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Secrets of the Jedi Lunchbox and Other Andy Ihnatko Tales

by Derrick Story

Like many of you, I've been reading Andy Ihnatko's columns since MacUser magazine. There was something refreshing about Andy's perspective that was in step with how I felt about the Mac: a little rebellious, somewhat special, and very lucky to have stumbled across this innovative platform.

Since that time I've managed to move on from crawling around under cubicle desks looking for bad SCSI cables as a Mac sysadmin, and Andy has climbed the tech journalism ladder to become one of the more innovative Mac writers to date. He still contributes to Macworld Magazine and is now the Chicago Sun-Times technology columnist.

When I was putting together my wishlist of keynote speakers for the upcoming Mac OS X Conference, Andy was a top entry. Fortunately for all of us he accepted my invitation and will be talking about The Big Rethink. For those of you who won't be able to see him in person (why you would miss this is beyond me...), I thought you might enjoy this conversation we recently had.

How the Heck Does a Guy Go from User Group Volunteer to Chicago Sun-Times Columnist?

Derrick Story: You first appeared on my radar screen back in the MacUser days when you were a columnist there. Some of the pieces you wrote, like Natural Born Filler really jumped out at me. We'll talk specifically about MacUser mag later, but first, I'm curious, what were you up to before then, and how did you end up as a Mac columnist?

Andy Ihnatko: Well, I was just trying to get over a bitter breakup with my former alma mater; it was a swell school and I was sure the relationship was going to go the distance, but it fell apart over the issues of religion (they thought a computer science major should spend most of his time learning physics and chemistry; I countered that perhaps horsing around with cellular automata and learning how to write an OS was a better idea) and money.

Mac OSX Conference

Keynote by Andy Ihnatko:
The Big Rethink

The result is an epic tour through ten years' worth of hardware, software and -- most frightening of all -- the things that PR people do to promote them. This slide show has it all: adventure, excitement, insights about Apple and the Industry past and present, and a really good explanation of why SCSI cables belong in the same box as the aquarium supplies.

O'Reilly Mac OS X Conference
October 27-30, 2003
Santa Clara, CA

So I figured I'd spend a couple of years working at a real job until I could afford to go back. After a few weeks of working a consulting desk I realized that if I didn't find a way to have fun and blow off steam, the brake lines of an alarming number of my clients' cars would wind up getting cut. That's when I started working as an active volunteer for the Boston Computer Society's Mac Group. I'd write things for their monthly newsletter, help run the monthly meetings, hang out at the office and abuse my access privileges to all sorts of cool hardware that I couldn't afford.

One month we had the editors-in-chief of Macworld, MacUser, and MacWEEK as our meeting guests and here the Hand of Destiny gave me a firm blow across the shoulder blades. We thought it'd be funny to have the three editors-in-chief play a special Macintosh-themed round of "Jeopardy!" I wrote a HyperCard stack to run the game and wrote nearly all of the questions and answers.

(My favorite category: "Woz, Jobs or God." I assembled a list of quotes and the contestants had to identify the source as either Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs...or the Old Testament. The Woz quotes were easy to spot, but when people guessed wrong, they usually wound up attributing Old Testament quotes to Steve Jobs. No surprise there.)

I'd also started a regular thing I called "Secrets Of The Jedi Lunchbox". Before the meeting I'd leave my "Return Of The Jedi" lunchbox at the entrance to the auditorium, filled with pencils and note cards. If you had a question--should you always put your scanner at the end of the SCSI chain, you installed new memory in a Mac IIcx but the OS can't see it, is Joe Jackson the most amazingly versatile performer/composer of the past ten years, or the past century?--you'd write it down and drop it in the box. And at the start of the meeting (or whenever a perfectly happy and healthy Mac suddenly turned into a snarling, hissing beast right in the middle of a demo) I'd pull cards at random and answer them on the spot. Sometimes I had the answer off the top of my head, sometimes, someone in the crowd would chirp in. Either way, folks got their answers (namely: No, but it's often convenient; You need to download Mode32; Neither, he's the most versatile performer/composer of all time, with the possible exception of Burt Bachrach and whoever wrote "'Enery The Eighth I Am.")

Remember that all I was doing was finding creative alternative outlets for those daily Urges to Kill that pop up when you do tech support full-time. If I happened to be all over that meeting like a fungus, it was just because my days were filled with Vice Presidents who, in a more enlightened society, would have been placed in some sort of outpatient facility years ago. Nonetheless, by the end of the evening, MacWEEK had invited me to come out and cover Macworld San Francisco, and the editor of MacUser invited me to lunch and at the end of that I was offered MacUser's "Help" column.

So I'm still trying to find a real job so I can get back to Rensselaer Polytechnic. Until then I fill my time with columns, articles, and the goal of lasting more than eleven minutes in "Medal Of Honor". I'm just happy to discover that the thing that I've always done for fun, writing, is something that I can make a living from.

DS: So do you think of yourself as a writer or just a guy with a Mac and weird ideas floating through his head?

AI: Oh, I'm a writer. Writing is my Prozac, my morning coffee, my whatever it is that Dennis Hopper was doing in "Blue Velvet". Though I do own a Mac--several, actually--and my ongoing good health is attributable mainly to my not following every Brilliant Idea that pops into my head toward its inevitable conclusion.

DS: OK, now let's talk about MacUser. I loved that publication and hated to see it merge with Macworld. As a reader, that meant one less Mac mag a month to peruse. First, could you tell me a little bit about how it was working with the MacUser folks?

AI:The MacUser folks were really great. I'm a little odd in that I judge my success with a publication by the relationships I manage to form with the folks who work there. I'm happy to say that many of the friends I had at MacUser are still my pals today and whenever I'm in the Bay Area there's a partial reunion of sorts.

DS: How difficult was the transition for you over to the Macworld publishing team? As I recall, you became a columnist right away.

AI: That was a tough transition. You have to recall that I wasn't on staff. MacUser and Macworld were over in San Francisco and I was here in Boston, so I wasn't privy to most of what went on. But the merge came as a big surprise to nearly everyone. Of course the immediate result was one magazine with twice as many editors and contributors as they needed. So it sure wasn't a fun time for anybody.

At the time I was MacUser's back-page columnist. Well, Macworld had an exceedingly fine back-page columnist in the form of Mr. David Pogue. MacUserWorld kept my column for a few months, but eventually it was axed in the ongoing give-and-take of folding all those columns and editors into one magazine. If they'd let me go and replaced me with Charles Grodin I might have taken umbrage but as it is, my sympathy for the situation was greater than my disappointment.

DS: Stepping back for a second, with you having spent much of your career in print, how do you think the current situation is working with print and online each trying to find their appropriate niche in the Mac space?

AI: Sometimes it's pretty discouraging to look at the state of Mac news organizations. I'm really happy to see that the market can still support several regular publications, but the Web has really hit tech magazines hard. Even the Windows mags are getting thinner.

MacWEEK was the obvious casualty of the Web: who wants to wait five whole days for a news item when they can get it off of MacCentral just ten minutes after it happens? But the Web is a good space to be in. You've got plenty of rumor sites that'll fall for any damned-fool piece of gossip, but plenty of news sites that are doing real journalism.

If the glossy magazines have been forced to adapt in light of all of this, it's all to the better from the users' point of view, anyway. I miss some of the fun and lyricism that used to fill the pages, but it seems like each and every month readers are getting a whole new book of tips, tricks, and techniques.

DS: Now let's talk about an entirely different medium, public speaking. You're going to be delivering a morning keynote address titled The Big Rethink at the Mac OS X Conference in October. What's that going to be about?

AI: Good question. Umm. Well, "The Big Rethink" was a desperate campaign to declutter my home and office. Every morning, Santa Claus arrives in the form of FedEx, UPS, and Airborne and deposits gaily-colored parcels at the bottom of the stairs. As an octogenarian who grew up during the bitter gray days of the Depression, I can't throw anything away, which leads to a big problem. Namely, there are times when I can't make it to any of the exits without starting a small fire.

So last summer I decided to rethink everything I had. I went through every piece of old hardware, every promotional geegaw, every book and press release, and decided on a case-by-case basis whether it should be Kept, Given Away, eBayed, or photographed for future public ridicule.

"The Big Rethink" it largely a celebration of the latter. But, through no fault of mine, there's a certain historical perspective about Apple and Microsoft that somehow trickles through.

DS: Oh, and just one more thing that I've been curious about. You're often described as "America's 42nd most-beloved Industry personality". Who started that?

AI: I did. I often travel to give talks and whatnot, and "technology columnist" made me sound like I was on the dole or something. So I went out and looked for a description that sounded kind of credible but would be utterly impossible to prove or disprove. And I think I hit paydirt.

DS: Why 42?

AI: I'm comfortable with that number. I'm willing to stand behind it. If you threw a list of 42 industry personalities in my face and demanded that I was full of it because they were all more beloved than I am, I'm confident that I could disqualify at least one of them. "No, look here at your Number 31," I'd say. "I happen to know for a fact that he never wipes down the recumbent-bike machine at his gym after he's done using it, whereas I do the sprayer and the towel religiously."

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit

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