Sorting through a life

The month of June has had an unusual quality to it this year. On one hand, we’ve seen the explosion of sales of former President Clinton’s new book, My Life, despite the fact that most reviewers have been rather critical of it.

Well, I had a similar experience, with the rather quick sale and closing on our former house in Oak Park, IL. My wife Gayle and I put in a very exhausting week, sorting through the detritus of 20 years of home ownership and an even longer career as a journalist, mostly in packaging. My son Jeff, who tirelessly helped us that week, could have asked me many times why I saved so many copies of so many magazines that eventually helped fill a sizable dumpster. Thankfully the question went unasked, although I certainly mulled it over while I was carrying out loads of old magazines from the basement.

And every time that we tossed out a handful of magazines, I recalled the stories behind the cover illustrations or other stories in those issues. Some were great memories, others not so great, knowing that occasionally the best parts of some stories never made it into print.

But what really struck me as I saw magazines that stretched back into the ’70s and even earlier is how far we’ve come with technology since that earlier time, both as journalists and as people in packaging. Earlier this week, I had read an article about a writer for consumer magazines who still produced his copy on yellow copy paper on a manual typewriter! In fact, he had three of the typewriters, so he could cobble parts to make one work well.

I was reminded of a packaging guy I recently spoke with whose company was trying to keep a 20-plus-year-old packaging machine in operation. This tray packer/overwrapper had served the company well, but its controls system and the logic written for it decades ago were causing the machine to fail with some regularity. Some of the original controls components were no longer available. Eventually, the company brought in a systems integrator to upgrade the control system. This modest investment has kept the aging system in operation and functioning well.

The writer I mentioned was stubborn about never shifting from typewriter to computer, and one of the magazines he wrote for literally deducted from his fee the costs of transcribing his written copy onto a computer file. And what will happen when his typewriter can no longer be kept operational? Perhaps that’s how he’ll know when to retire.

My sorting of personal effects even went back to my Navy days when I wrote a monthly magazine on a guided-missile cruiser and an at-sea daily newspaper. Although I was using a manual typewriter (or maybe an electric one), I was then introduced to the effects of electronics.

While we were commissioning the cruiser, we frequently underwent tests at sea. For the daily newspaper, we had a newswire from the Associated Press to use as the source. The newswire worked fine—except when certain types of electronics were being employed on board. Those electronics signals turned the wire copy to gobbledygook. Needless to say, I wasn’t very popular aboard when I couldn’t supply my shipmates with the baseball scores for the previous day, smack in the middle of pennant races. Perhaps that explains why the conversion to computers was not a change I made with any relish.

And, of course, that love-hate relationship continues today, and in large part is due to spam. But it’s safe to say that most journalists are a lot more productive using computers instead of typewriters. Without these electronics, I might not have been able to move to Sturgeon Bay with no sacrifice in my ability to file news and features.

And cruising back over my career of some 40 years, little did I know then how electronics would help shape the way I work, not to mention the pervasive influence over the way packaging machines are operated and repaired.

That's why it's so great to see that while aging packaging equipment can be given a new lease on life thanks to a controls transplant, a journalistic senior can reject the advance of technology and still have his work published.

See an archive of Arnie Orloski's Pipeline columns at www.packworld.com/pipeline.

Arnie can be reached at orloski@packworld.com

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