(UPDATED) 2nd International Hong Kong Tattoo Convention 2014

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I was traveling last year when Hong Kong’s first tattoo convention was held. Fortunately I was home this year for the 2nd International Hong Kong Tattoo Convention 2014 and wasn’t going to miss it. Here’s some shots from the show, a whole lot more can be found over at Spike’s Photos.

Even though I’ve got 8 tattoos myself, I’d never been to a tattoo convention before. This one was everything I would have expected, and I mean that in a good sense. There must have been at least 100 booths representing tattoo studios – mostly from Hong Kong and China, but I also saw a selection from Korea and of course Japan. Given the vogue for Asian style tattoos, I think any American or European tattoo lover would have killed to be here. One Japanese studio had a guy doing tattoos using the traditional stick method. (I’ve got two tatts done by monks in temples in Thailand using stainless steel rods and yes, it’s true, you feel this a hell of a lot more, but you also feel connected to a more ancient tradition.)

Each studio and artist had their portfolios on display and of course lots of people were getting new ink during the convention. Some booths had their prices posted, mostly HK$1,500 per hour. Some studios were also selling t-shirts, posters, stickers, books and even a few small toys.

I talked with several of the artists and grabbed the business cards for all the HK studios. I had to work really hard to not give in to temptation to get something new there and then.

Other rooms had displays from companies that manufacture and distribute tattoo supplies – needles, ink, after-tattoo skin care products, magazines and so on.

Food was represented by Boomshack, from the terrific Austin Fry (he started Brickhouse in Lan Kwai Fong; I know he’s moved on but can’t recall the name of his latest place). He was doing some gourmet burgers but the real deal here was his fried chicken and waffles, so good I brought some home and my wife, who usually says she doesn’t like waffles, scarfed hers down in a matter of seconds.

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay as long as I liked, which meant that I missed the nightly awards ceremonies and, more important to me, the bands. There was a stage sponsored by VANS with more than half a dozen bands appearing daily (different bands each day).

And, yeah, I confess, so many beautiful women I quickly lost count.

The convention was held August 23rd to 25th at Innocentre in Kowloon Tong. I went on Saturday; I really wanted to get back there again on Sunday but it just wasn’t possible.

All in all, this was really a terrific event, everything that I think one of these things ought to be. It’s great to see this as an annual event in Hong Kong and I can’t wait for next year’s convention.

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If I’m So Smart part three

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Part 1 here, part 2 here.

So now it’s the beginning of 1990. I’ve graduated Columbia but I have very little confidence in my new computer skills. My professor, the one I’d met a year ago at that dog and pony show, kept telling me that I knew a lot more than most people. I didn’t believe him until I went for a job interview at Barclays. I’d used my final project from Columbia as “proof” of past work and the guy who interviewed me stood me up at a white board and grilled me about it for two hours. “I wanted to hire someone with more experience but you know this stuff better than anyone else I’ve interviewed.” The job was mine.

So there I am, on the eve of my 36th birthday, with my first suit and tie corporate job. It took some getting used to. At the time my hair was down past my shoulders, I had a beard and an earring. I wore 3 piece suits but wore sneakers for my commute and often would forget to change into the dress shoes that I kept in a drawer in my desk. “How’s it going Spike?” a VP asked me one day in the hallway. I knew how he meant it so I turned around, looked him in the eye and said, “Thanks, I’m keeping that.” And I became Spike.

At first, the work there really sucked. The new projects I was hired to do weren’t approved and I was doing maintenance on crappy little applications that no one used or cared about. My boss’s boss took pity on me and gave me some marginally less boring tasks to work on.

Fortunately, I smoke. Back then every floor had a smoking room. I’d go for a smoke every hour and I met every other smoker in the bank. The guys who worked in the cubicles next to me knew no one and were known by no one. I was popular. I was told by more than one person that I was the first IT guy they’d met who had a personality.

The first thing I learned in the smoking room? Business trips. This VP told me he was going to London. “For vacation?” “No, it’s a business trip.” “Who pays for the plane ticket?” “The bank.” “Really? The hotel too?” “Of course. All my meals, too.” “I want that!” I realized I could see the world and get someone else to pay for it.

Soon, they were putting together a team for a major new project. Everyone knew me, so I got to be on this project as the development DBA. I’d been with the bank for a year and suddenly I was designing the database for the entire commercial loan system, which they were going to migrate from mainframes to client/server. They took my design and put it in front of a committee for a week to poke holes in it. There were no holes to be poked.

So now I’m going back and forth to London on a somewhat regular basis. I’m staying in a service flat in The City. The guest register indicated that the prior occupant of my room was J.G. Ballard. It was actually a horrible place. Everything closed at 7. When I needed to do laundry, I grabbed my stuff, got on the first bus that came by, sat on the top deck and got out when I finally spotted a laundry place. Everyone else in there was a Cockney. They were quite amused to have a Yank in the shop and kept trying to stump me with their accents and rhyming slang but I already knew most of it.

One night I went to a party. Everyone else at the party was couples. I felt like sticking needles through my eyes. I sat on the sofa, alone, beer in hand, wondering how I could get out of there and where else I might go. Then this beautiful woman walked in through the door. “Please don’t let her be here with a guy.” Right behind her – another woman. How was I going to talk to her? What could I say? Within minutes M came and sat down on the sofa next to me. “I heard you’re American. I just came back from a trip to New York City. I miss it so much and I love your accent. Can we chat?” We sat on that couch talking for five hours and I took her home.

For whatever it may or may not be worth, up until that time – for 14 years, in fact – I had never cheated on my wife. But I was an ocean away, this girl was easily one of the most beautiful women I’d ever met, she was an artist, and she had that accent. When I had the opportunity, it never even occurred to me to say no.

I flew back to New York and tried to write it off as a one-weekend stand. But I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I asked my friends what they thought I should do. All of them, even my female friends, told me the same thing. “As long as I’ve known you, you haven’t been happy. You’re still young. Do something that makes you happy.” When I suggested a separation to my wife, she told me we should just get it over with and get divorced. It was completely amicable. We divided up our stuff and got our downstairs neighbor, a lawyer, to handle all of the legal bits and pieces for us.

I wrote a 20 page letter to M explaining the situation. Her friends were all telling me, “You know she’s not well, right? That she can’t work, that she sees a shrink 5 days a week, she’s on all sorts of medication?” Well, she was a poet and I just thought that’s how poets are. I told them, “Yes, I know, but I seem to be good for her. She’s normal and happy with me.”

And after she read that letter, she pronounced it the most beautiful letter she’d ever read and said that I should get back to London as quickly as possible. And so I did. One image I will never forget is her waiting for me at Heathrow. She was wearing a torn green sweater; the holes in the sweater revealed a bright pink bra underneath. Her skirt couldn’t have been any shorter. Her stockings were ripped and she had these great boots. A real gorgeous British punk artist.

I stayed at her place (a council flat I think it was called, government subsidized housing). She had books stacked floor to ceiling along every wall in every room.  We talked about art, we talked about literature, we talked about politics, we talked about having all her friends over for dinner to meet me and renting a car to go to Wales to meet her family. And then on the 4th day we woke up and she didn’t know who I was. She completely freaked out and started screaming at me to get out of there. I didn’t know what to do.  This was totally beyond the realm of my experience and completely unexpected.  I panicked.  I got out of there. I checked into a hotel and then kept calling and calling until a day later her sister answered the phone. “Why did you leave? You never should have done that. Now she never wants to see you again.” And I never did see her, or even hear from her, again.

I sat in the hotel for three days, not eating, not sleeping, just drinking and playing R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” over and over and over again. I finally recovered, went back to work and a couple of weeks later I flew off to Amsterdam and a haze of beer, grass and hookers helped me put all of this behind me.

Back at work, I was supposed to get promoted to AVP for my work on that big project. My boss loved me. She looked like a very proper British lady but she’d regale me with tales of going to see the Sex Pistols wearing nothing but garbage bags. She told me that she and her husband decided that I must have some British blood in me. I knew she meant it as a compliment. The Americans working for the bank all thought, “Oh, I work for a British bank. I have to be very reserved and proper!” But the Brits didn’t have that baggage. They were wild and crazy and fun and I fit right in with them.

The VP who was assigned to give me that promotion was the same guy who’d first called me Spike. He called me into his office in New York one day and here’s what he told me. “They tell me you should get a promotion. Looking at your work, there’s no doubt you should. But you’re weird. If I promote you, everyone will ask who promoted that weirdo? And then they’ll look at me. I’ve been here ten years and no one looks at me and I want to keep it that way. So no promotion.”

So I asked my boss to move me to London. She looked around and said there was nothing in London but there was an architecture position in Manchester. I hadn’t been there but I thought, why the hell not? So they started pulling all the paperwork together. And then the bank laid off 5,000 people in the UK. “We can’t very well bring you over here after just doing that, can we?” My boss told me she’d be leaving soon and that I should probably consider looking for another job as well.

Back in New York, I had this contractor working for me. He was an ex-NYC cop on a disability pension, with movie star looks. He spent his summers in nudist colonies. The winters were spent having weekend orgies at the nudists’ homes. He invited me to join in and even fixed me up with a secretary from another department – he said he’d been telling her about these parties and she was interested to check it out and needed a ride. J was blonde, pretty and had an amazing body. It seemed like a good deal to me.

I picked her up and we drove two hours to the party house. Maybe you won’t be surprised when I tell you that there was almost no one there even slightly good looking or remotely fit (aside from the guy who worked for me, his wife and my date). There were 50 people fucking in every nook and cranny in the house and I felt absolutely no urge to join in. J was also just watching from the sidelines and I thought, “She’s my date, this might go somewhere, I should just stay with her.” So I sat out the festivities.

The next day, driving back home, I asked J what she thought of all that. “I’m glad I saw it because now I can pray for all those people.” Maybe that should have set off some warning bells. But within a short span of time we were a couple.

(Six months later J and I went to another orgy, this time a private party in a lower Manhattan bar. We’re dancing and I tried to grab her and she said, “Stop, everyone’s looking,” and I said, “No one’s looking at us, they’re all too busy fucking.” And when I looked at a naked woman dancing next to me, she said, “You’re looking!” and I said, “Of course I’m looking, she’s right next to me and completely naked, what do you expect?”)

Since she lived in Jersey and I lived in Queens, I moved to Jersey to be closer to her. We were always together. Everyone assumed we would get married. But she drank. Every night. She drank cheap wine; $5 for a gallon in a cardboard carton lined with plastic. And once she got drunk, she was a mean drunk. She was an abusive drunk. I told her that I couldn’t put up with it, that one day she was going to have to choose between wine and me. Finally one night she passed out at the dining room table in the middle of sentence. When she woke up I told her, “It’s clear that you’ve made your choice. We’re finished.”

At this point, I’ve left the bank and I’m working for Sybase, a database software company. I got hired as a Senior Consultant. You’re supposed to get at least a week of training when you start, but on my first day they sent me out to a project at Pepsi. This was the biggest project I’ve ever been involved in – before or since. It was the redesign of their entire North American soft drink ordering and delivery applications. There were more than 600 consultants and contractors working on this. Fortunately for me, 5 of them were also from Sybase, and they covered for me until I got up to speed. I didn’t get that first week’s training until I rolled off the Pepsi project after 9 months.

I became a performance and tuning expert. Every day I’d have to read through 500 to 1,000 pages of printouts of application code, looking for ways to optimize it. Yawn. But I had a direct line to the guys who wrote the SQL Server code and they gave me all the inside tips. The work itself was boring but Pepsi was a fun place to work. Right in the middle of a huge park. All the free soda you could drink or carry home. Free Lays potato chips and Doritos. The employee cafeteria was all KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, since Pepsi owned those at the time. The only thing we couldn’t get was the thing we needed most – Stolichnaya Vodka, which Pepsi was distributing in the US until someone decided it was bad for their image.

I did really well at Sybase. I won two “consultant of the quarter” awards. I was the regional lead for their Replication Server product and helped write the training course. I co-wrote the Sybase project methodology. I did six projects at AT&T. I did one project at Lehman. The guy at Lehman offered me a job and when I turned them down I got the “you’ll never work in this town again” line. Instead I got promoted to Principal Consultant and led what I was told was the most profitable project the consulting division had ever had.

All well and good, except that my social life had dwindled down to zero. There was an Olympic swimmer but that didn’t go very far. I was spending all of my time working and commuting. I was living in Jersey, doing projects in Jersey or a plane ride away, and a big night out for me was browsing in a local book store and having dinner alone in a diner (one that later appeared in many episodes of The Sopranos).

I was, in short, absolutely fucking miserable. I was in beautiful, exciting Norcross, Georgia working on another AT&T project in the factory where they were manufactuing fiber optic cable. I got a call and was told that Sybase Hong Kong needed someone to come out there for a couple of weeks and was I interested?  Um, Norcross Georgia or Hong Kong, which would I pick?

Then it turned out that I wouldn’t be going to Hong Kong after all. I’d be going to Tokyo. Why was the Hong Kong office booking a Tokyo assignment? I didn’t ask. Tokyo was #1 on the list of places I wanted to go to. I thought it was so far away and so expensive that I’d never get there in my entire life. And now I was going to go there for 10 days, all expenses paid.

I was ready.

 

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How Dare They?

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From the SCMP today:

Unmarried couples should not enjoy the same staff benefits as married people, as this would burden small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and go against traditional family values, businesses have told the equality watchdog.

Basically, what they’re doing is attempting to use a so-called moral judgement as a guise for what they really are – fucking cheap.

Nine SME groups, citing financial reasons and moral judgment, voiced opposition yesterday to the idea of employers granting the same medical, housing and other benefits to both married people and de facto couples who lived together.

There were grey areas, they said, pointing to how the government might define couples and whether this would cover both heterosexual and homosexual cohabitation.

Gay marriage isn’t legal in Hong Kong. So not providing this is further discrimination against gays.

“It is difficult to define cohabitation. Does it simply mean two people living together?” said Jimmy Wan Hoi-hung, founding president of Hong Kong Greater China SME Alliance Association.

“We businessmen need to calculate costs. This increases uncertainties.”

That’s the standard Hong Kong argument. “We can’t do it because it’s hard.” And it’s also the Hong Kong standard of being against something without really understanding it. And it’s also the Hong Kong standard of putting businesses before people.

What should have been a review of anti-discrimination laws turned into a chorus of complaints that the commission had failed to reach out to small firms and consider their difficulties.

But a commission spokeswoman said the proposal was intended only to provide protection from discrimination for de facto couples who were “in committed relationships similar to a marriage but [who] do not wish to become married”.

Any such protection would be bound by a clear definition of what constituted that relationship, she added. Hong Kong has yet to draw up a clear definition of a de facto relationship, but under Australian laws, it refers to a pair living together on a genuine domestic basis.

Factors taken into consideration include the duration of the relationship, common residence and degree of financial dependence. Australia initially covered only heterosexual relationships, but added protection for same-sex relationships last year.

Ah Hong Kong, forward into the past.

BTW, time for another “Shut the fuck up Jackie Chan.” His kid got busted for pot in Beijing. Chan is all over the media apologizing and saying how ashamed he is. If the man had even one ball, what he should be saying is, “Marijuana is harmless and has been proven to have numerous medical benefits. While other countries in the world are now legalizing this or reducing penalties down to the equivalent of a parking ticket, China remains in the dark ages. Shame on China. I’m so embarrassed by the Chinese government and I stand by my son who did nothing wrong.”

As if.

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Dammit Google

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Google keeps “fixing” things that aren’t broken.  The new interface for Maps, an app I use extensively, means one has to essentially relearn the entire thing. For awhile you had the choice to revert to the original interface. Now that choice is gone.

The latest update for the Chrome browser kills my workflow. My company uses Gmail for company mail. The site is gmail.companyname.com.  Used to be I could keep my personal email open in one tab and my company email in another and flip back and forth between the two of them. No more. Sign into one email in one tab and get automatically signed out of the other.

I’m sure at some level this has to do with security enhancements. But now I gotta run two different browsers to be able to see both email accounts at the same time.

(Unless someone out there knows of a work-around for this?)

(Yeah, I know, bitch moan bitch moan blah blah blah.)

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If I’m So Smart part two …

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Continuing on from part one …

So it’s 1982. I’ve walked away from managing the band and I’ve walked away from working in my cousin’s TV store. I really have no clue as to what to do next. I did a few projects out of Mark Moogy Klingman‘s studio, nothing that really amounted to anything, public access cable TV stuff. I got hired by some company to do income tax preparation but one day of that was all I could take.

I’d always told myself that if I couldn’t get any other job, I could still drive a taxi. So I went out and got a taxi license. It was easier in those days because you would just pay the taxi company a percentage of what you booked on the meter rather than having to lease it out by the week or the month. As a new driver, I had to work Saturdays and Sundays, my shift was 5 AM to 3 PM. My first day was super embarrassing – I picked up some guy who wanted to go to JFK airport and I got lost going there. Yeah, I lived in New York my whole life but how often had I gone to the airport? At that point, maybe once. I ended up driving the taxi for a year (I believe I’ve posted tales about this before). Four celebrities, a lot of hookers and drunks, and NYC traffic day after day after goddamned day. I had an uncle who had done this his whole life and now I understood him a whole lot better.

On my days off, I went to electronics school, figuring I could study for a year and get a job as a radio or TV engineer. The first month of that was easy but once the math started getting more intense, my brain switched off and I dropped out from the class.

My wife was working full time, but it was a relatively low paying office job. She was lost as well. She’d graduated with a teaching degree, but a month before graduation she decided she didn’t want to teach. We were living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Rent was a hell of a lot lower then than it is now, plus we were living in a 300 square foot studio with a loft bed. We stayed in that apartment for 10 years.

I was a crappy taxi driver and I was earning next to nothing. I had all those credit card debts from the band and I couldn’t make the payments. The bill collectors were calling every day and I was sinking deeper into depression.

March 2, 1982 is the day that Philip K. Dick died. I read mostly science fiction in those days and following his death I probably read everything he wrote. It’s arguable that Dick was schizophrenic – well from 1974 onwards there’s really little doubt. And he wrote a lot of himself into the characters in his books. So here I am, sinking into depression, reading books written by a schizophrenic, and I decided I must be schizophrenic as well. I think I self-diagnosed to somehow justify to myself why there were an increasing number of days when I couldn’t even make it out the front door of our apartment except to buy cigarettes. My wife never mentioned a word about any of this. I’m honestly not sure if she didn’t notice it or if she did but didn’t know how to deal with it – or perhaps 30-odd years later it wasn’t quite as bad as I remember it as being. At any rate, the debts got to the point where the banks were going to take my wife’s salary, which would have really left us with nothing. I tried to negotiate better payment terms but they all basically said they’d prefer it if I just declared bankruptcy. And so I did.

As a life-long record collector, all the record shop owners in the village knew me. One day I parked my taxi in front of my favorite shop, to take a break and see what was knew, and the owner told me he was going to open a video store with a partner and asked if I wanted to stop driving the taxi and work there instead. Yes please.

While I’d like to report that by working in a video store I became Quentin Tarantino, or at least had a life and career similar to his, you all know that’s not how things worked out. What I can say is that I really enjoyed working there and it snapped me out of my depression. With its prime Greenwich Village location, we had a lot of celebrity customers, everyone from Daryl Hall to Rod Steiger. One night Sigourney Weaver came in with Wallace Shawn – she was looking at all the titles while Shawn seemed to be smiling and laughing and going, “I’m with Sigourney Weaver!”  Grace Jones and Dolph Lundgren were frequent customers and every time I’d deliver to them, I’d end up hanging out at their place playing with Grace’s kid. Grace was the total opposite of her image – warm and smiling and sexy. We asked how she and Dolph met and she told us that one night she saw him at a party and walked up to him and said, “I’m going to have you.”

The store was just off Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue. At least 2/3rds of the customers were gay and of the staff, only the owner and myself were straight. The store did a huge business because it stocked and rented the latest in gay porn, right alongside all the newest releases and deep, deep catalogue of classic and foreign films. If I wanted to go out with my co-workers after work, it meant going to gay bars, and this led to my doing the video systems for almost every gay bar in the Village.

I was also at Ground Zero when AIDS started to really hit New York. Every time a friend got sick, the fear was that it could be AIDS. I’d go visit friends in the hospital, holding their hands or hugging them, so the nurses all assumed that I was gay and that I also probably had AIDS and they treated me like shit. Relatively little was known about the disease back then but I wasn’t about to desert my friends. It was a time of incredible emotions and irrationality. Some friends went monogamous, some went completely celibate. All were living in fear.

At some point in 1985, I went back to my friend the record store owner and suggested that he and I open a store together selling only CDs. And so we did. It was the second CD-only store in New York City and the first one to sell used CDs. There were lots of problems. Tower Records was just blocks away and I was trying to compete with them on price but I didn’t know enough about business to be able to do a budget or base my prices on anything other than pure guesses and my partner, who had demanded 51% ownership in return for letting me use his name and logo, offered little or no help. Perhaps he assumed I knew what I was doing but actually I was pretty clueless. For six months we barely made enough to pay the rent.

Problems kept mounting up, not the least of which was this ring of crooked United Parcel drivers. They basically stole everything they wanted from their trucks every day. They figured it was covered by insurance and therefore a “victimless” crime. One day they stole a bunch of CD players so now they wanted CDs. They told me I should make a freaking huge order from my distributor, that they’d steal it off the truck, take out what they wanted and then sell me the rest for half price. I said, “Don’t you think it will stand out to them that I’m placing an order 5 times the size of my regular order? And don’t you think I’m the first one the police will come to when it goes missing?” I refused to go along with their little scheme. To try to get revenge, and since I paid my bills mostly in cash, they then tried reporting me to their managers and the police as having received orders without paying for them and accusing me of theft. But it was such a stupid story that the spotlight very quickly was on them instead of me. I was in the clear. I believe they were all fired and at least one went to jail.

Then, as luck would have it, I made a connection in the UK. He would call me every Monday and read me the list of the latest releases. I’d get a box from him every Thursday. Back then, some major stuff was coming out in the UK weeks or even months before the US, stuff like Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel, Depeche Mode. I’d get this stuff a week or two before any other import store in the village and I was selling the imports at a reasonable price. Word got out and soon I had people driving a hundred miles or more to come to the shop to get their hands on this. I even started “wholesaling” to other shops. The money was rolling in.

The problem with this was that it was all illegal at the time. Parallel imports. Some nearby record store, jealous of the business I was doing with this stuff, reported me to the RIAA. They sent me a cease and desist letter. My partner panicked. His vinyl stores were doing a huge business – and what he was doing in the stores (and in the back of the stores) wasn’t entirely legal either. All the big DJ’s of the era shopped at his stores, all of them. And when Madonna did an in-store in New York, it wasn’t at Tower Records, it was at his store. So when I got the cease and desist, he was afraid that if I tried to fight it, the inspectors wouldn’t just stop with the little CD store, they’d go across the street to the vinyl stores and start looking around. So he ordered me to stop selling the imports. I had no choice but to comply and within a couple of weeks, my business dropped off by 75%.

Technically speaking, what he did to me was also illegal. He couldn’t purposely hurt one business to try to save another. But that didn’t stop him. He “fired” me and offered me no money at all for my 49% of the store, saying it was essentially worthless. So I sued him. And he counter-sued me.

For awhile we were deadlocked and it seemed as if it was going to go nowhere. Until one day when we sat down across the table from each other with our lawyers. His lawyer opened the proceedings by telling me I had no case and I would never see a dime and I should just walk away. Before my lawyer could open his mouth, I pushed him away and started talking. Here is what I remember telling them that day:

“I happen to know that you’re paying your lawyer $150 an hour. See my lawyer? That’s not just my lawyer, that’s my buddy Joe. I love Joe. We’ve been best friends since college. He’s charging me $50 an hour. Joe and his wife wanna have a baby and I don’t mind giving Joe money so he and his wife can have money for their kid. And if I have to pay Joe for the next three years, I don’t mind. And I know whatever I pay Joe, you’re paying your lawyer three times as much, so even if I never get a penny, it’s worth it to me knowing how much it will cost you. So go fuck yourself and the horse you rode in on.”

The lawyers quickly pulled us into separate rooms. Joe said to me, “I’m not charging you $50 an hour, it’s $53. And don’t ever again tell anyone what you’re paying me.”  Meanwhile I think my partner’s lawyer must have said to him, “This guy’s fucking nuts. Let’s just settle and get it over with.” So minutes later they came back with an offer to repay me every cent I’d originally invested in the business, and I accepted.

(Joe and I are still friends to this day. He has two lovely daughters whom he has wisely kept away from me.)

So fine. I got my money back. And fortunately my next job was already waiting for me. One of my steady customers in the store was this guy who produced a syndicated radio series of hour-long rock concerts. He would come in the store every week and ask me a hundred questions about CDs – when is something coming out; which sounds better – the US, the UK or the Japanese release, and so on – and I could always answer his questions. So a lightbulb went off in his head. “What if the entire country could ask Spike questions and get answers the way I do?”

So he hit me with this proposal to start up The CD Hotline. And I got somewhat fucked in the process. See, there were to be two owners. The radio guy and his partner, the grandson of an extraordinarily famous writer. The radio guy knew how radio worked and had all the connections. The writer’s grandson had connections and real estate. When I asked, “So do I get some shares in the business?” I was told only if I put up some cash. My lawsuit wasn’t settled yet and I had no money and so I got nothing. If I’d been smarter back then, I might have countered that they wouldn’t have any business without the knowledge in my head and that should have been worth something. But I was stupid and desperate for a job and so I went along with it.

The majority of the seed money ended up coming from the Grateful Dead Pension Fund. Who had any idea back in the 80s that the Dead were so well organized financially? Well, they were.

We sat there and divided up who was responsible for what between the three of us. They pointed at me and said I was in charge of computers. Why me? Because I had an Atari, which was more than either of them had.

So I sat in the basement of radio guy’s brownstone for six months, typing everything I knew about CDs into a database. The database software had been written by this genius quadriplegic guy who lived way upstate. He basically taught me everything about computers over the phone since he couldn’t come down to NYC.

Meanwhile radio guy set about trying to sell the concept. The initial idea was a one hour syndicated program in which we’d review CDs, take questions and play music. But the feedback from program directors was unanimous – they had a million guys trying to sell them one hour shows but the idea of the database was unique. (Keep in mind this was the 80s and there was no www back then.)

So the idea morphed into a 2 minute thing. Radio stations could brand it as their own (“The WXYZ CD Hotline!”) and do an announcement for it every hour, giving out an 800 number to call, and giving us a minute or two of commercial time to sell every hour.  The program director from WBCN Boston came down to the basement and quizzed me hard. Every question he asked, the answer – the correct answer – was already in the database. Sold. And soon after more than 100 radio stations across the country signed up.

At that point we moved into a warehouse in Williamsburg. We had 20 people answering phones and a computer network that was probably pretty advanced for 1987 running. I got my phone lessons from the distant programmer in DOS, dBase III and C and I taught myself Novell Netware. It all came really easily to me. I was supervising the database entry by half a dozen staff, training new staff and keeping the computer network running.

The problem for me was that the money was rolling in and I was just a (low) salaried employee. I was earning more than I ever had before. But I was watching the two partners go off to their summer rentals in the Hamptons and they’d ask if they could leave their dogs with me for the weekend.

(One time, the writer’s grandson invited my wife and I up to his compound in Vermont for a weekend. We had our own little bungalow there. The grandson had a lot of celebrity friends. He was known to spend weekends in Aspen skiing with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Willis and fucking Playboy Playmates. But the closest person to a celebrity I met that weekend was Mrs. John Oates (of Hall & Oates). She’d been a super model before getting married and for some reason my wife became convinced that she was coming on to me. I said, “What are you, nuts? She’s a super model married to a racing car driver rock star, she doesn’t even know I’m here.” But we left after just one day there. So much for the High Life.)

I guess at this point the only good thing about the job was that it got me on the mailing lists for some record companies. I was getting dozens of CDs a week for free.

Also, since the 70s, I’d been writing professionally on the side. I started out writing for college newspapers and magazines. After that I wrote for a large variety of smaller magazines – record reviews, videocassette reviews, things like that. I started publishing my reviews to various forums on CompuServe, where I served as “co-sysop” on RockNet and the Consumer Electronics Forum. I also picked up some part time work consulting to RCA Records on their back catalogue, but I was never able to turn that into anything permanent. One person I met was Bill Levenson, head of back catalogue at Polygram. Bill first came to fame when he produced the Eric Clapton Crossroads box. Bill told me he’d started out as a computer programmer, was working for IBM, got assigned to a project at Polygram, got hired by Polygram, and moved from programmer to producer. This was a life I wanted.

My mom, meanwhile, knew this guy who owned a toy company that had been bought out by Universal. So my mother suggested that I should write to Universal (MCA) Records and say that I know this guy and ask if there might be a job for me. A week later I got a call from Irving Azoff’s secretary. He was coming to New York and wanted to meet me. It seemed that he was looking for a new head of back catalogue. He was impressed by my knowledge of and my love of music. I thought the job was mine. The problem was, I don’t think my mother every called that toy company guy to let him know what was up. So when Azoff’s people called that guy to check on my references, that guy probably said he had never heard of me. And I never heard from Azoff or MCA again.

The money kept coming in at CD Hotline but I wasn’t seeing what I thought should have been my share. These guys had the idea to license the database to places like Tower Records, which had kiosks with computers where people could use our database to look up stuff. Long after I’d left the company, my database became the first database Amazon used when they started selling CDs. Eventually the two of them sold off the company and I’m sure they cleared a very comfortable amount of money in the process. I never saw a penny of it.

I had no idea what I was going to do next. I thought at best I was qualified to be a $5 an hour stock boy at Tower Records. Then one night my dad called me up. “Kid,” he said, “you ain’t getting anywhere with this art shit, are you?” “Um, no dad, I guess I’m not.” “You seem to like fooling around with computers. You ever think about going back to school and studying that and then doing that for a living?” Well, my father almost never gave me any advice, so on those rare occasions when he did, I paid attention. “No dad, I never thought about it, but that’s a damned good idea!” And I meant it.

See, I had no idea that there was any value in what I’d already learned about computers. I didn’t know that I could take what I already knew and was doing and get some corporate IT job somewhere. It came so easily to me, so naturally, that I figured it had to be the same for everyone, wasn’t it? I later found out no, it wasn’t.

So I started looking around for classes I might take. I thought I’d take a month-long course in something like dBase or FoxPro and then try to sell myself as an independent programmer, much like my phone buddy in upstate New York.

But one afternoon I wandered into a presentation from Columbia University. The guy was talking about all of this stuff I had never heard of. At the end, I raised my hand and asked, “But what about dBase?” The answer I got was so informative and so patient that I said to myself, “That’s the guy I want to have as my teacher.”

My father wasn’t thrilled that I was going to go to a year’s worth of classes rather than a month’s, but he gave me the money for the tuition. For the next year I still worked day time at CD Hotline while going to school at Columbia 3 hours per night twice a week, and most of every weekend spent in their computer labs.

So I took six courses in a year, mostly having to do with relational databases but also structured design and the system life cycle and some general programming courses as well. We went from Assembler all the way up to C, which was about as modern as it got back then. Databases came easily to me, perhaps because I’d already been working with them for a few years at the CD Hotline. Third form normalization? I could do that in my sleep. My final project was a 200+ page document representing a redesign of the CD Hotline database and application. I was never much of a student in my youth so I was probably more surprised than anyone else when I graduated with 5 A’s and a B.

Okay, that’s the end of part two.

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If I’m So Smart, How Come I’m Not Rich?

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I’m coming up on my 17th anniversary in Hong Kong. A little further down the line is the 10th anniversary of this blog. I’m in a bad mood this morning. Consider this post therapy. Or a list of bad decisions.

Somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12, I decided I wanted to be a movie director. Looking back at it now, I think I reached this decision because I loved watching movies and it gave me an excuse for that.

When I was in high school I joined an independent filmmakers cooperative on Rivington Street, when Rivington Street was the exact opposite of the upscale hipster location it is today. A few times a week after school I’d take the subway down to this area where I had to step over and around broken glass, used hypodermic needles, junkies and drunks to get to this storefront “school” where they taught me how to use a 16mm camera and a Moviola. I don’t recall ever actually making any films there. Actually I don’t recall much from those days at all.

At the same time, I was playing piano and bass. My parents started me in on piano lessons around the age of 7 or 8. In junior high school, where my choice was between school orchestra or shop, I took up the double bass. I chose this because everyone wanted violin or clarinet (go figure), no one wanted bass, and I thought I could stand out this way. I did. The shortage of double bass players meant that somehow I got into a high school orchestra while I was still in junior high. It was the Bronx Borough Wide Symphony Orchestra and it was a year in which they (we) would play our annual concert at Carnegie Hall. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice!” I didn’t practice much. There just weren’t many bass players to choose from. So I played Carnegie Hall when I was 14. I also got a cheap electric bass guitar and despite having zero understanding of it at all, I tried to join or form a band. I even had an ad in Rolling Stone (which at the time did free classifieds for musicians) about wanting to form a band modeled after the Bonzo Dog Band, a huge favorite of mine at the time. That never got off the ground, no big surprise.

For college (or university, depending on where you’re from) I had my heart set on going to UCLA or USC but my parents said California was too far away. So I got into NYU’s film school, I was accepted for early admission, which was sort of a big thing.

My first semester, there was a course on still photography that went for 8 hours a day, twice a week. Second semester, there was a course “intro to filmmaking” that also went 8 hours a day. The teacher decided that this would be perfect for the entire class to do mescaline together, as he saw psychedelic drugs as essential to understanding the film experience. The dean kept rejecting his request for some reason.

I got a summer job working at the restaurant at the Bronx Botanical Gardens. The guys running it had a kosher deli nearby and hired me because they owed my parents a favor. They hated me and I hated them. Eventually they tossed me out of the restaurant and had me pushing a hot dog cart through the park. By early August I quit and took off for London for 3 weeks with a friend.

Second year at NYU, I had the legendary Haig Manoogian as a teacher. He’s one of those people not easily forgotten. (Raging Bull was dedicated to him.) I remember doing a documentary on my then-piano teacher Barry Goldberg and a moody thing shot in a hundred year old synagogue using Tim Buckley’s Star Sailor as a soundtrack. I don’t think Haig was impressed by my stuff. I started spending most of my time at WNYU, the school’s radio station, dj’ing a couple of times a week. I’d also shot some photos of David Peel and he liked them so I occasionally hung out with his odd assortment of friends.

I was also working part time as a grillman at this bar and restaurant called Hungry Charlie’s. It was right down the street from NYU’s “main building.” Since I was commuting to school rather than living in the dorm, I thought this would be a good chance to meet other students. It turned out that this was more of a lowlife sort of spot, lots of dealers, junkies, hookers, scammers and the occasional odd celebrity. One day I was driving through the east village and spotted a junkie hooker in a doorway and thought to myself, “Oh yeah, I made her a cheeseburger last night.” And then I thought to myself, “Time to get out of New York.”

But first, a summer job. I got this list of every film production house in New York, divided it up geographically, put on a suit and tie, and knocked on every door and left a resume at the front desk. I got hired by Larry Lindberg Productions. They were doing a weekly 30 minute sports magazine show for CBS called CBS Sports Illustrated. I was hired as a gopher and assistant editor and ended up cutting one piece that got on the air. Larry was an interesting guy and the two “real” editors there taught me a lot, including how to use one of the newer flatbed editing machines. One of the things there was that they needed music as soundtracks to their 5 minute segments but they didn’t know anything about current music. I brought in a lot of my records; they liked Deep Purple and Yes. They told me I could have a job there again the following summer but for some reason I never went back. I should have.

I had friends going to school in Boston so I looked for a Boston school where I could major in film and found Emerson College. The film school was pretty shitty there and I think in two years there I made one 5-minute vampire movie. Back in those days Boston had a lot of repertory movie theaters, double bills of classic movies for $1, and I went to the movies almost every day. I almost never went to classes. I also started working for Boston promoter Don Law; I was head usher for awhile at the 3,000 seat Orpheum Theater and did security at another theater, name I can’t remember, and also the occasional show at the much larger Boston Garden. Basically I got to see just about every band that came through Boston in those two years – and got paid for it.

Somehow, I graduated on the Dean’s List. I say “somehow” because I don’t think I went to too many classes in those two years.

Back to New York, reading the trades, and I got a job as a production assistant on a kung fu/monster/blacksploitation film called The Devil’s Express, which was mostly shot in the subway tunnels in Brooklyn.

When that finished, I took an office job at a place called Physicians Radio Network. Doctors would fill out these postcards in medical magazines, this company would send them these free crappy radios that only played their network, filled with ads from drug companies. I sat and did something with filing these cards all day long.

Another ad, another film job, somehow I ended up as assistant cameraman on a 35mm feature film – an XXX-rated hard core porn called Rollerbabies. The director was this guy who had a PhD in chemistry but decided he wanted to make movies. The only people who would hire him were Mafia types who’d give him 25k and he’d give them a movie. So the budget was low as his “salary” was basically whatever was left over from that 25k after the film was made. The script was written by a guy who was moonlighting from Mad Magazine. No one in it could act so most of the jokes were jettisoned. The director’s “trademark” was a pull-out-slow-motion-cum-shot. He got busted on his next film for using under-age talent.

Meanwhile I couldn’t get busted and I couldn’t get a job. So I took a summer job as a camp counselor, a camp in the Poconos, and that’s where I met my first wife.

Back after the summer, I put on the suit and tie and started banging on doors again. This time a lot of places told me I needed to be in a union. None of the film unions would accept me, even as an apprentice, because I either didn’t already have a job or I didn’t already have relatives in the union.

Eventually I got hired part time by Bob Gaffney Productions. Bob was a director/cameraman doing TV commercials – Clio-award winning commercials for global brands. First they brought me in to edit the house reel – splicing together commercials so they could send reels of film to ad agencies to get jobs. Yeah, it was like that once.  I got to PA on a few location shoots too. Then they started calling me to fill in as the receptionist whenever their full time one got sick. When she quit her job, I asked them to give me the job permanently. “But it’s not a film job, you won’t be happy, you won’t get to go on shoots.” “But I’ll be happy getting a regular paycheck!” So they agreed and I had my first full time job at the age of 24, as a receptionist. I’m sure my parents were thrilled.

One day the phone rang. “Bob Gaffney please.” “May I ask who is calling?” “Stanley Kubrick.” WTF?

And so I learned a bit more about Bob’s history. Bob started out shooting March of Time documentaries. He’d done work for the CIA – which he told us about and which I will not write about here. He directed Orson Welles’ first TV commercial. He directed cult favorite Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster.

For Kubrick, he’d shot second unit stuff for Lolita, Strangelove and 2001. He was the producer for the never-finished Napoleon. He’d designed the super low light lenses for Barry Lyndon. Working on Napoleon soured him on feature films and he decided doing commercials was easier. Every time Stanley would start a new film, he’d call Bob and try to get him to come to work for him again. This time the film was to be The Shining. Barry Lyndon had tanked at the box office and Stanley thought he needed a sure-fire hit otherwise he’d lose creative control and final cut. He hated the book and thought if he filmed the ending as written the audience would run out of the theater laughing. So our first task was to read the book and suggest alternate endings.

Stanley thought he might move back to the U.S. to shoot the picture. Since he wouldn’t fly – and since there was no Internet – I had to collect every train schedule and every Mobil Travel Guide and mail them to him in the UK. He stayed in London. We tested the Steadicam for him and our office served as the office for the second unit crew whenever they were in transit between Oregon and London. Whatever work I did on this film was not enough to rate a screen credit. I did get to meet a lot of people who’d worked with him for a decade or more. Few had any good things to say about him yet they kept working for him film after film.

The other thing with Stanley that he was convinced that as a famous American living in London, he was a potential target for the IRA. He thought they would try to kidnap his children. So every two days he had his phone number changed. I have no idea why he thought that would be effective. So every time he called it was always, “Hi Stanley, what’s your phone number today?”

Gaffney decided to promote me away from the receptionist desk. I was told that I would either be trained to become an associate producer or business manager. I had no say in the matter. His current business manager was his father-in-law, approaching 65 years old. So guess which job they gave me? I became business manager of one of the top ten commercial director/cameramen in the U.S., with absolutely no background for it. Why? Because I worked cheap. However, it seemed to seriously piss him off that I would show up for work every day in jeans, t-shirts and cowboy boots but that I could get short-term bank loans at lower interest rates than his father-in-law had done.

I didn’t much like the job and I didn’t like other things going on in the office that I don’t feel comfortable writing about. I left there after four years. And I was screwed. No production house in New York wanted to hire me as a business manager because they didn’t believe that someone so young and unqualified had done that job. No production house in New York wanted to hire me for film work because I hadn’t been on a shoot in more than two years. And the unions still weren’t willing to take me.

My assistant at Gaffney had introduced me to a young British songwriter. He had a publishing contract with Capitol and wanted to put a band together. I agreed to manage him and funded the entire thing with credit cards. We found three more musicians, I bought them equipment and a rehearsal space, I got them gigs at places like CBGB’s and used a connection to get them into NYC’s famed Record Plant to record demos.

At the same time, I was working at my cousin’s store that was right on the borderline between Columbia University and Harlem. I was selling TVs and stereos, delivering stuff into the projects, repairing TVs and covering for him while he ran off doing various things that I probably shouldn’t be writing about.

The whole thing sucked. The record companies came down to see the band and they all said the same thing. “They’re good but they’re at least a year away.” The band didn’t want to rehearse, they didn’t want to try and get gigs on their own, my cut from their gigs was usually around $25 a night. I walked away from them, deeply in debt. Eventually they got picked up by King Crimson’s management company and released one EP on A&M Records and, as far as I can tell, none of them were ever heard from again.

This is getting rather long so I’ll take a break here.

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Hong Kong – Can It Get Any Weirder?

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So the deal as you all should know by now is that there is this group called Occupy Central With Love and Peace. Their deal is that should they decide that the preparations for the 2017 elections in Hong Kong are not truly democratic, they will stage a protest that will possibly bring Hong Kong’s Central district to a standstill.

They’ve been talking about this for more than 18 months now and every Beijing loyalist and card-carrying member of the Communist party has been predicting the destruction of Hong Kong if this takes place.  The walls (and the banks) will come tumbling down! No more foreign investment! Fire and brimstone coming down from the sky, rivers and seas boiling, earthquakes, volcanos, the dead rising from their graves, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together … you get the idea.

So this group of brainiacs decided that the best way to protest this coming protest would be … to stage a protest! And so yesterday we had the Alliance for Peace and Democracy (sigh) staging a protest march from Victoria Park to Central.

As the New York Times and other sources have noted, it would appear that many of the participants of yesterday’s march were mainland Chinese.

Typical was Kitty Lai, an investment adviser wearing an orange T-shirt and a baseball cap emblazoned with the logo of the Hong Kong Federation of Fujian Associations, a group that represents people from the coastal province across from Taiwan. 

“We want everything to be stable,” Ms. Lai, 50, said in Mandarin Chinese. “We want everybody to live harmoniously.”

Many participants brought along their Indonesian and Filipino domestic helpers, who also donned the T-shirts and hats, with some given Chinese flags to wave.

“Hong Kong people desire peace. They’re not afraid of speaking out, and the silent majority has spoken,” Robert Chow, a spokesman for the alliance, said in an interview. “Why should they follow Occupy Central and try to hold Hong Kong hostage? If they really want universal suffrage, negotiate with Beijing. Negotiate with the government.”

That phrase “silent majority” has irritated me since the days when Nixon and Agnew used it to try to defend the Vietnam War. “The protesters may be against it but there’s a silent majority who love it!” or something to that effect. How does a “silent majority” speak, anyway?  And how does one negotiate with a totalitarian government bent on maintaining control at any cost?

After the demonstrators had left, the detritus of protests, including posters, water bottles and flags, was strewed across the park, in contrast to the aftermath of pro-democracy rallies, when volunteers patrolled the ground, cleaning up everything, including wax from candle drippings.

You’d think all those rich people who’d brought their maids along would get them to do a bit of cleaning up afterwards. But nooooo ……

From the SCMP:

Clans that hailed from all corners of the mainland made up a crucial part of the turnout. Their origins were on full display – T-shirts of the same colour to depict a certain hometown and banners held high proclaiming the same.

Some had their fill at sponsored dim sum lunches in restaurants before setting off from nearby Victoria Park.

But under the gruelling sun, some abandoned their mission to oppose Occupy just 500 metres into the march, near Sogo department store.

The clans were not the only ones putting up united fronts; dozens of South Asian protesters were dressed in red T-shirts – curiously – carrying the logo of the Federation of Hong Kong Shenzhen Associations. They refused to say if they were members of the federation or had been paid to take part. “We are tourists,” a man said.

Yesterday’s rally proved lucrative, at least for Causeway Bay restaurants. At Cheers in Windsor House, 30 tables were reserved by the Hong Kong Hubei Fraternity and An Kwei Clans Association to treat protesters before the march started. In the same building, all of King’s Cuisine and several more tables in Choi Fuk Royal Banquet were taken up by the Hong Kong Hakka Association. About 30 protesters were decked out in blue T-shirts with the logo of Ying Wah Construction Group.

A woman with another company said her mainland employer had mobilised staff. “I join the July 1 pro-democracy rally every year. I would not have joined [this march] if there was no pressure,” she said.

The SCMP also live-blogged the march.

“Keep your Hong Kong and China flags as souvenirs, don’t throw them away,” organisers tell marchers at the finishing point.

Why would patriots need to be reminded not to throw away their country’s flag?

4.20pm: One woman taking part told the Post that she had only joined the march after direct pressure from her seniors at work. The woman, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, said she was from Hong Kong but some of her colleagues had travelled from Shenzhen. “I would not have joined if there was no pressure,” she said, adding that she normally took part in Hong Kong’s July 1 demonstration.

4pm: Some minor confrontations have been reported between marchers and Occupy Central supporters. One marcher threw a tray of 24 eggs at members of People Power, who support the Occupy movement, but the eggs hit a woman police officer, according to reports.

3.55pm: The march is rather a lacklustre affair, according to Post reporters on the ground. Marchers are plodding along, shielding themselves from the sun with umbrellas, while there is no chanting of slogans or creative costumes often seen during Hong Kong demonstrations. “Whistles blown half-heartedly can be heard from time to time but most people look indifferent. It seems like a march without a soul,” reports Nectar Gan.

No one was arrested for the egg-throwing incident, a clear indication of the police turning the other cheek when it politically suits them.

Also a clear indication of how stupid the police look is their estimation of 118,000 marchers in this event, as opposed to their estimate of just 98,000 for this year’s July 1st protest. Comparing overhead photos of the two events, as many have been doing on Facebook, shows the truth pretty clearly – that July 1st’s march had many times more participants than yesterday’s dog and pony show.

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So there you have it. A protest to protest a protest. Made up of people bussed in from across the border with the promise of a free meal and people coerced by their employers. And the icing on the cake is the lying by the police.

I wonder when someone will stage a march to protest the real rulers of Hong Kong – Cheung Kong, Sun Hung Kai, New World, etc.

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Review – Think Tank Photo My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13

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Photographers suffer from what we jokingly refer to as GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome. We get GAS not only for cameras and lenses, we also get GAS for bags. I don’t know any photographer who only has one camera bag. We buy them in all different sizes for all different purposes.

There are plenty of companies making photo bags and I’ve tried lots of them and after several years, the one company that I “follow” is an American company called Think Tank Photo. Their bags are intelligently designed and durable and have stood the test of time for me.

Here’s my “family” of Think Tank Photo bags:

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As you can see, I’ve got six of them, ranging from a small shoulder bag that will hold just my Nikon D800 with a zoom lens all the way up to the rolling Airport Security bag – which I use not just for travel but also for local shoots when I’m taking everything with me.

Think Tank decided to branch out into a new line that they called My 2nd Brain. This is a line of bags that they say are specifically sized for Apple products – MacBooks, iPads, iPhones – though of course they should work for just about any notebook, tablet and phone.

The first series of bags that they introduced left me cold. These were ultra-slim shoulder bags that could fit a laptop or a tablet computer and maybe a few sheets of paper but very little else. They couldn’t begin to accommodate what I carry on a normal work day. I looked at them and wondered if their designers all had 20/20 vision or wore contacts. There wasn’t even space for a couple of regular-sized eyeglass cases, let alone all the stuff I’m liable to carry on an average work day.

So, you ask, what do I carry on a normal day?

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  • 13 inch MacBook Pro
  • iPad Air
  • two pairs of glasses – reading and sun glasses
  • Fiio headphone amplifier
  • Over the ears headphones – most often B&W P5s, sometimes I go for the Bluetooth Parrot Zik headphones, which are also fabulous.
  • a “regular” pen and an Adonit Jot Script pen for writing on my iPad
  • The power adapter for my MacBook
  • a battery-powered electric fan, for all the times I’m waiting for the damned 307 bus in 35 degree heat
  • some sugar-free mints
  • 3 different business cards (day job, photo studio, photo/writing)
  • Keys
  • Battery charger and cables
  • Umbrella
  • Water bottle

And that’s not everything. Not shown in the photo above are:

  • Two mobile phones (one for business, one for “life”)
  • Cigarettes and a lighter
  • Sony RX100 III camera
  • And, occasionally, a paperback book for when I feel like reading on paper vs. on my iPad

Now, take all of that stuff and add on that I’m somewhat obsessive compulsive (as if that wasn’t already evident) and that I don’t want to spend time digging through my bag looking for things. I want each thing to have its own pocket or compartment; first so that it won’t be banging into anything else, and second so that I can put my hands on anything in an instant without digging around.

I have a slim vertical shoulder bag from Skooba that can’t really handle too much stuff. An iPad and two pairs of glasses and the Sony camera leave it bursting at the seams. I have a messenger bag from Crumpler that holds all of the above and more, but it’s just too big – when I’m sitting on the bus it’s really difficult to keep the bag from spilling over onto the laps of the people sitting next to me.

I decided that I wanted some kind of briefcase, to look more professional (okay, granted, I go to work wearing jeans and t-shirts and sneakers, but once in a rare while I have to do “business casual” or even a suit and a messenger bag just doesn’t go with that).

There’s probably a zillion briefcases one can find in Hong Kong, everything from cheap knock-offs to fancy leather cases costing thousands of dollars. I figured I could spend years looking at all of them, trying to find one that would fit my particular mania. But when TTP expanded their My 2nd Brain line to include briefcases, I knew that was the answer I was looking for. The price was right, the size was right and I also knew that this would have all of the pockets and compartments I wanted. So I got the My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13 in black (it also comes in “Harbor Blue” and “Mist Green”).

(Full disclosure – after not being able to locate the bag in Hong Kong through the local TTP distributors, I approached the company directly asking for a bag in exchange for a review and I was quite surprised when they agreed.)

Let’s start by examining the outside of the bag, starting with the front:

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It’s a very clean, classic design, made from 420D high density nylon with a water-repellant coating. The bag measures 14.2″ wide by 11.8″ high by 4.5″ deep. As you can see, the handle at the top of the bag is well padded. The detachable strap is also sufficiently padded, with those little shiny maybe-silicone bits that keep it from slipping off one’s shoulder.

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There’s even a small buckle on the strap to let you hang a pair of headphones or some other small item with a strap.

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(The above photo is the only one taken from the company web site. Wish I had a nice set-up at home for doing this kind of shooting!)

All of the hardware is durable nickel-coated metal.

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The front flap has two zippers that open to reveal the type of sectioned divider that’s found in almost every TTP bag.

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Note that there’s a deep pocket there good for papers, a small notebook, or perhaps a passport and tickets. (That’s where I put my electric fan.) There’s also a small blue strap with a hook at the end meant for attaching a key ring.

Viewing this same compartment from the other side, there’s another flap that’s the right size for a full-size iPad – in my case an iPad Air in a slim case from Odoyo.

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Just behind that compartment is a zipper that opens to reveal a small compartment meant for a mobile phone.

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There’s also a small webbed pocket in there that will fit business cards nicely. Me, I prefer to keep my phone in my jeans.  I tried putting my Sony camera here but the weight of the camera made this section get all bulgy.  So I’m using this pocket for my smokes. They fit perfectly there and they’re instantly accessible.

Looking inside the main compartment, theres one divider that features 5 expandable pockets:

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And there’s plenty of room to fit some papers or a magazine back there. Still in the main compartment but facing the other direction, there’s another divider that features two clear zippered pockets.

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And again, room behind that for more papers.

What you might also note in the above photos is that there are pieces of fabric along both sides attaching the front of the case to the rear. This is great because it means when the bag is on your shoulder and you open it up on the street, there’s no possibility of the front flipping over and all of the contents spilling out. You also have probably noticed the light grey interior, meaning it’s easy to see every item that you’ve got in there.

TTP include rain covers will almost all of their bags, and the My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13 is no exception.

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The blue bag contains a black plastic cover. The strap ends with a bit of velcro that wraps around a red elastic hook inside, meaning that you can take the bag out.

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As you can see, the rain cover bag actually takes up quite a bit of space.

Looking at the back of the bag, there’s the zippered compartment for your laptop.

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I don’t know that I needed that bit of cutesy text there. Both sides of the compartment are lightly padded.

Then there’s a slim space that you can drop a newspaper or magazine into.

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There’s also a tight flap that will allow you to put this securely onto the handle of a larger piece of luggage, as shown below with my TTP Airport Security rolling bag.

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Finally, both sides of the bag have zippered, expandable pockets that can hold a water bottle, a folding umbrella, a large eyeglass case or perhaps a kebab from Ebeneezer’s.

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So, yes, this bag holds everything I might possibly want to take with me on a day out, each item in its own place and easily accessible. It’s small enough to fit on my lap and it’s flat which makes it a great “desktop” for holding my iPad while I’m watching my TV shows during my commute.

I’ve been using this bag now every day for about 3 weeks and on the whole, I’m really loving it. It’s the same Think Tank Photo quality that I love in the other 6 TTP bags that I own. It seems strong and durable. It feels as if it will last a lifetime, or at least for several years.

What this bag positively screams is that Think Tank Photo have put the same amount of thought into the organization, construction and details that they put into their camera bags. That’s what I was hoping for in a briefcase from this company and they didn’t let me down.

The size is both a positive and a negative for me. Everything feels as if it has been engineered to military-like precision. The bag is small enough and light enough for me to take it with me every day without feeling as if the bag alone has added 5 or 10 extra pounds to the stuff I carry with me. (The actual weight of the bag is 2.1 pounds.)

It’s also small enough that I can pack it in my luggage when I travel. I know that sounds odd, but generally when flying I want a larger carry on bag (for reasons that I won’t go into here). But once I arrive, I want the smaller bag for my every day walking around stuff. I’ll be able to do that with this bag.

On the other hand, this compactness means that once I fill up the bag, and all of the little inside pockets, there’s not a lot of room left over. This becomes an issue with the power adapter for my MacBook. I’m not sure that the Think Tank designers ever saw this power pack with the huge British plug as opposed to the slim American one – it’s a tight fit and I can’t really use the compartment for this as shown on their web site. I suspect that the bag is strong enough that I could really stuff it beyond the point of sanity and manage to get it closed, but it might get really bulky and uncomfortable to carry at that point. I actually find myself wondering if I shouldn’t go for the 15 inch laptop size – not because I want a larger laptop but because of the couple of extra inches of interior storage space I’d get as a result.

Honestly, that’s about as much of a complaint as I can come up with for the bag. It is 100% the bag I was looking to get. It holds pretty much everything I want to take with me during the week – it holds everything safely and securely and everything is instantly accessible whether I’m standing at a bus stop or sitting at my desk. And, bonus, my wife says that the style really suits me.

The Think Tank Photo My 2nd Brain briefcase series comes in 3 sizes – for 11 inch, 13 inch and 15 inch laptops. Each size is available in three colors – black, “Harbor” blue or “Mist” green.

The My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13 that I have retails for US$129.75. You can purchase the bag from Amazon or  B&H Photo.  You can also try contacting Howen International, a great local company that distributes Think Tank products (and other photography accessories) in Hong Kong although at the moment they’re not bringing in the briefcases.

Thanks again to Think Tank Photo for supplying me with this bag in exchange for a review.

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Lauren Bacall

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Bacall In Beads

 

One day after Robin Williams’ shocking death, the world also lost actress Lauren Bacall, one of the all time greats.

Bacall, whose career spanned 70 years, made her film debut at the age of 19 opposite Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not, in which she got to say the immortal words:

You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.

She and Bogart fell in love and were married (he was 24 years older than her) and they remained together till Bogart’s death in 1957.  (Bogart remains my all-time favorite actor and my dog is named for him.) She was romantically linked to Frank Sinatra and was also married to Jason Robards Jr.

(Here’s a good bit of trivia. Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway got drunk together and got into a debate. Hawks claimed that great books made lousy movies, lousy books made great movies. Hemingway disagreed. Hawks bet Hemingway that he could make a great movie from Hemingway’s worst book. “What’s my worst book?” “To Have and Have Not.” Hawks told Hemingway that the book was a “bunch of junk.  Hemingway agreed and dared him to film it. And he did, but basically he threw away almost everything from the book except the title and the names of the characters. William Faulkner helped write the script.)

(Another bit of trivia. Legend has it that Bacall’s singing voice in THAHN was dubbed by a young Andy Williams. Hawks and Bacall both deny this.)

Bacall’s films include The Big Sleep, Key Largo, Young Man With a Horn, How to Marry a Millionaire, Harper, Murder on the Orient Express.  She won two Tony Awards for appearances in the Broadway musicals Applause and Woman of the Year. She won a Golden Globe for The Mirror Has Two Faces and received an honorary Oscar in 2009.

Lauren Bacall was one of the true greats and will be missed.

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Robin Williams

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I woke up this morning to the news that Robin Williams had committed suicide. Almost every day we read news of celebrities dying, some too soon, and shrug our shoulders (at least I do) and say, well, people die, everyone dies sometime. The news of Williams’ death left me almost inexplicably sad. And clearly it did this for others too – I can’t recall any other celebrity death getting so many mentions from so many people in my Facebook feed.

I never knew Williams and I never got to see him perform in person. But I’m just 3 years younger than he was, which means that I got to follow him for his entire professional career, from when he first turned up on TV on the Richard Pryor show and his guest appearance on Happy Days that led to Mork & Mindy. It was just last week that I finally had listened to his amazing interview on Marc Maron’s WTF from four years ago. He seemed so optimistic and so in control that this news was doubly shocking.

Anyway, while Williams was in many movies that I detest, he was in an almost equal amount that I really respect (and that’s not counting his multiple stand-up specials for HBO, surely his best work). So I thought I’d run down a few of them.

Popeye 

This was his first major film role, in Robert Altman’s revisionist live action take on the beloved cartoon character. Revisionist? The movie was reviled in its time, yet I liked it 30 years ago and love it now. Screenplay by Jules Feiffer, a cast that included Shelly Duvall, Ray Walston, Richard Libertini, Bill Irwin – and don’t forget songs by Harry Nilsson, arranged by Van Dyke Parks.

The World According to Garp

Two years later, the film that proved that Williams could act, and could do serious as well as humor.

Moscow on the Hudson

This is a great film from Paul Mazursky, one of the most patriotic films ever made. Williams carries the film but he had a great script to work from and a great director to work with.

Good Morning Vietnam

This was the first film to properly capture Williams the comedian, as the role gave him plenty of room for improvisation.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

A small role in this Terry Gilliam wackfest.

Dead Poets Society

People love this movie and I guess I did at the time but I never feel an urge to go back to it.

Awakenings

Robin goes semi-maudlin, this is the kind of film that would set the stage for a lot of his later work.

The Fisher King

Back with Terry Gilliam.

Aladdin

Yea, Robin is funny again!

The Birdcage

People seem to love this film but I don’t, maybe because the original is too firmly fixed in my mind.

Good Will Hunting

I’m currently reading Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, which is primarily about Sundance and Miramax, and the making of this film is an important chapter in that book. Williams gets his Oscar for this but is he just repeating himself from Dead Poet’s Society?

What Dreams May Come

I keep thinking I have to watch this again one day.

Insomnia

One of a small number of films in which Williams played a bad guy – very effectively.

World’s Greatest Dad

What is especially notable here – and commendable – is how Williams continued to appear in smaller indie films, even ones like this that might be slightly controversial, giving support to interesting projects and to friends (in this case fellow stand-up and now writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait).

He also continued to do stand-up, his last HBO special was in 2009 as I recall.

Anyway, you can hear his entire Marc Maron WTF interview on YouTube here. It’s revealing, it’s frank, it’s very funny.

(I know there’s nothing strikingly original or unique, maybe just the link to the WTF interview, just felt compelled to write something about this.)

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