Isaac Asimov, Radio Shack Pitchman

“I’ll never learn how to use it." Isaac Asimov wrote the prediction in his diary in May 1981, the same month Radio Shack delivered a Tandy TRS-80 Model II microcomputer to his 33rd story apartment in New York City. The various boxes sat, unopened, until a Radio Shack employee arrived a week later to set up the equipment in the corner of Asimov’s living room.

Turning it on would mark two important milestones in the 61-year-old author’s life: It would end his exclusive use of a typewriter, and it would lead to Asimov’s face becoming a familiar sight to more than 30 million Americans browsing the latest and greatest products in Radio Shack's catalogs.

The race to dominate the burgeoning personal computer market in the early 1980s forced hardware and software manufacturers to address consumer technophobia with familiar faces: talk show host Dick Cavett shilled for IBM; Alan Alda spoke for Atari in a deal said to be worth $10 million; Bruce Jenner endorsed Activision. Of Roger Moore being seen in ads for Spectravideo PCs, company spokesman Bob Griffin said, “Because he’s playing James Bond, he has universal association with high tech.”

Radio Shack, the then-popular electronics chain and a subsidiary of Tandy, flinched at playing the celebrity game, avoiding recognizable personalities in television ads. They could afford to take a more conservative approach: The TRS-80 was the best-selling personal computer of 1980, moving more than 200,000 units.

The following year, however, would be a crucial one for the company. New models of the TRS-80 were due, including budget entries, a color-screen version, and a pocket-sized model. Coincidentally, they had recently loaned well-known “futurist” Asimov one of their high-end Model II units (priced at $3499) so the author could write a story on the new wave of word processing software for Byte magazine.

Asimov later wrote that he resolved his wariness over adopting a new way of working because he had a personal tutor: The Radio Shack employee who followed up with the equipment delivery taught him about the unit, its pinwheel printer, and the Scripsit word processing software. By the end of 1981, he was adept enough at it to agree to endorse Tandy’s products in an “open-ended” contract. He claimed their pocket PC closely resembled the technology he had written about in his 1951 work, Foundation.

Fearing something might go awry, Asimov never actually replaced his manual typewriter: He still used it for first drafts of novels, and would re-type subsequent drafts into Scripsit, which he also used for correspondence and short pieces. Asimov was also in the habit of printing out virtually everything he wrote on the TRS, suspicious the 5.25-inch floppy disks might not be a reliable storage method.

He reserved most of his enthusiasm for the TRS-80 over correcting typos, having developed a tendency to mix up "seep," "seem," and "seen," and cursing the fact he often accidentally typed “t4he” into many manuscripts. In The Roving Mind, he wrote:

Staring at a page of type on the television screen, I find myself eagerly looking for typos so that I can have the fun of changing them. Bang goes the “F1” and the “u” and the “F2” and “cold” suddenly becomes “could” and no sign exists it was ever anything else….Then I have it printed – br-r-rp, br-r-rp, br-r-rp – and as each perfect page is formed, my heart swells with pride.

Radio Shack mailed out more than 30 million product catalogs in those days, with Asimov garnering the most responses of any of their pitchmen. (The company also used Incredible Hulk star Bill Bixby.) Before his tenure was up in the mid-1980s, Asimov even extended his mutton-chopped profile to their stereo equipment.

Owing to Scripsit’s interface, Asimov believed he shaved an estimated 15 minutes off the time it would’ve taken him to write a magazine feature on his typewriter. The prolific author of more than 500 books speculated he probably wasn’t going to get any more efficient than that. “I am a one-man book of the month club,” he wrote. “How far can I speed up beyond that? In fact, who in the world would want me to?”

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How Frozen Peas Made Orson Welles Lose It
Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)
Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)

Orson Welles would have turned 103 years old today. While the talented actor/director/writer leaves behind a staggering body of work—including Citizen Kane, long regarded as the best film of all time—the YouTube generation may know him best for what happened when a couple of voiceover directors decided to challenge him while recording an ad for Findus frozen foods in 1970.

The tempestuous Welles is having none of it. You’d do yourself a favor to listen to the whole thing, but here are some choice excerpts.

After he was asked for one more take from the audio engineer:

"Look, I’m not used to having more than one person in there. One more word out of you and you go! Is that clear? I take directions from one person, under protest … Who the hell are you, anyway?"

After it was explained to him that the second take was requested because of a “slight gonk”:

"What is a 'gonk'? Do you mind telling me what that is?"

After the director asks him to emphasize the “in” while saying “In July”:

"Why? That doesn't make any sense. Sorry. There's no known way of saying an English sentence in which you begin a sentence with 'in' and emphasize it. … That's just stupid. 'In July?' I'd love to know how you emphasize 'in' in 'in July.' Impossible! Meaningless!"

When the session moved from frozen peas to ads for fish fingers and beef burgers, the now-sheepish directors attempt to stammer out some instructions. Welles's reply:

"You are such pests! ... In your depths of your ignorance, what is it you want?"

Why would the legendary director agree to shill for a frozen food company in the first place? According to author Josh Karp, whose book Orson Welles’s Last Movie chronicles the director’s odyssey to make a “comeback” film in the 1970s, Welles acknowledged the ad spots were mercenary in nature: He could demand upwards of $15,000 a day for sessions, which he could use, in part, to fund his feature projects.

“Why he dressed down the man, I can't say for sure,” Karp says. “But I know that he was a perfectionist and didn't suffer fools, in some cases to the extreme. He used to take a great interest in the ads he made, even when they weren't of his creation.”

The Findus session was leaked decades ago, popping up on radio and in private collections before hitting YouTube. Voiceover actor Maurice LaMarche, who voiced the erudite Brain in Pinky and the Brain, based the character on Welles and would recite his rant whenever he got the chance.

Welles died in 1985 at the age of 70 from a heart attack, his last film unfinished. While some saw the pea endorsement as beneath his formidable talents, he was actually ahead of the curve: By the 1980s, many A-list stars were supplementing their income with advertising or voiceover work.

“He was a brilliant, funny guy,” Karp says. “There's a good chance he'd think the pea commercial was hilarious.” If not, he’d obviously have no problem saying as much.

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How Google Chrome’s New Built-In Ad Blocker Will Change Your Browsing Experience
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If you can’t stand web ads that auto-play sound and pop up in front of what you’re trying to read, you have two options: Install an ad blocker on your browser or avoid the internet all together. Starting Thursday, February 15, Google Chrome is offering another tool to help you avoid the most annoying ads on the web, Tech Crunch reports. Here’s what Google Chrome users should expect from the new feature.

Chrome’s ad filtering has been in development for about a year, but the details of how it will work were only recently made public. “While most advertising on the web is respectful of user experience, over the years we've increasingly heard from our users that some advertising can be particularly intrusive,” Google wrote in a blog post. “As we announced last June, Chrome will tackle this issue by removing ads from sites that do not follow the Better Ads Standards.

That means the new feature won’t block all ads from publishers or even block most of them. Instead, it will specifically target ads that violate the Better Ad Standards that the Coalition for Better Ads recommends based on consumer data. On desktop, this includes auto-play videos with sound, sticky banners that follow you as you scroll, pop-ups, and prestitial ads that make you wait for a countdown to access the site. Mobile Chrome users will be spared these same types of ads as well as flashing animations, ads that take up more than 30 percent of the screen, and ads the fill the whole screen as you scroll past them.

These criteria still leave room for plenty of ads to show up online—the total amount of media blocked by the feature won’t even amount to 1 percent of all ads. So if web browsers are looking for an even more ad-free experience, they should use Chrome’s ad filter as a supplement to one of the many third-party ad blockers out there.

And if accessing content without navigating a digital obstacle course first doesn’t sound appealing to you, don’t worry: On sites where ads are blocked, Google Chrome will show a notification that lets you disable the feature.

[h/t Tech Crunch]

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