Happiest moment of the 90s: Burn a disc!


Buzzfeed recently pegged something that I had entirely forgotten about: The moment when we learned that due to amazing new advances in technology, we (the unwashed public) would now be able to burn our own CDs. 

Now, the caveat - at least at the beginning - was that this only applied to the Sony MiniDiscs. Which required you to buy a Sony MiniDisc player. Sony may have called this "the biggest step yet in personal music entertainment," but for the millions and millions of people who did not own a MiniDisc player (and had no interest in buying one), it was only half-hearted good news.
I remember reading about this fancy new technology and being pretty excited, until I realized that it was only for Sony MiniDiscs. "Well," I remember thinking, "I guess this means that maybe we will be able to record on regular CDs soon." And lo, with the ever-forward march of technology, that ability was eventually granted to the regular public. Eventually.
In 1990 you could record your own CD, but you had to own a "washing machine-sized" piece of specialized equipment to do so, and it would set you back about $35,000 "not including the required external ECC circuitry for data encoding." By 1995 HP had brought the size and cost down, offering the first CD burner that cost less than $1,000. But it was still a rarefied technology, and us regular schlubs were still using either floppy disks or single-purpose devices like Zip drives to store our data.
Crazy as it sounds, it wasn't until the late 1990s that CD burners became commonplace. Like many people, my first CD burner was an external device about the size of a thick hardback book. It destroyed about as many discs as it burned, with a successful burn rate of around 50 percent.
These were the days when, through whatever strange voodoo, sometimes when you burned a disc you ruined it instead. You always had to check your disc after burning it to make sure it was readable. I still don't know if it was the fault of the cobbled-together hardware, the glitch-ridden software, or the new-to-mass-manufacture CD-Rs themselves.
Those were the days when you had to specify which kind of CD you wanted to buy. CD-R or CD-RW? The RWs cost twice as much, which was frustrating when you (inevitably) ruined them in the rewrite. 
It's funny to think how far we have moved past those days, and how quickly we did so!

TV of the 90s: Unsolved Mysteries

Can you picture Robert Stack NOT in a trench coat?

Although the ratings juggernaut Unsolved Mysteries technically debuted in 1987 and lasted until 2001, it was at its peak in the 90s. For the decade of the 90s, it seemed like at any given moment you could catch an Unsolved Mysteries rerun somewhere on cable television.

Unsolved Mysteries began as a way to bring "milk carton kids" to life. In the 80s, pictures of missing children were put on the backs of milk cartons. Frankly, this wasn't too successful. The producers of Unsolved Mysteries realized that they could hit the sweet spot between "lurid entertainment" and "sanctimonious do-gooder-ism" with their winning formula in which a crime was lovingly recreated, and then the audience was urged to phone a tipline if they had information that could solve the case.
(The show's official website claims that "More than 50 percent of the wanted fugitives profiled on Unsolved Mysteries have been captured - most as a result of tips from our viewers." I have my doubts about that claim, but I'll let it slide.)
Robert Stack quickly became known as "the Unsolved Mysteries" guy. I doubt there is any American who lived through the 90s who doesn't picture Robert Stack in a trench coat and fedora. 
Sociologists often talk about America's "Culture of Fear" but I don't think Unsolved Mysteries has ever been properly credited for its role in perpetuating this problem. Unsolved Mysteries pointed out that literally nowhere is safe. It told the stories of people who were abducted from their homes, murdered in grocery store parking lots, shot while they drove home from work, knifed at the post office. The show had a tone of grinding dread, from its eerie theme song to the ever-present fog effects during Robert Stack's intro segments.
At one point I had spent so much time watching Unsolved Mysteries re-runs that I started to hear Stack's narration in my head as I went about my daily life. As I left my apartment to go to the store I might think, "She was last seen leaving her apartment in jeans and a black T-shirt. Sources believe she was heading to the grocery store." As I left the store I might think, "She was last seen leaving the grocery store in jeans and a black T-shirt, presumably on her way home with the groceries." It was a disturbing experience to say the least, and once I realized what was happening, I immediately stopped watching the show.

Wonderful vintage 1995 AOL commercial

"You know, I can even send e-mail on the Internet!"

Here is a riddle for you. Let's say it's 1995. You want to go online to the Internet that you have been hearing so much about. You have a computer, and you bought a slick new 26k modem. Now what? How do you get on the Internet if you don't have the Internet?


In 1995 the answer was, you wait until this commercial comes on TV and then you call the 800 number. You gave them your shipping information, and they mailed you a disk and in two weeks the disk arrived and you installed it on your computer and THEN you could go online.
(Well, you could go on AOL. Which wasn't the internet, per se. It was a walled garden, and a lot of people never really understood the difference.)
This was in the relatively early days of AOL, before they started shotgunning their disks (and later CDs) to every single human being in the United States. A move which would eventually land them on the wrong side of a class action lawsuit.
But that lawsuit was still well in the future when they aired this ad, which apparently stars two football players? Maybe baseball players. I don't know, and they never refer to each other by name. Or maybe they did, but I was too hypnotized by their super high-waisted jeans. Hard to say.
Let me give you a little tip: Your friends won't be amazed and grateful when you show them how easily you can improve their primitive lives with your clever new gadget. They will be annoyed, bitter and secretly jealous, and resent you forever.
I also love that the guys printed out information on "dinosaurs." Because the one guy's son needed to go to the library to research "dinosaurs." Why not just print it all out instead, using your giant bubble jet printer? Just print out the section of the Internet on "dinosaurs" and boom, you're done.
"Of course there's always my personal favorite, live chat. That's how I met my new kayaking buddies."
LOLRIGHT. Unless "kayaking" was slang for some deviant sex practice favored by middle aged guys cheating on their wives. We all know what people did with live chat in the mid 90s. AOL pitched itself as a family friendly walled garden, but dang some of those chat rooms got raunchy. Or so I have heard.

Symbols of the 90s: The Aeron Chair

Sleek, bizarre and expensive - The dot-com boom in a nutshell!

Slate has a great profile about the design and manufacturing history of the Aeron chair. I have to confess, I had never considered the chair's origins before. For one thing, I always assumed that Herman Miller had designed it. (Isn't that why they called it the "Herman Miller Aeron Chair"?)

I can't think about Aeron chairs without thinking about the dot-com boom of the 90s. When they first arrived on the scene, Aeron chairs looked so bizarre compared to normal office chairs. They looked like UFOs landing in a parking lot full of sedans and minivans. Black, sleek, and made with non-intuitive fabrics. There was no plush, for one thing, just plastic mesh. And yet, people swore they were the most comfortable chairs in the world.
The whole thing was counter-intuitive and genre-breaking and - if you will forgive a bit of 20teens vocabulary - "disruptive." It seemed to encapsulate the rise of the internet, and the counter-intuitive tsunami of dot-com success that swept us all up in its grip. 

And of course, the Aeron was ridiculously expensive. A thousand dollars for an office chair? Their price, in concert with their sleek design and elite brand name, made them an object of lust. If you were an elite employee working for a dot-com start up, you knew you had made it when they gave you an Aeron chair.
Gossip among my coworkers frequently hinged on who had left for which company, and whether or not they got Aerons. The Aeron became a symbol for 90s success, as much as wacky slides in office environments, conference rooms kitted out with beanbag chairs, razor scooters, and Segways.
Then of course after the dot-com boom, you could find barely used Aerons on the market for pennies on the dollar. I remember hearing about a friend of a friend who bought an entire cargo container of Aerons at auction for a song. He resold them on Craigslist for several hundred dollars apiece and made thousands on the deal. 
And of course, every news article about the dot-com bust had to feature an empty Aeron chair. Ideally in some abandoned location, like a parking lot, or lying on the floor beside a pile of discarded wires. The Aeron became the symbol of the dot-com crash as easily as it was the symbol of the 90s dot-com bubble.
These days you can buy a knockoff Aeron chair for about fifty bucks at Ikea or Office Depot. No one is going to be fooled by your fake Aeron, but I have to admit, the plastic mesh really is nicely breathable compared to the traditional foam-and-fabric office chair.

90s style: Big boots and floral-print dresses

When will this signature look return?

This look was probably made most famous by Bridget Fonda in the movie "Singles." But I can actually remember the exact moment when I became aware of this fashion statement. It was 1993, and I was watching "Warlock 2: The Armageddon" in the movie theater, and I kept getting distracted from the plot (what little there was of it) by the heroine's outfit. 

Paula Marshall was clad in a lightweight floral print dress, paired with a big ol' pair of black military boots. The dress was the sort you might see Elaine Benes wearing in Seinfeld, albeit without the white pie collar. The boots belonged to either a construction worker or a punk rock singer. Together they made a pairing that was either inspired or horrifying, depending on the situation. 
Chalk it up to the early fumblings of the new wave of "Girl Power" feminism. Women were feeling their way through a world where it was okay to wear lipstick if you wanted, and it was okay to wear combat boots if you wanted. And heck, maybe you wanted to wear both. 

This outfit was the stylistic equivalent of a mullet. Business on the top; rockin' at the feet. The dress had to be demure, and it had to be floral print. I remember seeing women trying this look in dresses that were striped or polka dotted, but it just didn't work. 
The floral print dress had carried forward from the Laura Ashley trend that was so huge in the '80s. Laura Ashley prints morphed into boho/shabby chic in the '90s. And on the other hand you have combat boots and Doc Martens, which started with the new wave/punk scene of the '80s and carried forward to the grunge scene of the '90s.
But why people saw fit to "cross the streams," I couldn't say. But I am embarrassed to admit, I did it too. In my case, it was an attempt to game the system of the extremely restrictive dress code at my workplace of the time. I thought it was a cheeky look, like Tank Girl meets the Spice Girls. In hindsight, it was simply regrettable.
One thing I will say for this look, though: it was extremely comfortable. The floral print dress is always loosely fitted, which hides a multitude of body issues. And the boots are great for walking, standing, and dealing with inclement weather. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a practical style, but I wouldn't be surprised if it came back some day.

Happy 20th anniversary, "Sneakers"!

My voice is my passport; verify me.
I find it difficult to believe it has been 20 years since Sneakers was released, and yet Slate's lengthy coverage of the movie makes it clear that this is so. In late summer 1992 this sly little movie made its debut. Released three years before Hackers, Sneakers was not only more prescient, it was also a better movie all around. Even though both movies went on to become cult favorites, it's an interesting exercise in futurism to compare and contrast the two.
Both Sneakers and Hackers (and the cyberpunk movement as a whole) were working from the same playbook. These concepts, that pervasive technology would be turned against "the little guy" by greedy corporations, are core to the cyberpunk genre. But what Sneakers brings to the table is, like, not being a freak about it.
What Sneakers lacks compared to other movies of the genre is that post-punk attitude which was old about five minutes after it hit the screen. So much youthful posturing! I cringe to think about it. 
Nobody in Sneakers wears a motocross jacket, or has an asymmetrical razor cut. The characters are regular people, albeit very smart regular people with an unorthodox job. 
There is only one character in Sneakers who talks in big pretentious generalities, and it's no mistake that he (Ben Kingsley) is the bad guy.
Sneakers is very clear about not taking itself too seriously. How refreshing, for a genre that basically specialized in taking itself too seriously. Sneakers is not a comedy in the sense of "Adam Sandler in a funny voice." But it is a funny movie, with a lightness of spirit that makes it immensely watchable. 
Sneakers is also a smart movie, in a way that most cyberpunk capers are not. The story's momentum is carried along by puzzles which must be solved. From the anagrams (Setec Astronomy) to reverse engineering the path Robert Redford took to the bad guy's lair based on the sounds he heard from inside the trunk of the car. Sneakers moves forward because its characters are clever. 
(One of the stranger things about this movie is that, over the last 20 years, it has become clear that Dan Aykroyd was essentially playing himself. We all chuckled when Aykroyd's character went off on a long paranoid tangent about various interconnected conspiracy theories. But the man is literally out in the field researching UFO footage and claiming that aliens were responsible for 9/11.)

Twin Peaks/Fire Walk With Me

The 90s giveth and the 90s taketh away.

The 90s giveth, and the 90s taketh away. Twin Peaks ushered in the 90s, premiering in April of 1990. I won't pretend to be a hipster who was on to the show from the beginning: by the time I heard about it, enough episodes had passed that I was completely lost when I tried to watch it. It wasn't until the episodes came out on VHS in the mid 90s that I was finally able to sit down and watch them all.

Twin Peaks set the stage for so many shows and movies to follow. I doubt there would have been an X-Files without a Twin Peaks. When The X-Files debuted, it was pretty clear (to me at least) that Mulder was a direct descendent of Agent Cooper. The short dark hair; the interest in the occult.  
I also doubt there would have been a Lost without a fan base of people who cut their teeth on Twin Peaks, and who yearned for that long form storytelling of a very strange story. Twin Peaks certainly was that. The show was so ground-breaking, so mind-meltingly strange, that its effects are still felt now, more than 20 years later. You can still make a "backwards-talking dwarf" reference, and people will laugh.

But the 90s also brought Fire Walk With Me, the movie prequel which was widely considered one of Lynch's worst works. It infuriated and baffled fans of the show, fans of David Lynch, and filmgoers everywhere. I watched the movie twice, then gave it up as an historical oddity. 
I was kind, in that. Many people felt that, between the final year of the show (when it had been abandoned by everyone who cared about it, and the production was visibly flailing) and this movie, many Twin Peaks fans were outraged. I mean, out of everything in the whole entire show, the only thing the prequel really explains and demystifies is the darned traffic light. How could you not be infuriated?
But superfan Alex Pappademas kept watching, and 20-some years later he has written what is clearly the user notes that the movie needed all along. After reading Pappademas' extensive, thoughtful, and thought-provoking guide, I feel the strange urge to watch it again. (Another confession: I bought the DVD almost a decade ago on sale at Best Buy. It sat, unwrapped, on my shelves until I sold it at a used bookstore - still wrapped - three years ago.)

Friends: Champion of the '90s

Even beyond "The Rachael," this show ruled the '90s.

Of all the cultural touchstones of the '90s, surely few loom as large as the NBC juggernaut that was the sitcom Friends. It's hard to believe that Friends didn't debut until the fall season of 1994; the show is so inextricably entwined with my memories of the '90s that it seems like it must have been there all along.

It's fashionable to hate on Friends, and certainly understandable. Familiarity breeds contempt, after all, and the show has been in constant re-runs ever since it was canceled in 2004. On my current cable line-up, I have at least three opportunities to watch Friends every day, on three different channels.
But as easy as it is to mock Friends, to dismiss it as mass-market crap, I'm telling you: it's a pretty good show. I have yet to watch an episode that didn't make me laugh at least once. Which is more than I can say for most sitcoms, either then or now.

Sure, the kids had ridiculously large apartments. Sure, we're all tired of "the Rachael" haircut. (Even Jennifer Aniston is tired of it. Turns out, she hated it all along.) Sure, its earliest episodes have a surprising emphasis on high-waisted pants, and Rachael occasionally wore overalls as a fashion statement. But there's a lot to like about the show, too.
One of the things I particularly appreciate about Friends is the way in which it let its characters evolve. Each major character, for example, follows a fairly complex career path. You can triangulate any given episode on the chronology by figuring out which job any three characters are working at the time. 
This career progression is not only true to life (especially the lives of 20-somethings), it's also a surprisingly sophisticated and complex narrative structure for a sitcom. Compare it to any other long-running sitcom (Frasier, Cheers, and MASH all spring to mind). Their characters are stuck in a rut.
The same is true of their romantic entanglements. The eponymous friends become involved with one another, with other people, develop crushes, break up, have fights, and endlessly remix their love lives. Again, this is not the kind of thing you see in most shows. Even setting aside the Rachael/Ross thing, think of the long list of lovers lost (and in some cases found and then lost again) over the course of the series: Rachael and Paolo, Chandler and Janice, Monica and Richard, Chandler and one of Joey's sisters. Not to mention the time Phoebe developed a crush on Monica and Ross's father.
In its style, humor and snappy dialogue, Friends was truly the ruler of the '90s.

Grunge fonts

Dirty typewriter fonts said "real writing" the way that Verdana simply could not.

This great article at The Awl tracks "The Rise and Fall of Grunge Typography," bringing with it a sweet hit of nostalgia for the 1990s. In the 90s, grunge fonts reigned supreme. It was the same factor that drove grunge music: that sense that the uglier and dirtier something was, the more authentic it was. Sort of a garage band, "power to the people" kind of movement. 

Grunge fonts were everywhere in the 90s, and I think there is another factor that drove this trend: people were getting increasingly uncomfortable with the transition to digital. I know that I, along with a lot of other people, specifically chose a dirty typewriter font because I felt like it hearkened back to the roots of real writing. 
Something about the rise of the internet made me, in some way, yearn for the experience of reading letters that had been literally struck upon paper with an inky bit of metal shaped like a letter. By this logic, dirty typewriter fonts said "real writing" the way that Verdana simply could not. 
It helped that The X-Files used a dirty typewriter font for its logo, thus adding the imprimatur  of cool pop culture.

Dirty fonts were deliberately so, the way that people were also taking MP3s and adding "warmth" to them. You could add a whole bevy of clicks, pops, and hiss to a digital file to make it sound just like a record. There are still people who will argue that a record simply sounds better. They are probably right. But it's like arguing that riding a horse is better than driving a car. It may be true, but it is just not going to happen. How is a person supposed to carry a record player with them when they go jogging?
Distressing a font made it seem more real, as if it had been painted by hand, or photocopied a billion times. It made a thing created inside the computer seem aged and weathered, gave it that personal touch. It also made things look deliberately amateur in a very studied fashion. Amateur was cool: it was (there's that word again) authentic. It was zines and hand-written signs tacked up against light posts, and the punk revolution and all.
Many grunge fonts also referenced street art, stencils and spray paint and the rise of urban culture. This too was very carefully designed to look amateurish and messy, as if the cops were on their way so you had to finish spray painting your album art before they got here.
Ah the '90s; I wonder what horrible font fashions the future will bring?

90s Nostalgia: The word "baud"

The 28.8k baud modem was released in 1994, and it cost a small fortune.

This morning I was perusing the annual Mindset List, published by Beloit College every year about their incoming freshman class. I got tripped up by number 6: "Their lives have been measured in the fundamental particles of life: bits, bytes, and bauds."

The list is constructed to make people feel old. It is about life from the perspective of an 18 year old, who (for this list) would have been born in 1994. So I can already tell you, some old person wrote this list, because what 18 year old has even a passing familiarity with bits, bytes, OR bauds? But of the three, "baud" is surely the most unfamiliar to this year's college freshmen.
Now it is true that the word "baud" got thrown around a lot in the mid 90s. But unless this year's college freshmen were connecting to AOL when they were toddlers, they would never have noticed. "Baud" was the measure of the day, in a way that really has no direct contemporary counterpart. The closest comparison I can think of is iPad and iPhone generations.

Every single person who wanted to get online in the 90s had to have a modem. And modems came in only one flavor at a time. The faster the modem, the faster you were able to download your newsgroup postings or clunky, chunky bitmaps supposedly of nude celebrities. (I was recently talking to a friend who reminisced about how obsessed everyone was with these celebrity nudes, and how clumsily inept they look today.)
At the dawn of the 90s, modem speeds had already broken the four-digit barrier, making the leap from 9600 baud to 14.4k baud in 1991. The 28.8k baud modem was released in 1994, and it cost a small fortune. Two years later the 33.6k baud modem was released at the bleeding edge, and the price of the 28.8k modem dropped to a reasonable level. 
The 56k modem came out at the end of the 90s, in 1998. By that point high-speed internet (in the form of DSL, cable, and ISDN) was already making strong inroads into American homes. In 2004, when this year's freshmen were 10, basically you were either talking about high speed megabits per second (MBPS) or you just had "dial-up." Everyone on dial-up was at the same speed (56k) and no one talked bauds anymore. 
To this year's college freshmen, a "modem" is the thing that your cable internet passes through. Network cards have been the currency of the internet since they were very young, and one-upsmanship based on baud rates is an experience relegated to us old people.