That Time I Interviewed Click and Clack

RIP, Tom Magliozzi--and thanks for the memories

Back in the summer of 1997, I got my one and only assignment for a magazine called The Web, back when it seemed like it made sense to publish reviews and profiles relating to websites on dead trees. It turned out to be one of the most entertaining projects I ever worked on: I profiled Tom and Ray Magliozzi, better known as Click and Clack of public radio’s Car Talk.

When I saw the sad news today that Tom had passed away at 77, the memories came flooding back.

I made contact with the Car Talk team by getting the phone number of their production company. In 1997, you did that by calling directory assistance. I still remember the pleasure I took in asking for the number for Dewey Cheetham & Howe.

At least back then, snagging an interview with the brothers was tougher than you might think. They didn’t particularly like publicizing their show, and rarely talked to the press. But my timing was good: My editor, Dan Miller, had asked me to write about them because they were launching their first website. That they were willing to promote.

I conducted the interview one afternoon when they were taping their show at the studios of Boston’s WBUR. They were a little impatient with being interviewed, but smart, warm, and funny. I learned that even though the show felt like it was live–the Magliozzis’ mom sometimes called in after supposedly hearing another call on the radio–the handful of people who made it onto the program were actually chosen from 10,000 prospects a week who left recorded messages. That explained why so many of the on-air callers seemed so similar in personality and car problems. (There was a certain sort of female caller who pretty much made it onto the air several times a week.)

And I was startled to see that the Magliozzis sometimes worked from material written by others. That seemed to happen during the bridging sequences, and I don’t think it’s scandalous, since much of their funniest moments did appear to be ad-libbed–or at least not read off a script. But I see that I didn’t mention it in my story.

The best part of the assignment was that it finally taught me to tell the difference between the brothers, who I’d never bothered to think about as separate individuals before. Tom, the older brother, was a wacko who pretty much seemed to say whatever came into his head. Ray was far more low key, and prevented the proceedings from careening completely off course. From then on, I never had the least bit of difference keeping track of who was who.

When I’d finished my interview and was ready to leave, the producer handed me a cassette of me chatting with Tom and Ray. It sounded like an episode of Car Talk which I had mysteriously wandered into. I still have it somewhere–but I don’t think I have a tape player anymore.

Anyhow, here’s the story, which I just scanned in from the September 1997 issue of The Web. As far as I can tell, it’s not otherwise available online.

Car Talk


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I’m Over at Fast Company. Join Me, Won’t You?

Just a quick reminder: I’m now happily ensconced in my new gig as technology editor for Fast Company. That means that the vast majority of my tech writing will appear on FastCompany.com. To see what I’ve been up to so far, you can check out my author page.

I do reserve the write to blog here occasionally if I have something to say which doesn’t feel like a good fit for FC. And I’m updating the Technologizer Flipboard magazine with my own work as well as interesting stuff I’m reading elsewhere. But mostly, I’m over at Fast Company–and I hope you’ll hang out with me there.


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RIP, Jim Frederick

Jim FrederickJim Frederick, the first editor I had during my time as a tech writer for TIME, died unexpectedly on Thursday night. He was only 42, and I’m still in shock.

The loss would be incalculable no matter what the circumstances, but it feels especially jarring and surreal given the bright future Jim was building for himself. Along with his wife Charlotte, he’d just switched coasts from New York to San Francisco in order to start a media consultancy. (I got the LinkedIn notification formally announcing the news just yesterday morning.)

Jim’s most obvious legacy will be his work as a globe-trotting journalist–the author of an important book on the Iraq war and a reporter for TIME in Tokyo and London who eventually oversaw all of the magazine’s international editions. But to me, he was my editor, one of the best I ever had.

If you were making a movie about a TIME-like newsmagazine and wanted to cast the role of a smart, capable, sympathetic editor, you’d try to find someone exactly like Jim. He was tall, good-looking, a little gangly, and, above all, unflappable. The expression on his face in the photo here, which I stole from his Twitter profile, captures him perfectly–those eyebrows, as far as I knew, were permanently arched.

Digging around his recent tweets, I just learned that he had an interest in transcendental meditation. Given his preternaturally unstressed air, it makes perfect sense: Maybe the media business would be in better shape if all of us gave it a try.

As the editor of TIME.com, he remained remarkably calm when I pushed my deadlines to the limit (and beyond). Every change he made to my copy was a carefully-considered improvement. He was good at checking in, offering compliments, imparting wisdom, and admitting mistakes. I trusted him, in part because I knew he trusted me.

Not too long after I began writing for TIME, I met Jim in person for the first time. He took me out for a drink at a bar near the Time & Life Building in Rockefeller Center, and in about 45 minutes, he told me everything I needed to know about TIME–a primer which, in retrospect, gave me as clear and canny an understanding of the institution as I’d ever get.

I last saw him in June, when we met for a beer at a restaurant in the Inter-Continental Hotel in San Francisco called Luce. (When I suggested the venue, I forgot the establishment’s name, but the reference to TIME’s founder was probably Freudian on my part.) I’d just resigned from TIME and filled him in on my plans; he let me know about his intention to come west in search of new opportunities.

He’d already visited a few startups in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, and told me that he was struck by the atmosphere. By and large, people seemed to be happy to be at work. They were energized, excited about trying new things, and not overly worried about the possibility of failure. (The vibe at big New York-based media companies can be radically different, for reasons I don’t have to explain.)

Jim asked me: Was the optimism he noticed normal in the Bay Area? Yes, I said, it was. He was so much looking forward to being part of it, and I still can’t believe that he won’t be.

The New York Observer’s Ken Kurson, who worked with Jim during an earlier part of his Time Inc. career at Money magazine, has written a wonderful remembrance of the man. I’m sure there will be many more to come.


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I’m Going to Want a Car With Built-In LTE…Eventually

GM equips new vehicles with broadband and hotspot capability
Buick 4G LTE

Buick owners enjoying their car’s built-in LTE in a photo provided by GM

Last week, General Motors invited me to a press event at which it showed off some new Buicks. Normally, such events involve driving new cars. But when we hit the road during this one, I willingly sat in the back seat and fooled around with my phone and tablet–because the primary purpose of the event was to demonstrate the 4G LTE broadband and Wi-Fi hotspot features built into the cars.

Across its brands, GM is being particularly aggressive about rolling out in-vehicle LTE connectivity. Most Buick models, for instance, are getting it now; all of them will have it by the 2016 model year. No other company has announced plans to put LTE into so many vehicles so soon.

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A Celebration of James Garner’s Polaroid Commercials

James GarnerThey weren’t the best thing he ever did, or the one which we’ll cherish the most. But with the sad news of the passing of James Garner, it’s worth pausing to remember the commercials he did in the late 1970s and early 1980s for Polaroid. And–this being Technologizer–it’s how we’ll memorialize him here.

When it came to celebrity spokespeople, Polaroid wasn’t stingy: Laurence Olivier did the first ad for the SX-70 camera, and Danny Kaye touted the ill-fated Polavision instant movie system. Hiring James Garner was a similarly classy move, but the ads he appeared in weren’t like anything which Polaroid had done before. Or anyone else, really.

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How to Animate Your Dragon

DreamWorks Animation reboots its software platform for the future
A DreamWorks artist works on How to Train Your Dragon 2 using Premo

A DreamWorks Animation artist works on How to Train Your Dragon 2 using Premo

Mr. Peabody and Sherman, the computer-animated movie which DreamWorks Animation released in March is–of course–the tale of a dog and a boy who go traveling back in time. So in a way, it’s appropriate that the proprietary software which the studio used to animate it, Emo, had a lot of history behind it.

Emo’s origins go back to the 1980s, an era in which computer graphics were very different than they are today, and DreamWorks didn’t even exist. It was created by Pacific Data Images, the company which, like Pixar, helped to pioneer the whole idea of digitally-generated entertainment. (PDI is now part of DreamWorks Animation.)

The next DreamWorks Animation feature after Peabody, How to Train Your Dragon 2, premiered last month. It’s the first movie which was produced using the studio’s new platform, Apollo, which includes a new animation system called Premo.

Apollo is one giant leap for DreamWorks; during a recent event at its studio in Redwood City, Calif., the company gave me and other journalists a behind-the-scenes show-and-tell.

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The New Features in Jawbone’s Up App Are All About Eating

Jawbone
Thanks to wearable fitness gadgets such as Jawbone’s Up and Up24 wristbands, it’s now very easy to get some sense of how many calories you’re burning as you go about your everyday activities. But figuring out how many calories you’re consuming–and other aspects of your eating habits–is still work.

Jawbone’s smartphone apps, and the ones which work with other gizmos such as FitBit, include tools which let you log your meals. I frequently get excited about using them. And then, once I start keeping a food diary and remember how much fumbling around it requires, I slack off.

With a new update to its iOS app, Up 3.1–Android version in the works–Jawbone is trying to make tracking what you eat easier, and to help you use that information to lead a healthier lifestyle.

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One New Slingbox Caters to the Masses, the Other to High-End Users

Slingbox M1

Slingbox M1

When it debuted back in 2005, the original Slingbox–which let you pipe your TV signal at home over the Internet to a distant computer or smartphone–helped invent the whole idea that you might be able to watch your favorite programs anywhere. After being bought by satellite-TV hardware company EchoStar, however, Slingbox went a long time without changing much–until two new models showed up in the fall of 2012.

Now Slingbox is changing again. The two new models–the Slingbox M1 and SlingTV–are close relatives of the low-end and high-end models from 2012, the Slingbox 350 and Slingbox 500, respectively. But the M1 aims to be even more of a mass-market gadget than the 350, and SlingTV adds more features to the already-fancy 500.

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At Comcast, You’re Not Just a Valued Customer–You’re Also an Indentured Servant

My friends Ryan Block and Veronica Belmont decided to cancel their Comcast service and switch to Astound, a smaller cable company available here in the Bay Area. So they called Comcast–and talked to a rep whose job was clearly not to help them cancel but to prevent them from canceling.

Here’s audio of part of the conversation. If you’ve ever had to deal with a recalcitrant rep at a giant pseudo-monopoly, it’ll leave you speechless, but not surprised. (Ryan shares more details here.)

My blood boils just listening to this, but all through it, Ryan is remarkably calm. It’s all reminiscent of a famous 2006 encounter with AOL support which was remarkably similar, except that the customer was less serenely polite than Ryan.

Anyone want to make any guesses about how often encounters like this happen? Or whether they’ll be more or less common if Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable goes through?

As Dan Gillmor said on Twitter…


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The Unbelievably Epic Quest to Restore Your Faith in Humanity

...or, barring that, to at least get you to click on a headline.

Restore Your Faith

First a disclaimer: I never lost my own personal faith in humanity, and therefore don’t need to have it restored. Generally speaking, it bumps along at about the same cautiously optimistic level, regardless of what I’ve recently read online.

I am, however, fascinated by the fact that so many articles published over the last couple of years have introduced themselves to prospective readers by declaring their power to restore lost faith in humanity.

Whether a site is offering up a tale about kids returning a lost iPhone or an ad for life insurance from Thailand or drawings of superheroes punching Hitler, it’s not the least bit startling when it declares that the item in question will restore your faith in humanity. Without trying very hard, I’ve collected dozens of examples at a Pinterest board, which–just to encourage people to click–I’m calling “This Pinterest Board Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity.”

Pinterest

Journalists, of course, have always written headlines which attempt to yank you by the lapels and shove you into their work, as Annalee Newitz of io9 points out in her recent history of clickbait. (She begins it in 1888, and rightly considers yellow journalism to have been an early instance of the form.) But the potential upside of that instinct grew far more powerful just a few years ago, when social networks such as Facebook and Twitter became major sources of traffic to online content sites.

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