An interview with David Ahl18 years after the demise of Creative Computing magazine, its founder and editor, Dave Ahl, talks about the legacy of the magazine and what he's been doing since.
Interview by Kevin Savetz, June 2003
Hi Kevin: Almost exactly a year ago, you sent me an e-mail with some interview questions and I promised to get back to you soon. So now you know what "soon" means to an old retired curmudgeon like me. Ironically, now that I'm semi-retired, I seem to have far less time to do extracurricular things than I did when I was working full time. It's not because I'm making bad use of my time or sitting around in the sun (what sun?) but because my life is quite full with loads of other stuff.
My Life Today
My lack of time stems from the fact that I've collected both things and things to do for when I finally have some time in my retirement. Things, for example, include a very extensive stamp and philatelic cover collection--all-told more than 10,000 covers. Patriotic covers from WWII, First Day Covers from the 1920's (the first ones produced), satirical covers made by Hideaki Nakano, computers and technology portrayed on stamps, cats on stamps, etc. As you can see, very specialized. Well now that I've come to realize that there is no one in my extended family that is even remotely interested in stamp and cover collecting, I've determined that it is up to me to dispose of them. I've seen far too many widows and children inherit a specialized collection, not understand it or want to take the time to understand it, and then sell it for a tiny fraction of its worth. So I'm in the process of selling some of my collection, giving some of it to interested museums, and giving the rest to young collectors just starting out. All of which takes time--and a lot of it. "Things" also includes a large collection of die-cast trucks, toy robots, computer art, militaria, hardware, and more.
The "things to do" category consists of literally three four-drawer file cabinets full of folders of ideas for articles, short stories, and books. I have completely researched a highly-realistic techno-thriller novel on hijacking a train in the Channel Tunnel. And I have another one set in the Siberian oil fields. When will I get the time to set these down on paper (well, the computer)? Who knows?
I'm currently the editor-at-large for Classic Military Vehicle magazine (UK). This gives me wonderful freedom to write about whatever strikes my fancy, but also puts the burden on me to write a monthly column (due this Friday) and a quarterly feature article. In addition, in a weak moment I promised the editors of three other truck restoration magazines that I'd try to write three or four pieces a year for each of them. All of which eats up time at an alarming rate.
I'm also keeping busy writing web sites. It started innocently enough when I wrote a site for my own Military Vehicles magazine and then converted it into a personal site when I sold the magazine two years ago. All I was trying to do is sell some of the old stuff that had accumulated in my basement, attic, and garage--humor and computer books, magazines, comic books, die cast toys, toy robots, philatelic covers, etc. Well I was getting only a trickle of traffic to my sales site, so I decided to put up some pages of content (mostly jokes and zany photos), which caused my web traffic to multiply by ten-fold. This then led to other people asking me to help them with their web sites. So I wrote a site for our church, Mendham Hills Chapel, a ballroom dancing studio, a community center, a missionary in China, and so on. It's really gotten quite out of hand.
And then there are those military vehicles of mine that I'm trying to find the time to restore. I have a 1942 Chevy 1-1/2-ton tow truck that was used on an airfield in the Pacific. It's at the very beginning of the resto process and I was hoping to get it running this summer (ha!). I also have a 1971 M151A2 jeep that is quite far along--indeed, it was/is featured on the November 2003 page of the Craftsman Tool calendar. I also have a 1987 ex-Marine Corps HMMWV back from Bosnia that runs fine but needs a lot of cosmetic work.
In addition to this stuff, I teach two Bible studies--one for men and another for married couples, coach and pitch for the Market Street Mission softball team, serve as the Fellowship Deacon for our church, serve as an advisor to a couple of small companies, manage about $10 million of investments for eight clients, manage the affairs of my 91-year-old mother, read a daily newspaper, and read 10-12 magazines and three books a week. So that's what is keeping me off the streets so to speak.
30 Years Ago
What was my vision in 1974 when I started Creative Computing? My background and vision was rather thoroughly documented in the excellent article, "Dave Tells Ahl: The History of Creative Computing" by John Anderson in the 10th Anniversary issue of Creative Computing and I can't really enlarge very much on that.
About the only thing I can add to that article is that I think we used to have more fun with computers per se than people do today. I guess that's progress. Of course when I was in college at Cornell in 1956-60, we had only two computers on the entire campus, one for college administration and one in the mechanical engineering department, which is where I learned to program in machine code. Imagine today if in your application program you had to keep track of how many bits--not bytes--you wrote on a track of the magnetic storage drum so you could give a command to move the write head over to the next track at the proper time so you didn't overwrite your previous data. Yikes! I'm still blown away when I think of what we went through to do the simplest calculation. You can't imagine how happy I was when they devised the concept of an operating system and "high-level" programming languages. My graduate assistantship at Carnegie-Mellon was to convert the management game program, which was written in GATE, a small step above machine code for Bendix computers, to the new IBM language Fortran, which I had learned in my summer job with Grumman Aircraft.
To the mid-80's
Pertaining to the end of Creative Computing in 1985, the powers that be at Ziff-Davis had in late 1984 more or less made the decision to concentrate on machine-specific magazines: PC, PC Week, Mac User, and so on. As a result, they put much less effort into selling advertising for Creative, so by the end of 1985 it was pretty obvious that we didn't have enough advertising revenue to make a profit. I can't fault them for the decision because it certainly worked for them over the next few years.
But now, with 18 years of 20-20 hindsight, the decision doesn't look nearly as good. Look at PC magazine today compared with 10 or 15 years ago. It's not nearly as healthy, whereas I believe that Creative Computing could not only have survived but led the way into web site design and coding. Indeed, I believe that Creative Computing could have become a highly-successful combined printed and on-line magazine. It was the natural next step, but Ziff was looking only a year or two into the future, not 8 or 10 years out. This, in fact, is a major flaw in many, if not most businesses: looking only for profits in the next quarter or year and not further out. Clearly, you have to make enough money to keep going but if you do that AND have a vision for the future, you'll be far better off.
Have I thought of restarting Creative Computing? Yes, but not for long. It's very expensive to start (or restart) a magazine in a saturated field, which computing is, and at my age (nearly 65), I just don't have the time or energy to put together the necessary financial backers, editorial staff, and marketing campaign to make it a success. When I look at the computing magazines on the newsstand today and occasionally come home with an armful of them, I'm really disappointed in what I see. It's not that the magazines aren't good--some are--but they are so specialized and so focused on such a narrow niche that I find only one or two articles in each that I read. I think that a general-purpose magazine aimed at beginning to intermediate enthusiasts/programmers could be wildly successful. And when I see the zillions of uncreative, poorly-coded web sites out there, I'm convinced that there is a real need for a truly creative, easy-to-understand magazine (again, both printed and on-line) in the field. I'd love to see someone start one and I'd love to contribute to it, but I'm just not the one to start it today.
What did I do after the demise of Creative Computing? Frankly, I doubt if anyone much cares, but I published Atari Explorer for five years and started Atarian magazine in 1989 (only three issues) for Atari Corp. until they were buried by Nintendo in 1990. I also published a magazine for the Nabisco Corp sales and marketing staff, published several newsletters for rescue missions as well as publishing two newsletters of my own (Effective Communication and Effective Investing), did the direct mail fund raising for the Market Street Mission, and wrote a lot of freelance articles on all manner of subjects: computing (of course), travel, investing, and auto restoration (a long-time hobby of mine).
Some of these articles led to further business. My investing articles caught people's attention and before long I had a nice little business managing people's investments. I eventually wound up managing about $15 million for about 10-12 clients who liked my conservative approach and knowledge of high-tech industries.
However, I backed off this in 1996 when I got the opportunity to buy Military Vehicles magazine from the founders who wanted to retire. The magazine was more-or-less a glorified newsletter and over the next four years I made it into a real magazine, doubled the advertising, increased the size of the magazine (to 180 pages), and built the circulation to 17,000 plus. When Krause Publications expressed an interest in it in 2000, I took the opportunity to sell it and cash out. I expected to stay on as the editor for the next five years (they had expressed a desire for me to do so), but after a year when my written contract expired, they found a younger (cheaper) editor in Wisconsin, and gave me my walking papers. As a result, the editorial quality declined and they haven't managed to expand it much since taking over three years ago. Again, the big company focus on the next quarter and the lack of vision for the future. Too bad.
Which brings us back to the present where I started this epistle. Let me encourage readers to visit my web site at www.SwapMeetDave.com, press on regardless, read a lot, talk to God, have fun, learn from the past, and live for the future. 'Nuf said.