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The Death of the Good Internet

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

The Day the Good Internet Died

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The age of adapters

Two disparate conversations got intermingled in my head this week. One was a long discussion about the days of AM radio and only AM radio in cars, and the other was a day where multiple people asked about various dongle issues, USB-C vs. USB3 vs. Thunderbolt or Thunderbird or whatever the hell Apple calls USB-C now. Anyway, both of these things make me think of how in general, we’re so adapter-free now, and can generally shoot music and videos and photos straight through the air at each other, at the cloud, at machines like TVs and printers and coffee machines. I promise this isn’t the usual “these damn kids don’t know what it’s like to hunt for the right DB-9 to DB-25 RS232 cable” old man rant, but these two things made me think of the ubiquity of adapters in the seventies and eighties as the landscape of tech rapidly changed.

* * *

Example one: car stereos. For decades, the standard was AM radio, and that’s it. In the US, the AOR FM stations started their reign in the late 60s, but it wasn’t until 1978 that there were more FM stations than AM, and a lot of them were simulcast stations of the same programming. I think by the time I was sentient enough to have my own radio and listen to my own music, the top-40 stations in my area were FM, but FM radios were still an upgrade option for most cars back then.

I remember my former stepdad had an old Buick, maybe a 71 or 72, and it had the stock AM radio. But he’d upgraded this for the bold new future of AOR programming by buying a little Radio Shack box, a Realistic FM tuner. It sat below the all-metal skull-crusher dashboard of this giant beast of a car, somehow spliced into the old wiring, so it would pump high-fidelity FM stereo sound into a single three-inch paper speaker. Seems like it would have been easier to rip out the stock radio and slap in a Krako tape deck with an AM/FM tuner, but maybe that cost an extra ten dollars. Also, leaving in the old radio wouldn’t lower the value of the vintage $500 vehicle, I guess.

Another big thing was that in the late sixties/early seventies, nobody could decide on what physical media format was the king of mobile applications. Spoiler alert: the cassette won, and there were suddenly millions of vehicles on the road that couldn’t play them. One “adapter” approach was to go to Radio Shack or K-Mart and pick up an under-dash tape player, much like the external FM tuner, and wire that up so you could play your Barry Manilow cassettes through your stock sound system.

What I always found funny, although I never saw one in person (I did read a lot of Radio Shack and JC Whitney catalogs as a kid, so I knew of them) were the 8-Track to cassette adapters. If you were an early adopter of the bigger and quickly obsoleted tape system, you could buy a plug-in adapter, which looked like a really long 8-Track tape, but the part that stuck out of the dash had a cassette player mounted horizontally in it.

(For a quick look at all of these options, take a gander at this 1976 Radio Shack catalog.)

I never really bought into this adapter madness — I either went to the junk yard and bought a tape deck out of a junked car for twenty bucks, or just brought a jambox and put it in the passenger seat. But that was when I was still spry enough to crawl around under the dashboard of a subcompact. Maybe I’d think differently now that my back is out, who knows.

* * *

Much later, the cassette was dethroned from the top of the heap of the physical media world, and then the argument resurfaced on how you get your various iPods and DiscMans and whatever to talk to your tape-only car stereo.

The very first time I bought a portable CD player in 1992, it actually shipped with the solution in the box: a little fake cassette with a cord dangling out of it that plugged in the headphone jack of the CD player. I used a system like this for years, first for that CD player, but later for the MiniDisc and iPod. I didn’t have a car during the heyday of in-car CD players in the early 00s, but I rented cars quite a bit on vacation. And of course, I’d always forget that damn adapter and would have to buy another one for twice as much at an airport. So I have a big collection of those things in storage somewhere.

There was also a much worse adapter for cars that didn’t have tape decks. It was basically a Mr. Microphone but it took the signal from a headphone cable and broadcast it over channel 88.1 with like a milliwatt of power, so you could tune in a car radio and magically listen to your CDs.

I got stuck with one of these when I was Hawaii in 2003. It was basically like this scene in Spinal Tap. I’d be driving around the island, happily listening to an album on MiniDisc, and I’d zip by some volcano park or whatever the hell that would blast out weather advisories at a million megawatts on the same exact channel as the adapter, interrupting my song for the next few minutes. I finally gave up and bought a Skynard CD at a gas station and listened to that for the rest of the trip.

* * *

The adapter thing was also big in the beginning of personal computers. Both Atari and Mattel had popular game systems, and then Apple and Commodore came out with home computers. The popular thinking of parents at that time was that kids needed to learn about computers so that by like 1995 when paper was obsolete and the world was run by artificially-intelligent mainframes, the kids would be able to get good jobs to afford flying cars and robot butlers. So why buy a gaming system and later buy a home computer, when you could take your existing gaming system and magically turn it into a home computer with a plug-in box like that FM radio tuner?

Atari had a few different approaches. They came out with a BASIC cartridge, which was laughably bad, given it could only use 64 characters of memory for programs, and you had to type in programs with gamepads. Next they tried to release the Atari Graduate for the 2600/VCS gaming console. It plugged into the cartridge port and had a membrane keyboard that sat on top of the 2600, adding 8K of RAM and the ability to hook up peripherals like a tape deck, a modem, and a printer. This was supposed to be a $79 add-on, but never shipped because (allegedly) of some arguments between Atari management and the third-party team developing it. There was also a third-party thing called the CompuMate that shipped, but didn’t take the world by storm, probably because you can’t do much with a 10×12 character screen.

Mattel was a bit more infamous about this, because they promised a computer add-on and never delivered, which got the FTC to slap a $10,000 a day fine on them, and lit the fire to for them to come out with anything that could legally be called a computer and dumped on a small test market at a loss, which is exactly what happened.

The Entertainment Computer System was an add-on home computer for the Intellivision, which was a small external chicklet keyboard and a box that plugged into the side of the Intellivision, and was probably 75% the size of the actual Intellivision, and had its own power supply. The thing added BASIC, 2K of RAM (but you couldn’t use all 2K for your programs), another sound chip, extra controller ports, and the interface for a cassette recorder. They also came out with an add-on synthesizer keyboard — this was the heyday of Mattel’s Synsonics instruments. The whole thing got the FTC off their backs, but didn’t entirely catch on, and then Mattel imploded a year later.

Coleco also did this with the Adam computer, which was available as a standalone or as an adapter that plugged into the ColecoVision console. I don’t know the architecture of the add-on or how well it worked, because the only things I ever heard about were the Adam’s other major shortcomings, like the gunfire-loud printer; the fact that the power supply was in the printer so when the printer died, the whole system died; and the slow cassette system built into the main unit, and a burst of EMF at start-up would nuke any tape in the drive, even though the instructions told you to put the BASIC tape in the drive when you booted.

The more interesting one was that Coleco came out with an adapter that would enable your ColecoVision to play Atari 2600 games. This wasn’t some kind of sophisticated emulator or anything; it was functionally an entire reverse-engineered Atari 2600 that hooked onto the front of the ColecoVision and used nothing more than the video connection and power from the ColecoVision. The expander has a 6507 CPU, memory, and the whole deal. You had to unplug your Coleco joysticks and plug them into the expander (or I guess buy some Atari sticks, if you wanted the same feel.) Coleco got sued by Atari about this and Atari lost.

Likewise, Mattel also had an Atari compatibility “adapter” that was also a near-complete 2600 that plugged into an Intellivision. And Atari did the same thing themselves with a near-complete Atari 2600 that plugged into the Atari 5200. These were major marketing coups in that they radically increased the other systems’ library size. The downside was they increased their libraries with really bad games. I don’t think people remember how bad Atari 2600 games were, even compared to the 5200 or Intellivision.

The whole thing is bizarre though. It reminds me of in the 1950s, the Air Force built this giant B-36 bomber, and when they decided there was no way to bolt enough guns onto the 200-ton behemoth, they thought, “hey, let’s just hang entire fighter planes on the big plane and have the best of both worlds.” (That never really worked out, BTW.)

* * *

Now we’ve solved the upgradeability problem: everything is sealed shut with glue, and when you want a better version with newer features, you throw the old one in a landfill. Sometimes I wonder if this adapter fetish of last century was some holdout to the days when a TV or a radio was a piece of furniture you kept forever and serviced with in-home repairmen, like a furnace or a car. Maybe people thought they would invest in a system and then it would slowly grow and evolve over time.

(Oddly enough, Apple embraced this for a time, and you could upgrade early Apple machines with an upgrade kit that replaced the logic board, but kept the old case. For example an Apple IIe could be upgraded to a IIgs, or a Mac 128 could be upgraded to a Mac Plus. I don’t know who did this, and you were basically replacing the entire machine but keeping the old yellowed case, so why not just pay more and get the whole thing. Maybe schools did it. I could see a school administration making a bone-headed investment like that. I bet I’m still paying off tax bonds from when my local school did this in 1977.)

I think these various false starts caused the adapter appeal to dwindle. The last one I really remember is the Sega 32X, which was a stopgap measure to put two high-speed CPUs, a GPU, and more memory onto the 16-bit Genesis, which allowed it to run… well, virtually no games, because nobody supported it. Anyway, it seems like now the thing is to own one of every console, or just run the things on your phone. People aren’t as up in arms about o “teaching computers” to kids like they did when they thought “computer technician” was a vocational skill like a cabinet maker or TV repair person. Everyone seems to know how to use a computer off the bat, or instinctively know how to move a mouse or swipe a screen. And our homes are filled with computers, whether we know it or not. The webcam sitting on my monitor probably has a CPU orders of magnitude faster than some of the mainframes I used in college. Just let the kid screw with the old iPad, and they’ll figure it out, I guess.

* * *

Anyway. Dongles: USB-C is a subset of Thunderbolt 3. They use the same size connector, but TB3 can be twice as fast and use half the power, depending on the device and the cable. That’s all. Enjoy not having to buy another device that costs 90% of your first device to play another manufacturer’s games.

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COVAD-99

Ever since the COVID stuff started, I’ve had the term COVAD stuck in my head. There’s a reason for that. Let me explain.

So back in 1999, I moved to New York to freelance and write fiction and do that whole lifestyle, and it lasted about six months and I ended up at a full-time job at Juno Online that fall. Juno was that free email company, where they gave you a clunky Windows program and you got a free email address but had to look at ads in a little sidebar thing. When I got there, they also got into giving away a limited number of hours of free web browsing, or you could pay a little per month to get “unlimited” use.

At that point in time, 99.99% of internet users connected through a dial-up modem. Some dorms and campuses had ethernet; some offices, too. You could also pay a ton of money to get an ISDN connection at a screaming 128Kbps. Like most people, I used a 56K modem, which wasn’t blazing fast, but my first modem ever was 300bps, and I spent a few years of college on a 2400bps, so it didn’t seem that horrible. The busy signals were, though.

One of the first things I worked on at Juno was a new product called Juno Express. This was a Juno unlimited connection, but also included a broadband connection. Juno experimented with every type of broadband technology coming out at the turn of the century. We did trials with cable modems, satellite, microwave, various radio technologies, and something that ran through power lines to the home. But the one that stuck was DSL. And our DSL partner was called Covad Communications.

Prior to the late 90s, the only real way into a person’s house from a communication standpoint was the voice line. Modems worked by connecting to the voice line and converting digital communication into an audio signal, that screeching sound you heard when you connected a modem to the internet, if you were old enough to remember using a modem. That worked, but only up to a certain point, because of the inefficiency of cramming a wide digital signal over a relatively narrow pipe.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 changed this. Among the other things they deregulated, they made it so that an Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier (ILEC) – the big phone companies like Bell Atlantic or Ameritech – had to allow any company the ability to share the local-loop access of the pieces of copper that tied a home to a telephone exchange. That meant a company like Covad could lease these lines and run their own digital internet service directly to your home.

Of course, the big phone companies didn’t make this easy. They dragged their feet and instituted byzantine processes for partners and did as much as possible to discourage this forced competition. Part of what made my documentation of Juno Express so messy was the complicated dance of getting the customer’s phone company and someone from Covad to both work with each other to get everything connected. Companies like Verizon weren’t going to just hand keys to Covad and say “knock yourself out.” Getting appointments was tedious, and sometimes they just wouldn’t show up, so you had to reschedule the following Covad appointment. It would take weeks and sometimes months to turn on a connection.

Once you got all of this sorted, you ended up with a DSL box in your house that had a 10 base T ethernet connection at about 768Kbps. But it was on 24 hours a day. No busy signals! And over ten times faster than a modem. Yes, my current connection is usually about 600Mbps, but just under 1Mbps was so insanely fast at that time. And not having to wait an hour to get past the busy signal at peak hours was a huge plus.

I seldom worked with anyone from Covad. But they had a sales rep who, when he was in New York, was always good for a high-end lunch. I remember getting a three-hour, all-expenses paid steak dinner for lunch at Sparks Steak House once. I think we spent thirty seconds discussing business, and it was “how’s business?/not bad/let’s get more drinks.” Other than that and the usual swag that showed up (I’m sure I had Covad mouse pads galore at the time, maybe a stress ball or some pens, too) I seldom had direct interaction with them, just deciphering their emails and adding to the docs.

When I moved into my own place in Astoria in 1999, I got DSL right after I got my keys, but I didn’t use Juno. Covad also got hooked up with Speakeasy, who I still had accounts with from my Seattle days. Speakeasy started as an internet cafe in Belltown, and I got a shell account there when I got to Seattle. For five bucks a month, I got an account on a SparcStation, the address jkonrath@speakeasy.org, and a few megs of web space. I kept that account for like ten years, but when I got to New York, they were doing dial-up access nationwide, which I used, until I got the DSL hookup. I later moved from the leased-line DSL, which used the second set of copper in my walls, to a shared-line setup, which ran on the same pair as my voice line, using DSL filters. I think that was maybe a 3Mbps connection.

I left Juno in the summer of 2001, right as they got bought by NetZero. I kept using Speakeasy/Covad until maybe 2005 when I moved in with Sarah. Oddly enough, Covad and Speakeasy were acquired and mashed together with MegaPath in a three-way merger in 2010. The Speakeasy cafe burned down in 2001. And now when you search on Covad, Google suggests Covid. So I’m not the only one confusing the two.

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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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general

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.

Categories
general

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.

Categories
general

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.

Categories
general

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.