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.