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.

Continue read­ing “Observing Design Observer’s design”

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:

Continue read­ing “Winamp — “feel the love””

  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.

Continue read­ing “No Ovaltine please — we’re cool”

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.

On wishing for boredom

This is not a post about Steve Jobs. I read enough of them in the days and weeks af­ter his death. I read in these a lot of what I al­ready knew and learned some new stuff for sure, but one Steve quote stood out to me in Wired’s obit­u­ary:

I’m a big be­liev­er in bore­dom,” he told me. Boredom al­lows one to in­dulge in cu­rios­i­ty, he ex­plained, and “out of cu­rios­i­ty comes everything.”

I’m not sure if I’d head this quote from him be­fore, but it put in­to words some­thing that has been trou­bling me for some time: I haven’t been bored in years.

The first time I no­ticed this was in the mid-2000s, and  I on­ly re­al­ized part of it, and I saw it through the lens of my Internet us­age, par­tic­u­lar­ly RSS. Even to­day, as the cool kids have moved on to fol­low­ing Twitter feeds (re­al­ly, talk about a step back­wards) of web­sites and blogs they find in­ter­est­ing, I’m still a huge fan of the no-bullshit, user-in-control, de­cen­tral­ized pow­er of RSS.1

What oc­curred to me back then was that hav­ing posts pushed to me dai­ly gave me more read­ing ma­te­r­i­al than I need­ed. And since I could nev­er get all the way through the un­read glut of posts from blogs I’d sub­scribed to, my need to ever go for­ag­ing for in­ter­est­ing things to read ba­si­cal­ly dis­ap­peared. RSS gave me tons of serendip­i­ty (thank you, linkblogs!)… and at the same time, prac­ti­cal­ly none at all. I miss the old days — some would say the bad old days — when I’d get my on­line en­ter­tain­ment and ran­dom bits of en­light­en­ment by brows­ing aim­less­ly from link to link, be­ing per­son­al­ly point­ed to in­ter­est­ing things by friends on AIM, fol­low­ing lat­est links post­ed to proto-blogs like Pixelsurgeon, and… I don’t know, how­ev­er else we found cool shit back then.

The sec­ond time I felt this ef­fect of this was at some point over the last few years, but this time in a more gen­er­al sense. This time it was big­ger than RSS; this time it was about every­thing in my life.

I re­al­ized I have far too many op­tions for en­ter­tain­ment. There are two rea­sons for this: mas­sive dig­i­tal stor­age de­vices and the fact that, be­ing em­ployed gives me an ac­tu­al en­ter­tain­ment bud­get for pur­chas­ing paid me­dia and fan­cy de­vices on which to ex­pe­ri­ence it. Between a pile of un­read books and bunch of e-books; more un­watched movies, sea­sons of old TV shows and ani­me se­ries than I can name; and games ga­lore that I’ll nev­er fin­ish (thank you Nintendo Wii and DS, Android phone and a still-kickin’ Atari 2600), I’m pret­ty much set for… for­ev­er.2 Even if I don’t seek out any­thing new, it’ll be years and years be­fore I get through all of this. And it’s not like I can just ig­nore new re­leas­es and stuff I be­come aware of in the meantime!

I might be able to en­joy this world o’ plen­ty, if I could for­get about what life was like when I was grow­ing up, be­fore we had the com­put­ing pow­er, stor­age and net­work ca­pac­i­ty to ex­pe­ri­ence all the dig­i­tal rich­es of more en­ter­tain­ment than we’ll ever need. I spent so much time be­ing bored grow­ing up, aim­less­ly think­ing and day­dream­ing and such. This was be­fore my first com­put­er; I had tons of books and had prob­a­bly read al­most all of them, made good use of the pub­lic li­brary, played with toys, ac­tion fig­ures and stuff a whole lot and still found time to be bored and day­dream be­cause it seemed like I had run out of things to do.

If you live a sim­i­lar­ly full, media-rich and em­ployed first-world life, and can still ever find your­self so lux­u­ri­ous­ly bored, how do you man­age? And can you teach me?

  1. Google Reader, please don’t die.
  2. I didn’t men­tion mu­sic here, be­cause the way I con­sume mu­sic is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. I still clear­ly have more than I “need,” but I don’t feel the same sort of pres­sure to get through it all, thanks to shuf­fle mode.