I want you back in my life, colawars.83p

Do you know how things you trea­sure from your past prob­a­bly would­n’t hold up if you tried to enjoy them again years later?

That does­n’t apply here, buddy.

Because there aren’t more impor­tant things to think about these days, nope, my mind recent­ly start­ed wan­der­ing back to a game I played on my graph­ing cal­cu­la­tor back in high school.

I did a lot of that back then, most­ly dur­ing class­es not nec­es­sar­i­ly math. And while there were def­i­nite­ly bet­ter games, more atmos­pher­ic games, more fun games, more Tetrisy games — and dozens of oth­er games I spent more time on — I’m not sure any cap­tured my imag­i­na­tion quite like this one did.

It was called Cola Wars and this game was absurd. You would buy and sell cans of Coke, Sprite, Moun­tain Dew, RC Cola and — because it was the late 90s — Jolt. You’d buy them on the street from a deal­er and try to re-sell them. Prices would go up and down. For some rea­son you had to avoid the cops.

I was struck by the sheer… I guess the word would be “ran­dom­ness” of the idea. It did­n’t cross my unso­phis­ti­cat­ed mind that it could have been a metaphor, an alle­go­ry or some­thing. I sin­cere­ly believed that some­one in the world just one day decid­ed that they would make a game about the risks and rewards of illic­it­ly sell­ing soft drinks on the sec­ondary market.

So when I lat­er dis­cov­ered that there was a game called Drug­wars, and that TI-83 was def­i­nite­ly not the first plat­form it was avail­able on, and that the weird drinks game was a rip-off — if not a sim­ple find-and-replace — it explained how this mys­te­ri­ous, supreme­ly odd duck came into existence.

And I guess it took away some of the appeal. But just a lit­tle. I’d love to find a copy and play it again, but the places I would nor­mal­ly look have failed me. And I’ve done some seri­ous Way­back Machine spelunking.

Help me, the Internet.

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?

Observing Design Observer’s design

Oh, good­ness. I start­ed writ­ing this post in Jan­u­ary, and have had it basi­cal­ly fin­ished for weeks now. I’ve been putting off actu­al­ly post­ing it for some time, think­ing it needs more work. But now — in fact, just three hours ago — Design Observ­er unveiled a redesign and made me look like some kind of jerk. Now, if that isn’t an object les­son in ship­ping

Design Observ­er looks dated.

The Past

DO’s head­er boasts proud­ly that it’design-observer-2s been oper­at­ing since 2003, and you can tell. Look at it with 2014 eyes and you’ll observe a non-responsive fixed-width lay­out with tiny text. Is that real­ly a blogroll? Where are the ubiq­ui­tous social shar­ing buttons?

It’s like a time cap­sule of early-2000s blog design.

And that’s why it’s so great.

Design Observ­er reminds me of a lot of web­sites from the ’00s, some of the first blog-ish things I ever read. (Like Pix­el­sur­geon! Or Design is Kinky! Or Pix­el­sur­geon!) Maybe I owe the fond­ness to my youth, and its design lim­i­ta­tions to the bad old days of prim­i­tive web browsers. Or maybe it was just Web‑1.9(beta) style. To my eyes, though, the look holds up well.

The Present

The infor­ma­tion den­si­ty on Design Observ­er is amaz­ing and that prob­a­bly has a lot to do with the type­face, which is tiny by today’s stan­dards. I peeked into the HTML because I knew the type­face appealed to me, but I could­n’t quite put my fin­ger on why. IT’S 8 POINT VERDANA, you guys!1 It’s so tiny, yet so crisp and read­able. (Com­pare that to Ari­al, or its bla­tant rip-off Hel­veti­ca.2)

The site was def­i­nite­ly not designed with the cur­rent tablet craze in mind, and as a tablet own­er who does­n’t love tablets, I like that. That said, I shud­der to think of what Design Observ­er must look like at unscaled ‘reti­na’ resolutions.

The Future

Speak­ing of the future, I fear the day I’m going to vis­it Design Observ­er and find a Medi­u­mi­fi­ca­tion has hap­pened — this has to be on their roadmap. It does seems a lit­tle strange for a design site like DO not to be fol­low­ing what are, for bet­ter or worse (Here’s my bal­lot! I vote ‘worse’!) mod­ern design con­ven­tions, which favor clum­sy UI for smudgy fin­gers over — you know — the stuff that helps peo­ple do stuff.3

And once it’s gone, it’s gone. Sad­ly, Design Observer’s robots.txt file tells most search engine crawlers to sim­ply go away. DO specif­i­cal­ly includ­ed a rule ban­ning the Inter­net Archive, which means the page has nev­er been cap­tured by the Way­back Machine, the Inter­net’s somewhat-official time cap­sule… and nev­er will. This makes it tough, if not impos­si­ble, to see what Design Observ­er looked like ten years ago, two years ago and even last week, to see how it changed with the times — or did­n’t — to become what it is today.

And when this frankly won­der­ful design is replaced by some­thing “bet­ter” and “mod­ern,” it will also dis­ap­pear for­ev­er. Hope this helps.

  1. In col­lege, I prob­a­bly spent more time choos­ing a font for AOL Instant Mes­sen­ger than I did study­ing for some class­es, and this size Ver­dana was what I’d always come back to.
  2. I kid… I own the DVD, hon­est! Now please put down those taste­ful Dieter-Rams-designed pitch­forks.
  3. I’m not against design­ing while keep­ing mobile devices in mind, but these designs almost always come with design­ers choos­ing to reduce func­tion­al­i­ty across all devices in the name of con­sis­ten­cy. Hey world, news flash — you can do respon­sive design in a way that does­n’t do away with side­bars, page chrome and just gen­er­al func­tion­al­i­ty until web­sites look like Write­Room. Just make it degrade nice­ly.

Not everyone’s a critic

As a kid, I hat­ed “crit­i­cal think­ing” questions.

I did­n’t know what the term even meant, but what I did know was that about a third of the ques­tions at the end of each chap­ter in my school text­books were “crit­i­cal think­ing” ques­tions. I’d read the assigned text — well, usu­al­ly — but skim­ming the chap­ter for key words would mag­i­cal­ly reveal the answers… at least for all the nor­mal questions.

In what year did Napolean what­ev­er? I knew the hack for that: scan the text for numbers.

My goal was to get my work done as quick­ly as pos­si­ble, because the draw of TV time at home, and “free time” in class was strong. Crit­i­cal think­ing was an annoy­ing road­block to very impor­tant leisure. I just want­ed to get done.

As an adult, I take my time when I work — I just try not to com­plete­ly Dou­glas Adams my dead­lines, if you catch my drift. Qual­i­ty is impor­tant (although it’s only job two), and if I fin­ish some­thing ear­ly, odds are it could use some more thought, anoth­er look tomor­row with fresh eyes, or some­thing like that.

There real­ly is no prize for fin­ish­ing first.

I real­ize now that the crit­i­cal think­ing ques­tions were the only ones that ever real­ly mat­tered. Teach­ers prob­a­bly told us that, but it did­n’t mean any­thing at the time. And when I look around today, I get the sense that to a lot of my peers, it still doesn’t.

Winamp — “feel the love”

Winamp 2.95I prob­a­bly haven’t used Winamp in a decade, but learn­ing that it’s final­ly going away for good brought it back to the top of my mind this week.

Winamp was­n’t just my pri­ma­ry digital-music-playing-thing1 — like many peo­ple, it was the first thing I ever used to play MP3s.

Yes Junior, back then Win­dows Media Play­er was for CDs and WAV files, and iTunes did­n’t exist yet.2

What made Winamp so awe­some? I could devote a whole post3  to the genius of Winamp skins, and things I’ve been read­ing (1, 2, 3) over­whelm­ing­ly ref­er­ence the clas­sic “whip the lla­ma’s ass” sound clip — which, in addi­tion to being a neat lit­tle brand­ing thing, was per­ma­nent­ly imprint­ed on every­one’s mem­o­ry by being the first thing that would play after installation.

Those were cool, but my favorite Winamp mem­o­ry is some­thing a lit­tle less… super­fi­cial, per­haps? It’s a short piece of writ­ing that long ago was fea­tured on the “About” page of winamp.com:

What is Winamp? A play­er you say? No, no baby. Winamp is much more than that.

Winamp is a lifestyle. It is freestyle. Give me a word. Ver­sa­til­i­ty? Yeah. Vision­ary? Of course. Com­mu­ni­ty? Now you’re talking.

Winamp lives because it’s users have a life.

Winamp is in the cof­fee house. On the lap­top. Of the guy. Who is writ­ing the screen­play. That you will be watch­ing next year.

Winamp is on the screen. In the club. Where the DJ plays the tracks. That get you through the night.

Winamp is with you. When you take your playlist. Push it to the ether. And share the music that you love. With all of humanity.

Winamp lets you put togeth­er the sound­track. That runs in the back­ground of your mind. And allows you to define your life.

Winamp is your skin. Allow­ing you to look and feel the way you want.

Winamp is what it is and noth­ing more. But you are the one who makes it. Winamp is there for you. It is yours. What hap­pens next? You tell me. Down­load Winamp.

-jonathan “feel the love” ward

Read­ing it back then left me a bit misty, filled with this strange­ly inspired feel­ing. The piece comes to mind every once in a while, at which point I seek out a copy to re-read it. Look, I can’t point to any­thing in par­tic­u­lar that I wrote or cre­at­ed thanks to this inspi­ra­tion. But in some way, it made me think dif­fer­ent­ly not just about the pow­er of music, but the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er of what would oth­er­wise seem like triv­ial soft­ware. Read­ing this made me feel like Winamp did more than just “play music.”

But in real­i­ty, that’s all it did. Or was there more?

Give me a word. Hyper­bole? Maybe. Awe­some? Undeniable.

  1. Until iTunes for Win­dows showed me the val­ue in hav­ing a library of files. Yeah, I know Winamp has a library fea­ture, but I nev­er used it.
  2. Oh, and by the way, MP3s were these things peo­ple used to lis­ten to before there was YouTube.
  3. And, shit, I may — Winamp was doing skeu­mor­phics before Apple did skeu­mor­phics before Apple stopped doing skeu­mor­phics.

No Ovaltine please — we’re cool

As a kid, I did­n’t know any­thing about Oval­tine aside from their com­mer­cials, so I had­n’t seen it as a spon­sor of clas­sic radio and tele­vi­sion, as a joke on Sein­feld, or as a big fat liar in A Christ­mas Sto­ry. I can’t remem­ber any of my friends hav­ing any­thing to say about it, either.

I was total­ly unbiased.

But from the com­pa­ny’s mar­ket­ing alone, I could tell that rich choco­late Oval­tine was uncool. I had nev­er drunk any — and decades lat­er, I still haven’t — but if I ever had, I cer­tain­ly would­n’t have told any­one about it.

I’m not exact­ly sure why the stuff made my lame-sense tin­gle as a kid. Maybe because Oval­tine was named after a shape (and shapes are for lit­tle kids), or that its mar­ket­ing proud­ly pro­claimed that it was full of vit­a­mins (like every­thing par­ents love, and kids don’t), but what I sus­pect it was… was a lit­tle more basic than that.

Watched the ad above? Note the end­ing. “More Oval­tine, please!” closed all Oval­tine ads of my child­hood. My present-day cyn­i­cal, works-in-marketing self can imag­ine some agency sell­ing this con­cept to the Oval­tine com­pa­ny with “Look, these kids not only love this vitamin-filled drink, but they love it so much they’ll devel­op man­ners and ask for it polite­ly! Par­ents will eat this up!”

But my kid self saw things a lit­tle dif­fer­ent­ly. “Wow, these kids are super-polite. That’s total­ly uncool.1 I don’t want this. Where’s the Nestlé Quik? That rab­bit is cool.”

There’s a mar­ket­ing mes­sage here, and it prob­a­bly goes a lit­tle some­thing like this:

If you have dif­fer­ent tar­gets, your mes­sag­ing needs to speak dif­fer­ent­ly (use “code-switching”) when speak­ing to dif­fer­ent tar­gets — there’s per­il to face when one tar­get receives a mes­sage tai­lored to anoth­er. It may fall on deaf ears, or maybe turn them off, entire­ly. Tell my mom about the vit­a­mins — tell me about the chocolate.

And so on. But there’s also a human mes­sage here:

Look, as you grow you’re encour­aged to “act your age” and as part of that, cast aside things and behav­iors asso­ci­at­ed with peo­ple younger than you, and instead do things that are more becom­ing for some­one as grown as you are. Soci­ety beats the kid out of you.

To be able to act your age is won­der­ful and arguably nec­es­sary… as long as you can still, as they say, “walk a mile” in small­er shoes when the sit­u­a­tion calls for it. And, of course, rec­og­nize why a kid — this kid, kind of grown up now — may not be inter­est­ed in your vit­a­min drink, how­ev­er how rich and choco­latey it might be.

 

  1. Full dis­clo­sure: I was kind of a polite kid, and I def­i­nite­ly thought I was uncool. Shoe fits.

Cooties: they’re back

Ages ago, we thought we had a cure for cooties in the youth pop­u­la­tion: the cootie shot.

The dis­ease itself could usu­al­ly go untreat­ed with­out ill effect; the real prob­lem was the sec­ondary social stig­ma that came with being a car­ri­er. Once the oth­er kids found out that you had cooties, your social life would be roast­ed, toast­ed… burnt to a crisp. Play dates? Can­celed. Sleep­overs? In your dreams. And, hon­est­ly, who would want to go to your birth­day party?

Yes, it was that bad.

From this cul­ture the cootie shot was born, and fear of cooties could make even the biggest wimp for­get he was afraid of shots — this was a seri­ous prob­lem for which there was no oth­er treat­ment. Even the chil­dren whose par­ents’ ques­tion­able sci­en­tif­ic beliefs kept them far away from vac­ci­na­tions could be found seek­ing treat­ment in the dark alleys of the school­yard, because cooties — not chick­en pox or what­ev­er — was the one ill­ness that could keep you up at night, wor­ry­ing well past your bedtime.

The cootie shot was sup­posed to be a bul­let­proof defense against every known strain. It was sup­posed to offer a sec­ond chance at childhood.

Get­ting vac­ci­nat­ed worked like this: a typ­i­cal­ly unli­censed prac­ti­tion­er with ques­tion­able med­ical train­ing would admin­is­ter the shot by speak­ing the fol­low­ing incan­ta­tion in a singsong voice, while using their fin­ger to trace the not­ed shapes on your body.

Cir­cle cir­cle, dot dot
Now you’ve got the cootie shot

But that’s just the first stage of the vac­cine cock­tail. Per­haps your fore­arm would be pro­tect­ed, but what about every oth­er part? If you did­n’t con­tin­ue the full course of treat­ment, cooties would like­ly gain a foothold and basi­cal­ly ruin your entire life.

Cir­cle cir­cle, square square
Now you’ve got it everywhere

At this point, you’d be safe until the shot wore off… which by the way, it would do almost instant­ly. Kids were still get­ting infect­ed left and right, so the great­est med­ical minds on the play­ground came up with what seemed like a sil­ver bul­let for this pub­lic health crisis.

Cir­cle cir­cle, knife knife
Now you’ve got it for your life

Only now could you breathe easy — you were final­ly immune. Not even the yuck­i­est girl1  could cause you harm.

At least that’s how it used to work. Once a panacea, a hope for a bet­ter tomor­row, cootie shots have become scarce. This easily-preventable ail­ment joins measles, polio and whoop­ing cough as again some­thing we must once again wor­ry about.

What hap­pened? Make-believe med­ical pro­fes­sion­als today — with their hands tied by a well-known ene­my of healthy and hap­py pop­u­la­tion — can be heard all too often singing a very dif­fer­ent song:

Cir­cle cir­cle, shame shame
Your HMO denied your claim

  1. Every­one knows that females are the main car­ri­ers of cooties, and those bitch­es are every­where.