Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Rest in Peace, Lawrence Tesler...

The New York Times reported this week that Lawrence Tesler died at 74. "Who in the world was Lawrence Tesler," you may ask?

In the 1970s, Tesler was a young researcher at Xerox, working on computers.

Computers then were massive "mainframe" devices that used cathode ray tube (CRT) workstations to input data, an improvement over the punch cards which were their predecessors. But still, input had to be in the form of some type of "code" to write programs, and text typed cryptically into "command lines" to run them. One needed to be pretty computer savvy to run and use a simple word processing program in those days, and editing a document produced on one required either memorizing a thousand "alt-esc" or "^" commands, or having a massive template taped to your keyboard. Even when the first "luggable portable" computers came onto the market, with their "green screens" and crude cursors, one still needed to be a "geek" to use "Wordstar" or "Lotus 123."

Tesler thought computers should be easier to use. "Wouldn't it be nice if, when editing text on the screen, what you SEE is what you GET," and moving around through the text wouldn't require holding down one of those little arrow keys for 30 seconds? So, he spearheaded inventing a more user-friendly screen format that came to be known as WYSIWYG (pronounced "wizzywig," but obviously standing for What You See Is What You Get). The screen would resemble how the final printed page. And to move around the text? How about a small box with a button on the top, connected to a wire "tail" to the computer? Tail? Let's call it a "mouse," he thought. He and his team went on to invent things we take for granted like "blocking text" and "copy/cut and paste."

Xerox wasn't real interested in these early innovations, but to humor Tesler and his team of young engineers, they invited other Silicon Valley computer pioneers and start-up geeks in for a show and tell of this new "GUI" (pronounced "gooey," but standing for "Graphic User Interface") idea. Xerox offered to allow any of them to use the technology for free, if they wanted it. Being accomplished computer wizards quite used to command lines and dim green screens, most of them shrugged their shoulders and left. One stayed behind and asked a lot of questions Tesler would later say impressed the daylights out of him. His name was Steve Jobs.

Jobs took the GUI idea AND Tesler, offering him a job at his new company, Apple. Together they designed Apple's first graphics interface computer the LISA (named after Jobs' girlfriend), which soon gave way to the Macintosh, which exploded on the scene like the Beatles. There's a lot more to the story, including how Jobs paid another computer geek to design his software for the Macintosh, based on Tesler's and Jobs' ideas. And that young fellow--Bill Gates--and his start-up company, Microsoft, was later sued over its "Windows" program, which Jobs contended was stolen property. But that's for another day.

Today, I pay tribute to Lawerence Tesler. I'm writing this overdue blog post on a 21.5 inch Macintosh with a "Retina" screen that makes my typing look just like a paper-white page. And when I make the beaucoup errors I always make, I just grab my little "mouse," block the text, and fix them, or "cut and paste," as the need arises, all thanks to Tesler and the late Steve Jobs.

Imagine where we would be if no one had listened to Tesler's "out of the box" idea? Or where Xerox would be if they HAD, back then? They, like IBM were "giants" in the technology field, and could have cemented their status for decades to come. Even IBM wasn't immune to closed thinking. Thomas Watson, their CEO in that era, publicly stated that he thought the world would never need more than five computers. I'm told my CAR has about 100 of them managing its functions, today.

So, what's the moral of the story, beyond memorializing Lawrence Tesler? (We preachers ALWAYS have to have some kind of a moral.) Here are a few: new is often good; don't limit your thinking to what is easy and comfortable; believe in evolution--technological and human; as a person of faith, imagine your faith not as an anchor to the past, but as a firm footing for what comes next. The world is growing, changing. The culture is growing, changing. How are we responding to these facts? Cursing the "darkness" of change, or lighting a "candle" of progress and hope?  You decide, Beloved.

[Writer's note: I was tempted to launch into an additional discourse on how the WYSIWYG phenomenon could be illustrative for the United Methodist Church, but I thought better of it, choosing to just leave this here. Still, I keep thinking of the words of Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest: "brave new world, that has such people in 't!” (copied and pasted, in memory of Mr. Tesler.)]

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Rip and Read...

I was going to write about the recent "State of the Union" speech, but after trying to write something that wasn't just another slam against the current president, I ripped it up.

As one with a degree in journalism and communications, I remember the days of delivering the news on our college radio station (a 3000 watt station broadcasting to the entire community, not just a campus wide "carrier current" station). We were supposed to write news stories using as many sources as we could muster, including interviews with the newsmakers, themselves, if possible. Quotes were helpful, but even better were "actualities," or recordings of portions of the interview. Today, we might call these "sound bites."

However, if we were running late from a class, or got caught up in a chat session with a friend, we might just "rip and read," meaning we would go to the teletype machine and rip off a long strip of news from the Associated Press or the New York Times News Service and just literally read it verbatim on the air. The problems with "rip and read" were many fold: the stories may not have much--if any--interest to our local audience; even from one of these major press outlets, they may have been hastily and poorly written, making the on air talent sound like a moron; or they could be just a glorified headline, with the actual story to follow at a later time. Our professors hated "rip and read." It wasn't our work (for the better writers among us, it clearly wasn't our work, and for the lousy writers among us, it clearly wasn't their work, either!). And even if the story had a local angle, with no follow up or consulting a local source, "rip and read" would take what could be a "hot" local story and turn it into a bland piece of stock copy that got no ones attention and sparked no interest.

Today's "Breaking News!" is yesterday's "rip and read." No one in the studio really knows the story, as they are just handed the headline, and even if there is a live reporter on the scene, she or he is just as clueless, running around with a microphone and a trailing camera, asking any live body questions  willy-nilly. And often the spur-of-the-moment inquiries shot by anxious reporters at witnesses or victims on the scene come across like pouring acid in a deep gash. "Breaking News!" is often just that, b-r-e-a-k-i-n-g news, as in smashing it to the ground and stomping that sucker flat, as they say. Little, if any, information is imparted to the listener/viewer, and one often comes away feeling more like a voyeur than one who has been informed. I'll bet my professors still wouldn't like it (if any of them are still alive). "Rip and Read," by any other name such as "Breaking News!", is just "Rip and Read."

There are news reporters out there who are doing excellent work, and who are guided by a "nose for news" and journalistic integrity, and who know how to tell a story, whether in print or on the air. And then there are the others--opinion-casters who weave together goose-droppings of real facts in order to create the "air" of legitimate news. Pulitzer and other lesser regional prizes such as the Golden Quill are given sparingly to good reporters for unbiased, quality journalism. Unfortunately, ratings often go to the goose-poopers. And, like in the world of politics, high ratings may not translate into factual content. I once heard a famous broadcast blusterer say about a criticism leveled at him by a responsible broadcast journalist: "Oh he's just mad because I have 50,000 watts and a microphone just like him." Well, no, he's just upset that you are giving real broadcast journalists a bad name.

Speaking of "Rip and Read," let me suggest in closing this fine piece that this is also a dangerous way to take in the Bible. It's one thing to read it "devotionally" for edification and personal spiritual growth, but when formulating doctrines, or developing criteria for whom to include or exclude, or in labeling someone else's lifestyle as "sinful," "Rip and Read," as opposed to an in-depth, serious study with commentaries and enlightening feedback from people who understand this stuff (pastors, maybe?) is a bad idea. And yanking "clobber passages" out of biblical and historical context to use as justification for personal prejudice or bigotry is parallel to the "goose poop" reporters mentioned earlier, only with people consequences, not just a mangling of journalistic integrity. If you ever find yourself saying "The Bible says..." followed by a criticism or condemnation of another soul, you had better have done some serious homework, and consulted a few experts before lowering the boom.

So, what's the moral of this story? Well, read (or listen) responsibly. In the case of news, consult sources that have been recognized for unbiased, journalistic excellence. In the case of the Bible, if it's for your benefit, knock yourself out. If it's to lay down the law for another, it's probably beyond your pay grade, unless you've checked into the "village" of biblical interpreters. Otherwise, both of these pursuits are victims of the "Rip and Read" phenomenon. And in all cases, please reject "alternative facts," regardless of the shiny rocks from under which they may have come.

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...