Monday, August 30, 2010

Legends of pinball, vol. 3 (unedited)

Some people collect comic books, others collect vintage Coca-Cola merchandise.

If it can be collected, there's probably somebody out there collecting it. Pinball machines may take up a decent amount of space in a basement game room, but there have been plenty of people who have purchased an old machine or two throughout the history of pinball and played it over and over in their home.

With pinball on the decline in the 21st century, and fewer outlets for a line of machines, there are plenty of machines from the past two decades and beyond that are in need of a home, and plenty of collectors willing to welcome them into their home.

On behalf of home collectors everywhere, I nominate Brian as your legends of pinball representative.

Why Brian? He has the luxury of warehousing more than two dozen machines in his basement, or so I have been told. His is not the largest private collection of machines in Minnesota, that goes to a guy named Jason, who has more than twice as many machines and is internationally known for his collection.

Brian is my chosen representative because he has spearheaded a great public relations campaign for the game of pinball, a campaign that has required countless hours of effort and energy, and probably isn't earning him any significant money. Brian is the brains behind Pinball on a Stick, a pinball-only game room at the Minnesota State Fair.

For the second consecutive summer Brian has organized a room of about 30 machines, all well maintained and available to play for no more than 50 cents per game. Most of the machines are from his collection, but several other local pinball collectors contribute their time or loan a machine to the 12-day arcade at Minnesota's big, ridiculous state fair.

From what I know, most home collectors want to share their love of pinball and foster an appreciation, as well as support, for a dying art form. They stop short of opening their homes to the public, and understandably so, but Brian has gone to extraordinary measures to share his love of an endangered entertainment species with the unwashed masses at the Minnesota State Fair.

I have never met him, and as I noted, he couldn't do it alone, but in honor of all those who purchase and maintain pinball machines for future generations to appreciate in some way, shape or form, Brian is hereby crowned a legend.

Information about his state fair game room is available online: Pinball on a Stick

Friday, August 27, 2010

The great Minnesota sweat together (unedited)

John Hines, a longtime radio personality in the Twin Cities, used to refer to Minnesota's state fair as the great Minnesota sweat together. That's about right.

People flock to the fair, crowd streets, retail buildings, dining areas and everywhere else, for reasons I still can't comprehend. I am working at a retail booth in one of those sticky, nasty retail buildings for the fourth consecutive year. It's no picnic. Screaming at teenage girls within the confines of a haunted maze is much more entertaining, but you take what you can get.

A few things have changed near and around my booth.

The Canadians who use to set up a big display of fancy, expensive dishes are no longer present. I think they were husband and wife, and they had fancy table settings they'd sell. You didn't carry the dishes home with you, you merely ordered them at the fair. My boss tells me they were very expensive, and only slightly fancier than you could buy retail. I wondered how much they could make setting up shop at the fair for 12 days. I guess not enough, unless they moved to a new location and none of us have figured it out.

The new guy last year, selling fancy scenic inserts for the underside of your hot tub cover, is gone. You'd buy a sunset scene or something like that and slap it on the underside of your cover. When the cover was turned back off the tub, it was supposed to look like you're sitting on the beach with the sun setting over the ocean. They didn't seem very busy last year, so I doubt they've returned.

In their place is a guy with a harem of young chicks hawking genuine Austrian crystal jewelry. He has a couple of young chicks who like to wear short shorts when they work. Their legs aren't going to be insured by Lloyd's of London, but they're not hideous.

I don't know much about jewelry, but his jewelry -- a lot of pendants, evidently -- is all the same price, $17.95 for each piece. And if you buy two, you get one free, so you can get three pieces at $12 each. I don't know anything about Austrian crystal, but it can't be worth much if a dude can sell jewelry made from it for $12 per piece. That or he's lying about how genuine the crystal is. I wonder how many pieces he has to sell per day to make money during the 12-day fair. The fair would provide an intriguing economics study, if only I could find a textbook covering the subject.

It appears the lovely girls selling the fancy hair extensions and other hair services are gone, at least from our building. They were always entertaining to see.

Thus far we've been reasonably busy during the first two days of the fair. I did notice one change in shopping patterns this year, the crowds gathered around the Shamm-Wow booth aren't as big.

The Shamm-Wow guys in our building have been piggybacking on the name a guy named Vince has popularized on television. My guys have been there for several years, but two years ago they started calling their product Sham-Wow, noting it's as seen on TV. I seem to recall they used Vince's exact product name two years ago.

That changed last year as they added a second M to the name. Vince must have made a stink about using his name, which I would presume is trademarked.

The shammy guys did a brisk business three years ago, and it sure seemed to grow two years ago, thanks to Vince's presence on television. Last year's demand remained rather high.

This summer, however, the crowds seem to be down. I'm guessing that thanks to Vince, and the presence of his ShamWow in every Walgreens in America -- as well as other retail locations, I'm sure -- the market is over-saturated. It was a nice run, but like everything else, when you're hawking a hot product you'll soon find competitors stealing your thunder.

There may be fewer buyers, but there still appears to be plenty of rubes who feel the need, inexplicably, to vocally acknowledge Shamm-Wow when they see the booth, usually for the benefit of whomever is married, related or joined at the hip to the rube.

Shamm-Wow somehow continues to elicit a celebrity-like awe among rubes at the state fair. Today I saw a couple of people getting their picture with the local pitch man at the booth, and somebody else was shooting video of pitch guy in action.

I don't know who those people were, but if you look up "life, empty and meaningless" in the dictionary, you'll see them pictured.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

200 (unedited)

We love our round numbers, except when it comes to marathon running (26.2 miles), ounces in a gallon (128) and cases of beer (24). Why not 25 cans in a case, or just 20? (Yes, soda companies are selling 20-packs and then pricing them like cases... what a bargain, I never noticed I'm getting less for that sale price of $4.99.) keeps track of your entry total when you log into your main page. I noticed last week that I was going to pen blog entry 200. But rather than commemorate the insignificant milestone, I wrote what I intended to, another blog about a legend of pinball. Before penning chapter 3, I'll briefly reflect on the history of this blog, now that entry 200 is complete. I'm too tired to intelligently write legends chapter 3 tonight.

I started this blog in response to a blog I was reading religiously, a blog written by my good friend D Cup. I started the blog in the spring of 2007. Not long after that D Cup had to delete his blog, an unfortunate concession he had to make due to his employment with Associated Press. Such is life.

In the first year I blogged a lot, often noting about trivial topics of conversation among me, Rush and Chip, three baseball enthusiasts. I often wrote about Chip's delusions regarding his favorite baseball team, the Stinktown Brewers of Milwaukee. I also blogged about my bicycle efforts now and again. In retrospect it's mildly interesting for me to go back and read about some of the weekends I put forth a lot of effort, but within a year I was bored with penning stories about three-way phone conversations and weekend bicycle totals.

Thanks to being displaced due to fire, I didn't have home computer access for several months. I blogged occasionally from the local library, and perhaps the office once or twice, but my frequency diminished.

I have created a few blog stunts during the past three years. I blogged seven nights in a row, reflecting on my life as I saw it at that time, with no editing other than a simple spell check.

I attempted to blog 40 nights in a row, and made it more than half way before I finally blew it. I think I managed 36 blog entries in 40 nights.

One weekend I attempted to write several entries -- short, long, meaningful or insignificant -- and found the end result was a bit lackluster.

I've occasionally posted things I have written in response to other blogs, and I copied and pasted interesting comments exchanged via Facebook, with my own commentary in response.

I've started to write multi-entry series, such as three blogs pondering if Minnesota Twins poster child Joe Mauer is gay, and why people care. It took me four entries earlier this year to write about my squeaker convention. And soon I'll pen my third chapter in the legends of pinball series.

I am the most prolific BulletBoys blogger in the universe, I have to be. I didn't set out to claim the title, but I've found myself revisiting previous BulletBoys blog entries thanks in part to unexpected comments those blogs have generated. I wish that happened more often.

Too often I've written introspective blogs. I don't set out to do that, it just happens. I guess it's a form of therapy. Knowing almost nobody reads my blogs, and the few friends I have shared the blog with no longer seem to read it, it's probably easier to do.

Although blogger says I have written 200 blog entries, one remains unfinished nearly three years later, so you could argue I haven't written 200.

Occasionally I have written blog entries that I don't wholly agree with, or I've pretended to be more opinionated on a subject than I really am. It's easy to do when your name is not attached to your blog. That's the same rationale I have used to post comments on random blogs I check out now and again. I post blog comments elsewhere occasionally simply to stir other pots.

So here I am, 200 entries later. I'd like to think I put more effort into my blog posts, and that comes at the expense of quantity. I'm still conflicted about how much I'd like to promote my effort, and whether I'd prefer to write an anonymous blog or put my name to a blog for all my Facebook acquaintances.

Blogs are a dime a million, and I'm not convinced mine is worth an entire dime, but I'm glad this blog has occupied my time the past few years. Perhaps there will be a blog entry 400. If so, I'll try to commemorate it, and how my blog has evolved since today.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Legends of pinball, vol. 2 (unedited)

There are a few places in the Twin Cities that have a decent selection of pinball machines. One of them is run by Lloyd.

Lloyd's business, SS Billiards, is a fixture in Hopkins, Minn. It has been in the same generic little strip mall for nearly four decades. From what I've learned, Lloyd's family has long been in the arcade business, and Lloyd took over SS many years ago.

Lloyd survives in an era when most arcades can't for a few simple reasons.

One, he has no employees. He's there all day, every day, running the business. The guy doesn't take a day off, with the exception of a few holidays during the year. It's not demanding work most of the time, but it demands a lot of his time in order to make a buck or two at the end of the month.

Two, he has pool tables. Video games were huge in the early 1980s, but many arcades closed by the late 1980s, as home video game systems were already taking a bite out of the coin-operated industry, and this was long before today's highly sophisticated games were even imagined. There are still video games being manufactured for arcades, but arcades aren't the same. There are fewer of them, and nobody wants to play a game of Pac-Man for 15 minutes. Now you sit in a race car or on a motorcycle and race against five other people simultaneously. Or you're trying to hit the green with a 9 iron or shoot a buck. There are still video game experiences you can't replicate in the home, but there are plenty of home video game experiences you can't get at an arcade. In the 1980s, video games trumped anything you could play at home. The improvements and affordability of sophisticated game systems killed the video game industry.

The point of all that is that Lloyd has always had pool tables. Many people own pool tables, but plenty more don't, and those who like to play pool can play all sorts of video versions of it, but none of them replace the real thing. SS doesn't have pool leagues, just a few tables and hourly rates, but billiards is a game that has survived evolutions in entertainment, and likely provided a consistent source of customers for Lloyd.

Three, he has been committed to pinball. There was a time when SS had Foosball tables, and there are a couple of video machines inside his building at this moment, but Lloyd has long been committed to providing an outlet for pinball. Pinball enjoyed a resurgence in the early 1990s, but has again fallen on hard times. The machines are more complex than their predecessors, and video simulations will never replicate the experience of guiding a silver ball up ramps and at targets. The economy is making it tough on the pinball industry -- only one manufacturer remains -- but it's a pastime that lacks a viable substitute in your home. (More about this forthcoming in vol. 3.)

Pinball is quickly becoming an old man's game. Sure, young kids who enjoy video games are likely to be fascinated by the sophisticated game play of the new Iron Man pinball machine that came out this spring, but with fewer outlets for pinball, what are the odds an 8-year-old child is ever going to see an Iron Man machine? Unless they happen to have one at Chuck E. Cheese's or Dave & Buster's (I have no idea if either of those businesses have pinball machines), a kid is never going to even know Iron Man pinball exists. As Tim, the proprietor of the pinball museum likes to say, his patrons are primarily old farts.

The lack of machines and outlets for today's youth is bad news for a business like Lloyd's, but despite the odds against a business that isn't going to collect much more than a few dollars per hour from the pockets of each customer that walks through the door, he's keeping a dying industry alive in 2010.

No surprise, information about SS Billiards is available online.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Legends of pinball, vol. 1

There aren't many people I know of that I can call a legend of pinball, but there are a few I am familiar with for one reason or another. One of them is Tim, the proprietor of the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.

I'm not sure when I first learned of Tim's pinball museum, but it was sometime before January 2007.

I read about the museum somewhere and instantly became fascinated with a working pinball arcade that features machines from the past and present. I visited the museum for barely an hour in January 2007, and loved it. The museum looked like little more than a strip mall arcade. And that's really all it was. It was a jam packed arcade with dozens of pinball machines spanning several decades and a couple dozen video games from the 1980s.

I didn't get a chance to visit the museum again until November 2009. It was during that first week of November that the museum moved to a new, larger location. The new location promises space for up to 400 machines. I've been there twice in the past five months, and it's still a work in progress. The museum is still not filled to capacity with working machines.

It will take time, but there's no doubt the museum will eventually be filled to capacity, mostly with vintage pinball machines.

The museum is Tim's pet project. If I recall correctly, Tim made pretty good money in the arcade business back in the 1980s. He sold out while there was something left of his business at the end of the '80s and retired at a relatively young age. He moved to Las Vegas, taking with him hundreds of old pinball machines that he had collected and kept.

In Nevada he started hosting a game night in some sort of outbuilding he had for warehousing his pinball machines. When his game nights outgrew the outbuilding, a working museum was the next logical step.

The museum is operated as a nonprofit entity. Being nonprofit doesn't mean people working for the organization can't draw a salary, but I've never had any indication Tim cashes a paycheck for the many hours he works each month keeping the museum operational. The museum is not run like an arcade. There are no tokens, there is no concession stand, you won't win any prizes by trading in tickets won on a Deal or No Deal video game.

Even if Tim does cut himself a salary, it can't be much, because at 25 cents to $1 per game, the museum can't generate a ton of cash in any given month after paying the rent and utility costs. Yet the museum periodically donates profits to charity.

Tim is often at the museum, repairing one of the many machines in his inventory. He has a little of everything to choose from, from classic electromechanical machines to the latest solid state offerings. Nowadays there's just one pinball manufacturer: Stern. I can't promise every Stern machine of the past 10 years is at the museum, but it sure seems like it.

There are plenty of pinball machines from the 1950s and 1960s at the museum, most of which have rather generic themes. In the 21st century pinball machines have to be based on something people are familiar with, such as television shows or movies. There are machines based upon Family Guy, 24, Wheel of Fortune and World Poker Tour. Movies represented via pinball include the Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises. And there are other machines based on commercial entities, such as the NBA, NASCAR, Monopoly and even Big Buck Hunter, one of the few successful arcade cabinets of the 21st century.

In the old days pinball themes revolved around simplistic ideas, such as bowling, carnivals, billiards or card games. And you will find plenty of those rather simplistic games at the museum.

There are several unique pinball machines to be found at the museum. There's a classic game that has rotating cars on an oval race track inside the backbox. The backbox is the top of the machine that typically displays scores, and as you hit targets on the machine's playfield, it advances the cars on the track.

There's a modern machine that has a vertical playfield in the backbox. There's also a machine that features head-to-head competition where players stand at either end of the machine, similar in fashion to playing air hockey.

One of my favorite machines at the museum, one you won't find anywhere else, is Pinball Circus, a prototype developed in the late 1980s. It was a pinball game designed inside a cabinet similar in size and shape to a Donkey Kong or Pac-Man machine. It was pinball's answer to the arcade game, but it was shelved instead of being produced for the arcade industry. Despite that, it's available for play at the museum for a buck a game.

The new location still has video games of the 1980s, as well as a few odd coin-operated devices of yesteryear that don't fall under the umbrella of pinball or video game. It's quite a collection Tim has assembled and maintained, and there are plenty more where they came from, which I find amazing.

The museum doesn't have tour guides or informational kiosks, but some of the machines have cards with tidbits and trivia about them. Others have that fancy code you can scan with your fancy phone. Doing so will call up information about the machine via your wireless device, a device that was once impressive simply for being able to complete phone calls without a cord.

I spent more than two hours at the museum last month, with three machines occupying most of my time. I spent less than $10 during my time there, which is almost a crime. I should be paying a lot more than that for entertainment in Vegas, entertainment I can't get anywhere else in the world. (Other than some DVD that has been produced, there isn't any merchandise you can buy to support the museum. It definitely needs something to sell as a souvenir.)

Tim was recently interviewed for a podcast, and during it he noted he had recently been treated for a health issue. He's fine, and back to work, but it reminded me that without Tim, there is no museum. If Tim dies tomorrow, is there anyone who will put hours of effort into maintaining pinball machines on an ongoing basis, for no pay? I've said this more than once: if Tim had to pay his bills and make a living operating the museum, he wouldn't. If he couldn't afford to donate his time, the museum wouldn't exist.

The Pinball Hall of Fame is the one thing on my must-do list every time I go to Vegas, and I hope it's something I am able to enjoy for decades to come.

There is plenty of information about the museum online, including two different pages on Facebook, an unofficial blog that hasn't been updated in two months, a brief Wikipedia page and two websites dedicated to the museum. The one that seems to be most official is this one:

Monday, August 9, 2010

No. 10 (unedited)

I'm getting old.

It's getting harder to convince myself with each passing year that I want to bicycle 100 miles in a day. But on Saturday, Aug. 6, I did it for the 10th time. This year's century ride was the Tour de Tonka, a one-day ride started in 2006.

This was my fourth Tour de Tonka, and it was the first time the tour offered a 100-mile route. If I wasn't going to bicycle 100 miles, my next option was 65 miles. That's a lot in any given day, and a feat I've accomplished twice this summer, on consecutive days in June during the MS150. I'm not exactly pushing myself when it comes to distance rides this summer.

I didn't pre-register for TdT because there was a chance I was going to go out of town for the weekend. Once I realized I wasn't going anywhere this past weekend I started watching the weather forecast. If it was rainy on Saturday, I wasn't going to bother to show up.

The last obstacle to participating in the ride was getting up on a Saturday morning in time to make the 7:30 a.m. shotgun start.

Despite a forecast of passing showers during the day, I got up in time to venture five miles to the starting line.

It was cloudy, and appeared that rain was imminent at the start of the 100-mile ride. I still wasn't convinced I wanted to bike the 100-mile route, but I also knew the odds of me biking a century this year were slim if I didn't do it during TdT.

It started raining by the first rest stop, 15 miles into the ride. The 15-mile mark is also the split for the 65- and 100-mile routes, so if I was going to wimp out, I had to do it then and there. I couldn't pull the trigger. Despite the fact I knew I'd get soaked, I pushed ahead with the 100-mile route, bypassing the first rest stop completely.

I took my first break at rest stop 2, in Delano. It was 30 miles into the ride. It was raining, I was soaked, but it was time to refill my water bottles and enjoy snacks. I was worried the rain was increasing and would force me to wait it out at the rest stop, but any perceived or real increase in precipitation didn't last long.

The remainder of the ride consisted of segments less than 20 miles. I bypassed the first rest stop, but I stopped at the next three, which were 16-19 miles apart.

By the time I hit rest stop 3 my hands were like prunes from being so wet. I noticed two things in the final minutes before that stop. The wind had definitely picked up, and the skies were clearing to the west.

It wasn't long before the sun was shining upon me as I embarked on the second half of the route. The wind was a bit challenging, but it was coming from the south, and the route had plenty of easterly and northerly segments to offset the challenge posted by southerly segments.

The forecast was for a hot afternoon, and the weather terrorists didn't lie. It hit the upper 80s by late afternoon. I wasn't a lobster, but my arms did burn slightly. I would have preferred the rainy weather for the rest of the day.

The final 25-30 miles featured more rolling hills, making the route a bit more challenging. The final rest stop was about 12 miles from the finish, although the route map said it was 14. I struggled to pedal up a few hills, but none were too tough for me to tackle.

My average speed was 14.8 mph. On an ideal day I'm not sure how much better it would have been, but there's no question the rain and then heat slowed me down a bit.

I finished about eight hours after the start of the ride, which is about average for me, including breaks, on a century ride. Unfortunately my bike computer said I was at 97.6 miles at the finish line, and being obsessive about reaching 100 miles, I biked a final 2.4 miles when I got home.

This is the seventh consecutive year I've biked a century. Part of the reason I attempt to complete one each year is to prove that I still can. Physically it's a challenge. I don't treat my body like a temple. I don't worry about analyzing my carbohydrate, electrolyte and dolomite intake to ensure maximum performance on the road each day. I don't spend thousands of dollars on fancy bicycling gear and Spandex.

But more than the physical challenge each year, a century is a mental challenge. I'm not programmed to feed off of the adrenaline rush from extreme feats of endurance. I was never worried I couldn't finish the TdT, I had a hard time convincing myself I wanted to. It's a hurdle I will always struggle to clear.