PQ-17 and the iMac

Just over 10 years ago I found myself on a Cubana flight to Varadero. I was travelling with a woman I’d just met. We were footloose and fancy free, and going to Cuba was an impulsive last-minute thing.

Sitting in front of us on the plane was a long-haired tall guy. He looked weird, and I kept my distance. My consort had no such inhibitions and so she ended up in conversation with him, and we traded travel guidebooks and chatted a little.

As it turns out, we were staying in the same complex in Cuba — the Punta Blanca memorialized in Jane Siberry’s song Miss Punta Blanca, and that night by the bar we ended up joining this lanky guy for drinks.

We learned that his name was Bill Coleman, and he was in Cuba, alone, to help recover from the break-up of a long-term relationship. He had just moved back to Toronto from New York City where he’d worked in a health club to support his real vocation, which was choreography and modern dance.

As things out, my young consort decided to re-consort herself with the saxaphone player from the house band at Punta Blanca (an episode I will someday pay tribute to in song, I’m sure), and Bill and I ended up spending a lot of time together that week in the sun. By the end of the week, we had a tentative agreement that I would do some graphic design for some shows he was organizing in Toronto that summer.

Which I did.

The next summer, with the help of $25,000 from the Canada Council (these were the carefree days of bountiful arts funding), Bill set off on a cross-U.S. driving tour in a cherry red 1967 Chrysler Newport designed to gather the raw materials for a dance show. He staged the grand finale of his tour in Peterborough, Ontario, where I cleaned out the local liquor store of Schlitz Beer and organized a motorcycle escort for him (it was actually a moped). As luck would have it, the Newport conked out about 1 mile from the destination point, and Bill got his picture in the paper with the hood up looking perplexed.

The tour became the dance piece Heartland, and Bill asked me to produce the poster for it, which was tremendous fun largely because it involved secretly using the colour separation machine at the newspaper where I was working between 2:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. for several successive Saturday mornings after putting the paper to bed and waiting for the first copies to roll off the press.

This is all a very large run up to a story about Apple’s iMac: many years after Heartland, Bill was happily married to Laurence Lemiux and they had little Jimmy Coleman underfoot. Bill and Laurence wanted to become more independent from the Big Dance Scene and to this end had decided to organize themselves into a sort of rapid response dance and choreography team. They needed to get online, both to be able to use email and to publicize their work, so they called me for advice. I suggested they buy an iMac.

So they did.

At the time the focus of Apple’s advertising was that you could take your new iMac out of the box and be online in 10 or 15 minutes. And that’s exactly what Bill and Laurence did with their new iMac: took it out of the box, plugged it into the wall, signed up for an Earthlink account and, blammo, they were online.

I dropped by shortly thereafter and taught them how to use web search engines: the first search they did was for the phrase “PQ17”, which was the name of a north Atlantic convoy that Bill’s father was a member of during WWII. The first search result led to a website in St. Petersburg, which led to an email address to which Bill wrote an exploratory email looking for assistance in mounting a dance piece about the PQ17 convoy that was shuffling around in his brain at the time. Flash forward several years (and much hard work) and the piece premiered in St. Petersburg. Ain’t the web grand.

Which makes a very long preamble to the story of my permanent consort Catherine’s new iMac, purchased this week from the friendly folks at little mac shoppe in Charlottetown. We picked up the computer yesterday and Catherine worked to set it up while Oliver and I went off for a kiwi-strawberry-orange juice at Just Juicin’. When we came back 35 minutes later, Catherine had the machine set up, the Airport card installed, and was online.

Which is all to say that above and beyond the aesthetics, the reality distortion field, and all the Apple mythology, Apple computers remain easy to set up and easy to use.

Young Dave and I are off to MacWorld in two weeks to dive into the centre of the Mac-o-verse. I’m sure we’ll be reporting live from the frontier. And I’m almost certain that Dave won’t take up with the saxaphone player from the house band. But you never know.

What is the Guardian for?

Having read the changed online version of the Guardian in its new part-of-canada.com home for three days now, I’m wondering what the design criteria for the new site were.

Does the Guardian exist to deliver the news, clearly and effectively, or does it exist to deliver eyeballs to advertisers, using the news as a second-level excuse to attract said eyes their way?

When I worked at a daily newspaper, there was a clear and unequivocal separation of the editorial and design processes for the “content” and the ‘advertising” in the paper. The employees of each branch worked on different floors. In the composing room the ad paste-up and the edit paste-up were generally handled by two separate groups of people.

Each recognized the importance of the other, and there was something noble about the edit side — as much as people working for a small town newspaper reporting about the school board and traffic accidents could be, the editors and reporters felt that they were doing more than just helping the publishers making money.

The print equivalent of the design of the new Guardian website would be to run advertising on the front page filling up the entire space above the fold, Why is this okay?

Delta Blues

It’s hard to write off the Delta Prince Edward, the Big Hotel on Charlottetown’s waterfront: over the 10 years we’ve lived on the Island we’ve attended countless concerts, dinners, and fundraisers there, eaten many good meals in their dining room, and even stayed a night or two (the most interesting time was one Christmas eve, pre-Oliver, when I swore to Catherine that it would be easy to go out and have dinner; it wasn’t, and we ended up checking in to the Delta — then the CP — and having dinner from the snack machines and watching cable TV). There’s no doubting that the Island needs a hotel of the size and stature of the Delta and that we’d be worse off without it.

But at the same time, there’s also no doubting that the Delta isn’t exactly an architectural or planning masterpiece: it stands at the foot of Queen St. like a big red monolith.

While I wouldn’t compare it to the Sydney Tar Ponds or the Dorchester Penitentiary like the author of the Lonely Planet Guide to the Maritimes has, I’ve no problem with a hotel being judged on its aesthetics, and on that ground the Delta is, in the end, a failure.

Fred Hyndman, for one, is on the record as agreeing with me on this point (follow the link to listen to a CBC radio interview with Fred about Catherine Hennessey in which he touches on the issue).

The Guardian, RIP

The Guardian, Charlottetown’s daily newspaper, used to have a nice, simple, quick-loading website. Starting today, alas, they no longer do. Sucked up like so many small dailies by the Borg of CanWest, The Guardian is now a generic part of the genericoverse (aka canada.com). That’s too bad. I’ve removed my bookmark.

Adventures on the Information Red Clay Road: Getting Wired Cheap

Back in September of 1994 I spoke at a conference called Access in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Access is a yearly conference of people at the intersection of librarianship and nerdity.

My talk was called Adventures on the Information Red Clay Road: Getting Wired Cheap and, thanks to Art Rhyno, I’ve got a copy of it here.

Reading that talk for the first time in 8 years was quite interesting. So much has changed since then — paying for things online is trivial now, and we use graphical web browsers to surf what we hadn’t yet then come to call “the web” — and yet so much is the same — issues of information control, who owns the wires, and what we use this great web for. My favourite quote from the talk is:

The sad thing is that now CFCY Radio plays the greatest hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s and might as well be in Red Deer, Alberta as in Charlottetown, and IslandTel is just another boring Stentor lump owned by BCE. The telephone operators are gone and the hits just keep on coming and what we thought, 50 years ago, were going to be the tools that were going change the very fabric of our society have, I think, come up short.

Plans are shaping up for Access 2002,being held in Windsor, Ontario. I’m giving the closing talk, tentatively titled The Information Red Clay Road Revisited, part of a series called Are We There Yet? Reflections on the Trip So Far. Access brings together an interesting group of people and if your passions lie in the world of information and knowledge and how we apply technology to sift through it, you would not do wrong to attend.