It was late 1998, and I had just joined the Electronic Design staff as a copy editor. We were having our weekly editorial production meeting, going around the table and bringing up different concerns. After just a few weeks on the job, I had noticed a pattern and thought to bring it to management’s attention.
“This issue’s Bob Pease column uses the headline, ‘What’s All This Manic Stuff, Anyhow?’” I said.
The other editors around the table nodded.
“And next issue, it’s ‘Prediction Stuff.’”
My manager politely asked me to get to the point.
“Isn’t that repetitive? Once or even twice may be funny, but every issue? Isn’t the joke old by now?”
The veteran editors, all of whom had worked with Bob before, simply laughed.
“You could try to change it,” one of them said. “But I don’t think he’ll like it.”
I didn’t know that Bob’s headlines were a tradition dating back about a decade and would continue well into today. I’ve had the privilege, the pleasure, and the education of copy editing nearly all of his columns since then, and it’s been a wild ride. It took some getting used to, and we’ve had our share of disagreements along the way. But readers have always been enthusiastic whenever a new column hits their mailbox or computer screen.
An Unusual Workflow
Bob wasn’t a typical contributor. He didn’t use Microsoft Word or any kind of desktop publishing system. Instead, he would write his columns directly into the body of his e-mail and send them in. And while most writers go by word count to judge the length of their work, Bob would use byte size.
“Here’s the first draft of my next column,” he’d typically write. “It’s about 3767 bytes. Could you tell me if it’s too long?”
Sadly, Word doesn’t have a byte-to-word conversion formula. It could be too long, too short, or just right. But I would have no idea until I copied and pasted it into the template that we use to make his column each issue, where I could more accurately eyeball things.
Sometimes we’d need some cuts or fills, but generally we were close to the mark. It was unconventional. And no matter how many times I would suggest it, he never used Word for composing his columns (something about refusing to give Bill Gates even more money). Somehow, it worked. It must have been that engineering insight.
That insight propelled him to come up with an alternative solution for determining column length. Last year, he tried printing his columns out and putting the paper on a scale. He kept track of how much they weighed, thinking more words would equal more ink and therefore more weight, but he didn’t find a precise enough correlation to use it as a consistent judge of how long his columns turned out to be.
And that was just the beginning of the process. Bob had a colorful way with words, and smoothing his columns out to match general grammatical style while preserving his unique voice was always a challenge. Bob was fond of using capital letters, italics, punctuation, and irregular spacing for emphasis, employing them the way an artist would use the different colors on his palette.
Even if they weren’t always grammatically correct, such choices always felt right to Bob. For example, last year he accidentally typed “Beast regrds” instead of “Best regards” at the end of an e-mail to a reader. He liked the way it looked, though, so he decided to incorporate it into his closing in each column. Like all that “stuff” in the headline, it stuck, and we’ve been using it ever since.
We had a running debate on these matters of style versus form. He would say that these choices are part of his style and why readers responded so strongly to his columns. I would say that readers were responding to his ideas, not to his choice of an em-dash over a comma. Or, he would want to capitalize a word like “BIG” to make it clear that he meant something really big. I would suggest a synonym like huge or gigantic if “big” wasn’t, well, big enough a word.
We had a lively give and take on many of these issues, and we’d both have to swallow our pride and make some compromises. Is it the end of the world if we use the word “exactly” three times in the same paragraph? I guess not. And sometimes, he would admit a word like “boring” gets the job done without being in bold print. Of course, revisions were plentiful, mistakes would make their way into the column, and I’m happy to take the blame for them.
Bob loved hearing from readers. He enjoyed answering tricky technical questions, sharing a memory of a long-ago place or part, or simply picking a fight with someone who disagreed with him. “Bob’s Mailbox” has always been one of our most popular features, and it probably was his favorite part of writing for Electronic Design. Fortunately for me, but perhaps not for our e-mail server, I was cc’d on every single e-mail between him and his readers. Every. Single. One.
Assembling these Mailbox items could be a chore, too. Bob wouldn’t read a reader’s e-mail and then respond in full. He would insert his replies to individual points the reader would make within the copied body of the reader’s e-mail. This works well in the actual exchange, but reproducing it for print or online was a typographical nightmare. On more than one occasion, one of his comments would be attributed to the reader, or vice versa, and Bob’s sharp eyes would always catch the error.
Bob never pulled his punches either. There were times when exchanges would escalate. Discussion would get heated. Competence would be questioned (and, in a couple of rare instances, so would parentage). Capital letters and exclamation points would be deployed in a shock and awe strategy until, sooner or later, the reader would simply agree to disagree.
Bob rarely admitted defeat. In fact, as recently as this year, he was celebrating his own victory over the proponents of Fuzzy Logic, a debate he said he settled back in the 1990s. That’s no surprise, as Bob’s memory when it came to his own columns was astounding. He could cite points that he made last year, five years ago, or even 20 years ago. Of course, he would say. It’s all clear if you remember his column on amplifiers from 1997, isn’t it?
I frequently had to scratch my head when Bob would submit his columns. Sometimes I would expect a treatise on getting a better signal out of an analog-to-digital converter, and instead I’d get something on organizational systems for your refrigerator. As an armchair history buff, I always enjoyed his forays into World War II. And then there were the countless hiking stories.
Bob had been around the globe, climbing titanic peaks and exploring deep wilderness. They were impressive tales of physically demanding treks in some of the world’s most exotic locations. While I’ve always enjoyed hiking myself, my adventures have been limited to some of the finer county and state parks in New Jersey, which can be nice in the fall but don’t compare to the glaciers of Nepal.
That dichotomy is part of what made Bob so appealing. He could direct his attention with laser-like focus on anything that interested him, from the cerebral science behind analog engineering to the visceral thrill of ascending to Everest’s Base Camp. One time, when we met for lunch, he used the video camera he happened to have to film his French onion soup since it was particularly cheesy and good.
That was Bob. He knew how to find delight in the moment, whatever it was. He recognized that each experience has something to give us, whether it’s the pure joy it offers, insight into a problem that needs to be solved, or a nugget of wisdom that could be shared with his family, his friends, and his fans. Godspeed, Bob. We will miss you. And beast regrds.