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Form and Content

Essay by Ed Quillen

Publishing – February 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

IN SOME WAYS, I was looking forward to a minor Y2K collapse. In my ideal cataclysm, the water and sewer would have to continue functioning, since indoor plumbing is an aspect of modern civilization that I want to keep, and besides, the spot where the privy used to be in our yard is now occupied by a handsome plum tree.

But the electricity, telephone, and natural gas could have gone off for a few days, and suited me fine. We had enough canned food in the pantry to get by for the better part of a week. The house has two wood-burning stoves, one of them a kitchen range, and there’s a woodpile next to the alley. Coleman lanterns give plenty of light, although mine burns white gas and it’s hard to find parts for it any more because propane models have pretty much taken over.

Maybe I’m romanticizing, but a few days of splitting wood and feeding stoves, otherwise occupied with reading and board games, never interrupted by telephone calls or faxes or email — that sounds a lot like a vacation, and this one wouldn’t have involved the vexations and expense of travel.

Plus, when the utility services resumed, I’d certainly appreciate them more than when I take it for granted that there will be light when I flip a switch.

But Salida remained lit after the fireworks boomed from Tenderfoot Hill during the first minutes of 2000, and on the home-office front, the oldest computer in the network said it was Jan. 3, 1980 when it booted.

That problem was easy to fix, as was another date problem in an incremental backup program I had written years ago, before I discovered better techniques for date arithmetic.

The trick is to set an arbitrary date in the past, calculate how many days have elapsed since then, and use that number in all your reckonings. In my formula, Day 1 is March 1, A.D. 1, and so Feb. 1, 2000 is Day 730,516.

Why start the counting at March 1, rather than January 1? For one thing, I like it better. Until 1752, in English-speaking countries the year began on March 25, right around the Vernal Equinox, and a much more sensible time than the dead of winter for starting a year. And Colorado Central’s first edition was dated March, 1994, so I always think of our “publishing year” as running from March through February, which might explain why this essay has the tone of an “end of the year” piece.

But the real reason for March 1 is more prosaic. This isn’t a journal of algorithms, so the explanation would be tedious or worse; suffice it to say that it’s easier to calculate that way, and the curious can consult page 33 of the wonderful book Algorithms in Snobol4 by James F. Gimpel and republished in 1986 by Catspaw, Salida’s software company.

Catspaw tries to preserve an obscure programming language which began life nearly 40 years ago in Bell Laboratories as SNOBOL (allegedly an acronym for StriNg-Oriented symBOlic Language), and has evolved to SPITBOL (SPeedy ImplemenTation of snoBOL).

Many computer programming languages are designed to work best with numbers; Spitbol focuses on processing text, and since that’s a large part of producing a magazine, we use Spitbol for a host of Colorado Central computer chores.

Our contributors send their words in a variety of formats, and our own home-rolled Spitbol programs convert it to what we prefer for editing — another antique, WordStar running under DOS. Once the text is edited, another Spitbol program adds the typesetting codes. Spitbol programs prepare our mailing labels and renewal notices. I can’t imagine running this operation without it, although I grant that other publications seem to manage.

Last year, I wrote a lot of Spitbol code for another purpose — to get Colorado Central’s archives on the Internet. The text of most of our back issues was stored on our computers in a format full of typesetting codes. Those files needed to be converted to a format that Web browsers understand — HyperText Markup Language, or HTML.

This can be done “by hand” with a text editor and hours of search-and-replace. But such text-formatting chores are a natural for Spitbol, which can also be taught to prepare indices, cross-references, and the like.

A year ago, I wrote that I had two big plans for Colorado Central in 1999 — improving distribution, and getting the magazine onto the World Wide Web.

Well, improved distribution is going to have to be a 2000 plan, and the Web job was a close thing. With the typesetting files at hand, it takes about an hour to put the material on our website.

However, we’d lost track of those files for three early editions (March ’94, September ’94, and February ’95, in case you’re curious). Those had to be scanned. Scanned text often takes considerable hand cleaning (for instance, “and” will emerge as “anal”), and these were no exception; each edition took more than a day to prepare.

But I made my self-imposed end-of-the-millennium deadline, though not by much — the last of the three back editions went to at 4:40 p.m. on Dec. 29.

It wasn’t a solo accomplishment. I never could have done it without Spitbol, which comes from Catspaw, which essentially is Mark Emmer. And over the past 15 years, Mark has taught me almost everything I know about computers.

Nor would it have happened without some tutelage from Erik Moore, a former miner and occasional contributor who now, among other things, develops web sites. He taught me how to transfer files and how to set up the directories for easier maintenance.

And I got a lot of useful tips from Bob Thomason of Westcliffe. As Music Mountain Press, Bob (and his wife, Patricia Perkinson) published a book of my Denver Post columns in 1998. Bob’s now seriously into Web work, and one of his enterprises hosts our web site.

At any rate, I could to some degree relax with a feeling of honest accomplishment while ingesting ale and posole at the New Year’s Eve party at the First Street CafĂ©. I’d had a big job before me at the start of the year, I’d wanted to get it done during the year, and it was done.

BUT IT CAME AT A COST. When we were planning the January edition, we decided to publish lists of favorite books from Lynda La Rocca, Martha, and myself. But then I gazed at my overloaded office bookshelf. The books I had spent the most time with in 1999 had titles like Teach Yourself Web Publishing with HTML, Using HTML: The Most Complete Reference, and HTML Sourcebook.

“I don’t think our readers would be all that interested in which of those was the most informative or the best organized,” I told Martha. “That’s not our job. There are other publications that review computer books.”

She agreed, but it made me wonder what I’d missed last year while I was learning what >Contents> does on a Web browser. It made me ponder about how easy it is to get caught up in the day-to-day mechanics of an operation, to the extent that you forget why you’re there.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how clever a job I did writing Spitbol code that translates computer files from Corel Ventura Publisher GEN format to World Wide Web HTML format, if the stuff wasn’t worth reading in the first place. That’s where it all has to start — the rest is mere mechanics, whether it’s being set on the old Linotype at the Saguache Crescent or being published on the World Wide Web with the latest Java extensions.

But that phrase, “mere mechanics,” sounds rather elitist, as though the only people who matter are those who perch in an ivory tower and think great thoughts.

Getting those thoughts from there to here requires a host of “mere mechanics.” Consider the low-tech route, a hand-written letter. Somebody had to design and build the ball-point pen, paper emerges from complex factories, and the Postal Service is an immense enterprise that needs every skill from mule-packing to computerized hand-writing recognition. The high-tech route — well, once you get past the serial transmission of ASCII text, I’m pretty well lost in the maze of TCP/IP, routers, nodes, gateways, switches…

The point is that it all has to be done, and done well, for thoughts to get from one mind to another. If we have the ideas, but not the means to transmit them, then we’re not communicating; we’re at the koan about “If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”

If we’ve got the transmission technology, but not the ideas, then we’ve got junk mail, telemarketing, and “the vast wasteland” of television. Or as the Apostle Paul put it, in a different context, “without love, I am as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal” — meaningless noise.

Obviously, both the ideas and the technology are vital, which makes me feel better about spending all that time working on our Web site, rather than, say, delving into a story about South Park water schemes or how the Salida school district ended up $500,000 in debt.

THERE’S ONLY SO MUCH TIME, and the scary part of this fast-changing world is that I don’t really have a clue how that time would be best spent.

Spend a few days jazzing up the Web site, so that when you read a letter about a given article, you can easily click to that article? And then more people might visit the site, which might translate into more advertising and more subscriptions?

Or put the energy into working on good stories that should be told? And hope that translates into more subscriptions and advertising?

Wonder where all this will go? We’re part of a huge industry that was set up to deliver inked paper to people, and we’ve figured out how to charge for that inked paper in a way that enables us to stay in business.

But now we’re moving into a world where inked paper isn’t necessary. I know it will change the industry, but I don’t know how.

There’s a time every month when I wrestle with labels and mail bags and postal form 3602-R, and I think “Why are we going to all this expense and trouble of printing and postage when we could just post Adobe PDF files on the Internet? Mailing paper is pretty much what Benjamin Franklin did.”

But then I wonder where the money would come from to pay writers if we didn’t sell subscriptions to a tangible product, or where I’d find the time to figure out how to sell and display website advertising.

And there are many evenings when I’m ensconced in a comfortable chair with a good book or magazine, and it’s so much more attractive and pleasant than staring at a computer monitor. Turning pages is easier than clicking.

What’s the point of all this rumination? If it sounds confused, then it’s an accurate reflection of my thoughts. I honestly don’t have a clue as to whether it would make more sense to put more time and energy into building physical circulation, whose rewards come in the form of subscription checks, or into developing more website “circulation,” which might result in more physical circulation that brings in money — or maybe there’s a new business model developing, one that goes past the current bubble where billions get invested in dot-coms that have yet to show a profit.

Perhaps that’s why I was sort of hoping for a Y2K collapse. I could have put off wondering what to do, and instead focused on the things that had to be done, like splitting and hauling wood. That’s hard work, but in ways, it makes life easier if that’s all you need to think about.

–Ed Quillen