This blog covers everything except sports and gardening, unless we find a really good link about using dead professional bowlers for mulch. The author is a StarTribune columnist, has been passing off fiction and hyperbole as insight since 1997, has run his own website since the Jurassic era of AOL, and was online when today’s college sophomores were a year away from being born. So get off his lawn.

Posts about Outstate

The End of the Hotel Room Key

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: January 30, 2014 - 12:25 PM

A few things floating around on a wintry Thursday.

TECH Have a mental image of the people who come up with tech that lets you call the police under an assumed name and fake number, and send cops to someone’s house as a joke, or harassment? Compare with the real thing.

Elsewhere in technology: Your room key in your phone? Oh, sure, why not.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts has begun a pilot program in two of its major hotel locations in Manhattan and Silicon Valley, which does away with keycards altogether by allowing guests to enter their rooms using just their smartphones.

Eventually the room keycard will disappear, another piece of venerable urban detritus replaced by its virtual analogue. The old “drop in any mailbox” keys are rare these days, replaced by the thin plastic cards the front desk can deactivate if you were a jerk on check-in and need a little comeuppance. (I believe that happened to me once, and I wasn’t even being a jerk, unless “polite-but-firm” is somehow beyond the pale. The more you read blogs written by anonymous hotel employees, the more you suspect they hate everyone on general principle.)

While it’s certainly more convenient, it’s a pity: those keycards are nice mementos of trips past, and can be interesting examples of branding design. A screenshot of the hotel’s door-opening app isn’t quite the same.

Note: in 30 years, there will be hundreds of keycards in antique stores, as the hoarders - er, collectors die off and the survivors sell the shoebox full of useless stuff to someone who’ll take it off their hands.

HISTORY NPR reports on the explorations of the oldest Roman temple ever found, and note how early the Romans were terraforming their domain.

It’s discoveries like these, Ammerman says, that debunk the idealized image of ancient Rome — the immutable and eternal city — as a place that never changed.

I suppose it does, but I don’t know anyone who thought it never changed. Obviously it’s changed. A lot. Anyway, that’s the quote from NPR. Let’s see what Gizmodo did with the story:

This discovery is an important one. It debunks the myth that ancient Rome never changed—when in reality, it was a dynamic, transformative city very, very early on.

Apparently the myth was so strong, so prevalent, that the Giz writer felt compelled to mention this as well. Or, as Tom Lehrer put it: Paraphrase! Disguise the source text with a wordy haze!

CARTOONS The head of Filmation has died. He gave us this, which had Ted Baxter shouting authoritatively:

And, of course, this. The most famous upside-down theme of my childhood; this is the theme in a parallel universe.

I remember waiting for that show with such great expectations, and being somewhat dismayed that the animation consisted of people leaning into the frame at strange angles.

By the way, that’s from a fan-made remake of the animated series. The appetite of some for these things I do not understand, but I’m the guy who posts old pictures of boring restaurant interiors, so never mind. (via Cartoon Brew.)

Off to the Boat Show; see you around. 

Cannibal Rats on the Ghost Cruise Ship

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: January 23, 2014 - 12:26 PM

“Resort Wear” starts showing up in stores around now, right? Some people are thinking about trips to warm climes, perhaps on a cruise ship. Make sure it’s not the ghost shop carrying mad starving cannibal rats. The Independent:

A ghost ship carrying nothing but disease-ridden rats could be about to make land on Britain’s shore, experts have warned. The Lyubov Orlova cruise liner has been drifting across the north Atlantic for the better part of a year, and salvage hunters say there is a strong chance it is heading this way. Built in Yugoslavia in 1976, the unlucky vessel was abandoned in a Canadian harbour after its owners were embroiled in a debt scandal and failed to pay the crew.

The ship is named after “the first recognized star of Soviet cinema.” She appeared in Stalin’s favorite film, as well as an early musical called “Jolly Fellows.” You can tell it’s a Soviet film right away:

Oh, those guys! They're hilarious. 

Here’s a few minutes from the movie. Don't know the Russian term for “laff riot.”

The film was famous enough to require revivals and restoration. It was colorized as well, and this before / after comparison gives you an interesting perspective. You don’t see much color footage of the USSR in the 30s.

BRING OUT YER DEAD Slate’s history blog has a piece on London’s “bills of mortality,” now available online. People died off peculiar things back then. Fistula I understand, but I wonder what sort of medical skill went into distinguishing between Flox and Flux:

A lot of plague deaths were chalked up to other causes, such as:

Good thing to show your teen: yes, you can die from griping. And I can die from grief, so don’t give me any. This may be my favorite:

Brilliant work, Mr. Scribe. “How did he die?” “Suddenly.” “Well, I’ll put that down as the cause, then.” “Surfeit is also a mystery, but there’s no mystery about the last one. Cause of death: TEETH. So floss already. As for the real worry of the times:

That’s in a week. But you could be taken away for something else. Like gas:

I'd rather go from Rising of the Lights; sounds quite transcendent. 

Better than expiring of a Sore Legge.

Snowden bombshell: aliens helped Hitler!

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: January 13, 2014 - 12:23 PM

Sure. Right. Or, look at it this way: If you were part of the alien conspiracy, how would you discredit anyone who attempted to reveal your secret plans for humanity? Simple. Reveal the plans yourself, with a few details changed. That’s the only thing that explains this.

Former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden revealed documents providing incontrovertible proof that an alien/extraterrestrial intelligence agenda is driving US domestic and international policy, and has been doing so since at least 1945, some media reports said. A stunning Federal Security Services (FSB) report on the nearly two million highly classified top-secret documents obtained from the United States Department of Defense (DOD) run National Security Agency-Central Security Service (NSA/CSS) by the American ex-patriot Edward Snowden states that this information is providing “incontrovertible proof” that an “alien/extraterrestrial intelligence agenda” is driving US domestic and international policy, and has been doing so since at least 1945, reported.

You’re wondering if these were the same aliens in charge of the Nazi weapons program; congrats. Same guys.

Of the many explosive revelations in this FSB report, the one most concerning to Russian authorities are the Snowden’s documents “confirming” that the “Tall Whites” are the same extraterrestrial alien race behind the stunning rise of Nazi Germany during the 1930’s.

Well, that explains David Bowie, but it doesn’t understand why the Nazis lost.

Snowden’s documents further confirm, this report says, the “Tall Whites” (Nordic) meetings in 1954 with US President Dwight D. Eisenhower where the “secret regime” currently ruling over America was established.

Why would the aliens back Hitler? The article notes that they’re Tall White Nordic Aliens, so that might explain things, but again, what’s the point? Conquest? Or is this what advanced civilizations do when simulated entertainment gets boring? Think about it: we imagine “Independence Day” scenarios where the aliens show up to steal our resources, “Predator” scenarios where they come to hunt for sport. But what if some aliens come to amuse themselves by pitting groups against each in long-term strategic games? That’s right: the world is being run by alien nerds who are playing their version of Dungeons and Dragons.

SCIENCE! The latest view of the universe is astonishing:

Just a corner of the sky, and it teems with galaxies. Slate’s Bad Astronomer explains what you’re looking at. (Hint: the beginning of creation.)

Wonder who’s home. Seems unlikely they'd come here to help someone annex Poland. 

To show how far we’ve come, here’s a 1955 Kodak ad that shows the wonders of the universe:

That white speck is the entire Andromeda Galaxy! Captured with a Brownie! What astonishing -

No, sorry, that was dust on the scanner. Anyway, If there’s someone out there, why haven’t we heard from them? Perhaps we have. A Top Ten piece that ended up in my Zite app feed reminded me of the Wow! signal, a radio signal that may have been extraterrestrial in origin. I didn’t know this:

In 2012, on the 35th anniversary of the Wow! signal, Arecibo Observatory beamed a response from humanity, containing 10,000 Twitter messages, in the direction from which the signal originated. In the response, Arecibo scientists have attempted to increase the chances of intelligent life receiving and decoding the celebrity videos and crowd-sourced Tweets by attaching a repeating sequence header to each message that will let the recipient know that the messages are intentional and from another intelligent life form.

Not if there’s any YOLO SWAG in there.

If you’re wondering what the #1 historical mystery might be - greater than the signal from aliens: “The Identity of the Babushka Lady” who was present at the JFK assassination.

Greatest mystery in history. Yep. Hands down.

ARCHITORTURE This came as a surprise: Portland hates its Municipal Building, and wants to tear it down. Atlantic Cities:

One of Portland, Oregon's most important buildings is also one of its most detested. Now facing a $95 million renovation, some city commissioners are calling for its demolition. The Portland Building, a 15-story municipal structure downtown, is the work of Michael Graves. A designer, Graves is more often admired for his household products than his edifices. But the 31-year-old Portland Building is one of America's first significant pieces of postmodern architecture. At the time it was built, it was seen as a refreshing rejection of modernism. It won an AIA award in 1983.

It looks cartoony now; most of the early post-modern stuff looks a bit absurd, models exaggerated to preposterous dimensions. The glassy examples look flabby, and the ones that incorporated Ironic Classical Quotations look like something a giant child made out of building blocks. Far be it from me to tell another city what they should preserve - especially if it’s hated by two key groups, those who walk past it and those who have to go inside, but it was a groundbreaking idea. Can’t find a public domain photo, so you’ll just have to go here if you can’t place it off the top of your head.


”Hey, Billy.”

As they say: wait for it. 

Abandoned Disney Parks

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: January 8, 2014 - 12:35 PM

Not a phrase you usually hear. From Fearnet:

There are two to be exact: Discovery Island and River Country. The adjoining parks are the only two Disney parks to ever be closed permanently. Luckily for us, they were abandoned rather than demolished.

Pictures and descriptions here. It’s eerie; feels like a trip back to Jurassic Park after all the unpleasantness. Disney things aren't supposed to be abandoned. Makes you realize how much they own down there - and how they're probably planning a new park in secret. But what? It seems as if they have everythng covered. Nature: check. The Future: check. Europe: check. Hollywood: check. Old West: check. Wonder if there's anyone in charge of coming up with the next theme park idea, and every night he or she goes to bed drained from the effort. Another day. Nuthin'. 

MONEY From the website Billfold, the social capital behind checks:

Accepting a check—whether for the eight-and-change I spent at the post office, mailing a few packages, at the bookstore, or for the $364 that rent and utilities cost me last month (suck on that, New York friends)—means demonstrating a level of trust in the person who’s paying you. They’re good for the money. They’re giving you a document stamped with their account and routing numbers, and expecting you to take no more than what you’ve agreed on.

You almost hate to go to the comments, because there will be someone who says “What’s a check?” (So far, no.) Never understood why professing ignorance of something that was big in the recent past is a sign of cleverness, especially when it invites a straight reply: well, it’s a piece of paper understood to symbolize a medium of exchange, much like money itself; it contains a series of numbers that tie it to a bank account, and a register in which people may enter their transactions so they have a running total of their financial resources. Does that help?”

But no one asked that so I’m punching a strawman, I suppose.

ABOUT THAT CITY IN CHINA This article on Motherboard  speculates that tipping might be on the way out. Don’t see that happening, but it makes interesting points about wags, tip-pooling for the back kitchen staff, and so on. Apparently there’s no tipping in Australia, which led to this exchange in the comments:

I found the service at restaurants in AU lousy. However, when traveling to countries where they don't do tipping, when I go to a restaurant and they learn I am American they swarm me with incredible service because they know a tip is in the cards.

To which a sour person replies:

So you are spoiling their staff by doing something you are not supposed to do and encouraging them to ask more for something they are already paid for. That's sounds like me.

Hey, let’s go around the internet and look for people behaving like Americans, and put them in their place! Some people. Really.

RETREADS Anything left in this schtick? We’ll see:

Pop the champagne, it's cause for a celebration. While on the ITV talk show "The Jonathan Ross Show" this weekend, Jennifer Saunders confirmed that she is indeed going to write an "Absolutely Fabulous" movie.

If that doesn’t interest you, try this:

Reports that David Lynch will direct a new promo has fans theorizing — is it a promo, or a follow-up? “Twin Peaks” fans are all aflutter with the news that David Lynch is shooting some sort of new footage for the 1990s franchise.Tuesday. It started earlier this week when a casting call for a “Twin Peaks” promo was posted by Sande Alessi Casting for a “Twin Peaks” promo shooting Tuesday. It’s looking for a “hot” brunette or redhead between ages 18 to 27.

The reason fans are excited:

Apparently, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) tells Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) on the finale that she will see him again in 25 years. Although the show aired in 1990, it actually shot in 1989. So, 25 years later would be 2014.

So we’d get an ending. Maybe we’d get an update on what Evil Coop was up to; one shudders to think.

VoTD Finally, a reminder: black ice is everywhere. Slow down. Or:

It begins on the bridge. Doesn't stop there, alas.

The perils of "Log in with Facebook"

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: January 7, 2014 - 12:26 PM

It’s possible we’re more tired of the constant coverage of the cold than the cold itself. At least the end’s in sight; at least the worst possible day of the year is behind us. Yes, yesterday was the most depressing day of the year, according to STUDIES. If there’s a STUDY, then the issue’s settled. What makes it so sad? Debt, divorce and rain. The methodology was rock-solid: a “drinks company” called “Upbeat” analyzed two million tweets. The comments at the Daily Mail piece are full of stern advice: STOP YOUR MOANING, YOU UNGRATFUL GROT BAGS is one bracing entry. Will do!

Could be worse; you could be here:

More than 500 passengers spent the night aboard three Amtrak trains stranded 80 miles west of Chicago by ice and snow that had drifted over the tracks, officials said.

The trains -- the Southwest Chief from Los Angeles, the Illinois Zephyr from Quincy and the California Zephyr from the San Francisco Bay area -- were halted around 5 p.m. Monday .

This sounds almost Dickensian:

One of the stranded passengers, Sarah Johnson, 19, said the crew told passengers they were going to try and free the train by moving back and forth – like a car stuck in snow – but that didn't work.

The train got stuck around 3:15 p.m. and everyone was fed a meal of beef stew and mashed potatoes with a dinner roll and coffee or water about 6:45 p.m., she said.

You expect to read "and everyone was sent to bed." I remember a train trip across the plains in the winter; cold compartments, frigid bathrooms overflowing with hideousness both general and specific. Never again. Here’s the fun part of the piece, though:


LATEST OUTRAGE Words to live by, and they’re in a footnote:

The controversy itself is an example of something interesting I'd been meaning to write about, incidentally. I was one of the first users of Reddit, and I couldn't believe the number of times I indignantly upvoted a story about some apparent misdeed or injustice, only to discover later it wasn't as it seemed. As one of the first to be exposed to this phenomenon, I was one of the first to develop an immunity to it. Now when I see something that seems too indignation-inducing to be true, my initial reaction is usually skepticism.

I came across the blog post thanks to a link in the comments on another site, here. That piece began like this:

Hi, Paul Graham. My name is Crystal and I’ve been hacking for the past 29 years. I don’t know how you intended your comments but oh lordy, the internet has had a fun time speculating. I’ll leave that commentary to others but I do want to say I’m happy you brought up this debate about gender disparity in tech, as it has sparked some excellent conversation about how we’re going to fix it. I believe we will fix it in part by having role models. In that spirit, I offer my own nerd story.

Which indeed she does. I found that piece linked at various tech sites that were angry at Paul Graham for saying something summed up in this Valleywag headline: ”Paul Graham Says Women 'Haven't Been Hacking For the Past 10 Years'"

Except he says he didn’t say it. Go here for his response. (The Valleywag piece also has some push-back on his remarks.)

”Now when I see something that seems too indignation-inducing to be true, my initial reaction is usually skepticism."  Or, to recast the adage, Doubt, but Verify.

NIGHTMARE FUEL The Old Spice commercial is disturbing, yes:

If you’re revolted or annoyed, or cannot sleep because of Two-face Cafeteria Janitor Mom, then you’re not the target market. If you are an adult, the tagline “Smellcome to Manhood” is a first-wednesday-of-the-month-siren-test warning that this is for high school boys.

Or maybe you’re thinking it’s a hint of an upcoming Super Bowl commercial which will really move the merchandise, because everyone will be talking about it. Well: Ad Age says that 80% of the ads don’t boost sales. Let me put that another way: eight out of ten ads don’t work.

Why? The article quotes Jeri Smith, CEO of the company that did the study.

Tide's 2013 "Miracle Stain" ad, which was well liked and did well on branding, still didn't increase purchases or intent, according to Ms. Smith. "It didn't tell people anything they didn't already know," she said. "And unlike Budweiser, I don't buy Tide because of my personal connection.” Long-form commercials such as Tide's 60-second spot "run the risk of people being so caught up in the story that they forget about the brand," Ms. Smith said. And in "Miracle Stain," the brand appeared at the end as "kind of the anti-hero" by eliminating a stain that looked like former San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Joe Montana.

Hair pulled out by the handfuls at the agency, I’m sure: what were we thinking? Not only was our story so compelling it overshadowed brand penetration, it left lingering impressions that equated miraculous apparitions with filth! But they’ll do it again this year, and we’ll all debate which commercials made an impression, because it’s January and there’s just bleep-all going on.

ARCHITORTURE One of the loveliest buildings in Times Square was the tiny little shoe store with the statues of famous actresses. Like this:


It seemed unlikely to survive Times Square’s expansion, but it’s been completely restored. The full story here at Scouting NY.

UPDATE Let’s check in on Mr. Trainwreck:

Actor Shia LaBeouf alienated the rest of the cast of the Brad Pitt tank movie Fury according to the Mail on Sunday. An item in the paper's showbiz diary suggests that LaBeouf pulled one of his own teeth out, and failed to wash himself during the entire shoot, the better to replicate conditions of life on the frontline in the second world war. According to the Mail on Sunday's "source", LaBeouf's behaviour proved so unpopular among cast members, which include Brad Pitt, Jason Isaacs and Logan Lerman, that he was installed in a bed and breakfast away from them.

Some say he’s acting peculiar because he’s addicted to “lean,” aka purple drank, sizzurp, and so on. Cough syrup and Mountain Dew, more or less. But that’s based on a tweet he . . . altogether now, PLAGIARIZED.

That’s it for today; I’d say “stay warm!” but that’s insulting and unnecessary. You know what to do, for heaven’s sake, and if you don’t, it’s unlikely you’ll take my advice. Bundle up! What am I, your mother?



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