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Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Another old soldier -- and prolific writer -- made it through one last Memorial Day, if not quite to D-Day. The New York Times and Associated Press report that William Manchester died yesterday (June 1). Someplace on my uncle's bookshelf is my passed-along copy of Goodbye Darkness, Manchester's account of his years as a Marine in World War II, which he gave me as a thank-you for some office help. I hope one part of that "help" didn't do any harm.

In the early 1980s at Wesleyan University, he was writer-in-residence and I was working downstairs behind a door that said "Telecommunications Center," trying to decide if I was a journalist or an anthropologist or a technologist. (I eventually found a path down the middle.) As a grad student turned AV-geek, I did a few minor jobs for him, the last of which inspires this memorial note, with the others worth a few sentences to set the stage.

One of my strongest memories is of the ancient Underwood typewriter on his desk, and his telling me he had a matching one at home. He was that attached to the keyboard layout and feel. Those were the right machines to pound out biographies of Kennedy, MacArthur and Churchill.

My first "call from Bill" assignment, via my boss Bob White, was simple: Manchester wanted some audio cassettes duplicated; no fast-dubbing allowed. These had to be top-quality real-time copies, so I listened while they played. The tapes were all old songs, World War II classics like "We'll Meet Again," and "(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover." "They're for Bill Shirer," Manchester told me later. For those two old soldiers (with old typewriters), I'm glad I engaged in a little pre-Napster copyright infringement. I hope the songs brought back memories that fit into a book somewhere.

The second call was, "Do you know anything about telephone answering machines?" I had to admit to knowing very little, but I walked into his office and noticed two things: The machine's lights were on, and the carpet was clean. Yes, the cleaning crew had knocked a telephone wire loose at vacuum-cleaner level. I plugged it in; the machine worked, and I felt like a wizard. (Ten years later I remembered the experience when half of a magazine newsroom's Appletalk network was down one morning. Clean carpet; same problem -- and I was a minor hero again.)

Now that I was clearly a technology whiz, Mr. Manchester had one more assignment for me. The phone call went something like this:

"Bill Zinsser tells me I ought to try one of these 'word processors.' Do we have them?"

It was 1983, and the "word processor" Zinsser had been using down at Yale was an IBM Displaywriter. He wrote a book about the experience, including the startling discovery of what could happen to a day's work when the machine crashed. A technical support person's best advice was, "re-type what you did this morning." She seemed surprised to learn Zinsser was "writing," as he put it in his book, "from out of my head."

"Well," she said, "your stuff was just out in the electricity and it's gone."
"Oh," I said.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Zinsser."
"Me too, Kathy."

I knew I could prepare my "client" named Bill better than Kathy had prepared hers. I told Mr. Manchester about Wesleyan's DECwriters for office word processing, and that it had some Osborne microcomputers that ran WordStar, and that it was starting to get some AT&T DOS machines with Word Perfect.

However, for someone who had never watched his words appear on a computer screen, the the easiest place to start would be a flight of stairs away in a public terminal room connected to the DEC 20 mainframe. (Why his office was in the Classics department and why Classics was in the Science Tower are the kinds of questions that made Wesleyan a wonderful place.)

Perhaps because the first "word processors" had been specialized office computers, the program running on the mainframe was called a "word processor simulator," WPSIM for short. It's creator was a guy named Doug Bigelow whose wife was a journalist. I'd been an "early adopter" after coming to Wesleyan from my own newspaper reporting job, and kept nagging Doug for new features while using his program to write a master's thesis. Now I was putting out a newsletter for Wesleyan Osborne WordStar users, and my next career step was going to be into the software industry.

So, I got Mr. Manchester the paperwork for a DEC-20 account, then took him down the hall to a room full of Adds Viewpoint terminals and fired up WPSIM.

My old Royal manual typewriters had been important to me for 10 years. I had hated the newspaper's switch to IBM Selectrics that seemed to help me make more mistakes per minute. But I fell in love with writing on a computer terminal, first with ATEX and then WPsim, then WordStar. Perhaps it was the right tool for my cluttered mind. I could write terrible first drafts, then go back and drag things around, thanks to the ease of editing and rewriting on the computer. I thought that might be a selling point to a man who was finicky about his pre-war Underwoods. (They were pre-WW One, I think.)

I sat next to him, curious to see what he'd tap into the new machine -- some random "keyboard feel" test like "asdfg ;lkjh" or something that crams the whole alphabet into a line about a quick red fox or "pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs."

Nothing like that came out of William Manchester's fingers. He had me type his login and password (which I've just realized I stll remember!), then I passed him the light plastic keyboard...

Maybe it was Marine discipline. Maybe there was just no clutter. Maybe he was just from a different generation of writers. His first words flowed into full sentences. He filled the screen without stopping, punctuation firmly in place, lines of glowing letters describing a full scene -- June 6, 1944, a beach in Normandy. I suspect the paragraph was his morning's work, taking shape not "out in the electricity," but inside, probably as part of his Churchill biography. I should read it and see if a paragraph about D-Day looks familiar.

I'm glad to see that someone is taking on the task of completing Manchester's third Churchill volume. For some time he hadn't thought anyone else would be up to the task, and he knew he wasn't well enough to finish it himself after having a stroke. His obituary mentions that Paul Reid, a writer at The Palm Beach Post, has the assignment.

I'm tempted to call Mr. Reid's answering machine, if it's working, and ask what word processor -- or old typewriter -- he uses. At this point, I'd recommend the Underwood over Word Perfect, which was what Manchester (or his secretary) was using the last time I wandered by his office. But if his collaborator ever needs that DEC-20 password or Doug Bigelow's e-mail address, I guess it'd be OK to tell him.

(After a quick first draft, I've come back to drag some words around a couple of times, including linking to the longer Times obituary instead of the AP version. Last change 6/6/04)

8:18:05 PM    comment []

With free tip on how to avoid advertising

Dave Winer, self-confessed "power blogger" and chief evangelist for Really Simple Syndication (RSS) has launched a new blog by that name, and today he addresses two of the questions I've heard from professional news publishers about RSS:
  • Won't it draw readers away from their main news websites, where the ads are?
  • Why not put ads in the RSS newsfeed?
Dave's response is "think of your (headline/summary) feeds as inexpensive advertising for your publication." Not only will readers see the company name often, they will click on the RSS-fed summaries, go to the full-length stories, and see revenue-producing ads there. "Power bloggers," Dave says, help by republishing items from the feeds,  spreading the word about stories they find interesting.

He advises against putting advertising in RSS feeds:
"I get the value when I read the full article, and there I don't mind an ad, but the aggregator window is mine, I paid for it... it doesn't seem fair for you to put ads in my space."

I'm not sure how an aggregator window is more "my space" than a browser window, but since Dave wrote one of the first aggregator programs, he has a better claim on "my" than the rest of us. (I do pay to use Dave's product, though.)

I'd be annoyed if another ad or two took up space in the aggregator window if the RSS feed only gave me summaries leading to full stories on ad-rich pages. For example, my aggregator provides Times links that are summaries like this:

The Shaman May Have Been Fake, but, Hey, the Drugs Were Real. Was Carlos Castaneda a great spiritual leader or a cynical con man? A digital video documentary struggles with that question but ultimately declines to answer it. By Dave Kehr.

That's a great improvement over some media company feeds that just provide "tease" style headlines or a truncated first paragraph of the story. (Had the Times simply truncated Kehr's lead for the story, that link would read "Was Carlos Castaneda [~] the U.C.L.A. anthropologist whose 1968 book, 'The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge,' became one of the founding..." Very nice summary editing snips two-thirds of the story's actual first paragraph.)

Although the full-page version of the story has ads galore, I have a workaround thanks to my wonderfully slow dial-in modem. When I click on the RSS-fed link to "open in new window," I see the link to that Times story page's "printer-friendly format"  before the ads appear. So I click that link, get the faster-loading text-mostly version, and enjoy an almost ad-free reading experience.

(The one ad on the "printer-friendly" page is for Fox Searchlight. It's a bit jarring to see a "Fox" logo on a Times page, even if there are numerous corporate firewalls between the parent corporations' news departments.)

If there was a simple "printable" ad at the bottom of the Times film review, I wouldn't mind. If the whole "printer-friendly" story, with ad, was available as RSS, I'd subscribe to it. If the Times decided that ad-free full-text stories could be profitably provided through paid subscriptions, I might actually subscribe -- depending on my current income level and the number and quality of free alternatives.

Dave's blog mentions the fact that publications can offer numerous feeds for categories of stories or sections of a newspaper. I wonder how long it will be before some of the little XML or RSS icons look more like R$$ indicating pay services? I wonder if any professional news providers are already offering full-text feeds on either a subscription or ad-supported basis, and I just haven't noticed.

For now, I'd be less annoyed if a feed carried the full text of the story plus a small ad or "sponsor" reference.  (InfoWorld began doing something like that about a year ago, but I haven't noticed them recently on InfoWorld staff blogs or news pages. I'd go double-check, but a thunderstorm is getting close to home, which means it's time to hit "save" and unplug the modem.)

2:46:33 PM    comment []

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