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Preview: Panopticist

Andrew Hearst | Blog


Updated: 2017-07-19T08:32:13Z





An early pioneer of electronic books and interactive CD-ROMs, The Voyager Company had the misfortune of being many years ahead of the curve — and then, all of a sudden, a few years behind it.

When I joined Voyager as an editorial assistant in early 1994, the company was using its proprietary software toolkit to publish expanded digital editions of best-selling and classic books, as well as interactive CD-ROMs of films like A Hard Day’s Night and graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The company’s Expanded Books Toolkit was built on top of Apple’s HyperCard and served as the engine for dozens of electronic books, including officially licensed digital versions of print best-sellers such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, A Wrinkle in Time, and Jurassic Park. Expanded Books were distributed on floppy disks and were intended for reading on Mac desktops (and, a little later, laptops); the increased storage capacity of CD-ROMs enabled Voyager to be more ambitious with video, audio, and other extras.

One of Voyager’s co-founders was a guy named Bob Stein, and he’s still deeply engaged with the future of books in the digital age. His Vimeo account contains 28 vintage promo videos for Voyager CD-ROMs, ranging from A Hard Day’s Night and Maus to works by Shakespeare and Stephen Jay Gould. The videos in Stein’s account are a real trove for user-interface nerds and digitally inclined book lovers. Hey, that’s me! (Note, however, that I still prefer to read my books on paper.)

Here’s the promo for the CD-ROM of Macbeth, which includes an interactive feature called “Macbeth Karaoke”:

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Here’s the promo for Spiegelman’s amazing Maus:

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And here’s the promo for A Hard Day’s Night, which isn’t a book, but hey, it’s the Beatles, and in fact it was this CD-ROM that made me search out a job at Voyager in the first place:

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Yes, that’s right: The movie itself was displayed at postage-stamp size, perhaps 160 pixels by 120 pixels. But as Stein points out in a comment on the video, “the post-it sized video window was the state of the art at the time.” And it was.

Alas, once the web came along, closed experiences like CD-ROMs lost much of their appeal, and Voyager floundered. This essay by Henrik Ahlen is a good overview of the reasons why Voyager’s vision ultimately failed in the 1990s marketplace. (The lead image for this post is from Ahlen’s essay.)




I’ve been flying more than usual the last couple of years, partly thanks to my job, and my iPad has made these travel experiences so much more enjoyable. I just load up my iPad with episodes of Top Chef, Downton Abbey, and other stuff and immerse myself for a few hours. Even after an intercontinental flight, I have plenty of charge left.

Unfortunately, an iPad propped on a seat tray doesn’t provide a very good viewing angle. You’re forced to crane your neck downward quite a bit. During longer flights, this can get uncomfortable. The best position is obviously eye level: right where a seat-back video screen is always mounted.

Earlier this year, on a flight to London on Virgin Atlantic, it occurred to me that I might be able to use a piece of string to hang my iPad’s case from the crevasse at the top of the seat in front of me. Since I didn’t have a piece of string, I used my iPhone earbuds cable instead. It worked great:


A few weeks ago, for another trip to London on Virgin Atlantic, I made sure to pack a piece of string. Voilà:



The screen isn’t quite eye level, but it’s a big improvement.

This trick won’t work on all kinds of planes, because airline seats often don’t have the crevasse at the top. On that same overseas trip this month, I flew to Reykjavik on Iceland Express and was out of luck:


I can imagine other tricks like this — for example, a lightweight iPad holder that could be attached to the left and right sides of the seat-back cushion via nondestructive pins or clips.

Better options will eventually emerge. Until then, I’m pretty happy with this.

(On another note: Go to Iceland. It’s amazing.)




It’s old news that the entire run of Spy magazine is available on Google Books. A poke through the archive will give you an excellent sense of why the magazine was so riveting and influential in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when founders Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen were running the show. If you’re unfamiliar with Spy, read this piece from Metropolis or get your hands on the definitive anthology, Spy: The Funny Years.

Scrolling through the pages of Spy in Google Books using a desktop or laptop web browser isn’t a great reading experience. Luckily, there’s a much better option: Using a Mac desktop app called Google Book Downloader, you can scrape Google Books to create PDFs of many of the publications and books in Google’s archive. (I’m sure there must be Windows apps that do the same thing.)


On a recent weekend afternoon, I used Google Book Downloader to generate a PDF of every issue from Spy’s heyday, then pulled everything into my Dropbox account to allow me to access the archive from anywhere and any device — primarily my iPad. The whole process took me less than two hours. The filesize of the PDFs ranges from about 25 megabytes to about 50 megabytes, and the quality is quite high; the issues look fantastic on my new iPad’s retina screen. An iPad gives a much better approximation of an actual print-magazine experience than a web browser does, and if you save an issue into a PDF-friendly interface like Amazon’s Kindle app, you can use page thumbnails to navigate. It’s pretty sweet:



It’s a real treat to have the entire Spy archive at my fingertips, in a way that allows me to curl up with an issue on the couch.

You can use Google Book Downloader with other magazines, too. Try Popular Science, August 1927, or Baseball Digest, September 1966, to name just two at random…




Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is dense with grids, mazes, mirror images, and other rigid visual and conceptual geometries. A prominent example is the intensely colored hallway carpet that Danny zooms over in his Big Wheel in several key scenes, including the one in which he first encounters the scary goings-on in Room 237. The carpet pattern is fundamentally a grid. If you look closely in some scenes, you can even see the edges where the long rolls of carpet meet.

Other people have been fascinated by the carpet’s grid-based design. As I discovered with a little googling, for example, the Belgian web designer Veerle Pieters used the Shining carpet pattern as the basis for an Illustrator tutorial a few years ago.

Those of you who frequent interior design stores will know there’s a company called Flor that makes modular carpet tiles. The tiles are 19.7" square and generally cost $10–$20 each. They’re sold at places like CB2 and are popular as a floor covering in homes and offices:


So here’s my concept: I want Flor, or some other company, to manufacture a special edition of modular carpet tiles based on the Shining carpet.

A single tile would look like this:


Two would look like this:


Four would look like this:


And sixteen would look like this:


I would totally spend enough money to cover the floor of my home office with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining Carpet Tiles™.

To match the scale and proportions of the carpet in the film, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining Carpet Tiles™ would have to be roughly three feet wide by four feet tall, assuming that Danny Lloyd, the young actor who played Danny Torrance, was about four feet tall at the time. If the individual tiles were too small, it would ruin the effect. Verisimilitude is key here. It would also be important to use a low pile for the tiles; this artist used a messy pile for a Shining carpet installation, and it ruined the effect.

On the other hand, these Shining carpet socks are pretty rad. But they don’t seem to be available anymore.




My maternal grandfather, Frank “Tex” Glanville, was a renowned vaudeville performer in Australia from the 1930s through the 1950s. He was primarily famous as a rope-spinner, but he was also a wire-walker, juggler, and hypnotist.

I only met Tex two or three times, long ago, and until last month I’d never seen video of him performing. But my mother just sent me several DVDs filled with silent footage of Tex from the 1940s and 1950s. It’s amazing stuff. Also included on the DVDs was the clip below, a late-’80s local-news report about Tex and his career. (My grandmother is also interviewed in the video.) The hook for the story was a McDonald’s commercial that used old footage of Tex to hawk the franchise’s Double Beef ’n’ Bacon burger. There’s some great old footage here:

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Tex died in 1990. His ropes, juggling props, and voluminous scrapbooks are preserved as part of the Performing Arts Collection at Arts Centre Melbourne. I hope to make it to Melbourne in the next few years to take a look at everything. Tex also left behind an unpublished autobiography called At the End of My Rope, which I’m planning to lay out and publish as an on-demand book at