The HyperCard Book

By Greg Raven

I can’t believe I did it again. Isn’t that what Charlie Brown says in the Peanuts comic strip every time he trusts Lucy to hold the football for him? Where Charlie Brown has a thing about footballs, I have a thing about books. And being a person who enjoys computers, I buy computer books. Most of the time I take a pretty good look at the book before I buy it. There are times, however, when I buy a book out of blind trust. Those are the times I feel a kinship with Charlie Brown.

Go into any B. Dalton, Crown Books, etc, and look at the selection of computer books they have there. Sure, most of them are for IBMs and compatibles, but look at the size of them. The B. Dalton in Century City, for example, has four huge books on DOS. They all have different names, but each one covers (as nearly as I can tell) the same information that is in the documentation you get for free when you buy the operating system. The books at B. Dalton are prettier, but they’re not much more informative.

The ones I like best are the ones with the word “advanced” in the title. In the old days that used to mean something. You didn’t blithely buy a computer book with the word “advanced” in the title unless you were pretty well along in the subject already. And even then there was no guarantee that you would understand what you were reading. Nowadays, “advanced” means that this book is a duplicate of others already on the market, so the publisher is hoping to trick you into buying his instead of an equally good book with a less exciting title.

The reason I bring all this up is because it happened to me again the other night. For months, ever since buying that silly ass mail order book on Macintosh desktop design, I had been real circumspect about computer books. Take The Complete HyperCard Handbook, by Danny Goodman, for example. At 720+ pages it’s a pretty good guess that you’re going to be looking through a lot of fluff to get to any of the good information, if indeed there is any good information to be had. By “good stuff” I refer to tips, techniques, and programming insights that are not in the HyperCard help stack that comes free with the HyperCard program.

Only Goodman’s book isn’t free. It’s not even close to free. Even at LAMG discount it was over half the cost of the program itself.

Perhaps I should mention that I’m as excited as the next guy when it comes to HyperCard. One of the first things I did when I got it was set the user level up to “scripting” and start hacking away at some button scripts. The second thing I did was put a new ribbon in the ImageWriter, set up SuperSpool to size = large and ram disk = 100K, and print out the 160 cards that comprise the HyperText section in the HyperCard help file. At two cards per page that’s only 80 sheets of paper. Three-hole punch them, put them in a notebook, and keep them right there next to the Mac Plus so I don’t have to jump back and forth between the stack I’m working on and the help stack.

The point is that after a couple of hours of hacking away in HyperText I pretty much had the basics. The last thing I need is 640 pages of filler surrounding 80 measly pages of examples. I would have thought that 250-300 pages of hard-core examples and applications would have been just about the thing. When a book like this reaches 720+ pages, I start looking for the reason.

Could it be the reiteration of everything that is already contained in the HyperCard help stack that makes this book so big? Could be. Makes you wonder what Carol Kaehler must think about all this. Carol is the one credited with the execution of the HyperCard help stack. You remember, the one with all the free information in it. You know … the one you can interact with to actually see (and hear) how HyperCard works. The one that does not provide royalty payments for its author.

Where I slipped up was in going to the big general meeting. Seeing me there with my notebook and tape recorder you might argue that I bought the HyperCard book out of premeditation. That I wanted them to sell it to me. But I plead innocent: I didn’t know the book would be there. I actually hoped that Bill Atkinson would share enough information so I wouldn’t need the book, and that’s the honest truth.

But when I got to the end of the table where the HyperCard books were stacked, something clicked in my head. Suddenly, all I could think about was the HyperCard discussion held on Compuserve a month or so ago, and about how the term XCMD (external command) kept popping up as something you really needed to know about if you were going to seriously hack HyperCard. In a flash I had my checkbook out; I was purchasing the HyperCard book because I knew in my heart of hearts that it had to talk about XCMDs in there somewhere.

I mean, look at the thing! It’s huge. How could anyone write a book that monstrous about a brand new program, call it “The Complete Handbook,” and not mention something as vital as XCMDs, whatever they are?

During the question and answer period, several people in the audience made reference to XCMDs. I was still in the dark but I smiled knowingly to myself, confident that soon I too would be joining the inner circle. In my mind’s eye I could see myself at the next LAMG meeting saying things like, “Gee, Steve, it looks like you have a problem with your XCMD,” or “Sorry I didn’t call you last night, Vicky, I guess I lost track of time while working on that XCMD.”

As you can guess, when I got home I opened my fantasy Book of Knowledge and found that the Secret of Life I sought had not been deemed fit for publication. Or perhaps with only 720 pages at their disposal they just ran out of room. At any rate, I can’t believe I did it again. Ah, well.

It really isn’t the money, it’s the principle of the thing. I’ll entertain contrary opinions on the matter, but I warn you that I expect an explanation as to why it is that when Danny Goodman wrote up an errata for his book, for posting on BBSs around the country, he “published” it in Word 3.01 format and not as a HyperCard stack? I can’t wait to hear this one.