Various Long Reads 7/19

Been a few months since I did one of these, so let’s empty out the backlog:

  • The Story Behind The Song: Slow Ride by Foghat – (Fun fact: Foghat’s first two albums were both self-titled. This was long before Peter Gabriel pulled that shit for three albums, so I think it’s unrelated.)
  • Chicago’s World Fair 1934 – A great short (half of it in color) which is neat if you like Art Deco architecture. I’m curious if any of this remains, or where exactly it took place on a modern map. Dubai is having a world expo in 2020 – maybe I’ll save my pennies and check that out.
  • Why ‘ambient computing’ is just a marketing buzzword (for now) – I haven’t heard the term “ambient computing” (nothing to do with Brian Eno) but it’s a possible direction I’ve already thought about, so it’s interesting to see someone sum it up like this.
  • Out of the Dungeon: In Conversation with Mortiis – The whole dungeon synth thing is polarizing among extreme metal fans, but every five years or so, I fall down a k-hole of Havard Ellefsen’s weird releases. Here’s a good video interview of him without the mask and ears and rest of his persona.
  • The Gorbachev Anti-Alcohol Campaign and Russia’s Mortality Crisis – I never realized the Soviet Union had a large anti-alcohol campaign in the late Eighties. (We only learned about them being an evil empire in school.) Interesting theory that the moral crisis and increased death rate post-USSR may have less to do with evil capitalism and more to do with post-prohibition ‘catch-up’ blackout drinking.
  • How the SuperPET came to be – The Commodore PET was before my time, and I don’t think I ever saw one in the wild; my history starts with the C-64/Vic-20. Here’s a history of a rare variant with two CPUs developed with the University of Waterloo to run mainframe programming languages. Here’s another link.
  • Robert Christgau, ‘dean of rock critics,’ still obsesses over music – Every few years, I waste about three days reading every review he’s written of every album I’ve ever bought, and we disagree on about 90% of them but he’s still somewhat genius.
  • First Blood Filming Locations – I don’t even know how I got on this tangent, except maybe I thought it was shot somewhere in Southwest Washington, because it sure looks it, but of course it was shot in Canada.
  • Tales of a BeOS Refugee – This is more about early OS X, but any time I see something related to Be, I bookmark it, because good luck doing a google search on it. Fun fact: I remember applying for a job at Be in 1996 when I thought it was the coolest thing in the universe. Glad I didn’t relocate for that one.
  • The Real Story Behind Danzig’s Mother Video – I like listening to the first three Danzig albums just as much as I like making fun of Danzig, which is a lot, so I’m a bit conflicted here. I like the bit about the model later insisting it was an actual Satanic ritual and Glenn had cursed her. (Her name is Jill Kethel if you want to look up her workout videos on youtube.)
  • The End of the Waffle House – If you went to Bloomington back when I did and you ever needed caffeine and grease at three in the morning, you probably remember this place, which unfortunately closed in 2013 and is probably now a bunch of condos.
  • Halcyon Days – A series of interviews from 20-some years ago with many classic game programmers. I got pulled into this because of an interview with Ed Averett, who wrote the bulk of the Odyssey 2 games for Magnavox, a system which most people have completely forgotten.
  • Star Raiders reverse engineering – I first read about this in POC | GTFO and I don’t know what’s more amazing: all the weird hacks the original programmers used to fit this game into 8K, or how someone meticulously reverse-engineered the source code.

As always, here’s another plug for you to go get my latest book if you haven’t already.

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Various Long Reads 2/19

Haven’t done one of these in a bit, so here’s more:

  • The Bloomberg Keyboard – back before PCs and the internet, Bloomberg used physical terminals to connect traders to stock market information. These terminals all had weird keyboards. A fun look back if you’re a mechanical keyboard nerd.
  • You Are Now Entering the Demented Kingdom of William T. Vollmann – I’ve slowly been working through his back catalogue, but it hurts my head. Vollmann is a seriously weird guy, and I do like some of that. Didn’t realize he had a Bloomington connection, either.
  • Blast From the Past: Garcia’s Pizza in a Pan – Here’s another Bloomington connection, although this is about an Illinois location. My favorite pizza place in college, before it vanished.
  • How Texas Lost the World’s Largest Super Collider – Spending a few billion dollars building a huge o-shaped tunnel underground and then saying fuck it and shuttering the place. I wish this article had more pictures, though.
  • Dahmer’s Inferno – A k-hole I frequently fall down. This article is from 1991, and I remember reading it at the newsstand, but haven’t seen it since, so it was good for a revisit.
  • Follow the Path of Least Resistance: An Oral History of ‘Office Space’ – This movie holds a strange nostalgia for me, because I think I’m the only person I know who saw it in the theater on opening night.
  • Flag Man’s Last Stand – Or, “I’m so glad I spent all this money on 40 acres of land in rural Colorado and now the whole area is infested with live-free-or-die assholes that shoot up abortion clinics and live off the grid.” (BTW, does anyone want to buy 40 acres of land in rural Colorado?)
  • The toy of tech: The Mattel Aquarius 30 years on – My first computer, which I’ve written about before. I wish I could get another, but I know I would lose interest in twenty minutes.
  • “The Linux of social media”—How LiveJournal pioneered (then lost) blogging – I should write more about this at some point, but this article covers a lot of the main points.
  • VAX Notes remembered – Now we’re going even deeper in the “pre-social media info exchange” rabbit hole. I remember VAX Notes having a particularly horrendous interface that was very non-intuitive, but it was the best way back in 1989 or so of hosting your own forum without installing anything.
  • My Street Photography Workshop With Garry Winogrand – There’s a doc on Netflix that I liked about Winogrand, although I do see how he’s so polarizing in the photography world. To me, part of the mystique is that he died with half a million undeveloped pictures from his regular street photography, which sort of dovetails into how I’m amazed that Vollmann cranks out another 3400-page book every other month or whatever.
  • The year we wanted the internet to be smaller – Old, but another bit on weird, ultra-focused communities. I’m starting to sound like a broken record here.

I haven’t plugged a book in a bit, so go get my latest if you haven’t already.

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Hello from the former 219

Exactly thirty years ago, to the day, I was here.

It was Christmas Eve. We closed at five. I was telling people we had no Nintendos. I probably worked forty hours that week. I’d listened to the same four-hour loop of taped holiday Muzak at least ten times. Mariah Carey was still waiting tables, so no, that song wasn’t on.

Today, I poked around what’s left of the Concord Mall, trying to visualize exactly where this was. The Montgomery Ward where I worked is gone now, having closed 18 years ago. The above picture is what used to be a door and a set of windows going in to the Auto Express department. Take a quick right, and you’d see me at a Nixdorf cash register, telling someone that no, we had no Nintendos.

Most of automotive is now a dentist’s office. Two of the bays, all of my old department, and a good chunk of housewares is now a warehouse-type electronics/appliance store. I went inside, and compared the layout of the poles and roof inside to some pictures I had from 1988 and more or less figured out where my department was. The warehouse store was empty, a ghost town. I talked to the manager, asked him if he remembered the Wards there. He didn’t. I don’t think he was alive thirty years ago.

The rest of the store is now a Hobby Lobby. I nosed around there a bit. You cannot tell it used to be a Wards at all. The area that used to be Electric Avenue is filled with floral arrangement kits, and “live laugh love” placards. I think their bathrooms are in the same place as the ones by the customer service center in Wards. I looked into an open door that led to their warehouse area. It’s the same warehouse where I used to unload trucks at six in the morning back in 1993. Same gray paint. I painted that warehouse at one point.

The mall was absolutely deserted. Echoing Christmas music. Zombie apocalypse. Almost every store closed. I went on facebook live, started doing a tour. Three minutes later, a mall cop told me to stop. Oh well.

Santa was gone. The winter wonderland booth was already partly disassembled. Nobody was around. The mall closed at five. There is no way this mall will survive another year. It was supposed to be torn down in 2017. Maybe if the economy tanks and there’s no money to rebuild it, they’ll chain the doors shut and let it rot. I spent almost every hour of my time there for a formative decade of my childhood. Best case scenario, they will turn it into a storage facility. Maybe tear it down and build some soccer fields for the high school. They turned Pierre Moran into a strip mall, and when I was there today, every store except one was vacant. So no need for that.

I have been on such a heavy nostalgia trip, just wallowing in a horrible pit of memories. I drove by my old house today, saw my dead uncle’s house, cruised past my dad’s post-divorce single-wide trailer. I went to the dead Sears at what used to be Pierre Moran mall, stood in the parking lot where the mall once was, tried to figure out the layout of where things used to be. I went in the Big Lots that used to be the G.L. Perry department store where I’d buy Star Wars figures and Halloween costumes, where I first studied the Kiss Unmasked LP and wondered why the hell they took off their makeup. I went to the grocery store parking lot where my car blew up in 1991. They started remodeling the grocery, ran into asbestos, ran out of money, and abandoned it. There’s a lot of that around the area.

An old friend from New York messaged me this morning, and said she had stopped in Indiana to eat breakfast at a pancake place, asked me if I knew it. It was literally 1500 feet from where I was sitting. I ran over and talked to her for a few minutes. I think I last saw her in 2002. It was such a weird coincidental mindfuck. It was like walking into a K-Mart and seeing Iggy Pop and Gerald Ford playing Uno. It was a great surprise, but also fed into this weird nostalgia thing I’m far too deep into.

If you’ve seen Mad Men, you’ll know I’m ripping this off from Don Draper, and I’ll steal it from the Apple thesaurus to make sure I don’t screw it up. The word nostalgia comes from from the Greek nostos ‘return home’ + algos ‘pain’. After living in a dozen cities, it’s sometimes hard to say where home really is. But put me in a car in Mishawaka and tell me to go to the Tastee-Freez in Dunlap, and I will make every turn from one to the other without thinking. There is a deep familiarity there, things burned into my head, both good and bad, that are the basis for so many parts of my life. And revisiting that brings some pain I can’t avoid, that I want to continually revisit. I don’t want to move back here; I never could. But I have some sick fascination with going back to those memories, even as the physical world that formed them crumbles.

I feel a great need to stop doing this. I should be thinking about what book I should be writing next, or what I should be doing with my career, not trying to think of every record store that was open in the 219 area code in 1992. This area isn’t even in the 219 area code anymore. And there are almost no record stores. And I don’t live here anymore. You can’t go back. Whatever. I’m mentally ill. I should meditate or jog or take up knitting. I don’t know.

That night, thirty years ago, I got a ride home with a girl I had a crush on, because the starter on my car was broke. The next day, my family went to Chicago, stayed with my favorite cousins. We went to a mall that night and I saw the movie The Naked Gun, going into it blind, not even knowing it was a comedy, which was perfect. We drove back to my cousin’s after midnight in his 5.0 Mustang, blasting the song “Fade to Black,” which is an awesome song to listen to in the middle of the night on a highway in a big city in a fast new car. I was amazed that we were in a place so big and so cool that they played Metallica on the radio, and knew that someday, I would have to leave small-town Indiana. I was a senior in high school. I was getting ready to leave for college, start a journey that would eventually take me to the very end of that same highway, on the west coast, as far as I possibly could get from that point. That’s another story, another set of nostalgia points.

Anyway. It’s Christmas in 24 minutes. I have to Ambien out, see more family tomorrow. Hope your holiday is going well.

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More Various Long Reads 9/18

I should probably find a better way to organize these link dumps (see previous), but I’m lazy. Anyway, here’s some more stuff I’ve been reading:

  • Lisp Machinery – A Lisp Machine resurrection blog – Lisp machines are a weird artifact of the Eighties race for AI, purpose-built big computers made just to run lisp programs. Here’s a guy that rescued three refrigerator-sized lisp machines and is trying to get them running again. I don’t know why, but I love stuff like this.
  • Planting a Seed in a Toxic Place with Roger Miret – I had a couple of Agnostic Front albums, and had a poster in my room for a while, but didn’t know much about frontman Roger Miret’s backstory in those pre-wikipedia days. Here’s an interesting read about this, in Psychology Today, of all places.
  • The Unknown Notebooks of Jean-Michel Basquiat – Just watched Sara Driver’s new doc, Boom For Real, which is more about the Lower East Side scene in the late Seventies than Basquiat himself, but was great, except now I’m going to fall down this wormhole for the next week or six. I just wish his estate would do a proper book of his various writing I could buy.
  • Chevy Chase can’t change – I wasn’t a fan of early SNL like others are, so I have no loyalties here, but this is a bittersweet read. Saw him on Norm Macdonald’s show, and was wondering what was up, so here it is.
  • Breathing New Life into Old Cameras – I previously mentioned I fell into this film thing again, and have been reading too much about how to fix old cameras. If you’re in the same boat, here’s a good starting point.
  • Forth: The Hacker’s Language – Forth was a weird language. I always knew about it, but never got into it, because it’s a pretty deep pool to jump into, second only to assembly language. I was reading about the Canon Cat computer, which used Forth, which led to this. Forth is also deeply related to the development of the Macintosh, thanks to the next read.
  • Jef Raskin – The father of the Macintosh computer, sort of. Raskin actually started as a tech writer, the head of Apple’s publications department, but had a lot of radical ideas about the future of the computer-human interface, which eventually led to the genesis of the Macintosh, and many clashes with Steve Jobs. (Two of the biggest things about the Mac, the 68K processor and the mouse, were things he was against.) Raskin later went to Canon and worked on the Canon Cat, which was a Forth-based word processor that never really took off.
  • How Jean Louis Gassée Changed the Mac’s Direction – Sorry for all the Mac archaeology links. My connection to this is I was trying to get a job at Be Incorporated and got into their developer program, but never bought a machine or got the job. (Probably for the best, given the outcome.)
  • The Crash at Sun Valley Mall – Not an economic crash, like most malls are seeing, but an Eastern Airlines puddle-jumper that flew through the roof of Macy’s back in 1985. I mall-walk this place (the other Concord Mall) so it’s interesting to see it in its vintage glory.
  • Too Much Music: A Failed Experiment In Dedicated Listening – I should probably do this. I have way too much music. Luckily, Comcast gave me a DMCA takedown strike for torrenting this week, so I need to quit that, which will help. Everything’s on Apple Music though, and discogs is a problem, too.

Shameless plug: I have a new book. Please check it out.

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Various Long Reads 9/2018

I love long reads. I remember a time when the web was nothing but long articles, and I wasted a lot of time reading them. I’m finding now that this wasn’t really time wasted, and I’m forcing myself to find more long articles that interest me, which is harder than it sounds.

Anyway, here’s ten articles that crossed my browser recently. Feel free to send me yours. Maybe I should make this a thing.

Shameless plug: I have a new book. Please check it out.

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Sears

Yeah, so that Sears in Marin I posted about? It’s on the new closing list. I think it has until April. I should probably go take more pictures, but the last trip was so depressing, it’s probably not worth it.

One of the other Sears store on the new closing list is the one in Shoreline, WA. I have a specific history with that one. In 1996, I was talking to this woman who lived in Southwest Washington, and she was going to be in Seattle to stay with some friends, in Shoreline. We agreed to meet for lunch, and for some reason, the meeting place was that Sears. I think it was the only public landmark I could think of in that area. Anyway, yada yada, and I ended up dating her for the next year and a half.

I really shopped at that store — it was sort of dumpy, and in a weird part of town. The part of Shoreline that is on the water is very affluent, with a golf course and lots of multimillion dollar houses looking out at the water. But the row of stores on Aurora — I think there used to be an outdoor mall in the area, and it was gone, and sort of isolated. The one thing I remember is that the inside of that store vaguely reminded me of the Sears in University Park Mall, in Mishawaka, Indiana.

The UP Sears is not closing. The thing I remember about that one — in my senior year of high school, someone called in a bomb threat right before first hour. When I was driving into the parking lot, firemen were waving people away, telling us to go home. So I drove to the mall in South Bend. It wasn’t open, so I slept in my car for a few hours, and then cut through Sears to go to the record store, because the Joe Satriani EP Dreaming #11 came out that day, and I had to buy it. I don’t know why I so clearly remember walking through that Sears, or why it looked different to me, but it’s a very vivid memory, thirty years later.

The Sears I would have compared that one to would be the one in Pierre Moran mall, in Elkhart, which closed last year. The entire mall was de-malled a dozen years ago, but the Sears remained. Ray’s girlfriend (now wife) worked there forever. I was also friends with someone who worked in the design department there, and used to go visit her, so I was somewhat familiar with the insides of the store, although it was enemy territory for me, being a Wards employee.

The Sears in Bloomington is completely gone, which is weird. The mall lives on, but the Sears was completely leveled, and a grocery store is going in there. That would be a sad thing for me to see, because I always parked in front of that Sears when I went to the mall. I think I parked in front of it the first time I went there, in the summer of 1989. I remember going there with a then-girlfriend in a cab so she could pick up one of those Brother word processors she ordered from their catalog, which really dates me.

Another closing last year was the Sears in Lynwood, WA, at the Alderwood mall. That was a frequent stop for me, because the aforementioned girlfriend moved to an apartment not too far away. I had a car at her place once that needed some work done, and it was a long weekend of wrenching on it, then realizing I didn’t have a good breaker bar or a metric socket, driving to that Sears, buying tools, going back and breaking a socket, returning to Sears to exchange it on that wonderful Craftsman unlimited warranty, repeat a few more times.

Also, Alderwood has strange memories for me because I used to shop there all the time, and the day before I left Seattle, I went there in my one-way rental car to buy some last-minute stuff, and ate one of my last Seattle meals there at the Uno pizza in the food court, which is so revolting and horrible and last-minute, but there you go. (The Uno is now gone, too. Probably a good thing.)

I feel dumb for obsessing over dead malls and retail, and nostalgia in general is such a high-carb k-hole for me to stumble down, with little reward and a lot of depression. But I keep doing it. I’m looking forward to the weather improving so I don’t have to walk indoors anymore.

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Latest Distraction: Astronaut.io

I found something recently that has been an entirely too hypnotic waste of time. Go here:

astronaut.io

This site will find videos on YouTube that have no views, then drop into a random location and play about five seconds. It continues to do this in a never-ending stream, and the effect is bizarre.

First of all, all the videos shown tend to be people, or homemade. Actually, a majority of the videos are peoples’ kids, which is a testament to the futility of taking videos of your kids. But it reminds me of those found photos sites like Internet K-Hole, that have endless candid snapshots taken at malls or parties back in the mid-Eighties. There’s a certain personal aspect to it, and to just dump in the middle of a home movie is chaotic and bizarre and wonderful. It is like an experimental James Benning movie, but continues forever.

OK, just for fun — I’ve had this running in the background for a while, and I’ll rattle off a quick description of what’s showing:

  • A shot of some mountains out of the window os a plane.
  • A dog running in the snow in a back yard.
  • A Chinese toddler beating a Fischer-Price cash register.
  • Eight grade school girls playing what sounds like a Jewish folk tune on violins.
  • A guy from what looks like a former Soviet satellite country trying to pull a train car on a rope.
  • A kid and grandfather with a remote control plane.
  • Someone skiing down a slalom run.
  • An guy talking in Arabic at a podium with four microphones.
  • Someone explaining physics homework on a whiteboard in German.
  • A girl doing horse dressage.
  • A college stoner dude doing a video essay for a class.
  • A golden retriever running back and forth in a yard.
  • A girl in a class explaining what the ACL ligament is.
  • Some people playing a TV trivia game.
  • Two french toddlers rapping.
  • An elementary school talent show with a girl dancing back and forth.
  • Someone cooking Alfredo pasta.
  • A fat guy on an Oculus Rift.
  • A walkthrough of a house under construction.
  • Four Vietnamese guys in a grass hut.
  • A guy talking in Spanish while shampooing a woman’s hair in a salon.
  • A Pop-Warner football game, shot from about 9,000 feet away.
  • Someone installing an engine in a small general aviation plane.
  • The worst Led Zeppelin cover band imaginable.
  • Someone filming a baby stroller.
  • An Indian video about gluten-free diets.
  • Someone in Spain playing NBA 2K.
  • Two white guys rapping at a beach that looks like Racine, Wisconsin.
  • A choir in an adventist church in what looks like Bali.

…and so on.

This reminds me of one time when I had the bright idea of searching google for IMG_1954 and seeing what came up. But this is a thousand times better. Check it out.

 

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Stoneridge

fullsizerender-3I had yesterday and today off, and I was bored of walking in my neighborhood, so I drove to the nearest mall, like an honest-to-satan mall mall, and not a bunch of stores next to each other with a fake city square in the middle of it.

The closest mall to me is in Pleasanton, about thirty minutes south/southeast of here. There’s a Westbrook mall in San Francisco, probably technically the same distance away, but it’s tucked into the city and not the same experience as being in a suburban freestanding mall.

Stoneridge Shopping Center is the perfect example of a healthy and well-operating Simon mall. It’s got about 160 stores and four anchors (JCPenney, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Sears), with almost no vacancies. It was originally designed by A. Alfred Taubman, and it has the same look and feel as some of his other malls. I’ve been to Short Hills mall in New Jersey and Cherry Creek mall in Denver, and the interior has the same feeling and flow to it.

Walking around this place is a real mindfuck for me. First, it resembles University Park mall’s exterior, the way JC Penney and its champagne-colored brick juts out from the mall proper and Macy’s is around the corner. The mall sits on an uneven parking area, the north side a level higher than the south, with stairsteps going down the evergreen-covered ridges. The mall sits in a bowl created by the Pleasanton ridge on the west horizon, and the 580 and 680 highways to the north and west. The exterior is decidedly Californian, and far more suburban than the rest of the Bay Area.

But walking the concourse inside — it’s very easy for me to get lost in the nostalgia of the place. It feels like a direct time machine to being in the late 90s in the Seattle area, shopping at Northgate, or Lloyd Center in Portland. And being there in the late morning, right before the Christmas holiday season, brings back old and strange memories for me, of stocking up new shipments when I worked at Wards, hauling out the lawn tractors for storage and setting up the Christmas trees.

There’s something hypnotic about the dead lull at about 11:00 on a weekday in a mall. It reminds me of the times I spent at IUSB, when I would skip class and drive to Scottsdale or University Park to hit the record stores and arcades. The only people there would be the career mall workers, the day shift people, along with a few geriatrics walking the loop, and maybe a mom or two with strollered kids. Everyone else was at work, at their jobs in the factories, and I would have the place to myself, like a post-apocalyptic movie. I like seeing a mall busy at night with holiday traffic, but having the place to myself always felt great.

Malls have a secret life few people see, like the hour before they open, when you see all the assistant managers walking to the bank with their locked up money pouches and drop boxes, stopping to get coffee, talking to the other lifers about the coming onslaught. I liked when I worked the 6AM truck unloading shift, and after unfucking 45 feet of furniture from the Franklin Park warehouse, I’d get a few minutes to go to the pretzel stand and get enough caffeine to finish the next trailer full of stereos and mattresses. Working in a mall paid nothing, even back in those peak mall days of the late 80s/early 90s, but it was a nice routine.

Now, finding a mall like this is a huge nostalgia trigger. I don’t really have anything I want to buy at a mall (other than pretzel dogs, which I really can’t have) but I really enjoy the walking, the people-watching, and the general atmosphere. And like I said, it’s a huge time machine that sends me back twenty years. It’s unfortunate, because malls are dead and dying, but when I get a change to spent an hour in one, it’s almost restorative to me. I know this isn’t very edgy and absurd and punk rock, but it’s a thing. I wish we had a place like this closer to my house. I should probably take more pictures before this one goes away.

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Recent k-holes: maps

I’ve been falling down some horrible nostalgia k-holes as of late. Here’s an exercise you should never do: go find the toys and games and things that completely obsessed you at the age of about twelve, find the addresses of the corporate headquarters offices of their makers, and plug them into Google Maps. The total disconnect between what you envisioned as a child and what these places look like now are phenomenal.

I think there are a few reasons this fascinates me. One is, I never travelled much as a kid. Any preconceptions about any area outside of northern Indiana/southern Michigan or Chicago was either based on TV, or just a guess. I never had any spatial awareness for any other geographical areas of the country. When I was playing with Star Wars toys and somehow found out they were made in Cincinnati, in my head, that meant WKRP, and Les Nesmond’s domain was the same as where my Han Solo was injection-molded. Never mind that the show was a loose montage of stock footage for the establishing credits, and then some sets at CBS Television City in Los Angeles. (If you’re curious on this one, btw: http://www.kennercollector.com/2013/12/kenner-tour-of-cincinnati-kenner-street/)

Another thing that informed these thoughts is that these toys and things were everywhere, so I envisioned massive operations, Detroit-sized city-factories, pumping out GI Joes and Milton Bradley board games. In reality, most of these were small operations, with a few dozen people working on a couple of machines. I probably should have known this, given that my dad worked in a factory, except instead of Hot Wheels, it was pumping out PVC pipe fittings. But they could have just as easily swapped out the molds in their machines and injection-molded Atari joystick pieces or whatever else.

Here’s a couple of examples of these rabbit holes. One, I was into model railroads as a kid. It was a passing phase, somewhere between Legos and model airplanes. I was never that interested in the train aspect, more the scale model stuff, but I also enjoyed the electronics, and the track layouts. One of the big names back then was Atlas Model Railroad. When you got the pre-packaged oval-track train set on Christmas, it was a Tyco. (Or Lionel, if you were O-scale.) But when you went to Kay-Bee Toys or a local hobby shop, Atlas was the big ubiquitous brand of cheap add-on track, running gear, and other accessories. If you read the train magazines, they worshipped the expensive imported German trains, or scratch-built stuff, and eschewed the Atlas stuff because it was cheap or not as detailed. But I wasn’t a retired dentist and didn’t have the cash, so Atlas it was.

And although I bought a lot of their track, the big infatuation back then was their layout books. They published these paperback 8.5×11 blueprint books with a bunch of different track designs in them, things that would fit on various table sizes. The books were well-illustrated, lots of details, and most importantly, had parts lists of everything you needed to build and wire the setups. Of course, these were all intended to get you to go buy more Atlas stuff, and it worked, because I would make endless lists of part numbers and pieces I needed to buy with my allowance. I would get so lost in those books, even though I never fully built any of those layouts. I just enjoyed reading the blueprints for hours, dreaming about what I could build if I had an unlimited budget and way more space.

So, in my twelve-year-old head, I always thought about the Atlas headquarters when I saw the address in the corner of a package or book. They were in Hillside, New Jersey. New Jersey was right there by New York. And I’d seen Ghostbusters, so of course I knew exactly what that looked like. I envisioned the Atlas empire as being something like the Chrysler Building, a hundred or so floors of people packing up HO scale snap-track in yellow envelopes and shipping them off to the sixteen billion stores that sold the stuff. Well, not quite. First, I didn’t know back then that New Jersey wasn’t New York. It’s not twenty square miles of bedrock with massive skyscrapers; it’s thousands and thousands of square miles of warehouses and single-story homes and suburbs sprawled out in every direction.

So, plug in 378 Florence Ave, Hillside, NJ 07205 and you get an unassuming two-story brick building, about the size of a bowling alley. At first glance, it almost looks like a junior high school, and resembles half of the factories near where I grew up, with a single semi bay and a parking lot for a dozen and a half employees. It’s right off the I-78, around a bunch of postwar cape cod houses wrapped in vinyl siding, maybe two miles west of Newark Airport. I haven’t even thought about model railroading in decades; I’m sure they still do great stuff. But the reality of the company is such a disconnect from what I thought of as a kid.

Seeing this building and the surrounding neighborhood is such a strange look inside something hallowed from childhood, something I could never see in the pre-internet days. Sure, looking at a Google Maps photo sphere of Pyongyang, North Korea is astonishing and bizarre (another k-hole to fall down…) but slicing open a childhood memory like that and attaching a completely different context to it is oddly mind-blowing. I mean, I flew in and out of Newark many times; I took the PATH over to Jersey and walked around, drove a car through the suburbs and probably ate at the Taco Bell just around the block from that place. But it’s a weird words-colliding thing to think about that now.

Here’s another big one: D&D. Like most geeks, I was stuck on Dungeons and Dragons back in the day. (Unlike many people who now say they are geeks, this was when geeks were geeks and you’d get the shit beat out of you for being into stuff like D&D.) From maybe fifth to seventh grade, I was infatuated with all things TSR, and I was sure that Gary Gygax and crew hid out in some Tolkein-esque castle surrounded by thousands of acres of meadows and caves. Even the name Lake Geneva, the city in Wisconsin from which they hailed, sounded palatial, like its namesake in Switzerland. I remember once when we drove to the Wisconsin Dells from Chicago, and passed a sign for Lake Geneva on the 94, and I freaked out at the thought of being right there, near where my Monster Manual was originally penned.

TSR had a more rocky history past those days in the early 80s: the ousting of Gygax (see this), the ups and downs of board gaming (and the video game crash), and the eventual purchase of the failed company by Wizards of the Coast. I have no interest in WotC’s corporate offices in Renton, because that was way after my dreams ended. (In fact, I lived in Seattle at the same time they bought TSR. And plugging their Renton, WA address into maps shows me a building that looks almost exactly like every other software company in the 90s in Seattle.) So I had to do a little more digging, but I found more.

I won’t write you a whole history about TSR, because a lot of other people have. But from this article, I found that one of the headquarters was a building on Main and Broad that used to be called the Hotel Clair. The first floor had a game/hobby store run by Gygax, and the top two floors had creatives, designing away games and modules and books. This three-story brick building looks almost identical to most of the storefronts in downtown Elkhart where I grew up, or any other small city-square town in the Midwest. My mom worked as an interior decorator in a building like this; the other buildings had insurance salesmen and stationery stores and banks and dry cleaners. They did not seem like a place that would hold the mecca of all role-playing games of the 1980s.

TSR outgrew this space, and found a warehouse at 201 E Sheridan Springs Road. This looks even more like the factories I knew from growing up, two connected, low-slung buildings with a large parking lot in the front. The building next door’s current occupant is Wisconsin Precision Casting Company, which seems like it could be in either building. TSR wasn’t in some huge Disney-esque building in the shape of a dragon, but in an anonymous warehouse that could have held a plumbing supply company or a place that did fiberglass extrusions for the mobile home industry.

The TSR thing is odd to me, because the worlds created in each of these games and books and modules were, in my mind, as big as the world I was in sometimes. And to think about a bunch of people creating these things, one after another, was mind-blowing to my twelve-year-old self. There’s already the time distortion of youth that causes these things to be so much bigger. But these huge and infinite worlds were created by a few dozen people in hundreds of square feet of below-average commercial real estate in small town America. I felt like companies like TSR, or Commodore, or Coleco were on another planet, a thing much bigger than my small town. But in reality, it was pretty much the same place.

Not that much else to say about this, except that it’s a bottomless rabbit-hole. I don’t even want to start looking at where the original Atari 2600s were built. I’ll leave that as a homework assignment to the reader. (Hint: start reading here.)

 

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the changing range of nostalgia

I got an observation/question in email from Larry about this (and I’m paraphrasing): back when we were in high school in the mid/late-80s, there were a couple of kids who had old cars, “classic” cars like the ’57 Chevy, and that was a big deal, because they were 30 years old and “antique.” Or back then, the twenty-year-old range put you into classic muscle cars, like the ’69 Z-28 or Mustang Mach 1.

Now, a thirty-year-old car lands you in the mid-80s. And he posits, are kids now impressed with a 1985 car with a bad tape deck the way we lusted after old Bel Airs and T-Birds?

Oddly enough, that’s true to some extent. I read a reddit for project cars (which makes total sense, because I don’t have a garage, or time, or money, or patience, so I waste tons of time looking at pictures of people restoring old cars.) And the year range of what I consider “classic” is now insanely out of reach. Every baby boomer who has cashed in and is in The Crisis is searching for that ’66 Stingray or ’69 GTO they couldn’t get back in high school, which has made the prices skyrocket. Even the completely fucked and destroyed shell of an old Camaro convertible is going to cost more than my 2014 Toyota did new.

So, the kids of now are looking back to “old” cars that I still mentally consider “new.” Like on that reddit, two of the most popular resto-mod projects are old Fox-era Mustangs (’79-’93) and first-gen Miatas (’89-’97.) When I was in high school with a falling-apart rust bucket of a 1976 car, I was given endless shit by kids whose parents bought them a new car, and the one in vogue was the ’88 or ’89 Mustang 5.0 GT. That to me is a “new” car, but now they’re almost 30 years old.

If you were looking for a cheap project, you can buy one of those mid-80s Mustangs for a grand or two, with a beat-apart four-banger engine. This was right before computerization and fuel injection took over the engine bay of modern vehicles, so it’s not hard to tear out that engine and rebuild a pick-and-pull 351 V-8 for a grand or so. You can get all the Edelbrock bolt-on stuff like an intake manifold or headers online, and head over to Tire Rack to get running gear UPSed to your door. But yeah, kids now see those as “old” cars, and are into the retro aspect as much as they are into vinyl records.

I’ve also noticed this in another k-hole I fall down, which is retro computing. I also browse through a reddit for vintage computers. When eBay first came out, I went through this thing where I had to buy an old Atari 2600, which I never had as a kid, and also re-buy a new Commodore 64 and relive the past glory of my first real computer. And people still do that, and there’s a big community of folks with old Amigas and ColecoVisions and all that. But now, I’m also seeing a lot of kids restoring “retro” machines like 386 and 486 PCs.

My first reaction to this, seeing someone fighting with a 486DX-33 and a Windows 3.1 install was “wait, what?” Because those aren’t vintage, they just came out… well… okay, twenty-some years ago. If you pull an old 486 out of the garbage and have no memory of these beasts, it’s going to seem radically different from your new PC. It will have floppy drives, a 40-Meg disk drive that’s IDE if you’re lucky, or maybe even an MFM or RLL interface. There won’t be a DVD or CD drive, USB, any sort of memory card reader, and it probably won’t have a network card. (It might have an old 10 Base T Ethernet card, if it was from an office.) It would hopefully have a VGA card, but good luck if it was Hercules or mono. And prepare for that gigantic space heater power supply used to spin up the massively loud hard drive to have bulged and leaking capacitors that need replacement.

It’s an odd thing, because in some senses, a computer from 1992 is going to be much harder to deal with than one from 1982. That pre-internet era is not as documented as it could be, and most parts and spares went into the garbage. It was also the wild west as far as standardization. Only one company made TI computers; there were dozens of Taiwanese shops knocking out PCs in the early 90s, all using only vaguely compatible pieces, and most of them are vanished and unknown. Now, every computer looks absolutely identical, but then, even the same manufacturer might have a dozen differently-cased computers, each with entirely incompatible parts. Try finding a replacement front bezel for a Leading Edge computer – your only real hope is finding another complete Model D to cannibalize.

And these “old” computers seem like they are five minutes in my past. When I started this site, I had just upgraded from a 486DX-33 to a 486-DX120. I had the same beige mini-tower case from 1992 to I think 2002, and incrementally updated bits and pieces of the system when I got a few bucks. I wrote my first two books on computers shoehorned into that box, and it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago. But 1992, that was 23 years go.

I should add the disclaimer here, so I’m not completely Andy Rooneying this, is that I don’t see anything “bad” about current computers, in a “they don’t build them like they used to” way. Same with cars – you can buy a $10,000 car and drive it for a hundred thousand miles easy, only changing the oil and maybe getting a set of tires or two. You don’t screw with distributor points and cam timing and cleaning spark plugs any more. I haven’t had to change jumpers on a computer in a long time, haven’t needed to run to the store for some random ribbon cable to get this to talk to that. They’re appliances now, and maybe something is gone in the tinkering, but I’ve got too much shit to do to mess with that now.

Still — christ, I’m getting old.

 

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