How do you place a value on something that’s intrinsically useless?

I’ve always been skeptical of the “value” of jewelry, and in particular of diamonds. Fortunately I found in SLP a companion who doesn’t believe that the magnitude of my affection is commensurate with the size of a rock on her finger.

Today I was exploring some sites for design and layout ideas, and along the way I visited Digg. As it happened, the top link on Digg at that moment was an article from the Atlantic Monthly entitled “Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?”

Now, it’s well-known that De Beers is far from the most beneficent corporation in the world, and the brutal story of “blood diamonds” has been the topic of hip hop songs and movies alike. But before those atrocities could be committed, someone had to invent a perception of value. Finally in this article I have documented proof (in extensive detail) of what my gut has been telling me for years.

Interestingly enough, and I had not noticed this initially, the article is actually from the February 1982 issue of the magazine. It speaks of several developments in recent years (those years being the late ’70s and early ’80s) that would threaten the De Beers monopoly. Now, I haven’t been a close follower of the diamond industry, but I know De Beers still rules the roost.

Now there’s something I haven’t seen in years!

I was in a neighborhood grocery store today. It’s one of those old grocery stores that used to be considered a “supermarket” back when it was built, probably in the late ’60s, but now seems quaint and almost tiny. It’s been remodeled, probably many times, but in general its decor looks modern but the layout of the store hasn’t changed a bit. Walking into the store is like walking into my childhood.

That fact really hit home today when I noticed, near the checkout, a very old, very faded illuminated sign/clock reading “Thank you for shopping with us.” But the thing that really caught my eye was barely visible — a long forgotten logo decal on the clock face. But even though I could scarcely see it at all, I immediately recognized it as something that has been burned into my mental image bank even though I haven’t seen it in years (if not decades):

Red Owl Logo

That freakin’ owl used to give me nightmares when I was 3!

Recognize it? Don’t recognize it? Here’s more…

Hhffrrrggh (Inn)

You know how sometimes there are things you encounter in passing that are totally bizarre, but since you’re not really paying attention, they kind of slip by unnoticed for months (or years) before you finally say, “Wait a minute… what the…???”

Well, this is one of those things. I’ve done a fair amount of cross-country driving, but the long-haul trip I’ve made far more than all others put together is that between Minneapolis and Chicago along I-94/90/39 through Wisconsin. And yet, somehow, I went for years before more than a handful of brain cells bothered to notice, on one of those typical blue road signs advertising food/gas/lodging in Janesville, Wisconsin, the oddest business name I have ever encountered: Hhffrrrggh Inn.

Yes, that’s right: Hhffrrrggh Inn.

The name is so weird, it took about 3 or 4 trips past the sign before I even managed to make out enough of the letters to be able to take a reasonable stab at googling it.

And here it is… (I took the exit so I could take a picture of the actual restaurant, but as usual in Wisconsin, I drove a quarter of a mile and saw no sign of it — and scarcely any of civilization at all, for that matter — so I gave up.)

hhffrrrggh_1.jpg   hhffrrrggh_2.jpg

The humble quest for cheap furniture

Last night was not unlike so many other nights in my household, although it was imbued with a special sense of purpose. Far more than the usual preparations had taken place: I made the great trek to the basement to retrieve the tape measure and actually determine with some level of accuracy the physical dimensions of a space in our house that we envisioned filling with yet more cheaply priced, cheaply made, pressed-sawdust-and-glue-with-fake-woodgrain-laminate-surface, some-assembly-required (OK, all-assembly-required, and-with-a-tiny-awkward-metric-Allen-wrench-at-that) furniture, courtesy of IKEA.

IKEA is a mystical place with a rabid cult-like following, and for many years SLP and I have counted ourselves among them. We pined for the big blue-and-yellow box when we left California, and we praised the heavens when we learned it would finally grace the adopted homeland of 99% of the world’s Swedish emigrants. (C’mon, what took so long?)

But I gotta say, the magic is wearing thin. Too many meals of dried-out overcooked meatballs and new potatoes for which the adjective can only be intended as irony. Too many cheap pieces that took way too long to assemble and then never quite matched anything else and eventually ended up in the basement, on the curb, or in pieces (for sport).

Alas, last night was just such a time. We were on a mission to locate and acquire at least five, perhaps more, short bookcases to line a knee wall below an angled ceiling in our upstairs. But the $20 “Kilby” (or was that “Billy”… or “Fjørnårsl” or some such nonsense) bookcases we had our eyes on happened to be 2 inches too tall. Oh well, at least we fed the entire family for under $11.

What to do… I know! Let’s try Target! 80% of the cheap, DIY furniture in our house may be from IKEA, but the other 20% is from Target, and the bookcases we already have and know will fit, which we thought we had gotten at IKEA, must’ve actually been from Target.

The problem is, Target’s gotten too big for its britches. In trying, admirably, to position itself in stark contrast to Wal-Mart, they’ve gone and done away with all of the basics, like the cheap, no-frills Sauder (slogan: “Good furniture made possible”… yes, possible!) bookcases and such that they used to carry for years and years. My wife constantly complains that Target is lacking this or that simple necessity, but for me, now, it finally hit home.

Faced with having my grand mission of obtaining approximately 25 cubic feet of book storage for less than $100 devolve into nothing more than a rambling trek along American Boulevard, with nothing to show for a wasted evening besides a mediocre meal and my son’s Blue’s Clues jigsaw puzzle (which just goes to prove Target Axiom #2*), I pulled out one last possibility.

Well… we could always try Menards.

Now you have to understand, I am deeply scarred from a lifetime of unwilling exposure to the Menards guy (yes, I was just as shocked as you are). He’s long since retired, but the mind-melting jingle (“Save big money at Menards!”) endures. I have nothing against the place, in particular; it’s just not a place I generally think to go to for… you know… anything.

But it just so happens that there was one a convenient distance from Target. On our way home, in fact. So, why not check it out? I was amazed. They had a mountain of just the cheap Sauder bookcases I was looking for… but a new model… wider… and on sale for $15.88! So we actually ended up getting more precious cubic feet and saving about $20 from what we’d expected to pay at IKEA or Target.

I was a bit disheartened, though, to notice the bookcases are apparently a part of Sauder’s “Beginnings” product line. Ten years of marriage, and we’re still stuck on “Beginnings.”

Anyway… tonight came time for assembly. Now I’ve put together enough cheap furniture (and then some) in my lifetime. I’ve seen so many of that particular sort of cam locking screw mechanisms (and the wooden support pegs that always seem to be paired with them) that I could probably put together something assembled with them without instructions… or tools… using my feet… while sleeping… in another house.

Sadly, it was not enough humiliation for them to simply call these bookcases “Beginnings.” No, no. The cam locks are gone, and in their place a new device of such cunning design, given the almost sinister appellation “hidden connector,” that I am convinced that the only reason Sauder still retains designers in its employ is to concoct ever more devious, counterintuitive, and downright impossible means of sticking two boards together. What’s so bad about, you know, a screw?

The hidden connector consists of a circular piece of brown plastic, about the size of a quarter and 1/4 inch thick, with two opposing holes on the edge and a large angled hole on one side. These are pounded with a hammer into circular holes that just slightly overlap the edge of the shelf boards. Then you insert special screws into the angled side hole and stick them through the edge hole that lines up with the place where the hole in the wood overlaps the edge (are you still with me?), although actually you should have put the screw in the plastic piece first… that’s easier.

Next, try to figure out a way to stick a screwdriver in the hole at an angle and actually make solid contact with the screw head. Good. Next, attach the shelf to the side pieces, and repeat for the other shelf… but don’t attach it too well, or you’ll never get the bottom bracing board, held in with four metal pegs, in place without having to use undue force and, in the process, scratch the hell out of the thin layer of laminated oak pattern lithographed paper that’s glued to the outer surface of the pressed-sawdust-and-glue boards that constitute this fine piece of furniture, the best you can buy for the price of a CD or an extra large supreme pizza.

OK, how long did that take, 45 minutes? Great! One down, four to go!

Ah, the things I’ll do to save a buck.

* Target axioms: 1) If you go into Target set on buying one small thing, and only that one small thing, you will still somehow end up spend at least $50 and needing one of those jumbo plastic shopping bags to hold your purchases; 2) Even if you are absolutely convinced that you will walk out of Target empty-handed, if only just this once, you’ll still end up buying at least one item.

Addendum (October 27, 2006): I’m sad to report that it appears the “Menards Guy” website is no more. As for the Menards Guy himself, I do not know…

The Mysterious and Elusive Sears Exclusives

The small town where I grew up had a fairly limited selection of available cartridges for the system, even when I acquired mine, at the peak of the innocent, naive, pre-crash frenzy, in May of 1982. Kmart and the small Kay-Bee toy store in the local mall were pretty much the only places you could go for this crazy new technological marvel, the home video game.

We didn’t have a Sears store anymore, its vacant anchor space in the sparkling new North Main Street commercial district (which has since become a grayed, decaying industrial district) having recently been filled by the town’s exciting new Kmart store. (More recently, the space, long abandoned by Kmart’s migration to the town’s sparkling new 18th Avenue commercial district — and now drastically renovated in an abominable and already “dated” 1990s architectural style — has become the home of the world-renowned Spam Museum.) As a result, I had no idea that Sears had its own version of the Atari 2600, complete with repackaged versions of Atari’s games, plus a few exclusives. (Even at the tender age of 8, however, I was already well-aware of the bizarre practices of Sears, Roebuck & Co. of selling products only under its own brands, even if those products were — as with the Sears Video Arcade — simply those of other manufacturers with new brand decals attached.)

I remember well my first encounter with a “Sears exclusive” Atari cartridge. At the time, I was deeply engrossed in the enticements of the game catalogs Atari shrewdly packed in with each cartridge sold. And in my insular little world, I was convinced that, thumbing the pages of the catalog, I had the entire library of games for the system at my fingertips. The concept of third-party games was wholly unknown to me, awaiting my discovery of the wonder of wonders, Activision, at the neighboring larger city’s Musicland store. The infallible comprehensiveness of the game catalogs I had studied and memorized had only recently met its first challenge, when I acquired a dusty, back-of-the-rack copy of Video Olympics, packed with an old (two whole years old, old!) catalog that featured two discontinued games: Flag Capture and Surround. “How can this be?” my 8-year-old brain wondered. “If they made these games, why would they stop selling them?” My childhood obsession with Atari taught me not only a love for electronic gadgetry and a modicum of hand-eye-coordination, but also some valuable lessons about graphic design and marketing, which have actually been somewhat useful in my adult career.

Anyway, as I was saying, I remember well my first encounter with a Sears exclusive. It came on the heels of the experiences outlined in such prolonged manner in the previous paragraph. As a child, I spent my days at my grandparents’ house while my parents were at work — a distinct advantage of living in the same town as one’s grandparents. Their next-door neighbors had 5 kids, the youngest of whom was a girl two years older than myself. She and I were close friends for many years. Thus it was that I was in these neighbors’ basement rec room, playing some of their Atari games I did not own (“Football,” for some reason, stands out in my memory), when I discovered something that shook my Atari worldview to its very foundations:

Steelplechase.

“Wha– wha– uh… what is this?” I wondered, perhaps aloud. An Atari game, but yet, not quite an Atari game. A strange artifact from an unknown world. Unfortunately, my 8-year-old attention span, already becoming frayed by another recent invention (MTV), was insufficient to sustain the intrigue. Oh yeah… and then I actually played the game. Not terrible, but… well… ehh…. Nothing to get that excited over. It was promptly long-forgotten.

My second encounter with a Sears exclusive came about 8 years later, in high school. All of my friends had, in the late 1980s, packed their Atari consoles away in a dark, musty corner of the darkest, mustiest closet they could find in their respective homes, to be replaced by the latest and greatest, the Nintendo Entertainment System. I never got a Nintendo. (In fact, I still don’t have one today… but it’s not for lack of trying.) I did covet the system many times, however, playing Super Mario Bros., Castlevania, Gauntlet, and the rest on their systems during junior high and high school sleepovers. Meanwhile, I kept the Atari flame alive, fanned by two marvelous, recently-acquired games: Solaris and Yars’ Revenge. The latter, a classic long-missing from my collection. Simple, to a fault. But oh-so addictive. The former, a wonder. Truly an impressive achievement for the system, and good enough to sustain me in my delusion that my Atari was just as good as that stinkin’ Nintendo crap my friends all had. Plus, I never had to give my cartridges the infamous “blow job” to get them to work, either! (Nothing X-rated here, folks… if you’ve ever spent any time playing a Nintendo Entertainment System, you know exactly what I’m talking about.)

One day in high school, one of my traitorous, Nintendo-loving compadres informed me that his parents were having a rummage sale (known to those of you in various other parts of the country as a “garage sale” or a “yard sale” or a “see how much money I can get for all this old crap I don’t want anymore sale”). He also informed me that he was planning to sell all of his old Atari cartridges at it, although he’d let me have first dibs on any of them that I wanted. I can’t remember now if he actually expected me to pay for them or not. But I am inclined to think he did. What the hey… I was rakin’ in the big bucks as a grocery bagger at the time, and he was unemployed, trying to earn enough scratch to buy the latest iteration in the “Mega Man” series, so why not help a chum(p) out?

I remember a few of the specific games I got in the deal. Cosmic Ark and Maze Craze were a few of the most anticipated in the bunch. And then there was this oddity called “Strategic Space Combat Game.” At least, that’s what I thought it was called, because the end label was missing. My friend informed me that it was actually called Stellar Track, and that it was one of his favorites. (The similarity of its title to “Star Trek” did not occur to me at the time.) Without an instruction manual, and in the days before all such information was archived for the ages on the Internet, the game was essentially useless to me, however, and to this day I have not given it more than a few cumulative, lifetime minutes of my attention.

I went on with my life… went to college, got married, moved to California, got a job, moved back from California, got another job, etc. etc. The Atari followed me in my many and varied journeys, and eventually acquired a companion/rival when I added an Atari 7800 to my collection in 1997. Somewhere along the way, my childhood interest in the numbering sequence of Atari’s games, and the mystery of CX2614 and CX2617 was answered. (Ah… of course, I thought, when I learned that those unused slots had been reserved for Steeplechase and Stellar Track respectively.) But there was still a nagging question, deep in the cavernous recesses of my brain: What of CX2647?

In May 2002, nearly 20 years to the day after I had first gotten my Atari 2600, I was introduced to the wonders of the AtariAge website. To be sure, I was disappointed that it bore no relation to the old Atari Age magazine from days of yore (although that disappointment was tempered recently when high-res scans of every issue of the rag were added to the site’s extensive archives). But the breadth and depth of information on the site was simply mind-boggling, and I pored over it exhaustively for days on end.

And at last, the mystery was solved. Submarine Commander. The missing piece!

I just recently added Submarine Commander to my collection. Having finally picked up Steeplechase sometime in mid-2002 (along with a newer, intact picture label copy of Stellar Track), I can now say that my collection of the Sears exclusives — all three of them — is at last complete.

But, being a naturally inquisitive soul, as well as an über-geek who delights in irrelevant minutiae, some unanswered questions linger:

  • Why were these 3 games released in Sears stores only?
  • Did Sears have an agreement with Atari to produce “Sears exclusives?”
  • Did Atari think these 3 games were too weak to be released under their own label?
  • If they were so bad, why did they bother to release them at all?
  • Why didn’t Star Ship meet a similar fate?