flu, rom-com dreams, unix history, holiday mall-walking

I think I have a bit of the flu right now. It’s the weirdest one, because I don’t have a lot of symptoms (congestion, throat, fever, etc) but I have been horribly underwater, unable to think, achy, and all I want to do is sleep. And of course this happens immediately before our Q4 deadline, when I have half a hundred things that have to ship. Last night, I slept about eleven hours, and felt like it was maybe three. I think I’m on the back half of it, and maybe if I waste the weekend sleeping, I’ll be over it.

* * *

I had this amazing yet disturbing dream – I plotted out the entire outline of a chick-flick rom-com, and it was an absolutely bulletproof story for that genre. And I remembered all of it when I woke up, and wrote it all down. It’s not a bad story idea at all if I was into that sort of thing, but I’m 80% sure it’s actually the plot of something I subliminally watched on a plane fifteen years ago. I’d have to spend a few weeks watching the entire Emily Blunt filmography to research that I wasn’t plagiarizing Richard Curtis. And what’s worse is if the thing ended up being entirely successful by ten orders of magnitude more than anything else I’ve written.

* * *

I’ve been reading UNIX: A History and a Memoir by Brian Kernighan, which has been fun. I’ve had a copy of the K&R C book since forever – I actually had the first edition, sold it to buy groceries or whatever back in 1992 or so, and then bought the second edition when I was in Seattle. Kernighan is one of the Bell Labs folks who was around when unix first came to life in the late sixties/early seventies. He wasn’t the inventor of unix, but he arguably came up with the name, and he co-wrote that definitive C programming book. Anyway, the memoir is actually half about his personal time at Bell and half the beginnings of that operating system’s development.

It’s a fun read, because it makes me think of how quickly things changed in that period. They first started hacking together their system on a PDP-7, which had something like 32K of RAM. They had to write everything in assembly language, because there wasn’t a C language yet, and there weren’t portable libraries yet, which made later moving unix to the PDP-11 an overwhelming task. A dozen years later, my Commodore 64 had double that amount of memory. Six or seven years later, the computer I first used to learn assembly language had eight times that memory, and was considered largely obsolete at that point. (The C335 class had a cast-off lab of old Atari 520 ST machines, which were maybe five years old, but felt more like fifty, compared to the NeXT and SPARC workstations everywhere in Lindley Hall. It was nice learning assembly on the Motorola 68000 though. I don’t remember the details, but the 8086 seemed bizarre in comparison. The 68K had more registers, and they were all general purpose; the x86 had a bunch of specific registers, so like some were specific pointer registers you only used in addressing. Or something. Anyway, this was thirty years ago, and I never used assembly again.) Anyway, it’s fun to read about these guys writing an OS that’s now used everywhere, on a machine that’s slower than the alarm clock sitting on my desk.

The one weird thing about that book is that Kernighan has probably sold millions of programming books over the years, mostly through Prentice-Hall, but this book was self-published on KDP. It looks okay, but it’s definitely published on KDP. It makes me wonder why he didn’t get an agent to swing him a deal and maybe get more publicity on the thing. It does seem to be highly-ranked at the moment, and I hope he does well with it, but it is curious.

* * *

Not much else. Writing has been slow because of the flu. Mall walking has been increasing as the temperatures slowly drop. (Nowhere near as bad as the midwest, though.) It’s nice to see the holiday stuff slowly start to fill the stores. Macy’s is packed with new inventory; JC Penney seems to be well-stocked. Sears is Sears. The one in Concord has a sad display of trees in the basement, and not much stock on the floor. I still find it funny that I thought of Sears as The Enemy for years when I worked at Wards, but now I feel oddly emotional when I’m in the holiday department. It reminds me a lot of being in Four Seasons over thirty years ago, putting up the fake trees and telling people that no, we did not have any Nintendos in the back room.

I have a much bigger post in me about the Wards thing. But one interesting bit I found out is that one of the guys who worked full-time in the automotive department who I always liked working with managed to stay until they locked the doors on the last day. And then, oddly enough, he jumped to Sears, and went down with the ship when they closed almost twenty years later. So that’s interesting.

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The Death of Blockbuster

Here’s an interesting long read over at Retail Dive on the death of Blockbuster Video:

Who Really Killed Blockbuster?

A couple of interesting (to me) takeaways. First, I like that this article gives all the details other than just saying “Netflix, duh” because that’s not what happened. The thing that annoys the hell out of me in death-of-malls or death-of-<store dying this week> is that they always say it’s Amazon, and it almost never is just Amazon. (I.e. venture cap choke-out run by a fervent Ayn Rand acolyte; tax scam by REIT not paying off anymore; etc.)

Like one of the factors the article mentions that most people forget: VHS tapes were damn expensive, and that was partially hidden to the consumer. Yes, you could buy a priced-to-own copy of Wayne’s World for twenty bucks during a certain limited sales cycle. But if you’ve had the good fortune of losing a copy of Apocalypse Now from a rental place, it probably cost you eighty bucks to replace it. They ran this two-tier pricing scheme for decades, and then when DVDs came out, the studios decided to go with low daily prices across the board, plus they flooded the channel at Wal-Mart and Target with cheap five-buck releases and multi-packs of their back catalog. That’s only one of the nails in the coffin, but that’s an interesting one.

The other thing, and this came up in discussion when I posted this article on FB, is that Blockbuster wasn’t that great of a place for customers anyway. There are a lot of folks nostalgic for the Nineties who were born in like 1998 and don’t remember how crappy some of it was, and Blockbuster was a good example. Like they were borderline predatory about their late fees, and good luck if you got sent to their collections department. They drove a lot of mom-and-pop rental places out of business. And their prices weren’t always great, compared to the non-chain places.

One of the things that always bugged me about Blockbuster was their family-friendly video selection. They were big on promoting mediocre big-budget movies and avoiding cult or obscure cinema. And they were incredibly vocal on not carrying anything beyond an R rating, or controversial movies. I went on a semi-boycott of Blockbuster for years because they refused to carry The Last Temptation of Christ. If you wanted obscure, it’s Not at The Block. If you need a copy of Day For Night, forget it. But they’d have plenty of copies of that new Will Smith movie.

Blockbuster was occasionally a necessary evil when I was in a small town. I really loved local rental stores that had obscure stuff, and of course you had to go to one of those places for the best horror movies. The clerks were always cool, the prices were lower, they didn’t give you as much of a hassle about membership, and sometimes you’d find weird stuff. Like there was a video place in downtown Bloomington — I wish I could remember the name. They never recycled out their old stock. Me and Larry used to go every week and find the most bizarre stuff, faded boxes that were completely forgotten. Like I remember never ever being able to find a copy of Johnny Got His Gun (probably because Metallica bought the rights to it and sat on them) and of course they had it. And I remember renting Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile, the (bad) Canadian horror movie loosely based on Ed Gein, and it also had the short documentary Ed Gein: American Maniac slapped on the end of the VHS. It was a weird homemade doc consisting of blurry found footage, narrated by some dude in a basement recording on a Bell and Howell mono tape recorder stolen from an elementary school or something. It was awesome. (And it’s on YouTube!) You’d never, ever find that at Blockbuster.

That puts Blockbuster nostalgia in a weird place for me, much like Barnes and Noble. I’m a bit sad B&N is on the verge of shuttering, but back in the day, they were the chain to hate, because they pushed mom-and-pop stores out of business. (And deep analysis that I’m too lazy to do might show a story that independent booksellers were pushed out by someone else in the 80s/90s, like the rise of Ingram or the changes in book printing after NAFTA, or some damn thing.)

I visited one of the last Blockbusters in Anchorage a year and a half ago. (Yes it was the one with the Gladiator jockstrap. No, it wasn’t there yet when I visited.) It gave me a strange and sad feeling, not specifically because it was Blockbuster, but because it was a video store, period. It was all DVD, but wandering the aisles reminded me of the weekly exercise of going from A to Z on a Friday night to find what I’d watch.

That entire era is gone, replaced with a button on my TV remote that lets me scroll through thousands of titles. But something’s missing, with the lack of the Tarantino-esque clerk telling me what I really need to watch, and the tactile experience of pacing the aisles. We now have great convenience and instant access, but it is at a cost that’s hard to quantify, and it’s definitely felt by those who do remember.

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WordPerfect for Mac

A stupid memory… I was thinking about how I used to love WordPerfect on the Classic Mac OS. It wasn’t a port of DOS WP 5.1; a different dev team wrote their own program, and the company called it WordPerfect, so it worked much faster. I always found it better than Word on the old Sys6/7 Mac.

Anyway, found this page: http://www.columbia.edu/~em36/wpdos/mac-intel.html – Someone has set up the SheepSaver PowerPC emulator to run MacOS 8.6, along with a few versions of WordPerfect. So you can download one image file, and with almost no fuss (aside from the big download) you can then run WordPerfect on a modern Intel Mac.

I was messing with this and realized I have a Stuffit archive of the Mac machine I had at my first job, 22 years ago. I’ve never been able to un-stuff it, because of the weirdness of Mac resource forks or whatever. I brought it into this emulated machine, and it instantly opened it. So I had the same set of files I had back on my Centris 660 AV in Seattle in 1996.

There wasn’t much there: the 1984 commercial in QuickTime; a bunch of QuickHelp source for the Spry Mosaic browser; some other assorted utilities, like DropPS and GraphicConverter. The fun find was I had a Sounds folder, which had a few hundred short clips of audio from Beavis and Butthead and Pulp Fiction. They were all sampled at like 10kHz; the whole folder is like 38 MB.

It reminds me of a time when Windows audio was almost nonexistent, unless you paid hundreds of bucks for a SoundBlaster, but every Mac had pretty decent audio, standard. There was a big culture of hoarding these little ten-second samples of Star Wars and RoboCop movie quotes. Like I remember hanging out with my Calculus teacher at IUSB – this must have been in late 1990. There were almost no Macs at the South Bend campus, but for some reason, he had a brand new SE/30. I went to check it out one time, and he spent half an hour playing me every sound file he had downloaded from the internet, these little clips from science fiction films, all hooked in so it would play Darth Vader when he started up or shut down his machine.

I don’t even know how to play these audio files outside of the emulator, but it works in the program. I guess now I can just go to YouTube and play the entire TV show if I want, but it’s interesting to see a snapshot of how it used to work back then. Also, the old Mac interface looks so blocky and weird now, which is hilarious.

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pre-digital observations

A bunch of thoughts, no particular order:

Try going in your kitchen or bathroom and finding a product with a printed package that doesn’t have a URL on it. Pick up food boxes, condiments, pet food, candy bars, canned drinks, toothpaste… anything. Everything has a web address on it. It’s like an address having a ZIP code now, or a two-letter state abbreviation. If you find some old-timey sign for ethyl gasoline from the 1930s, it might say “Oakland, Calif.” instead of “Oakland, CA 94607.” Now it seems like the URL is the way to date if a package is from the mid-90s or earlier.

I remember about the time when Coke cans started putting their URL on the cans. I started a Coca-Cola fan web site in 1994, and was getting more traffic than their site for a brief period. It really pissed me off when they started a site, started putting it on every can or bottle. Pissed me off more that it was “Netscape enhanced” and didn’t work for shit on a text browser. It wasn’t a site for information; it was for pretty pictures and layout that took forever to load on a slow modem. Now, cocacola dot com redirects to coca-cola dot com, and that is a site picker with a big world map and all the regional sites. All the information there is either for shareholders, or trying to convince you that you can be healthy and drink 6000 calories a day.

My site was something at bronze.ucs.indiana.edu/~jkonrath I think. It’s long gone. Bronze was a VAX machine. The machine is long gone; VAX machines themselves are long gone, for the most part, unless you work at some insane bank that could not transition away from them. Hell, UCS is gone now, part of some crazy merger/renaming thing twenty years ago.

I don’t think a civilian could register a hostname back then. I don’t remember how it was done before the late nineties, but I registered rumored with Network Solutions on 11/16/98. I remember it not being cheap, something like a hundred bucks a year. This was when they pretty much had a monopoly on it. There’s no way I could have paid that back in college.

Speaking of putting hostnames on things, I knew a guy who had his email address on the back of his car. This was in like 1990, way before that made any sense. I worked with him, and he was this funny Malaysian grad student who I’ll call K for plausible deniability. He drove some old beast of a seventies car, like a Monte Carlo or something, and had “k___@copper.ucs.indiana.edu” across the back of his trunk, in stick-on letters, the kind you would use to put your name on a mailbox. I have no idea why. He wasn’t running a business, in a band, anything like that. He just thought it looked cool, I guess.

I had to get checks printed in 1992 or 1993 – this was back when people still used paper checks, and to get new ones printed, you looked through a Parade magazine in a Saturday newspaper, and there would be an ad for a place that would print your checks on a design with an American flag or some kittens or Peanuts characters or whatever else. I picked this design that was a bunch of colorful geometric shapes – do a google image search of “90s graphics” and that’s basically what I got printed.

Anyway, I remember I called the 800 number to place the order over the phone. (No internet order form, no web site.) My name and address were three lines, the phone number was the fourth, but the check had five lines, so you could put a business name or something on it. I told the lady on the phone I wanted my email address. She had no idea what that meant. I then told her, my email address was jkonrath@bronze.ucs.indiana.edu, and I wanted that on my check. It was like I was speaking Klingon. I had to slowly spell out  jkonrath@bronze.ucs.indiana.edu over and over, jkonrath@bronze.ucs.indiana.edu, jkonrath@bronze.ucs.indiana.edu, jkonrath  at symbol bronze period ucs period indiana period edu. The whole transaction took twenty, thirty minutes.

I got the checks a month later, and the printer completely butchered it. Like I think they left out the @ and put two spaces after each period, so it was just a jumble of incoherent words with no meaning. And only 4% of the population knew what an email address was. I should have thrown the checks in the garbage and ordered new ones, but that would have taken another month, and more importantly, another twenty dollars. So I used the checks, until I moved to Seattle and got new accounts. And every time I wrote a check, which was often back then, the cashier would ask “what the hell is that?”

Also, I think those new checks I got in 1995? Had the bank’s URL on them.

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Death of an office

I found out about this a bit ago, but my old Samsung office was bulldozed and replaced recently, which is strangely nostalgic. I took an electronics class last year with a guy who worked at the architecture firm that did the new building, and heard all about the grand scrape and replacement.

I started working there in the fall of 2008, when Silicon Valley was very different. It was only a few years ago, but it was after the crash, and nobody was hiring. Traffic has nearly doubled in the last five years, and this was before that boom started. I was living in LA when I got hired at Samsung — I’d been spamming out resumes for months, and it was one of the few pings I hit. Tech writers are usually last in/first out, so it wasn’t easy landing something then. But I did, and I moved to South San Francisco, and started the 101 commute every day to San Jose.

Prior to moving here, I had specific mental images of Silicon Valley, mostly formed by living far away from it, romanticizing the idea of working in the heart of the technology world. Twenty years before, I idolized these Bay Area companies like Apple and Sun and NeXT and Silicon Graphics, and thought about what it would have been like to work in one of those office parks in Palo Alto or Mountain View. And I’d been in the Bay Area twice for work related things, once in 1996, and again in 2006. Both times, I remember driving on the 101 and seeing the big headquarters of these tech giants and wondering what it must be like in those buildings, hacking code or plugging wires into servers in an air-conditioned machine room.

When you spend time in San Jose, you see the obvious new construction, the giant glass and steel buildings that have popped up everywhere. It seems like half of them belong to Cisco, and the other half belong to companies you’ve never even heard of. Because a company like Fujitsu might make the hard drive, but a dozen other companies made the little pieces or sensors or wrote the patents for the storage technology. I eventually learned a little more about these companies, either because I had coworkers who came from them, or because everyone had this ubiquitous cartoon map of Silicon Valley with icons of every big tech firm on it.

What fascinated me more was the layer under that layer, the old San Jose, the scraps and remains of the city from the Seventies and earlier. You’d occasionally see little bits of it peeking through: a Chinese restaurant that never remodeled; an apartment building that never got gentrified into condos; a back side of a building that never got repainted. I had a strange nostalgia for this era I never saw, like when Atari was still king and still had factories in Sunnyvale cranking out 2600 consoles. Or there used to be plenty of computer stores, back when people wire-wrapped and hand-built their 8-bit machines from bare chips and boards. I’d see vestigial pieces of that, like when I’d go to Fry’s Electronics and see more than just shrink-wrapped Dell Laptops for sale.

So Samsung, or at least the division I worked for, was in this series of brick buildings on First and Tasman that looked like every generic two-story medical office building built in 1974 you’d find in a Chicagoland suburb. There were three near-identical buildings: a big one with a lunch room, conference areas, and a reception hall full of display cases of new technology Samsung invented or whatever. Then there were two other buildings, totally identical, of just offices. I worked in one of those.

My building was shot. It looked like this old Seventies Silicon Valley, with wood trim and bright red brick and a vibe that screamed 1978. And I don’t think anything had been updated since then. No two acoustic ceiling tiles were the same shade of yellow, and the desks looked like they had been hauled out of a storage facility from the Mad Men era. I later found that management of the various Samsung labs took great pride in how little they spent per employee, each one trying to get as low of a per-seat investment as possible to maximize profits.

I basically lived in that office for the year and a half I worked there. I’d go in early to beat the traffic, and often end up stuck at my desk until well after dinner, or later. I was close to the dozen or so people on my team, because we went to war together. We ate every meal together, went to endless meetings, worked on our projects for hundreds and thousands of hours, and spent forever in that dreary, fluorescent-lit cube farm.

And then I left. I got another job, which I wrote about here a long time ago. Then I started working from home, and never spent any time on the peninsula or in the South Bay anymore. And I didn’t think much about that place until I’d heard about it being demolished.

The new building is very typical — I feel like Samsung saw the new Apple spaceship campus going up, and said “Oh yeah? Well, check this shit out…” and threw together their own monstrosity of a headquarters. It’s supposed to be a hip new open-concept thing, and it looks like an East German propaganda headquarters. The building takes up every square inch of the footprint of the old place. I always think of SV campuses as having a laid-back look with landscaping and thick green lawns and big parking lots and trees, then the building, a hundred or two feet from the road. But this is like inches from the sidewalk. And the last thing you’d want there is an open plan, because everyone spends all day screaming in Korean on their speaker phones.

And it’s weird, but some of the strongest memories I have of that place are pacing around that parking lot on my cell phone. I could never take calls at my desk, so any time anything important happened, I went downstairs and walked around the lot with my phone in hand. Like I remember talking to my dad when my uncle Mike died, and I have vivid memories of that conversation, walking back and forth among the sea of identical Hyundai cars. I also remember sneaking out to have phone interviews with other companies when I was planning my escape. The parking lot is now gone, but every other building on the street has the old layout, which makes the new building look even more strange.

I was also talking to a coworker about the fate of our team. We worked on a developer program for a phone OS that does not exist anymore. The site is gone, the team is gone, and every trace of every thing we shipped has vanished from the web. I don’t think anything of consequence was ever developed from our SDK. The entire division is technically gone, since Samsung Telecommunications America merged into Samsung Electronics America. Ultimately, this happens with everything in life. But it happened so fast here, and that’s par for the course.

Above all, I’m mad I didn’t find out about the demolition. I would have loved to take a few swings at that place with a sledge hammer. Oh well.

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LiveJournal

screen-shot-2017-01-14-at-10-09-35-amIn the quest to find some better way of doing all of this, I started thinking about LiveJournal. (I actually have been thinking about a lot of the mid-00s web stuff I used to use, because sitting on FaceBook all day is probably a dead end, or I feel that I’m not reading or writing enough. Like, did reading Slashdot, Fark, and an armada of blogs in Google Reader help entertain me any better than seeing the same four news stories posted a hundred times a day?)

I wasn’t a heavy LiveJournal writer; I had a fake account (username: unabomber) I started in 2000 just to comment on other peoples’ stuff, then started one as jkonrath in 2004. I’d post updates, but I had an earlier pre-WordPress iteration of this blog as my main home. But I would hit my friends feed constantly, and comment a lot.

LJ seemed to be “the place” to go to be social online for a while, like pre-MySpace, pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter. I was trying to think of exactly why though. The site’s still there, as is my account, so I poked around a bit and tried to remember. What did it offer that my blog did not? What was the draw?

Plusses:

  • It was dead simple (and free) to open an account. It was invite-only until 2003, but after that, anyone could get in.
  • Posting was not hard. It gave you a box and a subject line, and you typed and clicked “Post” and that was it.
  • There were fun little things you could add to posts, like what you were listening to, and what your mood was.
  • You had a certain number of profile pictures, and it was always fun finding new little pictures, or swapping to a different one based on your mood that day.
  • You could theme your page to some extent, changing colors and styles. Some people got really into the design of their pages, although when you’re reading your friends feed, you don’t see those customizations, and I basically didn’t give a shit about having flaming red text on a black background with pictures of wolves and fire and ninjas and shit all over.
  • Basic privacy settings could lock posts and accounts to be friends-only.
  • Communities, where permitted users could post to a feed. These were great for interests (I was in a baseball one for a while) or areas (lots of people had groups for their towns or home towns.)
  • You could (if you had a paid account) host a feed to your external blog, so the posts would show up on LJ.
  • It was locked in. You could sit and spin on your friends feed, and read all the posts (in chronological order, too) and in the mid-00s, a lot of people were posting, so there was some good conversation to be had.
  • There weren’t ads during the heyday, although that changed later.
  • It encouraged long-form posts. Or maybe people just typed more back then, before we were all programmed with horrible ADHD.
  • The feed was chronological only. No Fuckerberging of the order and appearance weighting of posts.
  • There was post commenting, and that got used a fair amount. Commenting was more streamlined than other blogs, because you had the single system for everyone, whereas it seems like every free-standing blog has a different commenting system, or they use something like Disqus, and people get all pissy about having to sign up for it. If you were using LJ, you were signed up for commenting, so it was a no-brainer.

Minuses:

  • The UX is horrible. Log in to livejournal.com and then try to find anything, and it takes ten clicks. It also started to look a bit dated and clunky going into the late 00s.
  • There was no “like.” I think that was the big killer versus Facebook. When you post on FB, there’s this little micro-validation you get in your brain when other people like your post. LJ didn’t have this, so the motivation wasn’t there. I think the little crack hit of likes is one of the main drivers for FB, and it’s also its downfall. The discovery of this gamification around the end of the 00s is the reason casual gaming now exists (well, that plus touchscreen devices with good graphics) but it’s also a big part of our dumbing-down as a culture.
  • The long-form thing meant good content, but it also may have been a reason people dropped out.
  • Images and image hosting were always an issue. You could add external links to flickr or elsewhere for your images, but the two-step process was messy. They now offer image hosting for paid accounts, but it’s a limited amount, and mostly a feature to entice people to pay. It’s nowhere near as nice as the FB interface for photo uploading.
  • No fine-grained security. You could not be friends with someone and not see their content. You could not hide a single post from your friends feed, like when you got sick of seeing the same thing pop up on every time. (I use the FB hide post constantly these days.)
  • No post sharing. This was a plus, though. Imagine FB without the ability to share stupid political posts or mom memes.
  • No (real) mobile stuff. I think they have an app, but it’s a piece of shit. So many people post on-the-go now in FB/Twitter, and LJ never had any of that. That may have been one of the reasons it focused more on long-form stuff, because everyone was sitting on a PC while composing their stuff.
  • Various business decisions slowly sank the ship. The company was sold in 2005, and then Brad Fitzpatrick left in 2007, and it was sold to some crazy Russians, who continued to run it into the ground.

Other:

  • I remember a lot of shit-storms over privacy issues, like people having to lock out exes and then said exes getting a different fake account to read their stuff, etc. Now, blocking and banning is simple in FB, but there was a lot of drama back in the day.
  • I also vaguely remember some moderation issues, with people or posts getting censored, and a bunch of outrage.

I always wonder if something could replace LJ and FB. Would some technical balance between the two work, or would some perfect storm have to happen to lure enough people to the community to make it viable? I think the biggest feature of LJ was that it had a community, and it had a critical mass of enough users to make it interesting and fun. But when that went away, so did its usefulness.

How do you create that again? I guess that’s the question every attempt at community tries to answer. I futz around with posting here, but it’s an isolated island in the middle of nowhere, with no community, no connection to the outside world. I post on Facebook, but it’s Facebook, and it is becoming a dead end. As I find Facebook more and more intolerable, I try to think of a replacement, but that lack of critical mass, of community, is the huge problem.

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Boxes

I recently found this excellent Jon Ronson documentary about going through the boxes that Stanley Kubrick left behind. Check it out on vimeo: https://vimeo.com/78314194. The basic gist of it is Ronson was contacted by Kubrick’s assistant for a copy of a documentary of his, and before he got a chance to catch up with him, he passed away. Later, his estate let Ronson poke around, and he found thousands and thousands of archive boxes filled with notes and photos, raw research for most of his films after 2001.

This doc is forty-five minutes of mind-blowing thing after thing, and you expect it to top out, and it gets even better. Like there’s a scene where Kubrick is going back and forth with a box company to get a better storage box with the perfect lid. A few minutes later, Ronson finds film cans containing 18 hours of behind-the-scenes footage shot during Full Metal Jacket. This is after a series of memos instructing his assistant to find a cat collar with a bell to scare away with birds, but with a breakaway feature to prevent the felines from getting stuck in a tree. (This eventually had to be specifically fabricated by his team.)

And then the stationery. Stanley used to hoard it. Paper, notebooks, pens, inks, drafting supplies. His assistant said he could probably start a stationery nostalgia museum. He would spend hours at a shop, always paying in cash so nobody would ask questions.

I have a huge stationery problem now. For years, I’ve been buying these Moleskine notebooks and go through one every year or so, writing a page or two a day. Last winter, I got some Field Notes notebooks, at a shop in the Public Market in Milwaukee. They were the ones for the state fair series, for Wisconsin, which had a certain kitsch value to me, and I’ve been keeping one in my pocket when I go to lunch, so I can jot down ideas.

Because I heard Draplin do his sphiel on Maron’s podcast, I decided to subscribe to Field Notes. You pay a lump sum and get a package four times a year, with whatever cool limited edition books they just came out with. They’re also good about shoving a bunch of extra stuff in there, discontinued booklets and pens and stickers and whatnot. It’s all made in Chicago, well-designed, and has a weird addictive quality to it.

The only problem is, I’m now sitting on two dozen blank notebooks, and only using a few of them a year. And I still have the urge to buy more every time I see their web site. There’s something so collectible about them, and there’s also this feeling of “I’m a writer, I need to write, this is justifiable” and it isn’t, but I will keep subscribing and buying the shit.

I had this problem when I was a kid. There was this store called Stationer’s in downtown Elkhart, and they sold absolutely every kind of pen, pencil, paper, and business supply. It obviously doesn’t exist anymore – big-box office supply stores barely operate anymore. But back when I was 12 or 13 and playing D&D, they had every kind of graph and hex paper imaginable, along with special erasers and felt-tip markers and anything else you needed as a dungeon master.

And I studied drafting earnestly as a teenager, thinking I would go to college and become a draftsman or architect. These were the days of actual paper-based drafting: t-squares, big tables, protractors and scale rulers. That meant supplies galore: wooden 6H and 2H and HB pencils with points you carefully filed down by hand; kneaded erasers; dust-it powder; metal erasing shields; fine-tipped ink pens; translucent sheets of paper. We got the first CAD systems toward the end of my high school drafting career, PS/2s with digital tablets, running VersaCAD. But those tactile supplies — I hoarded that shit, bought as much as I could, somehow holding some psychological connection between having the most stuff versus being able to do a good job.

The Kubrick thing makes me wish I had more space to collect this garbage, a thought that would freak out my wife. But now that we’re in a digital age, the hoarding has gone to my hard drive. I have sets of folders filled with old PDFs, scanned photos, saved web pages, text files. I like the idea that Kubrick spent every day, hours and hours sifting through this stuff assembled by assistants, looking for the next idea, doing pre-production on films that never got shot. As I fret over what’s next, I often think I need to do this, forget about rushing out the next book that nobody will read, and spend a decade looking at photos and researching things out.

Anyway, great documentary – go check it out on Vimeo, before it vanishes.

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I have a new zine out

I have a new zine out.

It is called Mandatory Laxative #14. It is about lunchables and satanism.

It is 20 pages long. It is printed on an inkjet printer. It is as lo-fi as possible. I didn’t even spell-check it.

It contains the following “stories”:

  • Pain Is Only Temporary (Unless It Is Chronic)
  • A Scene Where A Guy Goes To A Colonics Clinic, Falls In Love With The Cashier, And Almost Ends Up Shooting A Fountain Of Coffee From His Ass
  • Sleep Letter Zero
  • Letter to Freddy
  • I Am A Satanist And I Like Toast Because It Is Cult And Evil
  • Someday This Could Be You
  • I Love Lunchables
  • Late At Night With Dwight Dingleson
  • Remember the Alamo, Motherfucker
  • Two Men Discuss Low Calorie Pizza Before A Ritual Satanism Killing
  • This Knife Means Fucking Business
  • Chili Sweats at Aerie #666
  • The Inevitability of an Accidental Saline Enema

It is listed on Goodreads here.

It is not available on Amazon. It is not available as an ebook or a PDF. It’s barely available at all. It is a limited edition of about 30 copies. If you really want a copy, and you are in the US, paypal me $4 and your postal address. jkonrath at rumored.com.

 

 

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New (Old) Kindle

I bought a new Kindle, but an old Kindle. It’s actually a Kindle DX, the large-screen variety, which is long discontinued, but for some reason, Amazon occasionally has them in stock, through “Amazon Warehouse,” whatever that is.

I am not really a fan of ebooks. I gave it an honest go back in 2010 or so, bought a lot of my favorite published authors at crazy markup prices, like buying Vonnegut classics at ten bucks a pop. But I found reading fiction to be difficult on a Kindle. Because everything is the same font, and the device always has the same feel, the same heft in your hand, it removes the experience of reading the book, and I typically retain nothing I read on a Kindle. I went back to paper, and I’m fine with that, mostly. There are more titles available, it’s often cheaper in the long run, and there’s something about going to a physical book store that I miss when I’m simply e-hoarding books online.

But, there’s a big problem with space, and allergies. I’m finding that old books, ones infested with dust and mites, make me incredibly sick. I simply cannot buy a fifty-year-old paperback from a used book store, because the moment I open the browning pages, I have a horrible allergy attack. Yes, I take the medicine and I get the shots, but I’ve pretty much exhausted the medical possibilities. I just can’t read old books. And now, I’m finding my “new” books are all old. I pulled a Kerouac book of letters the other day, just for a quick skim, and it made me sick. And I “just” bought that book, but when I checked the receipt stashed inside, and it’s twenty years old. So I don’t know what to do about that.

It’s nice to not have the clutter involved with collections. I was religious about collecting CDs and DVDs, and they took up a good amount of my apartment when I was single. After I got married, and after the technology of MP3s and streaming video took off, I ripped everything, and junked or stored away all optical media. I don’t really miss it, and I’m glad I have the space. But books are more difficult for me.

I have issues with current e-readers, too. I love e-ink displays. The first few iterations of Kindle had less refined screens, a lower PPI count, the weird black-flashing issue with a slow refresh speed, and some slight ghosting of old images. There are new ones with higher PPI, better resolution, and backlighting. But they’re all the smaller screens. As my eyes go, I really want a big screen. Ideally, I would want an 8.5×11 screen. This also helps with PDFs, which you really want to not get downscaled or zoomed weird.

But, the big-screen e-ink readers just don’t exist. Sony has one in Japan, that’s insanely expensive, like $800 or something. And there are one or two cheapie made-in-China ones that are half-broke, hard to buy, and still pretty pricy. Every year, there are CES rumors of a big-screen reader, but these are always vaporware, and — huge pet peeve of mine — put out the idea that there are big-screen readers. But what you see at CES is never what you get, and they simply aren’t out there.

I don’t think the masses want a paperwhite e-ink display. They want a tablet, something like an iPad that can play games, show a video, and do things best left to a color screen that eats batteries. I have an iPad, and they’re great, but I can’t read on it. It causes too much eyestrain, and I’m also convinced that heavy use of a screen right before bed causes bad sleep hygiene. Almost all of my reading takes place in the hour or two before sleep, so I can’t deal with an iPad. That’s where paper has been great, and where a big e-ink display could be helpful.

So I hunted down the Kindle DX, and I found this one on Amazon. It was only $140, which was a steal, compared to the original $400-ish list price five years ago. This is the Kindle DX Graphite, which has the 3G connection, no WiFi, and the second-gen DX display, which is “50% improved.” It has roughly the same lineage as the third-gen Kindle Keyboard, but less RAM inside. No backlighting, no apps, no touchscreen.

Although the Amazon page made it sound like this was a used model or maybe a refurb, this was a new-in-sealed-box model, with plastic on it and everything. The only snags I found was that it did not come with an AC adaptor, just the USB cable. (Not a problem, I have 784 110V-to-USB adapters around here.) But it also would not register to the Whispernet network, and the wireless appeared dead. I gave them a call, they asked me for the serial number and a few other things (IMEI, something else) and then after a reboot, it connected wirelessly and all my stuff was ready to go.

My main use for this, at least initially, is to read PDFs. I have a giant archive of UFO docs and conspiracy theory stuff, FOIA requests and declassified government reports, and it will be nice to plop all those onto this thing. The screen is 5.5×8, so almost the size of a paperback book. It’s much easier to read than the original one I have. So I will give it another go.

It’s oddly nostalgic for me to look back at the documents that were waiting for me on the Kindle. I got my original Kindle in 2009, and toward the end of my Samsung tenure, spent a lot of my lunch time reading science fiction books on it. Also, when I started my allergy shot regimen in 2010, I would bring the Kindle and get a lot of reading done there. I had horrible writer’s block then, didn’t know what would be next for my writing, so I was reading a lot of Philip K. Dick books for inspiration, and also a lot of schlocky how-to-write books, which were useless. The Kindle font, and the general layout of the thing, the dark grey letters and the LCD-like background color, remind me so much of reading those books. But I can’t really remember much about them. So, we’ll see how this works out.

 

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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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