getting torn down. The Denny’s is long gone, as is the pancake house where I ate brunch every Saturday for years. Northgate is an okay-ish place for me to stay, because it’s by the highway and I didn’t have to pay another sixty bucks a day to park. But it will be weird.

I was also thinking about driving versus public transit, and I think all of the systems other than the busses happened after I lived there. Sound Transit was nothing more than an ongoing political argument when I left, and had a major scandal after that, but seems to now have a light rail system going everywhere, plus a streetcar system that goes very close to my old digs in First Hill. I’ll probably try it out, but I have a feeling I’ll spend a lot of the trip driving giant circles on the Jon Konrath Reality Tour when I get there.

I have no real plans yet, and need to work on that. I might try to go to a Mariners game, and tick that ballpark off my list. The MoPop is something I definitely want to check out. I will also probably do all the usual shit, Pike Place and Pioneer Square (which I hear is a bit dodgy now) and whatever else. Plus all the remaining malls, I guess.

If you are in Seattle, ping me and we can hang out, too.

* * *

Last night’s dream was this technical failure loop where I was trying to buy a Queen album to listen to out of curiosity or whatever, and I could not find one. I was scrolling through three devices: a phone, an ipad, and some kind of music review/player tablet thing. I’d find a hit on one device and it would redirect to the other; the search button would vanish on the tablet thing; the band’s entire discography would be missing from Apple Music; google searches would either go to articles about the queen of England or would just redirect to ads. I wondered if Universal was in a fight with Apple and pulled everything, or if I was just having a senior moment with the technology. And I started to almost see the edges of the dream, caught myself thinking “Is this really happening?”


Car, Trip, Cat, Work, Food

Another dumb car update – the maintenance stuff is about done. I had the 30K service, but I looked it up, and the only thing Toyota recommends is to see if anything has fallen off, rotate the tires (but I have new tires), check the floor mat (sudden acceleration lawsuit cover-your-ass inspection), and change the oil and air filter. You only change the oil every 10,000 miles in this car, which is bizarre to me, because I drive that much in two years, and I used to always be told it was every three months back in 1747 when I had a big V-8 (that leaked most of its oil, anyway). So I went to Oil Changers, then bought the air filter on Amazon, and the car maintenance saga has concluded.

* * *

I am taking vacation in August, but have no idea where. It is insanely cheap to fly to Iceland right now, but I don’t want to deal with the jet lag, and it’s a pain getting back into the US. I think the current guidance is you need a C19 test three days before you return, and then it’s advised you get it again three days after you come home. The after one is fine, but I don’t want to deal with the stress of finding the testing place and then getting the wrong one, or not getting it with the right seal or stamp on the piece of paper, or whatever. I’d like to assume they have a simple little thing at the airport where they do it right there for a few bucks, done. But I could also see wandering from agency to agency to hospital to clinic downtown for days on end, only seeing signs that say “þú ert hálfviti og finnur ekki baðherbergið!” or whatever the hell. I think having to find an emergency dentist in a town where nobody spoke English back in 2009 was enough trauma to throw me for a while.

I have more thoughts and ideas on the vacation thing, but I’ll shut up until I book anything. Pricing is getting weird, and there are a lot of places I won’t go because either the weather will be hell at that time of year, the general C-19/vax numbers are too out of control, or I’ve been there too many times recently. (Vegas is all three, BTW.)

* * *

Had the day off on Friday, and here’s the fun I had. We’re eating dinner, and Squeak, the little cat, is nowhere to be found. I look around, and she’s hiding in a corner under their little kitty condo thing, which is where she retreats when there is a vacuum or she’s sick. She’s holding back her front paw, not walking on it. She’s the one who broke her rear leg in 2009 and had to have surgery, so of course we freak out that it’s a repeat performance. I look at the leg, and there’s no obvious broken bones, no swelling, perfect symmetry with the opposite leg, no blood, no obvious toe/claw issue, no injury on the pads. But we thought maybe it’s serious, so off to the emergency vet we go.

I’m not going to name this vet, but it’s the only one in Oakland that’s open 24/7, and I think it’s a bit of a sham operation. We went at maybe 9PM and checked in, and they had us fill out the forms and then check her in and take her inside. We’re told to wait, not leave, and they’ll call us, but it’s like a 3-4 hour wait. So… we waited. She was not considered a priority, so a bunch of other cases line-jumped in front of us. We’d call every few hours, and they’d say “oh, you’re next.” And I didn’t think this through — I should have brought an iPad, a dozen movies, some books, a battery charger, two meals, a cooler of drinks, etc etc etc. All I had was my phone, and I think I read the entire internet twice while waiting. I got so bored, I logged in at work and started reviewing GitHub pull requests on my phone.

Anyway, eight hours later, they examined her, said the same thing I said above, and it was probably a muscle strain. They gave us liquid gabapentin, and said to limit her movement for a week. Also, I was expecting this to cost us two or three grand, and the bill was something like $103. We got home as the sun rose, set up her little tent-playpen thing she had when she broke her leg, and she’s now sitting around stoned out of her gourd, and forbidden from using the stairs. Crisis averted, I hope.

* * *

Interesting thing happened yesterday: I actually met two people from my job. One of the managers in another group said he was going over to a brewpub in Alameda, and asked who in the East Bay wanted to meet up. So I drove over and met up with him and another guy I work with. It’s such an odd situation that I’ve worked at this place for three months and have “met” with people and talked to them every day on zoom, Slack, and through GitHub and Jira issues and whatnot, but I have not met anyone, even an HR person or my own manager. So we hung out, and I don’t drink, but Smish Smash burger had a pop-up, so I got a burger and some fries, and we shot the shit about what’s going on at work. That’s another thing I’ve missed: when I’m only in official meetings, I never find out what’s really going on, so this was my first experience of hearing what other people thought. So that was great.

I just typed a much longer thing about the fact that this was also the first time I’ve eaten in a restaurant in a year and a half, but it’s hard to get into that without getting political and stupid, so I’ll skip over that for now.

* * *

I don’t think I’ve mentioned it yet, but I’ve been back in food jail since April. And that’s going well, yesterday’s burger notwithstanding. Since April 5, I’m down just over 20 pounds. I still have probably 20 more to go, maybe more like 25, but it’s getting there. I’m doing the same thing I did in 2008, which I won’t mention by name but includes the letters W and W. Online only now, of course. Not a lot of exercise involved, just sensible eating choices. No magic diet. I know for my body, eating any fat (even “good” fat) results in weight gain. Eating too many carbs, same thing. So it’s a balance, but the points system works well for me. The other big thing that works for me is not listening to anyone else’s idiotic advice about how fasting or keto or magic vitamins from someone’s podcast will work. I’ve lost weight before this way, and I’m losing weight now, so the comment box is closed on that one.

There’s a certain amount of shame and negativity on how I gained back what I lost after like six years, and I haven’t been at a healthy weight since maybe 2014. And the pandemic caused me to go above my not-healthy weight by another dozen pounds. (My shrink’s joke was that instead of the freshman five, people were gaining the covid nineteen.) Anyway, I’ve gotten rid of the quarantine weight, and I’m slowly progressing downward, and I’ve gone from obese to overweight. By current projections, I’ll be “normal” by the end of summer. We’ll see.


Tired, the nolo dumpster

index cards

Spent an obscene amount of money yesterday on new car tires. That’s the exciting point of my month. I got the factory-stock Michelin tires and a full alignment job at a place in West Berkeley. The car had a horribly shimmy, the steering wheel vibrating and always pulling a bit. The whole thing took about two hours, and it now drives like new.

I think this was the first time I’d ever paid full price for an entire set of new tires with all the fixins. On my Yaris, I did get a set of four tires from this semi-shady place in West Oakland I used to go to every time I needed a tire patched. They were some oddball name of tires, and probably cost half as much. I think I traded in the car a year or so later, and the shop got arsoned for insurance money. Way back in Seattle, I had two blowouts in my old Escort, and bought one-off tires, but not a new set. And when I was a kid, I would go to Discount Tire or a gas station and buy used tires, try to find something with decent tread for five bucks each.

Actually I take that back, I did get new tires on my VW Rabbit back in 1997 or 1998. I went to a Sears auto center in West Seattle, which I’m sure is long gone. I remember this clearly because I pulled an all-nighter the night before and then left work early, in a near-hallucinatory state where nothing was real, but everything was forever burned in my brain.

So when I bought this Rabbit, the person before me had cut the springs to lower it (as if a Rabbit is not low enough), then put giant rims on it, maybe sixteen-inch and way too wide. The tires, some low-profile racing thing, were nearly bald, and getting the car above fifty on the highway was absolutely harrowing. I decided the car needed to go back to stock, and I had a bonus check hot in my pocket, so that’s what I did.

There was a junk yard in West Seattle that was nothing but VW and Audi parts. I always had lots of fun wandering around that place, looking at turbo motors cut out of Quattros. I’m sure it’s also gone, built up into condos. Anyway, I got a set of the steel thirteen-inch rims for ten bucks each, brought them to Sears, and got them to throw a set of stock-ish tires on for maybe forty bucks a tire. They mounted and balanced everything, then found out I didn’t have the right lug nuts (VW steel wheels use those tapered or flared-end ones) so I had to drive back to the junk yard. The dude at the counter reached in a bucket, pulled out about two dozen of the lugs, and said no problem, on the house. With the new tires, the car drove 100% better. I got back to Pill Hill, ate some lunch, and slept until dinner, when I got a quart of sweet and sour chicken in a plastic container from the Chinese restaurant on the roof of the giant new QFC in Cap Hill, and worked on my writing for the night.

* * *

Been trying to get some big writing underway, running into the usual problems. I don’t like to get into this stuff, but I’ve got a book that’s probably 100,000 words, and I’m very unhappy with it, and not sure how to land it. I had a big idea to shift around things a bit, and that kept me busy for about a week, but it’s fizzled out since then.

I keep thinking about Rumored, and the struggle to finish that one. I thought I finished the first draft of that thing in maybe 1996, and struggled to get it really swinging for the next six years. The photo in this post is a failed attempt in maybe 2001 to print summaries of each section, so I could rearrange them… or something. (This didn’t work.) This was when I wrote the whole thing as one giant text file in Emacs. Now in Scrivener, I’d just drag and drop the various pieces, but back then, it was an arduous task. The problem still remains though: the definition of done. I never know when the story makes enough sense to ship it. This current book is something I thought would be done in 2014 or 2015, and every year, I wasn’t sure if I was 80% done or 20%. I’m still not sure.

* * *

Took a long walk, maybe an hour and change, while they had the car up in the air yesterday. This was West Berkeley, and I decided to do the walk without headphones. It’s a very quiet area on the weekends, lots of pharma companies and art studios, with a few old houses that remind me of many of the off-campus houses in Bloomington, like the sixth street house where I finished up my last year in town. There’s always a nostalgia about those places, but many are vanishing, being replaced by a ten-unit condo crammed onto the same size lot.

One building that I didn’t know was a thing until it closed in 2018 is the old Fantasy Studios. This was “the house that Credence built,” a record studio where a ton of famous records were recorded. Journey’s albums Escape and Frontiers were both made there, as well as key releases from Green Day to Primus to Europe (yes, The Final Countdown was done there) and even Santana’s “Smooth” featuring Rob Thomas. It’s a fairly nondescript building, and is now mostly offices, although I guess a few floors of it still do film production.

An odd bit of reverberation here – although he didn’t record there, when Joe Satriani used to live in Berkeley back in the early 80s, he was in a pop trio band called The Squares, and they rehearsed at a building a block over from Fantasy. One time after practice, he was looking at a pile of remaindered books by a dumpster. Nolo books was in the building — they still are, actually — and in the pile of legal how-to books was one on how to start your own business. This was a period when he couldn’t get a record label to even answer his mails, so he decided screw it, paid the twelve bucks at the courthouse to register a business, and Rubina Records was born.

Anyway, it’s weird to me to think about how in 1987 or so, I was listening to a tape of his first album in my car a million miles away, and I imagined Berkeley as this mystical, mythical place that I didn’t even think was on the same plane of existence as my small Indiana town. And thirty-some years later, I’m walking around his old stomping ground, looking at the same gritty warehouse buildings he used to practice in when he was probably making less money than I used to pull in at Taco Bell back then.

* * *

Anyway. Day off today. I should probably leave the house and find something to do.


I would rather read my old LiveJournal than look at code I wrote in 1999

I’ve been digging around my machine trying to find any fun old projects I could throw on my GitHub page. What I’m mostly finding is how I get grandiose ideas for programming projects and then abandon them in a week. Some of the programming I did in college is absolutely laughable, but it’s also amazing how many things I’ve started that I’ve completely forgotten about.

I wrote a while ago about Nuke ‘Em, which is a dumb idea for a turn-based strategy game that I’ve chased every time I’ve moved to a new language or platform. I think the closest I’ve gotten to something running is a Ruby on Rails attempt I played with in 2008. But last night, I was digging through some C source code I wrote in 1999, trying to get a web based version of this going, and it was… interesting reading.

Looking at the code, it’s amazing how many ways I was reinventing the wheel, or painting myself into a corner. A few observations:

  • The project was a bunch of C source that would compile into a half-dozen CGI files that would then go onto a web server. When a user went to /user/login or whatever, that would run the login CGI binary. Why didn’t I just write a bunch of Perl scripts or some PHP for this? Well, I guess I already knew C, no use in learning something new and relevant.
  • Actually, some of the pages were generated by shell scripts which had forms where the action was to hit one of the binaries.
  • I doubt anyone would try to do something like use cURL to download the actual login binary, open it in a binary editor, and mess with it, right?
  • There was no templating system for generating web pages in 1999  (that I knew of; there probably was) so I had a routine to glue a head.html and tail.html template at the start and end of each generated page.
  • Part of the decision to do things this way was based on the limitations of my hosting provider, and part of it was price. I’m sure MS FrontPage would have made this all easier, but I think I was unemployed when I was doing this.
  • There is what I think is my first attempt ever at writing a Makefile from scratch. It shows.
  • The whole thing used a series of ndbm databases to store everything, including users, passwords, the map, and pending user turns. This databases were created in the /tmp directory and were world-writeable files. Nobody would think of looking around the /tmp directory of a public web server, so this was totally secure.
  • ndbm (or its predecessor NDBM) was basically like the first NoSQL database ever, sort of. (I would think a garage full of punchcards in random order would be the actual first NoSQL database, but whatever.) Anyway, it wasn’t relational, and didn’t have tables, so each “table” was just another file in the /tmp directory.
  • When you set up the world by creating initial users and making a terrain map and such, you would just run another binary which spat out the configured db files. Only an administrator could do this, because the files were different executables not installed in the hosted web directory. It didn’t check in any way if an admin was running the scripts, but it’s not like someone other than the admin would compile and run the source themselves and overwrite the world-writable files in the /tmp directory, would they?
  • There is a whole science to map-building, how to algorithmically scallop out water and land edges and mountains in some pseudo-random way to make a cool map of a world on the fly. This randomly generated a single-digit number for every square on the map and put that terrain in place.
  • For everything, and especially in the login, parameters like username and password are passed in the URL, because nobody would screw around and pass a bunch of garbage in URL parameters. And there probably weren’t search engines crawling and permanently storing parameterized URLs to do things like delete all users.
  • Oh, that password parameter is sent plaintext. It’s got to match the password in the publicly-readable database in the /tmp directory, which is also plaintext.
  • Players each have money they spend to build armies and buy missiles and stuff. Guess where that number is stored.
  • There is a separate library file (a .c and .h) that is chock full of dumb stuff that isn’t in the standard library, but I’m sure there are 863 different public libraries that do it, and if this was NodeJS or Ruby or Python, it would either be a built-in or it would be an npm/gem/library away. Like why did I write a routine to convert encoded URL parameters into arrays? Why did I write my own routine to convert ASCII strings into integers? Why didn’t I write something to encapsulate database calls, instead of pasting the same dozen lines across multiple files?
  • I don’t know why I did this, but the maximum length of a URL is malloc’ed to a size determined by reading an environment label, and I have no idea where that was set. (!?)
  • Not sure what C unit testing framework existed in 1999, but mine consisted of a file called test.c that ran a bunch of code and printf’ed the results to the console.
  • I never got to the point of putting in the turn-based logic, but my loose notes showed that I wanted to have a cron job that would fire every ten minutes (or whatever) and run a program that evaluated all of the turn moves and calculated out the combat losses and money spent and all that stuff.
  • No source control, of course. Lots of ~ and # emacs files, and lots of files copied with a .backup extension.

Sigh. Okay, a few bits of advice to myself twenty-some years ago:

  • The first is to learn PHP (ugh) or wait a few years and do it all in Ruby on Rails. I know Rails isn’t cool anymore, but it would have been so much easier to build models for all of the basic data types, then scaffold the whole thing, implement controllers for the bits of logic, and take the scaffold views and make them pretty. Of course I still can’t deploy Rails apps on my hosting provider, so that’s another issue.
  • Find public libraries to do the nasty stuff. It wasn’t as much of an option then, but it is now. The rub here is it never feels like I’m building things anymore; I’m just connecting together things that other people have built, and then trying to keep up with when libraries change or break. Having a solid ORM library, a templating engine, and something to deal with session persistence would have saved me a ton of time. (See also using Rails for this.)
  • Break things up into smaller tasks, like as MVPs for each piece. I sort of did this, looking at my notes, but I probably would have went deeper if I had really planned this a bit. I usually do it all seat-of-the-pants, and then get overwhelmed when I have nine different problems going on at once.
  • Think about security first. I know my thought was to have it all use no passwords or plaintext, and I’d lock it down after I got it running. I should have thought about that earlier, so I didn’t paint myself into a corner.
  • Source control, dummy. RCS was a thing then, and I was already using it for my writing. Check in often. It’s free.

(PS, I’ll probably start writing this same dumb game as an Electron app the next time I get bored.)


Bass work

Fender Jass BassI have this bass – a 2014 Fender Jazz Road Worn, which I got in 2014. The road worn/relic basses get a bad rap because “it’s like buying jeans with holes in them already,” but they’re also the cheapest way to get a lacquer finish bass from Fender. That and the fact that they kiln-dry the wood before assembly means the wood is dense and low-moisture, which gives you a deeper sound and a lighter weight. Anyway, I like the bass. But I haven’t played it lately because the neck went all psycho on me, and it had a ton of action. From the side, it looked more like a bow and arrow. And I couldn’t fix it with truss rod adjustments. So much like my retirement planning and general health, I ignored it and hoped someday I’d have a chance to figure it all out, but not now.

So then this music repair shop opens up about a block or two from my house. They are called Wood Street Guitar Repair. I brought the bass in to get a verdict on if the neck was completely destroyed or not. That’s when I saw what instantly sold me on the place: they had a brand new Plek machine, straight from Germany. I was in like flint.

A Plek machine is crazy. Basically, you strap a guitar into this thing that looks like a phone booth-sized 3-D printer. It scans the entire neck and loads the scan into a computer, which can then determine what frets are out of whack. The computer can then futz with this virtual model and simulate exactly what can be done to fix things. Once the operator picks a set of adjustments, a robot arm with a 50,000-RPM cutting tool buzzes away and files down high frets and does whatever other minor cutting and deburring and polishing needs to be done.

This whole process used to be done by hand, by sight. Now it’s done within a thousandth of an inch by a machine. Here’s a good video on how Gibson uses Plek now. I got a Lakland bass a few years ago, and they Plek every instrument they sell. That Lakland (a Skyline 44-01) has one of the best necks I have ever played, and it is their cheapest budget model. It’s truly revolutionary stuff.

When I checked in the bass, they asked me all the questions on how I like to play, what strings I wanted to use, etc. They also popped the neck and checked the truss rod, and it was still adjusting, so that looked okay. Unfortunately, when they got into it a couple of weeks later, they could not get the neck close to level, even with the truss rod bottomed out. So they heat-pressed the neck first. Basically, they put the neck in some clamps and use heat blankets to heat up the wood and slightly melt the glue. The neck is held straight and then dries overnight. They did this, then ran it through the Plek, and hand-filed the fret edges, which were a little too sharp.

Anyway, the verdict is that the bass now plays like butter. Super-low action, and it feels great. No high spots, just an incredible feel to it. I now have two great basses for slightly different purposes. The Lakland has active soapbar pickups and a very “fast” neck, a good combination for more modern metal or prog-rock. The Fender has passive 60s-style Fender pickups and a slightly chunkier neck, which feels great for old seventies rock. The guys at Wood Street Guitar did a great job – if you’re in the Bay Area, check them out.


A Tale of Two Keyboards

About ten years ago, I had this keyboard obsession going on (see The Cult of Keyboards) mostly because everything started falling apart health-wise when I hit 40, especially all things chiropractic. After a few false starts, I decided to go whole hog and upgrade to a Kinesis split keyboard. Because it’s about time, I went ahead and upgraded to the newest iteration, the Kinesis Advantage 2.

The original Kinesis has been pretty decent, after a brief learning curve. Typing with my fingers in the two “bowls” and using my thumbs for a bunch of the modifier keys was an interesting transition, but it means I can type away without ever lifting my hands from the home row. There are some issues, though. In the top row of the thumb keys, there are only two switches, when there really should be three, for cmd/alt/ctrl (or whatever your OS calls them.) It’s also a bit more confusing, because I used to switch between a work PC running Windows, and my home computer, which is a Mac.

I mapped things so that in Windows, the modifier keys were Ctrl/Alt and Win/Ctrl. And then on the Mac, they were Cmd/Opt and Ctrl/Cmd. That means that on the Mac, Ctrl loses, and since I type modifiers with my left hand more, it makes emacs almost impossible to use. I also had to train myself to remember that when I switched to the Mac, my Ctrl key was really the Win key. Luckily, things like copy and paste would use the same key in both places. Also, when I switched jobs, the work computer switched to Mac, so this problem gets a bit more simple.

Another complaint about the original Advantage is that it had function keys that were those little rubber chicklet keys like the Mattel Aquarius or a bad 80s calculator. They’re also very narrow. And the Esc key is one of those, which really makes emacs bad. When I was heavy into FrameMaker at the job, I remapped the Home key in the left thumb cluster as a modifier so a Home-5 was F8, and a Home-6 was F9. (5 is right under F8, and 6 under F9.) I also mapped the End key to Esc, because FrameMaker had a ton of frequently-used shortcuts that nobody knows about anymore that begin with Esc, a leftover from its days on unix systems. I would map those only on the Windows system with AutoHotKey. I gave up on that a few work laptops ago, when Frame fell by the wayside.

Also, I had minor occasional problems with the USB firmware. It was designed probably right when USB 2.0 came out, and would sometimes freak out and require a reset. Also if you typed too fast with a modifier, the modifier would get stuck. (Hint: tap the shift key three or four times, and it unsticks.) I also had the usual wear and tear, a few keys losing their printing, and ten years of food and cat hair in the crevices.

The new Advantage 2 fixes a few things. First, the function keys are actual Cherry mechanical switches. They are, unfortunately, the same small size. The circuitry has also changed, and is allegedly better than the old controller. It now has two ways to remap keys: the old way, or you can mount the keyboard as a hard drive with a special key combo, and there will be an app to do complicated remappings, or a text file you can edit. You lose the two built-in USB jacks on the underside of the keyboard, but I never used those.

I wasn’t entirely happy with the upgrade. Although the keyboard uses the same key switches (MX Cherry Brown), typing on it feels very… cheap. The keys are not as glossy and seem to be made of a slightly different plastic. And the case feels a lot more hollow. There’s more of an echo-ey plastic feeling when typing. It feels like the unit was “cost-engineered” with cheaper materials or a more efficient mold to save a few pennies. It’s possible I’m imagining all of this, or the keyboard needs to break in or age a bit. But I’ve also seen a few people on the internet that felt the same, and have messed with putting DynaMat inside their keyboard to deaden it a bit. Maybe I should try that.

I also had a giant exercise to get the modifiers to work. You can swap them around at multiple levels: the keyboard has a Mac/Win setting; there’s an OS setting; and I think my KVM might be flipping the mapping, too. Plus you can physically swap the keycaps to get the labels right. I ended up putting the keycaps on as Cmd/Option and Ctrl/Cmd, swapping Cmd and Ctrl in the Mac system preferences, and setting the keyboard to Windows mode. That seems to mostly work. I also mapped the Home key to Ctrl. Maybe I’ll map End to Esc later.

So, we’ll see if I can put a few million more keystrokes through this one. I also need to avoid reading anything else about modifications, because there are people who burn serious time swapping out controllers, doing complex remapping, and changing keycaps and whatnot. I don’t have that much skill or energy, so I’ll stick to typing.



KQED Article, other photo appearances

I had some pictures used in an article on KQED on Hilltop Mall. Check it out here. It’s a great overview of the mall, from someone who was actually around for the mall’s heyday, which I unfortunately missed. (See my last post on that.)

The reason these pictures got used is because I have everything on my Flickr account under a Creative Commons license. That means anyone can use my photos, as long as they give me credit. (It’s nice, but not required, for them to drop me a line, because then I’ll gladly link to their stuff, like I am here.)

I’ve mentioned this before, but if you ever need an image for a book cover, feel free to dig through my Flickr account. If you find something and ping me, I’ll even give you a high-res original if you need one. All I ask is that you credit me. (I did this for Ben Ditmars and his book Haiku in the Night. Who knew that me playing on my phone while waiting on my breakfast order in a Berlin hotel would be immortalized on the cover of a book.)

One weird result of this is that my photography pops up in weird places and I never find out about it unless I google my name, which I never like to do. Here’s a short list of some other oddball places where I have a photo credit:

Anyway, there’s more, but I’m bored of searching.