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TidBITS Marks Its 29th Anniversary… and Earth Day!

Last year’s TidBITS anniversary happened during the month-long crunch of replacing our entire Internet infrastructure, so we never publicly marked the date (see“Everything You Need to Know about the TidBITS 2018 Infrastructure,” 2 April 2018). That would have been our 28th anniversary, making this our 29th. The actual date ticked over last week on April 16th, but we decided to hold off briefly so this article could coincide with Earth Day.

Why? From very our first issue on 16 April 1990, TidBITS has been purely electronic. At the time, that was extremely unusual—all the professional publications in the technology world were paper magazines. These magazines—Macworld, MacUser, MacWEEK, and so on—were great, but they consumed an insane amount of paper.

That got me thinking. How much paper—and how many trees—has TidBITS avoided using by focusing our attention on digital distribution from the outset? Coming up with a number required a great deal of estimation, but it was fun, so I’ll share some of the thinking and silly asides.

How many characters appear on a magazine page?

The first problem was to determine how many characters fit on an average magazine page. Our friend Jason Snell told me that, back in the day, his one-page column in Macworld was 800–850 words, and a page was probably 900 words tops. Depending on the source you consult, there are around 6 characters per word on average, so that works out to between 4800 and 5600 characters per page. To check this, I pulled out an old Byte magazine, found a page that was entirely text, and counted the number of characters in a line (40), the number of lines in a column (65), and the number of columns per page (3). That’s 7800 characters for a full page of text, but with graphics occupying a third of the page, the numbers work out to 5148, which is in line with Jason’s estimate.

How many characters have we published in TidBITS?

A relatively simple SQL query revealed the answer, a highly precise 59,387,344. But that includes HTML tags, so I spot-checked a few representative articles and estimated that HTML accounts for about 25% of the total, leaving 44.5 million characters of real text. Shakespeare wrote only 884,421 words, or roughly 5.3 million characters. Of course, his plots and character development are better, and he made up over 1700 words, but I invented a word too—see “The iPhone and the Googlewhackblatt” (20 December 2007).

How many pages would the TidBITS archive occupy?

Dividing the number of characters by the character-per-page count tells us that, if the entire archive of TidBITS were printed out like a magazine, it would be 8652 pages. And yes, I realize there’s a lot of hand-waving around graphics. Go with it.

How many pages would we have sent to TidBITS subscribers?

8652 pages may seem like a lot of paper on first glance, but remember, we send TidBITS to tens of thousands of subscribers in email. That circulation number has varied widely over time—it started under 100, peaked at over 50,000, and is currently a little under 24,000. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that it has averaged 25,000. Suddenly, we’re up to 216.3 million pages.

We’ll ignore Web page views because TidBITS pre-dates the Web. Although the World Wide Web celebrated its 30th anniversary on 19 March 2019, that was 30 years from the date of the proposal that Tim Berners-Lee wrote, not from when the Web became functional. I met one of the co-founders of the Web, Robert Cailliau, at the Hypertext ‘93 conference and mentioned the story briefly in “20 Years of the World Wide Web in the Public Domain” (1 May 2013).

How much paper is that, if laid out straight on a road?

It’s hard to visualize 216.3 million piece of paper, but there are 500 sheets in a ream, and a ream is roughly 2 inches (5 cm) thick. That makes 432,600 reams of paper, and lining them up on edge would thus create a row 13.8 miles (22 km) long. At the pace of my most recent half marathon—1:22:28 for the Montezuma Half Marathon last year—it would take me 1:26:43 to run that far. Tonya ran that race too!

Adam and Tonya after a race
From a 10K race a few weeks before, since there weren’t any photos of both of us from the Montezuma half. But we look about the same.

How many trees have we saved?

Getting back to why we’re linking this anniversary to Earth Day, it’s all about the trees. There’s a commonly cited number that a tree produces 8333 sheets of paper. So that’s nearly 26,000 trees. Which sounds like an awful lot, but you don’t want to lose sight of the forest for all those trees. A healthy forest has about 50 trees per acre, so we avoided clearcutting 519 acres (2.1 square kilometers) of virgin woodland. Yay, us!

Can you still see the forest?

For visualization reasons, area calculations are commonly cited in terms of a number of football fields, ignoring the fact that it would be extremely difficult to play football in a forest, especially if there were wild animals of the fierce type living there. Regardless, a football field turns out to occupy 1.32 acres, so we saved 393 football fields of trees. Or, for those for whom football means soccer, where the field is somewhat wider, that would be 292 soccer fields. I think soccer would be even harder to play with trees in the field, although much more amusing thanks to all the ricochets.

How much would that have cost?

Of course, we could never have afforded the necessary paper, printing, and distribution costs that a paper magazine would have required without subscriptions and vastly more advertising—that’s how magazines work. And, increasingly, why they don’t work at all anymore, which accounts for all the magazine closures in the last few years.

But the beauty of the Internet, particularly back in 1990, was that it made it possible for a couple of kids just out of college to start a publication and somehow keep doing it for the next 29 years. Check out the full TidBITS History series for lots of great stories.

As always, we couldn’t have done this on our own. Or maybe we could have, but it would have been a lot less fun given the wonderful people who have helped out over the years. And we certainly couldn’t have kept doing it without the support of thousands of readers who help us keep the servers running, pay our writers and employees, and put cheese on the table.

If you’re not currently a TidBITS member, we’d appreciate it immensely if you’d join, and we have a bunch of perks and discounts on Mac apps for those who do. Thanks for all the cheese, and let us know if you have any great ideas for how to celebrate our 30th anniversary next year!

Picture of cheeses on a shelf
The last great cheese shop we were in!

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Comments About TidBITS Marks Its 29th Anniversary… and Earth Day!

Notable Replies

  1. I would give you a hard time about electricity required for servers, but given TidBITS’ always modest number of servers over the years, starting with shared access, then moving to consumer models, then to an Xserve, and then to virtualization, I expect that only subtracts a handful of trees’ equivalent from the total.

    The amount of computational resources required (and the lack of tracking IDs, icky ad techniques, and your commitment to privacy) should also be commended as being ahead of its time relative to the value delivered!

  2. And thank you for all the help over the years. I can’t imagine TidBITS and other way than electronic.

  3. Glenn’s comment is relevant, and a needed reminder. Everything we do on this earth has some kind of impact. Even the simple act of walking can have man-made impacts - someone had to make the shoes, or the sidewalk - as well as natural impacts - walking through grass or native vegetation crushes something and can compact the earth.

    The goal is to at least minimize every single impact you make. In short, to think about every action, every decision, every choice, in the clear light of its impact on the world. Impacts are inevitable - unnecessary damage is not.

    Remember, the famous triangle shown on plastic, paper and elsewhere, has three points. Most people know about re-use and recycle, the two bottom points. But the top and starting point is - Reduce.

  4. Yeah, I was thinking about our power usage too, but as you say, we’ve always kept a pretty low profile in terms of hardware as well. I think it’s safe to say that our energy impact could be estimated at being the equivalent of one medium-powered server. It’s likely that we use more power for our personal Macs.

    Absolutely! The logical extreme is a dangerous road to follow, but I believe that at least pondering the impact of one’s actions at all times is the first and most important step.

  5. You’re very welcome! TidBITS started in part because it always bothered us when we saw people having trouble with technology in ways that we knew we could just solve, if only we had a chance. There was no way to help everyone individually, but with a well-placed article, we have the opportunity to help a whole lot of people encountering the same issue.

  6. Congrats, @ace, @tonya, and team!

    I get all nostalgic when I think back to the times of the mailing list and when you guys started (and thanks, Glenn, for reminding me of the Xserve times). Turns out, TidBITS is almost the same age as the the Mac IIci. A Mac I always held dearly. And still do, just like TidBITS. :slight_smile:

    Hope you guys will keep TidBITS up for many more great years to come! :slight_smile: :+1:

  7. Thanks, @Simon!

    I liked the IIci but never had one—I was an SE/30 user for a long time in that era. I think my next Mac after that might have been the Centris 660/AV.

    We periodically think about how long TidBITS will keep going, and the answer always comes down to “As long as we’re having fun and can make a living at it.” :slight_smile:

  8. The SE/30 was another great Mac. Got mine as an upgrade for our SE. In those days Apple had a program where they took your old SE and returned it upgraded and reboxed as an SE/30. It was an awesome experience! :slight_smile:

  9. Congratulations, Adam, Tonya, and to all the TidBits staff!

    Even though much of my life, around 29 years ago, is now a TechniColor blur… I suspect I was one of your early readers.

    I’ve met you, Adam, at MacWorlds and have thanked you then… but I can never thank you all enough for the great service you’ve done for Mac users for 29 years.

    And Happy Earth Day too!

  10. I’ve had the same thought about CES, and the answer always comes down to “until it kills me.” :slight_smile:

  11. Adam, I echo others’ thank for all the hard work you, Tonya, and the TidBITS team have put in over the years. You are amongst only a handful of constants through my Mac experience, and the only publication that has stayed around, and maintained the quality, in-depth reporting, and relevance that I love. This article inspired me to go back and check the earliest issue that I have in my email archive. I found to my horror, that while I had it archived from the Unix mail system I used at the time, for some reason the early issues had never been imported into Mail (some years ago I went through a grand conversion exercise to get all my email from Unix mail, Emailer, Eudora, etc all into Mail). Luckily that was trivial to rectify, and I can confirm that the earliest issue I have is 15 October 1996. It’s highly likely I started reading some months earlier, but this is when my regular subscription started (though I’ve found some gaps in my archive since then :cry:):


    And for a trip down memory lane, here’s the contents (in original Setext formatting):

    The first MailBITS item was for the System 7.5 Update 2.0 Custom Install! Thanks for all the great articles over the years, I look forward to many more. :grinning:

  12. I do miss Macworld, if only for the chance to meet TidBITS readers. It was always so much fun to be wandering the aisles and having people come up to introduce themselves and say hello. Made for very slow walking though— @jeffc and @tonya always commented that we’d walk for 5 minutes, talk for 20. :slight_smile:

    Thanks so much for the kind words! And it was a hoot seeing your old mailbox and that screenshot of issue #349. Of our sponsors then, APS is gone, Northwest Nexus is gone, Power Computing is gone (both it and APS were hit when Jobs killed the clone program), AOL still exists but is a shadow of its former self, EarthLink is also still around but much less of a player, and Aladdin is long gone (remember StuffIt?).

  13. Congratulations to you, Tonya and the rest of the crew! I know I’ve said this before, but if it wasn’t for your Internet Starter Kit, we might never have gotten online. I signed up for TidBITS within a few weeks of the book’s release, and I’ve been Talking away since this list was started. Thanks for just about three decades of excellent advice, insight and analysis; and for community as well.

  14. And I also miss the TidBITS Talker Ice Cream Socials during the NYC Macworlds!

  15. Those printed magazines used an incalculable amount more electricity that TidBITS humble servers. However, comparisons of energy use are impractical, to say the least, unless you have access to, say, MacWorld’s electric bills. I’d guess, though, that here, too, TidBITS would come out many football fields ahead.

    That’s not to say that I didn’t learn a lot about using a Mac from MacWorld, back in the day. I started my MacWorld subscription before I found TidBITS. But I dropped it sometime before it went out of circulation. My online sources, including TidBITS and the late lamented MacFixIt, began to fill my information needs, at a lower cost and with fewer adds. There are, of course, many other online Mac web sites that have survived the death of printed magazines. And as Adam suggests, they all owe a debt of gratitude to the readers who have kept them in business.

  16. Stuffit is still around, though not published by Aladdin. Smith Micro took it over. They offer a multi-featured Stuffit suite for $30, though Expander is still available for free; it hasn’t been update since 2016. I keep it around just in case. Though I use Pacifist for most of my esoteric expansion tasks.

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