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Magazine columnist puzzled by PDF

February 20, 2004

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In previous Weblog posts we've noted several instances from the world of publishing and/or culture -- both in advertising and editorial content -- that illustrate the growing visibility (if not understanding) of PDF. For example, we pointed out a while back what surely is one of few passing references to PDF documents within the plot of a commercial best-seller and as the answer to a question in the 20-year edition of the Trivial Pursuit boardgame.

In several issues of the New Yorker magazine, we ran across and described successive print ads by Adobe promoting Acrobat and PDF: "Peaceniks for PDF," "The PDF Commandments" and "Deja Vu - Revolutionary Review and Comment." In last week's New Yorker we spotted for the first time an editorial reference to PDF -- although in this case it's arguable whether the sighting supports the notion of greater awareness for Adobe's technology.

In an article titled "Webstalker" in the January 19 issue, respected writer and author Katha Pollitt explains "When it's time to stop checking on your ex." A regular columnist for The Nation and author of several books, Pollitt explains her own obsessive use of Google and other Internet search engines to virtually stalk the subsequent movements and activities of the man she says cheated on, then jilted her. She writes:

"Late at night, sipping my cold coffee, I saw the Web as a parallel world, the verbal equivalent of the life we live, a shimmering net of information that exactly and completely corresponds to the world."

In the course of revealing her cyber-sleuthing habits, Pollitt never directly names the intended 'victim,' but she certainly drops enough clues that anyone with half a brain and access to Google can figure it out within minutes. Pollitt admits that her own online expertise is limited, adding that due to not being tech-savvy, her search efforts were frequently compromised, if not thwarted by things she didn't understand or know what to do with. For example, she says in the article:

"I kept running into the limits of my skills. What, for example, is a PDF?"

OK, so that doesn't qualify as a ringing endorsement of the file format, except perhaps from the perspective that she seemingly encountered enough of the millions of Adobe Reader-ready documents on the Internet that she felt somewhat handicapped by not knowing how to view the content within the PDFs.

That seems odd, considering that The Nation -- the magazine for which she is a regular columnist -- makes considerable use of PDF. Although we didn't run across any links to PDF columns from the selection of Pollitt's columns we checked, we did discover that other Nation columnists frequently reference governmental documents that can be downloaded in PDF. And you can download the publication's advertising specifications [PDF: 140kb].

In addition, if you want back issues of the magazine, you can search the digital archives and then obtain -- for a fee -- a PDF version to download.

The Nation - digital archives in PDF

And in the true spirit of biting political commentary for which it's known, The Nation even offers a free PDF download of one of its most popular magazine covers -- a parody of Pres. George W. Bush as the moronic Alfred E. Neuman character of Mad Magazine fame.

After reading the detailed account of her addictive behavior and hunger for digital snippets about her ex-partner, we can't help but wonder how many valuable clues she might have missed because she couldn't decipher PDF-based content. These days one isn't much of an online sleuth without knowing how to acquire and use the free Adobe Reader.

Speaking of clues, a number of other New Yorker readers decided to follow those left by Pollitt in the article to see if they could discern the identity of her former mate. As mentioned previously, it didn't pose much of a challenge, as several Web site postings subsequently described. The New York Observer observes that this is actually the second time in the past two years that Pollitt has turned her bitterness on the same theme into an article discussing and dissing her one-time lover. The more recent version, the Observer says, makes for even better gossip fodder and offers more useful clues:

"Ms. Pollitt reveals many more juicy tidbits, including her password ("secret"), her ex's password ("marxist") and the fact that she doesn't know how to download a PDF. But using what Web-searching skills she does have, Ms. Pollitt manages to reveal many uninteresting things about her onetime honey, including the places he's lecturing and the Web sites on which he's posted announcements and musings."

And, if you're interested, The Observer uncovers and reveals the identity of alleged scoundrel -- and his new female partner, too.

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