Skeuomorphs

Ever wonder why maple syrup bottles often have that tiny, useless handle?

Maple Syrup Skeuomorph

Ever wonder why station wagons from the 1960s through the 1980s had that awful fake wood paneling?

Station Wagon Skeuomorph

Both are examples of skeuomorphs, design features once practical elements of an object’s design that have been retained, even after the original element has disappeared. Maple syrup used to come in large earthenware jugs, and the handle was helpful in carrying it. Cars – especially trucks and station wagons – were once made with real wood paneling before car makers switched to more expensive steel.

The thing is, once you know about skeuomorphs, you’ll see them everywhere. There must be millions of plastic objects made to look like wood. Spokes are a necessary design feature for wagons or bicycles, but not cars. Yet it’s still at least somewhat common to see spokes on car wheels. Even the giant concrete pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge are skeuomorphs: the bridge is actually supported by abutments at the base of the pylons. The pylons were added to make the bridge look prettier, and to assure the public of its structural integrity.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

There are thousands of computer programs and smartphone apps that look like their physical equivalents – especially note-taking and calendar apps – even though there really isn’t a need for an app to look like a legal pad or a paper calendar. Steve Jobs was a huge fan of skeuomorphism: when he was alive, Apple software was chock-full of interfaces that looked like real-world address books, notepads and bookshelves. Skeuomorphs need not even be physical objects: most phones make a clicking sound when taking a picture, even though they don’t have mechanical shutters!

Something especially interesting about skeuomorphs is that they are by no means a modern thing. Skeuomorphs go back thousands of years. Many design features of classic Greek temples – guttae, modillions, triglyphs and mutules – originated in construction of wooden temples. When the Greeks switched to stone construction, such things were no longer structurally necessary but they liked the look, so kept the design. Wealthy Minoans had elaborate metal cups, which potters made painstaking copies of for everyday folk, even down to little “nubs” of clay to mimic the rivets used in the metal cups. A little closer to our time, Fredrick the Great, ruler of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, hated that his soldiers wiped their noses on their uniform sleeves. He decreed that a row of buttons be sewn on the sleeves to prevent the men from wiping their noses on his uniforms. Three hundred years later, the buttons might have moved to the other side of the sleeve… but they’re still there.

So think about skeuomorphs the next time you click the floppy disk icon to save a file to your SSD, or tap an icon with a 1930s-era microphone to record a memo on your smartphone!

 

The True Story of “A Forest”

If you’re a fan of The Cure, you might have had the pleasure of seeing the band’s live, over-the-top version of “A Forest”. The original version of the song – from the band’s second album, Seventeen Seconds – clocks in at 5:55. Live versions can run as long as 15 minutes. And why not? It’s one of the band’s most popular tunes, and the song’s moody, spartan atmosphere makes it ripe to extend by several minutes. But unless you’re a hardcore Cure fan, you might not know that the extended version of the song was neither accident nor artistic decision. It was to flip a finger at Robert Palmer.

The Cure played a festival called Rock Werchter in Werchter, Belgium on July 5, 1981. A couple of local acts opened, followed by The Undertones, Toots and the Maytals, then Elvis Costello. The Cure played, to be followed by Robert Palmer and Dire Straits.

As it sometimes happens at festivals, the bands started running behind. Before The Cure even went on, Robert Palmer’s road crew started hassling the band about keeping their set short. During the set, various members of Palmer’s crew kept motioning to the band to speed it up or, later on, end it already. After The Cure finished the penultimate song of their set – “A Play for Today” – a member of Palmer’s crew rushed on stage and threatened to cut the power if The Cure didn’t leave.

The Cure, of course, didn’t take too kindly to this. Robert Smith introduced their final song thusly:

“This is the final song because we’re not allowed to carry on anymore, ‘cos everybody wants to see Robert Palmer… I think. It’s called ‘A Forest’.”

Just to be dicks, The Cure improvised an almost 10 minute version of the song:

At the end of the song, you can hear Cure member Simon Gallup scream “Fuck Robert Palmer! Fuck rock n’ roll!” Palmer’s people had the last laugh, though, tossing all The Cure’s equipment off the back of the stage.

Over the years, the band has refined the live version of the song. Where the Werchter version is raw and improvised, later versions were much more cohesive, like this version from 1992:

“Passport to Flavor” Chips, Reviewed

For the past several years, Lay’s has held its “Do Us a Flavor” contest, where people from all over the United States submit flavor ideas to the company. The ideas are narrowed down to four and made into actual products consumers vote for. And thus, “Cheesy Garlic Bread”, “Wasabi Ginger” and “Southern Biscuits & Gravy” became actual potato chip flavors.

This year, however, Lay’s is doing something a little bit different. This year it’s “Passport to Flavor”, four exotic flavors from around the world. Which nation’s cuisine will reign supreme? Let’s find out, from worst to first!

Passport To Flavor chips

#4 Brazilian Picanha – Picanha is technically a cut of meat called a “rump cover” in the US. Although largely unknown in the US, it’s a highly-prized cut in Brazil, and is often grilled and served with chimichurri, a green sauce made of parsley, garlic, oil, oregano and vinegar.

THE TASTE: These mostly taste like sour cream & onion chips, with occasional bursts of generic “steak” flavor. If you’ve ever had Herr’s Kansas City Prime Steak chips, it’s a very similar taste, but a bit more… refined, for lack of a better word. To me, the steak flavor of the Herr’s chips is IN YOUR FACE and totally artificial; the Lay’s chips somehow taste a wee bit more authentic. But there’s not enough of it. And when the almost non-existent chimichurri flavor kicks in, it’s almost as if there was some kind of flavor mix-up at the factory, as if someone accidentally added a small amount of salt & vinegar flavoring to sour cream & onion chips. They’re not bad, exactly. I’d eat them again if I had to. They’re just kind of… underwhelming.

#3 Greek Tzatziki – I love gyros as much as the next guy. And a big part of that is the yummy tzatziki sauce that comes on them. I normally don’t care for yogurt and cucumbers individually, but put ’em together, and you’ve got deliciousness, buddy!

THE TASTE: What’s the opposite of underwhelming?  Oh yeah – overwhelming, which is how I’d describe the cucumber taste of these chips. I don’t get any garlic or dill at all – just ALL CUCUMBER, ALL THE TIME. I watched a YouTube review where a guy said all he could taste was “creamy dill”. I don’t know what planet that guy lives on, but all I get from these chips is cucumber, with a tiny note of some kind of cream\yogurt taste in the background. These wavy chips are so flavorful it’s almost unpleasant. I’d eat these again if I was at a sub shop and these were the only chips they had left. Otherwise I’ll pass. But at least they deliver on some flavor, which is more than you can say about the picanha chips.

#2 Indian Tikka Masala – I love Indian food, and one of my favorite Indian (okay, fine: Anglo-Indian) dishes is tikka masala. The lovely exotic spices. The tomato tang. The lush decadence of the cream. It’s all there, and it’s all good. Some folks like to say that tikka masala has replaced fish & chips as Britain’s national dish. And they’re not wrong – it’s that popular in the UK because it’s just that good.

THE TASTE: Man, I really, really, really wanted to love these chips. First, they’re kettle chips, which are always awesome. Second, I love tikka masala. But while these chips mostly hit the right flavor notes, there’s just something really, really, really “off” about one particular flavor note. When you first put one in your mouth, you get a kind of “generic curry” taste. Which is OK, I suppose. But then there’s this… godawful note of rancid chicken. I kid you not. The missus and I once accidentally forgot a pork tenderloin in the fridge. It was a couple weeks past its expiration date, but I decided to open the vacuum-sealed pouch to see if it still might be edible. As soon as the knife pierced the plastic, the kitchen filled with a smell that was partly vinegary, partly gamey, and partly the sweet smell of rot. It was not pleasant. And these tikka masala chips have a flavor note that, just for a second, tastes almost exactly like how that bad pork tenderloin smelled. If you can get past that – and the more chips I ate, the less I was able to do so – then you’re rewarded with a complex melange of flavors that do, in fact, taste like tikka masala. But that sour chicken note… blech! It’s like the stormtrooper hitting his head on the doorway in the original Star Wars: you might have watched the film a hundred times and never noticed it. But now that it’s been pointed out to you, you cannot not see it every time.

#1 Chinese Szechuan Chicken – Everyone has had Szechuan chicken at some point in their lives, right? Well, except the poor girl working at the Lake Wylie Publix I asked while looking for these chips. She also didn’t know what gyros were, much less that tzatziki sauce you put on them. I didn’t have the heart to ask her about picanha and tikka masala. Anyway, Szechuan chicken is one of the cornerstones of American Chinese restaurants. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Chinese place that didn’t have this on the menu.

THE TASTE: Nailed it. These chips taste almost exactly like the Szechuan chicken you’d order from your local Chinese take-out place. I mean, Lay’s captured every aspect of the taste. Funny thing about these chips: I was able to find large bags of the other flavors during a routine trip to Walmart. But my local Walmart didn’t have these. While out running errands, I stopped at a different Walmart and happened to see the small bags of these chips near the front of the store. I got two small bags instead of walking all the way to the back of the store to find a large bag. When I got home last night, I kept telling myself to slow down, that I needed to save a few chips for writing this article today. I inhaled that small bag. They were that good, and that addictive. Having said all that, I’m not entirely sure these are a flavor with staying power. Seems like these would clash with a lot of dishes normally eaten with chips (like sandwiches and hot dogs). It’s almost like they’re too specific. If someone was just eating the chips by themselves, then these are a good option. With something else? I’m not sure. But I’ll enjoy them while they’re here – they’re delicious!

Open a Command Prompt from File Explorer

Most power users know this already, but I’ve noticed that a surprising number of “Average Joes” do not: if you’re using File Explorer (or Windows Explorer, as it’s known in older versions of Windows) and you want to open a command prompt at that particular location, all you have to do is type CMD+Enter in the address bar:

cmd_shortcut_01
File Explorer, open at C:\adb

 

cmd_shortcut_02
Type CMD in the address bar and press ENTER.

 

cmd_shortcut_03
Command Prompt opens to the current folder

MYSTERY SOLVED!

In this post from 2013, I talked about a mysterious record called “Ready ‘n’ Steady” by a band called “D.A.”. What made the record so mysterious was that it hit Billboard magazine’s “Bubbling Under” chart on June 16, 1979… but no one had ever even seen a copy of the record, much less owned one. Even Joel Whitburn – a music historian who has worked with Billboard for decades, making a career out of publishing Bilboard-based reference books – didn’t have a copy. And Whitburn owns a copy of every other record that’s ever appeared on the Billboard charts!

Billboard Chart
Blatantly stolen from mix931fm.com

Well, consider the mystery solved. According to this post, the Lost Media Wiki posted the following information a few weeks ago:

The artists of the song turned out to be Dennis Armand “D. A.” Lucchesi (1945-2005), a California-based mortgage broker and amateur musician, and Jim Franks. Franks is still alive, and willingly gave Paul Haney (on behalf of Whitburn) a recording of the song. It was played on July 8, 2016, on the Crap from the Past radio show on KFAI in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota.

According to Haney (who appeared on Crap from the Past, explaining the history behind the song), he had spoken with Franks, who told him that the song (as well as three or four other songs) was recorded in 1979 after a major label representative witnessed the band play live. He offered the band studio time and promised that he would help the band get a song on the Billboard charts. Despite its appearance on the charts, the song was never pressed onto vinyl. Because of this, it is unknown if the song even received radio play at the time of its recording.

This kind of raises new questions, though. If it was never pressed into vinyl, how did radio stations play it, and if they didn’t, how did it reach the Billboard charts?

Someone uploaded the song to YouTube. I can’t even begin to describe how disappointing the song is… but here it is, if you wanna listen:

Thanks, Spotify!

One of the big draws of Spotify Premium is that the service allows you to download music for offline listening. So if you’re going somewhere where LTE or Wi-Fi might not be available (camping) or might be expensive or slow (most airports and flights), you can save tunes to your device and listen offline. Hell, even if LTE or Wi-Fi is available, you might want to download a song anyway: if you’re one of those people who plays a track on repeat, it’s better to download a song once over Wi-Fi than use your precious data to download the same bits over and over again.

Spotify Premium allows you to download music to (up to) 3 devices. Like most software with such limits, you can log in to your account and revoke permissions for a device… in case one of your devices is lost, stolen or broken and you order a replacement. But Spotify’s UI isn’t that helpful:

Spotify WTF

I have Spotify installed on an LG G Stylo (phone), Asus ZenPad (tablet) and Amazon Fire (tablet). But I can’t tell which device is which, because Spotify’s programmers can’t be bothered to add a few lines of code to their app.

Thanks, Spotify!

I’m DONE with Target

Lots of people love Target. I don’t.

For one thing, Target seems to never, ever have what I want. No matter how mundane the item – be it a pack of Juicy Fruit gum, a Snickers bar, Irish Spring soap or a simple 4×6″ picture frame… if I need it, Target won’t have it. I often joke that the reason Target has CCTV cameras in the parking lot is so they can see me coming and hide whatever it is I’m there for.

But what’s worse, though, are the employees. I don’t know if Target only hires really stupid people, or if they train them poorly… but every time I ask a Target employee about the item I can’t seem to find, they not only act as if they’ve never heard of the thing before, they act like they can’t imagine why someone would want it:

“Orange… juice, you said? And you said it’s some kind of… beverage?”

Dear…

“Kitty… ‘litter’? Am I saying that correctly? ‘Kitty litter’? And it’s some sort of… pet accessory? For cats?”

God…

“Sandpaper? It’s not in office supplies? That’s where the paper is. Never heard of SANDpaper, though.”

Why?

There are a couple other things I could niggle. For one, Target’s grocery selection really sucks. Say what you will about Walmart, but my local Walmart has a full-blown grocery store inside. It doesn’t really cater to exotic tastes, but a family of four could easily buy all their groceries at Walmart, no problem. My local Target, on the other hand, has hundreds of items, but only one or two of any given item. Walmart has 15 types of canned chili; Target has three. Walmart has 84 different types of bread; Target has, like, six, tops. And the worst part is, unless you’re willing to compromise a lot, you can’t even buy a whole meal’s worth of stuff at Target. You want slow cooker pot roast with veggies? Target will have everything but the actual roast. Or they’ll have the roast, but no potatoes. Or potatoes but no carrots. Or they’ll have all the food, but no slow cooker spices. Or they won’t have slow cooker liners. Or something. It’s always something with Target.

Also, people say Target has “nicer” stuff than Walmart. I’m sure that’s true to an extent. Their crappy bookshelves are more stylish than Walmart’s crappy bookshelves. Target’s wastebaskets do look more like something you’d see at a hip spa or salon than Walmart’s “what old lady’s house did they steal this from?” wastebaskets. And, if you’re under the age of 25, Target’s clothes probably are cooler than Walmart’s. But at the end of the day, I can’t help but get the feeling that Target’s stuff costs 25% more than Walmart’s, but isn’t 25% better. Their crappy $129 bookshelf won’t last any longer or hold more weight than Walmart’s crappy $99 bookshelf, and their $7.50 Hanes t-shirt won’t last longer than Walmart’s $5 Hanes shirt.

*     *     *

Today was the last damn straw, though.

See, thanks to all the online security scares, I’m kind of wary about using a credit card online. So I try to use gift cards when possible. I pay for my mobile phone service with prepaid cards, which is easy to do, because almost any store that sells such cards will carry ones for my provider, and there’s a 99% chance I’ll be going to one such store at least once a month.

Spotify cards are somewhat harder to find, however. Despite Spotify’s site saying they’re available at many large (specific) retailers – Kroger! Target! Best Buy! Walmart! CVS! – they’re actually kind of hard to find.

Last night I was reading the Spotify subreddit, where some post playlists and others ask questions about the service. I saw a question about gift cards… which got me curious enough to look for them at Amazon. No dice. I googled “Spotify gift card” and got a link to this page at Target. Here’s a screencap:

Spotify at Target
(click to embiggen)

As you can see, this is a $30 Spotify card being offered for $21. It’s “only sold in stores”, “not available for free pickup” but is “in stock” at my local Gastonia (North Carolina) Target. It’s also located on aisle F29.

I had to run an errand today that would take me somewhat close to that Target, so I figured I’d buy a couple of cards. Hey, six months of Spotify for $42 instead of $60 isn’t that bad a deal, right? It’s almost like getting two months free!

So I went to the store, and went to aisle F29 (who even knew Target aisles were numbered?) I found the cards, but they were marked at $30, No problem, I figured. I’d just get them to adjust the price at checkout. Just to be sure, however, I looked closely at the rest of the cards on the aisle. No other Spotify cards, just these.

Of course, they can’t price match at the register. That would be too damn easy. After waiting for several minutes at a slow-ass register, the nice but clueless cashier (whose nametag read – I kid you not – “New Target Associate”) directed me to customer service.

The guy at Customer Service first told me that he couldn’t match the price, because the graphics are different. I asked him why the hell that matters. Packaging changes all the time, but the essential bit of a giftcard – the barcode and pin – don’t. He hemmed and hawed for several minutes, then said that he couldn’t price match because the pictured card was for “3 months of service” while the cards in my hand were “gift cards”. I told him that was a distinction without difference. Virgin Mobile used to sell Broadband2Go, PayLo and Beyond Wireless cards… but it didn’t matter which one you used, because it all went into the same Virgin Mobile account. He hemmed and hawed – no really, I think he actually said “heeeeemmm” and “hawwwww” – then said, “yeah, I’m sorry, I just can’t do it”. I asked him to get me someone “higher up the food chain”.

After a few minutes, a Target manager came up and asked me what she could do. I explained the situation, and was literally floored by her “logic”.

See, the cards were on clearance, and that’s why you can’t order them online for pickup. OK, but Google Play cards are also “not available for in-store pickup”, but they’re not on clearance. So what’s the difference?

Well, she said, they don’t have any in stock. OK, so why does the webpage say “in stock at Gastonia”? Because we have them in stock, but not those cards. What the hell does THAT mean? Oh, the cards that are on clearance? You’re out of those? So why does the website say you do have them in stock? Because they do have $30 Spotify cards in stock, but not those $30 Spotify cards.

After a few minutes of her circular logic, I held up the printout and asked: “OK, let’s pretend that you don’t work for Target. You go to Target.com and search for ‘Spotify’. This is one of the results. The webpage clearly says ‘only sold in stores’, that you can’t buy them online for pickup. It also says that they’re available in this very store. What would YOU think?” Apparently she’d “be confused too” but she’d understand because there’s some vital difference between whatever the company posted on their website and what they had in the store (despite all evidence to the contrary).

Finally exasperated, I asked: “So… you say that such cards actually exist somewhere in the realm of Target. How can I buy some of these? What can you do today to sell me these?”

“Well, I guess you can drive to another Target. There’s one at Metropolitan, and….”

Go to hell already. You know what? If I’d talked to the store manager, and if the manager had said “because fuck you, that’s why we’re not price matching”, I’d somehow feel better. I’d feel better than having to listen to someone half my age trying to explain something she clearly doesn’t understand, and clearly making it all up as she went along. I don’t have kids, but I can easily recognize someone making up teen-level bullshit on the fly. And this was weapons-grade bullshit, my friends.

I went ahead and bought a single card… because why the hell not? I’d wasted an hour of my life arguing with a 20 year-old girl at Target… that has to be better than making a special stop of Best Buy just to make a “spite purchase” of a whopping $30.

Still, though… it bugged me. So when I got home I called Target’s customer service number. I spoke to a nice lady in India (I think.. possibly the Philippines). I gave her the 18-digit receipt number and she was able to pull up the transaction in her system. She immediately saw and understood the issue, but couldn’t help much. The best she could do was issue me a refund on the on the difference… $9… in the form of a Target gift card. Dammit. I could use it to buy a mobile phone giftcard… but I bet it’ll say “cannot be used on gift card purchases”.

Bastards. I hate Target.