Friday, June 19, 2009

StarText People: Carrington Dixon

Reader's Note: Carrington Dixon was one of the most prolific columnists to write for StarText and was recognized twice for his efforts as "Columnist of the Quarter." This bio appeared with his second award announcement:

"Carrington is a Native Texan. He was born in Fort Worth and raised in Garland. He graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and spent the next two years in the Army as a lieutenant in the Signal Corps.

"On return to civilian life, he went to work for Texas Instruments as a computer programmer. While at TI he programmed a variety of mainframe machines in systems and scientific applications. [He also] worked for EDS, programming business applications on mainframe and personal computers.

"He began writing about computers 15 years ago when he began the PCTALK column for StarText Classic. A year or so later, he began a second column, CD, devoted to classical music. Both columns still continue. This is the second time that Carrington has been honored as Columnist of the Quarter. The first time was in 1988, when the award was still called StarColumnist of the Quarter."

We managed to locate Carrington and he has graciously submitted this for the StarText history project:

By Carrington Dixon
August, 2009

Sometime in early 1983, I bought a modem to attach to my IBM PC. I quickly found that the number of places I could call with my new modem was limited. There was CompuServe and The Source. Both of these charged by the hour. There were any number of BBS systems, but most of those required a long-distance phone call, and all could take only one caller at a time; so, one’s ability to connect with a popular board was pretty much hit-or-miss.

Then in the summer, there was a presentation at the monthly PC Users Group meeting by something called StarText. This was a local service with a modest fixed monthly fee. I decided to try it.

I liked it. Since I was then writing articles for the PC Users Group newsletter, I write a review of StarText that was published in the newsletter. Someone send a courtesy copy of that review to StarText, and Gerry Barker invited me to try may hand at a subscriber column online. That sounded like fun; so, I sent Gerry a trial column. That very first "PC-Talk" column appeared on-line on Monday, August 1, 1983.

In those days the Star-Telegram On-line service, then known as StarText, was a proprietary system that did not offer electronic mail. Readers could write to a StarText columnist only by sending the message to StarText. StarText could then forward it to the columnist by placing it in a "secret" keyword, usually the columnist's name, known only to the editors and the columnist.

Columnists uploaded columns by sending them to the editor, who would then reformat them and post the on-line. StarText supported no upload protocols, but most communications packages could send a text file so that it appeared as if typed on the keyboard.

I wrote those early columns on an IBM PC, an 8088 cpu with 256Kb of memory and two 360Kb floppy diskette drives -- no hard disk. I prepared the files using a programmer's text editor, SPFPC. I picked that program because it was most like the ISPF mainframe editor that I used at work. It was, and is, a fine programmer's editor, but it lacked some of the amenities that we now expect from a word processor. Most importantly, it lacked a spelling checker.

In those days Gerry Barker, then the StarText Editor, used to correct some of my worst errors. A little later, I bought Word Proof. a stand-alone spelling checker program. As time progressed I switched to writing in MS-Word, which had built-in spelling and grammar checking.

I was (and am) by profession a computer programmer. I think this gave me a little more insight into the working if those early pc programs than was common, at least locally. I filled the early columns with information from the PC Users Group, from friends at IBM, and other sources. As the StarText subscriber base grew, I began to get enough e-mail that it was easy to fill whole columns with letters and responses. I think that the letters were the fuel that kept the early StarColumnists going. There was a sense of community among us; even though, many of us met face-to-face only a few times. There was a feeling of writing for a real audience and the the responses to questions was helping real people.

That feeling of community lasted all through the “StarText Classic” period. Unfortunately, it began to dwindle with the coming of the World Wide Web. Suddenly, we were not writing for a small community but for the whole world. I can’t blame the world at large for preferring to read Jerry Pournelle and John Dvorak to Carrington Dixon. E-mail, which had been the live blood of the columns, dwindled to nothing. I kept on going for a while but it was no longer as much fun as it had been. I do not know how much longer I should have continued to write a column, but in March of 2000 the Star-Telegram pulled the plug.

My first column appeared online Monday, August 1, 1983; the last one Monday, March 27, 2000. That represents sixteen-plus years and seven-hundred ninety four columns. Of course, there were not seven-hundred ninety four different columns. Three or four years into writing I discovered that and that topics I had covered a year or more before were new to most of my current readers. My anniversary column was pretty much he same for the last ten years of the column, and my Christmas column was a ‘tradition’ from the second or third year. If I could not find a topic some week, I would check to see of there were any evergreen topics that had not been posted in a while and blow the dust off. On other weeks, by readers would write the column for me with questions or reactions to a previous column.

During the period from 1988 through 1998, StarText selected subscriber columnists to become the "Cyber Columnist of the Quarter." I was one of the first columnists selected in 1988 and one of the last in 1998, when the award was discontinued.


Thank you Carrington. I like to consider this your 795th column. And not to forget -- every StarText columnist was writing for the enjoyment of themselves and their readers. That was the only compensation they received for their efforts.

Another key point is Carrington's observation that the advent of the Web was the death knell for the subcriber columns. It's ironic that what should have been a glorious new chapter -- moving from a local to a world stage -- ended up killing the community togetherness that fueled those fires for so long. Maybe something akin to the reported effect on mom and pop stores when Wal-Mart comes to town.

For all the wonderful things the Web has given us, that personal sense of belonging that was the "secret sauce" of StarText may prove harder to recreate.

Correction - 16 Years!

In my post on "Subscriber Columnists" I mentioned that Carrington Dixon faithfully updated his column every week for 10 years.

Through the magic of the Internet, and an assist from former subscriber Dennis Brand, I did locate Carrington and found out, much to my surprise, that was incorrect. Carrington actually updated his column weekly for over 16 years!

Happily, he has agreed to pen his memories of StarText and share them here. Coming soon!!

As a footnote, Carrington was first honored for his contributions in 1988, when he was named "Columnist of the Quarter," when it was noted:

"Carrington is very deserving of his honor and holds the record for the longest-running subscriber column. His PC TALK column has been updated every Monday for five years. Through the column, he has helped many new computer users learn how to get more from their PCs. Carrington was also honored for starting a new monthly column which reviews classical CDs and for his helpful DOS GUIDE."