A Worthwhile Degree

Part of the current right-wing sneering about the student loan relief program that the President is setting up has to do with hard-working tax-payers being forced to finance “worthless” things like philosophy degrees. As one who worked toward two such “worthless degrees”, I am a living example of how short-sighted that view is.

My undergraduate degree was in motion-picture and television studies, which might indeed sound to the faux-utilitarians on the right as nothing more than the pop-culture version of an art history degree (a degree often ridiculed as among the most worthless).

My graduate work was in English literature, another degree often excoriated as an effete indulgence by those who think a college degree should prepare you for a real job, dammit.

Except that my college work in two worthless fields did just that. As part of my literary studies I took a course in computerized textual analysis. That led me to a good paying job programming software for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Deep Space Network. Where, by the way, my literary studies also came in handy for helping me craft solidly written and persuasive memos and reports—I became my team’s go-to guy for responding to problematic directives from the higher-ups.

And my film degree? That helped me in my next job, developing instructional videos and software for university composition courses at UCLA.

All my worthless academic work, film and literary studies, came in handy for my next job, when I went to work at the Voyager Company, developing interactive media and helping to create the first widely distributed ebooks, the Voyager Expanded Books.

In short, my worthless film degree and graduate literary studies resulted in well-paying jobs and allowed me to contribute to new economic enterprises: instructional technology and interactive media. I hear there’s lots of money to be made in both those fields.

I managed to pay off my student loans myself, but even if the government had paid them all off for me it would have gotten much more than its money’s worth from its investment in my “worthless” degrees.

So stop the sneering: you never know where even the most useless or obscure college studies might lead.

Crichton and Me

As I’ve written elsewhere, one of the first three Voyager Expanded Books was Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Because it was one of the first three ebooks ever, we wanted to show off some of the special capabilities that a book on a computer might have. So, for Jurassic Park, we thought it would be cool to pick seven dinosaurs from the book and link every mention of each of them in the book to a pop-up annotation that presented a picture of the dinosaur along with a simulation of the sound they might make.

We tried to make the sounds match how Crichton had described those sounds in his novel. I spent a few days working with a sound engineer to create them. If I recall correctly, we built the tyrannosaurus sound from a highly filtered lion’s roar mixed with the sound of an industrial vacuum cleaner, and the stegosaurus sound from a very distorted sound effect recording of a squeaky gate.

Once the sounds were done and the annotations developed and linked to the text, I made an appointment with Crichton, who had his writing office in a small house north of Wilshire around 23rd street in Santa Monica (coincidentally a 20 minute walk from my front door, though I actually drove from Voyager’s office on Pacific Coast Highway). I knocked on the door and he invited me in. As I recall, he was a tall, spare guy who radiated all the warmth of a bowl of liquid nitrogen; with no preliminary chitchat he simply asked me to show him what I had.

For the next half hour I demonstrated, on the PowerBook 150 that we used for demos, this first Expanded Book: how you turned the pages, how you searched through the text, how you could set bookmarks, and of course how you could click links to bring up annotations. He asked very few questions, made very few remarks, and just shifted his gelid gaze between me and the PowerBook screen as I talked. I have seldom given a more uncomfortable demo.

When I finally ran out of things to say, I closed the PowerBook, we both stood up, he shook my hand, looked me straight in the eye, and told me “Don’t do drugs.”

I got the hell out of there. I suppose the demo went okay, because Crichton contacted Bob Stein, approving our digital version of his novel, and the Jurassic Park Expanded Book debuted on schedule along with the other two ebooks at Macworld 1992.

Getting the Book Invented Properly

In 1992, Douglas Adams’ Complete Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was one of the original three Voyager Expanded Books published. A big Mac fan, and a Voyager fan as well, Adams wrote and recorded a short promotional audio for the floppy-disk-based ebook series. Here, in all of its crunchy 8-bit-audio glory, is that recording, Getting the Book Invented Properly.

Bonus: the Literary Platform site recently held a competition for animations to accompany the recording. The entries are here.