My life as an author

Josette Garcia is O’Reilly‘s UK Press Office – and before that she worked for another, significantly less groovy, tech publisher. She worked there, in fact, when I got my first (and only) book deal. I was paid an advance (the figure £400 comes to mind) to write a book about Mosaic. Yes, Mosaic. Naturally enough, by the time I’d written the first couple of chapters Mosaic was no more. And so was my book deal.

Anyway, Josette has sent me another box of lovely books for review so here are the highlights: I reckon you could actually do the whole podcasting thing using just Kirk McElhearn, Richard Giles & Jack D Herrington’s very slim Podcasting Pocket Guide without going out and buying its companion – the much fatter Podcasting Hacks (and it’s got a mini-directory of podcasts at the back like those directories of web sites we used to buy in the old days).

I really want to have a go at learning to program in Ruby using Chris Pine’s Learn to Program but I think his informal, not to say chummy, style might drive me crazy before I can (not that I could anyway – I’ve tried to learn to program several times going all the way back to an effort with Modula 2 in about 1990). Rich Gibson & Schuyler Erle’s Google Maps Hacks is deep, very deep. Too deep for me but probably right up your street for that mash-up you’ve been banging on about in the pub. Get on with it.

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Book Review: brand fanaticism

The Cult of Mac, front cover, Leander Kahney, No Starch Press
Understanding Mac users used to be quite easy. For a few years at the beginning (maybe 1984–1989) Macs were undeniably cool and undeniably better than anything else you could buy. I encountered my first Mac in 1984 or 1985. Apple had made a gift of first-generation Macs to my college (the Polytechnic of Central London). I’d never met a computer before. I’m at least five years too old to have encountered one at school so I missed my inoculation of BBC, Spectrum, Atari and the rest. I’d never played a computer game (or even an arcade game). I knew nothing about programming or microprocessors or PCs or anything, really. As a result I was outside the geek/jock or geek/creative opposition. It never occurred to me that getting interested in computers might be in any way problematic, that people might reclassify me or demote me as a result.

I sort of figured this out, though, when I nearly failed my degree because I used a computer and not a camera to produce my degree show (although my attachment to the Crown & Sceptre in Great Titchfield Street might have had something to do with this. I blame Paul, anyway). So I figured out these strange new machines (I unpacked and set up quite a lot of them, even had a key to the computer room for a while) and began using them to make work for my degree course (which was a BA in photography). I finally conned my Dad into buying me one in 1985 – it had 512Kb of RAM and a 400Kb (single-sided) floppy disk drive (no hard disk, obviously) – it cost more than my latest Powerbook – about a year’s student grant, at the time. A fortnight later I blew about three months wages from my evening job at Marks & Spencer on a second floppy drive because I was getting a repetitive strain injury from swapping disks (they never mentioned that in the swanky West End Apple Centre where I bought it).

My Mac was a sort of khaki-beige and exotic and unutterably magnetic – I couldn’t stay away from it. It ran the excellent early MS Word, MacPaint, MacDraw, (later PageMaker, SuperPaint and the quite amazing HyperCard) and another lovely Word Processor called Nisus, which, weirdly, survives and has become my primary WP again). The Mac’s early ‘bong’ start-up sound is a perfectly preserved memory and the thought of it rushes me back to my cosy, top floor bedroom in Camberwell (and staying up late with the World Service and big mugs of tea and rounds of toast fetched from downstairs at hourly intervals). In my final year dissertation (1988) I quoted Derrida and Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto and used the Sun Microsystems copy line ‘The Network is the Computer‘ as a title. I cited Byte magazine more often than any other publication. No one (and I mean no one) understood what I was on about (including me, to be quite honest). I sort of had a vague idea that there was some connection between computers, images and language. Of course, I totally failed to prove this connection and I think my dismal 2.2 was a pretty good measure of the thought involved.

When I left college in 1988, Apple’s first golden age was already coming to an end. Jobs was on his way out, making way for a long dismal decade of increasingly cheesy beige boxes; a sad, botched licensing effort (anyone remember the appalling Gil Amelio?) and the slow demise of the eccentric and over-priced Newton (didn’t stop me buying four of them, though). The remarkable thing about Apple is that the firm’s fanatical following survived the middle period at all. The irony of the period is that the brand wasn’t sustained by the band of radical early adopters who were in at the beginning but by the people they’d become – the ‘can’t-change-won’t-change’ fuddy duddies with hair growing out of their ears (people like me). We bought Macs because we knew no better and were terrified of the alternatives. Anyway, somehow, the brand survived the extended suicide attempt of the 90s and has now been translated into an utterly unique luxury brand meets cult product.

In fact, when you’re trying to place Apple on the spectrum of brands it’s much easier to put it with the kookier fashion and lifestyle brands than with the other PC manufacturers: it’s Manolo Blahnik, FCUK, Diesel, fancy mountain bikes and hi-tech watches. This is why it’s very difficult to imagine the displacement of iPod and the iLifestyle in general by a tech or consumer electronics brand like Microsoft or even Sony. It’ll probably take a Virgin or a Calvin Klein to slow Apple’s progress in this weird collision of Moore’s law and downtown style. In the meantime, I think I can recommend The Cult of Mac, a fat, nicely-designed coffee table book covering in one- and two-page features pretty much every weird corner of the Mac universe – from the subculture of fantasy Mac designs to the hordes of people proudly bearing Apple tattoos on their arses. I say I think I can recommend the book because, belonging as I do to the hairy-eared old-timers, I may not be in the book’s true target audience. I feel a bit self-conscious in the presence of the teens and geeks and goths and video artists who seem to be the brand’s biggest fans these days. Maybe I should get a Dell.

Incidentally, the enterprising No Starch Press also published last year’s Apple Confidential which entertained me for weeks with Mac trivia of the highest order.

Book review: go on… build your own

Building the Perfect PC - front cover
You could build your own car or your own TV but it would be rubbish. I suppose you could build pretty much anything (an aeroplane, a house, a speedboat…) if you wanted to – people do, don’t they – but a routine cost-benefit analysis (can I be bothered?) probably keeps that kind of silliness to a minimum. Complex, information-age consumer products are best left to the experts – high-tech manufacturing is now a race-to-the-bottom business. It’s all about volume, just-in-time, vanishing margins, consolidation and fugitive economies of scale.

Of course, there’s an exception to this rule and – importantly – the exception is the pivotal device for the whole era: the PC. People build their own PCs all the time and the PCs they build are not rubbish. In fact, quite often, they’re better, faster (much faster) and cheaper than the off-the-shelf variety. A benign collision of standardisation, commodisation and the strange voodoo of Moore’s Law means that you can assemble your own PC from the best parts available for about $5 more than buying one from Dell or HPaq or Packard Bell (or Walmart or Tesco for that matter). Of course, you’ll need to belong to the hyper-evolved geek sub-species with tiny Phillips screwdrivers for fingers but you really won’t need to be Einstein or even a proper engineer.

The nice people at O’Reilly have identified a promising market in the self-build crowd – Building the Perfect PC is not their first DIY book and it won’t be their last. This one’s like a Haynes Manual or a particularly practical recipe book. Many terrifying, flash-lit photographs and a relentlessly practical, can-do tone of voice are going to keep this book out of the NY Times bestseller list indefinitely but those same factors might just spread the self-build habit beyond its natural Practical Electronics audience and that has to be a good thing. I think it’s probably important that, while the super-rich and super-crazy are building manned orbiters, the moderately technologically-engaged and the simply curious are building their own stupidly over-specced and over-clocked computers down here on the planet’s surface.

I really don’t think I’m ready to glue a heatsink to my CPU or to set up two hard drives for RAID 1 but I really like the fact that there are people out there ready and willing to do just that. 400 years ago a small band of geeks fixated on a new and more efficient way of reproducing ideas called printing. Problem by problem they figured out how to distribute written culture to an ever wider audience. The hardware geeks may not change the course of human culture but they’re in the same territory – in their sheds and back rooms they’re fearlessly re-engineering and improving upon the 21st Century’s most basic infrastructure. I’m really quite excited to see where they’ll take us.

(A Google search for “build your own” produces 4,140,000 results!)

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