Friday, November 25, 2011

Midnight Target

For the first time ever, I decided to venture out at midnight to see what this Black Friday shopping thing was like. Target started their sale at midnight Friday morning, and I was up anyway, so I decided to drive the one mile from my house to the nearest Target and check it out.

When I first pulled up, I thought that it wasn't that crowded; then I realized that I had come in from the less frequented west entrance of the shopping center. The crowd was lined up from the door to the east, and it was at probably 2000 people long.

Nevertheless, I decided to join the crowd and see what the excitement was about. I wasn't looking for anything in particular, so I wasn't going to be disappointed if some "door-buster" item had sold out, so I figured why not?

The crowd made it into the store in less than five minutes; crowd control was excellent, everyone was in a good mood, and there were probably fewer than a dozen line-breakers that I could see. It was very nice to see people doing what they're supposed to in a crowded situation.

Once I got inside, I realized that Target wasn't using their typical layout--that is, the electronics sales items were not in the electronics section, but lined up along the main perimeter aisle. That had confused many, who had headed straight to the electronics section when they cleared the doorway, hoping to find one of the deep-discount televisions that were on sale.

As it turned out, Target was so well stocked that even when I wandered past those electronics items fifteen minutes after closing, there was still a great selection of televisions in 32", 40", and 46" sizes, all at very low prices. No one was fighting over a television, nor was there any sort of territorial behavior going on; people were reasonable, and there were several of us who were willing to help customers load the heavier televisions onto their carts. When you see people taking the time to help someone else buy a bargain item, it restores your faith in human nature.

I ended up buying a couple of bags of Hershey's Kisses (cherry cordial flavor, which I haven't been able to find anywhere else other than Target) and a cheap Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner for vacuuming the hardwood floor (we were very impressed with our previous Dirt Devil, which served us well for eight years when we had the Horseleg Creek home in Rome back in the 90s). Most of all, I had a good time watching people shop with such fervor; apparently there's still a lot of life in the economy after all!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

I Shouted Out "Who Killed the Kennedies?"...

While I'll have to put off a detailed review of Stephen King's 11/22/63 until I have more time, I still wanted to share a few observations now that I've finished it:

(1) While the book deals with a time-traveling English teacher's efforts to stop the assassination of John Kennedy, the book is at its strongest when it's not dealing with Kennedy.

(2) King's view of 2011 in a reality in which Kennedy lived is more of an outline than a narrative--I can't avoid the feeling that it's only here because he feels that it has to be.

(3) I suspect that Stephen King is a big fan of Mad Men.

(4) I really enjoyed the leaner, almost pulp-influenced writing style that King used for the first part of the book. As the story went on, his more complex style and sentence structure crept back in (and that's not a bad thing, either), but the lean style of the early chapters was quite refreshing, and a sort of literary nod to the era.

(5) As is the case with many Stephen King books, his ending isn't as strong as his set-up and plot development. It's not bad, but seems a bit rushed.

(6) I also suspect that Stephen King is a big fan of Fringe.

(7) I bet it would be very easy to convince a person from 1960 or 1961 that the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" was an obscure country-western song from that era.

(8) In some ways, 11/22/63 comes across as a thought-provoking counterbalance to The Dead Zone.

(9) Stephen King is at heart a fantasist, not a science fiction writer, and you'll realize why I say that once you've finished the book.

(10) Betcha Stephen King has watched It's a Wonderful Life a time or two...

All in all, a compelling read, which is why I set aside most of Sunday evening and Monday to complete this massive doorstop of a book.

At the Tone...

A sure sign that things have changed: people who once spent hours on the phone with you every week, talking about all the important (and often the unimportant) things in their lives, let your calls go to voicemail and never find the time to return the call...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Electronically Dependent

Remember the good old days of the VCR?

I was an early adopter: I bought my first VCR in late 1977, just a few months after Mom and Dad bought theirs. I still remember the incredible expense--over $1000 for a machine that could record a maximum of four hours per tape, on VHS tapes that cost $22 per tape if Dad and I ordered them twelve at a time from the Tape Warehouse in California.

But there was one good thing about the VCR: when you made a copy of a show, it was yours. It wasn't equipment-dependent; it could be taken with you from room to room, from one place to another, loaned to friends, and archived. There was no limit to storage capacity, other than the cost of more videotapes.

Sure, the quality was a mediocre 240 lines of resolution, but it seemed okay a the time--and I'm convinced that, if manufacturers had pursued digital VCRs for HD recording with the same tenacity they used to develop the original VCRs, we'd be recording high-def tapes today.

Somehow, though, the programming providers and equipment manufacturers decided that it was undesirable for consumers to have a way of archiving and saving programs on their own. In the late 90s or early 2000's, they began to push the DVR--whether it was a Tivo or a Replay TV or a DirecTV receiver or a Comcast box, it shared the same limitations: it could only save a program to its hard drive, it could not be archived or transferred, and if the equipment failed, the programming was lost.

Over the past decade, we've dealt with hard drive failure on more than a half-dozen DVRs from various manufacturers and providers, and in every case I found myself longing for the simpler days of VCRs, when I could have simply watched my archived programming on other equipment.

I'm aware that there are ways to record programming on a computer, and in fact I use EyeTV and a USB HD tuner to do just that using unscrambled QAM broadcasts (and one Hauppauge box hooked up a cable tuner). But I'm also aware that most consumers have no idea that a computer can record programming and save it in an archival format, and I'm also aware that the entire system is more complex, arcane, and less user-friendly than the simple VCR.

It's a shame. I still have perfectly viewable VHS tapes recorded in the late 1970s--favorite episodes, clips, highlights from talk shows, musical performances, comedy skits, etc. I think far fewer people today have such personal favorites compilations, because it's difficult-to-near-impossible for the average television viewer to save the programming.

I know that a significant percentage of all televised programming is eventually made available on DVD or through various streaming services--but there's a lot of niche programming that never makes the cut, simply because there isn't a sufficiently large audience to make it profitable.

Don't know whether to blame programmer greed, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, equipment manufacturers, the digital TV transition, or all of the above... but I think it's absurd that the technology to independently record, save, edit, and share programming is no longer available to consumers on a practical basis.

Walking Dead Stumbles

I loved the first season of Walking Dead. The second season, not so much.

Not sure what went wrong between seasons (and yes, I know that Frank Darabont left the show after the first season, but I think there has to be more than that), but this season has been positively lethargic in its pacing compared to the first season. I think the zombies are moving faster than the average episode of Walking Dead Season Two; far too little actually happens in any given week, other than excessive amounts of talking.

The zombie budget seems to be suffering from cutbacks, too; most episodes have a single significant zombie scene, with a scattering of zombie appearances added to remind us that this is, after all, a show about survivors of a zombie apocalypse.

I don't dislike the series, but I don't feel like we're really going anywhere, either. Last year, I hated to see an episode end, knowing I'd have to wait a week to see what happened next. This season, there's just no energy to the series at all.

The mid-season finale is coming up next week; let's hope that when they return after a hiatus, they manage to get the series back on track.

Down in the mouth...

I hate dental work.

And yet it seems I am destined to experience virtually every painful, invasive, and expensive dental treatment that there is.

I found out last week that tooth #13, which has already had three fillings, a root canal, and three crowns in the past couple of decades, will have to be removed by an oral surgeon in the near future. The last crown, which was done less than a year ago, already has decay beneath the gumline. That's not the reason for the removal, though: the upper dooth has fractured way up in the the gum, near the socket, and can't be repaired. So my only options were (a) removal by an oral surgeon, followed up with a titanium implant and a crown mounted on that, or (b) removal by an oral surgeon, followed up with a bridge that would require crowns on the teeth on either side of it (neither of those teeth currently has a crown).

The dentist and the oral surgeon both strongly recommend the implant rather than the bridge, feeling that the bridge might create more problems in the future. I'm accepting their judgment, so sometime the week after Thanksgiving (probably Thursday, December 1st), I'll have oral surgery done.

And to add insult to injury, x-rays revealed two more cavities that have developed in the approximately two months since my last checkup.

All this in spite of the fact that I brush and floss twice daily, use fluoride mouthwashes and antibacterial mouthwashes regularly, and have my teeth cleaned by a dentist every four month.

I'm pretty much stymied at this point. I'm trying xylitol to see if it helps, but I'm not sure if there's anything I can really do that I'm not already trying. Some people seem to be cursed with bad teeth... and I am one of those people...

Monday, November 07, 2011

A Life in Four Colors (Part Thirty-Five)

One of the problems that every comic book collector eventually has to deal with is the question of storage--that is, where do you put your comic books?

When you consider that my room was basically an 8' x 11' square with a small closet, that became a real problem as my comics collection grew. When I was aggressively trading comics with friends, my collection diversified without growing. By the mid-1960s, though, I was saving every comic I bought, and that meant that I had hundreds of comics.

Today, storage is no problem--a collector can go into any comic shop and buy a long box or a short box or a drawer box or whatever other means of storage he prefers. Those choices didn't exist in the mid-1960s, though. In fact, there were no comic bags, no comic boxes, no boards--none of the storage supplies we take for granted.

Like almost everyone from that era, I relied on discarded grocery store boxes to hold most of my collection. I preferred boxes with grips cut into the side, because they made it easy to move boxes around. Boxes with lids were even better, because they made stacking much easier in my small closet. One thing I learned the hard way, though: avoid waxed boxes that were sometimes used to pack fruit, vegetables, and meats. The wax, which stopped moisture from seeping into the cardboard, would adhere to the comics that were stacked into it, and even if the books could be peeled away from the wax, the oiliness stained the books wherever it touched them. (Even worse, if you were unlucky enough to get a wax box that had been used to ship whole fryers, you ended up with unpleasant smells in your closet and in your books... and yes, I learned that the hard way...)

One day, I came home and found a new addition to my room: a tall, dark-finished bookshelf with sliding doors at the bottom, 12" deep so that comics could fit behind those doors, and wide enough that three stacks of comics would fit behind the doors. I was thrilled; not only did it offer me a more attractive means of storing my comics, it was another verification that my parents not only accepted the fact that I bought a lot of books but were willing to help me in finding a way to store them. (I suspect that Mom had a lot to do with the bookshelf purchase--she had commented more than once that I didn't have room for all my clothes and toys in my closet because of the boxes of comics.)

The bookshelf wasn't real wood, of course--it was the laminate-finished cheap stuff that is often used for office furniture today. The sliding doors were actually plastic, and they didn't slide very well at all when books were stored on the shelf above the sliding doors, because the weight made the shelf sag slightly, and it pressed on the slides, making it tough to move the doors. But as far as I was concerned, it was the finest furniture I had ever seen, because it was all mine. It was large enough that it filled the space between the door to my room and my closet door, and it took up several square feet of precious floor space--but I didn't mind losing those square feet, because I now had a bookshelf of my very own!

A few years later, when I moved to Cedartown, I left that bookshelf with Mom and Dad because it fit the space in the room so well, and our tiny Cedartown house had no room for a bookshelf that large. Mom and Dad kept it in the room that had been my bedroom; it stayed there until a couple of months after Dad passed away in 2007, at which point it finally came to Marietta with me. There wasn't room in the house for the shelf, so I put it in the back room at Dr. No's, where we use it to store supplies. And every now and then I take a moment to really look at it again, and to remember the excitement I felt when I first got a bookshelf of my very own.