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Wednesday, March 25 | The Bleat.

Natalie declared this the best day ever, and I can’t argue. At least on her terms. I gave her mac and cheese for supper and her new Nintendo DS game arrived. Also, we skipped church choir and I let her get into jammies at 5 PM. Mommy goes, and all the rules evaporate. 

Momentous news:

1. The Jimmy “Jim” Lileks show begins shooting its second “season” this week. At least we’re shooting the new opening. O the plans I have for this one. Here’s the pitch: my stupid, vain, self-regarding twin brother is irritated that his stupid, vain, self-regarding got the nod to be on the NewsBreak show, so he’s going to do his own news show, the way it should be done. We’re going to shoot it in the basement of the Strib, which is a fascinating wasteland of cast-off office equipment and archaic machinery. It’s Mad-Max land down there. Perfect for this project.


2.  This was the day the next novel clicked. Can’t say more, but all the tumblers finally fell into place and the great door of the plot swung open. I’m kicking myself, because it’s been obvious for about ten years what I wanted to write about, but it took the last two years to give me what I needed to know to write it. 


So that’s good. Inauspicious start, though; slept so hard I could not focus at close range for about two hours after I woke up. Good thing the TelePrompTer is nine feet away. Did the second “Extra!” portion of NewsBreak, which I prefer to anchoring, really. More room for the occasional micrometer-thin jape. Finished, then took my mother-in-law to the airport – she didn’t have a flight, I was just tired of her. Kidding! It’s been a nice visit, and  I wanted to hop on the plane myself and follow her back to AZ. Find a nice house in DC Ranch with a negative-edge pool and view of the mountains and enjoy a year in luxury before I default like everyone else. As I said to someone later in the day in another context, it’s the losers who aren’t declaring bankruptcy these days. Bankruptcy is for the brave. Bankruptcy is for closers.

I’m turning my old Mac Mini into a media center, because the Apple TV is a nice piece of equipment that drives me out of my head. I know this is the future and we should be happy to stream everything wirelessly, but I tire of loading 1.4 GB movies on the thing via the ether. It would be nice to just plug in a drive and sent it. Since I have an old unused Mini, I thought I’d give it a try. First step: I needed a DVI to HDMI cable. Went to Radio Shack. Got one of those clerks who seemed to believe in Radio Shack. It was part of his self-identity. I’m all for guys being proud of their job, and can’t stand the places where you get the Pimply-Faced Dolt who hates the customers because they’re lame for coming in this lame place and everything sucks except that one part in “Watchman” but yeah, overall that sucked too. The only thing different between these guys and the losers of yore is that computers gave them something to be good at. But even that sucks, because they have to deal with people aren’t good at computers and write stupid things on engadget.


But this guy seemed to have pride in the Radio Shack Way, and that was fine – until it seemed as if he took Radio Shack japes personally. He said they were having a sale on batteries, and I laughed and said “you’re kidding! I’ve never seen that happen before!” Every time I’ve ever been to Radio Shack they’ve had a sale on batteries. He seemed to take it personally, as though poking gentle fun at Radio Shack I was poking fun at him. I understand, in a way, but son: try working for a newspaper. 


He told me that Duracell made Radio Shack’s batteries, by the way. We agreed that Energizer and Duracell were equally good, and Rayovac, well, sucked, but you kinda knew that, and they didn’t pretend otherwise. Like, Rayovac is what you get when you’re just tired of paying a lot for batteries. 


So we parted as friends. Off to Best Buy to see if they had the cable any cheaper. OH, STOP LAUGHING. Worth a try. A clerk came up and asked if I needed assistance, and I told him I wanted to pay about four times more for a cable than I needed. He nodded and had someone direct me to cables. 


“What kind you need?” he said.


“DVI to HDMI.”


“How long?”


“Oh, I’ve needed it for about two weeks now.”


He nodded. Seriously: he just nodded. Because they only have one length anyway. The cable was 50 bucks, and it wasn’t even Monster. So I said no, thank you, and went to the Mac department to look for something else.


While I was poking at some machines I had great fun eavesdropping on an interview an Minnesota Public Radio fellow was conducting with a young kid – shopping habits, opinions about Best Buy vs. Wal-Mart, Mac vs. Apple, and so on. They started talking about newspapers and other media when the interview was done, and I kept hearing names I knew from my own job, and so eventually I just elbowed my way into the conversation. When the kid said his dad used to work at the Pioneer Press, and gave his name, my jaw dropped, because the guy’s my age, and I’m so fargin’ self-absorbed sometimes I forget some people started reproducing at the usual age. Spitting image, too. Or spit & image? Latter. 


We talked about the difficult times for media, and I rolled out my usual polyanna lines. Remember, the Chinese character for “Difficulty” is the same for “taking an ungreased I-beam up the fundament.” Also for “Opportunity.” 

Last night Natalie needed me to pretend I was staying upstairs for the rest of the night while she slept, so I sat in my studio and made small noises. Picked up the 9000 lb. “Store Fronts” book I mentioned the other day. The old metal neon signs, as noted, seemed stable and permanent and grown-up in a way the hand-painted signs don’t – possibly because the latter were often amateurish. It’s authentic and genuine and probably a form of folk art, but I have no interest in it. The stuff from the 60s and 70s is awful; after that, it’s glossy work that looks like it could come out an auto detailing shop. Someone could do a thesis on it, I suppose, but it’s still ugly. 

That last sentence works for a lot of things. 

Some of the stores have little bios. This one explained a lot. The owner’s discussing his sign. 


I almost lost my entire business because of that sign. It used to be a very small fee the City charged in order to keep an illuminated neon sign on your business.


At this point I frowned: eh? Why a fee for a sign?  I can imagine a landlord charging a fee if you want to hang something on his building, but why should the city be able to levy a fee for sign? Because it can, of course. 


I remember paying about $76 a year and then they slowly raised it and when it reached over $200, I wrote a letter to the city that I would not be renewing the permit.

But in the early 1980s I got a letter from the City saying that they had foreclosed on my business because I hadn’t paid by neon sign permit fees.


(gnashing teeth)

I was so upset because my whole life is in this store and they were going to take it away from me. I had to hire a lawyer and g to City Court and fight to get my store back. I ended up having to pay the city $1,200 in order to own my business again.

The quote begins thus:


I bought this store in 1962 and put up the neon sign that is still out there today. I don’t keep it lit anymore. 


So there’s another reason why the streets look different: they banned overhanging signs, possibly because one or two fell down in the middle of the night, and the specter of General Smushing was used to eliminate what some no doubt believed was archaic clutter. The neon signs started winking out one by one because store owners didn’t want to pay the fee. Somewhere there’s the grave of a bureaucrat who came up with that idea. It doesn’t say THE MAN WHO HELPED KILL NEON, but we’re rarely known by such things. 

Later today: a brain-building rebus from 1924; the Minneapolis Update; Miscreant Round-up at buzz.mn. See you in the comments. 


44 Responses to Wednesday, March 25

  1. Walter in Buffalo says:

    Geez, sounds like those merchants were victimized by the neon bubble. Too bad we didn’t bail them out, too.

  2. Ken J says:

    Maybe that’s why Seattle has an awning tax, to make up for the missing neon.

  3. Charlie X says:

    Missing neon in Seattle? I think not


  4. Jim T says:

    See monoprice.com for your cable needs, they have gold-plated DVI to HDMI starting at about $4.00.

    I have no affiliation with monoprice other than that I am a highly satisfied and $$$ saving customer.

  5. The Chinese-character-for-crisis trope has become so Michael Scott that I use it to sucker people in.

    “You know the Chinese character for crisis …” (heads start nodding) “… has another meaning as well. It means, in the Cantonese dialect, ‘Find someone to blame.’

    “In Mandarin, it’s ‘Take the afternoon off and pretend you weren’t in the loop.’

    “In Sichuan, it’s ‘General Tso chicken, extra hot.’”

  6. Martin says:

    Just order all your cables from Amazon. Best prices anywhere from their third-party vendors.

  7. ajtooley says:

    You certainly don’t need my help coming up with ideas, but I have been playing with chromakeying in iMovie 09, and have been pleasantly …stunned, actually, with the quality. It wouldn’t take a whole lot of effort to have your stupid, vain, self-regarding twin brother sneak a peek at the other one taping a news show.

  8. Blackwing1 says:

    Another local source for cables (in case you don’t want to wait the two days for delivery) is to try Menards. Yes, the “save big money at…” place sells a pretty good variety of A/V cables, including HDMI. Usually for less than half of what Best Buy is charging for the same product. Check it out in their Electrical department (poke around on the mezzanine-level in the one at 78th and Nicollet).

  9. HunkyBob says:

    “Mac vs. Apple”… Kind of like a fight between you and your evil twin, no?

  10. mpc says:

    Just echoing the monoprice sentiment above. I too have a mac-mini media center and all my cabling for it was purchased there for about 10 bucks. They have both the DVI-HDMI and the toslink optical cable you’ll need for running sound to your receiver.

  11. hpoulter says:

    At least Radio Shack doesn’t ask you for your freaking address every time you want to buy something. That used to drive me wild. I think they knew it was killing them, but it was the Big Boss’s idea, and they had to wait for him to retire or die before they could drop the practice.

    I got asked for my home address at a Radio Shack in BANGKOK!! Then I had to wait while the clerk (who could barely read English) painstakingly transcribed my address from my driver’s license into her terminal. I was looking forward to getting sales circulars from Thanon Sukhumvit (this week only – save big Baht), but they never showed up.

    Later, I tried to tell that story to a RS clerk in the States, but it just made him grumpy and defensive (“We have to ask”).

  12. Lars Walker says:

    Those who have never known the frustration of writing a novel can never imagine the satisfaction experienced in the moment when “all the tumblers fall into place.” For a moment, you’re Dickens, you’re Proust, you’re John Updike.

    “Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
    Say that health and wealth have missed me.
    Say I’m growing old, but add–
    The tumblers fell into place for me once.”

  13. Ernie G says:

    “Bankruptcy is for closers.”

    Second prize is a set of steak knives.

  14. Joe the Painter says:

    A friend of mine many years ago was an engineer for Duracell in North Carolina…She told me that she would OFTEN see Energizer batteries on the line, having their “skirts” swapped for Duracell. She said it happened because sometimes one division of the plant couldn’t keep up with another…

    Doesn’t matter though; ALL companies will be ACME before the Current Occupant gets done consolidating industry…

  15. Emd says:

    That neon sign story has filled me with fury. Government, getting in the way. Again.

  16. Deb_in_Madison says:

    Here in Madison, the city is going after the new owners of a downtown theater because the theater owners are “balking at paying for the encroachment into city air space caused by their marquee sign, a designated historic landmark.” The annual fee is $1200 which is on top of their $25,000 tax bill. The fee was never paid by the previous owners.


  17. Yang Wei says:

    Speaking of Chinese characters, how is Nat enjoying GTA:CW?

  18. Bankruptcy is for closers.

    Always Be Closing!

    Or, so says Alec Baldwin.

    Our 14 year old redwood fence is in need of repair. Not major, structural, repair, but freshening up. Plus the Houdini the Labrador keeps finding week spots. A third of an acre consumes a tremendous amount of 1 X 4 5Ft Dogeared boards. Got about 90 boards for an emergency repair (that DOG!) at the local redwood lumber yard. It’s been there forever, and now they are building the new Town Center (that looks just like a Mediterranean downtown that’s already 100 years old) around it. They’ve always been pricey, but ye gads, the quality! About $1.70 a board, but they were gorgeous (com’on it’s just a fence, do I really need that? Okay, they go out front for curb appeal). Repairs done, it looks great.

    Went to Home Depot to price a purchase of about 500 additional boards. Lower quality, $1.98 a board. $0.28 more per board for lower quality? Thanks for nothing.

    Swung by the local redwood yard in Sacramento close to my daytime office, but 30 miles from home. They have a larger redwood inventory than Home Depot, so obviously some buying power. $0.36 a board. Yes, $0.36 CENTS. Quality better than Home Depot, but not the vanity quality of the lumber yard near the house.

    So why can’t Home Depot, or Best Buy get value products? They DO have buying power. I suspect it’s bureaucracy in their purchasing departments.

  19. Mark S. says:

    Natalie must have gotten the Pokemon Platinum game that my daughter has had her head buried in lately.

  20. Will says:

    I’ll second the monoprice.com recommendation. HDMI cables are obscenely overpriced in most retail stores. You’d think they were made from only the finest unicorn hair, rather than some cheap plastic and copper wire.

  21. swschrad says:

    I’ll have you know that Rayovac alkalines have been doing the job for me for 5 years. plus, they’re on sale about half the time at Menards.

    fun fact: P. R. Mallory invented the alkaline battery. they spun off Duracell, Inc. try to find a trace of Mallory any more. don’t count the piece of capacitor business that vishay picked up.

  22. Lars Walker says:

    I have never forgiven Duracell for those teeth-grinding “plastic people” TV advertisements years back. I’ve boycotted them ever since. I know it’s a dead issue, and the offense is long past, but you can’t insult my intelligence to that degree and expect me to forget.

  23. roger h (bgbear) says:

    “Natalie declared this the best day ever”

    I just want to thank Sponge Bob Squarepants who has brought back being positive for positive’s sake.

    F is for Friends who do stuff together.
    U is for You and me.
    N is for Anywhere and anytime at all.
    Down here in the deep blue sea!


    Mr. Sun came up and he smiled at me
    Said “it’s gonna be a good one, just wait and see”
    Jumped out of bed, and I ran outside
    Feeling so ecstatic, satisfied.

    It’s the best day ever (best day ever)
    It’s the best day ever (best day ever)

  24. Tom says:

    Just a quick word on HDMI cables: since it’s digital, the actual quality of the signal passing through it isn’t impacted by the quality of the wire itself. Remember: it’s all 1s and 0s, so a mediocre cable won’t start passing along 0.5s. The quality has to do with the rate at which the cable will fail–a big deal if you’re running one of these babies up behind drywall and don’t want to have to replace it.

    Of course, if you’re not going to do that, my advice is to find the cheapest one available and buy 5-10 of them (found some 6′ models a while back on Amazon for like $1.99 apiece). You never know when you’ll need them, can always replace one that breaks (still a rarity), and impress others with your excess supply of HDMI cables.

  25. Al Federber says:

    Many years ago, I saw an interesting presentation about signage ordinances and the anti-capitalism forces behind them. Projected on a screen was a color night view of the Tokyo Ginza shopping district in full-blown neon glory. All the signs were in Japanese, and incomprehensible to the audience. The presenter asked the audience what they thought of the picture, and everybody said it was beautiful, which it was. Then a color night view of New York City was shown to the room. It was just as dramatic and full of neon color as the Tokyo view, but the signs were in English. The reaction of the crowd to this photo was generally negative, simply because they could perceive a commercial message.

  26. lplimac says:

    Do not believe that “Energizer and Duracell were equally good.” I work a company that, among other things, tests COTS (Commercial of the shelf- company does military type stuff) batteries and in the opinion of the Labs chief scientist, who’s job is to know these kind of things, Energizer are way inferior to Duracell. Too bad our purchasing people never got that memo, as all they buy are, sadly Energizers. And we pay for that decision… oh how we pay…

  27. DensityDuck says:

    Al: In a way, I think that’s why I like to watch anime subtitled rather than dubbed. When it’s subtitled, it’s like you’re watching opera; the emotions are more important than the dialogue. It doesn’t matter that they’re terrible actors–you don’t understand the language, so you don’t actually KNOW that they’re terrible.

  28. DensityDuck says:

    Signs: And, see, that’s the problem with government by the regulatory model. YOU DON’T ELECT THE REGULATORS. Regulators are civil servants, and there only two ways a civil servant can involuntarily lose their job: A) die, or B) get caught in the act of looking at porn online. The closest any of them ever came to an election is that their boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss is the President.

    And yet they control your life more intimitately than the President could ever hope to do. The President needs the approval of 535 members of Congress to do anything, but a bureaucrat in a regulatory agency can destroy every neon sign in America just by sending an email.

  29. DensityDuck says:

    Novel: Is it Joe Ohio?!?! Please say yes!

  30. Dawn says:

    My two cents on inexpensive cables: newegg.com A 6 ft. DVI to HDMI (M-M) is $8-$16…of course they have the $50-$70 option if you want to feel superior because you spent more :)

  31. Bribo says:

    You could always Boxee your AppleTV like I’ve done. You can then use Boxee to stream movies, TV shows, etc. You don’t need to load anything on the ATV at all. Boxee is incredibly easy to install as well.

  32. stubby says:

    Ok, someone fill me in – I’ve been away for a while. When did Gnat become Natalie? I’m assuming it was her wish – did she decide she was too old to be Gnat?

  33. Ken J says:

    Charlie X, I hard the larger, exterior neons signs in mind when I wrote that. Most of the neon you linked to were small signs, a lot of them in windows.

    But what I was really responding to was what James said about regulation and taxes, and that Seattle has an awning tax.

  34. Lileks says:

    That was my decision – seemed apt, since she was now 8, and gave me nasty looks when she read “Gnat” on the screen. Gosh, I wonder why. ;)

  35. stubby says:


    My seven yeard old is growing tired of Tomboy Diva. Right now I’m calling her Shtumpy, as she’s on crutches for a month. She doesn’t like that one either. Too bad.

  36. Prestone says:

    Another good vendor for DVI to HDMI stuff is Sewell – pretty good prices, but more known for their tech support:


  37. Will says:

    When I buy alkalines, which is rare because I prefer rechargeables, I buy the store brand. I’ve never seen any huge advantage to the name brands.

  38. DensityDuck says:

    Will: I bet you’re the kind of person who buys “Toasted O’s”, “Fruity Rings”, “Wheat Flakes”, and “Cruchy Squares” cereal.

  39. Letitbeme says:

    I prefer Plankton’s verse:

    “F is for fire that burns down the whole town
    U’s for uraniuuum — BOMBS
    N is for no survivors …”

  40. js says:

    So what DS game did she get?

    My daughter’s been playing Pikmin. Last night she dreamed that she was a blue one.

  41. Will says:

    DensityDuck: True, but I do have some brand loyalties. Dr Pepper stands alone. No Mr. Pibb or Dr. Thunder or whatever knock-off brand can come close.

  42. James says:

    Second the monprice recommendation, except for one thing: buy yourself a bundle of cables at once to save on shipping. I got a DVI-DVI, one DVI-HDMI, a few HDMI-HDMI, and one each male and female DVI-HDMI adapter widgets. I now have a toolkit that will let me hook up any combination of the two for the forseeable future, shipped cost about 25 bucks. They should sell a kit, but it’s easy/cheap to make your own.

  43. DensityDuck says:

    James: Ho, ho, ho. Wait until they come out with XIC.

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