JANUARY 1999 Part 3
The new Wintel PC arrived today, and all I can say is: God Bless Apple. Oh, the PC set up quickly, and it's a sweet machine. But as ever, the Windows interface is just a mat of grass over the tiger trap of spikes that makes up the horrid OS beneath, and it's just a question of when you find out.

There is something called Neighborhood Network sitting on my desktop. I don't want it there. I'm sure there's a way to expunge it, but it's not obvious, which is just plain dead wrong. I have no neighborhood network. I don't want to look at the icon. I like a clean desktop. But try to move it to the trash - sorry, the recycling bin - and it's nix, nix, nix. I made the mistake of examining some of the folders in My Computer - Gawd, what a Playskool name; I renamed the last one Anysea to reflect its manufacturer, and I called this one Della - and found the usual heap of cryptic gibberish. No wonder Windows puts so much stock in that Start bar - they're trying to keep you from poking around and discovering the unfriendly nature of your folder contents.

I loaded a batch of games and demos, chose a screen saver, loaded the Microsoft Sound System software, calibrated it, then walked away and laid down for a small nap. Of course the machine promptly read the Sound System setup disc in the CD caddy, and booted the program, which blared out a jazzy bass-whomping theme at the top of the system's 80 watts, blasting me out of bed. But I should have known that would happen. I turned it off and went back to a nap. I did not sleep. Finally, as I was just drifting off, the screen saver kicked in, and voila: it has sounds! Screechy meaningless sounds. Scared the hell out of me. I got up. Turned it off.

There was no point to a nap now, and I really didn't need one anyway. I decided to play Half-Life, or rather finish Half Life, since I'd given my brother-in-law my old PC before winning the game. But I'd saved the last few save games on a disc . . . but which disc? There were dozens on my desk, all unlabeled, of course. So I decided to feed them into the drive and see which one the computer would recognize. Then I remembered - it's Macs that automatically tell you that the disk isn't the right format. Windows lets the disk sit there like an unflushed deposit. So I fed them into the Mac until it found one it couldn't understand. Loaded those games into the PC. Started Half-Life.

It looked like crap. Well, I'd have to calibrate it for my video card, then. Which was . . . what, again? I'd asked for the biggest, fastest, baddest card they had, knowing I'd upgrade to the Voodoo3 in six months anyway. I ran through several options. All looked worse than the last. Hmm. Back into Windows to examine my video drivers.

None were loaded. Ah hah. Find driver disc, insert. Nothing booted. I examined the folders: nothing even remotely comprehensible. The instruction manual was likewise mysterious. So: no games tonight.

And that's a big damn shame, since I'm all alone this evening. My wife is on the road, and it's just me and the pooch. I'm surprised I'm not exhausted, because I couldn't get to sleep last night - tossed and turned for almost 45 minutes - and then was awakened at the blush of dawn by the delivery man. I practically had to run outside barefoot to catch him before he drove off; it would have been TORTURE to have a bachelor night knowing that the new PC could have been here, but I'd missed it.

As it is, I have it, and it's still torture.

Anyway. Went to work, filed two stories: 48 inches with one quote. Left the office around three, with snow falling thick and heavy, and took forever to get home. Well, not forever, obviously. A while. A slow long while. Ordered a Domino's - it's bachelor night! - and then, after learning no nap was in the offing, walked Jasper through the park. We came across two other dogs, and they played and played in the deep fresh snow, humans lumbering along behind. Watched Voyager - it's Bachelor night, turn it up! Wolf-whistle at 7 o' 9! - then went through the driver education described above. Now I'll return to the iMac to do some web work.

See? This is why you're more productive on a Mac: you don't spend all your time trying to play all the really great games.

Here's the amusing part. In anticipation of getting a DVD-capable PC, I bought "First Contact" on DVD. Later tonight I'll give it a look - even though I have it on video as well. For some odd reason it will be cooler than cool to see the movie unspool on the relatively small screen of the PC, as opposed to the larger screen of the TV downstairs.

This assumes I can see it at all, and that I have the correct DVD driver, which is probably named 934mfde.dll.

Last night's mad bachelor bacchanalia didn't just include pizza - I bought a video as well. Naturally, it was something I'd seen before; why ruin a perfectly good night with some unpredictable movie when you can watch something you're guaranteed to like? To make it even more special, it was a television program that's currently in reruns, and will probably be in reruns for the rest of my life. It was, I am ashamed to say, the last episode of ST:TNG.

I know, I know; I should chose more edifying pursuits. The day wasn't a complete intellectual washout - I'd read some political journals, including an interesting story on how limited-growth / New Urbanism theories have affected Portland. According to the article, the impact was not entirely beneficial, and I can see why. All the things so cherished by the New Urbanism model - dense neighborhoods, mass transit, discouragement of auto usage - has consequences the planners seem incapable of foreseeing, such as congestion, increased traffic (and hence pollution) and astronomical housing prices. When I lived in DC, the neighborhoods were the sort beloved by New Urbanists, and I'll admit they were lovely. You could walk to the store. You just couldn't buy much, because you had to carry it home. There were days when I nearly expired the last few blocks to the house, because I had a bag of groceries in either hand and a six-pack in my backpack. I felt like a mule. When it was time to do big shopping, you had to drive to a bigger store, and that meant a trip up streets as choked as Times Square on New Year's Eve. And this was in a city with one of the most successful mass-transit systems in the country.

It's odd for me to scoff at the New Urbanist model, since that is the sort of community where I live, and have always wanted to live. I don't like suburbs. I don't like culdesacs of new houses with gargantuan garages, strip malls, treeless intersections, and all the other nameless placeless attributes of new development. Sometimes I find myself idling at a stopsign in a suburb, looking at the usual businesses - a Holiday store on one corner, a lube shop on the other, a bagel store, each marooned in a Sargasso sea of asphalt - and I have no idea where I am. Can't imagine calling such a place home. I prefer the parts of town built around the long-dead trolley lines, with two-story brick buildings filling the commercial nodes, coming right up to the street. It's peculiar, but very human: an intersection with two-story buildings on all four corners feels like somewhere, a nexus, a neighborhood-defining place. And they're everywhere in this part of town.

Not all are intact - some corners lost a building to a gas station; others have decayed to the point where they indict a neighborhood more than identify it. But they are places with history, and I like that. Which is why I'm here.

But that's a choice, an opinion, no better or worse than those who want space and solitude. I don't disparage those who live in burbs, or view the burbs as Soul-Killing Fields of Solitude. Please spare us all the catty smug boomers who disparaged Levittown and other post-war communities; they didn't have to grow up in stinky dense craphole tenements, and hence had no idea what drove their parents to go stake out a plot in a potato fields.

Anyway. I fear Minneapolis will go the Portland route, and in once sense that's great for me: the value of my house would double. On the other hand, the idea that Minneapolitans can be pried from their cars and shoved into mass transit is ludicrous, because we have this thing called Winter. I am not going to walk 20 blocks in 20 below weather to get on a train, and on the way home I am not going to walk 20 blocks with groceries and beer, with a dry cleaning bag flapping in the howling wind. The irony: if they did run a mass transit line through this neighborhood, they'd have to build a park & ride station, which would mean destroying 20-30 houses. They'd have to destroy the neighborhood to save it.

Just heard, as I passed the TV, a commercial for an upcoming Miniseries: The Sixties. The Struggles, the Trials, the Battles. God, spare me. Getting stoned in a dorm room while listening to the Hair soundtrack does not compare to difficulties faced by people in the 30s or 40s. But, what do I know. I came of age in the 70s, and was miraculously disinclined to accept the previous decade as the beginning of the enlightenment.

Anyway: I finished the article and watched the Star Trek tape - no headphones! Full volume! Bachelor night, cut loose! I liked it very much and went to bed. The dog slept on my wife's side, and he snored, his paws twitching as he dreamed.

Afternoon in the antique store. "Heh," the man said. "Lookit this. Who would buy this?" He was pointing to a box of keys. His girlfriend shook her head, and they moved on to the vintage clothes. I took a look at the keys: perhaps 30 keys, all from the old demolished Curtis Hotel.

I bought one. I wanted to find the guy and Look! Here's who'd buy it. Take a look.

It's odd how collections grow. I never turn down anything from demolished local landmarks, if the price is reasonable. I got the Curtis key because I have old Curtis postcards, and also because I have a key from the old Waldorf-Astoria in New York. I bought that because it just seemed as if I ought to. A small bit of history I can add to my collection of flotsam and tarnished junk.

Once you start to collect something, you start branching out. Once you start to collect old skyscraper postcards from New York, well, why not Chicago? Once you collect World's Fair stuff from 1939, why not the Century of Progress Fair from 1933?

Why collect any of it?

I don't know. I like the way it looks; I like the bright clean feeling of Hope! and Progress! behind the World's Fair material. Reading about it is one thing, but holding in your hand an artifact from the era helps you possess the event in your own small way. A quote from Nietzsche I read in the New Yorker: paraphrased, it said that the past is a closet filled with costumes we want to try on, but they never really fit us at all. (Badly paraphrased.) That's the appeal of these antique shops; whatever you think of the past, however many coats of gilding you slap on it, you can find your props and costumes here and recreate your own perfect past, your perfect vision of that perfect time.

So imagine my astonishment when I saw in a display case a tiny plastic envelope labeled WORLDS FAIR TICKETS 1933 & 1940

I had to have them, and have them I do. (I passed on the 1933 deck of cards, which were $64.00.) You can't make these scraps of paper yield their stories - who bought them, who they were with, what the day was like, what book or drawer the ticket slumbered in for 60 years before ending up in my hands.

Also bought a Holiday Inn ashtray from the era of the Great Sign, and a frightening cookbook that will be added to the Gallery 2.0.

Oy. The Gallery. On Saturday's radio show, the Chef made a skeptical comment that I would actually get the Gallery out when advertised, something to which I took deep affront: I have, since November, had a schedule for releasing web sites, one per week, and I have held to it without exception. In fact I've moved the Gallery 2.0 up to March 1st. But last night I realized that every single page was cramped and butt-ugly and just plain wrong. What to do? Why, redo everything, of course. So I have some work to do, but the end result will be sleek and clean.

Didn't feel like a restful weekend at all; didn't even feel like a weekend. Every day had a deadline or a job involved; every day I woke tired and felt myself proceeding through the hours at swordpoint, Obligation poking me in the spine. I realized Saturday that I had a computer review due Monday, and that meant - horrors - I had to play a game. It's an odd life: boy, I'd love to work on that web page, but I have to play Shogo; duty calls. I had to reassure my wife that I was actually working, not slacking off. I assured her I wasn't enjoying it much.

Did a little research on the Joining of the Lakes ceremony - summer 1911. Got out the old papers and took a look. The hyperbole is charming; tout le monde agreed that the electrical decorations on Nicollet were the peer, the equal, if not the better, of any such demonstration in any other city, American or European. It was a week-long celebration with many parades and ceremonies, including a Commingling of the Waters ceremony at Lake Harriet. An aged luminary was photographed pouring water from Calhoun and Nicollet into a common flask, while two young "bridesmaids" symbolizing the two lakes looked on. At night all the menfolk headed out into Lake Harriet in canoes with red flares, and the lake was lit from shore to shore. Wonderful. And unbearable: the headlines say the nation was expiring under a horrid heat wave, an unchecked wave of torrid temperatures that baked the entire country and killed the halt and the old. Yet Minneapolitans turned out by the thousands, standing in the blaring sun, dressed from crown to sole.

I wished I lived back then. I would have liked to have been 14 in 1911 - that sort of city-wide summer ceremony would be pure joy. And I would have kept the memory with me as I gasped, lungless, in the trenches of WWI . . . well, maybe I don't wish I lived back then. But I would love the chance to just go back for a day, walk through the crowds, pick up a paper and read it at a cafe, stop to watch the workmen construct a building that still stands today. The more I study and memorize this city the more every walk around downtown seems to occupy several different dimensions; I see what's there and what was there. And since I can't see what isn't there yet, I naturally object to any changes.

Damn mumbling Mulder. Had to call up a newsgroup last night to figure out what Mulder said at the end of the X-files; he grumbled his line as usual, and no one in post thought to loop it. (Hah! I used private secret special television talk there, gleaned from my deep experience in television, where you say things like "we'll loop it in post." That's about all I know of super-secret TV talk, and it rarely comes up, but I can use it to make jokes around TV people so they think I know more than I do.) (Translated, it means dub the voice in post-production, when you've finished principal.) (Sorry: that's shorthand for principal photography.) Anyway, I found my answer. But it just showed the difference between, say, Hawaii 5-0-era TV and today. In H50 time, everyone was hideously lit and every line enunciated as crisply as someone biting into a fresh head of lettuce. Nowadays the best shows are illuminated with a 10 watt bulb and everyone gargles their lines, when they're not swallowing them.

(What Mulder actually said was "death is what comes looking for you when you're looping in post." I think.)

Downstairs now with the leaky dog. He wants to play, and is expressing dissatisfaction by breathing wetly through his nose, making a sound dogs use when they don't dare whine. I've just finished one column, and I'm going to finish another, and then it's a madcap half hour of ironing and room-straightening before I get down to the serious business of relaxing with stupid, stupid TV.

I had to leave work early today to go home and play games. While I was at work, though, I made many important phone calls - to Maxis, Electronic Arts, and Sierra, requesting MORE games. It's a wonderful life. Unfortunately, the number of games I have to - sorry, get to play means that I can't play them all or even finish them; I just have to judge whether the kweepa point comes early or later, and base my review accordingly.

The Kweepa Point is a term of my own invention, and likely to remain unused by anyone else; it stems from an old Infocom text adventure called "The Leather Goddesses of Phobos." A peculiar and amusing game. Towards the end you were in a watery dungeon, carrying a boat over your head, and the water was full of vermin that would bite you to death if you didn't hop, or clap, or shout KWEEPA. I got so tired of clapping when I should have hopped or hopping when I should have typed kweepa that I gave up on the game, and never went back. Some people need to finish a game no matter what. I am not one of them.

My room is a mess - product boxes and shrinkwrap everywhere, packing peanuts crunching underfoot, cords and cords and more cords snaking everywhere, tangling in the night to form an indissoluble knot. I really need to get back to work on the basement, so I can move all the PC stuff down here - but as is typical, I ran out of enthusiasm for that job a few weeks ago. But I did not hit the Kweepa point for the basement remodeling. Even if I did, my wife is a living Kweepa-point surmounter, and can get me back on track fast if she wishes.

Had an interesting multicultural experience at the computer store. I was behind a gentleman who looked like Kirby Puckett - same broad build, same broad smile. But when he began to speak it was apparent he was African. He peered at the clerk and asked if he was from Africa, too. The clerk was shy and slender, with a head that looked like a lightbulb on a pipe-stem neck. He said he was indeed from Africa, and the customer began to ask where he was from. Ghana? Ethiopia? With each country, the clerk said no. The customer ran through all sub-Saharan states, and was amused by his inability to nail the man's nation. I noticed he was wearing a Masonic ring, and I thought - is Masonry big in Africa? Is there some long-standing tradition in French post-colonial nations of freemasonry, or did he join a temple here? You never know. You just have no idea.

Ivory Coast? No. Tunisia! No. And on it went. Finally, the customer nailed it: some small parenthetical state I'd not heard of. The clerk gave him the total for his goods, and the customer pulled out a wad of bills two inches thick.

"Now," he said, "what tribe?"

I was enjoying this, really. Ah, America: in the whitest of white suburbs, demographically one of the toniest in the state, two men from Africa are discussing the home continent, in English. Two white guys meeting in a Lagos bazaar probably wouldn't slip into the local tongue to find out where the other was from. And this cheerful fellow with the Masonic ring had done well, too. Western in dress, spirit and career - he was buying a heap of business software - he nevertheless was giving all within earshot a lesson on African culture. What tribe, eh?

And I thought: it always comes down to that, in one form or another; I meet someone from Fargo, and I want to know: north side or south. Everyone has a tribe.

"Mandingo," the shy thin clerk said.

I cringed: that's a word with a nasty, archetypical racist connotation in America, thanks to a humid exploitation film of a few decades back. Jim Brown starred in it, I think. I don't even know the plot, but the word has come to mean some big glowering buck of superior endowment bent over a panting pliant plantation owner's daughter. This poor clerk may have no idea, if he's a recent immigrant; perhaps in a video store he will see the movie, rent it, and get a better picture of the culture he's in. And then perhaps shrug it off with a laugh. I don't want to generalize, but my experience with Africans in Washington - by which I mean, a hundred conversations in cabs - gave me a picture of people who do not have a residual wariness with white people. They grew up in a place where everyone was black, and class had little to do with skin color and everything to do with tribe.

"Ho ho, Mandingo!" said the customer. He grinned. "You just like the Jew! Always the money!"

The clerk looked down. Then the customer turned to me.

"In Africa, you meet a Mandingo?" He made the finger-rubbing gesture, the universal sign of folding cash. "They just like the Jew. Always looking for the money. Cheat you every time. Jew of Africa! Ho ho."

Like an idiot, I said nothing. I just looked at him and then let my glance drift away. I wanted to say "I'm a Jew," but I didn't. It was jarring, to say the least - people declaiming anti-semitic stereotypes in full voice are rare nowadays. But two guys from Africa in the land of the Swedes and Germans, trotting out stereotypes of The Jew - well, in a way, it's very Minnesotan, given that this was one of the strongholds of anti-semitism in the teens and 20s.

I walked out to my car, and thought: oy. We're all doomed.

Garbage in, garbage - well, you know the rest. Today I picked up my Microsoft Phone, hit Voice Command, and confidently spoke the name of the Giant Swede. The robot lady who lives in the phone (or in the PC? The instructions weren't clear) said she would dial him. After three rings, an old lady answered. Wrong number.
Hmm. Perhaps Bill Gates had reprogrammed all the phones so they called him Mom, because he was busy and couldn't always check in.
I examined my data entries in the Microsoft Call Manager, and I'd entered the number wrong. But there was a message waiting - it was from the Giant Swedes, in fact, hooting over the fact that they got a personalized answering message when they called. So it works after all.
My wife just came down and asked if I'd gotten ahold of the Giant Swedes. I said I'd made a mistake entering their number.
"Garbage in, garbage out," she said.

In yesterday's column I'd pooh-poohed a concern from a suburbanite: she didn't want to drive up 35W through Minneapolis out of fear she'd be shot. Today I'm walking downtown, listening to the radio, and the newscaster announced that there'd been a shooting on 35W. I stopped dead in my tracks: oh, no. But it was in the suburbs! Hooray! I walked on with a spring in my step, vindicated. Now that's a selfish reaction. But I have some sort of odd good cheer working lately, the sort of cyclical delusion that makes for merry days. I don't know what it's from - I wake with enthusiasm, I'm having great cinematic dreams, and right now I don't even feel the dead lead weight of the Smear. (That's the term I use around the house to describe the Thursday-Saturday period when the obligations are greatest - two columns, Beeb chat on Thursday, Diner on Saturday.) Perhaps it's as simple as the appearance of the sun, and the fact that when I leave the office now the sky is still light. Sunshine at 5:30 - your heart starts to think of spring, starts to look ahead and dream.
Stupid heart. It's months away. But still.

Last night before Hawaii 5-0 (a good one, although any show where the bad guy is Bert Convy in a see-through silk tank top is off to a bad start) I got out my big fat book of New York architecture circa 1930, and paged through for pleasure and reacquaintance with some old buildings. I have a companion volume for 1960, and the difference between the two is the difference between the Age of Hats and the Age of Merde. The buildings of the 20s were, without exception, jaw-droppers - that they could construct these extraordinary structures without anything but hands, steam shovels, and pen-and-ink drawings is a feat unparalleled in human history. They look like they came from an age of giants and gods, whereas the utter crap of the 60s and 70s looks like the work of tiny-eyed moneychangers. But at least the work of the early Miesians had a sense of the future - i.e., modernity. Back then - and by that I mean the 20s, or the 60s - the concept of modern meant a foretaste of the future, a hint of marvels that would soon be commonplace and ubiquitous. In the New York 1960 book there are shots of office interiors, and they're sleek empty spare spaces with recessed lights, wall-to-ceiling windows, clean desks. They all look like SPECTRE headquarters. But this was the future - computerized, machine-run, technocratic, comprehensible and manipulatable, seen from a macro, top-down perspective. You could hear the distant thrum of IBM mainframes whirring in clean rooms forty floors below.

The buildings of the 20s expressed modernity, and hence the future, in a different way - it would be about machines, yes. It would have giant scale that dwarfed in the individual, sure. But they tried to find beauty in this idea, and they decorated these towers with all manner of ornamentation. All the buildings in the 60s look like packing crates for the buildings of the 20s.

Anyway: it struck me on the way to work today, as I was paused at a light looking at a 80-year old apartment building, that our view of what's Modern has lost the sense of anticipation, of prediction. Before the late Industrial Age (approximately; I'm just blowing smoke here) Modern was simply fashion. When the French aristocracy was fascinated by Egyptian artifacts, or Chinese influences, furniture or decorating schemes that reflected these fads were Modern, but they didn't point to a different, better, all-Egyptian future. The machine age revved up the notion of Progress, and progress meant a climb towards something better, something right around the corner.

Exactly when did that spirit leave us? It feels sometimes as if the brakes have been slammed in the last ten years. Fear of the future, fear of change, fear of some gnarly paradigm. I look at the buildings going up, listen to the music, watch TV, and it seems as if we have ceased to believe in the future. We're just comfortable with tomorrow.

Blah, blah. Etc. Have a fine weekend - new site next Monday.