Back in 1999, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, Dori decidedly to create this newfangled thing called a “blog.” Frankly, I was skeptical.

“So you write stuff you want, on any subject at all, and random people come and read it?”

“Yeah, that’s the way it works,” she replied.

That didn’t sound quite right, but I decided “What the hell,” and joined Dori in building Backup Brain. I’m glad I did. Even now, in the age of social media that has taken the things I may have once written about in blog posts and distilled it into 140-character sound bites, I’m still happy to have a place where I can expound at length, especially for personal subjects.

Around the start of September, I had a series of seizures that left me with a stroke. You might not be able to tell by talking to me, but it’s impaired my reading and writing. I think this is the longest thing I’ve written since the stroke. It’s good to know I can still write; the thought that that ability could have been taken from me was terrifying. Because, if I am not a writer, then who am I? I’m happy to say I’m still here, 16 years and many setbacks later. Thanks to all of you who have read and enjoyed my stuff, and my love and gratitude to Dori for getting me into this.


The initial plan when I launched this blog was that it would primarily be for links, which I could then easily find and refer to later — hence its name.

Over time, the purpose and goals of blogging and blogs in general have evolved dramatically, and this one has not been immune to those changes. OTOH, that’s true of all teenagers, right?

But throughout all those changes, there’s been one — completely unexpected — result I truly appreciate, and that’s the people I’ve met as a result of blogging. I’m not going to call out names; there’s far too many, and I’m sure I’d forget several (if you’re reading this, you’re likely one of them).

That community of fellow bloggers, and later, commenters, are what I cherish most about this blog. That includes those of you I’ve only met virtually; back in ’99, it was considered bizarre to have friends you’d never met in person, and now, it’s common. But electronic or face to face, I deeply appreciate the friendship you’ve all shared with us over the years.

Mac 1984 T-shirtI bought this T-shirt recently from Thinkgeek. It’s an homage to the original Macintosh television ad, aired during the 1984 SuperBowl, which I of course was watching live (I didn’t yet have a DVR, due to their not-yet-invention). The ad was directed by Ridley Scott, who had previously directed tiny art films like Alien and Blade Runner. I distinctly remember sitting in the room with my jaw hanging open, and said to nobody in particular, “What the hell was that?” Those 60 seconds literally changed my life. I can’t say that about any other TV commercial.

That ad led me, in October 1984, to buy my second personal computer (my first was a Commodore 64, which, because of my lack of serious interest in programming, never made a significant impact). That original 128K Mac helped me start a business as a freelance video editor; I used Microsoft Multiplan (the forerunner to Excel) to prepare bids for jobs. In 1985, the film business went into one of its perennial slumps, and the few regular clients I had all dried up. After about six months of unemployment, I thought, “Crap, I gotta get a job.”

I’d spent lots of those six months learning to use my new Mac and had attended the very first Macworld Expo in San Francisco in January 1985. I’d become a chapter leader for the MacHollywood branch of the Los Angeles Macintosh Group, which met at SOS Computer, on La Brea in LA. As a result, I got hired as the store’s in-house Mac support guy (yes, that used to be a thing, back before Apple Stores and Genius Bars).

Sometime in 1985, a friend asked if I would be interested in writing some product reviews for a startup magazine, MacGuide. I said sure (“Free software? Getting paid for my opinions? Sign me up!”). I went on to write several feature and cover stories for MacGuide. In 1986, I wrote my first product review for Macworld, and was a Contributing Editor there from 1990 to 2004. I wrote my first solo book, Upgrading Your Mac Illustrated, for Que, in 1994. It tanked. But since then, I’ve completed a total of 48 books (I count the books where my name appears on the cover as author or co-author).

I left SOS Computer and went freelance again, this time as a Mac consultant in the LA area and secondarily as a writer. When JavaScript: Visual QuickStart Guide (written with my then-girlfriend, now wife, Dori Smith) became a hit, I announced to Dori I wanted to quit consulting and move the hell out of Los Angeles, a place where the “Hate” side of my “Love/Hate” relationship had become ascendant. She very reluctantly agreed to move, and we moved to Healdsburg, in the middle of the Sonoma wine country, in late 1999.

So, looking back 31 years later: yes, those 60 seconds completely changed my life. The actress who tossed that fateful sledgehammer through the video screen shattered my life, too—in a way for which I will always be forever grateful.

Chinese Rug Story

We have two new additions to our home: two Oriental rugs that were originally owned by my grandparents. When my dad died in 2013, it took my siblings about a year to clear out and divide all the contents of two houses. One was the house in which we grew up, in Southern California. The other was a townhouse in Las Vegas. It was bought by my grandparents in 1980, when they decided to leave New York City and retire to Vegas. Las Vegas was closer to the rest of the family in California, yet had its own attractions (Grandma loved the one-armed bandits).

When my grandmother died in late 2000, my dad inherited the Vegas townhouse, with all of its contents. And there were a lot of contents. My grandmother, while they were still in New York, used to buy and sell all kinds of goods to make extra money. For example, when we went through the townhouse, we found a tremendous variety of stuff, and good quality stuff, too. Mink coats. Designer dresses. Steiff teddy bears. Unopened bottles of Chanel perfume, bought in 1950. Plus a ridiculous amount of housewares, like sheet sets, dishtowels, and the like. Not to mention lots of furniture, and the two Oriental rugs.

My dad inherited it all, and he kept the Vegas townhouse, using it as a place to stay when he took trips to Vegas (his main recreational activity, plus he had a girlfriend there). But in terms of the stuff in the house, rather than deal with it, he chose to leave it all intact for us to handle. He did exactly the same thing with the California house after our mom died in 1989; some of the closets in the house literally had not been opened since then. And the garage was a black hole of More Stuff. In the exact mischievous words of one of his notes to us: “Good luck going through all this stuff in both houses!”

Thanks, dad.

As an aside: when my sister, brother-in-law, and brother dug into the California garage, way at the back they found a vintage refrigerator, still plugged in and running, containing cans of dog food meant for a pet that died when I was in college. Like I said, a black hole of stuff.

We picked up one of the rugs when we visited my sister and brother-in-law in Las Vegas right after Thanksgiving, and drove it back home. We found a local guy who specializes in cleaning and repair of fine rugs, and he did a great (not cheap, but it needs an expert) job cleaning that rug, which ended up in our dining room. Given that the rug had almost certainly never been cleaned, it needed decades of dirt and the Grandma’s House smell removed. Here’s what it looks like in our dining room. It’s 9 by 12 feet, and nice and thick.

Dining room rug

Looking under the (rug’s) skirt

The rug still had a stock tag pinned to it, and I wanted to know more about its provenance. I Googled the seller, Pande-Cameron, wondering if they were still in business. Turns out that they are; I called them and spoke to the owner in Seattle. He’s the third-generation owner of the business. He told me that the branch of their company in New York that sold the rugs to Grandma closed in the 1990’s, but after I sent him some pictures of the dining room rug, he was able to tell me that it was made in China in the 1920’s or 1930’s, by a man named Walter Nichols. Further searching found this history of Nichols. Our rugs have the stencilled HAND MADE IN CHINA BY NICHOLS legend on the back of their skirts, which is the key imprimatur.

Based on that article, which talks about how designs on the Nichols deco rugs became simplified over time (losing borders and such), I’m guessing that the rugs we have were made prior to that simplification reaching its apex. Our rugs have fringes and intricate borders. So they were made in maybe the late 20’s or early 30’s. I’m guessing my grandparents probably bought them shortly after the rugs were imported to New York from China.

The second rug has recently arrived, and it’s still being cleaned. It’ll go in our living room in the next week or so.

It’s nice to be able to give a home to some of these things that have been in my family for more than 80 years. We’ll be their steward for a while, then they’ll go on, I hope, to people who will love and enjoy them as much as we do.

One year ago today, I was sitting in the back bedroom of my sister and brother-in-law’s home in Las Vegas. I was holding my father’s hand. And I saw his breathing stop.

I ran out into the hall and called Marie and Phil to join us as my dad finished the journey he had been making for months. We gathered around his bed as he peacefully slipped away, his pain ending, his body shutting down after its long battle with kidney cancer. Of course I was sad he died, but I’d spoken with him when I got to Las Vegas the night before, and I could tell he was ready for it all to be over. I was happy to have been there for him at the end, and I know he took comfort by being surrounded by family. I held one hand, my sister the other, as Phil stood at the foot of the bed. I remember thinking that Phil was standing like an honor guard, which was so appropriate, as I know that he loved our dad as much as any of the rest of us.

In the year since my dad’s death, we’ve had other challenges to face, and there are more serious ones to come. But today is a day when all I and my family need to do is to remember and honor our father. I wrote and gave the eulogy at his funeral, which tells a little about the man who affected my life so profoundly. It did not honor him nearly enough, but it was the best I could do.

I have two photos I’d like to share of my dad. This is the earliest picture I could find of me and my dad together; I was around a year old.

Me and Dad, 1957

This next picture is my dad witnessing the wedding licence at my wedding to Dori:


That was a happy day. I’m glad he was there to share it with us.

I miss you, Dad.

August 10 is the anniversary of my mother’s death. I’ve written about her twice before, once on the 20th anniversary, and again just last year. I don’t have much to add to those posts, except that because of my father’s death last year due to cancer, and other challenges in my own life since then, I’m thinking that it really is a good idea for the rest of us to live as much for today as you can, because you never know when you’re going to get bad news that knocks you for a loop. I’ll have more to say about that at a later date. But for now, let me just say again how much I miss my mom, and how sad it makes me that she never got to see the man I became, and the family I built.

The 20th anniversary post: I miss you, mom.

Last year’s remembrance: Remembering my mom

Part 2

Date: Thursday, July 21 1994
Place: Burbank Hilton
Event: LAMG’s monthly meeting, featuring Adobe FrameMaker

After the events in Part 2, Tom and I exchanged a few emails.

For reasons relating to the messy disintegration of my marriage, I had ended up with duplicates of almost everything a household could need: two beds, two couches, two kitchen tables, two sets of kitchen equipment, etc.

I realized that my superfluity could solve Tom’s problem of having none of these things, so I sent him an email offering him his choice of whatever he needed. He wrote back, gratefully accepting the kitchen equipment, and ended the email saying he owed me a hug.

As LAMG’s VP in charge of meetings, Tom was the organizer and stage manager of the monthly events, and July 1994’s Adobe FrameMaker meeting started off as no exception. Early on, though, he left the backstage area, found me in the audience, and said we should talk outside. We wandered around the Hilton and ended up by the pool, where we continued our talk from Sunday. We talked more about our lives, and he thanked me profusely for the offer of stuff.

After we’d chatted for a little while, he said he needed to get back, and as we stood I reminded him he owed me a hug. He was happy to deliver.

There are awkward hugs and one-sided hugs and hugs where you just don’t mesh together. This one wasn’t any of those things; it turned out that we were a perfect fit.

Given that the hug felt so good, I tilted my head back to look at Tom and found him looking down at me.

Cue the first kiss music

I thought we’d felt good hugging; kissing each other turned out to be a discovery of an entirely new level of right.

I never did end up learning anything about FrameMaker, and we missed the entire presentation.

That night wasn’t our first date (that was a week later), but we still count that night twenty years ago as the start of our relationship. Tonight, we’re going to a fabulous restaurant, where we’ll toast the past and look forward to the future.

Part 1

In 1994, July 17 was a Sunday. And on that Sunday, the Los Angeles Macintosh Group held its annual off-site Board meeting at the Burbank Hilton. As usual, not much was getting accomplished, but that wasn’t out of the ordinary given that several board members had run for their positions on a platform of, “I’ll keep a close eye on those darn board members who want to change things” (or modernize in any way).

During a break, Tom and I commiserated, both about the leadership inertia and our messy personal lives. He knew I’d just gotten out of a disastrous marriage, and he shared with me that he and his then-wife had recently split.

My recollection is that we sympathized with each other, and offered the other a friendly ear and a warm shoulder. I told him about my experiences as a single mom, and he told me how his ex had emptied their condo of pretty much everything but his computer and his clothes, including all the furniture and kitchen stuff (basically, she got the assets and he got the debts, including the lease).

Tom recalls two things from that chat: that he enjoyed talking to me—in no small part because I was wearing a low-cut tanktop—and that, as he says, “The minute I told her I was getting a divorce, I could see the shark fin go up, and it seemed as though I could hear the theme from Jaws begin to play.”

I was thinking about how much I’d enjoyed talking to Tom later that evening. I called up a mutual acquaintance and asked for her opinion on whether I should make a play for him. “I think he’s cute, smart, and funny. We’re both recently out of failed relationships, and we’re both too screwed up to even be thinking about starting new ones. I figure that we can be friends-with-benefits, and after we both heal and get our heads straight, we can go back to just being friends.” She thought that was a pretty good idea and told me to go for it.

Twenty years later, it’s possible that we’re still too screwed up to be in “real” relationships, or maybe we just healed at the same rate and simultaneously decided to stick with a good thing when we had it. Time will tell.

Right now, I’m writing this on a flight from San Francisco to New York City, where we’ll spend 12 days playing tourist, seeing shows, and celebrating twenty years together.

Part 3

On the occasion of Apple PR VP of Communication, Katie Cotton, announcing her retirement from Apple, many commentators are recounting some of their experiences with Apple PR, which could often have the opposite effect of what a journalist expects. When I speak to a PR rep from most other tech companies, I usually end up knowing more about the company’s products. On the very few occasions I’ve had to talk with Apple PR, that usually didn’t happen.

As an example, let’s say that I set up a conversation to talk with Adobe about one of their products, or Microsoft about one of theirs. I’ll usually end up on the phone with someone from their respective PR firms, and a knowledgeable member of the product team from the company itself. Since we write a bestselling book about the product (and I also review it for magazines), I’ve spoken more than once to Adobe about Dreamweaver, and its usually one or two PR folks and the Dreamweaver product manager, who knows practically everything about how the product works. I can ask questions about parts of the product that I don’t understand well, ask about bugs I’ve found, and in general end up with a bunch of information that will help my book. It’s usually a pretty collegial atmosphere; any product has bugs, and product managers are usually frank about their existence, if understandably slippery about when they are likely to be fixed. But they almost always have suggestions about workarounds for bugs. And sometimes you can even get hints of what will be happening with future versions of the product.

I’ve also written several books about Keynote, Apple’s presentation program, so when it came time to revise the main book, I was pretty happy to be able to set up a conversation with them about the product. Of course, I’d done my homework, so when I ended up on the phone with a PR person and Keynote’s product marketing manager (PMM), I had a bunch of questions to ask. The conversation took place shortly after a new version of Keynote had been released (since Apple doesn’t brief writers at my lowly level about pre-released products).

Things seemed to start well. I threw out a softball remark about one of the new features, and how much I liked it. Then I moved on to some of the questions I had about other new features. What I got back was…odd. It seemed as though they were talking from a very narrow script, not really how people talk. When I’d ask how a particular feature could be used, I’d get back something that sounded strangely familiar. It was as though I knew more about using Keynote than the PMM.

Eventually I realized that the PMM was quoting almost exactly from the Keynote public web site. I got no information from him about the product that wasn’t already on the site.

When I switched to asking about bugs, things got even weirder. They never admitted to the existence of any bugs that I (and the extensive Keynote community) had found and replicated. When I asked about a bug, the response was “Thank you for that feedback.” When I asked if there was a workaround for a particular bug (and I knew there was a workaround), I was told “We don’t have a comment about that at this time.” This went around for a while; they were always polite and apparently willing to be helpful. But no actual help was ever forthcoming.

By the time I got off the phone, I was, frankly, a little freaked out. I’d been doing this sort of thing for more than 20 years at that time, and I’d never had such an unproductive product briefing. I was wondering, “Is it me? Did I ask the wrong questions or something?” I looked at my iChat list and IM’d a journalist friend who works for a city newspaper, and who has done many columns on Apple products.

In our voice chat, I poured out what had just happened. He chuckled.
“Congratulations, you’ve just had a typical Apple PR experience.” I spoke to a few other friends, and they all told me the same thing; that was the way Apple briefings tended to go. This was the era of Think Different, and Apple PR certainly was thinking differently than other companies. But that incredibly tight control over message worked against them, I think. Over the years, my many conversations with Adobe and Microsoft ended up making my books about their products better, with deeper information, allowing me to better teach their products. But my talk with Apple, since I got no useful information, didn’t help me, the company, the product, or my readers at all. In the larger scheme of things, my wasted opportunity didn’t turn out to be a big deal. But multiply that by all the other journalists that Apple’s managed to annoy over the years with these tactics, and it’s no wonder they get so much bitter press. Was it really necessary? I don’t think so.

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