Sunday, November 22, 1998

Some of my interests

(This was written in 1995 or so, except for the last section on things I enjoy, and some minor editing. It's still more or less accurate, although a lot of computer-based communication seems pretty mundane to me these days. It certainly has progressed past Neat Programming Tricks. Now it's gone too far in the other direction, into Neat Marketing Tricks.)


I am one of those people who, it seems, has trouble specializing I have several long-standing areas of interest that I have followed through my life. I could imagine working very hard in any one of these areas.

The structure, geography, and social processes of cities.
I have been interested in cities and their geography I think since I was a very young boy; as a four year old I studied maps and drew street maps of imaginary places. (I still doodle street maps.) And I recall being fascinated with a book on city structure when I was nine, one of few books I specifically recall reading at that age. But it wasn't until I was nineteen that I took a class at U.C. Santa Cruz called "The Quality of Urban Life" and there read Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The vision of a diverse pedestrian urbanity resonated with me and I have held on to it. This has led me to read today's "new urbanists": Peter Calthorpe, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Peter Katz. I wrote my senior thesis on this topic. However, I still know far too little about all this.
Public transportation and transit.
My interest in transit stemmed out of my interest in maps and cities, as I started by collecting timetables and was always most interested in the maps in the timetables. But my interest continues as the fruit of my own experiences. I lived in San Francisco from the ages of ten to fourteen; at that age I returned to the suburbs. This gave me a very different take on our automobile-centered culture than most of my peers. I didn't, and don't, see the car as an instrument of freedom. In San Francisco, a block north of a major streetcar line and east of a crosstown bus line, I had freedom in the transit system. Going back to San Mateo, where transit was infrequent and often nonexistent, made it clear that the car was not necessary. It took me years to understand that it was the patterns of building that made decent bus service possible in San Francisco.
Bay Area history, geography, and ecology
Since I was born and have lived almost all my life in the Bay Area, I have a special interest in its history and geography. I've lived in five different Bay Area counties, and I see the area very much as a single region that needs to work together to solve its transportation and planning problems. I am concerned about the area's ecology as well, although I find myself with the human impact on it -- sprawl, pollution -- than I am in the specifics of how the ecosystems work.
Journalism and media
My interest in journalism stems from the editing side, not the reporting side. Being the person to go out there and chase down sources and do all the supposedly high-glamour stuff that made Woodward and Bernstein famous never interested me much. My favorite character in Lou Grant was the bald copy editor (whose name I can't remember) -- that was what I wanted to do: stay in the office, polish the prose, and write opinion pieces, not be out on the street searching for stories.

In high school our journalism class was taught for two years by a ranking editor at the local newspaper. Most people learn little in high school journalism; I learned a lot. Not enough to make the regular column I wrote worth reading at this late date, but a lot nonetheless. (Thanks, Micki, if you're out there.) In college I worked on the business side of one of the college papers for a very short time, and I was one of many undergraduate section leaders for a media-criticism course. I also helped edit the Course Review Book, the student guide to classes at U.C. Santa Cruz.

Until March, 1998, I was Senior Editor for ClariNet Communications Corp., publishers of ClariNews, an "electronic newspaper" on the Internet. I was responsible for the classification of wire service copy into our hundreds of "clari." newsgroups. I also moderated the Usenet newsgroup alt.journalism.moderated for a time.

Computers and computer-based publishing and conversations
My interest in computers has almost always been an interest in using their potential for communication. (I've done a little programming, but my interest in this peaked when I was about 15.) My family's first IBM PC, in 1984, was followed quite quickly by our first modem. I used bulletin boards from November 1984, but my favorite BBS was the one where we discussed politics and government, not hardware and software. I started a FidoNet BBS in 1987 and subscribed to all the political echomail conferences and none of the technical ones. As an Internet user since 1988 I have always been more interested in using the Internet to follow my other interests (I have subscribed to ba.transportation for years) than about the Internet itself. ClariNet is the epitome of this for me: ClariNet is a very early use of the Internet to distribute news chiefly about the outside world, not about the Internet itself (although this is changing as the Internet becomes more important).

I strongly believe that the Internet is a tool for communication, and that it is the result of using this tool that is interesting, not the details of the tool itself. Too much of the material on the Internet, and on the WWW for that matter, consists of Neat Programming Tricks, and not of real uses that will matter to people. My favorite Internet site, because it symbolizes this as well as involving my other interests, is the Transit Information Page maintained by a couple of U.C. Berkeley students (in their spare time, yet). These pages are truly useful in a way that very few World Wide Web sites are. They bring information unavailable anywhere else and difficult to provide in earlier media, the entire schedules of most Bay Area transit systems, to thousands of people on the Internet. It's not perfect yet, mainly because of the lack of maps, but there's no reason now for anyone with Internet access to collect the paper schedules still handed out on Bay Area buses.

(This was written long enough ago that the link to the Transit Information Project was originally to the server.berkeley.edu site. How times change -- one of my professional responsibilities now is making sure AC Transit information gets to transitinfo.org)

Typefaces and graphic design
I learned how to read fairly early, and I learned to recognize type faces and styles from an early age. Since my father worked (and works) in the printing industry, he was able to indulge my interest by bringing home type catalogs. (I remember issues of U&lc from the very early eighties, when phototype was still king.)

But it was in 1985 that I really became interested in the subject. Mine was one of the first, if not the first, high school newspaper in the country to be desktop published; it was first produced in September, 1985. (We used Aldus PageMaker version 1, on 512K Macintoshes with 800K floppy disks, and a LaserWriter -- not a LaserWriter Plus.) I was Production Manager for 1986-87. Later I typeset two annual Course Review Books and numerous newsletters for UCSC school papers and assorted non-profit groups. I have only a little formal training in design, but I try to read about it as much as I can. I am to the point where I know what I don't know -- which is quite a lot!

Governmental systems, constitutions and constitutional law
When I was nine, I read Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen, a history of the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787. I liked it. I liked it so much I reread it seven times before I was ten.

I've been interested in constitutions and political systems since that time. When I was a sophomore in college I took a course on the British political system that really excited me about other constitutions. The British constitution was so very different, so interesting to me, that I wanted to spend time studying a foreign political system up close. I spent my third year in college at the University of British Columbia in Canada as an exchange student. Although English Canada's general culture isn't very different from the U.S., the political system is quite different. It was very interesting to study it up close, at least for a while. I did eventually get burned out on the intricacies of Canadian federalism and the party system. But I still am interested in Canadian politics.

Medieval history
I'm not really sure why I'm interested in medieval history. I think I am most interested in learning about the institutions of medieval history that have mutated into institutions still with us. English constitutional history fascinates me -- the slow mutation of feudal monarchy into constitutional monarchy and then to representative democracy, yet each new power source retaining almost all of the structure of what came before. I also find interesting the history of the university and the way it has changed so little in its structure while adapting that structure to very different goals imposed from outside. None of this explains why I named the bulletin board system I ran in high school "The Angevin Empire." I think I was just interested in the drama of it.

These are all things that are important to me, that I could imagine making a career in. There are, of course, other things that interest me -- diversions, entertainments. Here are some notable ones.

  • Music, especially folk music. I have many albums by the Weavers; Pete Seeger; Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary; Gordon Lightfoot; Arlo Guthrie; the Indigo Girls; and Dar Williams, among many others. I attend the Berkeley and San Francisco Free Folk Festivals every year. I also like other kinds of music, especially Dixieland and Big Band jazz, instrumental classical music, and brass ensemble music. I can usually get into anything if I hear it enough, although you can pretty much assume that if it's on MTV, I won't like it, and I haven't done a lot of musical exploration.
  • Escapist novels. Except for Tony Hillerman mysteries, I read mostly science fiction. I know there's a lot of serious literature in science fiction these days, but I have to admit, that's not what I read -- normally, if I want to read something serious, I'll pick up something that's non-fiction. I call it "mind candy" -- sweet but empty. And much of the "mind candy" out there comes from...

  • Star Trek and Star Wars. Sigh. I feel like such a nerd, writing about Star Trek on my web page. For what it's worth, for me it's a family thing -- my mom and my brother and I would watch reruns together when I was a kid. Ever since then I've liked the show. What can I say? I've never read a Star Trek fan magazine (although I read the newsgroup rec.arts.startrek for a few months, when Usenet was much smaller). I've never been to a Star Trek convention (although my mother has). I didn't skip school to see "Return of the Jedi" the day it opened (although my brother did -- and I did go with the rest of ClariNet's staff to see the Special Edition openings). I kill time reading junk novels and my VCR is set to record the two current Star Trek shows. (I don't keep them -- I record over the same tape every week.) If that makes me an irredeemable geek, so be it.

And, of course, there are a lot of other things I like, but which aren't coming to mind right now.

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