Icky Thump

I once told this girl in a bar that I was sav­ing the White Stripes’ final album, 2007’s Icky Thump, to lis­ten to at some point in the future just so I could have the plea­sure of lis­ten­ing to a new White Stripes album when there were no new ones. This was a bunch of years ago, it was true, and she said she was impressed with my self-control.

Late last year I found myself in the dri­ver’s seat in Texas late at night with a long way to go. By then I had bought the album and kept a copy stored up in the cloud, always avail­able but nev­er played and just kind of hang­ing out. I had avoid­ed even mere­ly read­ing reviews for almost a decade, but these unfa­mil­iar roads kin­da seemed like the right time, and this night the right place to pull Icky Thump down from the sky and out through the rental car speakers.

You know, I’ve got this playlist for songs that are not nec­es­sar­i­ly great, but when I first heard them made me go “whoa—what world did this thing come from?” (The playlist is actu­al­ly, lit­er­al­ly, titled “What world…?”) Ramm­stein, Goril­laz, Eminem, Black Flag, Mind­less Self Indul­gence, and a few oth­ers, have a track apiece on the playlist. None of the songs have that effect on me any­more, but every track was once mind-melting stuff.

Would adding an entire album be vio­lat­ing the spir­it of the playlist?

Can’t take much more of this

I was in the back­seat of a car maybe a month ago when the new X‑Files (2016) came up. None of us had heard whether the series was com­ing back for a per­ma­nent run or what. Some­one looked it up on their phone and found it would only be six episodes.

Oh, thank good­ness,” I sighed.

My response baf­fled the front-seat occu­pants, one of whom asked what I had against the The X‑Files. I explained bad­ly, as I often do on the spot, how age has shown me that more isn’t always bet­ter, and my already loaded media diet means I just don’t have time or ener­gy for that much new stuff.1 Few­er episodes equals better.

A lot of times I’d rather appeal­ing stuff just not exist than have to exert the willpow­er need­ed to not to care about it. Everett today is thank­ful Sein­feld quit ear­ly. Everett today was pissed when 99% Invis­i­ble went week­ly. Everett sighed and stared out the win­dow at the news of Blade Run­ner 2. Everett is way too good at find­ing stuff he cares about, and real­ly bad at ignor­ing stuff that sounds like it might be cool.

Tom Chan­dler has this prob­lem with pod­casts. I, um, also have this prob­lem with podcasts.

(P.S. If you’re David Lynch, make all the new Twin Peaks you want. I’ll accommodate.)

  1. I want­ed to add, but did­n’t, that I always thought Milen­ni­um was bet­ter than The X‑Files, because that would just con­fuse them and might make them think I real­ly did secret­ly hate The X‑Files but would­n’t own up to it. I’m get­ting bet­ter about stay­ing focused while talk­ing, keep­ing the extra­ne­ous details I’m just dying to share to myself.

Is this going to be forever?

Let’s talk about me.

Super Smash Bros. Melee was­n’t released at a very good time for me. I was in col­lege, away from home and most of my gam­ing friends. Also, it was released for the Nin­ten­do Game­Cube, which his­to­ry has shown us was­n’t a ter­ri­bly suc­cess­ful con­sole. In fact, I don’t think any of my clos­est friends back then owned a GameCube.

But because I know peo­ple who know peo­ple, there was a hand­ful of oppor­tu­ni­ties to play Melee over the next few years.

I’d be at peo­ple’s hous­es and find mostly-young, mostly-male groups gath­ered around the TV trad­ing smash attacks between sig­na­ture Nin­ten­do char­ac­ters in the most won­der­ful­ly whim­si­cal car­toon fight­ing game imag­in­able. Mor­tal Kom­bat this is not. Up to four play­ers at a time would spend a few min­utes at a time bat­tling Links, Mar­ios, Kir­bys, Pikachus1 (and many oth­ers) in lev­els pulled from famil­iar Nin­ten­do games. They’d be talk­ing trash and throw­ing flow­ers and bombs and base­ball bats at each oth­er… much as my clos­est friends and I had spent lit­er­al­ly hun­dreds of hours doing a few years ear­li­er in the Nin­ten­do 64 Super Smash Bros., the orig­i­nal game in the series.

smash-bros-melee2001’s Melee, how­ev­er, was a very dif­fer­ent beast from ‘64,’ and is still held in high regard by many, and still a tournament-favorite — despite new install­ments of the series being released in 2008 and 2014.

Gosh, I’ve always hat­ed Melee.

Even today it’s still the fastest-paced and most bru­tal game of the series — the speed each game runs at is a design deci­sion made by the devel­op­ers — but Melee felt espe­cial­ly amped-up com­ing from the down­right glacially-paced 64, even today still the slowest-paced game in the series. That alone made it tough to get into Melee—imag­ine pick­ing up the con­troller and being mer­ci­less­ly pound­ed by up to three oth­er play­ers (who prob­a­bly play this all damn day), while you strug­gle to fig­ure out how to not acci­den­tal­ly fall off the edge of the level.

Seri­ous­ly you guys, when you’re ready to play a real game, I’ll kick your ass with Link in 64!” is a thing I prob­a­bly said every time I played Melee.

Speed was one prob­lem for me in Melee, but my oth­er one was the Game­Cube con­troller. Yeah, I know: the design is still held up as one of the best con­trollers ever, believed by many to rep­re­sent Nin­ten­do at their peak, right before their Wii-era fol­ly of appeal­ing to the dread­ed “casu­al” mar­ket with the waggle-motion-centric Wiimote. The clas­sic Game­Cube con­troller is still sup­port­ed in new­er Smash titles, and is still the choice among the hard­core Smash crowd… despite the half-dozen oth­er con­troller options that are also sup­port­ed at this point. How could I pos­si­bly not see what an amaz­ing gift Nin­ten­do had bestowed upon us with the Game­Cube controller?

gamecube-controller-smash-brosYeah, so I nev­er real­ly “got” the Game­Cube con­troller. I nev­er learned how to effec­tive­ly use the soft ana­log ‘shoul­der’ but­tons, nev­er became com­fy with the lay­out of the right-side ‘fire’ but­tons (X, Y, A, B) — the real meat of any con­troller. Com­ing from 64, I knew what the C‑stick was for, but it just was­n’t the same as the four yel­low but­tons of old. And I’m sor­ry, but the Z but­ton is just wrong—it goes on the bot­tom, you jerks.

With a decade-plus of hind­sight, it’s clear now that my prob­lems with Super Smash Bros. Melee, and with the Game­Cube con­troller in gen­er­al, were most­ly due to a lack of famil­iar­i­ty. I did­n’t have the chance to spend time alone learn­ing Melee at my own pace… or bar­ring that, hav­ing hours upon hours to spend com­pet­ing with close friends to sharp­en my skills, like I did in high school. And I’ve always felt a lit­tle hand­i­capped when it comes to pick­ing up steam at new games that favor play­ers with, you know, reflex­es. I did­n’t real­ly grow up with games at home when I was young — I def­i­nite­ly missed a lot of the for­ma­tive stuff that oth­er 1980s babies grew up on.

Any­way, although I essen­tial­ly sat out the entire Game­Cube era, busy with col­lege and oth­er life stuff, my inter­est in gam­ing was rein­vig­o­rat­ed with the release of the Nin­ten­do DS and lat­er the Wii. (Yes seri­ous­ly, the Wii.2) When the Wii-era Smash game, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, came out a cou­ple of years lat­er, there was no stop­ping me from pick­ing it up.

I enjoyed Brawl and played a lot of it. Hav­ing my own copy at home put me in a good posi­tion to get fair­ly good at it. It was very dif­fer­ent from 64—way more char­ac­ters and way more every­thing — and as a lot of the hard­core com­plain, way, way dif­fer­ent than Melee. “It’s so slow!” “It’s for noobs!” What­ev­er; the slow­er pace and the not-GameCube con­trols are prob­a­bly what I liked most about Brawl. Thank good­ness they cor­rect­ed their Melee mis­step, I thought.

My new­found enthu­si­asm for con­sole gam­ing died down a few years lat­er. I haven’t real­ly been keep­ing up with the new Nin­ten­do Wii U or 3DS stuff at all. But my orig­i­nal Wii remains below the TV, and I turn it on every cou­ple of months, usu­al­ly to play an old-timey 8- or 16-bit clas­sic.3

Some­thing hap­pened last week. An Ars Tech­ni­ca arti­cle about com­pet­i­tive Smash, and the endur­ing tour­na­ment lega­cy of Melee, showed up in my RSS. Before I had even fin­ished the arti­cle, I’d already been to Ama­zon and ‘Prime’d myself a Game­Cube con­troller and mem­o­ry card… and an over­priced used copy of Super Smash Bros. Melee.

My girl­friend was going to be out of town for the rest of the week. The time was right to dive in headfirst.

What hap­pened to me?

Look, I devel­oped this atti­tude as I grew clos­er to 30 a few years back. It goes a lit­tle like this:

So… is that it? Is this real­ly how it’s gonna be for the rest of your life?

As I read the Ars arti­cle through these attitude-tinted lens­es, I decid­ed that my hat­ing Melee was based on shaky rea­son­ing at best. The way I felt about it after my few tries may have been a gen­uine and rea­son­able reac­tion to get­ting pum­meled while flail­ing use­less­ly with this weird-ass con­troller, but let’s be hon­est: I nev­er gave the game a fair shot.

That, paired with the fact that Melee’s still so wide­ly held in such high regard almost 14 years lat­er — it’s def­i­nite­ly not just mind­less fan­boys trum­pet­ing the new hot thing — made me think hey-why-not? I essen­tial­ly have a Game­Cube just sit­ting there — it’s actu­al­ly built into the hard­ware of the orig­i­nal Wii.

A cou­ple of days lat­er, my lit­tle care pack­age from the past arrived. Pre­dictably, I still fuck­ing suck.

But I think it’s going to be fun this time.

  1. By the way — just sayin’ — f Pikachu.
  2. The con­sole was cheap enough, the motion con­trols seemed inter­est­ing enough, and the poten­tial for amaz­ing first-party Nin­ten­do games (Mario, Zel­da, etc.) made me take the plunge. I camped out on release night in 2006. Also, I had a job, some mon­ey, etc. And despite the tons of shov­el­ware, there were more than enough good Wii games.
  3. There’s a good chance it’s Dusty Dia­mond’s All-Star Soft­ball. Got­ta stay sharp.

Compromise and Nexus 5: a review

I know a thing or two about com­pro­mise — I bought a Nexus 5 a few months ago. It’s not the phone I want, but it’ll do. For now.

It’s been years since I bought some­thing that was­n’t the lat­est and great­est Nexus mod­el, but this time I think it was the right call. Like oth­er Android fans, I await­ed the announce­ment of the Nexus 6 with every bit as much excite­ment as the entire world does when it’s new-iPhone-time. (Yes, this is a thing peo­ple actu­al­ly do for Nexus devices.)

I found myself utter­ly under­whelmed by Nexus 6. Price, size, bor­ing, etc. But I knew I need­ed a new phone, so I imme­di­ate­ly ordered the fan-favorite Nexus 5.

It’s fast. My Galaxy Nexus — a phone from 2011 — did­n’t seem that slow, even towards the end, but I’m blown away at how flu­id­ly this thing runs just about every­thing. (That’s prob­a­bly the extra RAM talk­ing.) Anoth­er RAM-based plus is that it’s awe­some to switch between apps — and even brows­er tabs — with­out my see­ing per­sis­tent back­ground process­es dying and restart­ing. I could have avoid­ed this frus­tra­tion by sim­ply doing less with my device, but why would I?

Hav­ing 32 GB of stor­age should­n’t be such a big deal in 2015, but after deal­ing with two phones that maxed out at 16-ridiculous-gigabytes, it feels amaz­ing to not have to think about space, at least for now. Of course it’s still only 32 GB, so I’m not sig­nif­i­cant­ly chang­ing the way I use the device to make use of the extra space.

Ick: I find it a lit­tle hard to believe that I own a phone with a not-user-swappable bat­tery.1 After all, I thought that I object to these on prin­ci­ple. In the end, sigh, the Nexus plus­es won out over the oth­er devices I con­sid­ered. But I feel as if the device comes with a built-in expi­ra­tion date.

Speak­ing of pow­er, I did­n’t expect to pick up a wire­less Qi charg­er for this phone, but I did. (Um, two, actu­al­ly — cheap ones.) I love it. Wire­less charg­ing is not only the future of mobile devices, but for those on the Android side of the prover­bial aisle, it’s the present.

Well, no shit there’s no phys­i­cal key­board. I imme­di­ate­ly missed hav­ing one when I got my first candybar-style device in 2010. You’re get­ting on well with tap­ping, swip­ing, voice, auto­cor­rect, what­ev­er? That’s won­der­ful and I’m so hap­py for you. I miss hav­ing a real key­board no less today than I did four years ago.

Months after its gen­er­al avail­abil­i­ty, I’m still con­tin­u­ing to hold off on apply­ing the Nexus 5 Lol­lipop upgrade. The same UI flash that got Apple-enamored design blog­gers sali­vat­ing actu­al­ly sad­dens me. Exact­ly why is prob­a­bly worth a ded­i­cat­ed post, but after months of using Lol­lipop on sec­ondary devices, I still can’t see myself putting it on my pri­ma­ry phone (read: the only device that mat­ters to me).

Nexus 5 feels like more of a stop­gap than any­thing else… at least it was pret­ty inex­pen­sive. It’s clear that the world isn’t turn­ing back to the good stuff from the past (top want: badass Sidekick-style slid­er) but there is hope for the future — Nexus 5 just needs to last me until Project Ara is a thing I can actu­al­ly use.

Some­one will make an Ara key­board mod­ule. I can feel it in my hands now.

  1. I know. There are dis­as­sem­bly guides that show you how to crack open the phone and replace the bat­tery. But that is not the same as hav­ing a tru­ly remov­able bat­tery. For one thing, I can’t just casu­al­ly car­ry a sec­ond bat­tery to pop in for an instant top-up. And also, I imag­ine this com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor lim­its the mar­ket demand for replace­ment bat­ter­ies, which I fear will lim­it the bat­tery sup­ply when, down the road, the day comes that I final­ly need a replace­ment. Sealed phones are a shit­ty, dis­re­spect­ful design deci­sion by which this dude can­not abide.

Slick, sleek & slimy

I have fond mem­o­ries, though my cho­les­terol lev­el does not, of eat­ing at D’Best Sand­wich Shop in Boca Raton. It’s been a few years, but as I  recent­ly munched on a Mia­mi Cuban-style cheeses­teak1 my mind start­ed wan­der­ing and I got to won­der­ing if D’Best still exist­ed. As I went look­ing for their web­site, I recalled a few of their region­al twists on the cheeses­teak, like the New York style, a New Jer­sey style… not to men­tion their incred­i­ble non-steak explo­sion of an entire Thanks­giv­ing meal direct­ly onto a bun (D’Pil­grim).

D’Best still exists, alright… but I was tru­ly unpre­pared for what I found.

You see, back when I’d vis­it, D’Best-the-subshop was a place you’d leave coat­ed with a thin lay­er of grill grease. Had to wait in line? You’re wash­ing your hair tonight. The place was by no means messy, but it had a cer­tain unfin­ished qual­i­ty to it… def­i­nite­ly the kind of place where the food mat­ters more than the brand­ing. I’d describe it as feel­ing some­how hon­est… com­plete­ly lack­ing in pre­tense. Kind of blue col­lar? Yeah, I guess.

You can prob­a­bly tell why I was expect­ing the web­site to be endear­ing­ly ter­ri­ble. I was ready for a lit­tle Com­ic Sans, an “under con­struc­tion” GIF, and a scanned paper menu — as a multi-megabyte bitmap, of course. That would seem nor­mal. Kind of quaint.

D’Best-the-website, how­ev­er, looks very pro­fes­sion­al. It’s fast, designed to mod­ern stan­dards, has eye-pleasing amounts of white­space — oh, for fuck­’s sake, it’s respon­sive — and is even served over HTTPS. Oh, and did I men­tion that it’s com­plete­ly lack­ing in char­ac­ter? It feels like it should belong to… I don’t know, L’Best Artisi­nal Pani­ni Bistro.2

And it very well could.

But what real­ly raised an eye­brow was this line:

We have an unwa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to fla­vor. Con­nect with us and let us know how we are doing.

And also, this one:

We nev­er stop short of a culi­nary expe­ri­ence you’re sure to enjoy.

D’Best’s fla­vor may not waver, but you’d nev­er hear that out of their mouths. Their sand­wich­es may be deli­cious, but a “culi­nary expe­ri­ence” they are not. This is a place where the meat gets grilled by guys in foot­ball jer­seys, back­wards base­ball caps and maybe a tat­too or two.

Some­thing was rot­ten in the state of Boca, so I plugged the above phras­es into a search engine. And then I did one of these. It turns out there are at least 80,000 restau­rants whose web­sites promise the same “unwa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to fla­vor,” and look more-or-less exact­ly the same as D’Best’s.

All of these, includ­ing D’Best and Hick­o­ry Hut St. Paul, say the’re “Pow­ered by Eat­Street,” a website-in-a-box ser­vice for restau­rants. Eat­Street seems to host these sites, and pro­vides them with a gener­ic design tem­plate as well. All of these dif­fer­ent restau­rants, from all over the coun­try, basi­cal­ly end up with the exact same web­site, with the exact same mes­sag­ing, except for a few small tweaks.

This feels a lit­tle slimy on the sur­face, but is there any­thing wrong with it? After all, restau­rants’ web­sites are of tru­ly hyper­local inter­est. I mean, nobody in DeKalb, Illi­nois is look­ing for D’Best. They’re more inter­est­ed in The Hud­dle Amer­i­can Food… which has the exact same web­site as D’Best. Sigh.

In the inter­est of being hon­est with myself, I tried to explore just which part of me was so offend­ed by this. Was I offend­ed as a food per­son? As a past D’Best devo­tee? Or as a copy­writer who can’t help but see this as a busi­ness get­ting by with­out need­ing the ser­vices of myself or some­one like me?

To reach the answer, I tried to put myself in the shoes of the own­er of D’Best, and I real­ized that, you know, it must have been a whole lot nicer to run not just restau­rants, but most kinds of local busi­ness­es before the Inter­net. Some per­son who real­ly needs to be wor­ry­ing about keep­ing rats out of the kitchen does­n’t want to think about about build­ing and secur­ing a web­site, plus deal­ing with all the Inter­net necessary-evils (Yelp, Google, Face­book, OpenTable, Square, Foursquare, etc.) that sup­pos­ed­ly exist to bring them cus­tomers, but instead use their stature to inter­me­di­ate the cus­tomer rela­tion­ship, and extract a recur­ring fee for doing so for the rest of for­ev­er. (Actu­al­ly, a few of those com­pa­nies would love it if D’Best decid­ed to give up on run­ning a stand­alone website.)

If Eat­Street can keep a sim­ple site up and run­ning smooth­ly, plus keep it more secure than the prover­bial site-by-nephew, is that real­ly such a bad thing? After all, a few decades in, the Inter­net is still not made for nor­mal peo­ple; there’s just too much that can go wrong if one does­n’t have the spe­cial­ized knowl­edge to do tech­ni­cal stuff prop­er­ly. There’s def­i­nite­ly val­ue in sim­pli­fy­ing things for a nor­mal per­son who just want to run their damn busi­ness­es. So even if Eat­Street is yet anoth­er friend­ly inter­me­di­ary, thanks to them one can order a D’Best Philly style online — con­sid­er my mind blown. Could that func­tion­al­i­ty exist with­out some cen­tral­ized ser­vice keep­ing the Inter­net gears run­ning smooth­ly in the back­ground, han­dling the cred­it cards and tak­ing a cut?

For all the upside they deliv­er in func­tion­al­i­ty and secu­ri­ty, how­ev­er, Eat­Sreet sure has their ten­drils into D’Best in an inadvisably-deep man­ner — a quick whois check shows that Eat­Street actu­al­ly owns D’Best’s domain name. Or should I say their new domain name. I found this oth­er domain that still con­tains an old­er D’Best web­site. While this site is still slick­er than it should be — remem­ber, my cheeses­teak place’s site should look a lit­tle like their paper menus, minus the grease stains — this site’s a lot clos­er to what I would expect. There are some typos. It’s got a page where you can meet the team. It has a freakin’ FAQ page where they tell you how to reheat a cheeses­teak (which, by the way, they say you should­n’t do).

This Inter­net archae­o­log­i­cal find is a sign that some­one once cared about and hand-crafted D’Best’s web pres­ence… but at some point said “fuck it, this Eat­Street thing does­n’t make me think.” Thanks to their scale, Eat­Street can cen­tral­ize best prac­tices for all of their cus­tomers, but they can’t cen­tral­ize the déclassé char­ac­ter, the local fla­vor, the unique greasy fin­ger­prints that inevitably end up on the web­site when it’s made by the own­er’s prover­bial teenage nephew.3

While those at the helm of D’Best can do what they think works for them, it just sucks to see a place with so much fla­vor take the path lack­ing in taste. But they have cheeses­teaks to make, and as long as peo­ple keep com­ing through the door to order these greasy won­ders on bread, they don’t have any­thing to wor­ry about.

Ulti­mate­ly, I guess I’m just writ­ing about myself and my pref­er­ences. While you could­n’t stop me from grab­bing a cheeses­teak if I hap­pened to be in the neigh­bor­hood, from where I’m stand­ing I can’t help but see big, lazy cen­tral­iza­tion as the sworn ene­my of good­ness. May I nev­er get too big to have taste.

  1. For the curi­ous: a sin­gle slab of steak topped with swiss cheese, mayo and pota­to sticks — a rather unhealthy twist on the ubiq­ui­tous pan con bis­tec, and also not a cheeses­teak.
  2. A hypo­thet­i­cal restau­rant I’d also total­ly eat at, by the way.
  3. Just kid­ding! Kids these days don’t actu­al­ly know how to use com­put­ers. They’d just set up a Face­book page.