Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

Insanely Great!

By Cam Mather

I started selling computers in 1983. Michelle and I had just returned from our two month long honeymoon driving out west and down to California. I had no computer background at all, but I was able to read a few books and bluff my way in job interviews by discussing how superior the 8086 processor architecture was to the 8088. Microcomputers had just started to be introduced and computer knowledge wasn’t really required. It was more important to have sales experience and I had that in spades. I was offered a job after my first interview. This concerned me. So I applied to a bunch of other computer stores and got 5 job offers. This had never happened before, and now I’m virtually unemployable so things sure have changed!

I started selling Apple II computers and later IBM PCs. Apple had a computer called the “LISA” which was the predecessor to the Macintosh, but it never really took off.

I was working at a “Computerland” store (it was like a “Best Buy” but only sold computers) and I remember going to a sales meeting that Apple put on in 1983. They played the full version of the “1984” Superbowl commercial in which a young athletic woman was being chased by storm troopers and throws an anvil at the screen while “Big Brother” was yammering away to the soma-doped masses.

The message of course was that IBM and its PC represented Big Brother from George Orwell’s futuristic book “1984.”

As a member of the audience, I remember being one of a thousand sales reps that stood up and cheered when the commercial was over. And that was the start of my relationship with Steve Jobs. As he toured the TV show circuit promoting his new “Macintosh” computer, he always used Macpaint to draw great stuff on the screen. He’d also write “Insanely Great” on the screen, which caused his Public Relations people to have a fit. But he was right. The Macintosh was insanely great. It was a fantastic piece of technology that made the IBM PC look like a Chevy Chevette next to a BMW.

Apple had a program called “Own-a-Mac” which was designed to encourage computer salespeople to purchase their own Macintosh computer. If you walked into a Computerland and wanted to buy the Macintosh, with one single-sided 400K diskette drive, with about 400K of RAM, the ImageWriter dot matrix printer, and MacPaint, MacWrite and Multiplan (Microsoft’s original Excel spreadsheet) it would cost you $5,000. Under the “Own-a-Mac” program I was able to buy the same package for $1,500. I wasn’t making much money at the time so Michelle, who was working as a teacher, bought it for us.

Cam using an original 1984 Macintosh his cousin Dave gave him as a keepsake

It was a brilliant concept. People would come into the store and discuss computers and eventually they’d say “What computer do you use?” and of course, I was the expert and I owned a Macintosh.

Apple also had a “Test-Drive a Macintosh” program where you could come into the store and leave with a Macintosh to use for the night or a weekend. Steve Jobs knew that if you tried a Mac you would never want an IBM PC with its clunky Disk Operating System (DOS) which was all text based. Macintosh computers used icons and it was elegant.

And so began my almost 30 year relationship with the Macintosh computer. This is a terrifying thing for me to write, because it seems like just yesterday that we bought that first Mac.

For most of the time that I used and endorsed Macintosh computers I went against the grain. Most people used IBM PCs. They didn’t know why, they just did because everyone else did. It was a crappy operating system. When Windows came out, which was a horrible graphic user interface (GUI,) it sucked. And it still sucks. It’s just a bad operating system. It’s not intuitive like the Macintosh. I still sit down with people who have been using Windows machines for years and they have no idea how to back up a file. Steve Jobs developed an operating system on the Macintosh that was easy and logical.

People would say to me “But Macs are more expensive.” “Compared to what?” I’d ask, “What value do you put on your time?” A computer is a tool. It shouldn’t make your life more difficult and for many people a Windows-based machine did and still does.

The non-IBM PCs came along from Compaq, and AT&T and dozens of others and now after the dust has settled, Apple is the largest company on the planet by market capitalization. Bigger than Chevron. Not bad for a company that was close to bankruptcy a number of times. When I see Apple stock at $330 I cringe at the number of times I thought about buying it at $20, or $50, or $100. Who knew? Who knew the iPod would come along? And who knew that the internet would make computers so generic that young people would just instinctively buy a Mac because it was simply the best product out there, and integrated so well with their iPod.

My daughters owe a lot to Steve Jobs. They always had Macintosh computers around to use and they used them very well and they were never intimidated by them. Katie was home one summer and she filmed our “Grow Your Own Vegetables” DVD. She shot the video of me in the garden, dumped it on to the Mac, and used iMovie to edit it like a Hollywood pro. Both the girls got iPods soon after they became available and both of them own iPhones now. I love seeing how techno savvy they are. I was working with one of my daughters and asked her how I could save photos to make it easier for me to open them in Photoshop. She said “Why don’t you just use the “Open in Photoshop” function on the desktop?” Oh. For years I had been using the slow round about way to load the files so the files left an image of the photo on the desktop. My daughters just knew instinctively an easier way to do it.

Steve Jobs reminds me a lot of Bill Kemp who wrote four of the books that we publish. Both Steve and Bill just get this technology stuff. I don’t get it, so am always impressed to see people who can figure out how to make all these things work so well. And make them easy to use and understand.

I also felt a connection to Steve Jobs because he had pancreatic cancer, which is what my mom died of. If you’re going to get a cancer, pancreatic is not the one. It’s a nasty with a very high mortality rate, usually within a couple years of being diagnosed. He was diagnosed in 2004 and made it until 2011. He looked pretty rough the last few times he was shown making new product announcements but hopefully he was able to trade some of his stock options for the best treatment he could find.

During one of the news reports of his death, they used some footage of his 2005 Commencement speech to Stanford.

It’s worth reading. He had quite a remarkable life. And lots of failures. And he makes some pretty profound observations about it all.

I like reading stuff that reinforces the path I’ve chosen. In this speech, Steve said that he looked in the mirror each morning and asked himself  “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”

These days I get up every morning excited about what I’m doing. Right now we’re about to send our newest book “Little House Off The Grid” off to the printer, I am finishing up the e-Book version of “The Renewable Energy Handbook,” harvesting the last of the potatoes, winterizing my drip irrigation system and getting the greenhouse started in the barn foundation so I can extend my growing season a bit for our CSA next summer. I am earning a ludicrously small amount of money these days, but if today was my last day on this planet, I will have lived it exactly as I wanted, doing exactly what I wanted to do. I had a great breakfast with my potatoes and our eggs cooked on the woodstove, and an amazing sandwich made with Michelle’s artisan bread and our peppers and eggplant, onions and local cheese (grilled using electricity generated from our solar panels) for lunch. I harvested two wheelbarrows full of potatoes and I feel pretty exhausted. Another red-letter day at Sunflower Farm!


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