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August 14, 2015

Blackout memories

Rob @ 2:26 PM

12 years ago today, the Northeastern United States had a massive blackout.

I was living on Long Island at the time, working for an arcade company with locations all around the tri-state area. That day I was in charge of a crew of technicians who'd been working in New Jersey, and we were on our way home when it happened. The next day I wrote up an account of the events on the 2003 incarnation of this blog, but I left out a major detail of my adventure because it involved an aspect of the job I really didn't want to make public at the time. Now enough water has passed under the George Washington Bridge where I'll come out with it, because I find it more amusing in retrospect.

So, I was stuck in the blackout with over $20,000 which was not mine.

Short version, for those not into reading my previous account of the day: I was on the road, in my old job as an arcade technician, and head of a crew of three. We were doing some work in several locations the company had in New Jersey, repairing machines, counting coins, replenishing the stores' change, and bringing the stores' cash receipts for the week back to the main office on Long Island. At some point while we were on the road back to LI after doing the day's work, the power went out. We were on a long stretch of parkway with no traffic signals, and we were listening to a cassette on the car stereo rather than the radio, so we didn't notice anything was amiss until we hit New York City. As we proceeded through the city to the Bronx to drop one of our crew off at her place, we realized that the power had been out for some time; it was her cassette we'd been listening to, so we were then enlightened by the radio.

Our company-issued mobile phone had no signal, so we continued to Long Island where the other two of us, and the home office, lived. We found the traffic surprisingly light, but of course the whole thing was new to us while the rest of the Northeastern United States had already been dealing with the situation for two hours. Eventually, our phone caught some service, enabling us to check on our families and get in touch with our boss, who informed us that everyone in the company was being sent home. Good news for them, but bad news for us, who were still over an hour away from the office and had been planning to unload many thousands of the company's dollars from the company car's trunk into the company safe.

I no longer remember exactly how much cash it was, but on a typical Jersey run we generally came back with anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000, more during Summer when the arcade trade was busiest. This was the peak of Summer, so we had at least $20,000, probably more like $25,000, mostly in single dollar bills, in a pile of canvas money bags. If you've ever seen stereotype bank robbers in movies or cartoons running away with canvas money bags emblazoned with big "$" signs, you know the bags I'm referring to; in reality they don't have the "$", but they often have the name and address of the bank they came from.

As ranking officer in that group, I was going to be expected to take responsibility for these bags of the company's cash, and keep them safe in my own house until things blew over. I was not at all pleased with the idea - I love blackouts, and would be damned if I was going to miss out on going out and enjoying one just to watch a pile of the bosses' money. Besides, everyone was freaking out. The Nazi Taliban from the Bad Part of Town could have shown up to loot my house, or my cats might have urinated on it, or worse. So I managed to get hold of my supervisor, and just before his phone battery died I called in pretty much every favor he owed me (and a few he didn't) and convinced him to make his way from his home, several towns over, in the blackout to meet me at my place, pick up the cash, and take it back to his.

(As a service to myself, you readers, and my potential burglars I must point out that I no longer have that type of job, in fact the company I was working for doesn't even exist anymore. I handle nobody's cash but my own meager scrapings, nowadays.)

The other tech and I arrived at my slowly darkening house just before sunset. We piled the money bags into a corner of my living room, and he left. It was weird - as most honest people who handle their employer's money at work will tell you, you stop really seeing it as currency after a while. You get used to the fact that it's not your money, and it just becomes an abstract thing you deal with at work. However, staring at this pile of cash in my own increasingly dark living room while listening to increasingly unsure radio reports, and needing to keep all the doors and windows open in an attempt to vent a house with no fans or air conditioning on a hot Summer night, I was forcefully reminded what I had. The highest point of the pile was half as tall as me, and thanks to my lousy night vision and my overactive imagination, the pile seemed to slowly spread out toward the middle of the room. As time passed and passed, I cared less and less for the situation. There were no real lights, but my mind kept throwing a spotlight on the cash, and I couldn't see much else. Very film noir.

A couple of hours later my supervisor showed up, and we unloaded the cash into his trunk in the pitch dark night. I couldn't resist the urge to hum the Mission: Impossible theme while we did so. He left on a 45 minute drive over unlit highway to his place (which I believe ended up taking him about 3 hours,) I felt amazingly relieved, and my sister and I got some flashlights and left to do some nighttime blackout exploring.


Rob @ 1:24 AM

Things have been a bit of a whirlwind.

After a lengthy search for a new place to live, I found it six weeks ago in Washington Heights. I'm in a lovely place with charming roommates in a very decent neighborhood. It's amazing how much less stress one is under when one is not a wandering homeless person crashing on couches and depending on the hospitality extended by very tolerant friends. After a month and a half, much of which I spent away from the apartment housesitting for some folks in arrangements I'd made before I moved here, my new place is finally feeling like home.

My stint at Hackaday has concluded for now and I'm seeking other opportunities, so ping me if you hear anything! I'm also going to begin listing original artwork for sale and open myself up to taking commissions soon, stay tuned for those details!

The new season of The Media Show we made over the past year, where we answer questions people are asking Google, is slowly going out over the netwaves. It's been long enough since production wrapped where I now find myself being surprised and entertained by stuff I'd forgotten we did, and even some cameos I'd forgotten I performed, now that I look on the end product with slightly more relaxed eyes.

For the past few weeks I've taken the stage at my friends Liz Glazer and Rhett Sever's Say Everything comedy showcase. The show is a unique standup event where comics more or less abandon their prepared material and just have a freeform chat with the hosts as well as the crowd. It happens 7PM Thursday evenings at Paddy Reilly's Music Bar in Manhattan, and you should check it out if you're free and in the area. (Yes, this is me, your lifelong teetotal pal, encouraging you to come see me at the bar I've been hanging out in once a week. Pretty zany, huh?) The folks in the show are an eclectic and hilarious bunch worth seeing; before I was invited to join the show, I was a regular in the audience. I've posted audio of my past couple of sets to my Soundcloud.

Off the Hook continues to be a great deal of fun and a labor of love, I'm proud to call those folks my colleagues and friends.

I've recently begun replacing the word "girl" in songs I find myself singing to "Earl," and it's entertaining me to no end. I don't think I even know anyone called Earl these days, but if I do it's about to get awkward.

May 29, 2015

I’m painting hacker luminaries. Want one?

Rob @ 9:14 AM

Commodore PET

It's fundraising time at WBAI, the listener-sponsored station my colleagues and I do Off the Hook at. This week, I committed to paint some portraits of hacker luminaries as thank-you gifts for supporters.

You can listen to the 5/27/15 episode for more info. Short version: pledge at least $50 and you'll get a 5x7" acrylic-on-stretched-canvas painting of someone who made an impact on the hacker world as it is today; whose portrait you get will be a surprise. You'll also get a classy placard explaining more about the painting's subject.

I donated a limited amount of these. As of this writing there are some still available but once they're gone they're gone, so if you'd like to get some hacker-centric original art from me while supporting the work we do on OTH, this is how you can do it. (It's also, since I'm not accepting general commissions or selling other paintings just now, the only way presently that you can even get a painting of mine.)

You can pledge for a painting, if there are any left, at this link. You can alternately call 1-212-209-2950 and ask for the "Luminaries of the Hacker World painting."

You can check out past paintings and other artwork of mine riiight about here.

May 27, 2015

On repackaged counterculture

Rob @ 5:13 PM

A post to reddit's /r/cyberpunk from a few months back got me thinking, and I've occasionally returned to it since. It eventually prompted me to ramble here a little.

The poster tells a good story of their own journey through cyberpunk culture. I saw some facets that made me sad I barely missed the poster's era, and others which could have mirrored my own path exactly. In the comment threads, some interesting discussions emerged. A commenter called tso wrote:

I think corporate marketing is pushing very hard to turn it into a fashion, as then they can "de-fang" and package it for retail stores.

That's always the way. The mainstream advertising world has become very good at deciphering what the "kids these days" are doing to express their natural rebelliousness, knocking the teeth out of it, repackaging it, making it "safe," and selling it back to those rebellious kids. Once you've hit your 20s or so, you've already seen it turn over on a grand scale at least a few times.

Disaffected 90s kids rebelled against the 80s preppie fashions of immaculate clothes and designer labels by wearing faded old jeans with holes ripped in them. What to do if you're a jeans company? Boom, the department store shelves are now full of pre-faded, pre-ripped jeans.

The millennials aren't buying your new trendy t-shirts, instead they're digging through cheap thrift-store bins for a 70s-fit t-shirt with a crackling old decal? Boom, the new t-shirts on the racks at Walmart are now all printed with pre-crackled designs referring to long-cancelled TV shows and vintage films. Closer inspection will reveal that each shirt has the exact same silk-screened, mass-produced crackles.

The kids these days, they're retreating from the mass-media-approved world of sitcoms and buddy-cop flicks and sports entertainment and diving voraciously into "nerdy" pastimes like gaming, comic books, gaming, and scifi? Great! Let's make comic and scifi conventions, once the domain of outcasts looking for a rare shred of community available to them, into a massive mainstream industry, with heavy presences and sponsorships by every major movie studio. Superheroes aren't an escape from the mainstream anymore, they themselves are the mainstream blockbusters! You can play your tabletop pencil-and-paper RPGs where the gameplay is an act of collective creativity and imagination, but wouldn't it be better if you were playing this other fantasy game which requires frequent purchases of expensive figurines or rare cards or virtual currency?

The kids aren't buying as many copies of your latest bleeding-edge resource-gobbling 3D video game because they're content using inspired software and community-ripped ROM libraries to emulate retro consoles and dive into old jagged-pixelled 8-bit and 16-bit games? Hey, that's a fashion now! You can make your own new games intentionally jagged and pixelly, and you can work out ways to sell those emulated ROMs over authorized links to the current consoles. What's more, you can also sell them crackly-looking T-shirts with Mario Mushrooms and blocky pixel-esque sunglasses and backpacks with Koopa shells; force the meme until it's a fad suitable for shopping malls!

The kids aren't buying your Billboard top-40 pop music anymore, they're going to dive clubs to listen to punk music - a product born of anger, rebellion, and frustration? Hey, now your multinational record label signs those punks to exploitative contracts and, even better, makes their own pop-punk boy-bands to order to revitalize their own charts.

I remember getting way into mashup tracks and bastard pop in the early 2000s, a scene which had been born of a truly cyberpunk attitude; bored kids at their computers deciding that the best response to a stale and uninspiring media environment was to use newly-ubiquitous tools to twist and turn its own content against it, expressing themselves in new ways and creating something truly special with the old guard as merely fodder waiting to be remixed. I began work on my own mashup album around the same time MTV muscled in on that action, playing record-label-authorized mashups on their channel and even producing their own legal, safe mashup CD/DVD set with chart sensations Jay-Z and Linkin Park, in both "explicit lyrics" and sanitized versions, all available on store shelves.

Adbusters once wrote: "Capitalism is a master of recuperation. What first shakes it, soon motivates it, later strengthens it." Hippie protest songs born of sadness and hope find their ways into TV commercials for dog food a generation later. Your childhood favorite stories of innocence and gentleness will get remade into big-budget CGI blockbusters with sassy celebrity cameos. The Lorax himself will sell you a fucking SUV to drive down that road someone paved through his forest.

As with other cultures, what's meaningful about cyberpunk to cyberpunks is never just the trappings, the outward accessories and blinky lights, the rollerblades and techno music and PVC pants. These things have their place and it's fine to enjoy them if you do, they just happen to be the bits and pieces easy for the mainstream to sanitize and duplicate and market to the next batch of rebellious kids looking for a direction. The truly important facet of cyberpunk is the hacker mindset of figuring out and exploring what's next, both through your own methods, knowledge, and ingenuity and those shared by your fellow explorers, without care for any artificial limitations placed upon you by culture or circumstance or common sense. It's not about filling in a standard checklist and spectating; it's about taking only the useful bits, if any, of the standard checklist, throwing away the rest, imagining your own replacement, and investigating from there.

The cyberpunk spirit led someone to broadcast those mysterious modem tones to the reddit poster, as well as the spirit that act inspired in those who received the messages within. The mainstream might try to recapture some of that when they use that sort of action to inspire artificial viral-marketing stunts. Commercial interests can repackage the trappings all they like, but the true root behind those trappings is much harder to turn into a commercial product.

The genuine hacker spirit which tells those of us inclined to listen that reality is actually a lot weirder, more bendable, and more educational than anything Hollywood can come up with, though, is ultimately a far more rewarding pursuit than any shopping-mall-based accessorizing experience.

April 7, 2015

Success and such!

Rob @ 1:36 PM

Rob T Firefly: light drinker
Call off the searchlights, reel in the nets, send out the clowns, take in the hemlines. I've landed that new main gig I've been searching for, and it's a gem!

I'm now part of the social media team at Hackaday, a site I've often encountered and enjoyed in my journeys through cool tech news. Right now my job is mainly to help get the word out about the Hackaday Prize contest as well as, the collaboration site on which the contest takes place. (This personal blog post isn't being written on the clock, so consider this personal sharing rather than advertising, but I still think it's a damn cool contest.) I'm really proud and excited to be joining a great bunch of folks in work I think is genuinely interesting and important.

In side-gig news, I recently voiced a main character in a series of educational cartoons which are being shown to college students in an anti-smoking curriculum. It was a fun little project, cleverly written and produced, and I enjoyed doing it. (This personal blog post isn't being written on the clock, so consider this personal sharing rather than compensated performance, but I still think you probably shouldn't smoke.) It hasn't been posted publicly, but if you'd like to see the whole thing email me and I'll share you the non-published links. I'll also have some clips from it in my next performance reel.

In other side-gig news, production of the latest season of The Media Show is going at full steam. I was a bit worried about that to be honest, as my creative partner and I stopped being real-life partners, but we still work well together on creative and professional levels and the work still feels fun, important, and pleasant to do. Our puppets still get along, we have a wonderful team of collaborators and a great lineup of guests in store, and I think out of all seven years of the show's production this season is truly our best work yet. (This personal blog post isn't being written on the clock, so consider this personal sharing rather than professional self-promotion, but I still think puppets probably shouldn't have a smoking contest.) We'll start posting new episodes to our Youtube soon, and you can catch us on cable in Manhattan or webcast wherever Friday nights at 9PM on MNN's Culture Channel.

I can never thank the brilliant folks, online and off, who've been sticking by me through a rough patch, dispensing aid, advice, and signal-boosting, and reminding me that even when a bunch of stuff goes down at once - a long job search, a breakup, a shift in living situation, the loss of my favorite headphones - there are still folks on my side, and they are the best damn bunch of co-conspirators a fellow could ever ask for. I'm grateful, and proud to know you.

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