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The More Things Change…

Way back in 1994, Adam and Tonya graciously welcomed me to the TidBITS community by bringing me on board as TidBITS’s managing editor. Now after more than 5,000 articles, almost 600 issues, and nearly twelve years, it’s time to bid a fond farewell: this piece marks my final appearance in TidBITS as a regular staff member.

I realize many readers have only a fuzzy idea of my roles at TidBITS over the years – or no idea at all. That’s understandable: although I’ve written more than 750 items and articles for TidBITS, the bulk of my work has been behind the scenes. At first, I worked with external authors to get material into shape, helped edit stories, and generally pushed TidBITS forward. Eventually, I took over distributing TidBITS issues – that used to involve a couple hours engaged in battle with quaint devices called modems, uploading to commercial online services, bulletin boards, and eventually publishing on a newfangled thing called the Web. Up until a couple weeks ago, I helped edit, produced, and distributed essentially every issue of TidBITS since mid-1995, and my real-life acquaintances know these tasks have made my Mondays sacrosanct, well, forever. I also got to know many TidBITS readers and subscribers by way of handling editorial email for many years: responding to comments and questions, forwarding material along to other staff members, and handling subscription problems and queries from readers. In case you didn’t know already, TidBITS’s readers are a fine bunch.

Eventually I slipped into a role more involved in supporting and developing TidBITS services and projects. This probably started with the first incarnation of DealBITS, but took root when TidBITS took over management of its mailing lists from Rice University back in 1996, for which we had to create our own subscription management system. (At the time, no Mac-based mailing list software could handle TidBITS.) Adam mostly dealt with the server side of things; I dealt with the databases and the programming. With some expansions to enable new lists and bounce processing, that system ran until TidBITS migrated mailing services to Web Crossing in 2004, and it offered features which (to my knowledge) still aren’t available in any commercially available mailing list management software.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the point where I crossed the line from a regular “face of TidBITS” to being more of a “back room geek” was probably when Adam and Tonya took a month-long trip to Australia in 1998. Adam had held a contest to come up with a full-text search engine for TidBITS, but, as much as the winning software solved our search problem, keeping that software running – on a server in Adam and Tonya’s basement, at the top of a steep hill maybe 15 miles from my place – was a bit of an effort. I think it was on my third trip up there in the span of a week, spending hours hunched over the black-and-white monitor as the software laboriously re-indexed eight years of TidBITS issues, trying to keep warm by running up and down the stairs, entertaining Adam and Tonya’s cat Cubbins, and blowing into my hands, that I first thought, “This would be simpler if the server was at my place.” After all, I had better connectivity than Adam and Tonya did, and I was already riding herd on a Web robot I’d developed (which was running 24/7 on my old Quadras). Trying to baby-sit servers in two locations was just too much.

And so began the descent into madness. A proof-of-concept TidBITS article database I’d halfway put together on a spare Mac was quickly pressed into service as a way to reference individual articles, but we then used it to generate content for the TidBITS Web site, and soon it was operating as a replacement for the failed full text search engine. At some point the server moved off my desk and into my office closet, and was joined by another server, and then another. Next we lashed an insidiously developed, Web-enabled archive for TidBITS Talk into the system, and the server closet ballooned again. By 1999, the system was supporting polls, quizzes, between-issue news updates, sponsor banners, and reader contributions; publishing issues; generating email, and more. As we added features, we inevitably found much off-the-shelf software unsuitable, so I wound up writing POP, SMTP, HTTP, and XML-RPC clients plus security software from the ground up to support needed functions.

Over time, we fixed problems, added features (like a version of TidBITS for handheld devices and an RSS feed), and I put a good deal of effort into trying to improve the systems’ performance, staving off attackers, and learning to keep trawlers and increasingly aggressive Web robots under control. The setup weathered a 6.8 magnitude earthquake, but a few weeks later my ISP went dark and – in a fit of irony – I packed TidBITS’s most important pieces off to that same, chilly spot in Adam and Tonya’s basement for a few weeks just before they relocated to Ithaca, New York. With some additions and changes, that database and Web publishing system was driving TidBITS – and taking up a lot of my office closet space – until earlier this month.

Around that same period, two important things happened. First, I got pneumonia. Not run-of-the-mill, gosh-I-feel-awful pneumonia, but an antibiotic-resistant, atypical form which took off about 35 pounds in 20 days, put a baseball-sized abscess in one lung, and stayed with me for months. As a weight-loss plan it was hard to beat, but the illness did make me reassess a few things and realize that, despite the cozy heat emanating from the office closet, I wasn’t very interested in being a “server monkey.” Do I like to help design and build cool things? Sure! Do I like baby-sitting hardware and jumping to its rescue whenever Web crawlers swarm it like yellowjackets on jam? Not so much.

Second, Apple launched Mac OS X. Despite having done a fair bit of software development and testing for various Unix derivations over the years, I have an irrational distaste for Unix. (To be sure, I can rationalize it: don’t get me started.) As silly as it sounds, I’ve always found Unix inscrutable, ramshackle, ill-tempered, and suitable only for software developers. I didn’t consider the “classic” Mac OS any paragon of usability or transparency either (again, don’t get me started), but with Mac OS X, I felt Apple finally abandoned a key – albeit abstract – goal to bring the advantages of computing to everyday people in a way they could use, manage, and maintain without becoming rocket scientists. Of course, other computer manufacturers and operating system developers haven’t made much progress on that front either, but Apple used to try to make “computers for the rest of us.” With Mac OS X, Apple essentially put a patina over parts of an arcane, byzantine collection of technologies and called it innovation. In my book, that’s not “computers for the rest of us,” but “computers just like all the rest.” But I waited and hoped.

I understand the technical and market forces which led to Mac OS X and which continue to drive its development, and I certainly don’t begrudge folks who like Mac OS X, love it, or embrace its Unix underpinnings. Truthfully, I feel Mac OS X has a lot to commend it, as modern operating systems go. However, I don’t think modern operating systems are anything much to crow about, and, despite a few years of trying, I haven’t been able to bring myself to enjoy Apple’s Aqua-flavored Kool-Aid.

Since I first started using computers – a 4K Commodore PET at the age of 11, followed by an Apple IIc and an early VAX running a Version 7 Unix – I’ve lamented that the technology wasn’t ready for prime time. The main reason I got into technical writing – then software testing, then development, consulting, editing, TidBITS, and Internet-based projects – was because it wasn’t simple enough to make computers do what I wanted. Instead, I found myself fiddling, fixing, explaining, programming, enabling, and helping other people. I believed in the potential of information technology and felt I could make a positive contribution by helping other people tap into it: the glitches and problems and stumbling blocks were just bumps in the road – growing pains, right? But when my mother retypes a document because she can’t find the original, a TidBITS Talk thread deteriorates into a discussion of command line switches, I utterly destroy a brand-new Mac mini by clicking its Printer Sharing checkbox, a live music recording is ruined by an invisible background process, or a disabled friend feels she has no choice but to buy a new printer because her old one suddenly stopped working… I just want to scream. It’s the twenty-first century: why are we still mired in this stuff?

I’ve long said that we’ll know computers have arrived when there’s no need for people like me. The fact so many everyday people have to turn to interpreters, consultants, experts, classes, training, and technophiles to use their computers and put them to work, to me, represents a fundamental failure of the industry. It seems people like me will be needed for a long, long time. Many years ago, Microsoft held a press event to announce a significant expansion of the company’s technical support offerings; the late technology writer Cary Lu scored a zinger – and made a profound point – by politely asking if Microsoft anticipated its products would one day reach a level where users would require fewer support resources. Along the same lines, I remain flabbergasted Apple has installed Genius Bars in its retail stores. To me, Genius Bars don’t say “Apple’s your friend and is here to help!” but instead, “Everyone knows Apple makes the easiest-to-use computers, but only a genius can figure them out.”

So now that TidBITS has successfully migrated its services out of my closet, it’s time for me to focus on projects more personally fulfilling than reading Apple’s tea leaves, hoping the computing industry suddenly gets it right, or jumping and clapping on cue whenever the Internet’s “next big thing” comes a-knocking. I don’t plan to drop off the face of the earth: for the time being, I’ll appear on TidBITS’s virtual masthead as “Editor at Large” and I’ll continue to contribute material to TidBITS as time and opportunity permit. But where, to me, the Macintosh used to represent a set of values and ideals about the role of technology in people’s lives, now the Macintosh is just a computer. I need to treat it as such.

I’d like to express my appreciation to the entire TidBITS staff – Joe Kissell, Glenn Fleishman, Matt Neuburg, Jeff Carlson, Mark Anbinder, and (of course!) Adam and Tonya – for their camaraderie, support, friendship, and (especially) humor over the years: they’re a sterling group, and I can’t recommend them highly enough. But, most importantly, I’d like to thank the TidBITS readership and community for welcoming us to your mailboxes and browsers for all these years: you represent what is truly the best thing about the Macintosh. Don’t forget it!

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