The Amricaster (v1)

One of my goals this year was to learn more about how to set up, repair, and maintain my guitar collection. I had some successes over the summer, and by August I wondered: Could I now build an entire guitar from parts, custom to my preferences? Amazingly the answer was yes — with help.

I had a few criteria: First, I prefer hardtail Strats, which are uncommon. Second, I love the sound of mini-humbuckers, which are also uncommon. That combo alone is something I could not buy off the rack, so it was worth building. And third, since my confidence was low, I wanted everything as cheap as possible, because if I screwed it all up, it would not be a big financial loss…but I also wanted it to be high enough quality to be worth keeping. Tricky.

I found a very attractive, very cheap combo at Guitar Fetish: a blueburst, hardtail basswood body and an unusually (for the money) figured maple neck from Guitar Fetish. This was not their high-quality XGP line — this was the “Basics” line, which is a step above generic factory closeout. That was mistake number one, as the neck pocket and string holes were incorrectly cut at the factory, which I didn’t know until after I’d drilled the neck with the assistance of Kat’s dad, Herm. Assembling was enough of a challenge, so I needed Brian Poedy and his woodworking skills to fix that for me. But after a brief delay, that was sorted. I was able to level the frets early on in the process.

While I cheaped out on the body, I invested in any hardware that I could re-use. I went with high-quality Hipshot hardware, so the bridge cost more than the body and the tuners cost more than the neck!

For the pickups, “Mad Al” Nash steered me toward Wilkinson, a well-regarded value brand from the UK I’d read about in magazines. Their mini-humbuckers were a third of the price of just one US boutique pickup, so I got three! They were generically voiced so I didn’t have to worry about which one went where. I wired them as standard Strat pickups on a 5-way switch just to see what it would sound like — again, what’s the point of remaking something I can buy off the shelf? Let’s turn left at all intersections, because it’s an experiment. Meanwhile, Kat prepped by body by painting shielding into the pickup cavity.

I didn’t want to use them with the P90-shaped surround rings, so that meant making my own pickguard on the Glowforge out of 1/16th acrylic. I got lucky and found a vector file on the internet which I was able to modify in Illustrator. I went through six cardboard prototypes before I got it right…ish. The pickup cutouts and moutning holes are not perfect, but it’s more okay than not.

During that cardboard phase, I started questioning the control layout — the volume knob is traditionally uncomfortably close to the bridge pickup. I didn’t really care about the second tone control, so after Poedy asked “Why not just remove it?” I had no retort. This was custom anyway, so I simplified and went with one volume and one tone. Good call, Poedy!

So $50 for the body, 35 for the neck, 90 for the pickups, 25 for the wiring harness, 60 for the bridge, 50 for the tuners, 20 for the fancy knobs, $10 for the pickguard material, plus various shipping costs…this was around $350, about the same as it would cost to buy a used Squier and upgrade it with better parts. But I was paying for the experience. Truth? It could be better. The neck shape and radius aren’t my favorite (I am very picky), but hey, it plays! And I made something I couldn’t find anywhere else.

The unexpected part was the weird mix of pride and disbelief when I finally put strings on it last night. I made this? It plays? It actually…feels good? I got a little emotional. I don’t get this warm sense of accomplishment when I build a PC.

So, Amricaster version 1 complete; who knows if there will be a v2. But if there is, I’m stealing the tuners and bridge…! 🙂

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Spoiler-free thoughts on comics and the MCU

My mom abhorred violence. I didn’t grow up with toy guns; I didn’t see Star Wars until it was re-released and in the last-chance dollar theater because “I am not taking you to a war movie.” Finally she relented after being literally the only mother in 1978 to have not seen SW, and not only did I love it, but she was surprised that she loved it (R2-D2 was her favorite). But this did not change her stance on comic books, which were still brain-rotters and instruction manuals for violent behavior. Batman’s TV show was silly and featured guest appearances by actors my mom liked, so that was okay. I got to read the occasional Uncle Scrooge comic from my dad’s stash growing up in the 40s, but they were…disappointing. I also read a little Rocky & Bullwinkle on Marvel’s short-lived Star family imprint, and I have dim memories of sneaking glimpses of Ghost Rider and (I think) Tomb of Dracula at the barber shop.

When I graduated high school, Ethan Hurd bought me the Watchmen TPB and that, of all things, was my first real exposure to comics — a full deconstruction of things I never really got to experience, but a challenge that I happily accepted and totally cemented my understanding that comics were (or at least could be) legitimate literature. What an introduction to the medium. To this day I’m still a crazy Watchmen fanboy.

A few months later in my first year of college, I met Jamie Jamitkowski and he said “If you like Watchmen, here — read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns.” So other comics fans merely adopted the dark; I was born in it, molded by it. I was raised on grim ‘n gritty Vertigo stuff, so Marvel was not part of my experience. Even though I got my hands on some Claremont X-Mens when Rocky & Bullwinkle ceased and they had to fill my subscription with something (I remember reading Jubilee’s first appearance, and Wolverine being on walkabout — my hyper-Catholic mom did not appreciate the crucifixion cover to Uncanny X-Men 251).

Now I’m in NYC working at Harris Publishing, getting my first job at Guitar World and, surprise, they also own Vampirella and it’s the era of comic bad girls. I get a crash course from my coworkers Jeff Kitts and Yoshi Moshi and the comic store guys over on 6th just as Image Comics gets going. I learned as much as I could through features in Wizard magazines and did some writing about it for Flux, but usually just merchandise or toy stuff. I clung to DC as much as I could.

It wasn’t until the MCU that I really “got” Marvel. Like a lot of people, I saw Iron Man and went “wow that was awesome” and that immediately led me back to the comics. Every time Marvel brought a new character or team into the fray, I went back to the comics, getting digital TPBs of classic arcs — Spidey stories, Iron Man, Infinity Gauntlet, Captain Marvel, even some What If collections (they’re a cheat sheet to the key moments in continuity are). I see how the characters and the mechanics of storytelling have evolved over the years. It was the MCU that actually made me appreciate the power of these characters, the thrill of an interconnected universe that’s mostly in a town where I used to live. I still like DC but now there’s more out there to appreciate.

So wrapping up this massive series of interconnected films is no small thing to me. These movies showed me something I had trouble seeing, and it’s hard not to reflect a bit on this long journey, following these incarnations and these interpersonal connections over a decade. Like, I remember the last episode of M*A*S*H being a big deal because it was just so present for so long, and it came to mean a lot to a lot of people. Seeing it definitively end was a major thing for a lot of people. Watching the MCU evolve as an adult has had a profound effect on me; it’s a master class in storytelling and it’s already having a big effect on my personal projects.

I’ve seen some dismissive posts on social media suggesting any adult male who is emotionally invested in a fictional world like Star Wars or the MCU — someone who might cry at a trailer or consider this trip to the theater to be a major event — is a “man-baby” and “undateable.” This of course assumes that men want partners who are incapable of both imagination and emotional connections, so I don’t see a happy ending for those critics. I suspect we’d disagree on a lot of other things as well.

But for me, I’m going to celebrate what this has become. I’m grateful for it. This has been one of the most enjoyable revelations I’ve ever experienced.

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The Corey Feldman Story

Have I ever told you the Corey Feldman story?

When I was in my early teens I was a child actor. A handful of commercials, a small walk-on role in a movie, nothing major — but I auditioned for a few different roles that probably would have sent my life in a very different direction. I tried out for the part of Tom Hanks’ best friend in Big, and I auditioned for Stand by Me for the part of Teddy, which wound up going to Corey Feldman.

The weirdest one was the day I got a call for a movie called The Lost Boys, and instead of going to a casting agency, I was told to report to Warner Bros. HQ in NYC. That was really unusual, because you would normally go to a little office with a video camera and a rotating parade of kids who were there to read a scene or the commercial script and then go — revolving door stuff. But going to the Warner building? I asked my agent and she said, “I have no idea, but it must be good news or they wouldn’t call you to HQ, so let me know what happens.”

So I go there, up this giant elevator several floors, into this executive’s office. I sit in this giant leather chair, and this exec says, “Well, we cast you in this movie just from your headshot — you have the look we want. But the role calls for twins, and we found a natural set of twins that look enough like you that we don’t need you. Thanks, but sorry.”

My reaction was “Okay, I understand” but I didn’t. I had not auditioned for this part, and I didn’t know I had been cast in anything; neither did my agent or manager. I guess WB thought someone told me and they needed to manage the awkward situation directly. So I got called to WB HQ to be fired from a job I didn’t know I’d gotten — or maybe just un-hired?

Later, I went to see the movie and there were no twins…but there were the Frog Brothers from the comic book shop, and they were about my age. And who was one of those brothers? That’s right — Corey Feldman.

For years I had this grudge against him for stealing parts that should have been mine; my friends would then send me news stories about his various dramas in the press and say “See, that could have been you!” In retrospect, I’m glad it wasn’t.

I have no idea how my life would have turned out had I been a Frog brother. Maybe the same — there are tons of people who do one or two roles and then go back to a normal, obscure life. But I still think The Lost Boys is a fun film, and I still crank the radio whenever I hear “Good Times” by INXS & Jimmy Barnes.

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Thoughts on the SNES Classic Edition

If you are reading this, I want you to be happy. Games make me happy. Games make you happy. I want you to have the games that make you happy.

But stop with the shock and surprise that Nintendo “didn’t learn anything” from the NES Classic; enough of the loud “oh my stars and garters” disappointment that the classic Nintendo hardware-shortage cycle has begun anew. This is the same “limited quantities” trick Nintendo has played on you for not just years but decades. From the moment George Harrison looked me in the eye as we discussed a pre-launch N64 and said “Well, sometimes, a shortage is a good thing,” I knew it wasn’t about making me happy. It hurt, but I knew.

Sony, Microsoft, Sega — they pull something like this, and you’d walk away, forever, holding a very loud grudge. But Nintendo does this repeatedly, and your own sense of self-preservation just goes away. That’s what love makes you do. It’s just that the SNES Classic is not about Nintendo’s love for you, but your love for them. Worse, they know it.

So, I’m sorry, but they do not care if you get one or not. They don’t care if they are hard to find or if the people who really would appreciate one the most actually get one. They don’t care that the units will be scalped for several multitudes over MSRP. You getting what you want was not part of their business plan.

“They didn’t learn from last time”? They learned that scarcity equals headlines and that people will fall all over themselves to be associated with their brand. They learned they can charge $20 more this time around. They learned from the NES Classic. What did you learn?

If you are reading this, I want you to be happy. I want you to get this $80 thing that reaffirms and validates your love (especially if you couldn’t get the $60 thing that reaffirms and validates your love last time). But this looks like an abusive relationship, and you deserve better than Nintendo is giving you.

Keep playing their games, but stop playing their game.

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Thoughts on the NES Classic Edition

“I cannot wait to get that NES Classic! HDMI out, it’s loaded with great games, and it’s only $60!”

“Yeah, it’s adorable and a great value. But..don’t you already have all these games?”

“Sure! I play the loose NES carts on my Retron, plus I have a few of these sealed in the box. I have a bunch of the GBA re-releases too. I also bought the Virtual Console version of a bunch of these on Wii, then a few more on Wii U since those didn’t transfer over, and I downloaded some of these on 3DS as VC releases, too. And of course, I have the ROMs of everything on my laptop.”

“So you’ve bought the classics four or five times…wow! Hey, what did you think of this year’s Call of Duty?”

“Screw that! Every year, they just keep releasing the same game!”

Look, I know people are buying this for what it represents as much as its easy functionality (HDMI is a godsend here), and the content has earned its classic status. I love seeing these games remain living history. But there’s this Nintendo cult effect where the warm fuzzies of nostalgia — even someone else’s nostalgia — cloud all decisions or discussions. When Activision re-released COD4, I saw comments like “Activision Want You To Pay Full Price For An Old Game That You’ve Already Bought.” When Nintendo releases literally the same game over and over again? “Why can’t I preorder?!” (And yes, I do believe these audiences intersect. Worse, I suspect there might be a sidecar of “Why would I buy Steam games if they’re not 75% off?”)

My motto remains “play what makes you happy,” always and forever, and I am staunchly dedicated to preserving game history. But when it comes to this kind of stuff, I feel like Nintendo gets a pass more often than not.

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How to Buy a New Guitar Amp

Step 1: Accept that your old Marshall AVT50 hybrid amp has a noisy fan. Assume it is irreparable and convince yourself that you should get a new amp.
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The truth about “To defeat the Cyberdemon, shoot at it until it dies”

Doom has returned, and with it, an old wound has been opened. Over the years, the GamePro ProTip “To defeat the Cyberdemon, shoot at it until it dies” has become something of a meme. It’s inspired websites. It’s come full circle to become an achievement in the newest game. But mostly, it’s been held up as an example of lazy game journalism. “Ha ha, that kiddy vid rag was so bad, they think this is good advice.”

The trouble is, it never existed. The ProTip never appeared in GamePro, the kiddy vid rag where I worked for seven years.  Continue reading

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Summer 1985

In 1985, when I was 14, I traveled with a small company of Evita for about five weeks. Of the 25 men in the company, three were straight:: Juan Peron, Che, and myself. Juan and Che bunked together. I will admit to being freaked out when my roommate asked if I wanted to be on top — because, you know, he’d be drinking with the cast post-show and it would be easier and quieter if he didn’t have to climb the little ladder of the bunk bed we shared. I was 14, I grew up in the suburbs, and I was uncomfortable.

The cast members didn’t have to hide who they were, and they were awesome to me the whole time. We played board games, we talked about movies and current events (“Finally, they’re bringing back Coca-Cola Classic!”), and one guy cut my sister’s hair (“Go take a look and see what you think — we can always take more off, but it’s a bitch putting it back on”). I quickly came to understand there was no significant difference beyond age, which was the same difference I had with every adult I met. There was nothing to fear.

That summer set the standard for me, and I’m still grateful. I still think of Fred and Patrick and DC fondly, but I don’t know if the troupe ever considered the good they wound up doing by just being themselves. I also wonder where some of them are now. I remember reading the TIME cover story about AIDS in the green room. It was fresh and new and terrifying, and nobody really knew what to do about it.

But I cringe when I see homophobic people now, because they’re afraid of (and sometimes violently angry about) nothing, and they just haven’t gotten to know anybody different from themselves to demystify the whole thing.

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Facebook is the reason I haven’t been blogging much here. I think I should change that, because even though I look back at some of my angrier screeds and cringe, this is still the one and only space where I control everything. I don’t have to hope that my friends see it in their feed, you know? It’s here if you want it.

Anyway, 2015 is coming to a close and as always, I’m taking stock.

April was my one-year anniversary at Ubisoft, and it’s been an amazingly good fit. I still really like working there; I just need to do it a bit less, because as the year went on, I worked 10- and 11-hour days (not in a crunch time) with alarming frequency.

We finally got a house. Originally, Kat and I were hoping to go to Disney World for our 20th anniversary, but we thought more practically about that expenditure and realized we should get serious about owning our own place at last. Staying in my own four walls has been the best vacation ever (and we’re still surrounded by Disney stuff). We apparently had a lot of good house karma built up, because we found a place relatively quickly, had our offer accepted quickly, and got some key renovations done quickly too. It’s always a hassle and there were a lot of steps, but I feel very grateful that it went as smoothly as it did.

I didn’t get the next Palette-Swap Ninja project out this year, which I had hoped to do. Still working on that. It’s hard.

Mostly I want to take naps over the holiday. Hope your naps are happy too, if you celebrate naps.

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On Being Willing To Learn…For Fun

I run Jeopardy games at PAX whenever I can. These are custom-built game shows in every sense of the word — handmade buzzers, bespoke software, and custom-created questions by and for the PAX attendees. It’s trivia, so it’s not all going to be stuff that you know immediately — but my question team and I take great pains trying to create content that geeks in attendance might be able to recall with a little hint or some mental effort.

This year at PAX Prime, after one of the questions went unanswered, a contestant (who passed an entrance exam before they were selected) complained, “But I wasn’t alive then!”  Continue reading

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