April 2013 Archives
Saw this car on I-5 in the LA area on a recent trip.
Best use of those ubiquitous Apple stickers I've seen yet.
Forgot about this photo I took of a February 2013 issue of The New Yorker that arrived in a US Postal Service plastic bag marked with a "WE CARE" message (I am reminded of the "Let Us Try" motto of the Corps of Engineers). "We sincerely regret the damage to your mail during handling by the Postal Service," the message began.
Damage? Oh yes. A good third of the front of the magazine was turn up, in the upper left hand corner. The funny thing is, the actual cover of this issue depicts a skiier who's "tearing up" the snow, which happens to be the cover, revealing pages within! It's as if USPS looked at that and said, "we can do better." They sure did. Thanks, USPS!
Noticed this BoingBoing artlcle today entitled "Writer Clive Thompson describes his work routine" which quoted a Lifehacker article on Thompson entitled "I'm Clive Thompson, and This Is How I Work" which among other questions and answers contained an answer to the question "What apps/software/tools can't you live without?"
Clive's answer was interesting and got me thinking about how I'm writing my book on the history of the PLATO system. At first glance, his answers made what for him I'm sure is a lot of sense, but as I thought about it more, I thought how much I have tried to avoid getting stuck with any particular tool.
I'm a pack rat when it comes to research. I like to save everything, because you never know when it'll be useful. I write primarily long-form magazine pieces and books, each of which takes months to report and sometimes years to gestate, so I often find myself realizing an interview or study I encountered three years earlier is suddently useful now. So I lean heavily on tools for finding and saving everything.
No disagreement there. I too am a packrat and have vacuumed up every shred of information I could get my hands on since 1985. Yes, my book project has been going on a while. I've got interviews I did in 1986, 1987 that form the basis for much of the book. For instance, I interviewed B.F. Skinner in 1987, at his office in the Psych dept of Harvard University. That interview has become vital to my whole project, and forms the basis of the first chapter of my book.
For face-to-face interviews, I use a Livescribe pen, which is invaluable even though the software is kind of creaky. I use Skype out for most of my phone interviews, and Call Recorder to save those files. I have a Scrivener database for my research—whenever I read anything interesting, I make a note about it and paste in any relevant passages. The note-writing is a crucial part of the task for me, because it requires me to slow down and make sense of what I’m reading, instead of just blindly clipping and saving everything. I also use DEVONthink to mirror a lot of my Scrivener notes and store the full text of the thousands of scientific papers and articles I’ve read and found worth saving.
And this is the crux of it for me. I looked at Scrivener and while it's nice and all, I don't trust it. And Livescribe is cool indeed, but I kinda don't trust that either. As for Skype, never done an interview with it yet, and for this book I've done 500+ interviews.
For interviews, I use two recording devices if I am on the road, an Olympus digital recorder and my iPhone's recording app, and if I am at the office doing a phone interview, I use those two plus I set AudioHijack to record right from the Mac's built-in mic to pick up the phone conversation. I save the files as WAV or MP3.
For notes, documents, interview transcripts, scans, images, everything under the sun, I use . . . the operating system's filesystem, MacOS X. Period. I put the raw files into folders and sub-folders. Then I take the contents of the text files and the PDFs and I drop 'em in the appropriate "slush" files, of which there is one per chapter, using Omni Group's OmniOutliner Pro software, which spews out .oo3 files which are essentially .rtf files. These "slush" files form the basis of each chapter. They're a mix of outline, notes, and found material. I then use -- reluctantly -- Microsoft Word for the book manuscript.
For interview transcript creation, I use Transcrivia and then promptly export to .rtf format when a transcript is finished.
If there's an underlying rule here, it is this: save stuff in the simplest, most basic file format possible for the media type. ASCII text, followed by Rich Text Format (.rtf), followed by PDF, when necessary, Microsoft Word format. Everything else is just left raw in the file folders.
Why am I so weird about file formats? Well, consider this. When I started doing research for this book project, the IBM AT was the machine to have for PC folks, and the Macintosh SE had just come out. DOS was at version 2.0. The 286 chip was considered all the rage, and all the cool kids used Borland programming tools. WordPerfect was the ruler in word processing software. There was no web. No PDF or MP3 formats. Everything was still emerging in 1985. When the NeXT computer came out, I moved my project to that platform, and that is when I ran into the WordPerfect problem. Until then, everything had been stored in WP files for DOS. I used FrameMaker on NeXTSTEP OS, but for notes and transcripts I settled on .rtf which NeXT made use of heavily. Since NeXT "acquired" Apple and turned MacOS into NeXTSTEP, .rtf is still around, which is good. Everything else has changed pretty much. And this is what I don't "trust" about some of Clive's tools. I simply do not trust Scrivener's company to be around forever. If they fail, they go out of business. If they succeed, they get acquired, at which point they will fail. So they fail in the end. Whereas a Unix file system has been around a while and will be around a while, and files stored in directories and subdirectories should stick around for a while. When your book project lasts 28 years and counting, being free of platform, software, and file format dependencies is a Good Thing.
To find stuff on my Mac I use EasyFind which happens to be freeware. I will not touch Apple's Spotlight. Apple doesn't know how to do search well; the user interface is a nightmare, and the user experience, including the crazy mdworker daemons that slow your machine down to a crawl, is worse. EasyFind "just works" and does exactly what I need without any muss or fuss, and nothing's indexed. It's just . . . fast. If EasyFind goes out of business or gets discontinued, which I fully expect, there will no doubt be some other free or cheap desktop search tool to replace it. Anything but Spotlight. And I often just use grep at the command line.
My Book project currently consumes about 95GB of disk space, all organized simply using the filesystem. Makes backups easy too. And I keep lots of backups at three different physical locations. (I don't trust the hardware or software at all. Nor do I trust the backup drives, so I use several.)
Everyone has a different method; everyone finds a different way to organize and be productive. My way just evolved to keep longevity in mind. ASCII and RTF for the win!
Finally, I totally agree with Thompson about E.E. Cummings. I have his Complete Poems too. Though lately I'm reading Cervantes, Homer, Shakespeare, and Melville. Oh. And Plato.
WIRED has been celebrating its 20th anniversary lately (and a little late, since the premiere issue came out in January 1993). The anniversary bears a special significance to me because my startup company at the time, Coconut Computing, was the first advertiser to buy an ad in the premiere issue.
I made an initial inquiry in August 1992, probably having heard about it on The WELL, where Kevin Kelly, who was soon to become WIRED's executive editor, was a very active participant in the online conferences. I knew Kevin from The WELL and various meetings and events, and I was very familiar with his work at the Whole Earth magazine, so when I first heard about this new magazine I thought, hmmmm this could be interesting to advertise in, not to mention read.
WIRED was founded by Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, both of whom I'd met at various digital/tech conferences (including, I think, TED2 in 1990). I remember seeing a copy of their Electric Word magazine at some event. This was a precursor to WIRED that was published in Amsterdam between 1987 and 1990. I was impressed with the quality of that publication but it was too early and after 3 years it died out. I liked Louis and Jane and had high hopes that this new WIRED magazine would be something special. I'd also heard that Charlie Jackson, who was a super-hero startup entrepreneur in San Diego (he founded Silicon Beach Software, which invented Flash, and was also responsible for SuperCard and SuperPaint on the Mac), was investing in this new WIRED venture. So far, so good.
You have to remember that the World Wide Web was in its infancy. Not everybody had email. If you wanted to contact somebody you used the phone or wrote a letter for the most part. Unless they were on The WELL or worked at one of the few companies that had Internet and email. And most didn't.
So I made a few inquiries and found out WIRED's phone number in August 1992 and gave 'em a call. I spoke with Coco Jones, an ad sales rep who was just starting out on long media career. She sent me a WIRED Media Kit, which for some crazy reason I've kept for 21 years. I doubt anyone's seen this thing in 21 years, including me.
Coco, who in 2011 would be hired by movie mogul Ryan Kavanaugh to be his executive running media partnerships at the movie studio Relativity Media, included a cover letter with the media kit. The letter was your usual magazine hype-filled cover letter that anyone who has ever been a prospective magazine advertiser has gotten a million times:
Enclosed is your introduction to Wired - the most exciting new magazine launch in America today.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your hype enginees. But hey, I believed it. I couldn't think of anything else as exciting as the potential of WIRED at the time. And I read and devoured every tech publication available back then -- there were no websites! Coconut had successfully advertised in a number of small techie magazines since 1988 and it worked, but it was time for a bigger audience. WIRED sounded perfect.
Her letter continued:
The merger of computers, communications and entertainment is revolutionizing our world. Wired is strategically positioned at that merger. It is not about products, or even technology per se. WIRED focuses instead on the people, companies and ideas that are shaping this Digital Revolution.
Twenty-one years later, the purity of WIRED's mission has become a bit muddled, in my opinion. A lot of it now is very much indeed about products and technology. The shift started almost as soon as the magazine came out, but was in full force at least ten years ago. Still plenty of long-form articles, but lots of short-attention-span products and tech to ogle over and desire.
Wired is a radically different consumer computer magazine that reflects the mindstyle and aspirations of the Digital Vanguard -- the most powerful people on the planet today. As creators and early adopters of digital technology, their vision and purchasing preferences determine the consumer products and technologies that are shaping the digital world.
You gotta hand it to Wired, they weren't afraid to hype themselves and their "Digital Vanguard" as being "the most powerful people on the planet today." Ha! Because they had 1200-baud modems, or what? Mac IIs with 21-inch monitors? Eye-rolling then, quaint now. I love the word "mindstyle," which never really caught on. Mindstyles: lifestyles for those with no life, except online? Not sure, but that's how I interpreted it. Maybe they meant "worldview." Certainly WIRED espouses a tech-will-solve-everything mindset that folks like Evgeny Morozov continue to love to hate.
By the way, I love the fact that WIRED's email address, if you look very closely at the bottom of Coco's letter, was email@example.com. (Hey and check out the CompuServe user ID above that!) Yeah, this is 1992 alright.
The media kit itself sported a decidedly techo-psychedelic design. "This is NOT your average, boring media kit," the cover announces.
"This is your life," it says inside the opening page. Not sure how that squiggly hallucinogenic black-and-white text image was my life, but hey, this was the age of Kai's Power Tools, so give 'em a break.
The initial pages in this wire-bound media kit were small sheets of heavy glossy paper stock. Each successive page was larger than the next, so you got a hint of the eye-candy to come. And then there was this brown-paper strip that wrapped around and locked in the bulk of the pages. A little scissors icon indicated you were supposed to cut it, I suppose like you were presiding over some ribbon-cutting ceremony. Only thing they didn't provide was the bottle of champagne to break on the bow of SS Wired.
It's interesting that as of the date of the letter, September 2, 1992, the gang at WIRED hadn't figured out the final logo for the publication yet. The final all-caps letter-block logo that's still around today wouldn't be seen for four more months.
I turned the page.
"This is reality," the next page announced. Okay the crazy hallucinogenic hypnotic text spiral was my life, but this color photo of a computer circuit board inside someone's head was reality. Uh-huh. I'm sure computer vendors of the time certainly hoped so.
". . . on the cusp of the new millenium," the next page blared. Aren't you glad we're past the turn of the century? That was so anti-climactic. But this was 1992, and the future was so bright, the Digital Vanguard wasn't just wearing shades, they were wearing VR goggles. (You know, I have been going to technology conferences for 25+ years, and I went to pretty much every one back in the late 80s, early 90s where Jaron Lanier was demoing his VPL Research VR goggles, and to this day, I have never put on VR googles. Every conference had plenty of demos, it was a major exciting thing to do at these conferences, to try on the VR goggles and see the Future, but the lines were always so damn long I never felt it was worth waiting for, and then when this became the pattern at conference after conference, I just decided it would be cooler to never put the goggles on. And to this day I have never experienced Virtual Reality.)
And there it was, this weird "This is Wired" brown paper flap that you had to cut with scissors to get to the next page. Imagine the labor and cost to prepare this one little feature of this document. I cut and turned the flap. Wired, it said. I gave up counting how many times this media kit said "Wired." and there was a photo of John Sculley from Apple.
"We are the digital vanguard," announced the next page. These six people. "These are the people who not only foresaw the Digital Revolution, they're making it happen," the media kit announced. Gosh. So who were they?
And so it went. The next page covered the editorial profile of the new magazine. "To invent the future, the Digital Vanguard need more from a magazine than raw data, a parts catalog or platform bigotry," the page said. "Wired is a mindstyle to a community tired of lifestyle," it said further on. Yeah, yeah, okay, whatever.
And in the next two pages we finally come to the heart of the matter: who does WIRED think is going to be reading this magazine? Is this an audience that I, as a prospective advertiser, want to pay good money to reach?
"The Digital Vanguard are the ultimate early adopters," WIRED declared. "They don't just foresee the Digital Revolution, they are making it happen." "There are a lot of magazines the Digital Vanguard have to read. Now there's one they want to read." Yeah okay, guilty as charged.
The data spills the beans: readers are gonna be 85% male, average age 40 years old, 90% college grads. Think about that. That means the Digital Vanguard right now are 61 years old. Ha, I am still a kid.
The reader profile continues on a second page. The Digital Vanguard are gonna be the "consumer paradigm of the 90s." I suppose WIRED was right. In more ways than they knew. Digital is everything today.
I find the checklist of the 1992-era Digital Vanguard interesting to look back on. "With household incomes in excess of $85,000," says WIRED, "they can afford to:"
And then WIRED delivers the clincher: "Because the computer books [read: magazines] refuse to run consumer advertising, and because the business and lifestyle books deliver on overwhelming collection of bottomfeeders and technological illiterates" -- are you listening, Vanity Fair, New Yorker, Esquire, and Fortune? your readers are la-hoo-sers! -- "reaching the Digital Vanguard efficiently used to be impossible -- until Wired."
And now the ask. Why YOU, esteemed advertiser, should plunk out your money to reach the Digital Vanguard, who, after all, you now realize can ONLY be reached through this powerful revolutionary new publication called WIRED. Well alrighty then. Where do I sign up?
And there's Coco's card, crisp and as new as it was in 1992. So I called and ordered an ad. Gulp. Turns out, I was the first -- I learned this years later from Louis Rossetto -- advertiser to buy space in the very first issue of WIRED.
The back cover, with its pre--WIRED WIRED logo. And the back piece of that brown paper flap that I had to cut with scissors.
Fast forward to January. There it was! The first issue. With Bruce Sterling on the cover! (Another WELL user!) And our ad in there . . . somewhere! But where? I frantically turned the pages. Found it. Page 107!
We bought a one-third page ad, one column width. And there it was! Coconut Computing.
For the first week the phone rang off the hook. And not just looky-loos, but serious Fortune 500 companies. McDonalds called. They were using Lotus Notes but didn't like it. Could they have a 3000-seat license for our little ol' COCONET? Eeeeeeeeeeek! And then Alcoa called, from Pittsburgh. Wanted a major enterprise deployment, could we send out a team . . . ? Yikkkkkesss! We had no team, we were a tiny little shop.
Here it was, January 1993, and we were advertising client/server software that let you build online apps for Macs and PCs, apps that let you build basically anything graphical, but online over modems. Want to build an online auction? No prob. Online store? No prob. Chat, conferencing, instant messaging apps? No prob. Run online ads? No prob. This was all before Mosaic, or Netscape, or anything big on the web took off. (Egads, if we'd only patented some of the technology, today Coconut would be the biggest billion-dollar patent troll in the nation.)
"With COCONET software from Coconut Computing," the ad copy declared, "you have all you need to set up an online information service offering text, graphics, audio, file transfers, email, conferencing, and the tools to develop and integrate your own custom applications. More and more businesses and organizations are discovering how running an online service can give them a competitive advantage in the 1990s With COCONET's powerful client/server technology, your online service is limited only by your imagination. End-user communications software for PC and Macintosh can be freely distributed. Server software available on a variety of platforms. If you're interested in 90's-style online software, you owe it to yourself (and your users) to give us a call."
"Give us a call." Heh. Those were simpler times. Note that we had no URL or email address in the ad. But we weren't alone. Not a single advertiser in the entire premiere issue of WIRED showed an email address.
Hey now, don't you tell me you don't remember me 'cause I sure as heckfire remember you!
Be sure to see the original photo by Jeffrey Martin in all its 360-degree glory, here. It was taken last year at the sixth annual EG: The Entertainment Gathering conference in Monterey. The seventh annual EG conference is happening very, very soon. Looking forward to it. You should attend! You never know who you'll get to meet there.
Mr. Tobolowsky gave a great and memorable talk at the fifth annual EG conference and he's on the schedule to speak at the seventh later this month. I'm sure it will be great and memorable as well!
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