Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Images that give pause

Sometime in 1996, while working at Netscape on the browser software, I received an email message from Michael Lopp, also a Netscape employee who managed the test automation team, if memory serves. The message was titled innocuously enough: "Welcome Drury to knobs!" I noted that the message had an attachment but opened it without hesitation, and was horrified to see a large, screen-filling image of a completely nude male, likely a full-frontal scan from PlayGirl or the like. It was just the sort of visual surprise that causes one to lunge forward, reflexively, to block the view of one's monitor (never mind that I was alone in my cubical) while simultaneously trying to decide if iconifying the email application would be a quicker way to remove the offending image than, say, by bringing a browser window forward, all in a split second.

Over the coming weeks and months I would learn that the "knobs" email alias at Netscape comprised something of a select group. Its members included all the founders except Jim Clark and Marc Andreesen, as well as many of the earliest employees. I think I earned my invitation to the alias based on some posts I'd sent to the internal mcom.bad-attitude newsgroup at Netscape, but no one ever passed on the reason, so I may never know. In any case, knobs appeared to have two unwritten rules:
1) Once on the alias one could never be removed
2) Messages sent to the alias should shock or offend, or do both
Much of the knobs traffic included graphic, often disturbing images, possibly with a caption from the contributor, one that frequently associated the image with an alias member and sought to ridicule that member in the offhand manner of nerds at play. Most of my contributions to the alias were prose rambles that are not fit to reprint, but suffice to say the general tone of knobs was as unprofessional and un-PC as can be imagined, which is probably why everyone enjoyed it as much as they did.

Knobs is still alive today, and is being hosted by one of Netscape's founding engineers. It gets far less traffic now than it did in 1996, but occasionally an image arrives in my Inbox that takes me back to the reckless days of '96 and '97. Such was the case a few weeks ago when I recieved the image linked below, one that arrived with the simple but adequate message title, "WTF? W T F !" Please don't open this image if you are offended by nudity. I have no explanation for what this man is doing in the image, much less why he is doing it. Perhaps the high cost of gasoline of late combined with the low miles per gallon the featured vehicle surely gets drove this poor sod in ladies finery to get more from his SUV than basic transportation. You've been warned -- now you be the judge.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Grumpiest Old Men

Vice President Dick Cheney, the wily veteran of numerous long but successful legislative and lobbying campaigns on behalf of the oil and energy industries and five-time recipient of the Lavender Spleen for deferments sustained during the War in Vietnam, had U.S. troops in mind when he boldly addressed the American Enterprise Institute today:

"American soldiers and Marines serving in Iraq go out every day into some of the most dangerous and unpredictable conditions ... conditions not unlike those found in the House of Representatives these days," Cheney said, to muted laughter. "Meanwhile, back in the United States, a few politicians are suggesting these brave Americans were sent into battle for a deliberate falsehood.... What the hell is my point here? Oh:

"This is revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety."

When asked after his speech by a doting member of the conservative think tank if published rumors in People Magazine and elsewhere were true, that he and John Bolton may be reprising the roles of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau for a third installment of the "Grumpy Old Men" movie series, Cheney gave a wry smile, winked and said simply, "Fuck yourself, groupie!"

"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for Halliburton!"

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Kepler's Books is dead; long live Kepler's!

In my previous post about the death of Kepler's Books, one of the Bay Area's premier independent booksellers and long my favorite bookstore, I closed dejectedly with, "These truly are the end days of the independent bookseller." And even though Kepler's has since risen from the proverbial ashes the sentiment still holds, for Kepler's is no longer the family business that Roy Kepler started fifty years ago.

No, in order to survive in the grave new world of Amazon.com, Borders and Barnes & Noble (or, more specifically, in the world of one-click shopping, near-zero margins on massive volume and markdowns, zero sales tax and free shipping), Clark Kepler and his advisors decided the store must rebuild upon its devoted local customer base (albeit a base that had clearly been tempted by the likes of Amazon) and must become something of a hybrid -- part charity, part co-op and part Silicon Valley startup.

That decision appears to have been sound, for in the days and weeks following the store's closure there was tremendous public outcry, nationwide press attention (New York Times article), fervent requests for the Menlo Park city council to step in and save the store, calls for volunteers to spread word of the store's need, and demands of the store's Scrooge-like landlord, the infamous and elusive Tan Group, to lower the dot-com-era rent that was leeching the store of more than $30K/month for its 10K square feet (all of which came to pass, actually).

If you visit Kepler's website you'll note that you can purchase memberships, not unlike a membership one might buy at REI, though the benefits are a little less tangible. Several people have opted in at the Patron level for an undisclosed but presumably large sum of money. And most conspicuously, Kepler's now has a board of directors that is chaired by Clark Kepler (who is also the President and CEO), and includes several of Silicon Valley's lesser technology/investment luminaries. At least one valley marketing guru stepped forward during the height of the crisis to offer what aid she could and, while the extent of her aid seems unclear, she did succeed in getting her name in several newsclips and press releases.

Which is to say that the effort to save Kepler's took on a circus-like air, Silicon Valley-style, something that may have been the best outcome for the struggling business -- it certainly generated attention and news coverage. If I come across as unhappy let me be clear: I would much rather have Kepler's Dot Com in Menlo Park than no Kepler's Bookstore, and I applaud -- loudly -- the efforts of everyone who helped save the store. But it is sad that the bookstore Roy Kepler began as a family business fifty years ago, one he successfully passed to his children, is now in the hands of a board of directors, patrons, members and volunteers.