SAGA Of ThE AC DATAbASE, PART 1
BEN POEhlANd, CiRCUlATiON EdiTORIt had been my intention to insert a brief note in this issue giving some info to readers about their subscriptions. Having just completed processing a batch of subscription orders, however, I decided to expand the short notice into an article which not only includes useful information on your AC subscription, but also provides an example of how our supposedly obsolete 8-bit computers are productively employed in a business environment.
Good News Everywhere!
In the April AC our Managing Editor delivered a missive in which it was hinted it might be necessary for AC to drop its August issue due to being undersubscribed. I'm happy to report that as of this writing (May 1) AC is now up to 475 paid subscribers and will probably reach or exceed its mandated subscriber base of 500 by the time this issue is mailed out. Consequently, our Managing Editor (who also happens to be me, no wonder I'm always muttering to myself!) has decided to pursue the full bimonthly publication schedule (6 issues) originally proposed for 1993.
And, for good measure, over the summer we hope to pursue the Postal Service's holiest prize: a 2nd Class mailing permit. Yes, the prospect of reliable mail delivery is within sight at last. This magazine has successfully weathered a rough winter; the advent of Spring sees us not only alive and kicking but continuing to grow. As I focus my gaze upon the impenetrable mist of our collective future, my mood is one of increasing optimism. When I compare how far we've come since the dark days of 1991 (the year Antic died, Atari Corp. and ICD dumped us, the community was deeply divided over its future, and the present Editorial Offices of AC were a partly charred ruin with wind whistling through holes chopped in the walls by firemen), I cannot but feel a growing sense that the hemorrhaging of our battered community has finally begun to cease. Never have the prospects for the continued existence of this magazine-and the user community that courageously supports it-been so bright.
We even have some good news for our vendors. Beginnning with the August issue, AC is offering substantially reduced commercial ad rates. By so doing, perhaps we'll lure a few more reluctant vendors into advertising those hidden 8-bit gems we're all starving for. And the vendors who've supported us through our first three issues cannot fail to be delighted at the prospect of paying less for their ads even while AC fetches up an increasing number of readers.
Take a look at your mailing label. Beginning with the April issue, I began a process of subtly re-vamping and improving AC's subscription database and the printing of our mailing labels, which should be completed by the June issue. Abbreviations in addresses have been substantially eliminated, making the address easier for the postman to read. And, you'll notice a four-digit number has been added in the upper right-hand corner of the label.
For most of you, that number is 1093. It's the date code of the last issue in your subscription; i.e., the last issue you'll receive in your present subscription if you don't renew. So 1093 means October 1993; 1293 means December 1993, and so on. Henceforth you'll always be able to glance at your label and see exactly when your subscription runs out.
I plan to send out renewal notices about a month before your subscription expires. For subscribers with a date code other than 1093, I'll send out the renewals myself. However, the "1093" subscribers constitute about 75% of our mailing list- almost 400 addresseswhich is too big a job for me to handle alone. Over the summer I'll be exploring ways of solving that problem. Don't be surprised if, sometime in September, you open your mail and find a form letter that begins, "Dear AC Subscriber, the final issue of your subscription is already in the mail. Enclosed please find a renewal subscription form...".
I'm also phasing out phone-in credit card orders to Unicorn Publications, as too many errors occurred in the transfer of data. You call up Unicorn to place your phone order, and during that transaction you might either inadvertently give incorrect information or they might not hear you well and record your information incorrectly. They then have to transfer that information to me, and once again the opportuniy arises for one or both parties to make a transcription error. All subscription orders must now be placed in writing, preferably using our handy-dandy form printed in the back of the magazine.
I've received a fair amount of feedback from readers reflecting some curiosity over how their subscriptions are processed. As the magazine has grown, and we've also begun publishing our Software Disk, the actual entry of a new subscription order has become a complicated process.
Back in November and December of '92, when subscription orders were coming in by torrents, I spent several days a week processing subscriptions. Now, with new orders coming in at the rate of about 25/month, I devote two or three days a month to it. The process begins when I receive your order in the mail and open it. I sort my incoming postal mail into three piles: one pile for subscription orders, one for magazine correspondence, and one for my personal mail. After 10-20 subscription orders have accumulated, I collect a bunch of large Kraft mailing envelopes and plop myself down in front of my trusty 800XL with envelopes, subscription orders, and an assortment of office tools: a pad of those little yellow post-it papers, a felt pen, a pencil, and a date stamper with ink pad. Then I fire up the 800XL.
OK, this isn't your average 800XL. It's a "hot-rod": 256K RAMBO, Super Video 2.0 upgrade, and current-delimited joystick ports for starters. A custom-modified XEP-80, which draws its power from the computer, is plugged into joystick port B. Connected to the 800XL's parallel bus interface is the latest version 64K Black Box and Floppy Board from Computer Software Services. The BB/FB controls four Teac 1.44-meg 3.5" hispeed floppy drives on the floppy port and a fan-cooled 44-meg SyQuest removable media hard drive on the SCSI port. These drives are all installed in custom enclosures (the 3.5" floppies fit nicely in pairs in cases that once housed Apple II full-height 5.25" drives). The parallel port on the BB/FB connects to an Epson 24-pin printer.
The video display is a Digital Equipment Rainbow black-and-white monitor with custom video input and power modications to render it compatible wth the Atari. The monitor is connected to both the 800XL and the XEP-80 through an 80-Column Switcher (courtesy of "The 8-Bit Alchemist", formerly of Current Notes) which enables a choice of either the 40-column or 80-column display at the flick of a switch. The SIO port on the 800XL sports an XF551 drive modified with the CSS 1050 Enhancement and Dual 3.5" upgrade, plus an ancient 1025 printer. The whole mess is powered by a monster fan-cooled switching supply and compactly housed in a Sullivan "Swiss Army Desk". I recently added a nice padded office armchair that accomodates my habit of chair-rocking without risk to the delicate parts of my anatomy.
For all general work I boot from the hard drive under SpartaDOS 3.2d, but the magazine's database has been set up with MicroMiser's TurboFile running under SpartaDOS-X and BASIC-XL for maximum efficiency. I boot up in Sparta 3.2d as usual and go into the Black Box menu where I use the EXCHANGE command to swap hard drive partitions. I power down, stick the SDX-BXL totem-pole into the cartridge port, and reboot, switching over to the 80-column display as the machine comes up. This puts me into the TurboFile menu, crisply displayed in hi-rez black-and-white from the XEP-80. Now I'm ready to do some useful work.
Putting It In
I start with the subscription at the top of the pile. I eyeball the check, making sure it's written legibly and bears a signature. Then I look over the form for completeness and to ensure the items selected on the form are consistent with the amount of the check. If the subscription is paid with a credit card, I eyeball the credit card number for the correct number of digits, expiration date, and signature.
The first order of business is to search the database to see if the person is already in there. The database contains not only data for all current subscribers, but also data for all the people who were mailed free copies of AC's Premier Issue- I'd guess 2500 records in all. A search on the hard drive takes maybe 15 seconds. If the person's name is found, it means I have someone who has taken a long time making up their mind to subscribe after receiving the December issue. These folks will usually have their subscriptions retroactive to December, and their mailing label will bear the "1093" in the upper right corner. If the search doesn't turn up anything, I know I have a newcomer to the AC adventure and proceed to add a new record to the database containing that person's mailing information. Subscriptions for newcomers are begun with whatever issue is current at the time their order was received. After the mailing data has been entered and checked, I use the date stamp and ink pad to stamp onto the form the date when the order was processed.
With the new subscriber's record still displayed on my screen, I reach for one of the large Kraft envelopes and write the subscriber's name and address on it with the felt marker. Then with the pencil I write onto one of the little yellow post-its what will be placed into the envelope for this subscriber. The combinations seem endless: current issue only, current plus disk, current plus last issue, or the whole works beginning from the last year, etc. (There are even a few people who subscribe to the disk but not the magazine, go figure.)
The addressed envelope with its yellow sticker gets tossed onto the table behind me, and I go on to the next order until I've worked my way through the pile. When it's done I close up the database files and shut down the computer. I also end up with three segregated piles of paper: one pile containing all the checks, and the other two piles containing subscription forms separated according to whether they were paid by check or credit card.
The forms of those who paid by check are stuffed into a bulging file folder in roughly chronological order. Photoreduced copies are made of all the checks and credit card order forms. The originals are placed in an envelope that gets mailed off to our Publisher, and the copies get tossed into another bulging folder.
There are several reasons for my keeping a copy of your check or credit card order form. One is to protect the subscriber in the event the package of checks gets lost in the mail on its way to Unicorn. (That hasn't happened yet, but it's a scary thought.) It also makes it fairly easy for me to get back to your original paperwork in the event of a complaint or inquiry (I've been known to make errors entering subscription data at 3AM). And finally, when we apply for that coveted 2nd Class mailing permit, the Postal Service will send an agent to my house... err, to the Editorial Offices of AC, to verify the authenticity of the subscription orders.
That means showing them the original order and the copies of the checks. True to the Neanderthal traditions of postal services everywhere, they will care nothing for my fancy computerized database but will scrutinize the contents of the bulging folders minutely.
Lick, Stick, and Rubber Stamp
Now I turn my attention to the pile of Kraft envelopes on my "mail table", which I quickly sort into three piles according to destination: USA, Canada, and Airmail. My "mail table" has a small rack bearing a whole bunch of custom rubber stamps. I stamp all the envelopes with US addresses with a "domestic" AC return address stamp, and all the Canadian and Airmail envelopes with the "overseas" AC return address (which is the same as the domestic one only it has "U.S.A." added). I then give all the airmail envelopes a big red AIRMAIL stamp (in several places for good measure).
Next, I stuff all the envelopes with magazines according to the notes previously made on the yellow postit stickers. For disk subscriptions, I place the disk in the center of the magazine, fastened with a piece of paper label to hold the disk in place during shipping. Envelopes containing disks get big black MAGNETIC MEDIA and DO NOT BEND stamps.
Calculating the postage for each envelope is about as much fun as a visit to the dentist. I start by weighing each one on an old Ohaus triple-beam chemistry balance that gives me the weight in grams. A quick spin on a hand calculator converts the metric weight to ounces (it turns out my trusty old mechanical balance is more precise than the electronic one used in my local post office!). Now I look up the postage on any of the several large charts of postal rates that adorn the walls of AC's Editorial Offices. Postal rates are listed according to the weight in ounces, the class of mail service, and distance it has to travel. To the unititiated these charts are a nightmare; I must confess it took me awhile to sift through the bureaucratic mumbo jumbo before I learned to use them effectively.
Below 5oz., rates for 1st Class and 3rd Class are the same, so I've learned to eyeball the weight to figure out which chart to use for calculating the postage. At this point I trash the yellow sticker and scribble in its place the weight and amount of postage required according to the chart. Then more rubber stamps are applied according to how the postage caluculation turned out. Those below 5 oz. get a red FIRST CLASS MAIL stamp. Heavier packages go by 3rd Class (it's cheaper), but only certain types of mail (such as printed matter) qualify for 3rd Class, so in addition to a big black THIRD CLASS MAIL stamp I also apply a PRINTED MATTER stamp. There's a cheaper printed matter rate for airmail, too, so those also get a PRINTED MATTER stamp. My wrist is usually sore by the time I finish stamping all these envelopes.
The Bag Man Cometh
I'm not quite ready to stick on the postage stamps yet. The Canadian and airmail stacks have to have Customs stickers applied first. The Customs sticker is a little green form you get from the post office, upon which you have to record a description of the package contents, its value, and its weight. I affix these stickers and write in the weight while it's still visible on the envelope, before it gets covered up with postage stamps.
The ulitmate goal of all this industry- affixing the postage stamps- is almost anticlimax. Yet even here there's an order of priorities. I sort the stack of envelopes in ascending order from cheapest to most expensive postage. The reason for this is that I'm never 100% certain I'll have enough postage on hand to mail everything out, so my policy is always to serve the greatest number of customers with the resources at hand. This insures that if I've only got $10 worth of postage stamps on hand, I'll send out ten $1 packages instead of two $5 ones. If I run out of stamps, the more expensive packages are delayed until my postage supply is replenished by Unicorn. Although I've run out a few times, in general I keep our Publisher appraised of my needs, and they're pretty good about furnishing me the voracious amounts of postage this magazine consumes.
All my effort would be for naught if the mail doesn't make it to the post office. I typically work up subscriptions on a Sunday afternoon, then carry the stuff to the post office the next morning (I pass my local post office every day going to and from work). It's not unusual for me to deliver 40 items of mail to the post office on Monday morning, stuff ranging in size from postcards to large Kraft envelopes stuffed with magazines, weighing 15 or 20 pounds. The first time I took one of these loads to the post office was a disaster. I thought I could carry it all as a stack, but the stack fell apart in my arms and AC mail got scattered all over the post office parking lot. Now I've wised up and use shopping bags, those kind with the rope handles like bag ladies have. I'm not sure what other people must think when they see me dragging my shopping bags through the post office, but it works.
Monday Night Religion
The subscriber database is AC's single most precious asset. I tremble in stark terror of the cataclysm that would smite our community if the database were ever lost or destroyed. Recovering from such a catastrophe would be equivalent to recovery from a nuclear holocaust. It would take me at least 3 or 4 months to rebuild the database by re-entering all the data by hand from the carefully preserved paper records. But... since some people placed their orders by phone through Unicorn, I have no written record for those folks, and they would be irretrievably lost (another reason for eliminating phone orders!). And virtually all the entries from people who participated in the Mail Campaign of 1992 and the free distribution of the December issue, and didn't subscribe, would also be lost. This magazine would emerge from the cataclysm a skeleton of its former self.
I strive mightily to ensure the Terrible Event never happens. Backing up the database is an activity I've elevated to the status of a religious ritual. The High Rites are typically performed on Monday nights after I arrive home from work, having already mailed out the magazines on my way to work that morning. I boot up my 800XL as usual and open up a subdirectory called ACLIST on D5:, which is actually a partition on a SyQuest hard drive removable cartridge. The raw database info is contained in 25 files which I copy to a 128K RAMdisk in my 800XL. (One of the things I love about TurboFile is that it stores data as ASCII files you can manipulate with DOS, unlike Data Perfect which encrypts everything.) I reverently close the subdirectory and remove the magnetic cartridge from the drive. Now I'm ready to copy.
I make backups on three different types of media: a SyQuest cartridge, a hi-density (1.44-meg) 3.5" floppy, and a quad-density (720K) 3.5" floppy. The 720K copy provides operational continuity in the event of a catastrophic failure of the Black Box, upon which the hard drive and hi-density floppy drives are dependent. If my BB dies, I can still operate the database from the 720K floppy via the Dual Upgrade XF551 attached to my SIO. (It would be clumsy and slow, but slow is better than dead.) For the hard drive backup, I have several spare SyQuest 44-meg magnetic disk carts. These carts have all been formatted and partitioned identically: three partitions of 57,000 sectors each in Sparta format. Copying the RAMdisk files to all three media is a snap. I close up all the subdirectories, mutter some incantations from the great alchemist Paracelsus, and the AC database is saved for posterity.
Trial and Terror
It wasn't always this easy. In October 1992, and again in January 1993, events occurred that nearly brought this magazine to its knees. Our "Moonlight Workshop" Columnist, Jeff McWilliams, emerged as the real hero of what we now refer to as the "October Crisis". I'll state it plainly: Jeff saved the magazine.
The October Crisis began just after the launch of AC at the 1992 WAACE AtariFest in Reston, Virgina. Unicorn Publication's printer was in possession of 2,000 copies of our December issue, minus a few hundred we handed out at the Fest. Unicorn Publications was pressuring me to send them the mailing labels for the December issue as quickly as possible, as the printer would begin charging us a storage fee if the magazines weren't mailed within 30 days, two weeks of which had already passed. The mass mailing of the December issue required the database to generate mailing labels for the approximately 800 addresses it contained at that time. TurboFile is superbly designed for this sort of job, but unfortunately the database itself wasn't.
The present AC subacriber list began life in late 1991 when Jeff McWilliams created it for his Mail Campaign. His requirements being fairly simple, he set it up with six data entry fields (name, address, postal code, counter, etc.). After the Campaign he turned it over to me, and I naively assumed I would just continue to add to it as the magazine grew. But mailing list requirements for the magazine turned out to be far more demanding than they had been for Jeff's Mail Campaign. I was appalled when Pattie Rayl informed me we'd have to furnish the printed labels sorted according to Zip Code, with foreign and airmail labels sorted and printed separately. Further, we had to distinguish disk subscribers from non-disk subscribers and generate a separate mailing list for them. Not to mention generating a bimonthly mailing label list for subscription renewals notices. These additional demands required a total of 12 data entry fields per record instead of Jeffs original 6. But TurboFile has no provision for adding new fields once you've created the database.
Never Say Die!
I faced the prospect of having to re-create the database all over again from scratch, incorporating the 12 data entry fields and re-entering the data for all 800 records. It was horrible. I knew it would take a month or more to accomplish, delaying the launch of AC probably well into 1993 and incurring charges for storage fees when we had practically no money in the bank. We would go bankrupt. I saw everything we had worked for going down in flames because of this stupid problem. Doom and gloom were the order of the day.
Then, like the U.S. Cavalry charging to the rescue in the nick of time in a Wild West movie, Jeff McWilliams came swooping in to save everything. He wrote a little program that modified TurboFile, forcing it to add six more fields to the existing format and resaving the old data to the expanded format. In two terrible nervewracked evenings we were able to accomplish what would have taken a month or more to do by hand. A few days later he walked me through the intricacies of TurboFile's printout routines, and the 800 mailing labels for AC's first mass mailout were finally delivered just a before the expiration of the 30-day period. Everyone reading this magazine today owes Jeff McWilliams a silent debt of gratitude. I can never forget that at a moment when I had given in to despair, this man came forward with a sparkling display of the "Never Say Die" philosophy that constitues the most noble tradition of our community.
[Next Time: Ben relates in Part 2 how the database narrowly escapes destruction at the hands of the Hard Drive Demons, and bestows blessings upon the lowly 1025 printer.]