Perks and Pitfalls...On writing about computers

First Published: BMUG newsletter
Date Published: 1995
Copyright © 1995 by Kevin Savetz

This job has its perks, I'm the first to admit that. I've been writing about the Internet and Macintosh computers for about two years now, in these pages and in a variety of other magazines. In that time, my Rolodex has become overstuffed with the names of public relations contacts, and my office has remained more or less constantly littered with computer books and software of various degrees of usefulness.

On true treasures

Once in a while something truly unique finds its way to my office floor. These things cause me to beam with joy. These same items often (I surmise) make my wife wonder why she's involved with such a nerd.

Take for instance, my beta release of Macintosh System 7.5. That's pretty cool, and so is the Golden Master version that Apple sent me two weeks later (a month before System 7.5 was released to the public.) Yessiree, I was proud to be the first on my block with Apple's new system software loaded on my computer... and proud to be among the first to notice the operating system's memory bugs, which caused my Apple menu to disappear and my "About this Macintosh" box to report the system used negative memory. Sure, that was a pain - but what an honor!

I review a lot of books, especially books about the Internet. One of my favorites is by Peter Klau, and it's called "Das Internet - Weltweit vernetzt." It promises that it is "Eine praxisnahe Einfuhrung in das groBte Computernetzewerk der Welt", which may very well be true. But I'm not one to say, since I don't understand a word of German. Still, the book looks mighty cool on the bookshelf.

There's more great stuff in my trove: a variety of nerdy books signed by their authors, a beta version of Return to Zork (doesn't run, but who cares?), a version of After Dark that's entirely in German (it is, of course, installed on my Mac, even though I still don't understand a word of it).

On reviewing software

In case you're thinking this writing/reviewing schtick is for you, perhaps this will deter you: bad software. Yes, friends, most of the software that the harried UPS man and FedEx woman darken my doorstep with is not in fact a free copy of Excel version 9 or the beta version of the long-awaited Windows 6. In fact, a lot of it is garbage. Software that you wouldn't even consider taking home from your local software store lands in my hands, begging to be reviewed. Some of this stuff is so bad that any respectable computer owner would not install it. Some of it is so buggy it should be classified as a living software virus. Still, install the software I do, use it I must, all in the name of publishing.

I wish the people who read my reviews could see not only the final version of the review, but the manner in which I wrote it. I don't start a review at the top and keep writing until it's long enough. Instead, I jot down some ideas and start piecing them together, occasionally forming complete sentences until it forms a cogent review. My personal style is to start by noting the good things about product, then add the bad stuff later. One of worst products I had the misfortune to review was so bad that the only positive thing I could muster - hence the first thing that I typed - was "The documentation isn't bad." It was a struggle from there.

On Reviewing T-shirts

Of course, this job has other drawbacks, too. The worst ones are the junkets and freebies that turn into minor nightmares. One day I'm on the phone with a nice P.R. guy at O'Reilly and Associates, requesting a truckload of books to review. I'm very particular about reviews - if I say I'm going to review something, I'll indeed review it. I don't want to waste a company's money by not reviewing something they sent me - it would be like stealing. I'd rather write a negative review (and I've written some doozies) than not write one at all.

So, I really don't know what I was thinking when I asked for the llama T-shirt. You see, most of O'Reilly's books feature animals on the cover - a puffin here, a bat there... One book, called Learning Perl, features a llama on the cover. O'Reilly's catalog announced that they had just produced some T-shirts advertising their books, so being a fan of llamas, I asked the P.R. guy at O'Reilly if he'd throw in a llama T-shirt in the box for me. "I'll review it. Really!" I said.

So, I instantly found myself in the unenviable position of being obligated to review a T-shirt in a computer magazine. Don't believe me? Try this: call up Ladies Home Journal and convince them you'd like to write a review of SimCity. It can't be done. A seeming Good Thing turns into a minor nightmare.

Actually, it really is a nice shirt. It's a white Hanes "Beefy-T", extra large size. Its main feature, besides the ability to obscure one's upper body, is a dandy line drawing of a llama. Some text says "Learning Perl", text which can prove your status as a true UNIX hacker. It's great for sleeping in, or wearing to BMUG meetings. (Available from O'Reilly & Associates: 800-998-9938.)

Now that wasn't so bad after all.

Actually, I surmise there are slightly worse positions for a reviewer to find himself in. I recently read a lengthy review of a plush chameleon in Boardwatch magazine. A company called NetManage makes a product called Chameleon and it sometimes gives away adorable stuffed lizards. I can only guess that this hapless writer fell into the same trap that I did: "Oh, please send me one of those adorable plush reptiles, I'll review it for a major consumer magazine!" I wonder how long it took him to sell that review? Sure, I'd like a chameleon too, but I'm sure it wouldn't be worth the effort.

Just down the hall from my cluttered home office, my clothes closet reads like a veritable "Who's Who" of the computer world. Therein hang (well, I'd like them to be hung, but mostly they gather in clumps on the floor) T-shirts advertising eWorld, Berkeley Systems, the Newton MessagePad, BMUG (tie-died in Berkeley by Deadheads), MindVision, and other sundry products and companies.

Of course, the at the top of the heap is my hard-earned llama shirt. Happy grazing.

Articles by Kevin Savetz