The Psalms

A narcoleptic yokel on software and culture.

iOS 14 Custom Homescreen Collage

It is my privilege and my curse to write about every new major iteration to Apple’s mobile operating system, though I skipped iOS 13 last year, which was largely dominated by Dark Mode, the iPad OS fork, and Memoji – which I could care less about, honestly – and didn’t warrant my investment in a Full Post, I felt. The Photos app improvements were very welcome, but I’d departed from iCloud as my primary storage service, so I didn’t have anything relevant to say. iOS 14 is also mostly irrelevant to my own personal use, but represents a more abstract shift in design philosophy that I thought was worth commenting on. For myself, everything about it adds anxiety, beginning with the launch, itself, at Apple’s WWDC 2020, which I watched, live, and Tweeted extensively about.

I do not want to live on the Memoji planet.

My technology writing over the years has largely centered around my awe and confusion regarding what I've perceived as a divergent path from the future I once imagined. My closest guess as to this divergence's origin is the announcement of iOS7, with Apple's abandonment of skeuomorphic design in favor of an entirely new, “flatter” UX visual language, which I actually found quite jarring. In retrospect, though, of course I'm glad they did so. I thought this was an importat preface to any thoughts I have about today's WWDC Keynote – they will probably seem idiotic in a year or so (they might to you already.)

Thanks to The Big Beer Virus, this was Apple's first pre-recorded WWDC presentation (though the word “live” continued to be used on several occasions,) which made it especially surreal. During the wait for the Keynote to “go live,” the stream was occupied by an animated Earth from orbit. As the clock rolled over the hour's top, AURORA's “Daydreamer” faded in and we began to grow closer to this Earth, gradually revealing that it was covered with millions of floating memoji in various states behind their animated MacBooks. Like much of the event to follow, this scene became more and more anxiety-inducing as we grew closer to the mob (keep in mind that I've never really found memoji cute, unlike plenty of folks.) Eventually, we changed pitch dramatically and plunged through a hole in the clouds straight toward the incenter of the spaceship at Apple Park, through the door, down the staircase, and into a completely empty – but fully lit – Steve Jobs theatre, where Tim Cook emerged on stage and almost immediately began to address racism.

This disorganization of Craig Federighi's Homescreen shown in the presentation exemplifies the entire aura of this update: it’s complicated. The Verge’s Dieter Bohn receives this new complication positively in an excellent essay dedicated to the topic, divided into Widgets on The Home Screen, Jiggle Mode and Editing Pages, the App Library, and App Clips. (Yes, in many ways, linking to the essay makes this post redundant.)


That's what I wrote about WWDC. iOS 14 officially released five days ago, now, and folks are already showcasing some crazy homescreen modifications on Twitter in #ios14homescreen. I would go into detail, but I'm honestly not all that curious about the process, which is unusual. I hope more than anything that I am not loosing my curiosity or playfulness regarding iOS which not so long ago propelled an exuberant exploration of Shortcuts' capabilities during their early days as an integrated Apple property with the release of iOS 12.

Basically, I'm not going to do the full bit, this year, but I'd like to address some of the notes I did take throughout the past few months of the developer beta. Notably, there is simply far less to iOS 14 that's relevant to my life, personally, than any other release I remember, but that's okay. It's just a wee bit more difficult to motivate myself to talk about it. If there's one definite statement to be made about this release, it's that it is additive rather than transformative. As Dieter Bohn so elequently put it for The Verge:

For the iPhone, the overarching theme is that they're finally letting it get complicated. The home screen starts simple, but it can be complex if you want it to and Apple's also finally putting different elements on top of other elements so you can see Siri on top of your current screen instead of taking over the whole screen.

iOS and iPadOS 14 public beta preview: something for everybody” | The Verge

Yes, I do find the title of that article quite ironic considering what I just articulated to you.

The title of his penultimate review, additionally, includes the summation “Apple is finally lettting the iPhone homescreen get complicated.” Yes... Complexity. I'll be honest: I've actually had the opportunity to play around quite a bit with Android 11 thanks to Android Studio on my PCs, and I found it tremendously underwhelming as an alternative. On a virtual Pixel 3, the experience was functionally no more than a fucking material design-tasting, slightly varied execution of a smartphone operating system in comparison. I should disclaim, though, that these weeks with early iOS widget implementation – which represents quite a hefty chunk of this release's significance, I think we can all agree – have led me to the conclusion that I personally do not believe in widgets. Or at least – I do not have the usership vocabulary to even begin integrating them into my own handset-using life.[efn_note]I'd elaborate but honestly, who cares, really?[/efn_note]

To focus a bit, let's look specifically at a Gizmodo article published this past Wednesday: “17 Things You Can Do in iOS 14 That You Couldn’t Do Before:”

  1. App Clips: Oh boy... I'm so physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted. Just gonna say no to that one.
  2. Add widgets to the home screen: I'm going to assume it's Android users who've stigmatised dynamic home screen widgets as a desirable outlet of development resources. I simply cannot fathom any bit of data which would be truly be constructively consumed there, as opposed to unlocking the device and navigating to whatever application it originated from. Perhaps I'm just old and slow.
  3. Send apps to the App Library: Directly related, actually. Still considering how I assume most folks actually navigate to applications that have been in folders or in secondary+ homescreens to date – that is, dragging down and typing a handful of characters into Spotlight search – I'm not sure an alphabetized listing of all apps is really that useful. I know I'm not alone on this one: iJustine expressed an identical assumption on an episode of her podcast, Same Brain.
  4. Hide some of your home screens: (I repeat the exact same argument.)
  5. Watch videos with picture-in-picture mode: Once again, I could definitely be showing my age, but what really constitues watching when you're talking about a fractional segment of a ~6 inch display? You may as well just be listening to the audio, right?
  6. Pin conversations in Messages: I'm afraid the text conversation pinning feature doesn't really apply to someone like myself, who literally never messages anyone but my girlfriend and my mom. All pinning the conversations accomplishes for me is the obfuscation of the handy in-line timestamp found in the normal list view.
  7. Mention your contacts in Messages: Jesus... And we're still using fucking SMS?
  8. Add more variety to your memojis: I still have not figured out how to actually use memojies, practically, so...
  9. Get suggested smart home automations: I'm sorry... What did you say? I'm not familiar with those words.
  10. Get to bed on time: Clarification: “iOS 14 works with watchOS 7 (or on its own) to help you get to sleep at the right time each night, with reminders and Do Not Disturb options.” If you were truly at all interested in not being disturbed or getting lots of sleep, you wouldn't have spent $300 on a machine to strap to your wrist who's primary function is to disturb you!
  11. Translate websites in Safari: Christ... Really? How have I not encountered an issue with this before?
  12. Search inside apps: There we go! The first item on this list that suggests anyone at Apple actually uses iOS!
  13. Get more detailed weather forecasts: Dark Sky acquision... All this one does is remind me that Apple's self-restraint could breach at any time and essentially the only competent mobile weather app ever devised could die or be molested into irrelevance.
  14. Use your iPhone as a translator: Well... Yeah... Anything that convenienctly allows me to reduce dependence on Google, I guess!
  15. Get more facts from Siri: ...lol
    “Apple says Siri knows more facts than ever before, though it hasn’t offered up any specific examples of something it knows in iOS 14 that it didn’t know in iOS 13—you’ll have to try and test it out yourself. According to Apple, Siri now knows 20 times the number of facts that it did three years ago, and we haven’t been able to catch it out with anything so far.”
  16. Get cycling directions in Apple Maps: No! Cut that out!
  17. Plan a journey in an electric vehicle: I'm not joking when I suggest that this fits perfectly into iOS 14's Anxiety Mode Enchancement theme: all this really means is We've added the new Apple Range Anxiety app!

David Blue's Guide to Columbia, Missouri renders surprisingly beautifully on a desktop browser.

Yes, there are examples of genuine progress. The Guides feature in Maps (seen above) probably could/should have been added a long time ago, but at least Apple executed it quite elegantly. I'm could've sworn sharing your ETA has been possible from within Maps since like... iOS 7 or something, but perhaps I was thinking of Waze. Wallpapers for CarPlay are one of those features that didn’t occur to me to want, but I did/do. Also – though my personal experience with CarPlay has been limited – I can definitely imagine more layout options (“Horizontal status bar”) will be useful in fringe use cases.

And that's it! All of my notes have now been crossed off! Now I can finally forget I ever spent time thinking about iOS this year... Gourd Bless.

#software

Varmilo VA108M

Yes, I bought a mechanical keyboard. It occurred to me that folks who spend a lot of time doing things that require tools – professionals, artisans, craftsmen, etc. – usually seek out the best possible quality offerings of those tools. Even if they're just 5% better than the average alternatives and cost twice as much, when one uses them for hours every day, the last bit of refinement pays off very quickly. Considering how much typing I've done in the past 5-10 years, I find it a bit silly that I hadn't before thought to optimize the hardware I've used to do so. Now that I've put at least some thought into designing the space in which I work and gone back to school, I've also invested in bettering the thing my hands actually touch the most.

I suppose I've let myself be blinded to the advantages of a mechanical keyboard by the gaemer stigma that surrounds them. This time, I believe I began by simply inputting something like “best keyboard for typing” into a search engine, which returns plenty of iffy results, naturally, but among them was a list from Wirecutter – whom I trust, more or less – of “Best Mechanical Keyboards 2020.” Also included were posts in the r/MechanicalKeyboards subreddit, which I actually fucking joined[^1] (but promise never to mention again outside of this post.) Uncovering my eyes, I found a ridiculously-extensive community message board and Wiki, which is undoubtedly the most extensive resource on the subject to be found, anywhere. Though I did place a time limit on myself for any research of 15 minutes, in retrospect, I suppose I also had some criteria, which I assume – if you're still reading – you might be interested in:

  • WIRED as fuck. Bluetooth can fuck off.
  • “Full” keyboard, for the same reason I'd never spend any money on a piano with any less than 88 keys.
  • At least tolerably tasteful, aesthetically. (Not overwhelmingly embarrassing if someone were to actually see me using it.)
  • Cute, ideally.
  • No light shows.
  • Not “ergonomic.”
  • Not from Logitech or Microsoft.

Immediately, it was overwhelmingly clear that my choice must also have The Cherry... The Cherries... The “Cherry MX Switches,” whatever they are. Any of even the most skimmy reading up on the subject will lead you to this conclusion. That addressed, I arrived upon three considerations: the Ducky One 2, Das Keyboard Model S Professional, and Varmilo VA87M.

Varmilo VA108M (Overhead)

Layout of the VA108M seen from above.

As good as the idea of something as German as the Das Keyboard sounded, I hate the way it looks, and the Ducky seemed to take itself too seriously (despite its brand name.) The VA87M seemed to be ideal if it was full-sized. I searched for the equivalent, found the VA108M, and bought one immediately. Specifically...

SKU VA108MP2W/LLK22W
Switches Cherry MX Silent Red[^2]
Dimensions 5.39″ x 17.41″ x 1.30″
Cord Length 60 Inches

I've already written more than I ever wanted to, but let me just say that I love everything about the thing – the particular set of special keys, the way it feels & sounds, and that its heft prevents it from moving around – and I hope to keep it forever. As I said on the photographs I posted to social media, I promise to never bring this or any other mechanical keyboard up ever again unless asked about it.

[1] Yes, I have actually been using the Read It website in the past 18 months or so, which anyone who’s known me at all would find unbelievable. I don’t know if I’ll write about it in the future, so I’ll just say I’ve unblocked it within my psyche largely because it’s no longer horrendous to look at.

[2] I remain genuinely confused as to why the color of the switches matters, considering they are only visible when the keycaps have been removed.

#hardware

Hildur

I bought a desktop tower for the first time since 2010 and spent an embarrassingly long time struggling with Bluetooth shit.

As with my entire history of computer purchases, my acquisition of an HP ENVY Desktop tower, today, was last-minute, ill-informed, and certainly irrational. You “PC master race” folk: please spare me the dude, you could've just built your own pc so much cheaper shit.[efn_note]Or don't. Whatever.[/efn_note] Yes, I realize the sensible course of action would've begun with a two hour trip West to the closest Microcenter, where I'm sure the staff would've made PC shopping an absolute blast and I would've come away with a more powerful, much cheaper machine. However, after I managed to break Windows on my only machine this weekend (and subsequently failed to reset it,) I was getting especially behind on schoolwork and had absolutely no desire to complete any of it on my iPhone.

And so... I've just returned from picking up said HP Tower along with a 27” HP LED display, and am writing you after having set up the machine physically and installed most of my “essential software” list (at least all that I could remember.) As per my favorite tradition of new computer acquisition, I have named the machine after Hildur Odegard from Fortitude:

“First Impressions”

It's been exactly 10 years since I last bought a desktop tower – since I first set hands on the Dell XPS Studio desktop with which I would create the majority of my intellectual property – and I was immediately surprised by how much smaller[efn_note]6.12 x 11.93 x 13.28 inches.[/efn_note] and lighter[efn_note]13.12 lbs.[/efn_note] this tower was than my expectations. The display, too, is remarkably light and thin. Rationally, I should not have been surprised by this, but I'm not going to punish myself for continuing to find any sort of magic in technology.

In the box were a Bluetooth keyboard[efn_note]Specifically, an HP model 4251a-khsap003k.[/efn_note] and mouse set – the latter of which I will hopefully never have to use, thanks to my Logitech G203 – and was perplexed by the process of how to pair the former with the tower while it was in setup mode for far too long. I was just about to give up entirely when I revisited the packaging and noticed what I'd previously assumed was an anti-theft device, but was actually the fucking dongle for the pair. I continue to despise Bluetooth peripherals, obviously, but the multimedia function keys of the product led to some important realizations: I now had reason to use Windows Desktop Switching and have a calculator application again! However, I have yet to figure out how to alter the Function key's behavior (I'm not even sure it's possible:) in order to input Alt+F4, I have to input Fn+Alt+F4, which is far too clunky to depend on. The issue did lead to a revelation which I may or may not integrate permanently: I mapped Alt+F4 to the previously-unused button on the very top of the G203. So far, it's been pretty nifty.

HP 4251a-khsap003k

The HP 4251a-khsap003k included in the box with my new HP desktop.

That said, a component of my intention to create an intentional, static, upright-sitting desktop workspace included an allotment for a quality mechanical keyboard – my justification was that any professional in a particular craft makes a point to have the best possible tools for the job, so a high-quality keyboard has actually been very long overdue, in my case. So, I sought out a single Wirecutter recommendations list and even attempted to disseminate r/MechanicalKeyboards.[efn_note]I haven't even started self-harming yet, so my stomach is definitely strengthening![/efn_note] After a brief jaunt, I concluded that no reasonable person would be able to make heads or tails of the forum or its seemingly endless wikis without considerable indoctrination so I more or less threw a dart and landed on the Varmilo VA108M, which I ordered. All I know is that it's fairly highly-reviewed on the marketplaces I checked (though hardly mentioned on the subreddit, actually,) and that it has the Cherry Switches, which are... The good ones.

A concern I originally had with taking over the tertiary guest room – by far the smallest allotted living space in the house – as my office was its distance from our wireless router, two floors down. The last time I used the room as a workspace (five years ago,) my old tower's integrated WiFi card often struggled to maintain a reliable connection. The adapter included in this desktop, though, actually managed to clock the fastest download speed on my SpeedTest.net records just now.

SpeedTest Results

Somehow, I just managed to clock the highest download speed on my record from two floors up!

Bad(ish)

It's almost painful even to write this but... As beautiful as this $250 display is to behold, I've grown accustomed to my Surface Laptop 2's 2256 x 1504 13” display after years of hard, daily use. Apparently, those dimensions mean the little machine's display has a pixel density of 201 Pixels-Per-Inch. Filling a 27” display with just 1920 x 1080 means a pixel density of just 81.6 Pixels-Per-Inch,[efn_note]I suppose I should not have been surprised to immediately discover a dedicated online tool for calculating pixel density.[/efn_note] and the disparity was glaring to my eyes, even from the setup screen. After a few hours of regular use, I'm not sure I notice it anymore, but I suspect I will again when I've got the laptop running again. Please do indicate whether or not you think such a complaint makes me awful in the Crowdsignal poll below.

I've also already had trouble connecting my Bose SoundLink headphones correctly via Bluetooth. On my Surface Laptop, it registered as two separate devices – “Stereo Headphones” and “Headset” – which allowed me to use them as both the primary audio output and the primary audio input. For whatever reason, I have been unable to accomplish such a simultaneous connection on this machine: I can either connect them as headphones or as a headset, but not both. This video provided some help – I know now that I have to open Sound Settings and manually connect the headphones every time I re-connect them. Hopefully, I'll figure out another solution soon.

Returning to the webcam issue: I discovered that absolutely zero local stores keep add-on webcams in stock anymore, which makes sense. I resorted to searching Amazon for webcams and found a gargantuan list of brands I had never heard of. When I filtered by the one I did recognize – Logitech – I saw barely-facelifted versions of the camera my stepdad bought in 2008 and none were in stock. Unwilling to further investigate or research more, I set the price filter for under $40, sorted by customer ratings, and bought the first product which had even remotely legitimate-looking reviews: this 1080p thing branded with “Mersuii.”

After returning to the order invoice hours later for this post, I got curious enough to Google search the company name and discovered a dead-end url, zero Wikipedia page, and this Trademark registration, on which I spotted some very interesting information. Entered in the second “Goods & Services” row is the following text:

Adult sexual stimulation aids, namely, devices for massaging or vibrating external and internal portions of the body, vibrating and non-vibrating reproductions of parts of the male and female anatomies, male sex toys, masturbators, penis pumps, electrical penis cyclone pumps, rings, clamps, stimulators, vibrators, dildos, dongs, butt plugs, anal beads, rings to be worn about the penis; Adult sexual stimulation kit comprised primarily of adult sexual stimulation aids and a workbook

MERSUii Trademark Registration – “Goods & Services”

To hell with that keyboard! Now I am immensely curious as to what I'll be receiving in the mail this coming Monday, the 7th.

Take my Display Resolution Poll

#hardware #meta

Broke Windows

An attempt to fix a Windows Insider Build issue led to soft-bricking my Surface Laptop 2.

I finally did it, ladies and gentlemen... I managed to break the Windows installation on my Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 to such an extent that it has been unrecoverable. I am currently borrowing my mother's MacBook Pro and waiting on a Windows 10 installation .ISO file to download so that I can hope to mount it correctly on the last, shitty USB thumb drive I still have lying around.

Fuck Grammarly

YEAH, THAT'S RIGHT BITCH.

I now suspect I began down this path a few months ago when I discovered Windows Insider Channels and rejoiced... As I've discovered that one can relatively easily find a beta version of virtually any piece of software, it's become a bit of a habit for me. More or less unconsciously, I’ve ended up with an application library full of Developer Beta and Nightly Build-type shit. I don't think there was/is a single web browser installed on that machine that is not the given entity's “Developer Edition” which – considering most of the regular installs allow you to opt into dev tools, anyway – seem like they might be redundant. I don't particularly care, anymore – I mostly just love their icons. Firefox Developer Edition's logo is a blue Firefox(!,) Edge Chromium Dev's is... more interesting than the regular version. Google Chrome Canary's icon is a surprisingly-tasteful variation of the company's usually-horrendous color palette.

What I'm trying to say is... I have continued upon this habit of opting for unstable versions of software in a sort of defiance against the common sense notion that relying upon them is generally a bad idea.[^1] I suppose I was just waiting to experience any consequences from such a decision, and well... Here they are!

It all began when my Surface's integrated webcam became invisible to all applications that used a video input – including Microsoft's own Camera app and OBS. It showed up in Device Manger, where I did the generally-recommended troubleshooting task of uninstalling it completely (including its drivers) and rebooting to force Windows to reinstall it. It did so successfully every time, to no effect on the original issue. I also went into the Surface's BIOS menu, where its hardware devices are explicitly listed, and disabled/re-enabled the camera, to no effect. Normally, the absence of a webcam function would be more or less irrelevant to my day-to-day workflow, but now that I'm partaking in “virtual” college courses, at least one of my professors has pressured me to appear on cam as soon as possible.

On Sunday night, I decided to revisit the problem with greater commitment, diving into a variety of deeper troubleshooting steps which I do not recall. The crucial one, though, was my decision to use the System File Checker tool (sfc /scannow) with the added instruction to fix whatever errors it found.[^2] This drove my dearest little laptop into a cycle of self-diagnoses which results in an option screen including “Reset PC.” After trying virtually every other option, I decided to try resetting, only to be met with connectivity error messages after pursuing the “Install via Network” option, leaving the use of a bootable Windows 10 recovery USB as my only choice, in theory.

Another problem now arose: my mother's MacBook Pro is the only other machine I have any sort of access to at the moment, and MacOS no longer supports the creation of such a bootable USB for Windows via the Boot Camp Utility any longer. Nevertheless, I tried to make one by downloading the correct OS ISO and mounting it via UNetbootin, which didn't work. I then called Columbia Computer Center, who very generously agreed to make one for me and only charge me for the drive itself ($10!)

Unfortunately, that one hasn't worked either, so I'm afraid I'm just going to have to take the thing to them... Stay tuned for the Final Verdict.

[1] This is why I’ve always downloaded the developer iOS beta releases on my actual, daily driver handset.

[2] I’m pretty sure it was “-f” but I’m not going to do the research to verify that… Sorry!

#software

SoundCloud Tile

I’ve got some fucking opinions about SoundCloud…

My friend Sierra has used SoundCloud almost exclusively for her music discovery, consumption, and recommendations, but has remained resolute in her unwillingness to financially invest in the service. As such, her listening is regularly interrupted by ads and limited to bitrates as low as 64kbps. Since I was last employed, I have maintained a vow to her that I would pay for a subscription to SoundCloud Go+ – the premium listener tier of the service – with my own money, once I was once again in place at a steady job. This move would remove all advertising from her listening and up its bitrate to 256kbps, among other benefits.

Two nights ago, we were refueling her car in preparation for another one of our recreational drives into rural Missouri when I made the decision on a whim to simply signup for a trial of Go+ on my own account using Apple Pay, mostly because I knew we’d be going out of effective cell network range and one of Go+’s most emphasized features is its ability to download music locally. (Since my Apple Music subscription expired earlier this year, I only have a single album actually downloaded on my phone.)

*** The above is what I wrote several weeks ago, just as I was beginning my trial period. Now, having experienced a significant amount of time as a SoundCloud Go user, I am a bit sad that my trial is over. To be honest, I fully intended to become a paying subscriber, but my PayPal account was $0.70 short of the $12.99 monthly fee when the first billing cycle came, two weeks ago. This is not a conclusion I expected to come to, as SoundCloud’s fundamental arrangement could not possibly differ any more from the music streaming service I long claimed as my ideal own: Apple Music.

One major worry I would imagine potential subscribers may have when approaching SoundCloud as a replacement for their single music subscription service would revolve around the extent of SoundCloud’s establishment music industry library. There’s no way your Dad’s Sunday barbecue playlist is going to be on SoundCloud, right? Strangely enough, I was unable to find a single track that was not in the library. From my own favorite Keith Jarrett’s archives to the new Dixie Chicks album, every bit of big time record label-distributed music I could conceieve of could be found aside the Go+ badge (though notably, neither of these showed significant playcounts.) As far as the app experience goes, I swear it got smoother as soon as I signed up for Go+. This is probably bullshit, but regardless, with the seemingly ever-widening disparity in the experiences of free vs. premium users, SoundCloud appears to be moving actively away from the former.

SoundCloud Desktop Keyboard Shortcuts

I have long said (somewhat in jest) that Chance The Rapper is the only reason SoundCloud still exists.

From a future historian’s perspective, the battle for the definitive name in independent digital music distribution has already won, largely thanks to its relationship with Chance The Rapper, who’s quickly become a “cultural influencer, thought leader, global star,” and one of my generation’s upmost celebrity champions. Obviously, there is little sense trying to determine whether SoundCloud earned his partnership or landed their popular association with his name as long as the artist maintains it publicly, while continuing to give new meaning to the phrase “serially likable.” -“Bandcamp: Streaming’s Secret Savior” | July, 2018

If CNET_ was asking the question a year before that Bandcamp essay, I think I can feel properly varified. What I’d really like to know, now: does Chance still feel the same way about the streaming service after the launch of SoundCloud Go+? Considering that I am far from a real music journalist, I do not have any more contact resources than you have. That said, I left [a comment on his Facebook Page](https://www.facebook.com/chancetherapper/posts/3299672310124810?commentid=3319045628187478). I guess we’ll see.

Some more technical bits: SoundCloud is now castable on Chromecast, but not supported by Apple CarPlay, for whatever that’s worth. Notably apart from Bandcamp and Apple Music and aligned with Spotify, SoundCloud is explicitly investing in algorithmic music discovery, which means its users are doing the curatorial work. I am doing/have done the curatorial work. That means the DnB crowd is going to receieve Toto recommendations, given what I sought out for this post. You’re welcome, and sorry…

  1. While I was surprisingly unable to find any Tweets or Evernotes further evangelizing Apple Music (I suspect I’m thinking of an old, untranscribed Drycast episode,) I found real magic in the service as I perceieved it: $9.99 a month for all of iTunes. 13 year-old me would considerthat one helluva deal.
  2. Naturally, if you know of one, please do comment and/or drop me a line.
  3. In fact, it is the only streaming app I found that _does not _have CarPlay support. Even Bandcamp and MixCloud for iOS do!

#music #software

Greyhound Porthole

Examining Fred Rogers' debut Atlantic-theatre naval anxiety compilation.

It's a little late to write about Greyhound – Tom Hanks' first screenwriting credit – which released on Apple TV+ this past Father's Day, June 21st. Though I definitely left my quite severe obsession with WWII history in my prepubescence, I thought I'd remark on this film because I originally hoped it would fulfill a role I'd long wanted for: the destroyer-side compliment to U-boat films like Das Boot and U-571. James D. Hornfischer's exceptional account of the U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts' part in The Battle off Samar with The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors was my last dive into naval history. It's one of the most astounding war stories I've ever encountered, and upon first seeing Greyhound's trailer, I was sortof hoping it was the Big Boy film adaptation its always warranted. (Though apparently there was a TV movie made in 2005???) Instead, its based on (distinct from “adapted from,” apparently) a 1955 novel by English author C.S. Forester entitled The Good Shepherd.

Tom Hanks made sure to imbue his first screenplay with a shitload of “opaque naval jargon,” as The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw's review put it. A brief “investigation” by The Cinemaholic suggests that the U.S.S. Keeling – the film's singular setting – most resembles a Mahan-class destroyer, though none actually bore the name. For the actual photography, the production made use of a surviving example of the most mass-produced destroyer of all time:

When it came to shooting the film, instead of relying completely on sets, the crew of ‘Greyhound’ found another option. They used USS Kidd, a real WWII destroyer, to film the journey of Greyhound. She is a Fletcher-class destroyer and is named after Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, the first US flag officer to die during the Second World War.

As much as you're going to loathe it, I must include this commentary on Greyhound's historical accuracy if only because – as a undoubtedly mainstream film – its been so widely and competently reviewed, already, by real film writers. I am almost positive U-boats would rarely – if ever – waste their precious few viable torpedo shots firing ultra-close-range at the agile, super-speedy destroyers and destroyer escorts that protected supply convoys, and I am sure that none ever bothered with audibly addressing enemy ships over the radio in English. I understand that dramatizing historic events is the core function of Greyhound's genre, but this particular addition was so unbearably cheesy that it utterly decimates all of the experience's hard-won context. Just look at a snippet from the first of two dialogues in text:

Greyhound. Greyhound, Greyhound.

This is Gray Wolf.

We hunt you and your friends Eagle, Dicky and Harry.

We watch your ships sinking into the deep.

We hear the screams of your comrades as they die.

How many of them will there be before you join them?

The Gray Wolf is so very hungry.

I'm sure there's an essential academic film function which only similar enemy taunts could perform and without which this screenplay would've been technically unsound, and – if I were allowed supposition – I would venture to guess that America's Favorite Dad felt pressured to bolster his first penning against easy gimmes for the Great Big institution of cinema criticism as much as possible. However, this shit is just disruptingly cheesy. Fuck it! Have the rest:

Greyhound!

Your flock is not safe from this wolf.

We can always find you in the night to kill you.

Or will Dicky die next? Or Harry?

[Gray Wolf howls]

...

Greyhound.

Guten Morgen, Greyhound.

Did you think you had slipped away from this Gray Wolf?

No, you did not. You will not.

The sea favors the Gray Wolf on the hunt, not the hound on the run.

You and your comrades will die today.

The contrast with the rest of the script's imposingly thorough and relentlessly-paced naval action dialogue is far too abrupt to not be problematic. Even as obsessed as I was with naval history, I'm still too oblivious to the details of what is/was actually said on the bridge of a warship during combat maneuvers to tell you how authentic Greyhound's depiction really is (it's hardly ever shown on the screen or laid out in nonfiction, even,) which nullifies all relevance the realism would've had, otherwise. Director Aaron Schneider in an interview for Vanity Fair:

“If you decide to read Greyhound by tracking the dialogue—rudder commands and sonar distances—you’ll soon find yourself completely lost. Because that’s not where the movie lives. This screenplay was designed to beam you aboard the USS Keeling…and it’s up to you to engage with what’s going on and extrapolate how things work, so you can answer the question, ‘What the hell is going on here?’”

In this sense – crafting a consuming, believable, unbelievably gray, claustrophobic, icing iron reality – Tom Hanks excels.

Though Letterboxd user brucewayn called it “boring” in the most popular review of the film to date on the platform, I found Greyhound to be quite engaging in an anxious, depressing sense familiar to classic war dramas like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down. The tedium of naval warfare's endless orienteering is rescaled to a battlefield of lesser distances – axis and allied vessels actually collide on several occasions and a U-boat crew decides to fuck it all and brawl it out with two parallel destroyers with surface guns instead of retreating after losing their ability to dive. (See: Titanic VI.) Through a combination of wartime compression and stitching, Greyhound is in large part a mashup of naval action at the extremes of what historical fiction will allow within its 48-hour setting. From Ben Lindbergh's review for The Ringer:

In The Good Shepherd, enemy torpedoes simply sail wide; in the movie, they graze the hull for even closer calls. In the book, Krause agonizes over, and generally resists, calling the crew to general quarters, wary of exhausting their energy reserves; in the movie, he doesn’t hesitate to summon his sailors to battle stations.

The result is an emotionally effective film constrained by a very specific dramatic aim: another war movie every father can juice for decades' worth of Sunday afternoons on the sofa. “As befits his status as America's Dad, Hanks has constructed for us the ultimate Dad Movie — all the action you could ever need or want, with no annoying characters hanging around, harboring pesky needs and wants of their own,” quips Glen Weldon for NPR. Undoubtedly, though, the subject matter is fresh. I wouldn't say my youth desire for a surface-side Atlantic-theatre film is 100% satiated, but Greyhound managed to accomplish much more than I expected.

#film

Hey Tile

Basecamp's HEY matters, and not just because it took on Apple's App Store policies.

Something always worth celebrating: a considered, no-nonsense new effort to reimagine email. I've lived through many notable milestones in this regard: Apple Mail on the original iPhone, Gmail, Readdle's Spark, and (yes, really,) the revitalization of Microsoft's Outlook. Exciting innovations have abounded throughout email's history, but it's highly debatable whether or not any of them have really changed the way we use it in a profound way, yet I am unfailingly intrigued whenever somebody new comes along, so when I saw Casey Newton's story on The Verge's frontpage discussing Basecamp's HEY before I got out of bed on the morning of June 15th, I was delighted to see an organization still had the courage to invest their confidence and resources into their Ideas About Email. Originally, HEY's homepage included a prompt: “To get on the list, email iwant@hey.com and tell us how you feel about email. Could be a love story, or a hate story. Could be long, could be short. It’s your story, so it’s up to you.” Though I knew it'd likely never be read, I decided to write them a letter about my personal history with email, which turned into an entertaining enough anecdote to publish here.

The real reason HEY continued to be so widely covered by tech media, though, was its challenge to Apple's App Store policies after one of its updates was rejected by the marketplace just a day after Casey's story was published. Much drama ensued – I have done my best to aggregate links to all the news stories on the subject in a thread on the Extratone subreddit I recently started. I think the public resistance by Basecamp's CTO David Heinemeier Hansson was probably a PR move, which is fine, but all I wanted to contribute was a review of the actual function of HEY, itself. After reading posts by some of my favorite bloggers, however, I think it would be redundant. Kev Quirk argued “Email Is Not Broken,” to which Mike Stone responded “Email Is Broken.” Additionally, Business Insider's Lisa Eadicicco published an in-depth review at the beginning of the month.

My singular commentary: I'm worried that subscription services that exclusively accept large yearly sums like HEY inevitably become the “country club for the most self-important emailers in business” which Casey spoke of. I guess we'll see.

The following is an excerpt from my letter to HEY asking for a early-access invite.


Email and I: An Abridged History

I am 26 years old, so I suppose I'm of the first generation that's never experienced life without email. I grew up on a farm in rural central Missouri and my dad was very much an early adopter. (You'd be surprised how e-enabled farmers were becoming in the early 2000s.) I cannot remember life before the humongous satellite dish was anchored in our front yard. Long before I had any reason to be online (or really understood what that meant,) he began and ended every day sitting at in front of a CRT on a corner desk, clacking away on a cigarette smoke-yellowed plastic keyboard for hours. I did not understand why, then, but in retrospect I realize that he was corresponding with a huge network of neighbors, politicians, family, and college friends via email lists/chains and that he depended on it both professionally and personally in a big way. As a single man living at least an hour's drive from a city of any size, I suppose my dad was predisposed to have a rich online life long before his suburban peers, which normalized it precociously for me.

The summer before my first grade year, my elementary school became the first in the district to have a computer lab (also the first air-conditioned room in the building,) so my high school graduating class was literally the very first to have had any digital curriculum – and an email address(!) – for the entirety of our public school experience. Because of this, I think most of us were trained to think of email as a tool for school work – it was eluded to by our computer teachers that our school email addresses were being monitored to make sure they remained so (obviously, they weren't.) As we grew into 6th-7th grade, however, we all seemed to end up with personal email addresses. I consider myself lucky to have experienced a very brief window – before instant messaging/early social networks became mainstream and SMS became even remotely pleasant to use – when my middle school friends and I corresponded exclusively by email when we weren't on the phone.

It still sounds a bit silly to say, but I've spent the past few years coming to believe more and more strongly that my first-generation iPhone changed my life forever in a profound way – especially my relationship with email. After watching Steve Job's introduction at MacWorld 2007 live, I promised to skip a year of Christmas gifts if my mom would agreed to buy me one, and she did. Obviously, it was like nothing else I'd ever experienced, and it completely changed how I responded to and thought about technology. Before smartphones, there was no checking email outside of time in the computer lab, which was intended to be quite strictly-regulated. I had a real advantage when I started bringing my iPhone to school – absolutely no one knew what it was (a bizarre thought in contrast,) including teachers. Suddenly able to browse and read my inbox in class, at lunch, and on the bus, my use and consideration of email was propelled far ahead of my peers'.

When I started an online magazine in 2016, I don't think I could've conceived of the extent to which running a modern media company – even one targeted toward tech-savvy, early-adopting youth – still involves email. I assumed that my audience rarely actually read from their inboxes and relied almost exclusively on social networks for content discovery, so I originally forwent any implementation of a newsletter. As I grew more and more interested in and engaged with the media beat, I was exposed to the email renaissance of the past 2-3 years thanks to services like Revue and Substack, saw that it was good, and decided to give it a try for myself. I launched our semi-regular newsletter in April, 2017 on the subjects of “Division, Art, and Media” and published a little over 30 issues over the course of 18 months. To be honest, I'm not sure I've ever had so much fun writing.

Very shortly after it began, I observed our general engagement quadruple, and – quite selfishly – found the process of aggregation to be soothing and very mentally restorative. It exposed some pretty horrendous media consumption habits of mine, but it also offered a painless solution to them. As soon as everything I read became a potential item in the newsletter, I wasn't just reading for myself anymore (or at least, that's the mentality it gave me,) so I could no longer afford to dismiss particular subjects as easily or to skim so recklessly. I nurtured a much less chaotic media diet and found myself absorbing a lot more of what I wanted to without wasting so much time burning through links. I ended up feeling more focused in other, unrelated areas of my life, too. Obviously, I love email for that, and I miss writing that darn newsletter so much that I continuously look for excuses to do something similar.

My former Tech Editor loved email perhaps as much, but she's definitely the only person I've ever met who finds the medium as entertaining as I do. (If you're really committed, I just made a Twitter Moment full of all the best stuff I've ever posted about email – mostly jokes like “patron saint of email marketing,” but there are one or two profound posts in there, too.) We realized one day that – aside from The Webbys – there are very few notable awards celebrating excellence in the email medium, so we decided our magazine would host the 2017 First Annual Email Awards. Unfortunately, I don't think anyone else had any idea what the heck we were trying to do, so we never received enough submissions. However, I noticed a great opening paragraph in the original announcement post which I thought made a worthy conclusion:

Man has used electronic mail to intercommunicate, woo, build communities, topple businesses & civilizations, embezzle money, spread worms, distribute cluttered, broken links to discontinued Orscheln products, feed infants, set climate control, confirm identities, check bank account statuses, and lie to exhausted, slightly-conceited, and newly self-published professors. That's right – These Trillions of simple digijewels have purveyed every single possible category of human communication, and it's still growing strong.

I'm excited to give Hey a try – I hope you'll consider inviting me early. I'll even send my feedback if you so desire it! If not, I'll probably end up trying a paid subscription, anyway hehe. Either way, let me wish the best of luck to your team. Win or lose, I'm glad you're taking action on your complaints, unlike the rest of us.

Thank you!

#software

Gurgle Crum Tile

Almost exactly two years ago, I warned that Google was on track to replace God of us all. Last month, The Verge's Dieter Bohn reported that Google plans to begin accounting for “page experience” in its search rankings beginning in 2021, later explaining in a subsequent episode of The Vergecast:

Here is another example of the Chrome team coming up with a bunch of web standards and then the Search team making a bunch of incentives based on those standards.

It was news to me that in May, Google launched a page called “Web Vitals” on its web.dev domain (which they've apparently owned since November 2018.) The company measures “page experience” based on three main criteria:

  • Largest Contentful Paint measures perceived load speed and marks the point in the page load timeline when the page's main content has likely loaded.
  • First Input Delay measures responsiveness and quantifies the experience users feel when trying to first interact with the page.
  • Cumulative Layout Shift measures visual stability and quantifies the amount of unexpected layout shift of visible page content.

CoStar just sent an oddly topical (and honestly, encouraging) notification:

Costar Notification

I'm not a “real” web developer – nor do I mean to dictate to a single one – but I know enough theory to note that of this “core web” education operation centered around web.dev is operating on some irritating assumptions:

1. Smaller assets are ideal.

The simple assumption that it is always better to have the smallest page possible – that images should be resized and compressed to hell and typography/other elements should be few in number. Instantaneous page loads should be priority over any other standards of measure for a web page – like interesting design, for instance.

2. Minimalistic design is necessary.

The reality – for most of the Western world, at least – is that average network speeds are exponentially increasing year-by-year. In 2018:

World-wide average mobile download speed was 22.82 Mbps (Megabits per second), an increase of 15.2% over 2017. Average upload speed was 9.19 Mbps, an increase of 11.6%. Fixed broadband speeds also increased. Average download speed increased 26.4% to 46.12 Mbps, while average upload speed came in at 22.44 Mbps, a 26.5% increase.

I may be a yokel, but these averages are still absolutely inconceivable to me. Our phones have as much RAM as my “studio” work desktop, now. 22.82 Mbps will reliably download very complex web pages nearly instantaneously. There is a very reasonable argument for essential services like search engines and news websites to conform to/adopt standards like AMP, but for the rest of The Open Web, ingenuity and risktaking should be encouraged, not discouraged, for the true good of all Peoplekind.

A term I haven't seen for a good while describes this ideology: “the mobile web,” and it completely sucking ass is not a new concept. I've before referenced an old complaint from 2015 by The Verge's Editor-in-Chief, Nilay Patel (which the original article also links in different context in its last line):

The entire point of the web was to democratize and simplify publishing using standards that anyone could build on, and it has been a raging, massively disruptive success for decades now. But the iPhone's depressing combination of dominant mobile web marketshare and shitbox performance means we're all sort of ready to throw that progress away.

3. Google has the right to dictate “Best Practices.”

The Mobile Web as a utility has its place, but it's certainly not a necessary or desirable ideal for the entirety of The Web, yet Google has the audacity to presume it can dictate what is and is not optimal web design. The URL in and of itself is extremely presumptuous – Google technically has every right to own web.dev, sure, but should it? The Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) program has already had an annoying effect on day-to-day browsing. I despise AMP links more than most things in life, just as I despise the name of the website Search Engine Land (which sounds like actual hell) who also reported on this:

If you have AMP, the good news is that the majority of AMP pages do extremely well in terms of page experience metrics, [Google Project Manager] Rudy Galfi said. It doesn’t mean that all AMP pages will have top page experience metrics, but AMP is built in a way to help with this.

Recently, I discovered an incredibly refreshing/affirming essay wrapped in a hand-build web experience called “Rediscovering the Small Web” by designer Parimal Satyal, arguing for a different variety of Web presence:

Modern web design principles are very rarely directed at regular people looking to make a website on something they are interested in. Instead, the focus is on creating websites that perform well: Don't use too many colours. Write short, catchy headlines. Don't let content be too long. Optimise for SEO. Produce video content, attention span is decreasing. Have a an obvious call to action. Push your newsletter. Keep important information above the fold. Don't make users think. Follow conventions.

I realize that the majority of Web utilization cannot “revert” to hand-coded plain HTML web pages hosted on Neocities, but there's something to be learned (or remembered, in my case) from Satyal's argument: The Web's forgotten strength is diversity (much like my country's, it would seem,) and the majority of users are being pushed by Google's search engine toward a very specific minority of URLs. We have not been exploring for a very long time:

Instead of browsing, the web is for many an endless and often overwhelming stream of content and commentary picked out by algorithms based on what they think you already like and will engage with. It's the opposite of exploration.

“It is worth remembering a website does not have to be a product; it can also be art,” argues Satyal. “The web is also a creative and cultural space that need not confine itself to the conventions defined by commercial product design and marketing.” (Emphasis mine.) It's not just that The Web was meant to be more – nostalgia is definitely not my particular trip, if you didn't know – it's that it can be so much more. My list of favorite Open Web projects contains just a few examples of what I mean.

It's possible I am being too critical of Google. A Twitter search for the link to The Verge's article reveals commentary like “Experience, matters ;),” “Web search moving forward,” and “Halleluja!,” so there are clearly users who are more than onboard, and not all of what Google has done for the web recently has been detrimental. It was also announced last month that Chrome will begin blocking “resource-heavy” advertisements by default and that Google and Microsoft have been working together to improve spellcheck and scrolling in Chromium. There's not much to feel about these announcements, but – as always – there is a whole lot to feel about Google as a company.

Google has announced a three-day live digital event at the end of this month (June 30th-July 2nd) in which viewers will “celebrate our community's actions, learn modern web techniques and connect with each other.” “Over three days, we'll share quick tips on aspects of modern web development,” explains the company on its web.dev/live page. I am planning to attend and bitch as much as I am allowed. Stay tuned to hear a chronicle.

#software

Bilge Version 2.3

I've been devoting significant attention to this blog recently, and I hope it shows. Reading now contains a list of recommended email newsletters as well as an ongoing list of my all-time favorite reads on The Web. I also added Podcast for End User and a dedicated Subscribe page. I've added Open – a list of some of my favorite Open Web projects and Social – a list of my social links. About has also been updated with new branding and more current hyperlinks. Typography and colors have been unified and updated to Version 2.3, and my theme has been officially listed for those of you willing to engage in the sincerest form of flattery. Also, look at that favicon! Thank you, CJ!

Furthermore, I took the time to import some old work:

Bandcamp: Streaming's Secret Savior“ A magnum opus of a 13,000+ word essay on why Bandcamp should be the future of music streaming services.

Mark Fuck and the Goofy Godheads“ An old, hilarious rant about Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk that – if I may say so – still rings awfully true today.

The Matchsellers' Inheritance“ A local bluegrass band releases an album that proves they are not just what they appear to be.

The Case for Chuck Klosterman“ A deep dive into whether or not the voice of one old White Portland Dad should be culturally considered.

Kilgore Trout on CreateSpace“ A critique of self-publishing culture (immediately after self-publishing myself) disguised as a review of Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions.

Virtual Reality Virginity, Lost“ An account of my first experience in VR thanks to my friend Isiah.

Twitter Thrives on Incompetence“ Pleading for users to just use Lists. Lists are linear and ad-free.

Profound Revelations in iOS 12“ Siri Shortcuts really meant something in the beginning.

Illiteracy in American Media“ A short academic essay about how little the illiteracy issue is covered in American media.

This blog has now surpassed Extratone in number of email subscribers, which I deeply appreciate. Though you're not paying – yet (hehe) – let me once again encourage any/all feedback you may have. Send me an email!

#meta

Blood - Blimp's Burden Chapter VI

Two young men steal a wheel of cheese.

This is an excerpt from my novel project, Blimp's Burden, about a jaded software engineer who’s new, ridiculously-eccentric boss presents a future which forces him to reckon with his mishandled grief. To support the novel's creation with art, funds, etc, please email me.

Listen to the entirety of the chapter read aloud by Siri Voice 2 below.

In the right hour, the woodland springtime metamorphic processes of the neighboring Lake Geneva suburb’s in-betweens were in a paused state – the toads again hushed; the crickets tired, and the human populace, too. In the right hour, the fickle wind and the social owls were the only sound, and nothing moved but the sparse, light-footed doe in careful segments with her fawn. From the main gated lane of The Nice, Huge Estate, Lenny Lather slid through the muddy barrier and started bouncing West on the blacktop, brogues squeaking every third step. The overcasted clouds were having trouble deciding whether or not to let down their rain – as they had been all day – and the old, heavy early-March mist softened the yellow glow of the tall, buzzing streetlamps so much that he couldn’t help but intermittently wipe his eyes, for the spreading light convinced his mind that his eyelashes must’ve been wetted.

Theodore Pith’s big old house was now burrowed between two mismatched neighborhoods – the bleaker Easterly, which was too new for its alien trees to have recovered from the brutality of its development’s clear-cutting and contained within one of its central featureless backyards an unidentifiable creature which made all through the night the most unimaginably ghastly, disturbingly human child-like shrieking; the opposing Westerly’s trees further enough along in their regrowth – ten or twenty years perhaps – to appear more of the planet Earth to Manhattan-bred Lenny Lather, who still found the colorless destruction of suburbia unendingly upsetting, especially when coming down. In the interest of his regular withdrawal’s mitigation, he had already established two short, repeatable tracks and a longer, several mile-long loop which skirted him sufficiently around the East’s center to avoid hearing the shrieks in all but the stillest nights. Never in his years – on these walks he was especially reminded of just how many there were – had he been able to feel such absolute ownership of his surroundings. The eroding Earth slipping away from the hem of the warped, stained wood fences; the sidewalks, cracked, bent, sloped helter-skelter, often muddied in the troughs and joints – generally laying haphazardly in layers after having been steadily tossed about by the glacial forces of their intermixture with clay, precipitation, and the tumultuous temperature-dependent torture of the two – these were his, entirely, in the right hour. Between two and five in the morning when the earliest risers would blearily revive their dewy automobiles from long, silent hibernation, the whole world – everything in his sight and more at any moment – it was all his, without a single worthy challenger.

In the right hour, the roads were completely and totally abandoned – for the New Yorker, an unfathomable absolute – and all humanity was at rest. In the right hour, Lenny Lather was the appointed guardian of the worn domesticity of a small nation, though the lonely occupation was astoundingly lax, for in the miles and miles of empty streets he had already traversed in his nightly holidays from the World of Pith, he had yet to encounter a single unexpected factor or minutely threatening presence. Since shortly after his December arrival, he’d walked through even the most frigid mornings. Of course, the stillness had then been even more otherworldly, and Lenny was curious to see how his new most private domain would change with the seasons. Though the auxiliary guest room which he now called home was no smaller or less hospitable than the master bedroom of his late Hudson Yards flat shared with his late Wife, it proved to be a poor respite from Theodore Pith, who treated him – when they were “home” at Nice, Huge – as the puppy he never had, and expected his participation to remain entirely vulnerable to his any whim. Granted – in their shared abuse of amphetamines, cocaine, and assorted other stimulants – Lenny Lather was vastly more prepared for the games than any circadian guest could’ve possibly been. At first, the ten-foot door of his dawn-facing room had closed without latching, but with the warmth and moisture brought with the Midwestern Spring, the most secure state in which the engorged wood could be forcibly arranged still left a half-inch crack, and Lather’s last chance of privacy was lost.

The latest favorite pastime of Nice, Big’s Master necessitated a willing, capable driver, and – as keeping a single Butler (much less an entire household staff) was proving extremely difficult for him – Lenny Lather was the sole pick of the draft. In the earliest hours of one Tuesday morning in February, he’d been pleasantly dosing and drooling on his laptop after an evening of obsessive, incoherent notetaking when the huge door had been kicked ajar by a deep black, blindingly shiny oxford with excessively violent force. Attached to the shoe in an equally blinding penguin tuxedo, towering bowler hat, and cartoonish fake mustache was the Great, Blown Pith.

“Hope you’re not busy,” he’d said quite loudly to the lolling Lather, leaning and tilting his head into the lamp light, which had dislodged his monocle and briefly occupied him with untangling its chain.

“You’re not busy, are ya?!” he’d shouted, tapping the shiny brass lion’s head of his shiny black cane against the vanity… then swatting it with a flicking wrist… then clubbing it with a full, two-handed homerun swing – taking huge, vaguely cat nose-shaped gouges from the surface of the wood. The splintery wood chips had rained down upon the hunched Lenny; he’d stirred with one found its way in his open mouth – he’d chewed it slowly and swallowed it, but he still had not awoken. Nevertheless, Theodore Pith’s coked-up enthusiasm couldn’t possibly have yielded to common decencies like his guest’s nighttime peace.

“SHOOT, LENNY,” he’d screamed in his companion’s ear, having traversed the room to his bedside.

“I SURE HOPE YOU’RE NOT BUSY RIGHT NOW!”

Finally, he’d resorted to tickling Lenny’s nose with the ornament, which had reeked with the urinal smell of metal polish – the sudden, overwhelming delivery of which to the writer’s olfactory nerves finally causing ample alarm in his nervous system to justify bringing him abruptly back to his life and deluded host.

“I need a favor. The Duesie’s warming up. We’re going for a ride.”

Unable to form a linguistic response, Lenny Lather had obeyed Theo’s frenzied, repeating instructions and stumbled into the matching suit he’d brought over his arm – wondering with marginal, arrested clarity at how well-tailored it was for him. He had not the soundness of perception to protest when Pith had whipped a deep black, blindingly shiny bowtie around his already-congested esophagus, nor when he’d adheased the huge, itchy matching fake moustache to his upper lip and nearly pulled the matching Tower of Bowler all the way down over his ears. He had been unresponsive when he’d been sat on the bench under the agonizing fluorescent lights of the laundry room, affixed with deep black, blindingly shiny matching oxfords, and asked if he smoked and how well he could say guffaw.

“Just wait… you have no idea… you have no idea how much fun this is going to be.”

Lenny Lather had not… could not have made a sound through the confusing nonsense of his waking pre-Great Depression dream, but when the old servant’s door had been opened before him and set the heartless, single-digit Winter wind upon his very soul, he had all at once arrived in the world, laughing and whooping together with Theodore Pith.

“Jesus Christ!” he’d screamed as they’d hobbled to the stable, where a devilishly dark red Model J Duesenberg had sat shivering in a rough idle, staring out the retrofitted garage door with its basketball-sized lights as if it was, indeed, a flesh-and-blood steed that had just been frightened awake by a thunderstorm, but the sky had been as clear as it would’ve been from an asteroid – as it is only on the coldest nights – and almost comically dominated by the setting, gluttonously luminescent moon. Theodore had then grabbed a screwdriver from the workbench and bent down to remove the license plate – which had said BLOOD in big black bold block letters – and its containing frame. By the time he had settled into the frigid red leather of the exposed, roofless driver’s seat, Lenny Lather was full-to-bursting with adrenaline and laughing out huge streams of breathy steam. From behind him in the cabin, Pith had been guffawing plumes, too, as he’d briefly ignited his cocaine-sprinkled mustache instead of the bratwurst-sized cigar between his teeth. The smell of burning human hair had accented his explanation of the old car’s transmission and its direct path from source-to-nose for Pith had required a brief, unplanned intermission as it induced without warning his violent heaving – still part-guffawing – hanging half out of his beautifully-upholstered suicide door.

As he had spewed – expertly sparing the swoop of the gleaming waxy fender – Lenny had found a pair of deep black, blindingly shiny gloves and – after less grinding than you would imagine, to his credit – first gear, setting the whole dastardly circus in motion.

“Where to, Sire?” Lenny had asked, nose lifted to an untenable altitude in a pitiful approximation of an accent that’d never actually been used before by any person or persons in all of history, struggling for breath.

“Left at the gates, Barnsward, old chap,” Theodore had replied in a contrasting fashion after again sitting upright from his heaves and taking a breath, ironing out – if anything – the flatness of his perforating Ohio Ds and Ps, resulting in such a culturally destructive racket that it had set both of them in uncontrollable, cloudy fits lasting long after Lather had swerved the great length of the car from the gravel to his abandoned asphalt retreat. The two had continued their banter down that soul-suckingly flat vector, one-upping each other’s etymologic barbarity against the savage thievery of the heatless wind.

“Now to star-board, Budleigh, my good fellow!”

“Right-o, as you say, sir!”

“Down to the pu-hb for a spaht of brahn-dee with me mae-its!”

Oncemo-ar right, pip pip!”

“By jah-lee, there we are!”

After the entirety of Northern European history had been decimated and subsequently forgotten, the Duesenberg named BLOOD had turned its orange, googley-eyed stare and narrow whitewalled hooves up the reflective, freshly-painted access of the new 24-hour grocery in the no-man’s-land between the cookie-cutter stares of the neatly-rowed Easterly neighborhood and the droning respiration of Interstate 43, two miles distant. It was 2:12 in the morning and most of the greasy-haired night stocking shift had been halfway through their third smoke break, circled around a store-used picnic table 50 yards from the far sliding airlock doors. The first to spot BLOOD had been the second shortest of the lot, whose weary scrutiny along the truest radian to the West from under his sweaty beanie in her entrance she had crossed, and the depth of her red as he first spied it had caused him vertigo – as if he would fall in – and cast upon the shorter-than-average length of his being an all-consuming existential doubt. The tallest and loudest of them had faced squarest the white faux-brick wall of the box building and was at that moment engaged upon a spirited rant about where and where’nt and when a vapist ought to buy his Suck juice between long, gasping Sucks from his super-shiny Suck box. Of course, the arrival of a customer even at such a late hour did not warrant notice at a huge, broadly-servicing operation like theirs, but as BLOOD had crept through all four reflective yellow-checkered pedestrian crossings, closing without a flinch, and the details of her occupying caricatures had become more and more numerous, she had stolen the attention of the huddle, one-by-one, and elicited from each the rarest under-breath profanity of true, unmolested wonder.

Jesus Christ,” had said the shortest.

Holy fuck,” had said the youngest.

Gee whiz,” had said the oldest.

And the Sucking tallest, having realized he’d lost his audience, had been the last to turn and follow their eyes BLOOD’s way as she had halted coolly in front of the purely white glowing concrete leading into the closest customer entrance, and had – without the gradual exposure over the length of her approach that his peers had been afforded – dropped his Suck box and exclaimed at the sudden, undiluted immensity of the spectacle, simply, “FUCK!

The Sucking’s FUCK and the splitting shatter of his Suck against the glass of their smoking table had reached the two arrivees – albeit in a muted way – and through the onset of their frostbite’s early stages even further stoked their already-uncontrollable boyish giggling. Theodore Pith had paused briefly to affix his monocle as firmly as possible in his eye socket and stuff down his spasmic guffaws with a few lip-smacking puffs of his then successfully-lit cigar before swinging his right door open.

“Stay here and wait at the ready, my good… my best Bagsy! I shan’t be a twinkle,” he had declared, clicking it lightly shut again and turning on his heels toward the pale light of the store, twirling his cane in dramatically shortened strides so as to reproduce the oversped effect of a silent motion picture, puff-puffing away. As the doors had sensed him and indiscriminately whirred aside, he had turned to the smokers – most of whom had still been reeling, grabbing for their hair – and bobbed the bulk of his big black bowler toward their communion with his gloved black fingers by the brim.

“Tally-ho, my boys!” he had shouted, sending Lenny Lather’s wide open face toward the floor of the idling car as he doubled over himself in the first spontaneously asphyxiating, tear-lobbing laughter he’d yet to experience in the 21st century. As Theodore had entered the masterpiece of the boxed store’s bleakness in his cane twirling, head swinging, cigar puffing shuffle, he had made sure to stay his instinct to sneak for a swift, full-chat dart, instead, and the on-duty leather-faced embodiment of tedium’s wrath beneath his lone lit lane light had looked up from his People Magazine just in time to see the heel of a deeply black oxford and the last shiny inches of flowing black coattails disappear behind the potato sack endcap of the far Aisle 1. He’d hesitated, chin against palm, holding his next glossed page perpendicularly erect between his tightened thumb and index finger for a long few seconds of fantastic stillness – had hastily attempted a diagnostic of his present senses – before a locomotive-like segmented tube of cigar smoke had risen from against the light tiles and unsoiled trimming to intersect his line-of-sight where it met the darkened deli, recessed in the far wall from his hunch, the motion startling him into his own throat-clearing, counter-rounding, key-jingling, excuse me-shouting march toward the lumpy potato sacks and the climbing dissipation of the most unbelievable violation. As he had jingled, he had reflected on the few occasions in which he’d ever smelled tobacco smoke in his store: all incidental, most very brief, and many followed by a lengthy, unreasonably self-deprecating apology. To just walk in his Temple of Domestic Fulfilment during this most Serene Time of Silent Service, spewing orange nicotine on his premium, Food & Drug Administration-blessed body and blood offering to the middle class was surely in ignorance, but could have even been in spite. Regardless, the transgression was worthy of the most merciless wrath, and he had been selected as its willing, capable vessel. In just the fifteen seconds it’d taken him to jingle his way to Aisle 1, he’d thought himself and his leather into flash-broiling, fast-rising fury.

Perhaps the least expected sight that could have possibly greeted this Apostle of Appraisal on the far side of Aisle 1 – as he rounded the potato sack endcap and filled his excuse me lungs in preparation through his nose – was the labored lifting of the 125-pound eldest child of the new, Parisian-trained, full-time, certified cheese artisan – whom the store had just won out of 175 competitors in a region-wide raffle of her pilot program – by the dashing, swinging, and smoking real-life manifestation of a young Rich Uncle Pennybags, yet shock did not long halt the Keys & Leather.

“Sir! Excuse me!”

Excuse me! Sir!”

Theodore Pith – having reevaluated the girth of his intended booty – had propped his shiny black cane against the sill of the refrigerator and popped each slack bottom up off his oxfords from his shins before squatting over the massive Holy Wheel of the Artisan where it lay displayed on a sturdy bespoke plinth.

“Sir! You need to put out that cigar… the cigar – put it out immediately!”

Keys & Leather had the odd inability to both shout and shuffle at the same time, so he’d only made it to the pomegranate juice by the time Pith had mustered enough momentum to swing the cheese child into a high enough pendulum to carry it stably facing forward under his chin with his two hands spaced evenly on the Great Wheel’s bottom.

“Sir! I’m going to have to ask you to put that down… That is a four thousand dollar item… If you want to buy it, we need to go about-”

“…now, see here!” Pith had replied with great effort, in the midst of weighing in his mind the worth of the cane as a casualty, then of the monocle, too, which had fallen out while he was weighing, and of his own physical intelligence, and whether or not it was capable of retrieving the cane by its brass lion’s head handle via the top of a flicking foot without losing his balance. Keys & Leather, meanwhile, had been tortured at great length witnessing – in Theodore’s gravitational struggle – the Cuban’s ashes knocked all over the precious round Immanuel; the artisan’s Beloved, Chosen son of cheese – a nauseating sensation of loss overwhelming all hope of his store’s defense. The Terrible Theodore had at once noticed his hesitation and arrived upon a plan to leave no prop behind. He had leaned forward with the girth of the wheel and closed the remaining few feet between them, advancing with the huge mass of Nazarethian dairy to bear it all down upon the unsuspecting Leather, who in his grief for the prized wheel was far too slow to deflect its incoming mass.

“Now, see here, chum!” Pith had forced from the furthest possible extremis of his best mob mouth as he transferred his burden all at once to its most concerned party, who collapsed against the multilayered tables that made up the fresh cookie display, with the weight of the wheel on his belly. As the stunned Leather struggled to separate himself without further soiling the only item in his store that sold for double a month’s paycheck, Theodore had replaced his monocle and returned for his cane in a single stride, which he’d then used after a return step to the pile of chocolate chip, almond nut, and fuming night manager to rap loose with the snout of the terrible brass cat Leather’s white knuckle-tight grip on the wheel with a lampoonish haha! before rolling the freed cheese toward the door in a villainous cackle.

“Man, come on,” the defeated Leather had yelled halfheartedly from his pile of sweets, struggling against the awkward, slippery boxes for enough footing to stand. His efforts, though, were interrupted after a time by the abrupt mute of Pith’s cackling in the second swooshing of the front sliding doors – he had missed his last chance of pursuit. It had all been in vain – he’d failed to guard the crown jewel of the whole suburb. As he had given up the chase and the cheese and slumped once more against the ruined pile, the ridiculousness of the crime against him nearly cracked a smile, but soon was deterred by the very real thought of explaining what had happened to his General Manager when she arrived in just five hours. After a moment, there, covered in cookies, dust, ashes, and shame, he had quietly begun to sob.

After he had regained control of his diaphragm, Lenny Lather had been amused, outside, by the varying velocities in which the smokers of the night shift gave in to their curiosities about the presence of the seven-figure collectible and its purpose in waiting at its now healthier idle in front of their grocery store in the loneliest time of a Tuesday morning. The first and the bravest had been the one who first spotted their intrusion – the shortest – if only because he had remained entirely convinced for the duration that BLOOD and its two, period-dressed occupants were nothing but an apparition of his dead Grandfather and Great Uncle like others he’d thought he’d seen before, and – though he’d been terrified by the clarity of this realest visit yet, he’d been irritated more than anything, and wanted to know “why the hell can’t you just leave me alone?!” The others behind him had been staggered in the proximity to the waiting car they had achieved – the lesser and most cowardly being the largest – the Sucking evangelist – who had been waiting for the great automobile to leave so he could forge the exchange of his broken Suck box for a new one from the back. In the delirium of his exhaustion and progressing frostbite, Lenny Lather had thought the image of the men where they were would make for an interesting, organic graph on the nature of courage – their positions simply representing their unaltered datapoints, and had been considering how best to deal with or respond to the nearer, deluded one, who had by then come close enough to the elegant, professionally polished front-right fender to reach out and touch it with his unwashed hands, and appeared to be taking the matter under serious consideration. He’d been seconds away from finally deciding between his idiotic ideas for a joke response when by far the largest wheel of cheese he’d ever seen had come rolling out of the opening doors onto the concrete, followed closely behind by Theodore Pith who’d still had three-quarters or more of his cigar left to smoke and apparently switched to cheap mob clichés in his brief absence.

“Haste, Don Lenny!” he’d yelled, re-opening his closest cabin door to chuck his cane in first. He’d then straddled the great wheel to position it against the step before making a scene of grunting and huffing against its side with his full weight. Again, the bewildered smokers had fallen silent – they did not recognize the ridiculous delicacy because it was special inventory and could only be handled by the Holy Artisan herself. Lather had started revving the huge old straight-8 to answer Pith’s urgency, who had found himself fresh out of phrases after the wheel had finally succumbed to its capture and rolled into the footwell.

“Make haste, make haste, my boy!” he’d shouted, diving theatrically into the covered back seat, head-first, to which his icing chauffer had responded by revving the behemoth and briskly popping her clutch, which had lurched the pair into the last, getaway stage of their late grocery heist. As BLOOD’s razor-edged hood ornament had sliced through the night by the dumbstruck smokers, Theodore Pith was unable to think of anything to shout at them as he passed but for “bada-bing, bada-BOOM!

Though the Lake Geneva Police Department was shown the security footage of that first theft by management, the theatricality of their matching getup had inadvertently obscured their identities, and the organization’s extreme deficit of imagination had left them stumped by the lack of license plates on the car, despite the free and effortless ability of just about any casual enthusiast of early American luxury automobiles and/or lackadaisical disciple of the Concours religion to immediately identify BLOOD by name from the grainiest image, if consulted. If anything, their incompetence rewarded Pith and Lather’s continued focus on the products of the same store’s cheese artisan, as intelligence on the state of her latest flagship incubation was freely available with no more effort than it took to simply stop by her display amid regular shopping trips. Twice in two weeks, they stole both of her replacements for the biggest child without any significant alternation of their method, which frustrated her and the management nearly to the point of crises, and quickly lost all potential for fun in a third attempt – their kicks were in their absurdity, not their effectiveness, and neither of them cared much for the cheese.

#fiction

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