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By Jay Thorwaldson

About this blog: I was editor of the Palo Alto Weekly from June 2000 to January 2011, capping a more than 50-year career in journalism and writing since Los Gatos High School, where I was editor of the student newspaper and president of the speech...  (More)

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Blogs, hm, seem a lot like conferences ?

Uploaded: May 30, 2006
Some years back, 1977 to be a bit more precise, I ventured a daring prediction to a class of Stanford seniors who wanted to learn how to write news stories.

"In 15 or 20 years I believe 80 percent of us will be getting about 80 percent of our information through computers," I suggested in class about the future of journalism, as a community-based "lecturer" in the Communications Department (a notch or two above a teaching assistant, actually). My day job then was covering Palo Alto community news for the old Palo Alto Times.

My prediction was met with distinct incredulity. The class was still using non-electric typewriters in our writing lab, and struggling with how to insert carbon paper the right way -- not an easy task for Stanford seniors, it seemed at the time. (Did I hear someone ask, "What's carbon paper?")

But the aura of disbelief increased significantly when one bright student asked, "What if we want to keep a printed copy?"

Now I was in untried ground. Hadn't thought about it. So I winged it:

"Oh, I suppose we'll all have little printers in our homes that we can print stuff out on," I replied. The class looked at me as if I'd just stepped out of a flying saucer from another planet.

In today's keyboard era, of course, one needs to be a certain age to have ever used a typewriter, or even to know what a typewriter is. My bit of academic prescience, by the way, didn't extend to the dot-com mania that hit 15 years later, where virtual real estate became as valuable as the real stuff in Palo Alto, for a time, so I never got rich off my insights.

I left the PA Times in 1979, shortly after it became the Peninsula Times Tribune and began its painful, 14-year spiral into oblivion (in its centennial year, 1993). After nearly two years of consulting work and becoming involved in local non-profit organizations and some political issues (from which I had refrained as a journalist), I ultimately headed up the community relations/public affairs office of the then-new Palo Alto Medical Foundation, and became even more deeply involved in the world of local non-profit organizations, as a collaborative inter-agency team-builder.

By 1982, still fascinated with how computers might affect our lives, I chaired a multi-agency committee that created an experiment called the "Inter-Agency Communications Network," or ICNet. With the loan from Apple Computer of 20 rebuilt Apple IIs and 300-bits-per-second (translate to v-e-r-y s-l-o-w) modems, we linked 20 agencies that provided some type of services to seniors in northern Santa Clara County.

We soon found that the modem-to-modem dial-up was far less reliable and efficient than a simple phone call, and that the level of conversation more closely resembled the CB-band chatter between truckers than efficient business communications: "Hi, good buddy. What's new?" We concluded that we were a decade or two ahead of technology, and put the learning experience to a well-deserved rest.

Then came The WELL, the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, an outgrowth of Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog, which emerged in the late 1980s as a Bay Area "bulletin board service," or BBS -- the way most people accessed the Internet in days before graphics became possible circa 1993-94. America Online (AOL) and other giant BBSs, later evolving into Internet service providers, ultimately overshadowed The WELL, except for diehards who still visit its conferences or keep e-mail addresses as a kind of virtual collector's item.

What set The WELL apart was its conferences -- in case you wondered where this was headed.

It had conferences on just about everything from current news events to what home printer was the best buy to varieties of adult fare worthy of triple-X rating, conducted discreetly behind closed, invitation-only screens. That, and monthly parties of WELL members in Sausalito, made it a special, almost personal experience. You actually knew the people who were running your Internet.

In 1991 I took time off from my day job at the Medical Foundation to serve as media coordinator for the First Conference on Computers, Freedom & Privacy, of CFP1, and later co-edited a book of transcripts that for a time served as textbooks in some colleges for this emerging field that today seems more relevant and immediate than ever. The dynamic dialogue between privacy zealots, academics, Libertarians, average people concerned about data security and computer hacking on one hand and representatives of the CIA, FBI, the Secret Service, police agencies and district attorneys' offices on the other was a phenomenal experience. This dialogue could not happen today, in our more entrenched times.

In 1994, the Internet "arrived" big time in Palo Alto. The city became the first to launch a municipal Web site, during its Centennial celebration. The Palo Alto Weekly became the first newspaper anywhere, to our knowledge, to post its entire editorial content directly onto the World Wide Web (without going through a limited-access BBS). At the Medical Foundation, I spearheaded the creation of the first (to my knowledge) community health care Web site.

And, beginning in late 1993, I and a couple of dozen others (including former Palo Alto head librarian Mary Jo Levy) co-founded the Palo Alto Community Network (PA-ComNet) listserv that began discussing ways to get something better and faster going than pokey dial-up modems, long before the community became entangled in an endless debate on whether to go to "fiber to the home."

In June 2000, when I was named editor of the Weekly, the staff had just begun talking about posting news stories online each day, which I wrote about in one of my first "On Deadline" columns in the Weekly. Former Editor Brian Aronstam completed a report on online postings, and we began with two or three postings a day. We now post between 35 and 50 news stories per week, everything from updates on community crime statistics to a streaker at a Stanford basketball game (which drew nearly 11,000 readers). Earlier big stories included the Fitzhugh murder case and when the mountain lion was wandering around Palo Alto neighborhoods looking for a free meal.

Now, a dozen years after the public discovered the Web, we arrive at blogs, Web logs -- a long step or two beyond the old text-only BBS conferences and the personal Web sites individuals and families have created since.

I still remain to be convinced that blogs are all that different from the hosted conferences of the early WELL days, except that in my blog at least one won't get "flamed" for posting too-long comments or ridiculed for not knowing proper Web protocol or procedures. I lurked around the WELL conferences for several months before venturing a comment, absorbing the give-and-take and learning the customs, like a timid anthropologist observing a new culture.

In this blog I will make some personal observations, provide historical anecdotes and tidbits from local history and make myself available to answer questions about the community -- which I began studying as something of a kid reporter in 1966. Every week, it seems, I discover something new about the community and its residents, mostly good, sometimes disappointing.

At age 16, working as a caretaker at a former summer camp in Los Altos, I discovered the Palo Alto Times and decided I wanted to work for that newspaper, finally landing a slot in 1964 covering Mountain View, Los Altos, Sunnyvale, Moffett Field and NASA-Ames. Two years later, I was promoted to the Palo Alto beat, as busy then as it is now, and the community grew upon me as I survived political battles over growth, antiwar and other demonstrations, the emerging environmental movement and even police and fire news.

As a longtime journalist, I'm more comfortable asking questions than answering them, but I have picked up historical detritus along the way. And, as with many journalists, I know whom to ask if I don't know the answer.

Ask me a question. Challenge my answers. Correct or enlarge upon my recollections. Tell me your stories.

Welcome to my blog.

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Bob Harrington, a resident of ,
on May 31, 2006 at 8:42 am

Cudos for the new Palo Alto Online format and the Town Square concept. I was hoping to find some editorial oversight on content to protect Town Square from being hijacked by a few strident voices as occurred on PA-ComNet and in the Daily News under its former editor, thereby rendering those forums places to avoid for the rest of us. There are so many bright, knowledgable members in our community that ultimately must feel comfortable sharing their ideas and insights to make Town Square the powerful community builder it could be.

Posted by Enoch Choi, a resident of ,
on May 31, 2006 at 9:05 am

What is your RSS feed? I'd like to promote it. We're trying to continue your pioneering internet work at Palo Alto Medical Foundation...

Web Link

Posted by Frank Bravo, a resident of ,
on May 31, 2006 at 10:03 am

Frank Bravo is a registered user.

We are doing some final testing on the RSS feed. It should be available by the weekend.

Posted by Bill Johnson, a resident of ,
on May 31, 2006 at 10:15 am

Bill Johnson is a registered user.

Response to Bob Harrington: We are acutely aware of the challenge we face in creating in Town Square a "safe" atmosphere where residents can engage in thoughtful discussion.

We will be carefully monitoring the postings and will not hesitate to delete posts, lock discussion threads or even block IP addresses if necessary to maintain a civil and respectful environment. We pledge our best efforts and encourage users to help us in spotting problem posts.

Posted by Joanna Holmes, a resident of ,
on May 31, 2006 at 10:04 pm

I'm excited about Town Square, and I look forward to Jay's and other writers' blogs. There is no shortage of things to blog about in this city, and I think Town Square is going to remind us all what a small town PA really is.

I also applaud the Weekly team for their bravery in taking on this project, because I see their commitment to careful monitoring, and we know that's no small undertaking.

Good work, PAW team!

Posted by Alice Smith, a resident of ,
on Jun 1, 2006 at 1:05 am

How many of us have our own blogs? I do but don't go up there very often. My son in law's blog (chuckcurrie) is a touchstone for liberal Christians. Whilst he was in divinity school, he received course credit for his daily dialogue and commentary. He has become well known and consequently, cynically, Fox News recently asked him to debate on radio some rightwing conservative to rally the far right against him. My blog tends to rant about national issues, though it is called Granny's Nook. It started as a place to let family and friends look at photos without having to send huge files to show off my winsome grandkids.

With so much to read already I wonder that people will have the time to look, let alone comment.

Regards Alice

Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, a resident of ,
on Jun 1, 2006 at 12:51 pm

Thanks, Joanna. We'll do our best to keep it dynamic, timely, interesting -- and safe for a broad range of people to share ideas, views, news and their own slices of history. Palo Alto definitely has a small town feel, in a good sense. But as with many small towns, new arrivals or those who haven't paid attention to local issues, people and politics can feel shut out. By having someplace to find out about local history and how it affects our lives today, perhaps TownSquare can make it easier for more people to feel part of that small town at the core. -jay

Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, a resident of ,
on Jun 1, 2006 at 2:20 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Alice Smith asks the same question I've been pondering for a long time: If we all become publishers who will be readers? We might have a virtual Tower of Babylon with everyone yammering (intelligently and with great sophistication and style) and no one listening, or being quite sure whom to believe about what -- or know who had hidden interests or motives.

But in a community where many people know each other the Internet, blogs and other aspects can help sustain contact between people with busy lives. And, if properly approached, can help us understand issues, define concerns and perhaps resolve issues we all face in a community or region.

-jay (editor, Palo Alto Weekly)

Posted by WorriedParent, a resident of ,
on Jun 1, 2006 at 9:46 pm

All of (or most of us) heard / read the stories regarding a stranger approaching the children of Addison Elementary. Its a scary thought. When our kids are in school, we expect them to be *safe*. Ofcourse, this holds true as long as they stay inside the campus and not venture out on the streets.

But we have to remember, kids need to use the restrooms, kids are entrusted with the job of carrying the attendance sheet to the office - for one reason or other - child(ren) get out of their classrooms and are gone from the classrooms for some time.

Think about it - during the school hours, how many people have an access to the campus? Plenty! In the elementary schools that I have seen - there are quite a few people hanging around after the school is in session. These are parent volunteers, these are parents who are socializing, these are neighbors who have brought their young child just to see the happy and jolly kids, there are grandparents who have come to see off their grandchildren ..

Don't you think the school should have two gates that get locked down right after the school is in session? All the human traffic, once the gates are closed - should be directed through the office, where the person would have to state a reason (and maybe id himself/herself) before being let into the campus. Now .. I can see some people raising the question of - if there are locked gates, what happens in case of an emergency? I am not talking about padlocks, these should be electronic locks that we see everywhere - which will sound an alarm when opened. In case of an emergency - well, let the alarm sound. During other times, this alarm will alert someone in the office.

The school district will definitely argue about needing more $ to hire staff to monitor the traffic during the school hours. Well ... this is a small price to pay for the safety !

What do the other parents think ?

Thanks !

Posted by Very Tas, a resident of ,
on Jun 3, 2006 at 11:51 pm

Congratulations on starting this blog. It's got a good start - respectful, with good comments. It will help to nicely leverage your print presence, and provide a real time outlet for community information and opinion.

Posted by Jeb Bing, a resident of ,
on Jun 13, 2006 at 5:40 am

As a follow-up to your projectionsnearly 30 years ago about how many of us will be receiving our news and other material via the Internet, you were right on when it comes to more global information. Still, even today, except for blogs such as yours and, of course, the oline editions of local newspapers, I think that local readers, particularly, still depend on the print media. Printing out news or advertising pages is becoming ever more costly, so we read the global, national and regional media online, but now, even more, like the convenience and feel of the local paper for movies, garage sales, police reports and, of course, local city and school government news.

Posted by enoch choi, a resident of ,
on Jun 17, 2006 at 12:20 am

Love the addition of Diana Diamond, but still no RSS feeds? Backfence launched, and although activity on their site pales in comparison (5 articles in last 2 days), they have better technology in place (photo sharing, etc.) And active RSS feeds.

Web Link

Posted by frank bravo, a resident of ,
on Jun 17, 2006 at 4:16 am

frank bravo is a registered user.

We ran into a delay with the RSS feed before I left for a convention. It is working, but we need to refine it further before I released it to the public. If you want to send your e-mail address to me at webmaster (at) PaloAltoOnline (dot) com, I'd be happy to send you the link to what we have so far.

We also had photo sharing in place prior to launch, but we decided to hold off releasing it to the public for the time being. If you notice, there is a 'hole' in the list of categories at the top of the page. That's where 'Photos' will be when we activate it.

Posted by ed bierman, a resident of ,
on Jun 22, 2006 at 8:54 pm

You were and are a prophet, Jay! Wasn't for you, I don't think I would have this groovy job at PAMF.... We are with you on blogs, visit ours at Web Link

ed b, webmaster at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation

Posted by Debbie Kurland, a resident of ,
on Dec 1, 2006 at 6:30 am

Thanks, Jay, for sharing this bit of Palo Alto history with all of us. I started laughing when you mentioned "the carbon paper in the typewriter". We have come a long way from those days. I remember working as a secretary while my husband was in law school, and oh, how I struggled, with a head-set for dictation, white-out, and mimeograph machines!! (and I am not even THAT OLD).

I shall enjoy reading your site and maybe even commenting. Debbie Kurland

Posted by Richard Adler, a resident of ,
on Jun 20, 2007 at 9:48 pm

Jay --

Whatever happened to PA-ComNet? I used to attend its meetings which were quite lively and informed. Did the group just fade away?

Posted by Bambi, a resident of ,
on Jan 28, 2008 at 3:46 pm

Hum nothing since 2006?

Posted by John Hargis, a resident of ,
on Sep 2, 2009 at 12:45 pm

Hi, Jay!

Never been on a blog before...Hope this is a proper way to communicate with you.

Within the last couple of weeks, I rented a sewer snake at AAA Rentals on 5th Avenue in Redwood City. The guy behind the counter asked for my driver's license and before I realized what was happening, he scanned it into his computer and my license appeared on his screen. (I have not had that experience before, and it didn't feel right, so I went back later and they agreed to delete my license.)

This new business practice seems to be "crossing a line" of some kind and I thought you might not have heard of it.

Hope to see you at the Moonlight Run!

John Hargis

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