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Adam Engst No comments

TidBITS Survey Introduction

Happy Birthday to us. TidBITS is officially one year old and what better way to celebrate (OK, so we can think of a few) than by reporting the results of our TidBITS Survey. We ran the survey in December and still receive occasional responses, although the majority arrived in the first month or two. What took us so long? Data entry. It’s time consuming, a lot of work, and boring beyond belief, even though we could just copy from QuickMail and paste into Double Helix. If we had figured out some method of getting everyone to return answers in exactly the same format, we could have had Nisus clean it all up. Maybe for next year’s TidBITS Anniversary.

As far as the organization of this issue goes, we’ll talk a bit about year-end numbers, the statistics we gathered from the survey (and do remember Mark Twain’s dictum "There are three sorts of lies, lies, damned lies, and statistics."), and then we’ll list a bunch of the responses we got to different categories and our comments on those responses.

This issue is a lot to read at once, being over 60K of text, and since it’s not like the timely news we normally report on, feel free to read at your leisure. If you think 50K is a lot, though, we got well over 700K of email responses and 20 snail mail responses that we typed into Double Helix manually.

Adam Engst No comments

TidBITS Numbers

This issue is a special issue released in honor of TidBITS’ First Anniversary and/or Birthday. Because of this I became curious about what we’ve really done, so here’s some numbers. This issue is not included in the totals, simply because it’s still in progress. To find the numbers relating to the amounts of text, we opened all 53 text files simultaneously in Nisus (under Finder, so it had plenty of memory to work with) and used the Get Info… command. We also used Nisus to find and copy the articles written by other people, something it did quite well, searching all 53 open files much faster than HyperCard. The main thing that hits me, looking at these numbers, is the incredulous thought, "I wrote 350-some pages last year?!?" Oof, and you all read them. 🙂

Total number of issues = 53 (more than one per week!)
Number of articles = 349
Total characters = 903,424
Total words = 147,983
Total sentences = 7,210
Avg words/sentence = 18
Max words/sentence = 118 (I tend towards long sentences :-))
Total paragraphs = 5,806
Total pages = 391 (using single spaced New York 12 and normal margins)
Flesch Reading Ease = 56
Reading Grade Level = 13
Total K of text files = 1,053K
Total K of text files after DiskDoubler compression = 471K (you think I can manage without compression?)
TidBITS Archive size = 3,441K
Number of cards in TidBITS Archive = 350
Avg time per issue = 7 hours (includes research & reading time)

Adam Engst No comments

TidBITS Authors

I’ve written the majority of the articles that appear in TidBITS with Tonya’s help, but six other people have written articles for us as well (if we’ve missed anyone, please accept our heartfelt apologies). We’d like to thank them for helping out with excellent reviews and articles. We’ve listed them in order of the number of characters they wrote. Of course, that isn’t a terribly accurate number because we always change the original size in the editing process. Detail details.

  • Ian Feldman = 36,980 (two articles and the Xanadu special issue)
  • Ken Hancock = 18,786 (the compression program comparison)
  • Mark H. Anbinder = 14,277 (articles on Macworld Expo in San Francisco)
  • Len Schwer = 10,909 (the FlexiTrace review)
  • Andrew Lewis = 6,400 (an article on DeskWriter problems)
  • Harry Skelton = 3,290 (an article on the Sony NeWS server and uShare)

Thank you all for the total 90,642 characters you’ve contributed over the last year, a little under 10% of all the writing we’ve published.

Adam Engst No comments

Survey Statistics

We consulted with a friend who actually knows some statistics to arrive at some of these values, and while they aren’t necessarily as large as we’d like, our friend is now thinking of getting a Masters degree in Applied Statistics at Cornell. Maybe he’ll be able to lie better then.

The primary number that we hoped to discover from the survey was total readership. We know the number of copies of each issue downloaded from three main sites, America Online, sumex-aim, and GEnie. Three issues carried the survey form, so all of our percentages had to be divided by three to get an accurate number (or so our friend said, maybe he wasn’t lying hard enough). Responses from America Online and sumex-aim accounted for approximately 5% of the number of issues downloaded from those sites, whereas GEnie had a lower percentage response of about 2%. Since it’s impossible to send us email from GEnie directly, a 2% response rate is excellent. A friend at American Demographics Magazine said that a 4% return rate on those little white cards in magazines that are pre-paid and easy to fill out is good, so our 5% is even better, considering that our survey was longer than a little card. Applying that 5% to the 127 people who responded from Usenet, it seems that 2,540 people get TidBITS from comp.sys.mac.digest. Next applying the 5% to the total 229 respondents, we come up with 4,580 readers overall. That’s forgetting the number of people who get TidBITS from someone else, and to judge from the surveys, few of those people responded. Of the 229 people, 34% said they redistributed TidBITS and the numbers of additional readers they gave add up to 911. So now we’re up to 5,491, which is pretty good, considering all the defunking that you have to do to read TidBITS these days. The final possible addition is that if 34% of respondents (or 76 people) distributed 911 copies (about 11 copies per person), then if the 34% of 4,580 people (assuming that people who receive TidBITS from someone else don’t redistribute again) or 1,557 people each distribute about 11 copies as well, that will be a whopping 17,129 copies to add to our previous subtotal of 5,491, to give a grand total of 22,620. Still with me?

Even if our method of calculating redistribution is wrong (which it probably is, since the people who responded to the survey are the most likely to be the people who redistribute, thus artificially inflating the redistribution percentage), we’re still happy with between 5,500 and 20,000 readers as of January, 1991. That number rises constantly, to judge from the amount of email we get asking for information about TidBITS. The real trick is going to be switching to an implicitly-tagged text format, because then we’ll legitimately be able to count the entire readership of comp.sys.mac.digest as TidBITS readers, and it will be fun to add 37,000 more readers just like that. We also hope to set up a LISTSERV when we move to text-only, which will increase the number of readers who were otherwise unable to download TidBITS.

Of those 229 respondents, we received email from 209 and snail mail from 20. Interestingly enough, almost half of the snail mail we got was from countries other than the US. TidBITS is read in 18 countries, including: Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Scotland, Sweden, Switzerland, the USA, and Wales. If you want to be picky, Scotland and Wales are part of Britain, which would lower the number to 16. In theory we could figure out the number of states in the US that have TidBITS readers, but that would be a bit more difficult and fairly meaningless anyway.

Most people got TidBITS from Usenet, sumex-aim, America Online, and GEnie, in that order, but a number of BBS’s had multiple respondents, including the Memory Alpha BBS in Ithaca, Tom’s BBS in Boston, the AMUG BBS in Atlanta, and the Twilite Clone BBS, whose location I don’t know. A number of other BBS’s had a single respondent. A few respondents get TidBITS from some of our less popular redistribution sites, like [email protected] and [email protected] and the British National Public Domain Software Archive. Still fewer respondents report that they get it from a friend or on a local network, which seems to imply that people who read TidBITS twice removed from the nets tend not to deal with the nets at all. Even though CompuServe can send mail to the Internet, we only received one response from CompuServe. What’s with those people?

Where do TidBITS readers come from, other than the woodwork? We didn’t ask this question, but it was often obvious from the email address or a signature. TidBITS readers come primarily from higher education and big business, not surprisingly, since those two sectors are best connected. A lot of people find TidBITS on small local bulletin boards as well, which means that areas like K-12 (not usually known as lower education, for some reason :-)) schools, dealers, and small businesses read TidBITS. Most of the major universities showed up, as did large companies like Apple, Claris, IBM (yep, even IBM), Toshiba, Sony, Motorola, and government bodies like NASA and various branches of the military.

What are TidBITS readers like? They are knowledgable (heck, to figure out the nets you’ve got to be bright) and interested. A good percentage of them are also packrats, since 61% of respondents use the TidBITS Archive. I’ll bet that number would be higher if the archive were faster and smaller, but it still holds a lot of information and is bound to be large and slow to a certain extent no matter what. On average, people said that they rated 8 points out of 10 with regard to their knowledge of the Macintosh, but only 5 points out of 10 with regard to HyperCard. As of the time of the survey, only about 66% of respondents had HyperCard 2.0 – that number is surely higher by now, although we found a decent bit of HyperCard animosity reflected in other survey answers.

On the normal 1 to 10 scale, people only rated themselves 2 in terms of how often they used the contact information and 2 in terms of how often they looked up the references in other magazines. However, many people said something to the effect of, "I don’t use it much, but it’s very handy when I do need it. Don’t discontinue contact information or references!" OK, we won’t. Approximately half of the respondents indicated that they might be interested in writing articles at some point, but that conflicts a bit with the number of articles we’ve received from people.

And what of everyone’s favorite question, "What is your favorite color?" It provoked many strange and uncountable answers, so we wimped out and asked Double Helix to count each entry in which a color name appeared. So if the answer was "Blue, no, red, auuugh!" (a common answer), both blue and red would be counted. If someone said "Not blue!" I munged the word so that it wouldn’t count. See below for the results.

Adam Engst No comments

Like Best?

We try to avoid this sort of self-congratulation most of the time since it doesn’t do much for readers (you know for yourself whether or not you like TidBITS – you don’t need to hear us patting ourselves on the back all the time, like other publications are wont to do on occasion. However, there is a time and place for everything, so here’s what people like the most about TidBITS.

A lot of people like our writing style, and let us know with adjectives like "breezy and informal," "opinionated and insightful," etc. It reminds me a bit of a line I like to use when pretending to be pretentious about wine. First you roll the wine around in the glass, sniff it, and take a tiny little sip. Then pronounce seriously, "Obsequious, yet servile." Here’s a couple of the comments on our style.

"Succinct, but rich in its description"

"It is gossipy and written with a breezy, informal style."

"The writing style. Your articles are informative without being stuffy."

"Well written; informative; witty; I’ve learned a lot from TidBITS."

"I am always impressed at finding knowledgeable computer mavens who can handle English gracefully; the two are often mutually exclusive."

"I like the short concise articles (when presenting information from other publications). Of course, you have articles which don’t appear elsewhere and your opinions and wry sense of humor seem to match mine as well (which never hurts to endear one’s self to one’s readers)."

"The personal, informal, yet informative writing style"

"Timely, independent, humorous."

"The lighthearted editorial style"

"Wide breadth of info, ease of use, breezy and informal writing style – a very valuable source of info for me, a novice user, since I rarely have time to read magazines and other info sources."

"The regularity, informativeness and the general all-round good quality of the writing."

"Articles are interesting, humorous, well written technically."

Another feature which people singled out as being important was our opinions. We certainly don’t ask that anyone agree with us (though many apparently do), but we try to bring together information from a variety of sources and make sense of it as a whole. We do believe it’s important to have and express opinions whenever possible because that’s what makes reading a publication interesting. We also believe that telling the truth, cutting through the propaganda, and keeping it humorous are essential parts of good subjective (but fair) reporting.

"Either I admire your objectivity, or I usually agree with your opinions."

"I like the timely information, the HyperCard access to the articles and the attitude of the editors." [gee, and in high school I was mostly told that I had a bad attitude :-)]

"I like that it’s an opinionated and insightful digest. I read most of the articles mentioned or discussed, but you consistently make connections which make better sense of what’s going on in the industry for me."

"The news I usually already have, except from the unusual sources such as Internet which I can’t keep up with. What I prefer is your unique analysis, viewpoints, and opinions on the news items I’ve already read."

"I like the fact that TidBITS is willing to express opinions not found in the standard journals. Actually, I don’t get MacWEEK or InfoWorld, and I very much like the fact that TidBITS keeps me informed of things going on in the micro-computer world. I also like the fact that it is not as myopic as MacUser (in particular) and the others: I think it is important for Mac users to know what is going on in the rest of micro-land: NeXTs, PCs, Unix, the lot; at least, the important events." [Yup, no reason to be chauvinistic about the Mac. We love it, but other machines certainly have their merits as well.]

"Frankly, I like the candor and dry humor the best. I also like questionnaires that start with a ‘zero’ item."

"Rather irreverent, Mac-based but ecumenical, techno-junkie compatibility "

"The fact that you are enthusiastic Mac users, as opposed to the dry "press release regurgitation" of the mainstream press."

"It’s concise, and it has some interesting editorial viewpoints."

"It brings together various sources and makes something out of the whole mess that is interesting. Often, there are very insightful sources in the stories that do not seem to write in the trade journals." [They are hard to find, but well worth it when we do.]

"I personally like the commentary (editorializing) on the news/rumor items."

"News that I haven’t found elsewhere. Intelligent opinions and conclusions. i.e. stuff that isn’t generally obvious or immediately apparent."

"The collection of news and rumors. The analysis of multiple rumors is logical and insightful."

"Good articles. Not those of a "canned" blurb from a vendor but actually those expressing the overall view of the "viewers"." [Precisely! After all, you "viewers" are the people who count in this game.]

"I like the idea of a coupla people publishing their skewed view of the world (and computers, the Macintosh). I’m not into formality, I think it is possibly one of the main problems with Humanity. Many things, I think, are offshoots of formality. Another perk is that the two major Mac magazines, Macworld and MacUser, are centered around two major Mac user-groupings: stupid people and stupid people with money. I prefer to hear about what people (er, non-stupid ones) are doing with computers (or whatever) or new technologies, et cetera. Ya know?" [Yeah, I do know. Well-thought out comment, especially considering the writer is 14 years old.]

And then of course, is the mission of TidBITS – to provide succinct, timely coverage of interesting events in the computer industry, commercial and non-commercial. We’re glad that we’ve succeeded in this, helping busy people to stay informed without drowning in the sea of information (in which the computer industry provides a strong undertow).

"Its very existence. I don’t read any user magazines for the Mac (they are not interesting enough for what I usually do). TidBITS is the sole source of information concerning the Mac, besides the one presented in comp.sys.mac.digest."

"It stays crunchy in milk. That, and it lets me keep up on some of the more interesting Mac news without falling behind when I don’t have time to read comp.sys.mac.vomit and MacPlanetPerson all the time. " [and we don’t even add BHT for preservative :-)]

"I am most interested in news of products, especially non-commercial which usually don’t appear in MacWEEK et al."

"The way it summarizes interesting Net News, so I don’t have to put up with Net Nerds."

"Technical information (i.e., not beginner information I’ve read 50 times already). Information that I usually don’t see elsewhere (MacOberon, Xanadu, etc…). Product information. Your use of good reference people (such as Kevin Calhoun for HyperCard)" [Since we are experienced Mac users, it’s gotten difficult to write so that a complete novice would understand everything. Partly because of that, we don’t try. Yet, we’ve gotten a number of comments that indicate that TidBITS is still an excellent resource for novices, perhaps in part because it doesn’t talk down to them. It may take a little longer to figure everything out, but once you do, you know it well.]

"TidBITS supplements info for my Mac newsletter. It has summarized some message traffic in comp.sys.mac.* newsgroups. Good insight most of the time."

"The marble-looking background. The compact summary of key topics. The non-tree eating format. The sticktuidness of your on-going dedication. Heck, I almost want to offer my paid subscription." [Not necessary, but the thought is extremely appreciated.]

"Concise useful information. A lot less sensationalist than trade press, actually gives me the information I need and want, rather than a load of bumpf. Much more timely as well, which helps. Summarises discussions from the net, which I would like to follow but miss parts of because our news is so flaky. ("A low priority item")." [Sorry to hear about your news feed – we feel that news should almost always be a high priority item.]

"I think it gives a good overview of current concerns and items of interest. I don’t have the time to wade through all the information that is available to me. "

"Concise and fairly quick reporting. Keep the new product reviews coming!"

"Rumor-style news (i.e. unreleased products). Candid, succinct product comparisons."

And let’s not forget the review listings. This part of TidBITS is the least fun to do for us but is one of the most useful for many people. A friend who works at an Apple dealer in technical support says he refers to his TidBITS Archive several times a day, often for review listings. So while some people use TidBITS for all their Macintosh information, others use it as an essential adjunct to their magazines.

"The index to reviews is the most indispensable feature. You do a great job. For me, the combination of comp.sys.mac.* and TidBITS eliminates any need to subscribe to Mac[WEEK,World,User]. "

"The fact that it is a cumulative stack and the ability to search for a review location without going through the pile of magazines for one, the other thing would be to get the news electronically therefore fast and frequently since it is a weekly."

"I like the list of reviews, however it would be useful to know a little more, such as the length of the article."

One thing that many people in the US forget is that TidBITS is an international publication. It is hard for us to say much about what’s happening in other countries, living in the US as we do, but we do what we can. From what we’ve heard, much of the rest of the world is unfortunately a bit behind the US in the latest and greatest, but TidBITS is helping to even things out. If anyone in another country knows something which you wouldn’t have heard of living anywhere else (like a local developer doing some interesting work), please let us know and we’ll do an article on it.

"To get an overview about articles in US magazines without going to library "

"Short list of products reviewed in Mac magazines. In Europe we get the new magazines about 1 month after they appear in the US. Info is always up to date."

Adam Engst No comments

Like Least?

Of course, if we’re going to print all those nice things people said about us, we have to print the negative comments as well. The majority of the complaints had to do with HyperCard itself and our HyperCard-based reader, which by our own admission is simple at best, if you’re being kind. The descriptions we use currently are more in the range of "god-awful slow" and "brain-damaged." Of course some people do like the reader quite a bit, although we suspect that they mainly like the idea of it and are willing to overlook our implementation problems. In the reader’s favor, all we can say is that if you have enough disk space free (more than the size of the TidBITS Archive stack), it’s stable and it does work.

HyperCard garnered a lot of animosity, some of which is completely deserved (I like the program, but I’ll admit that it has some major problems), and some of which is our fault for not scripting around HyperCard’s limitations.

"My only complaint about TidBITS is that it uses HyperCard, which I think sucks the proverbial pickle. It treats me like an idiot, is slow, and most importantly, the stacks waste enormous amounts of disk space."

"Archiving takes much time and leads to large files. Selective archiving should be supported." [Excellent point. We’ll keep it in mind.]

"The weird way HyperCard makes the scroll bars grey even when there is nothing to scroll." [Luckily, HyperCard 2.0 fixes this.]

"I wouldn’t otherwise keep HyperCard on my hard disk." [Ouch, but I understand. Wait for the tagged text format.]

" Let’s face it, HyperCard is a slow, belabored pig. Why is it that 7 weeks of TidBITS takes up gobs (211K) of my precious (read "damn near full") disk space? Keep It Simple, Stupid has been applied to the implementor, but HC is not the best tool for the end user. I’d much prefer a small application and then you could include the application with each issue in about the same space. Also, I’m sure it would be handy to keep the text of the TidBITS on a UNIX box so I can use tools like grep to find things." [This comment points to the main reasons we’re moving to an implicitly tagged text format, though we wouldn’t include an application with each issue – it would waste too much net bandwidth.]

"Leetle slow " [Lottle slow :-)]

"Various HC weaknesses: too slow (on my lowly Plus); odd textwrap, especially with hyphenation." [Yeah, I edit everything in HyperCard to avoid the worst of it, such as broken curly quotes and parentheses, but it’s still a pain.]

"That my TidBITS Archive gets compacted every time I merge a new issue, which takes about close to one minute on my SE. (What computers do you have?)" [It all takes a while on our SE/30, but I just leave the room for a while.]

"It takes forever to update the *%&(*^ index in the archive stack. (Yes, I realize there probably isn’t much of anything you can do about this.)" [There is, but it requires a complete revamping of the Archive and the distribution stacks, which would cause so much confusion that we’ve avoided doing it. I just leave the room when I’m doing it.]

"It’s slow to move from one end of the archive to the other, and there’s no REALLY easy way to print out an article to share it with people paper-wise." [Agreed. The speed problems will be fixed, and printing support will be added (which is much easier in HyperCard 2.0), much as I want TidBITS to stay as electronic as possible.]

"The text window is too small and is unstyled." [The window in the HyperCard 2.0 version will be resizable, at least between two common (9" and 13") sizes. Nothing we could do about the styles originally, since HyperCard 1.x didn’t support different styles, but that will be fixed too.]

And then there are the specific complaints about our interface. The next version of the interface will be very different, but should address the problems mentioned here.

"That it uses a different background on each issue when archive stack is made." [We fixed the background problem with TidBITS-025, I think. A major culprit was the quotes.]

"I’m not sure that I like the new font. It is a little small for me." [The font will be user-specified. We were just trying to put more text on the screen at once.]

"The magic menubar (just show it, will you?)." [Sorry, it won’t be in the next version.]

"I don’t like the fact that the index field on the left of the screen does a "find" to locate a card after you’ve clicked on the topic. In the archive stack, this becomes a very lengthy task (even on an IIfx). It would be better if the index stored the card id number and you could just go to that automatically." [You’re right, it’s dumb, but it’s also easy and a short, efficient script.]

"The opening screen of disclaimers." [Agreed. The disclaimers will eventually move to the end and shorten significantly.]

And then there were the people who have been reading our minds all along.

"The HyperCard format is unnecessary. Straight text would be better. (Remember that I don’t use the archive feature.)" [Yup, we’re working on an implicitly tagged text format that will take over as the primary distribution format eventually.]

"Non text form distribution, making it practically impossible to read it without first transferring to Mac." [That’s another reason for the implicitly tagged text file format – TidBITS will be readable on any platform.]

"HyperCard format has to be downloaded to read." [Yup, that’s the main advantage of the text format – you can read it online and download if you want to archive it.]

At first, we didn’t think about how much time would be spent reading the articles and did not allot enough space to the main text field. Heck, we were surprised that TidBITS became as popular as it did as quickly as it did, which accounts for many of the interface problems.

"The interface, which spends a lot of screen real estate that probably could be better used. The field in which the article is in doesn’t take up more that 1/4 of the screen, and that should be increased. For starters, I think the sources should be mentioned at the end of the article instead of in their own field to save some space."

"Rather small main text window, because too much of the standard HyperCard is taken up by gizmos (such as an overly-prominent cite window). I’m not used to reading out of a 5" window, which is small even in a 9" screen, much less my 13" screen."

"I think there’s too much precious turf devoted to static advertisement (of the source) in the reader."

This is the part that hurts to read and isn’t pleasant to print, but hey, fair is fair.

"Lengthy and arcane philosophical rambling about hypertext." [Ah, sorry about that. We like the idea of hypertext and electronic text too much and do tend to go off on it a bit on occasion.]

"Sometimes too much rehashing of things I’d already read in the Mac groups." [That’s part of the point, but we always try to add information to the news we get from sources you may have access to already.]

"Long articles about nothing interesting; difficult to read for strangers." [As much as we try, we can’t please everyone. However, we’re delighted to print articles or reviews submitted by readers, so if you want to see or spread information about a topic we’re ignoring, send us information or an article. We also try to avoid writing about topics about which we know nothing, which contributes to missing certain topics. Help us fill in the gaps!]

"I’d prefer more fact and less rumor." [Whenever possible, we try to stick to fact, but sometimes it can’t be helped. I think we do passably well on rumors that come true. It’s only false rumors that are a pain.]

"I am not interested in reading opinions about the "future of …"" [Sorry. With the speed at which the computer industry moves, "the future of…" very well may be next week, which is why we often think that information is valuable.]

"Cute comments." [I highly recommend reading press releases then, they never have any cute comments.]

"No complaints. Though not every installment has exactly what I’m interested in (neither does MacUser) it’s pretty good for what you offer." [That’s what we aim for, thanks.]

"Too much concentration on "Well known" programs like Illustrator and PageMaker that poor people like me have never even seen." [I understand your complaint, but since I write over 90% of the articles, it’s hard for me to write much about programs that aren’t well enough known for me to have seen. Again, if you or anyone else wants to let the world know about a great unknown product, tell me or write an article or review about it.]

"Occasionally there’s not very much interesting news in an issue." [Occasionally there’s not very much interesting news in a week :-)]

"The political editorializing." [Sorry if that has offended you. We try to avoid political news except when it intersects with the computer industry, at which point the views offered are based on our opinions of the industry, not on our opinions of the political environment. We do take a few potshots at the political system on occasion since it’s such an easy target – we’ll try to watch that. I hope at least someone noticed that we never even mentioned the Middle East – it wasn’t relevant.]

"Economy – all those market things… but sometimes they’re necessary." [Yes, they are. As much as I dislike it, I’m beginning to believe my own jesting motto "All the world’s a marketing scheme." To understand and predict the industry accurately, we have to pay attention to the wheeling and dealing. We do try to make it interesting, since there’s little that more boring than financial news to many people.]

"US bias" [Absolutely nothing we can do about this complaint without help from you, our international readers. Tell you what. If enough people from enough other countries send us information about the state of the Macintosh in their country, we’ll edit it all together and release a special issue on the International State of the Mac. So if you don’t live in the US, send us your views on the Mac in your country. Operators are standing by.]

Here we thought that everyone would want a short, succinct summary of the week’s interesting events. But no, it turns out that lots of people want more and more from TidBITS. We just can’t spare the time, though if a company wanted to give us lots of money to produce TidBITS, we might be able to find more time.

"Amount of info in each issue, could be bigger."

"I would like more gossip and news, but that’s a small beef. You guys do a real nice job."

"Limited information, I know there are only a couple of you working on producing TidBITS."

"It could have more news ,the size is irrelevant at least for me as long as it has valuable news"

"The few instances where information is vague or missing, such as "it may or may not be v.everything." You probably could have found the answer to the question that this phrase implies by giving your source another phone call. I am not blaming you. I know you can’t spend as much time as someone who is paid for such work. I am simply fishing for the thing I like the least and there isn’t really anything that truly annoys me." [Yup, we just can’t be as thorough as would be ideal, but at least we admit it when we don’t know and seldom make completely inaccurate statements.]

"Information I can get easily elsewhere." [We can’t be completely different from other publications each week in terms of subject matter, but I hope that our format, article selection, and opinions set us apart enough to make reading TidBITS worthwhile. And try finding something in MacWEEK a few months after the fact.]

"I have already read most of the articles from the mainstream press which you re-review for your readers. Go for some new underground news!" [We’d love to, but we’re limited by our sources, many of whom are not in the mainstream press. If you or anyone else know of underground news, please tell us!]

"The fact that it’s getting smaller as it goes on. It’s too useful to disappear entirely." [I think that was a temporary trend before the first of the year when everything slowed down for a while and there simply wasn’t much interesting news.]

A few more miscellaneous complaints.

"The reviews. (I don’t think I get any of the magazines) (Oh, and the names, sounds very downmarket – tabloid newspaper type – sounds like your articles are on the same level as the Sunday Sport -‘Space Alien ate my hamster’)" [The reviews are mostly useless if you don’t get the magazines, but a lot of people do find them very useful. As far as the titles go, we’re trying to keep them short and light – short because the index field isn’t that wide, and light because otherwise they’re just plain boring. And please accept my condolences on your hamster :-)]

"Written in English :-)" [Very little we can do about that, but if you want to translate each issue into your native tongue, please feel free.]

"Not having a quote of the week anymore. I can see where they would be hard to find, but they were interesting." [They were a lot of work, a big pain to find, and were the primary reason a new background was created every week before TidBITS-025.]

"Timeliness of information" [We try our hardest, but sometimes we have to wait a week or two to gather more information on a subject and figure out what we’re going to write about it. If you know about something interesting and we haven’t written about it yet, please tell us.]

Finally, a few miscellaneous suggestions about features that are lacking.

"No binary file attachments. You say things about various public domain packages and yet, for those of us without FTP abilities, we see no such programs. It would be FANTASTIC if you added a button (where the quote was) to "extract" the attachments. They could be anything from programs to actual images of various things. Even sound! I think this would be great. Again for those of us with limited resources to snarf the programs anyway. If no "attachments" were available, you could have it dump the text file of information along with the references." [This is a good idea, but given the size of many freely distributable programs and utilities, it wouldn’t be efficient. After all, you’d hate me if I attached a 200K file that you already had or weren’t interested in and you still had to download it all.]

"You ought to incorporate a little hypertext of your own, cross-referencing, if you intend it to be reference." [We’ve been thinking about this, but it’s unreasonable to impress our ideas on what should be linked on others. More reasonable would be a general purpose linking tool, but that involves a lot of work on your part. Suggestions are welcome, especially since we haven’t thought of anything ideal.]

Adam Engst No comments

New Articles?

When we ran the survey in December we were curious about area we might be completely missing, partly because the news had dried up a bit at that time. With the new year and Macworld Expo in San Francisco, though, the news picked up and we had no trouble thinking of things to write about. The common theme is that we don’t know everything, and we don’t write much about things we don’t know. The remedy for this situation, other than us becoming omniscient? Write an article and send it to us! In any event, here are some suggestions of new types of articles from the survey and our comments on them.

"Possibly one-line summaries in the reviews section. However, I fear that this might be hopelessly difficult and/or biased." [Summaries would be nice, it’s true, but very difficult and treading on the copyright line.]

"More about MIDI vs Mac" [Love to, want to write me an article? I know nothing about MIDI.]

"Complete reviews of products (NISUS 3.0 !!!)" [Well, we’ve done a couple now, and I hope they’ve been useful. Nisus isn’t on the list for upcoming ones right now, if only because it’s so powerful that it would take a long time for a review to do it justice. I can’t recommend Nisus highly enough.]

"I miss the home gardening features you used to have. No, wait… that wasn’t you. Well… how about info on product UPGRADES and how to get them?" [We’re anxiously waiting to see how the irises we transplanted last fall come up, and our patch of garlic and chives is doing well. Upgrades? When they’re interesting enough, they merit an article, such as the Double Helix upgrade we wrote about recently.]

"Other sources of information i.e.. real people and an description of what they are doing, more articles from your user base." [We take what we can get in terms of articles from our readers.]

"Perhaps a series of short articles on how to get information about the Mac (such as stuff from Info-Mac or Apple that you can get by FTP)." [Good idea, we’ll keep it in mind.]

"Survey result of users of various commercial/non-commercial products, gathered from on-line users; by reading Usenet Mac newsgroups, especially comp.mac.apps, I think many many people would willingly participate surveys conducted by you expecting their information would help a lot of TidBITS readers." [Unfortunately, although this is a good idea, surveys are just way too much work. Look how long it took us to finish this one. 🙂 It is a good way to gather information if someone else wants to write an article for us, though.]

"Perhaps a frequently updated column of the "N most asked questions (with frequently updated answers)" could be handled well with HyperCard. Readers could continually add refinements which would be edited into comprehensive answers." [A good idea, but not really in our scope, since a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) file (a) isn’t really news, and (b) is already being done in comp.sys.mac.announce on Usenet. If asked, we might publish that file once, since it does carry a great deal of useful information.]

"How to articles for beginners & experts, or summaries of where these can be obtained." [Again, not quite in our scope, because such articles have a relatively small appeal (since few people are both interested in and ignorant of the same subject. Also, the main magazines do a bunch of these sort of articles.]

"Trends in consumer satisfaction or dissatisfaction. For example, many people who were burned by Jasmine could have avoided it if they had access to honest information rather than the fluff that was being published by all of the Mac magazines six months after it became apparent on the networks that Jasmine was in deep trouble. Alternately, there could be more user promotion of underdog products like Nisus whose treatment in the popular press seems directly related to the amount they spend on advertising." [Good points, and we do try to reflect the tenor of the net conversations. Sometimes we hit the trends, other times we miss them. Our Usenet access is a pain right now (VMSNEWS via 2400 baud, ech!), so we aren’t as up on the nets as we should be. If someone sees a trend on the nets, please tell us about it!]

"I’d like to see a regular letters to the editor card. I think it’s a little intimidating to have to write a whole story in response to a minor point. I would like to see articles on cutting edge uses of technology and future trends." [Excellent idea, which we’ve recently implemented as MailBITS.]

"Interviews with Mac Weenies." [Difficult to carry on via email, which is the only way we wish to afford to communicate. Long distance calls add up fast when you’re interviewing people.]

"I like the content of TidBITS pretty much as it is, but if pushed, I would like to see comparative articles. E.g., which is better (and why): StuffIt, Compactor, DiskDoubler, MacCompress, Diamond etc.; or Maple vs. Mathematica vs. Theorist vs. etc." [These are certainly in demand, but are often beyond our resources. Ken Hancock did an excellent compression comparison, and the other subjects are wide open for the rest of you.]

"Reports on interesting things at the big computer shows, MLA, and other events I don’t get to." [If you don’t get to them, we probably don’t either. Our standard offers still applies. If you want to cover a trade show for TidBITS and write articles on what happened, we’ll write you a nice letter to the management saying that you are a member of the press and should get a press pass. If you fail to deliver on the articles, though, you won’t get a second chance and we’ll be irritated at you.]

"Vertical-market specific articles. How are people employing existing technology to produce results." [Interesting stuff, I’m sure, but we don’t generally come across it. Let us know if you see something interesting and want to write about it]

"Announcements of new university-level educational Mac software" [Since we’re not heavy-duty educators, this is hard for us to cover. I realize I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but if it interests you and will interest others, write about it for us, whatever it is.]

"I hate to say it, but more coverage of the DOS side would be useful." [We cover DOS stuff when it’s interesting, which isn’t all that often, unfortunately."]

"How about an electronic version of MacUser’s MiniFinders?" [MacUser already has a HyperCard stack with their MiniFinders in it, and they promised to send it to me when I renewed my subscription. I haven’t received it yet and am getting a little irritated.]

"A section with technical TidBITS-type tips on HC 2.0?" [We try to avoid concentrating on a single program like HyperCard because many people are likely to be uninterested.]

"No suggestions, just a request to keep "how to" articles out of TidBITS." [Within limits, I agree, since they generally target too small of an audience.]

"I like to see more MacNews, because it takes 2 months for a piece of information to get from US to the Nordic MacPress." [We try our best, but we also want to keep each issue small so it doesn’t become a major time drain to read.]

"How about keeping track of software versions – this could be a real task in itself, but it would be nice to have a stack that was updated monthly that contained this info." [A good idea, but not really suited to TidBITS.]

"Well, since you asked, how about digitized computer cartoons" [Augh, and we wanted to move to a text-only format! Well, there’s a possibility of binhexed pictures in the text, but it starts getting really messy then.]

"Why not include a few IIgs TidBITS – it has hypermedia too" [We’d love to, but we don’t have a IIgs and don’t hear any information about it normally. It was nice to hear that someone on GEnie converted the Xanadu special issue into IIgs HyperCard format.]

"I’d like to see more cutting edge stuff (i.e. Xanadu, AI, Neural nets 3D displays, etc.)" [We try, but sometimes it’s hard to find that sort of information.]

"More info on great shareware utilities." [Agreed. We’ll work on this.]

"Is there any chance you could include Murph’s monthly Vaporware column in TidBITS?" [We’d have to ask Murph, but my impression is that much of what appears in his column is either covered in TidBITS or judged by us to be not worth an article. Also, his column is closer to misappropriation since he’s not adding much to the news from the magazines.]

Adam Engst No comments

Make TidBITS Easier?

As much as we like to pretend that everything in the electronic world is easy, there are a number of things we could do to make TidBITS easier to get each week. Here are the best of the suggestions.

"A plain text version, as in comp.sys.tidbits (moderated), with articles distributed in batches (as now) and separately." [A Usenet group is a good idea, though comp.sys.mac.digest is appropriate currently. If we ever start doing versions specifically for other platforms as well, it wouldn’t be appropriate to use the Mac groups to distribute them. We’ll keep it in mind.]

"Well, I suppose if you delivered it to my door…FTP is about as easy as you can get…I don’t even have to leave my room." [Ah, if we delivered it to your door you’d have to get up and answer the door and make small talk for a while. FTP is better. :-)]

"A dedicated T1 link between Penguin Things and BAKA." [Sorry, we’re waiting for ISDN instead.]

"I am happy with the current configuration and distribution methods. KISS" [Thanks, we’re trying to Keep It Simple, Stupid (for those of you who haven’t heard the acronym before.]

"I like your method of electronic distribution. The part I dislike is having to unBinHex and unStuff the file to read it." [Yeah, the defunking is a pain.]

"Distribute it by mailing list on the Internet." [We tried that initially and crashed a few mainframes running old versions of BSD mailers that couldn’t handle over 200 people on a mailing list. Now everything goes out from our Mac via QuickMail, which isn’t smart enough to send a single copy up to the Unix host and distribute from there, so there’s no way we could run a mailing list from here. Usenet, local mailing lists (like one at the University of Michigan), and eventually a LISTSERV are better methods of distribution.]

"A fax mailing list. Do you have a fax? Send the paper around. Charge a nominal fee for distribution to cover the cost of the fax and extra phone lines. This came up as a group of us sat around discussing how to distribute electronic newsletters, or Hypermags." [Fax machines are ubiquitous, but ecologically disastrous. For every document, two pieces of paper must be used (one on the sending end, unless you have a fax modem, and one on the receiving end), and most fax paper is not even recyclable. So as much as it would probably be a worthwhile service, we prefer to keep TidBITS off paper as much as possible.]

"Hand delivered by messenger on a Double Density floppy immediately upon release. Silver platter optional." [Is that a single or double density silver platter that you were wanting?]

"I cannot think of anything which would make TidBITS easier to acquire and/or read. Perish the thought that it should be anything other than electronic." [Hear hear!]

"Why not make your text-version of TidBITS easy to manipulate within GNU Emacs? Using Rmail-like features, one could read, search, and ARCHIVE TidBITS on any system with GNU Emacs. Future versions of GNU Emacs are said to have Hypertext features, too. There are probably enough Emacs experts out there willing to help. Also, you could develop a small program of your own (say, written in portable C) to read, search, and archive TidBITS on CRT-based Unix systems. If you carefully and thoughtfully build some "hooks" into your TidBITS text format, maybe some talented TidBITS enthusiasts will do the Emacs/Unix programming for you…(I wish I had the time/talent for this sort of thing…)" [The implicit tags in the text format should be perfect for this sort of thing, though we don’t have the time or talent for that type of thing either. Someone will though, and then the Unix world will have an excellent TidBITS reader.]

"A global wireless communication network with 10E12 baud bandwidth, speaking with a pocket-size pocket-weight computer with a 2000 pixels/inch, 48-bit colour screen, gigabytes of non-volatile memory, available to all at no monetary cost. (NB. This is not a joke.)" [No, it’s not a joke, and although we agree with you, there’s not too much we can do to help make this a reality sooner.]

"FTP source" [Check out and]

"Where is it on CompuServe and how can I set up the Navigator 3.0 to find it, and download it." [I believe it’s in the HyperCard section, but I don’t know for sure since I don’t upload there. For some reason, TidBITS is not very popular on CompuServe. Does anyone know why? Is it merely because no one has particularly noticed it? It seems strange that smaller services like America Online and GEnie should have much larger download counts than CompuServe.

"Availability via a Bitnet LISTSERVer, in plain text if possible, NOT .hqx (ideally a LISTSERV for each format, readers could subscribe to whichever they prefer)" [We hope to set up a LISTSERV once we move to the text format. I doubt we’d be able to get another one for the .hqx format.]

"FTPable up to date archive, with incrementals at the issue, quarter, and annual levels." [The only problem is the file sizes. The TidBITS Archive with all the issues in it will be about 3.5 MB in size, which is a bit much for most people to FTP. We tried monthly archives for a while, but didn’t get much positive feedback (actually we didn’t get any feedback, positive or negative), so we gave up on the extra work.]

"Text-based distribution, provided that the "import" function is BULLET-PROOF. The novelty is in using the stack as a reader. I don’t even like the idea of reading the weekly stack. I’d rather start up the Archive stack, have it ask me if there is anything new to import, and then magically scroll down to the new stuff. Maybe with a "New Stuff" button that gets you there quick." [Definitely a good idea, and one which will be possible with the text distribution files.]

"Upload to GEnie as well. Other than the $5 monthly charge, there is no fee for uploading software (or using mail and certain other services too)." [TidBITS is on GEnie, although since I don’t do the uploading, I don’t know where offhand. I’m sure it’s not all that hard to find.]

"Again, since you asked. If you would fly weekly to Austin, take a cab to my apartment, and read TidBITS to me while I shower in the morning, other than that, it’s fine." [Would you like your towel warmed too?]

"Write them in Finnish." and "Write in French!" [Neither French nor Finnish are within our linguistic abilities. Ancient Greek is, but it’s awfully hard to write about computers in Ancient Greek, and at the speed I write Ancient Greek, the issues would only be about twenty sentences long each week.]

"Some press releases on networks about it. (It took me some time to find out that it was worth downloading) Perhaps the ECHOMAC moderator would permit a small plug for it. Also, the dating system – using the week starting… format gives the impression that it’s a week out of date. Reading something dated 03-Dec-90 on 12-Dec-90 gives a feeling of lateness. Changing to day of publication would help." [If you know of a network that doesn’t know about TidBITS feel free to post some informational messages there for us. Alternately, let us know and we’ll send you some of the blurbs we’ve used on occasion. And thanks for the comment on the dates – we changed that for 1991.]

"It would be more timely if it were uploaded directly to the Twilite Clone or passed through Fidonet. At this point I believe that it is passed along by another subscriber." [We were sending a few issues to a Will McLean for distribution on Fidonet, but then a mainframe that delivered the mail to him claimed that nothing was getting through for several weeks. If someone who is well connected would post to Fidonet for us, we’d be grateful.]

"A secretary to download it for me." [Sure you don’t want a secretary to download it and defunk it and read it to you when you’re in the shower like the other guy?]

"If AOL fixed the damn 2400 line I use to access." [I gather that most of the AOL lines are actually owned and operated by Tymnet and Telenet, so complain to them as well as the AOL folks.]

"An archive server from which I can request back-issues via mail (ain’t got no FTP)." [Ah, the "Ain’t Got No FTP Blues." Try sending mail with the only line being HELP to [email protected] or [email protected] They run a mail server that shadows sumex-aim.]

"A TidBITS 1-800 number BBS with a complete library" [We’ve thought about it, but it’s too expensive unless a company sponsors it, and it’s not really what we do best. We prefer to encourage wide distribution so everyone can get TidBITS easily locally.]

"You might consider creating a LISTSERV list that automatically mailed out new volumes across the Internet, something like the way Info-Mac is distributed. And you could get a better idea of your audience that way by seeing who subscribes." [Precisely! We hope to do just this when we move to text format.]

"I could move to Ithaca." [True, but I have a feeling that physical location doesn’t make too much difference with TidBITS, whereas it does with other things in life. Besides, Cornell is constantly under construction, which messes up the place a bit. Nice gorges though.]

Adam Engst No comments

Favorite color

I should have known. The most common answer was blue. My pseudo-statistics claim that it comprised about 41% of the total, followed distantly by red (13%), green (9%), and black (8%), yellow (7%), grey (6%), and purple (5%). Other colors showed up as well in lesser numbers: white (3%), orange (2%), taupe (1%), mauve (1%), and puce (1%).

The most common non-answer was the famous line from Monty Python’s Holy Grail movie. The only problem is that the 13 people couldn’t agree on what the colors really were, though it looks like blue is probably the first of the two colors. As for the second color, it’s either red or yellow or maybe the character didn’t get to saying what it was. Interesting how everyone tried to render the scream into ASCII. I wonder if Unicode will be able to do that better. 🙂

Blue… No, Yellow. Ahhhhhhhh!!!
Red, no blue…Aaaaagggghhhhhh.
Blue…No, RED!!! (Copyright Monty Python)
Blue. No, yellow. AAAAAAaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!
Blue…no red! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
Yellow…no, blue!
Blue!…No, yellow! AAAAAAArrrrrrrrgggggghhhhhh!
Blue! No… Aaarrrggghh!
blue… no… AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHhhhhhhhhhhhhhh………..
blue…no…yellow aaaaaiiiiiiiggggggghhhhhhhhhhh
Red… no green AAAAAAaaaaaugghh…
Blue, no yellow… Aaaaaarrrrrgggghhhhh!

A number of people were philosophically bothered by the question, as evidenced by these selections. Some answered anyway, others didn’t.

"Blue. But the usefulness of this one question to TidBITS beets me." [and I thought beets were red :-)]

"Sorry, that information requires a security clearance."

"Red. (Will this be used to weight my answer?)"

"Gray (is this a Monty Python question?)"

"I can’t imagine how you can correlate color to the rest… " [me either :-)]

"Skyblue (What is this for???)"

"For what fast food or fast cars?"

"What a silly question. Let’s upset the stats. I don’t have one." [oh no! the stats are invalid now! :-)]

"In the abstract, blue – depends on what it’s used for."

"This is obviously a trick question. Black & white, of course."

"More information is required here. Color in what context? Cars? -Ans: Red. Sky? -Ans: Blue. Screen background? -Ans: Tan (easy on the eyes)."

A number of people were also worried that the question had something to do with what sort of Mac they used.

"Blue… (but I’ve got a b&w monitor if that’s what you’re interested in…)"

"Red; but I don’t have a color Mac, if that’s what you’re after…"

"I have a lowly SE at work, a 1984 128K->1M at home."

"I don’t think this question is essential to me since everything on my Mac always appears black and white."

"Grey. Really. OK, maybe not really. Maybe only because I have a monochrome screen. OK, midnight blue."

As with any extremely personal question, when put on the spot, many people were indecisive.

"Today, black for gadgets, green for most other things – but I draw the line at green skin (except for insects & reptiles)"

"Don’t really know, if pushed maybe yellows & browns."

"Not a single one. I like good associations of two or more colors."

"It has changed many times over the years (from purple to green to black to blue) I think it’s probably blue now, although a sentimental spot is still held for purple."

"Light blue. Although, any sort of blue is really okay."

"Can I have two? Great. Green and orange. If I can only have one, then it’s green."

"This question always interests me, and I’m glad you asked. I don’t think I really have a favorite color, I think I can only like colors in some sort of context, for example "Does this tie go with these cufflinks?" and such. The condensed answer is Green."

"I never could decide."

And then there were the answers that made me really wonder…

"I don’t have one; I have a favorite number, 5."

"The Blues, up & down."

"I don’t have a favorite color. I am, however, very fond of the smell of violets."


"Nope, it ain’t taupe. How about cobalt blue?"

"Total black (I’m still waiting for a car in this color. The Dodge Stealth is not it. The NeXT may be. :-)" [When Steve Jobs came to Cornell, there was a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Cornell NeXT lab. During the question and answer session, someone asked him about the black color of the NeXTs. He said that they were actually a dark grey. Sorry.]


"Judging by my closet, grey. (What do you expect, I’m an accountant.)"

A number of people obviously remember their Crayola crayon boxes from childhood, to judge from some of these answers.

"Jet black"
"Bruin Blue"
"tundra blue"
"Eleanor Blue"
"Xmas red"
"Spontaneous Vermillion"
"Dodger Blue"
"mauve turquoise"

Adam Engst No comments

Miscellaneous comments

We thought we had made the survey easy to answer, but some people still had trouble, such as this response to "What is your name?" "Sam Potts…um, no! it’s Wayne Pollock (Damn these are tough questions :-)"

A few people have really caught on to the idea of electronic communication replacing paper communication, such as the people who made these concise comments.

"Responding electronically-want to save trees"

"Timeliness and electronic format. No messy paper to deal with!"

And of course there were the comments about surveys, such as this one. "A colleague recently did a small survey, asking "Pick a number between 1 and 4." He’d heard that well over half the time respondents would pick 3. It turned out to be correct…"

If you give people a chance to score themselves, there’s always a couple who will go whole hog and give answers for nonexistent questions.

"Extra answers for bonus points: 1 7 3 5 8 9 3 "

"18-Blue…No, RED!!! (Copyright Monty Python) 19-No thanks, and you? 20-Dire Straits are not so bad, but why RUSH never comes in France?"

Interestingly enough, even though the average score for how knowledgeable you were as a Mac user was 8 of 10, engineers who’ve been working on the Mac for years tended to rate themselves relatively modestly, such as this person. "Knowledgeable Mac user (if a DOS user who has never seen a Mac is 0 on the scale): I’d argue that a DOS user would be several points BELOW zero. Many, many points. Legions and legions of numbers, obediently lined in rows and columns towering over the <ahem> I digress. I’d say I’m a nine. I’ve had a Mac since the Fat Mac days. I write code. If I wrote great code, I’d be a ten."

Adam Engst No comments

The End

When it comes right down to it, the world is weird, and I hope we’re all having a good time. Thanks for your support.

Adam C. Engst & Tonya Byard, TidBITS Editors