The River Of Retail

November 24, 2014

th-1I’ve just traveled back in time, to a more innocent age. I did it by reading a book about Amazon.com. “By the time you read this book,” opines business writer Robert Spector in the finale of his AMAZON.COM: GET BIG FAST, “Amazon.com will have changed in some profound way.” Man, did he get that right – because HarperBusiness published this tome way back in 2000, when Jeff Bezos’s website was just five years old and nobody’d ever heard of an “Internet bubble.” By the time I read this book, Amazon (the by-now-anachronistic “.com” was quietly dropped in March 2012) was barely recognizable.

Business books like this one are churned out mainly for eager MBA candidates and execs on the make who are busy taking notes or marking up the pages; Mr. Shelton helpfully provides summational “takeaways” at the end of each chapter so readers don’t even have to uncap their pens. The writing won’t win any awards – the market calls for simple, straightforward, didactic prose – and the book is poorly (hurriedly?) edited and proofed: dropped connectors, “baited breath,” “technocolor,” multiple introductions of the same event. But you do get a look at Amazon.com just as it was becoming an actual power, from a reporter who is still marveling at this new Internets thing.“The real winners,” writes Mr. Spector from 2000, “will be the so-called ‘clicks-and-mortar’ retailers that combine a physical presence with a virtual presence…the future belongs to these multichannel operations.” “One day,” he predicts, “we will even see Amazon.com in the physical world, either with stores or kiosks,” and in New York City, for the 2014 holiday season, his farfetched Hail-Mary concoction will have actually come true.

th-2Mr. Spector is much better at describing what has already taken place: the famed creation story in which Bezos quits his cushy job at D. E. Shaw & Co. – he’s flat-out brilliant – and, entranced with the mind-reeling growth of the Internet, uses Spocklike logic to choose an entry-point product (books) and a city from which to base his startup (Seattle). We watch as Bezos assembles a team of equally smart people who know nothing about retailing, yet build a crude infrastructure and go live on July 16, 1995. In a time period so compressed that it ate people up (you had to be young and driven to work there), Amazon.com became a constant exercise in scaling out, in keeping up with an unprecedented growth rate, in whacking the largest moles anybody had ever seen. The Amazonians fill more and more warehouse space and toss away their initial plan to be a store that is only virtual. They go public and charm investors by admitting they plan to lose money as far out as the eye can see, throwing every penny into getting big fast. They enter Britain and Germany by buying existing e-sellers and giving them an Amazon storefront. They add music and video to the mix and start a website buying spree. They hire executives from Wal-Mart and other retailers for adult supervision over the distribution chain. Within five years, they’ve survived their first soul-searing holiday rush and built one of the most famous brands in the world. In January 2000, they change their logo to the famous “smile arrow” that connects A to Z in the company name: we intend, they announce, to sell everything (except firearms, living creatures, pornography or tobacco). When Bezos holds up an unusual food product at a press conference, Mr. Spector is obviously getting his first look at what he calls an “edible (presumably)” turducken. And that’s where this book leaves them.

The author basically lionizes Jeff Bezos, who is named Time’s Man of the Year for 1999. Although Mr. Spector does note some early missteps – charging publishers for favorable placement on the site, just like Barnes & Noble and Borders had for years, only failing to tell customers about the sponsorships; Purchase Circles, which could let you see what others at your company are buying, which was TMI for outraged corporations like IBM; an unflattering fight with a lesbian bookstore in Minneapolis which had been using the name Amazon since 1970; and selling English-language copies of MEIN KAMPF from the US site to customers in Germany, where the book is banned – and reports some groaning from afar about working conditions, we never get a fully rounded view. For that we need thirteen more years to pass, and the publication of a very different book.

thTHE EVERYTHING STORE by Brad Stone isn’t written for business students: it’s a more major piece of narrative nonfiction. Mr. Stone has the benefit of the ensuing years in which Amazon has grown into a global colossus, large enough to push around his own publisher, Hachette (proprietor of this book’s Little, Brown imprint) and agitate for a larger piece of the pie, delaying or denying shipment of Hachette titles in the process. The dustup has only recently been resolved; click on the book cover to see how much Amazon has relented since I wrote this. I bought my copy, during the standoff, from Powell’s Books. (Fun fact: both Larry Kirshbaum, who ran an in-house publishing program at Amazon, and David Naggar, who presided over its settlement with Hachette, are former executives at the Warner Communications books group, which morphed into this particular member of the Big Five publishers.)

Amazon’s not a cute startup any more. But this is no Hachette job (sorry): though he does not talk to Bezos in person specifically for this book (as a business journalist he’s had the pleasure more than once), Mr. Stone does acknowledge the founder’s help in giving the go-ahead for “innumerable interviews with his friends, family and employees.” Bezos’s hesitation seems to be that he feels it’s still too soon to tell Amazon’s story comprehensively (I do not believe it has anything to do with the identity of the publisher), and the company is indeed a quickly rolling stone; it won’t be much longer before this book too is out of date.

Meanwhile, though, we get a ripping yarn about a scarily intelligent, scarily ambitious, scarily obsessed man who saw the face of the future back when everybody thought he was just a bookseller. Jeff Bezos reminds us naturally of Steve Jobs: the same driven personality, the same steely mind, the same screaming impatience with anything short of perfection, even the same “reality distortion field” that worked its will on every aspect of the innovative companies they built. They were both adopted by loving foster parents, and each man grew rich and famous without their biological fathers being aware of their relationship. It is clear from reading his story that Amazon as we know it wouldn’t exist without Jeff Bezos — the same existential importance as Steve Jobs had to Apple.

We inevitably go over some of the same territory as does Mr. Spector, but THE EVERYTHING STORE has caught up barely a quarter of the way in. Bezos’s vision was 20-20 even when he seemed to be the only guy with eyesight, back when the new company was called Cadabra (it sounded like “cadaver” to people on the phone. Another candidate was a little too on-the-nose: type in “Relentless.com” and, to this day, you’ll go straight to Amazon). You can’t succeed without having the guts to fail, and Bezos suffered some spectacular flops, primarily during Amazon’s big buildout during the dot-com boom, when the company wasted most of $2.2 billion in bond offerings in buying up smaller players that didn’t pan out. Its share price peaked on March 10, 2000, a few months after Jeff had been named Time magazine’s Man Of The Year, and Job One suddenly became simple survival.

th-3Amazon benefited both from Jeff’s foresight and the naiveté of others, to whom online commerce was viewed as a novelty, a technological fad that would eventually go away. Rather than do the hard, expensive work themselves, companies like Toys ‘R’ Us engaged Amazon to run their online presences. Later Circuit City, Borders and Target all entered into similar partnerships, but all they were doing was ceding advantage to Amazon. (About half of the in-person Borders stores were actually quite profitable when the company entered bankruptcy, but they were locked into too many pricey 15- and 20-year leases, more cannon fodder for Amazon’s lean, lithe business model.)

For anybody who is still surprised at the ruthlessness with which Amazon opposed Hachette (price wars are commonplace among other retailers but anathema to the cozy book industry, which sells its product on consignment and financially continues to press its historic advantage as the gatekeeper separating author and audience), one need only look back to 2002. Amazon’s contract with the United Parcel Service was up, but the shipper was facing union negotiations and felt it had no wiggle room. Amazon had already cultivated a relationship with Federal Express and that, coupled with driving its own trucks directly to the U.S. Postal Service, gave the retailer the necessary leverage. Amazon’s Jeff Wilke called supply-chain manager Bruce Jones and said, “Bruce, turn them off.” Within hours, unnoticeable by Amazon customers, its business with UPS simply dried up. A couple days later, Amazon received a bulk discount at UPS and taught the company “an enduring lesson about the power of scale and the reality of Darwinian survival in the world of big business,” writes Mr. Stone.

The flip side of that, of course, is that Amazon created a new revenue stream for the book industry by refining its desultory tentative steps into electronic documents. E-readers existed before Amazon’s Kindle debuted in 2007, but they were oriented toward the publishers, clunky and expensive. Amazon upended the industry by continuing to think about the customer (purchase of a Kindle book is even simpler than buying a paper copy on the Amazon site), and now it has a two-thirds share of the e-book market, which is not quite one third of all books sold in the US, a percentage which is likely to grow.

Much of this commotion seems intuitive, but only in hindsight. The fact is that Jeff Bezos is continuing to play a chess game against his competition — which is not only other retailers but also other technology firms — by thinking many moves in advance. The placement of Fulfillment Centers (i.e., warehouses) across the country is customer-centric, but not just for what Amazon sells today. These vast units are not tucked in the middle of nowhere: they’re near large cities, which will help Bezos achieve same-day service and gain the ability to deliver perishable groceries to most of the nation. Those infamous Amazon drones that Jeff proudly showed to 60 MINUTES sound crazy right now. But once so did Kindle, free shipping with a paid subscription, streaming audio and video as part of that same package, renting out server capacity, and a long, long list of other realities Jeff has basically willed into being. The notion of Amazon itself was judged to be nuts many, many times by graybeards who are still eating their words.

Mr. Stone concludes his book with a charming, lyrical bit of reporting. He tracked down and befriended Jeff’s biological father, 69-year-old Ted Jorgensen, who is the well-liked proprietor of the Roadrunner Bike Center in Glendale, Arizona. Mr. Stone explained who Jeff grew up to be, and Jorgensen’s “eyes filled with emotion and disbelief.” He sent letters via mail and e-mail to Jeff and his mother, and after a few months, the founder replied graciously and kindly. “He wrote,” reports Mr. Stone, “that he empathized with the impossibly difficult choices that his teenage parents were forced to make…he said that he harbors no ill will…and then he wished his long-lost biological father the very best.” There simply wasn’t room in Bezos’s makeup to waste time sifting through the past. It takes all his formidable skill to try his best to keep up with the future.


How Are You Julian?

October 22, 2014

Alex-Podulke-as-Julian-Barbara-Kingsley-as-Claire-in-Uncanny-Valley-by-Thomas-Gibbons-photo-by-Seth-Freeman.UNCANNY VALLEY is a provocative piece of social science fiction in the form of a play. In a just world, this is the sort of thing that would be winning the Hugo Award (science fiction’s Oscar) for Best Dramatic Presentation instead of the latest fan favorite from tv or the multiplex. Despite its out-of-genre antecedent, it certainly deserves to be considered alongside other serious works in the field. After all, the very term “robot” is derived from a play: Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.

This play, by Thomas Gibbons, tackles serious moral and ethical questions about robotics and artificial intelligence, based on one Big Lie, the “What If?” proposition that underlies nearly all worthwhile sf. In other words, let’s pretend just for now that a particular bit of technological advancement is not only possible, but already achieved in the “not distant future” of the piece’s setting. What might happen then?

There are two actors. Only one of them plays a human being. She is a neuroscientist named Claire whose team created a state-of-the-art automaton known as Julian. The two of them converse in her office, and in the process we watch Julian progress from childhood to…but that would be telling.

The night I saw it, Claire was played to perfection by Barbara Kingsley, whose resume is long and distinguished. In the role of Julian was the amazing Alex Podulke, a name new to me, one of those actors who can utterly control his facial features, even refrain from blinking when necessary; he has also perfected that rigid head-turn and slight overshoot-and-correction that suggest his movements are being powered by servomotors. (Street mimes can do that too, but usually it’s all the act they have.) Thus can a talented and committed flesh-and-blood actor regress into the “Uncanny Valley.”

The term was coined in 1970 by Prof. Masahiro Mori, who hypothesized that we can easily feel empathy for stylized characters (like those in cartoons), but as a representation comes closer to actual human appearance and behavior, we approach an area that inspires revulsion, or at least creepy wariness, a phenomenon that climbs back into empathy once again as we move closer still. That empathetic dip is the Uncanny Valley. To experience this phenomenon and perhaps nod to Prof. Mori’s insight, I invite you to consider Tom Hanks’s animated avatar in THE POLAR EXPRESS, or any of the characters in the 2001 film FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN. There are many reasons that 2011’s MARS NEEDS MOMS was a colossal failure (lousy script, an ill-advised moms-in-peril story, etc.), but prominent among them, in my view, was that audience members were forced to stare into the Uncanny Valley for an hour and a half. Or, to save you some trouble, just look at this “actroid” from Japan, where very sophisticated work in robotic simulation continues, and imagine “her” moving and speaking.

th-1We discover Julian as a disembodied head on a stand, crammed with raw information but lacking any emotional intelligence, which he learns from his mentor. He gains body parts in a series of time-lapse blackouts as the unseen engineers gradually construct him: first a torso, then right arm, then left arm, and finally legs that allow him to walk around and explore. This represents his early education at Claire’s hands, and when we first see Mr. Podulke, he is damn near drawing the Uncanny Valley all by himself. He and his mentor even talk about it. (This play swats away the storied Turing Test — can a machine fool a person into thinking it’s human? — within five minutes. Kid stuff. Our ethical journey is already far more nuanced than that.)

The blinking comes first, perhaps so the audience can be gently brought up to speed regarding the Uncanny Valley. Claire explains that humans blink an average of five times a minute. But Julian’s blinking — of course, he has no physiological reason, unlike we dry-eyed people — is programmed for random intervals rather than once every twelve seconds, to help him avoid acting like a machine. One of Julian’s first questions when he sees his face in a mirror is, “Why are my eyes blue?” It sounds charming and naive, but it is actually an important plot point and will in fact be answered later. The servo-like movements are most pronounced when we first meet Julian and gradually dissipate as he gains appendages and social experience. I won’t go any farther except to tell you there is another dimension to Mr. Podulke’s performance, and that’s when the proceedings really transcend. The intricacies of Mr. Gibbons’s story give each character plenty of room to roam, and enough conflict to let both actors summon every note on the histrionic scale.

The trite greeting “How are you, Julian?” actually becomes profound when one removes the comma, and that tiny snip is the very crux of this smart, thought-provoking play. I don’t seriously think you’ll be able to catch it before it ends its New York run this coming Sunday, but I bring it up because its producer, the Contemporary American Theater Festival, is billing it as “A National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere.” I take “rolling” to mean that there may well be an engagement near you; check their website. If it gets close, buy a ticket, and let me hear from you. Me, I loved it.

P.S.: Don’t confuse this with a similarly titled play. I haven’t seen that one, so can’t comment.


This Single Is A Homer

June 13, 2014

76 coverWhen did everything change? Because everything sure has. High rollers pay to go backstage at rock concerts, which are themselves underwritten by huge corporations, and Dylan tunes are musical beds for commercials. A stint on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, as writer or actor, is a golden ticket to a career in sitcoms or the movies. Pop and hip-hop musicians are regular White House guests, and it’s the rare politician indeed that doesn’t have some classic rock stuffed into his iPod, itself created by a company founded by a couple of hippies in a garage, not all that long ago.

David Browne makes a compelling case for 1976 as the cultural hinge point in a swell new Kindle Single, THE SPIRIT OF ’76. (A Kindle Single is an electronic piece too short to be a book but too long to be a magazine article; the writing is of professional quality, curated by editors at Amazon.com and sold through the Kindle e-book platform, which means you don’t have to own an actual Kindle to read it: just download the Kindle software on any Internet-connected device you have.) Full disclosure: I’m a longtime Browne fan, dating back to when he was the chief music critic for Entertainment Weekly. I also edited his first book, DREAM BROTHER, a fascinating history of the parallel careers of Tim Buckley and his son Jeff which, among many other pleasures, demonstrates that musical talent may actually be genetic. He’s still knocking them out today as a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.

While we were celebrating our country’s bicentennial, Mr. Browne reports, the counterculture was becoming mainstream in so many ways; the tremors were rattling dishes everywhere. The new SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, a rock-world reaction against corny tv variety shows like Carol Burnett’s, won the first four of its Emmys. The two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, were bringing the same sensibility to the decidedly non-hip world of computing. The Ramones arrived to carpet-bomb the artificial barriers between givers and receivers of music. A struggling, hangdog-looking actor created a movie sensation glorifying blue-collar determination and come-from-behind perseverance. A Southern-drawling peanut farmer who loved the Allman Brothers was a serious contender to dethrone the sitting president of the United States. They were all part of a wave of excitement and optimism that didn’t last long, but smashed its way through pop culture all at once. “It was the perfect year for new things to be born and develop,” says Tommy Ramone.

THE SPIRIT OF ’76 looks closely at all these events and more through that prism. It’s as breezy and authoritative as Mr. Browne’s astonishing book-length FIRE AND RAIN, which connects four important pop acts and albums from 1970 in such gorgeous detail that no matter how many times you’ve worn out these records, you will learn something new about CSN&Y, James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel and the Beatles. (How does somebody so young find out all this stuff? It’s called journalism.) Mr. Browne’s work is so entertaining and likable because he seems to be speaking for the reader. He doesn’t live in a snobby critic’s ivory tower; he’s a fan just like you and me (albeit more industrious and learned). Pick up this Single and you’ll find yourself not only glad there was a 1976, but also sad that its vaulting spirit dissipated into venality and cynicism.


Retro Techno

March 15, 2014

missionWant to have some real fun? Do what I just did and rent MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, the first entry in Paramount’s popular and lucrative Tom Cruise movie franchise. You may remember it as a fairly smart action-adventure, but watch it today and it’ll be revealed as a time machine from another age.

M:I was released in 1996, believe it or not, a full eighteen years ago. I may well have some readers who hadn’t even been born back then. But what’ll strike you even more is how much technology has changed in barely a generation – both in the movies and in real life.

JURASSIC PARK had introduced “realistic” CGI effects in 1993, just three years before, so the spectrum of what we could see on the screen hadn’t yet been all that widely explored. As with its tv precedessor, the movie-version “Impossible Missions” force had access to all the latest tech playthings; that’s how they could sneak into high-security places, build elaborate sets to fool the chumps, etc. The visual effects supervisor on the film was John Knoll, a honcho at Industrial Light & Magic, which represented the state of the vfx art at the time. This was up-to-the-minute stuff, and that’s how we all accepted it in 1996.

But watch it today, 18 years later, and you have to stifle some unintended laughs. STOP READING HERE IF YOU HAVEN’T EVER SEEN THE MOVIE. I’LL TELL YOU WHEN IT’S SAFE AGAIN. Basically, our familiar tv boss, Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) sets up a big IM sting which is colossally botched, he’s shot to death, and the IM brass in Washington “disavows” our hero, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). So he has to set up a rogue IM force of other “disavoweds” to win back his reputation, retrieve the MacGuffin (a computer disk that matches our spies’ code names to real names), and discover the real mole who screwed the pooch and killed his mentor. YOU CAN COME BACK, IT’S OK NOW. So Tom Cruise calls forth the world’s best rogue safecracker and its best rogue computer genius (delightfully played by the hulking Ving Rhames). The first thing they’re gonna have to do is break into the CIA’s Langley headquarters, which has as many security checkpoints as does that RAIDERS idol. So Ving goes searchin, and he types

SEARCH LISTSERV

And a bunch of alt.this&thats show up on his screen. (Cruise does the same thing later when he’s trying to puzzle out a message in a Gideon bible.)

Now Ving has already bragged about this top-secret chip he’s glommed, a “686” – remember, this was the age when Intel 80486 processors were the bee’s knees in the non-Apple community, which was nearly everybody – so we’d already begun noticing the disconnect in the previous reel (it would have been so easy to call it a “P6,” as the Pentium Pro developers referred to their new architecture; nobody, least of all a supposed techie, called it a “686,” but so many contemporary viewers knew what a “486” was that it just sounded better). Before long, Ving also has to send a jamming signal by typing, in real big letters so we can read it:

SEND JAMMING SIGNAL

The techies bitch about how their modems can’t connect…it goes on and on. We 21st century viewers realize that any earnest portrayal of the state of the art has to slip through our fingers, because the art’s sophistication is progressing faster than one can even develop the celluloid (another doomed technology).

Another advantage of a second viewing is that this time you will probably be able to follow the convoluted plot. There is a beautiful scene that went over my head in ’96 because I was devoted to soaking up information, and this took a bit of a twist. It’s a SENDING SPOILER JAMMING SIGNAL meeting between a surprisingly rejuvenated Jim and Ethan in a café. By now, Ethan’s figured out that Jim is the mole, and we see events explained away in Voight’s voice but interpreted by Ethan’s imagination – once he even gets it wrong but quickly reverts to what must be the truth (but we find out later he’s wrong about that; see the potential for confusion?). He even asks, “Why, Jim, why?” But Jim is busy pinning it all on somebody else. Heady stuff: thanx, Robert Towne. JAMMING SIGNAL ABORTED

The M:I crew is probably shooting right now, because #5 has already staked out a summer 2015 date. Each of the four we’ve already seen is a real popcorn-chompin thrill ride, heavy on physical, in-camera stunts, and it’s amazing how the franchise manges to retain its integrity even as it invites director after director to have a whirl. (Who are the returning greybeards? Cruise himself, his former partner Paula Wagner, and now J. J. Abrams.) John Woo did a great #2 and managed to squeeze in his signature fluttering doves and two-gun-firing-horizontal-dive. Then Abrams, then Brad Bird, and #5 will be by Christopher McQuarrie. I’ll be there with popcorn in hand, but fully aware that the flick will be setting down some technological markers that may look just as naive in twenty more years. Meanwhile, do you remember who directed #1? If you don’t, betcha can’t guess. It was an auteur who really put his mark on the film, as have all his successors. But he was the first one to latch onto the match. Brian De Palma, baby.


Hot Type, Cool Times

February 28, 2014

Remembering an old friend, a beloved Mississippi newspaper columnist who passed away last week after a life in the profession, got me thinking about earlier days, when both he and I were just scamps yipping around the newsroom of the local daily. Things were so different back then that it seems like a dream. I’m not talking about the cultural shift from newspapers to television to social media for most breaking news – that subject’s already been done to death by bigger brains than mine. I’m talking about the physical process of getting the news out every day in print, in a long-lost era when the term “ink-stained wretch” was more than just a metaphor.

The principle was quite simple and hadn’t changed much since Gutenberg: lay down a mirror image of what you want to see, slather just the right amount of ink over it, and press the ink onto a piece of paper with just the right porosity. Lift up the paper and you have a legible positive. But to get that mirror image required one of the most funky-looking yet way-cool machines ever invented: the linotype.

Mergenthaler_LinotypeThis doodad, in the hands of a skilled operator, could cast complete print-ready “lines o’ type” from a cauldron of molten metal (mostly lead), cool ‘em down, stack ‘em, and hand off to a compositor who physically picked them up and “slugged” them onto a page like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

A line o' type.

A line o’ type.

A chunk of type ready to be "slugged." (Can you read the headline? I can.)

A chunk of type ready to be “slugged.” (Can you read the headline? I can.)

Before the linotype showed up in the late 19th century, you had to set each letter by hand. Because of this tremendous physical burden, no pre-linotype newspaper was longer than eight pages. Linotype technology busted the newspaper business wide open and ruled for about 75 years. But I’ve always connected the machine with an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE that premiered exactly 51 years ago today, in which a devilish Burgess Meredith used a linotype to report on news events before they happened.

A good linotype operator: a little TOO good.

A good linotype operator: a little TOO good.

The linotype operator used a different keyboard than the “QWERTY” arrangement you and I (and the reporters) use. It was as if he could speak, or at least type, a foreign language. ETAOIN SHRDLU (in lower case; I used the caps so you wouldn’t worry that I’d just had a stroke) is what you get when you run a downward glissando with your finger on the first two columns, because somebody figured out that this was the order of frequency of letters in English. When you hit an “e,” the machine grabs that letter and sets it in place, waiting for the rest of the line and its forthcoming lead bath. So the most-used letters were physically closest: the keyboard layout was strictly a mechanical issue, and lower-case ETAOIN… was a quicker, easier way for an operator to signal a break or an end than the journalist’s fancy-pants “-30-“. Sometimes, as you may have already suspected, “etaoin shrdlu” actually made it into the paper by mistake; there are thousands of examples in newspaper morgues across the country, but not enough have survived digitization to make my cursed spell-checker quit trying to “correct” it for me. But don’t feel so superior. If I made a big honking Mergenthaler linotype appear right now, sat you down, and gave you some copy to set, a skilled letter-by-letter hand-setter would beat you by a mile, because John Henry would know what he was doing while you were hunting and pecking the day away. Simply stated, the linotype operator knew something you didn’t: that foreign language expressed through his fingertips and thus translated back into English. Toward the end of the era, AP and UPI would send longer non-time-sensitive features on a roll of tape which could operate the linotype automatically, but the operators’ arcane arts were still absolutely essential until computerized typesetting came along.

The ETAOIN keyboard.

The ETAOIN keyboard.

I was already familiar with “hot type” when I started working for the local daily because our high-school newspapers were printed the same way. A few staffers used to trot out to Keith Press in Raymond, Mississippi and spend the whole day there, because as part of our “journalism training,” we were the ones who physically slugged the pages for the printer. Sometimes you’d want to change something, or the operator had made a typo, and you had to replace the offending line(s) of type – and only the bad ones – by hand. Some of us thus developed an interesting skill: standing at the head of the page, we got very good at reading type upside down and backward. Piffle? Not at all: I’ve read quite a few upside-down letters and memos sitting across the desk from an interviewee who’s busy taking a phone call, and once or twice I learned something I wasn’t supposed to know.

Although the news and sales departments were entirely separate, advertisements paid the bills and ran the show. The compositors made up the ads at the bottom of the page first, and the “editorial” content went in whatever space was left. There’s a practical reason journalists were taught to use an “inverted pyramid” in writing news stories: get the important stuff as high as you can and trail off with less-critical detail toward the end. The reason is, if the piece won’t fit into the available space, you dump the last paragraph, then the next-to-last one, and so on.

Tube Central. Retro, maybe, but it sure beat running up and down the stairs.

Tube Central. Retro, maybe, but it sure beat running up and down the stairs.

When I got to the city’s daily (like most midsize cities by the mid-Sixties, Jackson was down to one newspaper owner, publishing morning and afternoon papers and a combined edition on Sunday), we weren’t as chummy with the linotype operators. They weren’t even on the same floor. To communicate with them, we’d roll up our copy and stick it in a pneumatic tube like the ones you can still see at some drive-in bank tellers. Off it sped, Jetson-like, to typesetting (down in the dungeon with the presses and all), and later the tube would pop out a printed proof for us to read and correct. It also showed us the length of the piece in column inches so we could lay out pages with paper diagrams. This proof was the first time you saw your name in print (if you got a byline) and gentle readers, I became addicted, which is a succinct but comprehensive autobiography.

Any big paper had a line o' linotypes.

Any big paper had a line o’ linotypes.

Newspaper offices are much quieter than they used to be. The clickety-clack of teletypes – not to mention linotypes – was once the sound of news. Even typewriters (they were manual and we typed hard onto huge rolls of three-copy carbon paper) were noisier than today’s keyboards. I’ll bet there are also fewer flasks of booze stuffed into desk drawers today, and the unfinished novels alongside them are probably unfinished screenplays these days. Things change, which is really what news is all about. My late friend stuck around long enough to see all those wonders get replaced by new ones: he was a real newspaperman and justifiably proud of the printer’s ink that ran through his veins. It’s a profession worth honoring, as the term “news” continues to be diluted and trivialized by too many of the mass media. Sue me, but I miss the days when etaoin shrdlu actually meant something.

To the memory of Orley Hood


Blockbuster Video, 1985-2013

November 7, 2013

BlockbusterI missed Blockbuster, by and large, so I won’t really miss it. But millions of others won’t miss it for an entirely different set of reasons.

In 1980, while waiting for the result of the home video format war (ask your parents), I became one of the first kids on my block to own a VHS videocassette recorder/player. I guessed right; though VHS was technologically inferior to Betamax, its cassettes held more stuff, and that was enough for me and the non-Sony world. This machine changed my life – and, as it turned out, the entire culture’s. Not only could I record ordinary tv programs to watch later (the eggheads instantly gave that phenomenon a fancy name: “time shifting”), but they also included, if I so chose, uncut and uninterrupted movies off HBO, or classic flicks that aired at 3 in the morning: I could set the thing like an alarm clock! How useful this would have been while I was struggling through my Master’s thesis on Fifties monster movies. They’ve gone about as fer as they kin go, said I.

As with television a generation prior, Hollywood had no vision of the future and its knee-jerk reaction was to fight home video tooth and nail. In 1976, Universal and Disney brought suit against poor Sony, alleging that home video recording amounted to piracy; by the time the matter finally reached the Supreme Court eight years later and time-shifting off the air was judged to be fair use, the practice had grown so widespread that the legal action was basically moot, now enriching only lawyers.

In the meantime, of course, the studios were taking big chomps of the new home video pie themselves. They began to issue official, “studio-struck” versions of their most popular movies. Fox Home Video was a pioneer: I remember being astonished to see PLANET OF THE APES, PATTON and M*A*S*H shown at people’s homes during parties (the serious film and tv production guys all had Betamaxes early on). At one such bash at my friend Dave Adcock’s, 2001 played with the sound off, and you could see people taking quick glances over your shoulder. Far from ruining the movie business, home video revenue came to carry the biz on its back – you made more money on home entertainment than on the theatrical release – and continued to do so until very recently.

Renting videocassettes, in both Beta and VHS formats, was the next logical step – after all, most adults only want to see a movie once – and it sprang up in thousands of mom-and-pop stores, located in strip malls and lesser venues, DIY-shabby but cute, like independent comics stores. Mine was called Video Station, owned by a wonderful movie fan named Curtis. The first time I walked in, I was gobsmacked at the choices I had, for movies I could see tonight. I simply must share this with others, I said.

So, every Friday night for several years, I screened a movie at my house. Ten or fifteen friends came over to watch – the audience was constantly changing and self-regenerating – and we loved having our own private movie theater. After the first few weeks, one of my neighbors timidly came to the door and said, “Sorry, but we just have to know what you do on Friday nights. All these cars pull up in your driveway and on the street. Then you turn off all the lights, and we can’t hear a thing!” (Remember, VCRs weren’t very common back then. Once I explained that we were all watching a movie, it made sense. Hope nobody thought I was hosting the world’s most boring coven.)

I was such a reliable customer that Curtis would give me a peek at release schedules and let me have pre-dibs on new movies, which were appearing on tape even before their pay-cable runs. One Friday his delivery ran late and he personally drove the cassette over to my house just as people were beginning to arrive for the movie. (He declined a beer, but accepted our warm applause.) This was the state of home video rental in the early Eighties: warm, personal service, hand-selling (Curtis recommended most of the lesser-known films we screened, just as Quentin Tarantino did at his video store out in California), the same qualities you want in a good independent bookseller. Video life was sweet.

Then, in 1985, a Dallas businessman named David Cook decided to take the concept wide. Mom-and-pop video stores were starting to add locations and develop into local and regional “chains,” but Cook’s eyes were bigger, and Blockbuster was born. Wayne Huizenga executed its national rollout: it quickly added videogames, swallowed up smaller companies and opened new stores aggressively, aided by a virtuous circle in which floods of new customers were entering the movie-rental market every week. Less than ten years after its founding, the now-ubiquitous Blockbuster was big enough to seriously propose a merger with Viacom.

Now all the homegrown Video Stations were out of business, and everybody was dealing with Blockbuster (there were 9,000 stores at its peak in 2004) or a franchise just like it. Oligopoly bred complacency as video rental became a typical weekend’s afterthought. Blockbuster customers were treated to a shelf full of thirty display cases of that weekend’s new release, all of them already rented. There was little quality control over returned rentals; you wondered exactly what some people had been doing with them. And then there were the late fees. You couldn’t ignore them like some did with their library books, because Blockbuster had your credit card. Grumbling about Blockbuster became a national pastime (especially when it appeared that late fees constituted a profit center), but its business model was already mortally wounded.

Those late fees inspired a Blockbuster customer named Reed Hastings to think of a new business model, and what he came up with was Netflix, which opened in 1997, concentrating on the new DVD format. There was no store; you ordered your movies via the Internet and got them through the mail. And – here’s the master stroke – you paid a monthly fee to have a certain number of disks at your house for as long as you wanted. The company got a reliable stream of revenue without having to charge late fees! Netflix subsisted on mail-order while it quietly broadened its “streaming” capability, and lately has even moved into original programming, the very thing which has kept HBO afloat all these years. Fun fact: in 2000, Netflix offered itself to Blockbuster for $50 million, and was turned down.

So why do you need Blockbuster anymore? Hmmm: you don’t. Yesterday the company’s current owners announced that it will close its remaining 300 company-owned stores by early January. That will leave only about fifty franchisee-run stores, and they’d better watch their backs, because the brand name’s “goodwill” has long since been used up. Entertainment is still big business, but the way it’s delivered to our eyeballs is constantly mutating and adapting to fit new technology. Blockbuster controlled the golden goose for 25 years, but these days it’s about as relevant as a Commodore 64 – and I know plenty of former customers who are just fine with that.

11/9/13: Variety reports, “Blockbuster has sent out tweets over the last several days alerting customers it will stop renting movies on Nov. 9, with most stores starting to liquidate inventory on Nov. 14.” (Note to Rand Paul: this is how you quote somebody without plagiarizing them.)

11/11/13: The funnest fact of all: Variety reports that the last movie rented from a company-owned Blockbuster store was THIS IS THE END. (First half: amusing. Last half: embarrassing. Kind of like Blockbuster itself!)


Spaced In

October 13, 2013

GRAVITYGRAVITY is every bit as good as you’ve heard. It’s not just a nail-biting thriller, not just far and away the best cinematic depiction of what it’s like to be in space, not just the finest performance ever from Sandra Bullock. Even more important, it introduces new concepts to the language of film: swirling, swooping, gyroscopic curvatures that observe no earthbound rules, that can take you inside a space helmet and out again without cuts or dissolves; the opening shot alone lasts for nearly 13 minutes. They’ll have to invent a new term to describe this constantly malleable point of view. But the story doesn’t stop long enough to let you ponder “how’d they do that?”* For all I know, they built some rockets and shot two game movie stars into Earth orbit. You’ve never seen anything like this. Nobody has.

It’s a howling, crowd-pleasing, eye-popping triumph for director/co-writer Alfonso Cuaron. His resume is already impressive: besides directing the best Harry Potter film (PRISONER OF AZKABAN), there’s also CHILDREN OF MEN (he tops the opening shot here) and the delightful Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN. His friend Guillermo del Toro, also a fan of the fantastique, must be bursting with pride. But Cuaron leads an army of technical wizards so state-of-the-art that I didn’t recognize several of the jobs listed in the end credits.

The story, by the director and his son Jonas, is simplicity itself. Two astronauts are on a space walk as the film begins. Something bad happens, and now it’s all about survival. Playing opposite Bullock is George Clooney, who knows more about this mission than her medical officer does, and delivers perfectly timed moments of lightness (he listens to Hank Williams in space and tells “Houston” – the unseen Ed Harris – “it’s not rocket science”). That’s your entire on-camera cast.

The space effects are beyond disbelief, and so is the sound design. You never hear “sync” sound unless it would be physically possible, and space is by and large silent, emphasized by an opening fanfare under the title card that gets louder and louder and louder…until we cut to space and utter silence for the beginning of that first magnificent, marathon, multigravitational, POV-shifting, “single shot.” But there’s a top-notch music score by Steven Price which ratchets up the tension almost unbearably.

GRAVITY set an October-opening box-office record here in the States, and continued its financial rampage in the second weekend, which is when I saw it, earlier today. I attended a regular-screen 3-D performance, and though the 3-D effects were leagues better than those in the trailer for THE HOBBIT 2 which preceded it, GRAVITY is probably just as enjoyable flat. But real thrill-seekers will go me one better and screen it in IMAX.

Do not miss this one. See it in a theater if you can. “Amazing” isn’t strong enough. Maybe the word we want is “GRAVITY-like.”

*3/1/14: On Oscar Eve (I doubt GRAVITY will win Best Picture, but any Best Director who beats Alfonso Cuaron will always, in his heart of hearts, wonder why), I recommend the just-released DVD version of this film, especially the backstage “special features.” These things are usually fluff, but here you really do get a good look at how the stunning effects were achieved. Another nice bonus is a lovely short by Jonas, showing you the Earthbound side of Bullock’s frustrating radio conversation near the end.

3/3/14: GRAVITY topped the 2014 Oscar list with seven awards, including a well-deserved Best Director statue for Sr. Cuaron.


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