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Source: ANTIC: The Atari 8-Bit Podcast
Interviewer: Kevin Savetz
Liza Loop wrote the first users manuals for the Atari 400 and 800 computers. She was a consultant technical writer for Atari from June 1979 through April 1980. Sometimes writing documentation for interfaces that had not been designed yet, so her description became the de facto interface specification. Liza also worked for Personal Software where she wrote the reference manual for the original VisiCalc program and, in an interesting Atari-related note, she and her husband Steve Smith were married by Atari 400, 800, designer Jay Miner. She talks about that in the interview too. This interview was conducted January 28, 2015.
Teaser quote: There was no way that this machine would be accepted by a touch typist, if you had to shift to get lowercase. I met Steve Wozniak and I was the first person that he ever met so who was taking computers into schools so he gave me the first Apple. We have a Apple One number one and Apple Two number 10.
Teaser quote: One of the things very few people know about Jay is that he was interested in nudism. The local nudist group used to have their parties at his house. I would have to go and stand in the administration payroll..the accounting office and say "It's a week after my pay date and I have not received my check. Write me a hand check and put it in the system later and I'm going to stand here until you do."
Teaser quote: The guys who started Activision were at Atari. Somebody asked me how much I was being paid and I told them and they said, "$40 an hour. We're in the wrong business." And they all quit. I said, "If you want us to work for you hire us back as consultants for $40 an hour."
Interviewer: I understand that you wrote the original first user manuals for the Atari 400 and 800. Is that right?
Liza: That is correct.
Interviewer: Alright. How did you get that gig?
Liza: Well a friend of mine named David Yeardrum[SP] got a gig at Atari putting the Microsoft to the Atari. He was one of the founding members of the Sonoma County Computer Club. This was 19. . .well we started in 1976. This was 1978. We started the computer club in 1976. Yeah, this was 1978 when they were first developing the Atari computers and it wasn't even called the 400 and 800 yet. So David moved down to the peninsula from [inaudible 00:03:34] Park, from Santa Rosa California or Cotati. Called me up very excited one day saying, "Liza, there's nobody here that knows anything about users and they need somebody to write their manuals. So why don't you come down and interview?" So I did. Interviewed with Wade Touma[SP] and got the gig.
Interviewer: So why did you know about users?
Liza: Why did I know about users? Well because.. lets see. In 1972, I took a course in Montessori education at Sonoma State and the co-instructor of that course was a man named Dean Brown who was then at SRI and happened to be working with the head of a Montessori school using the pilot language on teletypes to teach five, six, and seven year olds how to program their Montessori lessons into pilots and let other kids play their “games”, which were learning games. I spent five minutes in the room with Dean and said, "That's my career, that's where I'm going." That was 1972 so I thought about it for a couple years. Had another child and decided to open a public access computer center which is called Learning Options Open Portal or LOOP, which is a pun on my last name. Opened the doors in Cotati, California in a second floor office with a teletype-to-call computer, and I think that was the first thing we had. Anyway, I didn't know anything about. . .
Interviewer: So it's like 1975 or something, and you’ve got a. . .
Interviewer: And you've got a learning center for kids using computers?
Interviewer: Wow. So it's cutting edge?
Liza: Yeah it was cutting edge but that's not unusual. I grew up in a family that was always cutting edge and that's what I was expected to do, so I did it. Yeah. We had a teletype, we had. . . I bought a deck. PDP8, so we had that. Anyway, because I didn't know anything about computers, I had to find a way to learn about computers. So I started the Sonoma County Computer Club. That way all the local computer hackers started needing that LOOP Center and they taught me. So by 1978, I'd been doing this for three years. We've moved LOOP Center from our upstairs business office to a storefront, and from one storefront to another storefront. I was taking, loading my teletype and my desktop, my desk computer, my PDP8, and a couple others into the back of a pickup truck and taking them school. In 1976, another thing that my computer club members got me to do is to go to Home Brew Computer Club and I met Steve Wozniak, and I was the first person that he ever met that was taking computers into school so he gave me the first Apple. Which we have. So we have Apple One Number One and Apple Two Number 10.
Liza: I've taught with those.
Interviewer: So they're just. . .
Liza: Anyway. . .
Interviewer: In your closet somewhere?
Liza: Yeah, they're stored at the moment. So I was just taking computers around to introduce people to computing. Which at that time included having to learn how to dial up through Telnet to some other computer or flip the switches, front switches on an all pair. Or on a PDP8, flip the bin loader in and then you could load Basic from paper tape to a teletype. So you had to learn a lot about computing at that time. As well as, I was teaching Basic. We had the first little stand alone computers as well as timeshare accounts at various different places. We had an account with Lawrence Hall Science in Berkeley, for example. Which had lots of games and educational software. We were not only for kids. We were kids and adults because everybody was a beginner.
Liza: Three years of doing that and I knew about users.
Interviewer: Okay, that's a great answer to my question. So you know about users. You went in, you were hired as a technical. . .
Interviewer: Writer? Technical consultant at Atari. So you're not an employee..
Liza: That's right...
Interviewer: Or were you? I'm sorry?
Liza: I was only there for nine or 10 months. I wasn't there a long time. After I left, I ran the Atari users group for a while.
Interviewer: So they basically plunked you down and said, "Please write manuals”?
Liza: Well, something like that. What they did is basically said, "We need a user's manual." I said, "Fine. What are the specs for the machine?" And they said, "Specs for the machine?" I said, "Yeah, what am I documenting?" And they said, "Well, we don't know. It's not built yet."
Liza: So they said, "You write the manual and we'll make it work that way."
Liza: It turned out they really did know a lot about how it's going to work but they hadn't finished the user interface. They were all excited about the plastic and the look and feel of the machine rather than, well there were no pins, as we refer to the complete idiot users in the building. There were two technical females. The other one ran the Calvin[SP] machine.
Interviewer: The others ran the what machine?
Liza: The Calvin machine. It was a Logic layout machine for laying out circuit boards. She just knew how to operate it she didn't know anything about computing or teaching other people to use computers. Basically, I imagined what I thought it should be like and wrote the manual. As they developed the user interface I corrected the manual to match the user interface.
Interviewer: Can you give a specific example of something that you wrote and then it came to pass because you had written it?
Liza: The best one is that they decided that it should have a word processor. Of course, it's a cartridge machine and those cartridges are small, so putting a word processor into one of those cartridges was a challenge. I forgot who was working on the word processor. But when they presented me with this piece of software, they were one, I don't know if it was a bit or a byte, over the cartridge limit. The Atari keyboard, the native keyboard was uppercase. Some of the implementations if you wanted to get lowercase you'd had to use the shift key. So they said, "Oh well. We'll just do that for the word processor and have it, when you type you type in uppercase. If you want to get lowercase you shift”. That saved them the one byte and I had a fit. I was also working with a guy named Greg Yob who's the person who wrote the game Hunt the Wumpus and Greg and I were talking about this and we both agreed that there was no way that this machine would be accepted by a touch typist if you had to shift to get lowercase, because that's not the way a typewriter works. Anybody who is a professional typist has that process automated and to have to change it would destroy their speed typing. But all of the engineers at Atari were hunt and peck typists. So they didn't care.
Interviewer: Right, right, right.
Liza: So I said absolutely not. We can't do it that way. If you really want to sell this machine and there’s a tremendous market, it'll be the best word processor available. We didn't have a word processor at Atari. I wrote those manuals using TECO, which is a Digital Equipment Corporation text editor.
Liza: Eventually, they found a way to fit it in, and the word processor came out with a shift properly implemented.
Interviewer: Wow, and that's a great example.
Liza: That's the best example. The others, I don't think I had all that much influence. It's just that it wasn’t, “Here all the technical specs and here's how we know it's going to work, so document it this way". It’s, “We're still inventing and we'll let you know when we've got something". Then we talked about it. These manuals were not technical manuals. They were starting with, how do you open the box? What I did is I envisioned who the various users might be. Of course, they were computer hobbyists who are notorious for not reading manuals. So I wasn't worried about writing the manual for them.
Liza: So my video tape in my head was a family, and the parents had bought their son the Atari. They were marketing it at Sears through the sporting goods department. So they bought the Atari computer from Sears and as a graduation present, high school graduation present for their son. And the son and the father didn't have any trouble opening the box. Looked at the hardware and it was only one way to put it together. They put it together and they were playing games the evening of the guy's graduation. So the next day the father and the son have left the house. The mother, who's a housewife has finished making the beds and cleaning up the breakfast dishes and decides to take a coffee break. She thinks, “Maybe I'd like to play with this computer". She's the person I wrote the manual for.
Liza: Because the other's wouldn't use it. Although, there were pictures to demonstrate how to get it out of the box and unpack it in the beginning of the manual. There were also instructions as to how to put the cartridge in, how to turn it on, how to change games. Then, there was a tutorial on Basic language, how to program at the back of it, and that's all we had. It was a small 20 page pamphlet, heavily illustrated. My philosophy is that people have different learning modalities. Which means some people learn best through pictures, some people learn best through charts and tabular information, and some people learn best through narrative. If you look at that manual all the messages are encoded in all three ways. Everything you need to know you can get from the pictures, you can get it from the charts, or you can get it from the paragraphs. It was never marketed. They printed two hundred of them to go to the consumer electronic show in January of 1979 where they announced the machine. I probably have the only existing manuals left of that.
Liza: Of the original.
Interviewer: So when the machine actually shipped, it shipped with manuals of course. Those are not the ones you wrote?
Liza: I don't think so. No, those are written by Gil Banks. The very first ones may have shipped with mine, but I don't think so. They didn't ship for quite a while after they announced, but they had to have these manuals for the consumer electronic show. The people in the pictures of the original manual were all the folks in the office. Then, they did a second version of the manual I wrote where they hired an artist to draw the pictures. That artist was also hired by Apple. He was doing the, I'm trying to remember his name. He was doing the packaging for Apple as well and I tried to convince them, Atari, that they should put him on commission and keep him from doing Apple because we were competing with Apple. Actually, at the consumer electronic show the demos were not running on an Atari which didn't run yet. They were running on an Apple under the table. The Atari was on top of the table.
Liza: Wait a minute. That may not have been on the computer electronic show. They may have been a show that we video taped for Sears. It was running by the consumer electronic show. But the first demo that we videotaped, the demo was running on the Apple.
Interviewer: So the Atari didn't do anything yet.
Liza: Yeah, it was still in wire wrap.
Interviewer: Wow, wow. So you wrote this manual, they printed 200 and didn't really use it for the final product. You said you had a copy?
Liza: Yeah, I have several copies. I have it for the 400 and the 800. I haven't scanned them yet.
Interviewer: Can you do that right now today? We need it, we need it! The Atari community wants to see it.
Liza: I'll try.
Interviewer: Thank you. That would be great. If you don't want to you can loan them to me and I can do it. Send em' right back.
Liza: I do want to. What I want all you folks to know, is that I'm doing a virtual museum on the history of computing and learning in education. It's Hcle.org is our wiki. Eventually, that will be the actually museum but for right now it's just a wiki to get it started. We want stories how people. . . We're documenting both how people learned computing and how they learned other things using the computer to help. So the manuals are how you learn to use this machine. There are lots of people who are interested in games and who are interested in technical aspects of the computing history.
As far as I know, nobody else who is looking at this intersection of learning and education and computing. That story is being lost, which is very much too bad because between 1960 and 1990 we learned an awful lot with how to teach with computing and how to use these as learning tools. People are now rediscovering them. Trying to rediscover how to use computers as learning tools. It's not happening at schools very well at all. Some of that early, philosophical knowledge needs to be reclaimed. One of the ways to do it is to get those of us who learned when there weren't any teachers, to talk about how we learned. So I want stories from all of your users, again, about what they did to learn. What roadblocks they had. What help they got. Some people say, "Oh well my father was an engineer and he helped me." Some people say, "I read the manuals." Some people say, "We got together at a hobby club." All of those ways of learning we need to make sure people remember. Because you can't do it all in a school, in a class with a teacher in the front of the room.
Interviewer: Okay, so it sounds like we're doing a trade here. You're trading copies of documentation and I'm giving you users who are going to come to your website and tell you how they originally learned computing. Right?
Liza: Right. And if they used the computer to learn anything else. At Atari, for example, we put out a whole series of educational programs which were developed by Shepherdson. I have all of those, I think. Of course, they were on cassette. When Atari first came out it had no disc drive, it had an audio cassette.
Interviewer: Are these the ones that work with the educational system cartridge, and you put that in the machine and then they have to work with it?
Liza: Yeah. Mmhmm.
Interviewer: I have some of those, not all of them have been archived yet. I might have to borrow some of those from you.
Liza: Well, I don't know how many I have. My archive is a mess but eventually it will be an archive.
Interviewer: So you said you were married to Steve Smith for 20 years and you two, now he wrote, if it's the right Steve Smith, he worked on the antic chip, right? He helped Jay with the antic chip?
Liza: There were four guys who I knew very well. Joe DeCuir, Jay Miner, David Yeardrum[SP], that's three. I knew Scott Simon pretty well. Steve, David, Joe and I, that makes four, me. We used to hang out a lot together. The four of us. Eventually, I married Steve.
Interviewer: And you were married by Jay Miner?
Interviewer: I would like to hear that story please.
Liza: Well, Jay have hired Steve right out of DeVry Tech. Steve was 22 when he went to Atari. It was first job and he did the wire wrap of the original chips before they were manufactured and continued to do engineering. So Steve and Jay were very close. Steve worked directly for Jay and they were friends. We used to go and hang out at Jay's house, Steve and I, and sit in Jay's hot tub. Steve and I were friends for about a year and a half, two years and eventually he proposed to me. It turned out Jay had a Universal Life Church minister certificate as did I, and I still do. Jay of course has passed away. So we asked Jay if he would marry us. So we had a big engagement party. I think that was also at Jay's house. When Steve proposed to me I said, "You don't know what you're talking about". I was married with two kids and I'm 11 years older than Steve, so, "I'll marry you in six months if you still want to marry me by then". So we had a big engagement party in February and got married on the first of May. Steve thought it was very funny to get married on Mayday. I probably have lots of pictures. Jay rented a long gown and pretended to be a minister. I had a pretty dress and Steve had a tuxedo. We actually had no family at that wedding except my kids who thought it was very, very funny. They were seven and nine. But lots and lots of our friends and many Atarians. Actually people thought that the engagement party was actually the wedding and they were very surprised that there was a wedding six months later. Three months later. Anyway, it was a good party. Jay had lots of parties at his house. One of the things very few people know about Jay is that he was interested in nudism. The local nudist group used to have their parties at his house.
Interviewer: Hmm. I did not know that.
Liza: Yeah. Tremendously sweet guy. He and his wife Carol had four or five little dogs that they had rescued. I'm trying to remember the name of Jay's cockapoo who used to come to work every day with him. They kept rescuing little dogs so you walk into Jay's house and there's this cacophony of little dogs barking at you. They had a river cruiser on the Delta and we used to go spend weekends rafted up with other friends, other people that Jay knew who also had boats, would arrange to motor to some place in the Sacramento River Delta. We'd all tie up together and swim, play cards, drink beer, and water ski. That was lots of fun.
Liza: Jay was not only a fantastic engineer but knew how to have a good time. Then, when Jay left Atari and he went on to build the Amiga, he also, both Joe DeCuir and Steve Smith worked on that machine as well.
Interviewer:Yeah. You said that you wrote the first, going back in time a little bit here. You wrote and produced the manual, the reference manual for the original VisiCalc?
Liza: Yeah, I was an employee for Personal Software. I wasn't an employee for Atari. That was after the Atari gig. The Atari gig was the first thing I did in Silicon Valley. Then, after I left Atari, after the manuals were done. . .
Interviewer: Lets talk about leaving Atari. Did you quit? Were you fired? Were you laid off? How did that relationship end? I know you weren't an employee, you were a contractor so. . .
Liza: I was a contractor. Basically the manuals were done. The original user manuals. I still am not technical enough to write a technical manual. My forte I like to think that, like Isaac Asimov, I’m a popularizer of technical things. So my forte is working with people who haven't got the slightest idea how to operate a machine. Which was the market that Atari wanted and there was nobody else there at Atari who could do it. Once the machine was launched and they had a prototype of a users manual, they hired some other people to do more technical manuals. I did the user’s manual for the computer itself then I did a user’s manual for the tape player, and maybe for the disc drive, I'll have to look that up. Then, Gil did a more technical reference manual. Gil Banks is still around you can talk with him too.
Liza: I have another story to tell. I'm trying to think. The person that hired me in, I didn't work directly for Wade Touma. It was somebody else whose name I don't recall at this point but Steve will know, who was my direct supervisor and he left. Nobody else adopted me. I was kind of wandering around with no assignment. I was neither fired, nor let go, or anything. I just didn't have anymore assignments so I stopped coming in.
Liza: By that time I had moved. Originally, two more stories, originally I was living in Sonoma County and just came down to the peninsula down to Sunnyvale in order to go to meetings. So when I first contracted with Atari what I agreed to do was to work for $20 an hour if I was working from home and $40 an hour if I had to come in and go to a meeting where I had to work in the office. Because I had a big commute and I didn't have a place to stay so I had to stay in a hotel. They agreed to that and my thinking was, if I don't do that they're going to keep asking me to come in and then they're not going to be organized enough to make it worth my while to have driven down here. So I made it a lot more expensive for them. At that time those were good wages.
Interviewer: Yeah, yeah.
Liza: To have me onsite. This was before telecommuting was even a gleam in its father's eye. This was a pretty radical thing to do. Another thing that happened was that Atari didn't pay its bills. So they were constantly, although they were rolling in money, they were constantly running out of things because people wouldn't ship to them. They rotated their suppliers. Because I was being paid through that system rather than the payroll system, they didn't pay me. So I would have to go and stand in the accounting office and say "It's a week after my pay date and I have not received my check."
Liza: And they would say, "Oh, well. The system is all automated. We can't generate a check just because you're standing here." And I would say, "Yes, you can. Write me a hand check and put it in the system later. I need my check and I'm going to stand here until you do it."
Interviewer: And how long did you stand there?
Liza: Oh, I'm sure I stood there a hour or two a couple of times. After a while they figured it out.
Liza: But. . .
Liza: Then, they changed. Nolan left. Nolan got kicked upstairs and Ray became the CEO. What was Ray's last name?
Liza: Kassar. Yeah. There was a guy before that. Ray didn't come from Burlington Coat Factory. Somebody else came from Burlington Mills before Ray. When he first came in, again, I have all this documented but I haven't been thinking about it so I don't have the names. My disc access is slower than it used to be. When he first came in he decided that engineering needed to shape up. Consumer engineering. That everybody should be by their desk by 8 o'clock. That isn't the way we worked at all.
Liza: People staggered in at ten o'clock.
Interviewer: Sure. Especially, engineers and programmers and that sort of field.
Liza: Right, right. He came storming into the engineering area one day saying, "You guys are just a bunch of uptight prima donnas." Somebody decided that was exactly correct. There's a t-shirt which says Atari on the front and on the back just says, “Just another uptight prima donna from Atari." Have you got the T-shirt?
Interviewer: No, I don't have it.
Liza: I should scan that for you.
Interviewer: That would be great. Might be the most important question I've ever asked. The 400 and 800 their internal code names were Candy and Colleen. Apparently, the story is named after hot secretaries. Since you were there early, did you ever meet Candy and Colleen?
Liza: No, and I don't think that's a true story.
Interviewer: Aww man.
Liza: Stella, which was the games machine. . .
Liza: The predated computer. Yeah, that's Jody Keer’s[SP] bicycle.
Interviewer: I’m sorry, that's what?
Interviewer: Oh okay. Stella.
Liza: Yeah, he had a Stella bicycle. I'll have to ask Joe and Steve about Candy and Colleen. They may have been people's girlfriends, but I don't think they were hot secretaries. There was also a hot tub in the basement and word had it that every Friday there were beer blasts and wet t-shirt contest at the hot tub. I never went because I was commuting back. I had kids in Sonoma County. I had to go back and be a momma. So I was never in the hot tub room plus I was not willing to wear a wet t-shirt.
Interviewer: I have asked several people and I think people maybe who were there a little bit later at Atari, I asked them specifically about the hot tub. I get answers like, "No, I never saw anything like that.” Or, "Yeah, I saw the hot tub once and it was empty." I think maybe the stories about the hot tub are better than the actual hot tub was.
Liza: Well, you should talk to Steve.
Interviewer: Okay. I'm trying to actually I asked him and he said no. I'm trying to convince him that he should talk to me.
Liza: Oh you called him already?
Interviewer: I emailed him yesterday and he said "I don't remember anything. No." I guess you can tell me stories it'll be great. Maybe you can tell him what a wonderful time we're having together on this conversation and you should talk to him.
Liza: Okay. I'll try. Yeah, I think it's fun. Anyway, but then we're very different people which is why we're not married anymore.
Interviewer: Twenty years is a big stretch.
Liza: Yeah, we decided to call it a successful marriage at twenty years instead of trying to make it twenty five and call it a failed marriage. So we've got divorced.
Interviewer: I think that's exactly what Dave Small said to me about his marriage to Sandy. "We had a great stretch and we've decided to say that was a success. Now we're done."
Liza: Well, David Yeardrum[SP] introduced me to Steve and I went back to David and spent ten years with David. Then, broke up with David. That's a whole other story. That's not a computer story. I probably have the sketches and rough drafts that I made of the manuals. The way I work is to put everything up on the walls of my cubicle. I first started out sharing a cubicle with Scott Simon. Practically, drove Scott nuts because he's very neat and organized and does not work this way at all. I'm definitely messy and sketchy, and have papers all over the place. And would place them on the ceiling if I could reach the ceiling.
I'll ask Steve the Candy and Colleen and see if I could get a better answer. There is an answer and there is an accurate answer but I don't remember what it was. There was a very attractive woman who was Al Alcorn's secretary and kind of acted as the receptionist for the engineering department and didn't have a whole lot to do. I do remember an incident where I needed a bunch of copies and she was sitting there doing nothing. I went and asked Al if she could make copies for me. And I only got paid for the hours that I worked. If I was sitting there in the office doing nothing I didn't charge Atari for it.
Liza: Al said, "No." So I said, "Okay, if you guys want to pay me $40 bucks a hour to run a copy machine I'm happy to do that. I'd just thought I'd save you some money". They didn't care. So they paid me $40 bucks an hour.
Interviewer: Seems pretty typical of Atari management frankly.
Liza: Yeah, yeah. The other story that I wanted to tell you had to do with the illustrations in the manual. When I first came, interviewed at Atari, the art department who had done all of the industrial design on the machine itself, John Hayashi was the head of the art department. I don't know if John is still alive or not. Probably, he is. John was expected to get to do the manuals. He had a staff of four or five people. When they took the manuals away from him and gave them to me he was pretty annoyed. I didn't work for John. Rick Simoni is the name of the guy that I did work for.
Liza: Slowed his access but it's there. John thought it was okay with him if I wrote the text but he still got to design the manual. As I've said I felt like the illustrations were extremely important, and they carried the content of the manual as well as the words. I wanted to do all of it. All of the design. I wanted to specify the pictures, which I did. The page layout, how the captions were done on the pictures. I ended up in a complete battle with John. Who wanted to make it look pretty and kept wanting to put in design elements that had nothing to do with the message that the user was supposed to take away. From my perspective, were simply distractions and defeated the purpose of the manual. When you see the two versions of the manual the first one you'll see is the one that John laid out. The second one you'll see is the one I laid out.
Liza: If anybody's interested I can talk about the design elements and why I did it this way rather than that way. It was this ongoing battle between me and John about how this thing got run. I think eventually he probably won. Maybe why I eventually ended up with no assignments. Anyway, that was another interesting dynamic that went on. There were two or three women that worked in the art department. They didn't know anything technical so they couldn't write the manual. Basically, we were all friends but they were among the people I used to test the manual. Because as far as I was concerned, what I put down on the paper was not anywhere near as important as what the user took off that paper. So anything I write gets tested not by the engineers or by anybody who knows the message that I'm trying to get across, but by people who have no idea. . .
Liza: What should be encoded on those pages. So that I find out if it really works or not. So I used the women in the art department.
Interviewer: So your contract ended. You wandered away. I just want to talk briefly about writing the VisiCalc manual. That was such a unique product at that time. Did you get it and go, "Yeah I understand this”? Or was it just like, "What's this spreadsheet again? What are we doing?" How did you feel seeing this product at the time?
Liza: Similar approach than the approach that I did with the Atari manual. With Atari there were no specs. They couldn't tell me how it was going to work when I went in. When I went into Personal Software, and I'm trying to figure how it was I got hired and I don't even remember. I'll have to think about that. But I was hired as an employee and they wanted to sit me down and tell me how it worked and explained it all to me. I said, "No, don't tell me anything. Just give me the disc and let me sit down with the machine and play with it." Because for me the most important thing is, what questions are the first questions that you come up with when you encounter a piece of software? What's obvious and what's confusing? So I spent probably a week or two just playing with the software. Without any instruction at all. There was a tutorial, but unfortunately the tutorial was sequential. So if you work through the tutorial you had to do it in the order in which they wrote it.
Liza: And you couldn't find anything in it when you wanted to go back. I was hired to do a reference manual. The first thing that I realized I wanted to know was the sequence of the commands. If you sit down and you look at the graph, the cell layout, and you want to start putting things in cells, first, you have to figure out how to write a formula. You can put numbers in the cells that's pretty easy. Then, you have to figure out how to get it to do something with the content of the cells. The formulas get more and more complicated.
Liza: That's the way I wrote the reference manual. Looking first at, here's a set of numbers we'll put into specific cells. Here's how to refer to those cells. Then, here's how to put operators between the cells. So you're building an equation. Basically, you're putting an equation in each cell. Building that equation, or series of equations led to the idea of writing the reference manual as a hierarchy. So what I did was a big fold out sheet which was a chart that went from adding a number to each of the related commands.
Then, I took every command and wrote a paragraph about how to use the command. What the command was and then how to use it. That's what was in the reference manual. It started out with the fold out sheet that showed you what all the commands were and then you could look up each individual command. My direct supervisor was a woman named Kathleen Nandis who had lived in Jeff Raskin's cottage. Jeff was one of the original, he was the designer of the Macintosh basically. Kathleen worshipped Jeff. Jeff had written a lot of the Apple manuals. I didn't like the Apple manuals. I couldn't figure out how to use the Apple from the Apple manuals. I would go to work at Personal Software and write a chapter of my reference manual and give it to Kathleen, and Kathleen would say, "Can you make it more like a Raskin manual?" She didn't like the style. So I'd write the next chapter in a different style because I know I could go back and edit it and put it all in the same style when we found a style she liked.
Liza: So I went through four or five chapters. Each one was in a different style. She couldn't say anything more than, "Well, can you make it more like a Raskin manual?” So eventually I got fired. The manual was done. I edited it and made it so that it was usable and it got published but then they fired me. They hired four people to fill my position. It was extremely frustrating because Kathleen, when I had my exit interview she said, "Well, you can't write in an consistent style." Kathleen couldn't imagine that I could change the writing style and then go back and edit it and make it all the same. She couldn't articulate at all what she wanted. If she thought she liked it she could tell. But other than that, she couldn't tell. So that was really frustrating. The other thing that happened at VisiCalc is that Mitch Kapor was hired in after, above Kathleen to manage the documentation department. Mitch spent a great deal of time sitting at his desk looking at VisiCalc. A year later left and started Lotus 123, which of course succeeded VisiCalc.
Interviewer: Right, right. I think I have two more questions. Question number one is you mentioned you ran an Atari user group and you haven't really talked about that. Can you tell me briefly about that?
Liza: Sure. It wasn't really users group it was the newsletter. Atari users newsletter. I probably have those in a box some place.
Interviewer: What was the newsletter called? There were several. I'm just trying to figure out which one you had your hand in.
Interviewer: It was the first one. What was it called? Atari Newsletter, probably. Probably started in 1981, 1982. Of course, there were no word processors so we laid it out by hand. You bought sticky tape with bulb lines and things like that on it and I laid it out on a wax board. I worked with a guy named Nicolas DePaul. Nicolas if he's not a member of your group you might want to get in touch with him as well.
Liza: Nicolas D-E capital P-A-U-L.
Liza: I think he's in the midwest some place. What was really funny was, one of the really funny things is I was living on Star King Circle in Palo Alto. Probably, with Steve at that point, laying out the newsletter and Nicolas who was a subscriber to the newsletter, called me up and he was very excited. We had this long two hour conversation. Eventually, one of us said, "We should get together. Where are you?" It turned out he was living next door, across the fence. We could walk outside with the telephones wired. Telephones were still wired.
Interviewer: The curly cords attached.
Liza: And look over the fence and see each other. Anyway, so we became friends and did the newsletter together. Oh, I have another story. The guys who started Activision were at Atari.
Liza: The three of. . .
Interviewer: David Crane and those guys yeah?
Liza: Yeah. We were all sitting around at one point. Somebody asked me how much I was being paid and I told them. "When I'm here I'm paid $40 an hour. When I'm working from home I'm being paid $20 an hour." And they said, "$40 an hour? We're in the wrong business!" And they all quit and said, "If you want want us to work for you hire us back as consultants for $40 an hour."
Interviewer: Yikes. You made Activision happen?
Liza: Well, I think it would've happened anyway. But there was a period of time when they were deciding whether to leave and that story was part of it.
Liza: Now, they may have already decided to leave but. . .
Interviewer: Right, certainly didn’t, yeah. . .
Liza: There was a Halloween party where Dave Crane came in in a Nixon mask. It was really funny. It was great. He made a great NIxon. Anyway. . .
Interviewer: If you could send a message to the Atari community and you can right now, what would you tell them?
Liza: These messages are important so I need to think about it. They're important. There are three different messages. One is, wasn't it fun. We had a hell of a good time. Another is what we did was really important. Was revolutionary, and we should all feel proud of ourselves for being pioneers. But the most important message is that learning is key to humanity in every epoch and what we did has completely changed the way people learn and the way people communicate. We need to remember that history and mine it for what it can teach us for today. If we forget what it was like when these technologies were new and exciting and revolutionary, we're likely to forget some of the important lessons, philosophies, moralities that we were just discovering then. That's dangerous. We need to remember those fresh spots and the context when they fresh in order to use the technologies wisely.
Interviewer: Great. And people can help you doing that by going to the history of computing for learning and education at Hcle.org and submitting their stories and memories about learning with computers.
Liza: Absolutely, they can also get in touch with me if they want to. Because I do all this stuff, as you can tell, pretty personally. And that's my fun. Are you looking at just the computers? Or are you also looking at the Stella, the game console?
Interviewer: We only do the computers.
Interviewer: Unless you have something super interesting. Then, I'm not going to say, "No."
Liza: One of our other good friends was Harold Lee, who made the pawn chip. And there's lots of good stories about Harold and around Harold.
Interviewer: Do you have contact information for him still?
Liza: I think I can find him.
Interviewer: What I would honestly do is pass it on to one of the 2,600 podcast people and say "Hey, here's a guy you're going to wanna talk to."
Liza: Yeah, well one of the best stories is that Harold was offered a buyout for the chip, or a dollar per chip. And he took the buyout.
Liza: For the next ten years regretted it. Although, his buyout was in the millions, it was nowhere near as many millions as a dollar per chip would've given him.
Interviewer: So he took a lump sum instead of a. . .
Liza: Right. Instead of a royalty.
Interviewer: Yeah, yeah. Well, coulda woulda shoulda!
Liza: Harold, also used to have wonderful parties. He bought a villa up on Skyline in, you’re in Portland. Did you ever live in the peninsula?
Liza: Well, there's a Pacific Ocean and a very small plane in some places and then a range of high hills like 2,500 ft hills. Then, another plane, then San Francisco Bay, and then another range of hills. Harold was on the, you could see the Pacific Ocean from Harold's villa. That's what he bought with his millions. Then, it was destroyed in the Loma Preita earthquake. But before then, it was build by the, it was like a Roman villa. It was built in the style of a Roman villa with a courtyard in the middle. It was built by the heirs of Dole Pineapple.
Liza: And we used to have wonderful parties there. The story of Atari, a lot of the story of Atari is the story of really good parties. Including the consumer electronic show in 1979. By the way I have lots of old Ataris, of the originals.
Interviewer: I usually ask that question and I skipped it for some reason. Tell me about what you have.
Liza: I have 400's. I think I have 400's and 800's. I have original cartridges. I have tapes, decks, disc drives. I have some Stellas, diskettes and cassette tapes.
Interviewer: I assume they are lovingly stored away with the Apple Ones.
Liza: They are lovingly stored away. Yes. Oh, I have another for you. I want to give most of it away. Except that, one of the projects for HCLE is to do a 1980s school computer laboratory with all the software running on original machines as a traveling exhibit that museums can rent, lease. I want to keep enough machines for that.
Liza: Of course, they won't stay running very long so I need to have lots of back ups. What was the other story? Oh, the other story that I was going to tell you. It’s an educational story. Several years after I left Atari, I was working with a friend Richard Wynne who got a grant to teach underprivileged kids in the Berkeley area computing. We went to Atari and at the time the 400 and 800 were still in production. When a machine failed in the field, they were guaranteed, they were warranted so they replaced it. They had a warehouse full of dead machines. They never tested them. They didn't even know if they were dead, they just replaced the machine.
Liza: So I had a high school neighbor, who was an enthusiast, go through those machines. We got Atari to donate them for the project. We went through the machine and got as many working as we could. Then, we were able to donate those machines to schools. In order to get the machine, the school had to put together a class of parents and kids who took a course from Richard and myself. Where we taught word processing, spreadsheet, and some graphics. Then, once the parents and the kids had taken the class. Then, they could borrow the machines and take it home from the school library. That was called a 4Cs program and that was one of the educational things we did with Ataris after I left.
Interviewer: Wow. Awesome.
Liza: Yeah, computing did not just suddenly appear on the educational scene. It was a long slow process of teaching teachers one at a time of, finding ways for teachers to get their heads around the fact that if a kid and the parents got into computing, they would know much more about the computer than the teacher would and how to use it. The teacher could not run a teacher-centered class with a computer in it because the teacher would have a couple of students who knew a whole lot more than the teacher did. So it really changed the teaching process for a lot of educators. All of us who were bored in school suddenly had a Trojan horse that led us out of school. So any other questions have we done it.
Interviewer: That's it we have done it.
Liza: All right.
Liza: I really love to do this. I really appreciate being interviewed.
Interviewer: Thank you. Thank you so much Liza, appreciate your time. It was great.
Liza: Your welcome. Bye-bye.