Building the Future

When I was a young boy, my mother was nearly certain that I would grow up to be an architect. She says that my prowess in making balanced structures with my wooden blocks was an amazing thing, and that she knew I had an eye for design. Well, she may have been right about the design part, but little did she know that over the course of my childhood, the personal computer would take such enormous strides and become the driving force in business — and even in design — that it has.

At a very early age, I started programming Apple II computers in school and the Atari 800 we had at home (one of the few Atari models that you could do more than play Pong on). My parents and I have since gone through several Wintel machines, and I have moved beyond those to my platform of choice, the Macintosh. My Dad still holds the fallacy that they’re not “real business machines,” but as a designer and content creator, it meets my needs better than any Windows machine can.

I’ve moved on, as well, from programming in BASIC on the Atari and Apple II. There are an amazing number of software programs available today that give me enormous power to design the way I want to, whether it be for print, video, the web, or some other medium that hasn’t even been invented yet. I’d like to think I’ve become pretty proficient at the design packages I now use, though I know that there is constantly more to learn. It’s not a question of finally learning it all, but not slipping behind the curve.

I’m not one to stay complacent where I am, though. I require constant challenge or my brain starts turning to mush. This, unfortunately, tends to make my resume look like I’m an unstable employee. It’s not that I don’t do my work well, but I get bored very quickly once the job becomes routine, and want to move on to something else. Over short terms, I’ve been a graphic designer, digital video editor, salesman, assistant manager at a coffee shop, and a locksmith’s apprentice. In fact, the video editing position I currently hold is the longest I have ever held a job — 2 years.

Recently, when I helped my parents move into the new house they had built for my grandparents and themselves, I started paging through my Mom’s architectural books. I started thinking, maybe this is what I want to do with my life… I swear… at 24, you’d think I might know already, but no. I really would love to work on feature films in some capacity, but I can’t decide which there either: as director? of course, but how about a sound effects editor? or a film editor? or go back to school and learn how to write an orchestral score? or go to a different school and learn more about digital effects?

I have been studying architecture a bit lately, and I’ve started noticing a lot that I like in the buildings around me. I live quite close to our nation’s capital, so I have a plethora of styles and designers to choose from. I must admit, though, that I’m quite fond of the Art Deco style, which seems to have mostly taken root in New York. I think the Chrysler Building there is one of the most beautiful buildings in recent history. Of course, I love classical architecture as well, leaning towards Greek and Egyptian influences. If you’ve never seen the Masonic Temple in downtown DC on 16th street (which has both), you owe yourself a tour.

My wife and I have been designing our dream home over the past few years as well, starting from some Victorian era designs that she loves, and adapting them to fit our needs using home design software. We’re also planning to have built-in convenience, through home automation. This will allow us (through the X–10 protocol) to use our Mac to control practically anything in the house from any control panel in the house, remotely over the phone, programmed in response to certain events, or even by voice command.

Even though I haven’t formally studied architecture, the progressions in computing have allowed me to design my home using just my design sense. Granted, I still need to have the plans checked over by a local architect to make sure that everything is up to local code, but the power is there. I am awed that I can now use my Mac to design my home, control my home, and make a living to pay for my home — and it’s only going to get better.

Perfectional Motion

My name is Mark, and I’m a perfectionist.

It’s not that striving for perfection isn’t a good thing, but that my perfectionism often gets in the way of actually getting something done. This really hit home recently in a few discussions I had with my friend, AAlgar. AAl and I are working on producing a new short film together, a “sequel” of sorts to one that we had previously done together.

When AAl originally approached me about doing the project, he mentioned that he mainly wanted to do it to get these characters down on film to just get them out of his head. He stressed that he didn’t want to spend a ton of time and effort on it, put just wanted it to get it done, so we could move on to other projects that we could spend more time on. This was to be, AAl noted, for our eyes only.

Being the perfectionist I am, though, all the caution about not spending too much effort went out the window. I thought up elaborate effects, spent an enormous amount of time working on making an insignia badge for the officers in the film, and planned to rent a professional camera to replace AAl’s VHS one. You see, it’s not that I really wanted to spend tons of time on this, but even if nobody else was going to see it, I wanted it to be something I could be proud of — something of quality.

I finally realized, though, that for this particular project, I should really just be helping AAl on his creative effort. If I wanted to ever get around to my own projects, or even something a little more creatively balanced between us, I needed to heed AAl’s advice.

That advice applies to the rest of my life as well. I have a lot of grandiose ideas about how I’m going to make my life better — one of them being to scan into my Mac all the images and newspaper clippings I’ve amassed over the years, so that I have only a few CD-ROMs to move around with me, instead of almost a hundred pounds of paper. It’s a great idea, but it takes time, and I’m not happy to just have the stuff scanned in — no, I have to have it look exactly the same as it did on paper. That means scanning in the images and text, arranging it in a page layout program, and then exporting it to Adobe’s PDF format to keep the formatting. At that rate, I’ll be accumulating more clippings at a rate faster than I’ll be getting them digitized — and I already have a backlog!

I’m taking AAl’s advice to heart — I’m giving up.

So long as I have the text and images scanned in so I can find what I need later, what difference does it make whether it looks like the original? And if AAl doesn’t want the look of a multi-million dollar budget in his film, who am I to force it on him? If my clients at work don’t care how precisely kerned and arranged their video titles are, why should I spend extra time getting them to my satisfaction?

There’s a fine line, I’m finding, between taking pride in your work and spending needless hours on minor details that no one but you cares about or notices. On my film projects, I’m sure I’ll always be a perfectionist, but I’m finally learning to pick my battles.

Musical Musings

I love music. I almost constantly have an album or one of my mixed tapes playing in the background whether I’m at home, at work, or even (until my Walkman™ decided to die recently) on the bus or train as I commute.

I have a very wide range of tastes (or at least I think I do), which pretty much includes everything but twangy country and “gangsta rap.” I especially love traditional Celtic and Celtic-derivative music — and I liked it even before it became trendy! Score one for me!

Speaking of scoring, the other genre I’m big on is movie scores — now, I don’t mean soundtracks, even though that’s what they’re sometimes referred to as (oh, my bad grammar!). To relieve the confusion, soundtracks properly refer to “songs” or source music (music that has a visible on-screen source) that are in the film, whereas the score is the (usually) orchestral music that enhances the emotion in a scene. I often wonder what my life would be like if I had an orchestra following me around, scoring my life. Probably a lot more crowded — intimacy would be difficult at best, and car trips would be a veritable nightmare. Maybe I could make them really tiny…

In any case, at this writing, my wife and I have nearly 500 CDs together, and we still have several more albums on tape and LP (you know, those big black vinyl things?). In addition to these “hard copies,” I have come to know the joys of the latest and greatest in computer-based compressed audio — the MP3 format.

MP3 is actually an abbreviation for MPEG 1, Layer 3, — a compression scheme that reduces digital audio to roughly 1/10th of its uncompressed size, while still retaining near-CD quality. Of course, this technology has the Recording Industry Association of America up in arms (their reaction to every consumer-recordable digital format so far) because they fear it will be used for audio piracy — and to be at all honest, it is. It is also, though, being used by a growing number of music artists (Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and Billy Idol, to name a few) to promote their new material.

One of the uses I imagined when I first heard of the format was to use an old Mac I have laying about as a jukebox — just digitize all of my CDs (admittedly, no small feat) and let ’er rip! I could finally get rid of all those CD cases! After my initial excitement, though, I realized what an enormous task that would be, and being the lazy guy I really am, gave up on the idea.

A few weeks ago, I was alerted to the existence of a group, empeg car, who is building a production model of an in-dash MP3 player for your automobile. Amazing! And to top it off, with the advances in hard drive technology (it uses up to two of the 2.5″ drives designed for laptops) it can currently hold up to 28.2 GB (yes — gigabytes) of data, which translates to roughly 500 hours of music. That’s nearly 3 weeks of non-stop music without repeat.

I could encode my entire music collection and have it in the car with me at all times! Again, the spectre of encoding my collection rears its ugly head, but I figure after I’ve won the sweepstakes that will allow me to buy the $1000+ unit, I’ll be able to afford an assistant to do it for me, and install it in my new DeLorean.

Hey, I can dream, right?

The Star Wars Phenomenon

It constantly amazes me how movies permeate our society. We take quotes from films (and television) and use them almost without thinking in our daily lives. Motion pictures also have the astounding ability to affect the way a large amount of people think and feel. Oliver Stone’s JFK, I’m sure, spawned a whole new generation of people who believe there was a conspiracy involving the assassination of President Kennedy. 1970’s Love Story jerked tears from the eyes of countless ageing hippies (and featured the now omnipresent Tommy Lee Jones in a bit part). And of course, later that same decade, Star Wars changed the face of science fiction forever.

Up until that point, most science fiction was either an extension of 50’s sci-fi — usually a B-grade film with little plot and shoddy science — or hard science like Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of 2001— great science, groundbreaking effects, but the first time I saw it, I admittedly fell asleep during the latter half of the film. I have seen it a few times since (including once at the AFI theatre at the Kennedy Centre), and appreciate the film much more now, as my appreciation for film as a whole has grown.

Star Wars, though, was the first film to combine wholly believable special effects and a compelling story in such a way that you thought, Hey, this place really exists. Gone were the 50’s sci-fi gleaming ships and spotless uniforms, replaced by craft and clothing that actually looked like they were regularly used. A film noir take on sci-fi, if you will. Everything in this universe was real, and the story made it all the more real. George Lucas went back to classical mythology (among other sources, including Akira Karosawa’s The Hidden Fortress) for his inspiration. The greatest stories in the world are also the oldest, by no mistake. Why do you think they’ve survived so long?

Unless you’ve been sequestered in a nunnery since then, you know that in 1980 and again in 1983 sequels were released to the original film. Unfortunately I only got to see Return of the Jedi in the theatre on its original run, but I did get to finally see all three of them on the big screen (at Washington, DC’s Uptown theatre) when the Special Editions were released in 1997. Even when I was a little kid, though, watching Star Wars whenever it was shown on television (with my Dad, mainly), I wondered why the famous opening crawl said Episode IV: A New Hope. Wasn’t this the first movie? Then why did it say it was episode four? I was perplexed.

Until the early 90’s I never had a satisfactory answer to my query, but it was then that I heard that George Lucas was working on more Star Wars films. Not more sequels, but prequels: Episodes One through Three. Finally the moniker Episode IV made sense, and all was right with the world. Of course, at that point, they were projecting the new series would start in 1997, which turned out not to be the case, but at least that year we got “I’m sorry the new ones aren’t done, but here’s the old ones spruced up a bit to tide you over.”

Finally, at the end of last year, we were treated to a “teaser” trailer of the new film, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Many people went to the theatre just to see the trailer. People were actually shelling out $7.50 for two-and-a-half minutes worth of film and then leaving. I can understand this. I didn’t hit the theaters, but as soon as Lucasfilm put the new trailer up on the web, I kept trying to hit the site until I got through. After downloading, my friend AAlgar (who finished downloading a few minutes before I did) and I shared the experience over the phone. We both had shivers running up our spines, similar to the chill you get when the caffeine hits you first thing in the morning. We had both been waiting for this for almost all out lives. ( I had just turned 2 when the original Star Wars came out, and AAl is 6 months older than I.) George Lucas’ creations had become such a part of our lives that we were very nearly salivating over the prospect of the addition of more characters to the pantheon and more adventures to the odyssey — Lucas’ stories have truly become our modern day mythology.

A few days ago, the first proper trailer (giving more story details) was released first on the web and then in the theaters. Once again, AAl and I downloaded and saw the trailer together. As AAl noted, any doubts of his that the new films wouldn’t live up to the standards of the original three are long gone. I concur. Rest assured that when the day in late May comes, we’ll be one of those nuts you’ll see on the news, camped out in front of the Uptown theatre. I can’t wait!

High School Nostalgia

A lot of things have been on my mind lately — finances, getting a new “day job,” big projects at work, a new baby on its way and a whole slew of other concerns. I’ve been handling it pretty well, I think, but sometimes I miss the “carefree” days of high school and college.

As you may know, my friend AAlgar and I initially met in our junior year in high school in Mr. Wrabley’s history class. That guy was just amazing — he taught history like he was right there in the midst of it. One quote of his stands out in my mind about the United States around the time of the civil war: “In those days, the South was completely Democratic. I mean, it was so Democratic, that if the Democrats had put up a dog to run for President, and the Republicans had put up Jesus Christ, the South would have voted for that dog.”

The next fall, AAl and I were both on the staff of The Hornet, our school paper. Our friendship grew further as we realized that he (credited as “Assistant Editor”) and I (credited as “Distribution Manager,” whatever the heck that was supposed to be) were actually doing the work of Editor and Assistant Editor, respectively. Our “Editor” at the time was doing maybe one page of layout to our 5 or 6 pages each. As the last issue grew near, and we grew even more and more tired of the lack of credit we were getting, we determined to change the masthead to reflect what we thought were our true credits …and we wouldn’t have gotten caught, either, if it weren’t for those meddling kids! One of our “friends” whom AAl confided in about the switch turned out to be a better friend to our absent editor, who in turn had a hissy fit that we wanted to give credit where credit was due. We were quite upset about getting caught, but our advisor, Mr. Bach, tried to calm us down. He knew the work we had done, but for political reasons, couldn’t do anything about it.

There were a few times where we had gone above and beyond the call of duty to expedite some foray into investigative journalism, strained as our brains were from editing mindless fluff pieces and trudge about our lagging sports teams, only to have them killed by the administration. Just goes to show it doesn’t pay to make the administration look bad when they control the contents of the paper. I know Mr. Bach silently sympathized with us sometimes, but at times the censorship got so ridiculous, he went to bat for us. I recall at one point, we were literally not allowed to use the word “knife” in an editorial, so we finally resorted to replacing every occurrence with the term [spatula]. That got through, and I think the goofiness of the point was emphasized.

Mr. Bach was one of those rare teachers that actually made an impression on me. I’m sure in some small way it’s due to the fact that his stocky, bearded countenance reminded us of a large furry Muppet™, but he was also a teacher who saw the potential in us and encouraged it.

I wrote Mr. Bach recently, and he replied with some surprise. He was grateful that I had taken the time to thank him for what essentially amounted to mentoring me, as he says teaching is usually a thankless profession. I can imagine. While you’re in high school, you’re so busy worrying about popularity, or the opposite sex, or not getting beat up, that you either A) don’t realize what good teachers you may have, or B) when, after you’ve been out for a good while, you finally realize what great people you had teaching you, they’re either lost to another school system or deceased.

He also, in a roundabout way, provided the seed that bore forth the name of this site, my little company, Station in the Metro. From the Ezra Pound poem In a Station of the Metro, which he parodied in a valentines note to his then (and still!) Significant Other. AAl and I have parodied situations involving him and his then-housemate, Mr. Finck (a math teacher at the school— not his S.O., lest you get any ideas) many times since then. All in good fun, but we probably wouldn’t remember him so well if it weren’t for the fact that he encouraged us so much. I think AAl and I both agree that he’s one of the best teachers we’ve had.

Thanks, Mr. Bach, for the inspiration, and thanks to all the other teachers I had over the years. Even though I may not have appreciated you at the time, I certainly do now.