The eminently quotable Samuel Johnson had a very pragmatic view about writing, and was quoted by Boswell as having said:
No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.
Personally, I think Johnson is pretty close to the mark on this one, but I will add one caveat. Ask any writer about their first book, and the thing they remember best is the thrill of seeing a volume with their name on it up on the shelf – money has nothing to do with it.
My first effort was The Data Compression Book, published all the way back in 1992, when there was a lot less interest in the field than there is now. It was unbroken ground, which meant there was room for an amateur in the field, and I nearly had it to myself.
With the help of DDJ Editor and mentor Jon Erickson, I convinced M&T Books I could do a creditable job on this book. They took me up on it, and believe me, the first time I walked into Taylor’s books in Dallas and saw three or four of these on the shelf, it was a thrill you can hardly imagine.
Fifteen years later, with a handful of other books behind me, I’m much more Johnson-esque and blase these days. Show me the money.
But every once in a while, something manages to pierce this hard-boiled shell and remind of what it was like to first see that book in 1992. This week it was an email out of the blue from somebody named Steve Johnson, who was kind enough to let me reprint his email in its entirety:
I have had a copy of The Data Compression Book in my possession for a long time. It was a book of instrumental importance to me when I was starting out a fledgling business long ago – in 1992 – which turned into an image compression company partly because of your book. Your book captivated me with the compression problem, and taught me the basics of information/coding theory (enough to become a dangerous dilettante). Out of that understanding sprang a company called Johnson-Grace Company, which created the first streaming online media ever. AOL used my algorithm to put pictures online in early 1994 when the world dialed in at 2400bps or 9600bps, and ‘digital pictures’ were as fantastic as radio in 1920. My little company went on in 1995 (around the time MSN was launched) and created ‘streaming sound’ and ‘moving pictures’ (slideshows with sound) and then simple telephony (still over dialup, now at 14.4kbps, we added a ‘talk’ button to AOL’s Instant Message box – and then subtracted it after seeing the challenge of creating a consumer grade experience over low bandwidth dial up!).
AOL bought my company in 1996, and the algorithm (AOL’s proprietary ‘ART’ format) still compresses billions of images everyday on the backend of their web delivery system. I owe a great deal to your book – for its clear accessible style, and excellent coverage of the subject. It quite simply taught me (an economist) how compression works, and I managed to put it to a use that solved an important problem.
So here’s why I’m writing (besides finally thanking you after all these years!).
My eldest daughter Emma graduated from high school earlier this year (we live in Boston) and has just commenced her freshman year at Oberlin College this fall. As a graduation gift, I’m presenting her with a bound set of my favorite books called “Dad’s Great Books,” of which I have included my rebound copy of Data Compression. It is no doubt one of the most influential books I’ve ever read, and I hope Emma cherishes the book as much as I did (she happens to be fascinated with information theory at the moment).
If it isn’t too much trouble to ask, I would greatly appreciate it if I could send this bound copy to you for your autograph and have you return the book in the FedEx envelope that I would include.
Please let me know, at your earliest convenience, as well as a good address to use for sending this your way.
When I read this email to my wife she had tears in her eyes, and yes, I was a bit verklempt myself.
Steve sent me a nicely bound copy of the book and I inscribed it to he and Emma (without even asking for an honorarium!), and with luck she’ll have it on her shelf in a few days, a curious souvenir of bygone times.
All in all a Hallmark moment, although there is a scary side to the whole thing. Steve comes from a background in Economics, knowns as the Dismal Science. Emma is interested in Information Theory, which has no nickname yet, but perhaps should be known as The Yet More Dismal Science.
Should this continue, I fear for Emma’s children. They’ll have to find a branch of mathematical science even more obscure, confusing, and impossible to explain at family functions. Will they be Set Theorists? Transfinite Algebrists?
Regardless of their intellectual or business pursuits, it seems inevitable that anyone from this line of people will be delightful to have around.
Thanks, Steve, for a reminder of what it was like to write that book in 1992, and best of all, to know that at least for you, it was exactly what I had hoped it would be.