I’d hate to be a piece of furniture in Steve Ballmer’s office this week

The Mac App Store launched Thursday, and Herman Miller stock went up two points in anticipation of all of the chairs Steve Ballmer has probably been throwing at people this week.  There’s no way the sweaty-pitted Microsoft CEO isn’t beating his middle managers like red-headed step-children after the news came out that people downloaded a million apps in the first day, with 10,000 apps available at launch.  The Mac App Store changes things in ways that people in Windowsland cannot even contemplate, although when Win7SP2 launches with the MSFT half-ass attempt of the same concept, I’m sure we’ll hear all about the greatness, just like we’ll hear about how great judicial advocacy is from Teapotters that have railed against it for the last two years when they need it to keep Guantanamo bay open.

The Mac App Store changes things in a big way, both good and bad.  Back when I got started in this industry, if you wanted to write and sell an application for a Mac (or a PC), you rode your dinosaur to work, hired a bunch of people to put your crap on floppy disks and into boxes, and then either sold it yourself in your local computer stores (kids younger than 20: imagine a Best Buy with only a computer section, that didn’t suck), or you got your retail boxes dumped into the channel and flushed out to big stores and catalogs.  (Catalog: a paper version of Amazon, but it took 4-6 weeks to get your stuff.)  Then the internet happened, and people sold software on web sites, where you somehow sent money and either got a download or got a CD-ROM sent to you through the pony express for later installation at your own leisure.

But if you had this great software package, you had this huge list of problems.  Gotta set up a web site.  Gotta get a shopping cart system in place.  Gotta take credit cards and get a merchant account and whatever SSL nonsense your ISP wants you to get.  Or, gotta bend over and spread for PalPal’s cut of the vig.  Gotta find a way to have a download center that isn’t just at widget.com/dontlookhere/dl/product.zip so the first person that buys your crap doesn’t just spam the magic link to the world and let everyone download.  Gotta come up with come crazy system of software enablement, serial numbers you type in and send securely, whatever obfuscated nonsense you need to keep the world from just emailing your ZIP file to all of their friends.  Gotta find a way to drive traffic to the site.  Gotta find a way to get people to return to the site for upgrades and new versions.  There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of things to consider, and either every software reseller reinvents the wheel, or you join some tribe or cabal or commune or collective or whatever else to use one common set of machinery for everyone’s releases, and you pay for the privilege.

So now you avoid all of that.  Pay Apple a hundred bucks to join, upload your DMG file, and you’re in a searchable, centralized catalog of apps.  When a new Apple user fires up their iMac for the first time, there’s a pretty little icon to click that brings them to a huge store filled with games and productivity apps and stuff people can click on without scrambling for their credit cards or signing up for yet another e-merchant account that will probably eventually get hacked, with your password and Visa number and home phone ending up in a torrent sent out to every script kiddie in the world.

There’s also the issue of central maintenance.  When you have to push out a patch, you don’t spam out emails, and you don’t have to write complicated code to beam back to the mothership and check if the latest version is installed on the user’s PC. You tell Apple you have a new version, and let them do the dirty work.  And when a person bricks their MacBook or spills juice in their iMac and has to go get a new machine, they just plug in their username and all of their apps magically download again.  There isn’t a two-month process of trying to remember all of the crap you installed, or a weekend-long backup and reload on an external drive or a pile of DVD-Rs.

Yeah, there are downsides.  You’re paying Apple that hundred bucks, and they’re also skimming 30% of the take on your sales.  But do you know how much banks take from mom and pop companies on merchant accounts?  I’d tell you, but there are like 79 different surcharges and monthly fees and address verification fees and machine rental fees and every other nickel-and-diming the banks can think of to hit you with.  That 30% erases a lot of headaches.  And compare it to how much of a discount you’d give in channel sales, and it’s not a bad deal.

There are all of the “walled garden” arguments you’ll hear from the Microsoft camp.  You’ve heard the same arguments since the App Store showed up on the iPhone, although you haven’t heard as many of them since Windows Phone 7 adopted the same exact strategy for their app store.  And you probably won’t hear much more about it after that Windows 7 Platinum Home Deluxe SP2 Zune Marketplace shows up in the next rev of their OS, providing the same exact walled garden, albeit with a lot of the wall’s pieces removed to appease any of the big software makers that balk.

I think by the fall, everyone at every point of the food chain is going to try to launch their PC app store.  Amazon’s probably brewing one; I’m sure all of the hardware manufacturers like HP and Dell are going to have a long, painful meeting this Monday where some idiot who has never installed software in his life but can wear a mean tie and gets all of the ZDNet headlines beamed to his Blackberry is going to pitch their genius idea to launch their own bundled crapware app store on their new computers.   App stores will be the add-on toolbar of 2011, just like they were for phones in the last 18 months.

Another argument that is a plus and a minus is what the hell this will do to pricing.  People are now used to paying 99 cents for a game on their phone, so good luck on putting your desktop game on the App Store for $79.99.  Sure, you can trim down that price a bit because you’re not paying $47 a copy in merchant account fees to Bank of America.  And your game is some one-gig DVD release and not just a two-screen screen-tapper you wrote in a weekend.  It’s going to cause unbundling of suites, like Apple is doing with iWork and iLife, where people will only buy the apps they want, at a lower price and a smaller download, instead of buying a full package of apps on a DVD.  I don’t know what the magic price point will become, although I’m guessing people will be less apt to buy a $99 app and more willing to pay something like $19 for Real Apps and $4.99 for games and entertainment.

I just got the update and installed the App Store, and gave it a quick drive to download the new Twitter client.  No problems, no surprises.  I haven’t bought anything yet, but when I get a free second (which will be in like June) I will probably hunt down the latest versions of some of the older registered payware/shareware I have, just to make the next update easier.  All I can tell you now is, I’m glad I’m not working at a hardware manufacturer that’s probably going to go on damage control and require all of its R&D center employees to waste a lot of their free time generating stupid powerpoints re-selling an already done idea.  Also glad I’m not driving across the 520 bridge every morning to potentially have a 57-pound Aeron chair thrown at my head.


Movie Review: Little Fockers

(NOTE: This review contains spoilers!)

Little Fockers is the latest chapter of the Meet the Parents torture-porn franchise, and is by far, the most interesting, especially if you follow the BSDM-inspired pedophilia themes as much as most fans of director Paul Weitz’s earlier works.  It’s no secret that for years, Weitz has relished in injecting mainstream comedies (such as American Pie) with pro-fascist themes disguised as masturbation jokes.  (There is an uncut extra from the original film where the Jason Biggs character performs sexual acts on a freshly-baked pie for 24 minutes, carefully choreographed to mimic the scene of Rudolf Hess announcing the start of the Reich Party Congress, from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.  The distorted-perspective shots alternate between close-ups of Biggs’ contorted face with telephoto shots of the Reichsarbeitsdienst in such a way that made the theme of supreme visualization of the Third Reich too obvious for teen flick audiences.)  When asked about this, in a 2002 press junket interview for the About a Boy film, Weitz responded by saying “I appreciated Ridley Scott’s bow to proto-fascism in Gladiator, but decided to appeal to the right-wing elements of the studio’s focus group mentality with a more concerted anti-gypsy approach, and less obvious homo-eroticism than simply having a 20-minute Russell Crowe/Joaquin Phoenix analingus scene.”  (Weitz was referring to a scene in a workprint version of the 2000 Scott film, which was shown to European audiences but eventually cut to achieve an MPAA R rating in the US.)

The film starts with Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller) and his wife Pam, who now have five-year-old twins.  Gaylord has sunk into a depressive methamphetamine habit, a side effect of his years in the medical field, while Pam (reprised by Teri Polo) has resorted to stripping at a truck stop bump-and-grind club in rural Idaho in order to pay for his habit.  Early in the film, the children are abducted  by a crazed polygamist group, which is led by a former Mormon played by Bruce Dern.  Strangely enough, after this happens, a scant nine minutes into this two hour and 44 minute film, we do not see the children again, and their whereabouts are completely unexplained.  This is obviously confusing, as the trailers for the movie show numerous antics with the little twins throwing food, peeing on things, and tripping adults.  When I asked producer Jay Roach about this decision in an email, he replied “fuck all of those baby-crazy flyover state motherfuckers!  I really do not give a god damn about all of those Oprah-watching dumpy housewife pieces of living shit!  Every focus group I go to, it’s all ‘BABY BABY BABY BABY’ and I will be god damned if I bankroll a movie where we worship toddlers like they are nobel fucking prize winning scientists splitting atoms with a god damned supercollider!”

Robert De Niro’s character, former CIA agent Jack Byrnes, begins the film by being outed by a wikileaks-like web site (called “MyFaceLeak”, in an obvious “let’s change the name at the last second so we don’t get sued”, much like how in the 1996 action flick Eraser, the film was shot with the maker of the secret terrorist electro-magnetic pulse enema killing machine being Intel, because the director was not aware there was an actual company named Intel, requiring millions of dollars of dialogue relooping and digital logo editing to avoid litigation.)  De Niro is in a Thai forced labor camp, awaiting extradition to The Hague for war crimes; we find he was involved in a covert CIA campaign to aid the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party in the “white terror” systematic assassination campaign against members and sympathizers of the Dergue military junta.  There is a touching scene in which Panya, De Niro’s homosexual lover in the prison, asks him about his past, and De Niro goes into a weepy, 27-minute soliloquy describing the torment and sexual pleasure in killing and dismembering over 20,000 political activists in the mid-70s in the famine-stricken country.  “We used to, we used to fuckin’, fuckin’ – we used to fuck the bodies of them commie eggplants,” he said, “and then we used to leave the corpses hung from trees in the town square and beat the families who tried to mourn those fuckin’ fuckers.  It was fuckin’ beautiful.  You lookin’ at me?”

The film drifts into serious art-school pretentiousness by the second hour, in which the chariot race from Ben Hur is parodied and filmed with the entire cast of the Little People Big World TV show being pulled by small breed dogs around a makeshift track in a 1970s Times Square, filled with heroin addicts, pornographers, and transsexual prostitutes.  At the end of the race, when Jesus would appear, Barbara Streisand and Dustin Hoffman, again playing Gaylord’s parents, reveal that they have been taking large amounts of DMT and mescaline, and systematically kill, butcher, and then eat the corpses of all of the dogs and little people.  I’m not sure if this is some allegory for the Catholic church, or a criticism of it, but the entire fifteen-minute butchery/cannibalism scene is a musical number, with Streisand and Hoffman singing a Christmas-themed number called “It’s a dwarf-snuff, dog-eating, roman orgy winter wonderland.”  (You’ve probably heard the song in heavy rotation on FM radio and VH1 by the time this review is printed.)

By Act III, Gaylord has left on a sex tourist visit to Thailand, where he runs into the De Niro character at a brothel.  The two initially argue over the amount to tip an Asian boy for his virginity, and then a buddy-montage ensues, set to a remix of various American Negro spiritual songs as performed by T-Pain and Bristol Palin.  Shortly after this, Jack realizes the error of his ways, phones his one remaining friend in the CIA (a cameo appearance by Christopher Walken) and calls in an airstrike on the brothel’s coordinates.  The film suddenly cuts to black, and the ending credits roll over aerial footage of the jungle village being destroyed by napalm-dropping B-52 airstrikes and passes by AC-130 gunships.  Don’t forget to stay for the end of the credits, where they show the blooper reel, the highlight being 96 takes of Stiller trying to say “I didn’t start shooting meth into my balls to put up with this shit!” and bursting into laughter each time.

This film is obviously the big family hit for the holiday season, and I would heartily recommend it.  Four stars.


When I am not posting here I am conducting Real Business

This TV is Real Business

If I don’t post here for a few days, it isn’t because I am a lazy fuck that it still playing Call of Duty five hours a day.  It’s because I don’t like you.  YOU.  Not them, but YOU. It could be because you sent me a capital-C Christmas card that mentions Jesus, and the only Jesus in my life is the guy who works for Carlos and cleans my house every two weeks.  It could be because Farmville does not give me an option to come to your farm and spray it with kerosene and burn it to the ground like I’m Sherman with a hard-on, pushing for the coast.  It could be because I care about seeing the pictures of your kids as much as you care about seeing the pictures of my bowel movements I reply back with.  Or it could be because when I’m not posting here, I’m working on Real Business.  The three iPads I mounted to the dashboard of my Toyota Yaris do not pay for themselves.

I flew to Ontario earlier this week to meet with esteemed producer Uwe Boll, who I am hoping will executive-produce my next reality TV idea.  It is called Grave Robbers – three teams of people will fly to different cities and have a timed period to dig up and pilfer as many graves as possible.  There is a whole science to grave robbing, and during the start of each episode, the teams will case the place, looking for old money versus recent graves, trying to make correlations between types of names and monument sizes and complexities to determine who was buried with the most valuable jewelry.  They won’t all be looking for just pawnable gold and diamonds, either; in the pilot episode I filmed (well, videotaped on Digital8 with a handycam – I want to shoot the whole thing in 70mm color reversal, and I am reaching out to Academy Award-winning cinematographer John Toll (Braveheart, Thin Red Line, Tropic Thunder) to DP it) I had three teams of three going through the graves at Holy Cross cemetery up in Colma.  One of the genius teams, a bunch of gang-bangers from some shithole Compton housing project, started looking for antebellum-era vintage jewelry, and spent 45 minutes trying to crack open the vault of Manson murder victim Abigail Folger before being disqualified on a technicality (they used an illegal air chisel).  The real winner was this team of former Stanford archaeology students who immediately sprinted to Joe DiMaggio’s grave, cracked open the tomb in record time, and managed to eBay his skull for a low-six figure win.

I met with Boll in a Tim Horton’s, which is where all Real Business is conducted in the Great White North.  He was busy reviewing dailies from some unnamed project on an iPad, while a dweeby assistant brushed all of the powdered sugar off of a jelly donut for him.

“What are you working on?” I asked.

“We’re doing a remake of ET,” he said.

“You got the rights from Spielberg to do a remake of the movie ET?” I said, dumbfounded.

“No.  We’re doing a film adaptation of the ET video game for the Atari 2600.”

“Wasn’t that game a total piece of shit?” I said.  “I thought it was the single cause of the entire billion-dollar crash of the US consumer video game market in 1983.  They took 100,000 copies of that game and four of the developers and sealed them in concrete in the bottom of a New Mexico landfill as a tax write-off.”

“Let me ask you this: what was the biggest film disaster of 2004?” he said, setting aside the iPad and grabbing a donut.

“I don’t know.  Was that the year Battlefield Earth came out?”

“Exactly,” he said, taking a bite and squirting strawberry jam all over his chin.

“Wait, it was, right?”

“No, it wasn’t.  And that’s my point – Americans can’t remember what happened last week, let alone what happened in 1983.  I could make a film that said Ronald Reagan killed all of those Iranian hostages and drank their blood to gain superpowers, and as long as I put some hot Angelina Jolie-looking chick’s ass in the trailer, people will still pay money to see it.  It’s the same reason my Fonzi porn just got greenlighted.”

“Fonzi porn?”

“You know, Fonzi, Arnold, ‘AAAAAY!’?  We’re making a series of Happy Days themed porno.  Jenna Jameson is going to play Joanie.  And you know that episode where the Fonzie jumps his chopper over the shark?  Well in this version, we’re going to have Fonzie FUCK a shark.”

“So it’s a pornographied vision of a 2010s idealized vision of a 70s TV show that was an idealized vision of the 50s??”

“And our first run is in Germany.  So it’s a pornographied vision of a German vision of a 2010s idealized vision of a 70s TV show that was an idealized vision of the AMERICAN 50s.  Germans in the 50s were still putting out fires and clearing rubble and dropping dead of typhus; we worshipped you fuckers with TVs and big-tittied wives baking pies all day,” he said.  “So this version, it’s working on at least five different levels to hit every key demo we can.”

“So is it internet only?  How do you mass-market hardcore porn?”

“It’s German TV.  We can show double penetration gang rape during the dinner hour on broadcast TV if we want to.  None of this prudish American bullshit over there.”

“So I came to talk to you about this Grave Robber show.”

“Can’t do it,” he said.  “51 Minds already has GraveBusta! with Busta Rhymes in production for VH1 for an early 2011 run.  I can’t get into a lawsuit with Endemol over some copycat production.  John de Mol has that Deal or No Deal money behind him – he could have every person in your hometown executed and buried in secret graves ten times over without even having to go to an ATM for cash first.  We can’t fuck with them.”

“Son of a bitch!  What about my competitive bowel movement TV show I told you about on the phone?”

So You Think You Can Shit? I like the idea, but there’s at least three similar shows on German TV already.  Maybe we could do an end-run on the whole thing, buy American rights of one of those shows, repackage it for the US market.  We can get Delta Burke or someone famous from the 80s to host.”

“I’m more into the creative side of things.  Production work like that sounds like… work.”

“Fair enough.  Keep sending me ideas on the twitters, we’ll get to work together some time.  And let me know when you finish a sequel to Rumored to Exist so we can do a movie version.  I’m still pissed you let Gus Van Sant take the movie rights for that.”

“He still hasn’t done shit.  Maybe in 2013 when they end, you can scoop them up.”

“Maybe.  I’ve got to dash.  I’m flying to California today to meet with Howard Warshaw,” he said.  “If this ET thing works out, there’s talk we will be able to do a Yar’s Revenge movie.”

Anyway, I am back in town, and watching two crazy Russian dudes install a set of Armorstruxx composite armor blast doors over the front of my office.  But that story’s gotta wait for another time, because I must finish eating this Taco Supreme, then I must return to Real Business.


Three stars in the sunset

Yesterday was my last day at my job at Samsung.  As per my usual policy here, I guess I haven’t mentioned that I actually worked at Samsung for the last year and a half, although a simple google search or look at LinkedIn would have told you that.  But I’ve been looking for new work since the start of the year or so, and got an offer at a new place two weeks ago.  So I gave notice, did two weeks of short-timer duty, and finished yesterday.

The big joke with some of my former coworkers is the length of the statute of limitations before I write a book about all of the crazy antics that ensued at the place.  I think everyone at every one of my jobs says this, and I have yet to write a sort of tell-all book about any one given workplace.  I guess Summer Rain hinted at that with my days at UCS.  But I never did the whole “working at a startup in Silicon Valley/Silicon Alley/Silicon Prairie” thing, and who knows if I will.  But it’s true that I do have conflicted feelings about cutting loose on my former workplace.  I mean, there’s some choice material there, but there’s also the issue that I would feel bad about striking out and getting catty about it.  And there’s also the fact that it might not be that interesting to people who weren’t there with me.

I thought I would have no second thoughts about leaving the place.  The truth is, when I got this job back in October of 08, I jumped in quick, and backed out of a potential offer situation with another tech company.  And after a week or two of the new job, I had serious reservations about continuing, because of the work and the culture and the hours and the commute.  And every day, about halfway through the hour-some drive down 101 to the office in San Jose, I’d pass the office of this other company, and kick myself that I could be working at a much more sane place and have half the commute every day.  And maybe the other place would have had its own brand of crazy, but it’s one of those grass is always greener things.

And then right after I started, the sky fell economy-wise, and pretty much everyone else in Silicon Valley got laid off, and there were absolutely no jobs available.  And my job was still paying, and still matching 401K, and still cutting bonus checks.  So I stuck with it, although I always hoped some magic startup would show up, looking for a doc wizard to head up their tech pubs department.

So a lot of things happened.  Nothing bad, I mean I wasn’t beaten and raped and left for dead in the desert.  But we weren’t changing the world or creating great things or helping society or anything like that.  And I was doing very little as far as technical writing.  And morale on my team went from bad to worse.  But the paychecks kept coming, and I paid off my land, and I paid off my car, and I bought a house, and I kept driving two or three hours a day and working on my TPS reports and hoping the dow would crack 10,000 again some day.

And it did.  And I got another job.  And I went through the ten thousand messages in my Outlook inbox, and hit the D key 10,000 times and realized that the last 18 months involved a lot of temporal bullshit and status reports on status reports reporting the status of reports that discussed what status reports we’d do next status report.  I spent most of the last two weeks deleting files and shredding paper like I was working for the Stasi in late 1989.  It’s not that I was working in a missile silo with tons of top secret blueprints; it’s just that even a doodle of a stick figure getting fucked by another stick figure drawn out of boredom in a meeting is still technically Eyes Only material at our R&D lab, and had to get cross-cut into dust.

My boss was on vacation for the first of my two weeks, and then had to miss 4 of the 5 days of the second week due to crazy scheduling and some family medical stuff.  And my boss’s boss, who used to be my boss and heads up the lab had a last-second appearance in Korea and was also gone when I had to leave.  There were a couple of lunches and goodbyes.  And I took some time to get some dental appointments squared away and get a stupid re-inspection by PG&E done on the condo (long story) and took my damn time getting to work and left at five and did a whole lot of nothing, since there wasn’t much for me to do.  At one time, I thought there was no way I could leave, I was so intertwined with so many projects, but when it came down to transitioning out, there was a lot of “well, they’ll figure it out, or they won’t.”

On my last day, the drive in was sunny and I actually made damn good time, listening to the Husker Du song “New Day Rising” a thousand times on repeat.  And then the sky turned grey and it started pouring rain.  And I walked through the halls of our R&D lab and realized I would miss the place in some strange way.  I mean, it was my first job in Silicon Valley, and I only worked there 18 months, but those were dog year months, lots of long hours, lots of late nights.  A year ago today, we had to work a 24-hour overnight shift to launch our first web site.  (And yeah, we didn’t need to be there, the same way the Egyptians could have built those pyramids a lot faster with a couple of bulldozers instead of ten million slaves.)  Our building was like this weird time capsule to late 70s/early 80s valley-chic, with this “high tech” look that resembled something you’d see on the old Apple campus circa the Apple II era, except it had never been updated.  And the rain and the gloom brought out the chipped paint and the moldy ceiling tiles and the stained carpets and the faded wood trim and made me realize I’d never work in a place that looked like this again.  I did my victory lap and said my goodbyes, handed in my laptop and gear, then went to HR to hand over my badge and get the last of my paperwork.  They asked me to sign some paper saying I wouldn’t tell anyone anything, but according to California law, you can’t be forced to sign one of those, and I didn’t.  (I won’t be spilling the beans about all of the intricacies of Windows Mobile 7, which was our biggest secret, but I don’t think anyone gives a shit.)

This place was a must-wear-badge-at-all-times place (they love their door locks), and it was strangely sad to hand over that piece of plastic that was forever tethered to my hip, with that digital snapshot of my face circa October 2008.  I guess part of it is that the picture, and in a greater sense the job, signified the end of the summer of 2008, and I’m now so nostalgic about that era: about living in Playa Del Rey; walking to Subway every day for lunch; the weight loss journey, the walks to the waterfront; the time spent bumming around Santa Monica; the days hacking away a living at home, looking at the palm trees and listening to the Rockies in their 08 freefall.  I miss Denver, and I miss LA, and when I took this job, it was one of those huge “I must set aside everything and turn and burn and get my shit straight and go whole-hog on this”.  And I did.  And now it’s done, and even if I hated many aspects of it, I’ll miss it.

But yeah, new job.  New people.  I will, as always, avoid mentioning this one here, to protect the innocent and keep that life-work barrier going strong.  But it looks good, and I’ll be getting back to my roots as a tech writer and doing some new cool stuff.  It’s still a drive, and it’s not sitting at home and listening to baseball games all day and chipping away at short stories, but it should be cool.

I got escorted out after the final exchange, and got to my car and the pouring rain not long after 2:00, to face a horrible sea of taillights on the 880.  I stopped at the bank, I stopped at a gas station, and I dropped in a Nordstrom’s to get Sarah’s birthday present.  And by the time I got back to Oakland, the rain stopped, the sun came out, and it was all over.  So now it’s a sunny Saturday, and here’s to whatever the next big era will bring.


Konrath’s Law of social networking sites

I don’t know how many of you use twitter, or see the little box to the right (that I will probably remove in the near future.) Twitter started as a good idea, but it has already been rendered stupid for the following reason:

Konrath’s Law of social networking sites:
Any given social networking site will eventually be rendered inoperable by insufferable prick sociopaths jamming the entire system with drivel about how great their kids are.

Actually, the problem with twitter is that there are only three types of messages: “I’m bragging about something that makes me better than you”; “I’m whining and bitching about something”; and “I’m sending a reply to one specific person to my entire list of friends because I’m too much of a douchebag to just IM it directly to them, and not to n-1 people who don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.” That’s twitter in a nutshell, and if there’s anything more redeeming about it, I’d love to hear about it. (Don’t forget to send it to @jkonrath and your entire friends list, too.)

I have a bigger gripe about the whole thing: it’s killing communication. In the Civil War, soldiers wrote home these epic letters, very formal, and you can still tell the whole history of the conflict by these archived letters. I know when my dad was in Vietnam, they made reel-to-reel audio tapes, rambling stream-of-consciousness recordings they sent back home. 40 years later, nobody knows what the fuck a reel-to-reel is, and even if you did, the tapes would probably turn into flakes of dust if you tried to play them. Now in Iraq, Marines are probably twittering home, “SEND ME A PLAYSTATION 3”, which removes any content, and is also completely unarchived. It’s the same way in the internet world: I go back to my archives from the early and mid nineties, and people used to write thousand-word emails all the time, telling of their days, telling stories. Now, 90% of the internet population is a read-only audience, and the thought of writing like that is completely alien. And the other 10% turned to blogging, which got more impersonal, especially when the old late-nineties model of web journals got derailed by people writing two-line livejournal entries. And now twitter is going to derail that by replacing both IM and blogging with inane little 140-character messages about how their kid just took a shit.

So anyway, all of my twitters as of late have been sort of mocking this. If you’ve been seeing them and thinking I went off the deep end, don’t worry. Actually, you should still probably worry, but not about this.

I’ve been back on prednisone again, but a smaller dose. This means I have not been up all night or eating everything in the house, but I also haven’t had a manic snap that enabled me to write 100,000 words a day. The biggest thing this week is I am trying to get back on the diet bandwagon, and one of the major components has been eliminating caffeine and sweetened beverages. I don’t really eat that much, but I drink a six-pack of Coke a day, plus juice, gatorade, root beer, orange soda, and whatever else I have in the house. So that’s a couple thousand calories a day I can shed. Unfortunately, this week has been nothing but migranes and extreme cravings for a super double big gulp. And all things Splenda and Nutrasweet still have a weird taste to them. It’s hard to exercise with the gimped-up foot, but it’s mostly better, so I’ve been taking long walks after work every night.

I walked down to the ocean yesterday, which is always fun. If I walk over the ridge, to the water, down the shore a ways, and then back, the big square path takes me about an hour. Yesterday, I walked the shore portion in the sand, because it’s a little harder, and my theory is that it will strengthen my ankles more. (Maybe it will tear them up, too.) It is always so astounding to be on the sand, looking out over the water, thinking that there’s not something else out there, and that’s really the end of the continent. And all of the sand with the strategically spaced park buildings every half-mile or so always reminds me of the Warren Dunes on Lake Michigan, where I spent a lot of time as a kid. After I got home (and washed all of the sand off of my feet and out of my shoes) I looked up some stuff about Warren Dunes, and it’s bittersweet. It’s neat to see pictures of the place and remember driving there with my dad as a kid. But that giant mountain of sand – it’s only 250 feet tall. Worst of all, Google Maps doesn’t have a high-res image for the entire area. Oh well.

I’ve wasted over an hour writing this, because I keep googling the Warren Dunes. I should go get some more work done now.


Pee-Wee League

John Sheppard posted a nice Little League photo the other day, complete with 70s bright colors and high pants, which made me think a bit about my brief experience in Pee-Wee League back in the day. I forget when this was, but I’m guessing maybe third grade, and it was yet another one of those things where my parents really wanted me to experience different things besides the Apple II and/or determine if I was gay by forcing me to play sports. And given my lack of any hand-eye coordination or motor skills, I’m surprised they didn’t just give up and start buying me Cher albums and teaching me about flower arranging.

Pee Wee League was one of those things that not only made me feel bad about my inability to do something that so many other people could do easily, but I had kids making fun of me due to my inability to throw a ball long distances well into high school. I know parents think these things will toughen up their kids, and teach them about teamwork and discipline and how to oil a leather glove. I guess one of the other things was that I was supposed to learn all about the national past-time and develop a love for the game. Honestly, I couldn’t name more than five baseball teams back then, and at the time, I was far too preoccupied memorizing random statistics about Star Wars characters than infielders and outfielders. This is probably best proven by the fact that I had about a dozen baseball cards, but I had every single one of the first two series of the Topps Empire Strikes Back Cards. (Insert speech about how I wished I sealed that shit in a vacuum-packed safe so I could put them on eBay and finance the down payment on a beachfront house, instead of randomly losing them all or accidentally covering them with peanut butter.)

Each of our Pee-Wee League teams had a corporate sponsor (if you consider “corporate” to include local car washes and septic system pumping companies) and a name of a real major league team. My assigned team was the AstroBowl Astros, sponsored by a local bowling alley, with a nod to the Houston MLB team, and featured orange hats and t-shirts. We didn’t wear the pants or the cleats or any other gear. I think there was a concerned mother freakout about wearing a cup, which happened when this kid named Skip ended up sliding into home plate ball-first and doing some damage to the yet-functioning family production units. I distinctly remember my mom’s hysterics, leading to a hand-off to my dad, who spent his childhood in the protection-free fifties, when you could still buy Jarts, M-80s, and small-caliber firearms at the local soda stand. The closest thing he knew about protection was when he got a CB radio so he could protect himself from speeding tickets on the highway. My dad grudgingly took me to Sears, where we silently walked to the athletics department and found that all of the various supporters and protectors were, at the smallest range, made for kids roughly twice my age or size. I think I could have used the smallest cup in stock as a batting helmet. Dad basically mumbled, “Son, be careful, and don’t tell your mom,” and that was that.

Somehow, I got put on a team that made the Bad News Bears look like the Yankees with a two billion dollar salary cap. Every kid who could not play was on the Astros. Most of the kids at school got onto cool teams, like the Dodgers, the Yankees, or the Cubs. (Yes, the Cubs were a good team; we were 100 miles from Wrigley Field. Despite the fact that they were a horrible team, at least they were recognizable.) The only things I knew about the real Astros were Nolan Ryan, and the fact that they played on their namesake artificial turf. That wasn’t much to go by.

I ended up as the catcher. For those of you who know about the sport, the catcher is either the guy totally pumped with ‘roids to make him a home run king, at the expense that he can barely walk, or it’s the least experienced and most pathetic one on the team. Given that my performance enhancement regimen was limited to Flintstone’s Chewables, you can guess which category I was in. I could barely throw the ball back to the pitcher, who I believe was usually an adult coach, underhanding some graceful slowballs straight across the plate each time. I could not infield to any extent, but it usually didn’t matter. The best strategy for the opposing team was to hit it anywhere in the outfield, and run in every single person on base while I sat and watched them cross the plate, because it would take about 45 minutes for someone to retrieve the ball. I remember one game, against the faux Dodgers team, which had all of the jocko guys in it, when the score ended up being like 78 to 2. It was like a basketball game between the Harlem Globetrotters and a bunch of geriatrics who were off their meds.

I think we did win one game, and it was against one of the best teams, maybe the Yankees. It was on a day of really shitty weather, where the temperature dropped to about 45 or 50, and it was raining on and off, and extremely dark. Because it was on and off, the officials kept deciding the game would go on, and then they would change their mind, and then it would be back. We only wore t-shirts, and maybe half of the team got the idea to put on jackets under their uniform shirts. But wet denim jeans are always horrible, and your hands would be absolutely freezing. The parents on our team were pulling all of this “toughen up!” bullshit, and pretty much every kid on both teams was crying or trying not to cry, but still streaming tears down their rain-soaked faces. The only parents there on average were the mothers, who were trying to act like the fathers and overcompensating with whatever macho bullshit they caught from TV. (This was in an era when the divorce rate was like 100%, and all of the dads were probably off either getting loaded or trying to fuck the non-baseball moms.) So for whatever reason, our team could withstand the bullshit way more than the fake Yankees could, because we had to put up with so much bullshit under normal operating conditions, we didn’t even care that our hands were turning blue. Even the spaz kids that couldn’t hold a bat were popping off doubles and triples, and we ended up pulling in a 12-4 win over the best team in the league.

One of the big things about Little League is that when you win (and it’s not practically snowing out), you go get ice cream. You’d think that since we had our asses handed to us on a regular basis, we’d never see any dessert action, but our coaches were sympathetic, or maybe in that “nobody’s a loser” parental mindset, so they usually found out where the other team was going, and we’d go to the other place for celebratory losing treats. There were two ice cream places in close proximity: a Dairy Queen, right next to the Taco Bell on 33 where I’d work when I was 16, and a Tastee Freeze, which was right in front of our corporate sponsor, Astrobowl.

I think I liked Dairy Queen better at the time, and we went there more, because the winning team usually went to Tastee Freeze, and I think we lost almost every single game. Dairy Queen was more of a restaurant, like McDonald’s, and it had a sit-down dining room with a solarium. It didn’t have as many ice cream types, but I always got the peanut buster parfait. Tastee Freeze didn’t have any seats, just a window where you ordered. Maybe it had some picnic benches, but I remember sitting on a curb when eating my ice cream most of the time, and I wasn’t into that as much. Looking back, I probably like the Tastee Freeze better, because the ice cream was a lot more “custom” and they added sprinkles and cremes and sauces and other toppings while you waited, instead of just pulling out plastic-wrapped, pre-extruded things made at the central office in Kansas or whatever. Tastee Freeze is more of a small-town memory to me, something I’ll never see again in the big city.

When I was in the 7th or maybe 8th grade, we had to go to AstroBowl for a couple of class periods of bowling. It was across the street from the Junior High, so this was built into the curriculum, since we all know that bowling is an important skill for finding a job and providing for your future. (It’s important to note that even to this day, you will get your name in the Elkhart newspaper if you roll a perfect 300. Bowling is a big deal in Indiana. Not as big as crystal meth or illegitimate children, but it’s probably in the top ten.) Anyway, when I went over there and made a fool of myself yet again in another sport-like activity, I saw that in the trophy case by the front door, there was a picture of my old Pee Wee League team in a frame, along with a couple of other baseball team pictures that the bowling alley apparently sponsored. I was probably eight or nine, maybe ten when I went through that experience, but even at the age of 13 or 14, it was like looking back into another world to see that picture. I don’t have a copy of said photo anymore, but whenever I think of it, I always wonder if it’s still in the trophy case, gathering dust..

Oddly enough, a quick google shows that AstroBowl is for sale. Take a look at those photos and you see that parts of Elkhart have changed absolutely zero in the 15 years since I have left. The bowling alley looked identical back in the day: 70s futuristic logo, Pepsi sign above the door, big double stripe on the side of the cinderblock building, and cracked up parking lot. I’m honestly surprised that the location hadn’t become a TGI Friday ten years ago. I don’t bowl, but it would be sad if the place got sold and became a Mexican bodega or something. Current price is $450K, if you want to relive that Ed TV show and move back to the small city.

My parents also made me play basketball in the 6th grade, which is an even bigger story. Maybe I’ll type that one up sometime.


Xanadu House and 80s nostalgia

I sometimes have this weird nostalgia that’s much more complicated than just “remember the 80s”, but rather a deep nostalgia for what I saw as cutting edge or a glimpse of the future way back when. It’s hard to explain, but it’s that weird feeling I had twenty years ago when I looked at some futuristic computer or technology, and I had this premonition that in the year 2000, this would be “it”. And the feeling is stronger when there are a lot of other interconnected memories or feelings about it. And the other day, this totally happened in a way that is easily explained, but probably still doesn’t capture what the fuck I’m rambling on about.

Okay, Wikipedia had a featured article the other day about The Xanadu House. No, it has nothing to do with Olivia Newton-John or the Rush song from Farewell to Kings. It was a series of three houses built as demo/museum units by the architect as a showcase to “the home of tomorrow”. They were made of sprayed polyurethane foam and looked something like Yoda’s house or maybe something a Hobbit would live in. They were a very 70s-looking design, and I could totally see something like them in a Roger Dean-airbrushed Yes double gatefold album cover, or maybe done up on the side of a van with a wizard shooting lightning bolts that lit up along with the 8-track player.

Okay, the outside did look pretty borderline artschool-project, but the inside was the interesting stuff. There were computers everywhere: controlling the lights, monitoring the bitchin’ hot tub, cooking your food; measuring your calories and watching your weight; integrated into the Elvis-like wall of TVs, one tuned to each station (total: 3); and everywhere else. The house was a full-on wet dream of automation. Now you see why I was somewhat pulled into reading all about this house and scouring the web for more info. I’ve still got this land out in Colorado with nothing but cacti and prarie dogs on it, and the idea of building some huge, fucked up, unconventional structure like a geodesic dome or a decommissioned jet airliner or a giant tube made out of a million egg cartons and some nuclear-proof epoxy solution is pretty appealing. Add to that a slew of computers that I don’t really need and that’s damn near what-I’d-do-if-I-hit-the-Lotto material for me.

But as I dove deeper, I found a lot of threads that pulled me back to when they got this house built down in Florida, in 1983. These computers back in the day weren’t a bunch of IBM blade servers or anything; turns out the builders were using a slew of good old Commodore 64s in the styrofoam innards of this dream palace. The TVs weren’t giant plasmas like Bill Gates would have, but rather the old-school, silver, two-knob not-so-flat CRT sets like you’d find at your Aunt Barbara’s rec room back in ’80. The online shopping system wired into the food-processor kitchen used a 12″ analog laserdisc for its info. The “home gym” consists of the same non-resistance exercise bike your parents bought back in ’78 and used as a clothes rack for ten years before unloading it at a yard sale. This wasn’t a Jetsons home as much as it was my Christmas list from 1983.

And that’s when this unfamiliar house became a home I knew, at least in proxy, for some weird reason. I was IN Florida, in Orlando, in 1983. My parents loaded us up in the station wagon and drove south a thousand miles, first to Tampa, and then to the Disney kingdom. And we didn’t go to the Xanadu house, but it looks a lot like the kind of place we would have stopped. We hit a lot of roadside attractions that trip, and a lot of the gift shops and historical viewpoints, from Tarpon Springs to the Atlantic coast, had the same tacky yet “futuristic” sign that graced the front of the Xanadu house. Everything about the old pictures, the way they were framed, the style of the furniture, just rubs some weird brain cell deep in my head that makes me think of a million memories that have nothing to do with this house and everything to do with my own life.

For example, I remember, again on the trip, going to a Showbiz pizza with my family. For those who don’t remember, Showbiz was similar to Chuck E. Cheese, the pizza parlor where you bring the rugrats for birthdays and parties. But back in the day, Showbiz was very oriented toward arcade games, and had a fuckload of consoles, including duplicates of many popular games. And at that time, the big deal were laserdisc-based games like Dragon’s Lair. Nobody seems to remember this particular fad, but these machines had a big giant laser disc player in them, and when you jerked around the joystick, different scenes from this Disney-eque cartoon would play. The game totally sucked from a playability standpoint, but everyone was too busy circle-jerking over the fact that the output was basically like DVD-quality animation and sound, and this was at a time when most arcade heroes were 16 by 16 pixel sprites. I remember staring at people playing these games in amazement, thinking this was the future of arcade games. Of course, the future was that nobody wanted to pay 50 cents per game (this was one of the first two-coin titles), the laser players crapped out and took forever to load, and in another year, the entire coin-op arcade game industry would take a crap and completely implode, meaning nobody would be too interested in the progress of games for another five years. (About when Nintendo started slapping NES guts into consoles and charging people to play games on a console you could just buy and play at home on a TV – that is if you could find a NES, which you couldn’t, because Nintendo was in the middle of a price-fixing, fake-supply-problem war.)

And I went to Epcot on that trip, which was right when it opened and they had a lot of cool displays about the future and how science would win everything. (They’ve long since ripped all of this shit out and replaced it with “Bob the Builder’s Why Every Kid Should Buy More of My Garbage” exhibits.) And the exhibit showed electronic cars that we’d all drive to work in 1997, and ways to raise more food for the world through hydroponic greenhouses we’d all use when we went to Mars, and so on. Epcot was originally going to be a huge experiment in sustainable living, but when Disney realized there was no money in that, they had GE, GM, and AT&T drop these huge advertisements for life in the future. And the same thing is, in 1983, it all seemed so fucking feasible that in 20 years we’d all have video phones and TVs with smellovision and pod cars, and I remember that view of the future so vividly. And now that future is in the past, and none of it happened. I used to read in Compute magazine about how, maybe if we all tried hard, cars might have a single microprocessor in them, and it would be so cool to get so much blazing power out of an 8-bit 6510 wired into our engine. And now, I’ve got at least twenty processors sitting on my desk, in my watch, in my camera, in my mouse, and none of them are doing anything remotely as interesting as what I thought they would be. I have ten times the computing power of that Xanadu house sitting in the battery charger to my camera, and none of it is being used to automatically cook my food or turn on the jaccuzi when I get home from work. And that’s sad, in a way.

The house has a much more sad ending, though. It ran as a museum until the ’90s, then sat vacant, as Florida mold consumed the sterile white interior. Squatters broke in and tore up the interior, and eventually, last year, the owners bulldozed the place, and plan on putting in a condo on the land. There are a lot of pictures on line of the interior in disrepair, and then the dozer taking out the foam walls. Very sad stuff.

Anyway, I forgot what my point is, other than to somehow describe that feeling I get when I look at an old Amiga or something. I remember the summer of 85 when all of the computer magazines were abuzz about that thing like all of the glamour mags are currently abuzz about the Jessica Simpson divorce or something. I mowed lawns and babysat and applied at every McDonald’s and Hardees within 10-speed distance of my house to scrape up money for that A-1000, and never made it. Just looking at the magazine pictures was like a view into the future of computing, something that could draw multiple windows and 4096 simultaneous colors! Looking back at the old beige-platinum machines, I imagine this massive future, but then I realize that my old Palm Pilot is probably faster and with a better screen.

Ah well, enough rambling. I’m still reading this Neil Armstrong book and it’s going to take me forever to finish. Better invest some more time into it…


Review: The Punisher

Movie Review: The Punisher

I hate people. I mean, I hate them a lot. It’s not that I only hate people who bring strollers on escalators or bring screaming kids to R-rated movies or stand in the middle of the god damned sidewalk and don’t move or pretend to be rapper gangsta wannabes and yell at each other at the tops of their lungs on the train so the whole car can hear about their bitches and how they’re going to become the next big gangsta rapper. I mean, I hate all of those people, but I also hate everyone. I hate people so much that I would see absolutely nothing wrong if some political official would give me diplomatic immunity, an extensive armory, unlimited ammunition, and full blessing to simply shoot dead anyone in my path I saw fit. In fact, at a time when the NYPD is looking at over $100 million dollars in cost cutting measures, I’m almost certain that if they gave me about a half million a year and blanket immunity, I could cut crime more than any after-school basketball program, simply based on my pure hatred for everyone. (Actually, one of my first experiments would be to start an after-school basketball program and kill everyone that shows up.)

Because of this, I decided I wasn’t going to go to any movies this year unless I was forced to. But then my favorite comic-book antihero was brought to the screen, and it looked like it would not suck, as pretty much every other movie about comic book heroes has. So I fought the crowds and idiots to the theater, got a ticket, and luckily got that one handicapped seat that’s front and center with no other seats around it so some dumb fuckhead wouldn’t show up ten minutes into the movie, kicking my shins and dumping popcorn everywhere and sit his sweaty, fat, unshowered ass right next to me.

The Punisher is, for those who don’t know, a character that appeared in Amazing Spiderman. Like pretty much everything that Stan Lee and his employees has ever done, The Punisher was wholly and completely ripped off from somebody else, in this case from Don Pendleton and the Mack Bolan series of books. Basically, the story is that a guy is a big-shot special forces, secret ops soldier who has his whole family killed by the mafia, and he avenges their deaths by going totally fucking medieval on the enemy with about twenty of every weapon known to man. Marvel beat the story to death and put all kinds of weird spins on it, but in the most basic sense, this guy Frank Castle is a normal human with no radioactive spider bites or radioactive gamma ray poisoning or radioactive ballsac creme or whatever else caused guys to grow third eyes or fire vision or any other powers which normally cause you to drop out of academics or a blue-collar career and consider superhero crimefighting as a day job.

Director Jonathan Hensleigh took his damn sweet time reeling out how much Frank loves his wife (played by the very porkable Samantha Mathis, who I last saw in American Psycho) and then destroying them. I was actually getting pretty bored during this part, but Hensleigh had to really build up that sappy emotional crap so Castle would have a good reason to finally go apeshit. And just to hedge any bets, he made sure to have every living relative on both sides of Frank’s family at a vacation dinner when the bad guys show up with guns.

The nemesis in the movie is Howard Saint, a mobster type played by John Travolta, who loses his son at the start of the film and decides to take it out on Frank Castle by erasing his entire family tree. This film confirms without a shadow of a doubt that John Travolta simply cannot act. At one point in his career (before he made Battlefield: Earth) Travolta earned $20,000,000 a picture, so it seems a bit odd that he’s working on a $33,000,000 action flick that’s not an artistic endeavor or an overt advertisement for Scientology. Anyway, he’s here, and he’s basically reading shit off of cards like he did in Broken Arrow, Face/Off, or Swordfish. But he’s always wearing a nice suit. And if you’ve been jerking it to Mulholland Drive, Laura Harring plays his wife. Unfortunately, her role does not require her to jump on a trampoline topless for fifteen minutes, so I would say her abilities as an actress were underutilized.

The film picks up when Castle starts his one-man war against Saint’s crime syndicate, and it had enough machine gun fire, explosions, knife fights, violence, and hand-to-hand combat to score almost an 8 on the Konrath 10-point scale of ultra-violence. Some of it was a bit hokey, like the fact that Claymore mines don’t explode like a high-explosive charge as pictured in a key scene (they shoot ball bearings in an arc from the front plate.) However, I was able to overlook this because of cool scenes like when he super-armed his house by hiding grenades and pistols under sinks and drawers, or when he decks out an old GTO with a full-on race engine and straight duals, plus shuttered armor plating on the windows and more hidden pistols inside. The movie is practically an instruction manual for going apeshit and making your house a fortified compound, but most of us who have been reading the comic for decades knew all this shit already.

And of course, Rebecca Romijn plays Frank Castle’s neighbor in his dumpy studio apartment. As you notice, I do not use the hyphenated S-word at the end of her name, because just a few days ago, she has split from the no-talent, phone commercial jerkoff. I don’t know the terms of her divorce, but I’m hoping it’s because she got that copy of Rumored to Exist I sent her, and she’s on her way over to my apartment right now to bear my children. I have to admit that I can’t speak much for her acting in this film, because every time she was on-screen, I was distracted with the lingering image of her in Victoria’s Secret french-cut panties, high heels, and nothing else, scrubbing my kitchen floor with sponge as I walk in the door after a long day of writing fiction and cashing checks from the large number of book sales our celebrity marriage has produced. “Oh honey, I’m so glad you’re home!” she says, throwing down the cleaning equipment. “I missed you so much while you were gone producing the best writing known in the world,” she says, throwing her arms around me. “I haven’t had sex with you in hours. Do you want to go to the bedroom, or can you just savagely fuck me from behind and pull my hair while I cook you dinner?” And so on.

The movie pulled in the wrong crowd for me, though, and what ultimately bugged me was the fact that people are so fucking stupid. The movie is about a guy who did RIGHT, who was a law enforcement official, and who was wronged by EVIL. And he ultimately decides that he must go above the law to avenge the death of his family. And when the voiceover of The Punisher in the final battle says something like “when laws don’t go far enough, sometimes you have to take things in your own hands,” and all of the fucked up whigger idiots in the audience are yelling “Hell yeah G!” The contradiction is that to most of these people The Punisher is a hero and what they want to be, because they live above the law in that they smoke a lot of pot and drink too much and steal car stereos to supply their cocaine habits. What I see as wrong is that these are the kind of people who I would kill if I was The Punisher. It’s simply inexcusable that this point was explained to the audience in the simplest form possible, yet everyone in the audience but me simply did not get it, and after this weekend, you will see dorks wearing Punisher skull shirts everywhere, acting like a bad-ass. Now, I haven’t gone all wacky and armed myself to the teeth, and to be serious, I haven’t decided to go out and kill people vigilante-style, because I have nothing to avenge. The fact that the dumb high school dropouts in my neighborhood spend all of their time smoking pot directly under my bedroom window and listening to bass-heavy violent rap on their shitty jambox is bad, but it’s not bad enough (yet) for me to start wiring up Claymore mines. To me, the punishment is that in twenty years, they’re going to be the fat men in undershirts walking around this neighborhood with nine kids and no money and still working a job unloading trucks even with a bad back that they can’t get fixed because they have no health insurance, and they will ultimately die in the same apartment they were born in. That might not be as spectacular as shoving a big-ass Rambo knife through someone’s heart, but it takes a lot less effort on my part, and I won’t end up in prison.

Anyway, good movie. Not great, but worth watching.


Media format history

Let’s wheel out the way-back machine, boys and girls, and set it to about fifteen – no, seventeen years for today’s history lesson, as we talk about something called media formats.

Don’t run off to another random website because you think I’m going to get into some Noam Chomsky, FAIR media studies bullshit. What I’m talking about is how the music gets from your favorite band to your head. Now, I know most of you kiddies nowaways use something called MP3s, which enable you to steal all of your music from the intraweb thingee through a program that lets you immediately download that one song from the album that your friends say you should listen to. This lets you immediately type “that milkshake song” into your music-stealing program and download the one song from the album, ignoring the other dozen that don’t matter, so you can listen to it over and over and over until the powers that be tell you to move to the next trend. And that’s fine, but I thought I’d take a moment to riff on some ancient, archaic formats that were around when your grandparents were in high school in the mid-eighties, and the company that made iTunes had a game called Breakout as their cash crop and all of this interweb stuff was just a wet dream of nuclear scientists hidden away in a DARPA laboratory, spending money on new ways to digitally transfer porn into MX Missile bunkers deep below the earth’s surface and transferring the cost to the taxpayers in the form of $670 hammers.

You may be familiar with the Compact Disc. It’s the recordable format you use when you want to get a whole bunch of stolen MP3s from one computer to another. There’s also a lesser-known form of this that comes from the factory with the songs already on it. And instead of being packed 50 to a spindle, each individual “album” comes with a tiny booklet that has the names of the songs and sometimes pictures of the band, which are for people who don’t have cable TV and can’t see videos on MTV. It sounds very wasteful and old fashioned, and even counter-intuitive that people would *pay money* to buy one of these “albums”, but these are also the same people that bought games like the Atari 2600 for hundreds of dollars and thought it was neat when two different blocks moved around the screen and shot at each other. And what’s even more strange is that there were actually more formats of music before the digital age, in something called analog.

Okay, I’ll drop the facetious trip and get to what I really wanted to talk about, which is the whole analog versus digital format. I know that analog and vinyl are back in the sense that everyone is spinning records in clubs, but playing records is music about as much as mixing housepaint is art. I know everyone is into the whole trip of house music or DJ music or whatever the hell you call it, but I think there’s pretty much an unwritten rule that if you have any Ted Nugent or Grand Funk Railroad in your collection, you can’t be into DJ-type music. Maybe I’m wrong, and I guess I do have at least a couple of BT albums in my collection, but that’s about where the story ends as far as I’m concerned, and if you’re looking for my weigh-in on the debate, you just got it.

Back to analog. I have an all-digital setup here in the pad: Dolby 5.1 and DTS if needed, fed out of fiber from a DVD player and with a 6+1 changer riding shotgun and the PS2 optically hanging out in case I need some backup (like when I get some fucked-out DVD-R-Audio-G from Taiwan that the mailman fucked up in the envelope or whatever. Sony put some mighty drives in those PlayStations – they can crack almost anything that spins and is five inches across.) There’s the iPod to go with me, and a stack of (legal) MP3 in my home PC and at work. I’ve even got a CD player alarm clock to tell me to get the fuck out of bed every morning. The analog gear has long left the rack, though. My circa-1993 dual-deck tape recorder lay disconnected by my never-played Korg M1, and I don’t even know what happened to my tape walkman, but it’s probably in a shoebox under my bed with my Pez dispensers and collection of broken Sony MD recorders. I think my collection of Iron Maiden albums on vinyl might still be at Marie’s place – not that I have a turnable to listen to them. I still have a few shoeboxes of tapes that were too good to get rid of, but since I sold my VW with a tape deck five years ago when I left Seattle, I haven’t had much use for tape, and even less for vinyl.

But I thought about tapes the other day, when I was listening to the new Queensryche album on headphones. One of the songs, “Desert Dance” has this really weird filter effect, I think it’s called a comb filter, on a verse as the first few lines are sung, and then the music almost stops but comes to a head, and then the filter vanishes and the whole thing charges on. It’s the kind of thing that’s indicative of when a band like QR or Dream Theater self-produces an album because of whatever ego trip they happen to be on, and everybody ends up twirling every knob in the booth just because they happen to be there. While the effect is cool, it’s also disorienting, because it’s the sort of thing that makes me think that my batteries are dying or my headphones have taken a shit yet again or… or…

The tape is fucked up! Man, how many years has it been since you’ve thought about that? It almost slipped my mind, the decades of capstans getting a bit too gummy or reels not being tensioned correctly, or slight folds on the tape from the whole thing getting vomited out of the player while you were doing 90 down the road and you threw the whole thing into the passenger seat and told your shotgun officer, “find a pen and fix this fucking thing!” Everything is digital now, and while I’m constantly running into problems like MusicMatch fucking up and putting all of the tracks in the wrong order, or finding out on the train to work that some fucking idiot on FreeDB has tagged Venom’s Black Metal album with the “Native American” genre label or something. But that’s the kind of thing that you fix on the fly or edit later or, god forbid, re-rip the album on another computer to get the shit straight. It never alters the sound though – every bit still ends up the same from the factory to your ear.

But remember when tape made this the exception rather than the rule? I know every time I listen to the CD for ZZ Top’s Eliminator album, I expect this low warble at about three seconds into the first track and three seconds before the end of the last track, because the felt pad had some kind of oxide on my old tape copy from 1983 and sat for a decade before I got back into the tres hombres in college. Every time I hear the Rush song “Witch Hunt”, I think of the copy my friend Derik taped for me; we used the stereo down in his basement, and when I was fucking around on his drum set, it vibrated the turntable’s needle, and left a slight audio ghost in the background of my C-90 copy that I heard again a million times, until I upgraded to CDs. When I listen to Electric Ladyland, I still expect the needle to jump just like it did on side three of my stepdad’s old copy, which became permanently recorded on my tape. And remember XDR tapes? I think only EMI made them, but they had this sweep of five tones at the start and finish, an indicator that their jazzed-up bullshit Dolby ripoff was giving you superior sound when you popped in that Pink Floyd tape. All of these artifacts became permanently engrained in my unconsciousness as I listened to these tapes over and over through my teens and college years, and I never thought of it, except the distant thought that “I wish these fucking Compact Disc players were smaller than a kitchen appliance so I could fit one in my god damned car and get rid of these tapes.”

I lived through the change from analog to digital, which in fifty years I hope to be some smaller version of some other great technology handoff, like the people who grew up riding horses and then graduated to the Model T. I remember first seeing a ten-thousand disc player in Omni at a time when I barely had experience with the cassette tape, maybe around 1982 or so, and thought, “that might be cool, if you were Howard fucking Hughes or something.” (Actually Hughes was dead by then, and I don’t know who I thought was rich back when I was ten – maybe George Lucas, or the members of Kiss.) Anyway, I think I’ve told the whole story of me buying my first CD player at some point in the past (sorry, no link.) But I remember the growing pains of the media, the long box era gradually being replaced by the shrink-wrapped jewel box (but sans the fucking security stickers). I remember when everyone was way too concerned about upgrading to digital, and there was a flurry of digital-ready analog cables, analog speakers, analog tuners, analog power strips, and everything but carpeting. I remember once, while buying one of the Aiwa tape walkmen I had during college, that a salesperson at that snooty audio store out by College Mall in Bloomington was telling me that Sony had a discman coming out that would read ahead a CD while playing it and store a few seconds of the tune in RAM memory as a sort of skip protection. I was looking at the guy like, “you are fucking high, my friend! I just bought four measly megabytes of memory for more than the cost of two Sony Discmen!” and he’s explaining the future of portables to me like the Navy explaining the USS Nimitz to a bunch of 1940s dimrods in that movie The Final Countdown (or insert your own favorite time-travel machine movie.) Lo and behold, a few years later, every single pink disposable portable CD player available at Target for under $50 has like an hour of skip protection built in. It’s like the CD was a big deal, and then I woke up one day and everyone had a hundred of them. And every car came with one, standard.

Weird, wild stuff. And that, kids, is a quote from this guy Johnny Carson. Believe it or not, Jay Leno was not the creator of the Tonight Show, you see… Oh, nevermind. I’ve got new CDs to rip.


I hate grocery stores

I hate grocery stores in New York. I know I’ve said this a million times, but it’s true. The grocery store, as the provider of food and foodstuffs, is probably one of the few things with which I require regular interaction to survive. Record stores in New York suck too, but I can not buy records. Cable TV in New York sucks, but I gave up on that after they pulled my bootleg connection, and it’s probably better that I don’t watch TV. Booksellers in New York – well, there are many good points, but they can also be run by snooty pieces of shit, and I can always take my business to Amazon.com. But aside from eating food off of a cart or ordering delivery every night, I need to eat. And it would be nice if this interaction was a pleasant, helpful, quick, and value-added experience. But it’s more like having a metal bucket full of feral rats strapped to your ass and heated with a blowtorch until the rodents seek escape by tearing through your anus and into your intestines. Well that, and they require you to carry a plastic card for a 1% discount.

I’ll admit: I’ve been spoiled. When I was in college and had my first real experience with buying groceries with my own money, I used to shop at Kroger all the time. Kroger went 24-hour when I was in high school, and around the same time became pretty much the first place to take credit cards. That meant it was no big deal for me to go in and buy a two-liter and a frozen burrito for $1.37 and put it on my Visa. Plastic was the lifeblood of the student, and Kroger made me a loyal customer (until Marsh showed up by my place in Colonial Crest.) Kroger also started building these mega-stores, that contained everything from fishing gear to bulk foods to fresh seafood to stationery supplies. Many a night, I would go to the Kroger at College Mall at three in the morning with a UCS paycheck burning a hole in my pocket and fill an entire square, top-heavy cart with everything you’d need to make two back-to-back Thanksgiving dinners for twelve with groceries left for the next week.

In Seattle, I had my choice from two major chains: Safeway and QVC. Both were open 24 hours. Both had sizeable stores with full-service delis and giant freezer sections. They offered a wide variety of health foods and veg-friendly stuff (I wasn’t vegan or anything, but it was when I had stomach problems and tried to watch what I ate.) The help at both were pretty friendly, and I managed to know cashiers who remembered me by name. Credit card payment was quick and easy, and sales and specials made a good dent in my bills. I shopped at Safeway a bit more, because they always sent very good coupon books, and some weeks, every single item I wanted to buy was on sale, and I’d end up getting $47 of food for about $16. Later, the Safeway closest to my house closed down to get knocked down and rebuilt as a super-Safeway, but at about the same time, QVC opened a new mega-store with an underground parking garage and a produce section bigger than most grocery stores overall. The two kept each other in check, and overall it meant that a trip to the store, be it for a single item or a trunk full of food would be enjoyable.

Okay. Fast-forward five years. I’m here in Astoria, and there are two stores near me. One is C-Town, the other is Key Food. There are also a lot of tiny groceries and bodegas that old ladies shop at, but I don’t speak Greek and I would rather not shop at a place where they’re going to avoid every health precaution available and spray my food with Windex. Neither Key Food or C-Town have around the clock service, but that’s typical, seeing as we’re in the city that never sleeps, and every fucking person who has ever used that phrase to describe New York has not tried to do something like buy a case of Coke at 1 AM, something that is even trivial to do in Goshen, Indiana.

To get a good picture of what Key Food looks like on a Saturday morning, watch the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan. To imagine the same at C-Town, do the same, but on one of those 2″ Sony Watchman TV sets. Much like a quick drive just outside of Tripoli will confirm that there are no traffic rules except “he who has the biggest gun welded to the back of his Toyota pickup truck has the right-of-way”, you will see people who obviously have no idea what the normal flow in a grocery store should be. I thought this was something you learned at an early age from sitting in the cart with your mom, or maybe the grocery store chain pays some Pavlovian psychiatry think-tank design firm to put up the signs and aisles and dividers in such a way that people could instinctively tell that you step in the front door, take a cart, go toward the aisle with the salad and crap, and then corkscrew through the store. Not so. Most people flail in every direction, as if a boxcar of geriatric prisoners were pushed out of a boxcar and into some Nazi maze of death while SS officers shot machine guns over their heads. It’s always a total clusterfuck. And to be fair to the people who are lost and confused, the stores here don’t always follow the smooth intestinal track of back and forth and back and forth, calmly oozing customers with full carts toward the multiple anuses of the cash registers. There are always protrusions and extra counters and racks and bizarre design issues made largely because square footage is so limited and they can’t simply put in twenty foot aisles with lots of breathing room in between.

The total lack of square footage means a radically reduced product line, of course. An Albertson’s or Safeway may have twenty feet of ketchup in an aisle; ketchup products that are hearty, light, lean, dietary, squeezable, industrial-sized, single-serving, kid-friendly, eco-designed, spicy, low-sodium, or even various non-ketchup colors, such as green. There may be different brands of ketchup, from the store brands to the generics to Heinz or even some organic hippy brand that substitutes agave juice for the sugar that gives most ketchup its flavor. But the bottom line is, you’re going to have a shitload of choices, and that always helps the consumer. You buy what you want, you try other options to find the ones that make you happy, you meet your dietary needs, and you probably save money, because there will be competition between the brands and they will strive to make you happy.

This, of course, is not true in a New York grocery store. More often than not, certain products will have a “family line”. For example, the Frito-Lay family has several brands of snack chip, such as Doritos, Ruffles, Chitos, and so on. At a smaller store, one or two big family lines, plus the shitty generic, will push out all other products. So, for example, Key Food might not have Kettle Chips. You might say “tough shit, Jon, they don’t have the space.” But my bitch is that because they don’t have the space, they can’t meet peoples’ needs. And if I want Kettle Chips, I’ve gotta rent a fucking car and drive to Rhode Island and buy them. How is that “the city that has everything?” Why doesn’t the store just sell everything that people want and then build a bigger store from the profits? Or spend some money to design a better store where the cashiers can ring people up faster and it’s harder for people to rip them off and less food is damaged while it’s on the shelves and everything else that would make them more money? Because they don’t give a shit.

This is usually evident the first time you get rung up at a Key Food or a C-Town. Anywhere else in the country, the cashier usually gives you a fake, forced smile and asks how you are, or maybe if you have anything on the bottom of the cart. While she rings up the shit, it goes to the other end, and a dude puts it into bags. Then she announces the total, and you pay her. Then she says thanks or have a nice day or whatever, and you go through, and the dude has put all of your bags on the cart, and sometimes they even offer to put it in your car if you drive up.

Okay, here what happens is you put all of your stuff on the belt. The woman acts as if you aren’t even there. In fact, she will try her hardest to not look at you, as if you are some kind of crazed sexual pervert with his cock out, jerking off to the Young Miss magazines right there in the checkout line, attempting to reach a climax and spray her face with your evil seed. She does not say hello. She does not greet you. When your total comes up, she does not annouce it to you, and chances are that the register does not contain a readout that is facing you, so you have to ask her what the total actually is. If you attempt to pay with a credit card, she will act as if you have attempted to insert a large household appliance in her rectum with no lubrication. Meanwhile, there is no guy bagging your shit – it is just sitting there, and most of the time, you have to bag it yourself. She does not say goodbye. Many times, she will not give you a receipt. And god fucking forbid one of your items does not come up in the computer during a scan.

People who work at grocery stores do not give a shit. The customer is never right. When you need help, they are not there to provide it. It is never their job to tell you where something is, and there’s also no system of telling where things are anyway. Need a corkscrew? In Kroger, there is a whole section of Aisle 8 dedicated to housewares – choose from any one of eight different models. At Key Food, tough shit. You’ll need to go up and down every single aisle to find that they have one sitting under the maxi-pads, and it’s probably broken.

The deli at any one of these stores is proof positive that these people are fucks. Well, first, if you ever have to get into line at a deli counter at one of these places and any more than, say, zero people are in front of you, it’s recommended that you carry a Japanese sword for your ritual suicide at this point. Any person ahead of you in a deli line is guaranteed to be a problem, with some serious OCD issues and a project that involves 37 different kinds of sliced meat, because they will spend all day ordering shit you’ve never even heard of and then bitching because the fixed-blade slicer is making the stuff too thin or too thick or whatever. Then when you get to the front of the line and you ask the guy, who you assume speaks enough of some dialect of English that you can at least point at something and scream an approximate weight at him and he will understand, won’t. The most simple order for, say, a half-pound of cheddar cheese (which you have to buy from the deli because they don’t even have the most basic Kraft shit you’d normally get) is a huge fucking ordeal, and he has to go into some meat locker dungeon that, based on the time he is gone, must burrow straight down into Middle fucking Earth. And even then, you’ll pay like $16 for a slab of shit that tastes like the government cheese they dumped off of Long Island back in 1982.

I don’t even know where I was going with this except to say that I went to Key Food tonight and I was really pissed off because I wanted some frozen corn dogs and they didn’t have any. Now I’m bored with this, so I’ll stop. I hope they get freshdirect.com here soon.