Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

  • Indiana

    I just spent five days in Indiana for the pre-Christmas Christmas with my side of the family. It’s a split trip, with this second week in Wisconsin. We flew into Chicago on Monday, then rented a car and drove out to South Bend for the first week.

    It’s always weird to be back. The area around University Park Mall was all cornfields when I left in 1995, and now the Grape Road and Main Street strips that run parallel to the mall have exploded with big-box stores, strip malls, and chain restaurants. This time we stayed at at Hilton Home2 that’s roughly by where the old Night Lights all-ages club was in the 80s. (I think that club is a Hooters now, but I don’t remember where it was.) The hotel was built in 2017, on the site of what used to be some anonymous banquet restaurant. Everything around it is new to me. Day Road used to be an empty road through corn fields we’d drive at high speed on the way to the mall. Now it’s full of big boxes of stuff.

    * * *

    So, various family stuff on Tue-Fri. Ate a family lunch at the Howard Park Public House on the river. I think that used to be a parking lot or empty field when I grew up, and now the entire riverfront has a walk and parks and an ice skating rink, and looks great. South Bend appears to be on the up and up, with all the new spots and the ever-growing Notre Dame. I always regret that I did not spend more time in South Bend as a kid and really learn what was there so I could appreciate what it has become.

    It was good to see family, exchange presents, eat too much, and do the usual grip-and-grin photos lined up against a tree or wall. Not into what I look like in the photos, and the food is adding to that. I really need to lean into the “new year new me” coming up shortly, but that’s another discussion.

    * * *

    I keep saying I am not into nostalgia anymore, or I’m trying to get away from it or whatever, and honestly I am trying. I intended to not even go to Elkhart for this trip. But S had to catch up on work and I had an empty afternoon with nothing to do, so I got in the car, put on my 1990 playlist, and went on the grand nostalgia misery tour.

    First stop was IUSB. I pretty much lived in Northside hall in the 1990-1991 school year. I worked in the computer labs in the basement, my first real paying computer job, (occasionally) went to classes, and hung out with Ray endlessly. I had really strong memories of that place, but in a very isolated base way, probably because of my depression level and loneliness at the time. I commuted every day, which meant spending long periods by myself, rolling through the long strip of nothing between Elkhart and South Bend.

    I wanted to take some pictures because the street view in the area is pretty lacking. But I wanted to find places that looked exactly like they did 33 years ago, which is tricky with all the additions that have happened. There’s a bridge from Northside across the river to a set of dorms, which is pretty odd compared to my commuter experience. The old education building has been torn down; at least two other big limestone buildings are where a soda bottling plant used to be; a chunk of the mega-parking lot is now a garage. And most of Northside, the main class building on the river, has been completely redone inside.

    Walking around the halls, I did find a few things that haven’t changed. The outside structure of NS is the same limestone, the same courtyard with a walkway going across on the second floor. I ducked in a stairwell that I used to climb up and down multiple times a day to get from the sub-basement computer labs to the second-floor computer science classrooms, and they are absolutely identical inside. There’s a long cafeteria, more like a wide corridor with tables where me and Ray would hold court and pretend to study, and it’s still there but completely redecorated now. But I went around the corner to the vending machine alcove, and there’s a set of microwaves that look absolutely identical to 1990. I’m not sure if they’ve been cleaned since then. The area outside the auditorium looked very similar too, with 1961 wood trim and a set of benches where I’d sit and read between classes.

    You can take the US-20 bypass to get between Elkhart and South Bend pretty quickly. I guess it’s not called the bypass anymore; it’s just US-20. But that didn’t exist in 1990, so I took Lincolnway east, which is now 933 aka “old 33” aka US-33 back then. That road isn’t quite a highway, and is mostly 35 MPH and winds through Mishawaka, then Osceola and into Elkhart. Like most of these drives, the bones of things are still there; there’s still a McDonalds and Taco Bell in the same place in Twin Branch, and the giant gas station at County Line Road. Signs change, the colors of houses sometimes change, and buildings vanish. But most of the drive is hauntingly familiar.

    * * *

    I really did not want to do this. But I had to do this.

    I went to Concord Mall. The former Concord Mall. They are just started with the big transformation, which is gutting the mall and turning it into seven light industrial spaces. They have painted the vintage brick exterior a generic drab white, and chopped off the signage, awnings, and entrances, sealing things up in anonymous industrial doors. The JC Penney parking lot was full of heavy machinery, pallets of construction material, and various debris and jetsam from the construction work. The exterior entrance of the old McCrory’s was a gaping hole in the brick exterior. The Hobby Lobby, aka my Wards store, remains untouched. The Martin’s grocery, Concord 1 and 2 theater, and USA Fitness buildings are all in various states of disassembly or abandonment.

    The front entrance, by what was once Super Sounds and Enzo pizza, was open, but had “no mall walking” signs on it. An optometrist was still operational, so I could go in the entrance. The interior was bleak. A chain-length fence blocked off most of the concourse, with a floor-to-ceiling wall of black plastic running the length of the hallway. I could hear water falling behind the plastic, and assumed they were doing asbestos abatement. Storefronts were all covered in plywood, but I could still see glimpses of the original brick, which was a signature of the mall, and will probably either be chipped out, covered in drywall, or painted an industrial battleship gray soon.

    I didn’t stay long. I snapped a few pictures and got out of there. I went to Hobby Lobby to use their restroom and buy nothing, and on the way out, I realized something: they had the same fixtures as Wards, the same shelves and brackets, and they hadn’t been repainted. I painted all of those fixtures in the summer of 1988. It took me like a month to wash every one of them with turpentine, prime them, then roll them with a special shade of Wards-brand oil-based enamel. Examining one of those shelves, now filled with Jesus-based Christmas crap made in China, sort of freaked me out. It was a strange legacy for me to have in this town.

    * * *

    I did the rest of the tour: my old house in River Manor; the old runway that got turned into a subdivision in the 80s; my old abandoned Taco Bell where I worked my first job in 1987. I drove up main street and through downtown, and some of that strip is utter devastation. I don’t mean to keep shitting on Elkhart; I’ve done enough of that over the years, and it’s somewhat pointless now. But it’s just amazing how far it has fallen. I heard news while I was in town that the last movie theater closed, and the mall closed. The city is apparently buying the failed strip mall that was built when Pierre Moran got de-malled and doing… something with it, or not. There are long stretches of properties that have been abandoned for decades, or razed and left vacant. There are I think two major overpass/viaduct projects starting, and more businesses are closing and houses are being moved or demolished. The only growth industry in town seems to be Superfund sites.

    Previously, these trips would give me heavy “you can never go back” vibes. Now, it’s just a big door closing. There’s nothing to be nostalgic about anymore. Everything is gone and done.

    * * *

    There are many reasons I could never go back to Indiana. And the Indiana I knew is rapidly vanishing. But sometimes I get a strong and strange feeling of deja vu I can’t entirely integrate.

    I was walking across a parking lot the other night, and it hit me. There was something about the crisp winter air, the clouds overhead, the look of the sky. I was in the parking lot of a casino, but when I looked out, I saw fields plowed down for winter, and the one row of tall trees a quarter-mile in the distance, the leaves fallen in December, just century-old skeletons reaching into the sky. There’s something about the sparseness, the feel of the atmosphere, that gives me a deep base memory, a sense memory that goes deep into my bones. It reminds me of the holiday breaks of childhood, the feeling of being 16 and driving a beat-up Camaro to a friend’s house on the back country roads. It’s a very entrenched time machine and these memories aren’t about a specific event or person. They’re just a sense, a feeling. Not happy or sad, just a quick flood of memory about everything and nothing.

    When I was on the second floor of IUSB, looking out a window across the parking lot, I had an incredibly strong memory of looking out the same window in 1990. It was a Friday, during a shift at the computer lab, in mid-December. The air was the same crisp cold, the clouds heavy, and I could feel in the air that it was going to start snowing. I knew I would mess around on the VAX computer or two or three more hours, go to the McDonald’s on McKinley, and listen to the same Queensrÿche album I listened to every day that school year as I ate my #2 meal on the long drive home. I knew that classes were over, and I’d spend the next two weeks indoors, at my girlfriend’s parents’ house in Ottawa Hills, or at my parents’ house. It was not good or bad or anything else, but that moment is so entrenched in my head, and it’s amazing that it instantly came back 33 years later.

    Anyway. It’s Christmas morning and I’m in Milwaukee for the week. I should write about that next, but I have a few thouand calories to eat first.

  • Reno, gloves, winter break

    I was in Reno for Thanksgiving, which was a pretty straightforward affair, except I forgot to bring gloves, and it was like 25 degrees outside. No snow, no trouble at the Donner pass; I just neglected to remember you need hand coverings when it’s below freezing. This wasn’t a major thing, as I didn’t really do a lot outdoors, but I’ve got more winter wonderland travel coming up next week, so I have to remember to bring gloves.

    I have these gloves I bought in April for Iceland, which are very thin, but have the special magnetic junk in the fingers so you can use a touchscreen, and the index fingers and thumbs flip open in case you need to twist a knob or futz with a lens and don’t want to take your gloves off. I haven’t used them since Iceland, and when I dug them out of the bin today, they were filthy. I got some Woolite, started scrubbing them, and my sink was suddenly filled with bright red volcanic dirt. I think the last time I wore them, I was climbing Snæfellsjökull, and on the way up Bjarnarfoss, I fell down and thought I broke my knee. Weird memory to see and smell all of that red soil again.

    * * *

    Reno was pretty sedate. It was my first time there since 2019. We stayed at a Marriott, had a mini-suite that wasn’t bad except the heater sounded like a hundred-year-old film projector. The gym was decent. The pool was outside, so no pool, although I can’t swim anyway. I did a lot of writing down in the lobby. I don’t know why I like writing in the lobbies of hotels, but I do. For some reason, sitting in this one very vaguely reminded me of the Grand Hyatt Berlin, where I stayed in 2014, but looking at the pictures on Google, it looks nothing like it. That seems to happen to me a lot. I just walked around the College of Alameda, which always gives me a weird sense memory of the IUSB campus, but the two look nothing like each other. They just built a new classroom building that looks very vaguely like it’s in the same style as one of the new buildings they put on Mishawaka Ave at IUSB, but all campus buildings built after like 1985 look like that.

    Aside from eating and more eating, I didn’t do much else. Oh, I went to a sports book and bet $20 that the Rockies would win the 2024 World Series. I don’t even vaguely believe in the team after this year, and I’m honestly pretty much over baseball in general. So, no idea why I did that.

    * * *

    The Christmas travel is South Bend for a week, then Milwaukee for a week. I’m trying to tighten the blast radius on this so I can keep things under control, so there won’t be any side trips anywhere else, and just family stuff. This is the first time I’ve been to Indiana since 2018, and I don’t know what to expect. Well, I know what to expect. What’s weird about this trip is I don’t even think I’ll be in Elkhart. My sister was the last holdout there, and she moved to Chicago a few years ago. Normally I’d go to Concord Mall, but I’m done with malls, and there is no Concord Mall. Ray is there, but I will have to convince him to meet us in Mishawaka or something. I have no interest in doing the Jon Konrath Reality Tour and look at a bunch of vacant buildings. If it was summer, I might be up for walking Ox Bow park. And Goshen’s downtown is neat. But other than that, the nostalgia is far too depressing for me.

    I often wonder about visiting Bloomington again, for the same reasons. Looking at old journals, I used to fixate on Bloomington far too much. I haven’t been back in over ten years, and I feel like that obsession has faded away. I don’t know how that happened, and I wish I could apply the same technique to like 167 other things or people in my life. Maybe it’s because so much has changed there. Or maybe it’s just not important to me anymore. I do want to go back at some point and look around, but it’s a hard trip to make just for the sake of that trip. It’s probably cheaper for me to fly to Europe. Maybe at some point.

    * * *

    Another glove memory: I once had this pair of leather gloves that were like Darth Vader gloves. They were very well-padded inside, black leather, and they had a long cuff that went halfway up my forearm. They were like motorcycle gloves I guess. I think I got them from my step-grandfather in like the late 80s or early 90s. I remember having them when I got my first leather motorcycle jacket in 1993. I lost them, I think in 1994, maybe by leaving them on a Bloomington Transit bus. I’ve never been able to find a pair exactly like them. Probably doesn’t matter much since it rarely gets below 40 here. Maybe if I move to Iceland, I’ll start looking.

  • 30

    Today is an anniversary of sorts. Thirty years ago today, I decided to be a writer, decided to “identify” as a writer, started calling myself a writer. Actually, I probably didn’t put those words together on October 30th, 1993, and I definitely did not put my occupation as a writer on a 1040 form until at least a a few years later. But today was the day this whole thing really started.

    I’ve told the story before, in different permutations, different mixes of fact and fiction, enough that I don’t even know what is real anymore, what I would tell someone if I had to. I mean, I’ve always been a writer to some extent, even if I didn’t know it. I had a poem published when I was in grade school; I wrote a lot of short stories and papers and whatnot when I was in high school and college. I’d already published zines by that fall, written stuff in other zines, and put thousands and thousands of words into USENET posts and forums. I’d even published a story in a university newspaper at that point. But I’d never thought of myself as a writer, never considered it as a vocation, a career, or even a hobby. I always thought, “Someday I will write a book” but never put any more thought into it than that.

    The actual story of how this started is somewhat trite and stereotypical. I was struggling in a deep depression in the fall of 1993 — that year, really — and had been abandoned by someone I trusted. And sure, it was all my fault, but it was at a key junction in my life when a maelstrom of shit was falling down on me. I’d been kicked out of school and was on probation; I was unable to continue in the computer science department; I’d lost the scholarship that was paying my tuition; I wasn’t sure what I was going to do for a degree anymore. Most of my friends were graduating, getting jobs, getting married, moving away. I was stuck, didn’t know what was next.

    The abandonment thing, I won’t get too into that. I was in this relationship that I got far too invested in, and I messed it up, and she left. I’ve blamed myself for it for decades, and then recently, I read a lot about attachment anxiety and adult attachment theory and realized the fix was in decades before I met this person, and my problems go back much further than 1993, and I really can’t get into any of that in the scope of this dumb little story. Short story long, I was very damaged on October 30, 1993, and I desperately needed to find some way out.

    * * *

    In 1993, I lived at Colonial Crest apartments in Bloomington. (They no longer exist.) I did not have a car. I had a city bus pass, but the bus line was all screwy and didn’t run at night, so I walked, a lot. My apartment was 1.3 miles to the 17th Street office of UCS where I worked a few days a week. It was 2.2 miles to Ballantine Hall, more or less the center of campus. At the very least, I’d walk about two hours a day, every day. I would listen to a tape walkman for all of these walks, plus whenever I was sitting around campus, working on a computer, whatever. And I was spending a lot of time sitting around campus, because I’d have a class, then have 90 minutes of down time until the next class, half an hour in the student union, 20 minutes waiting for a computer, an hour eating Pizza Hut Express, whatever.

    The gist of this: I spent a lot of time alone, in my head, beating myself up, in three different ways: long walks, dead time in public places, and of course the hours and hours I spent in front of computers, screwing around on the immediately-pre-web Internet. I needed some way to not do that, or do something productive with that time, and through strange kismet, this sort of fell into place.

    Once again, this is horribly cliché, but my friend Ray told me I should check out the spoken word albums of Henry Rollins, who had not yet recorded “Liar” and shown up on Beavis and Butthead, but aside from the post-Black Flag Rollins Band, he was about six albums deep into the spoken word racket, and had published maybe twenty books or chapbooks. So a few days after the 30th, I bought The Boxed Life, a two-tape album of his spoken word and started walking and listening to it, memorizing it.

    The whole thing seems stupid now. I think there are various machismo stereotypical male idols that men of my age back then latch onto, be it Charles Hemingway or Charles Bukowski or Joe Rogan or whoever else. In one sense, it almost pains me that I got so wound up with this thing. But I felt like I had nothing, no direction, and there were far worse things to get tangled up with. Even mentioning the male loneliness epidemic pisses about 50% of the population off, but there is a real phenomenon of early twenty-somethings not knowing what to do with their life, and turning to whatever idiot has the biggest mouth. Nobody has fathers; nobody can open up to male friends. So you’re going to have guys who get in that rut who suddenly find a Doors record and lock into Jim Morrison and start wearing leather pants and writing shitty poetry. It happens.

    At some point, I thought, “Hey, this Rollins guy just talks about what happens to him and writes it in notebooks. I should get a notebook.” So I got a notebook, and I started writing in it, in those weird little gaps of time in my day, journaling from lunch or at a bus stop or late at night. I also hunted down all the Rollins books. I wasn’t a book collector at that time, and would maybe passively read a non-computer book a few times a year. But I read his stuff, then read everything he referenced: Henry Miller, Bukowski, Fante, Burroughs. That got me into the beats, which got me into postmodern fiction, which got me to experimental, which got me to a room full of books. I started hoarding, reading constantly. I’m embarrassed by my early influences, but they got me to my later influences, so what can you do.

    * * *

    The little 80-sheet notebook I bought at the campus book store for $1.39 turned into several journals, which turned into short stories, one of which became the start of my first book. I never healed the wound, but I filled the void. That particular relationship did not heal for years, but I now realize that it wasn’t the hole from the missing person, but a hole in my soul that existed since birth. She was just a symptom of the problem.

    I wrote. I wrote badly, but it slowly got better. I slowly got better. I mean, I never got “better” like I was somehow cured. It took me years to stop thinking about her every hour of every day, how I was betrayed, how it was all my fault. It is mostly gone, and I can’t even remember what her voice sounds like. But last night I had a nightmare about her, woke up at 3:30 AM with my fight-or-flight fully triggered, didn’t even try to go back to bed and got up and hit the shower to start my day. There have been a half-dozen people who have done far worse to me since, and maybe the dream was about one of them. Anyway, writing was the one constant. It got me past this, until it didn’t.

    * * *

    The writing continued until 2021, when it stopped. There are a lot of threads to this story that recur: the wound, the loneliness, abandonment, frustration, emptiness, defeat. In 2021, I tried to tell myself I was no longer a writer, because the pain and frustration of my writing “career” caught up to me and I simply could not write anymore. So I quit writing, said I wasn’t a writer. The void remained. Nothing could fill it. Believe me, I tried everything. Nothing worked.

    So, I came back. I think. Did I? Am I still a writer? Am I writing now? The void still remains, but maybe I’m making progress.

    * * *

    Bill James – the baseball statistics guy (you know, moneyball, Brad Pitt, whatever) – had a quote about writing that always stuck with me:

    I learned to write because I am one of those people who somehow cannot manage the common communications of smiles and gestures, but must use words to get across things that other people would never need to say.

    I always felt that I fell into writing because of that, because of my ability to get lost in words, in absence of being able to get lost in people. My frustration with love and life drove me to a universe of communication in a much deeper format. I don’t know what I’m doing now with writing, or what will come next, or what I need to do. But I know that it all started when I fell into this exactly thirty years ago today.

  • Singapore

    So, I was in Singapore last week. On the way back from India, I stopped in the city/country/island for four nights. It’s one of the options for a layover when I fly east-to-west to Bangalore, so instead of spending an hour there, I figured out how to book a gap between flights, and Americans don’t need a visa for tourism. Airfare cost the same either way, so I booked a hotel on my dime (Amex’s, actually – more on that later) and made a quick vacation of it.

    The flight from Bangalore took about five hours, leaving just before noon on a Saturday. India security was the usual, had to take every single thing out of my bag and was asked “what is this” about each and every cord and charger and plug. I forgot I had a Leatherman in my laptop bag, and even though it was a TSA-compliant one with no blades, I may as well have been carrying an M-249 and four hundred rounds of belt-fed ammunition. So there went sixty bucks.

    Flight wasn’t bad. The only notable thing was I was watching Interstellar for the 167th time and I was at the giant scene at the end of Act 2 where the space station is crashing into the atmosphere and they have to emergency dock with it and push it back up to orbit, and I wasn’t paying attention to our descent into Singapore at all, and their ship collided with the station exactly when our wheels hit the tarmac, which was a bit freaky.

    In Singapore, customs was 100% automated. I did not talk to a single human. I applied for the entry card online two days before, promised that I didn’t have a fever and knew drug use was punishable by death, and when I got there, I scanned my passport, scanned my thumb, looked at the camera, done. Bags were there fast, money exchange took five seconds, taxi was quick, and there I was.

    This hotel experience was absolutely hilarious. This was at the Conrad Centennial, which is a towering five-start hotel in the marina bay. I had a trifecta: booked on Amex in one of their “curio collection” featured properties, paid with an Amex platinum, have gold status at Hilton, and used points for the whole thing. When they found my name on the bag, before I even got to the front desk, the hotel manager was there to welcome me. Amex already gave me a $200 credit for the curio thing, but Hilton gave me a $100/day room credit, plus I had free breakfast, and access to an executive lounge with free food. The main issue at the front desk was they couldn’t figure out the conflicting amenities, and it appeared I had six free breakfasts per day.

    The room was absolutely insane. They upgraded me to a giant suite with a dining area, couches along the full-length bay windows overlooking the marina, a bathroom bigger than my apartment in college, the whole nine yards. I immediately ordered a pomme frites and ate steak until I collapsed.

    * * *

    Singapore looks like a futuristic Star Wars city, like Bespin: towering hotels and offices, tons of retail, food everywhere, perfectly manicured parks, a perfect transit system. On the first morning, after loading up on breakfast, I went for a walk to get the lay of the land, and the Marina area felt very weird. It looked incredible, but felt very sparse and desolate when you’re in it. I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in some big Midwestern cities like in the inner loop of Chicago or the center of Indianapolis. Nice postcard, but you walk around after 5:00 and there are big chunks of areas with a lot of nothing, and that big mall that you thought was a block away is like a mile and a half in the distance. So I should have made a plan and didn’t.

    That walk: big mistake. 88 degrees, humidity was 88%. I could barely propel myself; it felt like I was walking in 2x gravity. I found one of those bikes you unlock with an app, and five minutes later, got it rolling. Biking was not bad, although it was a heavy junk bike with only one speed and a seat that was slightly too short. There’s a trail along the river that has lots of shade and excellent views. Rode about five miles, then went to this mall across the street to get a drink. There was a 7-Eleven in the mall and I got a Coke Zero from an old woman who was yammering away and I didn’t understand a word she was saying. She obviously knew I was a tourist, because she paid me back my change in like 47 coins.

    It felt eerily quiet, nobody out. Maybe it’s because it was Sunday morning, or maybe I was in some weird commercial district where nobody lives, like when you visit “Chicago” and your job dumps you in a Marriott in Schaumberg and the nearest anything is a Shoney’s two miles away you can’t actually walk to.

    * * *

    It was too bad I’m completely off this mall shit, because I quickly found out the entire country is basically a gigantic mall. There were four supermalls within a block of my hotel, and probably at least a dozen of them within a kilometer. Seriously, the place next to the mall I first went to is about the size of Mall of America, and the other three were bigger than the biggest mall in California. Singaporeans love their air conditioning, and all of these things are connected to each other through catwalks and tunnels. You can spend your entire life indoors like it’s an old Asimov novel.

    I went to the biggest mall for lunch, because everyone would not shut up about these Hawker stalls of food. I walked into the food area and just about had an aneurysm, First of all, the mall was probably 20% more crowded than the most hectic mall I’d ever been to in the midwest during Peak Mall on like a Christmas Eve. There were wall to wall people in this massive three-story structure that’s actually just the first three floors of five towers, each 45 stories tall with all office space and a convention center in them. I looked it up and the mall has 186 restaurants. I don’t think I saw a single vacant store. It was absolutely overwhelming, just wall to wall people speaking Chinese or Malay, eating chicken feet and fish with heads on them and whatever else. I was so far out of my comfort zone, I took one look and thought, “I need to find a fucking Pizza Hut.” 

    Wandered that mall and it was just truly bizarre and amazing. It was full of teenagers cosplaying in Magna or Anime stuff, wearing boots and uniforms and face paint and everything else. There were several arenas, open spaces with domed ceilings. One had a full-on flea market, old ladies buying bolts of cloth and household goods. Another had an e-sports competition, someone rattling on like a Chinese auctioneer, their play-by-play of a PUBG match echoing through this giant auditorium. I was pushing my way through crowds, and… there was a Toys R Us.  Not a knockoff, not a reboot, but an actual honest-to-fuck TRU that looks like it’s from 2004 or so. 

    I stumbled into a McDonald’s, famished, and got a fries, a drink, and two of the bizarro burgers only available in SG. One was the Samurai Beef, which was basically a quarter-pounder but drenched in teriyaki sauce. The other was the Ninja chicken, which was a decent fried chicken patty, but covered in nanban sauce, with white cabbage coleslaw, cucumbers, and on a black charcoal bun. Fries are fries, and every MCD gets those the same. The beef burger was disgusting, too much sauce on it. The chicken sandwich would have been decent with 80% of the sauce removed. They have a cup lid that has a weird plastic spout that you can drink from without a straw which is genius and saves a lot of plastic, but would be considered woke communism in the US and would get someone killed.

    Back at the hotel, I booked a massage at the spa. It was pretty decent, nothing too weird about it, except the woman was slapping me a bunch and that was different. The spa was on the same level as the pool, and there was also a wedding going on, with lots of people dressed up in super-high-end dress clothes.

    I went to the executive lounge on the top floor with my laptop, thinking I’d get some work done, but it was too crowded, and the food was eh. I drank a bunch of Coke Zero, but it was too busy to write, and I needed to get my dinner plans in order.

    * * *

    Dinner Sunday night – got a reservation at this place at the Four Seasons, which is about three clicks west of my hotel. Took a taxi there and the cabbies are all insane in Singapore. Slam the gas, slam the brakes, slam the gas, slam the brakes, never stay in the same lane for more than 500 milliseconds, etc.

    The place was called One Ninety restaurant. It’s normally a modern Asian brasserie, but an Argentinian place called Brasero Atlántico was doing a three-month takeover. Got there 30m early and I went walking around. There was a very weird liminal space – a long series of hallways connecting between the hotel and another property, and I think it was like a temporary art gallery. I sat down in a chair and messed around on my phone for 15 minutes, and absolutely nobody walked by. It was like thousands of square feet of empty space in the busiest city within a thousand miles, and there was just absolutely nothing there. So bizarre.

    At the restaurant and there’s this Argentinian guy chatting with the waitress and he says hi and shakes my hand, and I’m like, “OK, whatever.” I sit down and two googles later I realize the guy is one of the top ten bartenders in the world, and this popup is a clone of one of the top five restaurants in the world. I don’t drink, but felt I had to get a drink. I got this thing that was absinthe, mandarin napoleon liqueur, and wheat beer. I then ordered a t-bone steak and it was like half a cow, just a ridiculous amount of meat. I also had fries, salad, empanadas, and too much bread. I barely made it back to the hotel and crashed out.

    * * *

    Monday, I woke up and had no idea where I was. After too much breakfast, I went for a long walk, then got on the MRT train to head for Chinatown. The Singapore train system makes the Disney monorail look like the bombed-out New York subway in the 70s. I was able to pay with my watch without getting a card or account or app or anything. Ridiculously clean, everyone super polite and behaved, and eating and drinking is strictly prohibited. You could perform surgery on the floor of the subway station there. It was amazing, I did not see a single cop during my stay, but I’m sure if anything went down, a hundred of them would show up. I think they are hiding in Disneyland tunnels backstage.

    Chinatown – another giant mall, and this one had large mazes of semi-outdoor market stalls on each side. I ducked into one and it was sensory overload, vendors selling shirts and food and fruits and watches and everything else, and crowds of people walking the narrow alleys. Lots of temples in the area too, Hindu and Buddhist, people lighting incense and bowing. It was such an extreme juxtaposition, seeing these fifty-story chrome and glass towers filled with banks running tax havens, next to temples that looked a thousand years old, next to Vegas-style themed shopping centers, next to Asian markets.

    I ended up at a Korean beef noodle place which was in a crowded mall but had a Michelin star. Got a stir fry and a bottle of soju, then remembered that drinking soju is like 3x the alcohol of beer and basically tastes like a 50/50 mix of Grape Nehi and lighter fluid. I had good stir fry but that soju got on top of me fast, and I wandered around the mall drunk, wondering what the hell was going on, because everything looked the same and there were strange stores, durian and snails for sale, places that could tell your fortune, reflexology and acupuncture places, and far too much anime stuff. Got back on the train, back to the other mall, and it was pouring rain, a wall of absolute monsoon deluge, like the inch-per-hour kind of torrent. I couldn’t figure out how to get across the street (there are usually tunnels or bridges, like Minnesota) so I just sprinted and got soaked.

    Back at the hotel, I needed to write. I booked a room in the business center so I could get something done and stop eating crap out of the mini bar and doom-scrolling in bed. They only had once space and I ended up in a giant conference room with seven other chairs facing me. A bit weird, but it was a decent way to get some writing done. (Yes, I’m writing again.)

    Monday dinner: there was this row of Japanese places I saw the other day but could not triangulate exactly where it was, so I ended up at this Bavarian restaurant. Tried ordering in German (“Entshuldigung! Wo ist die speisekart!”) and of course the waitress only spoke Malay and broken English and freaked out. I got a decent currywurst and pretzel and sat outside, because it was super-refrigerated inside and they were pumping in loud music (and not like Oktoberfest sing-a-long polka; I’m talking like Huey Lewis or some garbage.) The temp was cooling down, and it was actually nice on the patio.

    After dinner, I got my new Sigma 30mm f/1.4 prime lens and took a stroll around the neighborhood for some night shooting. I love taking pictures at night, but never get a chance to. So that was fun, and having the new prime lens was great for shooting the buildings at night.

    * * *

    Tuesday: I massively overslept but was still tired, and I was going to walk to the giant gardens just south of the hotel, but after two minutes outside, I changed my mind and hopped a train, picked a color and a direction, and just wandered for maybe an hour. The train system has all these arterial lines that go from the city center to the extremities, but also has this orange line that runs in a big circle maybe five clicks out, so you can easily shift lines or avoid dumb routes where you have to go all the way downtown and then all the way back out in another line.

    I eventually ended up at another mall, which is on Orchard sort of near that Four Seasons, on a big drag where there are maybe a dozen malls, all interconnected. It is a total Blade Runner city, a mix of gigantic supermalls where you can go to a Lord and Taylor or a Rolex superstore, but then between those are these Asian malls with tiny stalls filled with people selling bamboo plants or housewares or melons. I was just walking for hours in marvel, thinking, “What the fuck is all of this? How did I even get here?” 

    I ended up having lunch at Shakey’s Pizza. It’s a huge touchstone in Elkhart. There was one just south of Concord Mall and a lot of kids at my school worked there. They had pizza buffet, mojo potatoes, etc. I last went to one in 2008 in LA, when there were maybe a dozen left in the US, all in California. It was pretty garbage back then, so I didn’t know how it would be in Singapore. This was in a food court with a bunch of stalls, and not like a full sit-down restaurant. Pizza was airport-grade eh. The mojos tastes the same but they were little discs of potato, not like a wedge. It was worth a laugh to go there, but not exactly revelatory.

    Back at the hotel, got the board room again, and then couldn’t figure out dinner. I finally decided to go to Marina Bay Sands, which is a massive convention center/mall/hotel/casino just a bit south of my hotel. MBS is three 55-story towers with a gigantic cantilevered platform at the top, made to look like a surfboard, with the longest infinity pool in the world on it. There’s also a million-square-foot mall with canals and giant arched ceilings, a giant spherical Apple Store that sits on the water, theaters, museums, hotels, and one of the largest casinos in the world.

    Getting into the casino was like getting into Area 51. I had to bring a passport, my travel visa, fill out all this paperwork – their loyalty program actually asks you how much you make and what your net worth is. The casino was giant, but I didn’t find it terribly great. I’m not much of a gambler, and wasn’t into the table games, so I tried a few slot machines. They all seemed pretty tuned down, with almost no bonus play and none of the crazy kinetics of American slots. I burned through about a hundred bucks (Singapore) and gave up.

    Last meal: I went to one of the Hawker-type food courts and ordered a Chinese fried pork chop and some steamed dumplings. The place was crowded and I lucked into an empty table. The second I had my last bite in my mouth, someone swooped in and asked if they could have my spot.

    * * *

    On Wednesday, I had to leave at about six in the morning, so no time for breakfast or anything else. I got to the airport with plenty of time and wandered around a bit. The airport has this butterfly garden, which is pretty cool. It’s a two-story thing with a waterfall and lots of plants, and there are butterflies flying all around inside. I caught a 9:30am flight straight back to SFO, which landed 16 hours later at… 9:30am. I didn’t sleep and powered through the rest of the day, so I could black out right after dinner and then get to work at my regular time on Thursday.

    * * *

    I don’t think I had enough time to get a feel for any of Singapore other than the area around Marina Bay. Honestly, after about ten days out of the country, I was getting severely depressed from the food situation and just from wandering around alone, unable to speak to anyone in English, and everyone I knew online was asleep when I was awake. This always happens, and I’m never fully prepared for it. I’m always interested in seeing other countries, experiencing the differences, getting a feel for what it’s like there. But the loneliness of being there by myself gets crippling at a certain point, and I never know what to do.

    I was reading the book The Art of Noticing recently, and I forget who said this, but their tip on what to do when you’re trying to take in a moment is to look up. Look around, but then look up and look around, then look up even further. I was walking on Orchard in the middle of this Vegas-like strip of mega-malls, listening to this ambient soundtrack I normally listen to when meditating, and looking up, looking at the glass towers and the wires and lights and trees. I thought about how weird it was to be out on a Tuesday afternoon in the sweltering heat, with all these people around me. And I thought about how I’d explain this to the 1992 me who had never been more than a few hundred miles from home, how I was in this strange land ten thousand miles away. And I thought about how grateful I was that I had a job and a life that allowed me to do this. And I wasn’t looking forward to the early wake-up call the next day or the long flight back. But I was thankful for the entire strange experience, and that burned that moment of standing in front of the Takashimaya Shopping Centre into my head forever.

  • Bangalore

    I’m back in India. I’ve been here since last Saturday, and will be leaving tomorrow, so it’s a shorter trip than last time. This was very last-minute and I did not have much time to plan, so I didn’t do anything exciting. Just work.

    The trip out was long, as usual. I went through Singapore this time, and was able to get an upgrade to premium economy, although that doesn’t get you much. I was in an aisle in the bulkhead row, which meant nobody reclining their seat in my face, but it also meant the TV was far away, and I had no place to put my bag. The flight was just shy of 16 hours. Then I had a super quick layover and caught a five-hour flight to India. I think I slept two or three hours on the Singapore leg, and maybe an hour going to India. That meant I left my house in an Uber at 7:40 AM Friday and checked into my hotel in Bangalore at just before midnight on Saturday.

    I think this trip was less overwhelming than June’s visit. I knew what to expect, had a vague idea of the terrain, and my schedule was packed with nothing but work. I got this hotel that’s about 2km from work and maybe 1km from where we were having this off-site, so that was fine. I now know you can get from anywhere to anywhere in an Uber for like a dollar. And walking is fine, too.

    Every day I would walk to work. Like I said, it’s maybe a mile each way, but it takes about 45 minutes, and you have to follow a convoluted route with your head on a swivel. Traffic is bad, the random motorcycles are worse, and pedestrians have no right of way. And sidewalks can be somewhat random, or simply end in an open trench.

    I tried to be somewhat zen about my walks, look for things I normally don’t see, find things that give me joy. Here’s a list of what I liked:

    • There are so many different types of buildings. It’s not just a bunch of perfectly optimized 5-over-1 construction or a sea of ranch houses all built during the same housing boom. Some buildings have more than four sides, shoehorned into odd spaces. Some have very European lines, but some have arched windows or Jharokha windows or pyramidal roofs. Some houses look like they were built last year and some look a century old. It’s amazing to see them all butted against each other.
    • Part of my walk twists through some narrow alleys going behind rows of five-story buildings. There are small slits of light where you see the sky, criss-crossed with random wires and cables from power and internet. I don’t know why I like seeing that – it reminds me of parts of Berkeley or even Bloomington, where student buildings were randomly assembled next to each other.
    • Bangalore has so many trees. When I stay off the ring roads and take side streets, there are smaller streets that feel almost like they are going through a tunnel of green. Mountain ebony, Indian Elm, and cork trees line the city streets, with thick trunks jutting from the sidewalk. And there are amazing flowering trees. I’ll be walking along a main road and see an Indian laburnum with bright yellow flowers or an African tulip tree dotted with red-orange petals.
    • I love the randomness. You can walk past an all-glass aerospace building, then there’s an empty field with a cow eating grass in it, then there’s a retina surgery center, then there’s a shop rebuilding motorcycle engines in the street. It makes it hard to just like go to the suburb with all the grocery stores or fast food places. Everything is everywhere.
    • People draw chalk mandalas on the sidewalks in front of their house. I know nothing about the ritual or significance, but there’s something I like about it. I like spotting them as I walk through alleys and streets.
    • There was one night I was walking home from the off-site to the hotel through the EGL tech park. This was after spending all day in the air conditioning, and it was dark out, and the air was dropping from 90 to 70 degrees rapidly, and it gave me the strangest sense memory of the summer nights back in Bloomington in 1992, of walking in the cool darkness to the fountain at midnight after a day of triple-digit temperatures. I’m thirty years and half a world away, and absolutely everything is different. But I still felt that feeling for a minute, and it was amazing.

    Anyway. Done with work. Leaving India tomorrow morning and taking a quick vacation for four nights over here. More updates on that soon.

  • Zine(s)

    I published another zine last week. It’s a bit of a throwaway thing, an experiment, an attempt to get back to writing. I deliberately did not make this something I would try to sell or distribute. I wanted to focus solely on writing and producing something that would take my focus and time. If my writing was running and this was a couch-to-marathon thing, this zine was like getting off the couch and walking around the block. And it worked well.

    I like making zines. I think one of my biggest distractions with writing is focusing too much on what sells, what people want, what’s expected of a book. Also, working on a book takes forever and I don’t get feedback until sometimes years after I write something. Making zines just for the sake of making zines alleviates both of these. Back when I first got free access to photocopiers at my corporate job in 1995, I started Air in the Paragraph Line so I could copy dumb stories and mail them for free to a dozen or two friends. I didn’t care about the layout or the format or anything else, because I wasn’t trying to get stuff in Barnes and Noble. At the apex of this, I was putting out a zine every month, and I loved doing that. I would drop off a big box of envelopes at the PO, and within a week, people were emailing me, telling me what they liked.

    Another reason I love zines is they are tactile, physical objects. There’s something about getting a zine in the mail, opening the envelope, holding the little booklet in your hands. There’s a certain joy in paginating a stack of copied pages into individual bodies, folding them in half, stapling them, counting up the number you made, stacking them up and getting them ready to stuff into envelopes. I’ve messed with e-zines and posting PDFs and whatnot, and it’s just not the same. Creating a newletter on Substack or writing a blog like this is its own thing. Reading a physical book is another. And it’s even better when you’re holding an object that you know the author held, folded, stapled, ran their fingers over the spine. It’s a direct connection between author and reader.

    So, back on the horse. I couldn’t find my long-arm stapler, but I did find my (fake) bone folder to fold pages in half. I did the layout in Apple Pages this time, laid it out in portrait and pasted in a bunch of crazy graphics as backgrounds and asides, mostly screenshots taken from badly scanned PDFs on the FBI’s FOIA page, things about UFOs and cattle mutilations and how to build fallout shelters and perform tracheotomies on the battlefield. I spent a lot of time messing around with that stuff and it was a lot of fun. It reminded me of the time me and Ray messed around in Photoshop 1.0 when it first came out, in the Mac lab in the Fine Arts building at IU. They had these Mac IIfx machines (“wicked fast!”) loaded up with an insane amount of RAM, dual monitors, color printers, drawing tablets, Sytek drives, and everything else. We spent a few hours just chopping up Anne Geddes pictures of babies, and it was an overwhelming amount of joy just working on nothing, playing and having fun.

    Some of the writing in this zine was old stuff from automatic writing going back to 2016. I think one of the pieces was something cut from Atmospheres in 2014 during the final edits. The actual writing was more of an afterthought. 5000-some words, 20 pages, double-sided and folded in half. I’m not selling these; maybe if I do a few more (and that’s the plan), I will bundle them up in a book. That’s not the point. It’s not about selling it. Hell, my name isn’t even on the front cover. It’s just about creating.

    * * *

    Pro tip: I don’t know when this happened, but Adobe made it much easier to print stuff like this. I used to have a labored process of laying out folded-in-half booklets, where the first landscape page for a 20-page zine would have page 20 and page 1, and the flipside would have page 2 and page 19, and so on. Huge pain. Now I can make a PDF that’s in portrait orientation, pages 1-20 in that order. Acrobat will turn them sideways, shrink them down, and paginate them so it’s 20-1, 2-19, 18-3, etc.

    There’s a trick to this, though. If you shrink down 8.5×11 pages, the trim will be all off. So anyway, here’s what I did. (Note that this assumes you have a real printer to print the master.)

    1. When you do your initial layout, make a custom page size with no margins. File > Page Setup, I made one called “half-letter” that was 7.14 by 11 inches. (My math may be slightly off there.)
    2. Write the zine. Make sure your number of pages are a multiple of four.
    3. Print to PDF, double-sided and make sure scaling is shut off.
    4. Open the PDF in Adobe Acrobat Reader (not Preview.app or some other knockoff PDF reader.)
    5. File > Print.
    6. In Page Sizing & Handling, select Booklet.
    7. I think all the default settings will be right. You can flip through the pages in the preview to the right, although the preview sometimes looks junky. (For me, I had Booklet subset on “both sides” and Binding as “left.”

    My right margin on odd pages was a bit truncated, so maybe that’s my math. Also I could not figure out how to print to PDF with this feature. https://github.com/rodyager/RWTS-PDFwriter might do this for you, but I haven’t tried it.

    Oh, and if you’re on a Mac, Apple Pages has a mode called Page Layout mode. Instead of working like MS Word (ugh) it behaves more like Pagemaker used to, where you put in text flows and hook them together and resize them, and it shows at the end of a flow if there’s more text and you need to add another column or box or resize things. Back in 1993, I did Xenocide 5 in Aldus Pagemaker 4.0, which was the gold standard for desktop publishing back then, and was absolutely amazing in a world where a lot of people in the labs where I worked were still on the cyan-screened Wordperfect 5.1 for DOS. It’s a great memory to be back to juggling colums and placing images behind them.

    * * *

    Also, programming note that this page is back, with a list of everything I’ve written. It has the awkward issue that many of the things on there are not currently published. I’m working on it. But I’m currently at the start of another writing project which I can’t talk about, but I’m excited to start actually writing again. I’m off the couch, but I’m still walking.

    Oh, and if you read this far and you didn’t get a zine, drop a line and send me your address. I’ve only got a couple left, but if not this, I’ll send the next one.

  • Aquarius+

    When I was a kid, my first computer was the Mattel Aquarius. This machine was an odd little footnote in computing history, a quick experiment in Mattel’s history to break into the home computer market. This computer came out in 1983 and was quickly killed off in a few months because of poor sales. It had little promotion from Mattel and zero third-party support, and the remaining units were quickly blown out by liquidators as the video game crash was happening and Mattel Electronics abandoned hardware, then software development.

    I’ve written a bit about this before, but to recap, the Aquarius was like the Yugo of computers. It had its charms, but the deficits were not good. It was a Z80-based machine, clocked at 3.5MHz, which isn’t bad. (A Z80 is arguably 2-3 times slower than a 6502; the 6510-based C64 was clocked at ~1MHz, so about the same.) But it only had 4K of RAM, and by the time you booted, you had just over 1K of free memory. The included BASIC was okay but not great. The keyboard was a rubber chicklet 48-key thing that was like typing on an 80s TV remote, and didn’t even have a space bar. Graphics were barely a thing, and it had a 40×24 character screen. There was a cartridge port, and then a cassette and printer port that were undocumented, with printers and tape decks being largely impossible to find. A couple dozen games were released on cartridge. There was also a mini-expander, a thing hanging off the cartridge port that let you use a memory expander (also impossible to find) with a cartridge at the same time, plus added joystick ports and a second sound chip. The joysticks were Intellivision-style “disk” controllers, with no side buttons at all, just six rubber keys in a keypad.

    I got an Aquarius bundle at a Kay-Bee toys in January of 1984 for my 13th birthday. The $99 bundle came with a computer, the mini-expander and two controllers, and four games: AD&D Treasure of Tarmin, Tron Deadly Discs, Snafu, and Night Stalker. And as bad as the computer was, I played the hell out of those games, and spent untold hours typing in BASIC programs on the rubber keys, keeping the machine powered up because I had no way to save them. The D&D game was particularly good for the time, a first-person dungeon crawl game with crude graphics but great turn-based combat, 99 levels to navigate (allegedly), and addictive find-the-weapons-and-treasure gameplay, as you tried to find the King Dragon and win the whole thing.

    I spent that summer mind-melding with that machine. This is unfathomable to kids now, but my school had like two Apple ][ computers that were impossible to get time on, and I wanted to work on a computer so much, I would spend study hall writing games and programs on paper. Having my own computer, as anemic as it was, felt like a miracle to me, and I’d spend all day trying to write games on it. I also wished I could go to California and hunt down the mystical tape deck or the rumored disk-based master expansion that never happened. My next birthday was a jump up to the C-64, and I have no idea when my original Aquarius got offloaded at a parental garage sale. But there’s still a lot of nostalgia for that old machine.

    * * *

    So, 39 years later…

    Like most retro machines, the Aquarius has a crew of die-hard followers who have been trying to hunt down surviving gear, tweak the most out of it with new games and software, and extend the system with new technology. A group of these enthusiasts decided to do a “reboot” of the Aquarius, since the rights have been long abandoned and the remaining hardware is aging and vanishing.

    The result: The Aquarius+. (https://github.com/fvdhoef/aquarius-plus) The machine is very interesting:

    * Backwards-compatible with the original system
    * Z80-based
    * 512K RAM (!!)
    * An ESP32 and an FPGA to support all the other fun stuff below
    * Wi-Fi and bluetooth
    * A USB connector for a real keyboard
    * A totally reworked video system with VGA video output
    * An SD card slot
    * Two three-voice sound chips
    * Everything on a single board with modern components you can buy new, in a slick-looking case about the size of a thick paperback book.
    * The whole thing is pretty affordable, especially in the world where eBay vultures who have driven up prices on every retro system out there.

    What is really interesting is that everything is being developed in GitHub. You can look at all the source code, suggest changes, help develop it, and see everything documented. And that not only includes the ROM and firmware, but the actual hardware and even the case. Anyone with some skill at ordering custom boards and 3D printing could make their own Aquarius+. Or you can buy one from the couple of people making small runs of the machines.

    I can’t emphasize enough how cool it is that all the docs and information are in GitHub. So a technical writer who is used to working in Markdown on GitHub (me) can easily make corrections. But also, back in 1983 I would have killed to get any information on this system. Compute! magazine was a treasure trove of type-in programs for literally every home computer except the Aquarius back in the day. Now, it’s super easy to share your programs or find other ones to try out and modify. No more leaving on the computer all night and then having my parents shut it off because I was wasting electricity.

    My old cartridges are long gone, but the new system does have a connector for them. That said, about every cartridge ever released (and a whole lot of new homebrew ones) are available as ROM files you can easily throw on an SD card and load.

    The SD card situation is a game-changer, too. First of all, the smallest SD card you can find in the back of a junk drawer can hold every Aquarius program that ever has or will exist. (Seriously, the tiny stepped-on image at the top of this post is 15% bigger than every released Aquarius cartridge combined.) I always dreamed of a way to save my programs, or get more software, or even get the cable to use a tape drive on my old machine. (And having had a tape drive for the C-64, this was a horrible experience, but still better than nothing.) Anyway, I now have a way to quickly load and save things, and easily trade them with the world.

    Speaking of programming, aside from being able to see what others are doing in BASIC or assembly, there are a couple of other additions. First, I finally have access to the elusive Extended BASIC cartridge that was unobtanium back in the day. Second, there is active development on an improved BASIC. But also, there’s a C SDK, which makes it super easy to write and compile C into executables. And it’s also cool (and weird) that I’ve got all this in Visual Studio Code, the modern IDE I use at my day job. And no more rubber keys!

    * * *

    Once I stumbled into the dev group, I cloned the git repo, and was astounded at everything all in one place. But what was more amazing is that they had a full-fledged emulator I could run on my Mac. After installing a couple of things, I was able to build it, and I was sitting at the Ok prompt of an aqua-colored 40×24 screen. I did a quick 10 print "hello" and loaded up a few games, and all was well. I also wrote a quick printf("hello\n"); in C, compiled it, and ran it in the emulator. Cool.

    I contributed some quick docs for Mac developers and picked around a bit more before I left for Poland. The emulator was cool, but I really needed the real thing. Luckily, I got in touch with Sean Harrington, who was building a bunch of units. In short order, I had a tracking number, then I had a package in the mail with serial number 15 of the Aquarius+!

    * * *

    First things first: I somehow don’t have a real VGA monitor anymore. Every flat screen in this house has been updated and upgraded multiple times since WFH started, and the d-shaped 15-pin connector I’ve been using since the 90s has gone the way of the dodo. I have this tiny monitor I use to debug broken systems, and I used that for a minute until I could get a VGA to HDMI converter.

    The ESP32 is a bit persnickety about the keyboard and joystick. I ended up picking up a twenty-dollar Cherry tenkeyless and the latest XBox controller, and with those three things and a USB power source, was able to boot up with no problems.

    It is really weird to be sitting at the workstation where I work and write every day with the screen being the computer I had almost 40 years ago. It’s even more strange to be at the BASIC prompt of an Aquarius with a real keyboard and an actual space bar. Of course the first thing I did was fire up the AD&D game.

    OK, the graphics are not that impressive here. Most things are drawn using custom graphics symbols or ASCII characters. But this game is still fun. Once again, weird to see this on my 32-inch 4K screen and control the game with the latest XBox controller instead of the weird little disc joystick thing. (There are ports for those if you happen to still have one.) But there’s like honest jump-scare action when you’re hopping around the dungeon and all of a sudden have a dragon in front of you hammering away with fireballs in your face.

    The amazing thing with this new machine is how well it integrates with 2023. For example, you run a little program to configure the machine, and it enables you to point it to your local Wi-Fi network. Okay, you won’t be browsing the web on this thing (yet?) but you enter a command and the machine will go to GitHub, pull the latest firmware, and install it for you, which is amazing. The machine also works as a WebDAV server so you can push files to the SD card. It’s also got a REST API so you can  push files, enter remote typing to the console, or update the firmware. (I don’t talk about my day job here, but I’m sort of familiar with APIs…)

    Anyway, I wish I had as much time to play with this as I did back in 1983, because I still have a million ideas in my head. How can I write a web browser? How do I get that text adventure game going? What about a micro lisp interpreter? That space war game still needs to be written. Working at a startup and having a mortgage is a bit different than summer vacation with nothing to do when I was 13. But I know C. All the docs are here. I’m done with grad school now. I’m looking forward to keep busy with this little thing.

  • Poland

    I went to Kraków, Poland a couple of weeks ago. And I don’t know why, but I absolutely have not been able to jot down any thoughts on it. Maybe it was because the trip was so quick. Maybe my plans were so haphazard. Or maybe it was such a lopsided trip, with a heavy event in the middle and a bunch of dumb stuff on either side.

    OK, here are some random thoughts:

    • SFO to Frankfurt to Krakow. I left Saturday night, spend four hours in Germany, ended up in Poland on Sunday night.
    • They named the airport after the Pope. They are really Catholic there. Really, really Catholic.
    • I stayed in the old town part of Krakow, in a ridiculously nice Hilton. The old town area looked like a Universal Studios backlot of a European city. Walking around at night was roughly as safe as walking in EPCOT center in the afternoon.
    • There was a pierogi place a block from the hotel and I ended up going there three times.
    • I went to this Galleria mall to buy a shirt for a formal dinner. It was the first time I’ve been to a mall since maybe Iceland. Totally uninterested. It sort of bothered me. So, that’s over.
    • Bailey was asking me every hour if I’d gotten kielbasa yet, so I went to some restaurant that I think was just called “kielbasa” and ordered a sampler platter. They brought out a platter for an entire basketball team, probably twelve pounds of meat, plus a loaf of bread, two salads, soups, pickles, and 17 other things. That broke me, and I skipped the food tour the next day because I could not deal.
    • I also went to some fancy foodie 9-course dinner, which was okay but not that inspired.
    • Went to Auschwitz. I can’t even write about this because it was so horrific and the whole thing is so politically charged. It was an incredibly heavy experience, and everyone should go.
    • I took this absurd tour of Nowa Huta, the old communist planned community built around the Lenin steel works. A guy dressed like a 90s chav showed up in a tiny Lada Niva car and acted like a Sacha Baron Cohen character. Seeing the old steel worker town was interesting, and it’s not terribly gentrified (yet).
    • I went to the aviation museum, which is one of the biggest in Europe. They had a ridiculous number of MiGs and other Soviet combat aircraft, at least two dozen. I think they had more MiG 21s next to each other than I’d ever seen at all other museums combined.
    • My flight out of Krakow left at 6am Saturday. Spent more time in Frankfurt, then landed in SFO at like 3pm.
    • Great trip, but way too short. I didn’t hit any museums, or the palace, or the salt mines. I also didn’t spent much time out of town. I feel like I could have easily spent another week here.

    Wasn’t terribly happy with my pics, but I’ll go through them eventually. (I still haven’t posted pictures from Denver, Stockholm, or Iceland, so this may take a bit.)

  • AI, writing books automatically

    I have complicated and conflicting thoughts about AI. On one hand, everyone in my industry won’t shut up about it. On the other hand, I think it means I have between three and seven years before my profession is completely obsolete. And spinning the numbers, I think I need about ten solid years at my current salary to retire.

    A few years ago, I read about how MLB was using some special software that could be fed a box score and a machine-readable database of statistics and spit out a human-readable narrative article summarizing the game. It would pepper the article with various factoids, slap in a stock photo, and you’d have a ready-for-web article to pull in traffic and SEO. When I saw this, I realized software documentation was not far behind. We’ve used tools like JavaDoc for decades to pull comments out of code and extrude a set of generated documentation. The next step is to spit out more conversational blog posts about a software product. That is either already happening or about to happen. But that’s work, and I don’t want to talk about work.

    As far as self-publishing is concerned, it seems the current arguments are all about AI artwork for covers. I’ve only vaguely messed with DALL-E and nothing I’ve ever gotten out of it looked like book cover-quality, or maybe I’m too picky. There’s question about where the source material comes from, etc etc. I have no real opinion on this, except I wouldn’t use it because it looks like garbage. That said, I wouldn’t pay someone a ton of money for a cover and hope it would magically boost my book sales. Any time I’ve paid more than zero for a book cover, I haven’t recouped my costs. But my books are horrible/I’m not a good marketer/whatever. Anyway.

    * * *

    Three takeaways on AI, at least for the moment. Bear with me.

    First, I think AI can be a useful tool for doing monotonous things, organization, or other busy work. I’ve forever wished that Scrivener had hooks to run AppleScript, or maybe had a REST API, so I could eventually write some useful tools for dumb stuff that could easily be done in AI. For example, I’d like to feed all of my writing into an LLM and then be able to write a paragraph and ask the AI “did I already write this?” because it happens constantly that I come up with some great idea and it turns out it was in a short story I published in 2006. It would also be great for things more advanced than a spell check, like looking at a story I just turned from first to third person and finding all the stuff that’s wrong. It would also be useful for things like feeding a thousand blog posts into it and having it add keywords to all of them.

    All of these are good tools, but I have no time to think through how to write them. And my second point is there are a lot of tools springing up, but we’re in the gold rush era where a lot of fly-by-night businesses are popping up with the word AI in their product, and every existing product is working on how they’re going to duct-tape AI on the side. And all the usual complications come up here: tools are half-baked, and don’t exactly do what you want, and won’t output text in the right way, and steal your data, and have some scammy freemium model, and think asking for fifty bucks a month is totally fine even thought two dozen things an hour all think it’s totally fine if they also charge you fifty bucks etc etc etc. Most of these companies will vanish in six months, maybe along with your data. And the big problem with this is the same problem I have with mind map software or outline software or note-taking software: I could spend all day every day in decision paralysis with these tools that do maybe 47% of what I want but not everything I want. Or I could just write.

    * * *

    The third thing, which is a big one, is that there’s this debate on if these things can write fiction, and people feed things into ChatGPT and ask it to write a poem about Barbie just like Emily Dickinson or whatever. Some of these are marginally impressive, but I’m not convinced. It seems like this is more of a parlor trick, and not really effective for creative writing.

    I think writing will end up seeing a reaction similar to what happened when photography was invented. Portrait painting was essentially democratized and the art form basically destroyed, as anyone could sit down for a photograph. And Romanticist and Neoclassical painting fell out of favor, styles that were dependent on highly realistic painting.

    What happened was that Impressionism suddenly appeared. Painting traded fine detail for the exploration of capture or representation of movement in a scene. The idea of realistic detail was gone; instead of the capture of fixed images like any camera could do, it focused on giving up detail and looked into different representations of color or light. I’m not an art historian and I’m leaving a lot out of this description, but the gist here is that one thing Impressionists were thinking about is what they could do on canvas that a camera couldn’t do on a silver plate.

    The next step beyond that was modern art, which decided to completely question what was art and what rules applied. There’s way too much history to capture this in a paragraph or two, but the general idea is that artists started finding ways to turn inward and attempt to express feelings and emotions and capture them in medium that was entirely not photorealistic. Instead of using a picture to evoke the actual details captured, it used it to evoke a mood or an idea.

    The thought here is that artists at the turn of the 20th century saw that portraiture was obsolete, so they moved on to something cameras couldn’t do. Is that what’s next for writers?

    * * *

    So I’ve been screwing around with ChatGPT, using it to write summaries of books. It’s very good at this when it knows about the book. There’s a danger here: people write unique summaries for optimal SEO and store rankings, and pretty soon, everyone’s going to be writing absolutely identical book summaries, which is totally going to break SEO. This will become more and more weaponized, and the race to the bottom will continue on that.

    Anyway, I asked ChatGPT to write a summary of my last book, The Failure Cascade. It wrote a well-formed and very convincing summary, but it was not at all for the book I wrote. However, the plot was very interesting, at least for a conventional linear “straight” book.

    This made me wonder: where was it getting this plot? Did it have some cookie-cutter set of twenty book plots and it would mad-lib in a few things to make it look unique? Or was I reading a lightly retouched plot from a 1987 book by J.G. Ballard that I’d forgotten about or never read? My first thought was to steal this plot wholesale and start beating an outline and writing chunks. But I quickly decided nope, bad idea.

    Fast-forward to this weekend, and I see an ad for this writing tool that offers to use AI to punch up outlines and brainstorm and make it super easy to “write” a book. (I won’t mention it by name, because I don’t want to get into it with them.)

    So, I got a trial account. It started with a brain dump box, where I would enter my loose ideas. I pasted in the aforementioned book summary. It then wanted me to enter a genre, so I put “post-modern apocalyptic, bleak.”

    It then wanted to determine a writing style, so I pasted in about a thousand words of the unpublished Atmospheres 2 manuscript. It chewed away for a moment, and it spit this out:

    First-person, past tense. Sarcastic and cynical tone with informal vocabulary. Vivid and descriptive language, slow pacing, grotesque imagery. Reflects poverty, desperation, and decay in contemporary America.

    OK, fair enough. I then had it generate a synopsis, a character list, and a chapter-by-chapter summary. The synopsis was a seven-paragraph thing and looked okay. The character list: okay, I guess.

    The summary was five acts, nineteen chapters. It was radically formulaic, and each chapter was labeled something like “Rising Tension” or “All is Lost” or whatever Save the Cat-ism was needed at that point. The outline was not horrible, but it was so formulaic, it reminded me of like a Marvel movie totally written by committee.

    I then told it to get started on the first chapter. It first broke out the three-sentence summary of the chapter into 19 beats. I then clicked the next button and it churned away and wrote the 3500 words of the first chapter.

    The writing – the actual prose – absolutely horrific. I didn’t expect it to be like my writing, but it was amazingly bad. Stuff like:

    “Jim,” Laura’s voice cracked as she stumbled over a charred piece of wood. “Do you think it’s always going to be like this?”


    “Like what?” I replied, sarcasm dripping from my words like acid. “Hell on earth? Probably.”

    The thing is – the writing was horrible, on like an eighth-grade level of wooden. But I think like 90% of the self-published Kindle genre page-turners I’ve read for five minutes and then deleted were about like this.

    I went to generate chapter two, and I was out of coins or stars or tokens or whatever magic beans it used, and it wanted a credit card. Nope, the experiment ended for me.

    I think my takeaway with this is that this tool might be good for generating a formulaic outline. And it would be great for dumping out extremely predictable Kindle dreck. Start with a good series bible, get a decent cover artist, and write your next dozen detective murder mystery books with ease. I guess this is great if you like that kind of book. Maybe not great if you spend a lot of time and make all your money writing this kind of book.

    This type of tool is currently useless for writing anything expressionist or experimental. And as I look for a direction to go with my writing, it’s evident that I should be going in the exact opposite direction of genre fiction, and do things that absolutely couldn’t be done by an AI. Right?

  • Sweden (2022)

    [OK, so, this was a year ago. And I never finished writing it, really. This is mostly a scoop of the daily emails I sent John as it was happening. For various reasons, I never did a full write-up and I didn’t post a set of pictures. I wasn’t happy with the trip, maybe because of other stuff going on then. I wrote maybe five paragraphs about it a month after the fact, and a few pictures went to Instagram, but that’s it.

    Here’s what I did finish. I’ll clean it up a bit, but it isn’t complete. This is just for completeness, and to clear out my queue. -J]

    Hello from Stockholm. Actually, hello from 40,000 feet over Iceland, where I’m a couple of hours into a ten-hour flight back from a week in Sweden. I usually write these trip reports while I’m still in town, but I didn’t have time. And now I’ve got nothing but time, so here goes.

    This has been a weird trip. I had to take this week off, based on my work schedule, because if I didn’t take vacation, I wouldn’t get another chance until October. Last year, the same thing happened, and I drove down to LA for a week, to try and write and to see old ghosts. Now, I’m not writing, and didn’t want the nostalgia. And I wanted to leave the country. I hit Expedia and tried to find what cities were a direct long-haul flight from SFO. I’ve already done Amsterdam and Frankfurt. London, too. Dublin was a thought. Dubai was way too expensive. Zero interest in Paris. I think Copenhagen and maybe Zurich were on the list, but neither clicked with me. Then I ran the numbers on Sweden, and gave it a think.

    I’ve had some interest in Sweden forever. Back when I was writing about death metal, Sweden was pretty much the home of the genre (although there were a lot of artists from Tampa, and some in California, too). At the start of the first wave of death metal in 1991 and 1992, I interviewed a lot of bands, traded tapes through the mail, and knew maybe a half-dozen bands from Stockholm. I didn’t know if the youths into extreme metal were at all representative of the country as a whole. I guessed not; it was probably similar to the outcasts in the metal scene in the US being an example of American society as a whole, which they very much were not. So Sweden’s always been in the back of my head. And I like Germany, and Sweden seemed to have some similarities, as far as a strong economy, progressive society, and old history. So, why not visit?

    I got a good deal on the flight and the hotel, then promptly forgot all about the trip, too busy with work and school to do any planning. I bought the Rick Steeves book, but didn’t even look at it. Right before the trip, I googled a few basic things, but not much more. I had a wide open plan. Famous last words.

    * * *


    The flight out was okay, although I slept maybe four hours the night before, woke up way too early, and worked on a paper as I waited for my 0500 departure. I drove to SFO, dumped my car there, and took a short flight to LAX. Ate some lunch at 0900 and then got in the big plane to jump across the top of the globe and back down. I can’t sleep on a plane, so I paid €25 for the spotty Wi-Fi and bothered people online during the whole flight. I ended up landing at Arlanda airport the next morning, effectively losing a day. That’s when the fun began.

    First, I waited an hour for luggage. The airport is almost minimalist and has nothing in it. It’s not like there’s a Cinnabon and McDonald’s every ten feet, because the idea of making people eat five thousand calories an hour to maximize shareholder value just hasn’t come up yet. Coca-Cola is sold in a ten-ml bottle. Why would someone want a gallon of it in one sitting? Everyone smokes, though. Later that day, I saw an 80-year-old woman on a bicycle, smoking.

    After I got my luggage, I took the Arlanda Express to the city. This is a bullet train that goes 125 MPH and gets you from the airport to downtown Stockholm in about 17 minutes. Everything about that was cool, and the train itself was as clean as a Disney monorail in Japan.

    I got to the hotel and had six hours to kill, which was just swell because I smelled like a homeless person and felt like my face was covered in KFC. Dropped off my bags and started walking, just the camera backpack and the big gun out, the Canon 5DS with a giant L lens on it. On the surface, Stockholm’s a 16th-century Euro city that’s never seen war and has been thoroughly modernized from a good economy. But as I walked around, a few things were apparent. First, it was Sunday morning, so everything was closed. Second, the city’s been sort of locked down to stop the homeless situation. It’s not as apparent as the anti-homeless stuff you see in cities in the US, but you can’t find a public toilet anywhere, or a place to sit down for a while and relax. It feels very safe and sanitized, but cold.

    The people – also a bit cold. I thought everyone spoke English here. Well they do, but not by default. Everything is in Swedish. Signs are all Swedish. Everyone speaks Swedish. Everyone speaks Swedish to me. I don’t know if it’s my looks, or that I’m not in a big pack of people so they assume I’m not a tourist, but in restaurants and such, people are just rapid-fire blasting Swedish at me and I cannot parse it at all. It sounds goofy, like the Swedish chef or some Monty Python skit, and I am just sitting there going “yeah! sure! coca-cola!” or whatever, hoping they will eventually realize I am the stupid American and switch to dumb-people language. People are somewhat cold and standoffish. Well, not somewhat – totally. I’m hoping if I go to a few record stores, the people will talk metal or jazz and calm down a bit. [They didn’t.] Otherwise, this trip is going to be just museums, long walks, and school.

    The bathroom situation – there are pay toilets, but I had no coins and no money. And no banks were open. I eventually found a small urban mall and went to the Ikea (of course) which had futuristic pay toilets that took credit cards. A swipe of the plastic gave me access to a little cubicle toilet that was spotless and played bird/nature sounds. It was bizarre. It turns out everything in Sweden takes cards and the thousand bucks of US cash I brought with me was useless for the trip.

    I ended up at a fake British pub in a mall, eating far too much Swedish charcuterie that tasted all salty and bizarre and took an hour to show up. Reading memes. Wondering what the fuck was going on. Went to take a piss and the bathroom was about three feet by three feet with a trio of the low-hanging pissers with no walls. A guy who looked like Jethro Tull’s roadie was in there, and immediately launched into “blorgenforgen slusvshen fiergon sclurben!” and I was like yeah I’ll wait outside.

    After six hours of walking, I checked in at the joint. Hotel was okay, and I took my much-needed shower. Blacked out for an hour, had no idea what century I was in. Went walking and looked for dinner. I was in a weird area where there are a lot of offices and everything is either lunch places you go to drink and be seen, or places you grab a sandwich and go back to the office. It’s all closed by five. I walked for two hours and ended up back at the 7-Eleven and scored a pre-made salad and some ice cream. Ended up walking twelve miles for the day.

    I am not awake. The time difference is fucking me. Last night I would sleep three hours, wake up, start texting people in the middle of their day, sleep two hours, etc. I probably need to get out and walk a bit after it warms up, find a museum or something.

    More pictures later. I have not sorted everything. The sun is really weird at this latitude, and you’d think with the long days you would have tons of light, but what it means is you have like ten seconds of perfect light, and really long shadows for the rest of it. I’ll figure it out. Or not.

    * * *


    Exhausted. Can’t nap. I was up until 2 belting out a paper, then I think I woke up at about 730. I got the paper done though. If it goes through, that’s another class over.
    Yesterday was a bit of a non-day. I walked to this shopping district about twenty minutes south, because there is this record store called Sound Pollution that is infamous with the death metal scene. Small place, half the size of my apartment, and I got there when it opened, so it was largely empty. The guy working there just looked like a straight older gentleman, not the long-haired metalhead I expected. Most of the stock was new and not collectible/old, but they did have a wide range of things. I’m completely out of this scene and just listen to the same dozen albums from the early 90s, and Swedish people won’t chat, so I was a bit overwhelmed shopping, Texted Ray, who was still awake, and I tried to confirm rarity on a few records. Bought a few things, but I have no way of playing them, so that’s cute.

    Saw a TGI Friday, which was empty. I was tempted, because I could sit down, eat fried food, and maybe get a Coke bigger than a thimble. I went down a side street and found an OG Swedish restaurant, the kind with the antlers on the ceiling and the look of a Scandinavian hunting lodge. Lots of bizarre game meats and whatnot. When in Rome. I ordered a reindeer meatball plate, with the lingonberries and the potatoes pressed into a ring. Some kind of cream sauce, the usual. Not bad, but I also got a slice of Swedish chocolate cake, which was like 5000 calories and I barely stumbled home.

    Alternated between unconsciousness and doom-scrolling on my phone. All of my ads online were turning Swedish, and so were my Google search results. Also I’m used to scheduled ads and news stories breaking during the day, Then I went to a Burger King next door, because I had to force myself to eat at 5:00 or it would suddenly be midnight with everything closed. No cash registers – just big touchscreens and card readers. I got some weird chimichurri burger. Got back here and burned the evening on that stupid paper.

    Not sure what I am doing today, but I need to get out of the room now. I feel like I’ve walked too much right in this central area and need to get out. I also don’t feel like I’ve taken a decent picture yet. I should try harder today.

    * * *


    Trying to get rolling. I slept almost 8 hours last night, albeit in two shifts. I really can’t hack the sleep situation, and will probably get used to it the day before I have to flip back 9 hours again.

    Yesterday I took the subway out to the big Westfield mall in the suburbs. The train was immaculate. You could do open-heart surgery on the floor. Perfectly clean, no distractions, no problems, and it also seems like I have a perfect five bars of 5G everywhere in this country, even when underground. Subway stations are absolutely surreal, giant caves blasted deep underground like a Star Wars base, painted up like modern art masterpieces. The mall was insane. Built in 2015. 1.1 million square feet. Three floors. Zero vacancies. Two full grocery stores. Maybe 250 stores. No anchors, but it had inline stores that were as big as a typical Macy’s in the US. Busy on a Tuesday afternoon, probably about as crowded as a Saturday at a good mall in California. So that was cool. It also involved about 15 minutes of walk each way through a suburb that was very Swedish, or reminded me of when I was in Nuremberg walking in the suburbs. Lots of very clean and modern flats in ten-story towers, mixed in with old chalet-looking houses.

    Slept in the afternoon. The time difference is getting very depressing, re keeping up with friends online. I wake up, and they’re about to go to bed. I top to check my phone during lunch, and everyone’s asleep. I go to bed during their afternoon. Etc.

    Went walking last night, and on a goof, I went to Pizza Hut for dinner. It was more of a sit down place like a bar or bistro, with EDM music playing and beer on tap. I got a personal pan pizza and it tasted identical to one I’d get in the US. THey had a bunch of weird stuff on the menu, but I didn’t want to fuck things up.

    Meanwhile, I have been here four days and still haven’t seen a cop. No homeless encampments. No litter. No drama. Things just work. Too bad the people are so eh.

    I think I’m hiking over to that Vasa ship museum if I can wake up. Everyone told me to go to it, so I guess I will.

    * * *


    I’m at the point in a solo trip – always happens around day 5 – when the depression becomes overwhelming. I’ve done everything and I’m sick of all of it, and looking forward to the dread of having to pack it all up and wake up at 3am for the flight back.

    I went to see the Vasa yesterday. Big warship from the 1600s, where the king built it as the pride of the fleet even though everyone said it was an idiotic idea, and then the fucking thing sank before it cleared the harbor on its maiden voyage. They found it and raised it in the 60s, restored it, and now it’s indoors. It’s interesting to see, but I had no patience to walk around reading all the displays about what kind of food sailors ate in 1632 or whatever the fuck. I went next door to the viking museum, and that was even more of a bust. It’s a place not much bigger than my apartment, where you walk around looking at various plaques and timelines, with the occasional sword or hand-woven blanket. Then, gift shop. People here are ga-ga about the viking thing, the way people from South Boston are hung up about Irish heritage and won’t shut up about Guinness. Saw a few guys with their arms covered with rune tattoos pawing through all the books and fake swords in the guest shop, and realized this whole thing wasn’t for me.

    Was just looking at the import from yesterday and this 5ds camera is not great. It’s too heavy, and the high-mp sensor means it’s impossible to get good shots that aren’t blurry unless you’re on a tripod. Absolutely not the camera for walking around. I am almost tempted to trade it back in when I get home, maybe get a small mirrorless for the next trip.

    No idea what I am doing today, but I really need a long walk. At least I’m getting in my steps. But I’m thoroughly sick of the area right around the hotel, and I’m too lazy to take a long train ride out to nature or whatever.

    That paper went through, so another class is done. I’m now at 64% completion. The remaining three classes are all ball-busters, and no more papers. And then the capstone. I am 60% confident I can finish by the end of November, but it all depends on how fast I can finish this finance class. I watched an hour of the omnibus video, and it’s all more or less stuff I know already from accounting. Famous last words.

    I have that 8am flight and I just got an email from Finnair saying to get there 3.5 hours early due to them not knowing how to run an airport here. It’s a 30-minute train ride away. So Saturday is going to be fun.

    * * *


    More no sleep last night. I sleep like two or three hours, then wake up and spent a couple hours doom-scrolling, then maybe sleep a few more hours. I am delirious today.

    Yesterday was a lot of long walks. I went to this record store district to poke around, and there were a lot of cool stores, but I don’t buy vinyl, and when I want to listen to something like Miles Davis, I usually just type “Miles Davis” into Apple Music, listen to it for five minutes, and then I’m bored of it. No need to spend $300 on some special mono-mix obscure European pressing.

    I went to this mall that wasn’t really a mall – the name “Gallerian” means two things, and one is the situation where you have a dozen of stores and a grocery in the first floor of an office building. (Sorry, the “E” floor. The first floor is on the second floor.) Anyway, I bought a coke zero from a coffee place, sat down in the chairs in front of it, and two minutes later, a security guard comes up and starts yelling at me in rapid-fire Swedish. I guess you can’t drink in a mall, even though they sell drinks and have chairs and tables in front of the place selling the drinks? OK whatever. They do not fuck around here.

    No museums. Sick of museums. Not sure what I want to do today. I’m so sick of this camera, and just realized new Canon gear is about 10% cheaper here, although maybe they have some insane sales tax. Part of me wants to pick up a Canon 6Dii just to get something that works more like my Rebel as far as metering and program mode. I swear the best pictures I’ve taken on this trip are with my phone.

    Some big clusterfuck with checking in to my flight this morning. I had to call Finnair and get them to walk me through it. I think I’m checked in, but who the fuck knows. I fully expect them to say I forgot to file my 824794-D22 or whatever, and I’ll have to wait in line for three hours. I also forgot that I have four hours in LAX this time. And when I land, I still have to drive home from SFO, during rush hour, on no sleep.

    I haven’t even started the return-to-work dread yet, but I’ll probably get to that later.

    I have spent very little money on this trip. I have a thousand dollars in twenties in my computer bag, and it turns out Sweden is 100% cashless, so that was a wasted effort. And I still have cash from my early 2020 Vegas trip in my wallet, so I have no idea what to do with that when I get back.

    * * *


    On the plane on the big hop west. We just got our little omelette patty kit and I ate that in three seconds. I woke up hourly last night, sort of got 6 hours in, but they turned the dining room into a disco on Fridays, the most annoying hotel trend ever. So I heard the boom-boom-boom until about the time I woke up, which was 0300. Showered, packed, and got to a 0435 bullet train to the airport. About an hour of lines and nonsense and I got to the gate. We left maybe a half hour late. I’m back in the window seat, with slow internet and 9:26 remaining. Then a four hour layover (but I have to clear customs) and a short hop to SFO. I will get my car out of long term parking just in time to hit Giants traffic.

    Did absolutely nothing yesterday. Walked ten miles and took a bunch of pictures, but nothing phenomenal. Ate dinner at McDonald’s and it was largely identical to what I remember a quarter pounder to be from the last time I had one. And they call them a Quarter Pounder in Europe. Sorry, Quentin Tarantino.

    * * *


    I’m back. What a brutal fucking trip home. No sleep, of course. When I got to LA, I cleared customs very fast. They asked if I had any food, and I said no, and they stamped my thing, next. Not even the token “welcome to America.” There was this whole clusterfuck of a maze to get through for the connecting flight, getting my checked bag and moving it out of security to another place, then going back through security again. LAX has terminals that are by letter, number, and gate number, and I don’t know the taxonomy, but you have to actually leave the building to move between them. When I got to terminal 5 with four hours to spare, I asked the TSA agent if there was food in there, and she said sure. I got in, and there was a See’s candy, a news stand that was out of water, and some salad place that had one person working and the line was immobile. Absolutely no place to sit down, and it was one of those environmental air conditioning things where it was 90 out, so they air condition down to 87.

    I said fuck it, left the secure area, found a cabbie, and told him to take me to the Taco Bell by my old house in Playa. I was going to play nice and say “let’s go through the drive-through and I’ll buy you lunch” but the guy was an old russian dude who looked like Boris Yeltsin and had no idea what I was talking about. I went inside and the service was so slow, I thought I was still in Sweden. Sat in the dining room and inhaled my stuff. A guy came up to me in a winter coat – not a good sign – and asked for some money to buy chicken because he hadn’t eaten in two days. My Ugly American “go fuck yourself” system wasn’t turned on, so I gave him ten bucks. He proceeded to bolt and not get any food. Welcome to America.

    Took an Uber back to the airport, and by that point, I’d completely hit the wall. I just wanted to get on the plane before I blacked out, which I did. Woke up just in time for landing, and then I forgot that SFO from the local gates to the baggage claim to the parking garage is literally a five-mile hike. I then could not find my car, even though I had a GPS-tagged photo of it with the sign number in front of it. I hit 101 just as Giants/Pirates traffic was piling up and it took an hour to get home. I think I made it until about 7:30 then blacked out. Back up at 3.

    The Apple Watch measures each hour you stand every minute, with my usual goal being 12 hours a day. Yesterday, because of the time change, it registered 28 hours for the day. Nice.