From Dostoyevsky to Digital Subsystems

Down the road from Oklahoma is the Texas border, and further down the road from that border is Dallas. From South America to Oklahoma was a major step, which I luckily took with Fyodor Dostoyevsky. From that backwater college in Oklahoma in 1972 to the leading edge of digital technology in 1973 was several more steps, including a piano teacher, the first commercial video recorder, and actors in Texas with very few opportunities.

Teaching English in a small college was one of those dream jobs you soon awaken from. It had looked good from a distance, first from Vietnam and then from Lima, Peru, but small college politics are no fun especially if you are merely on a short-term visit. You have no actual territory to defend in the vicious budget sessions, or any way to assure your place in a diminishing pie. So waking up went this way…

One day a student I knew needed a short play for his director’s class. I brought out some short plays I had written for South American conversation classes, simple English with exceedingly obvious characters and plots and bare stage with a few chairs. The drama instructor at the college snapped them up for use with his director’s classes, and the directors’ group started playing them at county fairs because they were also bare stage with few actors and fewer props. (Later these plays were published as Rehearsals for Armageddon and then were used by the Second City in Chicago, and later became English  conversation classes as Not Quite Shakespeare. Another story…  But this fits.)

Along the way at some party I met an instructor for Redkins hair products, who said he would give a performance cutting hair for anyone who could make movie of it. I had been reading about the new Norelco reel-to-reel tape recorder, and decided to buy one and give that a try. I had him talk while he was cutting the hair, as he would with a live audience of hair stylists. But the video was odd. He had already almost finished the phase he was talking about, and the viewer had to make the connection several seconds into the new area of cutting. It was like you were always feeling left behind. I tried to get him to start his dialog sooner, but he actually used his cutting as cues for his talking, so it was never natural sounding.

It was then that I realized something that was of course one of the bedrocks of early movies, that the sound track was separate from the video track. In movies it was the reason for all the loops of film in the projectors, so that the audio was read from the side of the track in a different place than the video. Film was processed that way, and novice projector operators often got the sound out of sync by not putting in the proper loops into the wheels of the projector. In this case, the separation of video and audio provided a different opportunity.

By moving the sound track off the reel to an audio tape, and then mixing it back in offset by about 6 seconds, it made the instructor start talking about the process just slightly before he started doing it. The narration then fit the video perfectly, and viewers were not confused at all: they saw what was being talked about in the same moment it was being done.

At another party Anita, the piano teacher at the college introduced me to Joe, a male friend of hers who was up from Dallas. Joe was a child prodigy who interned with Texas Instruments in Dallas as a sophomore at Southern Methodist University, became skilled in integrated circuits and went back to teach in the SMU graduate school on loan from TI. There was indeed brainpower in Texas, and a lot of it gravitated to Texas Instruments, which had invented the first transistor radio. When I first heard of them through Joe, TI was leading the world in integrated circuits, which would put thousands of transistors on one small chip.

Joe entranced me with a story of his Texas Instruments development team being given a contract to make an electronic collar for self-destructive children, which would allow parents to zap them if they tried to hurt themselves. It was much like a dog training collar, and this team of engineers realized it could easily be used on bad children, and finally just precocious children. However, these TI engineers realized they could not just refuse to do this project (which came from a child-welfare organization), but they must find some answer that would prevent any other group of engineers from doing what obviously could be done. After some weeks of despairing of a solution, Joe’s engineering team finally refused the project because (they said) any such system could also be activated by lightning.

I told Joe I had done some playwriting and that his solution would make a great play. In fact, that year I wrote that play, The Collar, and it won the Olivet National Playwriting competition. So I sent that play to Joe, and, when I saw him again, told him that I was also working on reel-to-reel video projects. He remembered he had been talking to a friend at TI who was running the Learning Center, which had acquired some old studio videotaping equipment, and may need people like me who would know what to do with it. They had been using surveillance cameras in classrooms to record the classes of engineers on various uses of their integrated circuit products. I went down to Texas Instruments with Joe, my Redkins video and my new book of short plays in hand.

While I was visiting with Jack, the head of the Texas Instruments Learning Center, I offered my thoughts on their current use of video. It was then one step above warehouse surveillance.  I suggested that the two-hour recorded sessions could be done in forty five minutes if they were first scripted with the presenter, graphics were developed to that script, and the blackboard and easel graphics they used popped in and out of the video while the instructor continued talking. These visuals were always getting out of order or falling off the easels or chalk was breaking — or 100 other things that were slowing down the classroom presentation – and putting students to sleep.

(Those who remember early video will have fond memories of the “pop ins” where an original reel and a new reel had to sync to the frame, and often had to be done several times because of rollovers. Sorry to recount this to those of you who were never there and never will be.)

Having to key the presentation to the visuals also made each area more cohesive and visually representative of the subjects. With the first class I reorganized for them they saved time and money on instructors and students and had an altogether better result. I was hired as a contractor for the next summer not only to construct classes in digital electronics, but to create videos on Supervisory Skills. The world’s leading electrical engineers had hired a playwright. The summer went so well that I requested a leave of absence from the college, and got it. Brenda and I packed up our few belongings and our son Liam and, frankly, never looked back.

Technically I was a tech writer. At the time all tech writers wrote entirely in the passive voice (observe : the passive voice was used by all tech writers). There was a sign on the wall in the Tech writers area: We explain what we barely understand because those who understand can barely explain it. I started doing scripts for electronics courses I did not understand, but I did understand the active voice. This immediately made my stuff intelligible to ordinary people and the other tech writers looked bad. “Hey, if batteries not included, who’s not including them?” I offered to the tech writers. This exposed the dirty secret of much of the technical writing of the day, that in having no subject, the sentence had no responsible party. That was the essence of objectivity, to dodge responsibility, or so it appeared.

Then Jack said they had a client who wanted to make little video sketches to demonstrate supervisory skills. Though I scripted them so that no one could possibly fail, these male electrical engineers and various female employees were all uniformly lifeless in the roles we tried at first. I knew there must be local actors starving out there. It was a difficult sell to Texas Instruments management, especially when the outside actors could not be paid for an afternoon’s work on a net 90 payment aging schedule. What I did was total the amount of hours it would take for these dramatic novices to be pulled off their high-yield electronics manufacturing jobs. Then I calculated the hourly rate that TI was paying. Then I compared it to the local SAG-AFTRA scale for actors. Furthermore, I said, the actors were pros and could finish the shooting in half the time. My numbers won, except there was another problem: when the TI managers told me I could use actors, they expected me to find them.

I started going down the list of talent agencies in Dallas. Most of the talent was in these gorgeous photo books where they all gaze off with their cheeks on their hands. It turned out that most of them were pretty faces and had never had a speaking role. But they certainly wanted them, because these roles paid more and looked better on the resume which was their road to stardom, right here in Dallas, Texas. There was really no precedent for the talent agents to turn pretty faces into actors. I sat through a couple of meetings with possible actors and everyone was fawning and trying to guess what I was looking for in these supervisor roles. And frankly, I wouldn’t know who I wanted until I saw them try a role.

Whatever seems like a good straightforward idea is almost always in fact a potential labyrinth of ugly logistics and impossible timing. Theoretically, nothing should ever get done. The talent agents were protective, the wannabe voice actors saw this as their way out of Dallas, and – as you can imagine – the Texas Instruments management was suspicious of all this glitz when their background, up to transistor radios and the current 4-function calculators, had always been selling the electronics for Harpoon missiles to the Defense Department.

So I asked the talent agents if their people could audition on tape for us. Uh Oh! That meant the SAG-AFTRA union had to approve these aspirants being put on TI tape without being paid. But our taping studios were onsite. So I asked SAG-AFTRA: if the tape audition place was in a neutral setting, could we skip those fees and give copies of the tapes to the actors as payment? That finally passed after my bear dance to the union bosses, promising their share of the electronics revolution to come. But where was a place that was neutral enough? No self-respecting talent agent would allow his or her people to audition at the offices of another agent (– agents bandit away talent all day long anyway.)

Finally it turned out that one of the actors had a cousin who managed one of the big downtown theaters, and got that cousin to let us use the massive lobby on one Thursday morning when there were no movies showing. Texas Instruments had to be talked into renting portable taping equipment and lights audio, etc. that they could use in other situations that week. The unions slipped me a free audio guy just so its actors would sound OK. (So far I had no budget whatsoever.)

It was almost cruel, this march of the wanna-be actors through the taped auditions, with cue cards giving them sentences which would come from little supervisory skills dramas. Probably the only crueler thing would have been the Dallas auditions for the local production of the musical Annie, with hundreds of little girls from tiny Texas towns hundreds of miles away, bellowing and tap-dancing with their stage mothers hovering too far away to whisper, but mouthing encouragement non-stop. Mine was not that bad, but Texas Instruments had an international clientele, and many a dream died when a clipped set of words (gotta hep us out ta do binez hair) or a too-nasal Texas twang failed to match the pretty face on tape.

The supervisory skills tapes were a hit, got some national awards in training (also good for actors resumes)  and led to my getting professional narrators to do the electronics courses in which they explained what they could never understand with golden throated credibility. Pretty soon other divisions, such as sales, were requesting tapes, and my pallet got so full I had to find other producers to take scripts I’d written and produce the little shows. It was an empire, to be sure…except for one thing. I had to use the tech writers — who hated every bone in my active voice body –as producers! I was about to have a raft of failures when Jane walked in. Jane Sallis was high class and somewhat exotic for Dallas, and totally out of place and more totally unappreciated at Texas Instruments. None of that mattered for either of us. What mattered was that Jane saw exactly what was needed and came back to me with ten zinger questions that made me fall in love — almost. Jane had been a debutante in Dallas best society, and a fine arts major at Tulane, and with the first production I gave her (insisting to the Texas Instrument brass that we could bring in a producer as well as actors and let the other tech writers continue with the really important user’s manuals for digital subsystems), she offered a professional job on time under budget that looked great. The actors loved her, the crew loved her – she made their stuff look so good!  I still don’t know exactly how Jane stumbled into my life, but Jane was great at Texas Instruments and later in producing video and art for my CPR system and eight years later when I had my own company in Seattle, we produced a bunch of training videodiscs for GTE Directories in – guess where – Dallas.

There are several joys in the hassle of professional life, but maybe none more rewarding than being remembered in an enthusiastically favorable way by people whom you had treated decently, but thought were lost in the past. When Jane put out the word that Hon was back and needed actors for a production, there were no weeks of negotiating and meandering through talent agencies, no bear-dancing for union bosses, none of that. They remembered we’d gotten starving actors paid the very week they worked, they’d elevated some of the talent I used through taped resumes to approach national accounts, keeping large Dallas ad agencies from having to go to the coasts for talent. The whole Dallas creative community was there for us. One week we walked into town and the next week Jane had the production going for GTE, a big one, and one the first training productions ever using interactive videodisc. Whatever goes around… does come around.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

Trombones We Have Known

Nothing then was as nearly so obvious as it seems to be now, so far away.

Back in 1961 there was a new President Kennedy who gained office with the votes of southern Democrats.  We all thought his Boston accent quite strange but he was young and had a great sense of humor. He made his brother Robert his Attorney General. At first they both saw Martin Luther King as a threat to America, and had him watched by Hoover’s FBI. Many Republicans and northern Democrats pushed integration of the races while other Republicans and the southern Democrats favored segregation. There were still “whites-only” water fountains in parts of the country and many hotels in large cities which would not admit black professional athletes when they were in road games. A tremendous number of upscale neighborhoods in major cities still required contractual covenants which would not allow any subsequent owners to sell their property to blacks or Jews.

My grandmother, who came to Oklahoma from Tennessee in a covered wagon, and was a great-granddaughter of Davy Crockett, was an intelligent, kind Southern woman who rocked me in her rocker and sang songs like “There was an old darkie whose name was Uncle Ned, He died long years ago, He had no hair on the top of his head, The place where the hair ought to grow….Lay down the fiddle and the bow, Lay down the shovel and the hoe, Ain’t no more work for poor Uncle Ned, He’s gone where the good darkies go.”

At seven years old, I never dreamt that song — or my grandmother — would be called racist, a word I’d never heard and would not hear for years. Later while in college I argued with my grandmother about Martin Luther King, and she said she saw they had good reason, but they were trying to “move too fast.”

The curious thing about segregationists in America was that quite a few blacks agreed with them. I am using the word “blacks” as this was considered a neutral descriptive term for several interim decades, and represents the best of adjectives used for African-Americans at that time and for some time thereafter. The gentleman I am about to describe was the epitome of what was called “Black Pride.”

Keve Bray did not cater to integration, though he was a high school teacher and it might have benefitted him to do so. He never wanted integration because if someone has to be integrated then automatically that made them a victim, and Keve Bray was not going to be anyone’s de facto victim.

Googling Keve Bray doesn’t get you much of anywhere. Like they say of the great Gayle Sayers running the football, you had to be there.  What they have to say online is all so far removed from the contact that I had with him in 1961, that I have to remember him in a more innocent time when all our roles seemed so much more innocent as well.

First of all, you have to know that Keve Bray was an actor. A big baritone of an actor, but with a wry intelligence that transcends the usual stage. He would be on anyone’s short list to play Othello, probably even Shakespeare’s. I got to know Keve because in 1961 I took a playwriting class at the University of Washington and wrote a short (forgettable) play and he was teaching high school drama and had me read it to his class.

Seattle was ever the place where social movements took root. First it was friendly relations of settlers with Native Americans, living alongside tribes whose living came from the land – and sea – in this temperate climate. There was so much meat and fish and berries and corn and wood to burn that almost no one could die of cold or hunger. There was so much plenty that ever so often a rich family was obliged to hold a public potlatch where they gave away everything they had to the many visitors, and were judged socially by how much they had to give away. I guess you would call the potlatch societies both pre-capitalist and post-capitalist (since they obviously had to accumulate something in order to give it away).

Later the American Communist party took infiltrated the docks, and Woody Guthrie came to write songs and sing songs about the new progressive movements, most specifically “The Great Grand Coulee Dam.”

So it was fitting that many blacks in Seattle at that time were seeking an identity that had been denied to them since the Civil War…They were mostly descended from slaves, but were still not any kind of equal citizen.  Keve Bray felt that blacks in America should own their own banks and their own insurance companies and their own farms, and hire their own people to build their own houses and run their own grocery stores to feed their own communities. He felt that until blacks could stand proudly with their own institutions parallel to the rest of society, then this new integration phenomenon was merely patronizing condescension from the white community.

So when $50 was a lot of money, and I was working three jobs to stay in school at the University of Washington, I invested $50 in Keve Bray’s Evergreen Insurance Company, the first black insurance company I know of anywhere. And when Keve Bray put on All Gods Trombones as a benefit play based on a collection of sermons in verse, at the Opera House downtown, I agreed to play the white foreman on a slave plantation. Barely having started college, it was probably the only role in life I was then qualified to play.

A couple of nights before the first dress rehearsal of All Gods Trombones, and we were playing a critical scene in which I played the white plantation foreman who was to throw the main character down and run him off. ( FYI – My word processor now suggests I use the word supervisor instead of foreman.) The main character was a sprightly singer and dancer who stole the rehearsals with his talent and charm and was sure to steal the show when we put on the play. All the cast was in high spirits as we rehearsed in the basement of a church in downtown Seattle. This was a chance to show off everything good, and also raise money in a real way for real businesses, in the black community.

I was the only white person in the play, and everyone was gathered around in a cheerful mood when Keve said we had to put maximum energy into this scene, so it would look real from far out in the audience. I moved onto the stage, and on cue grabbed the main man and threw him down, spouting my rehearsed invective, and one of the other “slaves” caught the fall on his knee. There was a groan from the star, and he rolled over holding his ribs.

The eyes which had been laughing and cheerful turned mean on me. I may have ruined their show, and I was a white guy. It was not my fault and yet, in a much larger sense, it was my fault. I was the only one here who was privileged to be white. I felt the helplessness of a baby on the beach, looking up at a large wave. Keve Bray stepped into this vacuum of solid, silent resentment and said, “OK, let’s change roles.” He pulled the groaning dancer to his feet. “You’ll be the foreman.”

I was so glad to be grabbed, so glad to be thrown to the floor in front of all the cast. They were all laughing in that release of sudden bad feelings. I was OK. We were all just playing roles. And Keve’s play went on that week and made money. Soon I was involved in other college classes and activities, and later involved in combat and in a few business conflicts, but this command decision, made by a director to save his play, stuck with me as one of the more brilliant and perceptive moves I have ever seen.

From Tulsa, where I was in graduate school in 1965, I saw an article from the Seattle Times that Keve had organized a group to ban the children’s book Black Sambo, from the Seattle Public Library. I smiled at this, envisioning his gusto and his self-assurance on the steps of the city library. And then, being in my own war and trying to return from that strange role to a different America than I left, I heard no more about him until now. One of the better accounts online omits a lot of grisly detail, but reads like  this:                                                Seattle businessman and political activist Keve Bray played an essential role in the local civil rights movement and is especially notable for his role in the black power movement in the Central District. Bray was born on June 9, 1925. Very little is known about his childhood background. By the 1960s Bray emerged as an early opponent of integration as the best means to advance equality for African Americans in Seattle. As early as 1964, he spoke out against the integrationist rhetoric of many civil rights leaders. This political dissent foreshadowed the emergence of black power ideologies in Seattle later in the 1960s.
By 1968, Bray had become a leader of the “black nationalist” faction of the African American community in Seattle. He and his followers asserted their dissatisfaction of the direction of the civil rights movement, under the leadership of the Central Area Civil Rights Committee, at a particularly heated community meeting in March 1968. From that point on, many young black Seattleites openly supported the black power rhetoric of Keve Bray, the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party, and other leaders of the Black Nationalist movement.  Bray was very active in community organizations and carried a strong voice in Seattle. He co-founded the Negro Voters League in 1966 and was a member of the United Black Front (UBF).  In 1969 he joined other UBF members and eight Seattle Black Panthers in presenting a list of Central District grievances to the Washington State Senate Ways and Means Committee. Bray was also a frequent contributor to the Afro American Journal, a short-lived publication in Seattle that openly supported the black power movement.                                                                                                                                                       In addition to his involvement in political activism, Keve Bray was a major supporter of African American arts and culture in Seattle. Bray headed the Black Cultural Center, a center that promoted black community education and served as a place for young African Americans to display arts and crafts. The Center also housed the Banneker School, an alternative private school for African American youth in the Central District. In 1972 Bray moved to Denver, Colorado after becoming a Black Muslim.  He changed his name to Keve X and was assigned by Nation of Islam, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, to reorganize the Denver Mosque. Bray was assassinated in the doorway of his Denver home on November 17, 1972, allegedly by Denver members of the Nation of Islam.

We travel through events and roles in life. The events mostly become slips of paper in old drawers (or on old web sites) and the most momentous ones are usually far away in the news and are never like the personal ones which form the real course of the world. And the roles…It may not matter what roles you chose, or why you chose them, but only how you played the role. The role Keve Bray played was his creation and yet a creation of the times, and — when all the lights fade on all of us — I have to think he played his role to perfection.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

The Future Comes to Town

It is sometimes tempting, when you are older, to act as if you were an earpiece to history. I hate to say it, but some monumental events in the history of the world actually traipsed by me in full close-up, and I didn’t even say “wow”…until now. Though it is a little late, looking back from this grey beach on a remote Pacific shore in Canada, I can see that significant personalities and significant events did roll by. Only now am I considering what a parade it has been.

I had decided to start my new company in Seattle because that is where I wanted to end up. Boston had had some beckonings in that both Harvard and M.I.T. had me do several presentations. Harvard suggested I might apply as an instructor, which is what people with unique subject expertise and startup companies with no money sometimes do. Given the solid logic of Boston, of course I chose Seattle. At the time, in 1983, I had hardly heard of Microsoft. A  years before I had presided over the “non-introduction” of Philips CD-Rom at the Nebraska Videodisc conference, which CPR had also won as “best application so far” or some such. This “non-introduction” is inside humor for when everyone hears about a new product and the manufacturer wants them to hold off buying decisions but won’t say how long.

My small company, Ixion, consisted by 1984 of a few people who thought interactive media might be the future. Ixion was the Greek who offended the gods and for that was strapped for eternity to a revolving wheel (– like a videodisc. The black humor symbolism was of course lost on all but the most arcane of observers). The CardoPulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) simulator was well behind Jane Sallis and me, left back in Dallas with the American Heart Association when we came to Seattle. There were a couple of other folks who had been instrumental in getting the funding and new business, but after a few months the new car smell of this enterprise had worn off. We were selling interactive media, and most people said “what’s that?” 1984 Seattle was still more of a fishing, timber, and airplane city, and had not yet evolved into a hi-tech mecca.

Meanwhile I’d sold my family of five on coming to Seattle. I wanted to get the kids out of Dallas before they became Texans. Brenda liked the climate because it was reminiscent of Ireland, and the hills suited her running. Liam and Galen liked the nearby skiing. And Deirdre, at four years old, liked anything everyone else liked.

We stumbled onto a huge house that had been on the market for a year because the owner had been a high stakes, high-living bank VP who left his bank billions short in questionable deals. The house had been a party house with a view of the water and the mountains on a clear day. Lucky for us….The scandal of its owner left it with a taint, and over the year the market price had descended way down until it dangled just above our outside range. Through some banker’s contortions, like a contract to deed, we took it off their soiled hands. The boys ran around the big house testing the intercom systems and listening in on everyone else who was for the time unsupposing.  For years there were interesting sounds within the walls — maybe the intercom or, maybe we had ghosts of investors , still looking for 50 cents on their lost dollars.

Because the CPR simulator had had some following in the press, Microsoft invited me to speak at their conference a couple of years later — the week they went public. The night before his Initial Public Offering, a 27-year-old Bill Gates hosted a dinner for the speakers in the back lawn of his modest bachelor home in Seattle. Something like chicken and rice on paper plates with four people at each card table and folding chairs. I found myself at a small table with Bill Gates. Rumor was that Ross Perot had tried to buy him out for 2 million but now Microsoft was going public, the very next day. I had thought we were going to hear a lot of new tech stuff at dinner, but all Gates wanted to talk about was how to hold on to all of these good people he had working for him. Many local people bought Microsoft stock right out of the gate, but I was too smart for that…

The portion of the evening’s speaker program was on data storage, and was supposed to deal with CD-ROMs as the “new papyrus” (which was the title of a now classic book buried somewhere). Before the presentation, we speakers were honest with each other. “Have you ever made a CD-ROM?” “No, You?” “I’ve made a videodisc” “Wow, you can go first.” Truly the rest of the cast of speakers seemed to be theoreticians while I had done a videodisc which was not really the data storage device that everyone touted, but for now was close enough.

Let me take a short detour about the videodisc. Philips of the Netherlands, one of the world’s giant companies, had the patent on the videodisc and through Sony and others were trying get the world to make applications on it.  In 1984, this videodisc was truly the superkid stepchild laid on the doorstep of technology, a newborn which was bigger and stronger than anyone in the family, to the point that no one knew what to do with it. Computer programmers had no vision of what to do with 54000 video frames except to store pictures. Movie producers had no idea of how to use computer access except to show movies and sequence parts of them like chapters. Finally the videodisc failed because, as the angel said, with the world in the palm of our hand — we failed this time because of a failure of imagination.

That is why, in my wild and bizarre fashion, I had a small measure of credibility with both groups during that first Microsoft Conference in Seattle in 1986. The CPR simulator, which Jane Sallis as a producer make sparkle, showed what random access video could do, and appeared continually interesting to both software and video groups…a go-between for a while.

Most of that year I busied myself with trying to get some kind of business for my new company. Jane and I made a stunning demo disc, where you could play a shell game over and over with the on-screen huckster, spot and stop shoplifters who were using all manner of deceptions to slip items into pockets and purses, and adjust the flame on a welding torch. The fact that I could control everything on the disc from a small TRS80 Radio Shack notebook computer made it even more compelling, and exquisitely portable. My business got generated by having potential clients say “Hey, could you do (this or that) with this thing?” Too often, however, I would fly to Columbus. Ohio for a meeting and see nothing but glass eyes across the conference table. Unless this new technology did exactly what they needed with their exact product in their exact situation, people mostly could not make the conceptual jump.

I also began to understand why the young Bill Gates was paranoid. Managers from his newly public company came trying to entice my best people away. One of the Microsoft managers, seeing me eating with a group in a local restaurant at lunch, actually bragged straight to me that he was hiring one of my best programmers. Computer folks may have education, but that doesn’t necessarily bestow class.

Gates himself was a different matter. He had a sort of naïve graciousness, that some programmers are fortunate enough to retain. (Joke from back then: Q: What’s the difference between programmers and terrorists? A: You can negotiate with terrorists.) I was invited again as a speaker the next year, and this time it was for the world’s primo CD-ROM conference. The event was at the downtown Sheraton in Seattle and there were separate rooms for various subjects. For my presentation there was a curious requirement, that I found out at the last moment. I could show slides and talk about videodiscs, but I could not show an actual program with one. This I discovered was because the CD-ROM, or any other kind of data storage and manipulation, still wouldn’t be half as fast or look half as good or be half as dependable as the videodisc. If you want a truly techie reason, it was because the world Microsoft wanted was all-digital, and the world the mass public understood was still analog. (If you didn’t need this explanation, that’s OK too.)

Anyway, money creeps in. The speakers’ dinner the next year, in 1987, was in a penthouse suite overlooking the city. It did feel a bit more exclusive looking out at the  world silhouetted against the reddened skies of sundown. Exclusive, but no more fun than Bill’s Backyard Dinner the year before. After this penthouse dinner the group began to mull about what they heard was happening downstairs. Unbeknownst to anyone, the Philips company from the Netherlands had rented the auditorium in the same hotel for that evening, and the word was out that they were going to introduce their new CD-I, (Compact Disc – Interactive,) disc product on that stage, for this group of speakers, and others they could round up.

A few of the speakers commented that Philips chews up and spits out small fry like Microsoft, This Philips introduction was clearly an affront and a challenge to any leadership Microsoft was taking, which was very little at all beyond pronouncing themselves a leader. I happened be right next to the (now) 28 year-old Gates outside the penthouse dinner when he was accosted by a Mr. Telza of Philips. (The name is an approximation) Telza wanted very much for Gates to announce to the speakers at the dinner that the Philips CD-I product was being introduced that night in the  hotel auditorium downstairs. This was obviously to show Microsoft’s newly pronounced software leadership challenged at his own sponsored conference by the international hardware leader and patent holder. If Gates resisted, it would show weakness. If he gave in, it would show he was cowed by Philips.

He pondered the situation for just a moment, and then I was surprised at the non-chalance with which Gates answered, “Sure, we’ll have them go down and see it.” The Philips man looked a little surprised with the quickness of the answer, and then he ( and I) knew it was the perfect one. Without further words, Gates was saying that his speakers, of high caliber, would know if CD-I was any good.

They went, and it wasn’t. At that juncture, CD-I was largely vaporware, put in to get attention built on some kind of technical innuendo that such a thing could possibly be done if anyone wanted it.  Beyond that dinner, I never worked with Gates or ran in his circles, but I have always admired how he handled Philips that night. My business went into medical simulation and his into business software, and paths didn’t cross again.

There is a final irony, however. I learned from some other videodisc practioners that one of them had been hired in hush-hush secrecy, to back up announcements made by Gates at yearly events, touting new Microsoft direction. The new Microsoft software product often would have bugs and would have crashed their computers right there on the big stage when Gates was out there presenting and showing off new products on the huge screens for audiences of thousands. Such crashing was not fun, for anyone…So…

The videodiscs which were “backup” could be made to work perfectly every time in linear precision. So it happened, (if my rumoring friends are truthful,) that clear up to the year 2000, videodiscs were always used instead of the real program on a real computer when the images and sequences were mission critical. Show biz folks might find that comparable to Milly Vanilly lipsyncing whole performances. But I thought it was fine. Like my friend Stan Jarvis always said, if you believe it can be true, you are justified in imitating a future reality.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved