Archive for April 2011

A book in the hand…

20 April 2011
Categories: From the armchair

I will never own a Kindle.

Nor any of the other electronic readers on the market, of which the Kindle seems to be the most popular (and is definitely the best named) option. Even though it’s all too easy to use its name generically—like Kleenex or Band-aid—I’ll refrain and stick to “reader” for the remainder of this post.

Too many arguments against readers are aesthetic: they’re flat-out hard to read, or sunshine causes screen glare, or they lack the feel of a real book in your hands.

Whatever. Those arguments are all too easily dismissed as the carping of Luddites. “I cannot manoeuvre this horseless carriage with its newfangled round steering wheel. Give me the tiller of my flivver any day!”

I’m all for new gadgets, new ways of receiving information. I read enough on a computer screen, day in day out, that it’s much more habitual to me than, say, paging through a newspaper. And there is a lot of stuff out there that is out of print, and hard to find, but which has been digitized and placed online, and that’s a Very Good Thing. So there’s nothing inherently wrong with a reader, at least in principle, as a medium for the printed word.

But here’s why I will not purchase a reader.

A few weeks ago, I got onto an Apollo kick, spurred in part by my recent reading of Moondust by Andrew Smith. I wanted to re-watch the brilliant HBO series From the Earth to the Moon under the contrary-to-popular-opinion mindset, proposed by Smith, that President Kennedy’s famous challenge “killed ‘manned’ Deep-Space exploration, stone dead, for at least the next four decades and probably many more.” At the same time, I decided to re-read the primary source for the HBO series, Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon.

coverAs I pulled Chaikin’s book from my shelf, I noted my handwritten imprimatur on the flyleaf, which stated that I bought the book in December 1994. I’ve read this book all the way through a few times since then, and used its appendices as a reference many, many times more. I have certainly gotten my money’s worth (a $15.95 cover price) from this book.

Then I thought about that time span. In the sixteen-plus years since I bought that book, how many times have I replaced my desktop computer, my laptop, or their operating systems? A very rough estimate: 7. Technology changes, hardware obsolesces.

If I had a reader, and bought this (or any) book today… how easy would it be, sixteen years from now, to read that book again or even pick it up for a quick fact-check? Would my old reader still work? Would I still have it? Would I be able to load that old digital file into my current reader? How long would it take to find the file, much less upload it? By the time all that was done, would I still care about the fact I was attempting to check, or would I have already resorted to Googling the darn thing and hoping to find an accurate answer elsewhere?

Or—might I have to buy the book all over again?

Instead, I walk into the room that doubles as my home office and library, pull the book off the shelf—it’s right there, easily found under the “C”s—and get the answer I need following a quick riffle through the pages. No waiting for an upload to finish, nor any need to reboot.

In short, it’s all about time—both mine, and the book’s. I’ve spent enough time in my life waiting for computers to do what I’ve asked them to do, that I’m no longer willing to wait for them; besides, a real book never needs a reboot. And while with just a modicum of care a real book will last well beyond my lifetime, I’m skeptical that an e-book will last even long enough for me to get around to reading it a second time.

But yes, sure, I have less tangible reasons as well for liking this book in its old-fashioned, physical form—and moreover, personal ones.

On a wintry day in December 1994, I’m reading this book for the first time, sitting in the fondly remembered Bagel–Fragel deli. In walks one of my bosses, Professor Brian Silver, chair of the political science department. He says hi, and asks what I’m reading. I show him the cover.

He snatches the book out of my hands and starts flipping quickly through the pages. What’s he up to? I wonder. He’s paging through too quickly to read anything, he’s not trying to get the gist of the book. It’s almost like he’s seen it before…

He gets to one of the photo pages between pages 430 and 431, stabs his finger at the top photo, and hands the open book back to me. “That’s my uncle,” he says, with a hint of pride.

I look at the photo, read its caption: Standing on a mountaintop in Colorado amid the primary and backup crews of Apollo 15 is Professor Lee Silver, Cal Tech geologist extraordinaire, the man most responsible for turning a bunch of type-A fighter jocks into able field geologists. (He was portrayed with delightful, eccentric earnestness by David Clennon in From the Earth to the Moon, one of the standout roles in the series.) His nephew’s familial pride is well-earned.

I remember that moment so distinctly because it was the first time in my life that I’d had an inkling of my own connection, albeit tertiary, to some of my biggest heroes—the men who walked on the moon. All at once they were real people, not just faceless spacesuited gnomes humping around a lumpy grey lunar landscape in old NASA footage, nor smiling, aviator-glasses-wearing, crew-cut-sporting military men in grainy photo reprints in a book. And I knew someone who knew someone who knew them.

And that moment, that spark of recognition that everyone in the world is interconnected in some way, is tied to this book, this particular copy of this book, the one I hold in my hands now.

Could an electronic reader ever be able to duplicate that?

Record Store Day

16 April 2011
Categories: Music appreciation

Today is Record Store Day—a somewhat new, um, international holiday. Surely conceived as a backlash against the impersonality of iTunes and big, corporate-owned, online retailers, Record Store Day celebrates the independent, locally owned, bricks-and-mortar record store. This is a good thing, and I hope these businesses can continue to survive in the digital age.

I’ll admit, however, that I myself have not been much of an actual, fiscal supporter of the local record stores in my neighborhood in recent years. The reason is simple, and as my wife put it, succinct: I’ve gotten old. When I walk in and find the music piped through the store’s stereo to be unwelcoming, if not off-putting; when I peruse the stacks and not only find nothing I want, find that ninety percent of it is completely unfamiliar to me; it’s clear that yes, I’m old.

That’s okay; I’m cool with that. The record stores in my neighborhood are not for me. I’m still happy to know they’re there, pleased to see (as I did yesterday) a young woman on the bus clutching a shopping bag from one of them.

The record store is a land of escape and discovery, in a way that no online store can be. In my student days it was a frequent ritual: Flip through the stacks, pause at an interesting title, read the liner notes and song list, track down that one elusive item to fill a gap in my collection, or find something utterly new to my knowledge, weigh the cost of my desire and the cash in my pocket against the need to buy groceries that week, and at the end of the day take home one or several prizes—or none, if it came to that—and cue up a magical musical realm.

Once, when I was a sophomore in college, it was the first Saturday of spring break and both campus and the city were a ghost town. It was early-spring cool, windy and overcast, with everything still a little grey around the edges.

The sidewalks of the main drag were almost deserted when I walked into the secondhand record store Wazoo Records. I was only partly in a mood to browse; partly I wanted a refuge against the chill for a little while.

Nothing in the stacks really appealed to me, but one thing kept catching my eye. It was an LP, sitting on a high shelf behind the counter, among the other rarities, protected by a clear plastic sleeve. The almost-naked woman on the cover was the eye-catcher, in a prurient way. It took several intermittent sidelong glances before I finally read the title.

Moontan, by Golden Earring.

MoontanThat clicked in my brain: Of course! That crappy cover on the CD issue that I owned was a fig leaf, a record company’s cheap, cop-out replacement for the much more risqué original. I had to have it, and not merely for the naughty cover art. I was willing to bet it also contained an inner sleeve and liner notes missing from the CD, stuff from an era when records were albums, not just collections of songs, in which the music was the centerpiece of a larger, complete package.

The price, however, was daunting. It might have been as much as twenty-five dollars, which now doesn’t seem like all that much but in those unemployed-student days meant the difference between eating out versus eating ramen. If I bought it, it certainly would be the only record I could afford that day, and would preclude another record store visit for the next few weeks as well.

So I dithered about it, and continued to wander the stacks, hoping something equally appealing—and significantly cheaper—would pop up. But nothing did, and ultimately I walked up to the counter and told the owner I wanted to buy the Moontan LP. He smiled, took it down, held it gently by its edges for a moment as if regarding an old friend for the last time, peered at the price tag, looked up at me, and said, “Nah, I can’t sell it to you for that—”

He paused for half a beat, just long enough for me to start to think, “shit, now I’ll never afford it.”

“—how about ten bucks?”

I was dumbfounded. It took me a moment to realize he’d cut the price, not raised it. I stammered, then agreed, and he bagged it up and sent me on my way.

I don’t know why he did it. Pity on a long-haired college kid? A vague sense that it was going to an appreciative home? A camaraderie across the generations, a sharing of a great slice of rock-’n’-roll from one music lover to another? Or just tired of having it on his shelves, taking up space?

I’ve no idea, and no matter. Whether it was his ploy or not, he certainly gained a regular customer for the remainder of my years there.

Wazoo Records closed its doors in 2006 after 31 years in business, surely one of a multitude of victims of the digital age. Here’s hoping other record stores may continue to thrive, and that Record Store Day remains a celebration of a vital industry, and not a requiem for a dying breed.

Brainiac by Ken Jennings

7 April 2011
Categories: From the armchair

Here’s a bit of trivia you might not know: Ken Jennings is a very funny guy.

Like many Jeopardy! viewers, I watched Jennings’ 75-game marathon in 2004 with decidedly undecided feelings. I never really rooted for him, nor against him. To be frank, I usually don’t even care about the contestants at all. As I have for years, even long before my own appearance on the show when I routinely taped (yes, taped, on a VCR) the episodes, I time-shift my viewing not only to skip the commercials, but also to bypass the contestant introductions and chats. This enables me to view a full three episodes in an hour, and makes the show all about the trivia, and not the trappings.

Besides, the contestants are really just a never-ending series of interchangeable trivia geeks. Unless one stands out as particularly charismatic or attractive—or on the rare occasion I recognize a face, such as that of Matt Ottinger, host of WKAR-TV’s QuizBusters and one of many victims of the Ken Jennings buzz saw (game 14)—they’re all the same. Myself included.

And Ken was certainly no exception. That’s not meant as a slam on him, it’s just stating a fact that Jeopardy! is hardly an ideal venue for anyone’s personality to shine. He was just an ordinary, clean-cut, “Opie-looking guy from Utah” (his words, not mine), and the fact that he kept showing up behind Podium #1 was, from a purist’s point-of-view, a distraction from The Game. And he was so damn good at it, and yet so overtly milquetoast, that it seemed the only way to make him interesting was to believe he was some sort of replicant, or android. So while it was fun to see his streak continue on the basis of witnessing quiz-show history, both of those facts—his persona and his prowess—made it awfully hard to root for him.

With that bias firmly in place, imagine my surprise when Ken showed up last month on a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” interview, under the pseudonym “Watson’s Bitch”—a self-deprecating reference to his recent on-air drubbing at the “hands” of a specialized IBM supercomputer—responding off-the-cuff to dozens of questions, big and small, with witty jibes and candid good humour. Some of his replies were snarfing-coffee-out-the-nose funny. And somewhere in there he mentioned his blog, which I found contains much more of the same.

And, shockingly, he’s got a taste for the occasional dirty joke. I suppose we should have figured that out from game 53, given his response to the clue “This term for a long-handled gardening tool can also mean an immoral pleasure seeker”—although maybe that particular example is more of a pun. But if your idea of “what Mormons are like” comes from a certain HBO series, you might be surprised by his reprinting of a typically smutty old Spy List on his blog, or this response in his Reddit AMA:

TheCrimsonKing: You’re a little too funny, did you hire writers with your winnings?

WatsonsBitch: Bruce Vilanch is hiding under my desk right now. Unfortunately he’s not writing jokes for me, if you know what I mean.

Or this exchange with a friend while they toured Stevens Point, Wisconsin, during that city’s annual three-day trivia event:

Earl and I decide to spend the day visiting as many trivia players as possible, and so we pore over a list of all 435 registered teams. “Shall we just go by team name?” asks Earl. “I want to visit K-Y Jelly Doughnuts and Drain Bamage.”

“Some of these names are pretty dirty,” I notice. “Let’s just visit every team where the name is an oral sex reference.”

“I don’t think we have that kind of time.”

Ken Jennings’ 2006 book, Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, is a must-read for any trivia buff, dilettante, or even neophyte. The narrative is excellent; through the course of the book Ken takes us through his complete Jeopardy! experience, from audition to post-defeat interviews. Some of the behind-the-scenes action, while never dishing any dirt or revealing Sony’s top secrets, does give prospective contestants a good general idea of what to expect with the show.

Meanwhile, Ken takes us on a journey through trivia. He presents us with a thorough rundown of trivia’s history from (not-so) ancient times. The scandals of the 1950s, and the birth of College Quiz Bowl in the 1960s. The amazing surge of trivia popularity in the 1980s, fueled by the blockbuster sales of Trivial Pursuit. The bar-trivia NTN network, a.k.a. Buzztime, and the annual temporary insanity of Stevens Point (which, by the way, begins tomorrow evening). And much more.

It’s a terrific book for trivia junkies, not least because he slips trivia questions into each chapter (usually ten, although the chapter about the general types of trivia questions and how to compose them triples that total). Just like a good game of trivia, there are plenty of “aha!” and “I didn’t know that!” moments. Without overreaching, he explains how trivia is a pervasive and positive force in modern life, its most obvious benefit being the way in which it brings people together.

On his website, Ken Jennings is hawking copies of Brainiac, which he offers to autograph and personalize, and still sell at a steep discount off the cover price. Although this has led to a spate of “high maintenance” signing requests, I suspect it’s a good ploy to unload a case (or three) of books that he likely got for free from the publisher and might otherwise sit in his garage forever.

I ordered a copy for myself, making a (low-maintenance, I hope) request for him to “feel free to make any witty-if-disparaging remark you like about my one-day appearance on Jeopardy!” Ken’s response was absolutely typical Ken Jennings—humourous, upbeat, and not the least bit mean-spirited: